Far to the North (Chapter 2)

As a train whistle pierces the air, coiled fingers release from a handrail with trepidation. Having reached her final stop, Anna Holt descends onto a landing platform tarnished by snow and ice. Old boards creak beneath her steps while departing passengers shift around her like schools of fish avoiding a nearby predator. Their quick glances send stabbing glares before turning. Voices lower as they pass. Feet shuffle away from her presence. Oncoming travelers halt their approach toward the passenger cars and give her room, squeezing their tickets as she drifts by. A group of surly men scanning posted jobs on a notice board pause their search to consider the meaning of her arrival. All sights surrounding the station are unfamiliar to her, and all faces unfriendly. As she crosses the platform, the physical weight of her belongings dissipates into numbness, replaced by a weight of pure uncertainty. After traveling hundreds of miles over several days, her journey to the north is complete.

And here I am, nothing but a scorned foreigner in my own land, Anna thinks.

The conductor gives the whistle a long, hard pull. Shrieking steam pains Anna’s ears and leaves them ringing. “Two minutes!” he shouts. “Two minutes!” Lingering passengers hurry to unload their remaining luggage. Four cars down, miners curse the conductor’s impatience as they struggle to onload heavy crates, the plank they scurry across bowing beneath their weight. The conductor ignores their crass comments and looks Anna dead in the eyes. She watches him scan her hat, the repeater-rifle slung over her shoulder, and the gray, canvas bag resting at her feet, the word INFANTRY stenciled along its side. His face hardens with the examination. Seeing her eyes on him, he glares.

“Where are the rest of ya?” the conductor asks with contempt. “Yer buddies?”

“Just me,” Anna says, unsure of the meaning behind his question.

“Just you?” His hard glare softens, almost turning apologetic before squinting toward the horizon. “So it’s gotten that bad then.”

Uncertain how to answer, Anna looks away. If this is meant to be a kind of exile, we’re off to a good start, she thinks.

Turning from the train to take in the view around her, Anna discovers a far friendlier sight. Rolling hills are blanketed in white. Thick pines are snowed over, their tops leaning with weight. In the distance, jagged peaks bite into a clear sky with teeth of ice and dark stone. Dazzling sunlight shines, unfettered by clouds, and fills the world with fool’s warmth. She huffs and watches her breath cloud and vanish. If it feels this cold during the day, she wonders, how cold does it get at night? The thought triggers a shiver through her body, one that travels her spine and ends as a wiggle in her a neck. She sucks in crisp air and lets it go in a long, slow plume while raising a hand to shield her squinting eyes. The train platform feeds into a long path of trampled snow cutting through a field of white, winding into the nearby town. Travelers hobble along its uneven surface, their feet slipping and churning in a mixture of earth and snow.

Save for the town and the train station, there is only wilderness.

Oh, father. You’ve outdone yourself this time.

The train whistle howls again, giving Anna a start. The conductor leans from his car and sees the miners finishing their loading with rude hand gestures in his direction. Smiling with yellow teeth, he bellows one last call for boarding and gives the whistle another blast. Moments later, the behemoth of black iron and steel comes to life, coughing putrid smoke into the sky. Brilliant sunlight reflects from its metal side as each guttural cough grows stronger. Mighty wheels churn, the beast lurches, and the train lumbers forward with straining squeaks and groans. Rolling forward, it proceeds onto buried tracks unseen, its metal plow clearing away snow. Mechanical coughs become labored gasps, and the long crankshaft winds the wheels faster and faster. As it pulls from the station and gains speed, snow flies away from the plow in powdery explosions. Anna watches until the train rounds a long curve and disappears into the trees, leaving a black cloud hanging in the sky.

“Ms. Holt, I presume?” asks a gentle voice from behind.

Anna turns and sees a man standing ten paces back. His skin is dark and smooth, his brown eyes soft. A thick beard of silver streaked with lengths of black covers his face, capped by a curling mustache. Though his mouth is hidden, subtle lines beside his eyes hint at a possible smile. His long overcoat, a muted umber, is unbuttoned and hangs open, and he stands with his hands casually sunk into its pockets. Sunlight gleams off a pewter belt buckle, and Anna is surprised to see his waist absent of both ammunition and pistol. His gray, wool pants are stained but well kept. Snow clings to his shin-high boots.

“I am.”

“An easy guess,” he says, his hidden smile growing. “And here I was worried you’d be difficult to find.”

Anna glances at the emptying platform around her. “About as hard to find as a bonfire at night.”

“Indeed,” he says as he approaches. “Indeed. I bring you welcome to the north, though it’s a shame your reception here is so… chilly.”

Anna furrows her brow at the pun. “Who are you?”

The man laughs, his voice a deep and velvety tone. “I apologize, Ms. Holt. I must admit I’m shameless when it comes to jokes. My name is Mr. Wynn, Kurtis Wynn. I’m the lead Walker for this region of the north.”

“Walker?”

Wynn nods. “My colleagues and I walk the telegraph lines that tie our towns together. Communications in these parts are vital, as I’m sure you can imagine. With the weather and terrain as it is, breaks in the line are a somewhat common occurrence. We walk the lines, find those breaks and repair them.”

Anna reaches for his extended hand and gives it a firm shake. “How do you do, Mr. Wynn?”

“I’m well, Ms. Holt. Thank you. I was messaged about your arrival and instructed to meet you. I hope your trip was as wonderful as our weather.”

“It was similar. Chilly, liked you mentioned. Both the weather and the people.”

“Yes,” Wynn says, sounding forlorn. He removes his cap of gray fox fur and casually brushes loose snow from the top. The hair on his head matches his beard, thick and full and black with streaks of silver. “Yes, I worried about that. Please don’t take it personally. It isn’t you these people take issue with.”

“Then what is it?” Anna asks. “Why give a soldier such nasty looks? Especially infantry. At a time like this?”

Wynn nods with Anna’s chiding words, his face full of patience. “Again, it isn’t you. Please believe that. Nor is it a slight to the sacrifice you make. The war raging in the south weighs on everyone’s mind, even this far north. But here, it’s easier for that war to slip from people’s memory, as if it were a dream or perhaps happening in some far away land. Your youth and your uniform bring reality back. Also, you must understand that the military has a history of suddenly arriving and taking conscripts. Not exactly an activity that fosters a supportive community.”

Anna glances over Wynn’s shoulder to see three miners watching from afar. Their faces are haggard and lined with gray stubble, their clothes dirty and worn. The moment her eyes find them, they feign truancy and rush away from the station. As they scurry off, she looks back to Wynn. “Have you heard the latest?”

“Everyone has,” Wynn says.

“We’re losing.”

“Quite badly.”

“Badly?” Anna says. “We’re being wiped out. They say the front is in retreat, but that’s a lie. The front is broken. Scattered. Fort Walters burns. Two battalions lost. Thousands of men, Mr. Wynn, thousands have—”

“Yes, Ms. Holt,” Wynn interrupts. “I know. It’s horrendous. Like I said, I’ve heard. We all have.”

Feeling a tension coiling within, Anna takes a deep breath and sighs. “I’m sorry. It’s—I don’t mean to yell at you. But it’s upsetting. Very upsetting. And then I get here and…” She trails off, shaking her head. “I thought these people would care, would show some kind of appreciation. Maybe lend a word of encouragement or shake my hand. Something. Anything.”

“You’re not beyond reason in wanting those things,” Wynn says. “I think we’re all looking for encouragement in some form or another. This war grates on us all, and the consequences of surrender is an issue many struggle with.”

Anna scoffs. “If the dwarves will even have it. Rumor is they wouldn’t take our surrender now even if we begged.”

Wynn casts a long look at the young woman in front of him. Her skin is light and her face narrow. Sternness swims within deep, hazel eyes. Rogue curls of chestnut hair spring free from a tight bun, topped with a military cap bearing the insignia of Private. Her posture is straight and strong, and her issued rifle, well-polished repeater, is strapped securely to her shoulder. “May I see your orders?” he asks.

Anna reaches inside her gray coat and produces a folded piece of manila paper. Wynn reads the sheet from top to bottom, examining each line carefully. At the end, he laughs and reads aloud: “To provide military assistance to the Lead Walker until further notice. Well, Ms. Holt. That isn’t the least bit vague, is it?” He hands the papers back. “Before they shipped you north, did anyone bother suggesting what kind of military assistance we might need?”

Anna shrugs and glances down, not wanting to approach the topic.

“I see,” says Wynn, noticing the change in her demeanor. “Did they mention how long you should expect to stay?”

“Until further notice,” she says, still looking at her feet.

“I see. Is there anything you can think of to explain your purpose here?”

Anna leaves the question unanswered and turns her eyes to the horizon.

“Ms. Holt,” Wynn whispers while leaning forward. “I know who your father is.”

The statement snaps her gaze back.

“I sent an inquiry,” he says. “I do more than just repair these lines, of course. Given my duties, I’m allowed ample use to the telegraph system. The report that came back was minimal, but it gave enough information for this to make sense. You’re Anna Holt, daughter of Alistair Holt, the same General Alistair Holt that leads the southern—”

“Yes,” Anna barks, her pale face flushing pink with embarrassment. “Yes, that’s who my father is.”

“I’m not passing judgement,” Wynn says. “It’s none of my business how you came to be here. Your father’s motives are not my own. But here you are, and here you’re apparently to stay. It’d be helpful to understand why, and I’d much rather you see me as your host rather than—”

“Than my babysitter?” Anna interrupts.

“Well,” Wynn hesitates, “I was going to say captor, but I suppose the meaning is the same.” As Wynn sees the frustration spreading over Anna’s face, an easy smile takes to his own. “It’s none of my business is all I mean to say, and I’ll take no effort to make it my business. My business is quite simple.” With a sweeping hand, he turns toward the town. “To care for these people as best I can. To ensure their connection to the world and each other travels uninterrupted.” He turns back to Anna. “I suspect you and I are very similar, Ms. Holt. Civic duty. Service. Doing what must be done to help our people in these trying times. These are values I hold dear. Judging by the uniform you wear, I feel you do as well.”

As color slowly recedes from her cheeks, Anna gives Wynn a second look. The man before her is old enough to be her father, if not more, and resembles him in some ways as well. Confidence clings to his eyes. There’s no hint of uniform, but he carries himself like one in command, though a subtle difference lingers around him. Where her father demanded respect, Wynn carries an air of earning it.

“Think on it,” Wynn says. “I don’t expect you to share your life’s tale five minutes after meeting me. Come,” he says, cocking his head toward town. “Don’t let the shining sun mislead you. Our days are short. Time is limited. We need to meet the others.”

Others, she thinks as resignation soaks into her heart. They’ll know who I am too. There go my hopes of quietly disappearing into anonymity. An aching sigh escapes her lips.

Wynn reaches toward Anna’s bag then pauses with hesitation. “I imagine you’re the type that prefers to carry her own weight.”

“I am,” Anna says, trying to keep curtness from her tongue. “Though I appreciate the gesture. Thank you.” She lifts her large, canvas bag with one hand and steadies the rifle over her shoulder with the other.

“Very good,” Wynn says. “I—oh.” The stenciling on her bag, INFANTRY, grabs his eye. “Ms. Holt, I apologize, but there’s something we must remedy before passing through town.”

“That being?”

He motions for her to set her bag down. “To be frank, it’s your appearance. Your youth and uniform both.”

“My youth?” Anna says with surprise, knowing all too well the impact of her uniform.

“Indeed. The war, Ms. Holt. That ravenous war has taken any abled young person from the north. Though you may spot some from time to time, you’re only seeing those doing a poor job of staying in hiding. Remember what I said about the conscripts?”

She does, and a realization unveils itself. Through her journey, an odd feeling had settled about her, one she could not place. As each train car clacked and rattled its way down winding tracks, she felt a growing coldness from the eyes spying her, eyes that immediately looked away when met. The further she traveled north, the more disdain fell upon her. She assumed the feeling was born from the frigid silence and scornful stares of those around her, but now the curious feeling was firmly placed.

Those that avoided her stare and denied her conversation were persons well beyond her age.

“The military just takes them?” Anna asks, astonished.

“That’s what conscription is, Ms. Holt. As you implied, man has fallen on desperate times.”

“What if they refuse?”

Wynn’s face sours. “Refusal is an option rarely exercised.”

“Death of man,” Anna whispers.

“Indeed. And that’s why,” Wynn says, delicately removing Anna’s gray cap, “we cannot have you roaming these lands as a soldier. You’ll need to blend in. After all, until further notice, you’re one of us.” Wynn removes his fox-fur cap and slips it onto Anna’s head. Its large size easily covers her hair and frigid ears, and the warmth inside soaks into her scalp like melted butter. Wynn gives her a quick look. “Better. Still young, but less militant.” His eyes shift to her shoulder boards. “May I?”

Anna concedes with a sigh. “Carefully please. Don’t tear the coat. I’m cold enough as it is.”

Wynn glances around, sees no one watching and places a firm grip on her shoulder. In two, quick jerks, he tears the displays of rank from Anna’s wool coat, the loose stitching giving way without a fight. Finished, two pieces of black cloth with yellow chevrons remain in his hand. Unsure, he gestures. “Would you like these back?”

Anna takes the markings, glances at the rank removed and stuffs them into her pocket. “Anything else?”

“Your bag,” Wynn says, “though there’s little to do about that. Just conceal the stenciling as best you can.”

A small breeze sweeps across the station, tousling dry snow over wooden planks. Icy fingers sneak into Anna’s jacket and caress her body into a shiver.

Wynn smiles. “That’ll be our cue. Let’s get moving. It’ll warm the blood. The others wait for us on the opposite side of Nestol. Mind the crowds as we pass through. They’re thick today. They’ve been bitten by the sun-bug.”

Anna doesn’t ask but assumes he can only mean the clear weather. The assumption concerns her. Fair weather only earns a nickname when foul is so often the expectation. With bag in hand and stenciling turned inward, she follows Wynn along the churned path into town.

Beyond the tracks, Station N-EST-01 is bustling. Perfect skies bathe the town in golden light. Despite the ample sunlight and the difficult walk along the trail of loose snow, Anna’s fingers flirt with numbness inside her woolen gloves, and her toes threaten to follow. None of the locals, however, appear to be bothered. Guffaws of laughter, swollen by the raised spirits of sunny weather, send puffs of breath into the sky. Merchants shamble through crowded lanes with muskoxen and sled dogs pulling crates of goods, their digging feet and hooves churning the paths to reveal frozen soil beneath the snow. In the midday hour, men have already begun drinking. Some brandish large mugs of ale in the open. Others sip from pewter flasks. Pensive deputies pass by with a reserved tip of the hat to serve as cursory warning to those already flirting with the edge of control. There’s an unspoken agreement among them all, coming and going, laughing and greeting, drinking and enforcing: the day of tepid weather is one to be celebrated—as long as it’s celebrated within reason.

Anna is amazed to see some men are absent their coats. Her hopes of adjusting to the weather quickly are dashed. It’s all she can do to keep from shivering while others look as though they’re in the throes of late spring.

Two buildings dominate the primary corners of Main Street, consuming its crowds and hosting a litany of signs advertising honest gambling, strong alcohol, fine tobacco and comforting women. To the south, offset from the town and connected to several looping cables racing for the horizon in multiple directions, a small white building hosts a single sign: TELEGRAPH. Outside its modest door, over twenty people stand impatiently in line. The main avenue rolls through town like a canyon, each side burdened with billboards stealing as much space as they can. Anna scans the signs as she passes by, GOLD DUST BOUGHT AND SOLD HERE and PHARMACY and NESTOL LODGING and GROCER. Below the wooden plank for the Grocer is smaller sign touting FRESHLY IMPORTED APPLES! A disappointing steak of red letters paint over it reading SOLD OUT.

As they weave through swarms of crowding people, Anna gives ample space to an irate merchant attempting to whip motivation into a stubborn muskox. The detour leads her up wooden steps toward the open doors of a saloon. Inside, the saloon is exploding with the sounds of joyful debauchery. Near the entrance, a bulbous man with a bald head slick with sweat pounds away at an upright piano as if his life depended on it. Given the patronage, she thinks, maybe it does. Around this blubbery ball of a man stand several others, singing and laughing, swaying and holding their drinks as high as their arms will allow. Golden liquid sloshes inside glass mugs and spills over the brim in concurrent tsunamis. Not a one seems to notice the flying beer. If they do, they certainly don’t care. Several tables along the wall are filled with card players winning and losing their fortune one hand at a time. Two waiters wearing white shirts and black vests dart through the chaos like expert sailors aboard a thrashing vessel at sea, always moving with the surge of people and never against it. Most shocking of all, specifically to Anna, are the women. Not that she’s surprised to see them or their flaunting acts, with their extravagant hair or painted faces or heaving breasts threatening to spill into the open. What surprises her, to the point of standing still, are the arms and shoulders they’ve left bare. From across the entrance, she can practically see cold air pouring through the open doors. She balls her fingers in the hopes of feeling warmth. Her toes tingle with numbness, but these women—

“Ms. Holt!” Wynn calls out. He’s several paces ahead with a hand cupped to his bearded face.

She hurries along the wooden planks then drops down onto the lane. Her boots squeak in dry snow. Several riders on horses pass through, their hooves flinging chunks of white. One horse snorts and draws up as the rider pulls the reins. He shouts a vulgarity, and for a moment, Anna is outraged. The words are slung at what could only be a child, for the poor thing looks to only be—

And then she’s frozen again, this time in the middle of the lane, standing face to face with a creature she’s only heard of, never seen. Her eyes go wide with surprise, and her mouth drifts in shock. For one precious moment, she forgets entirely the cold assaulting her body.

Before her, a gnome passes by.

The small creature, perhaps only three feet tall, carefully works his short legs over devastated ground. Bulky glasses rest on his swollen nose while the rest of his small frame is covered in thick furs and wool. From under his cap, a bold tuft of white hair escapes. He guides a large muskox by a single strap of thin leather. The animal is patient and well-trained, for it gives no regard to the insanity around it. Woven into the animal’s thick fur are hundreds of glass vials: long cylinders, thick squares, bulbs, and teardrops. There are potions and jars and tiny bottles the size of thumbs. With each shape and size comes a distinct color within, turquoise and sapphire blue, lovely pink and blood red, clear and bubbling fluids and mixes thick as amber sap. As the beast shambles along, the vials clatter and clink like a vast chandelier stirring in the breeze.

“Good-day,” says the gnome with annoyance as he passes. If he notices her complete shock, he gives no indication.

She watches the gnome until he rounds a corner and is out of sight. Only after the gnome is gone does Anna think to utter a response. The distraction turns her eyes around to the lane behind her. Raucous laughter spills from the open doors of the saloon and into the street. Those passing by casually bump into her and her pack, but she pays no mind. Through the noise around her, a voice cracks her daze like a pistol.

Ms. Holt!

She throws her bag over her shoulder and hurries, her boots breaking traction as she scrambles.

Away from the saloons, the crowds thin. Anna and Wynn are soon behind the wooden buildings lining the street and moving through narrow alleys. Though quieter, even here the bite of the sun-bug has been felt. Back doors hang open for idle conversation. A small group of men have made a make-shift fire pit and cook a small pig over a spit roast. Further on, one man, obviously drunk beyond comprehension, simply sits in the snow with an empty mug in his hand, his head bobbing with incapacitation. Cold winds funnel through the back alleys, driving icy fingers around Anna’s neck and down her back, forcing her into shivers.

As the town comes to an end, its buildings give way to sparse pine trees populating a sprawling field of snow. Wynn stops. “Ms. Holt,” he says as he turns to her, “it’s important to me that we trust one another. At the train station, you placed a trust in me by allowing me to alter your uniform. As strange it may seem, I thank you for that. However, it’s now time for me to place trust in you.”

Anna waits.

“There is the simple matter of how we Walkers address ourselves. As you’ve noticed, I’ve taken to a formal approach.”

“Yes,” says Anna, keeping the formality.

“As Lead Walker for this region, this is the manner I prefer. I find it to be the most respectful, especially when situations become tense. We’re much more than technicians for the Telegraph line. We’re caretakers for these people. They celebrate us. They see us as their lifeline to the world. They know of our work and how difficult it can be, certainly in this region, and they’re quite thankful for what we do. We return that respect as best we can. Formal naming is part of that.”

“Very well,” Anna says with a nod.

“You may notice, however,” Wynn says, a glimmer sneaking into his eye, “that when we’re alone, myself and the other Walkers may drift from that. Sometimes, we’ll simply refer to each other by our surnames. It’s a sort of…”

“Breaking from uniform?”

Wynn smiles. “An appropriate analogy. For the time being, I’ll ask that you address us by Mr. and we shall address you by Ms.”

“Very well.” Anna raises her eyebrow. “This is what you needed to trust me with?”

He shakes his head. “Unfortunately, no. My colleague, whom you’re soon to meet, has an unfortunate history with your father. Be fully aware that you should feel no responsibility, but you may feel scorn. The problem is not with you. Mr. Hemmett is my dear friend and an excellent man, but he can be one to hold a grudge, and he’s done so in regards to your father. I’ve made him explicitly aware his grudge is not with you, but you may find him reluctant to enjoy your company.”

“Is there something I should do?”

“Not at all. To be honest, there’s nothing you can or should do. Only be yourself.”

Anna adjusts the bag in her hand and shrugs her shoulders. “What happened between him and my father?”

“I’ll leave that for Mr. Hemmett to explain, though he’ll likely be reluctant in that department. Hopefully he does in time. Be patient for now.” Wynn lets out a frustrated sigh, his breath catching in the breeze and swirling away. “He can have a hard time letting go. Like you carry your bag, so he carries his past. At any rate, I tell you this because you deserve to know. Trust must travel in both directions. I hope you’ll appreciate mine as much as I do yours.”

“I do, Mr. Wynn. Thank you.”

They exit the alley and trudge through deepening snow. Wynn leads the way via an impromptu trench extending further into the wilderness. Anna follows, carefully placing her boots into Wynn’s steps to avoid sinking into the soft powder. She’s surprised by the effort required to move through the dry snow, but the struggle is welcome. Heat blooms from her working legs and chases the numbness from her toes and fingers. The narrow path winds through sparse pines and Nestol is soon hidden behind the trees. In the distance, rolling hills, pristine and pure under their blankets of white, bump and shoulder their way toward mountainous crags clawing into the blue sky. They ascend a sloping hill, crest, and make their way into a small valley. Below, a man stands beside a muskox yoked to a sled. As they approach, apprehension builds within Anna. How wonderful, she thinks. As if exile isn’t enough, father, you have to put me in the care of one of your enemies? Drawing closer, the man greets them with a wave, and the muskox snorts.

“Anna Holt,” says Wynn, “I’m pleased to introduce Mr. Leonard Hemmett.”

She shakes his hand, one that is bare. Through her gloves, his hand feels warm.

“How do, Ms. Holt?” he asks.

“Well. Thank you, Mr. Hemmett.”

Leonard Hemmett towers over Anna, his height exceeding her own by a foot. His overcoat of black wool is long and unbuttoned and hangs to his ankles, dangling in the snow. Sunlight glints off the large revolver holstered to his hip. Anna forces herself to look into his eyes, eyes that are green and dark like emeralds, eyes that bore into hers with intensity. A dark beard, short and frosted gray, covers a narrow face weathered by wind and sun. Muscles clench at his jaw. His dark clothes contrast against his light skin. A black cowboy hat shadows his face.

“Apologies for the delay, Mr. Hemmett,” Wynn says. “Nestol is bubbling over.”

“The sun-bug bites again,” Hemmett says.

“Indeed it does.”

“Nestol?” Anna asks.

“Nestol,” confirms Wynn. “The locals don’t use the station terminology for their towns. This station, N-EST-01, becomes Nestol. Others follow the same kind of nomenclature.”

“Rolls off the tongue a bit easier,” Hemmett says.

“So it does,” agrees Wynn. “Bustling Nestol will have to make due without us this fine day. Our time is short and we must be off. Which reminds me,” Wynn glances at Anna. “Ms. Holt, have you ever camped in the snow?”

Anna shakes her head. As the question shifts from concept to reality in her mind, she shakes her head faster. “No. Absolutely not. We’re sleeping outside tonight?” she asks with an overtone of fear in her voice. “In this?”

“That we are,” Wynn says. “That we are. Step one is to acclimate you to these conditions. We’re only going further north from here, and the weather is rarely this kind.”

“You trained in the south, I imagine,” Hemmett says. “Near the capitol?”

“I did. In sweltering, muggy heat. Nothing like this.” Anna’s eyes swim with panic. “Mr. Wynn, if it’s a matter of price, I have money. I can pay for lodging if—”

“Price is not the concern,” Wynn interrupts, “though our kind does operate under a specific budget. No, Ms. Holt, we need to get you acquainted with your new home. Soft snow and thick skins will be your bedding, heavy canvas your shelter. It’s a hard adjustment from the temperatures of the south, I know, but you’ll get there in time. Consider it an adventure!” he says with a cheery smile.

Adventure,” Hemmett says, half-mocking and half-laughing. “She’s young, Mr. Wynn, not stupid. How old are you, Ms. Holt?”

“Twenty.”

“And not a day over if it were my guess,” says Hemmett. “You must have enlisted the moment your papers allowed it.”

“Something like that.”

The two stare at each other, neither speaking and neither looking away. Wynn waits, watching their interaction. As a strong silence fills the gap between them, Wynn breaks the impasse. “Alright. That’s enough of meeting Mr. Hemmett then. Come. It’s time to meet the third member of our crew.”

Anna glances around. All around them are trees, sloping hillside, and snow.

“He’s here?” she asks.

“He’s here,” says Hemmett.

Wynn smiles and makes his way over to the muskox. “Yes, he certainly is.”

Anna bounces her eyes between the two men and sees their sly smiles. There’s a joke here, and I’m not in on it, she thinks.

“Come,” says Wynn as he walks around the large beast. “I’ll introduce you.”

Anna follows him, unsure of what will happen next. She wonders if a small snowman has been built on the other side of the muskox as another wintry joke of the north.

“Here he is,” says Wynn, scratching the large head of the muskox. “The third member of our team. Ms. Holt, meet Wilder. Wilder, this is Ms. Holt, our new friend.”

Anna and Wilder look at one another. With broad shoulders standing taller than her own, the muskox regards her almost indifferently, as if she’s yet another one of those creatures that awkwardly traipses through the snow, freezing and fumbling and desperately in need of his services. His fur is heavy and dark and sweeps over the snow. Small clumps of ice tangle throughout. Large horns arc from his head and join at the top to form a hard crown. His eyes, big and brown, stare.

“Say hello,” says Wynn softly.

“Hello, Wilder,” she says, feeling somewhat foolish.

Wilder, standing still, his fur swaying with the gentle breeze, gives a light snort. He then rolls his head side to side and lowers it to the ground.

“Wonderful,” says Wynn. “Come, give him a scratch.”

Anna takes a cautious step forward and lowers her hand onto Wilder’s large nose. She starts scratching, and Wilder does the rest. He rotates his head slowly so Anna’s working fingers can cover each particular itch. Suddenly he raises his head, the work done, and Anna pulls her hand away in surprise. Wilder exhales long and slow through his nose. They make eye contact, and Anna sees a glimmer deep within those dark brown circles. An unusual intelligence resides inside.

“He’s beautiful,” Anna says. “How long have you had him?”

“Well,” Wynn says with a tone of caution, “we’ve never had him per se. While it may appear Wilder is a beast of burden, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Some years ago, we discovered Wilder, happened upon him one morning when he was young. We heard a commotion and came over a hill to find him wounded. Two wolves had attacked him. All around was blood and trampled snow. He’d given the wolves hell though. One was gored to death and the other hobbling away. Mr. Hemmett dealt with the waning wolf while I knelt beside Wilder to assess his injuries.

“It was a peculiar moment then, my introduction to Wilder. I looked into his eyes and he did the same and at no point was there a moment of conflict between our souls. Our paths had crossed in what could only be described as a fateful way. At last, there we were. When Hemmett’s gunshot signaled the end of the second wolf, Wilder never startled nor looked to see. He already knew. We were by his side and he was to be by ours. So it was, and so it’s ever been.”

As if remembering, Wilder snorts at the story.

Anna reaches and lightly strokes the animal’s face. “Who came up with the name?”

“I did,” says Hemmett.

Anna glances over her shoulder to see Hemmett approach Wilder’s side and begin stroking the fur around his neck. “It’s a name that came on its own. We stopped to chat with a few travelers on the road. One of them asked if he was wild. I said he more than that. He was wilder.” Hemmett smiles and shrugs. “And that was that.”

“I don’t understand,” Anna says, looking to Wynn. “Are you saying he follows you by choice?”

Wynn traces a finger over the curl of his large mustache and nods. “We’ve never restrained him. Never hitched him off. After we saw to recovering his health, he simply stayed on. He became a Walker of the line, just like Mr. Hemmett and I.”

“What will you do if he leaves?” asks Anna.

Wynn and Hemmett give each other worried glances. Apparently, the topic had been broached before. “Well,” says Wynn, “we’d have to lighten our load. That much is certain.”

“May I take your bag?” Hemmett asks.

Anna slides her own load from her fingers and hands the considerable weight of her belongings to Hemmett. He places them onto the sled yoked to Wilder. Watching Wilder’s eyes, Anna sees no sign of disagreement.

“So together we are three,” says Wynn, “and with you it makes four. Four Walkers heading down the line. I do say, Mr. Hemmett, it’ll be delightful to have a change in conversation, don’t you think?”

“Someone else to suffer your puns,” says Hemmett with a slight grumble.

“Mr. Hemmett hasn’t an appropriate taste for humor,” Wynn says to Anna, giving her elbow a playful nudge. “In fact, it’s enough to say his sense of humor has been… snowed in.”

Hemmett shakes his head and gives a weary laugh. He looks at Anna, and she’s pleased to see the initial sternness is absent from his face. “How long are you with us, Ms. Holt?”

“Until further notice,” she says.

Hemmett, still smiling, feigns a sting. “Oh, you poor thing.”

“I’m sure she’ll be quite fine,” says Wynn as he digs through the sled. “Ms. Holt, by chance, were you issued snowshoes before departing the capitol?”

“No, sir. Only boots.”

The two men shake their heads. The gesture is nearly identical.

“Come then,” Wynn says. “We’d best gear you properly.”

Wynn brings her a set of snowshoes and teaches her how to strap in. Anna’s initial steps leave her feeling like an awkward duckling, but the shoes are a significant improvement over her boots alone. The webbing keeps her well above the snow rather than sinking in, as if she were walking on clouds. After a few minutes of key instruction from both Wynn and Hemmett, as well as a snort from Wilder that could easily be taken as condescending, she’s moving with confidence across the soft banks.

“Very good,” says Wynn. “With that, I do believe it’s time to be on our way. How say you, Mr. Hemmett?”

Hemmett nods. “I’m ready.”

“Where are we going?” Anna asks.

“On assignment, recruit!” Wynn says with a proud smile. “There’s a line to tend to. Communication is vital in these parts, and there’s a broken connection we’re to find.”

Anna shields her eyes from the brilliant sun and stares off into the expansive distance. “Which way are we going?”

“The telegraph line,” says Hemmett, pointing. “Our path is always along the line. If you bend down, you can just see it beneath this stretch of trees.”

Anna squats down and scans the hillside. Below, wires run from pole to pole, leading toward the station in town. In the opposite direction, the poles arc over a rolling hill dotted with pines and disappear into the horizon.

“How far is it to the next town?” she asks.

“Days,” Hemmett says with a smirking wink.

Wynn nods. “Indeed. Days. We’ll start slow this afternoon. Let you get comfortable with your snowshoes. Teach you how to setup camp. But the journey in front of us is long, so it’s best to cover what distance we can while the weather is good.”

“Let’s go, Wilder,” Hemmett says. The muskox, seeming to snap from a daze of boredom, snorts and starts forward. The sled glides quietly through the snow. As the two lead the way, Wynn and Anna stand in contemplation. “You’ll be fine, Ms. Holt. Believe me. Lesser people than yourself have survived these conditions. You’re young and in amazing health. Just give yourself some time.”

Sighing, Anna nods. It looks like I’ll have plenty of time, she thinks. Resignation latches onto her heart as a phrase passes through her mind once more. Until further notice.

 

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Far to the North (Chapter 1)

(It’s just me, so kindly forgive any typos you come across. I’ve done my best to hunt them down and kill them all… Hope you enjoy the story. Lots more to come.)

“Careful then. Hold the light up, love.”

She does so, raising the lantern higher. The cave’s insatiable darkness presses against yellow light while Clarence clears loose stone with hurried strikes of his mining pick. Soil and rock tumble away from a dark mound. Marissa watches her husband dig, lantern light flickering over his gray coat, dark pants, and wool cap—all dirt-stained and frayed edges—and sees the years that have snuck into his body. His aging back is bent, his shoulder slumped forward with a curve creeping toward permanence with each day. Through all our running, time has still found us, she thinks. True what they say, the death of man comes for us all.

But for the moment, age is suspended.

“Oh, Mar,” he says, excitement filling his lungs as more stones fall away, “You were right. You were right!”

Marissa Pickens smiles. She happened upon the collapsed section while following the faintest vein of silver, a vein since gone into hiding. Her scouring eyes and tracing fingers worked through the dark tunnels of the abandoned mine, leading her down a narrow and seemingly forgotten shaft. In a small chamber below, a cave-in was found. “Aye,” she says. “See it there!?” The glee in her voice is enough to pierce the dirty scarf wrapped around her face and neck. “I just knew the stone here looked queer. I just knew, Clarence!” Holding the lantern like a perched owl, she stretches her lean arm to provide better light.

“You clever rascal,” he says. His wife can’t see the smile on his face, but she can hear it in his voice. Theirs is a marriage and friendship long enough to bestow such abilities. Clarence brings the pickaxe down harder and digs with its broad end. Tumbling stones clack against each other and send echoes into unseen caverns. “See the glint in the stone? I wager the vein has ducked through here then. Oh, I can just smell the gold!” he says with a giggle. “The light, love! Keep it high for me!” Clouds of breath jump from his mouth while he works. Their cheerful laughs drift away and vanish into the shadows around them. Behind, through a twisting world of darkness, a fierce blizzard blasts against the cave’s natural opening. Sharp stone cuts the wind and perverts it into howling whistles, but neither Marissa nor Clarence hear the chilling tune. Their determination has carried them to one more chance.

Hope carries on.

“It’s large enough then,” Marissa says. “The opening. Don’t tally. Let us climb through.”

Clarence works the pickaxe with feverish movements. Chunks of granite break free, and loose dirt spills around his boots. He eyes the small gap presenting itself. Climbing up the pile of soil, pebbles falling from beneath his pushing feet, Clarence slides into the opening to test its size. He reaches an arm and shoulder through. “Hand us the lantern. Let me get a good look-see of the other side.”

Marissa hands the lantern to her husband. As Clarence reaches through the opening, precious light disappears. The absolute black of the cave towers over Marissa like a ravenous beast. Her ailments, forgotten in their moment of possible fortune, return. The hunger in her belly, the fierce cold gripping her skin, the ache contaminating her bones. It’s enough to make her smile fade, to suspend her joy in exchange for nagging fear. For if Clarence were to fall or lose his grip on the lantern, if it were to drop and smash upon the rocks, the terrible darkness around them would crash in like an ocean, drowning them in—

“Come, Mar,” Clarence says, reappearing. “Hold this while I climb through.”

As the handle of the lantern finds her fingers, so does relief find Marissa’s heart.

She watches Clarence scale the small mound of freshly dug soil, and in a moment his thin body is through the opening. From the other side, he works to push more earth away and widen the hole. Marissa climbs to him, careful to keep her balance and protect the lantern in her hand, and is soon face to face with her love. Looking back at her, he smiles wide. Dust clings to his gray, scraggly beard. Grime stains his forehead and gaunt cheeks. The dirt amplifies the wrinkles around his eyes, giving crows feet hard, dark lines. But look at the love in those blue eyes, she thinks. They pause for a moment, smiling at one another.

“Hand the light here then,” he says, reaching an arm through to take the lantern. “Careful on this side. These stones are more than anxious to turn your ankle.”

The lantern passes through, and Marissa is swallowed by darkness again. Of all her years spent mining, it’s the one feeling of terror she still can’t shake. The darkness lurking within the depths of caves and mines is one that is simply absolute, and she can’t help but glance over her shoulder at it. A behemoth of black lords above her, inhaling and exhaling the wheezing sounds of the winds cutting against the stone.

“Come, come!” Clarence beckons after setting the lantern on the ground nearby.

Laying on her belly, Marissa climbs into the opening head first. With her head and arms through, she feels a dreadful exposure to the shadows lurking behind her. Childish fears bring an image of reaching claws of darkness extending toward her dangling legs. The fear spurs her, and she shimmies through, kicking and twisting her narrow body while reaching for Clarence. He takes her in his arms, supporting her weight until her legs are through and feet are down. Together in the new section, neither take the time to brush the dirt from their clothing. Having spent so many years scouring mines for fortune, and finding little, the earth has become part of them.

“Not so cold this side, is it?” she asks.

Clarence nods in agreement. “A bit musty too.” Retrieving the lantern from the ground, he raises his hand and lets yellow light spill into the jagged shaft before them. The path ahead is tall and narrow, like a knife wound stabbing deeper into the mountain. Frozen stone juts out. The flooring, slanting wedges of granite, leans with a heavy camber. Clarence steps forward, squinting into the darkness ahead, while Marissa investigates the cave walls for the vein of precious metal gone missing.

“What do you think?” Clarence asks.

“I think we’re close. This is quartz, no doubt,” she says, tapping the stone with gloved fingers. “Perhaps a hint of silver too.” She looks at him. “How’s the way forward?”

“Tis narrow,” Clarence says, “but room enough to continue. What’s your council then? Further?”

“I think so, yes. Unless you have an idea that’s better?”

As if on cue, Clarence’s stomach rumbles with hunger. Man and wife look at each other. In only a moment, they acknowledge their situation in silence. Surrounded by cold stone and oppressive darkness, wearing clothing too old and too thin and far too dirty, they see the dire state of their lives. They see their haggard eyes and narrow cheeks. They see weariness and pain. Both know neither are to blame for the struggles they endure. Misfortune happens. The war in the south has torn the world of man apart. There’s no doubt they’ve done their best. All efforts have been spent. Reaching for one another, their cold fingers intertwine. In unison, they share a brief smile, one carrying both an apology for the other’s struggle and a thankfulness for the love that keeps each by their side.

“Shall we then?” Clarence asks.

Marissa nods.

The narrowness of the cave forces them to pass single file. Encroaching stone pushes against their backs and shoulders, and the two miners contort their bodies within their unyielding host. Pointed rocks test the soles of their worn boots. Hand in hand, the two proceed in a slow shuffle, huddled within the light of their lantern. As they do, both scour the stone in search of precious metal.

Minutes pass. Silence mounts.

“Not a thing yet?” Clarence asks.

Marissa is reluctant to answer the question. Excitement is fading from his voice. Hope is already slipping away. “A bit further, Clarence. Let’s see. This mine was started for a reason.”

“We were given warning for this cave for a reason, I suspect,” Clarence says. “Those townsfolk had little to say on the success of the mine. Only ill words were spoken of this place.”

“Aye, but they found gold, didn’t they? That much was certain by the glares in their eyes. It’s chance enough it hasn’t all been found. Never mind the bust or the fire or their insistence of a curse. You saw them, Clarence. Bored people they are, and in hiding to boot. They share absurd tales in hopes of driving us away. They speak of curses because they don’t want our business mixing into theirs. Besides, there’s no chance they came through here. You saw that collapse yourself. Tis part of the cave, not the mining section proper. This part is old still, untouched. Just look at the walls for yourself then. No marks. No Scrapes. Tis all clean still, Clarence. There’s good chance there’s something to be found further in. Push on, I say. Optimism.”

Clarence pauses his shuffling feet. “You think it true?”

“I do.”

He looks down. The rock and soil near his feet appear undisturbed. There are no signs of stomping boots, no claw marks of previous miners dragging heavy equipment over the stone. Quartz sparkles like a shimmering frost, but there are no pick marks, no signs of rock broken free by someone searching for something more. “I see it now, aye. Right again. Oh, forgive me, Mar,” he says with remorse. “Forgive me. I can be so foul, but it’s not a foulness for you. It’s this bitter cold. It gets into my bones!”

She gives his hand a squeeze. “I know, Clarence. I know. It fouls us both. But if we find that pesky silver vein, or even chance upon a pocket of gold, I promise to take the chill out of those bones forevermore.”

They press on. The cave narrows still. Encroaching stone bumps against their spread arms and shuffling legs, turning their movement into an awkward shuffle. Chilling stone prods at their backs and shoulders. Their pace becomes woefully slow. Suddenly, Clarence stops.

“Mar,” he says, pointing a finger. “See that there? On the ground near my boot.”

Standing shoulder to shoulder in the narrow gap, Marissa fails to see around him. “I can’t, no. Move forward.” Clarence does so, and pebbles of granite crunch beneath his feet. The spot now between them, he stops and points again.

With a considerable pause, she stares at a dull spatter of dark red. “Blood?” she asks.

“I think it be.”

Her eyes search the immediate area. “Is there more?”

Clarence turns his head. “Yes, Mar. A heap of it just ahead of me, smeared over the stone.”

Her mind races, imagining both horrific scenarios and reasonable explanations to refute them. “Think it from an animal?”

“I suppose,” Clarence says with hesitation, “though I’d not place a hefty wager on it.” He forgoes mentioning how the blood stain resembles that of a human hand.

“It’s old though,” Marissa says. “Yes? And animal or miner, certainly no one has been through here in recent time. We saw the collapse ourselves. You dug it out with your very hands. Either way, that blood is old. From ages ago.”

“Most likely, given the looks of it,” Clarence says with apprehension. “I doubt it to be an animal’s though. Could be someone was inside when the ceiling gave.” He shrugs. “Maybe he took injury during the cave-in and sought to exit another way.”

Marissa thinks on the situation. “I’d rather not find any bodies this time,” she finally says.

Clarence nods. “Agreed. I’m wonderin’ though…”

“Leave us not hanging in such a foul place, husband,” Marissa chides. “Just be out with it.”

“Well,” Clarence says with a pause, not wanting to propose the scenario, “What was it they said of the fire in the mine? Nine people died? But not all the bodies were recovered?”

“They spoke only of the deaths. They made no mention of recovery, attempt or success.”

“Hm,” Clarence grunts. “Good chance we’ll find more than silver down this path then.”

A long silence hangs over them. Beyond it, the faintest whaling of the blizzard’s wind can be heard howling through the cave behind them.

“Well then?” Clarence asks. “What say you? Press on?”

All around them, the stone walls glitter with quartz like stars in a night sky. Marissa picks at the surface with a finger, leaning so close the wall kisses her cheek with frozen lips. “I think so, Clarence. Truly. Whatever ill happened here is no concern of ours. These stones are filled with promise. We do ourselves disservice to abandon such hopes now.”

“Aye,” he says, sounding almost disappointed. “Aye, very well. Take the lantern then.”

“For what reason?”

“This next section, Mar. The stone closes in. I’ll need you to hold the light while I see if I can wiggle through.”

“Is it that bad?”

Clarence looks at the tightening section of rock. Narrowing points of granite clamp down like teeth in a closing jaw. “Not that bad, I suppose, but we won’t know ‘til we push on. It’ll be a bugger though, through or otherwise.”

“Don’t force it, Clarence. Not down here. Death of man, I can’t even imagine what—”

“Don’t get your mind started on it,” he interrupts. “I know my thickness, and you know I was born half-ferret. Just take the lantern.”

“Be careful,” she says as the handle transfers to her fingers.

Clarence moves forward, his narrow body shuffling sideways, his breath escaping in quick puffs of white. Marissa watches as he slides further into the dark wedge of stone, descending down. All is quiet save for the sound of his boots bumping against rock, his labored breathing, his clothes sliding over coarse granite. For a moment, she thinks to call him back, to tell him to stop. The ominous dark of the cave seems to swallow him inch by inch, and her mind fills with the fear of something within the cave slipping, giving way. But she holds her tongue. Cling to the hope, not the fear, she thinks. What’s there to find if you turn back now? Only the same fate you’ve tried so hard to leave behind. After minutes of scuffling, Clarence finally calls back with a shout.

“How is it then?” Marissa asks.

“Not so bad,” Clarence says between strained breaths. “The rock pinches your back a bit, but keep working. Stay low, that’s the key. There’s a narrow bit that will press your chest some, but it opens proper on the other side. There’s another chamber. Come with the lantern, love. There’s something here to see, but I can’t quite make it out. I need the light.”

Marissa starts in. The narrow gap forces her to lower the lantern to her knees. Shadows dance in front of her as closing walls block the light. Her cheek presses against cold stone, and the scent of minerals leaps into her nose. As she shimmies, rock bites down against her advance. An ankle jams and forces her knee into an awkward bend. Scarce space exists for movement, and her breathing soon feels restricted. Panic crawls from the cave walls and latches onto her body, pinning her in place. Marissa reacts, looking back from where she came to consider her retreat, but there it is; that absolute darkness is standing there, waiting for her. She feels the breath in her lungs shorten.

“Clarence. I’m a bit worried here.”

He hears it. She’s more than worried. She’s flirting with the edge of sanity. “Come now,” he says. “You’ve handled worse than this, love. Slide yourself down a bit. It’s wider as you go lower. Put weight on your back and shimmy through with your shoulders.”

She tries it. As she squirms down, the lantern sticks to a sharp edge and threatens to leap from her hand. Scraping metal shrieks against stone. Her knuckles go white in a panicked grasp. The treads of her worn boots slide under her. Stone gnaws against her hip and presses against her face. Without enough room to turn her head, she yells out. “Clarence!”

A calming voice calls to her. “I’m here, Mar. I’m here. Shimmy back a bit. I had a tough spot there as well. You’re likely on it. Shimmy back and come in lower. Shove your feet deep into the crevice and bend your knees. Sink into the gap proper.”

“We should turn back!” Marissa yells. She can hear her own panic now.

“We can’t. Not now. There’s something to be found here. I need the light to see for sure. Just relax and scoot yourself lower. Lower and shimmy on your back. And collect yourself, Mar! If I’m through, you’ll make it true enough.”

Marissa Pickens closes her eyes to hide from the dancing shadows of the lantern, to hide from compressing darkness and burying stone. Her heart hammers as if trying to smash the rock through her chest. She listens to her husband’s voice as he talks her down. Knees bend lower. Thighs burn with strain. Placing more weight on her back, the coldness from the stone soaks through her wool clothes and seeps into her body. Again, the lantern bites into the rock with a horrific screech and tries to snag.

“That’s it,” Clarence says. “Keep it coming.”

Her leading hand reaches out as if attempting to flee from her trapped body, clawing for space, searching for emptiness in place of stone. Wiggling fingers stretch and claw until finding something tender and soft, her husband’s gloved hand.

“There, love. You’ve found me yet again. Almost through now.”

She keeps her eyes closed. Her thighs tremble from awkward squatting. The air in her nose is thick with the scent of minerals, as if she’s drowning in stone. Her cheeks sting against the cold walls. She works forward, and fingers touching fingers clasp into a hand holding a hand. She shimmies again. He has her wrist now and starts a gentle pull. She screams in her mind, wanting to cry out. The cave feels to be eating her whole. “Pull me,” she says with strain, and she feels her arm slip into his hands. Bulging veins streak her neck as she holds her breath. Stone bites into her leg, grabs her hip, traps her foot. Collapsing, the cave is collapsing! It crushes against her chest and—

Just as she can take no more, she’s pulled through, free from the jaws of stone.

Scampering to her feet, she gasps for breath and clutches the lantern to her chest.

“Alright then?” Clarence asks while gently taking hold of her shoulders. “Easy there, love. Breathe for me. Come, come. Calm. Deep breaths, now.”

Marissa curls into his arms, trembling. “I don’t know,” she mutters, shaking her head. “I don’t know what came over me. I thought the cave was closing. I thought—”

“Easy does it,” he says, pulling her close. She buries her face into his chest while he rests his cheek atop her head. “Twas a tight fit, no doubt. Don’t be kickin’ yourself for it. You did well. No shame in having a scare. You did well.”

Holding her husband close, Marissa feels the fearful trembling slowly pass from her body. She breathes deep and closes her eyes, calms her nerves. Silence fills the chamber around them. Through the narrow passage, the whaling winds of the cave are stifled. It best be worth it, she thinks. I’ll not like to have done that without reward.

“Look, Mar,” Clarence whispers. Slowly, he turns their huddled bodies and points.

As the light of the lantern spills into the chamber, Marissa gasps. “Death of man.”

Yellow, flickering light falls on black, human bones.

“Nay with that,” Clarence chides. “Nay. Optimism, as you said.”

“Optimism how, exactly?” The fear within her, nearly squelched, is renewed. She backpedals toward the narrow passage as light reveals the small chamber. At its center, bones lay splayed out in an X. The meat looks to have been burnt away, leaving only blackened char clinging to skeletal remains. A plain dagger protrudes from the chest.

“And look there,” Clarence says, pointing. “Another. Some were caught in the collapse after all.”

Marissa looks to her right and sees a second body slumped against the cave walls. The skin is dark and shriveled, yet still preserved by the cold. A thick, gray beard clings to the face while empty sockets stare back like black eyes. Its jaw hangs open as if locked in an eternal, silent scream. A large, wolf-skin coat hangs over the corpse’s shoulders. Thick pants cover withered legs lying flat over the stone. Rugged mountaineering boots cover feet resting together in a V.

“Was it the cave-in that did it?” Marissa asks, her waking nightmare of being swallowed by stone still racing through her mind. “Were they trapped?” She leans back against the wall of the cave, her palms pressing against the mountain above her, her body wanting out, her mind begging for instant freedom.

Clarence prowls the perimeter of the round chamber, stepping like a stalking cat, his eyes fixed on the centerpiece of bones. “What else?” He points to the body leaning against the wall. “He’s sitting calm enough, isn’t he? It could be the cave collapsed on them and he took it in stride, death and all. Some people have that way about them, a way of accepting it. Bless their soul. That calmness toward death has yet to find my blood.”

Marissa shudders at the thought of dying in such a place. What a horrible end, she thinks, to lay in such awful darkness and wait for death. In this darkness, do they even know they’ve passed?

“But this one here,” he continues, “something off about this one, love. Look at it. Mr. Wolf is clothed and decayed. But this one in the center is burnt clean away. No clothes. No meat. And look at the chest, that dagger standing tall like a pennant.” Clarence runs dirty fingers over his beard and taps his chin. “I think there was a bit of murder happening here, Mar. That one killed this one. No doubt in my mind. This poor bastard was stabbed in the heart. Can’t you see? Shine the light.”

“I see it plenty,” Marissa says with a glare. Though she tries to look away, the curvature of the small chamber redirects her eyes to the bones in the center. She sees the dagger standing within the chest of the skeleton and the blackened stone beneath it. Her brow crinkles. “What of it being burnt?”

“That I can’t figure.” Ducking beneath hanging stone, he approaches the corpse covered in gray wolf-skin. “There’s a small pack here,” Clarence says as he turns open a canvas flap and begins rummaging. Inside, he finds a leather-bound journal, candles and matchbox, folded maps, and a small horn of gunpowder. He holds the horn up for further inspection. A name is inscribed along the side. “Aughardt. Hm. Never heard of the lad.”

“Clarence,” Marissa chides. “I’ll not be desperate enough to allow the likes of grave robbing.”

“Calm yourself, woman. You’re still rattled from fighting through the gap. This is no grave. You’ve enough sense to know that. Neither of these souls has been set to rest. In fact,” he says while setting the journal down, “the boots on this one just may fit me. If not, they’re well enough for trade.”

“Clarence!” Marissa protests.

“Don’t complicate this with sentiment. My feet are worn to the bone. You know that. I don’t mean to disrespect the dead, love, but ‘tis dire circumstances all around. Now please,” he says, while carefully removing Aughardt’s boots, “let me be. The work is already dirty enough without the guilt.”

Marissa looks away in frustration. Wrongness fills her mind and troubles her soul. Around her, the small chamber seems to pulse, as if the shadows flex with strength and dim the light from the lantern. Have we come so far to only become like this? she wonders as another shiver flows through her body. Has it come to robbing the dead? And what of this poor soul, murdered here in such a way? Was his own ending one inspired by theft? What could possess this Aughardt to chase him toward the center of the earth? What—

Her thought stops. Her throat tightens and her eyes go wide. “Clarence,” she says, the strength stolen from her voice.

“I’ll not argue the point. I’m sorry for it, truly, but we must make use of what we can.”

Marissa approaches the burnt bones and squats down near an outstretched arm. Scanning its length, she extends her own. Her reach far exceeds that of the skeleton. “Clarence,” she says again, her voice a sad whisper of sorrow.

He grunts as the first boot slips on. The fit is tight around his toes, but the soles are in far better condition. Overall, it’s an upgrade. “What is it?”

“Was this one a child?”

With the second boot midway over his foot, Clarence stops. “What?”

“Look at it,” she says, standing to hold the lantern overhead. “It’s small. Smaller than me by any margin. Death of man, did this monster murder some poor child? In a place like this?” Marissa’s voice falls like a stone into a bitter sea, her broken heart following piece by piece.

Clarence slips on the second boot and crawls toward the ruined body. Seeing the crushing sadness spreading over his wife’s face, he raises a hand to calm her. Kneeling near the skull, his brow furrows with hard lines of thought. “Let’s not jump to conclusions,” he says while rubbing his pant legs with worry. “Let’s sort this out a bit.” He scans the skeleton, but it’s size is undeniable. The skull, the torso, the lengths of leg and arm all indicate a child. “Could it be?” Clarence says in disbelief. He looks back at Aughardt’s corpse. “Ya evil bastard, could it really be?”

“How old, Clarence?” Marissa asks. “Death of man, please. How old was this poor thing do you think?”

Sighing, Clarence wipes his brow with grief and forces himself to take another inspection of the burnt bones. “It’s tough to say… seven, maybe eight years old?”

Marissa searches him with horrified eyes. “But how? How? And in such a brutal way? With the dagger so deeply plunged and this… this… burning!? For what reason, Clarence? What purpose?”

“Could be the curse,” Clarence mutters. “Maybe the man was deranged. Obsessed. There are strange people, you know. Not all of the old ways have died. Maybe—” Clarence cuts himself off.

“Out with it!” Marissa snaps.

Upset that he ever let the idea slip, Clarence shrugs with regret. “Maybe this Aughardt was part of a cult. A fiend. These northern mountains hide many things, Mar.”

Marissa’s eyes fall back to the small skeleton in the center of the chamber. Though her soul wishes to cry, her tears refuse to well. “Take it all then,” she says. “Strip the evil man of everything he has if it suits you. May his bones never find peace. May he be tormented by an eternity of walking barefoot through frozen darkness than ever find sleep.”

Clarence sighs, and his breath suspends over the small corpse like a bank of fog. “Don’t dwell on it, Love. Alright? This was something that happened months ago by the looks of it. Maybe years. We’ve come upon it now, fair enough, and a show of sorrow is appropriate. But you’ll not carry this with you, ya hear? We carry enough sorrow from our own lives. No need to go collecting sorrows from others, strangers at that.”

“Do you think they knew?” Marissa asks. “The people in town. In Nil?”

Clarence looks at Marissa directly and he shakes his head. “No. Not for a moment. I could never believe such a thing.” The two stare, and Clarence can see his answer is not fully believed. The nod coming from Marissa is one of courtesy, not agreement. His face sours, and pain trickles into his heart while her brown eyes shift back to the child’s remains. He sees the slightest quiver touch her lower lip and a curling frown wink on her dirty cheek. With a start, he hops to his feet. “Up then,” he says. “We’ve still a search on our hands.” He steps over the small body, his boot bumping one of the bones, and touches Marissa’s shoulder. “Don’t think me to be coarse, but our own problems still exist.”

Throughout the small chamber, a faint hissing is heard.

Marissa and Clarence look at each other. Goosebumps sprout along their back, neck and arms.

“The wind?” Clarence asks.

“I suppose it must be,” Marissa says with another insincere nod.

“Help me search for the vein,” he says. “You’ve the eye for ore. I’m only good for setting it free from the mountain after you’ve found it.”

“Yes, yes,” Marissa sighs. “Just one more moment, for the sake of my heart.”

Clarence tucks graying hair behind her ear. “Some mourning, but no dwelling.”

Marissa nods, this one sincere, and they share a quick kiss on the lips. Clarence turns to the resting body of Aughardt to conduct another pilfering of his belongings. “I’ll defile this one then while you pay your respects to the one he so callously ruined.”

Marissa sets the lantern down and gazes at the child’s remains. She tries to imagine what the face may have looked like, if it were a boy or a girl. I hope a boy, she thinks. Death of man, what kind of horrendous things could a man like that have done to a little girl? Her eyes trace over the stretched arms and legs, and they seem so little looking at them again, looking at them with eyes that now understand. This poor child. Poor, poor child. A sensation comes to her, one of embracing the life now lost, one of providing what little comfort she can. My womb never allowed such love to be shared. But how I could have loved this unfortunate thing, she thinks while touching a shin bone with the tip of her finger. This poor creature, this—

Another hiss passes through the chamber, longer and louder than before. They startle, and Clarence whirls to face the center. As they look at each other, the shadows within the chamber flex again. Darkness swells. The lantern flutters, as if starving for air.

“The hell was that!?” Clarence says with a shudder.

“I don’t know,” Marissa says, her skin crawling. “The wind again?”

“Twasn’t no wind. It came from behind me. From the center!”

The lantern sputters and threatens to fail.

Clarence lunges. “Don’t let it die!” he shouts as he hurries toward Marissa to adjust the lantern’s wick.

Marissa surrenders the lantern and scoots away with kicking feet, as if her presence is the sudden source of the flame’s struggles. Darkness presses down. Fear drapes over her like a sopping-wet cloth, cold and heavy. Invasive. Her heart accelerates with climbing panic. Without intention, her eyes are drawn to the skeleton again. Shadows swing over the remains as Clarence manhandles the lantern. In the shifting light, leaning back on her elbows, Marissa sees something new within the skeleton. Though the shadows dance, two points within the jaw remain fixed.

Teeth.

Big teeth. Long, sharp, feline teeth.

Marissa squints, not believing her eyes. She’s certain she’s wrong, certain that what rests in front of her simply cannot be. She props herself up and leans toward the body. “Clarence,” she says. “Do you see this?”

Light continues to dwindle. He glares at the shrinking flame behind the glass while adjusting the wick as well as he can. “I am, I am!” he says in a panic.

“No,” Marissa says, suddenly drawn toward the burnt skull. “This. The skull.”

Shadows surge with power.

Darkness presses.

“I saw the child’s skull, Mar! I’ve other matters to contend with.”

Marissa doesn’t hear the panic in his voice. She no longer cares. A sudden longing has come to her, one that pushes her away from panic and into consuming peace. It’s a dire want. A need. She must see the skull up close. There is no other option. She must hold it in her hands, inspect it, cradle it, understand it. The feeling pulls her like a leash as she crawls toward the remains. With great care, she moves over the desecrated bones to rest cross-legged at the skull, sitting as if it were an altar.

“Mar, I think we’d best leave that be,” Clarence says, not looking away from the lantern. He holds the glass prison to his face. Inside, the flame shrinks to near nothingness.

But the concern inside Marissa is gone, for this is how it is and how it always must be. It makes sense to her now, their mining, their existence. Their suffering. It was all meant to lead to this moment and to this place. Her purpose has been found, and her lack of motherhood is suddenly of no consequence. Her chance to give life has come in the end. Life has finally found her.

Clarence spares a quick glance to see Marissa stripping her hands bare. She tosses her gloves aside casually.

“What are you doing!?” cries Clarence. He reaches, one hand holding the lantern while the other clutches his wife’s shoulder.

She doesn’t answer. There’s simply no need. The message is true. Her suffering was not in vain. She can feel it now. It flows into her body like pales of hot water poured into a tepid bath. Her aches lift and her soreness fades. The bites in her hands from early arthritis lose their teeth. Cold nights haunted by pangs of hunger disappear into a golden sea of ease. “It’s okay, Clarence,” she says. “Don’t you see?” as she lifts the skull and cradles it within her palms. She looks up and faces him. “Don’t you see?”

Clarence’s eyes go wide with horror.

Marissa’s are black with dilation. What little white remains is pink with strain. Tears race down her cheeks.

Mar, put it down!” he screams, batting at her hand. But the attack is useless. Marissa’s grip on the skull is too strong. One hand flails while the other clings to the lantern in desperation. Clarence reaches for her wrist and leaps back when an evil hiss flies from Marissa’s mouth. He stumbles over a loose femur and falls to the ground. The lantern flies from his hand, smashing onto a hard edge.

Glass shatters.

The flame of the lantern dies and the chamber goes full-black.

Outside, the winds of the blizzard howl and scream.

Going Forward

After taking the summer off to spend time with the family while my son was out of school… and then taking three more months off via being lazy, I’ve finally figured out what I want to do in regards to writing.

Short version: I want to write, and I want to give people something to read.

You’d think those are simple goals, but I’ve managed to make them complicated. However, using the same creativity needed to complicate something so simple, I’ve also managed to conjure up a solution to my own problem.

When it comes to writing, I want to do two things. I want to write books with the ultimate goal of self-publishing, and I want to write flash-fiction at a consistent pace to draw in a readerbase. While I’ve done poorly at creating flash-fiction at a consistent rate, I have managed to write a book. An entire first draft is done with several chapters of a second draft completed. Yay. Go me.

Here comes the slight curveball though: the book I wrote is for a story I pulled from nothing.

While I enjoyed lifting a story from a very basic concept, stripping out parts that didn’t work and eventually crafting a book from the remains, the story itself was never something I was personally invested in. It’s a fun adventure, a solid horror story with characters that act in a reasonable way, but it isn’t the kind of story I tell from the heart. For years, I’ve had an idea rattling away in the back of my mind that I’ve wanted to tell. At one point I did try to tell it, but I found my ability was lacking. I put it off until my skills could tell the story in a way I felt appropriate. Now, some years later, I feel my ability has arrived and the time has come to try again.

But what of the book I wrote? It’d be a shame to abandon that after spending so much time on it. So here’s the plan:

I work on my new story (book), the one I adore and have personal ties to, the one that’s been rattling in my brain for so much time. While doing so, I’ll also post my completed horror story chapter by chapter with the hopes of drawing people in for reading and growing my readerbase. This is good in that it gives people something to read and also prevents a completed book from languishing in abandonment. This idea also motivates me to complete the second draft and finish my book in a proper way, ultimately putting me in a position to sell an e-book. Yes, it’ll already exist for free on this website, but that’s fine. I consider it practice, and I really want to complete that project. Having an audience waiting (hopefully) for each chapter will push me forward.

So that’s the plan. Post a completed book here while working on another. I don’t have any real timelines associated with these ideas. My rough goal is to post at least one chapter a week with the completed story. I’ll work on the new story as my interest allows. Last year, when I was writing the book I now intend to post, my goal was to write 3k words a week. I’ll keep that goal as a baseline, but I have no idea if it’s something I’ll meet. Basically, I’m not going to worry about it.

As far as the book I’ll be posting here goes, it’s a horror story with a good dose of fantasy/western stirred in. If you’re interested, keep your eyes open. Chapter One should be posting within the next couple days. Hopefully you enjoy it.

The Dead Servant (Flash Fiction)

He reaches the end of the hall with slowing steps of trepidation. Tired torches burn from their sconces, the stone walls behind them charred from years of smoke and fire. With his footfalls echoing down the long corridor, he knows before he turns, before he sees, that the door just around the corner will be closed. Late at night, when the manor is quiet and empty, the servants retired to their chambers for the evening, he’s heard the thumps of thick oak and the squealing of iron hinges.

While the living servants rest, one restless servant stirs.

He holds his breath, though not by choice. In the passing weeks, it’s taken more and more effort for him to approach his study at night. First it was the rumors, the other servants whispering amongst themselves, laying claim to unsettling sights and sounds. Then the whispers turned to startled gasps. Then to screams. He hadn’t seen the ghostly visage himself, but the horror in his servants eyes when they told their stories made it clear others had.

Running his fingers along granite walls, he rounds the corner. Before him, the large, oak door to his study stands closed. Expectations met, he lets out an unsteady sigh.

He wonders if this is the night when his fears are confirmed. He wonders if this is the night when his mortal vessel comes face to face with the wandering dead, with a lost soul. Cold air prickles his skin. His breath shortens.

He steps forward.

For weeks he feigned disbelief, always striding toward the closed doors with an air of confidence and throwing them open without regard. As if the act of bravery could dispel a lingering presence. As if a meddling spirit would be impressed by such trivial things. But as the presence grew stronger, as the chilled air grew icier, the pitiful mask of his bravery crumbled. Beneath the ruins of courage, only timid fear remained.

He approaches the door, silence hanging, and grabs hold of a large, iron ring. Wrapping his fingers around the metal, he feels the cold soak into his skin. His breath fogs. He breathes in, sets his feet and pushes against wood bounded by metal.

Hinges singing, the doors swing open.

As they part, he waits for a pale phantom to appear before him. He waits for a psychotic wail or reaching fingers or a hate-filled breath to whisper into his ear. The tales have been shared a dozen times each, so often that his servants no longer tend to their duties along the south wing. The legend of the dead servant has become very real.

But instead of those things, a feeling far more horrific finds him. Pushing against those heavy doors, he suddenly feels them swing open as if someone assisting with his entrance were pulling from the other side. The iron rings fly from his hands, and he stumbles forward into his study, landing on his knees beside a large, cherry-stained desk. He whirls and looks back, desperately scanning the room, a frightened scream already waiting in his lungs, begging to be released.

But the room is empty.

Around him, oil lamps burn a dull yellow. Books line the walls. Silence floods the room, and with it, a heavy feeling of unseen eyes watching his every move.

Unsure, he mutters the only words his mind can muster. “Arthur,” he asks, speaking the name of his deceased servant. “Is it true? Is it you?”

Silence.

He stands in frightful observation, waiting for a book page to turn on its own, for charts and maps to leap from the table, for his large globe to spin so quickly it finally topples over. All events that have happened before, he thinks. But the room sits still in its waiting. The feeling of watching eyes presses down.

“Arthur, you mustn’t worry,” he says, trying to shake his fear. “Your days of service have ended. I’ll always be grateful for your efforts, old friend. You’ll never be forgotten.”

The room seems to sigh, long and steady. Then slowly, the heavy, oak doors begin to close.

He watches in horror, hearing the iron hinges scream, hearing the telling creaks and thumps of those doors going closed, sounds he’s heard night after night from the distance of his bed chamber. His eyes grow wide as an iron locking bar slides in place and engages.

“Arthur?” he asks, his voice trembling. “It isn’t true, what happened between me and your daughter.”

Along the wall, an oil lamp goes dark.

“It isn’t true, I swear it,” he begs. “I loved her as one of my own. As one of my own.”

Another lamp dims, the feeble flame inside dwindling down to the tiniest wink of light, then goes dark.

“She was a beautiful girl, Arthur,” he says, his voice on the verge of weeping. “A wonderful, beautiful girl. I would never hurt her. Could never hurt her.”

Rounding the room, another lamp falls victim to an unseen hand and succumbs to darkness. A single source of dull, yellow lingers in the corner, a small island in a sea of horror.

“Lord above, have mercy,” he mumbles, clutching his hands to his chest. “Lord, please, I beg of thee, protect your humble servant in his time of need.”

The frozen silence in the room is broken by whisper so quiet it’s barely heard. “Servant,” someone scoffs.

The final lamp is put to rest, and the study falls to absolute darkness.

Imperfect Meetings (Flash Fiction)

The moments are rare, but he tries. With effort and heart and dire determination, he pushes beyond five dollars mailed inside of birthday cards, beyond a quick video chat to shout out, “Hi!”. He arrives for a designated weekend, a rare appearance after missing many for reasons he can never understand or describe. He shows, plans or not, and two confused souls come together for a rare moment as father and son.

And those moments are golden. Against all fears and uncertainties, regardless of their flaws, every moment is golden. Precious memories are formed and hurriedly stored in a secret place, stored and saved and readied for darker days. And for a rare moment, the man so distant and lost no longer feels broken.  He sees himself through the lens of a capable father, sees himself able to bring happiness to a precious man in waiting, and he rejoices. Young, smiling eyes wipe his tears clean. Giddy laughter replaces his screams. His failings, all of them, fall away, and all things upside down in his life are temporarily turned upright.

But then time expires. The ending for visitation rights comes. The afternoon concludes, and father and son, still two souls both lost and confused, separate once again. The lens held in focus for those precious moments shatters, and the man, into several thousand pieces breaks apart.

Alone once more and left with only his failings, he departs, and darker days return. Golden moments are besieged and ruined. He digs deep in search stored memories, and though he can hear the laughter and see the smiles, those memories are distorted by a fatherly lens shattered well into a thousand pieces.

And while the broken man wrestles with the idea of permanent departure, his demons overpowering, his failings overwhelming, the young man in waiting anxiously anticipates the next imperfect meeting between father and son.

Six Years (Flash Fiction)

“Happy Anniversary,” she says in a dull tone, as if announcing the time or the weather or any other mundane piece of information.

He breaks away from his book, the first time in a solid hour, and looks at her. Watching her settle a small plate of cupcakes in front of him, he waits, choosing his words carefully. “I’m sorry? What was it you said?”

“Happy anniversary,” she repeats, pretending not to notice his quick decision to pretend not hearing her the first time. “Six years ago today we went on our first date.” She speaks the words in a matter-of-fact tone, like a newscaster casually breaking the news that the local sports team lost or that the stock market tanked during the day’s trading. “Can you believe it?” she asks, not caring to hear his answer. “It’s crazy, right? How fast time goes by.”

Agreeing, he nods out of habit. “It is,” he says, working hard to conceal his disappointed surprise. “It really is. I guess it’s true what they say.”

“What’s that?” she asks quickly, hoping to catch him off guard.

“Oh, you know,” he says, “the older you get, the faster time goes by.”

Together on the porch, bathing in another setting sun, she settles down onto the outdoor couch, making sure not an inch of her skin comes into contact with his. “My grandparents used to say the same thing,” she laments, wishing her grandparents were still alive, wishing that the last six years had not gone by, wishing that anything could be salvaged from this obvious lie. “I can still hear them, ya know? I can hear my grandpa telling me, ‘It goes by so fast.'” She forces herself to laugh, though it’s the last thing in the world she’d like to do. Inside her lungs, an eternal scream of frustration blooms. “And now here we are,” she says, ignoring the emotion boiling inside of her. “We’re just like them, aren’t we?”

He glances at her and catches her gaze. It’s a look he’s seen a thousand times before, and like always, he ignores it again. She’s just pining, he thinks. She’s just wishing our lives would go the same way theirs did. It’s normal, he reassures himself. Most girls want to live out the fairy tales of their parents or grandparents lives. It doesn’t matter that times have changed. It doesn’t matter that my love has drifted and died and blown away. That’s how love was back in those days. Passive, obligatory and altogether pointless.

“Don’t you think?” she asks, urging his reply. “I mean, can you believe my grandparents were married before they were both nineteen? And here we are, ‘so mature’ as my mom likes to say, taking our time and making sure everything is just right.”

He closes his book, his thumb holding the page to which he’ll soon return, and looks at her. “What a different time it was back then, wasn’t it,” he asks, his question the tried and true way of disarming her intentions, her implications, her every attempt to pressure the situation.

Disappointed yet again, she smiles. “It was,” she says, not agreeing in the slightest. “It really was. Still,” she tries, “six years is pretty impressive.”

“It is,” he says, opening the book to its saved page again. “We’ve been dating longer than some of my friends have been married.”

She doesn’t look in his direction, and she doesn’t say a thing. Instead, she simply nods in hateful spite. She nods, taking the words as a brutal strike against her character and her potentiality of being a wife. “Yeah, those poor things,” she agrees in a dry tone. “It must be hard, their marriage not working out. They must feel so disappointed.”

“They must,” he says, already forgetting the topic of conversation, his book regaining dominance in his mind. “Such a horrible situation,” he says as he turns another page.

She looks over at him, disdain filling her eyes, and unwraps a cupcake. Taking a bite, the taste is sweet and bitter and absolutely disgusting, filling her mouth with six years of rot.

Captain Muscleman (Flash Fiction)

The last of them shuffles in, their three-piece suits disheveled, their movements hurried and anxious. Wooden chair legs bark against the floor as they fill in the missing spaces around an old billiards table. A single light hangs above the green felt, illuminating gold rings and expensive watches. Tired eyes look across to each other. Five o’clock shadows stretch over rough faces.

“Now that we’re all here,” says the leader of the group with tired condescension, “let’s get right down to it. We all know why we’re here. I’ll open the floor to options. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.”

Shady individuals shift in their seats. Some pop their knuckles. Others pop their necks. Despite all the grunts and huffs, not a word is tossed out into the open.

“I’ll just come out and say it then,” the boss says, “I’m thinking about giving it up.”

“What!?” a spindly man says from the corner of the green table. His voice is high and scratchy and just enough to overcome the audible gasps that fill the empty warehouse.

“What choice do I have?” the boss says, already offended. “You’ve all seen the news. You’ve heard the stories. I feel the same as the rest of you, but it’s foolish to think this can go on any longer.”

“They’re lies,” a chubby man scoffs from the side. “Propaganda. Come on, you know how the press is.”

“That’s bullshit and you know,” says another opposite to him. His dark eyes are narrow and sharp. A long, thin scar stripes down the left side of his face. “Big Tony. Little Tony. The Chetsy brothers. And just last night—”

“We all know what happened to Chris,” the boss says. “It’s why we’ve convened. No need to rehash bad news.”

The man with narrow eyes squints in anger. “Bad news? He fuckin’ took Chris’ head off. One clean shot.”

All around, well-dressed crime bosses squirm.

“I said not to bring it up,” says the boss. With a heavy sigh, he pushes his seat back from the billiards table and stands. With his two hundred dollar shoes clicking on the wood flooring, he paces around his seated lieutenants. “We’re at the end of our road, gentleman. Our era has come to a close. There’s no denying it.”

“What do you mean?” asks another, his voice heavy with nerves.

“You know what I mean,” the boss says, his hands folded behind his back and his face down. “This Captain Muscleman… this ‘superhero’. This freak. He’s done it, boys. He’s chased us down, choked us off.” He sighs again. “He can’t be stopped.”

“But it can’t be true, can it?” asks a soldier from New Jersey. A cigarette rests between his lips and bounces as he speaks. “I mean… super-human strength? Shooting lasers from his eyes. It’s gotta be bullshit, right? I mean… what the hell?”

Still pacing, the boss shrugs. “I can’t speak for his strength, but the laser thing seems true enough. Did you see the news a week ago? How he cut right through those concrete walls? Big Tony had no chance. His whole compound was designed around staying inside that vault in the basement. This Captain Muscleman,” he says with a shudder. “He was inside before his guards even had a chance to take him out.”

“So let’s lay it out then,” says a surly gentleman from the table. He picks at the green felt with dirty fingernails. “You’re saying we’re done, finished. What does that mean? What are you proposing?”

The boss does a full lap around billiard table before speaking. His heavy steps cause the floorboards to squeak. He clenches his fists and grinds his teeth. “I’m proposing legitimacy,” he says. “I’m proposing the end of villainy.” He stops and looks over the table. “I’m saying we should go straight.”

“Straight!?” the dirty man from New Jersey exclaims. Around him, others grumble. “How?”

“I don’t know,” the boss says. “That’s where you come in. What are your options? What kind of pies do you have your fingers in? That’s what I wanna know. That’s what we need to figure out. It’s time we change our operations just enough so they exist within the letter of the law.”

A nervous man from Miami, his skin orange with fake suntan, lets an idea slip. “Maybe we could run for office, ya know? Become politicians.”

The boss scowls. “We’re fuckin’ better than that, Larry, and you know it.” The room grumbles in agreement, and Larry shrinks away into the shadows. “Look, nothing extreme, gentlemen. Don’t over-complicate things. Just take a look at what you’ve got going on in your areas and look at them from a new perspective. See if anything can be salvaged by going legit.”

“And Captain Muscleman?” a man asks. “What are we going to do about him?”

“Not a damn thing,” the boss says. “Haven’t you been paying attention? We’re going to beat him the only way we can. By ripping off people using the system instead of bypassing it.”

“But won’t he notice? Won’t he figure it out?”

“From what I can tell,” the boss says, “all these superhero types are the same. They can’t use logic. Their moronic moral compass is set in stone by the criminals that write the law.”

“That’s why we should be politicians!” Larry begs. “If we can write the laws, we’ll own the towns.”

“Shut up, Larry,” the boss says. “We’re criminals, not soulless vampires.” Throughout the room, grumbles of agreement chime in.

Doorsteps (Flash Fiction)

She sighs and takes another long drink from her Seagram’s and seven. Ice clinks in the glass as she presses it to her lips and swallows and swallows and swallows. It’s another mix almost gone in one simple session, and they both pretend not to notice. “Tonight?” she asks. “Really?”

He doesn’t look up. His elbows are planted on his knees, bare arms from a t-shirt stabbing through holes in denim jeans. With the weight of his world, his chin presses onto his hands. “Tonight,” he says again, wondering how many ways he’ll have to tell the same story. “I gotta get out of here. It’s just how it goes, ya know? This fuckin’ city,” he says, not looking at her, not looking at the skyline or the beaten avenue or anything his mind would bother to blame for his misery. “I just gotta get out of this town. Haven’t you ever felt that way?”

“No,” she lies, crunching ice in the back of her mouth. It’s her third mix, and the whiskey has finally found its place. “I love this place. Always have. Where the hell else could you consider home? And what the fuck do you expect to find in California?”

His feet twist on the concrete. Small pebbles grind beneath worn sneakers. “I just gotta go,” he says again, his heart unable to conjure the real truth, his lips unwilling to release the words that would let this young woman know that it’s her, that it’s her absurd attitude, her unrelenting needs, her continual demands that drive him from one shore in pursuit of another. “I feel like if I never take this chance, I’ll never take a chance at all.”

“Chance,” she scoffs. “Fuck that. It’s too expensive over there. Everyone knows that. You’re just gonna bury yourself. And for what? The chance to ‘escape?'” she says, quoting the air around her head.

Which is exactly why I have to leave, he thinks. This shit, this garbage weight strapped around my waist. You and my friends and everyone else. There’s no freedom here. There’s no release. “It isn’t about trying to escape,” he lies. “It’s about opportunity. Ya know? It’s about seeing what else is out there. How can I see the world from the same window?”

She tilts her head fully back, draining whiskey and soda and ice in one. It all goes down, all free of consideration or understanding. “Jesus,” she says, laying on her accusations as thick as she can. “You sound like my mother. See the world, travel,” she scoffs. “Bullshit. Just admit it. You’re quitting. You don’t love this town. You never did.”

Admit it he won’t. It’s a fight he has no interest in winning, let alone engaging. “I just wanna see what’s out there, that’s all. It isn’t personal,” he says in a tired tone, though he knows her words ring true. The further he can get from her, the better off he’ll be.

“They’re gonna turn you into some kind of liberal idiot, you know that right?” she says, pulling a cigarette from her rear pocket and giving it a light. “You’ll be wanting to kill unborn babies before Thanksgiving.”

He sighs, his heart sinking with the realization that the conversation is pointless, that no explanation exists to justify his exit. “It isn’t a big deal,” he says in a desperate effort to end the discussion.

And to his surprise, the words work. She leans back against the steps, cigarette between her full lips, her lungs pulling in and out, bringing an orange ember at the end of her mouth to life. Cars pass by, some strolling in search for parking, others honking in demand for more space, and they watch in collective silence. Their path together has come to an end despite the lies they say, despite the promises they share. He knows she’ll find someone else and she knows he’ll never return.

“Are you staying over?” she asks, ignoring the situation that’s come to pass. The whiskey has gotten to her, and she’s ready for more company, ready for comfort from her departing friend.

His elbows dig into his knees. His feet grind on the stairs. Turning, he looks back at her and the concrete steps leading to her door. “Sure,” he says, disappointed by his own relenting. “I guess I can stay.”

Their eyes lock, and she smiles. “Come on,” she says with a tilt of her head. “Let me make you another drink.”

He agrees, though the beverage in his hand is untouched. Together, in tired unison, they step inside.

Rescinding (Flash Fiction)

Death.

But not the fearful kind. Not the kind that Hollywood instills in young minds, the kind where the doomed soul goes screaming down the hallway, clawing and scratching, fingernails rolling back against the hardwood floor in terrified strain. Not the kind where the screen fills with crimson and black and horrible dread comes crushing down like an endless depth.

None of that.

He’s floating. Not weightless, not without form or presence. Simply there. Simply existing. The lack of weight comes from a lack of pressure, a lack of worry or commitment. A total lack of fear. He turns to look, somewhat ironic since he already knows his place, and sees what he always knew was there. The silly jokes weren’t far off when it came to the Pearly Gates. Light shines, clouds shimmer, and a man stands with a book in waiting.

The man approaches.

“Do you wish to enter?” the gatekeeper asks.

“There’s a choice?” he responds, surprised both in the option and in his own asking.

“Of course. There’s always choice,” the gatekeeper replies. “Existence is choice, through and through, from beginning to end.”

The man pauses with thought. “What are the options?”

The gatekeeper turns and waves a hand. “Entry, for one, as you’ve likely expected. Or rescind.”

The man can’t help but smile. “You mean—”

“I do,” the gatekeeper says with a sly smile in return, his all-knowing state giving privy to the man’s mind. The man laughs, and the gatekeeper laughs with him, and together they share a moment of absolute joy. Eventually, the laughter plays out.

“How far can I go with option two?” the man asks.

“As far as you’d like, though I don’t recommend anything too serious,” the gatekeeper says. “Some go too dark, and they return disappointed. The mortal mind is fragile, after all. Do you really want to scare your friends and family to death? Haunting wails and rattling chains and all that?”

“No,” the man says without hesitation. “Of course not.” He pauses, considering again. “But I’d like to do more than watch. I’d like to help, you know? Interact.”

“I do.”

“I’d like to let them know I still care, that I’m still with them,” the man says, not noticing the gatekeeper’s intuition. “Is there a ‘Casper’ category? A friendly ghost?”

“No,” the gatekeeper says. “But there’s something close. May I interest you in an orb?”

The man squints with question. “Orb?”

The gatekeeper nods. “You can give sensations of calm. You can see your loved ones and be there with them and touch their souls just enough to put a slight ease to their pain. Not enough to end the suffering, of course, no spirit can do that. But enough to take the edge off.”

“And I appear as an orb?” the man asks.

“From time to time, in chance photos, but only in the pictures that matter most. And you’ll only be noticed by those you truly love. They’ll doubt what it means, seeing a faint spot in the photo, but deep down they’ll know. They’ll remember the moment and how they felt, and they’ll know you were there. Nothing so substantial it can be proven, but not a voice in the world will be able to convince them otherwise.”

The man considers. “Wasn’t this in a movie once?”

“More than once,” the gatekeeper says. “Fiction draws its inspiration from reality.”

Without skipping a beat, the man answers. “I’ll do that then. Send me back.” He hesitates. “How long will I be gone?”

“As long as you like,” the gatekeeper says, “though most return after a few years. They help their family through their grief, see to it they find peace, then come home before witnessing their final years.”

Shimmering and already losing his form, the man asks a final question. “What happens to the orbs that stay too long?”

The gatekeeper, knowing the man’s thoughts and fears and deepest concerns, stares for a long moment in silence. “You’ll see for yourself.”

And the man disappears.

The Weight of Sorrow

If I could save you, I would, but I’m too busy drowning myself. Sorrows weigh, press, drag and bury, and you’ve only begun your journey of self-doubt. Press on, sweet friend, and find the depths in which I dwell. Sink and sink and sink, and soon you’ll find me and my sorrows, and you’ll likely wonder what the fuss was about. Not to say that my suffering trumps yours, of course not, but misery and suffering are relative, and I’m on the verge of showing you what they’re all about.

So cling, please, and beg for help. Cry for the moon and scream to the sky and indulge in all of those things that cry for help. And when your throat runs dry and your tears run out, turn to me and see what pain is all about.

Together, we’ll dig our graves with anxiousness. Together we’ll forsake the options that set us free. For those choices, those rambunctious decisions only live in dreams.

Or do they?

Don’t consider the question, the option, that pain is somehow optional. There’s no self-indulgence in it. Never consider the idea that pain can be discarded, love, for if you do, you’ll lose me forever, and you’ve already told me you’d love me forever.

I beg of you, please, never consider the idea that things can be changed. Never consider the possibility that pain is an option and you can be free. No, sweet love, dearest friend, never conjure these ideas. Rather, trust in me, believe in my all-encompassing ideal that pain is everywhere and suffering is mandatory.

Swallow the kool-aid, swear to my fanaticism. Adhere to the binary idea that it’s all or nothing, cling to that, and I’ll bring you with me. Misery so loves company, and I so love you when you’ve committed to ride along with me. I’ve only said so endless times. As many times as it takes to convince you. You and I, misery and fleeting hopes, together we can take to the skies. We can discard the world and abandon possibilities. We can refute all of which may ever seem right. We can drown together in sower as lovers, forever, and as we sink into perpetual darkness, we’ll forever blame the light.