Short Story: Independence Day

I know what you’re thinking…it’s the wrong holiday for the title of this story. It is Halloween after all.

Whatever. Just read the story. It all ties in, I promise.

Independence Day

graveyard tree

“Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s cursed,” Annabel reminded the boys.

“Scared?” Edgar taunted.

Annabel raised her eyebrows, her arms crossed against her chest in the cooling night air. “Nothing happened when Jake tried it. Nothing happened when Susan tried it.”

“We’re special,” Alec promised with a wink.

The remaining tendrils of pale sunlight eased out of the graveyard, surrendering the rolling hills to the night. The temperature dropped, biting at the back of their necks, and a faint fog layer gathered in the air like smoke.

Edgar lit a candle and set it at the base of the tombstone. Yellow light threw itself against the aged rock, only to be swallowed by its perpetual blackness. Though they were hidden in the night, Annabel remembered the complex hieroglyphics carved across the stone, vaguely Egyptian in appearance, almost entirely worn away by countless years.

They were in the quiet, New England town of Spring Turning, founded in the seventeenth century. The cemetery was on the edge of the urban area, bordered by a maple forest, patiently waiting at the margin of civilization for permission to enter. Other gravesites marked grandparents’ passings with simple, tired phrases. Time was creeping into the cemetery, grass growing long near old plots, inscriptions beginning to fade after harsh winter storms, but the quaint, American spirit remained intact, to be boasted of in politicians’ speeches and nostalgic reflections.

This tombstone was different, inexplicable, sinister—wrong. Grass near the stone withered and died, and the dirt was underneath gray and icy year around. No one could even identify the language of the hieroglyphs, let alone translate the inscription, and no one claimed the grave. There was no record of the grave being dug. Local lore claimed the stone was the reason the cemetery existed; when the town was founded, the tombstone was already there, and the leaders decided to fill in the graveyard around it.

There was only one explanation: the tombstone was haunted.

The reckless, rebellious, thrill-seeking teenagers of Spring Turning had been trying to prove it for centuries. Ouija boards, tarot cards, scented candles, crystal balls, Bloody Mary chants and bastardized biblical verses had all been employed in the effort to make the tombstone do—anything, really.

They had failed.

The tombstone refused to provide the town’s youth with a distraction from the 120th Annual Apple Pie Day celebration or the monthly recitation of the Declaration of Independence by the mayor, dressed in full Revolutionary period-appropriate clothes.

If anything, nights spent in the cemetery were said to be relaxing and enjoyable, instead of terrifying.

Annabel sat down on the faintly wet grass and leaned against another tombstone belonging to someone’s Aunt Mary. “Oh, spirit of the tombstone, please come out and entertain Edgar so he doesn’t have to try to sneak into the girls’ locker room…again,” she dully intoned.

Edgar glared, lighting another candle, dripping the wax onto the top of the tombstone, muttering under his breath. Annabel’s mouth quirked. He was reciting the Declaration of Independence. Original.

Alec shook a can of red spray paint, pacing around the tombstone. “Should I do the circle, then the pentagon, or skip the circle, do you think?”

“Like it matters, for all the nothing that is happening,” Annabel said.

Alec sprayed paint next to her skirt and she shrieked, jumping up away from possible stains, cursing. Alec laughed and sprayed at her again, accidentally catching Edgar in the shoulder. He broke off his (spot-on) recitation to lunge at Alec. The boys chased each other, warring over the can, the candles and the ceremony forgotten.

But they had been enough.

From the forest, the spirits watched the youths scamper around. The tombstone glowed red, turning the fog a faint, bloody pink. The candles burned and the wax turned black, dripping down the stone and onto the gray dirt. From the dirt, another spirit appeared, at first barely indistinguishable from the mist, then more definite as it broke free and approached its comrades.

The teens fell in on themselves laughing, oblivious to the events unfolding around them, just as all the others before them were.

Have another Happy Independence Day, Spring Turning.

Short Story: Fifth Eschaton

This story is for Chuck Wendig’s weekly Flash Fiction Challenge, Let Fate Choose Your Title. I wrote this story really fast (homework is getting really old, guys) so I know some of the wording is a bit awkward, but I think I like it overall.

Please comment 🙂

a little Renaissance art to go with my AP Euro life
a little Renaissance art to go with my AP Euro life

Fifth Eschaton

God took six days to create the world. They say he only rested for one day, but I think he must have fallen asleep on the job after that, because one day he woke up and he looked down upon his earth and he hated it enough to destroy it.

We didn’t see it coming. Not until the skies burned and crumbled in on themselves. We all burned. Most of us burned in hell.

I didn’t. My burns were healed and I got a new life in heaven.

It was the first eschaton. The first end of the world.

A select few survived in heaven—He called them pure, but we call ourselves lucky, for the fact that we hadn’t gotten around to being greedy or selfish or lustful before the world crashed down around our heads wasn’t much of a consolation when our friends were dead and sin sounded like a damn good alternative to thinking about that.

Time in heaven was a curse, never passing the way it should, never tangible; there were no clocks. I was not as young as I was when I died, but I had not grown enough to be the man I had planned to become. And yet I knew that I had been here in this new world for eons, long enough that the glimmer of heaven dimmed and the taunts of earth trickled back into the shadows and the corners.

God looked down again and hated what he saw enough to destroy his heaven. My friends, my brethren, were shoved out of heaven. I listened to their screams as they fell and wondered if hell really existed, or if they just landed on the burnt scraps of our forgotten earth and got to start over, knowing God had moved on to higher and mightier dissections.

That was the second eschaton.

Our second heaven was trickier. God had learned that even the purest aren’t pure, and he wanted proof of our sin. Every move was watched. Every day was a test to see if you were worthy—and in how many days God would once again throw down his lightning bolts and “fix” his world.

We saw the third eschaton and the fourth eschaton coming. Every consecutive heaven was slicker, crueler, a world built of egg shells, with houses built from cards. Somehow, I survived. Somehow I am one of the few—and by few, we are still countless—that persist.

Why His obsession with perfection? These days, I prod at the boundaries, my temptation to sin overpowered second to my exhaustion from playing this game.

Isn’t this Greed—to whittle away at His creations, searching for perfection?

* * *

The skies are darker than they were yesterday.

I share a glance with Sophie and we both know what it means.

The end is nigh.

The end has been nigh too many times by now for me to care.

I walk down the street, not with her, but beside her. We don’t talk. I am going to the grocery store, she is going to the bakery. We have our excuses wrapped around us as armor. We are strangers, a coincidence, nothing more, move along. But we share smiles when we see Grandpa Brett, the knobby old man who barks at foot traffic in broken bible verses, on his corner, and when we glance down the alley the Ham brothers use to collect broken bits of heaven. If God asks, they are artists, but for us they are our preachers, gathering evidence that this isn’t paradise. This is just another broken earth.

We turn a corner and slow our steps. Our destinations are on this street, but we aren’t willing to part yet. Not with a dark sky and the clench of foreboding in our stomachs.

Days from now, how will the world end? In fire? With lightning? In the pitch black? With the earth shattering beneath us or the sky raining down from above us?

She bites her lip and turns away from me to read the bookstore sign. I watch her hair flutter around her face, and I don’t understand why it is fascinating. I turn away and watch Mrs. Tild putter around the coffee shop, her graying hair contained in a severe bun at the base of her skull, organizing my thoughts.

I’m so tired of avoiding life in order to pass some tyrant’s test. I’m ready for the experiment to be over, and if I am a data point on the side of failure than at least I have found my place.

“You know, we’ve been using the wrong word all this time,” she says.

I jump. “What?” I ask.

“Escahton. We’ve taken it to mean the end of the world. But there is another part of the definition.”

She’s been to the library we all pretend God doesn’t know about. Maybe he really doesn’t, if she’s found information like this. I nod, afraid yet eager to hear what she will say.

“It can also mean the climax of history.”

I stare at her, and her eyes are brown and wide, brimming with discovery that I know will no doubt doom her. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s like this: There’s this theory that history is a pendulum. Some problem will build itself up in society until it climaxes, and then society swings back ‘down’ away from the extreme, until they overcorrect themselves and start construction on the opposite side of the issue. Another climax, and you’re rocketing back to the original conflict. The pattern continues; history is a cycle that we never learn from, and never escape.”

“Okay.”

“What God doesn’t understand is that his eschatons are just those climaxes. He purges the world of sin, but we’re just going to swing back to that side of the arc. It’s perpetual, inevitable. We can be the best we’ll ever be and we still won’t pass his test, and we’ll still swing back to the side of immorality, no matter how many traps and tests and threats he builds into his world.”

“Yes,” I say. It’s not enough, but I’ve never been good with words.

She knows this, and smiles, but there are shadows behind her eyes. “We can’t win. We are stuck in game that we play only to lose. The questions is not whether we will fall, but when.”

“I know.”

The ground trembles, like my words dropped out of my mouth and hit the earth with enough force to rock the street.

There is fear in her eyes. Understanding the end of the world does not make it less frightening.

The sky shivers, and the sun goes out.

My hand jerks out instinctively, but I’m surprised when hers finds mine as well. I grip it tightly. Our palms are sweaty. I feel her heartbeat race where our wrists are pressed together.

The ground around us drops, and an ominous red glow oozes up from below. I glance over the edge, and there is no ground, no earth, no heavens from before.

“I’m afraid of heights,” I say, stepping back from the precipice. A futile gesture, when this entire world will be gone in minutes.

She steps with me, leaning closer to me. “It’s the actual fall that scares me.”

The ground jerks below us, and I know I’m playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun. I’ve run out of luck. This time, I will not pass the test.

I’m glad.

The ground vanishes, and for one millisecond, we are suspended in the air, together, immortal.

And then we fall.

Short Story: The Abyss

I wrote this story last week and spent the last few days editing it. I tried to write a more intense story than what I usually write. I might use this concept or these characters again, because I’m pretty happy with what I came up with.

The Abyss

The world around us is white and blank until one of us forces it with our mind into a definite object. The abyss is putty in our hands. Physics is vague. “Possible” is up to interpretation. Logic is optional. Power comes only from a durable mind.

We are dueling in our imaginations.

We want to kill each other.

There are no rules.

The only thing that will be real is if one of us succeeds.

I feel her mind grab at the abyss and a sword materializes in her hand. She lunges at me, and I duck and jump back, creating a cliff to fall over. I push the ground farther and farther away from me as I drop, giving myself time to think.

She trips over the sudden edge and gravity catches her. The sword disappears as surprise trashes her concentration.

Fear for her clenches my heart; I shove it away. It’s just a reflex, left over from a different life, the way your knee jerks out when you hit it just right.

I focus on how much I want to hit her.

My mind unfurls a parachute and I jerk back. I stop pushing the ground away and focus on landing safely—and hoping she doesn’t.

She wrestles free of gravity and takes her captor prisoner. The world around me rotates ninety degrees and I slam into the cliff face. Ready for the shift, she catches herself with a roll along the new ground. I pop onto my feet, the parachute gone with a thought, and throw myself at her.

“That was a cheap trick, Alyssa,” I growl, tackling her. I head-butt her, wrapping my hands around her head, shoving her skull into the ground. In the milliseconds as her head falls, my mind flails outward, groping around the invisible fibers of the abyss for Alyssa’s control over the ground, gracelessly trying to turn the nondescript flatness into rocky spikes to impale her on.

“You’re mad because you didn’t remember it, Jenna,” Alyssa smirks, turning the ground beneath her into a plush mattress the second before her head slams into it. I curse, beaten at my own game, and push myself off of her.

One more thought and I set the bed on fire, making the burning sheets knot themselves around her limbs. Her panicked mind slams into my own and I lose my control of the flames. The sheets go limp and the fire vanishes. She jumps off the bed and runs away. Her arms are charred. I smirk.

I don’t chase her. I let the bed disappear, grateful to be free from the mental drain of imagining realistic flames.

I’m proud of my fire, because I know it hurt her, because I know what burns feel like. If you want something to feel real, you have to know what real is.

She never had the dedication to learn the things I did.

I’ve lost her. I bounce on the balls of my feet, waiting for her attack.

An arrow appears from the whiteness and lodges itself in my heart. Not a problem, as long as I act fast. I slow my heart and imagine cells that can survive a few more seconds without air. We can’t make ourselves immortal, but we can tweak the laws of nature to our advantage in this landscape. I imagine the arrow—it is part of the abyss and can therefore be manipulated—as a part of my internal organs, making the idea as detailed as possible. My mind bumps against hers and I shove until her illusion gives way. The arrow melts into my flesh and the pain disappears.

Ha.

I make the distance between us shrink and hope to catch her by surprise. She smiles at my incurable impatience and the whiteness vanishes.

I’m in my bedroom and there is a knife driven through the back of my hand. Two inches of the blade are embedded in my writing desk below. Alyssa sits cross-legged in the corner, watching from my bed my blood flow with bland eyes. “What does if feel like?”

This memory is from a lifetime ago, back when we were training together. She has recreated it perfectly, mirroring back the pain I described to her all those years ago when she first asked the question.

“Cheater,” I snap, trying to break the illusion. But while my skill is recreating experiences I’ve been through, hers is a parasitic ability to imagine stories she’s been told.

I’ve told her a lot of stories.

I can’t keep myself from admiring her handiwork. This room is a masterpiece, and I can’t imagine how much strain she has put on her mind trying to hold every detail together like this.

I don’t try to break the entire illusion. Continuing it is easier, working within her construct, using her energy instead of mine. Following the plot of the memory, I grab the hilt and yank the knife out of my hand and the wood. Before she can react, I break from the past—using surprise and blunt force to rupture her illusion—and hurl the blade into her arm, carefully forcing a pain illusion into her mind.

She winces, and the remains of the shattered memory vanish. I start constructing my own attack in secret, only dropping the knife illusion when I slam the new memory down around us.

She’s in the dean’s office, a large room made small by towering bookshelves and the dean’s anger. It’s hard to recreate an entire person, but I spare no detail, nearly passing out from the effort of controlling so much of the blankness. Every volume on his shelves, every freckle on his face, rebels against my control, longing to revert to their natural, blank state. I clench my teeth and my fists and my muscles, trying to hold my body—and my mind—together.

The dean is young for his position but deserving of it, brilliant but stupid, arrogant but loveable. He has messy golden hair and wears a suit that would fit better if his chest and shoulders filled out. Faithful to the past, I stand silently at his side and watch her destruction unfold. My hair is combed and my blouse is ironed for the occasion; I am the picture of professionalism. Cowering in the chair before his desk, hair ratted from a lack of sleep, face mauled by tears, she is the absolute opposite.

The dean hadn’t been able to see the problem with telling Alyssa anything. I’d…enlightened him. I considered my mission to be fact-optional. It would be true eventually. It had been true enough times before.

She is expelled from the university. I play the scene over and over, torturing her, waiting for her to overpower me as the effort of manipulating so much of the abyss drains away my strength.

She throws off the illusion the third time he calls her a whore. Blood flushes back into my face and I catch myself before I faint. She sees my weakness and laughs. Neither of us bothers our surrounding and we stand in silent whiteness.

“Are we fighting with memories now?” she asks.

“You started it.”

“Bitch.”

“Thief.”

“Liar.”

“Cheater.”

She waves her hand and a knife appears, the blade in her palm, the hilt extended toward me. “You want another knife to stab me in the back with?”

“Sure.” The knife vanishes when I reach for it. “You deserved it.” The first time, I mean.

“I never betrayed him. I would never have betrayed him.”

Right. “You would have eventually.”

“Not him.”

“You betray everyone. I was protecting him.”

“Why didn’t you ‘protect’ any of the hundreds of students, if you care so much about keeping the world safe from me?”

“He was more important.”

“He was more important to me.” She gnaws on her bottom lip. “You knew you were destroying me.”

“I was returning the favor.” I long to show her the hundreds of scars I bear that she exploited.

She glares and the knife is back in her hand, the point aimed at me this time. “I’ll kill you.”

We haven’t seen each other in ten years. She took everything from me, until I figured out how to take the one thing she wanted from her.

Taking the dean from her wasn’t enough for me.

My death won’t be enough for her.

I snap my finger and the knife vanishes. “You can’t kill me. I know everything you’ll try. We learned everything together, remember?”

My sister can’t argue the fact. “Dad always was the best teacher.”

Short Story: Jewels or Information

In this story, I experimented with writing a story with a serious tone but that came off as humorous. I’d like to think I succeeded.

Hope you enjoy it 🙂

Jewels or Information

God, I need a win today, the girl thought, staring at the glass without really seeing her reflection.

As if on cue, the lock to her apartment door trembled. The lady let the lock pick work in peace, waiting until she finally heard the click of success and her door swinging open to turn away from the mirror.

The girl stared at the man in her apartment.

The man stared back.

The girl was naked.

There was no fear on the girl’s face, only casual defiance. A smile crept across her face and the hairs on the back of his neck rose. He glanced at her body, assured himself she wasn’t armed, and forced his gaze back onto her pale face, wondering at here confidence. His gaze slipped to a mirror behind her and no part of her body was left to his imagination.

Neither moved, and it grew less and less certain who was the predator and who was the startled prey.

“I could have sworn I locked that door,” the girl said. The last time she’d closed it, she’d wanted to keep her failures out. Now she was almost pleased to see it open.

The man slid the leather wallet he was holding into his pocket, though it was an empty gesture. If the girl had any brains at all she could figure out what materials a thief would require to break through a locked door of this caliber.

“Excuse me?” the girl asked, her tone like a whip. It was one thing to be an atrocious lock pick, it was another to try to pass it off as if he hadn’t floundered around her doorknob for five minutes before getting the tumblers out of the way.

The thief flinched. “Lady Casara, I assume?”

The girl rolled her eyes, grabbing a shift from a nearby chair and tugging it over her head. “You would be correct.”

The thief squirmed, uncertain as to how the girl in front of him putting on clothes could possibly make the situation more awkward than it was when she was naked. However, he felt inexplicably ashamed, as if he had failed a test.

Well, of course, he thought, I got caught.

The girl kept staring at him, her eyes an unnerving smoky blue. Her skin, so light that he wondered if her blood was red or white, made her eyes glow unnaturally bright.

Impossibly, the thief started blushing. He’d never been this mortified in his life. She should be yelling at him. She should be calling for guards. She should at least have the decency to look surprised when a man dressed in all black came through her front door and found her naked, pondering herself in the mirror.

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you that the Lady Casara never leaves her rooms?”

The thief seemed to have forgotten how to use his tongue. “I-I assumed—with the royal festivals—that everyone—that the rumors—”

“I live in an apartment in the city, a mile from the palace. I’ve lived here for four years. You think anyone expects me to show up for anything anymore?”

The thief looked around the apartment. It was luxurious but melancholy—the gold of the molding and the fine silk of her chairs were muted by the shadows of the room. Two large floor-to-ceiling windows were covered with thick, grey curtains, allowing light only through a thinner section near the ceiling. There were other rooms, of course, this was the penthouse, but it seemed a very small place to live and never leave.

“Was it the sapphires or the pearls?”

“What?”

Her eyes narrowed at the breach of ceremony he executed in forgetting her royal title. Separated from the palace or not, she still had the king’s blood in her veins. The thief wasn’t especially worried about it. If he were to be arrested, it would be for larger issues than the dropping of “My Lady” at the end of a question.

“Which did you come to relieve me of? My sapphires or my pearls? Because, between you and me, the sapphires are too well cut to pass off as anything but mine and the pearls are so large any pawn broker worth half the hair on his head would accuse you of trying to rip him off with pastes. You really should have considered these things before you broke into my apartment.”

No mention of the immensity of the oversight that was the robbee being in the apartment during the robbery.

“It was the pearls.”

She raised a blonde eyebrow, so pale that the gesture was more conveyed by the shadows from the crinkling skin than the visibility of her brow.

“Some people know the value of looking the other way,” he felt the need to add.

“And hoping the person they sell it to is stupid enough to fall for the same deception?”

The thief (though he wondered if he should stop considering that his profession with the way this job was going) nodded.

Lady Casara strode over to an ornate jewelry chest, long white-blonde hair shifting around her as she retrieved the infamous necklace. “You’d only be perpetuating the cycle.” She held the pearls out to the thief.

He took them into his gloved hand, the pearls starkly white against the black leather. He wondered if you could even tell when she was wearing them against her pale skin.

“They’re pastes?” he asked.

“Of course,” Lady Casara said. “But not if I pretend otherwise.”

The thief considered the pearls in his hand. Knowing the truth didn’t change their value; it was as she said, as long as the people who should believe believed, the pearls were as real as God.

Mentally, he counted how many steps it would take to get him out of the apartment and free of the building. Probably too many, but it seemed idiotic to consider this mission a failure as he held his quarry in his hand.

“I’ll be wanting those back.” Casara fixed him with a pointed look.

“How would you get them back if I didn’t hand them to you?” the thief asked, baring his threat.

She laughed delicately. “Clothing isn’t weaponry, dear thief. Just because I’m wearing my shift doesn’t mean I don’t have the power to stop you.”

“Is that why you were naked?”

“To prove my strength, just in case an impressively stupid thief stumbled upon me? No. I did not bare myself just for that possibility.”

The rebuke landed dead center and embedded itself in his pride. He winced. “May I ask why, then?”

“What are you now, a thief of jewels or information?”

Curiosity flared in the thief. He needed to make sense of this encounter, in the vain hope that in recollection, today wouldn’t be has horrible as it felt at the present. “I guess I’ll try my hand at information.”

“Since you’ve failed so spectacularly at the other discipline? Unfortunately, you don’t have the skill to pick either type of lock.” She turned away from him, picking up a book off a couch and placing it on a nearby table, acting for all the world as if she were alone in her apartment.

Pride. It wasn’t just that there was no fear—there was no doubt, no uncertainty, nothing but pride and confidence in her being. Was it the beauty of her body or the power of her title? Which one should he flatter to get the answer he wished?

She’d put on clothes, so he guessed that door was closed. He went for politeness. “Why were you naked, My Lady?” He dropped into an exaggerated bow, unable to keep the sarcasm out of the dramatic flick of his wrist.

Casara regarded the man before her, stripped of his pride and his dignity. She thought of the plans that had failed today, of the guilt and hate he was distracting her from. “Today didn’t go as planned. I’m sure you know the feeling. Don’t tell me you won’t torture yourself with your flaws when you get home tonight?”

The Conqueror Worm–(My Own) Short Story

Guys! I wrote something! Writers block, temporarily conquered. Finally.

It would be fair to say I am obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. I did a report on him for sixth grade that ended with me building a two story shrine alluding to his famous stories and poems and me wearing my mom’s old prom dress and giving a speech as the dead Lenore. Admittedly, I haven’t read many of his short stories (not really sure why), but I am IN LOVE with his poetry. And I don’t usually like reading poetry.

Last week, when I curled up with my mom’s lovingly annotated copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, I stumbled upon a poem I hadn’t read before, The Conqueror Worm. And I fell in love.

Then I got a weird idea: what if I told the same tale, but as a short story?

And then I did just that.

I took a few creative liberties, though I don’t think they affect the overall story much. This is my interpretation of the poem, God knows I’ve probably missed parts of it, please feel free to kindly tell me I’m wrong in the comments. I tried to mimic Poe’s voice, but also keep my own. The careful eye can catch lines from the poem, as well as lines from other poems. Again with the “I’ve read his poems a lot.”

You can find the actual poem here. My sister recommends you read it after, but I really don’t care. I’m curious to hear what you guys think.

Hope you enjoy!

The Conqueror Worm:

It is a gala night.

I was in the front of the throng entering the theater, so I must fold myself into my chair and twist my knees to the side as the rest of my brethren flood in. A glittering hem catches my knee, tugs once, then gently releases, swept along with the current as it’s owner sweeps past me. Hands jut out, gestures that don’t mind my face. Purses swing from elbows as a convict from a noose. It’s a sea, and my cursed punctuality has condemned me to be trampled, helpless kelp as the rest of my peers flood in late, sharp-toothed sharks that will cut through me without pause unless I bend myself carefully out of their way.

The theater is our tide pool, or perhaps an oceanic cave, secluded from the rest of our city, it’s own thriving, throbbing mass. But if this is the sea, the waters are tinted gold.

Everyone shines here—men in golden suits drawn in sharp lines and iridescent gowns of swaying, feminine curves. No one wears black, except of fabrics made to catch the light and sparkle, alluding to the stars. Gorgeous is the status quo; we know not of diamonds in the rough, but to sneer at the roughest of our diamonds. Beauty shouldn’t be a competition, but it is tonight—it is always. We can humor ourselves by ranking us above the greedy, jealous monsters of below, but the observant eye knows this is nothing but a joke.

The theater is a sunset halted, perversely captured, inverted, and transformed to build four walls and a roof for our pleasure. Blood-colored seats—dark enough in the dimmed light to be black—highlight our finery, acting as the velvet cases in a jewelry store. We are pride and wealth tonight, playing at being blessed. Behind me, gold appears as the walls meet the ceiling, then snakes along in the trim, blossoming into dramatic swirls and patterns as the gilded serpent approaches the stage. The shuttered curtains are dark, contrasting and framed by opulent designs, carved gold taking over for glistening paint, emphasizing the luxury of the creator’s art.

For sure, it is a gala night tonight.

The orchestra breathes its first breath, haunting, foreign music urging the last figures to their seats. I strain to recognize the tune, but it is of the sphere below, not from our clouds. Curtains twitch, then shuddering, surrender their vigil, revealing the first scene.

The sets do not glitter. They are artfully rendered, but too solemn to be attractive. Tragedy lurks in shadows, creeping up on the actors, who stand oblivious, playing at love and wars. Panic leans over my shoulder and cackles in my ear. My shoulders clench, I tighten my grip on my arm rests, white knuckles like strands of pearls. I want to shout, to warn the actors, but they would not hear me even if it were written into the script.

That is the point, I realize.

The play rushes forward, dragging gasps from my lungs, banishing the blood from my face, whipping my heart into a gallop. These actors are my brethren, but not entirely, not tonight, not as they ape the rulers of the world below. They are victims, at the mercy of storms of weather and human cruelty alike. Blood stains the stage, and I’m too caught up in the drama to remind myself it is a clever fake. Actors fall off the cliff of life, some jumping, more pushed, from that kingdom by the tumultuous sea.

My hands jerk to my face, but I pry my fingers open, for I want to see that tragedy which I have never seen before. I curse the veil I must wear, wanting to see completely, to honor the horrors in front of me. But I wear the black lace always; the veil is the only piece of apparel we all wear but that does not shine. It is built into our culture to protect us from ourselves, from the pain of always looking but never allowed to touch, never able to bandage the wounds of the world below.

It is too much, the horror, the helplessness, the frailty of those creatures below us against the omnipotence of fate. And it is torture itself to see my own depicted in these scenes with cursed honesty: for the play writes have named us mimes, revealing our impotence as they blunder around the edges, removed from the tragedy, unable to stall the hand of the universe’s rage.

The plot is a dance of the fateful trio: Madness, Sin, and Horror. The creatures of below are both at their mercy and are their mercenaries, in the flesh.

Drums beat with heavy, quickening hearts. Armies clash, emperors fall, mothers turn from sons and sons stab brothers in the back, dooming each other to Plutonian shores.

The stage stills. The last actor falls, like a stubborn drop of dew—and we would think it was the end. I’ve drowned in tears and I want to be alone.

But there is more to the story. The rulers have fallen, their kingdoms have crumbled to time and powers they couldn’t imagine. We, the mimes, mere puppets, have failed. They died calling us saviors, trusting us with their last breaths, but don’t they understand we are powerless to stop their suffering? We are divinity incarnate, but the world below does not trouble itself with following our suggestions. We are all kelp, truly, watching the ocean swarm around us blushed with blood, doomed to watch from our scenic solitude, forevermore.

A new empire rises from the ground, thriving in the blackness of Death, devouring the corpses of those who ruled and fell before with venom fangs. They are crawling shapes, blood-red, wriggling, lacking the elegance and poise of their predecessors—but also born without their predecessors’ tremendous ability to destroy themselves. They take the reins of the broken world, writhing but winning that mortal battle, that spiked fever that is life. The orchestra strikes its last, lasting note, that almost is a paean.

The lights go out and the gold is washed from the theater in a crashing wave of blackness.

The closing curtains ride the wave, a stormy funeral pall.

The play is over, but the story is alive, in the shadow between heartbeats, in the pause between inhalations and exhalations, where my own death slumbers—it shall not ever be forgot. I sob at the injustice—that those below would die, that the filthy, writhing creatures would be champions, that we would have to watch. Beside me, in front of me, throughout the chamber, faces glisten with tears, the way we played at wearing jewels. True to the mimicry of the play, we are struck dumb by the horrors we have seen tonight. How could we brutally enslave words and put them to the task of describing the devastating, motley drama of deaths we just were witness to?

No one moves as the curtains wrinkle to expel the play writes. Solemnly, the two angels stand before their stunned heavenly audience, and remove their veils. Understanding slinks between the seats: that was real, that was Earth. The pair do not cower before our rage, rage that they showed us the truth we have taught ourselves to avoid. We seraphs asked for a play of hopes and fears, and they showed us humanity of the world below, below our damnèd heaven. They have unveiled us with their show of life, and we angels sit, stunned, blinking at the sudden light.

How was this a gala night?

They affirm that the play is the tragedy “Man,” and its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

 

Hell and Styx #18: Promises

Finally, Hell and Styx #18! I know I’ve been really slow recently with writing these stories. I was on vacation. Also, I’m editing my novel, so I’ve got a lot on my plate right now.

I’ll try to write faster this week.

This one picks up right where H+S #17 left off. Still the Heaven plot line. This one is getting really long–sorry. You can find the rest of the series on the Hell and Styx page.

I hope you enjoy this one! Likes and comments are always welcome.

Hell and Styx #18: Promises

Hell didn’t like breaking promises. Just having enough contact with a person to make a promise was a major event in her life. It was Hell and Styx, alone, together, and if she promised him something, it would take a cosmic implosion for her to go back on her word.

But now there was Heaven, too, and Hell had promised him that she wouldn’t get distracted while she worked. She had wanted to make this promise and she wanted to keep this promise. Spare time was suddenly more valuable than it had ever been.

Hell ducked as the dead woman before her punched at her face. She shot her arm up and blocked the hit, using her other hand to wrench the offending arm behind her, forcing the woman to double over.

The woman elbowed Hell in the gut and Hell gave a faint gasp, annoyed at her distracted thoughts when her quarry slipped out of her grasp.

“Who the hell are you?” Hell asked, circling, looking for an opening, not really curious.

“You think only men can fight?”

Hell stopped and gaped at her. “What do you think I’m doing?”

The woman, thinking Hell had left her guard down, charged.

Hell had not.

Ducking down under the woman’s grasp and twisting behind her, Hell capitalized on the woman’s momentum and gave a small, directing shove. The next second, the woman disappeared, swallowed by the walls of purgatory.

Hell turned back to the ballroom to find Styx grinning. “Not your most graceful capture ever.”

Hell grinned back. “Shut up.”

Her promise flashed through her mind. I won’t get distracted.

She forced her face flat and turned to look for the next soul. She could feel Styx frowning at her back, but this was not something she would be explaining to him.

* * *

How had Hell never noticed how much Styx talked?

He never shut up.

If he wasn’t talking about the souls in purgatory he was poking fun at Hell’s work or making inane, random comments about food.

Hell realized, also, that she was usually chatting with him. Musing about the ballroom and laughing at her violence and agreeing that pizza was good no matter if it was chain restaurant crap or a luxury meal.

This went directly against her promise.

Which was problematic.

Hell had never considered that in making a promise to one boy in her life she could harm her relationship with the other boy in her life.

And for Hell, someone who had very few people in her life, severing ties was the last thing she wanted to do.

It was hard, weighing the promise of this new relationship with the steadfast sureness of her life with Styx. Hell had never considered having anything more than her friendship with Styx, but she was a beggar who was starving for affection who had been offered an invitation to a feast. She wasn’t stupid enough to refuse it, even if she was afraid of accepting it.

Everything was too new, too complicated to deal with. Hell felt herself channeling her frustration into her disposal of the souls around her. She let herself get into fights that weren’t necessary and drew them out longer than was her style. But every time a soul vanished through a crack in a wall, Styx would talk about it, so she put that off as long as possible.

But in protecting herself from one way of breaking her promise, she was again breaking the promise. The longer she toiled with the souls, the longer she was in the ballroom.

It wasn’t a surprise when she realized that she was avoiding dealing with Heaven as much as she was dealing with Styx. They were two sides of the same coin. The same problem, no answer.

With every blow Hell delivered and received, she felt as if she were waking from a dream, as if a haze were falling from her mind. Whatever last night with Heaven was—whatever this morning was—it didn’t work. At all. It wasn’t worth the confusion in Hell’s heart. It wasn’t worth breaking promises to keep others.

Hell was loyal to herself first. Save yourself first. Then deal with the rest of the world. You can’t do that if you aren’t alive.

That she could count Styx as someone she trusted enough to save him as well was something that never sat well with her. She never meant for him to enter that tight circle around her heart, but it happened, years ago, between the jokes and the shared duties. They were as close as siblings and closer. She’d never had to consider what that meant.

That Heaven had knocked on that circle around her heart and was loitering around the entrance was something Hell could not fathom and that she wanted to be rid of as much as she wanted to open the door, just to have one more person inside.

Hell delivered a roundhouse kick to the burly man in front of her, shoving him into her domain.

“What was he?” Styx asked, refusing to admit her stony silence.

Hell answered automatically. “Dirty cop.”

“You took your time with him.”

Hell glared. “He was putting up a fight.”

“And you were looking for one,” Styx muttered.

Hell pretended not to hear, looking for her next victim, afraid that Styx would be the next fight she’d find.

In between the next two souls, Hell’s mind wandered back to Heaven, plotting a trail that hadn’t existed a week ago.

Heaven wasn’t reliable. He hadn’t existed for Hell a week ago, and he had been gone for half of that. His obsession with the human world was more powerful than Hell’s hatred of the place.

How could anyone who liked to live invisible deal with the real world enough to be anything for Hell?

He said he wouldn’t vanish, but was he as loyal to his promises as Hell was to hers? She somehow doubted it, even if she wanted to believe it.

Enough of this. Hell slammed into a teenage boy reeking with the blackness of his soul, sending him headfirst into a portion of the wall that didn’t have a crack, then twisted him sideways, into a waiting opening. She got rid of three more souls before her brain could catch up. Adrenaline pulsed through her veins and her hands shook, looking for her thoughts next distraction.

Styx, watching Hell calmly, only asked, “Pancakes or waffles?”

Hell turned around to gape at the idiot. “Waffles,” she said, exasperated.

“Pancakes, waffles, or French toast?”

Hell glared. “We are not doing this right now.”

Styx shrugged, humming to himself as they both looked around the slimming crowd.

Hell’s fists clenched as the near silence drew on. “French toast,” she said, her jaw tight.

Styx smiled to himself but otherwise ignored Hell.

When Hell returned to the remaining souls in the room, it was with a cooler head, most of her blood lust gone, replaced with an itching need to confront Heaven.

What she would say, Hell didn’t know.

Hell and Styx #17: Distracted

I know it’s been a while, but here is Hell and Styx #17!

This one picks up where H+S #16 left off, after Hell and Heaven went to the human world. By now this plot line is really long, and I don’t want to repost all the links, so you can link to the rest of it from H+S #16 or from the Hell and Styx page.

Hell and Styx #17: Distracted

Styx woke up the next morning to find that the kitchen was back.

Purgatory couldn’t seem to decide if the gatekeepers needed a kitchen, making it appear and disappear at random. They rarely cooked, when meals could be produced by a simple thought; it was a luxury to have enough time to conjure specific ingredients and then manually combine them. It was more the presence of a shared, neutral room, not either of their bedrooms, that the kitchen seemed to symbolize.

Styx found the door at the lowest flight of stairs before the ballroom, leaning open halfheartedly. A prickling sensation crawled up his spine. Hell never did anything halfhearted unless she was extremely distracted. Doors were either wide open or closed. There was no in between.

But today there was, and Styx, who had noticed a distinct souring of Hell’s moods since Heaven up and left four days back, proceeded with caution, peering into the kitchen, wondering if he should abandon the whole endeavor and skip breakfast.

The thought of dealing Hell, after she had had a few gruesome deaths in her to add to her bad mood, dispelled that notion. Now was the best time to find out what was wrong, before it got any worse.

He steeled himself and entered the kitchen.

He stared for a moment at the scene before him, and then jerked back into the entranceway.

There wasn’t anything wrong. Not unless Hell disliked making out with Heaven, which it really didn’t appear she did.

Styx crept back in and stared at his best friend pushed up against a cabinet, wondering if he felt more like cursing or applauding. He’d seen this coming, of course. Since Heaven left, but really, since he showed up.

Hell meets Heaven—how could this not be the end result?

Styx backed away quietly, suddenly without any desire to eat. Finishing the descent into purgatory proper, Styx wondered if he would mind if Hell had to deal with a few murders’ murders today.

* * *

Hell would have given everything she had to keep every bad person on earth there one day longer. But the voices were already encroaching, whispering, like static from a radio turned all the way down. Purgatory used to leave her alone longer, but it had grown impatient in its old age. Having not dealt with any souls since before meeting Heaven last night, it had been half a day since she had dealt with any of the dead. Hell didn’t have to focus to feel how cramped the ballroom below was growing.

“I—I have to go,” she said, when the voices were louder than the pleasure of kissing and being kissed by Heaven.

Heaven leaned back to watch her face. “Is something wrong?”

“Just purgatory being chatty.” Hell pointed to her head and tried to laugh off her disquiet.

“You’ve haven’t been away a day!”

“Yeah, well, tell the dead guys that,” Hell said, ducking out of Heaven’s grasp and heading toward the door.

“Do you want me to come?”

Hell shrugged, not wanting to turn him down, but not wanting him to watch her work. “I’m going to be really busy.”

“Getting that,” Heaven muttered.

“I’ll get it over with quickly. I won’t get distracted.” Hell couldn’t understand what compelled her to promise that.

“Thank you.”

Hell nodded in response. “Look—do you want me to tell Styx that you’re back?”

Heaven blinked. “Why wouldn’t you?”

Hell crossed her arms, leaning against the doorway, kicking the door out of the way with her foot so it slammed against the wall. “Are you staying?”

Heaven gaped at Hell. “You’re asking me that question?”

“Better safe than sorry.” Hell gave a wry smile, but Heaven could tell she didn’t find any of this funny.

“Of course I’m staying. What was last night? You think I’m just going to leave after that?”

“The kissing and falling off a building? You got your rush. Are you going to go back to pining over Lily-what’s-her-name? Is the guilt going to stain your angelic soul?” Hell’s voice was laced with sarcasm.

“I’m over Lilith. I wouldn’t be kissing you if I weren’t.”

“Can you stop obsessing over the human world?”

Heaven glared. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“I. Live. Here. I can’t up and leave whenever I want to spend time with you. I’ve been gone barley twelve hours and the powers that be are already calling me back. I need you here, if this is every going to be anything.”

Heaven hadn’t meant to get angry, but the next minute, he was. “I like the human world, though, Hell. You can’t ask me to never go back because of your petty issues with it.”

Hell snorted at petty issues. “Fine. Visit your precious world. But if purgatory decides to remove your room, I’m not appealing their decision.”

“I won’t obsess.”

“You’d better not.”

“I’m really happy where I am,” Heaven said, forcing Hell to make eye contact with him. “Really happy.”

Hell knew what he was saying, but didn’t want to deal with it while she was still burning on anger. “I have to go to work.”

* * *

Hell watched Styx gently guide a grandmother through a crack, forcing her smile away as he turned around.

“The kitchen’s back.”

Styx raised his eyebrows. “I noticed.”

“Heaven’s—also back.”

Styx noted the flush creeping up Hell’s neck. “Must have just missed him.”

Hell wanted to tell him that she’d been to the human world. He had been badgering her for years over her irrational hatred of the place, and he would be proud that anyone had managed to convince her to go.

What else he would feel at the news, Hell decided she didn’t want to learn this early in the morning.

“Gotta shut the voices up,” she said with a tight-lipped smile.

Styx watched her weave her way through the crowd, abruptly noticing how packed the room was, wondering how distracted Heaven had kept her that the voices were chattering away.