Lookout!

“This one’s a feather fern,” Andy gestured toward a snow encrusted mound with a single frond exposed. “The shape gives it away.”

Lacey knew it was actually a sword fern, but she let it slide. Andy could be such a bore. What her best friend saw in him, she’d never know.

Too bad Anne couldn’t be here right now. They had planned this hike a month ago. When Anne got called into work for an emergency, Lacey and Andy decided to go anyway. They promised to send a selfie from the fire lookout at the top. All three knew that this was probably the last chance this winter to hike their favorite trail before the snow was gone. After that it would be clogged with tourists.

The trail was mostly clear already, if a little muddy. It was a beautiful day for a hike, though, even if the conversation wasn’t spectacular.

They rounded the final bend to see the tower dead ahead. Andy led the way up the final mound of boulders and into the historic building.

The sweeping view from the observation deck always took Lacey’s breath away. A thump and Andy’s voice pulled her attention back.

“I have something to ask you,” he said as Lacey glanced down at him.

He must have dropped something, she thought. What a klutz.

Just as she was about to return her attention to the valley below, Lacey noticed Andy fumbling with a tiny, hinged, box. It finally popped opened and he thrust it toward her, the diamond catching and refracting the late morning light.

Lacey’s jaw fell as her mind raced. Look at that diamond! He’s boring, but he must be loaded. Anne would never forgive her.

Andy spoke again before she could collect herself.

“Do you think she’ll like it?”

Missing

Renée stood on the warm side of the sliding glass doors, holding her favorite mug. Scents of cinnamon and clove mingled with orange warmed her from within even though the tea was still too hot to drink. Scanning the fenced backyard, her gaze came to rest on the open gate.

Stepping into snow boots, she quietly muttered, “Where’s Willy now?” She set down the tea and instantly forgot about it as she lifted her down parka from the coat rack and slid it over her bathrobe.

She knew he couldn’t have gone far, not in these freezing temperatures. She was grateful that they didn’t still live in Amarillo, where by this time the crust on the lingering snow would have prevented any tracks. Instead, delicate layers of flakes had captured each of his tiny footprints. Renée followed them across the yard, through the open gate, and towards the woods.

Fortunately for Renee, these were not the deep, dark, woods that one reads about in horror stories. However, like all undeveloped areas, there were some local legends of extraterrestrial activity explaining the oddly precise triangular clearings found deep within, far from any roads. It was an interesting hypothesis, but not one that Renee put much stock in.

These tall pines, with their sparsely grown, high branches, allowed plenty of soft morning light to filter through onto the path. While they had captured some of the snow, a light dusting remained. Just enough for Renee to spot an occasional footprint to follow.

“Willy? Willy!”

The woods responded with complete silence. In other circumstances Renee would have found it peaceful, relaxing even. After all, this is what she moved out here for. It had seemed like such a safe, quiet place for her and Willy.

Renee’s mind began to work through scenarios, all of them horrible, as she followed Willy’s trail. She wasn’t very familiar with this area yet, she hadn’t even really finished unpacking, much less explored the woods in any depth. She had been here with Willy just once. They had followed the path down to a creek and splashed in the water for a bit. This was right after they moved in, just before the weather turned.

She rushed along that path again now, hoping to find Willy safe and sound at the edge of the creek. Gruesome images swirled through her head, though. Were there wild animals out here? There had to be. Little Willy would be no match for a hungry tiger or bear. Could he drown in the creek? It was almost certainly frozen over, but would the ice be thick enough to hold him? She just didn’t know.

Underneath the chaos of catastrophic thoughts, Renee was burdened with the knowledge that if she hadn’t stepped away from the window to selfishly make herself a cup of tea, Willy would still be in the yard enjoying the snow. If she was honest with herself, she would acknowledge that she should have been out there playing with him instead of cozy inside.

With growing apprehension, Renee began to wonder if this was even the same path. It seemed twice as long and half as wide as she remembered it. Plus, it felt much more sinister than last time she was here. Other than her frequent, calls, the woods remained silent.

Her unanswered calls to Willy were cut short as she caught her toe on a root and sprawled face first onto the snow dusted dirt. A rush of air escaped her upon landing and the impact shook her out of her thoughts. Closing her eyes for a moment to collect herself and take stock of the damage, Renee felt dread rushing back.

She hadn’t realized she was crying until she felt Willy’s sandy tongue licking her grimy tears.

“Willy!” Relief flooded in as Renee pulled herself to her knees, scooping up the shivering Chihuahua and hugging him to her chest. “Thank God you’re alright!”

Renee planted a big kiss on his snout before tucking him inside her jacket and heading back to the house. There would be no more unsupervised playtime until she had a chance to check out that latch on the gate.

Back at home, Renee was delighted to find her tea still warm. She sipped it, snuggled in her favorite chair, with Willy curled on her lap. As she daydreamed of the future, so did Willy.

He had thought this was a pretty dull place until this morning. He was playing in the snow when a person-like thing with no smell floated out from the woods and opened the gate for him. They had played in the woods for a bit until his human had interrupted them. That’s okay for now, though. Willy knew he would be seeing a lot more of his cool new friend.

Troubled Times

“Go Fish!” Yelled Samantha.

Jessica glanced through the kitchen doorway to see her little girl on the rug in front of the fire, alone, propped up on her elbows. Cards were fanned neatly between her hands.

“Samantha, dear, the cinnamon rolls will be ready soon. Would you like some hot cocoa, too?” Jessica asked, picking bits of dough from her serrated knife as she watched.

“Not now, thanks. I’m winning.”

The poor girl was so thin already, Jessica worried she would waste away completely. Now she was delusional, too. All Jessica could think about was that she already had enough problems.

She returned to the kitchen and slid the pan of plump, sugary, pinwheels into the oven. These are just like my year, she thought, so full of sugar coated promises on the outside, then a downward spiral to nothing but crumbs and bloated remorse.

Earlier this year, she and Kris had hatched an idea to partner with Amazon when they realized they couldn’t compete. If you can’t beat’em, join’em, right? Wrong. Once they closed the shop and laid off the elves, they realized that there just wasn’t enough delivery business left to keep them afloat. Between Uber and Lyft, that market was saturated.

Now the reindeer were starving and they were down to the last child, one that would barely make a meal, at that. And where the hell was Kris, anyway?

Just then, Kris breezed in humming a Christmas tune. He pecked Jessica on the cheek while making a show of sniffing the air.

“Smells delicious!”

Jessica blushed and batted her eyes, irritation dissolving away. She could never stay mad when Kris was around.

“Why don’t you take Samantha out and feed the reindeer, while I finish up these rolls?”

“A fine idea!” he said, with a wink.

Author’s Note:

I wrote this for a Flash Fiction contest using the prompt: fish, fire, knife. It’s almost halfway through December so I figured it was time to try to get into the Christmas spirit. Not sure I’ve quite got it yet, check back next Tuesday.

Perfection

I’ve always been a dancer. Movement is the only way I’ve found to feel truly free. Countless hours I’ve spent twirling in front of the mirror while the music plays. All that exists in those moments are focus and precision.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the whole production of it, too. The pointy satin shoes, layers of soft tulle floating over my hips, each golden strand swept up into a tidy bun. I never tire of it.

And, of course, nothing feeds the soul so much as starry-eyed little girls watching intently as they imagine themselves being just like me someday. The only advice I can give them is to just believe in yourself. Nobody can take your dreams from you, you can only give them up willingly. Oh, and practice! That’s especially important.

There can be some long stretches between performances, but I don’t waste a single minute. Even when I’m not moving, I’m still dancing in my head. I gaze at nothing and allow the first memorized notes of Tchaikovshy to wash over me. In my imagination I rehearse my entire act, one graceful pirouette following another, just as though I were performing it physically. I do it again and again until the dance is burned into my brain, body, and soul. I can’t allow complacency or I run the risk of being unprepared for my adoring audience.

I shudder to think of how humiliating it would be to hear the key wind, (click, click, click) and not be prepared to spring into action when lid pops open, the light turns on, and the music fills the air. That would never do. I would die of shame right there on the stage.

This is why I practice all the time. I must stay on my toes.

Author’s Note:

This was written for a contest entry using the prompt words: wind, believe, act. I noticed immediately that the first word has three very different meanings. I decided to take the path less traveled. Sure enough, all of the other contestants used the weather related meaning. Yes, I read my competition. You should, too.

The Right Thing to Do

This has to be the place, Kathy thought, staring at the wisp of light escaping into the dark near the front door. Nothing else out here except the highway.

The dome light became a beacon in the darkness as she opened the driver’s door and got out. Reaching into the backseat for her bag and the casserole dish, a chill crept up her spine.

She was arms-length away from the front door when it swung open, revealing the warm glow of candlelight and Greg’s smiling face.

“Kathy, what a surprise! Please come in. What brings you all the way out here?”

Kathy followed him into the cozily furnished old farmhouse,”Well, it isn’t like you to miss church. We were worried. I know you don’t get cell service out here so dad sent me to visit and make sure you were okay. And mom sent a casserole, of course. Where shall I put it?”

“Here, let me take that,” he said as Kathy handed him the heavy dish. “Your mom’s so thoughtful. You guys didn’t need to go to all this trouble for me,” he said, moving into the kitchen and sliding it into the mostly empty fridge.

“Would you like some coffee? Tea?” Greg offered, turning on the electric kettle without waiting for an answer.

“I can’t stay long,” she said, “but a cup of tea would be nice.” Greg seemed uncomfortable and Kathy chalked it up to the unexpected visit. He probably didn’t get much chance to entertain way out here. Then again, maybe it was something else. He hadn’t explained his absence yet.

“We missed you at church,” she prompted.

“I wish I could have been there.” Tendrils of steam gently wafted from the mugs Greg set on the table as he slid into a chair. ”I was feeling under the weather and I didn’t want to spread my germs around. I’m doing better now.”

“Good to hear,” said Kathy. They sipped their tea in silence. She knew Greg shared her values, since he was a longstanding member of her dad’s flock. Other than that, she didn’t really know anything about him. Kathy was glad when her cup was empty and she could leave.

“Thank your mom for the casserole for me and thanks again for checking on me,” Greg called from the doorway as she returned to her car.

“No problem. It was the right thing to do.”

Pulling back onto the highway, Kathy thought, Greg’s a decent guy, but he seemed off somehow. She couldn’t put her finger on exactly what was wrong, it was just a feeling. It will be nice to get back to the city. This country air smells an awful lot like B.O. If this is what cows smell like, then you can keep them! The odor seemed to be getting worse, not better, as she drove.

There was no traffic on this stretch of highway, but she checked her mirrors out of habit. Nothing to note except her bag in the back seat. Her eyes returned to the road. Her peripheral vision picked up her bag on the seat next to her. Kathy did a double take, then checked the mirror again. If that wasn’t her bag, then what was it?

She couldn’t keep staring at it or she would drive herself into one of the deep ditches bordering the highway. She would have to pull over. But where? At the next driveway, she told herself, I’ll slam on the brakes, jump from the car, and pull open the back door. A high school track star, she thought she had a decent chance of out-pacing whatever was back there.

Spotting a turnout ahead, Kathy put her plan into action.

In a flash, she had the back door open. The dome light converted her fear into curiosity. Staring up at her from the floorboard was a filthy, terrified man. His wrists were bound with stained twine and he offered them to her in supplication.

“Please, help me.” The words came out as though speaking was a new skill for him. Immediately, he dissolved into tears, head on the floor, bony spine shaking as sobs racked his body.

Kathy stepped back, taking in the situation. The man wasn’t well, that was obvious. She couldn’t leave him on the side of this little used highway, in the dark. If nothing else, the coyotes would kill him. She couldn’t trust him either, though. She didn’t know anything about him. She gave him a minute to collect himself as she tried to come up with a plan.

“I have some bottled water in the trunk. If you can sit up, why don’t you have a seat instead of crouching on the floorboards and I’ll be right back.” She patted her pocket to make sure she hadn’t left the keys in the car, then went around back.

She returned a minute later with a bottle of water and a tie down strap. They looked at each other, then she explained. “I want to hear your story, but until that happens I need to know that you won’t attack me while I’m driving. Have your drink and then we’ll use this to bind your arms under the seat belt. It’s the best I can do. If you don’t like it you can get out here.”

He guzzled the water, then said, ”I understand,” and turned his back to Kathy so she could tie his arms down. She felt more than a little uncomfortable leaning in to fasten the seat belt around him, but he didn’t resist.

Returning to the road, she said, ”So, Hi. I’m Kathy. Who are you and what are you doing in my car?”

“I’m Daniel,” he began, hesitantly. Daniel found his voice quickly and spent the rest of the drive into town telling his wild and crazy tale. His car had broken down several days ago, in the middle of nowhere. He had come across Greg’s house and knocked on the door to see if he could use a phone. Greg invited him in, but explained that he didn’t have a landline and, as Daniel already knew, there was no cell service out there.

Greg offered Daniel a cup of coffee, a bed for the night, and a ride into town in the morning. At that point Daniel didn’t have any other options. Over coffee, he had shared that he was on his way to the coast to see the ocean and make a fresh start. He had no family left, so he could go wherever he wanted. Greg seemed friendly and interested, asking questions.

Daniel woke up on a mattress in the basement, tied up, with no idea how he had gotten there. Each day, he had been given a peanut butter sandwich and a plastic cup of water. No explanation, no conversation, nothing. It made no sense. He immediately began planning his escape.

He discovered that one of the tiny window frames near the ceiling had rotted through, but he was afraid of making too much noise taking it out and plus he had nowhere to go. When Daniel heard Kathy arrive he knew it might be his only hope, so he took the chance at being heard. He pried out the window and squeezed through the gap. Then he sneaked over to her car, overjoyed to find it unlocked.

“That’s a lot to take in,” Kathy said when he had finished. “I imagine you’ll want to go to the police with this, but I think you should clean up first. Maybe have a hot meal and a good night’s sleep. Besides, the station will be closed at this hour. Are you hurt?”

Daniel sobbed again, speechless. He shook his head no. “I’m just so grateful you came along. Who knows what might have happened to me.”

Kathy pulled to a stop in front of a small church. “You’ll be safe with us,” Kathy said, unbuckling Daniel and helping him out of the car. She led him toward the parsonage next door as she explained, “My father, Ken, leads the congregation here.”

She led Daniel into a small room just inside the doorway and asked him to give her a minute to explain the situation to her parents. Daniel was still in shock. He was exhausted and hungry. He was so overwhelmed with relief, he couldn’t think. He just sat on the edge of the small bed and thought about how grateful he was to Kathy, his rescuer. When this was all over, he would take her out to the nicest restaurant in town. Daniel fell asleep dreaming of the menu, having never even noticed that there was no doorknob.

I knew Greg must be up to something, thought Kathy. She told her parents what Daniel had told her. “I put him in the guest room. He’s still tied up. He’s a wreck.”

“We’re just glad you’re not hurt. You did the right thing in bringing him here, Kathy. Your mom will see that he’s well taken care of. Meanwhile, you and I have some matters to discuss with Greg,” said Ken, grabbing his jacket and car keys.

Father and daughter listened to the oldies channel on the way back to Greg’s place. It was a reminder of simpler times.

“Dad, I’m sure Greg will have discovered that Daniel is missing by the time we get there.”

“Don’t jump to conclusions, honey. You listened to Daniel with an open mind, now it’s Greg’s opportunity to explain. Once we have all the information, then we can make the right decision.” Said Ken. “If Daniel’s tale is true, Greg will be held accountable. He’s a trusted member of the flock and I will allow him to explain before passing judgment.”

It was quite late when they arrived, but Greg seemed to be waiting for them. They filed into the living room and took seats on worn, but well cared for, sofas.

“Greg, Kathy found a man in her car tonight who said you had been holding him prisoner,” began Ken.

Greg looked at the floor, wringing his hands. “I had no intention of putting Kathy in danger. You know my devotion to the church. I would never do anything to harm that,” He pleaded. “I was going to bring him to the church, I swear! I never intended to keep him for myself. The flock is like family. What is mine is ours. You know this.”

Kathy looked skeptical, “I was here for half an hour tonight and you never mentioned a guest. I could have helped make arrangements for more suitable transport than a surprise in my backseat.”

“Regardless,” said Kathy’s dad, ”What’s done is done and he’s where he belongs now. The only question that remains is what to do about you.”

“I didn’t handle it well, I’ll admit. I was caught off guard, though. Try to understand, when your prey walks right into your den of its own accord,” he paused, “well, the temptation is great. Perhaps I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

“I understand,” said Ken. “Thank you for speaking with us tonight. I think we have all the information we need to proceed.”

Kathy hummed along to The Mamas and The Papas while Ken drove them home. Greg tried to keep the beat with his drumming, but he wasn’t doing very well. Kathy couldn’t hold it against him. He probably couldn’t hear very well way back in the trunk. Greg had been a bad, bad, boy, and he would be held accountable for his actions. Nobody holds out on the church.

Suitable human sacrifices were very rare to come by. Kathy had only participated in a few such ceremonies in her whole life. Now they would offer up two. This had turned into a very exciting evening.

Author’s Note:

This was a contest entry for Sinister Short Stories. The prompt was “you are driving along a country road and discover a man you don’t know hiding in the back seat.”

It isn’t a very Thanksgiving themed story, sorry about that. I’m busy working on NaNoWriMo all month and didn’t write a new one for you. I though you might enjoy this holdover from my October horror experiment.

12/5/17 Update: It won first place in the contest!

Poppy Day

Was that a nut?

Bradley spit the half chewed breakfast cookie into the remains of his lukewarm coffee. That had to be a nut. Incompetent fools were going to kill him with stupidity! There’s a reason he ordered the cookie with NO NUTS.

He didn’t feel his throat closing up and he didn’t feel itchy, so that was good. Must not have been a tree nut. Calming a little, he scanned the cluttered desktop and found an old envelope to wipe his mouth with. Picking it up, his eyes widened and his spine straightened as he saw what lay under it.

How in the hell did that stupid flower get there?

He thought back to the old hag on the sidewalk this morning. She had jumped right in front of him with a red paper flower. He’d been checking his phone on his way from the bus stop to the office and almost ran her over. He half wished he had. She was muttering something about money for dead people, but he wasn’t really interested.

“Dead people don’t need money.” He had brushed past, laughing at her stupid scam.

Now Bradley’s gag reflex sprung into action as his tongue discovered a tooth sized hole. It wasn’t a nut after all. The next tooth was loose, too. He’d have to call a dentist.

He picked up the ugly flower and tossed it in the wastebasket, only to realize that it was stuck to his finger.

A movie real of images flooded his mind:

Dashing young man in uniform.

Crying little girl at graveside.

Teen playing with a Ouija board.

Pentagram around an old woman.

Bradley’s teeth began to loosen and fall faster than he could spit them out. The hag! She had cursed him!

Maybe dead people really do need money.

The Ties That Bind Us

Zoe felt responsible, and this time it wasn’t just her ingrained catholic guilt. William had been the most straight laced person she knew until she corrupted him. He never would have done it that first time if it hadn’t been for her goading. Now she longed to take it all back.

When William had said he’d do anything for her, she should have told him to stop and think about that first. Instead, she had him prove it with the edgiest taboo she could imagine.

What’s done is done, though, and you can only continue to trudge through the messes you’ve made for yourself.

Now here they were, William and Zoe, in this filthy alley, approaching a seedy, nameless shop. How did William even know about this place?

Stepping through the doorway, Zoe filled with dread, William with anticipation, they were greeted with the smell of marijuana. William wasted no time in tracing it to its source, a greasy, shirtless, long haired dude smoking a joint on a tattered couch. Muscles rippled under densely packed tattoos.

Zoe found a stool in the corner and worked on being invisible while William negotiated the trade of cold hard cash for his new obsession.

She watched his face as the needle entered William’s scarred arm, the initial sting quickly resolving into an expression of pleasure. She couldn’t watch, but she couldn’t not watch. It was both gruesome and fascinating all at once.

Later, she led him glassy eyed from the shop. If only there were some way to make him stop this craziness. It was all because of her. Zoe’s shoulders slumped under the burden she carried. She had ruined William and she would look after him until the bitter end.

Meanwhile, William admired his newest tattoo, the largest one yet of Zoe.

Author’s Note:

This flash piece was written for a contest and it won first place! The prompt was to use the words sting, trade, and stop.

Haunted

Marty knew they were testing him. He was the new kid. He’d lived in town his whole life, but he had gone to Mountain Heights Elementary while most of the other kids had attended Lincoln Elementary. Now they were all together at Montgomery Middle School.

Brian and Nate had let Marty hang out with them at lunch right from the beginning, but the relationship was still new and he didn’t want to jeopardize it over something so stupid.

When Nate and Brian started talking about the haunted house, Marty was silent.

“You’re not scared of a haunted house, are you Marty?” taunted Brian.

“No, guys. We’re just a little too old for ghost stories. It’s just an old house.” His reserved tone told them otherwise.

“Just an old haunted house,” Nate added.

“It’s not haunted.” Marty didn’t sound like he believed it.

“No?” said Brian, ”I dare you to go in there.”

Marty knew he was screwed.

That’s how they ended up in front of the house at sundown on the Tuesday before Halloween. They stood on the corner of 13th and Switch and proclaimed it creepy as ever. Ancient trees loomed over the derelict structure, set back from the road just enough to leave most of it to the imagination.

“You guys coming?” Marty asked, heading for the front door.

Brian and Nate exchanged a look of surprise, then followed Marty as he strode up the porch steps and pushed open the door.

Nate and Brian hesitated at the threshold, watching Marty fade into the darkness of the living room. Their bladders shrunk when a specter glided toward Marty and a wavering voice called out, “Mmmaaaaarrrty.”

The last thing both boys heard as they ran screaming from the porch was Marty’s cheerful voice.

“Hi, Grandma. I brought some friends.”

“But, mom”

“I’m eleven now,” Buffy reasoned, “I’m old enough to go by myself. It isn’t even really dark out yet.”

“Fine. You can go as far as the fire station, but that’s it. And I want you back in an hour.”

“Thanks mom!”

“Have fun, sweetie. But be careful!”

Her warning was lost as the door slammed shut behind Buffy.

She decided to head out first and collect candy on the way back. Buffy was well past the fire station when she noticed it was full dark. She wasn’t familiar with this neighborhood, but they were sure to give better candy than hers did.

She picked out a house, but only took a few steps before she saw a trio of vampires coming down the walk. Buffy’s skin crawled and she stepped behind a nearby hedge. She didn’t understand why she was so scared.

They passed in front of her, talking among themselves. She hoped she was hidden well enough despite her sparkly princess dress. Bloody mouths and dark eyes made those boys look super creepy.

After they passed, she waited for her pulse to return to normal. She took one more deep breath, then doubt crept in.

What if they did see me and are just hiding around the corner? No, that’s silly. Plus, mom will start worrying soon. I’ll just do one house, then head home.

She emerged from the bushes and headed up the walk.

“Trick or treat!” followed by, “Thank you!”

She breathed a sigh of relief as she reached the sidewalk again and turned to go home.

Then she saw the vampires and finally realized what was wrong with them. Their feet weren’t touching the ground. In a flash, they were upon her.

This Halloween she was a princess, next Halloween she’d be a vampire.

College Girls

Disembodied voices carried through the dense fog. The campus was deserted.

“This seems really risky,” said Tammy, “I could lose my scholarship if we’re caught.”

“We won’t be caught,” Amber assured her. “Besides, college life is more than just studying and that’s all we’ve been doing. Tonight I want to feel alive.”

When Bryce had approached Amber and asked if she wanted to bring a little something to a private party, her heart went into overdrive. A chance at Bryce would be a dream come true. His family name was on the botany lab where she spent her days.

Their forms gradually materialized as the fog thinned near the old maintenance shack. Tammy reached for the door handle.

Just then, a deep voice called, “STOP! Consider this your warning.”

Muffled laughter seeped through the thin door.

“Bryce, don’t be a dick,” said Colin, opening the door.

“Come on in, Ladies. Have a seat. Could I interest you in a fine beverage?” he asked, detaching the last two cans from a six pack as they entered.

Tammy accepted for both of them while Amber rummaged in her bag.

Amber lit the first joint and passed it to Bryce.

“I knew you’d come though. Is this your special blend?” He asked, taking a hit.

“You know it,” said Amber, before lighting another and passing it to Tammy. “Time to get this party started.”

As Colin took the joint from Bryce, the young men lustily appraised their guests, imagining the pleasures to come.

Amber met Tammy’s eyes, seeing nervous anticipation reflected back. Nobody knew they were here.

Bryce fell heavily onto the rotting floorboards, followed immediately by Colin. The fear in their eyes was apparent, despite the paralysis.

Setting down their barely touched beers, Tammy and Amber approached their victims. Then they feasted.