Cover Spoiler!

Don’t Fear the Reaper

“Please look at me,” she pleaded. “I promise I’ll do things differently this time.”

Death looked at Lavinia and frowned. He shook his massive head and looked again toward the west. He raised his arm and pointed west. It was time to go.

“What about a last request? Don’t I get one?”

Somewhere beneath the hooded cloak, the darkness gave the expression of exasperation. He shook his head and looked west again.

“Why are you being so stubborn?” she asked. Tears were falling freely down her cheeks now. She was too young; she was only sixteen.

She looked to the west and shuddered. So this is it? This is really the end.

“I was a good person,” she began, “where am I going to go?”

Death dropped his arm and looked down at her. Had he a face, it would have been filled with sympathy. It may not have been right, but it was time. Slowly, he extended his left hand to the west and held out his right. It was a rare display, but it felt right.

Lavinia looked down at it and trembled. Hesitation overtook her for what felt like hours but was only an instant. She took his hand and swallowed.

Death gave her small mortal hand an almost imperceptible squeeze; just the barest reassurance. He led the way, and she followed.

Locked and Lost, Part Two

This is part two of another story. To read part one, please click here.

Temperance looked down at her half-eaten sandwich. It was tasty, but she was done. She looked over at Chastity and Kindness. They were giving Humility another pep talk. She smiled.

“Where shall we head next?” Charity asked as she signed the credit slip. Diligence was stacking up the dishes for the busser.

Forgiveness was about to suggest an AA meeting to help with step five when the bell above the door chimed. Seven virtuous faces turned and blanched at the sight of the seven matching sinful faces.

“Well, well, well,” Lust purred. “Chastity, you look unwell.”

Chasity pursed his lips and screwed up his brow. There were a dozen things that only she would say that he wanted to. Pride picked an invisible piece of lint off his suit and placed it on Humility’s shirt.

Wrath squared up against Forgiveness. She smiled as she threw the first punch. Six gasps punctuated the sound of Forgiveness’ nose breaking.

“Hey, take it outside,” the tired waitress said. This was the thirteenth brawl she’d dealt with this month and she was tired.

The fight was fast and frenzied. Even Sloth seemed willing to fight. He didn’t, and Diligence almost got the better of him before Wrath stepped in, but he actually thought about it.

In reality, Wrath did most of the work. She was like an old Norse Berserker, imbued with the spirit and powers of a bear- biting and rending flesh as she went.

Panting and blood-spattered, except for Pride somehow, they went back into the diner. The waitress took their order like she would any other patron. It was a little early for the brawlers, but it was slow and she needed to turn the tables to make rent.

“So,” Envy began. “Now what?”

“Anything you like!” Lust purred. “We are free of the good influence and the world is our playground!”

Locked and Lost, Part 1

Lust looked to Envy and smirked. They were so over their head on this one. Lust reapplied her red matte lipstick while maintaining eye contact with the green one. She quirked her brows as she capped the bullet tube and tucked it away in her purse.

“I hate you,” Envy said. His arms were crossed over his chest and he was very carefully not looking at her. “Sometimes, I really hate dealing with you.”

“It’s because I’m gorgeous!”

Envy didn’t try to argue, he just huffed and looked across the street. There was a happy family bopping along together; it was disgusting. He had nothing and here they were, out in broad daylight, happily flaunting their bliss. It was wrong.

Wrath grunted at Envy. It was her monosyllabic way of asking if they needed killing. Envy just waved her off. She bit back on the urge to backhand him for his flippant gesture.

“So, why did you bring us all here?” Pride asked. He was tall and sharply dressed in a new silk suit. He adjusted his tie and tried to look bored by it all while still looking down on Sloth and Gluttony.

They were hand-in-hand sitting on the sidewalk. Sloth was wearing the dirty clothes he’d slept in and Gluttony was scarfing down something that smelled like gas station nachos, but where so covered in other things it was hard to tell.

Lust smiled and blew a kiss to the sailor as he passed by them on the sidewalk; Greed swiped his watch while he was distracted.

“The answer to all of our questions is inside,” She looked in the window. There were seven people, the fun-house mirror reflections of them, gathered inside the diner. “It took a lot of finesse to find them, but I did.” She said finesse like it was a saucier dirtier word than it needed to be.

“What are you thinking, Lust?” Pride asked. He had a plan forming in his head already, but he wanted to hear her’s first so that he could one-up her.

She smiled. “I’m proposing something that will make all of our jobs so much easier.” She licked her lips and winked at a passerby. Envy scowled. “If they were to…disappear…then there would be no ‘good’ influence for us to contend with.”

Sloth was so shocked, he almost got to his feet, and Gluttony stopped mid-bite. Wrath smiled, revealing too-sharp teeth. Envy looked intrigued.

“Damn,” Pride said. Her idea was better than his. “I’ll be damned.”

“And, so will we all, but not for a long time.” Lust said. She sauntered to the door of the diner and opened the door and slipped inside.

Coffee Break

Barista served take away hot coffee cup to customer at counter bar in cafe restaurant,coffee shop business owner concept,Service mind waitress

Mara was swamped. The line was out the door and growing. It was also her first day as a barista.

“I can get the next customer,” she called over the hissing of the steamer.

“Good morning!” said a woman stepping up to the counter. She was tall, over six feet, and her willowy frame made her look just a little like a pale stick insect. As she tucked a strand of hair back, Mara thought her ears looked a little pointy.

Probably some kind of cosplay.

“Hi! What can I get you?” Mara’s hand was poised over the register, hovering, twitching to get the order started.

“I’d like 10 double shots, please,” the woman’s teeth seemed just a little pointy, too. “Oh, and lots of sugar!”

Mara’s hand faltered.

“That’s 20 shots,” she said.

“Uh-huh!”

“That will kill you!”

“I don’t think so.” The other-worldly woman said brightly. “It’s my usual.”

“Your usual? Is this a joke?”

“Nope.” As she spoke, there was something wicked behind her eyes. “You can ask your supervisor if you like.”

Mara turned slowly to her trainer. Mellissa was finishing up the drink she was working on; without looking she reached for the sticker printer to make the next drink.

“Hey, Mel?”

“Yeah?” Mellissa took to quick strides over to the register. “What’d you break?”

“N-nothing,” Mara stammered. “I just don’t know if I can make this order.”

“Why?” Mellissa looked up at the customer and smiled. “Oh, hi, Titania! Usual?”

The strange woman, Titania, nodded and smiled at Mara.

“Yeah, this one is different,” Mellissa said. “The system won’t let us key it in, so we just scan this barcode. It’s the same price. The sticker printer spits out a blank sticker- then we just make it.”

Mara did as she was told, and took Titania’s money.

“We’ve got a line this morning, and your drink always takes a while,” Mellissa said. “Can I make yours last?”

“No worries, I’ll wait.”

Mellissa nodded and patted Mara on the shoulder.

“You’re doing great, kid,” she whispered.

Mara cleared the line and stepped in next to Mellissa to start making drinks. It was midmorning, and even the drive-thru was slowing down. It was quick work with the two of them both making drinks.

“Here you go, Titania,” Mellissa said. “Thanks for your patience.”

In answer, Titania just smiled. She locked eyes with Mara as she put the 30-ounce cup to her lips and started chugging. The shots were cooling, but still hot. Mara watched in horror as she downed the deadly drink.

When she finished, Titania smiled at Mara and quirked her brows, smiling.

“Until next time, mortal,” Titania said on her way out. When she reached the door, she turned and looked at Mara. “What was your name?”

Mellissa stepped in swiftly. In her hand was the branch with little red berries that Mara had seen on a shelf behind the register.

“You know we can’t do that, Titania.” Mellissa’s voice was stern and she held the branch out like a sword.

Titania recoiled from it but smiled.

“It never hurts to ask.” She waved and left.

“And that,” Mellissa said gesturing to the door. “Is why I told you not to tell me your real name. You can’t trust their kind.”

“I don’t understand.” Mara looked down at her name tag. It said, Dave.

“You know my name isn’t Mellissa, and no I won’t tell you what it is.” She took a deep breath. “If she learns your name, she can control you- make you do things against your will.”

Mara’s mouth popped open in sudden realization.

“You mean-“

“Yeah, that’s the Fairy Queen.” Mellissa looked over at Mara. “Just scan the barcode and keep the line moving and you’ll be okay.”

Meander

Hawthorne walked around the empty mall aimlessly. He wasn’t supposed to be there. No one was.

The shops had long since been abandoned; a few of them boasted bits and bobs still littering the scant shelves. It reminded him of an old pop song lyric, “just to prove that we were here…”

He shook his head and his sleeping bag when he found the right spot. This was so not worth twenty bucks.

But, a dare was a dare. Hawthorne had to prove his manhood, or whatever.

Gibby was full of bad ideas- this being chief among them. Last month, he dared another friend to surf a moving car down a residential street. Luka was fine, but he wet his pants when Gibby stopped suddenly before she got to the stop sign.

Gibby was the queen of the burnouts and loadies. She had the best shit, and she was willing to share, provided you did what she dared you to. If you didn’t, no one would talk to you.

Hawthorne snuggled down into his sleeping bag and thought of Gibby and her haunting amber eyes. He imagined her cock-sure grin when she picked him up in the morning. She may even hug him.

After twenty minutes, he gave up on sleeping. There was too much nothing going on in here. He usually fell asleep to the ambient sounds of his mom’s apartment- the soft voices of the neighbors coming through the walls, the flick of his mom’s lighter as she smoked, the blare of the tv.

It was soothing to him, but here in the old mall, there was nothing.

Hawthorne sighed and got up. He left his sleeping bag where it was. He was near the exit that Gibby was picking him up at in the morning. He’d grab it on his way out.

Most of the security gates were down and locked in the empty stores. He tried each one as he passed, hoping for an open store. There wasn’t much to take, but that would make it all the sweeter when he found something.

Gibby would hug him for sure when she saw he was brave enough to swipe something while he was in here.

He didn’t hear the second set of footsteps following him up the dead escalator. He didn’t even think to look behind him when he got to the second floor.

His pursuer followed, quiet as death and twice as quick. When Hawthorne got to the old music store, the would-be stalker grabbed him around the waist.

He shrieked.

A grim smile split the follower’s face as he held Hawthorne tight. Wings unfurled from his back and soon they were flying out of the hole in the skylight. Hawthorne screamed the whole way up.

And, the whole way down when the creature dropped him. He only stopped screaming when he hit the tiled first floor.

Red eyes and black wings took off into the cool night.

Hawthorne twitched on the floor. He didn’t realize he had been bitten by the creature. The bite was probably the only reason he was still alive. His back crunched and shifted against his will and he screamed out again.

Gibby pulled her mom’s car into the parking and parked in front of a defunct department store. She honked her horn and lit a joint. Fifteen minutes came and went before she cut the engine and exited the vehicle.

Hawthorne was probably going to jump out and scare her. She knew it, she just knew it. Well, she’d let him scare her.

Then, she’d tell everyone how she found him sucking his thumb and still asleep when she went to pick him up. It was her word against his, and who would they believe?

Gibby tripped over Hawthorne’s sleeping bag as she made her way through the abandoned mall. Yeah, he was going to pop out at her. She rolled her eyes and steeled her nerves.

“Come out, wherever you are!” She called. She picked her way all over the first floor, winding and trying to pull up the security gates as she passed the stores. They were all locked tight against her prying.

She wandered aimlessly, hopping up on a kiosk just to see if it would hold her up. It did; she had a slight frame. When she had exhausted the first floor, she started to climb up a dead escalator to the second floor.

Like her erstwhile friend, she didn’t hear the footsteps behind her. When her pursuer grabbed her, though, she spun around in its clutches and sprayed mace all over the front of her attacker.

The creature, she didn’t know what else to call it, screamed and grabbed her tighter. It raked its teeth along her neck, getting the mace residue in the wound. It was her turn to scream.

Wings unfurled from the creature’s back and it carried her up and up into the early morning light before dropping her.

Hawthorne smiled as he listened to her screams until they stopped with a thud. He blinked his red eyes against the dawn and swooped back inside the mall.

A Sea of Silken Flowers

This is part two of the Embroidery story.

I watched Townsend make his way across the graveyard, delighting in the confusion blooming across his face. Absentmindedly, he touched each headstone as he passed; draped across each one was a small scrap of fabric painstakingly embroidered with a flower in silk thread.

I flinched when he saw me. I was still holding my basket of flowers, and for a moment I thought of running. He scowled and cut across the grey grass to me.

I froze. Not a good look for an assassin, let me tell you.

“What are you doing?”

“What do you think?” My voice was defensive, maybe more than it needed to be. I softened myself. “I’m just paying my respects.”

“To every new grave?” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Brock says you’re turning down jobs.”

“Only some of them.”

“Why? Is this about Larrissa?” He said my sister’s name like it was nothing; like she was nothing.

“Don’t you say her name!” I shoved him and he stumbled back a few steps. “Don’t you ever say her name!”

“What is this?”

“He told me I would save us from a civil war, that by doing my job I would save lives.”

Townsend looked confused.

“Look around! Does this look like I saved anyone?” I resisted the urge to let out a scream. “They built a new graveyard because the bodies were stacking up in the street!”

Townsend shrugged and opened his mouth to rebut, but the fierceness in my eyes stopped him cold. I shook my head and looked in my basket. There were still a dozen flowers to pass out.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t say that to me, say it to them,” I muttered as I laid another flower on a freshly turned grave. This one wasn’t marked yet. Perhaps it wouldn’t be.

“I don’t know what you want from me.”

“I want out!” I screamed. I imagined that windows opened so their owners could get a better view of the crazy woman screaming in a graveyard. “I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, and I’m done.”

“I don’t-“

“No women, no kids. That was the only rule I ever had.” I stomped back to him. “How many of these belong to women and kids? How many times has the water rippled and someone else gotten hurt even though I have my rule?”

“We can’t know that,” he protested.

“I know.” I pulled out my favorite dagger and plunged it into his breast, pumping it twice. “I quit.”

He crumpled to the cold, grey ground, his face was a mask of shock. I rooted around in my basket until I found his flower.

A black dahlia for death and betrayal.

Embroidery

Ouch! Damn it!

I stuck my finger in my mouth and sucked on it as I inspected the scrap of fabric in my hands. Good, there was no blood on it. I pulled my finger out of my mouth; it wasn’t bleeding either.

I took up my needle and pulled another satin stitch across the bleached muslin. Sometimes you just needed to stab something a few hundred dozen times to feel better.

“What are you doing?” asked a familiar voice.

“Hey, Brock,” is all I said in answer. I didn’t lift my eyes from my work.

“No, seriously, what are you doing?” he asked.

“What does it look like?” I didn’t even try to hide the annoyance from my voice. “I’m practicing the womanly art of embroidery.”

“You’re an assassin!”

“I like to sew.”

I swear I could feel him roll his eyes as he sat down across from me. Still, I didn’t look at him.

“You’re needed, standard wet work.”

“How much?”

“50% above the usual rate.”

I opened my mouth to say no, but he cut me off.

“That’s after my cut.”

“No women, no kids, right?”

“Never.”

I shrugged but set down my project. He handed me an envelope which I opened. I finally looked at him when I read the target. His face was bruised and I could tell it had been bloodied recently.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Nope, this is real, and it’ll happen with or without you.” He smiled but winced instead. “Either you take out the prince or an angry mob will and we’ll be plunged into civil war.”

“Who takes over after the overgrown brat?”

“Dunno, above my pay grade.”

“Fine.” I picked up my project and pulled another satin stitch across the taught fabric.

“What is it anyway?”

“A flower. It’s for my sister.”

“I thought she-“

“For her grave,” I corrected.

Brock nodded and left me alone in my room- my candle wavered when he shut the door. I waited until I heard his heavy footsteps thunder down the stairs before I allowed the tears to fall.

“You shall be avenged, dearheart,” I whispered when I was done with my work. “Soon.”

The prince was an easy target. Possibly too easy. I didn’t even have to rush while I washed the blood off of my hands. I was already in the graveyard when the alarm bells sounded across the still sleeping city.

I laid the embroidered forget-me-not down carefully across the top of the headstone. I crossed myself and made my way home. I sat down in front of my unlit fireplace and pulled out another fabric scrap.

I stretched it taught across the hoop and tightened the screw. The first stab is always the most satisfying. This one would be for the poor sap who would take the fall for the prince. His grave would be unmarked, but Brock would make sure I know where it was.

A white orchid on a white fabric scrap would be enough to help him reach the heavens.

My first pet

I got my first pet when I was seven. Or, rather, he got me. It was summer and school was out. I’m sure I was driving my mother batty because she sent me outside to play until dinner.

I remember it was hot and thinking about how it was the perfect kind of day to go down to the creek. I wasn’t supposed to swim in the creek, Mom said it was dangerous. I think that’s what made it fun.

I don’t know what kind of childhood you had, but for me, the only way to swim in the creek was to skinny dip. Mom would know what I had been up to if I came back in with wet clothes.

I stripped and made a running start for my classic cannonball.

As I pushed off the bottom of the creekbed, I felt something smooth give way beneath my feet. I surfaced and dove back under. It took a minute, and I was worried I might run out of air, but I found what I kicked open. I carried it up to the muddy bank.

In the bright light there was no mistaking what I’d found. It was an egg, a little bigger than a regulation football.

I ran my fingers over the surface gently. I hadn’t broken all the way through, but whatever was inside was now awake and ready to come out.

I think I must have thought it was a dinosaur egg, but the creature that broke free after it’s great struggle was no ancient lizard.

It was a dragon.

Green scales and a toothy grin of hooked fangs looked up at me. He opened his eyes and gazed up at me, and a name popped into my head.

Percival, like the knight.

As I whispered the name, he squeezed his eyes shut in silent understanding and pushed his head against my knee.

“Are you hungry?” I asked. He bashed against me again, and I scrambled to my feet and tugged on my pants. I reached into the front pocket and pulled out the sandwich my mom made me for lunch.

I took one half for myself and tossed the other to my new baby dragon. Percival snatched it out of the air and swallowed it in one bite.

On my walk home, I tried to rehearse what I would say to my mother. “You said I could have a pet, well, I got one! Mom, meet Percival!”

I was sure my confidence would sway her, but when I came up the walk, she just said. “No.”

“But, Mom, you said I could have a pet.”

“I meant a dog, not a baby dragon.” She turned to go back into the house. “Put him back where you found him and wash up for dinner.”

I walked Percival back down to the creek, but he wouldn’t stay. He followed me back to the house. When my dad came home, he asked why there was a dragon in the yard, and my mom shot me a death glare.

“He’s my new pet!” I piped up with no concern for my own safety.

“Ah, well, as long as he stays in the yard, I suppose,” my father said.

It wasn’t long before autumn came and with it the first cold snap.

“Robin, go and get Percival and bring him inside tonight,” my mom said as I was doing my homework. “It’s too cold out there tonight.”

“Can he sleep in my bed?”

“Sure,” she said as she left the room.

Percival lived with us until I moved away. Something about my leaving triggered the wildness in him. I never saw him again, but I make a point of leaving half a sandwich by the creek bed whenever I visit my mom and dad.