Things To Lose

I stare at the screen before me, looking over the list of things you should lose before you turn 35. The list is long and obvious. Most of these things I’ve either already ditched or never had.

Old receipts, bad habits like smoking, toxic relationships.

The last one gives me pause. I think of Cole. I think of him and how he’s just always been there. Whether I want him or not. I don’t know if I can discard him.

He saved my life once. I was having an allergic reaction and he ran into a pharmacy to get me some Benedryl. Sure, he could have (should have) taken me to the hospital, but he didn’t want his family to know he was with me.

He wasn’t ashamed of me; just embarrassed.

I think of the time he screamed at me (how did I pick just one?) for burning dinner. He came in and started picking at me- at my looks, at my clothes- and I just got distracted. It was my fault, really.

But, still, he saved my life. He kept me alive. Doesn’t that mean that I belong to him?

I read that somewhere. Until I find a way to save him, I belong to him.

I don’t want to belong to anybody. I’m my own person with my own feelings and whims and needs.

But, it’s been so long since I was my own person. The time before I was with Cole (back when I was in high school) was so long ago. I don’t know who I would be without him (and without him, I’m pretty sure I’m nothing).

It feels wrong; I go to reach for myself and…nothing. I feel nothing. Am I nothing? I’m afraid (without Cole) I might be.

It’s my birthday in 43 minutes. My 35th birthday. I made myself a cake and put candles, 35 of them, on top. I haven’t lit them. It isn’t time yet.

I glance at the bedroom. The door is closed and I can hear Cole’s gentle snore coming from the other side. If I trash him, where will I go? I think he’ll get custody of our friends in the break-up.

I shake my head.

It has to be done. I get up off the kitchen floor and tiptoe to the bedroom. I stand over him for a long time; just watching him sleep. He looks so weak; so…human.

I come back to the kitchen and check my watch- one minute. I light the candles. I watch the second-hand tick down.

Then I close my eyes and make a wish. When I open them, I’m alone in the apartment.

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.

Swamp Witch

And just like that, the sun rose.

I woke, slowly at first, then all at once. I woke as I fell asleep, with the ineffable feeling of falling.

Only this time, I fell. My knees hit the hard wooden floor of my one-room house, and for a moment, I regretted putting them in. The soft dirt would have been softer to fall onto.

I stretched and dressed in the dark. I did most things in the dark these days. The generator ran out months ago, and it saved me from looking in the mirror. It led to better days.

I always wanted to be a swamp witch when I was a kid. Somehow, I didn’t consider the mosquitoes in all my childish dreaming. The first summer I was burned and twisted and swollen from the elements.

I loved it.

I combed the swamp and slept beneath the willows until I found this little hut. It was abandoned, just like me, and no one came to claim it. Just like me.

The cot was already there and I bought the floors. Tourists with too much money like the things I find in my swamp; everybody likes a terrifying bog witch.

It’s quiet. Not peaceful-quiet.

Something’s wrong. Someone is in my swamp.

I resist the urge to giggle at the reference. This is serious. My skin crawls with worry and my stomach leaps to my throat when I hear them.

Poachers.

I slip out of my shack like a ghost- cunning and stealthy.

I creep behind the protected trees and over the protected land, carefully picking my way across the swamp. I resist the urge to retch when I find the first trap. It’s a snare, and I nearly get caught in it myself.

I crouch low and keep my breathing steady and my ears open as I untie it and loop the rope around my shoulder. I hope it’s the last, even as I find another and another.

When I find their camp, I am sick. Dead animals hang from trees and meat roasts on a dwindling, unattended fire. I put out the fire and take down the animals and bury them in the soft soil. I ask Mother Moon to watch over them into the next life.

I creep back into the depths of the swamp when I hear them again. I can’t hear their words, but I can tell their confusion bends quickly to rage.

I smile at their fury.

I spend the rest of the day stalking them and taking down their traps. When night falls, and the poachers return to their camp, I stay on the fringes and watch them.

I wait for sleep to take them. Then, it’s my turn.

I snare and trap them, one by one. My hands are deft, and they don’t wake. I make sure they don’t wake again.

When they aren’t a threat again, I finally hear the animals return, and the not in my chest eases.

I spend the night taking what I can use back to my home. They won’t be needing them again. I like the blankets best. They’re soft and as I snuggle down to sleep, I hear the birdsong.

And just like that, the sun rose.

H for Homicide

H stood and studied herself in the full length mirror. She didn’t look like herself. She didn’t feel like herself either. She shrugged.

“I guess that’s the point,” she said to her reflection. Her glossy black hair was arranged on the top of her head in an effortlessly messy bun and six or seven layers of feminine war paint had been applied to her face to camouflage and accentuate her features. Her lips were painted red as blood.

H grabbed the pair of earrings that had come in the mysterious box with the dress and stabbed them through the holes in her ears. A matching necklace wrapped its way around her throat.

Something was missing.

H frowned and picked up her evening bag. It wasn’t big enough to hold a wallet, much less the .45 she carried with her everywhere these days. She slipped a jeweled stiletto blade inside and went to her dresser to search for her thigh holster.

The limo pulled to a gentle stop and H waited for someone to open the door for her and help her from the car. She didn’t want to be here, but a promise was a promise. She swore it in blood long ago, before she even properly knew what that meant. Now it was time to pay up.

H thought back to her much too recent youth, bouncing from foster home to foster home. She was a part of the seedy underground before she turned twelve. She delivered packages and did favors all in the hopes that she would be able to glean some information about who did it. The why didn’t matter as much as the who.

She was sure they had their reasons. They might have even been good reasons, but the way they carried it out was sloppy and inexcusable.

The door opened and H got out with as much grace as she could muster. She didn’t even wobble in her high heels on the uneven cobblestones. She smiled and thanked the handsome man who opened her door before she made her way into the museum.

This would have been a dream ten years ago. Eight-year-old H would have given anything to stay in the natural history museum after hours with the dinosaurs. Now she was here and it had only cost her everything.

Security scanned the QR code on her invitation but didn’t bother looking inside her bag. It was too small to hold anything dangerous. The metal detector beeped as she stepped through.

“I have some pins in my spine from a car accident.” It wasn’t a lie, only a half truth.

The security guard frowned but waved her through anyway. H smiled and went along, unhurried, into the party.

She had no idea what the soiree was for and didn’t care. The powers that be sent her the invite along with the dress and a single grainy photo. All she had to do was show up and avenge her family.

She took a turn about the cavernous room. She mingled and laughed demurely. H met a man that was already three sheets and began chatting with him about nothing. After a few minutes a woman old enough to be H’s dead mother joined them. She made a mildly offensive joke and H laughed politely.

“I’m Jennifer Humble,” she said extending her hand.

H introduced herself and asked the other woman if she was enjoying herself.

“Oh, yes,” Jennifer Humble gushed. “I always love to help out my fellow man!”

“And if you can do it without having to smell him, all the better.” H said.

The drunk man snorted and Jennifer Humble giggled.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have to go to the ladies’ lounge,” H said.

“I’ll join you.” Jennifer Humble too her arm and steered her from the room.

When the door to the ladies’ room shut, H casually flipped the deadbolt. Jennifer Humble didn’t notice. She was fixing her lipstick in the mirror.

H stepped up behind her silently and pulled the stiletto from her bag.

“Why do you have a knife in your bag?”

H smiled and administered two quick stabs into the woman’s back, between her ribs.

Jennifer Humble’s cry was muffled by the blood welling up in her mouth as she crumpled to the floor. Spreading red stained her yellow gown.

“Do you remember the Hansom family from Northeast Longview?” H asked crouching near the dying woman.

“Don’t answer. I’m sure you don’t . You’re the sort to not even be able to keep track of how many lives you’ve ruined.” H sighed and shook her head. “Let me remind you. About ten years ago, in the middle of the night, you broke into their home. You killed the sleeping baby in his crib and made your way to the master bedroom where you shot the sleeping parents. You thought you killed them all. You probably thought it was all too easy.

“But, you missed my attic bedroom. I’d spent months begging my parents to let me move into the attic, and, ultimately, it saved my life. A life I’ve spent hunting you down.”

H retrieved her gun from its holster and fitted the suppressor to it.

“Rot in hell,” she said as she pulled the trigger.

The Princess and the Dragon

The princess watched helplessly as the white knight approached the fire-breathing dragon. The knight was fearless and brave as he hefted his lance and drew his sword. Amabeth didn’t like it.

She knew he would get hurt, but, from high up in her tower, there was nothing she could do to stop it. All she could do was watch from the slit of a window as the battle raged on below.

The dragon reared back and blew a billow of flame. The knight dove behind a rock to safety.

The dragon snarled and bared its terrifying teeth, and the knight leapt forth and dove his lance into the soft underbelly of the dragon. It howled and lurched forward, the lance stuck fast in its flesh.

Another plume of fire gushed from the dragon’s mouth and again the knight dove behind the rock. The dragon snarled and broke the end of the lance off with its mighty front leg.

But, to do this, it had to rear up again, and the clever knight rushed forward and plunged his sword into the fearsome beast. It howled and staggered back.

The knight, seeing his opening, surged forward and stabbed his sword into the soft underbelly again and again until the dragon finally fell backwards, dead.

The knight, triumphant bent and took a knife from his belt and sawed off one of the dragon’s horns. When his work was done, he removed his helmet and raised the bloody horn high above his head.

“Princess,” he called in his deep baritone. “I have slain the dragon. Fear not, I am on my way to you now.”

Amabeth moved from the window. His features were striking and his face handsome. And, from the moment she saw his face, she knew. He was her destiny.

He was the man who would change everything for her. He was now her very reason for being at this moment. She knew where her life would take her from now on.

He was the first man she would ever kill.

While she waited for the knight to climb the stairs to the highest room in the tallest tower, she changed into her best dress and fixed her face. When the knight burst through the door, at last, he crossed the room in three short strides to her, his arms open wide.

Amabeth smiled coyly and cocked her head to the side, pushing her bosom forward. The knight face split with a lecherous smile and took her in his arms.

“Princess, I have saved you,” he said. “I demand a token of your affection.”

“Then hold me tight,” she whispered.

He did and she filched the knife from his belt and plunged it into his back, finding the chink in his armour. She withdrew it and plunged it in again, finding another chink.

The knight crumpled and fell from her arms to the floor.

“You slew my dragon,” the princess spat. “My parents abandoned me to this castle for not being born a man. They left me in exile to die. If it hadn’t been for my dragon, I would be dead.”

The knight tried to speak, but instead only gurgled and blew little bloody spit bubbles. His eyes glazed over and Amabeth continued.

“When I reached my third day in this castle the dragon came, and I admit, at first I was afraid, but when I saw that the dragon brought with him food and water for me, I knew he was my saviour.

“My dragon was my only companion in this hellscape; my only constant. And, now you’ve killed him. I swear on his memory that I will slay every knight whoever harms a dragon in anything other than true self-defence.

“Dragons are not the enemy, man is.”

Amabeth looked down at the lifeless body of the knight with nothing but contempt. He and his ilk would pay for what they did to her dragon.