Category: Short Stories

Music – Short Story Sunday

Music – Short Story Sunday

All right, so this is really late being published because I was out of town this weekend and didn’t have a lot of time to work on it. As such it’s also a bit rougher than some of my other short stories, and please keep in mind that I am a novelist, not a songwriter, so the lyrics of these songs might not be the most spectacular because I didn’t have a lot of time to look over them. Anyway, I hope that despite all of that you’ll enjoy this. :) Continue reading “Music – Short Story Sunday”

Mourning Marie – Short Story Sunday

Mourning Marie – Short Story Sunday

This is another short story I wrote as a character’s backstory, and it’s even sadder than The Dust Thief, so be prepared. (Change in tenses was intentional. Don’t throw me under the bus for that, please.)

 

“Alick! We’re going to the hospital!”

Alick recognized his father’s voice and his eyes widened. It was time! His mother was in labor!

He dashed through the halls, not even bothering to put on shoes, and threw open the door, nearly forgetting to close it behind him.

The car was already pulling out Continue reading “Mourning Marie – Short Story Sunday”

While I Was Sleeping – Short Story Sunday

While I Was Sleeping – Short Story Sunday

This is a short story I wrote in March exploring what might have happened inside the head of one of my characters as she was asleep in a stasis chamber. It was an exercise for me in writing description, which I really enjoyed writing. I hope you enjoy reading it. :)

 

Hiss.

My pod opens, and my eyes with it. Only the slightest amount of light spills in through the room’s windows.

I disconnect a zillion wires from myself and climb out of the pod. Everything is still and silent.

I go down the stairs quietly, as if disrupting the stillness will activate an alarm. I reach the bottom and head straight for the door. As I step outside I stop short.

Where my city once was there is only a crater. My building, on the very outskirts, is the only one still standing. Something prickles in the back of my mind, telling me that everyone I know is gone.

Ash falls from the sky like rain and settles in my hair, and the only light in the dark sky is an eerie red glow on the horizon. The disaster happened recently. Is that why I’m awake? I should be asleep. I should be asleep until there’s a cure. But now there will be no cure. There is no one left to make one.

I am alone, and I am dying.

***********

I turn back to go inside. There’s little chance there will be anything in there for me to eat or drink, but I’ll die soon anyway so what’s the difference? I was Stage Four when I went in. I’ll live for another month, at maximum. Only a week without water.

As I wander the first floor I glance around for anything that will help me in any way. There’s no furniture anywhere, no food, no water. Everything is empty, barren, and dusty.

How long was I asleep? I wonder. What year is it? And what fell to destroy the city? There’s nothing there now, so it can’t have been any kind of rock, unless it disintegrated on impact, which I find highly unlikely given the fact that it was large enough to flatten an entire city. So what on earth could have fallen and leave no more evidence than a crater?

I climb the cracked stairs to the second floor. There are missing steps along the way and I have to jump from one step to another in places. By the time I get upstairs my hands are covered in dust. I brush them off on my cargo pants and start searching. There’s a small fridge in an office, but it’s empty.

As I search the other five floors my legs start to ache. It’s been who knows how long since I used them.

Eventually I reach the top floor, where my pod is, and sit inside it. There’s nothing else to do. The padding is thin, and I’m a little surprised I didn’t wake up achy just from that. I lean back against the lid and close my eyes. I already miss people. Not anyone in particular, just anyone to break the silence. I found a droid on the fifth floor, but it was a simple SRV-Droid. It might help a little, but I don’t want to move right now. And why should I? Why not just stay here for the week it takes me to thirst to death? Staying still won’t affect anything but how long it will be before the virus takes full effect and kills me. Moving around speeds up the process, but I’d probably still die quicker from thirst.

I sigh and get back out of the pod. No. I don’t want to die bored. If nothing else the SRV-Droid will give me something to tinker with. You can take the girl out of the shop but you can’t take the mechanic out of the girl, I suppose.

I head down the two flights of stairs to the room where I found the droid. I check the label on its chest. SRV-1004-Sebastion. It’s unusual they’d pick such a long name. I flip the droid on its front and pry open the control hatch with my fingers. They haven’t maintained their callouses while I slept, so I cut them on the metal. I instinctively stick them in my mouth. When they’ve stopped bleeding enough that they won’t drip on the wires I grab the mini screwdriver and wrench from their spots in the side of the hatch.

I start to tinker with the droid’s wires and in two minutes he’s online. I close the hatch, tucking the tools into my back pocket as I set the droid upright. He immediately spins to face me.

“Hello, Master. I am Sebastion. What can I help you with?”

I blow hair out of my face. “Go back to sleep.”

The droid doesn’t respond, and I didn’t expect it to. I press the power button below its designation and flip it on its front again. I reopen the hatch and pull the wrench from my pocket to adjust a few wires. Afterward I open the circuitboard hatch and reprogram the droid’s database.

When I finish and wake the droid up he greets me differently.

“Hello. I’m Sebastion. What’s your name?”

“I’m Bella. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too, Bella. Where are we?”

“The edge of Minton, Beryl Province. The city is destroyed.”

“Destroyed? Why?”

“I don’t know.” It felt good to talk to someone, even if it was an artificial someone. “Come here. We need to change your designation.”

“Change my designation? But why? Is it incorrect?”

“It is now that I’ve reprogrammed you. Your designation is SRV, but you’re a PERS-Droid now. Come with me.”

Sebastion follows me into one of the offices and I rifle through the drawers for a marker. They’re probably all dry and worthless now, but it’s worth a try.

I find one and pull it out, uncapping it and crossing out the SRV part of Sebastion’s designation. The marker still works, though it’s obviously working on dying, and I scratch PERS onto Sebastion’s chest right under the crossed out former designation.

“There we go. You’re properly designated now.”

“Why was I a SRV-Droid before?”

“That’s the way you were designed.”

“Why did you make me a PERS-Droid?”

“Because I needed someone to talk to. Why do you ask so many questions?”

“Because I’m curious.”

“You’re a droid. You shouldn’t be curious. No more questions, please.”

“Okay.”

I think of something and press Sebastion’s power button. I open his circuitboard hatch and read its workings, scanning for evidence of internal clock programming. There is a minimal clock that tells him what hour it is, but not what minute or second. More advanced droids tend to have entire calendars that go all the way from the year to the second.

I close up the hatch and turn him back on.

“Good morning, Bella.”

“Is it morning?”

He pauses a moment before answering. “Yes. It is within the eleven a.m. hour.”

“Thank you. Would you please let me know every time the hour changes?”

“Yes.”

I nod and sit down on the floor. My arms are tired from messing with Sebastion’s programming. I wish I had a more precise clock. I’d make myself a sundial, but I have no idea how this odd red glow works.

“We’re going outside,” I say, standing.

He nods and we head down the stairs. He falls through the holes in the steps, but he gets back up every time.

“That was fun,” he says when we reach the bottom.

“You can’t have fun. You’re a robot.”

“Why are there so many things I can’t be?”

“No questions, remember?”

“Sorry, Bella.”

I open the door and he walks outside. I exit after him and sit on the edge of the crater. It’s deep, probably twenty feet down in the center, and lit in red from whatever is providing light. I suppose it must be the sun, but it doesn’t seem like the sun could show this color. Unless the ash in the atmosphere had something to do with it. Still, it seems unlikely. And the glow is still just barely peeking above the horizon. The sun would have moved by now.

“This is beautiful,” Sebastion says.

I shrug. “In a way, I suppose.”

I take my hair, dip-dyed pink with my own natural blonde at the top, out of the ponytail it’s already falling out of, and tie it back up tighter.

Something shifts in the bottom of the crater. Just the dirt collapsing slightly, I assume.

It moves again, this time shifting farther. Then I see a hand lift out of the dirt.

How is that even possible? How did anyone survive? And after being buried for a long time- I stop. I don’t know that it’s been a long time since the whatever-it-was hit.

I get to my feet and head down into the hole, careful to not slip in the easily-shifting dirt.

A face emerges and the person takes a deep breath before croaking out a simple “help.”

“I’m coming,” I say, trying to hurry to the bottom.

I finally reach the hand and grab it. I wrench my hand away quickly. The hand is cold and clammy, like that of a dead person.

“Help,” the person croaks again.

I shove down my distaste and grab the hand again, pulling the person out of the dirt.

“Thank you,” she says as I lower her down gently onto the surface.

She’s probably about my age, an older teenager, with black hair. She’s pale, but even paler from her ordeal.

“Who are you?”

“Bianca.”

“I’m Bella.”

She gives me a tiny smile. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too. How did you survive?”

“I have no idea.”

“What happened? What fell?”

“It didn’t fall. A spaceship as large as the city landed here.”

“A spaceship? That made a deep, round crater?”

“It wasn’t round. It definitely wasn’t a flying saucer. It was like a giant cruise liner, but it came into the atmosphere from space.”

“Do you know how little sense that makes?”

Bianca nods. “But that’s what happened. I swear.”

“But it’s impossible. It made a perfectly even, twenty-foot-deep, round crater.”

“I can’t give you any evidence, but that’s what I saw. That’s what happened.”

“Are you sure you didn’t go nuts from either lack of oxygen or a blow to the head?”

“Not entirely, but that’s what happened. Just ask Ellie.” She points to a spot in the crater, but there’s no one there.

“Is there someone else under there?”

“No, she got out, see?”

I look back. Still no one. “Bianca, there’s no one there.”

“There is. Ellie’s there. I swear it.”

“No, she’s not. You’re hallucinating.” I call up to the edge of the crater. “Sebastion, come here!”

The droid comes down the edge of the crater and stops by Bianca and me.

“Help me get Bianca out of here.”

The droid nods and takes one of Bianca’s arms while I take the other and we half-help, half-drag her out of the crater. I take her inside and sit her down against the front wall.

“Ellie didn’t come with us,” Bianca says.

“Ellie was never there.”

“She was! Right before the crater fell! And right after.”

“Right after?”

“Yes. She went with the aliens.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense.”

“Of course it doesn’t,” Sebastion says. “She’s nuts.”

“I’m not!” Bianca retorts. “I saw her! She’s gone now.”

“You don’t make the slightest bit of sense,” I say, sitting back on my heels. “I guess I’ll have to find some food and water now that I’m not the only one here.”

“Food?” Bianca perks up. “You have food?”

“No, I don’t. There’s none here and the city is gone. We’ll have to-”

“The city’s not gone! It’s right there.” She points out the door.

“No, Bianca, it’s not. You’re seeing things still. There’s no city there. Just a big old crater that I was dumb enough to pull you out of.”

At the exact same time Sebastion says “That’s not very nice” and Bianca says “Hey!”

“Right. Sorry. Can we just focus on the matter at hand? We need food and water and there’s nowhere to get it for the next ten miles. I don’t know about you but I don’t plan on walking ten miles.”

“We have to,” Bianca says, her eyes glossy like she can’t focus them. “That’s where the aliens are.”

“Bianca, I’m telling you, they weren’t aliens.” You don’t know that, a voice whispers into her mind. “I’m not walking ten miles and neither are you. We don’t have the strength, you especially.”

“I can do it,” Sebastion says. “I don’t tire.”

I turn to him. “That’s actually a really good idea. How fast can you go?”

“Two miles an hour.”

I sigh. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have ten hours to wait. You can’t go any faster than that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then that’s a no go.”

“It’s better I go than we have no food at all.”

“Tell you what. Can you carry Bianca?”

“I think so.”

“All right. You take Bianca and get food. She needs it more than I do.”

“She’s weak, but I don’t see why you don’t need food as much as she does.”

“Because I’m dying anyway even if I don’t starve. Just go. Take her and get food and water.”

He nods and picks up Bianca in his arms before heading out the door. I am alone again.

There’s grease on my fingers from messing with his wires, which I hadn’t even noticed until now. I’m used to grease, so my brain doesn’t pay special attention to it. Now there’s dirt and dust all settled in it and my fingers are sticky and nearly black. I wipe them on my pants, but they’re still a mess. Oh well.

I head upstairs to my pod and open its control panel. A bar shows that the pod is empty of sleeping gas and the bottom drainage chamber is full. Just as it should be. The monitors near the pod are no longer hooked to me, so they’re all flatlined. I turn them off to save on power, not that that’s really an issue at this point.

I fiddle with some wires in the pod and the sleeping gas vents out of the drainage chamber from the end opposite me. I won’t be needing it again.

I head into a nearby office and grab a few chairs, using the screwdriver from Sebastion’s panel to cut off their cushions. If I’m going to sleep – a normal sleep – in the pod, at least I can be a little more comfortable this time.

I lay them across the pod’s bottom. Turns out I only needed four of the six I cut. No big deal. I’ll find a use for the other two, or they can just sit around and collect dust like they were doing before I cut them off the chairs. It won’t make a difference.

I glance out the window. The glow still hasn’t moved off the horizon. It’s definitely not the sun. So what is it? It seems to be coming from every direction. What could go around the earth like that? And doesn’t that mean that anywhere else it’s just completely dark?

Ash still falls, collecting on the windowsill and drifting in through cracked glass. The glow on broken glass is both eerie and fascinating to look at. It looks like someone cut themselves on the glass, or, in places where it has only fractured instead of shattered, like blood spilled into a spiderwebbing pattern.

I watch the ash flakes fall, watching them race to the sill as would raindrops.

A sudden breeze blows toward me through the window and goosebumps run up and down my arms. A crow flies by the window, shimmering in the glow. A single black feather drifts down and catches on one of the cracks in the window. I pick it up and tuck the end of it into my ponytail. I can’t see it, but I imagine it contrasts nicely with the pink and pale yellow.

I step away from the window and take a seat in the pod once more. I lean my head against the lid and close my eyes. It’s not long before I’m asleep.

*******

When I wake again my eyes are greeted with sunlight. Real sunlight. I squint and look out the window. The crater is still there, but the sky is a clear blue and the sun is shining bright, its usual yellow.

“What on earth?” I mutter to myself.

“You’re awake!”

I turn at the familiar mechanical voice and see Sebastion coming toward me. “How long was I asleep?”

“Three years.”

“That doesn’t make any sense…”

“You seem to say that a lot. I remember from when we found Bianca.”

I look around for the girl.

“Oh, she’s not here. She decided to stay at the camp we found. There was food and water there and I brought it. It’s all still good. Just canned stuff.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you hungry?”

My stomach growls, answering before my mouth can.

“Wait here. I’ll bring you something.” He heads down the stairs and I hear thudding. Apparently he’s learned how to avoid the holes.

A moment later he’s back with a can of peaches and a bottle of water. I catch sight of his designation. “PERS” has been renewed with a working marker, and “SRV” has been completely blacked out. “Who marked your designation?”

“You did.”

“No, I mean who renewed it.”

“Oh, that was Tristan.”

“Tristan?”

“Yeah. He found us two years ago. He tried to wake you up, but you wouldn’t. He’s been with us since.”

“Where is he?”

“Down by the crater. He sits on the edge the same way you did.”

I take the peach can, which he has already opened for me, and the water bottle and head down the stairs.

I head straight outside, exactly the same way I did last time I was awake. There’s a young man with dark curly hair sitting on the edge of the crater, one knee pulled up to his chest while the other leg dangles over the edge. I hesitantly take a seat next to him and he starts, turning toward me with a look of amazement on his face. “You’re awake.”

“Looks that way, doesn’t it?”

I start to reach for the peaches but I stop myself and look at my fingers. They’re spotless.

“I cleaned your fingers,” he says, a little sheepishly. “There wasn’t much else to do.”

“Thanks, I guess?”

I reach into the can and pull out a peach slice, popping it into my mouth. It still tastes amazing, and after having not eaten for who-knows-how-long, I have a feeling it would have tasted amazing even if it wasn’t really.

“The peaches are good, aren’t they?” Tristan asks me.

I nod.

“You’re even prettier awake,” he tells me.

I feel heat rise to my cheeks. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

I pull another peach from the can and eat it. “So you’ve been here for two years?” I ask him.

“That’s right. It gets lonely.”

“It gets lonely after less than fifteen minutes.”

He laughs. “Well, if Sebastion weren’t around I don’t think I could tolerate it.”

“You’re welcome.”

“What?”

I give a slight smile. “I reprogrammed Sebastion to be a personality droid. He was a service droid before I fixed him up.”

“I saw his designation had been changed. You did that? You don’t strike me as the programming type.”

“I’m a mechanic.”

“Really? A mechanic with pink hair?”

I shrug. “I like dying my hair, that’s all. Doesn’t change the fact that I’m a mechanic. I like working with my hands.”

“I guess. It’s just… unusual.”

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

The corner of his mouth curls upward. “I guess not.”

“So how did you come to be at the crater that was once Minton?” I ask, eating another peach slice.

“Wandering. It’s not much better anywhere else.”

I nod.

“How long were you here before you fell asleep?” he asks.

“The first time or the second time?”

“The second time.”

“Less than a day, awake. I don’t know how long I slept the first time. There was no one around to tell me. Crater of a city and all.”

He laughs a little. “When did you go to sleep?”

“4275. And I think the crater was recent when I woke up the first time.”

“So you probably slept for about a hundred years.”

I laugh. “So I guess I’m Sleeping Beauty now, huh?”

“Looks like it to me.” He smiles and reaches up to my ponytail, running a finger along it. It doesn’t feel like he’s running his finger against my hair, though. I reach up and feel that the crow feather is still there.

“I was smoothing it out,” he says, drawing his hand away. “It’s cool.”

“Thanks.”

There’s an awkward pause, which I break. “How many people do you figure survived?”

“Maybe a hundred, nationwide.”

“Wow.”

He nods. “It’s certainly not many.”

“What about the camp about ten miles from here?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been there.”

I start to cough and when my hand comes away from my mouth it’s coated in blood.

“Are you okay?” Tristan asks.

“I just coughed up blood, but yeah, I’m fine. Thanks.”

“Sorry. Do you know what it is?”

“Stage Four Malum.”

“Malum was cured nearly a hundred years ago.”

“And I was asleep.”

I look toward the crater and my brow furrows. Why wasn’t I woken when a cure was found? That was what was supposed to happen. I was supposed to sleep until there was a cure. And then how did I sleep for two more years? None of this was right. None of it.

“Are you okay?” Tristan asks me again.

“I don’t know…”

The sky flickers for a moment, switching to the ash-ridden grey and red and quickly back again.

“What…”

“What’s wrong?”

Tristan stands beside me. He flickers and he’s Bianca for a split second.

“What’s going on?” I ask. My words are mildly slurred.

“I don’t know.” He flickers mid-sentence and even his voice changes to Bianca’s.

None of this makes any sense. None of this is right. This is all wrong. All wrong…

Everything flickers again, but this time to a scene I don’t recognize. Tristan, Bianca, whoever it is, changes into a giant crow and the sky turns to a deep purple. There’s no crater, but a city of dark spires rising into the starless sky.

I stumble backward as things revert back to Tristan’s scene.

“Bella,” he says, grabbing my shoulders.

I didn’t tell him my name.

“How do you know my name?”

“Sebastion told me.”

Sebastion. The droid I fixed.

“Sebastion, come here,” I say. I try to yell it, but it comes out as a croak. I’m dizzy. And so tired…

“Stay awake!” Tristan says, shaking me. My eyes bolt open and Sebastion comes out the door.

“Sebastion. Stand still.” My voice is too small. Too quiet. It’s not mine.

The scene flickers back to the odd darkness. This time I focus on Sebastion. He’s the same. He didn’t change. Didn’t shift.

What’s going on? I scream it inside my head.

My knees buckle and I fall to the ground. Everything flickers back to Bianca’s scene and she holds my shoulders, her weak arms threatening to give out as she tries to gently lower me to the ground. She fails and I fall. I have no control. I just fall to the ground, my head hitting the hard dirt. My eyes close, but I don’t sleep. Not yet. I force them open and the scene flickers to a fourth setting.

I’m encased in metal, wires attached to me everywhere. They’re monitoring me. Keeping track of my vitals. There’s a muffled voice outside and I gasp as clean air fills my lungs. I’m in my pod. Why am I waking up? Have they found me a cure? My eyes are wide open, now, trying to see out of my pod. But I know it’s impossible. They made sure there weren’t any gaps anywhere, and there’s no window.

The pod opens and I bolt upright. There’s someone standing above me and I poke them in the eye.

“Ouch! What was that for!”

The voice is familiar. Tristan’s. Am I still asleep? Am I still dreaming? I look up at him and the face and hair match the Tristan in my dream, too. “Am I awake? Really awake?”

“Yes, you’re awake! Dude!”

I disconnect the wires and step out of the pod. “Sorry I poked you in the eye.”

“Thanks, but I’m still half-blind now! Geez!”

“Who are you?”

“My name’s Tristan.”

“Are you with The Lowlines?”

“The who now?”

“Why did you wake me up?”

“Because I thought you were in danger.”

I cock an eyebrow at him. “Seriously? I’m in a pod hooked to monitors and you think I’m in danger and need saving? You’re an idiot.”

“Sorry! I just thought you needed help!”

“Well I didn’t! I’m sick with Malum. I was in there to keep me stable until they could find a cure, and now I’m dying again. Thank you so much for your help.” I roll my eyes and storm down the stairs, growling. That dumb idiot! Why couldn’t he just mind his own business?

I step out of the building onto a busy sidewalk. At least there isn’t a giant crater where my home used to be. I don’t even bother to head to the crosswalk, I just cross the street. Several cars honk at me, but I ignore them. The building I was in is directly across from a cafe that my sister frequents, the Cafe Humont. I always just shorten it to Humont. A bell above the door jingles as I walk inside. I scan the tables for my sister and find her in a corner with Ore, the leader of the Lowlines.

She looks up and catches sight of me and her brow immediately furrows. She stands up as I arrive at the table. “Bella? Why are you up?”

“Some idiot named Tristan took it upon himself to wake me.”

“We put you in an abandoned building on purpose so this wouldn’t happen,” Ore says, standing next to us.

“I know. And yet somehow it did. I poked him in the eye.”

I see Ore stifle a chuckle.

“We need to put you back to sleep,” Raven says. “There’s no cure yet. You’ll die.”

“We didn’t design the pod for that. We designed it for one-time use. The remaining gas is irretrievable from the drainage chamber.”

“I guess we don’t really have any more options, then,” Ore says.

Just like in my dream, I am awake and I am dying.

Rainy Days & Coffee Grounds – Short Story Sunday

Rainy Days & Coffee Grounds – Short Story Sunday

Here is yet another installment of the short story series starring Keslie Bardell that I’m calling Memories & Photographs. Enjoy. :) (Also keep in mind that I don’t edit any of my short stories before I put them up and that I don’t have a lot of practice in writing romance. And for some reason the formatting did weird things that I can’t manage to fix.)

 

Keslie pulled her schoolbooks out of her bike basket and stepped into the Piano Shoppe cafe. Her entry was heralded by a bell over the door, and her friend Dominic smiled at her from across the room as he finished serving the drinks on his tray.

“Hey, Keslie.”

“Hey.”

“I’ll just be a couple more minutes.”

Keslie nodded and took a seat in the front corner by two windows, her favorite spot. When Dominic came over, he brought with him a grey mug and a red one, the latter of which he handed to Keslie.

“Rose tea with cream and sugar?” she asked, even though she didn’t have to.

Dominic nodded. “Your favorite.”

Keslie smiled. “Thanks.” She took a sip and pulled her math book from its spot in the pile.

“Livi’s not coming?”

Keslie shook her head. “She’s sick today.”

“I don’t think even being sick could get that one down.”

“No, but she’s considerate and doesn’t want to get us sick. Besides, you’ve seen how dramatic she can be.”

Dominic laughed. “Has she been acting?”

“‘I believe have been beset by something that most people term as… the common cold! Whatever shall I do!'” Keslie put a hand to her forehead for extra affect and the two of them collapsed into laughter.

“I wish I could have heard that.”

“You might just get to, depending on when you next talk to her. It’s much better in her voice.” Keslie grinned.

“I’m sure. She has more of a flair for the dramatic.” Dominic winked.

“Hey! I think I did a pretty good impression if I do say so myself.” She crossed her arms and feigned haughtiness.

“Even were you a master actress you couldn’t do Livi justice. She’s quite the theatrical one.” His voice held a hint of sarcasm and quite a bit of teasing.

“You’re right,” Keslie said, unfolding her arms with a drawn out sigh. “I suppose I’ll never be the great actress she is.” She put a hand under her chin, pretending to look dreamily at nothing.

Dominic laughed, blue eyes twinkling. “I think you’ve come out more since Livi came along. You seem to have adopted some of our sarcasm and wit.”

Keslie leaned back and took another sip of her tea. “I’ve noticed, too. It’s nice.”

“Unfortunately, we should probably actually study instead of just joking around the whole time.”

“Hey, I thought it was my job to keep us on task.” She smirked and opened up the math book. “Grossest subject first.”

****************

After they finished doing their homework, they headed over to Keslie’s house to drop off her bike and books and from there to the beach. They sat on a dune that Keslie considered her spot after years of sitting there and writing music.

“I’m glad I live by the beach,” Keslie said.

“Why?” Dominic asked the question thoughtfully.

“Because I love the water and the breeze and the sand. It just suits me, I think.”

“No pun intended.” Dominic grinned.​

Keslie chuckled. “No. That wasn’t intended.” She looked over at him. “Do you like the beach or would you rather live elsewhere?”

“Well, I wouldn’t for anything trade living near you and Livi, but I’ve always loved the idea of living in the mountains. I lived there until I was three, apparently, so I only vaguely remember it, but I think I’d like to live there again. Or maybe in the country. I don’t know, I’ve just always been more drawn to the crisp air and forests and mountains. I love the ocean, but I’m more of an autumn guy than a summer guy, if that makes sense.”

Keslie nodded, looking back out toward the ocean. The breeze ruffled her blonde hair, and she knew the beach too well to bother brushing it away. It would only get blown in her face again a moment later.

Keslie was comfortable here, just sitting on the beach with Dominic. They’d been friends for so long she couldn’t even remember how they met, and she was more comfortable with him than with anyone else in the world. Even her parents, after their divorce. She liked sitting with him, not even having to say anything to enjoy each others’ company. There hadn’t been a lot of just sitting quietly since Livi showed up, and thought Keslie loved Livi like a sister and would never wish for her to change, it was nice to have a moment of stillness.

“I really like you, Keslie.”

Keslie looked at Dominic, startled from her reverie. “What? Sorry. I wasn’t here enough to register what you said.” She chuckled a bit.

“I said I really like you.”

“Of course you do. We’ve been friends for as long as either of us can remember.”

He looked over at her. “That’s not what I mean. I mean I like, like you. Like, can’t-imagine-anyone-I’d-rather-be-with like you.”

Keslie just sat there staring at him for a minute before bursting into laughter. “I’m sorry. This isn’t funny. Just… You like me?” Keslie didn’t think she’d ever had anyone like like her.

“Yeah. Why, is that hard to believe?”

“Not exactly, I just don’t think I’ve ever had anyone like me that way before.”

“Yes you have. I could name five of them right now, aside from myself. But I won’t because, A it would make me seem like a stalker, and B I won’t betray them.”

Keslie shook her head. As she thought about it, she supposed she might have a crush on Dominic, but they’d been friends so long it seemed weird to think of it. He was kind and witty and clever and musical and all sorts of things she had put on her mental list of things to look for in a potential husband, but… Dominic? For some reason, though she knew she should be good friends with whomever she married, she hadn’t ever considered Dominic. Well, there had been one time when she was about twelve, but that totally didn’t count because that was the age she was crushing on half the boys in the school and had no idea what a real relationship looked like or what to look for in a guy.

“What’s going on inside that head of yours?”

“Trying to figure out why I’ve only once ever had a crush on you. Sorry, that came out rather unlike I meant it. I mean it sincerely, not sarcastically. You’re a great guy and you’re pretty much exactly the list in my head, but… It just seems weird to have a crush on you. Because we’ve been friends so long.”

“Yeah. I kind of didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t want to make things weird.”

“Livi will be overjoyed if we get together. She’s been shipping us pretty much since she met us.”

Dominic laughed. “That sounds like Livi.”

“Maybe she’s a better matchmaker than I gave her credit for.” Keslie shrugged.

“Could be. So I haven’t actually asked you on a date yet.”

“No, you haven’t.” Keslie’s heart was doing laps in her chest. What would it be like to go on a date with Dominic? There was very little each didn’t know about the other, and being romantic would just be… weird. Very, very weird.

“Would you like to go with me to see The Last Element tomorrow night?”

Keslie nodded. She’d been wanting to see that movie since the trailers came out.

“Cool. Our first date, then.” His smile was kind of tentative. Apparently he was finding this weird, too. She felt better knowing she wasn’t the only one.

“Yeah.”

They sat in silence for a bit, both occupied with their own thoughts, until Keslie’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She pulled it out to see a text from Livi.

How’d the study date go?

Went well. We’re on the beach. Keslie decided it might be better to leave out the fact that she and Dominic were going out until it was a little less weird for her and she could handle Livi’s excitement.

Mind if I come join you?

Keslie turned to Dominic. “Livi wants to know if she can come join us.”

“I thought she didn’t want to get us sick,” he teased.

Sure, Keslie texted.

Be there in a jiff!

It only took Livi a couple of minutes to arrive, since her house was only a few doors down from Keslie’s and both were on the beach.

She took a seat next to Keslie, practically bouncing, and grinned over at them. “Hey guys!”
“Hey, Livi,” Dominic said with a grin.
“How did studying go? Sorry I couldn’t join you. I’ve been beset by what most people call…” Her eyes widened. “The common cold!” She put on a distressed face and both Keslie and Dominic burst out laughing.
“Man, I wish I could have seen your face the first time,” Keslie said.
“Sorry to disappoint.” Livi grinned. “I’m glad I could come now, though. I love hanging out with you guys.” She smiled.
“I thought you weren’t coming so you wouldn’t get us sick,” Dominic said.
“Well, I didn’t want to get everyone in the cafe sick. You guys should join me in the horror that is the common cold. I don’t want to be left alone in this dark place!”
They laughed.
“You’re something else,” Keslie said.
“Why thank you. I wouldn’t want to be something same. Same is rather boring, don’t you agree?” She grinned.
“I quite agree,” Dominic said. “But there’s also something to be said for familiarity.”
“But familiarity and sameness don’t have to be synonymous,” Keslie said. “Something can be familiar and yet be entirely different from anything else, but it’s still familiar to you because you spend time around it.”
Livi nodded. “Precisely. You two are different from anyone else I know, and everyone else I know is different from everyone else I know, and yet I’m familiar with all of them.”
“How do we end up having such borderline phylisophical conversations?” Keslie asked. “We’re such goofballs, and yet our conversations tend so much toward the philisophical.”
“Or the goofy.” Livi made a face that had Dominic and Keslie nearly rolling in the sand laughing in mere moments.
“You are quite the goof.”

“Why thank you.” Livi bowed, as well as she could sitting down, and Keslie laughed. “I do certainly try.”
Livi was the most fun person Keslie had ever met, though Dominic was a very close second, and Keslie could never stay sad for long around the bubbly girl. Even her clothes screamed cheeriness, in bright yellow and hot pink on most occasions. And the fact that Livi also liked music didn’t hurt at all. She always had something she could play to cheer Kes up.
“You guys seem a bit weird today,” Livi remarked, cocking her head. “What’s up?”
Keslie chuckled. “Well…”
“We’re going on a date tomorrow night,” Dominic said, looking rather awkward.
“Yay!” Livi squealed, clapping. “I knew it! I knew you two would end up together! Yes!” She hugged them both and when she pulled back she was grinning ear to ear. “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!”
“Calm down, Livi,” Keslie said, trying not to be rude.
“I knew it!” Livi repeated, a bit quieter this time.
“Yes, you’re very smart. Shut up.”
“Yessssss!” Livi said. “Movie quotes for the win.” They high-fived.
“You two…”
“Oh come on, you know you love us,” Dominic said with a grin.
“I do. You know I do. You’re the biggest goofballs I know. And you know how much I love that movie, too.”
“Well of course,” Dominic said. “It’s been your favorite since you were three or something.”
“Longer than that, likely.”
“Well of course,” Livi said. “It’s the greatest movie in all of history. How can anyone not like it?” They were quiet for a minute. “Oh! Dad said that I should bring you guys over for ice cream. We have mint chocolate chip and cherry, my two favorites. And we have a whole refrigerator’s worth of toppings.”

“Ice cream is always good,” Keslie said.
“Definitely true. Come on.” Livi stood and skipped away across the sand toward her house. Keslie and Dominic followed, and found it laid out much the same as Keslie’s house. The back porch opened into the office, which then led forward into the living room and off to the right into the kitchen. Livi’s dad, Zach, was in the kitchen with two cartons of ice cream and a whole array of toppings out on the counter.
“Hey, kids! How are you today?”
“Pretty good, Mr. Brooklyn,” Keslie said. “How are you?”
“I’m doing well. Remember, though, you can call me Zach.”
Keslie nodded, but she rarely called adults by their first names. She’d always been taught to use last names.
“How about you? Dominic, right?”
Dominic nodded. “I’m doing well.”
“That’s good. Come on in and I’ll get you some ice cream. Keslie, what kind of ice cream would you like?”
“Mint chocolate chip, please.”
“All righty.” Four scoops ended up in her bowl. “Help yourself to the toppings.”
“Thanks.” She took the bowl, which was much fuller than she’d anticipated, and added some mini chocolate chips.
“Dominic?”
“Mint chocolate chip, please.”
“All right. That seems to be the favorite. Myself, I prefer cherry, but hey, that just means more for me, right?” He grinned and served up the ice cream. “There you go. Enjoy.”
The dining room was in the same place as Keslie’s as well, just past the kitchen. They took their seats at the table and Zach joined them in a moment.
“Dad took some time off today to work on and art project of his,” Livi said, explaining why he was home so early. She turned to Zach. “Can I show them, Dad?”
“Once you’re done with your ice cream.”

Livi nodded.
Once the three were finished, Livi took them upstairs and down the hall to an art room. Dropcloths covered the whole floor, and there were two easels set up, one of which was covered with a sheet. There was paint splattered everywhere, and it looked kind of like Keslie imagined the inside of Livi’s brain looked.
“Nice room,” Dominic said.
“Yeah. Dad set it up for me, but I convinced him to try out painting, too, so here we are.” She grinned and headed over to the covered easel. “Ready?”
Keslie and Dominic nodded and Livi pulled off the tarp. Behind it was an acrylic painting of someone who looked like an older version of Livi, except for the fact that her eyes were brown instead of blue.
“He painted my mom,” Livi said, tears shimmering in her eyes even as she grinned.
“She’s beautiful,” Keslie said. “And your dad is a great artist.”
Livi nodded. “Her name was Kim. Dad practiced a lot to get this good. He wanted to be able to do Mom justice. And I think he did.”
Keslie nodded and the three of them stood in silence. There wasn’t much that could be said.
After a few minutes Livi brushed a couple of tears from her eyes and sniffed. “So do you guys want to do anything in particular? Listen to music, chat, draw…”
“I can’t draw,” Dominic said.
“Yeah, it’s like the only thing he can’t do,” Keslie said with a snort.
Livi laughed. “Well then I’d like to see what he comes up with.”
“Oh, I see,” Dominic said with a grin, “You want to see me embarrass myself.”
“Absolutely.” Livi’s grin was equally wide. “Come on. I’ve got pencils in the other room.” She headed down the hall to her room and grabbed a box of colored pencils from her desk and set them on the bed, then hunting down some paper. Keslie and Dominic sat on the bed with its bright pink sheets and Keslie looked at the pencils.
“These are really good quality,” she said.
“Yeah. My dad got them for me for my birthday.”
“When is your birthday?” Keslie almost couldn’t believe she hadn’t asked yet.
“July fifteenth. When’s yours?”
“September twenty-seventh.”
“You’re almost seventeen, then! I’ll have to get you something.”
“You don’t have to do that…”
“Sure I do.” She pulled the paper from another drawer and set it on the bed, bounding onto the bed herself. She looked over at Dominic. “When’s yours?”
“October second.”
“So yours is coming up, too.”

“Kind of soon.”
Livi got up and grabbed a couple of regular pencils and handed one to each of them as she climbed back onto the bed. “Almost forgot these.”
Keslie took the pencil and a piece of paper and looked around the room. “Do you have a clipboard I can use?”
Livi nodded and grabbed three from a drawer of her desk, handing one to each of them. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem.”
Keslie thought for a moment before deciding on what to draw and set to work. They drew in silence for half an hour before Livi declared she was done. She lifted up her clipboard to show them. She’d drawn a mermaid and fully colored it in. It was a bit of a cartoon-ish style, which fit Livi well, and it was expertly done.
“Tada! It’s supposed to be you as a mermaid, Kez.”
“Me? Well… Thanks?”
“Yes, that’s the appropriate response,” Dominic said, nudging her with his shoulder.
Keslie rolled her eyes at him. “Thanks, Livi.”
“You’re welcome.” Livi grinned and traded the piece of paper out for another. “You’re next, Dom.”
“I expect nothing less than a masterpiece,” Dominic teased.
“Of course. As if I could give anything less.”
Keslie smiled and returned to her own drawing.
Another half hour passed and finally Dominic held up his picture. It was an anchor being hauled down by tentacles, and Keslie stood corrected. He could draw after all. He must not have been trying the times he’d shown her his drawings.
“You liar,” Keslie said. “You told me you couldn’t draw. And proved it. What’s this?”
“I don’t know. Must be some newfound talent I never knew I had.” He winked.
Keslie stuck her tongue out at him and looked over as Livi raised her own picture.
“All finished,” she announced.

Merman Dominic wore a permanent wink, and his open eye sparkled. His dark hair was drawn flopping over his face, and he had a dark blue tail.
“Well, I think that suits him perfectly,” Keslie said.
“Don’t you, though? I think it’s certainly a masterpiece.”
“I think I’ll be the judge of that,” Dominic said. He studied the piece with narrowed eyes for several moments before finally drawing away and nodding. “It’ll pass.”
“I think it does more than pass, don’t you?”
“Oh yes,” Keslie said. “Definitely.”
“So there.” It was Livi’s turn to stick her tongue out at Dominic.
“I admit, I have been outnumbered.” He looked at Keslie’s drawing. “You’ve been working for a while. What’s yours look like?”
Keslie held it up. It was an all-pencil piece of the ocean.
“That’s great, Kez! I didn’t know you could draw that well. That’s amazing!”
Keslie blushed and set the picture back in her lap, crossing her arms over it and blushing. “Thanks.”
“It really is great,” Dominic said. “It’s better than I could do with just pencils. The shading is incredibly detailed for having only used a pencil.”
Keslie shrunk farther into herself. Compliments were not her strength. “Thanks.” Her voice was barely audible, and she knew she was probably beet red.
“All right,” Livi said, “Let’s not embarrass her too quickly. I’m sure there’ll be enough of that now that you two are a couple. There’s to be much teasing from the peanut gallery, I can assure you of that.” She pointed to herself.
“I would expect nothing less,” Dominic said. “You’re the queen of teasing.”
“Why thank you.” Livi looked around her dresser and finally pulled out a rhinestone tiara. She set it on her head and crossed her eyes with a hand under her chin. “Don’t I just look fabulous as a queen?”
Keslie couldn’t hide her laugh.

The rest of the day continued much the same, with lots of teasing and talking and laughter.
Finally around seven o’clock Keslie headed home.
“Hey, Keslie,” her mom called. From the kitchen, judging from the sound.
“Hey, Mom.”
“How did the study date go?”
“It went well. After that we headed to the beach and then hung out at Livi’s house.”
“Sounds fun.”
Keslie headed into the kitchen where her mom was working on her book on her laptop. “Hey Mom.”
“Yeah?”
“How does dating work?”
Mrs. Bardell looked up at her. “Are you and Dominic finally getting together?”
“I know you’re my mom, but how did you know and why was that your first assumption?”
“Kes, you and Dominic have been friends for who-even-knows-how-long. I knew you were bound to get married sometime or other.”
“Mom! We’re not getting married yet! We’re going on one date to see a movie tomorrow night! Don’t jump years ahead just yet.”
Mrs. Bardell smiled a bit. “Well, I don’t know because your dad and I met each other and got to know each other as we dated. I’m not sure how it’ll work for you and Dominic. I guess you’ll just have to find out.”
“Gee, that’s helpful.”
“Sorry, Sweetie. But I know Dominic’s a good guy and he’ll take care of you.”
“I wasn’t worried about that. I’m more worried about things being perpetually awkward between us and Livi.”
“Livi’s pretty easygoing, so I don’t think she’ll mind if you two are together, and I doubt that your relationship with Dominic will change much aside from the fact that you’ll probably be more romantic. You’ll still sit and talk for hours and laugh together and all that stuff that you do now and have been doing for years. Don’t worry about it.”

Keslie headed up to her room, and after a long time of worrying about things, she finally fell asleep.
**********
The next day went by quickly. School, a study meeting at Keslie’s house – with both Livi and Dominic – and then from there to the movie.
Keslie stood nervously by as Dominic paid for the tickets and then followed him awkwardly into the theater. They found a seat near the middle of the room and took their seats. Keslie was rather stiff, and Dominic set a hand on hers.
“Hey, just pretend we’re seeing a movie as friends.”
Keslie nodded with an appreciative smile, and after a few minutes she finally relaxed.
She enjoyed the movie as well as she thought she would, and they left the theater talking about it.
“I loved the part where she grabs the trithium and runs off with it,” Keslie said. “The way they outwitted Derk was great.”
Dominic nodded. “My favorite part was the opening scene, actually.”
“That was good too. It reeled me in immediately.”
Dominic nodded.
A few raindrops dripped onto Keslie as Dominic offered her his hand. “Too early for hand-holding?”
Keslie shrugged. “Why not?” She took his hand, which was rather warm despite the cold inside the theater, and they warmed her own cold fingers slowly.
They headed to Keslie’s house as the rain increased, until they were standing in a downpour outside her front door.
“I love being on the beach in the rain,” Keslie said. “Want to come?”
Dominic nodded and Keslie tugged him around the house onto the beach. The sand was already smooth and squishy in the rain, like mud between Keslie’s toes as she removed her sandals.
They played around in the rain for a while, dancing and splashing in the waves and getting each other even wetter than they already were.

After a while Dominic drew a heart in the sand with his finger.
“You know how cliche that is, right?” Keslie asked.
Dominic shrugged. “Oh well. I kind of like using them and making fun of them.”
“True. Making fun of cliches is always fun. I once read a book where the villain did that. The heroes kept speaking in cliches and he kept making fun of them. It was really fun to read. He also made a whole lot of puns, which was great.”
“Puns are punderful.”
Keslie swatted Dominic’s shoulder as he winked. “You’re terrible.”
“Of course. I’m punbearable.”
“Dominic!”
“Oh come on. You know you love me. And my puns. You’re punable to resist them.”
She swatted at him again as he laughed.
“Hey! Stop punching me!”
Another swat, until she was chasing him around the beach. Finally he grabbed her arm as she swatted at him and pulled her close to him so that they shared the same breath. They stood there for a moment and Keslie barely breathed. She realized that she’d never had a crush on Dominic because she’d merely skipped that step. She didn’t have to have a crush on him, because she already loved him. The electric silence was broken when Dominic spoke.
“May I?”
Keslie nodded just a bit and he kissed her. He pulled away a minute later and she looked up at him. She could get used to them being together.

They quietly walked along the beach in the rain for a while before heading home, and as Keslie headed up to her room that night she wondered at how her small family had grown and changed so much in just a few weeks.

Jac and Jiles – Short Story Sunday

Jac and Jiles – Short Story Sunday

*cough cough* Oops. This is late. Hopefully it’ll be the only one. :P This is something I decided to write because in several writing books and articles I read they used Jack and Jill as an example and expanded on it a little bit, so I started thinking about ways I could put a spin on it. This is what I came up with, and I hope you enjoy it. :)

 

Jack and Jill went up a hill

To fetch a pail of water

Jacalyn tightened the strap of her travel bag to her saddle and looked over at Jiles, who was saying farewell to his sisters. He finished and embraced each of them before mounting up on his black stallion. Jacalyn mounted her own chestnut stallion and patted its neck.

“Ready to go?” she asked.

Jiles nodded, tears shimmering in his eyes.

They left the small village and Jacalyn pulled out the map from her saddlebag. It was sixty miles from their current position to the Red Hill that they were headed for, and they’d packed provisions enough for six days, which should be plenty if everything went according to plan. She tucked the map away again. It was a big if.​

“Hey,” she told Jiles, “It’ll be okay. We’ll come back.”

Jiles nodded, but his eyes revealed the same doubt that ate at her own heart. Two and a half days travel each there and back, and a simple climb up the hill to fetch the water from the Traitor’s Well, but the Well itself could be a challenge. Only one person had ever come back from the Traitor’s Well, and he with severe injuries covering his whole body.

“Jac,” Jiles said.

“Yeah?”

“Will the water really be able to save my mother?”

Jacalyn shrugged. “There’s only one way to find out.”

“Yeah,” Jiles muttered, “To go to the man-eating Well.”

“I’m sure it will. The legends say it will.”

“The legends. Yeah. Those are trustworthy. They’re bedtime stories, Jac. They’re used to entertain children. Who knows if they’re really true or not?”

“Jile, you’d do anything to save your mom, right?”

Jiles looked down at the reins he was holding. “Yeah,” he muttered reluctantly.

“Then do this for her.”

“But if it doesn’t work than I could never come back and my sisters would lose my mom and me.”

“I know it’s risky. But we have to try, right?”

Jiles nodded. “Yeah.”

They rode in uncomfortable silence for a long while, Jacalyn focusing on the movement of the horse beneath her and the direction of the path before them. The path would only last until they reached the Elmanor Woods; beyond that, they were on their own, trusting Jacalyn’s navigational skills to get them safely to the Well. They passed few travelers on the road, and Jacalyn wasn’t surprised. Their little corner of the world wasn’t well-traveled. There were a few hamlets sprinkled around, and most people kept to their own homes instead of going on mad men’s quests for man-eating wells.

Jacalyn pulled the map out again just to give herself something to do and looked over the faded lines. The labels near the Red Hill and the Traitor’s Well repeated the message of “turn back” and “DANGER!” and Jacalyn tried to skim over them, but instead her eye was drawn to them. She forced her gaze to the small well drawn on the map. It was colored in black on the map, and Jacalyn wondered if it was actually black or regular stone. The one survivor was long dead of old age, so there was no one to ask.

Jiles yawned and Jacalyn tucked the map away again.

“I’m bored,” Jiles said.

“I know.”

“What games can we play?”

“Like… twenty questions?”

“Or storytelling. Anything but speculation about our quest.”

“We can do twenty questions. Who’s going first?”

“You can.”

“Okay. I’ve got something.”

“Is it smaller than a house?”

“Yes.”

“Is it red?”

“No.”

When the round was solved, it was found to be Jacalyn’s horse, Gilbert. They played several rounds before Jiles stopped.

“This isn’t helping,” he said.

Jacalyn didn’t bother to answer.

“How much longer until we reach the forest?”

Jacalyn pulled out the map and looked it over. “Not long. Maybe about half an hour.” She looked up and saw the sun sinking toward the horizon. “We’ll make camp at the edge of it and go in tomorrow. I don’t think we’ll want to be stuck in the forest past dark.”

Jiles nodded with another yawn. “I’m getting sore.”

“You don’t ride enough.”

“There aren’t really many places to ride.”

“You could just ride around town.”

“That would look silly.”

Jacalyn shrugged. “After my first hunt or two and finding it makes one sore to ride for a long time, that’s what I did.”

“And you looked silly.”

“But it did the job. I got used to the ache.”

Jiles kept his mouth shut.

 

Jack fell down and broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after

Jacalyn’s time estimate was nearly spot on, and they arrived at the edge of the forest only a few minutes later than estimated. Jacalyn swung down off her horse and Jiles moaned as he did the same. Despite being comfortable in a saddle, Jacalyn was still glad to feel the solid ground beneath her feet after so many hours.

“We’re going to be riding that long every day of this trip?” Jiles asked.

“Yep. Get used to it.” She unharnessed her saddlebag and took a seat on the ground, opening it up to grab two apples from inside, one of which she tossed to Jiles.

“Thanks.” He took a seat across from Jacalyn and she set the bag aside as she took a bite of her apple. The sour juice filled her mouth and she longed for the sweet apples that rarely grew to full size back home.

It began to drizzle as they began another game of twenty questions and Jacalyn put her hood up, wrapping her cloak tight around her to ward off the chill. After only a couple of rounds spent growing miserable with boredom and damp, Jacalyn said it was probably time to go to bed and lay down on the hard ground, her cloak the only thing between her and rocky soil. After at least an hour of speculation about what might happen when and before and after they reached the Well, she finally succumbed to sleep.

Jacalyn rose with the sun, and she had eaten and put the saddlebag back on the horse long before Jiles awoke. She shook him awake and handed him a piece of cheese and a carrot before wrapping her cloak around her once more.

“We need to get going,” she said.

Jiles nodded and took a big bite of cheese before mounting his horse. “How big does the map say the forest is?”

“Thirty miles in each direction.” Jacalyn didn’t have to refer to the map, but knew it by heart from numerous hunting trips. “We should reach the other side at dusk, or maybe a little earlier.” She mounted and looked over at him. “Ready to go?”

Jiles nodded and Jacalyn snapped the reins.

It was still drizzling for the rest of the morning, and by midday it had developed into a downpour.

“Even the weather doesn’t want us to the go to the Well,” Jiles said with an awkward chuckle.

Jacalyn didn’t answer, keeping her eyes on their surroundings.

The forest floor turned to mud, and wet branches snapped at them as they traveled. Both of them had to duck numerous times under some of the lower branches and of course there was the unstopping rain pounding down and soaking through their cloaks all the way to the bone.

Why can’t it rain this much where the crops need it? Jacalyn thought, her mood as dark and dreary as the forest around them.​

A few squirrels could be seen here and there skittering for shelter, but otherwise the forest was quiet and still. Only a hint of sunlight was able to filter through the clouds and trees to reach them, leaving them in near-darkness. There were no birds singing to liven up the consistent pulse of the rain, and no bright flowers to break the dreary dark. Jacalyn could tell it weighed on Jiles’ mood as well. He slumped in the saddle, and his expression held very little sign of life.

For a whole day they rode in silence through the dark, until finally they emerged on the other side. But this wasn’t much better. The sky was still grey, it still rained, and they’d passed from a dark forest into a ruined city that was silent like a tomb.

“This is so much better than the forest,” Jiles said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

“At least we’ll have more shelter tonight than last night.” The sun was only faintly visible through a thick veil of clouds, but Jacalyn knew it was setting. She dismounted and tied her horse to a ruined stone gatepost before unfastening the saddle bag and stepping across the threshold of the city. Jiles followed her example.

It took her a few minutes to find what she was looking for, a half-collapsed stone building with a ruined floor. She lowered herself into the cavity that was once the basement and stepped into a corner where the floor above was still mostly intact and only a little bit of the rain dripped in, sitting back against the wall. Jiles sat next to her and she handed him the saddlebag, wrapping her heavy, wet cloak around herself.

“You pick dinner,” she offered.

A roll of thunder rumbled through the encroaching night and she held back a shiver from the cold. Jiles handed her a piece of bread, which she accepted gratefully. She ate it slowly, finding it to be just as bland as she should have expected.

“Hopefully the weather will be better tomorrow,” Jiles said.

Jacalyn nodded silently, focusing on nothing.

“Are you okay?”

Jacalyn shrugged. “It’s just the weather, I think.”

“I’m not sure. I feel it too. This overwhelming blanket of hopelessness and dread. I don’t think weather can do that. I’m trying to think nicer thoughts to shoo it away, but there aren’t many happy thoughts to dwell on.”

“You have lots of happy memories with your family.” Jacalyn felt a pang of envy. She’d never had family. She’d always been the black sheep of the village, always an outcast, but never officially, so she never left. That and she cared about Jiles and his family. She knew they needed her hunting and other support, so she stayed to take care of them.

“And you.”

Only the smallest of smiles reached Jacalyn’s lips. “I’m sure you have more with your family. I don’t tend to leave happy memories. No one likes me much. Or trusts me.”

“You’re just different than what they know. People don’t tend to trust what they don’t know and aren’t familiar with.”

“I’m not even all that different. I’m only more willing to go out of the village. And somehow that makes me untrustworthy?”

“Beyond the village are only the ruins and people they don’t associate with. They don’t trust your comfort with those places. They think you’re dangerous.”

“Do I look comfortable here to you?” She hugged her legs to her chest. “I’m freezing and this place gives me the creeps. I’ve only been here twice, and in the daylight, and I’ve always felt a crawly creepiness. I wouldn’t exactly call that comfortable.”

“But the people back home don’t know that. They just know you venture outside of what they know.”

She turned toward him, her dark eyes shining. “Do you think I’m dangerous?”

“Jac, you know I don’t. Not the way they think you are.”

“Then in what way?”

“You’ve trained yourself to fight. No one else in the village has. If someone or something attacked you you’d have them lying dead on the ground in a heartbeat.”

Jacalyn snorted and turned away. “Not really.”

“Maybe not, but it certainly seems that way. We need the kind of dangerous you are. We need someone who knows how to protect us.”

“But if they don’t trust me then why would they let me protect them?”

“Because even if they don’t trust you they know they need someone to protect them. They know they can’t do it themselves. They’re not entirely blind to their lack of skill in that area.”

“Still. If I’m so ‘comfortable’ out here in these ruins, maybe I should just leave and stay here.”

“Jac, you know you can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because even if most people don’t trust you, there are still people who need you and care about you and would miss you if you left.”

“Yeah. Four of them. And one of them is dying.” Jacalyn bit her lip. “I’m sorry. That was entirely rude and uncalled for.”

“You’re probably right. But would you leave if there was even one person who wanted you to stay?”

Jacalyn arched an eyebrow at him. “What question are you veiling under that one?”

“I’m just saying I care about you.”

“And asking if I care about you enough in return that I’d stay if you were the only one who cared. I know you too well for these things to work.” She smirked a bit. “I suppose I might stay if you were the only one who wanted me to, but you’d have to be very convincing.”

“Of course.”

Jacalyn rested her head back against the wall. “Goodnight, Jiles.”

“Goodnight.” He lay down on the floor and she closed her eyes, but sleep didn’t come.

She opened her eyes after a while and looked over to see Jiles’ chest moving up and down in a steady rhythm. Asleep. She turned back to face the wall opposite her – not that she could see it in the dark – and sighed. Jiles was desperately trying to get closer to her, and always had been, but she kept pushing him away and distancing herself from him, certain that one day he’d see like all the others that she didn’t belong. He wouldn’t trust her, either, and he’d turn away. But it grew harder and harder as time went on for her to keep herself distant from him. He really did care about her, and he was the only one. Sure, his mom and sisters didn’t mind her, but neither did they care about her like he did.

With a million thoughts swirling in her mind, her eyes finally drifted closed and she slept.

 

Up Jack got and home did trot

As fast as he could caper

Jacalyn awoke and squinted against bright morning sun. She stifled a smile and looked over to see Jiles already awake. He handed her an apple.

“Good morning,” he said with a smile.

“Morning.” She took the apple and bit into it. It almost seemed sweeter than most, but she knew that couldn’t be. She rose from her spot on the floor and moved to the edge of a strong section of the upper floor, straining to reach it and lever herself up onto it. Jiles tossed her the saddlebag and she set it aside before helping him up.

“How many times have you practiced that?”

“Three times, now, but I pull myself up onto high tree branches fairly often.”

“Ah. That explains it.”

Jacalyn led them back to the entrance and saw that both horses were gone. “Uh oh.”

“We can still make it without them, right?”

“Yeah, but it’ll be a day longer to get there and two days longer to get back.”

“We can do it.”

“What’s made you so optimistic all of a sudden?” She slung the saddlebag over her shoulder.

“For one thing, the weather’s a lot nicer. For another thing, this place is actually kind of pretty. And for a third thing… I actually have no idea. I just have a feeling things are going to be fine.”

“And feelings are always trustworthy.” Jacalyn sounded incredulous, but she felt a bit of that optimism, too. Which just made her distrust it all the more. “Let’s just go. We want to get as early a start as possible. There’s still twenty miles of ruined city, if I remember correctly, and we’ll have to hurry if we want to make it out before nightfall.”

They started through at a brisk pace and as Jacalyn walked she realized the ruins actually were kind of beautiful. Moss grew in the cracks and crevices of the stone walls and pillars scattered throughout, both those standing and those fallen, and vines curled around everything, displaying delicate white flowers that shimmered in the bright sunlight. Against her better judgement, she began feel comfortable as she walked. It didn’t seem like there could be anything dangerous, even as a tiny voice in the back of her mind nagged at her that something was definitely wrong.

Despite the nagging worry, they crossed the ruins without any problems and talked for a long while after nightfall before going to sleep.

 

Jacalyn awoke and woke Jiles, tossing him an apple as he sat up. Sun still shone bright, but Jacalyn’s feeling of security was no longer so overwhelming.

“How long before we get there?” Jiles asked, taking a bite of his apple.

“We should get there late in the day today.” Jacalyn slung the saddlebag over her shoulder.

Jiles nodded and stood up, taking off his cloak and draping it over his arm. “Let’s go, then. Almost there, right?” He smiled.

Jacalyn returned the smile, but her worry and reason was beginning to creep back, along with the same sense of dread that she’d had in the woods and their night in the ruins. Instead of giving voice to her concerns, she started walking, with Jiles right beside her.

Their travel that day was uninteresting, mostly across grasslands with the sun shining down on them. Jacalyn squinted against the bright light and wished for a hat to block it.

Finally, as the sun began to lower in the sky, she saw a hill in the distance, and a dark shape on top. The grass on the hill was unnaturally green, and Jacalyn wondered if there was anything they could do to make the soil back home that fertile.

“There it is,” she said, her voice quiet. She still wasn’t entirely comfortable that everything would turn out okay, but as they arrived the majority of the weight of worry lifted from her shoulders. They’d gotten this far, at least.

They climbed the hill and Jacalyn let her gaze roam the well. The stone was an ordinary color, the inside bearing a bit of a reddish cast to it, not the black portrayed on the map, and the depths were shadowed. The sun didn’t reach the liquid below, blocked by a cap over the well. There was a bucket attached to the winch, already lowered into the darkness.

Jiles started to turn the winch, and it creaked as he did so. In a moment something began floating up from the depths, an orb of dark red. As it neared the cap, it stopped and formed into the rough shape of a human.

“You seek the healing water of the Well,” the thing spoke, shimmering like liquid. It was not a question, but a statement.

“Yes,” Jiles said.

“Do you know the price of the Well?”

“No.”

What might have been an amused smile caused the thing to shimmer and shift. “Then you may find yourselves unable to pay. Or rather… unwilling.”

“Why? What’s the price?”

“First, why do you want the water?”

“My mother is dying.” Jiles bit his lip. “Please. Tell us what the price is.”

“Dying, eh?” It was hard to read the thing’s expression, but Jacalyn thought it might have shifted its gaze from Jiles to her and back. “Well then… a steep price indeed. You see, the power of the water requires that the injuries to be healed be substituted onto another.”

“You mean… Instead of my mother dying, I’ll have to?”

“You or your friend.” The thing’s gaze seemed to shift to Jacalyn again, lingering for a moment before swapping back to Jiles.

“I’ll do it,” Jacalyn said. The words came unbidden to her lips, but she knew she had to do it.

“No,” Jiles protested, turning his gaze toward her. “You can’t.”

“Well you certainly can’t.” Jacalyn’s dark eyes rested on Jiles. “You have people who need you. I doubt that anyone in your family would approve of you substituting yourself for your mother. I, on the other hand, don’t have anyone holding onto me. Except you.”

“Yes, and I can’t bear to see you go.”

“It’s me or your mother, and you know there’s only one option to that choice.” She removed the saddleback from her shoulder and offered it to him.

Jiles pressed his mouth closed, his eyes pleading. “Don’t do this,” he whispered after a while.

“I have to, Jiles. I won’t let you do it.” Jacalyn dropped the saddlebag on the ground and turned toward the floating thing. “How does it work?”

“Well, since the mother’s dying you’ll have to forfeit your life.” The creature seemed almost amused. “Your blood will be added to the soil here.”

Jacalyn didn’t like the sound of the word ‘added’ in that sentence, but she nodded. “Do it, then.”

“You’ll have to plunge into the well.”

“Jac, please don’t do this.”

Jacalyn ignored Jiles and stepped onto the well’s edge, sitting on the ledge and letting her legs dangle. She looked down into the dark depths and took a deep breath. She turned toward Jiles with an apology in her eyes. “Goodbye, Jiles. Take care of your mom and sisters, all right?”

Jiles shook his head, tears beginning to shimmer in his eyes. “Please don’t, Jac. Please don’t.”

Jacalyn let her gaze remain on Jiles as she slipped herself off the stone wall of the well into the darkness below.

“JAC!” Jiles screamed her name, gripping the edge of the well so hard the stone cut into his hands and looking down. “No…” He fell back from the well and clapped a bloody hand over his mouth, muffling the sobs that racked his body. “Jac…”

“Don’t let her sacrifice be for nothing,” the Shimmer said. “Draw the water.”

Jiles couldn’t move for a moment, staring at the well that had taken his best friend with wide eyes. Finally he staggered toward the well, his mind entirely blank, and winched the bucket upward. It passed right through the Shimmer and Jiles rested the bucket on the edge of the well, recoiling when he saw that the liquid within was red.

“What is this?” he choked.

“Blood, of course. It fuels the magic.”

Jiles gagged and turned to retch into the grass.

“Unless you’d rather lose both the girl and your mother…”

Jiles stood with his hands on his knees, shuddering uncontrollably. “None of this happened how I imagined…”

“It rarely does.”

Jiles stumbled back to the bucket and struggled not to gag again. He opened the waterskin he’d brought and filled it with the blood. “Please let this work,” he whispered.

“I make no assurances.”

Jiles’ eyes flicked to the Shimmer, wild with rage and pain. “You mean my best friend just died and you can’t even promise it was worth anything?”

The Shimmer giggled and shattered into red droplets that fell back into the well.

Jiles screamed, allowing the rage and pain to surge out of him. He imagined the scream leaving angry red marks in the air, like jagged lightning bolts.

When the scream was done, he collapsed to the ground, his eyes closing, and tumbled down the hill. The waterskin fell from his fingers and spilled out in the grass, and he fell down beside it. He didn’t care about the bumps and bruises, dwelling on the physical pain to avoid the pain of losing Jac. A strangled sob passed his lips and he just lay there for a long time. The sun sank and left him there in the dark, until finally he opened his eyes and looked up at the sparkling stars. He’d ordinarily find them beautiful, but now their twinkling seemed to mock him. They seemed almost joyful and so out of place amidst his pain.

He got up, ignoring the twinkling lights above. He picked up the waterskin and capped it, shaking it to make sure there was at least a little bit of liquid remaining inside. He climbed the hill and picked up the saddleback, slinging it over his shoulder before shoving the bucket back into the well. The winch spun loose with the weight and he picked up his cloak, which he’d dropped after Jacalyn tipped herself into the well.

His torn hands stung in the cool night air as he trudged back toward the ruins.

He barely kept track of the time it took him to get home. He didn’t stop until he collapsed at the border between the ruins and the forest, and after that didn’t stop until he was home and he was collapsing on the doorstep. His sister Marie helped him inside and into bed and asked him what happened, but he was too tired to answer. He succumbed to sleep.

 

When Jill came in how she did grin

To see Jack’s paper plaster

Mother vexed did whip her next

For causing Jack’s disaster

Jiles awoke and staggered into the kitchen, taking a seat at the table to find a bowl of porridge already set out for him. His mother was up and about in the kitchen, cleaning things up and looking quite well.

“You’re better,” Jiles said.

“That water you brought me did wonders.” She smiled at him. “It didn’t taste like water, but I suppose magical water wouldn’t.”

Jiles swallowed. “No, I guess not.” His stomach flipped as he looked at his porridge, and he shoved it away.

“Are you all right? And where’s Jacalyn? I haven’t seen her yet this morning. Ordinarily she’d be here by now.”

Jiles choked as he held back a sob. “She- She didn’t come back.”

His mother’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“She had to- She-” He couldn’t continue, nor could he hold back his tears any longer. He broke, feeling like a pottery jar that shattered into a million pieces and let its contents pour out.

His mother came over and wrapped her arms around him. “It’s all right. You can tell me when you’re ready.”

 

It took a long time for him to be ready to tell her. It was a full week before he finally gathered up the courage to go to her. He stood by the garden gate, on the opposite side from his mother as she planted a new bed of petunias she knew wouldn’t grow. Finally she looked up and must have seen the stricken look on his face for she set her gloves aside immediately and came over to the gate.

“She’s dead, Momma.”

His mother came through the gate and wrapped him in her arms. “Oh sweetheart. I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“The Well, it- One of us had to take your injuries. She gave herself up.” He swallowed hard. “She said I have more people who need me. But… But I need her, Momma! I miss her so much…” He choked and buried his head in her shoulder. “I want her back, Momma.”

“I know, sweetheart. I know.” She stroked his hair. “Oh sweetheart… If I’d known I would never have let you two go. Never.”

“I know, Momma. Neither would I.”

Jiles disappeared into the tears and grief, allowing himself to be swept away. Jac was gone.