Days of Grey: Day 2

“What if we don’t make it?” Lauren’s voice was thin and crackling with the exhaustion we were all feeling, but it carried enough for most of the heads of our group to whip around in her direction; a few faces projected horror, but just as many reflected the terrified resignation in Lauren’s question.

For some reason she was looking at me. Like as if I would have some clue, just because I was the one who’d had a map of the area shoved in the pocket behind the seat in my car. The joys of being a packet who rarely cleaned, I’d actually had something still handing kicking around after the cell nets died and electrical systems went down, and one by one people’s mobile and tablet batteries wore out – not that the GPS was still working by then anyway.

“We’re all together, and it’s not that much farther. We’re GOING to make it, Lauren,” I growled, hating having to be the bitchy one, but the last thing we needed was for this to turn into some stupid What If discussion instead of all of us just continuing to haul ass. To their credit, nobody seemed interested in slowing down. As if anybody would want to, considering the things slouching and shuffling and burbling along behind us.

“But we’ve been walking for days!” she complained, and god help me I could have smacked her right there, if it hadn’t meant stopping and turning around. Every step had to be a step in the right direction, because my knee was a white-hot ball of agony from walking so much so suddenly, and my lower back was a study in strained muscles. I never did get into the whole hiking and backpacking thing as a kid, which is too bad. It’d be handy now to know how to balance what I was carrying a little better.

“Look – this sucks. You hurt, I hurt, we ALL hurt,” I snarled, sneakered feet trudging along across the grassy meadow that blanketed the hillside we were half-climbing, half-rounding. “But this is the one plan we’ve got right now, and the only alternative I can think of is to just stop and let them catch us.”

“Why don’t we?”

In spite of knowing better, my weary stride faltered, and I stopped, waiting for her to catch up to me before forcing my screaming thighs to lift my legs back into motion. “If you want to be a hot meal, fine. Hand off your bags and just sit your ass down. But I am not fucking done, and I’m not giving up. I never figured you for a quitter, Lauren.”

A few of the others had slowed or even halted nearby to listen to the exchange, and my stomach twisted. Keep walking, just keep walking…

“No, I suppose you didn’t,” she said flatly, and with a quirk at the corner of her mouth that was enigmatic, very nearly a smile. “You always DID want people to have your best qualities in them. Lead on,” she gestured, and we fell into step, some of the others trailing ahead of us.

According to the map it was just over the hill, but I didn’t even have it in me to try to get up in front, to make sure. All I could do was put a foot in front of a foot, and listen to what sounds might float back. Please, let it be there. Please let it be standing. Please, please.

I could see the wrought iron first, as I came over the crest of the hill, the pointed, fleur de lis tips of it thrust toward the sky atop the thick cement wall more than twice my own height – and there, where the old dirt road had wound up toward it from the valley, one side of the big double gate still stood open, men with fantastically large looking guns standing on either side of it, watching our silent company trudge through.

I slowed to a halt to watch everyone coming round and through, checking faces, counting heads, until there was nobody left but me, and one of the soldiers gave me a questioning look. “We’re the last ones. Nothing human left, now.”

“Right then. Let’s close this up.” I dragged my feet through the gate and turned to watch it getting pulled shut, the huge heavy slabs moving ponderously across the dirt; someone came forward with chains to loop through the metalwork at the top, and someone else had a bucket of mortar all ready to start slapping into the joins, reinforcing them.

We’d made it out – and nothing was going to follow us.
Funny. I’d never thought of guns as safety.

~~~

This was written as part of Days of Grey, a daily writing project in which anyone can participate. Just go follow the page. A prompt image will be posted to it each day throughout the month of February, meant to inspire bright, warm, happy fictions – or poetry, haikus, memoir essays, visual poetry – anything to get the mind focused on warmth and light and joy.

The Day Two image prompt comes from images_improbables on Flickr, via a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons license.http://www.flickr.com/photos/images_improbables/6748409757/
If you repost the photo, please keep the attribution notice intact.

Days of Grey: Day 1

Put the kettle on
my darling
put the kettle on
over the smoldering fire
in the air so dry

Put the kettle on
my darling
let’s have tea

Put the kettle on
my darling
put the kettle on
in the sunlight coldly filtered
I’ve a book upon my knee

Put the kettle on
my darling
let’s have tea

Put the kettle on
my darling
put the kettle on
it shall sing of steamy tropics
steeping our exotic leaves

Put the kettle on
my darling
let’s have tea

Put the kettle on
my darling
put the kettle on
Our cups are clean and do not match
But hold their drink so well

Put the kettle on
my darling
let’s have tea

Put the kettle on
my darling
put the kettle on
I shall fill the plate with biscuits
and drape this afghan on your chair

Put the kettle on
my darling
if it so you please

 

~~~

This was written as part of Days of Grey, a daily writing project in which anyone can participate. Just go follow the page. A prompt image will be posted to it each day throughout the month of February, meant to inspire bright, warm, happy fictions – or poetry, haikus, memoir essays, visual poetry – anything to get the mind focused on warmth and light and joy.

 

The Day One image is from fukumix on Flickr, shared under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons license. The original image can be found at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fukumix/4452576461/ Per the license, if you reshare this image along with what your write from this prompt, please keep the attribution info intact.

Book Review: Big Chills, by John McDonnell

I recently downloaded Big Chills, one of 8 books currently available from John McDonnell, from Amazon.com as part of a free promotion. Big Chillsis a collection of 9 pieces of horror flash fiction from this (according to the Amazon blurb) master of psychological horror.With a claim like that, I was very eager to dig into the book and see what was being serve up on the altar er, platter.

Flash fiction, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is an ultra-short form of fiction writing that can be as small as under a hundred words (although that often falls into the subcategory of “drabble”), and up to no more than a thousand words. Obviously, therefore, that made this series of stories a quick read by form of length alone.

It was also a quick read for content. The first story, All The Time In The World, begins in the 1500s on a sugar plantation, in media res of a conflict between a Spanish plantation owner presented with an african slave prophet who is causing an uproar among the slaveworkers of his Canary Islands plantation. Urged by his priest, his solution is swift and brutal – but the retaliation that follows is equally as brutal, and with long-reaching consequences for such a short tale.

One thing that struck me as I read was the consistently recurring theme, from a fantasy kingdom with a giant to a parson’s clairvoyant wife in possession of a Thor’s Hammer necklace to a particularly snide babysitter, of revenge. In most of the stories, someone is done wrong, and in one way or another are made to pay a price for their crimes. Some tales, particularly the story of an aging former model with Beautiful Hands, accomplish this in such a way that you can perfectly imagine it as a tale being told while sitting around a s’mores-toasting campfire, while others such as The New Boy attain their resolution in a way that even an experience reader of horror and thrillers would not expect.

The New Boy as well as New Year are both tales that leave the reader almost with more questions than when the story began, and New Year in particular is one that I personally would love to see expanded into a longer work. The premise presented is incredibly engaging, and I desperately wanted more of it.

Quite likely my favorites in this volume are So Few Giants and The Bad Babysitter. So Few Giants is the only outright fantasy-set piece in the collection, and manages in quite a short time to accomplish several twists of who is the good guy, and who is the bad. The closing line, echoing the title, gives it a wonderfully cyclical feel, and leaves one to consider what constitutes a giant and conversely the smallness of mind and intent that plagues all too many people. The Bad Babysitter delighted me in dealing directly and unabashedly with children and monsters, and with a wonderful deconstruction in brief of what Satan is in terms of evil:

Melissa sat down on the couch. “It’s a primitive defense mechanism, actually. I’ve studied it. It makes people feel safer if they have this cartoon figure to give them an alibi when they do something wrong.”“Cartoon figure?”

“Yes. The long nose. The pointy beard. The horns. Like a Disney character, actually. It has nothing to do with real evil. We have more real evil in our basement than you’ll even find worshipping Satan. I still say you couldn’t go down our basement in the dark and stay there for a minute.”

It’s precisely this sort of wry, impudently cheeky sense of humor that really makes the collection, in my mind; set against the recurrent theme of revenge, it really underlines the horrors that happen to the victims and antagonists, and leaves the reader with a wonderfully smug sense of “I told you so.”

Ultimately, I quite enjoyed this collection, and look forward to reading more of Mr. McDonnell’s work.

 

Big Chills is available from Amazon for $2.99: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005D2M72Y

John McDonnell’s blog: http://mcdonnellwrite.blogspot.com/

John McDonnell’s books on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/John-McDonnell/e/B004AXGYHQ

On Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/jaymack

31 Things In 31 Days: Day Eight

I hadn’t seen anybody in weeks.

That wasn’t entirely true. I saw Manny every day, if you call peering out the window at the fallen husk that had been his body “seeing.” He’d gotten tired of waiting, tired of wanting something to change, and he’d grabbed a shovel and crossed the lawn to the lichen-covered wooden fence, using the tool like an unwieldy axe to slice and chop and scrape at the lichen, trying to clear an area around the gate to get out. He wasn’t careful enough, I know that much. I couldn’t see what got him – maybe his hand slipped to far down the shovel, or maybe a bit flew into the air and he inhaled it. But I did see him stumble away from the fence, twisting as he fell.

The lichen was already starting to creep across his skin before he hit the ground, and I still haven’t decided if it was blessed or horrific that he never even screamed; he just squirmed and went still, while skin and hair disappeared beneath an uneven layer of mottling green. It crept out onto the grass as well, but once it hit the edge of the cement walk that rings the house, it halted.

Every day I check, and the lichen hasn’t moved from his body; it looks lower to the ground than it was. I’m not sure if its eating him, or if he’s decomposing. That was still unclear even after everything went into lockdown and quarantine, before all the television signals cut out.

Yesterday, though, I saw the bird.

I’ve never been very good with birds. It’s small, and brown, with a black head. I know enough to know things that it’s not – not an eagle, not a cardinal, not an owl, not a blue jay. Wrong size, wrong color. It’s a sparrow, maybe, or a chickadee. One of those small, forgettable birds that’s always there and you never really notice. I noticed it this time, because it was sitting on the fence. It was perched on some of the bare wood, where Many had scraped a swath of lichen off the top, and it was pecking blithely away at the layer of green as if it were made of a smear of worms or something. I watched it, waiting to see the stuff spread across it, waiting for a tiny lump of green to tumble off the fence.

It didn’t. The bird perched and pecked, nibbling bit by bit until the bare spot was all the way across the top of the board, instead of just a small section. Then its small head turned toward the house, and I could have sworn it was looking right at me. But birds can’t see through glass, right? They always flew into the windows when we had the feeders too close to the house, that’s why I’d moved them out under the apple tree last summer. I haven’t been out to fill the feeders since Manny left.

It looked like it was looking at me, though, and then launched itself, disappearing somewhere down the block.

This morning it came back, and it wasn’t alone. There was a second, and a third, and they’ve all been perching on the bare spots of the fence, nibbling and pecking at the lichen, clearing it bit by bit.

Another one just landed next to Manny. That’s why I’m writing this down instead of watching this. I don’t want to see what’s under the lichen there. But I can hear the flutter of wings outside the window, and I hope the birds get to the gate latch soon. I want to see if the whole world is green. If it’s not… I’m going to buy a lot of birdseed some day.

~~~~~

This was written as part of the 31 Things In 31 Days project, being run on the page of the same name on Google+. For more information or to participate, go there.

Day Eight Prompt:

 

31 Things In 31 Days: Day Seven

“…so what it really comes down to is not what religious-based system of morals you claim to adhere you, what your parents taught you to do, how well you please your boss, which charities you support, or stopping at that No Turn On Red when there’s someone on the sidewalk. True quality of life comes down to your answer of one simple question: How do you live your life when nobody’s watching?”

There was a long moment of silence, and then the room erupted into applause around me, to which the speaker smiled and nodded her head, then stepped aside form the podium to bow. After a moment, I joined in, but distractedly, mulling over the final punch of the presentation. How do you live your life when nobody’s watching?

That question bothered me, largely because I really hadn’t a good answer for it, and I couldn’t bring myself to make much more than the weakest effort at friendly smalltalk as I circulated through the crowd. There were a few folks I knew there, and I was acutely aware of a growing sensation of being on display as we made our old familiar greetings, chitchatting about the conference and the hotel and work and the hundred sundry things that give us common connection with our peers. It was hard to concentrate, with that question reverberating, forcing me to notice all the things I did because they were watching me – smiling just so, making this joke, adjusting my tie.

I excused myself and drove home, scowling at the dark streets, unable to not notice now how the passage of other cars forced me to alter my own driving; a blinker here, a careful slowing there. Even getting home was little relief, because I know how Mr. Watson liked to keep an eye on the folks down our little dead end road. I’d noticed once, when some of his mail had been mixed into mine and I’d brought it back to him, that he had a chair and a table with pens, notebooks, and binoculars, sitting under the curtained front window of his cape at the end of the cul de sac. Probably he could see nearly everybody’s comings and goings from there, kept note of it all. That was unnerving even before the presenter’s question got under my skin. How do you live your life when nobody’s watching?

Now my scalp practically prickled with the sensation of being watched as I hoisted my luggage from the trunk and rolled it behind me to the front door. The sensation did not go away as I let myself in and closed the door behind me, and I felt awkward walking down the hall to the bedroom. Each step felt strange and new, the step of my shoulders wrong, and the center of my back itched between the shoulder blades, even though I knew there was no angle that would let Mr. Watson see into my bedroom window from the front of his living room.

I walked around and pulled all the shades before opening my luggage and unpacking, a place for everything and everything in its place. Each movement felt stilted, like a performance, making me scowl at my own awkwardness.

Dinner was reheated leftovers, and as the microwave whirred I hunted up a roll of duct tape to tack down the edges of all the curtains, bending and stretching and with every motion feeling that unnerving sensation of being watched.

I ran out of tape before I could get the kitchen shades, so I shut the door and went to eat on the couch, frowning at the silent TV sitting opposite me, the unpowered screen cast grayish by the light slanting from the one lamp in the corner. Bite by bite I ate the warmed up chicken parm, and each piece felt heavy and too large in my mouth. My jaw felt badly hinged.

The fork rattled on the plate and the pasta slurmed in its sauce when I slammed it down on the table, and went to kneel in front of my armchair. She was silent and wide-eyed there, still rumpled from her trip in my suitcase, hands still tied to her thighs, ankles tied to the chair; it looked like perhaps it was wrenching her knees a little, with the pencil skirt allowing no give. It hadn’t let her curtsey on the stage, either. The cloth napkin still filled her mouth, and mostly muffled the cries as my knife dug between her eyelids, one and the other, gouging those bright eyes right out in a runnel of blood and grayish translucent jelly.

She struggled in the chair, screaming against the cloth in her mouth and lurching from one side to the other, while I returned to the couch and pulled my plate of chicken pram back into my lap. The knife hovered over it for a moment, smeared with the eye-stuff.

How do you live your life when nobody’s watching?

I cut off another chunk of chicken and swirled it in the pasta, scooping up some of the noodles. It was delicious, and I was finally able to let my mind wander as I chewed.

~~~~~

This was written as part of the 31 Things In 31 Days project, being run on the page of the same name on Google+. For more information or to participate, go there.

Day Six Prompt:

How do you live your life when nobody’s watching?

 

31 Things In 31 Days: Day Six

The gathering below started small, at first – just one or two of the tiny fae, not bigger than a blueberry any one of them. Then more came flitterfloating in from all directions, in pairs and bunches, and every last one of them a tiny glowing golden glow. I could hear the murmur of them, as much as one ever hears them – more that their worries and concerns trickled through the air to slip under the skin. Worry. Fear. Even anger, which is fairly rare from the lightfairies.

As good as their name, they lit this small section of deep and inaccessible woods as though it were not the dark of night, and what few curious lightningbugs came darting in were quickly shooed off like cats from a kitchen when a roast is cooling. Then the outcry began.

How many of their number had been lost?!

How long was this to go on?!

Why were there no protections to keep them safe in the pursuance of their duties?!

The outcry was raised and echoed on all sides, not only by the soundless shared voice they projected unto one another, but by the very movement of the lot of them. Where, as they gathered, they had floated largely upon a shared plane with some of them lifting from time to time to drive above the lot and settle down back in, now their concentrated, commingled, and heightened agitation swept through them like a wave, literally rising and crashing back down amongst the tree trunks. It prickled beneath my flesh, and I raised from my haunches.

I could not blame them, as I genteely freed my claws and unfurled my wings. None of the others seem to like it when I ate them, either.

~~~~~

This was written as part of the 31 Things In 31 Days project, being run on the page of the same name on Google+. For more information or to participate, go there.

Day Six Prompt:

 

31 Things In 31 Days: Day Five

It was the end of the world, they said.

It was the obliteration of life as we know it, they said.

It was inescapable, they said.

It was beautiful. It happened at night, where I was, the chunk of spacebody from some far distant system that had come trucking across the empty bits between stars and planets and comets and rock belts, cruising overhead not nearly as quickly as I expected because for all they said such doom and gloom I had expected it to zip across the sky in a thin white streak like shooting stars which aren’t really stars, they’re bits of rock or dust or martian shit on fire on the doorstep of our sky – but it wasn’t like that at all, brightening the one side of the horizon like the sun coming up except the sun doesn’t come up in the north by northwest, and the sun isn’t irregularly shaped, and doesn’t arc across the bowl of the sky above us like a thick and heavy flag being swung by a revolutionary, like a jet plane just big enough to watch trucking along but high enough to not hear its engines until it was well ahead of the sound, and there was only a little bit of sound to this, a hesitant hiss that I could have sworn crackled but maybe that was just because it looked like fire trailing yellow and red and orange against the stark dark blue, and it disappeared mostly behind some old broken walls that had gotten given up on as Never Getting Fixed long before the land was mine to bother taking care of, orange and blue just like my nephew was trying to show me was everywhere on posters and DVD covers and such, and since this had never happened before and was never going to happen again I stopped and watched it all the way across the sky, and when there was nothing but its feathery, burning tail left streaking past the stars, I hoisted my wheelbarrow to follow the old back road back up to the barn.

It was radioactive, they said, and we’d all be sterile, and in a hundred years nothing would be left born, and we’d all die out even before then maybe from starving. Maybe that was so, but the calf in my barrow was alive.

I don’t understand why they called it Phoenix.

~~~~~

This was written as part of the 31 Things In 31 Days project, being run on the page of the same name on Google+. For more information or to participate, go there.

Day Five Prompt: