A Catalog of Souls

His mouth opened one last time, his final agonal breath expelling in a soft moan for his fiancé to hear. She wept over him, her tears spilling on hospital linen. Too young. Both of them. And now he’s dead.

She wept for the remaining years of her life, religiously visiting the spot of land where her fiancé lay buried underneath.

Soon time had eaten her, her old bones withering to dust in the ground next to him.

He woke to the chill of cold air tingling inside his lungs. The man standing next to his bed smiled.

“What do you remember?” the man asked him.

“Her,” he said. “Where is she?”

The man straightened the white of his uniform with his hands. The gleam in the man’s eye held the weight of good news.

“She’ll be with you soon,” the man said. “Her name is also in the catalog.”

Behind the man was a glass wall, shielding the frigid, black space outside. Through the glass, several white objects, jagged in their structure, floated calmly through the black sea.

“Where do you want to meet her?” the man asked him.

“I remember dying,” he said. “She was there with me, there in the hospital — crying.”

“Ah, I see,” said the man. “That’s a popular choice. Close your eyes.”

He closed his eyes.

The bed hardened, changing. Soft tears dropped on his face. He opened his eyes and saw her leaning over him. Her eyes became saucers. Her mouth opened in surprise. The joy of seeing him alive.

“Hi,” he said.

Hands touching each other. Touching reality.

“Don’t ever do that again!” she cried, hugging him tight.

He frowned. “What did I do?”

“You died,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed. “But I came back. We came back. How is that possible?”

They cried together, forehead to forehead, and then she said, “Does it matter?”

A stranger burst into the hospital room, a knife in his hand.

“This is wrong!” the stranger shouted. “This. All of this. Unending. They don’t have the right!”

He raised the knife over the couple.

“Hold me tight,” she said to her eternal love. “They’ll bring us back.”

Steel on flesh. Blood dripping on white tile.

***

A finger scans through a list.

“Those names look familiar,” a voice says.

THE END

© Jack Lee Taylor 2015

Complimentary Basin

I park in front of the half-opened motel door, my headlights blazing on the tarnished bronze room-number nailed over peeling red paint: 105. Even with the brights on, the opened mouth of the door is a cavernous black, revealing nothing inside.

I turn to the woman in the passenger seat. “Is this okay?”

For a moment she doesn’t answer. Her face is hidden in darkness, but moonlight shines on the top of her tangled hair. She shakes her head and asks, “Why this place?”

I fan out a hand toward the motel room like a game show host. “Well, it comes with a lavish complimentary basin.” Though I can’t see it in the dark, I feel the heat of her frown. “Seriously, though,” I say. “I could really use a bed right now.”

“I’m staying in the car,” she says.

Sarah or Sharon. She had told me her name, mumbling it when I first picked her up two hours ago and refusing to repeat it when I asked her to tell me again. She doesn’t ask for mine.

“It’s probably not safe,” I say, scanning the empty parking lot. Through the red glow of the taillights I see the weather-beaten marquee sign behind us proclaiming F-O-R-S–L-E, an impotent arrow perched on top of the sign, pointing at me. Beyond the sign is the road and beyond that I make out dry earth and cacti. And beyond that… darkness.

“It’s safer than being trapped in some room,” she says.

I don’t argue with that because she has a point. But I’ve only seen a few of the dead lumbering about in the last fifty miles, scattered and baking in the desert heat. Plus, this abandoned motel would be too remote for a massive onslaught. I realize I’m tapping my right hip, feeling the hardness of the Glock in my jean pocket.

“I know what this is really about,” she says. She leans forward, her face now more visible from the headlights reflecting off the motel wall. Though she looks weary, her eyes shine like the surface of clear water, her lips full despite her frown.

“You really think this is going to happen, Mister?” she asks.

I sink back in my seat and then stiffen when I realize what she means. “No-no,” I say. “I’d — we’d be in separate rooms.”

“Look,” she says, her frown turning into a sneer. “You saved my life, Mister. I’ll give you that. You could’ve just drove on by, but you stopped and helped a lady in distress. But just because you helped me out don’t mean you get to sleep with me.”

There had been three of them, I remember. I had slowed down the car to watch them attack her on the side of the highway. All three were men. All three dead. Two of them were spread out a few yards behind her, flanking her from escape as the third approached her head-on. Instead of falling back, she pushed forward and managed to get past the third man unscathed and made a dash toward my car, beating on the windshield and yelling for help. I had opened the door to let her in and then gunned the car into one of the approaching dead men. It took a couple of miles from there before I told her she might want to fix her skirt because I could see her bare thigh and the white of her panties.

“I’m not trying to take advantage of you,” I say. “Two separate rooms, I swear.”

Something shifts in the headlights and I look to see the motel door moving, opening slowly.

“Drive,” Sarah-Sharon says.

I hesitate. I’m two people now: one that wants to peel away and the other that wants to see what’s behind the door.

“What the hell are you doing, Mister? Get us out of here!”

I pull out my Glock and Sarah-Sharon gasps, moving away from me. “It might be one of us,” I say. Before she can protest I see something skitter from behind the door, young eyes locking onto mine for a split-second before the shape runs into the darkness deeper inside the motel room. It moves fast, unlike the dead.

“It’s a kid!” I yell.

Something pops and flashes. The world goes half-dark as the left headlight goes out.

“Get down!” Sarah-Sharon yells. It doesn’t register until there’s another pop and a hole dots the windshield like chipped ice. Something punches me hard in the upper chest, a burning sensation in my shoulder blade. I drop the gun, my right arm useless for a moment and then it’s grabbing the gearshift, my foot jamming the accelerator pedal. I hear the car screech as I thrust in reverse and then something crunches from behind and lifts the rear of the car upward. I have time to curse the marquee sign before another pop smacks dull into the front of the car. I’m shaking. Why am I shaking so much?

Everything becomes a shade blurrier. A dream world filled with a throbbing ache.

Sarah-Sharon’s hand is reaching between my legs; the arousal is a strange mix with my pain. She gets the gun laying on my crotch and then pushes her door open. I want to tell her about the trigger safety, but she’s already shooting, two shots. Silence.

I blink and then Sarah-Sharon is gone, no longer kneeling behind the open passenger door. I blink again. Slow blinks. The car is quiet now. Still. Maybe it’s dead.

Sarah-Sharon is standing over a quivering body lying on the parking lot in front of the room I wanted to share with her. The boy on the ground is older. Much older than I thought. A teen. He has a large rifle in one hand. She kicks it away, kneels to say something to the boy and places a hand over his head, stroking his hair. She then stands back up and shoots him in the head.

Blink.

She’s sweeping through the motel door, peering inside like she’s a cop or something. Maybe she is. Or was.

Blink.

She’s over me now. Pressing the wound. Her breath is soft, her sweat almost flowery.

“Hey, Mister,” she says. “Stay with me. Keep your eyes open.”

She’s tearing my shirt open. I love her.

“I love you, Sarah…Sharon,” I say.

“Shannon,” she says with mild annoyance. She works on the wound near my neck, telling me I’m lucky that the bullet went all the way through.

I am lucky.

“You saved my life,” I say. “That doesn’t mean you can sleep with me.”

She doesn’t reply. We sit in silence inside the car as she patches me up, but I see it there briefly in the moonlight. On her face. A smile.

Just for a moment.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

I can’t wait to tell her.

THE END

© Jack Lee Taylor 2015

Pigtails

“I got to pee,” Janet said.

It was the perfect four words to break the long silence in the car. The road trip had now spanned close to eight hours since dawn, and the last two hours were the most arduous for Janet’s father as he wrestled pigtail curves across the endless countryside.

Ned Rollins glanced from the driver seat over to his wife. Maggie looked back at him with tired eyes. From behind them Janet said again, “I got to pee.”

“Honey, I asked you if you had to potty during lunch,” Ned said over his shoulder. “You said ‘no’. Even Mommy asked you.” He grunted as he made another sequence of braking and steering toward the oncoming curve.

“But Daddy I gotta piss bad. Right now! I gotta piss! I gotta piss!”

“Janet Ivy,” Maggie said, cautious not to break into laughter. She didn’t turn to give the five-year-old her expression of schoolmarm disapproval, not that she was able to do so effectively. Her eyes were kind, a soft hazel against the light of day, and the corners of her small face were round against her short-cropped hair, making her look more pixieish than womanly.

Janet started moaning and twisting in her pink booster seat, her small legs locking together. Now Maggie did turn to look at her pig-tailed daughter, feeling the tightness of her spine as she twisted to see Janet’s weary face. It was a long, relentless trip; the blurring of scenic green, mottled asphalt and yellow sunlight became a tiresome canvas spread endlessly around them. Maggie sighed and then looked back at Ned. She said, “You’ve got to pull over.”

Ned looked at her with shock. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “Do you see anywhere I can stop on this freaking rollercoaster track?”

“I didn’t mean right here,” Maggie said. She felt that familiar flush of rage that would kindle into loathing, but she doused the heat inside of her. She looked out the passenger window of the Rollin’s SUV and studied the steep decline below. From her side of the road the foothill sloped down dangerously into a chaos of thick trees and jagged rocks. She thought, Why on Earth did Ned’s parents choose to live this far out in the country? She hated every part of this impromptu trip, naturally, because she hated his side of the family – brash hicks that did nothing but cover their ignorance with stubborn pride. Pride in what? Living like hillbillies?

“Mommy!”

Maggie straightened in her chair, going into full maternal alert. She turned back to Janet, trying to find some word or action that would calm her daughter for at least a few more miles until they could reach some type of clearing. Janet looked back at her mother, defeated, and it took Maggie a moment to understand the resignation in her daughter’s eyes meant her child’s battle was over. Janet’s bladder had won.

“No Janet,” Maggie said. “Oh no!” Through the crotch of Janet’s purple shorts bloomed dark liquid, soaking out from her inner thighs; glistening streams ran down her shins and stained her white socks.

“Ned. We’ve got to stop. She’s peeing on herself!”

Ned growled, stifling the expletive under his tongue. He inadvertently yanked the steering wheel out of true and the boat-like SUV swished and screeched in and out of equilibrium.

“What are you doing?” Maggie shouted. Ned ignored both her and his mistake. He sped up at the last stretch of the latest curve and saw the road blessedly straighten for the next few hundred yards. He said, “Mag, there’s nothing we can do about it now. I’ll pull over when I can pull over.”

Maggie opened her mouth to protest, closed it and looked back at Janet. Her daughter looked away, her eyes reddening with tears. Maggie wondered if her daughter’s embarrassment would linger on past this moment, becoming a mental scab bronzed into her worst childhood memories. She let out a long breath, mentally preparing for the job of cleaning up both her daughter and the backseat.

“It’s okay, honey,” Maggie said. “You just had a little accident. We’ve all done that.”

Before Janet could hear the rest of her mother’s comforting spiel, the Rollins family came to a stop. Ned grinded the gearshift into “P” and opened his door in quick succession, leaving the SUV rocking to stillness. The heat from outside invaded the AC frost within; the smell of grass and sunbaked vegetation filled the interior. Maggie watched her husband get out without a word. He was a tall, lanky man in shorts looking up at the hot August sky. Above him were bulbous clouds that seemed unnaturally low to the ground. He shaded his eyes with a hand and then turned back to look at the rest of his family.

“Well,” he said. “You wanted me to pull over. We’re pulled over.”

“Don’t be an ass,” Maggie said. She turned and opened her door and felt it jar back against her arm. There was a dull, metallic thud from the car door rebounding back.

“I can’t get out,” Maggie said and then looked around, taking notice of her husband’s half-hearted parking efforts. Ned had nested the SUV against the right side, edging close to the flat green fields on Maggie’s side of the road. She looked through the front windshield and saw the stretch ahead was flat where the road was no longer paring into mountains but laying straight for several hundred yards.

Far ahead, the yellow glint of a sign flickered back, and Maggie was sure it was another countless warning of more dangerous curves to come.  She thought of how this area was like some sort of relief zone linking to the next treacherous climb, where during a time the old builders of this cursed road had decided to obey the flatness of this part of land.

Maggie needed to get out. She had to clean up Janet, but she also wanted to get out, stretch her legs and walk about. Only her door would not open. There was nothing she could tell blocking her, only a scattering of trees — and something else far beyond the first speck of trees. Some type of boxy thing.

“Geez, you dented the door!”

Maggie jumped back when Ned’s large face popped up from the other side of her window, consuming her view of outside.

Janet said, “Mommy, can I get out now?”

“Wait,” Maggie said and then to the monstrous face outside she said, “What do you mean I dented it? I can’t get out. There’s something blocking me.”

Ned kneeled back down out of view. Maggie heard rustling behind her and saw Janet had removed her seatbelt and was scooting down off of her booster seat.

Ned, his voice muffled from outside, said, “There’s a damn rock sticking out right here. We got to move up a bit.”

Maggie took this cue and waved her daughter back, “Wait honey, your father’s going to move the car up a bit. Then you can get out. Okay?”

Janet grimaced and made no effort to get back in her seat. Maggie let it go, seeing as moving up a few feet wouldn’t be worth strapping back in for, and she knew sitting back down in a puddle of urine wasn’t something she wanted to force Janet to do.

Ned slipped partially back into the driver seat, his door still ajar and his left leg still hanging outside. He shifted back into drive, his right foot lifting off of the brake to idle forward.

“Maybe we should get off the road,” Maggie said.

“Nah, we’re okay,” Ned said.

“It just feels like we’re still in the middle of the road.”

Ned said nothing, but the weight of the silence came through to Maggie clearly. They hadn’t come across anyone else over the past two hours since passing through this part of Tennessee, and there was nothing else on the GPS map until they reached Ned’s parents, which was another twenty miles away.

She looked behind her, looking past Janet through the rear window. She saw the road behind them veer left and then disappear behind the massive foothill they had just cleared. She could hear the contented idle of the SUV grow louder and wondered why it grew louder still after Ned had stopped. Then her mind retreated, stifling her voice when she saw a metal face suddenly appear from the road behind them, growing larger and roaring forward. Before Maggie could react, could even interpret what she was seeing, the Rollins family began to twirl.

It wasn’t a complete spin in place, and there was no hard impact, but Maggie was disoriented, for now her view ahead was the open field instead of the road. Janet, she thought immediately.

“Janet Ivy,” Maggie cried. “Janet. Are you okay?”

There was no answer. Two things immediately registered. Both Janet and Ned were gone.

“JANET!” Maggie shouted. She reset her mind through her panic and began to think back in series. She saw a car. No. A truck. Loud.

Maggie stretched through the space between the front seats and saw Janet lying on the rear floorboard, her eyes closed.   Maggie screamed and riddled Janet’s body with trembling hands, feeling for life and breath.

“JANET! Wake up baby!”

Maggie wanted to pick her daughter up, not caring about internal injuries, but it was impossible to pull Janet through the nook between the front seats, even if she was able to climb over toward the back. She called out for Ned, nearly cursing his name. She peered through the gaping hole of the driver side where Ned had just been sitting.

Through the door-less view was the road leading onward. Maggie half-expected the rusty pickup truck somewhere ahead, parked and idling, perhaps damaged. There was no truck, only the empty road and the letter ‘L’ lying on it. Maggie closed her eyes quickly, squeezing out tears and sweat down her face. She turned back to the passenger side door and pushed frantically, not caring that it had once denied her exit. Because there was no longer anything blocking her side now, she easily spilled out onto the ground. She pushed herself up and groped for the rear door, feeling exposed to the road now behind her.

Janet was still nestled on the floorboard, her still face pointed up. Maggie reached in and then broke her fast-forward motions and slowed the moment her hands cupped her daughter’s face. She was afraid to move the girl. She put her face close to Janet’s upside-down face, feeling for the feather-warmth of a child’s breath mixing with the humid air.

“Please Janet,” Maggie whispered, “Baby please wake up.” And with a rush of blissful relief, she felt her daughter cough into her face. Without the trained grace of a paramedic, Maggie fished her daughter out of the car. If there were broken bones, if there was anything wrong, it would have to wait.

Maggie hoisted her daughter against her chest and then staggered out toward the open field. Janet stirred in weak sobs, never fully awakening. Maggie shushed her, pushing back her own guilt for another moment. It was her fault, she thought. She should have strapped Janet back in.

“It’s going to be okay baby,” Maggie said, stroking the sweat from her daughter’s forehead.

“Mag?”

Ned’s croaking voice came faint through the hot air, not really coming from any direction. Maggie cleared five feet into the grass and looked around for him.   She knelt, still holding Janet, thinking that being more level to the ground would help her find her husband.

“Ned? Where are you?”

“It’s cold,” he said. His voice was louder, almost leading to echo. Maggie’s arms were near atrophy, becoming solid support beams that did best to hold and not crush her daughter, but she refused to let Janet go. She studied the SUV now perpendicular to the road, the gleaming front bumper smiling back at her. From there she traced her eyes north back to the ‘L’ shape on the road and took in the reality of her husband’s dismembered leg. Suddenly Ned’s morbid phrase he would say on occasion to her popped into her mind like a dirty joke: I love every piece of you my dear.

Call someone now!  Her mind demanded and then she remembered her cell phone was in her purse still in the blasted car. “Mag, I can see you,” Ned said and as if the sound of his voice had spiked into her eyes and pulled them down to show where he was, she found the rest of her husband sunken in long grass, nearly enveloped in green. He was easy to miss, as if he was being pulled into the ground. Beyond him, Maggie eyed the strange structure she had seen just before the hit-and-run, something like a wooden box, gnarled and dark.

“Ned!” she shouted and stood erect, keeping Janet intact.

“Don’t come here,” her husband said. “Don’t let her… see me.”

Maggie stopped and looked down at Janet. The young girl’s eyes were still closed, but they moved behind her eyelids as if lost in nightmare. Maggie set Janet down as gently as possible onto the field, feeling replenishing blood course back into her arms. She stood up, giving Janet a reproachful look, and then ran toward Ned.

“It hurts, Mag. God it hurts.”

Maggie ran fast, her sandals flapping hard against her feet through the waves of grass. When she went full stop a few feet in front of Ned, she nearly slipped in a pool of his blood. She looked with disbelief at the amount of red that puddled before her and streamed slowly between the blades of grass like a swampy murk.

Ned shook with gasping breaths, his bulging eyes darting about. He lie there clutching something tight against his chest with both hands. Maggie opened her mouth in horror, seeing him splayed out on the ground with two legs extending from his drenched shorts, one of them made of pure wet crimson.

“Janet?” Ned said. Maggie was silent for a moment and then blinked.

“She’s fine Ned. She’s okay.” Tourniquet, Maggie thought and wanted to cry. She needed help. Because she was no life-saver. She was no girl-scout. She couldn’t even begin to know how to tie a tourniquet knot or do something even more profound like cauterization or whatever the hell else trauma surgeons did. What could she possibly use? Her shirt? No, her mind objected, his belt. And with that cosmic joke, Maggie looked above the fly of Ned’s pants to see the belt loops empty. From far off, she heard Janet crying.

“I’m sorry,” Ned cried. He shook harder, his entire body quaking, his head pitching back and forth on the ground. He said again, I’m sorry, muttering it over and over. Again from far off, Janet continued crying. Only it really wasn’t crying. It was laughing.

“Don’t let her go there,” Ned cried, his voice straining in between grunting breaths. Maggie had gone into action, putting her hands down — palms flat — below Ned’s left hip where his hip bone once presided. She pushed above the torn stump of him, ignoring the disdainful voice telling her it was pointless. Ned struggled, releasing the thing clutched to his chest, his cell phone falling away greasy with his blood. He pushed Maggie’s hands away.

“Keep him away from her,” Ned said again, and then went into full convulsions. Maggie cried back at Ned, wanting him to be still — please just be still. Then in one final jerk, tensing for the last time, Ned Rollins did go still, staring with eyes that had finished crying under the vaporous sky above.

“Mommy, come here,” Janet said.

Maggie leered behind her, still in shock. She wiped hard at tears spilled more from relief than horror. Janet came into focus about twenty feet away. She was jumping up. Dancing. No. Not exactly dancing. Catching. Catching the air.

Bubbles.

They glistened in the sunlight like faint fireflies twisting around the little girl. Janet reached out into what seemed like random pockets in the air, ending the lives of these strange bubbles with her small hands.

Maggie stood up slowly. She stared silently, first at her daughter and then simply at fuzzy light. The world wavered and the acute treble of sounds around Maggie was slipping off to muffled white noise. Maggie slapped herself until she could feel the sting on her cheek. She dispelled the urge to pass out and began to breathe in and out slowly.

“Janet, stay right there,” Maggie said, her own voice a stratosphere away. She knelt back down, not looking at Ned’s eyes, and grabbed his cell phone. She then walked, lurching at first and then striding slow and careful, toward Janet. The phone was a bloody mess in her hands, but there was electronic life in the glare of the screen. She dialed 911 and increased her pace toward Janet. Because those bubbles aren’t really there. Maggie was in shock. So was Janet. So this was okay. Let them share imaginary bubbles together.

Maggie heard the unfeeling beep of a failed call and tried again, caking the phone screen with blood-spackled fingerprints. Little Janet continued running through the swarm of bubbles, heading closer to the box ahead. Maggie heard another call beep with failure, and then she dropped the cell phone to her side when she saw the person in the box.

From this close to where Maggie could see, the box was more like a dilapidated woodshed. The roof was rusted tin, ruffled with the edges curled down like dog ears. Wooden boards, aged to grayness from long years past, lined together like gaping teeth for walls; they slanted the entire structure unevenly to the left, making the small house appear tired of being upright. There were no windows among the wooden walls, or any kind of thoughtful disruption to decorate the structure.

The person sat on the ground directly in front of the house, sitting on three boards laid unevenly to what Maggie could only guess was the vestige of a porch area.   The person was shaded black under the shadow of the shed, but it was clear to see that the trail of bubbles that spewed out long and plentiful into the air came from where the person sat.

“Janet, get back here now!” Maggie shouted. Janet, ignoring Maggie, leapt forward in the next fray of bubbles, twirling about and laughing, her urine-soiled shorts now nearly dry in the summer heat. Maggie doubled-timed it and caught up with Janet. She grabbed at the little girl, gingerly at first, remembering the image of the unconscious child from before.

Forget the phone, Maggie thought. They were getting out of here. She had the car. She would take Janet and drive them far away from here. And if the car didn’t work, she had her legs. Both legs. This made her think of Ned again, the feel of his spongy stump under the weight of her hands.

The person stood up slowly. Maggie couldn’t make out any features in the shadow, but she saw the person’s frame was short and frail with drooping shoulders, clearly soft and unintimidating. Before she could think of why she said, “Excuse me.”

There was no reply. Maggie pulled Janet closer to her, considered picking her up, but then decided to pull them both back, away from the stranger.

“We had an accident,” Maggie continued. No reply, but the person stepped forward into the sunlight and Maggie saw the oldest man she had ever seen in her life. His yellow egg eyes were crossed. He was bald, his head blotched with red, flaky sores. His faded blue shirt and jeans were nearly colorless, almost blending with the dark boards behind him, stained only under the armpits and crotch from body sweat.

“I saw,” he said slowly, his southern voice low and gravelly. He raised his hand, holding what Maggie could make out as some type of bottle. It was ceramic, mud-like, riddled with cracks. The top of the bottle narrowed into a long gooseneck tip where the man put his ancient lips around and blew. Through the middle of the bottle a flap suddenly opened and a flurry of fresh bubbles shot forward. Janet giggled, reaching out for the next wave coming her way.

“You saw,” Maggie repeated back. The old man removed the bottle from his cracked lips and watched the bubbles make their way to the woman and child. Maggie looked down at Janet and then back up at the old man. Just harmless old mountainfolk. “So then you know my husband is hurt really bad.”

The old man grinned, his toothless gums showing like a second row of lips. “Naw’m,” he said. “He dead. Burnin’ in Hades.”

He started laughing in slow, soundless heaving breaths. Maggie recoiled, pulling Janet closer to her. She yelled back, “You think that’s funny? You stupid old hillbilly bastard think that’s funny?”

Bright pain suddenly burned into Maggie’s eyes when a cluster of bubbles landed on her face, bursting whatever foul juice that came from the old man’s bottle into her eyes. She blinked rapidly, feeling the burning intensify. She cried out, rubbing at her face. She tasted her tears and detected the medicinal taste of the strange bubbles mixed in. She hit the ground screaming on both knees, dropping the cell phone and letting go of Janet. Dear God I’m blind, she thought. Blinded by some backwoods moonshine.

“Janet, don’t touch the bubbles,” she cried. “Stay right here and close your eyes.”

“Come on chile,” the old man said. The music of Janet’s laugh was soft and distant. Maggie forced her eyes open, but no light came to her sight. She screamed out again at Janet, reaching blindly through the bubble slime around her.

“Chile come over,” the old man cooed. At this Maggie found direction and ran full-speed to where the old man’s voice came from, feeling more obscene bubbles burst upon her bare skin. Through the unseen air, Maggie’s groping hands found pigtails. Maggie grabbed and pulled hard, reeling Janet back into her arms. If the chile felt pain, she laughed through it. She’s gone, Maggie thought. Her mind is gone. Maggie held on tight, falling onto her back with Janet on top of her, contained in her arms.

The old man said, “Ye shall judge angels, chile. All stillborn.”

Maggie kicked out, hoping to break some fragile part of the old man. She tried desperately to see, feeling the hot wind around her eyes, but saw nothing. As she kicked away, she felt a bristled heat go down her bare thigh, the prickling sensation hardening to a grip and she understood the old man was holding her leg. Janet laughed as Maggie reeled away, nearly steamrolling her daughter as she moved from the old man’s touch. One of Maggie’s sandals flew off as her foot connected with something hard, cracking it. She heard something fall next to her with a dull thump.

“Angels be damned!” the old man cursed. Maggie heard him hawk back and spit. She felt warm liquid pelt her left cheek and she twisted her face away, her mouth gaped open in disgust and then mindfully shut.

“Stupid hillbilly!” she shrieked.

Maggie trashed her legs farther out, but hit nothing. She kept at it, scissoring her legs out blindly until the fatigue from her hysterics started burning through her body. Panting hard, she heard the low sound of an approaching car.

“He’s gone,” she heard Janet say. Only it was her own voice that said it. Not Janet.

Maggie felt her eyes cooling, her vision returning. She could now see faint sunlight trickle through. She remained still on the ground for another minute, listening to the approaching footsteps crunch through the grass, the concerned but reassuring new voices of help on the way.

Maggie touched her face, wiping away her sweat. The old man’s spit, she remembered. She smeared the sopping wetness onto the grass and then stood up, staggering for balance. A hand cupped her right shoulder, steadying her.

“Ma’am,” said one of her rescuers. She looked at the young man’s pale face scrunched under a John Deere cap. He stared back at her with wide eyes.

“What happened?” He asked, his adolescent voice breaking. “Is she…?

He pointed down to something on the ground. From behind him, a child-faced woman stepped up next to him, a hand over her mouth.

“They’re dead,” the young woman said.

Maggie ignored them both, her rescuers. She kept looking around for the old man, looking for his strange bottle, now broken somewhere on the open field. Whatever she would do, she would not look down at the two bodies on the ground. One, a man. The other a small child. Her frayed, dark pigtails buried in deep grass.

THE END

© Jack Lee Taylor 2015

 

Saffron

Here’s Chuck Wendig’s latest ball-buster challenge (X meets Y). I had to shave a lot of darlings to get the word count down. Hope you enjoy.

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Saff stared far into the sky, seeing the dark shape of the Grandfather pace about inside his floating sphere. Years of my home-sector’s pain and suffering done by just one man, she thought.
 
She looked away, regarding the other Fate-warriors around her, all of them suspended within the dark void of the time-arena. Saff felt vertigo creep back as she fought for balance inside her timepod. She pushed the dizziness away just as Verek glided toward her.

“Are you ready, young one?” he asked. Saff nodded, a little disturbed by her Fate-partner’s exuberance. Verek had reveled in being chosen for the Fate wars, howling the name of his home-sector Nagryaal with pride when he was picked. Saff, however, felt dread when her name was called by the Speakerlock. Nagryaal was the only sector that never had a champion survive the Fate wars, never earning the prize of the gifted timeline where the Grandfather would alter the future of the winning home-sector to flourish each year, extending life and economy under his rule.

“Here, take this,” Verek said, slipping the air blade into Saff’s hand. She welcomed the familiar feel of it but said, “Fate-warriors are not allowed weapons.”

Verek grunted. “You’ve never seen an actual time battle before, have you?”

Saff shook her head, tucking the blade into the sleeve of her Fate-warrior suit.
 
Verek frowned and then forced a grin. He knows I won’t last, Saff thought.
 
“We’ll be fine,” Verek said. “Just remember after the first clash to stay back. Reset if you must, and stab anyone who comes close — except for me, young one. And remember, if you can materialize into any of them, do it fast before they’re aware, or else you’ll be ripped apart by their counter-attack.”

He means the Dispersal, Saff thought and then felt for the soft buttons of the keypad on her timepod. One button to reset backward in time. One button to go forward. And one button to obliterate your opponents by tracking their wormholes and then taking over their point in space.

The Speakerlock floated down from the Grandfather’s sphere like a spectre. Saff flinched, finding the Speakerlock’s face hideous. It’s not a face at all, she thought. It’s a head made of smoke.

“Fate-warriors,” said the Speakerlock in a guttural voice, “the Grandfather gives you all his blessings. We are ready to begin.”
 
“What about the Bralen?” asked a booming voice. Saff looked past Verek to see a tall figure glide toward the Speakerlock. It was an intimidating Fate-warrior wearing the red colors of a northern sector.
 
“Ah, First Xeeren of Plen,” said the Speakerlock. “Brave of you to interrupt.”
 
“They should not be allowed to fight,” Xeeren said, pointing to a pair of Fate-warriors donned in gold colors.
 
“That idiot,” Verek grumbled. “The Bralen are my first target. By drawing attention to them, he makes them more wary.”
 
“The Bralen have earned their right to immortality, Fate-warrior,” said the Speakerlock, the mist of his face swirling into a black, scowling hole. “This should goad all of you to know how a sector can be rewarded. But fear not. The Grandfather’s gift of time is greater than any gods he creates. Nothing is immune to the Dispersal
 
“ENOUGH!”
 
Saff winced at the sound of the Grandfather’s thundering voice coming through the sphere.
 
The Speakerlock’s face fell out of shape. “As you command, Lord. Let us begin. Good fate for our sectors!”
 
Several cried in answer: GOOD FATE FOR OUR SECTOR!
 
“Remember, young one,” Verek said. “Wait until after the first clash.”
 
Saff rested back against her timepod, breathing out slow to calm herself. She hated the way the timepod felt against her body, a restrictive cocoon-like bed of metal that pushed against her arms and legs.
 
She looked out into the void of the time-arena. The Grandfather had blackened the walls, keeping the Fate-warriors bounded within the arena, blind and deaf to the cheering spectators outside in the Grandfather’s temple. Is my father out there watching? The thought of her father made Saff think of her little brother Yaren, how he hugged her so tight before all of this.
 
“How far back can we go?” Saff asked, hovering closer to her Fate-partner.
 
“We can only reset to the start of the battle,” Verek said. “And you can only go as far forward as the wormholes available to you. You know the teachings of the infinite stream?”
 
Saff nodded, thinking back to Ladywise Fal’s teachings. One stream can become many, but all are of the same stream.
 
“That teaching will not work here,” said Verek. “You cannot duplicate yourself in time. And don’t hesitate when making a jump. The wormholes are countless and if you wait too long, you’ll miss your chance to move to the most favorable timeline. Remember young one, if you die before a jump, a reset won’t help you. You’ll no longer exist.”

“SEAL THE FATE OF YOUR SECTORS!” the Speakerlock cried and then flew up toward the Grandfather’s sphere. The arena vibrated as the sphere floated out through the wall of the time-arena, disappearing like waning moonlight.
 
At first there was silence, all of the Fate-warriors frozen in place. Before Saff could even react, the arena exploded with light as Fate-warriors collided into battle. The first clash, Saff thought, listening to the war cries and the clanging of metal.
 
Smoke filled the arena. Saff coughed, feeling a burning in her eyes, the space in front of her blazing with fire.
 
“A fire-cluster!” Verek screamed. “RESET! RESET!”

Heat. So much heat! Saff twisted in her timepod, pushing frantically at the buttons on her keypad, but she could not make out the wormholes that appeared through the smoke.
 
I’ve lost, Saff thought with despair. I’m sorry, Father. Yaren. I tried. 
 
She pushed frantically at the buttons on her keypad. The heat intensified no matter how far back she glided away from the flames.
 
I will die with honor. Saff shifted forward, going into the flames and hoping she would not suffer for long. Only, instead of burning, she was falling.
 
Saff had never traveled through time before. Nagryaal was against the Grandfather’s magic since he first arrived with his machines. Saff’s teacher, Ladywise Fal, had told Saff that time should be one song, never to be resung. “Such was the way before the Grandfather came,” Fal had said. “A time of Healers that gave us endless life. Now the world is split into many, granting all power to the Grandfather whether we wish it or not. The Healers have been erased.”
 
“But the Grandfather gives a gifted timeline to champions,” Saff had argued. Fal scoffed at that. “Young one, there is only one gifted timeline: one without the Grandfather. Strange that such a timeline has never been asked nor gifted.”
 
There was no heat inside the wormhole. No more fire. Saff opened her eyes to see a dark tunnel, a single bead of light far ahead.
 
Back, she remembered. I’ve reset. The small bead of light suddenly engulfed her and she found herself back in the arena. She saw the Fate-warrior woman in eastern yellow colors glide toward Verek, holding the fire-cluster bomb. No! I didn’t go back far enough.
 
“Verek!” Saff yelled. “Behind you! A fire-cluster!” Verek had been the one that warned me, Saff thought with wonder. She thrust her timepod toward the woman, but Verek dove forward from his timepod, leaping out into the woman.
 
“NO VEREK!”
 
The fire-cluster exploded within Verek’s warrior suit, tearing both him and the woman into burning bits of cooked meat. And then they vanished from the arena, the smell of their burning gone.
 
BACK! BACK! Saff reset, taking the closest wormhole she could find.
 
She jumped through and then gasped with surprise, but not because she couldn’t find any trace of Verek.
 
So many gone, Saff thought, looking around the near-empty arena. She remembered Verek’s words: If you die before a jump, a reset won’t help you.
 
But your wrong, Verek. You do still exist because I’ll never forget you.
 
A timepod glided toward Saff. A Bralen. Something silver gleamed in his hand. Saff tensed, rubbing at her sleeve for the air blade Verek had given her. No! They cannot be killed. She reached for her keypad. Forward. Try forward. But she hesitated, unable to comprehend what she was seeing.

The Bralen’s timepod began to ripple, stretching out of true. The Bralen screamed, his immortal body separating into bloodless pieces. The Dispersal, Saff thought. She hovered back as she watched Xeeren of Plen materialize into the space that once held the Bralen.
 
“Could it just be us now, Nagry-child?” Xeeren asked. He hovered in front of her, his eyes curiously gentle.
 
Saff glanced around, keeping the Plen close to her sight. Xeeren was right. There was no one else in the arena. How? How could she have made it this far without even engaging an opponent?
 
“What is your name, little one?” Xeeren asked.
 
Saff did not answer. How do I fight this man? If she could get close and use the air blade across his neck. Then he counters with the Dispersal.

Then I’ll be dead.
 
“Third Saffron of Nagryaal,” Saff said.
 
Xeeren nodded with a slight smile. “Well Saffron, we’ve played the Grandfather’s game long enough. With respect to Nagryaal, I will make your death swift.” He raised a hand and yelled, “For Plen!”

Xeeren disappeared. Saff twisted, spinning around in her timepod. Her opponent was nowhere to be found. He’s moved forward, she thought. She pushed her forward button, eyeing several wormholes sprouting in front of her. It was difficult to see which wormhole showed Xeeren. Then she felt a tingling in her stomach.

He’s using the Dispersal!
 
Saff jumped into a wormhole. Forward. Back into the empty arena. Still the strange tingling inside her. He’s tracking me. Forward. Again. Backward. She grimaced, feeling pain bloom within her midsection. Backward. To the beginning. The room still empty. The burning growing stronger.
 
Keep jumping! Backward. Forward. The wormholes looked like mirrors all showing the same empty room.
 
Then another jump and something grasped hard around her throat, making her eyes bulge.
 
“Enough running, little one,” Xeeren said in a gentle voice. He stood over her, standing on the base of her timepod, his own timepod hovering somewhere in the distance.
 
Without thinking, Saff pulled out the air blade from her sleeve flicker-fast and slashed underneath Xeeren’s forearm. The Plen pulled back in a hiss, releasing his choking hold of her. Saff lashed out again, missing Xeeren’s neck but leaving a red line across his chest. Instead of sending him back, Xeeren charged forward, catching Saff’s blade arm and cramming her fist into her belly.
 
Saff gasped in pain as she felt her air blade sink deep inside her.

“You fight like a true Fate-warrior,” Xeeren whispered. “Plen will remember Third Saffron of Nagryaal.”
 
He released Saff’s right hand. She dropped it back down on her keypad, her air blade still stuck in her midsection. With a trembling hand, she pushed the forward button.

“You are done,” Xeeren said, but before he could stop her, they both moved forward.
 
An infinite sea of wormholes bloomed in front of Saff. She jumped through them randomly, never stopping once to see the blackness they ended in. They all lead to death, Saff thought.

Forward. As far forward as she could go. There. The Speakerlock appeared, reaching out to stop her, but she jumped forward past his reach. Forward. Into darkness. So much darkness.
 
Xeeren clutched tight to Saff’s timepod. He was screaming at her, but she could barely hear him.

Forward. Forward. Until she saw it. A new bead of light. She passed through and paused at the end of the jump. Her vision blurred, but she still marveled at the sunlight around her. Through the mixture of colors on the open field, she could make out the crumbled ruins of the Grandfather’s temple.

Is this it? she wondered. Is this the timeline without the Grandfather?
 
“Fate’s door!” Xeeren cried. He released his bloody arm from the timepod, enchanted by the openness around him.
 
Saff breathed in deep, feeling the deep ache of the blade burn inside her. She focused and then pushed hard two-handed against Xeeren’s chest. He fell out of the timepod and into the soft grass.
 
“Forward,” Saff said, her voice sounding distant. Why? Where am I going?
 
“Wait!” cried Xeeren and then Saff was back inside another wormhole.
 
Forward. Forward.

She stopped, slumping inside her timepod. Her knees folded; she spilled out of the timepod. There was no ground to meet her. Only arms catching her. Holding her.
 
“Is it her?” a child’s voice yelled. More voices. Children’s voices in full laughter. And then an old voice.
 
“It is, child,” said the old man. “Third Saffron of Nagryaal. Bring the Healers.”

The old man touched Saff’s cheek. Those same gentle eyes. “Don’t worry, Grandmother. The Healers will take care of you. I’ve waited a long time for this.”
 
“Xeeren?” Saff said in a weak voice.
 
“Yes,” Xeeren said. “I am so sorry. If I had known. If we all had known…”
 
“Gentlewise Xeeren,” a young boy said, “The Healers are here.”
 
“Good, young one,” Xeeren said and then placed a withered hand over Saff’s hand. “You found it,” he said. “You found the true timeline, the one meant for this world. No one had ever dared go so far, so perilously far.”
 
Xeeren raise up slowly, letting the Healers fall in. Saff noticed he wore a Gentlewise robe, those worn by ancient scholars from long ago. He looks nothing like the man I fought in the time-arena.

Hands encased Saff’s forehead and she felt instant relief. She couldn’t even feel pain when one of the hands pulled the air blade out from her gut. More hands pushed on the wound on her belly, healing her from within. It was as if fresh life was poured back into her. Healers of Old. The ones the Grandfather took away long ago.
 
Saff sat up, bemused. I’m alive.
 
“Now, Grandmother Saffron,” Xeeren said, “you must go back. Claim your prize from the Grandfather. And then use it to find us. To build for us.”
 
Saff was led back to her timepod by a crowd of children dancing around her. She smiled instinctively at them and then looked up at Xeeren, who stood back to watch her leave.
 
He waved at her.
 
She stepped back into her timepod, hovering a few feet to call out to Xeeren. “How will I know what to do?” she asked.

Xeeren smiled. “How did you know to come here, Grandmother? You will know. For you know how to control your own fate. We will meet again soon, Grandmother.”
 
A tear fell down from the old man’s face. Saff watched him turn and walk away. He was once my enemy, she thought and then looked around. Here there were no enemies. Here there was only life and praise for existence, for being alive and enjoying the world that was given.

 She leaned back in her timepod, adjusting the head strap. She looked down at the children once more, laughing and waving at her, calling her Grandmother.

All this from a push of the button, Saff thought.

She pushed the button.

 Backward.


THE END

 

© Jack Lee Taylor 2015