The Serious Moonlight

Writing Exercise – Brigit’s Flame – June 2nd (exactly 500 words) The full moon picked out the man’s horse, reflecting itself ten fold in every white dapple of the beast’s hide. It was curious that he had not chosen a darker steed, for the man was clothed in black and dark leathers.

He moved with silence. Not a clink, creak, or crunch emanated from his moving figure.

Darius, observing from the edge of a window, was impressed by the effectiveness of his stealth. He wondered if he would even be able to smell the man come to kill him.

The young man had noticed an aroma surrounding the people of the Farssidy Province that was foreign to him. He was not sure if it was caused by the unique spices they used in their food or some other habit of custom, but the fragrance of this place was making him homesick.

Darius feared that eating too much of the local food would render him unrecognizable to the dogs — if he ever made it home again.

As a child, Darius had always known he would be a knight; it was his predestined course. But what he dreamed of being (before he understood the role fully) was an assassin.

He had an uncle, or a man his father called a brother, who was whispered about throughout the court by men and women alike. Even the soldiers spoke of him in hushed tones. Entralled with the air of mystery, Darius had climbed in his uncle’s lap one day and asked the man to teach him his trade.

Uncle Torvis treated it like a game at first; teaching Darius to be unseen and unheard. By the age of thirteen, he had mastered the  exercises in dexterity – climbing and walking along the thin edges of walls in silence and complete darkness. By fourteen he could walk up to a man, slit his throat or deliver a dose of poison, and be gone before the body fell to the ground.

Darius did not like to kill, but he was good at it.

From a recess between two beams he watched the man who silently crept in his room and brought out a dagger to harass the empty bedclothes. The stranger’s weapon slid through the layers with ease; only a crisping of the rushes audible to the room.

This confirmation of the stranger’s purpose was the cue Darius had waited for. He slipped silently from the rafters onto a table in the darkest corner, then slithered through the shadows to the assassin’s side. A blade came to his hand with a soft flick. It was black, casting no reflection of the moonlight – slender as a nail and so sharp the skin could not feel its passing. A hollow recess contained poison that seeped from the blade midway along the shaft.

The assassin died with no more than a sharp intake of breath as the blade pierced a vital organ and the venom took its turn. Darius placed the man in his rented bed and slipped outside to see about the horse.

Waking Up

Brigit’s Flame JFF Entry
March Week Four – “The Devil I Have Not Met”
WC: 2,555
Warnings: some violence and adult situations/references

Consciousness flowed into her senses at the pace of a calm sea sliding up the shore. At first, the notable call of a gull overhead, then the roiling click of pebbles in the ebb and flow of the tide. There followed the burning grit of sand embedded in shallow slices over knees and palms. More pebbles were rendered by her senses — these pressed carelessly into her cheeks.

With effort the woman rolled onto her back. Cool sea water lapped at her heels and icy droplets plopped onto bare skin too wet to complain further. One eye opened. Followed by the instinctive twitch to raise a hand against the glare, but the sky was thickly grey – the sun a hint of white struggling to be seen through a pewter day. Sails spun overhead, languid and uncharacteristically colorful.

She blinked. The ground was firmly beneath her back, but the great billowing sheets circled directly above, parallel to the beach, as though trapped in a fixed tempest. She struggled to make sense of this, but a pounding started up in her skull that drowned all thoughts.

And the clickety pebbles.

And the hungry sea birds.

She was jetsam – wet and alone on a beach with nothing but the sound of her own blood crashing against her skull to the rhythm of a racing heart. The internal maelstrom pulled her under.

After a while, she could hear the birds again and all of the tidal sounds became external. The waves were caressing her calves now. The ocean had dragged the pebbles and sand away from her feet creating two deep ruts. She stopped thinking about her head and started working on a way to get up the beach before the tide could collect her for another journey.

It was a slow and painful process that involved much crawling (after some falling). Her head hammered, while her knees and palms burned and the frigid rain made her shiver violently. Teeth chattering – consciousness waning – she pulled herself into a small cove that was relatively dry.

Lying down felt too much like succumbing to weakness, so she struggled to prop herself up against the hard stone wall behind a boulder conveniently stationed to block the wind. While settling in, she managed to anger a few small crabs who claimed first rights to the shelter. The boldest used his large claw to bite into the tender flesh at the base of her thumb. Fruitless attempts to fling him off were followed by one solid crack to the shell from a fist-sized stone that the cove offered up.

She was hungry — though the sensation had not made it through the pain until now. There was nothing to eat in the cave — except this one dead crab. He wouldn’t yield much meat, but since she was limited to eating raw less might be better. She ate the slimy flesh from his claws and the claws of his friends who were not smart enough to run when the others started dying. Keeping it all down was an effort – not just for the lack of cooking.

She passed out instead of vomiting. The blackness overwhelmed her with stealth and swiftness, replacing pain with nothing for a time.

The dark void lightened to the interior of the shallow cave, glowing softly with the light of a full moon and a nearby lantern.

Hands were groping at her body.

She let out something between a yell and a scream in protest and confusion. Instinctively, her legs flailed in defense. She felt her knee connect with something – someone’s chin by the loud clack of teeth that followed contact. A surprised grunt. Male. Then whiskey fog engulfed her face, trailing the stench of rotting teeth and a diet of fish. A calloused hand scratched across her mouth and nose, blocking out the foul breath but introducing new odors that called to mind outhouses and the heavy sweat of a barmaid’s thigh.

“‘Ere now. I thought you was dead,” the man slurred in mock concern. “No need for screamin’. I was simply looking for your purse to pay the grave-digger.”

His full weight was pressing down on the woman – her head pounded with the struggle to buck him or position her head to bite his stinking finger off. The mugger’s hand turned toward molestation as he groped for flesh through her salt-stiffened blouse.

“Mind you,” he sneered, “I prefer a struggle to cuddles. You caused me a bit-a pain when you clocked my chin, but all of this wriggling has me want to forgive you. Open these knees and we’ll call it a truce, Lovely.”

Violently the would-be assailant’s head rocked out of view as she smashed his temple with the stone from dinner. Ignoring the waves of pain in her head and nausea in her gut – barring the black void through sheer force of will – she bashed the man’s skull with two fists and a rock until she was sure he would not get up again. There was no energy left to hold off the gorge. She sprayed the corpse with half digested crab, then used the last of her strength to push away from him and fall into the soft sand.

Blackness returned.

Hands groped again – these more rough than searching. Before she could kick out, she felt her ankles gripped firmly. She was being dragged from the cove into the wet sand.
“Are there no gods in this place that will let a woman die in peace?” she yelled into the void threatening to swarm her consciousness again.

A flash. Gunsmoke filled her nostrils like cotton and another man’s limp body was crushing her own.

For a moment, she had the sense of being carried, then nothing.

Sun broke through the clouds, warming her eyelids and cheeks. She raised a hand to block the glare. The pain in her head had turned down to a flicker. She noticed a bandage wrapped around her hand, then registered the scent of fresh linen and oranges. Down a curve of sand from where her window looked out, there was a great windmill with churning sails for blades.

Zeldyn Cay.

The name breached the surface of her mind as though in need of air.

Zeldyn Cay. Followed by a sense of accomplishment. There was still something missing – a huge gaping hole in her memory – but Zeldyn Cay was the name of this place. She was sure of that, and she was sure it was where she wanted to be.
A door she had not noticed creaked open a hand’s breadth. There was no warning of the approach, thus no chance to feign sleep. It was pushed open further to reveal a cheery, red-cheeked face frilled round with a house bonnet. She darted a hand to her head and realised she was wearing one as well.

“Stars!” Redcheeks exclaimed. “The healer said you were on a good turn, but we had no hope of you being awake so soon.”

The woman delivered this information in a rush; crossing the room with a nervous flutter of hands. Then she turned to look at the door as though she might rush back out. Redcheeks faced the patient again, leaning in – eyes wide and cheeks redder with a fresh blush.

“I’ve no doubt you’ll be wanting your breakfast. I’ve been feeding you your broth for the last few days and keeping yourself clean. But now that you are awake to ask, I wonder which you’d like first – the pot or your soup. They’re not on the same tray, mind. That would be unclean.” Redcheeks twittered nervously.

With a hoarse croak she requested use of the pot, followed by a quick and uncomfortable bath with rags and a pitcher. During the process Redcheeks introduced herself as Mary and explained that the Marshall had spared the patient from the ruffians who surely meant to drag her back to their ship.

“What can we call ye, Miss?” Mary asked when her own jittery tempest of words had finally calmed.
“I don’t know,” the patient rasped. “I can’t remember who I am or how I came to be here. I felt I would die on that beach. I think I may have been on a ship in a storm, but that’s conjecture not memory.”

“O,” Mary said with a little moue. She stood from the bedside and walked to where she’d placed the tray of soiled rags. Then she turned back to the woman lying on the bed and asked cheerily, “What can we call ye, Miss?”

The other woman paused, searching Mary’s eyes for signs of joviality or madness. She wished she knew her name. It felt so weird to be without one. A thought came to her – it didn’t have the confidence behind it like the name on the map, but it felt as close to right as she could get.

“I washed up on shore, so why not call me Jetsam until I know what to call myself? Is that good enough, Mary?”

The red cheeks glowed happily. “Well I think that’s a lovely name. Jetsam,” Mary repeated as though tasting the word for the first time. “Jetsam. I will let the Marshall know.” With that she handed Jetsam a bowl of large green grapes and instructed her to finish the bowl. “We want you to be fully recovered so the Marshall can walk you down the aisle instead of carrying you over his shoulder.” Then she turned and walked out the door.

“What aisle?” Jetsam asked with alarm to Mary’s retreating back. Mary just winked and closed the door behind her. Jetsam could hear her nervous twitter from the hallway.

Days passed in a mix of confusion, boredom, and deep sleep. Primarily the confusion stemmed from the intense periods of sleep. Jetsam could not tell if she had slept for twelve hours or one. Mary would wake her to eat, eliminate, change her dressing, and sometimes just to talk to her. The joyful girl was very fond of word problems, but did not seem able to do them herself. They would sit together by the window and Mary would read the questions aloud, expecting Jetsam to suss the answer each time. Another source of confusion was the Marshall. Per Mary, he had announced that he would marry Jetsam during the days she’d spent unconscious, yet he had never once stopped by to introduce himself or get to know her. This seemed to make perfect sense to Mary, but Jetsam was already planning her escape to avoid an arranged marriage she had not agreed to.

When the healer came by and told Mary that Jetsam was stable enough to traverse the stairs and even stroll a bit outside, Jetsam thought the Marshall would come by to take her on that inaugural walk himself. Perhaps he’d been shy about visiting her in her rooms or thought the amount of dressing required to receive a visitor too much in her weak state. Surely he would take a meal with her in the parlor or walk with Jetsam down the boardwalk to point out the ships of interest.

When she asked these questions of Mary, she was told that the Marshall was clear on the other side of the territory and would not return until the wedding night. Jetsam felt rather put out at this news until she remembered that she did not intend to marry the Marshall and did not want to be romanced besides.
“That’s just not what I came here for,” she thought to herself.

Mary kept Jetsam company as she got stronger. They continued with morning riddles and added games like catching the chickens in the yard to shoo them back in their pens and apple picking with only their aprons for gathering. It was a pleasant time, but every day closer to the wedding Jetsam’s restlessness grew. She needed to retrieve more of herself. She needed to find out why Zeldyn Cay was so important to her. She needed to slip away from the Marshall’s reach before he tried to wed her.

The healer stopped by one afternoon while Mary was at market. He checked Jetsam’s wounds, of which little evidence remained. Jetsam was used to his silence in these visits. other than direct questions about pain and how she was sleeping – if she was dreaming – he typically addressed the rest of his remarks to Mary. On that day, he surprised Jetsam by calling her by name and inviting her to meet him in the morning for a trip into the countryside.

“There is an herbalist there who may have a remedy for your memory loss. We will leave at first light.”

Jetsam could not argue. Finding herself again was one of her main goals. She left a note for Mary to wake her before dawn and laid out clothes for a brief journey.

Mary did not protest her trip with the healer. He was an older gentleman who seemed to be at the cusp of middle-age and frailty. It was midday when they arrived at the herbalist’s cottage. There had been some minor skirmishes between villagers that Jetsam had helped him smooth over along the way. The walk itself might have taken half the time if not for the civil unrest.

The herbalist introduced herself as Dwayna and welcomed them into the tiny thatched cottage like old friends. Dwayna was unimaginably old, with skin like a dried fruit and bent at a permanent right angle from the waist. She drew Jetsam to the small hearth and instructed her to pull down various herbs, liquids, powders, and jars of ingredients from the many shelves and nooks built into the main wall. Jetsam lined the items up along the table as instructed and engaged in pleasant conversation with Dwayna as Jetsam opened the containers with her more nimble hands and pinched ingredients into a pot.

The final ingredient was in a large tin so rusted and dented Jetsam could not find a way to open it. She turned it around in her hands many times, an untimely sense of foreboding crept through her stomach and tingled through her arms. The tin was familiar in some way. It tugged at her brain and charged her lungs with oxygen too heavy to push or pull with a mere breath. “Maybe I don’t want to remember,” she thought. But she knew that was wrong. Jetsam had been lost here long enough without her name and the million other things that belonged only to her – that made her who she was. “Who am I?” soared from her mind on the wings of a flying fish.

Her finger found a familiar dent in the tin, just over the rusted image of Die Lorelei singing from her rock. Without thinking, Jetsam pressed her left thumb into the depression and used her right to pry the lid up. It gave easily. She opened the tin and looked inside at the message that had been left for her. It read:

“Zeldyn Cay Quest is 75% complete. Are you sure you want to exit now? Your progress will be saved from this checkpoint.”

User JJJenson clicked ‘Exit’ and logged out of the game.

“In My Time of Dying”

Brigit’s Flame post Week 1, July
Prompt: Tie-Dye
Genre: Sentimental Fiction
Word count: almost 2,966
Title: “In My Time of Dying”

Partially inspired by songs by The Be Good Tanyas including one titled “In My Time of Dying” which is quoted in part of the story.

 

“Why couldn’t it be winter? Everything dies in winter.” Maizie dropped the gauzy curtain, turning away from the window. She hugged her wasting frame and studied Pappa’s lined face.

“What is your objection to summer, Love?” he asked Maizie softly. Pappa caressed her shoulders gently and smoothed the top of her hair.

She leaned into his chest and played with a thread escaping his sleeve. His arms felt so warm around her; he smelled like dryer sheets and the cheap aftershave she’d been buying him since she was eight. Maizie realized she had never really liked the scent in the bottle, only the way it smelled on Pappa and how it seemed a part of him; a part she’d given him.

“I’m sick. I feel like I should be wrapped in blankets. I’d like the comfort of a heavy quilt and a soft cardigan that’s a few sizes too big. But it’s hot,” Maizie pouted, “I look out there and I see half-naked Brach twins running through the sprinklers and getting sticky from melting popsicles. They make me sweat just watchin’ ’em,” she grumbled.

Momma called from the kitchen, “Then don’t look out the window.” She came into the living room with a cup of tea and a squeeze tube of honey. “Sit down and drink your tea,” Momma ordered.

Maizie flopped on the couch (because Momma hated that) and glared at the tea cup. “I don’t want tea. It’s too hot. I want lemonade,” she pouted, eyes drawn again to the light through the curtains as the twins squealed at their fun and carefree lives.

“If you aren’t ready to go, Bluebird, wait for the winter. We don’t mind having you,” Pappa said as he pulled the heavy drapes across the sheer curtains. Maizie watched his darkened silhouette over the back of the couch and smiled sadly.

“Maury, what are you doing?” Momma asked in that way — blending stern and resigned in the form of a question that she always knew the answer to before asking.

“Turning the summer off for a little while so Maizie can get some rest.” Pappa shrugged at Momma. The spoken answer was a courtesy they always practiced even though the shrug should have been sufficient.

“Maizie, please drink the tea,” Momma said, placing emphasis on each word.
“Maury, you cannot just pull the drapes closed and call the summer off. And Maizie can’t just decide to stay. It’s not a semester abroad, it’s leukemia.”

Maizie had been squeezing the honey bottle’s contents into her mouth, she tipped the bottle back to upright and watched Pappa’s reaction to the conversation incursion by the ‘L’ word. For a moment he looked so lost and alone, and angry.

He pointed a finger at Momma that looked like an accusation, but when he found his voice all he said was, “I’m gonna put the A/C down to sixty and find a quilt.”

Momma huffed, but before she could verbally protest Pappa’s voice came floating down the hall in a rant, “Bluebird wants to be comfortable then she damn well will be! What am I paying the electric bill for anyway? I provide the money to keep my family happy and comfortable, and since my money doesn’t seem to be doing a damn thing to keep my daughter healthy then I’ll spend it to keep her happy!
“Semester abroad,” he grumbled. “Talks to me like I’m the fool. It’s just tea, Cheryl!”

“You and your father,” Momma said, shaking her head, “It’s like you don’t even need me in the picture.”

Maizie sat forward and put the tea cup to her lips. “I was just waiting for it to cool, Momma. I’m still hot from the car ride.”

“I thought it might soothe your stomach.” Momma opened her mouth to say more then looked away, considering. She started again, keeping her voice low. “Maizie, I don’t just assume…I mean, there’s no reason to think that the treatments won’t work. Remission is a reasonable assumption at this stage. Even Dr. Keel says he is hopeful. I just… …your father’s a dreamer. I don’t have to tell you that, you are his daughter –”

“You can’t tell a man what to dream, Cheryl,” Pappa interrupted gruffly. “Bluebird, I’m not sure we’ve ever had a quilt, but I found this old sweater in a box in the closet.” He held it up. It was her grandmother’s sweater.

It was definitely too big for Maizie and there was a hole near the elbow and another at the place where the arm was attached. Maizie was transported to the memory of how that hole was made. They had lost Gams when Maizie was eleven. The grieving child had worn it for months; she had even slept in it. Momma eventually insisted the sweater must be washed but Maizie had fought her on it. She knew that washing it would change the smell and Gams wouldn’t be there any more. The fight escalated into a juvenile tug-of-war that ended abruptly when the sweater popped a seam.

Momma recognized the sweater, too. “Good god,” she said, “I thought we gave that old rag to Goodwill.”

Maizie crossed the room and accepted the sweater from Pappa with a smile. “Thank you,” she said softly as she hugged him tightly for a beat.

“Thank you for the tea, Momma.” Maizie gave her a quick peck on the cheek before walking down the hall to her old room.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

The next morning Maizie waited until Momma had left the kitchen to tell Pappa, “I had a dream about Gams last night.”

Pappa smiled over his coffee mug. “I miss that old lady. Best mother-in-law a man ever had any right to. Why are we whispering?”

Maizie glanced around conspiratorially. “I don’t remember much of my dream, but I woke up with this image of Gams holding something and I’d like to make it. Will you help me?”

Pappa nodded with a wink as Momma walked in to make sure Maizie was eating her oatmeal and had taken her pills.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

For phase one of the project, Pappa helped by buying all of the supplies and tools needed. Then he set up his workshop for Maizie’s use and installed a second air conditioner. Maizie was still wearing Gams’ old cardigan for comfort and to hang on to the feeling that Gams was with her.

Phase two had father and daughter pleating fabric squares into various shapes and securing them with rubber bands. Pappa lined up a row of plastic bottles filled with a rainbow of dye colors and two work stations comprised of cookie cooling racks balanced across tin foil pans. They talked easily of music and art, and reminisced together over Maizie’s childhood.

Over the days they worked on the dye, the duo kept the windows open in the workshop to vent the fumes. They had each plugged their playlists into an old laptop attached to high output speakers. Father and daughter sang with each other through rousing versions of songs in their playlists, from Pappa’s Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr to Maizie’s Suzy Bogguss and LeAnn Rimes.

Momma stood outside their clubhouse sneaking cigarettes and weeping silently at the amazing voice her daughter had been blessed with. She wondered, not for the first time, if it had been the compensation for such a short life. Nineteen years was certainly not enough.

During a song Momma didn’t know, she fumbled her cigarette as Maizie sang out:
“Well, well, well so I can die easy”
Then found herself folding toward the boards of the porch as the words, “And if these wings should fail me lord won’t you meet with another pair,” floated to her across the Oleander. The very real possibility that they might lose their little girl struck her square in the chest and wouldn’t let her breathe. Momma wrestled with her emotions, not wanting to make a sound that would alert the family to her spying and early grief. The struggle to keep it together pushed her through the house to the front room where the drapes were still drawn in protest of summer. Momma knelt on the sofa and bawled into the cushions.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Once the fabric had been prepped, Maizie and Pappa cleared a large spot on the floor and laid the vibrantly colored squares out in a pattern that, once nudged, pinned, and tweaked, formed a scene. At Maizie’s insistence, Pappa climbed up on one of the work tables to take several photographs of the layout. Then Maizie numbered the squares from right to left with a fabric pencil and stored them in a ziplock bag.

The first few days of quilting the squares together went very slowly. Machine sewing was not a skill Pappa had ever honed and Maizie feared she had taken on too much trying to sew the composite pieces by hand. When they only had a few days until Maizie’s next treatment, Pappa enlisted the help of a local quilter’s club. He had barely finished his story when the ladies, many with wet cheeks, swooped in to help them.

Maizie sat with the group on the first day answering questions about her vision for the piece and learning techniques she’d never known existed. Two of the women were school teachers from different points in Maizie’s education, another had been her piano teacher for a number of years. They talked to her about their own memories of her growing up, bringing smiles to Maizie and Pappa’s faces and distracting them for a time with stories of a bold girl with hands on her hips and a song on her tongue.

As part of the original payment plan, Maizie sang for them; taking requests as they pushed their needles in and out of her carefully planned art and kept time with their clicking thimbles and tapping toes.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

“We spoke before the procedure about how radiation could help, but that it was also an aggressive approach,” Dr. Keel stated somberly. “The tests we took this afternoon are not positive. We killed a great deal of the blast cells, but Maizie’s immune system took a major hit as well.”

“What’s the next step, Dr. Keel,” asked Momma stoically as Pappa rubbed calloused hands down his face.

“Maizie will have to be kept in a ‘clean room’ until her body restocks the antibodies. Until then she is critically vulnerable to even the smallest infection.”

“Can we be in the room with her, Doc?” Pappa asked. “Can we bring her anything from home?”

“You can visit with her individually, but you will wear clean scrubs, masks, and gloves. Nothing from home for now, but we can revisit that in a few days after we test her blood again.”

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Momma and Pappa spent a month sleeping in shifts at the hospital. Hopeful every time a doctor came in to discuss the blood-work. Disappointed and heartbroken every time they left.

Pappa found some comfort with the quilters when he wasn’t at the hospital. During his days away from Maizie he would work on the project with them. If he had the night off instead, he would find himself invited to dinner at one of their houses or at the bar or bowling alley with one of their husbands.

Momma had her sisters and a group of society friends she worked on charity committees with. She and her husband passed each other in hallways and parking lots like strangers. They shared information on Maizie’s condition, but found nothing else to say.

Maizie tried to stay bright for them. She would scribble silly poetry on pieces of paper from the nurses and fold them into little origami shapes and paper airplanes for her Pappa. With Momma she would watch adaptations of the classics like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice or TV shows like Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge and make an effort to talk about the shows and appear engaged.

Then a morning came when Pappa kissed Maizie goodbye through his mask and Momma squeezed her hand with a gloved one in greeting, Maizie was exhausted by the effort it took to accept and return these two simple pleasantries. When the nurse took her vitals, Maizie could barely move her arm to proffer her wrist or move her chin to allow the nurse to feel her glands. Maizie’s eyes were hot with fever and her throat too swollen to swallow.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

On an overcast morning when the wet air promised Autumn was on her way, Dr. Keel sat with the family and explained that Maizie was dying. It was no longer a possibility, but a fact. She would be moved to a private room where family members could come to say their farewells.

Momma and Pappa were bookends to Maizie’s deathbed as the parade of condolences came through the door like dry leaves on the wind, piling in the corners and crunching under foot. Maizie tried to smile and be gracious as faceless aunts, uncles, and cousins hugged and kissed her. She felt like a corpse whose eyes hadn’t died yet and whose ears were still picking up distant transmissions. After what seemed like a lifetime, the relatives stopped blowing through the door and Maizie whispered hopefully about a nap. Pappa asked if she could please stay awake for one more group who would like to say hello. He helped her to sit up a little more comfortably while Momma fussed with Maizie’s scarf and adjusted Gams’ sweater to a more refined frump.

The ladies from the quilter’s club filed into the room and stood at the end of Maizie’s bed in a line. Maizie smiled as wide as her energy would allow. She felt a spark of something inside that wanted more than a nap and more morphine. The ladies recited their greetings from the end of the bed and introduced themselves to Momma. Then Mrs. Rhodes, Maizie’s former piano teacher pulled a bundle from a large bag and handed it down the line as she hung on to a piece. Together the women lifted Maizie’s quilt high and let it unfold to the floor.

Bordered in a dark brown micro-suede, the quilt depicted a watercolor sunset over a tie-dyed barn and a patchwork field of greens, yellows and browns. In the foreground was a large, mottled, yellow-brown hen with a brightly dappled bluebird tucked under one wing. In front of the barn was the silhouette of a man sitting on a haystack, hunched over a guitar.

Maizie clapped like a child and her smile overcame the fatigue to spread across her face. Pappa exclaimed over the finished quilt and thanked the quilters with hugs for their perseverance. Momma, confused about the whole thing, stepped forward to thank the strangers for their kind gift. She was perplexed as to why anyone would give the dying a quilt, but there was certainly a lot of work involved and that should not go unremarked.

“This is such a lovely gift, Ladies. It seems to have made Maizie very happy. I’m sure it will be quite a comfort.” Momma smiled tightly. “I recall that only two months ago Maury and I were searching for a quilt around the house at Maizie’s request. So this is a timely coincidence. And lovely…” Momma’s eye was drawn to the bluebird under the hen’s wing. “Such an odd subject,” she thought, “yet it’s somehow…personal.”

“Do you like it, Momma?” Maizie asked hoarsely.

“Of course, Sweetheart,” Momma replied. “It’s wonderful with all of its color and swirls.”

“We made it for you. Pappa and I started it together, but we had to get the quilters’ help pretty early on. We were in way over our heads.”

Momma glanced at Pappa who looked proud of either the accomplishment or keeping it a secret.

“I’ve kept working on it while Maizie was in the hospital,” Pappa said. “There have been days where finishing this thing has been the only thought that gets me moving in the morning.”

Momma looked back at the quilt, but the churning colors blended into a Monet puddle under the well of her tears. “For me?” she repeated in almost a whisper.

The quilt ladies decided the family needed some privacy and quickly folded the quilt and handed it to Pappa. Maizie accepted their warm goodbyes and thanked them again for finishing the quilt for her.

Maizie flopped a hand towards her and Momma took it. “You always feel left out of my life. I don’t know why but it’s just easier for me, sometimes, with Pappa. That doesn’t mean that you are less important or less a part of me. I saw this picture in a dream and I knew it was us. I decided on sewing it because at the time I wanted to sink under a quilt for comfort and I thought, if things didn’t go well for me, you might need some comfort of your own. It’s a really nice flannel on the other side.”
Momma sat on the edge of Maizie’s bed and let the tears slide down her face. There were a million words trying to climb over each other in her throat. The only two that made it out were, “Thank you.” But a little while later, “I love you,” burrowed through. Pappa scrunched himself onto the other side of the bed and handed Momma one side of the quilt to tuck around her and their daughter. Together the family of three laid together in comfort as Maizie explained the imagery of the quilt in a fading dialog that ended in a soft snore as she slipped into sleep.

“The Tunnel”

Gerry came back to himself at a slow, plodding pace down a long curving tunnel that seemed to spiral on endlessly with only a glint of light to tempt him around the next bend. The spiraling passage reverberated with the pounding bass of a thoughtless youth; intermittently overshadowed by jackhammer percussion that vibrated his teeth and an air drill’s whine that reamed holes into his brain just behind the temples. As he pressed on, the walls began to taper, reducing the inner space from tunnel, to tube, to pipe. Gerry’s movement was restrictted to crawling. His heart raced, sharing tempo with the booming song that never weaved in word or instrument. Claustrophobia was making it hard to breathe and strangling his hope of reaching the light, fresh air, and blessed silence. An image came to Gerry of a snail’s shell; specifically how the wide, open end receded to the thinnest point of the spiral at the center of the hull. Panic caused him to look back the way he had come for any clue that he was headed in the right direction.

“It’s a tunnel to hell,” echoed Gerry’s hysterical thought from somewhere near the passage mouth. Then he startled awake.

Once his vision had cleared, the scene around him did nothing to comfort Gerry. Overhead spot lights glared, even through his eyelids, and the crushing pain in his skull beat to the rhythm of his own racing pulse. The walls at the edges of the light were painted an industrial shade of something between mint and battleship. Gerry registered that he was lying on a gurney, or table of some kind, and that his head and limbs were all firmly secured to it; though he could not feel the texture of those restraints. His mouth was dry and his forehead was slick with sweat. Gerry picked through his memory to uncover a reason he would be in the hospital now, “With some sort of head injury?” It was only a guess, but his head did feel as though he’d taken a serious blow.

Memories of events before the tunnel danced around him illogically jumbled, meaning taunting him from just out of reach.

“This one’s a waste of time, Ger,” said a ginger-haired man with a camera on his shoulder and a toothpick in his teeth.

“I felt all tingly and noticed that my hair was standing up,” said an overall-wearing girl of about eight with a terrible cleft lip scar twisting through a perfectly angelic face.

An angry middle-aged woman thrust a sign against the window of his town car as her fellow protesters landed ineffective blows to the hood and pelted the roof with blackened cobs of corn. He grappled with the scene but he could not remember what the sign said or the purpose behind her outcry.

None of these snapshots got Gerry any closer to a reason for his current state.

A face leaned into his field of view, then was joined by two others. For a moment in his confusion, Gerry was terrified. Then his whole life swept back into him on the hyper pulse of his piercing headache and speeding heart.  Terror turned to outrage.

“They have gone too far this time!” his brain screamed against a closed throat. He could not move his lips and his tongue lay in the center of his mouth like a dead fish. In fact, Gerry could not move anything except his eyes.

Reports of coeds dosed with GHB scrolled passed his memory, “I’ve been roofied?” he shrieked in silence.
“They will pay for this,” he seethed. “They will all go to jail. Every last man, woman, and child involved in this…this violation! This obvious lie!”

One of the faces leaned in again – tiny, faceted buttons had been sewn into neat rows above the sickly phlegm-colored ridges denoting cheeks in the hideous mask. There was no true nose on the face, but an arch composed of three dilating nostrils whiffed – in and out – over a cluster of writhing tentacles in the general proximity of a mouth. The cretin wearing the mask made intense garbling noises, presumably meant to approximate speech. Gerry fixed his eyes on the buttons, assuming the screen allowing the man to see would be camouflaged behind what were masquerading as eyes.

“I’m not a fool,” he glared wordlessly. “I know a hoax when I see one. You will regret your childish games!”

The tentacles wriggled with soft squelching noises and released an odor like boiling blue crabs on a muggy summer evening. From the center of the reeking mass slithered a thin string of mucous. It dangled above Gerry’s face for a moment, then dripped something black into his eye.

Gerry was back in the tunnel, then the tube, then the pipe, then a tightly wrapped shroud. He lay on his back, blind, trapped in the rictus of a scream, suffocating on his own saliva and something like the thick algae bloom on a long stagnant ditch. The bass that had resumed as a frantic, bouncing bongo beat stopped abruptly. It never started again.

In an official statement today, State Police confirm that a body found near Bode Lake was that of controversial author Dr. Gerald Ramses. Dr. Ramses was reported missing from a location shoot of his upcoming paranormal investigation series, ‘Debunked’. Ramses is most known for his published collection of studies on the phenomena of alien abduction discovered through hypnotherapy. The work and man made notorious upon his revelation in the final chapter that the memories of alien abduction were planted in the minds of his twelve subjects to prove out the danger of hypnotherapy as a treatment tool. Police assure the press that Dr. Ramses died naturally from heart failure while on a routine, pre-dawn stroll around the lake.

“Forty Stories To Go”

I was at the end of my rope.
I don’t mean I was frustrated at the end of a long day and looking for the Cuervo. I was not underappreciated, overworked or even moderately put upon. This is not my way of saying I was ready to give up on life. I most definitely did not want to die.

I was quite literally at the end of my rope. I was holding it with both hands, had it wrapped inexpertly around one leg, and was pressing the little twenty centimeter knot into the front of my ankle with my other foot to try to keep a grip on it.  I would have held that bitch with my teeth if I’d thought it would help.

It was one of those times a lying man would have told you, “I knew I never should have got out of bed that day.” or “I’d had a bad feeling ever since I woke up that morning.”  But the truth is I woke up that day happier than I had ever been.  I say wake up but really, I never went to sleep.

About 10 months before, Sierra, down at Earl’s Suds Shack, finally said yes to my weekly-repeated requests for a date.  One week later I cooked her my famous Four Alarm Chili and we danced under the stars. A month after that we signed a lease together and the night before I found myself dangling over my grave, she said yes to my final request.  I asked if I could cook her chili until death do us part.  Sierra nodded with pools of tears gleaming above her lower lashes, then we folded ourselves into a blanket on the wicker bench out back and talked about everything from space travel to ancient Greeks.  She fell asleep with her head tucked under my chin.  I was too uncomfortable to do more than nod off here and there, but she felt so good in my arms I wasn’t about to let her go.

I could feel the knot slipping and my fingers were so cramped from holding the rope I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to straighten them again. An icy gust blew the promise of rain into my face.  Firetrucks had turned up below. My brain provided a cartoon of me letting go of my lifeline and twelve firemen running back and forth 40 stories below with a trampoline trying to gauge my trajectory.

It occurred to me that I should be panicking.  What could the firemen do to save me? I was too high for any of their ladders and platforms.  I thought of Sierra’s eyes and the tears breaking free as she nodded “Yes.” to my proposal.  Ever since the first time I sat down in front of her at Earl’s and asked for a ‘Giller Might’ I knew she was the one.  Sierra took my word fumble and turned it into a good-natured game.  I spent the night drinking slow and finding excuses to make those big brown eyes crinkle at the edges.  Then I spent the next three years and four months trying to win some time with her outside the bar.

The most amazing woman in five counties said yes to being my wife and I die the next day? Not happening! I tried to adjust my grip on the rope and wrap it around my hands. I bent my knee first and tried to stand on the rope to keep it from slipping.  I’m not a climbing expert. I almost lost my morning coffee and biscuit when the rope sizzled through my hands and I dropped another foot.  Once I realized that I was still holding the rope and not yet a man puddle, I did toss the Dunkin’.  Then I almost laughed when I wondered if the firemen would use that puddle to determine where to put the trampoline.  Or one of those big, blue, stunt-man, pillows.

The foretold rain spattered against the windows behind me like a fistful of gravel.  I closed my eyes against the stinging drops, then quickly reopened them to ward off more nausea and what I can only imagine was vertigo.  For just a second I could not determine up or down and the back of my head felt that spin you get when buzzed goes bad and drunk kicks in.

Where the hell were those firemen? About seven ladder trucks and four ambulances were taking up the street, but so far not one of the ants below had made a move toward me.  “This requires decisive action, Men!” I yelled into the wind, “Let’s get moving before the window-washer goes splat!”

Aahhh, there was the panic.  I knew it would turn up eventually. My upper arms had been burning for what felt like hours and the thought of touching Sierra’s soft brown hair again was not injecting the strength into me that it had two minutes before.  I was going to die today. Like it or not.

I heard a soft sound behind me and turned my head the three inches I felt I could spare. A man’s foot was just visible in my peripheral. Just then the gust threw more rain at me and I reflexively closed my eyes.  Back was the nausea and the head swim. As I blinked it off I felt something touch me in the vicinity of my harness. The words, “Don’t let go yet,” floated to me from my left side.  I couldn’t turn my head. The three inches I had given up to look over my right shoulder had locked me into a kind of whiplash that felt cemented over.

I very nearly passed out with relief as I felt the hands of multiple people securing me to other ropes and lines.  Then one man wrapped me in his arms, pulling me into his body the way I had held Sierra to me the night before., and told me to let go.  I couldn’t actually unclench my fingers, but some message must have gone from brain to extremities because the rope zinged through my hands and I did not fall. There was something under my feet.  They must have pulled me onto one of the other washer platforms.  I couldn’t look around because my neck was made of concrete and I was tangled into the best man-hug I have ever experienced in my life.

An hour or a few minutes later I was being lifted off the platform and onto the roof of the building.  Clips clicked and clinked, ropes fell away and my fireman angel was still holding me.  My legs had no strength at all, I could barely feel them. The vertigo returned as my body was tilted horizontally and laid on a gurney. In the elevator I looked at the faces of the men who’d saved my life and could not tell which was My Guy, but someone was holding my hand.  I tried to squeeze it, maybe I actually did. “I love you,” I declared to the elevator’s occupants and then I guess I passed out.

I don’t scale buildings and wash windows anymore.  I have my wife and children to keep me on the ground – in a good way.  But that’s why firemen always drink free here at ‘Forty Stories to Go’ Bar & Grille.  I owe them my life and the last 10 years with the most amazing woman in five counties.