Flashversary 2014: Finalists’ Tales

***

Memories Ignite, by Grace Black

A murder of crows sliced the silence. A poetic caw, but not a metaphor.

Days spent as a stranger in her own freckled flesh and glasses too large for her face were recalled in an instant. Falling off her bicycle, flunking weekly spelling assignments, she’d done little right in her youth.

Concealing the outward appearance of her imperfections became necessary. Self-taught makeup application and contact lenses facilitated the transformation. Her practiced smile plastered to reveal nothing; a mask for crooked teeth.

Her misused armor trapped the enemy inside.

Books became her Trojan horse. She tucked notes in margins and memorized vexatious vocabulary for the pop quizzes her father adored.

Memories clung as pyre of her past.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid—” The delayed match, her father’s raucous words struck.

Smoke, like her childhood, left a grimy film and permeated the paint used to conceal.

She was burning, burning with self-loathing.

***

Wingless, by Nancy Chenier

At the threshold of the warren, where cold fingers of light pried open the brown darkness, the air-rider lay crumpled. Impulse demanded that Matta kill him, but she overrode it. Matta spent a lifetime overriding impulses.

The outside light hurt her eyes, but she crept toward the winged man. The passage widened, casting her adrift beyond the comforting press of the burrows.

He had the jutted jaw of his kind. Storm-cloud fuzz insulated his body, except where injuries had raked it off. Wings that should have been sharp wedges bent at sloppy angles. Lightning strike, she surmised. Fortunately for him, the spells that toughened her skin to tortoiseshell could fix broken wings. Plucking balm from her pouch, she crouched over him.

A hand talon shot out, claws slipping across the shell-like callouses on her calf. “Don’t touch me, mud-grubber,” he hissed. A wrist-blade snapped into place on his other hand, point toward her face.

Matta spat an air-rider curse, the words bitter as mold spores on her tongue.

He shoved her away. “You’re not a grubber.” His shock and injuries fuddled his orientation, and he sagged back to the floor.

She knelt, resuming the healing, humming the balm deeper into the scratches. When he awoke again, she asked, “What were you doing dancing with a thunder storm?”

“Combat,” he said. No surprise, there. Air-riders never encountered a race they didn’t want to best in battle.

The light was too dim for him to really see her, but enough for him to take in the shell-plates where fuzz should have been. “You’re one of us.”

Her shoulder blades clenched. “Born wingless,” she said.

He looked away from her, nose wrinkled in disgust. In his dialect, “wingless” was an obscenity.

Matta had been cast from the sky pavilions as a child, left vulnerable as a nestless chick. The burrower clan adopted her, healed her, taught her to see with her skin and translate the whispers of worms. What his people dismissed as mud-grubbers showed more humanity than her birth family. She’d half a mind to obey her initial deadly impulse, but that wasn’t the burrower way.

She lay his wings out along the ground—maybe not as gently as she could have—and chant-droned the spells to transform the broken into the whole. The sun slid low enough to glare directly down the tunnel with its cold, impersonal light.

He lifted a wing, gave a tight flap. “It’s better.”

“You’ll fly again,” she said. An old ache ran along her spine. Even wingless, flight sang in her bones.

He eyed her bare shoulders. “You could’ve fixed yourself instead of becoming a—”

Yes, she could have. The ache became a chill, icy as cirrus clouds, wintry as his arrogance. Although the chill wracked her bones, it couldn’t reach her core. In the dark mantle of her heart, tucked away from the sun’s critical eye, heat flowed.

“I belong here,” Matta said, her words carved in agate, “with my people.”

***

The Woman Who Wanders Worlds Wide, by Catherine Connolly

She casts brightness beaming before her into shadow, where and will she can; seeking to see him slumber, deep down below, lit at its centre. Once woman wandering, foraging for food, she has travelled far from a life picked out amidst darkness, having lost her way completely. Now, Gnowee is sole sore in her search, having clambered skyward beyond her beginnings in an aim to see clearly – is watching closely the labours of the living below her, as they scratch the earth’s surface; an indistinguishable crawling community, seeking hard her heart in its midst. They are not him. They do not have him. She swears she hears him, still; somewhere. She had thought him safe where he slept, little limbed, left only for a moment.

Made careful – now – by carelessness, she had peeked promptly beneath the ends of the earth, in case he was hidden there from her. He was not below its edges. Considering again, then, she passed over and under completely, to hang beneath its surface feet first – finding herself on the side belonging to Below. She searched through its contrasts carefully – backwards – slantwise – under and over, scanning the light from the darkness. She could not find him there, though she looked well and long in the searching, thinking him hid clearly in sight – where she might most scarcely think to check.

She has scanned passed planets, circling through and round their rings. She has sifted through solar debris, casting the detritus behind her where she goes. In vain, she has questioned the star folk, who swear they know nothing of where he might be. She has trained her torch upon them – merciless mother, making sure their stellar scintillation hides no secrets beneath its surface cloaking or between the thick, twinkling layers. She has delved deep into the density of their atmospheric pockets. They held fast without flinching beneath her relentless rays, submissive to her searches – light displaying only their light.

Cross examination so concluded, Gnowee casts her brightness before her while it lasts, into the shadows. She will wander worlds wide, where and will she can; seeking solely to see him slumber. She swears he hears him call her, still.

***

Dreamtime, by Maggie Duncan

Read this story in an upcoming issue of Flash Fiction Online

***

Too Little, Too Late, by Casey Rose Frank

I did this.
“What’s one life compared to thousands?”
But I wouldn’t let them chain me down, give me up, pay a debt.

I had a life to live yet, a life that would smile kindly upon my beauty.

My fair hair and new spring blossom face was meant to see wishes granted not sacrifices made.

I did this.

At the last moment I refused to be the offering. I used sugar sweet words, flutters of long dark lashes, and silent gems of tears to snake my way out the guard’s hands and away to my beautiful life.

I did this.

I traded my life for a thousand others.

The fire came down and the screams began. I could smell cooking flesh.

A vengeful appetite unappeased. Denied a meal of the virtuous creating a blind rage.

I did this.

I killed them.

I walk into the fire.

Eaten at last.

***

The Runner, by MJ Kelley

In the morning, skeletal buildings puffed smoke from their charred innards. He ran between them, wearing yellow shorts, his shoelaces lime.

Rubble littered and buried the streets. Distant gunshots echoed.

He ran before soldiers sitting on a tank, their heads rising from breakfast plates.

In the plaza, his cleats crunched blackened tourist trinkets. He shuddered.

He ran by the park, its trees leafless, their trunks black masts against an overcast canopy.

He passed the perfume shop, its scents now blended into one foul odor, glass bottles merged into twisted, ashen sculptures.

He vomited in an alley, hiding so soldiers wouldn’t see.

Endorphin high, he flew along the canal, throwing forward his numb, rubberized legs. The canal held nothing. He had ordered it drained.

“Remove the water. Burn the city,” he had ordered.

He ran on, lungs heavy with soot. Charred drapes rippled overhead. He swore they whispered his name.

***

It’s Life, and Life Only, by Lloyd Mills

That is one big lump of a mumsy clumsy log. The branches and stumps have been sheared. It is neat and smooth with a tufted velvety sheen. But did you really think it a good idea, when you wanted to make a dragging log? Now it is a pushing log.

Beware the delicate flowers, do not crush the trees or toes. It is no tangerine. With a smile it lightens, frowning adds the weight – no, do not wait, go!

Go! Look to the distance. See the flames splitting the dark sky. They stay in the same place and yet they recede as you advance. Drag drag that log, do not push. You need to spear the road. Float, sprint, stumble, kneel and arise and move along.

Jostle the throng. Climb the bridges, slide the deserts, tumble the down. Drag on the log. Drag on the fire. Sleep till dusk.

***

Paper Skin, by Marie McKay

Snip. Snap. Your sleeve. Snip. Snap. Your gram. Snip. Snap. Mom and Dad. Snip. Snap. Your sister’s hand.

Mom had fed the well for as long as l could remember. On good days, she’d fling down silver coins that might keep us safe for a week. She called it play, before we recognised it as ritual.

Perhaps it was fear that made stronger our family bond: the well was the mouth that needed feeding so, united, our daily toil centred around appeasing that which scratched and scraped in the bowels of it. Father tried to drown out those mechanical tones with his mellifluous ones, but it still made my sister and me stand starch straight to hear them.

No matter how concerted our efforts, in time, silver turned to copper and copper to dust: it was written that the monster would rise.

Snip. Snap. Your sleeve. Snip. Snap. Your gram. Snip. Snap. Mom and Dad. Snip. Snap. Your sister’s hand.

Linked, we took ourselves to the back of our little, white house and waited. The toll of loud metallic clangs announced the creature had burst from the earth.

Hand in hand in a row, our crooked smiles belying fear, we witnessed its shadow spike across the paper-thin wall of our little hallway. Mom’s legs trembled beneath her A-line skirt, her frame appearing flimsier than before. Father was a pace forward from our rank, our splay footed sentinel.

As the grinding sound grew nearer, Sister’s hand trembled in mine. I tried to steady it, but instead allowed my own to succumb to its panicked rhythm. When the creature came into view, its razor sharp features pierced through even Father’s resolve, and we became a shivering chain of reaction. Advancing with metronomic step, it sliced through the air, and in a burst of blaze and blade, I watched my family fall like confetti.

Snip. Snap. My sleeve. Snip. Snap. My gram. Snip. Snap. Mom and Dad. Snip. Snap. My sister’s hand.

Isolation cut deep, I felt the despair of having been spared – and as the creature turned to lower itself back into the earth’s wound from which it came, I swore, my paper-thin hands would be toughened by the weight of loss, and they would fill that well with rock.

***

Hope Rising, by Katie Morford

Grandfather said the flicker at the end of the black tunnel was dragon fire.

He would know. He gave 40 years of his life to the coal mines before lung fever claimed him in my eleventh year. Before they found Him, and everything changed.

Grandfather said they found Him 400 feet down, a living flame deep in the heart of the mountain. Twenty black-smudged miners woke the sleeping beast with a mighty blast of C-4, their first warning of His ancient presence an orange spark in the dark. They never saw daylight again. Incinerated in a breath, dust returned to dust as the Good Book says.

Ash floating in the dense, still air.

Alarms blared, miners scurrying to the surface like fire ants in a maze, but precious few escaped burning heat and flame catching the coal dust alight and racing up the labyrinth in pursuit of fleeing mortals. Even fewer escaped the tunnels collapsing under His weight, rock shattering beneath His dagger-tipped claws as He forced a path upward toward the sky.

Only five lived to see Him fly.

Grandfather said he’d never forget the sight. He was a Margomoth, the phoenix of the dragon legends, though we didn’t know it at the time. There was a lot we didn’t know then.

The twisted metal stairs melted at His breath like hot butter on Grandmama’s cornbread. He crawled straight up the shaft to the sky, perching like a king on the crown of the rock face. Towering pine trees swayed and whispered as His nostrils flared red in the crisp, cold air, scenting wood smoke.

The sun disappearing behind the hills lit the membrane of His wings orange, glinting on scales as black, shiny and hard as the coal we dug from his mountain lair. Snow dissolved to steaming rivers beneath his feet and trickled down the cracked granite. The beast stretched His wings, stared straight at my Grandfather with one liquid orange eye, and with a swirl of auburn leaves disappeared into the dying sun.

Grandfather said it was the beginning of the end; the start of a new way of life and the ending of another. We didn’t know the Margomoth would be the spark that’d set our world ablaze. In the darkness and terror of that day, we didn’t know He’d become a light not even the frozen night could extinguish.

We didn’t know one day that fiery beast would be our last hope for survival. There was a lot we didn’t know back then.

The bonfire snaps and throws sparks into the frosty air, the tangled music of the storyteller’s fiddle and dulcimer winding around the bits of fire. They rise slowly into the velvet night.

Grandfather said real hope often comes disguised as loss. That hope always rises from the ashes of our old life. I guess he would know.

***

Claire, by Betsy Streeter

I saw you when you brought the baby home.

You laid her in her crib, and if I peeked with one eye I could make out the rounded top of her tiny head. She had skin as alabaster white as the plaster under my fingernails.

I felt the house hum with excitement over your new child. I bet your heart is soaring, the way mine did when I finally saw that first pin prick of light, beaming through the indifferent dark of the walls.

Will she make you proud, your daughter? Will you be kind to her when she breaks your favorite dish?

When she cries, will you quiet her with rocking or with boards and a coat of paint?

I want to sit in a square of sunlight on the rug and play. I want to forget about myself until you call me sweetly to dinner. But I mustn’t be greedy.

Some day, perhaps you will push open the door to her room. She will sit cross-legged, toy trains in her fists.

My hair will be in pigtails and I’ll have my flowered dress pulled down over my knees. I’ll set the last piece of track in place to make a loop around the rug.

Then we will go outside and run in the grass. I will push the swing for your girl.

No, I mustn’t wish for that. Wishing is for weak children who don’t know how to be quiet and careful.

But if I scrape away just a little bit more, maybe I can see her eyes. I wonder what color they are.

I want to reach out and stroke her cheek.

I can hold the dish towel for you, drying each plate and setting it atop the stack on the table. Like I once did for my mother.

I hear you coming up the stairs with light, quick footsteps. You have no hammer and no nails, no plaster and no paint. Only your hands to lift your daughter.

I close my eyes while you sing her to sleep, her breath and my breath rising and falling.

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