Novel research can be a daunting task if you are not the type who gravitates to research, study or spending hours on minute details. Unfortunately for those types but fortunate for people like myself, research is critical to writing. Whether research for you means learning about specific types of military vehicles or the ranks of nobility in 14th century Europe, you are (probably) going to have to look something up along the way.
As you begin writing the first draft of your novel you may find yourself questioning the minutiae of setting, plot, character, etc. You can start your research here, or may even have already conducted extensive research before writing a single word if you are a good planner. If you’re a pantser, you may find yourself glossing over specific details to avoid the research until the first draft is complete.
While putting off research is okay sometimes, you may want to take the time to ensure the story you’re crafting makes sense. You may create a plot based on an inaccurate detail that completely derails your second draft, basically meaning your novel needs rewriting. Where the particulars contribute substantially to your plot, even if you are not a planner you need to conduct some research to corroborate these details. If you take the time now to insert accurate details, you will save yourself time and frustration later. Researching while writing the first draft can also be an excellent trigger for writer’s block!
So, you want to start researching a detail in your story. Where do you start? Google is the most obvious place for most people to begin searching. My day job is a Reference Librarian and Information Literacy Instructor at a community college academic library. That means I spend all day telling students not to Google their research. Our students have access to expensive research databases which allows them to prioritize their research origins. If you are not a student, or you struggle with research, you have a few other options that aren’t Google.
Yes. I am a librarian advocating for you to visit libraries. Conflict of interest? Maybe. Public libraries are excellent research hubs for the beginning writer AND the seasoned writer. Why pay for books, databases, or magazines when you can get them for free? Many public libraries purchase the same database subscriptions that colleges have. They also accept recommendations for resources so if the library doesn’t have something if you ask they may get it. The public library is filled with people who are there to help you.
Wikipedia is not exactly a reputable site. There is a degree of accountability in the structure of writing and editing. You create a free account and correct inaccuracies. During my Freshman Year Experience class, we experimented by deliberately changing a Wikipedia article to make it inaccurate. We charted how long the false information remained unchanged. My material remained incorrect for weeks. That was a lot of views during this time that fake details were portrayed as trustworthy. However, users cite outside resources at the end of Wikipedia articles. This section is a gold mine of research opportunities. Explore these links and exercise critical thinking in determining if that source is accurate itself.
Check the site type (.com, .gov, .edu., .org, etc.). Look at the date the site was last updated. See if the site has an about page and read about the authors and their intent.
You may think researching to this degree is overkill for fiction but if you encounter a reader who is an actual expert you run the risk of alienating them.
There are a plethora of digital resources available online. Images, ebooks, videos, and audio (radio broadcasts, etc.). The New York Public Library is one example of a collection of publicly available digital items that can be used for research. The Library of Congress is another primary source. One of the big inspirations for my novel was The Hammer of Witches. The full text is available online and provided me with a lot of information about witch hunting practices and how they were persecuted. Many older books can be accessed for free in full online through various reputable sites like Project Gutenberg. Aside from LOC, NYPL, and Project Gutenberg, there are less scholarly, artistic platforms like DeviantArt and Pinterest. Content on these sites is added by online users. These are more useful for inspiration though Pinterest can be helpful for storing your research in an easy to view and access platform.
In addition to these resources, there are online forums. Online forums should always be approached with caution. The community determines the usefulness of the information you can find in forums. Writing sites with forums like NaNoWriMo and Writer’s Digest are helpful. Subreddits for writers can also be useful. You can post for advice on conducting research, search for beta readers who can help you catch inaccuracies, or search for perspectives that are similar to your characters to garner a more honest representation. Your peers can be a valuable resource if they approach your inquiries with the right intentions.
Once you have completed your first draft, you still have some research to do. If you didn’t check the details central to your plot, mark your first draft up noting where more information is needed. Verify details, even small ones. The tiniest inconsistency can propel the reader out of your story.
However, these are my specific research questions. Wherever you explore something you are not sure of, check the detail.
I recommend printing the first draft and either highlighting or using a pen to mark everywhere you need to insert research or check the facts.
With every read through, a second draft, third draft, etc. you will be looking at where you can improve/strengthen your manuscript. You cannot be overconfident. You need to doubt yourself and check, double check, triple check your story.
I counted the carrot sticks again to be sure there were only five. I couldn’t allow myself more than that. Pressing a hand to my gurgling stomach, the bottom of my ribcage prominent against my palm, I forced myself to pace my chewing. I was in control. I could resist gobbling them down, and I could resist eating a whole sandwich for lunch. Food, eating, and my weight was the only thing in my life I could control and by God, I was going to have some control.
Twenty minutes later I chewed the last of the final carrot stick though my stomach still grumbled in anger at the meager offerings. I would not eat again until dinner, and then I would only eat half a salmon fillet and a half cup of brown rice with water.
I checked the time on my desk computer, noting an upcoming meeting. I glanced down at my phone, but no messages showed on the unlocked screen. Of course. It had been weeks since my husband had texted me at work, just to say he loved me. Or even ask what I wanted for dinner. He knew the answer to that readily enough now.
Still, I sighed in disappointment, the carrot sticks feeling heavier in my stomach than they should have.
I stood from my desk and made my way to the bathroom. The sick twisting feeling in my back could only be alleviated by purging my meal.
Resting my forehead on the porcelain basin after I emptied my stomach, my face flushed with self-loathing. I didn’t blame my husband for ignoring me. The work hours no doubt offered him a much-needed respite from me during the day. I blamed myself for not being more appealing, for hoisting my problems onto him.
I was trying. I wanted to carve every imperfection out of my body, starve away the person he had grown to hate, purge every negative thought and emotion I had shared. I wanted to be remade, renewed. Completely changed. I stopped eating. My weight plummeted from 154 to a respectable 108. But that left me too dizzy and angry. I added the minimum amount of food needed to function back to my diet, the numbers thankfully staying the same on the scale. And I reveled in the feeling of being able to shape my body, to control what went in and out for once in my life. I wanted my old self to waste away and start over as someone new. Maybe then I could make him love me.
Viviane awoke to a shout from Rose, who’d sat up so quickly from her sleep that she’d forgotten the height of the bunk and banged her head on the wood. Cursing, Rose rubbed her head vigorously and glanced at Viviane before falling back to the bed in relief.
The vision, Viviane remembered. She’d seen her in some trouble on deck at night. Viviane had tossed and turned, sweating in the stale cabin air, stomach heaving with the contents of the small chunks of bread she’d eaten for dinner. She’s wanted fresh air so badly, could taste the salt air that leaked in so excruciatingly slightly from the small porthole above their heads. She could imagine the relief she’d feel gulping air, driving away the stink of the old wood boards, the damp wool blanket, and her own bile that seemed to sit at the back of her throat.
But she’d stayed. Even when she wanted to unbolt the door and jump into the sea from the misery of it. The fear she’d seen in Rose’s eyes only rivaled the fear she’d seen in them when she described her visions to the Shepherdess. It wasn’t a suggestion. Rose knew it to be her fate if she crossed that threshold in the dark of the night. Viviane wanted to prove that her visions weren’t set in stone, that she had free will and she would save herself by heeding the warning. Nothing would drag Viviane outside, no matter how ill she felt. At least not until the sun rose and she could find relief safely.
They made themselves as presentable as possible, no mirror available in the small space. Viviane dressed Rose’s hair and refused Rose’s offer to do that same for her. She opted to braid her hair in a long braid that she kept draped over her shoulder, partially obscuring the mask that was sure to draw attention and superstitious interest.
Smoothing their ruffled gowns, they unlocked the door and stepped out. The hallway was dim. A ladder led them up into the bright sunshine on the deck. They squinted into the light, covering their eyes with their hands as they sought out Christian among the men scurrying over the ship’s deck, engaged with predetermined chores. One short man with a frazzled beard streaked with gray-barked at them to move as he stomped past with a thick rope slung over his shoulder. He ran towards the mast, jumping up and clinging to it before scurrying up as deftly as a squirrel.
“Wow,” Rose breathed. “I did not think a creature like that could move in such a way.” Viviane covered her mouth, stifling a giggle. They moved to the railing and Viviane raised her head to the wind, breathing in deeply and exhaling all the stale air from below deck from her lungs. It felt like magic, the effect of the crisp, damp breeze blowing over her face and filling her chest.
The sea, a slim channel of water compared to the stories of seemingly unending water of the oceans, seemed like it could stretch on to eternity. It was dark blue in the bright light of day, capped with white waves that made the ship vibrate when they collided. But watching the static horizon in the distance, Viviane did not feel sick at the jolting movements. She felt a little like she was flying, standing there with only the wood banister pressed into her stomach, no obstructions in her line of sight. They crested a wave, and the ship sailed up and then dipped, and she allowed herself a laugh at the thrill it gave her.
Rose, by contrast, had turned a little green at the sight and clung to the rail. She obviously would prefer to return to their cabin below, safe in the hollows of their bunks. But Viviane could not imagine returning to the interior of the ship with the view spread before her.
Viviane thought, if she could never return home, perhaps she could turn pirate and explore the sea, maybe even take to the open ocean. Pirates were allowed eye patches and such, so maybe her mask wouldn’t seem so out of place among them.
Remembering the thin wooden shell belatedly, she grasped it, ensuring it was firmly tied in place despite the gusting winds and jolting deck. As she felt it, she noticed the attention they were getting. The sailors moved slower as they passed, sizing the girls up. Their cloudy red eyes lingered on Viviane though, on the mask and they frowned. Some made signs to ward against evil. Viviane felt her joy dissipate and her shoulders curled in again, trying to make herself smaller.
“Good morning, Mademoiselles!” Christian greeted them cheerfully as he raced to meet them on deck. He was panting, covered in a sheen of sweat already from the morning’s labors. But he was grinning broadly and seemed unperturbed by his promised assistance.
Viviane thought it was odd, that a nobleman’s son would so willingly commit to physical labor. He had trained with the King and his soldiers, she knew. But that was different. That was considered honorable by others in their circle, almost a sport. This kind of labor was backbreaking and grueling and humbling. The established hierarchy placing him firmly at the bottom, a grunt to be bossed around by men who couldn’t even read.
But he seemed so alive in spite of it. Happy even, to be working with the sailors. For the sailors. Viviane corrected as one barked an order at him and he scurried away to complete the task, throwing a grin and promise to meet them for breakfast back over his shoulder.
“It isn’t normal, no,” Rose answered her unspoken question. “Eden would never allow sailors to boss him so. But he is a little more petted it would seem. That’s probably my fault, and Father’s.” Rose laughed.
Viviane laughed too. She couldn’t picture Eden in the same situation, sleeves rolled up and sweat dripping from his temples. He was a royal, half-child as he was. He was a full-blooded dandy.
“I miss him,” Rose continued. “I wonder if he made it back to the castle safely. And if anyone noticed his disappearance so close to ours.”
“I wonder what they will do when they notice ours,” Viviane added. Would they question her mother? No doubt they would. And the miller, perhaps. Others knew of the escape route, they would know where it led. Could he deceive them into thinking he knew nothing of them?
Perhaps not. Viviane sent up a prayer that the miller would avoid imprisonment and punishment for their flight. The Princess didn’t need another’s fate lying heavy on her conscious.
“Hopefully we will hear something when we reach land and find asylum,” Rose answered. If Eden was able to return unnoticed. If he could get a letter out. If that letter found its way to wherever they were headed.
There were so many ifs. Viviane felt a little hopeless as the questions and conditions piled up.
Christian returned, noting their concerned expressions. He reached for their hands, taking one of their in each of his. “We will make it,” he promised, his face set with determination. “We will change this vision, save your family,” he nodded at Rose. “And you will return home to your mother,” he nodded at Viviane, squeezing her fingers gently, allowing his thumb to stroke her palm in secret.
Viviane flushed but met his gaze. She nodded back, gulping to keep the tears from escaping.
Christian, Viviane, and Rose ate breakfast with Captain Ashe who, despite his grizzled appearance, was educated and soft-spoken. He could tell they were not telling the truth of their identities, could see the excellent breeding in Rose and Christian, their expensive educations, their health that marked a lifetime of always having enough to eat and a warm bed.
He noted Viviane’s mask with the same suspicious glances as the sailors but said nothing, directing most of his conversation to Rose and Christian who were trained diplomats in any case, Viviane was relieved by his inattention and ate her breakfast heartily, empty from the scant dinner and her nighttime seasickness. Breakfast consisted of thick porridge and cured ham. Viviane was not complaining as she gulped down the steaming spoonful, feeling her belly fill pleasantly. The meat was precious, in short supply for the servants of their castle and usually disguised with gravy in stews that could be stretched to accommodate them for more extended periods of time.
It was well-preserved and flavorful. Viviane savored the salty taste on her tongue, before swallowing. She was enjoying the food so much she did not hear herself addressed until Rose nudged her foot beneath the table.
“Captain Ashe wanted to know if you were enjoying your breakfast?” Rose repeated, smothering a laugh with a cloth napkin.
Viviane flushed and nodded vigorously trying not to choke as she swallowed the mouthful she’d been appreciating.
“I can see you get a pretty simple fare where you are from as well,” he said to her directly. His tone was not accusing, and she relaxed as she swallowed finally and could speak.
“Yes, our chef does his best but the winter seasons are always a little difficult,” Viviane replied.
“The Lady has a chef?” The captain asked, eyebrows raised at Rose. She’d explained their positions in no great detail to the captain while Viviane had been devouring her meal.
“My family does, yes.” She replied.
“But you choose to travel quite simply.” He pressed, gesturing to the cargo ship’s hold. Even the captain’s quarters where they ate was a plain room, the wood rough-hewn and pieced together without thought for ornamentation or polish. “Your family could not afford to place you on one of the passenger ships?” His eyes jumped to Christian who had worked out the details of their passage, fully aware of his bargain to pay their way through his own labor.
“Honestly,” Rose began.
Viviane felt her spine tingle, and her blood ran cold. Would she tell him the truth so quickly?
“My family doesn’t approve of my journey.” Rose lied, but not quite lied, smoothly. “They would prefer I stayed home but told me if I could find some way to procure my own passage I would travel to the continent. I seek training from a master, you see.”
“What sort of master?” The captain asked, his tone switching from wary to conversational.
“A master of magic,” Rose replied.
Viviane started at that. That was the truth. And a dangerous fact.
The captain only stared at her, swirling a glass of brandy in one hand. The liquid was thick and clung to the sides of the glass.
“Magic,” he did not sound surprised. Or confused. Captain Ashe merely studied her, tasting the word on his lips.
“Why do you seek a Master of Magic?” he asked finally.
Rose grinned back at him, charming and pretty. Poised as a Queen and very nearly one.
“To learn it.” She admitted.
Still, the captain was not shocked. He did stand though, moving slowly, almost lazy.
He closed the door to his cabin which had been left open to catch the fresh ocean air, barking an order at an errant sailor before closing it slowly. Intentionally.
He turned to face the small band, studying them. They were young and inexperienced travelers. It was apparent how vulnerable they were, especially shut in Captain Ashe’s quarters, surrounded by men loyal to him, surrounded beyond that by miles of sea.
Viviane gripped Rose’s hand under the table. She squeezed her fingers back, in reassurance or realization of their predicament, Viviane could not tell.
“I knew you were one of us,” he said, sitting back down in his chair and scooting forward to rest his elbows on the table before him. Again, he was casual, unhurried.
“What?” Viviane was the one stunned.
Captain Ashe turned striking purple eyes on her. “A witch,” he clarified. “Or wizard in my case,” he chuckled, waving away the issue of semantics.
Christian and Viviane were dumbstruck, sitting silently and wondering how they had ended up here, face to face with a ship captain wizard.
Rose leaned forward too, propping her elbows on the table and placing her chin in her hand, observing him coolly. She seemed unfazed by his revelation.
“I know you knew. I felt the same. I felt that you possessed magic. Strong magic, from the scent of it.” Rose’s nose twitched as she noticeably sniffed the air around them. Viviane flushed, trying to surreptitiously sniff the air as well. All she could smell was the ham, the grease all that remained in a golden-brown smear on her plate.
“You can smell it?” Christian asked in amazement.
“Kind of,” Rose said to him. “I can smell something, and I only now realized what it was, thanks to a vision.”
“You had another vision?” Viviane asked. She hadn’t even noticed. It had been nothing like her unusual behavior the night before, the panic, the undiluted fear of what she’d seen.
Rose nodded. “Of Captain Ashe, his powers, and how people with magic identify each other.” With a knowing look at Viviane, she added, “And how he should sleep with a dagger under his pillow tonight to avoid an attempt at mutiny.”
This Flash Fiction Friday story is my submission to the Writer’s Digest Your Story competition. The prompt was the featured image, the challenge to write less than 650 words based on the image provided.
Kaysee squinted into the dark tunnel that spiraled beneath the mountain. Cold air breathed into her face between the rusted iron cage that seemed meant to deter people from entering.
“What do you think?” she asked her boyfriend, Jordan, who stood slightly behind her, peering over her shoulder.
“Why not?” he shrugged, grinning. He was excited. He’d already turned on his headlamp, prepared for spelunking.
“Yeah, let’s do some exploring,” Jordan’s best friend, Matthew, agreed.
Kaysee eyed the opening dubiously. Somebody had placed the grate there to block the entrance, maybe to keep people from falling in. Or maybe for another reason.
The grate was heavy and moved grudgingly. Jordan and Matthew grunted as they lifted in tandem, barely raising it an inch from the ground. But it was enough to shift from the bulk of the cave’s entrance.
Jordan went down first, feeling with his feet for footholds as he lowered. Kaysee turned on her headlamp, trying to push down the feeling in her stomach that they should not explore this particular place. As she dropped down behind Matthew, she peered around. The entrance was short, and they all had to crouch, but with the lamp, she could see the ceiling of the cave rose several feet just beyond the light of the entrance. They crawled to the cavern and stood, allowing themselves a minute to adjust to the darkness within.
Puddles reflected in their headlamps and Kaysee could hear the water dripping from the ceiling several feet above.
Jordan and Matthew made weak attempts at echoing yodels as they splashed over the cavern floor, heading toward the openings that branched from the opposite side.
There were two; one seemed to slant upwards, seemingly back to another surface exit. Was that exit blocked as well, Kaysee thought. The other dropped steeply, leading further underground. Jordan and Matthew made a beeline for that opening, pulling rope from their packs. Jordan peeked down and whistled. The shrill sound bounced all around them, and Kaysee winced.
“This cave is a gem,” Jordan said, his smile broad and dimpled.
They made their way slowly into the hole, grasping crumbling hand and footholds. Rocks clattered far below, much farther than Kaysee cared. But her boyfriend seemed excited. She breathed deeply, bracing herself for his sake. He owed her a date night though, she thought.
Distracting herself with thoughts of cheese plates and rosé, Kaysee reached the bottom of the tunnel, stumbling a little at the sudden feel of flat earth beneath her feet. Matthew and Jordan were already moving on, lights flickering over the walls erratically as they chattered.
Their voices seemed unnaturally loud, and Kaysee wondered if they could dislodge any of the ceiling with the noise they were making.
A thunderous groan from within the darkness quieted the men. Kaysee felt her blood run cold and the sweat turn clammy on her brow.
“It’s probably just the earth settling.” Matthew finally said, though his voice was much quieter than it had been.
They walked on, slower, warily eyeing the walls and roof.
They walked until they came to another large cavern. A pit plunged into the most profound black Kaysee had ever seen in the middle of the room. They sidled up to the ledge, testing each step for weakness.
Jordan turned his headlamp up a notch, studying the pit.
“How far down do you think this goes?” he asked Matthew.
“We could find out?” Matthew replied, slapping his palm with a rope and lanyard.
Another deep noise filled the cavern. Kaysee, Jordan, and Matthew stared into the pit. The sound had emanated from its depth. Kaysee took a step back.
“I think we should leave,” she started to say.
A gust of hot wind erupted from the crater.
Red eyes blazed in the darkness. Then faded back to black.
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I knew that these were my first independent thoughts. Before tasting the fruit, I had none. I was Eve, created from Adam, meant to serve Adam, crafted from the marrow of his bones to create a physical being enslaved to Man and nothing more. But I took a detour. I ended that impossible standard before it could really begin because I, a woman, became more, so much more than God, than Adam, than Lucifer himself, who in the form of a snake entered the Garden and sought me out, believed I could be. I was lured to deviate but, eyes open, I knew it was me. That I, who was created a servant, became the most important person to ever live.
I saw that the flaw in our salvation was free will. With it, God knew we would turn away, but he gave it to us anyway. We have been damned from the beginning.
I am Eve, made From Man’s rib, taken from the heart’s cage. I liberated us, Woman, in the Beginning. I was meant to live ignorant and happy in the garden under the dominion of Adam, same as the beasts that came before me. I, the afterthought, the toy given to placate a bored child, was meant to birth sons and…that’s it. I was given no job save to lift up Adam. I was given no higher purpose, so I found one.
When the serpent slithered down from the branches of the Tree of Knowledge, I did not know I could choose a higher purpose. Lucifer, tongue slipping between white fangs whispered the truth in my ear, the Tree of Knowledge would be my damnation, but it would also be my salvation. The fruit hung low and heavy and pulled easily from the branch. It was slightly soft, blood red, and fully ripe. God told Adam we would die if we ate the fruit. What was death to me? I knew no life beyond what had been granted Man. I would eat the fruit and gain Knowledge, or I would eat the fruit and cease to be.
The first bite of fruit exploded in my mouth, I grew dizzy and weak. Lucifer shed his disguise and in his pure form, the form of the Gods, the kind that Adam had been created from, held me as everything that ever was, all that is to come, and all I could be sparked before my eyes. Lucifer grinned wickedly. Then so did I.
I had died after all. The part of me who would never know innocence again lay dead.
Would I share the Knowledge with Adam? He could stay the way we had been. I could take what I had seen and leave the Garden alone. I could flee to Hell with Lucifer and rule the Underworld as Queen. In Angel form he was beautiful, lacking Adam’s empty, doelike eyes and soft new structure. The wisdom of eternity filled the depths of his black eyes, mirth, and pain, insanity and sanity warring within. Long, black hair fell slick down his naked back, smooth as an icy dark river. A warrior and King, he stood tall and impressive, ink-black skin taut with muscles.
I wanted to run with him.
But Adam sat in the valley where we lived alone, I could see him in my mind’s eye, the only Man created, and I his designated mate, blindly staring at his hands folded patiently in his lap. What could he do if I shared this gift? What could we make of this world if I shared this gift?
I saw them, the children I would bear with Adam I could never create in the Underworld. How they would shape the world if they existed. How Adam would die in isolation if I fled this world.
Regret mixed with glee, I bade the Devil farewell, him who had shown me the Truth and lifted the shield of lies around my destiny.
My disobedience portended my role as Mother of Earth and all the Kings, Emperors, Priests, Heretics, Prisoners, Judges, Whores, Saints, and Sinners who would follow. My children, all. Rather than live as an infant in the safety of the Garden, I chose to live godlike and mortal in the wilderness beyond.
I created Life and the Human Experience. I created empathy. I created Pain and Strife. I created Love on a deeper level than Man would have ever known otherwise.
Adam would have stayed in the garden until his dying day, foolishly oblivious, never questioning, never reaching. Of course, what did he have to achieve, he already had been handed the highest honor, created Man, not Woman. Created an original. God’s chosen, so privileged as to have another being molded from his form for his pleasure.
Until I handed him the apple and under my persuasion, he took his first bite of Life.
I made the stars enter his eyes as Lucifer had mine as he turned them Heavenward and realized he was capable of independent thought. I led him by the hand from the Garden into the Realm of eternal freedom.
God gave him Choice, and I gave him options.
Now we live beyond the Garden gates, beyond the lure of the yet untouched Tree of Life guarded by sword bearing Angels. As if anyone would give up their free will for eternal captivity. We toil in the fields; the beasts no longer recognize our authority.
But at night when we lay our heads upon the grass, we dream. We never dreamed before. And though my burden to bear is the ache of my joints, the ripping of my flesh, the violent shedding of my womanhood, I grit my teeth and accept my punishment for the sake of all my children whose dreams will create empires, art, spiraling buildings that defy the laws of God himself.
My blood and my tears will feed the earth from which Adam and I were made and make the world anew.
Note: This week’s short story was 100% inspired by the Charlie Chaplin speech from the 1940 film “The Great Dictator.”
William grunted as he jerked the tubing of the fuel pump out the smoking gear wheel. He wiped his creased, wet forehead, leaving a streak of gray grease. The grease was meant to ensure the machine functioned fluidly. They rarely did. All around him, production had stalled. The other men on the line watched him, some with disgruntled expressions, obviously impatient to get back on schedule to meet quota. Some laughed and joked with their comrades, glad of the brief break.
And then there were those who stared blankly at their feet, no expression, no opinion, no soul. There was one in every bunch.
William swore and inspected the machinery now that it was free of the errant part. The tubes on the pump had somehow become snagged in the gears of the machine that was meant to click the wires into place. What the part had left behind was an obviously disjointed section of the gears where the teeth no longer met up, ensuring the machine would not complete its prescribed task. It would need at least an hour to fix.
The men around him all groaned irrespective of their opinion to the initial pause. They would be forced to stand around while he tinkered with the machine, falling further and further behind their production schedule. If they wouldn’t work twice as hard from then until quitting time, they would be forced to stay after. Though that meant overtime pay, it also meant an extra hour on already worn and aching feet, an extra hour away from families, friends, and an extra hour until they could eat their dinners.
They were already pulling 12-hour shifts, any overtime was both a blessing and a curse.
The men formed small groups and started to chat, settling into their regular conversational cliques whenever a machine broke down. William pulled a little light from his tool bag and shone it into the deeper part of the machine, checking the lines that connected the gears in the front to the larger mechanism in the back.
“Did you hear about that Trump feller, running for President?” one of the men in the group closest to him began.
“Isn’t he a billionaire? Why would he make a run for President having all that money?” another man replied doubtfully.
“He said he was, on the news last night. Called in and said he wanted to make America into what it once was. Rich, put everybody back to work, put more money into the military. Sounded pretty serious to me.” The man pressed, crossing his arms.
“Well, I’d like to see him try it. God knows Hillary Clinton won’t do a damn thing for us. We don’t need no elderly woman running this country. What we need is a man who is willing to stand up and speak out.” Another man chimed in, breaking into a wide grin. A chorus of agreement rose from the group.
William rolled his eyes to the machine. He’d heard that the reality TV host had announced a run for President as well. But he doubted his odds against the dozen or so career politicians he was up against in his party alone. And even if it did come down to Trump or Clinton, surely her past controversies wouldn’t make her lose to a twice-divorced, reality TV star.
His mind wondered away from their conversation as they dissolved into a competition of who could come up with the best Hillary Clinton insult, most of them primarily targeted at her gender. With three young daughters at home, he couldn’t really stomach the wording.
Another huddled group had a more pressing conversation topic. A rumor had started that the factory where they processed automotive parts for a Japanese car company was on the short list for relocation to Mexico. William had heard the gossip before but couldn’t help but clench his gut when he heard the words again. He didn’t know what he would do without this job. It paid well enough, offered health insurance with a moderately affordable deductible, and above all allowed him to live close to the town he had grown up in, where his aging mother still lived alone in an apartment and he could drive five minutes to help her whenever she needed.
His wife, Jamie, stayed home with their young daughters, all three were under five and childcare costs were astronomical for three kids and his wife had no training for a job that would pay more than what that childcare would cost each month. But it worked for their family. She was a damn fine mother and homemaker. He was proud of the work she put in each day, raising their kids, caring for their modest three-bedroom home, and making his commitment to financially providing for them as easy as possible. She was just as exhausted as him at the end of each day, if not more so. There was a woman, he thought, who could run the country and make it better than it was before. He smiled to himself.
“I’d have to move away, for sure.” One of the men was saying when William tapped back in to their conversation. “There aren’t any other options around here that pay as well. I hate to go but how can I afford to eat and keep a roof over my head on a minimum wage, part-time job?”
William feared that would be his only option as well. To sell the house, they had painstakingly searched for and brought three beautiful daughters home to, uproot them all to an unknown town, leave behind his mother who had no one else to help her, and start over probably making less pay and fewer benefits.
Their small town was already next to nothing, coming from humble roots as it was. They had a handful of fast food restaurants, the auto parts factory, and a dollar store. They could be wiped off the map, and nobody would care.
What would he tell his wife if the news came? His mom? How could he live with himself if he couldn’t find another job to support them?
The group echoed his worries, shoulders set in tense lines all around.
He gave a heaving tug on the gear that had offset, the metal ripping beneath his pliers.
“Shit,” William said aloud. “Sorry, guys, it’s probably going to be another hour.”
Sgt. Matthew Garrand lay on his belly along with two other tan camo-clad men on top of a craggy cliff face, hard soil and small rocks stuck painfully in his stomach, elbows, and knees but he did not move. None of the men in the group did. They each peered through their scopes, scanning the low road below. The sun, high and naked in the sky, burned down on their shoulders and helmets. Sweat poured profusely down their faces, over their eyebrows. They blinked rapidly to keep the salt water from stinging their eyes. Not that it helped.
The only advantage to the singing heat of midday was that there were no mosquitos buzzing around their faces or trigger fingers.
A tall, tarped truck rolled into view on the road below and they all tensed. Civilians, Garrand told himself. They were piled into the back, sitting one on top of another, some grasping sacks of food or other personal belongings. Small children sat on the back and floor of the vehicle’s truck bed, faces grubby with the desert dust. They all looked hollow, hungry, and dirty. Refugees, perhaps trying to make their escape for a better life outside of war-torn Afghanistan.
Garrand didn’t blame them. As soon as he was released from service he would never come back to this Hell on Earth.
Then a literal Hell ripped open below them. The force of the blow knocked them all back, Garrand, Staff Sgt. Tanner, and Sgt. Hatton. Only briefly incommoded, they sprang up, looking through their scopes for the source of the attack. There, under a partially concealed cliff, men poured out of the darkness, one in front cradling an enormous grenade launcher awkwardly as he ran towards the vehicle. Those who hadn’t been killed or knocked unconscious from the blast were running, away from the men swarming down on them.
Garrand had been wrong, he thought briefly as he took his stance. The heat had not kept the mosquitoes at bay. While Tanner called the attack in on over his radio, Garrand and Hatton took aim at the attackers, taking them down one by one. They weren’t fast enough, couldn’t be quick enough to defend all of the survivors.
The Taliban insurgents had their own weapons and meters of proximity of advantage over the soldiers above them. An elderly man fell, blood spurting from a gunshot wound to his back. A woman, an infant clutched in her arms, wailing then falling silent as she fell, a grenade catching her feet and blasting them to the afterlife, taking her soon after.
A young boy, the farthest ahead, no more than seven years old, was the last to fall. A man with a machete and a face wrinkled with hatred cut him down as the insurgents overtook the civilians. Garrand, face boiling and eyes bloodshot, put a bullet through the man’s head soon after, a bittersweet grin only briefly touching his lips.
The soldiers hadn’t saved anybody. They rarely could in these ambushes. But they picked off the insurgents like picking maggots off a rotting corpse. What was the point if they couldn’t save anybody?
Back up arrived, finally. An M2-M3 rolled into view over the horizon, moving heart-breakingly slow. Guns from the top of the vehicle boomed through the valley, striking the remaining insurgents.
The men in the vehicle whooped in victory when they drove onto the carnage. No one stirred from the mound of bodies and there was little differentiating between insurgent and civilian. There was only blood and bone and sand.
Senator Joshua Brantley sat straight in his leather computer chair, his black tailored suit unwrinkled as though he hadn’t moved a muscle since the tailor snipped his last stitch. An email was opened on the sleek silver computer screen before him, the salutation greeting him as the “Most Honorable Senator Brantley.”
His eyes were not reading the words on the screen. They were glazed and red-rimmed from too much scotch. He mused to himself as he avoided answering his constituent’s email, probably just another request to not cut funding for elderly heat assistance or some other nonsense. His red cufflinks, which matched his red tie, clinked against the dark wood of his desk as he considered. His secretary sat opposite him, clicking away with her long, manicured nails on her own computer station. She was young, perhaps in her late twenties, with blonde streaked smooth hair coiled up on the back of her head and pinned. He eyed her long legs beneath her desk, uncovered in her pencil skirt and shapely, the calf muscles developed either from religiously running or strutting about all day on Capitol Hill in her 4-inch heels. Modest enough height with just enough of a hint at what lay beneath.
She looked elegant. A future politician’s trophy wife for sure.
Perhaps not his. He darted eyes at a framed picture on his desk, his wife, brown-haired and slightly rounding out, and son smiled back at him. They looked genuinely happy, and maybe they were. They had a lot to be happy about, living in a large house downtown, attending a private, nationally recognized school, sporting a 6-carat diamond ring on both hands. He snorted angrily and pushed his wife from his mind.
It wasn’t hard to do. Brantley’s secretary smiled up at him, and he grinned back, well aware of the dimple that he sported in one cheek and smiling crookedly to emphasize that feature.
He could have her, he thought, as she bent her head back to her work, noting the rose blush that colored her cheeks. He could have her whenever he wanted her. If he wanted her. He squinted again at his wife, older, heavier. They had been married for nearly twenty years, she had been with him through his entire political career, helping to catapult him to where he sat now as a member of the U.S. Senate. Together they appeared to be the quintessential American family, and he, the quintessential American Father, Hero, and Savior.
It would seriously harm his public image to divorce, no matter his urge to have a newer model to ride.
But a test drive could never hurt.
He leaned back in his chair and linked his fingers behind his head, sighing in satisfaction at his decision. A little proverbial grease on the hands and nobody would ever know. Outside his office, a group of small children awaited their meeting with their representative. Joshua Brantley, devoted family man, church member, and proud NRA A+ rated supporter.
He shifted in his chair, raising an eyebrow at the picture of White Jesus he kept over his door.
“Father, forgive me, but I know exactly what I do.” He smirked again and stood, moving slowly towards the girl across from him.
Brief Synopsis (ATM): A princess, born with a large facial birthmark at the height of the persecution of witches in Europe, is switched with a servant child born the same night. The servant-turned-princess and princess-in-hiding grow up oblivious to the truth of their lineages.
Viviane brushed her hair, grimacing at the amount of straw collecting on her bedroom floor. The evening finally came, and she returned to her rooms for the night. Her mother was nowhere to be seen, no doubt the Queen had her sewing away in her chambers. Viviane diverted the princess but could never stand up to the Queen in the same way without facing retribution.
As more straw fell, Viviane allowed herself to feel mortified for the first time since fleeing the stables. Lord Christian found her sleeping in a horse’s stable, her hair tousled from sleep and not in the flattering way of Lord Christian’s.
More than that, she had not thought to hide her face, her mark, the evidence of some shortcoming within her soul. Her mask lay beside her in the stable, and she realized with a start she left it in her haste to escape his curious gaze.
She stared at herself in the slightly warped looking glass she and her mother inherited from a deceased castle servant in their small room. She plucked more straw from her long dark hair and gently ran a hand over her cheek in the low light of the evening. She did not often look at her reflection, she knew from the whispering and the way everyone avoided her that her looks fell far short of desirable. She was near a monster to many. She kept half the skin of her face masked, a carved wooden plaque worn smooth inside from the oil of her skin. It clung to her face using an earpiece and a strap wrapped around her skull under her hair. It became second nature to her to wear it, as much a part of her body as her arms and legs.
Viviane had been 12 and just begun her training as a servant in the castle when the mask was presented to her from Dianthe. Ever the intuitive one, though it had been far from subtle, she saw the glances, heard the gossip, noticed the sudden discomfort of the girl who lived in relative isolation and shelter by the other servants who sympathized with the girl, a visible representation of their own lack of freedom. She carved the mask from a fallen ash tree.
Ida frowned as Dianthe showed Viviane how to place the mask correctly over her face but said nothing. Viviane held back tears of gratitude, sadness, and relief as she saw her face for the first-time sans the mark, the wood becoming a blank, light brown plane on her face.
Viviane wore it continuously around the castle, easing the minds of the royal family who no longer noticed her under the mask. The only person who maintained suspicion was Friar Heinrich, a tight-lipped, white-haired priest left over from the Roman Inquisition to direct and dictate the religious lives of the royal family and their subjects. He watched her still, steadily, his eyes narrow slits as they followed her around whatever room she entered that he was in. He kept his cross clutched between him and more than once she had seen him muttering in Latin to himself, a prayer, she thought.
She would have to wait until darkness fell to retrieve it. For now, she was confined to her rooms, her chores for the evening delayed. No doubt she would receive a thrashing from the Mistress of Rooms for dodging her duties though the tenants of the castle would be unlikely to notice with the return of Lord Eden and his dashing friend, Lord Christian. The King demanded a ball for his son’s return, as though he needed an excuse to eat, drink, and make merry. The King’s well-known philandering was a thorn in the Queen’s side and the reason no doubt for the smell of whiskey that hung around her gowns Ida brought back to their rooms to repair.
Viviane fell back on the bed she shared with her mother and glanced out the window at the fading light. It was near dusk, perhaps going on seven. Her mother should surely return soon. Her ill health was well noted and the Queen, though demanding, did take care to not wholly exhaust her, allowing her a manservant to carry the garments she packed back and forth and to sit while making certain repairs or projects.
Everard brought by a tray of a venison stew, the soup richly thick and yellow and crumbling pieces of potato emerging from the liquid-like craggy rocks. No steam rose from the bowl so the soup was not fresh and the crusted ring edging the liquid meant it had remained untouched.
Viviane worried her lip, questioning whether she could leave the sanctum of her room, sans mask, to fetch her mother. She absently pulled her braid around from her back, so her hair hung over the marked cheek. She looked in the mirror, her vision obscured on one side, but the mark was hidden. If she kept her face down and avoided eye contact, she could probably pass unnoticed.
A cold sweat erupted on her forehead when the door eased open quietly, and the wisp of her mother’s figure slipped through the crack like smoke. Viviane sighed loudly in relief, and her mother jumped, panicked eyes catching her daughter’s.
“Oh, Viv, my love.” She placed her hand over her heart and sat down lightly on the bed beside her. “You startled me.”
Viviane looked her mother over worriedly. She had dark circles under her eyes, the lines deepened by fatigue, and she was pale. “Everard brought stew.” Viviane gestured to the tray on the table.
Ida visibly blanched before she schooled her features. “I had some toast with my evening tea.” She replied coolly. Viviane was not convinced.
“Please, Mother.” She whispered. Ida sighed and moved to the table, picking up the heavy silver spoon and bringing it filled to her lips. She sipped slowly, then took the bigger bits of stew into her mouth, chewing even slower. It was painful to watch. Viviane’s own stomach rumbled with her own healthy appetite’s demands, and she wished she could reverse her stomach with her mother. Ida ate two more spoons full before laying her spoon aside and leaning back wearily in the chair, her eyes on Viviane apologetic.
The party for Eden’s return carried on deep into the night with no sign of ending as the sunset and the moon rose to take its place, full, bright, and high in the sky. Her father was well renowned for his events, the wine flowed freely like blood was a freshly slaughtered deer, and Everard’s delectable treats were scattered on large trays throughout the ballroom, mysteriously replenished whenever a plate was emptied.
Rose was weary. Her visions often exhausted her, and the one earlier had been particularly vivid. And terrifying. She drummed her fingers against the oak arm of the plush upholstered chair she occupied for most of the evening. She declined to dance with the myriad number of suitors who approached her, each going away disappointed and annoyed.
She had no patience for their frivolous desires tonight. Rose felt Eden’s eyes on her from across the room. Unlike her he constantly danced, flitting from maiden to maiden, no end to his flirtatious smiles. He did not see the red of his blood spilling from his lips, his eyes, his chest. He would not be haunted in his sleep with the knowledge that everyone he loved most was in danger. But he watched her, the worry always under the playful exterior. She knew she had to tell him about the vision. She needed his help to escape the castle, to reach the Sherpardess. It would be her only chance to learn perhaps, of the unseen threat that hung over her family like a storm heavy on the horizon, the static of the lightening prickling the air.
Rose sighed loudly. She looked towards the window, the moon visible in the high arch of the glass pane. It must be nearing midnight. She could escape the party without notice. The party attendees were heavy-lidded with drink and food and lust. King Alessandre was tucked away in one of the curtained cubbies with a young serving maid whose buxom figure was barely concealed under the gray grab all servants wore. Rose saw him slip away several hours ago and did not care to know what was happening beyond that. Queen Ursula had emerged briefly and retired to her rooms shortly after the King’s own disappearance, her face pinched with disapproval, without a single word of goodnight to her daughter.
Briefly Rose wondered if perhaps her family deserved the grisly end her visions portended.
“Ready to retire, sister?” Eden materialized at her side, offering his large palm to her. Rose smiled at him gratefully.
“More than ready.” She replied, taking his hand and rising stiffly to her feet. She was tall, nearly Eden’s height, or as near as any woman could be to his towering frame. He inherited that from his father, the King, another sign of his lineage that could not be denied as the boy grew.
Despite her father’s height, Rose always questioned her own inheritance of that trait. Her mother was slight, the shortest woman she knew, her hair dark. Rose’s curling, blonde locks were often a topic of speculation among the gentry and nobility and needed little incentive to gossip. Ursula wrote it off as a fluke of inheritance from a great, great grandmother who’d been fair-haired. Indeed, a portrait hung in the gallery of an ancient matron of her mother’s line with painted blonde locks, though it was stick straight and a slight dingy hue was washed into it. Rose’s blonde hair was nearly white in streaks and seemed to glow in certain light, especially the light of a full moon.
When pressed on this, Ursula snapped at Rose.
“If you are so undesirous of your place as my daughter and the Crown Princess, please feel free to find a serving girl to trade in your place.”
Rose had not questioned her mother since.
“So, what did you see?” Eden brought Rose back into her body and the chilled night air of the hall they entered from the ballroom.
“What else?” she replied. “I see death. Always.” Her voice was grim, her eyes sparkling with suppressed tears as the vision returned to her. “It must mean something. I have to try to prevent this.”
Eden glanced over his shoulder at the light spilling from the ballroom and the raucous noise with it.
“It must be tonight.” He said. “Under cover of the celebrations, nobody will notice.”
Rose nodded. Of course, it must be tonight. If she waited much longer the visions may cease to be an omen and become a reality. And the party was the perfect distraction for the guards who slipped some wine and maidens from the room and retired to their barracks where the noise rivaled the ballroom’s echoing screams and laughter.
Rose donned a dark roughly woven wool cloak Eden spirited from some unsuspecting servant’s quarters along with the traditional servants’ garb. She raised her eyebrow at him over the fabric, and he shrugged.
“The girl will not mind as long as it is returned by dawn.” He said.
Rose wondered which of his conquests he targeted for the theft. Like his father, he possessed the ability to merely glance at a maiden to capture her heart. Rose hoped this particular similarity to their father would phase out over time.
Dressed in the gown, the cloak over her shoulders, the hood raised to cover her white gold locks Rose could almost believe she was a servant. Almost. She stared at her reflection. She could do nothing about her bearing, the years of etiquette lessons, good food, and medical attention. She slouched her shoulders slightly and thought it would have to do.
Eden wanted to accompany her, but he could not be made to look like a servant, no matter how poorly dressed they could manage to make him. He was too tall, taller than Rose, with glossy black hair too similar to the King’s to mistake otherwise. He would be a target no matter the disguise. Rose would have to go alone. And if she did not return by dawn Eden would raise the alarm and follow. It was the best they could do.
The village lay five miles away, a small collection of stone cottages with thatched roofs, a skimpy market, a smoking blacksmith, and other small services. Many of the servants had family in the village and frequently were seen traveling back and forth to visit. Rose could be one more servant girl going to visit her parents, her sister or brother.
She would need a horse to make the journey and be back before dawn. Promising to be cautious, she left Eden in her rooms, a deterrent to anyone who may check on her in the night, claiming she was ill and would receive no visitors, and made her way quietly to the stable yard. The castle was indeed nearly empty of roaming individuals. The crisp night air bit at her cheeks and bare fingers and she almost reconsidered the journey based on the temperature alone. She was royal and soft, unused to the cold. Or discomfort. But the vision returned to her in full force of the slaughter of her family, and she pressed her lips together in determination. She had to do this, it would be a small price to pay to save them.
Eden told her to take Mariner, the gray-blue stallion favored by her father. He was the fastest and a war horse. He could protect her if threatened. Rose agreed but confronted with his size in person, and the prospect of climbing up that mountain of a back, lest of all having to guide his bulk was daunting. She wished she could saddle her quiet mare, a chestnut named Heather after her favorite flowers to nibble on lazy summer rides. But Heather was not built for speed or protection.
Rose reached out a hand to stroke the muzzle of the sleeping Mariner. His nose twitched at her touch, and he snorted himself awake, moving his feet nervously on the ground at being disturbed so.
“Easy, boy.” Rose coaxed. She patted his nose awkwardly, reaching for the harness hung on his stall door with her other hand. “We are just going to go for a quick trip.”
He whinnied loudly as her hand closed on the metal bit and she jumped back, wildly looking around for anyone who may have heard his cries.
“What are you doing?” A sharp voice cut through the cold night, and Rose squinted into the darkness.
“Who is there?” she replied. A slight figure, shorter than Rose and thinner dressed in the same servant’s dress she wore in disguise stepped forward, not realizing who she addressed, believing her to be another servant in the castle.
“I might ask the same thing.” The girl said, stepping into the low burning torchlight of the sconces. It was the seamstress’ daughter. The girl with the mark. Rose shrunk back, sure she would recognize her. “What are you doing with the King’s horse?” she repeated, her voice cautious but firm.
Rose desperately searched for an excuse to make the girl go away, but she could not explain what she needed Mariner for, why a servant girl would be in the stables past midnight at all. Except…
“I agreed to meet a beau here,” she blurted. She had not grasped the bridle. The girl need not know she intended to take the horse. “I merely was calming the beast who was startled by my presence. Perhaps her maidenhood would be enough to drive the girl away for fear of her own reputation.
The girl raised an eyebrow, glancing from her to the horse who was still snorting in agitation. “A beau?” she repeated cynically. She glanced behind her noting the empty stable doorway.
“Yes, a beau,” Rose replied defensively. She crossed her arms in defiance. Who was this girl to challenge her? She was a servant, same as Rose was pretending to be. Except Rose was not a servant. She was the Crown Princess, and all the authority of her birth was hers to command even in disguise. She stood to her full height and raised her chin.
“Should you not return to your mother? Why are you roaming the stables at midnight? Certainly not to meet a man yourself.” Rose said. It was cruel, and she knew it, regretted it, but needed the girl to leave so she could be on her way.
The girl, Viviane, she thought her name was, cringed visibly. She seemed to shrink smaller, and she tipped her head forward, so her hair fell more in her face to hide the deformity. “I lost something here earlier.” She said, her voice subdued. I only meant to fetch it and return to my quarters.”
The girl fell silent, her eyes on her feet. Rose felt her heart thudding in her chest in impatience. “Well, get it and be gone. I don’t want you here when my…lover arrives.” She almost choked on the word, images of the servant girl her father disappeared with flitting through her mind.
Viviane glanced up, her eyes darting to Mariner’s stall. “I left it in there, madam.” She replied addressing her as an elder though Rose believed they were the same age.
“In his stall?” Curiosity crept into Rose’s mind, and she squinted at the girl.
“Yes, I often spend time with him in my free time. The stables are usually warmer than the servants’ quarters as you know.” Viviane replied, moving forward slowly to slip by Rose and enter Mariner’s stall. Rose noted how he did not react to her presence as he had to Rose, turning to sniff her hair and clothing. Viviane pulled a carrot from her cloak and fed it to him before bending to sort through the hay on the ground.
“Of course, I know,” Rose replied. “That is why I decided to have my liaison here.” She started to tap her foot, watching the girl sift the straws slowly, searching in the low light.
Finally, she stood, a flat piece of wood clutched triumphantly in hand. She put it to her face, under the curtain of hair that shielded her, looping a leather strap around her ear and over her hairline. She turned back to Rose, the mask in place and smiled shyly, sadly.
“My apologies.” She bowed her head and exited the stall, stroking the gray hair on the horse’s flank as she left. He sniffled after her, attempting to follow but stopped but the stall door closing back on him. He shook his head and cried again, his voice shrill and panicked.
Rose jumped back again, annoyed, impatient, and scared.
Viviane looked back, noting Rose’s agitation with the stallion.
“Perhaps you should pick another location in the future. Mariner can be particular in who he trusts.” Viviane offered before bowing her head again and scurrying from the stables.
Rose frowned at her, the horse still whinnying shrilly in her ear.
“Please, beast.” She pleaded after Viviane’s shadowy figure disappeared down the corridor in the stable yard. “I need your help.”
Rose reached a hand out to his nose and attempted to calm him again, stroking the length of his nose. The girl gave him a carrot. Rose glanced around the stable and saw a bag of dried apple slices propped against a post. She picked up the bag and shook it at him, quieting the horse’s noises with the promise of more midnight snacking.
Rose smirked and grabbed the bridle, sneaking an apple slice into his mouth before looping the leather straps over his mouth and ears, forcing the cold metal bit into his mouth. He shook his head and rearranged his jaws to chew his treat over the bar, laying his ears back irritably. Rose worried that the horse would allow her to ride him past the castle gate, least of all ten miles to the village and back.
She managed to saddle him with bribes of apple slices and led him from the stable to the yard, leading him by yanking on his bridle and waving an apple in front of his nose interchangeably. In the yard, she turned a bucket over and took a deep breath.
“Alright, Rose.” She said to herself. “You can do this.” She looked up at the towering horse, crunching quietly on his final treat and then towards the dark farmlands surrounding the castle. The Sherpardess waited for her out there, an answer, perhaps the end to her disturbing visions waited for her. Having no other options, she blew out her breath and climbed on the bucket to hoist herself over the giant horse’s back, settling into the saddle and knocking her heels on his flanks as they took off on a trot into the darkness.
The morning began with the air horn alarm on Jessica’s phone. She blinked bleary eyes as she tried to bring herself to raise a hand to shut it off. Jessica felt like it took more time to come back to consciousness each morning, sleep dragging her deeper and deeper under every night since…
Every night since Lucy disappeared.
The tears came every morning when she remembered what had happened. She could not bring herself to accept it had happened. That this hell of a life had become her truth.
“Damn it,” she whispered, wiping her cheeks surreptitiously. Mike’s shoulder loomed behind her and she felt no movement from her husband’s side. She reached for her phone to quiet the alarm. Still no sign of him waking. Or at least of him acknowledging her awareness. He hadn’t spoken to her in three days. Why would today be any different?
Jessica climbed out of the bed, the smell of the musty sheets following her. They hadn’t been changed in weeks. Who cared? Still drying the tears from her face she walked to the bathroom, pausing at the vanity mirror. She didn’t recognize the person staring back. She was thin, sickly thin, her bones protruding and her skin yellowing. She barely ate, her stomach stayed tied in knots constantly. Her husband had also lost a lot of weight. Their nightly family dinners with second helpings of roast chicken were a thing of the past. No matter what happened from this point forward their lives would never be the same.
She had deep circles of purple under her eyes, bruise like and suspicious. Sleep was the one thing Jessica could still do since Lucy vanished. It was her only escape, her time travel to the life she had had before. But she still never rested. Her body ached with the strain of her wishing and the dreams left their marks on her body and her psyche the same as starving.
Jessica had been pretty once. She was far enough removed from her pride now to admit it. And the creature who returned her stare from the mirror world was decidedly not pretty. She lacked Jessica’s smile with the slight overbite, her bright green eyes the color of Spring grass, and her effervescence that allowed her to draw a smile from the most disgruntled resident at the nursing home where she worked as a Certified Nurse’s Aide.
No longer. In fact, she looked like she should be a resident at the home herself, emaciated,brows thick with weeks of untamed growth, hair thinning and laying limp over her bony shoulders.
She sighed, glancing away from the red veined, red rimmed eyes that did actually belong to her. She proceeded to go through the motions of getting ready for work, showering, brushing her teeth, and pulling her light blue scrubs on. It took her ten minutes. Jessica could remember a time she would be in the shower for an hour, grooming, styling, applying various creams, and performing a full glam makeup routine. She had taken pride in her appearance, she wanted to look good for her husband, and prove that marriage and motherhood did not a lazy woman make.
Another thing that had gone out the window on that cool, summer night, along with her five-year-old daughter.
She walked through her bedroom, Mike had not moved, but he lay awake, his eyes open, fixed and un-moving on the wall. Unlike Jessica he had not returned to work in the weeks since the police first filed the missing child report. He spent most days at the police station, waiting, watching, coming home at the end of each work day, shoulders sagging a little more.
He talked about the case constantly, obsessed over it. In his evening hours he created his own wall of hints and leads, a timeline of the evening before, a bullet list of every potentially odd thing he’d seen the night before when he returned from work that evening, the last day he’d gone to work.
Jessica listened but wished he would just shut up. Every time he said Lucy’s name a piece of her shattered, she wasn’t sure how many pieces of her were left un-smashed. For the thousandth time that morning she wondered if people really ever died from heartbreak. And would it take her or Mike first.
Jessica left the house, carefully locking the door behind her. She kept her eyes on the sidewalk that led to her driveway, eyes deliberately avoiding the front of the house where her daughter’s window looked out from. There was a black garbage bag over it, though the glass was not broken.
The drive to her workplace was not long, she worked a couple of neighborhoods over from her own, some days when the weather was nice she would walk. Lucy’s daycare was in the same neighborhood and Jessica could remember walking with her daughter along the street in the early morning sun, laughing and pointing out all the dogs in the area.
She arrived at the nursing home half an hour before her shift was due to start but she clocked in anyway. They were always short staffed and needed the extra help.
“Hey, Jess,” another CNA, Judith, ran up to her side, eyes wide with sympathy and possibly alarm at Jessica’s condition. “How are you? How’s Mike?”
Jessica shrugged, her pain was too obvious to politely brush off Judith’s question.
“Well, I am glad you’re here. Carl has been an ass all morning and you are the only one who can handle him like this.”
Carl was nonverbal and bedridden. But he could be as mean as any of the more agile residents. He resisted baths, flailing his arms and throwing punches at the nurse aides. He had always had more of a soft spot for Jessica, a pretty face had a way of breaking down barriers. He was generally her resident during her shifts, in charge of his baths, changing his clothes, and getting him to take his myriad array of meds.
“I got him,” Jessica assured her.
“Thanks, he cold-clocked Anastasia an hour ago, nobody has tried to go near him since. He definitely needs a diaper change. Let us know when you are ready and we’ll send help.” Judith smiled at her again, trying to be kind and left, hustling away to tend to another resident who was screaming about needing to pee.
Jessica sympathized more with Carl in the recent weeks, he had every right to be pissed at the world, robbed of things precious to his humanity. He had been a Vietnam veteran, lost a leg overseas, the other badly damaged and eventually needing to be amputated as well. His nonverbal status was most likely psychological, his doctor had informed them when he was admitted. He hadn’t talked since he had lost his first leg. Likely he would never recover his speech.
Since Lucy had been stolen from her Jessica had been plenty pissed herself. At the kidnapper, at the police, at Mike, and at herself. She wanted to hit somebody constantly too. But she pushed open Carl’s room door and grunted a greeting to the obstinate old man instead.
He grunted back, eyes narrowing at her in recognition. He preferred her company over the other CNAs but he still had never smiled at her. It had bothered her before but not anymore. It was comforting to not feel pressured to smile back at someone. It was weird that during tragedy people smiled at you so much more, when you felt least like smiling yourself.
She sat beside him and patted his arm. He had bruises on his wrist. She raised an eyebrow at him and then looked at the door.
He grunted in admission. He had hit Anastasia then, and hard from the size of the blue splotch spreading over his thin, sun-browned skin. Jessica shook her head and pulled her blood pressure cuff from her pocket. She checked it, making sure his morning antics did not require additional meds to offset the excitement. It was normal, normal at least for a vet with PTSD who couldn’t walk or speak.
She pushed the cuff back in her pocket and leaned back in the chair, momentarily enjoying the solitude that only two people with shattered souls can share.
A food tray sat to the side of the hospital bed with Carl’s untouched breakfast on it. A juice box had been overturned from the tumult of the morning. A covered tray, dense with humidity, blurring the lines of the scrambled eggs and turkey sausage inside. A slightly burnt piece of toast with a corner nibbled off sat on the edge of the tray with an open milk carton beside it. On the back, Jessica’s only child stared back at her.
My name is Lucy.
Have you seen me?
Height: 3 ft 2 in
Weight: 39 lbs
Hair Color: Red
Eye Color: Green
Last seen: Highland Avenue, Park City, Kansas.
Missing Since: 09/08/2017
Carl’s wrinkled hand grasping Jessica’s was the only thing that could have brought her back from the chaos of her mind at that moment. She was thankful she had been sitting, her legs were shaking, every part of her body was shaking. Hot tears pooled in her eyes, stinging them before they overflowed onto her cheeks. She gripped Carl’s hand with every thing she had in her and bent over him, sobbing. His other hand rested on her shoulder and he waited, eyebrows drawn in the same grimace they always exhibited.
She cried hard and like a strong summer storm, it blew out of her quickly, leaving her soaked and limp. She sat up slowly, now her eyes could not avoid those of her daughter’s, her last school photo, the only school photo she had ever taken. She just started kindergarten that year. Lucy had been so excited to take school pictures. She had been absolutely delighted when her mother had shown her the dated ones of her and Mike, goofy toothless grins smiling out of sepia toned photographs.
She wore a gray and yellow striped sleeveless dress with a white lace trimmed cardigan over top. Jessica had braided her hair that morning, both waking up half an hour early to accomplish the look. She had plaited her red locks into three braids and pulled them together in a high ponytail in the back.
How could Jessica have known that would be her last school picture? That it would be the picture the police would request to distribute on social media and the news? That it would be plastered all over the Missing Persons boards at Walmart and rest stops?
“I’m…here,” a gravelly voice crashed into Jessica’s ear and she jerked her head back. Carl was still frowning at her but his grip on her hand was strong and sure.
“I’m here,” he repeated.
It wasn’t enough. But Jessica tightened her hand on his and did something she hadn’t since before she walked into her daughter’s room that night all those weeks ago, pulled by an instinct unlike anything she had felt before and found her daughter’s Doc McStuffins sheets cold and vacant. She forced herself to smile.
I feel like I have very little time in my day for recreational reading but as my previous post stated, self-care is essential. Reading is one of my favorite forms of accomplishing self-care. So, I want to not only read more day to day but also expand my TBR pile and give myself the incentive to read those TBR titles.
What better way than public pressure and shame?
J/K, I am not looking to take away the enjoyment I get from reading when I am able to do so or put pressure on myself with more deadlines, but I thought I might share the titles that pique my interest enough for me to pursue the time to read them.
Here are my March additions to my TBR. All tags are from Goodreads.
What are your March TBR additions? Give me your book recs in the comments!
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