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.

Check out my other short stories!

Machine Men

The Gospel of Eve

Wicked Women

Novel Ambitions 2: Another #FlashFictionFriday Sneak Peek at My Current WIP

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.”

Flash Fiction Friday: The Beast Within

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.

Flash Fiction Friday – The Beast Within

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.

Check out my other Flash Fiction Friday stories!

The Gospel of Eve

Machine Men

Search for more stories using “Flash Fiction” in the search bar on my website.

Interested in the Writer’s Digest Your Story Competitions? 

The Gospel of Eve

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.

From me.

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.

Machine Men

Note: This week’s short story was 100% inspired by the Charlie Chaplin speech from the 1940 film “The Great Dictator.”

Spring Hills, Indiana

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.”

10 Miles Outside of Camp Dwyer Marine Base, Helmand River Valley, Afghanistan

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.

Capitol Hill, Washington D.C.

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.

My Name is Lucy. Have You Seen Me?

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?
Age: 5
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.

Wicked Women

Wicked Women
Mariah tipped the plastic tumbler up over a purple leafed plant. Water dribbled down the cup, leaving a puddle on the laminate counter top before she was able to tilt it high enough for the water to pour outward from the lip. Droplets of water slipped from the individual elongated leaves and the soil beneath darkened from light brown to nearly black. She emptied the cup and set it down, splashing in the puddle on the counter.
The sun shone on the plants, slanted in the early morning. It was warm on her hand as she rested it on the laminate beside the empty cup, raising a coffee mug in her other hand to take a sip of the dark liquid within.
Mariah’s dark blue eyes flitted over the backyard her kitchen window faced. Small blackbirds pecked at the dew damp grass, foraging for bugs that had surfaced in the quiet, cool air of the night.
She reached up to her neck and touched an iron Celtic cross that hung heavily there, nestled over her collarbone. It felt warm against her fingers and she knew, it was time.
            Diana hurriedly parceled out the bread and sliced turkey between three Tupperware bowls. Carrot slices and cauliflower florets set to the side of the hastily constructed sandwiches.
“C’mon, guys! The bus will be here in five minutes!” she shouted as she popped the lids on the bowls and shoved them in her kids’ lunchboxes. Wonder Woman, Lightning McQueen, and Naruto stared back at her from the shiny painted lids as she snapped them each shut with audible clicks.
Miles raced in first, different shoes messily tied on each foot. Diana had anticipated her five-year-old’s mismatched footwear having found the mates to both in her own closet that morning. She forced him to sit at the breakfast table and pulled one shoe off, quickly replacing it with the matching shoe to the one he still wore and retying both in a more secure bow.
Jada strolled in next, her eyes glued to her phone screen but dressed and ready. Diana studied her over the tousled blond of her son’s curls, noting the blush and eyeliner her daughter knew she did not approve of. She tightened her lips, eyeing the clock which was three minutes from striking the time of the school bus’s arrival.
George followed close behind, hair rumpled and eyes still red from sleep, obviously he had only just rolled out of bed. They gathered their backpacks and lunchboxes, making it out the door just as the bus turned down the street.
Diana waved at them from the front porch as they loaded the bus, only Miles waving energetically back.
As they drove away, she turned her eyes to the rising sun, her hand instinctively heading to the thick silver chain hanging from her neck. She pulled the chain from under her oversized sweater, revealing an iron Celtic cross.
They were calling.
            The hand drawn pictures from Lucretia’s grandchildren were not large or bright enough to detract from the sterile white walls of the nursing home. She lay back on the adjustable hospital bed identical to her roommate’s save for the crocheted blanket with its colorful whirling patterns she had made in her younger days when her hands had been nimble and delicate. They were spotted now, and her joints were so knobby it hurt to squeeze her fingers together. The blinds on her window had been tilted to allow sun to shine through, though they were permanently lowered and could not be raised to allow for an uninterrupted view of the cloudless blue sky without.
Lucretia missed the span of the sky the most. The feeling of insignificance she felt when she laid beneath it and felt like she could fall into the depths and be lost to space beyond. The ceiling in the nursing home was low, maybe 7 feet high. And just looking at the nearness of the speckled tiling made her feel claustrophobic.
Her roommate snorted loudly in her sleep behind the thin white curtain meant to simulate privacy and Lucretia started. Her hand flew to her chest where her heart skipped a beat, shortening her breath. Her fingers grazed a fine silver chain, warm on her skin. An iron Celtic cross hung from it, grazing the top of the neckline of her hospital gown.
Though the link was fading in her old age, she could feel the call of the Goddess. The swollen moon hung between the blinds, visible in the daytime. She had to get to them.
A Forest Clearing, Midnight
            A circle of large, white stones sat in the center of a cleared section of forest. Old stumps and fallen logs provided ample seating for the cloaked figures entering from the shadows of the surrounding trees. They came like mosquitos to a flame, though no fire had yet been built in the pit of the rock circle. The light of the full moon above lit the glen with a mercury sheen. As the figures uncloaked, their unbound hair, in colors spanning from deep black to white, caught the moonlight like signal fires, lighting one after another, sending a message of assemblage.
One figure hobbled into the clearing, propped by two others. The figure paused as the light hit her head and shook the arms the supporting figures held. They released their hold and the figure reached trembling limbs to pull the hood down. Dark silver hair, still thick and curling despite the decrepit slope of the woman’s spine, the dark splotches on her wrinkled hands, tumbled down over her shoulders and she pulled the bulk of it from beneath her cloak, exposing it to the sky. She looked up, eyes bright with excitement and breathed deeply. The two figures who had also uncloaked, two younger women, one red haired, the other salt and pepper gray made to clasp her arms again, but Lucretia shook her head. She stood taller, forcing her back to straighten and walked forward, no longer hobbling, no longer shaking, tall and beautiful and liquid.
Lucretia glided to the stone circle, a teepee of wood had been erected there, tinder shoved beneath, ready for lighting. She pulled a box of matches from the pocket of her cloak and knelt to strike it on a stone. A hush fell over the clearing with the whoosh of the match igniting. Lucretia looked around wickedly over the light of the flame and winked at a young woman across the stone circle, a new recruit with mousy brown hair that hung limp at her shoulders. She tossed the match at the base of the wood. A much louder whoosh and the teepee ignited in a burst of flame, rising taller than the tallest woman in the glen. A cry of elation rose from the women as they cast their cloaks to the ground, revealing an array of sparse garments beneath. Some had covered every sensitive part of their body while others stood stark naked in the flame light, unashamed.
Lucretia turned to face the crowd of her coven and lowered her own cloak, revealing a thin frame, the spots that decorated her hands covered the rest of her, stretched over dimpled and trenched skin. But she stood uncovered in the midst of the other women, her chin high and proud. She smiled at them and they smiled back, hands raising as they twirled and pounced, a rising drum beat subtly guiding the dancing that began as each woman undressed.
A young woman stepped up beside Lucretia, holding out her bare arms, the brown skin appearing gray under the light of the white moon. “Lucretia,” she greeted, tears glimmering in dark brown eyes.
“Diana,” the older woman replied. She fell into the young woman’s arms.
Diana had been a convert for several years, Lucretia had been in her sixties then, a little younger, but independent. It was just before the stroke that landed her in the nursing home, unable to care for herself in the cottage she had owned since her mid-twenties. Diana had been in her teens, freshly 18 when she found her way into the coven, unmarried and childless. A baby, really. At least to Lucretia who was decades her senior. Lucretia brushed shining black braids back from Diana’s cheek and cupped her face in her aged hands, wrinkled pale skin stark against the dark smooth skin of the young mother.
A newer convert stood quietly behind Diana while the women embraced. She was slightly overweight, her bare stomach swelled slightly over her covered pubic region. She had long hair that reached to her lower back and shone red black silhouetted in the light of the fire. She had fine bones, a long straight nose and stark, green eyes. Diana pulled back from Lucretia, looking to the girl with excitement.
“This is Mariah, my convert.” She introduced her.
“This is Sister Lucretia,” Diana explained to Mariah. “She converted me, and she is the oldest member of the coven.”
Mariah’s eyes widened in surprise and she curtsied awkwardly out of respect.
Lucretia laughed, her voice raspy but pleasant and Mariah smiled in return. “No need to be so formal,” she assured the young girl.
Diana and Mariah flanked the elder woman as she turned back to the bonfire and began swaying to the beat. Diana closed her eyes and spread her arms, flowing like the fire that crackled before them. Mariah watched them, still holding back, not comfortable enough in her skin to succumb to the natural urge to move herself.
There were many other new converts. Each sister was tasked with converting a new member once a year, expanding the coven to encompass as many sisters as could be claimed.
Womanhood was a peculiar sorority, Lucretia thought, her stiff limbs flowing like water under the moon’s soothing light and the comforting heat of the flames. They were all connected by the uniqueness of their anatomy. The necessity of the sacrifice of their bodies to continuing the human race. Millions of women had given their lives to it. The ability itself was nothing short of miraculous. A gift bestowed on their gender.
Lucretia had never had children. Her body sagged with age, the skin of her stomach riveted with lines and stretch marks, but none had been caused by carrying a baby. She had learned at an early age she was infertile and so never married. Yet she praised the Goddess; the maiden, the mother, and the crone. She would never make the middle passage, but she was woman all the same. Instead of mothering children she had devoted her life to a Sisterhood, to caring for the women of the world who were too often weighted down with the cares of their men, of their jobs, of their children, in fact. They needed a place where they could be. Lucretia had provided that.
She was the oldest coven member, because she had formed it. She did not call herself or her converts witches, though society did. They were simply women connected to the Goddess and to Nature. They were Sisters in the highest sense of the word. Though she could not bear children of her own, in her coven, they felt the joy and pain of each individual as acutely as their own. They were able to share their experiences of womanhood even though she could not physically experience some things.
She had created the coven in part for the company. She had been lonely, childless and husbandless in a time when that defined a woman’s purpose, an only child born to a middle-aged couple who had passed long ago. And then she believed in the Goddess, had learned the ways of it from her mother who had learned it from hers. Women were falling away from the Goddess though, and it showed in the gender. They had lost what made them powerful, allowed themselves to be overshadowed by men. In the home and the workplace women were subordinate to their male counterparts. It is like they didn’t know they carried the weight of the world in their pelvis, that they, as women, are the closest to God a man may ever get.
Lucretia allowed her eyes to graze the clearing, Mariah awkwardly following Diana’s movements as she accustomed herself to the group, the other women grouped with their converters and convertees, laughing and free. It was beautiful. She raised her arms once more to the low hanging moon bulging with promise. Her life was nearing its end, she felt even then the skipping heartbeat, her labored breathing. But she had turned these women back to their true purpose, supporting each other and reveling in their femininity. They would carry on her life’s work and teach their daughters that they have intrinsic value not assigned by others.
Diana had grabbed Mariah’s arms, helping her match the rhythm of the drums. They laughed as they took a spin, Diana’s chest was uncovered and her breasts, heavy and slightly sagging from nursing three children, trembled under her movements, swinging wildly. They opened their eyes, laughing, and turned to Lucretia only to find she had collapsed in a heap at the base of the bonfire.
“Sister!” Diana fell to her side, reaching for the elder woman’s wrist, desperate to feel a pulse. Lucretia’s eyes were open, her toothless mouth stretched in a wide, thin smile. She was staring at the moon, but there was nothing of recognition in them. No throbbing met Diana’s searching fingers. The sisters quieted and folded in around them, the drums tapered to a low rumble.

Valley & Sky

My name is Sky. Judith, my stepmother, said that is because my mother gave birth to me in the yard under the summer midafternoon sky, the kind where rifted white clouds skimmed the highest reach of the Heavens. Lacking imagination for a decent Christian name she had muttered, “Sky,” when asked for a name for the skinny, white-haired baby the midwife handed her before she promptly fainted.
My mother was not a strong woman. She was always thin, bone edges protruding from the angles of her body, her collarbone a shelf for her neck and head. Childbirth seemed to steal what little life force she had. I was the oldest. My little brother came next, named Dusk, signifying the time of day he entered the world. And my youngest sibling, a sister called Valley, was the youngest and the one who stole my mother’s last breath, releasing it in a sigh as Valley took her very first gulp of mountain air, then promptly screamed, startling the birds from their trees where they had settled during the unusually quiet labor.
Maybe because of my name, or by some intuition of my mother’s, I have always been entranced by the sky. I have watched it lighten in the early dawn, pale in the waning evening. I have tracked the scuttle of clouds from storms ripped to shreds and blown by the wind. I can trace the years passed by my impressions of the sky.


My feet had gone numb minutes ago, curled over the bar of the chair legs I sat hunched in. They were bare, they usually were. Shoes were a commodity this far in the country, and her Daddy would only buy us one pair a year, usually more often trading for them, whatever cheap, canvas lined things he could find that would barely survive the winter slogs through shin-high snow and boggy mud to get to the schoolhouse 5 miles away. I was used to numb feet.
What I wasn’t accustomed to was watching my sister staring lifelessly outside, brown eyes that once glistened with spirit now half shuttered by pale, blonde lashes and roguishly red cheeks. Too red for her lack of vitality and splotched from her cheekbones to her collarbone where the quilt sagged to reveal a brittle frame.
Valley’s tiny body lay still under the ratty quilts. Her face was angled towards the window, her jaw a sharp, white line against the dirt-stained fabric.
In the hills, everything was dirty, but nobody seemed to mind. The dirt was our link to nature, and nature our inheritance from God. When you didn’t have a lot, you made what you did have a blessing.
There was a chill in the air, even inside the cabin, fall had come to call and wasn’t waiting for us to open the door. Our coal stove sat in a corner unused, dusty, black with the soot of fires past. Valley didn’t have the strength to light it. I didn’t have the heart.