Category Archives: Fiction

Star-crossed

I traded minutes for kisses, hours for the slide of your skin against mine. I drew out every second, unwound them one by one: my fingers, your hair.

In that perfect moment when time no longer mattered, the lark began to sing.


The Lark

It started out as a lark. God knows, we needed a laugh or two. Someone had found a bottle of liquor, gin or vodka or something. I don’t know; I don’t drink. Paulie climbed up on the fire escape and pulled the ladder after him.

“Chicken fight,” he said, grinning. “Take turns. First one up gets a drink. No one gets up, I drink it myself.” He took a swig to show us he was serious. There was a chorus of protests, but in seconds John was up on Andre’s shoulders, his brother Will on Junior’s, and they were off, shoving each other around the alley.

Martin and I stood in the middle of the crowd and watched. I wasn’t any good at chicken fights, not against the boys, no matter how much Martin wanted that drink. Besides, we had an agreement: he wasn’t about to leave me alone, not with these boys. We barely knew them. So we stood together in the middle: not so close to the front that we’d draw attention, but not so far back that they’d think we didn’t trust them. Josie crouched by the wall in the back, pulling petals off a plastic flower she’d picked up somewhere.

The whole match took place in near silence. No one wanted to bring the Rovers down on us. The only sounds were the scraping of rubber on gravel, the panting of the fighters, and occasional insults from Paulie. Even those were hushed.

The boys started laying bets. John was bigger than Will, but Andre was taller than Junior. Junior, though, he was smart. He didn’t just rush at Andre; he danced around, dodging broken boards and bits of rubble, trying to get Andre to trip. Finally Andre stumbled over a chunk of concrete, flailing one arm while holding onto John’s leg with the other. John leaned back, trying to keep his balance. They stayed upright, but in those few seconds Junior dashed for the fire escape.

Andre pelted after him. Will had one hand on the railing and Junior was trying to lift him up. John grabbed his brother’s arm and hung on. They stood there like that straining and pulling, while the boys egged them on in harsh, laughing whispers. It was all pretty funny.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you, anyway?” I heard a voice behind me. I turned to look, and froze. A couple of the boys had pinned Josie against the wall, and a hard-eyed boy had her chin in his hand. Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her mouth, too.

“She’s like a little bird,” he said to one of his friends. “All fear and hollow bones. Don’t gimme that deaf-mute act, birdie, I heard you talk before. All I asked was your name. Be polite and answer me, huh?”

A sudden, deafening wail split the air. The bottle shattered in Paulie’s hand. He stared at the blood and the spilled liquor for a long moment before dropping to his knees and covering his ears with his forearms. Junior and Andre were already down. John must have hit his head when he fell; there was blood, and he wasn’t moving. The boys were all shouting now.

I grabbed Martin’s hand. “We’ve got to get her out of here,” I hissed between gritted teeth. “Listen!”

Underneath Josie’s keening and the confused yelling of the boys, there was a muffled howling noise. The Rovers. The boys heard it a split second after I did, and the alley erupted into chaos. Paulie swung down from the fire escape and grabbed John, slinging him over one shoulder.

“Fucking freaks,” he spat, glaring at us. “If I’d’a known, I’d’a killed you. Fuck it. Let the Rovers do it.” He staggered off down the alley. Will stumbled after him. The rest of the boys bolted in opposite directions. Best bet is always to split up.

We never split up, though, me and Martin and Josie. I kicked the hard-eyed boy aside. He whimpered and covered his head. Let the Rovers have him, I thought without sympathy.

“C’mon, honey, it’s okay, we got you.” I tugged Josie’s arm gently, pulling her after me. “Hush now, we gotta run.” She blinked at me. The shrill noise stopped, which only made the Rovers’ howls that much more terrifying.

“She never even opened her mouth,” Martin said as we ran. “Did you see? She never did.”

I nodded. It’s not like I hadn’t been expecting it. Like calls to like, after all.


This story is mainly an experiment in trying out a new voice and is related to two other pieces:

A Shifting Wind

Emmic wipes the sweat from his forehead with his cuff and glares at his companion. Jonath never seems to mind the heat. He is Old Blood, of course, born on Loess, and the Old Blood families have acclimated to the desert over the generations. So too will Emmic’s children, should he ever have any.

Jonath leans against his sandskiff. “Shouldn’t be long,” he says. “Sun’ll hit its peak in an hour or so, and that’ll give us about seven hours to reach the bunker before full dark. We made good time from Cinder.”

The rest of the caravan is moored in a crooked line deep in the shadow of a broad mesa: four twin-hulled sandcats, sails lowered and whisker-vanes furled. Some of the crewfolk lounge in the shade, sipping sweetwater from drink pouches or smoking long, narrow pipes. None of them had balked at the chance to rest in the shade during the hottest part of the day.

“The new ‘cats are faster than I expected,” Emmic agrees. “Even laden, they ought to make it back from Lode in five days instead of six. Anna been tinkering with the steering?” He glances sideways at Jonath.

“Didn’t figure you’d mind.” Jonath runs a hand over the hull of his skiff, checking it for scrapes. “She’s a bright girl, your sister. And she likes to feel useful.”

“She’s getting bored.”

“I gathered,” Jonath says dryly. “Didn’t actually expect her to give the ring back. She’s not usually so unpredictable.”

Emmic gives him a long searching look. “You don’t seem worried. She’s quite stubborn, you know.”

Jonath shrugs. “So she changed her mind; she’ll change it back, once she’s had some time to think about it. I can be pretty hard to resist.” He grins, a bright, broad smile.

“I know.” Emmic stoops, picks up a handful of sand-scoured pebbles and starts lobbing them, one by one, out of the shadows into the dunes.

“Hey.” Jonath catches Emmic’s wrist, stopping him mid-toss. “We talked about this. It’ll be fine. This is where it all really begins. Right?” He takes the stone from Emmic’s palm, throws it. It arcs past the broken line of Emmic’s pebbles and smacks into the side of the dune. The sand shifts and a skate skids down the slope, startled by the impact, before burying itself again.

“Of course.” Dropping the last stone, Emmic brushes his hands off and shades his eyes, looking out toward the anchor pylon.

“It would be easier,” Jonath says, “If you’d tell her the whole story. Or let me.”

It’s an old argument. “No. She doesn’t need to know any of it, not until I can paint her the whole picture.”

“It’s just a matter of time before she figures it out. Before someone lets something slip.” A note of entreaty slips into Jonath’s voice. “It should come from you, Emmic. She’ll see that the ends justify the means. That’s something your sister would understand. It’s logical.” He uses one of Anna’s favorite words. “She could be very useful.”

“No. Let this be mine. On me. On us,” Emmic revises, and touches Jonath’s elbow. “My father should not have betrayed the cause. Not with the War still raging out there.” He gestures to the sky, to the invisible worlds beyond it. “And as for our deal with the Prophet…” He grimaces. “What could Anna know of war and means and ends? She is too much of Loess.”

“Look.” Jonath nods at the pylon. A cloud of dust and sand trails behind the ‘cat speeding toward us, its whisker-vanes bristling as they comb electricity from the air. “There’s my ride. You sure you can handle her alone?” He lays a hand affectionately on his skiff.

“Please.” Emmic rolls his eyes. “How many races have I won?”

“None that really matter,” Jonath needles. “And this one does. The Prophet is counting on you to make it to Lode and back to Cinder before we bring the ship in. Tell Anna I’ll be home soon. I’ll bring her something new to tinker with.”

The incoming boat slows. One man is furling the sail, another leans on the brake-lever. Their faces are hidden behind heavy goggles and tightly wrapped neckcloths, but they each bear the Prophet’s insignia on their jackets: a red-leafed olive branch on a field of grey.

The ‘cat halts with a heavy scraping noise. Jonath turns to Emmic. “Wish me luck?”

Emmic nods, embraces him. “Wind to your sails, brother,” he says, and lets go.


A little side trip into the world of the Jade Dragon.

Сморчки

I walked alongside the pitted road into the forest. Every now and then a green ZIS-5 rumbled past, bouncing loudly across the frost heaves. I kept my head down and hoped they would ignore me, a shapeless figure trudging through the morning fog.

I should have stayed closer to home, what with the Germans pushing east and that POW camp in nearby Kozelsk. But my mother and I ran out of meat yesterday and we needed our last two hens for eggs. So today I rose early, stuck my feet in my brother’s valenki, wrapped myself in my father’s old wool coat and my own shawl, and set out to hunt for mushrooms.

When the road started to curve up through the western part of the forest, I turned east into the early morning shadows. Pale, watery sunlight filtered down between bare birch limbs. I scanned the edge of the trail, searching for the distinct honeycombed caps of smorchki poking up through the dead leaves. I found two small ones, barely worth keeping except that we had no meat. I tucked them in my basket and kept walking.

Deeper in the forest there was a clearing, I knew, where an old elm had split and fallen years ago. It was my spot, a secret spot, the first place I went every spring even before we started rationing. I pictured my mother’s face when I came home with a full basket.

The hail came on without warning, pellets of ice the size of gooseberries. I bolted for the nearest shelter: a hunchbacked fir tree, green branches still bent from the weight of the winter’s heavy snow. Underneath the ground was bare and nearly dry. As I crawled into this makeshift den I kneeled on a sleeping man’s arm.

He unfolded quickly, like a cat, unfurling his arms and legs and rolling up onto his knees. The barrel of his rifle jabbed me in the ribs. I couldn’t even gather enough air in my lungs to scream.

At first I thought he was German. He had that look to him, all blond hair and blue eyes, but he wore a threadbare wool coat with the Red Army insignia on the collar. One of ours, then.

We stared at each other for a long time. Finally I looked down at my basket and the mushrooms that had spilled out onto the soft ground. Hailstones crackled against the bare trees like gunfire. He flinched and lowered his rifle.

“You shouldn’t be out here,” he said.

I found my voice. “Neither should you.”

He raised the rifle a few inches, grimaced, and let it drop again. His knuckles were chapped. There was dirt under his fingernails. “You shouldn’t be here,” he repeated. “It’s not safe.”

“The Germans? They’re this close?”

He shook his head. “Not the Germans.” His gaze slid away from mine and fell on the smorchki. Carefully righting the basket, he gathered them up and brought them to his nose, inhaling deeply, before placing them inside. “They smell like home.”

“You’re a deserter,” I accused.

He glanced at me. “I’m not a coward,” he said. “You don’t know. Every day they bring us more. Two hundred, two hundred fifty at a time. We shoot them in the back of the head and shove them into a pit. Their hands are bound, do you understand? Their hands are bound.”

He showed me, tucking his hands behind his back. The rifle dangled from his shoulder like a broken branch.

“Enemies,” I said firmly. “Fascists and murderers.”

He shrugged. “I shot a boy today. His name was Aleksy. I didn’t ask, but he told me, right before I killed him. They gave me–” He fumbled at his belt, came up empty-handed, let his shoulders slump. “The second day, they gave me a German gun. Less recoil.”

“Where are you going?”

He gestured east, toward Smolensk, toward Moscow. East, away from the war.

East, toward a clearing with a fallen elm and smorchki that smell like home.

I edged away from him, one hand on my basket, the other on the ground. It was raining now, a gentle shower. “They’ll find you.”

“Will you turn me in?” he asked.

“No,” I lied — not because I was afraid of him, but because of the mushrooms — and ducked out from under the tree.

As I ran back toward the road, I thought I heard the rattle of hail, but the sky overhead was clear.


Smorchki [сморчки]: morels

This month yeah write fictioneers are focusing on historical fiction. I figured I’d join the fun with this little story set against the backdrop of the Katyn Massacre.


Listening [the long version]

[Note: a short version of this story was posted at yeah write’s fiction|poetry challenge, where the word limit is 750 words. Many thanks to Rowan G and her brutal editing skills for cutting it down to size. We thought it might be interesting to show how we whittled this down to the bare essentials. I’d be curious to know what readers think. Which version is more effective? -ch]


The 1965 Ford Mustang was my birthday present, but truth be told, she was kind of a mess. The soft-top was shredded. The driver’s side door squeaked and the passenger side only opened from the inside. All the seals were cracked. Reservoirs stood empty or were missing altogether. Hoses, same thing. The cracked coating on the wires indicated sun and heat damage. No rust, but from the faded paint, she might have been standing with her hood open for years.

Anyone else might have walked away, but I loved her from the moment I saw her. She was perfect.

And she was a present from Jack, who knows me probably better than anyone. Who I don’t know at all anymore, it seems. For the last few weeks I’ve been patient, really. They said give him space, so I gave him space. They said give him time, so I did. And the whole time I missed him something fierce, the brother of my heart.

And then:

“The time for being patient has passed,” Angus said yesterday. He was worried. “He hasn’t alienated you yet. Hasn’t tossed you away the way he did his own wife. I want you to try to talk to him.”

“No pressure,” I’d said. It was only his son we were talking about.

“All the pressure in the world,” he’d replied gravely.

So today, I grasp at the only thing I can think of that might draw him out. The last thing we have left in common.

:got the car running. thought you might want to see.: I text to Jack.

:sure, congratulations. when:

:heading down now. wear a coat. garage is cold and the heaters not working.:

:yes, mom: he replies. I can almost pretend it’s a joke.

I do have a plan, stuff to do, things to work on. In case Jack doesn’t show. Or in case he does. I can keep busy. So when I get down to the garage, I shove my sleeves up and pop the hood.

I’ve had my head under the hood for a good half hour when I straighten up, rubbing the small of my back, and notice Jack sitting on the edge of a tool chest, waiting.

“Jesus. How long you been there?” I wipe my sleeve across my forehead.

He shrugs. He looks small in his jeans and light windbreaker. Reduced, somehow.

I clench my jaw, forcing the rest of me to relax. Take a breath. “Well. I’m glad you came. She’s still not much to look at, but she’s alive. That’s something.” I glance at him. “Guess I have you and Angus to thank? For the engine?”

“No thanks needed.” He shrugs again. “We were there, and I knew you wanted that one, so.”

He says it like he’d picked up a gallon of milk.

“Well. It was nice of you.” I fall silent. It’s like talking to a stranger. Some guy who gives you change for the bus because he has it and you don’t. “Um. You wanna check her out?”

“Sure.” He looks vaguely embarrassed. “But you know I can’t make ‘em run. I just drive.”

“Don’t need you to make her run. Though there’s a couple things would go easier with an extra pair of hands.” I tuck the prop back down, lower the hood and let it drop. The clang echoes through the garage. “First, though, just listen to her.”

He nods.

I climb into the driver’s seat and shove the passenger door open from the inside. Jack catches it as it swings open, protecting the hinge, and slides inside.

“You usually leave the window rolled down, just reach in?” It’s a clinical question.

“Haven’t bothered. Nobody’s sat on that side before.”

His glance is is quick, birdlike. Barely more than a brief motion of his chin. Anyone else would have missed it.

“Just listen,” I say again, and turn the key.

The engine roars into life pretty much immediately. I’ve tinkered with it a bit since the day I dropped it in. I hadn’t really meant to; I’d meant to leave her alone a while, but she kept drawing me back, this car. I give her a little gas, let the sound bounce off the walls. Glance at Jack. He used to fill the space, when we drove together. Now he looks like a kid. He is a kid, I remind myself.

His eyes widen a little at the first cough and roar, and then he settles, his shoulders sinking back. He inhales, slow, through his nose, consuming the sound and the scent of grease, exhaust, ozone from a welder. The exhale is even slower, silent. Finally he reaches out and rests his fingertips on the dash, his eyes watching a horizon that doesn’t exist.

“She’s gorgeous, isn’t she?” I ask softly, watching his face, his fingers on the dashboard. He’s in there, my Jack, and I use the possessive deliberately, because the people I love, I can’t give them up.

“She’s got the voice of an angel,” he says quietly, still listening. “God. She sounds like… like Judy Henske or something. Like she’s been through hell and just kept right on, and now she’s bragging about it.”

I glance quickly at him, noting the pronoun. “Yeah. Yeah, exactly like that.” I listen too, adjusting my foot on the gas to hear her range. “She has, I think. Been through hell. I figure, this car, she’s got nothing left to lose. ‘Least she’s got a voice now, and someone to listen to her.”

Jack’s eyes drift closed as the engine revs, open slowly as it subsides. Like riding a wave.

“I useta jack cars like this. Not for money. You could never sell a car like this for what it’s worth, not to a chop shop. New cars, those were good. Lexus, Audi, all that. But these. I useta take em and just go riding.” His fingers trace patterns on the dashboard that almost look familiar, that crystallize with his next words. “Down Lakeshore, in on the Dan Ryan, if it wasn’t crowded. Other places. You could never do it too long. But for a while, it was like being…. well. Just being.”

I’m afraid to breathe while he’s talking. Afraid the sound of blinking my eyes will interrupt him. “I know what you mean. ‘S why I’d take my mom’s car, sometimes, when she was passed out. Feels like nothing else matters, for a little while. Like nobody can touch you. I get that.”

“Do you.” His voice is flat and distant.

I shrug. “A little.” I slide my hands down either side of the wheel, noting the worn spots where the covering is rough against my fingers. “You ever get caught?”

He moves a shoulder, his windbreaker sliding against the orange-peel of the car’s aged vinyl seat.

I take my foot off the gas, let her idle. The low thrum-thrum-thrum rhythm settles into my bones, comfortable, like it’s supposed to be there. “You wanna drive?” I ask. “So to speak.”

“Na,” he says, uncomfortable again. “It’s your car.”

“I dunno,” I say. “She’s singing to you too. Isn’t she?” I press the pedal again, let the sound swell.

The edges of his eyes soften. “Yeah, but she’s your girl. You want somebody to help put her through her paces when you get wheels on her, I’m there; right now I’d just be making noise.”

“That all I’m doing? Making noise?” I push it all the way to the floor. Someone’s going to come out and yell at me, I’m sure of it, but I don’t care. It’s loud, louder than I’d expected in the confined space of the garage, large as it is. The wheel shakes in my hands, and I ease up.

“Feels like if I listen hard enough, I’ll hear what she’s trying to say. It’s not like I’m going anywhere, the shape she’s in.” I let her idle again.

“Where are you going, Jackie?” I barely breathe it, but I know he can hear.

He’s absolutely still, gone deep within himself. His hand, balanced on the dash, is rock-steady. He might as well be a statue, a doll.

“I don’t hear what you hear.”

His hand drops to the door handle, he yanks the lever, and he’s gone into the shadows of the garage, moving smoothly, not so fast that he’d attract notice but not so slow that he’s easy to catch up with. Just like he drives.

I watch him walk away, watch till he’s out of sight, my back stiff and my hands white-knuckled on the wheel. And when I can’t see him anymore I bend, crumple over the wheel like I’d just driven her into a wall. And I cry, like a stupid little girl, big wracking sobs that I hope can’t be heard over the sound of the engine.

At some point I stop sobbing and just sit there with my cheek pressed against the curve of the wheel. I blew it, I think. I fucking blew it. The car’s still rumbling. I turn her off with a jerk of my wrist.

I lean over and pull the passenger door shut. Stare at it a moment. Reach over again and roll the window down, all the way.

Then I get out, shut my door behind me. Give her a gentle pat, and start walking toward the tram. As I leave the garage I can see his footprints, small and lonely in the grit.

[Wondering where Jack went? Read Rowan’s side of the story…]