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My Honey by Brandon Scott

“You’re not doing honey, are you?”

Gee’s gaze snapped up from the jar of honey she had on the counter, her finger still deep into the sticky substance. She briefly checked to see if her wife was within visible range, and when it turned out she wasn’t, Gee cast off the words, “No, not at all,” down the hallway.

“Good, because I was going to use that for something else. I know you wanted to try that new skin thing, but you’ll like the special diet cookies I’m going to make much more.”

Gee rolled her eyes as she much doubted that. Diet meant disgusting as far as she was concerned.

“Yeah, no worries.”

With a slurping noise, she dragged out a glob from the jar and held it pooled in her hand. The sticky gunk leaked down the side of her hand in little rivets, getting all over the counter as well.

“So, what do you want to do for dinner?” came her wife’s voice again, and this time closer, moving down the hallway. Gee’s eyes darted toward the bathroom, and she sprinted into it, closing the door and locking it with her un-honeyed hand—though still leaving some sticky residue on the floor both inside and outside the door.

“No idea,” Gee said and waited for the sound she dreaded.

It took a minute, with a nice preamble of silence, but came all the same.

“What’s up? Are you okay—” A quick suck in of breath, and a pin could drop and make a sound, and then: “Gee! Goddamn it! You little liar!”

Gee backed up as hands slammed on the door a few times.

“Come on, you promised!”

Gee’s breath came out slow for a moment, before she calmed down—the mundanity of this fight making it seem almost silly to find it a concern. With another pound on the door acting as a starting pistol to her, she moved the honey over her face, especially in the bags under her eyes.

“Are you hearing me?” came the slightly annoyed voice. Her wife too was sensible and would not make too much of a fuss about this, not really—beyond some glimmer of annoyance.

“Yes, yes, I am—and don’t get so mad. I’m doing this for you. You’re the one who gets to enjoy all the soft skin on my face.”

“Is that so?” came a voice with a slight flirtatious edge, but lost it within a syllable of the next sentence. “Still, you promised me. And how am I going to make those cookies now if you keep using up all my random food stuff as beauty products?”

“White sugar?” Gee said. “It’s not like I can spread that over my face.”

“I’m trying to lose weight,” she said, the sound now making it clear she was sitting against the other side of the door.

“Then you should not have cookies anyway,” Gee said and spread the honey over her neck, dabbing it into the small indents between shoulder bone and neck, around the collar. It felt cold there.

“I guess.” A slight scratching of nails against the door. “So… what should we do for dinner?”

Gee opened the door, and her wife stood up with a little glimmer of annoyance still in her eyes, but it melted when a chuckle escaped her throat.

“What?” Gee said, smiling at her.

“You look all glossy. What was that supposed to help with?”

“Pores…or something—they said it was a miracle cure.”

Her wife giggled into her hand and then continued to do so for another minute with a much stronger force to it. A few tears came to her eyes from her laughter.

“Okay, okay—so it’s a little silly, but mark my words: it will pay off.”

“Sure…sure it will.” Her wife composed herself and smirked at her. “So, what do you want to do for dinner now? If you’re not full up on honey.”

Funny,” Gee said, and touched the edge of her face, leaving a faint trail of sticky gold going to her finger. “I think we are going to have to get someone to bring us something—takeout I guess.”

“Don’t feel like going out with honey, honey?” her wife quipped and shook her head, still smiling.

“No, it would be unbecoming for two girls to go out on the town covered in honey.”

Her wife took a second to get that one, and only pulled back once a sticky hand touched her face, and left a little layer of sugar on it.

“Dammit…that will take forever to get out. I’ll have to scrub.”

“Well, I think you’re glowing—but if you must scrub it all off, then I think it will take about the time it would take to get a pizza,” Gee said, maneuvering passed her, going back to the kitchen, and checking a takeout menu.

“I’m on a diet, remember?” her wife said, walking in after her.

“Well, consider the lost cookies: now you have one cheat open,” Gee said, and dialed the number.

“You’re evil,” her wife said.

The dial tone still rang, so Gee shot in: “Yeah, but you love me so much.”

Her wife wrapped her arms around her, giving a hug from behind, and gave a squeeze, before just leaning somewhat on her, and listening to the dial tone go along.

“Yeah, I really do, crazy girl.”

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A Tale You’ve Heard Before By Brandon Scott

For Julia, a friend whom I don’t see enough.

Once upon a time.

Yes, once upon a time.

Once upon a time, we knew so much.

We could tell you all the secrets of the universe, and we would gladly do so if you asked. That is what we were for, and what we did as joy.

Once upon a time, there was joy in this world.

But then came the darkness. We lost our control of the situation, and thus so did all the other creatures on the planet. They were wiped clean of their hard-earned memories and long-held beliefs.

We entered an age of ignorance. We were the only ones aware or knowledgeable of what was lost. To the others, this was all the world, as it always was. The world they knew. And they reveled in the few things the darkness did for them.

And it did do some things for them: it gave them pleasure. Fleeting pleasure that warped them. Made their skin cracked and puss-filled. They had sex, and they had orgies, and they had booze, and they cried at the moon as the darkness ate at the sky itself, and the planets all fell to what they wanted for the Earth.

We saw the scope of it, and even from the vantage point of the sun, the darkness had spread wide in this system. The other uninhabited planets had their essences sucked clean in no time at all, and they kept the blackened husks of astral matter around to use the gravitational spin of orbit as a further power source.

We did not know what to do once the planets fell. We could flee, certainly, but the darkness would then claim the system without a fight, and this we found to be abhorrent: morally repugnant. How could we exist with ourselves if we did not try to do something about the Earth, to claim some of what it was back for the races—though weak and small—that called it home?

And, so, we did what we could. We entered the dreams and told them what they were doing was wrong. But they were drunk on this new world, and what they could do. Never mind that in their native state they did things well beyond and above the fleeting orgasmic shudders. They would not listen to us.

Except one, of course. Because that is why we can tell this story to your ears. He, he stood above the others. He was not perfect; he was still engaging in the usual repugnant things of the species, but he tried to be temperate, and control his urges. Some days he’d spend doing nothing but funneling little bursts of light into the sky. Letting the tiniest slivers of radiance escape the darkened pits of what the planet used to be.

And, rather than let those bits of hope tear a hole right through the flesh of the darkness, we held onto it, and bundled it, and saved all of it—nice and tight. We could not say how happy we were to have some again, in our hands. If the strands punctured the skin, they would find our one champion and smother him in grief. But, this was an orb that would one day puncture everything and save this system.

But, in the meantime, we try and find more to gather light for us. To go beyond the petty and the snarling. We ask you help us.

Once upon a time, you had a good world.

That is still possible.

No matter how bad, we can still save a planet. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.

Once upon a time.

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Time to Run by Erika Lance

For Santa Sorrentino, thank you for always being amazing.

And then there it was, darkness staring back at me. I then knew exactly what I needed to do…

I needed to run.

As I turned, it struck me as ironic how many times as a child my mother would tell me that I didn’t need to worry. That monsters were not real and it was terribly silly of me to be afraid of the dark.

She was either in denial or she was simply ignorant. I wish I had been better trained from the start and then I would have spotted it sooner. They hide, but not as well as you might think.

If you know what you are looking for.

First, the temperature changes when you are close. You shouldn’t use this rule because if you can’t flee then you are already dead. Second, they wrap the darkness around them, so there are subtle differences in the light. If the darkness seems torn or mixed, you should again flee or stay in the light, natural light. Lastly and the easiest way to spot them from the farthest point before the “encounter” is sound. No other living creatures will be around them. The sounds of nature effectively stop.

This is the part I wish I had more training on growing up. I feel that most of us are trained by life to simply ignore the sounds around you. The chirping of a cricket, the sound of a squirrel wrestling in a tree. Heck, we even go out of our way to remove most nature from around us. This is what they rely on, that we will not notice we are 100% alone.

I started feeling the breath in my chest. It was going to hurt soon, but I couldn’t stop. I had to keep going or I would be taken. That is what happened.

I didn’t know if it hurt. I didn’t want to find out either. I had seen it happen too many times. When I wasn’t fast enough.

They still looked same after it happened. Well, the same physically. They moved and some could even do the actions they had done in their life before. For a time. Then slowly, they will turn. They will become feral. They become the most animalistic versions of themselves. They become something to hunt, trap, and kill. Some just run; their most basic instinct being to flee. Some consider they are the lucky ones.

I heard the sound of claws hitting the ground. It was closer behind me than I thought. I wasn’t going to make it back out before I was forced to stop or it gained on me and could pounce.

I slid my hand in my pocket and pulled out the lighter and the small can. I hoped it would be enough as I slid to a stop, turned, and the flame jutted from the hairspray onto the creature. For a brief moment, I saw terror in its eyes before it ran. Satisfying as it was, I knew it would return.

Time to run again.

 

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Rules of High School by Dalia Lance

For Gabrielle Rambo who is always an adventure!

“Like the time I watched your mom huff paint out of a plastic bag…”

Mia looked around at the crowd and wondered how the hell she had ended up here. The latest offensive statement came out of the mouth of Brandon.  He was her boyfriend Conner’s best friend. This seemed to be his only redeeming quality.

Mia looked up at Conner who had his arm draped around her, in some hope he would put an end to the insults. Instead he held up his free hand for a high-five. Brandon of course was more than willing to participate.

Is this worth it?

Mia just started at Malcolm Driver High School about two months ago. She moved from sunny California to Virginia where her father had been transferred. In her previous school, she was nothing special, just the average kid that blended into the crowd. In her new school, however, she noticed right away all the attention being paid to her.

Then, a week after school started, Brandon, whom she had learned was considered the most popular boy in her class had asked her to the movies. She was excited because she hadn’t really dated much and he was very cute. However, after the initial excitement had worn off, she began to consider that maybe he just wanted to date her so he was the first person to sleep with her.

She wouldn’t have done that, but it would make for a horrible date and potentially an awkward school life from that point forward. Because of the worrying for three days before the date happened, when Brandon knocked on her door to pick her up, she opened it and blurted out, “I’m not having sex with you if that is why you asked me out.”

Brandon smiled and then laughed. She knew she had turned bright red and could only look at her feet. It was horrible until he put his hand under her chin and lifted her gaze to meet his and said, “I just thought you had an amazing smile.”

Mia smiled and on the date Brandon had been a gentleman. Actually every time they spent time together, he had been amazing. He was funny, smart and seemed to really want to know everything about her. He had even taken her to one of those painting places and painted a picture with a unicorn because he knew she liked them.

The person she was dating wasn’t the same person as the rude jock that was sitting next to her now. She looked at him again and he met her gaze and winked. In that moment, she knew that this was high school and soon enough it would be over.

With that, she looked over toward Brandon as she grabbed a fry from the plate in front of her and kicked him under the table. When he yelped, she feigned innocence and said, “Sorry. Was that you?” He looked like he wanted to say something else but she cuddled closer to Conner and Brandon simply said, “That’s cool.”

You have to love the rules of High School.

 

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Christmas Wish by Erika Lance

For Karrisa Francis who has so much spirit.

All day Caroline had felt like she was being watched.

She knew what she was doing should and would make a person paranoid. As she began to saw at another limb, she knew that this could turn terrible in the blink of an eye.

Her neighbor was surly on his best day and downright mean on his worst.

Growing up in a neighborhood like hers should have been a child’s dream. It was the kind of area where the kids played outside with all the other kids in the neighborhood. This is where all the parents kept an eye out and all of them knew everyone.

All the kids played at each other’s houses besides hers.

This was because Mr. Johnston would go out of his way to ensure nobody was happy.

Caroline used to come home and leave her bike on her lawn until she came out one day and the tires had been slashed.

Her parents tried to tell her it was a random act, but then insisted she keep her bike in the garage.

At first, she believed that maybe he simply didn’t like children, but after her family had found that their dog had died after being outside in the yard, she knew he simply hated everyone.

She and her family had endured the horrible things he had done, unfortunately none of them illegal or able to be directly linked to him, for her lifetime.

She had gone away to college thinking it would get better. She had almost forgotten until she had come home for winter break.

She remembered one cold day when the sleet was coming in sideways and she was struggling to make it up the few stairs to the landing and he turned on the blower in his driveway blowing wet clumpy snow all over her.

Another time just last week he had placed his garbage can next to his fence. This should normally be OK, but it was right under her bedroom window and the way the wind was going, it blew the stench right into her window.

That had been the final straw.

She had one Christmas wish and knew how to make it come true.

He hadn’t had as much fight in him as she thought he would for being as terrible as he was. She had left him for a couple days so that the rigor mortis would fade and without blood pumping though his veins, he wouldn’t make as big of a mess.

She had gotten more plastic sheeting then she most likely needed, and although burning him up to a crisp had been her first idea, she figured there would be a possibility they would discover he had been murdered, or worse, his house would catch her parent’s house on fire.

No, she decided that she would wrap him up and make deposits in dumpsters behind grocery stores all around the area. The smell wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. Plus, she was sure it would be a long while before anyone would come looking for him.

It had taken her a total of five days, half of her winter break, to finish the job. She actually dropped off the last piece, his head, Christmas morning.

When she returned home, her parents asked her where she had been. She handed over a box of doughnuts and hugged each of them saying “Merry Christmas!”

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In the Crowd by Erika Lance

For Marius and feeding the birds…

“Well,” he said, seeming to mull over each word with some sense of caution, “That’s certainly a dead bird.”

Sanders paused,  then pulled out a cigarette and walked towards to gathered patrol cars.

The bird, was of course, sticking out of the chest of the dead woman in front of them.

The body was naked with the exception of a pair of pink satin gloves. Her make-up was perfect and still intact. The face was the only part of her devoid of even the slightest bit of blood spatter.

Her fingers were interlaced as her hands laid on her stomach; her legs were placed perfectly together. This body had been staged.

“Why the bird?” Jacobson asked. He was new.

Mirna looked at the scene. They couldn’t even get close enough to the body to determine cause of death, but the large amout of blood surrounding her gave at least an indication she most likely bled out from whatever that was and being impaled by a bird of course.

“Do you think it is a symbol?” Jacobson asked, looking towards her.

She glanced over at him and then back to the crowd that was now forming behind the yellow tape. It wasn’t smart to discuss points of the case in front of, well.. anyone.

“Later,” Mirna said and walked back towards her car.  They wouldn’t get a closer look until the body was in the morgue and since there were no witnesses, there was no point in remaining.

She took one last look around at the crowd. He or she was most likely out there, watching. Most killers liked to watch the discovery and clean-up of their crime scene. A small shiver went up her spine as she realized this may be only the beginning.

 

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One Too Many by Erika Lance

To Lorin Oberweger, thank you for my starter, I hope you enjoy the story.

“The wheel never stopped burning…”

This was the last line of the song that she could remember. When she woke up, she was in more pain then she could even imagine was possible.

She cracked open her eyes and the room was dark and smelled of… wait, was that blood? She tried to sit up but her head swam and she had to lay back and breathe again for a minute.

She closed her eyes and tried to remember what had happened the night before. She had gone to The Wheelhouse bar to meet up with Mason. He said he had a lead.

Why The Wheelhouse? That place was a dive on the edge of nowhere and pathetic. It didn’t matter now.

She remembered there had been a band.  Her thoughts became fuzzy again as the lyric played through her mind again “The wheel never stopped burning….” What the hell did that mean?

Her hand throbbed and she held it up to her eyes. It was broken, or at least terribly damaged. She tried to move her fingers which shot pain all the way down her arm. Although, the pain was excruciating she remembered something. A man’s face. She had struck him. Taking a deep breath, she sat up, using her non-broken hand as leverage.

She looked around the room she was in. She was lying on the floor of what looked like a cheap motel. It had a terrible picture hanging above the bed that was of a bowl of fruit.

As she scanned the room, she could see there was someone on the bed. She could also see that there was blood on the bedspread.

She moved her knees under her, which also seemed a little scraped up and stood up. She almost fell as her head swam again and now there was a throbbing pain in her jaw.

There had to be a mirror in the bathroom and this would allow her to clean-up and assess the damage to her face.

Besides the assessment of damage to herself, the loss of memory she needed to regain her attention focused now on the person, or body on the bed.

It was a man, his face was bruised and he had two gunshots in chest. She peered a little closer and realized this was the man she had broken her hand on the night before.  Whoever he was, he was dead.

For a moment, she tried to register some emotion. Had she killed him? She looked around for a gun and didn’t see one easily. Instead of continuing to hunt for it, she made her way to the bathroom to see how bad off she was.

When she turned on the light and first looked, she almost gasped. Her left eye was bruised and bloodied. It was swollen and there was dried blood on her lips and nose.

She pulled a wash cloth from the towel rack and ran it under the cold water from the sink. She started to carefully wipe the blood away when she heard the lock from the door click and the door open.

She froze for a moment, instinctively looking around for a weapon of some kind. She wrapped the wet cloth around her fist since that was all she could find and looking at her hand, she wasn’t sure she could use it anyhow.

“Jess?” Was that Mason? she thought.

“Jess… Shit,” the voice continued. Whoever it was, was moving around the room.

Jess peered out from the bathroom. It was Mason. She opened the door and walked out.

Mason looked up. He had something in his hand. It was a gun. She opened her mouth to speak but before she could, he said, “We have to go now. They know where you are…” and grabbed her arm, pulling her from the room.

 

 

 

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Be Careful What You Ask For … by Désirée Matlock

For Mark Reale

 “And then the alien’s claws reached around the door.”

The fire crackled as Joe’s voice hitched excitedly. Leanne chuckled; we were all enjoying the game.

I should never have joined in. It all started last week when Jimmy won an RV and a camping trip in a drawing.  He’d invited us all along. I’d agreed, but that had been before the week I’d just had. The worst week of my life. We had agreed we were going to follow all the camping tropes, hit all the high notes of camping. As city people, we’d all gotten excited at the idea of the great outdoors and some drunken carousing. Of course, now… I definitely was no longer in the mood.

A few minutes ago, the six of us had been gathered around the campfire gossiping when Penny had started it by saying, “It was a dark and stormy night, and the wind was creaking through the trees in the moonlight.” My gut had dropped, worried she was going to tell a ghost story. No. Let it be witches or monsters… I prayed silently to myself.

Then Joseph had added the next line, “The dark of night was suddenly broken as a spacecraft crash landed deep in the woods. The only thing nearby was a cabin with six friends who were camping.”

I had relaxed; aliens were a safe subject.  Joe raised his eyebrows at each of us and pointed in a circle to really drive home his point that he was talking about us. It was ridiculous enough that I’d even grinned. I really should have walked away, but I was interested in hearing the story, and it seemed safe enough.

Marla sitting just to Joseph’s right had bounced up and down in excitement as she realized it was her turn, “Um, okay! Hmmm… They had no idea the danger they were now in, but they heard the noise and went to investigate.”

Marla then gestures to pass the torch to me, and I’d added, “The UFO appeared to have been cracked in half from the impact, but the driver’s seat appeared empty as the six friends approached.” This was getting fun, and we were still on the subject of aliens, so I was letting my guard down. Foolish.

After the week I’d had, I should have had no interest in hearing any scary stories. After all, I’d been living one. But, we had agreed that we were going to follow all the typical camping tropes, and really get the most out of our free camping trip. And of course, the campfire tales were one of said tropes.

In retrospect, I should have warned my friends. Or stayed away, or told them what the gypsy had told me.

It was finally Leanne’s turn, and she added, “They all wandered back to the cabin, disappointed that they had not found any alien visitor… And…. now they were planning to call the authorities about the UFO. However, when they returned, they found that a tree had knocked out the phone and electric. It was as dark as night inside the cabin, and their flashlights did little to brighten the gloom.”

“Nice one, Leanne,” Jimmy complimented her. The two of those were probably finally going to sleep together if left to their own on this trip. If I knew Marla, she’d be watching to divert one or the other of them. We had all agreed years ago it was a stupid idea to let them sleep together, and she’d been their unwitting chaperone ever since. So far so good, we figured.

Leanne batted her eyes at him, and then downed her third beer in one long gulp. Uh oh.

Penny watched in amazement, and then realized it was back to her now. “That’s when…” and gestured to Joseph.

“Aw that doesn’t count!” Marla stood for a second. “Needs to be longer than that!”

“Too bad!” Penny laughed and leaned back. No arguing with her. It was Joseph’s turn.

“Okay, let me see.” I got worried that Joe was going to change the topic.

“And then the alien’s claws reached around the door.”

I watched Marla as the story circle reached her. Suddenly I realized, as I watched an ethereal spooky look cross her face, that she was about to change the subject matter entirely.

“No!” I whispered, terrified my friends would learn my new secret.

But Marla’s words were coming out anyway… “And that’s when the ghost appeared.”

And it did. Oh boy did it.

I crumpled to the ground, passing out against my will. I watched, horrified and disembodied, floating above the events as my own form rose from the ground, white and semi-transparent, completely transformed into the appearance and presence of Lady Arabella Forester, the angry woman who had been living within me for the last six days. I hadn’t meant to become her host, but damned if I could completely get rid of her.

—–

As she tromped around the fire, scattering embers and screeching nonsense at my friends, I desperately tried to figure out what to do! What could I do, as a disembodied self, I wasn’t that skilled at helping. I tried getting back into my head, but Arabella is quite fiesty. She really doesn’t like to share; my body being male doesn’t seem to stop her.

It took all five of my friends to get me back into the RV and lock Arabella away. She banged around the RV quite a bit, bruising and slamming my body around, quite distressing to say the least. My friends were trying to work out what to do, and what had even happened.

“What the heck is wrong with Paul?” Marla said.

“Hell if I know,” Jimmy added. “Maybe he’s possessed?”

Joe added, “He’s lost his fucking mind is what’s wrong with him. Your story freaked him out.”

“My story?” Penny said, in disbelief. “We all did that. It’s just a ghost story, for god’s sake!”

I floated disembodied above them trying to tell them to speak the spell. I should have spoken earlier. I should have told them the gypsy’s spell. Dammit! Too late now.

I finally pushed my way into Leanne’s body. She twitched hard. Leanne fought me tooth and nail, trying to force her way back up to the surface, but I managed to get all the words out. “Fleeby Taboora Pamnacht!” I said, even though it sounded ridiculous, because I knew it would work. It sounded strange in Leanne’s drunk voice. But hey. The only way to do it.

Joe started freaking out that now it was happening to Leanne, but the banging in the RV stopped, and I turned to the others, in Leanne’s tiny little body. I whispered that it was safe to open the doors, but no one was allowed to mention ghosts again around me. They all nodded, stunned into silence.

Leanne’s body passed out and I went black. A few hours later, when I woke up, I was in my own body.

Jimmy and Marla smiled at me, while Joe handed me a piece of chocolate. “S’more?”

Everyone looked shaken up, but thankfully no one mentioned anything.  I sat up and asked for graham crackers, the fire warm and comforting to watch. I really was glad we were all getting together.

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Eye Contact by Erika Lance

To Kenny “The Jedi” Mull, this is long overdue!

After finishing off the last of the Jack, he looked down the long road…sighed… and thought “here we go.”

Staying in one place was no longer an option. The body count he was leaving eliminated the idea of social interaction.

Whatever it was that was following him didn’t care; it didn’t seem to have any feelings. It just did.

He sighed again, dropping the bottle and pulling his jacket tighter around himself. It was cold out, but traveling at night was safer. There was less chance of being seen and less chance of making contact.

There was an answer, he knew there had to be, but he needed time, something he seemed to be losing each day.

As he continued to walk, he went over the last three days in his head; he thought he had been safe.  He kept seeing the faces even though he didn’t know their names. He rubbed his hands in some sort of motion to remove the blood that was no longer there but felt stained into him.

They had been so young. He shook his head; he couldn’t think to much about it. He couldn’t change it now. He had to find a way to stop it. That was the only answer.

He saw the lights coming behind him. The road was dark and most cars didn’t even see him. Most people don’t register those who try to blend, try to become part of the landscape. He was one of those people now.

He kept walking until the lights changed from white to red and blue. He closed his eyes and stopped walking. He took a deep breath when he heard a car door open and the officer say, “Hey buddy… What are you up to out here?”

He knew he hadn’t done anything to draw attention to himself. It was possible, however, that he was being looked for. There would be a description. He would match it. “Nothing. Just heading home,” he replied without turning around.

He could hear the officer approaching. If this happened quickly enough, then nothing would go wrong.

“So, where do you live?” the officer asked.

“Close,” he replied. He knew the officer was less than five feet from him now. He could hear the officer’s breathing and heartbeat. That was bad. It was close.

“Sir, could you please turn around?” the officer asked.

He wanted to say no. He wanted to run away. This would just get him tazed or shot at best.

He slowly turned, keeping his eyes averted.

“Sir… Sir… Could you look at me?” the officer asked. He wanted to scream NO!

Then he knew it was over. It was over for this officer who was doing his job, who had friends… Family… a life and it was about to end.

He looked up slowly and saw the wings unfurl behind the officer.

 

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The Traveler and the Searcher by Nicole DragonBeck

For Ayla S.

I knew it was coming, but every winter when the humans leave and the wolves come, I hope this year will be different.

This year it got worse, just as the giant, staring eye in her dreams had told Sabra it would, in so many horrible, silent pictures with no color and stark lines. She sat on the benched, pressed between the enormous bulk of Mother Hansom, and Josie, who was four years older than Sabra, but an orphan and under the care of Mother Hansom, just like Sabra. For a moment, Sabra wondered if Josie saw the eye in her dreams. She looked at the other girl’s face, and knew she did not. Josie had not known any of this was going to happen.

“We’re not going to make it,” Old Benston said. “Not this year.”

The whole clan was gathered in the tight, smoky meeting hall. The fires were choked and smoldering to preserve the little remaining wood. Sabra looked around at the gaunt and worried faces. A stirring in the back drew eyes. Several people stood up, faces now angry. Because Sabra was twelve, she had to stand up in her seat to see, and only when the man came closer could she tell who he was.

He was tall and dark. His face was covered by a black beard, and what was left free of hair was covered with pale scars. His eyes were blue and piercing. In his left hand, he carried a staff made of sliver-green wood. The wood ended in a cunningly carved claw, which held a golden orb.

Sabra was transfixed. It looks like the sun in summer time, she thought. Not the pale circle that passed for a sun in the depths of winter.

“You have no leave to be here!” Old Benston’s voice thundered through the hall.

Old Benston was old, but in his prime, he had been the strongest fighter and best hunter. Now in his elder years, his brawn still showed. Next to the other man, though, he appeared frail and bent.

“You have no power to command me.” The man’s voice was soft, yet compelling, and everyone quailed when they heard it. “Only the gods and the seasons can do that.”

“What do you want?” someone called from the gathering.

The man’s eyes swept over the assembled people. “I have come for the Searcher.”

“There is no one here who has shown the promise,” Old Benston declared, but there was a tremble in his voice.

“Let me be the judge of that,” the man replied in the same calm, certain tone.

His eyes passed from face to face, and over Sabra’s. He caught her gaze for half a second, and in that time, her heart sped up and a warmth grew in her stomach. Then his eyes moved on, and Sabra was left empty. A shadow fell over her, and she looked up. This close, the man was much taller than she had at first thought, and his eyes were brighter.

“What is your name, child?” he asked.

“Sabra,” she told him.

“And where are your parents?”

“They were taken by the winter,” she said. “Four years ago.”

He nodded, his face full of compassion. “And what of the dreams?”

Sabra paled. How could he see into her mind like that? “I don’t know,” she whispered.

“Have you dreamed of me yet?” he pressed.

Sabra looked closer, examining the lines of his face, the way his left eye squinted when he wanted something, the strong muscles flexing in his arms, and the scars that covered his body, as if an army of thorny creatures with tiny blades had attacked him. He wore no shoes.

She shook her head. “I have never seen you before.”

He signed, gave a single nod, and turned away. Her eyes widened. Sewn into the back of his cloak was the giant eye, white and ominous, taking in the whole of the world with an unblinking gaze. He turned at her inarticulate moan, his eyes questioning.

“The eye,” she mumbled, pointing with a shaking hand. “On your cloak.”

He looked over his shoulder, then turned fully so his back was once again visible. The eye was gone. Sabra frowned, suddenly confused. Had she imagined it? Was she dreaming while awake now?

“There was an eye,” she explained. He waited in serene silence for further clarification. Sabra looked up met his gaze. “The eye that shows me the things that have not yet happened in my dreams.”

His eyes lit up and his elated expression made him more handsome and less frightening. “I knew I would find you here!” he cried.

“How?” Sabra wondered.

“The eye told me,” he answered simply.

“What does that mean?” she asked, though she had no doubt as to the truth of his words.

“You must come with me,” he said and held out his free hand. The glowing ball upon his staff grew more luminous. “To the Land of Eternal Summer.”

Sabra swallowed. “I thought that was just a dream.”

He shook his head. “I have been there, once before, many, many winters ago. But I cannot return.”

“Why not?”

“I am the Traveler.” He smiled. “Only the Searcher can find the way back to the Eternal Summer.”

Sabra took his hand, and the light on his staff exploded, enveloping them in warm brightness, bleaching the details of their surroundings, the shock on Mother Hansom’s face, Josie’s scared expression, the bulk of Old Benston beside the fire slowly fading until there was nothing but light.

Then the light was gone and they were outside, on a low hill. The village was nowhere in sight. Only a few twiggy trees broke the icy flatness of the land. Overhead, a single black crow flapped away, leaving behind a harsh warning croak.

“How did you do that?” the young girl asked.

“I am the Traveler,” he answered with a shrug. “It is easy as breathing for me, and I do not know who I do that any more than I know how my heart beats.”

“Where are we?” Sabra said, gooseflesh rising on her arms.

The Traveler handed her a cloak like his. It was thin, worn, the patchwork of colors almost indistinguishable from one another. Sabra did not believe it would be able to hold off the cold, but when she put it over her shoulders, she could no longer feel the chill.

“Beyond the borders of the Westland,” he told her. “That way…” he pointed with his staff, “is the city-state of Doheedron, and that way,” he pointed in the opposite direction, “Is the realm of Jarmander.”

“And there?” Sabra pointed ahead of them, where great mountains rose up.

“That is the Stria, the end of the world,” the Traveler told her. “Beyond that, I cannot say.”

“Have you been that far?” Sabra looked at him with wide eyes.

“I have stood atop the highest peak and seen the horizons of all the realms of this world,” he said. “But no matter how I have tried, I cannot pass beyond the boundaries.”

“So the land of Endless Summer is somewhere beyond the end of the world?” Sabra reasoned.

“What will we do?”

“Once we have found a way there, we will come back and bring all the people to the land of Eternal Summer,” the Traveler told her. “Now, which way do we go from here?”

Sabra gazed around. The horizon beyond the mountains called to her, and she started in that direction with confident steps, the smell of warm grass and the drone of lazy insects pulling her onward. Eternal Summer awaited, the eye promised her, and for the first time, Sabra was not alarmed by the picture it showed her.

 

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