Shadows

What do you do when the shadows are moving? When they surround you, closing in with red eyes that watch you with a flickering light like the fires from some long forgotten realm? Those were questions that Sandra had never had answers for. Her answers were usually more about hair and nails, clothes and boys. But now, she was glad she remembered what her Daddy had taught her as a child. Sure, those lessons had been for deer and duck, but she was pretty sure the same thing would work on the shadows stalking her. She leveled the Great Equalizer, a double-barreled shotgun a bit small for her adult body that still sported cat stickers to show a much younger Sandy where to put her hands. In that moment, it didn’t matter that she was alone or that her dress was torn and one heel broken from the run. She had her Daddy’s gun closet at her back and if the buckshot didn’t work, she had a bag of rock salt at her feet and several seasons of her favorite demon-hunting dramas to tell her it would send her unwanted house guests back to whatever nether realm they had had the misfortune to crawl out of. She locked eyes with the nearest shadow creature and grinned wickedly.
“Hasta la vista, baby.”
She pulled the trigger, keeping the stock braced against her hip. Sandra let out a whoop of joy as the thing vanished. One down, several dozens to go. At least they were backing off a little now. That would give her time to reload.

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Just Another Inch

It was a deep shade of purple. That purple that’s almost black. There were only a few skeins left and it was a light-weight merino, silk and cashmere yarn. So, of course, Natalie bought two skeins to see about making a pair of socks for herself. She’d seen a new pattern that she was absolutely dying to try out, so it made sense. Tucking it into her knitting bag, she couldn’t wait to show everyone in her knit group when they met next Tuesday.
Tuesday night came and Natalie was eager to show them her progress. She was nearly done with the first sock. She’d already turned the heel and was in the home stretch. Everything was perfect. The women sitting around the cafe table with their iced coffees oohed and aahed as she pulled the socks out and laid them on her bag.
“Looks like you’ve only got a few inches left.”
“I know, I’m so excited.”
“How’s the yarn?”
Natalie passed them to Laura, sitting on her left.
“It’s a dream. Silky soft and I swear the gauge is perfect. I’ve never gotten it perfect before.”
There were laughs all around at that. Everyone passed the socks around, eager to see and feel. Jenny brushed her fingers across the finished portion.
“I don’t know how you did it. I can’t even feel the stitches.”
Natalie grinned.
“I swear, it’s the yarn. It’s amazing.”
For the rest of the night, she worked and worked, eager to finish the second sock. Just another inch…just another inch. After what seemed like forever, a teenage boy came over to quietly tell them it was closing time. With a sad sigh, the knitting circle began to pack their bags.
“So, almost done?”
“Should be soon…”
Natalie held up the sock to look it over.
“Looks like another inch or so, right?”
She frowned then.
“No…it should be less…” Then Natalie shrugged. “I’ll measure it when I get home.”
“Well, you make sure you bring the finished product next week, alright?”

All week long, Natalie took every free moment she had, trying desperately to finish that last inch. But it seemed like every time she measured, she was short an inch from where she needed to be. Hours and hours passed, chores went undone. Still, the sock was an inch away from being done.

Laura slid into her seat.
“Sorry, I’m late! Had to drop the kids off at soccer first. Did I miss anything?”
“We were just talking about Natalie.”
They were all busily working on their projects as they spoke, their conversation underpinned by the constant clicking of needles.
“Did something happen?”
“Oh! No, no. Or at least, nothing we know about.”
“She’s not here and she wasn’t at the library yesterday either.”
That was Jenny, leaning forward almost conspiratorially.
“You know her, she’s always there.”

Months passed and there was snow falling lightly as Jenny walked up the steps towards the library. She heard a strange murmuring behind her and turned, nearly jumping as she saw a bedraggled woman there shivering in the cold. She was filthy and looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks. Strangest of all, she seemed to be covered in a nearly black yarn that seemed just slightly purple. Clutched tightly in her hands was a pair of socks that was almost done.
“Just…another…inch…”
And then the woman fell forward onto the steps, unmoving in the freshly fallen snow.

Willful

“No.”
The woman stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and looked up, hands in fists.
“What?”
The hands on the keyboard stopped, eyes stared in disbelief at the screen.
“I’m not going. I know what this is, what you’re doing.”
She turned on her heel and the Writer tried desperately to do something, anything, to stop her.
“You have to!”
“Why?”
She strode purposefully back the way she had come, stopping only to pull out her phone and do a quick search for a martial arts studio that had beginner lessons.
“Because, if you don’t, then he will never-“
“And there’s the problem. How about instead, I do it?”
The Writer stopped and blinked.
“Can you?”
“Can I what? Put on a mask? Fight crime? If you thought he could without any training just because he wanted revenge, then why can’t I with some training and a will to survive? Either way, I will not be his tragic backstory.”
She slammed the door to her apartment and the Writer grabbed the outline and a pen to do some quick rewrites.

“So, you never did tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Why is it always a tragic backstory?”
She was sitting on the roof, talking to the sky. The Writer sighed and shrugged at his keyboard.
“I don’t know…it’s easy to write?”
She laughed and adjusted the seat of the mask on her face.
“So, I’m a challenge? That it? Too hard for you?”
“I-I didn’t say that!”
Another laugh and she stood again, looking off into the distance over her city.
“So, who’s it gonna be today, Writer?”
“We’ll see.”
“That’s what you always say.”
The Writer smiled and watched her take off over the rooftops, wishing yet again that she wasn’t just his creation.

The Writer’s fingers flew over the keyboard, bullets narrowly missing his heroine as she fought for her life and the lives of the hostages trapped inside the bank. She was alone, with her back against the wall and her tricks exhausted.
“This can’t be how it ends…”
His voice was soft, almost scared. She looked up and smiled shakily.
“It’s been a good run, but we both knew going into this that the hostages come first.”
She charged. One leap and the air caught her for a moment, suspended there as though she could fly. Then she slammed into the masked man with the gun, knocking him to the ground. They wrestled for it while the hostages ran, knowing this could be their only chance. There were two pops. Two unearthly cracks that shattered the scene. Sure, the man in the mask was down. But so was she. There were tears on the Writer’s face as he wrote of the police bursting in to find hero and villain alike dead. The final thing he could offer to her was the decency of them waiting until they were away from the crowds to take off her mask.

Dealing With Devils – Part 1

The office was a small, cramped affair on the river but the building was older than the country in which is rested so a bit of tightness in the architecture could be tolerated. Thrift, they called it. It was easy to heat, especially since they put in the new insulation and windows. A woman sat behind the desk, a young man fidgeting in front of her almost nervously.
“Ma’am, I thought we were all squared away.” Nervously, he fidgeted with the cap in his hands. “I paid up years ago and…and I’ve still got the copy of the contract that you gave me.”
He would have continued on if she hadn’t raised her hand then.
“William, we’re fine on that score. I assure you. But…well, I know this is a bit unorthodox, but I need a favor.”
His face went pale under its summer pink.
“A…favor, Ma’am?”
She nodded solemnly and slid a file folder across the desk, keeping one hand firmly holding it down.
“I have a bit of a situation that I think suits your skills rather well. An escapee who needs to be…reacquired.”
“Ma’am?”
She pushed her glasses back up her nose, red eyes glinting as she looked at him.
“You were a tracker, were you not, Private O’Halloran?”
He straightened slightly.
“I was, Ma’am. But that was…near to a hundred sixty years ago. A lot’s changed since I tracked rebels… What needs tracking? Is it…human?”
“He…was. Now, he is an escaped soul and I believe that not only would it suit me for him to be returned, but that you would very much enjoy hunting him personally.” She paused. “And, if you were to complete the mission, I would be willing to return your soul to you and amend the clause in your contract stipulating your eternal damnation.”
The young man frowned slowly, his eyes on the packet.
“Who?”
“I believe you know him. Captain Henry Wirz, the commander of Camp Su-”
He cut her off, eyes distant and remembering.
“Andersonville.”
When she spoke, her voice was surprisingly gentle.
“Yes. Andersonville.”
“You have yourself a deal, Ma’am.”
He held out his hand to shake on it and she took his hand, gripping it firmly.
“Excellent. Let me just get out the proper forms and we’ll just make it all official.”

Bold Birdy

They called her Birdy, but the cops on her trail sure weren’t cats. She grabbed the wheel, wrenching it to the side as she slammed the pedal into the floor so hard she was half convinced the damn thing was going to break. She could still hear the sirens somewhere behind her, but they didn’t matter. Just a little further and she’d hit the county line and the old bridge. And her boys were there, ready and waiting with their gats and a neat little kit to lift the bridge clear off its stands once she was past it. With a glance in the back, she smiled at the young woman huddled there holding her baby tight.
“We’re almost clear. That piece of trash ain’t gonna ever find either of you.”
The woman didn’t respond at first, then her eyes widened.
“Look out!”
Birdy’s eyes were back on the road and she swore. How had they managed to get the paddy wagon into the road ahead of her? She slammed on the breaks, turning the wheel hard and dropping gears all at once. The old Dodge was used to such maneuvers, especially since she’d souped-up the engine herself. They skidded right, into a cornfield.
“Keep your head down. We’re still alright. Promise.”
She could see the river. It was far, but she could cut it. The real question was how to get up the embankment on the side of the field. She looked at it and then back at the woman in the backseat. There was really only one thing she could choose to do, being completely honest with herself. Only one path forward. She pulled her trusty derringer out from between the front seats, just in case, and drove hard for the embankment.
“Run for the bridge. My boys know the drill and they’ll keep you safe. Got it?”
“What about you?”
Birdy took a breath, glad she’d long ago learned to control her emotions when she was on a job. It wouldn’t do for the nervous shakes to come on her while she was behind the wheel.
“I’ll be fine. You get yourself and that boy of yours clear and safe.”
She came to a hard stop as close to the embankment as she dare get. The woman hesitated for a moment.
“Go, dammit! You don’t got time.”
And the woman and her baby were gone, running hard for the bridge and the safety of Birdy’s boys. Birdy herself turned her Dodge back the way she’d come and started gaining speed. Hard and fast, she careened through the field and back onto the road. Finally upshifting to her top gear, she was nearly flying. She let the ecstasy of adrenaline claim her. Birdy could see the patrol cars ahead racing towards her. Would they turn? Would they stop? She heard the snap-bang and saw the spidering crack in her windshield. They were shooting at her. Of course, they were shooting at her. She couldn’t lean out to get a shot of her own in, she had to just drive. Another snap-bang and a searing pain shot through her left shoulder. She clung to the wheel for all she was worth, letting her derringer fall to the floor. At the last second, the patrol cars veered. She tore off down the road, scrambling for a rag to stop the bleeding. She knew she had to stop the bleeding.

Birdy rolled up to the old farmhouse, nearly falling over the steering wheel as she finally came to a stop. An older woman in a gingham dress came running, a dish towel still in hand.
“Catherine!”
Birdy smiled weakly, leaning on the side of the car for support as she got out.
“Got her safe, Mama…”
Blood blossomed across the front of her white shirt and covered her hands and the rag that she still clung to.
“Her and the baby both. Got her to the lads.”
Birdy took a shaky step towards her mother. The woman closed the distance quickly, holding the dish towel to her daughter’s wound without a thought.
“We have to call the doctor. Jacob!” She shouted for Birdy’s brother. “JACOB!”
“He ain’t here, Mama… He’s at the bridge helping that girl. I’ll-” She hissed in sudden pain. “Gonna be fine, Mama. Just need…to stop…bleeding…”
Catherine, known all around as Bold Birdy, slumped against her mother then. The woman fell slowly to her knees, unable to support the full weight of her daughter, or of her death.

The Auction

The auction house was like a wake with pockets of people in somber attire speaking softly as they slowly moved about the room. When the tall man stepped in from outside, they turned for a moment to look, and then went back to their considerations of money and value. The man was a phantom in a black suit but he strode through the crowd with purpose. Only one item here that had his attention, one item that made his presence necessary. With a nod to the young assistant, the man took his paddle and smiled slowly. Forty-four, was he? How appropriate. Settling himself into a seat, he waited for the lot that had brought him here.

“Lot number 1314 is up next. A single hour glass in sterling silver. The bidding will be opening at…”

He didn’t much care what the bidding opened with. His paddle shot up heedless of the asking price. To the man’s surprise, another also bid for that particular item. A young woman in a fine dress and pearls sat a few rows over and held her paddle in a grip so tight that her arm was shaking. It went like this for far too long, the auctioneer beginning to cough. Finally, he waved an assistant up.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re going to have a brief break. We’ll resume the bidding in about ten minutes.”

The rest of the crowd filtered out, leaving only the man and the young woman. He stood, curious to see what kind of woman would be so very determined to acquire that which was meant to be his. She looked up at him as he approached, eyes determined but showing some fear.

“Do you intend to continue bidding against me?”

She stood then, standing to her full five feet in slight heels.

“I do, yes.”

“Why?” He asked, with a dismissive gesture. “What is it to you? A decoration for your home? Another knick-knack to gather dust on a shelf?”

She looked at the hourglass for a moment and then back up at him, jaw set in a tight line.

“I know who you are, Soul-Taker, and I know who and what that is. I won’t let you take him from me. That is my future and my life. I would gladly give anything and everything I have and I am.”

The man smiled slowly, nodding once.

“Take it, child. They will forget they ever had it once it leaves the building. Take him home. And when I come for you, it will be a pleasure to see you again. But I do hope it will be a long time, for a little fighter like you.”

For a moment, she didn’t know what to do, dumbstruck in surprise. Then she grabbed the hour glass and gazed into it, past her reflection. A young man stood there, looking so very proud in his uniform. He was so far away, but now she knew he would come home safe.

The White Elephant

The problem with working at the white elephant is that you never really know what’s going to come through the door. When that white elephant is on the seashore at the convergence of two ley lines, it gets worse. Or at least more exciting. Really depends on your outlook on life. I was the summer help that year, hired largely to deal with the sudden influx of tourists poking through the labyrinthine barn that was the store. Make sure they didn’t got lost amid the knick-knacks and statues, keep the fountain in the center running, cover the register if it looked like someone might actually want to buy that lobster trap they found under a pile of sea glass and clay pots. Things like that.

Mostly the store was run by my boss and her daughter Mel. It wasn’t a serious job for them, but then they didn’t need it to be. Not when her husband wore perfectly tailored suits and drove a car that I’d have to work for the rest of my life to even consider affording. The front of the shop had two pillars holding up the overhang, dressed up to look like old Greek columns. The first time Mom dropped me off, she laughed and said it looked like I was working in a mausoleum. It was funny then, I suppose.

It was a work day like any other. Mel was out for a bit to walk Spots the Great Dane and my boss was on the front step watering the flowers. I was rearranging the collection of questionably acquired street signs. How the couple got in past her to end up in my sphere of responsibility, I will never know. But then, I’ve also never seen tourists this lost. The woman was sure they’d taken a wrong turn, the man laughed, somehow certain they were in the right place.

“If you need help with anything, just give a shout.”
They didn’t seem to hear me, their argument becoming less and less clear to understand. For a moment, I thought they’d switched languages. Finally, she hissed at him, baring her teeth and he chittered back. I set down the stop sign I’d been working on positioning and turned. Taking a step towards them, I held up my hands defensively.

“Excuse me? Sir? Ma’am? Are you alright?”

They both turned towards me and I nearly fell backwards. Their faces were gone. He leaned in, chittering loudly at me. Before the scream could issue from my lips, my boss was there. Her hand was on my shoulder, her eyes on them. When she spoke, it wasn’t that distant and distracted tone she normally had.

“You’re being rude.” She wasn’t speaking to me. “Are you here to appeal the decision of the Judges?”

Both of them nodded and she sighed.

“Fine. But I would say it’s fairly clear that Asphodel is already calling you. If you wanted Elysium, maybe you should have lived your lives. Now, get out of my store.”

They turned into shadows at her command and vanished through the cracks between the floorboards. I knew I must look like someone had just slapped me with a fish. That would have made more sense.

“Sorry about that. Sometimes people just don’t like harsh truths.” She pulled a cloth out of her pocket and held it out to me. “Wipe your face, you’ve got some dirt. We’ve got a box coming in this afternoon. Can you take it?”

“O-of course.”

Her eyes focused on me again, pure and direct.

“Very good. And don’t worry, I’ll teach you to deal with them properly when we’ve the time. You’ll need to learn if you’re going to be in my service.”

The problem with working in the white elephant is that you never know what’s going to come through the door. But with the stygian iron in my pocket and the words in my mind, I know I can face just about anything. But that’s what you get when you end up in service here.