Short Fiction Monday – An Excerpt from THE BOOKSELLER

I’m not dead.

Yet.

I’ve spent the last week away from the computer and out in the sun because here in Minnesnowta we get a grand total of 12 (sometimes 13) really good days a year. 

This week for Short Fiction Mondays I’m dumping on you an excerpt from my latest WIP, THE BOOKSELLER. It’s an urban fantasy that mashes the naughty bits of several mythologies in ways you can’t imagine (or maybe you can, because you’re sick like me).

I AM STILL TAKING SUBMISSIONS FOR THIS WEEKLY CRAP, so if you have something you’d like to throw out into the world, I’d be happy to post it here. Any genre, I just ask that in keeping with the “short fiction” theme, it be less than 2k words with 1k being the sweet spot.

Without further adieu —

 

From “The Bookseller”

In the bathroom, Erin ran her hands under intermittent cold water. Plumbing issues had been her father’s “area” so the bathroom water flow was still touch and go. In the mirror, she noticed bags under her eyes, made worse by the paleness of her skin. So pale she was almost ghostlike, Erin always wore her dark hair up to lessen the contrast. Like Snow White, but less beautiful. And Erin would probably try to kill any woodland creature that crawled into her lap.

A knock on the door.

“All right in there?”

“Fine, Mom. I’ll be out in a sec.”

She was getting better. Usually, Erin’s mother walked in unannounced. Erin splashed some water over her face then realized there were no towels on the rack. She lifted her shirt and pressed it against her face, and when she pulled it away, if she squinted, the water mark looked a bit like the Virgin Mary. Maybe she could sell the shirt on Ebay. Make some rent money.

Erin diced tomatoes, cucumber, and onion while her mother set the table. They couldn’t just have Chinese takeout on the porch, no, not with Erin’s mother. There was a right way to do things, and wrong way. Allowing others to cook for you when you had perfectly good food in the pantry and expensive copper pans to prepare it in was the wrong way. Erin tasted her first delivered pizza at a friend’s slumber party in middle school. It was the best thing she’d ever put in her mouth. Later, when Erin was older and her mother became less neurotic (and slightly more lazy), she would allow them to go out to dinner on Friday nights. Now that Erin’s father was gone and her mother’s hypochondria was at an all-time high, the woman barely left the house.

Erin drizzled balsamic vinegar over the salad.

“Not too much.” Her mother said as though Erin were adding gun powder to a bomb, rather than dressing a salad. “The salt will bloat you to explosion.”

“It won’t kill you.” Erin said.

“Not right away, no, but in the long run.”

 They sat, Erin at one end of the table, her mother at the other, like opposing Generals. The eggplant slices flopped like purple tongues as Erin dished them onto her plate. She smashed them with her fork and mixed the pile with a bit of tomato sauce to create something slightly more palatable.

“Don’t play with your food, Erin.”

“Give it a rest, Mom.” It was out of her mouth before she realized she’d said it. She shoveled a mound of eggplant into her mouth to keep it at bay.

“Give what a rest?”

Erin shook her head.

“I’m only looking out for you.”

“You’re treating me like a child.” Dammit.

“Maybe,” her mother sat her fork delicately next to her plate, food untouched, “It’s because you insist on acting like one.”

Insist. Like Erin chose her actions specifically to annoy her mother. Ten years ago, she would’ve been right.

“Eggplant’s good.” Erin said. The afternoon’s buzz had worn off and she wasn’t prepared to come up with new responses to the same argument.

Her mother looked at Erin for a long minute before turning her gaze back to her plate. “New recipe. No salt. It’s organic.”

No argument today. Erin’s stomach unclenched slightly.

“How’s work?”

Spoke too soon.

 “It’s fine.” Erin said and stuffed her mouth with vegetables. If she was chewing she couldn’t lie, and if she couldn’t lie then her mother wouldn’t know she was lying and then probe her Mom Stick where it didn’t belong.

“Just ‘fine?’”

The Mom Stick was brandished and waved about threateningly with those two words.

Erin nodded. She was treading on thin ice with her silence.

“Because I got a call today from a young man today asking where he ought to mail your last check since he didn’t have an updated address from you.”

“Or he’s just a bastard who wanted the last laugh.” Stupid coupons.

“Language, Erin.”

“Mother.”

Erin sighed and pushed her plate away. The clock next to the china cabinet read 7:30. Thirty minutes. That had to be a record.

“I can give you a little to tide you over, but you’re going to have to find another job. Between your father’s pension and social security I can barely afford to keep this house afloat.”

“I don’t want your guilt money.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

It meant that Erin would rather beg on the street holding a tin can, surrounded by cat companions made from newspaper, than accept one cent because that would come along with an obligation to forgive – and that was something Erin wasn’t prepared to do.

“Nothing.” Erin said. “I have to go.”

“But you just got here.”

“Yeah.”

Erin stood from her chair with such force it wobbled. She knocked the table with her hip. It hurt. Erin picked up her shoes from beneath the table next to the door and, without bothering to put them on, she left her mother’s house, slamming the door behind her. The house was no longer in her rearview mirror before Erin stopped to finally slip her shoes on. She gripped the steering wheel with both hands and willed herself not to cry. It’d been two years. Normal people would be over it by now, or at least doing something productive about it. Erin wasn’t normal people.

 

After her father’s funeral, the hundred plus mourners had piled into her parents’ house to eat deli sandwiches and macaroni salad until the bottomless pit left by his death was filled. There was no room to sit and little room to stand, so Erin had sequestered herself in a corner between the refrigerator and cabinets with a glass of whiskey and diet coke. People came and went to retrieve food and utensils, but mostly left her be. Erin had taken her father’s death better than expected. It wasn’t like it had been entirely a surprise. Though no one could predict the heart attack, with his steadily growing girth and lack of attention to his health, it was bound to happen sooner or later.

When her mother found her, she took Erin by the hand without saying a word and escorted her through the crowd and upstairs to Erin’s old bedroom. It was the same as she’d left it when she went to college – all pinned-up articles and books. A poster of an underground band she bought at the only concert she’d ever been to.

“Sit,” her mother said and patted the bed. She wore a simple black suit. Not a dress-type woman, Erin’s mother.

Erin sat, cradling the glass in her hands. Her mother was probably going to attempt to pry some tortured emotion from her. She was always doing that, assuming that Erin was more fragile than she really was. Like she was an infant in a grown woman’s body. Erin sat up straight with dry eyes.

“Won’t people notice you’re missing?” Erin said.

Her mother shook her head, wearing a sad smile. “Doubt it.”

Erin waited for her mother to say what she’d brought her in here to say, but all she could do was stare at Erin’s face. It was disconcerting.

“Did you need to talk to me about something?”

She’d placed a delicate hand on Erin’s knee. “Your father and I disagreed about how to go about this. You know how he was; out of sight, out of mind. He saw no reason to burden you with something like this.”

“With what?” Erin concentrated on her breathing. An old trick Bean taught her to control her anxiety. It’d been terrible during her first year of college.

“But I always said that you would figure it out one way or another. You’re a smart girl. You notice things other people don’t.”

“And?”

“And I’d rather you heard it from me before you found out on your own.”

Erin filled her mouth with whiskey and swallowed it. She knew what was coming. She’d known it was coming since high school biology when they’d done a section on genetics.

“You were adopted.”

She knew, and yet those three words dropped like concrete blocks in her stomach. Hearing them out loud was different than speculating on her own. Adopted.   

Found, actually. Her parents had been on vacation in Ireland, a belated honeymoon, when they found her squirming infant body partially hidden just inside the mouth of a cave. They’d looked for Erin’s real family, but no one stepped up. So, they brought her home to the states. Christened her “Erin” for her Irish roots. The Poons were Scandinavian.

At the moment her mother confirmed the suspicions she had held inside for so long, Erin hated her father for taking the secret to his grave. Hated her mother even more for using his death as a reason to relieve herself of her burden and instead place it on Erin’s head.

She spent the following year looking for some lead into her parentage, a summer of which was in Ireland, but each search yielded a dead end.

 

Back at her apartment, her sanctum santorum, Erin impaled a styrafoam box of leftovers with the only kitchen knife she owned, and then poured the last of the cheap white wine into a coffee mug. After tossing her mismatched couch pillows across the room, she sat in front of her computer. Erin opened an internet window and typed: BABY GIRL FOUND IN IRISH CAVE in the search field. No new items. She deleted the phrase and typed: BOX WITH BIRD CLASP.

No relevant results.

 

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Short Fiction Monday – An Excerpt

Miss me, babies? Good. Squirm. SQUIRM, I SAY.

It’s snowing outside. It’s mid-March, it’s snowing, and I’m fucking grumpy for reasons beyond shit weather. But, by circumstances outside my control, I have been given a few free minutes to toss another Short Fiction Monday post into the interwebz. Today, it’s an excerpt from my WIP, Reaper, which will hopefully be in second draft form sometime next month. Thanks to a new project with a character who haunts my dreams (damn you, Tabitha!) the process is slow going. In any case, ease off the reports and enjoy the fiction. It’s the only thing that makes Monday tolerable.

from REAPER…

The drop lasted less than five seconds, but when he looked up Oz saw nothing but blackness – like a starless sky – blackness so dark you thought of it only as nothingness. He landed in something wet that spilled over the sneakers Bard had given him and soaked his socks. It smelled like he’d landed in a backed up sewer.

A short distance in front of him, a faint, swinging light shone against the brick walls of – wherever this was. Oz assumed by falling into the crack in the earth he’d be entering Hell, but he’d yet to see any fire or politicians.

Walking on tip-toe to stay as far out of the water as possible, he inched toward the light.

The light, which turned out to be a lantern attached to the front of a small boat, cast a large enough glow that when he was close enough, Oz saw a group of seven or eight people huddled together behind a tall red-headed man in a grey mechanic’s jumpsuit. The man dribbled a blue yo-yo as he watched Oz approach. In the other hand, he held a small, tin bucket.

The name tag on his jumpsuit read, Arizona.

“You’re just in time. We’re about to shove off,” he said as he held out the bucket. “Drop your coins in here and we can be on our way.”

“You’re the boatman?”

“So you’ve heard of me? The name’s Arizona.”

“Oz.”

“Spectacular. If you’d be so kind as to drop your coins then, Oz?”

He jiggled the bucket inches in front of Oz’s face.

“I don’t have any coins,” Oz said.

“That’s impossible. Sure you do. Maybe you just stuck them in your pockets and forgot. Unless…”

Arizona tucked the yoyo into his pocket and poked Oz’s arm with an extended finger.

“Shit. You’re one of them aren’t you? Fuckin’ A. Doesn’t anyone trust a man to do his job anymore? Now they gotta send one of you folks down here to make sure I’m not dumping Bas over the side or something? You people think that just because I spend my time talking to the shadows and learning how to ‘walk the dog’ that I’m not competent enough to pilot a tiny excuse for a boat across an even tinier excuse for a river? Huh? That it?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Because I can guaran-damn-tee that you won’t find anyone else to do this thankless job in this stink pit.”

Arizona moved closer to Oz with each accusation, finger still jabbing his arm.

“No, calm down. I’m not here about your job. I need to find someone. A kid. He was brought down here by – by accident.”

Arizona shook his head noticeably calmer now that he knew his performance wasn’t up for scrutiny.

“Sorry, Oz. Can’t help you.”

“It’s okay if you haven’t seen him. Just take me across and I’ll look for him myself.”

“Can’t do that either.”

“Why not?”

He jiggled the coin tin again.

“Seriously?”

“Sorry, kid.”

Arizona turned away from him, preparing to load the group of Bas huddled behind him – oblivious to the interaction with Oz – onto the boat.

“Wait!”

Oz cupped his hands and attempted to manifest a pair of coins for Arizona.

“Your tricks don’t work down here. It’s a whole new set of rules.”

He was right. No matter how many times he tried, the only thing Oz could blow into his hands was air.

“Please,” Oz said.

“I’m sorry. Really.”

He turned toward the Bas.

“Alright, now, everyone in.”

A plank formed between the boat and the stone step where they’d all gathered. They trudged across, one by one, until they were all seated. The boat was so small that they nearly sat on top of each other, packed together shoulder to shoulder. They didn’t seem to notice.

Arizona pushed the boat away from the step with the end of the stick that held the lantern, and as the plank sank into the water, as did Oz’s stomach and his hope of reaching Jamie.

No. It couldn’t be over. Not when he was so close. He knew Jamie was here. He felt it. He just had to find him, and in order to do that he needed to be in the boat. Fuck the coins. Fuck the rules. He’d broken them all so far. He wasn’t going to start playing fair now.

With little regard for what may or may not be lurking beneath the surface of the cloudy green river, Oz reared back and dove in.

It was like swimming through oil, slimy and clinging but not impossible to move through. Oz kept his eyes closed and pumped his arms in wide circles, hoping to hit the boat with his hand before his head.

Something cold and angry gripped his ankle and pulled him straight down.

In his panic, Oz opened his eyes and he felt as though they had been set on fire. Closing them again did nothing to cool the burn so he chanced a look down and saw –

Nothing.

A green and black abyss that went on forever. But the grip was there, cutting into his skin. Swirls of blood rose from his ankle as he was yanked further and further down. He looked up, lashed his arms and kicked the invisible attacker while looking for something, anything, to grip onto.

He was choking. The collar of his shirt had been ripped backward and dug into his jugular. He was going to die here. The oil-water rushed over his face. He’d lost all sense of direction. Up or down, it didn’t matter. His lungs were ready to give up.

Oz’s face broke the surface and something hard rammed him in the gut. The breath he held was expelled in a mucousy glop and he breathed in. And he breathed in again.

“Should’ve known you’d try something stupid like that.”

Oz gagged and was lifted by the armpits. His chin rested on the side of the boat.

“Nuh uh. You’re not puking in my boat.”

He couldn’t breathe again. His body was determined to purge everything from his system. Finally, it was over and his jaw ached. Soaked, Oz leaned backward against the side of the boat with his legs curled beneath him.

“Thanks,” Oz wheezed.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Arizona said.