The Leaning Tree, Part 1

bernicons            “Listen, Doug! Please! Please, no!”

I didn’t listen and I pulled the trigger.

I dragged the body to the waterfall and watched it tumble limply over the rapids. No one from town would find it. Even if they did, they wouldn’t recognize the face anymore that’s for sure.

I turned and gasped at the eyes staring at me. I gathered my senses and realized that it was just the gnarled bark of a large tree leaning over the waterfall. Moss gathered like braids of hair around its horrid face.

 

***

 

“And that was the last you saw of Madison Guzman?”

“After school, yeah,” I said, sitting in the police station, “We helped Mr. Truman take down the history projects and then walked home.”

Sheriff Helen sighed and meditated over her cup of coffee. “She didn’t seem out of turn, or upset?”

I envied her the coffee. I hadn’t slept at all. I shook my head. “No. Said she wanted to meet up this morning and go over our book reports, but that was all. I was in a hurry to get home.”

“Why’s that?”

“There was a hole in my book bag,” I said. It wasn’t a lie. “And I had lost all the quarters I had for the payphone to call home if I was staying out too late.”

The Sheriff smirked. “Happened before?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I nodded. “I forgot to call home and Pa was so mad he slapped me silly. Took away my books for a week too.”

“Took your books?” Sheriff Helen laughed. “My boys pray that I take their books as punishment.”

I smiled politely. Mom walked into the Sheriff’s office in her uniform. She handed me some hot chocolate. “How you doin’, Dougy?”

“I’m alright.” I took a sip. I eyed the gun on Mom’s holster. Wondered if I’d need it again. Decided not to think about it. “Any word?”

Mom looked at me and then the Sheriff.  “Once Madison’s tracks get in the woods, it’s hard to figure out where she went. It was raining so hard last night, it’s all muddied up.”

“Nothing from the dogs?” asked Sheriff Helen.

Mom shook her head.

Sheriff Helen placed her empty cup on her desk. “You can go with your Mom, Doug. Let us know if you remember anything.”

I grabbed the handle of my book bag. “I will.”

Mom kissed my cheek. “Pa’s waiting for you in the pickup out front.”

 

***

 

Pa tried to talk in the car but I didn’t. He told me that Mom would find Madison, that he knew we were close. Pa knew nothing, he proved it when he asked about school. “How’s it going?” he asked.

Girls at school were already getting pregnant. The boys would be dropping out and working at the mill and then die here of alcohol poisoning. Or they joined the military and died somewhere else, probably still drunk. Babies would be born with or without fathers, it’s not like it mattered. “It’s alright,” I said. Pa turned on the radio and let that drown out the silence.

Pa was one of the worst examples of this shitty small town. He was born here, raised here, knocked up my mother and now kept her here. He worked at the local mill, like all the other fathers. On the weekends he watched football and waited until Mom got off her shift to remember he was hungry. I learned to cook so that Mom could rest when she got home.

“You look like a sissy in that apron,” he hissed at me one day. Mom said I looked handsome. She was too good for him. We were too good for the whole goddamn town in the middle of goddamn nowhere. I would leave. We would leave… not all of us though.

Pa warmed up some leftover chili in the microwave but I wasn’t hungry so I went up to my room. I wept before I slept.

I saw Madison’s face in the darkness, her braids framing her face. She smiled at me and I wanted to kiss her lips. She spoke but I heard nothing. She was scared then she looked like she was in pain. I reached out but before I could touch her, the gnarled bark of the tree shredded through Madison’s face and screamed at me. I woke up, sweat drenching my bed. I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night.

The Process of Going – Part III

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Glass shattered. Lucky for the lady in the B&E, it was the rear window of my car and not her store front. I tackle Jessica as she fumbles to cock back the hammer again and she slams into the front of her van. Lucky for Jessica that I’m just over 100 lbs. with no muscle to speak of and she’s a five year Lacrosse veteran. She punches me in the jaw and kicks me off of her. I stumble to the ground and see her going for the gun.

I scramble and manage to grab her foot. She trips and falls on her face. But she’s flipped onto her back by the time I crawl on top of her and she has the gun pointing at my head. I grab the gun and pull it to the side before she gets another shot off. I can’t get it out of her hands, she’s holding on like a vice. I slam her hands into the front of the van. Once. Twice. No luck.

She pulls her arms to the side and pulls the rest of me with them, down towards her. Her forehead slams into my nose. I reel back. She uses the opportunity to kick me off of her and she crawls over me with the gun pointed at my head.

She cocks it back and I see the chamber turn. If dad had a semi-automatic like a normal person, I might’ve been killed already. A sob escapes her throat.

“How dare you?”

“He was gonna kill me, Jessica! What was I supposed to do?”

She shook her head. Her arms were pretty steady, though.

“Jess, don’t.” She pushed the barrel against my forehead. “How many times did he beat me, Jess? How loud did you have to turn up your headphones so you couldn’t hear it?”

“Shut up,” she said.

“How many times did you have to tell people that everything was fine, that dad just liked to shout at the TV and that I was just clumsy?”

“Shut up.”

“But that was the only time you tried to stop him? Why, huh, why this time? He never touched you, Jess. You could’ve went on pretending nothing was wrong, the he was a perfect loving father and the we’re a happy family. That’s what you always did.”

“Shut up!”

“What was different about this time, Jess? What was it that made it so you couldn’t pretend anymore? Why did you stop him? Why did you try to help me?”

“You could’ve left. You could’ve run over to Tommy’s.”

“I was tired of running! I was tired of running just like you were tired of pretending!”

The gun pushed harder into my head. A few tears finally began to fall from the pools that had welled up in her eyes. Jessica took a deep breath. The gun lifted from my skull.

I heard the sound of quickly shuffling feet and saw Jessica turn her head. Tommy’s sneaker slammed into Jessica’s chin. She hit the ground pretty hard. I pushed myself off the ground just as Tommy fell to his knees. He was holding his side and his hand was covered in something thick and dark. I hoped against hope that it was gasoline, or soda. It wasn’t. He fell into my arms as the distant sound of sirens grew louder.

 

*             *             *

 

“How’s it going,” said Tommy on the other side of the glass, his voice oddly distorted because of the phone and the fact that it still hurt a little when he breathed.

“Good as you’d expect, I guess.”

“See you finally let your beard grow out a little bit. Doesn’t look bad.”

“I hate it,” I said, scratching my chin. “How’s Jessica?”

“Good as you’d expect, I guess. Worse than you. She wants to see you when you get out.”

“What makes her think I’ll be out anytime soon.”

“Because she’ll tell the truth.”

I raised an eyebrow at Tommy. The truth was that I could’ve ran out of the house after Jessica pulled him off of me. I could’ve called 911. I could’ve done something other than run to my dad’s room and grab his gun. By the same token, I guess he could’ve done something other than push Jessica off of him and come at me again. Some would see it as self defense. Others… the truth was complicated.

Tommy gave me a sad smile, “She knows what happened, what would’ve happened. She’ll tell it like it was, Leonard. She’s tired of pretending.”

Ladybug, Schmadybug, Part 3

bernicons            “RUSTY! RUSTY! RUSTY!” cheered the crowd, “RUSTY! RUSTY! RUSTY!”

Edna, smiling, turned from the crowd and entered her leaf blade tent. Once concealed within, she hurled her helm to the ground. “Hickory Dickory!”

“Thought you would have liked a crowd shouting your name,” came a smooth tongue. Mr. Whisker’s muzzle barely poked into the tent without knocking it over.

“Hush, you kitten!” Edna’s elytra flared to make herself look larger.

“Aye just came to congratulate you on your victory, General Truered,” the cat winked, “The Runts of the Litter will be expecting their payment soon.”

“Yes, yes you’ll have it,” sighed Edna, “Just go!”

As Mr. Whiskers withdrew his face, allowing Pearl Deadplauge to walk in. “RUSTY! RUSTY!” could be heard louder than before through the parted leaves.

Pearl smirked. “You don’t look too happy.” Edna shot her a look. Pearl put her hands up. “Fine, fine.”

“How are the Deadplauge troops pulling out?” asked Edna, looking toward the painted leaf map on the table.

“Not badly at all.” Pearl pointed at the stream indicated on the map. “My brother’s leading the other half of our troops out of the meadow with what remains of the Silverwing troops.” She paused. “It’s a pity, what happened to Florence.”

“Pity?” Edna laughed, “Surprised to hear you say that. I didn’t get the impression that you two got along.”

“She was a seasoned warrior, I can respect that,” said Pearl, “Even if she was a witch.”

“She was an obstacle, but she fought bravely.” Edna looked at her helm and finally brought herself to pick it up. “I heard her nephew, Reginald, made it?”

“That’s what my brother’s scout said,” confirmed Pearl.

The leafblade entrance was pulled back. “RUSTY!”

“ARGH!” Edna whacked her helm off the table.

It landed at Betty Clearspring’s feet. She reached down slowly and picked it up. “Opal wasn’t exaggerating about your foul mood.”

“Autumndrop can hold her tongue,” hissed Edna.

Betty stepped up and put the helm on a different table. “She didn’t mean anything by it,” she explained, “Said she would be sure never to call you… R&R again.”

Edna glared at the shameful color of her own elytra. “No, she won’t.”

Betty peered in. “Edna, you need to calm yourself. The battle is won, those bunnies won’t dare to come back for years.”

“Don’t tell me to be calm, Clearspring,” spat Edna, “Not unless you orchestrated the entire meadow defense all by yourself.”

Pearl crossed her arms. “You didn’t do this all on your own either, Truered.”

Edna turned, about to speak, then remembered how much larger Pearl was and decided it was best to withhold her opinions.

Betty placed a hand on Pearl’s arm. Pearl was about to yank it away but stopped. “Fine,” was all she said before she leaving the tent.

“I’m sorry,” said Betty, “About your father.”

Edna was silent. “Thank you.”

Betty placed her spear on the table beside Edna’s helm. “I heard about Florence.”

Edna didn’t look up. “It was a struggle.”

“So you did fight beside her?”

“I did.” Edna sat. “She was brave until the end.”

“How did it happen?” Betty took the seat across from her, near the helm and spear.

“Quickly.”

“Quick like bunnies?”

Edna eyed Betty. “Yes, like bunnies.”

Betty looked up at the top of the tent. “Did you see that one sigil? The sinking ship?”

Edna smirked. “Yeah, what was that?”

“I don’t understand. Thought bunnies were supposed to be so obsessed with procreating that they couldn’t cook up crazy drawings.”

Edna nodded. “They will have to focus on procreating for a while now before they think about crossing us again.”

“Like Florence?”

Edna stood up. “What did you say?”

Betty set her hand on her spear. “I need you to tell me if you killed Florence on the field.”

“Why would I-”

Betty held up her spear. She was frightened. “I need to know you didn’t kill her, for vengeance or… or because she called you Rusty.”

Edna spoke through her teeth. “If I were to kill everyone who called me Rusty I would slaughter that entire field out there.”

Betty took a step forward. “How do I know you won’t?!”

Tradition, Part 3

kellyiconTo be a hunter, her parents had told her many years ago, was to be able to adapt to any and all situations. Her mother in particular was fond of reminding her that unicorns were magic, and as such any amount of strange things may happen during a hunt. A hunter needed to keep her mind clear, her bow ready, and be prepared for anything that might come her way. Kevya would have given much to have her father’s advice. The eyes of the oldest sister, the woman who had attacked her, were black as coals but blazed with a hate Kevya couldn’t understand. Unarmed, bound, and at the mercy of a stranger — she would catch an earful from her mother for being so careless when she returned.

If she returned.

Kevya swallowed, fighting to keep her mind focused through the pain in her neck and trying to figure out which words would set her free and which would get her thrown over a cliff. The woman had no patience to wait.

“Well, human? Have you lost your wits?” Her words were bristling and loaded with menace, but she clutched the two children closely to her side. She was afraid.

“You attacked me,” Kevya said. “I don’t know what quarrel you have with me, but I have never –”

At that moment, a single drop of white blood slid down from her shoulder like a snake, slowly making its way around the curve of her breast. The realization hit Kevya like a blast of ice, and a trickle of fear found its way into her heart. She had been too preoccupied with the fight to notice before, but now her mother’s words bubbled up from the river of memory. These are magic creatures, Kevya. Never put all your faith in what you see and what you hear.

Questions bubbled up in Kevya’s throat, all fighting to be asked first, and in the end all she managed was one, shocked gasp.

“You!”

“I was told humans were slow-witted,” the woman — the unicorn — said. “But you are particularly dense, are you not?”

“Why did you bring me here?” Kevya asked. She looked at the two children huddling silently behind the woman’s legs, their dark eyes more curious than afraid. Kevya couldn’t stop herself from thinking how foolish they were. If they had met at any other time, in any other way, she wouldn’t have hesitated to kill them both.

“I tried to kill you,” Kevya said, deliberately drawing out each word as she considered them. Something wasn’t right. Her disappearance would surely be noted by now, and the woods would soon be crawling with her family and other hunters. Only a fool would spare their mortal enemy and risk the lives of their family. Kevya said as much.

“You could have left me and been long gone by now,” she continued. The truth was nagging at the back of her mind like a dog nipping at someone’s heels. “Why would you do that? Why would you pretend to be human? You’re afraid, but not of me, or my family, but something out there terrifies you.”

For the first time, the woman looked away. She stared down at her younger sister and ran her fingers through the girl’s curly hair. But she did not disagree.

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” Kevya said, the answer finally dawning on her. “What is it that you need me for?”

The woman didn’t answer immediately; instead she stared contently at her younger siblings while both of them looked back at her with a hint of bemusement. The boy reminded Kevya so much of Jal, and her heart pained to think of him back at home, worrying for her safety. The uncomfortable thought of what would have happened to this boy and his sister had Jal’s arrow found its mark crossed her mind. She pushed the thought down, and buried it deep. There was too much to worry about at the moment.

“There is a monster coming your way,” the woman said, so soft and low that Kevya had to strain to hear her. The woman still refused to look at her. “It is after me, but it would not hesitate to burn down this forest and everything you hold dear in the process. Every day I run, but every day I sense drawing just a little bit nearer than the day before. So, I thought to hide as a human, but the bull continues to hunt me down like a common deer.” Finally, she looked to Kevya, a smile in her eyes. It was the cruelest, coldest smile Kevya had every seen. “So I thought perhaps to kill it. And where would I find a better killer than you?”

Tradition, Part 2

bernicons            Kevya’s eyes grew wide. “You’re-”

Her attack flung herself onto Kevya, her hands reaching for the huntress’ neck. Kevya reached up, trying to push back the face of her attacker, but the hot, white blood made her fingers slippery and her long, curly mane blinded her vision. Kevya grasped about but her bow and quiver were not within reach.

Kevya swung her fist and it landed square on the woman’s chin. The attacker pulled back and Kevya threw her weight up and over. The dark haired woman was pinned onto the rocky ground below. Her hands were still slippery with white blood as she held her down by the shoulders. Kevya’s face was hot. She barely felt the air in her lungs as she panted. “Now. Tell me. Who. Are. Yo-”

In a blur the woman’s arm came across with Kevya’s own bow and Kevya was back in the dirt. Kevya couldn’t tell if it was the woman’s hair or if the world was just growing dark but she felt her throat closing up as the pressure from her bow intensified.

Kevya kicked and flailed, grunted and gasped for air but nothing came. It was different, feeling her mother’s carvings up against the tender skin of her neck. Kevya could feel the heat of hatred burning through the thick mess of hair.

“Sister?” The voices were sweet. Kevya glanced to the side and barely saw two, small, naked children with dark skin and curly dark hair matching her attacker’s.

The woman looked at the children, bit her lip and then whacked Kevya in the head with the bow.

 

***

 

When Kevya woke, she couldn’t move her head much, or open her eyes at first. She soon realized that her neck wasn’t chained, but rather it was bruised and sore from what she could remember of the struggle. Kevya caught the scent of lilacs in the air.

“She’s waking,” said a sweet voice.

“Get  Sister,” said the second voice, equally as sweet like cinnamon sugar.

A pair of feet pattered away.

Kevya’s eyelids were heavy, but she forced them open. They stung. The child stood at eyelevel to Kevya, which she found rather peculiar until Kevya realized that her hands and legs were bound and that she was on the ground. The child was timid, his curly locks were overgrown and obscured his big, doe-like eyes from hers.

Kevya tried to speak but dust only lingered in her throat. She coughed. The little boy brought a hollowed gourd of water to Kevya’s lips. She drank.

“…Thank you…” she managed.

The little boy smiled but shied away still.

“I won’t hurt you, I promi-,” Kevya stopped when a bead of blood trickled down into her left eye. The little boy came up and wiped it away with some soft moss.

“You remind me of my brother, you know,” said Kevya.

The boy blinked.

“He’s older than you. His name is Jal,” she continued, “And my name is Kevya. What’s yours?”

The boy’s lips were pressed together.

“It’s all right if you don’t tell me. I understand.”

More blood. He wiped it away. “Red,” he said. Kevya didn’t understand. “Your blood. Red, like the bull.”

“…A red bull?” The words conjured images of shields blazoned with a bull on fire. It was not the sigil of her mother or father’s house, but of another she tried to remember but it only hurt her head.

He nodded. “The red bull, chases us. We always have to run.”

“I am no red bull, little one.”

He smiled quietly, “I didn’t think you looked like one.” He paused. “If you’re not a red bull… what were you hunting?”

Kevya licked her lips. “I wouldn’t hurt you. I swear.”

“Don’t make promises you don’t mean to keep.” It hurt Kevya to crane her neck up. The little boy pattered off to his sister’s side where his other sister stood, clinging to her leg. A bandage could be seen though the woman’s mane. She glared down at Kevya. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t cast you off the cliffs and be done with you.”

Ladybug, Schamdybug – Part II

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“Well, firstly, you can let us buy you another drink,” said Edna. “What are you having? Two percent? Skim?”

Mr. Whiskers frowned, “Are you calling me fat, you bloody Marybeetle?”

“No, no, no,” said Edna quickly, “the exact opposite in fact. You’re so lean, I just assumed you must be watching your figure.”

The cat purred deeply. “Buttermilk.”

Edna turned to her colleagues, “Ladies, go find the barmaid and tell her to bring this cat some more buttermilk.”

Betty looked nervously between Edna and Mr. Whiskers. Pearl pulled Betty’s arm, “Come on, pupa.” Betty nodded and they flew off.

“So,” said the cat, “you’re here and trying to butter me up with milk. We both know what that means. What do you want?”

Edna sighed, “The Bunnies.”

“Ah,” said the Mr. Whiskers stroking one of his famous whiskers, “the Bunnies, indeed. Rumor has it that they are looking to take over the Meadow. Unfortunate thing for you, no?”

“Yes, it is,” Edna frowned. “I was hoping that you and the other Runts of the Liter would back the Ladybugs in this matter.”

“As you know, milady, the Runts of the Litter are sellclaws. If you’re looking to buy, I’m assuming you can pay.”

“Yes. Of course. We deal in standard Ladybug currency. I’m prepared to offer you—”

“Pssha, standard Ladybug currency my tail! What the heck is a cat supposed to do with infertile beetle eggs? They’re good when trading with other crawlers and the such but they’re hardly worth their weight in buttermilk.”

Edna did a rotating somersault in mid air, the lady bug equivalent to stomping your feet or banging your fist on the table whilst in the company of larger creatures. “This is bigger than filling your pockets. The Bunny Armada isn’t just a threat to the Ladybugs, they are a threat to the entire ecosystem. Do you know what will happen when they invade?”

“They will eat all the grass and the flowers and dig their little bunny wholes and breed and spread through the Meadow like a plague until nothing is left but a barren field of soil.”

“Exactly.”

Mr. Whiskers twirled a whisker around his finger, “Yes, exactly. How is that a problem for me?”

“The meadow will just be the beginning! What happens when they come for the Farmer’s Fields and the Free Forests?”

“The Runts of the Litter will rip them to shreds like fluffy pillows.”

“How many tomcats and kittens you the Runts of the Litter have in your ranks, huh. Six, eight, ten? If the rabbits take the meadow, they will breed by dozens. We’re talking hundreds of bunnies by next Spring.”

Mr. Whiskers waved a hand flippantly, creating a small gust of wind that blew Edna a few inches away. “That is a myth, a legend, a Larvae’s Tale. There is no way they breed that quickly.”

“Mr. Whiskers, first of his name, son of Sir Puss in Booties.”

Mr. Whiskers’ eyes widened, “H-how do you know my grandfather?”

“Because my name is Edna Truered of House Truered, daughter of Edward Truered, granddaughter of James Edward Truered XI, descendant of James Edward Truered, founder of House Truered, first of his name, Lord of Posy Cozy.”

“That’s where… my father…”

“My ancestor died in Posy Cozy, during the War of the Posies, also known as the White Plague of ’03. My father told me the tale, passed down from generation to generation. There was a cat in Posy Cozy, your father. My ancestor went to him as I have come to you, pleading for his help to stop the bunnies. Do you know what your father did?”

“No,” whispered Mr. Whiskers, “no, they were only stories.”

“You remember Posy Cozy, don’t you Mr. Whiskers? You would have only been a kitten, but you remember.”

“The smell. The colors. It was… it was beautiful.”

“And why would your father just leave such a beautiful place. His home. Your home.”

Mr. Whiskers dropped his head to the table. “No. It wasn’t real. The White Plague wasn’t real. Just a story.”

“It was real! Real as you and me! Real as the Bunny Armada encroaching upon our meadow right now! The only question is are you going to stay and fight, or are you going to run away… like your father?”

Betty and Pearl finally flew back over to the table, followed by a full figured orange tabby with a pitcher of buttermilk. She refilled Mr. Whisker’s stein and sauntered off. Pearl and Betty looked from Edna to Mr. Whiskers and back again.

“So, Mr. Whiskers,” said Edna, “what will it be?”

Mr. Whiskers lifted his head. He grabbed his stein and drained it empty before slamming it back down to the table.

“Ms. Truered, the Runts of the Litter are at your service.”

The Process of Going, Part 2

kellyiconI stopped driving as soon as dawn broke. I pulled over into the woods off the interstate, hoping to hide my rickety old sedan between the scraggly trees and scrub bushes. We stretched out over the seats, shoulder blades jutting up against door handles and arm rests, and tried to get some sleep. I don’t know if Tommy managed, but I sure as hell didn’t. I laid on my side and stared out the windshield into a field of green, the grey highway poking out through gaps in the green and the sun not so much much shining but glaring off the hood of my car. So it went, each of us sleeping or pretending to sleep, for an unbearable number of silent hours.

Night came, and we were treated to a chorus of chirping bugs, croaking frogs, and the occasional deep-voiced owl, with a special solo provided by our growling stomachs.

“Alright, what do we do now?” Tommy asked, shutting the car door behind him as he took up his usual place in the passenger seat.

“Still have no idea,” I said. “We need to eat, and we need to go.”

“And now I need to pee.”

I dropped my head onto the steering wheel. It was warm and my forehead was sticky with sweat, but I didn’t care. God, what I’d have given to sleep, the kind of sleep they compare to being like the dead, and be oblivious to everything for a few hours, but I was too afraid. I could feel the memories pushing at the back of my mind, just waiting to rush forward the moment I let my guard down. Maybe one day I’d be able to look back on what happened to my father — what I did to my father — but now was not that time.

“You should go home, Tom.”

“No chance in hell, buddy. You think I’d just up and abandon you like this?”

I was still speaking from into the steering wheel, unable or unwilling to pick up my head and look at him. I was so tired, and it felt like someone had stabbed red hot iron claws into the base of my neck. If it weren’t for the hunger pangs, I’d seriously be considering staying like this forever.

“I think you should be start being smart and separate yourself from a murderer.”

It was quiet for a minute. That in itself was odd. Tommy usually never shut up in the middle of a conversation.

“Listen,” he said. “For years I’ve sat by and watched you explain away bruises and why you never wanted to go home. I stood by when Jessica swore up and down that everything was fine and your father had never laid a hand on you. Meanwhile, you stuck by me every step of the way. You helped me stand up to all those bastards who picked on me throughout school. When I said I wasn’t gay, you said okay. When I said I was gay, you stuck by me unlike those other bastards who fled the moment people started asking why they were friends with the fag. So for once, I’m going to stick by you, okay? You gave that asshole what was finally coming to him. Whatever you decide to do, I’m there.”

Fuck. I wasn’t going to cry, but goddamnit if it wasn’t tempting. Just let out one great heave and get it all out, all the anger and hate and shame, and be done with it. I’d probably feel better. Logically, I knew that, but the cruel, spiteful, childish part of me wasn’t ready to give him the satisfaction.

Goddamn that man. God damn him all the way down his trip to hell.

Instead, I picked my head off the steering wheel and said, “Great speech. You practice that?”

“Well, I sure as fuck wasn’t sleeping.”

I turned the key, headlights illuminating the path through the trees and out unto the highway. I eased the car out slowly, as if you could pull out of the woods next to the interstate and not look suspicious as hell, and as soon as there was a large enough gap in the traffic I sped out of their like the Dukes of Hazzard. The first gas station we found was as sketchy as all hell, a shabby little place with a sign saying ‘B&E’ in big, white, block letters and bars on the doors and windows. A sign on the front door let us know that the entire store was being monitored by cameras. That was reassuring. Our worries about being identified lessened a little when the lady at the cash register didn’t even look up from her magazine as we walked in, a little bell at the top of the door chiming in vain. We loaded up on water, trail mix, chips, and anything we could carry, as well as filling up the tank, trying to act as natural as possible when I paid her in cash. We walked out, arms full to bursting, and I was so preoccupied with resisting the urge to bolt to the car and speed off that I didn’t notice the red van that had pulled up to the gas pump behind us.

“Just throw everything into the backseat,” I said. Behind me, I heard a car door slam and shoes crunching over gravel. “We can just reach for it when we get hungry.” Tommy wasn’t listening, though, too preoccupied with tearing into a can of pringles. I walked around the car to the pump, and just as I reached out to push the ‘gasoline only’ button I heard the all-too-familiar click of someone cocking a gun. I was flash-frozen in place, but then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw who it was.

“Shit, Jessica.”

My sister held the gun at arms’ length, her hands shaking so hard I was less afraid for myself than I was for Tommy or the lady in the store. I turned slowly, arms up, to get a better look at her. She was pale, and between the harsh lights of gas stations everywhere and her chapped lips and deep circles under her eyes, she was positively corpse-like.She was wearing the same yellow halter top and jeans she was wearing at the house two days ago. The top of her shirt was stained with sweat and dark drops of blood. Her hair was a tangled mess of brown curls, and when she spoke, it was harsh, like someone dying of thirst.

“How dare you,” was all she managed to get out before squeezing the trigger.

The Process of Going – Part I

tjicon“So, any idea where you’re going yet?” Tommy asked, feet up on the dashboard with the seat leaned all the way back.

“No. I told you I didn’t know where I was going.”

“Yeah, I know, but I figured that somewhere in the process of going you would acquire some knowledge of how the process would proceed.”

I sighed, “You know, you didn’t have to come with me.”

“You wanted me to come with you.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yeah. You did.”

“Did I ask you to come with me? If I wanted you to come with me, I would’ve asked you to come with me.”

“You didn’t ask me to turn down Malory Beadly for the Sadie Hawkins dance, but I knew you wanted me to—”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes you did. You had a very big, very obvious crush on her and when I told you she asked me, you became very obviously jealous.”

“I wasn’t jealous.”

Tommy laughed, “You got really quiet and all passive aggressive—”

I glared over at him. “I wasn’t jealous.”

“And I quote, ‘You should go. I mean, Malory’s not all that pretty, but she’s nice, I guess. You two will have fun.’ End quote.”

“I thought you turned her down because you’re gay.”

“Perhaps. I didn’t know that at the time.”

“Really? I did.”

He  grunted dismissively. I took an exit. “Do you know where we’re going now?” Tommy asked.

“I have to pee. And I’m kind of hungry.”

“Are you going to a gas station?”

“No, I was thinking like a McDonald’s or something.”

“You can’t stop at a McDonald’s.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Leonard, you sweet summer child, don’t you watch TV? They always catch the criminal on some random lucky ass clue. Some cashier at a McDonald’s sees a picture of the guy on the news and then is like, ‘Hey, that’s the dude who ordered the Big Mac with extra pickles.'”

“I hate pickles.”

“Dude, you are so lucky I’m such an amazing friend. If I didn’t come with you, you would already be in jail.”

“Well, I still need to pee.”

Tommy jabbed his finger against the window, pointing outside. I turned to look at the never ending expanse of dense forest that lined the lonely highway. It was so late that it was early and the sun was just starting to rise, but it was still extremely dark and forests were much creepier in the dark. Still, my bladder was to that point where it began to ache. I pulled over to the side of the road.

“I’m still gonna need food.” I said, stepping out of the car.

“I guess we’ll have to chance drive-throughs,” said Tommy, exiting the car as well, “or we can stock up at a grocery store somewhere, then head back on the road going the opposite way, so if anyone from the store does notice us, cops will assume we’re going… whatever direction we’re going, but we’ll in fact be—”

“Do you have to pee too, or are you just following me?”

“Just following.”

“For what?”

“You wanted me to.”

“No. I didn’t.”

“Yeah. You did.”

“If you think I’m finally gonna realize I’m gay while peeing off the side of the highway then—”

“It’s dark. And you’re a pussy. You wanted me to come with you.”

I threw a hand in the air in frustration. He knew me way too well. “Did you at least get the—”

He held up the keys and jingled them around. I threw up both hands.

Tommy leaned up against a tree while a pissed against another one a ways in front of him.

“So,” he said, “what was it like?”

I didn’t answer.

“C’mon, Leonard.”

“What do you think it was like, Tommy?”

“I don’t know, I’ve only ever killed guys in video games. That’s why I’m asking. So, what was it like?”

I gave it a few shakes as I finished. “It was like pissing my life away.”

Ladybug, Schmadybug, Part 1

bernicons            “I tell you, my good ladies, we need to consider the Bunny Threat at hand!” proclaimed Pearl Deadplague, placing her needle work at her side. The thread was a sickly orange color with black spots that matched her own colors.

Florence Silverwing sighed, fluttering her matt, gray elytra impatiently. “If I listened to every pertinent concern of a lady from house Deadplague, then I’d look many years older than I am.”

“That wouldn’t be much older than, would it?” retorted Pearl.

“Ladies, this needs to stop!” interrupted Opal Autumndrop, stepping forward, nearly knocking into another member of the Circle.

Betty Clearspring chimed up, holding her knitting tight in her hands. “I-I think we should listen to Opal now, and just calm down.”

“Deadplague has a point though,” said Edna Truered, sipping her tea to keep her throat form drying up with fear. “The Bunny commander won’t sit politely to the side, waiting for us to make up our minds.”

“Rusty Red finally speaks up,” jeered Florence, “Please go on, dear, do your father proud and share your keen insight.”

Edna pouted.

“That’s not fair, Florence,” said Betty.

“What’s not fair is that I’m stuck in a Circle that is filled with fools!” spat Florence.

“I’m not a fool!” Betty protested.

“Maybe, pupa, but you like the exoskeleton to stand up for yourself,” said the oldest of them. Betty’s antenna wilted down. “I’m done for now. Good day to the lot of you.” Florence then left the room.

Betty barely looked up past her sad antenna. “Sh-should we continue?”

Opal rolled her eyes. “We can’t have a meeting of the Circle without the entire Circle, now can we? It’s good we stopped, I’m famished.”

Pearl growled under her breath.

“Speak up, Pearl, we can’t hear your grumbling over here,” quipped Opal.

“Shut your mouth, Autumndrop,” snapped Pearl, “No one asked for your opinion.”

“That’s curious,” said Opal, “If no one wanted my opinion then why would I be a representative on the Circle?”

Pearl pushed her chair to the side. “Open your mouth again and I’ll stuff you full of aphid larva, I swear!”

Opal eyed Pearl, but said nothing and turned to leave. Pearl continued to brood.

Edna approached Betty, who had been particularly quiet. “Don’t pay much mind to Florence Silverwing. She’s irritable by nature.”

“Hey Rusty,” sneered Pearl, “You sure you’re a Truered? Clearspring’s elytra are far brighter than your own.”

Edna laughed hollowly. “Charming, Pearl. Be careful, dear, your pedigree is showing.”

“What did you say?!”

“Y-your stitching, Pearl,” blurted Betty. Edna looks curiously to Betty. “Your needle work is starting to come undone…” she pointed at the hoop on the floor, “You knocked it over… you see…”

Pearl glared at Edna, whose face was blank but amiable all the same. Pearl sided with caution for once. “Fine.”

“Good, now that we’re not enemies,” started Edna, “I believe we have a few matters to discuss.”

“But the meeting of the Circle has concluded for today-” began Betty.

“Yes, that’s true, but we have a meadow to protect,” stated Edna, “It’s clear that Florence isn’t willing to budge on her position and Opal’s too worried about appearing neutral to Florence to act. Ladies, we must act for the good of the meadow.”

“What do you have in mind?” asked Pearl, picking up her hoop.

“I think we should seek outside help,” Edna said plainly.

Breath left Betty’s body. “Outside of the Coccinellidae Court?”

Pearl smirked. “I like it.”

“Are you quite sure, Edna? What if Florence or Opal found out?”

“Don’t worry your pretty head, Betty,” Edna patted her reassuringly on the arm. “It will stay just between us.”

“Did you have anyone in mind?” asked Pearl.

 

***

 

Edna stepped forward, leaving Betty to stand sheepishly beside Pearl. “May I beg for a moment of your time, Mr. Whiskers?”

Mr. Whiskers’ tail calmly swooped to and fro as he finished his stein of buttermilk. He brought the mug down to the table with a satisfying thud. He turned to them, eyes flashing a yellow that mimicked his striped pelt. “What can Aye do for you, Ladies?”

Tradition, Part 1

kellyicon The arrow whistled through the air and landed, with a thud, into the bark of a tree. There was a scream, an inhuman mix of an animal’s cry and a human scream, followed by the rustle of wings as birds fled from their perches and the thudding of heavy hooves against the dirt.

“You almost had it, Jal,” Kevya said. She walked over to the tree and yanked out the arrow. “A little closer, and you’d have killed your first unicorn.”

“They’re too fast to hit,” Jal said. The boy trotted over to his sister, pouting at the injustice of it all. “You think you’ve got ’em in your sights, and then it’s like they’ve run away before you even let the arrow loose.”

“Unicorns aren’t horses, Jal,” Kevya said, handing him back his arrow. “They’re quick, almost like rabbits. You’ve got to aim where you think they’re going to be, not where they are now. Otherwise they’ll slip through your fingers every time.”

She rustled the boy’s hair and gave him an encouraging smile.

“It takes practice, but you’ll get the hang of it. Soon you’ll be bringing home pelts and horns that’ll be the envy of the entire town.”

Jal didn’t stop frowning, but his eyes lit up and he looked up at her with almost pleading eyes. It took all her willpower not to laugh. He may be growing the first hairs on his chin – a milestone he was immensely proud to have achieved – but he was still very much a child.

“You think so?”

“I know so. Father and Mother and I wouldn’t let it be any other way. Now, it’s getting dark. Go home while I try to catch our slippery target.”

“You think you can catch it? It must have run away by now.”

“You heard it scream, right? I think you may have wounded it, and –“

“I did?” Jal nearly bounced off the ground with excitement, his arrows rattling around in his quiver. “You think I got it?”

“Wounded it. If that’s true then it couldn’t have gotten far, and I can track it. Now, get going.”

Kevya watched Jal as he headed back toward the trail and then onward to home. After he had disappear from sight, she slipped her quiver over her shoulder and picked up her bow. It was made of fine wood and Mother’s intricate designs of horses and unicorns entwined in flowering vines were carved into the bow and quiver. Besides being the signs of their family, the designs served as a family’s blessing to a hunter for a successful hunt. Kevya took comfort and pride whenever she ran her fingers across the wood carvings. It made her feel a part of not only her family, but a tradition stretching back generations.

She crouched low to better see the ground. There were tracks, alright, and more importantly, there was blood. Jal didn’t just nick the beast. She made a note to let Father and Mother know it was his shot that led her to make this a successful hunt. She followed the tracks, splattered with drops of pale white blood that shone against the dark ground. Before long she founded herself overlooking a small, empty meadow. The only sign of her unicorn was a puddle of white blood pooling around a clutch of flowers.

Kevya crouched down, aimed her bow, narrowed her eyes and scanned the line of trees. It was possible the unicorn had moved on, but it had lost to much blood to go much farther. No, more likely the beast was hiding among the trees, watching the tree line for hunters as closely as Kevya was watching for prey. Kevya was hidden in the shadow of the trees, but unicorns had been known to spot even the slightest movements. With night fast on her heels, Kevya did not have much time, but if she was patient, she might be lucky. Just one careless move, one cautious step into the meadow, and it’d be hers.

“Yaaaah!”

The scream came from her right, and Kevya barely had time to loose the arrow before someone – a tall, lanky someone – brought down a rock just inches from her head. The arrow went wild and disappeared into the trees’ leafy branches, but it gave Kevya time to leap away. Before she landed, she already had an arrow in hand, notching her bow and aiming straight at her unknown attacker’s heart.

“Who are you?” she said, never taking her eyes away from her target. Her attacker was a young woman, naked, dark-skinned and possessing mane’s worth of dark curls reaching past her shoulders. Her eyes blazed with a hate Kevya couldn’t understand. She had never seen this woman before. “Why are you attacking me?”

That is when she noticed the white blood oozing from a gash in the woman’s shoulder.