Short Fiction: Foolproof

Just a little something for Halloween.

Special thanks to Mere for the enabling encouragement and notes, and to Andy for the nightmare fodder inspiration.  You guys are evil the best.

FOOLPROOF

by Elizabeth M. Thurmond

Creak.

Creak.

The landlord still hadn’t fixed the middle two stairs.  Kind of hard to do everything a guy needed to do without the neighbors knowing all his comings and goings.  If the neighbors weren’t all deaf, stoned or both.  Maybe the rats noticed, but they didn’t matter so much.

Click.

Thud.

Click.

Crinkle.

Clank.

Beep.

Door locked.  Groceries away.  Dinner in microwave.

Beeeeeeeep.

Another Hungry Man dinner.  More low-budget living.  Not that that was a permanent situation.  Just a few days more.  Worth the wait, even if the TV-dinner mashed potatoes tasted like spackle.

Creak.

Creak.

Must be the downstairs neighbors.  Better wait a while, in case one of those potheads decided to knock on the door looking to borrow a cup of Cheetos or something.  A little TV, maybe.  Rabbit-ear antenna on a black-and-white TV… another temporary situation, though it was getting old watching staticky reruns of The Big Bang Theory every night til the neighbors went to sleep.

Scratch.

Squeak.

Rats.  He’d found them gnawing on his equipment again last night.  No matter how many traps he set out, there were always more.  There might be a better way to handle the situation, but… no.  Not til he was ready.  Best not waste time and energy on the rats.

Scratch.

Scratch.

Not a sound except the rats.  Everybody else in the building must be asleep.  Time to get to work.  First, the storeroom.

He had to admit, it was creepy to go in there and see all the faces staring at him.  Plastic, porcelain, wood.  Painted eyes, shabby clothes.  The product of endless searching through thrift shops and antique shops and even the garbage.  The ones with only one leg wouldn’t do, but one arm was enough for most.  He preferred two, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

He moved through the storeroom — freezing cold, the landlord wouldn’t fix the broken window — to the back shelf, where the faces didn’t stare.  The newest arrivals — Howdy Doody, creepiest puppet on the planet, and a baby doll in a diaper with all its hair cut off.  Two arms and two legs on both.  Best score he’d had in a while.

Scratch.

Scratch.

Rats. In the storeroom.  So far none of them had dared actually chew on the merchandise, but the sounds made him twitchy.  He needed everyone intact… or as intact as they were when he picked them, anyway.  The clothes didn’t matter so much, but limbs and eyes…

Scratch.

Squeak.

Cursing under his breath, he left the dolls on their shelf and headed to the kitchen, returning with two rat traps loaded with cheese.  He could feel all the faces staring at him again.

From storeroom to darkroom, dolls in hand.  The negatives were waiting; he’d handled that this morning before he went to work at the tattoo place.  Shitty job, but useful.  He’d found both of his current subjects there.  Most of the customers loved to show off their ink.  And in this neighborhood, a lot of them wouldn’t be missed.  Much.

But before the enlarger… the ritual.  Chalk.  Salt.  Candles.  Herbs.

Thwick.

Just enough fire to burn the herbs.  Not enough to set off the lone smoke detector in the hallway.  He couldn’t disable the thing without somebody finding out — landlord didn’t want the crackheads burning down his rat-infested cash cow, so the smoke detectors were checked once a week.

Scratch.

Creak.

He almost stopped chanting.  Neighbors?  No, it wasn’t coming from the hall.  Closer, but smaller.  Rats.

He completed the ritual.

Click.

Clank.

Creak.

He stopped, one hand on the negative in the enlarger, to listen.

Creak.

Rats?  He could swear they were getting bigger… they didn’t used to be heavy enough to make anything creak.

Enough of that.  On to the project at hand.  Negative.  Doll.  Light.  Face over face, eyes aligned with eyes.  Another chant.  The doll went heavy, thudded to the side.  Somewhere, so did a body.  Not dead.  Coma patients all over the city.  Mostly the worst hospitals.  Mostly on the public dime.  Still on life support — first, do no harm.  Even if they couldn’t find a next of kin.

Negative.  Doll.  Light.   Eyes over eyes.

Thud.

Click.

Back to the storeroom.  Two more faces now, staring.

Scratch.

Scratch.

SNAP!

Got him.  An almost-beheaded rat, over in the corner.  Two words, and four of the faces quit staring at him.  Scrabbled down the shelf in a rustle of plastic limbs.  Pallbearers at a rat funeral.  Cheese still intact.  Saved having to reload when the four brought the trap back, empty.  Wasn’t too hard for four dolls to open the trap and heave a dead rat through the broken window.  All they needed was a little leverage.

Another scrabble of plastic, and the four staring faces returned to their shelf.  All quiet.  Still.  Back to the living room.

Too wired to sleep, he took out the book he’d stolen from the library and the pages he’d printed off the internet.  More chants.  Spells. Commands.  Strategy.  Targets.  Not a foolproof plan yet.  The first wave, the ones with the bombs, mostly one-armed, would be cannon fodder, but the second wave… that was more tricky.  Easy for them to steal without leaving fingerprints; not so easy to keep from being traced back to him somehow.

Scratch.

Scratch.

It was coming from the storeroom.

He waited for the SNAP!

It didn’t come.

Rats.

3am.  Impossible to keep his eyes open any longer.

3:15am.  Asleep on the couch, spell book and city maps in his hands.

Scratch.

Scratch.

4:07am.  Rats.  In the living room?  Loud enough to wake him.  He had traps everywhere.  A quick look around — all still empty.  He put the book and papers on the crate he used as a coffee table.  Sleep again.

Scratch.  

Scratch.

He woke slowly.  His lips were stuck together.  How…?

Tape.

He tried to raise his arms, but something was weighing them down.

Scratch.

Scratch.

Creak.

Panic.  What was happening?  Had the junkies across the hall come to rob him?  Good luck to them finding anything they could sell or smoke.

Scratch.

Creak.

Creak.

Not the junkies.  Not loud enough.  Not big enough.

Thud.

He didn’t realize what was happening until he hit the floor, face first.  Dozens of glass and plastic and painted eyes staring at him at the dark.

He’d never asked himself if they could move on their own.  They never had before.

Not a foolproof plan.  Not by any means.

Scratch.

Creak.

Creak.

Creak.

Creak.

Creak.

THUD.

Wasn’t too hard for a hundred and forty dolls to heave a man through a window.  All they needed was a little leverage.

END.
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Welcome to Fiction Friday. For today, a short story.

The search for a place to park had put Martha off the Downtown art walk before she even reached the first gallery.  The crowd of skinny-jeaned, jelly-shoed, romper-wearing hipsters spilling out onto the pavement did nothing to help.  It was near impossible to even get into the gallery for a clear look at the exhibit, which appeared to involve old plastic doll parts, a blowtorch, and chicken feathers.  She managed to squeeze back out of the room without anyone spilling two-buck Chuck on her clothes and made her way to the next gallery, which contained only half as many hipsters and (which probably accounted for the smaller crowd) some very nice black-and-white photographs of rusted industrial equipment.  Martha spent a while with these, wondering if the crowds at the other gallery would appreciate their quiet simplicity or if they were too ordinary to satisfy this generation’s insatiable appetite for the “edgy”.
Once that exhibit had been thoroughly examined, she moved on. The next stop was overflowing with more wine-drunk hipsters, so she headed down the street.
Looking around for the next likely place, her gaze fell on a small storefront sandwiched between a defunct watch repair shop and a convenience store.  MYSTERY HOURS, the sign above the door read.  It was done in blue Art Deco tile, with a dusty, still-working brass clock set in the “O”.  There was a light on inside, and the window display of antiquarian books and dusty old knickknacks was so appealing that she had to have a look around.

A tiny bell heralded her entrance into something that definitely wasn’t just a bookstore.  In addition to shelves of old books in all languages, a glass case displayed wrought iron jewelry and trinkets accented with stones of different colors.  A corner cabinet held bottles of perfume with faded Art Nouveau labels.  Looking closer, Martha was able to make out strange names like “Dusk #2” (in an iridescent blue bottle) and “Halcyon” (in a delicate clear bottle with white swirls).

A noise from a far corner caught her attention.  Here an old-fashioned console TV was showing video of a modern woman staring directly into the camera.  She appeared to be speaking, shouting even, but static in the picture and audio garbled her words; it was almost as though she was speaking backwards.  The eerie faded image sent a chill up Martha’s spine and she turned away, only to be faced with what appeared to be a piece of parchment in a  frame, but the words on it kept changing.  First it said I WANT, which faded into some sort of Medieval French text, which faded entirely until the first words slowly appeared, this time in a different color.  She told herself it was a high-tech trick, but couldn’t shake the thought that something wasn’t quite natural.  Or the feeling that someone was…

She turned around quickly, to find a woman emerging from a curtained area in the back.  It was almost a relief to discover that someone really was watching her.

The woman wasn’t much older than Martha, about thirty, with shimmering waist-length red hair.  Her dress appeared to be handwoven, a simple long tunic in sage green, cinched with an iron-accented leather girdle and worn with beaten-up brown boots.  She smiled.  “May I help you?”

“I…” Words suddenly failed Martha, who wasn’t quite sure how to ask about the parchment and somehow didn’t think she wanted to know.

“Just browsing?”  The red-haired woman perched on a high stool next to the antique cash register.  “Happens a lot on Art Walk nights.”

“Is the Art Walk good for business?”  Martha turned back to the case of jewelry.  It looked like it hadn’t been opened in months.

The woman waved dismissively. “These young ones, with their mayfly memories and surface understanding.  They only see the next gallery and the next glass of cheap wine.”

“That’s too bad,” Martha said, with a sudden feeling that this woman, though she looked thirty, was immeasurably old.

“Not really,” the woman said as she wound her hair into a knot and pinned it with a magnificent metal comb.  Getting down off the stool, she joined Martha at the display case.  “Those who see what’s here and appreciate it for what it is, though rare, are always worth the wait.”  She gave Martha a searching look.  “See anything you like?”

Martha pointed.  “That one.”

“That one” was an iron ring with a green stone set in it.  “Protection,” the redhead said, with another searching look.  “Yes, I think that’s right.”  She took a key ring that hung from her girdle by a chain and unlocked the case.  Before placing the ring in Martha’s hand, she examined the stone carefully and rubbed off a bit of dust.

The green stone gleamed brilliantly, and looked dramatic against Martha’s dark skin. “It suits you,” the woman said.

Once it was on her finger, Martha knew she had to have it.  She reached into her purse for her wallet.  “I’ll take it.”

The redhead smiled.  “An excellent choice.”

While her purchase was rung up, Martha gathered the courage to ask — “That parchment with the changing words…”

The woman’s eyes twinkled.  “Just a trick for the easily impressed.”

Seeing that no further explanation was forthcoming, Martha paid, thanked the woman, and left with the ring on her finger.

It had grown much darker since she went into the shop, but not so dark that the drivers on the street could all be bothered to turn their headlights on. A taxi narrowly missed her as it blasted through the intersection she was crossing to reach the next gallery.

Once safely inside, Martha went to get a glass of wine.  The crowd of skinny-jeaned boys near the refreshment table had turned a bit rowdy… she had to dodge a couple of staggering “patrons of the arts” just to get within reach of the table.  As her hand closed around a plastic cup, one of the boys shoved another, who spilled his drink.  It should have landed on Martha’s white blouse, but somehow fell to earth right at her feet.  Another boy stumbled, and should have bumped her at least, but went careening wildly into the nearest wall.

A glint of green drew Martha’s attention to the ring on her finger.  “Protection,” she mused, thinking of the red-haired woman’s words.

Suddenly weary of the crowds and the mediocre art exhibits, Martha set her cup down and walked outside.  It would be dark by the time she got back to her car, and she needed to get home anyway.  As she walked back to the parking garage, another speeding taxi flew up the street, hitting a puddle. Not a drop fell on her.  “Protection.”  Martha smiled and looked back towards the little shop, but couldn’t make it out in the growing darkness.  If she didn’t know better, she’d have sworn it had disappeared. Shrugging, she adjusted her bag on her shoulder and continued on her way.

Woman Writer Wednesday: Jennifer Trela

Today’s return of Woman Writer Wednesday is to celebrate the debut of my friend Jennifer Trela’s novella, The Legion: A Million More To Go.  Here’s what she had to say about writing:

1. What/who inspired you to become a writer?

What finally pushed me into writing full-time was when I couldn’t write. Writing has just always been a part of who I am, so when I can’t do that, I feel like I’m only a portion of myself. My government job was slowly killing me, and I’m not really exaggerating here. I would get home after working a 14-hour day and couldn’t write. Not even a sentence. That was the most devastating part of it for me. Before Hell Job, I would always use my writing as a type of escapism because, most of the time, I liked my characters more than I liked the real people in my life. My parents always used to talk about how they’d watch me playing as a kid, and I’d be sitting in the middle of the room with no toys, just talking to myself. My imagination was my playground; I didn’t need outside stimulation, save for a nice piece of music or a pretty scene in front of me. That didn’t change as I got older. It’s not abnormal to find people staring at me because I’ve been having a conversation between three characters that weren’t me. Well, it’s not odd for me.

So you can just imagine what it was like having that integral aspect of yourself just cut off. It was unsettling, to say the least. Luckily, now, though, even as I’m working my way through the maze that is self-publishing, I rediscovered my voice and, oh, my God, I feel so much better.

2. What do you like most about the genre[s] you write in?

I’m a weird fiction sort of gal, which includes sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc., so I get to make up worlds and those worlds’ rules, which kind of plays to the control freak aspect of my personality. I geek out at it, almost to the point that Tolkien took Middle Earth. Sometimes, it’s easy to create your own world’s version of The Silmarillion, which every Tolkien fan claims to have read (and might have) but almost ultimately hate it more than they hate Twilight. However, it is a blast, if not a distraction from the actual story writing process.

But I think my favorite part of being a speculative fiction writer/reader is the fan base. I have yet to meet a more rabidly dedicated community of people that absolutely just loves to gobble up whatever book/comic/movie/etc. they can. They want to see stories they like succeed. I mean, how else would you explain the Star Wars prequels setting box office records upon initial release? They were terrible, TERRIBLE movies. Then people still gave the animated series a shot (it’s actually quite good), and now a whole new trilogy, brought to you by Disney, is already getting people excited. It’s bizarre and wonderful and I love it. Even if I hate George Lucas.

3. What’s the best piece of writing-related advice you’ve received?

The absolute best advice I was ever given was to take myself seriously as a writer. After I quit my soul-sucking job, I was having a hard time adjusting to the life of a self-employed person. I couldn’t get into a schedule and I was constantly telling people that I was flexible because I didn’t have a real job. Then a friend of mine, the lovely WT Prater, said, “You have a job. It’s writing. Stop hurting yourself with your own words.” And he was right. So I started treating it like I was at my job. I actually get dressed and don’t roam about in my pajamas. I put on minimal makeup, which is what I did at the past job. But the most important part was, I stopped trying to justify my decision to do this full-time. I was making a career move, and not just chasing after my dreams like a deluded idiot. It was incredibly freeing and I’ve had more personal successes in the past few months than I’ve had, well, ever.

4. Is there any type of writing you would like to try that you haven’t already?

One of these days, I want to write a horrible romance novel. Purposefully horrible, with all the tropes and cheesiness and hard nipples and what have you. And I’d make sure that everyone thought it was a FOR SERIOUS attempt at breaking into the genre, because I also love parody. Other than that, I’d love to try travel writing. It would give me an excuse to just go places. I did one absolutely horrendous travel article back in college (yay, journalism degree that I have not used at all), but I’d like to think that my skills have somewhat been honed and that I might not be too bad at it.

Oh, and comic book writing. And screenwriting. Well, basically, I’d like to do everything except sports writing and poetry. I’m the worst poet ever.

5. What factors went into your decision to self-publish, do your own cover art, etc.?

The most obvious reason is money. I just didn’t even have the funds to pay Lulu.com for their services, and they’re one of the cheaper of the reputable self-publishing sites I was able to find. It was fairly discouraging to see that the business of books seems to be pitted against self-publishers or small publishing houses. I mean, $125 for a single ISBN? Come on, guys. Luckily, though, there are other resources out there for someone in just my position. I may not necessarily like some of Amazon’s fees (for example, I can only get 35% of royalties if I charge under $2.99 and I’m like, “Amazon [side-eye with a head tilt]. Explain to me why you deserve 65% of my earnings when all you’re essentially doing is hosting.”), but at least they’re pretty much letting me publish what I want and how I want it. Give and take, I guess. I’ll probably eventually want to bring in some other people to work with me, but since the money issue is still a very big one, I will be doing all of the design, artwork, formatting, etc. for a while, which is okay with me. It’s probably a good thing that I enjoy doing all the little things and not just the art creation. Not good for my sleep patterns, though. Ha.

Then there’s the fact that I’m kind of a control freak when it comes to my art. I have a particular vision and I know exactly how I want something to turn out. Now, I’m flexible to a point; if someone’s idea is better than mine, I have no problem admitting it. It’s when someone comes in and tries to take and change what I’ve worked so hard on to suit their vision. And that’s where self-publishing is so freeing. I can think bigger and more crazily and be innovative and push the envelope. That, in turn, just puts me into that creative think-space that just encourages me more.

This isn’t to say that I won’t ever use a publisher. I just know that there are certain things on which I won’t compromise, and some of the horror stories I’ve heard from fellow authors involve the intrusion of editors into their work. But I’ve got a while before I get there, so for now, I’ll be poor and in control.

Book Birthday!!!

Well, that Thanksgiving blog hiatus turned out to be a bit longer than I’d planned.  But more on that soon.  Today I’m here to announce the publication of the Red Queen Press anthology Once & Now, which includes my short story “12 Princesses of Bel-Air”.

Once and Now

Gorgeous cover, isn’t it???

You can purchase Once & Now for Kindle on Amazon.com. and for the Kobo here.