Saturday, October 29, 2016

Savvy Saturday: The Muse's Revenge Part V

Last week we saw Jenna disappear and her friend Rachel was trapped. What was the muse's plan? Find out today!

Vibrant purple eyes looked into an old full-length mirror, propped against a wall in the back of the room. They watched the moonlight dance around the interior of the main cabin at the Ghostly Shadows Resort. The glass had colored with age, and the scrollwork on the frame must have been beautiful once, but time had tarnished the gold into a coppery brass. However, no speck of dust touched the mirror. Only the light of the moon illuminated the room, coated with the evidence of time. Shelves to the right of the mirror were laden with small boxes, most open except for three. There were no other signs of life in the cabin except for the old woman who stood only a few feet in front of her reflection.

Slowly, Banshee watched as her form morphed into that of a beautiful young woman. Her body, so translucent she could almost fade into nothing, grew solid. Curves took shape, and her sparse and white hair, turned into a beautiful golden mane cascading down her back.

She smiled, admiring the effect trapping two of the authors and their friend had on her body. If only she had managed to snag all four, there would have been enough creativity to last her and her sisters another hundred years. Long enough to snare some other poor authors and drain their creativity for her family.

“Oh well. These three should last us at least a few years. They really had spark,” Banshee said as she admired her new body. The last authors to fall in her trap had been, sadly, lacking in creativity. Their ideas were mere copies of other’s works, with enough tweaks to stay out of legal trouble. The sister who had chosen those three had been severely reprimanded.

These authors had been fresh, and full of creativity. Enough so that her family could all look as beautiful and young as they had at the height of their power.

“Calliope, have you finished admiring yourself? Our sisters are waiting for you.” A voice, rough and creaking with age, came from behind Calliope. A woman, her form bent by time, stepped forward. Her skin was as thin as rice paper and her white hair almost nonexistent there was so little of it left. Calliope turned, and the woman moved forward until they stood only a foot apart. They looked a picture of the differences between young and old, beautiful and horrific.

“Tired of looking like a hag, Melpomene?” Calliope smirked as she looked down at the ancient figure in front of her. This sister had always been just a little more impatient than the others, although they were probably growing anxious as well.

“I am not the one who failed to gain the creativity of all three authors. Our sisters are not pleased.” Melpomene’s face morphed into a petulant pout, amusing Calliope at how out of place it looked on her wrinkled face.

“You’re just angry because you chose these three authors, and one of them proved too clever for your trap. I can only hope Terpsichore can select easier prey for the next time.” Calliope’s beautiful face turned into a mask of evil, as a sneer of anticipation twisted her mouth.

She thought back to how they had gotten here; the nine muses sucking the creativity of authors in order to survive. Once, they had been powerful women, with thousands of worshippers giving them offerings. They had relished in the creative spirit. Never thinking that, one day, the creativity they enjoyed would dry up. The sisters hadn’t thought about where their power had come from until, slowly, people stopped calling on them for creativity, and their bodies had started to wither. Each woman slowly grew older until they had all but disappeared from the world with the other lesser gods. The poets and the writers who still called on their ‘muse’ for help had saved them, and the sisters realized that they were being kept alive by these authors’ creativity.

Calliope watched her sisters wither for years, and their pain drove her to take desperate measures. Being their leader, she felt the pressure to save her sisters from what looked like certain doom. So she came up with a plan. She trapped three authors in a dimension of her own making, and stole their creativity. She divided their power amongst the nine muses, and they were able to gain a taste of what had been denied to them for centuries. But that power was never meant to last. They were able to make the creativity last for about fifty years before it wore off, and they became the hags time had turned them into once again.

The sisters scrambled to find another three authors who might fall into their trap, and were successful in taking their creativity for their own. With each author they trapped in Calliope’s dimension, they learned. Their minds also grew darker, and more twisted every time they stole power not rightfully theirs. They lost sight of their original purpose as goddesses, and became creatures of darkness: hungry for power and beauty above all else.

“Let us return sister, I grow weary of waiting for you to share what creativity you have gathered,” Melpomene said as she stepped around the younger woman to press a button hidden in the elegant swirls on the frame of the old mirror. The glass warped into a silvery liquid inside the frame. Melpomene walked into the mirror without hesitation.

Calliope turned and went to the wall of shelves to her right. She picked up a small ornately carved box and studied the letters etched on the lid. J.S. Marlo.

“Well Miss Marlo, I think my sisters will be very happy to see you and your friends.” Calliope grabbed the other closed boxes and stepped through the portal.

We would like to thank you all for reading, and we hope you enjoyed "The Muse's Revenge" on the Champagne Book Group Blog.

This week's piece was written by Kylee Howells.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Savvy Saturday: The Muse's Revenge Part IV

Last week we lost J.S. Marlo in the graveyard. This week, will Jenna Greene and her friend make their way to safety like Rita, or will they be trapped forever by the muse's evil plot?

“That’s a lot of trees,” Jenna remarked as she rotated in a full circle twice. Surrounding her was bark and leaves of various textures and designs. Craning her head back, she couldn’t see the tops of any of them.

Rachel poked her in the arm. Hard. “That’s what has you marveling? A second ago we were in a cabin, laying on somewhat lumpy beds with crickets soothing us to sleep, and now we’re…here.” She flung her arms wide as she sidestepped her way out of a bush. “And you remark on the trees?”

“Well they’re pretty and there’s a lot of—” She caught Rachel’s glare. “Er, nevermind.”

Exhaling in an exaggerated fashion, Rachel thrust both hands into the pockets of her cargo pants and glanced from left to right. “Where are we?” 

Resisting the urge to say, “A forest,” Jenna pinched her lips together and shrugged.

“Let’s get a better look around,” Rachel suggested, pressing a thin branch out of her way so she could move past.

The forest wasn’t easy to maneuver through. Not only were the trees thick, they often twisted like a helix. Their roots bulged from the soil, these hazards disguised by the dense underbrush that consisted of ferns, weeds, bushes, and plants. Within seven steps, Jenna was on the ground, having tripped over an unseen obstacle. Rachel helped her to her feet, and politely swatted away dirt and leaves. 

Wrinkling her nose, Jenna twisted her upper body to better see the stains that marred the rear of her pants. “All the time.”

“You have enough problems on solid ground.” Rachel’s words held a hint of laugher. “Be careful.”

“Gotcha.” Jenna saluted, took two steps, and then promptly stumbled again. “Dammit!”

They wandered through the forest, guessing at a proper direction and finding no distinguishing marks to help them navigate. Likely, they were traveling in circles, as one massive, gnarled tree appeared the same as another. Though it wasn’t raining, drips from a previous storm slid off of overhangs, landing on both girls’ heads, flattening their hair, chilling their skin, and dampening their dispositions.


Wincing as a twig snapped into her face, Rachel asked, “What’s weird?”

“This place feels familiar.”

“You grew up on the west coast of Canada. You were raised with rivers, mountains, and trees. Of course a forest feels familiar.”

Jenna didn’t respond for a moment. “True. But also, no. I feel…something else.”

“Don’t analyze,” Rachel warned, bending to snatch a burr off her pant leg. “Just help me search for a way out of here.” She brushed aside a fern that was nearly as tall as she was, then halted. “Whoa.” 

Barely managing to keep from plowing into Rachel, Jenna stopped as well, rising on her toes to see what her friend was viewing. When she spied a bare patch of land, devoid of trees, bushes, weeds, or even grass, she echoed her friend’s sentiment. “Whoa.”

A scientific spark rising in her, Rachel marched into the space. Gazing darting to-and-fro, she noted that all the trees around the area rose in completely straight lines, none bent or spiraled as those in the rest of the forest. 

“Strange,” she murmured, bending to press her palm against the ground. She wiggled her fingers into the dirt. No seedlings were near the surface. She supposed the clearing could be man-made, but there was no evidence to support that conclusion. There were no signs of human tilling—lines or ruptures in the soil. No stones had been placed to form a border, keeping wayward weeds from encroaching on the territory. Surely in a forest this dense, crowded foliage would want to migrate to an open zone. Yet the grass and other plants bordering the clearing leaned away from the area.

Slowly, she straightened. “Jenna, have you ever seen something like this before? Right in the middle of the forest, a perfect circle of nothingness.” She glanced up, only mildly surprised by what she saw. “Not a bird or a cloud above, even. It’s like this place is its own special universe. What kind of geographical phenomen—” 

“Oh god.” At the edge of the clearing, Jenna sank to her knees, forehead falling into her hands. “Not good.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.” Moving to Jenna’s side, she tugged her friend to a standing position. “It’s abnormal, sure, but nothing to lose your lunch over.”

Jenna wavered, swaying heavily to the left, forcing Rachel to tighten her grip. “What’s the matter with you?” 

Releasing a low moan, Jenna said, “I know why this forest feels familiar.”

“You’ve been here before?” Rachel shrugged. “I guess something like this would be pretty distinct. I can see you recognizing-”

Straightening abruptly, Jenna swiveled into her friend’s embrace, clutching Rachel’s shoulders with both hands. “I don’t just recognize this place. I remember it.

“I don’t see a dif—”

“I created it!” Jenna yelped, smacking a hand over her mouth as soon as the words left her throat, as if holding them back would prevent them from being true.

Eyebrows rising, Rachel repeated, “You created it?”

Hands still clamped over her lips, Jenna nodded. 

Rachel sighed. “No.”

Her hands fell to the side. Tone icy, she hissed, “Yes.”

Rachel opened her mouth, closed it, and slowly formed words. “What do you mean?”

“I’m a writer.”

“And I’m an archaeologist. What’s your point?”

“I create stories. Novels. Fantasy genre, mostly.”

Rachel clicked her tongue. “Not following you here.”

“Sometimes I have to put characters into sticky situations. You know, make the setting a challenge, not just other characters. It helps with the suspense.”

Feigning patience, Rachel waited for more information.

“In my novel, Imagine, a few characters travel through the Great Forest,” Jenna stated.

Eyebrows twitching upward again, Rachel asked, “And you think this forest resembles the one you wrote about in one of your books?”

“Not resemble. Is.”

Rachel snorted. “That’s impossible.”

A look of determination on her face, Jenna entered the clearing for the first time. Reaching the center, she spread her arms at waist height and spun in a full circle. “I know this exact space. I created it. Named it. It’s called the Nellino Clearing.”

“But I’m sure lots of forests…” 

“Have a perfectly circular spot of bare space, lacking even a stray blade of grass or a bird soaring overhead?” Jenna’s tone dripped with sarcasm. 

Forehead creased significantly, Rachel came to Jenna’s side. “Okay. Perhaps this is the same place you describe in your novel. I guess being transported to a book setting is no more fantastical than being in our lodgings one moment and somewhere else the next.” She flicked a gaze at the sun. “And it was evening last time I checked. Now it’s full daylight.” She shivered, the cool wave starting at her toes and making its way to the top of her head. Glancing over, she noticed Jenna’s freckles stood in stark contrast to the paleness of her face. Sensing there was something more to the story, she prompted, “What is it?” 

“Well, I don’t know if we’re exactly in my novel. Or just in a setting. But…”

“But?” A trickle of dread worked its way up Rachel’s spine.

“I’m just worried about what creatures are about to show up.”

Rachel blinked twice, then let her instincts take over. Latching onto Jenna’s arm, she bolted, dragging them both away from the Nellino Clearing. Crashing through underbrush, she sidestepped a prickly-looking bush before whipping around and wide tree and bracing herself against crumbling bark, yanking Jenna into position beside her. 

Panting, Jenna pressed a fist against her trembling lips. “I heard something.”

Goody, Rachel thought. Then she detected movement somewhere behind them in the forest. A thump, followed by a loud snort, reached her ears as well.

Growing paler by the second, Jenna lifted her other fist and joined it with the first.

Rachel offered a hopeful smile. “You write young adult literature, right? How bad could these creatures be?”

The expression on Jenna’s face should have warned Rachel from looking, but she did so anyway. Rotating on the spot, she pushed her belly flat against the tree and leaned to the left ever so slightly. 

A beat later, she was facing her friend again, white-hot rage flooding her system. “You write young adult literature!” Though her volume was low, it was heated “What’s the matter with you?”

Peeling her fists away from her mouth, Jenna lifted one shoulder and said, “Remember what I said about suspense?”

“You need professional help!” Rachel hissed. 

One glimpse at the strange creature—no, creatures—beginning to occupy the clearing was enough for Rachel. She doubted any future therapy would erase the details that were now imprinted in her brain. Massive wasn’t a sufficient word to describe them. Neither was gargantuan. Their leathery skin, paired with their size, brought to mind a comparison to dinosaurs. Not only were they muscular, their arms were abnormally wide. Humps on their upper back caused their shoulders to appear malformed, and added to their characterization as monsters from nightmares.

“What did you see?” Jenna asked.

“Something horrid.”

“Yes, but…” Jenna positioned herself so that she could peek around the tree. After a quick glance, she smiled. “We’re okay.”

“How so? Those things have arms like clubs. I’m pretty sure I saw fangs and claws.”

“But listen.” Jenna rotated so her left ear was positioned toward the clearing. “Do you hear that grunting sound?”

“I hear heavy breathing,” Rachel responded. “And, like, a sniffing sound.”

She nodded with enthusiasm. “These creatures are the larger of the two I created for this book, but they are easier to evade.”

“Clumsy?” Rachel guessed.

“Not really. They can’t see well, though. They rely on their sense of smell to catch prey. If they haven’t noticed us yet, I doubt they will. We’re out of their range.” She gave a mini-cheer, arms held at shoulder-level. “We’ve caught a break here. As long as we don’t hear—”

Just then, a high-pitched shriek echoed through the clearing. In unison, both girls winced.

Shaking her head in hopes that she could reject the truth, Rachel said, “Tell me what I’m thinking is wrong.”

Smile vanishing, Jenna took Rachel’s hand in a firm grip. “Don’t think. Run!”

They were far from quiet as they bolted through the forest, dodging trees, sidestepping bushes, and stumbling over roots. Branches snapped in their faces. Twigs, thorns, and burrs scraped their bare skin and tore holes in their clothing. They scrabbled over fallen logs, stumps, and seedlings. When they stumbled – Jenna far more frequently than Rachel—they wrenched each other back to flight, barely slowing. 

High-octave squeals trailed them as they sprinted. Jenna whimpered every time she heard one. Rachel’s mind worked over-time, keeping pace with her feet. If what I saw already was the lesser of two evils…Lord help us!

A crash to their left occurred a split-second before a dark form landed in front of them. The girls screamed, skidding to a halt. Jenna flung her arms up above her head in defense while Rachel froze, wide-eyed.

The creature hissed, hopped once, then squealed. Golden orbs filled wide eye sockets. Teeth that dripped with saliva protruded from an elongated snout. Like the other creature, it had leathery skin that was tinged with green and orange flecks. 

“What the—” Rachel breathed.

“Watch out!” Jenna hollered. “It moves quickly!”

As if in response to her cry, the creature lunged. Jaw snapping, bright-green tongue visible, it raised one leg and sent Rachel flying. She soared through the air until her spine struck a tree limb. Her body crumbled to the forest floor like a heavy rock launched into a puddle. Vision coated in black, she patted the ground to orient herself. Blinking, she gained her sight back, minus her peripheral vision, in time to see her best friend get kicked across the ground, flattening a patch of flowers as she rolled across them.

The creature turned back to its first target, batting Rachel to the ground as soon as she managed to stand. Then it sunk dipped its head and sunk its teeth into her ankle. Screaming in anguish, she jerked her free leg, aiming for the beast’s face, and struck something firm. When her ankle was released, she army-crawled behind a decaying tree that was leaning precariously to one side. A glance at her foot revealed shredded clothing and slices in her skin, highlighted by streaks of blood. Feeling woozy, she propped her upper body on a limb and searched hopefully for her friend. 

“Hjaw!” Jenna flung herself onto the creature’s back, landing lopsided, barely managing to wrap one arm around its neck. A quick twist of the upper body allowed the creature to propel her from her feeble perch. She bounced twice as she landed, coming to a halt with her knees in the air and her right hand jammed under her butt. As she began to untangle herself, she moaned.

“Watch out!” Rachel ducked under the arch of the deadened tree and grabbed hold of Jenna’s shirt. The fabric tore as she tugged, but enough of it held tight. With a few grunts she managed to retrieve Jenna, dragging her to temporary safety.

“What were you thinking, leaping on its back like a ninja?” Rachel chastised, anger at her friend fueled by the fire pulsing from her ankle. 

“Trying—I was trying…” Jenna panted. “Trying to get to its wings.”

Glancing at the creature, whose gaze suggested it was assessing the best way to get at its prey, then back at her friend, she asked, “What wings?”

“They’re—” Jenna still hadn’t recovered her breath. “On its back. Concealed.” She swallowed, and braced her body on her elbows to partially sit up. “But they’re thin and vulnerable.”

“So if we can slice a hole in the wings?”

“It’ll retreat,” Jenna finished. “That’s what happens in the book.”

“Okay. Good.” Rachel thought for a second. “How do we get it to reveal its wings?”

“I—I don’t know.”

“Yes you do!” When Jenna started to shake her head, Rachel added, “Do you remember how this all started? You got a letter from your muse. That’s who sent us here. Obviously, this is a test of some kind. About you. About your writing. Now, you created this—this thing, strengths and weaknesses and all, not me, so you have to figure this out!”

For a moment, Jenna pinched her eyes shut. When they popped open, she blurted, “Aggressive! We have to show aggression.”

“M’on it!” Rachel wriggled free of their protective nest, reaching for the first thing she came into contact with. At first the branch wouldn’t come loose, but a sharp tug gave her control of it. 

“Ywah!” Waving her free arm over her head, and jabbed the branch at the creature. She snarled and took another step forward. Unfortunately, her injured ankle couldn’t withstand the pressure. She teetered to one side, losing any hope she had of assuming a threatening demeanor. The creature squealed and bounced her way. 

A rock sailed above Rachel’s head, landing nowhere near the creature. Jenna’s second missile, however, smacked it in the head. Snarling, it ducked and skittered back a step. Given time to recover, Rachel stood on one foot and brandished her branch again, swiping it to and fro.

“We might be able to intimidate it into fleeing this way—aah!” Rachel nearly jumped out of her skin as thin, translucent wings sprung from the creature’s sides. In almost the same instant, its teeth sank into her branch, tearing it from her hands. Weaponless, she pivoted. The turn was too fast and her knees collapsed under her. As she struck the ground, she bit her tongue and tasted both blood and dirt.   

“Watch out!” 

The warning from Jenna was unnecessary. Already Rachel was slithering to safety. Batting aside prickly weeds, she burrowed into a collection of bushes, ignoring the thorns that jabbed into her skin, knowing the threat behind her would cause far worse injury—or even death.

When she felt she was safe, Rachel rolled onto her back and sat up. Then gasped. Though the creature was facing away from her, she was far from relieved, for it was heading toward Jenna, a fiendish glee filling its gaze as it licked its inhuman lips.

Though she could clearly see the creature stalking her direction, Jenna didn’t flee.

“Jenna, run! Go!”

Squinting, Rachel tried to get a better look at her friend. What is she doing? Though her feet were glued in place, Jenna’s hands were busy, tugging at her clothing and patting her pants pockets. The creature was less than three feet away from her when she bent over to fiddle with her shoes.

“Move!” Rachel scrambled to her feet. Once again, her ankle refused to support her weight and she crashed sideways into a tree. A branch poked through her shirt, puncturing her belly. Fresh blood flowed from the wound.

As the creature snapped its teeth and sprayed saliva on her face, Jenna pulled a shiny object from her sock—the golden key they’d been given to unlock their cabin. Holding it in her fist, she raised her arm, imitating someone bearing a honed dagger.

“Jenn—” The world tilted upside down. Blinking, Rachel braced her hands against sap and bark. Resting her head on her bent forearm, she glanced back at her friend.

The creature snapped its wings closed then allowed them to spring back open. It scraped the dirt with one set of talons, then shifted its weight so it could repeat the action with the opposite leg. Beside Jenna’s face, it bit the air. Though she flinched, Jenna held her ground. And then thrust the key into the creature’s paper-thin wings as soon as it tried to clamp its jaw around her throat.

The beast reared back, jerking Jenna forward. The shaft of the key ripped a jagged line down the wing before she lost her grip and the golden item went flying. Screeching, the creature knocked her to the ground with its head, following the action with a kick to her belly. Rolling into a ball, she winced as dirt and leaves sprang at her face, stray particles stinging her eyes.

Then there was silence.

Half-crawling, half-sliding, one hand pressed against her mid-section, Rachel reached Jenna’s side. “You’re okay.” She patted Jenna’s shoulder with her free hand. “We’re okay. It’s gone, just as you predicted.”

Unfurling, Jenna eased open her eyelids. “You’re bleeding!” 

“’Tis but a scratch.”

A half-smile curled one side of Jenna’s lips. “If you’re quoting Shakespeare, I know you’re not dying.”

“Nope. Not unless I copy one of Kit Marlowe’s refrains.” Rachel sighed and shifted into a more comfortable position. “Though I’m not on death’s door, though, I would like some medical attention. I assume, though, there are no hospitals in your novel?”

Hot and cold flashes rushing up her body, Jenna shivered as what was left of her bravado fled her system. Her neck had a Jello-esque quality and her fingertips were numb. “There are healers. Just none around here.” 

Cringing as she leaned back, Rachel asked, “So what do we do now? How do we exit this world you’ve created?”

Jenna’s response came at once. “Where’s that key?”

“Um…” Rachel gazed around, then pointed to the left. “Over there, I think. Somewhere. Why?”

On her feet and already searching, fighting a strong sensation of vertigo, Jenna said, “Because I think it’s the key to all this. Aha!” Finding the key buried in a pile of twigs, she held it aloft. 

As soon as she did so, a snapping noise reverberated through the trees. As tremendous light burst forth, Rachel swung her arm up to shield her eyes. Heat stung her face, causing her eyes to water. 

Peering between her fingertips, she faced a horrid sight. The source of light and heat was an arc of fire that raced up her best friend’s body. Jenna was a mere outline, a dark shape within a pillar of flame. 

“No!” Rachel screamed.

With another sharp snap, the fire dissipated; smoke trailing into the air as it followed the retreating flames. 

Rachel blinked. What had just happened?

She shivered, a sense of foreboding washing over her. The fire had either consumed or transported Jenna. Either could be possible, for logic had long-since fled. Not sure whether to grieve, she struggled to her feet, one hand sill pressed against her abdomen. Blood trailed between her fingers. 

A quick glance around revealed no sign of the golden key. Not that she would risk touching it anyway. But she had no other clue for how to get back to reality. She was lost. Alone. Injured. And she had no insight into this fantastical world she occupied. 

Would she live to see another day? Fearing that another creature might lunge from the foliage at any moment, she took one stumbling step, then another. Feeling small, she realized she knew no one in this place. Unlike any other moment in her life, she was alone and vulnerable. Her life had changed forever in just one night.

Two authors and one friend have been caught by the muse. Stay tuned to find out what she plans to do with them next week!

This week's piece was written by Jenna Greene.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Savvy Saturday: The Muse's Revenge Part III

The Muse's Revenge Part III

Last week we left Rita safe at home in her bed. Now it's J.S. Marlo's turn. Will she too escape the evil muse's trap? Or not?

Marlo turned left on the gravel path and followed it as it twisted and turned in the dark. There were no bars on her cell phone, but she still used it as a flashlight. She walked by cabin nine then cabin twenty. From there, she veered into an entrance that ended in front of tiny cabin two.
It appeared whoever affixed those numbers to the doors had picked them at random from a bag. She wondered if the others had as much trouble finding their cabins.
In the night, something growled and leaves ruffled.
“This is getting ridiculous—and spooky.”
If venturing alone in the dark was part of the workshop, it’d achieved the desire effect. Creepy critters, real or imaginary, crawled up and down her spine, chasing her fatigue. At this rate she wouldn’t sleep for weeks.
She continued on a grassy path sneaking around cabin sixteen. No lights illuminated the interior. It was either unoccupied or the guests were asleep—unless there was no electricity.
“That would be just great if I can’t recharge my phone.”
The gate of the cemetery crossed the grassy path. It was unlocked. Farther ahead, a white glow caught her eyes. She pushed the gate and advanced solemnly between the graves. On her right, petrified wood formed rustic crosses. She approached the closest one. The crude engraving still visible on the horizontal plank astonished her.
Hadrian Drake 12 4/8 17 – 12 25/11 62
It took her a few seconds to decipher it.
Hadrian Drake, born on August 4, 1217, died on November 25, 1262.
The man had been forty-five when he drew his last breath. It was too bad the inscription didn’t list a cause of death. History fascinated Marlo, and she was curious to know how he died—and how he lived.
The comforting odor of a campfire teased her nostrils.
She continued toward the glow. As she drew nearer, it took the shape of a fluorescent tombstone.
“How strange. And beautiful.”
The inscription shone a brighter shade of white and the lamb on top of the stone seemed to curl into a tighter ball.
Aaron Clark (3 May 2011 - 10 Nov 2015)
“Four years old? Poor little guy.”
A light suddenly flooded the cemetery. It came from a lantern attached to the front of a cabin edging the graveyard. Two big bronzed numbers, two and nine, were nailed to the door.
“Cabin twenty-nine? Really?”
The skeleton key rattled in the hole, and after some jiggling, it unlocked the door. Marlo entered the cabin. Flames sizzled inside the fireplace built in the corner of a cozy room. She closed the door, and as she locked it, she noticed a light switch near the handle. The flick of a wrist later, a lone bulb shone over the bed pushed against the windowless wall.
A rectangle box wrapped with a red ribbon rested on two pillows. Banshee had mentioned chocolates. Hoping it wasn’t a lie, Marlo unwrapped the box, lifted the lid, and removed the foiled paper.
The rich aroma tantalized her senses.
Eight chocolates beckoned her to sink her teeth into their dark exterior. Four were decorated with swirls on top while the other fours were carved with a letter. A-E-S-V.
As she tasted a swirly one, an orange cream center, she mentally scrambled the letters to form words. She came up with two possible combination: vase and save.
The orange swirlies were her favorite, but she still devoured lemon cream A, buttercream E, raspberry cream S, and chocolate cream V. Though she’d eaten enough for tonight, she removed the second foiled paper to reveal a second layer. Three chocolates had swirlies while the other fives were carved with more letters. A-A-N-O-R
“Let’s see...”
She moved the chocolate letters in the box.
“R-O-N-A? A Rona?” Back home, Rona was the name of a hardware store. “O-A-R? An oar?” Though it was a possibility, she felt she was missing the boat.
“Those two As are...” A name fleeted across her mind. “Aaron?” Then the two layers formed a sentence. “Save Aaron?”
The only Aaron she’d ever heard of was the young boy buried near the cabin, and he appeared beyond saving.
Marlo didn’t know when or where they were supposed to meet in the morning for that workshop, but before joining them, she would have another look at that fluorescent tombstone.
~ * ~
Birds awoke Marlo at dawn. To appease her growling stomach, she emptied the last layer of chocolates. Hopefully a more substantial breakfast waited for them somewhere.
After a quick shower under lukewarm water, she donned a polar jacket, grabbed her purse and left her cabin.
A thin layer of frost simmered over the cemetery while a chilly mist clouded the blue sky. She approached Aaron’s grave. The carved letters added a touch of finality to the stone. He’d died on November 10, 2015.
“Almost a year ago.”
She’d found no other clues in the chocolate box. The circumstances surrounding his death remained a mystery. Baffled by the message, she caressed the little lamb protecting the young boy’s final sleep. Warm to the touch, the stone generated tiny electric shocks that sizzled through her skin.
A bright orange spark lit up the eyes of the lamb. Marlo’s gasp of surprise was lost in the thunderous blasts of energy gushing through her body and short-circuiting her mind.
At last, oblivion embraced her.
~ * ~
The wind battering her face roused her senses. Wincing, Marlo cracked an eye open.
Different shades of white assailed her vision. She made a fist and trapped something cold and wet. As she propped herself on her knees, she unclasped her hand. The slushy snow chilling her palm fell to the frozen ground.
“What on earth happened?”
She took in her surrounding.
Flurries swirled in the air at the mercy of the wind and a layer of snow covered the cemetery. White carnations tied with a white ribbon rested near the divot her head had created in the snow.
Puzzled by the sudden change of weather and the apparition of the flowers, she gazed up toward the lamb and gasped in shock. The lamb had disappeared, replaced by a gargoyle with outstretched wings.
She jumped to her feet, and as she stepped away from the grotesque statue, she crushed the flowers.
“Darn.” Distressed over her carelessness, she picked up the pathetic little bouquet. A card was attached to the ribbon with a paperclip.
We miss you
Martha & Aaron
“Aaron?” Wasn’t Aaron the dead boy? Confused, she reread the inscription.
George Aaron Clark
Beloved Husband & Father
(7 December 1973 - 8 November 2012)
“What’s going on here?”
Aaron’s grave had been replaced by George’s. The man had died in his late thirties. The greeting card suggested George was a close relative of Martha and Aaron.
“Probably Martha’s husband and Aaron’s father.”
The flowers looked fresh.
“The boy’s name wouldn’t be on the card if he were dead.”
She flipped the card and was stunned by the stamp at the back.
“Beautiful Bouquet on Ellice Avenue in Winnipeg, Manitoba?”
Though she hadn’t set foot in Winnipeg in a decade, she hadn’t forgotten about the flower shop where she’d picked up the bouquets for her brother’s wedding. He’d married a local girl before moving east. Marlo had never lived in Winnipeg—almost being posted there didn’t count—but she’d enjoyed its hospitality many times over the years to attend her daughters’ swim meets, her son’s hockey games, and to visit the zoo with her granddaughter.
Relieved not to have lost her purse, she checked its content. Her wallet and her phone, along with its charger, were inside. Money and credit cards inflated the former, but the battery of the latter was dead.
“I need to hail a cab.” And stop somewhere to eat before I visit that flower shop.
~ * ~
Amazingly, her credit card wasn’t declined when Marlo paid for breakfast at Tim Hortons.
She wondered if the workshop had been a figment of her imagination or if this escapade in Winnipeg was a weird dream in which she was trapped. Either way, she felt compelled to investigate Aaron’s mystery.
The flower shop in which a teenage girl watered plants near a window hadn’t changed. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
“No rush, sweetheart.”
A lovely smile spread across the girl’s face. She set a green watering can on the floor before approaching the counter. “What can I do for you?”
“When I visited the cemetery this morning, I stumbled on two teenagers playing catch with a bouquet of white carnations they’d snatched from a grave.”
The girl grimaced in disgust. “That’s awful.”
“Yes.” The advantage of being a writer was that she could spin a believable tale at the drop of a hat. “I chased them, but they escaped through the gate before I gave them a piece of my mind. Anyway, in their haste, they dropped the bouquet. This card was attached to it.”
Marlo presented the card she’d removed from the bouquet and handed it to the young lady who flipped it between her fingers.
“This is ours.”
“Which is why I’m here. I’d like to buy an identical bouquet and return it to its rightful departed owner, except I’m not sure from which grave the teenagers stole it. Would you by any chance remember those people, Martha and Aaron?”
Fine lines creased the girl’s forehead. “White carnations you said?”
“Yes. There were maybe a dozen. They were tied together with a large white ribbon. They didn’t look more than a day or two old.”
“Let me see...” Her fingers danced on a small keyboard attached to an iPad.
Propped on an elbow, Marlo leaned against the counter to get a better view of the screen.
“I have a Martha Roswell. She ordered ten white carnations by phone on the 7th and paid to have them delivered directly to the cemetery.”
While the girl provided her with the details, Marlo’s attention focused on the name and address at the top of the screen. Martha Clark Roswell. The last name puzzled her, though she supposed it was possible the woman was George’s sister and not his wife. Regardless, she committed the address to memory.
“Phil, our delivery guy, dropped them off yesterday on George Aaron Clark’s grave.”
Marlo had requested a receipt from Tim Hortons for the express purpose of looking at the date. Today was November 9th, 2015.
Yesterday had been the third anniversary of George’s death, and tomorrow signaled Aaron’s last day.
“If you’d be kind enough to arrange for a new bouquet to be delivered as soon as possible, I’ll pay for it and nobody needs to know about the incident.”
The girl scrutinized her with a peculiar expression. “Are you sure? I mean that’s very kind, but it wasn’t your fault the grave was vandalized. You shouldn’t be paying for it.”
Marlo presented her credit card. Paying was the least she could do after accidentally ruining the bouquet. “This is the right thing to do.”
~ * ~
The fifteen-minute cab ride cost more than the flowers.
Marlo landed in a residential area as a school bell rang. Kids hurried across the street to a red brick building two blocks down. Brakes squealed and horns resounded, but no vehicles collided with little bodies.
She walked on the sidewalk looking for house number twenty-nine. The coincidence unsettled her, but unlike the cabin, the houses stood in numerical order.
The elderly cabbie had stopped in front of house one-hundred-twenty-nine instead of twenty-nine. She chalked up his error on her accent, on some hearing impairment, or a combination of both.
In front of house thirty-one, a middle-aged woman covered her bushes with burlap. Marlo approached her.
“Your bushes will be all toasty for winter.”
The woman granted her a cordial smile. “That’s the idea. May I help you?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, I’m not selling anything.”
The statement elicited soft chuckles from the woman. “That’s good because I’m not buying.”
“My name is Jane Smith. I’m...I was George Clark’s older sister. Foster sister,” Marlo quickly added in case their ethnicity differed. “We lost touch over the years, but I recently learned he passed away. Someone gave me the address next door, but I’m a bit nervous about knocking after so long.” She fidgeted with her purse. “Is there anything useful you could tell me about his family before I meet them?”
“Useful? Yeah, run away.” As the woman straightened up to her full height, her gaze darted right, left and center. “Your brother and Martha made such a lovely couple, but then he died and she married that thug, Roswell. I used to see her every day, smiling and happy. Now, I’m lucky to glimpse at her, and when I do, she sports new bruises or broken bones and she cast her eyes.”
“He’s beating her?” Imitating the neighbor, Marlo whispered. “What about Aaron?”
The sadden expression settling over the woman’s face didn’t bode well. “Poor kid has it worse than his mom.”
Appalled by the situation, Marlo fought the urge to barge into the house and haul mother and son out. “No one phoned the police?”
The neighbor wrapped her arms around her tiny chest.
“It’s not that simple. Roswell has connections with the crowd that ties concrete blocks to people’s ankles. One day, Annette talked to Martha to convince her to leave. She used to live at the end of the street.” She pointed at an empty corner lot. “The next day, her house burned down. Lucky for her, she didn’t end up at the bottom of a lake, but trust me, we all got the message.”
As long as terror ruled the woman’s decisions, arguing with her was pointless. “I understand.”
Determined to help, Marlo walked down the street toward the school. Thinking the neighbor would have refused to let her borrow her phone for fear of reprisal, she didn’t bother asking. Instead she counted on the school secretary’s sense of duty, but when she noticed the electrical outlets in front of the parking stalls, she plugged her phone instead.
The icon of a battery flashed on her screen. She waited a few more seconds then she dialed.
“Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”
~ * ~
Alone in the park facing home twenty-nine, Marlo swept the snow from a bench and sat. Her new jeans protected her buttocks from the cold, but she wished she’d packed a winter jacket and a pair of gloves.
A truck was parked in Roswell’s driveway and from time to time, she spotted shadows moving behind the draped windows.
She’d called Emergency Services an hour ago. By now, she’d expected a response, but so far, nothing. As she toyed with the idea of calling again, a police cruiser followed by a blue sedan drove up the street. The car stopped in front of Roswell’s house while the cruiser parked behind the truck, blocking any escape route.
A tall woman with long black hair exited the car. She met two police officers in the driveway. One officer accompanied her to the door while the other stayed by the truck.
The door opened and a bare-chested man stepped on the porch. From the gestures he made, he wasn’t happy at the visitors.
A scuffle suddenly erupted between the man and the officer. The second officer intervened and they subdued the man while the tall woman entered the house. A few minutes later, she returned with a young child in her arms while fending a distraught woman clawing at her sleeve.
Death threats spewed out of the man’s mouth and sobs racked the woman’s body as the tall woman departed with the child. When the officers gave the man a ride in the cruiser, Marlo scuttled across the street to talk to the woman.
“Go away!”
Her bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils, and erratic behavior spoke as adequately as the bruises, scratches, and cigarette burns on her exposed skin.
~ * ~
Marlo spent the afternoon seeking help for Martha only to be given the same answer wherever she knocked. We can’t help unless she wants to be helped.
Before attempting to return home, she needed to make one last stop.
Children’s Services was located in a brand new professional building in the industrial district. Marlo paid the cabbie as the sun set over the city.
The crowd she encountered in the lobby was leaving for the day, but someone spared a moment to point her in the right direction. In the belly of the second floor, Marlo knocked on an open door.
The black-haired woman who took custody of Aaron sat behind a desk covered with paper and folders. The nameplate identified her as Claire Huxley.
Warm chocolate eyes gazed at Marlo. “Come in.”
“I’m sure you’re eager to go home so I’ll be quick. I—”
“Please, take your time.” Claire indicated a chair. “I already called my husband to let him know I’d be late. So? What can I do for you?”
Feeling at ease, Marlo introduced herself before leaning her purse against the leg of the chair in which she sat.
“I’m the woman who reported the abuse of Aaron Clark, the boy you rescued this morning. You’re probably not allowed to tell me anything, but I’d very much like to know he’ll be okay.”
A kindhearted smile floated on Claire’s lips as she nodded slightly. “Unfortunately, I can’t discuss my caseload. That being said, once I’m home tonight, I’ll share a nice glass of wine with my husband. It’s a ritual after a rewarding day.”
Understanding befell upon Marlo. “I hope you won’t get home too late.”
~ * ~
The weight lifted from her shoulders, Marlo breezed through the deserted lobby and exited into the night. Aaron was safe. She’d fulfilled her mission.
“I deserve more chocolates.”
Big snowflakes twirled in the light of the lampposts surrounding the parking lot. Only one car remained, its color concealed by the snow. As she reached for her phone to call a cab, she froze.
“My purse?”
A wave of panic washed over her until she remembered where she’d left it. Against the chair in Claire’s office. She backtracked and pounded on the locked front door. When no one answered, she looked up. Light illuminated Claire’s office.
“I guess I’ll have to wait.”
To keep warm, Marlo walked briskly around the parking lot, then she ventured in the park adjacent to the building while keeping an eye on the window.
After what felt like an eternity, darkness engulfed the office. She hurried toward the building.
“Claire Huxley?”
Startled, Marlo slowed her pace. Claire paused in the parking lot where a hooded figure stood near the car.
“Marlo? Is that you?” Claire raised her arm. “I have your purse.”
A detonation resonated in the air and Claire collapsed on the ground. A scream escaped Marlo’s throat. She rushed toward the social worker.
Blood gushed from her head reddening the snow. Down on her knees, Marlo wrapped a hand around Claire’s wrist. A weak pulse throbbed at the tip of her fingers.
“Stay with me, Claire.”
Grabbing her purse, then her phone, Marlo called nine-one-one. Beeps warned her to speak fast before the battery died.
“Children’s Services parking lot. A woman was shot. Hurry, plea
The line went dead.
Something ruffled, spiking the hair on Marlo’s nape. She looked up. Bile rose in her throat.
The shooter advanced toward her. A sudden gust of wind pushed the hood back as a second gunshot resounded. Sharp pain blurred Marlo’s vision, obscuring the killer’s face.
She stumbled clutching her chest. Every nerve in her body tingled. As reality faded away, her mind pondered the title of such a story—had she had the chance to finish it.
~ * ~
Water dripping on her face then scorching pain stirred Marlo’s consciousness. She opened her eyes. Through the rain, she recognized the cemetery, and at the edge, cabin twenty-nine.
Too weak to move, she stared in horror at the blood coating her fingers. Hoping her fellow authors fared better, she called for them.

Her faint cries were lost amid the graves.

Looks like not all of our authors were so lucky as Rita was. We have one more to go. Will Jenna fall victim to the muse, or escape with her life?

This week's piece was written by J.S. Marlo.