Once More, Albany

Right, I should announce this: I will be at Flights of Fantasy in Albany, New York, for the Zombies Need Brains signing on Sunday, 9 September, at 3pm.

Flash Fiction: Tribute to the Wild Desert

This week’s flash fiction challenge involved rolling 2d20 to pick a story-meets-story pair.

So: Dune meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Continue reading Flash Fiction: Tribute to the Wild Desert

Flash Fiction: Colcannon and Curry

Another Cracked Pots short; I should come up with a better name for that ‘verse since apparently I’m writing a sequel.  This one is spoilery so people who are in the midst of the draft should not read it.  (I am peering at you, yes, you know who you are.)

This challenge was “To Write About Food” in honor of Bourdain and I got to thinking about cultural interactions and food as a result, so I wound up here.  Which is useful because it’s in the interstitial space between the books, like the previous one, and I did sort of need to figure out where Margaret was before I picked up with In The Seed.

 

Continue reading Flash Fiction: Colcannon and Curry

Flash Fiction: Mist and Light

In honor of the fact that I put Cracked Pots through PitMad yesterday, a Cracked Pots short, set after the end of the book. I have attempted to minimize spoilery content, not that that matters a huge amount.  For the A Random Scattering Of Fresh Titles challenge.

Please excuse lack of refining, I ran out of time.  Toddler music class does not play well with ‘last minute fic idea’.

****

The mechanical clanks and whirrs of the dirigible engines were an inescapable presence in the ship’s gondola, but at least Margaret found them soothing.  She had tucked herself into a seat away from the windows with a book, her bag shoved in under her feet.  There was nothing, really, to see at this time of year, in any case, with night falling so soon and the Fog obscuring the land below.  Even when the thick, smoke-saturated Fog near Camlon was well behind them, the hills and villages below would be hidden from view.

Her book was titled “On the Colors of Heaven: the analysis of substances by their luminous properties” and she had read it before, but, she thought, not really understood it.  She reviewed the contents with brow furrowed in concentration, her free hand fidgeting with the strap of the goggles that were looped over her belt.  If she had the opportunity to peer into the ship’s engine room, she might venture putting them on, but the appearance of the things was a bit too ridiculous to face for lesser reason.

No opportunity presented itself before the dirigible slid into position in its tower, so she pulled her bag out, tucked the book back into it, and slung it over her shoulder without attempting to make a spectacle of herself.  Crossing the gangway was, as always, a bit of a trial, but she did not look down, and made it safely to the stairs.

“Ride into the village, miss?”  The man at the cab stand doffed his cap politely.

“I generally walk,” she said, “I’m going to the Beacon.”  She paused, considering.  “But if you need the fare, um.  I can wait to see if anyone else wants a cab?”

“Shan’t take your coin if you don’t need the ride, miss,” said the man.

“Then I’ll walk,” she said.  “Have a warm holiday.”

“Thankee, miss.”  He tipped his cap again, and she shifted the bag on her shoulder and started down the gentle slope of the road.  It was dark, and more than a little cold, but her cloak was warm, and walking was a good way to settle her thoughts.

The Fog was hardly thick enough, after her time in Camlon, to feel like Fog at all, more like a mist.  She found herself wondering, at about the point she passed the turnoff for the village, whether it had remotely the same properties as the Fog in the city, and paused to fumble the goggles off her belt.

The cab from the dirigible tower rattled by, the horses snorting in the cold, with what sounded like a young couple laughing cheerfully in the back.  Margaret wondered if she knew either of them, and which of the village houses was their destination.

She slid the goggles on, adjusting the strap carefully.  They shielded her face from the cold, if nothing else, and she told herself that was sufficient reason for them before reopening her eyes to peer out through the lightly opalescent sheen of the lenses.

The Fog might not be as thick here as in the city, but through the panes of the goggles it was a marvel, and she sucked in a breath in startlement.  The older trees were limned in light, sparkling like they were encrusted with gems, and the low stone wall along the side of the road was, if not consistently bright, enough of a steady glow to walk by without fear of losing the path, even in the winter evening.

She resumed walking, slowly, hearing the church bells ringing out from the village for the hour, and wondered, not for the first time, what the interior of a church might look like.  She had yet to be brave enough to try it, though she had at least come around to admitting that it was for fear that she might see nothing of note there.  She knew the decorations would shed some sort of ghostlight, but art always did, at least a little, and that the voices raised in song would raise a misty glow over the angelic prominences of each individual human.  She was terribly afraid of knowing for certain, and so she did nothing more than wear the lighter spectacles, which did not reveal the awesome and terrible fullness of the ghostlight, when she attended with Mrs. Blair.

Looking at the village church would, she thought, be even more terrifying than facing the possibility of absence in the city.

She kept walking.  Nothing separated itself from the luminous secret world to greet her, none of the familiar spirits from the city, and she wondered if they communicated in some fashion, though she was far from where she had made insubstantial friends, if they could be considered friends.  Eventually, she would reach the Beacon, and she steeled herself for what she might see there.  In the ordinary light, the sweep of the beam pulsed out, regular as clockwork, its brilliance markedly stronger than when she was a child.

Then she drew close enough to see the tower itself.  Here and there she could see crevices filled with light in the stonework of its construction, and connected each shape, each outline, to one of her father’s stories about its construction or rebuilding after some disaster or other.  In daylight, only one of those lines was visible, where the stones jutted out a bit too far for smoothness, and could be seen even under the layer of whitewashing.  She stopped at the gate and looked up, and saw that the peak of the tower was wreathed in a sort of numinous flame, from which the ordinary light jutted out like a spear.

She pushed the goggles up onto her forehead, looked at the Beacon with ordinary eyes that blinked against the dimness, and crossed the garden to open the door to the lower storeroom, which was filled with supplies laid in against the winter.  She found the stair, and climbed up, and called, “Hello?  It smells good.”

It smelled like home, the winter stew going on the hearth, but also a roasted ham for homecoming.  “We hear our Maggie’s coming around, have you seen her.”

“I might’ve,” she said, and let her father sweep her into a hug.

“What’s this then?”  He tapped one of the lenses of the goggles.

She shrugged.  “It’s… I’ve been helping some friends with some research.”

“Oh, yes, the women’s group that you wrote about.  How’s that going, then?”

“We’re getting some… interesting results.”  Margaret let them bring her over to the kitchen, and let her brother take her bag and drag it up to her room, and let them interrogate her about her time in Camlon and her friends there and whether her cousins had managed to introduce her to an appealing young man.

“They have dreadful taste, mother,” she said wearily.  “As you well know.”

“I did run away to live in a Beacon,” her mother agreed with a laugh.  “But what about among your friends?  You had mentioned some eligible men among them.”

She grimaced.  “That’s complicated,” she said firmly, “and I don’t want to talk about it.”

Her mother gave her a sympathetic look, and said, “I shan’t pry.  A woman needs her privacy after having her heart broken.”

Margaret bit back a retort, because telling her it was not that at all was more than she wanted to get into, and just nodded.  They took the conversation to Mrs. Blair and what she was doing without her assistant, and spent some time wondering about her son – who she was staying with for the interim – and why they had such a dreadful relationship, which was at least a way of passing the time.

Eventually, Margaret made her way to bed in her familiar old room, and put the goggles on and watched the play of light on the ceiling until she felt ready to fall asleep.

When she appeared again in the morning, her mother chided her with, “Don’t you get up in the morning anymore, girl?”

“It’s the longest night vigil tonight,” said Margaret.  “I thought I’d rest up.”

Her mother shook her head.  “That’s Beaconmaster superstition.”

Margaret lifted her chin, and stared at her, her expression cool and level.  Her mother looked up, and then looked away.

“You can’t be Beaconmaster, Maggie, it’s a man’s job.”

“But you know I will.”

“You need a man.”

“We’ll see.”  Margaret set her jaw, and went about the day with a stubbornness that even her mother was not willing to question.  Her father smiled at her tightly, and they made the preparations for the vigil side by side, bringing supplies up to the top of the tower and laying them out, and bringing up blankets against the cold, and making sure the boiler room was properly supplied with coal so there would be no need to haul any up from the storeroom.

At a pause in the preparations, she took a little honey and a little wine, when nobody was looking, and set them out in a bowl in the garden, murmuring, “There’s no cream, I’m sorry, I hope this will do for an introduction,” to the Fog.  Before anyone noticed she was gone, she scooped up another bucketful of coal and set to hauling it up the stairs, holding her skirts out of her way with the other hand.

Her father stole glances at her as they sat out on the balcony, backs against the windows, looking east over the edge of the cliffs.  “You don’t have to sit up with me.”

“Yes I do,” she said.  “I’m the Beaconmaster’s apprentice.”

He frowned slightly, and looked away from her, towards the invisible horizon.  “That’s not going to be easy, Maggie,” he said, after a long pause.

“I think I can do it.  I have friends.”

“Friends can only take you so far.”

Margaret pulled the goggles down to watch the ghostlight playing around them.  “I have confidence in my friends,” she said.

A shimmering figure separated itself from the invisible flame, roughly humanoid, and bowed to her.  She inclined her head, just slightly, and smiled.

Flash Fiction: If An Injury Must Be Done

This week’s flash fiction challenge is “;Thy Name Is Vengeance;” and I found it really bloody hard.  I finally managed to pry something short and vicious out of my brain, though.

Title is the first portion of a Machiavelli quote.

(Psychological horror, this is, maybe.)

Continue reading Flash Fiction: If An Injury Must Be Done

Flash Fic: Morgan Starr, Home Inspector

This week’s fic challenge is “real estate“.

Continue reading Flash Fic: Morgan Starr, Home Inspector

Pas de Deux (Variations)

The flipside of Entrée.

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Flash Fiction: Pas de Deux (Entrée)

This week’s fiction challenge is space opera, but I’m afraid this came out rather space ballet.

This is actually the second one I wrote. I’ll put up Pas de Deux (Variations) in a couple of days, for the amusement value thereof.

Continue reading Flash Fiction: Pas de Deux (Entrée)

My Neurodiversity And Other Animals

This is a story about stories.

This is also a story about autism.

And, I think, this is a story I’ve never told, but it feels like a thing right now.

When I was a child, I was a huge fan of Gerald Durrell. My father started me off with My Family and Other Animals when I was, I don’t know, seven or so (I should see if we have a copy and lend it to Oldest, I expect she’d love it like I did), and I read all the stories he told about his childhood, and eventually moved on to reading more of his adult work, talking about his work as a naturalist, trying to trap animals for zoos, and so on. I worked my way through everything.

One day, I found a Durrell I hadn’t read before. The Picnic and other Inimitable Stories, it was called, and from what I could tell from the jacket summary, it was a collection of stories from various times that were too unpleasant in some fashion to wind up in his other, lighter books. The eponymous “The Picnic” story involved the family setting up for a picnic lunch in the shade of a boulder that turned out, when sun-warmed, to be a dead horse or something of the sort.

These days Amazon has it marked under “Literature and Fiction”. As a child of perhaps nine (I had to have been younger than ten) I did not notice, and most of the stories seemed entirely plausible as outtakes from his other autobiographical work.

The last story in the book is outright supernatural horror. With a light bit of lampshading to suggest that certain of the events were plausibly real, and others were the derangements of a hallucinating madman turned murderer.

I knew Gerry as an autobiographical writer.

It never occurred to me, burgeoning fiction writer that I was, that he also might make up stories. Gerry Durrell wrote autobiography; Gerry Durrell wrote about finding the notebook with that story; the notebook was real. The status of the brain-eating monster in the mirror as described in the notebook was left ambiguous, but when Gerry Durrell finished reading about it, he hung a towel over the mirror just to be safe.

My bedroom had an antique bureau in it, with a mirror that was some three feet high and five feet wide, which faced my bed.

My parents found me at some unearthly hour of the night, barricaded into the bathroom closet behind laundry hampers, out of line of sight of the bathroom mirror (high, small, and aimed elsewhere), frantically reading Pogo books. I tried to explain that I had read a story that scared me and was somewhere I felt a bit safer, and … I don’t think they understood more than superficially, how deeply afraid I was, how profoundly unsettled.

(It is a common trait of people on the spectrum that they take people at face value, and assume they are telling the truth. Gerry wrote autobiography. Therefore….)

We moved. (This is how I know I read this when I was younger than ten.) I tried, at one point, to talk to the psychologist I saw in my mid-teens about it, who I was seeing for issues with social adjustment and integration. She offered the possibility that I, as living avatar of the “Me, an intellectual” meme, was upset by the creature in the mirror because it attacked brains, and I could not explain that this was a completely ridiculous notion and I shut down and maybe I never talked to her about anything real in my head again because if she couldn’t understand this thing what could she understand? We played Mastermind. I solved it algorithmically and got irritated that I couldn’t construct a puzzle that required more than about half the track to solve (why is that track even THERE?).

I had a lasting phobia of mirrors. When I was under bad stress, just a mirror would do it. Picture me, in a bad emotional place, staying in a hotel where the elevator to go up to my room had facing mirrors, and me wedging myself into the hollow where the doors were to get away from them, to not have to face the infinite reflections of infinite mirrorness. On good days, it was a twitch and a shrug, only bad when it was a mirror in a darkened room, especially one that reflected a doorway where something might lurk and snatch.

The book lived on the bottom shelf of the upper floor of the library in my father’s house, and I twitched every time I saw it. Occasionally, as I got older, I considered picking it up and reading it again, in case it might help desensitize me. I was never that brave.

(We went looking for beds, once. One of them had a mirrored headboard. The “ha ha ha ha ha ha no” went on for about ten minutes.)

I went through EMDR therapy. A lot of things got better. (Driving got easier. Still terrible, but easier.) The mirror thing didn’t really budge. I just… had a phobia. One whose entire etiology I thought I could trace: I read a scary story when I was young, and it stuck with me in weird ways. Brains are funny.

The mirror in the bathroom, well, it faces the door. If I went to pee at night I’d mostly-close my eyes and put the light on. A small adjustment to a bit of glitchy brain wiring, an appeasement to the demon spirits of phobia.

When I figured out I’m likely autistic, a whole bunch of things cascaded, a whole bunch of things happened, and it took me months and months to solve them, and I’m still solving them. All the things where I could say “Okay, this isn’t going to change for me expending more effort on it, I can stop trying now and do something that might work” are still finding their new normal.

But one of the things that I didn’t expect at all was that the mirror phobia has quieted down to a dull roar. I never consciously sat down with myself and said, “Look, you were an autistic kid, and you trusted Gerry Durrell to tell you the truth, with all the naiveté of childhood and all of the earnest gullibility of neurodivergence. When you learned that story could be fiction a few years ago, it was a bit of a shock, but you never really wrapped your head around why it got you like that. And that’s because you trusted him, and you knew him as an autobiographical writer, and it never occurred to you he might do something else for fun.”

But apparently, somewhere in me, that child-self wound healed, because finally I knew why it was there.

I go into the bathroom at night, and look at the door behind me, and twitch a little, but I don’t always turn on the light. I don’t need to anymore. That story has settled in my brain a bit: I took it that seriously because. The shape of it fits this way, not that way, and I know how to adjust.

This is a story about stories. The story we have for why we are the way we are, that matters, and when it changes, that can make a difference. Even in unexpected places, like a remembered story, a horrorshape, a lingering nightmare in the corner of a mind.

Also, if you like supernatural horror, that one’s really fucking creepy, and I can’t recommend it for reasons I hope you understand, but I can point you in that direction. You do you.

Flash Fiction: No More Heroes

This week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig is “The Complications of Heroism” so I have written “No More Heroes”.

(Rendered complex by the fact that I thought I’d said everything I wanted to about complications of heroism when I wrote “There Where Things Are Hollow“, a wee Cap and Iron Man conversation fic. Themes overlap but are non-identical, I suspect.)

Anyway. Tiny story.

Continue reading Flash Fiction: No More Heroes