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25
Mar

Writing Challenge, Week 12

Supervised Visitation

by H. M. Snow

 

Sheltered from the crackling gunfire by a bank of file cabinets, two figures sat side-by-side on the floor. The elder, a woman in her mid-forties, said with a sudden hushed laugh, “What do you get when you cross a pitched battle with a pair of adolescent saurian mages?”

The younger, a man just into his thirties, replied dryly, “A bad joke?”

The woman laughed again. “The point goes to you this time, Andrin. Can we pull this off without them, in your opinion?”

“We have no other choice,” was his simple answer. “With their firepower, we could certainly pull it off. He’s a good kid.”

“What about her?”

Andrin shrugged. “I would have thought a woman better equipped to gauge the character of another woman, Talaitha. I know Ariela has reservations about including her in these outings.”

“Ariela has reservations,” said his comrade, “because of just such a situation as we find ourselves in now. Jaella is ruled very much by impulse. Inseparable as they are, it was only natural that her impulse should take her in pursuit of Maurus. It only remains to be seen whether he can and will pull himself together in time to return to us. That is where your judgment comes into play. He is a good kid, as you put it. He has the potential to become as good a man, if not a better one, than his father.”

“I never had the privilege,” said Andrin.

“I knew him only briefly myself. I hope Maurus does pull himself together. Meanwhile…” Talaitha lifted herself enough to peer over the shortest file cabinet. “We might chance it now.”

Crouching low, they ran beneath the sight line of the half-wall that made up the reception desk, halfway deafened by the artillery just above them. Distantly to their left, others of their comrades drew the defenders’ attention away from them until Andrin and Talaitha reached the alcove sheltering three water fountains. Talaitha left Andrin in that scant refuge while she crept toward the swinging doors farther into the corridor. Ignoring the two narrow panes of reinforced glass above her, Talaitha laid the palms of her hands lightly against the doors and murmured half a dozen words. Then she retreated to Andrin’s side. “She’s here, but so are two dozen others at least. We’ll never make it head-on.”

“If that were true, the first line of defense would not be so fierce,” Andrin noted.

“They may be anticipating Maurus and Jaella,” Talaitha countered, still smiling.

“So am I. This way.” He slipped across the corridor to a waiting room that sat vacant. At his entrance, the security camera in the upper east corner fizzed and sparked, and then went dead. “As long as you’ve got a lock on her, we can still do this even if they come too late, but I have a feeling…”

“Save us,” said Talaitha, only half-joking, “if you’ve got a feeling…”

Andrin went to the window that overlooked a drab parking lot. “It feels like Maurus, only–” After one glance out the window, he ran out into the corridor, heedless of the fighting. “Mages in the parking lot!” he bellowed. “Take cover deeper inside!”

Talaitha needed no more than the same single glance: outside in the parking lot stood the two missing saurian mages, Maurus and Jaella, holding hands. The pavement under their feet was cracked in a spiderweb pattern, and Maurus’ translucent atavist body was bigger than ever before, taking completed form as a lizard fully twenty feet tall with a blade-thin tail six feet wide and as long as its body. Such a huge spiritual form obscured both mages. Talaitha pivoted and ran.

She caught up to Andrin a moment before one of the defenders’ ricochets struck him in the shoulder with an angry whine. With unbelievable speed Talaitha’s hand darted forward to grasp the projectile just before the end of it disappeared into the anterior deltoid. “No… you… don’t,” she grunted, pulling back with white-knuckle force.

Andrin’s bronzed face went ashen with the pain. The muscles in his jaw jumped. Maurus’ atavist tail appeared like a barrier of light behind them. It swept the corridor with its heat, slamming into them both before passing swiftly onward. Andrin grunted as Talaitha pulled the projectile free.

On the palm of her hand a burrowing gray worm, about four inches long, lolled as though disoriented by Maurus’ magic. “I consign this to the fires,” said Talaitha. Black fire leaped up from her palm for the space of two seconds before vanishing and taking the worm with it. Then she pressed the same hand over the wound. Before the fire reappeared, she said, “This will hurt, I’m afraid.”

Between clenched teeth, Andrin replied, “Compared to the worm, this feels good.”

The corridor fairly rang with the sudden hush. As soon as his wound was disinfected, Andrin led the way down the hallway, asking directions from his comrade from time to time. For her part, Talaitha steered him verbally, keeping wary watch meanwhile over the prone and disoriented facility staff scattered along their path. They pushed their way deeper into the facility until Talaitha halted them before a set of security doors. “Here.”

“Yes,” said Andrin, “I recognize the face.” He bent over the young woman crawling like a baby on the floor in their way. “Ms Magda Finch, the alleged pacifist and social worker. Yes, we’ve met before.”

“I’ll take care of her. Don’t waste your time.” Talaitha pulled out a stopwatch. She held it up in front of the security camera. “Ready?”

Andrin set his hand on the door handle. “Ready.”

“Time starts… now.”

He pushed open the door.

The room’s sole occupant flinched before raising her pretty head. Her expression transformed to radiance. “Daddy!” She ran to Andrin.

His hug lifted her off her feet. “My dearest girl,” he replied. “Mirela, are you well?”

“Mm.” Tears streaked her radiant face as she lifted it in earnest entreaty. “You’re hurt! What about Mom? Is Mom…?”

“Healing nicely, thanks to friends.”

Mirela clung to him fiercely again. “They kept telling me she died. I didn’t know what to think.”

“No,” her father assured her. “It takes more than heavy artillery to stop your mother.”

Mirela giggled against his chest.

“She went to help Meg’s parents reach their visitation appointment. She sends her love.”

A sharp thump against the reinforced glass of the observation window made Mirela flinch again. The social worker was pressed face-first into the glass with her arms restrained behind her and Talaitha close at her back. Andrin said, “Don’t look at her. Tell me how you are. What do you need?”

So the young teen girl began to talk about her everyday life, about the clothes she was required to wear and the lessons she had to take (“…they said our dancing wasn’t really dancing, and I ought to learn their dancing, so I fit in with the other kids… I just couldn’t do it…”). This led to the overflow of deeper complaints, words of loneliness and frustration and boredom with her lot.

All the while, her father held her close and listened. When she tapered off after about ten minutes, her father gave her a gentle squeeze. “I wish I could make everything better, my dearest girl,” he said at last. “It hurts, doesn’t it?”

“I want to go home with you,” Mirela sobbed.

“And I want to take you home with me, but you know what would happen then.”

She nodded against his chest, ruffling her hair and smearing her tears in the process.

“But you are almost fifteen,” her father continued. “More than that, you are strong for your age. You are your mother’s daughter, so I can’t see how you could escape it,” he added with a touch of forced levity. “It often happens that those who see hard days turn out to be most likely to be granted a glimpse of the Hidden Realms. I believe you will be one of those. So keep your eyes open, Mirela, and remain watchful. You are of the fey, along with your parents and your brothers, and your grandparents and their parents before them. Remain true to that heritage.”

“They said,” she sniffled, “that ‘fey’ means crazy, and we’re crazy.”

Andrin turned so that they could observe the social worker’s face, twisted with rage, through the glass. “If that is what it means to be sane, who wouldn’t rather be crazy?”

Mirela giggled again.

“And one day, we will all be together again– here, or in the Hidden Realm when it is revealed.”

“Ah! Lulu!” Mirela gasped. She waved frantically at the face of her brother in the window.

“Louis came. Danny is traveling and couldn’t make it back in time. He and his Rilla met a family that wanted to be transformed. They can’t be left vulnerable at this point, or he would have come with me as well.”

“Jaella came too– who is that with her?” Mirela grinned at her childhood friend.

“That’s her fiance Maurus,” said Andrin. “Her mother found her another mage to strengthen her. He’s a good kid, of a strong family. You’d like him. If they’ve all come here, that means my time must be up. I knew it,” he added as Talaitha’s hand appeared next to the social worker’s face, gesturing. “Twenty seconds. The time goes too fast,” he complained sadly as he squeezed his daughter in his arms again. “Your mother will come next month. Stay strong until then.”

“Why can’t you stay longer? They don’t keep their own rules– why should you?”

Her father held her at arm’s length. “We will maintain our honor, even if they abandon theirs. We are the fey. Understand?”

Mirela lowered her gaze. “Yes, Dad.”

“Stay watchful.” As Talaitha knocked the remaining count of seconds against the glass, Andrin backed away from his daughter, keeping her in his gaze until the very last.

From the moment he opened the security door to the moment he closed it, the clamor of his comrades brought a smile to Mirela’s face. The rest of the party served as a human wall, gesturing to the lone girl through the window to cheer and distract her as Talaitha and Andrin stepped aside with the social worker. “We kept our appointment,” said Andrin. “My wife will take her turn next month. She will want to have words with you about your behavior last month,” he warned the social worker. “And we have reported your use of heavy artillery, Ms Alleged Noncombatant. According to the laws of your own government, that can cost you your license and put you on the front lines with the rest of your precious Self-Determination Syndicate. Someone like you is not fit to be near children.” He jerked his head at his lieutenant.

Talaitha released the magic that restrained the woman’s hands.

Andrin bowed shortly. “May you become one who finds the way to the Hidden Realms. Goodbye, Ms Finch. Everyone? It’s time.”

As they walked away, the social worker found her voice. “If I ever found your Hidden Realms, I would destroy them! People are meant to rule themselves! We will not rest until we blot out every memory of your imaginary tyrant! Do you hear me?”

Maurus leaned toward Andrin. “Want me to purify her again?”

“It wouldn’t make much difference.” Turning so that he walked backward, Andrin replied to Ms Finch, “To find the way, you would need to be transformed into a person completely different from what you now are… hence my words to you. I hope you do meet the king of the fey. I have a feeling that such an experience would affect more than just you yourself.” He turned to face forward.

“You have a feeling, do you?” said Talaitha.

“I do,” Andrin answered her.

“Save us,” Talaitha sighed. “‘Help him to his supervised visitation,’ they said. ‘Just a simple raid.’ Nothing is ever simple where a heart mage is concerned, is it?”

“Not usually.”

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18
Mar

Writing Challenge: Week 11

Scapegoat

by H. M. Snow

So many human bodies enclosed together should have made the meeting house noisy, but the only break in the hush was a shuddering breath here or there. No one dared make a noise louder than breath on this darkest and most sacred of occasions. Even the smallest ones, who should have been asleep with the setting of the sun, kept silent despite the oppressive heat.

One lamp burned, casting its circle of light halo-like around the oracle in their midst. Only near her was there space to move, but no one dared draw nearer as she laid out the hide with mystic markings burned into it. She knelt, and a collective breath made the silence live. Her hand did not tremble as she gathered the carved pebbles into a heap before her and laid a slender bone atop the heap. “We begin.” Her voice had a pleasant roughness to it.

The mother of the youngest babe among them came forward, all a-quiver, to kneel before the oracle. Her arms wound tightly around her child, a girl of only three months.

The oracle scooped up the heap, keeping the bone balanced on top until the last moment when she poured the pebbles through her fingers and let them fall where they would. Then she gazed at the resultant configuration. “Neither,” she said at last.

A quick sob escaped the mother, who hurried to the far end of the meeting house to weep with relief as quietly as she could.

Four of her peers brought their babies, aged from nine months to two years, only to be passed over in like manner. Then came the first child old enough to approach the oracle alone: a boy of seven years. His eyelids sagged with sleep, but with an elder sibling nudging him forward he came before the oracle and was turned aside like the nursing mothers. The next in age was nearly thirteen, old enough to fear the experience. Her narrow face was ashen, almost sickly, as she waited for the pebbles to fall. When the bone rolled to a halt and the oracle took stock of the results, it seemed to take a little longer than the others. The girl lost any hint of nascent womanhood in her features; she was a child, a terrified child faced with more than she could bear. But before she could break down in hysterics, the oracle shook her head. “No.” Then the mothers at the far end stretched out their arms to receive the girl and muffle her weeping against compassionate bosoms.

They were not many in the village, fewer than sixty persons in total, but the ceremony went slowly enough as though they were a hundredfold in number. The oracle cast her pebbles and studied the fall of the bone for every child, ascending in age to the few young men and even fewer young women. Each knelt alone before her, some averting their eyes and others gazing with mesmerized dread like a frog before a water-dragon, facing the judgment of the cast lot. The oracle showed no emotion in the face of such fear. To each who came before her, she gave the same judgment: No.

One knelt before her, eyes closed and head bowed. He was nearly thirty, a comely man in his prime, and the eyes of his people turned to him as if by some natural force. They watched him now as the oracle let the pebbles sift between her fingers. It seemed his lips moved a little as he waited for the clatter of pebbles against hide to finish. The oracle’s long contemplation did nothing to disrupt his calm. He remained acquiescent as the tension seethed around him.

The pebbles all lay blank-side upwards, their symbols hidden. The dry bone lay with one end toward the oracle and the other toward the man in a straight line. For the first time since she had appeared before them, the oracle allowed her voice to waver. “Yes. You are the one.”

As one, the rest of the tribe cried out and wailed, but the chosen man did not. He raised his head and opened his dark eyes with the expression of a man grasping some private triumph.

The oracle lifted both hands and hissed. When she had imposed silence on the others once more, she declared, “It is the law. As soon as the lot was cast, Sun became a dead man. Go, make preparations for the mourning days.” She waited as the rest of the tribe shuffled out of the meeting house, leaving her with the chosen man. “I sensed from the first that we should not have given you such a presumptuous name.”

Sun smiled. “No. If I can bear the guilt of my people away from them, I am pleased.”

“Always you have been the best of our blood.” The oracle braced her hands on the hide and lowered herself onto her face. “Go. You know what you must do.”

He rose to his feet. The lamp swayed as his shoulder brushed against it. At the oracle’s back, leading away from the village, there was a door. Sun lifted the lamp down from its hook and carried it through that door.

Dank air rose from the water flowing sluggishly around the stilts of the meeting house. A mooring post stuck out from the platform, but the moss growth on it proved that no one had used it for many a year. Sun set the lamp on the platform and jumped on nimble feet to the knee of a nearby cypress. From there he bounded over an unseen path with the sureness of a child of the swamps, finding here a spongy rise of earth and there a solid tangle of exposed roots strong enough to bear his weight. Deeper and deeper into the swamp he traveled, until the village was well behind him. Then he sat down in the embrace of more roots.

The swamp knew no silence. Always the murmur of life stirred the air, even in the dead of night. Sun listened to the sounds he knew so well. Moonlight that night shone strongly enough to show the flutter of night-bats in their pursuit of insects, the ripple of small fish beneath the surface of the water, the sway of the reeds disturbed by the ever-hungry white beast seeking small prey. The ripples widened until they lapped against the roots that supported him. Sun shifted onto his knees. “If it is the water-dragon,” he said aloud, “that is to perform the sacrifice, I am ready. The swamp is part of me. I am willing to become part of it in return, if this will ease the guilt of my people.”

From the center of the ripple emerged, not the rough snout of the water-dragon but a slender pointed tip, like the first sprout of grass on the high ground. It rose higher, remaining slender for its entire length. Another appeared a few feet away, and another pair yet a few more feet distant. Sun watched in amazement. When it seemed these outstretched vines would go on forever, the surface of the water broke to reveal needle teeth in the open maws of two great fish. The slender appendages were whiskers of a sort. One of them reached toward Sun, touched his face with a ticklish touch, and then found his ear. The giant fish stretched out its second whisker to his other ear. The tips of each whisker slid into his ear canals.

You do not fear.

Sun spoke aloud to the voice that resonated inside his skull. “What do I need to fear?”

Every one of your kind who came before you feared us. We ate them.

“Let it be so with me, then. I am ready.” Sun bent his head toward the water.

Why do you wish to be devoured?

“So that I may bear the guilt of my people away from them.”

If that is what you desire, then let us make it possible for you. The great fish that held him with its whiskers lunged out of the water, needle teeth bared, and took Sun by the throat. The fish’s teeth sank into the sides of his throat with piercing, crushing force and dragged him head-first into the murky waters.

Blinded by the waters and suffocated by pain, Sun was helpless in the fish’s maw. Then its jaws released him. The whiskers of additional fish coiled around his wrists and towed him at amazing speed through the murk. It took a few moments before Sun realized that he could breathe beneath the surface. The wounds in his throat had become gills.

Black obstacles loomed in the gloom of the water and sped past again before Sun could recognize any of them. The water dragged at his clothes, but the great fish never hesitated in their swift progress. They pulled him along just beneath the surface until the water grew too shallow for their massive bodies to proceed any farther. The other two great fish released his wrists. The whiskers that had never left his ears made the voice of the first resonate once more inside his head: Here you will find what you seek. Then they released him also.

Sun felt the bottom with his feet. He stood, dripping, suffocating until he remembered to return to human methods of breathing, and shaking for the first time that night. His gaze traveled up from the waters lapping around his waist to the stilts before him and upward still, to the house that stood clear of the waters.

A man appeared in the open doorway of this unknown house. He reached down for Sun’s hand. Once Sun stood on the platform, the stranger said, “You came for a purpose.”

“I hardly know anymore,” said Sun.

“None of the others made it this far. Your wish must come from an earnest heart.”

“I believed I was to be devoured,” Sun began in uncertainty.

“But that is not your wish, merely to put an end to your life.”

“No,” Sun said. “I was chosen by the lot to bear away the guilt of my people. To do this, I must die, but the great fish did not eat me.”

“And will that be enough, that you should die? I tell you candidly, it will not. I will show you what I mean.” The stranger laid his left hand on Sun’s shoulder.

The clear, star-punctuated sky above grew murky as the swamp water below. Swirling particles of filth filled the air around Sun and the stranger. They slipped past the stranger but clung to Sun. Within moments he was coated in this heavy, slimy matter. He gazed at his mucky hands. “Is this the guilt of my people?”

“It is a picture of guilt, but not all of the guilt of your people,” the stranger replied. “It is yours only– both the guilt you have felt in your heart and the guilt you have not yet noticed. If I showed you the whole of the guilt, it would destroy your will. If I did not keep my hand on your shoulder, you would collapse just from this much.”

“Then I fail before I begin.” Sun bowed his head, grieved. “What can I do? What can I do?”

The stranger’s grip on his shoulder tightened perceptibly. “That is simple enough: you can ask for my help. Did you not know?” He raised his right hand, which burned with a fierce flame. Where the particulate filth touched the flame, it flared like a moth over a candle, until the flaring fire engulfed the air all around Sun. He wailed aloud, turning childlike in his time of pain and grief. The other man’s words proved true, however: it was the hand weighing lightly on his shoulder that kept him on his feet.

When the sky-filling fire died away, Sun gazed at the man with wide eyes and received a friendly smile in return. “What is your name?” the man asked.

“I do not know anymore.”

“What does that mean?”

Confronted by this blunt question, Sun faltered again. “My mother sang to me of the origin of my name, of one who could dim the sun by his brilliant light. I am not Sun. Now I have seen him, and I am nothing like him.”

The stranger laughed aloud. “Again, a simple enough matter: only ask. Did you suppose I summoned you here without purpose? You have in you the seed of what you desire. Stay with me, and I will teach you. You have nowhere else to go,” he added gently. “You are dead to your people now. Live alongside me. You will come to understand the need of your people that torments your heart. Troublesome days approach your people even now from the world beyond their territory. They can no longer hide in the swamps, compounding their guilt in the pursuit of innocence. Before the time of their sacrifice comes again, you will see my words fulfilled. Will you stay?”

Sun lowered himself to the platform and lay on his face before the stranger. “With your blessing, I can think of no other way for me.”

11
Mar

Writing Challenge: Week 10

Author’s Note: This one took me a long time. It’s the first part of a planned series of short stories, but as it isn’t in my usual area of speculative fiction, I find myself rather uneasy about it. Oh, well. That’s the point of the challenge: to push myself. It’s rather lengthier than the rest so far. Hope you don’t mind.

*

Adelaide House

Phantasmagoria the First:

The Haunting Bed

by H. M. Snow

“Jittery, aren’t you?”

Ian spared his editor a sidelong glance but refrained from taking the bait.

“I doubt she could have figured out what you were up to this evening. We’re not going anywhere near your usual haunts. I didn’t even pick you up at your apartment building. Relax, Ian. I want you focused for this interview. Mrs Hamill-Jefferson doesn’t give interviews often.”

“Why do we need to interview her, Sid?”

His editor shook her head. “Ian, Ian, that’s the wrong question. After I finally found someone who knows something about Adelaide House, you ought to be asking how soon until we interview her. We’re finally getting to the truth about these rumors.”

“But we aren’t a tabloid,” Ian argued, “nor a newspaper. Travel magazines don’t hunt down rumors.”

The sedan swerved a little as Sid threw back her head and guffawed. “You’re just scared,” she said, “because you know if this interview pans out, you’re headed straight to Adelaide House for a stay. I thought kids like you loved haunted houses and scary movies.”

“I haven’t been a kid for a long time,” said Ian with dignity.

“Kids always say that. To an old lady like me, you’re all kids,” was Sid’s retort. “Look, Ian, I know you’re weak against scary. That’s going to make the article you write all the better, right? Places with atmosphere need a special kind of write-up. When it comes to capturing atmosphere, you’re my ace. I need you for this one.”

Ian slumped lower in the passenger seat. When they arrived at the restaurant, he kept quiet while his editor handed over her keys to the valet beneath the awning.

Mrs Blanche Hamill-Jefferson had already arrived. She was smoker-skinny, with a bosom augmented well beyond nature’s limits. Her eye shadow shimmered between blue and green as her eyes blinked heavy false lashes with the rapidity of uneasy nerves.

A waiter brought menus at once, so rather than begin the interview, they spent the first several minutes of their meeting engrossed in the ordering process. As soon as the waiter took away their menus, Mrs Hamill-Jefferson said, “Dewey said you’re writing an article about that awful Adelaide House. That’s right, isn’t it?” Her heavy-lidded eyes turned from Sid to Ian in expectancy.

“We were lucky to find you,” Sid began. “Adelaide House is such an exclusive hotel that we’ve been hard-pressed even to find its location. What can you tell us about it, Mrs Hamill-Jefferson?”

“Call me Blanche.” Her manner of speaking was far more down-to-earth than her appearance. “My friend Sheri recommended it to me. She said the staff were wonderful and the place had a great haunted-house atmosphere. Sheri and me, we been friends since first grade. We still get together on weekends sometimes to watch old horror flicks like we did in high school. I’m a big fan of horror flicks,” she said, “but that Adelaide House was something else. I told Sheri she must have been crazy to send me there.” With a little deft prompting from Sid, she fell into a recital of the facts. “You first pull up to a place that looks like nothing on earth, just a lump of a house with no style. It’s on a whatchamacallit– one of those streets that doesn’t go anywhere, just winds up in a horseshoe at the front door of the house– so there’s no neighbors close by, just that huge dump of a house. The foyer was nice.” Blanche doodled on the tablecloth with a varnished fingernail. “Wide open and bright from all the windows. But it was empty. I had to give a yell before anybody came to help me. Carl, I think his name was. He took me up to a room. The place felt just empty.” She gave a little shiver. “Like I was the only one in it. The floors were all creaky and noisy. I felt like I should run from my room to the dining room. Haven’t felt that way since I was a kid. But the worst, the absolute worst, was at night. You know that feeling? Like somebody’s watching you, but you know you’re alone? This was worse. I was just about asleep, and I turned over in bed and there was somebody beside me!” Blanche gripped the edge of the table in her fervor. “I know there was! But when I opened my eyes, there wasn’t! I couldn’t get to sleep for a long time after that. When I did, I don’t know when it was, but I reached out my hand in my sleep and touched somebody!”

“Who was it?” said Sid.

But there Mrs Hamill-Jefferson became reticent. “There wasn’t anybody there, I tell you. I sat up, awake, and the bed was empty. I’m no chicken, but there’s something not right about that place. You wouldn’t get me back there for any kind of money. And it was expensive too.”

Persuasion on Sid’s part elicited from the woman an address for Adelaide House. Their food arrived shortly thereafter. The rest of the time was spent by Sid prompting Ian to talk about vacation spots he had visited recently on behalf of their magazine. This carried them to the end of their meal. Blanche shook Ian’s hand at the door. “You really have got a talent for making me see the places you talk about, you know? I gotta go out and pick up a copy of your magazine. Maybe we can do this again sometime?”

Sid stepped in to rescue him. “We’ll be sure to contact you if we have any more questions. I’ll send you a copy of the article when it’s out, too. You’ve been very helpful to us. Thanks so much.” She steered Ian out to the valet station. “You do have a gift, Ian,” she said to him when the valet went after her car. “You have a perfect gift for attracting women who are, to use a Victorian turn of phrase, quite unsuitable. You’re too nice and too meek.” She looked him up and down. “It isn’t as if you’re a little guy. A big teddy bear, maybe, but not a weakling. Why do you act so weak, then?”

Ian did not reply, mainly because the valet was bringing Sid’s sedan. “Oh, no.”

As soon as the valet was out of the car, he began apologizing to Sid for the huge orange paint blot on the passenger-side front door. “This has never happened in our lot before–”

Sid waved him off. She went to inspect the damage and plucked a half-slip of paper that fluttered from the side mirror. “‘Stay away from my Ian,’” she read aloud. “Seriously, Ian, you need to get a restraining order against her.” She waved away his apologies as well. “It’s a good thing Adelaide House is so exclusive. Maybe she won’t find you there.”

This was the thought Ian brought with him as he pulled up beneath the awning at the address given him by Mrs Hamill-Jefferson. As advertised, the house sprawled at the end of an empty cul-de-sac. Rather than approach the front door straightaway, Ian strolled along the path that fronted the hotel. On his right, a tall hedge grew through a wrought-iron fence. On his left, tributary paths branched off into a flower garden. Ian took his camera from its bag and began snapping pictures of the lush verdure. He paused for an especially picturesque view of some roses, but when he lifted his camera to his eye to frame the shot Ian felt a faint movement of air like a breath against the back of his neck. He froze in place. Then, forcing himself, he turned and found himself facing a man even taller and more ursine than he himself. His instant impression was of gazing into a distorting mirror, but the man held a pair of gardening shears instead of a camera. In the next moment, Ian’s eyes told him that the man looked nothing like him: Hispanic, mid-forties, with a heavy brow and cautious eyes.

“Can I help you?” Again, unlike Ian, this man had a voice deep enough to match his build.

“Excuse me,” Ian replied. He scraped together what composure he had left. “This is Adelaide House, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Might I ask who recommended you?”

“Mrs Blanche Hamill-Jefferson,” said Ian.

This answer did not please the other man, but neither did it cause the man to turn Ian away. “I thought Mrs Hamill-Jefferson did not enjoy her stay with us.”

Honesty compelled Ian to say, “No, but we– I would like to see for myself. I’m a journalist,” he added by way of explanation.

The man’s heavy brow lowered. “Journalist? We have certain rules about those. First, you may take photos of the garden, but not of the house or anyone in the house. You may not publish any names or even the address of the house. If you can abide by those rules, then you are welcome to stay.”

These terms were delivered with such a forceful stare that Ian blurted, “Yes, okay, I can do that,” without thought. “I’m Ian Navarro-James.” He held out a hand.

The other shifted the garden shears from right hand to left in order to accept Ian’s hand in a brief grip. “I’m Carl. I manage the house. This way, please.” Carl led Ian to the main entrance. Instead of a lobby, the foyer looked like a living room. On the coffee table lay a guest book, which Carl presented for Ian to sign. Leaving Ian standing in the middle of the foyer, Carl walked to a cabinet on the far wall. Opening the cabinet, Carl stared inside it for an expectant few seconds before taking from it a key. “You get the same room Mrs Hamill-Jefferson had– the Haunting Bed room,” he remarked. “Try not to break anything, please.”

“Haunting… bedroom?” Ian echoed. “Do I have to take that room?”

“House rules: you take the room the house assigns,” said Carl cryptically. “I’ll show you the way.”

“My bag…”

“In your car, I assume. I will bring it up later. If you will give me your keys, I can move the car to the carriage house for you also.”

Ian surrendered. Meekly he followed Carl to the room and accepted the wooden key tag in exchange for his car keys. When left alone, he stood just inside the doorway with all the apprehension of a man facing a pit of vipers. Nothing about the room appeared to merit such fear. Its dominant feature was the intricately carved four-poster bed standing isolated in the middle of the floor like an island. The motif of the posts was positively bacchanalian, a riot of human figures twisted and stretched out of proportion. Every figure seemed to be reaching for something beyond human scope. The sight of it made Ian shiver.

That was nothing to the way he leaped when the corner of his suitcase nudged him in the back. The echo of his voice fell dead in the room, leaving him half-turned to face Carl with a panicked expression on his face.

“Is there… anything else I can bring for you?” Carl asked.

Ian pulled himself together. “No, not at all. Is it… are there any house rules about looking around?”

“If there are,” said Carl, “the house will enforce them.”

“And is it really true? Is the room haunted?”

For once, Carl’s expression looked positively human. “There aren’t any ghosts in Adelaide House. Nothing dangerous is allowed in here– unless you brought it with you.” Carl made a quaint bow, a gesture out of the late nineteenth century, before he retreated.

Ian checked his phone for the time. On Sid’s suggestion, he had arrived just before lunchtime so as to have enough time to explore. He left his case unopened by the bed and headed out into the hallways. It was a twisted complexity to the halls of Adelaide house, steps up and down at weird intervals with corners at unexpected points. Altogether the house gave the impression of having been built on a series of whims, changing styles with each change of whim. After whacking his shin for the second time on an unexpected set of steps, Ian sat down on the offending steps and sighed. “Where am I?”

“If you take this hallway,” said a whisper-soft voice behind him, “you’ll find the dining room.”

Ian bounded to his feet. At the top of the steps a pale, thin woman in gauzy floor-length dress faced him. She stood pointing an ominous finger to his left. “Yes?” he asked feebly.

“Lunch today is, I believe, salmon and asparagus, with crêpes for dessert.”

“Sure,” Ian replied. By instinct he turned his gaze in the direction of her pointing finger. When he looked back, the woman had vanished. Ian hurried away.

The hallway he took did lead him straight to a comfortable dining room. Several small tables were scattered around the room. At the far end, a galley kitchen stretched the width of the room. A florid middle-aged woman stood behind the counter. “You must be a guest,” she said with bright cheer. “Hungry? Won’t be another minute and everything will be ready. Pick yourself a seat. I’ll bring it right out to you.”

Ian seated himself near the kitchen. When the woman emerged, she was dressed in the uniform of a waitress from a Fifties diner. She brought him a plate of salmon and asparagus. “Staying with us long? I’m Bets, honey.”

“Thanks. I’m Ian.”

“Eat up. When you’re done, I’ll make dessert. Crêpes won’t wait, you know.” She would not let him leave the dining room until he could hold no more food or coffee.

Ian felt much better after he had eaten. There was something about Bets that made the supernatural seem implausible. He found his way back to the foyer, but Carl was nowhere to be seen. He decided that, for the time being, he would take pictures of the garden. Sid would want something to show for this visit. The afternoon was sunny and wonderfully mundane. Ian enjoyed the feel of it on his shoulders as he prowled the grounds, which turned out far more extensive than he had assumed. There were a few outbuildings scattered in groves of trees, just as eclectic as the interior corridors. He even got a few fine shots of a defunct fountain crusted with moss.

Sunlight slanted obliquely through the trees when Ian decided to return indoors for another go at exploring the hotel’s meandering halls. He thought it strange that he encountered no one in the foyer. For all the noise he could hear, Ian might as well have been alone in the hotel. He soon lost track of himself again, though he found a good many rooms that intrigued him. One open door led him to a two-story library where antique tome and current best-seller could be found nestled comfortably side-by-side. Another open door led him to a gallery of artwork ranging from famous to obscure, Renaissance to pop art, oils to pencil sketches. Ian stumbled upon a games room with a pool table and a climbing wall, and from there almost immediately discovered a little museum of toy trains. Beyond the train museum was a room full of dressmaker’s dummies all draped in vintage female costumes.

Dizzied by the nonstop discoveries, Ian wandered until his phone told him it was past seven in the evening. He began to feel hunger pangs, but try as he might he could not find his way back to the dining room, not even from the juncture where the ghostly woman had directed him earlier. Great was his relief when he turned a corner and saw Carl heading toward him. “Sorry,” Ian said, “but I’ve gotten lost again. Which way to the dining room?”

“The dining room,” said Carl, “has been reserved. I can bring your dinner to your room.” The way he spoke made the word can indistinguishable from will.

“I can’t seem to find that either,” Ian admitted.

Carl guided him to his room and left him there only a short while before returning with a tray. Supper was steak and a baked potato, with a house salad on the side. Ian ate thoughtfully, but always with the peculiar ‘haunting bed’ at the edge of his vision. Then he started his tablet and took down notes for his article. At first he had his headphones on, but as the evening deepened outside his window he became aware of a repetitive creaking in the hallway. It was loud enough to pierce the music barrier, so he turned the music off and removed his headphones to listen more carefully.

It was the noise of an elderly house at first, nothing more. The longer Ian listened, the nearer the creaking came. By the time it drew even with Ian’s door, it was so loud that not even a frame as sturdy as Carl’s could have weighed enough to press on the floor that hard. The wall trembled. Ian felt the tremor under his feet on the far side of the room. Then it creaked past and faded again down the hallway.

He tried to resume his work, but he could no longer focus. His phone gave the time as half past eleven in the evening. Ian shut down his tablet and put it away in his suitcase. “I’m here for the experience,” he told himself sternly as he changed into a t-shirt and a pair of old workout shorts as his pajamas. He stepped into the attached bath to brush his teeth, taking his time. By the time he turned back the covers, he had worked himself into a more adventurous mindset. He propped himself up with the numerous pillows. “Bring it on.”

Of course nothing happened at once. He lay back, listening to the noises of Adelaide House surrounding him. The night breeze through the window had a soothing effect. Ian slowly fell asleep listening to the rustle of leaves.

It was the wind that startled him awake from dreams of children running up and down the aisles of an old country church. His disoriented gaze swung wide, looking toward the door first in an effort to ascertain his location. When comprehension struck him, he stayed on his side for much longer than necessary. The back of his neck prickled. The night breeze had turned gusty, throwing a patter of rain against the half-shut window pane now and then. Deliberately, Ian forced himself to turn onto his back and look to his left.

No one was there.

He exhaled and wiped both hands over his face. “I could’ve sworn…”

A hand closed on his elbow. “Ian…” Rising up beside him from nothing, the figure took shape as the young woman who had lived in the apartment beneath his at his prior address. “Found you!”

With a strangled gasp, Ian rolled out of bed. He scrambled to his feet, only to find the bed empty and tousled. As he stared, he heard the creak beginning to build in the hallway again. It rolled closer and closer, gaining volume as it came, until the whole room vibrated. A scream of anger echoed more distantly. Something shattered with a noise like crystal. Ian edged along the wall away from the door, keeping the bed at the center of his attention, but nothing appeared among the rumpled bedding. In time, the house quieted again. Ian decided to try sleeping again.

No sooner had his attention begun to drift and his eyelids to sag than movement to his left startled him awake. The same figure was crawling over the edge of the mattress toward him. “Ian… you can’t hide from me. We’re meant to be together.”

As soon as he stood on the cool wood floor, Ian could no longer see the figure. When he leaned forward beneath the draped canopy and braced his knee against the edge of the mattress, the figure seeped out of one of the tall bedposts like a ship’s figurehead, arms stretching toward Ian with the same hopeless reach as the carved figures tangled around the posts.

“No!” Ian clenched his fingers around the bedclothes. “I’m not hiding! I’m tired of this. Leave me alone and let me sleep. You have nothing to do with me!”

The figure stopped, still reaching but coming no further toward him.

“I mean it! I don’t even know you! Whatever you think about me, it’s all in your head. None of it is real.” Just irritated enough to be bold, Ian climbed back into bed, pulled the covers up to his chest, and said, “Now good night! I don’t want to see you again.”

The figure retreated back into the bedpost.

Even so, once the irritability faded from him, Ian was too wakeful. The half-open window rattled under the pressure a particularly strong wind gust and slammed shut of its own accord. With the window closed, the restless hotel’s groans became more distinct. Creak, groan, growl, as if Adelaide House were an ill-tempered and arthritic old man. Some of the surges of creaking had the splinter of wood in them. He wondered if the floor might give way. Every so often, Ian was sure he heard someone far away, screaming. And all night through, the hollow eye sockets of the people carved into his bedposts stared at him hungrily.

It was nearly four in the morning when he gave up any pretense of sleeping, stepped into the shower and then dried and dressed for the day. His first plan was to attempt to find the dining room again; failing that, he decided to visit the gardens, if he could find his way to the front door. Wearily he stepped out of his room and realized with some disorientation that somehow his room was at the end of the hallway instead of halfway down it as he remembered from the previous day. He followed the hallway in the only direction available to him: straight ahead. At the intersection, he smelled coffee brewing and turned toward the scent.

“Morning, honey,” Bets called out to him from behind the kitchen counter. “You’re up early. How do pancakes sound?”

Ian smiled weakly. “I’ll eat as many as you can make.”

“Rough night?”

“You’ve got that right.” He gazed over the kitchen layout. A book lay open with its spine raised for inspection at the edge of the counter. “Poe? How can you read Poe in a place like this?”

“I like a good chill up my spine,” said Bets cheerfully. “This is the safest place I’ve ever lived, so why not here? There’s nothing evil in this house, except what you bring in with you.”

“That’s what Carl said.”

“Because that’s what Miss Adelaide says. She said you’d be wanting an early breakfast. You got put in the room with the haunting bed, didn’t you? What did you see?”

Ian leaned his elbows on the table. “There’s this girl. She used to live downstairs from me, but I had to move because she was starting to creep me out. She’d turn up at my door with cookies and meals and flowers, only soon it was vases and pictures and small pieces of furniture and curtains, like she was going to move in. I don’t even know her first name,” he added in disbelief. “The name on her mailbox was ‘Koszewski’ or ‘Kozminski,’ or something Polish like that. After I moved, it only took her two weeks to find me. She got people to let her into the building so she could knock on my door. Just before I came here, she vandalized my editor’s car because Sid took me with her to interview somebody at a restaurant. She turns up everywhere. You know, I wasn’t even surprised when she started coming out of the woodwork– literally– last night,” Ian laughed. “She does it everywhere else.”

Bets set down a plate of pancakes and a bottle of syrup in front of him. “You know why that bed’s called the haunting bed? Anybody who tries to sleep in it gets to face whatever has them tied down inside. The woman who had it before you– some stuck-up woman with an impossible body and a long name, she didn’t talk to me much– she had a worse night than you did, if you’ll believe it.”

“Hamill-Jefferson,” murmured Ian between mouthfuls.

Bets sat down opposite Ian. Propping her chin in one hand, she watched him eat. “I bet you think this is a hotel, don’t you? Most of them do when they come here the first time.”

Ian swallowed hard. “What do you mean? Isn’t it?”

“Not a bit,” Bets laughed. “It’s a private house. It’s Miss Adelaide’s house. She’ll never turn away anyone who needs a place to stay, so the rest of us got used to it. It’s how most of us came here in the first place. She lives like a hermit at the top of the house, but she can’t leave people alone, not if they’ve got something going wrong inside their heads. She’s a shrink of some kind, and a good one. That woman before you, she was the sort who blames everything on everybody else. She held grudges against all kinds of people, and every last one of them turned up in the haunting bed for her to face. Ooh, you should have seen her. She had a total meltdown. If it wasn’t for Miss Adelaide, I don’t know what might have happened.”

“Wait,” said Ian. “If this isn’t a hotel… Mrs Hamill-Jefferson said it was expensive.”

“You’d better believe it was expensive for her. She broke an antique chair, threw it against the wall in a rage and broke it all to pieces! Oh, Carly was mad at her. She broke the mirror in the bathroom too. And if that wasn’t enough, she clawed the doctor right across the face with those painted nails of hers! I’ll say it was expensive. Carly wasn’t going to let her get away without what he calls ‘just reparations.’ Not on your life, he wasn’t! So he sent her the bill. That chair she broke was worth fifteen hundred dollars by itself,” Bets said with a chuckle. “All because she couldn’t face up to her own guilt.” She studied Ian’s face for a moment. “We’ve got another like that one here now. Miss Adelaide’s been dealing with her. From what I hear, she came right after Carly took you up to your room. I hear she claimed you recommended her to come here and tried to get the room next door to yours for herself.”

Ian set down his fork with a clatter. “No. Not her. Not here.”

“Don’t you fret, honey. Didn’t I tell you Miss Adelaide’s been dealing with her? You think you had a rough night… More pancakes?”

Much of Ian’s appetite had faded, but he held out his empty plate anyway so as not to dampen Bets’ good mood. He picked at his second helping. His hand flinched when, much nearer at hand than during the night, a rising scream of horror echoed through the house. “What–?”

Bets was quick out the door, so Ian pursued her to the foyer. There a strange tableau held him shocked motionless: the pale, thin woman whom he had encountered in the hall earlier loomed over a crawling body that hardly seemed human. It was the crawling figure that uttered such chilling screams. A bloodied mouth and chin was all the face that could be seen through hanks of sweat-matted long brunette hair. Bloodied fingertips scratched against the floorboards in a vain effort to propel the figure across the floor. Soon words became intelligible through the screams: “No, no, not him! It isn’t true! It can’t be true! I didn’t eat him! Tell me I didn’t…” The figure wept and howled.

Serene through the grotesque spectacle, the pale woman crouched down so that her gauzy skirts pooled around her feet. “Is it not true in its own way? The dreams you suffered have truth in them.” She spoke evenly, although often her voice was lost beneath the frenzy. “It is your own irrational hunger that frightens you.” Then, lifting her head, she spoke in the same level tone. “Carlos? Have you gotten through yet?”

Ian started to find Carl standing near him, phone in hand. He was nodding. “Doctor? It’s Carl up at the house. Miss Adelaide has someone she needs your help with. Yes… yes… thank you, Doctor.” He hung up. “He’s on his way.”

They stood around the feral figure until a car’s tires screeched at the curb outside. A man entered, an older man in scrubs and a white coat. “That didn’t take long,” he said to the pale woman without prelude.

“Because it was not far below the surface in this one,” she replied.

“Let me.” Carl moved her respectfully but firmly to one side and helped the doctor lift their maddened guest in a semi-carry out through the front door.

The pale woman closed the door behind them. Then, as calm as ever, she addressed Ian. “I believe she will not trouble you any longer, Mr Navarro-James.”

“That… that was her? My stalker?” Ian gaped at the woman. “Who are you?”

“I am Adelaide House.”

“What did you do to her? Did you let her stay, just so you could drive her crazy?”

“Drive her crazy?” Adelaide House regarded Ian with patient interest. “No one can do that to another. If I did anything, it was to lift her mental illness out into the open where it could be treated. You yourself know that she was far from healthy. And you? Has your stay ‘driven you crazy,’ as you put it? No. You are a well-balanced, if rather timid young man. When faced with the evil that haunted you, you confronted it openly and refused it dominance over you. Well done,” she added.

“Uh… thank you?” Bewildered, Ian could only watch her walk away.

After a while, the draft from the front door reminded Ian that he was still standing where she had left him. Bets had gone, but Carl was returning from rendering assistance to the doctor. The older man said, as if it had all been perfectly normal, “Were you needing to stay more than just the one night? If you were, Miss Adelaide will make room for you somewhere.”

Ian stammered a bit before he found his wits. “Yes,” he said at last. “I think I do need to stay longer. I don’t understand any of this at all.”

“Then I look forward to seeing where the house takes you,” was Carl’s reply.

4
Mar

Writing Challenge: Week 9

Author’s Note: I blame this one entirely on Allen’s Brain, who has always been something of a bad influence on me. (Yes, the title is a pun, as befits a story inspired by such a fiendish mind.)

**

Betta Noire

by H. M. Snow

I say to people how I can take trouble or leave it alone, but in truth I just can’t leave it alone. Trouble loves me, and who am I to turn away an admirer? This time, trouble came in the shape of a blue-eyed blonde. Funny, isn’t it, how that ends up being the case so often. I should have known the first time I laid eyes on that dame, but I just couldn’t read trouble in her pretty face. When I first saw her, she was walking past the windows, looking in like she wished she was one of us. Now, I’ve known plenty of janes before, most of them in the old country, and all of them shared the same tattered and tawdry glamour and glassy stares, quicker to fight than a two-bit welterweight trying to make a name for himself. This dame was different. My eye caught hers. Next thing I knew, she had her hand pressed to the glass in front of me. She had slender fingers, lightly golden like sunrise over still water. I was hooked.

That’s when the trouble started. Somebody threw a bag over my head. I’m still not sure what happened after that, except to know I was shook up pretty bad by the time they dumped me in a little room, unoccupied but for the blonde and me. I reversed as far from her as possible, not knowing what she meant to do next.

She smiled. Those mesmerizing blues held me in their gaze. “You are a looker,” she said. “I’m glad I picked you. What shall I call you, hm?”

“You can call me a cab out of here,” I snarled. “Now.”

The dame acted like she couldn’t hear or understand me. “Beau. That’s what I’ll call you.” She dug around inside a cheap plastic shopping bag and produced a small cannister wrapped in gaudy colors. I thought I saw a mugshot of a cousin of mine on the side of the cannister, just for a second. The blonde unscrewed the lid. “Are you hungry, Beau?” She shook the cannister above me. Whatever was in it hissed a little.

My brain jumped to, Snake! and sent my body shooting across to the opposite corner of the room. I didn’t feel any easier in my mind when I saw nothing but a couple grains of food floating down toward me. I’d heard stories of dolls who like to slip a little something into a guy’s food. I’m no chump. I stayed away from the food, though my gut was hollow and my mouth couldn’t recall the last time it tasted a morsel.

The blonde kept watching me. After a few minutes, she got bored with that, turned away and set about straightening the rest of the place. That was the first time I gave a thought to what was outside my little cell. It wasn’t a palace, that’s for sure. One cramped closet stood open to reveal clothes on hangers jammed together inside it. A heap of shoes lay at the bottom of the closet. Across from the closet was a bed, covers rumpled. My cell stood on a bedside table, or something like a table, with a potted sansevieria overshadowing me. The wall opposite me had a tiny window, but that was no help to me because of the drawn curtains.

When she was done straightening, the blonde stretched out on her bed. She put in a call to somebody, as if I wasn’t there to overhear. “I did it,” she declared. “I got one. Come over sometime and have a look at him. I named him Beau. He’s cute.”

Cute, eh? I thought with a chuckle. That dame didn’t know what she’d got herself into– me, a fighter from way back, a champion fighter back in the old country. Hadn’t they kept me separate from the rest of my kin, due to all the fights I won? And I won without taking a single scar, except on my forehead where I tackled big Aran head-first that time. ‘Cute’ indeed. The fighting instinct went to my head. I crouched down low, gathered my strength, and shot up as high as I could and as fast as I could. It was easy to clear the surface.

The blonde screamed as I leaped out of my cell and hurtled toward the window. The table was higher than I’d calculated, though, and I fell a long way, fell real bad. The floor hit me like a headbutt to the belly and knocked the wind right out of me. I writhed and fought for breath on the carpet.

“Beau!” The blonde knelt beside me. Her delicate golden-tanned fingers scooped me up and carried me back to the cell, lowered me into the water, lingered in a worried caress. All the while, she crooned over me like I was her only baby. She picked up a pierced metal panel and laid it over the top of my cell. Drying her hands on her thighs, she retrieved the phone from where she had dropped it in her panic. “He jumped! I forgot to put the cover on the tank, and he jumped straight out! I didn’t know bettas could do that! It startled me. He looks okay now, though. I’m glad. Yeah, it was amazing! Straight up and over, like it was nothing to him.”

What a dame. She’s going to take some watching. That’s when I started to think, Maybe this setup isn’t so bad after all. I mean, who am I to say no to trouble? Trouble loves me.

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