A City called Safety

 As the light of the setting sun glints off the city’s steel facades, an explosion of movement spreads across the landscape. Those few seconds lend a magnification of power, gifting precious energy to those who were trapped outside when the blast hit.

Just as quickly as it began, where moments before was a flurry of noise, stillness falls. Occasionally a grain of sand gets carried closer by short-lived breezes. Then the sound starts. Lungs torturously filling themselves with the oxygen expended moments before. Moans of agony escape chapped lips as muscles rebel against the forced action. And then they wait, yet again, for the next day’s only reprieve.

If desperation had a taste, it’d be flesh and dust and sand mixed together, but taste is hard to sense over the stench of the rotting corpses littering the running field. The ones who didn’t make it this far. Those on the outskirts know that taste. They know they’ll never make it in time, not before they wilt or waste or get picked off by the roiling clouds along the horizon.

Those clouds inch closer every day. The acid rain rolls languidly along, melting everything it comes into contact with as it approaches the city. That’s what Safety was intended for. To withstand the predicted acid rain. But the blast came too soon, locking the populace in throes of despair with their beacon of hope but a shiny wish on the horizon. All that’s left is that daily frantic burst of speed. That one hope.

A thing at my feet whimpers, and I reach down with a twist of my hand to silence it. The sickening crunch is followed by the thud of the body and I smile. The sun can’t reach in here – it can’t touch me or my meals. I stand and watch, waiting for my food to reach me. The incoming supply is being delectably roasted out there.

I wonder what they’ll think of this city they call Safety.

Interstellar Incorporated

The cryptosand beneath my feet glows with bioluminescent algae, the windows dynamically created to form paths beneath the swirling white waves of the Interstellar Inc Headquarters. It’s a bit ambitious of a name, when we haven’t even cracked our solar system’s shell, but give us time. The paths to the star aren’t as clearly marked as the glowing patches that lead me step by step to the launch prep room.

I shouldn’t have snuck out last night, but I had to say goodbye. I owed her that much. It’s not like we ever had a future together, with my leaving the planet for the next nine years and all. That’s assuming nothing goes wrong and I even survive. Even now, with all the safety protocols and fancy devices we have, people still die in space. Radiation, collisions, equipment malfunctions, even sabotage and terrorism are always possibilities. I knew the risk when I signed up, but I had as many stars in my eyes back then as there are out there, and no one had laid a finger, much less anything else, on my heart.

Would I change my mind?

She’d asked me, and I’d hesitated. That hesitation was all the answer she really needed, not hearing my stammered explanations. I couldn’t. I have no other options, even now.

I belong there, as I’ve never belonged here. The ice fields of Europa, while bitter and hostile and deadly, sing their siren song far louder than anything on old Earth. It’s stronger than the lure of her kisses, of her touches, of her breath on my neck, of our hair twining together against the sheets. It’s stronger even than the cracks through my heart at leaving her.

I strap myself into the life support gear, the helmet shifting to fit just so. It’s quiet, beneath the senseless banter we throw around like a beach ball at a bonfire. The words are meaningless, coating the real thoughts with sugar to make them palatable.

What we say: I shouldn’t have had those burritos last night. My suit had to go up three sizes.

What we mean: I’m starting to regret this already.

What we say: We’ll be the ones regretting it when you start off gassing.

What we mean: We’re all frightened.

What we say: It still smells better than your momma.

What we mean: I’m going to miss it here.

My jumpsuit and built in life support clings to me as I enter the capsule. As I leave her behind, the only words on my mind are the flight checklist and “all systems go”.

If she is still here, if she still calls my name when I return… Then maybe.

The launch goes as smoothly as launches ever do; that is to say, two minutes of hell, 6 minutes of holding our breath, and then the release of utter joy.

Still, it will take 2 years, 6 months, and 25 days for us to get there, spend 3 years researching, and another 2 years, 6 months, and 29 days to return. The few extra days are for prelanding checks before we reenter the atmosphere. Just to make sure we don’t explode after traveling 1,256.6 million kilometers and waste all that fresh water.

There’s nothing like it left here. The chemically synthed water just doesn’t do it for the elite, and they wouldn’t lower themselves to drink water from the chemical sludge once called oceans.

It’s good enough for me, and for her.

I have to get her out of my mind.

There isn’t enough space in the galaxy to run from the ache inside me.

Still, I see her face in my every dream. And still, all those years later, when I land, her gravity will pull me back again. It always does.

January Fireside Chat

Smiley face

Did you have an idea for this one right off when you sat down to write this, or did you have trouble coming up with your story?

KT: Actually I didn’t. I kind of went into it blind. My only vague notions was personification of the snow encased sakura blossom. And well, you saw what I came up with 😉

Becca: I pretty much never have an idea straight off, even for the prompts I pick. I always have to stare at it when I’m under the gun and see what pops up.

Leigh: Strangely, I always have ideas right off. Maybe that’s why I keep getting ahead. 😉 Sometimes I actually go through 3 or 4 ideas before I really settle on which one I want to do.

We’ve been doing this for a while now. Any ideas of things you’d like to change up or do differently? Anything you really like that we do?

KT: I think I’d like to see us use some like first lines or something. Where we all pick a first line, or phrase that has to be the first thing in the story – and see where each of us takes it. Text based can inspire so differently than pictures. I’d also like a song round for us. Each of us picks a song and we all use said song as inspiration for that month.
I do love that every time we take a picture and use it as a prompt, we all pretty much come up completely different ideas etc

Becca: I mean, I think it continues to be a good way to stretch and try out new ideas on a smaller scale. It’s good practice, and it really helps me experiment.

Leigh: That could be fun, KT! We’ll have to play with that. 😀
Have you changed how you’re picking prompts as we go on?

KT: Not really. I need to see the picture and think ooooo – and that’s basically how I do it. It’s a gut feeling thing. Always is with me.

Becca: Not really. I just go into our prompt pool and surf the photos until something stands out to me. If there’s a few of them, then I try to factor in past prompts and silly things like what season it is to figure out which one would be best.

Leigh: Yeah, I’ve been keeping the seasons in mind too. You guys are lucky, I was joking with one of my other friends about picking a picture of a robot hugging a duck as a prompt, just to see what you would do with it! I resisted. Barely. 😉

Any other thoughts?

KT: I’d actually like it if once in a while we could get a guest writer to pick a prompt and then do their own take on their picture as well. Maybe on a 5 Friday month or two. I think that could be fun.

Becca: I know the idea was to post something every week, but I’m wondering if these Q&As are adding much? The stories seem to go over pretty well, but these discussion posts don’t really pull the same kind of pageviews.

Leigh: Thanks lovelies! I know it was short notice this month, I’d thought today was going to be February, so THANK YOU for the scramble! I’m all in favor of guest posts, any volunteers out there? SPEAK UP! 😀

Under the Rain of Petals

The flowers drip petals into my hair and onto my face. Soft, blushing pink. They remind me of you.

Of the first day we met, the cold brushing rose across your cheeks, your nose.

Snow all around us, painting the village with clean white.

You did not say anything, but you picked up the basket I had dropped and smiled. Strange now to think of how I felt at your first smile. Like shattering. Like standing on the beach and holding your breath in that eternal moment between when the waves crest…and when they crash down on the sand and rush up around your toes.

Some part of me always felt that way when you smiled. Even after it became more familiar to me than my own face.

We met in winter, but it was spring where we fell in love. With the wind rippling the grass and the flowers exploding in little bursts of color. You walked with me over the hills, along the cliffs, under the trees. We stood beneath a rain of cherry blossom petals, and you kissed me and I became a burst of color. I melted into the wind and into you.

When I laid down in the shade, I brought you down with me. I drew you inside me. We did not get up again for hours and hours.

The summer was warm and lazy and long in your arms. Sunshine bright on the water. Your hands on my skin. Your breath on my neck. Dappled shadows across your face. I can still feel summer inside me. I never wanted it to end. I’m holding onto it even now.

Even now, anata

The snows came again. They piled deep around us for months, and I stayed with you. I kissed your nose, pink with cold, and you laughed.

I should have stayed there in you laughter.

But I left. For something… It seemed so important then, but I cannot remember why now.

I cannot remember anything but you.

My hand is red when I raise it to my face — red against the rain of petals all around me. I think there used to be pain — along the back of my head, deep in my stomach where the branch pierced me at the end of my fall — but there is no pain now. I was cold once, too, from the snow, but I do not feel the cold now.

I wish you were here now. To be shattered by your smile one more time. To burst into color from your kiss.

I close my eyes and smell cherry blossoms.

I hold my breath and wait for the crash of the waves.

Before Now

I saw it in her lines, in the soft fall of her pale hair, in the curls that hung just the right way accentuating her eyes and nose. It was there in the soft rosy tint highlighting her cheeks and lips. Those lips and their penchant for turning down, a slight frown marring an otherwise perfect face.

It was always there, in the way her delicate fingers danced over the keys of a piano, holding the bow to a violin, or caressing skin she had no right to be touching – to rouse feelings no one human should be able to inflict on another.

In the gentle flutter of her eyelashes and that coy way she wound everyone around those same delicate fingers, tugging with deceptively strong hands to tighten the noose once she bound you to her. Pulling you closer and closer until you wanted to suffocate, or give into her every whim.

I always did and I gave up my world for her, for one look of approval from that otherwise icy expression. For just one sign that I melted her exterior, found her inner warmth. But even though I glimpsed it, there was never any permanence. Just fleeting temptation of what she never let anyone truly experience.

Controlling, but in a way no one saw until they were under her spell. Like magic, but real, and just as deadly. Sakura in name, and in nature, fleeting and yet consistent. Beautiful and tasty, hurt by the winter she could never overcome.

By the winter she would always imitate in the hopes that no one realized her true self. Empty and lifeless, like snow clinging to the branch before the spring light sends it plummeting to be devoured by the hungry ground around it.

The snow has melted and the frown is gone from her lips. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her truly at peace with herself.  Dressed in lace and satin, she’s made up like a porcelain doll.

I lean down to kiss her cold, dead lips, my knuckles white as I grip the sides of the casket. If only she could have shown us this beauty before now.


When the first snows begin to fall, my valley is coated in silence. The river crusts over quickly, the slow trickle not enough to keep the top flowing long against the insistence of the ice. The trees are bare already, the bright hues of autumn faded away with the last lingering remnants of warmth. Nothing remains but the white of the snow and the smoke rising from my chimney. My stores are full: venison and rabbit salted and jerked and dried, vegetables wrapped in burlap, jars of preserves lining the wall and herbs dangling from the ceiling to brighten up the dark winter days. This valley is bountiful, and it is all mine. No one disturbs me here.
That’s just how I like it.

It’s not that I hate people, but you can’t hear the flowers when surrounded by the noise of people living. Flowers are peaceful, with a rhythm all their own when they sing. Their songs are honey and colors, scent and softness. Now, when the snow falls and coats the barren trees, the flowers hum only lightly, lost in the dreams of winter. The only noise interrupting them is me and Kit, my hound. He whines as I open the door, watching the snow fall. He hates the cold. It never bothers me. Nothing does these days. My life goes by in a dance of seasons, each drawing inexorably to the next. Winter is the intermission before the symphony of spring.

Near the end of winter, the cherry blossoms play the interlude, coaxing the daffodils from their snow-covered slumber. And every year, they make me cry, for it is another year.. No. It is impossible. The cherry blossoms are far, far from now, and the winter winds sing a lullaby through the trees.
There is little left to do now, but keep chopping wood, so I do. Cracks echo from the walls, a snare drum to the heartbeat of the valley.

My axe pauses, the feeling the stutter stop of another heart coming too close. They don’t know I’m here, they can’t. The ground whimpers at the touch of unfamiliar footfalls, but while I cringe, they are far away still, far enough not to immediately flee. That doesn’t stop my heart from quickening to spring speeds and sending my hands quivering as I flee into my cabin.

The steps come closer, down the mountain trail that soon will be impassable with snow and ice until well after the cherry blossoms fall. At the rate the snow is falling, it won’t be long at all until my valley is safe for the winter. If I had anywhere else to go, I’d hide from this strange interloper, but in this steady snowfall, there’s no other option. I am not a cherry tree, to blossom through the ice.

Finally, the stranger’s steps pause, but they’re too close, practically right outside my cabin. My heart skitters in my chest, the axe clutched in my hand heavy. Could I use it? I’ve never had to, no one in these years has dared to intrude on the witch of the valley.

“I have journeyed to the end of the world for you. Will you open your doors to me?” The voice is no stranger’s, though it has been long indeed since it last caressed my ear.

My heart soars like an eagle, the axe falling carelessly to clatter on the timber floor as I throw open the door to the one person I could ever imagine sharing my valley with, the man I sent away on an impossible quest so long ago for fear of my heart breaking.

He stands with a cherry tree limb in his hands, the flowers bright pink and wrapped in snow. “You sent me to find a cherry branch in blossom before the first snows fell. I searched throughout the world until I found it, though now that the snow has begun to fall, you will have to take my word that this branch had begun to bloom before this morning.”

Trembling, I take the branch and let it sing a symphony of my love. As the song spreads, I feel it grow until the whole valley is in bloom. Cherry trees burst into pink blossoms and cloaked in snow shadow daffodils and violets and roses, all shoving snow aside in a riot of colors in celebration as my heart blossoms open.

If it breaks now, I can regrow it.



It settled on the forest across the lake like a crown of clouds, coating the weary fir trees.  Limb by limb the trees were drowned.  I heard the birdsong slowly growing softer and softer.  I imagined I heard the gentle thumps as their bodies hit the earth below the trees.  Maybe some birds were making it out, flying away in fear of the mist.  I doubted it. 

The CDC was dusting the forest with old farm crop-dusters and Forest Service fire-fighting planes.  The birds wouldn’t find a safe haven and any flight would take them through more mist as it slowly drifted to the ground.  That was the point.

The virus had mutated so that any bird could be a carrier without quickly succumbing to the virulent disease.  They could carry the virus and be communicable for weeks with only a 40% mortality rate.  Humans were not so lucky.  We could carry it just as long, infecting most of the people we came in contact with but the mortality rate for the airborne virus was hovering around 90%.  No one had been able to come up with a vaccine for this strain yet, either.  Not that a vaccine would help if you were already infected.

Once the threat was understood, it was too late for most of the world.  The WHO instituted their plans for dealing with a pandemic but the world was already panicking and spreading the disease from person to person and country to country.

The CDC mandated testing and extermination within the poultry industry as a stop-gap effort to eliminate the source of the infection.  Once the first tests started coming back people realized just how screwed we all really were.  Turkeys, ducks and geese were extinct within a matter of weeks.  Chicken populations were hovering at the threshold.  We’d been incubating the damn virus in our own backyard without knowing it was there.  Martial law was declared shortly after I reached our lake house, hoping to hunker down with my family while the virus burned itself out.

Sandy fell sick 2 days after we arrived.  John and Laura didn’t quite understand what was happening or why they couldn’t see mommy.  But it was too late by then; deep down I knew it even if I couldn’t admit it until the symptoms started appearing.  They died in her arms and she gave in to the fever shortly after that.

I watched from across the lake, marveling as the mist slowly flowed across the water.  It lost volume and body the further from shore it went, slowly dissolving into the water.  I could see the bodies of fish slowly float to the top.  The Game and Wildlife people had pulled some strings to save some of the species and were planning on reintroducing them as soon as the lake tested clean again.  If there was anyone still around to follow through by then.

The fever was slowly building in me.  It wouldn’t be long before I started slipping in and out of consciousness.  The planes should be hitting my side of the lake by then, cleaning the world as best they could for whoever would be left to inherit it.

Like Chocolate

Even before the alarm blares across the compound I’m moving to the safehouse. After years of living in fear, my eyes can spy the faintest hints of the mist as it starts rolling in and my body aches with a phantom memory of where the left arm should be.

The water gives us forewarning and allows us to survive.

They might look like harmless tendrils of fog, but just one touch and the skin melts from your body. Trust me. I know. It took my limb, and only luck let them drag me away in time to save what was left.

It took over a decade to find this sanctuary – to find this perfect piece of land that gives us fair warning. As far as we know, we’re the last people left. Mist can be tricky like that. And this lulls you into a false sense of security. We learned fast to assume that all mist was dangerous.

We’ve grown adept at this race against the roiling clouds. Practiced at gathering the children and marching them down below into the air tight, poorly ventilated space we’ll have to spend the next twenty-four hours.

Every time I see those clouds, my mind wanders. To me, with searing agony burned in memories, I’ve always had a fear that it somehow knows. That it watches us. That it’s waiting for something none of us understand.

That it’s more sentient than not.

“Hayley?” My older brother’s eyes are filled with concern he refuses to voice. “You ok?”

“Yeah,” I answer, “Just cold.”

Every person in the compound is assigned a shelter and I watch them as orderly lines stream toward their designated safe areas. Shivers lurch down my spine and make me convulse, just a little. I wish I still had both arms. The need to hug myself is suddenly overwhelming.

Slowly, I turn around. Surely I’m seeing things?

Had I not changed directions at that specific point in time, I don’t think I’d ever have noticed. But it’s too coincidental to not be deliberate. The dull throb in my arm might as well be laughing at me. There is no gap anywhere in the fog as it rings around us. If I listen closely, I can almost hear it cackle with glee.

Any doubts I had of sentience vanish as I hear a straggler screaming in the pain I know all too well. It lingers in my ears as the stone gates close me underneath the earth in our imagined protection.

Just like the doors, it all clicks into place. The fog waits outside our compound, chasing us into our rabbit holes for fun when it needs sustenance – snapping us like a chocolate bar.