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.

Prompt Discussion: November

It’s been a while since the month has had the extra week to do one of the discussion posts. Hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving! We managed to drag our tryptophan coma’d butts together (okay, okay, by an email chain, but still!) to give you a little insight into our processes.

Leigh: OK, so Becca, what made you pick this prompt? KT, what did you think when you saw it?

Becca:To be totally honest, it was so long ago, I don’t really remember! I actually forgot that I picked this one, and I thought one of you had! 😀 But looking at it again, I can see why I probably gravitated toward it–with the starkness of the city all around and these two living focal points: the boy and the plant

KT: My first thought was hmmm, why is he running? Second thought was ooo a green shoot, a green stalk, a bean stalk OOOOO JACK AND THE BEANSTALK 😀

Leigh: Yeah, that’s one of the hazards of us working ahead. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’d work to pick them one at a time for the current month, just given how chaotic our schedules are. There’d be a lot more issues with delays and such then, I suspect. I know at first, I was actually more focused on the space beyond the end of the alley. I was going to do something more with that initially, until I noticed the plant.

How did you progress to your story idea from those first thoughts?

Becca: I mean, I think the obvious question is: why is this boy running? Y’know, the question of who he is and why he’s there and what is this place–those were the drivers. Like most of my stories, I had a first line first, and once that pops into my head, I let it spin out.

KT: I wasn’t too sure how to go about it, but I wanted to incorporate a sense of urgency in the run from the stalk. I mean, it looked purposeful to me, so I wanted it to have a great purpose – both the stalk and the run. Then I got the first couple of lines and it just flowed from there.

Leigh: I loved how we all came up with unique ways of looking at this picture. There was that moment of decision, for me, if he was running away from the plant or towards something else, and I felt like that was the end of the story and beginning of another, but that the plant was a catalyst somehow for both.

Becca, I know you mentioned having trouble with this prompt. Any idea why? KT, were you flummoxed too?

Becca: I think partly I had a little trouble connecting with my own prompt. And then the first few ideas I had were too similar to what you and KT had already put up. In the end, I only found my footing when I let go of the notion of trying to incorporate the plant into the story. I don’t feel like I could’ve added anything more to that that the previous stories hadn’t already done much better.

KT: I was a little flummoxed (which, by the way, is an awesome word). I’d just got through NaNo and still had my head partially in that world. Not all of us are super organized with our prompts like SOME people *cough Leigh cough* So, it took a bit for the idea to germinate and kick in. But once it did, the only trouble I had was getting it to come out the way I wanted. I was pretty happy with it though.

I’m really loving the challenge some of these prompts pose for me. I find that I have to push myself a little harder to see inspiration. It kick starts my brain which helps with the rest of my work. And fitting a story into such a small pace is always difficult. I’m still in awe of how different our end results are from one another.

Leigh: Yeah, I know, I’m almost always ahead. Otherwise I’d be perpetually behind! I kept fiddling with this one, trying to get the voice to do what I wanted. But it came together, slowly but surely. I might have to play with this one’s world more another time, there’s something totally creepy about a place where plants are almost unheard of.

Thanks lovelies! Happy Thanksgiving, happy Chanukah, and let the shopping mayhem commence!

Coughing Beans

We’d always been poor. But Ma and Pa made ends meet. No matter what they had to do. Scrounging for food in dumpsters, begging for food behind restaurants, buying what day old rations they could afford.

The mines didn’t pay well. It was grimey, gritty work. Pa came home with a cough. He was all right, he said. Said it until the day he kipped over, spluttering out mucus and blood all over the threadbare carpet.

One tear ran down Ma’s face, closely followed by a second. But only the first made it to the floor where Pa lay. She wiped the other back fiercely, like she didn’t want it to exist.

With Pa gone, Ma took on more work. Not just sweeping up hair down at Jay’s. The local barber wasn’t enough anymore. I could scrounge for me own food, but the littles? At five and six they couldn’t fend for themselves, and at ten I wasn’t old enough, strong enough, or clever enough to do so.

I tried though. For Jay and for Reno, who owned the rights to the market, I ran errands. Under shop-fronts with their corrugated iron roofs, where you always knew if it was raining, down through the desolate quarter with their holey walls and paper castles. We were poor, but there’s always someone worse off.

My meager pay didn’t help for much. It barely paid for my meals and still I was so dang proud of myself. The littles looked up at me, green eyes round like the fresh apples we couldn’t afford. They clutched at the shiny coins in my hands like I was the most amazing big brother ever.

Until Ma came home and coughed.

She never told me where her other work was. She never told me how much we needed to cover the rent of our shack and its missing corner of the roof.  She never told me anything until I held her, hugged her, and heard the rattling in her chest.

Ma tried to speak. I’m sure she tried to say she was alright. But I knew what happened to Pa when he said that – and the littles and I couldn’t lose Ma. Never. Ever.

There were rumors of course. Of things that could cure. Natural things. And of evil things. Things you had to sell body parts to get. I had a body, and parts. Ma had to live.

Jay said Reno would know. And I’d done Reno favors, so I asked. He watched me, an odd twitch to the eye with the scar running through. Rumor had it he could see into your soul. I always thought he’d done offended the wrong punter.

He watched me while I spoke, while I tried to explain that me and the littles couldn’t manage with Ma sick.

“You’re a big boy now, Jack.” He said, clucking his tongue and twirling the straw in his teeth.

I nodded and waited. There was a man behind Reno, but I couldn’t tell much about him. Each breath he took made his chest enormous. His eyes obscured by the shaggy brows above. A huge hulking shadow. The biggest man I ever saw.

“Tell you what, lad.” The man said and his voice hissed like a snake, deep and haunting to the bone. But I leant forward, because I had to know. “I’ll give you these beans, Jack. They’re magic beans. If you can get them to grow, I’ll help save your mother.”

I stood back and crossed my arms. Maybe I’m just ten, and maybe I’m none too smart, but I’m not completely stupid. “If I can get these to grow, you’ll help me Ma?”

For a moment he was silent, but nodded. “I’ll help your Ma, and you’ll owe me.”

Shivers ran down my spine, but I had to be big, didn’t have time to be a kid anymore. “Done.” I said, spat on my hand and shook with the big man before my courage wore off.

Beans. Couldn’t be too hard to grow, right? Never grew a thing in me life, but all I had to do was find earth dirt. I searched and I ran and I hunted up and down. Through the dead zone where the plagued went to die, through the desolate quarter and all through to the end of the poor… and I found it.

Between the high concrete walls of the outer crumbling buildings, there was a tiny sliver. Just a crack in this otherwise concrete jungle. I fetched stagnant water from a nearby puddle and pushed the beans down into the crack as far as my small fingers let me, and then I upended the liquid all over them.

I didn’t tell Ma, though I bathed her forehead and went without my own food so the littles could eat. They thanked me, eyelashes fluttering like butterflies while Ma suppressed the coughs wracking her thin body as best she could.

It had to grow. It had to grow.

The next morning I went back, with a break in the clouds enough to let sunlight rain down on us for one of the rarer moments we get these days. Where the light shimmers and for once the hope surges through that being poor might not be our sentence, but a better future.

The plant was stronger than I expected, with three buds. Against all those odds, it had grown, was growing, right before my eyes. As quick as I dared, I gave it more water, and watched for a few moments. Must’ve been my imagination, but I swear the concrete had new cracks that weren’t there yesterday.

After double-checking my end of the deal, I began the run to Reno’s market to let the stranger know. I’d just stop by our house on the way, to feed the littles and let Ma know everything would be okay.

Screams reached me long before I reached them.

I watched, hands limp at my sides while snakey man stood watching men drag the littles over their shoulders – kicking and screaming – away from our hovel.

“But I made the beans grow.” I didn’t mean to sound so sad. I didn’t even mean to speak.

“Yes, Jack,  you did. No more worries for you now, not with the littles gone.” His dark eyes look me up and down for a moment and his smile hurt my head with how wrong it was. “Remember you owe me. I’ve taken care of your mother for you.”

A cold pit formed in my stomach and I scrambled to run into our house. Coppery tang hit my nose as I barged in. Blood streaked the room, all the beds, even the meager food supplies.

Ma’s blank eyes gaze up at the open gash in the ceiling.

There is no magic.