These palm clutched coins
too precious for parting,
but needs must.
Last year I took part in the NYC Flash Fiction Challenge and came tenth (I think it was) in my group overall. Unfortunately this didn’t get me through to the second round, but for a first try I was pretty happy with that result and it was a valuable learning experience.
Today I signed up for the 2019 challenge and though I have another look at the second of my flash fiction submissions from last year. If I remember correctly, my group was given the genre of drama, our object was salami, and our setting was possibly circus but I could be making that up.
Since I was no longer focused on writing a piece of flash to fit with the prescribed prompts, I decided to focused solely on ensuring the piece stayed under 1,000 words without losing the original plot. Fair warning, it’s somewhat dark.
The circus crowds poured out in waves of warmth and laughter, ushered past the gates by stout men in dark jackets. Tucked inside the shadows beyond the spill of the gas lamps Emeline smoothed her skirts in an excuse to work some of the feeling back into her fingers. The fabric stung against her grazed palms, but she pressed more firmly, focusing her attention on the burn.
James weight shifted beside her and she titled her head a touch to watch him. He followed the movement of the crowd carefully, lips moving as he counted.
‘Near enough,’ he said and snatched her hand. Gravel burrowed deeper and Emeline swallowed her cry. Screaming never helped.
The wide road between the edge of the city and the docks was almost empty now, but she ducked her head anyway as they skirted past the few remaining dawdlers. James quickened his pace as small, squat man with a heavy chain wrapped around his fist ambled towards the gates. He drew them together and looped the chain through the bars. James hand came down on top of it.
‘Wait, we’re here to see Madam Hammerish. She’s expecting us.’ Sweat glittered across James’ top lip and there was a tremble in his hand.
‘No Madam Hammerish here,’ said the short man. ‘Show’s all done too, should have got here by seven to see it.’ He rattled the chain. ‘Let go laddie.’
‘We made an appointment,’ James begged. ‘We have the rest of her payment!’
The little man paused and glanced at Emeline.
‘The boss doesn’t like it,’ he said slowly. ‘Thinks she’s asking for trouble with what she does. But that hag has a way about her and I don’t need her cursing my balls for harmin’ her trade.’
The chains came loose with a clatter and the little man pulled one gate open enough so James could pull Emeline inside. When she caught his eye, he flinched.
‘Touch of the witch about her too,’ he muttered and closed the gate behind them. He threaded the chain through and clicked the padlock into place.
‘Here,’ he said and passed James the key. ‘Just lob it back over after you’re gone. Wouldn’t do to have it go missing and all.’
James took the key from him and pocketed it.
‘Don’t get lost. I ain’t coming to find you if yous do.’
Careful not to look at Emeline again he turned towards the tents.
Not waiting to see the man vanish from sight James pulled away and steered her towards the other end of the camp.
‘In here,’ he said, once they had reach the further row of tents. He let go of her wrist and pushed her through a narrow opening. The rug caught beneath her feet and she stumbled.
‘You’re late.’ The old woman scowled toothlessly at them, her nails digging into Emeline’s arms where she had caught the girl. Behind her was a tiny space, stained green by the fabrics draped across a hanging lamp. There was no bed, only a hammock slung between two posts, and a scattering of threadbare cushions across a stained carpet.
Emeline felt her stomach flip.
James came in behind Emeline and placed his hands on her shoulders. ‘Madame Hammerish. It was good of you to make time for us. We appreciate it.’
Madame Hammerish’s scowl stretched into a smirk as he brought his purse around Emeline and held it out.
‘Over there,’ she ordered, and pointed to the cushions on the floor. ‘Best to get these things over and done with. It shouldn’t take too long.’
James hands moved down to Emeline’s shoulders and urged her towards the spot.
‘Wait, no!’ The words sprung out before Emeline could stop them. ‘I don’t-’
He spun her and the slap threw sideways, upending the room around her. No, it was wasn’t the room she realised as her skull thudded against something solid.
James brought his boot to her stomach and kicked the thoughts from her head.
‘Behave,’ he warned.
Bile came up and Emeline choked.
‘Get up,’ he said. He watched her crawl to her knees and then directed her into place with the toe of his boot. The cushions smelt of mildew and Emeline shuddered as Madame Hammerish followed her to the ground, wizened hands grasping at the fabrics of her skirts.
It was cold in the tent and the skin on her thighs prickled.
‘Just lie down and when this is over your gentleman friend can take you home safe and sound,’ Madame Hammerish soothed.
James came to kneel above her head, hovering above her.
She wanted to say no, refuse the brush of the woman’s arm against her calf, the metal inching closer.
She fisted her fingers in the loose material around her bodice, the slight curve of her stomach firm and real beneath her palms.
‘This will be almost painless,’ promised the old woman.
Painless, thought Emeline, closing her eyes.
That was what James had told her when he still had the energy to pretend long enough to lure her into a room alone. It only hurt when it was someone you didn’t love. That was the lie he had spun for her.
‘Here we go,’ said Madame Hammerish and she nodded to James. His hand closed over Emeline’s mouth.
‘It’s for the best,’ he said. ‘Trust me.’
Madame Hammerish’s hand touched her thigh and then higher.
No, thought Emmeline.
It wasn’t and she’d didn’t.
This was wrong.
All of it.
‘For the best,’ James repeated.
Then the pain began.
The yarn unwound until they were past the horizon, swallowed up by stars and darkness, the rowboat’s oars stirring infinity.
‘We’ve run out,’ said Eli, and when Carter checked he too confirmed that the yarn had unravelled as far as it would.
‘So, we have a choice. Reel ourselves in, return to shore or go on without the yarn.’
Eli nodded slowly, carefully, thumb and forefinger pinched.
‘On,’ he agreed, and let go.
No matter how he wrapped the blankets around himself, the wind found a way through the fabric.
When he’d been here before it was summer. Bright and green, the pass lined cherry blossom and blackberry brambles. The other men on the pilgrimage had ignored the fruit, chosen instead to set up camp on a rocky outcrop and dine on the tough heels of bread they’d brought with them. James had spent an afternoon with purple juice staining his hands and mouth. When he was done, he’d cleaned himself in the stream than ran close by, marvelling at how cool and crisp the water felt across his tongue.
Now the stream was little more than a strip of ice, the brambles only thorns.
Perhaps, James thought, he was seeing the truth of it at last. The beauty of before was only a trick designed to lure him in, distract him from the death that was waiting for him, now he could see it all he could see what this place truly meant.
The wind screamed through a gap in the rockface and into James’ hiding spot, ripping him from his thoughts. He shivered and tried to adjust the blanket. It didn’t help. What would help would be a fire, but he didn’t dare light one for fear someone would see the light from outside and follow it right to him. That was the whole point of him hiding in this frozen hell hole after all, the avoid someone finding him and taking away what he knew. He could risk freezing to death if he meant avoid that.
Without a fire he could also pretend that the pack by his feet wasn’t empty. What was left of his rations had gone past the point of rescue. For a few days he had risked picking off the green fur and dark spots, but now there was more to pick off then there was to eat, and the smell turned his stomach as soon as the bag was opened.
He would find something to eat when morning came, he told himself. He’d managed to set snares outside his hiding spot. His fingers were bleeding by the time he’d completed them, and they did not look like much, but they might prove to be his salvation if anything did stumble past. He would risk a fire then, just for long enough to cook whatever he caught and then he’d douse the flames, scatter the evidence. He was learning how to make it look like he’d never been a place at all.
Under the blanket he moved his hand to the pendent around his neck. Prayer had always been his mother’s answer to all life’s problems and for a while he’d followed suit, managing to find some comfort in blind devotion. She’d been proud when he joined the order, proud when he took his vows to serve without question, to do as he was bid by the gods, to take the oracles at their word.
For the first time he was glad she was taken from him when she was. It would have broken her to see him betray everything that she had stood for.
He let the pendent go.
Perhaps he deserved to die in this place.
The he heard it. The soft snick of shale shifting beneath a foot, almost swallowed by the howling of the wind but very much there.
James fumbled for the blade he’d left on the floor beside him. He knocked the handle and flinched as it clattered into the wall. There wasn’t time to reach again, the hand came down on his throat, the knee in his gut. His skull bounced off the rock, sparks flickering across his eyes as the pain blossomed, followed by warmth at last. He was bleeding he realised slowly.
‘Stay there,’ his assailant hissed.
James swallowed and nodded, felt the hand retreat.
He cried out as space before him burst into flames, the light burning his eyes.
‘Child,’ muttered the attacker. ‘It wouldn’t hurt you if you’d not hidden yourself away in the dark for so long.’
The flames dimmed and James blinked rapidly, trying to restore his sight to normal.
The voice caught that time, tugging at something in his memory.
‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that.’
He found himself looking up at a pair of eyes he knew, eyebrows drawn together in concern as she reached out with the hand that wasn’t holding her flames to run her fingers through his hair.
‘You can sit up now,’ she said.
James nodded and did as he was told.
‘Are you here to kill me?’ he asked, allowing her to pull him forward into her chest so she could get a better look at the wound.
‘Kill you? What are you on about? You were the one trying to pull a knife on me.’ She poked the wound and made him gasp. ‘This will need stitching. Holding still.’ She leant him against the wall and shrugged her own bag off her shoulders.
‘I needed to protect myself,’ he told her.
‘From who James? You ran off without telling anyone, now I find you half frozen on the Gods’ Path. What were you trying to do?’
James ducked his gaze and stared at ground beneath his feet.
‘James, answer me.’
He lifted his gaze and felt the lump in his throat grow. ‘Ashia,’ he breathed, ‘How did you… where… I…’
‘James,’ Ashia spoke softly and closed the distance between them. ‘Do you know where you are right now?’
His mouth moved but no words came.
‘Sweetheart, talk to me, please.’
‘Ashai.’ His words were a whimper. ‘I think I’m lost.’
I’d forgotten about Story Shack and their plethora of writing prompts. The one above is a particularly good one to pop out of their prompt generator, though I’m not sure the piece above does it justice. Either way it got my writing tonight and the practice will do me good.
I actually think I might hold onto this one and work it into something longer. My current WIP is proving to be almost impossible to get back into so I’ve been debating trying something new for a few months. I think this might be it.