“Off with her head!” About the rudest thing I’ve ever heard. So queenly. That’s me. I wear my robes, do what I want and dare to keep the crown on my head. The rabble and nobility alike get angry. And jealous. But some just sit back and smile because they know that a crown-bearing, get-what-you-wanting royal eventually, eventually, comes to no good. And I know it too.
I stand at the top of the royal mound, the card guards scattered about the hillside of the valley. Today I’m hunting a yellow-haired ninny. Ah! I see her now; her bright curls spill over the top of a pen made of mere fives and threes. Can’t feel bad about harm that comes to one silly enough to fall down a hole and share a table with a dormouse.
“Ace! Come here!” I command.
As usual, the Ace of Hearts comes sniveling towards me.
“Not you,” I say.
He backs away; bending so low I can see most of the design on his back. Then the Ace of Diamonds tries to approach. His usual smirk turns to a frown the second my right eyebrow starts to rise. He retreats, taking solace with the usual inappropriate low company — that convivial Jack of Hearts.
Ahh… finally, the fine Ace of Spades approaches. So sleek, so sharp, so useful. He toys with me, he does. I appreciate his cleverness, letting the other Aces show their weaknesses before bringing his bold shape into my presence. He smiles the deadliest of smiles and I know that he knows that I see the crippled Ace of Clubs, still struggling on all corners to climb the hill behind him.
“What is your pleasure, my Queen?”
Out of the corner of my eye I see the Queen of Spades wobble.
“I wish to rid our… my land of fools and foolish invaders.”
“The guards have captured the ninny. We’ve heard tale that she understands The Smiling Cat and has ruined Old Woman Smith’s house by trying it on.” He pauses, then leans in towards me. “And that she drinks water. “ He whispers this last in my ear, so warmly, so close.
“She… it’s a she?” I ask.
“She has pledged to do no harm here in the land that is not her land.”
“Do those who have met her have a taste for her?”
“They report her to be ‘interesting’.”
I see the golden curls turning rapidly this way and that and sense that the ninny realizes that her need to escape grows urgent. More urgent than she could know.
“Ah, then she is dangerous,” I say.
“Wickedly so,” he responds, running his hand along his razor-sharp edge.
“Then we must be rid of her.”
“I am sure that is the fairest thing to do.”
He flatters me. I’m red and cleaved; he’s whole, but we share a point. His up, mine down. We’re a good match.
“At your word.” He bows to me.
“Well, then. Off with her head!” I scream, raising my right arm and swirling my purple royal banner in the air. A great shuffle arises on the fields below as the card guards rush to be the first to the golden flame of curls. The threes and the fives slide away and now, for a moment, I see the ninny in her splendor.
I blush at her simple beauty. But I will have my way.
The ninny attempts to run through the breaches between the cards, but the Jack and Ten of Spades and the Nine of Diamonds stride towards her. I see her plead with them. They knock her flat on her back. Silly weak thing. One by one the rest of the card guard flap up in the air and flop down on her until they are all as one on top of her, up to her neck.
The Ace of Spades still stands.
I begin to descend the hilltop, eager to see the beautiful soft neck of the ninny. (Why are they always so pretty?)
I finally reach the pile. The Ace of Spades nods at me and takes a step back, making way for me to circle the pile. I stop, standing directly behind her head. The muddy, striped hem of my skirt rests atop her curls that are sprayed on the ground around her head. The ninny, red of face, struggles and unintelligible noise seeps from the stretched, soft throat. We look into each other’s upside down face, which is the way it is for those who fall down the hole and up into our land.
I look up. The Ace of Spades has already begun to move. He stands beside me; we share a point of view. With grace and flair he lifts in the air, ever so gently turns on his side and with a great flourish, descends and slices.
’Tis done well.
The Ace of Spades stands, his side glinting scarlet in the lowering sun. As he bows to me he bends a corner, our secret sign. He returns to stand by the Spade Royalty. The King of Spades stands stiffly, the Queen of Spades sighs. The card guards at once rise and form a cart to carry the ninny and her head to the lands beyond, where those with no will dwell.
Janet Savage says: “I am an empty-nester, re-starting the writerly life that I missed. I have a wonderful husband and two splendid children and two dogs. Upon discovering that a genre existed that took advantage of my penchant for brevity and power in stories, I felt validated.”
“Emma, no!” she gasped, her own voice awakening her. Not again. Usually the Ambien knocked her out enough to escape this recurring nightmare, but tonight her sister had invaded even her pink pill dreams.
Avery pulled off her eye mask and stared at the angry red numbers of her digital alarm clock. Two in the morning. She had to be at work in five hours. “Damn it,” she sighed as she struggled to untangle her legs from the sheets and step out of bed. After yanking open the door of her walk-in closet, she flipped on the light and rooted around the top shelf until she grasped the right bottle.
“Thank God for Ambien,” she said, fumbling to open the childproof cap. It took longer than usual, but soon she held one of the small, salmon-colored pills in her palm. She debated going to the kitchen for water, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Besides, she had dry-swallowed much bigger pills than this. Tossing it into her mouth, she caught her reflection in the full-length mirror hanging in the back of the closet.
Her eyes were frightening. Mascara lay smudged beneath thin slits of white sclera and pinpoint pupils. How those eyes stared back at her, so accusing. Before tonight she’d made it a week without popping a sleeping pill. Now she was on her second.
Avery covered her stomach with her free hand as she stood there in her underwear, ribs poking through her skin. She looked sickly these days, was pushing herself too hard again. High school valedictorian, sorority chapter president, now a lawyer in one of the top litigation firms in NYC—it still wasn’t good enough. No matter how much she accomplished, she’d never be able to make up for the death of her sister in her family’s eyes. Her breath caught in her chest as the memory of that night came flooding back to her.
Two-year-old Emma in the living room, giggling as she banged her favorite wooden blocks together. Avery, ten years older, was annoyed her parents had made her stay home to babysit as they dined out with friends. She’d been sitting with Emma on their carpeted floor, half-paying attention to her, half-eyeing the MTV video playing in the background. The phone rang in the kitchen and she’d left her alone for a minute as she went to answer it. The latest rap song was still blaring on the TV when she returned. Perhaps that was why she’d never heard the splash, or the cries Emma had surely made before her tiny body sank down into the depths of their pool. Avery had forgotten about the open patio doors. It had been warm and sticky in the house that night, and she’d unfastened them hoping to let in the cool outside breeze. Hadn’t her mother warned her multiple times against doing that very thing?
Avery’s heart was pounding as it always did when she thought about her sister. She realized she was clutching the pill bottle so tight her knuckles had lost their color. On a sudden impulse she threw the bottle’s contents at her reflection. An explosive pink cloud surrounded her, and then was gone. As the pills hit the hardwood floor, some bouncing a little, some rolling away, she remembered the time her grandmother’s pearl necklace broke one Thanksgiving dinner. That had been five, maybe six years ago, when she still spoke with her family.
“Look at you, so perfect, so happy!” She snarled at the pathetic creature in the mirror, the one drowning in the Ambien and extra large glasses of wine at dinner these days. Like the ones she’d had during her firm’s happy hour tonight, where she charmed and flirted with the senior partners; where she blushed when the silver-haired, recently-divorced gentleman of the bunch commented on her tight dress and slipped her his number. She barely recognized herself anymore.
She sank down onto her knees and scooped a handful of pills up off the floor. She’d never taken more than two before… would she stop breathing like Emma had? Would anybody care? Rolling one in between her thumb and forefinger, she hesitated for only a second before swallowing the rest. “Sweet dreams,” she whispered to her reflection. Time to sleep.
She curled up into a ball, waiting for the sedatives to take effect. As she stared over the tops of her perfectly-arranged shoes, her eyes landed on a forgotten cardboard box tucked away in the back corner. Her mother had mailed it to her last fall. Something about old photos, the letter preceding it had said. At the time Avery had refused to open the package; the past haunted her enough as it was. But now she was desperate to see the faces of her family one last time. She sat up and grabbed it, tearing open the tape with her fingernails.
The photograph on top was of her and Emma a few months prior to her death. They were at a zoo enjoying some ice cream cones. Avery had chocolate all over her lips and a goofy smile. She held her baby sister on her right hip with her free arm. Emma had both hands wrapped tightly around her sugar cone and was gazing up at Avery’s face.
She flipped over the photo, hoping to find the exact date it had been snapped. Instead she found her mother’s handwriting. My little angels. I love you so much, Avery.
She choked back a sob. Was it possible her parents really had forgiven her? She stumbled out of the closet and found her cell phone. She didn’t want to die. Not anymore. One day she hoped to be reunited with Emma, but she needed the chance to tell her parents she loved them, too.
“9-1-1 emergency,” a female operator answered.
She took a deep breath and said what she’d never had the courage to say before, “I need help.”
Rachel Printy lives in NYC where she spends her free time reading, writing, salsa dancing, and trying to teach herself how to whistle. She is thankful to her family, friends, and FWA St. Pete writers group for their feedback and encouragement while creating this story. Rachel’s other pieces “Sucia” and “Polepole” can be found in Reed Magazine issue #68 and Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Think Possible book, respectively.
You’re awake? Good.
Don’t try to move or talk. Just lie there for the time being.
Relax. Drink this.
No? All right. I’ll just leave it here in case you change your mind, Stephen.
Yes, we know who you are.
You’re Stephen Cushman. Age thirty-two. Self-employed software engineer. Husband to Doris. Father of Stephen Junior and baby Michelle.
I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Stephen, but you won’t be seeing your family again. That would put them in extreme danger.
I know, I know. That’s a lot for you to absorb. Just hear me out.
You see, Stephen, you were the victim of a particularly savage attack. You were left for dead in a public place.
Much as I hate to say it, it was one of our people who did this to you.
Fortunately, it was also one of us who found you before anyone else did, and brought you here.
No, this isn’t a hospital, but it is a safe place.
We’re going to help you get through this. I have to warn you, it’s a long process. We’re not talking weeks or months. We’re talking years.
You’re wondering who I am, aren’t you? My name isn’t important. Just think of me as a member of a group, an order, if you will. We’ve been around for a long time.
Throughout history, we’ve been stalked, persecuted, hated.
Over the years, we’ve learned how to blend in, to keep ourselves — what’s the term? — “under the radar.” The one who attacked you may have drawn some very unwanted attention to us. Don’t worry, we’ll find out who it was and deal with him — or her.
We’ve been among you for generations. It’s quite likely some of the people you knew were members of our order. Friends you’ve socialized with. People you did business with. Women you’ve made love to. People you voted for.
How do you feel, Stephen? Are you Hungry? Well, that’s understandable.
No, don’t try to sit up. Hey, quit fighting me, dude; I’m way stronger than you are!
I know how powerful the Hunger is. Right now, you’d gorge yourself on anything. Or anyone. Am I right?
Normally, a simple pinprick is enough to satisfy us. Our “victim” awakes, doesn’t remember a thing and goes on their way with a feeling of mild dizziness or lethargy. They don’t even notice the tiny puncture marks.
The one who attacked you hasn’t learned to control the Hunger. It’s something we try to avoid.
That’s not to say we don’t bring others into our ranks. When we do, we’re much more discreet about it. Mostly loners; people with few or no family ties. And always in a secluded spot.
Are you ready to drink this now? Here.
Careful. Not so fast. Just sip it. Good.
It’s 3 AM. There are a few more hours before dawn. For the time being, you’ll want to limit your activities to the nighttime. In time, you’ll be strong enough to tolerate the daylight. You’ll also build up a resistance to garlic and crosses. Be patient; it only took me a hundred years to get there.
What do you say, Stephen? Feel up to grabbing a bite?
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
C.I. Kemp is the author of two e-novels, Demon Ridge (Barbarian Books) and Autumn Moon (Taliesin Publishing). His short stories have appeared in Under The Bed, Encounters, Isotropic Fiction, and Speculations From New Jersey.
“It’s not that simple, Charli! I can’t just tell them that I don’t want the kid! That I’m too young to handle this responsibility and don’t want it anyway! It’s a child, Charli! It’s my niece.”
“I understand that, Maddox! Believe me, I understand. I’m not trying to be heartless here, and I want the best for that little girl. But what about Isobel’s parents? Shouldn’t they have a right to the kid?”
“But Charli, that’s not my decision! My brother appointed me legal guardian of his daughter. I don’t think this is one of those things I can just decide to pass on! She’s legally my child now. I’m not going to hand her off to people I’ve never met before, just because I don’t think I can handle it.”
“You’ve never met Isobel’s parents? I don’t believe that. Not even at the wedding?”
“Shep said that her parents were dead beats. She was embarrassed by them, and they knew it. So they cut themselves out of her life when she left for Boston U, and hadn’t made contact since. I don’t know the full story, but…”
“Yeah, you can say that again.”
“So you really are all this kid has.”
“There is an option. Child Services comes in two days to do an assessment on me. If they decide I’m not fully equipped to raise a child, they could take her away.”
“Meaning, she gets put up for adoption, and then I guess they play parent roulette for a few months. It’ll be up to the adopting family whether or not I get to see her again.”
“That wouldn’t be your fault, though, you know that right?”
“It’s not about fault, Charli, it’s about—”
“Maddox, you wouldn’t be letting your brother down if that happened. It’s something that’s out of your hands—”
“But it’s my niece, Charli. I’d be letting her down. I don’t expect you to understand. But, in my mind at least, there’s no other option than to take her.”
“Okay, but think it through, Maddox! You just turned twenty-three. You know absolutely nothing about raising a child. You haven’t even had your real world job for a year yet. You’re taking night classes. You don’t have a house, and you never stay longer than two years in one place. You ride a motorcycle, Maddox.”
“So, if you decide to go through with this, all that has to change. All of it. Let’s say everything goes well during the assessment. They decide that you are capable of raising Lindsay. Bam, instant parent. You take a steady job. School will have to wait a few years. You find a bigger apartment, or maybe even a house. You trade in your bike for a Hybrid Crossover SUV or some shit like that. You have to be home every night at a decent hour, because you’ve got a kid waiting for you. And forget about money, because every penny you make is going to feed, clothe, and provide a future for that kid.”
“Look, I get it. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to be a parent. But my brother and his wife didn’t just wake up that day and decide to die, either! There’s no countdown here, Charli. Its just ready or not, here she comes.”
“I know, Maddox. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“I know you didn’t. I know. I’m just… I don’t know how anyone could make this decision in a couple of days. It’s insane. But, I guess… I guess I would understand if it changed us, too.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“I mean, clearly you’re uncomfortable with this. And its not what you signed up for, either. I don’t have any unrealistic expectations, Charli. Just because I choose this doesn’t mean you have to be stuck with it. I want you to know that I wouldn’t blame you for wanting out.”
“This is what you want then. Are you sure?”
“More sure than I’ve ever been.”
“Then I want it too.”
“—not asking you to take that on—”
“You’re not asking me, but I’m telling you.”
“—my family, and when you’re only twenty one—”
“Don’t do this, Charli.”
“Maddox, I’ve been in love with you since I was twelve. Shepley taught me how to drive. I practically spent every other holiday at your place. Now, I know it’s just been you and him for most of your life, but you guys became my family, too. He was my brother too. I’m not going to bail on you now, so don’t bother trying to get rid of me.”
“But this is something else completely—”
“I was in that waiting room with you, Maddox. Don’t forget that. I was there with you the day she was born. I watched you fall in love with that little girl. And I can’t blame you for your decision. I’m not surprised. But I had to make sure it was what you wanted, and not just something you felt obligated to do. I want you to be happy. So if this is truly what you want, then I’m right here with you.”
“But someday, down the line—”
“Maddox, someday is a long way off. Today, all I care about is helping you pass that assessment.”
“You don’t have to—”
“I want to, Maddox. Just tell me what we need to do.”
“…okay… Well, first order of business…”
“Marry me, Charli.”
Kelly Castillo: Civil Engineering student looking for a creative outlet and a little extra cash.
Jenny felt inside her pocket. There was a small, smooth pebble that she’d been hiding since she was tiny. A multi-dimensional creature had appeared to her and begged her to keep it safe. If she dug her fingernail into it…
But she mustn’t. She mustn’t. She had to be strong.
See, it was the self-destruct button for the universe.
And… She knew she shouldn’t use it.
But she dug her fingernail in anyway.
And everything was over. Forever.
Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had three novels and more than fifty short stories published. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, and bevy of cats and dogs. The stories, creatures, and Mary all live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house in Oregon.
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