I’ve published a new short story exclusive to $5 per month Patreon supporters!
“Christmas Hope” is a weird little slipstream tale about the legend of the child-eating Yule Cat re-imagined in a world with a lost girl backpacking through Europe.
Denise Ruttan, Author, Editor and Photographer
I’ve published a new short story exclusive to $5 per month Patreon supporters!
“Christmas Hope” is a weird little slipstream tale about the legend of the child-eating Yule Cat re-imagined in a world with a lost girl backpacking through Europe.
The coffee had grown cold in her cup, but she drank it anyway, grimacing at the lukewarm taste. Mystic was the name she had chosen for herself for this group. Mystic Seaborne. It was silly, so silly. She thought they were a roleplay group, but she wasn’t sure what they were about, really. She was trying to make friends. She was all alone in the city.
Mystic was better than her real name. She didn’t want to think about her real name, or about her one-bedroom walk-up apartment on five flights of stairs in a complex in a suburb forty minutes away. That was the point, too. It wasn’t just about friends. It was about escaping. She tapped her fingers, her shoulders hunched. It would figure if they had stood her up, or if she had gotten the wrong place or the wrong time. That was pretty much the story of her life.
Mystic ran a hand through her scraggly brown nondescript hair and stared at the reflection of her pale nondescript face in the window. She decided maybe she should eat something. Her stomach was growling unaccountably. Since no one was here yet, it wouldn’t be rude. The coffee mug had a cartoon cat on it; the cartoon cat looked shocked, its eyes wide, its black fur scruffy, set into a purple backdrop. “Caffeinated!” the mug proclaimed in large, scrawling black letters. She needed some more coffee to consider herself that. She looked at the bags in her eyes and wondered what they would think of her.
The waitress came by. She was a middle-aged woman with slouched shoulders and silver fox hair. She wore a pale yellow dress and her bronze name tag said “Doris.” Women like her usually dyed their hair, so Mystic gave her props for keeping it gray. She smiled broadly at her quiet patron.
“Want a warmup, honey?” she drawled, her accent thick.
“Yes, it’s gotten cold,” Mystic said. She realized her hands were shaking, and warmth crept into her cheeks. “Also, I’d like to order.”
Doris paused, as if surprised, then set her coffee pot down and took out a notepad. “What’ll it be, honey?”
“The Southwestern Omelette, with sourdough toast please,” she said. Before Doris could ask, she added, “And ketchup and hot sauce to the side please.”
“Coming right up. You like it spicy huh?”
“You could say that,” Mystic said, her face growing hotter, as she felt like squeezing into a ball in the corner of the booth. Then she berated herself. She was trying to make new friends.
Her coffee thus warmed up, her food arrived in no time, and she dug in. She ate like she had not eaten anything in a week, ravenously devouring the spicy eggs after piling them high with mounds of ketchup and hot sauce. Really, she just didn’t want to be eating when the group arrived; that was rude. In no time her plate was finished, and she was sopping up pools of ketchup with her scalded toast.
Outside, it had begun to rain. Her shoulders fell. Maybe this was a terrible idea. She downed her coffee before it got cold again. Doris came by, eyes widened at her finished plate. She took it away, then came back with the check and another cup of coffee. “Take your time, honey. No rush.”
Mystic stared at the slip of paper, face down. She swallowed, tasting bile. Her stomach rumbled in protest; maybe she had eaten too fast. She quickly looked at the bill, flipping it over and resisting the urge to crumple the paper. Then she checked her wallet. A dollar short. Fuck. A day late and a dollar… She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling a headache coming on. Her new “friends” were nowhere in sight. Maybe something had gone terribly wrong…
She needed to get out of here. But she didn’t want the waitress to think she was ditching without paying. Sweat prickled her face. Times like these made her wish she smoked. That would be a plausible excuse. So instead she flagged down the waitress. “I’ll be right back,” she said to Doris. “My friends are going to be here soon. I just… need a breath of fresh air.”
“How were the eggs, sweetie?” said Doris, her wrinkled plump face a combination of knowing, compassion and a dash of judgment. She must have known. Surely it was written all over Mystic’s face.
“They were great,” said Mystic, giving Doris a beaming smile. Her heart thumped in her chest, and she just felt so wrong, just wrong. Her gut clenched. She was going to be sick. Doris with her kind blue eyes. Doris, not afraid to show her age. Mystic felt like she knew her; or at least, was emotionally invested enough not to rip her off. It wasn’t some nameless corporation she stole from; it wasn’t the restaurant; it was Doris, after all, the tip she wouldn’t get. But couldn’t she just put down the money she had? The question she would need to answer… What about the rest? What about my tip?
Mystic swallowed. “If you need a lighter just let me know,” Doris said with a wink, patting Mystic’s shoulder. That was what made Mystic feel well and truly awful. It was just one meal. What was the big deal? It was just a dollar.
Mystic couldn’t get out of there fast enough. The diner was pretty empty that afternoon. Just the usual old men who were retired city council members and businessmen hobnobbing at their coffee klatch, watching Fox News turned down. Mystic grimaced at the garbled sight of Tucker Carlson. The other patrons did not glance her way.
The bell at the door jangled at her exit, stabbing a knife into her chest. Her eyes watered, but she wouldn’t cry. Why was this so hard? People stole things all the time and got away with it. Bigger things. More important things. More desperate things. This was just a buck. A dollar. A single bill. One Benjamin.
Mystic found a spot by the dumpster, and luckily no employees were taking their smoke breaks now. She breathed in hard, rapid gulps. The air here felt stale, stagnant, dead. She sank against the wall of the restaurant to her haunches. It was a cold afternoon. She stared at the row of trees in the vacant lot adjacent the back of the restaurant. Their branches danced in the breeze, like harbingers of darkness. Mystic’s face was sweating even though it was cold. She closed her eyes briefly, trying to control her breathing. She kept watching the front of the restaurant, in case the group showed up. But now it was a half hour; they weren’t coming. Something was wrong.
Then she couldn’t hold it back anymore. She threw up behind the dumpster, hard dry heaves. Her mouth tasted sickly and acidic and she brushed her face with her sleeve. Her jacket was still in the restaurant; collateral, she’d thought. But in her thin cardigan in the cold, she shivered. It was approaching autumn here. That time when you regretted that summer was so short but it would soon become cold days and dark nights. Around here, it happened faster than anyone thought possible.
Mystic’s knees buckled, and she sat down on the dirty ground, littered with dirt and spent cigarette butts. She stretched out her legs. She couldn’t get her hands to stop shaking. The trees beyond beckoned her. Just run, they said. Forget about it. It’s not worth worrying your pretty head over. She gulped. Mystic Seaborne was a dumb name to choose. This whole idea was dumb. A roleplaying group? What was she thinking? A bunch of flakes, more like. She wouldn’t have anything to talk about with them. She didn’t play video games. She didn’t read fantasy novels. She liked Law and Order. She was on the cheerleading squad in high school. Now she worked part time at a nail salon. She could only afford the apartment in the city because her parents paid her rent. First job out of college, times were tough.
She looked at her own nails. The paint was chipping and the corners were torn from biting them, a nervous habit. A bad look for a nail salon attendant. She hid them self-consciously just thinking about it, then sucked on her index fingernail, the compulsion too strong to ignore. She thought she’d probably get fired soon. But manicures were expensive to maintain, so she did them herself. She needed to keep up with it more often. Even if you worked around them, nails were easily forgotten, especially when you spent too much time in your head, thinking about how much your life sucks.
An onslaught of exhaustion washed over her. She couldn’t decide what to do. She should just go in there and apologize and say she was a dollar short, and she’d be back with more money to make up for it. That would be the ethical thing to do after all.
But then the mist in the trees seemed to rise, a thick fog that she hadn’t noticed before. It was speaking to her. Taunting her. She didn’t know how, but the longer she studied it, the more it tickled her mind. She squinted into the blackness. It was still afternoon, still far from sunset. But the woods were dark, filled with foreboding. Beyond this vacant lot, there was the freeway.
“It’s too hard to go back there and explain yourself,” said the voice. “Come with us. We’ll make you feel better.”
The fog turned into shapes, human shapes, little sprites and fairies, figures outlined in the murkiness. Mystic’s stomach lurched. She vomited again, and she didn’t wipe her face this time; she held her head high, with breakfast detritus sliming on her cheek. She looked toward the front of the restaurant, in case the group had shown up. She checked her phone. An email showed up in her inbox. Five minutes before the meeting time. “Sorry, group canceled today. Erin is sick. We’ll reschedule. Details in the Slack group.”
Mystic sighed. She didn’t even think to check her phone. Of course, they were geeks, they’d be glued to their phones. Who was she kidding? She was usually glued to her Instagram feed. Making makeup tutorial videos. Chasing Internet fame too. But sometimes she felt like joining the real world every once in awhile.
But the voices still scratched at her mind. “Come with us,” they said. “They’re not coming. They would have loaned you the cash. Or maybe they would have laughed at you.”
Laughed at her, sure. Mystic bet on the latter. She didn’t even know why she was using that stupid name. This was a group for stupid flakes. She wanted to crunch her phone into a million pieces, but instead she put it in her bag. She stood up, shaky on her feet. She felt drunk, even though she’d only downed four cups of coffee. Black, with four sugars.
“Come with us,” the voices whispered, sibilant along her racing thoughts. They followed the shape of her thoughts and ran with them, colliding with them. “We can take your pain away.”
She never thought of it as pain, but maybe it was. Her stomach felt like lead. Her eyes felt like drifting closed, but she fought to stay awake. She looked behind her shoulder. No one was coming for her, even though it was a long break. She thought of her jacket, one of her favorites; but she could leave it.
“Mystic Seaborne,” whispered the voice, taunting her. “Is that really your name?”
“No,” she said, her lips chapped and thick. She found herself walking forward, toward the mists. Anytime she expected Doris to come out and yell at her. “Lady, you still haven’t paid!” But she wasn’t coming. She imagined her look of disappointment on her face.
“What is your name?”
“Mystic,” she said, licking her lips. Somehow she knew she shouldn’t give her real one. Names had power, or so all the fairy stories said. A face dancing in the mists laughed at her.
“What kind of a dumb name is that?”
But she said it over and over again. Her head pounded. She felt as if she were being pulled by an invisible string into the woods, and she was helpless against its pull. She walked through the woods, wide-eyed with wonder.
Then she heard a voice calling her name, her real name, and she froze. Doris was after her. But the mists caressed her mind, telling her sweet nothings. She felt like a frightened rabbit as she turned back toward the restaurant. It was another world here, and she was trapped. Indeed, Doris had left the restaurant. She was still in her yellow dress and had her nameplate on. Her glasses were on her head. She looked worried, not angry, her blue eyes scouring the parking lot.
Mystic’s heart raced. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t go back now. She clutched her bag tighter to her body. The mists crowded around her, angry on her behalf. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair,” they said, and she believed them. Her fear quickly turned into something else. She knew this emotion. This ugly, raw emotion. She had worked hard over the years to fight it. And now it was back with a vengeance. It was why she worked part-time at a nail salon and dropped out of college. They had found out. They found out what she did when she was sixteen even though the records were sealed. It was an accident. You could prove it was an accident. But it wasn’t really. She knew the truth. She knew the intent of her heart.
She thought to run. That would be the easiest thing to do. But instead she crouched behind a tree and waited. She breathed quietly through her nose. The voices kept whispering to her. Validating her anger. “You’re right, honey,” they said. “You’re right. You’re going to be all right.”
She believed them. Doris shouted her name. The worry was turning fiercer. Doris knew. Doris knew her plans all along. She came closer to the woods, looking through the mist, standing on her toes. “Listen, we can work something out if you can’t pay,” Doris said, sounding like a grandmother. Mystic’s heart lurched. She wanted to throw up again. But then Doris saw the mists. Really saw them. Her pace slowed down; her eyes widened. She came farther into woods. Her feet caught on the underbrush.
“Come here. Mystic. Now we know your real name. Now we know…” The voices laughed at her. She followed them. But also, she wanted to follow them. It was just like before. She felt exactly as she had before, when she was sixteen, and she had killed her friend. It was an accident, she said. She knew better. She wanted Bridget dead. She wanted her boyfriend. It was a simple exchange. A life for a life. Nothing special about it.
So Mystic walked further into the woods. If it weren’t for the mist, they would seem like a small vacant lot, and a stand of trees. But the mist made them seem like a wilderness. Mystic could hear the noise of the traffic beyond. She started to run. She kicked off her shoes and felt the grass and the needles under her feet. Doris followed.
“Good girl,” said the mists. “Good girl. Good girl. Good girl. Just like that. Just like that. Come closer.”
They ejected her from the woods and she nearly collapsed into the road. It was a freeway onramp. Traffic rushed by her, horns blaring. She couldn’t stop the rush of her breath. Doris was soon behind. Mystic looked behind her shoulder. Her eyes were dark and sad and tired. “Wait!” Doris said, calling out her name. Her real name. “We can work something out, honey!”
Desperation clawed at her throat, and she couldn’t understand it. Was twelve dollars and forty cents really that big of a deal? She waited for a gap in the traffic, and ran. Doris followed.
The oncoming semi didn’t wait. “Scarlett,” Mystic whispered, her voice thick and hot. The mists made her do it. But she knew that wasn’t true. Names have power, after all.
I wrote this story in January of this year for a science fiction writing class at my local community college. It marked the end of a long period of writer’s block. It’s fun looking back to see how much my writing has changed this past year.
Story and Photograph By Denise Ruttan
The din of the crowd reached a fever pitch. The gallery was packed tonight, shining faces of people eager to see the results of the prestigious annual Blackthorn competition. Is this why they called it the glitterati? Tobias Myers flattered himself that they were here to witness the crowning glory of his lifetime achievement. Paintings locked in gilded frames crowded the walls, showcasing the works of a variety of artists. But he barely noticed them. The wine and beer flowed, the ensuing clamor sounding like competing trumpets.
I have moved this post over to my new Patreon. I will still be posting writing updates and book reviews on my WordPress blog, but my fiction will now be exclusive to Patreon! Come join me!
“The Golem’s Embrace”
Story by Denise Ruttan
Illustrated by Micah Chaim Thomas
Jonas shouldered his way through the press of the crowd. It was February 20, 1939 in Manhattan, and the chill pricked his bones. His fur-lined leather jacket felt flimsy and weak. But that was suitable armor for someone who felt weak, inside. Jonas Weber, a member of the German American Bund youth corps, Brooklyn chapter, fingered the unassuming ball of clay in his pocket that he had stolen from Rabbi Feldberg a month earlier.
The marquee of Madison Square Garden was lit with the words “Pro American Rally.” There were people everywhere; bright-eyed youth waiting to get in, and anti-Nazi demonstrators yelling and carrying signs outside the gates. Police officers stood in a line in front of the stadium. Chaos thrummed in Jonas’s veins.
As Jonas moved through the crowd, he joined the flood of brown shirts inside the arena. His breath was stolen in the swarm of people. It was George Washington’s birthday today, and his portrait was displayed in radiant grandiosity. Jonas wanted to be here when Fritz Kuhn gave his speech. He had never met Fritz Kuhn. But Fritz Kuhn would find his ball of clay useful.
The German American Bund had a plan for America, and America would pay attention after this rally. America was right to not enter the war effort. They were right to exercise caution. Even at 20 years old, Jonas knew this. Germany would win in the end. This ball of clay would help them.
His neck prickled with shame as he thought of what he had to do to get it. He had befriended Rabbi Feldberg. He had given the old man information about the German American Bund movement, names of prominent leaders. He made the rabbi believe Jonas was a sympathizer, a turncoat. Jonas recalled their long conversations, the old man’s fears, his stories of his childhood in Germany. He listened and drank warm green tea and ate Chinese food with him. Then one night he figured out where Rabbi Feldberg kept the golem and he stole it.
But Jonas did not join the crowd of 20,000 finding their seats as music played in the background, Wagner, he noted. He was not here to watch. Instead, he pushed his way to the front of the crowd, near the stage, and a set of guards that flanked the gates to the backstage area. Momentarily, he saw the giant portrait of George Washington surrounded by stripes and swastikas, and his head swam with awe and something else – a sense that he couldn’t quite place, and did not want to name.
“Boy,” one of the guards said, his blonde hair shaved in the German style. “This is a private area. Go find your seat.”
Jonas flashed his Bund membership card and fought a cascade of nerves. “I’m here to see Fritz Kuhn. I have information that could help the war effort.”
The guards laughed, their mocking sounds dissipating in the crowd noise. When they settled down, the same guard cleared his throat.
“This is a private area,” the guard said. “VIPs only.”
“Please,” Jonas persisted, growing desperate now. “It’s a matter of life or death.”
He saw his youth leader behind the line of guards, and waved at the man. “Tom!” The forty-year-old dentist met his young protege’s eyes.
“He’s fine,” Tom said. “Let him through.”
The guards grumbled, but did as they were told. Once behind the gate, Tom put his hand on Jonas’s shoulder, in a paternal way.
“What’s this now, Jonas?”
“I have information. Critical information. I need to see Fritz Kuhn right away.”
“You can’t tell me about it?”
“No,” Jonas insisted. “I need to see Mr. Kuhn.”
“Very well then,” Tom said. “I can’t say I don’t appreciate your enthusiasm. Your timing, as ever, isn’t perfect, though.”
Despite his hesitation, Tom led Jonas through the crowded backstage area and down a corridor of rooms. On other days these were changing rooms for circus and theater production crews. Jonas led him to a room marked “5A,” and said, “Go on,” and Jonas pushed open the door. Fritz Kuhn stood at a table, smoking a cigarette with a group of other men, studying paperwork piled on the table. For a moment, Jonas was frozen with fear. Maybe this really was terrible timing. He had not quite thought this through.
Fritz Kuhn looked up, his clean-shaven, craggy face looking like that of a war admiral. “Boy, I don’t know how you got in here, but I’m not signing autographs now.”
Tom guided him forward. “He has information that could help the war effort, Fritz.”
The door closed behind them. At that moment Jonas felt the cloying pressure of his 20 years of age as the heady smell of tobacco filled his nostrils. Jonas choked down his nerves and placed the ball of clay on the table.
Fritz Kuhn laughed, and the others followed suit. “You come to me with clay, boy?”
“I stole it from a rabbi,” Jonas said. “A mystic. This is not just ordinary clay. It is a golem. A terrifying creature that could become super-human soldiers of a powerful German army.”
Kuhn’s eyes narrowed into slits. He shook his head. “The Germans are intrigued by mysticism and the supernatural,” he said. “So don’t take my laughter the wrong way. What the Germans want above all else is power, and they don’t care how they get it. Show me this Jew’s tricks. I am interested.”
Jonas started whispering the words that the rabbi had taught him, the words from the book that came in the same drawer that secreted the clay. He whispered the spell over and over again. Nothing happened. His blood started to boil. The men were growing impatient. The clay just sat on the table. Ordinary, brown, moist clay. Useless clay.
Kuhn blew smoke into the stale air. “I am sorry, boy. I am afraid to tell you that the Jews are also tricksters. It would seem you have been duped. I am sorry to hear it, too, because it was a promising story. Send him away now, please. I must prepare for my speech.”
Jonas took his ball of clay and put it back in his pocket, his eyes smarting. Tom put his hand on his back. In the corridor with the door closed, he spoke to him gently. “Don’t talk to Jews again without our approval. Will we see you next week?”
“Yes,” Jonas said, his voice barely a whisper.
“Good,” Tom said. “Now go. Enjoy the rally and forget this foolishness. We’ll talk about this later.”
But Jonas didn’t go to the rally. He left the crush of the arena and wandered the streets of Manhattan for awhile. He bought a hot dog and a soda at a food truck and ate it in a sloppy hurry, licking fried onions from his fingers. He felt defeated and embarrassed. He wasn’t sure he could show his face at the youth meeting next week. They would just laugh at him like Kuhn did.
The hour grew later and later. He didn’t want to go back home to his one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with the neighbors who had loud sex every night and the neighbors below who rehearsed with a garage band. He didn’t have a girlfriend. His parents were dead, killed in a car wreck when he was 18. His sister had stopped talking to him after he joined the Bund. Now he didn’t know if he could go back to the Bund. He was alone.
He stopped at a street corner, the light from a street lamp blinding his eyes. The pulse of the city throbbed around him. New York was never quiet, not even at this hour. He knew he had to worry about thieves at this time of night, but he could take them. He was not worried. He was young and strong, even if he was foolish.
Jonas took the ball of clay out of his pocket, and stared at it in his hands. He began to shape it and form it in his fingers, the wet substance oily on his skin. He said the words of the spell over and over, and he started to cry. He really was a fool.
Then a bright flash blinded him as nausea roiled in his belly. He thought the street lamp had gone out. Instead, when he came to, a giant man, perhaps eight feet tall, stood in front of him. The man had a mustache and glasses and looked vaguely like Rabbi Feldberg. His body was fiercely unnatural, lumps of clay dripping with water and streaked with street dust.
Jonas stepped backward and almost fell over. “You!” he hollered at the creature. He looked around him through his tears. New York continued around them, as if they didn’t even notice the behemoth in the darkness. “Why didn’t you show yourself at the Garden? You were in the lion’s den! You could have destroyed all those Nazis!”
“Oh, boy,” the golem said. “You do not understand, do you? The golem does not seek to destroy. The golem seeks to change hearts and minds. The golem changes hearts and minds one at a time, in the dark, when the golem can take their pain away.”
“You can’t change my mind,” Jonas said bitterly.
Then he froze as something seemed to enter his mind and tear through the membrane of his memories. The streets of Manhattan melted away. He was 18 again. He was in the backseat of his parents’ 1937 Packard 120. They were speeding on the highway outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. His parents were arguing. It was dark.
“I don’t want to see this,” Jonas whispered.
“But you must.”
It had been a drunk driver. Jonas’s dad ran a red light. Farms passed by them in the shroud of the night. The drunk driver hit them head on. Metal fragments flew everywhere. The crush of screams and pain and blood roared in Jonas’s mind. The ambulance, later. Jonas was thinking about his chemistry final before the crash. Wishing his parents would just be like all the other parents and get along with each other.
Now they were dead, and he was alone, and it was all his fault.
Jonas was angry. Angry at everything. He wanted to punch the flashing red lights, the twisted metal of the Packard, the world. He was angry, and he was alone, and it was all his fault.
Then a voice started whispering in his ear. “It’s not your fault.”
It was his fault.
“It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
The anger fell away, and was replaced by bitterness. The bitterness met emptiness. The emptiness felt hollow and dead inside. Then it overwhelmed him. The darkness stole his breath from his throat. He doubled over in pain, refusing to cry again, refusing to be weak.
“It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
He was six, then, listening to his parents shout, holding his stuffed tiger in his arms in his bed, his sister weeping next to him. He heard a crash of a beer bottle.
“It’s not your fault.”
Then he felt arms around him, squeezing him, holding him tight, crushing him with dripping clay. The embrace spread warmth through the hollowness, and he succumbed to it. He still did not cry, but he accepted the Golem. He didn’t even know what he was doing. But he felt different. His head felt clearer, his thoughts sharper.
The street shuddered back into focus, the noise of the city pulsing around him, horns blaring, people talking in the distance.
On the ground he saw a streak of clay and blood. He tried to pick it off the pavement, gather it into a ball again, desperate to claim it for his own again. But it started raining. Cold, sloppy droplets poured down his skin and washed the clay into the gutter. He hissed in frustration.
But then Jonas stopped, shaken by the change in him. He realized he wasn’t going to go to the youth meeting next week. Not because he was embarrassed.
He was going to call his sister, instead.
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This was a story that got rejected, but I didn’t feel like looking at it again so I’m self publishing it on my blog. Enjoy!
By Denise Ruttan
Suzi did not think of herself as a strong woman.
When people talked about strong women, she didn’t know what they meant. Was that like calling a woman bossy, or feisty, because she expressed an opinion? Suzi didn’t express her opinions often, unless it was to say that she found it gloomy when it rained. She didn’t like confrontation. She hated to argue. She was, in fact, what they used to call “mousy,” back in the old days. She thought of herself as a pushover. Maybe she really was “petite” and “feminine.” That was what her mother called her. Those words did not sound strong.
She had, in fact, just left her house, and she was going for a walk to let off some steam. It was dark out, but not quite pitch black; it was that time of twilight when the light almost seemed blue and fragile. The clouds amassed in the sky, and it smelled like it was going to rain. Her husband, Brad, was a mean drunk. He had just wrapped up his latest tirade, crunching his fifth can of Natty Ice in his fist and glaring at her. “You’ll never be a registered nurse,” he said, his eyes glowering. “You’re not even smart. You never graduated high school. What are you doing up late studying, when you should be cleaning the house? Look at what a mess this place is. I don’t have the time to do it. I’m the one who should be providing for our family.”
She didn’t have the heart to tell him, “But you’re not.” She would have done so, if she was a strong woman, maybe. She would have told him that he couldn’t hold down a job because of his drinking problem. She would have told him about the bills that kept piling up on the kitchen table. She would have told him that they could have more than beans and rice, if he could stay sober at work. She would have told him that she would gladly stay home and clean, if he could hold down a job. But all those things would have really made him mad, so she held her tongue. She said, “You’re right, Brad. I was stupid to ever think about it.”
“That’s right, woman,” he’d said, and that’s when she’d grabbed her coat and hat and umbrella, and stormed out the door, slamming it behind her as he hollered after her to get him more beer. She ignored him. But strong women would not just go for a walk to escape the fight. Strong women would leave a man like Brad.
Suzi didn’t know how she was feeling. She thought she was angry, but she was too tired for rage. Anger was for strong women. She didn’t have the strength to keep it simmering. Anger ate her from the inside out, hollowed out her core, frayed her edges. She was, in truth, exhausted. Her bones were tired. She didn’t know what she was doing either, going back to school to become a registered nurse. She first had to get her GED, so that was why she was studying. Then she would have to go to college for four years. She was 40. She worked as a janitor, cleaning the hallways of the hospital where she dreamed bigger dreams than making the floor gleam. She watched the nurses doing their work, rushing from patient to patient with purpose and light in their eyes, drawing blood. She wanted to do that. She wanted to help people.
But maybe it was too late. Maybe it was too late for someone like her. Maybe she wasn’t smart enough.
She sighed, and kept walking. They lived in an apartment complex in a suburb, and in the dim light she saw everyone’s manicured lawns and their houses painted to HOA specifications and heard the sprinklers running. She thought of the families who lived there whom she’d never meet. Maybe the husband was a doctor and the wife was a lawyer and because they were both busy people they made sure to sit down with their two children every night for supper. She wondered what it was like to fulfill your dreams.
She kept walking. There was nobody on the road. It was strangely quiet. She could not even hear birds or the wind. The sky did look threatening, though. And she really did not like rain. But she did not want to go back to Brad yet. The thought filled her with dread. She couldn’t, either, just walk away, go to a shelter, like some women did. She couldn’t do that. She needed money. She relied on Brad. He really wasn’t that bad of a guy, actually. He never hit her. He was not violent. He was just an alcoholic with no ambition who put her down all the time. That was what guys were like, wasn’t it? That was what her father was like.
Lost in thought, she crossed the street at a crosswalk. She didn’t even look both ways. She didn’t see the car coming. Suddenly, she heard the whine of insects buzzing. Her eyes filmed over with mist and midnight. She held her hand in front of her face and it became a stranger’s hand, translucent in the crepuscular light.
The car kept going. It never stopped. Maybe the driver was drunk. Maybe the driver just didn’t care.
No one emerged from their beautiful middle-class houses to help Suzi. But she stood up. Her bones and the sinews of her muscles stretched with heat. She wiggled her fingers and toes. She was not hurt. Miraculously, she was not hurt, other than a shot of pain in her neck.
She curled her hand into a fist. Her heart pumped blood through her veins. Iron blood. Her eyes blazed fire. She straightened her shoulders and stood up tall. Her skin felt hard. No longer soft flesh, feminine curves.
She was still Suzi.
But now she understood strength.
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I submitted a drabble to a publication so now I’m experimenting with very short fiction, between 100- and 300 words. I thought flash fiction was a difficult length. I don’t have much to say these days because I am working on DRAGON GIRL so I thought I’d work on these as well to keep my blog active.
“The Creature That Steals Bodies”
The detective’s hands are large. If I were a nurse, I would think what good veins.
I am not a nurse.
I study him as he studies me in the dark. What does he know? Why can he see me, when others can’t? I think it will take more than the usual to spook him. He does not startle easily like other humans. Perhaps he is not even human.
I crawl up his pant leg, a shadow, a cold breeze seeking answers. I find none. I skitter away. He could crush me, but he doesn’t. What is his game? Perplexed.
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This piece was the flash fiction story that was rejected last weekend. It was an encouraging rejection so don’t feel bad for me, I’m actually proud of myself. But I didn’t feel like revising it and trying to submit it elsewhere. Sometimes I just don’t feel like looking back at my old short stories; I have too many new ideas. But I still wanted people to read it, so I am self-publishing it here. -DNR
by Denise Ruttan
Matthew’s father’s words stuck in his mind as he stared at the glassy expanse of the sea. The brisk wind ruffled his hair with a knife’s kiss. “It’s not worth it,” his father had told Matthew. “I’m just an old man. My secret dies with me.” But Matthew could not let it go.
All his life, Matthew thought his father was Hamash. Ray Benoit was a proud man. He talked of his days flying bombing missions in the war, fighting for his country. He rarely talked about the details, because Matthew knew the shadow of death still gripped the old man. But Matthew was certain his father was proud to serve his country.
Pride. Such an odd concept, when it was meant in the service of something bigger than oneself. Perhaps, in some ways, Matthew was jealous of his father’s time in the war. But that did not matter. His father was a hero. Even in death, he deserved a hero’s honors. Instead, only Matthew showed for the funeral. It was a modest affair, the priest rushing through a spare eulogy. Ray Benoit was buried in a simple coffin, with a basic headstone. Matthew wanted to pay for something grander, but the law would not allow it. He could not even place fresh yellow roses.
Because Ray Benoit was not, in fact, Hamash. He was Sulee. A secret he had managed to keep most of his life. Until he told Matthew the truth. He was not even Sulee, because the proof of his birth was stolen by a witch who had vanished between the worlds. He had died a man without a country. A man without a soul.
So now Matthew was on a mission to find the witch. The plan had seemed bizarre at first, but it was all he had left. A fairy story didn’t seem so far-fetched, after a life of lies.
He left the deck and entered the dining cabin. The smell of thick, warm stew and yeasty bread made his stomach growl. He took a bowl of stew to an empty table. Outside, the wind howled. He wondered how he would find this witch, when he reached the land of the Sulee.
“Papers, please,” a sailor said. Matthew retrieved his passport from his pocket. The sailor studied it a little too carefully. “Thank you, Mr. Benoit.”
“Is something the matter?”
“Just a routine check. Enjoy your lunch.” But some glint in the sailor’s eye betrayed him. The other passengers stared at them.
Matthew knew he was a target because he was a firstborn. His father came from somewhere else. The law of the land treated firstborns harshly. He had gained his citizenship by an accident of birth, not his ties to the land.
He finished his stew in a hurry. The hearty taste turned bland. He got up, still feeling the other passengers’ eyes crawling on him. He resisted the urge to rub his neck. He couldn’t show weakness, not now. Matthew returned to the deck. He knew his place. He understood what was coming.
Matthew gripped the railing. He wondered if this was how his father felt in the war. Not knowing which side was the right one. Back then, Matthew didn’t want to hear about the ugly side of war. He was a loyal Hamash. He wanted to believe in the nobility of his people.
The sailor waited until sunset. Matthew could hear him breathing nearby. Matthew tugged his coat closer around his shoulders, but it did not keep out the cold. Together, they watched the blazing suns sink lower in the sky. Normally, it would be a breathtaking sight. But Matthew’s breath trapped in his throat.
“Why are you going to Sulee country?”
Matthew thought about lying. But he told him the truth, instead.
The sailor laughed. “You really believe those fairy stories? Your father was nothing but a criminal.”
“My father was a war hero.” Matthew gritted his teeth. “He ran 50 bombing missions.”
“But he broke the first law,” the sailor said. “That’s not what a hero does.”
Matthew’s temper flared. His fist struck the man’s face. The sailor grinned.
“Firstborn,” the sailor said. “You know the law. You threw the first punch.”
From the sudden darkness, two other sailors emerged. They set upon Matthew, fists driving into his chest and face, blood spraying the deck. Rain pounded the deck and swam with the blood. Eventually Matthew stopped fighting back. The ghost of his father held his hand, and blackness filled his eyes.
Maybe there were no witches. Maybe there was no world between the worlds. Maybe his father wasn’t a hero.
He coughed blood, and the sailors ran when their captain called. Matthew turned over on his side. He tried to raise himself to a standing position, but every bruised rib protested. Instead he lay there on the deck, staring at the sky swirling with ominous ink. The suns had retreated beyond the horizon, replaced by the obsidian of night.
In the roar of the wind he thought he heard a voice speaking to him. A hand reached out that was not his father’s hand. It was a soft, gentle hand, covered in gold jewelry. He wanted to yell and run away, but he couldn’t move. The purr of a lullaby caressed the air.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” the music whispered, clear even in the storm.
Matthew knew, then, that he didn’t need to seek the witch.
In the morning, the storm passed. The crew had survived a rough night. A couple of the sailors stumbled on deck, blinded by the light of the sunrise. One of them stumbled upon a body.
It was Matthew Benoit. They checked for a pulse. His eyes were wide open, frozen in horror. His skin was cold, so cold.
Then one of the sailors scoffed. “That’s the firstborn,” he said. “Throw him overboard. He’s just dead weight.”
I offer my writing for free because I believe in the public domain, but if you want to encourage me to continue creating, donate $1 to my tip jars: http://www.venmo.com/denise-ruttan or http://www.ko.fi.com/fieldofstars
I present to you another piece in my series of unrelated flash fiction pieces. All photography is shot by me.
“Yearning for Water”
Story and Photographs by Denise Ruttan
Kyra Bartleby emerged from the water, her skin icy at the sudden shock of air. She sat at the edge of the swimming pool and dangled her feet in the water to acclimate herself to the outside world.
Around her, the noise of the city pool boomed into a cacophony. There were the little kids taking their swimming lessons, their youthful laughter soaring. There was the hot tub where old people soaked. There was the outdoor pool that was still busy, despite the impending autumn chill. There were the teenage lifeguards, monitoring everyone. Kyra almost applied for that job. But lifeguarding was for people who wanted to be heroes.
Most importantly of any of these, the high school swim team was starting practice.
Catching her breath, 16-year-old Kyra watched them, envy competing with resentment at their lean bodies and quiet confidence. Making the swim team was her goal. It was why she spent hours every day improving her stroke, speed and endurance. She was a junior this year. She was running out of chances.
She didn’t have the money for a fancy swim coach. She wasn’t the fittest or the trimmest. After swim practice she would also run three miles home from the swimming pool. The evening air would choke her lungs and knife through her chlorine hair.
Kyra knew all their names. Hannah, Mia, Beth, Sam, Liv, Brittany, Jessica, Rachel, Danielle. Melissa, Kelsey, Tiff. Shelby. Heather. Abby. Ashley. Courtney. She rattled down the list of the varsity girls. She even knew their eye color, and whether they brought their own lunch or bought food from the cafeteria. She knew what stickers they put on their backpacks and on their lockers. She knew their favorite bands and their preferred colors. She wanted to be one of them so badly that the need to belong was like a fire searing through her lungs.
At first, they didn’t notice her. They were distracted. But then the whispers and stony glances started. They didn’t appreciate having a stalker, she knew. That’s what they called her. Their creepy stalker. But she just wanted to belong to something that was bigger than herself. Something that was bigger than her lonely home with her single mother and their shared pain. A mother who disappeared into a flood of vodka and reruns of Cheers. Something that was bigger than the microwave pasta and old textbooks and tears. She wanted to experience the discipline and thrill of competition. She wanted to be part of a team.
Kyra sighed heavily. It was time to go. She headed into the locker room.
Usually, the locker room was a hectic place, full of laughter and conversation. But today, strangely, it was empty. Kyra showered in silence. She could hear a pin drop. She spent an extra long time luxuriating in the heat of the shower running slick down her naked body.
Suddenly, her heart stilled. She was not alone. A woman, probably 18, but seeming infinitely more exotic than any teenager she knew at Garfield High School, took the shower next to her. She slicked back her bronze hair and stared at her through glassy emerald eyes.
“Hi,” she said, her voice silk. “I heard you back there.”
“You what?” Kyra felt that sensation you get when you walk through a strange neighborhood and were paranoid some guy would nab your backpack and assault you.
“I heard you,” she said, more firmly. “I heard your longing. It was so very loud.”
“My… what?” Kyra stammered. She wanted out of this shower. The water was suddenly scalding and uncomfortable.
“You wanted to be part of something bigger than you,” the strange, beautiful woman said. “I can make that happen. You just have to want it, again, with me.”
“I don’t understand,” Kyra said. “You’re weirding me out. Please leave me alone.”
“Fine,” the young woman said. “Be like that. But you can have any wish. Just wish it in the next two minutes. And you’d better yearn for it. It’s in the yearning that you make it real.”
The woman walked away, soap still in her hair. Water ran in rivulets down her perfect, tan back. Her shoulder blades looked like a cheetah’s when it was chasing after prey. Kyra stared, her mouth agape.
Then, despite herself, she began to want.
At first, she didn’t notice anything. The locker room was still empty. Not even a child throwing a tantrum. Heaviness bloomed in her chest. Then she stared down at herself. She was … changing. That was the only way to describe it. Her body was changing.
Her fingers were growing … webs? She could not flex her knuckles. Her skin morphed into scales. Her hair disappeared into her scalp. She felt the rush of water in her ears like a symphony. She screamed as the water from the shower burned her skin. What was left of her skin.
She found herself staring up into the drain in the floor. She fought a roar of panic. She was covered in blood and pus. She flailed.
Then she heard voices. The little kid tantrums. The running feet. The mothers and their love.
And the voices of the swim team.
“Did you see that girl?” said Courtney, her voice contemptuous.
“Oh, creepy Kyra?” Liz said, scoffing. “She was watching us again. She watches us all the time. What a loser.”
Kyra’s rage replaced the panic. Rage at the way things were. Rage at her loneliness. Rage at the rejection. Rage at her mother. Water poured from her fingers. Water broke through the cracked cement of the pool that she loved. Her second home. Her home away from the home that didn’t want her. Now no one wanted her.
The rage turned into a flood. A flood of water. The water turned into a cacophony of pain. The water engulfed all.
But the swim team girls stopped talking shit about her.
They stopped talking.
Kyra didn’t want to belong, any more.
She was the water.
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I am going to be writing a series of flash fiction pieces to improve my chops to get ready to submit some for publication. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the shorter the work of fiction, the easier it becomes; because short fiction is hard and flash fiction is some of the hardest of all! Flash fiction is 1,000 words. Here is the first of these stories. It is a work of magic realism.
By Denise Ruttan
Howard curls up inside himself, the cold cement hard on his ass. He has sat here all night. He clutches his backpack. This life is new to him. This staying out in the cold in his threadbare socks. He has not showered in weeks. He has not slept, because the backpack is all he owns and he doesn’t want anyone to steal it.
It is that time of the morning when all is quiet. In the old days, he would go on walks in this hour before dawn. Most people think it is too quiet. But most people are used to their 9 to 5 and their comfortable office and their Saturday afternoons playing with the kids in the yard with the sun on their face. Howard’s hand is shaking. It does that when he remembers the past. The past is like an alive thing, like a separate thing from his mind, a place in time that he views with a mixture of scrutiny and wonder.
Howard’s head is still swimming from last night’s booze. He is, in fact, still drunk. His neighbors stir briefly. Howard makes a decision. He stands.
But Randy grabs his ankle. He feels like calloused sweat.
“Don’t.” Randy is a schizophrenic. But his eyes meet Howard’s with a piercing clarity. “Don’t go at this hour. Wait. Wait. Wait.”
“Why should I wait?” Howard humors the raving man. It is all he has left. The attention of others.
“Not at this hour. The faeries. They like to steal people like us away. They love this hour. They dance on the empty city streets and make their mischief and cast their magic spells.”
“Oh, Randy,” Howard says. “Faeries are not real.”
Randy’s clear blue eyes now fill with horror. Howard can’t help but be affected by the dread oozing from his body. Randy’s cold hand grips his ankle tighter, desperately. “Faeries. Faeries are real. Faeries are so real you will shit yourself. Don’t do it, man. Stay. Stay. Stay.”
“You must have taken some bad acid this morning, man.” Howard finally kicks Randy away. Randy starts shaking more violently and begins to sob. The sound violently punctures the stillness.
Howard wraps his blanket around his shoulders in the cold. He leaves this sidewalk with its illusion of safety and its stench of piss and booze and helplessness.
He heads into the light. It glints off the buildings. The sun is beginning to rise. But there is still too little of it just yet. Howard loves this hour. He thinks of it as the magic hour. He breathes in deeply. This is a downtown shopping mall. He sees Macy’s and other department stores towering above him. His eyes glitter. He misses the days when he could go into these stores and buy whatever he wanted. All he had to worry about was paying down his credit card. He misses material comforts. He doesn’t want to buy anything in those stores now, but he misses them, just the same.
There is no one out today. That is unusual. This isn’t a large city, but it should not be an empty one, even at this hour.
Howard can feel the beating of his heart, pounding away in his ears. He tugs the thin blanket closer around his shoulders as a biting wind sweeps crumpled newspaper up from the sidewalk and swirls it around with vigor.
Howard walks aimlessly. He wanders through the bus station parking area. There are not even any people waiting for early buses. That part compounds the eerie feeling that makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. There are some buses parked along the street. Everything is empty. Everything is dead, like his life now.
He takes a seat. In the old days, he would have taken out his smart phone. Connecting to people who aren’t real. People in the machine. Instead, he simply takes out his only cigarette, and smells the tobacco.
The wind continues to rise. He thinks of Marlene, and her cool hands on his son Ned’s face when he was sick. He thinks of Ned’s laughter, his four-year-old laughter, and he wonders what the boy will grow to become. That world is a world that exists outside his head and beyond this one. A world he can never visit again. He must stop thinking about it. He must stop thinking about things that bring him pain. Tears prick his eyes.
Suddenly, he notices a nearby presence. He thinks it must be a squirrel. But as he looks over, a small person, about two hands high, perches on the edge of the bench. She looks like Tinkerbell. He blinks his tears away. A drunken hallucination. Obviously.
“Do you want the memories to go away?” He expects her voice to be small and quiet, but it floods his mind with a soothing cascade, like the sounding of Tibetan bowls.
Without thinking, he says, “Yes.”
“Done.” She nods.“Pain is gone.”
Howard blinks. He looks over his shoulder again. For a moment he imagines he sees a cloud of little faery creatures, cavorting in the winds. They shriek with maniacal laughter. His stomach lurches in protest.
He remembers… something. There was someone… But… no. The cobweb of memory fades, like a dream he forgot upon waking. He puts his hand out into the air and his skin feels clammy. What is he?
He remembers his name is Howard. The rest?
He blinks his eyes into the pounding wind, and sobs.
Later, Randy will approach him as the being called Howard wanders the city, alone. But Howard doesn’t know him. Randy will hug him, the movement so unexpected that it takes Howard’s breath away.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Randy will say, his voice hot with emotion. “I told you to wait. I told you to wait. I told you to wait.”
Howard hugs him back, without knowing why.
Perhaps he should have punched him in the face.
My work is offered to you free because I believe in the public domain, but if you enjoy my creative efforts, support of $1 donation to my Venmo would be appreciated. http://www.venmo.com/denise-ruttan