Flash Fiction: “Unto Death” (Genre: Fantasy)

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

“Unto Death”

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.” 

end

//

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Flash Fiction: Yearning for Water

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. 

(Model: Katie/@the.freckled.peach on Instagram)

“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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Flash Fiction: “Faery Dust”

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.

“Faery Dust”

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