Free-Range Fiction: The Gray Nothing’s Scar

This piece below was birthed by a flash fiction prompt by Chuck Wendig for his April 15, 2016 writing challenge; However it morphed into an added chapter for WHEN A RAVEN PECKS OUT YOUR NORMAL. Regardless, I think it stands on its own and gives you great insight into my protagonist’s mental health state. So although this is flash, it is now an excerpt of the novel I’m currently shopping. It’s just a mere 434 words, as the challenge was to do ~1,000 words. I will likely flesh this out even more and stick at a spot in the book that needs to bring the reader back to the fact that the protagonist’s POV is very unreliable. Please comment your thoughts below. Thanks for visiting and reading. ~C.

The Gray Nothing’s Scar

By Casondra Brewster

I didn’t like looking at it in the mirror. I didn’t like mirrors most days. How did they work? Is it a wonder that tales of old made mirrors magical tools? Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Nothing Monster down the hall? It’s me. I am the monster, the boy with a scar that looks like a third nipple. An accessory nipple. It’s hereditary thing. Two of my cousins have it as well. I think the raven pecked out their normal, too. I poke at it. I pretend that someone stabbed me there. It looks like the skin swallowed up a knife wound. I had a fight with the colors black and white. I am Gray. I’m caught in the middle. White wants to kill Black. Black wants to kill White. But they both have to destroy me first to get the other. I stare at the scar. Poke. Twist. I make death gurgling sounds.

There’s a knock at the bathroom door. My mother’s voice calling my name: “Nothing?” I hear her. But I cannot speak. The words are stuck in the scar, what’s left of my bio father’s bloodline. Further proof he gave me nothing but shit.

“I am nothing!” I scream. There’s a pounding in my head.

“Nothing, Open the door!”

I see the colors merging. White’s icy hot kill shot aimed right below my left pec. Meanwhile Black’s flamethrower of darkness hits from the other side.

Perhaps I should just lie down and let them consume me, the Gray Nothing that I am. They can deepen the scar, for no one sees me. The Universe sliced a piece of Black and White and created this broken nothingness called Gray. Broken. Nothing. Scarred.

I look back in the mirror. My face winks at me, both frightening and comforting. Black is comforted. White is frightened. I poke the scar again and imagine my bio father sucked into this star-shaped scar. The anger comes then and my fist breaks the mirror. I bleed and wipe my hand on the scar. I put my shirt back on. I sigh and open the door. My mother is standing there. She looks so sad, her eyes exhausted with concern.

“Are you alright?” she says quietly, looking behind me at the broken mirror.

“I am the Gray Nothing,” I say. I walk past her feeling the scar bleeding.


To Support or Not Support GenCon2015, that is the ?

11088391_851802394909796_8216926951410208988_nEver since the passing of Indiana’s new “Religious Freedom Reformation Act” law allowing for discrimination based on religious belief (e.g. I won’t sell you a cake because you are homosexual and that goes against my religion), I’ve watched many a friend, fellow author, and my gaming-world favorites in the GenCon (the largest tabletop gaming convention in North America) world struggle with the decision about whether or not to continue to attend this year’s festivities , whether they are patron, vendor, or panelist. Peruse the hashtags #GenCon2015 or #BoycottIndiana and you’ll see the discussion clearly, passionately, back and forth. Indiana is known as the Crossroads state. GenCon and the larger gaming community is at a crossroads now. Are you going to sign with the demon and make things less painful for yourself? Or are you going to do the right thing?

GenCon is not alone in its membership struggling over supporting such a law by simply doing business in Indiana. In fact, other organizations have already canceled their events or investments in Indiana because of the passage of this law. This all after GenCon threatened to end its existence in Indiana if the law went into effect. Governor Pence signed the law. GenCon 2015 is still on.

Obviously, empty threats change nothing.

Even though I would consider myself a gamer, I’ve never been to this particular convention, but I can see both sides of the argument – an entire population of gamers, GenCon supporters, is being oppressed by this law, because let’s be fair, this new law by Indiana is straight up Jim Crow-esque and puts the state back 200 years. But do you hurt the good people, the non-discriminatory ones, in Indiana over this by not economically os socially supporting them? It’s a clear choice in my mind. But, let’s explore all of it first.

For some it was a seeming simple and swift decision: they won’t participate in GenCon. Personally, I can see this as a very clear decision. In our modern democracy (cough*oligarchy*cough), money talks. Money votes. Money makes painful change happen. If you think money isn’t behind getting this law passed, you need to look deeper. Even if I’d bought plane tickets, etc. I would firmly state, now 118 days from the convention itself, that I would not participate. What little influence I have as a resident of another state, to influence the politics, or as I see it, the humanity, of Indiana, is that I can say, “I won’t travel there,” as many other entities have done already. I can say to the world – since GenCon hosts participants from 40 different countries – that human rights are important to me. I will vote with my hard-earned convention-going dollars and not support an event in an oppressive environment.

Do I wish the whole issue was not framed around economics and money? Yes, I do. I’d like people to be more human-focused, but… baby steps. However, I needed to put that thought out there. This law shouldn’t have passed, and the only way the bigots that support it are going to listen is by milking their wallets because of it.

That makes it painful for the GenCon organization, sure. It’s not their fault. Sure. It makes it painful for the reasonable people of Indiana who will be economically blackballed by this new law. However, the law is more so painful to those it discriminates against.

Some GenCon supporters have publicly discussed their quandary with attending, because they don’t want to hurt the reasonable people who are not being represented by this bill. They don’t’ want to hurt the organization of GenCon, or by default its supporters, and the gaming community. I can see this, but I go back to the change is painful facts.

GenCon has countered saying that it is fighting the RFRA. That they are working with the Indianapolis leaders, especially its mayor, who by executive order has denounced the RFRA and deemed the city as anti-disciminatory. In GenCon style, perhaps we could just get Indiana’s Governor Pence and Indianapolis’ Mayor Ballard in a ring and have them duke it out? But, seriously, having a haven among the Thunderdome of discrimination is a good first step, but it seems impotent, in my opinion, at this point. Could Indiana’s government move quickly enough to retract the law before the Con goes? Who knows? Knowing that government is a freighter turning in the water and not a jet ski, it is unlikely.

There’s been talk of folks attending GenCon2015 all rainbowed-clad and wearing t-shirts in rainbow tie-die that say “The Cake is a Lie and so is RFRA.” Again, if you did that before the law was signed, sure. Now that it’s in effect, it seems pointless and very slackivist. You’re still giving them your money. You’re still supporting them.

This is where I call tough love. I love gamers and the games we play. It’s an important life skill and the creativity that abounds in that community is unending and inspiring. But, we as a community that should profess progression and inclusion (yes, yes, we have our sexism and racism, which is why this stand is so important). We can’t afford not to take this stand. We need to vote with the influence we have – our dollars, despite the pain it causes. In 2015 to allow this to stand is untenable, and does not bode well for the gaming community, in my opinion.

Change is painful. Humans are very “my backyard.” Their backyard has to be threatened before they do something. You can’t use your privilege to go have a great convention because you don’t want to hurt the reasonable people – the participants, the vendors, the panelists. It has to hurt everyone for change to occur. That’s just a fact of life. #BoyCotIndiana is just getting started. We’re going to have to gut the pig of discrimination via its slop subsistence – money in this case – to get it overturned.

So how do things proceed? I’d love to see GenCon kill the con in Indiana for 2015. There’s still time to scramble and reorganize. Will there be resources lost? Will people’s hard work be for naught? In the beginning, perhaps this will be so. But in the end, I think not. I think that the community could come back even stronger. Let me tell you why I think that. It’s all about framing. Instead of the participants, vendors, and panelists feeling as if they just “lost out,” a reframing about what they put their resources to is needed. You need to look at the energy and monies around GenCon 2015 as a campaign to support anti-discrimination. They could easily ask their participants to “donate” their memberships as a vote towards overturning RFRA. That way those resources wouldn’t be lost. I think the community would be very agreeable to that. Sure, sure, you tell me, that’s easy for me to say. I haven’t spent two years planning, or saving, or anything. But, I put myself in the mindset, of if this was happening in my state, to the cons I’m attending this year.

It’s also possible that another convention center – say maybe even in neighboring Chicago or elsewhere (Denver, California, Minnesota have all said, “come here!”) might provide agreeable change of venue to help the con move forward as planned (save location) as another strong statement. Anything is possible if people deem it to be so, I believe that.

As a community, we need to take a tough stand on this. We’ve been lax for too long given things like #gamergate and general con harassments or even the ridiculousness of PAX’s new slippery-slope rules regarding booth babes policy. Today we have an opportunity to not support discrimination and the reversal of so much progress in our country. One bad apple spoils the bunch is a true adage here. Right on the heels of Indiana’s RFRA passing, Arkansas did the same. South Carolina and Texas already have similar laws. GenCon2015 can help make a statement and boost the gaming community’s credibility with its members, all its members, as well as the rest of the world.

I’m proud of those taking the stand not to support Indiana’s discrimination by not supporting events, activities, and companies in Indiana. I’m hoping GenCon2015 joins those brave equality warriors. Change is painful. Let’s make the pain not last so long?

#BoyCotIndiana #GenCon2015 #EndBigotry




Free-Range Fiction: Flash-Fiction Challenge (Pt. 3): ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’

This is part three of the four-part story flash fiction challenge Herr Wendig over at Terribleminds put fourth nearly three weeks ago now. This story was started by Peter MacDonald and continued by Richard (aka PoorDick) from just over the bridge here in Seattle. You’ll note that each part of the story references a Robert Frost Poem, first Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, and then, The Road Not Taken. For my part in this collaborative effort, I chose Frost’s Storm Fear. Those verses are in italics in the text. I believe the use of all of these falls under fair use. If you feel their use is inappropriate, please contact me and let me know. In the interim, please read, comment. Thanks to Peter and Richard for the fun. I hope you like my additions.


The snow was up to Jake’s knees and still wasn’t quite done falling. While most of the snowfall had passed, there were still a handful of wayward flakes drifting down from the heavens, belatedly joining their brothers and sisters on the ground. It was the first real snowfall of the year, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last; before the month was out, the passes leading into the mountains he called home would be completely blocked up, and he would be alone until the spring thaw.

He bent down to check the last trap on this run. It was, unsurprisingly, empty. Game had been scarce for the past week, which boded poorly. If this kept up, he would have to dig into his stores, which might mean a lean winter. With a dejected sigh, he stood up, brushed the snow off of his knees, and started down the mountain towards his home. As he walked, he began to sing out loud a poem his father had taught him:

 Whose woods these are I think I know.

 His house is in the village though;

 He will not see me stopping here

 To watch his woods fill up with snow.

He took a deep breath between stanzas, and the crisp winter air chilled his lungs. The warmth of his breath had fogged up his glasses, and he took them off for a moment, cleaning them with his shirtfront. He’d been wearing the same pair for three years now, and they were starting to wear thin; one of the legs had been clumsily repaired with bailing wire two weeks ago, after he’d taken a nasty fall on some frozen ground. Hopefully, a trader would come through with a new set before the pass closed.

If any more traders came through at all. It had been more than a month since he’d seen one.

My little horse must think it queer

to stop without a farmhouse near

 Between the woods and frozen lake

 the darkest evening of the year.

As he finished the second stanza, a distant rumbling made him look up, and see the black storm clouds moving in from the distance, the setting sun resting behind them. It seemed he’d misjudged the snowfall; it was letting up now, but it was only a brief reprieve before a true winter storm came down upon him.

I should cut through the woods, he thought. He normally avoided the deep woods whenever possible; he’d lived around them his whole life, but he still got turned around in them sometimes. Plus, the woods were full of unfriendly animals. The last thing he wanted was to accidentally stumble into a bear’s den, or get surrounded by a pack of wolves. But he wanted to get caught by that storm even less, and taking the direct route through the woods would get him home a lot quicker than walking long way around.

The woods were dark and twisted, and as he peered through his broken spectacles to keep track of the path, he sang the next stanza to keep his spirits up:

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

of easy wind and downy flake.

As he spoke the final words, he stepped into a clearing and stopped short at the sight in front of him. The snow – including, he slowly realized, the very snow he was standing on – was stained red, and covered in the bodies of…creatures. There was no better way to describe them, but they were unlike anything Jake had ever seen in the twenty-three years he’d lived on the mountain. They were messes of tooth and claw, amorphous masses of limbs and mouths and eyes and tendrils. There were more than a dozen of them, but no two of them were alike, except for the one thing they had in common: they were all dead, rent apart by deep gashes and still slowly oozing blood.

The smell came upon him suddenly, and he doubled over with a sudden rush of nausea. His mouth filled with the taste of iron, and he nearly threw up onto the snow. He stepped forward in a daze, compelled to investigate. The creatures’ forms sickened him, but they fascinated him as well. He had to know more. Had to see more.

There were only a few of the creatures at the clearing’s edge, but the center was a solid mass, bodies piled together and on top of each other until you could barely tell where one ended and the next began, all of them coloring the snow with their ichor. Jake approached slowly, suddenly acutely aware of the sound of his boots crunching against the snow, of the fogging of his breath, of that terrible, terrible smell. He extended a hand to touch one of them. It was still warm. It had not been dead long. Its skin was thick and rubbery.

Jake jumped backwards as he heard a groaning sound. Panic made him clumsy, and he tripped over his own feet, falling down to the bloody snow. A moment later, another, louder groan could be heard. Jake lay very still for a moment, and then slowly rose to his feet as he realized that none of the creatures were moving. They were not the source of the noise. He stepped forward again and peered over the very top of the pile.

At the center of the clearing, at the very center of the mound of flesh, lay a woman, no older than he was. Her hair, blonde, her body, slim. Her cloak was stained with blood, and he could see that her clothing had been torn by tooth and claw. Her shoulder was a horrific mess, covered in what looked like teeth marks. But she was breathing. She was alive.

“Holy shit,” he gasped, clambering over the dead to get to her. “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.” His mind seemed to be stuck, unable to process any more than that. He knelt over her, quickly stripping off his gloves and then doing the same for her furs, wincing at what he found beneath them. Whoever this woman was, she was badly hurt.

His eyes fell on something bright: a pendant, hanging around her neck, which seemed to glimmer in the non-existent moonlight. For a moment, her injuries were forgotten. He reached out carefully to touch it, then lifted it up to inspect it. It was made of wrought silver, and shaped into a complex spiral of loops and whorls. He lifted it higher still, captivated by its light.

A sickening noise lifted up from the other side of the clearing, shocking him out of his stupor. He dropped the pendant and sat up, looking fearfully in its direction. One of the things – almost in the shape of a wolf, but with too many arms, too many jaws, and a body of roiling tendrils – was moving. It let out another sound, a rumble which got right into his gut and churned it, and then to his horror it sloughed up off of the ground and started coming towards him. Its legs were broken, its body covered in cuts, more than one of its limbs ended in stumps – but it was coming, leaving a blood red trail on the ground as it dragged itself towards him. It made it two, maybe three paces, and then with a keening moan it slumped over and died.

Jake crouched fearfully for a moment, waiting to see if it would start moving again.

snowy_pawprintsPART II:

That moment stretched out for what felt like an eternity. He stooped there, frozen. Adrenaline surged through his body while it prepared to possibly fight or fly. He could feel his blood thundering through his veins and hear his heart thumping in his ears. He could see every breath he took as it condensed in the bitter winter air.

As the moment started to slip away and the tension started to leave his muscles, his eyes glanced over to the prone young woman and he whispered

The woods are lovely, dark and deep 

But I have promises to keep 

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

The eldritch chimera Jake had been watching roared to life. Its chittering howl resounded throughout the clearing as it erupted forth in a splattering of fresh gore. Deep in the most ancient parts of the young man’s brain; a simple command was issued:


Scooping the distressed damsel up in his arms, he pivoted away from the many mawed beast that lunged at him and immediately felt his world give way underneath him. His feet had not been able to find their footing under the combination of half melted snow, oily ichor, and rubbery flesh.

Tumbling down the mound of bodies, he felt the pile shift. The malformed mutant struggled its way to the place where Jake had just been, and he heard the snap-crack-crack-snap-snap of its many jaws. Holding the woman close to him as he fell, he did his best to protect her already wounded body from any further harm.

While the nameless terror glibbed and roared from atop the mound, Jake felt himself slide into the fresh, soft snow at its base. He wasted no time gathering himself to his feet and scanning tree line. Without even thinking, he began to susurrate another poem his father had taught him.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Jake didn’t notice the silver pendant around the woman’s neck start to shimmer again. He didn’t notice the thousands of brilliant sparkles that formed in its endless, Escher-esque loops and whirls with each of his words. His eyes were fixed the edge of the forest – at the path in the snow he had made to reach the clearing.

There’s no way he could make it back to the other side of the glade. Not with that thing chasing him. Looking down, he saw a small trail of fox prints leading off into a thicket; only a few feet from where he stood. If he was lucky, the underbrush would be thick enough to slow or stop the nightmare behind him.

Then took the other, just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

Congealing blood, melting snow, and liquids perhaps better left unknown had seeped into his boots; mixing into a sickening, thick slurry that now encased his feet. The biting cold of winter had seeped in too, and the chill worked its way up his legs and into his bones. The riotous chattering of teeth rang in his ears. He covered his mouth with his hand to muffle the sound, but the chattering continued.

A shower of severed limbs and bodily fluids exploded over his head and were accompanied by an explosive whickateracking. Not sparing even a second to look behind him, Jake forced himself forward; ducking down under the low hanging branches. Hunched and cradling the unconscious woman, he trudged with as much speed as he could muster through the knee deep snow.

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

Above him, the empty boughs had grown to form an impenetrable canopy, yet the knee deep snow still seemed to be piled just as high as it had under open sky. Behind him, he heard a great cacophony of crashing, snarling, galumphing, and tchixicoring, but he dared not look back, even as the sounds grew more and more faint.

He pressed on into the dark, thick underbrush for what felt like hours. His thighs and calves burned from being forced to hobble swiftly though the thick snow, his back groaned and ached from being hunched over, and his arms felt so weak under their load; but that the least of Jack’s concerns. He couldn’t feel his fingers or toes anymore. It wasn’t that they were cold. He couldn’t feel them at all.

He knew this wasn’t good. He needed to get home to his cabin, and fast; but he didn’t even know where he was at this point. He didn’t want to look down; to see the state of his unprotected fingers in the cold. Yet, he glanced down anyway, and saw the woman’s silver pendant twinkle.

There was no way any light could be shining down from above. No illumination could make it through the thick, interwoven branches above them. Endless, inky black yawned out before them. Just as he was opening his mouth to speak, his eyes caught glimpse of a yellow-orange flicker in the distance. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, maybe only twenty yards way. In the distance, unearthly gnashing and wailing still echoed.

Digging deep inside himself, Jack drew up all the strength he had left and made his way down the last leg of the trail. When he reached the mouth of the path, he peered out from the sheltered darkness. Reaching up, he crudely adjusted his broken glasses with his numb fingers. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

38086463289bfe9c910ad52be394aa52Part III

First it was the malformed mutants, now this. Jake’s mouth gaped open. Even though he didn’t go through the woods normally or often, he had been through this place before. This, however, this place, had not been here. He was certain. Jake stared, his eyes moving rapidly over this near wall in front of him. It was a forest inside a forest. Vines everywhere, but within the vines Jake could faintly make out openings, like windows. He blinked, not trusting his broken glasses. From the windows a warm glow of light blasted out onto the path. He strained his neck upwards, and could make out the outline of what looked like a castle turret. Yes, the trees around, the vines, the growth, it all silhouetted a castle turret. He shuffled the unconscious woman in his arms and then moved forward. With ever step he felt a heat, but it wasn’t coming from the …what would he call it? A cave? a castle?

WHEN the wind works against us in the dark,          

And pelts with snow   

The lowest chamber window on the east,       

And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,

“Sanctuary,” a whisper came from the bloodied waif he carried. Although she was slight, after the chase from the unnatural creatures, she didn’t feel insubstantial anymore. He was aching with the weight of her, his feet and hands still numb from the gore and cold. He needed a sanctuary for sure.

“Hey, you’re going to be okay,” Jake said. “Stay with me.” As he surveyed her condition the pendant on her necklace glowed and was emanating the heat he had been feeling. Inhaling in disbelief, he suddenly felt a wave of strength and trudged in packed-down snow, which made approaching the entrance effortless. He was a mere feet from the lowest level of vines when the sound of stone on stone echoed, followed closely by another unearthly echo of snarling.

The beast,                  

‘Come out! Come out!’—          

It costs no inward struggle not to go,

Ah, no!

A bright light poured out from in front of Jake, enveloping him and the barely conscious woman. The light moved around them, as if in corporeal form. Arms of warmth twisted and turned around Jake’s near-frozen feet and hands. As the golden brightness swirled around him, he began to feel sensation in his fingers first, allowing him to get a better grip on the woman. Then before he could actually wiggle his toes, the light shoved him forward and the echo of stone on stone punctuated his rapid movement. The sounds of the monsters behind him were gone. In front of him was a great hall with a ceiling that rose near the whole height of what Jake thought was the entirety of this jungled turret. Shadows of the vines from the windows were peppered throughout the hall. At the end of the hall sat a woman, much like the woman he still carried, slight, blonde, pale. She raised her hand and motioned toward him. Jake wondered in a whisper if he must be passed out in the snow, the storm already crushing him.

“This can’t be real,” he finally said clearly and loud enough to any and all in the room.

As he got closer to the woman seated on an unremarkable chair, he saw she wore a necklace much like that the injured soul. At that moment, both of their pendants shone and vibrated, and Jake watched in complete awe as the woman was elevated out of his arms and floated to a table to the right of the seated woman. More waves of light swirled and flittered about her. Jake watched as the bloodied cloak became an illuminated ecru, all evidence of the blood, tears, and bite marks erased.

I count our strength,       

Two and a child,           

Those of us not asleep subdued to mark         

How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,—        

“Wait,” Jake stuttered. “How?” He gasped as the woman sat upright and smiled at him. Both the creatures before him were ethereally beautiful and he took his now warm fingers and pinched his arm. He was awake. He was living this moment.

The waves of light moved away from the woman he’d found near that pile of blobby-toothed creatures and towards him again. It cleaned the fifth and entrails off of him and warmed him more. He felt completely rejuvenated, as if he could run a marathon without getting winded.

“Where? I mean, Who?” Jake tried to get the questions out, but the woman on the chair shook her head. He watched as the woman in the chair dematerialized and turned into a swirl of light, mimicking the pendant of her necklace and then bursting away.

How drifts are piled,  

Dooryard and road ungraded,           

Till even the comforting barn grows far away                   

And my heart owns a doubt   

The woman on the table now moved to the chair. Jake watched as she pressed her hand on the armrest and a panel opened and a box of gears rose from within the armrest. He watched her pale finger press one of the buttons. A chair was pressed into his backside forcing him to sit, as if gravity was suddenly a thousand times more powerful. He couldn’t even move his feet or his hands. His butt was planted in the chair.

Whether ’tis in us to arise with day    

And save ourselves unaided.

His breathing slowed. He felt a pressure, like when you’re super sleepy but still need to drive home. He wished he could get fresh air to wake up. The ground beneath him shook and shimmied – an earthquake. But he knew better. They were moving. This turret, covered in overgrown brambles and vines and filled with waves of light creatures, was moving.



Free-Range Fiction: Collaborative Storytelling, Part II SPOILED BACON

I’ve been really pushing myself to do these exercise the Herr Wendig set out for us. It’s been helpful in getting the juices going and practicing character development, continuity, and plot arc. Those active in this challenge are trying hard to make sure everyone got a Part II to their start. Here’s my attempt to help WombatTony with their piece SPOILED BACON. Below in italics is the first part, and in regular text begins my section. Each part is just 1,000 words, so you can see it takes some time to get all the story elements in there. Enjoy. Comment. Thanks.

100_0870Cyrus silently cursed IKEA as the Allen wrench twisted through his fingers and fell to the ground again. Not that this creation was made of flimsy Swedish wood. This was the result of years of research, experimentation, and trial. But every time that damned L-shaped hex key spun too fast or too slow for the screw, he found himself using the furniture store’s name in vain.

“Straightedge and Phillips did fucking fine before those Aryan SOBs showed up in every neighborhood,” he exclaimed before wetting his raw fingers in his mouth.

 Three more rightie-tighties, accompanied by one more tiny-tool projectile, and he stepped back to look at his masterpiece.

The time machine. His time machine.

It didn’t look too impressive in the dingy motel room off of Interstate 64. No light came in through the thick curtains drawn over the window that they had probably hung in front of since 1950. The faint illumination came from an incandescent light bulb that might as well have still had Thomas Edison’s initials on it, peeking out from underneath a lamp shade made from that same curtain cloth.

But he had to be here in the 21st century. Because what Cyrus had created was a time machine, not a time and space machine, a fact which had become all too clear on his test run. He went back a week. What could go wrong? Until he missed materializing inside a late-model Buick by a manner of inches.

So it was back to the drawing board. Kept most of the time elements intact, but allowing for objects which might exist in that spot in the past. Cyrus didn’t expect to find any Buicks in 1676, but who knew how the riverbank had grown or moved over the last three-and-a-half centuries.

Regardless, Cyrus needed to be here in Virginia when he went back, because it would be a hell of a lot harder to get to Jamestown back then. No Interstates, no satellites to guide the GPS on his phone. To say nothing of the Native Americans. Or Indians, as he was going to have to get used to calling them.

As he left the dingy motel in the direction of the Historic Jamestown Settlement, his thought shifted from the where of his destination to the when. Seven years after Cyrus, the naïve college senior, proclaimed the election of Barack Obama signaled a new age in race relations, little had changed. They might have gotten worse. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. And on a more personal note to Cyrus, the constant skeptical glances, the “Affirmative Action” quips,  at a smart, college-educated black man.

Racism was embedded in America. The only way to change that was to go back to the source. His first thought had been stopping Lincoln’s assassination, but that might be too late. Would an extra three years of “be nice to the south” Reconstruction have made that much of a difference? Segregation and an intrinsic belief of inferiority of the former slaves would still reign.

So maybe he could go all the way to the beginning. Literally. The first black slave coming to America, right here in Jamestown, one year before the Pilgrims even arrived. But what good could he do then? Kill a few slave traders. Then what? The slaves he freed wouldn’t even survive the conditions, probably. And a few months later, the next ship would arrive.

So not too early in race relations, and not too late, he finally decided to split the difference and arrived like a racial Goldilocks and the just-right spot, precisely one hundred years before the hypocritical Declaration of Independence. Bacon’s Rebellion, the great schism between white indentured servants and black slaves. If those two groups could be kept together with common goals, the permanent racial divide might never emerge.

Standing over the back channel of the James River, Cyrus took one last breath of 21st century air and flipped the switch. The machine whirred and whooshed as it attempted to pierce the ether of time, like a 1994 modem making the painstaking connection to AOL. Cyrus wondered about what sight would greet him on the other side, in order to avoid focusing on the vertigo about to hit. Traveling across one week had been bad enough. How nauseating would three hundred years feel?

Then it came, much worse than before, and he no longer cared about what he would see. Only that he would survive.

As Cyrus fought to keep his breakfast and every other meal he had ever eaten down, another stray thought ran across his mind. A suppressed query. When he revamped the space element on the machine, had he re-checked the time component? Before the test run, he had configured and reconfigured every step with time as the only variable. He had triple-checked his math, dotted every imaginary i, crossed every theoretical t.

Had he done that this time? Had he rechecked the time components after fixing the spatial variable? As the world started to shift, as his body began to stretch and condense through time, his mind kept returning to the vague iron-left-on-at-home feeling that something had been overlooked.

Then the constriction of his abdomen stopped all tangential thoughts.

“Definitely gonna hurl.”

Cyrus lurched out of the time vortex onto all fours as heat spewed from his bowels onto the hard forest soil. Twice. A third time before he could even inhale. Stomach still convulsing, he focused on the hard-packed dirt still wobbling under spittle hanging from his mouth like taffy.  The world, reality itself, transitioned from a shake to a swoon as sobriety and sanity fought for control. 

After what could have been a minute or could have been a week – what is time, really? – Cyrus pulled his right hand off the ground to wipe his mouth. Then his forehead. He slowly raised his eyes off the vomit-splattered dirt to take in his surroundings.

“Shit,” he muttered. 

This was not 1676 Virginia.

 91818-004-CB4352C3Part II

No, it wasn’t Virginia. It wasn’t Kansas either. He didn’t even think he was on Planet Earth. He pulled the vital goggles away from his head and let them rest on his forehead. He blinked hard, there was dust in his eyes, his nose, his mouth. Slowly he was able to parse out that he was on something of a wide trail – not quite a road. The confusion in his brain was leaving, and more and more of his situation came into focus. He pushed himself up and stood upright. On either side of the road was a wide expanse of land that went seemingly on and on. He saw no trees, no animals, no buildings, and certainly no people. Also, when he’d left Virginia it was barely into Spring. Where he was now, the sun beat down hot, hard, and dangerous. Water. He needed water, especially after being sick. With this heat he would become dehydrated fast. There would be no spoiling Bacon’s Rebellion or any race relation correcting. He’d be dead. He decided to just head down this trail and see where it ended. He took the machine’s pack off his back. All the settings looked right. But, this land was not his beloved Virginia. Cyrus disconnected the vital lines from his eyes, ears, and mouth. He put everything neatly in stow in the pack and placed it back on his back. It just looked like he was a college student from 2015. In the middle of where, though?

He still felt a little woozy, every now and then his steps felt unsure, like he’d drank too much wine. Drink. Water. Need to keep moving. Time travel was not for sissies. None of what he was attempting was for sissies. As he walked, searching for water, he wondered where he had gone wrong. What hadn’t he accounted for, anticipated? It was that stupid Allen wrench’d gear, likely.

“Fucking Ikea.”

He reached a slight uphill part of the path and saw a few trees in the distance. He knew those kind of trees:  Umbrella Thorn. There was only one place where he could be:  Africa.

Damn. Still got the ‘space’ part of travelling time and space wrong.  

Cyrus’ thoughts raced, as did his heart. He concentrated on his breathing. Keep a cool head. Now to figure out what year it was. But first, water. He looked up in the sky to try to figure out what time it was. How long before dark, before he became prey to some of the Earth’s best predators? He hoped a few hours, because that tree in the distance needed water. There had to be water near that tree. Cyrus picked up his pace. His breathing became more rapid as his emotions churned. He slapped the side of his head. Stupid. No provisions. And no one knew what he was doing. He might get taken down by a pack of hyenas at this point and all of this would have been for naught.  

He could see a small tributary. It moved. It moved, which way? He looked up at the sun. He imagined it was moving West.  That meant it must be connected to another body of water.  Or headed that way. Africa. West. The Atlantic.

Cyrus knelt down at the edge of the stream. The stream was tepid, but it was still cooler than the air or that blasting sun. Although the tributary was small, it was wider than the path he’d just come from, but too narrow for Cyrus to think it a proper river. He washed the dirt from his hands. That dusty path was all over him now. He washed his face in the water. It was dangerous, maybe, to drink this water, Cyrus surmised; but, he had to stay hydrated. He could go without food. But he had to drink and get his fill. So, he did. It cooled not only his skin, his insides, but also his thoughts. He could do this. He had a mission. He would complete it.

A low growl came from behind Cyrus. He didn’t move quickly, but slowly turned his head enough that he could see what appeared to be some kind of dog behind him to the right. Next to his left hand was a rock, bigger than his fist, but still wieldable. Another growl as he moved his hand towards the rock, and then a bark. More barking and growling. Cyrus grasped the stone and in one swift movement, as if he was fielding a baseball and throwing it to first, whipped the stone at the dog. The stone caught the animal in the mid section and the dog ran off away from Cyrus. Cyrus stood up, and began heading downstream. In moments he noticed his footsteps had an echo. He spun around, only to be descended upon by two men. White men. British men.

“Get him!” the taller of the two yelled as his hands reached Cyrus’ shoulders and tackled him.

“Wait, wait! No!” Cyrus cried. The two men were both loaded down with ropes, knives, and pistols. Neither man was shaven, sporting days old beards. They were filthy. After his quick stream bath, Cyrus looked a thousand times cleaner. He was likely more educated, too.

“He speaks English!” the shorter man gasped.

“Doesn’t matter,” the taller one said as he bound Cyrus’ hands behind him. “That’s the ship load. Time to make preparations to get underway.” He roughly stood Cyrus up on his feet by his bound hands. The shorter one took hold of Cyrus as the taller one bound his mouth.

“Can’t have him yapping away,” he said.

“The doc may decide this one’s his anyway. He likes ‘em smarter,” the taller man shoved Cyrus forward, downstream.

Cyrus was glad they were headed downstream, that meant he’d been right in his calculations. Now it was time to calculate his escape.


Free-Range Fiction: GREEN & BROWN IN RIVERLAND (Part II of 4-Part Story Challenge)

Below is my contribution to the second part of another writer’s story. In Italics is the original story by DangerDean. Regular text below is my contribution. Thanks Herr Wendig for the challenge, again. Danger Dean didn’t give it a title, so I’m calling it:  GREEN AND BROWN IN RIVERLAND

The hunt would be successful, Birdkin thought, and all because of him. None of the River tribe had caught any meat this time, and it had seemed like they would dine on nuts and greens because of it. But now he, Birdkin Riverson, was poised to fill the larders of his people. He had spotted a vole sniffing and scratching its way through the forest and he was poised to fall upon it. He was stretched taut on a branch above, camouflaged. His skin was already as brown as the bark, and his long hunting coat—brown with hints of green—hid the rest of him. Once the rodent approached his blind he would drop on its back and cut its throat with the his knife. He would claim the heart as his warrior prize and mount the teeth as a necklace, or on a war club, or maybe a war club necklace, he wasn’t sure.

The animal came nearer, twitching its whiskers as it scrabbled in the dirt for seeds. Birdkin started to loosen his grip, then froze. Across the feeding trail the vole was using, past Big Cedar, but definitely in River Tribe territory, was a Village Tribe scouting party. Three that he could see, crouched in a thicket chewing on trail rations. They weren’t making any effort to hide, but he wouldn’t have seen them if he wasn’t up on the branch. He let out a birdlike chirp, which alerted Blackwhisker and her sister Greywhisker, perched in a crook of Gnarled Oak. They looked toward him and he pointed toward the hostile patrol. More subtle chittering and chirping alerted the entire hunting party, which began converging on the three Village people.

Birdkin watched his vole trundle through the brush past him and sighed. No meat for now, but this was more important. If the Village Tribe was bold enough to break an age-old truce something had to be done about it.

This had been a wide-ranging hunt, and riverfolk spanned the area around the enemy patrol. Now with a few well-timed signals they moved silently over the forest floor, weapons drawn, and before the villagefolk saw what was happening they were surrounded by surly, growling River people brandishing bows, swords, pikes and knives. Shinetooth Eightfingers stepped forward and addressed them.

“You are in the land of the River People, which is ours by ancient truce, and in which the presence of People of the Village is proscribed.” The three Village people seemed unperturbed.

“State your business, and explain why we should not make you a fine meal for ravens.” A lanky, green-skinned warrior of middle years stepped forward.

“Our business? We wanted to take an afternoon stroll to a part of the forest we’ve never seen. You have pretty lands here. I can’t tell you why you shouldn’t kill us, except that we made it onto your lands undetected and more of our people may decide to take afternoon strolls. They would not take kindly to our deaths.” A squat, heavily-muscled nutbrown thug piped up.

“And we killed your sentries without you noticing so we—“ A green woman in an acorn helm swatted him in the back of the head.

“Shut your seed-hole, Dirteater.” Two River Tribe scouts ran up to the group.

“We found Thistle and Mossbeard! They’re dead! Garrotted with spider silk!” A collective growl rose from the assembled River people.. The green patrol leader grinned slyly, but his satisfaction was cut short by fierce whistles from Blackwhisker and Greywhisker.

“Cat!” Everyone yelled in unison, and scattered as the animal, a striped tom, landed in the clearing. It swatted its massive paw toward the three Villagers, knocking Dirteater unconscious several feet away. The animal leapt to him and held him down with a paw, not noticing that Dirteater’s two companions were now attacking it. They first threw pikes at its flanks, then before it wheeled around began hacking at the back of its legs with their swords. The River folk were stunned. No-one they knew had tried to take on one of the cats in battle. It was unheard of, until now.

The Whisker Sisters drew their bows and let fly volleys of arrows at the beast, while the rest of them surrounded it and aimed arrows and spears. The bravest and most foolish closed with the creature and tried to stab it with their small weapons. Birdkin was one of these, climbing tufts of fur on its leg and hacking tendons before he was thrown off again and again. The cat was not used to its prey fighting back and attempted to flee, but it could not shake off its attackers. The green woman in the acorn helm spun a weighted length of woven silk above her head, then released it to spin around the cat’s front legs. She pulled it taut and the animal began to topple, yowling in fear. Most of the warriors who had been climbing its flanks jumped clear, but Birdkin, who had made his way almost to a shoulder, kept hacking away, unaware that he was about to be crushed. The green woman, seeing this, leapt forward and into the air, tackled him around his midsection, and propelled him out of danger. He looked up at her, and tried to thank her, but hitting the ground had knocked the breath out of him. He mouthed the words just as his own people surrounded her and dragged her away.

Once the cat was down and they had access to its throat the crowd made quick, if messy, work of the beast, then took inventory of the situation. Three River warriors lost their lives, as did Dirteater and the Village patrol leader. With the work of the rest of the tribe they would have meat to last for many moons, which was fortunate, as they didn’t know when the Village Tribe would make its attack. They withdrew for the night, and Birdkin, snug on his moss bed, dreamed of a green woman in an acorn helm.

Part II

During the River Tribe’s common meal at midday, Birdkin went to find Shinetooth Eightfingers. Around the glen where the Gathering Circle was, there was much chatter about the events of the day before. Birdkin spotted the Whisker Sisters; they stood in front of the prison hut. A couple of kids chased the River Tribe’s domesticated water fowl. The Honwoos honked and barked, and the children giggled and yowled in delight. Greywhisker nodded towards Birdkin as he crossed the glen to the far end and moved closer to the prison hut, giving him awkward pause. Greywhisker always went out of her way to greet him, which sometimes irritated her sister, Blackwhisker. He approached the fire circle that stood about six stones from the prison hut; five of the old women of the River Tribe were processing the hide of the big cat and preparing other pieces of the carcass for use.

“Birdkin,” one of the old women inside the fire circle and closest to the prison hut called. She motioned for him to come to her.

Birdkin approached, kneeling down in front of the matriarch. “How shall I serve you, dear wise one?

The old woman’s dark hair was streaked in white. She let out a giggle that denied her many moons with the River People, “You are a right respectful lad, Birdkin, but it is not how you shall serve me, but how I shall serve you.” Birdkin raised his head to look at her, tilting his head to one side like one of the Honwoos did when checking for predators. This made the old woman chuckle, “Relax, Birdkin. Old Tannerlass means you no trickery.” She stood up, her old bones now giving her age away in her stiff movement, and came to him and placed a beaded leather necklace around his neck. At its center was one of the large teeth of the Cat his hunting party had killed. The old woman had cleaned and shined it and layered it with fish fat to make it glisten. “We thank you for your bravery yesterday,” said the old woman, Tannerlass.

“Thank you for such a blessing,” Birdkin said. The old woman nodded and Birdkin left the fire circle, heading back to the Whisker Sisters.

Grey Whisker smiled at Birdkin’s approach. “Stand your duty,” Blackwhisker growled, a long scar on her right cheek growing taut with her irritation. Unlike her sister, Blackwhisker had no patience for Birdkin, save as a hunting party member. She gave Birdkin only the most cursorily respect.

“I am not here to tear you from your duty,” Birdkin said. “I just wondered about the condition of our captures.” Greywhisker and Blackwhisker sandwiched between him. Greywhisker painted all in the powder of white river rock and Blackwhisker painted all in the powder of black river rock. They were born on the same day, Blackwhisker during the end of the night, and Greywhisker born at the beginning of the day. They had always been a part of his world, but weren’t in it always, though. There was comfort and discomfort with them always for Birdkin.

“They are as fine as any capture,” Blackwhisker said. “Shouldn’t you be seeing Shinetooth right now?”

“Aye,” Birdkin said and puffed out his chest and straightened his shoulders back, to give Blackwhisker a reminder of his elder status above her. He had 24 moons on the Whisker Sisters. “I know that he will ask about the captures. I will just be sure that they are ready for their trial.”

Graywhisker immediately moved to allow him to pass. Blackwhisker grunted, but acquiesced.

Inside the confinement hut sat two of the members from People of the Village patrol that had broken the ancient truce. The green acorn woman and another scout found after the Cat was dead.

Birdkin approached the green acorn woman. He stood only a stone and a half away from her. “I wanted to properly pay my respects and give my gratitude to you for your actions with the Cat yesterday.

The green acorn woman said nothing. She just stared at him, her eyes that of a practiced hunter.

Birdkin took a step back, surveying her sinewy, muscled, green arms. They held such strength like he had not seen in a woman before, he tilted his head in curiosity.

“I see why they call you Birdkin,” the green acorn woman said.

“And what do they call you?” Birdkin tilted his head to the other way, blinking rapidly.

The green acorn woman met his question with that silent stare he’d given him after his reverent sentiment.

Birdkin was not flustered, “Very well. I shall just call you Green Acorn Woman.” He laughed at himself, and then went around to the other prisoner. He was a young boy, barely to hunter status as The River Tribe. Unlike Green Acorn Woman, he wouldn’t look at Birdkin, and clearly had been weeping, as stripes of tear tracks streaked his face. He was very lanky, as if he hadn’t quite finished growing. Both the capture’s green skin was so interesting to Birdkin. It had this luminescent almost. It was like stars in a night sky, but pulled down to the Riverland.

“What do they call you, lad?” Birdkin nudged the boy’s foot trying to get him to look up at him.

A scream rose from behind him, a battle cry. Birdkin spun around grabbing his knife in one fluid motion, before him was a charging Green Acorn Woman, her teeth bared and fingers curled like a Cat about to attack.