Stitched

Stitched is a short horror story I self-published in 2012 under the pen name Dani Marchand. Despite positive reviews, I can’t stand by it as firmly as I once did, so it’s no longer available to purchase. Here’s the full unedited text. The characters may seem familiar, but they’ve found a new life in a new setting.

 

When Armand arrives home from work, he walks upstairs to his daughter’s room to press his forehead for several minutes against the cool wooden door, the same way he has each day since her death.

Today, though, the door is open. And his daughter is lying on her side on the window seat, hands folded beneath her head.

Armand gasps, a quick silent intake of air through parted lips. He rushes to her side through beams of dusty slanted light from the half-open blinds.

“Cori,” he whispers. “Cori, honey, wake up. It’s me.” His fingers hover over her shoulder, over the red plaid blanket that covers her.

She stirs, turns her head so slightly, leans into the warm sun. A strand of hair falls over one eye. She’s alive.

Armand’s mouth works soundlessly, trying to form words.

“Isn’t she peaceful?”

Armand takes a moment to register that Charlotte has appeared in the doorway and spoken to him. Her black jogging pants make a swish sound as she steps toward him. “It’s her body, Armand. I was thinking about keeping her in the living room where we can see her all the time, but I thought if we have guests she might get knocked over. Anyway, she liked it best in here.”

Armand yanks his hand away from his dead daughter. His fingertips tingle painfully.

Charlotte grunts, a low disgusted noise in the back of her throat. “Armand, dammit, do you have to be like that? What did you think it was?”

He can’t answer. He stares blankly at Cori’s hair, lit by the afternoon sun. Suddenly he feels cold and sick.

Dead splintered bones, he thinks. Skin like leather.

Armand leaves the room and descends the stairs without looking at his wife. “Are you listening to me?” she shouts, projecting her voice throughout the house. “This isn’t easy for me either, you know!”

He takes his keys from the table by the door.

You get back here!” Charlotte shrieks. “Leaving me alone, all alone like usual. You could’ve had a say in this, you know! Could’ve done anything besides fucking drink–”

Armand slams the front door behind him. Charlotte can scream to herself. Or to what is left of Cori.

A review from the pet taxidermy catalog Charlotte showed him so many years ago intrudes upon his thoughts. It’s not quite the same, but we can still hold her and touch her every day.

The late afternoon air outside is warm, but Armand shudders.

He gets in his truck. He drives, not through the city but along the outskirts, past farmland and remote small neighborhoods, over abandoned dirt roads. The sun begins to set.

I should have known better.

Charlotte had done the same thing with the bodies of the pets she’d treated like her babies until Cori came along. Two cats and one dog sat around the house for years gathering dust. Midge the chihuahua lay in her bed in the living room, repulsive little eyes ever-staring.

Watching us, not her, not really her.

Midge had been Charlotte’s childhood companion. Despite the dog and Armand’s occasional rivalry (she was fond of hiding the TV remote), Midge lived happily with them for a year before passing away. Charlotte immediately had the dog preserved by some local taxidermist. They dried the animals out somehow so they’d never rot and would always look as they had when they were

crisp dry dust bitter

alive. Figuring Charlotte was half-crazy with grief, Armand planned to get a new pet to make her feel better, but before he got around to it a pair of kittens turned up among the weeds at the park where he worked at the time. He brought the scrawny things home and Charlotte took to them immediately. The patchy orange-and-brown boy was Pumpkin, and the girl colored pure white except for a pale orange bib and bright rosy paws was named Pinky.

Armand did love those cats, good and quiet friends who liked to keep his feet warm at night. Pumpkin seemed to know when Armand was almost home from work; he’d wait on the kitchen counter beside the door and wouldn’t leave until he got his head pats and scratches. Pinky would trot in close behind and wrap herself around his legs.

Armand tries to stop thinking about the cats. He checks his truck’s clock: five past eight. Where can he go that doesn’t serve beer? He drives, hands gripping the wheel tighter than he intends. streetlights and headlights crossing his path now and then. If it doesn’t close at eight around here it serves booze, and I’ve got to keep away from that…

On impulse he turns into Trixie’s, an all-night family diner. It stinks of smoke and grease in there, but it will have to do. He kills the engine and goes in.

Armand drifts past a sign at the entrance: Please Seat Yourself. He heeds the sign’s advice and seats himself at a cracked blue corner booth, then waits for the server to finish with the families that sit scattered through the restaurant. Near the front window he notices a pretty girl of about sixteen holding hands with a boy over sodas and a shared basket of fries. He quickly turns away.

Armand glances over the menu, though it hasn’t changed since the first time he came here. Breakfast sounds tasty, maybe steak and eggs, or even his childhood favorite, chocolate chip pancakes. Maybe that would do him good.

The cats cross his mind again as the waiter approaches. He just asks for coffee.

When Pinky died of cancer at age nine, Charlotte shipped her off to the same taxidermist that had done Midge. Though her tiny white body was emaciated, she didn’t look too strange with her limbs bent into a mock sleeping position. Armand had thought he could almost see why Charlotte kept doing this. Pinky was placed in a basket in a corner of the living room with a lacy pastel pillow under her and a toy mouse beside her paw.

Pumpkin hadn’t known what to make of it. He sat by the basket and yowled much of the time. He knew something wasn’t right.

Months later, when Armand opened the door after work, Pumpkin dashed outside instead of waiting for his head pats. They found him on the road that weekend.

To Armand’s horror, Charlotte insisted on trying to preserve the mangled body. Armand remembers lifting the cat’s body gently off the road, gritting his teeth against the scratchy sound of blood-stiffened fur coming up off the pavement, and finally crying when Charlotte commanded him to put Pumpkin in the freezer.

Armand opens his eyes to find the waiter has brought a steaming mug of coffee with a pitcher of fresh cream, plus a side of buttered toast he hadn’t ordered. He glances around to find the waiter and thank him for the gesture (and more to the point, to thank him for not bothering Armand upon delivery) but his back is turned as he serves baskets of fried fish sticks to a family with a toddler son.

For reasons only God knew, Charlotte decided she wanted Pumpkin frozen not in a simple false sleep like Pinky, but in the position he assumed every afternoon, eyes open on the kitchen counter to wait for Armand.

The broken body didn’t take well to this shape. Pumpkin’s shattered jaw stuck out crookedly, ragged ears perked in unnatural directions, blank eyes dark and staring.

Armand dumps several spoons of sugar into his coffee and sips. The tip of his tongue burns but he swallows it anyway. He wants a glass of water. He wants a bottle of beer.

Armand couldn’t stand walking by the thing in the kitchen every day and being reminded of the small warm body that used to greet him there. His frustration mounted each afternoon. On days off from work he avoided the kitchen entirely.

One day after especially long hours at work, he couldn’t stand it for another second. He smacked the thing off the counter. It hit the wall and something snapped. The back sagged. Musty fur flew everywhere.

Charlotte found him holding the thing that used to be Pumpkin and crying. He thought she was going to yell at him, but the next day the bodies were gone. Midge, Pinky, and Pumpkin had been resigned to an unknown box in a storage closet, out of sight. That was supposed to be the end of it.

He bites down on his toast but it feels like old, brittle bones.

Armand can’t stand to be still with his thoughts a minute longer. He downs the last drop in the coffee mug and leaves a twenty behind on the table.

Outside again in the moderate early-autumn night, Armand turns on the heat in his truck and begins to drive.

Cori had just begun her senior year of high school. She woke before dawn to catch the bus into the next town. She would race into the kitchen, her expression too serious to match her mussed hair, minutes before she had to be at the bus stop. Armand would hand her a muffin and crack a weak joke (“Don’t leave the house too early, now,”) and on her way out she’d smile if it was a good day and roll her eyes if it was a bad one.

Armand never told either Cori or Charlotte that he set up his work schedule so he could see her off. If Cori was a few minutes late out the door, so was Armand. On the two or three occasions when she missed the bus he packed her into the truck and made the forty minute drive down the highway and over the bridge himself. Each time he was tempted to call them both out sick and take her for breakfast and a movie if anything was playing, but he never did. If they couldn’t find a thing to say to each other on the drive, he imagined several hours would only get more uncomfortable.

It hits Armand hard as he looks from the road to the passenger seat that this is the truck she sat in, this is where they spent the two hours of quality time they’ve had in the past four years. Logically he has known this all along, which doesn’t keep his vision from blurring at the idea. He pulls his truck off to the side of the road, opposite a bright but empty laundromat and a closed tire shop.

And she’ll never sit here again–

Armand rests his face in both callused hands, then rakes his fingers back through his hair. It’s graying now, more salt than pepper. In the last photo taken of himself and Cori together (her eighth grade graduation, she’s leaning against him large-eyed and dwarfed by the dozen white roses he placed in her arms) he had a thick, full head of dark brown hair. He knows this because he stole that picture from the bookshelf in the living room the day after she died, removed the frame, and placed it beneath his pillow. Charlotte never noticed. He remembers distantly that she was trying to clear shelf space anyway.

The truck’s heating finally kicks in. Armand holds his hands over the vent the way he’d warm them by a fire. The temperature reminds him of the day Cori was born, an unseasonably hot September afternoon. Cori was a late baby, born when Charlotte was thirty-six and certain she’d never conceive. It had never occurred to Armand to want a child, but he swore as he held her for the first time that he’d give her a good life.

Was it good, honey? What you had of it?

You don’t know how to be a parent,” Charlotte lectured him often in the early years, and he couldn’t deny it.

His one great pleasure was spoiling Cori with vanilla ice cream cones after preschool, new toys on payday (she liked both dolls and model cars), and weekend trips to the zoo upstate. She liked the quick little deer but got upset that they had to stay boxed off in a patch of forest. Armand remembers lifting a toy version of one from the gift shop shelf and offering it to her. “We can at least set this one free,” he’d whispered conspiratorially.

Time passed. Armand barely noticed. The first time Cori didn’t want to get ice cream at the end of the day, he figured she’d be ready for it the next day. But she wasn’t, and Charlotte took it upon herself to inform him, “Cori and I have decided to go on a diet together.” He remembers peering curiously at Cori, who must have been eleven or twelve and wasn’t any bigger than other girls her age. He figured it wasn’t his business.

She lost interest in sweets, in toys, in everything Armand knew how to give. He hadn’t known where to go next, so he sat down and watched Charlotte take over.

It would be a mistake to say Charlotte did a bad job of raising Cori, and a worse mistake to blame his own drunkenness on that, Armand decides. The heat in the truck is beginning to make his throat feel sticky and thick, but it’s better than feeling cold inside. He lowers the driver’s side window several inches with the manual hand crank to let the air circulate.

Trying to think gives him a headache, or maybe it’s the sugar and caffeine. For most of his life Armand has believed that there’s no use in reflection; what’s done is done. He wonders now if it would’ve all turned out differently if he had stopped to think why one day he couldn’t relate to his daughter any longer.

Of course not. It was chance, not choice or fate, that led her away from a party late at night. The friends who had invited her would later explain that she changed her mind about spending the night and tried to bike back home. There on the street (not unlike Pumpkin the cat, Armand thinks crudely) Cori had been knocked off her bike by a driver rounding a corner too fast.

I need to see her.

The decision isn’t conscious. Some instinct buried deep in Armand’s brain tells him that it isn’t too late. He’ll go home, up to Cori’s room, he’ll sit beside her and hold her hand, and–

And what? She’s gone. She can’t forgive me.

But I need to see her.

He drives home. It’s half past nine and the caffeine is wearing off. He wonders if the thoughtful waiter appreciated his tip. He wonders if Cori would have been happy to receive a twenty dollar tip at her part-time job cashiering at the hardware store, where Armand had convinced an old friend to take her on. “I tried my best,” he finds himself saying aloud, his voice swallowed up in the steady hiss from the air vents.

He doesn’t think to wonder what he’s going to say to Charlotte until he lets himself into the house and sees her silhouette facing the living room TV in the dark. The volume is turned low. He can barely make out the sound of himself laughing in a wavery home video while a toddler version of Cori stumbles around in the backyard onscreen. Without thinking he snatches the remote from Charlotte’s hand and mutes the video.

Charlotte is asleep, slowly slumping over the arm of the sofa. Armand leans down to prop her up with a throw pillow and kiss the top of her head. “I’ve failed you too, haven’t I,” he whispers.

A loud, low hiss makes Armand’s head snap up toward the television. It stops faster than he can move his head. The sound is still off, the bottom of the screen lined with short vertical stripes and the word MUTE in blue digital letters.

It’s the video, he tells himself. Onscreen Cori has wandered out of the shot. Armand must have set the camera down on the grass, because the image of the empty backyard is low and perfectly still but for clouds gathering overhead and trees stirring in the breeze. The tape is old, it made a noise. Look, she even had to dig out the VCR to play it.

Again, the hiss. Armand stares at the TV. He tries to remember when he filmed this tape. Why had he set down the camera? What happens next?

The sound cuts off abruptly. The screen flickers and goes black.

Armand jumps, sure for an instant that the power has blown.

But the TV set is still on, the dark screen casting a dim glow on Charlotte’s sleeping face. She snores gently. Armand squeezes her shoulder and takes a deep breath.

No other lights are on in the house. He glances up the stairs. The tape is old and the lights are off and no one is in this house but Charlotte and yourself, you old fool.

Armand would swear he can hear a faint rustling from upstairs. He imagines Pumpkin, Pinky, and Midge all snaking their way out of storage boxes, bones puffing into dust as they contort their bodies through cracks between cardboard and duct tape.

He thinks again of the boundlessly positive taxidermist reviews Charlotte had pushed on him after Midge’s death. We were not ready to lose our baby. Now we can keep him forever!

He remembers saying to her in disbelief, Freeze-dried? Like astronaut food?

She hadn’t spoken to him for an hour after that.

Armand kisses Charlotte again before forcing himself toward the stairs.

Did Charlotte really do the same to their daughter as she had to their pets? Had he imagined it all? As the night wears on it seems more and more likely.

The rustle from upstairs again. A solitary creak.

The worst I’ll find up there is my dead daughter, and hell if that’s not bad enough.

Steadying himself on the rail, Armand ascends to the second floor carefully. In the darkness he feels for each stair before putting his weight down. One step, two steps, three, four, five–

Another creak. Armand hesitates. You know damn well the stairs creak every time you go up them.

He senses movement behind him and does his best to turn his head slowly. The tape has come back on, and though he can’t see what’s onscreen, shadows dance silently across Charlotte’s face.

Armand pries his white knuckles off the stair rail and presses on.

Six steps. Seven steps.

Creak.

Despite the darkness Armand races up the rest of the stairs to the light switch at the top. Eight steps nine ten you damn fool eleven twelve stupid thirteen fourteen–

He leans on the rail to catch his breath at the top and smacks the light switch. The row of ceiling lamps that extend toward Cori’s room at the end of the hall come to life and cast a dim caramel glow.

Armand looks up, expecting relief, but finds his dead daughter standing in her bedroom doorway.

He cries out in shock and despair. She’s bent over and clutching her stomach with a hand braced against the door frame, a shock of dark bangs in her eyes. She hears him and her head snaps up toward him, neck bent at a strange angle.

But her eyes are alive.

Armand doesn’t have to force himself anymore. He rushes to Cori’s side and gently places her arm around his neck to support her. He expects her to feel cold but her skin is room temperature, like stiff oily paper.

With effort she pulls herself upright and looks at him.

She tries to open her mouth, but – oh, God – it’s sewn shut. He can see the thick black stitches between her cracked lips.

Without a second thought he flips his pocket knife open and braces his hand at the back of her head. “You, you need me to ah, cut through…”

She nods.

The stitches snap against his dull knife blade like taut fishing line. He can see it pull away scraps and layers of her skin as it comes undone. He forces himself not to tremble.

When the stitches are gone he tucks his knife away and looks at her. He doesn’t stop touching her hair.

Dad,” she says, her voice hoarse but soft. “Hi, Daddy.”

Armand wonders when she got so tall. Tears threaten at the corners of his eyes. “Honey,” he forces himself to say. “You’re–”

Dead.” She nods, eyes big and dark and so full of life. She rests most of her weight on him, her head against his shoulder, but like the cats she’s much lighter than she was in life. “I know that. But something went wrong.”

Armand gets a sudden, crazy urge to hush Cori, to tell her not to wake her mother. He shakes it off. He should rush down and wake Charlotte now, let her know their little girl is back. It occurs to him that they might have to leave town to avoid raising questions; after all Cori has been through he certainly doesn’t want her subjected to all sorts of tests and questioning…

Dad,” Cori says again, quietly commanding his attention. “I can’t stay.”

What do you mean?” His voice borders on hysteria. “You’re here, you’re right here in front of me, aren’t you? Aren’t you, Cori?” He grabs one of her hands and squeezes it. He hasn’t held her hand for at least ten years.

Ow!” She pulls her hand away and wraps her arm around her waist again.

Armand, his mind full of conflicting thoughts (how did this happen she has to be real she can’t be real it’s a dream), doesn’t think to apologize.

After what looks like catching her breath (except she’s not breathing) Cori smiles at him sadly. “I’m not put together right, Dad. I’m dying again, slowly.”

He knows he needs to ask how she came to life in the first place, how she’s standing and talking with dried-out organs and drained blood, but he feels like if he speaks the words she might vanish. “What can I do, honey? How do I make it better?”

She looks away from him. “I need you to help it happen faster. So it doesn’t hurt so bad.”

Armand doesn’t respond. His mind works to process what his daughter has told him.

I need you to kill me, Dad.”

The word no fills his brain and threatens to burst out his mouth, but he suppresses it. This, Armand realizes, is his one and only chance to make things right with his daughter, to listen to her. She knows what she needs.

How do I do it?” His voice cracks.

Drive me out to the bridge.”

He doesn’t have to ask what she means. There’s only one bridge nearby that’s high enough to do it. They’ve driven over it each time Armand has taken Cori to school. It spans a wide river that sometimes dries up in the summer, but it’s been a wet year and he knows the water flows freely now.

Armand nods. “Do we need to hurry, honey?”

She starts to shake her head but winces in pain. “Not too much, but we need to go now. Don’t wake Mom.”

You don’t want to say goodbye to her?”

She won’t let us go if we wake her,” Cori whispers into the collar of Armand’s shirt, and Armand knows she’s right. “Could you carry me downstairs?”

Of course.” It’s effortless for Armand to scoop his daughter into his arms. She holds onto him, biting back pain. “You don’t weigh so much more than you did when you were five years old.”

She doesn’t respond.

Armand doesn’t stop at the bottom of the stairs, though he notices that on the TV screen a version of Charlotte who is forty but looks thirty is playing catch with baby Cori using a big purple rubber ball. The scene is recorded by his own shaky hand again.

I love you, Mommy,” Cori whispers as Armand carries her toward the door. “Goodbye.”

Goodbye, Charlotte,” Armand echoes, though he’s not sure why he bothers.

With patience and balance he maneuvers Cori into the cab of the truck. She uses both hands to lift her bad leg and pull it in with her.

Armand surveys the night before going around to the driver’s side. The few well-spaced neighbors’ houses are all dark and the stars are brighter than he can remember them being in years. He wonders if more of the dead are out tonight, and whether they’re all as benevolent as his daughter. But no voice or spirit answers his thought, and he gets in the truck.

When he starts it up a blast of air hits them. Cori wrinkles her nose. Armand lets out a high, crazy laugh. “I had the heat on,” he explains, and his dead daughter looks at him like he’s the strange one.

The truck’s weak headlights swing out onto the dark pavement of the main road. In minutes they pass the bars that tempted Armand earlier, then Trixie’s, which is closed for the night. The clock says ten but he already feels like the night has gone on forever.

So.” Armand shifts in his seat behind the wheel. “Tell me about your life.”

She looks at him, unsure what to say. He turns away almost shyly.

It’s too late for that. You missed your chance.”

He turns back, once again certain Cori will be gone when he looks, but she’s still there leaning against the window with her hands folded in her lap.

What do you mean, honey?” His voice shakes as hard as his camera hand did so many years ago. He doesn’t have to ask what she means.

I wish it wasn’t this way. I don’t even remember most of my life. Just the important parts.”

Like what?”

That you’re my dad. And that I love you.”

His heart, which has felt as silent and dried as his daughter’s must be, begins to ache. “Honey, I–”

I remember I used to like math class,” she interrupts, looking out the window at the flat passing land. “Everyone thought I was weird for that, even you.”

A distant memory returns to him, sixth grade math club competitions he’d worked too late to attend. She still showed off her award ribbons every time. Armand smiles.

I had a secret boyfriend once when I was fifteen. His name was Cameron, he had awful skin but good teeth, and he worked at the movie theater. I never dated anyone else.”

Armand recalls wondering why Cori needed to attend so many study groups and take so many library trips that year. He smiles. “You didn’t have to keep him a secret. I would have liked to meet him.”

Mom said no dating until sixteen. We broke up by then.”

Oh.” His own voice sounds pathetic to him. “Did you love him?” Armand adds in a feeble attempt to save face.

No.”

Armand can’t think of anything to say to that. Several minutes pass before Cori speaks again.

And I wanted to have the same job as you when I grew up.”

Armand raises an eyebrow. This he hadn’t known.

But you hated your job so much I knew I could never tell you.”

He sighs. “You could have told me anything, honey.”

That isn’t true.”

There’s no anger in her voice, but Armand keeps quiet. He can tell she’s got more to say.

You would have told me that I want a job indoors that pays a lot, not one where you pick trash off nature trails and get sunburns.”

And don’t get paid pennies on the off-season,” Armand adds, and he knows he’s confirming that her accusation is true.

But I wanted to anyway. Maybe I would have done it, but I think you’d be disappointed in me.”

Armand badly wants to argue, but she is right.

I didn’t know any other way to say I wanted the best for you. I’m sorry.”

I know that, Dad.” Cori still doesn’t look at him, but she takes his hand in her scratchy, weightless one.

Armand would like to close his eyes now, release the wheel and gingerly hold his crumbling daughter’s hand, slam down on the gas and drive them both into a tree or roll them into a ditch. The end should come so sweetly, he decides. Maybe it will.

Do you remember dying?” Armand asks.

Cori’s spidery fingers tighten around his. “A little. It was as dark as it is tonight. Everything Addie and Sierra told you is true. I just felt like leaving the party. I got homesick.”

His breath begins to come in deep irregular sighs, but Armand doesn’t speak and doesn’t cry.

I guess I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was speeding around a corner and I crossed the road without looking. It happened too fast to hurt, at least.”

Armand presses his lips together and rubs his daughter’s hand with his thumb.

And the next thing I remember is waking up all wrong inside, knowing I was dead. That’s the part that hurt.”

With the back of a sleeve Armand wipes his eyes and nose, taking his hand off the wheel for just an instant. Charlotte would give him hell for it, but she’s not here. “Cori, what I don’t understand here is how you–”

He stops short and takes his foot off the gas as the bridge comes into view ahead.

We’re here,” Cori murmurs, her tone neutral.

Could we wait here a while?” Armand finds himself begging.

She shakes her head slowly. “It hurts too much. But I want to walk to the top.”

It’s a long walk. Could take us an hour.”

I know.”

When the car rolls to a stop Armand gets out right away. He knows otherwise he’ll never do it. Even before opening Cori’s door to let her out, he has an image in his mind of carrying her princess-style to the highest point of the bridge, the way her groom might have carried her on their wedding night. He wonders if people still do that. He doesn’t think about the fact that Cori will never marry, or for that matter fall in love.

But she slides out of the truck on her own, leaning on Armand for support. The town is small, the night empty; he doesn’t bother to lock the car or shut the passenger door. Limping, Cori leads him toward the bridge, as if she can’t wait to die.

Like she’s going home, Armand thinks.

The bridge inclines sharply, up into a slight fog. Only twenty or thirty feet in Armand is already breathing harder. Cori is perfectly silent.

I was almost forty when you were born,” he says, though he knows he should save his breath. “You were the best thing that ever happened to us.”

Cori smiles faintly but doesn’t otherwise respond. As she nears her goal, she is already beginning to disappear.

I loved you every day of your life, and every day after. I’m sorry I wasn’t better at showing it.”

Cori stops a third of the way up the bridge and puts a hand on his cheek. Her palm feels just like the sun-wrinkled skin of his face. “I forgive you, Dad.”

For a blissful instant he’s sure that’s the key, those are the magic words, and now she is going to walk back down the bridge and get in the car and go home with him. But the moment passes and she continues forward.

They walk. Minutes go by. Moonlight turns the flowing river into a torrent of silver-blue fish scales swimming under them and away. Cori’s grave, Armand thinks.

Armand realizes he is crying silently and wonders if he has been all night.

Cori’s slight weight presses on his shoulder. There’s a constant shuffling sound on the pavement as the sneaker on Cori’s bad foot drags. Not a single car has driven past since they left the house, which is no surprise out here. It must be at least eleven, an hour past when Armand tends to fall asleep, but he isn’t tired in any way he has ever been before. The exhaustion that settles over him is so heavy and complete that it propels him forward, forcing him to finish his task before he can rest.

I decided to leave the party because they were all getting drunk,” Cori says offhandedly.

Armand hangs his head. So it was my fault all along. Or maybe it was fate, and someone would have tried to drive her home drunk if she hadn’t already been afraid of beer. Because of me. “Oh, honey.” It’s all he can think to say.

Cori tightens her arm around him. It’s not okay, but she still loves him. He knows that’s what she’s saying.

Dread mounts in the pit of Armand’s stomach as they approach the highest point of the bridge, where the water below seems foggy and distant. They’re not a hundred feet up, but the air feels somehow cooler and thinner here. “You’re sure this will do it fast enough?”

Cori nods, leaning so far over the thick concrete barrier that it makes Armand nauseous. But she’ll be falling down there soon, he thinks. “It’s not the longest fall, but the water’s pretty shallow. Anyway, that’s not the most important part.”

Somehow, without Armand’s help, Cori puts her weight on her hands and swings herself up onto the barrier. For a heart-stopping instant Armand is sure it’s over without a goodbye again and she’s about to fall, but she doesn’t. She perches there, limp legs dangling over the side.

With some effort Armand pulls himself up as well. It feels nice to be off his feet.

Wouldn’t it be nice to stay here forever, honey?” Armand swings his legs the way he hasn’t since he was a child and looks up at the cloudless sky. “Do you remember when you were eight and I taught you to fish? We rowed out before sunrise, it was a lot like this…”

He looks at Cori. Her arms are folded over her middle again, her face as pale as the moon.

You have to go,” he acknowledges at last.

She reaches weakly for his hand. “You could come too.”

He smiles and shifts closer, placing an arm around her. “I planned to since the start of this, honey. I’ll hold you all the way down if you like, or let you go on your own if you have to.”

Armand can’t think of anything more painful than having to watch Cori fall to the shining water below, but to his relief she holds onto him with the last of her fading strength. “I don’t want to die alone again.”

She places her head on his shoulder. He rests his chin on top of her head. “When do we go?” he asks, stroking her hair the way he hasn’t in so long.

I don’t know if I can move anymore, Daddy.” She yawns and pulls her knees up toward her chest, resting her feet on the edge of the concrete. She’s regressing, he thinks. It’s now or never.

I’ve had a good run,” Armand says, more to the night than to himself or Cori.

Cori seems to be asleep. He kisses her forehead. “I love you so much, honey,” he murmurs against her hair. I could carry her away while she sleepsThere has to be something that can help.

But Armand knows nothing can help, everything has been beyond helping for longer than he cares to think about. Before he can convince himself otherwise, he cradles Cori close to his chest and pushes off.

The shallow scary water rushes up at them faster than he thought it would. There’s not even time for his whole life to flash before his eyes, only bits and pieces. He’s not sure if he’s remembering or talking out loud, not that it matters.

Don’t worry honey Daddy’s here, always here, going to hurt so bad but not for long our Father in heaven hallowed be thy name are those the right words, I wonder if the waiter knew, what will happen to the cats do you remember your fifth birthday where you asked for a frog and I caught you one? Forgive us our sins as we also have forgiven, oh Cori forgive me forgive Daddy I’m so sorry my sweet Charlotte I wonder if you’ll freeze-dry me too

The canister was sealed, the metal halves welded together. That’s the one saving grace.

Charlotte sits in the living room, which is now only hers. There are thin cat scratches on the sofa, dog mess stains on the floor, spilled juice and beer and a bald spot in the carpet where Cori once tried to trim its hair. Revenge, Charlotte supposes, for the haircut she had given her daughter earlier in the day. Of course upon entering high school Cori had begun to keep it fashionably short anyway.

But there’s a big difference between four and fourteen. Charlotte has removed her pets from storage now that no one is around to complain about them. Or hurt them. Midge sleeps at one side, Pinky at the other. Poor broken Pumpkin, missing a paw, rests in her lap.

You’ve brought us so much peace, the taxidermist’s reviews said.

Charlotte feels no peace.

On the bookshelf beside the television, in the empty dustless spot where a framed photograph used to be (she has since found the frame lying in the bedroom, the picture under Armand’s pillow), Cori’s ashes rest again where they had lived until the day Armand stole them away. Charlotte had managed to sleep straight through this until nine the next morning, when she’d woken to snow on the TV set and a policeman pounding on the door.

A miracle, the cop said, that Armand washed up on shore with the ashes not a foot from his hand. They should have both floated downriver. Cori’s ashes should have been lost to the sandy riverbed forever, but here they are, home again at last.

Another kind of miracle entirely that Armand had died at all, or less miracle than awful coincidence. That bridge wasn’t three stories. He should have survived with sprains and scrapes. Initially Charlotte had dismissed his death with a shrill and sour kind of grief, figuring he’d gotten himself too drunk to see straight and passed out before he hit the water.

But the autopsy came back – they’d said there needed to be an autopsy, who was she to argue – and reported him clear of alcohol or drugs. He’d died from striking his head on one of the few river rocks, not hard enough to leave a mark but hard enough to keep him unconscious until his lungs filled and he sank.

Armand’s ashes sit on the coffee table in a second silver urn. Charlotte had felt uncertain about having him cremated after his fierce overreaction to her placement of Cori’s ashes on the bedroom window seat. Strange that he’d care when he barely noticed the little heart-shaped box when it had been downstairs. But she was overwhelmed and money was tight, so when the funeral director asked if she wanted the same for her husband as she had for her daughter, she said yes.

Charlotte absently strokes Pumpkin’s patchy fur. Never once had she expected to outlive all of them. She laughs. Perhaps she will drive to the bridge and stop her own car where Armand’s truck was found. Perhaps she will scour the house for Armand’s hidden bottle of bourbon and down the whole thing at once.

But who will identify and collect and cremate her when she dies? Who will lovingly hold and admire her remains? How selfish Armand has been, how miserably selfish.

Purchasing our services is one of the most selfless things you can do to help your family through this time of grief, the taxidermist had claimed.

Charlotte looks around the room at her husband, her daughter, her two cats and her dog. On TV Armand and ten-year-old Cori wave down at her from a tilting, jerky Ferris wheel car. She remembers she couldn’t go on; carnival rides make her sick. Cori is holding a paper cone wrapped with strands of cotton candy, her face sticky with pink sugar. When the tape ends Charlotte will put in the next. They go all the way back before Cori’s birth, to videos of Midge playing fetch or the kittens batting around a feathered toy. There are even a few unlabeled ones in a separate box, filmed by Armand on the nights of several birthdays and anniversaries.

Surrounded at last by her whole family, Charlotte shuts her eyes and falls asleep.

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War Games

This is my submission for the March 2014 Blog Chain over at Absolute Write. The prompt is Lions and Lambs, and this piece (featuring characters from my main WIP) comes in at about 950 words. You can find other participants’ work linked at the end.

*  *  *

In the better part of an hour, Sergio still hasn’t finished untangling Amabeth’s hair. The other servants keep interrupting him, seeking direction or help with their own duties around Idoni Manor. Then the wide-toothed comb had broken, and he’d had to track down the lady of the house to borrow hers before he could continue. Now Amabeth’s curls have dried in the summer sunbeams that stream through the sheer white curtains, making the task more difficult.

Not for the first time, Sergio shakes his head at the idea that he, the household steward, should spend his morning in a room decked with lace and smelling of gardenia oil. He knows he should feel lucky to be one of few soldiers to have secured a safe position during the deadliest war the country has known, but now and then his hands itch for the weight of a pistol or blade.

Lost in thought, he catches a knot in the comb’s teeth and pulls Amabeth’s hair hard. Strangely, she doesn’t react at all. As he works the knot out with his fingers, he looks at her in the mirror to see what she’s doing.

On her vanity table, she’s laid out her set of wooden dolls. There’s one from each of the seven countries, even those behind the blockade, plus an extra made specially with strands of Amabeth’s own hair, painted with the unusual medium-brown shade of her skin. To Sergio’s dismay, he realizes that he has memorized each doll’s name. Marija, Aida, Georgine…

But the one cradled in her arms now is the Estelaine doll. Lindsay, with her pink skin and glossy brown hair, who hails from enemy territory. She’s got one arm raised toward Amabeth, her painted eyes open wide, as if pleading.

Sergio glances toward the open door, wondering if Amabeth’s parents would want him to confiscate a doll molded in the image of those who seek to destroy them. He clears his throat and puts the comb down. “What’s Lindsay doing, Amabeth?”

Without looking up, she answers, “She’s got a pistol.”

Sergio looks at the doll’s delicately carved, outstretched fingers and frowns. “Pistols are outlawed in Estelin, you know. I don’t think she would have one.”

She’s at war. She took it off one of our men.”

More than leading the servants, more than acting as a personal attendant, Sergio knows that his job is to protect Amabeth from knowledge of the war closing in on them. And now, he knows that he is failing. He stands up and takes the doll from Amabeth’s hands, folding its arm back down before placing it on a high shelf, beside the box where gifts of gold and jewels she’s too young to wear are kept. “I don’t think that’s a game you should be playing right now.”

Yes, Sergio.” She doesn’t protest or even look his way. She bows her head, letting her half-combed curls fall over her eyes.

Hey, listen.” He kneels before her vanity chair and spins it around, so she faces him. He takes one of her folded hands, but finds it listless and limp. “I’m not angry with you.”

At last she raises her eyes to his. She’s got a round baby face, but her eyes look much more tired than her ten years should permit. She touches his chin and smooths her thumb over the scar half-hidden by his thin beard. “Did you hurt anyone when you were away for training?”

Two years ago, when Sergio was welcomed into Idoni Manor, this was the first truth he’d been asked to hide. He shakes his head, and the lie comes out easier than he’d expected. “In training, we just played war games. This scar of mine was an accident.”

Amabeth nods. He can’t tell if she believes him, but it can’t be that hard to fool a child.

So,” she continues slowly, “since you went through training, does that mean you’re going to be made to fight?”

The answer is certainly yes, if the two-year-long conflict isn’t resolved soon, but he says, “No. My job is to stick with you, no matter what. Nothing is going to happen to me.” He tries to smile reassuringly. She’s a good girl, but her questions tire him. “Do you mind if I finish with your hair now?”

She turns around obediently, but as he picks up the comb, she asks, “Will the war come here?”

A shiver runs through him, because – immortals strike him down, it’s true – he hopes that the war will come here. But he says, “No, it won’t. And if it did, they’re across the country from us. We’d know they were coming in plenty of time to escape.”

She’s quiet while he works through her hair. When it’s done, he thinks to pull it back and carefully pin it away from her neck to keep the summer heat from bothering her. If push comes to shove, he knows he’d put Amabeth first, but something inside him still aches to feel the blade of his knife against flesh just once more.

At last, he puts away the comb and the spare set of pins. He tilts her chin up so she can see her reflection. “What do you think?”

She meets his eyes in the mirror. “Sergio, why did my parents hire a soldier to take care of me?”

To keep you safe.”

Safe from what, if not war?”

Sergio glances at his hands. They’re hands that can be gentle with a little girl’s tangled hair. They’re hands that feel best gloved in thick leather, curled around a trigger or hilt.

He blinks at her and realizes he’s at a loss for an answer.

*  *  *

Other participants:

orion_mk3 – http://nonexistentbooks.wordpress.com (link to post)
Ralph Pines – http://ralfast.wordpress.com (link to post)
Angyl78 – http://jelyzabeth.wordpress.com/ (link to post)
Sweetwheat – http://gomezkarla.blogspot.com/ (link to post)
Sneaky Devil – http://fantasywriterwannabe.wordpress.com/ (link to post)
Sixpence – http://orlawritesthings.com/ (link to post)

summer harvest

On the outskirts of Lagorio Point, the farmland extends almost to the edges of the rocky cliffs that form the northernmost point of the peninsula. From home, which is still known in the village as the old Abbatelli farm, Armand can see the wall in the distance, like a thin black line someone has traced partway across the horizon.

The first summer squash harvest is in. He and his son Corentin walk among the rows, slicing off zucchini at the tips. The things grow like weeds. Already some are as long as Cori’s forearm, overripe. They’ll taste bitter, or bland at best. Like the saying about the shoemaker’s children, he and Cori will eat those, while the good young squash go to market at Ferradene on the neighbors’ cart.

A slight breeze offers a reprieve from the late spring sun. The two of them have lived in the south for nearly all of Cori’s twenty-three years, but working outdoors in Ferradene feels like slogging through a swamp at this time of year. Armand wipes his forehead on a rag and sinks down among the planted rows to drink from his canteen.

Cori doesn’t pause in his work. The boy’s got youth going for him, but Armand still admires his stamina. His basket is nearly full, but it’s nested in another, which will be filled before they cart them back to the house and eat their midday meal. It’s a festival day, and the two of them could have ridden with the Vilenas next door to the banquet in the city. Even now, though, Armand prefers to lie low.

He pours water into his cupped hand and trickles it down his forehead, watching Cori. Unlike Armand, the boy wears his hair short, sliced with a knife just above the base of his neck. It’s plastered down with sweat now, and Cori’s bare feet and hands are caked with rich coppery mud that matches the shade of his skin.

He’d been worried about how Cori would react to summer work. The rest of the village men labor with their shirts off during the day, but Cori has taken the challenge in stride. Strips of linen bandage, salvaged from the Vilena boy’s sprained ankle, are tied tight around Cori’s chest to conceal and flatten the breasts he’d never wanted.

It’s been strange for Armand, but five years down the road he’s getting used to referring to Cori as son instead of daughter. He counts his lucky stars that his son chose a male name that can be shortened the same way as his old one. Cori was never quick to correct mistakes, even at the beginning, but it’s plain on his face when his heart is sore. Armand could never have handled it happening more often.

Cori’s just about to start on the second basket when Armand stops him. “Ready to eat about now? Hate to admit it, but I’m exhausted. I know there’s a basket left to go, but…” He shrugs and glances toward the house, which looks shady and welcoming from here, now that they’ve finally fixed the broken beams and swept up.

Cori smiles and hefts the filled basket up onto his shoulders. Though he hasn’t been flagging at all in his work, he says, “Sure. Go on and wash up. I’ll get the food out. I think you could use a drink, too.”

Armand smiles back. This is they way they work: in unison, half-unspoken. Cori knows his dad is approaching sixty years, and there’s no longer any reversing it. “You do that. Thanks.” Leaving the harvesting knives behind, Armand heaves his own basket into his arms and starts toward the house.

The breeze picks up along the way, enough that Armand wonders if they shouldn’t have stuck it out while the weather’s treating them right. By the time Cori hits the porch, he thinks he can hear a buzzing sound being carried to him on the wind. He frowns and looks east. He thought he’d knocked down all the wasp nests nearby.

Then, Armand sees it barreling at them alarmingly fast from a distance of several acres. At first it looks like a black storm cloud set against a sunny blue sky, but a moment later he can see its true form: a ship. A flying ship headed toward Lagorio Point. He recognizes it right away.

Agatha, he thinks.

He goes to Cori and hisses in his ear, “It’s happening. Get to town.”

For a horrified second Armand thinks his son doesn’t remember what he means. They haven’t spoken of it in years. There hasn’t been any need. Armand remembers the nights they spent plotting their strategies around the fire, the dogs rolling obliviously in the mud nearby. He’d always told Cori he didn’t think the enemy could do it, but the proof is here.

When Cori spots the descending shadow, what Armand has told him seems to click. He tosses the basket down on the porch, still taking the time to get it under the awning in case of rain, then returns for the second one. Despite the circumstances, Armand can’t help smiling. “Don’t bring back anyone you don’t trust,” he adds as Cori whizzes past him, sprinting toward town on bare feet.

The ship’s flying low. It’s not far from its destination. Armand frowns as trees rustle around him, as loose soil stirs into whirlwinds. The Guard turned the farmhouse inside out ten times over before Armand bought it and the surrounding land, but Agatha won’t know that. Perhaps they’re back in hopes of finding the confiscated booty: a few spare coins and a bin of colored glass scraps, if the villagers are to be believed. What else is out here but ragged, insect-eaten summer crops?

He’d expected them to go straight to Ferradene, perhaps passing by slowly enough that a messenger could be sent to warn the city, but the ship moves twice as fast as any horse Armand has seen. If not here, he can’t fathom where it could be headed.

Armand makes his decision just as the ship comes in low enough for him to glimpse a figure at the bridge: he’s going to bring it down.

He braces his hand against a nearby tree. His palms are almost as rough at its red bark. He stares at the sky and thinks of the cloud he’d mistaken the ship for at first, while it dips toward him like the monsters tradesmen used to claim to find at sea. He sees sunlight glinting off its bizarre upturned propellers. He envisions a great storm enveloping the ship and its crew, and the cloud begins to form.

It looks at first like wisps of smoke. He dares to hope that a member of the crew might notice it and shut down the engines, but the propellers disperse it into threads at once. The shadow on the bridge does glance at the rear of the ship, then faces front quickly and ignores it.

Armand summons his strength. Rain is hard for him. It doesn’t rain much where he’s spent most of his life, but he thinks back to the portions of his childhood spent among the destroyed islets of Ivicar, where all summer the rain poured down in heavy torrents to flood the settlements and drown the rice paddies. Children who worked the land tended to slip away in the flood rains, drawn out by wind and currents into the endless sea.

This time, the cloud forms far above the ship. The wind stops; the trees go still and the whirlwinds collapse.

There’s a motionless silence long enough for Armand to hear his heart pound two, three, four times. Then the wind changes direction and whips toward the ship, whistling past its sides. That won’t be much help in halting the progress of a ship that moves without sails, but at least it’ll fling the rain in their faces.

Armand knows what most farmers don’t. Effective use of the talent, called parallax in official texts, is all about the ability to delude oneself. That’s the first principle he learned in the school he and Agatha were forced to attend after being whisked away behind the wall, though they phrased it more delicately: parallax is what happens when you can see an object or situation in two different ways at once.

You convince yourself that something true, and it becomes so. It’s how Armand’s crops require an unusually short fallow period. He believes the seed will grow, and so it does. It’s how he came to accept and understand that his daughter Cordelia had always truly been his son Corentin.

And now, it’s how Armand allows the ages-old fear of flood death to swallow up his thoughts. The water rushes through his mind, parts into a curtain of vapor, rises and gathers from the humid air to form a dark haze over the ship. Spring rains come quickly near Ferradene; no one who hasn’t watched the squall form will consider it unusual.

He thinks he can hear the rain hit the deck. The figure on the bridge vanishes behind fogged glass.

Moments later, fat raindrops pound the dirt at Armand’s feet. They feel good on his sunburned skin. He pauses to wipe his brow again, then raises his hands to the sky to finish what he has begun.