Frost crackled into jagged patterns across the window pane. Jack curled his fingers away from the glass then rubbed at the ice with his sleeve. So many years, but old habits died hard.
A faint ticking from the mantlepiece clock filled the silence. Darkness seeped through the glass. He leaned his hand on the sill, drawing in the cold.
Lights flashed from the apartment below, a relentless rainbow of garish colours strung up to hold back the depths of winter. He closed his eyes against a flicker of red and remembered trickles of blood on snow. Those final moments when his destiny was set.
Banging on his front door brought him back to now. He left the window with the defiant frost once more rimming the edges, and stamped to where muffled giggles and voices came through the door. His stomach flipped and he wrenched open the door.
His scowl had no impact on the young woman with the beaming smile that snuck into his heart a long time ago. Caroline’s small brother poked his head around the bushy tree filling the stairwell with the scent of winter forests. “We brought you a tree!”
Pine and blood, snow and fear. He leaned on the doorframe. “Mighty kind. How do you know I don’t already have one?”
Toby pushed around the tree. “Caroline says you don’t know how to celebrate Christmas so we’re going to show you.”
He held back a smile. “Don’t shush him, it’s true enough.”
Happy lines creased the corners of her eyes and warmth spread in his chest. Normally he preferred the cold but she filled him with dizzying fire that battled with the frost, leaving him breathless.
“Do you mind?”
He couldn’t disappoint her. “Of course not. Bring it in, young Toby.”
The tree filled the corner, casting shadows. Toby grimaced. “It’s gloomy in here.”
Caroline shushed him again, holding out a small bauble on a ribbon. Inside the bauble a tiny figure sat on snow.
“It’s Jack Frost,” Caroline said. “I bought it for the name.”
His eyes flicked up to her cheerful gaze. “This is my first ever Christmas decoration.”
“Really? What about when you were little?”
He slid past the question. Some things shouldn’t be remembered. “Thank you.” He hung the bauble on the bare tree.
“You’re welcome.” Red flushed her cheeks. “I have to take Toby home now, but I hope to come visit when you’ve dressed the rest of the tree.”
His heart thudded and a chill filled the air. “I’d love that.”
“Great! See you soon!”
He closed the door and walked back to the tree. He placed a finger on the bauble and feathers of frost crept up over the glass, encasing the small figure in a cold prison. A small patch refused to ice over. He stared at the imprint of Caroline’s finger. Flake by flake the frost melted, leaving a gift, a tree, and warmth.
The above was written for the Blank Page Challenge for December. The prompt was a Christmas bauble similar to the one here 🙂
Aileth raised her face to the grey horizon, dragging her gaze from the freshly turned earth and bright floral displays and closing her ears to the voices wandering in search of hot tea and comfort.
If only I’d made more time to see her.
It’s her cousin I feel sorry for.
Do you think she knew? That we loved her anyway?
Squat, sullen clouds loomed in the sky. Full to bursting. Refusing to weep. Every so often a raindrop escaped, speeding its way to the faces below, hiding amongst the tears.
She sighed, her breath turning to soft mist in front of her, despite the chill of the morning having long given way to the afternoon blanket of clouds.
Funerals are the worst.
The celebrant had been dignified but impersonal, clothed in his dark navy suit that hinted at mourning but respectfully distanced him from those whose hearts rattled in shattered shards beneath their ribs. He breathed in sharply between each line of speech. Aileth caught herself listening for the exhale, air running through words to send them floating meaningless and lost above bowed heads.
She turned away from the grave as the first cloud began to cry.
Leaves, golden in death, crunched under the feet of the mourners. Little explosions. Aileth smiled as she walked through a pile of silent foliage, remembering when she was small and would be overcome with disappointment when the leaves didn’t smash like crisps. Drifts of copper covered the park benches lining the path. Ahead lay the small sensible brick building where the mourners gathered. The kind of building you knew would smell of weak tea and reheated pastry.
The wake was nearly as depressing as the funeral. She wandered through the crowd, avoiding shrivelled old ladies who mouthed platitudes she didn’t want to hear. Ubiquitous sausage rolls and asparagus sandwiches sat glumly on the tables. The stiff bread hardly moved as she poked at a folded triangle before turning away. She didn’t feel hungry.
Regret hung like a lead blanket, muffling voices that spoke of ‘potential’, ‘a second chance’ and a million ‘if onlys.’
One person’s eyes spoke more than any of the loud-voiced people smothering their sorrow in meaningless conversation. Marama stood in the corner, her grief radiating outwards like a physical force pushing well-wishers away. Her long black trench-coat hung from scrawny shoulders over a black sweater and slacks, the only colour she wore a defiantly pink scarf that had drawn more than one disapproving glance.
Aileth curled her fingers into her palm, hesitating. After a long moment, she shuffled closer to the other woman.
Marama’s voice escaped in a harsh whisper. “This is awful.”
Aileth glanced around the room, at the emotional discomfort concealed under saggy cardigans and salt-water pearls. “It sure is.”
“She would have hated this.”
Aileth heaved a sigh. The muffling blanket seemed to be deadening her emotions as well. “Yep. So many people who never really cared and now they feel bad.”
Marama’s face relaxed and Aileth looked past her at the imposing features of Aunt Sarah. Her battleship prow of a nose led her sharp face, hiding a heart like marshmallow.
“Oh Marama dear, please let me say how sorry I am. It is the hardest loss for you young ones of course. You cousins were all very close weren’t you?”
“Very close.” Marama said, her clipped voice keeping emotions at bay.
Aileth dug her hands in her pockets, Aunt Sarah’s condolences sparked too many memories.
“Of course. Are you sure you’re alright to do the tidy up? With her poor parents gone I wasn’t sure what to do.” Scrawny fingers bedecked in tawdry rings twisted around each other. Marama smiled tightly and jangled a key. Aileth reached out to touch the cheerful pink daisy keyring but curled her fingers back.
“I don’t mind. She deserves to have someone who loves her take care of her things.”
Sarah smiled, her mouth lemon-juice-tight in her powdered face and tears glistening in her eyes. “Thank you, dear. Such a shame Aaron is still overseas, I’m sure he would have helped out too.” She strode away to supervise the refreshment table, frowning gently at those daring to take more than one sausage roll at a time.
“Silly old thing,” Marama murmured.
Aileth grinned where no-one could see. “She always was.”
The gloom of the afternoon hit her eyes as she followed Marama out of the building. “I wish it had been a sunny day. Sunshine doesn’t suit funerals, but it would have been nicer.”
They walked to the carpark through a light breeze that lifted the leaves and tugged at Marama’s curls. Chilled air followed them into the small hatchback. Marama shivered and turned up the heater. Lorde’s “Perfect Places” echoed from the radio and Aileth smiled. Only a few bars played before Marama let out a small sob and turned off the radio. Silence filled the drive after that.
They sat in the car outside the small bungalow for some time, Marama’s hands clenched tightly on the steering wheel, her eyes fixed on the Nissan logo stamped into the dashboard. Aileth turned to stare at the house. Sparrows frolicked in the small birdbath in the front lawn. Circulars and local papers spilled out of the letterbox.
“No point in putting it off,” Marama said and shoved open the door.
Aileth sighed as she followed her. “True that. Putting things off never works out.”
A sprawl of late-season daisies fought through the weeds in the garden. Brave yellow and pink faces reached to the grey sky. Marama didn’t spare them a glance, but stood, staring at the lock of the front door, the key clenched in white-knuckled fingers.
A small smile twisted Aileth’s mouth as she bent down to stir the daisies with her hand. “The green thumb didn’t really run in the family. Poor daisies.”
Marama took a deep breath and turned the lock.
A loud miaow escaped from the hall and Aileth’s heart constricted. Marcel.
Black fur rose thick around his hackles and brushed tail. He fixed unblinking green eyes on her then wound around her feet, his yowling cutting through the muffling sensation in her ears.
Marama huffed and closed the door. “There you are! Silly cat! We’ve searched all over for you and here you are dancing in circles!”
Marcel mrrped up at Aileth and she bit her lip. “He needs food, his water bowl will need checking too. Poor cat. Who’s going to take him?”
Marama sighed and picked up the cat, pure black except for the white tuft that Aileth had always thought made him look like a parson. “I guess you’ll have to come with me until we find you a home.” She snuggled her face into his fur. Aileth watched the tears glisten on Marama’s cheek and turned away from Marcel’s unblinking gaze.
The mirror in the hall needed cleaning. Aileth gazed at the spots of fly dirt, the grime and dust on the frame. She had never been any good at remembering to dust. Life was too short to worry about dusting. When you were determined to squeeze excitement from every second, wringing it to a desiccated pulp, housework lurked far down the list of ‘must dos’. Funny. She always thought she’d be embarrassed if anyone saw the mess she left behind. But Marama’s eyes didn’t see the dirt, the mess, the fly spots. Tears flooded and blinded her. Each discarded note and plate received its own lamentation. Marama’s finger stroked down the flowered handle of a small cake fork, crumbs clinging to the prongs. Her shoulders caved in and she shattered into sobs, sinking to the ground.
Aileth stood over her, hand hovering above the tight ponytail, so close to touching.
The rich tang of the cake sat on her tongue still. Velvety chocolate, tart raspberry. A rare treat. She’d fallen asleep on the sofa afterwards. Snuggled under a blanket, tissues and medications close by, she hadn’t been able to face the walk back to bed.
Devils Cake, they called it.
Aileth crouched by Marama, wishing she could make it better as her cousin’s wailing intensified.
“I’m sorry Aileth. I’m so sorry I stopped coming around. I’m sorry I stopped texting. I never stopped loving you, it was just hard.” Marama grasped the fork so tightly Aileth worried it would pierce the soft hand that had always offered comfort. Always reached out. Until recently.
“It’s okay, you know. I was scared before but I don’t really feel much now. I wish I could let you know.”
She reached out, a chill settling between her hand and Marama’s. “I never minded. And I always knew you loved me.”
Slowly, Marama let go of the fork, placing it gently with the rest of the things. She drew in a deep breath, her shoulders rising, and raised her chin. “Right. Lots to do. Better keep on.”
Aileth supposed she should feel guilty but there wasn’t a lot of space for emotion in the chill numbness taking over her body.
At last the only place left to clear was the shed. It was strange, seeing your life sorted into piles of importance by someone else. What was discarded, what kept, what was wept over. All her precious books, tossed in a box, while the artsy vase she secretly hated was wrapped carefully in tissue paper. The shed, though. Aileth wasn’t sure she wanted Marama to see. No-one had ever seen.
Golden leaves sat in a heap in front of the rough-hewn oak doors, hanging slightly askew from faulty hinges. Marama eyed them and sighed.
“Oh Aileth. Why didn’t you tell us? Aaron would’ve come round in a shot to get it sorted.”
Her fingers passed over the wood like velvet but her mind still remembered the splintery texture. “Because I could pretend things were different, like in a storybook. This was my secret place. Secret places don’t have plain doors made of aluminium and hardboard.”
Fine silvery cobwebs clung to the doorframe and floated onto Marama’s hair as she entered. Aileth ducked her head from habit. The spiders never bothered her and she left them alone in return.
She nearly bumped into Marama when her cousin stopped abruptly but she sidestepped, not sure if she’d pass through her or not but unwilling to take the chance. And she wanted to see Marama’s face.
Tears spilled from her cousin’s wide eyes, a smile splitting her face for the first time in days. “Oh Aileth. You didn’t stop.”
The dim grey light filtering inside was beaten back by the deep oranges and reds of the paintings lining the small shed. Aileth breathed in, the cool mist surrounding her deadening the scent of turpentine, oil paint, and wood that had always settled her spirit. “I couldn’t stop.”
Every regret, every sadness, every obstacle, she had rendered through her fingers into the paint, transformed into joyous fiery swirls. This was the heart of her. Her spirit. Her illness tried but hadn’t tainted it, her difficult awkwardness never mattered in here. Only the paint and the process and the peace.
That same peace settled on Marama’s face. She leaned against the doorframe, cobwebs and all, and gazed.
Aileth stood in the middle of her paintings and smiled at her cousin. Her edges blurred, feathering into a wisp of air.
“You know it now, I think. That I never minded. Take care of Marcel. He’s greedy but sweet. Tell him I love him.”
She leaned closer to kiss her cousin’s forehead and all that was left of her scattered to the breeze, touching the paintings that shone with bright defiance before escaping the shed to play with the leaves.
Crunch, just like a potato crisp.
Originally written for and submitted to the Blank Page Challenge
The world shifted. Margo Morgan stumbled as a swell of magic lying just beneath the wet cobbles rose to meet her. Light swirled on the surface of a puddle in the gutter. She paused, stared, drew the enchantment in through her eyes. Water soaked the cuffs of her jeans as she stood in the middle of the path. A man in a sharp suit shoved past her, raising a perfect eyebrow. She flashed a bright smile as her fingers spread, pulling steaming strands of power from the water.
His voice floated back over his shoulder. “Freak.”
Magic pushed at the base of her palms and she dug her hands into the pockets of her puffer jacket. No, Margo. No hurting the humans. After a few hundred years it should have been easy to resist the urge to let the power out, but each day it became harder to deny who she was. Impossible to deny the magic thrumming a beat beneath her skin.
She kicked at the puddle as she left, luminous drops splashing on her trainers. The world beyond called to her but she stomped through the gutter and pushed temptation aside. I’ve got better things to do anyway.
The fragrance of fresh lilies wafted from the open window by the back door to her flat. She turned the handle, a small, satisfied smile playing over her lips. Cole. Her keys clanked on the sideboard next to the vase full of flowers. Stroking a finger over pink and white petals, she half closed her eyes and let the gentle green walls of the kitchen mesh with the bright blooms until she almost believed herself to be back in the garden of her youth.
Bubbles of happiness mixed with the residual magic in her bloodstream and she skipped a little down the hallway to the living room.
She flung open the door and swept into the cozy space, spreading her arms and sashaying forward. “Tis Moi! I am home!”
The man in the centre of the room turned to stare and her arms fell. Power pulsed at the base of her neck. This was not Cole. This was a man she hoped never to see again. Black hair swept from his brow, a wide silver streak at odds with his ageless face. Obsidian eyes glinted above a narrow smile. Magic beat a pounding tattoo against her skin, screaming to be let out.
Cole’s voice cut through the thoughts shouting in her head and a warm hand took hers. “Hey Margo. You have a guest.”
She dragged her eyes away from the warlock in the too-pressed jeans and striped shirt, to Cole. Human. Weak and vulnerable despite lean firefighter muscles beneath his woolen jersey. She plastered a smile to her face, as fake and ostensibly cheerful as the cheap prints hanging crookedly on the wall.
“Hey honey, have you been home long?”
His eyes shone clear, no murky enchantment in their depths. He didn’t twitch or blink and no vocal tics escaped his throat so he couldn’t be too worried.
“You know,” she said through teeth aching to snap at their guest, “I totally forgot to get milk for tea. Would you be a love and pop to the store? Mr. Septimus here and I have business to discuss.”
The warlock’s voice oiled through the air. “We won’t be long, Cole. I admit I would kill for some tea.”
Ice flooded her veins at the sound of her beloved’s name on those thin sharp lips. Fool. Never give a warlock your name. She took refuge in the ritual of passing Cole her purse and him waving it away as he patted the wallet in his pocket. But his goodbye kiss on her cheek felt too much like a farewell blessing.
The quiet snick of the living room door closing released some of the tension churning in her gut, but she didn’t breathe until Cole’s quick steady feet clattered down the outside steps.
Her hand stole to her scarf, snaking underneath to the pendant hidden by neon pink folds. “Not offering you tea, sorry Septimus. Just one of my silly rules. No tea for murdering scum in my house.”
Darkness swelled in his eyes, light dimming behind him as he drew on the energy lines beneath the world. Fire sparked on his arms.
“Are you this rude to all your guests, Morgana?”
She shrugged, fingers tightening on the pendant, a genuine smile lifting her cheeks. “Only the ones I want to punch in the face.”
“It doesn’t have to go this way. The offer is still open.”
“No. It does have to go like this I’m afraid. I don’t want any part of your ridiculous politics. Never have. No-one believes me and then thugs like you show up. I’m not joining your boss.”
Raven black hair floated around his head in a rippling aura of shining power, the whites of his eyes disappearing under a flood of red. “Wrong answer, Morgana.”
She ripped off the pendant and thrust it out to meet a flaming wave of magic pulsing from his hands. Her lips formed words she last spoke centuries ago. The jewel in her fingers flared and sucked in the power, leaving silence broken by fizzling sparks on the wooden floor.
His eyes widened. “We thought the amulet was lost.”
Red mist filtered over her vision and she shuddered as burning magic filled her, pushing through her skin. “Never lost. Merlin gave this to me and I’ve always rather liked it.”
Septimus stumbled back. She raised a finger and he froze, his feet glued to the ground. Floorboards smouldered as she stalked towards him, darkness spreading from her like a cloak. “You came into my home. You threatened my beloved. I don’t think I like you much.”
Power rippled through her and she licked her lip. Control was overrated.
“They won’t stop, Morgana. If you kill me more will come.”
“True. But you’ll be dead.”A luminous arc shot from the amulet into his chest. She wiped a spatter of blood off her cheek. “And that makes me happy.”
His body crashed into the side table, knocking over the photo frames and thudding to the ground. The crimson spray on the wall filtered through the haze in her eyes and she caught her breath. Cole. Crap.
She lunged towards the dead assassin, grabbing him under the arms and dragging him from the living room. Magic danced in the air and she growled. More trouble than it was worth.
Fumbling with the door handle she pushed her back against the door and tugged the body down the hall and into the kitchen. She heaved him upright and his arm swung loosely, knocking over the vase with the flowers that made her so happy.
“Bastard,” she muttered as glass and petals ground under her feet. She maneuvered him into the small laundry. Lavender scented sheets were an odd shroud but she propped him up in the linen cupboard and latched the door.
Back in the kitchen she stood by the shards of her favourite vase, ripped petals and water spreading over the linoleum. Magic swirled around her, coating her tongue and prickling her scalp. She closed her eyes on the red mist and leaned back into the power, letting her feet leave the floor and her legs float up to the ceiling. No point in fighting.
The kitchen clock ticked and her heartbeat slowed to match the rhythm. Magic seeped back under the earth where the power belonged but her feet stayed on the ceiling.
Crisp air hit her skin and she opened her eyes to see Cole standing by the open door, his upside down face a blank page of shock.
“Oh. Hi.” Her hair waved in the breeze. “This is awkward.”
Cole stumbled backwards. She gestured and a chair lurched across the floor towards him. He jumped away and fell on his arse. Huffing out a sigh, she concentrated and rotated back the right way to float to the ground. Tangled hair fell over her eyes and she brushed it off, glaring at him. A tightening vise gripped her heart and she tried to ignore the sensation. “I was trying to help.”
He pushed himself up, his brows lowering and blinking tics taking over his eyes. “By throwing a chair at me?”
She eyed the way his hands trembled as they dusted off his jeans, the flicking of his fingers another tic she hadn’t seen in a while. “I thought you needed to sit down.”
“And I think you’ve got explaining to do. What, are you some kind of Fairy or something?”
Her face screwed up. “Ew, no. Witch, thank you very much.”
His face set like concrete, expressionless except for twitching blinks. “Witch. You know, I’m pretty sure that’s worse than fairy.”
She hunched her shoulders over the ache in her chest. “Whatever, I don’t have to deal with ridiculous wings.”
“Apparently you don’t need wings to float on the ceiling. Filing that under things I learned today.”
“Well what’s a day without learning, right?”
He scanned the room, lingering on the smashed vase and the papers on the floor. “Is any of this to do with the guy who turned up earlier?” His fingers flicked as he spoke and she caught the sound he trapped behind his lips.
“You can let the tics out, Cole. It’s only me.”
He pressed his lips tighter, eyes burning like copper in the dim green light. She tried to smile but it didn’t get very far. He jerked away and paced the room, vocal tics escalating in tone and volume as he let out the adrenaline. The bench dug into her hip as she leaned back and stared at the floor. He hated losing control. She understood that. She hated it as well. At least he didn’t end up on the ceiling.
Scuffed shoes entered her vision and she raised her eyes to his fiery ones.
“Right,” he said, “Magic is real and you have some. Any other secrets?”
She kept her gaze fixed on his, willing herself not to glance at the laundry. He crossed his arms and arched a brow. “Margo? No more lies, no more secrets. You tell me everything or I walk out the door.”
She held her breath, then the words spilled from her lips in a torrent. “There’s a body in the laundry. I didn’t mean to do it. He isn’t human so it doesn’t really count does it? It was me or him and I chose me.” Her mouth spread in a grimace and she waited, counting every second he stared at her.
“No, silly, not him. Septimus. He was an assassin.”
He slipped his phone from his pocket and chewed his lip as he stared at the black screen. She reached out and took his wrist.
“We can’t call the police. He doesn’t exist here.”
“Are you asking me to help you hide a body?”
“No. But he’s quite heavy and I keep banging him into things and I’ve already broken the vase with the lilies.”
His lip twitched and relief loosened her shoulders. “I knew you’d see the funny side.”
“I’m not smiling. I’m ticking.”
“No you’re not.”
He stared at her for a moment and then let his smile out. “No. I’m not.”
She bounced up from the bench. “Okay, I guess I better show you Septimus.”
His lips pressed together and his eyes narrowed as he took in the gaping hole in the warlock’s chest. He looked up and she met his eyes across the unwrapped body.
“Will you still help me?”
A sigh escaped him. “Here’s the thing, Margo. I was raised to look after family and family is what you make it. You’re mine.”
Magic still crackled under her skin and he’d never looked more human but as he lifted the body of the one man she’d feared, she felt more at home than she ever had before.
This short story was submitted to the July Blank Page Challenge and used a visual and word prompt posted by the competition. It’s my first attempt at an actual short story, and while it didn’t place, I found the practice really invaluable and I really enjoyed writing it.