Persistence. Ugh. Sometimes it’s TOO HARD. In fact, it’s often always hard because if it was easy we wouldn’t call it persistence, we’d call it something else, like, idk, ENJOYMENT.
But it’s necessary.
And so very rewarding.
If you don’t trust me, trust Cap.
You may know if you saw my post from earlier this year that 2018 was a difficult year, to put it mildly. Poor health was followed by a bad episode of depression and struggles with anxiety. Although depression affected pretty much every area of my life there was one bit it targeted with particular cruelty – my writing.
2018 was going to be the year I really took action to make my writing dreams a reality. I paid more attention to craft, I not only finished a book but REVISED it (a fate I’d previously circumvented because ugh), and I engaged in the writing community on Twitter.
So it seemed particularly unfair that it also became the year that I would weep for hours in front of my computer because I believed deep, deep down that everything I wrote was trash. Not the jokey ‘here, have my garbage fire of a draft! lol!’ but a genuine deep belief that this thing I wanted more than I’ve wanted anything for a really, really long time, was out of reach because I simply wasn’t good enough. That I was, and would remain, a failure because of my own incompetence.
I was also weeping in the shower because I’d forgotten to bring a dry towel into the bathroom, to be fair, but the usual self-doubt and cycle of rejection that comes with writing and putting your work out there was amplified a MILLION-fold by the depression. I couldn’t see any of the positive comments from beta readers, only the critical ones. And I mean that almost literally – they became nearly invisible. I know this because once I was well I went back and reread some comments and SAW all these amazing positive things I hadn’t seen before.
HOWEVER! 2018 was also the year that I finished revisions, queried, got full requests, dealt with rejections, queried again, and again, sent to competitions, wrote another book, started writing three other books, came 12th in a writing competition and was awarded a Judge’s Favorite.
For so much of 2018, I was on the verge of quitting.
I was going to give my book away as a PDF to people who were silly enough to want to read it.
I was going to stop querying.
I was going to stop calling myself a writer.
But I didn’t.
Even in the worst moments there was a little corner of my soul that wouldn’t give up
I kept pushing ‘send’ on the queries, even though my heart raced with anxiety every time.
I queried that manuscript 84 times. I moved on to another one. And another one.
I would love to tell you how I did it. But I don’t really know. I know I didn’t do it alone. My writing friends had my back the whole way through – they let me freak out and panic in the DMs, encouraged me, lifted me up, cheered me on.
Treatment helped a TON.
But sadly there’s still no handy medicine for self-doubt and that rears its ugly little head ALL the TIME.
Ultimately, I did it because I kept going. I persisted (see, I told you it was necessary). Even when I loathed every word I put on the paper, I kept writing. I kept revising.
And it does pay off.
This year I entered the same manuscript I spent so much time hating last year into the Wisconsin Romance Writers of America Fabulous Five Contest.
It won its category.
Talk about validation!
It’s had more full requests.
My son said after looking at my query spreadsheet and I’d explained all the red was rejections and the scattered green was the requests: “Wow. If you’d let all the red stop you, you’d never have got to the green!”
So simple, so true, and yes, so hard.
But so worth it.
For some reason the heavy wooden rectangle that came in the mail today gave more weight to my achievement.
It made it more real.
I’ve propped it up next to my computer, near my index cards shouting positive and encouraging things, reminders like RUN YOUR RACE.
Because persistence is draining, we need the reminders of the good things on the journey.
It’s very much a journey – I’m still waking up to rejections from agents, still don’t have that publishing deal – but it’s a journey worth taking.
This Christmas story uses the characters and world from my latest WIP – Blood Cursed Rose (a Vampire Beauty and the Beast Retelling). I hope you enjoy!
The front door banged, rattling the study windows behind heavy drapes. Lola caught herself smoothing down her jacket, brushing over the pencil skirt that would never dare to get wrinkles. Her pulse thumped. She twisted her hands away and placed them flat on the table. Listening, but refusing to admit who she was listening for.
Cullen’s voice rumbled through the hall, his sister’s bubbly happiness rising around it. The damned dog barked and yipped. She closed her eyes at the sounds of claws scrabbling on the parquet floor. Horace’s voice rose, her loyal factotum attempting to remonstrate with the humans. A small smile tugged at the corners of her lips as silence fell, and she sank back in the deep leather chair.
The silence rolled up the stairs, heavy and expectant, broken by the snick of a latch. She tapped her nails on the desk. If it was important, Horace would come. A dark red ledger thumped as she dragged it open, the numbers fading under unseeing eyes. There was no need for her to go find out what was happening.
In her own house.
A giggle rose through the air, floating in the open window, and she pushed back her chair and strode to the door.
Her heels clattered on the wide wooden staircase. She slowed her stride until they sounded a strong measured tap instead.
Music came through the door of the library, and she stumbled to a stop. The library. How dare they!
She flung open the door and the horrific strains of jazzy Christmas tunes curled around her. Cullen stood in front of a massive tree, glittery snakes in his arms, and Annette rose on tip toes to hang a sparkling orb on a branch.
“What the devil is this?”
Wullie barked and ran at her jumping and licking. She hissed, baring her fangs, and he danced in a circle, wuffing again.
Horace appeared behind Wullie, his smile twisting and an unusual flush ridging his pallid cheeks. The reindeer horns on the normally dapper vampire’s head were ridiculous. Bells. The horns had bells. She refused to pay attention to Wullie sitting quivering in front of her, one paw raised, his eyes fixed on her jacket pocket.
A slow grin spread on Cullen’s face. “I think he’s expecting something.”
“That’s because he has more hair than brain.”
He raised one of those perfect eyebrows and his lip quirked. Heat flushed her cheekbones and Wullie whined.
“Fine.” Avoiding Cullen’s eyes, she dug into the pocket of her suit and pulled out a small piece of dried liver. “Traitor dog.” She tossed the treat down to the ecstatic terrier and strode towards the tree, ignoring Horace’s smothered smile even as her heart warmed to see it. He’d been sinking into the darkness, losing his clawed grip on eternity, and if the dog and silly sweet Annette could bring him out of it she’d do more than toss liver at Wullie each time she saw him.
“What do you think you’re doing with this forest in my library?”
Cullen stretched up an arm, draping a tinselled stream over bristly needles. She kept her eyes on his face, resisting the urge to watch his muscles shift under the thin sweater.
“Hardly a forest, Lola.”
“It’s my house, I’ll hyperbole if I want to. Explain this.” Her arm swept out to encompass the music, the tree, Horace helping Annette pick out baubles. Wait a minute. “Where’s Aden?”
A shadow flitted over Cullen’s face before he rearranged it into a blank calm. “Worried about the whereabouts of your hostage?”
She pushed away the spike of hurt in her chest. “No, just wondering how he managed to escape this madness.”
The door opened behind her and Aden’s heartbeat filled her ears. The sense of him sat at the base of her skull. She looked over her shoulder at the young man with the tray of some revolting looking drink.
“He didn’t escape. He was getting eggnog.”
Heat flushed her chest, a burning shame that made her press her lips together. It hadn’t been her fault. Aden cut a rose.
Horace appeared at her shoulder, his eyes pools of dark understanding in his pale face. He handed her a delicate glass orb, suspended by a crimson ribbon. “My advice? Join in, it’s a big tree and it’s not as awful as you think.”
She lifted the bauble. Cullen’s gaze burned a hole in her back as she stepped forward, her scalp prickled and the ornament slipped through her fingers. It tumbled to the floor, smashing against the wood. Annette gasped and Lola’s hand curled against her skirt. They thought she’d done it on purpose.
The music twisted around her in a taunting dance, winding through the scent of Annette’s nervousness behind her laughter, the rigid hostility rising off Cullen, and Aden’s sullen resentment. Bile rose at the back of her throat. Ridiculous. None of this was for her and they’d ruined her library.
She spun on her heel, ignoring Horace’s outstretched hand, and stalked through the door, down the hall, and straight to the small white door that led to the garden. Her heart pounded a rhythm in her chest matching each step. Fool. Idiot girl. Fool.
The door flung wide as she thrust her way out into the chilled air, inhaling the scent of the roses. The blooms shuddered and whispered and she tried to draw it in, tried to drive out the memory of delicate glass smashing at her feet. Cool earth met her knees as she sank down near the closest bed. Her hands pushed into the soil and she focused on breathing, on the life passing through the roses and the dirt and up her arms. Her fangs lengthened and she squeezed her eyes shut. Control. She could control it.
Aden’s heartbeat pounded at the base of her skull and she swallowed more bile. But it was Cullen’s face she’d run from.
The roses hushed and nodded and batted at her head.
After a long moment she pulled her hands from the dirt and shifted to sit, the pencil skirt smudged and marked with dirt. She regarded the toes of her stilettos and pretended she wasn’t listening for the strains of that awful music coming from the library.
The chill of the ground didn’t bother her as it seeped through her suit. A hot ball lodged in her chest.
After what seemed to be forever the music and laughter stopped. The light turned off in the library. Not until all the lights went out did she stand, catching her heel in the cobbles. She walked the opposite way to the library, toward the small red door on the other side of the mansion and the stairs to her room.
She sat curled on her bed, her head resting on her knees, watching the moon outside the window. Having humans in the house really disrupted her sleep patterns. She thought of reading but each word on the page reminded her of the travesty sitting in her library.
Christmas tree. Who brought a Christmas tree into a vampire’s house?
Cullen. With his smirk and his daring and his complete knowledge that she wouldn’t harm him. He’d brought his family first, then his annoyingly cute dog, and now a tree. She drew her knees tighter to her chest, sparking blue eyes playing in her mind. Having a hostage was supposed to be easier than this. They weren’t all supposed to move in and change things. Confusion twisted her thoughts, as it had done for the last two weeks.
With a huff, she stretched out her legs and hopped off the bed, reaching for the light switch. Colours twinkled outside and she paused, her heart catching. She padded to the window.
Floating out from the library window below were multihued flashes and flickers.
Christmas trees had lights.
A deep urge uncoiled deep inside her. Centuries of dark winters, of decrying the pagan rituals that turned into Christian holiday, sat heavy in her mind.
A Christmas tree with lights was in her house.
Right below her.
She should check it out.
Make sure it wasn’t going to set fire to the books.
She padded from her room in bare feet, grabbing a woollen cardigan to drape over her shoulders. The stairs creaked once and she froze, before reminding herself it was her house and she could walk where she wanted. She crept down the rest of the stairs.
Light danced through the library door in stealthy twinkles of bright colours. She bit her lip and tugged at the soft fleece of her sweatpants. With a tight flick of her fingers she summoned the darkness, arming herself in shadows instead of a suit. Each step into the library sent prickles running under her skin.
Looming and stinking of pine, the tree dominated the room. Ridiculously garish, it beckoned as much as it repelled. Her hand stole up her sleeve to her elbow and she cocked her head, but no sound other than the excited hush of the roses through the window casement disturbed the silence. The lights mesmerised her. Draped in chains around the tree, they both adorned and confined it. Her eyes dropped to the base and she caught her breath. Boxes with bows and ribbons and shiny paper perched under the lower branches.
Time flowed like sap. Wispy shadows drifted away as her hold on them loosened, her mind enraptured by the colour and the promise sitting at the end of the room.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Cullen’s voice by her ear made her jump, her foot caught in the long hem of her sweatpants. His hand grabbed her elbow, his touch burning like flame through the chunky wool.
A snappy retort pressed at the back of her teeth, driving to get out, to put distance between her and this glowing tree. She looked up at his face, the strong line of his jaw softened by the coloured lights, and swallowed the words.
“Yes.” she whispered.
A smile spread on his face, crinkling around his eyes, and her pulse hammered through her veins. His fingers slid down her arm, lingering over her hand.
“I realised we forgot something when we were decorating. The most important thing.”
His heartbeat fluttered in his throat and she drew taller, his nervousness giving her strength.
“So important it couldn’t wait til morning?”
He kept his eyes on hers, so blue, so fierce. His hand pulled a squashed piece of plant out of his pocket, the spiky leaves catching on the denim. “I didn’t think so, until I heard you come down the stairs. Then it was all I could think about.”
He stepped closer. “Mistletoe.” Her breath came faster, and the heat from his body set a flame in her own.
“Cullen, this isn’t a good idea.”
He held the mistletoe over her head, his other hand rising to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. “I know. And tomorrow no doubt I’ll remember you’re a beast and I’m a hunter, but tonight is Christmas Eve.”
Her thoughts whirled, freezing her in place. So many reasons humans were off limits. Good reasons. This man in particular. But the smell of him reminded her of a garden in summer, his soft eyes twinkled in the light from the tree, and she rose on her toes to kiss him anyway. As their lips met and his arms tightened around her, she pretended tomorrow didn’t matter. The whispered hush of the roses filled her head. Tonight she would steal a little moment of magic.
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.