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A Leaf from my book Below are the 10 most recent journal entries recorded in the "grahampatsmith" journal:

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June 9th, 2013
04:38 pm

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"The Best Medicine" - Brigit's Flame June 2013 week 1 entry
Brigit’s Flame – June 2013, Week 1
Prompt: Pair/Pear/Pare
Title:  “The Best Medicine”
Wordcount/Ratings: ~1300 words, rated PG-13 for adult subject matter
Author: Graham Patrick Smith

Eyes on the electronic tablet in front of her, Jillian did the math in her head.  “So, you’ve been here for… six months now?”

“That’s right,” replied her patient, who had been identified by her tablet as Wesley Baumgartner.  He wrung his long, thin fingers together one moment, and then absent-mindedly picked at his eyebrows the next.

Jillian winched away in disgust and hoped that he hadn’t seen, quickly donning her professional face.  This man was one of her patients, after all.  “Are you thinking of moving into more permanent housing soon?”

Wesley’s large, watery eyes became distorted as he looked around the extended-stay hotel room through his thick glasses.  “Um… well, I suppose I could,” he replied nasally.  “But, I’m sort of holding out that mother will change her mind and let me move back in with her.  I mean, right now, the basement is completely unused.  It’s a waste, really.”

Shifting in the folding chair the Agency had given her, Jillian tapped a box labeled ‘attachment issues’ on her tablet screen.  “Mr. Baumgartner, I think that your mother asked you to move out in an effort to help you rather than punish you.  You have to admit, it’s hard to get by with your… condition… while you’re living with your mother, isn’t it?” 

The thin, weasley, middle-aged man swallowed, and his eyes seemed to flicker even faster behind his glasses.  “Oh.  I was… um… wondering if you were going to bring that up.”

“Well, it is why the Agency sent me, Mr. Baumgartner.”

Wesley seemed to sit up a little straighter in his chair.  “Oh.  Really?”  Jillian noticed the man’s knees beginning to shake.  “Just… um… how did the Agency expect you to… remedy my problem?”

Remembering her training, Jillian put on her most serious face in an effort to diffuse the situation.  “Simply to examine your living conditions, ask you about your condition, and prescribe medication if I think it’s necessary.  Standard procedure.”

Lower lip now trembling, Wesley replied, in what Jillian would later realize was a laughable attempt at a seductive voice, “Are you sure they didn’t send you to perform a… physical examination?”

A sliver of fear slipped into Jillian’s stomach, but it didn’t show on her stone-cold expression.  Even so, she remembered her training, and let her right hand slip toward her purse.  “Definitely not.  This is a very standard, very professional visit.  You shouldn’t be worried.  This sort of thing is much more common than you’d think, Mr. Baumgartner.”

“Please.  Call me Wesley,” Wesley said, just before leaping to his feet and lunging for Jillian.

Adrenaline and fear filled the nurse like a hot poker placed on her skin.  Jillian leapt to her feet, dropping her tablet and knocking her folding chair to the floor.  Though she twisted away from the man, Wesley managed to grab her wrist.

And then he licked the back of her hand.

Jillian shifted her weight, broke Wesley’s hold and, with a twist of her hips, planted the sole of her right shoe squarely into his sternum.  All the air left his lungs in a great whuff, and the scrawny man tumbled backward over his chair.  In the moment she had bought, Jillian snatched her purse from the floor, where it had fallen, and produced the instrument she had reached for earlier.

A moment later, Wesley’s hands appeared on the back of the chair as he struggled to pull himself to his feet.  His previously combed-over quaff of hair was disheveled and his glasses sat skewed on his nose.  “Wow,” he wheezed.  “I know it’s been a while since I used the Venom, but I forgot how powerful it can be!  Just not so rough from now on, okay?”

“I think you’ll find, Mr. Baumgartner, that I’m immune to your Venom” Jillian huffed.  Her adrenaline-quickened breath made her hand rise and fall rhythmically, but still she maintained perfect aim on Wesley with the implement in her hand.  “The agency made sure to inoculate me against every possible poison, venom, toxin, hypnosis, mind trick, and curse known to cryptohumanoid kind. So if I were you, I’d not try that again.  This thing was freshly enchanted this morning.”

Wesley’s eyes widened in fear at the red-handled, ruby-tipped wand in Jillian’s hand.  “Oh.  Oh, no.  I’m… I’m so sorry,” he stammered.  “I had no idea.  Oh god.  I’m so sorry.  It’s just been so long… I mean, look at me!  I’m not supposed to be like this!”  Wesley returned to his chair and put his head in his hands, which put Jillian more at ease. Still, when she righted her chair, she made sure to place it a few more feet away from the man, and she kept the Wand of Stupification at hand.

“It’s not healthy for an incubus to stay holed up in his mother’s basement,” Jillian went on professionally.  When Wesley opened his mouth to protest, she added, “no matter how good his video game collection is.  Your kind survives on the sensual energy of young women.  And there are NO young women playing video games on the internet.”

“But…,”

“NONE.”

Wesley lowered his face shamefully. “I’ve tried everything, though.  I mean, look at these pills I ordered from an ad I got in my inbox.”  He trotted to the room’s nightstand, opened it, and produced a pair of pear-shaped plastic bottles (no doubt intentionally phallic), each the size of the venti coffee Jillian had drunk that morning.  Written across the front of the red bottles were the words ‘SEX MACHINE’ in black letters, plastered in a yellow comic-book style starburst.

“Mr. Baumgartner, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” Jillian said, setting down her wand long enough to make a few quick taps on her tablet.  “I’m calling you in a prescription meant to help incubuses just like you with this very same problem.  Soon you’ll be looking like your old self again, and you’ll have no trouble with the ladies.”

“Thank you, Ms. Nightingale,” Wesley said, looking repentant.  “Mother has been teasing me because I look older than she does.”

“That’s because she’s a succubus, and she feeds regularly,” Jillian replied, “and doesn’t spend all her time playing video games.”  She flipped the cover on her tablet closed and stood, collapsing her folding chair.  “Your prescription will be ready by tomorrow.  Simply take it, and concern yourself more with your health instead of how many headshots your squad is accumulating.”

Wesley nodded, his hands clasped in his lap.  “Thank you again, Ms. Nightingale.  And I’m so sorry about my little… outburst.  I hope you can forgive me.”

Despite herself, Jillian smiled.  “It’s not the worst that’s happened to me in this job.  Coincidently, werewolf bites itch like you wouldn’t believe.”  With that, she stuffed her belongings into her back, bid Wesley a final good-bye, and left the hotel room.

On her way down the hotel’s stairs, Jillian recalled the patients she had seen that day.  A harpy with a broken wing.  A merman with a terrible case of athlete’s flipper.  A troll, currently living under the Watterson Beltway Bridge, with fang rot.  And, lastly, an antisocial incubus with a hormonal imbalance.

Jillian Nightingale, nurse practitioner for the Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Health, returned to her mobile office (a.k.a. her car).  No doubt, it had been a long day.  Though she could have squeezed in one more patient, she decided against it, and picked up her phone to text the Agency that they’d have to find another agent to treat the Sasquatch with fleas.

The nurse left work at five o’clock, officially, and headed in the direction of her favorite bar.  The wizard bartender had promised her a Wand of Flypaper for the pixies she was supposed to visit tomorrow, should they try any funny business.

Just another day.

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May 31st, 2013
09:18 am

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"I Can Explain..."
Brigit's Flame: May Just for Fun Contest
Prompt: Corona
Title: "I Can Explain...."
Wordcount/warnings:  758 words, rated PG
Author: Graham Patrick Smith

“Fergus! What happened here?!” Fergus heard Father McCollum cry, and the sound of boots on grass quickly approached behind him.

Fergus swallowed nervously and kneaded his hands together.  He had been utterly impotent to stop the fire, but hadn’t run and hid when it had started, like his cowardly instincts had told him.  “Something happened, and now the barn is on fire.”  He said it with a slight inflection at the end, making it sound like a question, as if Father McCollum's question might have been rhetorical.

“Clearly!” Father McCollum cried, his billowing robes appearing in Fergus’s peripheral vision.  “What happened to cause the fire?”

Fergus’s face was warm, though he was quite a distance from the blazing shed. It was past dusk, but the well-kept monastery grounds were easily visible in the radiant, orange glow.  Before he knew it, his knit peasant’s hat was in his hands and he was wringing it back and forth.  “I … I don’t know,” Fergus lied.  “I saw the light from my window, and I came down here as fast as I could. By the time I made it down all those stairs, it was like this.”

His stomach hurt from lying, but what was he supposed to do? Tell the truth? There was no way Father McCollum would believe him, and he’d simply have to spend the week in the tower without supper again.  Still, guilt chewed at Fergus’s insides.

“Where are the cows?  Are they still out to pasture?” Father McCollum asked urgently.

“Yes, Father,” Fergus stammered.  “I put them out just before you left for the trader’s market, just like you asked.”

“Thank the High Ones,” Father sighed.  “We would have been sore off without them.  What about the chickens?  How many are accounted for?”

“I found Mable, Isold, Darby, Juniper, Silverbeak, Penelope, Fiona, Tristina, and Janet,” Fergus reported mechanically.  “But there’s no sign of Caneil, Harriette, or Regina.”

Father McCollum rolled his eyes.  He had never thought much of Fergus’s propensity to name livestock.  Still, his face was thankful.  “More saved than lost.  Good lad, keeping up with them.” he said.  “And there wasn’t anyone inside the barn? The other acolytes and scruples are still at the communion in Talonwood, then?”

“Um, yessir.  It’s just been me here, all day.  All by myself.”

Fergus held his jacket tightly against his sides.

Father McCollum placed his hands on his hips and started up at the leaping flames.  The barn’s roof collapsed, the wooden shingles finally giving way to the corrosive power of fire, and filled the air with glowing ashes and smoke.  The trees from the nearby wood were painted an eerie orange.

“Come on, then,” Father McCollum said. “There’s little we can do about it now.  Dew’s fallen, so it won’t spread to the monastery.  The best we can do is wait for it to burn down, and then examine the ashes for any sign of who did this.”  For a moment Father McCollum didn’t move, except for crossing his arms over his chest.  Fire reflected off of his bald head.  “These are dark times we’re living in, Fergus.  Dark times, indeed.”

“Y-yessir,” Fergus replied.

The Father turned to leave, presumably back to the cart that he had brought back from the trader’s market. When he was sure that he was alone, Fergus opened his jacket ever so slightly and hissed into it, “Now look what you’ve done!  You’ve gone and gotten us both in such deep trouble!”

Two amber eyes blinked open, catching the light of the fire, and a scaly head, the size of Fergus’s thumb and the color of the leaping flames, poked its way from beneath Fergus’s arm.  The creature hiccupped, and a gout of fire the size of the boy’s open palm erupted into the air.  Fergus twisted away from fire before his clothes could catch, but the heat made his face and fingers sting. Silently he hoped that Father McCollum wouldn't later notice his lack of eyebrows.

Tending a monastery by yourself can be ever so boring.  But when Fergus had gone exploring around the grounds that day, he had no idea he would stumble across the huge, brown egg in the crags south of the abbey.  Though he was beginning to appreciate why the monks called the area ‘Forbidden Gulch’.

Already Fergus was making a list of things he would have to do that evening, in addition to helping Father McCollum unload the goods from the cart.

Number one: find out what had happened to Caneil, Harriette, and Regina.

Number two: dispose of the brown egg shell pieces in his bedroom.

Number three:  figure out how to muzzle a dragon hatchling.

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April 25th, 2013
08:28 am

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"Ungrateful Arms" - Brigit's Flame, April 2013 week 4 entry (just for fun)
Brigit's Flame: April week 4 entry
Prompt: Serenity
Title: "Ungrateful Arms"
Wordcount/warnings:  484 words, rated PG
Author: Graham Smith

The grey sky outside is still lit by the afternoon sun, though it's filtered through the grey cover like a filthy window.  Trees bow and sigh, moving in the wind like fish caught in a current, their leaves glittering scales as the first raindrops patter upon them.  The air smells heady and humid, like grass and dirt and life, and the pre-storm squall blows it into my modest home.  Tossed asunder, the fingers of the curtains beckon me closer to the window.

I've always easily fallen for lovers that could care less for me.  Not necessarily those that are outwardly malicious, but undeniably those that were callously indifferent.  And the storm is just that.  I am nothing more to her than another warm body to kiss with her raindrops, to tease with her voice and her sweet smells.  But, as is so often the case, risks are so difficult to assess in the presence of a beckoning hand, a sweet smell, and a seductive voice.  And the approaching storm has them all. So I take my coffee and my guitar and venture into her bosom, seeking the sweet peace that she peddles.

The hilltop already belongs to her when I step outside. The fields worship her, bending in deep green-golden waves as she whispers over top of them.  She’s already begun singing her song, her first notes tapping a staccato beat on the metal roof of the porch.  I settle into a chair, and immediately her teasing begins.  A sweet-smelling breath blows on the back of my neck, tossing my hair and parting the collar of my shirt.  A raindrop kisses me lightly on the cheek.  Her voice, deep and throaty, echoes somewhere in the distance, promising to be here soon.

Samson, my huge, grey cat, has followed me outside, and even he seems to wonder what possessed him to do so as he curls beneath my chair.  After one last sip from my coffee, I place my guitar on my knee and let my fingers slide along the strings.  I don’t play anything in particular:  just a few chords, some scales, some songs I know by heart.  She doesn't care.  I mean nothing to her.  And yet, I continue to throw her my affections.

A raindrop strikes my guitar’s wooden body.  I’ll have to dry it soon or the finish will be ruined.
The strings are already expanding from the humid air. It’ll need to be tuned.
Steam rises from my coffee cup.  It will soon be cold.
Samson mews pleadingly from beneath my chair.

But still I play.  She continues to ignore me in her approach, dispassionate to my efforts.  I don’t mind.  Because her voice, her smell, her damp, cool kiss, are all I need in that moment.  I've always easily fallen for lovers that could care less for me; but, for this moment at least, I am satisfied.

Current Mood: Resigned
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April 6th, 2013
11:00 pm

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"The Beat" - Submission for Brigit's Flame, April 2013 week 1
Brigit's Flame - April Week 1
Prompt: Cliff
Title: "The Beat"
Word Count/warnings: 959 words, rated PG
Author: Graham Smith


My heart thundered like a jackhammer beneath my shield, pumping blood that seared like hot coffee through my aching legs and arms.  Everything begged me to stop.  My legs, full of sand after three straight blocks of sprinting.  My lungs, which turned a breath of fresh air into acid.  My head, which was starting to throb from lack of oxygen as my out-of-shape body sent it to the parts that kept me moving.  

“NYPD!  Stop where you are!” I cried.  Ahead of me, the perpetrator shoved a woman aside, sending her armful of shopping bags scattering like bowling pins.  Bystanders screamed and ran in all directions as I cried out my warning again.  With a burst of adrenaline I didn’t know my legs still possessed, I leapt the shopping bags, my trench coat flapping behind.

I held my hat on with one hand and produced my service revolver from its holster with my other.  The perp turned into an alley so quickly that he almost fell when his shoes skidded on the sidewalk.  I gained about five feet on him before his hand whipped from the waistband in his pants and produced a gun of his own.

I was barely thirty feet from the perp when the piece appeared.  Time seemed to slow down, and my jumbled mind whizzed through the hours I’d been briefed on what to do in such a situation.  Raw, naked fear took over, and my feet stopped on their own volition, sending me pitching forward. Only after stumbling a few feet was I able to pull some useful advice from my training, and I spun behind a newspaper stand a split-second before he started firing.

Two claps of thunder split the afternoon air.  Screams rang out from, I hoped, bystanders that were simply terrified and not hurt.  Three feet from my head, the wood of the newspaper stand exploded, showering the sidewalk with splinters.

My back pressed against the stand, I listened for more gunshots through my heart jackhammering in my ears.  A happy flow of adrenaline now dampening the other symptoms of the chase, I counted off five more seconds before venturing a peek around the corner.

Clear.

I dove from behind cover, keeping my head down, and dashed into the alley after the perp.  It was empty, aside from a dumpster that belonged to the Chinese restaurant next door and a rapid jangling of metal from over my head.  My eyes followed the sound and I spied the perp, and beneath his arm the file that he had pilfered from headquarters under the guys of a delivery boy.  He clambered up the last run on the ladder of the neighboring building’s fire escape, and took off up the metal stairs two at a time.

Not wasting another second, I threw myself down the alley and leapt to grab the first rung on the ladder.  My arms screamed in protest, but I forced past their voice and pulled myself up high enough to get my foot into the lowest rung.  My hat tumbled off in a breeze that smelled of mushu pork, but I quickly forgot it as I ascended after the fleeing man.

When I reached the first landing, a clap of thunder roared in the alley, and at the same instant sparks showered from one of the steps above my head.  A metallic ping met my ears before they filled with a high-pitched whine.  I only took a second to blink through the confusion of the gunshot before I charged up the stairs after him, barely able to make out the sound of his footsteps (or mine, I can’t really tell) through the white noise.

I passed through the landing he had been standing on when he had taken a shot at me. It still smelled of gunpowder and cordite.

When I reached the last landing, I was alone.  Holstering my revolver, I ascended the final ladder and cautiously peeked over the edge of the building’s roof.  I spotted a fleeing man, a folder tucked under his arm, and a nearby building that he was recklessly charging toward.

I dove over the edge and cried “NYPD! Stop where you are!”, and had plenty of time to duck behind an air conditioning unit before he fired recklessly over his shoulder.  The shot didn’t even come close to me, but I couldn’t have him firing wildly.  There’d be no telling where those bullets might up.

I charged after him.

Suddenly the perp was airborne, leaping from the edge of the roof.  He seemed to hang, suspended, in air for days until he landed on the roof of the next building.  His knees gave way and he rolled in an attempt to reduce the impact of the fall, but it was less coordinated than he had intended.  Dizzy, he sprawled in a heap on the roof.

It was my chance. But, once again, my body and its perfectly rational fears took over.  I skidded to a stop just short of the edge of the building, the chasm between the two like a gaping maw, ready to swallow a beat cop who was still twenty years from paying off his mortgage.  The alley below looked much further than seven stories; not that it needed to be, because seven stories would do just fine for turning me into a pile of pulp.

Across the alley, the perp was finally starting to pull himself together.  It would be a matter of seconds before he was on his feet and running again, or he got his gun hand working again and risked his remaining two bullets on perforating me.

So, once again, I tuned out the voice that screamed in my head to turn around, backed up twenty feet on the rooftop, sprinted, and jumped.


 

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March 4th, 2013
10:16 pm

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"Hook, Line, and Sinker" Brigit's Flame, May 2013 week 1 entry
Title: "Hook, Line, and Sinker."
Brigit's Flame May 2013 week 1 entry
Prompt: Pumpkin
Wordcount/warnings: 1490 words, rated PG (alcohol and tobacco use)
Author: Graham Patrick Smith
The air was thick and smelled terrible.  It swirled around his head like thick soup, composed equally of cigar smoke, fried meat, heady body odor, and whiskey.
“You, sir!” Nick cried, aiming his long, black wand, white-tipped.  “You seem like a man who knows a thing or two about a thing or two!”
The smoke that encircled his head, Nick thought, suited the fat man.  He wore a suit, the vest and jacket of which were each straining to stay closed by one button apiece. It looked as if a prize-winning pumpkin was hidden beneath the garment. His white collar was upturned but completely undone, and the man had tied his pristine white bow tie across it so as to mask the faux pas.  But this was not as a man who couldn’t afford a larger suit:  this was a man who wouldn’t allow himself to believe that his schoolboy figure had ballooned so terribly since his cricket days.  No, the man before Nick had enough money to afford a suit in whatever size he wanted, and this was the one he had chosen.  Nick pictures the man’s blood seeping through his veins like the sluggish, hot air, barely oozing along from the years of congealed filth.
The cigar that the man clutched in his teeth probably cost more that Nick’s suit, and the whisky in the glass was probably older.   He stared at Nick with beady black eyes beneath red, piggish cheeks and a freshly oiled moustache, from beneath which hung a massive bottom lip, like a bloated, pink slug.
“A thing or two about a thing or two?” The man scoffed, just enough slur in his voice to tell that he was hiding his true inebriation.  He removed his cigar from his teeth with the same hand he used to hold the knob of his expensive walking stick. “What’s that supposed to mean, boy?”
Nick smiled inwardly to himself without breaking eye contact with the man.  “Why, I merely mean to say that you seem as though you have a set of eyes over which it is difficult to pull the wool!”  When the man blinked slowly, Nick sighed patiently and summarized, “Not as easy man to fool, are you?”
“I should say not,” said the piggy-faced man. When he took a step forward, a little of Nick’s smile crept into reality.  He finished it off to make it seem genuine.
“A man such as yourself must not find himself challenged much,” Nick cooed, silver tongue fully engaged.  “So I feel you need … no, you deserve … a challenge on a night such as tonight.”
The man looked to and fro, slowly, drunkenly.  The other attractions in the old theater begged for his attention, and the attention of the hundreds of other patrons that meandered about during intervention.  He eyes the cigarette seller, the man behind the bar, the other posh London socialites that laughed with their expensive drinks in their hand, even (no, especially) the girls with the long feathers in their hats and the beckoning fingers.  But Nick’s was the only magician’s stand, and he could spot a catch when one approached.  The man was on his line now; Nick didn’t even need to reel him in.  He simply needed to be patient.
This was one of the rare moments that made it worth standing around in the filthy, coagulated air for hours at a time.  Not the actual trick, not the looks on their faces when he baffled them, not even the payoff.  The moment when he piqued the curiosity of someone who really, genuinely deserved what was coming, and knowing that they were a ship in a whirlpool, being drawn ever closer to him and his cards.  It was an intoxicating feeling, one unequaled by drink or smoke.
As the piggy man opened his mouth to inquire, Nick’s flew open, almost on instinct alone.  “What you see here is an ordinary deck of fifty-two cards,” Nick proclaimed as he whipped the small, rectangular box from the sleeve of his jacket and into his palm.  Two beady black eyes blinked slowly, and Nick could practically hear the gears in the man’s head turning, trying to process where it had come from.  With another flourish of his hands Nick had removed the entire deck from the box and spread them across the table in a long line, face-down.  “You will pick one card, without telling me what it is, and I shall divine your card from the deck.  I’ve never been good at maths, but I believe the odds are in your favor, sir.”
“What’s in it for me?” The man asked, cramming the end of his cigar between that pink slug of a bottom lip and the oiled rat of a moustache.  He was clearly a man used to asking that particular question.
“Just a shilling, if I can’t choose your card,” Nick replied.  “I’m sure a shilling is nothing to a man of your stature, but who can turn down a free shilling?”
When the man nodded, Nick gave a flick of one wrist and flipped all the cards face-up, one after the other, like a string of dominos.  As the piggy man blinked slowly again, Nick proclaimed, “Now, sir, I will turn around and close my eyes, and when I do, select your card.  Please be sure to pick it up, commit it to memory.  When you’re finished, collect the cards together in whatever order you choose, making sure to conceal your choice.”  And with that, Nick turned, making sure to give a dramatic twirl of the edge of his cloak.
Seconds passed, bringing the telltale sound of the turning of cardboard, and finally Nick heard the man clumsily collecting the deck.  When he turned around, the man had the cards clenched in fingers that strikingly resembled overstuffed sausages.  As he took the deck, Nick pictured smoky, fat-filled blood trying to pump through the swollen appendages.
Shuffling cards, though not as satisfying as the lure, was the most enjoyable part of Nick’s job.  He could shuffle with one hand, shuffle in mid air, shuffle across the table, shuffle from hand into the other, even off of the wall and onto the tabletop. Tonight he opted for the hand-to-hand; elegant enough to draw looky-loos, and flashy enough to completely disorient the fat, wealthy drunkard.
Desired effect achieved: two beady eyes, nearly concealed by pudgy cheeks reddening from the now empty whiskey glass, rolled about after the flying cards.  The entire deck collected in Nick’s left hand, and with swipe of his thumb he displayed all of them on the old, wooden table.  After studying them for a few seconds, Nick mused, “Hmm. That’s peculiar.  I don’t seem to see your card here.”
Before the man could say something stupid, Nick leaned forward, placing one hand on the man’s vest and the other behind his right ear.  His wrist moved like a whip, and seemingly from thin air a card was clutched between his thumb and forefinger.  “Is this your card, sir?” He asked, displaying it for the man and leaning back behind the table.
It was the king of diamonds.  Even if Nick hadn’t been able to hear exactly which card the man had picked, memorized its exact placement on the table and listened for it to be picked up, he still would have known it was the piggy man’s card.  It could not have been more obvious that such a man would pick such a card.
But the pink slug twitched the oiled rat upward into a drunken smile.  “Wrong.  That’s not the card I picked.”
Of course he’d lie, Nick thought.  Like you said: who can turn down a free shilling.  “You are a very crafty man, as I thought, sir,” Nick conceded.  “I can see I am no match for your wits.”  He produced a shilling from his pants pocket and laid it on the table, where the five sausages reappeared and quickly snatched it up.  “Care to make it a little more interesting?  Say, a pound?”
The man dropped the shilling into his own pants pocket and glared victoriously back at Nick, clearly pleased with himself.  “No thank you, good sir.  Here’s the difference between you and me.  I didn’t get where I am being taken in by people like you.”
“Clearly not, sir,” Nick replied, giving the man a slight bow and slipping the man’s wallet into the compartment beneath the table.  “A man like me could learn a thing or two from a man like you.”
“I’d say you could,” the man added before turning, with his walking stick, whiskey glass, and cigar.  “Good evening.”
It wasn’t something Nick did often.  But when he did, he made sure it mattered.  After all, why throw out the line unless you’re going to catch a nice, fat one?  “Good evening,” he replied, folding up his table as the crowds retreated into the theater for the start of the next act.

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March 2nd, 2013
02:38 pm

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"Man of the House"
This is a short story written for LineByLine, a prompt-based writing community.  The community provides one line which much be used somewhere in the piece.  This week's line was "It wasn't because of that."

This short story centers around characters that have been popping up in my writings for a while now: a guy named Beck, who dropped out of college to raise his daughter, Tansly, in the absence of Tansly's mother (and Beck's ex-girlfriend) Amanda.
"Man of the House"

The beaten, old couch in my living room sagged under me, even though I was stretched out across it with my weight pretty evenly distributed. Lonnie and Still Wind said it was the first couch they bought after they got married, in the early 80’s, and they hadn’t had the heart to throw it out so they had put it in the little shack.  When I had become the shack’s new tenant, I had inherited it.  There were strips of duct tape on it older than I was, but for my purposes it was perfect.

I circled another job in the classified section of the newspaper while the radio played another old Rolling Stones song; it was ‘Two for Tuesday,’ so Jumping Jack Flash was the perfect follow-up to Paint it Black.  From her crib next to the couch, Tansly cooed and slapped a toy with her chubby pink hands.

“I know,” I told her.  “Mick Jagger is still awesome, even after all these years.”

Tansly slapped the toy harder in agreement, and started cooing again.  I couldn’t help but smile when she sounded so happy, so I set aside the newspaper long enough to lift her from the crib and lay her on my chest.  She slapped my chest in excitement and kicked her feet, one of which struck me a little too hard in the stomach.  I grunted through the pain but still smiled at the beautiful little infant.  Tansly had Amanda’s eyes, no matter how much I tried to pretend she didn’t.  The baby we made was beautiful, no doubt about that. And the pang of sadness was still hard to ignore, no matter how much I tried to convince myself to hate Amanda for leaving.

A wet spot of droll appeared on my shirt as Tansly laid her face on my chest and blew a feeble raspberry.  I picked up the classifieds again and held them over Tansly, where I skimmed them with my eyes.  Lonnie had told me that he was going to have to cut my hours at the hardware store for a few months, during the off season, so I had to pick up a few extra hours somewhere to keep earning pocket money.

Just as I started to turn the page, I heard something from the kitchen.

Our little shanty in the Mojave Desert didn’t have much, but we got by pretty well.  It was little more than a wooden shack, with only the basic necessities.  It had electricity but it was temperamental; I could only run one of the window air conditioners at a time without blowing the breaker.  The running water took forever to heat up, but I rarely wanted a hot shower. I was getting used to the little noises the house made as the old wood swelled and shrank with the changing desert temperature.  And that was why I noticed the out-of-the-ordinary sound.

I had no neighbors.  As far as I knew, the closest house was more than a mile away, and the last person who had been in the house besides me and Tansly was Amanda, two months ago, when she had left the baby with me and disappeared into the night. So I felt a little stupid when I asked, “Hello?” into my home.  Of course, no one responded.  I held my breath and waited, trying to listen over Tansly’s chorus of baby noises.  After a few seconds of nothing but the Rolling Stones, I released my breath and looked back to the newspaper.

Thirty seconds later, I heard it again:  a shuffling, chittering noise, once more from the kitchen.

My fatherly instincts started to kick in.  If there was something in the kitchen, it was my duty to my daughter to kill it.  So I set the newspaper aside, lifted Tansly from my chest, and placed her gently back in her crib.  “Stay here,” I told her, feeling like a badass cop in a crime movie.

Before venturing to the kitchen, I took my Louisville Slugger from next to the couch and wrapped my hands around it.  My footsteps were almost silent as I approached.  Just before I crossed the threshold I heard the noise again, though I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

First I approached the refrigerator, thinking that the noise was from something falling from the shelves.  But it wasn’t because of that; it was almost empty, because I had put off going to the grocery store for so long.  I performed the same search of the cabinets and cupboard, but found nothing out of place.

Just as I was shutting the coffee cup cabinet (yes, I need a whole cabinet for coffee cups; I drink a lot of coffee, okay?), I heard the noise again, slightly behind me. When I turned, I spied the only place in the room I hadn’t yet searched:  the squeaky floorboard in front of the stove.  I had become well acquainted with the board; when I’d stand in front of the stove, making eggs in the morning, I’d lean to and fro on it in time with whatever song was on the radio.  But the board had never made sounds without my weight on it before.

Quickly ruling out ghosts as the cause, I let the bat dangle from my left hand and knelt to the floor.  With my knuckles I gave the board a quick rap, which responded with the mysterious noise.

The bat rattled to the floor, and I retrieved a claw hammer from the kitchen junk drawer (we all have one).  Cramming the claw into the space between the squeaky board and its neighbor, I craned the hammer back and pried up the board.
Five tiny scorpions, no bigger than my thumb, immediately scurried out.

I screamed, dropped the hammer, and dove away from the opening. The little white arachnids tested the air with their tiny claws and tails, as if claiming this new land as their own.

The end of the bat was just within arm’s reach.  I wrapped my fingers around the knob at the bottom and slowly dragged the implement to me, afraid that sudden movements would startle the creatures and they’d run beneath something, where they would plot to overthrow me and Tansly another day.  Not in my house.

Lonnie had shown me the correct way to stomp a scorpion without being stung, even while barefoot (which I currently was), but I didn’t feel like testing my skills. I brought the bat down on the first scorpion, and it exploded like an overripe grape.  The other four seemed stunned for a second by the sound of the impact, so I capitalized and pounded the rest of them into oblivion.

The board had snapped back into place when I had dove away like a scared little girl.  With the bat still in my right hand, I took the hammer in my left and lifted the board again, more carefully this time.

When I had first moved into the shack, Lonnie and Still Wind had explained the problem with scorpions that many dwellings in the Mojave developed, and had explained that the shack was no different.  The first three days I had slept in my car, because I was too terrified to sleep in the house.  But, after three solid days of killing scorpions every hour, I finally stopped seeing them, and assumed that my scorpion days were over.

But, it turns out, scorpions are like crazy exes:  just when you think you’ve seen the last of them, they come crawling out of the woodwork.

Beneath the board I found myself peeking into a meager little crawlspace.  And there I saw at least three times as many tiny, white scorpions as I had just pounded into pulp on my kitchen floor.  It was a nest.  It must have been full of scorpion eggs (just the thinking those words made my skin crawl) when I exterminated all the others from the shack.  They must have hatched not long ago.

I quickly slammed the board back into place and carefully cleaned up the smashed scorpions from the floor and the bat with a handful of Clorox wipes.  Then picked up the hammer from the floor, picked a few nails out of the junk drawer, and hammered the board so securely into place that it would never squeak again.

The radio had changed songs, and now blared Rock You Like a Hurricane from the living room.  Heh. Fitting.  I beat the last nail into the board to the rhythm of the music, then stood with the hammer in one hand and the bat in the other, once again feeling like a total badass.

As I stood in the doorway, hoping I looked as awesome as I felt, Tansly burbled happily to me from her crib.  “That’s right, baby,” I told her in my best tough-guy voice.  “This house is safe for another night.  Your dad’s a real man.”

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February 25th, 2013
10:37 pm

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"Wingman"
Title: "Wingman"
Prompt: Parrot
Brigit's Flame February 2013 week four
Word Count/ warnings:  962 words, rated PG
by Graham Smith

          I looked at myself in the mirror, and only then did I realize just how filthy it was.  Good lord; when had anyone in the house last washed it?  Had it ever been washed?  It at least hadn’t been washed this year; no doubt someone’s mom had come to clean house over the summer … it had probably been cleaned, then.  At least that was what I assumed, since, when I returned to the house every fall for school, things that had collected grime over the course of the year usually seemed to have cleaned themselves.


            The scatter-brained guy in the mirror looked back at me.  He wasn’t tall, but he wasn’t short, either.  He wasn’t really overweight, but he was a little soft, without much muscle tone.  Definitely someone who spent more time in the library than the gym.  His hair was sandy-blonde, longish, and hadn’t been brushed yet today.

            Lowering my eyes from the disgusting mirror (I was never going to be able to look at it the same way again, at least until the next time it was Windexed), I opened the old, leather-bound book I had brought into the bathroom.  Normally I didn’t need reading material in the bathroom; there were always enough automotive magazines and back issues of Maxim to keep me entertained for a few minutes. But this wasn’t just reading material.  This was my ticket out of my rut.

            “Oou-mah … oou-mah ….” I read from the book, trying to pronounce the foreign-looking words using the pronunciation guide I had scribbled on notebook paper.  The old woman in the antique store had been certain that the book was an old book of spells, and even more certain that the book was in some language called Polangi.  Even though she didn’t speak a word of Polangi.  The University Library only had one Polangi-to-English dictionary, and because it was in the reference section I, of course, couldn’t check it out.
        
            “Hey, Brian!  Are you coming, or what?”  Mike, one of my three roommates, called through the door.  “You don’t sound too good.”
        
            I faked a cough.  “Oh, yeah, man.  I don’t think I’m going to make it out to the club tonight.  I’ve got, like … the flu or something.”  To further sell the story, I groaned pathetically.

            “Eew, gross,” Mike said.  “Well, be sure to Clorox that whole room when you’re done.  Me, Dylan, and Danny don’t want to catch it.  Anyway, hope you feel better.  See you later!”

            I listened for my three roommates to leave the house, and then turned back to the book. As much as I liked my friends, none of them were very good wingmen.  When it came to girls, their skills always seemed to work with each other, but never me.  It had been two months since I had gotten a girl’s number at a bar, and even longer since those call-backs had actually lead to a second date.  I was sick of the dry spell.


            So, I figured, if none of the other guys were sufficient wingmen, I’d just have to be my own wingman.

            My eyes flicked back and forth between the old spellbook and the sheet of notebook paper. “Oou-mah … oou-mah … kwe-kwe … nam-ee-dah …,” I read, even though I felt more like an idiot the more unintelligible syllables I read.  “Oou-mah, kwe-kwe, nam-ee-dah … Oou-mah, kwe-kwe, nam-ee-dah!”

            To finish the spell, I dipped my thumb into a spot of blood on the side of my neck, where I had nicked myself shaving minutes before, and smeared it on the mirror over my reflection’s forehead.
        
            For almost a minute, nothing happened, and I felt like a moron for missing my chance to go to the club with my roommates.  Then my reflection suddenly winked, and I was positive that both my eyes stayed open.

            My reflection leaned closer to the mirror and pressed his palms on the basin.  Then he reached across his sink, past his faucet, and placed his palm onto my faucet, like he was testing a theory.  He climbed upon his sink, placed his hands onto my side of the basin, and crawled across the sink.  As he passed through my side of the mirror, the smear of my blood came with him, across his forehead.

            “Holy … holy crap!”  I cried.  “I can’t believe it worked!  Like, I can’t believe it worked!”  My reflection clambered down from the sink.  “I mean, look at you!  You’re me!”
        
            The reflection wore the exact same jeans and club-ready shirt that I wore, except that his were slightly spotted from passing through the dirty mirror.  There was a slightly me-shaped clean space in the mirror, now.  “Well, not completely,” he said, dampening his fingers in the sink and scrubbing the bloody thumbprint from his face.  “Think of me like Cinderella’s pumpkin.  I’m only here till midnight.”
        
            “Midnight?!” I cried, checking my cell phone.  “But it’s already ten thirty!”

            The reflection straightened his shirt in the mirror.  “Then we’d better get to work, hadn’t we?  You only have an hour and a half to get some random chick’s phone number!”

            We left the bathroom and headed for the front door.  “Well, I don’t think I just want some random chick’s number,” I fretted.  “I mean, I’d like her to be pretty.  And interesting.  And smart.”

            “Please,” my reflection said, condescendingly.  “I know your type.  Who knows your type better than you?”

            I took my car keys from the coffee table and opened the door.  “Okay, so here’s our story.  We’re identical twins.  You have a girlfriend, and mine just dumped me, so you’re trying to cheer up your poor brother.”

            My reflection followed me out the door. “Yeah, that’s perfect.  Chicks dig identical twins.” 

Current Mood: chipperchipper
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February 21st, 2013
11:41 pm

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"Murder" - Brigit's Flame, Feb. 2013 week 3
Title: "Murder"
Prompt: 'Dove', Brigit's Flame Feb. 2013, week 3
Wordcount/warning: 721 words, rated PG
Date: Feb. 21, 2013


Jules worked her small fingers into a fist, then slowly uncurled them, focusing on the way the blood felt as it surged back into her digits, restoring their feeling and shoving away the numbness.

“You don’t have to be the crow again.  You can change.”

The feeling had left her toes long ago.  Dampness has soaked through her thin shoes the moment she had stepped out into the snow, long before she had hiked through the woods behind her house.  January was cold, even colder than normal, it seemed, and Jules had previously used this as an excuse as to why she could only manage a crow.

The haphazard stone blocks that surrounded her, the ruins of an old fort from long before she was born, seemed to hum as she clenched and relaxed her fingers again.  Jules closed her eyes as the wind picked up, cutting through the thin hide jacket that her father had made for her seasons before.  She tucked her hands into the jacket’s inadequately short sleeves, but continued pumping her fingers.

Squeezing her eyes together made the knot on her head throb, but she tried to tune it out.  Focusing on it would not make the magic come.  But, as things go, the more she tried to ignore the memory, the brighter it became against her eyelids.  The boys outside the butcher shop, taunting her as she tried to carve a wide berth around them on her way to the seamstress for her apprenticeship.  Several calls of horrid names.  A thrown rock.

The sounds of flapping wings surrounded her, a sure sign that she was, indeed, still managing the magic.  She wondered what was gathering around her, but she dared not look; she had been warned against looking until the spell was finished, and she certainly didn’t know enough about the forces she was trifling with to try otherwise.

It had been months since she had accidentally wandered into the coven, since she had been told that there was a touch of magic in her blood, somewhere generations deep.  The coven had told her that crows were born from disappointment, heartache, and loss, that they were naturally drawn to people as dark of spirit as they were of feather.

The other girls called Jules ‘Murder’, for how well she was able to manage crows.  She hated the name, and wanted to be rid of it, once and for all.  How much grander would it be to be called ‘Flock’ instead, to ride on a symbol of hope and purity, instead of a scavenger, an outcast?

When she was fairly sure the sound of rustling wings around her could get no louder, Jules released a breath and whispered, “Doves.”

Jules’ consciousness shattered into dozens of pieces, and the air around her filled with frantic flapping as the birds around her took flight in fear.  Suddenly, instead of having only one mind, she felt several smaller, simpler minds in her possession.  With the sounds of the other birds flapping away on the breeze still fading, Jules pawed the ground with her dozens of clawed feet and rustled her dozens of wings, feeling the feathers that were layered perfectly against the small bodies.

Without daring to open any of her eyes, Jules spread dozens of pairs of wings and sent her flock flapping into the crisp evening air, significantly warmer through the bird flesh than she had been in her pink, warm body.  The flock’s mind moved as she commanded, and for a moment she was so elated that she opened one of her mouths and cried out.

The air filled first with one, then with dozens of raucous caws. Not gentle cooing, but the calls of scavengers, of a cloud of ebony vermin.

Dozens of eyes opens, and a kaleidoscope of broken images appeared.  None of the eyes spotted a girl’s body below, because this was her body, taken flight as a group of birds. Birds with feathers as black as tar filled every image, blinking their beady, black eyes against the wind, their hooked beaks ready to be plunged into something dead.

No doves.  Only crows.

Jules’ birds cawed mournfully over the hills again.  No matter how hard she tried, she could never be anything pure or lovely.  She would always be the crow … always, Murder. 

Current Location: Lexington, KY
Current Mood: Tired.
Current Music: Sounds of rain
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October 19th, 2012
01:19 pm

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"Survivors"

This story is the sequel to one I wrote for the topic ‘Thank you’ almost a year ago.  It was a story about an unnamed protagonist and a twelve-year-old girl he adopts during the zombie apocalypse.  It's not necessary reading to understand this story, but it can be found here: http://chuck-the-plant.livejournal.com/116468.html 

Title: "Survivors" 
Brigit's Flame, Oct. 2012 week 3 JFF entry 
Prompt: body language 
Wordcount/warnings: ~1600 words, rated PG 
Author: Graham Smith (chuck_the_plant) 

I peered through the murky glass of the second-floor window.  In the parking lot below, I tried to make out the form that lay between two heaping piles of slag that used to be automobiles.  The form had definitely not been there the night before; I would have noticed.  Sasha and I had been holed up in the abandoned diner for days, chiefly because it seemed to have a very low population of flesh-eaters. 

Sasha, as usual, was pressed against my side, looking through the corner of the window that my bulk wasn’t occupying.  “What do you think it is?” She whispered.

We has celebrated her thirteenth birthday just weeks before.  Not that we could tell what day it was; it had been nearly two years, as far as I could tell, since the planet had been ravaged by a biological agent that turned ninety-nine percent of earth’s population into mindless killing machines.  Though I had taught her how to use a gun and seen her blow limbs off of flesh-eaters from fifty yards, I sometimes forgot how small and vulnerable Sasha was. 

Her voice shook with fear.  She was shivering, and only then did I realize that I had instinctively put a comforting arm around her shoulder.  “I’m not sure,” I whispered back.  “Could be a lone walker that stumbled our way before the ligaments in its knees gave out.”  I wrapped the cuff of my sweatshirt around my hand and tried to wipe away the grime on the window to get a better look, but it seemed the outside was much dirtier than the inside.  “Or … maybe it’s another one like us.”

Sasha had been pressed so close into my side that I hadn’t realized that her arms were around my waist.  But she squeezed me tighter before saying, “How could it be?  We’ve not seen another living person in months.” 

Though we weren’t the only ones living among the living dead, we had encountered very few.  The last we had spotted had only been from a distance … before they opened fire and we had to run for our lives. 

I stepped back from the window.  Sasha still held on.  “I have to go and check.  If it’s a walker, it’s injured and I can take it out.  If it’s alive, then we have to help him.  Or her.” 

Since she showed no interest in releasing me, I pulled Sasha’s arms from around my waist before I stepped to the attic door.  “Don’t go out there,” she whined, louder than she had spoken in weeks. 

The girl always managed to tug at my heartstrings.  Since I had discovered her hiding in her family’s home, the only survivor in her neighborhood, she had come to rely on me for everything.  It had taken her months to stop lashing out at me daily, taking out her trauma from seeing her family rip each other to shreds.  But since she had talked herself out of shooting me, around nine months earlier, Sasha seemed to become even more reliant on my presence. 

“I have to,” I told her, taking a sturdy piece of steel rebar in one hand. “Cover me from this window, okay?   Even it it's a walker, I should be fine.  But there might be more out there that I can’t see.  Only shoot at other walkers, okay?  Not at the one on the ground down there.” 

Sasha bit her lower lip nervously, but nodded.  As I made my way down the attic ladder, I saw her pick up a small caliber handgun out of our arsenal bag. 

The diner was abandoned, just as I had left it.  I slowly opened the front door, silencing the little jingle bell with my palm (we had left it there as a sort of early-warning system).  From the doorway I could clearly see the figure on the concrete.  It was a blonde-haired woman wearing camouflage pants and a leather jacket.  Her hands and fingers looked rough and dirty but undamaged.  These were usually the first to go with flesh-eaters, since they used their hands to tear open doors and windows as well as victims.  Her hair was pulled back into a long, tight braid, which would have quickly fallen out after shambling around mindlessly for a few days.  Her clothes seemed to be in tact, with no obvious wounds. 

Her body spoke volumes.  This woman was, or had recently been, alive. 

I stepped tentatively into the parking lot and toward the woman.  She didn’t move. 

Crisp fall air seemed to enhance the sound of crows in the distance and the smell of decaying leaves.  Stretching as far as I could, I took the woman’s braid in one hand and lifted her face from the concrete.  Her eyes were closed and she seemed to be missing a tooth, but she looked alive.  Slinking closer, I laid a hand gently on her back for a few seconds until I was certain that I felt it rising and falling gently with her breaths. 

Sasha hadn’t yet fired through the attic window, so I took a little less precaution with silence when lifting the woman from the parking lot.  I opened the door with my knee and found Sasha descending the ladder. 

“Clear off that table,” I said, closing the door and wincing at how harsh the jingling of the bell sounded.  Sasha did as I asked, and I gently laid the woman across it.  Now that I had a better look at her, she seemed to be in her late twenties.  I wasn’t a doctor (I hadn’t even completed college in the old world), but I had gotten a pretty good eye for injuries over the last few months.  From what I could tell, the woman didn’t have any broken bones or internal injuries.  Her skin and lips, however, were dry and cracked.  She was dehydrated, almost to death. 

“She needs water,” I said.  “Go fill up one of our bottles at the sink, and bring it to me.”  Sasha moved mechanically, just as I asked her, and a moment later I was lifting the mystery woman’s head and pouring some water toward her lips.  She responded slightly, instinctively trying to drink, even though most of it trailed down her chin. 

I felt Sasha’s arms slip around my waist as I tried again.  “I love you,” she whispered, and her voice cracked. 

I shuddered so hard that I missed the woman’s mouth completely, spilling water down the front of her jacket.  I froze for a tense moment, trying to decide whether or not to keep reviving the woman or to deal with the emotionally fractured girl under my care.  But, though Sasha might have felt like she was, only one of the two of them was dying.  When I offered water to the woman again, Sasha apparently took this as a sign, and squeezed me even harder and pressed her face into my ribs. 

“Sasha, talk to me,” I whispered after more tense seconds, during which I was able to get the woman to take a little more water.

“Don’t leave me for her,” she whispered into my sweatshirt.  “You found me first.  I’m yours, and you’re mine.  I love you.” 

A breath that I had realized I had been holding hissed out between my teeth.  I had been such an idiot.  Why hadn’t I realized this would happen?  I had rescued Sasha from a living nightmare, taught her to survive in the wilderness, and had pretty much provided for her every need for over a year.  She and I had barely been out of each others' sight for the entire time, and we had been each others' sole human interaction.  She had gotten to where she wouldn’t even sleep unless her sleeping bag was touching mine.  And she was thirteen.

Of course she was going to fall in love with me. 

I had to tell her something.  But what?  My rejection would feel like her new life crashing down like her old one had.  But I couldn’t let her believe I returned her feelings. Sasha wasn’t young enough to be my daughter, but she wasn’t old enough to be my sister.  Even with the old world and its taboos gone, how could I think of her in any way except platonic? 

Worst, Jessica wouldn’t be thirteen forever.  What would I say or do when she turned eighteen, or nineteen?  Would either of us even be able to tell when that day arrived, with as inaccurate as we were able to tell time? The two of us had always been so focused on surviving that the questions had never even crossed my mind.  But they had, apparently, crossed Sasha’s. 

Seconds of silence that felt like hours stretched between us. “Don’t feel threatened,” I whispered to Sasha.  “No one could ever replace you.”  I leaned down and pressed a kiss into the top of her head. 

The vague statement seemed to be enough for Sasha, because she didn’t say anything else as I offered more water to the critical woman.  Her arms stayed around my middle No matter what happened in our futures, I knew that I cared about that little girl, and it was my responsibility to care for her until she felt strong enough to break out on her own.  If the dehydrated woman survived, then I’d worry about diffusing Sasha’s jealousy.  If I had to break her heart in the future, then that was a problem for another day.

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October 9th, 2012
04:52 pm

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"Artyom's Arsenal" - Brigit's Flame Oct. 2012 week 2 contest entry. Subject - 'intimacy'.
Title:  "Artyom's Arsenal" 
Brigit's Flame, Oct. 2012 week 2 entry. 
Prompt: Intimacy 
Wordcount/Warnings:  755 words, rated PG-13 for one swear word 
Author: Graham Patrick Smith (chuck_the_plant)

I have to admit, this one was inspire by playing a little too much 'Metro 2033', a fantastically underrated shooter with a rich story, set in the sewers of Moscow after the nuclear apocalypse.  Enjoy! 


Artyom wondered, as he accepted yet another handful of shoddily-jacketed automatic rounds, if the end would ever be in sight. 

He dumped the handful of rounds into the metal can at his feet and handed a small caliber handgun across the thick, wooden table.  The man on the other side, his eyes ringed with dark circles and his cheeks sullen, actually smiled appreciatively at the weapon, and said, “Thank you.” 

The sound of the next customer knocking impatiently on the old, scarred table brought Artyom back from his daydream.  He had been watching the last man as he weaved his way through the crowd that always filled the marketplace at this time on a Saturday.  The next man in line snapped his fingers in front of Artyom’s face and gruffed, “Hey, red, I ain’t got all day!”

Just for good measure, Artoym punched the man in the face. 

The other people in line muttered words of surprise at Artyom, but openly cursed at the man he had punched.  A few seconds and a few foul names later, the man removed himself and his bloody nose from the line.  The next customer, a man who seemed to be some age between thirty and sixty, stepped forward. 

When nuclear war had hit four years earlier, the world had gone from ‘sort of orderly’ to ‘chaotic clusterfuck’ in a matter of days.  Since then, pockets of civilization had risen out of the ashes, especially in New York City.

And, of course, it was essential to have a gun.  Which was when Artoym’s Arsenal found its clientele.  When metallurgists started repackaging new rounds into spent jackets after The War, the market became so flooded with ammunition that it had become New York City’s new currency.  No matter where his customers hailed from, bullets were universally accepted tender.

Artyom was a large man, and his Russian background made him seem intimidating to most Americans (he wasn’t sure why; some residual prejudice from Cold War propaganda, he suspected) who perused the Prospect Park Station Market under the ruins of Old Brooklyn.  For whatever reason, it allowed him to charge enough for his wares so that his customers never questioned him.  Though he still punched a rude one from time to time just to remind them who was the boss.

His days were filled with the sour faces of those seeking guns so they could literally shoot their money away.  His nights were no better, spent seeking new inventory from every shady dealer that crawled out of the city’s underbelly.  Though he had a better living than most, life was still hell on earth. 

The man to whom Artyom had just sold the small handgun, no more than a peashooter, had worn the first smile Artyom had seen in weeks.  Maybe months.  Maybe even years. 

Artyom had processd the next transaction without even thinking (semi-automatic rifle, old US Military service issue, kicked like a pissed-off mule so it was discounted 20%, coming to 180 bullets).  By then he had lost the smiling man in the crowd, but something about him remained with the larger man.  It was as though the smile and thank-you, despite the desperate conditions in which they all lived, had – not exactly cracked, but at least carved a sliver from – the mask Artyom wore on a daily basis. 

The next person in line was a woman.  Though the premature gray that dotted her brown hair nearly betrayed her, Artyom estimated that she was in her early thirties.  Barely visible lines creased the corners of her mouth and her forehead like a faint map of the harsh, post-war world. At her side was a boy, not even ten, trying to hide in the side of the woman’s coat.

There was no ring on her finger.  If she has a husband, she’d not have left the house without it.  Actually, her husband would have definitely come to the market for her, not risking she and her son alone.  So either she wasn’t married, or something had happened to him and she had been forced to hock the ring. 

A cool breeze slipped past Artyom’s mask through the sliver.  He put on his best simle and said, “Welcome to Artyom’s Arsenal.  Can I interest you in a rifle today?”

Artyom thought he heard a collective gasp roll through the line in front of his merchant table.  The woman, whose eyes had been downcast since she had taken her place at the front, finally raised them from the floor, and smiled faintly.

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