Flash Fiction Friday – Monster Memory

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

– Ray Bradbury

 

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”

– Edgar Allan Poe

 

“The great thing about a short story is that it doesn’t have to trawl through someone’s whole life; it can come in glancingly from the side.”

– Emma Donoghue

 

See more lovely quotes about short stories at Aerogramme Writers’ Studio!

 

This week’s flash fiction is a result of this song – White Doves, by Cider Sky:

and this prompt:

Prompt 533

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Monster Memory

 

It takes a monster to kill a monster.

But no matter how many monsters she fought, there was one she could never slay. The one that grew stronger inside her the more kills she racked up. Monsters came in various forms, but there was none quite as scary as the one that looked back at her in the mirror.

You mustn’t grow a conscience, was what they said when she decided to join the Creed. It’s bad for business.

But she couldn’t stop the third party – unwelcome or not – from settling in her gut. It was an occupant that would turn the house inside out and leave muddy footprints all over the floor, but even this beat the emptiness that lived there before.

As she slipped through the desolate night into the target’s house, she wondered if she was right in taking on this assignment.

Stop thinking like that, she chided herself. She had been a shivering, bloody mess reaching, grasping for support when they first found her. And it was the killing – the single-minded focus of ridding the world of evil, evil that she had had to encounter – that nursed her back to health; it was the killing that made her stronger than she had ever been before.

Why then was she shuffling her feet around this mark? Was it the file of sketches she found in his study, the one that called to mind the quiet melody of a piano filling a room, the low, gentle voice next to her ear, a warm, dry hand that smoothed the hair off her face? Whatever it was that raked up these fragmented sensations, it made her inch towards the room at the end of the hallway with an uncertainty that was as bewildering – disorientating – as it was atypical.

Even monsters had memories. What did it say about her that she recalled nothing of her life before she joined the Creed?

She shook her head hard, shoving the thoughts back into the store cupboard of her mind. Memories are dangerous things, they said. They get in the way of the job.

The doorknob was loose. It jiggled in her hand. She froze, not because of her less than perfect entry, but because of the sudden draught. All the windows were closed.

She had seen things, many things, terrible things, as a result of this job. The violence she witnessed was what conditioned her hand, froze her heart, and drew her further and further away from herself. But here in this sparsely furnished room, where moonlight collected into a concentrated pool on a mounted canvas in the corner, what greeted her wasn’t a sight that made her killing a gratuitous act.

There was no mark. No ugliness, no violence, nobody. Only the barren shell of a home abandoned by its occupants, and the pure blank canvas on which the moon made its art.

She stood in the middle of the room like a soldier stranded without an order.  Memories surged in to fill the void, seizing her by waves, driving her to her knees. And there she remained, splayed out. Played out.

When she saw him, a luminous spectre in the moonlight, she got to her feet and whipped out the knife from her shoe in a practised move. But the sight of him turned her to sand. Her knees barely supported her; even her voice came out as a rasp, raw and scraped dry.

“You were dead.” She couldn’t remember his name. She wouldn’t.

Even though everything was starting to come back to her. All the times she had spent in his room, dreaming and laughing and loving, loving, loving him. Until one day, there was no one left to love anymore. Her dreams died along with him that day, and she had never dared to say goodbye or think of him.

But here he stood now, right before her as though he had never left. As though he weren’t just a faint shadow of himself.

His eyes fell on the knife in her white-knuckled hand, then rose to meet hers. “What happened to you, Aderyl?’ His gaze was an unbearable thing, heavier than the ravaged world.

The Creed had warned them of a test not too long ago, a test that many before her had failed because they had let their guard down.

This is not real, she told herself over and over. She squeezed her eyes shut and told herself that over and over again. This is just a test.

She had given life to the monster in her, and this was where it meant to devour her, in a house bursting full of tears and memories, a house from another life.

“That’s not my name.” Her voice cracked like a whip, renting the tight air in a brazen move. Revenge was her name now. She had liked that, how she was labelled and known by her purpose only.

“That’s who you’ll always be to me,” he said. “Aderyl.”

It wasn’t a goodbye, this unexpected encounter, but she felt it as keenly as the cold air brushing against her skin when he reached for her hand. She gripped her knife tighter, afraid to let go of her weapon, of herself.

It was only after the night claimed him that she allowed her knife to clatter to the ground. Her mind, once wired for the kill, now tripped over itself, and her limbs were clumsy, awkward things, unsuited for wielding weaponry of any kind.

The Creed was right. Memories were dangerous; they were monsters. Memories awakened every nerve and pulse, and left her vulnerable. They became her.

They were her.

The Creed should never have set this test.

 

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Fiction Friday – The Tin Lady

Prompt 525

 

Everyone thought I was still hung up over Lucas’s death. It’s the guilt, they all said. It’s making it hard for her to let go. So they let me have my ‘imaginary friend’, and I let them believe this to be the case.

Nobody understood why I took Lucas’s portrait everywhere. People at school just thought I was morbid, or in mourning, or had one too many screws loose after the death of my best friend. Any of those reasons sounded better than the truth.

I adjusted my bag strap and held the framed portrait close to my chest, trying not to breathe too hard as I made my way up the steps to the top of the hill. It was hard enough for Lucas, being trapped in his portrait as a ghost, without having to deal with my physical discomfort.

“All right there, Luke? I could slow down, but I want to get home before it gets dark.” We were at an awfully secluded part of the hill, where I was certain I heard the hiss of snakes on more than one occasion.

“Quit talking and get moving,” was his reply. He wasn’t too thrilled about my decision to look for the Tin Lady, but the old lady who lived at the top of the hill was the only one who could free him.

That wasn’t her name, of course. The Tin Lady was only known as that – did anyone remember her real name anymore? – because of her tin legs. People said she made a deal with a malevolent fairy who reneged on her promise to save her lover, and ended up losing both the boy and her legs.

Now, she oiled her tin legs twice a month. This was the only time she accepted visitors. This was the only time she was willing to talk.

When I reached the top at last, Lucas piped up. “Is it raining?”

I wiped the sweat off my brows and glared at his reflection in the photo frame, which was vague as always. “Very funny.”

“Seriously, Emeline. Just go home.”

He did seem deadly serious, but I couldn’t leave now. Not after climbing all the way up here.

Besides, the Tin Lady had spotted me.

She was seated on a wooden bench just outside her house, her tin legs propped up on either side of her on the bench. Her legs, stumps that ended at the knees, were wrapped in swathes of gauze where they ended, while she was dressed in a thin, flowing one-piece the colour of the forest at night. She glanced up halfway through unbundling her legs, and found me standing in the clearing hugging a six-by-eight-inch photo frame.

“That is no way to treat a ghost,” was the first thing she said. And I knew I had come to the right person.

 

*

 

The Tin Lady said since Lucas’s body was stolen by the fairies, we either tried to get it back from them or made another in its likeness. Neither option sounded plausible, especially after hearing how she had been robbed of her legs and the boy she loved.

“What happened exactly?”

She beat down my question with her stern, cloudy gaze, and then pulled a pocket knife out of the folds of her clothes.

“You should at least free him,” she said, before proceeding to drag the edge of the knife down the length of Lucas’s photo. An ugly rip sat slashed his face in half. I let out a cry and reached for the photo, but Lucas was the one who stopped me.

Lucas, with his hands on my arm.

It wasn’t warm or solid, by any means, but it offered far more comfort than the past two weeks had, ever since he went missing and I noticed his ghost in the reflection of the photo frame.

I grasped at whatever wisp of him there was.

Lucas turned to the Tin Lady. “It had been this easy all along?”

“You’re still dead,” I pointed out.

“At least I’m not stuck inside a cramped little photo frame anymore.”

That hurt. I’d made sure to wipe the photo frame every day, at least. But this was hardly the point of contention now. “How do we get him back for good?”

The old lady searched me with a look, then pulled on the tin prosthetic legs that creaked in the stillness. The sky was slipping into a sleepy lavender shade, but here at the top of the hill the air was tight as an intake of breath. I was finding it harder to breathe – whether from anticipation or the thinner air, I wasn’t sure.

Lucas took my hand, but his grip was hardly strong enough to stay me. “I’m not sure about this,” he whispered as the tin lady pushed open the front door and left it open behind her. “We don’t know anything about her.”

“She can bring you back,” I said, by way of convincing myself too. “Don’t be such a pansy.”

The Tin Lady’s house was a squat little thing that offered little room for movement and thought – the former because of the gleaming iron cages hanging from hooks everywhere, the latter because of the wild, heady musk of some exotic flower I couldn’t pinpoint.

“Do you make these?” I reached for an intricately carved cage the size of Lucas’s photo frame swinging from a squeaking hook. The carvings on the cage bars and base made no sense: they were words from another language laced into thorny vines, nothing legible or discernible.

The Tin Lady nodded once. “This way,” she said, heading for a cupboard in the corner of the room. Lucas and I navigated our way through with the dying light of dusk; he tried to catch my eye, but I kept my dogged gaze fixed on the old lady, who had pulled open the cupboard and stooped to take something out.

It was a wrought iron cage, pretty nondescript in plain dull-grey. She rapped it twice on the crown, letting off a strange mellifluous ring. A beat later, the cage emanated a multi-coloured glow that painted the dirty walls of the house. But the light was frail, a whisper for help in an inked night.

“Emmy,” Lucas whispered, pointing at what’s inside the cage.

A tiny … being lay sprawl at the foot of the cage. At the sight of us, she flung herself against the bars, a snarl distorting her lovely face. But iron was cruel to her, poisoning her skin, her body, and, slowly, her mind. She curled up into a tight ball and glowered up at us – but mostly at the Tin Lady.

My breaths came out in a loud staccato. I scrambled for Lucas’s hand. “Is that a –?”

The old lady turned around, a smile curved like a hook on her face. And it was only then, under the dying light of the sick, captured fairy, that I noticed the wicked iron-grey spark in her cataract-clouded eyes.

“This is how we’ll get your lover back.” Her voice was a rusty blade.