Stories

A dystopian mermaid Christmas story for you

The Cost of Holiday Cheer

by Amy L. Sauder & by Jaclyn (proprietor of Amica Mea)

 

“Santa didn’t like me.”

“Madlyn, eat…” her father Greg frowned.

An awkward Fischer dinner was to be expected, the weekly pad thai a miniscule pretense of normalcy. Greg would look with pleading eyes at his wife, Lilith. Lilith would force a sad smile for their daughter, Madlyn. And Madlyn would make pretend that all was right in her 4-year-old world.

“My lil’ pet,” Lilith comforted. “Why would Santa not like you? You’ve been such a champ. I’m sure Santa is eager to bring your gift.”

“No, Santa frowned. He shuffled me off.” Madlyn had emptied her box of noodles long ago, but opened and closed the paper flaps as if more pad thai might magically appear.

“Honey, what’s she talking about?” Lilith patted Greg’s hand, but he quickly reached for his water. His hands would be clammy from the cold glass rather than the conversation.

“Salty food…” Greg said. “Should complain, get a coupon.”

Lilith turned her attention back to Madlyn. “Santa is sorry, pet. He had an off day.” Lilith poked Madlyn’s nose. “Your Christmas will have everything you’ve ever asked for. Promise.”

Greg sputtered and coughed. “I wouldn’t get too excited…”

But it was too late. Madlyn clapped with glee. “Anything?”

Lilith laughed. “If you asked for a Zoo Unicorn, you might have some trouble convincing daddy to clean the poo, but maybe you’ll get a GlowFish. Why, Santa might even leave a Pocket Panda under the tree.”

Lilith was beaming, not the false smile she’d grown accustomed to. “We may need to get a Pocket Panda, Greg. What did she ask for? a Zoo Unicorn? or did she ask you to design a docile T-Rex?”

Greg stuffed his arms with empty takeout boxes and hurried toward the kitchen. “All this clutter…”

Lilith wheeled out from the table and followed. “Greg, what’s with you?”

Greg dumped the boxes on the counter and drooped. “Lilith, she told Santa she wants you here for Christmas.”

Lilith’s smile froze. “But she knows…”

“What she knows,” Greg said, “is that magical Santa will give her whatever she wants, now thanks to you.”

“This isn’t my fault,” Lilith spat. “I didn’t choose any of this.”

Greg drummed his fingers on the countertop. “I’d do anything…”

Lilith rolled her wheelchair to his side and rested her head on his hip. “You can only do so much. We’ll be fine.” She nodded and smiled desperately.

Greg pushed away and tromped to his makeshift lab. “There’s got to be some way…”

 

~~~

 

The double doors to Barry’s office were shut tight like the gates to Oz, and Greg marched straight through the cavernous foyer to knock, stack of papers tucked firmly under his elbow.

“Mr. Fischer!” hissed Barry’s assistant Felicia, her canary blouse rippling as she waved her arm for attention. “Mr. Fischer! He’s already on the call. You’re late!”

Greg jerked to a stop in front of Felicia’s desk, mere feet from the doors, and let out a breath, barely keeping the papers wedged between his elbow and side. He deflated and rubbed the back of his neck. He didn’t care that Felicia was curt; he just needed to talk to Barry and hoped he wasn’t too late.

“I can wait.” But Felicia had already gone back to work. They let silence fall between them, and it filled the gleaming, cold room.

Felicia typed vigorously on a slim laptop, eyes flicking to the upper right corner of the screen, where Greg assumed her phone application was docked. You never knew whether these meetings would run long or short, not with Barry.

Greg rubbed his face and sat in the lounge to review his calendar. The meeting with Barry had been scheduled for nearly two hours ago, but he’d been too occupied. The meeting between Barry and TecGenToy shareholders was not supposed to have happened without Barry and Greg’s meeting first. Greg rubbed his neck again, but he didn’t sweat.

Felicia stopped typing. “Look, Greg. I’m sorry to be abrupt. It’s just been so crazy around here.”

Greg didn’t smile, but nodded in a sort of bow. “No harm done, Felicia. We’re all going a little crazy with all this.”

She smiled and went on typing. “I think they’re wrapping up. One of the shareholders hung up.” She looked up at him again. “You’re next in five.”

Greg nodded again, though less to Felicia and more to himself.

“Thanks, Felicia.” He coughed with a rasp into his elbow and flipped through his papers one last time, but it was like reading cooking directions for toaster strudels. Too familiar.

Next thing he knew, he was walking towards a low leather chair facing the desk of Barry Weismont. An aquarium lined the wall behind Barry’s desk. The fish scurried through the water, eyes bulging.

Barry stood behind his desk, slowly pacing. The blue glare of the office light cast Barry’s face in partial shadow, so that Greg couldn’t tell if Barry was pleased or angry.

Barry slapped his desk. “Greg! So glad you could come in. You were supposed to meet with me before the shareholder call, but this works just as well. Except, of course, the shareholders expected an answer. Especially Boscoe. That guy is trying to balance his checkbook and wants to know whether he can get that second sub.”

Even with the theatrics, Greg could never read him. Barry never smiled with his teeth showing, not even now, as he tugged on the cuff of his sport jacket. He only ever seemed to smile flatly, “just like the Mona Lisa,” Lilith always said.

Greg coughed roughly again. “Do you have any word from the Pocket Panda team?”

Barry leaned back and cocked his head. “What does the Pocket Panda team have to do with you delivering on the exceptional, groundbreaking product you promised? You and the team are the brightest and the best and more than capable of cranking out our record-breaker. You—”

“You didn’t give us enough time. You wanted a fast turnaround. I asked for help. Without the Pocket Panda team it’s not possible to execute…properly…” he said in a low voice.

“Not possible to execute, is it? Are you saying we don’t have a product when I just spent the last 45 minutes apparently wasting my time assuring our shareholders of your unmatched character, work ethic, and reliability? That they had nothing to fear? That Boscoe is getting his sub in time for the Reef? That—”

“Sir, what I’m saying is that I’m asking for the Pocket Panda team. If we had them for 24 hours…”

“It’s not possible.”

“Excuse me?”

“Greg, I know that you’ve been a scientist longer than I’ve had a driver’s license. You’re a scientific genius, a laboratory legend! But what you lack is what I bring, which is business know-how. I know you’d like to continue working on your cool little science projects, and you’d like to continue to take home that paycheck to your wife and daughter. To do that, you have to focus on the science and the lab, and I give you full freedom to do that. I know you know that! See—“

“Sir, I’m sorry, no.” Greg winced and rubbed his neck. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

Barry leaned on his desk with both hands. “We can’t ask for help from the Pocket Panda team, or they’ll have claim on a piece of our success Your job is to make sure we sell this year’s number one fantasy pet, better than Pocket Pandas, Zoo Unicorns, and all this year’s pets combined.”

Greg looked as if he was holding back bile. Barry continued.

“I’m more than happy for your hard work in the lab to benefit your family, especially when it does so much good for this company and its shareholders. I just worry that all this chat and debate is taking away from you and your team finishing in time.” Barry smiled.

Greg blinked hard against the shimmer in his eyes and stood. “I’ll get it done.”

Barry gave a clap and a smile-less laugh. “That’s my mad scientist! Have it in production by midnight, and go ahead and use the expense card to help yourself to a nice dinner at Fagioli’s tonight.” But Greg was already out the slowly swinging doors, heading for the stairs.

 

~~~

 

“Ho ho ho, merry Christmas!” Greg’s boisterous façade masked the tremor in his voice. His arms gripped the gift like his life depended on it.

“I’ve been good, I’ve been good, I’ve been goooooood.” Madlyn bounded to his side and hugged his leg. “Is Mommy back? Is she here? Did I get my magic Santa present?”

Greg swallowed. He hadn’t rehearsed the words. Of course he hadn’t – he was always a man of action, not words. He could never articulate to Madlyn what was happening. It was always Lilith who explained she was dying. Lilith had said her next steps would be out of the wheelchair and into a new world where all things are possible, even life after death. Mere fairy tales.

Greg had never told Madlyn that he was trying to save her mother. He didn’t know how to say that he couldn’t raise Madlyn alone. Now, it was Christmas morning, and he still did not know how to tell Madlyn what had happened. What he’d done.

Madlyn peeped her head up. “Is Mommy here yet?”

“Let me sit down.” Greg forced a laugh.

Madlyn raced to the couch, and Greg followed reluctantly. He plopped next to the antsy girl and set her gift tenderly on the end table. Madlyn tugged at her jumper pocket. “Look how big it is! If that’s a Pocket Panda, I’m all ready – even if it’s huuuge.”

Greg gave a tight smile. “About your mom….”

“Is she running late?” Madlyn pouted her lips.

“No, no,” Greg reassured. “She’s always punctual. You know that.”

Madlyn squirmed. “Oh.”

“Well,” Greg stumbled for words. “Well here, why don’t you open your gift? We’ll talk after.”

Madlyn didn’t need to be told twice. She tugged the green ribbon off the cherry-red wrapping, then lifted the box lid.

“What’s inside?” Madlyn asked.

Greg pulled out a small aquarium. “Is it a GlowFish?” Madlyn asked, already forgetting her Pocket Panda excitement.

“No,” Greg said. “Not this one.”

Madlyn peered into the glass and saw a creature swimming. Shimmering purple scales and billowing pink hair flashed between the green plantlife. The creature creeped out, curious, questioning.

“A Micro-Mermaid!” Madlyn exclaimed. “All the kids asked Santa for one.”

Greg smiled, and it almost reached his eyes. A twinkle of hope.

Madlyn plastered her nose to the glass. The mermaid splashed to the surface, reaching for Madlyn’s finger. “Lil’ pet,” the mercreature said, its voice a gurgling squeak.

“It’s okay now,” Greg whispered. He rested his hand on Madlyn’s shoulder. “I fixed it.”

Madlyn shivered. “Mom?”

 

~~~

 

The lab was a flurry of white coats and black tablets, a normal pace for a Tuesday. Greg sat at his desk, alone in the lab lead’s office.

Gulping coffee from a red and green Snoopy mug, he scrolled through his inbox full of after-holiday sales, end-of-year giving, and stem cell mini-brain kits.

He clicked on an Urgent calendar invite:

Shareholder Celebration Dinner!!!!

We’ve broken our sales records and DESTROYED the competition. Our shareholders are flying in for dinner tonight. We’ll be feasting at Fagioli’s and strategizing how to further annihilate Pocket Pandas and Zoo Unicorns!!

BE THERE!!!!!! J

Greg swallowed too much, too hot coffee, and started dialing his phone. He’d planned for situations like this, but he hadn’t predicted it’d come up so soon.

“Hi Mom… Yes, I had breakfast… ”

Greg tossed the toaster strudel wrapper in the wastebasket.

“I’d love to chat, but I’m actually at work. I just need to ask if you would pick up Madlyn from school today… You don’t need to bring her home. That is sweet, but Lilith is very drained from treatments and can’t have visitors. Would it be too much trouble if Madlyn stayed the night with you? I will pick her up in the morning to take her to school… Ok, great, thank you Mom. I have to work now… Love you… Yes, you too. Bye.”

Greg tapped the hang up button. He stared at the notes on his desk: specs for Micro-Mermaids v1.0, notes for v2.0, and drafts of a Koala Kubs prototype. They leaned in sloppy stacks. They wouldn’t get filed until the college interns returned from break.

Of all the lead scientists, Greg was the only one still using paper. Tablets and floor-to-ceiling touchscreens made paper obsolete. In fact, in the lab proper, fire regulations prohibited paper notes or charts. But Greg thought all those screens muddled his mind. It was a strange thought, since he had no evidence to support it. And as he stared at the slouching hills of paper, he wondered how he got to this point, having acted on two scientifically unsubstantiated ideas.

“Hey Greg!” It was a bright, round man in a white coat with teal piping.

Greg coughed. “Hi Bob. How is your team today?”

“They drank too much and came back fat and happier than me, but they seem ready to get at it again. Did you see the call center report? All positive comments!” He patted Greg’s shoulder. “We really made something special. This could put us in the books.”

“Yup.”

“All right! Well get that blue jacket and come on!” Bob had already started turning toward the lab, when he caught sight of Greg’s coffee mug, and his face fell. “I’m sorry, Greg. I get too excited. How’s Lilith doing?”

Greg coughed again. “She is doing well. Resting at home from her last treatment.”

But Bob’s round face had already begun to pucker with tears. “I’m sorry, Greg. I just noticed that you’re using the same Christmas mug from last year. Lilith always gets you a new mug for Christmas.” Bob gasped with the effort of crying and trying not to cry, which sounded like a cough and a honking goose. “I just can’t imagine what you’re going through. Oh Greg, can I give you a hug?”

“Sure,” said Greg, frozen, as Bob was already embracing him and wetting his shoulder. With a few firm pats on the back, Bob released him and sighed as if he’d finished a marathon.

“Thank you, Bob,” said Greg. “I appreciate it. Lilith really is doing…. She actually ordered a mug online on one of her better days. It hasn’t arrived yet.”

Bob beamed, wiping his shining face with his lab coat sleeve. “Oh Greg, that’s wonderful. I don’t know how you do it. If my Hannah was sick, I’d be a wreck.” Greg was adding an alert to his phone out of Bob’s sight: Xmas sale, new mug.

“Ha… You would do great.” Greg glanced at his watch. “We better get to work.”

Greg grabbed his coat off the hook and pulled it on while walking toward the lab. He overheard Bob sighing to himself, “Poor guy… going through so much.”

 

~~~

 

Greg worked many a late night, no longer to save Lilith, but to keep his end of the bargain. There are always consequences for cheating death. The gods of scientific breakthrough and holiday commercialism demanded sacrifice.

His white labcoat would redden as hours waned. Lilith would know how to get the stains out.

It began with a butcher knife. If he was quick enough, the shock would ward off pain, for a time. Then came the melding and morphing, the redhot sizzle that rendered the creature unconscious. But it would always wake in time for the scissors.

No one could know the cost of holiday cheer. The creatures were meant to have a childlike glow and bring joy to the world. There would be no merry Christmas if they were to share their tale of torture and modification, and so the ability for speech must be eliminated.

“Stop squirming!” Greg insisted. “This won’t hurt much longer.” The scissors slipped through her mouth with precision. It was used to slicing the tongues of the wicked. A fit punishment for the likes of smooth-talking criminals, he assured himself, but a tear fell from his face to the beating heart of the Micro-Mermaid he created.

Stories

Chapter 1 of I Know You Like a Murder

Here it is! For you. For free. I’ve posted Chapter 1 of I Know You Like a Murder on Patreon. Get yo sneak peek there.

Enjoy now [with the sneak peek here]

Detectivize October 23 [by preordering here]

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for the Bookworms

The perks of a small book.

Most publishers won’t risk as short a story as this.
 
I will. In fact, I think it’s quite appropriate that my debut book is so small. Here’s why:
 
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I grew up with a love for reading. I devoured books as a kid from a young age, until I didn’t.
 
Ya see, I hit that age where I was supposed to move from short stories to chapter books. Ya know, those bulky things that take forever to get to the point and describe too much because there aren’t pictures to do the describing for it. My kid brain couldn’t handle it. While other avid readers were finding big books to love, I had this hurdle I couldn’t seem to get across as I entered my teenage years.
 
Perhaps my love of reading, my future of writing, perhaps it would have died there. If it weren’t for my mom who didn’t give up, and if it weren’t for TCDC. The Three Cousins Detectives Club series (that’s an affiliate link – I may receive $ from purchases made with that link). Teeny tiny chapter books. 40 pages max. A mystery that kept my kid brain hooked and made the concept of longer stories manageable. My mom bought me every single book in the series (that’s 40 books) once she saw I’d devour them.
 
And that was the gateway to larger books. I pretty quickly jumped from those teeny things to Ted Dekker books like Blink (also an affiliate link – I may receive $ from purchases made with that link), well above my age range. Fast forward to getting an English Lit degree and becoming a writer. And it started with TCDC.
 
Small books get a bad rap, but small books kept my love for reading intact.
 
And small books aren’t just for kids learning to read big books.
 
  • They’re for grownups who want to dig into a good story but don’t have the time to devote to a novel.
  • They’re for stolen moments in frenzied lives.
  • They’re for the non-bookworms, not quite ready to commit to those huge tomes on the bookshelves, yet still wanting a good story in a digestible format.
  • They’re for those who would be readers if reading was just a little more accessible.
 
One of my greatest surprises and delights in publishing I Know You Like a Murder is the number of non-readers who see it and say – “Oh, that I could read!”
 
That thing I found as a kid – that short mystery in quick chapters that pulls me in for a brief adventure – I now get to offer that to others. I think that makes kid me super proud.

 

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Join the Book Blitz for my quirky psychological mystery?

Planning a Book Blitz for I Know You Like a Murder‘s launch week. If you want to spread the psychopathic obsessive word of I Know You like a Murder during launch week, you can sign up for the Book Blitz by following this link.

Blogs who sign up will share about the book, with access to exclusive content like excerpts or images or playlist, plus a giveaway. Get on board for murder and mayhem, but remember: Trust no one.IKnowYouLikeAMurderBlitzBanner

Want to be involved? Comment below, tell me what info you want, what you really really want to provide on your site about this booklaunch.

Stories

A Very Mermaid Christmas

Or, a Christmas more impossible than Unicorns and Pocket Pandas <3

No, my obsession with mermaids isn’t quite over yet 😉 In fact, I have an eerie holiday tale written just for you!

My White Winter Hymnal dystopian story – Turn the White Snow – wasn’t creepy enough, so I teamed up with Jaclyn – Proprietor of Amica Mea – for a new holiday horror story.

 

Find some time this holiday weekend to get away from the hubbub and read The Cost of Holiday Cheer for some chills.

Here’s my Christmas greetings to you: I hope your awkward family Christmas isn’t as awkward as this one 🙂

for the Writers, Showcasing other Creatives, Stories

Stories on why we create

Creativity isn’t finite. The more you give, the more you have. That’s a philosophy I want to live by, and Ksenia does too.

Ksenia Anske sends cards with personalized stories to her readers. So when she sent one for my writers’ group, I volunteered to facilitate our writers prompt and had everyone write her a story back.

Ksenia

Because stories are meant to be shared, and a writer can only hide their stories for so long before some need to spill out, even if it’s in short form 🙂

And now we’re going to share those stories with you, stories to encourage you to create.

Jenn

“With this final bit of paper and fragment of graphite I beg of you to continue on what I can do no longer. I brought their gruesome reign into the world and now with these last meager strokes I must pass the mantle onto another. They came from my mind you see, in murderous retribution. The misshapen wolf-child led the way howling in agony that I had abandoned him. My mind had pulled the sparks of his essence together but I had trapped him there. But he escaped, and he brought the millions of forgotten characters with him. The creatures control my mind, and have managed to get a link to every human brain. If I stop writing (I haven’t much longer now) without another to take my place the world ends. Pick up your pen. Go.” – by Jenn Wieland

Kim

“There once was a woman who decided to try writing. At first she was thrilled and excited, but then she met the rejection monster who gnawed at her amazing manuscript.

The brave writer stabbed the dreaded monster with her mighty pen. The monster shrieked and died at her feet. The amazing writer skinned the beast and made a cloak that she wore in the frigid winter.

The amazing writer walked proudly down the published road with her rejection coat wrapped around her shoulders.” – by Kim Kouski

Andy

“Once upon a time a young girl named Ksenia yearned to be an author, a writer. Over the years she succeeded but oh, she grew so weary and discouraged. Then one night she had a dream. She seemed transported into fairyland, with castles and dragons, knights – and a blight – a blasted desert where nothing lived. She asked a handsome knight, ‘Why? Why is fairyland blighted?’ He said sadly, ‘Those are the regions of fairyland where our goddess Ksenia has never written about.’ The end.” – by Andy Zach

Yasmeen

“Once upon a time, there lived a sixteen-year-old girl who found a book buried beneath a pile of ruins… The girl had never seen a real book before, let alone written words and paper. This book had a red toy train on the cover.

Books were only something people have heard about – a distant memory for few. And here it is… the last book in existence wedged between her fingers. ‘Our race can be saved!’ the girl thought. ‘Finally our world will not be mute and the curse will be broken.'” – by Yasmeen

Amy

“As the dancer danced, flowers popped up around her toes and danced with her. They danced the words – the flowers and her – until a flower castle appeared. The dancer danced the word “wing”, and up sprouted the wings and lifted the word dancer to the tippy top. ‘I will make my home here,’ she danced.” – by Amy L Sauder – uhh, me 🙂

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So that’s the stories. Now go out and make your own creations! And then share it with the world, give it away in some form somewhere 🙂 Pass on Ksenia’s enchantment <3

(Psst! If you want to know more about Ksenia who started this story card thing for me, you can see her website, social media, and read about all the ways I want to be like her when I writerly grow up.) 

 

Musings

When a murderer won’t shut up at 3am

Have you heard of “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”? by Vladimir Nobokov. Very interesting book, written in the second person. Saying “You do this, you do that.” Not “I” or “he”, it’s about “you.” And “you” pick up a book at the bookstore, start reading and get enthralled in the tale, then suddenly realize the second chapter is a different story than the 1st chapter, so you return it to the store for a correct copy that doesn’t have the publisher’s error. Only the bookstore accidentally gives you a different book entirely. And so on the story continues with all these story snippets and “you” just trying to get your hands on an actual copy of the original book you wanted in the first place. Innovative story, not your usual thing.

Okay, so I’m not gonna go so far as to compare my own meager writing to world-renowned Vladimir. (Tangent: Doesn’t that sound positively vampiric? Great vampire name…) But my short story I’m working on is similar-esque. Very meta like Vladimir’s… but unlike Vladimir’s, my story has a narrator that’s a murderer telling the reader how the whole murder went down and “you” have to figure out what happened and who the murderer is. It’s like a quirky meta mystery thing.

Why am I writing this short story instead of my work-in-progress urban fantasy novel? Because I had a murderer stuck in my head, and goshdarnit, a chatty one at that. I couldn’t get quiet all night, furiously scribbling the notes and begging the murderer to shut up. Welcome to writer life! Talk about a sneak peak. So I promised this murderer a short story if I could just get back to my actual work-in-progress soon.

But I will say, it’s exciting to stretch my writing out of my comfort zone, figuring out clues and red herrings and second person and meta story. It’s so fun! 🙂 You’ll hear more about this project I’m sure in the coming months – hopefully to be available for you all to read!

 

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My Creative Projects, Stories

Flash Fiction: The Sandman’s Falsehood

 
The Sandman is taking me. He unscrews my hands, my feet, my ears, my nose – whatever is in reach. Then the dreams – I enter my dreams and am falling apart. Why does everyone stare? What are they looking at? No, not a human. I’m nothing but an abomination now, an automaton. He did this, emptying my eye sockets, cleaning out my soul.
 
 
There was love, at least the option. I could have been the talk of the town in an entirely different way. People flocking and I had eyes for only one. That’s how it was. He wasn’t all the others were, but he worshipped me and that was enough.
 
 
Then the dreams came, falling always falling, drowning but in air not water, and tearing, ripping, gripping for the parts of me that fell away. My heart, see I still have my heart, in my grasp here. Pounding ‘til the drumbeat woke me to twisted sheets and twisted arms. I’m awake. I’m together. The falsehood of dream is gone.
The stares continue, but the glares escalate. My melodies are no longer a siren song, but an omen – first to strangers, my father, my love. No, I’m here, I’m still here, don’t you see. But that’s not my voice, listen to me, listen. Return my eyes and I can show you where I am. Please, the Sandman has me, it’s the Sandman, not me. I’m awake, I’m together, the falsehood of dream is gone ‘til the sun leaves.
 
 
The Sandman presented himself at last – a menacing beast of a creature, black of soul and body, but my eyes – he had my eyes! Don’t you see, those are mine, but there went my hands and feet next, and I was losing every piece little by little, and who am I, Klara, Olympia, I can’t remember, tell me who I am. And all that was left was my heart, pounding. I’m awake, I’m together, the falsehood of dream is gone….
 
 
The heart beat down the street, safe within my false body. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t feel the touch of my distant love. Up the tower, higher and higher, I’m still here. I’m here, can you hear me? But now there is nothing to do but leap, into the air and let the ground prove my life as it takes it. Am I awake yet?
 
 

Showcasing other Creatives, Stories

Short Story: “The Watcher” by Megan Fatheree

My friend Megan Fatheree has recently started a blog on writing. It’s a great concept, using examples of books and movies on how to write plot, setting, an engaging story (and these are just her first few posts!) You can check it out at https://meganfatheree.wordpress.com/

Before you take my word for it though, check out this short story she wrote:
 
 
 

The Watcher

 

I knew secrets, so I had to run. Hide. And not be found. It wasn’t easy, hiding in plain sight, and there was no one to trust.

Or so I thought.

That day started like any other that I had become accustomed to. Eyes flying open. Realizing where I was. Feeling that heavy heartbreak that always came with my memories.

The hotel room wasn’t large, by any means, but it was cheap. Cheap was what I needed. I hadn’t been able to get a job, and hiding was beginning to feel like a big waste of money, but I knew the second I came out of hiding, I would be dead.

Too many lives depended on my silence. Too many secrets depended on my death.

I had slept in my clothes, my first full night of sleep in almost six months. I hadn’t meant to stay unconscious so long.

As I ran a hand through my long, tangled hair, I heard a knock on the door. I was quick to grab my gun. A gun that I hadn’t had the time to learn how to use. It couldn’t be too hard. All I had to do was point and pull.

I was stupid enough to not look through the peephole before I opened the door, and was suddenly stuck facing a complete stranger. Dressed in all black. With sunglasses.

He took one look at me and pushed his way into the room.

The gun was out of my hand before I even had time to point. So much for that strategy. He tossed it to the bed and pushed the door closed, pinning me against it.

“You’ve done a good job of hiding so far,” he said, and the tone wasn’t exactly friendly, “so I’ve stayed out of your way. The very fact that I’m here should tell you something has escalated. No time for explanations, I need you to trust me.”

I wasn’t really sure what to do with that information, but he hadn’t tried to hurt me or anything, so my head started bobbing on its own.

“Good.” He backed away from the door and pulled a bag off his shoulder. He tossed me a pair of sunglasses. “Wear these. And put this on, it’s chilly.” The jacket came sailing toward my head. “Pull the hood up.”

I did everything he asked, not even considering my own safety, to be honest. I just didn’t want to get on his bad side.

As soon as the jacket was zipped and the hood was covering my hair, he was next to me with a hand around my arm.

I couldn’t do much besides watch what was going on around me. The door cracked open, and then we walked away. Ten seconds later, I could hear the door to my hotel room break open. I turned my head to look, but the man yanked me forward, in front of him.

“Don’t let them see you. Keep moving.”

I didn’t dare to contradict a word he said. The aura of wisdom and strength and foreboding that followed him was more than enough to silence anything I could have said.

He stared down at me for a brief moment, and then he turned me around and grasped my hand tightly.

I would have protested, if I would have had time. As it was, I was pretty sure I heard a gunshot ricochet off a nearby car the moment before he took off faster than I could consciously run. I stumbled along behind, but he was dragging me more than I was actually moving my feet.

So many street blocks went by that I lost count. We ran through so many alleys that I completely lost my bearings. Finally, he skidded to a stop beside a motorcycle.

I have to admit, I was relieved I didn’t have to run any farther. I couldn’t breathe and my sides were splitting. I settled myself in the passenger seat and held tightly to his torso. It was about that time that I realized he hadn’t said what his name was, but it also didn’t seem like a good time to ask.

I had originally thought it was just a motorcycle, but I quickly discovered that it was more like a motorcycle on steroids. There was no way we should have been going as fast as we were.

We didn’t stop until we reached the docks. I could hear the shouts a few blocks behind us. It sounded like the cops had pulled over whoever was chasing us, one of the few times I was grateful for their presence.

There was a speedboat moored there, at the docks. It seemed to be waiting for us, and suddenly I wondered how long this man had been planning this escape. How long he had known about me. And if he had known about me all along, who else had known?

I was reluctant to board the boat, but I did so anyway. More out of curiosity than necessity, though I was sure the men who had been chasing us were still hot on our trail.

There was only one question I was brave enough to ask my man in black. “Who are you?”

The man gave an almost-smile and turned his back to me, looking out over the water toward the pier we had left. “My name is Mark, but nobody really calls me that.”

“Mark,” I repeated softly, memorizing it quickly.

I would have asked many more questions, but Mark’s troubled gaze was still sweeping the horizon, and I didn’t want to interrupt. My questions could wait until we were safe.

That turned out to be sooner rather than later. The boat docked at a small island, not far off the mainland.

I saw Mark slip the boat driver a few hundred dollar bills and heard him tell the man we had never been there. I was alright with that, if it meant one night of safety.

The house Mark led me to was large and scarily modern. Not anything I would have expected to be on an island like that one, surrounded by trees and shrubbery.

Mark easily opened the door and motioned around the enormous front room. “Welcome to the house.”

I was in awe, really, so I didn’t utter a single word. Not for a long time, anyway. The beauty of the isolated homestead made my head spin. I had never expected someone like him to live someplace like that.

My eyes caught sight of a black book on one of the tables in the room, and I couldn’t help but pick it up. I thumbed through it, fast at first and then slowly, and that was the end of my silence.

Jenny’s Diary.

That was the tag on the inside cover. “Who’s Jenny?” I asked, rather perturbed and suddenly terribly frightened. What if he was no better than the rest? What if he was a serial killer or something?

Mark turned to look at me, but his eyes were really directed at the book. He shrugged. “She was here a while ago. She’s gone now.”

That sickening dread that had become my constant companion reared its ugly head once more. I dropped the book back on the table and backed away from Mark. He was suddenly the last person on earth that I wanted to be standing next to.

“Calm down,” Mark said, extending his hands toward me and lowering his voice to a soothing tone.

I continued to back away, having to pause several times to skirt around objects behind me. “Please leave me alone,” I begged. “I’ll tell you anything. I’ll give you any secret I know, just don’t hurt me.”

Mark stopped and a chuckle rose from his throat.

A chuckle? That was the last thing I had expected in such a tense situation.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said in that same soothing tone. “If I wanted information out of you, you would be bloody and tied to a chair. Trust me. I brought you here for your own safety.”

I wanted to trust him, I really did, but that was the one thing I couldn’t afford to do. “What about Jenny?”

Mark lifted the black book and ran a finger over the leather cover. “Jenny left because she didn’t need protection anymore. This is my job. I watch, and I protect. You’re not the only person I keep an eye on.”

I started to feel a little better, but I was still wary of the stranger before me.

He gave a smirk and dropped the book. “But, I must say, you are my favorite.”

In that moment, Mark went from frightening to creepy and I made a beeline for the door. Even if I had to swim, I was absolutely not going to remain on that deserted island with him.

Unfortunately for me, Mark had better reflexes than I did, and he was faster. Before I could make it halfway to the door, one of his monstrous arms had encased my torso, and he practically dragged me back into the room.

It was useless to fight, but I did so anyway. It was the only thing I could do, really. He was stronger and probably smarter. I found myself thrust down onto a sofa.

“Listen,” Mark said sternly, and his green eyes flashed fire, “I understand you’re scared and paranoid. Running can do that to a person, but I need you to trust me. It’s the only way I can help you.”

In response, I darted for the door again. Mark had obviously been anticipating this, as I found myself thrust back onto the sofa before I could even start running.

“I watch,” Mark repeated, “but I only intervene when it is absolutely critical. When the person I am watching can no longer handle the situation. Like it or not, right now I’m the only thing keeping you safe.”

He pinned me with his stare, as if he anticipated an answer from me. I would have been happy to oblige, but he hadn’t asked a question. He had stated exactly what he wanted to be done.

Seeing as how I wasn’t a very great swimmer, I took the opportunity to agree with him. Maybe, eventually, he would let me get back to my life as a fugitive.

I winced then, wondering when it had become a natural thing to think of myself as a fugitive. I didn’t like it, not really, but somewhere along the line I had come to accept it. Maybe he could help me turn back into a normal human being. Just maybe.

That was the exact moment that the very first spark of trust filled my head and my heart. When he had looked me in the eyes during our flight from my hotel room, I thought I had sensed a sort of kinship. As if he had been where I was. And maybe he had. I really didn’t know anything about him.

Mark seemed to sense my disposition, and he backed off. His boots were soon by the back door, and Mark disappeared through an archway.

I took the time to explore the rest of the house, including the six upstairs bedrooms. I quickly claimed the one that reminded me most of my home. A home I hadn’t seen in almost a year.

The levity of my situation suddenly hit me like a load of bricks. I hadn’t had time to think on it before, but I was homesick and I was tired of being chased. A list of if-only’s ran through my head, and for a while I forgot about the secrets I knew. I thought only of home and family and all the things I had likely missed.

So much stress flew off my shoulders with the resurgence of those long-suppressed memories that I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew Mark was shaking me awake.

I looked up at him with that sleepy-eyed stare that comes only after the best naps, and he smiled back. He set a tray of food on the bed and then left the room.

I ate like a woman starved, which I suppose I pretty much was. I had, after all, been living off of hot dogs and toast for a long while. Nothing had ever tasted as good as that soup Mark gave me. I don’t suppose anything ever will taste as good as that. It was my first real meal in a long, long time.

I took the tray back downstairs and found Mark in the kitchen, chowing down on his own lunch. Or dinner. Whatever time of day it actually was.

“Why am I your favorite?” I finally found the courage to ask.

Mark didn’t even hesitate. “Because you’ve never lost hope. I’ve been watching you for a long time now, and all I ever see is your optimism. You remind me a lot of myself.”

I wanted to ask him how he knew. I wanted to ask if he had ever been in my situation. Somehow, the words wouldn’t form. Maybe it was my head telling me it was all trivial. Or maybe it was my heart telling me he was reluctant to speak of it. Either way, I didn’t broach the subject with him, and looking back I was glad I chose not to. It would only have weighed my soul down that much more.

Our conversation turned to me after that. He asked how I had come to find all these secrets, and who I thought was after me. It seemed like he already knew all the answers, but it helped to talk about it all.

Those conversations became the norm over the next few months in the house. Mark was always so easy to talk to and so eager to listen. He comforted me after the nightmares stormed my dreams. He knew just how to calm me down when I panicked about the sound of a helicopter or boat driving by.

The day that I refused to eat my cereal, because my stomach hurt and I was afraid I’d been poisoned, he took a blood sample just to humor me. It came back clean, just like he knew it would. I never doubted him after that.

I could talk to him about anything, and he would always tell me when he found one of the men who had been chasing me for months on end. I guess he knew it brought me peace of mind. Mark cared about my peace of mind, and in small tender moments, I sometimes wondered if he cared about more than just that.

I cherished those moments. I still do. Mark was the only one who truly knew how I felt, and he didn’t hesitate to ask me about anything. We became very close, Mark and I.

Now, two years later, I walk the streets freely, without a worry in the world. Mark took care of everyone who wanted to hurt me. I don’t know how, but I know he did. Anyone left would be remiss to try anything, anyway. Because they know. And I know.

Even when I don’t see him, even when I doubt he’s paying attention at all, Mark is always there. Lurking in the shadows. Standing high on a rooftop. Gazing across the streets until our eyes meet. Because Mark will always be the one thing I needed more than anything during those hard times.

 

 
 
 
 
 

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Megan Fatheree was homeschooled from Pre-school through 12th grade. During this time, she was blessed to be able to focus her efforts toward the craft of writing. She is now in her early 20s and a full-time author. Some of her books include “Precious Jewel”, “Eminent Danger”, and “Rose-Colored Glasses.” She also blogs at meganfatheree.wordpress.com. She loves what she does and wouldn’t trade it for anything. She looks forward to all the great adventures that lay in store for her in the near future.