Thin Ice

“This is safe, right?”

Liam and I were latched onto each other’s elbows, shuffling the soles of our boots across the frozen surface of the pond. Colin waved at us as he glided past on the only pair of skates that still fit anyone.

“I’ve skated on this pond since I was seven,” he called. “It’s fine!”

“Bet he weighs a bit more than he did when he was seven, yeah?” Liam muttered.

I grinned. “It’s nice out, though, isn’t it? Lovely moon and all.”

“It’s freezing.”

“Hence the ice.”

Colin had invited us out to spend part of the winter holiday at his family home in the Highlands. It was, in fact, freezing, but it was a nice break from the board games and Doctor Who marathons that had eaten up most of our time. I wasn’t active enough to want to join Mel on her morning runs, nor introverted enough to read a book per day like Rachel did, nor hedonistic enough to drink the day away like Colin. When he suggested we try skating on the frozen pond, I agreed mainly for the excuse to do something, anything, different – and to keep an eye on Colin.

“I want to go back in and drink more hot toddies,” Liam grumbled. “Let Colin stay out here and show off.”

“You’re just grumpy there weren’t skates that fit – otherwise you’d be challenging him to a race.”

Liam snorted. “I’d win, anyway.”

Rachel and Mel, who’d dared to go out on the ice first (after Colin proved we wouldn’t all immediately fall through), made their way further out onto the pond, Rachel in her long black coat like something from a Dickens adaptation, Mel with her fleece runner’s headband practically glowing pink in the dark.

“Come on, you two!” Colin circled around them. “One two three, one two three!”

“It looks thin out there,” Rachel said, ignoring him. “Is it thinner out there?”

“It’s hard to tell.” Mel released Rachel’s arm and scooted forwards a few steps, bending slightly to try to see through the ice in the moonlight.

“Just don’t go too far out,” Colin called from where he was skating figure-eights.

“How far is ‘too far?'” Mel shouted back.

“I underestimated this cold,” Rachel lamented. “Why didn’t we think to bring the hot toddies out with us?”

Colin glided up behind Rachel, one finger to his lips. He yelled and jabbed her sides – and Rachel screamed.

With a squeal so quiet it would have otherwise been cute, Mel wobbled and fell, hard, straight through the ice like it was paper.

“Mel!” Liam and I skidded forward, frustratingly slow. I thought of every dream I’d ever had where I was running to escape something and moving like dripping honey; now I needed to run to something, and panic made me feel even slower.

Colin got there first, his skates kicking up icy spray as he arrived at the spot where Mel had fallen. But she was already struggling to her feet; the water only came up to her waist. Rachel had taken off her coat and she shuffled over to throw one end to Mel. I don’t know how any of us managed it, slipping and skidding the way we were, but soon Mel was out of the water and we were all sprawled across the ice, catching our breath.

Colin turned on Rachel. “Why did you scream like that?” he snapped.

“Why did you grab me?” Rachel retorted, teeth chattering. “You knew I’d scream, because you always do shit like that just to make me scream, since you think it’s so funny – ”

“Well, I didn’t think – ”

“Shut up!” Liam had wrapped his coat and Rachel’s around Mel, who was shaking so badly she couldn’t speak. “She needs to get indoors, now.”

“Rachel’s the one – ”

“Colin, utter one more word and I will push you through that hole.” The two of us helped Mel to her feet and began the slow shuffle back to the pond’s edge. Rachel followed, jaw clenched against both Colin and the cold. Colin stopped at the edge to take off his skates. No one waited for him.

I could feel Mel’s chill through both coats and my own sleeve. She muttered something as we walked. I leaned closer to hear her better. “Sorry?”

Her lips formed a shaky smile. “Don’t know about you, but I could go for a hot toddy.”

Tom Barrett

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Dark Spaces

It was the right time to leave. The monster under the girl’s bed knew this, but he was having trouble accepting it. The monster outside the window left two years ago; the monster in the closet left just last month. The monster under the bed wished them well in their hunt for new positions. He was not yet ready to face the uncertainty of unemployment, but in truth, the monsters were becoming redundant.

The girl was seven years old. She talked to her teddy bear about the boy who was mean to her at school. The monster under the bed gathered that the boy had been reprimanded. No doubt the adults thought one stern lecture would be sufficient, but no one knows better than the monsters under the bed the enormous reach of small traumas, not to mention the expansive hurt that can be inflicted by one uncorrected heart.

The monster under the bed can hear the news from all the rooms with screens, which is every room but the girl’s. It speculates on and rehashes pain, both past (which is to say current, because no pain stays behind) and forthcoming, both known and hypothetical, while offering few explanations and fewer solutions. The girl hears it, and even if she doesn’t quite understand all of it, she understands that something in the world is wrong. The light of day is less reassuring; the darkness in her room at night is more frightening.

The monster under the bed began to make preparations. One more week.

The girl arrived home from school in a rush of running footsteps, a thunk onto the mattress, and sobbing barely muffled by the loyal teddy bear. The mother arrived; between sobs, the story came out. The girl had had to hide under her desk to practice what to do in case someone came to the school to hurt them.

The monster under the bed can’t compete with the monsters out there. He doesn’t even want to. The girl needs a refuge. The other monsters figured that out long ago.

At sunset, the monster under the bed left. When the girl wakes up crying, at least it won’t be because of him.

The Ashcliffe Party

(I couldn’t get this under the word limit by the deadline, so here I am for the YW Weekend Showcase! There were two prompts for #382: a character who is conceited, and answering the question, what if humans had no sight?)

The hall rang with laughter and the musical hum of guide suits. Hundreds of varieties of fine perfumes enveloped Mina and Tess as they entered one of London’s most talked-about social scenes. Mina felt her sister’s arm tremble under her gloved hand.

“What’s wrong?”

“Captain Wu is here,” Tess whispered. “I can hear his suit.”

“Well, stay calm – I’m sure Mrs. Ashcliffe can introduce you.”

A series of flute notes, increasing in pitch and frequency, announced the arrival of their brother, Felix. Mina felt her nose wrinkle.

“Felix, you’re wearing way too much cologne.”

“What? I want people to know I’m here.”

Tess’ voice was muffled; Mina guessed she was covering her nose with her hand. “There might be some people three floors away who missed your arrival.”

“Well, I had better go inform them,” he responded cheerfully.

Mina reached up to touch his face and felt him do the same to her. They both wore a mix of inherited and fashion jewelry: Mina wore three thin rings in each eyebrow, along with etched silver plates, formerly their mother’s, that adhered along her cheekbones. Felix’s cheekbones were accented with a lattice of brushed metal (borrowed from Father) and he’d decorated his beard with strings of tinny bells.

“Oh, Felix, not your eyebrows, too,” she sighed. His brow piercings, all ten of them, also jingled with bells.

“I’m told Watson Carr himself wears them!”

“Well, he’s a pop star – he can pull them off, can’t he?”

She felt him draw himself up in not-entirely-feigned indignation. “Just what are you trying to say?”

“Never mind. Did you hear Captain Wu is here?”

“That pilot? I thought he was off in the Gobi desert doing something insane like breaking land speed records.”

“He was, and he did, and now Tess is ready for her introduction.” Mina squeezed her sister’s arm; Tess tried to say “yes,” but it came out in a nervous whisper.

She felt Felix take her other arm. “Shall we, then?”

He set them on their way through the crowd of pinging guide suits and clouds of perfume. Mina picked up Mrs. Rosmund’s aggressively spiced scent and Mr. Theron’s notes of subdued leather. Mr. Theron was also arguing loudly with two others about the benefits of the latest echolocating gadgets, apparently intended to interface directly with the brain. Mr. Theron was opposed; his citrus- and tobacco-scented companions were in favor. Mina got the impression one of them was a neuroscientist of some sort before their argument was lost amid party conversations and chiming suits.

“You know, I could’ve been a pilot,” Felix said. “My hearing’s excellent and I ranked in the top percentile for reflexes.”

“Top what percentile?” Mina said with a laugh.

“Thirtieth,” he muttered. “Besides, with the all recent advancements in echolocating, those things practically fly themselves.”

“Do you think Alaric remembers me?” Tess interrupted, squeezing Mina’s hand. “We were in such different circles at school –”

“Regardless, he’s sure to be impressed by you now.”

“Wait, what do you mean, regardless?”

Felix hushed them. “We’re close.”

From a few feet ahead of them came a chorus of chimes and violin notes: they were approaching their hostess, Mrs. Ashcliffe, and her no doubt eminent friends. Mrs. Ashcliffe’s perfume greeted them, carrying notes of ambergris and sandalwood – all genuine, not artificial, of course. Mina heard Tess’ breath turn quick and shallow and gave her arm another reassuring squeeze.

Felix, as usual, was unfazed. “Mrs. Ashcliffe. Spectacular party, thank you so much for including us.”

“Felix.” Mrs. Ashcliffe’s age-worn baritone was warm. “And your sisters, I assume.”

Mina felt the old woman’s hands on her face and shyly returned the greeting: Mrs. Ashcliffe’s cheekbones were decorated with intricate cloisonné plates and her forehead was draped in a net of tiny bells. Their elegance made Mina self-conscious even of her own fine jewelry.

Their hostess soon pronounced them all “lovely” and stood back in a wave of silvery suit chimes. “Have you had a chance to meet Lizbet Freeman? She’s composing the most lovely soundscapes.”

“Actually, we were hoping to meet Captain Wu,” Felix said. “Tess went to school with him.”

“I don’t want to take up his time,” Tess added breathlessly. “I know he’s very busy–“

“Oh, I’d be delighted to introduce you. John, go and fetch Alaric, would you?”

Mrs. Ashcliffe plied Tess for anecdotes about the captain’s school days. Mina listened with pride as her sister’s posture relaxed and her voice grew more confident.  A new, woodsy scent soon arrived accompanied by proximity chimes.

“Tess, Mina, Felix,” Mrs. Ashcliffe announced, “may I introduce – or perhaps reintroduce – Captain Alaric Wu.”

The usual greetings were exchanged. Mina heard Tess gasp, and soon found out why: Wu was not wearing any jewelry, so her hands met his bare, and appealingly sculpted, face.

“Tess has been telling everyone what you were like at Gildeheath,” Mina said.

“Wait, Tess Sherborne?” Mina was relieved to hear delight in his voice. “From the Recitation Club?”

“You remember me?”

And just like that, the captain and Tess were chatting like old friends. Mrs. Ashcliffe excused herself; Mina felt Felix try to direct them towards Tess and the captain, but she held her ground.

“I want to meet him, too,” Felix hissed.

“Not now,” she hissed back.

“I’ve done some flying in my time, surely he’d be interested–”

“Later. Let them talk.”

“Oh. Oh.”

“God, you’re dense.”

And together they melted back into the swirl of chimes and perfume.

After The Dancing

I told her something was wrong. First my gown catching on the stairs, then the rowboat struggling low in the water – but she never believed me.

Now she must marry him, and their wedding will be the final time we sisters dance.

The Folded Route

She missed the bus. That was Jane’s first indicator that the day would not go well. The second indicator was the looming rain clouds, but those were not Jane’s immediate concern. The bus pulling away from the curb just as she rounded the corner was much more upsetting.

Damn it!” A passerby gave her a withering look, which Jane returned. The next bus wouldn’t come for at least another twenty minutes, by which point Jane would be well and truly late – unless she could speed things up a bit.

Time magic was fiddly at best, catastrophic and beyond at worst. Dr. Sinesh would be horrified to learn that Jane had attempted it outside laboratory conditions – but then, he’d also be horrified if she missed their symposium. Anyway, wasn’t she supposed to be a prodigy?

The first raindrops began to fall as Jane ducked into the corner shop and pretended to peruse the magazines. Under the cover of her raincoat, she extended her wand from its quantum pocket and began to murmur a Folding. Folding spells themselves weren’t too tricky, so long as your subject was within your line of sight. It got exponentially harder if the subject’s position in spacetime was unknown.

Fortunately, Jane knew her route like she knew the layout of her flat. She double-checked the bus schedule on her phone: assuming the bus was on time, it was currently near the sports centre. Jane kept that (admittedly hypothetical) location in mind as she finished the spell. Her wand flashed blue. Jane quickly tucked it back into its quantum pocket and joined the queue to buy a fashion magazine to account for her time in the shop. She also bought some candies; Foldings were especially taxing on one’s blood sugar.

She waited under the shop’s awning, counting seconds while the rain poured harder. She’d shaved twelve minutes off the bus’s travel time – hopefully not enough to draw suspicion, but just enough to get her to the college before the symposium began. Dr. Sinesh wouldn’t even notice she was late.

The first five minutes passed easily, but Jane soon grew antsy. The crowd of people at the bus stop continued to grow, all of them shaking off their umbrellas and griping good-naturedly about English summers and the upcoming work day. Jane had to hide her smile, thinking of how happy all these people would be that their bus was coming early. That was part of why Jane loved magic so much – not only did it make day-to-day life easier, it could also brighten someone’s day without them even knowing.

The joyous feeling began to ebb, though, when the final minute ended and still no bus appeared. Jane began to fiddle with the magazine, rolling and unrolling it. She was certain she’d said the Folding correctly; perhaps she’d gotten the bus’s location wrong?

Another minute passed. Jane wrung her hands around the rolled-up magazine. She’d certainly be late now. Time to admit her mistake to Dr. Sinesh and beg him to stall.

She took out her phone to text him, but as she did, it chimed with an alert. So did many phones around her. All of their screens bore a notice:

Bus 39 in multiple vehicle accident at Northern Bypass and Heathridge. Multiple injuries, 3 fatalities. 8:20 bus service canceled. Alternate routes advised.

A woman nearby shook her head. “Been saying it for years: that intersection’s a death trap.”

“Must’ve been speeding – Heathridge puts them ahead of schedule, doesn’t it?”

“And in this weather. Reckless.”

Jane lowered her phone. She didn’t even notice when she missed her coat pocket and her phone clattered to the sidewalk, its screen splintering.

Damn it.

 

Prevost, PI

Retirement had never looked so appealing. It was a gorgeous evening in Hollywood Hills, and Caroline Prevost, private investigator, was crouched over a producer who’d been murdered at his own birthday party.

None of the guests seemed to care, either: they were hollering at each other around the policemen struggling to restrain them, all shouting about Mr. Gordon’s will, the house, and what this would mean for his picture deal with Gardner. Prevost stood with a sigh.

“That’s enough!” she bellowed. The crowd fell silent. “I’m supposed to be at Lake Arrowhead for my niece’s birthday. I’ve got her present in my trunk and I’ve packed the most audacious swimsuit you ever did see, and I’m looking forward to a nice weekend of swimming and boating with my family, so if you’re gonna stick around and not flee like proper murderers, you can at least be quiet and let me think.”

A bloody pen-knife lay near the victim’s head; it was engraved, but not even this bunch were dumb enough to use their own knives for a murder. The remnants of the birthday buffet sat on the table. Prevost could see shrimp, canapés, olives, and two kinds of punch. At the dining table, the Mr. Gordon’s punch cup sat in its proper place. She picked it up, frowning – it looked like he’d been drinking water from the punch cup.

She turned back to the still-silent crowd. “Right. First of all, whose knife is this?”

A thin, balding man raised one trembling hand.

“Who were you sitting next to?”

“M-Mr. Weiss and Mr. Frederick.”

Prevost nodded. “Excellent. Now, which one of you two rinsed out Mr. Gordon’s punch cup?”

Two seconds of silence, then Mr. Frederick made a break for the patio door. Officer Watley brought him down with one raised foot.

Prevost nodded. “Lovely. Now, if you’ll excuse me, popcorn, cocoa, and mountain air await.”

#

The press, of course, had other ideas. Prevost’s dramatic exit was stalled by numerous reporters – and several of Los Angeles’ finest – wanting to know how she’d figured it out.

“The knife would have been easiest to steal during dinner,” she explained. “Everyone at that party would’ve had some motive, but Frederick, a fellow producer shut out of the Gardner pictures, might’ve had revenge on his mind.”

“So he stabbed Gordon?” shouted a reporter.

“Yes, but not fatally. You really have to do a number on a fella if you’re trying to kill him with a pen-knife. No, the real murder weapon was poison in the punch –”

“Then why was there only one victim?”

Prevost entertained a vision of smacking the reporter over the head with her niece’s birthday gift. It was a hefty model of metal popcorn popper. It would make a satisfying clang.

“Because,” she said slowly, “the poison was only in Gordon’s cup. I’m guessing Frederick used something that would have left a residue because the cup was rinsed out. When he tried to run for it, well, he finished my job for me. Any other questions?”

“What are you doing tonight, doll?” The reporters cackled.

“All right, that’s enough!” Officer Watley materialized from the Gordon residence like a bear leaving its den. A few waves of his huge arms scattered the reporters.

“Sorry ‘bout those hyenas, ma’am.”

“They’re improving somewhat. Usually they lead with that question.”

“They oughta show you more respect. None of us could’ve explained what happened here like you just did.”

Prevost sighed. “Well, that’s because I was in a rush and didn’t clue any of you in. For that, I apologize.”

Watley waved one skillet-sized hand. “If I had a niece as cute as yours, I’d want to get to her birthday, too. How old is she now?”

“Six, today.”

He whistled. “Growing up fast, huh?”

“Tell me about it. She wanted a popcorn popper because she wants to learn how to cook.”

Watley laughed. “Seems safer than a stove, I suppose.”

“Barely. Not sure her mother likes the idea, but I promised I’d supervise.”

“Well, my grandmama makes excellent popcorn balls, if your niece wants the recipe.”

“That sounds grand, Watley, thanks.”

Prevost said good-night and was soon cruising along Sunset Boulevard. It was a long drive to Lake Arrowhead, and her niece would no doubt be asleep by the time Prevost arrived, but she thought popcorn and belated birthday cake would make an excellent breakfast.

And next year, she vowed, neither petty producers nor the Governor of California would keep her from this birthday.