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.

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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.

Abruzzi’s Visit

With a practiced smile, Clara opened the door for the man to whom her husband owed his life. “Mr. Abruzzi! So nice of you to drop by.”

It wasn’t nice, which Mr. Abruzzi knew: surprise visits to his beneficiaries were how he ensured his investments were behaving. A stone-faced male aide followed in Mr. Abruzzi’s wake.

Abruzzi shed his coat; the aide handed it to Clara. Her hands shook as she hung it. She hoped they hadn’t noticed.

“You have a lovely home, Mrs. Leoni.” Abruzzi’s gaze swept the chandelier, the antique sideboard, and the matched wingback chairs, all kept obsessively clean. Clara often imagined how their next home might look: a tiny loft in France or Brazil, with mismatched and often dusty furniture, far more homelike than this gracious apartment.

“Thank you,” she demurred. She poured his favorite wine from a bottle on the sideboard. “Marco should be home at any moment.”

“Normally he’s returned by now.”

Did the watchful aide notice her tremor as Clara handed Abruzzi the glass? “He’s heading up a new project. Longer hours.”

Complimenti.” Abruzzi lifted his glass in a brief toast. “And his legs continue to perform?”

“The machinery is incredible,” Clara admitted.

It had seemed miraculous at the time: a philanthropist who’d heard about Marco’s accident and wanted to help them pay for the cutting-edge prosthetic legs. The payment plan was simple, he promised, the interest nominal – this isn’t Sicily, after all, he said with a wink.

Yet somehow the Leonis owed still more money, no matter how hard Marco worked, how clean their house was, how much Clara flattered Abruzzi on his visits. It took them months to admit Abruzzi owned them, and months more to plan their escape. Clara could only hope the pieces would come together soon.

“I’m curious about this new project.” Abruzzi lowered himself into one of the wingback chairs. “Such a…promising venture for the two of you.”

“It is.” She sat in the window seat, letting her skirt swing around her legs as she crossed her ankles. They’d learned over the course of Abruzzi’s visits that he preferred her in skirts.

She entertained another brief daydream of the future home, the dusty, cramped, wonderful one. In this home, she wore sweats.

What was keeping him?

The street two stories below was packed with commuters. Bicycles whirred past, dodging cars and pedestrians. Clara often wondered if anyone passing by had been a beneficiary of Mr. Abruzzi; if they were subjected to stressful visits and left sleepless for nights afterward, wondering if the expensive procedures Abruzzi had funded would ever be paid off – and what would happen if they weren’t.

“Here he comes.” She stood a little too quickly, but she’d spotted Marco’s distinct silver bicycle, his glossy dark hair catching the golden-hour sun.

She greeted him at the door with a warning smile and the customary kiss. He knew the look; he touched Clara’s cheek reassuringly as he passed her.

“Mr. Abruzzi!” All faux machismo, he shook Abruzzi’s hand roughly and slapped him on the shoulder. They’d learned Abruzzi responded well to such displays. “What can we do for you today?”

“Oh, I just stopped into say hello. I understand you have a new project at work.”

“Yes, it’s a new cyber-security platform – very exciting stuff.” He looked apologetic. “But Clara and I have an engagement tonight…”

“Of course!” Abruzzi gripped Marco’s shoulder. “I won’t keep you any longer. I simply wanted to check in. Josef!”

The aide strode past them to open the door for Abruzzi. Clara handed him his coat and forced a smile as he kissed both her cheeks for a little too long.

Buona notte,” he said, smiling thinly.

Once the door was safely shut, she scrubbed her cheeks with her skirt hem. “Will this new project keep you late often? You know I hate having to entertain him alone.”

“You’ll never have to entertain him again.” Marco drew two envelopes from his backpack. “This is why I was late: visas. Brazil.”

“You got them?” she whispered. “I thought it would take weeks!”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you, but I couldn’t risk Abruzzi noticing anything. We can leave tomorrow.”

“What about your work?”

“They’re happy to have me work remotely.”

“And we can really leave tomorrow?” she breathed.

“Really. Abruzzi won’t be able to touch us.”

She saw herself in sweats, breathing tropical air, unwashed dishes in the sink and laundry unfolded on the couch. “Then you’d better help me pack.”

Ochre and Earth

This is the story I wrote for round 2 of the YeahWrite Superchallenge. It had to open with the sentence “Everything I had known was wrong” and incorporate this image:

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Everything I had known was wrong. The thought plagued every step as I returned from hunting, empty-handed again, to the hut I shared with Joséphine.

I thought I’d find her painting by the cabin’s tiny south window, but she was outside, tending the garden we’d started in the sunniest part of our clearing. A few blonde curls had escaped her sun-bleached scarf. Her welcoming smile faded when she saw that the game sled I dragged was empty.

“What happened, Isabelle?”

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” I sank into the dirt by her side. She slid my hat from my head and ran her fingers through my hair, loosening my braid. Her touch sent soothing shivers to unknot my shoulders.

“I think it’s the wrong wood,” I continued. “It’s too fragile – the deer just break the traps. It’s too dry, or too thin, or…I don’t know.”

I crumpled my hat between my hands. Joséphine extricated it before I could ruin it.

“You’ll figure it out – you always have so far.”

“I was a stationer’s daughter,” I snorted. “How did we ever believe that we could survive on what I read in books?”

Her hand on my hair froze. “Don’t tell me you want to go back to Sarlat.”

I caught her other hand and kissed it. Under the dirt were her omnipresent paint stains: scarlet and mossy green settled into the fine lines of her skin. “Never,” I said.

“Then we just have to keep trying,” she said. “Don’t discount all you’ve learned because of a few mistakes.”

“This isn’t painting, Josie, it’s survival. Mistakes out here will kill us.”

“We knew this would be hard, but what choice did we have?”

We could have chosen lies; I could have chosen Paul-Edouard. Joséphine could have hoped for a patronage, but most likely she would have ended up some merchant’s miserable wife, or in a nunnery, or worse. We’d chosen each other instead, and in this tiny cabin in the Aquitaine wilderness, we were piecing together a life of our own.
I smiled, tracing the outline of her stained palm. “The best choice.”

#

Later that week, I bartered the first of our pumpkins for lessons with a woodsman who traded at the tiny local market. He was reluctant to share his secrets, especially with a woman, but I must have convinced him that I was no threat to his business. As the summer passed, I cut lengths of the wood he recommended and treated the sinews the way he’d shown me. Finally, I spent an exhausting August day replacing every single one of my traps and setting new ones.

When I returned home at sundown, weary and nursing several blisters, Joséphine was painting.

It was beautiful – a walnut orchard, its soft dawn colors amplified by the golden evening – but she was supposed to have made our strawberries into preserves to sell, and the jars stood empty on the kitchen table.

“You’re back!” She set her brush down and kissed my cheek. “Look! It’ll be ready to sell next week.”

“What about the preserves?” I asked tightly.

“Oh – I didn’t get to them today. But the painting will sell for so much more than jam, Belle.”

I rubbed my temples. “Josie, we needed the money from the preserves to buy flour. We have less than a week’s worth left!”

“This will be my final painting, anyway.” Her jaw clenched in a way that I knew meant she was holding back tears. “This is my last canvas.”

I stared at her. “What?”

She nodded. “And tomorrow I’m going to find work in the village.”

“Josie, no – you don’t need to give up your painting! We’ll work something out – I’ve almost figured out these traps, and then I can buy you more canvas!”

“No, you were right.” She took my hands. A smudge of ochre transferred to my thumb.

“This is about survival.”

“Just give me more time,” I pleaded. “If it’s a bad winter, you can look for work in the spring.”

Joséphine withdrew her hands. “If you think that’s best.”

She closed the door to our room behind her. I stood in the fading light, watching the smear of ochre dry.

#

Joséphine was already gone when I woke the next morning. I assumed she was out foraging for mushrooms, or perhaps gone early to the market. I wanted to talk to her about the previous night, but there wasn’t time to wait – I had traps to check. I avoided looking at her unfinished painting as I left.

When I returned from the forest at sunset, Joséphine was waiting for me at the edge of our clearing.

“You were gone so long – I was worried.” Her eyes widened when she saw what I was dragging on my sled. “A deer! It worked!”

“All those hours with that grouchy hunter finally paid off.” I kissed her, feeling her lips smiling beneath mine. “I’ve found a second game trail, too. Soon we’ll have enough to be comfortable this winter, and to buy you more canvas!”

Her smile faltered. “Isabelle, I went to the market today. I sold my paints.”

The sled’s rope fell from my hands. “Oh, Josie.”

“I knew we’d need money long before winter, and it seemed…for the best.”

“But Joséphine, you love painting!”

She stretched out her hand. I could see green and ochre, the colors of the walnut orchard, on her fingers. My heart broke to think she would never finish that painting, that instead of paint on her hands, she’d only have dirt. Her upturned palm encompassed the canvas upon which we’d made our home: the clearing, the wooded hills, the setting sun tingeing the low clouds with gold.

“Yes,” she said, “and perhaps we can afford paint again someday – but I love this life with you more.”

Her lips touched mine and for the first time in weeks, I felt certainty: that about love, at least, I could never be mistaken.

Summer’s End

Seven miles later, we exited the trees into sunshine over the glittering river. There are many trails on this mountain, each one a new view.

The fires took them all.

At the mountain’s ashen feet, we say goodbye until it greens again: someday, whether it takes months or years.