Sloane Keaveney’s Fightin’ Automaton

“Boys!” Nora hollered over her shoulder. “Ellen’s here!”

“Coming!” They thundered down from the top floor of the boarding house. Ma emerged from the kitchen, drying her reddened hands on a fraying rag.

“Ma, I wish you’d consider getting one of those auto-dryers.”

She snorted. “You know I don’t trust those steam contraptions. Besides, we could never afford one.”

“You trust Ellen to drive me to the fights in a steam contraption…”

Ma sighed and crossed herself. She’d long ago given up on keeping her children from watching the fights, settling instead for praying a contingency of saints over them. “And who’s the metal devil fighting this time?”

“He’s no devil, Ma.”

Ma shook her finger. “It’s the devil in a steel suit, mark my words.”

Colin and David arrived in the front hall. Nora noticed David’s cardigan was missing another button. “Tonight he’s fighting King Conrad!” David announced. “Conrad’s got the best odds yet!”

“Not that we’re gambling,” Nora said hastily, as Ma’s expression began to contort. Outside, Ellen tapped the horn.

“Goodnight, Ma!” Nora shoved the boys, still half out of their coats, through the front door.

“Promise me you’re not gambling!” Ma shouted after them. Nora waved vaguely as Colin and David clambered into the backseat of Ellen’s coupe. Ellen flashed Nora a wink and they tore down the street with a screech of steam and a blast of heat. In the back, the boys cackled.

“Who do you think will win?” Ellen called.

“Sloane Keaveney’s Fightin’ Automaton!” shouted David. “He always wins!”

“Not always!” Colin shoved him. “King Conrad’s gonna lick him!”

“Is not!”

“Is so!”

The shoving increased. No wonder they were missing buttons. “Boys! Don’t make me regret bringing you.”

Her brothers resorted to surreptitious pokes that Nora decided to ignore.

“You sure you want to do this?” Ellen asked in a low voice.

“I have to. We won’t get through the winter otherwise.”

They parked a few blocks from the arena. Already they could see the glow of floating lanterns. The arena sold them to spectators, who bought the color of their favorite: yellow for the Automaton, red for Conrad. Only about a third of the floating lights were red.

“You boys want to buy a lantern?”

“Yes, please!”

Ellen dropped a penny each into their gloved palms – Nora noticed Colin’s had holes in each fingertip – and they raced towards the lantern booth, still arguing.

“Go straight to your seats after!” Nora shouted.

“Let’s go.” Ellen led the way into the crowded lobby. Nora’s stomach growled at the smell of hot dogs and crackerjack. Ellen stopped near the restrooms.

“That way.” She tilted her head towards an unmarked door. “I’ll place your bet.”

“Thank you, Ellen. ”

Ellen squeezed her hand. “You’ll only have a few minutes. If Sloane finds out –”

“I’ll be careful.”

Nora tied a white kerchief around her head as she walked. By the time she slipped through the door, she looked like an employee – she hoped.

In the steam-clouded kitchens, Nora picked up a tray of glasses. No one gave her a second glance. She walked the tray down the hallway, her heart pounding.

The fighters’ doors weren’t guarded; Sloane’s people were confident in their external security. Outside the Automaton’s door, Nora hesitated. Awful thoughts circled: suspicions that Ellen would betray her to the Keaveneys, fear over what she’d see inside. The devil in a steel suit.

She opened the door.

The Automaton lay silent, a man-shaped collection of cold pistons and plates. Nora uncorked the vial she’d brought: undiluted cleaning solvent. She poured the whole thing into one of the machine’s elbow joints and watched it corrode. She threw the vial in the trash, picked up her tray – and the door opened.

Sloane Keaveney frowned at her. “What are you doing in here?”

She held out the tray. “Refreshment?”

Sloane accepted a glass of water with a scowl. “Thanks. Now clear out.”

Nora left her kerchief and tray by the kitchen and ran.

#

“Unbelievable. Forty to one and he pulls it off.”

“Sloane’s mechanics must’ve missed something. Did you see how slow the left hooks were?”

Nora counted out her payment while the clerks wrapped her purchases: buttons, yarn, and two boys’ sweaters, plus a fancy French lotion for Ma. The rest of her winnings were safe under her mattress. It would give her away to spend it all at once, but she took a catalogue of steam gadgets for the home – just in case.

Photo by BRUNO CERVERA on Unsplash
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Airborne

This is a story about Melissa. They are all stories about Melissa: she is the main character in all of our tales. She is the star: radiant, inspirational, warm, and, like all stars, destined to flare out.

Melissa drove a bright blue cloth-top Wrangler. Sometimes her hair was bright blue, too. In my favorite picture of us, I’m peeking around her headrest while she takes a selfie from the driver’s seat. We had just hiked somewhere – St. Helen’s or Rainier, one of those – and she’d scraped her knee so badly that she had to use her bandana as a bandage. It was St. Helen’s: I remember how rocky it was, and how sunny. The lupines matched her hair, then.

She pulled in friends like a sun capturing comets, accumulating adventures and anecdotes with every orbit. In February, they were snow shoeing in the mountains; in July, whitewater rafting; in November, backpacking in Patagonia. Sometimes I’d meet them for beers after and they’d share their pictures. Melissa almost made you feel like you’d come along. She always made me feel included – like my star was missed even in her huge constellation of friends.

I’m a little envious of the adventures she was able to take, but not of her. It wasn’t possible to be envious of her, not when she’d work with Habitat for Humanity and blood drives. Not when she’d come jump your car in the rain – actually, she’d drive you to work so you could get to your shift on time, then call up one of her orbiting friends to help jump your car and drive it to work for you. Not when she’d show up at your house after the latest atrocious Tinder date with a pint of gelato and a half-dozen mini bottles of whiskey.

“Mel, you don’t even drink!”

“They were 99 cents!”

And I’d drink one mixed with Diet Coke and we’d watch our favorite Top Model episodes until two in the morning. She was that kind of friend. You don’t get too many of those in your life.

Mel came alive outdoors. She’d straighten up, smile more. You could see her expand in the fresh air, like being kept indoors made her wilt. She especially loved the beach. She’d grown up inland; I’ll always treasure being the first one to take her to the shore, to see that expression, that expansive smile that breached horizons.

That’s why I’m writing this here, on the beach. I hiked down the rocks after dark and started a fire. I have a tiny 99-cent bottle of whiskey, a pen, this paper, and my memories.

I should have known they wouldn’t all fit.

I’m sorry I couldn’t be at your funeral. I hope this is good enough. It’s everything I loved best in you, captured as well as I can, and when I’m done, I’ll light a candle under it and send it airborne. You’ll get to fly, the one thing in all your adventures that you never got to do. You’ll float out over the waves, into the night, and I’ll watch until this last bit of you flares out.

unsplash-logoIsaac Davis

Sole Secrets

The queen caught her eldest with her arms laden with slippers.

“Why so many shoes?”

“Ours are worn out.”

“Again? How?” Yet how many shoes had she worn out, at her daughter’s age?

“Don’t tell Father?”

Torch-lit stairs; silver leaves glittering on the lake’s surface; sweet princes smiling.

“Never.”

unsplash-logoAhmad Odeh

The Possibilities of Stars

When I most need light, it’s a night sky that comforts me. Look up: see that matrix of stars, the spaces between? Empty or burning, there’s purpose – and therefore possibility. One more candle of hope kindles whenever I look up.

Flowing Water and a Moonless Night

Bee had hiked along the creek before. Her aunt and uncle weren’t particularly adventurous, but they took her hiking whenever they happened to go, and they didn’t mind if she went out on her own, as long as her homework was done.

They might have minded her hiking by the creek now, given that it was almost midnight on a moonless night, but the Remnant man only came to the creek on such nights, and she couldn’t afford to wait another month.

But he wouldn’t show himself. She’d already walked all the way to the falls and back. Bee didn’t think there was an incantation to summon him – besides, the way he’d been described, the Remnant was bored and wanted a job.

Well, Bee had a job, all right, and she’d even brought the puzzle he demanded in payment. “He’s craftier than the other Remnants,” Grandma Margaret had said. “But he’s good at what he does – when you’ve got a real complicated problem, well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.”

“Need something?” a voice grunted from the darkness. Bee froze.

“Wholenuther?” she asked timidly.

“That’s me. Expecting someone else out here?”

Bee stepped closer. The man was seated lounged against a tree. Her flashlight’s beam fell on his worn face, casting harsh white light on his hawkish silhouette. He wore a heavy wool coat and a cap that reminded her of Ireland.

“Which Conjunction are you from?” she asked.

He turned his head slightly, one wiry eyebrow raised. “They finally start teaching kids about us?”

“My parents taught me.” The flashlight wavered slightly and she gripped it tighter. “Answer my question.”

“Fifth,” he grunted, “when kids weren’t so rude. Who are your parents?”

Fifth. Her knees felt like water. That meant Wholenuther was over three thousand years old. “They study the Conjunctions.”

“And they let you wander the woods at night, looking for Remnant?”

“They’re missing. I need you to help me find them.”

He finally turned to face her. He looked weathered, but not like the wizened sage she’d imagined most Remnant resembling. Wholenuther looked eerily human.

“Sorry, kid,” he said finally. “I’m taking this century off.”

“This – century?”

“Sure. I’ve been real busy the last few hundred years.” He scratched under his cap. “Need some time off, understand?”

“An entire century? This’ll only take, like, a week, and then you can get back to…whatever you’re doing.”

Wholenuther stood and Bee took an involuntary step back, remembering on some instinctual level what this man really was and what he was capable of.

“One week?”

“I mean, I’m not sure – ”

“You brought payment, I assume?”

“Get him something to wear his brain out on, he’ll help find your parents.” Grandma’s advice. She stepped closer and held out a Rubik’s cube. To her embarrassment, her hand was still shaking. Wholenuther took the toy and studied it. Then, with an exasperated sigh, he sat down on a tree stump and began twisting the cube’s sides.

“Rusty,” he grunted.

“It’s…plastic?”

“Me, not it! Used to be able to do these in – there we go.” He chucked the completed puzzle back to her. “Not good enough. Pay me more, or find someone else to – ”

“You didn’t finish.” Bee tucked the flashlight under her arm and pulled on the cube’s sides. It came apart in her hands. Within one half she’d hidden a tiny metal sphere, no bigger than a marble. Wholenuther sat up.

“What’s that? Smells Remnant.”

“It is. Fourth Conjunction.” She held it out, then pulled her hand back as he reached for it. “It’s your real payment – if you agree to help me.”

A grin spread across his whiskery face. “Gimme a look first. No tricks, I promise – clearly you’re too smart to be taken for a ride.”

She watched as he rolled the metal ball between his fingers. “The scans my parents did reveal at least two more spheres inside it,” she said, “but there aren’t any seams.”

“So how was it made,” Wholenuther murmured, his gaze fixed on the sphere, “and what does it do?”

“You get to figure that out.”

He studied the sphere for another few moments, then tucked it inside his coat. “What’s your name, kid?”

“Bee Carson.”

“The Carsons’ kid! Why didn’t you say so?”

“You know them?”

“Never met them, but all of us know who the Carsons are. Missing, eh?” He got to his feet and led the way back down the creek. “We’d better get started.”


The Occultists of Moytura Hall

I’m through to the final round of YeahWrite Super Challenge #6! To celebrate, I’m finally getting around to posting my Round 1 story, which had to feature a sword-fighting librarian, a phone call in which the caller hangs up without speaking, and the emotion joy.

“Mother, this is exhausting.” Angelica pushed up her face mask, feeling tendrils of hair stick to her sweaty face. Why they had to have a roaring fire during fencing training was beyond her. “I don’t see how swords can help us against demons when the last war was fought with machine guns and gas.”

Mrs. Burke removed her own mask and signaled for a break. Maria, Angelica’s sister and Mother’s assistant librarian, came forward offering towels for their faces.

“Swords have sufficed since the arrow,” Mother said. She wasn’t even breathing heavily; she patted her face lightly with the towel and handed it back to Maria. “Perhaps Lord Carlisle will succeed where others have failed and bespell projectiles to be fatal to the arcane, but until then, you will learn the sword.”

“But I know the sword!” Angelica dropped her soaked towel on the floor and gestured to the bookshelves surrounding them. “I’ve read all four volumes of Shieldmaiden Shoji and both translations of Galica’s Gladii et daemonorium!”

Mother swept her blade in an elegant circle as she took up her stance. “All these books are dear to me, but all the knowledge they offer is only part of a demonslayer’s arsenal.”

“‘Book and blade shall dispel darkness,’” Maria added, parroting the Carlisle family motto written all over Moytura Hall: wrought in iron along the gates, carved above the front door, gilded over the library’s fireplace. Angelica rolled her eyes. Lord and Lady Carlisle, Occultists to the Crown, employed Mrs. Burke to keep their library of grimoires and defend Moytura Hall from demons. One day, Maria might take a position at the Royal Arcane Library, and Angelica could serve as a ladies’ maid and private demonslayer at court—however, she had no particular interest in anything arcane.

She glanced longingly at the telephone hanging by the door. The only thing that would dispel her darkness was a call from her beau, Edward. Her arms ached, and her brain felt feeble from all the facts and stratagems Mother made her recall during training sessions. Demonslaying might offer better prospects than being a governess like their cousin, but it was quite a bit more work.

The telephone rang.

“Ah!” Mother held up one hand and Angelica halted.

“But I’m expecting a call from Edward!”

“You know the rules—no social calls until we’re finished.” She gestured to Maria. “Dear, would you please?”

Angelica stifled a groan as her sister answered the telephone. Maria was too far to hear clearly, but it didn’t sound like she was talking to Edward. Perhaps she hadn’t missed him after all.

Mother pulled her mask back into place. “Again!”

Angelica lunged. Mother parried easily, but Angelica caught her in a feint and pressed her attack. Through the padding of her mask, she heard the faint chime of the telephone receiver and felt renewed hope: the sooner they finished sparring, the sooner she’d be free to return to her social obligations.

Mother’s next attack came low; Angelica parried, catching the blade and twisting—

And for the first time ever, Angelica disarmed Mrs. Burke. Her mother’s blade clattered against the bookshelves. They stared at each other, stunned. Angelica slowly removed her mask. She’d surely be lectured for humiliating her mother like this.

Instead, Mother burst out laughing. “Marvelous, Angie!” she cried, tossing aside her mask and seizing her daughter in an embrace. “Truly excellent!”

“Thank you, Mother.” Angelica wriggled free, trying to hide her smile. Maria, who’d been tidying shelves, grinned at her over a stack of books. “Can we be finished now?”

“Oh, no.” Mother waggled a finger at her, but she was still beaming. “You would quit when you’ve achieved such success? You must learn to replicate it!”

The telephone rang again. Angelica looked up hopefully. “Please, Mother, may I answer?”

Mother nodded, still smiling. “Oh, very well. Just be quick.”

Anxious to take advantage of her mother’s good mood, Angelica ran to the telephone and lifted the receiver. “Miss Angelica Burke speaking.”

No one responded. There seemed to be no one on the other end—only silence.

“Angie? Who is it, dear?”

But Angelica couldn’t answer—she was frozen, unable to even breathe. Cold seeped through the receiver into her hand, her ear.

“Angelica?”

Trembling took over her muscles. She felt her sight go dim—“Even the breath of the demon is fatal,” she thought distantly. Watson’s “Arcanology,” page nine—

Her blade fell from her twitching fingers; it must have clanged against the floor, but Angelica couldn’t hear it. All she could hear was silence.

Then the receiver was wrenched from her ear. Angelica gasped for air. She could hear again, everything from her own racing heartbeat to the crackle of the fire. Closest and loudest, though, were her mother’s terrified sobs. Her family’s faces swam into view.

“Angie,” Maria cried. “Say something!”

“I’m all right,” she managed. Her own voice sounded harsh, her breath coming in heaving gasps, but they felt all the more precious for having almost been lost forever. Mother pulled her close.

“Maria,” she said, “please inform Lord Carlisle that a demon has infiltrated the telephone exchange, and the connection to Moytura Hall is no longer secure.” Angelica heard her swift footsteps leave the room.

“How do you feel?” Mother asked, touching Angelica’s face. “Is there any lingering cold? Any trembling?”

“I’m fine—it’s passed.” She stood straighter and took a shaky breath. She welcomed the stifling heat of the fire, the way it warmed her face, the way the light glinted on the gold lettering of the books’ spines.

“Perhaps you’d like to call on Edward in person today,” Mother offered, “since the telephone is no longer safe. Mr. Donne could drive you—“

“No, thank you.” Angelica picked up her sword. “I think I ought to keep practicing—if that’s all right with you.”

Mother smiled—an odd smile, sad yet proud, loving yet grim—and saluted Angelica with her blade. “It would be an honor.”