Okay, so here I have the top 6 stories,
YOU get to choose who the winners are!
Have at it! You have until January 31st at 11:59.59 PM EST
Unlikely Dragon Slayer
Head high, Claire approached the cave. The stench wafted out spoiling the air, and her eyes turned for one last look at her village tucked in the valley far below. Like a deserted ruin it stood burnt and devastated. The dragon had taken her family. The young men of the village had perished one by one, their spears broken against its impenetrable scales, their bodies feeding its belly. The rest of the villagers hid in fright, knowing it would return for them.
She squared her shoulders and chewed her last handful of juicy frothos berries. The berries would give her an edge the others heroes lacked. Her belly full, she entered the cave, taking small steps until her eyes compensated for the darkness. The smell forced her to press a hand against her nose.
Her hands shook and sweat ran down her sides in a clammy rain. Two steps turned to ten, then twenty. Her white dress clung to her legs as she trailed down the tunnel, counting. Once she’d hoped the dress could be a bridal gown. Foolish hope. The dress had a new use. Her own audacity made her tremble.
The cave opened out before her bringing a raspy breathing ever closer. A scratching sound and the giant head reared high, contemplating her presence with huge green-slotted eyes. Scales scraped against rock as the beast levered itself to its feet, legs accepting its own ponderous weight. Great bat wings lay tucked against a humped back. It made no move toward her.
“Do you see your doom in me?” Claire whispered in wonder. She held out her empty hands, willing the shaking to stop, then took two careful steps closer. “Go on,” she cried. “Do what you do!”
She approached until she stood directly under the beast, making no hostile move. Overhead, the dragon’s fangs showed in row upon row of razor teeth. The same teeth had feasted upon father, mother, lover, making a sport of hunting them as they ran in terror. Shouldn’t revenge feel sweet? Facing the great beast, no savor of triumph bloomed in her heart.
The frothos berries caused her stomach to cramp. Soon now. Even the smallest child knew to avoid them. Their red color and pleasant scent attracted the hungry, but a handful could poison a full grown cow. The amount in her stomach could do much more damage.
The beast hovered over her hypnotically. The size of the dragon’s mouth insured it could finish her slight body in one bite. Her fingers curled; the pain would be as nothing to the glory of saving her village. With a scream to attract the beast, she turned and ran. The white dress made a tempting target. Crashing footsteps lumbered behind. The ground shook.
At the tunnel entrance the beast struck. Claire made no attempt to evade. Her eyes drank in one last look at her home. Saved.
It’s ten below, but I’m sweating under my coat. I have to get out at the far end of the parking lot—it’s the closest I’m going to get without hitting the mob of sign-toting protestors in front of the clinic, but I’m starting to wonder if I should have bothered. The harassment starts before I get out of my car. First an assault of eggs, then a scream about murder and life is sacred topped with—whooda thunk—a brick, which narrowly misses my head.
I wonder who thought that one up. Hey guys, let’s preserve the sanctity of life by braining a stranger in a parking lot! For all they know I’m here to make a delivery or something. My enormous coat absorbs most of the impact, and I push my way through the mob to the front door. My hands stop shaking as I fight the human tide—the more they try to force me back, the more determined I am to go through with this. I’m half inclined to thank them, just to see the looks on their faces, but I’m stopped with an egg to the face.
My mouth was open and everything. I can taste the sulfury goo all the way in the back of my mouth. It makes me gag, but there’s nothing in my stomach to vomit up—I took care of that before I came. When I breach the front doors the assault stops. These guys are all tough out in the open, but nobody wants to set foot inside. Cowards.
Just inside stands a pretty redhead with a big washcloth in her arms. She wears a medical-ish uniform and a look of genuine concern as she presses the cloth into my hands.
“I’m sorry you had to deal with those people,” she says without showing her teeth. I start wiping the egg off my face. “You’re a real trooper.”
“Is that what you call it?” Pieces of eggshell crack between my molars as I speak, and the crunch makes me shudder. It feels too much like my own teeth are breaking apart. “Can I get you some coffee?” You’ve got to hand it to the lady—either she’s genuinely this sweet, or else she’s really good at playing the part. I’d rather not think about which one it really is.
“Mm… yeah. Sure.” I can’t help it. She just looks so eager to do something nice for me. She flashes a quick smile and disappears behind the counter, giving me a chance to look around. Bright colors—lots of blues and purples and gold accents—and squishy pleather furniture, with a small television softly flashing the local news in the corner. The only red is on the row of pamphlets on one wall. They’re covered with pictures of people with soft smiles and hopeful eyes, and big bold letters that say things like Is Donation Right for Me?
“Cream?” the redhead asks from behind the counter.
“Sure,” I say. “And two sugars.” I pick up one of the pamphlets and rifle through it. Under a What to Expect banner: Your final moments will be pain free, guaranteed. Patients often experience a pleasant euphoria before drifting into a gentle sleep. I wonder how they’re planning to honor that guarantee, but I let the thought pass. I didn’t come to a suicide clinic looking for a refund. The redhead brings me a Styrofoam cup full of coffee, but her eyes keep flitting up to the television. On the screen is a charcoal husk of a building, over a glowing red headline: SUICIDE CLINIC BOMBINGS CONTINUE
.“Don’t worry, that sort of thing won’t happen here.” She flashes me a reassuring smile. For the first time I can see her teeth, and her long canines stand out against her too-bright lips. “Are you ready to talk to the doctor?”
That catches me by surprise. “Don’t you need me to fill out forms or something first?”
“No, of course not,” she said. “Filling out forms makes it feel too final. First we want you to talk to someone—you know, make sure this is what you really want. The actual procedure won’t happen for another two visits.”
Count on vampires to be patient. But they’ve got all the time in the world, especially when they can say they’re performing a public service to willing participants.
A man steps out of the back rooms—he’s got a square face and a bright white lab coat, but a hint of yellow in his otherwise brown hair tells me he had to fight through the mob outside earlier. He flashes me a toothy smile and shakes my hand before leading me to the back hallways. This clinic’s a lot more popular than I thought—I see half a dozen other vampires milling around, carting bags of blood, pushing sheet-covered gurneys, and carrying clipboards full of paperwork from one room to another. The hall is windowless, and through a few open doors I can see that the rest of the building is, too.
I don’t even realize I’ve stopped until the doctor raises his voice.
“Are you feeling all right?”
What a funny question.
“You look a bit warm. Would you like me to get your coat?”
I almost laugh out loud. I unzip my coat and peel it back, revealing a neat vest of explosives underneath. I don’t even have a chance to blink before the doctor tackles me to the floor, his hands searching for a detonator. The other vampires make a break for it.
My toes curl around the trigger.
“Really?” he asks, ripping off my coat in a panic. “Suicide bombing a suicide clinic? A bit counterproductive, don’t you think?”
“I’ve got nothing against suicide.” Maybe it’s his searching fingers tickling me, or maybe I really am getting that euphoria they promised. I feel like laughing. “I just really hate vamps.”
The police shepherd people around us, saying in Bengali, Hindi, and finally English, that there is nothing to see.
What there is to see is me. My wife and I lie in the street, about ten feet apart. Our respective pools of lifeblood bridge the gap between us, meeting and intermingling before flowing down the road and towards a drain. I try to look over to her, but I can barely draw breath. No matter. She is long gone that woman. I give up and close my eyes. I listen to the curtain from our room, three stories above, flutter as a few final bits of broken glass tinkle to the ground around us. A child screams and cries. We must look a sight.
I didn’t go to comfort her where she sat, huddled in the corner with my jacket draped over her shoulders. I just let her rock back and forth, bracing herself, coming to terms.
“What will you do if they take me?” she asked urgently.
“Kill you.” I immediately replied. A fascinating combination of relief and panic spread across her face.
“Do you…” she whispered. I couldn’t quite hear the end.
“Do I what?”
“Do you promise?”
I wrung my hands around the handle of the switchblade in my hands.
“Oh yeah.” I said. I promise. I breathed on the knife and wiped the blade on my shirt, soaked through with sweat and half unbuttoned. She was filthy too, from running for days, not sleeping, and having been, like me, soaked in flop sweat for the better part of two days. Crouching, I inched towards the window. It was a standard Kolkata afternoon outside. People, dogs, and the occasional autorikshaw passed by the building. No one deviated from the norm.
“The bastards.” I said. “Those… Fucks…”
“Don’t.” She said, shaking her head. “Don’t.” I sat back down against the wall, taking deep breaths. I pulled the train tickets out of my pocket and began ripping them up. I began with the overnight from Hospet, then moved on to the sleeper from Bangalore. I crushed the express train from Delhi into a little ball in my hand and let it roll to the floor.
“We could try a flight.” I said. She made a squeaky sound and the corners of her lips twitched.
“You don’t think they’re watching airports?” she muttered. “They hear us on the phone. They see when we use credit cards.”
“Then let’s just try. It’s the only chance we’ve got.”
“No.” She shook her head violently. “No. No.” She pulled her legs up to her chest.
“Maybe they won’t hurt us.” I suddenly felt overwhelmingly tired. I struggled to keep my eyes open.
“Don’t start in on that.” I slurred. “I’d rather die than have what they did to Desmond done to me. We can’t let them catch us.”
Silence filled the room. Fatigue and fear kept my mouth clamped closed. The silence expanded down the hall and out to the street. There was no sound from traffic or chattering neighbors. An unseasonably cold blast of wind passed through the cracked window.
“Oh, God.” She said, laying her head down in her arms. “Oh, God.”
I closed my eyes to listen and heard it immediately. Their footsteps sounded clipped and clean, like God was walking down the hallway. I heard the machine-they brought the machine-crackle and hiss as they turned that black knob.
Then I felt it.
Oh, God, to describe the feeling is nearly impossible. Think of your mind as a clenched and cloistered thing, something that you keep hidden inside you, then think of a hand, one with long and slender fingers, entering it. I screamed, breaking the silence, trying to fight it, but feeling myself lose control simultaneously. They were trying to close my eyes–that’s the first thing they always do–and my arms were jerkily flailing at random. I forced myself to stand and looked across the room at her. She was crying and screaming in rage, but she had already lost. Casually her body rose to its feet.
I could still use my hands. I reached for my knife and flicked the blade open. Pressing it against my chest, I spoke to myself through gritted teeth and foaming drool.
“Push.” I said. “Push!”
The door to our room opened. They didn’t enter. They just stood, watching us lose the last semblance of everything we were with cool expressions on their waxy faces. Her weeping slowed as she stood at attention to them. One held the “wand” portion of the machine, like a little steel rolling pin, aloft and made her do a few choreographed “test moves.” He checked the “box” portion of the machine and turned to the other one.
“She is fine.” The other looked at me.
“What about him?” The wand was waved at me.
“Needs work.” He sighed and walked over to where I stood, struggling. His expression looked almost neutral, but I read subtle emotions as they played across his face. Frustration first. Then Pity.
He pulled his hands out of his black trench coat and placed his long, slender fingertips on the brim of the black hat on his head.
“It’s not so bad.” He said. He removed the hat. Steel nodes protruded from each of his temples, like little silver pottu marks. “Trust me.” I looked over to her and tried to call out. Something inside me roared. My throat heaved, and frothy spittle, spiked with bile, leaked from the corners of my mouth. There was fear and there was rage, but there was something else indescribable.
“I don’t want this.” I managed to croak. My arms flailed erratically. I could actually feel my eyes bulging from their sockets.
“I don’t want this.”
Agonizingly, I broke free. I closed my eyes and headed for Jessica.
I dove to her, and she accepted me into her arms. When we fell, we fell together.
There is a spot up on the roof of the Circus Circus hotel in Las Vegas that is my favorite spot to relax between shows. Most people can’t even get close and that’s what makes it my favorite. Growing up in Chicago, I’d always been comfortable around crowds. That changed after my injury.
When I first woke up in the hospital after the attack, I felt like I was in a room with a hundred people all talking or screaming. I opened my eyes slowly and tried to look around. I was on a stretcher being rolled through the halls. There were so many voices around that I started to feel dizzy. It was like everyone was talking at the same time. I didn’t get far into my checklist before I started feeling nauseous. My head hurt and I was strapped down to a body board to keep immobilized. I could feel pressure around the left side as if something were trying to push out from inside my skull. The ceiling was rolling past and the crush of voices was making me sick. Someone was saying that my head wound looked bad. Someone else was screaming that they had lost their leg. I passed out again.
I was in and out over the next several days. It took a while to come to grips with what was happening. I’m told that being injured in a car bombing can really screw you up. I was one of the lucky ones. I took a piece of the car to the head and was knocked cold. There were ten people killed and another 28 wounded and then there was me.
The next few days were very stressful as I tried to recover. The swelling in my head went down and my ears stopped ringing but the people talking stayed with me. It was odd at first. I would hear someone ask me something before they would enter the room. The nurse would then come in and ask me a question. Other times I’d hear the question and answer from someplace else. If I were sitting up, I could turn my head like directing the rabbit ears on an old TV and figure out where the voices were coming from. I didn’t mention any of this to the shrinks and, as far as I could tell, they didn’t know anything about it.
I would try to listen for the people in the halls and I could hear their voices getting louder as they approached and softer as they left. I figured it was somewhat limited by distance because I could never hear any voices when I was on the phone to my family. Once I was able to start walking, I’d roll my IV stand around the halls and try little experiments. I would pick a voice in my head and try to identify whose voice it was that I was hearing. Once I figured that out, I’d walk as far as I could from the person to determine how far I could still hear them. Another thing I realized was that I could only hear what they were actively thinking. There was no way to rummage around their minds looking for thoughts.
As I healed, I was better able to come to grips with the voices in my head. Kinda strange that someone would put it like that but it was the case. When I had my first apartment, it was just off the Kennedy Expressway and near the Addison el stop. There was traffic and trains 24/7 and the sound was like a constant river. I got used to it. I could push it to the back of my mind and ignore it. Sometimes there would be an alarm or a siren that would draw my attention back but mostly it was just white noise. The voices became like that. Sometimes there would be something loud that would draw your attention. It was worst in the hospital because I was a couple floors up from the maternity ward. That kind of fear-pain-joy mixture can wake you like a train crash.
So where do you go when you are 25, have survived a car bomb and can read minds? Vegas baby! Imagine being able to read the minds of everyone in Sin City. Turns out the reality falls short of the fantasy. Slot machines don’t have minds to read. Poker winnings can get to be pretty high profile. The hookers really only want the money and most of them hate every minute of their jobs.
I’ve been here now for almost eight years. I play some poker but don’t win enough to draw attention. I do a psychic show under the name of Mel the Mind Reader twice a day at the Circus. I own a small house out in the dessert that is beyond the range of the voices on all sides. It hasn’t been a bad time and I think I’m really going to miss it.
Tonight during the show, while I was trying to read a man who was holding a three of clubs but more interested in the cocktail waitress, I heard another voice that startled me. It was one of those strong shocks that cuts through everything and gets your attention. It was a female voice from somewhere in the room. It said “Holy shit! He can do it too.” Try as I might, I couldn’t hear that voice again. I thought hard about the route to the roof and the code to open the door without the alarm. After eight years of sitting through all the fakers and frauds, I’ve found someone like me.
I’m waiting on the roof and all is quiet. I’m out of range of the voices waiting, and hoping that she heard me and comes. If not, at least I now know that I’m not alone. I’ve heard a signal through the noise and that has made all the searching worth it.
“What are we doing here?” I looked at my watch. It was already a half past two in the morning. When Jude had asked me to meet him at the old grain warehouse I was skeptical. At first I believed he had planned something romantic, but upon arrival I knew he had something else planned.
“Shhh…” Jude pulled me into the building and down a dark hallway. The warehouse had been abandoned long ago and rumors had circulated that the place was haunted. These types of stories had always intrigued Jude more then they should, but I figured it had to do with his upbringing. His mother had been extremely religious and often would try to beat the fear of the word into her children. Jude left home at a young age and found his religion his own way, on the streets. When I met Jude he was working as an investigative reporter whom was on the verge of losing his losing his job over a newly discovered obsession with the undead.
“Jude this is crazy. I thought we were going to dinner. Come on. It’s freezing. I’m freezing.” I pulled my hand from his and stopped in the middle of the dark hallway. It was too dark to see Jude, but I knew he had turned around to face me. His hot breath met my own and we stood in silence for what felt like forever. “Please Jude. Talk to me.”
A cold hand brushed against my cheek sending shivers down my spine. The hand traced down my chin and to my neck. Cold fingers wrapped tightly around my neck and squeezed. I began to thrash against the unseen force choking me, but another hand reaffirmed the tight grip on my neck and before long I blacked out from the lack of oxygen. Jude wasn’t capable of doing such a heinous thing, but the warehouse had been quiet when we entered. Where had Jude wandered off? Was he hurt as well?
It was still dark when I came to. I was in another part of the warehouse. A soft light flickered into the room from under a doorway. Crawling to the door I laid on the floor, trying to look under to see into the next room. Jude sat on a chair. He was talking to someone, but I couldn’t see whom it was. They were arguing.
“I didn’t bring her here for you.” Jude was forceful in his words, but there was an underlying panic in his voice. He had to be talking about me, but who was he talking to and why did he assume I was meant for him and exactly what did he want to do with me?
A hissing voice came from the corner of the room, but still I saw no one. “Then why did you bring her?”
Jude cringed at the man’s words. He appeared frightened of the unseen man. “I brought her to try to make her understand.”
“Understand you aren’t crazy? What makes you think you aren’t boy?” Footsteps. Silence. Suddenly Jude was ripped from his chair, suspended in air, but there was no one. Nothing in front of him to the side or behind, what was going on? “I am not some carnival show you take your date to. I’m something you have nightmares about. I’m something you run away from.”
“But you said…” Jude sounded like he was being choked. Suddenly he was flung towards the door. I scrambled backwards just as Jude’s body made contact with the door. Unable to hold back a gasp I tried to feel the around the room for another wall, another door.
“It seems she’s awake boy. Take care of her or I will.” There was a shuffling of feet and the door creaked opened slowly. The soft light from the other room filtered into the room where I had been placed. Jude’s outline appeared in the door. He looked worn and frightened. Most of all he looked sad. I fell to the floor in a heap of tears and whimpering.
“Don’t cry.” In a few steps he was in front of me. He slunk to the floor and cupped my face in his hands. “Please darling, don’t cry.”
“Jude.” I whispered
“Shhhh…” His voice cracked and he choked back on tears. His hands were folded in his lap and he looked down at them, shaking his head. “I didn’t want this for you, but I have no choice.”
“Jude?” I reached out for him, but something grabbed my wrist. “Jude? Jude what is going on?”
Whatever had grabbed my hand was pulling me towards the room where Jude had been sitting. Thrashing and kicking only increased the invisible thing’s grasp on my wrist. Once inside the room the door slammed shut, Jude secured on the other side. His screams filtered through under the door. I found myself pinned to the floor by something heavy, something that felt like a human form, but I still couldn’t see anything, anyone, but I heard his voice. A dark, menacing, and cold voice.
“You’ll make a nice bride.” Cold hands wrapped around my neck, the same cold hands I had felt in the hallway when I had blacked out earlier. I was unable to fight back. As I began to fade into the darkness his form started to take shape on top of me. With one final breath he came completely into focus. His hand cupping my face, he placed a gentle kiss on my lips. “Welcome home my darling wife.”
It couldn’t be, but it was. “Darius…you’re dead. I buried you. Cried at your funeral. No. You’re dead. Dead.”
He smiled crookedly. “Now baby, so are you.”