I’ve completed the second week of my flash fiction challenge. This week has been harder. I seem to have struggled a bit to get inspiration, but hopefully they’re enjoyable. Here are the next seven stories.
Michael locked his front door and slumped on the sofa. The Christmas meal had been as awful as every year. The whole office crammed around three scratched tables in the back of the local pub eating dried out turkey. He’d spent most of the time trying not to let the alcohol bring on a fit of honesty or blackmail worthy smartphone memories.
He picked up the secret santa gift, corners of torn wrapping still attached. The budget was £5 and the secret benefactor had not exceeded that. His present was one of those oh so humourous toiletries; a soap to help grow a thick skin. Probably from Jim the caretaker. He hadn’t got why some people might not find his jokes quite so funny as he did. It had only been an informal reprimand.
Michael opened the box. The contents fell into his lap, a yellow swirled bar that smelt vaguely of marigolds. He picked up the box, trying to focus on the contents.
“Horsetail, Calendula,” he read out loud to himself, struggling to pronounce the last word. “Powdered chitons.” He traced out the phrase in brackets (Not suitable for vegetarians.)
When he woke it was the early hours, neck cricked against the arm of the sofa. Picking up the soap he went to the bathroom, left the light off and turned on the tap, waiting while the water heated.
With his gift to hand he lathered up the soap and rubbed his face. It felt gritty, but not unpleasant. He rinsed his skin and touched his face. The skin felt odd. He stared into the mirror above the sink, trying to see in the light from the hall. His forehead had healed over with fans of mineral plates. He felt them spread over his face, down his cheeks, turning his lips to shell and sealing them across. Inside he pressed his tongue against the plates and felt them flex at the touch.
The alteration started where the soap cleaned but soon spread. He watched his hands turning to shell. With razor edged nails he tried to claw between the gaps, but there was no space to gain purchase. He watched his skin change until his eyes healed over and there was only darkness and discomfort and the weight of his changed skin.
For a few hours nothing happened. He could not see, and though he tried to feel his way from the room his muscles were too weak to move him in his blindness. Then, slowly but surely, his vision returned. First, eyes of mineral erupted in his back, then on his chest, until every part of his skin was covered in flexing aragonite eyes, their stone lenses twitching to see the darkened bathroom whose floor he was now ground into.
Skins of Embers
After the Burning People arrived with the onset of winter none of our fires lit again. Sparks and flames all disappeared overnight. We watched these people of the inferno walk around the empty midnight streets with their skins of embers as we huddled around cold hearths with no candles to light our way.
The only burning we knew was jealousy. After our children started blueing from hard frosts, gangs broke the curfew and clattered the streets. They cornered and dismembered the Burning People to carry home glittering limbs, bones of smouldering charcoal exposed to the falling snow. Glowing coals fell to the ground and melted through the drifts like trails of burnt toast. That night we huddled close to the first hearth fires in weeks and ate hot food so fast it blistered our jaws.
We did not know that this was how the Burning People bred. How they increased their number. Now we have more flames than we could ever desire. Now our children are no longer blue. Now there is nothing but fire.
Word reached Marco of a new Christmas shop selling wrapping paper for far less than the supermarkets. Word reached the rest of the town too. People queued down the street to save money on something only needed until little fingers found their way inside.
Reaching the front, Marco stacked Amy’s arms high with rolls of paper, each decorated with embossed stars or abstracted reindeer. Elegant, good quality and cheap.
Back home he wrapped the family’s gifts with care, marvelling at how the paper didn’t tear on sharp, awkward corners. He added curled satin ribbons. The perfect finishing touch.
Early Christmas morning the paper was scattered to be forgotten, attention focussed on the coloured plastic gifts. Marco gathered the wastepaper, pushing it down into black bin liners, ready for recycling.
During the night, skin scorching heat woke a still drunk Marco. Believing the central heating still on he tried to rise from bed and failed. Reaching down to unfurl himself from the duvet he felt embossed paper instead.
Trying to free his legs, he crashed to the floor. Torn paper pinned arms to torso, rolling him toward the door as it crushed his ribs to splinters. He saw Amy already cocooned, breathing her last.
Marco tried shouting. Decorated with reindeer, torn paper collapsed words back into his throat. Used sellotape, thick with dust, held it in place. Waste paper knitted across his face, blinding him. The pressure increased and glistening muscles erupted from gaps between the sheets, looped like satin ribbons.
The Well of Words
The Well of Words stood in the middle of the town, edifice carved from yellowed bones of long dead creatures, like basilisk and cockatrice.
Each day the children would go to the well, stand on the edge and lower in empty pen barrels to capture the words in the narrow tubes.
On summer days newborns were placed in bassinets, thin reeds coming out of their mouths so they did not drown, and were lowered down the chamber to soak up words like sentience and rushing, erupted and agility.
The letters sat upon their infant skins until the daylight bleached them pale.
But it was on winter nights when we would stumble to the well and skim off feral phrases that rose to the surface like cream. Backs against the bones of long dead creatures we stitched words like rebellion and disobedience into sentences, and, as the snow melted on our skins, became drunk on their power.
The red and blue sky beyond the platform opened its veins and bled birds into the evening. Laura watched them fall to clot roads and pavements, feathers in such number they turned the snow black.
The trains could not run because of the weight of tiny corpses on the rails. The taxis were crowded and each step in the street was soundtracked by the snapping of tiny hollow bones. They tried to clear the feathered bodies from the street, but they had a weight far beyond their size. Far beyond anything that floated on thermals.
When the birds started walking again, on powdered legs, calling through snapped beaks, Laura was not surprised. The birds crawled over each other, shuddering as their feathers caught.
The birds tasted secrets. All through the city they crowded around people, clinging to them with claws that cut through clothes and needled skin. Once they attached they could not be unhooked, singing their calls at their victim through broken throats. Once they attached more and more came until the shape of the person underneath was lost in the softness of feathers.
Laura did not leave her flat, eating combinations of cupboard ingredients until no food was left. Using gaffer tape she sealed every gap and snick she could find.
She woke to find the bird gripping her headboard. It hopped across the bedclothes and knotted into her hair. Getting up, she poured a glass of tap water that tasted of floating birds, sat on the sofa and waited for the rest to arrive.
Ghost Fishing (Inspired by a conversation with Dr Anna Macdonald)
Sailing out on erupted waters the crew of The Flying Cloud caught nothing. At first. After several hours at sea the lines snagged and they dragged them through the muttering surface of the sea.
Hand over hand Billy and Sam hauled the catch onto the deck and stared. Every line held a single pot, lost long before Billy and Sam started crewing. Each trap of wire was crammed to crushing with swimmer crabs, twenty to thirty in each. Some were still alive, claws still twitching against the shells of the dead.
Opening the pots the two fishermen tipped the crabs to the deck and watched the ones still alive grasp their way free. Billy delved in, grabbing two and taking them down to the galley, appearing a little later with two plates of crab meat that they ate as the weather tried to scrub the world to grey.
Over the next two weeks they gifted the catch to friends and family. Compressed the cooked meat into stone pots and turned creature after creature from blue to red.
The ghosts, only recently knotted into shell kept flesh, found new homes. One pale, shimmering legs they slipped easily from the dead sea creatures to take up residence behind the eyes of the fishermen. Behind the eyes of their children The ghosts liked knives. They reminded them of their lost claws. Soon they would start their cutting.
A Winter Ride
Mike took the corner and wound open the throttle, the bike accelerating under him. A gust of wind snagged on the mirror, wrapping itself around the front forks.
Across the fields, the other end of the gust grasped the torn wing of a crow, pulling her off course. Unsure what was happening the bird clattered through a hedge, snapping its beak tight around the thorned branches. The drag shook most of the roots free of the field, a rain of soil falling through the air. The scent of crushed blackberries and mallow clothed the sky.
Under the dirt a single root tried to hold to the earth where it suckled, until it could resist no more and was dragged free, bringing with it the forty two sinews of plough furrows tattooing the field.
Mike came to a stop outside his garage. He killed the engine, around him a cocoon of branches and feathers. Breezes and soil. His skin was stained with the juice of blackberries. He risked a glance in the mirror, the countryside behind now scrubbed to fraying and pale as chalkdust.