Category Archives: BlogBattle

Teagan Oh-Hair and the Barbaric Barbers #blogbattle

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Hero of Countless Tales, Harrower of Cold-blooded Villains, and Handsome Bachelor

accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway.



Teagan blinked several times, trying in vain to clear away the stinging smoke and the fog of unconsciousness.

I’ve been drugged. 

She moved to rub her eyes, but her hands stayed behind her back and coarse rope dug into her wrists. The crackle and heaet of a nearby bonfire flooded her senses, along with a sweet smell and sizzle like bacon.

Feral boar, perhaps? Do they raise swine in the mountains of Uruguay?

A chilling sense of foreboding told her no. She tugged on the rope, hoping for some give in the restraint. But she remained firmly held against a thick tree trunk.

“You’re not going anywhere, Teag,” Grant said. His dejected voice provided a small sense of comfort. She thought she could make out his bulky form, kneeling between two tribesmen’s spearpoints.

The tribe came into focus as tears from the smoke cleared Teagan’s vision. Several men in animal skin loincloths chanted around the bonfire. They wore carved bone jewelry on leather straps, and carried sharp spears that glinted in the firelight. Nearby a few men and most of the women tore at pieces of steaming roast meat laid out on a large round table. Like many tribes Teagan had read about, the uncivilized Aktuacha left more skin exposed than covered. 

Grant’s wide eyes and red cheeks caught Teagan’s attention. He turned this way and that, as if unsure where to look.

“Surely you’ve seen a woman disrobe,” Teagan said, trying not to laugh. Their uncertain situation and the hostile growls of the Aktuachans should have stifled every bit of humor. But perhaps because of the danger they faced, Grant’s embarrassment at something so natural struck Teagan as hilarious.

Then she felt the breeze across her skin in places she ought not.

“Where the hell is my shirt?!”

“I think they tore it apart fighting over the fabric,” Grant replied.

“And where is Juancarlo?” Their guide claimed intimate knowledge of the mountains and assured them he could help find Vallarte’s gold mines. Moreover, they had to beat the twins dispatched by the German Kaiser before the desperate Weimar government could claim the treasure. This was an unacceptable delay. “When we get out of here, he’s dismissed for certain!”

“I think they’re tearing him apart right now.”

The aroma of pork. The sizzling fat.

Teagan vomited, involuntarily straining against the rope.

One of the tribesmen rushed toward her, shaking a bone fetish atop a staff decorated with feathers… and long red hair.

Teagan couldn’t reach her head, so she shook it back and forth but felt nothing on her bare shoulders. The slight breeze cooled her scalp far more than it had a right to.

“Oh my God, did they–”

“He thinks you’re a fire demon,” Grant explained. “Taking your hair gives him your power. Killing your consorts is necessary since we’re tainted by your presence.”

“I… oh God, what happens after that?” Horrifying thoughts swirled in her imagination.

“Well, frankly, I don’t care. Because I’ll be dead and eaten. So let’s stop that from happening, right?”

Teagan struggled once more with the rope, and felt objects in her trouser pockets and belt pouches. They hadn’t taken all of “the demon’s” possessions, just her dignity and pride. With careful effort, her long fingers reached into a pouch near the small of her back, drawing out a pair of metal cylinders.

“I’m sorry, Teag,” Grant said, voice cracking. “I can’t think of any way out.”

“I can.” She held the cylinders, one in each hand, and rubbed them together in motions as sharp and swift as the bonds allowed. “They want to call me a fire demon? I’ll oblige them.”

Bursts of pain and heat shot through her arms, but she let the fury urge her on, smashing the flint and steel together.

The tribe’s shaman approached again, taunting Teagan with the red hair fetish. Behind her back, the dry fibers of the rope loosened with a snap, then came apart.

She held the smouldering rope aloft in blistered hands, then kicked the shaman’s staff into the bonfire.

The man gasped and fell back, and the rest of the tribe followed his lead. 

The fire demon they feared snatched a burning branch from the flames and howled with rage, dashing around the tribal village. As she passed thatch huts, she set them alight. When anyone came close, she shook the coil of burnt rope and makeshift torch at them with crazed eyes.

The forest and clearing glowed orange in the light of many fires, and the tribesmen fled Teagan’s wrath.

She dashed to her pack, next to Grant’s, and grabbed a fresh shirt along with her knife. Her curiosity burned for a moment, and she almost pulled out the compact mirror to assess the damage done to her luxurious mane. But there would be time for that once they were free.

She raced over to Grant and watched him rise to his feet, blowing on seared skin where he burned off his rope.  

He stared back at her, and she became self-conscious, turning her back on him while throwing on her shirt. “I thought women in states of undress discomfitted you!”

“Not often,” Grant said. “And I’ve told you before, you don’t have much to be embarrassed about.”

Teagan whirled, mouth agape. “I do have a knife, Grant!”

He raised his hands in surrender and laughed, his wide smile disarming her anger. “Only jesting, Teag. I’m not one of these foolish savages.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know better than to infuriate a fire demon!”

A Clash with Death

Genre: Adventure? Action? I’ll see what options fit best but I think it’s obvious what I’m going for.

Flash fiction with the prompt: Chasm

God, I had more fun with this than I meant to. I wanted to go a little further with the “chasm” concept, but my original idea wouldn’t fit in the word count.

And really I just wanted to get myself back in the blog battle even if the piece isn’t my most competitive effort. I think you’ll see more of Grant and Teagan in the future.

—–

The Exploits of Grant McSwain, Fearless Adventurer, Man of Mystery, Acquirer of Fabled Fortunes, and Doer of Daring Feats 

(accompanied as always by his hapless asssistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway)

This week’s episode: A Clash with Death, and the Chasm of Despair…

The sun beat down on the thick jungle foliage Grant McSwain brushed aside with the flat of his machete. “Told you,” he said with a grin as he offered his assistant a view of the ziggurat ahead. “The Temple of Ixthapocl, right where I said it would be.”

Teagan clambered the rest of the way up the slope, then took a knee and brushed red bangs away from her dripping face. “The fifth time’s the charm, I guess. As usual.”

Grant ignored the jab. “Now the true challenge begins!”

“Finding the way in?”

“No, that’s easy. I’m talking about sneaking artifacts past customs when we get back to America.” He trudged down the hill toward the vine-covered ruin.

“Always ten steps ahead,” Teagan said. “Sometimes you forget to plan for the obstacles that still block our way.”

Grant shrugged and strolled across the open ground toward the base of the temple. “Who needs a plan when you have style?” His machete made short work of the intertwining vines blocking the entrance. “Already we know that no one else has been in here in years.”

“Through this entrance,” Teagan muttered. The Ixthacas always built secret passages for their own use. Many a conquistador had been ambushed, thinking they found unattended wealth.

A heavy metal door blocked their way, a ring engraved with animals and men in different poses at its center. Grant unfolded a parchment and double-checked the sequence, then turned the ring to the appropriate symbols. “Dance like the serpent,” Grant read aloud, “fight like the bear.”

The lock clicked and dust shook loose as the door swung open.

Grant stepped inside, and Teagan saw the stone sink beneath his foot. She dove into him, bowling him over as three darts cut through the air where he’d been standing.

“And duck,” she said, “like someone who wants to survive.”

Grant dusted himself off and rose, face red as her hair. “Thanks,” he said finally. “Get the flashlight, wouldya?”

The light revealed walls of carved stone, with rows of faces at eye level. Every other mouth hung open, potentially hiding more traps. They took a slower pace, testing any stone in the floor that seemed odd.

The halls inside the ziggurat led to several empty chambers—living quarters, based on the provisions and furnishings. Stairs wound up to the higher levels.

Grant checked each room for anything of interest, a process that took a full hour on the first floor. “I’ve only got one set of spare batteries,” Teagan said. “The rest are back at camp. Ceremonies would be held beneath the moon and stars in the top chamber. Maybe that’s where the good stuff was kept?” 

“Or that’s what they’d want you to think,” Grant replied.

Teagan rolled her eyes and dutifully followed.  

By the time they reached the highest level, the flashlight dimmed and the full moon shining through the open ceiling did as good a job. Stone pillars rose into the night sky at each corner and on each side of the ziggurat’s rooftop. Every pillar bore a plate of silver and obsidian displaying a phase of the moon.  

On a low platform before the altar in the center of the top floor, silver spheres the size of golf balls glimmered in the moonlight, arranged like the brighter stars in the sky. Grant pulled out a knife and immediately pried one from its setting. “Yep, they’re loose, we can grab these.” He drew out a thick leather pouch and began filling it. 

Then he spotted the shining gold plate set above the altar. Engraved lines radiated from the golden sun. “Hey Teag, grab that, will ya?” 

Teagan smiled at the thick gold and approached. But something felt off. She checked the floor, and it looked solid. She inspected the plate from every angle, but saw nothing indicating a trap or trigger mechanism. She tapped the ground in front of the plate with her toes, then put full weight on it. The stones supported her. 

Grant had begun plucking the lunar phases off the pillars, sliding them into his backpack with newspaper padding between each plate. “You gonna get that thing?” he asked. “I don’t want to be out here all night.” 

Teagan couldn’t spot anything amiss. So she jammed a flat steel file between the golden plate and its setting in the stone, then pried the treasure out.  

The Ixthaca worshiped the moon. Why would they put up a valuable image of the sun? 

The plate slapped into her hands, and the stone at the top of its indented setting dropped with a sharp clack against the bottom. 

Teagan groaned. To identify enemies and intruders, of course. 

The floor fell away and she plummeted into darkness with a stifled yelp.  

With her weight suddenly removed, the spring-loaded doors snapped back into place. 

Grant collected the last plate, hefted the sack onto his back, then turned about in confusion. “Did she seriously just take the treasure and run?” 

[To be continued next week, in “The Lolly-pops of Peril”]

In the Shadows – Blog Battle

This is my last Blog Battle entry (probably) until December, since NaNoWriMo beckons and will demand my attention. The genre is sci-fi.

 Clouds blanketed the sky, but the third moon’s violet glow pierced the veil with dim but unwavering light.
Dressed in clothing like dingy, tattered rags, a mother and her son huddled in the shadow of volcanic stone jutting from a nearby vent. Thick ash fluttered through air corrupted by sulfur’s stench.
 “I may not always be here to guide you to a new refuge.” She choked on the words, and not from the fumes. No one traveled at night, when the creatures swarmed across the barren landscape. But her last refuge lay in ruins. Her love most likely lay among the slain. Scattered and pursued, the survivors fled in every direction. 
 The sense of loss hounded her, hammered at her wavering strength, screamed in her ears to give up and die. Her son’s wide, innocent eyes kept her anchored, kept her from wailing and running into the night toward certain death.

 Squatting in the darkness, she looked her son in the eye. “You must be most cautious at night,” she said in a terse whisper.

 “Because Stoneskins hide in the shadows?” he asked, barely audible. He’d learned well.

 “No, because they’re nocturnal. Do you know what that word means?”

 The boy looked around, struggling for an answer. His eyes lit up with insight. “The knocking noise they make when they talk to each other?”

 She chuckled and kissed his soot-stained head. “No, sweetie. It means they only move around after sunset. But the good news is they stay out of the shadows. I don’t think they like the darkness either.”

 A gout of steam released from the vent behind them, and the ground shook. 

 The boy clapped his hand over his nose. “Ew,” he said with a giggle. “It stinks like Dad after dinner.”

 His mother shushed him and tried to keep composure, but the boy’s infectious delight could not be stopped. 

 Laughter felt foreign, alien, after so many years on the run since the colony ship landed on Beta Kaali Two. Sensors set for organic life offered no warning that the very stones of the planet might be alive. 

 A thought struck home and swept her joy away. “We might not see Dad again.” She patted the youngster, and put a finger to her lips.

 But the crack-crack of stones slamming together on the other side of the vent silenced them both at once. A Stoneskin drew near.

 She charged her nano-pistol and checked its settings. The gun’s nanites could disassemble the creatures on a molecular level. The devices proved the colonists’ only defense against the aliens. But supplies had long since dwindled. 

 If any of the Stoneskins attacked, she’d have three shots–maybe four.

 With one arm, she clutched her son to her chest and they became still as the rocky ground. No matter what, she thought, I will protect you. With my life, if I must.

 She closed her eyes and focused on the only sound that brought her peace, the too-fast beating of his heart.

 The rhythmic knocking of his brood mother soothed Ko-Kakrik and he clawed across the ground eager to follow her voice.

 “Do not wander into the shadows, little gravel-shell,” she said with fondness. 

 Ko-Kakrik sensed the vibrations around him and felt nothing apart from his mother’s movements and voice. He clacked his mandible stones together and asked, “Does the darkness deafen us to the sounds of the earth?” 

 “No, my spawnling,” she replied, with a stuttering clack that indicated amusement. 

 The mirth vanished and she cracked out a warning. “That is where the humans often hide. If they see you, they will spit venom from their claws to eat you alive.”

 Ko-Kakrik paused and listened again. For a moment he thought he felt another sound, a pair of thumping drumbeats nearby. 

 His stones beat together in a panic. “Mother?” 

 His mother’s claw rested upon his back and she guided him away. “Come along, and fear not. I will protect you. Even with my life, if I must.”

The Ghost Watchers

Here’s a Blog Battle entry for the word, “Train.” I want to call the genre Western, but supernatural is probably a good fit.

Heh, so… This week’s word is actually “Ride.” Well, this is pretty clearly a story of a ride on a train, so maybe it’s not too much of a stretch?

We all love creative writing… Maybe I was practicing my creative reading skills this week.

Hope you enjoy the ride…

UPDATE: And apparently enough people did that this scored a win for this week’s challenge. Thanks to all who voted for my Old West ghost watchers, Tommy and Jake!

Thanks, Rachael!
Thanks, Rachael!

Heavy silence hung over everything like a church sanctuary at midnight. Darkness stretched forever like a moonless sky.

Thomas had only been to one funeral in his eight years, when a cholera outbreak on the frontier took his little cousin Annabelle. The whole McMillan clan gathered in one place for the first time in years, but no one had the heart to say a word.

The dream always felt like that.

“Tommy, wake up.” Eagerness gave his brother’s deep voice an edge. “We’re almost there.”

Thomas blinked a few times and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. The gentle swaying of the southbound Union Pacific train and the clacka-clack of the tracks below threatened to lull Thomas to sleep.

Jake poked Thomas several times. “You’re gonna miss the ghosts.”

“I don’t believe in no ghosts, Jake. That’s little kid stuff.”

Jake laughed and tousled his brother’s hair. “You’re still young yet.” He turned to the window and gazed into the night. “Folk say they always appear on the hillside before we cross Clark Canyon.”

Thomas yawned and stretched. “Think we’ll spot some Injuns? I hear the Shoshoni attacked some wagons an’ such.” His eyes lit with glee, even if a few drowsy passengers shot him a stern glare. “Maybe train robbers! I hear Jesse James been spotted in these parts.”

“You never know,” Jake said, then grinned. “You’ll have to help me watch. We passed through Dillon a bit ago. Should be comin’ up on the river soon. We’re that much closer to home.”

Thomas squinted at the roiling clouds of mist curling across the flat landscape. “Too foggy out. Can’t see much of anything.” The sight brought a strange familiarity, though they’d never ridden this train before.

Jake nodded. “Rolled in a few minutes ago. That’s why I woke you. I really could use an extra pair of eyes, ghosts or no.”

A soft glow appeared in the mists ahead, and Thomas leaned toward the glass. The fog parted and revealed a brightly painted metal sign with a golden arrow pointing west, lit by the shiniest electric lamps Thomas had ever seen.

Except… he’d seen them before, hadn’t he? Those same bright lamps, that very sign?

Better with his letters than Thomas, Jake read aloud as the train lumbered past. “The historic ghost town of Bannack, Montana?”

He looked at Thomas with a furrowed brow. “Bannack’s just down the Montana trail from Dillon.”

“I knew that,” Thomas muttered, unsure why or how it was the case.

Jake ignored the comment. “They got a gold rush goin’ on, so the conductor claimed. You’re not gonna believe it, but people say a man can pull up a sagebrush–”

“–And shake out a pan full of gold,” both said in unison.

They stared at each other in wonder for a moment then settled back in the padded seats. A few minutes later the low, mournful wail of the train’s whistle broke the silent spell.

Jake turned toward his little brother. “How did you–”

“Look!” Thomas pressed his face against the window.

A cluster of bizzare carriages in a variety of odd shapes sat at the base of a small hill. Soft electric lanterns of some sort fastened to the carriages gleamed in the swirling mist, their beams pointed toward the tracks.

“No horses in sight,” Jake mumbled.

“The ghosts,” Thomas whispered.

Wispy figures gathered on the hilltop under the moonlight, watching the train. Someone had a looking device mounted on a tripod that made Thomas think of photographers back in town. But a camera needed daylight, and surely couldn’t be so small.

Jake squinted at the distant crowd. “What sort of attire is that? Not even tribeswomen are that immodest.”

Nearby passengers stirred at the commotion, and conversation about the spectacle swept through the railcar. A trick of the fog, some reasoned. Spirits from beyond, perhaps the victims of Shoshoni attacks, others said. A messenger of Satan meant to deceive, a preacher declared, then proclaimed everyone in imminent danger of hellfire.

“We’ve been here before,” Jake said. “More than once. Every word they’ve been saying, I knew it before they finished talking.” He glanced about the car and noticed similar reactions among the travelers.

“There’s another sign comin’ up, Jake.”

Jake shook off distraction and peered into the fog. “Clark Canyon Bridge,” he read, then gasped. “A. K. A. Ghost Bridge, site of the 1884 Union Pacific disaster–”

Screams resounded from the forward railcars. The passenger car angled straight down and plummeted toward the ground, passing through the metal structure and railroad ties. The rock wall of the canyon raced past the window with increasing speed.

Jake and Thomas lurched forward, smacking the seats in front of them. Thomas reached for his brother and clasped his hand, then squeezed his eyes shut.

Heavy silence hung over everything like a church sanctuary at midnight. Darkness stretched forever like a moonless sky.

The dream always felt like that.

“Tommy, wake up. We’re almost there.”

Ghost Orchid

Blog battle – Pages tells me it’s exactly 1000 words. 

Genre: Action? Near-future sci-fi?

—-

 

by Mick Fournier, found on Wikipedia, licensed for Creative Commons usage
 
   Rough hands shoved Abby Spangler from behind, and she tumbled into the dark cell. Her shoulder smashed into the cement floor and she grunted.

  “Don’t bruise her,” a man’s voice commanded in Vietnamese–they hadn’t discerned her understanding of their language yet.
   The door slammed shut. Muffled voices withdrew.
   The dank air reeked of mildew. Flies buzzed around the single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Abby rolled onto her back and sat up with effort. She blew long blonde bangs out of her eyes and shook her head in a futile effort to manage her unruly mane.

   Her cellmate watched, head bowed. “You okay?” The voice came out as a sheepish whisper, its quivering pitch indicating recent tears.

   Tara hadn’t succumbed to the hopelessness of the other slaves Abby had seen. But she was on the verge.

   “Not too bad,” Abby answered with a forced smile. “Everybody needs some electro-shock now and then. Quiets the voices in my head.” She chuckled, hoping to lift Tara’s spirits. 

   But the teenager sniffed and kept her eyes on the floor.

   Abby groaned and slid into her corner. As planned, she whispered her callsign, briefed two months earlier before she let herself be abducted. “Ghost Orchid.” An image filled her mind–a white flower with long tendrils like frog legs hanging beneath a tree branch. Its roots blended so well into the tree that it seemed to float in mid-air, alone and unsupported.

   Like me. 

   Soft cries echoed through the thin walls of the holding cells–a former hostel near Cam Ranh Bay, judging by snippets of conversation in central Viet dialect and the few glimpses outside Abby managed thus far.

   Traffickers brought kidnapped girls from the airport, where they arrived on flights with handlers arranging passage and bribing security. The port city served the syndicate well, with vessels bound to all parts of the world.

   Here, at least, it would end today.

   “Why don’t you just shut up so they’ll leave you alone, Abby? When you mouth off, you’re just asking for it.” 

   Maybe Tara’s not doing as well as I thought.

   “No,” Abby said. “Nobody ‘asks for it.’ These are wicked men doing evil, preying on innocent victims. I don’t buy any logic that says it’s our fault we ended up here, no matter what led to this.” 

   She softened her tone. “Besides, they can’t afford to hurt us too much. They need pretty American girls–no bruises, no scars.”

   Tara sighed. “You sound so chipper. You realize you’re going to be sold as a sex slave to some dirty bastard in a third world country?”

   “Not today.”

   “Oh, yeah, take it one day at a time, right?” Tara rolled her eyes. “That’s not going to change how the story ends.”

   Abby felt a vibration in the wood at her back and looked at the ceiling. The lightbulb swayed. A distant rumble built into thunder, then dissipated in a loud rush of air.

   Tara glanced around the room in panic. “What’s happening?”

   Abby grinned. “‘Not today’ meant we’re not getting sold off. Not ever. None of these girls are. Relax, this will be over in about two minutes.”

   Or so the Colonel said.

   She fought sudden fear at the realization she had no idea what to expect. 

   Screams resounded throughout the building–shrill cries of terrified men instead of the young girls Abby had heard for the last week.

   Then the walls melted in slow motion, leaving soupy puddles covered in gray dust. Sunlight burst into the room, and both women blinked watery eyes to adjust.

   Abby stood and counted survivors. Within a minute of the initial impact, seventeen girls huddled together in the goopy remnants of the slave traders’ holding facility. No collateral damage, no civilian casualties… 

   Tara asked, “Where did the slavers go?” 

   Abby studied the wet mess and grimaced. “I think we’re standing in them. This looks like the results of weaponized nanotechnology. Uncle Sam has some new toys.” 

   The chop-chop of approaching helicopters caught Abby’s attention and quickly drowned out the sound of Tara retching behind her. 

   Abby shouted against the sound. “There’s our ride, girls! Gather up. We’re going home.”

   She helped the young ladies into open hatches where soldiers in active camoflauge scanned biometrics and guided them to seats. Finally, Abby took another look at the destruction and hopped aboard.

    Colonel Hunter Stephens shook her hand. “Got your signal, Agent. Great work.”

    Abby nodded and took her seat in a daze, struggling with confusing thoughts. 

   Stephens sat beside her and loosed a contented sigh. “Nice to do some good for a change.”

   “Colonel,” she said, “the Agency had no idea where we’d get dropped off. That’s why I got taken–finding where they operated.”

   “That’s right, Agent.”

   “So how could you plant listening devices advanced enough to pick up a whispered callsign?”

   Stephens said nothing, but his smile vanished. 

   Abby reviewed the preparation for her mission months earlier. Combat training, resistance techniques, a full medical check-up and thorough brainwave scan to set a baseline in case of traumatic brain injury…

   “Oh my God,” she whispered. “The picture of the orchid. You saw that somehow, picked up my thoughts, triangulated our position by tracking my brainwaves.” She glared at Hunter, who sat silent as a statue. “What the hell kind of system does the government have?”

    The picture of the orchid returned–a lone flower out in the open, seemingly unsupported yet held aloft and nourished by invisible roots, sustained by resources unseen at first glance.
   “Agent, Ghost Orchid was never your callsign,” Stephens said. “It’s the coverterm for a special access program you’re not cleared for. You’d do best to forget this and take comfort that we rescued these girls.”

   He flashed her a smile that any other day would seem charming. “Trust us, we’re the good guys.”

   She turned to stare out the chopper’s window, unsure what to think, but absolutely certain she didn’t want to think at all just then.

No One Questioned It

Here’s a Blog Battle short story (998 words, pushing my luck) for the theme: Head.

—-

Deep in the Utah boonies a ways off I-80 stood a little town–so small you’d drive past in the time it took to Google directions back to civilization. One lone church stood above the houses and shops like a shepherd over the flock. The town’s few heathens joked that even Westboro Baptist members thought Last Days Holiness Tabernacle a bit extreme.

Five years ago, Last Days’ new pastor Eli took that as a point of pride. On his first Sunday, he praised the congregation for following their late pastor’s example so well.

When the ladies of the church invited Pastor Eli’s wife Edith out for tea and gossip in the form of prayer, she graciously declined. “I’ll need to check with Eli about that. The husband is the head of the wife, you know.”

Mary the silver-haired organist chuckled. “Yes, dear, of course. But the wife is the neck and can turn the head whichever way she sees fit.”

Edith’s face blanched and she shook her head. She shot a quick glance at her husband, who stood in the foyer with the men discussing politics and such. When she whispered, “Perish the thought,” no one questioned it, though Mary rolled her eyes.

When Mary was asked to step down two months later, no one questioned that either. The pastor’s daughter Gracie was quite accomplished on the organ, even at age ten. Her youthful energy brought joy to the congregation, or so said Pastor Eli.

Three years ago, Gracie’s Sunday School teacher Rebekah asked her husband Levi over dinner to consider some strange things the girl shared in confidence.

Levi grunted from behind the sports section of the Herald, which Rebekah took as yes.

“I figure you might know best,” she said. “Gracie said her pa sometimes sends her upstairs to the attic for her daily Scripture reading. She hears Edith downstairs in the workshop crying out, even screaming now and then.”

Levi glowered over his newspaper. “I don’t think I ought to know the pastor’s private doings, ‘Bekah.”

Rebekah grimaced. “She said it only happens at the beginning of the week, because sometimes Edith can’t walk right for a couple days after. Her pa calls it cleansin’ Edith’s sin, scourgin’ away her transgressions. You an’ me both know Edith ain’t ever seen a sin no closer than the horizon.”

“Ain’t my place to judge another man’s affairs, ‘Bekah. Not yours either.”

When Rebekah brought her concerns to Pastor Eli, he smiled and assured her things were fine at home. Gracie had been reading some trashy novels she picked up from kids in town, that’s all.

And no one wondered why Gracie didn’t play hymns the next Sunday, what with the terrible fall that sprained her wrist.

Some folk did wonder at how fast Levi and Rebekah found themselves under the pastor’s rebuke two years ago. “She has a Jezebel spirit,” Pastor Eli said of Rebekah, slamming his fist on the pulpit. “No woman ought to manipulate the head of her household, and no self-respecting man should stand for such.”

For the next few Sundays, he read the Old Testament stories about Jezebel and condemned all the ways she usurped spiritual authority. He warned of the dangers of following in those footsteps. It all sounded pretty clear-cut, so no one questioned it.

Except Levi, who stood one Sunday with a page of notes. “I’ve been reading materials online, explaining what the Bible really means about being the head and all that. Pastor, it seems most teachers understand the husband’s role to be servant leadership, not tyranny. He’s to love his wife like Christ loves the church… to give his time and energy in serving her needs. Right before ‘wives, submit to your husbands,’ it says ‘submit to one another in the Lord.'”

No one thought it strange that Pastor Eli kicked Levi out right then. You can’t stand up in the service and challenge the head of the church without consequences. And they’d been warned by Eli not to trust just any so-called minister of the Gospel on the Internet.

So when Eli preached, “be the head of your house, not the tail” each year, no one doubted his judgment. They’d all seen how dangerous challenging authority could be.

A year ago, the wives whispered at how quickly Edith aged, how frail she’d become. But Gracie had grown into a beautiful teen, kind-hearted and meek. Still, her shoulders always seemed bent by an invisible burden.

Pastor Eli sheltered his family from the world, and no one questioned it, because everywhere they looked, they could see how corrupt the world had become.

Best to keep Gracie pure from all of that. Everyone said some day, she’d make an excellent wife for some lucky man.

“So long as she stays pure from sin,” Eli would answer, and people would nod in agreement.

Three months ago, the church secretary overheard Eli and Gracie arguing in his office. He promised to deal with her sins when they got home, said the time had come to cleanse her mouth and purify the rest of her from whatever vile wickedness had latched on.

She ran out the door crying.

Raising teens was hard work sometimes, everyone knew it.

When Edith showed up later, the secretary mentioned the argument. She didn’t expect the fire that flared in the quiet woman’s eyes, or her haste in returning home.

That night, the sheriff stopped by the pastor’s house. There’d been a gruesome accident in the workshop, Edith said. She led him downstairs and showed him around. He came up whiter than snow, wiping vomit from his mouth. The official report said “suicide,” even though all that remained was the pastor’s severed head. No charges were filed, but whispers spread.

In the months that followed, Gracie played hymns with a carefree passion like never before, and Edith sang louder than anyone else, her face alight with joy.

And no one questioned it.

Hungry

This is another Blog Battle entry, a military fiction or general fiction short story for the word, “Legumes.”

I almost let this one slip, because Mad Max came out yesterday and I just had to smash up some War Boys’ cars… 

But lunch is a good time to catch up. Here goes, with “Hungry” (996 words).

A cool breeze across the hilltop in Syria blunted summer’s heat and played through the green leaves blanketing the ground. Afternoon sunlight beat on two sentries patrolling the perimeter in full desert battle-rattle, carbines in hand.

The husky Airman Jackson squatted and ran his fingers over some violet-streaked white flowers. “Great place to set up a FOB,” he said. “Check this out, Sarge. You hungry?”

Young, with a deep brown complexion after a month of constant sun, Staff Sergeant Ramirez kicked his combat boot into the dirt, spraying dust into the air. “This is bull.”

Jackson ignored the outburst. “These look a lot like the kind we grew back home. Wild chickpeas, maybe. You know, garbanzos.” He said it with a heaping dose of hick, like it was an instrument in country music.

“Please, you think I don’t know what chickpeas are? Why you gotta use the Spanish-sounding word for it?” He took on a mock accusatory tone. “You a racist, Jackson.”

Jackson never took his eyes off the plants. “Screw you, Sarge. Just sayin’ I could pick some of these, soak ’em a while, make us a treat.”

Ramirez waved him off. “Man, I don’t believe in beans.”

“What? What does that even mean?”

A weak, choppy voice squawked over the radio, requesting status of all patrols. Ramirez acknowledged the call. “We’re on the southeast side of Hilltop Lima Seven-Two-Six. My squad established a position, and we’re watching for refugees.”

“Roger—advised, ISIL fighters have been spotted—five miles of your—hold Hilltop Lima Seven-Two-Six overnigh—air cav bringing reinforcements with the supply drop, how copy?”

“You’re coming in broken and stupid,” Ramirez muttered. Then he hit the transmit button twice, acknowledging the message.

“Heh,” Jackson chuckled. “Hey Sarge, it just hit me. Hilltop Lima has beans growing on it.”

“They’re not pronounced the same way, moron.”

Jackson’s cheeks flushed red. “I know.”

“Then you know your joke isn’t very funny.”

“Shut up, Sarge.”

“Aww, you go ahead and cry into your gar-ban-zos,” Ramirez said, mimicking Jackson’s pronunciation. “A little salt will help the flavor.”

 

A few hours later, as the sun melted into the horizon, Jackson reclined against a stone and popped chickpeas into his mouth from his canteen cup.

“Amazed you can cook anything in that,” Ramirez said. “Figured it might melt. You know, lowest bidder and all.”

Jackson smiled. “I remember an afternoon like this in Survival School. My partner an’ I found a patch-a wild strawberries during the field portion. Climbing up an’ down the hillsides of Spokane, picking our way through the woods, trying to evade the instructors, sweating our butts off in the heat…”

Ramirez glared at Jackson, but the man paid no heed.

“We settle down for a breather in a little patch of tall grass,” Jackson continued. “And my

partner says, ‘Wouldya look at that? Strawberries!’ Sure enough, there’s a bunch of ’em all around us. Tiny, sad things you wouldn’t pay money for in the market.” He held up two fingers pinched together.

“But after a couple days with nothing but MREs, we ate them berries like a Thanksgiving feast. Sat there an hour, I bet, evading view, just munchin’ and enjoyin’ the day–”

“Evasion?” Ramirez scoffed. “Not from infrared sensors on a drone or helo. Givin’ off all that heat, they’d spot you in seconds, day or night.”

Jackson sat upright and tugged at his camo blouse. “No, man, these uniforms have a special treatment that reduces IR visibility.”

“You believe that crap? ”

“That’s what they told us at Basic during Warrior Week.”

Ramirez rolled his eyes. “After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese handed out white cloth sheets blessed by the emperor. They promised it would protect citizens from nukes. I’m sure those had a special treatment too… of bull.”

Jackson’s eyes narrowed and he pursed his lips. “You’re a real downer, you know that?”

“Yeah? So’s life. Come on, we should get back soon.”

The attack came ten minutes later, when darkness swallowed up the last glimmer of twilight on the horizon. Mortar shells scattered clods of dirt, cutting Ramirez and Jackson off from their team. Radio calls flooded the net with enemy sightings on all sides. Gunfire echoed across the hilltop, sporadic at first then more frequent, like a bag of popcorn in the microwave.

“I got visual!” Jackson declared. “My one o’clock. Three—no, four adult males carrying AKs.”

“Engage,” Ramirez shouted as he took aim and squeezed off a burst of bullets.

Another mortar shell exploded to their left, and Jackson screamed.

Ramirez shook off disorientation from the blast and opened fire once more. “I need you focused, Jackson! Guys coming up our right flank, I’m on them. But you cover our front.”

Jackson crouched and snapped off a few shots. “We need to regroup with the others, Sarge!”

Ramirez hustled backward up the hill, shooting whenever enemy fire revealed a position. “Let’s work our way back, nice and easy—“

He froze at the sharp whistle of an incoming shell. Then with strength beyond his thin frame, Ramirez shoved Jackson away.

A fuzzy silence and sudden numbness swept over Ramirez. He blinked at the stars in the sky. Then Jackson appeared over him, the young man’s white face speckled with blood. He pumped the sergeant’s chest in between bursts of return fire, and shouted something that looked like, “Hang on, Sarge.”

But the way his wide eyes took in the scene told Ramirez all he needed to know. Ramirez coughed up blood and gripped Jackson’s sleeve. “Just… please don’t tell my wife I died for nothin’ but a hill o’ beans.”

Seven years later, Technical Sergeant Jackson traced the white petals of a chickpea flower and planted a white wooden cross into the dirt. Behind him, a young woman watched the green slope below FOB Ramirez, her trigger finger ready.

Jackson called her over. “I told you they’d be here.” He offered her a wistful smile. “You hungry?”