Will you Dance with Me, in the Pale Moonlight?

‘Will you dance with me, in the pale moonlight?’ asks the Devil.

I laugh, then, but I take his hand and let him lead me onto the dance-floor beside the marquee. His skin is warm, of course, but it no longer smells of smoke, as it did the last time.

That was so many years ago. But still the same time of year, late April, when the evening chill is softened by the smell of newly-cut grass and drifting cherry blossom.

The moon is full. A ball of silver and grey in an indigo sky. It seems to twirl with us as we sway and step to the band’s music.

‘Beautiful,’ says the Devil, and I’m not sure if he means the moon, or the music, or the bride, who whirls past in a blur of crystals and silk. He surely does not mean me. Life has marked me. There are lines, now, where once there was smoothness. My hair is thinner, my waist thicker. There are long-healed scars too, although they are mostly hidden. I wear these marks with pride, but it would be fanciful to claim they make me beautiful.

‘Yes,’ I agree, drawing closer. We are almost the same height, the Devil and I, and his eyes are liquid brown, so dark it’s hard to tell where iris ends and pupil begins.

‘Come with me,’ he says. ‘Be with me.’

It’s not the first time he’s asked. The last time I had a whole life ahead of me. There was more to do, more to experience. I couldn’t give myself to him. It would have been foolish.

Sometimes I think that we all end up losing ourselves, one way or another. It is only a matter of whether we choose it, a moment’s decision, or whether it slips away over years. Either way, one day we look back and realise that that person, the person we were, is gone. A memory. Did she even exist? I surely would not do the things she did. Perhaps I have acquired someone else’s memories; someone who once looked a little like me.

The music begins to fade. The Devil grips my fingers. ‘This time,’ he says, ‘come with me.’

I look around at the people drinking and talking. At the other dancers, laughing and glowing. Would they miss me, really, any more than the silvery moon, eternally dancing across night skies?

I know the answer to my question. And so does he.

‘They’d get over it,’ he whispers, his voice a cool breeze on a hot night.

‘No,’ I say, a touch wistfully.

He lowers his thick eyelashes and dips his head in the slightest of nods. ‘I should have persuaded you the last time,’ he says.

‘Perhaps,’ I murmur, glancing at my daughter, the bride. ‘But if you had, this wouldn’t have happened. And who knows what’s still to happen?’

The Devil laughs, then, and drops my hand, and walks across the dance floor, into the night.


Author’s notes

I suspect this is one of those pieces which will cause some readers to say, “eh?”

But I don’t care. I love this story.


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Scribble-Eyed Girl

Xartimon skipped across the pavement, finding little to amuse him. It was night by name but not by yet by nature; the sky remained the colour of bloom-dusted blueberries.

A dog-walker who’d paused to study her phone yelped as she realised her dachshund had decided to warm her shoe. The imp giggled and let the animal’s mind go. Then he sighed. Scents of warm dog and tarmacadam filled his nose, making him want to do something different.

That was when he found the clear rubbish bag outside a house with amber light dripping from its windows. It was full of a child’s paintings.

Xartimon’s eyes glowed as he sliced the plastic with a fingernail. A rainbow. Handprints. Something, perhaps a whale, drifting in a black ocean.

A door slammed in the house but he didn’t turn, engrossed in the treasures.

He flicked a hand and a swarm of jewel-bright butterflies lifted from the paper, scattering into the night. He watched them for a while, their wings gradually becoming monochrome as they flittered further into the orange light cast by the streetlamps.

Xartimon turned his gaze back to the torn bag and absently clicked his fingers.  Seventeen puffs of dust fell from the air. The dog-walker cursed and brushed at her arm, then frowned as the glittering residue faded under her gaze. She looked around but saw nothing, of course. People rarely see anything that doesn’t fit into the world as they know it.

The imp continued flicking though the papers in front of him. The next picture he stopped at was recognisably a girl. The image had wild hair and black scribbles for eyes. A straight smear of pink formed her mouth.

A moment later she was sitting up, flexing her stick wrists and wriggling her fingers.

Now, something for her to do…

Paper on the ground caught Xartimon’s eye. Brown and gold on a black background. Red fingerprint eyes. A wolf, maybe.

The scribble-eyed girl looked around as the newly-animated creature made a crackling, crunching sound. She took a step backwards.

Xartimon sat on the low wall that bordered the garden of the amber-windowed house, balanced his left foot on his right knee and tipped his head to one side.

The wolf snapped. The girl dodged and made a whistling sound like someone blowing across a piece of paper. The wolf dropped back, tail low.

Xartimon clapped.

The girl picked up a stone and threw it awkwardly. The wolf caught it in its jaws as though it were a ball.

Xartimon shook his head. Stone never beat paper.

The beast charged, gaping mouth revealing sharp, white triangles. It caught the girl with an unpleasant tearing sound. She squealed and pulled, losing her left arm. She lurched to her right and grabbed for the wolf’s tail.

It slipped through her fingers and the creature snapped again, catching her head. She pushed and kicked, but it was no use. This time there was no tearing. The beast pulled her into its mouth, chewing and mashing the paper until it dissolved into fragments.

Silence fell and the wolf looked at Xartimon, hopeful expectancy in every dry breath. As one, they looked up at the perfect half moon. There are those that believe that full moons are magical, but there’s nothing magical about something which can only go one way.

A high-pitched sound emanated from the house behind them. Not quite a scream. Not quite.

The imp pointed a finger at the child’s monster.

The jet of blue flame left nothing but specks of ash drifting in the air. Xartimon glanced at the amber-windowed house.

His game was mischief. Evil, well.

That was the business of others.


Author’s notes

This first version of this dark little tale was written for the 2017 Podcastle flash fiction contest. It didn’t win, but it did get a good handful of votes. There were some truly amazing stories, by extremely talented writers, in that competition, so any votes at all was an achievement! You can listen to the winning stories here. At the time of writing there’s still time, just, to enter the Escape Pod flash fiction contest for 2018 – you need to submit your up-to-500-words Science Fiction story by the 30th of April. If you’ve missed the deadline, never mind, sign up for the forums and come and vote for your favourites anyway. See you there!

If you’ve enjoyed this story please considering buying me a coffee at ko-fi.com. The more coffee I have, the more likely I am to write more stories! 🙂
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© Kat Day 2018

Lessons from Madam Hyacintha

Daisy dug her fingernails into her scalp as she stared at the puzzle pieces scattered over the kitchen table. Each was a lump of smooth stone, roughly cubic. They had the colours of autumn leaves: warm oranges, yellowish greens and rich burgundies.

“How are you getting on?” asked Madam Hyacintha, looking over Daisy’s shoulder.

“Hmm,” said Daisy, distractedly.

“Well, let me know if you need anything,” said her mentor.

#

It had been an autumn day when Daisy had first arrived at Madam Hyacintha’s red-brick town house. Inside, the building had smelled of a peculiar mixture of turpentine and burnt sugar.

“What would you like me to do tomorrow?” Daisy had asked enthusiastically as they sat at the kitchen table drinking tea. “I don’t mind if it’s boring! I could clean the floor? I know that certain movements,” she waved her arm in a circle, “are important to practice!”

The wrinkles around Madam’s eyes had twitched, making Daisy think of sycamore seeds. “Ah? You’ve heard stories?”

“Yes! There’s always something like that to start with, isn’t there? Jumping into a puddle without splashing. Painting a wall. Catching flies with forks. It seems pointless, but it turns out it’s all about reflexes and technique!”

“It seems that you’re ahead of me,” said Madam, producing a small, leather-bound book with ‘Abecedarian Magicks’ embossed on the cover. “Read chapters one to four this evening. We’ll discuss them tomorrow.”

#

Daisy picked up the darkest stone piece and turned it over in her fingers. It was slightly warm to the touch. Two of its sides had been carved into the shape of a scroll, with a deep groove through the centre. Madam had told her that all the grooves should line up, making a continuous line. There were twenty-five pieces; perhaps they formed a five by five square? But no matter how Daisy moved them around, she couldn’t make it work.

She wondered why Madam had given her this task. Was it to teach her persistence? Patience? Maybe she was supposed to use some sort of magical technique? She had learned several already. Madam had even allowed her to help with some quite advanced spells.

“You are more than capable of doing these things, with practice and care,” she had said. “But I want you to appreciate the complexities.”

Daisy had felt this was not the way things should go. Surely she should be absolutely forbidden from dangerous magics until she had somehow proved her worth?

As if reading her mind, Madam continued: “Do not feel that you need to creep around and experiment behind my back. You are welcome to try anything, with supervision. I am merely trying to avoid having to clean up a flood, or untangle a misapplied metamorphism, or possibly both. I will not withhold information from you if you request it.”

Daisy stirred the disassembled puzzle pieces with her finger and frowned.

#

A week after she’d arrived, Madam had produced a sketch. It was a woman with pale skin and pulled-back hair: a single, dark strand falling across her face. The iris of one eye was the colour of lavender. The other was white; nothing but veins crawling across the sclera.

“This is Lady Aniya Aston,” said Madam. “She is extremely dangerous. Should you meet her, I advise that you run the other way, quickly.”

“Aha!” Daisy had said, “But I expect you can’t tell me anything else about her, because it would be too dangerous for me to know! I expect you feel you must protect me from the truth.”

“Not at all,” said Madam Hyacintha. “In my experience, that sort of approach always ends badly.” She had proceeded to tell Daisy absolutely everything about Lady Aston: the prophecy, how Daisy’s parents were involved, and even, much to Daisy’s shock, all about her own past entanglements with the woman. “It is usually best,” Madam had said calmly at the end of her lecture, “to have all the facts from the start.”

#

Daisy narrowed her eyes. “Madam?” she said, as her teacher was about to leave the kitchen.

The older woman stopped. “Yes?”

“Are you sure,” said Daisy slowly, “that all the pieces are here?”

Madam reached into her pocket, produced two more stones and placed them on the table. Suddenly the solution was obvious. Daisy pushed the pieces into a cube, three pieces along each edge.

“Very good,” said Madam Hyacintha. the corners of her eyes twitching upwards. “Remember, Daisy, you only have to ask.”


Author’s notes

We know how it is with mentors in fantasy and science fiction stories, don’t we? Mr Miyagi, Professor Dumbledore, Obi Wan Kenobi, even, I noticed, Odette in the recent animated children’s film Ballerina. They teach via obscure methods, withhold critical information, and generally frustrate their mentee until he, or she, does something stupid and gets into trouble. Then they die. Or get critically injured. Or just disappear.

Well I’m a teacher and I say: bugger that. We’ll have a properly structured curriculum and the teacher isn’t going to die at the end of it, thankyouverymuch.

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© Kat Day 2018

Key In

I wedge my palms over my eyes, trying to block out the glare. The room has no comforting shadows, no dark corners. Nothing but coruscating white. Makes me think of that nightmare where I’m in a spotlight, but I don’t know my lines and can’t see the audience.

How in hell did I get here? More to the point, how do I get out?

I move my hands and look at them. My skin looks almost dusty in this light, like chocolate that’s been left in the fridge too long. Not that I see that often.

I don’t know my name, but I know I eat too much chocolate?

There’s nothing on my hands or – I touch my face – my head. But I have a feeling that there should be. Or… there was.

I try to think, but the music makes it difficult.

It’s the one feature in this blank space, and it’s a jarring one. Synthetic and repetitive. And there’s something wrong with the tune. Every so often there’s a gap. My irritated brain desperately tries fill the space. Two beats, I think. I’ve never had an ear for music – I literally don’t know ti from tea.

~~~

“Everyone knows girls are useless at games, anyway.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“I need the computer. Go and do some cooking or something.”

“Shut up, I’m finishing this level.”

“You’ll never beat my score.”

“Already did. Why don’t you do your piano practice? Mum’ll only nag you.”

~~~

Da-ding, da-ding …………………………..  ding, da-ding da-da-ding

I recognise the tune, now. It’s from an old computer game.

I walk around, trailing my fingers along the walls. The room isn’t square. It’s sort of oblong, with a narrower section at one end – a corridor that doesn’t go anywhere.

~~~

“You need the key to get past this level.”

“Stop distracting me! What key?”

“THE key.”

“Very helpful. Go away, Aaron.”

​~~~

My idiot brother. I drop to the floor, cross-legged. Key. It has lots of meanings. Keyboard keys, door keys, piano keys, answer keys, even – if you’re not bothered about spelling – dockside quays.

My shoulders shake as I start to laugh.

“Aaron, you asshole!” I say out loud. “Piano key? You know I never got past two-finger chopsticks.”

There’s no response that I can hear, but deep in my belly I can feel him laughing.

I stand and walk back to the widest part of the room. Then I wait.

Da-da-ding, da-ding, da-ding… goes the music and right there, I jump, landing feet flat on the floor, as hard as I can. The floor lurches and I’m rewarded with a dooong. Without pausing I do it again. There’s another sound and then the tinny music continues.

Did I fit the two notes into the gap?

The answer comes as the wall at the end of the narrowest part of the room slowly disintegrates until there’s nothing but blackness. It’s inviting after all this glaring white.

“Press any key to continue,” I chuckle, as I walk onto the next level.


Author’s notes

This story was written in response to a challenge to write a story in which the main character wakes up in a featureless, white room (in 500 words). Writers are often advised to avoid the cliché of starting a story with a character waking up in unfamiliar surroundings, so this was always going to be tricky to pull off with any finesse. Does it make any sense? I’m not entirely sure! This story definitely has its issues, not helped by the short word count, but I’ve left it in its original form.

© Kat Day 2018

Beasties and Ghosties and a Small Green Bear

Clunch turned away from the dusty window and jumped onto a pile of old suitcases. Swaying, she flung out her arms and jumped again, carving an arc through the air. Just as she began to fall, she caught the light cord between two paws.

With a click, the single bulb hanging from the ceiling lit up, yellow fingers pushing back the shadows that lurked behind boxes and in between stacked picture frames. Clunch dropped to the ground with a soft thump. The black eyes of the stuffed salmon in the glass case near the door twinkled. She shuddered.

“Hi wish you hwouldn’t do that,” said Nancy Blush from her usual position on the scarlet cushion on the broken chair. “Hyou know that hi dislike that borrowed light.” When Nancy had been made, electric light had been a newfangled idea, not to be trusted.

“Shut up, Nancy,” said Clunch. “Dolls should be seen and not heard.”

“All toys are supposed to be seen and not heard, you impertinent green monstrosity. You move about too much.”

“S’my job,” said Clunch. “I’m a protector. Keep the beasties and ghosties away.” And she had, once. When she’d had pride of place on Emily’s bed she’d slapped away the tentacles that crept from under the mattress, closed the wardrobe against the pale shadow that threatened to slither out.

More than once she’d wedged a paw under the bedroom door, making it stiff and difficult to open quietly.

For some monsters, that was enough.

But then Emily had grown too big to need a furry green bear, and Clunch’d been dumped in the manor house’s attic with Nancy and her habit of scattering extra ‘h’s through her sentences.

Nancy sniffed. “Hyou shouldn’t turn the light on, someone might see it and come hup here.”

“Good,” muttered Clunch, glancing at the window again. “Maybe they’ll take me away from you, you snooty old skizzle.”

“Hwhat did you call me?”

“Ssshhh,” said Clunch, ears twitching. “People!”

Both toys crumpled, all signs of life disappearing, as the attic door opened with the high-pitched whine of uncared-for hinges. A woman entered, followed by a young girl.

“Well you were right, Saffie,” said the woman, “the light is on. How strange.”

“I told you, Mum, I saw it, from outside.”

Over the years Clunch had developed a knack of falling in such a way as to allow her to see. The girl’s hair fell across her face, but it didn’t hide the purple circles under her eyes.

“Oh, look,” said the woman. “It’s Clunch! She slept on my bed every night when I was your age. What’s she doing on the floor?”

She picked up Clunch and handed her to her daughter, who stroked the soft, green head.

Clunch looked at Nancy Blush and thought that, perhaps, she saw the faintest of nods. She considered the man she’d seen through the attic window. She was a toy who protected children from monsters.

It was time to do her duty.


Author’s notes

This story was runner-up in the monthly ‘Flash Comp’ in Writers’ Forum magazine (December 2017, #194). Great, except… there was no prize money for  runner up, and the story was printed in the magazine. It was nice to see my words in print, of course, but it does mean I’ve lost first publication rights. Who knows if I could’ve sold the story but, in any case, there’s a lesson here for aspiring writers: read the terms and conditions! I didn’t pay to enter this particular competition, but there are lots of paid competitions out there that can look very appealing. It pays to check what they might do with your entry. And bear in mind that there are plenty of publishers who will read your work entirely for free. Very occasionally they’ll even pay you for it! Check out the Submissions Grinder for suggestions.

© Kat Day 2018

 

A little something for Christmas

The tinkle of distant bells, a thump, and someone swearing. Loudly but… oddly squeakily. James started in his chair. He’d been wrapping Christmas presents and, possibly, there had been one too many mugs of mulled wine. He was sure he’d only sat down for a moment.

“Bugger,” said a voice from the direction of the fireplace.

James blinked. Hang on, he thought, we haven’t got a fireplace.

“Hey, what happened to the TV? And who the hell are you? What the hell are you?” he asked, pushing himself out of his armchair. The space on the wall where the flat-screen TV had been had, indeed, turned into a large grate. Complete with the charcoaled remains of a log, a sprinkling of ashes, and a rather nice cast-iron surround with twiddley bits. The whole thing was three and a half feet off the ground.

On the floor underneath, brushing dust from her clothes, was a small creature wearing a long, yellow coat and a hat with a large needle pushed through it. There was something that looked like a brush stuffed through her belt, and strips of brightly-coloured cloth poked out of her pockets.

“All right, all right, keep yer hair on,” said the creature. “I’m just helping out. S’all hands on deck these days. The Big Man can’t get to every house with kiddies in it on Christmas Eve. He has to del’gate. Not just elves these days, neither. Us brownies get collared, too. Even the tooth fairies has to help out. Mind you,” she added, “that works out quite well. They bring presents for all the kiddies wot asks for money to save up for stuff.”

“Oh,” said James, looking suspiciously at his empty mulled wine mug. “That… makes sense, I suppose.”

The brownie nodded and rummaged around in the sack. She pulled out two boxes wrapped in red and green paper and peered at the labels. “Mabel and Maria,” she read, “they’re yours, right?”

James’s eyes drifted to the framed family photo on the wall. It was slightly crooked. No matter what he did, it always ended up hanging slightly crooked. He thought of the girls asleep upstairs. It would be their first Christmas without their mother. He’d been determined to make everything perfect. But now there were scraps of wrapping paper all over the table, bits of sticky tape on every surface, and he didn’t even want to think about the mess in the kitchen. He wriggled his big toe which was sticking painfully through a hole in his sock. Amelia would’ve bought him new socks. It had been a sort of joke between them. Socks as a present, always: birthdays, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, she’d even given him a new pair as a wedding gift. He sat back down in his chair, pulled off the offending sock and threw it on the floor.

“Yes,” he said.

The brownie had followed his gaze to the photo on the wall. “S’a lot to do at Christmas,” she said softly, turning back and studying him.

James nodded. It had been busy enough with two of them, in the years before. Now the mountain of jobs seemed un-scalable. “I meant to clean up,” he said, waving a hand tiredly around the room, “and maybe make some cookies. My wife always used to make cookies at Christmas.” He pulled off the other sock.

The brownie pushed Mable and Maria’s presents under the tree. “Got any milk?” she asked, thoughtfully.

“Oh, yes, I did manage milk!” said James ruefully. “Over there.” His daughter Maria had been very insistent that they had to leave a glass of milk for Santa. James had suggested that he might prefer a nice brandy, but his older daughter, Mable, had said firmly that even Santa shouldn’t drink and drive.

The brownie trotted over to the glass, sniffed it cautiously, then picked it up and downed it.

“Yum,” she said, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. “Right-ho, I’d better get going, lots more deliveries to do this evening. Y’know how it is. You get to bed. It’ll be all right, you’ll see.”

“Will it?”

“We-ell, maybe not all right,” she conceded, looking at him again. She had the eyes of a Labrador, full of warm intelligence. “That ain’t possible, really. Nothing’s perfect. And you can’t just replace wot’s missing. But people appreciate a bit of effort. There’ll be more smiles than tears, and who can ask for more than that, eh?”

James smiled, blinking away blurriness.

“Go on, now,” said the brownie, nodding at the door to the stairs. “Those girls’ll have you up early in the morning, if I’m any judge.”

“But I have to…” James looked at the paper-strewn table.

The brownie put the empty milk glass down. “Don’t you worry,” she said. “They’ll only see the tree. And then there’ll be paper everywhere anyway, right?”

James chuckled. “Right.” He looked at the wall and thought of something. “Um, you are going to fix the TV, aren’t you? I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I don’t think I’ll manage to sort out lunch without some sort of support from Pixar.”

The brownie waved a hand airily. “Don’t you worry. S’magic innit. All back to normal once I’m gone. It’s only cos you ain’t got a chimney. It was a good idea, a few years ago, using TV screens,” she added darkly, looking up at the wall, “before people started putting the bloody things half-way up the wall.”

“Sorry.”

“Oh, you weren’t to know. Right, go on, off with you to bed,” she said, making a shooing motion.

James turned obediently and put his hand on the door handle. He looked over his shoulder to see the brownie standing there, eyes twinkling in the dim light of the Christmas tree lights. She made the shooing motion again. Shaking his head, James opened the door and trudged up the stairs.

***

“Daddy, dadddeeeee!” The bedroom was dark, but for every bit of missing light there were seven doses of extra noise. “Dadddddeeee, it’s Christmas!” squealed Maria, jumping on the bed and landing heavily on James’s chest.

“Ooff! Be careful!”

“It’s Christmas it’s Christmas it’s Christmas get up, Daddy! There are presents! Father Christmas has been!”

“All right, all right,” said James, pulling his daughter’s unruly hair away from her face where it had become stuck to a small patch of snot. “You’ll have to get off me though, sweetie.”

“Okay,” she said obediently, rolling off and accidentally kneeing him in the side.

James swung his legs out of bed before there was any more damage. He reached for his dressing gown. “Where’s Mable?”

“She went downstairs. Hey, Daddy, did you bake cookies last night?”

James pulled on his dressing gown and headed for the stairs. “I was going to, but I ran out of time. We’ll make some lat–” he opened the kitchen door and stopped, staring. There was a huge plate of cookies on the worktop, beautifully iced with snowflake and Christmas tree patterns. Not only that, the dirty dishes he was sure he’d left in the sink had disappeared. The floor looked spotless. The stainless-steel sink gleamed. There were no crumbs anywhere.

“Good cookies, Dad,” said Mable, from behind him. She crunched. “Just like the ones Mum used to make.”

James nodded slowly and walked into the living room. Maria had darted down the stairs and was now sorting through an artfully arranged pile of presents under the tree, which looked rather more symmetrical than it had last night. The carpet looked better than it had in years, the table was clean and, when James ran his fingers over it, the wood actually smelt faintly of polish. He looked at the wall. The family photo still hung at its familiar, slightly crooked angle, and the television was where it had always been.

“Daddy, there’s a Christmas card in with the presents!” said Maria, handing him a white envelope. James turned it over. There was nothing written on the outside, but he could just make out a jolly, red Santa printed on the cardboard through the white paper. He tore it open.

Inside was printed the usual “Merry Christmas” greeting and, underneath in irregular, smudgy letters, another message.

Thanks fer the milk. I dun yer socks.

James looked down. Lying neatly over the arm of his chair were his socks, perfectly darned. He picked them up and smiled.

Somewhere, in the distance, there was a faint tinkling of bells.


Merry Christmas! xxx

© Kat Day 2017

 

The In Between Place

My story, The In Between Place, is now live on Daily Science Fiction – hurrah! Do go and have a read! Here’s the first paragraph…

John and I bought Katie a domino run for her eighth birthday. She and I spent all morning setting it up, lines of colored tiles all around the house. When it was done we held hands and tapped the first one, and watched as they began to topple. [read the rest]

Thank you again, lovely followers, for all your support!