By the Edge of the River

Athanasia sat heavily in her chair, her joints creaking along with the cords of the seat. She took a few deep breaths, and the room settled back to silence.

The labour had been a long one, and there had been rather more blood than she would have liked, but the child was strong and its mother would, if Athanasia was any judge, recover well. She had assisted in many births over the years. Even the ones that went smoothly – and they often didn’t – were a little frightening. Standing at the boundary to life itself, doing everything she could to make sure that the child would be welcomed to the world whole. And that the mother would stay on the right side.

Athanasia tucked some loose strands of grey hair back into her braids. She was relieved, if tired. Her arms and back ached, but that was surely to be expected after a long night with little sleep. She felt a little short of breath, too, but she probably only needed rest. She closed her eyes.

***

When she opened them again, she was dead.

She knew it, because she found herself on the bank of a great river. The water was green yet remarkably clear, putting her in mind of the pale green bowl filled with peaches and pomegranates in her quarters. A bowl that, she realised, she would neither see, nor touch, again.

The air was still, and filled with a faintly sweet smell. Silver things flashed below the surface of the river, moving too fast to see. She stood on smooth, pale stone and looked across the water. The river stretched as far as she could see in either direction. In the distance, Athanasia thought she could see a small boat, although there was little against which to judge its size. It might, she supposed, become a larger boat as it drew nearer.

She put her hand into the pocket of her tunic and found a single coin. The metal was cool on her fingers. She let it fall back into the folds of the material and sat down to wait.

Athanasia had no family left of her own, and her thoughts drifted to the new mother and child she had left behind. Had the child been feeding well? Had the mother regained her strength? And there had been another woman with a baby due, she had thought, around the next new moon. She sighed. There was nothing to be done about that, now.

A sound made her turn. She had been entirely alone a moment ago, but now there was a young girl, bare-footed, dark hair falling in messy twists around her face. She looked up at Athanasia with bright, wide eyes. Tears streaked her cheeks.

‘Oh,’ said Athanasia, instinctively crouching down and reaching out. The child put her arms out, in that way that children do, and Athanasia lifted her and held her against her chest, noting that she felt too light. The child rested her head on Athanasia’s shoulder and continued to cry.

‘Shh,’ said Athanasia, rubbing the child’s back.

The girl pulled back. ‘I want to go home. I don’t like it here.’

Athanasia tried to make her voice soothing. ‘I’m not sure you can,’ she said.

The child wriggled then, pushing her legs and arms against Athanasia so that she was forced to put her down. ‘I want to go home!’ she repeated.

‘I know, but, I think you have to go on the boat,’ said Athanasia, pointing across the river. The boat was nearer now, and it did indeed seem larger.

The child stared at her defiantly. ‘I like boats,’ she said, eventually.

‘I’m sure it’ll be fun!’ said Athanasia, pulling her face into a smile and hoping that it would be.

The child nodded, and ran to the edge of the river to watch. Athanasia bit back the urge to tell her to be careful because, after all, what was there to be careful of, now?

She rubbed her cheek, and then realised that others had arrived. A young woman, her belly distended but empty, a man with a dark hole under his left shoulder and a stump where his right leg should have been, a woman with elaborately-styled white hair, her body and face unmarked.

Athanasia had spent her life helping others, and she found she could not stop now. She greeted the arrivals, offered words of comfort, and helped them to the edge of the river. Some were confused, and some were angry. A few wept. She did what she could, and took small joy in being useful.

In time, the boat arrived. It was the long, narrow kind, designed to be propelled by a boatman wielding a pole, and indeed there was such a man. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and he wore robes the colour of glowing embers. They matched his eyes.

He stepped lightly ashore. The child Athanasia had first met looked curiously up at him, and then scampered into the boat, darting back and forth until she had decided where she wanted to sit. Athanasia smiled, and helped the one-legged man to also step aboard.

The ferryman’s face was dark beneath his hood. His voice, when he spoke, reminded Athanasia of thunder and freshly-turned earth. ‘Thank you,’ he said, looking at the orderly chain of people. ‘It is usually more… difficult.’

Athanasia nodded. The last of the other passengers climbed aboard and sat, waiting.

The ferryman looked at her, and then at the boat. She didn’t move.

‘What is on the other side of the river?’ she asked, quietly.

The ferryman shrugged. ‘It is not for me to say.’

‘Will those that I’ve lost be there?’ she asked, looking across the expanse of green water. She could see only shadows on the other side.

‘Perhaps.’

‘Perhaps?’

‘Death is a big place. I only take souls from this edge to that. I cannot say what is beyond the point where I leave them.’

Athanasia paused. ‘Why do you do this?’

His eyes glowed in the depth of his hood. ‘Someone must.’

‘What would happen… if you didn’t?’

He shrugged again. There was a moment of silence between them. Then he said, ‘will you come aboard?’

Athanasia crossed her arms. ‘I don’t think I will.’

‘Then you must stay here, by the river. There is no way back.’

‘I understand. But you cannot tell me what is on the other side. And perhaps if I stay here, I will see some of the people I’ve left, in time.’

‘I cannot say that is so,’ he warned. ‘Not all souls pass this way.’

‘Nevertheless,’ said Anthanasia, ‘I think I can be useful here, and I would like that. It is always best to make the most of what you have.’

The ferryman’s eyes glowed again. ‘Very well,’ he said, after a moment.

Athanasia watched the boat as he pushed it away from the bank and she waved at the little girl, who was holding the hand of the young woman with the empty belly. Athanasia smiled and turned around. Already there were others to greet.

***

And there she remains, on this side of the river, comforting those whose time has come, and helping them to be in the right place at the right time.

It is said that there are some who arrive at the wrong time, their presence too faint as they hover between this world and the next. Some even find their way back, and have told a story of a woman who waits by the river to greet those who must cross, and when the ferryman asks if she will cross, as he always does, she always refuses, her arms folded across her chest.


Author’s notes
I wrote – and read! – this story for an event called ‘Mythmaking: A night of new stories for old objects’, organised by Science Communicator Brian Mackenwells. The idea of the night was to take objects about which we know very little, and which currently have no mythology, and give them new stories. There were seven of us, and we were each allocated one of three objects. Mine was a ‘Cycladic female figurine‘. These are very old – over 5000 years old – and were often buried with the dead, although some have also been found showing signs of repair, suggesting they were also used in every-day life. In this story I tried to tie those ideas together by creating a character that might go on to be represented by these figures. I hope I succeeded!

The other acts were:
Robert Holtom
Calum Mitchell
Holly Bathie
Jack Brougham
Charvy Narain
Laura Theis

And they were all amazing! I really hope there are more events like this in the future.

I also want to say a quick thank you to the talented Matt Dovey, who helped me out when I had a beginning and a end but was struggling with the middle!


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© Kat Day 2018

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Magma on the Inside

Content warning: violence, abuse

***

Don’t cry. If you cry, your lamina won’t form.

Adamite the troll forced the sting from his eyes as he stared at his damaged knee. He had fallen on the scree, and the sharp stones had bitten hard. There were specks of dirt and ragged pieces of torn skin in the centre of the wound, but its edges were already beginning to darken. Streaks of red, like veins of ruby running through rock, glinted in the sunshine. His leg burned like a stone left in the noonday sun.

He was young, and his skin was still soft. For now.

In time, a scab would form, and then it would fall off leaving a new surface of smooth rock, and the warm softness would become hard and cool to the touch. It was called a lamina, and it was how trolls became stone. It was how they became truly trolls.

Don’t cry.

The air in the mountains was crisp, almost crystalline. It chilled his skin and, just for a moment, he felt sadness that he might lose that sensation, soon.

Adamite took a deep breath and stood up.

#

It was not long after that day that his grandfather was broken. Men had come to the mountain with their red tubes which hissed and made smoke that smelled of overripe fruit. The men looked harmless – too fragile to harm a creature such as a troll – but humans could be remarkably, surprisingly destructive.

His grandfather had been too old to move much, preferring to sit and let the thin sunshine warm his rhyolite skin. The men’s sticks called the thunder and focused the lightning, and the old troll’s head had shattered into a hundred thousand pieces.

The men had taken his calcite eyes. Amazingly clear, they said.

Adamite and his father studied what was left of the broken remains.

“We must be the trolls he can no longer be,” said his father, quietly.

Then he scraped the flint-sharp side of his foot down the back of Adamite’s still-soft legs. The pain was excruciating, but he didn’t cry.

“You must be strong,” said his father. “This will make you strong.”

#

Shattering stone. Breaking skin. Adamite cried out as Psilomelane’s fist slammed into his cheek. His mouth was full of wet copper. His father had left his face untouched, but other trolls had no such hesitancy.

The rock beneath his back was too hard, and that was wrong. A real troll marks the ground, not the other way around.

“Stupid baby,” hissed Psilomelane, through amethyst teeth. “You’ll thank me for this.”

Psilomelane was mostly stone. There were, Adamite noticed with a strange sort of detachment, only a few patches that were still unchanged. One was around his neck. The matt skin there contrasted sharply with the dark grey that covered his face.

Adamite wondered how it would feel to lock his fingers around that soft neck.

It wasn’t only the outside of trolls that changed, of course. They had to become stone all the way through.

#

It was a summer day when Adamite first broke his own son’s skin. Harebell flowers were scattered over the landscape, and the air was full of grass and sunshine. Adamite’s lamina was long complete. He glittered in the sunshine, smooth stone which almost seemed polished, dotted with flecks of silver and green crystals. His eyes were perfect ovals of green chrysoprase. His teeth were shards of yellow corundum.

His son was still soft and warm to the touch. When Adamite looked at him, he felt a twinge of disgust.

He had to do it. His son had to be strong, as he himself had become strong.

And so he picked up handfuls of sharp gravel, circled his son’s arm with his own hands, and forced the small stones into the child’s skin. In, and down.

Dark fluid welled in the wounds. The young troll didn’t cry out, and that was good. His eyes, though, were too bright.

“Don’t cry,” said Adamite sharply, “it will stop your lamina from forming. Trolls must never cry.”

The child nodded. “I know,” he said.

His voice was full of the determination of youth. Somewhere inside, Adamite felt the heat of molten rock. The energy could not escape; it was locked in by his cool, rocky surface. The fires inside roared, and swelled.

He looked away from his son, and his chest burned.


Author’s notes
I wrote this story 9 months ago and it has nagged at me ever since. It was difficult to write and it is still, even though of course I know what it says, difficult to read. And I’m agonising over the submit button even now. But it’s here because I feel it’s imporant. I’m a woman and I fully support women’s rights, but I also understand that it can be hard to be a man in modern society, particularly if you are not a man who fits traditional male stereotypes. When you force someone, anyone, into a box that doesn’t fit them, they have two options: to defy and break the box, or to become misshapen. Both of those options involve pain.

Perhaps, as a society, we could decide to stop forcing people into boxes in the first place.

If you need support, please know that there organisations who can help. One is the Campaign Against Living Miserably, or CALM. Follow the link for more details.


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© Kat Day 2018

Clockthumb

The room is brightly-lit and smells of warm air, lavender and tea tree. As I wait I stare at my left hand, opening my fingers as I have done so many times before and turning my palm awkwardly so that I can see the stretch of skin that runs from the tip of my thumb down to my palm.

There, marked in brown-black, are the numbers. They’re familiar, in a way. And yet, in another, not. Because they change every day. Today they say 257. At one second past midnight, the last digit will change, and the number will become 256.

They call it clockthumb.

I’ve always been this way, although the number was bigger once, of course. Others have it, too. No one knows why, or exactly what it means.

For many, the numbers end when they do.

#

I am ten years old, and it’s the middle of summer. I’m excited and curious. My thumb reads 10,000. Will there be a zero at the front tomorrow? Will the first digit just fade away, forever? I’m desperate to stay up to see it change. Mum says no. We argue about it, but she’s Mum – she wins.

I stay awake anyway, pinching the skin inside my elbow to stop myself falling asleep. I’ve hidden a torch under my pillow and I use its light to stare at my thumb until my eyes water.

At midnight the number 10,000 completely disappears. My skin is unmarked. For a moment I hold my breath, wondering if it will stay that way. And what it will mean if it does. But then dark dots reappear. Like ink spreading on blotting paper, lines grow and curl until the same area of skin is marked as before, each new digit just a little wider and fatter than the old ones.

I’m so excited that I roll out of bed and run out of the room. The light is still on downstairs and I head for the landing, the carpet bristly beneath my bare feet.

I stop at the top of the stairs, though, because I can hear my mum, and she’s crying.

“Janie,” says Granny’s muffled voice, surprising me. I hadn’t known she was in the house. “It’s still twenty-seven years. That’s a long time. And it may not mean what you’re worried it means.”

“It’s hardly any time,” said Mum, her voice cracking and gasping, like there isn’t enough air for the words. “What if it is that, and I outlive my own daughter?”

#

The numbers switch from 1000 to 999 a few weeks after my thirty-fifth birthday. Now we have the internet, and I spend ages trawling forums, reading posts. Some people do die when their clockthumb runs down, I learn. But for others it seems to mark some other significant event.

One woman, I discover, arranged her wedding for day 1. Everyone else was terribly paranoid, wondering if the brakes might fail on the bridal car, or if she might choke on a canape. But I’m still here, she writes, posting a picture of her unblemished thumb. The numbers ticked down, and disappeared, and never came back.

I wonder if it’s true, or if she’s made the whole thing up for likes. How would you ever know?

Either way, not all the stories are so happy. One man decided to amputate his own thumb at the age of twenty-seven with a 6 on his clock. The numbers on the amputated thumb did stop changing, but he died of sepsis five days later.

#

It’s my wedding day and my thumb says 481. Not a big number, anymore. In the bridal suite that evening Ethan touches my thumb and says it doesn’t matter.

“We’ll face whatever it is together,” he whispers.

He’s said it many times. I think he’s trying to convince himself more than me.

#

The numbers swim in front of my eyes and I blink. The extractor fan is whirring loudly above my head. The toilet seat is hard, and my buttocks are starting to go numb. I take a deep breath.

I have never been able to believe that it means what I know Mum and Ethan fear it means. Perhaps I’m in denial.

257.

I pick up the long rectangle of white plastic I left on the sink and stare at it. Not that I need to, really. I knew what it was going to show me.

Eight months, twelve days.

It can’t be a coincidence.

Of course, things could go wrong. But I have a feeling that they won’t.

I’m going to plan for day zero.


Author’s notes
This story was written in response to a prompt which involved a random combination of two nouns. Something about the word “clockthumb” just appealed to me.


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© Kat Day 2018

Nothing Left But Crumbs

At the edge of time, in a small corner of the universe, a woman is baking.

It’s a simple kitchen of wood and stone and metal. There are bowls, of course. Many of them, in all different shapes and sizes. Some have the orangey-pink hue of copper, others shine silvery bright, distorted reflections twisting on their curved sides. There are spoons, spatulas, knives and cups. A rolling pin that is a cylinder of heavy, glossy rock. Boards made from well-scrubbed wood. The room is quiet, filled only with the small sounds of someone working. It smells of fresh bread and warm sugar, sea-salt and hot iron.

There is an oven, too. Huge and black, and glowing inside: red and yellow and even, sometimes, white.

The woman might be old, but what does that mean? Old compared to the stars outside her window? Old compared to others like her?

If there are others like her.

Either way, her skin is lined and creased with the marks of life. Deep grooves curve from her nose to her mouth, creases stand to attention where her forehead meets her nose, and the skin around her eyes is slashed with lines. Her head is covered with firmly-tied scarf covered in geometric designs, but the rest of her clothes are undecorated. Brown fabric, roughly woven. A white apron, brilliant in its blankness.

Tiny, blue specks burn in the centre of each of her eyes.

She is stirring a mixture, one strong arm cradling the heavy bowl almost as if it is a child. Her other arm moves the spoon round and round and across and round. The batter is thick and dark, and slightly oily. She examines it critically and adds other ingredients. Half a cup of this. A spoon of that. She stirs again and the mixture begins to shimmer.

Eventually she pours it half of it into a silvery pan, a perfect hemisphere balanced on a torus. There, she pauses, and takes something glossy and dark red from the pocket of her apron. She lifts it and turns it this way and that in front of her eyes, frowning a little. With the faintest of nods, she presses it into the centre.

She uses what’s left in her bowl to pile up and up. The mixture is firm; it holds its shape. She leaves the top slightly flat. Space for it to expand. Exactly how much space to leave is a judgement she makes from old experience.

She places a second, shiny hemisphere over the piled-up mixture and fixes it with wire. A perfect silver ball, ready for the warm depths of her oven.

While it bakes she mixes other things. One bowl contains something blue. Mostly blue. It also swirls with green and grey, and tiny peaks of white. Another is a darker green, rich and glossy, a third is ochre and rust, and a fourth is fluffy, barely there at all.

The woman pauses, places her hands into the small of her back and leans back, looking out of her kitchen window, at an indigo sky broken only by pinpricks of light. She wipes her hand across her head, leaving a pale smear across her skin.

The baking takes time. But she cannot rush this; the centre must be hot. Eventually the thin metal skewer she carefully slides between the two half-domes makes her wince when she pulls it out and presses it against her cheek.

Carefully, she removes the tins. The cake is not quite perfect. Despite her efforts, and all her experience, the shape is slightly distorted. She tilts her head to one side and examines it. It doesn’t matter, she decides. In fact, perhaps it’s even more beautiful for being less than perfect. Most things are.

She decorates her work with the cool blue-green and warm ochres, some of the darker green, and finally dabs of white. She breathes in the buttery-salty scent and turns her creation on its stand, checking each tiny section of its surface.

Finally, she reaches again into her white apron pocket and takes out a crystal vial. It sparkles in the light as she holds it firmly between finger and thumb. She removes the cork, takes a pinch of the contents and blows gently. Glimmering flecks of silver and gold, a little black and a few, sparse, touches of red settle on the surface she has made.

Finally, she is satisfied. She opens the door to her kitchen and carries her work outside. She is a master of her craft, and this is her masterpiece.

It sits, against the dark, star-pricked backdrop, turning slowly. It will stay there, for a little while, in this place where neither ‘little’ nor ‘while’ mean very much at all. It will stay until someone comes for it.

“It almost seems a shame to destroy it,” they will say.

But, they will.

And, in time, there will be nothing but crumbs.


Author’s notes
This story was written in response to a prompt about cooking. I started thinking about heat, and this year’s heatwave, and this is what came out of the oven…


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© Kat Day 2018

The Wisdom of Scarecrows

(c) Steve Thompson

“The sky is a lovely colour,” said the scarecrow.

Angela adjusted her baseball cap against the May sunshine. She was leaning back-to-back against the scarecrow’s checked shirt. Bits of straw poked her.

“You’re lucky,” she said. “It often rains this time of year. It might’ve been pouring down for your one day alive.

Angela and her Dad had made the scarecrow for the village competition, to be judged at the May Day Fête tomorrow. They’d stuffed a pair of jeans and a shirt with straw and made a face out of papier-mâché. She’d painted it bright pink.

She’d been surprised when he started talking. Scarecrows, he’d explained, get one day of life once they’re made. Angela was sure most people didn’t know this.

“What’s rain?” asked the scarecrow.

“Water that falls out of the sky.”

“How does it get up there?”

“Um,” said Angela, trying to remember what her teacher, Mrs Pilady, had told her. “Something to do with bicycles, I think.”

The scarecrow looked, as much as someone with painted-on eyes can look, at Angela’s bicycle, leaning against the side of the shed. “Does someone put it in the basket and ride it up there?”

“Something like that,” said Angela. It probably didn’t matter. Mrs Pilady wasn’t likely to spring an impromptu test on them in the next few hours.

The scarecrow nodded. “Tell me again what happens tomorrow,” he said after a moment.

“Why do you want to hear it again? You won’t see it.”

“I know, but it sounds so nice.”

Angela smiled. “We’ll put you in Dad’s trailer and drive you to the fête. There’s a big display of all the scarecrows. The best one gets a red rosette. There’s a maypole that the preschool kids dance around. I did it a few years ago, but I’m too big now. There’s ice-cream and a barbeque and a coconut shy. And a bouncy castle!”

The scarecrow sighed happily.

The smell of smoke and crack of burning wood crept treacherously across Angela’s mind. There would be a bonfire in the evening. But why mention that? The scarecrow would never know.

“It’s beautiful here,” said the scarecrow. “I’m glad I’ve seen it. Even if it was just for one day. I’m glad I met you, too, Angela. If you hadn’t come outside, I would’ve spent all my time alone.”

Angela touched the scarecrow’s hand. The old ski glove was warm from the sunshine. “I think,” she said slowly, “that we should always try to enjoy days. They might run out for any of us.”

“Yes,” said the scarecrow.

They sat in silence, then. A bee buzzed by. Angela took off her baseball cap and rubbed at her nearly-bald scalp.

A few minutes later the back door opened. “There you are, sweetie,” said Angela’s dad. “It’s time for your medicine.”

“Hi, Dad. I was just talking to the scarecrow.”

“Were you now? Did he say anything interesting?”

Angela looked at the now-motionless straw man.

“Yes,” she said. “He did.”


Author’s notes
This story makes me cry every time I read it, which you might think is strange, because I wrote it. But as Robert Frost famously said: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I’m proud to say that this story won the first ever BeaconLit Beaconflash competition in July 2018, and you can also read it on the BeaconLit website. Thanks to the lovely Steve Thompson for the image above (and the rest of the beautiful drawings which aren’t here to see… yet).


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© Kat Day 2018

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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© Kat Day 2018

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!

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© Kat Day 2018