Flash Fiction: The Reaper’s Rope

Originally prompted by TerribleMinds, “A Random Scattering of Fresh Titles.”

Dawn’s early light was usually a friendly, soft color, diffusing the mistakes and messes of the night, softening the blow of what the morning would bring. Dawn was the time she slipped out, leaving the night’s work behind. Her work was most often discovered once the coffee of the cubicle rats had been digested, morning traffic cursed and the sun’s height made day a foregone conclusion.

She could take pride in her work, if not joy, although there was always release of a sort. She utilized her many skills, not a one of them traditional or fit for an office, but nonetheless needed for all that.

It was the bruise on the client’s face which had moved her to accept this most recent job, though it didn’t always. Broken arms, swollen black eyes, a tight, stiff gait, long sleeves and thick makeup on faces aged before their time, one or all of them combined would always move her, but nothing put speed behind her like kids. She walked outside the golden light of official justice, but when the cool marble walls of the courthouse failed so many she took up Lady Justice’s blindfold.

For the Lady was truly blind, but she wasn’t human as the courts were led by, staffed by and hampered by. Neither was she herself blind to the consequences of her chosen profession; “murderer”, “home wrecker”, “evil” where the least of what could be thrown at her, should she be caught. She may not be able to count the effects of her work when the sun beat down weeks after those wicked grey nights, steeped in filth or the merely mundane, but she comforted herself with the action itself.

In her work she was neither tidy nor messy, extravagant nor understated, excessive nor miserly. The ugly glare of fluorescence, the cramped confines of a backseat, the always squeaky cheap motel mattress, the cheap thrill of a marriage bed reveled her main strength for this hustle, her flexibility in doing what the job required, no more, no less.

The conclusion was always the same, however sordid the details. A quiet, unremarked grave, destined never to be found if she’d done her work correctly, which she always did. The point was to alleviate pain, turn a black slate to a grey one, for nothing could wipe them completely white again after such suffering.

It wasn’t her name which was passed from spotless kitchen to needle strewn flop to beater car; nor a title that spread between those at that particular intersection of needy and desperate. Her position required a delicate balance of discretion and openness, so she’d settled instead on a simple type of calling card. A small length of rough cut rope, ragged at the ends, of unremarkable make. Various titles had been handed around with it through the years, but the most enduring one had been, simply, “The Reaper’s Rope.”

Writing Prompt: Answers

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     It should have shocked the breath from her, stolen her thoughts for just a moment. She was braced for it, eyes squished shut, full surfer’s wet suit tight against her, making her feel vaguely stifled as always. Instead she slipped into water which caressed her through the black suit, a soft welcome to an alien world.
     A rough grayish shape brushed past her right side, and she instinctively grabbed for it, her movements strangely coordinated despite the weight of the water. As she latched onto what she knew was the dorsal fin of a bottle nosed dolphin named Kevin as soon as she touched him, another part of her brain started muttering, “Since when can I breathe underwater?”
     She felt there were two of her, a woman who caught rides from dolphins named Kevin as a matter of course, and her landlubber side who rarely swam outside a chlorinated pool or hot tub and was still reaching for air where there was only water.
      :Of course you catch rides from me, every Saturday at this time. Why else would I be hanging out by a human pier?: She heard the words in her head, felt a strange burble of concern which was not her own, as half of her self was struggling with the not being freezing and choking for air, while the other half hung on as the dolphin, Kevin, dived deeper, heading due West away from shore at an easy clip for him.
     That corner of her self still trying to guess up from down as the light faded around them decided this was clearly too much, the last straw, chucked up her hands and went on vacation. She distinctly muttered to herself, “And don’t let the door of reason hit your ass on the way out!” which made less sense that she was mind talking a dolphin. Named Kevin, of course, what else would a talking dolphin be called?
     :Are you alright, Ambassador? You seem unduly confused.: Kevin’s voice placed in her mind again; curiously, the words seemed to have an orange tinge to them; alarm, she guessed. She opened her mouth to answer, sucked in a metric ton of water, and began to thrash, dropping her hold on Kevin’s fin, convinced she was about to drown.
     A moment later she gasped and snorted, tears and snot pouring down her face as the long rays of the evening sun caressed her face. She took a long time to just breath- actual air!-before realizing they were far from land. All her eyes could see once they cleared was the searing brightness of the sun washed ocean, stretching all the way to the incandescent horizon.
     The soft shimmer beside her in the cobalt blue waters turned into a dolphin’s blunt grey nose, one eye peering at her closely. The one shred of her mind still hanging around swarmed with questions, so she reached out and grabbed one at random.
     “How much magic are we talking about, here?” strangely relieved to hear her own voice, thin and reedy against the vast rolling ocean as it was.
      :What is your last memory of the ocean, Ambassador?: Kevin side stepped her own question entirely, but that dark round eye drew an answer from her. The truth was almost startled out, she didn’t have to think about it.
         “I grew up in the desert, hundreds of miles from any ocean. We visited a few times, last one was when my uncle died,” her voice trailing off at that bit, the thought a sore bruise she wanted to ignore, a strange tang of metal filling her mouth.
       :Oh dear, the Council warned us of this possibility.: He nudged her gently, concern seeming to radiate from him, a gentle purple in her head. :Let me take you home, the Council must be appraised and your Aunt Ursula summoned!:
     She was so startled by the incongruous appearance of a child’s villain’s name from the dolphin, she replied without thought. :Ursula? What does an evil sea with have to do with me? With all of….: she burst out before that small part of her thinking brain broke in, “Of course this involves an evil sea witch, why wouldn’t it?”
     :I’m sorry you believe Ursula evil, there is much to fix if this is so. Shall we continue, Ambassador? There is less time to waste, now.: Kevin turned into her, bumping her hand so she again grabbed him out of reflex, a move that felt oddly familiar and comfortable all at once.
     “What, go where? How do I…” she sucked her breath in and decided to go with the flow, having no option as Kevin barely waited for her grip to settle before he was diving again. She held on with purpose this time, she’d get her answers, even if she had to deal with a telepathic dolphin and a sea witch, possibly evil and possibly not, to get them.

Flash Fiction Challenge

I’ve been trying some basic but fun creative writing techniques, here is an example below, a flash fiction challenge from a blog I follow. Enjoy!
From the Terrible Minds Blog.

My Randomized Title: Seven Days of Warning

I was born on the first day of warning.
This should have been an omen, a clear sign to my parents, but they were always too involved with each other to remember me, or really the rest of the world. Other parents would have noticed how quiet I was that first week, how I didn’t make a peep, never fussed or bawled or even whimpered.
To this day, I’m still unsure how I survived the first week. I can tell myself all the stories I like, of mysterious ghosts, angels, fairy godmothers, stories of helpers from all the regions of the world who might look out for a helpless newborn, but the truth is undoubtedly far more basic. My parents remembered to care for me just enough, to wonder at this new life that, had they been different people, would have changed their lives forever, just enough for me to survive.
It’s hard sometimes to wish I hadn’t, to wonder if they hadn’t fed me just enough, or changed me often enough, or put me down one more time during those seven days, if I wouldn’t be stuck now. On the seventh day of the seventh month, at the top of the seventh hour, the seven days of warning begin. And as I had the whim to be born at that exact time, 14 years ago, every year the town’s attention is riveted on me for a week.
It’s bad enough I’m stuck in this tiny, crippled body. For the majority of the year, I’m mostly left to my own devices, and those devices are tenuous enough. I don’t believe anyone could dread the beginning of the warnings as much as I, for I’m expected to bring the signs, to show some portent, some idea of what the next year will hold. How am I, a crippled nameless orphan, supposed to have any clue?
But each year comes, & the mayor orders me cleaned up, dressed up & put on the pedestal in the town square, promptly in time for that fateful clock tick. I suppose I shouldn’t complain, it’s the only time of year I eat well, am fully warm & clean. But to be stared at for a solid week, like an animal in the those faraway zoos I read about, well, you fill in the blanks, if you aren’t too busy worrying about those damned seven days.
I supposed the main question to answer is, have I ever been helpful? For 14 years that week has come, the town stares for the requisite seven days, & then everything returns to normal. Normal for everyone else, at least. Well, things were especially exciting my seventh year, after all, all those stupid sevens. I don’t know which is worse-the buildup to my seventh year, or this year. Possibly this year; I was still a bit too young to really know why last time.
But last year, someone finally broke the rules and told me. It wasn’t who I was expecting to go off the rails, either! If anyone was going to disobey the mayor besides me, everyone thought it would have been my aunt, my mother’s sister, which is why she’s kept well away from me. Which should be hard to do in a town of 500 people, tucked as we are high in this tiny mountain valley, but as walking is not high on my list of things I do well, it’s proven surprisingly easy.
No, the person who told me what the seven days of warning are was the mayor himself. I suppose it’s easy to break your own rules if no one’s going to call you on it. After all, who would believe me if I told? I’m still not sure why he did tell me. Maybe 13 years in ignorance is long enough, & he’s banking it won’t change anything.
Still just over a week to go until the first day, and all I have to do is sit and worry and peel potatoes. Or so the mayor and everyone else thinks, anyway. Just because a girl can’t walk, doesn’t mean she can’t think. I’ve had 13 years to plot and plan and dream, after all, pretty much uninterrupted except for those seven days each year. Other people might be terrified of my plan, after all, no one has left the village in my memory, just the tinkerers and traders coming through each year. But they’ve let just enough information slip for me to guess that life isn’t like this in the lowlands, being ignored and ignorant, then put on show for those seven days. I’m banking that my threat to leave, & the plan to back it up, will be enough, just enough, to get some change in my life.
I could put my plan into action today, or really any time. Maybe the mayor knows my plan after all, and his rule breaking was a way to keep me here just long enough. Well, point to the mayor then, because I’m holding my tongue another two weeks.
Maybe it will work this year. Maybe all the sevens will finally line up, and the seven days of warning will bring no bad news upon our heads, no more disruptions to the village, maybe the monster of fear will fully slumber this time. After all these years, there’s that one reason everyone still hopes, still takes perfect care of me for one week straight.

Everyone really thought it would happen my seventh year, but it didn’t. Little things still came those seven days, enough to count, but nobody died. It was enough for the mayor to order a completely new reading of the prophesies, starting from scratch. Such is why the new number became 14, and the signs of everyone holding their breath, holding their worry and loved ones close by have already begun. Because if it’s not this year…and so the thought hangs. Why keep me around any more, if there’s more this year, or worse, a death during those seven days?
But there’s still hope, so the priests say. Which is why the mayor told me I’m treated the way I am, why there’s so much fear and hope and desperation flying around those seven days of warning. Before I was born, during the warning days, near chaos would reign, and someone would die…and then life, minus one, would return to normal. There was no stopping it, no changing it, no saving that life fated to die, or even to tell who or when. There was only the certainty of fear, worse than the howl of a winter blizzard. People are expected to die during a blizzard, if one is stupid or slow or clumsy. The seven days came from nowhere, and there’s no preparing for them or fighting them, until yours truly slipped quietly into the world.
It wasn’t my parents who figured out when I was born, or what I might be capable of, despite all appearances. It wasn’t even the priests, whose job it is to try to know things. There’s a reason the mayor has been the mayor for 15 years now, and it’s me. He knew, though he won’t tell how, of why I should be saved from certain death at the hands of my uncaring parents. Of all the things in all the world, I made the seven days of warning less chaotic, and no one has died during those seven days since I was born.
I suppose, if you’re reading this, you wonder why I’m not the town darling, pampered and loved in every way, secured and cared for. Well you, dear reader, must live in a more rational part of the world. No one wanted to break whatever magic and protection I brought with me by changing my circumstances any, beyond what is needed to keep me alive, at least the first seven years. Every scrap of comfort and knowledge I’ve had to fight for myself until I was seven, when people loosened up a little, except for those seven days. It’s not that it’s an active thing; no one kicks me as I go by. But no one reaches out to pat my hair either. Everything people in the village do in regards to me is to stave off the death during those seven days.
Can you really fault them for it? No one has died during those stupid seven days in 13 years. If the baker had slipped me a fresh loaf, the tanner a new apron, the smith given me a warm place to sleep, might that have changed someone’s fate? I will say it’s been easier since I turned seven. A half burnt loaf placed so I could reach it, a few extra sausages hidden, a ratty old blanket left hanging on the line. Two years ago, when I turned 12, became a woman & still no one died, well the best thing of all happened. I woke up on the eighth day, not in my normal hidey hole, but in a tiny, freshly built cottage, complete with tiny everything-stove, bed, chair, wood pile, & trunk with my few little treasures neatly laid on top.

It was the first time I was thankful that no one was near to pay attention to me, as I lost count of how much I cried that day. It wasn’t that the village hated me, or feared me; they feared the unpredictable death more than they loved me, but this tiny, well built cottage proved something, & it took me a long time to figure out what.

People are human, they like things orderly, predictable, normal, routine. But the seven days of warning had thrown that to the dogs, for a generation before I was ever born. I suppose this explains my parents. Why would they bother to care for an unformed newborn, when the love of their life was right there, right now, & could die at any moment in the next week, or next year? Even after it became apparent no one was dying after I was born, & the mayor announced this, my parents remained completely wrapped up in each other. I suppose that’s why they didn’t notice the first spark from the dirty, clogged up chimney. Would I have noticed? I would have tried to save them, if anyone could, they were my parents. But that choice, as were so many others, were never in my hands.

But to stay, & continue to be mostly ignored for a year & put on show for those seven days, or to leave & see if anything, if everything could be different anywhere that’s not here-or at least threaten it-that’s a choice that’s still up to me, now that I’ve figured out how to move around. It wouldn’t have been possible without my little cottage. After all, how else could I hide a dog, & what I was teaching him to do?

But this year, my 14th year, I find myself more on edge than usual, caught up in the fever of the village. There’s nothing we can do to stop it, save whatever magic is somehow attached to me, and wait.
My birthday is coming.