Full Disclosure

The table was a long oval, with tall chairs evenly spaced around and a gap at one end so everyone seated could see the flat screen mounted to the wall at the end of the room.  A wall of windows showcased an enviable view of the city far below, and a modern skyline.

Jessica scanned the table and smiled.  Every business meeting was the same, regardless of the business being discussed.

Satisfied that everything was ready, she moved to the sideboard and checked the carafe and water pitcher. Nothing would be served until the meeting was well underway, but she liked to be sure that the coffee was strong and hot, and the water ice cold.

Voices in the hallway alerted her just before the door opened.  Mr. Bracken was the first through the door, shooting her a tight smile and a barely perceptible wink before he moved to the seat at the head of the table and waved the other men through.

The three men who followed were dressed in nearly identical suits.  The only variation was in the ties they wore, and even those were similar enough that they’d probably been bought at the same store.

“Gentlemen, please have a seat.”  Mr. Bracken waved the men to three seats facing the windows.  Jessica knew it was deliberate; in the next thirty minutes the sun would be setting, and that light would come through at an angle that would have them squinting through the rest of the meeting.  Her boss, and the owner of the multi-billion dollar company he’d founded, was a canny operator.

The men – Jessica had named them the Three Little Pigs in her mind – sat at the table and leaned back, confidence in every line of their careful body language.

“Mr. Bracken, let’s get down to business.” The first to speak, and the clear leader of the little group, she’d named Straw for his blond hair.

“By all means, Mr. Lane.”

“Our company is a valuable property, one we believe will provide an essential service to your corporation…”

Straw continued, but Jessica tuned him out to focus on what wasn’t being said.

             “…need this deal…”

                                                                                        “…gotta get out from under…”

      “…wrongful death…”

                                                                 “…critical repairs…”

Between the three of them, Jessica pieced together a fairly clear picture of the business they were hoping sell.  A clearer picture than they’d have painted themselves, certainly.  The men ignored her; they’d taken her for a secretary or assistant of some sort: barely step up from furniture and not worth noticing.

Even if someone happened to glance her way, the invisibility of the virtual keyboard ensured that their suspicions wouldn’t be raised.  With a final tap, she sent the information she’d gleaned to the smart watch on her boss’s wrist.

As the sales pitch wound down, Mr. Bracken leaned forward .  She didn’t need her ability to read minds to know that there was going to be blood in the water, and very soon.

“Gentlemen, let’s be honest here; your company is in trouble.  Big, expensive trouble.”  His flat statement had an immediate effect, as did the details of their troubles he followed up with.

“Sir, I’m not sure where you’ve received your information from…”  The second of the three, Twig for his long thin arms, sat forward with a concerned frown as Straw voiced his objections.

Jessica didn’t bother sorting through the maelstrom of thought her boss had created.  It wouldn’t be useful anyway, not with the three of them panicked…

Wait, not all three of them had panicked.  She looked around at the table.

Sitting quietly, arms crossed, was Brick.  Solid, steady, and completely unconcerned.

Well, wasn’t that interesting? Jessica thought.

She concentrated on the big man, focusing on him and blocking the others.  When she hit a mental wall she had to smile – she had named him Brick, after all.

“We weren’t aware that you employed a sensitive, Mr. Bracken.”  His voice was as solid as he was, and it stilled the other two instantly.

And that’s why he is the one in charge, Jessica realized.  Not Straw, even if he is the CEO.  Brick is the power behind the throne.

When she turned back to her boss, she saw that he’d realized the same thing.

“I employ a great number of people, Mr. Craft.  Would you care to specify?”  His voice was smooth and unperturbed.  Jessica didn’t feel quite so calm – in three years, she’d never been detected – but she took her cue from him.

“Ms. Jessica Winter, standing so attentively behind you.  Waiting to serve coffee, I believe.”  His eyes met hers, and she felt a jolt of recognition.  Of the three, Brick had been the only one who hadn’t made eye contact with her at some point.  Now she knew why.

“I’m not the only sensitive in the room, Mr. Craft.  Shall we have full disclosure then?”

She smiled moved to bring the serving tray to the table as the other two turned to their business partner in shock and disbelief.  A little chaos and distrust served with a cup of strong coffee always moved a business deal along quickly, she’d found.

This post is a response to a writing prompt from The Daily Post –  A mad scientist friend offers you a chip that would allow you to know what the people you’re talking to are thinking. The catch: you can’t turn it off. Do you accept the chip?”  I tossed the mad scientist (they’re so hard to write dialogue for!), but kept the mind reading.  

Let me know what you think in the comments, and be sure to follow the link to The Daily Post to read the other responses!

Love Or Money


“Not everyone can be bought,” she said.
Mark frowned and rubbed his forehead, where a headache was brewing.
“Gloria, that’s not what I’m doing and you know it.”
Her thin shoulders rose and fell and her gray eyes tracked away from his to scan the tiny kitchen.  Her leg was jiggling as she sat, rattling the dirty dishes stacked haphazardly on the sticky surface of the table.
The restlessness, the jerky movements, the inability to make eye contact: he’d lived with her schizophrenia long enough to know what they meant.  Mark sat at the table, careful to move slowly.
“Gloria, we’re worried about you.”  He linked his hands and rested them on the table, ignoring the likelihood that his suit would be irreparably stained by whatever coated the table.
When she just stared at the far corner of the room, he continued, “We just want to make sure you can get your medication.”
She jerked at the mention of her medication, and a quick grimace contorted her face.
“Is…is there a problem with your medication?” He fought rising frustration when she didn’t respond.  “You can talk to your counselor.  Maybe there’s something else they can suggest?”
Her eyes flashed briefly to his, and in that moment he caught a glimpse of the Gloria he used to know. 
The older sister who told him stories in the dark to help him fall asleep, who’d made up games to entertain him on long car rides. 
He remembered her laughing encouragement as he pedaled away without training wheels for the first time.  And only a few minutes later, her gentle hands were smoothing a Band-Aid over his scraped knee while tears rolled down both their cheeks.
That person had been stolen away. 
It was the memory of the person he remembered that compelled him to keep trying.  It was the memory of the sister he’d worshipped that nourished the hope that someday they’d find the perfect blend of treatment and medication that would bring her back for good.
“Gloria, I’m not trying to bribe you into doing something you don’t want to do.  I want to give you money for your medication, so you can feel better.”
“No, you want to control me.” Her voice was sullen, and she picked fitfully at her fingernails. “You want me to be someone else.  Well I’m not someone else, I’m me, and you can’t buy a different me!”
Mark winced as she shoved away from the table and stormed to the bedroom to slam the door.  The snick of the lock carried clearly across the small apartment, the all-too-familiar ending to an equally familiar conversation.
He let the money fall onto the table and walked out.
This post is my response to a prompt from Write On Edge – we were supposed to write a story of 450 words, beginning with: “Not everyone can be bought,” she said.  And ending with: He let the money fall onto the table and walked out.
Thank you for stopping by, and please let me know what you think!

Missed Connections

The meeting had been arranged by the agency.  It was in a city that was between the separate cities they lived in – neutral ground.
Well that was the theory, anyway.  Cora knew that theory had some big holes in it, starting with this ageless one: how do you put the lid back on a can of worms once you’ve opened it?
Arriving at the restaurant, she was led to a secluded table toward the back.  Relief shivered through her when she saw the empty table and realized that she’d arrived first.
Her relief was short-lived; only minutes later she saw the maître d leading an older woman toward her. 
Cora slid her hands into her lap, in case they were shaking, and waited for the woman to sit down and go through the ritual of ordering a drink.
Silence hummed between them as they looked at each other for the first time, face to face. 
“Thank you for meeting with me,” the older woman’s voice was low, and whispered with nerves.
“I had to think about it for a while, but…” Cora faltered and the other woman leapt to fill the gap.
“I understand.  Really.”
“Mrs…” Cora sighed a little and met the woman’s eyes directly.  “I’m not sure what to call you.
“Eve is fine.  Or you can call me Mrs. Morton, if you’re more comfortable.  Either is fine!”  She pressed her lips together as the waiter approached with their drinks.
Once the waiter moved on, Cora picked up her wine and sipped at it.  She didn’t really want it, but it gave her a chance to study the woman sitting across from her.  When Eve also picked up her glass, Cora figured she was doing the same. 
Their eyes were different shapes, and so were their lips.  But they shared a nose that turned up just a bit.
They’d exchanged some e-mails through the agency before meeting.  Cora had made sure to tell Eve that her parents loved her, and that she’d never harbored any ill will.  Eve had made sure to tell Cora that she wasn’t intending to replace her parents.  Boundaries established, a lunch date had been set.
“Cora…I’ve wanted to meet you for so long, and now that I have…” Eve frowned and looked down at her hands.
“You don’t feel a connection the way you thought you would,” Cora finished.
Eve’s eyes flicked up to lock on Cora’s, and she nodded.
Cora reached across the table to lay her hand gently on Eve’s knotted fingers.
“Neither do I.”
At Cora’s soft words, the tension banded around them snapped, and the two women settled down to enjoy their lunch before returning home.
This post is my response to a prompt from Write On Edge to write about a face to face meeting which, for better or worse, doesn’t go as planned.  I wrote about a woman, adopted as a baby, meeting her birth mother for the first time.
One of the very first questions people usually ask me when they find out I’m adopted, is if I’ve tried to find my birth mother.  It’s natural, I suppose, although it’s always struck me as sort of weird.  What if I mentioned I had a third cousin, twice removed, that I’d never met?  I’m not sure, but I don’t think people would ask if I’d ever tried to find that cousin.  (Then again, maybe they would…I’ll have to try it and find out.)
I never felt any particular urge to find my birth mother.  I have a mother, so I guess I never gave any serious thought to finding another one.  I also never harbored any bad feelings toward my birth mother, either.  I think I could best be described as completely neutral.  Meh, as the current trend expresses it.
An interesting question I did get once is what inspired this post.  Someone asked me if I thought I would just know if I ever met my birth mother.  Sort of like a cosmic umbilical cord, maybe?  Since I did live most of my life in the same, lightly populated state I was born in, I guess randomly meeting my birth mother isn’t out of the realm of possible.  If I did, I never knew it.  And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, what about the people who do try to find their birth parents and succeed?  What if one, or both, assumed there’d be that cosmic umbilical cord connection?  That’s a lot of pressure when you’re meeting a stranger for the first time!
What do you think?  What if one person felt the connection, and the other didn’t?  What if neither felt the connection but thought they should, so they both faked it?
Thank you for stopping by, and PLEASE  let me know what you think in the comments!

Face The Fire

            Ember ran, breath catching in her throat. A sense of urgency drove her through the woods, but caution kept her flying feet light on leaves and branches.
            “Let the stars lead you, Ember.” Her father’s voice sounded in her ear, as if he were running with her. “The Phoenix guards and guides our family; she will never lead you astray.”
            I’m trying, Father, she thought.  I only wish I knew where she was leading me.
            The sound of a less-cautious foot snapping a branch nearby froze her steps. Ember held her breath to see if it would be repeated. 
            More sounds penetrated the dense forest around her, and she knew she was surrounded.  There was no telling if the men closing in knew where she was, or if they’d simply managed to blunder into position.  It didn’t matter—she was trapped either way.
            “Oy!” Ember whipped her head around to stare at the man who’d called out, alerting the rest of the hunters. He stood a careful distance away; in seconds he was joined by a loose ring of men bearing the torches of their purpose.
            Her calm gaze met each of theirs, but their resolve did not waiver.  The drought had been severe, and most of the crops were lost.  Action had to be taken—that’s what the pompous elder had told them, and that’s what they believed.
            The red speck in her left eye, the Devil’s eye, had marked her.  Her sacrifice would be their salvation.
            “What right have you, to chase me like an animal? Dare not believe that evil done here will not be witnessed.” Her voice rang with an authority they didn’t expect from a girl so young.  They glanced to each other, and for the briefest moment, hope fired in her soul.
            “Burn the witch!”
            The rallying cry extinguished that fragile flame, and she pressed her slender shoulders against the reassuring strength of the oak.  She felt the wavering heat of the advancing torches; as her long auburn hair began to curl and smoke, she raised her eyes to the brightest star in the Phoenix constellation.
            When she closed her eyes and bowed her head, the men pressed closer, enflamed by her passive acceptance.
            The first torch pressed to her arm.
            Ember’s head snapped up, the heat lifting her singed hair to fly wildly around her.  Too late, the men saw the fire rise in her eyes and flames dance along her skin as she stepped away from the tree.
***
Even generations later, the tale of the Phoenix ensured that no naked flame ever entered the dark of the forest. The Phoenix Ring, they called it. 
Stones formed like men, circling a broad oak. They looked to have been shaped by a monstrous heat, their faces twisted as if in unimaginable pain, and yet the tree they surrounded was unmarked by fire. 
This post is my response to a prompt from Write On Edge to write about either the Phoenix (legendary firebird), or the Phoenix (the constellation).  I decided to combine them.  I hope you enjoyed Ember’s story – please take a minute to leave a comment to tell me what you think!

Power Surge

“Water will always find a path,” Mrs. Wheaton lectured, flashing a picture of the Grand Canyon on the screen at the front of the classroom.
Charlene studied the twisting outlines carved by the flow of the Colorado River.  She’d seen the canyon once, but her memory hadn’t recorded its stunning size.
A sharp pain just below her shoulder blade made her jump, but she refused to turn around.  Being a target of every bully in school had taught her some hard lessons, and chief among these was: never give them the satisfaction of acknowledging that they hurt you.
Still, she could feel a wave of power surge through her, propelled by pain and frustration.   Suppressing it had become second nature; the first lesson she’d learned when her power had become evident was that using it to hurt someone would not be tolerated.  It brought too much attention to their hidden community.
She shifted forward in her seat, hoping to move out of easy range of the pencil jabbing into her back, and inadvertently caught the attention of the teacher.
“Yes Charlene?  Did you have a question?”
Her mind went blank, and then latched onto the first question that raised its hand.
“What happens if the water gets blocked?  Like if there’s a landslide or something?”
Mrs. Wheaton sent Charlene the smile she reserved for students who managed to ask the perfect question to lead into the next part of the lecture.
“The water will work to weaken whatever is blocking it.  Sooner or later, the pressure will become too much, and the water will flow again.”
Charlene nodded, and fought to keep her face blank as the pencil jabbed into her back again.
Before she could shift farther away, the tip of the pencil dug into her back once more, releasing a thin trickle of blood down her back.
A cresting wave of power propelled her to her feet and she turned to face the boy, a tempest roaring in her head.  She clenched her hands into fists in one last attempt at control, but she knew it was too late. 
Power, like water, will find a path.
Her eyes lowered, narrowing slightly in concentration, and then traveled back up to watch his expression shift from a sneer to horrified shock.
“If you needed to pee that badly, I’m sure Mrs. Wheaton would have let you go.”
Charlene watched the boy leap from his seat, his book clutched low in a futile attempt to hide the inexplicable wetness as he raced from the classroom. Smiling, she sat back down as laughter followed him through the door.
Power will find a path, she thought, but it will be the one I choose.
This post is my response to a prompt from Write On Edgeour assignment was to write about the forbidden or taboo.  In this case, I wrote about Charlene’s need to hide a power her classmates (and most of the world), wouldn’t understand.
Thank you for stopping by, and please let me know what you think in the comments!

The Midnight Train

“I know you don’t care for flying, but no one travels by train anymore Elaine!” her mother’s words were bubbles of love pierced by the needles of scorn.

Elaine struggled to keep her voice even, “Mother, it’s not that I don’t care for flying. I’m afraid to fly, there’s a rather important difference.”

“You know Karen was telling me that her daughter-in-law gets medication from her doctor so she won’t be anxious when she has to fly,” continued her mother, undaunted.

A sigh she didn’t dare release filled her lungs and she rolled her eyes.. Her mother didn’t understand phobias. “That’s irrational,” she’d say, completely missing the point that if the fears weren’t irrational they wouldn’t be phobias.

“That’s great Mom, I’ll have to mention it to my doctor when I get back.” Elaine rushed on before her mother could slip another gem into the conversation, “I’ve really got to go, I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon at the train station. Love you, bye!” She snapped the cell phone closed without waiting for her mother’s response.

She loved her mother, but she wasn’t looking forward to this trip to New Orleans.  If it weren’t for her sister’s wedding she’d be happily ensconced in her Chicago apartment, brewing a cup of hot tea, and picking out a worn paperback novel to entertain herself with for the evening.  It would be worth it though, to see her twin sister’s wedding and celebrate the beginning of her marriage to Todd.

Long, thin shadows were making their way across the pavement in front of Union station when the taxi pulled up.  The driver smiled at her generous tip, showing – she couldn’t help but notice – an appalling lack of oral hygiene.  He released the trunk latch and left the warmth of the blasting heater to lift her suitcase out and onto the sidewalk.

“Thanks!” she offered a shy smile and pushed the long brown strands of her hair behind her ear to keep it out of the way when she reached for the handle of the bag.

“Yeah, no problem lady,” he grinned back at her from the other side of the car.  “I didn’t think anybody rode trains no more.”

“So I’ve been told,” she sighed, and slid her carry-on sized bag onto her shoulder with her purse.

“Well, have a good trip lady!”

Elaine moved back from the curb quickly as the driver shot away from the curb and into traffic, apparently unconcerned with the presence and relative speed of the other vehicles on the road.

The high, arched glass of the ceiling offered no additional light to the cavernous interior of Union Station.  Her previous trips had been on trains traveling either west or east, and they’d left earlier in the day when the stately building had been active with people.  Shafts of light had illuminated the dancing dust motes and added a cheerful warmth to the space.

The only light in the station at this time of night came from lamps and recessed lighting.  The effect was probably meant to be soft and relaxing, but Elaine couldn’t help but notice how the shadows seemed to reach for her out of pockets of darkness, and the building fog was rolling against the doors of the great hall as if eager to gain entry.

Elaine shivered and hurried to the ticket window.  The train’s departure time was listed as 8:00 pm, and she wanted to be settled into her sleeping car long before the train pulled out of the station.

The sleepy agent slid her boarding pass under the bulletproof glass partition that separated them and directed her to the appropriate door.  It was heavier than she expected and it closed without warning, trapping her suitcase half on and half off the platform.

“Hang on lady, let me give you a hand!” Elaine turned to see a tall, thin man in a janitor’s uniform ambling toward her.

He pulled the door open effortlessly and gave her suitcase a light shove to move it out of the doorway, and she stumbled over her thanks.  “I appreciate the help!  It just closed so fast!”

“Yeah, we catch a lot of luggage that way.  Strictly catch and release though!” and he let out a guffaw that echoed around the platform.  “So you gonna ride the City of New Orleans, huh?”

Elaine turned and looked at the train waiting patiently in the fog.  It didn’t look anything like the way she’d pictured it whenever she heard that song on the radio.  “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Well, she’s a good train.  Lots of history.  You have a good trip!”  His lanky form disappeared into the fog before she could thank him again for his help, so she turned her attention to boarding and finding her sleeping car.

As the train began the slow process of pulling away from the station and building up speed, Elaine settled onto the narrow bed with one of the books she’d brought along.  The lights of Chicago faded into the enveloping fog, and the gentle rocking of the train relaxed her better than any cup of tea in her living room.

The sharp rap of the compartment door shutting startled her and she sat up, dropping her book on the bed.  A glance at her watch told her that it was nearing midnight – she’d fallen asleep.

“For crying out loud,” she muttered, as her racing heart slowed.  The view through the window revealed the glow of distant lights through the heavy fog that seemed to have followed them from Chicago.  She pulled the shade down and undressed for bed.  After she’d pulled her nightgown over her head, she traded the clothes she’d been wearing for slacks and a blouse from her suitcase.  A night hanging on the door would take care of the worst of the wrinkles.

The sheets were cool and slick under the light blanket thrown over them.  Elaine slid into bed and leaned over to set the alarm on her cell phone.  Something made her hesitate as she reached for the switch to turn off the light.  The twist of anxiety caught her by surprise.

When she realized she was considering leaving the light on for the night, she laughed nervously.  “Get real Elaine,” she scolded herself.  “If you’re not careful you’re going to become as neurotic as everyone thinks you are!”  She snapped the light off and then found herself freezing.

When the bogeyman failed to snatch her out of her borrowed bed, she sighed and relaxed against the pillow.  She fell into the measured breathing of the relaxation technique she used to calm her mind and ease herself into sleep.

A bang from just outside her door shot her into a sitting position, her heart pounding frantically in her chest.  She slid backward until she was pressed against the wall, and groped frantically for the light switch.

“I don’t recommend that, Elaine.”

A scream tore out of her throat at the soft voice and her flailing hand connected with the light switch.  The light flooded the room and Elaine struggled to keep her eyes open against the sting.  A woman stood in front of the door.

“Who are you?”

The woman smiled warmly.  “I’m Clara, it’s nice to meet you.”

Elaine gaped at the calm introduction and she struggled to match the stranger’s demeanor while her mind scrambled.  “Yeah, nice to meet you.  Why are you in my compartment?”

“Don’t worry Elaine, I’m not here to hurt you.”

Instinctively, Elaine lowered her voice to match Clara’s.  “Yes, but that’s what you would say if you were here to hurt me…isn’t it?”

Clara’s smile widened.  “I suppose it is, which makes it less effective in keeping you calm than I’d intended.”

A loud thump rattled the door, startling a shriek out of Elaine.  An expression of concern moved across Clara’s face, but otherwise she showed no reaction to the noise in the hallway.

“Elaine, I don’t want to frighten you, but…it’s imperative that you don’t scream.”  Her voice was low and calm, in direct contradiction to the worry in her eyes.

“What?” Elaine squeaked.  When Clara shook her head and held a slim finger to her lips, she continued in a low whisper.  “I’m going to start screaming long and loud in about half a second if you don’t tell me what’s going on!”

Clara sighed.  “It’s very hard to explain, and you won’t believe me.”

“Well, you’d better give it a shot!”

“You’re on a midnight train, and it’s midnight,” Clara stated, matter-of-factly.

A light bang from the corridor made Elaine jump.  “That’s your explanation?  Maybe in your crazy, room-invading little brain, but I need a few more details!” she hissed.

“Yes, I can see that.” Clara paused and seemed to collect her thoughts.  “A midnight train is a train on which people have…well…died.  Don’t panic!”

Elaine took some deep breaths and struggled to remain calm.  “I’m not panicking!” she wheezed. The car gave a shuddering jerk and Elaine tumbled out of the bed onto the rough carpet of the floor.  She shoved to her feet as the car jerked again, throwing her away from the bed and into the wall.  Her shaking hands yanked at the shade, and she looked out into the fog.

“We’re not moving!  Why aren’t we moving?” she gasped, and spun around to face the door.

“Don’t panic!  You’re fine, we’re fine… just settle down and everything will be fine.”

Curls of smoke began winding their way under the door to the compartment, drawing Elaine’s horrified gaze.  “What is that?”

“It’s smoke, of course,” Clara replied calmly.

“Oh, of course.”  Elaine closed her eyes as another bang echoed through the corridor.  She turned back to the window and pushed on the emergency exit panel in the window.  She heard cries of alarm coming from the back of the car, and more banging from the neighboring compartments.

“Please don’t…” Clara pleaded, and Elaine turned to see the woman wringing her hands.

“It’s jammed.  Look, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I’m not staying here!”  Elaine snarled.  She rushed toward the door, forcing Clara to step to the side.

The door was stuck, and it took several hard yanks to open it.  Smoke filled the corridor and immediately began to make its way into the compartment.  Elaine fought back the need to cough as she moved into the hallway.

“Hello?  What’s going on?”  Her voice seemed to hit a wall in the smoke.  She moved forward slowly, one hand on the wall to keep her bearings in the smoke.  There was a red glow from the back of the car, and when Elaine turned to look at it she realized Clara hadn’t followed her out of the compartment.

“Clara?  Are you coming?” Her call was unanswered, and a chill crept up her spine.  She turned and moved closer to the front of the car and the exit, pulling her nightgown over her mouth and nose to help her breath.

Suddenly the wall her hand pressed against disappeared into a doorway, and Elaine nearly tumbled forward.  Surprise made her cry out, and echoing cries seemed to float up from the back of the car.  Gasping, she turned to the doorway and felt her way down the three steps to the exit door.  The handle felt cool to her hand, and the thick fog outside seemed to match the smoke she was fleeing.

“Please, Elaine.  Don’t open the door!”

Elaine spun around to see Clara standing at the top of the steps.  She shook her head at the pleading woman and turned back to the door, pushing the handle down with her left hand while she gripped the sturdy railing in her right for balance.

It was the railing that saved her.  As the door opened a rush of cold air swirled in, grasping and pulling her toward the opening.  She had a brief impression of quickly passing trees and as her body began to fall forward she heard the clacking whir of the train traveling over the tracks below them.

Confusion paralyzed her even as she realized her grip on the railing was beginning to weaken.  Her scream echoed into the night and blended with the train whistle to become a long wail of despair.

Before she could catch her breath for another scream, a strong hand closed over her wrist and yanked her up the steps to the corridor floor.

“God almighty lady!  What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Elaine gaped at the steward standing over her in the brightly lit corridor.  “The…the train stopped!  It knocked me out of the bed…and then there was smoke…and people were screaming…”

She trailed off as the man shook his head slowly, his silver hair catching the light and reminding her, for a moment, of the smoke and fog.

“Let me help you back to your compartment.”  He reached down and lifted her to her feet, guiding her back to the small room she’d left in a panic.

“Look, I know what I saw,” Elaine sat on the bed and tried to stop shaking as he wrapped the thin blanket around her shoulders.    “I fell asleep while I was reading, and when I woke up it was nearly midnight.  I got into the bed and turned the light off, but then there was a bang…and a woman in here with me!”  She paused as she struggled to remember the exact sequence of events through her fear.

“She told me not to scream, but then the train stopped and knocked me out of bed.  And then I could hear other people screaming, and smoke started coming in under the door.  The emergency exit wouldn’t open, and the corridor was full of smoke, and there was a red glow from the back of the car.  And the train was stopped, I know it was!”  She stared at him, eyes huge in a pale face.

“The woman…was her name Clara?” he asked carefully.

Elaine’s mouth dropped open.  “How did you know that?”

“Most everyone who works on the City of New Orleans has met Clara at some point or another.  She usually leaves the passengers alone, though.”  He frowned, and glanced at the door to the compartment.

“She’s a passenger?”

His eyes shot back to hers, and he smiled.  “She’s a ghost, actually.”

“A ghost?” Elaine sat back against the wall.

“She died on this train, back in 2004.  The train derailed – a lot of people were hurt, but she was the only one who died.  People started seeing her a few months after.”

“What about the smoke?  And the other people I heard?” She thought back to what she’d experienced.  “I smelled the smoke, I know it wasn’t my imagination!”

The steward sighed and shrugged, “I think you saw the Bourbonnais wreck, from ’99.  Eleven people died when the train hit a truck – the sleeper car caught fire and they were trapped.”

“Was she trying to kill me?  I mean…I really thought the train had stopped, that we’d crashed!  Was she making me see all that so I’d panic and try to get out of the train?” She shivered again as the fear she’d felt resurfaced.

“We were going almost 80 miles per hour when you opened that door.  If I hadn’t heard something from the other car, I wouldn’t have been there to pull you back in.”  He shook his head and laid a hand over her knee, “No, I think she was trying to help you.”

Elaine sighed, “You know, my mother thinks train travel is boring.”

The steward laughed, and she smiled back.  “If you like, I can move you to another car.  She’s not as…active in the others.”

Elaine thought about it, staring at the doorway where Clara had been.  “No, I think I’ll stay.  The creepy stuff is probably done for the night…don’t you think?”

He nodded and patted her knee again.  “We’re past midnight now.  The rest of the trip should be nice and quiet, through to Memphis.”  He stood and walked to the door.

“Oh, by the way,” she called out, and he turned to look at her where she sat on the narrow bed.  “Thanks.  For saving my life and everything.”

He grinned and touched his cap, “Just part of the service here on the City of New Orleans, ma’am!”

After he’d shut the door quietly behind him, Elaine sat in the silence of the compartment for a few minutes.  Everything seemed surreal, like a dream that was already starting to fade.  She sighed and reached out to snap the light off, settling back against the pillow and pulling the blanket more securely around her shoulders.

As she relaxed into sleep, a light hand brushed over her hair.  A smile ghosted over her lips as she drifted off to the sound of a lightly hummed lullaby.

Deep Roots

Her tree was dying, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Fewer and fewer of her branches were budding in the spring.  The buds that did form were small and weak and rarely produced the full leaves she’d been accustomed to for seasons past counting.  She could feel time running out…for both of them.
As a wood nymph, she lived only as long as her tree did.  The youngest among them numbered their seasons in the hundreds, and those with stately, long-lived trees eventually stopped counting entirely as the number became meaningless.
But now, she could sense her tree weakening, and every spell and potion she tried had less effect than the last.  It was time to seek help.
Nimbly she lowered herself down the stout trunk until she felt the vibrant earth through the soles of her feet.  An early morning breeze flirted with the treetops and leaves rustled cheerfully as she passed under their branches.  Adele lifted her face to catch the first warm rays of the sun and smiled.
The tree she sought was in the center of the forest.  It was the easily the oldest of any of the trees, and its nymph reigned as their queen; if any in the forest knew how to revive her tree, the queen would.
The queen’s tree dominated the forest: it rose well above the other trees, and its wide canopy had long since eliminated any surrounding trees.  The ground surrounding the immense trunk was gnarled with the knees of roots that had thrust up randomly as the huge tree sought to expand its support system.
The air was noticeably cooler under the branches, and the noise of the forest faded to a reverent silence.  Adele approached the trunk with her head bowed, and dropped silently to sit with her hands resting in her lap. The Queen would have known she was coming the moment she passed the outer ranges of her tree’s roots.  All Adele could do was wait to see if the Queen would speak with her.
She closed her eyes and worked to order her thoughts.  The Queen did not appreciate nymphs who wasted her time dithering instead of getting to the point. 
“Adele Oakheart, have you come with a purpose…or are you napping?” the Queen’s voice came to her faintly from a slender opening in the trunk.
Adele leapt to her feet, “A purpose, my Queen!”
A dry laugh floated on the air.  “Well then, I suppose you had better come up then.”  She hesitated for a moment—she’d never been in the Queen’s tree.  No nymph had, at least that she’d heard of.  “Don’t dawdle Adele!  Come in, and bring some sunshine with you!”
Adele quickly slipped through and paused just inside to let her eyes adjust to the sudden darkness.  “Yes, Your Majesty.”  As her eyes adjusted, she hid a gasp behind her hand.  It had been several seasons since she’d seen the Queen, and in that time the vibrant nymph had shrunk and withered.  Her glowing red hair had faded to silver and crackled dryly as she moved.
“Well?  What is your purpose Adele?”  The Queen’s voice was weaker than it had been even a few moments earlier.
“Yes, my Queen!  My tree, it’s…”
“Getting weaker.  Dying,” the queen interrupted.
Adele nodded.  “I was hoping…”
“That I could help you save your tree…and yourself.”  There was a dark emotion in the Queen’s voice that puzzled Adele.
“Yes, my Queen.”
The Queen sighed and seemed to shrink into herself.  “Near the door is a bowl with clear spring water.  Take as much as your cupped hands will carry, and sprinkle it around the base of your tree.”
“Thank you, my Queen!”  Adele turned to the bowl, then looked back.  “Your Majesty, there is very little in the bowl.”
“Yes, Adele, I know.  Take it all; it is my gift to you.” 
Adele smiled gratefully and scooped the sparkling water into her hands, and made her way carefully down the trunk of the tree.  The Queen followed her progress to the edge of her tree’s roots, and sighed.
“My gift…my sacrifice,” she murmured, as the leaves of her tree fell like rain.
This post is my next short story for my Lucky Sevens project – my goal is to write a short story of exactly 700 words every day.  So far so good!  Thanks for reading and I appreciate all of your comments!

Accounting

The long velvet robe was hot, her shoes pinched her feet, and the crown was giving her a throbbing headache.  Still, Rachel smiled serenely and maintained an expression of polite interest.
When she was finally able to stand to leave the hall, her knees nearly buckled under the weight of her ornate gown.  Thankfully, two of her ladies in waiting were on hand to help her off the dais and back to her rooms.
“Oh, thank God and all the seraphim and cherubim!” she moaned, dropping gracefully into an overstuffed chair. 
A giggle escaped one of the young girls waiting to help her off with her shoes, robe, and other non-essential clothing.  An older girl shushed her quickly and handed Rachel a cup of strong tea, adulterated with a bit of cream and honey.
“Thank you,” the queen sighed and then winked at the younger girl, setting off another quickly smothered giggle.
A sharp rap on the door announced the presence of the chamberlain and Rachel glanced up from her tea.  The chamberlain was a generally sober man, it was almost a requirement of the position, but she could see trouble on his face.
“Leave us, ladies.  Thank you,” she murmured, and waited until the last girl shut the heavy door behind her, leaving her alone with the stout man and her maid.
“Would you sit, Chamberlain?  I’ve had a long day with the trade ambassadors, and I don’t really think I’m up to craning my neck that far.”  She waved to a somewhat more sensible chair across from her.
“Thank you, Your Majesty.  Ahem.”  Rachel tried not to wince, but the chamberlain’s nervous habit of clearing his voice at the end of every sentence always left her feeling like she should offer him a sucking candy to clear the non-existent congestion.
“I’ve brought the monthly accounts, Your Majesty.  Ahem.  They just need your approval.”  She waited for a second before speaking, anticipating the inevitable punctuation.  “Ahem.”
“Certainly, Chamberlain,” leaning forward she took the sheaf of papers from his hand and began to read each handwritten receipt.  Her mother had always overseen the personal accounts of herself and her husband, and Rachel had continued the practice when she became queen.  The chamberlain shifted nervously as he waited, and she suspected she knew why.  It didn’t take long for that suspicion to be verified.
“Chamberlain,” she said, and watched as he jumped despite her calm tone, “I’m not familiar with this particular jeweler, and I feel certain I would have remembered ordering an amethyst broach the size of a goose egg.”
“Ahem.  I believe, Your Majesty, ahem…I believe that was the King’s purchase.  Ahem.”  He stared fixedly at some point just above her head, and a wave of crimson slowly crept up his neck and over each chin to gradually engulf his round face.
“I see.  And is my husband available to discuss this purchase?” she asked evenly.
“I…Ahem…I really couldn’t say, Your Majesty,” he stammered.
Rachel stared at him as a flash of anger was drowned in resignation.  It wasn’t his fault, she knew, and she took pity on his obvious discomfort.  “Thank you, Chamberlain, I will look these over and advise you of their disposition in the morning.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty!  Ahem.” He bowed his way out of the room, narrowly missing a large but delicate urn in his haste.
As the door shut firmly on the chamberlain, Rachel rested her aching head against the back of her chair and closed her eyes.  After a moment, she spoke.  “Anna, please go ask Cook to prepare a light meal.  I believe I’ll retire early this evening.”  The sound of her maid slipping through the door and gently closing it was her only response.
For just a moment, she wished herself back to those days when she was a princess, meeting her handsome prince for the first time—when infidelity and betrayal had been unthinkable. 
Her father’s voice rose from her memory, “Princes, my dear, are raised to be handsome and charming.  Don’t ever let that fool you into thinking you can trust them.”
Her mother’s sharp voice followed her father’s, and made Rachel smile, “You would know, my dear.”

Hot Chocolate

No matter how high she built the fire, Tara couldn’t get warm.  The sound of the wind whistling and howling around the house chilled her to the bone despite the comforting heat from the fireplace.
She shivered and pulled the heavy quilt tighter around her shoulders.  Jason had been so excited to book this cabin for the week so they could celebrate their tenth anniversary.  Of course, their actual anniversary was a little more than two months away…but the rates for the cabin were more than double in June so they were celebrating a little early.
Tara looked around at the small windows along the front of the cabin and listened for the sound of Jason stacking firewood on the porch.  The property manager had made a point of mentioning the storage building full of wood when they’d picked the keys up, and now she knew why.  Jason was going to be freezing when he came in.
She shivered again and stood up, gathering the bottom edge of the quilt up to avoid tripping over it—the gleaming wooden floors were tricky enough to navigate in three pairs of socks without stepping on the quilt.  He’d appreciate some hot cocoa when he came in, she thought.
She opened and shut four cupboards before she found the pots and pans.  The water burbled a bit coming out of the tap before it steadied into a solid stream.  It was ice cold, and it occurred to her to wonder how cold it would have to get to actually freeze in the well.
She filled the pot and gingerly shuffled across the kitchen to put it down on the metal trivet covering the burner.  Some maneuvering had the bottom of the quilt under her feet for warmth, and she turned her attention to the stove.
It was gas, and much older than her stainless steel electric one at home.  Careful to keep the quilt back from the stove top, she turned the knob for the closest burner. There was an immediate hiss of gas and the unfamiliar smell of rotten eggs…but no flame.
Tara stepped back and bent to peer at the burner, trying to troubleshoot the problem.  She turned the knob back to the off position and considered the stove more closely.  Maybe you had to start it on low and let it warm up?
She turned the knob to what she presumed was the lowest setting.  The markings had long since worn off the face of the stove, so she couldn’t be certain, but the hissing wasn’t as loud.  And still there was no flame.
She turned the knob back until the hissing stopped and then stared at the stove.  The quilt slid down her shoulders, forgotten in her frustration.
“OK,” she said, and jumped a little at the sound of her voice in the cabin.  This is ridiculous, she thought to herself.  I troubleshoot some of the biggest networks in the country.  Surely I can figure out one antiquated stove!
Reaching out she snapped the knob to the middle setting and frowned as the now-familiar hissing and smell failed to produce a flame.  In a burst of irritation she slapped the knob with the flat of her hand, and jumped back at the series of pops that ignited the escaping gas into a dancing ring of blue flame.
“Huh!  What do ya know about that?” she murmured, and took a closer look at the knob.  A cautious clockwise lowered the flame, and a more confident counter-clockwise turn raised it to lick at the bottom of the pot.
Not willing to risk the flame heating the water, Tara moved to the working burner’s mate and turned the knob.   Watching the burner closely, she pushed the knob in and was rewarded with another series of pops and a dancing ring of flame.  She smiled and flicked the knob off.
By the time Jason stamped his way through the front door, followed by a blast of frigid air, she was pouring creamy hot chocolate into two mugs.
“That smells amazing!” he moaned, breathing deeply.  “Did you have any trouble with the stove?”
Tara smiled at him and shook her head, “Of course not!”

I wrote and posted this short story last year, but I’m resurrecting it for the Write On Edge prompt this week…just because it fit SO well!

Thanks for stopping by, and please feel free to leave a comment so I’ll know you were here!

Lost Colony

Singer slapped at the back of her neck and shifted to a more comfortable position while she waited for the rest of her group to catch up.  She’d been to just about every terraformed planet in the system, and no matter what color the sky, plants, or critters happened to be, they all had one thing in common: bugs.
If scientists could figure out how to turn a dead rock into a habitable planet, why couldn’t they do it without the bugs?  She let her mind wander while her eyes tracked back and forth across the red horizon.  Every few minutes she slapped reflexively at whatever bug had stopped by for a snack. 
“Singer!  Damn it Singer, where the hell are you?” The roar of their expedition leader bounced around the trees.
“Ten meters ahead, Freberg!” she yelled back, rolling her eyes.  Scouts scouted ahead, that was the definition of the job, but Freberg got nervous if he lost sight of her for more than a second or two.
She heard the group before she saw them.  They moved slowly around the massive trunks of trees that were an odd cross of pine and oak.  The leaves that covered the floor of the forest looked like they should rustle just like the ones back on Earth, but the oddly sibilant noise they made as the group passed over them added to the hostile feel of the place.
“Singer!  I’m tired of tellin’ you to stay with the group!”
She wondered, briefly, if the color of his face was an effect of the red sky and foliage all around them.  She glanced at the drawn faces of the other four expedition members and opted against deliberately aggravating their EL.
“Freberg,” she began calmly, “I have to move ahead of the group…I’m the scout.”  She dropped what was meant to be a calming hand to the thin man’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry, I won’t lose you.”
He jerked away from her hand and took a step back.  “Look, how far are we from the colony?”
“Not far, maybe one more hour if we move at a good pace.”  Her gray eyes swept over the horizon again.
“Fine.  Can we just stay together?  At least until we know the situation at the colony.”  The hand that pulled a cloth over his sweating face was shaking slightly.
“Yeah, no problem.”  She narrowed her eyes and took a closer look at him.  “You might want to take a pain block.  You let the headache get ahead of you and we’ll be carrying you back to the transport.”
Freberg rubbed the back of his neck and nodded.  They all had headaches—the shades of red covering the planet had that effect.  The colonists had goggles that provided some protection, but their expedition hadn’t been issued any.
Forty-five minutes later they passed the outbuildings of the colony and what little chatting there was fell silent.
The buildings were intact; there were no signs of a hostile attack either by a rival faction of colonists or anything else.  It was clear that the forest was beginning to reclaim the area cleared by the colonists, but everything else remained pristine.
When the silence became oppressive, Singer spoke.  “Let’s spread out in pairs and check the buildings.  Make sure you look in the cellars…and for God’s sake announce yourselves loud and clear.”
A reedy voice piped up from the back of their group, “I thought the colonists were pacifists…unarmed?”
Singer swung around and fixed her cool eyes on the skinny sci-geek, “A rake to the head will knock points off your IQ, which is exactly what’ll happen if you scare the crap out of one of these clod thumpers.” 
The group split up, leaving her with Freberg.
“So Freberg, what did you say the name of this colony is?” she asked, and grinned when fumbled a data disk out of his pocket.
“Hmmm…that’s interesting,” he frowned at the display.
“What is?”  She looked back to where he’d stopped walking.
“They named the colony Roanoke.”
She let the name sink in for a moment before she spoke again.  “Freberg, I don’t think we’re gonna find these colonists.  I don’t think anybody is.”
This post is the beginning of what I’m calling “Lucky Sevens.”  The idea is that I’m going to try to write a short story every day that is exactly 700 words.  I’m hoping that this will help me take my writing more seriously, and maybe jump-start my brain on a novel idea…which I’m very short on at the moment!  If you’d like to join in, just leave a link to your Lucky Seven in my comments and I’ll be happy to pop over and read it!