Flash Fiction – Haunted

The story that came out of this eye-catching photograph wasn’t quite what I expected, but I think it turned out better that way. It reminded me just how much I love writing flash fiction.

Photo via Visual hunt

As I unfold the silky blue cloth wrapping keeping them safe, the fragrance of the daisies drifts through the air; sweet as grass, clean as raindrops, haunting as the pages of an old book. Fresh enough that if I close my eyes, the image of a sun-kissed meadow, scattered with the confetti of wildflowers, forms in my mind and lulls me into a sense of peace.

Exactly as they’re meant to. It startles me, shaking off the drowsiness, and I bring the flowers closer to my face, inspecting them. I guess I didn’t really believe, even though I let myself be tempted into buying them. It seemed like a good story, to buy supposedly magical flowers from the witchy lady at the Renaissance Faire. She sold jewelry too, rings twisted to silver flowers and ravens and Celtic knots, everything as dramatic and beautiful as the pentacle at her throat. Her ears, glinting with gold earrings, tapered almost to a point, and as her papery voice whispered about dreams and escape, I believed her. Head spinning with overpriced mead and an edge of adrenaline, I’d laughed and agreed, lumping the flowers into the cost of the bronze ring now curled around my finger.

“They’ll bring peace and inner calm,” she’d said.

“Who doesn’t need that?” My voice rang, brash and hard, drawing too much attention. Her mouth smiled in response but her eyes stayed slated as mirrors.

I want it now. Tranquility, a reprieve from the curl of nervousness that pinches my stomach and dries my mouth. Even a placebo effect will be enough to give me a moment of peace, if I believe hard enough. I put the flower in my tea, as instructed. It shrivels in the hot water but tastes purer than chamomile.

My heartbeat slows, a steady drumbeat instead of the thrum of a hummingbird’s wings. Warmth steals through my veins, droops my eyelids. I sling my body against the couch cushions, half-listening to the sound of music drifting through the open window.

I wake with sourness and a needle-jab at my temples. My ears hum. Slowly, the nervousness creeps back, sharpened to an edge now that I’ve lost another day and success matters all the more now.

I work all day to make up for precious lost time, dragging my attention from one task to another with methodical resignation. My bones ache with weariness, thoughts drifting like obscuring mist over a mountain peak. At night, I drink a glass of wine, resolutely focusing on the rest of my to-do list, ignoring the flowers.

At bedtime, my resistance crumbles like chalk, and I lift the second flower to my mouth. Its white petals are velvet against my lips before I swallow it whole and let blissful ignorance and apathy wash over me. Dreams don’t exist; I float as nothing, forgetful and calm.

The after effects linger much longer this time, and on the fourth day, I stare at the last flower for ten minutes before gritting my teeth and lifting it into the flame of a lighter held over the sink. The heat stings my thumb, and as the bittersweet smoke curls into the air, I drag it into my lungs.

The shadowy peace twirls out of reach, nagging at the corners of my eyes, fidgeting its way through my fingers. Destroyed, it won’t work again now, and after moment of mourning, a sense of relief rinses over me. The anxiety comes back, but I embrace it because it feels like something. The shining moments need darkness to make them gleam like a pinprick of light.

 

The Diamond Deception – a free short story

My debut novel, The Wardrobe Mistress, comes out in less than a month! Set during the French Revolution, it’s the tale of Giselle, an aspiring dressmaker who works in  Marie Antoinette’s household. When she’s asked to spy on the queen, she jumps at the chance, but as she becomes torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolutionary cause, she risks losing everything…maybe even her head.

To share my excitement, I’ve got a free short story for you. Called The Diamond Deception, it’s a prequel to The Wardrobe Mistress by about three years, and centers on the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair‘, a real event in history where a diamond necklace was stolen under the pretense that Marie Antoinette was buying it in secret. Though the queen was an innocent victim in this crime, it still damaged her reputation.

How do you get your hands on this short story? Just sign up for my newsletter, and you’ll receive a confirmation email with a downloadable pdf of the story.

My newsletter goes out a few times a year and contains book news, snippets of what I’m currently writing (that I don’t share anywhere else), book recommendations, and related historical items of interest.

Already subscribed? Don’t worry, I’ll be sending The Diamond Deception out to existing subscribers as well.

 

Stay tuned next week for an amazing new Book Addiction, and in the weeks leading up to August 15th, the publication date of The Wardrobe Mistress, I’ll be sharing lots of Marie Antoinette themed posts. Ever wondered if she really said ‘let them eat cake?’ I’ve got that answer for you, and plenty more, too.

 


The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, publishes on August 15th with St. Martin’s Griffin.

Pre-order links:
Amazon | B&N | IndieBound | BAM | Macmillan

 

Flash Fiction – Goodbye

For some reason, the word ‘goodbye’ popped into my head as soon as I saw this picture. And then a story about a mother and daughter grew from there.

Photo via Visualhunt.com

When I took that photo, Sierra was thinking about how to say goodbye. I understood that now. The oversized burgundy sunglasses shielded her eyes, but her lower lip drooped in the way that meant she cringed inwardly. Usually it meant I’d said something embarrassing – which seemed to happen often enough, in spite of my efforts to be a ‘cool Mom’.

Last week, when we’d taken advantage of the slanting golden light for a photo session, I thought she was merely pouting for the camera.

“We don’t need new photos already,” Sierra had complained, glancing up from her pink-cased iPhone. The silvery glitter on her nails gleamed as she scrolled. “My portfolio is fine. And Instagram is better anyway.”

“I know, but it can’t hurt to take a few more. You can put some on Instagram, too. It might be nice to post a few more before Nationals.”

She’d sighed, but that was nothing new, really. Teenagers sighed all the time. She flexed her foot en pointe and tossed her phone on the counter. Even that motion looked graceful. “Whatever. Let’s go now, then, because I have to do my barre exercises still and then I have math homework.”

“We’ll have plenty of time.” I tried to sound encouraging. “We can stop for Chinese takeout one the way home.” Even as I said it, I realized that wasn’t going to be possible, not with Nationals coming up.

Sierra rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. I can’t eat that right now.”

“I’ll make grilled vegetables and some fish,” I said, talking too fast, trying to cover my mistake.

Without her, the emptiness of the townhouse crushed in around me, and the tick of the clock echoed, knocking on my spine until I could hardly bear it. I imagined Sierra at her dad’s house, curled on the couch in the basement. I’d seen it once, when I picked her up. It was grey and soft. Maybe she’d be perched on the edge, eating pizza and laughing with her friends. She’d told me that he was letting her have a sleepover to celebrate her moving in with him.

“Are you coming back?” I remember how much I’d hated the tremor in my voice when I asked.

She lifted her hand to chew her thumbnail, a habitual nervous habit, and then dropped it again. Her lashes covered her eyes. “I don’t know. Not for a while.”

Panic bubbled in my chest, threatening to shatter. “What about Nationals? Are we still going?”

Her face scrunched up and she looked at the ground, kicking her toes against the corner of the tile. “I don’t know. No.”

The pain in my leg stabbed, sharper than the steady ache I’d been left with after a car accident smashed my bones and my own ballet dreams. I hobbled to the living room, and stared blankly at the muted TV.

Flash Fiction – Whispers

Now that it’s finally spring, I wrote a winter story for some reason. Still, it’s a pretty picture and I loved the idea of hearing eerie whispers in this setting.

 

His legs ached as he plodded forward, snow churning around his shins. Every gasping lungful of air squeezed his chest, and the exhales frosted his glasses. He focused on the nearest crooked pine, determined to pass it, and the next, each a landmark of laborious progress. The effort frustrated him, though it’d been his idea to go outside. His weakness felt unavoidable, almost appropriate, because it matched the stagnant crush of his repetitive days.

He was breaking that pattern, though, so it made sense that it hurt. Breaking something meant jagged pieces, cracked foundations. Painful rearranging. The thought unfurled a burst of energy and he charged forward in a cloud of snow. This was a good workout, if nothing else. After everything his sister said about nature and healing – well, it made sense to her; she did meditative yoga, too. The idea sounded dumb to him. And yet, here he was, voluntarily freezing and sweating at the same time, stumbling around in the dark.

Reaching the top of a swelling hill, he lurched to a halt. The heavy stillness of the clearing helped ease his breath. A hissing sound skated through the air, and he whirled, heart leaping. Only the friendly silhouettes of the trees circled, nothing else. A flicker of movement lifted his gaze, and he saw the sky, painted red and green. Mesmerized, he watched the colours sway across the stars and realized with an awed pang that the noise poured from the sky. The auroras crackled and whistled. Goosebumps prickled his skin.

It was just the sky, and it wasn’t. It was vast and cold but vital. The moment burned, imprinted on his bones, echoing through the trek home and through every step tomorrow. Just like hiking past the trees, the small milestones could make him free.


Here’s a link to a video if you want to hear the eerie sound of the northern lights.

 

Flash Fiction – Letters

I felt drawn to this beautiful, evocative photograph as soon as I saw it – the letters could contain so many secrets! The story that resulted ended up a little darker than I expected, though.

Photo via Visual hunt

The effort of moving the massive oak desk leaves me winded, with a dew of sweat on my forehead. Even with its drawers emptied, it wasn’t easy to drag its bulk sideways. It’s easy to imagine that the ancient desk was here before the house, that the walls of this study were propped up around it. It’s at least as old as the house; the soaring bird silhouette of the vineyard’s logo, designed by my great-grandfather, is scratched onto one corner.

I turn my attention to the loose floor board, the reason I’d needed to move the desk aside. It creaks as I prod it with my finger, but seems simple enough to hammer back into place. Small maintenance for century-old house.  The board resists the claw of the hammer, until I use both hands to lift and straighten it. An entire foot-square section of floor lifts up instead, hinging like a jaw over a gaping mouth. In shock, I nearly drop the hammer.

The small wooden box fills up the hollow space under the hidden trap door. I carry it carefully to the desk, and my fingers fumble over the latch. The papery smell of old books ghosts through the air, carrying a whiff of dust and a tinge of almonds. It isn’t books inside, though. Not exactly. Gently, I spread the contents out on the desk. An old diary, photographs of the vineyard in its first years, back when the California wineries were all new, and a packet of letters bound with crumbling black thread.

Fascinated, I pour a glass of wine and sit down at that sprawling desk, first examining the photographs. The binding of the diary threatens to dissolve under the lightest touch, and I must turn the pages very slowly. The string fastening the letters snaps under the barest pressure of my fingertips, and the letters themselves turn out to be the most illuminating of all, once I manage to decipher the twirls of faded brown ink.

My neck aches, and the clock chimes an echo of hours passed. One sip of ruby wine remains in my glass, which seems fitting. I swirl the glass idly, watching the crimson droplets scatter in the golden lamplight. One last taste – if I share the contents of the hidden packet, it would be the last vintage I bottled, the last produced by the vineyard under my name. The details of these papers would transfer everything to the overlooked but true heirs of the vineyard’s legacy.

I drink that mouthful. Against my dry tongue, it tastes bitter as old family secrets.

Replacing the floorboard cubbyhole is easy. I hammer it all the way down, so it can’t be lifted again, its hollow space, now empty, hidden forever. My head throbs when I lug the desk back into place. As I shove the packet of sepia-toned papers into the fireplace, the old book smell sweetens to vanilla, mingling with smoke and the sour emergence of a chemical odour, probably from the photographs. That bittersweet perfume lingers in my nostrils even when the ashes break to dust under the fire poker.

Flash fiction – Magic

This flash fiction piece is pretty short, less than 400 words. This photo made me think of magic – how could it not?

Photo via Visual Hunt

Photo via Visual Hunt

The scrape of curtain hooks sliding open provides scant warning before a shard of sunlight pierces the room. And my head. Eyes squinching closed against the red-bloom of light burning along my eyelids, I burrow my face into the pillow and resist the tickle of a lurking sneeze.

“Mom.” Molly’s whisper is soft, more soothing than the brash sunlight.

I crack one eyelid open. Her lower lip is tucked between her teeth, gnawing worriedly. “Dad said to let you sleep, but I brought you something.” Her small fingers curl around a white saucer, balancing a cup. “It will make you feel better.”

“Thank you, sweetie.” Sleep would make me feel better, dark nothingness to temporarily erase my aching temples, the parchment feel of my feverish skin. Sleep let me drift to a place where my sinuses weren’t bruises tracing the shape of my cheeks. “I’ll drink it when I wake up.” I make a kissing sound for her, helplessly drifting back against the pillow.

“No, please drink it now. It’s not too hot. I checked.” She places the cup on the bedside table with a quiet chink of glass. “You have to drink it all.” The desperation of her tone reminds me we’d just finished reading Ella Enchanted at bedtimes, and the story involved a fairy who could make curing soups. Always imaginative, Molly had loved it.

“It’s special tea,” Molly insists. “It will make you better, but you have to believe.” She stares at me. “Do you?”

My elbows ache as I dig them into the mattress and heave myself upright. Thankfully, the cup appears absent of any mysterious potion-like additions. I can’t smell ginger, but its taste heats my tongue as I inhale the steam.  I have to say something to appease Molly. The tea is thoughtful, and there’s something wondrous in her childlike belief in magic.

“Yes.” I lean close to the cup. The sunlight reflects in the golden surface of the tea. “I believe.” I imagine the steam drifts like spell smoke, wafting like clouds across a dawn sky. The sun would pierce through them, washing away the heavy moon. A flock of birds scatters, soaring with freedom, the whole world open to them. In an ephemeral, fever-dizzy moment, I see it all. Molly watches me with wide eyes.

 

Flash Fiction – Three Days

This month’s flash fiction is called ‘Three Days’. As soon as I saw this photo, I knew it would be a fun flash fiction prompt, but the story had a mind of its own and went in a different direction than I expected. I thought each rock would represent a goal achieved, or maybe a special person, and instead they turned out to be mistakes. It’s okay though – a struggle before a triumph makes the victory even better.

white-rocks

Photo via Visualhunt.com

The flat white stone felt smooth against her palm, its rounded edges curling into her fingers. She squeezed it until her knuckles ached, tension straining through her hand. It felt good to let it go, the rush of blood tingling, the faint pulse in her fingertips with the rhythm of her heartbeat.  Nestling the rock flat against the sand, she reached for the second one, repeating the process. It dropped into place on top of the first stone with a soothing click. She savoured the final, heavy sound of the third rock settling into place. Her fingers throbbed, but that was fitting. She deserved that pain, and worse. Each pure white stone represented a mistake, something horrible and hurtful she’d said. The first two comments had burst from her fuzzy mouth in a wine-reeking fug, and she’d laughed, only curling with shame hours later, when remembrance stabbed at her temples. The third made her cheeks burn in memory. Sober and desperately hunting through the cabinet for a bottle, and only finding empty ones. Whirling on Tracey as she wandered into the kitchen, pink streaked hair half-covering her confused face. Lashing her humiliation into misdirected anger, the cruel words spilling like the last drops of wine as she knocked the bottles over with a clatter.

That was over now. Three days sober, one for each painful memory. A white stone for each, stacked into one, a tower of change. As she splayed her sore hand over her crossed knee and turned her face toward the sprawl of the sea, the answering leap of freedom surpassed the ache in her knuckles, the nausea flickering through her belly. Three days done, the rest looming as unending and restless as the waves. Just as harsh, just as beautiful.