Welcome back to read this week’s stories. Our prompt was:
On vacation for the first time in years, an out of work writer wakes up in a strange house.
Two of our writers tackled this prompt, putting it into two different genres.
“It’s just that no one wants half-orc stories this season,” Harold the Suave explained, sitting behind his desk made of living wood. A small human, he unquestionably had a living wood desk so that the chair component could raise the height of his seat based on the size of his visitors. Right now, it had raised him a good six feet from the floor. “Stories about people bashing their enemies and drinking great quaffs of ale are unquestionably out.”
“So what’s in?” Bashdag rumbled. He always felt uncomfortable in Harold’s office, even when the conversation was pleasanter. The low chair Harold reserved for visitors was much too small for Bashdag, his knees rising up at an almost forty-five degree angle in front of him. And he knew his head would hit the ceiling if he stood up too carelessly.
“The in thing this season…well, I don’t think you need to worry about that,” Harold said. As he spoke, his gaze drifted over to the enormous display on one wall. Several rows of books, all one book, with a giant, blown-up poster of the cover in the center.
The entire thing was pink and sparkly and had been screaming the title The Passionate Perils of Pineapple Poplarcreek into Bashdag’s yellow eyes ever since he came in.
“Perils?” Bashdag suggested. “Perils are in? I write perils. We can adjust the marketing—”
“No, no,” Harold said, “that’s not quite—”
“Passion is in? I write passion—my characters are so passionate about destroying things—”
“Not that kind of passion. And that isn’t—”
“I can write about pineapples. Good projectile weapons. And poplars. And creeks. I can put a battle in a poplar grove by a creek and—”
“Pixies!” Harold said at last. “Pineapple Poplarcreek is a pixie, and pixies are in. I’m sorry, but you—”
“I can write about pixies,” Bashdag said with conviction, curling his meaty hands into fists. “I’ll just access my inner pixie and—”
“No,” Harold said. “Thank you.” His living chair shrank down so that he could stand up. “We’ll call you when we need your stories again.”
“I can write about pixies,” Bashdag repeated, standing up and bumping his bald head against the ceiling. He winced, rubbed the spot. “Sorry. But about the stories—it’s just lots of flowers and faintings and romance, right? I can do that. And I can write under a penname—I understand no one wants to buy love stories from Bashdag the Berserk Battler, but I could—”
“We’ll be in touch,” Harold said, ushering him to the door. “Just as soon as we need you.”
And so Bashdag found himself outside the front door of Suave and Stunning Publishers, Lmtd., unwanted, out of work and depressed.
He went over to the All-Species Athletics Club to smash a few boulders in the Half-Orc Atrium, but it didn’t help. By sundown he was in the Blood and Guts Tavern, quaffing big mugs of ale and pouring out his woes to the bartender, Delilah the Destroyer.
“I think you need to get away from it all,” Delilah advised in her deep rumbling voice, polishing an empty quart glass. Bashdag was almost sure it was always the same one, since she was always doing it and yet every glass he’d ever been served looked distinctly less than polished. That was what gave the Blood and Guts’ drinks their unique flavor.
“I think I need to destroy something,” Bashdag said, staring into his half-empty fifth mug of ale, then groaned. “I don’t have an inner pixie, do I? Pixies don’t go around destroying things. They go around…I don’t know. Sparkling, or something.”
“I couldn’t say,” Delilah said, set down her glass and rag, and rummaged under the bar. After a moment she came up with a stack of parchment brochures, and pushed one across the bar to Bashdag. “Here. Some little pipsqueak dropped these off yesterday.” Since Delilah was well over seven feet, almost everyone looked like a little pipsqueak to her. Even Bashdag only had a foot on her, and he was tall for a half-orc.
He squinted at the brochure, which announced in scarlet letters, Come to the St. Swithun’s Inn! In Just One Night, We Will Change Your Life!
Below that was a lot of fine print, and while five mugs of ale wasn’t enough to make Bashdag properly drunk, it was enough that he didn’t feel up to fine print. “Eh,” he said with a shrug, drank down the rest of his mug, and pushed it empty toward Delilah. “Maybe.”
When he awoke in the morning, still unwanted, out of work and depressed, with a hangover and a piece of parchment he had to look at for a solid minute to remember where it had come from, he decided maybe he could use some life-changing.
Once the pounding in his head had subsided to a dull ache, he wandered out in search of a coach going the right direction, with enough space for a half-orc in a bad mood. This proved a challenging search, and by the time he finally reached The St. Swithun Inn, an entire day had gone by and he felt that his life had not so far changed in any helpful way.
The inn looked decent enough. Clean by half-orc standards, and the dwarf at the reception desk immediately booked him a room and smiled while doing it. He thought. It was sometimes hard to tell if dwarves smiled, what with the beards. The room Bashdag was shown to was big enough that he wouldn’t bump his head on the ceiling, and he decided that for the moment, that was enough.
It was when he woke up the next morning that things got weird.
Bashdag squinted up at the ceiling, and felt reasonably sure that it had not been pink when he went to sleep. He looked around and found that each wall was a different pastel shade, from pale lavender to powder blue. And there were flowers. Lots of flowers. Painted ones on the walls, live ones massed in every corner, wooden ones adorning the frame of the oval mirror he also didn’t remember.
How drunk had he been last night?
No…that had been the night before. Last night he was sober, and checked into the inn that promised to change his life. Shoving him into a bower of flowers while he slept was not what he’d had in mind.
He tried to swear. Strangely, what came out was the weirdly high-pitched, “Fiddledrums! Hornsnoggle!” He coughed. “What the expletive expletive?”
Something was definitely wrong.
He sat up in bed, and that felt wrong too. He looked down at his hands, found strangely thin fingers clutching a purple quilt embroidered with screamingly-pink flowers. “What the expletive expletive?”
He hopped out of bed—given generally to lumbering, he had never in his life hopped before—and hurried over to the flower-adorned mirror. He gawked into it, and found a high-cheekboned face gawking back at him with shining blue eyes below bright red hair.
“I’m a pixie? Alabash! Gronsniggle! Tulip blossom!” He clutched at his throat. “I’m swearing in flowers!”
Bashdag turned away from the mirror, dashed through the nearest door, and promptly tripped over a chaise lounge. He turned a full somersault and landed with a “Briar patch!” of alarm on a thick pink rug. From his dazed position on the ground, he looked around this new room.
There were even more flowers, and a picture of a hummingbird on one wall was staring at him in a sinister manner.
He staggered up to his feet, navigating around three small tables, six little chairs, a second chaise lounge and twelve flower displays to wrench open another door.
When he saw even more flowers, he let out a moan.
He risked a second glance, and realized that there was a sky over these flowers. A garden. The outside world.
He was going to find that dwarf at the inn’s reception desk and pound him.
He stepped out into the garden, was halfway down a winding stone path before he properly realized that he had no idea at all where he was, and no inn was in sight. He halted, turned a full circle, and observed that the house he had come out of was shaped like a giant rose blossom.
Well, of course it was.
A stone cottage was hulking above the rose blossom house, looking like a habitation of giants. Or, he realized as he compared his relative size to the nearest flowers, he was just really small.
“Dagsnabble pixies,” he muttered. Maybe he’d try the stone cottage, see if anyone there—
A roar emerged from the cottage, a deep rumble that fairly shook the petals around him and echoed around the surrounding area.
Bashdag sighed in relief. Someone normal.
He tried to run towards the cottage, and found himself flitting in a very disconcerting fashion. He made decent speed at least, and quickly reached the cottage’s front door. It loomed high above him. What was he, a foot tall now? He gamely curled his tiny hand into a tiny fist and knocked as hard as he could, producing an absurd little rat-a-tat-tat.
Fortunately he had timed it between roars, and now the rumbling voice bellowed, “Who’s that? Who’s there? I want an explanation!”
“Me too!” Bashdag shrieked back.
The door flung open with a crash, and Bashdag looked way, way up at a wild-eyed half-orc woman. “I’m a half-orc!” she roared.
“I’m a pixie!” Bashdag hollered.
“I’m going to sternly scold that dwarf at the reception desk!”
“I’m going to kill him!”
After they’d both got a little more shouting out of their systems, they sat down on the grass in front of the stone cottage and swapped stories.
Bashdag offered up his name and proper species, and learned that the half-orc woman was in fact a pixie named Daybreak Clouddust, who had also checked in at the St. Swithun Inn the night before.
“I told Harold my editor that I could get in touch with my inner pixie, but this wasn’t what I meant,” Bashdag said, gesturing at his new body.
“Harold your editor?” Daybreak Clouddust repeated.
“I write orcish novels, and pixies are in,” Bashdag said mournfully.
“How delightfully curious! I’m a writer too. I just had a charming success, but now they’re telling me I simply must have more action in my next novel to keep the dear readers happy. Like…fighting.” Her voice dropped to a hushed tone. “And maybe even…blood.”
“You needed to get in touch with your inner half-orc!” Bashdag said, bouncing up to his feet in sudden excitement. “That’s it! We’re probably supposed to help each other.”
“You mean…we learn from each other, experiencing meaningful personal growth, and then we transform back into our own bodies?”
“Right! Isn’t that how you’d write it if it was your story?”
“Oh no,” Daybreak Clouddust said in serious tones. “If it was my story, at least one of us would have been our new species all along, only perhaps we didn’t know it because we were cursed at birth, and we’d go through many perilous trials and dangers and gradually find ourselves experiencing little flutters of attraction to each other, but of course we’d think it was impossible because we were meant to be different species, but we’d prove so loyal and devoted that it would seem simply tragic to part us, and finally at the end—”
“You’re not Pineapple Poplarcreek, are you?” Bashdag asked with deep suspicion.
He was presented with the very strange sight of a half-orc blushing. He hadn’t known his species was capable of that. “You’ve heard of my book then.”
Bashdag sighed. “Maybe we should kill Harold. I think this is really all his fault.”
“Oh, but he’s so lovely! So suave!”
“So they tell me,” Bashdag said. “Listen, I’m not going to experience any flutters of attraction to someone who’s actually a pixie, or who would name their lead character Pineapple. No offense. So maybe we could try it my way?”
“I suppose,” Daybreak Clouddust said doubtfully. “You truly believe you can teach me to think like a half-orc?”
“If you can teach me to think like a—” He grimaced. “Like a pixie.”
They tried. And it proved to be a very long day.
First Bashdag tried to teach Daybreak Clouddust the best ways to describe people dying in battle, but every time he mentioned any bodily fluid or made reference to viscera, she fainted. And it was no joke when a half-orc fell over.
Then Daybreak Clouddust tried to teach Bashdag the names of different flowers and what they meant symbolically, but his eyes kept glazing over and he couldn’t retain any names besides roses and daisies, and he’d known them anyway. Though he tended to guess that every white flower was a daisy, and every red one a rose, and Daybreak Clouddust said he got that wrong quite often.
They tried to teach each other to swear, but Daybreak Clouddust turned violently red if she said so much as “darn” or “heck,” and Bashdag felt nauseous saying “dillydaff” and “harpsichord.”
Bashdag flatly refused to learn how to style hair, and it was against Daybreak Clouddust’s principles to uproot any trees, or even small shrubs.
By evening, both were discouraged.
“I suppose we can sleep on it and try again tomorrow,” Bashdag said with a sigh. “Can I bunk in the cottage though? I’m so absurdly tiny, all I need is a shelf or something. That red rose monstrosity will give me nightmares.”
“I told you, the little house is a peony, and it looks so quaint and cozy and—”
“Whatever you say,” Bashdag said, promptly deleting from his mind whatever flower she’d just named.
Bashdag half-expected to wake up inside the floral horror anyway. He did not expect to wake up in his original room at the St. Swithin’s Inn.
He sat up with a jolt, clutching his rough gray blanket in his meaty hands. He clambered out of bed with a crash, lumbered over to the mirror, and saw his own familiar face staring back at him. “I’m me again!” he bellowed, and relished the good solid rumble of his own voice.
“Hey—hey, Daybreak!” He shoved open the room’s door, stumbling out into the hall just as a tiny woman with bright blue hair darted out of a much smaller door across the way.
“Bashdag!” the woman said in piping tones. “Is that you?”
“It’s me!” Bashdag said happily. “You must be you!”
There followed a brief interval of mutual delight, and then questions arose.
“But we didn’t have meaningful personal growth,” Daybreak Clouddust said, pressing one finger against her lower lip. “We didn’t learn anything.”
“Sure we did,” Bashdag countered. “I learned that I really don’t have an inner pixie. I’m a half-orc who writes orcish stories, and I’m going to have to accept that about myself.”
Daybreak Clouddust nodded vigorously. “And I’m a pixie who writes pixieish stories, so I should embrace that about myself! And I shouldn’t try to write about—you know.”
“Viscera,” Bashdag supplied.
Daybreak Clouddust’s eyes rolled up and she clutched at the nearby doorframe. “Yes,” she gasped, and managed to stay on her feet. “That.”
“You know, I feel better about myself,” Bashdag realized. “I like being a half-orc. I don’t want to be a pixie. No offense.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” Daybreak Clouddust said cheerfully. “I don’t want to be a half-orc either.”
“Well, good, that’s good,” Bashdag said, and for a moment enjoyed a glow of self-esteem and assurance. Which faded rather quickly. “But what are we going to do about Harold?”
“Well…” Daybreak Clouddust said slowly. “Have you ever considered a collaboration?”
I woke with a start. The room was pitch black and noiseless, so I had no idea what pulled me awake. I reached over to the bedside table where I’d left my cell phone the night before, but met only empty air. My groping hand reached with more and more determination, until I realized I was flailing about like an idiot.
I swung my legs out of bed, then recoiled. Instead of the expected threadbare carpet, my feet struck hard, cold wood. I thought back to last night. I’d returned to my room after the hotel bar closed at 2:00 a.m. The sympathetic bartender had smiled when I got up to leave and told me to think of the thing I wanted most as I went to sleep, and everything would work out.
Something about his voice, some odd vibration, struck me as strange, but I’d merely laughed humorlessly and waved. That positive affirmation crap was all very well for the optimists of the world. I’d been an optimist once. Before I learned that optimists were simply those who hadn’t experienced the loss of everything you cared about most.
I’d been tired and fighting off melancholy as I trudged down the long hall to my room. It wasn’t the fact that I was here alone; I’d grown used to being alone. It was the thought that, regardless of what the bartender said, I might never write again.
It had been a long time since I’d taken a vacation, but the call from my agent had shaken me from the stupor I’d existed in for the past four years. My publishers were dropping my contract, finally done waiting for my writer’s block to be resolved. In desperation, I’d assured myself that getting out of my hum-drum word-blocked existence would help. But I’d been here three days now, sitting in front of the blank screen on my computer, staring at the blinking cursor, and not a single plausible word, let alone a literary gem, had come.
Not a usable word, anyway. Typing ‘shit, shit, shit’ over and over wasn’t likely to win me another award to sit alongside the five already gathering dust at home.
So, what exactly had I done last night after leaving the bar? Had I somehow gone to the wrong room? No. I’d used my keycard to get in. I’d crossed the dingy beige carpet and decided it probably wasn’t safe to go barefoot. I’d hung my jacket in the closet, brushed my teeth, and stumbled into bed fully dressed. I’d been pretty smashed, but I could definitely remember that much.
I’d stared at the water-stained ceiling for several minutes, watching it slowly revolve, before I reached over to the bedside table and turned off the light. And I was pretty sure my last thought had been an intense and desperate desire to break through my writer’s block and find my next story, though not because I believed the odd bartender.
So if I was in the right place, how could the carpet and bedside table have disappeared while I slept? My heart lurched at that thought and my palms began to sweat.
First things first. I had to figure out if I was still in my hotel room.
A faint strip of light across the room caught my eye, as if sunlight was leaking around the edge of a curtain. Carefully, hands held out before me, I felt my way across the cold wood floor toward that miniscule easing of the dark.
My fingers met, then tightened around stiff curtains. I tugged them open and early morning light inched inside.
This wasn’t my room.
I swung around, looking for something, anything, I recognized, but saw nothing. At least, nothing specific. But I had the sense that I should recognize this room. That there was something familiar about it. That thought scratched at the back of my mind, as if my brain was trying to reach some filed away memory.
The room was sparsely furnished; the window with ornate brocade curtains in pale green, a narrow, rumpled bed pushed against one wall, a heavy Queen Anne dresser, and a door surrounded by dark moulding.
My nerves jangled, like discordant notes in the middle of a song. I couldn’t decide if it was because I didn’t know where I was, or because I felt like I should know.
I opened the door slowly, expecting to see the hotel corridor. There was a corridor, but not the one in my hotel. I was looking at an upstairs hallway bordered by an elaborate banister. I stepped out cautiously, leaving the door open behind me, in case I wanted to find this room again.
I paused at the door to my left and gave it a gentle tap. The wood was heavy and solid, and the tap barely made a sound. I tried again, harder, hoping someone would answer, but received nothing but bruised knuckles. Deciding desperate circumstances justified desperate measures, I twisted the knob and slowly opened the door. I startled as it gave a screech of tortured hinges, like they hadn’t moved in a very long time.
This room looked the same as mine, except the bed was neatly made.
The next three followed the same pattern. Knocking, no answer, screeching hinges, empty room. The only differences were the color of the curtains and bedspreads. Some were pale green like mine. Others were a soft blue, like the sky on a spring day after rain has washed the stains of civilization from the air.
Something inside me tingled at that thought.
The feeling I should recognize this place was growing, clamoring, twisting into knotted shapes inside my mind. When I stepped onto the stairs and got my first glimpse of the bottom floor, that clamor became a scream of awareness and all those knots slid apart.
I knew this house.
I knew the black and white marble tiles in the wide entry way, gleaming dully in the light. I knew the large cut-crystal chandelier hanging over that space, shining onto the floor. And I knew how you could see that floor between each of the steps in the long sweeping staircase.
I’d created this house for my first book and liked it so much I’d used it in my next two. Then fans wanted it in all my novels. It was a house that existed nowhere other than my imagination. So how could I be here? I pinched my arm, hard, and nearly shouted, surprised how much it hurt. I wasn’t asleep.
I glanced at my feet. At the steps. They’d been an interesting problem in each novel. My High Fantasy – The House Obscured By Elves. My well-received Sci-Fi – The House That Flew To The Moon. My Mystery – The House Is A Corpse. My Spy Thriller – The House That Would Never Be Safe. Then there was my supposed to be Happily Ever After – The House Restored By Love. Though advertised as romantic fiction, it was the story of how I found and wooed her.
Each book had pivotal scenes set in this house. And each Main Character had an irrational fear of crashing to the marble floor clearly visible between each step. It didn’t help them that I’d written the stairs with no banister to cling to.
It had amused me when I described it in my books. Now, I thought I’d been a bit too fiendishly clever. These stairs were damn unsettling.
I was half-way down when I heard a sharp creak overhead.
It was the chandelier. It stirred, barely moving at first. But its slight back and forth motion grew wider with each swing. It creaked and groaned as if something was about to give way. Soon, the apex of the swing would place it directly over my head. I didn’t want that heavy thing, with all its sharply angled bits of glass, over me if it let go.
I hurried down the remainder of the steps, intent on reaching the front door. Only, something began to knock on that door. My first thought was that someone was there. Someone who could explain where I was and what was happening.
Except, the knocks were growing louder and more demanding. Someone began pounding on it like they were using a baseball bat. Then the knocks became frenzied, violently rattling the door in its frame.
I was no longer interested in opening it.
I stepped back and nearly tripped on the bottom of the stairs. My heart hammered in my ears, but not enough to hide the—
The pounding ceased, replaced by something worse. It couldn’t be a person out there. Something huge had pressed against the door. The wood shrieked and popped, then stretched as if made from cloth. A distorted face, heavy-jowled and low-browed, showed through.
I shuddered and lifted my foot, blindly searching for the top of the step behind me, then froze.
From somewhere upstairs came the sound of tearing, soul-rending grief. All too recognizable to someone who’d lived with it four years earlier. I had to fight the temptation to curl into a ball and join in.
When the weeping finally faded away, I glanced about, trembling, wondering what new horror waited for me. The door had gone still, as if nothing had tried to force its way inside moments before.
Nevertheless, I decided to find another way out of the house.
I knew what I’d find when I entered the formal sitting room. At one end, a tan couch and matching chaise lounge were placed by the front windows. At the other end, two tapestry chairs – turquoise blue with a bright tropical pattern – were placed near a large fireplace blackened from multiple fires.
A sound, as of dozens of trapped birds, wings fluttering in terror, came from inside it. Soot began to fall like thick black snow, tumbling into drifts that threatened to spread onto the floor. The noise grew louder. Deeper. More like the buzzing of a swarm of enraged bees. I hurriedly backed from the room, and the buzzing ceased.
And was replaced by scratching on the thin glass panes above the door. If I was describing this in a book, I’d say there were sharp claws grating against the glass, attempting to carve their way inside. Loud snuffling sounds came from beneath the door. As if whatever was out there could smell me.
I’d begun hyperventilating and couldn’t get control of my breathing. Because I wasn’t writing this; it was real.
I stepped away from the door, only to hear the creaking of the chandelier start up again, directly overhead. And drops of something red began to spatter down, flung outwards with each swing.
I rushed up the stairs, heedless of the terrifying emptiness between each step. Until, in my haste, I misjudged. My foot plunged into open space. I teetered there, nearly at the top, the stark black and white granite tiles beneath me, cursing my unruly imagination. Then with a sickening lurch, I felt myself fall.
Instead of my bones shattering on hard tile, I crashed onto dusty, threadbare carpet, hard enough that my teeth nearly bit through my bottom lip. I was bruised and tired and splattered with droplets of something sticky and red, but I didn’t care about those things. I flung myself at my computer and began to type furiously, my fingers barely able to keep up with the words that poured from my racing mind.
I had my next story. The House of Horrors. In which the Main Character would, after great tribulations, finally escape the house that had kept him trapped for four long years. The house where love had died, leaving me so terribly alone.
This story would be wonderfully, cathartically, horrible.