Happy Saturday! Our writers are heading to our quarterly retreat today, but that hasn’t stopped us getting two new stories up.
This week’s prompt was: Write a story featuring Stonehenge
Cheryl Mahoney: Aliens on the Salisbury Plain
Stonehenge had collected many myths over the millennia, especially about how and why it was build. Was it built by druids? Was it an ancient calendar? Did it have religious significance? One of the more extreme myths, of course, was that it had been built by aliens.
This was obviously nonsense. Stonehenge had never been a meeting point between Earth-born humans and extraterrestrial life.
Until today, that is.
I was never particularly interested in aliens. When I was a teenager I had friends who were into old media like Star Trek or Star Wars, or the latest virtual reality series, Star Reveries. I preferred history. There were enough fascinating cultures and peoples in Earth’s past; I didn’t see a need to make up others.
Of course I saw the news stories, when EASA (Earth’s Aeronautic and Space Administration) announced they had made positive contact with an alien species. I mean, I didn’t go dance in the streets like lots of people, but I thought it was pretty cool. I didn’t expect it to impact my work, as part of the English Heritage team at Stonehenge.
Until EASA contacted us to explain that the Growlers had chosen Stonehenge as the site for first in-person contact. Not that “Growlers” was what they called themselves, but humans couldn’t pronounce the guttural sound they made.
We received the message about contact a week ago. And today Cassandra Zhang, the President of Earth, Her Majesty Queen Anne III, a couple dozen diplomats, and scores of scientists were all swarming around Stonehenge. Not to mention the packs of reporters just beyond the ropes, and the thousands of totally uninvolved civilians who were being kept back behind the quarter-mile perimeter.
Everyone wanted a glimpse of the Growlers. All the communication so far had been audio only, and we didn’t even know what they looked like, which seemed to make everyone more frantic.
I just wanted everyone to calm down and show some respect.
“You’re sure you reminded everyone of the number one rule?” I said to my EASA liaison, Marjorie Jones, as we stood just outside the stone circle. “Never, ever—”
“—touch the stones,” she finished, to ongoing tapping on her wrist screen. “It’s been on every memo.”
“I don’t think they read it,” I muttered, clicking into another page of notes on my handheld. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the bigger screen. “I’m almost sure I saw Madame Zhang poke a boulder and—”
“We’ll remind them at the 0800 briefing,” Marjorie said. “I’m sorry, we have a lot we’re trying to keep track of today—”
“—and a national heritage site is a terrible setting for all this,” I snapped, because I was feeling ruffled. Blah, blah, aliens, turning point for civilization, whatever. I had a duty of care for our heritage, and my team of three was badly outnumbered today.
Marjorie, who was not so terrible really, sighed, and said, “Believe me, I know. We tried to steer the Growlers a different direction, but they were very definite. That much our linguistic team was sure about. The nuances of why were less clear, making it kind of hard to argue the question.”
“Do you have a theory?” I asked, because maybe a rationalization would make today a little easier to manage.
She just shrugged. “A few. We know the Growlers are an ancient civilization. One theory is that they’re familiar with Stonehenge from past studies of Earth. Another is that most of our structures appear too new to them. They seem to find the idea of 100-year-old buildings sort of unsettling and unstable, like they might fall apart any time.”
Strangely, there was a part of me that thought that made sense. That still didn’t convince me they ought to be trampling around Stonehenge though.
I looked up from my screen, rested my gaze on Stonehenge, and took a deep breath. I reached for the calm and serenity I usually felt when I looked at those weathered gray stones. They were so stable, so solid in their ancient presence on the Salisbury plain, looming above us millennia after millennia. Not exactly unchanging—boulders had shifted and fallen over the centuries, but it was change on a geologic scale, and Stonehenge itself was reliable and—
Suddenly my eyes narrowed, and my gaze swept more urgently around the circle. It was strange enough with all the people in the midst of the stones, but that happened every solstice and on a good number of sunsets, for special tours. Something more was wrong.
Something was very wrong.
I reached out and grasped Marjorie’s arm in my agitation. “The boulders. Something’s wrong with the stones.”
She looked down at my grip on her arm with a frown. “No one can possibly have hurt them even if they touched them. And if something fell down we would have heard it—”
“No, that’s not it,” I said, shaking my head. “The number of stones—the number is wrong.”
Marjorie yanked her arm away now, and it was clear from her voice she was irritated by my obvious insanity. “You’re surely not trying to tell me that someone stole part of Stonehenge?”
“Stones aren’t missing,” I said, staring at the familiar arches, the familiar tumbled remnants. And the others. “There are too many. There are extra boulders.”
And then I saw one of them move. It nudged a few feet to the left, then tipped slightly towards Queen Anne—not like it was going to fall. Like it was looking at her.
The Queen shrieked, the crowd went into a new frenzy, and Marjorie swore and sprinted towards the moving boulder, shouting, “Madame President! The welcome speech!”
So that was what the aliens looked like.
Maybe I’d get on with them after all.
Karen Blakely: The Fabric of My Life
I guess it’s best to start at the beginning.
I was sixteen when I went to the fortune teller at the small carnival in our town. I hadn’t wanted to go; I thought the whole thing was creepy, but my friends insisted. I hung back, hoping they’d forget about me. And I didn’t change my mind, even when each one came out laughing and cheerful, with a great deal of teasing about not telling because it might ruin everything.
Finally, all the others had gone inside, and I had not, unfortunately, been forgotten. Back then, I was too young and too foolish to simply refuse to do something I didn’t want to do. Instead, I allowed myself to be pushed inside the small tent. My palms began to sweat as I took in the campy décor and the table covered with colorful cloth and sequins where the fortune teller was seated. I wished I could take this as lightly as my friends, but my hands were shaking and I barely managed to lower myself into the chair next to the table as my knees gave out.
The fortune teller had striking turquoise blue eyes and flaming red hair. She welcomed me politely, with a light pleasant voice that should not have made tremors run through my body. She had me shuffle and cut a deck of tarot cards, then spread them out in an intricate pattern on the table. Her eyes widened as she looked them over, then she muttered something incomprehensible as her brow furrowed.
She swept the cards into a messy pile and pulled a crystal ball out from under the table. It was real crystal, not glass; mostly clear, but with a few fine fracture lines deep inside. She stared into it intently then muttered even more.
I was sure she hadn’t spent this much time with my friends, and I wondered why she was taking this much time with me. Had she recognized how nervous I was? Was she dragging this out to make fun of me? I was tempted to get up and leave, but something held me there.
She looked up finally, a fine sheen of sweat on her face, then reached over and grabbed my hand. I was so startled by her abrupt movement, I nearly cried out. That vague feeling that fortune telling was creepy had grown into a bone-deep dread and my breath seemed to flutter like a terrified bird in my chest. I watched the top of her head as she bent low over my palm, fighting my desire to snatch my hand back. When she finally looked up, I nearly cried out again. The color had bled from her eyes, the pupils a solid black.
When she spoke, her voice was no longer light and pleasant. Instead, words poured from her in a torrent, deep and guttural. “It will be at Stonehenge. Take care, danger will surround you. Being within the stones will change the very fabric of your life, but whether for good or ill I cannot say.”
I jerked my hand from hers and leapt to my feet, fleeing from that tent as if something was chasing me. I tried to talk to my friends about what had happened, but they refused to listen. I never did tell anyone what the fortune teller said, but I promised myself I would never, ever go to Stonehenge.
Ten years passed, and I managed to forget about that day and the strange things she’d said. I didn’t even remember when my boyfriend, David, asked me to go to England with him. We took turns planning thigs to do on that trip, agreeing not to explain what we each planned, wanting it be a surprise.
That afternoon, we were on a trip David had set up. I didn’t ask any questions; I was content, knowing I would get to see more of England. Unlike David, who had found nothing he liked on our trip, I felt like England was home and I was going to hate to leave.
I enjoyed the first part of that day. We were on a large, comfortable bus with about fifty others. The tour guide, Harry, was funny and interesting, with a wide smile and an easy manner. It was after we’d visited Bath and an ancient (by American standards) pub, that I learned the last stop would be Stonehenge. An inner circle tour where we’d actually be allowed in among the stones. And the memory of that frightening day ten years ago came rushing back.
I considered telling David but found myself hesitating; we hadn’t been getting along well. Travel, it seemed, didn’t suit him. He hated the time difference, hated English television, hated trying to figure out the money, and that his phone wouldn’t work (even though I’d told him to get an international plan before we left). And he seriously hated the electrical system; the conversion plugs he brought didn’t work and he had to buy more. He’d managed to complain his way around a country I’d fallen in love with, and he’d been growing more and more upset every day. In fact, I’d never seen him get so angry over the least little thing before.
So I was hesitant to explain why I didn’t want to go to Stonehenge, but David noticed my agitation. I suppose twitching and twisting in my seat, tapping my foot and drumming my fingers gave it away.
“What’s wrong with you?” he snapped, body stiff, irritation radiating off him so strongly I was surprised the others on the bus didn’t feel it.
“Nothing,” I said, keeping my voice low, not wanting to upset him any further.
The bus arrived at Stonehenge then, and I realized I would have to get out of my seat to let David out. I decided to sit at the front of the bus in an empty seat and wait there, but when I tried the bus driver said no one could remain on the bus while we were stopped.
I got off reluctantly and tried to ignore David’s glowering presence next to me. I looked around for a place to sit but realized that unless I wanted to stand in the middle of the path and have people push their way around me, I needed to walk toward those hulking stones.
“I want to know what your problem is,” David insisted. His anger was another reason to start walking; I didn’t want to be alone with him right now. The desire to be near others managed to override my fear of the fortune teller’s words.
“Fine,” I said, and proceeded to tell David about my experience all those years ago.
We’d nearly reached the stones by then, and in the moment of silence when I finished speaking, I heard Harry, the tour guide, state, “It is a contravention of the regulations for anyone to touch the stones. Those who do are committing a criminal offence.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” For a moment I thought David had been talking to Harry. Then, with a sinking feeling, I realized David was staring at me. He’d directed that offensively incredulous tone of voice at me.
“No, I’m not kidding,” I said, miserably uncomfortable now. I was no longer that sixteen year old girl too afraid to say no, but I was in the middle of a foreign country with someone I barely recognized anymore.
I wasn’t sure what I expected from him at that point, but I could never have expected the reaction I got. We’d just entered into the stone circle. It felt removed from everyone else, even though I knew there were more than fifty other people there. For a moment everything stilled, and the air grew heavy. Then a raven flew up and perched on top of one of the megaliths. It gave a single rasping caw, right as David grabbed me. I heard the delicate fabric of my shirt rip as I tried to pull away, and I lost my balance.
Time slowed. I stumbled, knowing I was going to fall back against one of those giant stones. I could hear Harry’s prohibition against touching anything in the monument repeating in my head as I tipped helplessly past the point of no return. I threw my hands back hoping I could break my fall, even as the words criminal offense rang in my ears. And I was terrified, knowing how much it was going to hurt when I struck that unyielding rock.
Then I felt strong arms wrap around me and Harry’s voice in my ear, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you.” He was a large and comforting presence at my back, barely reacting to having my entire weight drag against him.
“Do that again and I’ll have you up on charges,” Harry warned David, the easy-going tour guide replaced by a large, dangerous man, prepared to make sure David caused no more trouble.
And David, the man who supposedly loved me, let loose with a stream of profanity laden abuse; on me, on Harry, and on England as a whole. Harry pulled a radio off his belt and shouted a code I couldn’t hear over David’s ugly words. But David must have realized Harry had requested reinforcements.
David shut off the torrent of invective and glared, first at Harry then at me. “I’m out of here. I’m sick of this country and I’m sick of you.” Those last few words were directed at me, not Harry, as were the next. “You have until next Friday to get your crap out of my place. After that, I’m trashing it.”
I watched him leave, thinking that I didn’t have anything at his place worth getting. I realized I’d never taken many of my belongings to his house. We’d talked about moving in together, but it had never happened. And now it never would.
I wished I was more upset about it.
Harry turned me toward him gently and asked, “Are you all right, love?”
I nodded but he didn’t look convinced, so I said, “Actually I’m more than all right. Thank you.”
Harry pulled off his jacket and tucked it around me, zipping it up with gentle hands. “You must be cold, with your shirt torn like that.”
I’d forgotten how it had ripped open from shoulder to waist, and a blush crept up my cheeks. I stroked my hand against the soft warm fabric of his jacket and muttered my thanks. Harry merely smiled and stuck close to me, giving me my own private tour the rest of the evening. He even arranged to have me sit next to him on the ride back, and I was glad not to sit next to that empty seat where David should have been.
When we got back to London, I started to take off his jacket and return it but Harry shook his head. “That would make me a right fine villain,” he said, “to leave you to go through London in such a state. Keep it.”
“No, I can’t do that,” I insisted, touched by his consideration. “Let me know how to get it back to you.”
He smiled and gave me his number, and we arranged to meet the next day. He took me for coffee and when our hands met as we both reached for cream, a tingle shot down my arm. And the way his fingers lingered against mine, I thought he’d felt it too.
We spent every spare moment together the rest of that week. And when I was supposed to fly back home, he asked me to stay.
And I did.