Welcome back to another week of writing!
This week’s prompt was: “The floor tasted like…” (Prompt courtesy of eadeverrell.com)
Three of our writers took this as an opportunity to further explore characters from larger pieces. We have two very short flash pieces, and one longer short story.
Karen Blakely has another piece featuring the heroine of her upcoming novel, Red.
My shoulder hit the floor with a resounding thud, my head banging against the painted concrete a moment later. Up close, the dusty red and black paint was the color of pain. I could feel it throbbing behind my eyes and in both temples. Beating in my blood.
The floor tasted like…what? Humiliation? Anger? Disgust?
The entire room had gone silent, waiting to see what I would do next. And I decided I wasn’t going to do anything next. I was going to lay here and pretend today hadn’t happened. That my co-workers hadn’t humiliated me as I was leaving.
Calling me soft. Calling me useless.
Calling me a monster-lover.
I took my job as Paranormal Species Control Officer very seriously. I was willing to put my life on the line to protect the public from the unknown. From the monsters that wanted to harm them. But not all paranormals were monsters. No matter what Nick and his sycophants said. I’d just made the mistake of reminding them of that.
I knew better. We’d had that argument too many times before, and I knew there was no way I’d ever change their minds. What had possessed me to try today?
Maybe it was that last conversation I’d had with Elli in this very bar. The one where she’d accused me of disliking all paranormals. I remembered my words to her “They aren’t like us. That’s the first thing they teach you in the Unit.”
And her response had been echoing in my head ever since. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with inter-species relationships.”
At the time, I’d been horrified. But I’d felt guilty about that conversation ever since, though I couldn’t pinpoint why. Unfortunately, I was pretty sure that whatever was making me feel guilt and remorse was what made me start that useless argument with Nick.
It was probably the same thing that had driven me into my favorite bar tonight. And made me sit here alone, pounding back beer and tequila shots for the last several hours. So many that I’d lost count, as my knees loosened and my head began to swim, while I contemplated the mess I’d made of everything.
I was sorry I’d fought with Elli. I was sorry I’d argued with Nick and his idiot friends. And I was really, really, sorry that something had started eating away at my comfortable view of my world.
I needed to wrap my head around whatever was driving me to do things I was sorry for, and soon. I couldn’t afford many more days like this one. And as I pondered that, I had the answer to my previous question.
The floor tasted like…regret.
R. A. Gates has a brief piece featuring her recurring characters Laney and Kody.
“I’d like to come down now,” Kody said to Laney from ten feet off the ground. He floated helplessly in the air in Laney’s kitchen. At first, he thought it was cool, pushing himself around the room with his cane like he was an astronaut in a space shuttle. But now his stomach threatened to expel lunch all over the clean linoleum.
“Not until you admit you were wrong,” Laney said, sitting at the kitchen table, stroking her cat.
“But I’m not,” he said. He clamped his mouth shut when she barrel-rolled him for the fifth time. Maybe he should surrender and end his torment. But his pride wouldn’t let him.
“Say it,” she prompted, keeping her wand tip aimed at his head.
“Never.” Kody knew he was being foolish but he secretly loved watching Laney’s vindictive side. Even at his expense. This time she spun him so quickly, the kitchen was merely a blur for about five seconds. “Okay, okay. I give up.”
Laney didn’t put her wand down as she waited for him to finally admit it. Her eyebrow arched high, she said, “Well…”
“Okay,” he breathed, trying to dislodge the air bubble in his gut. “Cats are better than dogs.”
At his admission, Laney broke the spell and let Kody fall. Air rushed from his lungs as he smacked onto the linoleum. The floor tasted like triumph, especially when he added, “At being the most annoying animal on the planet.”
Cheryl Mahoney wrote a prequel story exploring the childhood of a character from her upcoming novel, The Princess Beyond the Thorns. Readers should be warned this story contains scenes of child abuse.
The floor tasted like blood as Terrence sprawled across the hard flagstones. He must have bitten his lip, when he was trying not to cry out. It hadn’t worked anyway.
He heard the whistle of air a second before the belt hit his back again, painting a line of pain where it struck. He only half-succeeded at stifling his sob. His father always hit him more if he cried out. He’d never yet managed to stay silent, but he still knew this was the way of it, because his father always told him. At least he hadn’t asked his father to stop in years; that always made it much worse.
Another blow and both the thwack and his resulting gasp seemed loud in the crowded, silent throne room. So many people watching, and all he could hear was his own breathing.
He was sprawled facing towards the royal dais; if he had thought, if he could have planned somehow, he would have tried to fall the other way. As it was, he couldn’t stop himself from looking up.
His three older brothers were all smirking where they stood by the thrones—by his father’s empty one, and his mother… His mother was gripping the arms of her throne so tightly her thin fingers were white, and he could see tears glimmering in her blue eyes.
That hurt more than the beating.
He gave up trying not to cry, closed his eyes, and waited for this to be over.
His mother still looked pale, after it was all done, and he was stretched on his stomach on the couch in her room. The cool cloth she pressed to his bared back helped with the pain, but not the guilt.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said, scrubbing at his damp eyes with one hand. “I’ll be stronger next time.”
That was what his father wanted. To make him stronger, to make him a proper prince who could be a proper leader some day. It was his own fault he kept failing.
His mother sighed, and ran her fingers lightly through his rumpled hair. “You are perfect, my Terrence. You are kind and sweet and good, and don’t ever, ever change.”
It was nice his mother thought that. But of course he knew there were lots of things wrong with him.
His mother’s door banged open and Elena rushed in like a windstorm. “I brought the turmeric for the tea, Aunt Lillian,” she announced, dropped her bundle on the table and came over to inspect Terrence. “How bad is it this time? Ow—pretty awful.”
“It’s not that bad,” Terrence said, though he didn’t expect Elena to be sad about it like his mother was.
Elena was his cousin, his mother’s niece, and two years older than him. She had lived at the castle most of her life, since her parents’ deaths, and at fifteen she considered herself quite the adult. She was far more likely to get angry than to cry about anything.
Sure enough, she launched straight into a sort of combined scolding and consoling. “It is too that bad, and it never should have happened at all.”
“I shouldn’t have—”
“Your father shouldn’t have beaten you for losing a footrace against the servants! Of all the ridiculous—I’d like to get a belt and—”
“Elena,” Queen Lillian said sharply. “Do not speak ill of the king.”
“I know, I know,” Elena said, plopping down in a puff of skirts to sit on the ground next to the couch. “I didn’t say I would. I’d just like to do…something.”
Despite the pain in his back, Terrence smiled into the couch cushion. It was very Elena. And he liked when he could be with his two favorite people, even if this was a bad reason for it. He liked looking at them together, both small, both with perfectly straight brown hair and the same blue eyes. He wished he looked more like his mother but, like all three of his brothers, he took after his father, with curly hair and dark eyes.
Surely if the resemblance was more than skin deep, he could be stronger, braver, smarter, if he just tried—
His mother coughed, and instantly both Terrence and Elena were alert. The queen had been coughing more lately, claiming it was only a minor illness that would pass. Only it hadn’t. And sometimes, the coughing got very, very bad.
Today she caught her breath and smiled after only a moment. “Look at the two of you staring at me. It’s just a cough, my dears.”
“I’ll make the tea,” Elena said in a subdued tone, getting to her feet, while Terrence looked at his mother’s hands, wondered if they were thinner than they had been a little while ago, and worried.
The worry lasted much longer than the pain in his back. It was still there, nagging at him, after his back had healed. He tried to ignore it by throwing himself into his studies, where he did well, and into his martial training, where he never did as well as he knew he should. But his mother kept coughing, and the court physicians had drawn faces, and the court magician had been summoned but looked no more hopeful.
Terrence was glad of a warm day, thinking it might help his mother, and because it was the right kind of weather to go out to the long meadow at the back of the castle. This was a neutral space, where the court ladies sat near the castle in the better cultivated portion, where the young lords showed off nearby for the court ladies, and where the stablehands and footmen loafed around during their off-hours, farther down the meadow.
The council was in session, so none of the lords were about, but he saw Elena sitting on a low wall with her embroidery. She lifted a hand to wave and he waved back. He almost went to sit with her. But a half-dozen of the footmen and stablehands were lazing about in the taller grass, voices full of laughter, and he trotted off that way.
They all scrambled up to their feet to bow as he approached, but once he waved a hand and dropped down into the grass, that formality was done with. They resumed their former places and former conversation, smoothly letting him join. It was never like this with his older brothers, or any of the lords. They were always trying to prove something, always expecting something from him.
He wondered, a little guiltily, if he was wrong to spend his time with people who didn’t push him to be different, better, all the time. If he really wanted to be better…yet he couldn’t resist how easy it was here.
At least, it was easy and comfortable until he suggested a race.
It was the favorite pastime, a simple sport that required no equipment and, unlike fighting, let them prove themselves without risking blacked eyes or bloodied noses that would get them in trouble later. Besides, Terrence had known for as long as he could remember that no servant was ever going to wrestle with a prince.
But it took him by surprise when suggesting a race was met with averted faces, and with glances exchanged between everyone but him.
“Maybe another day,” Sampson said without looking at Terrence. A footman, he was the oldest, the tallest, and the definite leader of the group.
“But it’s the perfect weather for it,” Terrence protested. He liked racing, he liked the comradeship of it, he knew they did too, and he didn’t understand this response.
“Well…all right,” Sampson said, slowly getting to his feet, and the rest of the group followed suit.
Terrence knew something was wrong almost as soon as they began.
No one would pass him. Usually he and Sampson were close-matched—it had been bad luck, losing the other day—but today he could tell that Sampson wasn’t even trying. He slowed down a little, just to check, and the pack slowed down behind him a few steps later.
He crossed the designated finish line at least three steps ahead of the rest, and when he turned to look back no one met his gaze.
“Nice race,” one offered, and “good running, your highness,” said another.
“Yeah,” Terrence said. “Thanks. I think I’ll—go see how Elena is.”
No one offered an objection, and he trudged off back in the direction of the castle, to where Elena was sitting with her embroidery on her lap but had obviously been watching. He sank down to sit on the wall next to her, eyes on the servants out in the meadow. They had gone back to sitting in the grass, the murmur of conversation just audible in the distance.
“They let me win,” Terrence said.
Elena rolled her eyes. “Well, honestly, what did you expect?”
“I don’t know.” He hadn’t expected anything. He hadn’t expected this. “I could have won it even if they tried. Probably. I usually—I mean, what’s the point if they don’t even try?”
“Oh, Terrence, you nice idiot, they didn’t want you to get in trouble for losing.”
He supposed he’d known that. But now that it had been said aloud he had to look at it, and it stung. “They think I’m too weak to—”
“No, Terrence, they like you and they don’t want to be the cause of your father beating on you just because—”
“He’s trying to help me!” Terrence protested. “If no one pushed me to be better—”
“Stop it, I hate listening to you defend him,” Elena snapped. “You don’t need that kind of help.”
He shook his head. “You don’t understand. You don’t know what it’s like, being a prince.” Sometimes he thought no one did. Not what it was like being a prince like him. His brothers seemed to find it all so much easier. Of course, even the next oldest was six years older than him, so maybe when they were younger…but he couldn’t imagine that Gregory, his oldest brother and the crown prince, had ever gone through half the struggles he did. Or any of his brothers, really.
“No, I don’t,” Elena said decisively, “and thank heavens for that. It’s quite enough burden being a lady, thank you.”
Terrence smiled at her tone, even though it wasn’t really funny. It did seem to be hard too, for the women of the court. For his mother. “Elena,” he said suddenly, “how sick is my mother?”
There was a long pause before Elena said, in a low voice, “I don’t know.”
He shifted his seat on the wall, kept his gaze on the distance. “We don’t lie to each other, remember?”
It was a pact they had made, years ago, when they had been just old enough to begin to realize that the world was a big, big place.
Elena sighed, a long sigh. “I don’t know, not exactly, because she won’t tell me anything. But…it’s bad. You can see that too.”
He nodded, feeling his throat going tight. He could see it, every day. He’d just been too afraid to look at it.
Some part of Terrence had been expecting it, when he was awoken in the middle of the night a week later, and told he needed to go to his mother’s room. His brothers must have been summoned too, but he was the first one to get there, nightshirt shoved into the first pair of pants he could grab.
There were candles burning in the room, but it was still shadowy. He was barely aware of the physicians speaking quietly to each other in one corner, to the ladies in waiting huddled together in another. His mother was lying in her big, four-poster bed, so thin her body was hardly visible beneath the quilts. Elena was sitting on a low stool next to the bed, holding her hand.
Terrence wanted to fling himself on his mother and hold on tight, as though that would be enough to hold her here, with him. But he couldn’t do that, so he forced himself to walk steadily over to the bed, to stand next to Elena. She looked up at him, and wordlessly released the queen’s hand, offering him the privilege.
He took his mother’s hand, feeling her thin fingers warm in his own. He didn’t dare hold on as tight as he wanted to, because what if that hurt her?
Queen Lillian’s eyes were closed, but opened when Terrence forced the word, “Mother?” out between numb lips.
She smiled at him, a tired smile. “My Terrence. My good, kind boy.”
“It’s going to be all right,” he whispered. “You’re going to be…”
“No, love,” she said, her voice hardly more than a breath. “But you will be. It won’t seem like it…but you will be.”
She lapsed back into sleep before his brothers got there, and didn’t awaken when they lined up on the opposite side of the bed. They all stayed that way for what felt like hours, Terrence holding his mother’s hand, Elena beside him, his three brothers standing—and eventually giving orders for chairs to be brought—on the other side of their mother.
His father never came.
Terrence didn’t ask anyone why not, what business his father could have that was more important than his wife’s deathbed. He didn’t even think of the question, not for a long, long time afterwards.
At the moment, all he could do was watch each gentle rise and fall of his mother’s breaths, until finally, quietly, they stopped.
He wasn’t even sure, until Elena’s head bowed and she covered her face with her hands.
The shadows, the silence, the utter impossibility of a world without his mother in it, made the entire thing dreamlike and indistinct, unreal and unbelievable. Terrence stared at his mother’s still face and felt empty.
After a few minutes, the court physician appeared, to usher them all away, so that matters could be tended to.
Slowly, Terrence unlocked his stiff fingers, and set his mother’s hand gently down among the blankets. His brothers were already out the door, and now he and Elena followed.
In the corridor outside, the torchlight seemed bright, glaring, and his brother’s voices too loud.
“Some vigil that was, huh?” Tyler said with a huge yawn. “Don’t know how I’m going to manage any decent training today.”
“What do you suppose Father will do now?” Edward asked, question directed at Gregory. “We’ve all known it was coming. He must have made plans.”
“I expect so,” Gregory said with a shrug. “Might make a new alliance, or he might decide to please himself with something young and pretty. It’s about time.”
The words woke Terrence up out of the strange unreality of the last few hours—woke him up to a searing agony of loss. And anger. And because of the shrug, or maybe because of the smirk on his face, all the anger focused and crystalized on Gregory.
Terrence stepped away from Elena, stepped up to Gregory, and for the first time in his entire life managed to land a punch in his oldest brother’s gut—probably only through sheer unexpectedness. “You don’t even care,” Terrence shouted as Gregory doubled-over. “Our mother is dead, and you don’t even care!”
Gregory lifted his head with a blaze of fury in his eyes, his tone mocking. “Are you challenging me, little brother?”
Terrence had never, ever started a fight with his brothers. And he’d never won one either. But now he raised his fists, glaring back just as hard as his brother was glaring at him, because how dare he, how dare any of them talk like that, when their loving, caring, beautiful mother was dead.
“Stop it!” Elena ordered, but that had no weight with Terrence in this moment.
Already he and Gregory were circling each other, Tyler and Edward backing up to give room, then watching with grins.
“You know the consequences, don’t you, little brother?” Gregory said, already with his breath back, already grinning too.
“Are you afraid of them?” Terrence threw at him, which was enough to bring Gregory at him.
The result was inevitable. Gregory was ten years older, ten years more experienced, a grown man against a boy, and a man who wasn’t inclined to be merciful.
By the time it was over, Terrence was flat on the ground with a throbbing eye, a bleeding nose, and more bruises than he cared to count. Gregory gave a final kick to his ribs, then walked off with Edward and Tyler, laughing.
“You,” Elena said with seething fury in her voice, “are an idiot.”
“I couldn’t do anything else, all right?” Terrence said shortly.
He thought of asking her to help him up, to let him lean on her to his room. But this was his fight, and his consequences to bear. These, and the ones still coming.
He pushed himself off the floor, staggered and found his footing. Everything hurt.
“Let me…” Elena began, moving towards him, but he waved her off.
“I’m fine,” he said, and began the long slow trek back to his own room. She didn’t follow him.
Someone delivered breakfast to his room a few hours later, and midday meal after that. By suppertime one eye and a good portion of his body had gone purple, though everything but the eye could be hidden by the tunic he very, very carefully eased on. He had been let alone for the day, but he knew it wouldn’t last.
He managed the timing right. The court had not yet left the throne room for the dining hall when he presented himself.
“Well, well,” his father said, sitting on the throne and looking down at his youngest son. “I hear you lost a fight this morning. And anyone can see it on your face. You know what this means, of course.”
“Yes, sir,” Terrence said through sore lips.
His father rose to his feet, unfastening his thick belt. It had been the rule for all of Terrence’s life. To lose a fight was to show weakness. To show weakness meant punishment.
His father did not hold back. Terrence didn’t flinch, as blow after blow landed on his already sore shoulders. He kept his face blank and his gaze fastened on his mother’s empty throne, draped with the black cloth of mourning.
He didn’t cry and he didn’t make a sound, not even when his legs gave out and he crashed down to his hands and knees on the hard floor. The pain was so much less than the agony he felt inside.
At last his father stepped back, and with the faintest trace of approval in his voice said, “Someone’s finally learning some control. There might be hope for you after all, boy.”
“Thank you, sir,” Terrence said softly, took a breath, and forced himself back to his feet.
He walked out through the silent throng of the court without meeting anyone’s eyes.
He couldn’t go to his mother’s rooms now. There was no Mother to tend to his injuries, to tell him he was good. He went back to his own room, lay on his stomach in bed with his head on his arms, and didn’t cry.
After a little while, Elena let herself in. Without a word, she carefully peeled away his ruined tunic, and applied a damp cloth to his back.
“Do you want me to make you some tea?” she asked after a long time, once she was done.
“Do you want me to have someone bring you some food? I’m sure the kitchen…”
“I’m not hungry,” he said, and turned his face away.
Eventually he heard her leave.
Terrence remained dry-eyed, quiet and solemn through the next day, and the next. Through the elaborate court funeral that seemed to have very little to do with the gentle mother he remembered. He talked little to Elena and even less to anyone else. As soon as his injuries healed enough—probably sooner than he should—he went out to the tilting yard, to shoot arrows and bash at dummies.
He needed to be better, stronger. Nothing hurt his father, or his brothers. He needed to be like that.
Elena found him in the deserted practice yard early one morning, hoisted herself up to sit on a fence and chattered about nothing much.
Terrence went on shooting arrows into a target.
Eventually, she said, “Do you want to come to the market with me today? I thought I’d go visit some of those little shops we like.”
They had gone to the market often before. They brought a couple of guards but it was more relaxed than any official visits into the city. They greeted people they recognized and bought the occasional trifle. Usually something he thought his mother would like.
“No,” he said, lining up another shot. “I’m busy.”
“Oh.” A pause, then Elena said, “Maybe tomorrow then? I don’t have to—”
“I’ll be busy then too.”
“With what? This?” she demanded, waving a hand at their surroundings. It was the first trace of her usual temper that he’d heard since the day his mother died. “What do you think you’re doing out here every day, waving weapons around and—”
He flung the crossbow down, glaring at her. “I’m trying to be a good prince—a good man—and this is the only way I know to do it!”
“That’s not true,” Elena said, glaring right back. “You know this isn’t the only way—it isn’t the right way, not for you. It’s not what your mother wanted for—”
“You don’t understand!” Somehow he was shouting now, fury coursing through him. “You always think you know so much but you don’t, you don’t know anything! She wasn’t even your mother, and you’re just a silly girl who thinks she’s clever! I don’t need your advice and I don’t need your help and I don’t need you!”
The words clattered and echoed around the yard, sharp and stabbing.
Elena stared at him, eyes wide and shoulders hunched. “Don’t do this, Terrence,” she said softly, pleadingly. “Don’t be like this. You’re kind. Your father couldn’t beat that out of you, no matter how much he keeps trying, and if Aunt Lillian knew that you let her death kill that in you…”
She looked away, but not before he saw the tears welling up in her eyes. In her blue eyes, so much like his mother’s.
Something broke apart inside of him, a flood of anguish and loss and guilt. “I’m sorry,” he cried, rushing forward to fling his arms around Elena. Standing he was a head taller than her, but sitting where she was he could hide his face against her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Elena, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it—you’re so clever, so much cleverer than me, and Mother loved you so much too, and I do need you, and…”
“You nice idiot,” Elena said affectionately, putting her arms around him.
He cried for his mother, and for the two of them, left here without her, and he was so glad Elena was here—and so glad no one else was, lest his father heard.
At length he gulped and stepped back and scrubbed at his eyes with one hand until Elena handed him a handkerchief. “I don’t really want to be like my father,” he said in a low voice, a confessional voice. “He’s so…”
“Cruel?” Elena suggested.
“Hard,” Terrence amended. “He wants me to be better, and he thinks I should be like him. I always thought I couldn’t be, but…I don’t think I want to be. I don’t think…that I’d like me, if I was. Not if it was like this.”
“I don’t think I’d like you either,” Elena said, but rumpled his hair in a gesture that took any sting from the words.
“You’ll tell me if I’m changing, won’t you?” Terrence said with sudden anxiety. “You’ll come and yell at me about it?”
“How can I refuse a request like that?” Elena said with a smile. “You’re going to be all right. Aunt Lillian said so.”
She had, hadn’t she? “Do you still want to go to the market today?” he asked, picking up his crossbow to put away so the armsmaster’s apprentice wouldn’t get in trouble for it going astray.
“I’d love to,” Elena said, sliding down from the fence.
“What flowers are in season?” Terrence asked as they walked out together. “Maybe we could get some. You know. For Mother’s grave.”
Elena smiled again, and bumped his shoulder with hers. “You are going to be all right.”