Unraveled

The room is dark. She has put away her daughter’s toys. The mobile she bought just four months ago lies tangled in a corner. For the past two months Maddie hasn’t stopped crying for more than an hour at a time. The pediatrician assured Silvia that everything was fine, that Maddie would grow out of it. She hadn’t. Silvia watches as Maddie’s eyes start to close. She will nod off any minute now. As long as the ghost standing at the foot of her crib keeps talking.

A week ago, Silvia saw him standing in the door to Maddie’s nursery, a gaunt figure with restless, sunken eyes. He stepped over the threshold and approached the crib, unfazed by Maddie’s shattering cries. The light from the hall filtered through his thin frame, bending at odd angles on the floor. Silvia tried to scream, but the sound died in her throat. She felt an uncanny absence hollowing out every ordinary thing in the room. The nightlight flickered and faded. The music from Maddie’s sleep bunny stuttered to a stop. The figure leaned over the crib and began to whisper. Her daughter stared up into his eyes, hiccupped once, and stopped crying. As he talked, her eyes grew heavy. Finally, she slept. When the ghost finished whispering, he disappeared.

Silvia wept from relief.

Now Silvia waits every night, exhausted from Maddie’s tears, terrified to leave her side. She wants to tell the ghost that he can stop. That she is enough. That a silver thread binds her to her daughter, thrumming, even in the darkness. Tonight, she sits as close to the crib as she can bear. She dares to stand, to step closer. His whispers are more urgent now, as if his time here were short. When he turns to her, his eyes open a door to everything Silvia has ever feared. A voice whispers in her ear: “I died alone. And screaming.” She feels herself falling, feels the silver thread tying her to Maddie begin to fray. She reaches out into the darkness, helpless against its unraveling. Then the silver thread snaps. And her heart breaks.

Today Maddie is as good as gold. When Silvia’s friends visit, they congratulate her. The hardest days are behind you, they tell her. But to each other they say how cold Maddie’s eyes seem, and how her cheeks are just a bit sunken.

When they leave, Silvia picks up her daughter and holds her close. She goes to the nursery and sets the sleep bunny to play Maddie’s favorite songs. When Silvia puts her down, Maddie looks up at her with a stranger’s eyes. Silvia settles herself in the chair by the crib. She closes her eyes and on the edge of sleep she hears it: Maddie’s cries, there, at the border between worlds. She reaches out and touches a single silver thread, frayed, but bright. And in the quiet of the night, she begins the long slow work of calling her daughter home.

Copyright Bonnie Burns, 2020. All rights reserved.

* * *

Hello!

This story appeared first in the annual Halloween podcast of Alone in a Room With Invisible People. (October 31, 2020). You can find it at 38:11.

And be sure to check out other stories in the Halloween October 2020 Storytime Blog Hop:

The Witch at the End of the Road by Katharina Gerlach
Unwelcome Visitors by Bill Bush
Holiday Guest by Sabrina Rosen
Home by Barbara Lund
Missing Parts by Jemma Weir
A Perfect Match by V. S. Stark
The Glistening Bat by Karen Lynn
II-The Priestess by Raven O’Fiernan
The Old Ways by Nic Steven
Halloween Pest by Elizabeth McCleary
Tales From the Pumpkin Patch by Marilyn Flower
Immortality by Juneta Key

Corriente Dreams of Bison

Dragon sat in a corner of the paddock watching the other rough stock dragons soar overhead, perfecting the bucks and plunges that made them famous across the Territories. Once he’d hunted buffalo across the grassy plains where he’d been hatched. Now he lived on ground-up chicken bones, no better than a born-to-buck. 

His stomach rumbled.

On the other side of the fence, Corriente nibbled a piece of hay. A full belly and good manners kept most of the rough stock on the up-and-up, but Corriente knew a hungry dragon when he saw one.  

“Breakfast was abysmal,” muttered Dragon from his corner. His green scales glittered in the sun. And his silver horns were the finest Corriente had ever seen. 

“It must be a fine thing to be a dragon bronco,” Corriente said, a bit wistfully.

Dragon glided over to the fence and looked Corriente in the eye.

“I suppose you’ve never had the pleasure of bucking a roughie off your back,” he said. “Is it true you simply race from the chute only to be hog-tied and humiliated?”

“Well, just twice a day,” Corriente said, blushing.

“You know,” said the dragon, his eyes narrowing to cold, dark slits, “my roughie will try his luck again this morning. If I swallow you whole, you could feel what it’s like to be me. Every buck and roll.”

Corriente smiled. “I’d surely like to take you up on your offer,” he said. “Only how will I get back out?” 

“That’s easy enough,” said Dragon. “I’ll just belch.” And with that, he slithered through the fence, opened his jaws wide, and swallowed Corriente whole.  

“Of course,” added Dragon, “I have perfect digestion. I never belch.”

When the flag dropped, Dragon bolted out of the gate with a roughie on his back and a belly full of Corriente. With one strong beat of his wings he was aloft, where he bucked and rolled and twisted and plunged. 

Inside Dragon, Corriente decided to make himself at home. He kicked out both legs until his hooves slipped into Dragon’s four clawed feet. He arched his back until he could touch Dragon’s two wings. He lifted his head until he could feel the smooth knobs of Dragon’s horns tickle him right between his ears. 

Then Corriente discovered he could twitch Dragon’s tail as if it were his own. He gave a little shrug and found he could beat Dragon’s wings to soar higher and higher. Finally, he bucked. The roughie flew off his back and bounced into the dragon net that circled the arena. 

Dragon was annoyed. He tried his best to belch. But he hadn’t been lying about his perfect digestion. “Do you plan to stay in there all day?” he asked, crossly.

“At least until we find something more tasty than chicken bones,” said Corriente. With a fierce rumbling in his stomach, he cocked the tip of his wing and canted west, heading to the open plains and the smell of bison carried by the wind. 

Copyright Bonnie Burns, 2019. All rights reserved.

This story first appeared in Indie Authors’ Advent Calendar 2019.

Locking Horns

My daddy bulldogged all across Texas when I was growing up. I’d sit with my mama in the stands of some small-town rodeo eating funnel cake and watch him wrestle a 450-pound longhorn into the dirt. He died broke racing the clock to pay the bills. When I went on the circuit, mama cried. But that day the purse was even sweeter than the buckle bunnies. If I was smart—and lucky—I could walk away rich.

But I wasn’t smart. And I wasn’t lucky.

My first mistake was being anywhere near that bull pen. Daddy was a firm believer that you got the horns you deserved. But I liked to look an opponent in the eye. I slid a leg over the fence and sat on the rail, watching the herd. A pretty Corriente, with spots the color of Georgia clay, sidled up and flicked his tail at me. I nodded. 

And then, in a voice as smooth as whiskey, I heard him say it: 

“Son, you might want to sit this one out.” 

Another man might have fallen to his knees right then and prayed to the good Lord.

I just laughed. 

The Corriente snorted, took a step closer to the fence, and chewed a bit of cud.

I looked around, thinking some cowboy was having a fine joke. But there was no one there. Even the other cattle ignored us. 

“$50,000 is a lot to walk away from,” I said, finally. “You got a good reason I shouldn’t ride today?”

The Corriente didn’t answer. He just looked at me for a second, then turned and trudged back into the scrum of the pen. 

That day, every cowboy out there had a good run.  Every horse ran true. Every hazer did his job. The slide, the drop, the twist. All of it perfect. It wasn’t just a good day to ride. It was a day to break records. 

I wasn’t surprised when I saw the Corriente in the chute. 

I backed my horse into the box, then nodded to the judge. The Corriente flew through the barrier and we followed. I slid, hugged his barrel, grabbed those pretty horns and twisted. 

The Corriente went down, feet in the air. The flag dropped. 4.5 seconds. A record. I let go, hopped up, and tossed my hat high. 

That was my second mistake. 

Because when that hat floated back down, it hit the rump of my horse and she bolted straight for me. I jumped, but not fast enough, and went head over haunches, my face in the mud, my ass in the air. 

When I finally sat up, the Corriente was standing close by, looking smug. The next day, it was all over YouTube. No mention that I’d taken home the purse—and the buckle to boot. 

I bought the Corriente for $800. He never said another word. The horse? She tells that story every chance she gets. The two of them haven’t stopped laughing since. 

Copyright Bonnie Burns, 2019. All rights reserved.

Image: Copyright Tim Burns, 2019. All rights reserved.

This story first appeared as a subscriber bonus to Indie Authors’ Advent Calendar 2019.

Ode to a Platypus

“Of all the Mammalia yet known it seems the most extra-ordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped. So accurate is the similitude, that, at first view, it naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means.”
–George Shaw, 1799
Platypus engraving

O Platypus, O Platypus,

Why aren’t you like the rest of us?

The hand that cast your symmetry

I fear, has gone somewhat awry.

Your blood is warm, your fur is sleek.

But, look! Upon your snout, a beak!

No ravening jaws to tear or stun,

Your baby teeth give way to gums!

And on your webbèd feet you lumber,

Your awkward gait a mighty wonder.

Yet in the river, under water,

Your tail becomes a steady rudder!

By seeking out electric pulses,

You hunt your prey–whatever’s closest.

And with your venomed spur unsheathed,

Strike down the creatures of the deep.

Now rise and break the rippling waves

And homeward turn your questing gaze,

Where in a burrow made of grasses

Your mate her precious egg now hatches!

A girl or boy? It doesn’t matter.

Ten chromosomes completely scatter

The question of its sex. But really,

Five pairs? That is a bit unseemly.

Monotremes oviparous,

How you simply vex and scare us.

The world decries your nature—“Hoax!

The beast’s unnatural!” they boast.

And yet, my precious Platypus,

Your name remains forever glorious.

I swear to you I never will

Take scissors to your noble bill!

From the Archives. Copyright Bonnie Burns, 2019. All Rights Reserved. 

Read more here about our friend the Platypus.

Apocalypse: A Love Story*

Charlie Waclawski’s best builds ran cool and quiet, even pumped for gaming. I got to know him on NeoGaf when his post about Fortnite went viral. He was crazy, but he made me laugh. By the time we met, he wasn’t gaming much anymore—too many vulnerabilities, he said. He was even thinking of going off-grid. But then he discovered the n’Kiri bouncing along his fiber optic cable and into his motherboard.

I was the first one to hear about the n’Kiri. Maybe he thought a woman would be less judgmental. He’d posted before about vortex beams, about how light doesn’t just travel in waves but in crazy, spinning twists and turns. If we could manipulate its torque, he said, we could find the right frequencies to communicate across the multiverse.

I thought it was just hacker talk. I knew Charlie could spin the what ifs. Then, out of the blue, he sent me a private chat and asked if we could meet. In person. Charlie Waclawski, the guy who only left his basement for a good cup of coffee. He suggested a bench near the Swan Boats. When I got there, I almost walked right past because I was looking for the Pillsbury Doughboy. And Charlie was anything but. Not at all doughy. And not even a boy. In fact, she was totally my type.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t blink when she told me about the n’Kiri. About how her computer had been hacked, even though every test she ran came up clean. About how the n’Kiri reconfigured her circuit board, twisting quantum particles until bits became qubits and the n’Kiri finally had a way to say what they needed to say.

I asked her what that was.

“Everything.” she said.

I blinked.

“Anyway, I wanted you to know.” She got up from the bench.

So the n’Kiri were here. But Charlie Waclawski was about to walk out of my life. And that’s when my world broke right down the middle. In one, I lived a life where I’d never met Charlie. In the other, I lived a life where I’d always just lost her.

I didn’t like either. “Do you have to go?”

She gave a little shrug.

That’s when I did the stupidest, bravest thing I’ve ever done. I leaned in, took her face in my hands, and I kissed her.

That night the internet went dark. You don’t remember that, do you? For 48 hours people huddled in their cars listening to the news on their radios. And then, bang, it was back. Everything rebooted. And life went on.

For another 48 hours.

Yes, I still see Charlie. But not like I’d imagined. The n’Kiri changed all that. There’s no single story now. No single ending. We’re sitting on the bench. And not sitting on the bench. We’re kissing. And not kissing. She’s her. And she’s him. And the light corkscrews out from our fingertips, dancing and not dancing, across the dark, silent expanse.

Copyright Bonnie Burns 2019. All rights reserved.

*This is a repost with the missing third paragraph now intact. Don’t even ask.

Family Time

Rachel shrugged her hoodie tighter, dodging the rain drops. The scene played over in her head. Dinner burning on the stove. Her father sitting at the table, his head in his hands. Her baby brother wailing on the floor for some Halloween candy just out of reach. And her mother screaming at her to get out, get out and never come back. 

When she’d left, it was a warm fall night. But the weather had turned and now she was drenched and freezing. She needed Kate. To hold her until the feeling came back. To tell her they could be happy together. To help her shut out the terrible words. 

Rachel looked at the string of unanswered texts on her phone and shivered. She ducked into an alley to get out of the worst of the wind. And froze. A table set for two glowed in a puddle of light. Her mother and father, sitting at opposite ends, smiled at each other. Her baby brother, perched in his highchair, blew a bubble. A breeze twisted through the alley and the light trembled. 

And then nothing.  

Rachel’s mouth went dry. She backed out of the alley and ran to the subway entrance a block away, hopping on the first train that stopped. She got out her phone, pushing away the nightmare of her happy family. 

R U there yet? I’m freezing! 

She closed her eyes, relaxing into the rumble and hum of the ride. When she opened them, they were sitting right in front of her, all together on the couch, a blue glow lighting their faces. Every few seconds her parents laughed. Her brother chewed a rubber llama. 

“Mom?” Rachel whispered. 

Her mother looked at Rachel with a slight frown on her face, and then turned back to the invisible TV. 

“Mom!” Rachel’s voice was sharp, scared. Annoyed, her mother reached and grabbed a remote out of thin air.

“This show has gone off the rails,” she said and pointed the remote at Rachel. 

And then nothing. 

Trying to hold down her panic, Rachel got off at the next stop. In ten minutes, she’d be at Kate’s. She started walking, keeping her eyes on her feet, but the sound of squealing brakes forced her to look up. In the middle of the dark, rain-slick street, she saw her family one last time.

Orange paper ribbons floated in the air. Her mother carried the baby on her hip. Her father carried an ax. The Jack-O-Lantern glowed between them, ghoulish and grim. And there was Kate, eyes bright, her lips rounded as if ready for a kiss.

“Blow it out, dear,” her mother said to Kate. But she was looking directly at Rachel.

“Kate, don’t!” Rachel cried, and stepped into the light. 

She heard a loud, electric crack. 

And then nothing.

Nothing but Kate, standing right there with a silly grin, holding a pumpkin.

And then Kate laughed. “Why are we standing out here in the freezing rain?” She took Rachel’s hand in hers. “C’mon, let’s go home.”

And that was everything.   

Copyright Bonnie Burns 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Ready to hop one more time? Check out these awesome authors, all participants in the Storytime Blog Hop, October 2019.

  1. Family Time by Bonnie Burns
  2. The Exception by Vanessa Wells
  3. Number 99 by Juneta Key
  4. Edda’s Second Chance by Katharina Gerlach
  5. Very Thin Line by Rebecca Anne Dillon
  6. Henry Moves House by Nic Steven
  7. For The Ghost The Bell Tolls by James Husum
  8. Never Alone by Melanie Drake
  9. The Neighbor by Meghan Collins
  10. Storytime Blog Hop by Raven O’Fiernan
  11. Loney Lucy by Bill Bush
  12. The Traveler by Barbara Lund
  13. Evening by Karen Lynn
  14. Man Of Your Dreams by Gina Fabio
  15. The Undertaker’s Daughter by J. Q. Rose
  16. The Road by Elizabeth McCleary
  17. Storytime Blog Hop by C. T. Bridges
  18. Storytime Blog Hop by Warp World Books

My thanks to Holly Lisle at HollysWritingClasses.com. Her (free!) How to Write Flash Fiction That Doesn’t Suck course inspired this story. You can hear a recorded version of this story (and many other spooky Halloween flash fiction pieces) at Alone in a Room with Invisible People, a weekly podcast produced by Rebecca Galardo.