#AtoZChallenge: Grayscale

He walked along the ashen road. It was always the same road. Lined with tall, drooping trees that had leaves the color of tar and slate-colored trunks. It was a narrow road, winding, and without end. At least, it felt that way sometimes. He had been walking the road every morning and every night, in search of a new life that he might never find.

Glass, steel and cement. Those were the components of her prison. She sat in the same chair and her fingers tapped away on that same silvery keyboard every day, its keys streaked with grease. A wide window yawned in front of her, affording her a panoramic view, but it was little consolation. All she had to look at was more of the same. Glass, steel and cement.

It was a city full of strangers, huddled together yet isolated. They shambled between home and office, from one square building to the next. illuminated by the rays of the pale morning sun but devoid of any warmth. Once, it had been known as a city of dreams, but the only dream anyone had anymore was to not die alone.

He walked into the city, feeling his neck grow stiff as he stared up at the towers looming above him. They dotted the skyline, reaching for the heavens with no sign of gods. Many roads spread out in front of him, winding and crossing over each other. He kept walking, as he had always done.

She tapped keys with mechanical precision, bathed in the glow of the screen in front of her. It was her sole companion on long days, her friend and her family, staring at her in silence as the world danced across its face in a mess of words and images. She looked out the window to ease the strain on her tired eyes. It was the same view of sprawling skyscrapers. But something was different.

He approached an intersection and looked up at the shining tower in front of him. It was identical to the others with its glassy exterior and angular design. But there was something different about it.

Somewhere on the path between heaven and earth, their eyes met. In her eyes he saw the ocean, a roiling sheet of blue and green. In his, she saw the desert, golden brown and stretching into eternity.

His lips curled into a smile. She put her hand on the glass, as if to catch the rays of sunlight filtering through. It felt warm.

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WEP February Challenge: Heart’s Desire

A new year of challenges hosted by the wonderful Yolanda and Renee of Write, Edit, Publish! The first theme of the year: Back of the Drawer.

As the name suggests, the prompt is all about what a character finds at the back of a drawer. Love? Riches? Horror? Who can say?

Presented for your reading pleasure, here’s the tale of a thief called Len, who once stole the biggest prize of all: the love of his life.


 

“Whatever you do, don’t open the top drawer.”

Mal had been very insistent about that. The top drawer was to remain untouched. She wouldn’t say why, and Len knew better than to badger her for answers. She kissed him before he left, holding her lips to his a second longer than usual. If she said to leave that drawer alone, he’d damn well leave it alone.

It was a simple job: break into Mal’s old apartment and retrieve a few items from her bureau. Dob, her drunken pig of an ex-husband and former partner, would probably be out with his floozy of the week, so there was little chance of running into him. Of course, he’d probably have a few people posted around the roofs and balconies, just in case. Still, it was no big deal for Len; getting past security was his specialty. Some reconnaissance, a little sneaking around rooftops and a couple of chokeholds took care of Dob’s crew. No sweat. All he had to do was hop onto an adjacent balcony to get to Mal’s building, then find the right window. But before he could jump, there were footsteps. He’d missed one. The guard emerged from the stairwell to find his partner knocked out and Len standing at the edge of the roof.

The guard pulled out a gun. Len broke off part of an antenna. A bullet shot through the air, missing Len’s neck by inches as he twisted and dove to the ground, flinging the antenna piece. It hit the guard square between the eyes, knocking him off balance. A running jump, a flying kick, some punches, some blocks and one karate chop (not necessary, but fun). It was over. All clear. Len hopped over to the next building and found his window.

Breaking into the actual apartment would be a lot easier. Dob was paranoid but sloppy: his locks and latches didn’t put up much resistance against Len’s deft fingers. He opened the window as quietly as he could and slipped inside. Len was standing in Mal’s study, which Dob had converted into some sort of gaudy trophy room. Many of Mal’s things were untouched, though, including her bureau, pressed up against one corner of the room. Len went over to it and unlocked the drawers. All except the top one, just as instructed. He took out some papers, all stapled together. There were also some folders, Old photographs. One very particular photograph that Mal definitely wouldn’t want Dob to keep. A journal. And her favorite knife, thin curved blade and an intricately carved bone hilt. Her name had been engraved on it, in a language that many had forgotten. That was all. Job done.

As he was getting up, a voice in the back of his mind asked why Mal had told him to leave the top drawer. What was the big secret, and why did she want it to stay with Dob? It didn’t matter. None of Len’s business. He would take Mal’s things back to her and then they could start their new life together. Simple as that.

The voice wouldn’t let up, though. What was the deal with that drawer? Len grunted impatiently and looked at it, really looked for the first time. It was different from the other drawers. Same faded green wood, but an elaborate golden border. Even the knob was different, molded to look like the head of some weird animal. Len could feel the hairs standing on the back of his neck, like they were trying to pull him away. Whatever was in that drawer was bad news, that much he could tell.

But what if he just got a peek? He wouldn’t take what was in there. Just look and lock it up again. Dob wouldn’t know. Neither would Mal. The job was still done and Len would still get paid. What was the big deal? He was standing over the desk, thumb tapping a frantic rhythm on its weathered surface. Just one peek. For curiosity’s sake. Len smiled. Curiosity. It killed cats. But Len was no cat.

He put his tools to work, picking at the lock of the top drawer, but nothing happened. He couldn’t get the damn thing to open. He couldn’t find a latch or a bolt or a way to make that lock go click under his fingers. A voice in his head again, but a different one. A woman’s voice. Soft. Sultry. Soothing. And click. The drawer was unlocked. Len was surprised, but relieved. One little peek. That’s all he wanted. He grabbed the drawer handle. It felt so warm in that cold, cold room. Like it was alive. Len hesitated. And then he pulled. The drawer slid open with a groan. Len peered into it, holding his breath, then letting it all out in one little whoosh. Empty. The drawer was empty.

Len laughed. Mal had made an ass out of him. All that spooky junk about locked drawers and it was empty. He was about to close it when he saw a shadow near the back. There was something there. The drawer wouldn’t open any further. Len craned his neck to get a better look but he couldn’t see anything except shadows. He reached inside and felt around. Felt something small, squishy. It was a heart. Mal’s heart. It glowed bright red, pulsating slowly under his palm. Somewhere across town, Len knew Mal felt her chest tighten. Why was she leaving her heart with Dob? She hated the bastard. Unless she didn’t.

Len closed the drawer and locked it again. He could still feel its pulsing rhythm along his hand. So that was it. Mal belonged to him now, mind, body and soul. But he knew where her heart truly lay. Len climbed back out the window and made his way to his car. He wished he’d never opened that damn drawer.

Word Count: 986

13 Tales of Terror: In Her Eyes

In her eyes,

I see love.

I see longing and desire and passion.

We are lovers, young and eternal,

Two hearts with one beat.

In her eyes,

I see bliss.

New beginnings,

Our dreams shimmering into reality,

Souls linked by two rings.

In her eyes,

I see fear.

Gray creeps along a golden horizon.

Our youth slips away,

Lives shift in different directions.

In her eyes,

I see pain.

A storm rises in the distance.

Our love is a faded photograph,

Finding color in another’s arms.

In her eyes,

I see rage.

A broken ring, an unforgivable betrayal.

Our world has crumbled in my fingers,

Both on a road with only one end.

In her eyes,

I see death.

A knife blade flashing in the dark.

My life bleeds out one drop at a time.

As darkness approaches,

Hate is all I see

In her eyes.

13 Tales of Terror: Bound

A striped blue sweater.

That was Ben’s first memory of Anna.

A striped blue sweater, alternating between dark and light shades, with a turquoise collar. It was a couple of sizes too big for her, making her look like a little girl in her sister’s old hand-me-downs. But Anna loved it.

All these years later, the colors had faded. The fabric, which Ben remembered as soft and fuzzy, was rough in his hands. He worried it might crumble if he held it too long, but he couldn’t put it down. Not just yet. It was the only connection he had left to her.

Ben and Anna had met in college. He was a freshman with dreams of becoming an English teacher and she was a junior with a passion for chemistry. Their classes were on opposite ends of the campus and they didn’t have any friends in common. The one place where their paths did cross was the library. It was there that he had seen the girl in the blue striped sweater hurrying off, her library card still sitting on the checkout desk. He returned the card and she thanked him. That one exchange turned into a conversation. That one conversation turned into several, and before they knew it, they were going out for dinner.

Ben remembered that night well, including the stunning purple dress Anna had worn. She had torn one of the shoulder straps a couple of years ago, but she still kept the dress around. It was somewhere near the bottom of the pile, still as vibrant as the first time she’d worn it.

Many more dinners followed, along with other outings. The picnic where she’d worn the polka dot dress, the beach trip with the yellow sarong and blue swimsuit, the graduation dinner with the gray gown. Ben picked up each in turn, feeling the fabric knot itself around his fingers, twist around his limbs. He fought the encroaching numbness in his extremities and picked up the box. Inside was Anna’s wedding dress.

They were married on a crisp autumn day, when the leaves were turning but the air was still warm. Anna looked resplendent, shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Ben could still feel the warmth on the dress. He half expected to find his hand circling Anna’s waist, for her to turn and smile at him as he whispered his love to her. Instead, the dress wrapped around him, squeezing his ribcage.

Two years later, Anna gave birth to a son. Daniel was so beautiful, swaddled in a blanket the color of the summer sky. As Daniel grew, there were birthday parties, school functions and family vacations. Gray streaks crept their way through Anna’s hair, but her clothes were as vivid as ever.

Ben remembered the indigo shirt Anna was wearing, in stark contrast to her silver mane, when she collapsed. From that point, she was reduced to lifeless hospital gowns until the end. Dark blue veins climbed along Ben’s neck, bleeding out of the shirt in his hands.

It had been six months since Anna’s passing. Everyone urged him to move on with his life, to keep Anna alive as a memory rather than dying alongside her. Finally, after many discussions with Daniel, Ben decided he was ready. He put all of Anna’s clothes out in the living room, to be donated or sold off. But each article of clothing was a memory, and memories weren’t so easy to erase. Ben was struggling to breathe as the clothes tightened their grip on him; his lungs were collapsing. The sleeves of Anna’s sweater wrapped themselves tightly around his face, and Ben closed his eyes.

***

“Dad?”

Daniel’s voice floated through the hallway.

“Dad? Are you there?”

“Danny…”

He walked into the living room and looked around.

“Dad?”

There was no response, but he noticed someone sitting in the armchair facing the window.

“Oh, Dad, there you are! I’ve been looking for – ”

Daniel stopped as he reached the chair. His father wasn’t sitting in it. There was just a pile of his mother’s clothes, stacked all the way up to the headrest.

 

A to Z Challenge: Unsaid

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Una wanted to tell her husband that she was tired of being taken for granted.

She wanted to tell him that her heart no long beat as rapidly as it used to when she was around him.

She wanted to tell him that she knew about the waitress at the diner, and the girl from the New Year’s Eve party. He was sloppy about covering his tracks.

She wanted to tell him that she had strayed as well (though she’d done a better job of hiding it) and had been enjoying the company of one of her colleagues for almost two months now.

She wanted to tell him that she loved their daughter dearly, but it wouldn’t be enough to hold their marriage together.

She wanted to scream at him, to curse at him until her voice turned hoarse, to let out every frustration she’d dealt with for the past 12 years.

But Una said nothing.

When her husband came home from work, an hour after she did (she knew why), she greeted him with a dutiful smile and a perfunctory kiss.

She let him wrap her in a constricting embrace, her body trained not to recoil from the stink of booze on his breath.

And without a word, she plunged the cold steel blade right between his ribs.