The Project contest entry

Here’s my third and final entry for the Build Creative Writing Ideas 1,000 Prompts, 1,000 Dollars writing contest.  I venture into historical fiction with this entry.

The Project

Julie Gilbert

“Two gallons of lemon flavoring,” Lyle said, reading the front of the carton.  “These fancy scientists can’t do any work without their lemon flavoring, huh?”

Annie suppressed a giggle as her mother snapped at them from the storeroom.

“We stock what they send us.  No questions.”

“But still, you gotta admit the food was better before they showed up,” Lyle said, nodding at the door of the commissary.  From the street outside came the constant pulse and shudder of hasty construction, dormitories thrown up before the next round of recruits stumbled off the bus at the edge of the mesa.

“The company was better, too,” Annie murmured as the doors burst open and a gaggle of freshly-scrubbed soldiers entered, followed by a group of women in pressed uniforms.  Annie would never admit it, but she secretly admired the women with their crisp hair and polished lips.  She daydreamed sometimes about enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps but her mother would never allow it, even if she were old enough.

“Well, Little Miss Annie, did you just say something negative about our boys in uniform?” Lyle asked, a trifle too loud.

“Hush,” Annie said, flushing.  She muttered a curt hello to the new customers and hurried across the concrete floor to stand behind the register.

“Watch this, Bob!” one of the soldiers called, holding up three heads of wilted lettuce.  He proceeded to juggle them, casting furtive looks at the women, but they ignored him, even after the lettuce slipped from his fingers and landed with a dull squelch.

“Imagine, they think this place is a home for pregnant WACs,” one of the women exclaimed.  Her friends laughed, running newly-manicured fingers over rows of unmarked cans.

“What’s worse?  That or the truth?” Lyle muttered.

“You don’t know the truth,” Annie said.

“C’mon.  Something’s going on,” Lyle persisted, tugging at her elbow.

“You’ve heard the rumors just like I have.  Something big is happening.  I’m going to find out what it is.”

“Lyle, don’t,” Annie protested.

“Mr. Arsenault, back again,” a reedy voice interrupted.  Lyle dropped Annie’s arm and stepped out from behind the counter.  “Surely the kitchen must be missing you,” the man said, his eyes narrow behind his glasses.

“I’m working the dinner shift tonight.  Sir.”

“He was just leaving, Mr. Hilligoss,” Annie said, hoping to placate the assistant manager.

Mr. Hilligoss crossed his arms over his thin chest and pursed his lips.  “Miss Lopez, I’ve told you time and time again that you are not to fraternize when you are on duty.  Have I made myself clear?”

Annie was spared from answering by a groan emanating from the meat counter.

“Out of steak already?”

“And there’s only one chicken left!”

“Ladies, please,” Mr. Hilligoss called, hurrying to placate the group of housewives standing at the meat counter.  “We’re expecting a shipment of meat tomorrow.  Remember, we all have to do our part for the war effort.”

“Does doing my part include paying thirty cents for a dozen oranges?”

“Serves him right,” Lyle said as Mr. Hilligoss’ voice was drowned out by complaints.

“You should go.  I’m in enough trouble as it is,” Annie said, glancing at the door of the storeroom, where her mother stood scowling at them.

Annie tapped the fingers of her right hand over her heart.

“Why do you do that?” Lyle asked, his shoulder rubbing against hers.

“Do what?” she asked, stepping away.

“That thing you just did, tapping your fingers against your chest.  You do that when you’re upset.”

“Oh.  It’s something my dad used to do.  I started doing it after he died, I guess.”

The sound of bickering housewives and rowdy soldiers faded away as the same uncomfortable silence rose between them like it did whenever Annie mentioned her father.

“Why did he do it, then?” Lyle asked, his voice rusty.

“He thought it would keep the ghosts away.”

“Did it work?”

Annie’s fingers hovered over the cash register buttons.  Lyle wasn’t going to leave until she gave him an answer.  So she told him the truth.

“No.”

Word count: 677

For this piece, I was inspired by the fifth prompt on the Memory page.  Once again, read more about the Build Creative Writing Ideas contest (and get 1,000 free prompts!) here.

The Amethyst Shield contest entry

Ready for a quick, enticing read?  Here’s my second entry for the Build Creative Writing Ideas 1,000 Prompts, 1,000 Dollars Writing Contest.

The Amethyst Shield

Julie Gilbert

Her feet danced over knotted tree roots as she ducked under a pine branch.  It was humid in the forest but she pulled the hood of her cloak tight to keep the whining mosquitoes away from her ears.  The path branched ahead.  She kept along the ridge, her soft-soled boots noiseless on last year’s leaves.  She planned to descend at the stream and double back to the campsite.  This time she would surprise him.

“I could hear you half a mile away,” Runyon said as she stole into the clearing.  He didn’t bother to roll over.

“Not possible,” she told the flat planes of his back.

“A third of a mile, then.  You shouldn’t have taken the ridge.”

“How did you know I took the ridge?” she asked, crouching next to him and peeling back the bandage.  The wound was festering.

“Vibrations,” he murmured, a yawn splitting his face.  Strands of copper hair fell over his forehead.  With his eyes closed, he looked like one of the young cousins who were always underfoot at Fendrake.  She forgot sometimes that he was only a few years older than she.

“The student is only as good as the teacher,” she said, opening the sack of items she had stolen from the marketplace.

“Good gods, are you making a joke, Alene?  I never thought I’d live to see the day.”  He grunted and pushed himself up on an elbow.  “I still not might live if these herbs don’t work.  You got the ones I specified?”

“Yes,” she said, wiping away the last of the old poultice.  “The knightsweed was the hardest to find.”

“Let me see.”

Once Runyon nodded his approval, Alene set about mixing a new concoction.  He hissed in pain when she laid it on the gash that cut across his ribs.

“I wish you would let me try using my kalain to heal you,” she said, flexing her fingers as if she was about to summon her magic.

He grabbed her wrist, his hand a manacle.  His eyes burned bright into hers.

“Kalain always leaves a trace.  If you use it, Bathal will find you.”  He let her go and sank back onto the bedroll.  “As far as we can tell, your magic isn’t for healing, anyway.”

“What is it for?” she ventured.  He shrugged, which didn’t surprise her.  They’d exhausted this topic of conversation in the first few weeks after escaping Fendrake.  Runyon had spent time with the Keth’roi but he didn’t have kalain of his own, and while Alene was Keth’roi, she was untrained.

She bandaged the wound, her dark fingers contrasting against his white skin.  When she finished, she leaned against a trunk and started taking down her coil of braids.  She had also stolen some coconut oil, newly imported from Freehold, and began working it into her hair.  The motion was hypnotic, and soon she was drifting.

“Who are my sweet babies?” a voice hummed in her mind, the affection so strong Alene felt like she could touch it.

A tangle of brown arms and legs scampered over thick carpets as she and Deena chased a ginger kitten.  Their shrieks of laughter reverberated off the stone walls as the kitten leaped to the highest shelf.  Their mother cradled them in her strong arms, her black hair a puffy corona around her head.  She held their hands and made light dance on their palms, her kalain like kisses.  The scent of cedar-infused candles permeated the tower room of Fendrake, far above the cousins circling and plotting like hungry wolves in the gatehouse below.

“They will not hurt you,” their mother whispered.  Alene always wondered if her mother knew it was a lie.

The coconut oil jar rolled out of Alene’s lap, her earliest memories fleeing as she jolted awake.  Tears streamed down her face.  She batted them away, even though Runyon was asleep.  Alene turned her back on him and centered her breath.  She summoned a trickle of energy down her arms.  Soon the trickle was a river and sapphire light glowed from her hands.  The color always surprised her.  Even though they were twins, Deena’s kalain had been amethyst.  An eruption of amethyst light had been the last thing Alene saw as Bathal brought the knife down on her sister’s throat and the shield sprung up around Fendrake.

The sapphire light sparked and sputtered like a wet fire.  A blue tongue singed her trousers.  Her mother had told them that they should never be ashamed of their kalain, even though they needed to keep it secret.  That was before Bathal rose to power and showed Alene that having kalain would get her killed, just like Deena.

Alene clenched her hands and smothered her magic.

Word Count: 787

For this piece, I used the first prompt on the Memory page.  Once again, learn more about the 1,000 Prompts, 1,000 Dollars Writing Contest here.

The Reluctant Vampire contest entry

As promised, here’s my first entry in the Build Creative Writing Ideas 1,000 Prompts, 1,000 Dollars Writing Contest.

The Reluctant Vampire

Julie Gilbert

“If we read the text carefully, we see that Decimus is building a compelling case for the Athenians to avoid open battle.  While not the most aggressive strategy, it had its merits.  It might have worked, too, if not for external circumstances.  Who can tell me what happened?”  Nathaniel lifted his gaze from his creased lecture notes.

His students sat at tables that had been requisitioned from the biology lab years ago and still carried a faint whiff of formaldehyde.  A few students were typing at a speed that far outpaced Nathaniel’s lecture.  Facebook, no doubt.  Others doodled in the margins of notebooks, heads pillowed on their arms.  Headphone cords dangled from several pairs of ears.  The boy in the third row bopped his head in time to the beat, his mussed hair capturing the sunlight pouring through the window.  Nathaniel took an involuntary step backward.  The nutritional concoction the vampires had developed fifty years ago included a compound that protected against the enzyme-zapping properties of sunlight, but old habits were hard to break.

“Does anyone recall from the readings I gave you what happened in Athens in 430 BCE?” Nathaniel repeated, pushing the bridge of his spectacles as they slid down his nose.

One of the girls in the front row snapped her gum as she raised her hand, cocking her head to one side.  Her dark ponytail fell over one shoulder.

“Yes, Miss Gonzales?”

“Um, Professor Harris?  How much of this will be on the test?”

Nathaniel adjusted the knot of his olive tie.  “Everything.”

This drew reactions.  Cell phones clattered to the floor, texts unsent.  Pencil lead snapped against notebook paper.  Earbuds were shoved down the front of shirts.  Several laptop lids opened while another closed.  Nathaniel wanted to laugh but here he was Nathan Harris and Nathan Harris did not laugh.

His notes blurred before his eyes but he didn’t need them.  He’d composed several first-hand accounts of the plague himself, often writing under the name Decimus.

“Plague.  Plague strikes Athens, already crowded by refugees from the country.  One-third of the population killed by disease.  People die alone in the streets, their bodies dragged to funeral pyres that never cease burning.”  Nathaniel felt memory stir in his blood.  Was it his imagination or did the charred scent of funeral pyres suddenly permeate the stale air?  Nathaniel frowned, puzzled by the seductive pulse in his voice.

“The plague is devastating.  Social order breaks down.  People turn their backs on the gods.  There is chaos, civil unrest.  And all that blood…  Thick, brackish blood oozing from wounds, just waiting for someone to come along and lick it up.”

It was the blood that had drawn the vampires to Athens that year, even though they normally avoided human disease.  The confusion in Athens made it easier for Nathaniel and his ilk to blend in and feast on what truly nourished them: chaos.

The students were looking at him in a way they had never looked at Nathan Harris.  Their eyes were wide and tension stiffened their shoulders.

“Sound familiar, little ones?” he purred, using his true voice for the first time in generations.  “Do you think your charming metropolis of Cold Foot Harbor, Maine is any different than beleaguered Athens?  I have seen it all before.  Economic collapse as the factories shut down.  A frayed social net ready to snap.  The little voice inside saying that this mediocre education won’t get you farther than your own front door.  You are trapped.  Chaos and unrest lurk beneath the surface.  All it needs is a little blood to push it over the edge.”

Nathaniel coughed, the words catching in his throat, and realized he was as shocked as his students.  His hands gripped the edge of the lectern, his knuckles white.  His temperature had risen and sweat beaded his brow.  He hadn’t come this close to revealing his true self since the vampires established their underground cities and turned their backs on humans centuries ago.  There were only a few outliers like him who assumed dull identities and came to the surface, unable to shake the cold routine of living.

Nathaniel drew a breath, gasped, and swallowed hard against the lump in his throat.   He looked into their eyes, which was a mistake.  Arrogance coursed through him when their gazes darted away, to the floor or the ceiling, trying not to draw attention to themselves.  He breathed deeply again, which might have helped, were it not for the breeze whispering from the vent.  The HVAC hummed as the air wafted along the aisles, carrying the delicious scent of warm blood.

Nathaniel’s nostrils flared and he shuddered.  The lectern cracked, the sound a shotgun blast.  The students jumped, too afraid to flee.  Nathaniel screwed his eyes shut.  For an instant he was back in Athens, licking blood from an old man, Bastion grinning across the body at him.  A woman shrieked, the cry ringing in his ears.  His eyes snapped open, not knowing whether the woman cried in his vision or if the sound came from the classroom.

“Class dismissed,” he whispered.  The students bolted as if he had released them from a spell.  In a moment they were gone, a fluttering piece of notebook paper the only evidence that they had ever been there.

Nathaniel remained in the classroom until shadows lengthened over the floor.  Only after the bloodlust had gone did he trust himself to leave.  As he walked through the woods to the clearing that marked the entrance to Loscillium, he started shaking.  He sat on a log, holding his head in his hands.  If he had slipped and cornered one of the students, perhaps the lovely Miss Gonzales with her slender neck, it would have taken more than a classroom of twenty-year-olds to keep him from draining her.  And for that, the Guardians of Loscillium would certainly find a way to kill him.

Word Count: 985

I used the sixth prompt listed on the Horror Prompts page.  Once again, more information about the contest can be found on the 1,000 Prompts, 1,000 Dollars Writing Contest page.