bethlehems

2016 Advent Ghosts

To quote Loren Eaton from a couple years ago, “Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy.

Loren has been hosting Advent Ghosts for I dunno how long, but I’ve been participating for a handful of years. It’s one of my favourite holiday traditions. Officially, we’re suppose to write and share drabbles–stories that are exactly 100 words long–to date I have never done this. My stories have varied in length over the years but this one is probably the longest yet at about 1,700 words long. It’s also the first story I’ve ever written that was set in space, or on a spaceship. That was pretty intimidating, I won’t lie–I really like it though, so I hope you will too 🙂 This story does contain sexual violence however, so consider yourself forewarned before reading…

bethlehems

Bethlehem‘s Star

As Christmas feasts went, it wasn’t much —an MRE, dried fruit and instant coffee—but it was the best she could do given the circumstances. She wasn’t supposed to be in orbit—she and her crew were supposed to have  returned to Earth weeks ago so she was lucky there was any food left at all. What was that saying? No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy? Well, no space mission ever survives leaving orbit.

They’d been on their way back to Earth when NASA spotted the debris field. If nothing was done the edge of it would come in contact with Earth and the results planetside would be catastrophic. The ISS was useless in situations like this—they only kept it operational as a floating museum of space exploration so Bethlehem would have to delay their return home, at least for long enough to set up a laser grid.

It wasn’t a difficult job—or it shouldn’t have been—but the whole thing turned into a farce of unbelievable proportions. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. First the shielding on the communications system had failed leaving it exposed to any cosmic rays that happened to come along. And apparently they did because it began to malfunction almost immediately, garbling their messages so much that the data they were getting back from Earth became completely unreliable.

Unable to get the information they needed to deploy the laser grid necessitated a EVA. It was Helen’s turn in the rotation but her preparations turned up a leaky air hose in her suit. They didn’t have time to repair it and since suits were custom fit she couldn’t just use another…

 

Helen glanced up at the digital clock on the wall—20:16. She had four more minutes before the ship’s rotation would swing back around and let her see the star—her star. The star shouldn’t exist, wouldn’t exist if Captain Monsef hadn’t done the walk in her place, but he had. And he’d died.

 

With communications down they hadn’t even seen it coming.

Helen had been on the bridge with D.J. when it happened. She saw the whole thing, saw it over and over again whenever she closed her eyes. A scout, a bit of debris that was ahead of the rest, had come out of the black, spinning and twirling like a dreidel. Helen watched it sideswipe the captain, snapping his umbilical to the ship and saw his face as he zoomed by—stiff-jawed and stoic. He knew he was doomed. Maybe he knew, even then, that they all were, but he wasn’t going to die kicking and screaming. That wasn’t his way.

She didn’t see the captain and the boulder tear through Shuttle One. Not with her eyes, anyway. She did see the control panel light up like a Christmas tree as every klaxon on the ship began to scream.

D.J. elbowed her out of the way and began pushing buttons seemingly at random.

“What are you doing?” She’d tried to stay calm—men tended not to listen if she raised her voice. “D.J. what are you—”

D.J. wasn’t even qualified to be on Bethlehem—he’d won some sort of social media contest or something and his inclusion in the ship was his prize—a PR stunt for the space program. Certainly no one had expected him to do anything.

He launched Shuttle One before she could stop him. In his defense, launching Shuttle One was the ship’s suggested protocol to deal with the hole the captain and the asteroid had punched through its hull opening them up to space. An experienced astronaut, however, would have just closed off that section and tried to find a way to save the shuttle and the captain.

She’d shoved D.J. out of the way just as Ramirez entered the bridge. In retrospect, that was probably when D.J. started hating her—the moment another man saw her overpower him and watched her try to correct his mistakes.

By the time the other four crew members had joined them on the bridge she’d stabilized things to the point the sirens had stopped wailing and she’d deployed the laser grid based on the last good coordinates they’d received from Earth before everything went to shit.

Unfortunately it was too late.

The grid did its job. Mostly.

Bethlehem hid beneath its cover and watched it obliterate the debris that passed through it, reducing it to sizes that would burn up in the atmosphere. The grid wasn’t perfect though and a few pieces slipped by on the edges. Helen and the crew could do nothing but watch and hope the Earth-based defenses could take them out.

 

Helen took another bite of leathery apple and looked at the clock again. Two minutes. Two minutes until she’d see her star once more. She and the star were orbiting around each other so she only got to see it every fourteen hours and then only for a few minutes.

 

Difficult decisions had needed to be made. They couldn’t land Bethlehem without comms—they needed to be in touch with ground control. Bethlehem had a nuclear reactor and any failed landing that resulted in a crash could cause a chain reaction that would endanger innumerable people planetside.

The remaining shuttle was operation and small enough that if it crashed it would only kill its passengers but there were seven people on Bethlehem and the shuttle was only designed to fit four. It was possible they could cram five in, but not seven. And they couldn’t just leave Bethlehem unattended in orbit, either.

And so they’d drawn straws. Well, everyone but Helen had. She’d volunteered to stay aboard—she’d been Monsef’s second-in-command so his death meant she was captain now and the captain goes down with their ship. But someone had to stay behind with her.

D.J. was chosen.

Helen suspected the process was rigged, that the rest of the crew was punishing him. Or her. Her cool competence had not earned her any friends on board, and more than once she’d heard them refer to her as a bitch. So maybe D.J. had been left behind as a punishment, maybe it was a message to her, or maybe it was just dumb luck. Whatever the reason it had signed his death certificate.

The shuttle launched without ceremony and then there was nothing Helen and D.J. could do but wait and hope it landed safely. Hope the crew sent up help. Hope rescue came before the food ran out…

Actually, that wasn’t all there was to do. D.J. found another thing—another two things, actually. The first was drinking.

He’d tracked down every liquid with any alcohol content whatsoever, including Smith’s potato homebrew, and spent more time than not totally hammered.

His hair stuck up in all directions, his face was flushed an odd orange colour and he pushed his mouth into a shape that resembled nothing more than an asshole. It might have been comical if not for what came next.

She’d been passing him in the hall on one of her many trips between her quarters and the bridge when he’d slurred something incoherent and groped her, obscenely cupping her crotch.

Shocked, she hadn’t reacted for several full seconds and then, when she did, it was in an explosion of energy. She slapped him hard across the face and pushed away. In the low gravity of the passageway that was enough to send him careening into the doorway of Ramirez’s quarters. The door irised open, D.J. floated through it, and it closed behind him while Helen propelled herself to the bridge.

There, gravity still reigned allowing her to stomp around with much more satisfaction than was possible in the living quarters. How dare he? If she ever saw him again it would be too soon.

Sadly, only a couple hours later he joined her on the bridge. He was leaning against a wall and blathering. He wasn’t making any sense, just rambling randomly about everything and nothing at all. When Helen started to turn her back on him he snatched a femur-sized wrench from where it was Velcroed to the wall and smacked her across the back of the head with it.

 

Helen reached behind her, felt the fist-sized lump that was still there and winced. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only place he’d injured her. She’d woken up striped to the waist with him grunting over her, his hand pawing at her breast, his putrid breath washing over her.

 

She tried to push him off but this time she couldn’t overpower him. He had gravity on his side, superior size, and wasn’t struggling just to remain conscious. Then, her searching hand landed on the wrench he’d struck her with, now forgotten on the floor. She closed her fingers around it and cracked him across the side of the head as hard as she could.

Then it was his turn to be unconscious. And when he woke it wasn’t in the bridge like she had. Oh, hell no. Even the brig was too good for him.

“A tragic accident,” she’d said into the intercom when the cameras showed her he was awake and aware of his predicament. “Just horrible. He must have had too much to drink and stumbled into the airlock…”

No one would believe that story, of course. Too many security protocols had to be overridden for that to be plausible, but Helen didn’t care. Help wasn’t coming from Earth. It had been two weeks now, if someone was coming they would have arrived already. Or signaled. Or something.

Maybe the shuttle had crashed on its way down. Maybe the debris that had slipped past the net had taken out the fleet. Maybe it had taken out the world. If it hadn’t, history would someday show that she, Helen Rosemary Carver, had gone down with her ship… after ridding it of a rat.

 

For now though, she glanced at the clock, in five, four, three, two—there he was.

He’d only been out there for a couple cycles but space was already working its magic on him—freeze-drying his corpse, turning him into a space mummy. He would never rot, but stay up here—a desiccated lump, arms and legs splayed like a starfish with a scream frozen on his face.

She watched him, the star she’d created. Even now when all hope for her, maybe even all hope for mankind, was lost, watching him sit and spin could still make her smile.

END

You can read all the other Advent Ghost stories on Loren’s blog — 2016 Advent Ghosts.

 

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Advent Ghosts 2015

For the past few years I have enjoyed participating in I Saw Lightning Fall’s Advent Ghosts. It used to be that ghost stories (or just creepy stories) were a part of the holiday tradition, and Advent Ghosts is just one way to re-embrace that tradition, if only in a small way. The rules are that you’re supposed to write a scary/creepy/unnerving drabble and share it on your blog on the 19th. A drabble, for anyone scratching their head right now, is a story that is exactly 100 words long.

As with every year that I’ve participated my story this year is not a drabble–though I think it’s the shortest one I’ve ever shared for this event so who knows, maybe someday I’ll hit the mark 😉

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Trying to be Brave

by Rhonda Parrish

Though she could no longer hear it, Wren knew the beast was still out there somewhere, somewhere near—skulking, still and silent, among the cedars. She pressed her back harder against the tree trunk, praying it was wide enough to hide her, and tried to be brave.

She slowed her breathing—in, hold, out—and exhaled through her woolen mittens—in, hold, out—to keep feeling in her fingers and diffuse the cloud of breath that would give away her position.

In…

Hold…

Out…

She was trying to be brave—trying so hard to be brave—but Jack’s screams lingered, echoing inside her like the ding, dong, dong of the church bell. It would be ringing soon—the bell—but there was a frozen lake between her and it, and the beast was near.

But help wouldn’t be coming. She’d sneaked away, tip-toeing past her parents door while they still slumbered. Danced from shadow to shadow through the village, across the lake, to meet her love beneath the treetops to steal kisses and play at magic. Help wasn’t coming, because it didn’t know it was necessary.

And now, even the sun was retreating, soundlessly creeping across the sky to hide behind the treeline. She could stay and wait for the end—the sneaky, silent, forever sleep offered by the cold, or the screaming, struggling, steaming death of the beast—or she could run.

Wren took a couple good deep breaths—in, hold, out. The village needed to be warned. Needed to know what waited in the woods, what she and Jack had awakened.

With a whispered prayer Wren leapt from her hiding place and tried to be brave.


 

You can also read my past attempts at Advent Ghosts stories:

Come In (2013)

A Million Pieces (2014)

or check out the rest of this year’s entries at I Saw Lightning Fall.

 

Bowl of Ornaments -- Photo courtesy of Morgue Files

Advent Ghosts 2014 – A Million Pieces

Bowl of Ornaments

A Million Pieces

They say it’s the things which drove you crazy that you miss the most. I never much believed it myself. Not until I lost you.

It’s been a year now. And what a year. A year of rehab and therapy, lawyers and courtrooms. A year of firsts.

My first surgery. First steps without my walker. First birthday without you. First day back in our apartment, alone. First night—

So many things you could have counted. So. Many.

It used to frustrate me so much, your counting, but my love was deeper than my irritation so I stayed. Stayed though you counted every Cheerio in your bowl. All the bowls in the cupboard. Every spoon.

I loved you enough to stay though you counted your pills six times a day. And when you stopped taking them? I stayed then too.

I spent our last Valentine’s Day dressed up, crying and watching you crawl across the floor in your suit picking up each Q-tip from the Costco-sized box I’d spilled and counting, counting, counting.

I stayed through all that, yet you let a drunk driver tear you from me. One. One car. One driver. One crash.

Christmas was always your favourite holiday, and I’m celebrating in style in honour and remembrance of you. I’ve baskets full of Christmas balls scattered throughout the house, festive decorations, and the tree is up and decorated. I think you’d approve. The lights twinkling on it are reflected in the glass globes which adorn it and nearby the fireplace snaps and pops. Outside, snow is falling, piling up in the corners of our windows, and my want for you is so intense it’s nearly a physical thing.

I stare out at the city. From this high all I see is a sea of lights piecing the darkness. Like stars.

I look up, then, expecting to be disappointed; star-watching and snowfall so rarely go together, but through a clearing in the clouds, just to the left of the moon, one star gleams. It’s super bright and though I don’t know its name or if it’s a part of a constellation, I’d bet it’s one sailors use to navigate. To find their way back home.

I close my eyes.

I make a wish.

When I open them, something has changed. Not outside. The moon and star are still there, snow still falls and below steams of red taillights still move alongside the blue-white of halogen headlights.

I shift my focus from beyond the window, to its glass. The change is in here. With us. The window reflects the room back at me. Tree, fireplace, me…and you.

Your reflection is as solid as mine. Distorted ever so slightly by the flaws in the glass, but distinctly you. Your shaggy hair. Your hipster glasses. Your mouth which moves, your voice I hear.

“I missed you—” You reach for me. You reach for me and I panic and grab the basket of Christmas balls from the window ledge beside me. The wicker is hard against my fingers, unforgiving. I turn it upside down, pour out the balls which tumble over one another, and onto the floor.

You stop. Your graze drops to the floor, then back up to mine, reflected in the window.

“I—” you begin, then stop and chew on the corner of your pinky finger’s nail. My chest clenches at the sight, so familiar.

Your indecision is a vacuum sucking all the air from the room, slowing the tick-tock of the clock on the mantle until each sound is a long, drawn-out scream. I can’t move. Can’t breathe. My eyes burn, but I cannot cry.

“One,” you say, kneeling down and disappearing from my sight. “Two—”

I exhale. The grip on my chest loosens and the clock resumes its natural rhythm.

“Three, four…”

How many balls were there? A dozen? More?

Too few. Too few.

I step back and white heat rips through my heel as the ball crunches beneath it.

Blood stains the milky glass shards, drips from my foot to the hardwood. You reach for a piece, a shard, “Five, six, seven…”

A sob catches in my throat and I snatch a ball from the tree. It’s blue and glittery, the surface rough against my palm. I remember picking it out with you in the antique store we stopped at on our way home from the local theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol three years ago. You’d grinned at me then, so big I could see the gap between your bottom teeth, and your eyes shone with love. It was a perfect moment in a perfect day.

How many more of those days could we have had?

“Eighteen, nineteen, twenty—”

How many were stolen from me?

“Twenty-four, twenty-five—”

…from us?

“Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine—”

I hurl it with all my strength so it shatters. I rip the next from the fir’s branches and smash it too. And the next, and the next.

I scream out my anger. I sob out my sorrow. My blood mixes with the fragments of memory spreading across the floor and woven through it all, your voice. Implacable. Counting.

“Three thousand four hundred and two, three thousand four hundred and three—”

 

**

Last year I participated in Loren Eaton’s Advent Ghosts event where authors write spooky tales and share them and enjoyed the challenge enough I decided to make it a holiday tradition.

We’re actually supposed to write 100 word stories, but last year my story was just over 600 words and this year it’s just under 900 so apparently I suck at that part LOL Still, I hope you enjoyed it.

Loren will be linking to a lot of people’s Advent Ghost stories tomorrow from his blog and you should pop over and read some of the work by people who know how to follow the rules. I had to post this early because the 19th (when we were supposed to post) is a Fae-tastic Friday and I try not to have more than one blog entry per day.

TL;DR — Check out Loren Eaton’s Advent Ghosts

Advent Ghosts 2013

I think it was Simon Kewin who introduced me to the Advent Ghosts shared storytelling event at I Saw Lightning Fall. To quote Loren Eaton from the blog post I linked to, “Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy.” What a fabulous idea! I really wanted to come up with a story, so for the past month or so I’ve had that page open as a tab in my Firefox and my brain has been chewing away at a wintery spooky story. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of anything. Nothing. Nothing.

Then, the other day I couldn’t sleep, so I lay in bed staring at the ceiling and working on this problem. Spooky winter tale. Flash-sized (preferably drabble sized, actually). Finally, at about two thirty in the morning I hit on something. I typed this story out on my iPod and emailed it to myself. It has since been revised, critiqued and cut down to be as short as I can make it (which is still about six times as long as a drabble ;)) and I’d like to share it with you.

Come In

wooden house in winter forest
It was bitterly cold. Bethany’s nostrils froze together with each inhalation and her eyelashes clung to one another when she blinked. She’d been walking through the snow a long time. Her thighs felt as though a thousand icy needles pierced them and her boots like anvils.

The blizzard had come out of nowhere, blinding her completely but Bethany knew they were almost home so she did her best to keep the horse pointed toward home and her heels in his sides. However, once the worst of the storm had passed it was clear they were in the middle of the woods, the worn track they’d been traveling on nowhere in sight. The storm had covered up their tracks so Bethany pointed the horse toward where the drifts seemed the lowest and pushed him forward. As daylight perished the horse had stumbled and refused to rise and now, many hours later, Bethany was sorely tempted to do the same.

And then she saw it.

The cottage filled the opening between the spruce trees, like something out of a fairy tale. Snow pillowed upon its roof but golden light poured out through its windows like honey.

She ran, stumbling in the knee-high drifts, and fell, palms first, into the snow. Her hands, bare, red and raw, burned from the cold and as she trudged the rest of the way to the cabin, she breathed clouds of warmth against them to soothe the pain.

The window glass was clear as crystal and through it Bethany could see the roaring fire in the fireplace, a tree bedecked with ornaments with a blanket of brightly wrapped gifts at its feet. A child sat between the tree and the pane, staring back at her through the barrier. A blue-eyed darling with golden ringlets and a sugary smile. A smile which widened as Bethany approached. The girl leaped up, gesturing excitedly toward the door.

As she trudged through the drifts to join her Bethany could almost feel the warmth of the fire. Almost. She glanced up at the stars, shining brighter than ever she’d seen them, and thanked the Lord for delivering her from the cold. For bringing her to safety.

Then she noticed the chimney.

It was straight as Jesus’ cross, and the moon lit it well enough for her to see the stones used to build it, but no smoke escaped its mouth. No clouds, like those which fogged the air before her, spilled from its lip.

Confused, fingers numb and mind slowed as well, she continued around the corner, toward the door the girl had pointed to. And there it was, flying open and spilling golden light and cheerful sound out onto the snow. “Come on, come on,” the girl laughed and beckoned with her hand. No fog surrounded her either, nor did any pour from the doorway.

Bethany hesitated. She stepped forward and the little girl’s eyes twinkled. Twinkled with something that had naught to do with being jolly and everything to do with hunger.

Hunger like Bethany felt for the warmth the cottage promised. Desperate and toothy.

She took another step. She could see the fire dancing behind the girl, could hear it crackle and pop, but though she was near enough to reach out and touch the door frame, she could not feel even a hint of its warmth.

“Come on,” the girl said. “Come in!”

Bethany looked from the child, alone in the cabin lit with gold and cheer, then back to the wood where looming trees boughs were twisted into claws and their moonshadows reached toward her. Better, she thought, to spend the night in Winter’s embrace than with whatever was in that house.

She took a step backward, and the girl-thing frowned. Then she took another, and another. Its features twisted into something feral, something fierce. “Come in,” it said once more, but this time the snarl hidden beneath its words was loud in Bethany’s ears, and the next step backward was easier to take than those which had come before.

Crossing herself, Bethany turned her back on the girl-thing and a howl, frustrated and fierce, echoed through the woods. And when, eventually, she dared look back over her shoulder, the cottage was gone with no sign that it had ever been.

END

Merry Giftmas!