Butterfly (Do You Remember Being the Worm?) (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fantasy-tinged fiction, 3,500 words)

Before we stopped talking, my best friend Davis saved my life three times from the Sirynz. It’s funny that I still call him that. “Best friend” is a concept I put away with other childish things when I left Marysville, but the obligation it carries lingers like a photograph standing in for a memory, a thing twice removed from the original. Still, it’s an idea that has pull. At least I owe him a call. But I keep coming up with excuses.

The first time Davis saved, they weren’t Sirynz yet. Tina, Jacqui, and Kayla had just started playing as a band called The Mantics. That afternoon at the Peony Park pool, they were three girls wearing two-piece bathing suits during a summer of great hormonal awakening. It was one of those summer days between fifth and sixth grade that you remember like a postcard picture: blue-skied, perfectly framed, hot only by implication–without the sweat, sunburn, bug bites, or grit at the bottom of the pool lacerating your bare feet. Idealized memory. 

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Epilogue to a Lost Epic (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fantasy, 3,600 words)

Sajun drew rein at the foot of a hillock, where a footpath switched back and forth up to an unexpectedly ordinary whitewashed cottage. He could imagine Tankrit already standing at the top, her night-black hair and robes waving in an unfelt breeze, expecting him through some arcane prescience. But her kind of magic disappeared from the world, and if the one-time necromancer did live here, he would have to knock on her door. As if she were an ordinary woman.

Sajun knew better. He hadn’t steeled his nerves and ridden these leagues seeking ordinary.

Years after writing his history of the War for the Light, Sajun still felt himself living out a tale, if no longer one that any would care to read. The compelling part was over. Sajun was neither poet nor harper, but he had written the story as he and his remaining companions remembered it, and granted himself liberties only where none alive could say otherwise. He’d tried to be honest about his own small role, with neither false heroism nor modesty. The story had an ending. In the way of tales, the grander movements came full circle. Yet–with heartbreaking exceptions–life went on. The last twenty years felt like a story told too long.

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Scared of Bees (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fiction, 3,400 words)

Aryeh Levin picked up the newspaper from his driveway to see how the world would disappoint him today. “Rockets Break Cease-Fire.” Well what else would they do? When your only tool is a sword, every problem looks like a neck. Sarah saw vindication in the headlines, never a sign we ought to do better. But on this side of the world, the morning street was quiet. The big houses lining it were variations of his own, with tidy lawns, shady trees, and gardens dappling the green with a Crayola box of blooms. A summer breeze carried their scents. Here, there was enough room to live and let live. He had resisted moving here. Places like this were walled gardens in a complicated world. He encouraged his students to start their adult lives and careers outside such walls. But Aryeh came to agree with Sarah that this was where Dina should grow up. In this neighborhood, on this block, Dina could learn what civilization could be, before her generation had to rescue it.

Aryeh returned a wave from a neighbor, the father of Dina’s friend, the bossy little one with pigtails. He started climbing the stairs to the porch when something strafed in front of his nose. He jerked back, stumble-hopping down a step. It was a bee. The porch was swarming with them.

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Every Day Is a Miracle (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Flash fantasy, 500 words)

Palms slide on palms, knuckles bump. Tail lights turn the corner. The stereo’s thump fades into the city. Bayard stands at the mouth of the dark alley. His smile dies.

The English accented voiceover says the gazelles know there are lions nearby. See how they keep watch. Tense.

Predators hunt here. Shapeshifters: Adze. But after a night of swagger, your friends don’t walk you to your door. “You can’t live in fear,” they say. But they do. Every damn day. The mayor wants more police, but police can’t tell Adze from human beings. Everyone’s a predator. Everyone’s prey.

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I Crave My Meat a Little Rare (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Flash fantasy, 800 words)

Jada wants to take dinner down to her father, so I slap some raw meat from the cutting board onto a tray. It means she’s not afraid anymore, and she’s still a forgiving child. I want to nurture both. But my heart beats faster. My throat and lungs are still raw.

I don’t tell her to be careful. His temper isn’t hers to manage. It was never mine, either, though I’ve formed instincts over the years. The door groans, the stair creaks, and I hear his breathing, the low rumble of an approaching storm. My muscles coil and an answering growl builds painfully in my chest. I listen for the telltales of agitation I’ve learned during our marriage. I’ll always protect you baby, I told my daughter four days ago, holding her head against my belly, her tears soaking through my shirt.

I relax my grip on the knife I’m using to cut onions, green peppers, and chunks of tomato. That’s not the protection that’s needed. That’s not the situation.

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I’m Done Selling Stories

As a kid, I loved writing short stories. Of course, I also loved sharing them with anyone who’d read them, and basking in their praise. That dual thrill never went away, but as an adult, they started to conflate. Yes, I still loved writing stories, and wished I could do it all the time. But I started to crave real validation. Publication. Praise is cheap; if someone were willing to pay me money for my stories, that would be a level up from family and friends. I got serious. I read books and blogs about craft. I listened to podcasts. I completed two 2-year certificate programs in creative writing at local universities’ night school. I wrote and revised and workshopped. I worked like I had something to prove.

I submitted my first story for publication in 2012. It was rejected. I didn’t try again until 2016 (at the age of 45), with a story I wrote specifically for a themed call. I still remember getting the email that Unlikely Story had accepted my story “Old Customs” at a pro payment rate. Such a rush. I was giddy. I was a paid, published writer. Other publications followed. I learned about The Submission Grinder and started tracking my submissions, searching for new publications, and generally feeling like a “real, working writer.”

I was also refreshing the Submission Grinder page constantly, obsessively watching the response progress of all my submissions, and speculatively searching for the next publication where my stories could fit. I spent a lot of mental energy on that. Eventually, more energy than I spent writing. It got emotional, and not in a good way.

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Local Hero (Full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Flash fantasy, 1,200 words)

This story originally appeared in Dream of Shadows issue 2.

The shield rested atop a pedestal behind a cordon of Elvish rope. Angled for display, it was dented, blackened, and completely melted around the edges. It was beautiful. Garga yearned to touch it. But the Elf guard standing to the side had a long, curved blade at his belt–the enchanted, Orc-killing kind. Garga kept his hands at his sides.

Orcs milled about the gallery’s length, between the shield and the great statue of Borag at the other end. This part of the museum was free to enter, and the Men, Elves, and Dwarves visiting or settling the Black Land favored the other galleries that displayed the trophies of their own people from the war against the Dark Lord. This place was for Orcs. No longer was there an army, nor lash, nor much of anything for Orc-folk to do. Without the army, the clans were assigned no lands, and forbidden weapons, there was no way to lay claim to any. So Orcs simply wandered the Black Land, and the museum was as good a place to escape the sun as any cave. Here, they could meet and grouse during the worst of the heat, and even under the eyes of the conquerors, they felt this place theirs. Where else were there Orc-things to be found on pedestals in this occupied land?

Across the gallery from Garga stood Sheketh’s massive statue of Borag the Liberator, down on one knee, muscles coiled with power, his massive arms holding up his great shield to the sky as if to blot out the sun. Borag the Rebel, who defied the Dark Lord and shepherded the Halflings to the very Mountain of Fire, destroying the tyrant’s power and freeing the Black Land. Borag the Defiant, who lifted the Halflings on his shield to their rescue, even as a molten river consumed him, leaving only his shield to tell the story.

The statue was proud and powerful, but Garga liked Borag’s shield better. It was real. Every time he saw it–and he came to see it often–it reminded him of something so easy to forget. Orcs fought the Dark Lord too. Orcs, who suffered under him more than any other people, fought back. Orcs had heroes. Garga knew that the real Borag probably looked nothing like the statue. Some gaffers even said it revealed Sheketh’s shame of being an Orc. Its back was straight, like a Man’s, and its features too fine, almost beautiful, like an Elf’s. The real Borag was a soldier. He would have had scars and broken bones, ill-healed, like all the old gaffers who survived the war. Garga had never seen an Orc like the one across the hall, carved larger than life in black basalt. But the shield… That shield had seen battle. It had stopped axes and swords. It had survived the fires of the mountain. Not beautiful, but resilient. It was a thing of Orc-folk, given a place of honor where nothing Orcish was honored.

If only Garga could touch it.

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Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear? (Full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Ekphrastic dark fantasy, 3,500 words)

This story originally appeared in the Honey and Sulfur anthology and was reprinted in Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5.

The curious gathered in the courtyard to watch the pale, naked man shuffle towards the light spilling through the black arch. His limbs were bone, wasted muscle, and sagging skin, hanging like sticks from his bloated torso. He had no hair. Some of the watchers made to cover their own nakedness with their hands, or twist their bodies from the light in sympathetic shame, but none looked away. The light cut through the inky shadows, not angry and red like the distant volcanic fire, but brilliant and golden. Against it, the man’s skin looked translucent as fog. From beyond the gatehouse came sounds that could be heard nowhere else in Hell. Laughter. Song. To the watchers, the light and merriment on the other side of the arch felt nothing less than holy.

“Do you think they’ll let him pass, Jaan?” 

Everyone lingered in the courtyard, despite the danger, wondering the same. The irresistible drama of redemption, if that was what this was, gave meaning to this world of suffering. They spoke in whispers and watched the man’s progress, their eyes flickering to the sky, ready to scatter if their loitering was noticed.

“We’ll see, Tessa.”

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“Do Not Go Gentle” (Full text)

Apex Magazine’s “Holiday Horrors” flash fiction contest had 350 entries, but only one winner (and two runners-up). This story was not one of the latter–though it did make the final 20! Go read Charles Payseur’s, Clint Collins’s, and Inês Montenegro’s stories over at Apex. And if you’re still hungry for 250-word holiday horrors, read my story about an old year that refuses to yield to the new, below. I swear I wrote this before the election.


Do Not Go Gentle

by Rajiv Moté (Flash fantasy, 250 words)

Twisted and skeletal as a withered tree, the naked old man shuffled down the maternity ward hallway, sniffing the air like a starving wolf. Each exhalation was a wheeze. The satiny sash that only occasionally covered his unmentionables read “2020.”

Graveyard-shift workers and pacing fathers-to-be averted their eyes. They didn’t like to think of him. They could think of little else. They were resigned to waiting him out.

By the clock on the wall, they wouldn’t have much longer to wait—if the old man honored tradition. His bloodless lips twisted in a sneer.

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“Echo Archipelago”

Whenever the people of the archipelago became so irreconcilable that cooperation seemed impossible, a new island rose from the waves, as one had since their ancestors left the mainland.

The chain of schisms reached ever forward. Some feared that by forever fleeing conflict, they’d never learn to work together.

New islands rose for them too.