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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The Ones Who Charge the Fence (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Science fiction fable, 3,800 words)

The voices of dinosaurs filled Casuistry Vale, singing the praises of the Great Accord as they did every Summer Festival, celebrating the Gift of a common dinosaur language and the treaty that ended the war between predator and prey. Among the broad-leafed pavilions dotting the stamped-down plain, the Sauropods trumpeted devotionals and the Pterosaurs circled and wheeled, shrieking their accompaniment. All the herds took up the tune. Participation showed commitment.

Chhronk mouthed along. A bull Triceratops who had endured many Summer Festivals, he understood the power of ritual to bind together different herds. But he had no voice for singing, and he only passably wrangled the Gift language. His mate Chha-chhuk was better; still, he’d have rather listened to her sing an old Ceratopsian chant. Strength. Resolve. Righteousness. But those songs were from before the Accord, before Chhronk was hatched. They had no place in this hard-won peace.

The herds preferred not to mix, even those whose ancestors fought on the same side, but for the Summer Festival they genuflected together. It looked unnatural, but Chhronk knew overcoming their worse natures was the point. Festival was a display of peace-bringing power, like a Ceratopsian bull who made the others in his herd lower their horns. But there was no bull here, only an invisible Accord, mightier than all by simple agreement. It demanded more obeisance than Chhronk ever had when he led his herd.

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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, Uruk-killing kind. Garga kept his hands at his sides.

Uruks 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. 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 Uruks. No longer was there an army, nor lash. There wasn’t much of anything for Uruk-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 Uruks simply wandered the Black Land. 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 Uruk-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. Uruks fought the Dark Lord too. Uruks, who suffered under him more than any other people, fought back. Uruks 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 Uruk. 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 Uruk 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 Uruk-folk, given a place of honor in a world where nothing Uruk 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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When Get Dog

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_dog_(ghost)

Harry awoke in the night and began deciding if it was worth it to use the restroom. His hand dropped from the recliner’s armrest and he was surprised to feel soft, warm fur. He shifted, turned his neck, and saw a big dog lying against the recliner, its legs stretching under the bed where Sabrina slept. Somehow, he wasn’t alarmed. Harry’s fingers scratched its shoulder. The dog pawed the air.

He hoisted himself into his walker, making it to the toilet and back. The dog lifted its head. Its eyes shone like moons. Its tail thumped, and Harry motioned for it to hush. He fell back to sleep stroking its fur.

In the morning, after Sabrina fed him with a funnel through the tube in his stomach, Harry wrote on his notepad, “WHEN GET DOG?”

Sabrina shook her head. “I don’t want a dog,” she said.

The black dog was rolling on the living room carpet, snorting happily. Harry shrugged.

In the evening, Harry sat with Sabrina on the sofa and they listened to Mozart, the black dog curled against his legs. Sabrina’s eyes closed. Suddenly, the dog rose to its feet, ears perked. It was tall enough to look Harry in the eyes with an unmistakable expression of eagerness.

“A walk? All right. I feel like stretching my legs too.” Harry rose from the sofa effortlessly, silent so not to wake Sabrina. “Let’s both of us have a cookie on the way out.”

The black dog wagged its tail.

Second Chance

When Lucifer was invited back to Heaven to petition for readmission, he laughed — even as he chose his best suit and tie. Unfurling his long-unused wings and ascending, he mused that he was but a minion when he Fell. Now he was a ruler. What could Heaven offer him? But as he walked the shining white promenades, inhaling the incense fanned by Seraphim’s wings and basking in the ambient Grace, he was struck by how the mind kindly forgets the glories it deems forever lost. Sitting in the waiting room, sipping complimentary Ambrosia, Lucifer couldn’t stop stealing glances at the office door. His palms began to sweat.

A cherub opened the door with precise punctuality and ushered him inside. He introduced himself, inquired if Lucifer needed anything before they began, and then asked some casual “warm-up” questions. The script was unchanged since Lucifer’s time on the other side of that table. After the pleasantries came the only question that mattered in Heaven.

“Do you repent of your sins and come to the Lord asking forgiveness?”

Lucifer had no false modesty about his oratorical prowess. He had prepared an ode of contrition that could inspire men to form new religions of redemption, and make the Archangels themselves blubber with teary compassion. It almost seemed a waste to debut it to this fluttering baby whose name he had already forgotten. His eyes downcast, a penitent smile on his lips, he gave his answer.

“No, and no.”

Lucifer blinked. Words spun of gold got lost somewhere between his mind and his tongue, and raw truth — unbidden, undecorated and irretrievable — came out instead. This place! All his subtle talents, developed and honed in the long years since the Fall, counted for nothing in Heaven. The final bit of artifice, his own illusions, flaked away like charred skin. The cherub’s big eyes, the color of a clear noon-day sky, held bottomless pity.

“Thank you for your time.”

Lucifer stared at the objects in the tiny interview room, from the tasteful furniture and neat stacks of writing parchment to the way the color of the walls gently diffused light. The smallest things in Heaven were truly lovely. But they would never value him here. He could spend an eternity trying, with the same result. Even Heaven wasn’t worth that. “Thank you for your indulgence, little brother.”

Outside, he could feel Heaven rejecting him, its spaces folding away like a delicate sea creature recoiling its fronds. He expected the sudden wave of vertigo — he had felt it first when being cast from the only home he knew. A second time he Fell, his body gaining speed, his feathers bursting into flame, searing, curling black. He felt no pain at all this time.

This time he was falling home.