Born in a Maze

Jamie was born with a rather unusual birthmark. It had the look of a tree’s inner rings, almost a perfect circle on his wrist just below his palm. The uniqueness of it got a lot of attention as he grew up, but he himself never paid it much mind. It was as familiar as the top of his nose, and not worth staring at.

He was nine before he noticed there was a new line on his birthmark. He had been looking at old baby photos with his mother when she pointed out the first image taken of his birthmark. It looked off, somehow, but Jamie couldn’t tell why. Maybe because his wrist had grown so much. He examined his wrist again, looking back and forth between it and the picture. It was different. There was a new line creasing between two of the original lines. It followed along, weaving between conjoined points between the two lines like backing away from dead ends, until it was exactly nine “rings” into the birthmark.

He always knew the birthmark had thirty-five rings. Other kids joked that he would only live to thirty-five. Except trees gained rings as they aged–they didn’t start out with exactly how many rings they’d have before dying. How would they know?

No, this birthmark wasn’t like the inner rings of a tree. It was a maze.

He noticed a cutoff point in the fifth ring where the new line backtracked and followed a different path. When he was five, he changed schools when his parents moved, and he had to all but start over. It was just kindergarten, so it wasn’t a big deal, but it was a big change in his life. Another dead-end on his birthmark appeared in the eighth ring–the previous year, when his parents were divorced and Jamie chose with great difficulty to stay with his father. The divorce took a big toll on the man, who took to drinking and was ultimately fired from his job. Unable to support himself, let alone Jamie, Jamie’s mother took him back, causing him to move cities yet again.

His mother considered it childish fantasy that Jamie linked the dead-ends in the birthmark to life events, but as Jamie grew older he paid more attention to where the new line was growing. When choosing which high school to attend, he began filling out the form for the nearest school, which had a reputation for having the best AP courses. But after submitting, he noticed the line on his birthmark heading toward a dead-end. Curious, he went for his second high school choice instead, and on the first day of classes noticed the birthmark line re-routed toward the “proper” path.

Jamie continued to test the theory on prospective girlfriends, career choices, and other big decisions. He ignored the line’s progression to a convergence when he thought he had the right girl, only to be cheated on. Every other time, he veered his decision-making away from those that led to such disasters. No one believed him, but he knew he had to follow the maze. He didn’t want to know what would happen if he remained at a dead-end for too long.

The only problem was, he only had thirty-five rings. Did he want to rush to the end? Even if they were the right choices? Or would he lock himself into a dead-end, just for the chance at a longer life?

He was thirty-four and unsure. The line kept moving toward the centre. He was happy and fulfilled, and he was approaching a fork in the maze. One led to the centre and one led to a convergence. He had his agent on the phone, discussing a book publisher who was willing to publish his book. It was amazing, they said–it would change the world. Would he sign the publishing deal?

“Jamie?” his agent asked. “I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime decision, bud, but you’ve gotta make it now. What’ll it be?”

Jamie stared at the line. It was perfectly in the middle of the fork.

 


 

 

Day 365’s three random writing prompt categories were, “A maze,” “A map to nowhere,” and, “Stay on the path.”

BOOM. That’s it. We’re done. Donezo! Doneskies! Three hundred and sixty-five days of writing prompts. Every single day. When I started this thing a year ago, I was earnest the way I always am with new projects, but I’ve seen so many of them fizzle away and I had no idea if this one would too. But it didn’t. I’m still here. I made it.

Expect a post-mortem blog post soon. But not for a few days. I think I’ve earned my holiday this year. 365 days in a row ought to accrue a little bit of vacation time. 😉

Thanks so much for joining me on this adventure, dear Reader. I hope you had as much fun as I did. Please shoot me a comment or hit me up at KyleRHubbard[at]gmail if you want to get ahold of me. I’d love to know if there were any prompts you particularly liked or worlds I built that you’d want to see more of (such as Meta Detective, Sky Trek, the magic scholar, cowboy wizards, or any others!). 

Until next time! This is H., checking out.

Double Decaf

Jenny could always tell which of her customers wanted to die, even before they placed the order. It was rare that a suicidal customer visited her cafe, though. Usually they came for the same sludge they always came for. When a very chipper young man slid into the cafe, as bright and cheery as the bells on the door, Jenny thought he might be looking for something sweet, like a mocha or a vanilla bean latte.

Instead, he smiled and said, “I’d like a double decaf, please. Small, I guess. Or, you know what, large.”

“Large decaf coffee,” Jenny repeated, punching the order in. It seemed the guy had all the energy he needed before he–

Double decaf,” the customer corrected, a finger in the air. He still smiled, smiled so high his eyes squinted a little. Jenny thought he might have been Asian, or part Asian, or maybe he just had cheekbones that lifted until his eyes were semicircles.

She realized what he was really asking for.

“Are you sure?” she said, hand hovering over the tablet where she would have to correct the order.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to ask,” said the young man. He had sharp features and a full mouth–handsome, with thick shocks of black hair that fell over his forehead and ears in leaf-like points. He was right–Jenny and the other baristas weren’t supposed to encourage customers to give a second thought to their orders.

Opinion on the subject of suicide changed in the past few years. Human-caused climate damage was too high, and the only way it would slow was if there were mass population purges. Short of plague epidemics or wars which could damage far more than just humanity, suicide was rebranded to be a selfless act. Sacrifice. A ticket to heaven instead of hell. Earth needed to shrink its human population by over fifty percent. If people were willing to end things, they were encouraged to do so.

Usually they were poor or old or damaged in some way. Not always, though.

“If that’s what you want,” said Jenny, slowly entering the order. What a waste, she thought. If anyone should stay it should be someone like him. She’d much prefer a world of handsome young men over the greasy fat office workers she served every day. “Your name?” she asked.

“Logan.” He flipped open his wallet.

“There’s no charge,” said Jenny.

Logan tossed a couple bills into the tip jar.

“Assassins should be paid well,” said Logan.

Jenny blinked. “I’m … I’m not an assassin.”

“You serve poison. Kind of assassiny.”

“It’s the law.”

“A common excuse for assassins.”

Jenny didn’t know what to say or how to argue. She didn’t like serving people the Kool-Ade, as the baristas called it, but she didn’t have a choice. It was her job. It was the customer’s choice. And it was for the good of the planet.

Logan retrieved his cup–poison in white ceramic. He slurped it up, eyes on Jenny. Then he spat it in her face.

“You’re all killers,” he said, and walked out of the cafe.

Whatever point he was trying to make was futile. He probably thought you had to swallow the poison. Not so. Having it mixing with saliva would be enough to ingest a lethal amount. Jenny tried to spit out the little that got into her mouth. She might be okay. Maybe. Logan wouldn’t, though.

At least their sacrifices would be praised. Suicide or not.

 


 

 

Day 364’s three random writing prompt categories were, “A new law,” “A barista,” and, “Suicide.”

One more. Just one more prompt. I can hardly believe it.

– H.

One Last Smoke

The cigarette hung from her raw red lips, drizzling smoke in a gently swaying line all the way to the browning roof of the hotel. She lacked the energy to inhale just now, the finger-sized bruises on the more tender areas of her body throbbing painfully with each slowing heartbeat. She looked through a tangled lock of hair at the man in the room. He was stepping into his jeans, the buckle of his belt clinking loudly in the silence. The leather snap of the belt tightening made the woman flinch.

“When did you light that?” the man asked, his eyes drawn to the dim flicker of the woman’s cigarette.

She pressed her lips together in the hopes that they formed a semblance of a smile. “You lit me up. Don’t you remember?” Her voice was a stage whisper, husky and smooth, like the cigarette itself seeped the words.

He didn’t know how to answer. He was too tired for flirtation, and besides, it was over now. She must have lit it just a second ago, he thought, while I was getting out of bed. The cigarette smelled funny–not like tobacco or marijuana, yet it was familiar. Like bad morning breath.

“What are you smoking?” he asked, one arm into his gingham shirt. “Or did you…” …just fart? he wanted to ask, but his roughness of speech died since he spent himself. He let the question hang, watching the lilting cigarette smoke, white rather than grey, twisting into the air in a solitary tango.

“I’m smoking you, Daddy,” she said.

He couldn’t tell if she was smiling. A whore of a Mona Lisa. Except she looked like his Lisa. Don’t call me that, he didn’t say aloud, because he liked it. The way he liked it burned crisply inside him, like his heart was shrivelling and darkening in shame. The way her hair ponytailed in fist-sized clumps made his heart weak, as did the little purple ovals on her neck, and the puffiness of her Moaning Lisa lips. Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with me? he asked himself, eyes welling a little from the smoke, yes, from the smoke.

She hadn’t inhaled yet. The line of white smoke grew thinner, dissipating halfway to the roof. The tiny ember at the tip of the cigarette winked in and out.

“Put it out,” he said. He had buttoned his shirt unevenly, so he fumbled to unbutton them again. He noticed his fingers were trembling.

“One smoke won’t kill me,” the woman said, scissoring the cigarette in her steady fingers. Her mouth was open, slowly pouting, moving to inhale in slow motion.

The man stepped forward sluggishly, angry but exhausted, and watched the ember flare and the prostitute’s cheeks hollow and the line of smoke vanishing from the air. A second later the cigarette crashed into the wall and the woman faced away from the man, her hair whipped around to cover her expression. The man looked at his hand, red and tingling. Somehow he felt like that slap would be the last thing he would ever do. He just wanted to sleep.

He walked over to the cigarette and picked it up out of the fluffy carpet, little hairs clinging to it like velcro. It was no longer burning or hissing smoke–in fact, it was shrivelled. He sniffed it. It just smelled like paper.

“What was in this?” he asked again, holding the dead worm of a cigarette before the woman.

She looked up, her hair curtaining down her face and over her shoulders, revealing the red mark on her cheek.

“Your soul,” she said without voice in an inhale. She was smiling this time.

She’s fucking with me, the man thought, his jaw tight. He didn’t think he could bring himself to slap her again–not because he was too ashamed, but because he was so damn tired. He could barely stand upright. He paid for the hotel room but he didn’t plan on staying the night. He couldn’t.

The way she looked up at him with such juvenile defiance, smiling with her pressed lips, breath held, made him realize why men sometimes murdered prostitutes. She was a personification of his sin and secret desire. Walking, talking evidence.

“Spit it out,” he said between his teeth, at the same time wondering what he wanted her to spit out. The smoke? His soul? Why did it matter how long she held it in her lungs? She was fucking with him, after all. She took a long drag and was holding it in, savouring it, and soon she’d let it go.

But she didn’t. She just smiled, her chest puffed out, breasts wet and dented with small rectangular marks, beginning to brown and purple.

“Spit it out,” the man said again, shaking. He felt the cigarette crumbling in his fist. Did he squeeze it?

He didn’t know how long it had been, but no normal person could have held their breath that long, he thought. She thought she was so cute, so playful. Daddy’s girl.

Once more he didn’t realize what he was doing until he felt her slender throat between his fingertips, not for the first time that night. She stopped smiling, pressing her lips even tighter, until he used his free hand to stick his fingers into her mouth, gliding off her wet teeth, all but punching them inward.

“Let me go!”

His words.

“Let me go, goddammit, let me go, let me go, let me go!”

She didn’t. She couldn’t. He was keeping himself locked away inside her. Strangling wasn’t the answer. But he didn’t know what the opposite would be.

Gradually, his grip loosened. His demands lost their voice. He slumped over her, across the bed. His fingertips slid away from her throat and mouth and lay harmlessly across the pillow.

She exhaled at last, but the smoke didn’t come out.

 

 


 

 

 

Day 363’s three random writing prompt categories were, “Magical realism,” “Chainsmoking,” and, “A prostitute.”

Two prompts left, you guys. We’re almost there.

I suppose I had to balance yesterday’s sappy-happy romance with… this. Hopefully you aren’t too traumatized.

– H.

Rising from the Fall

The ground shook, the earth opened up, and down I fell. You know that feeling you get when you have a bad night tossing and turning and when it’s morning it feels like time passed somewhere but you don’t remember sleeping? While I was falling, it felt like that. Forever, until I hit the bottom and wondered if I lost time somewhere along the way.

Thankfully someone saw me fall, or else I’d have been filled in with cement or something, blanketed and forgotten. Paramedics lifted me out, bruised, bleeding, shattered. Dimly, I saw a concerned-looking young woman watching me as I was loaded onto a stretcher. She had wavy locks of dark chocolate hair, a series of tan-coloured freckles crossing the bridge her nose, and she was bundled up in a heavy checkered scarf and a long navy coat. She was wearing the same scarf and coat when she visited me in the hospital the next day.

I thanked her for finding me, and she said she didn’t find me, only saw me fall. I thanked her, then, for calling for help. She accepted that time. When my wife arrived, she thanked the young woman too, who smiled and made an excuse to leave.

“She likes you,” my wife said.

“She’s just checking up on me,” I said.

I was told I might not walk again. If I did, it would be a long, hard road to get there. My wife helped me for a while, visiting me in rehab often, wheeling me around when I was ready to come home, but she had her own busy life, and had to return to it. I didn’t blame her. As it happened, June, the young woman who saved my life, was looking for work, so I hired her as an assistant. My wife didn’t seem happy about the idea, but she didn’t seem threatened by June either. She looked at me with pity rather than love, like I was something to be cared for rather than someone to care for.

June looked at me the way my wife used to. Despite being half a man, I felt more whole than I ever had before. She brought me lunch after hard physiotherapy sessions, laughed genuinely at my jokes instead of kindly. She accepted my payments with a reluctant silence, perhaps ashamed or disappointed, like our visits were transactional. She was more concerned about the idea than I was, though it bothered me too.

I continued working hard virtually, but my position in the company was at a standstill–or, more aptly, a sitstill. Not being able to easily attend business meetings or go for company golf games, I was all but forgotten, a digital check-in rather than a human being. Still, they stuck with me, if not as closely, which was better than how my wife handled things.

After she left me, trying desperately to excuse herself without coming off as heartless, I could have been broken all over again, but I only resolved to build myself back up. I spent longer and longer in rehab sessions, slowly gaining the movement back in my legs, building the muscle there. One day June even offered to help. She held my ankle gingerly, her other hand under my knee, and lifted the leg, stretched it, massaged it to get the feeling back and the blood flowing. She had never really touched me before other than briefly during a laugh or to get my attention. Her hands were warm and white and they both had little freckles between the knuckles.

I told her I wanted to stand. She didn’t question the idea, only stood and held her palms up. I took them, just for balance, and slid forward out of the chair. My knees shook and popped and June squeezed my fingers. I pressed hard against the floor, making as though lifting a box, lifting with my legs, my back still hunched in a sitting position. Then, slowly and shakily, I straightened, like a curled piece of paper slowly unfolding to its proper shape. I lifted, my eyes on June’s eyes, until for the first time in my life I looked straight into them. And for the first time I realized she never looked down on me, even when I was in that chair or that hospital bed or that stretcher. We were always eye to eye.

And now we were face to face.

 


 

 

Day 362’s three random writing prompt categories were, “Romance,” “An assistant,” and, “A bottomless pit.”

THREE. Three days left.

It’s rare I go for a happy story. My heroes are always tortured, but sometimes they fight to save themselves. I’m glad it worked out this time.

– H.

Escape from Magic

The Statue of Wizardry stood watch over the bustling metropolis of New York. On those rare days when the skies were clear and the mana smog wasn’t so thick and it hadn’t rained the night before, Booker Darrow could look out the window of his apartment and see the three-hundred foot copper Merlin out there on Wizardry Island overlooking New York Harbor, grimoire in tow and burning wand raised high. The hotel next to the apartment blocked most of the view, but it was still a damn fine sight–for anyone other than Booker, anyway.

As often as he found himself gazing out the window only to have his eyes drawn by that oversized symbol of everything he wasn’t, he found his thoughts would always turn sour as a result, and today was no exception. He cast his gaze down on the busy streets below, luminescent crystals and wisps zipping by, occasional flashes of magical lights joining them for an instant before vanishing. He could see glowing runic words blinking across buildings advertising weight-loss potions or grimoires that can connect to other grimoires or the latest magic pocket mirror or alcoholic elixirs that promise you won’t be hungover the next day.

Magic was everywhere. Except for Booker Darrow’s apartment. It was his haven, his Fortress of Solitude, a hiding place where he could run away from the magic of the modern world that refused to accommodate a disabled person such as himself.

Because even though the modern world ran on magic, Booker was incapable of making anything magical happen at all. Only in his dreams. While most of humanity made use of their magic toys and potions, Booker hid himself away in his fictional worlds. He wrote about machines doing the work that magic would do–machines he could build and operate without magic. Flying machines, for example, that used wings and fire power to stay in the air. Booker always wanted to fly.

And so he wrote about his dream worlds, a craft of pure creation. Dreaming of a world without magic and writing it down was, ironically, the closest thing to performing magic he would achieve.

 


 

 

Day 361’s three random writing prompt categories were, “Magical realism,” “The hermit,” and, “The storyteller.”

FOUR.

– H.

The Blind Leading

Most lightbringers could see in any form of light–they could stare directly at the sun for hours with no ill effects. To control light meant mastery of it, including how much of it the eye took in. Lightbringers were only blind in darkness.

Except for Albert the Blind. A born lightbringer, and born blind, Albert had no concept of light or dark the way most people did. He felt light as warmth, darkness as a cold touch. Light was sound, dark was silence. He could feel the shape of the light, and could sense its absence. And so, while lightbringers and darkseekers blind one another with their opposing element, Albert engaged in battle with no weakness of vision–despite his lack thereof.

The others in the Lighthouse felt protective of Albert, even though he trained many of them. They put themselves in front of any battle, with Albert behind them, shielded from danger. But when the rest of the lightbringers marched on the Nighthouse, Albert was the only one left behind. The protected.

But when no one came back, Albert had to venture to the Nighthouse to save them. And unlike the others, the darkness wouldn’t affect him there.

 

 


 

 

 

Day 360’s three random writing prompt categories were, “The Lighthouse and the Nighthouse,” “The very last,” and, “The tower.”

FIVE.

– H.

Smash and Grab

Gary from next door got a new car, a real midlife crisis-mobile. This lengthy hotrod red number. Even my wife drooled. Goddamned eyesore, I thought. Lower middle-class house in a lower middle-class suburban neighbourhood, and then there’s this fucking million dollar sports car convertible in a cracked driveway. It was incongruous is what it was.

We never had a lot of problems with thieves in this part of town, so there wasn’t much to worry about. Even still, Gary had a big garage. There was no reason to keep the car in the driveway except to flash it around. Made my Ford look like shit.

Coming home from work one day I took a glance inside the window. Leather seats, a better computer on the dashboard than I had in my house… And a couple bucks worth of change sitting in one of the cupholders. I wondered.

In the morning, I woke up to Gary’s outraged scream. I threw on a housecoat and went outside in a hurry, my wife close behind.

Gary was frantically checking the inside of his car, his legs sticking out the doors.

“What’s up, Gary?” I asked.

“Some sonofabitch smashed my window!” came Gary’s voice from inside the car. “Goddamn! This is a brand new car!”

As though we didn’t know that. “Well it’s not stolen at least,” I said. “Missing anything?”

“Bit of change,” Gary muttered as he slid back out of the car. “Damn, this car cost me a fortune, Dave, and some sonofabitch just smashed it for a couple a bucks. Goddamn…”

“Some real bastards around here,” I said. “Might be best to keep her in the garage, you figure?”

“Never woulda thought this kinda thing would happen here…”

“Better safe than sorry.”

“Geez, you might be right.”

That’s right, asshole. Put your dick back in your pants.

“Dave,” said my wife, grabbing my swollen hand, “what happened to your hand?”

Gary looked at it, then at me.

 

 


 

 

 

Day 359’s three random writing prompt categories were, “Cups and coins,” “A brand new car!” and, “Overcompensation.”

Six more days, y’all.

– H.