Exchange | Blueberry Muffin-Sama

Shovel, toss. Shovel, toss. Shovel. Toss.

This had been the past several hours of Christine’s night. Shovelful of dirt, toss it beside the pit. Take another shovelful, toss that one beside the pit. Every muscle in her body ached. Sweat covered her from head to foot, allowing winter’s icy chill to cut straight to her bones. But she wouldn’t stop. Cold and shivering as she was, she couldn’t stop. Not now. Not when she was this close.

Finally, when she felt like she might never see an end, her shovel struck something hard. Her hopes reignited, and she doubled her efforts to uncover the plain wooden box beneath her feet.

She hesitated once the coffin was free. She didn’t want to see this, but she had no choice. She steeled herself, swallowed a dry lump, and flung the lid open.

The corpse she found was half rotted away, its skin blackened and its face twisted in horror. She wasn’t sure if the sight made her want to vomit, or sob. The stench definitely called for the former.

She took a deep breath and pulled it onto her shoulder, ignoring the sticky feeling through its bug eaten uniform. Climbing out of the grave with a corpse on her shoulder was difficult work, but she managed it. As she lay on the ground, panting for breath, she stared at the full, blood red moon over her head. There was no time for rest. The window was closing.

She rolled over and got to her knees, kneeling beside the corpse as she fished a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket. She took a deep, trembling breath, and began to read from it aloud.

The night around her seemed to grow darker. A cold, ominous wind swept in through the trees. She was just over halfway through the incantation, when a voice snapped behind her.

“Alright, alright! that’s enough.”

Christine screamed, throwing her paper in the air and nearly falling in the grave as she whirled. Behind her stood a young, beautiful woman. Her red lips upturned in a smile. She grabbed the piece of paper as it floated down, inspecting it with a frown.

“You don’t have read the whole damn thing, I’m already here. Hm,” she squinted at the lines, “verse. Why do they always write spells in verse? You’d think someone would’ve realized it’s completely unnecessary after all this time. Unless they’re just trying to be intimidating, in which case-”

“You’re… y-you’re-” Christine knew it, but she couldn’t make herself say the name.

The young woman smirked. “Death. That’s the name you’re looking for, yes? Unless you were hoping this spell would give you an audience with someone else?”

“I… n-no, ma’am. Of course not. I-”

“No no, let me guess. It’s about this corpse, isn’t it?” She gestured to the body in front of her, “you want him back.”

Christine hesitated, then nodded. Death sighed.

“No one ever calls just to chat. Of course, if they did, I’d probably be rather upset at being disturbed, but…” she shook her head, “I’m getting off topic. I’m terribly sorry to inform you of this, Ms. Christine, but we have a very simple policy. No refunds, no returns. Period. I’m afraid all your work was for naught.”

Christine stared at her, silent. “… And what about exchanges?”

Death’s expression softened. “Exchanges? Exchanges are… permissable. What did you hope to exchange?”

Christine swallowed. This was it. “Myself. I want you to bring him back, and put me in his place.”

Death shook her head. “My dear girl… there’s no putting you in his place. I have no problem with exchanges, but Upper Management, well… They’d disagree.”

Christine looked puzzled. “Upper Management? But you’re-”

“I’m the ferrywoman, dear. I take people from this plane to the next, but I don’t decide if they stay there. You may make the exchange. But if you do, your soul will never know peace. Do you still accept?”

Christine looked from Death to the corpse, then to its tombstone. ‘William Greene. Father. Husband.

Son.’

Her face hardened. “I am. Without a doubt.”

Death nodded. “As you wish.”

Christine’s eyes widened. William’s body began to change. Flesh filled back out. Color returned to his skin. The transformation continued, until his chest rose and fell with the first deep breath of sleep.

Christine sobbed, a wide smile spreading across her face. Then Death offered her a hand, and she took it gladly.

The Dash | Selude

There is a bit of folklore that says the first person buried in a cemetery serves as a guide for the souls resting there, leading them to the afterlife but unable to cross themselves. For this reason, many cemeteries bury a dog first.

But accidents happen, and Jane was buried before the dog.

Her grave marker was a small white stone cross, covered in cracking white paint. A kind soul had come with a paintbrush and touched up her dates a few years ago.

“Don’t worry,” the painter had said, as he rounded out the ‘0’ in 1930. “It’s not the dates that matter, it’s the dash.” She didn’t understand, but someone living had spoken to her, and her chest flooded with warmth.

Today she saw a new grave being dug, then trucks pulled up, and the sight made her remember the sensation of a heart beating faster.

Two dozen people filed out of the trucks with their heads down. A man whose face was crumpled and wet carried a large velvet bag in his hand.

They spoke. One of them, with a voice quieter than the rest, said something about Winnie-the-Pooh and Jane floated closer to listen to them, her interest piqued. “How lucky I am to have had something that makes saying goodbye so hard,” they said, and the others murmured in agreement.

The people hugged, and the man with the wet face lowered the velvet bag into the grave by its strings. Dirt was piled on top of the bag and a small plastic marker was staked in it. Then a flask was passed around before they got into their trucks again.

Jane could hardly wait.

There was the sound of swearing by the fresh grave, and she raced over.

Standing by the grave was an old woman with milky eyes. Her grey hair was closely cropped and she wore layers of gold necklaces over a hand knit sweater.

“It’s okay,” Jane spoke quickly because this was her favourite part. “I’m going to lead you across.”

The old woman glared at her.

“Your family was just here, they said wonderful things about you,” Jane said.

Then the old woman’s face softened, and she nodded to Jane, gesturing for her to lead on.

Fido bounded up to them, his shaggy black fur bouncing with each step. “That’s Fido,” Jane said. “He can cross over anytime but he stays to help me.” Fido fell into step with them, his tail wagging.

A mist crept into the edges of the cemetery as they walked, and the old woman clutched one necklace with her hand. “This is a pretty shit job,” she said, looking over her shoulder. “Why’d you get stuck with it?”

Jane stopped her tracks. She looked up at the old woman, and Fido let out a soft whine.

Then Jane’s jaw trembled.“I wasn’t causing trouble, I promise…”

The words rushed out of Jane before she could stop them. “He put the fireflies in the jar and they couldn’t breathe. They were beating themselves against the glass, and I started crying and trying to get the jar because sometimes I couldn’t breathe either.”

The old woman put a hand on her shoulder, and Jane knew then that she was a grandmother. She took a deep shuddering breath and tried to continue.

“But then it happened to me, and my chest got tight and my eyes went black and I stopped chasing him but I fell into the grave for the dog…”

The grandmother handed her a tissue, and Jane wiped at her eyes. She looked around, and the mist crowding them had grown thick. “You have to go now, Grandma.” Jane pointed at the break in the mist, where a small open doorway was forming not an inch from where they stood.

“It wasn’t your fault, you weren’t causing trouble.” The Grandma pulled Jane in for a tight hug. “I lived seventy-two long years,” she spoke over Jane’s shoulder, eyeing the doorway. “And you look like you didn’t get more than ten.”

Then she shoved Jane through the doorway.

The door closed, the mist rolled away, and the old woman and Fido walked back to her grave. She looked at the temporary marker staked in her grave dirt, and her eyes were drawn to the dash between the dates. The part of the grave that represented not her birth or death, but her life.

The Twelve Town Trade | Selude

The snow brushed against Olene’s thighs while she climbed up the mountain. Her backpack hung heavy against her back, pushing her deeper into the snow. She looked down the mountain, spotting a small curl of gray smoke. She tilted her head and listened, hearing the faint braying of pack mules in the direction of the camp. Her mouth split into a wide grin.

 




Olene curled her toes in her moccasins, feeling for vibrations in the rock below.  There was a great, heavy rumble coming from within the mountain.

Bricklebrit the Terrible was fast asleep, enjoying his luxury nap. Rubies the size of fat turkeys and shimmering gold coins made his blanket, and a pair of enormous emeralds rested over the scales of his eyes. His belly rose and fell like an ocean wave, and small rocks shook loose from the ceiling with his snores.

Suddenly he woke, hearing the quiet shuffle of moccasined feet in his cave.

Bricklebrit cracked open an eye and let out a yawn. The cave erupted with the sound of tinkling gold coins and the two emeralds as they poured off his snout. He rolled onto all fours, examining the human who stood at the edge of his treasure hoard.

“Hello there,” he stretched out his neck and squinted. “Aren’t you a pretty little thing, with your red lips and red heart. Come closer, walk around the piles. Let me have a look at you.”

Olene walked forward, with a sword on her hip and a backpack full to bursting. She bowed deeply but said nothing.

“You are no Knight, and no thief would be so brazen. Tell me why you’ve come.”

Her shoulders straightened. “You are correct, Bricklebrit the Terrible. I am no thief, no Knight. I am the merchant Olene, and I have come to trade.”

His laugher started at the end of his neck and bubbled out, bursting from his maw and taking him by surprise as he guffawed.  

“Dragons do not trade, little girl. They take. I will rip open your backpack and look over my new treasures while I use your femur to pick my teeth.”

The girl leaned into his threat, and spoke in a quiet voice. “Do you know how many towns I passed to get here?”

“I do not.”

“I passed through twelve towns, great dragon.”

Bricklebrit’s eyes narrowed. “You test my patience with these useless statements. Accept your death.”

Still the merchant spoke, running her red lips. “And in each town I passed, I spoke of how I came to trade with you.”

The Dragon’s tail swished behind him, sending up a spray of rubies and gold coins. He growled. “I will eat you now, little trader.” He coiled his legs, preparing to leap.

Olene dropped to her knees and pulled out a blue checkered picnic blanket. She began laying items from her backpack on it. There was a gold necklace with threading as fine as a spider web, and a exquisite jewelry box made from pink frosted glass. Each item was delicate and beautiful, polished and crafted.

Bricklebrit felt his jaw ache with the drool that was pooling there, and the power vanished from his legs.

“I spoke to all who would listen about how I was going to trade with the great Bricklebrit. The other merchants laughed at me, but their eyes shone with greed.” Olene grinned at him. “They followed me. If I return alive with a good trade you will have a hundred merchants laden with goods at your cave.”

The dragon was speechless.  

She winked at him. “These merchants are far fatter than I, with caravans full of gold.”

Bricklebrit found himself then, and hissed. “You ask for trust, little girl. Something far rarer than rubies and gold.”

“You have much to gain, great Bricklebrit.”

 


 


The twin emeralds were as large as cookpots, displayed prominently but securely behind the jewelry section. Olene fussed over her lipstick in the reflection of the gems. She polished them each morning before opening her shop to the waiting crowd outside.

She unlocked the door and her first customer barged in. “It’s outrageous how late you open,” he huffed. “You’re the only shop around for twelve towns!”

“I know.” She smiled. “How can I help you today?”

Between Worlds | MightyMightyena

It was the strangest sensations, existing in two places at once.

On the one hand, I was still inside the laboratory with my fellow colleagues as they gathered data and monitored the experiment. On the other, I was standing in a sea of golden grass that swayed with a wind I could barely perceive. I could hear sounds and feel sensations from both places, but the sight of two worlds merged together as one was almost enough to overwhelm me.“Dana, can you hear me?” asked Doctor Bryce. He was standing close to me, his voice just distinguishable over the rustling of plant life and the chirping of birds.

I was not allowed to speak, as any sounds I made could be heard in both places. And the last thing we wanted was anyone or thing touching me from the other place. Instead, I gave him a thumbs up.

“Alright, you’re doing great. Temporal sync is holding at fifty-two to forty-eight with one percent discrepancy, the best result we’ve ever had. We’ll hold it at this level for one-eighty seconds and then slowly bring you back to one-hundred to zero.”

I gave him a second thumbs up, and he nodded.

As much as I wanted to explore the other world around me, I had to stay within the confines of the testing area. Not only would it be unpleasant to rephase inside a wall, but I ran the risk of being trapped in the other world, or in the strange state of liminal existence forever.

But that didn’t mean I couldn’t turn around.

I slowly twirled on the spot, seeing the rest of the grassy field around me whilst also seeing the sides of the powerful emitters that had pushed me in-between worlds. I could just about make out treelines and rising smoke in the distance, past the semi-transparent confines of the testing chamber and the particle accelerator.

I was shaken out of my thoughts by the faint, barely audible sound of clopping, Spinning wildly around, I saw a silver figure on horseback gallop out of the nearby treeline and across the field in front of me. It took a lot of effort not to gasp loudly.

Riding across the land within my sight was an actual knight and his horse! As I squinted and tried to focus on the sights of the other world, I could make out his polished armour, his impressive shield and the magnificent steed he was riding. It was incredible!

Then the knight saw me, and commanded his horse to halt. My smile wilted. I had been spotted.

I pressed the panic button on the pebble in my hand, staring wide eyed as the knight dismounted his steed and brandished his sword, moving towards me. I turned to my left, seeing the frantic and concerned faces of my colleagues as they hastily began to abort the experiment.

“What manner of sorcery is this?!” the knight shouted at me as he drew near, raising his sword and assuming a defensive stance.

“We’re bringing you back now Dana, fifty-eight to forty!” I began to press the panic button rapidly as the knight came within an arm’s reach. I could see the other world begin to fade as the world of 2024 became clearer.

The knight shouted something at me, but it was distorted by the almost deafening sounds of the emitters as they worked overtime to transition me back. Then the unthinkable happened: the knight reached out a hand and touched me.

Alarm bells began to ring in the lab as I felt him grasp my shoulder, and suddenly I was back in that liminal existence, between both worlds.

“Bring her back!” Doctor Bryce shouted from somewhere nearby as the lab began to fade away and the other world solidified.

“We can’t, not without severe temporal contamination!”

Doctor Bryce turned to look at me, and tried to say something. But the lab was almost out of focus now, and his words were lost to me. I knew what was going to happen, and I cried out to him, trying to reach a hand out. It was too late.

With a feeling of excruciating pain, they forced me out of 2024 and into the 12th century, in a vain attempt to protect the timeline.

I fell to the ground, with the knight staring down at me. The lab was gone, the other world was solid.

I was trapped in the past, forever.