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THE STORY STASH


"Choose the face you will wear for your haunting." 

The paladin's voice was wet, a burble up a mossy well. The chains around his wrists rattled as he gestured to the visages floating around them. Laugh lines competed with screams, judgmental stares dueled sullen reproach. They spun and turned on their own unseen clockwork. 

Marie studied them. "They're all boy faces." She hated boy faces. Except Richard's. His was kind, with canny eyes and a wry smile, as if always thinking of something funny. Her brother  would be a handsome man some day, if he didn't turn out drunk like Father; or develop Uncle's leer, the one that made her skin prickle.

"You choose the expression of torment. The features remain yours."

"So no mustaches?"

The paladin nodded. The celestial light engulfing them ended at the fringe of his beard, his features hidden in an abyssal darkness below the brim of his hat. His cloak and tunic appeared ancient. Leathery hands ended in fingers capped with nails like dagger points. Around his waist, his belt secured dozens of chains. More faces hung there, but these were inanimate. Among them hung a box resembling a miniature steamer trunk. Keys on chains around his wrists rattled with mystery.

"Why do I need a new face?"

"You must chose the tenor of your haunting. Will it be mischievous--objects moved from one place to another, soft sounds, harmless acts? Melancholy, a warning to those who see you? Fierce, things broken in rage?"

"What are these faces?" Marie reached towards one of the dormant expressions slung at his waist, one of abject misery. A demonic snarl dropped from the air around them, snapped at her fingertips. She jerked her hand away. 

"Reserved for the tormented. Not for you." The demon face ran a black tongue over razored teeth and rejoined the spectacle floating around them. "You choose from the flock."

She watched them turn. Even the happy ones weren't, their smiles forced curves. "How do I choose?"

"How do you feel?"

"About haunting?" She searched within and found she had no feeling about it, not even dread. It was nothing for which she'd planned. "I don't know. I suppose it depends on where will I haunt." 

"You haunt where you die!" No longer a well echo, the paladin's declaration rumbled around them, antagonized by a question seemingly beneath him.

Cowed, she returned to the orbiting faces for additional clues. Haunt where you die? She didn't recall dying. The reporter inquiries Mrs. Hensley taught them in English class were all question marks except 'Who?' When had she died? How? She was eleven. What had happened? 

"Do you know where that was?" Softly, afraid of invoking more thunder.

She felt his gaze from the blackness. He caressed her cheek, the sharp-nailed finger unexpectedly gentle. "Apologies, child. It's rare to not remember. Sometimes death wipes its own memory clear." His hand brushed through the keys hanging at his wrist, their collisions like wind chimes. The paladin selected one and pushed pin and bit into the lock of the trunk secured at his waist. He unlocked and opened the lid. Inside appeared empty, but the paladin withdrew from the nothingness a book bound in worn red leather, no larger than his hand. He dragged a nail along the page block, stopped, opened to the spot he'd chosen, and held the book out to Marie.

There were no words, only a moving image on the page. She watched through her own eyes the upstairs hallway of home, the light at the top of the stairs above the newell post, next to the bathroom door.

She passed the bathroom. There was a jolt. The world became blurs, bouncing, spinning. When it stopped, Marie stared up the stairs from the bottom, peering impossibly over her own shoulder, past the heels of her splayed feet to the top of the stairs. Richard looked down, his canny eyes now unkind, his wry smile a smirk because he knew he'd gotten away with shoving her from the top. Even as her own light flickered out, he'd begun to chuckle to himself--

"No!" Marie closed the book. But she knew it was true. Richard, too young to be a drunkard or corrupted by Uncle, had simply turned like old milk. Turned on her.

The paladin locked the book away. "Choose the face you will wear for your haunting." More invitation now than command. 

Marie considered the demonic countenance, its rage and power. Would it let her climb inside Richard's head? Whisper at him? She knew it had the power to push him into an asylum, father and uncle at either side of him. But what would that mean for her when others replaced them--people who'd done nothing to deserve a demonic spirit's wrath?

"Will Richard find himself in one of the masks for the Tormented when he dies?"

In the abyss where the paladin's expression should have been, near the borders of his beard, Marie saw the faintest hint of toothsome smile. "If you choose well."

She considered them all, forging Richard's chains in her heart. She chose. The paladin plucked the face from the air with his long fingers and affixed it to her. As promised, it was no longer a boy's face when he did. It was stronger. She saw herself in the expression, as everyone at home would when she revealed herself: sad doe eyes forced wide in accusation, cheeks sunken in perpetual suffering. It was the face of a girl aware she'd been murdered and by whom; a face to remind her killer past the point of madness of what he'd done.

She practiced smiling devilishly with it the entire way home.


—o—


ABOUT “A BOY’S FACE”


A couple of years ago, a horror fiction magazine of no small notice announced a competition for a piece of flash fiction written around a planned cover illustration. I was struck by the image, wrote the story above, polished it, and went to submit the following day, only to discover said contest had been cancelled. I don’t know why, and I didn’t dig - gone is gone - but I got a new story from the visual prompt, so pretend I said something profound about that being the prize instead of the cash that had been offered, or some such.


The Story Stash is a place where I’ll drop work from time to time - pieces from the trunk, 

reprints, even new fiction that hasn’t ever found a home. Stories will be here for 

a random time (at least a week, probably longer) before they get replaced 

by the next in line. Typically accompanied by some insightful story notes. 

(Insightfulness not guaranteed.)