07:55:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 819 words  
Categories: Announcements, Old Ventures: Refuge

ANNOUNCEMENT: NaNoWriMo 2018, Old Venture: Refuge

I'm sorry. I know, no man is an island, but I've had trouble even being one drop of rain in a river. It's difficult, these days, not to feel like the very foundations of sanity are shaking loose. And I have struggled under my burdens, as I know many of you do. I only yesterday finished last year's NaNo (which I'll be uploading soon to the blog) and I'm going to try and publish one chapter a day this NaNo. It's going to be a rough election cycle this year, and I'm hoping we can get through it together. But if you retain none of the words before or after this, remember these: you are not alone. Amidst all the chaos, and pain, and dehumanizing horror, you are known, you are cared about, you are loved. And so long as we continue to have each other, and to hold one another in our hearts, we have hope. Below is an excerpt, a preview of a chapter I realized was important enough to write and publish out of order, where it might still have some impact. As always, check back daily for updates, on this as well as on older projects that I got behind in posting publicly. And in the meantime, may you and yours stay safe and close in these trying times.

* * *

Jack stepped out onto the stage, and for a moment was blinded by the house lights, and then the chorus of flashbulbs from the media. "I'm happier than I can say to welcome a true American hero onto this stage," the man said, flashing a wide smile.

Jack shook his hand stiffly, then waited for him to clear the stage before speaking. "I'm not comfortable being here," Jack said, "and I'm sure that shows."

The audience chuckled nervously. "That's okay. You're laughing with me," he paused, "I think."

"But I've never been comfortable using my... celebrity, I guess, like this. I've marched, with John Lewis, Martin Luther King, for many varied human rights on many different occasions. You could say I've never been apolitical... but I've always attempted to keep who I am as a man separate from who I was as a symbol. I never wanted to trade on the good I've done, and even today, that's not my goal.

"But I can no longer abide my prior silence. This is not the usual push and pull of politics. This is the rise of something far more sinister, an enemy we fought a world war against, an enemy I hoped we vanquished for good. Maybe that was naïve of me. Maybe my generation failed to keep the flames of vigilance lit.

"I didn't decide to speak until last week. I waited, hoping that sanity would return, that someone, anyone, would be able to show the Republican candidate that he's not just trying to be the leader of conservative America, or scared America, that he'll need to lead all of us. He'll need to represent the will of all of us. He'll need to represent the hopes, as well as the fears, of all of us. And their convention convinced me that realization will forever evade him. At his core, he is a divisive and spiteful man. He doesn't like the idea of an America united, unless he can force us to unite behind him, not as a good and changed man, but as he is, angry, scared and lashing out.

"And with each passing day, the parallels with the fascist rise- a rise that cost our world millions of lives- become stronger, and harder to ignore. Every day, more language about how everyone but America is the problem is used, while more narrowly defining what counts as America. I have seen this ugliness before, I have seen what it does to good men and women caught up in its throes, and I have seen what they in turn do to those they deem unworthy of sharing soil with. I wish I could be here for any other reason, truly. But we do not get to choose our burdens, only how we rise to meet them.

"So please, vote. Not just for Democrats, but for democracy itself, for a return to normalcy, to respecting our differences, and the rights of others. For returning this country to an ideal for the rest of the world to envy. For a world where our most vulnerable are cared for, protected, and safe. For America as we want her to be, and need her to be, not what she was. Because viewing who she was through rose-tinted glasses can't erase those who were left behind or excluded in that past, and we know better, now, and we have to do better. The only hope I have to leave you with is this: we can do better. I've seen it. And I pray I'll live to see it again. Thank you."

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  03:31:00 am, by Nic Wilson   , 803 words  
Categories: Old Ventures: Refuge

OLD VENTURES: REFUGE, Seven, Philadelphia, 7/28/16

"I hate this," Jack said sullenly, as Rose straightened his necktie.
"Think the last time you wore a tie might have been our wedding,"she said, blushing.
"Okay, gross," Joey said, "because I'm pretty sure she was thinking it was your wedding night."He turned so his back was towards her. "I never pegged you as afraid of a little public speaking,"he teased.
"It's not that," Jack muttered.
"It's a little that, too, hon," Rose said, pecking him on the cheek. "Or your stomach wouldn't be complaining quite so loudly."
"It's politics," Jack said. "I've been used by politics most of my adult life, but I-"he furrowed his brows, and couldn't force the rest of the thought out.
"That's what gives this weight,"Joey said, his expression turning serious. "You aren't some failed soldier trying to turn their retirement into a career. You're here because this circumstance is different, more important than any before. I respect that, and I think the American people will, too. Now get out there, before your introduction drags any more than it already has."
Jack stepped out onto the stage, and for a moment was blinded by the house lights, and then the chorus of flashbulbs from the waiting cameras. "I'm happier than I can say to welcome a true American hero onto this stage,"the man said, flashing a wide smile.
Jack shook his hand stiffly, then waited for him to clear the stage before speaking. "I'm not comfortable being here," Jack said, "and I'm sure that shows."
The audience chuckled nervously. "That's okay. You're laughing with me,"he paused, "I think."
"But I've never been comfortable using my... celebrity, I guess, like this. I've marched, with John Lewis, Martin Luther King, for many varied human rights on many different occasions. You could say I've never been apolitical... but I've always attempted to keep who I am as a man separate from who I was as a symbol. I never wanted to trade on the good I've done, and even today, that's not my goal.
"But I can no longer abide my prior silence. This is not the usual push and pull of politics. This is the rise of something far more sinister, an enemy we fought a world war against, an enemy I hoped we vanquished for good. Maybe that was naïve of me. Maybe my generation failed to keep the flames of vigilance lit.
"I didn't decide to speak until last week. I waited, hoping that sanity would return, that someone, anyone, would be able to show the Republican candidate that he's not just trying to be the leader of conservative America, or scared America, that he'll need to lead all of us. He'll need to represent the will of all of us. He'll need to represent the hopes, as well as the fears, of all of us. And their convention convinced me that realization will forever evade him. At his core, he is a divisive and spiteful man. He doesn't like the idea of an America united, unless he can force us to unite behind him, not as a good and changed man, but as he is, angry, scared and lashing out.
"And with each passing day, the parallels with the fascist rise- a rise that cost our world millions of lives- become stronger, and harder to ignore. Every day, more language about how everyone but America is the problem is used, while more narrowly defining what counts as America. I have seen this ugliness before, I have seen what it does to good men and women caught up in its throes, and I have seen what they in turn do to those they deem unworthy of sharing soil with. I wish I could be here for any other reason, truly. But we do not get to choose our burdens, only how we rise to meet them.
"So please, vote. Not just for Democrats, but for democracy itself, for a return to normalcy, to respecting our differences, and the rights of others. For returning this country to an ideal for the rest of the world to envy. For a world where our most vulnerable are cared for, protected, and safe. For America as we want her to be, and need her to be, not what she was. Because viewing who she was through rose-tinted glasses can't erase those who were left behind or excluded in that past, and we know better, now, and we have to do better. The only hope I have to leave you with is this: we can do better. I've seen it. And I pray I'll live to see it again. Thank you."
Jack was numb, and barely heard the roaring crowd, or their applause. He put up his hand, to wave as he left, but couldn't help to feel that it was too late.


  04:57:00 am, by Nic Wilson   , 1057 words  
Categories: Announcements, Old Ventures: Refuge

OLD VENTURES 2: REFUGE, Six, Joe, Canton, Ohio

"I can't," Jack said. "Believe me, I've tried. But every time I thought of coming here, I... I couldn't. Because I'd think about every time I wasn't there, every time you needed me that..."
"Jack," Joey said. "You're here now. I don't blame you, not for any part of it, not getting molested, not getting kicked out of the Army, not for getting sick. I lived my life as I chose to. Sure, there might have been times when I could have used your help, or different help than what you tried to give. But you're a person, just like me, bouncing around and off of a tumult of events neither of us could hope to control. All we can do is cope. Sometimes, that means taking you as you are at that time, accepting you for how you can support me, not the ways you couldn't."
"I know," Jack said, his voice frail. "And maybe if I'd only failed you..."
"What, mom? Or is this about the election? Because I got strong words for you if it's that. You didn't fail America, dad. America failed you. And not even the people, really. They rejected fascism. But a party hell-bent on control and not too fond of actual democracy enabled fascists to seize power, anyway. I mean, I take your point, in that way too many people gave a thumbs up to fascism, way too many eagerly greeted all of the nastiness. But you? This isn't on you. Great a man as you can be, you can't save people from themselves.
"But let me remind you how fucking good of a man you can be. Do you remember what you told me, when you saved me in Germany?" A wistful, almost impish smile crossed Jack's lips, before fading just as quickly. "I know, that doesn't narrow it down, smart ass, because you saved me at least a dozen times in Germany. But you know the time I mean.
"I was a dumb kid, and ran off to help you fight Nazis, not realizing... I actually believed your kid sidekick could actually fight Nazis." He laughed, and there was bitterness in it, but also real amusement. "And when one caught me... that rat bastard raped me. And that might have been my whole fate, just being abused, humiliated and tortured by the Nazis. But you stormed that camp, alone and broke me out. But I was still a kid, what was I? Twelve?"
"You just turned thirteen," Jack said.
"Right. But I was still waiting for my growth spurt. Anyway, it was all basically cops and robbers to me, to that point. I didn't, I mean, I couldn't fathom that kind of evil, the kind of monsters who would do that to a child, and then laugh about it. Something inside me had broken, and I was catatonic. Even after you rescued me... I felt like we'd never get way, that the Nazis would capture us both and then they'd do to both of us what they did to me and... that would have been worse. And I couldn't move on my own, but there you were, risking life and limb, getting me food, medicine, a blanket. I couldn't understand it, other than that it made me feel even worse for being unable to help myself.
"You told me that 'Defying tyranny isn't about punching Nazis. It's about vigilance. It's easy, to lace up your boots on the days when your buddies are all alive, when your people aren't being rounded up. But those days when you've taken that punch, not the one that simply makes your head spin, but that makes your whole world feel like it's teetering off its axis, when you're bleeding and broken, those are the days when you need to get those boots on tight, figure out what the good fight is, and fight it. Sometimes you're tired. Sometimes you're hurt. Sometimes you're so scared you can't think straight. And there are days when the weight of even one more step feels like it could shatter you. So you take two. Because evil doesn't take a day off. And neither can you.'"
"I said that?" Jack asked.
"Was I always full of so much hot air?"
"Since before I met you, yeah," Joe said with a laugh.
"How-" The thought caught in his throat, "how'm I going to do this without you?"
"You'll have to take three steps, instead, for the one I won't be there to take."
"And when I can't go on?"
"That's why you've got me, handsome," Rose said, opening the door. "To pick up the slack. Though God knows you haven't left me much over the years to pick up."
"No man can do it all alone," Joe started again. "And it's a fool who thinks otherwise."
"And we've always loved you, foolish though you can often be," Rose teased him. "But it wouldn't matter. Even if this were the 40s, and you were indefatigable, even in the face of nearly a century's worth of horror. This is different. You're up against an idea; a man- there's no man alive and likely none who ever did you couldn't take. But an idea... tearing down an idea is the work of years. Maybe generations. Maybe we're still fighting the ideas behind Nazism today- maybe this really is the same fight you've been engaged in since you were a kid."
"What can I do?"
"You can't, Jack. We've been telling you that your whole damned life. But we can. All of us. Together. We can turn back this tide like you helped turn back the Nazis. Like you helped fight off the Reds. You were big in those fights, disproportionately so. But you weren't alone then, either. And you aren't alone now. We can get through this. We won't all live to see it through to the end. And for those of us who fall, you'll pick up the standard and keep moving. Because I know you. And on days when I'm weak, honey," Rose paused, softly touching his shoulder, "I know you'll be there for me. So let us be here for you. So we can all be there for the people who need us now. And there's going to be a lot of people who need us, now."


  04:39:00 am, by Nic Wilson   , 357 words  
Categories: Announcements

Old Ventures 2: Refuge Epilogue

This may or may not make it into the ending, but America... you deserve something nice today. You made a very old-feeling man have hope, if only a little.
* * *
"Honey," Rose said, tracing her hand along the back of his lounger, before tussling his hair, "you can come to bed. The country will still be here in the morning."
Jack hit refresh on his phone again, while turning up the volume on the news on his TV. "I'm not so sure," he said, his voice trembling. His eyes were painfully red, his back hunched.
Rose knelt beside his chair, and kissed his hand. "The speed they tally results isn't impacted by the number of devices you're checking them on," she said, taking hold of his remote hand, and preventing him from picking up his tablet with it. "Drump lost the House. Even if they keep the Senate, that provides a check on his fascism spreading, a bulwark against his hate and aggression. And what about this?"
She took his phone and scrolled through several screens. "Michigan voted to expand voting rights," she added. "Florida voted to return the franchise to former felons. I know a not-mixed result would have been cleaner, and anything other than a full repudiation of this administration and its cruelty and bigotry is a lingering stain on our country... but the one place Americans have surprised me, they're overwhelmingly for voting rights. Despite the shenanigans of elected Republicans, the rank and file don't believe it's worth destroying this country, so long as they get to rule over its ashes. And that's something special."
"You're right," Jack said, and picked up his remote control and turned off the TV, "that is something. And the country will still be here come the morning. And there's more fighting to do. This is a war of inches, and tonight, we nearly took a foot. Tomorrow the real work begins. But tonight," he leaned over and kissed her lips, "tonight the country didn't end. It's important to take some time, and appreciate that, and the effort it took to get here. I'm fucking proud of us all."

  04:29:00 am, by Nic Wilson   , 2593 words  
Categories: Old Ventures: Refuge

OLD VENTURES: REFUGE, Five: North of Paris, 4/10/45

"How's your German?" Fleming asked in German, as they walked towards the security gate.
"I get by," Jack replied in kind. He retrieved the counterfeit papers Fleming provided from his pocket, and handed it to the guard who approached him. 
"What is your business?" the guard asked.
"Do you need me to read the instructions to you?" Jack asked, pushing his chest into the guard. 
The guard sighed, and stared at the typed note. "Prisoner? For interrogation?"
"Will we have a problem? Because I can speak with your Leutnant. He sounds like the kind of man who appreciates his subordinates wasting his time on nonsense." 
The guard handed the papers back. "I must have him processed. Then you can interrogate him."
"Nein. I do not have time for processing. The Resistance will notice soon that he is missing. If we do not find them and arrest them, these rats will scurry back into the shadows. You may send your Leutnant to me, if you believe he will need to hear it from directly."
"No," he said. He waved for an NCO to come to him. "Take this man to the interrogation cell. Give him whatever he needs." 
Jack and Fleming followed him through the gate, past a flagpole in the central courtyard flying the Nazi flag, and towards the nearest building. He led them down several hallways, and finally unlocked a room. The table was covered in dust. "Will you need anything else?" he asked. 
"Assistance with the interrogation," he replied, "if you wouldn't mind."
"No, sir," the NCO said. "I am eager to assist a-" Jack seized him by the collar and pushed him against the wall, holding him there with his forearm across the NCO's throat. He kicked and flailed, before going limp. Fleming took the Mauser out of the NCO's holster as Jack let him slide to the floor. 
"That's the first part out of the way," Fleming said, and slipped a ring of keys off the guard's belt. Jack dragged him across the floor, to the table, and used the guard's own shackles to secure him against it. "If our intelligence is correct, then the barracks opposite this one is where most of the prisoners are housed. I'm likely to be a liability, out in the open; aren't many dark-skinned Nazis roaming about. So I'd propose I stay here, and rouse some trouble. I've had more than my share of experience working as a saboteur. Unless you think you'll need me to take the barracks..." 
"No," Jack said. "But you should bide your time." Jack checked his watch. "Start your distraction at 2:37. I'll be ready for it, then."
"And how distracting would you prefer for me to be?" 
"The flagpole is in the middle of the damned courtyard. I'm going to need the biggest distraction you can think of." 
Fleming smiled to himself. "I'll see what I can accomplish." 
Jack locked the door to the interrogation room, then grabbed Fleming by the arm. "I'll escort you through the building, so you can get the lay of it, first. Probably best if I don't stroll right across the courtyard without you, after making so much noise about needing to debrief you myself."
"I'm not going to turn down the cover," Fleming said. "Though I'm keeping the sidearm."
"Fair enough. Just keep it out of sight, or it'll blow our cover no matter how roughly I treat you." Fleming stashed it inside his jacket. 
They walked together past a stairwell, then some administrative offices, and an officers' lounge. "This is where we part ways," Fleming said. 
"Godspeed," Jack said, and let go of his arm. "It's been a pleasure."
"Maybe that would sound more convincing if you hadn't said it in German," Fleming said, smiled, and walked back the way they came. 
Jack looked through the windowed door, to be sure the lounge was clear, then walked past it to a door into the courtyard. The barracks formed an L shape, surrounding the administrative buildings on two sides. That put Jack close to the main rear entrance to those barracks. The door was locked, but the lock was distinctive enough it only took Jack two keys to find its mate on the guard's ring. He locked the door behind himself, and nearly knocked over an old man inside. 
"They don't usually come in through the rear," he said in French, eyeing Jack suspiciously. 
"Pardon my French, but I'm not one of them. I'm no Nazi."
"Then you have a very strange fashion sense, my friend," he replied. 
"I'm here, with the Resistance. We plan to take the camp."
"There are only a few hundred here," the old man snapped. "Most have already gone, by train, from here."
"That's the next step," Jack said. "But to get there, we need to take this camp quietly. That means, most importantly, preventing reinforcements and keeping prisoners safe. Do you know where their radio room is?"
"Across the way," an older woman said in somewhat broken English. "I heard distorted screaming, orders, in German." 
Jack wondered if Fleming knew already, if that was where he headed when they parted. Either way, he wasn't going to be able to safeguard the prisoners, and raise the flag, and blockade the radio room. He was going to have to trust that Fleming would find the radio room and deal with it. "What about guards?" Jack asked. 
"Most rooms have one armed guard," the old man started again. "There is one rover, who-" They all froze, at the sound of keys in the interior door. "Hide," he told Jack, and dove into his bunk. 
"Nobody scream," Jack said as he ran at top speed towards the door, at the last second flattening himself quietly against the wall as the door creaked open. 
"How are you, mein little sheep?" the roving guard asked, jangling his keys as he closed the door. "Docile and fluffy?" he said, the hint of a laugh in his voice. Jack wrapped his big arms around the guard's head, with one hand covering his mouth and nose, with the other gaining enough purchase on the back of his head. At the last moment, the guard realized what was about to happen, and he screamed through his eyes and mouth, but the latter couldn't break through Jack's grip. He twisted, fast and hard, so when the guard fell onto his chest he was still looking up at the ceiling. 
One of the women gasped, loud enough that it set off noise in the next room. 
That room's guard came to the door and yelled, "What's the noise for?"
"Nothing," Jack called back. "Stubbed my schnitzel." 
"You know I can't ignore that much noise," the other guard said, then, "Why is this door unlocked?"
Jack hit him with a bladed hand in the throat, then covered the guard's hand at his holster with his own. Gasping for air, the guard attempted to stumble backward, but Jack used his holster to pull the man towards him. When he stumbled forward, Jack rammed his bicep into the man's throat. He fell to the ground, gasped, his breaths wet and broken. 
"What is wrong with him?" a small boy asked.
"Crushed throat," Jack said.
"May I attend him?" the older woman from before asked. 
"If you like. He'll die without it. But take his weapons, first, and someone watches him."
The old man who first spoke to Jack extended a shaking hand. "I'm Schlomo, and I'm sorry I did not believe you before. The Nazis play games with us sometimes, pretend to let us escape. And when we get into the courtyard, they beat us, they shoot us. To them it is a sport."
"They keep score," a younger woman added. 
"Everyone stay here," Jack said. "Barricade the back door, be prepared to fight at this one. Anybody comes through other than me, you attack them, en masse. Fists and knives, if you can accomplish it. Guns only as a last resort."
Jack worked his way through the rest of the rooms, fifteen in total, in each dispatching the guards quietly, then giving their weapons to the prisoners. When he was done, he checked his watch. He had seven minutes before Fleming's distraction. 
The front entrance into the barracks faced the courtyard, the guard at the gate and the guard tower in the corner. It was too exposed as an exit, so he instructed the prisoners to pile up their bunks in front of the door, then started back towards the rear. The armed prisoners he divided in half, half he sent to the front, half to the back. The rest he told to move their bunks to block the windows, and be prepared for Nazis to try to break in that way. 
At the back, he disassembled their barrier, then gave Schlomo his gun. "I have to raise this," he said, removing his American flag from his bag. "That's how reinforcements will know they can take the camp. This will likely make them realize that the prisoners are free. You have to hold them off until the American troops can arrive."
"Raise a flag?" Schlomo asked. "I'm more use out there, with the flag, than in here with a gun. Somebody help me get into one of those uniforms," he said.
Jack nervously eyed his watch. Any second now, Fleming's diversion was going to hit. Only nothing happened.
Had Fleming been caught? That didn't seem likely, because if he had, they would have scoured the rest of the base for him. But if he was stuck someplace, waiting for a patrol to pass, that could account for the timing. 
"I look like a kilo of potatoes in a 2 kilo sack," Schlomo said, sauntering up wearing a Nazi uniform several sizes too big, holding it up at the crotch so it didn't drag on the ground. 
"You're sure about this?" Jack. 
"You give me cover from that cannon, and I'll get the flag up," he said. 
"Fire!" they heard the Nazis scream from the courtyard. "The administrative buildings are on fire!"
"That's our distraction," Jack said, and opened the door. He turned as he shut it. "Barricade this behind us." 
"It's a beautiful day for a walk," Schlomo said.
Jack had noticed the two guard towers on his way in. They were each near the corners of the front gate, spread enough apart to make it all but impossible to approach both stealthily. "Wait until I've taken the first tower to lower the flag," Jack said. "That you can probably get away with. But once you pull out the Stars and Stripes, the game'll be up. That you'll need to do fast, and dirty."
"My specialty," Schlomo said with a mischievous grin. "Just as my wife." His smile suddenly faded. 
"You'll see her again," Jack said, and slapped him on the back, before walking away from him. Jack worked his way to the ladder leading up to the guard tower. Most of the Nazis were consumed with the burning buildings, to the point where no one noticed Jack until he reached the top of the ladder.
"Who are you?" the first guard asked. 
"Out of breath," Jack said, elongating the words as he wheezed, punctuating it with a cough. "I was in the building when it caught. The Leutnant ordered you two to help with the fire, while I recover here." 
"No," the second said, looking up from his rifle scope. "You are that intelligence officer. You shouldn't be-"
Jack grabbed the first guard by the shoulder and threw him off the tower. He screamed as he fell, before abruptly stopping when he hit the ground. The remaining guard tried to bring around his rifle, but Jack was too fast, and smashing him in the nose with his pistol. Jack pulled off his helmet, and hit him several more times with the pistol's grip, before the man slumped against the guard tower wall. 
The guard at the gate was screaming, roused by the falling guard. Jack thought he could make out them calling for a medic. Jack watched him stride off through the rifle's scope, past Schlomo. Schlomo panicked, and started pulling down the Nazi flag. That got the gate guard's attention anew, and he reached for his pistol. Jack exhaled, curled his finger around the rifle's trigger, and squeezed. 
The guard's shoulder exploded in a mist of blood, and Schlomo covered the flag with his body. Jack trained the rifle on the opposite guard tower, but there were no openings facing him. They had been deliberately designed to protect even from each other. Jack slung the rifle from its shoulder strap, and slid down the ladder. With each step he cursed himself a little more for not realizing how exposed Schlomo was. Finally, about a third of the way towards the flagpole, Jack got an angle into the further tower, and dropped to one knee. 
The guard was prone, rifle trained. It was a race, and the guard had a head start. Jack forced the rifle steady, settled the crosshairs over him-
The guard fired first, and Jack squeezed his trigger. 
An instant later he was running towards Schlomo, teetering, blood flowing from a wound in his chest onto the flag in his hand. 
Gunfire stopped Jack in his tracks. The second guard in the tower was firing at him. Jack raised his rifle, sighted him in, and fired. The guard toppled out of the tower silently, before smashing on the cobbles below like a dropped pumpkin. 
Jack glanced around, to be sure there were no more gunners head towards them, then started back towards Schlomo. He had the flag attached to the rope, and was pulling it up. His hands were slicked with blood, and he was waving in the wind nearly as much as the flag. 
Jack put his hands over Schlomo's, and they continued to raise it together. When the flag reached the top of the pole, Jack tied it off. 
Schlomo collapsed, onto the ground. Jack tore the Nazi flag into strips, and used them for a makeshift bandage. "How bad?" Schlomo asked. 
"If you were a younger man, and I were a skilled surgeon, and you were already on my operating table..."
"That good?"
"I'm sorry."
"Feh. I get to see my wife again, like you said. She died here, standing up to those bullies. I couldn't save her... but at least I finally get to make her proud."
"Is there, anything you want me to do?" Jack asked. 
"Punch Hitler's goddamned head off," he said, "and tell him it was from Esther." Jack heard the sound of armor moving down the road, and had been at this long enough to know it was Allied armor, not Nazis. 
The speakers at the camp whined, before a voice came over them. "This is Resistance radio," Ian said. "If you're a Nazi, know that your defenses are compromised, American armor is knocking on your front door, and your only shot at surviving the day is to surrender yourselves to that strapping chap in your courtyard. And do be polite about it, because he may well be looking for any excuse to tear your limbs off. This is Resistance radio, signing off. And Jack, I'm afraid our schedule is more rigorous than originally assumed. A train departed here not an hour before our arrival. If my figures are correct, you may be able to catch them by plane, depending on your skill at hitting something with a parachute." 


  09:16:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 710 words  
Categories: Old Ventures: Refuge

OLD VENTURES: REFUGE, Four: Jack, Canton, Ohio, Present

Jack was driving too fast, too recklessly. He could feel the wind in his hair, which meant he hadn't grabbed his helmet, either, but he couldn't force himself to care. His son was dying, but not today, not if he could help it. He weaved between two cars, coming so close to smacking into the nose of one then rebounding into the tail of the other he held his breath. When he exhaled, he could feel his breath's heat, his anger warming it like a dragon's fire.
Joey had been on government benefits basically his whole life. He earned those benefits, from a lifetime of service- something the government hadn't always agreed on. They tried to take them away when he was drummed out of the army for being gay, tried to take them again when his utility as a spy went when they decided who he was was more of a liability than the skills he had honed under Jack over damn near twenty years.
Jack went to bat for his son to get those benefits restored; it was the absolute least Uncle Sam could do for a boy who had been serving his country longer than most men who retired with full Army benefits and pay. But there was a new Commander in Chief, a petty man who always remembered every sleight. Jack's anger was the one at the wheel, and even he was surprised when he arrived at the hospital in one piece.
Joey had been in the long-term care wing for months, so Jack knew the way. He was lucky, to catch up with another family visiting, so he didn't have to wait to be buzzed in. Hot as he was, he may well have just broken the door from its hinges.
He didn't smile at the doctors or nurses on his way, tried not to even recognize they were there, because he was angry, at them, at the entire system. He was looking for an excuse, and he knew it. He heard one through his the cracked door to his son's room. "...we can do, but we'll get someone up here with a wheelchair, to take you out to the pick-up area. Unfortunately, I'm going to need to start unhooking you from the monitors, and since we can leave you on your meds without them, I'll have to disconnect those, as well."
Jack slammed the door inward, "You're not going to do a goddamned thing," he bellowed, before realizing it that he was reeling back to throw a punch at the doctor.
Joey was there in an instant, catching Jack's fist in his palm. "Can, we, uh, have a few minutes."
The doctor, visibly shaken, looked at his watch. "It's probably my lunchtime," he said. "This'll keep, until then," he said.
"Thanks," Joe said, as the doctor left the room. The moment he was clear, Joey stopped forcing himself to stand up straight, and his spine curved, his face contorting in pain. "You know you'd have taken his damn head off," he said, as Jack helped him hobble back to bed. "He was just doing what he was told."
"Following orders has never held much water for an excuse with me," Jack replied.
"Dad," Joe said, "there is a whole world of difference between a doctor caught in a bureaucratic bind and a Nazi. You know that."
Jack sighed, and his voice broke as he let all of the air from his chest, deflating like a balloon as he collapsed into his chair. "Yeah," he said, the word coming out almost a sob.
"Hey," Joe said. "It's going to be okay. Doctor's say my numbers have actually improved, even."
"You, you shouldn't have to cheer me up."
"Why not? I'm just happy you're here. So happy," he said, tears welling up in his eyes. "Just because I'm sick, doesn't mean the world suddenly has to revolve around me," he said, wiping a tear from his cheek. "We're all grieving. You're losing a son, and... I'm losing you, too." Joey took up his hand, and squeezed it.
"I'm sorry," Jack said, "that I haven't been here more."
"Shush," Joe said. "You're here now. Let's not waste the time we've got worrying about the times we didn't."

  09:10:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 585 words  
Categories: Old Ventures: Refuge

OLD VENTURES: REFUGE, Three, Outside Paris, France, 4/10/45

Jack was tense. His contact in the resistance was late, and he'd never known her to be anything but punctual. From the roof he could see past the outskirts of the Parisian suburb into the forests beyond.
"Sorry, chap," a man's deep voice said from behind him, closing the only door up onto the roof quietly behind himself. By his accent he was British. "Unforeseen setbecks."
"Where's Marion?" Jack asked, turning to see a well-dressed black man. He had a pistol, inside his jacket, where his hand was, but was trying not to be conspicuous about it.
"We were detained at a Nazi checkpoint. Ian and I managed to sneak away from the car, but... she'll be late, and we're on a tight schedule." For the first time, Jack noticed a small boy hiding behind the other man. "Captain Simon, Fleming," he said, and held out his hand. "And this is our son, Ian."
"Didn't realize Marion had one."
"Yes, knowing her these four years, I can agree that's a shock. But, war makes for strange bedfellows, resistance fighting still moreso."
"He's got her eyes," Jack said. "But I don't think this raid is any place for a child."
Fleming smiled. "He's been with resistance from the day he was born, while a Nazi search party ransacked the building looking for us. Silent as a church mouse, even from a babe; he would have killed us several times over, otherwise."
"He's shy," Jack said, as the boy clung to his father's pant leg.
"He's not certain he likes Americans. You did, after all, take your sweet time riding to the rescue. He has... reservations about trusting you now."
"Smart kid," Jack said. "I can't speak for my country," he said, and knelt down in front of Ian, "but I'm here now, and I'm not leaving until we set things right. My friends call me Jack," he said, and held out his hand.
The boy took it, and his hand disappeared when Jack closed his hand to shake.
"Now what can you tell me?" Jack asked, rising to his feet.
"The camp is to the north of here. Originally, the plan was for Marion to be your prisoner, but desperate times, and all that. So Ian's going to wait here, this rooftop, for her, and you're going to take me. Resistance member, suspected Jewish heritage, that ought to be enough. We have a nearly pristine Nazi uniform for you, and your cover is Nazi intelligence, if you'll indulge me the oxymoron, with orders to interrogate me within the prison's walls."
"That'll work?" Jack asked.
"I have no reason to believe it won't," Fleming said with a grin. "Everything prepared on your end?"
"The Colonel's sending men. How many make it through is an open question, but the plan is for us to secure the prisoners as best we can, to keep them safe while American troops liberate the camp." Jack took his pack off his back and unzipped it. "The signal is the flag- we take down the German colors and raise Old Glory." Jack pulled an American flag from the pack, folded into a triangle. "That'll tell our back-up that they're clear to take the camp. And your intel is solid?"
"Well, you must always consider the source, but insofar as you can trust the word of a Nazi, this concentration camp functions largely as a transit station, for moving prisoners deeper into Nazi territory. If the rumors are true, you'll find your answers there."

  08:42:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 649 words  
Categories: Old Ventures: Refuge

OLD VENTURES: REFUGE, Two, Jack, Canton, Ohio, Present

Jack's entire body felt heavy, and heavier every day. It wasn't the weight gain, though he hadn't been able to make himself go to the gym or even run laps around the property. It was the force of a world he wasn't sure he was a part of anymore, slowly grinding him into a boneless paste. Joey had barely left the hospital since they got back from Israel, but Jack could hardly summon the energy to even be sad. He had fought fascists before, even lost to them, on occasion, but it was the first time when he felt alone with that loss, alone with his grief, with his pain.
He was thankful Rose wasn't home. It was worse, when she was here, because then he had to hide it. It wasn't right, to pawn his suffering off on her- a suffering, he knew, she couldn't help him out from under, a burden she couldn't help shoulder. It would just make her miserable, too, and she was already dealing with losing Joey.
Joey and Jack didn't always see eye to eye. There were times Jack couldn't help but feel his son was embarrassing him, not with who he was, but the way he lived his life. Jack knew, now, that he was wrong, that Joey's wild years had all been a pursuit of something stolen from him in his youth, or perhaps even trying to fill a hole he was born with. But he loved his son, and if he was honest with himself, which, he wasn't, always, watching him waste away was weighing on him, too.
He couldn't burden, Joey, either. The boy had been through enough; he'd seen enough before the end of WWII for a lifetime.
The sounds of the news only occasionally broke into Jack's reverie; he kept the sound low, absorbing the carousel of horrorshow images mostly through osmosis. He was an old, old man, and sometimes... sometimes he wondered if he was just waiting to die, waiting for this world or God or at least his old bones to finally release him. But the experiment that gave him his strength, his durability, and yes, his longevity, he wasn't sure if it ever would.
Through exposure to him, his wife and Joey had both lived longer, healthier lives than most could hope for; Joey's HIV lingered decades longer than his counterparts, before finally overtaking his immune system- long enough that anti-retrovirals gave him still more time. Just, not much more.
Jack sighed. He wanted to cry. If he were crying, grieving, anything better than just sitting in his recliner, waiting either for the world to end or for him to, would have felt like something. Like he was doing something with his life.
His phone rang, and his heart skipped a beat. Maybe this was something he could do, some problem he could solve, or even some sick kid he could hug and tell her he hoped she got better. He unlocked it, and saw it was his wife, and tried not to be disappointed. "Jack," she said, her voice fluttery, "they're taking Joe off the machines."
"God," Jack said. He wasn't ready for this. No parent should have to bury their children, but... Joey still should have had so much more time. "I'll be right there," he said, uncertain he could move himself from his chair with anything approaching the urgency in his voice.
"No, Jack, he isn't dying. They say his insurance has been cancelled. They're forcing us to leave the hospital."
Jack's phone splintered into dozens of tiny shards, as his grip tightened into a fist. He didn't remember even standing, but he was already moving towards the door. Finally, he had a mission, a distraction, a wrong to right, a place to put his anger, his frustration and his woe- and God help the bastards who got in his way.

  08:32:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 804 words  
Categories: Old Ventures: Refuge

OLD VENTURES: REFUGE, One, Rowher, Arkansas, 9/28/42

Jack was full of nervous energy. His boot camp had lasted only a week. His instructors had to take him in shifts, because even shouting commands from the back of a Jeep they couldn't keep up with him for long. But he knew he wasn't a soldier. The discipline, the camaraderie, all of the things that the U.S. Army did to break a man down and remake him as a G.I. Joe they skirted. He was a show soldier, only, good enough to keep the real soldiers from smelling the fakeness and nothing more.
Jack didn't feel good about it; these other boys were risking life and limb for the good of the world, and it seemed the least they could have done to be honest with them. He could still hear Colonel Millen barking his mantra, "An Army lives and dies on morale." Jack had heard it differently, that an Army survived on its stomach, and said so. "Oh, an Army won't even show up to the fight if you don't feed them. But they won't even make it to the mess tent if they lose hope. That's why we aren't letting you anywhere near the front line, son. You're hope, made flesh, with 'Made with pride in the U.S.A.' stamped on you like a rack of Grade A beef. But unlike beef, you become useless if somebody puts a bullet through your skull."
This was supposed to be a dry run, boys who hadn't even left the continent, yet, let alone seen any combat. But they were boys, skinny, naïve kids who didn't know the dangers they were rushing towards- and had never been given a choice in the matter. Not that Jack was much older, or wiser, but h also wasn't rushing into a hail of Nazi bullets.
Idly, Jack's hand dragged at the chain link fence to his left as he walked. When his fingers grazed flesh, he recoiled; he'd learned that much in training, that what the vaccine did to him made him a bull loosed in the China shop that was the rest of humanity. If he wasn't careful, he could break people without trying.
The finger he brushed against belonged to a little boy on the other side of the chain link. Jack frowned, not realizing what the fence was, or who the boy, or his family, were. A sign declared it a Japanese camp, meant to concentrate citizens descended from that island nation. The U.S. was petrified at the idea that Japanese Americans might divide their loyalties, acting as sappers and saboteurs.
The boy's parents were frightened, huddled together just behind their son, and Jack was taken aback when he realized they were scared of him. He was, after all, dressed as an American Captain, even if he didn't feel he had properly earned that rank.
He knelt down, and touched the boy's hands again, through the fence, this time on purpose. The boy was scared, too, but within that fear was a question, as well. Why us? What have we done? How could we scare you so much that you could do this to us?
The boy tilted his head, uncertain how to react to the gentility of this soldier. "What's your name?" Jack asked. His eyebrows shot up, and he pursed his lips.
"George," his mother said, stepping forward.
"George," Jack said, and beamed at him. "That's a good name. I had an uncle named George, who fought in the Great War. A Japanese soldier named Shiro saved his life; if he hadn't been there, my uncle would have died in a trench in France."
Jack took in a breath, and held it. He could feel the other eyes on him, even before he knew they were no longer alone. A handful of new recruits, on their way to the show, had stopped, and were watching. He kept his eyes on the Japanese family, who he had known for less than a minute. He knew these people were not his enemy. But his first day on the job, he couldn't go against the President- an Army, after all, succeeded on its morale- no matter how much it rankled him.
"We're going to wrap up this war as quick as we can," Jack said, "get you out from behind this fence."
One of the soldiers behind him snickered. "Nip-lover," he mumbled. Jack turned on his heels with a speed that surprised even him. The soldier spit out a mouthful of chew. "They belong in cages," he said.
Jack grabbed him by the ear and twisted him around, until he was kneeling, with his head at an awkward angle, but was still looking at the boy. "That's an American family, private," Jack said, anger rumbling in his chest, "and you will show them their due respect."


  05:10:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 552 words  
Categories: Last Girls

Last Girls, Thirty-one

?It's useless, having me carry this,? Lark said, tapping the Colt in her waistband. She was leaning on Kelly for support. ?Even if I could lift it- and with my shoulder fucked that's far from a given- I doubt I could hit anything.?
?Then consider yourself carrying it for me,? Betsy said, ?and praying we don't need it.?
Kelly stared at her. ?We're in a forest- find some wood and knock on it before-? She stopped when she heard the sound of a heartbeat heavy in her ears. ?No...?
?We need to move. Now!? Betsy took up Lark's other shoulder, and the three ran together. They climbed a hill, heaving from the exertion. As they crested it, Kelly froze.
?It's getting louder,? she said.
As if to echo the concern, the hatchetman rose over the curve of the hill.
Betsy drew fastest, but knew to wait for the others. He took his first lumbering step down the hill towards them.
His fingers tightened around the wooden hatchet's grip, his joints crackling like their campfire. ?Steady your shots,? Betsy said. ?Aim center. Squeeze the trigger, don't pull, and wait to align your follow-up shot before squeezing again- and don't stop until he's down and stays there.?
Betsy fired the first shot, striking him in the shoulder, causing his march to reverse half a step before he started coming again. Their shots hit him, again and again. After five he fell to one knee. After three more, he fell onto his chest. Lark pulled her trigger again. ?You're empty,? Betsy said, ?you can stop.?
He planted his hands in the mud, and started to push himself up. Kelly, jittering, put a bullet into a tree several feet away.
?Calm,? Betsy said. ?Exhale as you fire- and only when you're sure he's sighted in. Wait for him to stand, if you need to.?
Betsy put a shot into his kneecap, pulling the leg out from under him, and smashing him face-first into the dirt.
Again, he flattened his palms in the mud, and pushed. Kelly and Betsy fired in a flurry, until both guns were empty.
This time he balled his fists, and pushed them into the soft, wet earth. ?You two should go,? Lark said. Betsy frowned at her. ?It's like running from a bear. You don't have to outrun the bear- just the slowest person with you. I'm not making it out. I've been practically blind for the last mile; I'm surprised Kelly could keep me moving, she was carrying so much of my weight. And you're wasting time when you should already be running. Bring back the Army and the National Guard to finally put this bastard in the dirt for good.?
?What will you-? Kelly started, but stopped when Betsy squeezed her arm.
?She's right. We've got to get out of here.? Betsy tugged her arm as she started running. Kelly ran with her for a few seconds, before looking back. She saw Lark make a dash for the river. Then she passed behind a tree, and she saw a splash in the water, but couldn't tell if she was still moving or just got grabbed up by the current. She disappeared an instant later.
?Hurry!? Betsy yelled from far ahead. ?I don't need extra help getting free of this bear.?

  04:53:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 1350 words  
Categories: Last Girls

Last Girls, Thirty

Kelly and Betsy poured out of the tent. Betsy immediately spotted Denny, and ran towards him. The top of his head was hanging by a flap of scalp. She froze, as Kelly knelt by him to check for a pulse.
?Goddamnit,? she said. ?Why did you do this??
?Your dumb, dead friend had a theory,? the detective taunted from the treeline. ?It didn't pan out. Get it? Like a brain pan? Heh. I crack me up.?
?Damnit,? Betsy whispered, hot tears pouring from her eyes.
?What?? Kelly asked.
?I, fuck, blamed him. I was pissed. But I didn't want-?
?Shh,? Kelly said, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman. ?This isn't your fault.?
?We're all fragile. And I was pushing on him so hard.?
?Not as hard as that prick,? Kelly said, glaring at the trees where the detective's voice had last emanated from. ?And we're all stressed, too. I think, under the circumstances, we all deserve a get out of shitty behavior card.?
?He's dead, Kel. There's no forgiveness for that.?
?We, we need to get out of here,? Lark said, balancing herself precariously against the entrance to the tent. ?No use, waiting for a sunrise that isn't coming.?
Betsy pushed herself off of Kelly, and helped Lark sit on one of the rocks near the dying campfire. ?She's right,? Betsy said putting her hand supportively on Lark's back. ?There's nothing left for us here.? Her hand came back bloody, and she winced. ?And she's bleeding through her bandage. She needs real help.?
?Right,? Kelly said. ?Lark, you should rest, maybe eat something. We'll gather up whatever supplies we can carry.?
?And pack light, no more than a backpack each. Sure, we can jettison stuff we don't need along the way, but we can't get back the energy we burnt through carrying it.?
Betsy went to the tent she was supposed to share with Angel. It was his tent, and smelled like his body spray. They'd been together long enough they bought sleeping bags that they could zip together.
She upended his backpack. Power bars and energy drinks dropped out, along with various survival tools, knives, a compass. And something she didn't recognize, a small box, plain and black with hard edges. She opened it, without any idea what she'd find inside.
Despite the box's outward lack of ornate decoration, the interior was covered in a lush, velvety purple. But it wasn't her favorite color that caught her eye, but a small ring held in a circular groove. ?You goddamned fucker,? she said, her eyes filling again with molten hot tears. They'd been together for years, but she never expected... not even when he took her to the jewelry store to get her sized for a chintzy heart-shaped ring for Valentine's Day.
She wished she'd never seen it. But she couldn't go back, just like she couldn't go back to the world, where Angel was still alive. So for a moment she pretended she was there, that his hand was holding hers, and slid the ring over her finger. It fit, better even than the Valentine's mislead ring had. ?I would have,? she said.
She refilled the bag, making sure the knives and compass were easily accessible, and adding in painkillers, bug spray and sunscreen from her own effects. Angel's bag had a rack for a sleeping bag. She rolled up their twin bags into one bundle; if they needed to stop to rest, being able to share one bag and body heat meant they wouldn't have to pack as many layers of clothes. Then she put on her sweater and her coat, in case it rained.
Kelly and Lark were already waiting. Lark had cooked eggs and some bacon, and they ate quietly. ?You were supposed to rest,? Betsy said, taking Lark's plate. Lark's eyes lingered on the ring.
?What she means,? Kelly said, ?was thanks for breakfast.?
?Yes. Thanks,? Betsy said. Lark nodded from Kelly to the ring, and her eyes got wide, too. ?It was in Angel's stuff.?
?Shit,? Kelly said, swallowing. ?It's beautiful.?
?Did you, know??
Kelly furrowed her brow. ?Makes sense; he asked a few dumb questions, right before the trip. Like, what your favorite wine was, or trying to figure out which of your songs was really your song.?
?And why he asked me to bring my Bluetooth speakers,? Lark added. ?He said it was to connect to his phone, I figured he wanted music for the drive.?
?I wish we could carry them out,? Betsy said.
?We'll come back for them,? Kelly said, trying to sound convincing.
?Yeah,? Betsy replied, not believing her. ?We should head out.?
?We should,? Kelly agreed. ?Which way??
?I assumed the road.?
?But it's open,? Lark said, ?so we'd be easy to track, and vulnerable to attack.?
?But we wouldn't get lost...? Perhaps it was the relative quiet, and the fact that the water lapping against the shore was the only sound they could hear, but Kelly and Betsy's eyes both became excited at the same time, and they said, ?The river,? in unison.
?The lake was man-made,? Kelly said, ?either a reservoir or back-up capacity for a dam.?
?And because rivers were the original highways in this country, most cities are on a waterway if one was available,? Betsy added. ?So we'd get the cover of the trees, but without the likelihood of getting lost.?
?Unless the river splits,? Lark said. ?You know, sometimes they shatter into a dozen little creeks, which might not be easy to ford in my condition.?
?Crap,? Kelly said. ?It's never easy, is it??
Lark shook her head. ?Life's hard. Then you die.?
?That felt like a really crappy motivational poster,? Betsy said. ?So we should vote. And I'll go first, because I suggested it, so I'll take the chance of being the odd woman out. I think Lark's right. River could be dicey. And as much as I'd rather have the ability for stealth- it cuts both ways, and those things would have cover, too. But mostly, I'd rather not get caught someplace where we'd have to risk Lark's health to keep going.?
?See, from where I'm standing going first was devious,? Kelly said. ?You get to set the terms of the conversation, frame the opposite choice as disregarding Lark's health.?
?I'm pretty sure it's not okay to insinuate an Asian woman is sneaky,? Betsy said with a grin.
?Whatever. I vote river. If we're out in the open and vulnerable, Lark's more of a target, not less. And we can keep following the water wherever it leads; eventually it either meets up with another road or civilization- but one far enough away from here that we won't be easy to track anymore.?
?You both understand that I can express my own concerns, right?? Lark asked. ?I'm not moving well. And that's the real problem with the road. If it becomes a sprint... but at least in the woods everybody is compromised, from the uneven terrain to branches and roots and obstructed view. And with even a little luck, we can sneak past our predators. River.?
?Crap. I was being devious,? Betsy said. ?Trying to make it easier for either of you to take the 'weaker' path with me. It didn't work; might have even back-fired.?
?The world may never know,? Kelly said.
?Oh, I did find one more thing, chilling in the cooler.? She produced a bottle of wine from behind her bag. ?My favorite. It's a chocolate dessert wine. It should help with some of the lesser pain from the night, all the fights. And might get us moving a little faster at first. It's heavy enough not to be worth carrying, so if you're going to drink it, you should drink some here.? She used Angel's pocket knife to open the bottle, then tipped it to Lark.
?No way, Bets,? she said. ?First drink's yours.?
?Yeah,? Kelly agreed. Betsy upended the bottle, and as she drank a tear slid down her cheek.
Next she handed it to Lark. ?To the three of us,? she said, ?still fighting.?

  04:38:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 911 words  
Categories: Last Girls

Last Girls, Twenty-nine

?I'll take this watch,? Denny said. ?The prick detective is still stalking the place. That's personal, now, but he only wants me. I couldn't risk one of you getting between us. And like you said, we'll need all our strength to make it out of here come the morning.?
?I... I don't think the morning's coming,? Kelly said.
?What do you mean??
?She means it's been more than twelve hours,? Betsy said. ?Probably more than twenty since we woke up in that auto yard. And the sun was beginning to set when we had our accident. I don't think the sun rises here- whatever here is. But we've also all been running on fumes for the better part of a day. We need rest, or we won't make it- especially not if we're being hunted.?
Kelly followed Betsy inside the tent, then zipped it from inside.
?I'll be here,? Denny said, sitting on the rock nearest their tent.
In the darkness, it was almost pleasant having the crackling of the fire. It deadened the otherwise dread silence permeating the campground.
The Colt was laid across Denny's lap, and he was starting to feel the beginning numbness of sleep when he heard the snap of a branch. He knew it was intentional. The detective didn't make noise unless he wanted to.
?No rest for the wicked, eh, boy? And you have been awfully naughty, haven't you. You're the reason they're all here. Seducing Alan away. They'd all be safe at home in their beds if you'd just let your bosom buddy keep it in his pants.
?But that wasn't enough, was it? You weren't happy being the passive reason why all your friends are dying- oh, and they will, trust me on that, they will. No, you stepped up your game and shot your other friend dead.
?Which could have been heroic, even noble. If you hadn't fucked that up, too. You were too late to stop him, but fired too much to save him. You killed two of your friends. You fucking disgrace.?
Denny cocked back the hammer on the Colt, spinning in the direction of scattered leaves. ?But do you know the part that saddens me, Denny? The shame of that pales in comparison to your crippling dread over the polaroids in my pocket. If I snuck past you and gutted the other two, maybe even finished off the black chick for good measure, you wouldn't stumble out of here crying over how pathetically you failed your friends. You'd be blubbering still about your family finding out you suck dick. Which ironically is the most profound way in which you suck dick.?
Denny spun the opposite direction, to where the voice was now echoing from. The detective seemed to be able to be everywhere at once. He couldn't stop him. He'd seen that he couldn't protect his friends. But the kernel of an idea formed in his mind, and he stood tall for the first time in hours.
?You're my monster, a manifestation of my deepest, darkest insecurities, somehow pulled from my head into whatever this world is. But we're linked. You've been stalking me, not the others. You could humiliate me, even kill me, and we've seen that you could hurt them, too if my fear is still here to animate you, give you strength. I've only got one bullet, but it's the only one I ever needed.? Denny put the Colt under his jaw.
?You don't want to do that, son,? the detective began. ?Well, you always have, haven't you? Better that than disappoint your parents, granny and grandad, everyone else. And better than confirm to yourself you're a freak, like they always whispered you were. But surely there's got to be a more fun way to do this. I could...? he said, stepping out of the shadows, holding a switchblade. ?I could slice open your guts, let them pool unto your lap. You close your eyes hard enough, the warmth, the moisture, you could tell yourself it feels how it would have if your boyfriend ever reciprocated. You could have one last sad little sobbing jerk-off. Blood makes for a great lubricant. I was going to say I heard from a friend in the force- but would you really believe that??
?Not a step closer,? Denny said, pulling back the hammer.
?If I'd thought for a second you had the stones, I probably wouldn't have bothered coming here. No. Though bold choice, not sticking it in our mouth; worried about being a cliché? Or just about the jokes coming from your relatives, about how you couldn't stop yourself from swallowing a hard load- even if this one's a hand load? Taking the coward's way out doesn't buy you peace. The photos still circulate. Maybe I make it a habit of sending them out every holiday, just to make sure even your memory is forever tarnished.?
Denny smiled. ?You can't hurt me anymore. Or them.? Then he pulled the trigger.
The momentum of the bullet pulled him off his feet, and it felt like he floated through the air for the full length of a song, his favorite song, Blue, and when he finally touched down in the wet ground, it felt like he floated peacefully into the warm embrace of the mud.
The last thing he saw before the darkness overwhelmed him was the look of shock on the detective's face melt away, replaced by a smile.

  04:19:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 809 words  
Categories: Last Girls

Last Girls, Twenty-eight

?Found a beer, too,? Denny said, rattling around a small bottle of pills in one hand while brandishing a can in the other. ?To wash it down.?
Betsy and Kelly shared a look, and started to peel back the shirts. Lark whimpered. ?You're scabbing nicely,? Betsy reassured.
?Okay, Lark,? Kelly started, ?we need to get you up. When we do, we'll give you some painkillers, then Denny will get the rest of the shirts and ropes, and we'll improvise something to keep pressure on your back.?
?I'm not ready,? she protested.
?You won't fall this time. We've got you. Denny, you take her shoulders, we'll get on either side. Lark, if you can help us, do a push-up onto your knees.? They got into position. ?On the count of three, one, two, three.?
They lifted together, and Lark cried out, but they pushed until she was sitting on her legs. Betsy kept a hand on her shoulder to steady her, while Denny handed her the can and bottle. Her face remained contorted with pain, but she took them.
Then Denny ran back to his tent, the tent he was going to share with Alan, the place he last kissed him.
?What do you think your mom will say, Denny?? the detective called from the trees. ?You don't have to think, do you? She told you. She said she'd rather your bloated, mutilated corpse wash up on the shore than you come home with a boyfriend. Hell of a thing to tell a ten year old.?
Denny pulled the Colt from his waistband. It was lighter than before, and he remembered it was empty. The detective laughed.?I'm shaking- no, wait, you're the chihuahua here. I bet those snapshots kill your aunt, literally. I know, she meant it hyperbolicly, but she ain't a spring chicken any more; I mean, I'd pluck her, but any chick this side of fried, I've always said.?
Denny slid the gun back in his pants, and opened the tent. The ropes were hanging from the top, and he gathered them, mostly dry, and the remaining clean clothes.
?Took your sweet time,? Kelly said, when he got back to Lark. Something in her eyes told him she wasn't just talking about the clothes.
?You're right,? he said. ?I should have fired faster.?
?You shouldn't have fired at all-? Betsy snapped, ?at least not in the head.?
?I think maybe I should interject,? Kelly started, ?to point out that this isn't something any of us could possibly be prepared for. People freeze. Even professionals. Cops and soldiers train relentlessly to get over that natural reaction- and none of us have. I mean, maybe, Bets, you have, a little, since martial arts do kind of the same thing- training so defense becomes second-nature.?
?I couldn't save him,? Denny whispered bitterly. ?I don't know if any of us can be saved.?
?The fuck did you expect from a fucking pansy?? the detective said from the shadows.
?Son of a bitch,? Betsy said, drawing her own Colt.
?Don't,? Denny said. ?He's smart, smart enough to keep moving around, always in the shadows, always just out reach. He's toying with me, at least for now. Which is why... could I have another bullet??
?I fired all of mine.?
?Into my boyfriend.?
?Yeah. To save Lark. I don't need more than one. We have his gun... and he had ample opportunity to use that on me before we took it from him. No. He wants me to suffer. He wants to see the look on my face when I die. He'll be close when he tries. Probably with a hold-out knife we missed. But I'll only need one. So you can either give me a bullet- one lousy, measly fucking bullet- or the next monster that comes to our camp I'll just have to fling the gun at him.?
Kelly sighed. ?There's a gun for each of us. Just give him the bullet. You want, I'll give you Angel's. You're the better shot, anyway; might make sense for you to have more than six shots.?
?Okay,? Betsy said, opening the gun and tilting it so a single bullet slid out. ?Choose your next shot wisely.?
?I will,? Denny said. He loaded it into the Colt, then rotated the cylinder so it was ready to fire.
?You ready to move?? Kelly asked Lark. The other woman frowned. ?We want to get you some place to lay down where you can let the scabs reinforce, and where we won't be subject to the elements, if those pissy looking clouds decide to soak us.?
Kelly and Betsy each got a hand under one of Lark's arms, and helped her to her feet. She gasped, and Denny ran ahead to unzip the tent. He rolled out her sleeping bag, and helped them lower her onto it.

  04:02:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 1143 words  
Categories: Last Girls

Last Girls, Twenty-seven

Half of Angel's lupine face was gone, and the only thing keeping him upright were the two women holding his arms.
Lark sobbed in the dirt, his claws still stuck in her flesh. Kelly and Betsy lowered him to the ground. Then Betsy charged Denny, and slapped him so hard he dropped the antique Colt.
?Why the fuck did you do that?? she screamed.
?We couldn't save him,? he said limply.
?No, nothing can save you,? Betsy said, leaping at him with her hands clawed.
?No!? Kelly yelled, pulling Betsy off Denny. ?Our friend is hurt. And I need help with her. Come on,? she said, yanking her back in the direction where Lark lay groaning.
Lark's back was covered in a lake of blood, pooling and trickling down her sides in waterfalls. It was dotted with islands of mud from Angel's hind paws, making it harder still to see how severe the damage was.
?I'll look away,? Denny offered, and started walking towards the fire.
?Now really isn't the time for modesty,? Kelly said, grabbing his hand and pulling him back. ?These cuts are deep. We need water- all the drinking water we brought with us- to wash them out. And get the cleanest clothes you can find; we ran through the rest of Alan's bandages already. Betsy, take a few feet of rope and wash it off in the lake.? Betsy didn't budge from where she stood, glaring at Denny. Kelly shook her by the shoulder. ?Now.?
Kelly collapsed to her knees when they left. It was taking all her strength that remained just to keep them from tearing out each other's throats. She felt more alone than seemed possible.
?It hurts,? Lark whimpered.
?I thought you were passed out.? Kelly said. ?Hoped it, really.?
?No such luck,? she replied softly. ?How bad??
?Don't know,? Kelly said, grabbing handfuls of dirt and shoving them off her back. Her finger grazed a slash beneath one of the mud balls. ?God.? The wound was as wide as two of her fingers, and she traced it gently up her spine.
?How bad?? Lark asked again.
?Not sure how deep,? Kelly said, ?but you've got cuts down your back.?
?Never wanted to be a back model, anyway,? Lark said, laughing hollowly, then started to push herself out of the mud. ?So long as I can-?
?Don't,? Kelly said too late, and Lark collapsed back into the dirt.
?Fuck. That was stupid. Why would you let me try that??
?I learned years ago that I couldn't stop you from being stupid,? Kelly said with a smile.
?Ask,? Denny said, carrying water past her, ?and ye shall receive.? He balanced a small stack of shirts and poured until the gallon was gone. For an instant they could see Lark's back clearly, and the series of slashes across it. The one Kelly had found seemed to be the shallowest of the bunch. After a few seconds the water was so thickly red that they couldn't see again.
?What's the thickest thing you found?? Kelly asked.
?Angel packed a sweater.?
?Keep that separate, for the bandage.? She took two shirts. She used the first to wipe the blood and water away from her back. A small gasp escaped Lark's lips, before she relaxed. Then Kelly layered the second over the cuts, and put pressure on them.
?Got your rope,? Betsy said.
?Give it to Denny, then help me hold pressure, here, and here. This is at least a two woman job.?
?And Denny's going to...? he started.
?Put those someplace to keep them clean and dry. We need to stop the bleeding before we try to bandage her. Shit.? She'd already bled through the first shirt. ?Give us a couple more shirts, before you go.?
Denny handed them over, and they layered them over the first.
?You're doing great, Lark,? Kelly said.
?I know,? Lark said, stammering. ?I bleed at a semi-pro level.?
?You're in shock,? Kelly said. ?But you're doing really well. You've got to be in a lot of pain. When Denny gets back-?
?Speaking of the devil,? Betsy said, with an edge betraying her still-roiling anger.
?Would you see if there's any more painkillers? Maybe in somebody's backpack.?
?I've got tension headache meds, in my satchel.?
?Sure,? Denny said.
Kelly eyed Betsy, who shrugged. ?It's not always easy being type A,? Betsy said. ?Back in high school I'd have panic attacks anytime I didn't ace a test. But my parents taught me well; I waited until I got home to show it. Of course, I meant 'taught' euphemistically, since it was a combination of abusive parenting and inadvertently passing along unhealthy coping mechanisms. But 'taught' seemed more concise. And maybe a little kinder. I mean, I've mellowed, since then. But that's the other thing my parents taught me. It wasn't enough to be great. I needed to be exceptional, in everything, and any time I'm not...?
Lark groaned. ?She's right,? Betsy said. ?You're doing really well. Very brave, braver even than tackling the embodiment of your greatest fear off me.?
?In retrospect, seems like a silly choice,? Lark moaned.
?Don't be a pain, because I'm trying to thank you. You saved my life. And that... it makes me feel even crappier. When I proposed this weekend, I wanted it to go well, for everyone but you. I thought it was you, that Alan was cheating with. I know he was the first boy you kissed, back in high school, even if you kept it kind of quiet. And I half-expected that when push came to shove, you were going to end up on the outs with everybody, maybe completely out.
?And I thought that, at least in part, because you've always made me insecure. You can't out-petite me, but you were everything I couldn't be, physical, one of the guys. I got super jealous when Angel and I first started dating, when I was watching one of your scrimmages. He tackled you, and you ended up rolling around on the ground with your legs wrapped around him.?
?It wasn't like that.?
?I know. But it could have been, you know? If he wanted me, I'm pretty confident I'm the best me there is. But if he wanted something else, someone like you, for example, taller and more athletic, I couldn't be you. And even though I got pretty good at suppressing it, I realize I didn't ever get over it. I've been a shitty friend this entire time, and you-? her voice broke as she tried to choke back a sob.
?Don't girl out on me, now,? Lark said, turning her head to try to look at her. ?We'll get out of this, together. But that means I need you strong, now. I may not have much fight left. So you'll have to fight for me.?

  03:14:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 731 words  
Categories: Last Girls

Last Girls, Chapter Twenty-six

?She's resting, ish,? Kelly said, glancing toward Lark. ?I gave her a couple of beers. It cut through the skin, muscles, and I think it hit stuff beneath. She was having trouble moving it, and I'm not sure that's just because of pain.?
?God... she'll be devastated.? Betsy sighed.
?Let's hope,? Kelly said.
?Yeah. The way things have been going... we all might be so lucky to walk away only maimed.? Without intending to, she looked at Angel, still tied to the tree. ?You should try to rest with her. Denny and I can stay up on watch. And we are going to need as much of our strength to get out of here as we can muster, come the morning.?
?Yeah. We'll switch off soon. Don't let me sleep too long.?
?Sure.? Betsy waited until Kelly had zipped the tent she was sharing with Lark up, to start towards Angel. She knew it was a bad idea, but it had been so hard doing this without him. They'd been together since high school, and there wasn't a single adult problem she hadn't been able to work through with him.
?Angel?? she whispered softly. He didn't stir, save for his breathing. She squatted down next to him, halfway leaned against the same tree.
?Babe,? she said, shaking Angel's shoulder. Sleeping peacefully, he looked like the man she'd been in love with since she first laid eyes on him. She wanted to nibble on the taut muscles in his neck, feel his chest rise and fall against her cheek. The thought usually filled her with warmth, but it was bittersweet, because she knew she may not get to do either ever again.
She stroked her fingers down his cheek as a tear slid down her own. ?I don't know what to do,? she whispered. ?But they're right. We can't stay. And I don't know if we can carry you out of here.?
?Betsy-? Her name came low, and soft, perhaps a trick played by the breeze through the trees. ?Bets.? Her heart beat faster, as she was reminded of the way Angel would whisper her name. Though she knew better, she hoped for a moment that it could him. ?Betsy,? it came again, and this time she knew it came from behind her. ?The hatchet.?
She looked back to Denny, who was gesturing at the tree. She followed his pointing up, at the place where the hatchet stuck after cutting through Lark's shoulder. It looked like it had just missed the ropes, but it had severed the length securing Angel to the tree.
She heard Angel's breathing deepen. She'd spent enough time napping with him to recognize the sound of him waking up. But it was already becoming more rapid, like a dog's breathing. Then his eyes shot open, only they weren't his eyes; the pupils were wrong, and the color.
Angel snapped at her with teeth that were still human, but by the time they clamped shut, they were already lengthening and sharpening. Betsy pushed off the tree, sending herself rolling backwards.
Denny aimed his Colt at Angel's chest. There was a wet snap, and Angel's right shoulder dropped several inches, and the ropes around his torso dropped. Spiny hairs sprouted all over his body, and a snout was growing from the center of his face. He swung the arm limply at Denny, knocking the Colt from his grip.
?Help!? Betsy yelled from the ground, before Angel stomped her in the midsection, his hind claws tearing through her shirt and scraping across her stomach.
Lark tackled Angel into the tree, knocking him snout-first into the bark. He yelped as he landed beneath her. He dug his hind claws into the tree, and used them to lever her over. She landed with her chest against the clawed roots of the tree, with Angel perched on top of her.
Kelly grabbed his left arm, and Betsy his right. His clawed feet dug into Lark's back, tearing through to the meat. She cried out.
?Denny!? Kelly yelled.
He'd retrieved the Colt, but his attention was on the treeline.
?I didn't even show you the good pictures,? the detective yelled from the shadows. ?The real juicy ones- and I do mean juicy.?
?Denny, goddamn it, help us!? Betsy screamed.
Denny leveled the Colt at Angel, and fired until the hammer fell on an empty cylinder.

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