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The Good Stuff
Short Story
The List
by Ian Smith
Length: 2,652 words

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"Drifting Memories"

Taylor Dean


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Letters to Michael - a visionary novel

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The List

Bitter. That was the earliest sensation I could remember. Before sight, sound or smell, there was a bitter taste. Years later, I learned that the bitterness from those earliest memories was my first taste of the Imp’s Milk. It was a foul ichor that burned, first down the throat and then through the rest of the body, through the veins and muscles and bones. A thousand hot needles clawing through me.

The clacking of the train rumbled in his bones as it rolled across the steel rails beneath the undercarriage. The hills and trees ran past the window next to him. Blurs of green, brown, and blue cobbled and mixed as the train shook and rumbled through the land. Noah looked out the window, seeing the world beyond. Forever and ever beyond his reach. He pulled out his pocket watch. Its soft ticks were out of tune with the shudders and shakes of the moving train.

The watch was plain, its cheap brass frame polished yet stark. No marks of distinction to indicate it or its owner as anything more or less than ordinary. The owner, while not short, was skinnier than the rails the steam engine travelled upon. His gangling limbs seemed almost too long for his reclined body. His brown eyes were calm. He turned his gaze from the cabin window and to the watch. He then spoke, out loud, for the only other occupant of the cabin, “We are two hours into the train’s journey.” His voice was controlled and even. He put away the pocket watch and looked across the cabin to the older man seated before him.

While Noah looked to be just into his twenties, his companion seemed to be more than twice Noah’s age. His hair had grayed from time and enduring far too much. The older man, like Noah, looked plain. His suit was grey and severe, pressed and clean, but without any sheen or shine. Neither unusually tall nor exceptionally short. Normal. The older man looked to the younger man, his eyes locked with Noah’s. His gaze searched, sought to penetrate the stone in the younger man’s eyes. Was there any weakness? Any nervousness? Any disgust? Any sign of unwillingness to serve or act in the name of nation and state? He found nothing. His inspection complete, he but nodded his head. The signal had been given. Noah got up, his scarecrow limbs moving with grace and control. It was time for a devil to earn its due.

Cold. It pervaded the stone, the walls and the floor. It crept through my body. I was still small, still young. The cold should have killed me. It didn’t. It gripped me; it crawled across my flesh like a thousand spiders made of ice, each prick of the spiders’ legs digging through the skin and into me.

Noah found his prey in the dining car. Rachel, as she was called, was sitting next to a window. The only other occupant was an old man sitting further up into the car. She looked out onto the world beyond the glass. Her green eyes searched while the dying sunlight beamed across blond hair that hung to her shoulders. Her olive clothes, though cut and designed more for a man, seemed to suit her. Pants and waist-jacket hung, not tight enough so as to any way hinder movement. Yet there was also room in the sleeves of her waist-jacket and in the legs of her pants. As if she expected to grow into them sometime soon.

The light from outside shook and wavered, in and out of life, as the outside world kept on running. He moved straight towards her table, wrists ready to slide black-steeled daggers out of their sleeve holsters. He sat straight across from her, his eyes on her hands, on the muscles in her shoulders (her legs were crossed).

“What’s your name, boy?” she asked though really she wasn’t much older than himself. It said so in her file.


“Your name? That by which your masters call you?”

“Why is that important?”

“Why, it’s common courtesy, dear.” She brought herself closer from across the table, eyes locking his with iron talons, “I can rightly assume you already have my name so it is only proper for a gentleman, such as yourself, to give yours? Besides … I like to know the names of those sent to kill me.” Her smile grew, pearly white teeth unveiled in a long hungry grin, “So that the proper respects can be payed. Oh, and please tell me before you bring the knives into this.”

“… It is Noah.”

She leaned back fast against her chair, letting out a whistle of air, her short hair hanging over the chair’s shoulders.

“Good to know they haven’t taken that little freedom from us.” She leaned over again, the smile sans the hunger still there, “Why Noah?”

“Why should I answer any more of your questions?”

“Why should I not throw you out of that window?”

“You know threats do not work on us.“

“Just answer the question Noah.”

“… It was the only one left on the wall.”

The smile on her face vanished, as if it had never been. “Oh Noah. I am sorry. I am truly, truly sorry. Have some tea. Oh come now, were not going at it here. I happen to like what they’ve done with this car. There you go. Will that be one lump or two? Wait, you’ve probably never had tea, better make it three.”

Tea served , she offered some biscuits but he declined with a shake. “More for me then.” She didn’t touch them again. “Do you know why you are here? Do you know why you and several others before you have tried to kill me?”

The tea was new. It was something new. Bitter, but not like Imp’s Milk, far from that. The Milk burned, scorched-this, this was warm. A few moments passed before he put down the tea and looked back at Rachel.

“You are rogue,” he said.

“Do you care? Do you actually care about any of the rules I’ve broken? Are you angry? Curious? Indignant?” Her green eyes locked with his again. “You haven’t had the chance to care. They’ve stripped us of our freedom, of our ability to choose. Or at least, they tried to in my case.” Her smile twisted, as if she had just tasted some sour candy. “The closest you ever came to knowing true freedom, to having a choice was when you picked your name, and even then the world decided to be fickle and take that from you. Not that Noah is a bad name. I like it, suits you more than some of the other Noah’s I’ve had to work with.

“It suits me?”

“Yes.” her smile, it did not mock or condescend, it did not conceal or hide her emotions. “Noah suits you just fine. What will you choose to do now, Noah? Will you pick up that tea or proceed with your objective to kill me? The past years have been very lonely and I would welcome a companion should you choose the first option. However, pick the latter and I will resist as you do everything you can to kill me.” Her eyes, which had wandered back to the window suddenly returned to gazing into his, “Please, please pick the first option.”

Noah’s once stony facade was cracking. His lips were dry, the hint of a furrow on his brow, “What are you doing, Rachel?”

Rachel’s smile turned ever so slightly, not a frown, not disappointment or anger, perhaps pity. She spoke, “I see. I am sorry.”

One of her hands reached out to his face, and despite the unexpectedness of the gesture and the threat she posed he did nothing. He froze. Her hand, fair and supple, grazed his cheek. It was a fleeting touch, or a feather, “You are a rather handsome young man, and I would have loved to you to enjoy the rest of the train-ride with me.”

She sat back down and looked over shoulder, “I thought he’d never leave.” The blow to the chin sent him through his chair and into the table behind him.

He, the big man who normally brought my food, dragged me out of my room and into the amber light. He pushed me down the gray, stony hall. I bumped into a crowd of other children. They pushed us further down the hall.

A black knife slid into the wood, barely a breath from his ear. Did the wood crack? No matter, the time for knives had come. A twists of the wrists and they were free, twin pieces of eight-inch blackened steel. Noah dove forward and beneath a swing that caved in a crate. Contact. He came back around only to see that she payed no attention to the cut in her side, or to the blood slinking out. He dove again, pumping the blackened blood through his legs, harder, harder, faster, faster.

Her kick nearly sent him through the wall. He threw a knife but it was met in mid-air by a cousin and both clattered onto the wooden planks. He got up into a ready position, only then he noticed that she had truly begun to change. Whereas before her hands had been delicate and supple, the one that had cracked the wood was a twisted nightmare. The muscles curled and writhed, bulging beneath the skin. Bones that had once been slight were now twisted and knobbed. And skin that was fair and like powdered snow was now mottled and swathed in veins of black and olive green, like the vines of old forest growths.

Eyes that had spoken to him with serenity and kindness were now filled with controlled fury and drive. Once pristine green eyes were now etched with ebon cracks and tendrils that crept jagged, crooked paths from the corners and towards the irises. Where once was a smile, small yet infinite there was now a thin grove of sharp ivory. The hisses and screams of a mountain cat beat at the alabaster cage.

He felt his muscles and veins burn as the blood, that had been blackened from years of Imp’s Milk, poured though him, quickly and without concern for the pain it caused. Bones thickened, densened and hardened. Muscled limbs tightened, becoming like steel cables yet coiling like the muscles of a constrictor or the tendrils of an octopus. His eyes, ones that were once simply brown, were filling with the same dark spider-web cracks that were growing and spreading across Rachel’s green orbs.

Their gazes locked. The shudders and rumbles of the train seemed to become the only sound in the world. Each shake and bump a signal to an ever nearing end. Each jolt of the car, as it travelled across the steel rails, seemed to become slower to both. The gap between each shock seemed longer and deeper, chasms that were waiting to be filled. Neither Noah nor Rachel made a sound. One more shudder. One more jolt. One more - she moved.

He was barely able to dodge the mass of bone and muscle that was her right arm as it swung for him. He gripped the knife in his right hand. He coiled his muscles, tightened them.

She moved again, a blur of golden hair and green eyes. Her changed right arm aimed for his head, was deflected by his left, but even that glancing contact would leave bruises deep into the bone. Noah’s knife struck out like a viper, arm muscles uncoiling and releasing their tension. The blade dug through flesh, slipping between ribs, barely grazing the bone, and slicing into where the kidneys would be with all efficiency of a machine. He tried to twist the knife but it was only then he noticed that there was a slight stiffness to the flesh the blade had penetrated. He tried to pull the knife out to no avail, it was stuck. He tried to let go but it was too late. A grip crushed his arm with what might as well have been all the power of the steam engine. For all the strength and resilience the blackened blood had cursed him with, there was no escaping that woman’s left hand. It was the hand that only now he was noticing was slightly bulging and rippling with black and green veins.

Noah’s left fist flashed towards Rachel’s face with all the inhuman strength he could muster in it. It connected and twisted her head to the side but her grip on his other arm was unrelenting and in fact seemed to tighten. He tried to hit her again but that monstrous limb of hers caught his other arm. She did not blink as her grotesque right limb twisted and wrenched his left. He felt the bones snap and splinter, shards tearing into his flesh, twisting and lancing through muscle and skin. The pain, it surged through the arm like a river and would have rendered Noah unconscious had his nerves not been dulled by the blackened blood pumping through him. He tried to bring his left leg out from under him, perhaps to kick at her and throw her off balance. But as his limb moved he heard only a sudden thud and an explosion of pain coursed from his leg and spread throughout him. His knee was destroyed.

A twist and pull of her left hand and the muscles and bone of the arm with which he had stabbed her were torn and useless. She let him drop to the floor of the cargo-car, blood pouring from his ruined limbs and pooling in three places beneath and around him. It would be hours before the blackened blood could restore anything even resembling autonomous motion to his body. Until then he was completely at her mercy, perhaps had been this entire time.

The room was not unlike my cell or the corridors I had to walk through or the rooms where we were forced to fight, claw, and bite each other. It was a long room. Brassy lamps hung above us, flickering with their dull amber light. We were all put into a line, we children, put in the order we had arrived. I couldn’t see what was at the front of the line …

She got down on one knee beside him, her green eyes one more time locking with his brown. His vision was blurring. Not even the conditioning he had endured nor the years of drinking Imp Milk could keep him focused through the devastation that had been wrought upon his flesh and bones. He could, however, see that the dark cracks were already gradually receding from her eyes. He felt drops of water (tears?) fall upon his face. A hand, a human hand, caressed his cheek. It touched like a cool breeze, slight but tangible. That was the second time someone had ever touched him like that. So focused was Noah on the caress, and so rampant was the pain through his body, he never foresaw the cool kiss Rachel placed upon his forehead.

“Listen to me Noah.”

Her words floated like the clouds that were far through and above the roof of the train.

“I will give you one more chance to make your own choice. I do this because I want to. And because you are the first Noah I have met who fits the name. Do you want to live?”

… It was a wall. Years later, I learned the odd scratches and lines in it were letters, and the letters were names. A tall, severe man told me to point to one of the odd collection of lines not marked in black. But there was only one left unmarked …


… Rachel.

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