The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
by Michelle Joy Gallagher
She’d carried it for days. A thick heavy thing wrapped in parchment. Her hands and back ached with the task, but she had been paid enough that she could eat well for an entire month without having to resort to less savory jobs that would also wear on her body, but would chip away at her soul at the process. So she carried it without complaint.
Auva watched as the bustling city, full of horse drawn carriages and severe looking men in long coats talking around their pipes gave way to dusty fields and dirt roads, her traveling companion, a stone-faced cowhand named Bran said very little and when he did it was in a gruff and angry tone that made her wish he hadn’t. He was there for protection, she knew that, but who would protect her from Bran?
The instructions were very simple. She was hired to deliver a package. She was to be the only one to handle the package. For no reason whatsoever should she open the package. And she must stay with her chaperone the entire trip, and she must arrive there within 7 days. She wasn’t privy to the destination. Her chaperone was responsible for that. It seemed easy for the price he offered but very soon after they headed out, her arms and hands felt the sting of the burden they carried.
Bran was on horseback and every few miles he would ride up ahead and survey the coming trail for any sign of resistance or trouble. Plus he could scout places to camp before the sun was too far in the east.
The nights were long and sleep was fitful. She lay on her back, the package on her chest, cradled lovingly in delicate hands that had started to chafe and crack and bleed. She gazed at the stars. At this distance from the city, The sky was ablaze, alive and moving. The breeze through the tree branches heightened this feeling.
On the third night out she noticed that her usual stellar landmarks, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, North Star, were all askew. She thought maybe she was watching the sky through eyes that had grown too weary from the day, and when she asked Bran, he offered little more than a growl. The fire crackled and she stared into the night sky until it danced and swirled with her exhaustion and she succumbed to sleep.
The next morning the road started to steepen, they were heading uphill. And the wind took on a salty, unmistakable smell. Auva had been to the ocean once when she was a small girl. It was a long and laborious trip and for a 6-year-old, incredibly boring. And the task was a solemn one, as her entire extended family has taken her grandmother’s body to bury it at sea. There were stories and songs about her life along the way. She started to hum one now, which drew a dirty look from Bran atop his horse. Auva didn’t care. She missed that feeling of being a part of something. And that’s what she was now, however strange and small, she was a part of something, she just didn’t know what.
They finally crested the hill after cimbing for most of the day. Seagulls swam and circled in the brilliantly blue sky. Auva closed her eyes and pictured her mother, tears running down her face, her hands toward the sea, chanting her grandmother into the afterlife. She started running toward the shore, wanting- no- needing, to feel the cold water up to her shins, to watch her long dress float around her. She could feel her tired hands starting to let go of her parchment wrapped burden.
Bran produced a rifle from under his riding blanket with remarkable speed and fired it without hesitation. The bullet sang through the air and hit Auva’s left shoulder with a sick thud. She felt her joint liquefy and she fell to her knees. The package fell beside her, half sticking out of the sand like an artifact. She watched her blood mix with the water.
“You stupid bitch. EVERYTHING IS AT STAKE”
It was the most he’d said to her the entire trip
She rolled on to her back as the shadow of Bran approached her.
“Pick it up.”
She could barely understand what happened, where she was, let alone what he was asking from her now.
“Pick. It. Up.”
He cocked his rifle and leveled it at her face.
The reality of the situation soaked in with the sea.
She fumbled blindly through the sand feeling for the package, never letting her eyes leave the barrel of the gun. Finally her fingertips found what they so desperately searched for, and she grasped and pulled the now damp packaged toward her body. She managed an almost soundless reply.
“I’m- I have it. I’m sorry.”
And was wracked with sobs.
Bran tore strips from her skirt and made a makeshift tourniquet and sling for her arm. Her painful screaming all but drowned about by the waves. His hands moved quickly and without tenderness. This was something he was doing simply so he could complete the task he’d been given. Nothing more.
She cradled the package in her lap. The parchment had pulled away in places and the object underneath revealed itself in small glimpses. Between sobs and stabbing pain, Auva caught glimpses of what she now knew was a large perfect bound book with a leather cover. How can it possibly be worth her life? Worth taking one?
They camped that night right where the bullet felled her. She lay inches from the reddened sand, strips of linen skirt, spent gun casing and the gall of Bran cleaning his rifle. Her shoulder was an absolute agony, but she held on to the book with her uninjured arm, now knowing her life depended on it. Or at least her obedience. She tried to gaze at the stars but a thick fog rolled in. The ones she could see looked out of place, almost as if some unseen hand came along and scattered them all.
There was a lighthouse in the distance marking the shore for passing tall ships. The light hit the fog and scattered, brightening the sky momentarily. Bran pointed at it absentmindedly.
Auva blacked out.
The next morning came in a blink. When Auva came to, Bran had finished breaking camp. The tide had gone out and small crabs skittered around looking for their next meal. Bran mindlessly crushed them in the course of his tasks. Auva figured he secretly enjoyed this.
She could hardly move, and kept her breaths shallow as to not move her body and cause that painful sensation to return. Bran ordered her to her feet anyway. She immediately began to sob.
One foot in front of the other seemed like the most monumental task. The heat was relentless and she considered the possibility she had a fever. Every footfall sent a spike of pain up her entire left side.
She concentrated on the lighthouse. Her delivery point. There had to be someone at the end that could help her, some sort of aid. If she could just make it to the lighthouse. The lighthouse itself swam in her vision, shimmering like a heat mirage. She tried over and over to focus but the lighthouse wouldn’t cooperate. It was as if the lighthouse itself was unsure of how it was supposed to behave in this situation. If she could just-
Driftwood jutting from the sand caught her foot and she fell face first into the sand. Bran cocked his rifle that he now kept ready at all times and leveled it at her but quickly determined she was of no threat. She squirmed helplessly with the half-wrapped book underneath her. Books were such a rarity that she had never even seen one in person, let alone touched one. Now here she was clumsily aching her way across a distant beach with one, bleeding like a clipped bird. More of the parchment had peeled away. The leather was worn with age, but lovingly. Handbound with care. The title was gold embossed.
United States Air force
LGM-25C Titan II
These words might as well have been runic language on a stone slab. They were meaningless to her. She brushed the book clean of sand as best she could and cradled it lovingly, her mysterious cargo renewing her motivation.
Auva had nothing left in her. She was pale and sweaty and looked on the verge of collapse. Frustrated with their pace, Bran slung her over the back of his horse and sped down the shore. He was sure they were going to be late. The timeline confused him and the more he made this delivery route the fuzzier time got. He had been late before. It was hard to fight fate. Fate always fought back. How many times had he made this trip with her? How many times had he built a fire for an exhausted or panicked girl on the verge of madness or death? Or a confused girl trying to make sense of the change in the constellations? How many times had he seen the outcome of getting it wrong even slightly? He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t deliver the book on his own, but the mysterious man who hired him would neither explain nor identify himself. The money was good but that wasn’t what drove him. What drove him was at the top of the lighthouse. He’d make the trip a million times if it meant being able to see what’s inside.
The lighthouse was bigger now, and far closer, but still swam in her vision as if deciding whether to exist or not.
They reached the base by noon. Auva caressed the white stone wall, almost lovingly. Both a sign of relief and need to confirm it was real. Bran unlocked the door and they both started to climb the steep and winding staircase. As they did, Auva noticed a buzzing noise, a low-level hum that she couldn’t compare to anything she’d ever heard. You would compare it to idling machinery. Large and insistent. The closer they got to the top, there was also a loud screeching noise.
Finally they reached a landing at the top. Bran took her by both shoulders. Auva winced as he pressed hard on her wound.
“Are you ready, girl?”
She had no idea if she was or not. There was a steel door marked
Like the language on the book. Auva steeled herself.
Bran threw open the door.
A bright white room opened before them. Two tables stood in a large office with a glass front. A klaxon alarm pealed. Auva couldn’t have understood it, but this was Arkansas, United States. 1980. 2 men in hazmat suits approached them. Ones who were responsible for a Titan II nuclear Missile. Auva in her torn and bloody dress stepped forward tentatively and held the book out to the strange men in this new reality. The men were panicked, looked to both of them and the book.
All at once the room felt hot and she felt dizzy and ill. She wondered vaguely if that was why the strange men wore the suits.
The men looked at each other then back at Auva and Bran. One of them yelled loud enough to be heard over the Klaxon and through his hazmat suit.
“IT’S TOO LATE. IT’S A LOSS. WE’RE ALL DEAD. WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO TRY AGAIN.”
Bran sighed and dropped his head, pulled his rifle from his side. Auva looked to the men for help, opened her mouth to scream but before any sound could come out, Bran pulled the trigger without hesitation. Calm and practiced.
She fell forward, the book flying out of her hands. He then placed the barrel under his chin
He paused and said grimly
“See you boys in a few.”
and pulled the trigger.
She’d carried it for days. A thick heavy thing wrapped in parchment. Her hands and back ached with the task, and a curious throbbing ache vexed her shoulder. Auva hoped the trip would go quickly.
Fiction © Copyright Michelle Joy Gallagher
Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
More about Michelle Joy Gallagher:
Michelle Joy Gallagher is a poet from Sacramento, CA. She enjoys mixing poetry with other artistic mediums, and pushing her own artistic comfort zones in the process. Using visceral imagery, and playing with the elasticity of language is where she finds herself happiest. She is the author of poetry chapbooks, A New Mourning and S=K log W, her poetry also makes appearances in The Rejected Volume 1 and The Rejected Volume 2 By Stan Konopka, and her story, The Red Woman, will appear in the soon to be released Café Macabre (Leah Lederman and Source Point Press).