Chuck Wendig does these great flash fiction challenges over at his blog “Terrible Minds” Definitely worth checking out. This is the first time I took on one of his challenges and since he only allows 1,000 words I was delighted by how much it makes me concentrate on writing leaner prose. Thanks, Chuck!
Anyway, this challenge’s requirement (besides length) is to involve a dead body right from the start. Here’s what I came up with. Enjoy!
Running on the beach in the middle of the night is an odd experience in and of itself, but doing it while high on Briar Patch was as close to an out of body experience as Cherny could get. His heart hammered in his chest and his ears filled with the rolling of the surf and the pumping of his blood. The breeze pushed against him and offered to teach him to fly. He spread his arms and attempted to take flight, but instead tripped over someone lying half-buried in the sand. Cherny flung out his hands and landed hard.
“Aw, shit. Sorry!” Cherny said as he scrambled to his knees and turned to look at the man he had run over. He wasn’t moving.
“Cherny.” Tabit jogged to a stop. As she caught her breath, she looked looked at the man.
“Dunno.” Tabit tucked her hair behind her ears and bent over the man. “Hey, mister. You awake?”
Cherny crawled closer and sat down. Half of the man was hidden in the sand. His skin was an unhealthy gray.
“I think he’s dead,” Tabit said. She knelt down and leaned closer. “Yeah, I don’t think he’s breathing.”
“What if he’s just breathing like… really small?”
“Like sometimes, I’ll look at my cat and think she might be dead, because I don’t see her chest moving at all, you know? But then I get up close and see she’s just breathing really small breaths.”
“He’s not a fucking cat!”
“Well, obviously. I’m not saying he’s a fucking cat, am I? I’m just saying he might not be dead.”
“Well, he’s not sleeping. I’m pretty sure he’s not breathing. I’ll check for a pulse-“
“Don’t touch him! It’s bad luck to touch dead people!”
“I thought you said he was sleeping?”
“Well… I changed my mind.”
“He’s dead, Cherny. We have to tell someone.”
“Because that’s what you do when you find dead people on the beach in the middle of the night.”
“Says who?” Cherny’s Briar Patch buzz was turning sour in his stomach. He rubbed it and squinted at Tabit.
“It just seems the right thing to do is all,” she said. “I mean, I’d tell someone if I found you dead on the beach.”
“Well that’s different! You’re my girlfriend!”
“Well, let’s say if it was Treedy or Garver or Sund? Or anyone from the Docks for that matter.”
“That’s different, too. We’re Aelfans. Of course, I’d tell someone. But he’s a Huthan, plain as day.”
“So if we tell someone we found a dead Huthan, we’d get hauled away and thrown in a cell. You know how much they hate us.”
“Wonder why they’re so hairy…” Tabit reached out to touch the dead man’s wiry beard, but Cherny slapped her hand away. She glared at him and rubbed her wrist. “Don’t know what you’re so scared of.”
“It’s bad luck is all,” Cherny mumbled. “Anyway, they’re hairy because they all come from up north. Up in the mountains.”
“I thought they came from the west?”
“Maybe… Maybe I was thinking of Durfans. Those are hairy, too. Still, I suppose they could have mountains out west.”
“Well, what about Samael? We could tell him.”
“The constable? He’d tell the Huthans for sure.”
“Well, yeah, but then it’d be him doing the telling, right? Besides, he’s an Aelfan. We can trust him.”
“S’pose…” Cherny mumbled. Something glinted in the sand near the corpse’s exposed hand. Cherny brushed some sand away and saw it was a gold chain. He pulled on it and found it was wrapped around the man’s waist like a belt.
“Oh look!” Tabit exclaimed. “He’s opened his eyes!”
“What?” Cherny looked at the man’s face and saw the eyelids had opened, but there was something strange about the eyes. They had no pupils. “Oh. He’s still asleep. He must have been sleepwalking. See? I told you.”
A hand shot out of the sand and seized Tabit’s neck. She gurgled a surprised scream. Cherny reached out to help, but the man’s other hand came up and gripped him by the throat. As Cherny clawed at the ice cold grip, he saw the man’s mouth gape. Several small sand crabs and dune beetles scurried out of the desiccated black orifice.
Cherny attempted a scream, but when that didn’t work he reached behind his back and took out his shucking knife. He slashed and stabbed at the arm holding him, but it seemed to have little effect. Finally, with spots starting to float in front of his eyes, Cherny remembered how his shucking knife was meant to be used. He shoved the blade deep into the man’s wrist and applied enough pressure to cut through rotting muscle and sinew and push bones out of joints.
Working the blade back and forth, he finally severed the hand from the arm and it immediately fell to the sand and looked as dead as it should. Cherny gasped and rolled away. He took a moment to thank the old gods and the new, but then remembered Tabit. She had her legs in front of her and was frantically kicking at the dead man’s face and shoulders, but he was slowly pulling her towards his decaying mouth as her strength failed.
Cherny jumped on the corpse’s chest and put his knee to its throat. After that he put his knife back to work and soon Tabit was rolling away and coughing and gasping. Cherny dove away as the handless monster flailed in the sand. It attempted to pull itself up, but seemed to be losing energy.
Cherny didn’t wait to see if it ever was going to recover. He pulled Tabit to her feet and they stumbled as fast as they could off the beach and into the Docks District.
“See?” Cherny said as they ran through alleys and across deserted streets. “I told you it was bad luck to touch a dead guy.”