The following is the first seven pages or so of my novella, QUEEN, included in the collection FOUR IN THE MORNING along with work by Malon Edwards, Ed Erdelac and Tim Marquitz. It is, of course, available in print and digital formats.
The ground beneath Rita’s feet is blacker than the night around her. The moon is high and full in the tarry sky, but aside from a hazy halo around the orb itself, nothing is illuminated. Everything is thick and black, and she can see nothing but the moon and herself. She’s running without thought of what she might trip over or slam into. She’s scared to death.
Rita doesn’t remember what she’s scared of, not in the slightest. She’s aware of nothing but the pounding of her heart and the slick sweat on her brow and palms. She can’t hear anything, any more than she can see. Maybe she’s left whatever-it-is behind. Maybe it can’t see her, either.
She doesn’t trip or bump into anything, but slides after a moment, heels skidding in what feels like mud. Rita pinwheels her arms, thrusts backward against her gaining momentum and succeeds in doing nothing more than slamming onto her back in the tarry, slimy stuff instead of doing a faceplant. The wind blows out of her like someone opening an airlock.
Then she smells it; almost like the wet compost she spreads in the garden. It makes her think of a freshly-dug grave, though damned if she’s ever smelled one. She feels it; rough fabric against her collarbone and a dry, textured grit against her cheek. Whatever-it-is breathes—at least that’s what it sounds like—and the blackness before her disperses with the rich, meat-tinged air blown in her face.
A hooded figure hunches over her, stroking her skin with bony fingers. She scrambles back, knocking the creature away. The hood falls, revealing a rough, seamed, gleaming skull—Death. The Grim Reaper lunges forward, pinning Rita to the wet, sticky earth beneath her, and cups her chin in one hand. She could look it in the eye, if it had eyes. Instead, she gazes deep into the black, inky pools inside the skull’s sockets.
She sees herself, haggard, drawn, worn out. Her skin sags from her face, her are eyes yellowed and bloodshot, her hair is wild and brittle-looking. No wonder the Reaper is ready to bring her across. She looks like she’s already escaped Death once—but she’s only lived half her life! It isn’t fair! She thrusts her hips, trying to throw the skeleton off, but it’s heavier than she imagined. It braces with its free hand, and takes the other from her chin and plunges it into—
Rita lurched from the pillow as her alarm clock shrieked. She flung her dripping hair out of her face and steadied herself. She was sweating, like in the dream, but cold and damp instead of warm and slick. Slivers of morning sun streaked her rumpled sheets and nightshirt. She watched her hands shake in her lap as she breathed deeply, trying to slow her pounding heart.
“Jesus, Rita,” James said. She watched him step out of the bathroom, throw his damp bath towel onto the bedroom, then cross over to rummage in his dresser for socks and clean underwear. “I really wanted to let you sleep in on your special day, too.”
Ugh. What about what I want? she thought. Hold me? Tell me everything will be okay? Shit. Care enough to pretend I matter.
“It’s over now,” she said. She slipped out of bed, worked her way around her still-foraging husband and dragged her bathrobe from the hook on the back of the bedroom door. “You didn’t think it’d skip a day just because I turned forty-two, did you?” She stalked out of the room and downstairs before he could answer. Not that he would have anyhow. Self-absorbed wasn’t quite the right description for what James had become during the last couple years of their marriage, but not Rita-absorbed in the slightest wasn’t too far off the mark. If she didn’t have enough to deal with already, she’d probably wonder if he was screwing around. If he still loved her, still found her attractive. Hell, she didn’t find herself attractive, so as things stood, she wasn’t quite prepared to pass judgment.
“Hi, Terry,” she said as she stepped into the kitchen. Their teenage son, tousle-haired, eyes half-lidded, was hunched over the counter beside the sink, half-heartedly digging into a bowl of cereal. Rita maneuvered her way to the coffee pot, added fresh grounds and water, and started the brew cycle. “You make sure you don’t take more than half that pot, you hear?” It wasn’t that great for a growing body, but at seventeen, Terry was already the tallest of his friends by a good margin. Besides, with all teachers asked of kids these days, Rita figured he needed the caffeine. As long as they saved two cups for her, he and James could duke it out over the rest of the pot.
“Happy birthday, Mom. Home late tonight. Barry’s going to show me how to do a tune-up.”
Ever since she and James got him that car for his birthday, he spent all of his spare time tinkering with it, or reading about things he could do with it, or working to save up money for the things he could do with it, or hanging out with other guys while they did things with their cars. She’d give him the benefit of the doubt until his next report card, though. They’d rewarded him with a car for a reason, and he did stay up late most nights, pounding away at his homework with heavy metal music turned up as loud as she would allow. Whatever else she and James argued about on a daily basis, they both agreed their son was more efficient and studious than they’d ever been.
Terry gulped down the rest of his cereal, dumped the bowl in the sink, and plucked the half-filled pot from its heating pad. After fixing a large cup, he staggered off to get dressed. Rita prepared her own steaming mug before stepping into the guest bathroom to freshen up. The mirror wasn’t much kinder than Death’s eyes in her dream. Her hair was stringy, and the lines around her eyes and mouth were deeper than they’d been last week. Forty-two. Downhill. She sat on the toilet and guzzled the steaming coffee as she voided her bladder. The coffee burned her throat on the way down, but she didn’t care. It almost felt good, like she was punishing her body for letting her down. By the time she was done, she’d already heard Terry pull out of the driveway and James stomp downstairs and into the kitchen.
“Honey,” she asked him, slipping her arms around his waist as he rooted in the freezer, “Do you still find me attractive?” She had to know, after all.
“You still have to tell me ‘no’ every week, don’t you?” James retorted. He pulled away from her, breakfast sandwich in hand, and popped it into the microwave.
“Not this shit again.” Rita padded off to the living room, hurled herself onto the couch, and turned on the news.
After James left for work, she went to the small office they’d set up at one end of the dining room table and fired up her laptop. She’d bought it for herself on her fortieth birthday, and passed the desktop model she’d shared with James on to Terry. She didn’t envy her son much during the course of his upbringing. She remembered how awkward growing up was, and how happy she’d been to put it behind her. The sole aspect of his growing up that she was truly jealous of was how completely technology had pervaded his life. She’d needed to take basic courses at the local business institute before feeling competent enough to apply for entry-level clerical positions that Terry could probably have waltzed into when he was fourteen. He could change his plans for the evening at the drop of a hat, because all he had to do was pull his phone from his pocket to call and ask permission. Rita definitely saw the benefit in these things, as she saw bright, attractive young women breeze into positions of responsibility over many of her peers, borne on the wings of seemingly-innate technological symbiosis.
She’d always worked hard to stay abreast, and as the supervisor of her firm’s clerical pool, she was in charge of many of these brilliant young ladies herself, right up until the day her company downsized, letting her go in favor of her boss’ best and brightest. In the course of doing this, she’d challenged herself constantly. Online communities, like Craigslist, were one of her newest challenges. The brief glimpses she’d been able to sneak over the past couple of days, while working, showed her an endless supply of opportunities to explore; like-minded hobbyists, people looking for employees, even romance. As she opened the browser and typed in the site’s address, she contemplated that last bit.
James hadn’t exaggerated when he blew her off in the kitchen. At least once a week, he rolled over in bed, stroked her back, kissed her neck, rubbed her breast, only to be brushed aside. She knew what she was doing to him, but she couldn’t help it. She knew she wasn’t sexy anymore. She was loose where she used to be firm and tight, and who knew what sort of grotesque face she’d make in the throes of orgasm with those new lines and wrinkles popping up? At least if she kept him wanting her, he still wanted her. The few times she’d let him take her in the past year, she’d insisted he do it from behind, with the lights off. Even still, she was certain it took him longer to climax these days than it ever had. Maybe she should see what she could do with a stranger; maybe a younger man, with less experience to base his opinion of her on?
Much of the site’s personals section was filled with ads that smacked of scam even to her, with photos of barely-legal men attached to posts advertising middle-aged men, and simple one-line ads like, “I love to make you cum while wearing your stockings.” Even as she sent off a couple of half-hearted emails to men who seemed both real and possibly interesting, she knew she wouldn’t cheat on James. She loved him. She denied his advances because she loved him, because she didn’t want to lose him forever when he finally realized what the years were doing to her. She damn well wasn’t going to give what she had left to some kid who hadn’t given the best years of his life to working alongside her and raising a child, no matter what sort of asshole James was turning into; no matter what she was turning him into.
She set the computer aside long enough to fix her second cup of coffee, then settled back in. Craigslist had much more to offer than just one-night stands with boys wearing her stockings. Maybe she just needed something to do. She didn’t go to church or volunteer anywhere. The computer was her only hobby, and that was only a fairly recent development. She socialized with the mothers of a couple of Terry’s friends, and had a close friendship with one of her former co-workers. Aside from that and some mutual friends of her and James that they saw sparingly, she was insulated. It was possible she could get involved in something new and gain a fresh perspective on life without seeking approval from a throbbing, twenty-year old cock.
The Volunteer section was promising. She could plant trees with a local nature society, or bathe rescue animals. There were a couple of charitable organizations looking for help feeding the needy. Most of her options offered a way to stay busy and find potential companionship with new people. She did like animals, though she and James agreed a pet wouldn’t be a good fit with their lifestyle. She sent a query to the animal-bathers and then went back to browsing. Several items down, a headline caught her attention:
Local Clinic Seeking Volunteers for Age-reversing Treatment.
We’re seeking candidates for the testing of an experimental anti-aging therapy for women. Candidates must pass a brief exam and screening. The study will be conducted afternoons and evenings for the next six months. Candidates must be willing to commit to two sessions a month during this period. The treatment is non-surgical, and will consist of injections, counseling, time-lapse video and photography, and routine blood testing. Watch the wrinkles and sagging melt away!
It was an almost-guaranteed letdown, but Rita sent an email to the listed contact, anyhow. If they weren’t doing anything harmful, it was worth the attempt. She’d be certain to meet other like-minded women. Even if she didn’t make the cut, or decided to walk away from the study, she might make some new friends, ones who’d be certain to understand what she was going through.
She finished her coffee, shut down the computer, and went upstairs to shower. Today was going to be a good day, after all, birthday or no.