Your Own Worst Adversary

I wrote a story that I can relate to personally. So many of us try to make our pain or illness more palatable to others (and ourselves) by resorting to humor. It’s a joke now that millennials suffer from near constant existential crises. Low wages, high costs of living, the crippling weight of student loan debt that so many of us were promised we’d easily pay off. These things are true in many countries around the world, but not all. But for those that do suffer under the weight of the odds stacked against us, I hope this story is cathartic in how you can relate to it. I hope you know you’re not alone.

 

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“I’m both my biggest fan and my biggest enemy,” she said laughing. Her friends all laughed too, agreeing vehemently, comrades in their self-loathing.

Later that night, she sat alone in her bedroom, dirty dishes piled high on her desk, bed linens unwashed these past four months.

“I’m not going to apologize for being me,” she posted on social media as she painted her nails red.

Her worth was exponentially higher than she would ever acknowledge, although her heart yearned to believe it.

Serotonin and dopamine, too low most of the time, spiking only when she gave voice to her pain.

©2019 Heather Stephens

Pray He’s Gullible

Here’s a 100-word story. The prompt was “gullible.”

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“No, my lord. I haven’t told anyone,” the servant girl said as she quivered in fear.

The king-consort pressed up against her, forcing her against the wall as his hands cupped her face. “You do love me, don’t you Yvreta? Have I not rewarded you for your silence and…cooperation?”

She swallowed the bile that rose in her throat. “Yes, your grace.”

But the queen was already on her way with twelve armed men. Six dead girls and finally justice would be served.

He kissed her, his tongue penetrating her mouth.

Survive, she thought, praying he didn’t pick up the knife.

©2019 Heather Stephens

Miraeth

Long time no see, everyone. I’m really sorry about that. After I post this story, I will make a blog post about why I haven’t posted in a while.

But here is a 2300-word short story about a boy in a cave.

Please let me know what you think of it.

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“I find it hard to believe this cave hasn’t been discovered already,” Miraeth said, tossing her golden hair over her shoulder. “It’s probably full of bandits.”

She didn’t sound scared. She just didn’t want to go with me.

“You don’t have to come, coward,” I retorted, shouldering my bag. “Bastion can come with me. I don’t need you.” I patted my dog on the head, and he whined, leaning into the palm of my hand.

She had the nerve to look offended. Her peridot eyes widened, eyes that could be soft and inviting if not for the nerve of the woman who possessed them, a simpering rage infiltrating her aloofness and turning it into an insult. An insult I fully intended, as much as I have loved her since I wore nappies.

“You’ll probably die in there, ” she said, and as her words tumbled out of her mouth, they dripped caustic venom on the forest floor. I smiled when I practically smelled the burning of leaves.

“Perhaps I will. Or perhaps I’ll discover hidden treasure and become the wealthiest man in town. And then I’ll make sure to forget all about you, Miraeth Samperson.” My tone is deceptively casual as I say it. I don’t mean it. I couldn’t mean it.

Sometimes before we went in at night after our work was done, she’d kiss me. “Never tell anyone,” she’d say before pressing her lips to me, her hands roving over my body. A small body for an eighteen-year-old boy. Noah Relard was a bigger man, and he’d had an eye on Miraeth almost as long as I had.

But for some reason, she chose to kiss me. To touch me. But she never let it go to my head, treating me so poorly whenever she wasn’t pressing her lips to mine.

Poison lips. So sweet.

Rewarding my boyish insolence would not do, so she gave me a rude gesture with the fingers of one hand and then stormed off. I tried calling after her. After all, I’d much prefer it if she came with me into the cave than storming through the woods alone.

Ah well. It was only noon anyway. There would be as little danger at this hour than there would ever be.

“Come on Bash,” I said, adjusting the weight of the strap of my bag on my shoulder yet again. It was a nervous tick I had.

The cave was dark almost immediately upon entering. Dark, damp. Typical of caves, really. I rolled my eyes at myself as I fumbled in the light from outside for a match to light the lantern I brought with me, the lantern that was clipped to my belt. Should have done this outside before entering the cave, you vacuous moron, I told myself.

But the lantern was lit, and the golden light that illuminated the black stone walls around me revealed no enemies.

Black stone.

The walls were made of black stone, some sort of obsidian.

Hidden treasure indeed. If the stone was soft enough, I could mine it and sell it. The gleaming ebony rock would make me rich enough to move out of my small town.

Even as I reached for the stone to test its hardness, I hesitated. Moving out of the small town would mean leaving Miraeth. Sassy, sweet, venomous Miraeth.

Unless she agreed to come with me.

I don’t know why she would, but I couldn’t think why she wouldn’t either. She kissed me; she must love me too. Yes, I thought to myself, she would come with me.

Joy resonated through my blood, making it heat and simmer within my veins as I felt the rock. I dug in with my nails, yes, yes, it was soft enough to easily mine.

I was as rich man. And I knew, deep down, that my mum’s troubles were over. No longer would she have to sell the most sacred parts of her to men who mistreated her. She could choose her clients more particularly now.

Other healers used their magic to heal the body. Mum used her body to heal the mind.

But it would take time to hire people to work the mine and to get the equipment sorted. I needed something to bring home to assert my claim on the mine, to validate my authority.

So deeper into the cave, I went. Along the way, I’d pick up small pieces of the black rock and shove them into my bag, still unsure what kind of stone it was. Bastion, loyal Bastion, followed me faithfully, braver even than I.

Deeper and deeper I went, enveloped in the cold embrace of the earth. The blackness was like a living entity of its own, pulsing. Breathing. Breathing like a living god, mightier than the mountain which made up its home, more than a sum of its parts.

It weighed upon me. Heavier than anything I’d ever known. But my life was on the line, and I had much to lose, but more to gain, so in I pressed. Even as my steps became strenuous, even as my shoulders slumped, I pressed in.

Never before had I been so determined to see a task done. Even if I had to crawl, I would reach the back of the cave.

I never noticed it when it began, but after three hours in the cave, the noise in my head was a cacophony of swarming bees. Buzzing and furious. Somehow I had the presence of mind to wonder about Miraeth. Surely she’d be home by now.

I could not worry about her for long. The weight was so heavy upon my shoulders, I fell to my knees, and I would swear the stone floor faltered under the combined weight of my small frame and the entity perched upon my shoulders. Sweat poured over my face, despite the cold dampness. I wondered where the water was that was causing such a dank environment. I had not come across any.

But that was my last thought before preternatural sleepiness overcame me and I almost succumbed to the sweetest slumber I would have ever known.

The buzzing of the bees inside my head quieted just a little, and in that blissful relief, my eyes snapped open.

And then I began to crawl. If I’d had any sense, I’d have crawled out, away from the inky darkness, back to the light of early spring that waited for me outside of the cave. Bastion’s whines begged me to do just that, urgent and high, overcoming even the chaos of the bees.

But I had never been an overly intelligent boy, even less so as a man, so I plunged deeper.

My knees ached with a dozen bruises as I crawled, but I was motivated by an urging so primal and necessary that I did not heed them. My hands were scuffed and raw.

With the abruptness of a falling star illuminating the skies to the delight of the mortal children on the surface of the earth, between one painful shuffle and the next, the buzzing in my head ceased, cut off like the head of a criminal on judgment day.

The loss of it made me retch. I missed its clamor like I missed Miraeth’s venom. Contrary to my own well-being. But I did not vomit. I would never violate the black stone of the ground with my own filth.

Another shuffle forward and the weight was lifted. Every movement forward was rewarded by a lessening of my burden, more and more until once again I was able to stand like a man and face what lied ahead.

There was a light ahead. I could see it, filtering from around a corner. An orange light, like the light of sunset.

A heaving ecstasy filled my heart. I had made it through the womb of the earth. I knew not where I would emerge back into the world of light and air, but to know that I would emerge at all was freedom of its own. With every joy in the world making my steps lighter, I surged forward toward that orange light.

The world I found beyond that corner was not the world into which I’d been born, and lived, and loved.

Did I die in the cave? Was I crushed under the enormous weight of that interminable darkness?

It could not be so. The valley before me was small in size but vast in the sheer amount of life that resides within it. No people, no, and no animals either. Naught but birds. But so many of them.

And there, in the center of the valley, I could see from even at a significant distance, a white bird so colossal in size, it could have been a dragon if dragons were feathered and possessed a beak. That bird was the size of the hill on which I made my home with my mum.

Even from where I stood, at least two miles away, I could feel it watching me as if it were expecting me.

Retreat, my mind urged me, some sort of self-preservation freezing my blood. What lies within the cave would be more merciful that.

But my feet were already moving forward. Only forward. Only. Forward.

Bastion was not with me, but I could not look back to see where he had decided to stay. I would not look back.

Only forward.

The way to the dragon-bird was clear, made only of glimmering peridot-colored grass that looked more like an emerald in the dying light. My steps sounded hollow on the earth as I ruffled through the grass.

The closer I drew to the dragon-bird, the more I noticed about it. It was not seated on a nest or burrow of any sort. No, it was standing, its attention indeed focused on me. It was not white as I had thought, but instead a thousand shades of gray, each individual feather a different hue. Its hooded eyes were blue like the ice that covered the river in the winter.

Its beak. As if pulled from my own nightmares, the pale yellow beak was larger than the head of the dragon-bird, blunt but massive. It could eat my entire town in two bites.

It watched me approach but did not move. Retreat, my mind urged again, but again I took a step forward. Only forward.

And I met the bird’s fearsome gaze and felt the foundations of my character crumble away underneath me.

A thousand lifetimes I lived in that time I stared at it, even as the sun set and darkness overcame the valley. I could not tear away my gaze from that of the dragon-bird, but I did not want to do so anyway. The secrets of the universe were unveiled to me, revealed to me as if I were watching the origins of the universe unfold as if I were a part of its making. As if I could be a part of its unmaking.

No words were spoken, but the offer was blatantly presented. See and learn the patterns of creation, therein would I forge my destiny.

Only forward. I accepted the offer.

There are no words to describe in my mother tongue what I learned that night.

In the end, the bird blinked once, and I was dismissed. Silently I turned around and made my way back the way I came, my lantern long since gone out. But I did not need it. Back over the emerald grass and back into the darkness of the cave, where Bastion waited for me.

The way back after a long journey always seems shorter than one remembers it, and that was true for that night. Effortlessly I navigated the halls of the cave, the black walls, once so rich with possibility, not forgotten, but dismissed.

Back into the world I knew as my own.

I wanted to see Miraeth. I wanted to see Miraeth and offer her a place by my side. I was not burdened by my great destiny; I was gifted with it. I knew the way to her house like I knew the way to my own. Home is where I decided it would be.

I threw a stone at her window, unwilling to spend the time to explain to her parents why I was their house so late. The little pebble bounced off the glass. She did not come.

I threw another one.

She did not come.

The burden of knowing filled me. I knew, but I wanted to see. To allow this to be a lesson to learn to trust in the gift that had been bestowed upon me. If I did not allow myself this pain, the lesson wouldn’t take.

“Go home, Bash,” I directed my faithful friend. He gave me one peculiar look before running in the direction of my small cottage.

I moved to the Samperson barn.

I heard them before I slipped inside to see. Heard the slapping of bodies coming together and the whimpering Miraeth always made when she got what she wanted.

But still, I pushed inside.

The tangling of their limbs made me queasy, even as Miraeth’s startled shame gave her cheeks a rosy glow. “I thought you were dead,” she said to me.

“No, you didn’t,” I replied.

Noah Relard cursed at me. “Leave before I tear your weak arms off,” he threatened. I looked upon him with benign pity.

I turned to the love of my life one final time. “I found my treasure. I would not have forgotten Miraeth Samperson.”

By the time I made it home, the vestiges of a smile had graced my face. The twinges of young heartbreak still echoed within my chest like a bruise being pressed on by the memory of her lips on my skin, but I knew it would pass.

Soon this little town would be left behind as my mum and I made for greener pastures and richer pockets.

The world was mine for the taking.

©2019 Heather Stephens

Roof

The prompt for this one was “roof.” If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I try to avoid expressing things explicitly, choosing instead to allude to sensations and emotions. I hope they come afross clearly.

I get overwhelmed when I attend places with too many stimuli, like Disneyland or a carnival. Busy places with large crowds always exhaust me. People with sensory issues are vulnerable in places like that because the stimuli overwhelm them, and they lose cognitive clarity and sometimes are unable to function safely. Look out for one another in this hectic world.

 

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The bright lights overwhelmed her vision, and her eyes were beginning to hurt. She tried to regain control of her breathing—in, then out. Count to three. In, then out.

It wasn’t working.

She tried to smile warmly at the children shrieking with joy at the attractions, but deep down, she resented them. It was one o’clock on a weekday. Why weren’t these kids at school?

She wanted to go on one more ride, or play one more carnival game, but that wouldn’t happen. She hated that she had to leave, that she wasn’t strong enough to stay. Sensory overload.

©2018 Heather Stephens

Ardia and Sophie

A new blog prompt from Amanda McCormick. This is NSFW, so be warned.

This is a story that takes place the evening before the events in the first chapter of my upcoming book. I have no way of knowing when the book will be released, but hopefully I’ll release it within a year or two.  But enjoy this story, as it can stand alone.

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“I don’t like it when you look at me,” Ardia said, combing her long black hair. “It makes me feel like I did something wrong.”

Ardia’s handmaiden, Sophie, pouted and leaned back on the bed, watching Ardia in the mirror. “Is that because you feel guilty about something?”

Ardia rolled her eyes and tossed the fine hairbrush onto the vanity, the inlaid pearls on the back clattering against the wood. “I have nothing to feel guilty about,” she said, staring into the mirror at her handmaiden’s reflection. She watched as Sophie stood and prowled to her side like a ginger tomcat.

Her handmaiden bent down wrapping her arms around Ardia’s shoulders, whispering into her ear, “You’re abandoning me.” A playful accusation that Ardia knew belied Sophie’s true feelings. A glance at Sophie’s aura told her she was correct. Blue sorrow bloomed within the cloud above her head.

“You’ll be there with me,” the heiress tried to reply, but her servant stepped away. Ardia rose to follow her, grabbing her wrist. Sophie struggled against her, but could not get away. Ardia knew she wasn’t really trying because her servant had at least four inches of height on her as well as the muscle tone from a lifetime of service. If she’d wanted to get away, she would have.

Ardia murmured, “Please don’t hate me,” before pressing her lips against her servant’s. Sophie whimpered into the kiss, taking a step to the side, making them both fall onto the bed. She fumbled with the strings on Ardia’s nightgown, desperate to pull it apart and reveal the heiress’s curves.

Sophie was but a servant, but she knew Ardia better than anyone, and she doubted the heiress’s future husband would be as intimate with her. Men do not understand the concept of intimacy, only rutting like beasts.

In a way, Ardia would always belong to Sophie. She was her first kiss, her first exploration into the magic that was a woman’s sexuality. No matter how high Ardia’s star rose in the sky, she’d always remember Sophie.

No highborn husband with no doubt bland tastes like hunting would replace her.

Tahm sil Aldrich. Lottie remembered when he and his brother Perael came to sil Varstra while Ardia was still away at University. She’d listened in on their discussion as best she could, but all she gathered was that Olivia sil Aldrich was eager to marry Ardia off. First she’d requested Perael take Ardia’s hand, but he’d refused. Olivia had taken it as an outrage—it would be decades before Tahm inherited sil Aldrich, so why should a direct heiress of the most advantageous estate marry him?—but Perael had murmured something so quietly, Sophie hadn’t heard. But Olivia had given in.

Sophie knew this marriage was coming long before Ardia did.

So why did it hurt so much?

She wondered that as she tugged at the threads of Ardia’s nightgown, as she placed her lips on Ardia’s skin, as she used her nails to tug at Ardia’s hair. She needed Ardia to know, telling her with her urgency, that she only did not want to be forgotten.

Ardia was not in love with her, Sophie knew that. Ardia was too pragmatic to open herself up to love with someone so far below her station. Still, Sophie cherished every little secret they shared, and the time they spent together intertwined in the candlelight.

She moved down between Ardia’s legs, tasting her. Before rewarding the heiress’s bad behavior in refusing to acknowledge Sophie’s pain, she bit down on the inside of her lover’s thigh. Ardia gasped, clenching the blanket her hands. The bite turned an angry shade of red. Satisfied, Sophie gave in and gave Ardia a climax she’d remember all the way until she reached Cantrop.

She climbed up on the bed, pulling Ardia’s languid body with her until they were both nestled on the pillows. Ardia’s forehead was beaded with the sweat of intimacy. Sleepily, the future Duchess muttered, “I’m only doing as I’m told,” begging again for absolution.

Sophie did not grant it. Instead, she whispered, “I know. One day you won’t be beholden to anyone.”

“As long as you’re with me,” Ardia whispered back.

©2018 Heather Stephens

Pytir and Trelen

Please enjoy this brief 600-word story, inspired by a prompt from my writing Discord.

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Pytir knew it was a dream. Only in a dream would he face down his brother, his heir, the only light in the darkness that was his life. Only in a dream would he strike him down in a gilded morgue, as though it was a suitable place to die.

Waking from his nightmare offered no relief.

He’d tried for so many years not to see what was happening before his eyes. He turned his face away every time, turned his back on the helpless women who’d fallen under his brother’s spell.

Trelen wasn’t violent, never that. His was a silent wrath, deft hands making quick work of a mewling girl, manipulating her until she was as malleable as soft clay in his grasp. Then he’d throw the girls away, smiling as their tears glistened on their faces, dismissing them from service and sending them to another village out of his sight.

Pytir thought Trelen was addicted to the game of it. His brother was more than capable of spending his life in service to his estate, helping Pytir complete the tasks that were his to finish. But instead, Trelen spent his days either with his girls or out hunting. Everything was a game for him.

“I’m not old yet,” Pytir would try to tell himself. “I have time to change his ways. I’ll request his aid next month. Let him be young a while longer,” he’d say.

But next month never came. Instead it would pass, the months turning into years and while Pytir did not age as normal men aged, the waste of it all got to him. Seventeen years of games and women and hundreds of dead animals brought for opulent feasts for no discernible occasion, and Pytir had nothing to show for any of it.

Nothing, save the corpses of animals and barrels of tears.

Tonight he’d try again. Trelen had dismissed another girl last night, a raven-haired seamstress apprenticed to his tailor, who wasn’t pleased with the whole thing. Trelen had crossed a line, an invisible boundary. But was it really his fault? Pytir had never expressly forbidden his dalliances, nor had he specified with whom they could occur. He couldn’t punish his brother, but perhaps it was time to abdicate a little responsibility into Trelen’s hands.

Pytir’s brown eyes glanced up at his fair-haired brother over the roasted carcass of a wild hog. He’d lost his taste for game long ago, but he thought he’d try to savor it tonight in an effort to butter up his wild brother.

“The stewards of the north and west vineyards say it’s time to take account of the barrels before we bottle the wine,” Pytir said.

“Sounds like you’ll have a full day tomorrow,” Trelen replied.

Pytir pursed his lips and took another bite. It tasted like ash. “I think you should do it. You’re younger than I am, and I’m sure it would take you no time at all.”

The heir to the estate pouted. “Counting barrels is so boring. Renaldo and Brewa have been with us for decades. We can trust their numbers.”

“That isn’t the way we do things—” Pytir began, but Trelen was already wiping his mouth with a napkin and rising to his feet.

“I’ll do it next year, brother,” he said dismissively, sweeping out of the room like a fleeing dove.

Pytir sat for a moment in silence before throwing his fork against the far wall. The clatter echoed but was unheard by either of the two brothers as he left through the other door.

Another year of this. Another year, wasted like so much tasteless pork.

Freedom

A new story. Bittersweet this time. The prompt was “freedom.

I’ve been swamped with schoolwork, but it didn’t feel right to me to write about being free from school. As inspiring as a story about a graduation after years of struggle would be, it just didn’t fit in my mind. And, of course, look around you. I wasn’t going to write about patriotic freedom either.

So I found some other inspiration.

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She never thought she’d be okay again.

She’d grown accustomed to his warmth, his lingering presence. Sleeping alone was foreign to her, and she got no rest the first and second nights.

But on the third, she found she was already starting to spread out as she slept instead of sticking to the left side, her side.

The whole bed was her side now.

It wasn’t what she expected. It certainly wasn’t what she wanted. But she had always prided herself on her tenacity and drive to work with what she had. She made her own destiny.

Slowly happy again.

©2018 Heather Stephens

Villein

The prompt for this week from Thin Spiral Notebook was villein, which means “a feudal servant entirely subject to a lord.”

This story is open for your interpretation. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the subtext, who these characters are, what they want.

 

 

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She blinked up at him demurely, batted her eyelashes.

The blond man smiled at her. What a pretty thing, he thought. What a pretty, little, stupid thing.

He pulled her closer, sliding his hand from the small of her back to rest on her behind. She tittered sweetly.

“My lord, we mustn’t. I heard your brother, he said you’re not allowed—”

He captured her mouth with his, silencing her.

She melted into his arms, like he knew she would.

He could always tell when a woman needed his help. A night with the heir grants commoners a little status.

©2018 Heather Stephens

Body Image

For school, I’m reading a lot of literature about body image in both men and women, boys and girls. It got me thinking, so I wrote this.

 

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She prepares her breakfast at ten in the morning. A little late, but she’d foregone the alarm today on purpose.

Self-care is allowing yourself the freedom to exist as is.

Months ago, she skipped breakfast most days. And lunch. She’d have lean protein and vegetables for dinner.

But today she is having a breakfast burrito. She had the same thing yesterday. She will likely have the same thing tomorrow.

She loves the way her hair now gleams in the sunlight. She loves the way her thighs now touch. She loves herself. Genuinely.

Self-care is living life on your own terms.

©2018 Heather Stephens

Mule

The prompt was mule. One of the definitions of the word mule is:

a hybrid plant or animal, especially a sterile one.

 

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My mother was a sex worker. My father was a married man, well-respected in his industry. I’m not sure where that leaves me. My mom did the best she could to support me, but when she died, she didn’t leave me with any knowledge of how to take care of myself.

So I turned to him.

My father didn’t want anything to do with me, but he was wealthy enough to give me a stipend every month, so at least I could eat.

Then he died too, and I was left to go hungry.

I don’t know who I am.

©2018 Heather Stephens