[FGC#4] Birthed

This week’s installment of the Form and Genre Challenge
FGC#4: write in the action-adventure genre
Word limit: 3000 words.

A low guttural cry tore through the cavernous interior of the abandoned Tavern on the Green and the hairs on Sylvie’s bare arms rose. The fire surged in the broken fireplace and a gust of wind rose from nowhere, extinguishing all the candles. She shuddered and tried to ignore the insidious feeling something was trying to get in. Something a drawn bolt and a chair beneath the knob wouldn’t keep out.

“Back off,” Sylvie hissed, picking up the scalpel lying beside her and pointing it in the direction of the ebony-haired Priestess inching closer, trying to see how far the baby had emerged. “I mean it.”

The Priestess retreated to the shadows, leaving her two Sisters supporting the laboring girl between them under Sylvie’s baleful glare.

They think I’m young and inexperienced. They think they can intimidate me. They don’t know how much I want what’s on the other side this. What I’m willing to do to get it.

Sylvie looked back to the pale legs and bottom hanging in the space between the tattered rug and the birthing girl. Two more contractions and the girl would birth the first child and then the Priestesses would be upon them. She wouldn’t be able to protect herself, much less the baby and the girl.

Where are you, Marcus? I should have kept you close. Not sent you away for the rest of my gear. But how was I to know? If only I’d ignored the summons. Taken the car and driven away.

It didn’t matter now.

Hurry, Marcus, please.

“You are doing beautifully,” Sylvie said when the contraction ended, grateful the dark hid the track marks up the girl’s skinny arms and the lips blistered from the raw garlic the Priestesses forced her to eat before Sylvie arrived.

Too young to be fucked up on Oblivion and caught in some cult.

The girl shook her head and panted. “I’m scared. It’s coming. It feels wrong. I’m burning—”

“Shhhh. You’re fine,” Sylvie crooned, gently wiping her burning face with a cool cloth. “Birthing is hard work.” She leant in so only the girl could hear and said, “Just two more contractions.”

She felt the girl tense up and squeezed her arm in solidarity, caressing her face and arms, urging her to relax.

I promised I’d keep you and your babes safe. And I will. Somehow.

On the next contraction, the girl grunted and fought against it. Sylvie leaned in, whispering words of encouragement, coaching her to breathe. When the girl finally surrendered, the baby’s stomach, rib cage and shoulders slid down. Sylvie checked the cord for a prolapse and the girl’s racing pulse, then sat back to wait for the final contractions, pushing aside the deathly sixth sense crawling over her skin like a plague of bugs.

Marcus. For Godsake. What’s keeping you? I can’t do this alone.

The contraction started and the girl screamed, losing herself to the terror she had barely contained throughout the labour. She lashed out and tried to stand. The ebony Priestess grabbed her arms and pinned them behind her, forcing her back onto the lap of the other Priestess. Sylvie reached beneath the girl and a moment later, the warm, wet skin of the baby hit her outstretched hands.

The baby opened its eyes and seconds later cried loudly, accompanied by its mother’s soft sobs. Sylvie worked quickly to tie off the cord and sever it, keeping herself between the baby and where she had last seen the ebony Priestess.

“Lie her back,” Sylvie said and the blonde and auburn priestesses threw the girl backward into the pile of cushions and blankets and stood, muttering curses and stretching stiff limbs.

Sylvie held the baby up. “He’s normal. Oh my God, he’s normal,” the girl cried, reaching her hand out. “My baby. My baby.”

Sylvie placed the baby on the girl’s stomach and the Priestesses closed in. Sylvie reached backward, her fingers searching for the scalpel.

Hell, where did I put it?

The Priestesses watched, transfixed by the baby’s slow crawl along the girl’s stomach, her fingers gently stroked his back. Loving words cooing from her lips. The baby reached her chest and she drew it into her arms, his tiny mouth finding her nipple and closing around it, sucking furiously.

The blonde Priestess, standing closest, moved to grab the baby, but as her hands closed in, the girl screamed, her body stiffening. The Priestess pulled back and fell over the feet of one of her Sisters.

“You can birth the second one here,” Sylvie said. Raising one of the girl’s emaciated legs to give the second baby room, she saw for the first time the tide of blood soaking into the old blankets and towels, inching its way across the bare boards towards her.

“Get my kit,” she yelled at the auburn priestess, closest to her battered kit. “She’s going to die. And the other baby.”

The Priestess didn’t move. “We have one live baby. The prophecy said—”

“Fuck the prophecy. I’ve never lost a mother and I’m not about to now.”

“Our work is done. We finished what Teleia started.”

The blonde priestess lunged and dragged the baby from its mother, passing it up to the hands of her ebony Sister, her arcane robe dripping with the girl’s blood when she stood.

The girl convulsed again and the Priestesses smiled, watching Sylvie caught between saving the mother and unborn twin, and reclaiming the baby held in the ebony Priestess’s arms.

“Marcus,” she yelled. “Marcus!”

Just break down the bloody door. Do what you did out there when those creatures were about to kill me!

“He won’t be back. Teleia took care of him,” the auburn one said, taking one last look at the blood and the convulsing girl. “And now, the Prophecy has been fulfilled. Vengeance is ours.”

Sylvie ignored them and let them leave. She couldn’t abandon the girl now. She knelt beside her head. “You stay with me… you stay with me,” Sylvie urged the girl, lightly slapping her cheeks. “I promised I’d keep you safe.”

The girl’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and her body shook before Sylvie got hold of her kit bag and the drugs she needed. When the girl’s eyes rolled back, the pupils were gone and the irises bleached of colour.

“Shit!”

She dropped the head and lurched back, watching in horror as the girl twisted and writhed in impossible ways. With a primeval roar, the girl threw her legs apart and arched her back, her womb disgorging the second baby in one massive contraction.

The second baby opened its mouth and howled an angry salutation as an explosion loosened a thick layer of plaster-dust.

Ignoring the instinct to run and put as much distance between the girl-thing and the building disintegrating around them both, Sylvie instead inched toward the prone girl and howling baby, crawling through the pool of warm blood. Her hands moved frantically across the wet floor, searching for the scalpel and string. When she thought it hopeless, the room lit up, the filthy panes in the French doors filling with iridescent green light. She located her kit and found a new length of string before the light faded and a series of explosions rocked the old restaurant, sending fresh showers of choking plaster over her.

I’ve got to get us out before this whole place comes down.

In the dark, she tied the string and waited for the next flare of light to find her scalpel, assessing the baby as best she could from touch. Even though the girl lay still, Sylvie heard the pop and grind of bones moving, accompanied by shallow gasping breaths. Sylvie knew the girl was changing into one of the creatures that had hunted her when she’d first driven into the Dead Zone. Before Mutt appeared. Before Marcus.

That old crone couldn’t have killed Marcus. Not if those creatures out there couldn’t. Or wouldn’t? Where are you, Marcus? I can’t do this. I can’t. Can’t.

And her thinking stilled.

I’m just thinking like a woman in transition, screaming I can’t, begging for help. Thinking I’m going to die. It’s just transition. They don’t die. And I won’t either.

In the next wave of light, she forced herself to find the scalpel in the congealing slick and wiped it dry on her singlet. She cut the baby free with a shaking hand, and slipped her hands under its bottom and head, bringing it to her chest and running for the open door before the next round of explosions.

The ceiling collapsed with the next detonation and a beam clipped Sylvie’s shoulder, tearing the joint from the socket and knocking her onto her back, punching the air from her lungs. She clutched at the baby with her uninjured arm.

Before the dust settled, flares lit the room, revealing the girl-thing crouched several feet away, a single milky orb staring at Sylvie. A section of ceiling had smashed the other side of her face. The baby wailed and the girl cocked her head to the side, rising slowly. The girl had not only survived the massive haemorrhage, but stood several feet taller, her limbs elongated and the deathly pallor of her skin had been replaced with a mottled red and purple hue.

“My baby,” the girl-thing said, the words distorted but recognisable. She took a faltering step in Sylvie’s direction, unsure in her new body.

“I’m only… protecting your baby,” Sylvie panted, the pain spreading from her shoulder into her chest. “I promised… I would… keep you… and your babies… safe.”

“My ba-by?” The girl-thing took several more steps forward.

Sylvie slid across the floor on her back, away from the girl-thing, and pushed against the wall when she reached it, trying to use it as a brace to stand. She screamed and slid down, the pain unbearable.

The girl walked to where she lay and looked down. “M-y. B-a-b-y.”

Sylvie tried again to stand, this time leaving a smear of blood behind on the wall. The beam had torn more than the joint. The girl-thing sniffed and Sylvie flinched, remembering how she’d been invisible to the orb-eyed creatures until she’d cut her arm trying to climb out the smashed rear window of her car after the electric locks seized. Then, with fresh blood on the air, the creatures had converged.

“Please don’t hurt me,” Sylvie said, her voice barely audible. She clenched her teeth and reached up with her damaged arm. “Help me up. I can get us both out of here. I know you’re still in there. You’re not one of them.”

The girl-thing’s face contorted and her human-like fingers flexed and released. Flexed and released.

“Please. Marcus will take us both out of here. Somewhere safe.”

The girl-thing reached down, icy digits closing around Sylvie’s.

The door shattered inward and a torch beam swept the room. The girl turned and recoiled from the light. A single shot thundered and the girl stood headless for a moment, then collapsed, Sylvie’s hand still in hers.

“Stand up,” the man said, motioning with his rifle, the beam dancing madly.

Sylvie pulled her hand free and glared into the binding light. “You bastard. She wasn’t dangerous.”

“Sylvie Jorgenssen?”

“Who the hell wants to know?”

He dropped the torch from her eyes and turned his back, pulling a walkie-talkie from his pocket.

“Alpha-Capa to base.”

“Base to Alpha-Capa.”

Sylvie shuffled forward on her knees, using the light from the rifle to guide her. There. The scalpel. And a blanket.

“I’ve got the midwife and the baby. Can’t see the mother.”

She wrapped the baby as best she could, cradling it in her busted arm.

“There was one of those things in here. Lots of fucking blood—”

She clasped the scalpel between her teeth and got to her feet. It was only then she saw the black and grey pattern of the man’s combat pants and knew it was over.

Mulholland’s raised an army to get me.

“—think it must have killed the mother. Was going for the midwife.”

Sylvie moved backward toward the French doors—

“Bring her in. Alive,” the voice squawked.

—and reaching them, kicked as hard as she could. The solider spun around, bringing his rifle up. The decayed wood gave way, panes dropping to the floor, but the opening wasn’t big enough for Sylvie and the child to escape.

“Turn around! Don’t move or I’ll shoot.”

Sylvie turned, taking the scalpel from between her teeth. “Your commander told you not to shoot.”

She held the scalpel in front of her and kicked backward with her boot. More of the door gave way, but each jolt sent a new wave of pain through her shoulder and chest, and her grip on the baby weakened.

In one smooth move, the soldier shouldered his rifle and pulled a tazer from his pocket. Chunks of plaster crunched beneath his heavy boots with each footfall. Blue electric tongues licked at the air, tasting the ever decreasing distance to her.

“Please. No.” She dropped the scalpel, knowing the current was calibrated for an adult and would kill the baby. “Please. I have a baby. I’ll come peacefully.”

The fire leapt in the fireplace, as though the smouldering ruins momentarily fed on petrol, casting chaotic shadows on faded wallpaper. The soldier turned too late and Marcus’s forearm crushed his throat, and in a single fluid movement, he caught the soldier’s falling head and twisted it. The sound of vertebra snapping preceded the thump of the soldier’s body hitting the floorboards.

Marcus didn’t stop to check the soldier, or give the dead girl-thing more than a fleeting look. His focus remained on Sylvie and getting her out before the building collapsed. He picked up a discarded coat from the floor and kicked out the remainder of the French doors, hustling Sylvie out, leading her through the courtyard and into an area away from the building. She slumped against a rusted garbage hopper as the iconic building imploded behind.

Marcus pulled the cover off a manhole. “You’re going down. It’s the only safe place for you.” He took off his t-shirt and tore it into one long piece of material. “Tie the baby to you and then put on the coat.”

“Tie the baby on,” she laughed, a terrible cutting sound. “If you haven’t noticed my shoulder is shattered.”

“I can heal your shoulder.”

“It’s stuffed.”

“Put the baby down and I’ll sort it out.”

“You’re not listening—”

“No, Sylvie. You are not listening. Put the damn baby down and let me see to your shoulder. Unless you want to be target practise for Mulholland’s troops.”

Marcus put the coat on the ground and his torn t-shirt. Sylvie laid the baby on top.

“Look away,” he said, and Sylvie turned to stare at the fence, waiting for the pain of his probing fingers to assess the damage and the pronouncement nothing could be done. The area warmed at his touch and she felt dizzy. A vortex opened in her shoulder, pulling bone and flesh inward, knitting it together, while she sipped a cup of her mother’s grappa. Before Sylvie grasped the implausibility and constructed a logical explanation, the sensation ceased. She reached for the injured shoulder and ran her fingers over the smooth skin. Rotated the joint.

“It’ll get you down the ladders. Maybe further.” He stepped away, and caught the look of amazement. “You’ll still go through the natural healing process.”

“How did you—”

A volley of flares streaked overhead and he turned. Sylvie saw two vicious scars, raised and jagged, running the length of his shoulder blades.

“Where my wings were.” She traced the ridge of one with her finger, the topography of the shattered bones. “When I fell, the Government dropped the virus on the Occupiers. Central Park became the Dead Zone.”

“Wings? Marcus, I—”

“Listen to me, Sylvie.” He turned to her and seized her upper arms. “My presence draws mayhem and malevolence, magnifies it. This fighting, this is what fallen angels bring. There’s no Devil, just my kind walking among yours, drawing out evil. Feeding off it.”

“You’re… feeding off this?”

“Not any more.” He released her and stepped back. “Get dressed.”

“Come with me.”

“Not until the fighting is over.”

Sylvie took off her stained singlet, unwrapped the baby and placed it on her bare chest. Skin to skin. Marcus passed the length of material and waited for her to position it over the infant.

“Okay. Tie it.”

Sylvie felt the air crackling with static electricity and Marcus’s breath hot and shallow in her ear. “You’ve no idea how hard it is for me to be this close to a baby.”

“I trust you.”

The material stretched, tightened and automatic gunfire erupted close by. He completed the knot, and picked up the damp coat. “The manhole ladder leads directly into a series of service tunnels beneath the main ones. Keep turning right until you can go no further and wait.”

“Keep turning right. I’ll go around in circles.”

“No you won’t.”

Bullets tore through the fence surrounding the courtyard and Marcus dragged Sylvie down behind the hopper, stray bullets ricocheting off the metal.

“Hurry. Get dressed. They’re closer than I thought.”

Sylvie pulled the singlet over the wrapping and then the coat, testing the sleeves as makeshift gloves. Marcus helped her into the manhole.

“Before I go,” Sylvie said, reaching up to touch his hand. “Was there actually a prophecy?”

“No.” Marcus shook his head and leaned down to kiss her forehead. “Go. I’ll see you soon.”

He lay on the frozen ground, watching the darkness swallow her, knowing he’d lied. He didn’t know if Teleia had succeeded in engineering the babies to carry a new form of rage virus. All he could do was hope the infant didn’t kill Sylvie before he got back to her. His salvation counted on it.

Final Word Count: 2999

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Many thanks to my writing partner Laura Meyer for ensuring I wrote something this week (of quality), to Chris Chartrand who ensured it didn’t suck and Toni Rakestraw who ensured  a clean final copy.

What I Left to Forget

Charlotte Mackay thumped a sweaty fist against the steering wheel and swore loud enough for the elderly woman in the nearby Morris Minor to hear. She ignored the raised eyebrows. Mouthing ‘fuck you’ as she turned back to glare at the temperature gauge and cut the engine. Ahead, the traffic jam stretched into the melting horizon.

She wanted to escape. Sit on the veranda with a cold beer pressed against the back of her neck, the bitter taste cooling the inside of her parched mouth. Most of all she wanted to ring Jake—to hell with Grayson’s threat.

What the fuck did Grayson expect her to do? She couldn’t trawl the live music scene and remain unattached indefinitely. At some point she needed to hook up to fit in. People talked and she needed to be invisible. Would he have cared so much if she’d got a girlfriend?

“Your relationship with de Brito compromises your position,” Grayon had bellowed at her, small missiles of spit spraying from his mouth.

Why couldn’t Grayson see the benefits of a high profile lover:  a whole new level of access to people, places and sources for her. Doors opened for Jake de Brito and she stepped through them.

She rifled through the detritus on the passenger seat, throwing gig fliers, empty film canisters and assorted tapes into the footwell until she found Jake’s mix tape.  The cassette slid into the tape player and she turned the ignition on and the sound up. Closed her eyes and tried to figure out what to do.

The opening synth bars crackled through the ancient speakers. Four bars in, the cello’s notes, full of longing, took up the melody.

She sighed. The song reminded her of the cello sitting in the corner of Jake’s bedroom. It wasn’t what she expected… a grunge god trained as a classical cellist.  Or for him to seduce her with it: pulling her into his lap and positioning the cello between her thighs, his hand beneath hers, fingers moving over the strings. Even now she could feel the slow back and forth motion of the bow.

A horn blast from behind ejected her from Jake’s musty room, away from his naked tattooed body, back into the metal columns, melting in the combined heat mirage of the exhaust fumes and sun.

She blinked against the light and turned the Datsun 180’s engine over, eased the clutch out, coasted forward a car length and cut the engine again. She didn’t want to listen to the tape. She was having enough trouble thinking straight and the tape took her back to the night Jack pressed it into her hand back stage… and the raw memory of a young man she once made a different type of music with.

“Don’t, like, judge me for the first song,” Jake had said to her that night. “It was on the radio the first time I saw you. You were watching us through your camera. To me it’s, you know… our song. Not very rock and roll, eh?”

She had stared at the track listing.

I Just Died In Your Arms? sounds like a death wish,” she’d said. Thinking: it’s a warning.

He burst out laughing, throwing his head back. “This is why I love ya Charlotte.” When he reached for her, she went rigid. “I’m sorry. I’m coming on a bit much, aren’t I?”

She should’ve got the hell away from him then. Run. A. Mile. But she didn’t! The temptation overwhelming. He was overwhelming.

But Jake de Brito, the Jake de Brito had said he loved her?

And she’d struggled to remain focused. Detatched. Professional.

“It’s been a while,” she finally said to him and kissed him lightly on the cheek, flattered by his attention and appalled by how it made her feel. How it changed things.

She hadn’t known being with Jake would make her feel so lonely. Why didn’t someone let her know the trajectory of loneliness went from benign to malignant when you lay naked near someone, feeling the rise and fall of their chest, breath whistling in and out. All the hours spent alone welled up with the inhalation,  dissipating with the exhalation. But she feared without him the loneliness would swallow her whole.

Fuck. She had to focus. Had to stop Grayson breathing down her neck.

“He is a person of interest.” That’s what it all came down to in Grayson’s books. “If it’s a fuck you need Mackay, get a prostitute.”

“And I’d be able to claim a male hooker as a legitimate business expense, sir?”

“Understand this, Mackay.” He leaned so far forward the sweat on his forehead caught her reflection. “You have 24 hours to end your relationship with de Brito, or I will do it for you. You came here promising much, Mackay. Focus or else you’ll leave here scraping up what’s left of your reputation.”

Fuck Grayson. He would never again question her commitment.

The time for fence-sitting was over. She might not know if she loved Jake or not, but it wasn’t her who needed to make a decision tonight. Time had run out for them. Tonight, it was business. She’d make Jake understand one way or the other. Cold. Logical. They’d get it straight and then they’d move on. Start again.

She gunned the engine, mounting the footpath and turning into the next laneway, driving too fast, her impatience barely in check. Three blocks on she found a park, grabbed her bag and stopped at the first payphone, the coins dropping when the answering machine picked up.

“Hey babe. I’m running late. Traffic! We need to talk—serious—when I get to your place. I’ll be there soon.”

There. He had ample warning.

She caught the next tram back into the city, changed at Swanston for Brunswick and ran the last four blocks to his house in the fading heat, her white sundress dark with fresh sweat.

The front door stood ajar and she caught her breath before poking her head in, calling out. His ambivalence toward security meant he couldn’t be bothered to shut the front door, much less lock it and she often found groupies in the lounge room, Jake oblivious to their presence.

“Jake?”

She pushed the door open. The smell of bolognaise sauce simmering in the kitchen made her stomach rumble.

“Babe?”

When he didn’t answer and no one giggled in the lounge room, she slipped into the bedroom, taking in the cello in the corner, the left-over tangle of bed clothes in the centre of old iron framed bed, her clothes scattered on the floor. Familiar. Comforting.

She knelt on the floor and pulled a pair of red gloves from her bag, the soft leather sticking to her hands when she pulled them on.  Reaching into the dusty space, she found the brief case and dragged it out. She aligned the dials on the lock and flicked open the top. A small pistol caught the fading light slicing down through the venetian blinds. She left the silencer, took the pistol and the four bags of cocaine, closed and slid the case back under the bed.

“Babe?”

She walked down the hallway and into the huge, stuffy lounge room. His guitar lay abandoned on the couch, an overflowing ashtray holding down one corner of a scrap of paper, random lyrics and chords scribbled in pencil. A warm glass of coke sat next to it. Under the closed window the answering machine flashed. She cleared the messages and ejected the tape, slipping it into her bag.

“Jake?”

Continuing on to the kitchen, she expected to see him at the stove humming to music only he could hear, but the kitchen was empty. She extinguished the gas under the bolognaise and flicked the safety off the pistol.

“Babe?” The gun felt heavy in her hand.

She dumped the bag on the kitchen table, remembering how his cheek felt against hers the first night they’d met. Her heart stuttered, just like it did when she leaned in to tell him how she’d come back to Australia because a fire gutted her Nashville apartment, destroying all her photos, the lie rolling easily off her tongue. He nodded and looked at her, when they pulled away, like he too knew what it meant to lose something big, something important.

What you have to forget to move on.

She moved slowly toward the bathroom.

Drip-Drip. Drip. The tap kept beat in the silence.

“Babe?” She prayed he was just asleep in the bath again.

The pistol steady in her right hand, she twisted the knob with her left. Slowly. Gently. The door groaned and she raised the gun as the space between the door and jamb opened.

Jake lay gazing at the mildewed ceiling, earphones in. Three bullet holes, in a triangle, dead of his chest.

Charlotte slid down the doorframe, cradling the pistol in her lap, staring into the congealing claret of the bathwater. Numbness settled over her, deepening with the realisation, without the traffic jam, she’d be dead too.

READ ON: Adam Byatt’s The Photographer’s Concerto is a further exploration of the relationship of Charlotte and Jake (a seriously sensuous and beautiful piece of flash fiction).

Many thanks to my stellar beta readers Chris Chartrand, Andrew Girle, Icy Sedgwick and my impeccably picky writing partner-in-crime Laura Meyer.

“What I Left to Forget” was written in response to the Form and Genre Challenge 2012′s first pitch: pen a 1500 word 3rd person POV story – open genre. It was the first original short story I penned after emerging from a long period depression and burn out in 2011.