A scrawny rat, eating Raisinets out of a crumbled yellow box in the dark alleyway, freezes when two thin blurry shapes blink into existence. The shapes flicker and wobble, slowly changing from straight fuzzy lines to the round full shapes of two women. With a squeak, the rat scurries along the brick wall and disappears behind an overflowing green dumpster.
Despite one being damp and the other smelling of rot, the two women remain untouched by the wall of icy cold rain falling heavily between the large brick buildings. In fact, the water seems to bend around them, creating an invisible umbrella-shaped shield. Neither of the women seems in a particular hurry to move.
“Kind of a shit-hole,” the tall one, named Tulsi, says as a damp unlit cigarette bobs between her bright purple lips.
Skeletal thin with slick white hair perpetually damp with sweat, Tulsi has sharp cheekbones and an even sharper chin. She wears dozens of clinking silver bracelets and bright purple track shoes. Her nose constantly sniffs the air and she has large front teeth, making her appear slightly like a rabbit.
“Didn’t choose it, did I?” the short one named Borage says in a slow, lazy voice before lobbing a glob of foamy spit into an oily puddle.
A woman of large fleshy proportions, Borage wears a billowy blue dress made of an aquatic-looking textile with moldy black stains along the uneven hem. She’s got long, tangly brown hair parted into dozens of tiny braids tied off with fraying pieces of multi-colored string. Thick droopy bags sit heavy beneath her milky grey eyes.
Neither of the women has been to this realm before, but it’s kind of the job. You go where you are told, traveling with the water, landing at a time and place perfect for collecting the next recruit. It’s a job neither of them loves or hates. It’s simply the job they have.
Tulsi reaches out her hand so the rain splatters on her long, curving purple fingernails. She’s thinking about the last few jobs and how much they fucked it up losing the recruits and almost getting seen. This time, she tells herself, she’s gonna pay attention and not let anything distract her. Lady Devlynd won’t give them any more chances. Borage stares at a fat silver watch on her left wrist and seems to be thinking the same thing.
“Our recruit will be here soon. Pull your hand back and be ready.”
With a hiss, Tulsi slams her arm to her side. She hates being told what to do, especially by her inept partner. They are equals after all, despite how bossy Borage has become lately. How long have they worked this job together? It’s been at least 52 cycles, perhaps more. Time doesn’t matter in this job. Collection is key. Completion is key. Colors are key.
Tulsi runs her hands down the length of her slender body, touching the living art hanging from her shoulders. Lilac, plum, violet, periwinkle, eggplant, grape, amethyst, iris, orchid, mulberry, wine. She collects shades of purple everywhere adding them as patches to her long, slick overcoat. Maybe she’ll find a new one tonight.
“Don’t even think about it.”
Reading her partners mind, Borage stamps her thick black boot hard onto the slick pavement and summons up the harshest scowl she can manage. She doesn’t like being stern, but one of them has to start leading. They can’t afford another fuck up.
Tulsi sticks out her tongue in response. They have the kind of deep understanding grown from time spent together, but it doesn’t mean they like each other. It’s all become so tiresome.
Borage touches the bulging leather sack tied around her wide waist with one finger before quickly pulling it away. She does understand. She’d much rather sweep through this uncharted world looking for wildlife to add to her etched bone collection instead of convincing yet another young recruit to come with them. They promised Lady Devlynd though—no gallivanting or wanton side missions tonight. This one is important.
Borage is about to ask Tulsi what the boy looks like again when a skinny teenager comes around the corner dressed in a dark black hoodie pulled up over his head. He’s got colors dripping from his hands and a backpack filled with spray cans. He’s already working.
“Hey kid,” Tulsi says. “Where ya going in such a hurry?”
His bright blue eyes snap toward them and widen. Instantly he can tell they aren’t cops, but a gut instinct says they might be something far more dangerous. He should never have come to Las Vegas, this wholesale freak show of a town.
“What do you want?”
He’s got a slight English accent and his voice sounds raspy, as if he’s fighting off a cold. The street lamp at the end of the alleyway lights up his face, revealing a thick silver septum ring and a tattoo of a green leaf on his left cheek. It’s definitely him.
The women exchange a confirming look and the boy steps backward until his backpack hits the brick wall behind him, making the metal cans inside clink loudly together. He’s got nothing left to steal, but he’s still scared. People find things to take even when you’ve got nothing left to give.
“We need you to come with us, kiddo. Don’t be scared.”
It’s the tall one speaking and she’s got the kind of fidgety energy the boy associates with drug users. Neither of the women moves toward him but he feels like they could be quick if they wanted to. He doesn’t intend to be a part of whatever they are selling.
“I’m not interested, ladies. My dad’s waiting for me and he’s not happy if I’m late.”
He presses harder into the wall behind him and realizes the rain isn’t falling on the women but instead arches over them like a watery rainbow. It must be some kind of trick to lure him in, but it doesn’t really make any sense. The larger of the women thrusts her hand into the rain and twists it in a circle. He finds himself unable to move.
“Ulrich, dear. We know you don’t have any family.”
Her voice is honey-thick and slow. He doesn’t like it.
“How…how do you know my name? Who are you?”
Smiling wide, she exposes a mouth full of brown teeth and bright red gums. In her thick hand is an orb of flickering water glowing as if lit from within. He stares into it and memories wriggle forth in waves. The ground tilts and rumbles beneath him as emotions take hold in terrifyingly rapid succession.
His mother is standing at the boarding gate with a small brown suitcase in her hand. He’s crying with his tiny fists clenched at his side. The adults are using words like radiology, chemotherapy, and metastasized, but he’s thinking only of burying his nose into his mother’s soft red curls and breathing in her rosemary and mint smell. Don’t go, mother. Please don’t leave me.
He’s drawing with crayons in a yellow kitchen crowded with hundreds of empty plates from his mother’s funeral. Her midwest family sent for him to come across the ocean, but they don’t want him. He hears them talking about foster care and youth shelters in the other room using words like burden, stupid, and troubled. He wishes the floor would swallow him.
A puffy-faced man hits him with a slender black leather belt in front of a room of other children all trying hard to not make eye contact with each other. He’s yelling words like idiot, moron, and useless as spit flies from his cracked lips. When it’s over, Ulrich packs up the few art supplies he’s managed to steal into his old backpack and runs away into the rainy night.
The orb of water falls to the ground with a tiny pop and flows instantly into a nearby puddle containing an old sneaker and a green tennis ball with a gaping hole in the side. Ulrich looks at the faces of the two women, screams, and runs from the alley. A streak of bright white flashes across the sky followed by the crashing sound of thunder.
“Shit,” Tulsi says.
“Go after him. I’ll be right behind you.”
The women are forbidden from entering buildings or interacting with creatures not being collected, so it makes it complicated when they run. Sometimes the memory bubbles are so intense the recruit falls to the ground sobbing and other times they choose this route. Borage hates the fleeing ones.
Lucky for them, this one isn’t hard to find. Tulsi follows his loud echoey sobs in the night, weaving through several blocks of dingy, greasy buildings until she locates the scared boy. His knees are pulled up to his chest and his back is pressed against an old rusted car at the end of a narrow lot. Weeds poke up through the cracks and it smells of gasoline and lighter fluid. The boy doesn’t notice when Tulsi arrives and stands quietly beside him.
It’s a long time before Borage finds them and she’s shocked to see both the boy and her partner crying wildly. She coughs and Tulsi lifts her eyes, pulls out a light purple handkerchief from her jacket pocket, and blows her nose loudly.
“What are you crying for? You’re not supposed to cry!”
“I hate when they are sad like this. This one’s had a hard time.”
They aren’t supposed to show emotion, but Borage puts a hand on her colleague’s boney shoulder and gives it a light squeeze. It’s hard to not feel for these recruits, these lost souls who Lady Devlynd will use to fuel her power. It’s a better life working for her, yes, but it’s not great. It’s not free.
“What do you want with me?”
The boy’s voice sounds deflated and his eyes are red and puffy. Rain pours in sheets upon him and Borage presses closer until her shield covers him as well. He wipes at his eyes with his wet sleeves.
“We’ve come to take you away from here. Where we come from we need people like you—artists. We need your vision, your artistic skills, and your colors.”
Tulsi sniffs loudly and hiccups. She hands the boy the slightly used handkerchief and he takes it. In a soft low voice, she adds, “We need your pain too.”
They aren’t supposed to say this part, but it doesn’t matter because the boy doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on. She can tell he’s going to come with them by the way he’s moved a bit closer. She wishes they had other options, but they do not.
If they don’t deliver the boy to Lady Devlynd they will be cast back out into the blackness. It’s their last chance to prove themselves useful and neither she nor Tulsi wants to return to living without colors or feelings. She pinches her arm as hard as she can to avoid drowning in the memory of the blackness. She can’t go back.
Lobbing a wad of spit onto the ground, she touches her leather pouch and attempts to push away the swelling of emotions infecting her from being this close to the boy. They aren’t supposed to let the recruits’ emotions penetrate and soak through them, but tendrils of his pain snake through her layers like tiny spikes. Shit.
Although it’s not allowed and it’s a very bad idea, she can’t help herself. He’s so sad. She has to help just a little. A tiny bit can’t hurt.
Opening the leather pouch she pulls out a bone of a small absorbent animal from her original home—a water creature like her. She spits on the t-shaped white porous surface and spins it through her fingers three times before touching it to the forehead of the crying boy. Tulsi gasps.
Borage doesn’t respond. The bone burns red hot in her hand changing colors as it takes the sadness into itself—moving from light sky blue to the deep color of the bottom of the oceans of her home world. Tulsi grabs her shoulders and shakes her violently. Her head snaps back and forth.
“Stop! Please, Borage! Stop!”
She jerks the bone from the boy’s forehead and thrusts it back into her pouch, tying it closed instantly. The boy’s face has changed and she wonders if she took too much pain because he’s smiling. He’s got two perfect dimples in his soft cheeks. Shit, again.
Tulsi steps forward and grabs the boy’s hand, pulling him to his feet. He seems far sturdier than before. She plucks “Purple Rain” off his shirt and slides it into an empty spot on her jacket with a satisfying smile. Borage shouldn’t get all the fun.
“Time to go,” the big woman says.
The boy leaps at Borage and hugs her tightly around her middle. She feels his warm face press against her fleshy body and suddenly it’s all worth it. Even if she took too much and she’s cast out into the blackness—this moment is worth it. Feelings flood her and she does nothing to stop them.
With the boy holding hands between them, Tulsi casts the portal into the rain, and all three step through and disappear into the night. They leave behind a tiny puddle on the ground and a purple bud.
Author’s note: For my final story of the year I wanted to write a take on the classic henchmen story only turning them into women. It started out as a character piece and somehow drifted to being about a lot of things—52 stories, beginnings, endings, feelings, and connections. I love this little story and I’m so proud of how far I’ve come in this year of writing. I want to thank every single person who has given me a like or a comment. I’ll be writing a complete wrap-up sometime next week where I’ll tally up the number of words I wrote, how many comments/likes received, and the lessons I’ve learned. It’s been a wild ride and it makes me very excited for 2023. Happy New Year!
Short Story Challenge | Week 52
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about being caught in the rain. We had to include the words Las Vegas, radiology, etch, funeral, textile, sweep, wholesale, wildlife and English.
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water
- Week 24: Midnight Wedding Vows
- Week 25: Chocolate Kisses
- Week 26: The Island
- Week 27: Take Me By the Hand
- Week 28: When the Snow Falls
- Week 29: Stitches in the Woods
- Week 30: The Peacock Effect
- Week 31: New Experiences
- Week 32: Blood Moon Messenger
- Week 33: The Masterpiece
- Week 34: The Blackberry Quest
- Week 35: The Broken Shell
- Week 36: The Octopus in the Room
- Week 37: With a Touch of the Tapestry
- Week 38: Meet Me at the Elephant Ears
- Week 39: The Wheels on the Bus
- Week 40: Room 313
- Week 41: The Cornfield
- Week 42: Afraid of the Dark
- Week 43: The Abandoned Church
- Week 44: Let’s Go to the Ocean
- Week 45: A Night at the Carnival
- Week 46: Late Night Visitor
- Week 47: Chalky Hands
- Week 48: Under the Sign
- Weel 49: Full Moon Harvest
- Week 50: Emerald Shoes
- Week 51: Christmas Eve in the Graveyard