Collaborative Writing Challenge

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”
― Helen Keller

THE MAP
Short Story Winners

In every collaboration you will find a short story published at the end. The story will be in the same genre as the book it features in, and was the winning story in a competition we run alongside each collaboration. 


The winner and runner-up are featured below. Both stories are exceptional and it was a very tricky choice to award first place. Congratulations to both of these tremendous authors. More details about our short story competitions can be found HERE.

1st Place



"You’re sure you’re going to be okay on your own, Jordan?”


“Sure. Don’t worry about it,” he rasped. “I just plan to heat up a can of soup and stay on the couch all day.”


Catherine gave him a sympathetic smile. “I could come home for my lunch hour if you want. Bring you some soup from work?” Years of marriage had already taught her how badly he handled even a mild cold.


“If all goes according to plan, I’ll be fast asleep by lunchtime.” His chuckle degenerated into a dry wheeze. “That reminds me, could you find me the cough syrup? I looked, but I’m afraid I wasn’t up to your organizational system this morning.”


“Hopeless,” she said with a laugh and her customary eye-roll. As she left the room, she gave him a gentle push toward the living room.


He waited until she was out of sight before he dashed to the foyer. The stained glass surrounding the front door glowed in the morning sun and mimicked the wash of autumn colors outside. The pile of shoes that always accumulated next to the entryway blocked his path, so he picked through them gingerly, careful not to scuff a single sparkling tennis shoe or steel-toed boot on his way to the window. Two daughters and a wife, and none of them could put their shoes in the closet where they belonged.


When he got close enough, Jordan put his face up to the window and surveyed the neighborhood. The colored glass framed the scenes of everyday life unfolding on suburban streets all over the country. A man stopped mowing his lawn and wiped his brow through a curtain of gold. The mom who always wore yoga pants pushed a jogging stroller from a red square to a blue diamond as she made her way down the sidewalk. Somewhere to his left, a garbage truck rumbled to a stop, and its mechanical arm groaned as it reached for the trashcan. It was the normal rhythm of a happy neighborhood, and it was achingly dull.


No matter how far he strained his eyes in both directions, there was no sign of his quarry. Now that he’d determined he didn’t miss his chance, he swallowed his flash of panic with a sigh. This whole sick-day charade would be wasted if he couldn’t go through with it. When he heard the clack of Catherine’s high heels on the kitchen floor, he stepped away from the window and tried his best to look pathetic.


“Oh! There you are.” She handed him the bottle of cough syrup with a wry smile. “This doesn’t look like the couch.”


“Well, I… just wanted to say goodbye.” He leaned in for a kiss, and she gave him her cheek.


“I don’t want to catch what you’ve got, babe. Someone has to stay functional around here.”


“Sure.” His lips brushed her cheekbone, and he stepped away. She could pretend their distance was because of germs if that made her feel better, but he couldn’t ignore how long it had been since there was any heat in their embrace.


“The girls both get home around four, but it’s not our turn for carpool, so you don’t have to do anything except order pizza later. I’ll be working late.” Catherine shrugged into her black wool coat and yanked on her driving gloves before opening the door. As she hopped off the bottom step, she called over her shoulder, “Feel better.”


“Have a good day,” he replied with a wave.


He reached into his robe and pulled out his phone. A slight tremor of excitement ruined his first attempt at the passcode, but on the second try, the screen flashed to life. There were only ten minutes to spare, so he bounded up the stairs to get ready to go outside.


In a few strides, he made his way to the bedroom, eyes carefully averted from the gallery of family photos arranged on the wall. It’d taken him hours to decide on the right combination of clothes to make him look both casual and appealing, but he’d eventually settled on a black shirt and a pair of artfully torn jeans, courtesy of his oldest and her endless quest to help her parents “fit into this millennium.”


Jordan glanced at the time again as he slipped his phone into his pocket. Still a few minutes left, but he couldn’t help but hurry back down to the first floor. If he missed her now, there was no telling when he’d have his next opportunity to talk to her. It had taken days to build up his courage, and he wouldn’t let them go to waste.


His heart thundered as he slipped out the side door and into the garage. He slammed his hand into the button, and the garage door rattled to life. The sunlight crept across the floor as the door slid up its tracks, illuminating the pile of gardening equipment he never seemed to get around to putting away. Cobwebs coated the trowel and stuck to his fingers. He grimaced at whatever scuttled underneath the jumble of terra cotta flowerpots and grabbed the coil of hose and a shovel.


As he dragged his supplies into the yard, he congratulated himself on his careful planning and attention to detail. If he was working in the garden, he’d have the perfect excuse to be outside for hours, and he’d be sure to catch her even if she ran late. After the time he’d spent thinking about this moment, it had better be a good plan.


The man across the street stopped mowing his lawn and raised his arm in a friendly greeting. Jordan froze for a moment, afraid to show too much interest in case the neighbor decided this was a good time to chat. He shouted a noncommittal greeting, and the man pointed at the bulbous headphones that protected him from the sound of the engine and shrugged. Jordan dipped his chin in recognition and turned gratefully back to setting up his gardening props.


The automatic sprinkler system provided the shrubs and flowers with all the watering they could need, but he turned on the faucet anyway. His feet crunched through the scatter of leaves as he paced the yard, the sweet smell of decomposition rising in a cloud around him. A pinprick hole in the hose threw up a mist and left dew drops clinging to his bare arms, leaving him shivering in the cool morning air.


Then he heard it—the tell-tale jingle of the collar. Every morning for the past two weeks, the dog-walker had passed his house, ear buds in place and a soft, cooing melody on her lips. Her big, shaggy dog took the lead, snuffling along the pavement as they rounded the corner and lending a counterpoint to the rhythm of her determined footfalls.


She wore black today—athletic clothes that clung to her curves and complemented the dark hair she had slicked into a tight tail against her skull. Her sunglasses were flashier, a white dazzle of rhinestones flaring wide before coming to catlike points on the corners. The lenses were too dark to see through, but he was sure that, if could just see her eyes, he could know if this was a silly distraction or something bigger—something to pursue.


She was only four houses away. The timing had to be perfect.


The garbage truck clattered up to the next house and blocked his line of sight. Unconsciously, he counted down the seconds, waiting for her to emerge. The moments stretched, and he felt his throat tighten with concern, but then the dog’s wide face popped into view, followed by his owner a moment later.


Jordan snapped his eyes away before she could notice and scanned his driveway for the next piece of his plan. The newspaper lay in a nest of oak leaves near the sidewalk, and for once he was thankful the delivery guy didn’t bother to bring it all the way up to the house. She was two houses away now. Time to go.


His heart pumped so much blood through his body, it was hard to keep his steps slow and aloof, but somehow he managed to retrieve his paper with an easy bend of the waist. The white of her sneakers flashed in the corner of his eye, and he willed himself to stand slowly.


With his best neighborly smile, he turned his shoulder slightly to narrow the path. The dog-walker pressed her lips into a straight line and made no sign of stopping. His distorted face stared back at him from her dark lenses, and his courage wavered. The lines he’d been practicing weighed down his tongue like lead, and for a moment, he could only stand with the smile wilting from his face.


A sudden, cool dampness on his palm grabbed his attention, and he looked down at his hand. The dog bumped him with his wet nose again, then slid his massive snout under Jordan’s fingers to encourage scratching. Never much of a dog fan before now, he stroked the smooth head and silently thanked his furry wingman for his ingenuity. After a few seconds, Jordan lifted his eyes to the walker’s face again, the ghost of a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth as she nodded hello. Not much to go on, but he’d worked with less.


“What’s his name?” Jordan asked as he ruffled the fur of the dog’s neck.


The walker grabbed a cord and pulled one of her earphones out. “Sorry?” A pale imitation of her music wafted from where the tiny speaker hung near her waist.


“I was asking what you call this big guy.” His fingers moved down the dog’s shoulder, and the animal leaned its heavy body even harder against his hand.


Her smile widened a little, and she shifted her weight to her back foot, content to stop a moment or two. “Rufus.”


All the things he’d planned to say evaporated at the sight of that smile. He felt like he had to say something smart but could only manage a lame splutter. “Rufus, huh?”


“Yeah,” she said, giving the dog an affectionate pat. As she leaned forward, he caught sight of the freckles on her nose for the first time. “That’s what it sounds like when he barks.”


Jordan laughed a little too loudly. “I bet. Dog that big must pack a big bark.”


“Sure does.” She leaned out slightly to check if the sidewalk behind him was clear. Of course she wanted to finish her walk, but he couldn’t let her go yet.


“You’re new around here?” he blurted.


“Yeah,” she responded idly. Jordan worried she would leave it at that, but she gave a small, nervous laugh and continued. “Moved in over on Maple, oh, two weeks ago now?”


“Just you and Rufus?”


The figure in black knelt and took the dog’s shaggy head in her hands. Rufus luxuriated in her touch, and his long pink tongue lolled out of his mouth. “Yep, just me and this guy.”


Jordan’s mouth went dry. It was too good to be true. She wasn’t married, didn’t have any kids. His own family was pushed from his mind as he pictured himself snuggled on a different sofa with a big black dog at his feet.


“Well.” She stood, shattering his happy portrait. “I’ve got to get going.”


“Of course.” He took a step back, opening the way again. “I guess I’ll see you around?”


She peered at him over the top of her sunglasses, her eyes an unexpected and radiant blue. “Sounds like it. See you next time.” One more smile, and off she went.


He stood dumbly and watched her go, the muscles in his shoulders shedding the tension he hadn’t even realized was there. A grin split his face as he turned to put away the garden supplies. Though he still didn’t have her name, he did get her eyes, and even better, the promise of a next time.


***


Once she’d passed the next house, Jess pulled Rufus to a stop and let out a string of low curses. She pulled her cell out of her thick windbreaker and tapped in a familiar phone number. It rang only once before someone on the other end answered.


“You shouldn’t be calling me,” the voice said. “You’re on a job.”


“I know, but it’s about the job,” the dog walker replied in an urgent whisper. Rufus strained against his leash, eager to check out a particularly enticing bush, and they started moving again.


“What’s the problem?”


“We can’t go through with it.”


The dog had tugged her past another whole yard before the voice on the other end spoke again. “And why, pray tell, would that be?”


She took a deep breath. “The husband at 1401 is home for some reason.” A quick look over her shoulder told her he was still putzing around in the front yard. “He should be at work. I was sure the house would be empty. But he’s home.”


“How can you be certain?”


“You’re not going to like this, but he just stopped me on the street for a nice little chat.”


“You said no one noticed you!” the voice answered in exasperation.


Jess cringed. “I know. I didn’t think anybody had seen me. It’s not like anyone’s ever talked to me before. And then today, of all days, he decides to be friendly.”


“Are you seriously telling me that you just wasted two whole weeks scoping out this house and now we have to scrap the whole thing?”


“It’s not like I can break in while he’s home!” She checked her volume and continued. “You know that.”


“Dammit, Jess. Now the whole neighborhood is shot. If we hit anyone else on the whole block, he can still I.D. you.”


“It’s not my fault!”


They’d reached the end of the block, and Jess checked for traffic before she crossed. After two weeks of walking this route every day, learning the pattern of the neighborhood, which people worked from home and which ones left their mansions empty, she would be sorry to leave it behind. It was inevitable—there was no way to keep coming around and snooping before someone realized she didn’t really live there—but she’d gotten used to the wide lawns and happy bursts of flowers.


“Just come back in,” the voice said, laced with disappointment.


A few more choice words come to mind, but she kept herself from voicing them. “I’ll do better. I promise,” she pleaded.


“I know. It wasn’t your fault.” The voice sighed. “Just come in.”


“Really?” she cried in relief. Her head swiveled back down the way she’d come in case anyone had pulled out of their driveway and she caught a final glance of the idiot who’d spoiled all her plans.


“Yes, really,” said the voice. “When you get in, we’ll talk about the next job.”


“Thank you!” Jess cried in relief. “I promise this won’t happen again. I’ll see you soon.”


She ended the call and gave Rufus the command to go. As they crossed the street, 1401 gave her a final wave. With a sad smile, she returned the gesture and headed for her car. The job was botched and the boss wasn’t happy, but at least there was going to be a next time.

M.E. Anders

Next Time

COMING SOON

Runner-Up



Beer bottles lay strewn across the clearing, cigarette smoke heavy in the air. The hunters lounged around the campfire, burping and trying to one-up each other with their stories. Staying in the shadows, Barrett waited for the right moment to reveal herself.


“Come on, Stan. There’s no way you killed that many squirrels in one afternoon.”


The one named Stan scoffed at the skepticism. “Really, Bill? You question my counting, yet we’re supposed to believe you bagged a 350 pound buck - in Florida?!”


Another man laughed as he popped the top off a bottle. “You two are ridiculous. Course, not as crazy as old Pete over there with his fifteen foot gator.”


A man jumped up. “Shut up! That gator was every bit of fifteen foot.”


“Right. Even though that’s bigger than the state record.”


Pete shrugged. “Wasn’t gator season.”


Stan let out a loud burp. “Richard, toss me another beer.”


“Here, I’ll get it for you.” Barrett stepped out from behind the tree. “Hey, y’all. Hope you don’t mind me crashing your little party.”


The men tripped over themselves jumping up.


“Who are you?”


“Where’d you come from?”


Bill grabbed his rifle. “What’d you want?”


“Relax, boys. I got lost earlier and saw your fire. I’m sure you won’t mind helping a damsel in distress, would you?”


The men’s jaws hit the dirt as her physique outlined in the glow of the fire. She wore knee high snake boots, daisy duke shorts, and a tight fitting t-shirt stretched across a well-endowed chest, with a long ponytail pulled through the back of a camo baseball hat.


Richard let out a low groan. “You are built like a brick shithouse.”


She laughed as she did a slow pirouette, giving the men a better look at her attributes. “I was hiking the trail, but it got dark and I lost my way. So when I saw the light from your fire, I just followed it here.” She pulled the cigarette from Stan’s slack lips and took a puff. “I’m so relieved. I was afraid the witch would find me.”


Richard took a quick look over his shoulder. “The witch?”


“Oh, here we go.” Stan scoffed at his buddy’s nervous twitch.


Barrett shuddered. “Yeah, Malevolent Marielle. Come on, you guys must know this swamp is haunted.” She leaned over the fire, giving Richard and Bill a clear view of her backside, rubbing her hands together in the heat. “Gives me the chills just thinking about it.”


“Malevolent? That’s a mighty big word to use in a swamp.” Stan flicked his lighter, lit up another cigarette.


Barrett pouted. “Using the word evil is just so common for such an important story.”


“It’s just that - a story. Witches, magic, all designed to scare children.”


Bill took a long pull from his beer. “I suddenly believe in fairy tales.”


Richard clinked his bottle against his friend’s. “Here, here. I’ll drink to that.”


Barrett grinned as Pete tugged at his crotch to readjust. “So what are y’all doing out here?”


Bill offered her a seat, close to his own. “Bear hunt starts in the morning. First one in years.”


“I heard about that. Horrible idea. Black bears were just on the endangered list not too long ago.”


“Who cares? We paid our money, got our permits. Now we can kill the damned things all legal-like.”


Pete snickered. “Legal. That’ll be a first.”


“But why kill a bear? There really aren’t that many of them.”


Bill shrugged. “Bears go down hard. Fun to kill.”


Richard struggled to focus on the conversation and not on her breasts. “Who’s this witch?”


Barrett leaned over in a conspiratorial whisper. “Move closer and I’ll tell you the story.”


Anxious for a better view at her cleavage, all four men moved closer. Richard handed Barrett a beer. After a long drink and a discreet belch, she waved her arms to encompass their surroundings.


“They say that whenever an animal is killed in this swamp, a piercing cry is heard. Hunters wander disoriented, even those familiar with the area. Some are never seen again. People report a huge bear, who disappears, like a ghost.”


“Yeah, I’ve heard,” Pete admitted. “A big bunch of hogwash.”


Barrett’s eyes sparkled. “Or maybe not.”


Richard gazed at her adoringly. “You go on and tell us the ghost story, sweet thing. We all like a good scary camp tale.”


Barrett finished her beer. She rose and stretched, her breasts testing the strength of the t-shirt, all four men shifting in their seats, eyes glued to her anatomy. Grabbing a cold one, she grinned. “Now that I have y’alls attention, let me tell you the story of the malevolent witch in this here swamp.”


“Generations back, a woman named Marielle lived alone here in Marshall Swamp. She was a powerful witch - she could control the weather, animals, anything natural. She wasn’t always evil. She just kept to herself, the wildlife her companions. She avoided people, keeping her trips to town minimal. Usually she just lived off the land. No one ever knew where she lived.”


Stan belched. “I heard she murdered her lover.”


Richard gestured toward Barrett. “Well, at least he died happy if she looked like this pretty young thing.”


Barrett raised a brow at the interruption. “Hush, Dick, so I can tell the story.”


Bill threw an empty bottle at Richard. “Go on, sweetheart. He’ll stay quiet.”


“Story goes that the witch met up with two poachers who had killed a mother bear. Marielle struck them down with lightning, using power harnessed in a pendant worn around her neck. Their bodies were smoking when a man named Paul found Marielle kneeling at the bear’s body. He told her the dead guys were the oldest of his four step-brothers. It wasn’t his first rodeo with their nasty nature, so they deserved what they got. Marielle fell in love with him, as did he with her. They buried that mama bear and said a blessing for her spirit, then found her two orphaned cubs, a boy and a girl. For the first time, when Marielle went back to her cabin that day, she brought another person with her. They took care of those baby bears and married soon after.”


Barrett took a drink. “Over the next year, the little girl bear, Flora, stuck by Paul’s side. She didn’t grow as big as her brother, Cypress, but she was healthy. Cypress, on the other hand, grew to be huge, especially for a Florida black bear. He became Marielle’s familiar ---“


“What’s a familiar?” They all groaned at Pete’s question.


Barrett hid her annoyance. “A familiar is a witch’s companion, her spirit animal. Like her helper, her assistant.”


“So like her right hand man.” Pete grinned at his intellect.


“Pretty much. May I continue now?”


Bill punched Pete in the shoulder. “You, keep quiet. You, sugar pie, continue on.”


“Cypress and Marielle were connected in ways no one else understand, not even Paul. By now, Paul and Marielle were inseparable soul mates, Paul only left the swamp once since the day he met her. But he understood the significance of Marielle’s bond with the big bear. He wasn’t jealous or critical of it. Cypress was the one that let Marielle know she was with child.”


Pete started to speak but Bill punched him again. Barrett gazed into the flames of the fire for a few moments.


“When little Scarlet Rose was born, Flora turned into the best nanny. Cypress also spent an impressive amount of time looking out for the baby. Only thing that marred Marielle’s contentment was her ‘red flag feeling’, a feeling that overcame her on occasion, warning something dreadful awaited. She chalked it up to her new life after spending most of her life isolated. Cypress got agitated when the feeling flared up, but Marielle always dismissed it.”


Pete jumped in. “Never blow off a gut feeling. Bad idea.”


Barrett paused before continuing. “Anyways, Scarlet Rose was two years old when the witch defended the swamp against poachers again. Hunting was common, and while Marielle and Paul always felt the twang of sympathy at the death of an animal, they understood ---“


“You’re damned straight they understood!” Richard again.


Stan backed him up. “Yeah, understand we’re big bad hunters. Shoot! Shoot the damn things.” Drunken laughter echoed around the fire.


Barrett continued, undaunted “ … while they understood the need for hunting, poaching never had a good excuse. You do realize the difference between hunting for the right reasons and just being assholes, right?”


Pete chortled. “Bill understand hunting without being an asshole? Not happening.” The men howled.


Barrett stood. “Okay, I’m done. Story time is over.”


Richard sobered. “Come on, sweet thing. We’re just joshing you. Don’t get your, umm, little, itty bitty, tiny shorts in a bunch. We’re all here to have a good time.”


“Oh, boys… I could show you a good time.” Barrett’s voice took on a husky, seductive tone.


Stan drooled. “Oh, sexy lady, I’ll just bet you could.”


“But not til my story is over, so y’all shut up so I can tell it.”


Bill jumped up to stand next to her, running his fingers up her arm. “Witch, bears, baby. Poachers. Hoodoo voodoo. The End. Now then,” he attempted to lean in to kiss her neck, “how good a’ time you reckon’ you’ll show us?”


Barrett popped his forehead with her open palm. “Nice try, but sit your ass down. I’ll say when the story is over.”


She sat on a stump, stretching her long legs out, crossing them at her ankles. “As I was saying, they understood hunting, but so many,” she waggled her finger at the men around her, “kill just to be jackasses. Marielle was collecting mushrooms when she came up on three men, one beating a bear cub with a tree branch.”


Barrett’s eyes widened as she waved her arms skyward. “Storm clouds built in the sky as she demanded he stop. One ran off screaming that he wasn’t getting kilt by no witch. The other two puffed up with attitude and the oldest looking of the three told her to mind her own business.”


An owl hooted nearby, an eerie presence cloaked in the darkness. Barrett giggled as the men jumped.


“Her pendant hung outside her shirt, glowing bright. Marielle’s planned to strike them down, but Paul rushed up, hollering at her to stop. About the same time, the mama bear caught up to the commotion and broke from the brush. She attacked the man abusing her baby, killing him quick. The older man retreated into the woods.”


She paused to take a drink and light a smoke.


Bill focused on her lips. “I’ve never wanted to be a cigarette before.” The others murmured in agreement.


Barrett blew smoke at him. “Marielle was furious at Paul. Turned out the older man was his stepfather, the other two his younger stepbrothers. But all she saw was the bloody cub bawling in pain. She managed to heal it, but could read the fear in its eyes. Her temper boiled over and once it got going, this swamp saw its worst thunderstorm in history. Paul didn’t back down though, having no fear for her witchy powers. His stepfather was a powerful man and killing him would have ended their peaceful life. By the time that storm ended, the mama had disappeared with her cub and the dead man lay half buried in the mud.”


Stan stood up and headed into the darkness. “Hold that thought – I have to take a leak.”


Barrett waited until he settled back down before continuing the story.


“After that, Paul and Marielle made up from their first fight, and little Scarlet Rose celebrated her third birthday. The swamp filled with water from the daily showers and a family of otters appeared in the pond near the footbridge leading to their cabin. They delighted little Scarlet Rose with their antics.”


Barrett looked around the fire, the men all staring at her with wide eyes as she grew more dramatic.


“But then, in early October, Paul and Scarlet Rose left the cabin with Flora, going to hunt late blooming berries in the meadow on the edge of the swamp. Marielle stayed behind to finish sewing winter clothes for her fast growing daughter. A couple hours later, the red flag feeling rose up so strong that it brought her to her knees. Cypress roared at the intensity, trotting behind Marielle as she flew out the door. They ran down the narrow paths, panic driving every step. Marielle’s heart shattered as she ran. She felt the agony as something horrible happened to Paul.”


She paused, rubbing her arms. Something crashed through the palmettos, the sound echoing in the swamp, but no one moved.


“She burst into the meadow, the blood freezing in her veins. Paul stood bound crucifix style to a tree, blood soaked, his throat slit. Marielle felt his spirit around her, freed in death. Flora lay nearby, a death gurgle ending in silence, a man standing over her holding a bloody ax. Marielle screamed, raw and savage. Cypress roared and charged, but a shot rang out. He shuddered and stumbled. Marielle spun around, but strong arms grabbed her and yanked the glowing pendant from her neck.”


Tears streamed down Barrett’s face as she told the story, emotion choking her voice. One of the men tried to comfort her, but she shook him off.


“Paul held her, evil consuming his soul. He had guessed that her powers were contained within that pendant. He threw it in the bushes as he sank a dagger deep within her heart. She stumbled backwards, fighting to stay on her feet. She could feel her life draining, but she fought for strength. She turned to run as another shot sounded, then several more. Marielle felt the bond snap. The sonofabitch had killed Cypress.”


A sob escaped. Barrett paused and swallowed hard.


“She made it back to the swamp but could go no further. With what little magic she had left in her, Marielle grabbed a palmetto frond, squeezing it until it broke the skin. Her blood drained into the frond, and with it, a curse that tied Cypress’ spirit to the swamp to dispense justice when necessary. She chanted to the Universe and sent a message on the wind to her little girl to run away from the swamp. She died with her daughter’s name on her last breath.”


“So what happened then?”


Barrett wiped her eyes. “Rumor has it that the stepfather and stepbrother were killed in a house fire.”


Stan took a chug of beer. “What’s with the palmetto thing? Why’d she have to cut her hand to do the curse? She was already bleeding.”


“Palmetto bushes grow thick in the swamp, all interconnected with their roots. When she cut her hand on the frond, her blood mingled with the plant and travelled from bush to bush, spreading the curse far and wide, encompassing the entire swamp.”


Richard looked enraptured. “What happened to the little girl?”


Barrett stood and stretched, staring into the flames of the campfire. “She watched the whole thing. The stepfather had caught up with Paul in that meadow, after she had wandered off with Flora to pick flowers for her mama. When Paul hollered, Flora made sure Scarlet Rose hunkered down before going back and trying to help. The little girl stayed hidden as she watched her family’s slaughter.”


Barrett’s voice grew quiet. “Three years old and lost everything she loved. It broke her heart.”


Stan shivered. “Damn, it’s getting cold.” He rooted around for his jacket and moved closer to the fire. “What happened to the witch’s magical necklace?”


Barrett rubbed her neck. “Her daughter found it, took it with her as she fled the swamp.”


Pete found his jacket too. “You assholes didn’t tell me it was going to get cold tonight.”


“It wasn’t supposed to,” Stan retorted.


“So, after that story, are you guys still going to hunt at daylight?” The temperature plummeted further. Her taut nipples peaked beneath the thin material of her shirt, mesmerizing the guys.


Bill moved close to her. “Sweet thing, I think you need a little warming up.”


“Answer my question.” Her voice grew hard, demanding.


Richard laughed. “Of course we’re going to hunt. You don’t get to shoot bears every day.”


“Legally, anyhow.” The men all laughed at Stan’s comeback.


Bill persisted. “You said you were going to show us a good time.”


“Oh, honey, you’re gonna get exactly what you deserve.”


Richard looked at her curiously. “You took that myth pretty personal.” His gaze lowered. “Why are your boobs lighting up?”


Barrett pulled a pendant from between her breasts. It sparkled in the firelight, giving off a warm glow. Their breath hung like a fog in the freezing night air.


Her voice grew icy. “I was just a wee thing when people like you killed my family.”


“What the hell?” Three of the guys spoke at once.


“I have my mom’s blood, her magic – the same familiar. This bear hunt’s a mistake that I won’t allow. Y’all are in our swamp.”


Understanding penetrated drunken minds. Bill backed away from the woman, not wanting to believe, but not dismissing her either. “We’re supposed to believe the curse is real.”


“You have no respect for those living here in the swamp. For you four, it’s very real.”


Richard saw him first. “Holy shit … “


Cypress’ ghost appeared near the fire, eyes glowing red, lips curled to reveal his fangs.


“And now, sweet things, y’all are going to find out why some have never been heard from again.”


Barrett raised her hand and the first clap of thunder reverberated across the swamp.

Laura Jaiyn

The Swamp

Lorah Jaiyn started to focus on her writing career after she developed a nasty case of empty nest syndrome. Her fiction has appeared online at Speculative 66, 101 Words, Our Write Side, and Dark Chapter Press, and she has short stories that will soon appear in several different anthologies and e-zines. Lorah has novels-in-progress that cover multiple genres, each blended with a romantic element. Lorah spends her days behind a desk, and writes in the evenings while entertained by her muse and greatest distraction, Cena, her Jack Russell terrier. She enjoys hiking and exploring the great outdoors, being a mom and Gramma, and is a total Hallmark Channel addict. Lorah can be found on facebook.com/lorahjaiyn and Twitter @writerlorahj.