Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Beauty of the Beast

When I decided to kick off Conference Thursday, I guess I miscounted, because I thought I had more Thursdays left in the year!  I was going to skip this week because these posts don't really suit the (US) Thanksgiving holiday, but I have Big Plans -- Big Big Plans, I tell you-- for December, so I thought we'd just do ConThu a day early.

Because of my mild obsession with 80s music, the title that came to mind for this story was "Ring My Belle," which, OK, was 1979, so that's a bit of a stretch, and it didn't really suit the story.  Since Belle's kickoff author, Roselynn Cannes, gave it a title already, we'll just go with that.  With thanks again for my fabulous contributing authors: Roselynn Cannes, Katee Robert, Danica Favorite, E.D. Walker (deejay extraordinaire, who knew??), Aaron Michael Ritchey, and Mario Acevedo -- here is the story in its entirety, including an ending... of sorts.

The smell of baking bread, lentil beans, and fish filtered into Belle’s awareness. It was the potency of the fish in particular that woke her, and her eyes fluttered open. Discombobulated, she tried to remember what had happened. Clearly she was in an alleyway in the market, but the memory of how or why she was there eluded her.

Fully aware of each and every pebble digging painfully into her, she sat up. With hands made clumsy by their violent shaking, Belle took a moment to attempt to fight the panic threatening by focusing on the mundane task of brushing off the gravel still sticking to her naked skin. Despite her efforts, her heart sped up, stuttering over itself. Her breath sawed in and out of her lungs. Dirt, and what looked uncannily like blood, caked itself into the creases of her knuckles and underneath her fingernails. One nail had been broken. Ripped off all the way to the midpoint and her finger throbbed in acknowledgement.

She would need to check a calendar to be sure, but she would guess that it had been exactly twenty-nine days since the last time. The last full moon. Ambivalence consumed her. Snaked its way up from her belly and threatened to choke her. She wasn’t sure if she should laugh maniacally because she might be losing her mind, or sob because she knew for a fact that she wasn’t.

Belle had to get home and she had to get home now. She pushed to her feet, her muscles shaking as if she'd run long and hard last night. For all she knew, that was exactly what she'd inadvertently done, chasing down some poor prey who hadn't stood a chance. She moved out of the alley, but froze when she heard tintinnabulation. That could only mean one thing...

They knew.

She walked as quickly as she could without actually running, heading for the willow that grew next to the massive cathedral in the center of town. It was such a strange contradiction of old world and new that normally she, like most other people in her small town, avoided it. Today, it might just be her salvation.

"Going somewhere in a hurry?"

Belle’s heart fell to her ankles. Not today, please, not today. She hurried on, hoping to appear she hadn’t heard him. Maybe, this time, he wouldn’t harass her. No such luck.

Gustavus LeGume drifted over to her, then matched her pace. His long legs fell in tromping boots. His hair didn’t move, too slicked, too black, too shiny--freshly washed and even more freshly combed. He whirled in front of her, stopping her march.

"You are such a strange girl, Belle, and yet, I am inexplicably drawn to you. Would you like some of my forbidden fruit?"

She wanted to growl. Actually, she wanted to bite.

He shoved a segment of an orange fruit into her face. "It is a ribbed clementine. For your pleasure."

Her first instinct was to slap the fruit away, punch him in the face, and run. Yet, she had to remain the unassuming maiden everyone expected her to be, however different she was. Any attention she drew to herself might be dangerous.

Belle sighed and said, "Oh Gustavus, I wish I could, but of course, since I’m an unassuming maiden, I must always be limiting what I eat. For after all, a comely face requires a trim figure."

"Of course." His knowing nod made her want to rip the lungs from his chest, fill them up with air, and parade the grisly balloons around as an example to others. Where did such thoughts come from? She knew. All too well.

She had to get away from Gustavus and get to the willow by the church as quickly and as demurely as possible. One thing about her monthly escapadesshe didn’t have to be so horrifying demure. She could horrifying in other ways.  Belle brushed past Guztavus and hurried down the street, hoping he would get the hint.

Instead he plunged after her into the street. "Where are you off to, ma Belle?" Gustavus let out a loud laugh, clearly pleased with his own cleverness. His mouth opened so wide she could see his uvula swinging at the back of his throat.

Belle restrained a low growl of annoyance. Unassuming maidens did not growl. Unassuming maidens also did not rip people's throats out. More's the pity. "I have an appointment, ah, at the church. Please, don't let me keep you from your shopping."

"Nonsense." He tossed a Clementine from one hand to the other. "I'll walk with you. It's a fine day to walk with a fine lady."

Lord spare me from the wit of Gustavus. But, seeing no graceful way out, she continued walking with him down the street. Her heart thumped with tension with each step they took together, and she glanced around, waiting to catch that ringing sound again. Maybe she'd heard wrong, maybe they hadn't found her, after all.

But, even as she had the hopeful thought, she caught the sound again, a bright ringing of soft bells. The sound should be cheerful, but it only made her stomach lump with dread. She picked her pace up again. A skittering started down the street with a flash of something that caught the sun-- a mass of small, shining ball-bearings rolling toward her. "Gustavus, look ou--"

With a flash, the ball bearings exploded around her, cutting her skin and blinding her with light. Gustavus barreled into her, knocking the two of them down to the hard pavement together. He was howling with pain or fear, a regular caterwaul of sound that grated on her nerve endings. Belle shoved at his shoulder to get him off her while he whimpered in a ball on the street.

Her clothes were torn and she bled from many cuts, but one of the few virtues of her…predicament was an accelerated healing factor. She took off at a run. Maybe there was still time, maybe she could make it to the willow--

Someone slammed into her from the side, slamming her against the wall of the nearest building. She thrashed to throw her attacker off, but he only let out a deep, warm laugh. "Now, now. I just wanted to chat."

She froze, arrested by the rich baritone of his voice. The fiend had deep blue eyes, a chiseled chin like granite from the local quarry, and the fullest, lushest, most kissable lips she'd ever seen.

"You're a very difficult woman to catch up with you know." The stranger smiled as he said it, and her heart sped a little at the sight.

She let her body melt against the wall and he instinctively relaxed his grip on her. "Is that so?"

He smiled again, pleased and smug about her compliance.

That was when she bit him.

The stranger yelped, drawing the attention of the proprietor of a nearby kiosk. A fine time for someone to notice that something might be amiss in the market. Belle shook her head. They don’t notice an explosion, but the man’s whining over a little bite suddenly has everyone on alert. She glanced over at him. Okay, maybe it wasn’t such a little bite after all. She’d feel guilty over the blood gushing from his wound, but at this point, she knew she only had a minute, if not seconds, to get away before they sent others.

"Do you need some help?" The man in charge of the kiosk, wearing a zucchini green t-shirt with the face of a dinosaur with an all-too happy grin, approached.


Ordinarily, Belle wasn’t a fan of members of the Order of the Reptile. They talked incessantly of things that were hopelessly boring, but she’d been told that in bind, they’d help her. She glanced back at the stall where he’d been hawking his wares- flimsy cast-offs that people wouldn’t pay good money for, except to support the reptilian cause. But… one item caught her eye.

"Is that your scooter?"

He looked at her like she’d just told him his dinosaur was stupid. Belle sighed. The man she’d bit moaned and started staggering to his feet. She did not have time for this. Quickly, she murmured the secret phrase that was supposed to get the cooperation of Order members.

The man cursed, but nodded, then handed her his keys.

Finally! Something was going her way!

Belle climbed on the scooter, steadied it perpendicular to the pavement, and got ready to zoom away. Problem was, the scooter wouldn’t kick over. Her jaw clenched in frustration. If it wasn’t one damn thing after another. A glance to the fuel gage told her the problem. The scooter was out of fuel, specifically blood.

"Gustavus," she purred seductively.

He crawled toward her, bleeding, his clothes shredded. Her inviting tone beckoned him, and he responded with a hopeful smile. "Yes, my darling."

The dinosaur bulled past the other man Belle had discarded. The spines on either side of the dinosaur’s top hat glowed orange as a carrot. "Really, Belle. You’ve done more than a miniscule amount of damage already."

"Blame me, of course," she snorted.

"On the other hand, you do bring some needed cachet to the proceedings," the dinosaur replied.

"Speaking of hands," Belle said as she reached for Gustavus’ outstretched arm. She seized his wrist and yanked him closer, dragging his lacerated body across the pavement. He moaned in pain.

"Hush, you," Belle ordered. She unscrewed the fuel cap, then bit off Gustavus’ hand. Blood gushed out, and she hurriedly jammed the bleeding stump into the fuel port. When the blood slowed to a trickle, she said to the dinosaur. "A little help."

He planted a large clawed foot on Gustavus’ lower back and began shifting weight from leg-to-leg to pump more blood out of the dying man. Bones crunched. Gustavus’ eyes rolled back and his mouth gaped in agony.

Belle wrung the last drops of blood from the stump and let the arm fall to the ground. She replaced the fuel cap. One quick tap on the starter button and the scooter buzzed to life.

"Belle, you’re such a hoot," the dinosaur said.

"Likewise, my friend," she replied. "Thanks for the help."

"Where to next?" he asked.

"To get some of those delicious Clementines. After all, they are ribbed for my pleasure."

~   ~   ~   ~   ~
Belle stretched against the rumpled sheets. Her iTunes alarm was going off, and she thought about snatches of the weirdest dream ever. Exploding ball bearings? Gustavus LeGume? The Order of the Reptile? She giggled, thinking that she must have pulled the Simpson’s Comic Book Guy out of her subconscious for that one.
Duran Duran wailed into the chorus and she sang along, voice scratchy with sleep: "I’m on the hunt, I’m after you… mouth is alive, juices like wine… and I’m hungry like the wolf…" She gave a thought to the stranger who’d almost kissed her in the dream and wished that the dream had gone a different direction. Then the music changed and she rolled over to turn it off but when she tried to use the touchscreen, her claw cracked the screen. Her … bloodstained ? claw?

The dream-stranger sat perched on dainty slipper chair in her bedroom, absurdly large, watching her. "Perhaps now you’re ready for my help."

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