A High Price

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“I’ll give you power,” the devil crooned, “For bartering your soul.”

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This was written for Sammi Cox’s Weekend Writing Prompt #124barter. With only 11 required words, I had to do it.

Hello, everyone – as any regulars may be able to tell, I’ve slowed down a LOT on the blog recently. I’m in the home stretch on my dissertation, though, with only about a month and some change to go! Hopefully after that I can get back on the bandwagon.

Until then, I’ve got all my book review posts planned through to the new year, and those should be reliable.

I got the picture off a royalty-free image site a couple years ago and don’t remember which one.

The End

The priest beheld the visage of the old man. The ancient General seemed shrunken from age, but the priest did not believe the call for extreme unction was necessary at this time. In many respects, he hoped it wasn’t necessary, because the old man was filled with heroism and daring.

And, worst of all, he was certainly bound for the devils’ hell.

The old man, surrounded by many family members and servants, pointed his cane to a chair with horsehair-stuffed cushion. “Sit. We don’t even have an hour, Father, and it’d be a damn shame to waste these precious few minutes.”

The priest coughed at the cursing and took the seat. “I – sir, forgive me if I seem insolent to one so aged and venerable as you, but you appear to be in tolerable health. I brought the appropriate oils for anointing, but I won’t apply them if it’s unwarranted.”

The old man brushed off the statement. “I will die when the sun is at it’s peak. I’ve made my peace with it, and I gathered all who are important to me here in this room.”

“And how can you be so sure? Do you… you don’t plan on shooting yourself, do you?”

“By the eternal, no! Good God man, you think me mad?” The General laughed, which caused him to cough up some slime which he spat into a handkerchief.* “No. Almost 16 years ago, I sacrificed several months off the end of my life to get something far more important than lingering here on this soil. Now, all the signs and signals are fulfilled, and I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I will die within the hour.”

The priest shook his head. “There’s no way to know for certain. Our Lord Yarenth is not master of devilish signs or superstitions.”

“Yarenth also isn’t the master of the blood magic I was part of to excise the last few months off my life.” The old man’s eyes, clouded by cataracts and sitting behind glasses and flaps of wrinkles, still held a frightening, threatening power. “I am certain I will die. If you do not perform this action, Yarenth will hold your treachery against you.”

The priest nodded. “I think you at least believe what you say.”

“And how dare you not believe me in return?”

The priest opened his jar of alabaster oil, sprinkled a bit on his own hand, then rubbed it on the old General’s forehead. He muttered some words in a language he didn’t understand, in a language he almost certainly garbled, then closed the box back up.

All the family members swooped in upon the oil-laden general. His son, bedecked in his own uniform, sat on bended knee at his foot while nieces and nephews of diverse ages teared up and wept.

“What is the matter with my dear children?” The general asked. He rubbed his son’s head, patted the top of a little boy’s. “Have I alarmed you? Oh, do not cry. Be good children and we will all meet in Heaven.”

The sun rose imperceptibly, and the clock struck noon.

The General gave one breath, which passed easily from his lungs, and all was over.

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*The slime is from a lingering respiratory problem due to a bullet lodged in his chest. It’s not actually the thing killing him in this scene.

This was written for Joanne the Geek’s Flash Fiction Challenge #7, The End. In this, we’re supposed to write the end of a book that we’ll likely never make. I know she said to do the last paragraph, but I couldn’t do it. The last paragraph had to be a single line for this book.

The book I’m talking about here is part of an enormous series that I’m not sure I have enough time left in my life to finish. I wrote the first novella earlier this year and will work on the second when my hand feel a little better, but this one is like… the end of novella #60? Something ridiculous like that?

Anyway, this is the last part in my “novella crazy pants series” before the plotline goes completely off the rails.

A Familiar Face

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The old woman stroked the cat, and his yellow eyes blinked with content. She drank a bit of potion – or tonic, as she called it in the market – and smacked her lips. “Excellent work, my boy.”

The apprentice to the witch, a boy of 17, nodded in thanks. Years spent under the witch’s tutelage had led him to be a formidable witch in his own right, and fewer seemed to suspect him of wrongdoing than the old witch. He found this unfair but decided to use the advantage.

“I think you are ready for a familiar,” the witch said.

His eyes glittered. “Really?” He sat back down, trying to calm himself and not seem so interested. “I mean, sure. I think I’m ready.”

The witch simply smiled, pet the cat – Sam, her familiar – on her lap. “Then I will help you. The first step, of course, is to use the beast-speech potion to find an animal whose personality works well with yours. Heed me, my dear: do not choose an animal who is unwilling. The familiar will last for the rest of your life, and its death will take a piece of your soul with it.”

The apprentice nodded. “I know. I understand.”

“Then take your time. When you find such a creature, bring it here, and we’ll request its service.”

***

A month later, the apprentice drank the potion once more. He’d spoken to every animal in the county, perhaps even the territory considering how many animals traversed through the area while seeking somewhere else, and no reasonable creature had wanted to help him.

And those who might have agreed were bugs or spiders or other creatures too stupid to understand what he asked.

A black cat belonging to a family in town licked its paws while it sat on a railing. The apprentice walked up to it, and he asked, “What’s your name?”

It stopped licking. “Fuck off, mate.”

The apprentice furrowed his brows and stepped back. “I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me. Fuck off, go away. I’m happy here and don’t want to serve the likes of you.” It continued licking its paw. “Everyone knows what you’ve been up to for the last month, so don’t even pretend like this wasn’t some sort of interview.”

“Well, excuse me for living!” the apprentice growled back.

He removed himself from the foul animal’s presence and headed back to the witch’s little house in the woods.

***

He found the witch stirring a brew, this one likely a beer rather than a potion. She looked up from her work to see the young man’s dejected entry. “Is something wrong, dear?”

He sat down on the chair. “I just can’t find a familiar. I’ve tried everything, but every animal says no.” He placed his elbows on the table and leaned his chin into his palms. “Should I go farther? Perhaps head to New Orleans and see what I can find there?”

“Perhaps,” the witch answered. “But perhaps there’s another solution to your problem.”

“What?” the apprentice asked.

“You’ve only been at this for a month, and if you’ve gone through every option, that means you’ve not built any relationships. You’ve just asked them to join you, and of course they said no because they thought you an abusive witch.” She put the pot atop her brew and pat the lid. “Whether you go to New Orleans or you stay here, it’s best to find a friend before you even think about asking for a permanent relationship.”

“You sound like someone giving dating advice.”

She chuckled. “I suppose it could be similar.”

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This was written for Alexander Eliot’s photo prompt, “Cats’ Eye.” This photo, provided by Mr. Eliot, was such a crisp and clean photo of a cat named Sam. I decided to use this opportunity to continue the story from earlier, wherein my younger apprentice learned to appreciate many forms of life and find satisfaction with his trainer.

Tea Ceremony

Tea Ceremony

The courtesan poured from the teapot into the fairness cup, mixing the water and steeped flavanols before splitting it into two dainty cups.

The client took a cup and sipped. “This ceremony soothes me.”

The courtesan nodded. “As it was designed to.”

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This was written for Sammi Cox’s Weekend Writing Prompt #121teapot. I considered writing about the Teapot Dome scandal, but I just couldn’t fit it into 42 words! 😦

So here you go – hopefully something calm, soothing, and visual.

Photo by 五玄土 ORIENTO on Unsplash

The Things They Do to Me

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She tossed some of the powder onto the safe’s handle and brushed off excess, but the results came back as she expected. “Perp wore gloves,” she told the officer.

The uniformed man snorted. “Good lord. Sendin’ me a lady fingerprintist… the things they do to me.”

She pursed her lips, then ran out of the room. The cop laughed, thinking he’d sent her crying, but time ran short.

If she couldn’t solve the case from the perp’s traces, she could follow the money trail. Her dad had been a safebreaker – and she knew where he’d sell jewels and jade.

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This was written for the August 29th Carrot Ranch Challenge, safebreaker’s daughter. I couldn’t imagine a better picture than the one Charli provided, and I wrote a story that I thought the picture told. Perhaps it’s uncreative, but…

Anyway, I wanted to participate a little bit, but I’m still on semi-hiatus due to my hands feeling poorly. 😦 I may not respond to your comments immediately.

The Funkmaster

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One man’s vintage,
Another man’s junk –
Wanna buy it, sir?
Pack it in your trunk?
Gimme a Jackson,
And indulge in funk!

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This was written for Sammi Cox’s Weekend Writing Prompt #120Vintage. 

Also, SORRY for accidentally publishing this yesterday. I meant to publish this today, August 25th.

Image by Gitti Lohr from Pixabay

Trip to the New World

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The old world had been good, but not perfect.

What would this new one hold? She’d never been told exactly what this place would be like, and all the souls held in the bow of this ship were similarly confused – if they even spoke the same language.

Which, much to the sailors’ consternation, most of them didn’t.

She couldn’t understand the sailors’ tongues, but she did understand their sticks, whips, and clubs. She understood angry glares, uncaring tones, and raised hackles. She understood the chains around her wrists and ankles.

And she could guess their destination wouldn’t be fun.

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This was written for the August 22 Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge, old world.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

When Brian Met Bill – A Beatles Fanfic

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“So which of you lads can do the best British accent?”

The four young men, scruffy Texans with barely a dollar between them, squirmed in their chairs. A single lamp and a desk several decades out of style bedecked the shabby office, yet the suited Brit in front of them exuded a contrasting air of confidence and expense.

“I do a right good ‘pression of an Englishman, Mr. Epstein.” Dusty Hill cleared his throat. “I’m Dusty and I jolly good like tea and biscuits. Crumpets, scones, God save the Queen.”

“Stop! Oh, that’s terrible!” The man in the suit scribbled “George Harrison” onto his pad of paper, then ripped the sheet off and gave it to Dusty. “You be George and stay quiet. Now, for the rest of you: who’s got the best impression? Speak up, let me hear you talk.”

The remaining three lads gave each other passing glances, waiting for someone to bite. At last, Frank spoke up, “I’m doing me best English impression. Limey boys who love taxes and tea, wot wot.”

“Good enough.” Epstein, pulling back his nice sleeve wrote “Paul McCartney” on his pad, handing this to Frank. “You be Paul.”

“But I’m the drummer-“

“So’s Paul, if you ask Ringo.” The man in the suit cleared his throat. “We’ll just get you boys matching bowl cuts and suits. No one will notice the difference.”

 

***

 

2 MONTHS EARLIER – SEPTEMBER, 1963

“Ah, Brian Epstein.” The man pointed to a seat opposite him, then waved to the waitress to summon a tea. “It’s not every day one gets to chat over tea with an up-and-coming headhunter.”

“Not everyday I get to speak with a veteran headhunter.”

“Liar.” He tossed a card with “Bill Kehoe, Delta Promotions” emblazoned on the front. “You talk with bigwigs and veterans every day. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have got your lads as far as you have.”

The waitress delivered the teapot and two cups. Brian dropped a cube of sugar in his cup while Bill poured the tea.

Once she left, Bill blew over his tea then said, “Everyone knows you don’t have tea with Brian Epstein without a reason. What do you want?”

Epstein swallowed the hot sip of tea. “England’s a small fish when you look at the consumption of music, and I have a band that can make it in America, where the real money is. I’m sure the Yanks’ll just eat it up. But the record labels are cocking up the deal – I’ve given them five singles plus several deep cuts, and not one bloody record company can put together an album!”

“And what can I do about it?”

“You’ve got dealings across the pond. I want your advice how to get my boys over there, touring and selling music.”

“If I knew how to do that, I’d already be rich. Tell me, your boys get along?”

“Well enough. They’ll stay together if there’s money in it, I suppose.”

“Sounds like they’ll break up soon enough, which works in your favor. Here – I’m going to give you my latest strategy, but only ‘cause my band the Zombies are fighting more often than they’re singing. My band’s more likely to explode than make it big anywhere.” He took a sip of tea. “The problem is the music business in America doesn’t want to support a band without a fan base. You have to tour to get a fan base, and you have to have support before you can tour. Vicious cycle. What you have to do is break into the cycle, any way you can.”

Brian shook his head. “I can’t foot the bill-”

“But that’s the beauty of my system, see. Only bill you have to foot is a couple flights for yourself over there, then the rest of it pays for itself.” He grinned. “You go over, find a few boys that can sing and play – doesn’t matter if they’re similar to your boys – and hire them to pretend to be The Beatles. Give them your lads’ music, set up a couple gigs, and you’ll have teenage girls screaming for your English albums faster than you can make them.”

“That’s lunacy. It’ll be an obvious hoax.”

“No one over there’s seen The Beatles. No one even cares, Brian. What’s more, your real Beatles won’t know the difference. They make music here, be a good little English band, and you make the real money with a fake band.”

“Is it legal?”

Bill Kehoe shrugged. “Well, I haven’t heard it’s not illegal. Just keep your eggs in separate baskets, and you’ll be fine…”

 

***

 

JANUARY, 1964

“So John’s got fanmail. What’s to complain about?”

“The bloody cowboy hat.” Paul McCartney reached into his jacket, searching for something. “Some bird in America sent John a photo to autograph. It said ‘The Beatles’ and had our names on it, but the man depicted as ‘Paul McCartney’ was wearing a cowboy hat. I don’t wear cowboy hats.”

Brian picked up the photo Paul lay before him. Sure enough, Frank-the-Paul-impostor wore a cowboy hat over a rangy head of hair in his promo picture. What was worse, and probably the next thing Paul would complain about, someone had faked Paul’s signature on the picture. Brian chuckled and handed it back. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Some group in America has the same band name, or perhaps some bird just got confused.”

“The picture was printed with my name on it, Brian.” He shoved it back onto Epstein’s chest. “You’ve been making money off us for years, keep telling us how we’d make it big in the States if you could just get Capitol to listen. So what kind of deal did you make? What’s going on?”

Brain held up his hands in surrender, innocent. “Look, this is the first time I’ve ever seen that picture. If someone’s impersonating you in the states, I’ll find out about it. It means their record companies are screwing me over, too.”

Paul crumpled the photo. “Good. John and I are coming up with tons of stuff, and we can’t have some impersonator destroying our image.”

“No. Of course not.”

 

***

 

FEBRUARY, 1964

Brian clutched the telephone so tight his fingers tingled. With the cost of the trans-Atlantic phone call, he might as well have booked a flight. “What do you mean, ‘your own stuff?’”

The Texas drawl of Dusty clamored over the call, “You know, our songs. We’ve been singing your boring old Beatles stuff, but we didn’t have time to learn all of it. We had to fill in with something.”

“That wasn’t the deal. You’re being paid to be the Beatles just long enough so I can break the real band over there. It was bad enough you didn’t get the haircut and wore cowboy hats in your photos, but singing ‘your own stuff’ tears it.” He put his hand to his forehead. “Didn’t you listen to the songs I gave you to learn?”

“Yeah, but some of it just wasn’t our style, and we had to learn an awful lot in a short time. You gave us a ton of gigs, Mr. Epstein.”

Epstein pursed his lips and held back his anger for just a moment. “I’m going to cut you loose if you can’t play by my rules. You know who I got interested in your group? Ed Sullivan, that’s who. Now you’ve been good to me, boys, and all the Beatles singles are flying off the shelves. But I could take my boys, the real ones, and you’d be back on the streets. Is that what you want?”

Silence.

“Now shape up. Get your hair cut, get fitted for those suits, and learn your music.” He moved to hang up, then remembered, “Oh, and George – I mean, Dusty?”

“Yeah?”

“Let Paul do all the talking.”

 

***

 

MARCH, 1964

John sat calmly on a pillow, anger seething somewhere deep inside him, while Paul reddened and steamed.

“That’s all I ask,” Brian said. “The American market is cracking, I know it. You just have to write something tailored for them. Something with more blues influences, something more rural. You boys are good at this. You can do it.”

“But our songs are great already.”

“Your albums are great, boys, but we’ve got to start thinking of the next album. Hey, George is into that Indian mysticism and whatnot – get together, make an album with international flavor. How does that sound?”

John stood. “You can’t control our creativity. We write what we write, and you are powerless to change that.”

“And people buy what they buy, and you are powerless to stop that.” Brian pointed to each young man in turn. “Come on. You’ve got it in you. Write the songs for me, make an album.”

Paul swallowed. “We’ll see what comes out, Brian.”

John nodded in agreement. “Yeah. We’ll see.”

 

***

 

JULY 3, 1964

Brian read the headline of the culture section in the Daily Mail and coughed on his morning digestive. He pounded his chest with a fist to clear the blockage and, hand shaking, picked up his cup of morning tea to wash down the crumbs.

He took a key from his pocket and shoved it into a desk drawer. There, in a box sitting next to a bottle of fine Scotch and a couple glasses that needed cleaning, sat a row of business cards. Brian sorted through the cards and took out an ivory piece of cardstock. His hands shook as he took the card and closed the desk door, whiskey and glasses clinking as he did so.

His shaky fingers trailed around the rotary dial. “Please be in the office,” he begged. “Please pick up…”

The dial tone hummed twice before the line clicked and a man answered, “Bill Kehoe.”

“Oh, Bill.” Brian wiped the sweat from his brow and leaned forward. Despite the distress in his body, he kept his voice even. “I was just getting in the office, and I noticed the newspaper. Have you seen the article in the Daily Mail about my boys?”

“The Mail? Brian my boy, I’ve seen about it in the Independent. Your boys’ arrival back on English soil is everywhere in the entertainment pages. Good show, I say, good show-”

“You don’t understand-”

“I don’t? Why, it means you’ve cracked the American market and successfully toured the planet! No one’s done that, not even me.”

“Shut up, Bill. It’s you who’s got me into this mess, and it’s you who’s got to get me out.” Brian huffed, looked to the door to make sure his secretary hadn’t heard his outburst. “I made the fake band like you suggested. Problem is they sold like hotcakes, and the American public wanted their image, not the real thing. I couldn’t substitute my real band back in before the Ed Sullivan show, and then it was far beyond too late.”

Bill grumbled on the other end of the line. “You’re saying the boys in the article are the Fake Beatles.”

“Yes. They weren’t supposed to come here!”

“Do your real boys know about them?” The telephone line crackled a bit as he spoke.

“They might suspect, but I haven’t told them anything specific.”

“Oh.” Bill Kehoe coughed on the other end. “What do you plan to do?”

“I don’t know!” Brian reached for a cigarette even though he didn’t like smoking indoors. “I haven’t lost control yet. None of them get out of bed this early, after all. They might even be working on this mystical Indian nonsense, in which case I might have a day, maybe two on the outside, before they figure out the ruse.”

“Then you have a little while to come up with something.” Bill grunted on the other end of the line. “I see three options, Brian: one is to tell your boys what’s going on, then try to hold their money out of reach in order to force them to work with you.”

“It’s not their money in the first place. I’ve done all the work.”

“Will they see it that way?”

Brian paused a moment. “Their contract gives me complete control over their image and brand.”

“So they’ll complain and eat everyone’s profits away in court. You’ve got them by the small and curlies, my boy. Offer them greater royalties for writing, singing, and recording their songs, but let your American boys with their American smiles keep touring. Not a bad deal for anyone, really.”

“What’s the second option?”

“Get all the money you have in cash. Preferably American dollars or Soviet rubles. Then take all you can in a couple of briefcases, go to some third world country, and establish yourself as a king of sorts amongst the savages.”

“Option 3?”

“Suicide, naturally.”

Brian clenched his fist. “You’re no help, Bill.”

“But I got you rich-”

Epstein hung up the phone before Bill could finish.

 

***

 

JULY 4, 1964

Brian slammed the door behind him. Dusty and Frank roused themselves from where they slept on the Brighton hotel room’s couch.

“Mr. Epstein!” Dusty shouted, his voice still quiet and stuffed from having just awoken.

“What is the meaning of this?!” Epstein fumed. He kicked an empty can of beer out of his way and made a path to the expensive couches. “You were supposed to return to the States after you finished at Brisbane. The real band is here in England, and they weren’t supposed to find out you existed.” He tried to rouse the sleeping band members, but their eyes batted just briefly before they fell back to snoozing. “Get out. My boys will do this Brighton show.”

The closet doors opened. John, Paul, Ringo, and George stepped out. Their faces were bedraggled, their facial hair fuzzy and scraggly like that of poor-kempt young men. “You really think that will work? That anyone will be expecting us?” John asked.

Epstein stammered wordlessly. Senselessly.

“You’ve had this fake band touring for so long that not even our own countrymen recognize us,” Paul accused. “We’re not the Beatles anymore. These dumb yokels are.”

Frank smiled and Dusty nodded in agreement.

Brian clenched his fists. “So you know what’s going on.”

“With that article in the paper advertising the Beatles’ arrival back in England? Of course we knew, you fool.” Paul pointed a finger. “How much money did you steal from us?”

“Nothing. I earned every pound I made.”

“Bullshit.” Paul’s brows furrowed into deep, angry trenches. “We made the songs. We sang the recordings. These bloody yanks jumped around the world however you told them – they did more work than you.”

“Well they bungled that last trip,” Brian cried. He pointed to the Americans on the couch. “You’re fired. I don’t care if you’re popular in the States.”

Dusty and Frank chuckled on the couch. “You can’t fire us.”

“I hired you to be front men, and you’ve frustrated me since day one! I can fire you whenever I please!”

“They don’t work for you anymore,” Paul spoke up. “None of us do.”

“Your contract –”

“Making a second band in our name was illegal, Mr. Epstein,” John said. “The lawyers Mr. Kehoe hired for us back in June agree that our contract was voided as soon as you hired the impostors.”

Brian’s eyes widened. “Mr. Kehoe?”

“Our new manager.” Paul pointed to the door. “It’s you who are fired, Mr. Epstein.”

Brian gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. “That traitor! This was his plan all along – he’s the one who told me to hire the impostors! It’s his fault!”

“Get out of this room.” Paul opened the door and pointed to the exit with an angry finger. “It’s your fault we’re no longer The Beatles. You killed us, Mr. Epstein. You ruined our names and our fortunes, and I never want to see your wormy face again!”

As Epstein turned to leave, he wiped a tear welling in his eye. He stepped over the threshold into the wood-floored hallway. “You could always make a new band. Hell, I’d manage you for free, after everything that’s happened. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.”

“Get out.”

Epstein lowered his head. Taking all his money and becoming a king in some desert island sounded better every second.

 

***

 

SEPTEMBER, 1964

The meeting took place in Bill’s office. A beautiful secretary filed her nails at her little desk, ready with a pen and stenographer’s pad if need be. “The song’s a massive hit,” Bill explained. “Not like your Beatles stuff, but we couldn’t expect lightning to strike twice, could we?”

Paul grumbled. “Those silly fake ‘Beatles’ still make money off our songs.”

“But you’re back from the dead as ‘The Zombies.’ Better than ever and 100% genuine…”

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I’ll admit, this story was written for a themed anthology about the Beatles. They were looking for speculative fiction including alternate histories, so I gave them one based on mashing together the true stories of “The Beatles” with the even weirder true story of British Invasion band “The Zombies.” Since this story wasn’t chosen for the anthology, I was like, “Wtf am I supposed to do with this now?” and thus you receive this tale. Ta-da!

As far as I’m aware, no one has claimed copyright on the photo. At least this is what it says on Wikipedia…

Bleeding Heart

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The fragile flowers draped across the stem
Tenderly waft in breeze of quiet day,
Yet they hang not so splendid as the hem
Which puts your pleasant features on display.
I can imagine a delicacy
To trump even the tenderness of blooms,
But I can’t eclipse this hesitancy,
This form which my ferocious fear assumes.
I endure by shamefully unclothing you,
In my mind and bleeding heart, from afar,
Yet my damned morals attempt a coup.
I worry you will find me a bizzare
And pathetic degenerate; I blame
You not, for my stares are sin just the same.

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Alexander Eliot gave a fantastic photo for his prompt this week, and I just couldn’t resist!

I was so impressed by this picture that my mind couldn’t come up with prose – that’s literally never happened before. The way the poem took a turn about someone’s unrequited attempts at love initially was supposed to be about someone who loved a person who was dead, but I ended up going into a bit creepier territory.

Anyway, hope you enjoy! 🙂