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Nothing was brighter.

That had never been explicitly promised. But, somehow, I had expected it anyway.

And I was alone. I knew everyone was waiting for me, at the other end of the valley. We would celebrate. All I wanted to do was sleep but I couldn’t. I had to get to them before night fell. At least then I might have help building the fire and making dinner. It wouldn’t all be on me.

I began to unbuckle my armour and let it slide off, clattering to the ground. My clothes were stiff with dried sweat and I noticed how bad I smelled. There were scratches and blisters on my skin, a couple of burns. They would heal, I hoped. I gently stretched. I felt heavy even without the armour.

My mother would have salve with her I was sure of it. My father would give me an appraisal and a pat on my aching shoulder. He’d probably laugh when I winced. I wanted him there to do that now.

I looked back over my shoulder at the huge maze I had just completed, the top of the ladder reaching up from the trench, my last climb to freedom. I could feel the dirt under my finger nails and the built-up grime from the…how long had I been in there?

Running my tongue over my teeth I felt the build-up of fuzz. A long time then. I closed my eyes and I breathed in deep. The air out here, on a gentle breeze, was fresher than the loamy, still air I had just left. It filled my lungs and I felt my chest expand almost painfully as I stretched myself out to take in as much as I could.

When I opened my eyes, nothing had changed. The sky wasn’t bluer nor the grass greener. The sun was shining but there were grey clouds rolling over head.

Hmm. It might even rain later.

I remembered the lead up to the maze. It had been the only choice I could make at the time, but it still felt as if there must have been another choice, somewhere, that I could have made. I just needed to find it.

Having suffered through it I was standing here on the other side and I suddenly realised how the world didn’t look any different. Why should it though, I had been fighting to get back here after all. It was the world I wanted to get to. Wasn’t it?

I looked at where I had just been and then in the direction I was headed. I glanced down at my armour. I still had to carry that with me. I didn’t want to lose it, I had fought hard to earn it. Surely it would be good for something in the future. Nothing hard won was ever a waste.

Piece by piece with stiff, cracked fingers I put the armour back on. It covered the bruises and cuts and kept some of the smell encased. That would be good as I travelled. I tested how fast I could walk. Not too fast.

Once it was all back on I set my gaze on my destination. Once I was there, with my family and friends, I would be able to rest. Possibly.

Well, maybe not right away.

But it would happen. I just had to get there first.

I had survived the maze. But I still had a way to go. I put one foot in front of the other and started walking.

I still couldn’t believe the world didn’t seem brighter. It was the same world I had left when I went into the maze. I was just on the other side.

 

Image from pixabay.com and used under Creative Commons

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The Priceless Cabin Beyond The Water (part 1)

The peeling paint on the wooden sign told them this was the registration office. Alessa’s father steered her inside, hand on her shoulder. There were other people waiting so they joined the end of the line. She stroked her baby brother Isaac’s head when he stirred in the papoose she wore. The floor was dusty and the windows dim. An old crone with stringy hair was behind the tall desk. Everyone talked in whispers except her. She loudly proclaimed when someone was registered, that the departure date she had given them was not for sale, for swapping and absolutely under no circumstances were they to miss it.
When Alessa and her father reached the desk the crone looked them over and sighed.
“All departees need to be present at registration.” Her father sagged slightly.
“We are.” He gave their names. She presented wooden tokens. Each had a date scratched into it and their names freshly added. They got the same speech about the dates.
“Excuse me?” Alessa stuttered. The crone had to lean forward to see her properly. “What if we die before our date?”
“Then you don’t have to worry about missing it do you? A blacksmith can make it into a metal token if you prefer.”
“For free?”
“No. Next!”
Thoroughly dismissed they made their way back out onto the dirt street. The buildings were nicer here, stone and clay. She had hoped the people would all be nicer too. At the outskirts of town an old man had spat on them and shambled back inside a lean to when asked for directions. They’d carried on in silence. The proprietor of the hostel they’d found had encouraged them to go straight to registration to get earlier dates. Aware the children were tired and hungry, Father had seen to them first.
“Back to the hostel?” She asked.
“No, there is daylight left. We can explore. And if we find anyone hiring a carpenter, all the better.”
“Because carpenters are always useful. That’s why you trained as one.”
“Correct, my darling.” He bestowed a rare smile on her and she felt like she was glowing. “Shall I take Isaac?”
“No, Father. If you need to speak business it will be better without the baby on your front.” He stopped and turned her to face him.
“Was that something your mother told you?” She shook her head. He continued to look at her.
“Yes.” He smiled again but it wasn’t a real one.
“You’re a good girl, Alessa.”
They carried on walking. Mist began to block out the bright sun. He took Alessa’s hand and began walking in the direction the it floated from. He was getting excited and picked up the pace as the mist turned to fog. She could hear voices and a metallic smell hit her nose.
They arrived at the back of some tall buildings. More people were gathering so her Father hoisted her onto his shoulders. Isaac gurgled but other than that was still. She was thankful or Father would have to bring them down again. She could now see a pier jutting out over grey choppy water, a small boat docked at the far end. A woman was being helped in by a broad shouldered man. A cheer went up from the audience.
“It’s a departure!” She yelled.
“I see it, my love!” She felt Father chuckle and he pushed into the throng. A group at the base of the pier were chanting led by a man in robes.
“…be at peace and see her family across the water.
The Gods carry her from toil, her struggle is over.”
A rope barrier prevented the crowd going further. As they got closer and the first roar of the crowd settled, Alessa could hear crying and screaming. A boy was holding the side of the boat. The woman removed his hands as two men picked the child up and held him out of reach. He clawed at the air, trying to reach for the small vessel as it moved away from the dock. The woman blew a final kiss and turned away, facing into the thick fog.
“Look Alessa, it moves without a sail. Or oars.” Her Father’s whisper seemed loud in the sudden quiet. The chanting had stopped. Even the child was silent. Alessa felt her Father’s grip on her legs making them numb. The woman disappeared into the fog. Quicker than it had arrived the fog rolled back into the distance, leaving the water calm and no sign of the boat. A collective sigh rippled through the crowd followed by applause.
As the audience dispersed her Father kept moving forward. When they were no longer surrounded by people he swung her down. She stamped her feet as pins and needles racked her legs. The two men from the dock were unhooking the rope.
“Afternoon,” her Father greeted. They nodded but didn’t speak.
“While waiting I saw there was some wear on the pier. I’d happily fix it for a fair price or is there a master carpenter I could be recommended to?” The men looked at each other and smiled.
“For every citizen who takes the journey…” one said reverently.
“A priceless gift.” The other said with a grin on his face. He clapped her Father on the shoulder.
“The local carpenter departed three days ago. The next day we saw the damage. You have come at a fortuitous moment.” They began to guide him down the pier. He glanced at Alessa who indicated she would stay. With a real smile he carried on. They passed the boy, his feet now dangling over the edge as he stared across the water. Keeping one hand on Isaac she lowered herself next to him. His eyes were red and the streaks down his face were drying.
“They say the land across the water only has one building. A beautiful cabin. But inside is big enough to house everyone and we will all live together with the Gods. But they build it a day at a time which is why only one person can go. Is that true?”
“How should I know?”
“Well, I’m new. We arrived today. You must have lived here a lot longer if your mother has departed. That was your Mother? I thought maybe you’d know.”
He sat up straighter, staring at her and she felt so sad. “The dates they gave to my family are all close together. You’ll be with her soon.” She patted his hand. He got up. He was very tall, probably older than her.
“My mother never registered me. I don’t have a departure date.”

To be continued…

This story is for Toni. She chose the title out of a list I created using the random title generator at http://www.mcoorlim.com/random I first became familiar with this site through Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge at terribleminds.com and led to my first story on here, ‘Two Skulls’. Header image used under Creative Commons, taken from pixabay.com.

I hope you enjoy this story and I’ll post the next part soon.

The End of the Party

The call flashes on the screen, the sound covered by people yelling over loud music. The room is pressed with excited sweaty bodies dancing and laughing, table hopping to talk to everyone. Awards litter the centre pieces or are held aloft. Passed around supportive friends and colleagues. Someone yells a greeting as you step out into the bright hallway. The closed door muffles the noise enough to answer. But your ears are still ringing and you ask them to repeat themselves. A stranger tells you a story. They give you some contact details before signing off. Nobody stops you as you find your purse. A clap on the shoulder and you turn. You force a tight smile onto your face. In the lift the mirrored walls make you look pale.

Your bag is packed and a taxi called. You changed and scrubbed off your make-up, brushed out the elaborate hairstyle and tied it up. The letter you’ve written for your boss is sealed in an envelope. You leave it at the desk on your way out to be delivered later. You see two friends but hold back the impulse to call out when they don’t notice you.

It’s busy for such an early morning flight. An attendant had to walk you onto the plane and guide you to your seat. They try to be thoughtful and attentive but there are other passengers making demands. A message is waiting when you turn on your phone. There’s no need to hurry now so instead you ask the taxi to take you home. As you go inside and turn on a light in the empty house you breath in deeply. It’s familiar and comforting. You know it will never smell like this again.

Featured image from pixabay.com and used under creative Commons.

The Chase

“But your Father refused?” Galen used the stick in his hand to hit at the long grass. His friend Jason made a noise. He looked over to see him shaking his head.
“He said it wasn’t honourable.” As Jason spat out the last word he tugged on his tunic as if hot. But Galen knew it wasn’t the clothing or the weather making him uncomfortable. He wanted to reach out and comfort his friend but held back. Lately Jason had been short tempered and impatient. His Father had been talking of sending him away for months but it seemed now that it was going to happen. He didn’t want to lose his friend but your Father’s word was law. Jason would return when he was grown. They would always be friends. Satisfied, Galen nodded to himself and continued hitting the grass as they walked.
He didn’t know this part of the wooded hills but a glance behind assured him the town was still in sight. The more angry Jason became the longer Jason liked to walk. They would eat berries they found up here. Sometimes on a long hike Galen would set snares and catch rabbits he then roasted over a fire. The dry weather had made the wood like tinder so they would have to be careful if they cooked today. Usually nobody hunted here so the animals were easy prey. Better quality and quantities of meat were bought by the townspeople from the sea merchants in exchange for their services as scholars. For such an educated place, it made Galen wonder why Jason’s Father wanted to send him away for his education. He sighed. Walks would be no fun without Jason.
Continuing in silence Galen noticed the ground becoming rockier. His town sandals had less grip on the smooth stone. He had to hold on to trees for balance but even they became sparse. He looked over at Jason who was continuing with determination. Gritting his own teeth Galen matched his pace. He was getting out of breath when a cave mouth appeared from behind an outcrop. Jason strode up to the entrance and stopped, looking inside. Galen lowered himself to the ground and leant back against the rocks. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths. The sun was warm on his face and did little to cool his sweat soaked skin. Once he had his breath back he grinned.
“Let me know if I should make a snare for lunch. I may have to go back down to catch anything.” There was no reply so Galen looked around. He was alone. Standing up he turned, looking for his friend, calling his name. He heard a faint whisper coming from the cave. It was dark but, licking his dry lips, Galen took a few steps inside. It grew cold in the shade and his skin prickled. He heard the faint voice again. It sounded like Jason. He couldn’t see, so with hands held out at face height, Galen moved forward cautiously. His fingertips met cold rock, what must have been the back of the cave. Another whisper came, to his right. Running his hands along and moving slowly Galen kept going until suddenly the cave mouth disappeared from view. Keeping one hand where it was the other explored what was blocking the light. More rock, it was a tunnel leading from the cave which was so dark he hadn’t been able to see it. He could hear the voice better, it definitely sounded like Jason but it was too low for him to make out any words. He called Jason again. Then once more. The whisper stopped. A low rumble sounded.
“Jason, is that you?” A bright yellow flash showed another turn in the tunnel further in. He took a step forward but then another flash silhouetted Jason running back towards him. Jason was screaming for him to run. He turned and ran for the cave mouth. He heard a roar like a wall crashing down. Jason caught up to him outside, overtaking him, grabbing his arm and dragging him down the hillside. Galen tried to keep his footing but he slipped on the stone. He tumbled down, arms and legs out to try and stop his fall. Smooth rocks and tree branches pummeled and sliced at him. He slammed into something. It stopped his fall but his head whipped back and forth and he couldn’t breath. Then air flowed in with a pained gasp. His eyes were watering and he ached. He scrabbled for purchase on the ground. Rough bark against his side told him he’d landed on a tree. The rock was covered in slippery moss and tufts of sharp razor grass bit into his hands. He heard another roar that echoed around him. He tried to look but his eyes were blurry and it felt like the world was still spinning. Two hands clamped down on his arms.
“This way, Galen!” Jason pulled him up and half carried him. They moved back up the hill. Galen could hear loud heavy breathing but it mingled with his own so he couldn’t tell where it was coming from. He heard a noise like pawing at the ground. Like a great hound ready to race. Galen saw the cave again but Jason dragged him past it. They moved round and over it, continuing up further. The land became nothing but stone, with nothing to pull themselves up. Galen pushed Jason off him and despite the pain in his side he climbed up and up until there was nowhere else to go.
Blood was pounding in his ears as he stopped and it felt like his heart was going to burst in his chest. He pushed on the stitch in his side but the skin was so tender it made him wince. Jason was looking back the way they had come. Galen followed his gaze. They were above the treeline and he could make out the town in the distance. Next to it was the sea, the large trade ships that came into port looking like toys. Jason made a strangled noise and gestured below them. Galen saw it, a creature pacing inside the shadow of the treeline. It was on all fours. It appeared to have a large shaggy head, a thin tail that whipped about it’s hind quarters and there was some sort of strange hump on it’s back. The hump erupted in a burst of flame lighting up the forest, igniting several trees. As they burned others caught light. The air crackled around them and the heat beat at their skin, the creature moving through the flame. Lit up Galen could see the hump on it’s back was the head of a goat. The tail had two glittering reptilian eyes.
“A Chimera. I thought it was only a myth,” Jason said in a high whine. He covered his mouth and coughed.
“Me too,” Galen agreed. He blinked furiously to clear the smoke from his eyes. He saw Jason’s mouth move but couldn’t hear him. “What?” he cried.
“I didn’t mean it!” His friend shouted back at him.
“You did believe?” Jason shook his head and they both coughed. Galen didn’t have time to think about what Jason was saying. They needed to escape or they would die from the smoke before the Chimera got them. Suddenly a gust of wind blew the smoke clear. Standing up from the huddle they had formed Jason cried out at the Chimera.
“I didn’t mean it!” The Chimera stopped pacing and all of its faces turned to look at them through the burning trees. The wind was at their backs, the smoke dissipating. With a growl the creature bolted away, straight down the hill towards town. Jason sat down, tears leaving tracks on his blackened face. Galen put his arm around the other boys shoulders.
“It’s gone. If we can avoid the smoke the fire will burn out and we can warn the town.” He gave an encouraging smile.
“No,” Jason replied. “It’s too late already.” Galen was about to answer when something caught his eye. The sun was glinting off a large white band out to sea. It seemed to hover above the water and was getting closer to land. The nearer it got Galen began to recognise it as a wave. An enormous wave that was churning the water it moved through. It was reaching higher than any building he had ever seen. Galen turned and called Jason’s name but his friend was frozen on the ground. He tried to think of how he might be able to warn the town but he knew if anyone had a high vantage point they would be looking up at the burning forest. No one would be looking out to sea. The wave reached the boats first, tossing them into the air carelessly, wood and sails strewn in it’s wake. Moments later it reached the town.

This story began with inspiration from Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenge. http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2016/06/24/flash-fiction-challenge-five-random-story-seeds/

The seed I chose was number 5, an impossible animal arrives. I immediately thought about the Chimera and decided to research it’s classical origins. Thanks to Wikipedia (Chimera (mythology)) and reading that at one time the Chimera was an omen of natural disasters it inspired the climax of The Chase.

Featured image from pixabay.com and used under Creative Commons.

Rite

Inspired by Over The Edge by Adrian Dudziak.
http://photo.net/photodb/similar-photo?photo_id=9378225

Ankle deep with dampness creeping up her dress where it skimmed the frigid river water Grace held her hands out in front her in the traditional pose of supplication. She couldn’t feel her feet anymore. At first the cold had been painful. The daytime had been moderately warm but the river was fed by the glacier further up the valley making it icy year round. The first snow melt was always going to be the coldest the river would get. She had travelled a full day north from the village to be as close to the head water as possible before it became the stream. Grace camped for four days as she fasted, drinking only river water and applying holy oil. Before putting on her robe she had scraped her skin clean with a strigil. She stepped barefoot into the rapidly moving water as the sun began to shine through the trees on the fifth day. The white wool of her dress was getting heavier. Her back and scalp were damp as she concentrated on standing still. She wondered if she stayed there during the night would she freeze to death. She had only told her betrothed where she was planning on going. Would he be able to guide them to her if she did not return? How would he react if he found her body? Or would she wash down towards the village and be found by the early morning washer women? But the suffering for the rite was required of all brides if they wished to be blessed with a glimpse of their future children.

As the dusk turned to night her knees began to shake but she renewed her resolve, palms down to the water. She thought of her mother describing her rite. She along with all the other women who were betrothed were taken to the priestess on the far edge of the village. In seclusion they fasted and applied the oil. Then on the longest day of the year they went out into the fields to stand and await their vision. She had heard variations of the rite from women who had married into the village. One woman had never done it as her father had forbidden it. He had decided that with her mother dead and no other children she was too valuable to risk the rite. No one was surprised when she was barren. The rite was performed during summer in high heat, their grim determination in the scorching sun blessing them with hardy children who could work the land from sunup to sundown. But during her rite, Grace’s mother had seen her daughter having a winter babe. A child who could handle lack of warmth and forge their own path. Grace had always wanted to be that child. The jealousy she felt was always there. Even now as she dared see her child’s future.

Her whole body began to shake. Eyes closing against the starry sky her vision turned inwards. Opening her eyes the light was so bright she had to squint. Looking around she found herself on a swaying platform surrounded by a field of glittering jewels. Grace looked down and didn’t recognise any of the clothing she wore. She did recognise a wedding band around her wrist. She stepped towards the rail and realised it wasn’t jewels out there but sunlight hitting the ripples on a vast expanse of water bigger than she had ever seen. It was just water and sky as far as she could see. The size of it frightened and thrilled her equally. Wind whipped around her pulling at her hair and clothing bringing with it a strong salt smell and something else warm and inviting. There was a call from above. She turned to it and saw clouds captured in webbing. Focusing she saw they were just enormous sheets, bleached white in the baking sun billowing out and pulling their vessel over the water. She ran along in the direction they raced. She leant forward over the rail almost to her tipping point, closing her eyes when the wind made her eyes water and it felt like she was flying. This was where her child was going to go and she felt that pang of jealousy. She sensed someone beside her and turned to find a man holding a child. She couldn’t see his face but the child had dark hair like the raven, like hers. The man was looking forward and pointing. A dark mass was looming over them now. Dark grey cliffs speckled with green and peaks so high they were hidden by dense white cloud. Suddenly Grace was on a small boat. She leapt out and helped pull it onto crisp golden sand. The water that soaked into her boots was warm. She moved away from the boat not caring that her clothing was getting soaked. The envy she felt at her own child’s future was a dull ache. She knew it could grow into rage and destroy her relationship with her daughter. She sighed and hung her head but the reflection in the crystal water by her feet wasn’t of her child.

It was her own face, older, weathered. She gasped but the air that entered her lungs was bitingly cold. She coughed it out and tried to hold onto the trance but the harder she tried to stay the faster she felt herself return to the river. Stumbling out of the water Grace made it to the bank as a sob escaped her. Laying back she saw the moon still hanging over her but pale dawn light beginning. Eventually her sobs lessened and she smiled up at the sky. She was going to see more sky, soon.

Two days later Graces betrothed found one of his camping bedrolls missing and their betrothal band sitting on his kitchen table. Muddy footprints led to the river’s edge. She must have travelled by night through the water. Which way she went they never discovered.

Today’s story has come about because of the random image inspiration Flash Fiction challenge over at http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2016/05/06/flash-fiction-challenge-inspiration-of-the-random-image/

The picture I chose is Over The Edge by Adrian Dudziak:
http://photo.net/photodb/similar-photo?photo_id=9378225

If it doesn’t show up you can search photo.net with the title and artists name.

Featured image from pixabay.com and used under Creative Commons.

Enjoy!

Hero

The sudden draft blew her hair into her face, the displaced air announcing Ali’s arrival. As hands slipped around her waist Steph smiled.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” Lips brushed against her neck.
“Can’t I just come to enjoy some time with you?” That was met with a chuckle.
“You were due to be at the HQ all day and possibly into the evening so I repeat my question.” Turning in Ali’s arms Steph placed a kiss on soft lips before Ali sighed.
“I just needed to get out of there for a little while. I went home first but you weren’t there.” Steph frowned at the surprise she heard in Ali’s voice.
“It’s on the family planner. I have a shift all day.” Ali nodded but then gave a little shrug.
“It’s just…what with…”
“The end of the world as we know it?” Steph supplied. Her raised eyebrow was met with Ali giving her the puppy dog eyes that had ensnared her in the first place.
“Babe,” she sighed in frustration. “It’s not the first time something like this has happened.” Ali stepped back and leaned on the racking across from Steph.
“This time it’s different.”
“Yes, you were very emphatic about that last night when you were disobeying orders and telling me everything. I remember. I was there.” Steph pointed at her own face. “I have the bags under my eyes to prove it.” She turned and picked up the scanner she had been using and consulted her stock list again. She heard the growl of frustration Ali made but refused to turn back around.
“And what was it that drove me to spill my guts?”
“Yes, Ali. Your mentor lied to you.”
“So how can I trust him now?” Slamming down her work Steph spun on her heel.
“Maybe because he’s never let you down. Even when you told me what he did you managed to make it sound like he did you a favour. Because of what he did you couldn’t do something stupid that could have gotten you killed. So I’m really sorry if I’m not actually feeling betrayed by a man I’ve only known existed for nineteen hours!”
“You’re supposed to be on my side,” Ali said through gritted teeth.
“He kept you alive. How can I not be happy about that?”
“Steph!” Came a shout from somewhere else in the racks. Ali was gone, another draft the only evidence of movement. Stephs manager came around the corner a moment later. Steph had already picked up her scanner and list,
“What do you think you’re doing?” Steph just looked at her in confusion.
“What?”
“You’re fully aware that there are no phones allowed during work hours. They are to be kept in a locker.”
“I wasn’t on the phone. It is in my locker.”
“I could hear you yelling,” her manager said with a look of smug satisfaction on her face that scrunched her features.
“Ah, I was going over lines for a reading my partner and I are taking part in next week. I must have got carried away.” Steph pulled a face of contrition. “I didn’t realise how loud I was being, sorry.” Her manager wasn’t convinced and after turning her pockets out and being marched back to her locker to prove that her phone was in fact in her locker she was finally allowed back to work with a warning to keep her line running to an inside voice only.
As Steph got back to her task she felt another draft.
“I could make her disappear for you.” Steph rolled her eyes to herself but didn’t turn to face Ali.
“Better the devil you know,” was her reply. “Now can I please get back to my job? You’ve almost gotten me in trouble once today. I’d just like to get on with it.” When Steph got no reply she looked over her shoulder to check if Ali was even there. Ali was leaning against the racks again looking at the floor. When Ali finally looked up Steph put her hand out but Ali had moved just out of reach, sighing before speaking again.
“I’m sorry for that. I guess…I just don’t get why you put up with this shitty job when you know what’s going on out there? When you could be at home with your daughter. Spending time with her.”
“Or you?” Ali looked up at Steph but didn’t deny her accusation. Putting her work things down Steph took a tentative step toward Ali.
“This job puts food on my table. A roof over mine and my daughters heads and allows me the time to study so I can get a vastly better paid shitty job. And I can’t afford to lose it.” Ali started to speak but Steph held her hand up. “I know something big is happening. But you’ve also told me that you could do something about it. And more importantly that you have done so several times before. My real life hero.” She smiled and saw Ali’s face begin to brighten. “So I came to work because I know that you’re going to make sure that it’s still here for me tomorrow. And the next day.” Steph ran her hands up onto strong shoulders and around Ali’s neck. “So I don’t need to go be with my daughter. You’re going to make sure nothing happens.” Ali just stared at her. Steph waited as the puppy dog eyes looked for any sign that she was lying. Seemingly finding none Ali let out a huge breath.
“You’re putting a hell of a lot of trust in me.”
“I know,” Steph replied with a grin on her face. Ali enveloped her in a hug and kissed her.
“Dinner at mine tomorrow night?” Steph asked.
“Love to. I’ll text you to let you know I got back safely.”
“You better.” With another rush of displaced air Ali was gone.

 

Featured image from pixabay,com and used under Creative Commons