Another Flash Fiction Challenge entry courtesy of TerribleMinds. Last week’s challenge was to propose a last line of a story, and this week we were to choose one of Chuck’s top ten last lines to be our first lines. I picked, “She closed the book and watched as it turned to dust.” For a while I thought about going with a Twilight Zone kind of tale wherein she can’t finish any books because they all turn to dust when she puts them down, but then I ended up with something different.
“A Brand New World”
She closed the book and watched as it turned to dust. The parchment paper caught every speck, and she didn’t dare breathe as she picked up the edges and tilted it into a clean Erlenmeyer flask. The dust slid smoothly off, needing only a few light taps to get the last of it off. Then she snugged a cork stopper into the narrow glass neck and set it aside.
Her feet tapped on the rungs of the stool in her workshop. She took a deep breath and blew it out noisily. There was no point in waiting any longer.
Her workshop was a hovel. It used to be a garage attached to a house, but somewhere along the line the house had been destroyed, leaving behind a pile of wood and rusting fixtures. The garage door might have been hooked up to move at the click of a button once, but was now sealed by rust and – I squinted – spells.
When the magic first came to Boise, those that could, fled. Settling in like an inversion layer, the magic took everyone by surprise. Houses like this one weren’t uncommon when a family found out the hard way that a baby had been infected with abilities far beyond reason or comprehension.
Drive a few hours in any direction and it’s gone.
I knocked at the side door and listened. Metallic squeaks, a muffled hiss of pain, three physical bolts and one alchemical seal presaged the opening of the door. My contact’s hair hung in limp, unwashed strands around her face, the start of dreadlocks that wouldn’t quite come together. Her skin was pale and sheened with sweat. No wonder she’d done it so fast.
I pulled a vial of golden dust out of my jacket pocket and held it up for her to inspect. She reached out and I pulled it away.
“One vial of dragonfly in exchange for one powdered book,” I said. She made a frustrated hum in the back of her throat.
“Come in, then.”
I walked inside, careful not to make physical contact with her as I slid into the crowded room and she resealed the door behind us. I let a part of my mind make a quick analysis of her security and decided I would be able to exit with or without her cooperation. Then I made my way over to her worktable and wrinkled my nose. Too much clutter to tell where my product might be hiding.
She scooted past me and plucked a corked flask from the wreckage. I reached for it, but she slithered away. I rolled my eyes and held out the vial.
She practically shoved the flask at me as she snatched her payment out of my hand.
“Go ahead,” I said. “Check it.”
I could tell she wanted to be alone, but her arm spasmed. Once it calmed, she popped the vial open and used a long fingernail to scoop up some of the sparkling powder. She capped the vial and snorted her fix.
The change was immediate. Her features shimmered, the lank hair acquiring a new sheen, the pocked face becoming clear and smooth. She smiled, and was almost beautiful.
“Don’t know why you wanted that book dusted anyway. It was so old it was practically dust already.”
“I know. It was a first edition.”
She frowned without losing a bit of her artificial beauty. I began to ease my way to the door, and she followed.
“I destroyed a first edition?”
“And you were paid well for it.”
She swallowed. The vial I’d given her would last for months, well husbanded. I’d bet on her squandering it in a week, two at the outside.
I waited for her to unseal the door, which she did with an appearance of grace ruined by it sticking and needing a good shove.
She watched me walk away before shutting herself back inside her own little corner of a world gone to hell.
Like most of the remaining residents, I used a bicycle to get around. Anything much more technologically advanced had stopped working, and a bike gave you a better chance of out-running the gangs of feral, semi-intelligent cats that had taken over the North End.
I took the safest route to my workshop, in the basement of an abandoned building on the outskirts of what used to be Boise State University, before that fateful day when chemistry met alchemy and leveled ten city blocks. It involved going out of my way by about two miles, but I only needed one encounter with a bridge troll to decide a second was not in my best interests.
I ducked through intentionally unkempt brush to the trace that led to my stairs, concealed by a simple lattice of branches. At the bottom of the stairs, the door with no knob served to give visitors pause, if they didn’t know the trick to opening it. I placed my hands on two spots and spoke the key invocation. Handles materialized and I pulled the door open and slipped inside before it thunked close again.
Two rooms, a closet and a bathroom, all much cleaner than the addict’s I’d just seen. The entry room was my bedroom (the better to greet unwelcome guests at any and all hours). I walked down the hall to my work room and pulled out the flask, popping out the cork and setting it on the spot I had prepared in the wee hours of the night.
How the University had come upon such an edition in the first place, I didn’t know, but when I found it scavenging in the sub-basement of the wrecked library, the spell came to me in a flash of revelation.
The flask sat on a mirror, with four objects placed around it at cardinal points: a rose, a dead bee, a thimble and a gold ring.
The words I spoke were nonsense in any language, but in this new pocket of magic that had burst onto the world, they carried meaning. Meaning guided by my intent.
The dust began to flow out of the flask, coalescing in the air above it as the book it had started as.
“K-saosstt-nsmp-oys-tu,” I said, finishing after half an hour of intense concentration. My throat felt dry. I plucked the new-old book from the air and flipped to the end. I had always wanted it to end differently.
And now it did, wherever magic held sway.
The Savage lives.