FLAME TREE FICTION NEWSLETTER
Eleventh Issue! Virtual Dolls
Welcome to the Eleventh issue of the FLAME TREE PRESS NEWSLETTER! We've got two amazing stories, exclusive for subscribers to read for one month. Last month's flash fiction themes were, Virtual Worlds and Creepy Dolls!
This month's newsletter features:
- Original Sci-Fi Flash Fiction: In Dreams Awake by Keyan Bowes
- Original Horror Flash Fiction: In the Valley of Dolls by Matt Athanasiou
- FLAME TREE PRESS - August Releases
Original Science Fiction Story
In Dreams Awake
Jorry's eyes twitched and moved under his eyelids. His hair peeked out from under his helmet, and I brushed it off his forehead. His teddy-bear was tucked under his arm as it had been when he went under. A week ago.
"Can I see what he's doing now?" I asked.
"Sure, Kerry," Dr K said, and flipped on the monitor above the reclining chair where seatbelts held my son motionless amid a nest of tubes and wires. Onscreen, Jorry was not 5, but about 15, and wearing a muddied rugby uniform. In his world, the sky looked normal, everything was green and the roses bloomed along our garden fence. He dropped into a deck chair on the lawn, calling Sara next door to ask if she'd like to come over. When she did, she was a tall teenager, not the chubby toddler sleeping under a helmet three places over from us. She bent over my son, gave him a kiss.
"My folks aren't home," he said. "Let's go inside?" She winked and pulled him to his feet.
I turned away then, and let Dr K turn off the monitor. There were some things Moms weren't supposed to see, even when it made them happy.
When the arguments and discussions had finally stopped, it was too late for effective action. Climate change had happened. Two generations learned to live with the impacts, to adjust or die. But the process was accelerating, and now we had no more hope than the dinosaurs. Perhaps a few self-sufficient people in remote places would manage to survive to evolve into birds, or the primate equivalent; but the billions of us were going nowhere except extinct. Euthanasia was now legal everywhere.
It was the kids that hurt most. We adults, we'd lived, realized some of our dreams. But the kids?
What Dr K offered was a life. A dream life, but the kids wouldn't know it from the inside.
"You know how time is distorted in a dream?" he'd explained. "It's like that."
"What kind of life would he have?" I'd asked.
"Just a normal life. As normal used to be back then."
The next visiting day, a major storm warning was in effect. We came to the Center anyway. It was built like a bunker and had its own generators. By the time we got there, trees were bending in the wind and an occasional crack and crash told of broken branches. We ran into the calm oasis of the Center.
Ela and Ramesh, our neighbors and Sara's parents, stood transfixed beside their little girl's chair. On the monitor was Sara, all grown up, dressed in the red saree of a traditional Indian bride. Her hair was up in an elaborate chignon. And beside her, wearing a dressy long brocade coat and turban, was Jorry. When Dr K turned on Jorry's monitor, it showed the same scene from a different perspective. They exchanged garlands. Ela and Ramesh, and John and I looked at each other, grinned through our happy tears, and hugged our new relatives.
The outside surveillance monitors showed the storm uprooting trees and washing cars out of the sloping parking lot. We hoped ours wasn't among them.
There was nowhere to go. We picnicked in the visitor chairs, sharing the snacks from our go-bags and watching our children dream. By the time the storm had passed, a day later, we had adorable twin grandchildren. Ela and I hugged and screamed, John and Ramesh exchanged high fives.
The worsening weather conditions brought an unpredictable mix of fierce prolonged winters, scorching summers and horrible storms. We did not know for how long we'd manage. Water supplies were patchy, and we sealed and filled all the bath tubs and every other container. During rainstorms, we placed buckets outside, and if they didn't get blown away, we could top up our supplies. We'd stocked up on a year's worth of canned goods since the power was unreliable. It was only a matter of time before the entire grid came down. Our solar panels still worked, as long as they survived. We made a shelter in our basement apartment.
A storm surge ripped the roof off Ela and Ramesh's house and no one was repairing anything any more. We asked them to move in with us. After all, we were family now.
The only thing that kept us going was visiting the Center. Jorry was a senior scientist at the Climate Research Institute, making presentations at conferences and sitting at a computer in a world where the internet still existed. Sara had her own legal practice, and we saw her in the courtroom, making her case with flair and confidence. We followed the news of our sweet little grandchildren growing up, going off on their own.
Sara and Jorry, empty nesters now, went to Europe on a holiday. They took a romantic gondola ride in Venice, which hadn't crumbled into the encroaching sea. Amsterdam had polders and tulips and beautiful historic museums, and wasn't underwater. In Paris, they gazed at the rose window of the Notre Dame cathedral, nicely rebuilt after the 2019 fire, and then wandered through the Ile de Cite that hadn't washed away.
In a couple of weeks, we watched our children grow old. Sara died of an aneurysm. Jorry had a hard time getting over his loss. We grieved with Ela and Ramesh, and alongside our son.
We were late getting to the center the day Jorry had a fatal heart attack. He was gone by the time we arrived.
Dr K disconnected the helmet and tubes, and gave us our child back. His limp five-year-old body was quiet as if in sleep, still holding his teddy-bear. We cradled him in our arms and cried and cried, for our little boy, for the world.
Keyan Bowes is a peripatetic writer of science fiction and fantasy based in San Francisco. She’s lived in nine cities in seven countries, and is still traveling. These places sometimes form the settings for her stories. Her work can be found online in various webzines (including a Polish one), a podcast, and an award-winning short film; and on paper in a dozen print anthologies.
She’s a graduate of the Clarion Workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers, and a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Keyan’s website is at www.keyanbowes.org.
Original Horror Story
In the Valley of Dolls
The doll that the old woman named Hisashi sits on the edge of the roof. The weight of its life-sized body tips forward, and after years of perching atop the metal sheet that covers the single-story house, Hisashi falls. A rusted shard of steel catches its elbow, and the doll hangs.
As if by her divine intervention, Hisashi can still see her home across the dirt road. If the doll could move itself, it would wave for its creator to come and place it back on its perch, where she wanted it to be.
Hisashi’s creator has set hundreds of dolls around this town surrounded by mountains. Those gray peaks tower over the valley, their crags and crevices like foreign epitaphs on gravestones, remembering the townspeople who have passed from old age or have moved away.
But who can read those rockface carvings? Hisashi wonders. When the old woman is gone too, who will know that the last resident created these dolls to bring a semblance of life back to her home? Who will continue her legacy?
Silvery sunlight filters through the clouds. It shines on the old woman, as she works from a bench outside her house.
Still dangling from its arm, Hisashi admires her stitching buttons eyes onto a face, embroidering a red grin, sewing together limbs stuffed with wool.
Before she attaches the head, she pricks her finger with the needle. She dabs the blood inside the doll, and her newest creation shifts almost indiscernibly, rills of life coursing through its threads—but with no more lifeblood, it will never move itself again. Like Hisashi, it will only watch as its body becomes weather-bunched, its clothes sun-bleached, its hair plucked by crows.
The old woman drops the head, and it rolls into the road. She pushes herself up from the seat but plops back down. She retries, but again she drops. She rubs her knees and shins that are as wrinkled as Hisashi’s, and she leans back. She sees Hisashi swaying in the breeze and sighs.
That is okay, Hisashi thinks. She has replaced the doll on the roof many times. She deserves to rest. Instead, Hisashi prays that, by some grace, it will be blessed with enough energy to lower itself, collect the head from the dirt, and bring it to her.
Nothing happens. The prayer seems as lost on the valley as the writing on the mountains.
Days pass without the old woman appearing. Memories of elderly townspeople dying off storm in, and as if sharing Hisashi’s fear, the night sky cracks with lightning.
Violent gusts slam the doll against the wall. The downpour beats its body, and the tear in its arm lengthens. Stuffing gushes out, the fabric ripping to its wrist, to its pinky, and Hisashi falls.
It slaps onto the mud. Its head is crooked against the wall, and it faces away from its creator’s home. Is this the storm’s way of saving Hisashi from possibly watching her die?
No, Hisashi thinks. This is a test of faith. As its creator once relentlessly prayed to extend her life, Hisashi must too. Her wishes were eventually answered when she realized that her essence could live on inside her creations.
So the doll prays harder, asking if she is alive, asking if it might stand on its own.
Nights. Mornings. Afternoons. Dusks. There is no sign of her.
Soaking in a puddle, Hisashi imagines dolls falling apart. Children face down outside the school, the embracing lovers with their arms fallen off, hikers blown into bushes. Without their creator’s help, they will no longer resemble the town as it was, but as the lifeless place it has become.
Hisashi feels its first frustration with the old woman. How could she make them so helpless? Did she want them to rely on her?
Windchimes clink, invading Hisashi’s tired prayers, and the doll’s thoughts begin to quiet. It wonders if it will find peace in becoming nothing more than cloth and stuffing, once the blood inside itself washes away.
Under the stars, two rats fight over a dead crow. The smaller rodent gashes the larger one’s eye. The big rat shrieks, blood gushing into its mouth. With regained strength, it lunges and sinks its teeth into the other’s neck. Its claws furrow the littler rodent’s belly and head. Squeals echo through the village.
When the small rat only twitches, its attacker releases it. It bites into the bird’s wing and drags the carrion into another alley.
The bleeding rat rolls onto its feet. It peers at Hisashi, then staggers toward the doll.
It noses Hisashi’s torn arm and burrows inside. It crawls into the doll’s shoulder, then chest. Blood spreads through the stuffing, and as if the rat has come to answer Hisashi’s prayers, the doll’s body shakes with life.
Hisashi’s arms tighten, and it pushes itself against the house. Mud squelches as it rises to its feet. The rat falls into its stomach.
Weakly, the doll stumbles to the old woman’s house. It props itself against a window and looks inside, expecting to see her dead on the floor.
But no. She eats at the table, her hands trembling as she lifts a bowl to her mouth. Hisashi watches longer, its frustrations lessening. She is doing what she prayed for, the same pin-prick desire she blessed all her creations with. Surviving.
Hisashi moves toward the door. It imagines her smile, as the doll claims the rest of her lifeblood. The rat must have felt similarly when it gave itself to Hisashi. The dolls can survive longer than either of them, and is that not the responsibility of one’s creations? To live on for those who are no longer able?
Matt Athanasiou's writing has been nominated for the storySouth Million Writers Award, and has appeared in Gallows Hill Magazine, Disturbed Digest, and elsewhere. Read more of his words at mattathanasiou.com or chirp him on Twitter @mattisnotscary. Feel free to send him both cat and creepy doll pics.
He currently lives in the sprawl of Chicago and works as a digital product designer.
FLAME TREE PRESS | August Releases
We are extremely excited to be announcing our August titles! With a troubling childhood homicide Detective Raven Burns must shake the demons of her past and the stains on her soul if she wants to stop a killer in Faye Snowden's latest Crime Thiller A Killing Fire, creepy houses and unholy cults await readers in the excellent new to Flame Tree Horror tale from Jonathan Janz called The Darkest Lullaby, and finally we have Hellrider, the Horror novel by JG Faherty where a motorcyclist ghost avenges his own murder, with newfound powers he leaves plenty of bodies in his wake and the police in a state of confusion.
Sign up for future Newsletters and receive special offers, themes for entering our flash fiction competition and pre-publication information.