It’s been a long time since I did a Flash Friday! Although, it’s not actually Friday today as I’m posting this, so …
It’s Flash Friday on a TUESDAY!
I wrote this little story over the course of 3 writing sprints with a friend of mine. It’s pretty rough, but a fun story nonetheless. I hope you enjoy it!
Today’s prompt is: Memory Lane is a real place you can visit when you make a purchase at the local bakery.
A Fishy Bakery
The cupcake was extraordinary, peeking through a blue paper swirled with glistening white and piled with layers of pink and purple frosting in waves. Shiny pearled candy shone like jewels on top, and a fish tail probably made with marzipan jutted from the top, as if its owner had just taken a dive into the frosting.
“Is that the one you’d like today, dearie?” the lady behind the counter asked. She wore a neat apron and a stiff baker’s hat with crisp folds. Her skin was wrinkled, thin like paper that’s been worn down by an eraser. But her eyes glistened bright and shiny.
Cora bit her lip. She shouldn’t be here. Mother had warned her. But her feet had led her past the school entrance to this shop, almost as if Cora couldn’t control them at all.
Against her better judgement, she found herself nodding.
“Very good,” said the woman. She bent to unlock the glass behind the counter and snatch a spatula, scooping up the cupcake and balancing it expertly as she deposited it into a bakery box sized perfectly to contain the piles of frosting.
The shop bell tinkled like a warning, and Cora stiffened. Would Mother follow her here? But it was just a boy with scruffy hair flopping into his eyes, a ragged hoodie, and jeans covered in jagged tears. For a moment, he seemed familiar, but Cora quickly dismissed it as her imagination.
The woman’s eyes narrowed as she looked up to see the boy enter, but her voice was as chirpy and merry as ever. “I’ll be with you in a moment!”
Cora shuffled along the glass display, mirroring the woman’s movement as she stepped behind the cash register. She felt like a puppet tied to a rope, dragged in the wake of that cupcake.
“That will be twelve fifty,” the woman said.
Cora didn’t even blink at the price. She was buying far more than cake and frosting.
Fishing in her backpack, Cora drew out her wallet and counted the correct change in bills and coins. She was almost afraid to touch the bakery box as the woman handed it to her.
“Now, you enjoy every moment of that, won’t you?” the woman said, giving Cora a smile.
Cora cupped the box to her chest and nodded, turning for the door as the woman’s smile morphed into a frown.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you in the shop before,” the woman said as she approached the boy at the counter.
Cora didn’t hear the reply. The tinkling bell seemed to fill her head as she left the store. Her mouth was watering. She couldn’t take her eyes off the frosting peeking through the top window of the bakery box.
Where to go? She needed a safe place to eat this.
The bell was still ringing in her ears when someone placed a hand on her shoulder, stopping her progress. Cora startled and nearly dropped the box. The boy pulled his hand away as she spun on him.
“You’re not really going to eat that, are you?” he asked.
“Who are you?” Cora asked sharply, “my mother?” She felt instantly guilty as her mother’s warning came back to her.
The boy shuffled his feet. The hair still covered his face, so she couldn’t get a good look at him. The sign of the bakery shop loomed over his head, drawing her attention. Memory Lane.
Movement drew Cora’s eye to the interior of the shop. The woman bustled around the counter with an expression like a thundercloud. She was coming out here to tell the boy off.
“You know it will only make you sad,” the boy said. He sounded sad himself, his voice a strangled misery, as though he were holding back a torrent of sorrow.
Cora dropped her head, refusing to look at him. “I don’t care,” she whispered. “It’s all I’ve got left.” She started to move away. The shop keeper would stop the boy from following her.
“Cora, please don’t.”
The way he said her name. He wasn’t … he didn’t … Ice swept through her, leaving goosebumps on her arms. It couldn’t be!
“What is the meaning of this, young man?” The shop woman yanked open the door so hard it smashed against the wall beside it, cutting off the sound of the bell as if it had been throttled. “I won’t have you harassing my customers.”
The boy straightened, facing off against the shop woman like a bullfighter entering the ring. “And what would you do if I informed the council what you’re up to here?”
The woman slowly smiled, an expression that thinned her lips without touching her eyes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, young man. Shouldn’t you be in school, or something?”
“Jason?” Cora asked tentatively.
The boy’s back stiffened. He sucked in a sharp breath. He didn’t really look like Jason, and yet …
The woman from the shop was turning, retreating into the store. “I’m afraid we’re closing for the remainder of the afternoon.”
“Stop!” The boy – Jason, or whoever he was – leapt forward, grabbing her arm.
She jerked back to him with a hiss, smile widening. “Oh no, you didn’t.” Grabbing his arm, she dragged him forward with powerful force, slamming into the door so hard it flew back, throwing the bell across the interior and cracking the glass.
“Run, Cora!” the boy yelled.
Cora’s heart was already pounding hard. His shout threw her adrenaline into overdrive, and her feet leapt into motion. She ran down the street, careening around a corner and almost knocking over a homeless woman with a shopping cart.
The warf. She had to get to the warf.
The cupcake bounced inside its box, smearing frosting on the plastic window on top, and bending the mermaid tail askew. Cora’s legs were like two wooden logs, jolting awkwardly against her ankles as her feet hit the ground and bounced back.
The smell of rotting fish grew stronger, telling her she was on the right track. She wove through the streets, splashing through puddles and past the few pedestrians.
This is our home now, Mother had said.
But Cora refused to accept it. This filthy city with its trash in the corners, its mud-smeared streets, its hot sun and its rude occupants was not her home and never would be.
She turned another corner and burst out at the end of a street to see the vast ocean spreading before her like a warm blanket, ready to envelope her. Peace settled over her, slowing her steps and the pounding of her heart as she crossed the final street and approached the pier.
Fishermen busy at their nets ignored her, prattling at each other like so many busy flies around rotting fish carcasses. Such a waste. They were barbarians, all of them.
Her feet made a hollow, rhythmic thump as she stepped onto the pier and walked to the edge. She would never get used to the force required to move across land.
There was no beach below: just the rocky lumps making it difficult for ships to reach the shore. The shipping port was further north, in the gentle slope of a cove. Tall, thin masts were clumped like urchins in its protective embrace.
Cora crumpled onto the edge of the pier and swung her legs over the side. She stared out at the sun glinting off the water for several long moments. Mother would pitch a fit if she knew Cora had skipped school to come here. And if she saw the cupcake, she would go ballistic.
Opening the bakery box, Cora drew in the sweet smell of the frosting and surveyed the damage to the cupcake. It was lopsided and smashed on top, a result of her race across the city. Would it still work? There was only one way to find out.
She dredged one finger through the frosting and brought it to her lips, smearing it across her tongue.
Instantly, her surroundings changed. She was no longer sitting on a dilapidated pier, but breathing the cool ocean water, floating serenely in the cocoon of the third kingdom with its tepid currents and lush aquatic life.
The magic had worked! Cora was home.
With that, all thought of her current life drifted away like silt, and Cora flicked her powerful tail, swimming gleefully into the arms of the memory of her former life.
She was returning from the hunt with her sisters, who surrounded her. They’d caught a big one today, a striper. Grandpa would be proud of them. Soon, they’d be at the coral castle where their grandfather ruled the third kingdom with benevolence.
But there was something wrong. When Cora turned her head, she caught a glimpse of someone who shouldn’t be there. She tried to swim away, but it was no use. He was always there, hovering at the edge of her vision.
It took several tries before she pieced together what he really looked like. A boy with two legs, of all things, and long hair that floated around his head. His eyes were a piercing amber color, like the sun wavering far above the level of the water.
He was coming at her, swimming faster than a landling should.
No! No, Jason, don’t!
She screamed the thought in her head just before someone crashed into her, knocking her over onto the splintered boards of the pier. Her awareness snapped back to the pier and the smell of rotting fish and the glare of the sun on her skin.
The cupcake flew out of her grasp and down to the water, making a mournful plop as it hit the surface and slowly sunk at an angle until it disappeared.
Cora stared at it.
“What did you do?” she rasped.
Jason struggled to get off her.
She turned to glare at him. “What did you do?” she yelled.
Scuttling back like a crab, Jason shook his head, his ragged hair hiding his eyes. “Only what I had to. Now, Cora, don’t be mad.”
She looked around for something she could throw at him, but there was nothing. “It was all I had left, and you destroyed it! I was happy there! Why couldn’t you just leave me alone?” A sob caught in her throat. “It’s the only way I can go back home, now.”
Turning away from him, she huddled against the piling, staring at the water where the cupcake had disappeared.
She felt a touch on her shoulder.
“How can you even be here?” she whispered. “You were dead.”
His jeans scraped against the boards as he leaned against the piling and brushed hair away from his face. “Maybe I wasn’t entirely honest when I met you before.”
Cora scowled. “You’re a narc, aren’t you?”
He nodded wearily. “I’m sorry, Cora. I wanted to tell you, but … we were investigating your uncle. I couldn’t trust anybody.”
Before she could stop it, another sob escaped. “You’re the reason I’m stuck here, on this forsaken land.”
She jerked back from his outstretched hand. “You don’t even look like Jason!”
“The merman you knew was just a disguise. A transformation spell. This is me. The real me.”
Cora wrapped her arms around her knees and drew herself into a ball, hiding her face so he wouldn’t see the tears. Salt tears, like the ocean she would never breathe again. “Get out of here and leave me alone.”
Jason’s tone became firm. “I can’t do that, Cora. We brought your family here for your own protection. Your uncle’s associates—”
“I said, leave me alone!” Cora leapt to her feet, spinning and running back down the peer. Straight into the arms of the woman from the bakery.
Her face was dotted with flour, her smile oily under a smudge of frosting. “Well, hello, Cora. I trust you were happy with your purchase?”
Cora tried to step back, but the woman held her firmly in place.
“N-no,” Cora stammered. “I didn’t get far before … before—”
Jason was coming up behind them, somehow managing to swagger in that familiar way, even without the tail Cora had once admired so much.
“You know what those memory spells do, don’t you Cora?” Jason asked.
Cora bit her lip. She knew. She just didn’t want to admit it.
“One more bite, and you would have been lost in memories forever, while this woman took your place.”
Staring up at the bakery woman, Cora felt her toes go numb. “Took my place?”
“I think I can guess the plan,” Jason continued. “Infiltrate your family, assassinate your mother, eliminate all witnesses to your uncle’s crimes before he gets to trial.”
“How could she do that?” Cora whispered.
“A simple transformation spell, which I imagine she has in that bakery box, ready to go.”
For the first time, Cora noticed the cardboard box the woman held by its handle in her free hand. Cora tried harder to pull away from the woman, but it was no use.
The woman’s smile spread, revealing pointed teeth like a shark’s. “You should have stayed out of this, narc.”
“You know I can’t.”
Jason leapt forward in sudden motion, but the woman was faster. Jerking to the side, she dragged Cora over the edge of the pier.
The water was cold as it rushed to embrace them. For one terrified moment, Cora fought. You must not touch the water! her mother’s voice screamed in her head. But it was too late.
The inside-out sensation had already begun, fusing Cora’s legs into a hefty mermaid tail that ripped through her clothing and sent it floating away on the current as the woman from the bakery dragged her down. Down and away from the pier. Away from Jason.
Cora fought the grip on her arm. Now they were in Cora’s realm – the realm of her birth – the only place she’d known as home until a few months ago when her uncle had murdered her grandfather. Cora was in her element, the power of her massive tail returned to her. Surely, this landling wouldn’t last long under water. Landlings couldn’t even breathe, here.
But the bakery woman no longer looked like a landling. With growing horror, Cora watched the woman transform into a loph, a creature with a slender tail, long gangly arms, and the head of an anglerfish, complete with rows of long, sharp teeth.
“You think you can defy your uncle?” the loph hissed, its telepathic thoughts ringing clearly in Cora’s head. “He will reward me handsomely for abolishing the royal family and clearing the way for his return to the throne.”
They were nearing the ocean floor. Cora’s thoughts seemed frozen, her limbs as cold as if she’d traveled to the arctic mid-winter. Mother! She was in danger. And it was Cora’s fault for visiting the bakery in the first place.
The loph dropped the bakery box it still held and grabbed for something bright half-nestled in the silt of the floor. Cora barely had time to register the colorful frosting, the smashed candy tail, the disintegrating paper of the mermaid cupcake before the loph thrust it at her face.
“Eat this. Now!” The loph thought.
Cora turned her head, but the loph’s webbed fingers followed. She was about to get a mouthful of soggy frosting when the loph shuddered and turned, its grip on Cora relaxing.
Seizing her chance, Cora swung her tail through the water and smashed it into the loph, at the same time propelling herself away. The cupcake floated back down to the floor. The loph let out an audible screech that would have been deafening above water. It thrashed its tail and swung at Cora. With a powerful thrust, Cora swam out of reach.
She was about to retreat to the surface when she saw Jason behind the loph. He was still dressed in jeans, though he’d kicked off his shoes. His long hair floated around his held. His cheeks bulged as he held his breath. In his hands, he held a broken oar.
He wasn’t disguised as a merman this time. He was a landling, and he wouldn’t last much longer in the water, especially not with an angry loph after him.
Without much thought, Cora dived back into the fray. Jason was struggling to swing the oar at the loph, against the force of the water. He didn’t have enough strength.
Cora whipped her tail around the loph, slapping into its chest and stopping its advance on Jason. Cora waved frantically for him to get to the surface so he could breathe. He only shook his head and kicked his flimsy legs, swimming past her. What was he thinking?
But Cora didn’t have time to contemplate the stupidity of landlings. The loph had turned its attention on Cora now, grappling for a hold on her throat, its teeth gnashing inches from Cora’s face. The loph’s arms were long, the muscles hard and stringy, giving it an advantage over Cora’s softer limbs. Cora’s tail was stronger, but she couldn’t maneuver it around well enough to get in a good strike.
“You should have just eaten that cupcake!” the loph thought. “It would have been much easier for you to drift off into memories. Now, your death will be long and painful.”
Cora’s heart thudded. She desperately pushed at the loph’s slippery, webbed hands.
“You want bliss?” Jason’s thoughts permeated the water. “I’ll give it to you.”
As the loph’s teeth snapped toward Cora, Jason tossed the remains of the cupcake into the loph’s mouth. The creature slowed, then stilled. Cora disentangled herself without resistance and watched the loph slowly float away with the current.
Fingers brushed her shoulder. Cora turned with alarm to see air escaping Jason’s mouth, his eyes rolling up into his head. Grabbing him, Cora thrust her tail with all her might and shot toward the surface. She prayed she wouldn’t be too late.
They broke through the water, and Jason took in a great, gasping breath, ending with a wrenching cough.
“Don’t you know landlings can’t breathe under water?” Cora scolded.
Coughing and sputtering, Jason finally managed to reply, “And mermaids don’t belong on land. Yet, here we are.”
She towed him to shore where more than a few fishermen stared at them.
“I’m going to have to wipe memories,” Jason said drily as he noticed. “My boss won’t like it.”
With all those people staring, Cora was loath to transform back into her landling legs. She kept back as Jason crawled up onto a rock, dripping water like a wrung-out sponge.
“The loph won’t stay lost in memory forever, will it?” Cora asked.
Jason gave her a lopsided smile, a smile she remembered from the watery depths of her father’s kingdom. “I’ve got to call this in, get a team to retrieve the loph and lock her up.”
Cora’s voice was a squeak. “What about my mother … and me?”
The smile faded from Jason’s face, replaced by a serious glint in his eyes. “We’ll have to move you. Probably to the desert this time, somewhere they won’t have access.”
Tears pricked Cora’s eyes, but she bravely blinked them away. She had to do this. For mother.
Jason stretched out his hand, grabbing hers and holding it under the water. “Will it be easier if I promise to personally oversee your adjustment, this time?”
Cora caught her breath. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you have a knack for trouble. Somebody’s got to keep you out of the bakeries.”