This story is by Antonio Roberts and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jest knew two things about desert life: no one stood up to his brothers, and Charon did not talk to ghosts. Today she’d prove him wrong on both accounts.
The day started as it always did. His bored elder brothers Kabul and Syr stirred, kicking rocks, and wandering about the dusty, red covered hills while a wide-eyed, white-haired girl blabbered on about her and her ghosts.
Jest hung on her every word, staring at the twinkle in her good eye, and chills ran down his spine. As she caught him gazing, he swallowed.
Privately, he wished Kabul’s bullying would stop. Maybe then he could get to know Charon. Ghosts weren’t real, but… perhaps there was something haunting about her. Her elegance reverberated in his headspace like phantoms in the night, calling him to listen to her lovely chorus voice again and again, and he couldn’t get her out his mind. The witch possessed him.
But his brothers would never allow it.
Today, Kabul snapped. His neck’s vein bulged, and he quickened his pace. Yet Charon persisted.
“Are you even listening?” asked Charon. “My ghosts say it’s impolite to ignore someone.”
Kabul charged back and shoved her into gritty red clay and silt, stabbing it into her elbows.
The brothers snickered above her as Jest watched, feeling powerless to stop them. This had to end, but how?
“But it’s the truth!” cried Charon, dusting herself off.
“Impossible,” argued Kabul. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
“But I heard them.”
Kabul ogled her with the strange, disgusted look of a constipated buzzard. Being older and therefore “wiser” than the rest, he “always” knew better.
“You’re lying,” he said.
Charon rose. “I am not; I heard them. They tell me stories.”
Kabul rolled his eyes.
“I told you; I’m not lying. You’re simply jealous.”
“Jealous? Of what?” Syr laughed. “The girl’s hair turns white and her head’s in the clouds!”
Charon frowned. The savanna breeze flapped Charon’s dress and whipped her bushy white hair.
Syr, the fattest of the three brothers, squinted with a scowl, both as pudgy as it was repugnant. Quickly, Syr and Charon glared with enough static to kill an elephant. Neither liked each other, and they ensured the other knew it too.
“Girl, I certainly don’t envy that hair whiter than a granny mare’s butt,” said Syr.
The boys cackled; Jest tugged his collar. This had to stop. Somehow, he’d try, even if it meant a sucker punch from Kabul. Jest treaded lightly.
“Maybe it’s not that white,” piped Jest.
“It is not at all!” Charon pushed Kabul.
Yet he was thin, tall, and much stronger than her. He shoved Charon flat on her back and spat.
“Why don’t you go drown in the river where you belong, hmm? This is our yard. We don’t need no sickly marshmallow spreading her stories and disease. Right, boys?”
“Yeah,” said Syr. “Go home, cyclops.”
Charon’s face burned red, and she sniffed. She held the bandages over her injured eye, fighting the urge to cry. Some supposed “magic accident” had bleached her hair and eyes. No one learned how. Yet the only magic Kabul desired was her disappearance, permanently. How far would he go?
“But there are ghosts,” said Charon. “Honest. I hear them.”
Jest intervened. “What do they say?”
The others gaped at him, appalled that he’d dare ask such a question.
Charon raised her voice. “They found kittens, and—”
“Enough,” snapped Kabul.
“No,” Kabul spoke over Charon. “You won’t trick us again. I’m sick and tired of your mouth.”
Jest tensed. He had a bad feeling about this.
“But it’s the truth,” Charon urged.
“Girl, no one likes you. You’re a liar and a freak, and this time we finish it. Syr, Jest, get her!”
Jest gasped. “What?”
Charon screamed as Syr’s meaty ball of mass wrestled her, rolling in the dirt. He scooped under Charon’s armpits; her sparrow-boned legs kicked, and Jest retreated.
Kabul jabbed Jest. “I said grab her, you twit.”
Charon writhed, but it was no use. Syr held her tight. Her chest rose and fell, out of breath and panting. Dirt ensconced her freckles and pale skin, and Jest sensed the trepidation in her stony epitaph eyes. She was a dead man.
Kabul’s shadow darkened over Jest. “I’m not asking thrice.”
Jest backed away. “No.”
Charon squirmed, finding a second wind, and Kabul bent over Jest
“I won’t hurt her,” said Jest. The words spoiled his tongue, spelling his demise, and his throat tightened. Somehow, he found the strength to inflate his chest and brace himself.
Kabul raised an eyebrow, rubbing his chin.
Charon shrilled as Syr busted her in the lip.
Jest grimaced. “What you’re doing is wrong, Kabul.”
“I’ll—I’ll fight you.”
Kabul smiled as fervently as the devil himself. It was the answer he’d hoped.
Jest gulped, watching his brother roll up his sleeves.
Meanwhile, Syr swiveled his blubbery double chin, drawing Jest’s gaze. “Are you two gonna help me or what?”
Syr tightened his grip, folding his legs over hers while he lied beneath her, but one sharp headbutt into his chin, and Syr went limp. The untethered Charon raced for the acacia trees as quick as the wind.
Kabul cursed and socked the distracted Jest in the gut. Tears stung Jest’s eyes as he doubled over, stunned. Sand crushed against his skin.
Voices, echoes, screams, and the madness of warring voices bellowed all around him. His vision blurred.
Sadly, a rubbery slingshot twang declared Kabul hadn’t quit his pursuit. So neither would he.
Jest held his gut and rolled to his side. He drew his own slingshot and took aim. Tears flooded his eyes and morbid silhouettes chased in the blurred sunset.
Jest’s stomach pinched in a sickening brew. Under normal circumstances, Jest could snipe a skunk’s shadow from its shoulders before it could spray. But with this pain, he lacked the luxury to aim true.
When one shadow snatched the other, Jest fired and blinked. His tears broke, alacritous to see her safe, but it was not to be.
Charon touched her forehead and dabbed red from her fingertips.
Kabul, holding his chest, turned with pride and a grin spread from his lips.
Without warning, an air siren shrilled, and Charon broke for the river away from home, crying. A sandstorm was coming.
Kabul passed Jest towards Syr.
“Come,” he said.
Jest shook his head.
Kabul tugged his arm, and he pulled away.
“We hurt her,” Jest mumbled.
“Let’s go. There’s a sandstorm brewing.”
“But… we can’t just leave her. She’s hurt. What if she…”
“This isn’t right, Kabul. We hurt her. Freak or not, she has feelings,” said Jest.
“Come; you’re going home.”
Jest gulped. A sudden wind tossed a tumbleweed past the shade trees, right where he’d shot Charon. A world of hurt awaited him if he pursued her, but if he didn’t—could she survive the storm?
Jest dropped his slingshot at Kabul’s feet, forming a ring of dust. “Do your worst. I’m going after her.”
A second siren blasted, and Kabul sighed. Annoyed and defeated, he trudged home, dragging the unconscious Syr.
Jest blinked. Had he stood up to Kabul and lived?
A distant third siren pressed Jest hot on the trail for Charon once more.
A brook trickled in a nearby ravine with its gentle noise disturbed by sniffling. Charon’s back faced him. Her long white hair fell past her shoulders, sending a haunting chill down his spine.
How could they be friends now?
Jest kicked a pebble, debating how to approach. He—he didn’t find her as ghastly as the others. Quite the opposite.
“You can leave,” she called.
Jest hung his head. Charon slid on her rock away from him. He stepped closer.
“How did you know?”
Charon crossed her arms. “A ghost told me.”
“Girl, a sandstorm is—”
“Name’s Charon, and there’s no sandstorm. They test sirens today. Your brothers are idiots—and hurtful.”
Jest twiddled his thumbs. “May I sit with you?”
Charon patted a place on the rock beside her, and Jest sat, glancing at her oozing knot.
“Charon, I tried to stop them and—”
She interrupted him. “I know… they told me.”
Jest fell silent. Ghosts.
Charon grunted and threw a fat rock into the water. “With all my stories, what I wanted—was a friend. But their words that bite and follow… did you hate me too?”
Jest’s mouth dried. “Never.”
“And my hair?”
Jest’s gaze shied. “Beautiful as freshly laid snow.”
Charon’s cheeks softened. She turned and mesmerized him under her otherworldly gaze. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I… feel strange things around you. Does that count?”
Charon leaned and took his hand with a zing that’d stay with him for the rest of his life.
As the sun gave up its ghost, Jest swore he heard kittens mew under Charon’s stories, stories of her and her ghosts. And he, young Jest, befriended them both.
[…] Words that Bite and Words that Follow (shortfictionbreak.com) By Antonio Roberts […]