Sunday, December 18, 2016

SFF Short Story: "Admission"

Last fall, Apex Book Company put out a call for submissions for "Upside Down," a sure-to-be-awesome anthology of short stories that invert and/or demolish popular tropes in storytelling.

As it happened, I had a work-in-progress inverting the trope of a child getting admitted to magical boarding school. What happens to the parents of a kid who gets whisked away to a world of fantasy and danger--especially loving parents who've given them a happy home life?

I knew this was a perfect opportunity, and my wife kindly let me block out a few hours on Actual Christmas to finish the draft while the kids played with their toys. I was, and am, really really happy with the final product. Sadly, it wasn't selected for inclusion in the anthology.

Though the trope of Magical Boarding School had been around for many decades before Harry Potter, I think "Admission" didn't sufficiently grapple with that series' total crushing dominance of the trope. Either I needed to satirize HP specifically (which fit neither the story I wanted to tell, nor the call for submission), or adjust the story to fit a broader/different trope.

I learned the hard way that when you write a piece speficially for a themed market (anthology or special issue), it can be really difficult to place elsewhere. Nevertheless, I got a lot of positive feedback from pro editors on this one, and I think it deserves to see the light of day. Editor Jaym Gates gave me permission to share it, along with this anectode about the submission process.

So A) please go buy and read "Upside Down" because it's got a lot of great stories from some of my favorite authors, and B) please enjoy "Admission."

Jen tried to lose herself in the warm brown grain of what had once been her grandmother’s dining table. Her husband Blake shifted uncomfortably in one of the matching high-backed chairs.
"Remember when we had that fight about dinner?" he asked, trying once again to break the tension. "Every vegetable in the house transubstantiated into pizza."
How could she forget? Throwing open the refrigerator’s French doors, only to see every crisper and container oozing with stuffed-crust Meat Lover's. Spraying it all down and wiping it all out had taken the cleaning lady hours. Jen mumbled something and nodded.
Blake snorted softly, the closest he could come to laughing. She smiled that kind of one-sided, pursed-lip smile you smile just before a wedding or just after a funeral: wet-eyed acknowledgement that everything’s going to be different forever.
"I guess," he said after a pregnant pause, "we should have seen this coming."
Jen grabbed the envelope off the table again, the parchment grain foreign against her fingertips. The red wax seal with an inscrutable symbol, the shaky, florid script of a wizened hand, the inconceivable proposition to which they’d somehow agreed.
It had all happened so fast: A goblin on the doorstep, the laws of reality rewritten in an instant, a little girl jumping up and down with boundless joy. How could they say anything but yes? Every fairy tale, every bedtime story, every crayon-doodled daydream of their daughter's had come impossibly true.
Trips to tiny, musty bookstores and out-of-the-way ethnic markets in neighborhoods she'd never even heard of. Pulling up to the security fence at the far end of the airport with their Porsche Cayenne stuffed with pickled animal parts and cast-iron pots was strange enough; watching their daughter disappear into the blue on the back of a winged horse was even stranger.
Strangest of all, though, was coming home to an empty nest. Every inch of the condo had been prepared just so for a picture-perfect three-person family. The nursery for which no expense had been spared was now Brielle’s reading cave, the eleven-year-old’s books crammed into oaken shelves and figurines mobbing every horizontal surface.
Jen's home had been so perfect, everything as she’d always wanted—but without Brielle in the center of it all…it hurt. Jen stood up from the table and wandered pointlessly. She felt Brielle’s absence everywhere, gnawing at the back of her mind. Every step on her Brazilian cherry floors echoed an accusation: she was a terrible mother.
How could she let her daughter go?
Jen rubbed her gloved hands together, even though she'd set the climate system for her side of the car to something north of French Roast. She stared out window at the snowy airport field, desperate for the first glimpse of her daughter. Blake was staring out the other window; whatever temperature his side was set at, the air between them was freezing.
A rainbow flash pierced the layers of gray sky above. From the bloom of colors emerged a white speck, which grew into a winged steed and tiny riders. The perspective made it look as though they weren't descending but growing, massive feathered wings unfurling to brace against the driving wind. With an impossible speed and, effortless grace, the hooves reached for the ground and the great beast hit the ground running. Within seconds the animal slowed to a halt, just yards shy of the chain-link fence. The cloaked figure clinging to the beast's neck sat up; blue eyes flashed from beneath the hood. Jen threw open the door and ran.
Blake shouted after her. The car bonged angrily out of its left-open door. The three-inch heels on Jen's leather boots sunk into the snow-soggy ground with every step, but she had eyes only on the little girl taking the hand of a goblin porter and stepping down off a gleaming brass stirrup. The only thing between them was the eight-foot fence, topped with snarling razor wire.
Brielle ran towards the fence, threw open the invisible cut-out gate and they hugged as tight as either of them could stand.
Jen threw back the hood of her little girl’s cloak, and, well. Her golden hair, curled so beautifully on the day she left, was dirty and pulled back in a simple ponytail. Her skin was pale and smelled faintly of ash, but her big eyes and wide smile had never gleamed so brightly.
"Merry Christmas, Mom!" From under her cloak she produced a small box, wrapped erratically but with gorgeous paper and what appeared to be golden thread. Jen gently put her hand over the gift, holding back tears.
"Oh, thank you, sweetheart, but you can put it under the tree when we get home, okay? Let’s open all our gifts as a family tomorrow morning." Brielle nodded happily, and together they walked back towards the car. The goblin walked ahead, carrying Brielle’s designer luggage set without even leaving prints in the snow. Jen tried to ignore the layer of dust on them, as well as a conspicuous, suspicious purple stain.
Blake was standing in front of the car, having a smoke—Really? Now?
"Hey Daddy, check this out!" Brielle produced a wooden wand from beneath her cloak. She steeled her eyes on the back of the SUV, held up her open left hand as if gripping the vehicle from afar, flourished her right wrist and bellowed "APERTA!" The tailgate popped and lifted all the way up. Jen clapped with glee, Brielle bowed dramatically, and the little green porter wordlessly loaded the luggage into the back. Blake pulled out his key fob.
"Hey, I can do that too, you know!" He pressed a button, and the tailgate started closing. The goblin-thing ducked out of the way, shot him an annoyed look and trudged back towards the sleigh. Brielle made a great show of rolling her eyes and "Da-aaaad"-ing him. Jen sighed, and they all piled in.
The drive home was non-stop Brielle, a breathless recounting of everything she’d seen and done in no particular order or apparent relevance: Spells, studies, student-body drama. Jen grew increasingly worried as the dark and Spartan details of their daily life emerged. There was wonder and magic, yes–but dirt and grime and danger and terror.
They toiled over hot cauldrons, wrangled noxious and terrible things, scrubbed old stone walls and polished tarnished fixtures as punishment. Jen and Blake traded alarmed glances when Brielle described sneaking out of bed with a handful of friends and trying to magically domesticate the bats in the old bell tower.
"Oh, you guys," Brielle sighed as they pulled into their building’s private garage, "it’s everything I’ve ever wanted."
A knock came at the door. Odd; Jen hadn’t buzzed anyone in. She cautiously opened the door to see one of those freaky goblins from the school, holding his hat sheepishly in his clawed, knobbly hands. Jen froze.
"Pardon, ma’am." it croaked. "I’ve message from school."
For months she'd woken up every day expecting to miss her less. She'd gone to sleep every night crying that it wasn't true. In between, she'd dreaded something like this.
A pallor somehow fell over already gray-green skin as the goblin looked up into her eyes. "I’m afraid there’s been safety issue, ma’am. Dragon n’at. Plumor the Defiler’s prophesied return. Terrible bad luck, it is." Jen’s stomach fell through the floor.
"What—what are you saying? Is she—" Her voice cut out. Her body shook. She clapped her hand to her mouth as hot tears poured out of her. No.
"I don’t have a list, as such. The Headmaster and staff are doing all what they can to fight him off, ma’am. There have been casualties, I’m afraid."
"I knew it!" Her husband shouted from down the hall. "I knew we never should have let her go!" She spun around, saw him advancing on her in spite and rage. "This magic shit was a horrible idea. Our daughter is dead because you—"
Jen slapped him across the face.
Blake recoiled in shock.
Jen wheeled on the goblin.
"Take me," she said, leaning into his hairy, warty face. "Take me to her. Now." The creature stepped back, shaking his head.
"A-afraid I can’t, ma’am," he said. "Teleported here magically, I did. Can only take myself, y’see."
"Then where is it." She grabbed the lapels of his uniform vest and hoisted him up onto his toes. "Where. Is. It."
"I-I can’t say. Major violation of protocol, that—"
The goblin gulped, removed his hat, somehow reached in all the way up to his elbow, and produced a weathered sheepskin map.
"Follow this to the mountains, ma’am, and the old man at the cave." He pulled out a golden coin, with an eldritch pattern framing a pentagon in the middle. "Pay the token and recite to him the Druid's Prayer." Jen grabbed her purse from off the hook by the door.
" Duw dy nerth—URK!"
She snatched the coin out of his hands and stuffed the artifacts into her purse. "I’ll figure it out."
Jen hadn’t been upstate since she was nine. A family vacation to some stuffy resort—the kind with mothers lounging by, but not in, pools while fathers went off to play golf. Now she was winding her way through the hills with the Scepter of Irrevocable Reckoning strapped into the passenger seat and an obscenely large ruby ring on her right ring finger. Her left ring finger was bare.
Her phone complained the cobblestone drive she was looking for didn’t exist, but the forboding plume of black smoke rising to the sky was orientation enough. She passed under a massive stone arch carved with runes, and—oh.
The stone castle loomed above, perched on the edge of a rocky promontory. One tower lay in smoking ruin, stones and bricks and shingles scattered across the campus. To her horror, she saw robed people—bodies?—among the wreckage. She floored it, tires squealing and slipping up the rocky path.
Then it rose, bronze and terrible: a scaled demon stretching leathery wings and lifting above the roof line of the castle. It saw her instantly, jeweled eyes whirling as they stared through silver bullet Jen was piloting.
The monster glided forward, lit on the ground, dug its claws into the turf. Smoke floated out of its flared nostrils as the SUV rumbled up the steep stone path. It reared back as if to draw breath, and suddenly Jen realized she had absolutely no plan whatsoever.
As the hill flattened out, the SUV jumped the stone path and tore into the grass. The ground between her and the monster shrank at a breathtaking rate as the dragon thrust its head forward and a brilliant flash of purple came from her right and the dragon turned its head in surprise?
For an instant Jen felt utterly at peace: everything had happened as it was supposed to.
Then a world-collapsing sound, the side of the dragon’s skull disappearing in a curtain of shattered glass and white fabric and an excruciating pain in her legs and then black.
Brielle’s voice woke her up.
Jen was laying in grass, both legs and lungs on fire, body aching all over and head ringing like a bell. The gray sky was still far too bright for Jen to open her eyes, but she pawed in the direction of her daughter’s voice and made what sound she could.
"Mom!" Brielle’s joy and relief and laughter was the best sound Jen had ever heard. The arms that wrapped around her head and squeezed shot fire up and down her spine, but it was fine. It was worth it. It was all worth it.
"Curationum!" boomed a graveled voice, and suddenly the pain eased, breath flooded into her lungs. Jen opened her eyes, sat up, re-embraced her crying daughter, and a gathered crowd of witches and wizards roared in jubilation.
"How?" Jen asked her daughter. "What happened?" Brielle smiled.
"My friends and I read a little bit ahead in our spells book. We’re not supposed to know fireworks yet." They both burst out laughing.
Helping hands reached under her armpits, lifted and held her up off her feet, let her see the children and students and teachers she’d help save. First among them, a beautifully robed old woman resplendent in jewels and baubles.
"Jennifer Dragonslayer," he said. "As Headmistress of this hallowed institution, the bylaws compel me to not only offer you all the restorative and ameliatorive care you require, but any compensation you so desire. Of course, it is much more than my solemn obligation—it is my personal honor and pleasure."
She looked at the wreckage of her husband’s stupid car, the great monstrous bulk of the still-cooling beast, and at her daughter’s brilliant, shining eyes. She knew she was home.

"Would you consider my application for admission?"

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