Writing any sort of short story from a prompt is always challenging, but Chuck Wendig came up with a doozy: write a short story, but don’t finish it. Leave it a cliffhanger. Next week, someone will (hopefully, maybe?) pick it up and finish it, while I finish someone else’s start.
Until then, there’s this.
In sixteen minutes and fifty four seconds, she would be dead.
Anise looked out the rough-cut window, iron bars blocking both a clear view and any thought of escape, and focused on her breathing. Each intake of air brought a mix of tastes to her tongue: the earthy tang of dirt and dung from the stables, the coppery tickle of blood, the electric fear from the rest of the people crammed into the tiny cell. Each exhale blew her own life closer to its end.
The courtyard beyond the iron bars was slowly filling with people. Most were townsfolk, out for a day of macabre entertainment. She remembered coming to an execution day when she was no more than six. “We’ll pack some bread and watch the devil take ’em to dance,” her uncle had said, chucking Anise’s chin lightly when she scowled. “Ain’t more than they deserve.” He didn’t answer when she’d asked about the innocent ones, just shook his head. “Ain’t no innocents here, poppet.”
Two years later he had screamed a different song as the bag went over his head. The magistrate had caught him stealing horses to sell for meat. Or so they said. Something had never set right with Anise about the story, not to mention the way the soldiers refused to look at the family when they dragged her uncle off into the moonless night. A week later, Anise held her grandmother’s hand as her father and grandfather cut his body down after his hanging. The older woman had stared straight ahead the whole time, not saying a word, her shoulders rising and falling evenly beneath her thin lace shawl. Anise didn’t understand why her grandmother was breathing so hard.
Time had a way of bringing knowledge, however, and Anise’s breathing grew more even as the memory drifted away. With every rise and fall of her shoulders under her grandmother’s lace shawl, she counted down the seconds. Eleven minutes and twenty two, now. In the back of the cell, a man’s voice rose above the subtle whispers of the rest. “We’re innocent, all of us!” Heads swiveled to stare at him. Trouble on execution day never meant anything good. A few in the room shushed the man nervously, to no avail.
“You, girl! By the window!”
Anise slowly moved her eyes from the courtyard, blinking to focus on the speaker in the dim light of the cell. The man’s dingy beard could have been yellow as wheat, once. “Don’t bring me into your ramblings, old man,” she muttered, a believable lie slipping from her throat. “My family’s out there.” The man’s face split into a grin.
“Mine ain’t either. Which would ya rather have at yer throat, girl? That hangman’s noose waitin’ with yer name on it, or a string o’ pearls fat as yer thumb?”
The comparison caused the entire cell to burst into an almost frantic laughter. Who was this fool, talking to the condemned about what they wanted as if they had a choice? Anise studied the man as he stood, still grinning like a madman. She didn’t join in the laughter. “That really depends,” she replied as the room quieted. “Who’s holding the other end of the pearls?”
The man’s grin grew as the room exploded in laughter again, scattered applause at her answer. Anise took another breath, not looking back to the window. Nine minutes, fifty nine seconds were left. She knew without looking that the hangman was tightening the nooses in the courtyard through the iron bars. Something about the man’s tone, though, caught the air in her throat. “Seriously,” she said, leveling her gaze at the man fully. “What’s the catch? Who’s got the pearls in his hand?”
Almost as one, the clapping stopped, the laughter quieting to curious murmurs. The grinning man’s face grew solemn as he stared back at Anise. “That has to do with you, Anastasia,” he said, any trace of the country accent disappearing with the last remaining nervous giggles.
“I’m not Anastasia.”
The man smiled, but it wasn’t a grin this time. A tight, almost pained look pulled the corners of his mouth up as though they were on a marionette’s strings. “Not Anastasia? You were before. Anastasia. Annie. Anise.” Anise winced at the names, each syllable a slap against a memory. “Ah, there you are. Anise. Your grandfather sent me.”
Every set of eyes turned to look at her. Anise took a breath. Seven minutes, two seconds were left. A long-buried memory flitted through her subconscious: her grandmother, wrapping Anise’s shoulders with the lacy shawl. Telling her to always count the seconds when she breathed, and that if help was coming, it would always come in time.
“Fine. We have six minutes.”
The man grinned again. “Your grandmother would be proud of you.”