Category Archives: free read

“The Common Knight”

In a crowded market, the excellent, newish online magazine Persistent Visions is publishing innovative work on a weekly basis, at no charge to you, the voracious reader of short stories. Last year I had the privilege of having my story “Mayastray” appear there.

But did you know that story has a companion piece? (No, you didn’t, because I’m telling you only now.) A similar premise but a much different outcome—because it involves a very different sort of person. It didn’t know I was writing companion pieces at the time, I tend to find certain stories are linked only after I’ve finished them. At 1500 words, here it is.

Man before the darkness

Photo credit: rolffimages

The Common Knight

Matt never paid attention to other people on the bus. Anyone normal rarely did, and certainly not at this time of the commute. Not at 7:20 PM. At this time of the commute, some seats remained open. But not so many that weirdos had the opportunity to interfere with tired commuters or single one out. Sometimes Matt worked as late as ten, and then it became him and the weirdos on the bus. But now the bus held a happy medium: not too crowded, and not empty enough to cause anyone to pay him too much attention. Matt was a weirdo magnet.

If he happened, some summer evening, to be sitting in a group of four or six in an outside café, every wandering street schizophrenic would zero in on him. He always got the seat on the plane next to the man so uncomfortable in his own skin that not only did he want to chat non-stop, he needed to chat non-stop. The saloon crank with the solutions to everything wrong with this country always took the stool next to Matt’s. Every woman he dated turned out jealous and crazy, so his relationships proved short and distant—though not especially painful.

Healthy people, sane people, ordinary people stayed away from Matt. He just didn’t know why. And this night, this particular 7:20 PM commute, it happened again. He could not hide.

Matt chose a seat near the front and opened the ereader app on his phone. However, he had made a mistake. He’d taken a seat reserved for wheelchair access, so, at the very next stop, he had to rise and make way for a passenger who needed it.

Somehow the bus had filled up more than he’d thought it had, leaving him with two choices. Stand in the relatively spacious area by the rear-door exit, or take a seat in the back row. The back row had room for four to sit across, but only one person sat there now: a woman with a weathered face and matted hair, wearing what looked like an entire set of drapes (perhaps bluish or purple, they were too filthy to tell) wrapped around herself. She occupied the middle of the long seat row, staring straight ahead.

Matt elected to stand by the rear-door exit. It did no good. The robed woman turned her head slightly. Once she noticed Matt she continued to look at him. It had happened again.

He, at first, ignored her, swiping quickly through the pages of the novel he was reading but without retaining any of the words.

The bus hit the expressway and immediately slowed to a crawl. Traffic still hadn’t cleared, even at this relatively late hour. That meant the commute—which, in the mornings, took about half an hour from the moment he left home around six, might well stretch to at least three times that long. The woman appeared ready to stare at him the whole way.

Matt scrolled back about ten percent of the way in his novel. It was volume seven of the series, and it didn’t hold his interest like the others—especially now with the disturbing gaze of the weirdo upon him.

The first couple volumes had been great, and he’d heard that the series picked up life again around book ten, which was written from notes left after Donald Barger, author of this planned twelve-volume epic, The Autumn Land, had died. The first volume, Rogue’s Glory had been good enough, but the second, Lady, Crown, and Godspawns was spectacular.

None of the subsequent volumes had lived up to its promise though, and reading volume seven, Storm’s Sorcery, felt like as much of a job as his job, actually. Lady, Crown, and Godspawns had introduced a subplot (lasting several hundred pages) concerning two characters, Indigo Knight and The Common Knight, a matched pair that had warred in different guises for millennia. Indigo Knight—ruler of a country of shape-shifters—had killed The Common Knight many times. The Common Knight was an everyman, Lowborn, but rising to some illusory degree of prominence in each new incarnation. No matter how many times The Common Knight died, he rose again. To die again.

Every time The Common Knight rose, Indigo Knight sent shape-shifters and spies to seek him out—in the taverns, in the streets, on the highways—to tempt him into some cause, some service. The Common Knight always demurred. And, at the hand of Indigo Knight, died again. Though Indigo Knight never relented, both characters had been all but dropped in the later volumes.

When he learned that a new writer was taking over the series, Matt posted his wish on several Autumn Land forums that The Common Knight and Indigo Knight story arc be revisited. Rarely did anyone chime in to take up his cause. (Fake fans found The Common Knight arrogant and egotistical—and, at the same time, passive and ineffectual. The conventional wisdom maintained that his creation was a horrible misstep, a horrible failure at manufacturing a sympathetic character—but they were wrong; the Common Knight merely knew his own intrinsic worth and, as for being passive—there was simply nothing of significance given to him to do.)

But anyway, most readers were more interested in War of the Eleven Elven Princelings against the Dwarves of Forest Unfathomed. Or the promised Return of the Empress of the Solstice. All that would happen, of course, no matter who took up the series. The balance of harmony would be restored in the end and the wicked undone. That expectation was sure to be fulfilled. The extant ten volumes were fecund with dropped subplots and dead ends. It infuriated Matt, as it did many fans. If only he could have a conclusion to Common and Indigo however, Matt, at least, would forgive all the rest.

He realized he’d been tapping through pages again mindlessly. He moved the scroll bar on the app back the same ten percent with a sigh. He needed a new series.

Ebooks were a godsend to him. He could indulge his guilty pleasure. None of his work friends or other ordinary associates had any idea how many fantasy and science fiction novels he devoured. For all anyone knew he was texting or facebooking right now, like everyone else.

Since ebooks, no more shocked looks on those mornings when, after bringing a girl home from a bar, the girl—who had come home with Matt, the smooth, successful, young executive with the important-sounding title, Investor Brand Director, at Flippo.com—awoke to find herself in a bedroom imprisoned by walls stacked high with paperbacks, each one the thickness of a Scrabble dictionary—so thick many sported full portraits of characters or scenes from the novels, not only on the front and back covers, but on their spines.

That would be the girl’s first clue. She would then investigate deeper. The Atari classic console in the corner. The Ikea desk with a two-monitor setup and double-rowed surge protector which rested, not on the floor, but on the desktop, sprouting cables like Medusa’s head sprouted vipers.

There would be no need for her to look further. She was done, and she would escape quickly. She would never even find out that, at Flippo.com, Investor Brand Directors pulled down less than forty-six grand a year. But it all started with the disturbing number of paperbacks. So the phone app had helped with that. He’d put his dead-tree books in storage.

Matt exited Storm’s Sorcery and browsed through the title list in the app for something else. He had books on there he’d forgotten that he owned, let alone hadn’t read, but he wanted something new anyway.

Somewhere, somewhere, in all creation, something new had to exist.

Before he could shop for it, for some alternative, the crazy lady in the back of the bus stood up. She clanked. She threw back her folds of drapery. The drapery was not common purple, of course. Indigo. Beneath it, hence the clanking, she wore a suit of armor. It shined. She drew her broadsword. Passengers dived for the floor. Many screamed. She held the sword in both hands and rushed him.

The weathered face, the matted hair. She hadn’t bathed, certainly in days, and possibly in weeks. Indigo Knight was relentless and focused, after all. She never rested in her travels from realm to realm until she sighted The Common Knight again.

The Common Knight could run and run, but he could never escape Indigo in her many guises. Indigo sent out spies and minions to draw him in: the wandering panhandler, the chatty seatmate on a plane, the bar crank. But the spies, the minions, always failed. The Common Knight avoided, demurred, forced Indigo Knight again and again, in world after world, to appear in the flesh.

She swung her broadsword now. Tomorrow, Matt imagined, there would be a huge headline on local news sites: Sword Killer! Nightmare Commute! Something. But, of course, he could not say for sure, and he wouldn’t be around to find out. Not this time. Maybe someday. Maybe someday the story would come to an actual end. If someone invented a way to write it. Indigo Knight’s blade swept the air. Matt did not resist.

§

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Story: S01E04 “The Language of Monsters”

Posting this free story for a minimum of seven days — probably more, because I usually forget. This one’s a bit longer than most of the freebies I put up on the blog: 7000 words.

I once worried that the story would date quickly. Surely rendition would be long behind us before now? I was overly optimistic. The story, however, does not suffer from the same flaw.

THE LANGUAGE OF MONSTERS

Jason comes to my cell, sets his watch’s alarm. No more than a hour’s exposure at a time, no more than every other day.
In the hour we talk about many things: the world, politics, God—and we talk about light. At opposite corners this cell has two naked bulbs, in sockets screwed into the brick.

“I’ll see the next locale has a window—and natural exposure.”

I thank him. I haven’t felt sunlight in so long. The guards had orders to give me an hour a week here, but didn’t. I don’t trouble Jason with this; he works hard. He holds a responsible position despite his youth; he has more important concerns. Today I leave Egypt for another site anyway, so the matter loses significance.

Instead, I ask about my next assignment.

“You’re worried,” Jason says.

My previous assignment: the black-bearded Saudi, heavy browed, black eyed, yielded no intel. To date none have. I tell Jason I fear if I fail again I’ll receive no more assignments and he will no longer handle me.

“That’s irrational,” Jason waves the notion away. “We’re a team.”

“I doubt my abilities,” I tell him.

Jason frowns, wounded. “You have done everything I’ve asked. It’s on me.”

Before Jason gave me a job, I had no meaningful existence. Meaninglessness make solitude unbearable. I can’t return there. I spare Jason this, but he feels it anyway.

“Look at me,” says Jason. “This is the one. A high-value subject. A driver, from Yemen, detained in Basra. This is the break I’ve … that we’ve waited for.”

Jason checks his watch. He calls it a diver’s watch. It resists water, it shows direction, it does many useful things, and now it tells him our time together draws short. “We should pray,” he says.

Continue reading the whole story free until at least 11/01/11.

Available for purchase at Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Diesel, on iTunes and other sites.

Spinetingler Fiction: Scaffold by Michael Canfield

Read Scaffold a crime short story, free, and only on Spinetingler. It’s a great site, I’m proud to have one of my stories appearing there, in such great company.

Scaffold Fiction by Michael Canfield

Free Story: S01E03 “Time Flies At Elsinore”

Time Flies At Elsinore: Hamlet at Forty by Michael Canfield

 

 

Time Flies At Elsinore


Thanks for coming. Wow—the big four-oh. I mean, right? Who’d have thought. So here we are: H. and H. It’s been too long, man. There’s hardly anyone cool around here to hang with. What are you looking at?

Oh this.

Every year I write down my goals and put them up in an envelope—yes, this envelope—seal with wax, and stamp the seal with my princely signet. The following year I pour out a goblet of the best red, open up the envelope, and see how well I’ve done. Then, before retiring, I write a new list for the coming year. It’s my birthday tradition.

What’s that? Open it? Well of course I’m going to open it—though not yet. Are you in so large a hurry? Have you got another best friend’s birthday party to go to?

Oh, all right, all right, don’t apologize, I’m only kidding. Christ, it’s good to see you, Horatio. You look good. You look as good as a skull can look, I mean. Who’d have thought I would outlive you! I always supposed you’d be standing over me one day, bidding flights of angels sing me to my rest!

Hey, you know what this reminds me of? The time you and I found old Yorick’s skull in the graveyard, alas. You remember poor Yorick, the king, my father’s, jester? He’d borne me on his back a hundred—Oh, I’ve told you this one? All right, all right, I do tend to soliloquize; what is this, like my seventh? No, my seventh glass of wine, not my seventh soliloquy, smarty, and if I am going on a bit, cut me some slack, you’re not holding up your end of the conversation.

Soft! What was that! Listen, Horatio! That thumping! There it goes again!

Never mind. I know what it is: merely a knock within. Relax Horry; there hasn’t been a ghost around here in a decade. My Mom is pounding at this chamber door. She is throwing me a birthday supper, and I’m late. The meat is probably cold, but they can serve it for brunch tomorrow. We like leftovers, here. It’ll be fine. Let’s have another drop.

This vintage well-suits me.

So what’s up with you, Horatio? Seeing anyone?

No, I guess the dead don’t date. Well, it’s not much better being alive, I tell you. It’s impossible to divine what women want. I mean, am I the crazy one? I suppose it’s relative, as they say at university.

What? Who? Of course I haven’t seen gentle Guildenstern; no, nor gentle Rosencrantz neither; have you forgotten Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead? Surely, you remember the letter and the pirates and sailing to England and so forth? These ring no bell? Well it did get a little complicated there for awhile and much occurred offstage—so to speak.

No, what I mean is all the world’s a kind of stage …

Oh? Too far off book for your taste, Horry? As you like it; let us turn to my envelope now, while the room still but lightly spins.

I’ll just shove you closer to the candle so you can read along. All right, here we go. Break the wax, remove the paper, unfold, and reveal what lies ….

Ah, right. Six goals. We will take them in reverse order.

Sixth.

Lose twenty pounds.

I think I gained twenty. I’m so fat, Horatio. I hate it. You get to a point where wearing black doesn’t fool anybody and just becomes sad.

Fifth.

Start fencing again.

Well, that would have helped with the waistline, but I never got ‘round to it, either. Though if one’s too fat to fence, no one can prick you with a toison pip—a poison tip, I mean— try saying that five times fast after your seventh goblet. Okay, naught for two.

What next?

Four. Return to Wittenberg, finish degree. Shit.

Well, I mean, what is a degree but a piece of wood pulp?

They’re made of lambskin, you say? Nevertheless, the principle is the same. I do a lot of reading on my own; I don’t need a skin to prove anything.

Pressing on.

Three. Write, produce, and direct new play. And not another didactic little playlet aimed at an audience of one, but the full five acts this time. You know what my “Murder of Gonzago” adaptation lacked? Sympathetic characters ensuring broad appeal. Ah well, but what’s the point? You know what it’s like trying to capture an audience these days, with so many other distractions? Why even try to create? Naught for four. Next?

Two.

Fresh flowers for her grave.

Every day.

Okay, on this, I started well. Never missed a day, for at least the first two months. Things happen; life gets in the way; but I made the effort. Horatio, I tried. I’ll do better this year. I’ll do better. She deserved better from me.

Okay, that’s the list.

What’s that you say? I skipped one? I don’t think so.

Oh. Yeah.

First.

Avenge murder of noble father, parenthesis, kill Claudius, close parenthesis.

Well. What can I say? Work in progress.

Why are you looking at me like that?

You could be more supportive, Horatio. You used to be so good at validation. Would it hurt you to rattle off a bit of verse “we have heard the chimes and midnight, master —”? Nothing like that in the hollow of your cranium?

No, I suppose it isn’t.

We can’t change our natures friend. We can’t.

Full stop.

Tell you what I’m gonna do. Seeing as the bottle’s dry ….

No, not the wine bottle, though it does seem to be so as well; I am referring to the ink bottle. Rather than procure more ink and write out a new list, I am going to carry this list over. It’s a perfectly fine list of goals. I’m going to fold it right back up, and to economize further, stuff it right back in the same envelope. Okay … a little candle wax … and there. Done and done; good as new. If I get through ­­half this by birthday next, that will be a hell of an accomplishment, a hell of job of work.

What do you mean, “Hell is another name for Hades”? I know that.

I have a good feeling Horatio; forty will be my year.

I think I’ll wander over to another part of the castle now; see if there’s any birthday cake left. Mom works hard at throwing me swell parties, and I should at least make an appearance before it gets too late; she and Step-Dad bed early this time of year. It’s been fun catching up. We should do this more often.

No, I am not just saying that.

We should make the time.

However, if I’m to be honest, chum of my youth … well, you know what they say: tempus fugit.

Time flees, Horatio. Isn’t it a tragedy?

* * * * *

Copyright © 2011 Michael Canfield

Published by Vauk House Press, July 2011

 Illustration by Joerg Beyer

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Free Story of the Week S01E02 The Crossing

0001U0.jpeg This week’s free story is from 2003. My first publication …
THE CROSSING

Only Vincente braved the outside. Mama stayed within, washed linen, swept floors, and clung to the life she knew before the fear. She seemed    least anxious in the kitchen. The colonel haunted the walled garden. The girl? well, strange. little Laura kept to the corners.

They could take a lesson from the rats. Nothing bothered the rats; this much, Vincente had learned.

Continue reading the whole story free until at least 04/15/11.

Available for purchase at Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Diesel, and other sites.

Free Story of the Week S01E01:

PEAS AND CARROTS

Sophie. The script called her Sophie; and Sam the optimist, Sam traveler-without-cares, loved her since creation. Azure-eyed Sophie, orphaned country maid, as new in Vienna as the century was young; Sophie in chiffon frock of cobalt blue; her brown hair unadorned with silk ribbon, tied in plain linen.

Tonight, upon hearing him speak say, Pardon me, Fraulein, do you believe in fate? brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie would surely fall into his arms, her cheek upon his breast. His body, breath, and kisses would let her know that fears could no longer trouble love. For this alone had he been written: to rescue Sophie from Maximilian, and sweep her away forever. The invisible hand had scripted it and tonight he’d win her, though she did not even know his name.<Continue reading the whole story free until at least 03/05/11.Expired!

Available for purchase at Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Diesel, and other sites.