Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve read that we wanted you to know about. 

“Red Bark and Ambergris” by Kate Marshall (Aug. 2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies99c Kindle magazine issue)

Sarai is forcibly taken from her paradisiacal island home by the queen’s men when they discover that the young girl has the magical ability of a scent-maker, one who can concoct fragrances that will powerfully affect people, evoking memories and calling forth emotions. She is sent to live permanently on the gray island of Felas to improve her magical talent.

When Sarai discovers that only poison-tamers are ever allowed to leave the island, and then only to act as tasters for the queen, she wants to set aside her scent-making talent to focus on learning the difficult art of poisons, hoping that she’ll be able to use that talent to kill the queen who has brought so much sorrow to Sarai and others. Her mentor Jarad warns her that her plan cannot work, but Sarai is obdurate. She continues to learn scent-making because she must, but uses all her spare time to study ― and ingest ― poisons.

Kate Marshall’s writing is vivid and evocative, befitting a main character whose talent lies in the sense of smell, and insightful as to human emotions and relationships. The difficult and bitter task Sarai sets herself of mastering poisons, which requires her to ingest and survive all 163 known poisons, is appalling yet fascinating. I thought the unexpected ending of this story was a master stroke, bittersweet and brilliant. ~Tadiana Jones

“On Highway 18” by Rebecca Campbell (Sept/Oct 2017, F&SF Magazine)

Rebecca Campbell’s short story “On Highway 18” was a story written for readers like me. Campbell adeptly mixes nostalgia with a fear that grows from a vague uneasy to a steady throb by the end of the story. These characters are much younger than me, coming of age in the 1990s, but the choices, the chances and the risks they take were so familiar that I felt like I was in the backseat, riding with them.

“On Highway 18” is set on Vancouver Island. Petra and Jen are best friends. Jen has a car, a 1982 Plymouth Horizon, and she is often the one who shepherds the two girls to the 7-Eleven parking lot, to Bino’s Diner for fries and gravy, or to the parties at the gravel pit in the woods. Otherwise, Petra, like many others, hitchhikes. And always there are stories, stories about the body they found, somewhere, the body of “a girl.” There are rarely any specifics. Soon the boys are talking about “ghost hitchhikers,” in particular a girl who tells you what’s going to happen in the distant year 2000. When you pull over to let her out, bam! She’s gone.

Petra has a bad experience hitching once, but somehow, she rationalizes that it isn’t that bad. (For anyone who might be still be confused about how men try to control women, read the scene in the video store parking lot.) She and Jen have a fight when Jen ditches her for a boy at a pit party, and although they mend fences, it is never quite the same. Once when they are driving, Petra sees a girl walking ahead of them on the highway. She persuades Jen to stop, but when they do, the girl is gone.

The friendship has been broken, and Petra goes off to the mainland, to school. When she returns, she has one more eerie encounter with a girl hitchhiker, a girl who she thinks is Jen, who begins to tell her what will happen in her life.

One thing you need to remember: for you it was always going to be different.”

The story ends on a powerful and melancholy note. Did Petra really see who she thought she saw? The end of “On Highway 18” left me thinking about the threshold of adulthood, about desperate bids for freedom and mobility, and those who stay behind. ~Marion Deeds

“Burnt Sugar” by Lish McBride (2014, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Ava is a firebug: she can start fires with her mind. She and her two friends, Lock, who is half-dryad, and Ezra, an Asian shapeshifter who turns into a fox, are all reluctantly bound to the Coterie, a supernatural mafia headed up by a vampire and operating in rural Maine. Their usual duties for the Coterie involve collecting protection money, delivering supernatural beat-downs, and worse. The trio’s latest assignment is to find out why Dolly Walker, a witch who lives deep in the woods, has missed her last few payments to the Coterie. What they find is an adorable gingerbread house ― which immediately makes them suspicious.

Gingerbread houses draw power from the person they’re connected to, like leeches on the soul. Kill the witch, kill the house, so the house does its level best to keep that from happening. But while they may draw heavily on their hosts, they don’t rely on a single food source. One person would go too quickly. So the host becomes a lure to draw in more food. It’s pretty clever in a terrible sort of way.

The trio decides to send Ava in to reconnoiter. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan.

“Burnt Sugar” is an amusing twist on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. I had to laugh at the health-nut witches, which were a quirky juxtaposition to their gingerbread house, and one of the witches defiantly stating to Ava, “And don’t get any ideas about shoving us in the oven. We read the pamphlets that came with the house, and we’ve no intention of going anywhere near there.” The humor offsets the underlying darkness of the story, where the house itself is the primary source of evil and dark appetites.

“Burnt Sugar” is an enjoyable introduction to Lish McBride’s 2014 novel Firebug and its sequel, which continues the story of Ava and her friends. ~Tadiana Jones

“Rappacchini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844, free at Amazon and Project Gutenberg as part of the Mosses from the Old Manse collection)

I hadn’t heard of this particular story by Nathaniel Hawthorne until I read Theodora Goss‘ 2017 novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, a fantasy set in the Victorian era which includes Beatrice Rappacchini as one of its cast of characters (along with a couple daughters of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, a woman created by Dr. Frankenstein, and a cat-like woman from the island of Dr. Moreau. Quite the cast!). Since I was familiar with all of the source literature for all of those characters except Beatrice, I thought I owed it to her to check out her in the original story.

Giovanni Guasconti is a handsome young man studying at the University of Padua. His living quarter look out over a lush but ominous garden belonging to a Dr. Rappaccini. While Giovanni is gazing out, the doctor’s daughter appears in the garden:

Soon there emerged from under a sculptured portal the figure of a young girl, arrayed with as much richness of taste as the most splendid of the flowers, beautiful as the day, and with a bloom so deep and vivid that one shade more would have been too much. She looked redundant with life, health, and energy… Yet Giovanni’s fancy must have grown morbid while he looked down into the garden; for the impression which the fair stranger made upon him was as if here were another flower, the human sister of those vegetable ones, as beautiful as they, more beautiful than the richest of them, but still to be touched only with a glove, nor to be approached without a mask.

Beatrice has been living among her father’s poisonous plants for so long that she’s been imbued with their poison – normal plants wither when she breaths on them, and there’s something very odd about her breath …

But Giovanni can’t resist the beauty of Beatrice, and manages to find a way into the garden to strike up a relationship with her. She’s as kind and intelligent as she is beautiful. His landlord, Professor Baglioni, warns him about Beatrice and her garden ― both are lovely but poisonous to ordinary men ― but Giovanni isn’t of a mind to listen. Perhaps Professor Baglioni may have an answer for Giovanni, but can the professor be trusted?

“Rappacchini’s Daughter” has the detailed, stylized writing typical of the 19th century, which can at times get a little hard to wade through. It’s an interesting allegory of good and evil, the poisonous Garden of Eden, and the quest for knowledge ― but at what cost? The key characters in this story all have both a good and a darker side to them, but it comes out in different ways for each character. As usual with Hawthorne, there’s abundant symbolism, and a strong moral underlying the tale.

P.S. I was a little startled to find that Beatrice and her lover get a far different ending in this original tale than in Goss’ Alchemist’s Daughter. ~Tadiana Jones


  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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