Blood in the Potatoes is copyright ©2020 Naomi Boydston and is released under the terms of Strowlers Shared Cinematic Universe License and Agreement
Attribution: This work is based on Strowlers, copyright ©2018 Zombie Orpheus Entertainment. And reuses content from a local word of mouth ghost story.
Share alike: You are free to use, remix, and a transform this work in the creation of your original Strowlers stories and projects, subject to the Strowlers Shared Cinematic Universe License and Agreement. Learn more at www. strowlers .com
This is NOT canon.
There was a boat, a lovely creature all sun bleached wood and brass fittings. She had an engine but it was barely used. Her Name was Lyra, and stitched in white thread on her billowing white canvas sail was a labyrinth.
My husband found her at an estate sale up in Alaska and I sewed the sail. I stitched every bit of love, hope, and luck into it that my meager talent let me. I didn't mean to use the labyrinth but it felt so right I couldn't do anything else.
We took her up and down the coast from Alaska down to Oregon and back again. Yuri fished, I made trinkets to sell to tourists, and we sang together or made up stories most of the day. It was a good life.
Whenever anything needed repairs or maintenance we would do it together. Yuri's technical skills and my artistry. Yuri's strength and my little scraps of feeling. He used to laugh and say, "Ophelia, dearest, I think you're building our boat a soul!"
And I would kiss his nose and say, "It's only fair, Yuri, since you are building her a body."
We also, on occasion, carried items that people were willing to pay a lot to move discreetly. And when I felt the itching in my fingers but there was nothing to fix on Lyra I would make little things, headbands with a touch of clarity, coin purses with a hint of luck, necklaces with a whisper of grace. It was never much, I have no idea what number ARC would give me, and if I can help it I'll never find out. But with the right buyers they were worth enough for a month with out any other work. And so we made a decent living and skimmed by under the radar.
Well, mostly. We were a little too careless our first months on Lyra.
We had anchored for the night off Lopez Island in Puget Sound. The San Juans always make for a good place to stop for a couple weeks, lots of islands and rich tourists. ARC is spread pretty thin out there, it's considered a low risk, low priority area. All the bigger islands have a permanent ARC agent or two but most of the smaller ones just get random surprise visits. We didn't know that yet, but we learned quickly.
That morning had been a good one. We had stopped in Friday Harbor, picked up a new cargo of heavy sealed boxes that we didn't question the contents of.
I'd managed to sell a lucky pair of earrings and a watch band, embroidered with a leafy pattern and a tricky bit of clarity, to a woman with keen eyes who had noticed the labyrinth on Lyra's sail. We had a very careful conversation. I learned that she had a new antique store she called Funk and Junk. She learned that I could be commissioned for certain "art pieces" for her store if someone was so inclined. She seemed a little nervous. Her store had opened in 84, barely a year ago, and she was still feeling out it's place in the world. I told her I'd work on something that evening and bring it back tomorrow.
Then we passed a pleasant afternoon sailing the long way around Lopez, singing fishing songs, catching dinner. I got two good pieces made for my new friend and one that was either very weak or simply decorative. I wouldn't know until I got a good nights sleep. I stretched, and got to work on some general maintenance. I spent some time cleaning and polishing Lyra's hard wear and I ran a line of sealer around one of the portholes below deck when I noticed a little drip of water seeping in. I hardly had anything left in me for the day so I couldn't tell if the sense of grace under pressure I held in my mind was being fixed in place by my talent, but it didn't matter. Nothing I did was instantly noticeable. I was too weak. But look at a canyon wall sometime and tell me that a thousand thin layers wont add up in the end.
I zoned out for a while thinking about canyons when I felt Yuri take the cloth I'd been using to clean the portholes from my hand.
"Ophelia? I'm taking you to bed. You've overdone yourself, dearest."
"I can keep going."
"What was it you were doing again?"
He chuckled, pulling me to my feet. "That's what I thought. Get some sleep, I'll be down when it gets dark."
I fell asleep as soon as I lay down and Yuri went up to the cabin to work on some projects of his own. We would have been caught entirely unawares if Yuri hadn't had the foresight to learn the radio frequencies used by law enforcement at every stop on our journey.
The sky still had a grey hint of light to it when he shook me awake gently looking very serious.
As I climbed carefully out of our hammock he said, "I heard on the radio, we have the Coast Guard in coming with an ARC agent. They must have noticed us somehow."
"But they never do! I'm too weak."
He shrugged. "But they did. You have been working very hard this evening. Come on, let's get you hidden, my love."
I nodded not trusting myself to speak. My best friend in high school had her aunt taken away. When she came back she was a barely responsive shell. There is nothing I fear more.
It was a matter of moments to slide the tread and then the riser from the bottom step of the steep staircase that leads to the deck. Once they were out of the way a knotted rope handle was visible. It opened a narrow trapdoor into a dark space between the floor and the hull. Of the three smuggling spaces on Lyra it's the only one that's big enough to hold a person.
I squeezed through the opening and down between the heavy sealed boxes. Yuri kissed my forehead before he closed me in. I crawled farther forward shifting boxes around me in the dark as I tried to put as much distance as I could between me and the opening. Water seeped through my sleeves and the knees of my pants as I crawled. It stank down here. Old wood, stagnant salt water, and fish. I couldn't see and it was hard to breathe.
I heard my husbands footsteps as he climbed the reassembled stairs. They faded as he reached the deck and went to the cabin were all the communication and navigational equipment lived.
Panic bubbled in my throat. Please. I thought almost against my will. Please oh please someone help us. I wasn't sure who I was asking. It had been a long time since I'd been on speaking terms with my mother's God. Please help us. Help help help. The Mantra twisted up in my mind, around and around like spinning thread. Help help oh please help. As my mind twisted I felt my talent, as tired and weak as it was, begin to twist with it, help help help us please.
I heard Yuri make a sharp exclamation. I choked, jolted back to reality. Foolishness. And stupid too, their ARC agent might have felt that. I breathed in a pattern I made up on the spot. In through the nose for a count of five. Out through the mouth for seven. Hold my breath on empty lungs for three. Repeat. It took just enough concentration to calm me down and kept me from spiraling even as I heard Yuri's muffle voice start to talk. The second voice was odd, distorted somehow. Maybe they were talking over the radio? That would also explain why I hadn't felt another boat come alongside.
Throughout the whole conversation the only word I heard clearly was when Yuri shouted, "Fine!" In a panicked tone. I strained to hear more but their voices dropped once again below what I could make out.
Five or six repetitions of my breathing pattern later I felt Lyra lurch sideways a bit, a familiar motion as another boat tied up to us and bounced off the fenders dropped between us. We shuddered a bit as they pulled us in. I heard voices. Yuri's and another man's. I squeezed my eyes shut against the darkness and wrapped my arms around myself.
Before long I heard footsteps on the stairs, then slight creaking from the floor boards. I kept my eyes shut and started imagining how I could go about fixing those creaks. Some sort of oil? It would take a fair bit to get down all the way between the boards. Maybe I could go up from down here as well? Work on it from both sides?
"I don't see why I'm here." A new voice spoke. It sounded bland and cold. Empty. It chilled me to the bone.
"Because we were ordered to take you, Agent Fisher." Came the exasperated and slightly unsettled response. "Otherwise, believe me, you would not be here."
"I simply do not see any purpose my presence serves."
"Neither do I. Have you ever even been on a boat before?"
"I was on the Ferry when I was assigned here."
"So, that's a no. How about you shut up and pay attention, then? A lot of your work will involve boats when you take over the Friday Harbor ARC position. Observe and whatever. Become not complete shit at your job, okay?"
There was no response in the heavy silence. After a moment I heard the footsteps walk around the edges of the room. There were some sounds I couldn't identify.
I heard Yuri's voice, oddly calm, polite and deferential. "May I know what this is about, officers?"
The talkative one grunted then paused. There was a tapping sound. "You spoke to a man earlier today at great length. A man we have reason to suspect is a smuggler. This is just to make sure nothing got passed onto you."
More tapping. It sounds like he's knocking gently, working his way along the starboard side. Lyra does have two more smuggling spaces between the wall and the hull, but they are narrower. These are not small boxes, we had to put them all down here. It doesn't sound like he's checking the floor yet.
"Ah ha!" He stopped and I heard him open the starboard compartment. "What do we have here?"
"I don't know." Yuri should have been an actor, he sounded mildly surprised and curious without any anxiety at all. "We just bought this boat up in Alaska a couple months ago. Is there anything inside?"
I cringed when he said 'we'. Some scuffing sounds come down from above followed by an annoyed grunt. Then, "No. It's empty."
Some more scuffling, footsteps, knocking. In half the time the port bolthole was opened too.
"Speaking of 'we,'" The man from the coastguard began, "Were is your wife? I was led to believe there would be two of you." I did not like his tone of voice. It had a nasty smile in it.
"Ah," Yuri sounded embarrassed. "She's camping on Lopez tonight. We had a bit of a… disagreement and… well, there isn't much of a couch to sleep on in a boat this size."
The man grunted again, but this one sounded understanding. "Well, we've all been there. Good luck to you." I heard the bolthole's door close. "I think we're finished here. Take care who you deal with in the future. Fisher, come."
And just like that they left. I went limp with relief when I felt their boat push off from ours.
I didn't move until I saw light at the back of the crawl space and heard Yuri call me gently. I peeled myself off the damp floor and crawled back through the boxes to reach the hatch. Yuri helped pull me out and wrapped me up in a big hug, ignoring the stinking dark water clinging to my clothes. It was a long time before either of us let go.
The next seven years were wonderful, everything I could have hoped for. We were very lucky and there were no more calls quite that close.
We did well. We built contacts, and our musical library. We built up our ship and Lyra loved us fiercely. We were happy, for the most part. I knew there was something on Yuri's mind ever since that night, but there wasn't much privacy on our little boat as it was, so I didn't push. He would talk to me when he was ready, I assumed. He stopped talking about kids too, which I'll admit relieved me a little. And life poured forward toward the future.
It was seven years and seven days after that night when everything came to a head. We'd had a peaceful day and I was at the stove. I was making potatoes for dinner, since we hadn't caught any fish today. We sang 'Kilkelly, Ireland' as Yuri pealed and I chopped. We finished the last verse as I swept them into the heating oil in the pan. They sizzled cheerfully in counterpoint to the last melancholy notes. Yuri turned to the table and jumped. With a yelp he flung an arm out defensively. Startled, I knocked over the salt I was reaching for.
"What-" I began as I turned and stopped with a gasp. Sitting on our chair with their feet up on our table was an impossible person. They were handsome and beautiful but trying to focus on any of their features made me dizzy. Their ears came to points, although long or short was hard to pin down. Their eyes were pale green, deep blue, or vibrant purple. They were smiling, a gentle smile, but I was very aware that there were teeth behind it. I stared speechless, until I began to sway. Yuri put an arm around me to steady me and he seemed to be addressing the table in front of the creature instead of trying to focus on their face.
"What are you doing here?" My husband asked, trying to hide the fear in his voice behind anger.
"How quickly you forget." Their voice sounded like the rustling of ferns in a primordial forest and the echo of wind chimes in a half frozen creak. They flicked an invisible speck of dust from their green dappled shoulder and looked at him from the corner of one impossible eye. "ARC is coming and you have had your seven years."
"Why would they be coming? We haven't done anything today. We haven't, have we?"
Yuri glanced at me and I shook my head. I hadn't needed to repair anything on Lyra for several days, and all my sewing had been mundane.
"Well, you did just receive a visit from someone very old and powerful."
"What? But they've never noticed you come before."
"Because your contract was never up before. You have had your seven years and it is time."
"You brought them here on purpose?"
They ignored him examining the nails on their right hand. "You know, if you aren't ready to go there is another option."
"Oh?" Yuri's voice was painfully hopeful, tempered only slightly by wariness.
"Of course. After all, you may have made the deal but it was her magic that called to me."
"What?" I finally managed to say.
They raised a perfect eyebrow of an indeterminate shape. "You called me." They said, the way condescending adults will speak to a child they think should be old enough to go away. Their voice shifted until it sounded like mine, but weak and pathetic. "Help help, oh please help us!" They set their feet on the floor and stood slowly as tall as they could be without hitting their head on the ceiling. "Well. I came. And I helped. I should have met you then, but your husband made me a deal and now it is time to pay up." Their smile was impossibly wide and sharp, I felt Yuri's arm tighten around me. "And yet I find I am merciful. Would you alter your deal? I could take something else you know."
"What do you want?"
"It doesn't matter!" I told him, "Whatever they want it can't be as bad as dying!"
"Ah," They lifted one long finger with a nail that shifted and changed in color and size when I tried to focus on it but it remained very sharp. "I never asked for a death. I asked for a life. Seven years and seven days, if you can survive it. It's only fair."
"As I said." I glared at the beautiful creature despite the way the room twisted around it. "Anything is better than you dying."
They chuckled like willow branches whipping in the breeze, "I like you," They said, "But my deal is with your husband."
I tried to respond but my mouth wouldn't open.
"So." They continued. "You made the deal, but your wife made the summons. An unusual situation to be sure. I am within my rights to take you right now no questions asked or formalities observed, but I have something I want more and so I am willing to offer you an out. If you want it." They paused, waiting for an answer.
Yuri repeated, "What do you want?"
"It's quite simple." They gestured around the cabin, and my heart sank thinking they were about to ask for Lyra. It would hurt, but I would urge him to accept. "There is very little about you that is special. You have no power to speak of, no collection to tempt me, no skills I could not easily replicate."
"I'd like to see them try." I hissed under my breath, indignant. Yuri gave me a warning look and I subsided, secretly glad to know my mouth worked again.
They ignored me and continued without pausing. "You are nothing much to look on, and I've had better bards in my hall for centuries. And so I will break tradition and I will offer you another seven years of safety in exchange for one thing. Something that should have been mine seven years ago." They paused again, relishing our fear and hope.
At last Yuri begged "What do you want?"
Their grin reaching cheshire proportions and they said simply. "Your wife."
My mouth dropped open. Yuri's arm tightened. He looked at me, and for a moment, just a moment, he thought about it. I gasped and wrenched my self from his grip. My back hit the wall and I clung there. I saw his horror as soon as I pulled away but he couldn't take back that moment.
"No." He whispered to me. "No!" he shouted turning on the creature. "We had a deal. You'll take me and all this is done. Nothing happens to Ophelia. Nothing, do you hear me!"
Their smile vanished and their changing face grew cold, I blinked watering eyes but I couldn't look away.
"Very well." They said, their voice no longer reminded me of wind chimes but of ancient rusted bells tolling at the bottom of the sea. They grabbed his arms in hands like talons.
"Don't! I'll g-" I began, trying to step forward but Yuri ripped one of his arms free and pressed a hand over my mouth.
"I love you." He whispered and I felt his blood drip down my collar as I began to cry. With a growl the creature, still beautiful but radiating menace and anger, renewed their grip and yanked him away. Pulling him in an impossible direction towards a shifting something that blurred and changed making my eyes ache when I looked directly at it.
I pressed myself back against the wall a scream choked in my throat, his arms flailed as he fell away and blood spattered across my face and the stove. I felt my own power at my back, built up over the years, warm and protective it almost seemed to pulse at my touch. I held onto it desperately trying to hide in it, trying to forget the pain on Yuri's face as he was dragged off into the unknown. I was pressed against the wall so hard I felt the jolt in my bones as Lyra was roped in by another boat. I heard the sound of pounding boots and shouting voices as they boarded us. I gripped my own power tightly, begging it to hide me. I felt Lyra listen, I felt her wrap my hopes and dreams around me, hold me close. Safe. Protected.
Three men burst into the room below deck. They paused. The oldest, a middle aged coast guard, looked angry and he swung a taser around the room looking for a target. The one in the gray ARC uniform was expressionless as he took in the room systematically. The youngest, also a coast guard, looked a little wide eyed but when he realized their was no one there he lowered his taser.
"Sir?" The young man said, "There's blood on the stove."
The other two looked over.
The oldest's eyes followed the blood to the floor and grunted. "Good. Makes our job easier."
The ARC man ignored him. "I've been on this boat before. There are smugglers holes there and there." He pointed out the port and starboard hidden hatches. "And based on the dimension of this boat, probably another down there somewhere. See if they're hiding in one of them."
The older man nodded and between them they quickly found and dragged out my hidden cargo. But of course there were no people there.
The young coast guard went back to my stove an turned it off. "There's blood here." He repeated staring into the pan, "There's blood in the potatoes, but they aren't even burned yet." He stepped away from the stove and rubbed his arms. "Where are they?"
"Perhaps they jumped overboard. We'll bring this boat back to the docks for a thorough search."
No. No I would not be having that. I wait for them to return to their own boat, a fresh young metal creature with too much power and too little experience. They had tied us together with a well made nylon line before they crossed, but as soon as they leave I haul around to starboard. I bring up my engine and for the first time in months I crank it up. It struggles as it tangles in the lead line. I hear shouts and the other boat twists in confusion as she is slammed against my side. But the line breaks. My engine chokes and dies before I've limped far but thats okay. The hardest part is done, and behind me the crew of the other boat is shouting and trying to keep their own boat afloat in the water. That poor young man is trying to call for help, but he's on the wrong channel. I echo his call on the proper frequency. I'll be long gone before help arrives, and he did turn off my stove.
Seven years. I can wait seven years. I turn my bow toward a rocky spit off Orcas and I stretch my sails. They billow wide, and a breeze flicks around the labyrinth.