The Idea Man

Cover art for the Idea Man

Writers get ideas and inspiration from all sorts of places. Often the process seems mysterious. Where does a writer find a muse? Where do you get your ideas? Here is one answer.

🚀

On a Tuesday, at ten in the morning under a bright new sun, the Idea Man materialized on the concrete driveway leading up to the writer’s rumpled split-level home. In the long lines and tight pressed creases of his dark suit the Idea Man managed to combine used car salesman, haughty auctioneer, and mortician. His distinguished gray hair was slicked back and combed, not a strand out of place. In one manicured hand he carried a monogrammed black leather briefcase. With his free hand, he reached up and adjusted his thin red bow tie.

The Idea Man had to close this deal, the powers-that-be had made that perfectly clear. Close this deal or the future as he knew it might not exist. He smiled his best thousand-watt smile and marched smartly up the driveway, across the concrete path to the front door, all the while stepping fastidiously around the cracks sprouting dandelions. He pressed the doorbell buzzer and waited.

The writer opened the door wearing dark gray sweat suit bottoms, a dark green sweat suit top and a gray bathrobe over the top. His dark hair stuck out in unruly directions and stubble covered his face like a case of black mold. The Idea Man held strong to his resolve and didn’t let his smile falter as he stuck out his hand.

“Sir, it is a pleasure to meet you.”

The writer didn’t shake his hand, instead crossed his arms and glared.

Undeterred the Idea Man lifted the briefcase. “I have something here that I think you’ll be interested in.”

“I’m not.” The writer moved to close the door.

The Idea Man put his hand out on the door. “Wait, sir, please! I’ve come from the future to help you.”

The writer squinted at him. “Future?”

“That’s right.” The Idea Man hoisted the briefcase again. “Please, five minutes. You won’t regret it.”

“Hell, I haven’t had my dose of crazy today. I’ll give you two minutes before I sling you out on your ass if you’re wasting my time.”

“That’d be fine, sir.”

Books dominated the inside of the writer’s home. The Idea Man couldn’t look anywhere without seeing books. Packed bookshelves lined the walls of the front room and shorter shelves blocked off the room from the stairs leading up and down to the different levels of the house. More books crowded the built-in shelves lining the stairs and ahead, down the narrow aisle between the front room and the stairs, the Idea Man saw even more shelves lining the walls around a dining room table swallowed by stacks of books. In the center of the front room squatted a worn wood table mostly covered with books except for a small pocket for a computer monitor. Two big leather chairs slumped beside the windows with books covering the small coffee table between them. The writer went into the front room and dropped heavily into the far chair. The Idea Man took the second chair and when it threatened to swallow him whole, he struggled up and perched on the edge with the briefcase balanced on his lap.

“Well?” the writer demanded. “How the hell do you plan to help me?”

“Ideas! Best-selling high concept ideas. Ideas from the future! No more struggling while you face the blank page. With these ideas you’ll write prescient stories that thrill and amaze your readers.”

The writer stared.

“Sir, this opportunity —”

“Opportunity? That’s what you’re going with? An opportunity? And what? I suppose you’ll want to split the money of anything I write with these ideas?”

“There are costs and hazards associated with time travel, of course, and our detailed outlines —”

“Outlines!” The writer jumped from his chair with such vehemence that the Idea Man shrank back into the chair that had threatened to swallow him. The writer jabbed a finger at the computer on the table in the middle of the room.

“I’ve got a book in progress on that machine. Over there in the dining room I’ve got another one going and a third downstairs in the living room! I have stories coming out of my ears upstairs in the small bedroom. Don’t even get me started on the projects in the basement because I haven’t been able to get down there in weeks! I’ve got so many fucking ideas that it isn’t humanly possible to write them all!”

The Idea Man tried to rally his courage. “But these ideas are based on future developments in science and technology!”

The writer lunged forward, grabbed the Idea Man by the arms and hauled him up out of the chair. He shoved him toward the door. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about the future! I make my own goddamn future!”

At the door, the Idea Man turned around. “I don’t think you understand the value of these ideas. If you’d let me show —”

“Tell me this, if your ideas are so fucking fantastic why don’t you sit your ass in a chair and write the goddamn stories yourself?”

“I’m an idea man, not a writer!”

The writer wrenched the door open and shoved the Idea Man outside. The door slammed shut behind him. For several seconds the Idea Man stood on the porch, blinking at the blinding sunlight before he faded away like the ideas he carried.

🚀

908 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 92nd short story release, written in December 2010.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Under the Bridge.

Different Gravities

Kyle Rader discovered fatherhood on Mars and more challenges than dirty diapers!

The careful colony timetables get thrown out the airlock when the new Martian governor announces her pregnancy en route to the red planet.

Unexpected challenges introduce new stresses when raising the first child on Mars, but Kyle believes his son’s destiny will transform humanity.

🚀

Coming to Mars Kyle Rader never imagined this, this waiting. We’re hardly on another planet but we’ve already managed to recreate waiting rooms. You would have thought we could do better.

A slight man with a kind smile and epicanthic folds that revealed his mixed heritage, he smoothed the legs of his blue overalls and waited for the doctor to return while keeping an eye on his son Jon. The room was small, by necessity most of the rooms in the outpost were small. It wasn’t really a waiting room, but also an examination room. Native red brick walls, an examination bed made from aluminum and recycled fibers. Jon lay on the bed looking up at the lights above. He loved lights. A touch screen hung on the wall and a portable supplies cabinet sat in the corner. No magazines, of course, but the screen did offer a menu of entertainment options. Kyle ignored the screen.

Barsoom only housed a hundred people. A hundred and one now. His son. A pregnancy that had caused a great deal of consternation back on Earth when they discovered eight weeks into the trip that Jenny had gotten pregnant. There had been a lot of concern about whether or not she could handle the landing on Mars at eight months pregnant. The Mars Colonization Project Administration hadn’t been pleased that their carefully selected Governor had been the first to get pregnant but what could they do?

Jon turned his head and grinned broadly at his father, showing his six teeth.

“Hey buddy,” Kyle murmured. “Bored yet?”

Jon rolled and sat up. He waved his arms in the air.

“It won’t be long.”

As if on cue the door slid aside and Dr. Ayres stepped into the space. A slight woman with her red hair braided back and very pale skin. She served as the chief medical officer for the colony. Kyle stood up.

“Doctor.”

She smiled. “Call me Amanda, Kyle. It’s good to see you.” She looked at Jon and her smile grew. “Hi Jon! My, you are the cutest baby!”

Jon smiled back at her. He loved everyone in the colony. They all fussed over him. The first Martian. He was a celebrity before he’d even been born. “Baa. Daa. Ni!”

Dr. Ayres, Amanda, went to the other side of the bed. She crouched to put her head at Jon’s height. He happily batted at her face with pudgy fingers. “He looks good. How’s he doing?”

“Good. Very good. He’s eating well. He’s gotten sitting up down and crawling but he hasn’t been able to walk yet.”

Dr. Ayres pulled out a tablet from her pocket. She tapped and flicked her way through the screens and wrote a quick note with her finger. She pocketed the tablet. “Does he try to walk? Is he pulling himself up on furniture?”

“Yes. He’ll pull himself up, and a few times he’s tried to take a step away but he can’t keep his balance.” Kyle put a hand on Jon’s back. His son beamed at him. “I think he’s worried about falling.”

“Did he get hurt?”

“No. He didn’t fall that hard.”

“And he gets around fine crawling?”

“Yes.” Kyle looked at his son. He loved Jon more than anything. They hadn’t planned this to happen but he couldn’t imagine life without him. “He’s all over the place crawling.”

As if to prove it Jon lunged forward onto his hands. Kyle scooped him up in his arms. His son hardly weighed anything. Around 8 pounds. He still had to do the math in his head and convert that to weight on Earth, but even then Jon didn’t weigh much. It kept all sorts of scientists busy watching his development.

“So you don’t think we have anything to worry about?”

Amanda shook her head. “People learn to walk at their own pace. Be patient. He’s only a year old.”

“But back on Earth he should be walking by now, at least most children would be but he doesn’t seem to be showing any progress.”

“He’s not on Earth,” Amanda said. “We have to give him time. He’s the first person to grow up on Mars. Jon is going to be teaching us a great deal.”

🚀

On Jon’s third Earthday, what would have been his third birthday on Earth, Kyle watched his son unwrap his big present with butterflies in his stomach. To accommodate everyone they were holding the party in the park dome and it looked like the entire colony had turned out. Jon sat at the center of the gathering facing a large sack. Back on Earth, he’d have been showered in gifts. Here they had worked out one gift that a number of the colonists could produce. Jon struggled to get the ties undone.

Jenny crouched beside him and offered to help. Jon shook his head and kept at the knots. Jenny straightened up and sipped her glass of water. “You’re almost there!”

True enough. Jon untied the last knot with a flourish. Kyle was proud of his son but still worried about the gift. He and Jenny had argued about it but she’d been determined that her son needed help to walk. Kyle still believed that Amanda was right. Jon would get there on his schedule.

The bag fell away revealing the walker. Everyone cheered. Kyle saw lots of satisfied smiles. People raised their glasses and clapped. It looked pretty slick. A woven seat, rounded frame and four wheels crafted by the machine shop. All from recycled material. Expensive but Jenny wouldn’t have any other way. She claimed that it was necessary now that there was another baby in the colony, plus one more on the way. The population would grow and they had to know that their children could learn to walk. At least that was what Jenny claimed.

Jon pushed it with one foot. He used his feet often, just not for walking. Kyle thought his son was quite adept at it. Jon looked over at Kyle. “Dad?”

That usually meant he wanted his father to explain something. Kyle squeezed Amanda’s hand and went over to Jon. He crouched down. “Happy birthday, son.” He kissed his son’s head. “It’s a walker. You sit in it and then can walk around.”

Jon’s grinned melted faster than ice could sublimate. He pushed the walker harder with his foot. It rolled toward Jenny. She stopped it.

“Now, Jon, that’s no way to act. This will be fun.” She gave Kyle a hard look. “Tell him it’ll be fun, Kyle.”

Kyle ran his hand through his son’s hair. “Why don’t we give it a shot, bud? Just try it out for your mother?”

Jon looked at his mother, back to Kyle and then at Amanda. He shook his head.

It was the look at Amanda that did it. Jenny got that look in her eyes. She reached down and picked Jon up. He screamed and flailed his thin arms. No matter how hard he twisted he couldn’t break free from Jenny’s grip. She stepped over to the walker and started to lower him. He kicked his feet at the seat.

“Give him some time to get used to the idea,” Kyle said.

“He’s had time. You coddle him instead of encouraging him.” She turned Jon around to face her. “I want you to try this. It’s no harder than sitting in a chair.”

Which he hates, Kyle thought. Jon didn’t care much for furniture at all. He preferred to sleep wrapped in a blanket on the floor than in his bed. He crawled and sat on the floor and didn’t appear to want to change that.

Jon shook his head. “No! No!”

“Yes,” Jenny said. “You’re going to have to try it. Understand?”

People in the crowd looked uncomfortable. Kyle didn’t want to get in a big fight with Jenny but he hated to see Jon forced into the walker. He’d tried to tell her that Jon wouldn’t like the walker but she’d convinced herself that he would once he saw it.

Jenny plunked him down into the seat. He wouldn’t extend his legs. He pulled up his feet and gripped the front of the walker’s tray. His bottom lip quivered. He sucked in air and then held it. His face turned red.

“Stop it,” Jenny said. “Don’t hold your breath like that.”

Jon kept holding his breath. He screwed his eyes close. Jenny reached down and put a hand on his shoulder. “Jon, breathe.”

Amanda brushed past Kyle. Jenny looked up and saw her coming but too late. Amanda reached down and picked up Jon who threw his arms around Amanda’s neck. His breath blew out noisily and then he sobbed into Amanda’s shoulder. Jenny stood up.

“This is the problem. You let him get away with everything!” Jenny looked around and saw everyone staring at them. Her gaze hardened. “We can never forget that we’re the first outpost of a new human civilization! We need to do everything we can to help our children succeed and sometimes that means making them do something they don’t want to do.”

“He gets around fine without walking,” Amanda said. “Why are you so insistent that he walk?”

Jenny shook her head. “I’ve got work to do. Party’s over, people. Let’s get busy.” The crowd started to disperse. When Kyle joined Amanda with Jon then Jenny turned back to them. She pointed at the walker. “He’s got to learn to walk. We’re not going to launch a new human civilization on our hands and knees.”

🚀

Jon hated the walker and never used it. Put him in and he’d lift his legs. But put him on the floor and Jon was happy. By his eighth Earthday Jon still didn’t walk but he could gallop around the habitats and climb better than any adult. Kyle thought that his son was very graceful and it didn’t look like he’d be alone any longer as the younger children didn’t show any sign of walking either. Amanda thought that it was something in human development that didn’t work on Mars. With the different gravity, the kids just never learned to balance properly for walking. Their muscles developed differently. They could stand holding onto something but for general movement, they preferred crawling. Or quadrupedal movement on hands and feet. Or climbing. They hated shoes, and their genetic testing didn’t show any abnormalities.

Kyle and Jon were at home when the house system announced a visitor at the door. Jon swooped down from the bars that Kyle had installed around the house and landed in front of the door before Kyle even got up from the couch. Jon slapped the pad to open the door. It slid aside revealing Jenny standing in the doorway.

Jon brought his legs up to his chest and hugged his knees. Jenny crouched. “Hi Jon, aren’t you going to say hi to your Mommy?”

“Hi, Mommy,” Jon mumbled reluctantly.

Jenny tousled his hair and stood up. She stepped over their child and he bolted out the door on all fours. He was fast and down the path out of sight before either of them said anything. Jenny shook her head and sighed. She looked around at the bars mounted on the walls and hanging from the ceiling.

“You’re not even trying Kyle. You’ve let our son devolve into some sort of monkey.”

“He’s not a monkey.” Kyle took a breath. It didn’t pay to argue with Jenny. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Thank you, but no. The station is ready. It’s time for Jon to go.”

Kyle walked into the kitchen nook. He picked up his glass from the counter and filled it from the tap. He drank the cold water and turned back around to face Jenny. “He’s not going up to your station.”

“Don’t be ridiculous Kyle. He needs an education.”

“He can get that here.”

“He can’t get the physical training he needs here. It’s important for his health.” Jenny pressed her hands together. “We’ve talked about this before. I thought you understood.”

“I understand that you can’t see that our son is fine how he is. All of the kids are fine. Amanda says –”

“Amanda is not the governor of this colony!”

“– that the children are healthy. Sending them up to the station will increase their exposure to radiation. And for what? So that you can force them to learn to walk?”

“It’s more than walking. That’s only one consequence of developing in low gravity. We know that now. If our children have any hope of a normal life then they need to develop in an environment that simulates the world they came from. It’s like –”

“Amphibians going back to water to lay their eggs.” Kyle put down the glass. “I’ve heard all the speeches. As adults, we can live and thrive in lower gravity environments but our kids need to go back to the water. Well, that’s bullshit, Jenny and you’re not taking my son.”

Jenny’s lips tightened. “He’s my son too.”

“And you left us,” Kyle snapped. “You left and now you can’t stand to look at your son.”

Jenny shook her head. “You’re in denial. He’s not okay. I’m doing this for him and all the other children.”

“You’re not, Jenny. You’re not seeing the future here. You’re clinging to the past. And I’m not going to let you do it. Jon stays here!”

🚀

Kyle stopped the rover a kilometer out from the dome. It wasn’t a single dome any longer but a cluster of geodesic structures anchored by red bricks. Through the transparent panels, was the familiar green of Earth plants. Amanda joined him up in the front. “That’s it.”

“Yep. Namaste.” The new dome built by the children of the original settlers. It’d been a point of debate for the past decade. M.C.P.A. liked to pretend that they still controlled Mars but Jon and the rest had other ideas. “Come on.”

He kicked the brake release and they bounced on down towards the dome.

Jon met them as they came out of the connecting airlock. He’d grown long of limb and body and he hung by one arm from the tunnel roof. Regularly spaced bars ran the length of the tunnel. He wasn’t alone either. Eileen, the second child born on Mars now grown to a woman, hung from bars behind Jon and Brad peeked out of the pouch she wore.

“Dad.” Jon swung forward and wrapped his free arm around Kyle’s shoulders. “It’s good to see you.” He released Kyle to pull Amanda close. “Mom, glad you could make it.”

More faces appeared at the end of the tunnel. Children, some hanging upside down to look into the tunnel. Jon saw Kyle looking and turned around. He waved an arm. “Scat!”

Laughing the children scampered away. Jon shook his head and smiled at Kyle. “You know how kids are.”

Kyle looked at his son, now a man some twenty-five Earthdays old. To Kyle’s Earth-born eyes his son looked frail. Too skinny and thin of limb but there was no hiding how easily he moved through the tunnel with his family, with strength and confidence to face the future.

“It’s good to see you, too, Jon. I’m eager to see what you’ve got going on here.”

“He’s got a lot to show you,” Eileen said. “Come on. We’ll show you the way.”

Jon and Eileen swung off, slowly, waiting for their old ground-pounders to follow. Kyle watched them move with grace and beauty. Jenny had been right about one thing. This was the birthplace of a new human civilization it just wasn’t going to conform to old ideas. It was going to surprise them at every turn.

And Kyle couldn’t be more proud.

🚀

2,630 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 91st short story release, written in January 2010. I wrote this for my son. Watching him find his way has been one of the most miraculous things in my life.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, The Idea Man.

Space Monkeys

Cover art for Space Monkeys

IRiS, the Interstellar Recovery Spacecraft, captured samples from a  comet passing through the solar system and found something remarkable.

Danny lives in his own world, finding connections through video games and gesture.

Emmett does what all good fathers do and seeks for new ways to connect with his son.  Sometimes first contact begins right here at home.

🚀

All I could think about as I pedaled along the bike path was aliens. I loved aliens as a kid. Heck, I still do. That’s why I couldn’t wait to get home and give my son aliens of his very own.

Daniel is in the second grade, with his own ideas about the world. I’m not sure what they are. Figuring out what is going on in Danny’s head is a challenge, but it’s rewarding when something gets through to him. Maybe aliens will be just the trick.

I parked the bike in the garage, took the panniers off the back and headed into the house. “Danny!”

Nata came out of the kitchen. “Good luck. He’s up in his room.”

Up in his room meant one thing: video games. I found him perched on the corner of his bed playing a retro Super Mario Bros 3. Danny was determined to beat the entire series from its very beginnings.

Mario grabbed a raccoon suit and took off into the sky.

“Hey Danny.”

He made a grunting noise. That was typical. His way of telling me that he knew I was here but he didn’t mind. I sat down on the bed. Mario grabbed a turtle shell and threw it at a line of walking turtles. He chased after it until it hit the last turtle and a one-up mushroom appeared. Mario ran into it and continued his rampage.

“Good moves,” I said.

Watching Danny play is amazing. He is so quick and responsive in the game. When he pulls off a difficult move, you can almost see a smile on his lips. Interrupting him now wouldn’t work; I’d have to wait until he finished the current level. Now that I was home, and he could see that I had a package, he would probably come find me when he finished.

I kissed the top of his head. He didn’t pull away. That was nice.

Nata was sitting on one of the bar stools in the kitchen with a cup of coffee sat on the counter beside her. She lowered her Kindle.

“What do you have there?”

I took a seat at the dining room table and put the package down in front of me. “Space Monkeys.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“You know. Space Monkeys. Like Sea Monkeys, only these are aliens from space.”

“Aliens?”

“Remember? It was on the news.”

“Oh, really? Did you get those for Danny or yourself?”

That really was a good question. I wanted to share this with Danny. Finding ways to share things with him was one of the most challenging, and rewarding things in my life. It was like that with video games. He took to all of the old classics right away. Some of my best memories are playing those games with Mario, Donkey Kong, Sonic, and Link. Danny hasn’t tried the Zelda games yet, but I don’t want to introduce them until I track down the old Gameboy games. Danny likes to do the entire series, in order produced. I figure there are plenty there for him to do, but I want him to learn more about the universe than video games.

And aliens might be just the thing. I tipped the package back. There were pictures of the aliens on the packaging. Enlarged, of course, but they looked something like fat fish with four radial arms. In motion, they pointed the arms forward and back and wriggled like a snake through the water. When they stopped, they used all four arms to capture prey. The most exciting thing about them was their bioluminescence: they flashed a rainbow of colors. Signals to one another, it seemed.

Nata sat down and took the package. “It was that probe you told me about?”

“IRiS. Interstellar Recovery Spacecraft. It was the sample return mission from that comet that was passing through the solar system. An amazing technical feat. They couldn’t match velocity, so they approached it on a trajectory that took them through the tail and captured debris coming off the comet.”

“And found aliens? Are they sure about that?”

I love my wife, but this sort of thing wasn’t something she paid that much attention to. In that respect, she was more like the rest of the population.

“Yes.”

“How do they know this wasn’t from Earth?”

I took the package and turned it around so that she could see the short popular science explanation on the back of the box, showing the key proof that these really were aliens, all in a snazzy 3D holographic display.

“Handedness. Amino acids on Earth are left-handed and sugars are right-handed, but with these guys it’s the opposite. It also makes them safe. They can’t spread because they couldn’t digest anything on Earth.”

“Life finds a way,” Nata said.

“Yeah, but these aren’t enzyme-inhibited dinosaurs. They simply aren’t going to find anything compatible on Earth except for the food that the company produces.”

Our debate was interrupted when Danny came downstairs. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs for a moment just taking in what was going on. After he saw enough, he came over and sat down at the end of the table. I met Nata’s eyes. She smiled. I pushed the package over in front of Danny.

“Aliens, packaged and sold.” Nata shook her head and stood up. “Amazing.”

It was amazing. Danny reached up and touched the pictures on the package. I knew he’d already read the text. He turned the box around and studied the holographic explanation. When the probe returned with the comet samples, he’d only been three years old; but even then he watched the news with me. Did he remember that? I remembered how he sat next to me the entire time, not moving, his eyes fixed on the screen and afterwards he had smiled at me.

Danny set the package down. He got up, left the table and went back upstairs.

Nata came around the table and hugged me close. She kissed the top of my head. “Sorry, Emmett.”

I dragged the package over. No problem. These things took time; I’d get another shot at it.

🚀

My chance didn’t come until the next morning. I’d left the package sitting on the dining room table; and when I came downstairs, I found Danny already up, sitting at the table with his cereal. He was looking at the package.

“Good morning, Danny.” He didn’t pull away when I kissed the top of his head. I took that as a good sign, but I didn’t push it.

I went into the kitchen and started making my oatmeal. Routine is important for Danny. He takes comfort in things being the same each day; changes have to be introduced slowly. That’s why I didn’t worry too much when he walked away yesterday. Keeping the Space Monkeys out on the table was a way to let him get used to them.

I finished the oatmeal and sat down on the other side of the package. Danny looked up, and then back down at the box. He pushed aside his cereal bowl and pulled the package onto his side of the table. He turned it around and stared at the pictures of the aliens. I could sit and watch my son for hours, but I don’t get the chance: life always gets in the way. When he was a baby, he would sit next to me while I worked. The computer fascinated him. For a while it looked like his development would be normal, but then something changed. Like other families, we don’t know what happened or why; but we see the results every day.

Nata is wonderful but she doesn’t believe that the bright baby boy we remember is still with us. She loves Danny and is supportive, but she thinks I should just accept that he’s never going to respond as much as I think he can. She worries that I might be pushing him too hard.

I tapped the box. “The aliens are inside. If we fill their bowl with water they’ll grow.”

Danny looked up at me and back down at the box.

“You’d be able to see them swimming. They flash like Christmas lights.” And hopefully wouldn’t trigger a seizure. I didn’t think they would.

Danny pushed the package away. He got up; but he took his bowl and cereal box to the kitchen, so he couldn’t be too upset. He headed upstairs, all perfectly right in Danny’s world;  it must be video game time. I checked the time, though I didn’t really need to. Yep, just as I’d thought. It was like Danny had his own day planner in his head, with everything scheduled to the minute each day. His day-to-day scheduled varied to take into account different activities; but if you knew his schedule, you knew what he’d be doing at any given time. It took him a while to adapt to any changes to his routine; he wasn’t going to scrap his schedule to look at aliens. Which meant I had at least two hours before he came down again, so I finished breakfast and went to get work done.

I took a break when I heard Danny coming downstairs. We both arrived at the table at the same time. He looked across the table at me and then at the box. We didn’t need to talk about it. I opened the box, and one at a time handed him the contents.

One activation code to download the instruction manual to a reader. I keyed it in and handed the pad to Danny.

One glass fish bowl with a laser-etched flag on the bottom signifying it was produced in the United States of America.

Danny sat down the pad to study the glass bowl.

One bag of white gravel. Optional, according to the instructions.

One reusable steel jar containing a one-month food supply. Specially designed for the appropriate chirality needed by the Space Monkeys.

One specially designed net to transfer the Space Monkeys to another container when the bowl needs cleaning.

One bag of salts to recreate the saltiness of the cometary water found to contain the Space Monkeys.

And the last thing, one steel capsule designed to emulate the capsules on the IRiS probe that first brought our visitors to Earth. The capsule kept the Space Monkeys in a state of hibernation, just as they’d been found on the comet, even these that had been bred on Earth.

Danny studied each offering in turn. He laid them all out in a row in front of him according to the order that they were used in the instructions. We sat there studying these pieces as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. He lightly tapped his fingers on the table top, first the left and then the right. From his slight rocking I could see that he was kicking his feet. It dawned on me then what he must be feeling. He was excited! I tried not to smile too much, but it was the greatest thing to sit there and realize that he’d gotten excited about what we were doing.

Abruptly he got up from the table and headed back upstairs. I looked at the clock. 11:00 AM and Danny’s internal planner said it was time for more video games. After the excitement of the unpacking, he probably needed the games more than ever. I left him to it and made myself go back to work. I needed to get my word counts in today.

🚀

I came back out for lunch and saw Nata putting the contents back into the box. “Don’t!”

She jumped. “Emmett! What?!”

I looked at the stairs. Danny wasn’t down yet, but he would be soon. It was almost noon. He was precise. I moved past her and took the bags and containers out of the box. I laid them out as he’d had them set up. I picked up the pad and switched it back to the instruction manual. I put it down as he was coming down the stairs. We don’t fight often and never in front of Danny.

I looked that way with my eyes, quickly, but so that she’d notice. “He laid them out.”

Nata nodded. She might not always agree with me but if Danny took an interest in something then she supported it.

Danny came straight to the table. He stood for a minute behind his chair and stared at the objects. He looked up at us.

“I’ll make lunch,” Nata said.

She went into the kitchen, and I sat down. Danny looked back at the contents of the Space Monkey kit. He reached out and moved them, one at a time, small adjustments. Getting them back to exactly the position they’d been in before Nata had moved them, I realized. Then he sat down.

We waited. Nata finished the sandwiches and brought them to the table. Grilled cheese all around. We ate in silence. Danny bounced a bit in his chair as he ate. He was still excited.

“Daddy was telling me about the aliens earlier,” Nata said. “Aliens from outer space on our table. That’s pretty neat.”

Danny rocked a bit more as he finished his sandwich. He set the plate to the side closest to Nata. When she finished she took his plate and mine. Nata stayed in the kitchen. Danny and I sat at the table with the kit between us. Danny picked up the bowl. He got up and carried it into the kitchen. Nata moved aside to let him at the sink. There’s a step stool on one side for Danny. He walked up, put the bowl in the sink and turned on the water. When he had it full he turned off the water and brought it slowly and carefully back to the table. He didn’t spill a drop. As soon as he sat it down he left the table.

After he was gone, Nata came over and put a hand on my shoulder. “Did he lose interest?”

I pointed to the pad but didn’t move it. “Step three. Let the water sit at until it as room temperature. At least two hours.”

“He understands that?”

I squeezed her hand. “Yes. He does. He’s excited about this but he’s got his routines too. We’ll see what he does later.”

🚀

4:00 PM. Danny came back to the table and we both sat in our chairs. For a while he tapped his fingers and kicked his legs. Then he went to the kitchen and came back with a large spoon. He set it down so that he could open and pour the contents of the salts bag into the water. He stirred the bowl with the spoon until the salts were completely dissolved. Not a trace remained. I thought he might stop then, but he didn’t. He added the white gravel. Then a carefully measured serving of the food, which, according to the instructions, needed to dissolve into the water. Last of all he picked up the capsule with the Space Monkeys in hibernation. He twisted the two halves but couldn’t get it opened.

I thought that might be it. If he got too frustrated would he abandon the whole experiment? “I’ll open it for you. If you want?”

Danny said, “If you want?”

I heard Nata gasp in the kitchen. He so rarely said anything these days. I understood that by repeating the question he meant that he did want me to help. I held out my hand.

He gave me the capsule.

My throat tightened. I felt pressure in my eyes, but I focused and twisted the capsule open. It was hard to open and came undone with a pop. Danny rocked more. I handed it back to him with the halves still together. He took the capsule and opened it up above the bowl. I don’t know what I expected. Some sort of powder, I guess. Instead, things like wrinkled white raisins, a little smaller, tumbled out into the water. A dozen or so of them landed and sank like stones. Now I understood why the gravel might be optional. Against the white gravel, you could hardly make out the Space Monkeys. Danny closed the capsule and set it to the side.

I was aware that Nata had come up behind me. We were all watching the bowl.

I saw them now. They swelled like mushrooms from the bottom of the bowl. If they’d been raisins before, now they became lumpy grapes. Suddenly one shot off the gravel surface with a push of four limbs that had uncoiled from its body. It hung in the water with the limbs whipping around. The edges looked slightly furred, and I realized it was combing the water for food. We all watched the tiny alien as it ate whatever was available. In moments, the others launched themselves from the bottom as well. They took up positions in the bowl and swept their arms about for food.

Danny clapped his hands.

It startled us both. When I looked up at Nata I saw her hastily wipe tears from her eyes.

“Oh, Emmett,” she whispered.

I smiled and looked back at Danny. He met my eyes. Just a second and then he looked back at the Space Monkeys.

We watched until it was time to fix dinner. It being my turn, I left Nata at the table with Danny and went to make pizza dough. It doesn’t take long and let me get back to the table again. We all sat and watched the Space Monkeys. After feeding for quite a while, they started swimming around the bowl. When they swam, two limbs went forward like someone putting their palms together over their head and two limbs went back. No way to know which was the head or tail, if either term applied at all. They wriggled through the water with a snake-like motion. Fed and rehydrated, they looked to be at little more than a centimeter long.

The pizza dough finished rising and I made pizza. We ate at the table watching the Space Monkeys swim around. Or at least Danny watched them: I found myself watching him more than the Space Monkeys. He might not be expressive, but I could honestly say this was the happiest I’d seen him. Then he finished dinner and abruptly left the table and the Space Monkeys behind.

Nata looked like she was going to say something but I shook my head. He went upstairs.

“He has his routines,” I said. “That’s fine. He probably needs a break anyway. This was a big deal for him.”

“For all of us. You were right to bring them home. But, are you sure they’re safe? I mean they are aliens, aren’t they?”

“Yes, they are. It’s fine.”

🚀

Danny didn’t pay any more attention to the Space Monkeys until it was time to get ready for bed. He broke his usual bedtime routine to come back downstairs to the table. He stood at his chair rocking back and forth for several minutes, his eyes watching them dart around the bowl. Then he picked it up and carried it towards the stairs with careful steps. Nata and I followed, but at a distance so that we didn’t crowd him. He took each step one at a time, getting both feet on each before going to the next. When he got upstairs he carried the bowl to his room and put it down on his nightstand before climbing beneath the blankets and turning out the light.

As if another switch had been thrown, the Space Monkeys lit up as we both walked into the room. Danny lay in his bed watching them flash and swim. Reds, greens, blues, yellows and many more colors. At times it looked like they swam in patterns flashing through colors in fast sequences. He watched it all.

I remembered being a child and looking up at the stars with my father through a telescope. He’d always believed there was life out there. I loved the stories and read all of his science fiction books. I felt a thrill realizing that we were sitting here watching a show that evolved somewhere else. I don’t know how they got on the comet, but I remember reading that it might have been deliberate, the same way we sent recordings on probes. Someone might have seeded an interstellar comet with a tough example of life from their planet. Something that could survive the passage. The fact that these weren’t simple microorganisms suggested a whole ecology. The argument was that the Space Monkeys couldn’t have evolved in space. There had even been suggestions that the comet itself had been artificially propelled on its journey. It was as if we’d taken tardigrades and sent them off into space on a comet accelerated to leave the solar system.

It was a miracle that could be bought now in most toy stores. The thought was so odd that I nearly laughed out loud.

Nata told Danny goodnight and left. I stayed sitting beside him a while longer to watch the Space Monkeys.

“We don’t know how far they came. Thousands of years over many light years. We don’t know. The comet is seeding them throughout space. They might not have survived anywhere else, but they are thriving on Earth. We know that we’re not alone.”

“Thank you, Daddy.”

I blinked back tears and kissed his head. I left him then with the alien light to keep him company.

🚀

3,446 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 90th short story release, written in July 2009. It appeared in On Spec, and was later reprinted for special educator’s package. The education edition included background information, a glossary, and discussion materials, as well as illustrations. It remains one of my favorite stories.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Different Gravities.

Commuter

Commuter cover art

Ken loved commuting on his fast three-wheeled recumbent trike. Low-slung, with below seat steering and a bright yellow paint-job.

The drawback?

Drivers! Some drivers just couldn’t stand seeing anyone eschewing a gas-guzzling monstrosity.

💀

Monday.

Ken sat back on the recumbent mesh seat, his legs out front between the two front wheels and pedaled. The trike sped across the lane as if eager to go fast. His right hand slipped down to the twist shifter and shifted up to higher gears. The cycling computer showed his speed move rapidly up to 14 MPH. He glanced to his right, towards on-coming traffic, and saw he had plenty of time. He’d be across all the lanes long before any of the cars reached him. He smiled. Good thing too!

He pushed forward on the right hand-grip and pulled back on the left to turn smoothly into the bike lane. With the turn completed Ken increased his RPM rate and shifted up again. The trike shot down the bike lane with its bright flags waving merrily in the wind. On either side of the rear tire hung his panniers holding his clothes, lunch and other work stuff. This is the way to go, he thought. No passive sitting behind the wheel of a car adding to your carbon footprint. Just the exhilaration of exercise and a sense that he was connected to everything around him. In that sense, he found the trike far more enjoyable — not to mention more comfortable — than any bicycle. He heard the roar of a car engine behind him and checked his left-hand mirror.

A black muscle car with tinted windows roared down the road like the driver thought he was in a drag race. The noise was tremendous. Ken stuck to the center of the bike lane. Drivers like that made him nervous. He couldn’t go over to the right without hitting the cars parked along the street. The lane was bad enough, given that people pulled out without looking or opened their doors in his path.

With a bone-shaking roar, the muscle car came right up alongside the trike. Ken’s heart kicked up the pace. He was sure the car was going to hit him! The gleaming back side of the car was only inches away. It hung there for a moment and then took off with squealing tires. Smoke from the tires and exhaust blew into Ken’s face. He coughed and kept pedaling while glaring after the retreating taillights of the muscle car. The license plate read PAIN.

Who had a license plate like that? PAIN?

💀

Tuesday.

Ken rolled up to the stop sign and came to a stop. Headlights shone in his mirror behind him. The car stayed a good distance back, giving him plenty of space. He appreciated it. After his encounter with the PAIN-mobile yesterday he had stayed a bit shaken but determined that he wouldn’t let the experience sour his enjoyment of riding. He had every right to be on the road. He was saving money, lowering his carbon footprint and getting in shape all at the same time. He wasn’t going to give that all up because some jerk thought it was funny to swerve close.

There was a wide gap in traffic. Ken pulled out and swiftly pedaled across the lanes. He reached the bike lane and settled back to enjoy the ride. The trike cruised along the lane at a steady 20 MPH. He didn’t feel like pushing it too much. Back when the trike had only a three-speed hub doing twenty had been pushing the limit. It just hadn’t been geared high enough but the continuously variable hub had given him a much greater range. It also gave him a shorter commute time. He liked that but lately had taken to riding out longer loops to increase his mileage and extend the enjoyment of riding.

Four miles later he heard the deep growl of an engine coming up behind. He tensed immediately and checked his mirror. It was the PAIN muscle car coming up behind him. Fast. On his right, this time was nothing but a grassy slope down to the barbed wire fence below. He didn’t want to tumble down that slope but the car was coming fast up behind. Its front tire touched the white stripe along the shoulder. Ken eased the trike over until his right front tire was nearly in the gravel. Checking the mirror showed the muscle car riding right up the shoulder with its front tire solidly on the white line – but drifting into the shoulder.

A blast of noise nearly made Ken swerve off down the slope. A horn! The driver blasted his horn again. And again. Ken was both terrified and pissed off.

“Come on!” he yelled but he couldn’t even hear himself over the sound of the muscle car’s engine and horn.

Just as he spied an area ahead with less of a drop and considered bailing off the road the muscle car took off ahead of him. It missed him by inches. The wind grabbed the trike and shook it. One more blast of the horn made Ken’s nerves jump. He braked hard and came to a stop on the shoulder. His heart hammered against his chest. Up ahead the PAIN muscle car turned the corner and vanished from sight. Ken pulled open the Velcro top on his pants pocket and fished out his cell phone. He called 9-1-1.

“9-1-1 operator. What’s the nature of your emergency?”

“A car nearly ran me down.”

“Nearly? Are you injured?”

“No. But they could have killed me! The fucking driver came up behind me blasting his horn and drove onto the shoulder!”

“Sir, I need you to calm down and watch the language.”

“Sorry.” Ken mopped his forehead. “I’m shaken up. This is the second time this driver has done something like this.”

“Why were you on the shoulder?”

“I was commuting to work.”

“By driving on the shoulder?”

“No, I was riding on my trike.”

“Trike? Like one of those ATVs? Those aren’t street legal, sir.”

“No! A trike. Think bicycle but with three wheels.”

“Did you swerve into the path of this vehicle?”

“Excuse me? No! I told you, the driver came onto the shoulder. Look, can’t you just send a police officer?”

“Of course, sir. I’ll notify dispatch as soon as I have your information.”

Ken gave him the information and waited. At least he had a comfortable seat to wait on. He jumped each time a car went past. After a half-hour, he called work to tell them he’d nearly been in an accident and would be late. Finally, forty-five minutes later, a siren whoop behind him made him jump. He looked in the mirror and saw the police officer’s car pulling up behind his trike. Ken twisted his feet free from the clipless pedals and stood up.

A voice came out of a loud speaker. “Sir, remain where you are.”

Ken froze. In the car, he saw two police officers talking. The lights on top of the car were flashing. The doors opened and the officers got out. One still held a radio handset and was talking to someone. The other hook her thumbs in her belt and walked towards him.

“Ken Henley?”

“That’s me.”

She nodded and walked forward looking at the trike. Ken waited. She stopped a few feet away and glanced over at him.

“You ride that?”

A ridiculous question seeing as he was the one wearing a bright yellow bicycle helmet, gloves, and clipless shoes. He didn’t want to antagonize the officer so just nodded.

She laughed and shook her head. She turned back to look at her partner who put down the radio. “Did you see this?”

The guy showed a big buck-toothed grin. “Oh yeah.”

She looked back at him. “Don’t know if you’re brave or just crazy. Taking your life into your own hands, aren’t you? Riding that in traffic? Ever think people might have a hard time seeing you?”

“Not if they’re looking at the road,” Ken said. He immediately regretted the tone. He tried to continue in a better voice. “It’s bright yellow, has flags sticking up in the air and is seven feet long. Most people will see a squirrel in the road or a pothole if they’re looking. I think I’m a bit more noticeable.”

She shrugged and pulled out a notebook. “So what’s this about a car trying to drive you off the road?”

At last. “It’s a black muscle car with tinted windows. The license plate is P A I N.”

“Pain?”

“Right.”

“So yesterday I was riding to work and it swerved close to me while I was in the bike lane. I had no place to go. To my right were the cars parked along Pacific. Sometimes people do stupid things like that to cyclists. I think some of the time they’re just looking and inadvertently swerve. But sometimes it’s on purpose. They think it’s funny to scare a cyclist but it could end up getting someone killed.”

“I thought it was today that you called about?”

“It was.” He told her how the muscle car had come at him today much more aggressively and honked their horn. “That’s why I called.”

She put away the notebook. “Okay. We’ll look into it. But a reckless driving charge is going to be hard under these circumstances.”

“What do you mean?”

She shrugged. “The driver may tell a different story. Unless you have a witness that can corroborate your story it’ll be hard to even file charges.”

On one hand, Ken understood what she was saying but it made him even angrier. “So he just gets away with it? What happens the next time? What if he swerves too close and hits me?”

“Maybe you should think about finding an alternate way to work.”

He couldn’t believe her. “I have every right to ride on the roads!”

She lifted a hand. “I need you to calm down right now.”

Ken bit his tongue before he told her what she could do. He was aware that her partner was keeping a close eye on them both. He nodded. “Okay. Fine. Thanks for the help.”

He didn’t wait for a response. He went back to his trike and sat down. He felt like hitting something or kicking but he didn’t. He got his feet clipped into the peddles and checked his mirror. The police officer was walking back to her car. Both officers were laughing. It might not be about me, he thought. Except he didn’t believe that for a second. He started pedaling in a low gear, just taking his time to get going down the road. Every now and then he checked his mirror. He was nearly to the corner before the squad car pulled out. They quickly got up to or above the speed limit and barreled past him down the road. The partner gave Ken a cheery wave as they passed. Ken felt worn out by then and didn’t wave back. He felt so sick that he wanted to turn around and go home but he had to get into work.

💀

Wednesday.

Ken almost called in sick. He felt twisted up and angry inside. He looked at his trike and remembered how it felt to glide along the road with a clear view of the scenery and the wind in his face. Out on the multi-use trails there weren’t cars. People walking waved cheerfully. Other cyclists nodded or smiled when he passed. It was a much more peaceful ride.

Trouble is the trails didn’t go to work. To get to work he had to go out on the roads. And even with the bike lanes, there were still those drivers that delighted in giving cyclists a hard time. Or just oblivious drivers who acted like they couldn’t see what was right in front of their faces while they made right-hand turns without ever checking for a cyclist. And then there was PAIN. He’d had nightmares about the muscle car. Behavior like that two days in a row. Did he dare go out again on the trike? Maybe he should just walk down to the bus stop and ride the bus.

The thought just made him mad again. He remembered the officer suggesting the same thing. He had every right to ride! Was he really going to let a jerk like that stop him? What would stop them from doing this to another cyclist? He owed it to himself not to back down. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. When the driver saw that he wouldn’t be intimidated he would back off. That’s what bullies do. If you’re not afraid then it isn’t fun for them anymore.

Ken picked up his helmet and put it on. He’d ride to work today.

Out on the road, he felt good about his decision. It was a foggy day but not too much. He had on his lights so he was certainly visible even with the fog. His legs felt strong. Soon he fell into the rhythm of the ride and started to enjoy himself. Yet, even so, he kept looking in his mirror more often than usual. He listened carefully for the sounds of the muscle car coming up behind him. When he realized what he was doing he pushed harder against the pedals. He was angry. Angry with himself for letting the driver get to him. Mostly angry at the driver for making what had been a nice ride so tense.

On the same stretch of road as yesterday, he heard the sound of the muscle car behind him. It was unmistakable. His heart nearly skipped a beat at the sound of it rumbling behind him. He checked the mirror.

It was PAIN.

The muscle car grumbled and growled as it surged down the road toward him. No messing about. It swerved over until it was driving down the bike lane. The engine screamed. He means to kill me, Ken thought. He only had seconds to react. Stay in the lane. Play chicken and trust that the muscle car wouldn’t hit him. Or bail out down the slope. No time to think. It filled the mirror.

Ken wrenched the handlebars and shot down the slope, off the road toward the barbed wire fence below. He bounced and jolted out of control. The muscle car’s engine roared. He heard tires spinning on gravel and then felt gravel slamming into him like a machine gun. He hit the bottom of the slope and bounced towards the fence. He hung on. His fairing hit the barbed wire and screeched as the metal slid along the plastic. He stopped.

Every muscle in his body hurt. He twisted about and saw the fog-shrouded road above was empty. PAIN had gone. Ken yanked his feet free and got off the trike. He felt like he would burst apart. He yelled, wordlessly expressing his rage. It tore out of his throat in an eruption of noise.

💀

Thursday.

Ken gritted his teeth and pushed the pedals. The bruises from the rocks kicked up by the muscle car hurt. He still felt like yelling. At PAIN. At himself for chickening out. The driver wouldn’t have hit him. They’d have to be crazy to do that. And if they wanted to run him over they could have done it any of the times instead of driving past. Probably just some stupid kid that needed his license pulled. No more. Not again. He was staying the course. No way he’d let some idiot like PAIN force him off the road.

He rode down the bike lane alongside the parked cars. As he approached a green Ford Explorer parked on the side of the street he saw the lights come on. He coasted. Would the driver see him? Or even look this way? All he saw was the back of the woman’s head as she stared intently at traffic coming the other way.

Look this way, he thought angrily.

She didn’t turn. He had on his headlamp. He pointed it right at her window. She still didn’t look to the left and he was getting closer. She pulled part way out across the bike lane! Now she was blocking his path and hadn’t once looked in his direction despite the bright light shining in her window. Wiggling the light around didn’t seem to attract her attention. What did he have to do? He coasted right up next to the vehicle. Nothing. She still didn’t pay attention. Ken twisted his feet out of the clipless pedals. He stood up, took a step and rapped hard on her window.

She screamed and jerked in her seat as if he’d electrocuted her. She looked at him with the wide-eyed gaze of a fish.

“You’re blocking the bike lane!”

“I was just pulling out!”

“Yeah,” Ken shouted back. “And not looking in both directions at all! You could kill someone acting like that.”

“You could just wait a second!’

Idiot. No understanding of anything. Ken shook his head and went back to his trike. He sat down and she pulled out. He clipped in his shoes and started moving again. His heart was beating fast in his chest. He felt embarrassed that he had gotten so angry. Whatever else was going on that wasn’t something he liked doing. It was just so infuriating and scary how little thought people gave to cyclists.

He felt better after he got away from that street and the cars parked along the bike lane. Less danger from both sides but then he was getting near the area where he’d twice encountered PAIN. He pushed harder against the pedals and watched his speed increase. He got it up to 24 MPH and held it there. It felt like he was flying along the shoulder. On the one side the drop and the fence he’d hit yesterday. The thought made him burn more. He pushed and pushed. The trike bounced and rumbled over gravel and sped along the shoulder. Then he was past that section and back in a proper bike lane again with a sidewalk on one side and the road on the other. There hadn’t been any sign of the muscle car. He relaxed, slowed his pace and down shifted. His speed dropped.

Up ahead was a driveway into the Safeway parking lot. He didn’t see anyone coming. As he rolled in front of the driveway he heard a roar of an engine behind him to his left. He turned and had just a moment to read the word at eye-level.

PAIN.

💀

The young woman accepted the tissue Mike offered her. She sniffled and blew her nose again.

“I never saw him,” she said.

Mike looked at his pad. “Ma’am, your name please?”

“Emily Pain. I teach second grade over at Pleasant Elementary.”

“I see. I just need to get your statement, Ms. Pain. Can you tell me what happened?”

“I just was going to the store to get some juice before school. I didn’t see him at all, he was so low. I just heard that horrible noise and knew I’d hit something. I stopped right away.”

Mike glanced towards the front of the muscle car. Emergency crews were still trying to extract the cyclist pinned between the muscle car and his recumbent bike. The guy was already dead. Such a shame. He looked back at Ms. Pain.

“That’s all? You don’t have anything else to add?”

She sniffled. “No, that’s it. I’m so sorry. I can’t believe this happened.”

💀

3,300 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 89th short story release, written in May 2009.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Space Monkeys.

The Overlap

Cover art for the Overlap

Mark Duncan rented the room in the Overlap with the last of his cash. Either sell some paintings, or he’d be out on the street at the end of the month.

The Overlap surprises him each day. From his odd neighbors to the uncommunicative manager Heinrich.

Figuring out the Overlap’s secret might just solve all of his problems.

💀

As last hopes went, the Overlap left a lot to be desired. Mark Duncan clenched a paintbrush in his teeth, the dusty sweet taste of dried watercolors on the wood reminding him of the reason for coming here.

Didn’t artists suffer?

Traffic rushed past on the street behind him, an endless river of noise. Honks blared from taxi cabs. A couple blocks over, near the subway entrance, a jackhammer pounded away. The people walking past never even looked up at the Overlap. It was an invisible holdout against the newer construction in the city.

On this block, the Overlap stood somewhat alone, out of step with the rest of the buildings. As if the music had stopped and the massive brick edifice had sat down too soon. It was set back further from the street than the buildings on either side. And was dwarfed by their greater height and sleeker, modern architecture. Long alleys stretched along both sides of the Overlap, further isolating it. The building on the right cast a broad shadow across the Overlap’s face.

It had character. Mark’s portfolio and easel shifted under his arm. He adjusted his grip and another brush threatened to escape. His duffel dragged down on his shoulder. If he got the place, he’d have to come back out here and paint the Overlap.

Overlap? What was with that name, anyway? It was odd. The whole building was odd-looking, almost gothic, with cement gargoyles peering down from the corners of the building. None of the windows were boarded up. It didn’t have graffiti painted on it. Old, yes. Probably a hundred years old at least. Odd, definitely.

And, from the ad, rent-controlled and in his price range. Which was essentially what he had in his pocket. No credit check required, the ad said. Immediate move in. Furnished to boot.

Chances were, the apartment was already taken. That’d be his luck. Then it was either find a place to squat or squander more of his dwindling reserve for a flea-bag room for the night. Unless he wanted to sleep on the streets.

Mark balanced his bags and managed to transfer the brush back to his hand along with the rest. The rubber band had broken. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to show up juggling everything he owned, but what other choice was there?

No sense delaying.

He licked his lips and tasted a trace of the sweet watercolor paint. His stomach growled. He’d last had a grilled cheese and cup of chicken soup yesterday afternoon, at the Last Caboose diner. Coffee and a piece of wheat toast for breakfast before that. Anything to stretch out each dollar. He shouldn’t have ever agreed to move in with Stacy, when he knew how potentially unstable she was, but he had thought they’d make it work. An actress, and an artist? Right, it worked until her producer boyfriend swept her up, and Mark out onto the street.

He still hadn’t taken a step. This, or the street. What other choice was there? Mark adjusted the strap on his duffel one more time and headed to the front doors.

He nearly lost the easel again, opening the door, but he managed. Stepping inside the Overlap was like walking into an old library. It was cool, dim and musty smelling. The noise from the street cut off completely as soon as the door closed. That was nice. The silence of the place was welcome.

Tomb-like silence. The lobby was marble. A bank of brass-fronted mailboxes inset into the wall on his right. Straight ahead a staircase rose up into the building. A narrow, dark hallway stretched along the staircase on the right. Elevators, and dimly lit by a single pocket light, a sign hung that read, Manager.

That had to be the place.

Beneath the sign was a blue door with a brass nameplate. Heinrich.

Mark raised his fistful of brushes and knocked with his knuckles.

The door flew open, yanked by the broad-faced man towering over him as if the man had been waiting right on the other side of the door for the knock. The man was tall, he had at least a foot on Mark’s five-foot-eight. His broad shoulders that filled the door frame. His face was all hard lines and white bristles. His left eye was missing, leaving only a ruined landscape of scar tissue. His remaining eye was huge, watery blue as if it had swelled to compensate for the missing eye. His face looked reshaped by tectonic forces, that had shifted the eye higher and crooked his nose into a series of jagged peaks. The overhead light emphasized his cyclopean nature, enhancing the crags and lines of his face. It was a face demanding to be drawn, something out of legends.

Despite that, Heinrich wore blue jeans, a white shirt, and a black leather jacket. On his feet, he wore big black boots. It was biker gear.

“Ya?” The man asked in a deep, deep voice that Mark felt in his bones.

Mark broke into a cold sweat. He was staring. This had to be Heinrich, the manager, and he was staring like an idiot. “Ah, I’m here about the room? I saw the ad. Is it still available?”

Heinrich’s single eye narrowed. He ducked and stepped through the door.

“Ya. I will show you. Come.” Heinrich shoved past, trailing a scent that was leather and hot spices. A big clutch of keys hanging from his belt clanked and jangled with each step.

There wasn’t any question of following or not. Mark hurried to keep up with Heinrich’s large stride, down the hall, and up the stairs.

At the first floor, the railing changed from wrought iron to polished oak. Mark noticed as they went up the flight. He hesitated, meaning to ask about it, but Heinrich wasn’t slowing. His long stride took two steps at a time.

Mark hurried after. On the third floor, the railing switched back to metal, square, painted white and chipping. It wasn’t only that, the carpets were different too. Each floor was designed differently, Mark realized. Carpets on the third floor were orange, stamped dark along the center line. A dark cherry wainscoting ran along the walls and it smelled of dust.

When they got to the fourth floor the air smelled clean, like after a spring rain. The floor was covered in wide tiles in marbled browns, dull with age. The walls were done in a similar fashion. It was had the look of something once modern, and now antique.

It was the fourth floor where Heinrich left the stairs. That made Mark’s leg muscles happy. He’d get used to the stairs. At least it wasn’t all the way up on the top, two more flights up.

The apartment door was black, with a number in white stencil on the door, 4F. Simple, easy to remember. Heinrich pulled his key ring free and flipped immediately to a particular key, undistinguished from any of the others. He slipped it into the bottom lock, turned it and shoved the door open, then stepped back, out of the way. A gesture indicated Mark should go ahead.

Love-on-first-sight strikes the heart without warning. Mark felt as home as he walked into the apartment. If his jaw wasn’t attached, it would have been on the floor, along with his eyes. Hardwood floors and exposed wood beams crossed the living area. There was a big carved stone fireplace with a massive mantel and a Renaissance-looking painting hanging above it. Dark leather sitting area around the fireplace.

It was a corner apartment, at the front of the building, which gave him windows along the living area, a kitchen, and dining area on his right. Straight ahead an open door let into a bedroom suite. The windows on that side overlooked the alley, letting in light while giving him some privacy. It was huge, beautiful and should have been going for a hundred times what the ad said.

Mark shook his head. “Did I read the ad wrong? I thought it said five hundred per month.”

“Ya. Due first of the month,” Heinrich said from the hall. “I have appointment to keep, you want it?”

“Absolutely.” Mark laughed. He down the duffel, the easel, and his portfolio. He put the brushes down on top of the duffel. His shoulder ached with relief.

He went back to the doorway and pulled out his wallet. Heinrich waited, a massive gnarled hand held flat, while Mark counted out five hundred dollars onto his palm. The fingers closed into a fist, crushing the money, which he stuffed into his pocket.

“First of the month. Put your name on mailbox.” Heinrich lifted his key ring and twisted free the key he had used to open the door. He held it out. “Your key.”

Mark pinched the key between his fingers. It was heavy, thick and cold. “Thanks. You don’t need anything else?”

“No.” Heinrich’s blue eye looked down at him. “First of the month, you don’t pay, you’re out. That’s the deal.”

“Okay. Great. The first, I’ll remember.”

Heinrich turned, leaving. Mark put his hand on the door, solid wood worn smooth with age. “What happened to the last tenant?”

Heinrich’s stride didn’t falter. “She go crazy.”

Then he was gone, jangling off down the stairs. Mark slowly closed the door. It swung easily, silently. The apartment was absolutely quiet. No sounds from neighbors. Quieter than the museums.

Crazy. Right. Surely Heinrich was joking when he said that.

💀

Unpacking didn’t keep him busy for long, there wasn’t that much to unpack. He set up the easel near the windows where there was tons of space. When he could afford some more canvases, it’d make a great place to paint.

By then it was nearly lunch time, which meant getting to work. He needed to make some money if he was going to eat and keep this apartment. He grabbed his sketchbook, shoved the pencil case in his back pocket and made sure he had the key that Heinrich gave him. An hour or two drawing caricatures on the street should earn enough to pay for lunch, and maybe put away some money for tomorrow.

Stepping out of the apartment, he carefully locked the door. The lock moved easily, smoothly, snicking securely into place. Mark pocketed the key and turned to leave.

The door at the far end of the hall was open, but closing. For just a moment there was a woman there, stepping into the apartment. He caught a glimpse of a pale leg and stockings, a slender back and what looked like a black corset. The last he saw of her was her hand, covered in a lacy black glove, shutting the door.

So there were neighbors at least. He wasn’t alone here with Heinrich.

💀

It was late when he got back to the apartment, carrying three new canvases, a takeaway from the Thai noodle place, and a new blank sketchbook. In the night, the shadows had swallowed up the Overlap, hiding it in the dark between the buildings. Lights were on, though, in some of the apartment, like dim embers.

Mark couldn’t be happier. It’d been a good afternoon. Hell, a great afternoon! He’d made enough doing sketches that he not only got lunch but the supplies and still had an extra fifteen dollars in his pocket.

He entered the Overlap’s lobby. He wasn’t alone. There was a woman dancing in front of the mailboxes. She twirled around, kicking out her leg, throwing up her arm, then arched backward. She bent farther and farther until she was nearly upside down. Her face was painted red around her big dark eyes, and it glittered. Beautiful, if odd, with flaming red hair that spread out around her.

She go crazy. Heinrich’s words. Was this the woman? Surely not.

Shiny, full red lips parted revealing a mouth full of sharp, pointed teeth.

“Hell!” Mark backpedaled, bringing the canvases around in front of him. What were those going to do?

She rose back up, spinning around, drawing in her arms. The gauzy dress she wore fell down around her, barely covering her. She was small, petite, and something was obviously very wrong with her. Beneath the thin fabric, a dark metal chain hung between her breasts, from nipple to nipple.

“Mark Duncan,” she said. Her voice was accented, except he was terrible with accents. Irish, maybe? Or Scottish? Something like that.

How the hell did she know his name?

“I looked around your apartment. I’m Kiera. I put your name on your mailbox for you. You’re an artist, right?” Her head snapped around, and she said harshly. “Of course he is! You saw the easel! He’s holding canvases!”

“Uh, thank you. Nice to meet you. I’m going to go up, now.”

“Great!” She skipped forward a couple steps. Her feet were bare and there was something wrong with them. She was up on her toes, except they weren’t really toes at all. Her foot was split in thirds, with a long middle toe, and two shorter, thinner toes on each side.

It wasn’t a human foot, both looked the same. Birth defect, it had to be.

“I’m in three F,” she said. Her head tilted and she winked. “Right below you. You like being on top?”

His mind was numb.

He retreated up the stairs. That was the best thing to do, under the circumstances. Get upstairs and in his apartment. With the chain on. Hell, she’d said that she was in his apartment. Kiera followed him, having no problem keeping up.

“I live with my parents still. One of these days, I’d like to get a place of my own, you know? They say I have to wait until I get married, which is ridiculous, I think. Don’t you?”

They’d reached the second floor. Mark pressed on. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I do. I could run away, but where would I go?”

Sharp teeth and freaky feet aside, Mark understood the question. It was the same one he’d had when he moved out, but things at home were messed up with his stepdad and everything. Tom didn’t understand art, like at all, and a stepson wanting to be an artist even less.

They reached the third floor. Kiera swung on the railing, kicking her leg up onto the square metal rail. She leaned back, arching down low to the floor.

“Nice meeting you, Mark!.”

He paused on the next step. Maybe it was birth defects. He didn’t need to be an asshole. “Yeah, um, you too.”

He took another step before she called out.

“Mark?”

He hesitated, glanced down. Kiera leaned against the railing leading up. “Stay away from Lisette, down in 4D. Okay?”

Four D, that was the apartment at the other end of the hall. The woman he’d caught a glimpse of earlier. That must be who she meant.

“Sure, okay,” he said, to get away.

“Bye!”

Mark looked down. She was gone.

“Bye,” he said.

He made it back to his apartment without encountering anyone else. As soon as he got inside he locked the door and hooked the chain. It wasn’t a flimsy little chain for show either, but a weighty chain with a fat solid knob at the end. It’d take something pretty serious to break that down.

He breathed a little easier, and put the canvases over beneath the windows near the easel and took the noodles into the kitchen.

The spicy scent of the noodles was reassuring. Her teeth were probably fake. Even her feet, as realistic as they looked, most likely some sort of prosthetic costume. She was probably a performance artist. That would account for all of it, the dancing included.

Mark slurped up noodles. Everything except the comment about her going through his apartment, and knowing his name. He’d have to deal with that.

💀

Just before ten o’clock the next morning, he was downstairs knocking on Heinrich’s door again. This time the manager didn’t open the door until Mark’s second knock. Heinrich was wearing the same outfit, minus the leather jacket.

“Ya?”

Mark smiled. “Look, the apartment is great. I meant one of the neighbors, though, from the apartment below me. Kiera? She said she’d been in my apartment while I was gone.”

Heinrich’s single eye drilled into him.

“So, I thought, maybe the locks could be changed?”

“No,” Heinrich said.

What the hell? Mark started to laugh, but Heinrich just kept staring. The laughter died. “No?”

“No,” Heinrich repeated. He reached back and started to close the door.

Mark reached out, putting his hand flat on the door. Heinrich looked at Mark’s hand.

He jerked it back. “Maybe I’m not being clear. She was in my apartment. Don’t you see a problem with that? How’d she even get in?”

“All keys same,” Heinrich said.

“All the keys are the same?” Mark rubbed his jaw. He didn’t have much. Nothing most people would take. Still, it weirded him out. “But she was in there.”

“Anything stolen?” Heinrich asked.

“No, but —”

“Then no problem. You don’t want visitor, you tell them. Not my job.”

Clearly, this wasn’t getting anywhere. Who would Heinrich side with, the guy that just moved in? Or a family that’d been living there who knew how long? Mark nodded.

“Okay. Fine. I’m not trying to cause trouble, it just freaked me out.” Ask about her teeth and her feet. No. He couldn’t. Not without sounding like more of a nutcase than he already did.

The door was closing again.

“Um, sorry, before you go. The utilities? How’s that handled?”

“Included,” Heinrich grunted and shut the door. Hard.

Mark stepped back.

Included. At the price he was paying? It was cool. Fantastic. He turned around. If he saw Kiera again, not something he wanted, he’d tell her she couldn’t come into his apartment unless invited. That was all.

And chain the door at night.

💀

Three days after moving into the Overlap, Mark came home late and discouraged. The past few days he’d barely scraped together enough money from drawing on the street to buy a couple meals a day. There hadn’t been any problems at the Overlap, he hadn’t seen anyone on his way in or out. And the apartment was fantastic.

He hadn’t started a new painting yet. Too discouraged and tired when he got home, he couldn’t even get his head into a place to think about painting. The blank canvas on the easel made a statement all on its own. The emptiness revealed the futility of his plans.

He needed better work or he was going to lose the apartment. If he could finish and sell a painting, that’d be one thing. In theory, he might get enough to pay the rent for the month.

If he could paint.

Kiera was in the lobby as he entered, twirling in the center of the space, wearing a bright red tutu. She spun faster and faster, arms drawing down, tucking in as she spun.

She was between him and the stairs.

She stopped facing him. Her makeup was more subtle today, and green. Her dark eyes lined and huge against the pale skin on her cheeks. Her smile once again revealed rows of shark-like teeth, serrated and sharp. Her feet, the same, three-toed, with bright red claws.

Kiera lifted her foot, spreading the three toes wide. Mark sucked in air. That wasn’t a prosthetic. It was too perfectly organic, he could see the tendons and muscles move.

“Do you like my nails?” Kiera asked. “I did them today.”

He felt dizzy as if he’d been the one spinning. Kiera uncoiled her arm, pointing a long finger at the mailboxes. “You’ve got mail, Mark.”

Mail? What was she talking about? He hadn’t even told anyone he was here. Hadn’t sent the address anywhere.

She waited, expectant.

He coughed and found his voice. “Ah, how do you know?”

She giggled. “I looked, silly.”

Right. What a ridiculous question. It must be mail for occupant, or resident. Junk mail. But she was obviously waiting, and he didn’t have a clue what was wrong with her. Prudence suggested he play along until he could get upstairs.

The brass boxes were old and didn’t lock. At least that explained how she had looked. He lifted the catch and opened the door. There was a card in a gray envelope inside. A bright yellow forwarding sticker was stuck across the front, over his old address.

The return address was his mother’s house, back in Olympia.

Kiera appeared at his elbow. He jerked, but she was looking at the card, not at him. “Who’s it from?”

“My mother,” he said automatically.

“Are you going to open it?”

What the hell? He hadn’t heard from her in months, hadn’t made the effort since their last fight. She didn’t want to believe him about Tom’s cheating, so what was the point?

Mark ripped it open. It was a simple Hallmark card with a tiny cartoon bird on the front. Thinking of you.

Inside, she’d filled up the interior with her neat flowing handwriting.

I was wrong about Tom, she wrote. Mark’s hand went to his mouth as he continued reading.

It’d all blown up. Tom, the affairs, everything. She was moving out, had moved out. They were getting a divorce. At the end, she invited him back home if he wanted. She’d talked to Stacy. No pressure, she wanted him to know that he had a place with her if he needed it while he got on his feet.

“That’s so sweet,” Kiera said, reading over his shoulder. “But you’re not going, are you?”

There was a stone bench beside the mailboxes. Mark went and sat down. Kiera came and perched on the bench, her three-toed feet gripping the front edge of the bench like a bird. It was weird as hell, but he was numb. Instead of freaking out, he actually looked at her. She was sweet and interesting. Pretty too, in a terrifying way.

“I don’t know,” he said. He looked at the Overlap’s stairs rising up into the building. He’d only been here for a few days. The apartment itself was fantastic, the rent and paid utilities unbelievable. “If I can’t make rent I won’t be able to stay anyway. The whole art thing, it’s not working out like I expected. I’m barely scraping by. It was one thing when I was living with Stacy. She was supporting us with her job, and her acting. More than I was doing. I’m not surprised that she took off with her producer.”

“She’s an idiot,” Kiera said. She bared her teeth and hissed.

Mark jerked back.

She laughed and grabbed his arm. “Don’t be scared, silly. I wouldn’t hurt you!”

God help him, he believed her. She was odd, terrifying, but he believed her. “I know.”

He stood. “Look, I’ve got to get some rest, and think about this. I’ll see you around, okay?”

Kiera blinked her eyes. “Sure. See you around.”

💀

It was too quiet in his apartment. He couldn’t sleep, listening for something, anything. He didn’t have a fan, which might have helped. Instead, he opened the window. The honks and rush of traffic lulled him to sleep.

💀

The next day was raining buckets. Even if he found a dry spot to work, no one was going to want caricatures on a day like today. It was a perfect day to get started on the painting.

Or look into a bus ticket home.

Mark paced in front of the blank canvas, tapping a brush on his hand.

Turning thirty was closer than he liked to think, and what did he have to show for his work? Nothing. No paintings, nothing except a couple sketchbooks. He gave his work away for next to nothing. He had a couple pieces in his portfolio, but those were the ones that hadn’t sold.  Even if he could get a gallery interested, he didn’t have enough work for a show. The best he could hope for was a piece in a group show right now.

At least until he created more work and that took money. Not only the rent, and some food, but supplies too. This apartment was a stroke of luck, a lottery win at what he was paying Heinrich. To give that up, it made him want to vomit the contents of his empty stomach.

He needed time, and time was running out. If he didn’t create something, and sell it, then he’d get evicted. On the other hand, if he did, he might make rent this month and hopefully get enough to stay in supplies. But then it’d repeat again next month. And the month after.

On the surface, going home made sense. He could heal things with his mother. They could help each other get back on their feet. Get a job. Maybe even go back to school and finish his teaching certification. He’d run away from it once before.

Those who can’t, and all of that crap.

The blank canvas stared at him like Heinrich’s watery blue eye.

Heinrich’s rugged visage, that’d make a striking portrait. He could paint the man from memory and imagination, but to really capture him, it’d be better to have him sit.

Mark laughed. That’d be something, ask Heinrich up to sit for him. Ya, right. He tapped his brush on his hand.

Kiera would sit for him. The idea popped into his head. She’d be thrilled. He knew it. An electric thrill went down his back at the thought. Why not? With her looks, that shark-tooth smile?

Done well, that might get notice.

If it didn’t? What then? The long bus ride. It was a ball-shriveling thought. Right or wrong, that bus ride meant giving up. He couldn’t do that. Not now.

💀

His mouth was dry as he knocked on 3F. There were light footsteps, then the door opened.

The woman who opened the door had Kiera’s looks, aged to elegant maturity. She smiled, showing the same sharp teeth. Behind her, bright sunlight streamed through the apartment windows. The apartment smelled of fresh baked bread and sugar.

“Yes?” The woman asked.

Mark focused. “Hi, I’m Mark Duncan. I live upstairs? Is Kiera home?”

“Mark!” Kiera yelled, coming into the living room. She skipped across the apartment.

Her mother smile was tolerant as she stepped back out of the way. “My daughter has been talking about you, the resident artist of the Overlap.”

Kiera stopped in front of the door, breathless. “Hi!”

Her mother moved off back into the apartment.

“Hi,” Mark said. His stomach growled from the smells pouring out of the apartment on warm air. “How is it sunny? It was pouring rain a second ago?”

Kiera laughed and grabbed his hand. “No, it’s not, silly. Come on, I’ll show you.”

He let her drag him into the apartment. She shut the door behind him. A man rose up from the dining area table and came forward. He was thin and short, moving with a skip and a hop, beaming equally sharp teeth.

“Hello!” The man held out his hand. “Fletcher Dubois, my wife, Faye. You know Kiera, of course.”

“Yes, nice to meet you all.”

“What brings you by?” Fletcher asked. “Can you stay for lunch?”

“I don’t want to impose —”

“You’re not! And you must,” Kiera said.

Fletcher shook his head. “You must, apparently.”

“Thank you,” Mark managed. “It smells wonderful in here.”

Faye chuckled from the kitchen.

“Come on!” Kiera tugged at his hand.

He followed her into the apartment. It was longer than his, extending past where his living room ended, into what must be the next unit upstairs. But the windows looked out of the front of the building, same as his. Only these were filled with golden sunshine.

Outside the sky was clear and sharp blue, with a blazing sun showing. On the street below a trolley rolled up the center of the street. People hopped and walked around and there wasn’t a car to be seen. The buildings were different too, shorter, with big open windows and balconies.

There was a park down on the right, between the intersections of two streets. Two men sat perched on a wood rail, toes gripping it, conversing as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

“See?” Kiera leaned on the window sill. “That’s our world.”

“Your world?”

“The Overlap, why do you think it’s called that?”

“I didn’t know. It sounded odd.”

“It straddles the worlds,” Kiera said. “Each apartment in the Overlap looks out on a different world, but they all share the same building.”

It was right there, right out the window. A whole other world. “So if I went out there, I’d be in a different world?”

“You can’t! No one can cross between the worlds.” Kiera turned and leaned back against the window. “If you went out there, you’d find yourself in your own world. You can look, but you can’t touch.”

He didn’t have words for it. Kiera laughed.

Mark shook his head. “I guess that explains why you’re, well, the way you are?”

She batted her eyes. “Lovely? Of course! So what do you think? Now that you know, will you stay?”

Stay. Right. “That’s why I came down. I’d already decided to stay. I wanted to ask if you’d sit for me, I’d like to paint your portrait.”

Kiera squealed and spun in place. She skipped away. “He wants to paint my picture!”

“That’s nice, honey,” Faye said tolerantly.

“Yes,” Fletcher added. “Very nice. Can you do that here, Mark?”

“Father!”

Mark laughed. “Yes. I can. I’ll bring down my materials.”

💀

What a change brought by a week? Mark returned to the Overlap, portfolio lighter and wallet heavier. Kiera’s portrait had sold, enough to pay the rent and keep him in supplies well into the next month.

And the Overlap? Amazing. Magical. Kiera promised to introduce him around to the neighbors. Faye was even talking about a rooftop cookout, a welcome to the building event. Her bread and soup were fantastic.

He practically flew up the stairs.

“You’re back!” Kiera called, perched on the railing above. “Did it work?”

Mark hoisted his lightened portfolio. “Yes! A dealer I know, he loved it. He said you were beautiful.”

Kiera clapped her hands. “I’m glad!”

“So am I. And I’m sure Heinrich will be happy I can pay the rent for next month.” Mark climbed the stairs, the rail changing from metal to wood beneath his hand, then metal again on reaching the third floor.

“Thank you,” he said, as Kiera hopped from her perch.

“What are friends for? Just wait until you meet everyone else!”

He couldn’t wait. As last hopes went, the Overlap was proving to be much more than met the eye at first glance.

💀

5,173 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 88th short story release, written in March 2013.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Commuter.

Locked Out

Cover art for Locked Out

Lynn Hutchins found the perfect place to escape her husband. Jack couldn’t find this cabin, her, or the kids.

But someone found them. The thick iron-bound cabin door kept the man out. He tried to break in. Claimed he was Jack. He lied.

No way for him to break in. The cold outside leeched the heat from the cabin. The freezing cold kept her and the kids safe.

💀

The inside of the house was just as dark as the outside and nearly as cold. Lynn crouched in front of the sole spot of warmth, right in front of the wood stove. She couldn’t see it, but what little heat it gave off warmed her face and fingers. By memory and feel, she found the coiled metal grip of the door handle and pulled it to the side. The hinges protested a bit, metal on metal, and then the dull red glow from inside spread out around the door and restored her vision.

She blinked and coughed a bit as wisps of wood smoke coiled out through the opening. She reached for the next small piece of wood, moving quickly before the man outside noticed the light.

The remains of the last two logs pulsed and glowed with a deep red light beneath the black and white ash. Flickers of yellow flames danced across the coals and vanished. Lynn tossed in the new log. A cascade of red sparks swarmed upward like angry bees, and eager yellow flames flickered back to life, sipping at the wood with the delicacy of hummingbirds.

Lynn shoved the door closed and grimaced when the metal squealed again. Surely the man wouldn’t hear the noise over the snow storm blowing outside or see the brief bit of light seeping out the cracks between the shutters that protected the windows. By now he must have given up and moved on, realizing that she’d never open the door and let him in.

There came a knock on the front door, dull and muffled by the thick wood. Knock, knock.

Then a voice, faint, but clear. “Please let me in. It’s freezing out here!”

Lynn stood in the dark and turned to face the door she couldn’t see. The stove warmed the backs of her legs. “Go away.”

“Honey, you’ve got to let me in.”

She bit her lip and shook her head. She had already told herself she wouldn’t fall for his tricks. He had shown up after she put the kids down to bed, knocking on the door and claiming that he was Jack, her husband.

But that wasn’t true. Jack couldn’t have found her, and wouldn’t have looked anyway. Whoever the man was outside, he wasn’t Jack, and she wasn’t going to let him anywhere near her children.

Three more knocks against the door, hard and fast, as if he was angry. Lynn hugged her arms tight. The door was thick wood, barred with a four-inch thick wood bar. The shutters on the inside of the windows were also thick and locked tight with iron bars. Whoever this man was he wasn’t going to get into the cabin easily. She felt guilty about not letting him in given the conditions outside but what was she supposed to do? Risk her children? And he was up to no good, trying to claim he was Jack. He didn’t even sound like Jack. She heard his footsteps retreat from the door on the wood porch. Then his footsteps came fast and hard, boots pounding against the planks. A loud thud as he smashed against the door. It held. Between him and that door, she bet on the door. If he kept that up, he’d probably break his bones before the thick planks that made up the door. In the dark, she couldn’t see it, but she knew the massive iron-bound door well from memory. It was one of the things she had loved about the place when she first saw the cabin.

Lynn padded silently through the front room by memory. Past the large leather couch, across the colorful rugs woven from alpaca wool, to the entrance to the dining room, kitchen and the hall to the back bedrooms. She stepped down from the wood floor to the stone floor and turned left down the hall. Through her thin slippers, she felt the cold of the stone against her feet. The air back here was much colder too. Since the generator died, she hadn’t been able to run the fans that circulated air through the cabin and the small fire she kept going in the wood stove wasn’t nearly hot enough to heat the entire cabin up. By feel, she found the first bedroom door.

Michael’s room, the padlock cold beneath her fingers. No sounds from inside. Good, he must be asleep. Next down the hall was Tina’s room. Again she found the padlock and listened for any sign that the man had disturbed her children. Nothing at all. Across the hall, she found Briana’s room. Little Briana, with her dark curls. The lock was secure, her room silent. Lynn breathed a little easier. She shivered with the cold in the hallway. At least the kids were asleep. She went silently back to the kitchen.

After all of these months when the sun didn’t rise she knew the cabin well enough to find her way around without lights. In the kitchen, she went to the stove and reached out for the tea kettle. Her hand brushed the cold hard plastic handle. She lifted it up and shook it. It felt heavy and solid in her hand, no sound of sloshing water. It must have frozen solid again. She put it back down and reached up in the dark for the matchbox she kept on the second shelf. Her questing fingers found the cardboard, and she took the box down, slid it open and selected a match. She struck it on the side of the box, and the kitchen sprang into view as if magic had simply created it out of the darkness. The thick granite counter top with her tea mug sitting beside the stove, the rich wood paneling of the walls and the gleaming dishes on the open shelves above, all formed by the flickering yellow light of the match. Lynn turned the knob for the burner and heard the propane gas hiss out. The smell tickled her nose. She extended the match, and blue flames sprang up around the burner. She shook the match out and slid the tea kettle back onto the burner.

The blue flames cast weak light out from beneath the tea kettle, only enough for her to see dim outlines of the kitchen. Not enough to draw the attention of the man outside, even if he made his way around to the back side of the cabin. At least the propane still worked. With the generator down she didn’t have any power. The pipes had frozen already, leaving her melting snow on top of the wood stove for water. Except now she couldn’t even get snow because of the man pretending to be her husband outside. She had a few gallons of melted snow lined up along the wall by the wood stove. It’d last for a couple of days if they were careful, but beyond that, she’d need to get more snow.

By then she wouldn’t need to worry about the man outside anymore. He was out in the worst of the cold and the storm. He couldn’t stay there and survive. Soon he had to give up and move on if he had any sense. She didn’t dare risk letting him in.

A sharper thud hit the door as if he had used something else to hit the door instead of his shoulder. Lynn went silently to the opening to the front room and listened. Whack! Again he hit the door. It sounded like wood striking wood. He must have gotten a piece of firewood from the pile and was using it as a battering ram.

She stepped up into the front room and walked closer to the door. The meager light from the stove didn’t reach so far. Whack! She jumped a little when he hit the door again.

Whack! “Lynn! Let me in!”

“No,” she whispered.

“Let me in!’

“Go away!” The shout tore itself from her throat. She covered her mouth with both hands.

Several blows struck the door in rapid sequence. Lynn reached up and covered her ears.

He yelled, a wordless enraged cry. It sounded loud even through the thick door and walls. She turned away from the front room and took a couple of shaky steps back toward the kitchen.

The glass shattered behind her. Lynn shrieked and flinched away. Whatever he was using hit the shutters next. The shutters held against the blow, but it sounded much louder than when he hit the door.

Bang! He hit the shutters again.

“Let me in, before I freeze!” With the glass shattered his voice sounded clear as if he had entered the room with her. It certainly didn’t sound like Jack. This man sounded like a life-long smoker with a harsh rasp to his voice, and Jack had never smoked so much as a single cigarette.

Lynn took another tiptoed step away.

“You can’t leave me out here.”

She kept moving and stepped carefully down into the kitchen. The cold felt like it had frozen her clothes and left her bare. She hurried over to the stove and held her hands out above the kettle. The heat felt so good it hurt, but the water wasn’t hot yet. She stayed there and hunched over the kettle for what little warmth the stove produced. She didn’t want to go back into the front room by the wood stove because the man outside might hear her walking across the wood floors.

“I don’t understand,” the man said. He could have been standing in the doorway to the kitchen, hidden by the darkness. “I know what I did was wrong, but you can’t leave me out here. I’m so cold. My car won’t start. Please, let me in.”

No. Lynn shook her head. No, no, no. She had to think about the children. She had locked their doors to keep them safe, but if he got in, he might find the key.

“Let me in,” he pleaded.

No. The kettle started to whistle. She turned off the burner. The last of the light vanished. It didn’t matter. She held her cup and poured by feel. A few drops of water dripped on her hand, but she ignored the brief flares of pain. The drops cooled so quickly that they wouldn’t even burn. She put the kettle back and carried her tea toward the front room. She stopped right at the doorway and sipped the rapidly cooling tea. It wouldn’t have time to steep properly.

“I’m so cold.” His voice sounded weak, defeated. He had to move on now. “I can’t feel my feet or fingers.” He laughed, a hollow, empty sound like air escaping a balloon. “I think my nose is frozen too. Probably going to end up with a hole in my face.”

Lynn stepped carefully into the front room. She took each step one at a time, trying not to make any noise at all. She shivered so much that some tea spilled on her fingers but it had already cooled enough not to burn. Her teeth chattered. Lynn sipped the tea again as she made her way over to the wood stove. She sank onto the floor in front of it and put her mug down on the bricks. It hardly gave off any heat now. If she wanted to keep it going, she needed to add more wood, but there wasn’t much left. Four or five logs lay in the holder beside the stove. Enough to get through the night if she was careful. When morning came, she’d have to risk going out again for more wood.

“Please?”

The question startled her, sounding like a whisper in her ear. She listened, but the only other sound she heard was the wind against the broken window. At least she had the shutters to keep out the worst of it and the snow.

Lynn picked up the mug and drank the cooling tea. When morning came, she’d take a look outside and see if the man was still around. If it looked clear, then she could get more wood and build up the fire. The kids would like that.

💀

Crack! The log split beneath the ax into two smaller pieces that toppled onto the snow lit by the battery-powered lantern. Lynn bent down and picked up one, tossed it to the porch, and then the second. That one rolled against the foot of the man. He didn’t react, of course, he was frozen solid when she peeked out this morning. She’d have to do something about him, but she couldn’t move him. He was a big guy, over six feet tall with a broad chest and a long bristly gray beard. As big as Jack, but otherwise nothing like her husband. She picked up the next log and put it in position.

She heard the whine of snowmobiles and leaned on the ax. Lights danced around in the trees. Lynn watched warily. The snowmobiles were following the drive up to the cabin. Friends of the man on the porch? She picked up the ax and the lantern and ran up onto the porch. She kicked the logs ahead of her into the house. She got inside and shoved the door mostly closed, then turned out the lantern. She’d shut and bar the door if she needed to. It was probably too much to hope for help.

The snowmobiles came out of the woods and coasted up to the cabin next to the cars buried by the drifting snow. Her car and the one the man had driven up to the cabin. In the lights from the snowmobiles, she saw that the men wore the brown of the sheriff’s uniform. A sob escaped her lips. Lynn grabbed the lantern and turned it on.

“You in the house, come out with your hands where we can see them!”

Lynn slipped out the door with her hands out to her sides, the lantern in her right hand. When she walked out past the man, one of the men swore.

“Hold it there.”

Lynn looked down at the frozen man. “He tried to break into the house last night; I don’t know why he didn’t give up and leave.”

“Come on down here, ma’am.” One of the police beckoned.

“Okay.” She walked out across the porch, and down the steps. She stopped next to her chopping log.

The other policeman went past her and up onto the porch. He turned on a flashlight and aimed it at the frozen man.

“Yup, boss. It’s him alright. That reporter from California. Jack Hutchins.”

A deep chill settled into Lynn’s chest. She coughed. “Jack? That’s not possible. It isn’t him. It’s somebody pretending to be him.”

The policeman near her touched her arm. “Ma’am? What’s your name?”

“Lynn Hutchins.” She chuckled. “But that can’t be Jack. You don’t understand. He ran off with some starlet.”

“Mrs. Hutchins? Where are your kids? Are they inside?”

The kids! Lynn started toward the house, but the policeman held onto her arm. She looked down at his hand. “Let go. I need to check on them.”

“We’ll do that ma’am. I need you to wait here with me. Stu, go ahead.”

The policeman by the body, which wasn’t Jack, it couldn’t be Jack, stood up and disappeared into her house. A few seconds later she heard a crash and splintering wood. Then silence. After a moment another crash, more wood splintering and then again. Then rapid footsteps and Stu ran out of the house. “Boss, it’s bad. The bedrooms, she had them padlocked shut. I busted them down, but it’s an icebox in there. The kids, um, they’re all froze up, just like him.”

Lynn shook her head. “What? No. They’re sleeping. You’re all mixed up. What kind of policemen are you? They’re sleeping, and whoever that man is on the porch, he’s not my husband!”

She tried to pull away from the policeman, but he held her tight.

“Get on the radio, Stu. Get a snow-cat up here with the coroner.” She tried to pull away, but he twisted her arms back behind her. She felt cold metal snap around her wrist.

“Let me go!”

The policeman shoved her back to the snowmobiles instead and made her sit. Lynn slumped on the seat with her breath fogging in the light from the other snowmobile. These policemen were crazy! That wasn’t Jack. It couldn’t be. And the kids? She laughed and shook her head. Just sleeping, that’s all. It must be the dark. In the dark, the policeman just couldn’t see the truth.

💀

2,787 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 87th short story release, written in January 2011.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, The Overlap.

Bone Magic

Cover art for Bone Magic

Buster enjoyed warm days, lying in the sun, and guarding the front yard from the intrusion of neighborhood cats. The absolute best thing—resting on his bed beside Alex’s typewriter desk while Alex wrote.

Only that didn’t happen any more. And Buster’s hips ached. He didn’t get walked as much anymore.

Things changed. His puppy days rested in his memories. He didn’t control what happened, even if he wished for change.

💀

The good thing about rainy mornings, besides the smell of the rain on the lawn? Buster didn’t have to walk so far to do his business.

The bad thing about this particular rainy morning? Alex was still asleep in bed. Buster fought not to whimper. He didn’t want to whimper like a puppy, but these days it felt like his bladder was smaller than ever.

Outside the rain came down, soaking the small front lawn. Buster could see it from the living room window. He walked heavily back that way now, his ears dragging on the floor with each stiff step.

Sweepin’ up, Alex called it, affectionately. When he wasn’t sleeping. He’d worked late last night, which meant that Buster hadn’t gotten his evening bathroom break, or his dinner, on time. He’d barely had time to give Alex one welcoming bark before he’d scampered out onto the lawn.

And couldn’t go.

Buster had stood there, left rear leg raised, left leg protesting, while Alex had watched from the doorway. “Come on, Buster. Hurry up.”

He had been trying, but after holding it so long it was hard to let go.

“Buster.”

Then Buster had finally let go and the burning release had smelled sharp and hot as the steam rose from the grass around him.

Now the pressure raised a whimper in his throat. It didn’t seem to matter that he’d gone late last night, now his body was ready to go again.

Buster pressed his nose against the cold glass. Rain poured down from the sky. No long walks this morning. The way his hips felt lately, that was good. Alex loved walking outside, but after their long morning walks Buster could be aching all day while Alex was gone to work.

All that water running down the glass, it made him thirsty. He licked at the glass. It was cold but tasted of cobwebs, not refreshing water. He ran his tongue over his nose to clear the cobwebs. Nasty, dusty things that smelled like dried flies and spiky spiders.

The pain of Buster’s swollen bladder brought another whimper up his throat like a belch. He didn’t mean to do it, but it welled up all on its own. A second later another followed.

If Alex didn’t get up and let him out soon he wouldn’t have any choice but to go inside.

Shame made Buster hang his head down until his ears lay limp on the carpet and his nose snuffled at the dusty carpet. He hadn’t piddled in the house since he was a puppy and only twice then.

The urgency couldn’t be denied any longer. He hated to take measures, but the alternative was worse. Buster breathed in deep. The dust tickled his nose. He sneezed.

Then Buster raised his head, all the way up until his ears fell back along his neck. He closed his eyes and poured all of his fear and bladder distress into a mournful howl.

It rose up like a spiraling bird. It echoed through the house. Guilt over the noise nearly made Buster stop, but piddling in the house? He couldn’t have that.

A thump in the other room made Buster stop. He stood up and walked as quick as his stiff legs could carry him to the door. He stopped there and sat, his head hanging low.

Alex stumbled out of the hallway, rubbing his eyes. “Buster, what the hell?”

Buster whimpered and looked away. His tail rose and smacked the floor once.

“What time is it?” Alex came closer, rubbing his eyes as he squinted at the clock on the wall. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry, Buster.”

Buster still couldn’t bring himself to look at Alex, but he thumped his tail twice against the floor. The pain in his bladder made just about anything else impossible.

“Hang on,” Alex said.

Alex came over and unlatched the door. The snap of the locks signaled the possibility of release. Buster stood and shuffled back as Alex pulled the door open.

“Go ahead, Buster. Sorry, I can’t go walking right now. I’m not dressed.”

Buster was already moving as fast as he could past Alex’s legs, out the door, and carefully, one step at a time, down the steps to the concrete path. Rain pelted his fur but all he cared about was getting to the lawn.

Behind him, the door closed. Buster heard it but he was more focused on where he put each paw. He left the path and his ears dragged against the wet grass. He lifted his head but he just wasn’t tall enough to avoid it. His ears were going to get wet.

Out on the lawn, he sniffed the air. Nothing but the scent of rain and wet earth. No sign of the neighborhood cats or other intruders. Not in this rain. He circled to the far side of the willow tree, which hung down so far in the rain that it was almost like a curtained room, shielding him from prying eyes.

Far enough. Buster stopped, lifted his leg, and —

Nothing. The pressure was intense and he whimpered but nothing was coming out.

Buster closed his eyes, concentrated and listened to the sound of rain pattering down all around him on the willow tree leaves.

Nothing.

Buster’s tongue lolled out of his mouth as he panted. Finally a small trickle, only a few drops squirted out.

Buster whined. He licked his nose. What if the cats came back into the yard?

That finally did it. A stream of hot urine squirted out, faltered, then shot out with more force. Now that it was going he peed easily, freely, and panted more.

He kept peeing for a long time, pushing every last drop out until the stream ended at last.

Buster turned around. The urine marked his spot well, even with the rain he could smell it. The sharp ammonia smell but there was something else. An old bone smell.

He blinked and squinted at the ground.

There was something white sticking out of the wet earth. Buster took a deeper breath, this time ignoring the smell of his pee soaking into the wet earth.

Definitely an old bone. Thick on the end, gleaming wetly in the light. Buster didn’t remember burying a bone under the tree but he could have done. But he didn’t think so. Who knew how long the bone had lay sheltered in the earth? The bone must have been buried until the willow tree’s roots forced it up close to the surface. Then the rain and Buster’s pee had washed away the earth and exposed the bone.

Buster like a good gnaw. It was something to do while Alex went to work all day. He could lay on top of the warm vents by the window and chew as long as he liked, savoring the memories.

He pawed at the bone. The loose earth crumbled beneath his claws, exposing more and more of the bone. It was a good-sized bone with hard thick white walls and a hollow center. The surface was rough and caked with dirt but Buster knew what to do about that.

When he finally got it out he gave it a quick toss with his head. The bone sailed into the air, smacking the wet willow tree branches before tumbling with a muffled thud to the ground.

Buster ambled over and sniffed at the bone. Some of the dirt had come off. He picked up the bone in his teeth and threw it again. It spun off across the lawn, rolling to a stop.

On his fourth throw, the front door opened.

“What you doing, buddy?” Alex leaned out. He was dressed now. Work slacks, shirt, doing up his cuffs as he squinted at Buster.

Buster ambled over to the bone and picked it up in his mouth. He sat down in the wet grass and thumped his tail three times.

“Is that a bone? Uh. You want to bring it inside?”

Buster stood up.

“Okay, I guess. Come on, buddy. You’re getting soaked playing out there.”

Buster picked his way across the wet lawn. His ears laid down tracks like two large-sized slugs. He reached the bottom of the concrete steps and it looked like a sheer cliff.

When he was younger he didn’t mind the steps. He would have launched himself up them without hesitation. These days his hips bothered him too much for that. He had to stop and consider his approach.

“Come on, Buster, it’s pouring rain!”

Alex was right. The rain was motivation to get inside so he could lay by the vents. Buster stepped up, right foreleg first and his hips felt okay. They would until he had to jump up.

Buster got his left foreleg up and turned lengthwise on the step. That made it easier to get his rear legs up. Then he turned, left foreleg first on the next step, turning as he did to walk up onto the next step.

“I don’t know any other dog that does switchbacks to get up stairs,” Alex complained.

Other dogs probably didn’t have to worry about stepping on their ears, or deal with bad hips. But Buster knew that Alex cared. It was hard for Alex to wait, was all.

Alex stepped out of the way as Buster turned and walked inside then obediently stop and stood still. He didn’t move from the small welcome mat inside the door.

From a hook beside the door, Alex picked up a ratty green towel. It had a picture on it of an angry man with big muscles and huge fists. It looked like the man was going to smash something, but Buster wasn’t afraid. He loved the ritual with the towel.

Alex used it to wipe down Buster’s fur like an enormous tongue licking off the water soaking his fur. It wouldn’t dry him completely but Buster wiggled beneath the touch of the towel. He stayed put until Alex toweled off all his feet and wagged his tail happily before heading over to the floor vents.

After rehanging the towel Alex headed into the kitchen. Buster plopped down on the carpet by the vents. From the kitchen came the smell of coffee brewing and the sugary sweet smell of Pop-Tarts in the toaster.

“I have to go to work early,” Alex said. “I’m sorry you’ve got to spend so much time inside.”

Buster dropped the bone on the carpet. Some dirt still clung to it, but that would come off.

“There’s so much to get done, it’s crazy. I was late last night working on the revised production schedules. Just when we think we have it nailed down then she throws an entirely new project at us. Just slip it in, she says.”

Buster turned his head over the vent, letting the warm air blast its way up around his face. The woman Alex was talking about was his boss, a writer named May Baxter. She wrote all sorts of things but was known for her romance novels. Alex worked for the publishing company that she had started to publish her work. Alex was her publisher, which meant that he was constantly working on her backlist and any new projects she wrote.

Instead of working on his own writing. Used to be that Buster would sleep in his bed beside Alex’s desk while Alex wrote. Buster found the sound of the keystrokes soothing. Alex used a typewriter for his first drafts and the clackity-clack of the keys was a comforting sound. But after Cindy—Alex’s ex-wife—left him he had taken the job with May Baxter to pay the bills. There was less time spent writing, and then one day the typewriter stopped working and so did Alex. He hadn’t touched the keys since.

Alex reappeared in the doorway holding a Pop-Tart in a paper towel, his travel coffee mug in the other hand, and his bright yellow messenger bag over his shoulder.

Another change there. Alex still carried the bag but rarely rode the bike anymore. Instead, he drove the twenty some-odd miles to May Baxter’s office.

“I’m really sorry,” Alex said. “I think we’ll catch up soon and when we do you and I will spend some time together. Maybe go camping.”

Buster lay down with his head right on the vent, the warm air pouring past his face. He’d like it better if Alex could just work from home again. Camping was cold and uncomfortable and required far too much walking. It was a job for a young dog. Buster closed his eyes and groaned at the thought of a puppy in the house.

“Don’t be like that,” Alex said.

Buster opened his eyes and thumped his tail on the carpet. He hadn’t meant to complain.

Alex came over and crouched down. He actually put his coffee mug down on the floor and ran his hand over Buster’s head. Buster pressed against Alex’s fingers, turning his head to the side just so, and Alex’s fingers dug in scratching gently behind Buster’s ears.

Fantastic. Better than the heater vent. Buster would have been happy to spend all day like this but the scratching ended as soon as it started. Alex picked back up the coffee and stood up.

“I’ll try to get home earlier today, Buster, so you don’t have to hold it so long.”

Then Alex was walking away, getting his coat out of the closet along with an umbrella. Then he didn’t have enough hands for everything so he abandoned the umbrella and went out in the rain with just the coat.

When the door slammed shut and the deadbolt snicked over into place the house felt empty. The clock on the wall ticked. The refrigerator made a noise. The vent kept blowing out warm air.

Buster had the next nine hours to spend and a nap sounded like a good first step.

When Buster woke he noticed two things. First, the vent wasn’t blowing hot air. That happened off and on throughout the day. He didn’t like it any more than he liked cats coming in the yard, and he was equally unable to do much about it.

The second thing he noticed was the bone a few inches from his nose. It still smelled of earth and bone, grass and a faint hint of his pee. All comforting smells. He stretched out a paw and pulled the bone closer so he could give it a good long sniff.

It smelled old, bringing to mind lazy summer days and lazier winter mornings. He smelled the promise of spring embedded deep in the thick bone and the contentment of fall. The years lay deep in the bone. Each one of them captured there while the cow lived its life. It was a cow. Sometimes bones were horse bones. He’d even had a bone from a pig once.

This had belonged to a cow.

Maybe someday another dog would smell his bones, and get a whiff of what his life had been like. Not to chew on his bones, of course. He wouldn’t think of chewing on the bones of another dog.

Buster picked up the bone and started to chew. He still had all his teeth, that was something. His teeth slid along the bone. He adjusted his paws, holding it in just the right spot.

The muscles in his jaw clenched and relaxed with each bite. Tiny bits of the bone shaved off, gritty against his tongue, but as he gnawed he picked up more scents. Days spent out in the cold rain. Being pestered by flies on a hot day. The satisfaction of a mouth full of fresh grass sprinkled with chilly morning dew.

All those memories locked up in the bone, laid down from one year to the next.

Buster had never seen Alex chew on a bone. He knew from long experience that Alex was blind to most of the scents that they passed on their walks. How many times had Buster stopped to savor a particular odor only to have Alex pull him away with the leash?

Buster’s teeth kept gnawing at the bone, polishing the dirty exterior to a gleaming clean bone. The biggest trouble with eating memories like this is that they were gone once the bone was chewed. But there were always more bones later.

Then the bone did something unexpected. It slipped from his paws and floated up into the air. It hung before his nose like a dandelion fluff caught on a breeze, but Buster had never seen a bone float before.

A golden light came from both the open ends of the bone. That light looked like a sunrise on a bright day.

Buster shrank back from the floating bone and barked. His yippee bark, Alex called it, laughing each time. Because of that Buster rarely barked but right now he barked.

Bones should not float or shine like the sun. Bones were for chewing memories.

Next, the bone rotated, first one way and then the other, as if caught by an erratic breeze but Buster didn’t feel any wind and the vent wasn’t blowing either.

He shuffled back another step and barked. He considered running, but running was hard.

The bone stopped spinning and the light at one end dimmed. Something moved in the light, blocking it. The something was dark, about the size of a nasty housefly, but it grew quickly like someone far away who gets bigger when they get close.

In a few moments, even Buster’s eyes could make out that the shape was a bird, a chicken, with a bright red comb and gleaming orange feathers. But a chicken not much bigger than a mouse.

The chicken kept coming closer even though the light and the bone didn’t move. It got closer and closer until it was fully chicken-sized. Then it stepped out of the light into the house.

Buster barked! He barked and barked and barked some more. A chicken in the house!

“Aw, cut it out already!” The chicken said.

Buster stopped barking.

Instead, a whimper welled up from inside and spilled out of his mouth.

The chicken clucked and fluffed her black and white speckled wings. She stretched out one wing, then the other and then flapped vigorously but her clawed feet didn’t leave the ground.

“Oh, oh,” the chicken said. “That feels so good! I can’t tell you how long I’ve been trapped in that bone. I mean really, I can’t tell you! It isn’t as if I’ve got a clock in there!”

Buster considered this and opened his mouth. Another whimper spilled out like drool. He clapped his mouth shut.

“Problem?” The chicken’s head cocked one way, then the other, red comb flapping with each head turn. “Cat got your tongue!”

CABAAWWK! BAAAWWK!

It didn’t take a genius to realize that the chicken was laughing at him. Buster cleared his throat. “It’s not nice to laugh at others.”

He didn’t normally speak. In fact, he couldn’t remember any time in the past when he had spoken, but it seemed normal enough at the moment. The chicken stopped cawing and turned its head, looking at him out of one eye.

“Yeah, talking, that’s the shit, isn’t it? Dogs like that, right? Shit? You roll in shit, don’t you?” The chicken waggled its rear. “Get all up in there, don’t you?”

Buster’s head dropped automatically as his ears seemed to have gotten heavier by the second. The chicken was horrible, foul —

Why had it come out of his bone?

“Because, you lucky flea-bitten hound, I’m a genie.”

Buster lifted his eyes. Still a chicken down to the long black and white tail feathers. “You don’t look like a genie.”

“And you’d know this, howl?” The chicken clucked, head bobbing. “Did ya get it? Did you?”

Buster ignored the chicken’s antics. “Why were you in the bone?”

“What does it matter? You dim-witted, pathetic wretch? What kind of animal is stupid enough to chew on a bone when there’s no meat and no marrow? A dog, that’s what, but I think you’re beautiful. You chewed it down enough to let me out!”

The chicken flapped its wings again, then fluffed its feathers. “Oh, it feels so good! I’m even going to do you a favor, ugly long-eared mutt, and grant your fondest wish.”

“You are?”

“I am! What’ll it be? Wait, let me guess. Shorter ears?”

CABAWWWK!

The weight of Buster’s ears vanished. It was as if his head had suddenly become as light as a balloon. He flipped his head first one way, then the other, but no ears flopped across his face. He spun in a circle and still couldn’t see them.

“So? So? Whaddya think? Whaddya think?”

Buster whimpered. What had the chicken done to his ears? Buster shuffled over to the windows and squinted. With the rain, it was just dark enough outside that he could still make out his reflection. Instead of his two long ears, he had two tan triangles sticking out of his head on either side.

Ears, of a sort, but they would have looked more at home on a corgi.

“I didn’t wish for these ears,” Buster said.

“Oh, come on, you’re breaking my eggs here!”

Buster turned around and there was an egg lying split on the floor behind the chicken! What would Alex think?

“Every time someone turns down a wish, another egg gets broken,” the Chicken intoned.

“I want my ears back,” Buster said.

“Oh, oh, do you wish you had your ears back?”

Buster had already had just about enough of this Chicken genie from his bone. Instead of a nice chew, he had an intruder in the house taking his ears and breaking eggs.

Buster growled.

The chicken flapped her wings. “CAWWWBAWWK!”

A familiar comfortable weight settled on Buster’s head. He turned his head quickly and was rewarded with the familiar flapping. His ears were back!

“Okay. Okay. I get it, it wasn’t the ears. You like your ridiculous, elephant-envying ears. I get it! But it must suck having them dragging on the ground like that all the time!

More flapping from the chicken, the wind making Buster squint. The wind was so strong that he felt his lips drawing back from his teeth and his ears flying back behind him. It was like being in the car, with his head out the window. Minus the fun.

He teetered and suddenly felt dizzy. The room looked strange. Buster looked around and realized that he was up high. As high as the back of the couch!

Buster dangled his head down. His ears flopped down too but still didn’t come close to the floor. Upside down he could see that he was perched on long thin legs like a hippo perched on a giraffe legs. Except these were longer in the back, not shorter, but these legs hardly seemed sturdy enough to support him and he didn’t like being so high that he couldn’t see the ground in front of his nose.

“I didn’t wish for these either,” Buster said.

“Come on! Stop breaking my eggs!”

And indeed there was another egg smashed on the floor. Buster tried to sit, wobbled, and decided against moving at all. He growled at the chicken instead.

“Fine! Fine! I’ve never met such an ungrateful cur!”

“CAWWBAWWK!”

Buster fell. His paws scrambled at the air without finding purchase and then he hit the carpet with a thud like someone had dropped a bag of cement.

It hurt. Everything hurt. Scaly yellow three-toed feet appeared on either side of his nose. The claws looked particularly sharp. Buster rolled his eyes up and found the chicken watching him with one eye.

“What’s it going to be? Uh? Uh? You gotta make a wish you stinking carpet hound!”

Buster drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. Though his bones ached, this would sure be some memory if anyone ever chewed his bones, he sat up.

The chicken danced back and shook her feathers. “Well? Well?”

“I wish that you —”

“BAWWK!” The chicken jumped in the air and came down again. “Don’t get wise on me! No wishing me back in the bone! You can’t wish me away! So don’t even waste my time!”

Buster looked away from the chicken at the room. It hardly got used anymore. Alex’s desk was a big dusty glass desk in the corner with the typewriter and the computer facing off like boxers in a ring. The computer got used, sometimes, but the typewriter remained unused since it had stopped working. The tray beside it still was stacked with the pages from Alex’s last unfinished novel.

And underneath the desk, back in the corner, was Buster’s bed. That’s what he wanted, time spent snoozing while Alex worked on his book. Alex was always happier when he was writing.

“Come on, come on, dog, you’re killing me!”

Buster looked back at the chicken. “Okay. I wish that Alex’s typewriter was fixed.”

“BAWK? Seriously? I mean, I like give you a chance to make a wish and you want me to fix a freakin’ typewriter? You can’t be serious!”

Buster stood up and faced the chicken. “Yes, that’s what I want. And put a bow on it, with a card that says with love, Buster.”

“Frickin’ crazy mutant canines! CAAWWBAWWK!” The chicken flapped twice, stirring a weak breeze.

A clear high bell rang behind Buster. He shuffled around and the typewriter was still where it had been but the layers of dust were gone. The whole desk gleamed. A bright red bow sat on the top of the typewriter and there was a sheet of paper rolled into the machine with three words typed on it.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, it isn’t a card but it seemed more appropriate you brain-dead fleabag. I’m outta here. I got bigger things to do!”

Buster’s head swung back in time to catch the chicken doing a sort of dance with her legs kicking, wings flapping and then there was a flash of light. When he could see again she was gone.

So were the broken eggs. The bone he’d found lay beside the window. He looked back up at the typewriter. The bow and the paper were still there.

💀

By the time Alex got home that night Buster really needed to pee again. He was waiting beside the front door as Alex came in. Buster paused long enough for one short bark, stood still while Alex patted his back, and then he scampered out down the steps to reach the lawn. It felt so good to plunge his face into the grass and inhale the rich clean scent.

Alex was on the phone when he opened the door for Buster. Alex scratched the back of Buster’s neck and patted his back.

“No, Cindy, that’s what I’m telling you. I just came home and found it like that. I thought maybe you —”

“No? Okay, that’s fine. No. I understand. Yeah, it might have been May. No, I don’t know how she managed it. Yeah, that’s fine. I understand. Bye.”

Alex tapped the screen on his phone and dropped it into his pocket. Buster felt Alex’s confusion about the typewriter. There was only one thing to do.

Buster walked across the room to his bed. He turned around a couple times and dropped down and looked up at Alex.

Alex grinned. “Okay, Buster. I get it. I don’t know who was behind this, but I get it.”

Buster laid his head down on his paws and waited, tail thumping. Alex came over to the desk and sat down in his chair. He pushed with his feet and wheeled over in front of the typewriter.

Buster closed his eyes. There was the rolling noise, the rustle of paper as Alex took out the sheet and fed the machine a new one. Then a key clicked. And another. A pause and then more, several all at once. The familiar pattern picked up as Alex fell into the rhythm.

It didn’t even matter that they hadn’t eaten yet. Alex would remember soon enough and they’d have dinner, then more time spent together as Alex continued his story.

💀

4,717 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 86th short story release, written in May 2012. It remains one of my favorite stories that I’ve written.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Locked Out.

This Book is Haunted

Librarian Scott Taylor enjoys the quiet at the end of the day. Picking up the books, straightening up, spending a few minutes to get the library ready for the next day.

Books have a way of capturing memories and feelings. And tonight Scott discovers that a connection to a book lasts.

💀

Librarian Scott Taylor paused at the door to give the library one last look before he stepped outside into the October rain. Lights off, night service on, overdue money locked away in the safe, it all looked good except just then he saw someone slip between the stacks back by the mysteries.

“Hello?” Scott let the door close as he stepped back into the building. “Hello there, the library is closed?”

The Pearce Public Library lacked hiding places. From the circulation desk Scott had a clear line of sight down the fiction aisles to the mysteries along the back wall. To his right, the bathroom and the storage room, but the person he’d seen had been going the other way. And they were small. Like it’d been a kid.

Scott frowned. It wouldn’t be the first time a kid ended up at the library at closing without a ride. But they usually didn’t hide in the library. Most of the time he ended up calling their parents and waiting for someone to come pick them up. How any parent could leave a child alone at the library and not be there before it closed he didn’t understand. Especially not these days.

“Hello? Come on out. I need to close up the building. Can I call someone?”

No answer came from the nonfiction stacks. With only five aisles they didn’t have much of a chance of eluding him. Scott listened carefully but he didn’t hear any noises. After closing the library always was so much quieter. During the day, between the computers, the buzzing fluorescent lights, kids that lacked quiet voices and people on cell phones, he could hardly think sometimes.

Scott reached over past the doors and flicked the light switches up. One. Two. Three. Four. The ceiling tubes came on and lit up the library. He walked around the desk and started walking along the aisles. The kid didn’t have anywhere to go now that he couldn’t see. No one in the aisle with the travel books and poetry. No one in the arts or self-help sections. Cookbooks, dogs and sciences all empty. Scott got all the way up to the first aisle, to UFOs and Microsoft Office books without finding anyone.

He frowned. The only place that left was the kid’s section, but the shelves there were low enough that any kid as tall as the one he’d seen would be visible. Unless he crouched down.

“Come on, now. No more hide-and-seek. I need to close up.”

No shame-faced kid came out of hiding. Scott walked away from the nonfiction sections, past the reading and browsing area by the new books and into the kid’s section. He walked quickly along the aisles of juvenile fiction, looking past the rows of chapter books to the picture books along the back wall. He found nothing.

Impossible. No way the kid got away. Scott walked along the start of the picture books to the back of the juvenile section and made a circuit around the entire chapter book area. No one hiding at the ends of the aisles. But now that he thought of it, maybe that’s what the kid had done in the nonfiction section.

It only took moments to walk up the back aisle. Nothing. He went into the computer section along the front wall and looked beneath the long counter in case the kid somehow got there and hid beneath, behind the chairs. Nothing.

Scott stopped by the display case at the entrance and scratched his short beard. There couldn’t be a kid in the library. But he saw a kid. He was sure of it. He looked over at the restroom and storage room. It didn’t seem possible, but maybe the kid hid at the end of one of the nonfiction aisles, then went the other way after he passed by the first time.

The restroom was empty, except for the faint smell of urine tainting the air.

No one in the storage room either. For good measure, Scott checked his office. No one. The library was empty. Either he imagined seeing a kid, or the kid got out somehow. Scott turned off the lights one-by-one, plunging the library into darkness again. He unlocked the door and pushed it open.

He looked back one last time.

He didn’t see anything. Scott stepped out and shut the door. He got in his car and backed out. He drove around the block to the pharmacy, parked and walked back to the library.

Walking back he shivered in the chilly rain that seeped down his collar. He couldn’t shake the certainty that he had seen a kid in the library and he couldn’t leave without being absolutely sure that the library was, in fact empty.

At the back of the library, he picked his way around the puddles in the parking lot to the front of the building where the windows were low and large. He rounded the corner and peeked into the window.

Light from the streetlight behind him made it hard to see anything except the reflections of the rain-slicked street and the houses across the road. Hopefully, Mrs. Stanfield in the green ranch house across the way wouldn’t notice him and call the police thinking he was trying to break in. He could explain what had happened, but it would be embarrassing.

He cupped his hands around his face and leaned against the glass.

Now he could make out the new books area and the kid’s areas. The only light in the library came from the security lighting up above the circulation desk and those two small lights did little to illuminate the building. It looked empty.

Scott felt relieved. He didn’t know why a kid would hide in the library after it closed, but he didn’t want to take the chance. Now he could go home without a worry.

“What’re you doin’ there?”

Scott jerked and turned around to face the speaker, his heart racing. Mrs. Stanfield stood behind him in a bright red raincoat with a broad yellow umbrella clutched in one liver-spotted hand.

“Oh, Mrs. Stanfield, you startled me.”

“Mr. Taylor? What’re you doin’? Locked out?”

“No, no. Just making sure everything was okay.”

Mrs. Taylor’s perpetually downturned mouth opened, then closed again. She shook her head. “You’d best get out of this rain. Catch your death, you will.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Scott watched her walk off across the street, her blue rubber boots squeaking. Quite the colorful lady.

As he turned to go he saw a blue light flicker in the library, between the juvenile shelves. A lighter? He looked back at Mrs. Stanfield but she was still making her way across the street. He leaned against the window again.

There was a light. He could only see it through the books, not directly, but it flickered and danced like fire. Arson! Scott ran around towards the front of the building, his hand going into his pocket for his keys.

At the door, he fumbled them out, unlocked the door and yanked it open. He ran towards the juvenile section. The light still flickered, dimly but there, on the aisle that started with Beverly Clearly and ended with C.S. Lewis. Scott reached the end of the aisle and saw the girl.

She looked small with long hair that tumbled down her back in waves over her dress. She sat on the floor with her back to him and the flickering light he’d seen came from her. It looked like a blue flame, like burning alcohol. Except it didn’t just sit above her, it seemed to come from within her. Scott shivered and felt cold air flowing away from the girl past him.

He didn’t know what to say, or what to do. He stared at her.

A faint whispery sound and the movement of her arm told him she had a book in her lap. She was sitting and reading a book. A girl that looked like she was made of blue fire.

A ghost. What else could she be?

“Hello?”

She stiffened but otherwise didn’t move. Then slowly she turned her head slightly to the left.

“I’m the librarian.” Scott took a breath, sure she could hear his heart pounding. “Do you need help?”

She twisted around then and looked up at him with deep black eyes. In her lap, she held a copy of The BFG by Roald Dahl.

“I can’t read it,” she said and her voice sounded like leaves blowing down the sidewalk. “It’s my favorite.”

Scott swallowed. He tried not to shake too much as he crouched down in the aisle and extended his hand. “Do you want me to read it to you?”

“Yes, please,” she lisped.

She twisted around to face him and handed him the book. Scott felt tears stinging his eyes as he faced her, recognized her, and took the book. “What happened to you, Noelle?”

In whispers like rain, she told him about the bad man that had come for her after she left the library. His chest felt both heavy and light. He couldn’t have prevented what happened. The police said as much when he had talked to them. Tears dripped from his eyes. He brushed them away and turned to the first page and started reading by Noelle’s light.

The further he got into Sophie’s story tendrils drifted away from Noelle to the book, touching it lightly before sinking into the words on the page. She got fainter and fainter the more he read but the happier she looked. She streamed into the book page by page until he couldn’t see any more.

Scott stood up, ignoring stiff legs and carried the book up to the desk where the emergency lights glowed. He sat down in his chair there and continued reading the story. As he read he felt a joy spreading through his limbs from his hands and through his head from his eyes. It was Noelle’s joy in the story, coursing through his veins. He finished and didn’t resist the urge to hug the book close to his chest. His very favorite book.

💀

The next morning when he opened the library he displayed the book right on the desk. Who should come in first but Mrs. Stanfield herself?

“You ought not be out in the rain,” she admonished.

“I know, ma’am.”

She reached out and fingered the cover of The BFG. “What a sweet book.”

“You can check it out,” he said.

Her eyes widened. “It’s a children’s book!”

Scott smiled. “Maybe, but there’s a child in all of us. Take it, I think you’ll like it.”

“Okay,” she said.

Scott pulled up her record and scanned the book. He felt a twinge of regret when he let it go but she needed the book more than he did right now. Noelle would see to it that she enjoyed the book. Her and anyone else that checked it out. He almost considered a sticker in the cover reading, “This book is haunted.” Except that wouldn’t make sense. Besides, he didn’t support labeling books based on content.

He waved to Mrs. Stanfield as she left then turned his attention to processing the returns from the book drop. The day looked to be a good one.

💀

1,410 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 85th short story release, written in October 2009.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Bone Magic.

Poly Contact

Aliens arrived and offered to share their advanced technology with humanity. The secret to reaching the stars, ending wars, and suffering.

The price? Marriage. The aliens want to forge the alliance through marriage.

Bill and Anne sign up to marry one of the sexy aliens—but when it comes down to it, will they go through with it?

🚀

It was a living room. Bill’s own living room, but at that moment he saw it the way a stranger might see the room, which wasn’t too surprising considering who was coming over in, oh just any minute now. What would an alien think of the house?

The furniture mostly came from the Furniture Barn over on highway 507, a big tan microsuede reclining couch along the wall. It was the sort that reclined with the touch of a button but somehow swiveled so that the couch could be right up against the wall and still recline. Bill always thought the couch was designed by the folks that designed minivans because it had the same sort of cup holders tucked away into the arms and the central compartment that also had plenty of room for the army of remote controls.

The loveseat matched the couch, and so did the one solitary reclining chair. The piece that never fit with the rest was Bill’s own gigantic blue denim Bed-in-a-Bag and matching footstool that he’d had since college. They all called it the blob, after the monster in the old James Dean movie, because the Bed-in-a-Bag was a big mass that dominated the side of the room next to the recliner. From the big Samsung HD LCD television to the furniture, the room looked lived in. A place to play with the kids, to watch a movie with the family and, now and then, to fool around on the big couch.

Bill rubbed his hands on his blue jeans and paced across the room again. He glanced up at the quartz clock embedded in a polished slab of redwood from their California trip. Any minute now. The rest of the family looked almost as anxious.

Well, Anne did, sitting in the recliner with her Nook balanced across her knees and her feet tucked up under her as if she was still just a girl instead of a hair over thirty. Bill couldn’t sit like that, not for long, unless he wanted his knees to ache and stiffen up. He thought Anne looked beautiful, though, with her dark red hair tumbling down over her light green blouse that matched her eyes, but a couple shades lighter. Even at her age people always mistook her for younger and then they gave him that questioning look because his own short hair was now going about fifty-fifty gray. Not gray, actually, white. Especially on the sides and on his face if he let his beard grow out at all. He had let it grow for a week last winter and had thought it made him look so old that he had shaved it off.

Stretched out on the loveseat, Trinity looked like a younger version of her mother with a pixie-cut instead of long hair, and like her mother, she looked younger than her actual age, but whereas Anne enjoyed people thinking she looked younger, Trinity hated it. She didn’t look very happy about this meeting either, but she was here instead of out with friends or working an extra shift down at the library where she shelved books after school.

It was his living room and this was his family. A family that anyone could be proud of, and now they were thinking of adding another member to that family. Bill wiped his hands on his jeans again and had just looked again at the clock when the doorbell rang.

Anne looked up at Bill. Their eyes met and he remembered the first time he saw her at a crowded environmental group meeting in college. Their eyes had met then and he hadn’t been able to look away. He hadn’t even heard the speakers anymore. He had spent the rest of the meeting mostly gazing across the room into her eyes, so much so that when they finally met after the meeting it already felt like they were intimately involved.

“Prompt,” Anne said.

Trinity swung her legs off the loveseat and bounced to her feet. She smiled at Bill. “Well, Dad, let’s go meet it.”

“It? That’s not polite,” Bill said.

Trinity’s smooth forehead wrinkled. “Why?”

“Ze and Zer are the correct pronouns. We want to make a good impression.”

“Fine, let’s go meet zer, then.”

“Is Rory outside?”

Trinity rolled her eyes. Rory was her Old English Sheepdog. Very friendly, but Bill didn’t want the dog all over zer for their first meeting.

“He’s out in the yard. But you know he’s going to want to come in.”

“Later.”

Anne touched Bill’s arm. She’d gotten up while they were talking. Bill patted her arm and headed toward the front door. He reached out to put his arm around Trinity’s shoulders but she took a step to the side out of his reach. Bill let his arm fall. No need to push it right now. He reached out and opened the door.

Zer stood alone on the broad wood porch and looking into those deep azure eyes with the tri-lobed pupils Bill felt like he had back in that meeting with Anne, like he didn’t want to look away. The intensity of zer gaze took his breath away. He felt his heart beat faster.

Zer spoke in a deep, smoky voice. “I am so pleased to meet you all at last. My name is Rysala.”

Bill finally managed to blink. He grinned broadly and held out his hand. Rysala’s hand slid into his and zer grip was firm, strong and dryly warm. He felt a twinge of regret when the contact ended. “Bill. We’re glad to meet you too. This is Anne —” He waited for them to shake. “And our daughter, Trinity.”

Rysala gave them all a small smile that didn’t reveal any teeth. “I am very pleased.”

Bill stepped aside and gestured for Rysala to enter. “Please, come in.”

Rysala walked past and Bill caught a scent of something, nutmeg, maybe. Rysala was everything that the videos had showed and so much more. Shorter than zer had looked, not much taller than Trinity. He hadn’t noticed looking into zer eyes but seeing zer walk with Anne and Trinity he could see it now. Of course, ze was humanoid and ze moved with an easy fluid grace that was captivating to watch. Zer features were fine without appearing overly delicate. Zer golden skin was a deep warm color like wheat fields in the sun and zer outfit revealed lots of skin, bare arms and legs, and the flowing green dress left zer back bare as well except the dark golden-brown braid that hung down zer spine. Bill thought that ze was beautiful and exotic, so much so that it made him more nervous about this whole idea.

Anne laughed at something that Rysala had said. Bill recognized that laugh and the flush that had come to Anne’s cheeks. She was also responding to Rysala. The press said that Rysala’s people were androgynous but that wasn’t really it at all. To him, Rysala looked definitely female but he knew that to Anne ze must look male. It was quickly established that—to humans—the Giselians appeared male or female depending on the gender-preference of the observer. Bill tried to see Rysala as male and just couldn’t. She was too pretty, like a model with that amazing golden skin.

“Bill?” Anne asked.

Bill nodded and followed the everyone into the living room. Anne gestured at the couch. “Would you like to sit?”

Rysala inclined zer head and went to the couch. Ze sat just like Anne had earlier with zer feet tucked up beneath zer. Ze smiled at them all. Trinity dropped onto the loveseat. Anne went back to the recliner which left Bill to sit on the couch in between them. He started to lean back but he felt much too nervous to recline against the padded back. He leaned forward and tapped his fingers on his knees. He glanced over at Rysala.

“How was your trip down? Encounter any bad weather?”

Rysala shook zer head. Ze reached over and lightly touched the back of his hand. He felt an electric thrill and held very still beneath zer touch. Zer fingers were long, with an extra joint and an extra finger. He hadn’t noticed it until now. It should look odd but it looked pretty normal.

“I am grateful for the invitation to meet with you. I understand the complexity of what we ask. You must have questions for me?”

“I’ve got one,” Trinity said loudly.

“Trin—” Anne started to say.

Rysala raised a hand. “It’s quite alright. This affects her as well. What’s your question?”

“Why are you guys doing this? Why would you want to marry into families on Earth?”

Bill spoke up. “We’ve talked about the reasons, Trinity.”

“I’d like to answer,” Rysala said. Ze leaned forward, zer elbows on zer knees. Zer dress fell forward slightly and Bill caught a glimpse of a smooth curve of zer breast. He looked away and saw Anne’s face, staring at Rysala.

“Trinity, you’ve studied history, right?”

“Yes.”

“In your history, you’ve read about wars, right?”

Trinity nodded. Rysala smiled that warm smile of zers. “You must have read about alliances forged through marriage? People finding peace through the bonds that they forge and the children they bear?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so. But this is different.”

“Certainly. It must be different. For one thing, we’re not human. And we all must wed to forge this alliance. Which of those facts bothers you?”

Trinity shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess both. What am I supposed to call you? Mom? Dad? How’s that supposed to work?”

“Rysala is fine.”

“But you’ll be my parent too?”

“That’s correct. I will do everything in my power to keep you safe, to care for you and see that you live in a peaceful world.” Rysala glanced over at Bill, and then Anne. “That’s assuming we come to a decision.”

Bill found it hard to look at anyone. All of a sudden the situation seemed so surreal. What had he been thinking? A year ago the ships appeared and then the offer had been made. When all of the aliens had wed into human families then, and only then, would they share their technology and all the wonders that promised. That had caused a great deal of conflict, to put it lightly. On a planet that couldn’t even agree on humans of the same sex wedding, or on having multiple spouses, the idea of polygamous relationships with aliens was enough to enrage many people.

But who was he kidding? Bill knew exactly what he had been thinking. It wasn’t about how cool it was that dozens of starships orbited the planet, or that the aliens were already building a colony on the far side of the moon. It was when he saw the first broadcast and saw them standing on the bridge of their ship. They looked like angels. Sexy golden angels. He’d been captivated by their radiant beauty. Scientists talked about the golden ratio and suggested that for them all to be so perfect that they had to be the product of some sort of genetic engineering, but none of that mattered. He couldn’t get the image of them out of his mind. Three days after that broadcast he had guiltily masturbated while looking at pictures online.

It took time before the treaty was signed over the protests. Even so, he wouldn’t have ever dared to bring up the possibility if Anne hadn’t also seemed intrigued.

Trinity and Rysala had kept talking. Their laughter brought him out of his introspection. He smiled, very aware that he didn’t know what they’d been laughing about. Then Rysala looked at him and he was drowning again in zer azure eyes.

“Uh, so how does this work? What happens now?”

Rysala pressed zer hands together. “How does it work normally?” Ze looked over at Anne. “How did it work with the two of you? Was your marriage arranged?”

Anne laughed. “Hardly! That’s not very common here. Some places I guess.”

“I see,” Rysala said. “So you arrived at this arrangement on your own. How did that happen?”

Anne looked at him. Bill shook his head. “You tell it better.”

“Okay.” Anne took a deep breath and looked at Rysala. “It was intense. We were both in college and we thought we were determined to save the world. Our eyes met across a crowded room and I just couldn’t stop looking at him.”

“Please,” Trinity said.

“Hey!” Bill looked at his daughter. “Careful, missy.”

Anne laughed and the whole time Rysala watched them. Anne went on. “For Trin’s sake, I’ll leave out the gory details. The fact is, we fell in love.”

“What’s love?” Rysala asked.

Bill looked at zer, they all looked at zer. “What do you mean?”

Rysala’s head cocked slightly to the side. “This concept has come up often in our discussions and I admit I still find the notion mystifying. Your people talk about falling into love and out of love but no one can give us a clear answer. We’re pointed to literature, music, and poetry as much as science and none of it gives a clear answer.”

“You don’t love anyone?” Trinity asked.

“No.” Rysala smiled. “We have mutually satisfactory relationships, often with multiple individuals. It is very pleasurable and beneficial.”

“But you’re giving that up by coming here?”

“That’s correct. We all want integration with your people. It seems the best course to develop trust between our two cultures.”

Bill stood up. He smiled. “Rysala, would you like something to drink?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“We have wine, tea, coffee, soda, water, juice or milk? I don’t know what you usually drink.”

“Water, please.”

“Okay. Anne, could you give me a hand?”

“Getting water? I think you can manage that Bill.”

“I’d like a root beer,” Trinity said.

“Funny. I’ve only got two hands.”

Anne got up. “Fine.”

Bill led the way out of the living room and into the kitchen. He went to the cupboard and started pulling down glasses. He handed one to Anne.

She looked at it. “Do you think ze wants ice?”

“If not ze can always tell us. What did you think about all of that? They don’t understand love?”

Anne put the glass under the ice dispenser. The ice maker made grinding noises and crushed ice dropped down into the glass. “I don’t understand love. Do you?”

“I know I love you, and Trinity. I don’t need to understand it. I feel it. Ze doesn’t.”

“So?” Anne moved the glass over to the water dispenser. “This could solve so many problems for us. Rysala’s income would take us up several income brackets.”

“You think we should do this for the money?”

Anne took the next glass and started filling it with ice. “People have always married for money, or alliances like ze said.”

“Maybe, but we’re talking about marrying an alien. An alien who can’t love us.”

“Actually, I heard that they’re great in the sack. Very enthusiastic.” Anne looked at him. “You should love that.”

“I’m not talking about sex.” Except he couldn’t deny thinking about it. Heat rose on his neck. “If ze doesn’t understand love, how can we trust zer?”

Anne filled another glass. “I don’t think we need to obsess on this detail right now. Why don’t we see if we even like each other? I think ze can understand liking someone.”

“I don’t know if that’s true,” Bill said.

Except when they went back to the living room with the drinks and Anne brought it up Rysala nodded right away. “Like? Certainly. We have preferences, just as you do.” Ze lifted the glass and took a sip. “I like ice in my water. It isn’t something that we ordinarily do, but the cold is very refreshing.”

“What do you do?” Trinity asked.

“Do?”

“Yeah, like a job.”

Rysala shook zer head and put zer glass down in one of the cup holders on the couch. Zer moments looked graceful and smooth, like a dancer. “Whatever I find interesting. Since our arrival, I’ve been very interested in your mystery fiction. I think I might like to try writing.”

“Oh.” Trinity laughed. “Like Castle?”

Rysala laughed as well. Zer laughter sounded like a baby laughing, pure joy. “Yes! Castle! I’ve watched that show. It is very enjoyable. I understand that most mystery writers do not help the police as he does, but it makes for a most entertaining fiction.”

Anne asked, “What did you do before this?”

“I spent time working on the designs for our facility on the moon. That’s right? You refer to this planet’s natural satellite as the moon?”

“Right,” Bill said.

“Very odd, imprecise phrasing. There are many natural satellites in this system. Wouldn’t our moon be more accurate?”

“It might,” Bill answered. “I couldn’t tell you why we don’t phrase it that way.”

“So you worked as an engineer?” Anne asked.

“Yes,” Rysala answered.

“But now you want to write fiction?”

“Yes.”

“And your bosses don’t have a problem with that?”

Rysala sipped at zer water. “We do not have a hierarchal societal structure the way you do.”

Bill found that surprising. “But we’ve seen the broadcasts, isn’t Pyrny your equivalent of a President?”

“No, although that seems to be a common misconception. Most people want zer to be a President, or King, or General or some other term for one who commands others. Pyrny is simply the one that represents us in these discussions because doing so interests zer.”

“You’re socialists,” Anne said. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“That wouldn’t be accurate, although I can see how it might seem that way. Our economic system is aimed at parity. One type of work isn’t valued more than another, although unpopular work may require bonuses to interest someone. Yet the basic rights of life require that everyone’s basic needs be met. There are many injustices on this world.”

“We know that,” Bill said. “But you still decided to join us. I’m surprised that you didn’t take your ships and leave.”

“That could still be the outcome,” ze said. “If we are unable to integrate into your world then we will depart.”

“You’d just leave?” Anne asked.

Rysala leaned forward and lightly touched the ends of Anne’s fingers. Bill expected her to pull back but she submitted to zer touch and even smiled. “We are a patient people. We would not leave without making every effort to make this alliance work.”

Bill watched Anne’s fingers playing with Rysala’s golden fingers and he felt a deep churning in his stomach. His throat constricted. His eyes felt moist. He rubbed his eyes and coughed into his hand. Abruptly he stood. “Excuse me.”

He left the room and went blindly into the kitchen. He coughed twice before he got there and blundered over to the sink. He turned on the water and turned his head sideways to drink out of the faucet. He straightened up with cold water dripping down his face. He grabbed a blue terry cloth dish towel — part of the set of towels his mother had given them as a gift last Christmas. He toweled off his face.

Where had that come from? He’d been sick with what? Anger? No, although that was there, it was something more. The sight of Anne’s fingers flirtatiously playing with Rysala’s had made him jealous. It didn’t happen when Rysala touched Anne. It had happened when Anne touched zer back.

“Are you okay?” Rysala asked in zer silken voice from the doorway.

Bill put the towel back. “Fine. Just something caught in my throat.”

Rysala walked into the kitchen. God, she swayed as she walked. Bill couldn’t take his eyes off her. He was ensnared by her — zer, no — her. He couldn’t see Rysala as anything except an exotic, incredibly sexy woman. Alien in a way that excited him rather than repulsed. Bill took a step back and ran into the sink.

She didn’t stop. He couldn’t move further away, it’d look ridiculous. He suddenly felt like he had at his first high school dance, standing against the wall watching Kathy Brown dance with the popular boys while wishing that he could get up the courage to just go up and ask her to dance. Chances were that she’d say yes if he could just get up the courage to ask.

Would Rysala agree to stay if he got up the courage to ask? Did he dare after that fit of jealousy?

Rysala came close and didn’t stay back. She came right up until she was almost pressed against him. She stood an inch or so taller than him. He smelled nutmeg again. Not overpowering, but it tickled his nose. She spoke, her breath warm against his face.

“Is this what you want?”

She didn’t give him a chance to answer before her lips brushed his. Smooth and wet without being overly so and very warm, like kissing someone with a fever. It ignited his nerves. His hands moved up and brushed the green fabric of her dress. It felt like microsuede beneath his fingertips. Rysala pressed against him, her whole body hugging against him. He ached for her.

“Bill?” He broke the kiss, looking past Rysala to Anne standing in the doorway. He couldn’t read her expression. Her face was all stiff, though, she didn’t look happy. “What are you doing?”

Rysala turned around and held out a hand to Anne. “Come here.”

Anne crossed her arms and shook her head. “I think we should just go back to the living room and talk more.”

She left without another word. Rysala put a hand on Bill’s chest. “It will be okay. I will talk to her. Why don’t you stay here?”

Bill worried about Anne’s reaction but that was a small part of his concern. Mostly he wanted to hold Rysala again. He’d never felt anything so strong. And the thought of her going to Anne — he couldn’t even think about that.

“Stay here,” Rysala said.

Bill couldn’t find any words as she turned and walked with that incredible sway towards the door. He found himself watching the way her braid hung down her bare back. Trinity showed up in the doorway just as Rysala reached it. Rysala touched her arm lightly and went on through. Seeing Trinity compelled Bill into motion. He went around the kitchen island, around the bar to the dining room and sat down at the table. He put his hands flat on the surface of the table. Trinity came over and sat down across from him.

“Dad, what’s going on? Mom came back into the room looking all pissed. What did you do?”

“Nothing.” He couldn’t look at her. But he never lied to his daughter. He glanced at her face and only saw concern. “Not much, anyway. Rysala kissed me and your mother saw.”

Trinity looked down at her own hands. “Isn’t that part of this whole thing? I mean, you and mom are talking about marrying zer, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s one thing to talk about it and another to do it.”

“So you’re not going to marry zer?”

Bill shook his head. “We just need to work through some of this first. Rysala is going to talk to your mother. I think we’ll work it out. What do you think of her?”

“Mom?”

“No, I meant zer, of Rysala?”

Trinity grinned. “Ze is sort of cool. Ze reminds me of Orlando Bloom, except sometimes ze seems more like Angelina Jolie too. It’s strange, but it seems to depend on whether or not ze is focused on you or on mom.”

“Tell me about it!” Bill laughed. “I can’t picture zer as a guy. It’s all very weird.”

“As weird as polygamy? I mean, wasn’t it all illegal until the aliens showed up?”

“Yes, but there was already a movement to get government out of the business of regulating marriage. The Giselians tipped the scale with their offer. No one wanted them to just up and leave. We need their help.”

“The whole thing is crazy.” Trinity shook her head. “I mean, ze already said that ze doesn’t know what love is.”

Bill thought back to the kiss. “Maybe not, but they still know what buttons to push.”

“Dad!”

He held up his hands. “Come on, I’m not going into details. I’m just saying, they may not think of things quite the same way but that doesn’t necessarily matter. I’m not sure Rory feels things the same way we do, but that doesn’t matter.”

“Rory loves me, how can you say that?”

“I’m just saying that he’s a dog. He’s affectionate and loyal but how can we know if he feels love the same way as we do?”

“Because I know.”

“Maybe. Dogs evolved on Earth, I can see that other animals would be wired the same as us. But Rysala isn’t from Earth. It sounds like they just don’t understand love at all.”

“Maybe it’s just because they’re only learning the language.”

“Maybe.” Bill rapped his knuckles gently on the table. “What about you? How are you doing with all of this? Do you want another parent around?”

Trinity shrugged. “I’m happy with you and mom and I’ll be going off to college soon. It doesn’t change how I feel about you guys. It’d be weird, but I still love you.”

“That’s good.”

Trinity glanced over at the door to the living room. “What do you think they’re talking about?”

“I don’t know.” Bill stood up. “Let’s go rejoin the party.”

He held out his hand and his daughter took it. It made him feel much better. Stronger. He could face whatever was happening in the other room. They went to the living room together. He half expected to see Rysala and Anne kissing or something and was relieved that they were just sitting on the couch, facing each other with mirrored postures. Both had one leg up on the couch and one extended down to the floor. Anne looked up as they entered and smiled. Her lips twisted ruefully.

“Sorry about that Bill, it just caught me by surprise.”

Bill shook his head. “Me too.”

Rysala turned slightly so that ze could see them. “Come sit down, Anne and I have been having a nice conversation.”

Bill went to his big blob chair and dropped into the comforting softness. Trinity went over to the recliner and sat down there. “So we’re good?”

Anne nodded.

“I am enjoying your company,” Rysala said. “I believe that I’d like to pursue these relationships further if you all consent?”

Bill looked at Anne and she gave a slight nod. Trinity shrugged and gave him a big grin. “Go for it. Why not?”

Bill took a deep breath and looked at the two women and the alien in his life. It felt like stepping out of a spacecraft high above the Earth but he nodded. “Okay. That sounds good.”

Rysala laughed, a deep infectious laugh. Soon they all started laughing and Bill couldn’t even say why they were laughing but it bled the tension out of the room that had been there since they first opened the door. He felt more comfortable after laughing than he had all night. He dug into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.

“So, what would everyone like for dinner? Chinese? Thai?”

Trinity and Anne both looked at Rysala. Ze smiled and looked at Bill. “If it is okay I’d like to try pizza. It sounds very interesting.”

“Okay, pizza it is.”

He flicked through his contacts and picked the place. If ze wanted pizza he had a feeling that everything was going to work out fine.

🚀

4,636 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 84th short story release, written in October 2010.

There’s a lot of debate about marriages and relationships these days. Some want to define marriage as only being between a man and woman and deny it to others who love one another. Historically marriages have sealed treaties, patched relationships, and have bound families together. What if aliens showed up and didn’t just want to trade, but wanted to marry into our families? Would we do it to gain access to their advanced technology? I think it’s a fascinating concept, one I might return to again later on.

At least the Giselians are attractive to both sexes, they could have been something very different.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, This Book is Haunted.

Journey to Emberland

Centuries spent gazing at the rusty red worldlet above their world failed to inspire people to rise so high. Until now. Long Sight, a learner, spends as much time as possible at the telescope on the outside of their artifical worldlet.

Sharp Tongue and others think him crazy. Yet they all could learn so much from Emberland. A world so much like their own, except smaller. Did life exist there? Heretical, yet an undeniable question.

Long Sight wanted to take advantage of every moment to study Emberland—in what might be the only chance of his lifetime!

🚀

Long Sight’s fur ruffled as he caught the oily scent of Sharp Tongue’s approach up the shaft leading to the forward observation bubble. He whistled softly through his big front teeth in annoyance at the intrusion. What must he do to get time to himself? He had reversed his dormancy cycle, and he spent as much time as possible in the bubble above the pitted surface of their worldlet, exposed to the unimaginable threats of this airless void, and still Sharp Tongue sought him out and intruded on his solitude.

Long Sight left the big telescope, kicking hard with his strong hind legs to propel himself toward the opening. He caught a toe-grip at the entrance with one foot, steading himself with a brief touch on the side of the opening. The soft black cushioning gave slightly beneath his fingers and rebounded, faintly sloshing with the water contained. A burrow sheathed in water, just like home, meant to make the worldlet feel more substantial than it was while also serving the dual function of shielding them from the radiation of the sun and providing the necessary water circulation.

Sharp Tongue caught a toe-grip in passing and brought himself up short of the opening, his beige fur dimly lit by the weak light filtered through the dome. Sharp Tongue blinked his large round eyes, enormous really, a sign of his caste that rarely, if ever, ventured up to the surface of any burrow.

“Long Sight, it is true. You are here.”

Long Sight twitched an ear at the telescope. “Performing my duties, Sharp Tongue. Scouting the world ahead.”

“The data feeds to any burrow, why subject yourself to such risk? I’m told rocks fly in this region without regard to their proper place. What if one were to strike the dome?”

“I trust the sentries to sound the appropriate alarm if any large hazard appeared.”

Sharp Tongue’s ears drooped. “I’m told a small hazard could get past the sentries, that the speeds involved could still cause significant damage and even puncture the thin skin of the dome.”

Long Sight let go of the toe-grip with one foot to reach up and scratch at in itch on his shoulder. “The risk is acceptable if my scouting reveals more details about the world we approach.”

A shudder ruffled Sharp Tongue’s fur. He peered forward, blinking large eyes and then drew back into the shadows. “I don’t see how you stand it; you’re actually out above the surface of the worldlet with nothing but that fabric between you and nothingness!” Panic tinged Sharp Tongue’s voice.

Long Sight decided to change his tactic. He pushed off the toe-grip, floating backward where he deftly caught the next toe-grip. He beckoned with both arms as if drawing Sharp Tongue to his chest. “Why don’t you come out and I’ll show you the new world? I can see much even at this distance. When we get closer, we’ll see as well as the hawk sees flying above the plains.”

A small squeak, quickly cut off, came from the tunnel. Long Sight’s ears pricked forward and he heard the quick pants as Sharp Tongue turned and fled deeper into the worldlet, taking his oily scent with him. Satisfied, Long Sight turned back to the telescope. A quick kick sent him flying across the dome to the observation post as easily as the hawk he had mentioned. He caught the bars with his feet and steadied himself on the poles. He didn’t look immediately, still mulling over the encounter in his head. Sharp Tongue’s evident concern touched him, despite the annoyance of the intrusion. He whistled between his teeth. Most thought him crazy, all astronomers for that matter. The idea of going out at night terrified most of the people. And yet some had gone out to look up at the stars and eventually they had ventured far higher than the hawk, all of them crazy to a degree, even a burrow-bound administrator like Sharp Tongue.

It was true that he could view the data from the telescope down in the burrows but seeing something on the screen lacked the reality of seeing it with his own eyes in real time. Long Sight pulled himself down to the viewing ports until the cool metal touched the fur around his eyes and in that instant he found himself flying free. He was the worldlet, looking out into the space that surrounded them at the world ahead.

Emberland. The world of mystery that had soared through the night overhead like a coal tossed into the sky. Their early ancestors had told many stories about Emberland and what the changing faces meant. Long Sight saw it now as a world rich in features and details. The thin atmosphere still held clouds of some water vapor, but mostly dust. Now and then he saw features that suggested water flowing free on the surface, at least for a time, as if it had burst out of underground pools only to evaporate. He could clearly see the ice caps. Were the darker areas of the surface vegetation? Did strange animals live on this arid world? Or even — Long Sight dared to wonder the heretical thought — other people?

He pulled back from the viewer and blinked as he looked around the dome as if another might somehow have known his thoughts. He shook his fur out, took a few consoling licks on the back of his hands and smoothed the fur on his face and neck. He was alone and safe. He pulled himself back to the viewer.

The dusty red face of the planet, filled with its own mountains and valleys, dark regions and lighter, clear traces of ancient rivers and the scattered craters showing the truth of Sharp Tongue’s fears about flying rocks, all of it hung in space before him. Completely unlike their own warm, blue planet behind them. Now they were the flying rock, or more accurately the flying snowball, an artificial burrow painstakingly assembled in orbit and then sheathed in tons of water. Great wide solar wings had caught the sun’s weak winds and ever so slowly had lifted the worldlet into an ever-widening orbit until gravity and timing sent the worldlet flying to Emberland. Long Sight and the others like him knew that the worldlet had only been created as a political stunt to demonstrate the wisdom and power of their leaders, that they could create such a thing was magnificent, but he was more interested in learning about Emberland. It was a whole world in its own right, circling theirs, true, but that merely afforded them the opportunity to reach it more easily. Nearly a dozen other worlds, most of them with worldlets of their own circling them, all circled the sun. He had seen this with his own eyes through telescopes on the ground. He imagined dozens of artificial worldlets flying through the space between worlds, back and forth between each world and home, using the gravity of these worlds and wide wings to catch the sun’s winds. With enough worldlets traveling between worlds learners like him could visit any world they wished.

Long Sight’s ears drooped. Such a magnificent dream, he feared, was beyond the leaders’ interests. Their motivation wouldn’t extend that far. On their safe return home this worldlet might never fly again. That left him with this one chance to see Emberland up close.

He pulled out the tablet mounted beneath the viewer. He focused on a series of river valleys in the southern hemisphere that all led to a basin, what must have been an inland sea at one time. He saw patches of darker material in the valleys and the basin. His fingers tapped out notes on the tablet, describing in detail each of the features for further reference and study. There was much work to finish in the short time available.

🚀

A week after Sharp Tongue’s brief visit to the dome, Long Sight was floating back to the dome through the tunnel, kicking himself along the toe grips to keep moving. He saw movement in a side tunnel and just managed to catch and hold the toe grip before colliding with the person that shot out of the side tunnel. He smelled fresh cut plants and recognized Sweet Leaf as she tried to catch a toe grip and missed, tumbling into his tunnel. She squeaked in alarm.

Long Sight reached out and caught her gently, holding firm with both feet. He stopped her rotation and moved her down until she had grabbed onto the nearest toe grip. Then he let go.

Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed down the back of her cream-colored neck, and she curled herself down into a ball of embarrassment. “Many apologies, learner. I meant no offense.”

Long Sight thumped one foot. “None taken.”

Sweet Leaf uncurled, showing more of her supple cream-colored fur. Her ears perked up slightly as her large dark eyes blinked at him. “Very gracious.”

“Not at all.” Long Sight wondered what she wanted. He knew her only by reputation; she was one of the workers that tended the deep gardens. An important role in the burrow, without which they would all surely starve.

“May I ask a question?” Sweet Leaf asked.

“You just did,” he replied. Sweet Leaf’s ears sank back toward her neck again. Long Sight thumped his foot again. “I meant that only in jest. Please, what is your question?”

“Word spreads that we reach Emberland today. Is this true?”

Long Sight whistled through his teeth. How little any of the people understood the basic principles of this worldlet! From the time they departed they had known exactly when this moment would arrive, it could not have come any sooner or any later, and yet they didn’t understand.

“Yes,” he answered. “As the data screens in every burrow have said since we departed.”

Sweet Leaf’s ears perked up a bit more. “Is it possible, that is, could you show me?”

Long Sight went very still as if the shadow of a hawk had passed overhead. “Show you?”

Sweet Leaf twitched an ear at the tunnel leading to the telescope dome. “I wish to see it myself. Watching it on the screens, well, we could still be at home safe in our burrow and see the same thing. I want to see it for myself.”

Impressive, but then workers did venture out of the burrows even at home. Still, best to check. “You realize the dome sits on the surface of our worldlet, a thin shell of material to contain the air.”

“Yes, I’ve seen the pictures, but I’ve never been up there. We flew from home in the vessel without windows and entered straight into the worldlet burrow. I want to see the outside.”

“Very well. Come with me.” Long Sight kicked off his toe grips, twisting to the side as he flew past Sweet Leaf. The smell of fresh cut plants made him suddenly long for home. He imagined burying his nose in the fur at her neck, but immediately dismissed the idea. She belonged to the worker caste; he was a learner. Quite an unlikely combination.

He sailed along the tunnel and his ears easily picked up her soft panting behind him as they moved. It didn’t take long to reach the end of the tunnel. With practiced ease Long Sight caught and held onto the last toe grip at the mouth of the tunnel just long enough to rotate around and then he let go to sail through the air right to the viewing platform. He caught the railing, and turned himself around to watch Sweet Leaf’s emergence. She stopped at the mouth of the burrow, just a hint of movement in the shadows. Carefully she stepped out onto one of the toe grips around the entrance and stretched to her full slender length. Her head snapped around as she scanned her surroundings and the dome above. Instinctual behavior, Long Sight observed. Checking for hawks or other predators. Even now the residents of the burrows showed such behaviors and few felt comfortable exposed on the surface, despite the fact that the predator populations had dwindled to those living on a few protected preserves.

“It’s bigger than I expected,” Sweet Leaf said, without moving from her spot by the entrance.

“Don’t you want to see the world ahead?” Long Sight twitched his ears at the telescope. “You’ll have to come up here.”

“Is it safe?” she asked.

Long Sight raised his ears. “As safe as anything.”

Evidently accepting his answer, Sweet Leaf moved along the surface from one toe grip to the next, following the path to the ring surrounding the telescope. She glided from there up onto the platform. She didn’t cower the way some might. Long Sight twitched his ears at the screens mounted along the platform.

“There it is, Emberland.”

She leaned forward and sniffed as she took in the screens. Long Sight tried to see it the way a worker might. What did she make of the mountainous region now on the screen? Did she realize that several of those mountains were taller than any similar peaks back home? The upper reaches were white in spots with glaciers, but not sheathed in ice the way peaks of this size back home. The view slowly moved as they approached. At this point, Emberland was slowing them down with its gravity. Long Sight already knew that their worldlet had arrived right on target so that Emberland’s gravity would bend their course right around the world. A little less velocity and they could have gone into orbit around Emberland. How he longed for that! But that was not the mission. Instead they would pick up speed as they swung around Emberland and end up propelled back toward home. Their larger world would slow the worldlet into a stable orbit. In theory the wings could be extended to accelerate the worldlet once again and return to Emberland, but Long Sight feared that it might never happen.

“What’s it like?” Sweet Leaf asked, speaking directly to his fears.

There was no point in denying the evidence of their own eyes. “Very dry. An active, interesting world in its own right but it lacks the complex water cycle of home. Most of the water seems to be frozen at the poles, or underground. I’ve seen evidence that some volcanic activity continues, which at times releases water onto the surface but it soon evaporates in the thin atmosphere.”

“Are there plants?”

Long Sight’s ears drooped. “Not that I’ve seen. It’s possible, maybe even likely, given the presence of water and volcanic activity that there are microscopic plants and other organisms on the planet.”

“But we aren’t going to find warm fields or nut grasses?”

“No, those would not survive under the current conditions. It is likely that conditions were more hospitable in the past. Unfortunately, we may never know unless we put toes to ground.”

Sweet Leaf shivered. “I can’t imagine why we would want to do that; it looks as unpleasant a place as the old stories suggested.”

“But there’s so much more we could learn,” Long Sight persisted. “If there was more vegetation in the past we might learn what happened here and help prevent droughts or other problems at home.”

Sweet Leaf leaned into him. It caught him so much by surprise that he almost lost his grip. “You learners, always wanting to figure things out.”

“Yes, well…” Long Sight trailed off as something on the screen caught his attention. “What’s that?”

Sweet Leaf’s ears drooped. “What is it now?”

Long Sight touched the screen on either side of the spot and moved his hands as if spinning a wheel. The telescope zoomed in on the image.

Sweet Leaf let out a sharp warning cry and crouched. “We’re falling!”

“No, I merely focusing the telescope.” Long Sight hit the track, and the screen flashed around the borders indicating that it had a fix.

At full magnification, the spot didn’t gain a whole lot of detail, but whatever it was it was highly reflective and cylindrical in shape, lying on the surface of Emberland. Long Sight felt his fur rising as he studied the image. That shape, whatever it was, clearly wasn’t natural. It looked almost like ice, but not quite as bright. There was a hint of red to it. Maybe dust?

Sweet Leaf uncurled slightly. “What are you doing?”

“There’s an artifact down there,” Long Sight said. “Something constructed.”

Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed tightly to her head. “That’s not possible.”

Long Sight tapped the screen and isolated the section with the structure. He initiated an enhancement program. “See for yourself.”

“That could be anything,” Sweet Leaf said.

“It’s artificial,” Long Sight persisted. “Someone built it.”

“You’re not making any sense,” she said, edging away from him.

For a second, Long Sight regretted saying anything at all, but he couldn’t hide from the truth as if it was a hawk. He would not cower in his burrow while they flew above this extraordinary burrow.

“Will you get Sharp Tongue for me? I think we have much to discuss.”

“Yes, thank you, learner.” Sweet Leaf pulled herself down the rails to the surface beneath the platform and then glided along the track to the tunnel. With a final white flick of her tail, she vanished from sight.

Long Sight shook his fur out and returned to studying the screens. He wouldn’t have long unless actions were taken to slow the worldlet and convincing Sharp Tongue to slow the worldlet? That might prove impossible.

🚀

By the time Sharp Tongue peeked out of the burrow Long Sight was ready to rip out his fur. The worldlet had already moved far enough that he could no longer use the telescope to focus on the structure on the surface. Sharp Tongue popped up onto the surface and immediately looked all around, clinging to the toe grip while nervously combing through the fur on his chest.

“There are no hawks here,” Long Sight said. “But we must take action soon.”

Sharp Tongue dropped down and crawled from one toe grip to the next until he reached the platform. He climbed with his ears plastered down to his skull. “You must come down into the burrow, learner. You’ve been up here too long.”

“What? What are you talking about? We must take immediate action and deploy the solar wings to slow the worldlet.”

Sharp Tongue clucked his tongue sharply.

Instinctively Long Sight started to duck, and his heart beat faster. He forced his ears back up and stood straighter. “The worker must not have explained the situation clearly. The telescope identified an artificial construction on the surface of Emberland. I will replay the record for you, but we must begin the process to deploy the wings.”

“No, learner. You are mistaken. There is nothing on the surface. If we deployed the wings to slow the worldlet, you would see yourself on the next orbit. There’s nothing there but craters. Emberland is well-named, a harsh and inhospitable world unsuited to the people.”

Long Sight could not believe his ears. He stepped over to the display and tapped the controls to bring back the display of the object on the surface. Instead of responding the display whistled and refused to pull up the recording.

On the screen, a storage error message appeared.

Long Sight tried again. The same result. He turned around and looked at Sharp Tongue who was still squinting his big eyes and combing nervously through his fur as if he had picked up vermin.

The truth came into Long Sight’s thoughts. “What did you do with the recording?”

“The recording needed correction since it was clearly either tampered with or flawed.”

“What?”

Sharp Tongue’s ears rose. He stood to his full height. “Learner, I believe that spending so much time above the surface of the worldlet has damaged your mind. I insist that you return below. Besides, there is plenty of footage of Emberland already stored. More wastes resources.”

“It was there! A construction built by beings other than the people!”

“Impossible!” Sharp Tongue’s voice thundered. Long Sight couldn’t resist cowering back. Sharp Tongue continued in a cutting tone. “And your statement clearly demonstrates how spending time outside the burrow has damaged your thinking. Doctrine is clear on this point. Only the people have the intelligence to understand the world.”

Long Sight grabbed the railing and forced himself to rise. “The construction was there. Even without the recording, when other worldlets visit Emberland they will discover it as well.”

Sharp Tongue grabbed onto Long Sight’s toe grip. He grabbed the learner’s arms, and Long Sight felt his muscles go limp. He adverted his face. Sharp Tongue spoke with his mouth right at Long Sight’s ears.

“No more worldlets will visit this place. One trip was sufficient. And I already told you, learner, even if we did stay you would see nothing but a crater. Now. Go below.”

When the administrator released him, Long Sight fled and hated himself for it, but the instinct ran deep. He bounded from one toe grip to the next, only touching two before he reached the burrow and plunged ahead at a reckless speed. He was deep in the warm, humid air that smelled so much of the people before he came to his senses enough to slow. Ahead he smelled green growing things and drifted on into one of the large growing chambers. Sweet Leaf propelled herself out of a cluster of blue berries to catch his hands. He couldn’t stop shaking.

She guided him down to a toe grip near one of the large light clusters. The heat felt like a noonday sun on his fur. She combed through the fur on his back and hummed a soothing vibration.

Ever so slowly Long Sight’s trembling stopped, but his mind raced on ahead. It all made sense now. The way the worldlet construction was suddenly announced and rushed through. The excessive mass used. And Sharp Tongue’s insistence that only a crater existed. The administrators knew about the construction Long Sight had seen before they ever left. That was the whole point of this journey to Emberland, to destroy those others.

Long Sight trembled more. He leaned into Sweet Leaf. To prevent the people from learning that doctrine was flawed the administrators had destroyed other intelligent beings. But had they considered whether or not these other beings were like hawks, which might come circling again?

🚀

1,898 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 83rd short story release, written in April 2011. A fairly short story, I enjoyed the alien perspective and the view of these timid, yet brave, aliens.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Poly Contact.