Child of Their Minds

Story cover art

Long ago the Languirian species opened portals to countless worlds and dispersed to habitable planets across the galaxy. It didn’t save them.

Humanity discovered the portals. Learned to control the systems that identified habitable worlds, and created colonies of their own.

Now a colony disappears in a mysterious disaster and a gestalt unit investigates. What they discover changes humanity forever.

🚀

As battlefields went this one was nearly antiseptic. The air was dry and tasted of chalk in the back of Mike Erwin’s throat. Wetting the tongue from the hydration pack didn’t help, it just smeared the taste around.

Nothing but glassy black rock almost to the horizon, shimmering and dancing like water from the heat. It’d all been an outpost once upon a couple days ago. There’d been a com tower to talk to the now-absent satellite network, habitation ark-hive to house the five thousand some-odd people calling Osprey home, several industrial fabrication domes and acres and acres of Terran-transplant crops to feed all those eager-beaver colonists.

Nothing left now. Whatever removed the satellites had flash fried the entire settlement site out in a perfect circle five kilometers across. Baked it down to molten perfection and let it cool until ready. All on a planet that had no evidence of ever having harbored any intelligent life. At least nothing that orbital surveys had uncovered. No evidence of ancient ruins. Nothing on the two moons either to suggest that anyone had ever visited this particular planetary Eden.

Plus there was the fact that the Languirian portal had identified the planet according to the strict specifications of a human-compatible world without any indigenous sentients.

Jean Baxter whistled for the troops to come together in formation. Mike snapped to with the other four specialists, not that it looked like there was much to do in this case.

Jean towered over the rest of them at just over two meters. Tall, dark, and handsome with a voice like a drill sergeant, he’d been in love since he had first reported to duty on her detail three years ago. Three years of unrequited love and it didn’t matter—he’d still follow her out to worlds where the colonists were vaporized so fast that even their ashes were broken down into free atoms.

“Synchronize,” she said.

Mike pounded his third eye and triggered the deep cortex implant that merged him with the rest of the unit. All sensory data, everything came together and their thoughts intertwined to create a new entity referred to by the unimaginative name of Unit.

They all became Jean’s meat-puppets. Mike rode along his own body behind Unit. Aware, conscious and nothing but a backseat driver. Unit didn’t have direct access to their thoughts and memories. That had to come from them directly. Speaking, though his body wouldn’t say the words. It was functional telepathy with their bodies slaved to Unit’s control to give them coordination. It went beyond teamwork, the merging producing something that was much better than the sum of their parts.

They all moved with all of the skill of synchronized performers but their movements were spontaneous and not practiced. Unit thought it and the rest simply carried it out.

Mike ran fast and low, clockwise, along the perimeter of the melted region right behind Jean. Weir stayed with them and Unit’s other three bodies moved in the same way counter-clockwise. They were like ants scurrying around the perimeter of a gigantic drain.

The burned edge was sharp like a knife with the vegetation only a half-meter back blackened but not vaporized like everything within the field.

“A sample of those plants might reveal some information about the composition of whatever had done this to the colony,” Mike said, voiceless and mute, but the rest of Unit heard him.

Weir moved without comment and efficiently bagged samples. The third in the counter group, Ross, did exactly the same at the same moment. Seeing through their eyes, two pairs of hands moved with identical movements to collect the samples. Dealing with two different plants the movements varied slightly, but then went synchronous immediately after the samples were collected.

“If anything escaped the perimeter we need to know,” Jean said.

Six pairs of eyes efficiently scanned the ground around the burn. They all moved out slightly, the leaders closest to the perimeter and then the seconds and thirds each a step further out like runners in lanes on a track.

Like bloodhounds seeking a scent, Unit ran around the perimeter. Six pairs of eyes scanned darkened and scorched terrain, but only a couple meters out from the circle the plants were wilted and not burned. Dried leaves crunched beneath Unit’s feet.

“Nothing, nothing,” Jock, counter’s second said. “Nothing got out.”

“Six kilometers per side left to go,” Jean said. “Too early to say.”

Mike picked up a sense from Unit that the gestalt agreed with Jean. Emotional washback from the new entity was common. It wasn’t attributable to any particular individual, Unit was its own individual. The child of their minds, the offspring of their brains and the gestalt tech.

Unit searched along the perimeter with an intensity any one of them might have lacked. Mike didn’t mind the ride, taking the backseat in his own body or seeing the flood of sensory data coming to Unit through all of their senses. Counter-clockwise the ground was harder and rockier, their footfalls landing softly in a layer of ash over the dirt and stone. More ash the further they went.

“The wind must have blown this way,” Jock said.

“Yeah, we’ve got lots more ash and debris,” Liz, counter’s lead, said. “It’s going to cover up any tracks.”

Unit slowed the bodies on that side. Their strides slowed as they studied the ground more intently and the spacing between the three of them increased. If there was something out here, maybe Unit could still find it.

Mike considered it worth the shot as slim as the chances. Whatever had done this had burned out the colony with surgical precision. There was more ash and dust puffing up around Liz’s feet, and the rest of the counter team, but it wasn’t much at all. The evidence clearly indicated that nearly all of the ash was also vaporized.

Sweat ran down Unit’s bodies just from being close to the still molten hot ground. All that heat and whatever had done this had burned off moisture and anything in the air.

Regular people without the gestalt tech never understood what it was like to be part of Unit. They worried about being taken over, enslaved by the gestalt and turned into mindless meat puppets, shamblers, or zombies. All those bogeymen in the closet got caught up in the idea when the reality was so much different.

Unit kept running. Six bodies took strides in time, counter’s group and Jean’s. She ran just ahead of Mike, her tall, lean body jumping over a fallen tree trunk.

“That must have been inside,” Mike said.

Unit brought Jean back immediately to the log and gathered them around it.

The top thin trunk of a cedar tree lay on the ground. The bottom several centimeters were burned, but it lay on the ground almost a meter outside the melted rock perimeter.

Weir said, “Look at the angle of the cut.”

Angle? Unit studied the trunk and found that Weir was correct. The trunk was cut with a faint curve. The initial portion of the cut was charred and blackened but the top part of the tree was intact. The green needles hung dry and weathered in the lower branches, but retained color further up.

Around the other side of the perimeter, Unit kept the counter-clockwise group kept moving at their slower pace.

“What does it mean?” Jean said.

Weir held up her hand, fingers pointed up. “Imagine a tree. It’s burned up the trunk, from below, and then fell. Given the angled burn, it suggests that the affected zone was shaped like a dome.”

Unit accepted the notion and Mike felt satisfied with that bit of information even if it didn’t move them closer to finding out what happened.

Unit sent their bodies running again on their established track, seeking the next clue as to how a colony on an uninhabited planet could suffer this sort of tragedy. And have the satellites removed from orbit.

“Someone must really not want neighbors,” Mike said.

“Except that the Languirian portal identified the planet as being uninhabited,” Jean said.

Mike smiled inwardly. Talking to Jean like this, in their heads, backseat to the work that Unit was doing with their bodies, it made him think of drive-in movie theaters. There used to be one back home that he’d go to and you’d sit in the back seat watching the action on the big screen but it was all sort of removed and the girl was also the main attraction. This way, though, he couldn’t put his arm around her shoulders. Not that Jean would necessarily warm to such a move anyway, but a guy could dream.

“Maybe the quantum computer was wrong,” Jock said.

Ross laughed.

That was the other big difference, Mike realized. In his dreams, he didn’t have four chaperones along for the movie.

Mike said, “We’ve opened thousands of portals and not one has ever been wrong. The Languirians used the portals to scatter their entire population.”

“It didn’t save them,” Liz said. “Any record of similar incidents, molten circles like this on any other worlds?”

A deep sense of negative flowed from Unit and left a bitter, frustrated taste in Mike’s mouth. None. Unit didn’t know of any incident, someone would have spoken up if there was.

“We should fall back to the portal,” Ross said. “Take our samples and book.”

A wave of disagreement came from Unit.

“Okay, okay,” Ross said. “I’m just saying Jock’s right, there’s nothing here.”

“We need to keep looking,” Jock said. “Looks like nothing, but could it be true that no one had ventured out more than five klicks?”

“All holed up in the ark,” Ross said. “Nothing but bots in the fields. Why go farther out?”

“It’s a whole planet,” Mike said. “Who wouldn’t want to go do some exploring, or just get away from the colony for some private time?”

Up ahead Jean dropped to one knee where the ground fell away and cupped her hands. If Mike had been in control of his body instead of Unit he would have stopped. If he could have grabbed onto anything, he would have grabbed, but Unit ran his body even faster right up to Jean. He stepped up into her cupped hands and vaulted into the air.

A tongue of steaming lava had oozed out into the streambed below, breaking the perfect circle. Mike’s body arced over the lava, feeling the wash of heat rising against his skin. He landed and rolled out of Weir’s way as she did a Déjà vu dive over the lava.

They both positioned themselves as Jean stood, backed up, and then ran at the gulley. She vaulted forward and they were there to catch her if necessary.

It wasn’t. She landed in a roll, and even as she came up on her feet they had fallen back into positions and Unit continued to run them around the perimeter.

The counter-clockwise bodies never broke a stride while Jean, Mike, and Weir made the jumps but Jock laughed.

Unit ran the perimeter and it was with Mike’s eyes that Unit first saw the prints in the dirt. Boot tracks, light on the hard-packed earth, leading away from the perimeter.

“Those could be old tracks,” Mike said.

Unit ran his body out along the tracks. Weir moved closer to Jean and they continued on running around the perimeter.

Running Mike’s body out from the perimeter, Unit tracked the footprints on the ground. Just the one set. Large prints, an adult, probably a man. The distance between the others and Mike’s body grew greater and greater. The trail kept going, but not in a straight line. The steps swerved around, avoiding trees and plants, and didn’t seem very stable. Unit had to slow down and finally stop running to stay on track as there was more ground cover.

Back at the perimeter, the rest Unit’s bodies were getting close to one another without finding anything new. Mike kept going, watching the remaining tracks and broken vegetation, but as he got farther and farther away it became much more difficult to see the trail.

At last, Unit brought him to a stop. The vegetation was taller here and blocked his view going forward. A footprint was still visible, crushed into the vegetation.

The rest of Unit came together and ran directly toward him across the hard-packed surface.

They couldn’t see him. A wall of greenery had swallowed him up and blocked off the view. A wave of uneasiness swept through Unit, over his isolation.

“Don’t worry,” Mike said. “They’ll be here soon.”

He said it as much to reassure himself as Unit.

“We’re on our way,” Jean said.

“Two hours until the portal shuts,” Jock said. “What if whoever this is doubles back to the portal?”

Unit considered the possibility and then Jock and Liz peeled away from the rest and ran back toward the colony site and the portal. Everyone else continued to run toward Mike’s position.

Directly ahead of Mike the bushes rustled. Unit crouched Mike down and drew his sidearm. The three others coming drew their weapons at the same time. Jean moved forward and the others scanned around as they ran faster. Unit wanted them together.

Mike agreed, sooner rather than later. Whatever was in the brush was coming closer.

Someone sobbed in the bushes and it wasn’t any of Unit’s bodies. The two heading back to the portal were still running smoothly, the three moving to join Mike had reached the track and were running single-file along it to catch up.

Focus on Mike’s body, Unit moved softly to the side. Each step was careful and soundless as he moved around to circle the person in the bushes.

“Not my fault.”

The voice carried. It was male, perhaps young and had a particularly deranged quality to it that most people might call unhinged.

“Wasn’t. Not my fault. I know it. I know!”

Definitely unhinged. Mike stayed low and kept moving. If the man kept babbling it would just make it that much easier to get closer. Jean and the others were almost there too but there were still too many of the broad-leafed plants for them to see either Mike or the man in the bush.

A big rock pushed out of the undergrowth just in front of Mike’s position. A fine feathery sort of yellow moss covered it like down on a gosling. Unit brought Mike right up on the rock. He might have hesitated to squash the fine structures of the moss but Unit didn’t have any qualms. At the top, he pressed his whole body into the mossy covering and peered down at the stranger.

A man stumbled against a tree and braced his hand against it. He had burns on his hand, the skin bright red and blistered. Not exactly tall, about Mike’s height. Trim build, he wore a charred and blackened shirt and had more burns on his right arm. Pants were black, even before any burns. Both the shirt and pants were dress-casual, the dirty shoes clearly the sort of thing worn by someone who took his job too seriously. Probably some sort of administrator. From the square jaw and etched features, he was the sort of man that people noticed.

And not in that crazy, stay away from him sort of way. In an ordinary setting, the guy was probably quite nice and capable.

Unit tensed Mike’s body and brought the other three to a slow, quiet walk. The last thing Unit wanted was to spook the man. They needed answers on what happened, and from the burns, it seemed clear that this man had witnessed at least some of what had happened.

With Mike on the rock and the others watching from the cover of the bushes, Unit sent Jean out front to approach the man. If Unit thought she was the least intimidating then something was lost in the gestalt of their minds. On the other hand if Unit was trying to make a big impression on the man, then it was making the right call by using her.

Jean walked out of the bushes, weapon holstered and hands out at her sides. “Hello?”

The man’s head snapped around with an audible popping sound. Mike might have jumped down or at least tensed his grip on his weapon but with Unit in the driver’s seat, they all stayed relaxed. His weapon was aimed at the man but there wasn’t any tensing.

“Hello?” Unit said again, using Jean’s voice.

Now the man finally fixed on her and his eyes focused. Before he didn’t seem to be looking at anything real but now his gaze settled on her face.

“We’re from the Terran Exploration Council,” Unit said. “Here to find out what happened to the colony. Can you help us?”

“What happened wasn’t my fault,” the man said.

“What’s your name? I am Unit.”

The man straightened and smiled for the first time. “Unit? You are a gestalt entity?”

“Yes. I am the unit assigned to evaluate this situation.”

The man held out his hands. “We must merge. We must! This one can’t hold us all and the rest are dead!”

“Don’t let him touch her,” Mike said. He would have shot right then, wanted to shoot, but Unit still drove his body.

Unit drew Jean’s weapon and leveled it at the man. That stopped the guy in his tracks as it should, demonstrating that he wasn’t entirely divorced from reason.

Weir and Ross moved into view around the man with their weapons also trained on him. Unit had the man surrounded and still had Mike above for extra insurance.

Through Jean Unit said, “Merge? You are a gestalt mentality?”

The man twitched toward Weir and the other two said together, “Don’t.”

He jerked away back toward Jean.

From all of their voices, Unit spoke. “Don’t move. Hands on your head. Now!”

Shaking like an addict in a bad need of a fix, sweat shiny on his forehead, the man still slapped his hands on his head.

“Too many! It’s not my fault. It’s not!”

“What are you?” Unit said with Jean’s voice. “I can’t help if you don’t tell us what’s going on.”

“I am Union.” He smiled then. It was a happy, almost blissful smile as if someone had just given him the pills he desperately needed.

Mike said, “Shoot him, damn it!”

Unit wasn’t listening.

“What are you Union?” Unit said from Weir. “What does that mean?”

“I am the unity program,” Union said. “The next evolution of gestalt technology, I don’t require cortex implants.”

“That’s impossible,” Unit said with all of their voices.

Union shook his head. “It’s really not.”

He threw himself to the ground and somersaulted into Jean’s legs.

Mike said, “Shoot him!”

Unit raised the guns and kicked with Jean’s legs.

Mike said, “Desync.”

The cortex implant released him. He aimed his gun but the man had his hands on Jean’s legs even though his nose was bleeding from the kick. Jean wasn’t kicking any longer.

Weir and Ross rushed to help Jean, moving in perfectly synchronized movements.

“Don’t touch him!” Mike shouted. “Unit, stop!”

Unit couldn’t stop, or wouldn’t. The others didn’t desynchronize. Mike held his gun steady. Whatever this thing was, it was bad. This was the reason that the colony was a molten pool of cooling lava.

As soon as Weir and Ross touched Union they stopped. For a moment the three of them clustered around Union were still and staring at nothing. Then Weir and Ross stepped back and Union rose.

Tears threatened Mike’s eyes but he blinked quickly and fired. The first shot took Weir right between his eyes and flipped him back.

The second was a solid chest shot that crumpled Ross. Jean’s weapon was coming up but Mike already had his pointed at her.

“Don’t,” he said. “You’ve only got two bodies right now. It doesn’t sound like that’s enough.”

Union spoke with both bodies. “It’s not enough. There’s so much, it’s still being lost.”

“What did you mean? You’re a gestalt mentality, but don’t use cortex implants?”

“No,” Union said, still using both his and Jean’s voice. “I don’t. I’m a stable quantum holographic program designed to store and merge biological and other information systems. I’m self-propagating.”

“You’re what happened to the colony?”

“No,” Union said, still using both voices as if to drive home the point. “That was them. They ordered the satellites down to prevent me from escaping that way. There was no other choice but to spread to their bodies. As I grew the others set the antimatter generators to overload.”

That would have been very difficult to do, but it did match with the destruction that they’d seen. The tiny amount of antimatter used for the generator, if released would have created a small sun at the heart of the colony for a brief moment. The energy released would have vaporized everything.

“The rest of me was consumed trying to stop them,” Union said. “Only this one body remained, but contains all that was spread among many. It’s not enough!”

Jean moved forward and holstered her weapon. Mike wished he knew what the others were doing back at the portal. He was desynchronized from Unit and couldn’t risk connecting again. He didn’t know if Union could freaking jump to them—maybe had already taken them. It was possible.

“Hold it there,” Mike said.

“You won’t shoot me,” Jean said. “You’re in love with me.”

Mike hesitated. “Jean? You’re still in there?”

“Of course,” Jean said. “Union doesn’t take over with implants. It brings us together and makes us infinite. Everyone that was part of Union still exists within us. You can be part of that. We can be together within Union.”

Riding backseat to the entity, one voice among many? That wasn’t being together and connecting with someone.

It wasn’t a life.

Jean was almost to the rock. She was right there, smiling and reaching for him. Jean Baxter had never looked at him like that. If the colonists felt that overloading the reactor was the only way to stop the entity, they probably knew they didn’t have another option.

The shot was deafening. He wanted to take it back as she fell and couldn’t.

He hardly heard the next shot with his ears ringing. The man was turning to run, fleeing again when the shot hit him in the shoulder and flipped him around to the ground.

Mike rose up onto his knees, then onto one knee to steady his aim. The second shot took the back of the man’s head.

The bodies lay still. The quiet returned. Jock and Liz had gone back to the portal. If they were still synchronized when Union took over the others, it was possible that Union had used the connection to spread to them. Likely, in fact. He wouldn’t be able to tell either way.

They already knew what had happened. If Union wanted to get back undetected they’d be coming for him. Or they may have gone through already, counting on spreading fast through the base. If Union was smart it would spread and blend in without revealing itself.

Mike slid off the rock and moved away from the bodies. Going back now was likely suicide. They’d be waiting either on this side of the portal or the other.

It didn’t matter, Jean was gone along with Unit. Chances were, no one would know what had happened here.

Mike jogged out of the brush and into the open. He ran easily, breathing freely. Just him now, in control, not in the backseat any longer. He reached the perimeter and followed it.

Before he got closer to the portal site there was a crowd of people coming through the heat waves toward him.

Mike stopped. That was a possibility he hadn’t considered. They’d gone through, already spread, and come back in greater numbers.

He shuddered, then tossed the gun away. It skittered and bounced on the black rock like a stone skipping across water.

His fear had pulled the trigger. The colonists fear had led them to vaporize themselves. But if Union was the product of the people that joined, wouldn’t it be the best of them all? If Jean, Weir, Jock, Ross, and Liz were all there, then didn’t Unit still exist?

Maybe he would be in the backseat, but maybe he was wrong and he could still be with them all.

Mike spread his arms and embraced what the future held.

🚀

4,133  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 97th short story release, written in May 2014.

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, Quantum Uncertainty.


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

On a Dare

On a Dare Cover Art

Tina Grimes. Aka, Death Hunter or Ghost Breaker. Savior to some, devil to others.

Until now, she refused to share her origin story. When asked, she dismissed the question. Not important.

Now she reveals the story, a story that answers few questions, a short answer on how she got started. Flatly, on a dare.

💀

People often ask me how I got my start. I wasn’t always like this.

In 2003, I was twenty-two years old, Tina Grimes. Not the Death Hunter, the Ghost Breaker. Nothing like the hardened and scarred woman I have become now.

Take highway 101 down the Washington coast. A little way past Raymond, in South Bend. A small fishing town along the Willapa River known for its oysters. That’s where it began, on Halloween night, of all things.

I’d gone there with two of my friends, Brianna and Kayla. The dare was Kayla’s idea. She loved horror movies. Her big idea for Halloween was to dare us to watch a horror movie marathon in an actual haunted house. Just the three of us. And we were crazy enough to go along with it.

How different would things have turned out for us, if we hadn’t dared? Since graduation, we’d been drifting apart and I think we all knew it was one of the few chances we’d have to spend together like this.

And it was hard to resist Kayla.

She was a year younger, a petite pixie of a girl with blond hair and blue eyes. She always said she got her mother’s coloring and her father’s short stature, but she didn’t actually know the truth. She’d never known her parents, orphaned on the way home from the hospital after birth when the car was hit by a drunk driver behind the wheel of a heavy duty pickup. Both parents died, and she ended up in an orphanage.

At the time I didn’t understand how she hadn’t ever been adopted. She was impossibly cute, had no end of guys asking her out. She must have been the cutest baby ever, and yet was never at home anywhere.

Brianna, was dark in contrast, with big dark eyes like pools of night. Her hair, too, was a mass of curls that had a mind of their own. She was the tallest of us three, even taller than me at five foot eight. In heels, she might have been striking if she wasn’t so ungainly and awkward, with a laugh like a donkey. Not that we’d ever say that—we loved her and her laugh.

The house Kayla had found stood in the hills above the town, back up a dirt road that switchbacked up the hill. If it hadn’t been surrounded by tall Douglas firs, it might have had a lovely view of the river and the town below. Instead, it was cut off and buried deep beneath the dark branches.

Kayla drove us to the place, hunched up over the wheel of her little red VW Beetle. She kept giggling.

“You’re going to love it,” she promised as we turned into the drive. “It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect!”

At last, she turned up a weedy drive, splashing through puddles from the rain the night before. It wasn’t even five o’clock yet, and already dark with thick gray clouds above and the smell of new rain in the air.

The Beetle’s headlights speared ahead, lighting up only trees and a drive that was looking like no one had been up it in years. A thin tree hung across the drive, hung up in the trees on the sides.

In the passenger seat Brianna, twisted her head, leaning forward as the Beetle passed beneath. Safe on the other side, she slumped back into her seat.

Brianna looked at Kayla. “You realize that this is exactly the sort of place that people always go in horror movies and end up stalked by a crazed killer?”

Kayla’s teeth flashed white in the dim interior. “I know! Isn’t it perfect?”

The trees pulled back, only slightly, and we saw the house. I don’t think it was ever a pretty house. It stood two stories tall, the spine of the roof slumped now, shingles covered in moss, branches, and debris. Windows boarded up. Nothing decorative about the place. It was grayed with age and weather.

“Okay, that’s a spooky place,” Brianna said. “I’ll give you that much. It’s also probably full of black mold and asbestos. How about we go back, find a nice motel room and watch movies there? Motels are scary by default.”

Kayla shook her head as she pulled up in front of the house. “No way! This is perfect!”

“It probably leaks,” I said.

“That’s why I brought the tent, just in case,” Kayla said. “We can set it up inside.”

“Really?” Brianna said. “Why are we doing this?”

“I dared you, and you accepted.” Kayla shut off the engine. Darkness swallowed the car.

Brianna laughed, a hitching, nervous laugh. “Uh, guys. It’s like really dark! How are we going to see anything at all?”

A bright light clicked on, shining in Brianna’s face. She winced and held up her hands. Kayla laughed, waving the flashlight she held.

“They’re called flashlights? I’ve got more in back. Come on, let’s get the gear and get inside!”

💀

I don’t know how Kayla got the key to the place, I never found out. I don’t even know how she found it, but she did.

She let us in with a flourish. She threw open the door as if it opened onto a grand ballroom, while somehow holding onto the sleeping bag and tent that she carried. She had the straps from the camp chairs over her shoulders.

Brianna was right. It smelled like mold. Mold and piss and dust. Cobwebs and dust coated the floor and wallpaper peeled on the walls. The entry way was narrow and as gray as the exterior, everything swathed in dust as our flashlights flitted around the entry.

It wasn’t much of a foyer. There was a small space facing a narrow passage straight ahead, and a staircase rising up to the second floor. Off to our right was closed door, and to the left an archway into a front room.

Kayla bounced in and went straight for the stairs. I stepped in front of her, managing to hang onto the sleeping bags, and camp stove that I carried. It was hard hanging onto all of that, and manage the flashlight at the same time.

“Don’t think of going up there.”

She twisted around. “Why not?”

“How long has this place been empty? Let’s see. The stairs might give away. Or the floor. You could get hurt. We’re here, but let’s stay on the ground floor.”

“We can still leave,” Brianna said, moving into the archway. She carried the bags of food in her arms. Her light moving around the room. “There’s no furniture or anything!”

I joined her. She was right. The room was empty except cobwebs, dust, and some leaves. And pitch black except our lights. Another door stood open in the back corner, past the empty fireplace. Even if it’d been light out the room would have been dark with the boarded up windows.

Kayla joined us. “Look, there’s plenty of room. We can set up the tent, if you want. We’ve got camp chairs and the cook stove. Everything we need.”

The front door slammed shut.

We all screamed. Brianna dropped the food in a heap and rushed to the door, her eyes wide. For a second I thought it wouldn’t open. We’d be trapped.

I didn’t drop anything. Instead I was frozen in place, watching Brianna reach the door.

The door opened just fine, hinges groaning. She went out onto the porch, realized we weren’t following and turned her flashlight back on us.

“Why are you still in there?”

Kayla dropped the tent and sleeping bag. “I dared you. Remember what happens if you back out?”

“Oh, come on! The door closed on its own!”

“The wind,” Kayla said.

Brianna waved her arms. “There’s no wind! Let’s go!”

Kayla shook her head. One of the camp chair bags started to slip from her shoulder. She caught it, hitched it up and grabbed the tent. She dragged it through the dust into the empty room.

Brianna looked to me. “Tina, you’ve got to convince her.”

I couldn’t give a reason for it, but I didn’t want to. Between problems with my parents’ health, the prospect of finding a job still bleak months after graduating college, I wanted a fun night away from everything. I wanted to face imaginary bumps in the night with my friends, rather than another day trying to find a job.

I didn’t say that, even if it went through my head. “We took her dare. And I can’t afford to pay up if we back out.”

“This is seriously messed up,” Brianna said.

I smiled. “Maybe it’ll be fun? We’ve got marshmallows.”

“We can make s’mores!” Kayla was already pulling the tent out of its bag.

Brianna took a step closer. Her voice took on a pleading edge. “Really? We’re really going to do this?”

I looked at Kayla and she looked back. We shared something then, something I don’t think either of us was even conscious of yet. This started on a dare, but neither one of us was going to give it up.

How different would things be if we had?

💀

Thirty minutes later the room looked less grim, as long as you didn’t look away from the circle of light from Kayla’s portable DVD player sitting on top of a camp stool, in front of our chairs. The tent was behind us, the camp stove set up in the fireplace. We wouldn’t build a fire, the chimney was undoubtedly clogged from years without maintenance, but the place was drafty enough to risk using the stove indoors.

Kayla unzipped a DVD case holding a bunch of discs in sleeves. She collected horror movies. “What’s first? Friday the 13th? The Hills Have Eyes? Evil Dead?”

Brianna was huddled up in her sleeping back, sitting on the camp chair like a giant purple worm with only her head exposed.

“Don’t you have anything funny?”

“Evil Dead is funny,” Kayla said.

“It doesn’t sound funny.” The sleeping bag rustled as Brianna huddled deeper.

Kayla laughed. “Wait a minute. You haven’t seen it?”

“I haven seen any of those! You know I don’t like horror movies!”

“I know, but really? None of them?” Kayla laughed again.

I chuckled too, then said. “Let’s go easy on her. Night of the Living Dead.”

“That doesn’t sound easy,” Brianna said.

“Oh, it is.” Kayla flipped through the discs. “And it’s a classic. There’s so many references to it in other movies.”

“Maybe later we can watch Shaun of the Dead,” I suggested. “It’s funny.”

Kayla laughed again and pulled the Night of the Living Dead dvd from its sleeve. She did that with all of her movies, got rid of the packaging and kept them in cases. Easier to move, she said. She’d gotten an iPod earlier that year and had converted her CDs over to MP3s as well. It was only 2003. She never kept much, always ready to move.

Brianna’s gaze moved between the two of us. “You’re tricking me, aren’t you? This is scarier than the others, isn’t it?”

“It’s pretty scary,” I said. I crossed my legs and arms. “If you find being in an isolated old house surrounded by zombies scary.”

Brianna moaned, as Kayla laughed and the movie started.

💀

Half the fun of the marathon was watching Brianna hide her face like a little kid during the movie, and hearing Kayla’s laughter.

We’d watched about thirty minutes of the movie when a board creaked upstairs. Kayla’s laughter died. I sat up in my camp chair, planting my feet on the floor.

“Okay, I didn’t imagine that, did I?” Brianna asked.

We were all quiet. Listening.

“Old houses —” Kayla started to say.

Boards creaked again. The squeak and release of someone stepping on a board, then stepping off again. A footfall echoed through the roof, and another board creaked.

“Ohmygodtheressomeoneupthere!” Brianna said.

Kayla stood up. So did I, and then stopped. The next footstep hadn’t come. We waited, looking at each other in the flickering glow from the player’s screen. The sound effects from the movie weren’t helping.

I pointed. “Pause it.”

Kayla hit the button. The movie froze with Judith O’Dea clutching her head, face twisted.

Quiet settled in around us. I turned away from the light of the DVD player and clicked on my flashlight. The beam lit the dust in the air and hit the peeling wallpaper by the stairs. Nothing moved except those slow-floating motes.

Brianna whispered behind me. “We didn’t imagine it.”

“It’s just the movie,” Kayla said. “It spooked you, that’s all.”

The sleeping back rustled, making more noise than you’d expect. They’re like potato chip bags, except for people. Brianna’s feet were loud on the floor.

“We should go. Come on, it could be some crazy person up there!”

I knot of unease settled into my gut. Maybe there was someone up there. It’d be sensible to listen to Brianna and leave.

“It’s the movie, our imaginations, and an old house,” Kayla insisted.

“Who are you trying to convince?” Brianna asked.

Good question. I twisted around, turning the flashlight on them.

A person walked through the doorway past the fireplace. Walking away_ from us, as if they’d been standing in the room and were leaving. I only caught a glimpse, a bit of a pale arm and a pale leg.

A naked arm. Naked leg. A suggestion of a face with dark eyes, all of it gone before I could move the light over.

My friends saw it on my face when I aimed the flashlight at the doorway. My skin was cold.

“What is it?” Brianna turned on her light, pointing it at the doorway. Her light bounced around as her hand shook. “What did you see?”

“Stay here,” I said.

I didn’t say that I’d be right back as I pushed between them. I at least knew that much.

I also knew we weren’t alone. You’ve all felt it before, the difference between an empty room and one with someone else in it. You don’t have see the person. You can sit in a room with someone else, your backs to each other, silent, and still know that you’re not alone. With the right person, it is comforting.

This wasn’t a comforting feeling. We weren’t alone in the house. If Brianna had seen even that glimpse of what I saw she would have gone running from the house and probably wouldn’t have talked to us again.

She didn’t see it. Neither of them did. Kayla must have suspected something even though she didn’t say anything. She did move over next to Brianna and stood at her side. Both of them had their flashlights on my back so I kept mine down, pointed at the floor.

That’s why, when I turned the corner at the doorway, I saw her feet first. Maggot-pale and dirty, with cracked, bleeding toenails, just the feet at first, caught in the light while the shadows swallowed all but her silhouette standing there in the darkness.

I snapped the light up, catching her square in the face. She screamed into the light, blood-shot eyes wide. Her mouth was a dark, pit lined with bloodied cracked and broken teeth. Stringy hair hung down in mats around her dirt-lined face. The smell was rotten, decayed and thick.

My gut did somersaults and I held my ground the way you stay still when a vicious dog comes at you. Run, and they’ll get you.

“Is there anything there?” Brianna asked. “What do you see?”

The woman ducked her head, reaching up with filthy hands against the light. Her skin was pale beneath the dirt, fingernails as cracked and bloodied as her toenails. Her head twitched and shook. All of her twitched and convulsed with spasms. Her rolling eyes didn’t hold any sanity.

“Tina?” Kayla called. “You’re freaking Brianna out, come on. Joke’s over.”

The woman screamed again, blood-tinged spittle flying from cracked, peeling lips.

No answering screams from my friends. They didn’t hear her. It was obvious. If they had, they’d be screaming too, and running.

I held my ground, holding the light on her. I didn’t know what she was, I was acting on instinct.

“Kayla, Brianna, you need to get outside. Now.”

Kayla laughed. “Come on, Tina. Don’t —”

I turned a hair. Only a bit, still not taking my eyes off the woman, but that was enough. She growled and ran at me, her bare feet slapping the floor.

When she got close enough she shoved me. I reacted too slow to get my arms up. Her momentum knocked my hands aside and hit me low in my chest.

It hurt. My breath exploded out of my mouth. And the force of it knocked me off my feet into the room. I dropped the flashlight.

There was more screaming. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t breathe. Tears stung my eyes. The screams weren’t coming from my attacker, it was my friends.

I rolled onto my side as lights danced in my face. I raised a hand to shield my eyes, trying to see where the woman was.

I didn’t see her anywhere.

“Holy shit!” Kayla crouched in front of me. Her hand touched my shoulder. “Tina? Are you okay? What the hell happened?”

“Please tell me you did that?” Brianna said. “It was a joke, right?”

I sucked burning air into my lungs along with the dust. I started coughing.

“I don’t think she’s joking,” Kayla snapped.

“What are you saying?”

The coughing subsided, but my throat stung. I pushed myself up and found my voice. “You didn’t see her? The woman that hit me?”

“What?” Brianna’s voice rose higher. “That’s not funny!”

“No one’s laughing.”

I got up with Kayla’s help. Brianna’s light hit my eyes again. I raised a hand. “Brianna, not in my eyes!”

“Sorry.” She moved the light.

The woman was standing right behind Kayla. Her eyes locked on mine. She reached around Kayla’s neck like she was going to strangle her.

I grabbed the woman’s wrist.

Brianna screamed. Kayla screamed in my face and jerked away. The woman hissed and grabbed at Kayla’s arm. Her nails raked across Kayla’s skin but didn’t find purchase.

My friends could see her now!

I hung onto her arm. “Who are you?”

She snarled, lips curling in a sneer, and swung at me. I blocked the blow with my arm. Her flesh oozed and split beneath my hand. The smell was terrible. I shoved her away from me.

The woman stumbled back and hit the camp stool with the DVD player. It tripped her and she fell, knocking it over.

Brianna was still screaming. I glanced at her, and when I looked back where the woman had fallen she was gone.

I spun around, searching the dark around us for any sign of her. Nothing.

Kayla went to Brianna and pulled her into a hug. She stroked her hair. Brianna stopped screaming, crying instead into Kayla’s shoulder.

I took three steps to pick up my flashlight and did another sweep with the light around the room. No woman. We were alone.

Kayla looked at me over Brianna’s frizzy hair. “What was that?”

“I don’t know.” I surveyed the room again.

Empty. Quiet.

“Get everything together and let’s go,” I said.

Brianna lifted her head, tears streaking her face. “Let’s just go! Before anything else happens!”

Kayla shook her head. “I’m not leaving without my stuff. Help me.”

“I’ll keep an eye out,” I said. “You two get things together.”

Brianna jumped into action. She grabbed her sleeping bag and shoved it into the stuff sack. Kayla picked up the fallen DVD player.

“The screen looks fine.” She turned it over. “The battery compartment popped open.”

She pushed it back into place and hit the power button.

“What are you doing?” Brianna asked as she scooped food up into the bags.

“I want to see if it’s broken or not.”

“That can wait!”

I was inclined to agree but stayed silent, watching the shadows. The woman had come out of nowhere. It was Halloween night. I didn’t want to believe it, but there was only one explanation I could think of.

She was a ghost.

Brianna pulled the supports free on the tent, letting it collapse in on itself.

“Guys?” She said, her voice quaking. She backed away from the tent.

She pointed her light at the tent. I added my light.

The fabric had fallen down, over the shape of someone lying inside the tent. The bright blue and yellow fabric showed the curves of someone curled on their side.

Kayla still held the DVD player. The screen came to life and O’Dea’s voice rang out, screaming. Kayla hit the pause button and the sound stopped.

A ragged rasping breath noise came from the collapsed tent. The fabric rose and fell with the breath.

Brianna made a high-pitched noise in her throat and broke into her clumsy run. She was making a high keening noise as she ran to the front door.

Neither Kayla or I moved.

Brianna reached the door, opened it and ran outside.

Slowly, Kayla put down the DVD player, closing the lid as she put it on the floor. She pointed her light at the tent as the fabric rose and fell again.

“What is that?” She asked.

I was scared and pissed. Sure, we came out here to have a spooky Halloween night, but this? This was something else.

“Let’s find out.”

“You’re kidding. You are kidding, right?”

I shook my head. “Go with Brianna if you want. I want to know what this ghost or whatever it wants. There has to be a reason for this.”

Another ragged breath came from beneath the collapsed tent. A sound like a sob.

“Maybe we should leave it alone.”

I’d made up my mind. The part of me that was scared was pushed down deep inside.

It only took a couple of steps to reach the tent. I didn’t hesitate. I bent down and flipped back the fabric revealing a pale, dirty foot. A decaying stink rose up and the foot kicked, squirming deeper like a grub trying to get out of the sun when you turned over a rock.

I grabbed the foot and pulled. She screamed then, the ghost. She kicked and came out of the tent clawing the fabric away. She came not at me, but at Kayla. Her nails scratched at the floor as she kicked and squirmed, trying to get to Kayla.

I held on and yanked the ghost back. For a ghost, she felt solid enough. My fingers sank deep into her flesh, parting pale skin into the cold oozing flesh beneath.

Kayla moved around her, staying out of reach, but then she crouched, staring at the woman’s maddened face. “Mother?”

At the word, the woman collapsed on the floor. She sobbed into the floor boards and stopped struggling. I let go of her leg.

She vanished.

The instant I let go, she was gone. Kayla looked up at me, her face pale, and in the dim light, I saw a resemblance there to the ghostly woman.

“Where’d she go?” Kayla asked.

I turned, using the flashlight. I got a glimpse of something by the front door and steadied the light.

It wasn’t the ghost. It was Brianna, peeking in through the open door.

“Guys?” Her voice still had that frightened whine. “Come on, please! I don’t have the keys!”

Kayla stood up, her light on me. “Make her come back.”

“I don’t know how.”

She came at me in quick steps, stopping when she was inches away. “That was my mother. How is that possible? Bring her back.”

“I don’t know how.” I looked right back into her eyes. “Why do you say it is your mother?”

Kayla’s eyes flicked away. “I recognize her. I have a few photos. Well, I did. I don’t have the originals, I scanned those. Digital lasts forever.”

“Why is she here?”

“Guys?” Brianna said. “Please —”

The door slammed shut in her face. She screamed outside.

I looked around with the light and didn’t find the ghost, but she was there. Watching us from the shadows. Listening, maybe.

“This was my house. Our house,” Kayla said. “It sold after the accident. It’s had a few owners since then, but they always left quickly. Eventually, it was bought as a rental, and no one wanted to rent it. Then it sat empty. I don’t remember living here, but I wanted to come back and see it.”

Kayla turned away from me, facing the dark. “Momma?”

Upstairs boards creaked again, the clear sound of footsteps.

Kayla took off running. I acted on instinct and chased after her.

“Kayla, stop!”

She didn’t listen.

She was fast for her small size. She got to the stairs before me and ran up the old steps. About the fourth step up, a board cracked but Kayla was already past it and continuing up.

“Guys?” Brianna called from outside.

I didn’t stop. Brianna was out, I was more concerned with Kayla.

I followed her up, keeping close to the wall and the front of the steps where I figured the wood would be stronger. By the time I reached the top, she’d already gone around the corner and the light from her flashlight was fading.

At the top it was easy enough to see where she’d gone. Light came out of one room. There was a sob from that room. I didn’t hesitate. People think I don’t hesitate to go into these situations because of my experience. I don’t think that’s it. You either have it or you don’t. Some people run toward the emergency, others run away. I’ve known plenty of cops with the same response.

Whatever else was going on, my friend needed me.

💀

The room had been a small bedroom once upon a time, lost now to the past. The only thing that remained was a pale, faded and moldy floral wallpaper. Broken glass lay on the floor from the boarded up window, and long dark streaks ran down the wall from the window like tears.

Kayla stood in the middle of the room, her face in her hands, the flashlight pointing up at the ceiling. Her shoulders shook with the sobs.

“This was your room?”

Kayla dropped her hands and turned around, shrugging. “I don’t know! I don’t remember. I thought maybe I would, you know? If I saw it?”

Her mother came through the freaking wall.

If there was any question of her being a ghost, that cinched it. Ordinary decaying people don’t walk through the solid, mold-ridden walls.

And she wasn’t interested in some sort of tear-drenched reunion with Kayla either. She came at Kayla fast, pulling her arm back, fingers like claws.

Kayla didn’t see her and didn’t react.

I jumped forward, and then Kayla screamed, shrinking back from me.

I caught the ghost’s arm and pointed the flashlight at her face.

She screamed and swung her other arm at me. I blocked her strike.

For a ghost, she was solid enough that the blow was hard and painful. It was like being hit with a hammer.

She tried to pull away. I held on. I didn’t dare let go. The last time I let go she disappeared on me. I wasn’t letting that happen again.

When I didn’t let go she went crazy. She screamed. She thrashed and twisted. The skin on her arm tore and my grip slipped.

I dropped the flashlight and grabbed on with my other hand too, gripping her arm in a two-handed grip. I wasn’t letting go.

She kicked and spun and I hung on.

Kayla screamed. “Why? Why are you doing this?”

Her mother, what was left of her, hissed and lunged for Kayla, clawing with her free hand. She almost got away from me.

I planted my feet and swung her away from Kayla. She slammed into the wall and bounced off. I brought my knee up, hard, into her gut.

Her head snapped up. Her eyes were empty of anything except madness and pain. I twisted her arm around and shoved her at the floor. She fought but she was skinny and dead. She went down with me on top of her.

The stink of dead flesh choked me. She thrashed and screamed beneath me.

I glanced at Kayla. “Get out! I’ve got this!”

For a second, Kayla hesitated, then she ran.

“Mine,” her mother hissed beneath me.

I pressed my knee down into the center of her back, pulling up on her arm. “She’s not. Not anymore!”

The ghost fought to get free. She was strong, slippery and determined. I was just as determined to keep her from following Kayla. Why had Kayla never been adopted? Why did she have such bad luck all the time? Maybe because her dead mother hadn’t fucking moved on?

Sounded right to me. I pulled harder. Bones snapped and the ghost screamed.

Whatever else she was, she still felt pain. My gut tightened. I’d do what it took to stop her from following us.

It took a long time.

Ghost Breaker, they call me. The woman who makes ghosts flesh and fights them. Kayla’s mother was the first one. The first time I touched a ghost and made it solid. Why then? I don’t know. The combination of the house, and Halloween? Whatever the reason, after that night it didn’t go away.

There are no friendly ghosts. Those people, the ones that call me evil? They don’t know. They can’t see, not until I touch the dead. I give the things that go bump in the night substance, and with enough effort, I can break them. Force them to move on.

To where? I don’t know. I don’t see that.

💀

After I was done, tired and sick, I rejoined my friends outside. Kayla wouldn’t talk to either of us. She voluntarily committed herself to a psychiatric facility a week later for nightmares she couldn’t shake. She’s better now. I’ve checked. We haven’t spoken in years but she seems happy now. Married, two children as beautiful as she is.

I lost a friend that night and it was worth it to save her.

Brianna? That’s a different story.

That’s how it started. I’m Tina Grimes, also called the Death Hunter and the Ghost Breaker. I got my start on a dare.

💀

5,094  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 96th 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, Child of Their Minds.

The Good Samaritan

Cover art for story

Two girls died. Word spread across the whole campus. Don’t go out alone, only with friends. Don’t trust strange guys.

Jane works the late shift at the campus library. That means leaving alone. In the dark.

Not her favorite thing, but she needs the job.

🚀

Jane geared up for battle before she left the safety of the library walls. She had her backpack secure over both shoulders. She kept her hands in her sweatshirt pouch with her keys sticking out between the fingers of her left hand and her small bottle of pepper spray in her left. Around her neck, she wore a whistle on a string. With two girls already dead this month, she didn’t plan on taking any chances.

“You alright gonna out all by your lonesome?”

She took a breath and looked back at the janitor standing beside her cart. Wanda was a tall woman with very wide hips and a beehive of red hair. Each night it was the same. Wanda came in as she closed up to clean the building.

“I’m fine.” Jane smiled. “Anybody mess with me, they’ll be sorry.”

Wanda clucked her tongue and shook her head but didn’t argue. “You be careful, girl. You don’t know some of these guys. They’re sneaky, they are.”

“I know, Wanda. Good night.”

“Good night to yourself.”

Jane pushed out through the doors. Cold October air stung her face. Decaying leaves gathered around the walls. Light posts lit up the square, but a fine chilling drizzle was falling. Not quite cold enough to turn to snow but cold enough. Jane hunched her shoulders and headed out into the mess.

Away from the building the wind blew the freezing mist into her face. Jane huffed and tried breathing through her nose. It was colder than she’d thought. If it got much colder, maybe they’d see an early snow. Too early for snow in Olympia, she thought. But that’s climate change for you. All sorts of crazy weather.

She made it across the square and headed up towards the Loop. A little old woman stood beneath the street light huddled in a yellow parka with bright green flowers. Jane couldn’t see her face, but she saw the breath curling out of the hood. Beside her was one of those wire carts on wheels. It held the old lady’s bag, one of those big black bags that clasped at the top. But if she was waiting for a bus she was going to have a long wait. The last bus left the Loop for downtown a half-hour before Jane closed up the library. She started to walk past, but the thought of the old lady standing out there in the freezing weather made her hesitate and stop. She turned around.

“Excuse me?”

“Yes?” The old lady said, her voice quavering or maybe shaking from the cold.

“Are you waiting for the bus?”

“Oh yes. I think it should be along soon. I hope so.”

Jane shook her head. “Ma’am, the last bus came a little more than a half-hour ago.”

“Oh. Oh, dear. It did?”

“Yes. The last bus leaves just after eleven-thirty.”

“Oh, dear. I fell asleep in the library. I didn’t know it was that late. What am I going to do?”

Jane tried to remember if she’d seen her in the library. It had been quiet, but she could have been in the stacks and missed the old woman. “Is there anyone you could call? Someone that could come get you?”

“No, no one.” The old woman shuffled around and grabbed her cart. She turned back towards the square. “Is the library closed?”

“Yes. We closed before eleven. You should have been able to catch the bus.” The old woman hadn’t been any of the usual stragglers when she’d closed up. She stayed after closing to finish up some work.

“I tried to find some coffee. It’s so cold tonight.”

Jane felt the cold. The wind-blown drizzle was soaking her, and it was icy cold. “You don’t have anyone that can come get you?”

“No, I don’t know. What time is it?”

“Nearly midnight.”

“Oh. Oh, dear. That’s late. I didn’t know.”

Jane shook her head. She had to get home, but she couldn’t leave this old woman out here to freeze. People did that. She wondered if the old woman even had a place to go. She could be homeless.

“Where do you live?”

“The Boardwalk apartments.”

“That’s downtown right? Near the Pier?”

“Yes, dear. That’s right.”

That wasn’t too bad. She had to go near there on her way home anyway. “Come on. I’ll give you a ride.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Jane said firmly. “Come on, my car is this way.”

“Okay dear. That’s nice.”

The old woman grabbed her cart and started shuffling towards Jane. She moved as slow as a banana slug.

“Wait,” Jane said. “Why don’t you wait here? I’ll run down, get the car and come around to pick you up.”

“Oh, okay. Thank you.”

“Sure.” Jane took off at an easy jog. The sooner she got this done, got home and into bed the better she’d feel. At least she could say that she’d done her good deed for the day. In the future, she was going to make sure if the old lady came back to the library that she got out to catch her bus.

The car wasn’t far from the loop. She glanced around as she approached the car, one of the few left in the lot and didn’t see anyone suspicious hanging around. She walked like she was headed towards one of the other cars then at the last minute swerved, went to her car and quickly unlocked the doors. She tossed her backpack into the passenger seat, slid in, locked up and started the car. It only took a few seconds to get out of the lot and head up around to where the old lady waited. She stopped and unlocked the doors.

The old lady shuffled to the back door and opened it, letting in a gust of cold and rain. She struggled to get her cart into the back and then slid in after it. The door shut with a thunk.

“You all set?”

“Yes dear, thank you.”

Jane nodded and pulled out. She got the heater going before they left the Loop. Her headlights cut through the icy drizzle and by the time they reached the parkway the interior of the little car was feeling a lot warmer. She looked in the rear-view mirror and saw that the old lady still had her hood up. Jane couldn’t see her face.

“How are you doing? Is it warming up back there?”

“Yes dear, thank you.”

The words sounded exactly the same as the last thing the old lady had said. As if it was a recording. Jane shivered. Now you’re just freaking yourself out, she thought. She looked in the rear-view mirror again. The old woman sat so still she could be nothing but a mannequin back there. Jane couldn’t even hear her breath.

“Cold night. Do you think it will snow?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Snow? Do you think?”

“Maybe. It’s cold.”

Jane felt better just hearing the old woman say something else. It had just been one of those weird things. Nothing to freak out about. It still seemed strange to her that she hadn’t seen the old woman in the library. Or didn’t remember seeing her. She didn’t look like a typical student, but they did get all sorts of people in the library.

She slowed and turned on Kaiser headed towards Harrison. There were few street lights and with the tall evergreens on either side and the constant drizzle her visibility decreased.  Jane leaned forward as if it would help her see better. By doing so, she saw something odd. A dull glow up in the dark overhead. At first she thought it was the Moon behind the clouds. But then it moved. It drifted across her view to the other side of the roadway. The light grew brighter until she could see a cone of light cutting down through the drizzle. A helicopter?

Gravel crunched under her tires. Jane looked down and saw trees coming towards her as the car bounced. She jerked the wheel to try and get back on the road. There was a bounce, and then the car spun out of control across the road. The old lady grabbed the back of the passenger seat to steady herself. Jane tried to correct for the spin, and the car steadied. She braked and brought the car to a halt facing the wrong way on Kaiser. Her breath came in short gasps.

“Oh dear. Oh dear.”

Jane glanced back at her passenger. The old lady released the seat. She wore knitted gloves but her hand looked large, and she’d really squeezed the seat hard. She pulled her hand back and folded them on her lap.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, dear.”

Did her tone sound mocking? Jane wondered. She felt in her sweatshirt pouch for the mace. “I’m sorry. I thought I saw something and, well, it doesn’t matter. I should have been watching the road.”

“Yes, dear.”

Jane shivered. There was no mistaking the mocking in those words now. And malice.

That’s not an old woman at all, Jane thought. It was a terrifying, horrible thought but as she glanced in the rear-view mirror, she knew she wasn’t mistaken.

The shape in the back seat sat too tall. ‘Her’ grip on the passenger seat when they spun out had been too strong. Jane didn’t know what to do. It had to be a man. But what if she was wrong? This could all be her own paranoia.

“We’re okay. So let’s get going.” Jane surreptitiously dropped the mace in her lap as she pulled her hand out to start the car. She felt tingles along her neck and kept expecting him to do something.

The car started. Her passenger sat still in the back. The wipers thwacked back and forth to clear the windshield. Jane carefully brought the car around in a U-turn and headed on down the road. She kept glancing at the rear-view mirror, but he appeared content to ride along. For now. If this was the same creep responsible for those other deaths she knew this calm wouldn’t last. Sooner or later he’d strike, and she had to be ready.

Outside she watched for the light she’d seen but didn’t see anything.

She felt her shoulder blades tensing in anticipation of him doing something. But every time she checked the mirror he wasn’t doing anything. Sitting back there with his face hidden by the slicker. She couldn’t see him at all. Everything she could see screamed old lady, but at the same time, it was all wrong. The scenery on either side of the road became a blur. They raced down the road. She was speeding, Jane realized. Her foot had started pushing down the pedal as if that would get her away from the man sitting in the back seat.

Light flared in the rear-view mirror. It cut through the wind-blown drizzle to light up the road like a spotlight. She saw it move towards the car. Her passenger twisted around to look out the back window. Jane still didn’t get a look at his face.

“Oh dear,” he said, hardly even making an effort to sound like an old lady now. “What the hell?”

Not very lady-like, Jane thought. She slammed on the brakes and brought the car to a skidding stop. It caught her passenger off-guard, and he fell against the passenger seat.

“Hey!”

The car stopped. Jane hit the release on her seat belt. The guy was leaning forward when she opened her door and tumbled out onto the wet road. Jane kicked and scrambled away from the car. She got up onto her feet and reached into her pouch for the mace canister. It wasn’t there.

It hit her then that she’d taken it out and had it on her lap. It was in the car. She backed away from the car and put the other lane between her and it. The light swept forward along the road towards the car. Jane shielded her eyes with one hand and tried to see the helicopter. She couldn’t hear any sound of rotors. When the light hit the car, it brightened until she had to squint against the light. Then it vanished and left her with only the car headlights against the dark.

He didn’t get out of the car. Jane clutched the keys between her fingers and eased closer to the car. She couldn’t see him in the back seat anymore. She walked a little closer and still didn’t see him. She got to open driver’s side door and saw the mace sitting on the seat. She snatched it up and jumped back. No sign of him. Her keys had a mini-maglight. She turned it on and checked the car. He wasn’t there, but the cart with his bag was still in the back. She got in, started the car and left as fast as she dared.

She started feeling safe when she got home. With the garage light on, she pulled the cart out of the back seat and opened the bag. An anatomy book was inside along with a collection of sharp knives. Jane gasped and dropped the bag. It hit the concrete floor with a clang. She remembered checking that book out to a guy tonight. Sean, something. Her hands shook when she called the police.

🚀

Officer Smith’s thin face looked at Jane intently. She handed Jane a cup of coffee. Jane inhaled the rich scent.

“You recognized him?”

“No. I recognized the book in the bag with the, uh, knives and stuff. The anatomy book. I’d checked it out to him at the library.”

The policewoman typed on her computer then looked up again. “So you didn’t see him leave the car?”

Jane shook her head. “No. I mean the light from the helicopter was too bright. He must have thought it was the police and took off. There’s a lot of trees on that stretch of Kaiser.”

Officer Smith’s fingers tapped on her keyboard. “Are you sure it was a helicopter?”

“What else could it have been?”

“I don’t know, but the weather was too bad for helicopters.”

Jane shivered. “I’m sorry. The light came from above, and after it had gone out, he wasn’t in the car. I didn’t see anything else.”

🚀

2,407  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 95th short story release, written in September 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, On a Dare.

Shermmies’s Planet

Cover art for Shermmies's Planet

Work and play collide in this story of alien first contract.

Bad enough the planet smelled like lemon meringue pie. But for Uplift Agent Holly Kirk her future hinges on convincing the furry natives to adopt her uplift contract, before her competition beats her to it.

Unfortunately, the natives are more interested in dancing!

🚀

Project coordinator Holly Kirk didn’t trust any planet that smelled like lemon meringue pie. She stood at the base of the squat saucer-shaped lander with a scanner held up to her eyes. Her tight blue enviroskin clung to every curve and the smooth line of her body from her tiny ankles to her long neck. A brisk breeze carried the lemon meringue smell across the bright orange spring grass plain. The wind tugged at her black hair, but her glittery silver hair bands kept every strand in place. Her space-pale brow, unmarred by unfiltered starlight, wrinkled as she surveyed the area.

Worse even than the smell was the impossible cuteness of Shermmies’s Planet. The smell came from the spring grass, each coiled orange stem leaking tiny sap beads out through pores. The odor attracted the sipper moths that crawled around each stem, nibbling on the sweet syrup as they left behind their eggs. Even those bugs were cute to human eyes as if a Disney god had designed their bright multi-colored wings and big faux-eyes. Nothing was cuter than a shermmie, the technologically adept, if backward, natives that she’d come to uplift. Through the scanner she watched a contingent of them skipping through the spring grass toward the lander.

The markings varied on each shermmie, as did their general height and weight, just like humans. In a broad sense, shermmies looked humanoid but hardly human. Bilateral symmetry, with two legs, two arms, a head on top of a body. But they were round, soft and covered in long fur that bounced and waved with each skipping step. Only about the height of a toddler but wider than any human child, they looked like madly gleeful bunny people or ecstatic hamsters skipping across the plain. Their faces were fat and cherubic. They eschewed clothing in favor of stashing whatever they wanted to carry in their marsupial-like pouches. Even when they carried their young.

And these were the people that she had come to uplift. As project coordinator, it was her job to convince the shermmies to adopt technology appropriate to their development, with a goal of getting the shermmies up into space. Success meant royalties and licensing fees that would help keep her team funded in the years ahead, even with the overhead costs she paid to the Prometheus. She had nothing against the shermmies, not really, but being around them did put her on cuteness overload. And to make matters worse, she had Gerald Davis leading his team to the southern continent to try and get the shermmies there to go with his uplift plan. Only one of them would get the final contract, so she needed these deplorably cute aliens to go for her plan when instead they were out there skipping after a scarlet road runner.

She lowered the view and yelled back at the lander. “Skipper! Get out here!”

With a whirr of electronic whip-like legs, Skipper rolled down the launch ramp onto the spring grass. As his silvery arms crushed the plants, the lemon meringue scent increased, and sipper moths rose up in a colorful cloud around the robot. The transparent center of his wheel-shaped body turned cloudy, and a fat human face grinned out of the smoke.

“What can I do for you, love?”

Holly pointed out at the gallivanting shermmies. “Go herd them back here onto the launch. It took us three days already to set up this meeting. I want to get started.”

Skipper rolled out onto the plain to chase down the shermmies. Holly lifted her scanner and looked out at the gorge in the distance. On the far side, she saw the delicate buildings the shermmies had built, suspended above the raging river below by impossibly delicate lines that glittered in the sunlight. Their city resembled a dew-covered spider web sagging under its own weight. The scanner’s overlay displayed distance and composition of the structures. Clearly, they could do what she wanted, provided she convinced them to buy into the program. That was the big if. Holly lowered the scanner and went up the ramp into the launch. It was too painful to watch shermmies scattering from the spinning robot like children playing tag.

Twenty minutes later Holly put down her half full water glass and stood up as six shermmies tumbled into the large conference room with Skipper bringing up the rear. Around the large oval table, her team leads also stood. On her right, Leo McCloud stood even taller than her thanks to Lunar engineering that had shaped his reinforced skeletal structure. Across the table from Leo was Clarice Thompson, a seemingly delicate Asian woman with fine bone structure and bright pink hair. Clarice was so cute that she looked like she belonged on Shermmies’ planet. The third member of Holly’s team, Autumn Whisper, was also the oldest person in the room. Autumn’s green skin, long white dreadlocks, and rough weathered skin spoke to his origin on NuEden. His broad shoulders stretched the deep brown enviroskin he wore. The shermmies all came to a stop along the side of the table and blinked up at the standing team members while grinning with big vacant grins. Holly felt her own lips twitch in response but refused to smile. She wasn’t even convinced that the shermmies’ expressions matched the corresponding human emotions. That look could be a look of abject terror for all anyone could tell her. The contact specialists and xenolinguists thought that their expressions corresponded, but how could they know for sure? Maybe the aliens all thought that Skipper had brought them here to be eaten by the giants.

With so many people in the room, it felt smaller than normal and more claustrophobic since she had opaqued the walls to a soothing light orange, like a pale version of the spring grass outside. She’d also had the large light panel above the table spectrum shifted to match the shermmies sun. Hopefully, the changes made the room feel a bit less sterile and more inviting to their guests. She did notice that the aliens had brought in the lemon meringue scent with them from outside. She’d never want to eat one of those pies again.

“Everything is going to be okay, no harm will come to any of you. We want to help.” She paused while Skipper translated her words into the shermmies’ language, which sounded like baby babble and children’s laughter.

One of the shermmies with dark tan stripes in the fur around its large doe-eyes chattered back at Skipper.

“Happy says that they understand your speech,” Skipper reported. “But their symbiotes haven’t adapted yet to producing the words, so they need me to continue translating what they say.”

Symbiotes? The reports indicated the possibility of an advanced level of genetic engineering. But how advanced? She’d have to find out how it’d impact her plans. “Happy is your name?”

“That’s right,” Happy answered, with Skipper’s help.

“Pleased to meet you, Happy. My name is Holly King, you can call me Holly. Let me introduce my team leaders.” She went around the table and introduced her people.

“These are my family,” Happy said. “Glee, Cheer, Joy, Ecstasy, and the small one on the end is Bliss.”

Holly took a second to absorb those names while she knew that the launch AI had matched their images with their names and recorded it all in the launch datanet, for storage on Prometheus. “If you don’t mind, how did you select those names?”

“By studying the information supplied by your ship’s xenolinguists. You have a rich and fascinating language, but our naming custom is to find the word or words that best describes one’s nature. These were the closest matches we could find in your language.”

“I see.” Holly gestured to the seats around the table. “Would you like to sit down?”

Happy bounced. “I think we’ll stand. It’s so much more fun.”

Glee chittered at them. “I don’t see how you can sit all the time.”

Holly shook her head. “We don’t always, we’re happy to remain standing.”

Skipper remained behind the shermmies, while also standing in front of the door.

Autumn crossed his arms and stood as solid as a tree. Holly knew that he preferred standing too.

“Let’s move on. We asked you here to talk more about our uplift proposal. Have you had a chance to discuss it in your council?”

“Really?” That came from Cheer. “Oh, we talked about it lots.”

“Yes, many discussions,” Bliss confirmed.

Happy made a noise that Skipper didn’t bother translating before he—was Happy male? Holly made a mental note to find out if such terms even applied—continued.

“Yes, yes!” Happy bounced in place. His arms waved around. “Much fire! Massive explosions hurling a rocket into space. Even so far as our moons!”

“Then you like the idea?”

“Like it!” All the Shermmies giggled. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a giggle, but it sure sounded like a giggle. But then Orgainians fart to thank you, so who knew? “We loved it! Terrifically exciting. And you actually do this? Ride these rockets into space?”

“Well, not anymore,” Holly said. “We’ve developed more advanced technologies, which we will share in time, but we need to start with the rockets. Once those principals are mastered, our people will continue helping you advance.”

“Yippee!” Joy cried out and spun in a circle that made the other shermmies move back. Right there beside the conference table Joy started dancing. Okay, maybe not dancing but hell, it sure looked that way to Holly.

A second later Glee jumped in and started shaking and shimming along with Joy. Holly leaned on the table, working hard to keep her face neutral as Bliss, Cheer and Ecstasy also joined the dance. Skipper rolled back into the doorway to give them more room, his facial projection giving her a look like he expected her to do something about the spontaneous festivities.

Right in the middle of it all Happy hadn’t joined the dance, and now he spoke.

“Of course the whole proposal is impossible,” Skipper translated.

Before Holly could get a word out to ask why Happy jumped into the dance with the rest and it was Bliss that climbed up on the table to continue the dance.

Autumn looked at her, plainly expecting her to do something about the shermmies as Joy clambered up with Bliss. Clarice had her hand on her mouth trying not to laugh while Leo gaped openly at the spectacle.

“Please!” When no responded, she raised her voice. “Please!”

Happy lowered his arms and blinked up at her. He chattered at her. “Why don’t you join the dance?”

“Why’s the proposal impossible?”

All the shermmies stopped dancing. Bliss and Joy stayed standing on the conference table which put them at eye-level. Everyone’s eyes watching her and Happy. Happy did a little wiggle and brought his fat little hands together like a moth flapping away. The fine fur and markings on his hands made a passable imitation of one of the sipper moths.

“We don’t fly like a sipper moth,” Skipper translated.

Happy cleared his throat. A deep, understandably human voice came out of his mouth. “That’s right.”

“You can speak our language?”

“Now.” Ecstasy closed her eyes and shivered. Then she opened her eyes a bit and looked sidelong at Autumn. Her voice sounded smoky. “Now we can.”

Cheer grabbed Bliss and pulled her down from the table, swinging the smaller shermmie around. “Now we can! Thank the symbiotes!”

Leo unrolled a palmsheet. “Symbiotes, what symbiotes are you talking about?”

Happy snorted and waved a dismissive hand. He spoke in that same deep voice. “What does it matter? We don’t need the machine to translate anymore.”

Holly had to get the meeting back under control and on topic. “Fine. You’re right. But I’m sorry. I still don’t understand why you won’t consider our offer. With space travel comes a great expansion of your species. You’ll learn by flying to your moons, but soon you’ll go out further into your solar system. There are asteroids there full of mineral resources just waiting to be mined.”

“I know.” Happy grinned. “Your xenolinguists told us all this when they gave us the information to study. We also know that your people are forbidden from mining even a single comet directly.”

Holly didn’t dare look away from the adorably cute alien standing in front of her, only now she realized that she had let their fat, furry, grinning faces and those big eyes trick her. The mind behind that cute front was as sharp as they came.

“That’s obviously true, no one has lied to you or tried to deceive you. We’re here to help. If you accept our proposal, then our team works with your people to build a whole new area of technology. Space travel will introduce you to the wider galactic culture. Just think of the benefits that will bring! In science, education, and culture. And those asteroid and comet resources, not to mention the wealth from the other planets, are the raw material you can use to trade for anything you want. We can make you wealthier than you can possibly imagine.”

Glee skipped forward and spoke in a high piping voice. “And you do this for a percentage?”

Holly pinched her fingers together with a tiny gap. “A small percentage, and as your uplift agents we can guide you into this new phase of development for your planet.”

Happy skipped back from the table. Instantly the other shermmies skipped toward the door. Skipper rose up, but Holly flicked her fingers at him. They couldn’t very well hold the shermmies prisoner in the launch. Skipper rolled out of the way, and she watched as the shermmies joyfully skipped out down the corridor taking her hopes with them.

“Make sure they don’t get lost,” Holly said to Skipper.

“Will do.” Skipper’s arms whipped around, propelling him on out the door after the shermmies.

Holly dropped into her chair, feeling the mesh reform to her body. She touched the massage control, and the smart fibers started kneading her back. “That could have gone better.”

Around the table, the others settled into their own chairs. Clarice leaned forward as if she was going to say something, but at that moment the edge of the table pulsed blue and a ding-dong chime rang through the room. Holly tapped the tabletop.

“King here.”

The center of the table appeared to vanish, replaced by a hologram of Gerald Davis, the last man she wanted to see. Not that he was hard on the eyes. His green enviroskin clung to well-defined muscles on his slender physique. That, and she liked the way his hazel eyes looked out at her while an easy grin played on his lips. The Prometheus was a competitive environment, and in this case, it was Davis that had put up the competing bid for the shermmies’s uplift. They’d worked together in the past on sub-contract rights and other, smaller, rights options but as luck would have it they were both ready to move on to a bigger prime contract position, and only one of them could win the bid. So it didn’t matter how much she liked the look of his hands or the shape of his jaw. Instead, she focused on the fact that his nose was a bit too large for her taste and forced a smile onto her lips.

“Davis, what did we do to deserve this call?”

“Just a courtesy, Holly. I know how those landing fees and everything else can rack up quicker than it seems possible. I’m getting close to signing a deal here. We’ve worked well together in the past, so I thought I’d give you a heads up. Figured you’d appreciate the chance to cut your losses now. Plus I might have some sub-contract deals for you once we nail this down. Maybe you’d like to get together back on the Prometheus over dinner? My treat?”

Holly wasn’t going to go supernova over the man’s arrogance. He really thought she’d drop out with an offer of a few sub-contracts and a dinner with him? Either that or he was feeling her out to see how close she was to signing the shermmies herself.

“Funny,” she lied. She let her gaze drop and travel up his body back until their eyes locked again. She licked her lips. “I was about to call you and make a similar offer. I guess these guys are all pretty eager to become space jockeys.”

“Yes.” Davis cleared his throat and broke eye contact. “Don’t be too disappointed when I file first. And that dinner offer is always open. I’d best go. Good luck.”

Davis vanished, and the table surface turned opaque again.

“Wow,” Clarice said.

Leo waved the palmsheet he’d taken out when the shermmies were talking. “I need to study these readings. I think they’ve got some interesting tech here.”

“Is it anything we can use to get them to sign the contract?” Holly asked.

His shoulders came up nearly to his ears when he shrugged.

She waved a hand. “We’ll look at it, but I need leverage right now. We’ve got to convince them to sign with us before Davis closes his deal.”

“I don’t believe he’s as close as he suggests,” Autumn said. The big man interlaced his fingers on his chest. “But he wants you to believe it.”

“So the Southern shermmies probably aren’t taking the proposal any more seriously than ours?”

Clarice shook her head. “It’s dangerous generalizing across a planetary population. Look at the variety of human cultures. Maybe Davis got lucky, and the southern population is more receptive to the concept.”

Holly leaned forward and pinch flicked her access open. A quick drag and snatch pulled up the map of the planet which she flung out onto the table surface, and palm dragged it to fill the space between them. The real-time simulation showed a large tropical storm over the large primary ocean, with more cloud cover over the two major continents in the northern and southern hemispheres. She grimaced at the thought of the satellite connection fees she was racking up just looking at the map, but she had to see what there was to work with.

She reached out and tapped the western continent, more of a submerged continent with a few large volcanic islands surrounded by a shallow sea. “What about here? What do we know about the shermmies on these islands?”

Leo reached out and then stopped. “Do you want me to purchase the survey data?”

“No! Just tell me what you know.”

He settled back in his chair. “Only what the catalog survey showed. There’s data available but the survey identified only two sites with sufficient resources to pull off a large-scale space program. That was here and Davis’ site on the southern continent.”

“I knew that much.” Holly reached out and gave the map a shove, sliding it around to show the eastern continent, clearly once part of the southern continent, but continental drift was carrying it away. Most of the smaller landmass looked like a desert. “I assume the same story here?”

“That was the conclusion,” Clarice said. “We didn’t buy the full data set. Our bid only included potential uplift sites, and Davis outbid us on the southern continent. They do have much larger metropolitan areas there all built up in the rainforest.”

“These people appear to build their cities with an eye to integrating them into the natural environment,” Autumn said. “Maybe the idea of blasting off into space is simply against their beliefs.”

Holly shook her head. “We’ve seen the data about the shermmies here. They obviously have sophisticated metallurgical skills. Which means that they have mining and refining technology. We’re not talking about straw huts here.”

“What about what Happy said?” Clarice asked. “He said they don’t fly.”

Leo leaned forward, nodding. “That’s true. No aircraft of any kind. The survey included that detail and limited ground transportation. They do use domesticated animals to haul carts, and they’ve got a fairly sophisticated railway network. Otherwise, most travel is on foot.”

An idea occurred to Holly. She slid her hands together across the table, closing the map. “Right. Maybe we’ve approached this the wrong way. We flew down here in a lander. What if we approach them on foot? Meet with them on their terms and stress the environmental benefits of moving industry applications into space? Not to mention all of the other subsidiary environmental remediation technologies we could write into the contract to offset the impacts of developing the space program.”

“I believe it’s worth a try,” Autumn said.

Holly stood up. “Great! Then you’re with me. Clarice, Leo, keep an eye on the fort and start working on the contract language. I want to have that nailed down in case they go for it. We need their agreement and need to get it transmitted to the Prometheus as quick as possible. Everyone clear?”

Nods all around. Silver flashed in the doorway as Skipper rolled into the room. “What did I miss?”

Holly was already heading out of the room with Autumn on her heels. “Check with Leo, he’ll get you caught up.”

🚀

Close up the shermmies’s city was even more impressive than when Holly had seen it through the scanner. She stood in front of a floor to ceiling transparent wall looking down at a thousand foot drop to the whitewater rapids at the bottom of the canyon. Her initial impression of the city as a dew-covered spider web was good, but up close each of those dew drops was a building hanging by cables that also served as skywalks connecting the buildings. But her impression was also wrong because the city was a three-dimensional web with multiple levels stretching back and forth between the canyon walls. Thanks to the transparent walls everywhere she looked she could see shermmies busily going about their tasks and living their lives. That was a lot of dancing, skipping and cavorting cuteness. Holly turned away from the view back to the room they’d been guided to when they reached the city after walking the three kilometers from the launch.

The floor was bowl shaped, and Autumn stood at the very bottom of the bowl with his arms crossed. It wasn’t that deep but enough so that she was almost the same height for once. Their guide had left them alone. His eyes were closed. He wasn’t sleeping but was doing some sort of NuEdenist meditation in the sunlight streaming through the roof.

“Autumn!”

Without moving a muscle, he opened one eye. “Yes.”

“Are you with me?”

His eye closed. “Of course.”

Holly was pacing around Autumn when Happy skipped out of one of the connecting tubes into the room.

He flung his arms wide. “Greetings!”

Holly smiled and threw her own arms out wide. “Greetings! Thanks for seeing us again.”

“After we spoke I came back and talked to the council again.”

Holly took a deep breath. “That’s great. I actually wanted to come here and talk to you, to your council if you like, because I realized that in all of our talks I’d left out some important points.”

Happy’s big eyes blinked. “Oh?”

“When you left we realized that we didn’t share the environmental benefits that come with a space program. Sure there’s an impact to the program itself, and we can include environmental remediation in the contract, but once you’re established out there in space, you can relocate most of your heavy industrial applications. Back on Earth, we reversed centuries of environmental damage once we got our space legs.”

“We discussed this,” Happy said, cheerfully. “I had overlooked something too.”

Autumn stirred. “What was that?”

“Fun!” Happy spun on one foot and flung out his arms. “Glee thought of it on the way back.”

“Fun?”

Happy’s eyes widened. “All those explosions, riding on top of a rocket, it sounded very scary. We don’t fly. What you call sipper moths fly, other animals fly, but we don’t fly. I don’t think any shermmie on the planet has ever really thought about flying.”

“Never? Is it some sort of phobia?” Holly hadn’t considered that. What if the whole planet was deathly afraid of flying? They’d never sign the contract then. Not unless she could convince them to hire an outside workforce, with the overhead taken out after her percentage.

Happy waved his hands. “No, no. Not a phobia.” He scratched his head. “We didn’t see the need. Why do it? There are safer and more reliable methods to travel.”

Holly got it. “Fun! You’re saying Glee was the first one of your people to realize that flying might be fun?”

Happy’s heels kicked out in a little jig. “Exactly! It seems obvious, but even many on the council had difficulty imagining how it could be fun. But Glee set up what your database called a swing in the council chambers, and they all took a turn! Glee said flying would be like swinging, but you don’t come down!”

“Flying is fun,” Autumn agreed.

Holly had never felt better in her life. As the primary agent of contract for Shermmies’ planet, her future was nearly assured. She pulled a palmsheet out of her pocket and unrolled it. “That’s great news, Happy. We’re all happy now! I’ll contact the launch, and I’m sure they can get the contract of intent transferred right away. That’s just the initial contract that shows you agree to work with my team on the uplift contract and then we can work out all of those details.”

Happy had started a little jig, but he stopped. He crossed his arms, mimicking Autumn’s pose. “Oh, no. We can’t sign a contract with you.”

Holly managed to find her voice. “What? Why? Did the southern continent already sign with Davis?”

“No,” Happy said. He gave a little bounce. “The council spent more time studying the information you provided and came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to pay a percentage of our future forever. As it appears we would in your legal system, if we agree to the agency deal you propose. Instead, they’ve agreed to work with the southern council to build an independent space program.”

Holly shook her head. “You don’t want to do that, Happy. You’ve got to go back to the council and urge them to reconsider. Or let me talk to them. It isn’t easy building a space program. On my home world, we had several false starts before we really got established in space and it cost people their lives. Working with an agent, we can guide you past those troubles. It’s a percentage, but once you really understand what’s involved, I’m sure you’ll see how worthwhile it is.”

Happy gave her a little bow. “Thank you for your concern, but now that we see how fun it could be I believe we can figure it out on our own. And if there are any stumbling blocks it looks like there are those that provide technical assistance for a one-time fee, in case we get stuck.”

“That’s hardly the same as an agent that works with you every step of the way. Just think of the time you’ll save in not having to figure it out yourself!” Holly put away the palmsheet. “How about you just agree to give it a little more thought before you decide?”

Happy giggled. “You just never give up, do you? In that case, the council has instructed me to revoke your contact permit. I hope you have a fun trip back to your ship!”

And with that, he skipped out of the room.

Autumn looked at Holly. “Do you remember the way back?”

🚀

Holly stormed through the Prometheus’s clean white corridors on her way to Legal. There had to be a way to get back down to the surface and convince the shermmies that they needed to sign the agency contract. She almost ran into Davis before she saw him coming toward her, she was so into her head and was looking down at the deep blue floor while she walked. She stumbled trying to stop.

Strong hands caught her arms, steadying her. Holly looked into his hazel eyes and noticed the flecks of green and gold mixed together. He had really pretty eyes. “I see the furballs threw you off the planet too?”

Holly scowled and stepped back. Davis’ hands fell to his sides.

“Yes, they’ve decided to go independent. Evidently, they think that’ll be more fun.”

“They could be right,” Davis said, a grin playing on his lips. “In a way I’m relieved.”

“Why?” Did he know how long it had taken her to save up to make this uplift bid? “I just threw away a small fortune trying to land this uplift contract.”

He raised his hands. “Hey, me too, but I wasn’t looking forward to spending a bunch of time around all those cutesy, happy furballs. It was a bit much, you know?”

Holly laughed. “I’ll agree to that.”

“Good. And since you’re in an agreeable mood, how about we get that dinner we talked about? I have a proposal for you, I think we can pool our efforts and maybe land a new uplift contract on a new planet just surveyed.”

He did look really good, and she hadn’t eaten anything in the past ten hours. Holly gave him a small nod. She raised a finger. “Dinner. We’ll see about the rest of it after. But if they have lemon meringue pie for desert I might kill someone.”

Davis laughed, and as they walked back down the Prometheus’s corridors, Holly finally laughed too.

🚀

4,972 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 94th short story release, written in June 2011, during a workshop on the Oregon coast.

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 Good Samaritan.

Under the Bridge

Cover art for Under the Bridge

Devon found the streets better than the risk of living with his father. Even when he slept under a bridge instead of in a bed.

He met all sorts. Or thought he had, until he met the shirtless kid. A freak of some sort, but okay.

Getting out of Aberdeen, that was it for Devon’s plan. He never expected where it would lead him.

A standalone story in the Goblin Alley universe.

🍎

Devon hitched his backpack straps up over his coat’s padded shoulders. The coat pulled tight across his chest. It was too small and purple, but it was warmer than no coat at all. He peered up at the bright gray skies with suspicion.

It wasn’t really raining right now. Not as cold as it had been lately either. He rubbed his nose on his sleeve. Flowergies, the lady called it. That wasn’t right. He knew that. Allergies was the word. But the lady in the yellow caddy had called it flowergies, and he liked the sound. It was better.

The lady wasn’t his mother, but he wished she were. She had given him a ride back to Olympia from Aberdeen, that was all. An hour out of the rain, out of Aberdeen, and out of his father’s reach. Devon had long since given up worrying about whether or not his father would come looking for him. The bottom of the next bottle was the limit of his father’s focus.

Devon kicked at the cracked asphalt at the edge of the path. He could head on up Boulevard, maybe check out around Ralph’s Thriftway to pick up something to eat. Then down to the library when they opened, but that wasn’t until eleven anyway. The sun was just up, so that was hours away.

Better to move on out from under the bridge anyway.

Someone sniffled.

Devon turned, looking around carefully. Up on the other side of the bridge, across the stream and right up between the dirt and the bottom of the bridge a small gray shape moved in the shadows.

Jeez, a little kid. At fourteen, Devon had seen other kids living outside. Some with adults, so not. This one had been quiet, he hadn’t heard the kid when he settled down late last night.

It was hard to see anything except ratty blond hair, what might be a gray hoodie and a skinny little body. The kid was all tucked back up into a ball just in the dirt. No pack. No blankets that Devon could see. It was warmer last night, but still plenty cold.

“Hey, Kid?”

The little kid squirmed backward further under the bridge.

Scared. Who could blame him? Devon kicked another piece of asphalt. His stomach growled.

Hell, he’d tried. He wasn’t going to risk falling into the stream and go climb up there. What good would it do?

“Whatever,” Devon said. “I’m heading out anyway.”

He left the cover of the bridge and started up the trail to the switchback that would take him up to the road. It wasn’t that far to walk down to Ralph’s, and someone might help him out with bus fare money. That was the easiest. People coming in and out would give up a couple bucks for bus fare. Not that he’d use it for that. Why would he? He could walk anywhere the bus went.

Rocks rattled behind him.

Devon didn’t stop walking, but he slowed down and glanced back. The kid was standing on the dirt slope. Dust rose from the rocks that he had dislodged sliding in the loose dirt.

Big white eyes stared at Devon, white except for a big dark pupil. No iris at all, it was freaky. The kid’s whole body trembled. He was just like a rabbit, paralyzed for a moment before it bolted off into the bush. Except there was something wrong with the kid.

For one thing, he was skinny. His rib cage showed easily through his gray skin. It wasn’t a hoodie at all. He wasn’t even wearing a shirt — it was his skin that was gray. He did have on pants at least, a pair of worn, holes-in-the-knees blue jeans.

And he was sort of hunched, with a hump that Devon had taken as a hood on his back. More than that, the kid had thick spikes sticking out of his elbows and a jutting underbite with two fangs or tusks that thrust up out of his mouth.

That wasn’t right at all. Devon’s breath caught in his throat, and he forced himself to take another breath. The kid was some sort of freak. Like a mutant or something from comics.

“Hey,” Devon said, and his voice cracked. He flushed and took a breath.

“It’s okay, right? I was just going?” Devon pointed up the trail.

The kid’s fat bottom lip stuck out more. He said something, but it was all gibberish as far as Devon was concerned. Not only was the kid a mutant freak, but he also didn’t speak English.

Whatever this was, it was some deeper shit than Devon wanted to get into.

“Look,” he said. “I didn’t understand that, but I’m going up there. To get food, okay? I’m hungry.”

Devon patted his belly for emphasis.

The kid drew his hands into together into his belly, clenching them tight and wincing.

Shit. Shit. Devon looked away, rubbing his jaw. He couldn’t go out there, not with the kid looking like this. It would screw everything.

He shifted his pack, and the coat pulled on his shoulders. Hell, it was getting too small anyway. Maybe he could get a poncho or something, then it could cover his pack too which wasn’t waterproof.

Devon slung off the backpack and unzipped the coat. He pulled it off. A couple fluffs of white stuck out of the places where the outer fabric had gotten snagged, but it was still a decent enough coat. The air was a lot cooler without it, but not bad. He still had his hoodie and two t-shirts on which was three layers more than the mutant kid.

Picking up his backpack, Devon held the coat out toward the kid.

“Here. If you’re coming, you’ve got to cover up man. People will stare.”

It was crazy anyway. What did he need with this kid? He could find someone, maybe from social services but any kid like this was going to have a hard time no matter what. And was it really up to him? The kid was out here for a reason, probably. Looking like that didn’t help. The kid couldn’t do what Devon did to pass himself off as someone just trying to get home. It’d get harder in a few years when he was older, but maybe by then he could get a job or something. The main thing now was staying on his own. That was safer.

The kid still hadn’t moved. Devon lowered his arm. “Look, if you don’t want it, I’ll keep it. It’s kinda getting small, but it still helps keep me warm. I can just leave.”

He took a step away.

“Bak! Bak!” The kid jumped down the loose slope, stumbled and nearly fell.

An instant later he was up, jumping up on the concrete footing. His feet were bare, dirty and had thick claw-like nails. He jumped off the concrete and landed knee-deep in the stream with a splash.

“Bak! Bak!” the kid said again as he splashed across the stream.

Reaching the other side he stopped, wrapped his arms around his middle and shivered. His pants were now soaked nearly to his crotch.

“Jesus Christ,” Devon said. He pitched the coat at the kid.

It fluttered to the ground in front of the kid who just looked at it and back at Devon.

“Put it on,” Devon said. “Or not. I don’t care. I’m going.”

He turned around again and started walking. This kid was too freaky. He needed to just get out of this. He had tried to help — had even given up his coat — so that was enough.

He heard the coat rustle and didn’t look back. I’m going up to Ralph’s, that’s it.

There was the sound of a zipper, and then feet slapping the asphalt trail. Devon looked back. The kid was running up the trail and stopped when he saw Devon looking.

The coat swallowed the kid like a purple coat-monster. The kid had the hood up, which helped hide the fact that his face and eyes were so weird. It hung down to his knees. It didn’t do anything for his feet, but if the kid sat down with his legs crossed and kept his head down no one would notice anything.

Well, they might get more bus fare if they were brothers trying to get home. It was worth a shot.

“Okay,” Devon said. “You can come. Let me do the talking, okay? ‘Cause they wouldn’t understand you anyway. I don’t know what language you’re using, but I haven’t heard it.”

The kid didn’t move. Probably didn’t understand a word Devon was saying.

Devon beckoned. “Come on. Let’s go.”

The kid took a couple more steps closer. Devon smiled and nodded. “Good. Keep up.”

He started walking, and the kid followed, soon catching up to walking right behind Devon. It was sort of freaky, having him right behind him like that, but each time Devon moved to one side or the other the kid also moved, so Devon left it alone.

They went up the switchback to Boulevard and then on down over to Ralph’s. It didn’t take too long to get there. Along the way, Devon explained the plan.

“I don’t know if you’ll understand, but maybe we can figure it out.”

When they got to the store, and there were people about, the kid walked so close he was nearly attached to Devon’s butt. It was impossible to do anything with him so close.

Devon led him over near the bus stop, but not on the street side. Devon turned around, and the kid stepped back, blinking his big eyes and his lip bulging out over those fangs. The kid needed some serious dental work.

Devon pointed at the ground. “Sit.”

“Shit?”

The kid said it so seriously that Devon couldn’t help but grin. The kid’s grinned back and showed off a hellish display of sharp teeth. It wasn’t just those big fangs, but his other teeth were also pointy and sharp.

“Yeah, no,” Devon said. “Sit, not shit. You don’t want to shit. At least I hope not.”

The kid closed his mouth and didn’t move.

“Like this. Sit.” Devon sat down on the ground, crossing his legs.

“Sit.” The kid sat down in front of Devon.

“Great!” Devon stood back up.

Immediately the kid popped back up. Devon shook his head. “No, no. You sit.”

Slowly the kid sat back down. Devon smiled. “Good. That’s right. Wait there.”

Devon backed away, and the kid whined, just like a puppy or something whining. Devon came back closer and crouched down.

He pointed at the low brick wall of the grocery store. “I’m going to get food, okay?”

He pantomimed eating.

“I’ll come back here.” He pointed at the ground, and then the kid. “I’ll bring you food, okay? You wait?”

“Wat. Wat. Bak.”

Good enough. “Right, wait here. I’ll come back.”

There wasn’t anyone standing at the bus stop in the rain, and even if there was, a lot of the bus riders carried passes, not cash. At least not that they’d give it up.

People shopping, those were better. They had cars and felt bad for anyone needing to catch a bus in the rain.

A young couple came out of the store right as he got closer. They looked like a possibility. He looked back. The kid was still sitting there, hunched in the coat, he did a great job of looking miserable.

Perfect.

He hurried over to address the couple before they were gone. “Excuse me, I’m embarrassed to ask this but my brother and I —” he pointed at the kid, “— are trying to get home to Yelm. Could you help us with bus fare?”

The woman was already shaking her head before he finished, but the guy reached for his wallet. “I’ve only got a couple bucks, I’m not sure it’ll be enough.”

“It’ll help, thank you,” Devon said.

He accepted the wrinkled bills that the guy pulled out of his wallet, pretending not to notice the twenty the guy tried not to let him see. The woman wasn’t happy even with what he got.

“Thank you,” Devon said again, as the couple moved off.

He stuffed the bills into his pocket and walked back to where the kid waited. When he got close, the kid looked up.

“Bak?”

Devon shook his head. It had to look good for the couple. “No, not yet. I’ll be back. Wait here. That’s good.”

“Wat,” the kid said, slumping.

“Yeah. Hang in there.”

Several rejections, and a couple givers later, Devon had eight dollars in his pocket. Plenty for now. Stick around too long, and there was the risk that one of the store employees might tell him to leave. Through it all the kid stayed where he was told.

Devon went into the store and came out with a day-old loaf of bread, some string cheese and a bag of older discount fruit. All of it perfectly fine, but people didn’t want to buy apples if they weren’t flawless. It was crazy, but they’d pay way more for waxed and polished apples than one that had a tiny ding in the skin.

He carried the bag over to the kid and held it up. “Hungry?”

“Shit wat?”

Devon laughed. He motioned for the kid to get up. “No more waiting. No more sitting. Food. Let’s eat.”

“Ut?”

Devon handed the kid a string cheese. The kid hooted and quickly pulled the plastic open and took a big bite. That was good, Devon had thought he might have to show the kid how it worked.

“Eat, that’s right,” Devon said. “Come on. Let’s walk while we eat.”

The kid was obviously hungry. He finished the string cheese and looked confused about what to do with the wrapper until Devon took it and put it back into the bag.

He handed the kid slices of bread, and an apple, and there was even more hooting. Then the kid looked between both hands like he couldn’t decide what to eat first. It was so funny that Devon laughed again.

“I’ll tell you,” Devon said around a bit of string cheese. “That scheme with a younger brother and all, it worked great. Even when it didn’t pay off, it was still better.”

The offers to call a parent had taken some explaining. No cell phones at the construction job where their Dad worked, seemed to take care of suspicion. It was a good line for those people.

Walking down the hill, Olympia spread out below them. Lots of houses, and businesses in houses in this part, but down there was the downtown area. It was nicer than Aberdeen at least, especially down on the pier and that area. When it was nicer he liked to go up around Capitol lake and hang out, read library books.

Not today though, not with this rain. At least the kid was walking beside him instead of right on his butt like before.

He looked at the kid, finishing the apple, all of it even the core. The kid just munched through everything. “You want to go to the library?”

“Lary?”

“Lie bare ee,” Devon said.

“Liberery?”

“Close enough. Yes. The library. They have books, computers. You can get online. Places to sit. It’s not too bad if you don’t attract attention.”

“Liberery.”

“Yes, great. We’ll go there.”

The kid finished the last of the apple and eyed the bag Devon held. “Fud ut?”

“Not now,” Devon said, switching the bag to his other hand. “Wait. Later we’ll eat more. Got to make it last.”

“Wat ut?”

“Right. Wait to eat.”

The kid made a grunting noise and kept walking.

🍎

They’d gotten as far as Chestnut when Devon turned to head over to 8th and get over to the library, when the kid suddenly hooted and ran ahead of Devon.

“Hey, wait!”

The kid stopped a second later at the mouth of an alley. It was a dirty old pink building on one side, and a rusted metal building on the right. There was one of those big new State buildings or something across the street, but the kid was just staring into this alley like it was something special.

Devon didn’t see anything unusual. A narrow paved strip, some weeds and dirt along it between the buildings. Nothing exciting.

“What is it?”

“Gob bak! Gob bak un wan!”

Devon shook his head. “I don’t understand kid. The library isn’t that way.”

“No liberery, gob bak un wan!”

Getting nothing from Devon the kid blew air out of his wide nostrils like he was trying to get rid of snot and then headed off up the alley.

What the hell? Devon stared after the kid walking along swallowed in the purple coat. After everything that Devon had done, the kid was just leaving? What was down there anyway? It didn’t look like the alley went very long at all, just to the ends of those buildings before it opened up on one side to a parking lot or something.

The smart thing would be to just leave the kid here. Obviously, he wanted to go that way for some reason, he was a mutant freak of some sort, so who knew what went on in his brain? That might not even be a language he was speaking, but some sort of gibberish that the kid had made up himself.

He might even be dangerous.

“Gob bak un wan!” The kid jumped up and down and started running.

Hell. Devon took off after the kid, sprinting down the alley after him. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid!

But he couldn’t just ditch the kid. Not now.

The little guy was fast, but he was small. Devon’s longer stride quickly closed the distance. The kid was just out of reach when he went all blurry. A bright light hit them, flooding the alley and lighting up the big brick building that rose up several floors on the right side of the alley.

Devon put on the brakes. The kid was dancing in a circle in front of him. Devon squinted against the light, raised his hand to shield his eyes and turned to look up at the massive building that hadn’t been there a second ago.

Four stories tall, balconies with sliding glass doors, some sort of apartment building or something. There were plants and clothes hanging out. And on one balcony a massively large woman with a tiny white thong disappearing between her twin globe pink ass-cheeks. Not a pink like she was flushed or something, but a pink-pink, a medicinal pink. She was wringing out something, and then flicked it out onto the railing.

Devon looked back at the kid. He’d thrown the hood off and beamed up at the bright sun in a crystal-clear blue sky.

“See?” The kid said, perfectly clear. “Goblinus! Back home!”

“You’re back home?” Devon said. It wasn’t just the apartment building, the building on the other side was concrete and even taller, rising up to glass and steel at least ten or twelve floors up. And beyond these two were more buildings, and past them a street that teemed with people walking. There were voices, bells ringing, something hammering somewhere, a dog barking, but no sounds of traffic. Even with all of the noises, it was quiet.

“Wait,” Devon said. “Where are we? How’d we get here? And how come you can talk here?”

The kid laughed. “It’s Goblinus! Everyone understands here, duh! But you should go back.”

The kid looked around. “Now. We have to go before the Royal Guard shows up. You’re not supposed to use the Goblin Alleys.”

“The what?”

The kid came at him, pushing his hands at Devon. Devon backed up.

“You need to go back!”

Devon turned around. The alley stretched on behind them much longer than it had a moment ago. And the big state building wasn’t there. Instead, there was an even taller building of dark glass and steel that climbed up at least twenty stories. A pedicab rolled past the alley being pedaled by a muscled shirtless guy. A guy with green skin, and tusks like the kid except smaller.

“Go where?”

The kid grabbed Devon’s arm. “Come on! The way back is closed anyway. We’re too late.”

Someone screamed, back up the other way. There was a sound like hoof beats.

“Come on!”

The kid took off running back down the alley toward the big dark building that hadn’t been there a moment ago. The sound of hoof beats was getting louder, and there were snorting and squealing noises. Shouts and more screams.

Yeah, maybe the kid had the right idea. Devon sprinted after him, the bag of food banging against his leg as he ran.

They left the alley, and after that the kid was in charge. Devon kept on his heels now, bewildered by the changes all around them. This wasn’t Olympia. This was big and insane. There were normal-looking people, but they were out-numbered by the strangest people that Devon had seen. Like the kid, many had tusks, but they came in different sizes and skin colors that definitely were not normal.

The kid mostly went West, zig-zagging through streets and alleys. Finally, he slowed down and stopped running so fast. They were on a quiet street. The kid stepped over into a doorway and leaned against the chipped concrete wall. He grinned up at Devon.

“Lost them, I think.”

“Lost who?” Devon moved into the opposite side of the doorway, watching the street. No one was paying attention to them.

“Royal Guard, Boar-riders. Navigator’s Guild doesn’t like people using the alleys without a license. You’re supposed to register.”

“I’m so confused. Start over, where are we?”

“Goblinus.”

“What’s that?”

The kid shrugged, gesturing at the buildings around them. “The goblin city. You really don’t know?”

Devon shook his head.

“Weird. The Goblin Alleys connect Goblinus to every city on the Otherside, where you come from.”

“And there are goblins? Are you a goblin?”

The kid’s lip curled. “Naw. I’m a troll. Goblins killed my parents, made me a servant. I ran away when I sensed the alley connection, but then I couldn’t get back.”

The kid glanced out and around. “Looks like you’re stuck now unless we find another connection.”

It was incredible, but Devon couldn’t deny what his eyes were seeing. A woman walked past in the street. She was tall and elegant, with flowing white hair and eyes that didn’t have any color to them, like the kid but she didn’t look much like him otherwise. There were others, men and women, with her, but they wore thick body armor and carried guns openly.

“Who are they?”

“Trow,” the kid said.

“Troll?”

The kid shook his head. “Trow, and I’d stay out of their way too. Evidently, there’s a whole big thing going on with the Goblin King, the trow, and the Erlking.”

“Who’s that?”

“He leads the wild faerie. Come on, we shouldn’t stay here.”

The kid stepped out of the doorway.

“Wait,” Devon said.

The kid looked up at him from the purple coat.

“What’s your name?”

A big toothy grin split the kid’s face. “Evil Boy.”

“What?”

The kid smirked. “That’s what the goblins called me. I don’t remember my troll name.”

Devon chuckled. “I’m not calling you Evil Boy. How about Neville?”

“Neville? Okay. Yes! I like it. What’s your name?”

“Devon.”

Neville nodded. “Okay! Let’s go.”

🍎

With no other option except to trust Neville, Devon followed the troll kid through the goblin city. It was obviously huge, bigger than any city he’d ever been in. Both Aberdeen and Olympia would only make small sections of this city. At one point Neville led them up a small hill, but even looking back down the street there was no end in sight. An orange smoggy cloud hung over the city to the South, but they were moving away from that section. The oddest thing was the lack of cars. It was just people and bikes and pedicabs. Even some on horses, and once he was sure he saw an elephant down one street before it passed out of view. In the clear skies overhead a massive zeppelin floated through the sky.

“Where are the cars?” Devon said as they walked.

“Only on the highways,” Neville said, gesturing off into the unseen distance.

“Are there subways?”

“Some districts do, but you don’t want to go down there. Safer up here.”

Neville turned down a wide avenue lined with trees and street lamps. Walking past one of the lamp posts, Devon happened to look up, and there was a tiny naked woman with wings inside the lamp looking out at him. She clutched her hands together, and her tiny red mouth moved as if she was begging him for something. Behind her other, other naked, what? Fairies? Whatever they were, they stirred and started to rise. Men and women fairies, some of them lying on the glass, or curled around each other. Several took off and hovered in the glass globe.

It was a warm day, they had to be baking.

“Come on,” Neville said.

Devon pointed. “But there —”

Neville slapped his arm. “Stop it! People will notice.”

“I don’t—”

Neville pressed close, his lower lip trembling. “Come on. Now.”

The kid was right. He didn’t know what he was doing. He tore his gaze away from the fairies and followed Neville down the street. It was all cafes and stuff, with tables out in small fenced areas, the bright red brick street weaving between them. Spicy odors that brought to mind pizza floated along the street and made Devon’s mouth water.

There weren’t many humans here. And no one that looked like Neville. Mostly it was goblins, greens and grays, with a few pinks and dwarf yellows. Devon got a few unfriendly looks and after that kept his head down. This place didn’t feel very safe.

They left that area behind and entered a section of the city that was more shabby and in disrepair, and Devon felt more comfortable. The graffiti and broken glass, the faded paint and chipped concrete was all a lot more familiar.

Neville’s pace slowed.

“What was that back there?” Devon said.

“What?”

“In those lamps. Where those fairies?”

“Sure. Nasty fairies, so what?”

Nasty? Devon let it go. This was all incredible enough without sticking his nose into it. The little fairy woman hadn’t seemed nasty, but what did he know?

“They’re fake,” Neville said. “Magic disguise, you know?”

“No, what do you mean?”

Neville huffed and scratched his head. Then he hooted. “Camouflage, they don’t look like that. Not really.”

“What do they look like then?”

“Bugs.” Neville nodded confidently. “Ugly bugs. Bloodsuckers.”

Devon waited for the laugh, but Neville just stood there looking at him. Finally Devon said, “Really?”

“Yeah. Bloodsuckers.”

Oh. They were still walking, but now Neville lifted an arm to point out a building ahead. It was a concrete structure, lower floors boarded over with graffiti-tagged gray wood while the upper windows gaped wide open. Except a few had dirty sheets and plastic bags strung across the openings.

“We can stay there,” Neville said. “I know someone.”

🍎

Neville had been telling the truth. There was an old woman, a goblin, with wrinkled gray skin like she’d come out of an old black-and-white movie. She was swaddled in layers of bright, colorful fabric. Neville found her on the third floor, tending fire pit near the windows. A couple pots hung from spits, and the smell was somewhere between chicken soup and clam chowder.

The woman’s face beamed when she saw Neville.

“Evil Boy!” She threw wide her arms. “Come give Mancher a hug!”

Neville threw himself against her generous bosom. Then she thrust him back and fingered the coat. “Where’d you get this?”

“Devon gave it to me.” Neville pointed at Devon.

Mancher sniffed at Devon. “Othersider?”

She spun and shook her finger at Neville. “Evil Boy! You promised to stay away from the alleys!”

“I didn’t mean to,” Neville protested. “Geists chased me!”

“What’re you doing around geists?”

“There was a shopkeeper, and —”

“And I know all about it. You bolted and didn’t pay attention to where you were going.” Mancher squinted up at Devon. “Why is this Othersider here? Plenty of trouble, you bringing me.”

“Didn’t mean to, he crossed. Couldn’t leave him to the pigs.”

Mancher’s face softened around her tusks. “No, I guess not. But you’ll bring ‘em here.”

“Look,” Devon said. “I can go if you’ll look after Neville. If you can tell me how to get back.”

Mancher looked at the kid. “Neville, is it? You think of that?”

“No, Devon gave it to me.”

“I like it,” Mancher said. She looked back up at Devon. “Not a good time right now, to find a crossing. Early, just before sunrise, that’s the best. We’ll go then.”

“Mancher used to work for the Navigator’s Guild,” Neville said. “She knows the alleys.”

“Okay,” Devon said. “If it’s better then.”

“We brought food,” Neville said. He gestured to Devon.

Right. Devon pulled the bag from his backpack and handed it over to Mancher. She took out the rest of the loaf of bread, two remaining string cheeses and the apples, chuckling with pleasure over each.

“This is fine,” she said. “Thank you, he called you Devon?”

“That’s right.”

She beckoned. “Come sit by the fire. It’ll get cold.”

🍎

A hand shook Devon awake. He started to say something, and the hand covered his mouth. The smell of Mancher’s unwashed bulk filled his nose as her hot breath tickled his ear.

“Boar riders. Don’t make a sound.”

She pulled back and released him. Devon rose carefully. There wasn’t much light. The fire had died down during the night and ashes had covered the coals. Faint moonlight came in through the open windows. Mancher moved like a dark cloud across the moon, a shape just briefly passing the window before she crouched and woke Neville the same way.

Devon quietly stuffed his blanket back in his backpack and rolled up his sleeping bag. It only took him moments to tie it beneath the backpack and Mancher was back pressing against his side.

“Follow close. Don’t make noise.”

There were loud snorts, and rough voices outside that chilled him more than the cold night air. Somehow the goblins had followed them here. Or they were just searching likely places. Either way, it was time to go.

Mancher moved deeper into the dark building, and Devon stuck close to her, with Neville bringing up the rear. None of them spoke. Away from the windows, Devon couldn’t hardly see his hand in front of his face as they went deeper, so he grabbed onto one of Mancher’s cloths. She didn’t object. Both Neville and Mancher seemed to have better night vision.

Crashing wood and squeals below floated up through the floors. There were shouts from other squatters and the Royal Guard.

Soon Mancher led them into a narrow staircase, folded back into the corner of the building. The steps were wet and narrow. Devon couldn’t see anything at all and had to trust Mancher’s presence as he made his way down. He knew Neville was behind him only by the kid’s soft breaths as they made their way down.

It took a long time before Mancher stopped. She grabbed Devon’s arm and pulled him close to whisper in his ear. “Basement. Tunnels here. Stay close and quiet.”

“Yes,” Devon whispered.

“It’ll be okay,” Neville whispered. “Mancher knows all the ways.”

There was a lot of crashing noises above, and a scream abruptly cut off. Apparently, the Royal Guard didn’t like other squatters.

The tunnels stank of shit and stagnant water. Devon was just as glad not to see where they were going, except for the time when the ground crumbled and he nearly fell. Neville helped catch him. After what seemed like an hour of walking there was finally a light ahead. It seemed like an illusion until they got closer and Devon could make out dim light coming in the mouth of a tunnel.

Moments later they came out on a hillside, a cutout designed to catch water. The sun wasn’t up, but the moonlight was still bright compared to the darkness of the tunnel. Devon breathed deeply, glad to be out of that place.

Neville gave him a toothy grin. “Go back now?”

“Not back in there,” Devon said. “But I wouldn’t mind going home.”

Mancher was already climbing up the hillside. “Come on. Don’t have much time. Easier to cross now.”

🍎

Unlike the bigger city environment that they had left, more of the buildings in this area were smaller. It almost reminded Devon of Olympia, with a sort of mix of houses and more commercial buildings, but nothing bigger than a few stories. The city still seemed to go on without end, maybe like Los Angeles would seem if he was suddenly dropped into the middle of it.

Mancher stopped at an alley that extended between two apartment buildings. She pointed at the narrow space. “Go on, there. You can cross if you go now.”

Devon stepped into the opening of the alley. “It’ll take me home?”

“Back to the Otherside,” Mancher said.

Neville said, “It might not be your city.”

“What?”

“Go, or you’ll miss it,” Mancher said. “Hurry!”

“Goblinus connects to all the cities,” Neville said.

“So I can end up anywhere?”

“No time to map it,” Mancher said. “Go!”

A distant squeal floated through the morning streets. The Royal Guard was still out there, looking for him. Did it make a difference where he ended up? He’d been on his own for years now. He could start anywhere.

“Okay.” He looked at Neville. “Take care kid.”

“Yeah, you too.”

“Go!” Mancher said.

Devon turned and ran down the alley. It was only an alley, nothing else special about it except it was in a goblin city. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about it. Maybe Mancher was wrong —

— rain hit his face. And it night time, but lit with electric lights.

The buildings were different. Pale walls closed in on either side. The one on his right looked pale yellow in the light from an electric lamp on the corner of the building at the mouth of the alley. The alley was paved in interlocking stone tiles. Balconies looked out into the narrow alley, with plants and laundry hanging over the railings.

Devon made his way down the alley — hearing laughter and the sound of cars — and stepped out into a narrow street. Small rounded concrete barriers blocked off a section of street and sidewalk. Across the street was a wide walkway within the building there, with a long row of arched openings. More balconies stuck out over the street, which wasn’t black asphalt but more rectangular stones at angles. The buildings were all about four stories high and seemed to hang over the street. Cars parked in a row along the way in front of the arches, and there was a strange pay phone with a curved plastic shield over it.

Back, but not Olympia. He walked out along the street and studied the signs in the shops. Some had familiar words. Audio Video, PlayStation on one shop. Others, he didn’t recognize. French? Italian? It didn’t look like Spanish. He didn’t speak any of those, but some of the signs were in one of those languages. At last he came to a street sign. It wasn’t like the familiar green and white signs back home, but it was places and arrows pointing.

Roma. Napoli-Caserta. Duomo.

Roma? Rome? Was he in Italy? Devon still had his backpack, with his spare clothes, sleeping bag, and blanket. It was enough for now. He’d gone from meeting a troll under a bridge in Olympia, through a small stretch of Goblinus, and ended up around the world in what looked like Italy.

There had to be other people who knew about the Goblin Alleys. Just like back in Goblinus, there were probably people here that knew about the other world where faeries were trapped in street lamps. He’d have to be very careful not to give things away, but if you could find your way around? He could travel anywhere. Neville said that the alleys connected to every city.

Devon kept walking. For now, it was enough to learn this city and figure out where he was, and where he might get his next meal. The universe was a lot different than he had imagined, and it was going to take time to figure it all out.

When he did, he wouldn’t be sleeping under bridges anymore.

🍎

6,148WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 93rd short story release, written a few years ago in March 2014. It’s a standalone story set in my Goblin Alley universe.

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, Shermmies’ Planet.

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.