Quantum Uncertainty

Detective Barry Holliday, Doc to the few who knew him, took interesting jobs. Unusual corporate work.

Nothing illegal. Interesting. This latest assignment involved corporate espionage, very hush, hush, corporate secrets stuff. High tech. Just how high tech, he didn’t know.

Not until the whole job goes very wrong and Doc faces one of the weirdest situations in his career.

🚀

Detective Barry Holliday, Doc to his friends, what few he had, crouched to tighten the cuffs on the perp. He didn’t like being so close to the guy, one Phillip Norton, who smelled of too few showers and too much weed with a beer aftershave. He stood up confident that the guy couldn’t slip out of the cuffs.

“Come on, man, those hurt!”

Doc shrugged. He turned his attention back to the desk, a large dark glass and black metal affair littered with computer parts. Three monitors acted as the centerpiece of the unit. Doc sat down in front of the screens.

“What’d you do with the data you stole from Q-Prime?”

“That’s what this is about? Man, how’d you find me?”

Doc brushed a fingertip across the screens. They came to life. Red lasers flicked on from a small device in front of the monitors and created a keyboard pattern on the glass desktop. But the keys were all laid out in a different order than normal. Doc looked back at the guy.

“What’s this?” He gestured to the keys.

“A keyboard. What does it look like?”

“Don’t get smart. Why are the keys in the wrong places?”

“It’s a modified Dvorak layout. More efficient, you see?”

“Right.” Doc studied the layout. Vowels on the home row. This was going to take time. Fortunately, the guy hadn’t had time to lock the computers down. It was all open and available. Doc reached out and dragged open the guy’s file system. Tons of stuff but when he checked the recent activity logs he found the files he wanted under Armageddon. File sizes and count matched what Q-Prime had given him. He pulled out a jump drive and stuck it in a USB port on the monitor. A quick grab, drag and dump and the files were being moved over to the drive. No need to use that weird keyboard at all.

“Man,” the perp said. “You can’t give that back to them!”

Doc spun the chair around. “Look, I’ve already called the cops. They’re going to be here soon. I’m turning you over to them. You were pretty clever getting out of Q-Prime, I’m still not sure how you managed that –”

“I beamed out.”

“Beamed?”

Phillip nodded enthusiastically, a move that sent his greasy brown hair flying around his face.  He twitched his head to shake it back away. Phillip had to have brains to get into Q-Prime and managed to get out again with this data, but he didn’t look like it.

“Right, dude. That’s what this is all about. They’ve developed technology that can transport anything somewhere else. I got in, copied the data and set it to erase after I left. Then I beamed back here. The computer wiped and they lost everything.”

The files were still copying. It was a lot of information. Doc looked back at Phillip. “You lost me there. Are you talking about teleporting or something? Like in science fiction?”

“Yes! Exactly! Dude, think about what they could do with that sort of technology?” Phillips bloodshot eyes widened. He leaned forward as far as the cuffs allowed. “It’s the end of everything.”

“Sounds to me like the end of rush hour traffic, what’s so bad about that?”

Phillip slumped. “Dude, you don’t get it. Shipping industry, gone. Manufacturing, gone. Transportation, gone. Medical, gone. Agriculture, gone. Pretty much everything will be gone. And then when they turn it into a weapon we’ll all be gone too.”

“You’re crazy, kid. But that’s not my problem. I just do the job.” Doc heard sirens outside. The files finished. Perfect timing. He pulled his drive and slipped it into his pocket. “I turn you over to the cops and give Q-Prime back their property. That’s it.”

Phillip thrashed against the cuffs. “No! Seriously, you don’t understand!”

“Yeah, right, kid. I’ll be seeing you.”

Doc walked around the chair, planning to go out and meet the cops. He’d hang around until he saw the kid tucked safely away into the back of a squad car and then he’d be on his way. Another job done. You had to love these industrial espionage cases.

The first shot took Phillip in the throat, knocking his chair over backward and spraying blood across the hardwood floors. The crack of the chair followed by the whack of Phillip’s head against the floor were both louder than the shot. A silencer then. Someone didn’t want the cops outside to know that they were shooting. The fact that the shooter took out Phillip first gave Doc a chance to hide behind the desk, not that the furniture and computer equipment provided much shelter. Still, anything was better than nothing.

Doc drew his weapon and fired off one shot at the ceiling. There wasn’t a second floor and the shot would alert the cops to be cautious at least. He tried to peek out and was rewarded by the monitor above his head exploding into sparks, smoke, and flying glass. Doc ducked lower. A second shot hit the computer behind him. He smelled electronics burning with a hot ozone scent. Time to move.

He darted towards the kitchen and the hallway down towards the bedrooms. Bullets hit the wall beside him but none caught him. He made it to the hallway and kept going. If the shooter caught up to him now he didn’t have any cover. He reached the bedroom and kicked the door shut. Phillip had about as much sense of cleanliness in here as he did out in the other room. The room stunk of stale beer, weed, and moldy food. It lacked any furniture except a futon on the floor with black blankets wadded into a pile. It didn’t even have a dresser he could shove in front of the door.

On the other hand, he could see through a small slit in the curtains that the windows weren’t barred so that was something. He holstered his gun and went to the window. He reached through the curtains and dragged the window open.

“Freeze! Don’t move! Hands above your head!”

Cops. Doc lifted his hands and folded them on his head but looked back. The door knob turned. Stay and get shot in the back or go out and risk being shot by the police. Not a good choice. He dove forward through the screen. He hit on his back, not too hard, and heard shouts all around. Hands grabbed him and flipped him over onto his stomach.

“Shooter inside!” Doc shouted.

That got their attention. He found himself hauled up and hustled along the alley. Someone slapped cuffs on his wrists as they went. They took up shelter behind a squad car and Doc finally got to see who he was with. Young cops. Rookie cops with nervous eyes. Sandoval and Hicks, according to their uniforms. Sandoval was young, blond and a woman with a very pretty face. She looked very pale. Hicks was a bigger teddy bear sort of guy with baby fat still in his cheeks. He looked almost panicked.

“I’m Barry Holliday. I’m the private detective that called you. There’s a shooter inside, he already killed Phillip Norton, the guy you’re here to arrest.”

“Yeah, buddy, just sit tight. We’ll handle this,” Sandoval said.

He didn’t have any other choice so he waited until the other cops came out, his identification was checked and verified. With nothing to hold him on they cut him loose. Doc thanked them and headed home with the data from Phillip’s computer.

🚀

Home was a downtown apartment. Nothing fancy. A small bedroom with a bed and unpainted pine dresser. The main living room slash kitchen and dining room looked bigger than it was simply because he didn’t have a lot of stuff. He’d never been a fan of a lot of stuff. He had an over-sized blue denim bean bag chair, a lamp with a flexible gooseneck and a wood TV tray set up under the window. A wood chair, painted green, sat beside the tray. That was it for furniture. He hadn’t hung any paintings. The kitchen counters sat bare and empty except for the dish rack with his single bowl, plate, glass, spoon, fork and knife. They didn’t even get used that often since he usually ate out. Doc came through the door, locked it behind him and pulled off his coat.

He took out the USB drive and his tablet before hanging the coat on a hook on the back of the door. He walked over to the bean bag chair and lifted it up and flipped it over to fluff it up. Then he dropped into it and closed his eyes as he sank into its comforting depths. Some days he didn’t even leave the bean bag to sleep. He turned on the tablet and plugged in the USB drive. The files came up.

He opened his email program and picked one of the smaller files at random. He attached it and sent it with an invoice to Q-Prime. As soon as their money showed up in the escrow account he’d established then he’d release the rest of the files. He felt bad about Phillip dying. Someone hadn’t wanted him to talk.

Teleportation, Phillip had said. Doc scanned the other files and opened one of the documentation files. It was full of technobabble but as best Doc could make out Phillip had been telling the truth.  Q-Prime had developed a way to transport material from one spot to another. It could operate on scales from single atoms to large objects. He didn’t understand all of the details but it had something to do with changing the space-time coordinates of the target. Basically, they told the object that it wasn’t here but was actually there. They called it quantum bit-shifting. It didn’t sound like beaming the way he’d thought of it watching the old Star Trek shows. They weren’t talking about converting matter into energy and back but in the end, he didn’t see that it made any difference. You went poof in one place and appeared in another.

Doc didn’t want to think about it too much. He’d done his job. Yeah, he could see Phillip’s point about something like shipping, assuming that building the device wasn’t too difficult and it didn’t sound like it was from what he’d read. But that wouldn’t mean the end of everything. What worried him more were the military applications. What if you could ‘beam’ a warhead inside a target? High-yield explosive just appears inside a nuclear reactor. Ka-Boom! No warning. No way to trace who was responsible. If a terrorist group got hold of these files they could hold the world at ransom.

Not his problem. He’d been hired to recover the files. He’d done that. Doc shut the computer down, sat it aside and leaned back. He closed his eyes and folded his hands across his middle. He could use some rest.

🚀

He’d hardly closed his eyes when the bean bag vanished. He dropped onto a hard surface and lights blinded him. He heard voices and the hum of equipment. He lifted a hand to block the light. It came from two bright fluorescent tubes above his head. He blinked and looked around finding himself in a small room with concrete block walls. The air felt cold and dry.

“It worked,” some said. A woman. Young, by the sound of her voice.

“I told you. Phillip said it would.” A young guy with a scratchy smoker’s voice.

Doc flipped over in a crouch. His hand went to his gun—

🚀

He fell. He barely registered the sensation of falling before he hit the ground. He didn’t have time to do anything to break his fall and he hit hard on his elbow and side. Not enough to knock his wind out but hard. He lifted his head and found he was still in the same room. This time he saw his captors. Two twenty-somethings standing behind a bank of computers and equipment on the other side of the room. Doc reached for his gun. Fast. Faster than most people could draw.

His hand hit an empty holster. The gun sat on the table in front of the man.

“Don’t bother, Holliday,” the guy said. “Just chill out.”

The guy wore an expensive suit. Clean-shaven. He looked like a young Wall Street sort of guy. The woman with him looked more like a computer geek. She wore a black business dress but her hair was carelessly pulled back into a ponytail. Pretty in a slightly curvy overweight geek fashion. Her auburn hair had darker and lighter streaks.

Doc rocked back on his heels. “You’ve got the Q-Prime tech.”

The guy nodded. “That’s right. Phillip came through for us. But it isn’t without problems. We need the latest data from the company.”

Doc shook his head. “Can’t help you. I already turned it over.”

🚀

Falling. It didn’t surprise him as much this time. He slapped the floor when he hit but lay still. Let them think he’d been hurt. They’d teleported, beamed him, quantum bit-shifted, whatever they wanted to call it up to the ceiling and then let him fall.

He heard the woman’s heels click on the floor.

“Stop,” the guy said.

“He looks hurt.”

“He didn’t fall that hard. And he slapped the floor. He’s faking.”

🚀

Falling again. Doc took the fall and didn’t bother faking an injury. He rolled and popped up into a sprinter’s position. He pushed off. One stride, two, nearly there—

🚀

Fall. Hit. And rolled forward, still with the momentum of his brief sprint. Doc collided with the back of the computer equipment. He grabbed a fistful of cords and yanked.

“Shit!”

Doc heard keys rattle. The girl gasped. Doc stood up and shoved the monitors at the guy who gasped and jumped back as the monitors shattered. Doc grabbed his gun. He had it pointed square at the guy’s chest.

“Name. Now.”

“Whoa! Okay! Shit.” The guy lifted his hands. “Martin Donaldson.”

Doc looked at the girl. “You?”

Tears welled in her eyes. “We didn’t want to hurt you—”

“Name!”

She jumped. “Kasey Linton.”

Doc kept the gun steady. “Get over to the wall. Hands on the wall. Legs spread. Don’t piss me off.”

They hesitated.

“Now!”

“Okay! Fuck!” Martin went to the wall. He slapped his palms against it. “Holliday, you’ve got to—”

“Shut up.”

Kasey leaned into the wall. Her shoulders shook. Doc went around the computers. Some of the equipment still looked to be on. He saw a couple power strips and hit the switches. The computers went dark. He went over to the two standing against the wall. Martin flinched when Doc frisked. He didn’t have a weapon. Neither did Kasey. But he did take cell phones off them and pocketed them both. He stepped back.

“Sit down facing the wall. Cross-legged. Hands folded on your heads.”

Martin got down. So did Kasey.

“Good. Now you’re going to answer some questions. How did you get the machine working so quickly?”

“It isn’t that hard once you understand it,” Kasey said. “I had to write some targeting routines. That’s why we wanted their research. They’ve had longer to develop the implementation.”

“So anyone with the resources could build one of these?”

“Right,” Martin said. “Q-Prime is going to deal with the highest bidder and whoever that is will control everything. Get it? Phillip came to us. He told us what was happening. I had the funds and between him and Kasey, they got it working. We were going to make it available to everyone. It’s the only way it’ll work. Balance of power, you know?”

Doc lowered his gun but didn’t put it away. He glanced at the material on the desk that wasn’t covered by the shattered monitors. He didn’t understand the papers but he recognized the Q-Prime logo.

“Why’d you kill Phillip? To cut him out of the deal?”

“We didn’t kill him,” Martin said.

“We didn’t,” Kasey added. She sobbed. “I loved Phillip.”

He believed them. “Any ideas who did kill him?”

“It was Q-Prime that killed him. They didn’t want him talking about their technology.”

Doc didn’t rise to the bait. “If every nutcase on the planet has access to this technology then no one is safe.”

“Wrong.” Kasey looked back. “We’re safe because no one is safe. Who would use it, knowing that any survivors will have access to the same technology to retaliate?”

“Plenty.” Doc sat down in a chair. “How many copies of the research are out there right now?”

“Don’t tell him,” Martin said.

Doc nodded. “So only yours and what I’ve got. Why didn’t you and Phillip just destroy the data? Then no one would have it.”

“You can’t destroy knowledge like that,” Kasey said. “I understand it. So do the researchers at Q-Prime. It’d take time to develop a new working model but not that much time. Months.”

“Which is why we have to go public with the technology now rather than later,” Martin said.

“It isn’t just the technology.” Kasey twisted around. “This is a fundamental discovery about how our universe works. Knowledge like this needs to be shared. Q-Prime won’t share it.”

To his left was a closed green metal door. Doc twitched his head at it while keeping the gun on them. “Where does that go? Where am I?”

Kasey answered. “You’re at the University. This is Lab 3, one of the rooms in the basement. That just goes out into the hallway. We convinced labs to give us the room for the semester.”

Doc eased over towards the door. “I’m leaving now. I suggest you stay put until the cops get here.”

“Cops!” Martin started to lower his hands.

“Up!” Doc snapped. “Do it!”

“Jeez, okay. Why are you calling the cops?”

“You stole the data with Phillip. You kidnapped me with your device. I don’t even know if being teleported is safe. I think you’re going to be facing charges.”

“Shit,” Martin said. “You can’t do that.”

“Watch me.” Doc opened the door. As they had said, the door opened onto a concrete hallway. An exit sign glowed green at the end.

🚀

When the cops arrived they found the equipment back on. Martin and Kasey were gone. Doc checked his account balance using the campus Wi-Fi and found the money deposited as contracted. He created a compressed archive of the files and sent it to Q-Prime. Then he deleted the files. He’d fulfilled his contract. All the rest of that stuff, what was going to happen with this technology, this new knowledge that the researchers had developed, that was out of his hands.

It always had been. The world might change but he couldn’t stop the changes, he could only adapt and move on.

🚀

3,274  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 98th short story release, written in November 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, Quantum Uncertainty.


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

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.

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.

This Book is Haunted

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked back one last time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’re you doin’ there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A ghost. What else could she be?

“Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, please,” she lisped.

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

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

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

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

💀

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

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

“I know, ma’am.”

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

“You can check it out,” he said.

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

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

“Okay,” she said.

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

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

💀

1,410 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

Witness to Dust

The Dust came and Death followed. An alien pandemic unleashed on the world, transforming people into Dusters.

They called themselves Witnesses. Witness to what?

Delancie Haines didn’t know. She read the news, saw the reports about the new minority, hated and feared by everyone. Stories of loved ones transformed, turning on their own families.

She didn’t understand. Not until Death chased her down the trail.

🚀

Delancie Haines didn’t have breath to curse but she sure as Hell swore silently with each step as she ran from Death down the old railroad trail.

Nowhere else to go. On either side the ground dropped off into deep ditches clogged with brushes beneath the drooping bows of the Douglas fir and cedar trees. If she tried leaving the trail the creature would be on her in a minute.

So she kept running. No fun left in running now. Her arm pulsed with pain and the blood ran down before flying off her elbow. Her breath sounded ragged to her own ears. And behind her, she heard the sound of the creature’s claws scrapping on the pavement with each stride. Death’s breath came hot and heavy, thick with excitement.

But he’d have to work to catch her. She wouldn’t make it easy.

Despite the pain, she found she didn’t feel scared. Pissed, yes. It galled her that she’d be fodder not only for the beast but the newspapers. The forest on either side looked beautiful, rich and green, glistening from the constant drizzle that rained down from the cloudy sky. It pained her that she’d never see it again.

Ahead, at the bottom of the slope, she saw the bridge over the Deschutes. The wood planks ran across of the old railroad bridge. Chain-link fences lined either side. During good weather people swam in the pool beneath. But today there’d be no one.

Except for the house overlooking the river.

Delancie stumbled. No way she’d make it that far. It sounded like the creature was right behind her now. She half expected to feel his claws at her back but she regained her stride and pumped onward. He had to be so close. She could smell him again. A rich organic scent like a freshly turned compost pile. She’d smelled it before he came out of the bush but she hadn’t recognized it until she saw him.

If she hadn’t been running already this chase wouldn’t have happened at all. He misjudged and she got away with only the cuts his claws left in her shoulder.

Across the bridge. If she could make it that far, get help from the people in the house. It was a chance.

She concentrated on moving her legs. Her breath rushed in and out. She pumped her arms in time. Death’s breath panted relentlessly behind her. She didn’t dare look back.

The bridge was right there. Delancie imagined her feet hitting the wood. The hollow sound it made with each stride. It hadn’t been that long ago that she’d run across it coming the other way. She could almost see herself running blissfully in ignorance towards her death.

A low snarl behind her and something snagged her shirt. Fabric ripped. A chill ran through her limbs and she pushed as hard as she could. Running with everything she had until she felt like she was going to puke. Fine, puke, but she wouldn’t stop. Not for that. Not for anything.

She wanted to see the Sun shine again. She wanted to admire Mt. Rainier towering like an impossible snow-capped colossus over the landscape. She wanted a hot double-cheese pepperoni pizza straight out of the oven. Or a night watching movies with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. Hell, even another day at work, never mind what anyone might think.

The bridge was only a half-dozen strides away now. Delancie ran for it.

Claws raked fiery pain down her back, the fabric of her shirt shredding like tissue paper. The force of the blow nearly drove her to her knees. She cried out. She screamed with as much rage as pain. No fucking way! Not like this!

Delancie slammed her elbow back. She connected with something that felt like a wood post but the beast fell away and she was still on her feet. She ran ahead onto the bridge. The chain link rose up on either side taller than her head.

Trapped.

She heard the beast’s claws on the wood. She felt sick and weak. She hated it and knew, she knew, she couldn’t make it to the end of the bridge.

Desperately she jumped at the chain link. She caught the wire and climbed despite the pain. The beast growled. She heard it coming.

She kicked out at the sound with everything she had. Her foot hit the beast solidly. She climbed. Grabbed the top of the fence.

Sharp spikes of pain sank into her calf and a terrible weight nearly pulled her from the fence. She clung to the fence and screamed.

“No, fucker! No fucking way!” She slammed her free leg down on the beast. Pain flared up in her leg and her stomach heaved.

Vomit exploded from her lips. She tasted her salad with Italian dressing again. She felt dizzy. She kicked down again as hard as she could. Again.

The weight vanished. Her arms felt like lead but she pulled up. Her breasts scraped against the top but she bent over..

…vision swam…

…water dark and rippling below…

A growl and scrambling on the wood.

Delancie swung her legs over the top of the fence. Her fingers still hung onto the wire. The beast hit the fence and shook it.

She blinked and saw it clearly, inches away through the fence.

A man, except not. A bare muscled chest and arms like two small tree trunks. Nice. Thick neck leading to a face not too human. A short muzzle with dozens of small, sharp teeth. Eyes an impossible blue like a high mountain glacier lake. Shimmering blues-black layers of chitin surrounded the eyes, covered his cheek bones and spread back over his head like a helmet. Despite the alienness she thought it was a nice masculine face.

“Fuck you,” she said sweetly.

She let go. Falling felt like rest. She closed her eyes. It ended too soon. She hit the water and it knocked the wind out of her.

She went under. Oh Hell.

🚀

Delancie grabbed the bed rails and pushed herself up. Pain ripped along her back and shoulder. She cried out.

“Whoa, you didn’t try to get up, did you?”

The speaker was a fortyish black nurse giving her a look that forbid any disagreement. The room had plain walls with a television on a mount above the bed. Metal rails on the sides of the bed. A hospital then. She should have known from the medicinal smell alone. Delancie eased back down, that hurt, rolled onto her good side and breathed a little easier.

She attempted a smile. “Better?”

“I’d better not find you getting up again,” the nurse said. Delancie saw her name tag read Sarah.

“Okay. Where am I?”

“Saint Peter’s hospital. You’re lucky to be alive after a Witness attack.”

A Witness. Delancie closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them again Sarah wasn’t in the room but she found an older man sitting in the chair beside her bed. She must have fallen asleep. So had her visitor. He sat slumped in the chair. He had neatly trimmed white hair, pale skin, and wore slacks with a comfortable-looking brown and white knitted sweater.

His eyes opened. “You’re awake.”

“So are you.”

His lips twitched but he didn’t actually smile. He rose from the chair and placed his hands on the bed rails. No wedding ring but he did have a ring on his right index finger. A surprisingly delicate gold band which held a shiny blue-black stone. No, she thought. Not stone at all. Chitin.

“You’re a Witness.”

“At least you didn’t use the term Duster. I appreciate that.” His voice was calm. He seemed patient.

“Isn’t that considered rude?”

“Yes, but I am also being rude. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m called Wainwright. I’m here to be your sponsor, Delancie.”

“Sponsor?” Delancie shook her head. She felt her gut sinking. She knew what he meant. “I don’t need a sponsor. The guy that put me here needs a sponsor.”

Wainwright nodded. “Yes, indeed. He’s already been identified and is receiving the care he needs. But we’re talking about you. Unless you trust me next time it could be you attacking someone.”

“I’m not going to attack anyone!”

“That’s what we’re going to work on. I’ll be in touch. Here’s my card.” He left the card on top of the service table.

“Wait, shouldn’t you be answering questions?”

Wainwright shook his head. “Not just yet. It’ll all make more sense later on. Get some rest.”

Delancie lay back in the bed, grimacing at the pain. Although, to be honest, it didn’t hurt all that much. Most likely they had her on some good painkillers. She remembered the feel of the Witness’s claws raking down her back, and…

 

A thrum of excitement fills the air as she stands before the crowd. The houses have segregated themselves. Blue Hive clusters closest to the stage. Their chitin gleams like oil beneath the Sun’s light. To her left gather the Green and Red Hives, each keeping an extra space of separation between themselves and the neighboring hives. On her right are the members of Yellow Hive, only slightly fewer than Blue. The wind brings with it the co-mingled scents of so many people. Her mouth-parts vibrate as she draws in the odors. Their excitement pours across her pods like a fiery rush of hot blood. This is why she performs. This moment when she stands at the confluence of these hives beneath a deeply blue sky.

 

Delancie gasped. She clutched the bed sheets. For an instant she’d been somewhere else. Someone else. She still felt the sadness that underlay the excitement of the impending performance.

She lay in the hospital bed and turned the experience over in her mind. The people in that audience hadn’t been human at all. As it unfolded she hadn’t found anything odd in the way they looked because she hadn’t been herself. She’d been… Someone, the performer. She knew the name. It stuck in her mind like seeing an actor she recognized in a movie and not being able to recall the name.

But there wasn’t an Internet Movie Database for this.

Like everyone she’d read about what the Witnesses went through but she’d never realized it was like this.

The door to the room opened. Sarah came in and for a half second Sarah looked like the alien. A strange, soft, oddly colored alien. Her weakness made Delancie’s mouth water. Sarah looked like food.

The sensation passed in an instant and Sarah was only Sarah, her nurse. Even so it left Delancie shaken. She pointed at the service table just out of her reach.

“Can you give me the card, there?”

Sarah smiled. “Of course, hon. Here, let me move this closer.”

She wheeled the table up so it extended across the bed above Delancie’s waist. “Is that better?”

Delancie picked up Wainwright’s card. Just his name, number and email address. Nothing more. Plain type.

“Yes, thank you. Are my things here? My cell phone?”

“I’ll get them for you, they’re right over here.” Sarah opened a small cupboard in the corner of the room.  A LCD monitor hung on a monitor arm off the side of the cupboard. Sarah took out a plastic baggy. “I’m sorry, your clothes were ruined.”

“That’s okay, just the phone.”

🚀

“You’re telling me I’m going to be a werewolf?” Delancie stood in her own tiny half-painted green kitchen, her arms crossed, staring at Wainwright reclining on one of her so-called antique wood dining room chairs. No matter what he sat in he seemed to recline and melt into the furniture. His calm vibe got on her nerves. “Really? Isn’t that the gist of it?”

Wainwright shook his head. “We don’t like being called werewolves any more than Dusters. And with my help you can learn to control the change. You must, or you’ll make someone else the victim.”

“How many people just give up and eat a bullet instead?”

Wainwright grimaced. “Too many. I don’t think you’re one of them.”

He had her there. Delancie turned away from him because if she didn’t she might start shouting. And it wasn’t Wainwright’s fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, even the poor bastard that lost control.

And she didn’t want to be like that. She’d just put in the new bamboo eco-counter top in her kitchen. She picked up a plain hemp dish towel and wiped away a few crumbs from her morning toast. Wainwright was right. She wouldn’t eat a bullet.

That didn’t mean she needed to accept what he’d told her either.

She shook the crumbs in the sink and turned back around. “There has to be a way to cure this. Something that can be done before it goes any further. Aren’t there treatments?”

“Treatments? No. Not the way you mean.”

“So I don’t have any choice?”

Wainwright stood up. He smiled sadly at her. “You can either accept my advice or take the consequences if you don’t. You choice. You know how to reach me.”

Delancie slammed her hand down on the counter. “You can’t just walk away!”

Wainwright paused and looked back. “Watch that temper.”

Then he left. Delancie swore and leaned on the counter. She needed to run. She always felt better after a run.

🚀

When she hit the trail she turned towards Yelm. Not running away from what happened. She wanted to see different scenery. Six miles to Yelm, another four out along the Yelm Prairie Line trail and then back. Twenty miles. After a run like that she wouldn’t need to worry about changing into a monster. She’d collapse and sleep for ten hours.

She ran toward the Sun and it played hide-and-seek among the trees over the trail. A few clouds decorated the sky. Her breath moved easily in and out of her lungs. She felt good. Her wounds didn’t hurt. She didn’t even have any scar tissue. That freaked her out when she noticed that there was hardly any marks left by her attacker. Wainwright explained it but she hadn’t needed the explanation. She knew right away what it meant. She’d known since her first inherited memory.

She was a Duster. A freak. A werewolf.

Her face burned at the thought. She didn’t think that about other people. She understood that they didn’t have any choice about what they were, any more than anyone else with an illness. She didn’t approve of treating them like lepers. She’d always believed that the condition could be controlled.

But now she felt violated. It wasn’t even the attack. It was what happened. Like carrying a rapist’s baby. The thought of alien bio-tech coursing through her veins, remapping her DNA and changing her into something else made her angry. How dare they send that out into the universe, knowing that if it worked it would profoundly alter whatever life forms it came into contact with?

Much more practical than trying to send out starships to colonize other worlds. Just send out dust spread by the solar winds to rain down on other worlds and remap them to match your own physiology and embed memories so that the culture carried over as well. Better than any message. No need to decode it because the transformed organisms would simply understand the memories as if they’d lived them.

Delancie breathed deep. Her muscles flowed smoothly. She noticed a cross street ahead and checked for traffic on either side. Then she saw the name of the street. Bighorn. She’d reached the outskirts of Yelm already.

She checked her watch. 24:30:23. Impossible. She couldn’t run a four-minute mile. She considered stopping but she felt great. Fantastic. She crossed the street and kept going.

She ran past a housing development, the Nisqually Valley Golf course and then on into Yelm itself. She reached 510, darted in front of a large SUV and was across, ran past the metal wagon wheel onto the Yelm Prairie Lane trail. She kept running. She hadn’t even been trying before. She pushed harder. She felt her muscles work smoothly. Her left knee didn’t bother her. The wind blew past her face.

It didn’t take long for her to reach the end of the trail. She checked the time. 39:02:03. Delancie stopped. She put her hands on her hips and waited to be sick. She felt fine. Her heart dropped back to a normal rate. She didn’t even feel sweaty.

Impossible.

She turned around. Could she beat the time back? She grinned and took off running. She pushed. She sprinted. She didn’t hold back at all. She flew down the trail.

Pain!

It felt like a baseball bat connected to her skull and tried to drive her head out of the park. She dropped and her momentum rolled her across the trail. She ended up on the grass curled into a fetal position. She clutched her head as if she could hold it together.

She screamed. She lost all control then and seized. Her body thrashed in the grass. Her fingers burned. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t even scream anymore. She rode the convulsions until she thought she’d die and they kept going.

Delancie eventually realized that the convulsions had stopped. Warily she tried moving. Everything hurt. She reached up and froze.

Her fingernails hung by strips of skin. In their place were dark blue-black claws. Lighter blue chitin covered the backs of her fingers to her mid-knuckle.

“Fuck no.” She sat up and carefully reached into her pocket. The claws made it awkward but she got her cell phone out. She pushed the voice command button. “Call Wainwright.”

He met her on the trail with a baseball cap, sunglasses and gloves. Delancie snatched them out of his hand.

“Thanks.”

“Take a breath,” Wainwright said.

Delancie glared at him. He looked so soft and he had the gall to stand there and tell her what she should be doing.

“Think,” Wainwright said. “Think about what you’re feeling. Why are you so angry?”

“Because…” She couldn’t say why but it felt like everything must be his fault. She growled deep in her throat.

Wainwright held up a mirror in front of her face. He might as well have thrown a large bucket of ice water in her face. She shivered.

She’d always known that she was pretty. Twenty-four years old, with fair skin and a complexion her girlfriends always admired. She felt guilty because she didn’t have any extensive regime to maintain her skin. Even with all the running and weather her skin usually glowed with health. No one would be signing her up to win a beauty pageant but that’s only because she didn’t fit the standard mold. With her green eyes and little nose she looked good. Unconventional, but pretty.

She didn’t recognize the face in the mirror. It looked like her jaw bones had been pulled apart, widened. Rays of chitin extended from her now-missing eyebrows back over her head. And her green eyes had gone over to a deep sky blue. It was a striking face still, but broader and more powerful than her own. An alien face.

Wainwright lowered the mirror and held out the glasses. Delancie took them, slipped them on and then did the same with the hat. Before she could put on the gloves she had to brush away her fingernails. It seemed like it should hurt but it didn’t. She pulled on the gloves. She shoved her hands into her pockets as they left the trail to walk over to where Wainwright had parked on the street.

At home Delancie stripped off the hat, gloves and sunglasses and went straight to the mirror near the door. Wainwright came in and shut the door while she studied her modified appearance.

She looked at him. “How long does this last before I go back to looking like normal?”

Wainwright shrugged. “I couldn’t say. It varies. Some never switch back.”

“Have you changed?”

“Yes.”

“Did you attack anyone?”

“I killed my wife,” Wainwright said. He didn’t look away. He didn’t whisper. “I got mad. I got mad a lot in those days. It didn’t take much. Someone driving too slow on the freeway. Anyone working in customer service. I wasn’t mad at her. As usual she just got to hear about how my stupid boss pissed me off.  Then I went into convulsions. She tried to help. She called 9-1-1 but before they got there I’d already changed and killed her. I injured two of the EMTs before I ran out. I was stalking a young girl walking home from school when the police shot me.”

Delancie’s knees felt weak. She went to her couch and sat down. She grabbed one of the pillows, saw her claws pricking the natural cotton cloth and tossed it away. She hugged herself instead.

Wainwright walked over to the chair-and-a-half and dropped down. He swung a leg over the arm and watched her.

She felt like crying. She felt like tears should be pouring out of her eyes but nothing came. Her eyes stayed dry. She couldn’t cry. She looked at him and couldn’t bear it. She looked away.

“What happened after that?”

“I healed. While I was in the hospital I changed back. A Witness came to me and helped me. That was still in the early days.”

“You didn’t know you’d been exposed?”

“No. It was the Dust back then. I didn’t know until the change. It’d been in the news. You remember how it was.”

Delancie nodded. She remembered the fear bordering on panic. The alien pandemic that turned people into monsters. No wonder people had been terrified. But the world went on and there was a new minority for people to hate. If anything the hate burned brighter because this was a contagious condition. She closed her eyes.

In the darkness she listened to her house. The refrigerator made noises, the ice maker. Wainwright’s breath sounded soft and steady. She focused on that. Matched his breathing. In and out.

She felt an odd sensation. Like her fingers had become straws in an extra thick milkshake and they were trying to suck up the ice cream. She kept breathing. The pressure built and then popped. She felt a pressure growing on her head and jaw. It didn’t so much hurt as it felt like a chiropractor making a difficult adjustment. Then everything felt better.

Delancie opened her eyes. Wainwright gave her a small smile and held out his mirror. She reached out and stopped. Her claws were gone but her nails were still missing. The tissue looked pink and fresh. Tears sprang up in her eyes. She took the mirror and looked at herself. She had her face back. Except her eyebrows. Tears ran down her cheeks. She set the mirror down and wiped the tears away.

She took a deep breath and looked at Wainwright. “Okay. I get it. What do I need to do? This changes everything, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, more than anyone unmodified realizes.”

🚀

That night Delancie went out in her backyard and stood beneath the bright full Moon. She didn’t change into a monster. It didn’t have any sway over her. The stars burned bright above, the Milky Way a cloud of stars across the sky. The air felt cool on her skin. She rubbed her arms. She didn’t know what the future held. But whatever happened from this point on she knew she’d handle it. She wouldn’t let this beat her and make her into a monster. And maybe someday she’d actually understand why someone up around one of those stars had done this.

Because right now she didn’t have a fucking clue.

Delancie gave the stars one final look and went back inside. Time for a movie and Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. She’d earned it today. Hell, she hadn’t killed anyone.

🚀

2,007 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 69th weekly short story release, written in November 2009. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Better the Boy.

Dreamstone

Emma’s dreams take reality with the purchase  of her first house. A chance to start over, start fresh with her son Emmett. A new future reborn as she rebuilds the house.

The Plan.

A plan disrupted by unwelcome visitors in the night, turning dreams into nightmares.

💀

Emma rolled out of bed before she was fully awake. Emmett’s cry echoed in her mind. She skidded on the worn wood floor as she left the room and collided painfully with the doorframe.

Her shoulder throbbed as she went down across the hall to Emmett’s room. Moonlight filled the room with a pearly glow but it was enough light that she could see him sleeping peacefully in his crib. Mr. Moo sat nearby keeping a placid watch over the child. In one fat hand Emmett clutched his Ragman doll.

He’s fine, she realized. She had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing out loud and waking him up.

Emma backed out of his room. Her hands shook. On her left was the stone ring she’d found when she moved in, down between the torn up floorboards in the laundry room. She ran her fingers across the worn carvings on the ring. She could almost still hear him crying out. Not one of his normal frustrated cries or an upset cry because his diaper needed changing. The cry she’d heard had been one of pain and fear. Even before she had woken up she’d been sure that something absolutely horrible was happening to her son.

And yet he lay undisturbed in his crib.

She found it hard to reconcile those two different realities. Tears welled up in her eyes and she didn’t know why. Chalk it up to emotional overload. She wiped them away. It was silly. He’s fine. She choked back a sob and headed down the hall towards the stairs. The window about the stairs let in more moonlight. She made herself take deep, even breaths as she reached for the railing. She clutched the old wood and held on as if it were a handhold and she stood on the deck of a storm-tossed ship instead of her hallway.

A pile of boxes stood beside her in front of the railing. Only a half-dozen of the stacks scattered around the house. Their first house, her’s and Emmett’s. It still seemed incredible that she had been able to get the financing necessary to buy this place. It needed work but the house inspection didn’t turn up any show stoppers. It was basically sound but the last owners had originally planned to fix the place up and then sell it for a profit. Only they had several such projects and with the collapse of the market had decided to unload the least profitable houses. They left the place with the paint stripped and an unfinished kitchen remodel.

Emma felt better. Think about the house might stress her out some of the time but right now it helped calm her nerves. Fixing up the place was one of the things that anchored her right now. The Plan. Fix the place up and run a yoga studio out of the first floor. That gave her the upstairs and some of the downstairs rooms to live in. With only her and Emmett that meant they still had plenty of room and that was without counting the basement. A cup of ginger-sage tea. That sounded good right now. And a slice of the pecan pie she’d made before the move. After all, it had to be eaten.

Before going downstairs she went back and looked in on Emmett again. He still looked as peaceful as ever.  Emma took a deep breath and headed downstairs.

She was in the kitchen with her head in the refrigerator when she heard the noise upstairs. She pulled back and listened while slowly setting the pie down on the piece of plywood serving as her counter top. It had sounded like something moving upstairs across the floor of the room above. Or maybe it was the ice-maker, she thought.

Then more scratching noises from the floor above. Definitely something moving upstairs! In the spare bedroom which just had boxes in it that she hadn’t sorted through yet, but that didn’t mean that a raccoon or something hadn’t gotten into the house. Emma shut the fridge and hurried back upstairs. Her bare feet didn’t make a sound on the bare wood steps. She went quickly but quietly up to the hallway so that she could hear if it made any more noise.

As she reached the hallway she heard it again. It sounded bigger now. She heard a box fall to the floor with a heavy thud. The noise brought her up short. Would a raccoon tip over boxes? She thought about calling the police but if it was only an animal how would that look?

The room above the kitchen was across the hall from Emmett’s room. She had to check first. Maybe it would go back out however it had gotten in. Emma reached out and turned the knob. The sound stopped. She held her breath. One, two, on three she shoved the door open with her left hand and reached in to hit the light with her right. Instead of the smooth plastic of the light switch she felt something hard, prickly and it moved beneath her hand.

She screamed and jerked her hand away. She didn’t let go of the door but before she could pull it shut three long hairy black legs thrust through the opening around and grabbed the door around the knob.

Emma screamed again and jumped back.

Seeing those legs against the wood with the bits of white paint still clinging brought back her dream. Her nightmare. She’d forgotten in the panic of hearing Emmett screaming.

She stumbled further back from the door until she hit the wall opposite. On the door the legs flexed and moved. Like in her nightmare. The spider. She’d dreamed about this spider. In the dream it had chased her through the house and now here it was in that room. It couldn’t possibly be real. It couldn’t.

I’m still dreaming.

Except she felt a sick feeling in her gut that she wasn’t dreaming. She considered herself grounded. She practiced yoga daily. She ate right. She practiced meditation. She knew when she dreamed and when she was awake.

This was real. It couldn’t be and was, all at the same time.

In the doorway the spider moved. In the moonlight it looked like a living shadow against the pale wood. Another leg had joined the others as it crawled onto the door. As yet all she could see were the long legs. At least a foot long that she could see and the head hadn’t come into view yet. She could still see it in her memory of the nightmare. A head the size of a grapefruit with dark plum-sized eyes and thick fangs that dripped poisons. Right before she woke the spider had been after her. Not only her, but Emmett!

Her paralysis broke and ran to Emmett’s room. Inside and shut the door. She turned to the crib and saw a dark hairy moonlit body crouching on the edge of the crib.

“Emmett!”

She charged across the room. The spider reared up and chittered at her. She grabbed Mr. Moo from the side of the crib and swung the stuffed cow at the spider. It moved faster than her swing and she missed completely. She didn’t know where the spider had gone. She reached into the crib and grabbed Emmett. She heard a noise and looked around. Movement above her caught her attention and she jumped back as the spider dropped from the ceiling above. It landed in the crib. Emma kept moving away. In her arms Emmett stirred and made fussy sounds but he hadn’t yet woken up. The spider reached out with two legs between the slats of the crib.

At the door Emma turned the knob and peeked into the hallway. The door to the spare room stood open. No sign of the spider. She looked up and couldn’t tell in the dark if there was one above her. What choice did she have? She looked back. The spider in the crib had reached up for the top rail. It might jump from the crib any moment. She opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. She closed the door firmly behind her. At least that one wouldn’t be getting out soon.

She had to get Emmett out of here. She went towards the stairs, easing up to the open spare bedroom. When she got close she took a breath and quickly reached out and grabbed the door knob. She expected the spider to strike and yanked the door back. It slammed shut. Emmett stirred in her arms and made little protest sounds. The spider hadn’t struck. It might be trapped inside now. She hoped it was but she didn’t hear anything moving inside. She looked up but the ceiling looked clear. She couldn’t be sure with the shadows but it seemed safe for the moment. She eased past the door and got within arm’s reach of the light switch. She flicked it on.

Bright light filled the hallway. By that clear light she could see thick strands of webbing covering the ceiling. Beyond Emmett’s room the strands came down to meet more strands on the floors and walls to create a funnel leading back to her bedroom. Emma found it hard to breath. Dark shapes moved in the depths of the funnel. Legs moved into the light and she saw there had to be at least three of the spiders lurking in the shadows at the end of the funnel.  Each one of the hairy monsters was as big as a medium-sized dog but the long legs made them appear even larger.

It’s impossible, she thought. It was her nightmare made real. Except it couldn’t be real. She knew better. She’d read it somewhere, that giant spiders couldn’t really work. Something about the way they breathed.

The spiders crawling towards her down the funnel must not have read that article.

Emma backed to the staircase and found herself looking down into more webs. They crisscrossed the space from the top of the stairwell to the floor below. Two fat spiders were busy working on what appeared to be another funnel. Anchor lines ran from the funnel to the walls across the stairs themselves. The way out was blocked.

The spiders noticed her standing at the top of the stairs and started running up the lines towards her.

A glance down the hall showed three more leaving the funnel to run at her.

Emma ran back to the spare bedroom. She yanked the door open. Hit the light switch. A stack of boxes sat in the middle of the room. One box lay on the floor with photo envelopes spilling out of the open top. She didn’t see anything moving. The spider that had been in here might be one of the ones that had gone out into the hall to construct those webs. She shut the door, knowing that there were at least five spiders loose in the hall. She checked the corners of the room that she could see. No sign of a vicious spider. She circled the pile of boxes slowly, keeping an eye out for anything moving. She made her way entirely around the pile and didn’t see any spiders.

Scratching noises at the door made her jump. Dark legs thrust beneath the door and clawed at the wood floor. Emma looked around the room. There wasn’t anything soft but that didn’t matter at the moment. As gently as possible she lay Emmett down on the floor beneath the window. His brow wrinkled but he didn’t wake. She went to the pile of boxes. The spider kept scratching. She picked up a box containing books and lugged it over to the door. The closer she got the more excited the spider appeared to get. Another leg joined the first two. It wouldn’t be able to fit its bulk under the door.

She put the box against the door. Something hit the other side of the door. It sounded like a spider had jumped at the wood.

Emma released the box. It fell right on the legs beneath the door with a loud crack and crunch. The spider screamed a thin scratchy noise.

“Get out of my house!” she screamed back and stomped down on the box.

Two more heavy thuds hit the door. Emma looked at her son. He was still asleep. A sob escaped her lips. He was amazing.

She grabbed the next closest box and shoved it next to the one she’d dropped on the spider’s legs. Then a third on the other side. She started stacking them after that, moving the pile of boxes up against the door. Most of the boxes were full of books and had a comforting weight to them.

“Let’s see you get through that!”

Something hairy crawled across her hand. Emma screamed and jerked her hand away from the box she’d been about to pick up. She looked down and saw a plum-sized spider fall onto the cardboard where it joined dozens of fellows. A white, egg-shaped web casing had split open at the heart of the pile of boxes and the spiders were spilling out in all directions.

Including over the remaining pile towards Emmett.

Emma ran around the pile. One of the spiders was right in front of her and she danced around it to keep it away from her bare feet. She got to the other side of the room and saw several crawling towards Emmett. She sprinted past them and picked him up.

This time he woke up and looked at her with wide eyes. She kissed his forehead. “It’s okay. Shhh.”

His face turned red and he screamed at her. It was the cry that she’d heard when she woke up. Full of pain and fear.

“Emmett!”

She lifted him up and there, on his leg, she saw one of the baby spiders. She brought him close with one arm and swatted with the other. The spider tumbled away. She lifted him again and looked at his leg. Two bright red spots were on his thigh and the sight of them made her shiver. It had bitten him!

Dozens of the young spiders crawled towards them. She didn’t have on shoes or she’d have stomped them flat. She backed up until her arm touched the cool glass of the window. Emma turned around and looked out the window. It was hard to see through the reflection but the steep porch roof outside looked clear. She looked down. The spiders were close. Emmett sobbed into her shoulder and made muffled ma, ma sounds.

“It’ll be okay,” she told him.

She unlatched the window and shoved it up. There was a screen outside. She hit it and it popped out and clattered down the porch roof, then fell to the ground. She bent, swung a leg through and stepped out onto the roof. Her feet gripped the slate tiles better than shoes. She reached back and shoved the window down behind her. Now she just had to get down. She walked gingerly down the slates until she could see the ground below. It sloped down away from the porch. It looked steep. If she jumped she’d probably fall and roll down the hill. She couldn’t do that with Emmett. She had to find another spot. The porch wrapped around the front of the house. It should be easier to get down to the lawn.

She hadn’t gone far when she heard a scratching noise above her. She looked up in time to see the full-grown giant spider crouching on the eves above her. It jumped. Emma gasped and ducked. The spider missed her and landed on the slates. It slid on the tiles and tumbled off the porch with a hissing noise. Emma hurried along the porch towards the front of the house. That spider would probably climb back up and there could be others. She needed to get down and get to her car. There was an emergency cell phone in the glove compartment. She could call for help and the spiders wouldn’t be able to get into the car.

She reached the front of the house and saw webbing strung across the upper stories. Two of the big spiders turned away from their task towards her.

Emma went to the edge of the roof. The lawn looked clear. She held onto Emmett and turned around facing the spiders as they raced towards her. She knelt and slid her feet off the edge. She could only hold on with one hand. She dropped onto her side, cradling Emmet and slid over the edge. She tensed, fearing that a spider would grab her feet. Nothing happened and the two spiders above were getting close. She slid down, slowing her descent with her outstretched free hand. She was falling. She couldn’t stop it now. In her head she pictured her landing and rolling onto her back to protect Emmett from the fall. As she went over the edge of the gutter caught the stone ring on her finger and painfully ripped it off, taking skin with it. She cried out.

She fell.

Hit hard on her heels and rolled back. The impact almost knocked the wind from her. She lifted Emmett up and looked at his face. He sniffled and wiped at his eyes but seemed okay. Except for the bite marks on his leg. She hugged him close and rolled up onto her knee and pushed herself up. She looked up at the roof for signs of pursuit. No spiders where in view. She didn’t wait for them to show up. She ran across the wet grass, cold against her bare feet, jumped over the marigolds along the driveway and made it to the car. She grabbed the door handle and yanked. It didn’t budge. Locked.

Emmett squirmed in her arms. She readjusted as she ran around the car, keeping an eye out for the spiders. Still no sign of them. The driver’s door was unlocked and she slid in and yanked the door shut. She leaned over and opened the glove compartment. The phone wasn’t there.

Emma bit her lip to keep from crying out in frustration. She hit the steering wheel then leaned forward, checking for the spiders.

None.

From the car she could see the porch roof and it was empty of spiders. More than that the webbing that had been spun across the front of the house was gone. She leaned over to try and see more but still didn’t see any sign of the spiders. How could they have just vanished? She hadn’t imagined it. The bite mark on Emmett’s leg was evidence enough that the spiders were real. She checked his leg and found it hot to the touch. She needed to get him to a doctor. To do that she needed the car keys. They’d be just inside the front door, on the little table. Except that was right near where the web funnel filling the stairwell. If she was fast she might be able to get in, grab the keys and get out. She’d leave Emmett here, in his car seat ready to go.

He started crying as soon as she buckled him into the car seat.

“Shhh.” She kissed his forehead. “Mommy will be right back. I need to run in and get the keys and then we’re out of here.”

He cried harder. She wanted to make it all better but he wouldn’t understand. At least in the car he was safe for now. She got out, shut the door and faced the house. Nothing moved. Her partially-restored Victorian looked perfectly ordinary. She ran silently up the dirt driveway towards the house. Not going fast yet so she could keep an eye out. She slowed the closer she got and then when she was almost to the porch and still didn’t see anything, then she sprinted up the steps. Two strides to cross the porch.

She yanked open the front door expecting to see the thick web funnel hanging down from above, crawling with giant spiders, and instead the stairwell was clear. No web. No spiders.

Emma didn’t move, she was so stunned by the absence of the spiders. She heard Emmett crying all the way out in the car and that got her moving. She grabbed the keys, spun about and sprinted out, slamming the door behind her. She didn’t bother to lock it. She ran full speed down the driveway to the car. Got it. Started it and drove it around the drive and away from the house. She kept looking back out the rear window and checking the mirrors. No sign of spiders. Emmett quieted down now that the car was moving. She put the spiders out of her mind and headed down the road towards the hospital.

💀

Two days later she stood in the driveway again. The sun was shining and the house looked dingy with all the paint peeled off. But no signs of spiders. She’d half-expected it to be covered in webs.

That night still felt like a nightmare. Except Emmett had been treated for an “unusual” spider bite at the hospital and her finger still had scratches from when the stone ring was scrapped off as she slid off the roof. Those minor injuries had been the only evidence she had of what had happened. She didn’t tell anyone at the hospital about giant spiders for fear that they’d lock her in some psychiatric ward. She also didn’t call anyone like an exterminator to go to the house because she didn’t want to put anyone at risk if they didn’t know what could happen.

So instead she left Emmett with her sister and came back to the house to check it herself. She remembered how the spiders had chased her across the roof but then when she got to the car she hadn’t seen them. And the funnel she had seen in the stairwell hadn’t been there when she went back for the keys.

She needed to know what had happened. It was hard to walk up to the house again but nothing threatening moved. She went in, tensing when she opened the door, and found only her house. It didn’t take long to go through the house and discover no sign of the spiders. The spare bedroom was difficult to get into because the boxes were still piled in front of the door but she eventually forced it open, toppling the pile in the process. The baby spiders were gone too, and the egg sack that had been on the boxes.

Emma shoved aside the boxes until she could turn over the one that she’d dropped on the spider’s legs. No legs beneath the box, but the cardboard did looked warped like it had gotten wet. She didn’t find any other evidence.

The house looked safe.

She went to the window that she’d climbed out and lifted it up. The harrowing flight across the roof holding Emmett looked worse in the daylight. She could see how steep and slippery the roof looked. The screen lying in at the bottom of the hill looked very far away. She went around to her room at the front of the house and looked out that window too.

No evidence of the spiders, but in the gutter she could see the stone ring. This had all happened after she put the ring on and the spiders were gone after it got yanked off.

It all happened after she found that ring. She put it on, had a nightmare and then the nightmare had been real. There had to be a connection. The spiders disappeared the instant the ring was off. So what? She had a magic ring?

Emma went back downstairs and out to the garage beside the house. She opened the door and reached over for the light switch. She felt webbing against her hand and screamed. She jerked back and jumped away from the door.

Nothing moved. Carefully, ready to bolt, she moved closer and peeked inside. Nothing but a cobweb across the light switch. No visible spiders.

She flicked on the light and the long fluorescent tubes buzzed to life. Cobwebs up among the rafters but no giant spiders. She went across the stained concrete and took down her adjustable ladder.

Emma carried the ladder over beneath her window and used it to climb up to the gutter. She plucked the stone ring out of the gutter and ran her fingers across the worn stone carvings. It was very pretty but she didn’t dare wear it again. She’d put it away someplace safe. Emma stuffed it into her jeans pocket and climbed back down.

💀

3,969 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 64th weekly short story release, written in September 2009 . Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Sooner Murder.

So Little Time

Veronica’s Ma warned her about dead men. Stay away. It don’t matter how pretty—stay away!

When the Craven Wench pulls into dock with a cargo spoiled by fire Veronica jumps at the chance to earn extra money cleaning the ship.

She didn’t count on meeting Nathan—the sailor who died in the fire.

A story about loves missed and final chances.

💀

My Ma always said that you can’t trust dead men. They’ll steer you wrong every time.

So why is it that I had to go and fall in love with one? It isn’t like I don’t see them all the time. They’re like the cries of the gulls, the shouts of the men unloading their catches, the stink of fish guts, the chill of ice and the grit of salt in your skin and clothes. It’s part of life working down on the docks. Sometimes men go out alive and come back dead. In Seatco death doesn’t stop them from doing all the things they’ve always done. But sometimes it changes them.

I knew something was up the minute the Craven Wench limped back into the harbor. Black smoke pumped out of the hold and that wasn’t normal. The smell of it was a mix of burnt oil and fish. I stuck the fillet knife into the cutting board, shucked my gloves off and left the table. The other gutters left their tables too. Too pale Marjorie with her flaming red hair came over to stand next to me. She rubbed her bony fingers together. Working with the fish and ice all day you get frostbit if you’re not careful. She didn’t have enough meat on her to keep a babe warm, much less a full-grown woman.

“What do you reckon’?” She nodded at the Craven Wench.

“Some sort of accident.” I pointed at the starboard smoke stack. It was a couple feet shorter than it ought to be. “Stack fire, maybe. Looks like they lost some there.”

The crew scrambled about on the decks while dock handlers caught ropes and brought the ship in. Hoses were dragged across the boards and soon water was being sprayed down into the holds.

“A fire.” Marjorie cracked her knuckles. “That’ll be a mess.”

“Sure will.” That’s when I hatched an idea I’d regret later. “Probably need someone to help get the boat cleaned up. Might pay decent.”

Marjorie arched an eyebrow. “Might at that.”

I took the lead and headed over to the Craven Wench. We stayed back out of the way of the crews working. Captain showed up on deck covered in soot. Mackenzie, don’t know his first name. Don’t know anyone that does. He’s a swarthy little toad of a man known for his fierce temper. I’ve heard stories from the girls at the taverns about him that make me glad I spend most of my days gutting fishes rather than deal with the likes of him. But a job like this would pay well and it’d only be a one-time thing. I wouldn’t have to deal with him long. He stomped his way down to the dock and shoved past the crews.

“Get that fire out!” He shouted at them. “Stop mucking about.”

He came towards us with a face like a cross between a storm cloud and a toad if such a thing were possible. People practically dove into the water to get out of his way. Marjorie nudged me. I took a breath and stepped right into his path.

He came up short and swore. His breath smelled of alcohol and fish. “What the hell do you want?”

“My mate and I can clean up your boat for you. We’ll do a good job.”

His normally bulging eyes seemed to shrink back into his head a bit. “You’re volunteering to clean my boat?”

“No, sir.”

He scowled.

“We’ll clean it but we expect fair pay for the job.”

The scowl melted a bit. “I didn’t think you’d offer to do it for nothing! Can’t pay much. Fire ruined the catch.”

“It’ll be more than that catch if you can’t get back out. We’ll do the work.” I named a figure I thought was high, equal to a month’s wages as a gutter.

Captain Mackenzie spat in his filthy hand and stuck it out at me. “Deal.”

I didn’t grimace as I spit in my own hand and took his grimy paw. He squeezed, as all men do, to show off his strength. I handle ice and fish for a living. I squeezed right back. His eyes opened up and he showed me all four of his teeth. He laughed and let go before stomping off.

With him gone Marjorie did a little hop and clapped her hands. “Wow, a month’s wages!”

“We’ll meet on board after our shift. I’ll bring the cleaning supplies.”

“I’ll get food,” Marjorie said, but I hardly heard her.

I’d turned to take one last look at the Craven Wench. No particular reason for it, but I did and that’s when I saw him. He’d just come up from below. You could tell he was a dead man right away. It wasn’t just his burned clothing hanging in tatters on a body muscled from fighting the sea. The dead are beautiful. Whatever they’d been in life, in death their flaws melt away. That’s only one of the reasons that my Ma warned me away from them as soon as I was old enough to notice that boys weren’t the same as girls. This dead man wasn’t large but his chest was defined and bare. He had that sheen about him that all the dead have. Like phosphorescence on the ocean waves at night. His dark hair dropped in waves about his shoulders. While I watched a surviving member of the crew came up to him and obviously offered his condolences. They shook and as the survivor left the dead man’s eyes met my own.

You know that electric feeling when you lock eyes with an attractive man? Well, this was a lightning bolt. My heart skipped a beat or too. My tongue seemed to swell to a size that would cut off my air and my limbs tingled. My Ma’s warnings were like the distant call of thunder in my head.

Then the fire crew got in the way and our gaze was broken. I turned away immediately. I tucked my hands into my apron and hurried back towards my table. Ma always said that you shouldn’t even notice dead men. Stay away from them as nothing good can come of it. I picked up the next fish, slit its gut and pulled out the insides. For the first time I wondered why Ma warned me so much? Did it come from first-hand experience? I wished she was still around so that I could ask. It isn’t like my life has turned out all that wonderful anyway. I tried to set those thoughts aside. I had fish to gut now and later a boat to clean. I didn’t need to be thinking about a dead man. Unfortunately gutting fish doesn’t do much to keep the mind occupied.

💀

Marjorie and I met at the boat when we’d planned. I showed up carrying bucks full of brushes, rags, soap and mops. She had a couple paper wrapped parcels in a net bag along with a couple bottles. It was already late and activity had died down on the docks. Most of the fishermen were off turning their wages into alcohol or sex or both. Those fortunate enough to be married had headed home. That didn’t leave many people about. We sat down on the edge of the pier to eat the fish and chips Marjorie had picked up from Rick’s place. Some of these fish might have been ones that we’d gutted earlier in the day. Someday I’m going to eat something other than fish, I tell myself. And not chicken because even the chicken around here tastes fishy from all the fish guts that they eat. We washed it down with the beers and kept the bottles to turn back in. Then it was up onto the Craven Wench.

I noticed right off that she sat low in the water. Too low if her holds had been emptied and pumped. We headed towards the hatch when he stepped out, the dead man I’d seen earlier.

It was dusk and the shine about him looked even more pronounced than before. He hadn’t bothered changing out of the charred rags he wore. He looked at us both and then his eyes fixed on me with an unsettling stillness.

“Captain Mackenzie hired us to clean the boat.” I lifted the mops by way of illustration.

“And you’d be?” His voice sounded clear and almost normal. You couldn’t put your finger on it but there was something about his voice that made it feel like it echoed deep inside your bones.

“Veronica.”

“Hi! I’m Marjorie!”

His eyes hardly left mine. “Nathan. I died today.”

“Ah, yeah. Sorry about that. I’d noticed. Why are you hanging around here?”

“Thinking about things. Everything that I didn’t do when I was alive.”

I managed to look away. I lifted the buckets. “Everything sounds like a lot. I’m sorry, but we don’t have time for that. We’ve already done a full shift and we have this boat to clean. If we get finished in time for a couple hours of sleep before our next shift we’ll be lucky.”

“I’ll help you,” Nathan said.

“No thanks,” Marjorie said. “No offense, but we’re not looking to split our pay.”

Nathan shook his head and again hardly looked her way. “Not interested in money. Maybe we can talk while we work?”

He clearly meant his words for me. I knew what my Ma would say if she was here but he was so pretty. If we had help we’d be done that much faster.

“I’ll listen,” I told him. “Can’t say that I’ll talk much. I don’t usually.”

“That’s true,” Marjorie said.

“This way.” Nathan ducked back down into the hatch.

We followed him down. The reek was even worse in the hold. Burnt fish, wood, oil and sea water all mixed up with fish that hadn’t gotten on ice to create an eye-watering stink. Nathan reached the bottom first and plunged waist deep into water filled with floating much and debris. I stopped.

“You got to be kidding.”

He turned and looked back up at me. With his sheen I could see his features clearly. “Captain Mackenzie didn’t get the hold pumped yet. I can help get the pumps going but we’re going to have to watch the intakes or it’ll get clogged.”

“This is why he agreed so quickly,” Marjorie said. “He gets off cheap by leaving it to us.”

It was a cheat, plain and simple. But dealing with a man like Mackenzie you couldn’t help but expect something like this. Trouble is, walking away now he might prove to be more of a problem.

“It’s fine. Let’s get it done. I want to see the look on that gap-toothed fucker’s face when he sees the boat cleaned.” I stepped off into the water beside Nathan. He steadied me and my body reacted to his touch despite our surroundings.

“Do I have to?” Marjorie whined.

Nathan took down a lamp and lit it. He sloshed off into the boat. I followed and, making noises of disgust the whole time, Marjorie did as well.

Nathan showed us the pumps and the intakes. We left Marjorie at the bow to watch that one while we took the stern.

“I was down here when the fire broke out.” It didn’t seem that he spoke loudly but I could see him over the noise of the pump. “Someone dropped a lantern. There were oiled rags that hadn’t been properly stowed. The fire spread fast. It was the smoke that kept me from getting out. I couldn’t breathe. The heat melted the ice so I couldn’t get low enough to get under the smoke without putting my face in ice water.”

I could imagine it standing hip deep in water cold enough to chill my bones. The sharp scent of burnt wood and fish mixed with the smell of the ocean. It would have been dark even with the flames. My eyes hurt thinking about how it would have been. I took a brush and shoved fish bits and charcoal away from the intake. I felt the suction of the pipe. The water was getting drawn down.

“So I died. I tried to get out but I got dizzy. I lost my sense of direction. I tried getting away from the flames but that drove me deeper into the ship. My clothes caught on fire. I don’t remember passing out. The next thing I knew I woke beneath the water and it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to breathe. I stood up and knew I’d died. I’ve worked with others who had died.”

“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t,” I offered. I swept the intake clean again. “What’s your reason?”

Nathan looked at me with clear eyes. I won’t say they glowed but almost. Glimmered, maybe.

“You,” he said.

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Why did it have to take a dead man to say something like that? Why’d he have to be so pretty? Truth is I knew this man. I’d seen him around enough. Nathan Whedon. All easy smiles and charm when the luck was on him and hard drinking when it wasn’t. Seatco isn’t that big a place that a single woman doesn’t have some idea of the prospects.

“Me? I think being dead has addled your brains a bit. You sure aren’t thinking clearly.”

“I’m thinking more clearly than ever. Truth is I’ve seen you. Veronica Bell, keeps to herself and until last spring took care of her Ma. Works with the catch as a gutter where it’s known that she is as quick and clean as they come. Captains want you working their catch because it gets to the market faster. Your supervisor knows this and charges a premium to get you on their catch.”

Really? That came as news to me. George and I would have to have a talk after this.

“If you noticed so much how come you’ve never said as much as a hello to me?”

“A down-on-my-luck fisherman like myself? One too quick to fold and too quick to hit the bottle? What chance would I have had with the prettiest woman in Seatco? No matter that she tries to hide it beneath a slicker and hood?”

I flushed a bit, him saying that, and hid it by shoving the intake deeper into the draining hold. As more water left the hold the thicker it became so we were standing in knee-deep burnt chowder. I shoved away a half-charred flounder. I didn’t give a carp what he said. Ma’s advice still rang true in my ears.

“Not much,” I answered.

Nathan nodded. “Just so. I’ve thought about that these last few hours since I died. Everyone says that the dead have a reason for sticking around. I don’t know if someone living can really understand what it’s like. Death changes your perspective. Your life is over no matter how you stick around. You see everything about your life from a different perspective and from that you figure out —”

“Your reason. Right.” I didn’t want to hear this. I brushed the intake clear and stomped it down into the ankle deep water remaining. “Everyone knows that. I don’t know that I buy it. I mean I see plenty of dead folk carrying on as if nothing at all changed by their dying. They don’t seem to have any particular insight into their mistakes. They just keep drinking, whoring, or gambling, same as they did when they were alive.”

Nathan killed the pumps. “Could be they can’t face their reason. Or maybe it is impossible for them to resolve.”

“Yeah, in other words the same excuses they gave when they lived.”

“It isn’t that way for everyone.” His voice sounded soft now that the noise of the pumps had died. Waves lapped against the gently rocking ship.

“No?”

He appeared right in front of me the way the dead can. He stood so close that when I brought my hands up they touched his chest. He put his hands on my arms. Not holding me. Touching.

His breath was like a cool sea breeze on my face. “Most die and aren’t moving around. Even those that stick around often don’t for long. They take care of things and move on. Otherwise we’d be overrun in the dead.”

It was hard to think with him so close. “Seems like we are, sometimes.”

I stepped back and my foot slipped in the muck and fish parts. I started to fall but Nathan did another of those movements where he somehow was instantly behind me. He caught me in strong arms and held me fast. I looked up into his face. My eyes followed the long line of his jaw. His hair hung down above me. His eyes were a mystery.

“You’re my reason.” His lips grazed against mine like a hint of ocean spray. My heart hammered in my chest and not only because he was dead.

I stood up and pushed him away. “I don’t get any say in this? I’m your reason and that’s it? What if I don’t want to be your reason? Have you thought of that with your new clarity?”

I didn’t want to give him a chance to answer. I grabbed my gear. “I’m going to go give Marjorie a hand. If you think you have the answers then you can start on this end.”

I couldn’t run in the muck but I made my way as fast as possible. I found Marjorie in one of the holds at the end of the walkway. In the lamp light her face looked even more pale and ghostly. Almost more than Nathan.

She quirked her lips at me. “What are you doing down here? Shouldn’t you be back with that dead gorgeous man?”

“Dead being the operative word.” I shoved a mop against the muck. “Do you want to use the mop or hold the bucket?”

Marjorie wrinkled her nose. “I’ll mop, if that’s okay?”

“Fine my me. I’m getting used to the stink.”

A shovel would have been better but we managed to shove the burnt and rotting fish into the bucket with the mop. Which then one of us had to take up topside and pitch over into the bay. The gulls were going to go crazy when they caught on to what we were doing. It was hard work. Even at a month’s wages, Captain Mackenzie wasn’t paying us enough. I would have been tempted to quit except that I wanted to see the look on his face when he saw his holds cleaned out. I didn’t worry about how Nathan might be getting on.

“I’m tired. Let’s take a break for a few,” Marjorie said.

I didn’t bother saying anything. I up-ended the bucket and sat down. I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees and closed my eyes. The gentle rocking of the boat threatened to send me off to sleep. It might have worked if the place didn’t stink so bad. Better than smelling salts. Just when I thought I’d gotten used to the smell something would change and it’d hit me with full force again.

“So what’s going on between you and him?”

I barely lifted my head. Marjorie sat on the other buck, her legs outstretched and back against a support beam. “Nothing.”

“You didn’t come back here with nothing on your face.”

“He says that I’m his reason.”

Marjorie sat up. “His reason? And you’re back here?”

“He’s dead.” I shook my head and looked at my fish-stained, pruning hands. I remembered him calling me the prettiest woman in Seatco. “What’s his reason to me?”

“You’ve got eyes. You’ve seen him. What more do you need?”

“There ain’t no future in it! My Ma —”

Marjorie waved her hand. “Your Ma. Blessedly she didn’t stick around when she died. Not in the least because you didn’t give her a reason. But she wasn’t one that should talk about dead men.”

I glared at her. “What are you trying to say?”

“I hear things. I’m not completely detached from everything, the way some might be. While you were off taking care of that poor woman people talked. They’d say things.”

“I can imagine.”

“Most admired you for it. But it led to them talking about her too and you know how stories get told.”

“So you’re saying there was something between her and a dead man?” I stood up and flipped over the bucket. “Let’s get back to slopping fish. The sooner we’re out of here the better.”

Marjorie picked up the mop. “You’re his reason. Until you figure that one out I don’t think you’ll be happy.”

Lacking anything witty to say I just went back to work. What was the point in arguing? We were soaked, stinking and tired. Even if I wanted to find out what it meant this wasn’t the time.

We mucked up the mess, gradually working out way towards midship. By the time we got there we found Nathan hard at work. The hold past him was spotless, except those parts of the containers that had been burned by fire.

“How’d you manage that?” Marjorie asked.

“I don’t talk to myself,” he said. “With the three of us working on the remaining half we should finish quickly.”

I wanted to argue but I also wanted the job done. It was getting late. I didn’t even know if we’d finish on time. “Fine.”

Nathan was true to his word. He worked. Nothing fancy or magical about it. He couldn’t crook his finger and make the mops clean the place on their own. He put some of that shimmering muscle into it and moved with purpose. I didn’t see him waste any motions. Marjorie and I weren’t nearly so regular in our approach and I think we felt the effects of the hour more. I didn’t dare let him get ahead, though, so I worked harder than ever to clean my portion. He still finished first, but not by much and even then he didn’t stop. He moved over to Marjorie’s section and started cleaning back to meet her. I finished and together they finished the last spot soon after.

I leaned on my mop with the filthy bucket beside me. “I think that does it.”

Marjorie leaned on Nathan. “Thanks for your help, Nathan.”

“My pleasure,” he said, but he looked at me when he said it. “I’ll slip out after you. We wouldn’t want Mackenzie to know someone on his crew helped. He’d just want to cut what he owes.”

“Let him try,” I said. “He set us up and is under-paying as it is.”

“It’s fine.” Nathan handed me the mop. “I don’t need the money anyway.”

“Don’t you have gambling debts?”

He seemed to consider that for a while. “I guess I do, but I’m dead? What more can they expect? At least I came back so there’s a chance they might get paid. Otherwise they’d just be out the money. No widow or family to try and get it out of. It isn’t like the captain is going to pay them.”

“Okay.” I gathered up the supplies. “Thank you for the help. We’ll be going.”

Marjorie tried to protest but I didn’t listen. I was sick of the Craven Wench and I wanted out. Coming out on deck was fantastic. The sky was already lightening out over the ocean. The air tasted crisp and cool with the flavor of rain on the wind. Later today, I thought. It would be a downpour.

We waited on the docks no more than half an hour before Mackenzie came staggering back to his ship. With a couple equally intoxicated companions. It took his beer-blurred eyes a second to focus on us.

“You owe us.” I cited the figured promised. “Your holds are cleaned.”

“Snots possible,” he said with great deliberation.

One didn’t have to check his nostrils to know the truth of that pronouncement. Nonetheless. “Captain. We cleaned the holds. The Craven Wench is pumped, empty and ready for more. So pay up what you promised.”

He looked at the tall brunette on his right and then the smaller red-haired wench on his left. I knew just what he must be thinking. In front of these ladies of the night how could he appear not to be a man of his word? It might go badly for him. He dug into a greasy wallet and pulled out a wad of bills. Both women made happy noises and clung even tighter to him. Captain Mackenzie staggered and gave them his best gap-toothed grin.

“Captain?”

He blinked and looked at me. It took him a moment but then he laughed. He peeled off bills and thrust them at me. I knew without counting he’d taken too much and that was fair so far as I was concerned. I pocketed the wad and picked up the cleaning gear.

“Thank you, Captain. Marjorie?”

She followed me away from him while he went off in search of the Captain’s cabin. I felt badly for Nathan. I couldn’t imagine being stuck on that ship.

💀

We split the money, and yes, he had over-paid. I wasn’t about to return the difference. There wasn’t time to do much more than stash the gear, get rinsed off and into dry clothes before I had to be back down at the docks again. Fat seagulls sat on the piers stuffed from the ruined catch we’d tossed overboard. My eyes wanted to close. I felt as though I could sleep while still working. My fingers knew what to do whether I stayed awake for it or not. I shook my head. I couldn’t do that. For one, I might slit my hand open instead of the fish. Even if I avoided that fate I could still get in trouble with the boss over my apparent absence. Although I still wanted to have a talk with him about charging extra for the catches that I processed. If he was doing that I might as well go into business for myself and save him the trouble. I thought maybe I’d get a raise out of it inside. I’d have to thank Nathan.

That thought gave me pause. I couldn’t thank Nathan without seeing him.

“So what are you doing later?”

I nearly jumped out of my skin. I know both feet left the dock. Nathan was leaning against the pier behind me. He held up a basket. He asked, “How about another picnic?”

In the daylight it was both easier and harder to identifying him as a dead man. The sheen was harder to see, but he still looked as pretty as ever. It’s more than the sheen to his skin or the fact that he looked flawless that identifies him as dead person. There’s something about a dead person that makes them seem not quite a part of the world. It isn’t that you can see through them or anything, it’s a feeling you get in your gut facing dead person. I’ve never heard of any of the dead passing themselves off as the living. Even with make-up and everything else there’s something that can’t be hidden.

“Sleeping, if I get the chance,” I said.

“You can sleep when you’re dead.”

I stared at him.

His smile wilted. “It’s funny if you’re me.”

I picked up the next fish and slit the belly open. “I’m not. I’ve got work to do. I’d thank you to shove off. Oh, and thanks for your help last night.”

“Don’t mention it.” Nathan was standing on the other side of my table. “I’ll see you around, Veronica Bell. Like it or not, you’re still my reason for being here.”

I didn’t answer. He left. I don’t know if he walked or just wasn’t there anymore. I told myself I didn’t care.

💀

In the native tongues Seatco means evil spirit or devil. I don’t know about the devil part, but I was beginning to think Nathan had been a worthless gambler while alive and was an evil spirit after he died. It seems like I saw him everywhere. I’d go to work and he’d be working at a table two stations away. He’d walked away from the Craven Wench. He told Mackenzie that he didn’t want to work on the ship that had killed him. That might be true, but why did he take a job as a gutter? Most other ships would have taken him.

I go into a bar only to find him sitting nearby. He didn’t try to talk to me. I didn’t walk down my street in the early hours only to find him following me. I couldn’t even say that he was paying any attention to me at all. When I did see him someplace like a bar he might be keeping company with someone or not, but either way he never said so much as hello to me. Maybe he’d changed his mind about me being his reason? It didn’t make sense, but that made me a little sad.

Three weeks of this after the night we cleaned out the Craven Wench and I’d decided that I couldn’t stand it anymore. The next time I saw him was when I went to get some fish-and-chips. Like so many of the other gutters he was there. You’d think we couldn’t stand fish after gutting and cleaning them all day but it was close and cheap. I always found it satisfying to think that something fresh caught and cleaned on my table might end up in my basket. But that day Nathan was in line two people ahead of me. The sight of him infuriated me.

I charged past the other people in line. “What are you doing here?”

Nathan looked down at me. “Getting some lunch. Why don’t you join me?”

“You’re following me!”

Nathan raised an eyebrow. “I was here first. Maybe it’s you stalking me?”

“Everywhere I go you’re there. You even took a job cleaning fish!”

“If I’m already someplace when you get there, again, it sounds like you’re following me. Although I’ll grant that you were cleaning fish before I started. But I needed a job.”

A sailor who’d replaced his hair with a tattooed crown of mermaids tapped Nathan’s shoulder. “Bud, she can’t cut the line.”

Nathan looked at the sailor with his dead eyes. It seemed for an instant that they flickered like the dark depths of the sea itself. “The lady is my guest. She isn’t cutting.”

“I —”

“What will you have?” Nathan asked.

I looked at the stand and realized we were next. “The special. I always get the special.”

“You could splurge today,” Nathan said.

The sailor was back, shoving me aside. “Bud, I’ve always wondered if the dead can die a second time.”

I saw the flash of the knife. It never hit. Nathan was behind the guy with his own knife pricking the sailor right above his left kidney.

“The answer is no,” Nathan whispered in the sailor’s ear. “But you could always join us.”

I thought I heard waves breaking in his words. The sailor swallowed and held up his hands. “My mistake.”

“That’s right.” Nathan wasn’t behind him anymore. His eyes looked like storm clouds above the ocean now. I thought I almost saw flickers of lightning in their depths.

The sailor put away the knife and looked down at his feet. Nathan turned back to the bored looking matron sitting in the booth. He placed our orders. She served them up quickly and we walked over to one of the tables. I sat down opposite Nathan. He slowly ate a chip.

“You think I’m following you?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know but you seem to be around all the time.”

“I’ve respected your feelings.” Nathan picked over his food. Then he looked up at me with troubled eyes. “I haven’t bothered you. You’re my reason, but I’ve given you space. Now you’re telling me that even seeing me in Seatco is too much? I should leave? Go somewhere else?”

Put that way I felt like gull droppings. Even worse when he mentioned leaving Seatco I felt a wrenching in my gut as if an undertow had grabbed me.

“No.” I hardly whispered the word. “I don’t want you to leave.”

“What do you want?” Nathan’s tone was as smooth and warm as a summer breeze. “Should I tell you want it means for me, that you’re my reason?”

I caught my breath. I didn’t dare speak. I picked at my fish and didn’t look up. But I nodded.

“Veronica Bell.” The way he said my name made me look up and meat those eyes again. He smiled and reached across the table. He took my hand. “In life I missed opportunities. All sorts, but the one I regretted the most was never being the man I could have been. A man worthy of you. I told you I noticed you. I knew I didn’t measure up. I could have given up gambling. I could have saved and bought a nice little house up on the bluff. The sort of place right for a family.

“One night at sunset I saw you after you got off work. You’d left your table and walked out on the pier to the very edge. You took off your hood and opened your slicker. The setting Sun and wind caught your hair. You spread your arms and took it all in. It was only a moment and then you buttoned up and headed into town.

“But that moment stuck with me. I wanted to say something to you but I didn’t and you walked right past. Our eyes met for a second. I had my chance and I didn’t take it. I let my fears and self-loathing get the better of me and then I proved it all true by going out and getting plastered.”

Nathan gave my hand a gentle squeeze. “I could have been a better man. I could have said you were beautiful. I didn’t and of everything in my life I regretted that the most. That I didn’t ever tell you. That’s the reason, so I could tell you. Thank you.”

Tears stung my eyes. I snatched my hand back. “No! No, Nathan. Don’t say that! There has to be more to it.”

There wasn’t and he couldn’t answer me anymore. His eyes were clouded and lifeless. His skin was pale and ashen in death now. Truly dead.

Ma told me the truth. You can’t trust dead men. I didn’t want to fall in love with Nathan. Somewhere in running away from him I did and now I regret that I never got the chance to tell him that. I only hope that I live my life well enough so that I don’t come back. I don’t want him to be the reason for me coming back. I’d be trapped, unable to ever get rid of that regret. That’s no way to live. Or die.

💀

5,880 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 57th weekly short story release, written in July 2009. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Hidden Nests.

Eetees

Earth learns real fast that aliens exist when an extraterrestrial battle erupts overhead. Exotic debris rains down across the planet, causing massive damage and paralyzing governments at a national and local levels.

Just like in the town of Vail. A rotten stink chokes the town from a crashed alien ship. Chris Dart volunteers for the cleanup crew. Get in, take care of the mess, and get out.

Simple plan, for an otherworldly problem.

1

The stink made sleep impossible. Chris tried pinching his nose. Somehow that didn’t matter. The smell of rot clung to the back of his throat. His eyes watered and stung.

The red lights on the clock showed 3:08.

He turned his head.

Lynn’s breath came in short even puffs of air. If he was going to be awake maybe he could do something about the smell. The thought motivated him to throw the covers back.

As his eyes adjusted he could see a bit of the bedroom thanks to the moonlight coming through the window. The power was still out so there weren’t any street lights on. The dresser was a dark shape on his side of the bed next to the window. He got out of bed. The air felt cool on his bare legs and arms but the wood floor felt warm against his feet.

From the top drawer of the dresser he pulled out an white undershirt and dark underwear. He couldn’t see the color. He got blue jeans and a light-colored shirt from the closet. He dressed in the dark. Last of all he picked up his key ring with the mini-mag light, careful not to clink them too much and disturb Lynn. He left the bedroom and shut the door quietly.

He tiptoed past the bedroom to his son’s room. He stood in the doorway and listened. It took a moment but then he heard Paul’s soft breathing. How the two of them could sleep with this stink hanging in the air he didn’t know. Pain spiked in his head from the persistent smell of rot. He had to do something.

It couldn’t be healthy to have that smell all over town. He was glad that the City Council had finally decided to take action to address the problem but that wouldn’t come soon enough.

He needed to protect his family.

It took him a few minutes to get together everything that he needed. The vinyl drop clothes they’d gotten for painting were stashed in the back closet by the washing machine. He found the duct tape in a bottom drawer in the kitchen. Why it was there he couldn’t say. Lynn would have known right where it was, had she been awake.

The scissors he didn’t have any trouble finding. Chris started in the living room since it had the most windows. He tried breathing through his mouth as he worked.

First the curtains had to come down. Lynn had made them in just a couple days out of old scraps of cloth stitched together like a patchwork quilt. She’d only used remnants for the project and the result had been an explosion of color. She’d even done it so that the colors made a sort of rainbow with purple at the bottom blending into blue, green, yellow all the way up to orange and red at the top. Since it as all remnant pieces none of the shades were exactly the same and although she’d curved it into a sort of an arc the lines weren’t smooth since she hadn’t cut the pieces to fit a sharp line. That made it brilliant in his book.

But they had to come down.

He folded the curtain after he took it off the rod and set it aside on the arm of the couch.

Opening the curtain let him look out on Sussex. The blackened timbers of the Dave’s Hardware stood still stood across the intersection on the other side of Sussex and 4th. A piece of the debris had landed right on the building. All that lumber, paint and solvents went up in flames. Old Jas had been in the store of course. He hoped she didn’t suffer.

Lots of people weren’t so lucky. Just like this stink from that blasted thing up in the quarry pool. His gut clenched at the thought but he had been the one that volunteered last night at the Council meeting to help out with that. He’d be meeting Jeff and some other guys later up in the quarry park to scope out the situation.

Chris stuck a piece of duct tape up on the wood framing. If he kept it to the wood at least he wouldn’t be peeling any paint off the wall. He lifted the vinyl sheet up by the corner and used the piece of tape to tack that corner up. He spread it out smooth against the frame and used another piece to tack up the top at the opposite corner. Then he used the scissors to cut the vinyl. When he finished he planned to tape it all the way around the window to seal out that odor until it got cleaned up.

“What are you doing?”

He let go. The tape peeled and the vinyl sheet slid down the wall to a heap on the floor. He turned around. Lynn stood in the entry to the room. She had on her worn brown terry cloth robe that she always wore in the morning. Her sandy blond curls stuck out every way imaginable. She hugged herself as if her thin body might fade away.

Chris went to her and pressed a kiss into her forehead. He breathed in deeply in the hope that her scent would drive out the reek of rot but it didn’t work. That made him mad. It was one more thing that the Eetees had taken away from him.

“Good morning. Couldn’t sleep?”

“I heard noises.” Lynn walked past him, her pink bunny slippers shuffling on the hardwood floor. “Why are you taking down my curtains? Are you painting?”

“I’m trying to block out that stink. Sorry I woke you.”

Lynn waved a hand at him. “But what are you doing with all that?”

“Taping the sheets over the windows.”

She patted his arm. “Chris, if you do that you’ll shut out our air. That’s the only way you’re going to stop the smell but I think we need to breathe.”

Chris conceded that she had a point there. She looked really tired. Her eyelids drooped. Her jaw popped as she yawned. Her hand came up at the last second to cover the yawn. He ran his hands down her shoulders feeling the collar bones beneath the surface of the terry cloth.

“Go back to bed. Paul isn’t even up yet. I’ll wake you if he gets up.”

“After you change his diaper.”

“After.” He pulled her into a hug for a second then released her. “Get to bed.”

Lynn nodded as she turned and shuffled away leaving him alone in their house. Right then the smell of decay hit. His throat convulsed into an involuntary gag. He sucked in air and blew it out. His stomach heaved. He swallowed walked quickly into the bathroom between the two bedrooms.

The bathroom was the worst feature of the house. Most houses had closets bigger than their bathroom. The floor was white tile. The whiles had been painted generic white as well. Stepping into the bathroom was like disappearing into white void. It had a stand-up shower with no tub. The toilet had been squeezed into a small space on the other side of the shower. With the sink sticking out of the wall across the shower it only left a small aisle. He shuffled between the shower and sink and then reached back to shove the door closed.

He stood above the toilet. He didn’t want to get down on the floor. He’d have to hug the toilet to do it because there was hardly any room to move. Chris inhaled through his mouth trying not to smell the rot anymore. He caught a faint whiff of the bleach that Lynn had used to clean the bathroom and that helped. His stomach started settling down. He turned to the sink and leaned forward a few inches.

Yes, he could smell the bleach better at the sink. It gave him something else to focus on. After a few more deep breaths he felt better. He looked up and saw himself in the mirror.

He had dark circles under his eyes. Ever since the sky fell he hadn’t been able to sleep. He kept getting up at night to check the house. To check on Paul. No matter how many times he’d checked on things he kept doing the rounds once more. Chris reached up and rubbed his short black beard, streaked now with white. Somehow he doubted that things ever could be the same again.

2

Jeff Martin held onto the truck’s steering wheel with his right while the other tapped along on his leg to CCR’s Down on the Corner. It was the big green City truck that he was driving, a F-350. Mayor Jacobs wanted him out at the quarry pool to check the barricades. The gas mask he wore pressed into the sides of his face and tasted of rubber and dust but it did cut out the stink from the alien thing.

He’d need that the closer he got. Fine by him. He’d wanted to get permission to come up here since the ship or whatever it was came down. He’d been out on his own scouring the trails around the park for debris since this all started but so far all he’d found was a few blackened bits of metal blobs that looked like Play Doh but felt as heavy as gold. The metal might be valuable but he couldn’t do anything until he got it analyzed and the stuff was scattered all over. His instincts told him he wouldn’t see anything out of the blobs other than as paperweights.

But the wreck in the quarry pool, that wasn’t a blob of melted metal. There was something rotten inside. Whatever Eetees had been in the thing it didn’t smell like they’d made it down in one piece. Still, if they stayed intact enough to rot and stink up the town it suggested to him that there might be technology inside that could be used. And he wanted to be the first inside.

This morning he’d get his chance. Everyone was at home licking their wounds for the most part. He drove past the rubble of the Ace Hardware store and that wasn’t the only building in town to get hit by debris. They’d actually gotten off lucky as far as that went except for the poor souls down in the trailer park.

He noticed Bank of America hadn’t opened. The windows were all dark but the sandstone block walls appeared undamaged. He didn’t see any signs that the pitched roof had been hit either. Across the street the old sandstone Vail Merchant Bank building still stood as it had for the past fifty years but now one whole wall had been smashed in by falling debris. Thinking about it, this would be a good time to get into construction. Vail had been lucky but according to the radio broadcasts many of the larger cities were having lots of problems. Lots of buildings destroyed. Services out. Plus all those scared people.

Yep, except for the smell and smoke rising in a few places Vail got off lucky. Well, for the most part. Behind Bank of America the library had been reduced to rubble strewn over a crater. Charred books lay in heaps all over the parking lot. Some had been thrown out into the road. He drove over them.

At least the trees hadn’t burned in the park. The Douglas fir and cedars still covered the ridge line. The soccer field needed work. It’d be hard to play the game around the craters. Some weren’t any bigger than a gopher hole but he could see it all clearly in the short grass. It looked like someone had taken a shotgun blast to the field. A lot of the debris must have been small.

Jeff parked and swung down out of the truck. He checked his mask then went around to the back of the truck for the gear. He’d put everything he could think of into a large canvas duffel. He slung it over his shoulder and went around the truck towards the quarry.

“Oh Holy Shit,” he said. The gas

Forget the tall trees that had shaded the quarry pool. They were just gone. Probably blasted into kindling and then burned to ash. Likewise the old Depot museum. No sign of it. Most of the Douglas fir up on the ridge lay knocked to the ground. The trunks of those closet the quarry looked scorched. The crater started almost at the road and the ground all around was heaved up and cracked.

But it was the wreck that held his attention. It was cigar-shaped and the end sticking up into the air was a good hundred feet off the ground. It looked fat and wrinkled like the impact had crumpled it but the wrinkles were too regularly spaced. It was a dull black graphite in color. If there were any windows he didn’t see any or any way inside.

Except it had to have an opening or it wouldn’t be producing such a stink. He’d smelled it this morning on the wind and he lived out of town but it felt like he’d collected all the day’s road kill possums and raccoons, put them in the cab of the truck, and then left the truck out in the sun. Fortunately he had the gas mask. After a few minutes of wearing it he didn’t smell the rot anymore. It had its own rubber musty odor but that was a thousand times better. Plus it made him sound like Darth Vader.

Jeff headed over towards the crater.

The ground here used to be flat. Now he had to climb a hill. It was bigger than it had looked. Long splits in the ground radiated out from the crater wall. He stayed away from those. Hopefully this wouldn’t prove to be radioactive or anything. Technically he was on the job. If Labor and Industries still existed after the fallout he could probably file a claim for any health problems. How could they show that any condition hadn’t been caused by the ship? The Mayor did send him out.

He reached the barricades which weren’t anything but a couple saw horses with caution tape between them. It wasn’t like they could block off the whole crater. He walked around them, stepping over any cracks, and kept climbing. The crater wall got steeper. The ground started shifting under his feet with each step. It wasn’t all that solid. He picked his footing more carefully, testing each step before he committed his weight to it. Even if L&I would take a worker’s comp claim he didn’t want a broken leg.

Jeff reached the top of the crater. He dropped the duffel bag beside himself.

Down slope he saw the crumpled-looking side of the ship disappearing into a large black pool. Rainbow colors floated on the water. He thought that must be oil on the water. He didn’t see any sign of the Depot Museum but there must have been cars there. The whole thing had been turned into one giant crater.

Getting into that thing was going to be tough on this side. The smell had to be coming from here so that only made sense if there was a way for the vapors to get out.

Jeff decided that he just wasn’t seeing it. There had to be a way in. He studied the pool around the ship. Most of the water had to have come from the quarry pool. The crater ran smack into the sandstone cliff at the back of the quarry. It’d be deep and cold with who-knew-what underneath that dark surface.

The smell might not be the only thing leaking out of the ship. That oily sheen might not come from cars destroyed by the crash. At least from this side he would need a boat to get anywhere close to the ship.

That left scouting around the ship. He picked up the duffel and went clockwise which would take him back towards the quarry. Far above his head the ship stretched up like an extreme version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Even if it didn’t look much like the tower.

With each step dirt and rock cascaded down the slope into the crater. Not only dirt. There was plenty of charcoal mixed in. There were also little nodules in the dirt that caught the light with a dull gleam.

Jeff bent and picked one up. He turned it in his fingers. It felt like rough glass with sand mixed up in the glass. That must be what it was. What else could it be?

He tossed the piece down. The ship came in hot. It was the first night.

3

“Michael-fucking-Bay.” Jeff cheered and shook his hand over his head. “There it is!”

It had taken him longer than he’d planned to make his way around the crater. Not only was it tough to walk on the crater rim but when he got back towards the quarry he’d had to retrace his steps to get around the other way. Only other option would have been climbing up the ridge up around the top of the quarry and then come down on the other side. No way in Hell he was doing that.

It’d taken time but now he’d gotten around to the other side of the ship and he’d found the way in. The skin of the ship had been split open. In the impact or the battle it didn’t matter. What mattered it was a way in.

Although it looked pretty gross. It started above the water line and continued beneath it. The part he could see had to be about ten feet long and four feet wide at the widest part. White foamy filled a lot of the crack. It looked like the stuff the spit bugs put on the grass. It had dripped out of the crack into the water where clumps of the crap floated.

He still needed to get a boat of some sort. If they didn’t get in there now it’d only be a question of time before the feds showed up and took the whole thing away. Like Roswell.

Oh, boy this was going to blow a lot of that shit out of the water. He reached up to scratch his nose and hit the gas mask. Right.

He tried wrinkling his nose but that didn’t help.

“Jeff?”

He turned around. Three men were climbing up the crater wall towards him. Chris Dart in the lead. On the drive out here Jeff had thought he could get in and out before these guys showed up.

But it’d be cool. Once they got busy inside he’d have plenty of opportunities to snag some good loot. He didn’t kid himself that these guys wouldn’t do the same thing if they got the chance.

“Hey there.” He peeled the gas mask off. No way he was only wearing it. But then the smell hit him and bile rose into his throat. He swallowed. “Oh, that’s rank.”

Chris got up to the top of the crater rim and stared the ship. The other guys did the same thing. Scott, Jeff knew was good guy. Not the tallest dude but Jeff had seen him working out with the weights. Scott could bench twice his own body weight and do reps with it. He didn’t looked phased at all by the ship. He exchanged a nod with Jeff.

“Do we need those?” Chris asked, gesturing at the gas mask in Jeff’s hand.

“No. It’s safe enough. Just the stink.” He put it down on his duffle.

The other man he didn’t know at all. A soft-looking guy with dark hair and a bit of an Asian thing about him. Probably second or third generation, Jeff figured. That was fine. He didn’t give a rat’s ass as long as the man didn’t get in his way.

Jeff put on his biggest smile and stuck his hand out. “Jeff. I saw you at the meeting, sorry, don’t remember your name.”

“Robin.”

That’s right. He’d had a girl’s name. His handshake felt like squeezing a loaf of white bread. Useless, Jeff decided. But that didn’t matter so long as Robin stayed out of the way.

“We’re going to need a boat to get over there,” Chris said.

Jeff felt a flash of irritation. If Chris thought he could come in and take over he’d be in for a surprise. “That’s right. I’ve already scouted the other sides. That crack is the only way.”

Scott shook his head. “Nope.”

“Nope?”

“Nope. I ain’t gonna go in there.”

Robin licked his lips. “I’ll do it.”

That surprised the hell out of him. He’d expected Scott to be the guy to help him out. Chris, he didn’t trust Chris. He was one of those self-righteous guys that thought a college degree made all the difference. He’d gone to college. So he hadn’t bothered to finish. It’s not like he couldn’t have if he’d wanted but he had other plans.

“Any of you have an inflatable boat, canoe, anything like that?”

Heads shook all around.

“Damn it,” Jeff said.

4

Chris felt like he was walking through a dream when he said, “Why don’t we just swim?”

Jeff’s eyes widened. He was a thin wiry sort of guy that always seemed a bit on edge. Like he’d stuck his finger in a light socket and it had charged him up or something. Chris didn’t know him well but had seen him around since they’d moved to town. Usually at the City Council meetings or just as Jeff was doing odd jobs around town.

“We can swim.” Chris stepped over the edge of the crater.

Jeff grabbed his arm. The guy had a grip. Chris glanced at Jeff’s hand.

“Is there a problem?”

“So you swim over there, what then?”

Chris laughed. He regretted it when Jeff’s face reddened. Okay, not the guy to laugh at. “Sorry. I just meant that it’s an alien ship! The Eetees are here and we have a chance to see inside one of their ships.”

“Imagine how bad it smells in there,” Scott said. “You guys are crazy if you’re going in there.”

“Maybe we should wait,” Robin said.

Chris shook his head. He pulled free. “I’m not waiting. I want to get in there and take care of whatever is causing this stink. Maybe then we can start to figure out how all this worked. Hopefully before the Eetees come back.”

“You’re going to swim back and forth to drag out whatever rotten mess is inside causing this stink?” Jeff asked.

“No. We can get some back hoes or earth movers up here to push some of this dirt and rock into the water. We can build something like a dike out to the opening. But that’ll take time and we need to know what’s going on inside.”

Jeff chewed on his lip. Chris waited. Finally Jeff nodded. “Okay. You’ve got a point. We’ll do that. You and me. We swim out and scout out the place.” He turned to the other guys. “Why don’t the two of you go talk to the Mayor. See if he can get some equipment out here and someone to drive it. Shouldn’t take too long to make something workable. If the ship is going to stay we can always build something better later.”

Chris started skidding down the crater wall. Dirt and melted bits of sand tumbled down ahead of him in mini avalanches that plunked into the water. His arms wind-milled and he almost thought he wouldn’t be able to stop his downward plunge. He managed to stop a couple feet up from the water.

This close his eyes watered. His tongue felt swollen in his mouth from the stink of the place. It had been bad before he came into the crater. Now the odors gained a septic layer. He regretted his suggestion.

A hand slapped his back. His heart raced as he wobbled and nearly lost his footing. Jim laughed.

“Funny,” Chris said. “You’re a funny guy.”

“Come on. Let’s go in over there. It looks like that’s the shortest point.”

Chris followed Jeff’s arm. The land stuck out into the water a bit more at that point like a road sign to the crack in the ship. Jeff slung his duffel bag over his shoulder and walked down the shore. Chris breathed through his mouth and followed.

On the shore Jeff waded right in still carrying the duffel bag. Chris gave him points for that. He didn’t like the man but you couldn’t say that he was afraid. The water rose up to Jeff’s knee and then stopped.

“It’s hot. Come on in. Sooner we’re done with this the better, you know?”

Chris considered taking off his shoes but only for a second. He hated to ruin a good pair and after getting soaked in this mess he planned to burn all of his clothing. Looking at the scum and oily sheen to the water he realized he didn’t know what hazards the water hid. He took out his wallet and set it on the ground away from the water. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. He didn’t want to risk the phone getting submerged so he left it with his wallet. He kept his mini-mag light key ring.

He stepped in. He expected cold despite what Jeff said. It did feel hot. Just like stepping into a hot bath. The bottom didn’t suck at his shoes. It remained reasonably firm as he walked out. Almost slippery.

Jeff chuckled then turned and waded towards the ship. The water rose higher on him but he reached the white foam without the water rising above mid-thigh. Chris watched him poke it.

He didn’t scream. In fact he stuck his whole hand into a glob of the stuff.

Chris watched his face for a reaction. Jeff wrinkled his nose then shook his hand. Foam splattered on the surface.

“Don’t know what it is,” Jeff said. “Seems harmless.”

Jeff shoved through the foam. He scooped it out of the way with his arms and dumped it on the water. The foam had the consistency of shaving cream from what Chris could see. He followed in Jeff’s trail. The closer they got to the ship the higher the water rose.

“Fuck.” Jeff flicked his arms. “How much of this shit is there?”

Jeff stood right by the ship now but Chris saw the problem. For each armload of foam that Jeff shoveled out of his way more oozed out of the ship. Chris picked his way over to stand on Jeff’s right. He shoved the foam aside. It spread out across the water. It felt like shaving cream but after a little while his skin started to itch.

“Is your skin itching?”

“Fuck yeah. So?”

“Maybe this stuff isn’t safe?”

“Screw playing it safe. We are past playing it safe. I want to get in there and have a look around before the feds or anyone else shows up.”

If anything happened to him it’d leave Lynn and Paul alone in a world just devastated by the Eetee battle. But he’d promised to help out with this. It was important.

“Don’t tell my wife I didn’t go back.”

Jeff glanced at him. His blue eyes narrowed. “You got a wife?”

“Yes. And a son.”

Jeff shook his head. “You can go back any time bud. I don’t have anyone. I can go in and look around on my own.”

It was tempting. But the fact that Jeff offered only made Chris more determined. He had to see what was inside the Eetee ship.

5

Jeff ground his teeth. Dr. Kroger kept telling him that he shouldn’t grind his teeth but he couldn’t help it sometimes. Mostly when he dealt with idiots like Dart. The guy had some sort of hero complex. Just the sort of thing that could get a guy killed. You had to look out for yourself. Jeff’s father beat that lesson into him at a young age with the business end of a belt.

As far as the wife and kid. Too bad. Dad’s stupid and dead. So sad. He didn’t know Chris’s wife. That might change too.

Except the fucking foam kept coming out of the ship. He pushed another arm-load away. “This reminds me of flat fix.”

Chris pushed foam away on the other side. “Flat fix?”

“Yeah. Stuff comes in a can? You put it in the tire. Supposed to patch any holes.”

“Right.”

“So this one time fishing with my brother our pickup got a flat. We didn’t see it until we went to leave. No spare. But we had this flat fix. Used that stuff to get some air in the tire and got out of there. Had to stop because the stuff kept coming out of the tire. We bought some more to get the truck home.”

“That’s a really good idea. Maybe they used it for the same reason, to keep the air in their ship. This hole was just too big.”

Pompous prick. Jeff ground his teeth more. “Screw this. I’m close enough to grab the edge.”

He thrashed closer and just as his fingers brushed the edge of the opening is feet slipped on the bottom. Down he went. Hot water rushed up his chest. Foam closed in and he closed his mouth. Water covered his head. He kept his eyes shut tight. Hell if he wanted any of that crap in his eyes. He tried to get his feet under him but his shoes slipped on the bottom. It felt like trying to walk on wet ice. He had no traction.

A hand grabbed the back of his shirt. Had to be Chris. Jeff resisted. He didn’t need any god damn help! He came up sputtering and spitting water that got in despite his efforts. Chris looked at him all big eyes. Faking his concern, of course. Jeff knew it. He shoved Chris.

“Get the fuck off me!”

Chris stumbled but the prick couldn’t even fall down properly. Instead he spread his hands out to his sides. “Just trying to help.”

“I didn’t need your help.” Jeff ran his hands over his head to squeeze out the water. “I want your help the day hell freezes over. Got it?”

Chris lowered his hands. “Fine. If that’s how you want it.”

Jeff ground his teeth. God damn superior prick. Wait tell we get inside, buddy. Then you’ll see how I want it.

6

Chris waited until Jeff disappeared into the ship before he walked up to the crack himself. After Jeff’s explosion giving the guy space sounded like a good idea.

He didn’t hold it against Jeff. Times like this people freaked out. He felt it too.

Although he didn’t think he would ever lash out like that at someone trying to help.

Chris grabbed the edges of the alien ship and shivered. It felt cool and wet beneath his fingers. The ship’s skin looked like metal the color of graphite. From the distance the skin appeared smooth except for the undulating wrinkles that gave it a squashed look. He still couldn’t decide if the impact caused the wrinkles or if the ship normally looked like that. Now he saw that the skin held a texture. At first he thought that small bumps no bigger than the head of a pin covered the skin. Looking closer he saw a woven pattern. A woven metal? He ran his finger along the edge at the break and felt tiny prickles from each thread.

Amazing. It disappointed him that the Eetees fought wars. It saddened him that so many intelligent beings died. For what? Why? He remembered the two types of ship in the video. Did that mean two different Eetees or did the shape of the ships not matter? For all he knew there could have been cigar-shaped ships and spherical ships on both sides.

He sniffed and suddenly the smell hit him again. He gagged. He leaned on the ship and gagged for a second. His eyes watered. He’d been so focused he’d blocked it out.

A charnel house. This ship flew who-knew-how-many light years only to end up a carnal house in this quarry. He wished this had happened differently but they could give the Eetees a burial.

“Jeff?” He listened. Nothing from the ship. He’d better get inside.

Holding onto the sides he pulled himself up out of the water into the foam. He braced himself on a bent piece of the skin. The light didn’t penetrate far. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.

The foam bled out of the skin. Layers made the skin. All along the tear the foam bled out. Flat fix. It made sense. Zipping around space the ship hits a micrometeorite. Most probably didn’t penetrate the skin. Those with more energy might penetrate and the foam probably absorbed the kinetic energy as well as acting as a sealant to plug the hole. Good strategy so long as nothing ripped a big hole in the ship.

Chris scratched at his hands. The itching hadn’t gotten worse. It also hadn’t gone away. He stopped himself. The foam irritated his skin about as much as handling fiberglass. He ignored it.

Now that his eyes had adjusted he could see deeper into the ship. No flat surfaces thanks to the angle of the ship. Even so the tear had opened up onto a large room. The light didn’t penetrate only let him see a small patch of floor, at an angle, right in front of him. But between him standing there and the foam around him not much light got through. He didn’t see any sign of Jeff.

“Jeff?”

“Jeff?”

Nothing.

Chris took a step into the room. The floor felt flat and level beneath his feet. He looked back at the tear. Through the small opening above the foam he saw trees past those knocked down by the impact. From his perspective they looked tipped at an angle. Except he knew it wasn’t the trees. The alien ship had come in at an angle. But when he looked down now, as far as he could tell, he stood on a flat floor.

That chilled him. He rubbed his arms. Water dripped onto the floor. He had the crazy thought that he should find a towel and mop up the mess he’d created.

“Jeff?”

No answer. Chris worried about Jeff and that annoyed him. He didn’t want to worry about Jeff. He wanted to explore the ship but the air tasted thick and foul. His headache got worse. It felt like icepicks in his brain. He rubbed the side of his head. He blinked and tried to ignore the smell. He couldn’t, not really. Just like when Paul cried. Lynn could let Paul cry for a little while. Never so much that it really even upset Paul but she could tolerate his cry. Chris couldn’t shut it out. He felt sickened by the smell of Eetees rotting.

And the longer they sat here in the ship then the longer everyone had to keep breathing it. He needed to find the source and do something about it. Then maybe he’d get some peace.

“Jeff? Where are you?”

No answer. No sounds. He took a step and noticed a heaviness when he lifted his leg. It felt he wore heavy steel soled boots. The ship had artificial gravity. He didn’t have any idea how that could work but it started as soon as he stepped inside. The fact that he hadn’t felt it until then suggested that the field was contained to the inside of the ship. He knew enough to figure that this one detail changed the whole picture of physics. If gravity could be shaped and controlled like this then that might explain how the ships flew.

So why had this ship crashed? From what he saw whatever had ripped open the side of the ship hadn’t penetrated deep. The fact that the gravity still worked made him wonder how much of the ship still functioned?

Chris dug into his pocket and pulled out his mini-mag light. Hopefully being submerged He twisted the end and bright LED light shone out into the room.

His gut clenched at what he saw. He had expected it. The smell had to come from somewhere.

The light didn’t reach the other side of the room. He stood at the edge of a large round room. At least from this side it looked like the room took up the whole interior of the cigar-ship like a whole floor in a sky-scraper with the dividing walls taken out. At the edge of the light, towards the center of the room, he saw a curved wall that rose from the floor to the ceiling some sixteen feet above.

He didn’t see anything that looked like furniture. No cubicles. No chairs, couches, tables or desks. No computers, monitors or equipment. With one exception the entire floor contained nothing. The interior walls, floor and ceiling looked like the same woven black material used for the exterior skin.

No sign of Jeff.

But he had found the source of the smell. Bodies littered the floor. Dozens of cigar-shaped yellow segmented bodies lay in piled heaps. The area right around the tear remained clear, maybe because any Eetees close to it when it happened had been blown out into space. That still left the floor covered. And the ceiling. His head spun looking up at them but the Eetees covered the ceiling as thickly as the floor. Chris walked with heavy steps over to the closest body and played his flashlight along its length.

Superficially it resembled a six-foot long sunshine yellow caterpillar. In the grove between each segment the color flared to orange. The skin looked hairless and smooth. He couldn’t figure if it had a head or not. Both ends narrowed but was the head the end with the clusters of black river-pebbles embedded in the skin or the end with the cluster of bright red tentacles that lay limp and lifeless? That probably be for some scientist to figure out.

Was this a person? A scientist or a soldier? Looking at it his gut told him animal. The caterpillars could have been a food source for the crew except for two other details. Each segment had two limbs. He could see that much. Short limbs but meaty, and each ended in a hand. Not a human hand, but that made no difference. He still recognized it as a hand. Four fingers and two thumbs on each hand. Eight limbs and eight hands on each side. Plus it wore three metallic blue rings strapped to the top of each of the middle segments.

He couldn’t tell what had killed it. He didn’t see any obvious wounds. Fluid that looked like antifreeze had leaked out of the studded with the black river-pebbles. Blood? No telling.

Chris aimed his flash light at the ceiling. Bodies covered it just like the floor. He might have thought the ceiling simply mirrored the floor but if so it didn’t reflect him. He reached up towards the ceiling. At his full extension he felt weight tugging his hand up. That wasn’t a ceiling above but another floor with gravity going in the opposite direction.

He heard a faint crack like a gun shot. Then another. Jeff? It came from somewhere deeper in the ship.

7

After he got into the ship he’d taken out his big flashlight and immediate tried to get as far from the tear as he could. He didn’t want to be standing around when Chris got inside. That’d be like standing around the entrance to the store when you’d won a shopping spree. No, you got in, moved fast and picked the high-value items. In the best case you made the suckers bleed.

The tumbled fat bodies reminded him of so many maggots in a corpse. He had picked his way among them to the center of the room. There he had discovered the central shaft connecting the different levels. He had to get down on his hands and knees to look inside. It pissed him off at first. He hadn’t brought climbing gear and the shaft dropped off down below deeper than he’d expected. The ship must really have stuck into the ground. It went even farther the other direction. If the flashlight hadn’t slipped in his wet fingers he might not have realized the secret.

But the flashlight did slip because of the damn itching foam. Only the flashlight didn’t fall. It tumbled away from his hand but hung in the air as it spun across the shaft. He’d seen movies. He knew weightlessness when he saw it. It made sense. When the caterpillars wanted to go to a different level they floated along then crawled out, floor or ceiling, it didn’t make a difference.

He had looked back at that point and saw Chris pushing through the foam. He launched himself out into the shaft after the flashlight. He caught it then caught the opening on the other side to steady himself.

Jeff laughed quietly. This place could be fun once they got the bugs out. He shoved off and floated across the shaft to the other side. He reached out and dragged his duffel into the shaft with him.

Up or down? He chose down.

Easy as pie to push off the opening and drift down to the next opening. He didn’t have far to go. The next level looked the same as the one above. A floor and ceiling filled with dead caterpillars. Jeff pushed off down to the next level.

He whistled when he looked inside. Long raised troughs covered the ceiling and floor below. Each rose a couple feet from the floor and looked to be about three feet across. The troughs made rings around the central core. It looked like one of those corn mazes. Large dead caterpillars lay in the aisles around the troughs.

“That’s fucking gross.” It didn’t matter. He had to take a closer look.

Jeff shoved the duffel bag out onto what would have been the ceiling for the floor below. It stayed put. He kept his eyes on the bag but it felt like he had turned upside down. He pulled himself out of the shaft onto the floor right into the fluid that had leaked from a nearby caterpillar.

“Ugh.” He crawled out and stood up.

He felt okay. It didn’t feel like standing upside down. He picked up the duffel and walked over to the nearest trough. Chunks of dark blue meat and thick dark green fluid filled the trough. Mixed all throughout wriggled little caterpillars. Not all the fucking Eetees had died. They varied in length from only a few inches up to a foot.

“Fucking gross.” He crouched and unzipped his duffel and pulled out his Glock 17. Leaning into the trough he poked one of the a little six-inch caterpillars with the pistol.

Both ends of the caterpillar reared up out of the muck and turned towards him. It made small spitting sounds.

“Yeah, you’re an ugly fuck, you know that?”

But he could get good money for a living Eetee. He didn’t see any teeth but those red tendrils and the one end worried him. He reached in and grabbed the caterpillar. It thrashed around in his hand as he lifted it up. All eight stubby arms reached and twisted around. The hands grabbed at the air. It didn’t seem to like being held. Even so it didn’t sting him or bite him or do anything at all except thrash and make noise like water splattered on a wood stove.

“You’ll come with me.” He opened the duffel and shoved the thing inside. It grabbed onto the spare duffel he’d stuffed in there and called down. “Good shit.”

He zipped up the duffel. This many of the critters, if he could get them out, it’d make him a bundle. Not exactly what he had in mind but why not take it? Plenty of people wanted payback. He could sell the Eetees and make people happy. Why let the government have all the fun? It’d take some work to set up but it could be done.

Jeff left the duffel and stepped up onto the edge of the trough. He kept the Glock with him. If the little ones were still alive there might be others. Halfway across the room he caught sight of a larger caterpillar. He walked across the room on the troughs to avoid the bodies in the aisles until he got to the big caterpillar. Like the others it had died but this one had green rings instead of blue. Not only that but had what could only be a heavy black gun in one hand.

He bent and picked up the gun. It felt heavy and sturdy in his hand. In shape and weight it reminded him of a sawed-off shotgun. At the barrel-end of this, though, he didn’t see any openings. A ray gun?

One way to find out.

8

Chris found the shaft and floated in the space. “Jeff? Are you okay?”

“Help!”

The cry came from below. Chris pushed off and floated down. The next level matched the first and he didn’t see Jeff.

“Where are you?”

“Down here!”

At the next level Chris saw a light. He reached the first opening and pulled himself through. He took in the troughs and dead bodies.

“Jeff? What happened?”

A bright flashlight shone in his face. He raised his hands to block the light but he couldn’t see anything.

“Damn things aren’t all dead. You came down here and this big one had a weapon. I shot it dead but not before it got you.”

Chris dove onto the bodies at his feet.

Jeff screamed.

Then the only sound Chris heard came from the troughs. A splashing and slurping noise. He lifted his head. He saw the light from Jeff’s flashlight but not Jeff. When nothing moved he got up, tensing in case Jeff did something else.

He picked his way around the bodies and crossed the room to where the flashlight lay. Jeff lay on the floor. Nearby was an alien gun as black as space. A fist-sized hole had been punched through Jeff’s chest. The wound oozed but the edges looked charred.

Chris crouched down and studied the gun without picking it up. He looked at the big alien lying dead with a couple bullet holes in its body. He understood Jeff’s plan. He had planned to lure Chris down and kill him with the alien weapon. Then Jeff could claim to be a hero for killing the Eetee. Only Jeff had miscalculated. he’d pointed the long end of the gun at Chris only this wasn’t a projectile weapon. The long part matched the length of the Eetee arm. It would have held the short grip in its hand with the long part of the gun lying along its forearm. The stubby end of the gun was the business end which Jeff had pointing at himself.

Stupid.

Chris stood up and looked at the young Eetees in the troughs. It’d be hard but they’d have to try and care for them. Maybe the Eetees could learn and help them understand what had happened in space above. It wouldn’t be easy. He looked at Jeff’s body. There’d be more men like him, filled with greed and hate.

Chris headed back to the shaft. As he passed the duffel bag he heard a sound like a kettle spitting from inside. He unzipped and discovered a young Eetee.

“Poor little guy.” Chris gently lifted the alien up. When it started flailing its arms he slid one arm around beneath it automatically, just like he did with Paul. The little guy grabbed on with all eight hands and the tension in its body relaxed. Chris lowered it to the trough. The red tendrils waved and it scrambled down, slipping into the gunk. “You’re welcome. I’ll be back.”

9

Chris sat on the porch swing with Lynn. Paul sat on his lap. Lynn leaned her head against her shoulder. “You’re sure the Mayor supports your plan?”

“Yes. We’re going to clean out the ship. The bodies will have to be burned. There’s so many. But after that he’s putting me in charge of the ship. I’ll do everything I can to keep the Eetees alive so we can learn from them.”

“Things aren’t going to go back to the way they were, are they?”

He kissed her head. “Nope. It’s time for us to grow up. If we help these Eetees grow up maybe they can return the favor.”

8,203 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 38th weekly short story release, written in October 2009 at one of the first writer’s workshops I’ve attended on the Oregon coast. This one did get an e-book and print release at the beginning of 2014, so it is available through various retailers.

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is a fantasy story Tom Scratch.