Bone Magic

Cover art for Bone Magic

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

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

And couldn’t go.

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

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

“Buster.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hang on,” Alex said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

He blinked and squinted at the ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On his fourth throw, the front door opened.

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

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

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

Buster stood up.

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

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

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

“Come on, Buster, it’s pouring rain!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be like that,” Alex said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This had belonged to a cow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buster stopped barking.

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

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

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

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

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

CABAAWWK! BAAAWWK!

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

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

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

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

Why had it come out of his bone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are?”

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

CABAWWWK!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want my ears back,” Buster said.

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

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

Buster growled.

The chicken flapped her wings. “CAWWWBAWWK!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on! Stop breaking my eggs!”

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

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

“CAWWBAWWK!”

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

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

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

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

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

“I wish that you —”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

💀

4,717 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

Forgotten Opportunity

Nightflayers attacked ships and colonies. They took survivors for experimentation and study. They ignored all attempts to communicate.

Humanity fought back. With greater numbers and equivalent technology humankind fought without understanding what the nightflayers wanted.

It took Coordinator Tevyan, the sole Survivor and former nightflayer prisoner many years to understand the war.

Returning to Ilivian gave him the chance to make a difference.

🚀

Coordinator Tevyan did his best to hide his feelings during the shuttle descent to the Kepler station on Ilivian. His weathered reflection — somehow an old man now, with what hair he had remaining buzzed close to his scalp and white — stared back at him. The overhead lights cast shadows across his face like craters on an airless body. His cheeks were deep depressions and his eyes nothing but a glint like polar ice at the bottom of the craters. His wrinkles, a tortured landscape shaped by major impact events.

He had never planned to return to Kepler in his lifetime, but here he was, riding on a stomach-twisting grav shuttle to the surface. Grav drives in gravity wells; the competing forces always upset his stomach. Had way back when he was still a young man going through basic. Back before the War, before Kepler, when he was nothing. Just one more cell in the multi-trillion body mass of humanity spreading out, engulfing one star after another.

Not the Survivor. Or the Prisoner. Or Coordinator.

Nothing.

A simple life then, with this future unimaginable. Unbelievable. Humanity fractured, wounded, the entire mass of humankind grieving still for lost limbs amputated during the war. The body survived but seriously scarred, scared and unbalanced. Bitter over its losses and struggling to find any meaning in a universe turned dark and hostile. The war was over, but the whole of humanity suffered from post-traumatic stress.

And somehow this ceremony was supposed to help start the healing process. The socioanalysts planned to spread holorecordings of the event across the entire spiral arm. They claimed this one thing, this one event, could somehow tip the scales. A butterfly effect that would turn into a hurricane of healing across the worlds.

Tevyan agreed, but not for the reasons that they thought. His plan differed from their plan.

“Sir, we will touch down in a moment.” The voice was smooth, pleasant, genderless. Artificially combined to suggest child and mother both.

Tevyan glanced over at the floating silvery orb in the aisle. The attendant for this flight was featureless, but a dim nimbus of blue surrounded it, an ionizing effect of its displacement drive. It wouldn’t be long now before the grav drives shut down and the shuttles displacement drives took over now that they were low enough in the Ilivian atmosphere. He anticipated the switch-over with longing.

“Thank you,” Tevyan said so the thing would go away.

Through his reflection, the world came into view. Ilivian’s blackened landscape at first looked charred and burned, the surface of a planetary disaster but it was actually the vegetation. Black sticky stuff that got into everything. Gum trees, Tar trees, Tar Babies, slink weed, choke vine and all the rest of the nastiest stuff any of them had ever seen. Landing on Kepler had been like landing in a tar pit.

Exactly like that, and like a dinosaur they had all met their deaths on this blasted planet hurtling too close around its star. All except him. The Survivor.

Coordinator Tevyan sighed. He was old and tired and resenting this whole affair but underneath that he felt a tingling, a surging in his pulse, an excitement he hadn’t felt since the first time he laid eyes on Ilivian.

Beside him his aide, a young woman with lovely brown hair that made a straight line down her slender back. He didn’t bother with her name or any of their names. She leaned close enough that he could smell the clean scent of her. Not perfume, no one wore perfume anymore. Her’s was the scent of a person carefully washed clean of any offense.

“Coordinator?” Her voice was pitched just right, soft and clear. “Are you in need of refreshment?”

Tevyan reached over and patted her arm. A bony little thing. “Stay away from the slink weed. That stuff creeps up on you. I saw it strangle a bunk mate once.”

Her perfectly composed face barely twitched at that comment. “As you say, sir. You will let me know if you require my aid?”

“Of course. Of course.” Tevyan looked back out the window.

The shuttle bounced at the switchover. Well, vibrated a tiny amount, but Tevyan recognized that shiver, like the feeling when someone walked over your grave. No one else gave any indication of feeling it.

Beneath them, a bright spot appeared ahead among the frothy black hills. Kepler station, right on time, looking like a raft among the black Ilivian vegetation. The first time he had come down in among the deployment to create the station there was nothing there except the bright reflections from the lake and what looked like a black sand beach. Muck weed was a low-growing plant with a sharp thorn at the heart of the tangled mass. What seemed like a smooth bed of vegetation was actually like walking on a bed of needles. And like many of the Ilivian plants, the muck weed could move and strike out in defense with its needles. The plant killed unwary animals, which rotted into the muck it favored along lakes and ponds.

These days Kepler station was a whole city unto itself with skyscrapers shooting up into the sky, their surfaces an unappealing gray to mute out the intense reflections from the Ilivian star. It gave the station the look of a prison.

But then, it was that too, for a time.

Landing went as expected. Tevyan made sure to keep control of his personal bag, although long habit and attitude ensured that no one would lay hands on the bag. Not unless he gave them a reason or requested help, which he wouldn’t.

Wouldn’t dare. Just as he couldn’t dare allow anyone to see his arm tremble at lifting the bag. His bag, immune to any scans or searches or measurements. The shuttle systems would have recorded the combined weight of passengers and luggage but only for use in calculations involving energy expenditure and allocation. In days past no one, not even him, would have gotten on board without a thorough examination and the weight of his bag would have triggered numerous alarms. Not to mention the added cost of those excess kilograms.

Today none of that applied. Humanity won the war, but humanity itself was the survivor, the prisoner that now struggled with the trauma of its injuries. Growth had stalled. Humanity didn’t reach for new stars any longer. People spoke about returning to Sol as if humanity’s origin could contain and support them any longer. It was ridiculous. Even as wounded as they were, they encompassed hundreds of systems, not even counting the quarantined systems, on which humankind might survive in some nightmarish fashion.

And still, people flooded Sol with pilgrims and refugees. The First Colonies worlds were likewise inundated with the tide of retreat. It was as if all humankind was going to curl in on itself, retreat into the corner to die a slow and painful death from its wounds. Victor in the war, but still to expire from its injuries.

Against that, the socioanalysts worked to promote healing and encourage more growth. Humanity could regrow and expand around the amputated areas. Those wounds were contained and carefully monitored lest the cancer ever spread again. In all of their plans, he was one small part. One small jolt of hope and strength to stir his fellow humanity.

They still didn’t understand what happened. The socioanalysts today weren’t even born back during the war when he was taken prisoner.

Striding toward the reception in the main terminal, he didn’t recognize the place. The ceremony was supposed to take place right outside the front of the terminal building. All of this had looked different back then. A temporary base, a staging area, burned out of the stick Ilivian landscape and built with prefab components. None of it back then had been designed to last. Half of it was charred and melted when the night-flayers descended.

Nightflayers, an unfortunate name for a people that humanity had never understood. The result of sensationalism dating back to the beginning of the war after prisoner remains were discovered flayed among the ruins of a nightflayer mobile base. A combination of nightmare and flayer, it put a name on an enemy that until that point hadn’t had a name. At least none that humanity had identified. No one succeeded at decoding nightflayer computer systems, or even understanding how they functioned. Apparently quantum computers, but with a solid matrix that resisted any attempts to analyze. Any scans done caused the system to fuse and become lifeless. Any functioning systems captured ceased to function as soon as humans came within the vicinity. Robots didn’t have any better luck. In one operation microscopic drones infiltrated a nightflayer base merely to observe and not interact. Before any useful information could be extracted the drones were all simultaneously destroyed by some sort of pulse.

The nightflayers became a mystery, a source of terror. Ships that appeared out of nowhere to eradicate any sign of humans whether found on a ship, asteroid or planet. Military or civilian, it made no difference. Once nightflayers appeared in a system they began randomly destroying targets. One habitat would be utterly destroyed, and then the nightflayers would appear somewhere else in the system to attack another.

No negotiations. No response to any communication attempts.

All of that was bad enough, but the nightflayers took prisoners. Most were never seen again, but what humanity did find in the ruins of captured and disabled nightflayer ships sent waves of terror through the colonies. Not only torture and death but biological modification.

People gathered around Coordinator Tevyan. They clapped, but the sound hardly registered. People talked, but he didn’t pay them any attention. None of it mattered.

“Coordinator?” His aide, right in front of him. Concern on her young, unlined face. “Are you alright? Do you need to rest before the ceremony?”

No. “No,” Tevyan said aloud in a firm, strong voice. He couldn’t show weakness. Not now. “Let’s get on with it.”

His aide looked doubtful. Caryn, that was her name. Not that it mattered now. He straightened his spine and walked purposefully toward the podium where some official was making an introduction. Seeing the Coordinator coming that official quickly wrapped up whatever he was saying and stepped back out of Tevyan’s way.

Tevyan placed his case on the podium in front of everyone. An air of hushed expectation came over the crowd. So many people standing here, but even among these hopeful he could see the aura of defeat and fatalism that had gripped humanity.

Won the war? Perhaps, but humanity was fatally wounded itself. If he did nothing, then humanity would shrink back and shrink back, more and more worlds becoming isolated while others closer to Sol became over-run and collapsed under the mass of humankind.

The body of humanity stood on the brink of suicide. Traumatized and sick of the war. Terrified of the dark spaces between the stars. Doubting in the possibility of a higher purpose.

Tevyan flipped the catches on the small black case. The silence grew longer. Uncomfortable whispers spread among the crowd. Some of those in the front edged back slightly, probably unaware of what they were doing.

The night-flayers weren’t traumatized, even though they had lost the war. At least according to some, never considering that theirs had been a calculated retreat designed to draw humanity out, but humanity lacked the drive anymore and took the nightflayer’s retreat as an admission of defeat. It was on that basis that humanity declared itself the victor in the conflict.

Tevyan knew better. The nightflayers hadn’t given up. They were smart, fanatical and just as technologically savvy as humanity. But they lacked the numbers. If humanity was a wounded animal, it was like a great bear going back to its cave to nurse its wounds. The nightflayers were a wolverine who wasn’t going to tolerate the bear’s presence in its territory. They had retreated in a calculated effort to rest, rebuild and let the toils of the war further sap the strength of humanity. They’d wait until humanity slumbered, then strike again. If humanity hadn’t died of its wounds already, it would the next time the night-flayers came at them.

Unless he stopped them.

The case opened, and the crowd tensed. He saw the almost universal tightening of their features. The way they flinched back, trying to hide it. A crowd of people fearful because an old man opened a case. They knew! On some level they saw something in his manner that suggested the danger. A look, maybe, in his eyes. It was that bit of awareness that he needed. He wanted it.

In the wings, he saw security personnel moving around the edges of the crowd. They didn’t know that it was already too late. It had always been too late.

Coordinator Tevyan smiled. An almost inaudible sigh passed through the crowd. It’s okay, his smile said. He was the Survivor. The one prisoner in the long war that came out of a nightflayer lab at least somewhat intact. Luck and happenstance, only. If one little thing had gone wrong, history would have looked very different.

“Forgive me,” he said, his voice picked up and amplified to the room. Sound shapers made it sound like he was speaking to each member of the crowd individually, and he used that conversational voice that they all knew so well.

“Forgive an old man momentarily overwhelmed to be back here again. I never thought to step foot on Ilivian again. For those of you making a home here, forgive me, because I saw nothing of the beauty that I’m sure this world must hold.”

He coughed. Continued. “We landed in a field of scorched slink weed that smelled like burning rubber. We cleared muck weed from the lakeshore with flame throwers, fighting a daily battle to hold this one tiny piece of inhospitable ground so that we could build a foothold against the night-flayers. On this world wrapped in blackness, we fought to blaze a new hope for humanity!”

The crowd cheered and clapped. This was what they had come for, what the socioanalysts wanted. A message of hope to spread across the worlds. They didn’t realize that hope was the poison inflicted by the nightflayer claws.

“And we succeeded. We built our base. Then the nightflayers came. They descended out of the dark like javelins thrown by gods. Their initial assault was meticulously planned to wipe out our defensive capabilities while leaving as many of our soldiers alive as possible.

Security had relaxed. Holorecordings in the wings showed views of the way things were, and simulations of what he was saying. He didn’t care or control any of that.

“What happened then?” Tevyan looked down at the case. It held a large metallic egg-shaped object, but black and non-reflective. The surface gave nothing back, broken only by three lines around the perimeter, tiny grooves.

He took the object out of the case. The crowd now reassured, pressed closer to try and see what he held, but he kept it close to his body. Holding it but not drawing more attention to it just yet.

“Many have spoken about the nightflayers’ victims found in destroyed ships or cracked open asteroid habitats that they favor. You hear of talk of biological modification, but the full truth never spreads. Why is that? What do those in charge fear would happen if that were the case?”

More unsettled murmurs spread around the crowd. This wasn’t what they had come to hear. Tevyan lifted his weathered left hand, wrinkled with age but unmistakably half what it should have been. His outer two fingers and a good portion of the hand was missing. An outward sign of the mutilation and abuse he had sustained. A collective gasp went out from the crowd, even though they all knew of his injuries.

“In all of the battles, the victories we have won, no other person ever emerged alive from the night-flayer holdings. Or so you’ve been told. I’ve been the sole survivor, the prisoner that single-handedly managed to destroy a nightflayer base and then stayed alive among the rubble until rescued.”

Clapping rose up. Tevyan waved it down.

“Thank you, but your applause is unnecessary, my escape was staged by the nightflayers themselves.” Tevyan twisted the first segment of the device. A faint green glow filled the bottom groove. The crowd grew more agitated, and security was watching him more carefully. It must worry them, hearing his words, not knowing what he held.

“It took me too long to realize their purpose. I was debriefed many, many times when I got back. It wasn’t until the years piled into decades that I realized their intent.”

Tevyan twisted the second segment. Now people were drawing back again, but panic hadn’t yet set in. Security remained uncertain.

“They let me free to generate hope in humanity. That’s right. The night-flayers wanted you to hope. It took them a long time to understand hope; it isn’t something that they are wired to understand. They don’t hope, they do or don’t do things. But their quantum computing technology has prescient capabilities, and it determined that our hopefulness would weaken us, make us hesitate, and draw back hoping for a different outcome.”

They were listening. It didn’t matter now, but he couldn’t do this and not explain.

“They sent me as an instrument of hope, to make humanity doubt and question. Many of you don’t remember that there were those at that time calling for a full-out attempt at genocide, to wipe out the night-flayers who had proved impossible to communicate with or reason with. That movement would have gained more strength if yet another base was discovered overrun with no survivors. Without any attempt at subverting me, the nightflayers made me their weapon. Humanity saw me survive and hoped for a different outcome.”

Tevyan twisted the last segment and returned the device to the case. The crowd relaxed further, though their faces betrayed their confusion and doubt at his words. Tevyan leaned on the podium. There wasn’t much time left.

“Be very clear. Our hope for peace, for an end to the war, was fed by that one small act. By a survivor. A prisoner who could convincingly believe that he had escaped, destroying the night-flayer base in the process through means of accessing the self-destruct. The one time in our history that a human accessed any night-flayer system! Don’t you see? Just as the socioanalysts planned to use this reception to reignite hope in humanity, the nightflayers sent me out to ignite hope at a time when we needed to take a different path.”

Silence ruled the room. The device was active. Nothing could stop it now. His words meant nothing, but he felt compelled all the same to speak before the end, as so many others had given their last words.

“We had an opportunity to decide to wipe them out. Those that cried out against that course failed to understand that the nightflayers intend exactly that. They will wipe us out, fighting to the last. Any retreat only serves their benefit. They let the poison inflicting humanity to grow and weaken us.”

Tevyan placed a hand on the device. “Some of you might recognize this device, deemed harmless. A laboratory experiment that proved time could be manipulated on a quantum level, a device without practical application until now.”

Murmurings rose out of the crowd. Any moment now it wouldn’t matter. Tevyan pushed forward, eager to finish before the end.

“I’ve set it for one very specific task. Reach back and flip a question asked of the nightflayer computers. Should I live or die? Would a survivor help the nightflayer cause? Last time it said yes. This time, it will say no and I’ll die with the rest of my squad. I don’t know if it will be enough, but I hope that humanity, outraged by the atrocities committed here will rise in a never-ending fury that will burn the nightflayers from existence once and for all!”

Tevyan swung his hand down at the podium.

The blow didn’t land. Where he had stood wasn’t there, never had been. Kepler didn’t exist, hadn’t except for one brief period many years ago. A tar baby, one of the native inhabitants of Ilivian, wandered through the spot where the terminal had stood, snuffling through the slink weed. Acidic saliva dissolved the tarry black coating on the slink weed and gave the tar baby a chance to consume the plant within. Slink weed tar coated its bare, hairless body. The tar baby didn’t care anything about the affairs of the humans and night-flayers that had battled over this ground. It knew nothing of the spikes of metal that rose up, half-covered by slink weed and gossamer webs.

The tar baby trundled on, blissfully unaware of the forgotten opportunities in that place near the lake shore coated with muck weed.

🚀

3,472 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 74th weekly short story release, written in February 2012. 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. I’m a bit behind on posting stories but check back next Monday for another story. Hopefully, I’ll catch up soon. Next up is my story, Killing Bennie.

Playing Possum

The best way to start the day? With a bike ride to work. Even with the chance of rain, it looked like a great day for a ride.

The only drawbacks? The stretch of old highway, logging trucks doing 60mph , and a narrow shoulder littered with debris from the trees.

Wishing didn’t change anything. Mostly.

A light, humorous fantasy with some crude language—for readers who like that sort of thing.

🍀

In the early morning, fresh from sleep and facing a partly cloudy Puget Sound sky, riding to work—that is bicycling to work—sounded great. It didn’t take Derek more than three looks out the window at the slowly brightening day, chowing down on home-raised eggs and bacon, to make up his mind.

Yes. Yes! A day with only thirty-percent chance of rain was a good day to ride the bike.

Out came the black, padded cycling shorts, great for keeping the balls from becoming ball jam on the ride, the bright yellow cycling jersey, great for keeping him from becoming street jam beneath the massive double-wheels of the logging trucks that did sixty down the fifty mile hour old highway. And of course the bright yellow helmet, but between that helmet and a logging truck he expected the helmet would make about as much difference as squat.

Work clothes, decent tan pants and a blue button down shirt, along with a fresh undershirt and boxers—he didn’t wear anything under the cycling shorts—plus his shoes and belt all went into the dry sack that he strapped to the handle bars of his 29er, a Gary Fisher Marlin, metallic green.

Fifteen minutes to get ready, then twenty miles of blissful riding to work. Or at least ten, because the first half didn’t really count.

The first half of his commute followed the old highway which meant sharing the road with commuters that buzzed the rumble strips and the logging trucks blasting past with a wind that threatened to rip him right off the bike. He tested his reflexes dodging all the broken tree branches that had come down in the storms, that the road crews never bothered to clean off the shoulder.

Nearly at the halfway mark—looking forward to joining the trail for the final ten miles— Derek sped down a hill with a couple S-curves. You really had to watch the commuters because some of them liked cutting those corners, and instead of slowing to forty-five like the signs said they gave it more gas. And for the same reason the road crews spent even less time cleaning those narrower shoulders.

The only thing to do then was stand up and pretend that the mountain bike was a racing bike, take the lane and haul ass. Every couple pedal strokes he ducked his head back to look past his left arm and check the traffic behind him.

Coming around that last corner his head came up and there, right there by the side of the road, was a massive bald eagle. The bird’s white head swiveled around, tracking him with a predatory intensity and it was only then that he realized that it was standing on a gray-furred body.

At that point he was doing a good twenty-five miles an hour, taking advantage of the gap in traffic, swinging wide across the lane to get positioned for crossing to the trail.

The eagle, clearly seeing this strange yellow-clad skinny man barreling down the hill, must have decided that it’d rather eat its road kill someplace a little more private.

Thick talons gripped the body and the bird flapped enormous wings, laboring to lift the corpse from the road.

Derek was moving. Legs pumping, heart-pounding like a steam engine. Thick saliva filled his mouth demanding he spit or swallow. The wind tore past his helmet.

The eagle looked so cool! It was right there, close enough to see individual feathers, struggling to rise. Its first attempt carried it another few feet down the road, right to the edge of the trail.

A massive horn blasted out behind Derek. He very very nearly—for the first time since kindergarten—peed his pants at the sound. He didn’t even need to look to know that there was a logging truck behind him, most likely loaded with logs straining against rusted chains, moving over fifty-miles per hour.

No way that mother was going to stop because some scrawny cyclist got in the way. Even if the driver wanted to, he couldn’t. Not that fast. Not if he didn’t want to jack-knife his rig and send the logs and truck tumbling down the road.

Which would still add one more white cross to the side of the road in Derek’s memory.

The other lane had a Prius coming toward Derek, but he didn’t even think before he swerved, cutting across the lane in front of the Prius, out of the way of that logging truck.

He hit the shoulder on the other side, turning to glance back as both the Prius and the logging truck tore past.

His front wheel bounced. He looked forward, expecting to see the trail and instead he saw the eagle.

Time enough to see the pure snowy feathers on its head, the sharp yellow-orange beak, wings out, catching the wind. Flying right at head-height across the trail. Beneath it, clutched in wicked talons, the limp raggedy gray-furred body of a possum.

The eagle’s white tail twisted. Wings dipped and beat powerfully. Derek swerved, trying to avoid the imminent collision. He saw the eagle release its meal, the possum falling as the eagle shot up into the air, free of its burden, and then he bounced off the trail.

Riding a mountain bike down a single-track was one thing. Bouncing out of control off the trail was quite another. The moss-covered boulder could have erupted from the ground right in front of him for all he knew. He saw it.

Hit it.

Sky and earth. Earth won with a bone-jarring slap as if to disabuse him of any notion of flying.

Stunned, not even remembering to breath for a second or two, every part of his body clamored for attention with shrill pain signals. Somehow he’d gotten spun around in his brief flight. He could see the top of the boulder, the spinning rear wheel of his bike, making a metal grinding sound as it slowed that couldn’t be good, and above that the partly cloudy sky turning to blue as the sun rose higher.

Derek hurt, but he couldn’t decide if it was broken-hurt or bruised-hurt. Should he try moving, or wait until someone decided to stop and see if the crashed cyclist was okay? That could be a long wait. He’d gone onto the trail, then off it, down a bit of an incline, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that it’d be hours before anybody’d even notice him lying there. And even then, what if they assumed he was taking a nap or something? People didn’t like to stop and get involved.

Of course a dog-walker might come, even if they didn’t usually come out to this spur of the trail. There weren’t any houses nearby. All around his small patch of sky were tall Douglas fir trees, all undeveloped land. Someday it’d be housing developments and little strip shopping centers along the old highway, but not now.

Nearby, someone grunted.

He still hadn’t decided if it was safe to move or not—the pain was bad—but he couldn’t make up his mind if it was so bad that he shouldn’t move. It came in waves, but he was breathing at least, so he called out.

“Help? I could use some help here?”

More grunting and then a small man covered in raggedy gray fur climbed up on the boulder and stood silhouetted against the partly cloudy sky. He had a fat broad face with pinkish, squinty eyes and a long naked gray tail that he held in two tiny black-clawed hands. His hands ran over and over the tail like it was a rosary. The small man wasn’t wearing anything, Derek could even see his junk hanging out of the fur beneath a rounded belly.

“What’re you looking at?”

The small man’s voice was scratchy and deep, but the words were clear enough. Derek looked back up at the squinty face. Seeing the pointed nose sniffing the air, it occurred to him that this was the possum, the one the eagle had beside the road.

“You’re the possum.”

“Am not!” The small man’s possum tail snapped like a whip and he spread his arms wide. “You see a lot of possums walking the fuck around on two legs, do you?”

“No. If you aren’t a possum what are you?”

“A fucking leprechaun, genius!”

Derek considered this for a second or two, also still trying to decide if it was safe to reach up and see if his helmet was still attached, or if his brains were oozing out onto the rock.

“You don’t look like a leprechaun.”

“Oh asshole? You don’t think I fucking know what I am? I’ll bet you think leprechauns are all wee little fairies dancing around in gay green outfits, don’t you?”

Derek tried shrugging. It hurt, but not collar-bone-broken kind of pain.

“Think censors, asshole.” The leprechaun, if that’s what he was, slapped his hands against his rounded belly. “We’re naturalists. Nudists, if you’re one of those prude fuckers. But no one wanted to draw us that way! They thought it was funny to draw us with queer little hats and outfits. Of course they didn’t know what the hell to do with our tails so they fucking amputated those!”

It seemed like there had to be holes in that argument but clearly Derek’s brain was too rattled to find them. Instead he seized on something else.

“You don’t sound like a leprechaun either.”

The leprechaun jumped up and down screaming, a rather alarming sound that brought to mind cats fighting. Derek was tempted to try and crawl away, but he didn’t want to risk hemorrhaging or something if he was busted up inside. This went on for several long seconds before the leprechaun stopped his fit.

Huffing, the leprechaun held up his hands. “I’ve had an awfully shitty day, but that just pisses me off! You think I should be all top o’ the morning, and shit, don’t you?”

“Well, is that wrong?”

“Listen, asshole, I was fucking born here! My parents were born here. I’ll fucking bet you that I can trace my lineage back a hell of a lot farther than you, and we’ve been here most of that time.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That means, asshole, that I’ve got yer damn blarney stones right here, if you think I give a shit!” The leprechaun grabbed his junk and thrust his hips in Derek’s direction.

That didn’t make Derek feel better. He wiggled his fingers. They moved alright. The sharpest pain was coming from his left hip. The rest of his body just hurt, but his hip felt like a deeper pain.

“If you’re gonna fucking just lay there on the ground crying, we might as well get this business out of the way.”

Derek looked at the leprechaun, glad to see that he was stroking his tail again instead of other things.

“Business?” Derek asked. He lifted his arms up in the air as if signaling. Both arms seemed intact.

“Yer fucking wish! I wouldn’t waste my fucking time with you, but you did save me from that eagle, by being a complete asshole moron.”

Derek put his hands down and pushed himself up, anticipating great pain, but it didn’t happen. He hurt. A stinging pain on his right elbow turned out to be a four-inch long road rash full of embedded gravel, dirt, moss and Douglas fir needles. Blood oozed out around the debris. That was going to take a lot of meticulous cleaning to get all that shit out, and then he’d be lucky if he didn’t get an infection.

“Ouch.” Derek looked down at his body. More scratches on his right calf. He didn’t even want to look at his left hip, but he did.

A pointed stick stuck out of the ground. The end of it was wet with blood, and there was a small pool forming on the ground beside his hip. He’d gotten impaled, stabbed clear through his shorts! Bacon and eggs churned again in his gut, he could almost taste them, and quickly looked away from the wound.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Stop your whining and make the fucking wish! I told you I’ve had a shitty  day already, let’s get on with it!”

Derek looked at the foul leprechaun on the boulder. “You’ve had a shitty day! Look at me!”

Then Derek noticed his bike on the other side of the boulder. Shit! His bike! He got to his feet before the pain stopped him. He staggered and went back down, catching himself with scrapped palms on the rock.

“Watch the fuck out!” The leprechaun jumped backward on the rock.

This close Derek could smell a musky, animal smell from the leprechaun. It didn’t help his upset stomach at all. On top of that he could smell the blood, and a glance down showed more blood oozing out of the wound in his hip.

Suddenly it felt like the world was spinning, trying to throw him off. Derek clung to the rock until the sensation passed. When he raised his head he saw the bike’s front tire first.

Totally taco’d. Irreparable. It even looked like the fork was bent. Damn, he’d hit that rock hard.

“Yer bike is toast, asshole. How ‘bout you wish for a new one?”

Derek blinked, looking at the leprechaun’s broad squinty face. Whiskers sprayed out from his tiny nose.

“I could do that?” Derek asked, as an expensive high-end Cannondale 29er came to mind.

“It’s a fucking wish, of course you can! Make the wish so we can both get on with our fucking days. I don’t give a shit.”

That was something to think about. Derek’s hip pulsed with pain. He made himself look down at it. Gingerly he picked at the torn shorts. The wound wasn’t bleeding that fast, a slow ooze. He wasn’t in danger of bleeding to death, but a puncture wound was serious. Now that he was up the road rash on his arm, hands and leg were all  burning, pain ramping up.

He really needed a hospital, as much as he hated the idea.

“Well?” The leprechaun demanded.

“I —” Derek stopped. Why rush it? It was his wish, wasn’t it? If this leprechaun wasn’t just a sign of a head injury, then that wasn’t something to rush into. “I’m not ready.”

The leprechaun snarled. His tail snapped down against the rock, scattering moss. His tiny hand shot out and poked Derek’s arm, a dark claw digging into a smaller patch of road rash that Derek hadn’t even noticed yet. The pain was like getting an electric shock.

“Hey!” Derek jerked back, nearly tumbling himself off the boulder. “Stop that!”

“What’s your fucking problem? Just make the wish!”

Derek eased back and stood up. The world didn’t spin him off. He hurt, each movement hurt, but he could move at least. He limped around the boulder to his bike, considering the possibilities. The bike was in worse shape than him. The front tire and fork were lost causes, but that bad of an impact could have fractured the frame too. The rear tire looked wrong somehow, misaligned or something.

Wish for a new bike? Wish away all of his injuries? That was tempting. The pain seemed to be growing more intense in spots, while most of his body just ached.

But a wish? Why not wish for millions of dollars? Then he could buy whatever he wanted, and his wounds would heal on their own.

The leprechaun was watching him, glaring with those squinty eyes. His lips curled in a sneer that showed sharp teeth on one side of his mouth.

If this wasn’t a delusion, and it certainly felt real, then the world was a lot different than he’d imagined. The leprechaun was different than any leprechaun he could have imagined. That alone argued that this was real. If he was suffering hallucinations from a head injury then it should have looked like the guy on the Lucky Charms box.

“Asshole!” The leprechaun waved his arms. “Are you going brain-dead on me?”

Derek shook his head. “No, I’m just thinking. What are the consequences of making a wish? Like if I asked for money would the feds show up on the doorstep to arrest me for robbing a bank?”

The leprechaun let out a nasty little chuckle. “Didn’ hit your head too fuckin’ hard did you? Hell, when you went acrost that boulder I thought you were toast!”

Derek shivered, feeling like he’d just missed another car flattening him. “Then maybe we should just call it good and skip the whole wish thing?”

“Oh no, boyo. I don’t owe anyone. You’ll make that wish!”

The dirty wound on his arm suddenly sent a breath-taking jolt of pain up his nerves. Derek gasped and nearly sat down again, but he didn’t want to be within reach of the leprechaun. He needed a hospital.

Phone! He wasn’t thinking, he needed to call 9-1-1. He reached behind his back with his left arm since it hurt the least and reached into the left-side pocket on his jersey.

When his fingers touched sharp edges he knew it wasn’t good. He reached deeper and found several edges, and pieces that rattled beneath his fingers. He scooped it all out and looked at it in dismay.

The phone was shattered. It looked like it’d been smashed with a sledgehammer.

Derek looked up and saw the leprechaun smirking as he crossed his arms over his protruding belly.

“What’re you gonna do now, asshole? I don’t know, maybe make a fuckin’ wish?”

With the phone smashed Derek couldn’t call 9-1-1 for help. He couldn’t let his boss know what had happened. Not all that far away, just past the mouth of the trail cars rushed past on the road. Everyone going about their day, not even noticing the bloodied cyclist standing just down the trail with a smashed cell phone in his hand.

He dumped the ruined cell back in his jersey pocket. He wasn’t going to litter the trail. Then he bent, an action that caused more things to hurt, and grabbed the handle bars on his bike. He pulled it up.

The leprechaun jumped up, catching the handle bars and pulled himself up onto the dry sack. His long tail wrapped securely around the handlebar. Derek shook the bike.

“Get off!”

The leprechaun shook his head. “Not until you make your fucking wish! Come on! Is it really that hard?”

Derek had the left grip in his left hand, his right held onto the frame, and his wounds screamed at him. He tried to ignore the pain. All he had to do was drag the ruined bike over to the road and flag down one of the cars. Somebody would stop, even if they only called for help that’d be enough. But he didn’t want to leave the bike here, busted or not. That just felt wrong.

“Make the fucking wish!” The leprechaun snarled, baring sharp teeth.

Derek shook the bike again. “Get off!”

The leprechaun just laughed. His fat little body shook while his tail kept him firmly anchored to the handle bar. The laughter grated on Derek’s frayed nerves. He couldn’t take it anymore.

“Fine! I fucking wish I had decided to drive today!”

The leprechaun roared, “No!”

🍀

Ever since Derek turned the car onto the highway he regretted backing out of riding the bike. It was a fantastic day! It’d looked like it might rain, and he rode in the rain often, but today for whatever reason he hadn’t felt like it, but there wasn’t any rain in the sky. Plenty of patches of blue sky and sunshine, but no rain.

It was frustrating. He always, or almost always, regretted driving.

Coming down the S-curves on the hill right before the trail he had a logging truck behind him. He didn’t miss that, at least. Having that monster behind him while on the bike would have been nerve-wracking. He’d have been up standing on the pedals, pounding as hard as he could to make the mountain bike move like a racing bike.

Hell, he even missed that.

On the other side of the road a flash of white caught his eye. A bald eagle! It was on a raggedy gray body, possum from the look of it. The eagle looked at the approaching cars and evidently decided to take its meal someplace more private.

Powerful wings beat. It struggled at first to take off, but slowly gained height. For a few seconds it flew, right by the mouth of the trail, at head height and then it flew on, carrying its meal.

Derek sighed as he drove around the last curve and continued on to work. If he’d been on the bike he would have gotten a much better look at the eagle.

But that’s what he got by driving instead. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he’d ride. Or better yet, after work he could go out for a ride just for fun.

🍀
3,526 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 52nd weekly short story release, written in March 2012. Hard to believe that a year of stories has already passed! I plan to continue the weekly story releases. 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 Bouncing Baby Boy.

Two for Death

Beau Clayton moved west to Eureka Gulch seeking to share knowledge rather than find gold. He planned to establish a public library in the booming mining town.

A mysterious death propels him into the role of his favorite detective fiction, to solve the mystery of the camp.

If you love westerns and books, check out Two for Death.

📚

Beau Clayton came to Eureka Gulch in early May, on the heels of the rumors of the south half of the Colville Indian reservation opening for mineral location. It wasn’t the gold and silver that drew Beau north from Spokane, riding with the pack train over the forty miles from Rossburg, but the men, women and children gathering at the camp. Mr. Gerlick, that ran the pack train, remarked on Beau’s many heavy bags of books as the horses were loaded.

“I am a librarian,” Beau explained. “I intend to create a public library for the camp.”

Mr. Gerlick laughed heartily. “Drink, cards and women are more sought by miners than books!”

“I have many practical books that may assist them in their efforts. Plus books for the women and children. When the library gets established I expect people will take notice.”

“Well, Mr. Clayton, do you know what miners and your books share in common?”

“What is that?”

“They both gather dust!” Laughing at his own joke, Mr. Gerlick left to attend the rest of the train.

Beau didn’t let such skepticism deter him. With the rich strikes being made on the northern half of the reservation, there was much interest in the camp. By all accounts the population was swelling by the day, and where there were people there was a need of a library. Even though the camp wasn’t more than two years old it already offered much in the way of civilized amenities.

Surely, once they saw the advantage of having even the tiny library, he could convince them to raise a tiny tax to fund the ongoing operation of the library. Including a modest salary for himself, as the librarian. He had already spent nearly everything he had saved from working at his father’s law firm to purchase the books necessary to start this venture.

As it turned out, Mr. Gerlick was more right than Beau had anticipated. On reaching the camp he used his dwindling sums to purchase a tent building at the far end of camp to use as the temporary library. The bottom frame was split logs, four high, with a canvas tent raised up over the top. It had formerly been used by an enterprising merchant who had sold out his stock to return to Boston. It came with shelves for the books, and a small cot in the rear for him. Beau was in the camp for three weeks before he came to the notice of much of anyone, and then not in the fashion he had anticipated.

On that day Beau was sitting in front of his tent on the hard pine chair that dug into his backside when he sat too long. The sky was a pretty picture of fluffy white clouds against the bright blue sky. He held in his hand a copy of H.G. Well’s latest book, The War of the Worlds, but he wasn’t reading. His attention was drawn to shouts approaching camp. As heads started turning, Beau stood up, placed the book down on his chair, and joined the curious in seeing what the commotion was all about.

Coming into camp up the wagon road were three men walking a thin sorrel horse. A fourth man lay across a blanket over the back of the horse. His hands and feet were lashed together, and tied underneath the horse to prevent him from slipping off. Clearly something had happened to the man. The three men leading the horse all had the dirty, rough look of men that prospected in the surrounding countryside. Perhaps a dig had fallen in on the man?

The leader of the three had a long swooping mustache and dark sunken eyes. He shouted out again. “It took ‘im! In the night, it came!”

By now a crowd of more than a couple dozen people had gathered. Many of them prospectors, some merchants and not a few children that happened to be near. Beau made his way to the front of the crowd as the men brought the horse to a stop.

The one with the mustache looked at the gathered crowd. “Get the marshal here! He’s dead, this one!”

The man hooked his thumb back at the man on the horse. “It was the demon horse that took him in the night!”

Demon horse? Uncertain murmuring passed through the crowd. Many of the more superstitious took a few steps back. Beau took a step closer to the man.

“I’m Beau Clayton, the librarian of the Eureka Public Library. What do you mean when you say a demon horse took him? Did he get trampled?”

The miner squinted at Beau. “Phil Raddnick’s my name. I meant what I said. The demon horse came and ripped out his soul!”

Beau heard a womanly cry behind him, but didn’t look for the source. “A demon horse? Did you see this phantom?”

“No, didn’t need to. Alex there —” Phil pointed at one of the men leading the horse. “— He saw it. Black as night, with a red mane and tail, as if they’d been dipped in blood. That’s right Alex?”

“Right ‘nough,” Alex said with the same agreeability of a cow chewing its cud.

“It came into our camp while we slept,” Phil said. “Struck the ground twice with its hoof, right outside Jimmy’s tent, and whinnied a cry that’d turn your piss to ice. Spooked our horses to break loose. Only just caught this one this morning. Too late for Jimmy. He was already dead, of course.”

“And you believe that this horse had something to do with his death?”

Phil shook his head. “You just have to look at him to see that. Michael, show ‘em!”

The third miner, a big red-headed fellow with a round face, grabbed the dead man’s head by its dark hair and lifted it up from the horse’s side.

Wide open eyes stared at the crowd with a sightless look of surprise or fear. At that more people in the crowd cried out and pulled back even farther. It looked to Beau as if the whole crowd might suddenly turn and run, but right then another man pushed through the crowd and came into the empty space around the miners.

This man was neat. His suit was as clean and black as a newly polished stove pipe. Beau felt self-conscious about the dust on his own clothes, almost like he could still hear Mr. Gerlick laughing. The man took a silver pocket-watch from his coat pocket and made a show of checking the time. Then he tucked it back away.

“Alright then, Phil. Who have you got there?”

“Jimmy Ryan. Died in the night from the demon horse, Marshal.”

Marshal? Beau looked at the neatly dressed man. If he was the marshal, that’d make him Mr. George Baisley. Beau had heard the name around camp, but hadn’t met the man yet. Rather than wait, Beau crossed the distance between them, well aware of the many people watching.

“Marshal Baisley? Beau Clayton. I’m the librarian setting up the public library.”

Marshal Baisley looked down his long nose at Beau. “Yes, the librarian. Been meaning to stop by, but this matter is hardly has anything to do with your books. Or the law for that matter.”

The marshal gestured at Phil. “Take him on up to the doctor’s tent, turn him over to there. The doc’ll issue the notice and see that he gets planted in the common lot.”

From the crowd a man called out. “What about the demon horse, Marshal? What’re you going to do about that beast?”

Marshal Baisley turned and fixed the man with a steely gray-blue gaze. “I’m not doing anything about a whiskey dream. The man died of heart-failure, that’s all. Why don’t you all clear on out?”

The marshal’s words had the desired effect and the crowd started drifting away back to other interests. Phil and the other men with him clucked the horse into motion and continued on into the camp.

Beau hurried to the marshal’s side before the man went more than a couple strides. “Marshal, if I may, I no more believe in demon horses than you, but don’t you want to keep this investigation open? The man may have died of unnatural, but entirely man-made causes.”

Baisley gave Beau that same hard look he’d given the other man, but Beau was close enough that he could see the skin under Baisley’s left eye twitching. It gave the marshal an unsteady look that made Beau nervous.

“And if the doctor says something like that, then I’ll listen. But who’d want to kill some broke spotter like Jimmy? And if they did it’d probably be in a brawl or a shoot-out. He wouldn’t be dead with his face all twisted up like that.”

The marshal had a point there, but Beau still wasn’t convinced that the man died of natural causes. Or unnatural. But he knew that the man hadn’t died of supernatural agency. He’d have to go on up to the doctor’s tent himself and see what the man said.

He turned around and nearly collided with a woman that had come up unnoticed behind him. Beau caught himself in time and stepped back, lifting his hat.

“Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t realize you were there.”

“It’s my fault,” she said. She had a pleasant, sweet voice that matched the rest of her. By her modest dress he assumed she was the wife of one of the merchants setting up in town. She was young, with a simple hat over dark hair. She held out a hand. “Ms. Emily Collins. You’re a librarian, mister?”

Beau took her hand, gently. “Yes, Ms. Collins. Beauregard Clayton.” He released her hand to gesture at the modest tent up the row of tent buildings. He didn’t even have a sign yet. “I came to set up a public library.”

“A public library!” Ms. Collins pressed her hands together. “That’s marvelous. There are many in the camp that are working to establish a proper school, but a library would be most welcome.”

“Would you like to see?”

“Oh, may I?”

“Of course,” Beau said. “Allow me to show you.”

They walked together to the tent. Ms. Collins stopped at the chair in the tent opening and picked up the book that he had left on the seat.

“War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells! I’ve heard of this, but I haven’t seen a copy. I understand it was serialized last year?”

“Yes,” Beau said. “It is a fantastical tale, but so is this story of a demon horse causing the death of that poor miner.”

“It does seem an unlikely story, but the way he looked!” Ms. Collins shook her head. “Whatever the cause, it did not look like he went to his Maker peacefully.”

“Our marshal seems uninterested in investigating the matter,” Beau said. “He seems convinced that it was heart failure that took the man.”

“And you disagree?”

Beau shook his head. “I don’t have the medical background to make that determination. I had thought to inquire with the doctor, and hear his conclusion.”

“If you want a conclusion drawn from the bottom of a whiskey bottle, you’ll be in luck,” Ms. Collins said. She touched the edge of the canvas opening. “May I?”

“Of course. Let me help with that.” Beau went around her and quickly rolled up and tied the canvas flap.

As Ms. Collins went on into the tent, her shoes tapping gently against the rough wood floor, he tied up the other side. Inside the tent he had four shelves along the walls, and a small table at the back with his second chair. A selection of books he felt would appeal to the camp residents were on the shelves, while his other volumes were still stacked and bound in their protective bags near the back, beside the table.

Ms. Collins went along the shelves, the fingers of her right hand hovering just above the book spines.

“You can touch them, take them down and look at them if you like,” Beau said.

“You don’t mind?”

“Not at all, that is the point of a public library. Of course I hope that it grows much more than this small sample. I brought these as a demonstration, but I hope that the good folks here will see fit to expand the library.”

“It is an excellent idea,” Ms. Collins said, as she continued the circuit of the small collection. “You have many wonderful books. A sign out front might help encourage people to venture inside.”

“I agree. A man has promised me a sign the day after tomorrow.”

“Wonderful!” Ms. Collins returned to the front of the tent. She looked down at the H.G. Wells book still in her hand, then slowly held it out. “Here is your book, thank you for showing me the library. I shall certainly return.”

Beau refused to take the novel. Instead he picked up his ledger from a crate near the entrance. “Please, take it with you. Just put your mark in the ledger.”

“You were reading it!”

“And the books are here for anyone to borrow and read. I have plenty to keep my mind occupied.” He smiled. “And besides, it will give you an excuse to return.”

Beau laid out the ledger on the crate, and uncapped the inkwell. “Do say yes.”

“Very well,” Ms. Collins said. She took the offered pen and wrote her name quite beautifully in the ledger. “What about these other columns?”

“Don’t worry about those,” Beau said, taking back the pen. “I will complete that portion.”

Ms. Collins took a step outside, the H.G. Wells held firmly in her hands. “Thank you. I shall enjoy reading what Mr. Wells has written.”

“Very good,” Beau said. “You can tell me all about it.”

“And you can tell me what you learn from the doctor,” Ms. Collins said. “Good day, Mr. Clayton.”

Beau remained standing at the front of the library until she walked some distance down the wide wagon road between the rough buildings. In the older section of town there were real wood structures now, rather than the tent structures hastily thrown up as the town grew.

It was nice to meet someone like Ms. Collins that might support the library. He looked forward to getting to know her better, and couldn’t help wonder whether or not she had anyone special in her life. He returned to the tent and completed the ledger entry with the title and author of the book, and the date. He left the column for the due date empty, having no need to establish due dates at this point.

He capped the ink, put everything away and thought then that he would seek out the doctor. The fanciful story intrigued him, and he wondered if the doctor would have anything to say about the matter. Or if Ms. Collins’ remark on the doctor was accurate.

📚

After some searching, Beau found the doctor’s small building, not in the front row of structures facing the wagon road, but on one of the smaller lanes around the back. It was a nice square house, well-built, with a small sign on the wall beside the door. There wasn’t anyone about when Beau went up to the door and knocked.

The man that answered was graying at the temples, with a short black mustache and bleary red eyes. He wasn’t wearing a coat, his shirt sleeves were rolled up and there was an alcohol smell around him like a cloud. But he smiled kindly and when he spoke he sounded alert enough.

“You’ll have to forgive me, I’ve been involved with an examination. I hope I didn’t keep you waiting, Mister?”

“Mr. Beau Clayton,” Beau said, offering his hand.

They shook. The doctor’s grip was cool but strong, not unlike having a nest of snakes wrapping around his fingers. “Doctor Eugene Collins, a pleasure to meet you.”

Beau carefully kept his face steady, but was relieved when the doctor let go.

“I’m the librarian,” Beau said. “I was there when they brought in Mr. Ryan with that outlandish story.”

Then what the doctor had said sunk in. “Collins? Are you related to Ms. Emily Collins?”

Dr. Collins beamed. “Why yes, she’s my daughter.”

Dr. Collins’ laughter showed just how unsuccessful Beau had been in keeping his surprise off his face. He shook his head ruefully. “You’ll have to forgive me, I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“Forget about it, Mr. Clayton. Clearly she didn’t tell you. How is it you know my daughter?”

Beau shook his head. “We only just met, when they brought in Mr. Ryan.”

“Yes, the dead man. That’s what you came about? Not Emily, I take it, if you only just met her?”

“Right,” Beau agreed quickly. “Marshal Baisley said he thought that the man died of heart failure, the men that brought in the body claimed it was due to some sort of spirit. I wondered what you found?”

Dr. Collins nodded and stroked his chin with his hand. “Well, there’s no signs of violence on the body. No unusual marks. No signs of infections. Nothing really to say one way or the other. It is possible, of course, that both explanations are correct.”

“Excuse me? Surely you’re not suggesting that a demon horse killed the man?”

“No, not exactly. But suppose the man was superstitious? Could not someone, aware of his character, created the appearance of a demon horse to terrify the man?”

It was a reasonable explanation. “You’re suggesting a prank?”

Dr. Collins shrugged. “Speculating, nothing more. By its very nature, such an event would have left no evidence on the body.”

A wagon came down the narrow lane, rattling beneath a heavy load under canvas. Beau moved closer to the building, which unfortunately put him closer to the alcohol cloud clinging to the doctor. After the wagon passed Beau took several steps out into the lane, glad to breath fresher air.

“Thank you doctor, you’ve been helpful. I guess the question now would have to go more to motive. What reason would someone have to scare Mr. Ryan?”

“That’s making the assumption that such a prank even occurred,” Dr. Collins said.

“Yes, but why else would the men that brought in the body tell such a story? Why not just say that they found him dead in the morning? I need to talk to them.”

“Good luck to you then, Mr. Clayton. I believe that they were looking to drown their grief in drink after they deposited their friend here.”

“Thank you again, Dr. Collins. Good day.”

“Good day to you.”

📚

Tracking down the three men in the camp was going to take some time, but Beau was hooked the way he got hooked on finding an answer in his books. A librarian had an obligation to find the full answer to a question and in this case he felt as if the dead man had asked the question. If the marshal wasn’t going to pursue it, Beau felt someone ought to.

The old familiar hunger to seek out the answer gnawed at him.

Walking through camp Beau was reminded of his studies of history and nomadic peoples. Eureka Gulch was like a nomad camp. The impression heightened by the number of structures that were low walls topped with tents like his own library. In the core section of the camp were solid structures like the Stack Mercantile and the Deaver Hotel and many others, but the farther out you got the less permanent the camp seemed. Even those buildings were less than two years old. It gave the whole place an atmosphere of unreality, a fever dream brought about by the gold hidden beneath the rolling green hills and forests.

Over all of it drink commanded a noticeable presence with not less than twenty drinking establishments, saloons and gambling operations in the camp. Beau hadn’t counted them all, but they had sprouted everywhere in the rich soil of the mining camp. The numbers of drinkers swollen lately by the rumors regarding the opening of the southern half for mineral location.

If the men that brought in Mr. Ryan had gone drinking, he had no recourse to finding them but to walk the street and check in each establishment. He didn’t know their full names, but no doubt they would be retelling the story of how their friend had died. That might help direct his search.

Turning on the main wagon road through the camp Beau approached the first men he saw, both in well-worn clothes suggesting time spent living rough.

“Excuse me, gentlemen. I’m looking for the men that brought in the body earlier?”

Both stared at him with blank, dull-witted looks. Beau smiled and shook his head. “Never mind. Good day.”

One thing was abundantly clear as he walked the street—the Prohibition Party hadn’t reached Eureka Gulch. Beau hadn’t spent any time in the drinking establishments since reaching the camp and didn’t plan to do so. He wasn’t a drinking man. Not that he was an active member of the Prohibition Party, but there was no denying that drink had contributed its shares to the misery of many. He sympathized with their aims, but the notion put forward for government to prohibit drinking left him unsettled.

In his own situation he saw no need of spirits. He preferred to keep his wits about him and the drunken antics he had witnessed over the years did little to stir any interest in him to sample such drinks.

In the first few places he checked, the bartenders didn’t know the men, and said that they would. They kept bottles for each of the men that came in, and kept them all straight.

The fourth place that he entered was not much more than a small cabin. A sign above the door said the name of the place was the Jolly Pig. The interior was lit with dim lanterns and hazy with fumes from tobacco and drink. The men sitting at the few tables and the bar were quiet for the most part, weary from the look of them. The man behind the bar was rangy with a bushy beard and deep eyes like two newly dug mine shifts.

A few bleary gazes met Beau’s as he stepped inside. He cleared his throat. “I’m looking for the men that brought in the body earlier. One was called Phil Raddnick. The other two men with him were Alex and Michael.”

“Ain’t seen ‘em,” the bartender said. “Bastards. I hear they’re keeping their cups over at the Sour Bottle now, up across the street, these days.”

“But they had been coming here?”

“Yep, and you see ‘em, you tell ‘em they still owe me. If they can afford the prices over there, they can afford to settle up!”

“I see, thank you. Good day.”

Beau stepped back outside, welcoming the fresher air. From across the road came the sound of hammering as men worked on raising a new frame structure. Already the town sported several two story frame buildings that towered over their neighbors, but construction never stopped. In contrast to those drinking inside, stepping back out into the light was to return to a bustling growing town.

After waiting for a wagon filled with crates and barrels to pass, Beau picked his way across the street to the other side and started walking along the establishments looking for the Sour Bottle.

Finding it took some searching, but he did find it between a druggist’s and a lawyer’s office. The building was so new that the timbers used still smelled fresh cut. Unlike the first place he had stopped, the Sour Bottle had large glass windows in the front. On the whole it appeared a finer class of establishment.

Stepping inside, Beau saw that it was in fact a nicer place than the last. The bar positively gleamed from fresh polish. The bottles in the rack behind the bar sparkled. And over the smell of tobacco and alcohol there was also the smell of fresh baked bread, and hot meat. And it was crowded. Most of the tables and the seats at the bar were full.

Many of the men were dressed better than digging clothes, but not all. Some had the rough look of living in the wilderness. In the past few weeks in camp he had heard stories of how it was for such men. They lived in bare lean-tos, meager respite from the weather. They spent long days with steel drills strapped to their wrist, hammer in hand, pounding out a few holes that they could pack with powder and blast. Then came the hauling from their small digs with buckets. It was dirty, dangerous work but had the potential to make a man rich if they struck a strong vein like the Republic mine. For such men a trip to town meant a respite, a meal that wasn’t cooked in the same pan as the last, a drink and perhaps time spent at the female boarding house.

It only took Beau a moment to see the men he sought, holding court at a table near the piano at the back of the large room. That was also the source of conversation that carried across the room.

Phil Raddnick sat at the head of the conversation, an empty plate and several empty glasses keeping company with the glass in his hand. His companions sat on either side, and arrayed around the two tables was a collection of other gentlemen. Phil was speaking as Beau walked up to the table, wondering how he might join the cluster of men.

“I think,” Phil paused to take a long drink. “I think that it must be the Indians!”

Several of the men nodded, there were murmurs of encouragement from Alex and Michael.

“Indians, sure,” Michael said.

“Yes, sirs. You think about it! They worked some of their magic and summoned up the demon horse! Must’ve thought it’d drive us off!”

“That’s it,” Alex added. “On the head. They don’t want the south half opening.”

Phil’s eyes narrowed. “I was about to say that!’

“Sorry,” Alex said placidly.

“Right.” Phil eyed his glass, then took another long drink. “Right. They don’t want the south half opening. They mean to keep the gold themselves.”

Beau spoke up. “Are you seriously suggesting some sort of black magic summoned up a spirit horse to kill your friend?”

Phil blinked and leaned forward. “You’re that librarian, right?”

“Right, Mr. Raddnick. My name’s Beau Clayton. With all that science has discovered in the past century, surely reasonable, rational men cannot put much stock in such primitive superstitions!”

“Then what do you think happened to Jimmy?” Alex asked sharply. The looked of bovine contentment was gone from his broad face. Beau noted the red flush working up Alex’s neck.

“Simply that the agency of your friend’s death had more to do with earthly causes than those from the beyond.”

His words were having an effect. Beau saw nods of agreement from several of the gentlemen around the circle. One man in a fine black suit, with a long mustache stood up and turned to offer Beau his hand.

“Philip Creasor. I heard we had a librarian in town.”

“Beau Clayton.” They shook. He’d heard of Philip Creasor. Who in camp hadn’t? He owned the best hotel, a lucrative share in several mines and many other business interests. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. I had hoped we would get a chance sometime to discuss the public library.”

“I look forward to it,” Mr. Creasor said. “But right now I am expecting a telephone call at the hotel. You knew that the telephone lines finally reached our distant corner of the world?”

“Yes, sir. I had heard that.” At the end of the table Beau could see Mr. Raddnick drinking quickly, while his friend Alex whispered something to him.

“Before I go I just wanted to say that I think you are right on target, Mr. Clayton. I will have a word with Mr. Baisley. There may be more to investigate in Mr. Ryan’s death.”

“Thank you, sir,” Beau said. “Good day.”

“Good day.” Mr. Creasor nodded at the crowd gathered, and carrying his hat, left.

Tables scraped against the wood floor. It was Mr. Raddnick and his companions rising. Phil put down his empty glass. “I think we’ll get on out too.”

Phil pointed a finger at Beau. “But mark my words, this isn’t the last we’ve heard of the demon horse! When you hear his hooves strike twice, know you’ve been marked for death!”

It sounded like a threat. Beau felt chilled at the thought, but before he could respond the three men left together, stomping out of the establishment. The gathering started breaking up as the other men returned to their own business.

Still feeling out of sorts from what may, or may not, have been a threat, Beau went to the bar. The man behind the bar looked young, in his twenties, maybe, with a bright smile as Beau reached the bar.

“Can I get you something? We’ve got the best selection in town.”

“A glass of water, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.” Beau held out his hand. “Beau Clayton.”

“Mike Swinger.” They shook. Mike poured water from a pitcher and put it on the polished bar in front of Beau. “You’re that librarian fellow, aren’t you?”

Beau settled onto one of the stools. He took a sip. The water was cool, with a strong mineral taste. “That’s right. I’m trying to get a public library up and running here in camp.”

“Don’t know that a lot of people around here have much time to read.”

Beau shook his head. “There’s always time to read. And some of the books I’ve got will help people save time, with innovative new methods of farming, working the land or maintaining a home. Or running a bar.”

Mike laughed, picked up a glass and started wiping it dry. “I don’t run the place, just work the bar for Mr. Wellington. He’s the owner. He’s got places like this all over.”

“But you’re in here most of the time?”

“Yeah, you could say that. Mr. Wellington, he doesn’t let us close the place. He’s got a couple other guys, we rotate, you know?”

“Those gentlemen that were in here, Phil Raddnick and his friends. They come in often?”

Mike shook his head. “Nope, not until last week. Couldn’t afford too, but that’s the beauty of a place like this. A man can get a rich strike and turn things around. Almost makes me tempted to go out and try my hand at it when the south half opens.”

“Are you going to do that?”

Mike laughed and shook his head. “Naw. Me, in a tunnel like that? I don’t think I could. I don’t care much for closed in places.”

“It wouldn’t be my first choice either,” Beau said. “What about the man that died, Mr. Ryan? He come in here with the others?”

“Sure, once. Last week, but if he came in again it wasn’t on my shift.”

“Any signs of disagreement between them?” Beau sipped his water. He felt steadier just talking to someone.

Mike shook his head. “Nope, they all seemed in good spirits. Mr. Clayton, if you don’t mind, what does this have to do with the library?”

“Nothing. It was just the story they told, of the demon horse. It interested me.”

“It’s true,” Mike said. “I’ve heard people talk of it. They say it’s death himself, riding herd on the souls of the dead.”

“Do you really believe that?”

Mike shrugged. “I might, I just hope I never find out.”

Beau thanked the bartender and left feeling dissatisfied. No one seemed to want to question the implausible story told by the miners. True, Mr. Creasor said he’d talk to the marshal and he obviously had influence in the community.

Out in the open air he was struck by the energy of the camp. So much enthusiasm. Hammers still rang. Men shouted and there was a constant sense of excitement in the air. Beau touched his hat to two well-dressed women walking past and went on back up to the library. When he arrived he could see at a glance that nothing had been disturbed. He had very little, other than the books, and those didn’t appear to be of much interest to the inhabitants. At least not yet.

Beau sat down in his chair, hoping he wouldn’t get a splinter and considered the matter. What more could he do? The facts were few. Switching bars, it sounded like the men had come into more money. Could there could have been some sort of falling out between them? One that resulted in Mr. Ryan’s death? And if the men had somehow scared Mr. Ryan to death, it still didn’t explain why they would tell everyone the story. They had to know how it would sound! Why not say nothing? With no evidence to the contrary there wouldn’t have been any interest in investigating.

Instead Mr. Raddnick and his friends were still going on about the demon horse, as if they really believed it.

Beau rose from the chair, pinching his lower lip. What if they did? What if it wasn’t just about the dead man, but all the men? He felt a mounting excitement, just like when he discovered a rare book in a collection. He’d been approaching this from one end, but what if the answer had to do with all of the men?

He needed to talk to the marshal. Mr. Baisley hadn’t put much stock in the story either, but he might be prepared to do more with a stronger theory.

📚

“Preposterous!” Mr. Baisley thundered after Beau had tracked him down and explained his theory that someone was using the stories of the demon horse to scare all the men.

They were in Mr. Baisley’s offices, a narrow frame-built building in the new town. At the back was a small, simple cell. The rest of the room had a desk, a gun rack and not much else, except nice glass windows on either side of the door at the front with Mr. Baisley’s name and Town Marshal painted on the glass in gilt lettering.

“The bartender at the Jolly Pig said that they must have come into money,” Beau said. “Mike over at the Sour Bottle confirmed that they’ve only been coming in there recently.”

“So what?” Mr. Baisley thumped his desk. “A man’s got a right to change where he drinks, doesn’t he? At least right now, so long as those Prohibitionist types don’t get their way.”

“I’m not arguing that, sir. I’m just suggesting that, if they did find a potential rich claim, that someone might be trying to scare them off. And if that’s the case, what’s to stop them from trying again?”

Mr. Baisley shook his head. “Claim jumping? That’s what you’re saying?”

“Yes. If those men believe the story, it might work too. And if they up and abandon the claim, what then?”

“If they don’t update the notices then they forfeit the claim. But if it’s in the south half they can’t legally have a claim anyway.”

“But they might have spotted it?”

“Sure.”

“And the money? If they took a sample to an assessor?”

“Yes, they might’ve gotten something for it.”

“Then that’s what we have to do,” Beau said. “We talk to the assessors.”

Mr. Baisley shook his head. “Won’t work. They won’t have any records until an official claim is found. Before then anything they saw could have come from anywhere.”

“We have to find those men. If someone is trying to scare them off they might take more drastic measures if it doesn’t work.”

“Maybe you ought to go back to reading your books, rather than trying to do my job.” Mr. Baisley took out his silver pocket watch and checked the time. “I think I’ve given you plenty of time, sir.”

“Has Mr. Creasor spoken to you?”

Mr. Baisley pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and rubbed at the watch. “Mr. Creasor isn’t in charge of the camp, whatever he thinks. I decide what to investigate. Not him. Or librarians that just arrived in camp.”

Beau was disgusted. “So you’re not going to do anything?”

Mr. Baisley tucked away the watch. “I told you earlier, when they brought in that poor man. If the doctor found anything I’d look into the matter. He didn’t. It’s closed. Heart-failure, just like I said.”

That was what the marshal had said, with barely a cursory glance at the body. And what had he called Mr. Ryan? A broke spotter? Beau didn’t like where the train of thought was taking him. He cleared his throat.

“I guess there’s nothing I can do to convince you?”

“I can’t investigate a crime when one didn’t happen.” Mr. Baisley smiled. “Now, if you’ll excuse me? I have other work that demands my attention.”

“Of course.” Beau touched his hat. “I’ll let myself out. Thank you for your time, Marshal.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Beau felt only slightly better when he got outside. How long was it going to be before the demon horse came calling at the library? He had no evidence, but he was convinced that Mr. Baisley was involved in the death of Mr. Ryan. It was the only thing that explained his reluctance to investigate what was going on.

But how was the marshal involved? That was the question.

And to answer the question Beau needed to flush out those involved. Well, gossip spread as fast as fire in a camp like this. A few words dropped in the watering holes would probably do the trick.

Beau straightened his coat. Today he’d have to set aside his distaste for drinking. He didn’t have to go far at all before he found the first watering hole, a place called the Firewater.

By the time he reached the fourth establishment his head was feeling as if he’d stuffed it full of bees. Beau chuckled at the thought. If that was the case he’d soon have honey dripping out of his ears. If any bears wandered into camp they might mistake his head for a hive!

Beau laughed at the idea. A couple along the street threw distrustful gazes his in direction, the man glowering over a sweeping mustache. Beau straightened up his walk.

He lurched into their path. “Do you happen to have a library card?”

“No,” the man said, his voice gruff and deep. “Move on, now. Go sleep it off, man.”

Beau shook his head. “Can’t do it. Got to get the evidence and take it to the judge. They’ve got to know what’s going on!”

The man started to reply, but his wife pulled on his arm. With a snort the man let his wife lead him away.

Beau rubbed his eyes. His head was spinning. He laughed.

Where was he going? Right, back to the library. To sleep it off, as that gentleman had suggested. Sleep it off and see if his words spooked anyone.

📚

It took some doing to get back to the library, helped by the wide main road through the camp to edges. Beau stumbled into the library tent and there was a squeak of surprise.

He blinked, and focused on Miss Emily Collins. Delicate eyebrows rose as she took in his condition.

“You’re drunk, Mr. Clayton.”

Beau dropped onto a stack of books and teetered there. “Yes. The first time, if you can believe it. I don’t normally drink.”

“I see.” Miss Collins took two steps closer to the tent flap. “Perhaps I should come back another time, when you’re more sober.”

Beau shook his head, which was a mistake. He groaned and grabbed his skull as the world spun. Why did people insist on doing this? It was baffling.

He heard more footsteps on the wood. Right! Miss Collins! Beau looked up and saw she was nearly at the opening of the tent.

“Wait!”

She stopped and looked back, her lips pressed to a thin line.

“Please, Miss Collins. I hate to think how I have fallen in your eyes. I tell you the truth.” His stomach churned and he groaned. He placed his hand on his stomach. “I don’t drink. I only did to draw out the ones behind the death of that man.”

Miss Collins turned around fully. “How does getting drunk reveal those responsible?”

“I might have made up a story about evidence. The guilty party, suspecting that I’m drunk, will try to recover what they think I have. Then we’ll know the culprits!”

“And if they decide to get rid of you?”

“They wouldn’t,” Beau said. “Not if they have any sense!”

“Assuming you are correct, I think their willingness to kill a man has already been demonstrated.”

Beau opened his mouth to argue, but nothing came out. What she said made sense, but there had to be a flaw with it somewhere. If he could just find it…

“Mr. Clayton?”

“Yes?”

“I should think you would have thought this plan through.”

“I thought I had. The marshal’s involved, I believe. Or he knows something. I’m not sure.”

Miss Collins shook her head. “I should get you out of here, take you to my father. He’ll know what to do.”

“No, my dear.” Beau tried to stand but things starting spinning around again. “I need to be here. Or they won’t come. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

“You won’t be fine. Not by yourself. I’m going to go get help.”

“No! If you do, they’ll know.”

Miss Collins walked around the table piled with books at the center of the tent and stood quite near. She looked rather fetching, even in her plain dress.

“I will be discreet and quick. Be careful. And if you feel the need to be sick, do not throw up on the books!”

“Excellent point,” Beau said. Then the thought of it did make him sick and he closed his eyes, groaning and clutching his stomach.

Why had he drank quite so much? And why did people subject themselves to this horrible sensation? His sympathies for the Prohibition Party were growing by the moment.

“I think that you’d better —” Beau broke off, realizing he was alone. Miss Collins had left.

That was for the best. If there was trouble, he didn’t want her in the way.

Carefully he stood up only long enough to pull his cot from beneath the table, just enough to roll onto the stiff canvas. He lay on his side and tipped his hat down over his eyes. Let the demon horse come along with anyone else. Just so long as this feeling passed!

The world kept trying to spin him off, but Beau closed his eyes and clung to the cot. It was his raft in the tempest.

📚

Two sharp cracks like shots woke him in darkness. Beau blinked, and gradually saw a dim red light filtering through the heavy canvas of the tent. He had fallen asleep!

A shrill whinny rose and fell outside! The demon horse! Beau stood up quickly and in the dark crossed to the opening of the tent. He yanked the flap aside.

A big black stallion stood in the night outside. Firelight from a lantern sitting outside the tent caught the red in its mane. The stallion snorted and reared in front of him, black hooves striking out!

Beau stepped back out of range as the horse came down with a hard thud.

“Shhh.” Miss Collins rose from the chair at the front of the library. She laid a book down on the chair.

Beau realized she had been sitting out there, no doubt watching over him, with the lantern beside her to read.

“Shhh,” Miss Collins said. She reached her hand to the horse. “It’s okay. Would you like a sugar cube?”

Her gloved hand disappeared for a moment into her small bag and came back out with a sugar cube on her palm. She held it out. “Here you go, that’s a good boy.”

The stallion snorted and took a step closer. Its big nose sniffed the air. Beau didn’t dare move. Demon horse it wasn’t, but if it kicked Miss Collins it could still strike her dead.

Beau’s head started to hurt. He ignored the pain.

With a snort the stallion came close enough to tease off the sugar cube with its fat lips. Miss Collins reached up and stroked the big head. It snorted, but held still, then nuzzled her hand.

She laughed, a clear, joyful sound. “Oh, you greedy horse. You want more don’t you?”

A loud shout in the night brought the stallion’s head up sharply. Miss Collins put her hand on the bridge of his nose. “No, calm down. It’s okay.”

“Got ‘im!” A man shouted. Other voices answered.

Beau peered out into the dark, wondering what was happening. He didn’t have long to wait for answers. Marshal Baisley appeared in the dark shoving Alex forward. Mr. Creasor and several other tough-looking men were with him, all focused on Alex.

Miss Collins patted the stallion’s neck and fed it another sugar cube. It seemed sufficiently occupied with her that Beau eased out.

“What happened?”

“It worked as you planned, Mr. Clayton,” Miss Collins said, loud enough to be heard by the approaching men. “He tried to send the horse to scare you and revealed himself in the process.”

The men came close, holding Alex tight and several had guns pointed in his direction. The spotter looked glummer than ever. Marshal Baisley looked at Beau.

“How’d you know that there really was a horse?”

Beau gestured back to the tent. “I read a great deal, Marshal. You might enjoy reading something by Arthur Conan Doyle, he writes about a detective you might like.”

“Right now I’d just like to know what’s going on here?”

Mr. Creasor spoke up. “I think our librarian can explain easily enough.”

“I don’t think that he meant for Mr. Ryan’s death,” Beau said. “But their insistence on the story didn’t make sense. Why tell people about the demon horse? It occurred to me that someone wanted to gain by scaring spotters away from a find.”

“So he trained the horse to do it,” Marshal Baisley said.

“I didn’t do nuthin’!” Alex glared at them all. “I ain’t ever seen that horse before.”

“You were seen leading it into town,” Mr. Creasor said. “Your denials are pointless. We caught you red-handed.”

“In a literal sense,” Miss Collins said.

“Excuse me?” Mr. Creasor said.

Miss Collins held up her glove. Beau saw dark reddish smudges on the fabric.

“He painted the horse’s mane red. I doubt he avoided getting paint on him too.”

Beau eased around the horse until he stood facing the man. Alex was looking down, but he seemed calm. Too calm for a man facing possible murder charges. It only made sense if he thought he would get away with this, but why would he think that?

“Who’re you working with?”

Alex’s head snapped up. Even in the dim light Beau could see the flush rising on the man’s neck.

“I ain’t working with anyone!”

“No? Marshal, what do you have to say? What was the deal he made with you?”

Marshal Baisley’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”

“You didn’t want to investigate. You kept trying to get me to stop questioning what happened to that man.”

“He weren’t supposed to die,” Alex said. “Just get scared a bit.”

“And the other two? Where are they?”

“They took off,” Alex said. “Got spooked by the horse and left. That’s the truth, they was fine the last I saw them.”

Marshal Baisley turned to look at Mr. Creasor. “I didn’t have anything to do with this, that’s the truth.”

Beau looked at Alex. “Is that the truth, Alex? It sounds to me like the Marshal won’t be able to help you out of this. You’re going to go down for this by yourself.”

“He said he’d look the other way for a cut if—”

Marshal Baisley cuffed Alex across the back of the head. “Stop lying!”

Alex swore and ducked away but raised his hands in the air. “I swear! It’s the truth! He knew about our spot. Said if I could scare off the others, we’d get a bigger cut. He was paying us to spot locations before the south half opened.”

“I think we’d better talk, Mr. Baisley,” Mr. Creasor said. “Gentlemen, let’s take this down to the marshal’s office. Mr. Clayton, Miss Collins, thank you for your assistance.”

“Of course,” Beau said.

At gunpoint the two men were led off into the camp. Miss Collins patted the stallion’s neck. “I’ll take him down to the livery. They can keep him there.”

Beau eyed the big stallion. “That sounds like a good idea. I’ll walk with you.”

“Thank you, sir. That’s very kind.”

“Not at all, you saved the day. You must have gone to talk to Mr. Creasor, to tell him what I’d done?”

Miss Collins smiled. “Well, you were too drunk to have thought it entirely through. I’m not sure how you expected to apprehend the guilty party all on your own.”

Beau shook his head and regretted it immediately. A throbbing headache was building in his temples. He rubbed the side of his head. “Yes, that’s a very good point. You saved the day.”

Miss Collins laughed. She patted the stallion’s neck and clucking her tongue, convinced the horse to turn and walk beside her. It seemed quite besotted with her.

That, was something that Beau understood all too well.

 

📚
8,338 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 50th weekly short story release, written in August 2012. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. 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 Alien Conspiracy Theory.

Tom Scratch

As a human Tom lived a carefree life working the professional gambling circuit until he played against a witch who cursed him. Turned him into a cat.

Julia attracted the wrong sort of men in the small coastal town of South Bend. Men like Eric-the-cheater or Paul-the-weasel. She should get out but that was easier said than done.

Tom’s and Julia’s paths cross in this fantasy romance from the author of Watching You Sleep.

1

Back when he was human, Tom Scratch would never have stooped to digging through a garbage dumpster for a meal. He didn’t much like doing it as a cat either, but the salty richness of salmon was irresistible.

He landed on the lip of dumpster, nailing the landing like a gymnast. The tail did all the work. He didn’t even extend his claws so he didn’t make any noise scratching the metal.

In the street at the end of the alley a logging truck snorted, coughed and rolled on past the puddles dotting highway 101, before continuing southward through South Bend. On the other side of the highway a hill rose up, dark against the lightening sky. It’d be another clear hot day on highway 101.

The highway was Tom’s corridor. An endless banquet of seafood spread up and down the coast. He sat, licked a paw and ran it across his face. Then he froze, staring at the offending orange-furred limb.

He wasn’t a cat.

Not really.

But he often caught himself drifting, and doing things automatically like cleaning himself. It was embarrassing and frightening. As if his mind was being nibbled apart by mice.

Tom shuddered from his whiskered nose to the tip of his tail. Neither the cat or the man liked that image.

The rich salty smell of dilled salmon caught his attention. His mouth parted and he inhaled deeply. Saliva pooled in his mouth. He swallowed. Dumpster diving might not be the most dignified way of eating, but right now he didn’t care. He hadn’t eaten anything since Astoria.

A lot of houses, they’d give him a plate of scraps if he scratched at the door. Not most restaurants. Last thing they wanted was a stray cat coming in.

Tom eyed the dark plastic lid propped up against the salt-stained brick. It didn’t look like it was going anywhere. In and out quick. That was the key. Go for the main target and get out.

It was dark in the dumpster but he could clearly see the shine from the black plastic garbage bags, each one knotted. Tom stretched out his paw and flexed, extending pale curved claws, each one sharp.

Like Wolverine, in a way. Tom sneezed. As if he had ever been a superhero to anyone. Even before that witch turned him into a cat.

Enough delay. His stomach rumbled. Time to eat.

He dropped lightly down on the top bag and crouched. He sniffed the bag. Through the plasticy smell of the bag he caught the richness of basil and oregano. Tomatoes and mushrooms. That wasn’t the dill salmon, and he couldn’t spend too much time in the dumpster. It wasn’t safe.

The bags crinkled underneath his feet like body bags, as if he walked on a dumpster full of corpses. His guilty conscience, that was all. Nothing but trash bags filled with paper napkins, packaging and left over food. Maybe the odd broken dish.

He sniffed along the next. Salty raw oysters, turning bad. No thank you. He moved on to the third bag. A purr rumbled through his throat. This one. Right. Here.

Tom made a quiet noise deep in his throat. He extended his claws again and slashed across the plastic. It tore, caught on his claws. He yanked his paw free.

A river of rich dill and salmon odors poured from the rent. Tom stuck his head down at the tear and inhaled deeply. His tongue vibrated, making a clucking sound.

As soon as that started he stopped it. Someone might hear, and besides, he wasn’t going to lose control like that.

Tom shoved his head into the tear, twisting back and forth until the plastic stretched and gave him access. He pulled at it with his claws, trying to widen his access. With his head in the hole he couldn’t see, but he didn’t need to see. His whiskers gave him a sense of the space, and the salmon smell was right there!

His tongue touched the fillet, cold but still good, covered in a creamy dill béchamel and cheese sauce. He lapped the sauce off the fish and then took small bites, savoring each.

Three bites and he could tell there was much more. Someone had thrown out at least half a large fillet! And it tasted wonderful. Amazing what people threw out.

The plastic around his head muffled sounds from outside, and amplified the noises he made eating. A satisfied rumbling echoed unbidden through his chest. Tom ignored it and kept eating.

Tiny flakes of fish stuck to his fur along with the dill and cheese sauce, but he could clean that off at his leisure after he finished. He shoved deeper into the bag to reach the last morsels.

A feast. That’s why he loved these coastal towns. If he had to be a cat, this was the place to do it.

Something landed on him, shoving him down into the bags. He yowled with surprise, and twisted around, lashing out. His claws found only black plastic. He hissed and struck. Slashed at the material.

His head was stuck. Static electricity snapped and crawled along his fur.

Tom spat, clawed and finally wrenched his head from the hole he had made in the bag, but another bag was pressing down on him. It wasn’t actually all that heavy but it pressed him down like a half-deflated water balloon. Where he’d struck at the bag vinegar squirted out as if he’d hit a vein.

He heard a loud bang above. A deep human voice chuckled, then said, “Fucking cats.”

Tom froze. His ears were back but he raised them against the plastic, listening carefully. He could make out the sound of footsteps moving away.

Good enough. He crawled across the garbage until he could squirm his way out from under the bag the man had thrown on him. It was much darker in the dumpster, but he could see a thin line of daylight around the lid.

The asshole had closed it!

Tom jumped at the side of the dumpster, stretching up his front paws. By standing on the garbage bags he could reach that small gap. He forced one paw through the gap but there was nothing his claws could get purchase on. They scratched uselessly along the plastic top.

He missed thumbs.

The lid wasn’t even that heavy, not for a person, but he didn’t have any leverage. The dumpster wasn’t full. If it was he might have a chance squeezing out between the garbage and the lid, but as it was he could barely reach the top.

Meanwhile his fur was tacky with dill and cheese sauce and flakes of salmon. Tom sat down and licked the fur on his right forepaw. When he’d first been changed that had grossed him out, but he was over that now. He just didn’t like it when his body did those things without him thinking about it.

He couldn’t slip away, forget that he’d once been a man. A professional gambler, right up until he’d crossed the wrong player. It wasn’t like he had even cheated, he was just good.

It hadn’t mattered to the witch.

Tom dragged his paw across his face, then licked it clean. The ritual calmed him. He continued to groom his fur. Sooner or later someone would come and open the lid. When they did he would jump out.

Easy.

Easy, so long as the garbage truck didn’t come first.

Tom crouched, sniffing the bag. His stomach was comfortably full from the salmon, but if he’d learned anything as a cat it was to eat when he had the chance.

One advantage as a cat, things didn’t stink. Most of the time, at least. As a human, if he’d been trapped in a dumpster like this, he would probably have found it pretty rank. Instead it was a delicious smorgasbord of culinary odors. Garlic, lemon and tartar sauce blending with pasta and marinara.

Tom’s tongue came out, flicking dryly across his nose. He sneezed.

How long before someone came? What if it was the same man that had thrown the bag at him?

Sitting still didn’t work for him. He needed to get out. Now. He hated feeling trapped.

Tom rose up onto his hind legs, bracing his front legs against the rusty metal walls that imprisoned him. His claws peeled off flakes as he dragged them down the rough surface.

“Rowwl! Rrrowwl! RRRoowwl!”

His cries echoed against the dumpster. He flattened his ears and breathed deep, for more volume.

“RRROOWWLL!”

From outside came a loud snorting, coughing sound, like that of a gigantic beast. It raised the fur along Tom’s back and tail. He settled back on the trash bag, muscles tense and ready to strike if the lid opened.

Another loud cough and then an unmistakable squeal of brakes. There was some large truck or something right outside. The garbage truck!

Tom threw himself at the side of the dumpster. He raked his claws down the side to produce a shrill fingernails-on-chalkboard sound.

“RROOOWWLL! RROOOOOWWL!”

Electric motor noises sounded outside and grew louder. Something hit the dumpster hard, with a loud metallic banging noise, and he fell back from the side. It was the garbage truck! That noise was undoubtedly the mechanical arm about to lift the dumpster up and empty it into the back of the truck!

2

Julia stiff-armed the back door of Hal’s Crab Shack, swiping her thumb across the face of her ringing phone as she did. “Hello?”

Outside got her away from the clanging of dishes and the talk radio station that Hal insisted on playing in the kitchen, but the garbage truck was right outside. Diesel fumes combined with the stomach-turning smell of fish gone bad. The mechanical arm made howling noises and clanged against the dumpster not more than three feet from where she stood.

“Hello?” Julia shouted. She looked at the phone. Unknown number. “Just a sec! There’s a garbage truck!”

Rrroowwl! RROOOWWLL!

Julia lowered the phone. That howling wasn’t coming from the mechanical arm, it was coming from the dumpster. “Hey!”

She ran out in the alley waving her arms at the guy in the cab. “Hey!”

Motors whined and the arm clamped shut on the dumpster. It jerked, and rose a couple inches up.

RRROOOWWWLL!

“Hey! You! Stop!” Julia ran all the way to the door of the truck and pounded on it with her free hand. “Stop! You’ve got to stop!”

The window came down and a guy looked down at her, runner-gaunt, with a dark stubble shadow on his jaw. A dirty tan cap covered his head, but she didn’t see much hair under it, shaved or bald. He squinted at her.

“Why are you banging on my truck?”

Julia pointed back at the dumpster. “I think there’s an animal in the dumpster. A cat. I heard it howling.”

He leaned out the window and looked back along the truck as if he could see through the battered green dumpster. “A cat? Could be. They get in there, you leave the lid up. Always having animals get caught in dumpsters. Cats, raccoons, possums, even some dogs, sometimes. I’ve never dumped a load in back with a person, but mostly I think that’s been luck.”

Okay. Gross. “Let me get it out, okay?”

He waved a stained leather work-glove. “Go head, but don’t let it scratch you. Lord knows what sort of germs a stray cat’ll carry.”

“I’ll be quick,” Julia promised.

She ran back along the garbage truck, watching her step because the little black sandals she wore for waitressing weren’t high enough to protect her feet from the puddles in the alley.

RROOWWL!

“I’m coming,” she said.

She reached the dumpster and went to lift the lid and only then remembering that she was still holding the phone with a caller hanging on.

“I’ll have to call you back,” she told whoever it was, hung up, and dropped the phone back into her apron pocket.

Then she grabbed the lid and heaved it up. The dumpster shook and an orange-stripped cat sprang up onto the lip of the dumpster. Darker orange eyes, a sun-dried almost rusty color, looked at her.

He was beautiful. A big tom cat, you could tell just looking at him that he had to be male. Like a miniature tiger with all of his stripes. And he gazed steadily at her, as if suddenly content now that the lid was open.

The garbage truck driver shouted back. “Step back! I’m going to move the arm, it’ll jump off.”

“Wait! No!” Julia stepped up to the dumpster and just reached out for the cat.

If she’d been thinking about it, she wouldn’t have done it, but she just scooped him up. He was heavy and warm in her arms. He didn’t try hissing or scratching her, in fact he went as limp as a bag of potatoes, the kind that Hal used in the clam chowder.

It was nice, even if he did smell like the dumpster. Julia stepped back out of the way. The driver grunted and withdrew to his truck. The motors on the mechanical arm kicked in and the dumpster went up, up, and over. Bags of garbage tumbled into the back of the truck and then it put the dumpster down with a loud bang.

The whole time the cat lay snug against her chest. In fact, he had started purring, a deep vibration running through her arms. She stroked his side where she held him.

“You’re not so wild, are you? I’ll bet someone loves you. They’re probably wondering where you are.”

Could be anywhere really. He was heavy but beneath the soft fur he felt hard and strong beneath her hands. Not a fat housecat by any means, but he didn’t look like he’d been starving either. He smelled like rotten garbage, but he was just in the dumpster. A quick bath would clean that up.

Julia scratched his side. Would it be wrong to take him home? She lived alone now, since she’d kicked out Eric-the-cheater. She wouldn’t have ever considered getting a cat with Eric-the-cheater still around even though she didn’t think he was allergic like Paul-the-weasel.

The cat kept purring.

The garbage truck coughed, blowing out a cloud of black smoke and then lurched into motion down the alley with its lights flashing. Julia moved back toward the kitchen door and stopped.

Hal hated cats. She couldn’t take the cat into the crab shack. It dawned on her that Hal had gone out with the garbage, wanting it out before the truck came, only moments ago. Had he closed the lid of the dumpster knowing that the cat was inside? She wouldn’t put it past him.

And his big pumpkin head had been split in a wide grin when he came back in. People always seemed to like Hal, but she always thought that he looked like an extra from a Tim Burton movie.

Hal had done it, shut the cat in the dumpster. She held the cat tighter for  second and then relaxed her arms. She couldn’t take the cat home, not in the middle of her shift, and she had to get back inside. Hal’d already be wondering what was taking so long to answer a phone call.

She’d just have to let the cat go. If he was still around after work, well then it’d be fate, wouldn’t it?

Julia crouched down and set the cat down. She half-expected him to bolt as soon as his feet touched the asphalt but he didn’t make any move to run. Instead he leaned against her legs, rubbing his face along her shins.

She ran her hand down his back over that so-soft fur. She noticed a small notch in his fur behind his right ear. It looked like he’d gotten scratched at some point. Must have been pretty bad to heal without the fur coming back.  She moved her hand under his chin, fingers scratching gently.

The cat arched his back and purred loudly. His eyes closed in a delightfully blissful expression.

“Oh, I wish I could take you home,” she said. “But I’ve got to get back to work. If you’re here when I get off later, though, I’ll take you home and give you something to eat. Is it a date?”

The cat bumped his head against her hand. “Meow.”

Julia laughed and stood up. Her heart actually beat a little faster turning away from the cat. She laughed at herself, imagine getting so worked up over a stray cat? It was just the break-up and everything.

As she went inside she glanced back, sure that he would have trotted off already, but he was sitting up, very straight, with his stripped tail wrapped around his feet.

“Meow,” he said.

Julia smiled, and ducked inside.

3

After she was gone Tom was torn. Stay or leave? The smart thing would be to leave. He had a very good reason for not finding a home before now. Life as a stray might be hard, but life as a house cat?

Worse.

Controlled all the time? Forced to eat canned cat food? Deal with other pets, or even children? All a nightmare, but one thing topped all of those sorts of concerns.

Getting ‘fixed!’

He started licking his paw just to steady his nerves. Maybe it was ridiculous to be afraid of it, but seriously? Any responsible pet owner would take him to a vet and snip, snip that was it. He didn’t know if it was ever going to be possible to get rid of this curse, but if he did he wanted everything intact.

So no homes. No trips to the vet. Even though it meant a rougher life outside.

But this woman, she made him hesitate. His plan, when that lid had opened, was to jump up and take off before anything else could happen. Instead he’d seen her and it was like getting hit between the eyes with a sledgehammer.

She was petite, but as he’d had the pleasure of feeling when she held him, rather busty for her size. Fair almost milky skin just lightly sprinkled with freckles across her nose and cheeks. Very light, but completely adorable. And no surprise, given her complexion, she had bright red hair that hung right down past her shoulders.

The cute green waitress outfit and apron really brought out her most striking feature, her green eyes. Arresting eyes. Eyes like emeralds. Stunning.

It was her eyes that he saw first, then the rest, and they’d stopped him right there on the edge of the dumpster. He had even considered moving before she had scooped him up.

Tom kept cleaning his fur. He’d picked up all sorts of smells in that dumpster.

Would it really be too much of a risk to wait for her to get off work? If she took him home that didn’t mean that he couldn’t leave if he wanted. For one thing, she might think he was just a cat but he was more than that. If it looked too risky he could probably find a way out.

And cat or not, he wanted to see her again.

Like the town, she had also seemed a little sad. Maybe he could cheer her up before moving on.

Tom finished licking the end of his tail and stood up. He couldn’t just sit here. A cool drizzle was starting to fall and he wanted to get out of the rain before he got soaked.

4

Julia’s feet felt heavy as she clomped out of Hal’s onto the sagging, weathered gray porch. Hal really needed to get it fixed, she’d told him that it was driving away customers. It made the place look like one of the many empty buildings dotting the highway instead of an open business.

Not that Hal ever listened.

Other than the incident with the cat back in the alley, it’d been a long slog of a day. She’d gotten off work with a whole ten bucks and change in tips. If things didn’t pick up she was going to have to dip into her savings just to make rent.

Rain pounded on the rusted metal roofing and fell in thin streams off the edge. No gutter. That’d come off in one of the storms last winter and Hal still hadn’t gotten around to putting up a new one.

She had her little black umbrella and she took a second to get it opened up, and readjusted her purse strap, before stepping through the waterfall over the steps. Another reason customers didn’t come in, who wanted to walk through that? And the puddle at the bottom of the steps.

“Meoow?”

Julia had just reached the unpaved parking lot when she heard the meow and looked back. The big orange tom cat from the alley was sitting on the uneven porch railing, watching her.

“You’re still here!”

He stood up and his tail rose straight up as he walked along the railing toward the steps.

Julia bounced up the steps, the heaviness she’d felt getting off work evaporating. The cat stopped.

She stopped and raised her free hand. “Don’t be scared. I wouldn’t hurt you.”

The cat watched her with big unblinking green eyes. Kinda like her eyes, but his were a much prettier green. Still, it was funny that they matched.

She extended her fingers. “Come on then. I’ll take you home with me, if you want. I might even let you sleep with me, if you let me give you a bath first!”

The cat tilted his head as if considering the trade-offs.

“Jules!” A voice called. “Why didn’t you answer my call?”

Julia recognized that voice. Not a voice that she wanted to hear from again. It was male, and hard, and angry.

She turned, not surprised that Eric-the-cheater was standing in the rain looking up at her.

“Jules, you gotta forgive me,” Eric said.

Eric was handsome enough. A lot taller than her, and dark, scruffy. An artist that did a lot of work with metal sculpture. Everything about him was always hard. Sometimes it was good, but always a bit scary. She had handled all of that up to the point she learned that he was cheating on her.

“No I don’t,” she said. “You’re a liar and a cheat. We’re done.”

He didn’t have an umbrella. He shoved wet hair back out of his face. With his black coat and clothes he could have been made from shadows. Except for his pale face like the moon surrounded in darkness.

He came at the porch, boots splashing in the puddles. His face was as hard and angular as one of his sculptures. At the moment there wasn’t anything handsome about his face. It was ugly and frightening.

Julia took a step back before she realized she was doing it. Eric hadn’t ever hurt her, but the way he was acting, there could be a first time.

Then a loud hissing cry ripped from the tom cat crouched on the railing. A loud rumbling cry followed.

Eric stopped, one boot on the bottom step. He laughed, a nasty sound. “That your guard cat?”

Julia moved closer to the cat. She could see the cat’s whole body vibrating with barely contained fury. The cat didn’t like Eric at all, but wasn’t running away either.

“Hal’s inside,” Julia said. “Why don’t you get out of here before we call the police?”

Eric came up another step. “For what? Talking to you? Besides, you don’t want to see me angry, Jules.”

This wasn’t angry?

The cat hissed and spat again. A loud howling noise came from his throat, rising in volume like a warbling alarm. It was impressively loud over the rain on the metal roof.

“You should get that cat away from me,” Eric said. “Damn thing probably has rabies or something.”

“He just doesn’t like you. I don’t either. So leave!”

“No, Jules. Fuck that! You don’t just get to walk away from what we have together!”

“Walk away? You cheated on me!”

“So I screwed around a couple times. Big deal, it was just sex. It doesn’t have anything to do with how I feel about you.”

Julia’s breath was catching in her throat but she wasn’t about to let him see that he was scaring her more. She pointed the umbrella at him. “Get out of here!”

Eric moved so fast she hardly saw it, but the umbrella was torn out of her hand. He brought it down across his knee, snapping the thin metal handle in half. He threw the top part of the umbrella out into the rain, leaving him holding the handle with a sharp twisted point where it had broken.

He shook the handle at her. “We’re not done until I say we’re done!”

Now she was really scared. All of her attention was focused down on that twisted metal point. Was he going to hurt her with that? He wouldn’t, not Eric, she couldn’t believe that.

But she’d never seen him like this.

Eric took the last step up onto the porch.

Right then, before she could do anything else, the tom cat leapt at Eric. The cat was a streak of orange before he hit Eric’s chest.

Eric shouted and stumbled back.

It almost looked like slow motion, Julia could see it happening, as Eric lost his footing and fell back off the porch. It was only three steps but he went down flat on his back into the puddle at the bottom of the steps.

The cat rode him down the whole way.

Water erupted around them when Eric hit the puddle. She could hear the cat’s howling and spitting noises.

Beside her the door of the crab shack burst open and Hal trundled out onto the porch. “What in the hell?”

Eric was rolling over and she saw his arm raise, still holding onto the handle of her broken umbrella.

“No!”

He thrust the handle down. She heard the cat scream in pain.

Then Eric was up, staggering back. He still held the handle, looked at it and threw it away. Not before she saw red on the end, melting away in the rain.

She started forward but Hal went down the steps first. Hal waved a cell phone at Eric. “I’ve called the police! You get out of here!”

Without a word Eric turned and ran off through the rain. Julia didn’t care. She ran down the steps to the orange shape lying in the mud and rain.

The cat was still alive, wide, wide eyes looked up at her. There was fear, but also recognition in that look.

It was hard to see in the rain with all the mud on his orange fur, but there was blood on his side.

“I’m going to help you,” she said. “You’ll be okay.”

She scooped him up, trying to be careful, hoping that he wouldn’t claw or bite her. She’d understand if he did, but he didn’t. He lay limp in her arms.

“What’s going on?” Hal demanded.

“Eric stabbed him. I’ve got to get him to the vet.” She headed for her car across the parking lot, not even caring that she was getting soaked.

“What do I tell the police?”

Julia ignored him. She got to the car and had to hold the cat with one arm while she got her keys out of her purse. The Jetta beeped when she hit the button and then she pulled the door open.

Inside the windows were completely fogged up. She leaned over and as gently as she could laid the cat in the passenger seat.

“Just rest there,” she said. “I’ll take you to the vet and get you all patched up.”

The cat looked at her. A tiny pink tongue came out, licking his nose, and it left behind red smears.

“Oh no,” Julia said.

She got the car started and turned on the air to clear the windows. The cat’s eyes closed but she could see his chest still rising and falling.

She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and as soon as the windows cleared enough to see she put it in drive and took off. As she turned out of the lot she saw Hal standing on the porch, watching her leave.

Heading north up the highway toward the vet’s, she kept looking over at the cat. He’d defended her from Eric. He couldn’t die.

Before she’d gone a mile down the road she looked over and realized that his chest wasn’t moving.

Julia slowed, alternating looks between the cat and the road. Had he really stopped breathing?

Yes.

The thought sat in her throat like a lump of ice. She eased off the gas, realizing that she was speeding through town.

At Hawthorne she turned and headed home. The vet couldn’t do anything for him now. It only took a few minutes to get home. She parked in her carport and went around the passenger side to get the cat.

He was clearly dead. Tears ran freely down her face. It was horrible. Such a brave, beautiful animal, and she’d only just met him! She thought of Eric and if he’d been there right then and she had the means she didn’t know what she would have done.

She hated him.

Julia took a deep breath. She’d give the cat a decent burial at least. Maybe plant a rose bush on his grave. But not in the rain. She’d take him inside, clean him up and bury him when it cleared up.

She picked up the cat, holding him close. Her tears fell on his already wet fur.

Inside she took him to her small kitchen and laid him on a clean towel on the kitchen table. Then she went to the hall closet get some more towels so she could get him properly cleaned up.

While she had her head buried in the hall closet she heard a noise, like wind blowing inside the house. She stepped out and bright sunlight was streaming out of the kitchen, even though she could still hear the rain on the windows and roof.

Julia clutched the towels to her chest and went to the kitchen door.

It looked like the sun had come down to rest in her kitchen, above the kitchen table. She raised a hand, shielding her eyes.

A dark shape in the center looked like the cat, suspended above the table. As she watched he stretched and moved. The tail shrank, limbs and body grew larger.

The room smelled of the sea and spring flowers and a wind tugged at her wet hair. A summer warmth evaporated the water on her clothes. Napkins flew around the room. Her pots above the stove clanked together.

Her eyes watered trying to see in the light.

And then it faded. The wind stopped.

A naked man sat on her table and he was beautiful. Lean, and muscled, with long, almost at his shoulders, dark red hair. More rusty stubble covered his chin. He twisted around, hands poking at a knot of pink scar tissue on his side.

Julia couldn’t speak. The sight of him tore away any words.

Then he looked up at her and he had eyes the color of dark pines. It was the same look that the tom cat had given her when it landed on the edge of the dumpster.

“I’m Tom,” he said. “I don’t mean to scare you.”

She shook her head. “I’m not scared.”

She wasn’t. It was a miracle. He was Tom, the tom, how? She didn’t have a clue. Such things shouldn’t be possible.

“Are those for me?” He was looking at the towels she held.

Julia flushed. “Yes, I mean, I was going to —”

She stopped talking and held one out. He took it and for an instant their fingers touched. His fingers were warm, holding onto that summer heat from the light. He smiled and took the towel.

Held it up. A dish towel. He glanced down. “I don’t think this is going to cover much.”

Julia blushed deeper. “No. Umm, I’ve got some sweats upstairs that might fit?”

Tom slid off the table. He was magnificent, he moved like a cat or a dancer. He came to her and took the towels away. He set those aside. Then his hands slid up the sides of her face.

He bent down.

His lips touched hers, as light as a cat’s paw at first, than harder. She found herself kissing him back. One hand pressing against his hard, bare chest.

When they broke apart he smiled, green eyes sparkling. “You saved me. You broke the curse.”

“What?”

Tom shrugged and she felt his muscles move beneath her hand. “I was cursed, turned into a cat. But you broke it, how?”

She shook her head. “I didn’t do anything. You saved me, from Eric. But he stabbed you. You died. I mean, you the cat died. I saw it. I was just going to clean you, I mean the cat, up before I buried it.”

She couldn’t organize her thoughts. Especially not with his lips right in front of her, begging her for another taste.

Tom moved. At first she thought he was moving away but he bent down and then she found herself scooped up, cradled the way she had cradled the cat earlier.

He laughed and it was a rich, warm sound. She buried her face against his chest and laughed too. Then she found his nipple and flicked her tongue across it, bringing it to a hard point.

Tom stopped laughing. “Let’s take this to the other room?”

Julia wrapped her arms around his neck. “Yes. Let’s do that.”

He carried her easily through the house, down the hall to her bedroom. Julia shivered with each touch, eager to learn everything she could about this remarkable man.

 

5,693 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 39th weekly short story release, written in May 2012.

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 my fantasy story Death in Hathaway Tower.

Tortures Small Animals, Seeks Same

Ted didn’t take his job too seriously, how could you? It paid the bills as long as he did enough work to keep his boss quiet.

He liked the quiet. It gave him time to plan his weekend.

The personals ad caught his eye. “SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.” Freaky chicks were sometimes the hottest. What could it hurt?

October continues with a cautionary tale in “Tortures Small Animals, Seeks Same.”

1

Ted was at work, Employment Securities Department, in the big office building that went up right before the State started laying off everyone in Olympia. It was Friday too, when half of the staff were off on unpaid leave. Of course he’d gotten scheduled to work, because he always agreed to work.

Still, it left the offices quiet. Not even phones ringing. He’d gotten used to the quiet. He even liked it that way.

The blinds were closed against the rare sunny Spring day outside. Otherwise the glare on his computer made it impossible to see anything at all. Not that he was looking at the computer anyway. He had his iPhone out, flipping through the ads on Backpages for a little excitement.

One of the posts caught his eye.

“SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

It couldn’t be real. Cops, probably. Who would fall for that anyway?

Ted rubbed his hands on the hard plastic arms of his seat. He rocked back, looking out past the gray Ethospace cubby into the empty cubby across the aisle.

Used to belong to Dolores. Skinny woman, too bony, smoker. Usually sounded like she was coughing up a lung half the time, but now the space was stripped bare. The computer looked lonesome sitting in the corner of the cubby.

Ted looked back at the post.

“SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

He licked his lips. Twisted. Seriously messed up stuff. Sometimes the twisted girls were the hottest. He had dated a few over the years. This one girl had even been living with a guy. Just roommates, she said, but when the guy came home to them screwing on the couch, that wasn’t the reaction of ‘just a roommate.’

Hot, though.

But this?

“SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

That couldn’t be real. He hoped it wasn’t real. He didn’t get off on that sort of thing. He wasn’t a bad guy. Single, sure, he liked it like that. First dates, that was his favorite thing. You got to have a nice time with the girl, company for the night if nothing else. Even then usually a kiss.

And plenty of times you’d at least get to make out with her.

And a few, fewer than he’d like, honestly, would go all the way on a first date.

Not being a girl or being into guys, Ted found it difficult to judge his attractiveness to the opposite sex. At five eight he wasn’t exactly tall, not really short either. Thin build that he kept up with some light sprints and weight lifting. He didn’t go all chronic with cardio. Usually kept his diet pretty primal, few grains, starches, sugar or gluten.

Good-looking or not he knew the thing that really matter for most girls was being confident. He’d show up to take them out, and he dressed nice. Suit and tie, nice restaurants, a good time.

Three dates max, if she wasn’t going to sleep with him then she wasn’t, and he didn’t hold that against her. He was always mostly honest with girls. He didn’t go on about marriage or anything to trick them into bed. Nothing like that.

Most of the time he didn’t bother with online sites or anything. But Backpages had some girls on there who simply wanted to hook up. Some charged, others didn’t, and today he didn’t really want to take time to go find someone to ask out.

He really just wanted to get laid. Was that horrible? After a while jacking off just didn’t really swing it. He wanted someone in his bed.

The phone went dark. he pressed the home button to wake it back up. “SWF, tortures small animals, seeks same.”

That was some crazy stuff. Maybe cops, but if he just offered to take her out on a normal date what crime was that? He’d set up a meeting at Anthony’s, and if she was hideous or looked like a cop he could also stand her up. And if she was hot? Well, it wasn’t like he was going to torture small animals with some crazy girl, but if she was hot enough he might fuck her brains out.

Who knew? It might actually help the poor girl.

Ted used his Hotmail account to answer the ad. “Hey, saw your ad and found it intriguing. Would you be interested in meeting tonight? Ted.”

Then, before sending the message a bright idea popped into his head. A test to see if the girl on the other end really was freaky. He changed the signature on his email.

“Ted, you know like Ted Kaczynski.”

He was getting a bit stiffer just thinking about the possibility when he hit send.

Nothing to do about that now. Chances were that he’d be going home alone tonight. Was it any wonder that so many civil servants ended up being found offed with a bottle of pills, or a razor in the tub? You worked these jobs long enough, it was bound to get to anyone.

Ted pocketed the phone and turned back to the mind-numbing grind on the computer. Paper pushing turned into digital pushing but he was still a rat smashing buttons in order to get fed.

Too bad he didn’t just have his pleasure center wired to doing work. It probably wouldn’t be long before they started doing that, wiring people up so that you came to work and plugged in. Each task you checked off would send a wireless signal to your implants in the pleasure center. Say goodbye to vacations and sick leave. They’d have people working overtime without any bonus, just for the privilege of working.

Only a matter of time.

A half-hour after he sent the email his phone buzzed, vibrating against his leg. Ted pulled it out, thumbed it on. Email. He swiped it open.

It was her, Tortures Small Animals, answering back.

“I’d love to hook up tonight. What did you have in mind? We could go by the pound, see if they have any kittens in? – T.”

T? She’d signed it T.? What did that mean? Was it short for her name, or his? And go by the pound to see if they had kittens? Okay, so it fit with what her ad said, but that was just twisted.

“Maybe that’s what T stands for,” Ted muttered aloud. He glanced around, but there wasn’t anyone around to hear him talking to himself.

He hit reply. “Kittens sound great, but do you mind if we get something to eat first? I was thinking Anthony’s? We could meet there at seven. Wear a red dress, so I know it’s you.”

He hit send with his pulse pounding in his ears. He liked women that could make red dresses work. A red dress, generous cleavage and pouty lips. Too much to hope for from Tortures Small Animals, but you never knew and it didn’t hurt to try.

The phone beeped and buzzed again. Her reply. “The pound closes before seven, but never mind. I’ll bring something special. Can’t wait to see you at Anthony’s. – T.”

Ted snaked a hand into his pants and made the necessary adjustments, but after that his mind wasn’t on work.

That evening he showed up at Anthony’s early, a quarter to seven, plenty of time to see her show up and decide if he was sticking around for the date or not. It wasn’t raining but he stayed in his Prius, parked in one of his favorite spots just down the street where he could watch the front of Anthony’s without drawing too much attention.

She showed up five minutes before seven by his phone. Red dress, creamy complexion that he couldn’t wait to taste and a fantastic body. He’d guess mid-twenties. He caught a glimpse of her face framed by waves of dark hair and didn’t even stop the laughter bubbling up inside.

Way, way out of his league. She was gorgeous. This woman couldn’t possibly be Tortures Small Animals, but he didn’t give a shit. He got out and raised his hand in the air as he started to the front of the restaurant.

She stopped, coolly watching him. Looking right at him as he jogged up. At least he had on a suit, but she still out-classed him. Close up he saw diamonds glittering at her neck, and on her surprisingly delicate ears. She hardly had any ear lobes at all, but the diamond studs she wore were probably worth more than he made in a month.

“I’m Ted.” He reached out to shake her hand and she let him. There was that almost electric feel when skin touched skin. Her nails matched her dress, and her hand was warm and smooth in his. Such soft skin!

“Good evening, Ted.” Her red lips spread in a wide, toothy smile. “I’m glad you could make it. I’m Tina.”

“Tina. I like it. You look absolutely stunning, Tina, I have to say it.”

“Thank you. Shall we go inside?”

“Yes, yes! Let’s do that.” Ted slid around her to open the door, taking advantage of the gesture to lightly touch her back with his other hand. That’s when he discovered that the dress she was wearing was backless down to her lower back. His fingers touched bare skin and he almost jerked away as if he had touched a hot stove.

Tina didn’t react, other than murmuring thanks before brushing past him, her hand grazing the front of his pants. She smelled like roses, and he was already reacting to her, getting an uncomfortable hard-on. He wiggled, walking through the door, trying to adjust position, but he couldn’t wait to get to the table before someone noticed.

He gave the hostess his name even though Megan knew him as a regular by now. She had the table ready and showed them right in. At the table Ted focused on the steps. The odds against getting this girl into his bed, shit, he didn’t even want to think about it. If he did he’d freeze up. Instead he focused on the routine.

Pull the chair out, which brought her close enough that her hair brushed his face as she sat, like touches of silk scented with roses. His hard-on had subsided by then. Sitting across from her Ted looked into her eyes, hazel with green flecks, almond-shaped and dark. It was the first time that he’d gone on one of these dates and ended up with someone that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a movie screen. Usually the girls he dated were pretty, or at least cute with a decent body, but never someone in Tina’s league.

She leaned forward on the table. “I’m so happy to meet you, someone that understands.”

He understood that he wanted dinner over quickly and then a trip back to his place, but he couldn’t rush this. Confident, but not over-eager, especially not with a woman like this.

“I feel the same way, Tina. I couldn’t believe your ad, when I saw it.” He laughed. “I even thought that it might be the cops putting it in.”

She laughed warmly, tossing her head a bit. “That’s so funny! I had the same thought, but as soon as I saw you I knew you weren’t a cop.”

“You did?”

“Oh yes, cops have cop eyes.” She looked at him through her lashes and her voice dropped lower. “I know what your eyes want.”

Her gaze dropped and he looked down to see what she was looking at only to find himself looking at the swelling mounds of her breasts, pushing against the red lace along the top of her dress.

Ted looked back up into her eyes, slowly, not rushing it. No apologies. “As I said, very lovely.”

The waiter came. “You want drinks, perhaps? Or to hear the specials for tonight?”

“Could we have a glass of Cava to start?” Ted asked. He looked across the table at Tina. “That’ll give us a chance to decide what we want.”

“Of course, sir. Very good.”

All routine, but Ted appreciated the fact that the man never sounded like he had heard it before. And then the waiter was gone, which Ted also appreciated.

Tina smiled. “I told I’d brought you something special, let me show you?”

Ted fought to keep his thoughts off his face. Please, not a kitten. So far Tina was by far the hottest girl he’d had out on a date and he really wanted to take this date all the way.

She reached into the small red purse that she’d carried in and came out with her hands cupped together, fingers extended, almost as if she was going to pray. She kept her hands together as she reached across the table.

“Put your hands over mine,” she whispered.

Okay. Anything that meant more touching had to be good. Ted slid his hands along hers, relishing the feel of her silky soft hands. He didn’t know what she did to take care of her skin, but it felt great.

“Keep your hands together.” She started to pull back.

Her hands sliding again against his, he wanted to do the same thing with their whole bodies.

Then something flicked against the inside of his hand. A light touch, but something twitched and it wasn’t her fingers.

“What?”

“Keep your hands together!”

Ted looked around. Nobody was paying them any attention. He kept his hands together but there was something in his hands. Alive. Feathery. A bird? Tina slid her hands entirely out of his, leaving him holding whatever the thing was.

She gave him another one of those big toothy smiles. “Look!”

Ted moved his thumbs back and a bright yellow head with a beak popped up between his fingers.

Tina’s hand darted out, onto his, pressing the bird back down into his hands. “Careful!”

Her hand slid down, caressing the back of his. Then her other hand was also caressing his hands, sliding up and down across his skin. The bird twitched inside his cupped hands. Tina’s hands pressed hard, almost massaging the backs of his hand, sliding back and forth. His hard-on came back, pressing against his pants. Fortunately the long table cloth hid that from view.

Tina was watching him, watching his face and her smile grew wider. “Exciting, isn’t it? Knowing you hold such a fragile life in your hands?”

It wasn’t the bird turning him on, exciting him. It was her touching his hands that definitely had an effect.

The waiter showed up then, suddenly at Ted’s elbow. He put the glasses of sparkling wine on the table. Tina had stopped stroking Ted’s hands but her hands were still over his.

“Do you need more time?”

Ted swallowed. “Uh, yes please. A few minutes.”

“Very good, sir.”

After he left Tina leaned further over the table as if she intended to kiss him. Her hands pressed firmly against his. Ted found himself leaning to meet her. She was a freaky girl, but what was the harm of a kiss? She stopped with her lips just above his, he could nearly feel them, her breath playing on his mouth.

“Crush it.”

He couldn’t believe what she’d said, but her hands pressed down harder.

“Crush it,” she repeated. “I’ll let you do it.”

Her tongue, just the tip, touched his lip, and at that he squeezed his hands together. Her hands pressing against his, his hands pressing in on the bird as her lips found his. Hot and wet, tongues touching, exploring, playing as bones and feathers crushed against his palms. Hardly any resistance at all.

As Tina drew back he was shaking. His hands were together, pretty much flat.

“You can use your pocket,” Tina said.

Right. Before someone saw. What else could he do? He pulled his arms back, cupped the pulverized limp body by feel in his left hand and stuffed it into his pocket. Only then did he even look at his hands. A small smear of blood on his left palm, and a tiny yellow feather stuck to it.

Tina reached out and used her thumb to wipe it away. Just like that it was gone. No sign of what had happened.

Tina lifted her glass, sipped the sparkling wine, watching him over the edge of the glass. “Do you know what you want?”

God help him, he did. He knew what he wanted, and dinner couldn’t end soon enough.

During the scallops over linguini they took turn feeding each other the morsels from the plate and while the buttery taste melted in his mouth Tina kept reaching over and rubbing his pocket.

Those pants were so going into the trash after this date.

Any chance of escaping without desert went out the window when Tina ordered the chocolate mousse. Ted asked for two spoons and once again they took turns feeding each other. He loved watching her lips slide over the spoon. He felt dizzy, intoxicated even though he’d barely even touched his wine with dinner.

Tina ran her finger around the inside of the bowl when they were nearly done and then held out her chocolate smeared finger to him. Ted bent down, taking the proffered digit between his lips, sucking off the sweet chocolate.

When she pulled her finger back she leaned in and he found himself drowning in her lips again, drinking in the taste of her mingled with the chocolate while his pulse pounded in his ears.

Her hand slid around the back of his head, fingers digging into his hair. As they broke apart he found himself looking into her eyes.

She asked the words he’d been dying to hear. “Should we get out of here?”

Ted smiled. “Let’s go to my place.”

Tina flicked her finger lightly across his nose, smiling. “No, silly. You’ve got to see what I’ve got for you back at my place.”

It felt like someone had opened a window as a chilly ran down his back. “Uh, your place? What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t want to spoil the surprise,” she said, coyly.

Ted ran his hands down her arms, exquisite, like the rest of her. Why not go with it? So she was a bit crazy, look at her! This was like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one he’d regret forever if he fucked it up now.

“What’s the surprise?”

Tina’s eyes narrowed. “You’re impatient. I’ll bet you couldn’t wait to open your first puppy.”

“What?”

She reached out and ran her fingers through his hair, lightly playing with his ear. “Come here, I’ll whisper a hint.”

Ted leaned in and found himself shivering as her lips brushed his ear. He wanted her more than he’d wanted any girl before. What did it matter what her surprise was, if he got the chance to screw her?

Her lips brushed against his ear again, her tongue lightly licking along his earlobe, sucking on it, and suddenly he was squirming in his seat. She stopped.

“It’s a surprise,” she whispered.

Then pain, sharp and immediate in the earlobe like an icepick through his head. Ted screamed. He jerked back, but Tina was still attached, teeth clamped firmly on his ear.

Other people were looking. Tina released him. Ted fell back against his seat, wilting away from her. His ear throbbed with pain. Tina slowly rose, showing him every fantastic inch of her body. She leaned on the table and Ted shrank back against his chair.

Tina made a tsking noise. “Maybe we shouldn’t take this too fast, Teddy Bear?”

She pouted, blew a kiss at him and then walked away, out into the night.

After that Ted figured she was gone, out of his life at least, off torturing someone else. He had dreams about screwing her, and they weren’t all bad. Mostly.

Saturday morning the doorbell rang. Ted looked up from his coffee, at first unable to even comprehend the sound. By the time he figured it out and got to the door he didn’t see anyone outside, but when he opened the door he found a small box sitting on top of a newspaper.

Ted picked up the box, it wasn’t heavy. No postmark and besides, it was too early for the mail. The newspaper must have come with the box, he didn’t get the Olympian, it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

Tina. The box was wrapped in plain brown paper, no marks, but he knew, knew it was from Tina. How she knew where he lived, he didn’t have any idea, but this had to be from her.

He couldn’t not open it, as tempting as it was to toss it directly in the trash. He tore at the rough brown paper. Tossed that aside. A plain white cardboard box, like the kind that Chinese food came in, without any markings. There was plain white card taped to the top. He peeled it off and read what was written in beautiful handwriting.

“Teddy Bear, look what you missed out on last night. I’ve got to go out of town for a while, but when I get back maybe we can try again. Kisses. – T.”

Ted tossed the card down on the counter. He really didn’t want to know what was in the box now. His eyes fell on the folded newspaper. A smiling little girl was on the front page, blond, probably about four years old. In big black letters beneath the picture he could read part of the headline.

MISSING.

The box. The newspaper. Ted’s ear throbbed. He stuffed his knuckles into his mouth, but even that wasn’t enough to muffle his screams.

3,626 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 34th weekly short story release, written in March 2012, while at a workshop on the Oregon coast. I’m putting up scary or disturbing stories all October.

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 an unsettling, sad story, The Bug Builder.

Eating Disorder

Some people would call it an eating disorder but a ghoul has to eat, right?

It’s actually a funny story, how I ended up this way. Why don’t you settle back and I’ll tell you all about it.

Yeah, I wasn’t really asking.

Kick off your October with a ghoulishly fun story in “Eating Disorder.”

1

I’ve got what you could call an eating disorder. I don’t like talking about it. Hell, I don’t even like thinking about it, but at three in the morning, listening to the sound of ice-coated branches and trees breaking all around me it’s hard not to think about how I ended up here, in Olympia, I guess that’s the capital, right smack in the middle of the worst storm in like fifteen years or something.

See I’m one of those people that no one likes looking at. Not that I’m bad on the eyes. I’m petite but what the guys call stacked. I’ve hacked off my hair, it’s all white, but you couldn’t tell that from the dirt, so it sort of just sticks up in every direction. It used to be black and long and I paid whatever it cost to have it look good.

Not anymore. A ghoul like me can’t afford that sort of thing.

Instead of designer clothes and jewelry I get what I can shoplift from Goodwill. Nothing pretty about that but when you’ve got what I’ve got you learn real quick not to get too attached to your clothes.

Or fingernails. Hell, I’d love to have the beautiful patterned nails like I used to get but instead I’ve got these thick yellow and black nails, not even nails. Let’s tell the truth. These babies are sharp enough to shave with. Not that I bother with shaving anything anymore.

You have a keen sense of smell, don’t you? It must be torture for you being close to me right now. But you’re going to help me with that.

This storm is sure something, isn’t it? A foot of snow overnight, that was bad enough, but then this ice storm on its heels? I usually don’t let things go this far, but the storm really messed up my plans.

See I never stay in one place too long. Too easy for the hunter to become the hunted, but then your type likes staying in one place. Ties to your dirt and all of that sort of thing. It’s usually pretty easy to spot your kind. From the money, the whores and the expensive houses closed up all day, your sort always stands out.

I know, you don’t think that you do, but it’s true. I spotted you right off.

Me? I’m on that. A Trek Marlin 29er, that’s a mountain bike. Big wheels, see. I don’t carry much. What’d be the point? Mostly my sleep-gear backed in that trunk bag.

Ordinarily I’m not one much for the chit-chat. I’m the go straight to the eating sort, if you get it?

Sorry about laughing, but you should have seen your face then. Your sort, how you’ve changed! Used to be among the worst sort of monsters imaginable, the kind of nightmare that made grown men wet their beds. Now you get their women to wet their beds and not the same way.

Now they all want to fuck you.

Talk about your PR campaign!

Oh? You want to know where this place is? I’d think even someone like you would recognize the piss-stink of an overpass. That’s the Woodland trail down there beneath us, street up there, duh.

Yeah, don’t worry about anyone coming by. You hear those cracks and snaps like firecrackers going off? That’s the sound of branches breaking and trees falling. This ice storm is making a mess of everything. Roads up there are awful.

No one’s coming. No one’s going to be using the trail. And I already dumped your car.

You and me, we’ve got time. That’s why I’m so chatty, and I’m not normally that sort of ghoul.

Sorry. Can’t help it. Do you think I like this? Fuck-you-very-much.

I don’t know if this is your lucky night or not. Thanks to that storm I can’t be riding or I’d have already eaten and gotten on my bike and put some miles in before I crashed for the night.

What with the ice storm and all I can’t do that right now and I don’t like sleeping where I eat. So you’re the lucky fuck. I’m going to tell you how I ended up like this. Just so you see it isn’t personal.

Like I said before, I wasn’t always like this. That changed six months ago. Before that I was a mostly normal girl, doing her thing. Oh I still rode the bike, that didn’t change. Give me an epic ride any day. Nothing I liked better getting out and hitting the trails, you know? I could ride all day until I didn’t have any energy left at all and then just crash. If I was back home that was cool but sometimes I’d just crash where ever I was at, stealth camp, you know? I always rode with my full kit so it didn’t really matter. I was always more home on the bike than I was back in my cheap apartment. That was just a place to keep the stuff that didn’t fit on my bike. But everything important fit on my bike.

So six months ago. I was out in Canada hitting the Tour Divide.

No? Haven’t heard of it? No reason you would have, heck even most people that get out during daylight hours haven’t heard of the Tour Divide.

Two thousand seven hundred and forty-five miles along the continental divide from Banff, Canada all the way down to a Mexico border crossing at Antelope Wells. Epic. Totally epic, that was the big thing that I’d been building toward hard for two years before that June.

Two years! More than that if you really went back, but two years that I had actually intended to ride the race. I’d even thought about doing it the year before but didn’t figure I was ready. I should have done it then.

The Divide throws everything at you. Climbing up passes, snow, brutal trails in the middle of nowhere. Total shitting in the woods, epic riding all frickin’ day. And the riders, they worry about things like grizzly bears because it totally goes through grizzly bear country.

I wish that’s all I had to worry about.

First day of riding and that night I’m up in the Flathead valley just pushing my bike up this trail that you can’t even hardly see along a mountain side covered in snow. There’s a bit of a moon, but not much. Enough to keep going. Not snow like you see out there right now, there wasn’t the fucking ice for one thing. This was old snow, all rotten and slippery. It used to be deep but now it didn’t even come up to my knee but I couldn’t ride through it, not if I hoped to get across the mountainside without tumbling down the cliff to an early death.

Even that would have been better.

So I’d gotten past the worst of it, so I thought, when I heard a motor. That  freaked me out. You’ve got to see it, you’re in the middle of shit-knows-where on this hillside and it’s all quiet. No cars, no sounds except animals and shit. And then there’s this sound of motors. Engines revving. I could hear shit getting kicked up and I’m freaking out. Who the hell is crazy enough to be out here at night except Divide riders?

I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

ATVs. Two of them ripping across the mountain without headlights. Crazy mother-fuckers, to ride those unstable machines across this mountain only by moonlight. Or that’s what I thought at the time. I didn’t know, couldn’t know right then, that they could see in the dark as well as an owl.

I could only see them as dark shapes roaring across the mountain, more shadow than substance. The sound and the size made it clear that they weren’t grizzly bears charging. They were much worse.

Only two ATVs but four riders. The came at me, engines snarling as they spun around in the snow and stopped. I was pissed but also scared. A woman alone in the middle of that God-forsaken country, with a pack of backwoods idiots on ATVs? It sounded like a recipe to get tortured, killed and thrown off the cliff for the animals. By the time anyone found any remains they wouldn’t have a clue what killed me, the animals or the fall.

Yeah, laugh it up. Obviously none of that happened. But that’s what I was afraid of back then. Only I wasn’t about to let these guys know that.

I raised a hand. “Hey, any of you got some Snickers? M&Ms? Really, any kind of chocolate would do.”

They gave me snickers, but not the kind I was looking for. The leader, Raul, I learned that later, got off the ATV first. In the dark moonlight he looked like any other raggedy thin guy you might find at some bar tossing back one or ten beers.

“What’re you doing out here?” He spread his arms. “Does this look like a fucking bicycle trail?”

“Sure as hell does, fuckwad,” I said. “And it’s going to take me all the way to Mexico, so why don’t you get out of my way. I’ve got a lot of riding to do.”

Saved my bacon. Sort of.

Raul, he sort of bent over and let out this hacking laugh. He slapped his legs as he did it and I thought he sounded seriously fucking sick. He hawked and spat into the dirty snow.

“Mexico? You’re a long ways from Mexico.”

“And I’m not getting any closer talking to you.”

He sort of stood up straighter then and an eye-blink later he was right up against me, like pressed up hard enough that I would have gone over and tumbled down the hillside except he had a hand around my waist and was holding me in a grip that felt like a fucking steel band. And the smell!

Well, you know all about that.

That dude smelled like something left dead on the road under a hot sun, even though it was cold. And when I looked into his moonlit face from a kissing-distance away I saw just how sharp and black his teeth were and I was suddenly truly, fucking scared. Far more than I’d been only a moment before. I didn’t understand how he moved like that. Worse, all of his buddies were off the ATVs and around us in a close circle like they were all waiting for a turn.

And they were, right then. All waiting for Raul to take his piece. He sniffed me real close. He knew before then, but he was making a show of it. He did a little pout.

“She’s muggle, every bit. Nothing special about her.”

I brought my hands up and pushed against his chest but I might as well have tried to push the mountain aside. “Whatever. I’m sure you find lots of women riding a mountain bike from Canada to Mexico.”

More snickers all around. Raul tilted his head. “We’re in Canada now?”

“Yes, don’t you know where you’re at?”

Raul stared at me. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with the guy, how he moved that fast, why his teeth looked like they did or why he smelled so bad. The rest stank too and I was starting to feel sick from it.

“I told you, I’m riding the tour divide from Canada to Mexico, so it sounds like we’re going opposite ways. Why don’t you get the hell out of my way and we’ll call it good.”

“Why?” Raul asked softly.

“Why what?”

“Why should we let you go?” The others all snickered more. “We could have fun with you.”

“Thanks, I’ll pass. Now let me go.”

Raul leaned in closer. I didn’t know what he meant to do but he was fucking freaking me out. So I did the one thing I could do. I lifted my can of bear spray that I had right there in my hand, on my bike and gave him a shot right in the eyes and mouth from inches away.

He howled! The sound split the night, and he flew back away from me. In the process that fucker scratched my back. I felt it tear, four long scratches that cut right through my jersey but I didn’t stop to worry about it. I was on that bike and I took off riding.

Snow flew from my tires and I got going. I was flying along that mountain side as if it was nothing but a smooth paved multi-use trail like that Woodland trail right down there. Or at least it seemed like that for a few minutes.

Then there was a tree down across the trail ahead of me. Not the first, or the last. I barely saw it in the dark and sort of braked and slid down the side of the mountain. I actually slid underneath the tree like I was going to slide under and pop back up on the other side. That would have been cool but that didn’t happen. I didn’t make it all the way. My head hit the tree and I was going so fast that it snapped my neck in an instant. I didn’t even know I was dead yet when I slid out the other side with my legs twitching on the pedals like I was still riding.

Being undead sucks. Being an undead ghoul really bites.

Yeah, very funny.

Raul and his buds thought my accident was hilarious. I don’t know about you vamps, but the change for ghouls happens pretty fast. You rot. I mean there I am, newly dead, and my skin bloats, the stink comes out and I started looking as nasty as something lying dead on the hillside for a week. My neck bones reset themselves at least.

See that’s the thing about us ghouls. We’re tough. We look and smell like shit, but there’s not much that can take us down.

Raul showed me that right off. Tore my jersey to shreds along with the skin underneath just to prove a fucking point.

But you know what happened then? He made the mistake. He told me that my only hope to look normal was to eat other supernatural critters. Humans might help for an hour, but there were other things out there that would make me look alive and human for days at a time. Maybe even weeks, but those sort of targets were dangerous.

Or I could hang out with them and just pick off anyone unfortunate to cross their paths.

I had another idea.

I thought I’d be squeamish about it, but it’s instinct. I went for Raul first. Ghouls are tough but I wasn’t just any old ghoul. They hadn’t considered that. Idiots.

Some might call that cannibalism. I called it justice. Maybe I’m deluded, but it felt that way at the time. I packed away extra nibbles and had myself enough to finish the whole Tour Divide race all the way down to Mexico. What I found there is a whole other, and much longer story.

Now, now. Don’t even think about trying to get away.

2,558 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 33rd weekly short story release, finished in January 2012.

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. For October I thought I’d focus on scary stories, and next up is Tortures Small Animals, Seeks Same.

The Forest Path

Don Hyland served his country and now he paints landscapes, imagining the wild places of the world untouched by human hands. Or saws. He studies a scene until he can picture what it might have looked like when the very first people set eyes on it — and that’s what he paints.

Only this time his painting leads him to a world he never imagined, a world that couldn’t possibly exist, one hidden behind the magically alleys that connect every city in the world — and an ancient connection believed lost to time!

 

Rolling back time, that’s how Don Hyland described his portfolio when he met people and they asked what he did. If only he really could roll back time!

Fat rain drops pounded the evergreen boughs far, far overhead as a wind blasted through the giant-sized trunks. Don easel rocked on the uneven split-log boardwalk. Don moved quickly, forty-one years of climbing and hiking the outdoors had kept him nimble, collapsing the easel’s legs.

He was thin and of average height. What hair he had was a mix of dark and silver buzzed close to his scalp. For this trip up to Mt. Rainier, to the Longmire visitor area, he had just worn cargo shorts and one of the t-shirts with his weary lumberjack painting on the front. Instead of hiking boots he had on his trail running shoes. This wasn’t meant to be an expedition into the back country, just a quick pop up the mountain to do some plein air studies.

Don finished folding the portable easel as fat rain drops pelted the board walk. Out in the Longmire meadow the tall grasses waved back and forth in the wind. The studies he’d already done that were drying on the half-log bench, flapped and threatened to fly off. Fortunately he’d had the sense to weigh them down with his painted rocks or they’d already be gone. That didn’t stop the rain drops from hitting the sheets.

As he gathered them up, stuffing the sheets into the easel case, he could see the damage already done. There were visible water drops on the paintings, running and blending colors. He got them all up and snapped the brass catches on the wood case. He slung the strap over his arm and scooped up the painted rocks, which disappeared into his pockets.

That was everything? Don looked around and spied a water brush that had rolled away into a crack between the logs of the board walk. He was bending down to pick it up when he heard a scream behind him.

Don’s fingers closed on the brush and he spun around. Another scream sounded on the mountain behind him. A woman? Someone might be hurt!

He ran down the board walk and hit the dirt trail. The easel case bounced under his arm and banged into his side. He clutched the water brush in his hand as he ran. The Trail of Shadows, this path was called, an easy loop near the visitor center. Nothing too hazardous or difficult.

No one was visible. Rain drops hit his arms as he ran. The wind howled through the trees.

“Hello?” Don called out as he ran. “Hello? Is someone there?”

He reached a small log bridge over one of the many little streams coming down the mountain and pounded across. Up ahead he saw a white-haired couple, a man and woman. The woman clutched at the man’s arm. Both were looking up the slope as Don ran up.

“Did you hear that scream?” Don asked.

The man nodded and pointed a liver-spotted arm at the slope above them. “It came from up there. I dunno what it was, a cat maybe? Do those big cats scream like that?”

“A cougar?”

The man nodded.

“I don’t know. I don’t think it was a cat,” Don said.

He studied the slope above them. It was wooded, of course, covered in big trees and fallen debris. He couldn’t see anyone.

Then there was another scream. Don slipped the easel down to the ground. “Watch that, for me, will you? I’ll be back.”

He bounded away across the path and scrambled up the slope. Only when he reached for a thick root did he realize that he still held the water brush. He shoved it in a pocket, knowing it might leak, and pulled himself up.

His legs felt the effort of the climb up the slope, but he was used to that feeling.

There was undergrowth and ferns, but not so much that it impeded his progress. Before long he had climbed up out of sight of the path below and he slowed his pace. He still hadn’t seen anyone and it was making him nervous.

What if the cries had been a cougar? It might be watching him right now.

Don braced himself against the papery trunk of a cedar tree at least six feet across. “Hello? Is someone out here?”

He saw something flash white between the trees. Not a cougar. A person with long white hair. That’s all that he saw before whoever it was disappeared behind a thick Douglas fir.

“Hey! Are you okay? Was that you screaming?”

He picked his way around a clump of thick ferns and climbed over a moss-covered log to get closer.

A woman looked out from behind the tree. She didn’t look like anyone he’d ever seen before. Fine porcelain features, narrow, with high cheekbones and large wide eyes. White eyes. No iris that he could see at all, just a wide dark pupil as she looked at him. Her eyebrows were up, mouth open. She looked terrified.

Don raised his hands. “Hey, I’m not going to hurt you. I heard screaming. I wanted to help.”

She said something fast and musical. It almost sounded like bird song, but he heard her voice tremble as if she was scared. From the looks that she gave him, and the sound of whatever it was that she had said, Don guessed that she wanted him to move away.

2

He took a step back and to the side, so that he could see her better and she could see him. “I’m not going to hurt you. I only want to help.”

The woman eased around the tree, still watching him with her oddly white eyes. They didn’t look cloudy, just white, and it was clear that she was watching him carefully. But that wasn’t the only odd thing about her. There was also what she was wearing, some sort of silvery tunic with black laces up the front. She carried a deep purple tube-like bag that wrapped around her back, the strap crossing from her left shoulder, down under her right. The tunic went down to her knees, but she wore nothing else below that. No shoes. Her feet were coated with dirt.

“It’s okay,” Don said softly. “Are you hurt?”

She eased out more from behind the tree and looked around. Her lower lip trembled. The sight of it was heart-breaking. He wanted to do whatever he could so that she wouldn’t look so sad. Was she part of some role-playing group? Maybe she got lost? Her eyes could be part of a costume.

“Are you lost? There’s a path right down there, it’ll take us back to Longmire.”

She still didn’t respond to what he was saying. Instead she went to a big tree that had fallen, roots made a wall at least ten feet high of gnarled twisting wood, like a nest of giant snakes frozen in place. She didn’t even come up to the mid-point, but she walked into the hollow where it dipped down into a small cut between the roots and the hillside like a natural alley.

It must drop off fast, because she was almost out of sight. It didn’t feel right. Don felt it in his gut, like something was pulling him after her. He gave into the sensation and ran after her.

She was gone before he reached the cut where the giant tree had fallen. He scrambled down, loose rocks sliding beneath his shoes, and nearly slipped. A root caught his sleeve for a second but he pulled free and hurried around the root mass.

His next step landed on a rock he hadn’t seen or expected. It was flat and anchored firmly. That wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t only one rock, but a whole semi-circle of stones like a small stone patio.

Don turned, surprised to find the small stone circle here. The fallen tree and its roots were gone. Not only that but the trees had changed. The trees growing from this slope were beyond massive. Each one thrust up to the skies above as if they were the very pillars upon which the sky rested. Where there had been roots and a cut through the hillside was now a path paved in cobblestones with two stone fences along each side. The path traced a line off down the slope to his left before disappearing from view.

Either he’d lost time and been taken someplace else with trees that dwarfed the redwoods in California, or he had moved from Mt. Rainier to somewhere else in the time it took to take a step. Both sounded equally impossible, but these trees were unmatched in his experience.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” he said aloud.

He laughed, but it wasn’t that funny. He’d read about such things. Oz, Narnia, and others, but it was one thing to read about it in a children’s story. For it to happen in real life?

“Hello,” said a soft voice behind him.

Don spun around. The woman he’d seen before, with the long white hair and the silvery tunic, stood just down the slope from the stone circle.

“Hi,” he said, and remembering that she had been screaming. “Are you okay?”

She bit her lip and nodded. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have been able to follow me here.”

Don spread his hands. “Where are we? And why didn’t you say something before?”

She twisted her hands together. “I did say something, you just couldn’t understand me.”

“Then why can I understand you now?”

“Now, this place, it makes it so that we can understand each other.”

Don wasn’t sure what she meant but he pressed on. “What is this place?”

“An olden place.” She pointed to the path behind him. “This once led to a trow keep, a place of learning. I came here to study the path, to try and find a way to shut the connections between the goblin city and your cities.”

Don shook his head. “This is a lot to take in. Why were you screaming?”

She ducked her head and shrugged. “I was set upon by a woodwose and fled. I didn’t even realize I’d crossed over at first. It’s never worked before.”

“What’s a woodwose?”

She gestured at him. “A human, like yourself, but one one of the wild ones that lives in the wilderness. They can be dangerous.”

Don looked around at the surrounding forest. Wild men in the forest? “I’m Don, Don Hyland. You are?”

“Na’pi.” A smile touched her thin lips. “You aren’t what I would have expected from a man of your world.”

“You’re exactly as I imagined someone from your world,” Don said.

“You know of our world?” She stepped forward. “How? Do many?”

Don laughed. “I was joking. I had no idea that anything like this existed outside of children’s stories.” He looked again at the trees, ten feet across and more thrusting up to the sky. So high up that their tops looked fuzzy. “I wish I had my paints.”

“Paints?”

Don pulled out the water brush and noticed it had made a wet circle on that pocket. He held it up. “I’m an artist, watercolors, mostly. I left my kit back there when I ran up the hill. I only have this.”

Na’pi took a small step forward and held out her hand. “May I see it?”

Don closed the distance between them and handed her the brush. Her fingers grazed his as she took it. Even with the odd eyes, she was beautiful. It was all just so strange.

Na’pi turned the water brush in her hands, shook it and poked at the plastic. “What is this made of?”

“Plastic, I guess.”

She brushed it on the back of her hand, leaving a trail of wetness. She looked up at him, eyebrows raising.

“It’s only water. I use pencils, with pigment? Then the brush dissolves the pigments to spread them on the paper.”

Na’pi handed it back to him. “Remarkable.”

Don pocketed the brush. “This is all a bit much. I have to ask, how do I get home? You said something about a connection?”

Na’pi shook her head. “I don’t know. The stories suggest that this path was one of the first to connect to your world, but I haven’t learned much. I didn’t even know that the connection still existed at all.”

The path behind Don was quiet, peaceful even. The place had a feeling of age about it, like really old. It was the trees that did it. To be so big they had to be many centuries old. So old and big that they were like part of the mountain itself.

Don looked back at the path. “If I just walk down the path, will it take me home?”

“I don’t know,” Na’pi said. “I’ve walked the path many times without finding the connection.”

“But it was there this time, when you ran from the wild man?”

Na’pi walked up beside him. Don noticed a minty scent from her, over the dusty pine smell of the forest. She touched her shoulder. “We should go back to my camp. It might not be safe to stay here, in case the woodwose returns.”

“Let’s try the path first,” Don said. “If it works, I’ll be back home and you can go on with whatever you need to do.”

“If you must do this, be quick. I’ll wait.”

The stones that made up the path were worn, almost flat from the passing of many feet but the spaces between were filled with dried fir needles. Looking at it again, it looked old, with plants growing up alongside, and even on the path.

It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine Na’pi out here clearing out the path, opening it up for study. It might have been better to leave it covered. But what had she said about a goblin city? Did he even want to know?

Don followed the path as it curved down the slope and vanished around the undergrowth. As he got closer there was more and more debris on the path until the stones were completely covered and the plants hung over the short walls.

He stopped, frustrated. It hadn’t taken him back. A chill curled up in his gut. What if he couldn’t get back?

Don turned back on the path. If there was a connection that would get him him home it wasn’t there now. His best home lay with Na’pi, maybe she could find some other way of getting him home. What had she said? She wanted to learn to close the connections. Maybe he couldn’t go home this way, but there might be other options.

Na’pi stood waiting for him at the end of the path and seeing her his shoulders relaxed from tensions that he hadn’t even been aware he was feeling. If she left him he might not have any other way home.

A man stepped out from behind a tree behind Na’pi. Then two more came around the other side. All of the men were lean, with clearly defined muscles. They didn’t wear much, only ratty skins tied around their waists. All had bushy beards and unkempt hair. Their attention was entirely on Na’pi.

Don opened his mouth to shout a warning when Na’pi turned toward the men as if she’d heard something, or sensed something.

The men responded instantly, howling and sprinting forward, grinning like mad men.

Na’pi screamed.

In his mind Don sprang forward to save the beautiful young woman, but his feet refused to move. Other than a few school-yard scuffles he hadn’t ever been in a fight, didn’t know the first thing really about fighting.

Na’pi bolted down the path in Don’s direction. That moved Don into action. He sprinted forward to meet her. As they came together he pushed her behind him and faced the three charging men.

“Stop! Stop right now!”

The men didn’t stop. They kept coming and the distance between him and the men shrank quickly. The one in the middle was closest. He had startling blue eyes, like deep pools but Don didn’t see anything in them. Like deep ice. Beneath the dirt and the beard and the hair, the man was probably half Don’s age, and didn’t have any fat on him. Nothing but corded muscle, arms as big around as Don’s legs.

Don spun around and grabbed Na’pi’s arm. “Run!”

Together they bolted down the path away from the men. Don had little hope of escaping their pursuers, but it was the only thing he had.

Na’pi stayed with him, clinging to his arm. Don’s stomach lurched and he felt dizzy. His next step came down hard on flat bricks as light blinded him. Don raised his arm against the light and saw a brick building towering four stories above him.

Twisting around he saw another building, this one six stories, of dark brick on the other side. Don looked back, expecting to see the men behind them, but instead there was a brick-paved alley between the two brick buildings. Lines criss-crossed the alley, hanging with laundry. A woman leaned out the window, fat, with lank blond hair. She tugged on the line and pulled off a wide shirt. As she did her head turned and Don saw that she had two yellowed tusks protruding between fat lips. Her skin was pink, not a normal pinkish color, but pink like a pink rose, darker near her cheeks. Her nose was up-turned slightly at the end and pointing. She saw him looking and her lips drew back revealing more fang.

Na’pi tugged on his arm. “We’ve gone through.”

He looked at her odd white eyes. “Okay, I see that. To where? Another world?”

Na’pi shook her head. “No, it brought us to Goblinus, to the goblin city.”

“I thought the path was supposed to take me home?”

“Ordinarily, it would. Usually the connection only flows from one world to the other. The alleys don’t connect to one another within the same world, but according to stories the path is where it all started. Now that it’s open, it may connect to anywhere.”

Don looked up and down the alley. At the far end was obviously a busy street, with people going past. Only they didn’t all look like people that he was used to. For one thing, they came in more colors. He saw a couple walking past that were dandelion yellow and short. A man passing the other way was tall, broad and granite gray.

“These people, they aren’t human?”

Na’pi shook her head. “Goblins, this is the goblin city. You’ll find mostly goblins, but also humans and others.”

“Not to be indelicate, but what are you? You don’t look entirely human, but not like them either.”

“I’m trow,” Na’pi answered. She tugged on his arm. “We should go. The Navigator’s guild watches the activity on the alleys. They will send the Royal Guard to investigate our use of the alley.”

Don followed her down the alley. The day was already so incredible, how stranger could it get? And besides, he’d be lost without her. She knew this world. He still needed her help to get home. That hadn’t changed.

Although Don tensed as they moved out into the bustling throng in the street, no one paid any attention. They fell into the crowd, turning right and headed down the brick road — an actual brick road! — which dropped away before them. All around the street buildings rose up, a massive city that stretched away as far as he could see. Buildings piling upon buildings, rising higher against the crystal clear sky.

Store fronts lined the street and spilled out their wares into the crowd. Signs and banners flapped in the cool, spicy breeze blowing between the buildings. The unfamiliar smells made Don’s mouth watered. Up ahead he could see a cafe, tables and chairs gathered around the front. Goblins sat and ate and drank, and a few humans too.

They’d gone nearly a block before he realized what was missing. Cars. He saw people on bicycles, and a few pedicabs pulled by shirtless, muscled goblins, but no cars. Just the crowd of people. The goblins looked a bit odd at first glance, like the time he had found himself in the midst of a costume parade, but otherwise nothing strange.

“Watch out.” Na’pi tugged on his arm.

Don looked where he was going and saw the curved green pole of a lamp post that he’d nearly walked into. He started to laugh but then he looked up and saw at least a dozen tiny faces looking down at him from the glass bulb on top of the post.

He stopped moving, resisting Na’pi’s pull. On top of the post was a big round glass ball. Within it were more than a dozen tiny, winged people. Naked, but each looked exquisite and perfect. Faeries. They couldn’t be anything else. There were faeries imprisoned in the lamp. For each that was looking sadly at him, another lay languishing against the bottom of the lamp.

“Don! We mustn’t draw attention to ourselves.”

Don glanced at Na’pi, and in the process noticed that he was attracting looks from those passing.

It felt terrible to simply walk away, but Don did, letting Na’pi lead him by hand away from the lamp post. But there was just another one coming up after the first and more down the street. Since the street dropped way down hill he could see the posts dotting the street on both sides on down the hill into the city.

And in each of the lamps were fairies slumped against the glass.

As they passed under the next lamp post a fairy beat on the glass with his tiny hands, his mouth opening soundlessly. It looked like he was screaming, but no sound escaped the glass.

“Don!”

Don looked at Na’pi. She took his hand and led him around a fruit stall into the opening of an alley.

“You’re attracting their attention, and that’s drawing attention to us. We can’t afford to be noticed.”

Don glanced at the crowd walking past and moved closer to Na’pi, lowering his voice. “Why? What happens if they notice us? Why are those fairies in the lamps? They are fairies, right?”

“Yes,” Na’pi said. “It’s all more complicated than you realize.”

“Faeries,” Don said. “I mean the rest of this is incredible, but —”

“They’re prisoners of the Goblin King. It isn’t safe to notice them.”

“But that’s wrong!” Na’pi winced at his shout. Don took a breath and spoke softer. “How complicated can it be? You don’t stick people in glass balls. That’s not complicated.”

“This situation is complicated, and you’re not making it easier. I feel obligated to help you get home, but I can’t do that if you don’t listen to me.”

“So you’re not part of this?” Don waved his hands in the air. “This city? You don’t live here?”

“No. I serve another, and I can’t talk about it right now. Let’s try and get you home. It’s my fault you’re here.”

3

They walked then for a time without saying anything. Don found himself itching for his sketchbook, so he could just sit and sketch this city.

It was unlike the car-filled cities back home. This was a place bustling with bodies rather than combustion engines. Rich scents floated in the air from cooking food. There was a new establishment every few store fronts. Farmers sold fresh produce and even slaughtered animals from carts. The street had the feel of a fair or farmers market.

Except that the goblins, in the whole range of colors, were the most common people on the street. Still, they acted like people anywhere. Talking, bartering, and walking in a hurry. They wore all sorts of clothing, much of it recognizable. Suits were popular for women and men and made the odd skin colors and tusks all the more unusual. T-shirts and jeans were equally common as well as wrap-around robes. He even saw a group of tough-looking lemon-skinned goblins wearing black leather. Their short-stature and color combination suggested biker bees and Don had to cover a laugh with his hand.

Despite the lack of cars, technology certainly wasn’t lacking. Don saw plenty of people, human and goblin both, checking cell phones or reading on iPads and similar devices. Plenty of customers at the outdoor tables had laptops. They even walked past a male trow in a dark suit working with several holographic screens at one table.

Not a technologically backwards world.

Na’pi never slowed her pace. If anything she walked faster, her eyes darting from side-to-side as she obviously searched for something.

Don touched her arm to get her attention. “What are you looking for?”

She didn’t stop. “We’re being followed. We need to get away from here. I’m trying to find a connection to get you home!”

“Followed?”

“Don’t look!”

Abruptly Na’pi turned down a side street, not quite as busy as the one they’d left, but still with plenty of people, just fewer store fronts. Her delicate forehead creased.

“Can you run?”

Don nodded.

“Then come on!”

Na’pi took off running, her lithe form slipping around a cyclist coming up the road.

Don chased after her. In a few seconds he caught up and matched her pace. For now. Despite all the hiking he did, he wasn’t sure how long he could keep it up. He wasn’t a runner.

They’d gone two blocks before Don caught his first glimpse of their pursuers. Three goblins dressed in black uniforms ran around the corner a block ahead, onto this street. The crowd parted before them like sheep before a wolf.

“This way!” Na’pi grabbed his arm and pulled dim around.

They plunged into a narrow alley between two low buildings. It was empty, marked only by a dry drainage channel down the middle of the passage. Litter and dirt clogged the spaces between the bricks and piled against the walls.

Don tensed, expecting every step to care him someplace else but that didn’t happen. They ran down the alley and came out the other side without going anywhere.

Even then Na’pi didn’t slow. She ran straight across and into the next alley, not so different than the last except the building on the left was four stories tall and concrete instead of brick.

As they ran down the alley a scarlet swirl of graffiti on the wall suddenly moved, taking on the form an an emaciated person clinging lizard-like to the wall. The creature snarled, showing teeth like broken shards of brown glass.

Na’pi grabbed his arm.

In the next step a cool rain-mist sprinkled Don’s face. The alley wasn’t brick anymore, but cracked asphalt, and a dented and rusted green dumpster appeared just ahead. Don stopped running, gasping for air.

Na’pi had also stopped and came back. She stood near him and crossed her arms.

“Where are we?” Don asked, when could manage it.

Na’pi shook her head. She spoke in that fluid, bird-like language that she had used when they first met.

The implication sank in. They weren’t in her world anymore, he couldn’t understand her. He smiled at her and held up his hand as he looked around. It was late evening by the look of the light. The alley could have been anywhere. Power lines ran along it above. And at the far end Don heard and saw cars driving past.

“Come on,” he said, beckoning. “Let’s find out.”

Na’pi hesitated, but she followed him. As they left the alley Don saw a Subway sandwich shop across the street, which was a wide four-lane road. Turning left the street dipped down a hill and he could see the spill of the city. One building in particular was very recognizable.

It rose up with slender, sweeping grace, topped with a fat saucer. The Space Needle. Don laughed. “We’re in Seattle!”

Na’pi said something else. Her voice and words were beautiful, but he didn’t understand any of it. Still, it seemed clear from the way she pulled back that she wanted to go.

He carefully took her hands and pressed them together in his. He smiled at her.

“You might not understand this, but thank you. I can get home from here. But what about you? Do you want to come with me?” Don pulled her hands closer to his chest. Then he pointed at the alley. “Or go back into the alley?”

Na’pi bent and her lips brushed his fingers where he held her hand. Then she stepped back, slipping from his grasp. She spoke again, musically, and gestured at the alley.

She was leaving.

Don touched his chest and gestured at the alley.

Na’pi shook her head and gave him a small smile. One step, two, and she raised her hand in parting.

It was hard not to follow, but he stayed standing in the alley mouth as she sprinted away. One second she was there, then she faded just for an instant, and was gone.

Don reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone to call a cab. He’d go home, but he needed to go back up to Mt. Rainier to get his plein air kit, assuming it was turned in to the rangers. Could he find that cut in the hillside again? Did he dare?

In his head he saw images of another world, one he hadn’t imagined. Na’pi had left a lot unsaid about what was going on between her people and the goblins. It might not be something that he wanted to get involved in, even if he decided he wanted to go back.

The phone was ringing in his ear. Don walked down to the awning above a nearby camera shop to take the call, leaving the empty alley behind. For now, at least.

5,024 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 24th weekly short story release. I wrote this almost exactly three years ago, in anticipation of writing Trow Forge, the third Goblin Alley novel. It was included, with a few changes, in that book. It introduced a new major character into the story.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book 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 week for another story. Next up is a science fiction story with a very special kid, Oswald Hamilton, Invader.