Under the Bridge

Cover art for Under the Bridge

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

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

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

A standalone story in the Goblin Alley universe.

🍎

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

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

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

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

Better to move on out from under the bridge anyway.

Someone sniffled.

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

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

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

“Hey, Kid?”

The little kid squirmed backward further under the bridge.

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

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

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

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

Rocks rattled behind him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devon patted his belly for emphasis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He took a step away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devon beckoned. “Come on. Let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devon pointed at the ground. “Sit.”

“Shit?”

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

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

The kid closed his mouth and didn’t move.

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

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

“Great!” Devon stood back up.

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

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

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

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

He pantomimed eating.

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

“Wat. Wat. Bak.”

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

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

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

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

Perfect.

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

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

“It’ll help, thank you,” Devon said.

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

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

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

“Bak?”

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

“Wat,” the kid said, slumping.

“Yeah. Hang in there.”

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

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

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

“Shit wat?”

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

“Ut?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lary?”

“Lie bare ee,” Devon said.

“Liberery?”

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

“Liberery.”

“Yes, great. We’ll go there.”

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

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

“Wat ut?”

“Right. Wait to eat.”

The kid made a grunting noise and kept walking.

🍎

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

“Hey, wait!”

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

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

“What is it?”

“Gob bak! Gob bak un wan!”

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

“No liberery, gob bak un wan!”

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

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

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

He might even be dangerous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The what?”

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

“You need to go back!”

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

“Go where?”

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

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

“Come on!”

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

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

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

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

“Lost them, I think.”

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

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

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

“Goblinus.”

“What’s that?”

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

Devon shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are they?”

“Trow,” the kid said.

“Troll?”

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

“Who’s that?”

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

The kid stepped out of the doorway.

“Wait,” Devon said.

The kid looked up at him from the purple coat.

“What’s your name?”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“Devon.”

Neville nodded. “Okay! Let’s go.”

🍎

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

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

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

“Are there subways?”

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

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

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

“Come on,” Neville said.

Devon pointed. “But there —”

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

“I don’t—”

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

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

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

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

Neville’s pace slowed.

“What was that back there?” Devon said.

“What?”

“In those lamps. Where those fairies?”

“Sure. Nasty fairies, so what?”

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

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

“No, what do you mean?”

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

“What do they look like then?”

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

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

“Yeah. Bloodsuckers.”

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

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

🍎

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

The woman’s face beamed when she saw Neville.

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

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

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

Mancher sniffed at Devon. “Othersider?”

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

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

“What’re you doing around geists?”

“There was a shopkeeper, and —”

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

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

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

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

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

“No, Devon gave it to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right.”

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

🍎

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

“Boar riders. Don’t make a sound.”

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

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

“Follow close. Don’t make noise.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Devon whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🍎

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

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

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

“Back to the Otherside,” Mancher said.

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

“What?”

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

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

“So I can end up anywhere?”

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

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

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

“Yeah, you too.”

“Go!” Mancher said.

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

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

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

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

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

Roma. Napoli-Caserta. Duomo.

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

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

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

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

🍎

6,148WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

The Idea Man

Cover art for the Idea Man

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

🚀

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

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

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

“Sir, it is a pleasure to meet you.”

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

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

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

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

The writer squinted at him. “Future?”

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

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

“That’d be fine, sir.”

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

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

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

The writer stared.

“Sir, this opportunity —”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m an idea man, not a writer!”

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

🚀

908 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

The Overlap

Cover art for the Overlap

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

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

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

💀

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

Didn’t artists suffer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No sense delaying.

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

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

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

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

That had to be the place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the hell did she know his name?

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

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

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

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

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

His mind was numb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice meeting you, Mark!.”

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

He took another step before she called out.

“Mark?”

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

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

“Sure, okay,” he said, to get away.

“Bye!”

Mark looked down. She was gone.

“Bye,” he said.

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

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

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

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

💀

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

“Ya?”

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

Heinrich’s single eye drilled into him.

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

“No,” Heinrich said.

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

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

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

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

“All keys same,” Heinrich said.

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

“Anything stolen?” Heinrich asked.

“No, but —”

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

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

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

The door was closing again.

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

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

Mark stepped back.

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

And chain the door at night.

💀

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

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

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

If he could paint.

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

She was between him and the stairs.

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

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

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

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

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

She waited, expectant.

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

She giggled. “I looked, silly.”

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

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

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

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

“My mother,” he said automatically.

“Are you going to open it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark jerked back.

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

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

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

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

💀

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

💀

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

Or look into a bus ticket home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Done well, that might get notice.

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

💀

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

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

“Yes?” The woman asked.

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

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

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

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

Her mother moved off back into the apartment.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, nice to meet you all.”

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

“I don’t want to impose —”

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

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

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

Faye chuckled from the kitchen.

“Come on!” Kiera tugged at his hand.

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

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

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

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

“Your world?”

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

“I didn’t know. It sounded odd.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Father!”

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

💀

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

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

He practically flew up the stairs.

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

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

Kiera clapped her hands. “I’m glad!”

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

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

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

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

💀

5,173 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

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.

Truth-Seeker

Regi finds the busy world outside his Airstream trailer too full of misery and pain to tolerate. He leaves it all behind for the quiet of his land, the company of his dogs, and the freedom from the thoughts and dreams of others. His magic shows him the truth of things – no matter how dark the truth revealed.

Cali Spencer knows his power might save the life of a child and interrupts his peace. How can he deny her?

💀

The dogs barked, waking Regi from his fitful sleep. The hammock swung beneath him as he rolled on out to land on the cold floor with his bare feet. A big man, Regi filled the small Airstream trailer. Filled it to the bursting point just standing in the small center space. He wore only his blue shorts which left the rest of his well-defined body exposed. He went to the door and had to bend over so he didn’t hit his shaved head on the top of the opening.

On stepping out into the clearing he felt a prickle on the air. Another mind, several of them, at a distance yet back in the trees. The dogs barking had made them nervous. Regi rubbed the space between his eyes and hoped that he could keep a headache at bay.

Quiet. He didn’t say it aloud but the two dogs standing in front of the Airstream, Genghis and Khan, two big brindle mastiffs, calmed to an alert poise. Regi rubbed his eyes. A few clouds hung above Mt. Rainier, stained red by the sunset. Whoever was out there he wanted them gone.

“Hello?” Regi called. “You’re trespassing. Best you get back on the road.”

When had that ever worked? This time wasn’t going to be the exception. They came on foot, three of them. The boulders he’d put out at the end of the drive had at least stopped cars from getting any closer. The man and woman he didn’t recognize. White, well-dressed for the city but not dressed to be out in the woods and mud. He recognized the third member of the group. Officer Cali Spencer, the perpetual thorn in his side. She might be small but she was tenacious.

Spencer hooked her thumbs in her belt and assumed a wide-legged stance. Her wide mouth opened in a broad smile. “Regi, how’s it going man? You’re looking good.”

“Better before you showed up. I was sleeping. Peacefully.”

“Sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep but I need your help.” She turned her head slightly towards the couple standing nervously behind her. Genghis and Khan eyed them. Khan licked his lips.

Lie down. Both dogs stretched out on the ground. Khan, always willing to push his luck yawned widely to reveal his big teeth. When Regi looked at him Khan gave him an innocent who-me-look.

“I don’t dream anymore.” Regi looked at the couple, out of place white folks trusting this cop enough to bring them out in the middle of the woods to face a big giant of a man wearing nothing but blue shorts and his scars. Between the scars, his muscles and the two equally muscled dogs it was a wonder that they hadn’t already taken flight. He didn’t like that his size intimidated people but he couldn’t do anything about their reactions. In case Spencer hadn’t heard him he repeated himself. “I’m serious. I don’t dream anymore.”

“I heard you.” Spencer’s smile widened. “And you know what Regi? I don’t give a fuck. You’re going to do your magic thing that you do for these people. You’ll change your mind. You know it. I know it. So let’s stop doing this pissing contest and talk like civilized people. You can make us some coffee.”

Only her. He flushed. Anyone else and he’d have gotten pissed off but she made him weak. He hated that about her. Or he loved it. He never could decide. Both were true.

“You push your luck.”

She shook her head. “No I don’t. Come on, that’s a good boy.”

Regi growled. He turned back towards the Airstream. “Give me a few minutes.”

He resisted the urge to slam the Airstream’s door when he went back inside. He grabbed a clean white t-shirt from the bins beneath his hammock. In a standard Airstream they had a bed there but he didn’t fit the bed. A hammock hung diagonally fit him better and was more comfortable. He’d converted the space beneath into additional storage. He pulled on the shirt. Then he went to the small kitchen and put on hot water.

A knock at the door.

Spencer. He leaned on the counter, took a breath, then turned and leaned over to open the door. Spencer looked up at him. “Need a hand?”

“I can manage.”

“Let me in, I’ll help.”

Regi growled and drew back. Spencer bounced up the steps into the Airstream. She shut the door behind her. He caught a glimpse of the couple talking in hushed whispers while shooting glances at the Airstream and the dogs.

“Do you have mugs?”

Regi pointed to the cupboard. Spencer opened it and took down three of his four plain white mugs. In the small space he couldn’t help but be standing close to her. The only way to get further away would be to climb into the hammock and that wasn’t the message he wanted to send. He could smell the clean soap and gun-oil smell of her. He took his can of instant coffee out of the cupboard. No reaction from Spencer. Her thoughts felt carefully ordered. She didn’t let anything slip.

“A child is at stake, Regi. That’s why I came. Their child has gone missing.”

“They aren’t suspects?”

“No. Not so far as we can tell. It sounds like a genuine abduction. We need to find this child. I need your magic.”

How could he argue against helping a child? He couldn’t. Except she didn’t know what she asked of him. She saw results. Helping people. Her big heart for everyone else blinded her to things she couldn’t understand.

“Of course,” he conceded. He peeled off the top of the coffee can. “It isn’t as easy as you might think and there are risks.”

“I know you’re up to any risk.”

“Me, maybe. But what of the child? There are two ways this is going to work and they both might fail. Or we might be too late.”

Spencer shook her head. “I won’t believe that. We’re going to get this child back.”

The kettle whistled. Regi moved it off the burner started spooning coffee into the three mugs on the counter. He poured in the hot water and stirred. Spencer watched. After he finished she picked up one and headed for the door. He took the other two and followed. She opened the door for him and they descended back out into the darkening evening. As soon as he approached the couple they tensed. He held out the mugs.

“Here, be careful. They’re hot.”

The offer overcame their hesitation and they both took the mugs. Spencer gestured at Regi. “This is Regi Banks, the man I told you about. Regi, Michael Smith and his wife Ann.”

Regi nodded. He didn’t have any furniture out here in front of the trailer. Nothing but the overgrown road that led to this clearing. The rest he let go to wildflowers. There was no way all of them could fit comfortably into the Airstream.

Michael spoke up first. His mind flared with suspicious and fear that mingled around him. A flash of distrust burned through his aura. The sight of it nauseated Regi. He took a deep steadying breath and looked past the man and the soothing colors of the sunset.

“You don’t look how I expected a wizard to look.” Michael laughed, as if to suggest it was a joke.

Regi still couldn’t look at the man. He looked at Ann when he answered. Her aura flickered with soothing traces of hopefulness amid the sadness. He wanted to fan her hope. “Wizard, sorcerer, magician, psychic, all of these words fail to describe who I am. I’m not a Gandalf of any color. I don’t have any spell books. I can’t mutter some sort of incantation that will teleport your daughter here.”

“Then what good are you!” Michael ran his hands through his hair. He looked at his wife then leveled a finger at Spencer. “Why’d you bring us out here?”

“Cool it.” Spencer approached Michael. She didn’t lay her hands on him but she looked him squarely in the eyes. “Cool it now. Regi’s a friend of mine and what he can do is miraculous and it costs him more than you can imagine. So just cool it. Oh, and for the record, I didn’t tell Regi that your child was a daughter.”

That caught Michael’s attention. His protests died on his lips. He looked at her, at Regi and then over at Ann. He took his wife’s hand. A tiny bit of hope from her aura spilled into his, dousing the distrust somewhat. It made it easier for Regi to look at the man.

“I’m sorry your daughter has been taken. I may be able to help you find the truth of what has happened, but the truth isn’t always comfortable. It isn’t always easy. I find the truth of things. That’s the magic I possess.”

“Truth.” Ann’s voice was hardly more than a whisper.

“Just the truth.” Regi looked out at the sunset. He looked back at the couple. He didn’t want them here with their minds and auras demanding his attention. Spencer’s on the other hand, she felt soothing. Comforting. He didn’t pay too much attention. He didn’t want to pry but she helped him. Like the dogs helped him, but in a different way. “I can’t do this by myself. I serve as a guide of sorts. A protector. ”

“What do we have to do?”

Regi spread his hands and looked up at the darkening sky. “We need to sleep and I will help you discover the truth of what happened to your daughter.”

Suspicion flared up again in Michael’s aura, mixed with distrust. “Sleep? Out here? How is any of this going to help?”

Ann spoke before either Regi or Spencer could say anything. She touched her husband’s arm. “We are going to try this.”

“I brought the camping gear.” Spencer jabbed her finger back at the path. “It’s in the truck. I’ll bring it up.”

“I’ll help you,” Regi said.

They walked through the tall grasses with Spencer in the lead. Genghis and Khan ranged around them through the grass, their minds filled with curiosity and wonder at everything they smelled. It made Regi smile. Of course that’s the moment Spencer looked back at him.

“What are you smiling about?”

The smile vanished. “Nothing.”

“You were smiling.”

Regi shrugged. Spencer shook her head and kept walking. She was aware of him behind her. He shifted his attention to avoid prying deeper. The light was failing fast but there were enough stars and moonlight to light the clearing. As they went beneath the trees even that light disappeared and the darkness enveloped them.

“Just a sec.” He heard Spencer pulling her flashlight free from her belt and waited. She clicked it on. “There. That’s better.”

Regi stayed silent. He didn’t mind the dark and he knew the path well. It’d be little issue to walk in but he let her have her light. Khan ran past them with Genghis hot on his heels. Beneath the trees the road wasn’t as overgrown yet and there was more room to spread out. He moved up next to Spencer.

“How is your family?” he asked, politely. Spencer’s two boys must be getting taller than her now. They took after their father who had died in the line of duty overseas.

“The boys are good. They’d love to come out here and camp. Maybe do some fishing.”

It sounded nice. Regi pictured relaxing with Spencer and the boys. Just enjoying their company. Too bad that was just a fantasy. They’d tried it once. His head hurt for two days afterwards.

“Maybe some time.”

“I know that tone. You’re just trying to be polite. Forget I mentioned it Regi.”

He touched her arm, only for a second. Her face turned up to him. “I don’t want to forget. I’m not good around people. It is difficult enough with one. Several people, that’s hard.”

“So you’re going to live your life as a hermit?”

“It’s worked for others.”

Spencer shook her head and walked away.

At the end of the drive several big rocks blocked the drive. Past that was Spencer’s black SUV. She unlocked the back and started pulling out the camping gear without saying another word. He didn’t need her to say anything. Not with the disappointment and tension tinting her normally calming aura. He picked up the tents and a couple sleeping bags, tucking the bags first beneath his arms and then holding onto the tent bags. Spencer picked up the rest of the gear and the last sleeping bag.

The silence lasted all the way back to the clearing. Genghis and Khan showed up from their romp just as they reached the grass and raced ahead. Even across the clearing Regi keenly felt the Smiths’ emotions. He walked into it anyway. For their child’s sake.

Crickets sang in the field while he worked on setting up the tents. The dogs lay down in their usual places in front of the Airstream. He erected both tents close to the trailer.

“What do we do?” Ann asked.

“Sleep,” Regi said. “Just go to sleep.”

“You’re not going to chant or dance around a fire?” Michael asked, his tone sarcastic. “No smoking peace pipes?”

“That’s not how my magic works, but if it makes you feel better be my guest. Try not to set the whole place on fire. I’ll be going to bed now. The sooner you do, the better.” Regi looked at Spencer. “Good night Cali.”

She met his gaze and he saw the tension drain from her aura. She smiled. “Good night.”

He went back into the Airstream, ignoring Michael’s angry whispered argument with his wife. Michael obviously didn’t like feeling out of control. The dogs got up and followed him into the Airstream. They waited for him to climb into the hammock and then spread out on the floor. Between the two of them they took up about all the space. He lay back on the hammock, reached over and flipped the light off. Outside he could feel the minds of his guests slowly settling down. Like it or not Michael must realize he wasn’t going to change anything tonight.

Regi closed his eyes. He breathed deep. He claimed none of the labels applied to him but there was one that fit. Magic. It had always been part of him. He’d known things about people. The truth of who they were. Over time it became harder and harder to bear. He isolated himself as much as possible but still they came.

He felt the magic grow. It flowed out along his limbs, crawling over the hammock beneath him. The hammock didn’t change. The Airstream remained. Even so Regi felt like he had moved to another place. He blinked and sat up in the hammock with that sense of dislocation persisting. He swung his legs down towards the floor.

Genghis glowed with a rich amber light. Khan glowed with more of a healthy greenish light, like that from Spring plants. Their light illuminated the Airstream and caused shadows to dance and twist. Regi looked at the world with new eyes as he stood up. Parts of the Airstream looked covered in patches of some sort of scaly white scabs. It was a kind of other-worldly fungus that grew in spots where metal was fatigued. He scrapped it off sometimes but it always grew back.

The dogs panted happily at him. Khan sat up. “Going out, are you?”

Genghis rolled over. “Can we come?”

“Of course.” Regi opened the door and the dogs ran on ahead. He stepped down into the cool night air into a field transformed.

Fairies lit the grasses like stars from above. They floated around just above the tops of the waving grass. Dozens clustered on the tents canvas, licking off the dew. Up close Regi could see through their lights to their chitinous bodies that gleamed with a rainbow of colors. Realizing they’d been seen the fairies took off in a buzzing cloud. The dogs ran around the tents snorting the fairy dust.

“Stop that,” Regi told them. “It’s a disgusting habit.”

“You should try it, Man.” Khan flopped over and rolled in the dust. “Nothing like it.”

Genghis sneezed.

“Don’t wake them,” Regi warned.

He walked over to the Smith’s tent. At his gesture the zipper parted silently. Both Michael and Ann lay sleeping in separate bags. Ann lay on her back with her mouth open and a soft snore. Michael had curled into a tight ball within his bag so that only the top of his head stuck out.

Regi stuck out both hands and made a grabbing motion. He yanked back. Michael and Ann both stumbled up onto their feet, tripping on the sleeping bags. They had to duck to avoid the low tent ceiling. Both were dressed in pajamas, Michael’s stripped and Ann wearing blue pajamas decorated with clouds.

“Come on,” Regi told them.

Confusion and fright flared in their auras but they followed. His command compelled them out of the tent into the clearing. He left them gapping at the transformation of the clearing and went to Cali’s tent. The zipper parted at his gesture. She looked completely relaxed, twisted on her side. She still wore her uniform and gear. She knew what asking for his help meant.

With her his gestures took on a gentler movement as if he was reaching out to pick up a baby. That’s all it took. She sat up and crawled out of her tent. He enjoyed watching her grin grow when she saw the fairies dancing above the grass.

“It’s so beautiful! I didn’t know if they’d be here this time. Are they always here?”

“Not always.” Regi turned to the Smiths. “Are you ready to find out the truth?”

“Of course not,” Genghis said.

“Humans are never ready for the truth,” Khan observed.

Michael stared at the dogs. His mouth fell open but nothing came out. Regi walked over to the couple and place his hands on their shoulders. “Ignore the dogs. Pay attention to me.”

Michael’s head snapped up and he looked at Regi with real fright. Ann’s brow wrinkled. Tears filled the corners of her eyes.

Regi gestured for Spencer. “Join hands.”

“This should be fun,” Khan said.

Shush. Go play!

The dogs looked at one another, tongues lolling out of their mouths and then they took off across the clearing. Fairies scattered out of their path like leaves on the wind.

Spencer joined them and took Michael’s hand on one side and Regi’s on the other. Regi held his free hand out to Ann. Unlike Spencer’s warm, confident strength her hand felt soft and limp in his. She took Michael’s other hand. Regi looked across the space between him and Michael and locked eyes with the other man.

“Don’t let go. We’re going to go back now, back to the moment when your daughter was taken. We will discover the truth. Just remember not to let go. Understand?”

Michael nodded. Ann’s jaw trembled but she nodded sharply. Spencer squeezed Regi’s hand.

“Okay. Here we go.” Regi reached out for the slipstream of time. He found it and locked onto it.

It felt like a rope pulling at his insides. He didn’t resist but he held onto his charges. The clearing vanished in a blur. A riot of color that lasted only a second before everything snapped into focus. Somewhere, some when else.

A suburban ranch house, nothing fancy. Blue with white trim. The lawn needed to be mowed. A beachball and a small child’s wading pool sat at the center of the yard. A tiny delicate-looking girl with black ringlets stood in the driveway, in front of a closed garage door. She wore a bright yellow dress. She swung her arms and sang to herself in a high voice.

“Marrry had a litttle lambb!” Over and over, she repeated those words.

Beside him Ann sobbed. It seemed they stood not four feet away. Regi could feel the warm sun on his skin. Spencer had turned her head away to look past Regi.

“Look,” she said.

Regi turned his head. A navy blue van with no back windows drove slowly down the street. TER883 on the license plate. A white man in sunglasses and a black baseball cap sat behind the wheel. The van slowed even more as it came up to the driveway. It sat for a second and Regi could feel the man’s eyes on the girl.

Leaving the van running the man opened his door. He got out and went around the van to the back and opened the doors. Then he reappeared holding a fluffy stuffed lamb.

“Hey there,” he called out.

When Mary turned he held out the lamb. “Is this yours? I found it.”

“Mary! No!” Ann cried.

Neither the girl or the man heard her. Regi squeezed her hand. “Don’t let go. We can see what happened. That’s all.”

His head throbbed and his chest hurt. Soon it would be hard to breathe. The pull on his midsection was growing more intense. He couldn’t keep them here long.

Mary walked closer to the man. “You found her?”

“That’s right. And then I was going past and heard you singing. I thought she might be yours.” He straightened up and let his arm drop to his side. He shrugged. “I guess not.”

He turned as if to leave.

Mary ran right up to him and tugged on his sleeve. “She is mine!”

He looked down at the girl and stepped away. Back towards the rear of the van. He shook his head. “I think you’re just saying that because you want her now. You didn’t lose her, did you?”

Mary bit her lip. She walked up closer to the man. Regi could hardly hear here answer. “No. But can I have her?”

“Sure.” The man tossed the lamb into the back of the van. While Mary stared in shock at the back of the van he reached down, covered her mouth and carried her up into the back of the van. A second later the doors closed.

Regi couldn’t hold on much longer. He looked at Spencer. “Enough?”

Spencer nodded. “Yeah, I think I’ve got enough to ID him.”

“Mary!” Michael cried out. The van had started moving.

Regi let go. Everything blurred for a second and then went black. He woke up instantly and sat up in the hammock. The dogs lifted their heads and he could feel their disappointment that the adventure hadn’t lasted longer. Regi got down and eased between them to the Airstream door. As soon as it opened he heard Ann crying. His headache threatened to blind him but he made his way down to do what he could to help them through the night.

 

💀

Two days later he looked up from his book at the feel of a mind on the path. He was feeling better today, first time since the other night. He really didn’t want any company.

Still, he went out into the clearing and watched Spencer come out of the woods. She wasn’t in uniform today. Instead she wore a long cream-colored dress and had let her hair down. And he discovered that her presence didn’t set off warning bells in his head. He met her halfway.

“We caught him.” She took Regi’s hands. “Mary is okay, scared, but he didn’t hurt her. Had a room all made up in his house for her. It was probably only a matter of time before he did something, though. They’re still digging up remains out of the crawlspace.”

Regi shook his head and looked at the trees and the grass. “I don’t know how you do it.”

Cali laughed. “Funny, I was going to say the same thing.”

Regi looked down at her open face and pulled her close. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “Magic.”

💀

4,054 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 61st weekly short story release, written in February 2010. 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 The Time That Remains.

So Little Time

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

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

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

A story about loves missed and final chances.

💀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marjorie arched an eyebrow. “Might at that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, sir.”

He scowled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

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

“Veronica.”

“Hi! I’m Marjorie!”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll help you,” Nathan said.

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

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

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

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

“That’s true,” Marjorie said.

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

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

“You got to be kidding.”

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

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

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

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

“Do I have to?” Marjorie whined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not much,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

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

“No?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He says that I’m his reason.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can imagine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you have gambling debts?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Snots possible,” he said with great deliberation.

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

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

“Captain?”

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

“Thank you, Captain. Marjorie?”

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

💀

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

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

“So what are you doing later?”

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

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

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

“You can sleep when you’re dead.”

I stared at him.

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

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

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re following me!”

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

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

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

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

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

“I —”

“What will you have?” Nathan asked.

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

“You could splurge today,” Nathan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think I’m following you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

💀

5,880 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Hidden Nests.

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.

Flame Breaker

Estelle lives a simple life, her needs easily met with the gratitude of those she serves. Her wagon provides shelter and purpose with the magic contained in the simple walls. Colic, her snub-winged drake, provides companionship and pulls the wagon.

Inquisitors threaten her peaceful existence with accusations and threats. Estelle faces them not with sword, but with her wits.

If you love fantasy and books, check out Flame Breaker.

📚

A beautiful day, at least up until the point when three black horses with uniformed riders came pounding down the forest trail and surrounded Estelle’s modest wagon. Colic, her snub-winged drake, hissed in alarm and tried to twist around in the harness. Estelle hissed back.

“Still yourself! You silly lizard!”

Colic glared at her with one golden eye and slowly pressed his entire green-scaled self down into the muddy path.

Not bandits, these men. Estelle could tell that much by the quality of their cloth. The red suits and black neck ties cinched their identity. Inquisitors. Trouble-makers by another name. Thugs, some said and she never disagreed. Gold thread hemmed the cloak of their leader. A small concession to vanity that identified the leader to her. Not that she wondered. He placed his horse right in front of Colic. Ignoring the drake which under other circumstances wouldn’t mind a nice bite of horse flesh. He sat straight, all ruddy fat in the face and contempt in his narrowed eyes. The tall dark evergreens surrounding the path served as mute witnesses to the encounter.

Pity they lacked eyes or tongues. A matter that might change, should circumstances require it.

The Inquisitor raised on black-gloved hand and pointed at the wagon behind her. “What sort of cargo do you haul, mother?”

“No brat ever escaped my loins,” Estelle said. “Neither am I a merchant to haul cargo. My home, that’s all I carry like the snail with its shell.”

“You lie, lady. Poorly, I might add. Best you confess now and avoid the screws.”

So mote it be. “Fly your pole somewhere else, Inquisitor. Nothing I carry concerns such as you.”

The ruddy bastard laughed. Fat cheeks shaking. More chuckles from the two lesser inquisitors on either side. The leader leaned forward, saddle creaking. Colic sneezed. The horse whinnied and jerked back. The inquisitor nearly tumbled forward from the saddle, only just catching himself his horse’s neck. He straightened up and his already red cheeks burned like coals in a fire.

He waved a hand at his men. “Search it!”

Estelle held up her hand. “Warrant? I’ve seen none.”

He started to lean forward and his eyes glanced down at Colic. He stopped and pressed a hand to his chest. “I am the official representative of the Magistrate. Surely no one with legitimate business would refuse to cooperate? Resisting could be construed as probably cause.”

“Your tongue wiggles more than my lizard’s –”

Colic snorted.

“– and isn’t nearly as truthful. Any search of my dwelling requires the presentation of a warrant. I don’t need your men pawing through my underthings.”

He stared at her and she looked back giving neither an inch or any obvious offense. His stupidity remained the primary question. He raised a hand and rubbed at the side of his head.

“I’ve heard reports of dangerous books appearing in otherwise wholesome communities.”

“Dangerous? In what way? Are these books more prone than others to cause paper cuts?”

His eyes narrowed. “You claim to know nothing of these reports?”

“First I’ve heard. Who makes these claims?”

“Citizens of good standing wishing for their children to remain safe.”

“From paper cuts?”

“From dangerous ideas. Blasphemy. Black arts,” he said. “Your wagon might transport many such books.”

Estelle shrugged. “Any books I transport are my own and dangerous only to ignorance. Are you seeking something to read?”

He pointed at her. “Trading in forbidden books brings substantial penalties.”

“How fortunate we are to live in a free society,” Estelle said. “Many miles I must cover before dark, if I may continue?”

A cluck of the tongue and a flick of the reins sent his horse side-stepping out of her path. Colic rose up and yawned, displaying an impressive array of teeth. Estelle whistled and the drake lunched into motion, pulling her and the wagon away from the inquisitors. She waved cheerfully as she passed.

📚

Her destination for the night? Raven’s Craw. Another dozen or so miles down the road from the site of her encounter with the Inquisitors. Not a direct shot, either. At the crossroads she took the path heading South, South-West. Left the tall trees behind, replaced by mounded prairie. The mounds rose up in general about as high as her wagon. The road wiggled back and forth between the mounds, cutting in the sides of some. As bumpy as a toad’s behind but much prettier. Wildflowers covered the mounds and all over bees, birds and dragonfly-riding fairies flew around the mounds. A squadron of fairies buzzed her wagon twice. On the second pass pelting her with grass seed. No harm in it. A perfunctory welcome, nothing more.

Nothing much at Raven’s Craw of note except the mill and the steamer dock. By the time Estelle rolled into town the sun hung low above the prairie and the buildings cast long shadows. Beside the mill and the dock warehouses the town included one hotel, a general store, a small school building, doctor’s office and the houses of those calling the place home. So few people came to town by road that Estelle’s arrival soon filled the streets. From little ones running around in nothing but diapers to the oldest watching from windows and porches. These people knew her. Mothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins and all the rest. Word spread through town faster than a fire. At the center of town a junction of the prairie road and the road to the steamer docks created a sort of town square. Estelle’s whistle and sharp flick of the reins brought Colic to a stop.

Colic raised his throat and let out a ear-scratching warble that drew shrieks and laughter from the children already gathering with their arm-loads of branches. With the children stood many adults and most all carried arm-loads of branches. Colic snapped his tail, a loud whip-crack that split the air. Twice. A third time and the crowd stilled in anticipation. Time to take the stage, then.

Estelle rose up from her bench, trusting Colic not to jerk the wagon and send her sprawling. She clutched her hands to her chest. When she spoke her voice rang out over the gathered townsfolk.

“Good evening, my what a welcome! It warms the heart. I see many bundles of twigs and branches here.” She looked a fair-haired young girl standing bravely near Colic. “Who can tell me the purpose of these sticks?”

The little girl spoke up, her voice like the piping of birds. “Books! Books! Books!”

Laughter spread among those gathered. Estelle nodded. “Very wise, young one. Books, indeed. If someone will help an old woman down from this perch, let’s see what we can do.”

A broad-shouldered young man with coal-stained hands came to her aid. She held his fine, strong callused hand and made her way down the folding steps from the bench to earth below. He smiled down at her, showing a mouth full of straight teeth.

“Looking at you warms this woman’s heart and makes me wish for the return of my lost years,” she said.

“Surely there aren’t too many years lost,” he replied.

She swatted his shoulder. “Flatterer.”

More laughter from the crowd. Estelle walked to the side of the wagon. She beckoned to the little girl who spoke earlier. “Since you answered so smartly, you may be first.”

The girl walked over clutching her bundle of branches. “I’d like a book please.”

“Of course. What’s your name?”

“Missie.”

“Okay, Missie, whisper what you want in my ear here and we’ll see what we can do.” Estelle bent down.

The sweet child leaned in close. She cupped tiny hands to her mouth. “Alice, if I may?”

Estelle winked at her. “I think that is possible. Let’s feed the hopper.”

Along the bright green wooden side of the wagon was a red hatch. Estelle unlatched it and pulled it open, revealing a long drawer. She bent and picked up the little girl around the waist and hoisted her up. No, not so many years lost, in truth.

“Feed the hopper!”

Missie tossed her branches into the hopper. Estelle set her down and shoved it closed. She reached into her cloak and produced a short fat wand of gleaming oak. She whispered to the wand and then shoved it into a hole in the wagon beside the hopper. The wagon shook. Crunching and grinding noises sounded inside like as if she kept a beaver to eat the wood. A moment later the noises ceased. Then a loud thunk, as if something fell. Estelle bent and lifted Missie once more.

“Open the hopper, see what’s inside.”

With both hands Missie pulled the red hopper open. She shrieked and reached inside, lifting out a brightly colored book. She held it up and a murmur of delight passed through the crowd. Estelle brought Missie down and nestled the child on her hip.

“May I see?”

“Yes.” Missie held the book so that she could see the cover.

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I believe you will enjoy this book a good deal.”

Missie nodded enthusiastically and hugged the book to her chest. Estelle let her down and turned to the crowd. “I see much fuel for my hopper. Who will be next?”

A boy with hair curly and dark as night stepped forward with a small bundle of twigs. Estelle beckoned him close. “Your name, son?”

“Patun.”

“Okay, Patun. What sort of book do you seek? Whisper it here in my ear.”

Estelle bent down.

“Fishing book, so I can catch fish for my ma.”

Estelle patted his head. “That’s a good boy.” She pulled the hopper out and held out her hands. The boy handed her the branches. She tossed them in and then pulled the oak peg from the slot. She whispered to it and shoved it back into the hole. Then she pushed the hopper closed.

Once again the wagon shook and trembled. Colic snorted and settled. The wagon fell silent again. Estelle opened the hoper and pulled out a book. The bright picture on the front showed a man with a pole and line in hand. The Art & Craft of Fishing. She handed it to Patun.

“Gee, thanks!” He shot off running with the book. The crowd parted and like a pebble dropped in a pond he vanished.

Estelle smiled. “Everyone will have a chance. Who’s next?”

“I’ll try your wagon,” a voice rang out. A voice she recognized having heard it not so many hours before.

She turned and sure enough, the inquisitors on their horses. The ruddy-faced leader swung down from the saddle. Up front of the wagon Colic twisted his long head to see around the wagon. He sneezed loudly. The inquisitor reached into his shirt and pulled out a blue sheet of paper. He held it up in the air.

“By order of the Magistrate, as stated in this warrant, I intend to search this wagon and confiscate anything illegal. Clearly this lady runs a scam of sorts and I promise the good people of Raven’s Claw that I will uncover the truth and her accomplice inside.”

Estelle held out her hand. “I’ll see that warrant which you did not produce when you stopped me only hours ago outside of Raven’s Craw.”

He smiled nastily and slipped the paper back into his shirt. If he heard her correction he gave no sign of it. “I’ll not have you tossing the warrant into your device there to be torn to pieces.”

“I only seek to verify the wording of the warrant.”

The crowd’s murmuring grew louder. The inquisitor cocked his head at the other two, who moved their horses up, nudging the crowd back from the wagon. The protests grew louder.

“Clear off, all of you! By order of the Magistrate, return to your business elsewhere!”

Some among the crowd moved back. Others drew off a bit and spoke among themselves. No one really left, Estelle noted.

“Inquisitor, what do they call you?”

“Harris, lady. Now open the wagon for inspection.”

Estelle walked to the end of the wagon and opened the small door at the rear. “Look, if it will give end to this business, Inquisitor Harris. Only you, and I trust you’ll not damage what few things I own.”

Inquisitor Harris swung down from his horse. Grunted when his boots hit the ground. He briefly placed a hand on his back. Then he stomped over to the wagon and leaned in the small door.

“As you see,” Estelle said. “Only my meager bed and little else.”

The Inquisitor rifled through the few books she kept on her small bedside shelf. He lifted the mattress and knocked his knuckles against the wood. Then he straightened and bent to look beneath the wagon. He came up scratching at the side of his head.

“What manner of sorcery is this?” Inquisitor Harris faced her. He shook his hand at the wagon. “How is it that these books are produced?”

“Another demonstration, perhaps?” Estelle looked at the Raven’s Craw townsfolk, none had gone far. She beckoned to another child. “Lad, come here with your branches.”

The fair-haired boy walked over to her, his mother close behind with a wrinkled brow. She kept touching the boy’s shoulders. Estelle smiled. “Worry not, mother. The good Inquisitor Harris aims only to safeguard this town and its people. We will reassure him.”

She crouched down in front of the boy. “What are you called?”

“Ricky.”

“Okay, Ricky. What book would you like?”

He shrugged. “I dunno.”

“What sorts of things do you like?”

Ricky smiled. “Bears.”

His mother touched his shoulder again. “He’s always going on about bears.”

“I know just the thing.” Estelle took the branches from the boy and stood. She held them out towards the Inquisitor. “Inquisitor Harris, perhaps you’d care to do the honors?”

He took the small bundle. Estelle went to the hopper in the side of the wagon. Inquisitor Harris jerked his head at one of his men. “Watch inside.”

The man in question dismounted and went to the open door at the rear. Estelle drew open the hopper, then pulled the oak peg from the hole. She whispered to the peg and then shoved it back into the hole.

“Toss in the branches, Inquisitor.”

Inquisitor Harris tossed in the branches. She pushed in the hopper. The wagon started to shake. The crunching and grinding noises started. Up front Colic sneezed. Inquisitor Harris took a step back. He looked to his man at the rear of the wagon.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing, sir!”

The shaking and noise reached its peak and then stopped. The wagon settled down. Estelle gestured to the hopper. “If you will, Inquisitor Harris?”

He rubbed his jaw then stepped up to the wagon. He grabbed the round knob on the front of the hopper and pulled it out. He reached in and lifted out a book. He looked at the front cover.

“Winnie-the-Pooh?”

Estelle reached up and took the book from the Inquisitor’s hand. She held it out to Ricky. “A very special bear.”

“Thank you!” Ricky hugged the book.

His mother looked at Estelle. “Thank you.” She looked to the Inquisitor. “Thank you, sir. Come on Ricky. Let’s go home and you can read your book.”

Inquisitor Harris raised his hand. “People of Raven’s Craw! Bring those branches here!”

Excited voices rose up. The people drew in closer. Inquisitor Harris beamed at the assembled crowd clutching their bundles of sticks and twigs. Abruptly his smile vanished like a drop of water on a hot stove. “Toss your branches at the base of this wagon!”

Cries of protests rang out. He held up his hands. “This woman trades in forbidden books. Her mechanism, this infernal wagon, must be destroyed!”

The young man that had helped her down from the wagon stepped forward. “Inquisitor, do not do this.”

Inquisitor Harris shook his head. “I do this for your sake, lad. And the good of this town.” He motioned to his men. “The branches, now.”

The third inquisitor dismounted, then he and one at the rear of the wagon went among the people. They snatched the branches and twigs away and threw them at the base of the wagon. Colic rose up and started to pull the wagon away.

Inquisitor Harris drew his sword. “Still the beast or I’ll still him for good.”

Estelle hissed at Colic. “Be still, you brute. Let me release your harness, you daft creature.”

She left the inquisitors to their wood-piling and went to the front to release Colic. He came free snapping his tail like a whip. She patted his ugly scaled head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Estelle motioned to the young man with the coal-stained hands. He joined her. “Yes, lady?”

“Please watch this stupid drake. Make sure he doesn’t do anything injurious.”

“Of course.”

Estelle left the drake in the care of the young man and went back to the wagon and the inquisitors. Inquisitor Harris held up a hand at her approach. “Do not interfere. This device must be destroyed.”

“Why, exactly?”

“You trade in forbidden books!”

“What books? I give the books freely, it costs me nothing. There’s no trade involved.”

“You receive nothing?”

“Their gratitude, nothing more. My needs are simple and easily met.”

“It matters not.” Inquisitor Harris pulled out a match from a pocket along with a flask. “Such a device might produce dangerous books as easily as a children’s book.”

“And who decides? You? I believe we live in a free society. Isn’t that what we claim? I only give people what they ask for. Freedom to read what they wish, surely that’s the foundation of any free society.”

“Security is the foundation of a free society.” Inquisitor Harris flipped the cap on the flask and splashed the contents on the piles of branches. He struck the match and dropped it onto the pile. Flames spread blue and yellow across the branches. Cries of dismay rang out from the crowd.

Estelle walked around to the rear of the wagon. None made any move to stop her. She hurried and climbed inside. She heard Inquisitor Harris shout something but didn’t wait. Up front, strapped to the side of the wagon she pulled down a red cylinder. She scooted back out and slid out of the wagon. A cheer went up from the crowd. Inquisitor Harris grabbed her arm.

“Foolish woman! What is so worth your life?”

“Knowledge, books.” Estelle pulled away. She pulled a silver pin from the top of the cylinder and pointed the nozzle at the flames. A cloud of white vapor shot out, engulfing the flames. She worked her way along the pile until every last flame was extinguished. Excited murmurs spread through the crowd and became cheers. The people of Raven’s Craw started clapping. Colic snapped his tail three times.

Inquisitor Harris caught up with her. “What is that device?”

“A fire extinguisher,” Estelle said. “It is very useful dealing with fires. Inquisitor, have you considered that there might be many useful books you might ask for? Things that might help you in areas other than persecuting someone like me?”

His eyes narrowed. “What sort of books?”

“Leadership, tactics, books on all sorts of instruments you might find useful?”

Inquisitor Harris stroked his jaw. “Perhaps I should confiscate the wagon, and keep it for myself.”

Estelle shook her head. “It works only for me.”

“I could take you, along with the wagon.”

“You could and find I have forgotten how to make it work.” Estelle smiled. “Inquisitor Harris, do not make your job harder! Ask for a book and I shall happily provide it to you, as I do anyone who asks. Not in trade, or from coercion. Perhaps one final demonstration?”

When he made no move to stop her Estelle pulled open the hoper. She picked up scorched branches from the pile and threw them in. She took out the peg, whispered to it and put it back. Then she closed the hopper. As before the wagon shook. When the noise and shaking ceased she opened the hopper and pulled out a book. Without looking at the title she handed it to Inquisitor Harris.

Color drained from his ruddy fat face. He looked up at her, back to the book, then shoved the book into his vest. He waved his hand at the other inquisitors. “Mount up! By order of the magistrate this woman shall be free to continue her business, unfettered and unencumbered.”

Inquisitor Harris mounted his own horse when his man led it over. He mounted up and then rode away without another word. Estelle chuckled and turned to the crowd.

“Where were we, then?”

📚

Dew covered the mounded prairie grass the next morning when she stepped outside her wagon and stretched. From atop one of the mounds beside the wagon Colic lifted his scaled head and blinked sleepily. The wagon creaked behind her. Strong young arms wrapped around her waist.

“Must you leave so soon?”

Estelle reached up and patted Martin’s, the young man of the coal-stained hands, face. “Yes, but I shall return. People will want more books.”

“It never stops, does it?”

She leaned against his solid chest. “I hope not.”

Above the mounded prairie the sun rose again with the promise of a new day.

📚
3,572 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 49th weekly short story release, written in May 2010, and originally released under a pen name. 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 Two for Death.

Everything for a Chance

A young artist with big dreams, Brant Lloyd heads to the city after graduation, putting everything on the line for his dreams.

The Museum of Art, his teacher. The city, his inspiration. The girl, his future?

A story of unexpected meetings and dreams.

Brant Lloyd got off the train in the city with twenty dollars in his wallet and his most prized possession — his membership card to the Museum of Art. The orange backpack he carried held the rest of his belongings, a moleskin notebook, pencils, a change of underwear, a clean black t-shirt, eraser, pencil sharpener and a pre-paid Visa loaded with his summer savings — a grand total of $2,323.15.

At eighteen, he was undaunted. The city was his future. He felt it in his bones, had felt it since he first took a school field trip to the Museum of Art. There, in that massive edifice of marble, were paintings from around the world. Some very old, but others new. Paintings created by men and women by hand, not on a computer, but with real brushes and paints. It was a light bulb moment for Brant, when his doodles took on more importance, and a concrete reality. That’s what he wanted to do with his life, create works of art that people would still be talking about a century or more after he was gone.

Going to the local community college, the way his parents wanted, was unthinkable. He had to be in the city. They said they couldn’t afford to pay for him to live in the city. Fine, then he’d go on his own. He could make it work. He’d find ways to make money, and spend his days in the museum studying the work of the great artists.

Walking down the street, engulfed in the mass of humanity around him, Brant was happier than he’d ever been. He was doing it! He knew the way to the museum, he’d memorized the layout of the city before he had left home.

He imagined is mother finding the note he had left on the dining room table. She’d pick it up, seeing the ink and watercolor he’d done of a single rose on the front, with a smile. She wouldn’t really notice the petals that had fallen, not until she turned to the inside and saw the rest and his message.

Don’t be scared, he wrote. I’ll be okay. I can take care of myself now. I’ll write as often as I can.

Letters were cheaper than cell phones, and meant a lot more. He liked writing letters. He was the only one in his graduating class that could write cursive. Everyone else was too busy sending text messages, or emails.

He could have taken the subway but he wanted to save his money, make it last as long as possible. And why hurry? He got to see the city this way. All the masses of people, the sound of the traffic, car horns and sirens. He drank in the sights of the massive buildings rising overhead, but tried not to act too much like a tourist. He wanted to blend in, become invisible. His fingers itched to stop and draw everything he saw.

Instead he pressed on. He wanted to visit the museum first.

The main lobby echoed with the voices of everyone visiting the museum. Their voices soared up to the arched ceiling far above. Brant moved out of the main flow going in and out of the entrances.

His stomach was full of the hot dog he’d gotten from one of the carts outside. He gazed around the space and felt as if he had finally come home. It was here that he would develop his skills. He’d fill the pages of his sketch book during the day, studying. He’d roam the city to practice on portraits. Tourists would pay to have their portraits done. He could do landscapes in the park. Or images of the city overgrown and forgotten. The possibilities were endless.

He turned in place, drinking it all in, and then he saw her at the octagonal information desk in the middle of the space. She was young, his age or not much older. Her blond hair was straight, cut short, ending just above her neck. She was helping three older women, leaning over to point out information in a brochure. She wore two small pearl earrings and her fine features gave her an almost elfin look. She was dressed in a suit, complete with tie and vest.

His fingers itched for the pencil. He wanted to capture her right in that moment. He reached into his backpack, and pulled out his sketchbook and pencil. He flipped it open to a blank page and looked up.

Right at that moment she raised her eyes and met his. She smiled, a friendly, open expression, for only a moment, and then she returned her attention to the women she was helping.

Brant’s pencil danced across the page. He threw down lines, trying to capture the gestures of the scene at the desk. Loose, quick lines flowed across the page. He barely touched the three women, capturing their presence and hardly anything else. The desk was defined more by the blank space between the figures. He focused more on her delicate grace. The curves of how she stood.

“You’ve very good,” a man said behind him.

It startled him and a line shot off across the page. Brant took a deep breath, closed the sketch book and turned to face the speaker, smiling as he did. He didn’t want to be unfriendly to someone that had just complemented him.

The man was older, middle-aged maybe, and very well-dressed. His face was all planes and angles, sharp and clean-shaven. His hair was dark, but with gray liberally sprinkled throughout, thicker on the sides. Diamond cufflinks glittered on his wrist. He smiled.

“Sorry,” the man said. “I didn’t intend to startle you.”

“That’s okay,” Brant said.

The man’s eyes lifted, looking over Brant’s shoulder. “She’s lovely. I could imagine her portrait hanging on the very walls of this museum someday.”

It was uncomfortably close to his own dream. “I’m a long way from seeing that happen.”

“Maybe,” the man said. “I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve known many artists. Some of their work does grace these walls. Even in a sketch of a few seconds, I see potential in your work.”

Right. Brant eased back a step from the man. Whatever his agenda was, it was most likely not something that he could afford. “Thanks. I appreciate that, uh, I’ve got to go.”

Somewhere else, at least until this guy was gone.

“Of course,” the man said, apparently without taking offense. “There is always so much to be done.”

Brant nodded and turned away from the guy, and then wasn’t sure what to do next. He didn’t know where he wanted to go. Then he saw the old women moving away from the information desk.

He walked quickly across the space, weaving through the crowd, and reached the desk just before an Asian couple got to her. She smiled up at him. He smiled back, and noted that her name tag read, Kelci.

“Hi,” he said.

She smiled at him. “Hello. How may I help you today?”

“Do you lead tours?”

“No, I haven’t finished the program yet. I provide visitor services help. There is a tour scheduled in twenty minutes, if you’d like that?”

Brant grinned. “That’s okay. I think I’ll wander around. It’s okay if I sketch, right?”

She chuckled. “Yes. Pencil’s only, please, and respect other visitors by not blocking traffic. You’re an artist?”

“Yes.” It felt so good to say that! He took a breath. “At least that’s the plan. I just got to the city. I left home as soon as I got my membership card to the museum.”

“That’s great. The city is fantastic.”

More people were crowding around up to the desk. The other volunteers were all busy, and her eyes flicked to those behind him. She smiled, acknowledging them before looking back to him.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’m Brant Lloyd. I appreciate the help, Kelci.”

“You’re welcome.” She smiled and leaned forward. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

Brant knew he was grinning like an idiot and didn’t care. “Oh, I’m going to be here a lot.”

“Great.”

He nodded, raised a hand, and slipped back through the crowd away from the desk. People surged into the opening he had created. He reached a space that was a bit more clear and looked around for the man in the suit. Apparently the man was gone.

Brant breathed a little easier. The man’s obvious wealth, his comments about knowing artists that had their work displayed, it sounded like a line. Maybe it wasn’t. He didn’t know.

Besides, what did it matter. He looked back at the information desk and caught a glimpse of Kelci. Heart-pounding, he looked away. He couldn’t stay here, or pretty soon she’d think he was some sort of creepy stalker guy. The best thing to do was to do what he had planned to do, and go study and practice.

He turned in place and then stopped. The Egyptians! That’s where he’d start. There were lots of cool artifacts to sketch and he could do sketches of the crowds. He went that way, through the impressive entrance to that wing.

The Old Kingdom artifacts gave Brant many subjects to work from. He flipped the page of the sketchbook, on to his fifth of the day so far, and moved to the next statue.

A standing woman, carved of wood. He worked to catch the gestures of the piece. The flow of the lines. As his pencil slid across the page Kelci came to mind. She wasn’t built like this woman, didn’t much look like her at all, really. But it was Kelci he kept thinking of.

Brant stopped and rubbed his eyes. He was being ridiculous. So he had met someone attractive. That was nice, she was nice, but she was doing her job. Most likely, she was married, or at least dating someone. It was his first day in the city.

Besides, it was unimaginable that she was single. And even if she was, so what? He was homeless at this moment. The little bit of money he had saved would go fast if he didn’t make more. He certainly didn’t have enough money to take someone out on a date. If he started doing that, he’d burn through his funds very fast.

No, the best thing he could do right now was practice. And figure out which hostel he was going to stay at tonight. Tomorrow he was going to have to put himself on a schedule, balance studying in the museum with observation practice around the city, and doing portraits and sketches for tourists. He’d need the money. He had to find a place to rent, and it wasn’t likely to end up being on Fifth Avenue. It was more likely he’d have to find a place out of the city. That was okay. The trips back and forth would give him more time to observe, to sketch, to live! He didn’t need much space. Mostly just someplace safe to sleep at night, and keep his paints. He’d meet people.

Like Kelci.

Brant closed his eyes and tapped the pencil against the sketch book. Not like Kelci. She seemed great, but he was here to start his future. This was his chance.

“Hey!”

The voice was female, familiar and close by. Brant’s eyes snapped open and there was Kelci, standing just to the right of the statue. She was shorter than him, probably only an inch or two over five feet. Dainty. That was the word, and she was starting to give him a strange look, because he was staring now.

“Hi,” Brant said. “Hi. Sorry. Kelci. How’re you?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing. Brant, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. That’s right.”

She pointed at his sketch book. “May I?”

His throat was dry. He needed to find a water fountain or something. He handed the book over without saying anything.

She flipped it open, and of course the first page she landed on was the quick gesture sketch he was doing of her in the lobby, but she grinned. She turned to the next page, lingered, and then the next, both sketches of artifacts in this wing.

She looked at her watch, a thin gold band around her wrist. “These are great, really. I’ve got to get back. I was just on a break, or I’d stay. Are you going to be around in a couple hours? I’m off at four. We could grab coffee or something?”

“Yes.” The word came out without thought. He smiled, and said. “Great. Should I meet you out front?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.” She started to turn, then laughed and turned back to hand him the sketch book. “Sorry. I’m not trying to steal it, even though they are very good.”

He took the book back. “Thank you.”

She waved and moved off out of the wing.

His knees felt shaky and yet at the same time he wanted to run through the museum just to burn off the energy running along his nerves. She’d asked him to coffee. That had happened. It was his first day in the city, he was at the museum and possibly the most beautiful girl he’d ever met had asked him out to coffee.

And he said yes, even after all of his rationalizing. What else could he have said?

“Isn’t that always the question?” A man said.

Brant jerked around. It really was the same man, the one from the lobby, standing casually, comfortable in his skin. And he’d just —

“I didn’t read your mind,” the man said, doing it again. “It’s just my experience. A hundred and fifty-one years on the face of this planet, and I’ve seen that expression, I’ve made that expression, when we find ourselves in that deliciously complicated moment when there doesn’t seem to be any other answer to give.”

A hundred and…

“Excuse me?” Brant said. “Who are you?”

“Right now I’m called Alex Vicari. You’ve impressed me Brant Lloyd, which is unusual for anyone, much less someone as young as yourself. You’ve come here on your own, to the big city, with the burning desire to become a world-class artist. One of the greats! The ego that requires! It’s brilliant. Really brilliant.”

Brant took a breath, and said, “How could you know all of that?”

A shrug. “Easily enough to explain. I eavesdropped on your initial conversation with that charming young creature. When I had your name, it was a simple matter to pull up all of your personal details, those of your parents, everything, more or less, that is known about you this world. It is so much easier, so much quicker today than it used to be.”

“Why? What do you want?”

Mr. Vicari, there was no way Brant could think of him as ‘Alex,’ snapped his fingers and smiled. “Exactly the right question. What do I want? You are observant. You’ve already deduced that I’m wealthy, easy enough for anyone to do, and you suspect by now that I’m quite mad. That is a subject to debate another time. The crux of the matter is this: I want to help you achieve your dreams.”

Mr. Vicari stepped closer. His cologne was light, but manly. Brant never imagined smelling that good.

“I claimed I was a hundred and fifty-one, a claim that you let slide because you doubted the veracity of it, and yet I assure you, it is most definitely true. It is the result of a challenging path I set myself on, much like you are doing, when I was a young man. A path that hasn’t ended, and yet one that I do not wish to walk alone. There have been others, brave men and women who attempted to follow in my footsteps, and failed. There is no guarantee that it will work with you either.”

Now they stood very close, and Mr. Vicari put his hand on Brant’s shoulder. It was a companionable gesture, but Brant sensed the strength in that hand, as if the man might crush stone in his grip.

“If you follow me, many of your current worries shall fade. Where to live, how to get money or food, these are trivial distractions to men such as you and I. Many a potential giant has found his or her potential drowned under the burdens of an ordinary life, of obligations and mortgages and the like. Can you imagine anything more horrible than going to work day after day, spending your years upon this Earth doing work that is as impermanent as a spray of water in the desert? How many potential greats, how many brilliant minds have withered away under the oppressive weight of what other people would deem success? And all the while their own inner dreams fade, wither and die.”

Mr. Vicari released Brant and stepped back. He looked at his watch, and smiled. “Yes, Mr. Lloyd, you have great potential. You cast off your old life to come here and aspire to greatness. You may have what it takes. We shall see. I have other engagements to attend. I will give you time to consider what I have said.”

Brant’s mind was spinning. He opened his mouth and no words came out. His throat was dry. His head pounded. Mr. Vicari walked out of the gallery and was gone in an instant.

A family, parents and two children, were coming through the gallery. No one else had heard Mr. Vicari. Brant went in search of drinking fountain, considering what Mr. Vicari had said.

In his words, Brant recognized his own fears. It was what drove him away from going to the community college. His mother had even said it one day, that he could start at the community college, go to the state school after, and then maybe get a good job teaching art. Maybe at a high school.

The thought of it was terrifying. Not because it was awful, it was what Mr. Vicari had said, about withering away when you’re doing what other people consider successful. He could go to those schools, get those degrees, and he might turn out to be a really good art teacher, but inside he’d be dead. Or if he went into a field entirely different than art, became an accountant or something. How many accountants out there had unfulfilled dreams? Or any profession?

As crazy as the business was about being a hundred and fifty-one years old, the rest of it made a lot of sense.

Brant found the nearest drinking fountain and gulped down several mouthfuls of the cold, cold water. It was great. He finished and took a deep breath and felt much better.

There was an older woman watching him when he turned around. She was wearing an elegant pearl gown. Her gray hair was cut very short, sort of buzzed. A string of pearls hung around her neck. She was beautiful, even though she had to be as old as his mother. She smiled warmly at him, and extended a finger toward the fountain.

“May I?” She said, her voice deep and amused.

Brant nodded. “Yes, sorry. I’m done.”

He stepped aside. She went to the fountain and bent to drink, and moved with such fluid movements that his fingers itched to take out the sketch book and draw her, try to capture that somehow, but he rubbed his hands instead.

She stood up and met his eyes again.

“You must be an artist,” she said.

Brant nodded automatically. “Yes, ma’am. That’s the plan anyway.”

“You either are a thing, or you aren’t,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you do in this world. If you are an artist, then you are until you decide to stop being an artist. Nothing else will, only you can do that.”

It sounded true. He wanted to believe her, but Mr. Vicari’s words hung in his mind.

“He lies,” she said, folding her hands together.

Brant’s mouth fell open.

She waved a hand. “Don’t go catching flies, son.”

He closed his mouth so fast that his teeth clicked together.

“All I meant was, whomever told you otherwise lied. Only you decide if you are an artist. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a life, or fall in love?”

Kelci’s face came to mind, her delicate elfin features and her bright smile. He must have blushed, because the woman clapped her hands.

“There is a young lady! I knew it.” She smiled. “Some people, they tell you that you must give up everything for your art. And in the end, then what do you have? Nothing. Live life to its fullest, and maybe you’ll have a chance to be the artist that you imagine yourself to be.”

Brant said, “I’m trying.”

“Good. Then keep trying. Give your young lady a chance. Things will work out as they should. You’ll see! Good luck to you.”

“Thank you.”

She smiled and walked past him and away. Then she was gone.

Brant looked at the time, and pulled out the sketch book. He’d go out into the lobby, sit on one of the benches and just draw until Kelci was done with her shift.

He was completely absorbed in the drawing when he heard Kelci’s voice behind him. “Wow, those are fantastic! Who are they?”

On the left-hand page was a drawing of Mr. Vicari, dark and shadowed in his suit. The right-hand page was a picture of the woman at the fountain, her light dress contrasting with her darker skin. It was a study in shadows and light, and drawing from memory.

He turned, and there was Kelci, just as he had pictured. He closed the sketchbook. “Just people I saw today.”

Later, he’d finish the drawing, adding her in between the two of them, spanning the page. He’d come to the city for a chance. A chance at what? The woman was right. He was an artist, here or anywhere. The city gave him the chance to learn and improve, but it gave him other chances too. He slipped the sketchbook into his backpack, and stood up. He held out his hand.

Smiling, Kelci reached out and took his hand. Her skin was warm, and soft, with a strong grip.

“Where do you want to go?”

“There’s a place I like, it’s a few blocks away, if you don’t mind walking?”

Brant shook his head. “I don’t mind at all.”

His heart was hammering in his chest as he walked with her out the doors of the museum. There, just outside the front doors, was Mr. Vicari talking on a cell phone. Brant met his eyes, and walked on past.

He smiled at Kelci. He was going to do everything he could for a chance at the life he wanted. That’s why he came to the city in the first place.

3,845 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 46th weekly short story release, written in October 2013. 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 Dumping Ground.

Death in Hathaway Tower

The Hathaway’s held Hathaway Tower for fifteen generations, one of the older families in the Towers of Stone and Metal.

Young Emily Hathaway, the last surviving member of the family, continues their traditions. Like this dinner party, playing hostess to fascinating guests like brave Mr. Bailey who had spent time among the Salvagers.

A scream interrupts dinner, a body in the library, and a mysterious visitor makes this a dinner party to remember.

1

The whole party was enjoying the silky smooth lemon custard while Mr. Bailey related his experiences beyond the wall surrounding the Towers of Stone and Metal, when a shrill scream came from the library.

All conversation ceased. The candle flames barely flickered. The long dining hall was silent. Eight pairs of eyes in the room fixed on Emily Hathaway, the host of the evening. She was twenty, and no taller than she’d been at thirteen, though she had a more shapely figure now. Tonight she wore a shimmery gown of elvish silk, the color of fresh green leaves, that complemented her flaming red curls and matched her eyes. So pale was her skin, and so delicate her features, that some suggested there was elvish blood in her family. Unlikely, given that the Hathaway’s had held Hathaway Tower for fifteen generations, but she had some of that look about her.

Mr. Bailey coughed into his napkin. Beside him his wife clung to his arm.

Emily lifted her chin. Across the room her butler, and troll, Clasp, stood unmoving against the wall. He was a big gray-skinned figure in a dark kilt with the traditional sash, a slash of scarlet weave, across his chest. She locked her eyes on his tiny black eyes. A twitch of her head and Clasp moved like a boulder breaking loose on a mountain. Thunderous footsteps carried him across the timbered floor to the heavy oak door leading to the library. He pulled it open and disappeared through, shoulders brushing the frame on each side. The door banged shut behind him.

“Never mind that,” Emily said, “Likely one of the housemaids frightened at her own shadow. Mr. Bailey? You were talking about your time among the Salvagers?”

Mr. Bailey was her late father’s friend and the years had stripped away his handsome features along with his right ear. The scar stretched from there down across his cheek and through his lips. He tended to drool when he ate. Or spoke.

He opened his mouth to talk when the door banged open again and Clasp’s crashing footsteps returned. Emily apologetically smiled at her guests. Tall and regal Mrs. Watersmith turned her freshly powdered face to her escort for the evening, the handsome and young Mr. Dempsey, and whispered something.

Clasp’s massive head came down close to Emily’s own. She smelled grilled onions on his breath.

“A body, Miss. In the library.”

She kept her face controlled, even managed a small apologetic smile that would have made her father proud had he lived to see it.

“If you’ll excuse me? I’ll only be a moment.” She rose to her feet. The gentlemen at the table rose as well, Mr. Crane struggling to heave his bulk up. He shook the whole table in the process. His napkin tumbled onto his plate.

Emily followed Clasp, forever a child in his shadow. He stood twice her height, a moving mountain. As a small girl she had climbed those craggy heights, much to her mother’s annoyance. After the fever took her mother in the night, and Emily became the lady of the Hathaway Tower, she had left such things behind.

A body? In her library? She wished for those lost days when she wasn’t the last Hathaway.

Clasp held the library door for her and she steeled herself as she went inside.

There was a body, curled up on the mammoth-skin rug in front of the fire. Emily saw that first, right off, unable to miss it.

That wasn’t all. Anna, one of the house maids, stood just inside the library, not looking at the body but turned away. Her arms clasped her thin body as her shoulders shook.

Most shocking of all was the man that stood across the room from her. He was tall, nearly as tall as Clasp but lithe. His skin, like hers, was pale and unmarked. He wore bright green leather shorts but his chest and arms were bare. The black hilts of his knives rose above his belt on each hip. A band of silver circled his neck. A green cloak billowed around him, fastened with green leather straps to his wrists, bare ankles and thick shoulders. A long white braid, decorated with knobs of bone, stone and wood trailed down around his neck, across a hard chest, all the way down past his navel.

Piercing green eyes above high cheek bones met her gaze and didn’t look away when she took in his pointed ears. She looked back to his eyes.

He was beautiful and impossible. Not a normal man at all, but an elf. And elves never came to the Towers of Stone and Metal.

Emily looked up at Clasp. “You didn’t think to mention the elf?”

Dark eyes blinked down at her, but the troll was mute.

Frustrated, she looked back to the elf. “I am Emily Hathaway, lady of this tower. Is your business here concluded, sir?”

She glanced at the body.

The elf’s green eyes were still on her. He moved with the grace and power of the great scaled cats from Mr. Bailey’s stories. Two quick strides to stand at the edge of the mammoth-skin rug.

“I did not kill this one.” His voice and cadence sounded musical, as if he was singing the words.

Elves were seldom seen, even outside the wall surrounding the Towers. Not that the wall stopped them. Elves were said to be stronger than ten men. Some said that they had the ability to fly and most agreed that elves were only seen when they wanted to be seen. There were stories of elves seducing humans, men and women both, although she always credited that to human fantasies. Why would an elf seek out a human? It was said that elvish beauty was unmatched, true as far as she could see. In any case elves didn’t come past the wall out of choice, remaining above human affairs unless humans attempted to revert to their old destructive ways of the forgotten ages, in violation of the Treaty.

Looking at him, Emily’s heart ached. He was so beautiful, more so than she would have imagined. She steeled herself. She wasn’t some elf-struck little girl. She was the lady of Hathaway Tower and it seemed most unlikely that the body on her rug and the elf in her library were unrelated. She crossed to the other side of the rug and faced the visitor.

“If not you, then who?”

He looked at her as if he could see right through her. She shivered and refused to look away.

He turned away first, looking down to the body. “I tracked this one here, it was already dead.”

It. Emily forced herself to look down. The corpse scarcely filled out the suit it wore, like a child playing dress up. Where exposed, the limbs were wrinkled and deflated in great pink folds as if the insides were sucked away. There was a shiny, almost oily look to the skin. Most shocking of all was the face. A dear face she recognized, though the skin there too was slack and wrinkled, particularly around the bruised neck. Strangled, apparently.

It had her father’s face.

Emily lifted her head. The elf was watching her, as was Clasp, but she looked instead to the portrait above the library fireplace. Her father, in a formal black suit stood beside a chair where her mother sat in a deep iridescent blue gown. It looked like the same suit the body wore, perhaps stolen from his rooms? In the painting her father’s face was relaxed and happy. A square, handsome, kindly face on a man fond of laughter. The same face, more or less, as the body on the mammoth rug.

There was only one possibility.

“A goblinman?”

“A shifter, yes,” the elf said. “Killed while imitating the man in the painting. Have you seen this man?”

“He’s my father, and he’s been dead a year.”

“Shifters usually mimic the living, stealing their lives away.”

“Perhaps it meant to, not knowing he was already dead.”

Emily turned. “Anna?”

Anna sniffed. “Yes, Miss?”

“You screamed?”

A quick nod. Anna was only fourteen, fostered from the Vail Tower. Emily waited for more.

“I came in, meaning to check the fire before the party moved to the library. And, it was there, just as it is.”

“You didn’t touch anything? You didn’t see anyone?”

Anna shook her head twice.

“Good. Go have Mrs. Cormandy gather the staff in the kitchens. Everyone is to stay there and have their dinner until Clasp dismisses them. Understood?”

“Yes, Miss. Thank you.”

Anna hurried across the room. The elf moved around the mammoth rug to Emily’s side. Clasp stepped between her and the elf. It was a brave and loyal thing to do. Even with his bulk, Emily didn’t believe that Clasp could stop the elf if he wanted to do her harm. She put her hand on Clasp’s arm. His hard skin was hot and comforting beneath her hand.

The elf’s eyes watched Anna disappear through the door. “That was foolish, the other one, she may be.”

“Other one? You mean another goblinman?” Emily fought back her irritation. “You might have mentioned that first.”

The elf’s brow wrinkled as if he hadn’t considered that.

Leaving him confused, Emily looked up at Clasp. “Take the body and store it below. Lock it in one of the wine cellars. Secure the tower. No one leaves or enters without my permission. Rejoin us once you’ve finished.”

“Yes, Miss.”

Clasp moved between her and the elf, stooping to pick up the goblinman’s body. It looked like hardly more than a badly dressed doll in his arms. Seeing her father’s face on the thing had shaken her, but she was the lady of the tower and there was apparently another goblinman on the loose.

Carrying the body, Clasp disappeared out the same door Anna had used. The elf moved closer, and she smelled something like a fresh rain in the forest. He lifted his hand, but didn’t touch her.

“I must find the other goblinman.”

“Why? Why are you after them? And do you have a name, sir elf?”

She was testing him. Her father had told her stories of elves, when she was a girl. He always said that they guarded their names.

“I pursue the goblinmen known as thieves and killers. My common name is Brookwind, Lady Hathaway.”

Not his private name then. She was disappointed, but not surprised. She tilted her head up to look at him. She wanted to run her hand over his braid, and along the smooth pale skin. She clasped her hands together.

“How do I know you aren’t the other goblinman?”

Brookwind’s right eyebrow arched upwards. Emily felt heat creep up her neck, either from the foolishness of her question or from being close to him.

She fought down the feeling. “My guests must be getting anxious. I need to get back to them and tell them something.”

Brookwind touched the hilt of his knife. “I can force the goblinman to reveal itself.”

“How?”

He shrugged. “Pain forces shifters to reveal themselves.”

“I’ll not have my guests or staff tortured!”

“If the goblinman has replaced one of your people, then that person is most likely already dead. If I don’t capture it, others also will die.”

Brookwind moved across the room in an instant. His hands seized her upper arms and his cloak billowed around them. Her mind froze. She drew a breath and he released her left arm.

His finger went to her lips, pressing gently. He stared into her eyes as if he was looking into her, through her.

She inhaled and that rich forest scent was there, clinging to him, and beneath it something warm, yeasty, like fresh baked bread. The strength of his hand on her arm was like steel, but the finger on her lips was soft.

Looking into his eyes from this close, they weren’t only green but shot through with specks of gold and blue like a sunlight sky seen through leaves.

His breath was a warm breeze on her face. Her heart hammered in her chest. She reached out with her free hand and placed her palm flat on his muscled chest, as smooth as a sea-polished shell, to steady herself.

He jerked and twitched away like a skittish horse. She stumbled without him there.

“What was that!”

Brookwind bowed his head. “Lady Hathaway, my apologies. A soul search is an intimate thing, yet I had to know if you were the goblinman in disguise.”

Soul search? What was he doing? What did that mean?

“And?”

“I do not believe you are the other one.”

She trembled and took a deep breath to steady herself. “Can you do this with the others, to find the goblinman?”

“No.” His answer was flat, final, like a rock cracking.

“No?”

Brookwind shook his head. His long braid rolled across his chest. “It is not done with outsiders. Only those we are drawn to.”

Oh. Emily’s thoughts skipped on that. Her skin on her hand, arm and lips still tingled where they had touched. He was drawn to her? What did he mean?

She rubbed her hand where she had touched him as if she could rub out the feeling and made her decision.

“Come with me.”

“Where?”

“I will introduce you to our guests. A special surprise for them, and we will determine if any are goblinmen in disguise.”

“How will you do so?”

“I’m the lady of Hathaway Tower. I know my guests.”

“A shifter adept is skilled at imitating others. If it had access to the victim it may have absorbed memories as well.”

“Even so.” The whole thing about absorbing memories disturbed her. “I will know. And if it is not one of the guests, then we will investigate the staff, although I find that less likely.”

“Why is that so?”

“The staff know their own habits and duties. They would see if anyone was behaving oddly. It’d be easier for the goblinman to infiltrate the Towers by replacing someone with more position. As the one had attempted to mimic my father.”

Brookwind pressed his hands together in front of his chest and then spread them apart. “As you say.”

2

Emily went through the door into the dining hall first, with Brookwind following. As soon as she entered the men at the table rose, Mr. Crane struggling once more to rise. She watched their faces most carefully as they saw Brookwind coming in behind her.

Of the men, all showed surprised. A small smile played on Mr. Dempsey’s thin lips, like a kid spying a jar of candies. Mr. Crane gaped like a gasping fish landed on the shore. Drool dribbled from poor Mr. Bailey’s torn lips and he turned very pale. He reached to the table to steady himself. The last gentleman rising slowly at the table, was old Mr. Mumford. He beamed with open delight and ran a liver-spotted hand through his white hair.

The women showed equal surprise. Mrs. Watersmith pursed her lips and tilted her head. “My, he’s a big one, isn’t he?”

Mrs. Mumford giggled in a most girlish manner and grabbed at her husband’s other hand.

Mrs. Bailey’s red lips formed a round ‘o’ of surprise, while across the table the formidable Mrs. Crane pressed her hands to her plump cheeks.

“Friends,” Emily said, mustering her enthusiasm. “Tonight we have an honored guest from beyond the wall. He goes by Brookwind. If you’re all quite ready, we can retire to the library for drinks and conversation. I’m sure we’re all quite fascinated to hear from someone that lives beyond the wall.”

She looked to Mr. Bailey. “Not that your stories aren’t equally fascinating, Mr. Bailey.”

He dabbed at his dripping lip. “Not at all. Not at all! Even in my journeys, the chance to converse with the elvish folk is a rare treat. However did you manage this?”

Emily favored him with a sly smile and then stepped to the side and gestured to the open door. “If you please?”

Mr. Dempsey tossed his napkin onto the table and stepped back. “Alas, Lady Hathaway, I must bid an early night. Please forgive me.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s head snapped around and fixed on Mr. Dempsey. “Mr. Dempsey, what can you possibly be thinking? Of course we must stay!”

Mr. Dempsey’s smile faded as he turned to Mrs. Watersmith. He was sweating as he leaned close. “I have that case to prepare, you must remember it. The evening has already gone on too long.”

“Case?” Mrs. Watersmith gave a brittle laugh. “You are my escort for the night, are you not?”

“Yes.”

She raised her chin. “Then we shall go, when I say we shall go.”

While they argued the Baileys went on through into the library, Mrs. Bailey lifting her hand as if she was going to touch Brookwind when she went past. Under his gaze, she lowered her hand and Emily was glad of it.

Why? What business is it of yours if she touches him?

She shook her head. It wasn’t her business, and she was still glad. That didn’t bear much examination.

Instead she watched her guests.

The Mumfords went on in, with Mrs. Mumford giggling as they went past. Beatrice Mumford was the youngest of three daughters from the Porter family and was always a bit silly. She had married well, to Anthony Mumford, the heir to Mumford Tower. When it came to Towers, size did matter as much as placement and Mumford Tower was one of the Seven central towers that rose up on the hill next to Hathaway Tower.

The Cranes followed and then finally Mrs. Watersmith went on through with Mr. Dempsey following along much like a boy following his mother to the market.

Emily noticed Brookwind’s eyes following young Mr. Dempsey. She knew that he was a lawyer from Watersmith Tower. By all accounts good at his job, at least until he caught Mrs. Watersmith’s eye. If rumors were true, she pitied him. He was handsome with his blond hair and blue eyes, and yet as he passed Brookwind he looked little more than a child.

She hesitated before following and looked up at Brookwind. His gaze was still fixed firmly on the young man. She reached up and touched his jaw.

He turned his head, instead of jerking away, so that her hand slid along his cheek. Blushing, Emily lowered her hand.

“Your goblinman isn’t Mr. Dempsey.”

“He wanted to leave, when the others wished to stay.” Even in his musical tones, she heard the confusion.

“It wasn’t a case that he wanted to work on. He had planned to meet the girl that he is in love with tonight.”

Brookwind glanced into the library and back and remained silent.

“He’s here at Mrs. Watersmith’s behest. She’s the lady widow of Watersmith Tower. He can’t refuse her commands. If he was the goblinman he would have used the excuse of the case to leave. What does he care about Mrs. Watersmith’s opinion? If he was the goblinman it wouldn’t matter, and yet he stayed.”

“None of the others attempted to leave.”

Emily clasped her hands tightly. “No.”

“Then it could still be this Mr. Dempsey.”

She almost laughed at his confusion. “Of course not. If it was him, it wouldn’t have drawn attention to itself by attempting to leave before the others.”

“He is not the shifter because he tried to leave, and also because he stayed?”

“Exactly. Now, you must distract our guests with conversation.”

Brookwind’s eyes widened but she wasn’t going to give him a choice. She walked into the library.

3

Clasp had already returned and was pouring a brandy for Mrs. Bailey. She was setting on the antique moleskin love-seat with Mr. Bailey. The Cranes had taken up the matching couch, its ancient cushions sinking low beneath their combined weight. The Mumfords had the other couch, with the stiff floral cushions. Both Mr. Dempsey and Mrs. Watersmith were on the stiff-backed floral love-seat, but there was a wide chasm between them.

That left the two great lizard skin chairs at each end of the gathering. Emily touched Brookwind’s arm, giving him a nudge to the seat at the head of the gathering, with its back to the great fire where they’d found the body. He moved with fluid grace to the chair, his cloak billowing around him with each step. He was absolutely magnificent. She went to the chair at the other end where she could sit facing him and watch her guests.

“Will you be staying long?” Mr. Bailey asked Brookwind.

Brookwind sat perched on the edge of the chair, with his hands resting on his knees. He shook his head when Clasp offered him a drink. Then he actually smiled, an expression that brightened his face considerably.

He shook his head. “We don’t build dwellings of stone. We move with the seasons.”

“Yes, of course,” Mr. Bailey said. “In my travels outside the wall I guested one day in an elvish camp during a storm. It was marvelous. I don’t believe I’ve ever eaten so well.”

Mr. Bailey laughed and nodded to Emily. “With no insult to our gracious and beautiful host.”

Emily shook her head. “None taken.”

Clasp came around to Emily’s chair. She rose and took a few steps aside with him.

“Are the staff gathered? Are any missing?”

Clasp shook his head as he leaned close. “All accounted for, Miss.”

“Good. Thank you.” It seemed unlikely that any of them were the goblinman, but there must be a reason for the goblinman to stay. She touched his arm and returned to her seat.

“I thought we were to call them Gaians,” Mr. Mumford said.

Mrs. Crane leaned forward, sloshing her brandy. Crumbs from a small cake tumbled from her lips. “Gaian? Why do you say that, Mr. Mumford?”

Mrs. Mumford snorted. “Because some of us are polite enough not to insult our guest with slang.”

Mrs. Crane blinked in confusion and looked at Mr. Crane. He patted her arm. “Elves, dear. They don’t like being called elves.”

Brookwind pressed his hands together and parted them. “Words only, blown away with each breath. Truth resides in actions, not words.”

“Very gracious,” Mr. Bailey said. Brandy dribbled from his lip. “In any event, it was marvelous. Beautiful structures were strung between the trees in such a way that I hardly felt the storm at all. They had this wine as sweet as honey and as refreshing as cold spring water. I’m afraid I must have drank too much. When I woke the next morning it was to the birds singing and the sun shining in my face, but the camp was gone as if it had never been.”

“Perhaps you dreamed it,” Mr. Dempsey said.

Mr. Bailey laughed and lifted his glass. “Perhaps!”

“I say,” Mr. Crane said to Brookwind. “Mr. Bailey has entertained us with tales of the savage saurian beasts and the not-men that live in the wilds beyond the wall. Are the wild lands really so fierce?”

“For such as you, yes.”

Mr. Bailey traced the line of his scar with one finger. “You only have to look at me, to see that!”

Emily had sat silent through their banter, gauging their responses. Mr. Bailey was his usual self, including that gesture with the scar. He brought it up frequently, and his encounter with the raptor that had nearly taken his head off.

The Cranes were their usual jovial selves, flushed with drink and food in equal measure. Mr. Dempsey, she had already ruled out, looked uncomfortable sitting next to Mrs. Watersmith. She sat quite stiff and tall, sipping her drink the way a bird might dip its beak to drink. For her, that was normal.

On the other couch, the Mumfords were whispering to one another, following the discussion of what to call Brookwind. As far as Emily was concerned, elf was perfectly polite.

Of the whole party, only Mrs. Bailey was quiet. In fact, she hadn’t said a word most of the night. Mr. Bailey did tend to go on at length, but she’d been particularly quiet since the break just before desert.

In the awkward moment following Mr. Bailey pointing out his scar, Emily spoke up.

“I quite forgot to mention that the scream earlier was my housemaid discovering a body.” She pointed past Brookwind. “Right over there, in front of the fire.”

She watched their reactions carefully. Everyone tried speaking at once, except Mrs. Bailey who shrank closer to her husband.

Mr. Dempsey rose to his feet. “Have you called the constables?”

Emily shook her head. “Our friend Brookwind was pursuing the victim, apparently a criminal from beyond the wall.”

“Here?” Mrs. Crane squeaked.

Mrs. Watersmith rose to her feet. “Mr. Dempsey, please escort me back to Watersmith Tower at once!”

The Cranes both tried rising at once and the entire couch tipped forward. They fell back into the cushions, their brandy sloshing from their glasses. Pieces of cake tumbled down Mrs. Crane’s front.

Mr. Crane recovered first and leveraged himself up. Once on his feet, huffing hard, he helped Mrs. Crane out of the couch.

“We’re going too!” he said when he finally got her up.

Mr. Mumford shook his head. “Fools. We’re staying right here where it is safe. At least until the constables arrive and provide an escort!”

Emily rose to her feet. Across from her Brookwind also stood.

“I’m afraid I can’t let anyone leave, quite yet.”

Mrs. Watersmith looked down her nose at Emily. “You can’t keep us here!”

“Oh, I think our guest is quite capable of ensuring that no one leaves.”

Mrs. Watersmith darted a glance at Brookwind and took a small step closer to Mr. Dempsey. The young man placed himself in front of Mrs. Watersmith.

“Look here,” he said. “You can’t mean you’ll force us to stay!”

Still seating, Mrs. Bailey huddled against Mr. Bailey’s arm. He patted her hand.

Emily smiled at Mr. Dempsey. “By the Treaty, I have no say in this, it is an elvish matter.”

“Gaian,” Mr. Mumford muttered.

Brookwind looked over the others to her. “You know who the shifter is?”

“Shifter?” Mr. Bailey stood up. “I say, do you mean that the killer is a goblinman?”

Mrs. Bailey squeaked and grabbed at Mr. Bailey’s leg. He stumbled and barely avoided spilling his drink.

Emily gazed across at the others. Maybe she was elf-struck. She’d happily gaze into his eyes for hours and hours. Of course there was a killer to deal with. She smiled.

“Of course.” She pointed at Mrs. Watersmith. “She is the other one!”

“I saw her!” Mrs. Bailey shrieked, springing to her feet and clutching Mr. Bailey by the shoulders. “I saw her!”

Mr. Dempsey turned and Mrs. Watersmith snarled, her once-regal face twisting, and struck him with a back-handed blow that knocked him aside. She ran toward the servants’ door.

Brookwind vaulted over the couches and in a few swift strides caught her well before she reached the door.

“Unhand me!” She yelled.

A obsidian blade was in Brookwind’s hand and pressed to her powdery neck. She went very still.

Mr. Crane and Mr. Mumford were helping Mr. Dempsey to his feet as Emily walked over to face the impostor. Clasp’s bulk was a comforting presence behind her.

“It’s okay, Mrs. Bailey,” Emily said. “She won’t be harming anyone else. What did you see?”

Mrs. Bailey, clutching Mr. Bailey’s arm, peeked at them.

“Before desert, Mrs. Watersmith went to the powder room. Then I decided to go, and on the way, I saw her with herself going into the side hall! And one of her was wearing a man’s dinner suit! It was only a second, and I thought my eyes must be playing tricks on me. By the time I got back, she was sitting with Mr. Dempsey at the table. I thought I might have imagined it, except she kept looking at me.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s breath hissed between her teeth. Emily went to Mrs. Bailey and touched her arm.

“Thank you. I had noticed that she had freshly powdered her face when she returned, not just a touch-up, mind you, but she was entirely powdered even down her neck and hands. That seemed unnecessary, but at the time I didn’t think much of it.”

Emily walked back to face Brookwind and the impostor. “You can drop the disguise. You’ve given yourself away more than once.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s face wrinkled and sagged like collapsing bread. Her eyes rolled up, and when they came down the irises were pink shot through with red. Her mouth puckered and she sneered at Emily.

“You wouldn’t have figured it out if that fool hadn’t imprinted on her also!”

“Maybe,” Emily said. “If you hadn’t killed him and left the body you might have gotten away with it.”

“I didn’t have time,” the goblinman hissed. “I didn’t expect the elf!”

“You truly believed you could elude me?” Brookwind sheathed his knife, keeping a tight grip on the goblinman’s arm. He pulled the silver necklace free and wrapped it around the goblinman’s wrists, behind its back. The silver band constricted like a snake.

“I was more interested in your actions,” Emily went on. “You didn’t remember Mr. Dempsey’s other appointment tonight. Leaving early would make you stand out, so you insisted on staying. At least until I broke the news to everyone else. You were the first to want to leave then, when there was a good excuse. But the Watersmiths and Hathaways have always been allies. The real Mrs. Watersmith would never have left me here to deal with this alone.”

Mr. Bailey patted Emily’s shoulder. “We wouldn’t leave you, dear.”

The goblinman wasn’t looking at any of them now. Its gaze was fixed on the floor. Emily stepped in front of him. “Where is she?”

Then it looked up. “Why?”

“To save yourself pain, why else?”

Brookwind pulled up on the silver binding the goblinman’s arms. Its breath hissed between its lips.

“Closet!”

Emily turned to Clasp. “Find her, make sure she’s unharmed.”

The troll nodded and thumped off.

Emily looked up at Brookwind. “You’ll take it, now?”

“Yes. Thank you, Lady Hathaway.”

His gaze lingered for a moment, his beautiful eyes on hers, and then he moved away with the goblinman over his shoulder. The door banged behind him and she was left alone with her guests.

4

Emily stood alone on her balcony enjoying the cool night wind through her thin night gown. It was late, already well past midnight. Hathaway Tower dropped away far, far beneath her. Around her tower stood the others, including Watersmith Tower where Mrs. Watersmith was recovering from her ordeal after being rescued from the closet.

There was a soft sound behind her, like that a cat might make. She didn’t move until she felt the heat of his skin and his forest scent touched her neck. She turned and gazed up at his beautiful face.

“Are the stories true then, you can fly?”

Brookwind smiled.

“What happens to the goblinman now? Is it dead?”

His smile faded. He shook his head. “Death is not enough, for justice.”

Emily stepped close and raised her hand. Her fingers hovered above his bare chest. When he didn’t pull away she lightly touched him. The muscles jumped beneath her finger tips but he stayed.

“You came back,” she said, “why?”

Brookwind pushed closer. He ran his hands lightly along her hair as he gazed into her eyes. His eyes caught the dim light and gleamed. “The soul search, you called me back.”

Was it possible? If she was elf-struck, could he feel the same about her?

She licked her lips, watching his eyes. “What now?”

He picked her up and carried her inside.

5,334 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 40th weekly short story release, written in June 2013 at a workshop on the Oregon Coast while listening to Metric’s Gold Guns Girls. It doesn’t really have much at all to do with the story, I just kept writing with the song on repeat.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRtd8ArvH_s&w=400]

The story went on to sell to WMG Publishing, to appear in Fiction River: Fantastic Detectives (Fiction River: An Original Anthology Magazine) (Volume 9)

Fiction River is a great anthology series. Check it out for more terrific stories. I was thrilled to be included (plus my story was next to Kevin J. Anderson’s story in the contents, so that was fun). Later on I wrote Astrasphere set in the same world.

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. I’m also serializing a novel, Europan Holiday, now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my horror story Bed Bugs.