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.

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.

Tom Scratch

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

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

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

1

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t a cat.

Not really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough delay. His stomach rumbled. Time to eat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The asshole had closed it!

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

He missed thumbs.

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

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

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

It hadn’t mattered to the witch.

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

Easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rowwl! Rrrowwl! RRRoowwl!”

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

“RRROOWWLL!”

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

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

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

“RROOOWWLL! RROOOOOWWL!”

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

2

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

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

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

Rrroowwl! RROOOWWLL!

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

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

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

RRROOOWWWLL!

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

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

“Why are you banging on my truck?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be quick,” Julia promised.

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

RROOWWL!

“I’m coming,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cat kept purring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Meow,” he said.

Julia smiled, and ducked inside.

3

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

Worse.

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

Getting ‘fixed!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

Not that Hal ever listened.

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

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

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

“Meoow?”

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

“You’re still here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This wasn’t angry?

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

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

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

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

“Walk away? You cheated on me!”

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

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

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

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

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

But she’d never seen him like this.

Eric took the last step up onto the porch.

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

Eric shouted and stumbled back.

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

The cat rode him down the whole way.

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

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

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

“No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?” Hal demanded.

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

“What do I tell the police?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh no,” Julia said.

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

She hated him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes watered trying to see in the light.

And then it faded. The wind stopped.

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

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

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

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

She shook her head. “I’m not scared.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He bent down.

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5,693 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my fantasy story Death in Hathaway Tower.

Boldly, Sort Of

Melanie finds writing stories of far-away worlds and adventurous travelers easy. Meeting people? The complete opposite!

Determined to change she attends Spec-Con, a gathering of science fiction and fantasy writers where she plans to come out of her shell and meet people. And who knows? Maybe even find her muse along the way!

1

Spec-Con Welcomes Writers!

The welcome poster board stood to one side of the Davenport’s spacious lobby, as if the hotel staff were subtly trying to hide it, but at least Melanie was out of the heat. August in Spokane, what had the convention organizers been thinking?

She knew she had to look a mess after two hours stuck in traffic on I-5 trying to get to SeaTac, a full pat-down by an overly attentive TSA agent, and then the mercifully short flight sitting next to a hefty man in a blue business suit. Chuck. Insurance. And the heat was stuck on too high in the plane so she still probably smelled like Chuck’s sweat and Axe cologne.

Melanie wanted her room, a shower and a clean change of clothes. Then she’d worry about registration. Or at least that was the plan until a middle aged woman with her sandy brown hair up in a bun, wearing a tight red t-shirt and a name tag with a red border appeared at Melanie’s elbow.

“Hi there!” The woman stuck out her hand. Her palm was damp. Melanie let go quickly. “I’m Nancy, with the writer’s convention? You looked like you might be a writer.”

“I am?” What did writers look like, anyway? Was it a comment that she needed to hit the gym, or just her general disarray? Besides, it felt weird to claim she was a writer, but wasn’t that why she was here? “I am. Melanie Cline, thanks.”

“I thought so.” Nancy pointed past the registration desk. “The convention registration is past the desk, down the hall past the restaurant. It’s in salon three. We’ve got signs out, you can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.”

“Sure. Where’d you come in from, anyway?”

“Tenino.” When Nancy’s face stayed blank, Melanie added, “It’s south of Olympia.” Still a blank look. “That’s south of Seattle, on the other side of the state.”

“Oh!” Nancy laughed. “That’s close to Forks, isn’t it?”

Not really, but Melanie nodded. “We have fewer vampires.”

Nancy rolled her eyes. “I know, right? Anyway, if there’s anything you need just let me know, or anyone with a gold cord.” She touched the string on her name tag.

“Not the red shirts?” Melanie asked.

“No.” Nancy laughed. “Those are for the new writers. Are you professionally published?”

“No.”

“Oh, then you’ll get one too in your registration packet. All of the new writers get red shirts. The pros get a choice of blue or gold.” Nancy laughed. “Isn’t that cute?”

“Yeah.” At least they weren’t requiring miniskirts to go with the red shirts.

The door opened behind Melanie. Two young guys struggled to get their bags inside. She used the distraction as her chance to escape. “Looks like you’ve got more guests, I’ll go check in.”

“Okay, bye!” Nancy waved her fingers and hurried over to the guys.

Glad to be free, Melanie hurried to the registration desk.

 

2

An hour later she was clean, dressed in clothes that didn’t smell like an insurance salesman, and didn’t know what to do.

Actually, that wasn’t true. She knew exactly what she should do. Go downstairs and meet other writers. The thought made her stomach clench. Who was she even kidding? Coming here? If she went downstairs she’d probably end up sitting in one of those chairs the hotel had along the sides of the corridors, with her Kindle in her hand, reading someone else’s book. Someone wearing a blue or gold shirt if they were at this convention.

That’s not why she came all this way. That wasn’t who she wanted to be, one of these days she wanted to come back to this convention and be one of the writers in blue or gold.

Melanie picked up the convention t-shirt. Large, she wished that she could have gone for a medium — it had been on the tip of her tongue — but she could tell just looking at those shirts that it would be too tight and make her boobs look huge. A large red shirt. It didn’t have a target on the back, but it might as well.

Tough. She wasn’t going to hide in her room and she wasn’t going to lurk in one of those chairs like a wallflower. She was going to put on this shirt and go downstairs and actually meet people even if it killed her!

Five minutes later she was back down in the lobby where red shirts wandered around like ghosts, hardly daring to meet each other’s eyes. No sign anywhere of anyone in a blue or gold shirt. She had the bag they had given her at registration with the program booklet, cover art post cards, book marks, e-book gift cards, pens printed with the convention name, and a water bottle with a Pocket Books logo printed on the side. Pocket Books, the official sponsor of this year’s con.

Melanie wondered what color of shirt they would wear. None, probably.

Feeling self-conscious she evaluated her options. Intense-looking guy over near the doors with the top hat and bushy beard? No. Not a chance. What about the woman that looked like she might be in her forties, on the heavy side, but with pretty brown hair, that was sitting by herself in one of the chairs along the corridor? That could have been Melanie sitting there in ten years, except the woman was reading on a Nook. And wearing a red shirt, like the rest of them.

Melanie so did not want to still be a red shirt writer in ten years. She’d go indie before then. How many of these writers were self-publishing? No, the woman looked nice but if she was sitting there and Melanie introduced herself then she’d probably get stuck like a fly on fly paper. They’d end up bonded at the hip the rest of the convention, stuck to the sides of the room watching everything happen around them.

No. No! She wasn’t going to do that. There, a the man coming out of the registration salon. Somewhere around her age, not too tall, with dark hair. He stopped right there in the middle of the corridor and put his registration bag between his knees.

What is he doing? she wondered.

He was wearing a long sleeve green shirt, nice, but he unbuttoned it right there in front of everyone. She saw writers throwing him startled glances but he didn’t act like he noticed. He finished unbuttoning his shirt and pulled it off!

Oh my. The man had a nice chest, very well-defined, and six pack abs that she just wanted to lick all over! She flushed. She never responded like that, but the image was strong in her mind.

And with it the other thought she had had about coming to a convention. A chance to meet someone like her, not that it was the main reason at all, but she had considered the possibility.

Whoever this guy was, he wasn’t shy.

With his shirt off he pulled a red shirt out of his bag and pulled it over his head. He had to struggle to get his arms in the sleeves a bit. It looked like he could have gone with a bigger size but once he got it on the red shirt did a really good job of showing off his biceps. The green shirt disappeared into his bag. He straightened up and only then looked around the corridor.

His eyes met hers and stayed. That was it. Her chance. She was going to go right over there and introduce herself to him. Even if nothing else, she wanted to know how someone could be that uninhibited that he could just change his shirt like that in the middle of the corridor.

But then two guys, the same two guys that had followed her into the hotel, walked past him and her eye contact with the man was broken. She started to move forward, but by then he was already walking away down the corridor.

Melanie took a step, but seriously? Chasing after him? Wouldn’t that look desperate or something? Before she could make up her mind he was gone around the corner.

She’d missed her chance with the not-shy guy. She had blown it, no doubt about it. So when she saw a pretty normal woman walking down the center of the corridor she wasn’t going to make the same mistake. She went right over there and introduced herself.

Darla, turned out to be the woman’s name. Thirties, pretty but not too much so, on the fat side of thin. She looked good. Very curvy and she had a great smile. And she was published!

“So why don’t you have on a blue or gold shirt?” Melanie asked.

“The organizers are only recognizing markets considered professional by the writer’s guild. The magazines I’ve sold to are all smaller markets, but some of those are tougher to get into than the big markets.”

Melanie nodded as if she knew what Darla was talking about. “This is my first time at something like this, I don’t want to hog your time, but I just wondered what we do until the reception tonight?”

Darla laughed. “That all depends. I guess the really dedicated writers are up in their rooms writing.”

Melanie shook her head. “I do that all the time. I don’t have trouble getting words down. It’s more meeting people that I have a problem with.”

“You’re doing fine,” Darla said. “I was going to take a walk on the river front, would you like to come along? I’m sure we can find some other writers to meet on the way.”

It was either that or end up lurking here trying to get up the nerve to introduce herself to someone else. Melanie nodded. “Okay! Sounds good. I’ve been meaning to start walking more.”

“Great, let’s go. We can take the side exit back this way.” Darla started walking. “I walk each morning, and usually after dinner in the evening. Unless I’m on a date or something.”

“That’s great.”

“Writing’s sedentary enough, you have to do something.”

3

Melanie stood alone in the big reception room, surrounded by people. The place was standing room only, literally, they had those little stand-up round tables for people to rest their drinks but no chairs. Even the wallflowers were going to have to stand for this. There were two bars running on each side of the room and the tables were scattered around the edges. Mostly it was a sea of red shirts except for the pro guests. Each stood surrounded by a group of red shirts, obvious in their blue and gold.

The program even promised dancing later, something that sent her stomach fluttering.

But after the afternoon she’d had with Darla she was determined to meet more writers. They had walked along the river and had stopped to talk to several other attendees but now she couldn’t recognize a single face in the sea of eager new writers. Darla had begged off attending with a headache.

Except then she recognized his face. And more.

It was the man that had taken off his shirt in the corridor. He was standing in profile, an untouched drink in his hand. With his tight red t-shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots he looked like a cross between a sensitive, geeky sort of guy, and a cowboy who modeled underwear.

Melanie took a deep breath. And she was going to meet him. Why not? He was probably perfectly nice.

She walked straight to him. He must have noticed her coming because he turned and gave her the biggest smile, one that crinkled his eyes at the corner, as if he had been standing there looking just for her.

His reaction surprised her so much that she turned around to look behind her, because there was no way that his smile was for her.

But there wasn’t anyone behind her smiling back and when she looked back at him, he was still grinning at her.

“Hello,” he said. His voice was rich, gravelly and laced with warm humor. He also had a bit of an accent, Irish, maybe? A geeky, Irish cowboy writer? Such things didn’t seem possible.

He was acting like he knew her and was really glad to see her, both things she had a hard time understanding.

Melanie picked the path of least resistance. She ignored it. Instead she stuck out her hand. “Hi, I’m Melanie.”

Her pulse raced just thinking about shaking his hand but she was going to play it cool. Hopefully her palm wasn’t sticky. Of course there were other things she wouldn’t mind him doing than just shaking her hand.

“I know.” He paused. “Oh, right.”

He took her fingers and raised them slightly as he bent and his lips found the soft skin on the back of her hand. It was only the lightest of touches, dry, just a caress with his warm breath and lips. Then he rose and looked into her eyes with that same impish smile as if they were playing a game, only pretending not to know each other.

Her brain pretty much hit tilt. Her hand tingled as he released it. It was ridiculous but suddenly she could understand how women used to swoon in books. If he could do that much with a kiss on the back of her hand, what else could he do?

He stepped close and his right arm slid smoothly around her hips. His eyebrows raised in a look of concern.

Melanie shook her head and made herself step out of his embrace and away from him. “What the hell?”

His smile came back. “You’re not going to swoon? I didn’t want you to injure yourself falling to the floor.”

Not going to swoon? “What are you talking about? Why would you think I was going to swoon? I mean the kiss was nice and all, but really?”

Now his eyebrows drew together. “But you were thinking about it. You wanted to know what else I could do beside kissing your hand.”

“How would you know what I was thinking?” She raised a finger. “Don’t say you read my mind!”

“Then I won’t say it.” He looked down at his drink, then tilted his head and gave her a long look.

She saw it in his eyes. No. Way. There was no way that he was reading —

He nodded. His smile broadened.

Okay, she thought. If you’re reading my mind then tell me that I’m beautiful.

He smiled really wide then. “You are beautiful.”

The words came out of his perfect mouth with complete sincerity. Melanie found it hard to draw a breath, but she did, and followed it with another.

“What’s your name?” She asked.

“Caleb, I think. I picked that one out but there’s so many names. Do you like it?”

Melanie stepped closer and looked around. No one was listening to them, everyone was busy with their own conversations.

“Yes, they aren’t paying any attention to us, except the one woman over by the bar. She hates you for having the courage to talk to me. You’re the only person who has talked to me tonight.”

“Well, if you keep doing that mind-reading thing, it might put people off.”

He didn’t say anything, just kept looking at her as if she really was beautiful. His lips parted. Melanie raised a finger. “Don’t say it again. It was sweet the first time, but it isn’t true.”

“It is!” He protested with complete conviction.

Which made him either an accomplished, perfect liar, or she didn’t know what. But a mind-reader?

He nodded.

“Stop that. Even if you can read my mind you can wait until I say something to respond to it!”

“Okay.”

Melanie sipped her drink and swirled the taste of the champagne around in her mouth, fizzing against her tongue. The things they could —

No. She stopped herself from thinking about that, for right now there’d be no thoughts in that direction. “So you’re a telepath at a convention full of people who write science fiction and fantasy? Are you a writer too?”

“Yes, and yes. I hope to write stories about your world.”

“Okay, the strangeness meter just dialed itself up another notch. You say that like this isn’t your world.” Melanie shook her head and covered her smile with her hand. “Seriously? That’s what you’re going with?”

Caleb batted his eyes at her and pouted. He looked so wrongfully accused that it wasn’t even funny.

“How are you doing that?”

“Am I doing something incorrect with the expressions?” he asked.

“No, they’re perfect, but too perfect. It’s like if I said make a happy face and you did this.” Melanie smiled her biggest, brightest smile, trying to punch it all the way up to her eyes. “Only on you it doesn’t look fake like it would if I did it.”

Caleb nodded, his face smooth and thoughtful. “I see what you mean.” He winked at her. “Tone it down a notch, right?”

“Perfect.” And it was. Now he didn’t seem like an excellent actor, but an actual real person.

“I am a person.” His tone had the right amount of grievance laced with humor. “Caleb, remember?”

“Oh, I remember.” Melanie took a deep breath. “Okay. So you’re some sort of alien telepath, Irish cowboy, geek writer visiting our world?”

“That about sums it up.” Music started to play, a bouncy dance song. Caleb gestured to the center of the room where people were starting to dance. “Would you like to dance?”

Melanie laughed. “Why not?”

They found a table for their drinks and then Caleb took her hand in his big, strong and perfect hand, and they danced. He danced as well as he made his expressions or did anything else. He was uninhibited but matched her move for move. When the first song ended Melanie suddenly realized that a bunch of people had made room for them and clapped as they finished.

The next song was a slow one and Melanie pulled Caleb away from the center of the attention into the crowd. His hands found her lower back and held her close, but not too tight, just enough so that she could feel his body without being plastered all up against him. Not, she thought at him, that she would mind that if he wanted to go up to her room.

Caleb bent close, his lips brushing her ear in a way that sent delicious tickles down her neck. “If that’s what you want, it’s what I’ve always dreamed of, I even took this form for you.”

Melanie pulled back. “What are you talking about?”

Their heads were so close together his bright green eyes were just about all she could see.

“I came here looking for you, Melanie. A chance to meet you, before all the world speaks your name? It was always my destiny, to be your paradox, your muse. You said it yourself many times.”

She buried her face in his shoulder and breathed in his scent. Soap and something that just screamed maleness that she couldn’t quite place. She could feel his muscles moving like a caged tiger beneath the shirt and remembered suddenly how he had looked in the hallway, putting on this red shirt.

“So you’re what? Adding time traveler to what you are now?”

“Time and space are linked, you can’t travel in one without the other. And we are linked, too, Melanie. From this point forward in the timeline there can’t be one without the other.”

It should have sounded scary. The whole time-traveling alien telepath who looked like an Irish cowboy crossed with a science fiction geek thing should have been too much.

But it wasn’t. “Okay. Let’s go upstairs.”

Melanie led the way, boldly. Sort of.

<<<<>>>>

3,322 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 16th weekly short story release.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Magic is Life, a fantasy story I hope you’ll check out.