Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Crowd, Unnamed Street

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

There was a crowd at the corner of Named Street, a crowd of long grey coats and peering faces. Above them, the pall of a dun-colored night, bisected at its center by a great beam of glaring white light, a vast cone of hard and dead radiance which shone from somewhere low on the ground, up into the sky. The source of the light was invisible from Named Street, emanating from somewhere on Unnamed Street, but its glare had turned the puddles of rain upon the pavement into a tiled path of portentous hieroglyphics, some resembling silver ghosts with their classic drooping arms shaking in the air, some looking like cross-sections of fabulous worms. Worn and sturdy black shoes trod now upon a dancing octopus, now upon the features of the blowing wind; but all, all the fantastical paving slab pictures had been carved together, by the late rain, and the light shooting radiant into the gloom of the night sky.

Mortimer’s tread was steady as he pushed through the crowd of damp, malodorous coats, and to any who blocked his path he flicked his brass disc and said flatly, “LAW”, pacing into the center of the crowd on Unnamed Street, squinting against the light and listening to the silence of the crowd. Not a person spoke, and they moved only to crane their necks.

It was the center, the involuntary source of the light. It was wet, perhaps from the rain, and terrifyingly tiny and vulnerable, fragile as a milk-white baby. It had limbs, but neither hands nor feet on them, and was only as big as a good-sized spaniel dog. On its pointed face a multitude of tiny leaf-green eyes in clusters gazed imploring at Mortimer as he dropped to one knee. The light was beaming through a tiny tear in the fabric of its torso, and it flickered now as the being tried to cover the wound with its trembling, jelly-soft limbs. Looking up into the heavy lidded night, Mortimer had a sense of a membrane torn or split, through which the creature may have fallen. In any case, it seemed young. He realized that his decision had been reached the moment he laid eyes on the thing, but he flashed the brass disc again, too quickly for anyone to notice that it was out of date and thus he was now retired, and said, “LAW. This comes with me.”

He took off his grey overcoat, wrapped it about the thing to cover the wound and keep it warm (and hide its light) and stood up scowling with the unexpectedly heavy burden in his arms. The crowd backed away, one step, two, and he turned on his heel and returned the way he had come, only now the miraculous hieroglyphics on the slick and gritty stones were invisible, silent in the dark, the only sound his thudding footsteps and the quiet, discontented murmurs of the crowd, bereaved of its reason to be, not daring to speak out.

Huge and weighty buildings moved ponderously by. Mortimer’s stolid footsteps did not alter or falter, but he sang, in the dark of his heart.

Puffing from the exertion of the three flights of marble stairs, Mortimer reached his rooms, which were dim, dusty and lamplit, with a weary smell of old age, meat and unopened windows. He noticed this with surprise, and after putting down his precious burden on a pink velvet armchair, he flung wide one of the great windows, letting in the smell of rain and cabbage frying, before securing the shutters for privacy, and kneeling to examine his prize.

The limbs were as soft, moist and bonelessly flexible as that of a very young baby, but the torso, he ascertained with the very softest of clasps, was solid and boned like the staves of a barrel or the whalebone of a corset. There was no hair of any kind anywhere on the tender pale body, but a flexing slit in the face seemed to be a mouth, confirmed he thought by the kitten-soft mewing which emerged from it as he carefully stroked the bulbous head and gazed into the bright and multitudinous eyes. It was pleased. The slit of light beaming from its body threw dazzling rings onto the lofty, dirty ceiling.

For the first time in three years, Mortimer smiled. “Well then,” he whispered, his knees popping as he stood, “Let’s see if we can work you out.”

He made notes as the days passed, using an old and well-loved cypher, and kept the shutters closed until the wound which spilled light began to heal, and close. As to where the light came from and why the thin and fragile skin hid it so effectively, he vowed that nobody would ever find out. He was no vivisectionist, at least not as a hobby, and anyway he was retired now. Hadn’t done anything like that in years. He was… reformed.

He had been alone for a long time, but now it was the two of them, and it was not afraid of him. He nursed it, tried many ways to nurture and please it. He tried various different nutrients, peeling them from the rationed packets and offering their gritty brown and green bars to the mouth, but it would not take them. Spooning water into its mouth produced no actual objection, but he tried the same with a small spoonful of fabulously precious fruit juice, and the thing shat itself continuously for almost forty minutes. Mortimer cleaned up the malodorous green mess and comforted the thing as best he could, throwing the shutters wide to freshen the air. Far across the city, a thundering roar was followed by fire, purple flames which climbed high into the sky, and Mortimer sighed and pulled on the gas mask which hung in the window before the inevitable fumes began. The thing in his arms peeped in alarm, and he hastily closed the window.

He thought it must be a baby.

Whatever it was, it was quite helpless, and therefore might as well be a baby. Mortimer could vaguely remember the birth of both of his sons, but they were long gone now, of course.

He took the thing to bed with him, and it seemed content enough to be there, waving its limbs with a motion of willow branches in a gentle breeze.

In the morning there was an orange haze over the narrow dark streets, and Mortimer resolved to risk leaving the thing alone – he really must give it a name soon – while he collected his pension from LAW. It was meagre enough these days, but he was determined to somehow acquire some milk – perhaps it would drink milk. He would sit it in a bucket before he fed it this time, though. His rugs were ruined.

On the street, he passed only two people, one a woman with a scarred mouth, and one an elderly, hostile man, and he knew they knew him as a former LAWman, but he was fairly sure he didn’t know them – so they probably weren’t part of the crowd which had seen the creature in Unnamed Street. It was in any case unlikely that anybody would be fool enough to tell tales on a LAWman, even retired. Following the rain of the long night before, this short morning threatened to be very dry and very hot; his mask protected against the dust but nevertheless he quickened his pace. For once, he wanted to be home. The black-brick megalith of LAW before him failed to arouse the usual prickle of awe mingled with disgust; he merely hurried across the vast square, through the fifteen-foot doors and through the labyrinthine, mean little passages of grey that led to the Pensions Department, taking his tokens and thinking of nothing but milk. He knew a place where he could find it, of course.
(more…)

For a Song

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

The ocean’s whisper filled the night air as Lydia walked across the cold sand. But she wasn’t here to listen to a whisper. She was looking for a song. She kicked off her shoes, left her clothes in a crumpled pile, and waded into the dark water.

Her skin instantly ached from the cold, and shivers wracked her body. She forced herself forward, one step at a time, till she was deep enough to throw herself into an oncoming wave. She gasped when her face hit the water, and the salt burned her throat.

She struggled forward. She wasn’t a strong swimmer, and the cold made her limbs heavy and listless. “I will do this,” she said, and choked on another mouthful of water.


In her senior year, Lydia’s homeroom desk was near the middle of the room, fourth row, third seat back. Donna Harrison sat in front of her. Sometimes, Donna’s long brown hair would brush against Lydia’s desk.

Lydia loved Donna’s hair. And her always-perfect nails, and the way her eyes crinkled when she smiled. Donna was on the basketball team and dating Tommy Miller. She’d been in Lydia’s class since second grade, and they’d never talked. No one ever talked to Lydia. But sometimes, Donna would smile at her when she handed papers back. Lydia always smiled back.


Lydia caught lilting notes over the sound of the waves and the hammering of her heart. The song pulled her now, her legs kicking, her arms pulling her forward without effort.

The siren sat on a rock, knees tucked up to her chin, singing up at the moon. Her eyes were shadows as she stared down at Lydia.

She finished her song and started another. Lydia couldn’t feel her fingers, though she could see that they gripped coarse rock.

Finally, the siren finished her second song. “Why are you here?” she asked, in a voice like shattered dreams.

Lydia knew just what that sounded like.


She’d asked Donna to sign her yearbook. It was a small thing, hardly out of the ordinary. Donna had spent a long time with her head bent over the blank page, her pen motionless in her hand.

Eventually, she wrote, “Lydia, I’m sorry. I wish we could have shared more. Goodbye, and good luck out there.” She signed her name with a big, loopy D.

Lydia reached out and ran her hand over Donna’s hair, just once. Donna didn’t pull away, and Lydia gathered up her courage. “I think you’re perfect,” she said. “I’ve always thought that.”

Donna’s smile was sad. “Only God is perfect, Lydia.”


“Why are you here?” the siren asked again.

Exhaustion tugged at Lydia’s limbs. The water felt warmer than the air, now. She thought about letting go, about letting it wrap her in its liquid embrace. Her teeth chattered as she answered the siren. “I loved someone, and she–she didn’t love me back.”

“That is what happens when you love,” the siren said. “But many people face unrequited love and do not seek me out. Why are you here?”


Lydia usually walked home from school. But one day, she didn’t. Tommy Miller dragged her into his Buick. His eyes were glazed and he smelled like rum, but he was still strong. “Donna says you’re a dyke,” he said. “You know that’s wrong, don’t you? I can help you. Like I helped her.”

“What do you mean?” Lydia said. Her head spun and her throat ached. Donna had said that about her?

“She told me about her impure thoughts, begged me to get them out of her head. I did, but then you put them back. But I can help.”

“I don’t want your help,” Lydia said. She punched him in the throat, scrambled out of the car, and ran. She ran to the beach, the one that nobody ever went to, because sometimes, when the wind was just right, you could hear the siren there.


“I don’t belong there,” Lydia said. “I don’t want to go back.”

“Don’t be foolish, girl,” the siren said. “You are angry, but it will pass.”

“Aren’t you lonely?” Lydia asked. “I know what that is like. Don’t send me away.”

The siren’s face was beautiful in the moonlight, her long hair as dark as the water. “What do you want?”

“I want you to teach me to sing,” Lydia said. “I’m here to learn your songs.”

The siren stared at her for a long time. “You don’t have the strength to swim back, do you?”


Lydia stood on the shore and listened to the siren sing. She heard her own loneliness echoing back to her, across the waves.

She thought about Donna, and what it must have cost her to write what she did. She wondered how much it would have cost Donna to do more.

Lydia wondered what she’d be willing to pay to reach out and end someone else’s loneliness.


“I wouldn’t go, even if I could,” Lydia said. “I’ve made my decision.”

The siren took Lydia’s hand and pulled her up onto the rock. “Stubborn child. Very well,” she said. “I suppose I have been lonely. I will teach you my songs.”

Hers

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

I never imagined myself getting involved in this war. I’d planned to throw myself into my political career after I finished with school and steer clear of my people’s conflict with the volucri, but of course, I hadn’t anticipated falling for Septima.

We’ve been acquainted since childhood, as our parents ran in the same social circles. I remember chasing her up the stairs while our parents sat at the dining room table discussing business, or maybe how humanity should’ve had a tighter claim to Electra than the bird-men known as the volucri and how these beasts wanted us all dead to reclaim the land they’d had to themselves before our people arrived. I remember eyeing with awe how meticulously pristine she kept her toys while mine had suffered breaks and scuffs from overuse. I didn’t understand how anyone could be so careful and still manage to play.

Then one evening, she tripped over a model spaceship I’d left lying on the floor and tried to steady herself by grabbing onto one of her shelves, and the impact sent one of her delicate porcelain figurines–We can’t play with those, she’d said, they’re too fragile–crashing onto the hardwood. I should’ve known from the size her eyes swelled to that something horrible was going to come of this, but I tried to calm her, to tell her that her parents would understand that it had been an accident. I ran down the hall in search of a broom to sweep the mess away, but I froze outside her door on my way back at the boom of her father’s voice from within, sliding back to flatten myself against the wall and avoid being seen.

“Stupid girl! Do you enjoy breaking things or are you just incapable of paying attention?”

I’d never heard the air go silent after a hand smacked flesh, and it wasn’t until her father had gone and I hurried into the room, broom in-hand and heart thudding like a bird’s wings against my ribs, that I understood that was what had happened when I took in the tears streaming down Septima’s cheeks and the scarlet imprint of a hand on her pale face.

It was in my third year at the Electran Arts Academy–her second–that I realized I was completely in love with her. I was running late to class already, but I paused to hold the ladder that had started to sway as she descended from hanging a poster for the upcoming dance, bits of glitter flecking her face and her smile unwavering even as the ladder wobbled. She beamed at me.

“It’s all coming together, Leo. I’ve been going crazy trying to get everything organized–we’ve gone through three different catering companies, but I think this one will work. I can’t wait for you to see all of it.”

She’d found a way to give herself some form of control over her life–she’d thrown herself into the dance preparations completely and given her whole self to them, and gods, I almost didn’t recognize her. I’d never seen her so happy, and I’d never realized how beautiful she looked when she smiled, even with her makeup smeared from sweating and her nose peppered with glitter. I realized then that I’d hardly ever seen her smile since our playdates had decreased in frequency after her father and mine had disagreed about something I couldn’t recall, and I knew I wanted to see this expression much more often. She deserved happiness, and I planned to make sure she had it.

“I can’t wait to see,” I told her. “Are you going with anyone?” She shook her head, and before I had time to second-guess the impulse, I blurted, “Want to go with me?”

Her smile brightened, and I knew I was trapped by my need to keep it in place, but I didn’t mind. If she was happy, I would be.

“I’d love to,” she said, and her blush mingled with the gold of the glitter.

Though we’d known each other for so long, I was still somewhat surprised that she agreed. I had no idea at the time that I would become so entrapped within the war effort, but my plan to ascend to the Electran Senate wasn’t something I bothered to hide, and I feared someone who disliked conflict as much as Septima would find little appeal in moving anywhere near the cutthroat world of politics. When I finally managed to ask her to dinner, however, my hands trembling behind my back as I walked her home from school the week after I’d spent the entirety of the dance unwilling to let her leave my arms, she just smiled her crooked smile and asked “What took you so long?”

I’ve always considered myself to be strong. She’s the only one who’s ever managed to bring out the cracks in my armor.

A few months ago, I was in the middle of a debate with one of my enemies in the Senate when a thunderstorm started to rock the building, and I let the man believe he’d won the argument so that I could rush home, where I found Septima exactly where I knew she’d be–curled in a ball on our bed, her hands pressed to her ears as she muttered that the storm would pass. The other Senator went on to brag about my concession, and I couldn’t find it within myself to care, despite how embarrassed I should’ve been, because at least I’d gotten home in time to hold my wife through the worst bouts of thunder.

Storms and her father are the only things I’ve ever known her to fear. I, on the other hand, have always been deathly afraid of the volucri.

The day the volucri bombed our high school, we’d been together for less than a month. I followed the masses out onto the lawn and immediately began to scan the area for her. For what couldn’t have been more than five minutes but felt like the sum of several lifetimes, I had no idea whether she’d escaped, and I’d just shoved my way through a group of teachers in my charge back toward the crackling, smoking building when I felt her hand on my arm. I can’t recall a time before or since that I’ve felt such indescribable relief, like I’d finally reached shelter after being stranded in a hurricane.

“You’re all right,” I breathed, pulling her close.

“I’m fine, Leo,” she assured me, tears shining in her eyes. A glance at her hands told me otherwise; her skin was covered in deep cuts and scrapes, blood caking her pale flesh. I reached for her wrist to lift it gently and examine her injuries, my brow furrowed. Septima sighed. “A few people were trapped under rubble. I couldn’t just leave them.”

“You could’ve been hurt. Badly. Or–”

“But I wasn’t,” she snapped. “Are you telling me you wouldn’t have helped them?”

“Of course I would’ve, but…” I paused, attempting to determine the best way to phrase my disagreement. Yes, I would’ve done the same. Yes, I knew she’d done the right thing. But the idea that she’d been in danger charged through my mind like a livid hornet, leaving my thoughts a jumbled, buzzing mess. I could handle danger, but the thought of losing her… “You could’ve been hurt,” I said again, lamely.

She stared at me for a long moment, and then her face softened and she wound her arms around me. “I’m okay,” she said.

But I wasn’t about to allow any harm to come to her again while I was breathing.

I missed our third date to volunteer for a covert group led by Lieutenant Commander Moore. He called it the Human Liberation Army, and at the time, I believed liberation was truly the goal. I thought we’d finally be fighting the volucri in the open. I thought there would be a full-on war and then this would end. I didn’t realize then that I’d signed up to become a shadow in the night, gaining information by force and disposing of those who could offer no further assistance.

Now, a little more than a year into our marriage, I’ve admitted exactly where I’ve been going after the Senate adjourns and before I stumble in covered in injuries worse than those she sustained in the bombing–a broken clavicle, a few shattered ribs, my finger cut to the bone.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have told her I’ve killed. It was a weak moment, admittedly, but I had to tell someone, to unburden myself, and she’s the only one I trust.

“How could you do this?” she demands, her fists clenched so tightly her arms tremble and shake her shoulders violently. “How could you agree to help him with something so–so insane? This isn’t you, Leo. This isn’t the man I married.” Her lips are pressed into so tight a line they’ve started to drain of color.

“Septa…” I reach out for her shoulder, but she draws it back so quickly I flinch. I let out a frustrated cry, throwing up my hands in surrender. “Don’t you get it? This is all for you!”

“For me?” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head, scowling. “That’s–”

“It’s true,” I say through gritted teeth, my fingernails biting into my palms. This time, I’ve come back with my chest aching, and I’m afraid another rib is broken, but I ignore it, for now. I need to focus on Septima. “For you and the family we’ve always wanted. Do you think I feel safe in a world where the volucri could wipe us out at any second? Do you think I want to bring our children into that world? If I can stop the volucri before they have the chance, then–”

She laughs shortly and turns away, toward the wall. “Oh, so you’re perfectly fine with throwing yourself into the line of fire. How the hell am I supposed to sleep, knowing you’re out there risking your life?”

I sigh and lay my hand on her arm, and she doesn’t pull back, though she still doesn’t look at me. “I can only sleep,” I tell her, “because I know that if I’m doing this, you won’t have to.”

“You’re ridiculous,” she says, and though her tone is hard, I catch sight of a tear sliding down her cheek. “You want to protect our future, but at what cost? I’d never have asked you to go this far.”

“I… haven’t scared you away, have I?” My heart thuds against my ribs, and I’m not sure I can bear the answer. I can’t begin to imagine my life without her.

She’s still for a moment, and then she lays her hand over mine on her arm. There’s pain in her eyes, and I hate myself for causing it. “Someone has to help fix you when you come back like this,” she says. “You’re an idiot if you think I’d let it be anyone else.”

Bait

Friday, September 1st, 2017

The interior of the houseboat floating on this quiet backwater canal could have been the interior of any low rent, poorly furnished apartment complex in any city, anywhere. All seven units have creaky hardwood floors, raspy hinges on over-painted doors, and blinds whose fractured slats let almost everything in.

We don’t even have a door to the shared hallway. Our neighbor opens theirs a crack, pokes his nose into the hall, and retreats. It doesn’t shut completely.

Edaelia, my frizzy haired roommate, full cheeks, and fierce curves, leans against the window with the eye-level slats parted. “Some shit coming up the canal.”

I nudge her a little and cop her slats. Churning up the canal is a rusty yellow barge pushing mushy brown sludge in frosting-like waves to the crinkled metal breakwater along the far shore. The vacant houses are shuttered; the residents long since removed. “There hasn’t been a barge in six months.”

“Six months and three days,” she says.

There is a mucky slap of barge churn against our hull and the sizzle of their Current Probe on our Cloaking Grid. The window is now gradually obscured by dirty yellow corrugated metal. The Carrion Scythe, Hunter Class, rises from the barge and hovers just above it, emitting a glowing blue cauldron from its spinning orange exhaust ports.

Edaelia exhales a slow incantation. It sounds like a curse, but isn’t really language. The exposed muscles of her long brown legs, midriff, and arms ripple with the curvature of the phrase. Her pajamas are a pair of black, hip hugging shorts and a slate grey tank top. Neither the barge nor the Carrion Scythe are an issue until the electro-gristle of the Current Probe begins to taper away and the barge wake slapping against our hull ceases. Out the window the barge stops. We take a quiet breath.

Edaelia reaches up and opens the slats at the top of the window. “The Scythe is moving into position.”

“It couldn’t just move on past. It has to stop and fuck with us?”

The neighbor’s door pops open. He sees our shared expression. “Don’t tell me.”

“A Carrion Scythe is moving into position.”

He retreats, not completely closing the noisy door. Moments later, panic whispers.

I frown. “What should we do?”

“What we always do.” Her expression is stern.

“I’m glad it’s your turn.” I step away from the window, head towards the closet. “I’m tired of killing.”

To open the closet, I yank because the door sticks to the frame. I reach in and remove a black orb from the crowded shelf. Without looking I toss it to her. Calibrating, it glows blue in her hand, then flicks off. “Are you going to change out of your pajamas?” I ask.

“Why even bother,” is her nonchalant reply.

She heads over to the neighbor’s door and gives it three light raps. Their two month old starts crying. Their whispers get frantic, so fast it sounds like gibberish.

“Time to go upstairs.” Edaelia says, leaning into the door. Their whispers stop, but the baby screams louder. “You don’t want me to come in after you, do you?” I recognize his footsteps in their hallway. His nose peeks out. “No.”

“Bring the baby.” She grabs the door and opens it wide with a loud creak.

Their expressions resigned, our neighbor, his wife, and screeching baby file out of their apartment into the hall. Edaelia points them to the darkened stairwell and they sheepishly head upstairs. Edaelia follows them, closing the door behind her. I hear the deadbolt lock into place.

Step after heavy step, they creak their way up the steep staircase. The pitch and volume of the wailing infant is unbearable. Perfect. Reaching the top, Edaelia shoves them out the door onto the roof.

Seeing the helpless couple with child, the crew of the Carrion Scythe will break protocol, open their hatch, and begin the rescue. That’s when Edaelia will strike. She powers up the orb, which drops the Cloaking Grid, revealing our houseboat for what it really is: a glowing, malleable, blue-black Phosphor-Cysting Field.

I hear the hysterical burst of cross chatter from the Scythe. Edaelia emerges from what was the stairwell, the orb emitting a focused myriad of amber Dis-Tension Beams that annihilates everything. The child’s screams are abruptly silenced. The ship and everyone in it, powdered.

Edaelia recalibrates the orb with a quick twist; then lobs it into the barge. It explodes with a loud clang.

Out the window I watch the dirty yellow barge swallowed by thick, snotty sludge. The Cloaking Grid reboots, retraces, and the houseboat returns. I hear Edaelia’s measured footsteps coming down the stairwell and think, I’m tired. Then wonder, When can we stop snaking around this inter-galactic speciary picking off the last remnant of humanity? When can we pack our shit, leave this backwater galaxy, and go home?

Our Mutual Friend

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

Mommy sang to me. She meant to sing only to me, but she sang to you too since you were there as well. She could sing more notes than there were stairs leading up to the fourth floor where our apartment was back when we lived in the city. This was before she bought our first house, “a house of our own, Sweetie,” she said. It was small, like a box, with only the rooms we needed. I sometimes wanted a bigger house like my friends. They had more toys and space to play, more indoor space away from the mud and slush in our front yard, my play space. Still, I liked our house. I could hear the birds sing from my window every morning and identify them by their calls, like you had taught me. Then we moved again. I did not know why then, Tobias.

Mommy and I moved a lot. There was a time when I was four when Mommy and I moved late in the night. She had me hide in a suitcase. That was the night I learned grown-ups could be scared. She told me to go in, and that she would zip me up. “Don’t make a sound,” she said. “If you do, we’ll get in big trouble.” Shortly after I was all zipped up, I heard loud angry voices climb up the stairs of our apartment. I think they broke down our door. I squeezed myself as small as I could. The suitcase was so tight, and I felt the fabric all around me. I could not see anything it was so dark. The air was stuffy, and tasted like sweat and cloth. I shuddered and tried not to squirm. I wanted to scream, but I remembered Mommy’s words, so I put my hand over my mouth and cried really quietly.

I listened and heard a man’s voice call Mommy “Paula”. I had recently learned that Mommy had another name that grownups called her: Paula. He kept asking where Genevieve was. Genevieve, Genevieve, Genevieve. Mommy said that she put her up for adoption, something like that. Eventually, the men left, and Mommy said I could come out of the suitcase. I gasped to breathe the air. She slumped into a chair breathing heavily. She looked like I felt when I would come crawling into her bed after a scary dream. I thought she was afraid, so I cried, and Mommy held me. We left hurriedly, scared that we would be seen since it was a full moon, but only a barn owl saw us as it flew across the sky. You told me what type of bird that was later.

Maybe that night is why I met you, Tobias. We were on a train, while Mommy and I were in the process of moving. It was the day after she had me hide in the suitcase. I think she was exhausted. I had never seen her nap before. I sat on her lap while her head fell back into the seat. Her eyes closed, and her mouth fell open. I stared at her. Her head lurched with bumps, and she never reacted. I poked her arm, surprised that she did not scold me, because it is rude to poke. Instead she continued sleeping, and I remembered being in the suitcase. I started crying again, but then I met you. You sat across from us at that moment in our compartment, calmly watching us. You were a grownup like Mommy with forest colored eyes and dark hair. I startled. You had not been there before, and I knew Mommy had locked the compartment.

“Mommy, Mommy,” I said, and like any mommy, she woke up at the sound of her child’s voice.

“What?” she groggily answered with her eyes closed.

“Look,” I said pointing at you.

“What?”

“Look.”

“That’s the seat.” And then you were no longer there.

“Oh.” I said. “I poked you when you were sleeping.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have.”

Afraid of where the conversation could go, I changed the subject. “Mommy, who’s Genevieve.”

“Oh you heard that. I had hoped you had fallen asleep in the suitcase.”

“But who’s Genevieve?”

“Sweetie, Genevieve isn’t real. She’s someone that man wants to be real.”

“What’s apopsion?”

“Adoption? Adoption is when you don’t have parents, so other parents become your parents.”
(more…)

Crusaders

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

Beneath the September night sky, black as a pool of ink, sharp orange flames illuminated London. They were like pits of fire from a hellish world, with great billowing clouds of smoke, demons released from their confines. Or so it appeared to Will.

Flying five thousand feet above the city in his Spitfire aircraft, Will was caught in the thick of the smoke. Although it clustered around the fires closer to the ground, up here, smoke from the bombed sites merged into a dark haze that obscured not only the other planes in his squadron, but the German bombers as well. Will could just see the tail of Eric’s plane off to his left, wavering in and out of the miasma. His hands clenched the stick with expert concentration, and he had strapped his goggles onto the top of his head so that the additional glass wouldn’t obscure his vision.

This was by far the worst he had seen. Admittedly, at nineteen years old, he hadn’t seen much, but beneath his laser focus on the surrounding battle, his imagination styled this as an apocalypse with those demons rising from the inferno, and the people below fleeing from incinerated hideaways toward deeper shelters. Or perhaps just giving up. Will could never understand that, giving up. That was why he and his cousin Rory had come to England, leaving their family on the Isle of Skye to join the RAF. Because if the world was going to end in a hellfire, Will would rather burn in the conflagration than starve on its outskirts.

These melancholy considerations were halted, however, when Jim’s voice sounded in his headset, scratchy with a static buzz. “This is Jim Hartshorne. Squadron leader is down. I repeat, Reginald’s plane is down. I’m taking his position at the front.”

Will bit his lip. He continued flying in the formation, at least, what he assumed was still the formation. Jim, only two years Will’s senior, was a master at improvisation, but leading the squadron was another matter entirely.

“Backing you up on your left,” Will heard Eric’s voice in response.

Then Jim spoke up again. “I see a bomber up ahead, fifty feet above us. Will, I want you after him.”

“You want me to break formation?” Will spoke into his microphone, which was flush against the side of his jaw.

“I want you to do what you were made to.” Jim’s voice was barely audible amid the static. Perhaps the radio tower had taken a hit. “It’s not ideal, but damn, is any of this ideal?”

Although Will knew that was a rhetorical question, he still responded, “No.”

“Then go get the bastard. You’re the sharpest pilot here. Besides, you’ve got the best plane.”

It was true, at least, the part about his plane; Will couldn’t say that he was sharper than the other pilots, though he always trained the hardest.

“Gain some altitude first,” Jim continued. “Then shoot him down like a vengeful angel. I want that plane out of commission in five minutes. You hear? Go get him, fairy boy.”

“I’m on it.” Will felt like adding something to effect of not calling him ‘fairy boy,’ but decided that now was not the time. Yet it did make him glance to the top left of his dashboard where a small picture was taped above the controls, the source of his nickname. It was a picture of the tattered Fairy Flag. Its pale yellow-brown silk was worn thin so that it was no longer a square, but a haphazard sort of polygon. Upon its surface were red spots, forming no particular pattern, “elf dots” as Will’s grandmother called them. Although it looked like no more than a rag in the picture, when he had seen it in person, taken out from where it was usually locked in a wooden chest at Dunvegan, the MacLeod family castle on the Isle of Skye, he had sensed a power within it. It was easily overlooked at a cursory glance, but it was as if each thread had been woven by the singing voices of fairies, bringing the strength of the Other World into it. Even after the other men of his squadron had no shortage of amusement at Will’s expense after having bribed Rory into telling them that the picture was of the Fairy Flag, Will never went on any expedition without it.

Although its origins were shrouded in mystery, the flag was known to protect the clan MacLeod. It had supposedly won them various battles in the past, and had also stopped a plague some centuries ago. Will wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, but it gave him a strange sense of courage. He didn’t believe that it came from fairies, and was not at all certain about its reputed powers, but it was an emblem of the courage of his people, his distant ancestors as well as his family back home, and the hope for their future.

As he ascended to overtake the German plane, he could hear the whir of his Spitfire’s propellers speeding faster and faster. He had gained enough altitude, so focused in on the plane below, weaving in and out of the smoke like a sea monster only half visible in dark waters. Yet it was visible enough to shoot.

Before Will could become that avenging angel, an enormous bang deafened him. It reverberated down to his bones, and a swarm of heat washed over him. The choking smell of burning fuel pervaded his senses, and the front of his plane surged with flames. He quickly brought his goggles back down over his scalding eyes.

Despite having been hit—probably by a bomber hidden in the smoke above him—he was heading right into the path of the German plane below. He tried to eject, for he would burn up in a moment. Yet the latch on his seat had fused together from the fire creeping beneath the plane, and his hands burned beneath his leather gloves when he touched it. He had nearly reached the German plane, though he tried to turn off to the right to gain himself more time.

Please, he thought, glancing to his picture. If you can do anything, if—

He felt himself whirl into a misting gyre. It was not his plane that was falling, nor even his body, but his mind seemed to be travelling alone. Down he swept, hardly aware of his surroundings, not even able to be dizzy with the great speed at which he was descending. And then even the gyre was gone, and all sensation left him.
(more…)

A Diamond in the Mind’s Eye

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Smears of cryogel stuck to the explorer’s eyelids, the back of his neck, his genitals. A single shower never got rid of it all, but in his rush to resume scanning for the diamond planet, Maitch Esso hadn’t taken time for the second or third he’d really need to get clean. He noticed a stray patch of gel on his left forearm; taking a greasy towel, he rubbed at the goo, gradually releasing it from his skin. Underneath, a part of his personal scrapbook came into view: a red rose with the name Achelle, his wife, and a simple diamond formed from a few crude lines. The first, he remembered, he’d paid for after their first date; she had a matching one with his name. He wondered if she had kept it, after he had left. The second he had done himself, at fourteen, poking out the shape with a needle wrapped in thread and dipped in India ink. Somehow, it had lasted as long as the professional one.

“Refocus, buddy!” Maitch stared at the flat-screen, punching up the 3-D view. Stars leaped about with the change in perspective. Nothing looked right as yet.

This time he felt sure. He could feel it more strongly than any of the previous twenty-six times. When he found the diamond planet, the first one to do so since Earthmen had been talking about, searching for and believing in this one precious object, he, Maitch Esso, would be a legend among legends. To speed his search, he had created a unique algorithm, processing centuries of myths, tall tales and observable facts, along with geology, chemistry and the astrophysics of solar energy fields. Each factor had its own alphanumeric in his formula. As a result, he was searching for a binary star system that had captured a passing white dwarf. Together, this trio would have applied pressure and heat for a millennium to cook down a nondescript carbon planet into the largest, most valuable jewel in the universe.

Cosmological analysis had yielded a catalog of points jumbled across the constellations, and Maitch had tracked them one by one. They had all proven dead ends. Next on the list of likely targets, the algorithm pointed to an area just inside the Capricornus Void. That alone comprised a massive territory, but he had programmed the trip anyway. One more stop on a long series of stops.

Now, the ship’s computer had woken him from the sleep freeze again. “How long have I been down?” Maitch said aloud.

In response, the computer flashed a chronometer on the screen. It would have read him the time, except he had turned off its damned voice a long time ago. Too irritating. The vocal circuit had developed a fault, so it dragged out certain vowels and one consonant in particular: “s.” The drifting thing sounded like a giant anaconda, hissing and sputtering away. One day, the fault would spread to the other circuits, and then he would be bunched into the fourth dimension.

Maitch stared at the clock. Thirty-eight years of freezer burn.

“Danglers,” he swore. “My whole life passing before my dreams.” Twenty-six times he had woken like this, sometimes after five years, sometimes after decades; more than fifty, once. All in all, probably five or six hundred years, give or take a few. The computer would know; none of it would matter once he found the diamond.

Back to work. The computer had divided the area into blocks one astronomical unit per side. He pushed the scanner’s viewplate across the current cube, examining every celestial body from dwarf planet on up. Maitch took on the search himself. When you’re hunting for something that doesn’t exist, like Atlantis or Lemuria, you have to drift with your intuition rather than navigate by fact and figure alone.

After days at the scanner, loneliness dragged at his mind. Maitch could make it a couple of days without hearing a human voice, especially when he had something to busy himself. Now the work had become rote. Luckily, he had saved all Achelle’s voicemail messages when she was contacting him to find out where he’d gone, to get him back, to make him feel guilty for abandoning their life together. Needing to hear his wife talk, Maitch set the computer to continue scanning before taking the speaker bot from the cupboard where it lived during his cryosleep periods.

The robot, simply a cheap, generic android with limited functionality, had a blank plastic face and rubber lips. The lips, he noticed, were cracked and crumbling from dry rot. The plastic skin had yellowed. Its eyes had been installed so they moved to add expression, but they seemed dull, blank, lifeless. The paint on the molded hair had faded, and much of it had flaked away.

Maitch touched the magnetic key to the back of its neck, and the bot jerked briefly, masticating its lips in a parody of facial exercise.

“Talk to me,” Maitch said. “Play the recordings. Start with number C-sixteen.”

“Maitch! This is your wife again,” the robot’s lips moved in crude approximation of the words. Achelle’s voice, musical, warm and soft despite her frustration, came through a speaker hidden behind the rubber flaps. “Remember me? Please call me when you get this message. Dacta has been asking about you. I think you should tell him yourself where you’re going. Old Sol knows I don’t understand.”

“I’m close this time, Darling,” Maitch said, speaking to the robot. “This is it. I’ll bring back proof, and then I’ll be famous. Book tours. Speaker’s fees. Exhibitions of stones and photographs. We’ll be rich. You’ll be famous, too. I know you’ll like that.”

“The money’s running out, Maitch.” The tape continued. “You didn’t leave enough for the bills. My job alone can’t cover them. Your clients are threatening to press lawsuits. What am I going to do?” Her throat caught in a sob, pinching off the words.

“I know. I’m sorry. I had to do it. I had to follow my dream. You always said I should follow my dream.”

“You said forever. We’d be together forever. Life’s adventure. The shop, a home, a family. That would be enough for you. What happened? Wasn’t I enough?”

“Yes, darling, I know. You were enough; you were great. I don’t know why I did it. But here I am. It will be over soon. Then I’ll come back.”

Now his heart had clotted with a thick soup of grief and loss; his mind ran through all the regrets. He’d had enough of the old words for now.

“Stop the tape,” he told the bot. “Voice circuit activate. No recording.”

The robot turned its head from side to side and pursed its lips. “Hello, Maitch.” It was Achelle’s voice, taken from snips of the recordings and stitched together into new words, new sentences.

“Hello, Darling. Come with me to the kitchen.”

The android stumped after him. Its left foot dragged; its left arm dangled, useless.

“How’s your arm?”

“It’s okay today. My foot doesn’t want to cooperate. I’m sorry I’m moving so slow.”

“I’m sorry I messed you up. If I hadn’t left that floor hatch open, you wouldn’t have stepped in it.”

“You tried to fix me.”

“But then I messed it up. I didn’t know what I was doing. I disconnected the wrong circuit and disabled your arm.”

“You did your best with what you had. The manual wasn’t clear. At least you cared enough to try.”

They made it to the kitchen at last. “Have a seat,” Maitch said. “Would you like a nanny block?”

“No, thank you. I don’t know how you can eat those things. Nanny blocks are for little kids.”

“What’s not to like? Sweet, milky, chewy. Like treacle, but with all the nutrients a man needs. I’ve always liked ‘em.”

“They’re gross.” The cracked lips approximated a rictus of disgust.

“Nanny blocks are perfect for space travel. Never spoil, never lose flavor.”

“They never had any flavor.”

Maitch ignored the remark. “Besides, they take me back to the days of my youth, good times. Simpler times. That’s important in a long voyage.”

“It didn’t have to be so long.”

“That’s the way it happened. I might have found it in the first year. But it didn’t happen that way.”

“You look tired.”

“I am. I need some jet-nap.”

“You should get some real sleep. The computer can monitor the scanning process.”

“This is too important. I can’t spare the time.”
(more…)

The Last Gift

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

1.
With the last bits of shredded wrapping paper stuffed into a black plastic trash bag, I turned my attention to the ornaments on the Christmas tree. I wanted it all down, every light and every silver thread of tinsel. Tara told me to leave the tree alone. She knew what the holiday meant to us, but maybe she wanted us to pretend we could forget about it. I thought, to hell with her, and to hell with my dad for not standing his ground. Staring her in the eye, I dropped the glass ball I took from the tree. It popped on the ground into tinkling silver shards.
Tara shook her head at me and clucked her tongue. She gave Dad that stupid exasperated expression she put on any time she had to interact with me.
“Richard, clean it up and be more careful. We will take the tree down next week,” he told me. He poured another half-cup of coffee, then filled the other half with whiskey.
Tara looked ready to have a fit. I saw it creep over her thin shoulders, up her skinny neck, but then to her credit, she bit her lips and held it back. She didn’t want a fight on Christmas. Hell, she just wanted a special day as a family. She wanted that Christmas promise of smiles, thank-you hugs, sledding, and then cocoas until dinner is ready. Dad was her first marriage and it was her first Christmas with a family of her own – second-hand as it was. Whatever Christmas meant to her, to Dad and me, it was a eulogy we had to suffer every year for a month. That’s why Dad drank until the tree and wreaths and lights and holly all blurred together, and kept on until they faded completely as he passed out.
Four years ago, I used to love Christmas. I’d nest in the wrapping paper before Dad had a chance to throw it away. When I gave Mom her thank-you-hugs she smelled like peppermint cocoa. She served breakfast on the big, round coffee table in the family room, so we didn’t have to leave our presents. With everyone still in their pajamas, we ate waffles soaked to the plate in butter and warm syrup and had tall glasses of pulpy orange juice to wash it down. After we dumped our dishes in the sink, we’d head to the living room, grab a blanket, then find a comfortable place on the sofa or floor to curl up and watch a holiday movie while our food digested. I’d fall asleep twenty minutes in, warm, full, and content.
When I woke up, all the wrapping paper was gone and my presents would be waiting for me, stacked up on my bed. Jackson, my little brother, and I would play with our new toys until Mom hollered at us to make ourselves presentable for guests. Family was coming for dinner. When all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents arrived, the house would swell with laughter and excitement. Jackson and I would compare our presents with our cousins to see who had won that year. Then we would run around the house, sometimes playing games, but mostly I think we were trying to burn off the delirium and joy.
The air of the house would grow thick with the smell of food. Jackson and I would sit with the cousins, squirming at the kids’ table. Our plates would fill up with turkey and mashed potatoes all covered in gravy. Even vegetables somehow tasted good on Christmas. Then there was pie and eggnog, crammed on top of our fit-to-burst stomachs. The pile of dirty dishes everyone took turns washing never took as long as I thought it would. Everyone hugged their goodbyes. The younger cousins were carried out asleep, like rag-dolls in their parents’ arms. Dad would carry Jackson to his bed. Mom would kiss me good night. I would take one last proud look over my presents before crawling underneath my covers. The post-Christmas blues would set in as I drifted to sleep, but I’d still be smiling.
All that was gone now. All that family was on my Mom’s side. Dad didn’t invite them over anymore and never took them up on their invitations. With Mom and Jackson gone, everything felt uneven and the remnants of our family collapsed in on itself. We had buried Christmas at their funeral. December became just a cold month spent eating take-out and watching action movies. Then Tara came along and dug it back up, but it was a lifeless, zombie of a Christmas now.
His two-hour Christmas vacation over, Dad was back to work on his laptop. Tara began sucking down mimosas, trying to drown the regret of joining our broken family. Things were back to normal. It was just Wednesday again.
I swept up the broken ornament. Some of the glass got under the tree. Bending low to get at it, I noticed a red ribbon that wound itself around a gold wrapped box. It was about the same size as clothing box, but heavier than clothes. There was no tag saying who it was from and who it was for.
“There’s one more present under the tree,” I called out.
Dad grunted. He’d already given all the attention he could spare for one day. Tara leaned back in her chair to look through the kitchen doorway. She gave me a lazy smile, waving her hand in the air to say she didn’t care, and then went back to pouring champagne into her orange juice.
“Fine. I guess it’s mine,” I said to myself.
I put the present on my lap and tore the paper away from a clear, plastic box. Inside the box were nine balls, each of them was a different opaque color and about the size of a baseball. I thought they were more Christmas ornaments for Tara at first, but they were too heavy to be ornaments. I opened the box and took out the red, gooey ball. It felt sticky and squishy, like a ball of firm Jell-O, or more like the sticky, hand-shaped slapper things I used to get as a kid for two quarters out of toy machines. Fifteen was too old for toys, so I figured they were from Tara. She was clueless on everything teenager. They could’ve been some sort of game, but there were no instructions. I held the red goo-ball in my hand. An overwhelming urge to throw it against the wall came over me. It stuck with a very satisfying splat. I took out the purple goo-ball and threw it next to the red one on the wall. They both stayed stuck.
“Whatever you’re doing in there knock it off, or take it up to your room,” Dad bellowed.
“And don’t forget to take out that garbage,” Tara said.
I stood smiling off into nothing for few seconds after I pulled the goo-balls off the wall. When I tried to think of why I had started to smile, I couldn’t. It was like I had a good idea and then forgot it completely.
In my room, I dumped my presents on my bed. There was this building anticipation in my gut. There was all this energy in me. I licked my lips and took out the red ball again. I squeezed it in my hand, relishing the way it bulged between my fingers. I flung the ball against the wall with another satisfying splat and it stuck there quivering. I yanked out the other goo-balls out of the molded tray. First, I chucked Yellow and Blue against the wall, followed by Orange and Green, and then Teal and Purple, Amber, and finally Chartreuse. They stuck to the wall, wiggling a tad, but holding firm. I pulled them off one by one, and one by one, I threw them back against the wall. I kept at it until Tara came up to scream at me. She’d been calling me down to dinner. Eight hours had passed like a daydream. My shoulders ached and my arms shook with fatigue. My cheeks pinched with soreness. Apparently, I had been smiling the whole time.
Dad and Tara went to bed, and I was on my way to brush my teeth and do the same, but ended up out in the garage with the goo-balls. Hours passed. My tired eyes stung and deep yawns shook my whole body. Still, I didn’t want to stop. I only wanted to lose myself further in the peaceful repetition of throwing and pulling the goo-balls.
On one throw, the orange had stuck to the wall in a more oblong shape. Then the purple flattened against the wall in a rounded square. A thrill ran through me. Chartreuse stuck in a triangle. Amber, motionless in an octagon. Teal was a parallelogram. I went through every shape I could remember from geometry. When I couldn’t think of any more, Green hit the wall and spread into a smiley face. That gave me a cold rush of reality. I had somehow been controlling the goo-balls, deciding what shape they’d be when they hit the wall.
I threw Yellow on top of Teal, to see if it would stay there and, of course, it did. Then I threw Chartreuse followed by Red on top, and they stayed put too. I threw the rest of the balls and got them all to stick in a row straight off the wall. It was like having a dream where you realize you can fly. At first, you feel a little excited, but then it seems like the most natural thing in the world.
“Richard!” Tara shouted at the doorway with her hands pressed against her hips. “What the hell, man?”
The goo-balls fell onto the concrete floor.
“Wh-What?” I croaked, feeling disoriented like I had woken from a deep sleep.
“It’s 2 o’clock in the morning. Stop whatever the hell this is and go to bed.”
“I was, uh… trying out my presents,” I told her, picking up the balls and dropping them back into the tray.
“What are those things? Did your father get them for you?” Tara asked as she poked the teal goo-ball. “Are they toys?”
I shrugged, “Yeah, I guess. There wasn’t a tag or label or nothing.”
Tara’s eyebrows raised and she clucked her tongue. “Aren’t you a bit too old for toys?”
“Isn’t my dad too old for you?” I muttered.
“What did you say?” Tara said, grabbing my arm.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You know what?” She couldn’t finish. The fight went out of her and she dropped my arm. “Just go to bed.”
Back in my room, I flopped onto my bed and had the best night’s sleep in my life. The next morning I woke up with thick layers of sleep crusted in my eyes. My arms were heavy and warm. Something had changed in me; I could feel it. Something was better.
(more…)

Willingly and with Joy

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Waves smashed into boulders strewn like a giant’s bread crumbs in front of the seawall. Caught by the setting sun, the spray glittered gold as it was cast into the air and fell in drops of citrine. Zeninna laughed and raised her arms to catch the wild energy. Wind tangled her unbound black hair and billowed her clothes. Though the wind tried, the gusts lacked the strength to knock her from her perch on the seawall.

“I did it, you old hags! I got in!”

The roar of wind and angry waves along Landis’ empty seawall gave Zeninna the courage to yell her triumph to the sea. She pealed with laughter, delighted with her success.

She’d sworn she could. Stood up before the Iridescent Court and scoffed at those who mocked her as too young, too wild, too loud. Unruly as the sea in storm, her own mother screeched at her. Zeninna’s supporters begged her to keep her temper leashed. She hadn’t. She couldn’t. The old hags made her too angry. But she won the right to try.

And she’d succeeded. She pressed her hand over her heart and felt the papers stashed inside her coat crinkle. Her acceptance papers. Tomorrow morning, she would enter the Great Library of Cerulea as an Acolyte.

“I did it!” She screamed once more into the wind and waves.

A dark shape popped out of the water between two of the boulders. Zeninna’s heart stopped as a wave crashed over the rocks. Had she just seen…? Ahead of the next wave, her cousin Viridis hopped half out of the water onto a bowl in the rock.

Shock held Zeninna momentarily speechless. She’d spent too long around well-fed, healthy humans. Viridis looked green and positively skeletal.

“Are you crazy?” Zeninna looked wildly up and down the seawall. Relief tempered her outrage. Viridis, not her best friend Perseah. Perseah was safe at home.

“I would hope you wouldn’t be screaming at the top of your lungs if there were humans in the vicinity to hear.”

“That they can’t hear over the wind and waves doesn’t mean they can’t see you from a window.” Zeninna gestured wildly at the town behind her.

Viridis smirked. “Human sight isn’t that good. I’ll take your message to the Court. How long before they should expect you?”

Screaming reminders at herself not to give Viridis reason to suspect anything, Zeninna forced herself to take a deep breath. Her mind rocketed about and found the perfect way to spin the answer. “I’ll know better after Orientation tomorrow.”

“Should I meet you here at dusk then?” Viridis raised her eyebrows.

Zeninna frowned. It wasn’t like Viridis to offer to play messenger. She shook her head. “You can come. I can’t promise I’ll be able to get away.”

Viridis narrowed her eyes. “Don’t forget the importance of your mission.”

Fury propelled Zeninna off the wall. Imbecile! Viridis couldn’t possibly understand the importance of Zeninna’s mission to the Irides! Viridis only knew the Court’s version of the task, not the actual plan. The gall of her brainless cousin to attempt to remind her what was at stake! Whipping back around, Zeninna sneered at Viridis. “I will not forget. Now I must go. I’ll be missed.”
(more…)

Wouldn’t You Rather

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

For most of the year, Diner 66 is frequented almost entirely by regulars. It’s in the early fall that the reporter first shows up, the last week of September, just as the leaves begin to turn and the early-bird tourists infiltrate the restaurant on their way north. That’s probably why no one pays him any mind. He seems to float in on the breeze with the others. The out-of-towners don’t know the regulars from the tourists, and the regulars merely assumed he’d leave with the rest of the flock, but he continues to frequent their establishment into late October.

He’s impeccably dressed in his tan trench coat and black leather gloves, the fedora atop his head and the spiral notepad in hand like a journalist from a black-and-white movie of days past. The fifties themed diner seems to swallow him up that way. His outdated dress and odd mannerisms make the locals feel more out of place than he seems to be, despite his anomalous presence.

After most of the through traffic has made its way north and back south again, Clay, like the rest of the locals who frequent Diner 66, can’t help but take notice of him. He spends long hours hopping from table to table, countertop stool to window seat. He always spends money–powdered donuts and vanilla cappuccinos, or bear claws and hot chocolate–and he tips well. Well enough, anyway, for the staff to turn a blind eye to his constantly pestering the customers, though they have a tendency to play along with his often absurd interview questions regardless.

It’s not that Clay has any particular interest in eavesdropping, but it’s hard not to pick up the man’s smooth, unfamiliar voice, like the low hum of a cello cutting through the clanking dishes and quiet laughter of the other patrons’ conversations. Even his stride sets him apart. His movements are fluid and conducted with unusual gaiety as he slides into the burgundy faux-leather booth near the door. There’s something about it that bugs Clay. The man always seems like he’s half-a-second from erupting into emasculating giggles.

“We’ll start with an easy one, shall we?” The reporter asks the woman across from him with a wide smile, pen poised over his notepad. “Would you rather take a trip to the beach, or go skiing?”

“Oh, the beach, definitely,” Cindy Hoffman replies instantly, smoothing her hair back in a way that reminds Clay of a preening bird. “I hate being stuck in the cold all winter.”

He hums sympathetically, his attention undivided as he scribbles detailed notes. When he seems satisfied with the transcription, he turns to Cindy’s husband, his eyes briefly flitting to the uneaten donut on his plate.

“I suppose a more difficult question is in order, then. If you don’t mind, sir?”

“Not at all.” Carl sounds just as pleased to be considered important enough for the article.

“Excellent! Well, then, let’s see here… would you rather save a loved one’s life from cancer, or win the lottery?”

Carl catches Cindy’s look, but he still asks, “Which loved one?”

“I couldn’t say.”

“Oh, no contest, then.” Carl forcefully slaps a meaty palm down on the table, rattling the silverware. “The first one.”

“Interesting. Yes, good choice, I should think…”

Clay, watching discreetly from the breakfast bar, can’t help but roll his eyes. Everyone is completely infatuated with the man. It’s part of the dilemma of living in a small town like this one–everyone’s starved for attention. There’s never been anything or anyone in North Park worth making the papers until he showed up. Now, everyone seems to be of the utmost interest and all too happy to oblige this stranger’s odd solicitations, so much so that his interviewees have yet to ask him what it is, exactly, he’s writing about. Maybe they’re afraid the story won’t be as grand and emotionally compelling as they hoped. Clay thinks they’d probably be right.

When Carl and Cindy stand to leave after pleasantries and handshakes are exchanged, the reporter remains behind, his wrist seizing over the paper below like an inspired artist. Then he puts the pen down on the table, drawing himself up with a deep inhalation. His eyes once again return to the donut left on Carl’s plate. He seems to be considering it until he notices Cindy’s lipstick is smudged on the edge of her Coke glass. The reporter picks it up and holds it to the light as if expecting to find flakes of gold in her cheap make-up. Maybe he does. The pen is back in his grasping fingers in an instant.

“What the hell’s this guy think he is now? A scientist?” Clay mutters, turning back to his coffee. The clatter of the saucer when he sets the cup down belies his frustration.

From his right, Paige laughs under her breath. “What’s so wrong with that? He’s just doing his job.”

“What kind of reporter asks such ridiculous questions?”

She shrugs. “Maybe it’s an editorial.”

Editorial, Clay repeats the word in his head. Editorial my ass, he thinks. What could possibly be so important about whether Collin wants a dog or a cat, or if Ms. McGruder would rather win a new car than the Pulitzer Prize? What’s so important about that? He scowls at the yellow stripes of the countertop. That kind of smart-ass questioning is just how people like that reporter, people that think they’re smarter than everyone else, get their kicks.

“Are you sure you’re not just jealous?” Paige tries not to smile at the grumpy look on his face. “If you want to do an interview, you could just go ask him, you know.”

Clay gives her an impatient sidelong glance. “Why the hell would I want to do that?”

“Sounds like fun to me.”

“Yeah, I bet it does.”

“Oh, sweet love of mine,” Paige sighs theatrically, grabbing the last half of her bagel and dropping a few bills beside her plate. “I love it when you insult me. See you after work?”

Clay gives her an exasperated look, but she still wins a small smile from him, at least.

“Yeah. After work,” he agrees, giving her a chaste kiss. He watches her exit, the little silver bell atop the door announcing her departure, and then returns his attention to the reporter.

He’s eating the donut. The syrupy glaze clings to the fingers of his leather gloves, and when the pastry is gone, he looks down at his hand and blinks confusedly at it, as if he genuinely hadn’t expected the sugar to stick to him. Then he dunks his sticky fingers into Carl’s water glass and wipes it on his coat.

That’s it, Clay thinks, getting up from his seat. He snatches his keys and shoves his EpiPen into his pocket with his wallet. There must be something wrong with this guy, what with his weird mannerisms and strange questions, and if that’s the case, it’s the townspeople’s responsibility to investigate. This stranger’s been here for almost a month and not a single person can even say where he lives. For all he knows, this man might be dangerous.
(more…)