Glued

This has been difficult to compress. At one point it was four pages, single spaced–have no fear, I did trim it down to a reasonable size. I’m rereading Les Miserables, so I blame Victor Hugo.

(This is a rant and totally unnecessary for understanding the story. Feel free to skip.)

The silly man feels that to set up a single scene between two secondary characters at the Battle of Waterloo, he must take his readers through a detailed description of the geography of Waterloo, an account of the battle itself, an analysis of the meaning of victory, the nature and qualities of the combating nations, and some thoughts on the commanders of the two armies before finally getting to the scene with his characters. With all that rolling around in my head, how am I supposed to be brief and punchy and modern?

And welcome to Garden Terrace Retirement Home. I’ll be revisiting this place.

Patrick Smiley, age 35, sat on the front porch of Garden Terrace Retirement Center and Nursing home and listened to the nurses behind him whisper about him. This was not difficult as he had extremely acute hearing, a fact often overlooked in contrast to his other gifts.

“Phyllis, Patrick’s in a mood. He was bullying Andrew again, and now I have to take him his lunch. Can’t you do it? I’ll cover your night shift next week!”

The head nurse gave a heavy sigh.

Patrick had the porch to himself, of course. Just a minute before he’d found Andrew Clarkson, once called The Wolf, sitting out here.

“Hey Andy, could you open a pickle jar for me?” Patrick mocked. “Oh, wait, you can’t because you’ve voluntarily destroyed your own hands. What a pity.”

Andrew, a tall old man with masses of white scar tissue running along his knuckles, wordlessly got up and left, which was exactly what Patrick wanted.  Every time The Wolf extended the claws hidden in his hands for battle, they ripped open his skin, and after decades of service, his hands were so scarred they were nearly unusable.

But Andrew was not the only superhero not allowed to share space with Patrick Smiley. Even the residents with decent powers like Mr. Fireball and Captain Electro stayed away from the porch when Patrick wanted to have a seat.

He’d never cared for the dramatic superhero names and he was too powerful to need a secret identity. Patrick Smiley, that’s all he’d ever been. He didn’t need to brand himself, he didn’t need to advertise to find work, he didn’t even need a catchphrase or a cool name. Patrick could transmit a fatal virus at will with a single touch, he could burn through reinforced steel with laser vision, he could see perfectly in the dark, he had telekinesis, he could fly, he could sense metal far as 100 yards away and change it from a solid to a liquid or gas, he was impervious to bullets, knives, and snake bites, his clothes never wrinkled and (as mentioned) he had exceptionally good hearing.

And yet…at thirty-five he was the youngest resident at Garden Terrace by over a decade. He was slim and healthy. His only noticeable failings were thinning hair and his unpleasant sense of humor.

He had quit active duty abruptly and without explanation on his thirtieth birthday. The Department of Defense still sent envoys over to him asking him to come out of retirement. Sometimes he was sarcastic with them: “Oh, come out of retirement to get yanked around by some greasy politician? Why, sounds like a treat!” And other times, he just slammed the door in their faces. On their last visit, he had thrown a lamp and screamed at them and they hadn’t been back.

Everyone assumed he had some traumatic experience in the field (the DoD used to send psychiatrists to him, too, but after he started singeing their clipboards with his laser vision, they refused to visit him) but it wasn’t true. The reason was much simpler than anyone suspected.

Patrick Smiley was achingly, mind numbingly, excruciatingly lonely.

Patrick didn’t know he was lonely. Even inactive he was the most feared, unstoppable superhero in the world—that was the pinnacle of success, successful people are happy, ergo, he was happy.

So now he sat, at thirty-five, alone on the front porch of a retirement home and told himself he was amused that the nurses were afraid to bring him his lunch.

Not thirty seconds later, his entire life changed because of a loose board in the Garden Terrace porch.

The Amazing Goo Woman, coming back from her weekly hair appointment, tripped coming up the steps to the front porch and in her flailing attempt to recover her balance, shot a great blob of her iridescent, bubblegum scented adhesive straight at Patrick.

The nurses rushed out to assist her, but Patrick stayed where he was, howling with laughter. There is a certain stripe of person that finds humor in an eighty year old woman wearing platform boots and purple spandex tripping on a loose board. But it would have been better had he moved to help her—by the time she was upright Patrick was immobilized, glued to his chair by her goo.

“Hey!” He shouted, as they helped Goo Woman inside, “Hey, I’m stuck!”

Phyllis, the nurse carrying Goo Woman’s purse for her turned around with a raised eyebrow. She was a large woman with a frizz of black hair pulled back into a ponytail. “Um, break out of it. Can’t you do that? Super strength and all?”

Patrick rolled his eyes. “I have the laser vision, not the super strength, which you would know, if you kept up with the resident profiles like you’re supposed to, Phyllis.”

Phyllis’s lips tightened. “Alright, Mr. Smiley. I’ll be out to help you in a few minutes.”

And she went inside. The door shut. The sun had fallen behind the trees and the porch was in cool purple shadow. Patrick tried to wriggle free of the glue but couldn’t even shift under his clothes—the glue had soaked through the (unwrinkled) fabric and adhered to his skin, rendering him completely immobile. He started to hyperventilate.

“I could use some help out here!” Patrick shouted. Nobody answered. He fumed, taking refuge in anger.

“Do you know who I am?!” He yelled. “I could destroy this place!”  He considered doing it right then—just lasering down the whole front office, but then he had a momentary vision of himself, glued to a chair, stuck on a burning porch and unable to get away. That would be a humiliating way for the greatest superhero to die. He’d wait till he unstuck before he burnt anything.

And then the thought occurred to him—would he ever unstick? He tried to remember if he knew anything about Goo Woman’s powers, but he had never paid much attention to other superheroes, and he didn’t know.

Do you count as the most powerful superhero if an eighty-year-old woman can glue you to a chair for eternity?

The air was cool and clammy by the time Phyllis came back out. “Goo Woman says the glue will eventually break down, but she doesn’t remember how long it’ll be. Will you need help using the bathroom?”

The details of managing to use the bathroom while being glued to a chair were difficult and embarrassing. At one point, Patrick found himself tipped upside down as a janitor took a hacksaw to the bottom of the rocking chair. He dangled there, face red, covered in bubblegum scented glue, and looked at the impassive, upside down faces of the people around him. No one cared.

For the first time in his life, Patrick Smiley knew he was lonely.

But the realization did him no good—in fact, in a paroxysm of anxiety the next morning, he shouted at Phyllis when she came in to help him. From there he proceeded to stare in stony silence at the meal lady when she came to feed him his supper (he didn’t know how to talk to other superheroes, let alone normal civilians) and made an offensive joke to Goo Woman when she dropped by to apologize. He offended her so much, she glued his remote to his coffee table and stormed out.

This continued for two days. The glue held him fast. Every part of him ached from immobility. Each minute that passed left him more panicked. Since Goo Woman, no one had asked how he was or dropped by to see him.

Finally, one morning after he’d been sarcastic and snippy to Phyllis all morning, she drew herself up and planted her hands on her hips.

“You are a pathetic creature, Mr. Smiley.”

And to their mutual surprise, he said meekly, “I know.”

She stared at him. “Come again?”

Patrick regretted his honesty and changed the subject. “Can you leave my door open today?”

She narrowed her eyes at him and pursed her mouth like she had something to say, but silently did as he asked.

He sat in his recliner, staring out at the people that passed. There was Andrew, The Wolf, making his slow way down the hallway, massive shoulders bowed. He stopped and spoke to the Ice Queen. She was inching along, her hands perpetually frozen to her walker, her hair so thin and white it looked like a cloud around her head, but she smiled up at Andrew and answered him in cheerful tones.

Patrick watched Andrew slowly lumber on and felt a tug of jealousy. True, Andrew Clarkson had one of the most self-destructive powers Patrick had ever heard of. And yet, the man had been the terror of sex trafficking rings worldwide. He looked at his own, thin, dexterous hands and imagined ripping them open every time he tried to fight someone, and doing it repeatedly for decades. What motivated that?

“Mr. Clarkson?” Patrick called, and his voice cracked.

The big man turned and walked back to Patrick’s door, looking in at him with sad eyes. “Mr. Smiley.”

Patrick blushed, coughed and said, “Um, would you care if I joined you on the porch? I wondered if you could tell me some about your career.”

 

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Dragon, Undefeated

She was the only one who knew he’d left the dragon alive. And every time she ran with his other children to be swept into a big bear hug, and every time she sat at his table and had good food for the first time in years, the grief of that knowledge weighed her down.

He’d found her in the dragon’s cave six months ago, a little seven year old child with a head of golden curls, sitting on a pile of gold behind a half-burned ribcage. He crouched down to her level, a bearded, weathered man with friendly crinkles around his eyes and rough comfort in his voice. “Now this is a treasure indeed,” he said, smiling at her. “I bet there’s not a dragon in the world with something so dear. Does old Grimaud treat you well, child? Would you rather come and be safe in my home? My wife would love you.”

There had been others who had come to kill Grimaud, and she hadn’t shown herself to them, hadn’t trusted them, but she sized up this man with eyes shrewder than the average seven year old, and marched straight out to him, holding out a hand to shake as her mother had taught her. “My name is Aurea,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”

He’d brought her back to the village, riding on his shoulders as the wreak and smoke from the (supposedly) destroyed dragon boiled up into the air behind them. He hadn’t said much as the villagers celebrated and congratulated him on the destruction of Grimaud, which they assumed was due to his natural humility. Aurea knew the truth, though, and she read a silent apology in his eyes when he looked at her.

So she came to live in his house, with his five children and laughing, merry wife. She loved them all. She loved baking bread with his wife, she loved playing at war and house with his children, running around shrieking and barefoot all over the village. She brought the man his boots when he got up in the morning (having grown accustomed to being up and about early before the dragon rose) and sat with the other two youngest children when he told them stories at night.

But the dragon was not dead, and she was part of the dragon’s hoard. Someday unless Grimaud was killed, she knew the crafty old beast would do much worse to her friend than simply take her away. But she said nothing, because she had seen him fight the dragon. And she had seen him lose.

She still had nightmares sometimes about that fight. Grimaud had come back just moments after her friend had found her and gotten her out of the cave. The dragon had descended like a meteor, flaming and raging and unstoppable.

In the stories, Aurea thought, the hero is always almost outmatched, but in this case, there was no almost about it. No matter what the ridiculous stories of knights may say, the bravery of a single man cannot stop a grown dragon in full charge. He had an old sword and buckler that he had some skill with, yet moments after the dragon’s attack, he had lost both and was tumbling down the hill as the dragon’s breath ignited the trees around him into a blazing inferno.

Grimaud slammed a scaly forepaw onto the ground and caught him by his hauberk just before he tumbled over a cliff near the edge of the cave. “Hmmm,” the dragon rumbled, “Just a single human man. I was hoping for something more bear-sized for my dinner party. Still, I suppose you’ll make good hors devours.”

Then she’d heard his voice, shaking with terror, not a strong warrior any more, just a scared man.

“If you let me live, I-I can be useful, I can do something for you! Just let me take the girl and I’ll raise her for you. She’ll be more beautiful if she’s raised by humans. A good addition to your hoard!”

Grimaud smiled a slow smile that showed every one of his two hundred and fifteen teeth. “There will be a reckoning, you know. I don’t loan out my hoard for free.”

“Just let me live.” Her friend begged, “Let me take her with me. I’ll give her back better than before, I promise.”

And amazingly, the dragon agreed. But Aurea looked back at him on her way down the mountain and saw his eyes glittering in the darkness of the cave and the razor sharp edges of his teeth still showing in a smile.

You might have thought that Aurea would object to her friend using her as a bargaining chip. But she was, as mentioned, an unusually canny seven year old, and besides, she understood all too well what it was like to rendered powerless, grabbing for straws to survive. She also knew he was fond of her and guessed that he had no intentions of giving her back to Grimaud.

At any mention of the dragon, her friend changed the subject as if the threat would go away if he didn’t talk about it. But Aurea knew that as long as she, a piece of the dragon’s hoard, stayed in the village, Grimaud would consider himself within his rights to burn the entire place to the ground, to eat the livestock and burn the people to regain her. She woke up during the nights, crying from visions of her playmates, her friend, and his wife, all dead, burned, and eaten.

So every single day, she got up early, put on her cloak, and slipped out the door into the grey morning mist. An hour later she’d be back and standing at his bedside with his boots. She’d sit beside him while he put them on.

“You need to kill Grimaud.” She’d say, quietly, so his wife wouldn’t wake up. Then he would look at her with despair in his eyes because they both knew he’d already tried.

He knew she went out in the mornings, but he didn’t ask her where she went or what she did, because though his family loved her, the two of them understood that she did not belong to him.

Then one morning she brought him his boots, his sword, and his buckler, a grim expression on her face, and her eyes big and solemn under the mass of blonde curls. “You must kill Grimaud today.”

They looked at each other for a long time, her small will striving with his. Finally, he put on his boots, slung on his sword, and went out to make the long, slow walk up the hill towards the dragon’s cave. His shoulders were bowed. Aurea followed behind him, almost invisible in her cloak.

At the entrance to the cave, he straightened up, sighed, and said, “Grimaud.”

The dragon slithered out, circling round the man to demonstrate the awesome length of his armor-plated body, the way the morning sunlight glinted off his scales and his teeth, and purred, “Well, this is a surprise. Suicidal, much? Returning the girl now is hardly holding up your end of the deal. She’s not even an inch taller! I may just go burn down your village anyway”

Without preamble, the man raised his blade and swung. Grimaud lifted one lazy claw to spear the man straight into the ground. Instead, the sword caught on the claw and he found his arm jerked to the side by the force of the blade’s shove.

Shocked, both the dragon and the man looked at Grimaud’s claws. They were filed down to nubs, nubs with little hatches in them that a blade could easily catch on and unbalance the dragon. Dragon and man looked up at each other, and for the first time, there was a spark of alarm in Grimaud’s eyes. “You’re still just a weak human!” Grimaud howled. “I don’t even need claws to kill you!”

He attacked. But even with his extra weight and size, the man’s sword kept catching in the hatches, jerking the dragon off balance, ruining everything. Grimaud whipped his head around, catching the man on the jaw and sending him flying. The sharp plates of his armor tore the man’s hauberk and left bloody tears in the skin underneath. The man fought on, sweat dripping into his eyes, muscles aching, wounds burning. But this time, the fight was not impossible.

Flustered and irritated, Grimaud had had enough. He swelled up, preparing to burn the man alive. He’d been rather cold over the past week, and had the sniffles, but a little head cold wouldn’t stop a belly full of fire from leaving this hoard-thief a charred shish-kebob. He opened his jaws and roared, sending out a jet of

—a trickle of—

watery charcoal.

No jet of fire.

Grimaud screamed in fury, opened his mouth once more, feeling the familiar burn spark to life in his belly again—nothing quenches dragonfire for long—and in that moment the man summoned up all his courage, ducked under the rows of sharp teeth, leapt into the damp, hot mouth, and plunged his blade into the dragon’s throat.

Grimaud died that day.

When it was done, Aurea’s friend sat down on the carcass of the dead dragon with a thump expressive of shock, relief, and complete befuddlement. A head of golden curls popped up from behind the dragon. Aurea straddled its neck and kicked her legs.

She grinned. “I’ve been sneaking ice water into him for weeks.” She said. “And filing his claws.” She slid down the side of the dragon’s neck and stood in front of him. “I don’t think Grimaud killed my whole family when he stole me, and I need to find them. Will you tell your family goodbye for me?” She threw her arms around him. Then she scampered away, golden curls visible, shining in the sunlight, for a long time as she vanished down the trail.

 

 

Butterfly Pie

Once she was in, she couldn’t get out, and she was afraid that at any moment someone would notice the gun in the pocket of her coat. She was jostled by elbows, purses, coats, all shoving her inexorably forward. The frosty plumes of breath as they waited outside vanished as they shuffled into the warm glow of the bakery and inhaled the scents of butter and flour and fruit filling.

She saw diamonds winking around the neck of a tall, older woman, spotted someone’s BMW though the bakery display window, and was elbowed aside by a man talking animatedly on the newest and best in cell phones.

Most of them ignored her, but there were a few disapproving glares. She read the thought on their faces: “that girl should be in school” and looked away, ashamed. Swallowing, she patted down her blonde curls and hitched the collar of her coat up around her neck—her best coat, the one she had repaired countless times, that was missing the top button and had a bleach stain on the back. She shoved her hands into her pockets and fingered the cold metal of the gun in the right one. This would never work.

And then she saw the pies.

They were laid out on the rack, steaming and buttery golden. There were signs over them giving their filling type and cost, written by someone with a sharply angular hand. The final pie had no cost under the name. It bore only the legend: Butterfly Pie.

Her hands trembled and she shoved them into her pockets, quickly looking away so no one could see the naked longing she knew was plain on her face. No one craves a slice of butterfly pie for its flavor. Those who ate it described it as having a dull purple taste. The filling is dusty, with tiny stick-like filaments that snap gently under tooth.

A woman, muffled in furs nearly to her nose, stepped up to the counter and pulled a card from her wallet. “One slice.”

“What pie?” The cashier, a tall, thin boy said, smiling and grabbing a plate.

“Butterfly, of course.” The woman snapped, swiping her card. “What else would it be? I come in here every single Thursday and you—”

The baker, standing beside the cashier, cut into the next butterfly pie, plated a slice and handed it to her, expressionless. “Have a nice day.”

She halted her tirade mid-word, grabbed the plate and hurried to a table where she unswathed her furs and bowed her head over her pie, lips moving as if she were praying. Then she took a bite.

Silken red hair sprouted suddenly from her head and tumbled down her shoulders in loose curls, her coarse hennaed hair vanishing as the red hair grew. The crease between her eyebrows and the wrinkles at the edges of her eyes was gone. Her lips became plump. She finished the pie, smiled to herself, and shoved the chair back, striding out of the bakery, shouldering people aside.

Annabell’s fingers wrapped around the gun. In her mind, she recited the wish she would say before eating a slice of Butterfly pie. A job. A place to stay. People to love her. Wasn’t that at least more worthwhile than some rich woman’s craving for endless beauty? She inhaled and drew the gun out of her pocket. “Hands up!” she said, and her voice shook., so she said it again, her voice hardening. “Hands up!”

The bakery fell silent. At the counter, the baker and the cashier looked at her, and she saw for the first time the similar shape of their eyes, their dark hair, and big ears. Father and son, a detached voice inside her noted.

“Give me a slice of pie!” She shouted—and then hands clamped onto her arms from behind, jerking her around. The gun clattered to the ground as a blow fell on her arm. She was suddenly on the floor. Her face hurt. She struggled to breathe. A loud voice was bellowing orders above her. Her arms felt like they were being ripped off. The bellowing voice bent down to her ear so that she felt his hot, meaty breath on her face.

“What an idiot you are.” He said. “You realize you just tried to rob this place in front of the town police chief? Yeah, that’s me. And don’t you know? The pie only grants wishes well if you’re a good person. Otherwise, it backfires.” The police chief raised his voice and spoke to the surrounding crowd. “And that’s why we see Amanda Whittacker in here every week, right? She’s a nasty piece of work and she’ll be butt ugly by Monday!”

There was a murmur of laughter and agreement. Annabell laid her head down on the muddy tile floor and felt the tears burn out of her eyes. She had doomed herself from the beginning.

And then another voice, this one not loud but penetrating, said, “Enough.”

She looked up to see the baker and his son. They were covered in flour and there was a smear of blackberry pie sauce at the bottom of the son’s apron. The baker harrumphed and hitched his pants, nodding the police chief away from Annabell. “My own bakery,” he said in a bass rumble. “Handle it my way, a’ight? Gavrel,” He motioned to his son, “Help her up.”

The son put out a floury hand and helped Annabell to her feet. And then Annabell saw the pie plate in his other hand, a slice of butterfly pie sitting on it.

“W-what the heck? You can’t just give that to her!” the police chief protested, “She broke the law! You give that pie to her, and we’ll have an epidemic of entitled little hooligans waving guns!”

There were several assenting voices and in moments they were all shouting at the baker, who looked as upset about their protests as a solid cliff wall does when the tide washes up against it.

Gavrel bent down so Annabell could hear him over the uproar. “See, the problem with what the police chief was saying, is that everybody comes back every week to re-up their wishes. If they aren’t here every single Thursday, it’s only because they don’t have the money.”

Annabell looked up at him, startled out of her shame. “It doesn’t work at all?”

“It works just fine.” Gavrel said, and put the pie plate in her hand. “When it’s a gift.”

She looked at the pie, a single wedge of buttery pastry in the middle of the plate’s white circle. All her planning and agonizing, and it came down to one, simple choice. In the middle of the shouting crowd, she picked up the piece, and bit into it.

It was dusty. It did taste dull purple. There were little stick-like crunches. But as she lifted her eyes from the pie, she saw the smile in Gavrel’s eyes and he said, “Honestly we’ve had a slice set apart for you for the past year. We heard what happened to your parents and we hoped you’d come by. Do you want a job? And a place to stay?”

Martin and the Christmas Waffle

I wrote this story ages ago, but couldn’t find it when  I went to dig it up the other day, so I just rewrote it. Merry Christmas!

At fifty two, Martin was the oldest page boy in the Castle Gauffe, and that was just fine with Martin. He liked his job, liked serving tables, liked polishing saddles. More importantly, if he moved up to squire, he’d have to groom the horses, and Martin was absolutely terrified of horses.

It wasn’t his only fear. Martin was afraid of spiders, runaway wagons, tripping down stairs, pots of boiling liquid, knives, lances, swords, getting tangled up in ropes, rotten cabbages, and getting pooped on by the pigeons that roosted around the outside of the castle walls. They did seem to particularly enjoy using his head as a target.

Therefore, he preferred the limits of page boy. True, it was menial work and none of his fellow pages could even shave yet, but it kept him away from almost everything he hated, save only the pigeons and one other task: the care and feeding of the Christmas Waffle.

The waffle, for those in countries not graced with the majestic animal, is a circular beast, about the height of a tall man, and a foot or so wide. It is covered in hide of square holes and moves itself by rolling. It can move at incredible speeds and there are many tales of entire hunting parties being knocked off their horses and squished when waylaid by an unexpected waffle. Waffles are predators; incredibly territorial, and ferocious fighters.

Their eyes are tiny and almost invisible on their outer rim, though their vision is excellent. But for all their danger, waffles are a delicacy. The flesh of the waffle is spongy and buttery, and goes excellently when doused in maple syrup or a festive cranberry orange compote, as Sir Smeelie and the knights of Castle Gauffe preferred.

Waffles are manageably vicious when caught at an early age, so every spring the knights of the castle would ride out and capture an immature waffle. They would then pin the creature into a specially designed enclosure and keep it there for the rest of the year until the beast could be slaughtered for the Christmas Day feast. Feeding this monster fell to Martin.

Martin hated it. He woke up every day from April to December with a sick feeling in his stomach. It was the first thing he did every morning because he couldn’t bear dreading it one moment longer than he had to. With shaking hands, he would dump waffle’s daily ration of maple syrup in its trough and then run pell-mell for the door before the waffle could slam him against the wall and bite him with its sharp little teeth.

But today was the last day, the day of his reprieve, Christmas Eve. Tomorrow afternoon the waffle would be slaughtered for Sir Smeelie’s Christmas Day Feast and Martin would have a break from waffle care until the capture of the next waffle in April.

Martin got out of bed with something like excitement, combed his thinning hair over to one side, set out his dress clothes for the feast later, and with lightness in his step, he went to feed the waffle one final time.

It is very important that waffles be kept as happy as possible up to the moment of the kill. A harassed or angered waffle tastes stale, like something left in the freezer too long. Sir Smeelie always provided a couple of barrels of eggnog for the beast on Christmas eve to please it and ensure it was sleeping off a hangover when they went to slaughter it on Christmas day, so Martin fetched two barrels of eggnog, put them in a wagon, and trekked across the castle hall and yards on his way to the waffle enclosure.

“Your lucky day, Martin!” One of the knights, a Sir Nifflet, called. “It’s the end of that waffle tomorrow!”

Martin smiled nervously and wiped sweat from his forehead.

But Sir Phlee jabbed him with a finger as he passed. “If you make that thing mad and ruin our Christmas feast, we’ll chuck you over the castle wall!”

Martin chuckled nervously, ducked his head and hurried away to the waffle pen, in the back of the horse stables.

In the semi-dark of the barn, the waffle loomed, rolling suddenly to the door of its enclosure and smashing against it with a bang. Martin jumped, but hurried around to the wagon to heft the first egg nog barrel. He got the waffle prod, sat the egg nog down beside the door, and readied himself to open the pen. Most of the waffles Martin had dealt with could smell the egg nog and were more docile than usual on Christmas Eve, excited to get to the creamy, unfamiliar smell rising from the barrels.

Holding his breath, Martin lifted the latch, holding out the waffle prod with his face screwed up in concentration. The waffle rolled backwards, watching him from the dark corner of the pen. Martin nudged the door open and it scraped across the straw- covered floor.

Hefting the barrel, Martin staggered forward, still clutching the waffle prod in one hand. In the darkness of the pen, the Waffle rumbled. Martin stretched his neck up to see over the barrel. He didn’t notice the rock sitting in the middle of the floor.

If it had been in slow motion there would have been a grace to it, the catch of his toe under the rock, the surprised expression on his face, the arc of the egg nog frothing and splashing out of the barrel, and the grand finally: Martin landing face first in a spray of egg nog, a cloud of dust and straw rising up all around him.

With a roar, the waffle raced out from the shadows, bounced over Martin without a second glance, and went rumbling and leaping down the barn aisle and into the sunlight.

In the now silent pen, Martin sat up, gasping for air, staring around him with the look of a man who has just lived his worst nightmare and can’t wake up. It was gone. Outside he heard shouts, “Get out of the way! Head it off! Close the gates! Close—No! Oh no!”

He put his head in his hands. The teasing was bad enough on a regular day. Now, he could imagine living his entire life being jeered down every hallway and over every task. He couldn’t bear it…He wouldn’t bear it.

Martin stood, collected the wagon with its final barrel of egg nog, and marched down the stable. He brushed past the knights and the squires, deaf to their comments, steely gaze fixed on his goal. (He thought it was steely gaze, anyway. The people he passed assumed he’d been rolled over and was in pain.)

And so Martin stepped forth on his first quest, the quest that would change his life. So focused was he on keeping his knees from knocking together that he didn’t acknowledge the silent household standing behind him.

“Think we’ll ever see him again?” Sir Nifflet asked Sir Phlee.

“If he doesn’t come back with a nice, tender waffle for supper, good riddance!” Sir Phlee sniffed, and sauntered off. He had been knocked down by the escaping waffle and was feeling particularly vindictive.

Martin plunged into the darkness of the forest, following the waffle’s trail of crushed grasses and trees. The reality of what he was doing began to sink in as the trees loomed thicker and darker, and the deep stillness of the forest settled around him.

Something rustled in the grass. He spun to look for it, but there was nothing there. He clamped his elbows close to his sides and stood up straight, trying to look intimidating.  How was it that the knights walked? He stiffened his back, scowled at the forest around him and cleared his throat in a threatening manner.

The bushes to his left growled back. Martin let out a squeak, and was halfway up the tree when the waffle—his waffle—rolled out from the bushes. Its pitted flanks heaved and its beady black eyes glowered up at him. Martin felt a stab of hope—he’d been fattening this waffle up all year. It might still have a bad temper, but it was no longer the tough, wild waffle it had once been. If he could just get it to drink enough egg nog to make it sleepy, and then knock it out, maybe he could tie it up and get someone else to bring it home for him.

The waffle was on one side of the path, Martin was in the tree on the other, and the wagon with the barrel of egg nog sat in between them, the lid half off from the bumping wagon ride. Martin looked at the egg nog. The waffle looked at the egg nog.

The waffle moved first. Rolling out of the bushes, it started for the egg nog. Martin searched around the tree for a rock to throw at the waffle, and, predictably, didn’t find one. So, holding his breath, he inched down the tree and felt around on the ground for a rock, all the time watching the waffle. The waffle immediately noticed his descent and paused, snorting and huffing a yard from the egg nog.

Martin found a rock that he thought might be able to knock a waffle out, and stood upright, hands clamped by his sides, owlishly watching the waffle. The waffle edged towards the egg nog. Martin blinked extra slowly to keep from alarming it.

And then, whether it was due to missing its breakfast, or just the desire to vent its ire on its caretaker, the waffle charged Martin.

This could have been the defining change in Martin’s life. He could have stood his ground, faced the beast, knocked it out with a blow to its geometrically patterned sides, and returned in triumph to the castle, the Christmas feast saved.

But this wasn’t that moment.

Martin decided that it was infinitely preferable to be mocked for losing the waffle for the rest of his life, than to not have a life at all. And he ran as fast as his legs could carry him. Running as fast as your legs can carry you is not a good idea in the thick wilds of the woods. He tripped (again) and before he could blink, or breathe, or regret anything, the waffle was upon him.

But, yet again, an angry, spoiled waffle is not the same canny beast that is caught in the coolness of April. The waffle missed Martin. It only got his shoelace into its teeth. Martin went flying into the air—wheee—around the waffle—BAM, onto the ground—whizzing into the air, wind fluttering his thin hair—BAM, onto the ground—wheeee—BAM—wheeee—BAM!

Martin, convinced he was being mauled, or possibly had already been mauled and was passing through the creature’s digestive system, just shut his eyes, wrapped his arms around himself, and hoped that being consumed by digestive acid would be more peaceful than whatever this was.

Meanwhile the waffle was beginning to panic. Waffles usually defeat their enemies by rolling on them, so having an opponent who kept flying into the air out from under his rolling edge bewildered the waffle. So it turned back to the only constant place of refuge it remembered: the castle.

The castle household heard Martin and the waffle approach before they saw them. The roaring and crashing got louder until suddenly, there they were, the meek and mild Martin apparently wrestling the waffle to the ground, flying into the air with the beast’s attacks but sticking with it and fighting the beast into submission. They all gasped in surprise. The littlest boys cheered. The knights ran to open the castle gates, and in Martin and the waffle rolled with a cacophony of grunts, growls and thumps.

Before anyone could see anything through the dust cloud and bits of forest they’d brought with them, the waffle had bounced and growled and spun its way across the courtyard, down the stable aisle, and into its pen. The waffle door slammed shut with a bang.

Martin was flung over the fence and landed in a heap on the stable floor. Everyone gasped again. The little boys cheered. The knights shouted huzzah. One of the cooks went into hysterics and a squire fainted.

Sir Phlee and Sir Nifflet rushed forward. Sir Nifflet propped Martin up, and Sir Phlee wrung his hand. “Fantastic!” He shouted. “Absolutely astounding! Masterly! Manfully done!”

And this was the moment that changed Martin’s entire life. Previously, Martin disavowed his involvement in anything remotely praiseworthy. Too much praise could get him promoted. But this Martin, this new, adventurous Martin, forgot his caution. He wasn’t entirely clear how he’d gotten back to the castle with the waffle anyway, and he was probably a little concussed. He lifted his head on a wobbly neck, and grinned. And the castle household, seeing him smile, erupted in celebration.

Martin was tended by the lord’s own doctor. Martin was given a bath in the knight’s bathtub. Martin was offered grapes, and meat, and cheese, and some of the prettier ladies in the castle blushed and tittered when he was wheeled past in his wheelchair. For the next forty-eight hours, Martin floated, blissful, in a warm glow of endless praise and pampering.

Everyone seemed to have forgotten he was the one who lost the waffle in the first place. Even better, he got to sit down and eat at the Christmas dinner, and was offered the choicest piece of the waffle he’d singlehandedly returned. Finally, when all the feasting was over, the wine was mostly drunk and everyone was leaning back and sighing contentedly, Sir Smeelie called for their attention.

“Martin, come up here,” he said. Martin got up and advanced, still in a pleasant haze of good food and flattery.

“Martin, I think what you did yesterday was truly exemplary.” Sir Smeelie said. “I think this marks something new for you, and we’re going to commemorate it.”

Martin became uneasy.

Sir Smeelie raised his voice so everyone could hear: “After forty two years as a page boy, I am raising you to the status of squire!” Martin’s eyes were glassy. The old knight clapped a hand on Martin’s shoulder. “Smile for the court portrait painter, son! Tomorrow, you start learning how to care for the horses!”

 

 

 

 

Prophet, Bird, or Devil

Dr. Karen Stone slammed her palm down on the table. “Not fast enough!” She hissed, and stalked out of the trailer door, slamming it behind her. The monitor on the table showed one George Hernandez, sitting chained to a deck chair, sweating under the Oklahoma summer sun.

Dr Stone strode onto camera, a leathery woman with her dusty blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. I looked out the window of the trailer where I could see the same scene I saw on the computer screen, except now Dr. Stone was screaming and waving a water bottle in Hernandez’s face.

It looked like I needed to reinstate some sanity into this situation. I got up with an internal sigh and deep misgivings about my life choices. I’d started out with big dreams, but by the time I finished my enlistment in the army the recession had hit and it was easier to find employment with a private security firm. After a year on the job in various positions, I had been intrigued when I was told I’d be assigned to a team of scientists dedicated to researching the mysterious Time Vulture.

But after three weeks…I looked out the window, to where Hernandez hunkered in his chair and Dr. Stone stomped around him, ranting and raving. First of all, the scientific research had some big government money, but there was no team, at least not since she harassed and bullied her two partners so badly that they packed up and left a week ago. She did stuff like watching Hernandez on the computer monitor when she could easily just look out the trailer window.

And then there was the way she treated Hernandez. Supposedly using him as a test subject was all aboveboard and legal, but I guessed Hernandez hadn’t realized that his contribution to science would involve being handcuffed to a white plastic deck chair and set out in the sun for hours at a time. All of this to research a bird that was, in my opinion, mostly myth.

The urban legends say that when you near the day of your death, your heart sends out a funny little pulse and your Time Vulture senses it and comes to escort you to your death day. The closer they get to you, the sooner your death day will be. Some people plan their funerals and say their goodbyes when they see a vulture. Others panic. But a lot of people just don’t believe there’s a connection between Time Vultures and death—pretty easy to do, since a relatively small number of people actually get a Time Vulture.

Theoretically, Dr. Stone’s mission was to research someone near death (in this case a Death Row inmate named George Hernandez) roll back the mystery and show the natural explanation for how these birds work. In reality, we had been here for three weeks, the Time Vulture was just a threatening black silhouette against the blue sky, and both Dr. Stone and her experiment were beginning to fray around the edges.

I got up and went out into the heat. Dr. Stone was screeching, “You’re useless! The longer you sit here ruining my project, the less valuable you get, do you understand that?” I caught Dr. Stone’s arm just before she bashed her water bottle against Hernandez’ head.

“Dr. Stone,” I said. “I don’t believe that enduring physical violence was in Mr. Hernandez’ contract.”

She did an abrupt turn, her eyes icy cold. “I don’t believe policing me is in your contract, Mr. Riley. Mr. Hernandez’ contract allows him an entire extra month to live. If he takes what he’s been generously given and will not cooperate before his execution day, I have no choice but to increase the stressors in his life.”

I didn’t like to keep pushing the matter, especially since she was technically my superior officer while I was on this job, but I also wasn’t going to sit in there and see a man dehydrated, beaten and given heat stroke on the whim of what she called science. Maybe some folks wouldn’t care if a man sentenced to death for some brutal homicides was treated well, but I like to think right and wrong are a little bit bigger than my opinions and feelings.

“I’m going to have to ask you to stop,” I said, keeping my voice level, and drawing attention to my gun by putting my hand on my hip.

She’s a small woman, but the way she looked at me chilled my blood. “Fifteen minutes,” she snapped, and marched back into the trailer.

I got Hernandez out of the plastic chair and took him to the shade of his own trailer, where there was a water cooler. He leaned against the trailer side, shut his eyes, and dumped the first cup of water I gave him over his flushed face. I kept my back to Dr. Stone’s trailer, and asked, “What was she screaming about?”

“I don’t know,” he said, mopping his face and drinking another cup of water. “I keep asking her isn’t it the vulture’s job to get closer when it’s time for me to die? And she just screams that it’s not coming down fast enough and I’m doing something to mess it up.” He shivered. “Riley, they offered to give my wife citizenship if I agreed to this experiment. She keeps threatening to have her deported if I don’t get that bird down here, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. They come on their own, not when you call them.”

Personally, I have reservations about the truth in all the legends surrounding those birds at all, but I didn’t bring that up, especially since Hernandez and Dr. Stone both believed in the vultures’ abilities with religious fervor. Hernandez even believed that the birds feed off the dying soul and don’t disturb the body, a superstition so ridiculous I avoided even bringing the subject up because it embarrassed me to see an otherwise intelligent man make a fool of himself.

“I’m going to report this to my superior officer,” I assured him. “I don’t think she told anybody that Jones and Davenport quit two weeks ago, either, and she’s going off the rails.”

Hernandez snorted. “No kidding.”

That evening in the desert dusk, I went out behind the trailers, out of earshot, I thought, and called my boss to tell him what was going on. Despite my assurances to Hernandez, the answer was what I expected. Abercrombie, my boss, believes wholeheartedly in the chain of command, and in his company, the highest rank belongs to the customer. He chewed me out in colorful language and finished with a threat: “Do your job or lose your job, Riley. It’s simple.”

I hung up and cursed, turning back towards the trailers. As I turned, I saw a pale figure in the shadow of Dr. Stone’s trailer, and then Dr. Stone herself stepped into the moonlight, staring me down, her mouth a flat, hard line. When she’d ensured that I saw her, she turned and stalked away. I went to bed, more uneasy than I’ve been in a long time.

In the morning, Stone made no comment about overhearing my conversation with Abercrombie last night. After Hernandez had eaten his breakfast and I had cuffed him to his chair, she elected to stay outside under the trailer’s awning for the first half of the day. She seemed in an oddly good mood, even offered me a cup of coffee. “With cream; just like you like it.”

I smiled and took it. I drink my coffee black out in the desert. It’s not that I like it black so much as I just hate the powdered creamer they sent out with us, but I appreciated the gesture. I’d never expect a scientific type, particularly not this scientific type, to notice how the lowly security guard took his coffee. Maybe when she overheard my conversation last night she realized how far off the grid she’d been going and would behave more civilly in the future.

Fifteen minutes later I regretted my assumptions. She was fidgeting, tapping her fingers on the table, moving papers that didn’t need moving, readjusting her chair. I yawned, my eyes heavy. I was usually better at staying awake, even after a difficult night. Out in the morning sun, Hernandez was beginning to sweat. She was watching me out of the corner of her eye. I yawned again, rolled my neck to wake myself up—and froze. The Time Vulture was lower in the sky.

They’re menacing birds. As big as a California Condor, and an impenetrable matte black, their wings slice backwards in the shape of scythes. I saw the glint of this one’s obsidian eye as he tilted in the air to peer down at us. I didn’t believe in the whole sense-the-time of death myth, but I felt a chill as the bird looked at us. Dr. Stone was also watching the vulture, perfectly still. Then she looked at Hernandez, who had followed our gaze and was watching the bird as well. I saw something in the lines of Dr. Stone’s face then, an arrogance and disdain so deeply ingrained that she might as well have been carved out of a granite block with them in place.

I yawned again, and went to pick up my coffee cup. My hand was numb. My hand wouldn’t move. I couldn’t move my hand. I couldn’t move my feet. The coffee! I gasped, and at the sound, Stone moved faster than I could have thought possible. She’d drawn my gun from my holster and was running towards Hernandez, gun raised.

The vulture dropped lower, its shadow rippling over the trailers. I struggled to move even a single finger to help Hernandez. I will never forget that moment—unable to move, watching a madwoman level a gun at someone who was no threat to her. She was screaming at him, “It’s working! I’m going to see what happens when you die, you worthless piece of trash!”

George jumped for her, reaching for the gun, stumbling as the chair chained to him hampered his movements. They fought with the desperate concentration of life and death.

And then there was a soft thump to my left.  The vulture had landed in the sand by the trailer. It waddled forward a few steps, settling its long wings and cocking its black head to watch the combatants. George and Dr. Stone froze, the gun gripped between them.

The bird was massive, its head as high as Dr. Stone’s waist, its eyes disturbingly intelligent. I am not a man inclined to believe atmospheres and emotions—but that bird brought something cold with it, a silence, a finality, a presence. There was only the sound of the wind in the grass and Dr. Stone’s high, excited breathing.

“It’s beautiful,” she gasped, in a half whisper. I glanced at her and saw that her eyes were wild and tears streaked down her cheeks. “And I brought it down.” She was speaking in barely a whisper, not moving her eyes from the bird. “I brought it down, and I can do it again, and now nobody will wait on the flailing stupid judicial system to get rid of garbage like you, you murderer, you convict. I’ll harness the power of the vultures, and I’ll make the decisions.” She wrenched the gun away from Hernandez, took a step towards the bird, and flung her hand backwards, pointing the gun at Hernandez’ chest. “I will be Justice.”

While she was fixated on the bird, Hernandez moved. He lunged for the gun, twisting her arm, Dr. Stone screamed in rage, pulled the trigger, and then—the report cracked across the desert. A body fell to the earth.

The Time Vulture walked forward with its rolling sailor’s gait, implacable, unstoppable, a solemn mourner, and took up its place by the body of Dr. Karen Stone. Hernandez whispered something in Spanish, dropped the gun and sat down on the ground with thump, tears streaking down his face.

When the police reached the campsite three hours later, the bird had not touched the corpse. It stepped back as they approached, and as they zipped her into a body bag, it lifted off, massive wings sending sand blowing. In moments, it was gone.

Hernandez was acquitted for the murder of Dr. Stone because of my testimony that he was acting in self-defense. Two days before his scheduled execution for the crime he’d previously been imprisoned for, new evidence was uncovered proving that he was not guilty and he was pardoned. I’d figured he was innocent as soon as I saw him shoot Dr. Stone. Nobody kills people like he was supposed to have killed people and then cries like that.

I visited him and his wife last Christmas in Florida. “Do you believe in Time Vultures now?” he asked me as we saw on his back porch one evening, smoking cigars.

I wriggled my shoulders noncommittally. “It was just an opportunist. Maybe it just knew somebody would die. Maybe it was curious.”

“Oh, no,” he said, “See, I never had a Time Vulture before I agreed to the experiment. She just picked me because she thought I would be sure to attract one. That bird,” he emphasized his point with a jab of the cigar, “came for her. She wanted to claim power over death, and in the end, it claimed her.”

“She was crazy.” I said.

“I think more people than you would like to think are that kind of crazy.” He said. And we sat and watched the sun turn the ocean blood red.

 

 

Incorporeal Estate

 

This story was inspired by the linked tumblr post and my recent spate of going to real estate websites and mooning over homes I can’t possibly afford. 

https://www.reddit.com/r/tumblr/comments/6o06yf/no_chill_ghost/

456 Battenburg Drive. A roomy four bedroom Craftsman home with working fireplace, hardwood floors, a new granite countertop. Haunted by authentic ghost, dead since 1978. 2,145 sq. ft on 1 acre lot. A steal at $84,000! Contact listing agent, Jack Connelly.

As always, the scent of hardwood floors and musty disuse washed over me when I unlocked the door. The shadows in the house were remarkably dark for 4 PM, but I walked in and waited, resigned dread sitting in the pit of my stomach.

A low moan began, just loud enough to make you wonder if you were imagining it. The hairs on my arms prickled as the cool breeze brushed over me. Shadows loomed, angles of impenetrable darkness stretching up, and up until they seemed like giant cold doorways yawning around me. Just like always, I nervously checked over my shoulder. The moan faded away. I inhaled, ready to speak.

There was a rush of wind, a disembodied scream that came from all around me, wailing, horrible—a grey figure, all tatters and holes flew out of the wall in front of me. A sonorous spectral voice boomed: “WHO ENTERS?”

“Gerald, it’s me.” I said. The scream stopped. The grey figure stopped rushing and hung limply midair. It pushed a pair of ghostly glasses up its nose. “Oh, hey Jack.”

Every time I saw Gerald I wondered how he managed to be so initially terrifying. He was a ragged but portly grey ghost, with a round, benign face, round, benign glasses, and cheerful eyes blinking behind the glasses. If it weren’t for the fact that his lower half faded into a wispy tangle of tatters below the pockets of his khakis, he would look like a normal person done in greyscale.

“How you doing?” He asked, stuffing his hands in ghostly grey pockets.

“Oh, alright.” I said.

“No word from Allie?”

“No.” I said, shortly. I should never have told him about my now ex-fiancee. If you think having distant relatives or well-meaning friends trying to give advice on your love life is irritating, you should try having a ghost offer similar comfort. He kept trying to give me girl’s numbers—who knew where or how he got them. “Listen,” I said, “I’m having a family come by today to check out the house.”

“Oh how nice,” he said, beaming all over his face, “Do they have children?”

“I hope not.” I said. “You’re always worse when there are kids involved. I told them I would meet them here. Is there any chance you could just accept my entrance as your obligatory scare and leave it at that? It was a very impressive show.”

Gerald frowned. “I could try, I suppose.”

“Well try harder,” I said. “I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve brought here and had them run away screaming. If you want a nice family, can’t you try just a little harder not to scream at them?”

“It’s my contract, you know,” Gerald said apologetically, producing a long scroll of paper from thin air.

“I know about your contract,” I said, waving it aside. “I’m just saying—maybe interpret it as a living document?”

He gave me a look of fatherly disapproval. “Jack. I’m a ghost. It’s my document. That makes it the most dead document that ever was. If you’d just read it for once—”

At that moment, there was a knock on the door that echoed around the house. I half turned to go to the door and looked back to see if Gerald might by any chance—no. He’d vanished back into the woodwork. It was going to happen all over again. There was nothing for it. With a sigh, I opened the door and ushered in a young couple.

“Oh, I love the molding!” The woman said.

“Gorgeous floors,” her husband added.

The door clicked shut behind them and we were enveloped in silence. A cold breeze ran through the house. The woman looked around and shivered, stepping closer to her husband. “Do you…hear something?”

Ten minutes later the couple ran out of the house, ashen faced. As they squealed their tires driving away I thumped down on the front porch and put my face in my hands. I could feel Gerald watching me, worried, from the windows, but I didn’t bother to look back at him. It wasn’t really his fault that my life was in shambles. After Allie had left last year, I’d decided to throw myself into my work, become the most successful real estate agent in the Tri-Cities area, make a boatload of money for myself, maybe speak at conferences about forging through heartbreak to find success.

And of course, I decided to start my career to success with 456 Battenburg Drive. The ghost house. The house that most of the agents at Housefinder Real Estate would actively dissuade people from looking at. I had taken a sleeping bag, my laptop, a boatload of snack food, the existential despair Allie had left in her wake, and gone to meet Gerald.

After he scared me witless, we had a good night. He told me his woes—he’d been a lawyer of some type, married to a lovely woman, but had chosen to invest in personal gain rather than his marriage. He’d used his rubicund features to swindle and cheat until he’d swindled and cheated the wrong man and had been murdered in the hallways of his own house. He had so neglected his wife that she remarried less than a year later and went on to live a long and happy life with her new husband—while Gerald’s ghost was locked into 456 Battenburg Drive, eternally alone and repentant.

As he sobbed into my chip bag, I told him all about Allie and how she’d dropped her copy of our house key in my lap three weeks before the wedding and walked out of my life without looking back. Then we watched the new Avengers movie and I left the next morning firm friends with a ghost.

Nobody had known the ghost’s name before, and most of my coworkers figured that my stories about my conversations with Gerald were a bizarre sales tactic. And unfortunately, he was still bound by his contract, no matter how friendly he might feel towards me, so the dramatic entrances never varied. I couldn’t get a straight answer out of him about the afterlife and where his contract had come from—he always went hazy around the edges and his voice broke up like a bad cell phone connection when he tried to talk about it.

But that had been almost a year ago. Now I was turning into the office joke. I’d been called into my boss’s office the other day and informed that if I brought any more clients to be terrified at my haunted house, I could find myself a different job. Gerald was eternally hopeful that I would find someone nice to live in his house, but he also wouldn’t let up about that stupid contract. I called my boss. “Diane,” I said, “Before they complain—”

“They already have complained, Jack.” I could see her over-permed hair shimmying in indignation as she spoke, could hear her fingernails tapping irritably on her desk. “I told you nobody else is to look at that house, did I not?”

“They were already scheduled when you said that,” I protested.

“You should have unscheduled them. I want you to come in and get your things out of your office on Monday. I’m sorry to let you go, Jack, but you need to get your life back on track and stop scaring people.” The call clicked off in my ear and I stared at the phone dumbly. No job. No fiancée.

I lifted my face out of my hands to look back at Gerald. Due to the terms of his contract, he couldn’t leave the house, but he peered at me and waved apologetically, “I really tried!” He shouted out the door, his voice thin and warbly through the glass

I stood up, feeling thirty years older, and shuffled to my car without responding.

I couldn’t bear to go back to the office so I drifted around downtown. My phone rang, a number I didn’t recognize, so I picked up. “Hello?”

“Hi, my name’s Audrey Driver, and I’m interested in a house you’re selling?”

I opened my mouth to tell her I was no longer employed with Housefinder Real Estate, but she continued, adding: “It’s, um 456 Battenburg Drive? I was nearby and wondered if I could have a look.”

One more chance. A fool’s chance. “Sure,” I said, “When do you want to meet?”

Less than a half hour after I’d left in despair, I went back into 456 Battenburg Drive with a flicker of hope. I endured Gerald’s spine-chilling welcome, and prepared to be very firm with him about how he welcomed guests, only to find him almost as flustered and excited as I was.

“I did it!” He yelped, poufing out of the wall like an ephemeral dust bunny. “I finally contacted my aunt’s cousin’s little sister! I’ve been trying for months!”

“That’s nice, I suppose,” I said, “Listen, I have this one chance left, so please for the love of anything at all, don’t make a racket!”

“Oh, but—” He said with shining eyes, and then, for the second time that day, someone knocked on the door. I glared at Gerald, mimed zipping lips, and went to the door.

I opened it and looked down into the biggest, brownest, most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen on a woman who looked like a walking kaleidoscope. She wore a skirt of all kinds of colors and patterns, buttons of all shapes and sizes sewn everywhere, a slouchy multicolored knit hat—I don’t really know what all else, my brain had sensory overload by that point and shut down. I tried to stammer out something professional.

“I’m um, Jack…”

“Are you the real estate agent?” She beamed up at me. “I’m so glad to meet you!” My hand was gripped in a firm handshake and then she had already bounced through the doorway before I could manage to say anything.

“Oh, it’s beautiful!” She said, already tripping through the rooms, ignoring the dark shadows and the cold breeze. The distant moaning had begun. She turned a look of mock seriousness on me. “Now be honest—why on earth is this house so cheap? Mold? Nasty neighbors?”

An icy blast hissed through the house, the moan became a screech.

“I’m sorry,” I croaked, completely at a loss. “How did you hear about this house?”

“Well it was interesting,” she said, peeking into the kitchen, “Oo, what lovely cabinets! –My aunt is a psychic. She heard a ghost—a ghost!—repeating this address over and over again, so she looked it up, and since I was looking for a house, and since the ghost was so insistent about it, she sent me the address!”

Gerald made his shrieking, terrifying entrance right over Audrey’s head. Without even glancing towards his ghostly, dusty luminescence shooting out of the wall she said, “So…bad plumbing maybe? You don’t have to worry, I’m pretty sold on this place even if I have to do some major renovations. I’ve been looking for so long—it’s got to be just the right place, you know.”

“No, no mold. Your aunt is a psychic?” I said, still staggered.

“Oh, yes,” she laughed, “I’m a terrible skeptic—in fact she tells me I’m completely psychically deaf—I have a feeling she just found an ad in the papers and told me a ghost said it to make me believe her. But either way, I’m so glad she did. I thought I’d never find a place. I love this house. I’d like to make an offer.”

I was about to sell 456 Battenburg Drive. I was about to do the impossible, the unattainable goal I’d set for myself a whole year ago. I’m afraid all I did was stare at her. Gerald, hanging, unnoticed between us, turned to me and gave me an outrageous wink.

Fortunately, Audrey Driver was a woman of decision even when her realtor displayed all the decisiveness and clarity of a rubber chicken. I put in a call to my boss fifteen minutes later as Audrey drove us to Los Tacos Del Muerte for a celebratory dinner. “Diane,” I said to my boss, “If I sold the Battenburg house, do I get my job back?”

We celebrated my restored job as well as Audrey’s new home that night. To be honest, I forgot I was out with a client instead of a friend. Audrey chatted with the waiter, apparently knew half the people in the restaurant (“Oh yeah, we shop at the same grocery store.” “Him? He was in my Tai Chi class at the gym.”). At least, I forgot she was my client until she fixed me with a serious look and said, “You never did tell me what was wrong with that house.”

I sighed. “You’re going to think I’m lying.”

She leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Try me.”

I told her about Gerald, about his contract and the endless stream of clients that went running out of that house. She didn’t believe me, but she didn’t stomp out calling me a liar, so I supposed that was a decent start. Also, after dinner, when I asked her out on a real date, she didn’t refuse, and that was even better.

Because Audrey wanted me to see the house after she’d put the finishing touches on it and moved in completely, I didn’t see Gerald for the next few months. Finally, I dropped by 456 Battenburg Drive to pick up Audrey for a date one night. Despite the brightly colored abstract art, patchwork quilts, piles of books and the scent of cinnamon buns coming from the kitchen, Gerald still did an admirable job of looming the shadows, chilling the bones and finally bursting from the wall in his glorious, decayed state. He stopped howling and threw incorporeal arms around my neck as I tried to catch my breath. His entrance was no less terrifying after you’d seen it multiple times.

“My dear boy! I knew you were suited to one another! Have you got the ring yet?”

I had, actually, been mooning around over a jewelry counter that very day, scolding myself for going too fast. Guilt made me snappy. “For heaven’s sake, no!” I said. “I don’t want to rush things!”

“Oh of course, of course,” Gerald said, rubbing his hands together nervously, “It’s just, my contract—”

Just then Audrey came down the staircase and my brain short circuited at the sight of her, as usual. Dimly I heard Gerald say to our retreating backs, “Have a nice night!”

A few months later I did propose and we did get married, not fast enough for Gerald, who pestered me about it on every occasion. He bade me goodbye the last night I visited Audrey before our wedding with a nervous, “Don’t get cold feet at the altar, Jack!”

I didn’t. She was beautiful, and full of heart and color and love of life. You couldn’t have moved me away from that altar before she was mine even if you threw a pack of ghostly hauntings at me. But after the honeymoon, as we walked up the pathway to the house, I’ll admit to having some misgivings about being greeted by sheer terror and howling every single time I walked through the door of my house. I asked Audrey,

“Do you believe me about Gerald yet? Have you felt anything at all?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “Even if the fact that every single one of my friends has to be coaxed into the house with earplugs and a blindfold didn’t do it, I did start to notice that there’s a nice little breeze every time I come home. I think it’s sweet, like a hello.”

“Well at least you can enjoy them.” I said, unlocking the door. “I like Gerald, but I don’t find his greetings sweet in the least!”

We stepped inside. I braced myself for the chill and the moans—but instead there were dust motes spiraling lazily through patches of afternoon sunlight, a clock ticking, the peaceful elements of a quiet house. Well, except for the ghost standing in the middle of the atrium. He was more ephemeral than usual, but even so I could see his round cheeks beaming at me. He held out his hands in welcome, and then—vanished. I heard just the barest whisper float past my ears, “Goodbye.”

Audrey of course hadn’t noticed anything but me standing stock still staring with my mouth open. Then she stepped forward and picked up a piece of paper that had fallen to the floor. It was yellowed and curled in on itself, and even though I’d only seen it in greyscale, I recognized it at once. Audrey unrolled it and read: “Gerald Morris Higgins. Henceforth required to haunt the house 456 Battenburg Drive, exhibiting signs of ghostly inhabitance and terror at each and every entrance through the doorway without exception. Said Higgins will be required to continue this haunting until eternity finishes with the exception only that Higgins brings two live human beings together for love and harmony, and in such way, atone for the destructive pattern of his life.”

We never saw Gerald again. I have my own real estate company now and Audrey is raising our three children with her customary verve and originality. I keep Gerald’s document framed over my desk at work, to remind me of my priorities. After all, if I screw up I may end up stuck in the woodwork of some house for centuries!

Rain Boy

Every mother has days like this: she has twenty-seven hours worth of chores to fit into a twenty-four hour period. So she leaps out of bed in the morning (okay, some of us crawl) and  tries to be superhuman. As she gets the kids ready and makes food, in the back of her mind a little voice is reciting her to-do list: drop off the eldest at kindergarten, cash that check, buy groceries for tonight’s supper, pick up the eldest from preschool at three clean the kitchen, ditto bathroom, living room…we’ll just hope the guests don’t go down into the basement or look into the bedrooms…pay the electricity bill, take the car to get its tires aligned—and every time something goes wrong or slows down the hectic pace of the day, the little voice pauses, taps the mother on the shoulder and says, “You know you don’t have time for that, right?”

This little voice has been known to cause symptoms of stress, snappishness, and tears in the best of mothers at times. And none of them were parents to Justin Shoalter.

Amy Shoalter put her van into park, shut her eyes and sighed through clenched teeth. “I am doing fine. I am getting as much done as I can get done. I do not have to have my house perfect for Amelia Gross to see…” Her eyes popped open. “The lightbulbs! I forgot to add the lightbulbs—she’d make hay out of a dark dining room. Crap, where’s my list?” She rustled frantically through her pockets, found a scrap of paper, and scribbled it down. She glanced behind her. Her son’s dark head was bent over a battered stuffed dog, named with the endless creativity of a three year old: Doggy. He was bouncing Doggy on his knees and talking to him in a sing-song voice, “Grocery shoppin’…Grocery shoppin’…I like broccoli…but not wadishes…”

She her hands stilled for a moment and she smiled at his song. Why can’t people see him like that? She thought.  Not a danger, not a genetic anomaly, not a freak, just a normal little boy? Amelia seemed to think it was a poor parenting decision to have a son with a genetic condition.

But the clock on the dashboard was ticking through the minutes so she jolted into action. If it were anybody but the Grosses coming over—she shuddered and ran a finger down her list one more time and popped out of the van. She had twenty minutes, tops, and then she had to pick up Tabitha from kindergarten and get home to get the charcoal started in time to cook the steaks…

With this in mind, she rolled open the van side door and started unbuckling Justin’s car seat at high speed.

Justin patted her on the back as she lunged over him to get one of his shoes. “Grocery, mommy?” He grinned at her as she wedged his shoes onto his feet, still clutching Doggy to his chest. She ran a hand absently through his dark brown hair so a curl fell down over his forehead. They were unmistakably mother and son; dark hair, blue eyes, fair skin.

“Yes, grocery,” she said, unbuckling him as she talked. “Now remember, we talked about the grocery store last time, remember? This is inside, we don’t rain or snow, or fog inside. Right, Justin?”

“Yep!” he said, “Walk?”

“Only if you stay close to mommy.” She lifted him out and grabbed his hand before he shot off into the parking lot. “Not even a fine mist, understand, little guy?”

“Grocery!” He shouted, and tugged her forward. “Look at veggies!”

“No, honey, we don’t have time.” She was scanning her shopping list, fingers tight on her purse straps. “Let’s be fast, okay? Please be good for mommy.”

It wasn’t Justin’s fault that they didn’t make it past the shopping baskets before disaster hit.

The voice accosted her as they stepped into the cool air, purring and saccharine in a way that only a very unfriendly woman can be. “Hello, Amy…Fancy meeting you here.” A tall, lithe woman with brown hair curved perfectly around her face, paused by them on her way out, a shopping bag in hand. Her eyes drifted down to Justin’s Doggy. “Oh I see you’re still encouraging him to be dependent. I’ve got to get you that article about how especially important it is not to rely on external comfort when you’re dealing with children who have disorders.”

Amy raised her eyebrows. “Oh, Amelia. How lovely to see you. We were just picking up some groceries for dinner tonight.”

Amelia Gross tsked and waved a hand at Justin, who had Doggy hugged firmly in his arms as he examined a picture of a lion posted on the side of the ad stand. “He’ll end up drowning us all someday if you let him have that thing. Here—”

And she stretched out a perfectly tanned arm and snagged Justin’s Doggy away from him.

Justin responded like any three-year-old would; he shrieked.

However, unlike most two year olds, a small cloud also appeared over his head and began to drizzle a fine mist down on him, pasting his dark curl to his forehead and making the floor wet as he cried, “Doggy! Doggy!”

Amelia sighed and shook her head. She dropped Doggy in the buggy basket and patted Amy’s hand.

“This age is so difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing.” And she walked out, leaving Amy glowering after her standing in the entrance with a distraught child, a raincloud, and a growing puddle.

Before she could turn to take care of Justin, there was a cough just behind her right shoulder. She turned and found a man standing there, arms behind his back, a stiff smile on his face. He wore a button up shirt over a sizeable gut and his nametag read Ed. Ed pointed a finger at Justin (still crying) and said, “I thought you should know, your son is raining. I’d really appreciate it if you took him outside to rain, as he’s creating a slipping hazard.”

Amy gave him a thin lipped smile and went to grab Justin’s hand. “Please,” she whispered, “just stop raining. Doggy is right here. There’s nothing to cry about. Stop.”

An elderly couple, passing, skirted Justin and his puddle by several feet, and the woman sniffed: “That kid needs a good spanking…”

“can’t handle her own kid…” her husband agreed.

Amy felt a scream building inside of her. Justin’s eyes darted from her red face to his Doggy separated from him in the buggy and his lower lip trembled. “Mommy?”

Then she smelled it—the scent of ozone, of heavy raindrops and a sizzle of coming lightning.

“No, no, no!” Amy gasped. She backed away from the rainfall.  “Justin! Stop it this minute!” It was the wrong thing to say. Justin started to cry harder and—Amy cringed—there was a clap of thunder. It wasn’t an earth rattling rumble since it came from a thunderstorm about a three feet square in diameter, but it was right over Justin’s head and more than enough to frighten a little boy afraid of loud noises.

“No thunderstorms!” said the manager, pointing towards the door.

“Look, you’re not exactly helping!” Amy snapped at him, and reached for Justin’s arm to pull him towards the door. But the thunderstorm continued, hovering over Justin’s head, the dark grey clouds snapping with electricity and roiling just above his head. Justin looked up and cowered, his wet arm slipping out of Jessa’s grasp, covering his head. And the cloud grew and writhed around him, a grey covering that filled most of the entrance now, the rain drenching the weekly ad stand and pattering down on the tile floor. In the middle of it, Justin cried harder, his hands over his face.

“Come on!” Amy cried, and dove into the cloud to pick Justin up by his armpits. The rain dumped down on her hair, streaked her mascara and pasted her shirt to her chest, but she carried him and his cloud outside.

She sat him down in the sunlight though he was still crying under a cloud, and backed up, trying to paste her hair out of her face and look calm and in control and like all mothers deal with the occasional toddler sized thunderstorm. It didn’t work. First she sent nasty glares at the other customers staring at them open mouthed, and then she turned her head away and screwed up her face, desperately holding back tears. Behind her, the rain slowed to a drizzle and she could hear Justin sniffing.

“I just wanted to pick up a few things,” she growled, rounding on him. “Just a few things. Four, in fact. It would have taken fifteen minutes! Couldn’t you be happy for just that long?”

But he was standing there in a puddle, shivering, his shoulders hunched and his eyes full of tears. The clouds covering him slowly evaporated in the afternoon sunlight. Water dropped from the hem of his shirt and splashed onto the damp concrete. He lifted his eyes up to hers, full of fear. She opened her mouth to continue her lecture but stopped, mouth open. The haze of her own to-do list cleared and she saw him as he was; a small person, unable to communicate effectively, looking to her for protection and saddled with this stupid weatherman gene. She remembered how he cried when full sized outdoor thunderstorms came, and how much worse they must be when they come from yourself and you are a very small person still learning to navigate the waters of large emotions.

She shut her mouth, dropped down to the sidewalk next to him, pulled his sodden self onto her lap and kissed his head. “Were you scared, Justin?”

“Yeah.” He said in a tiny voice. “Mommy mad?”

“Not really at you, Justin. I’m sorry for snapping at you.” She sighed and rested her chin on his head. “What do you say to going home, getting into some dry clothes and ordering pizza for this evening? Ms. Gross can just stick her nose in the air and deal with it…don’t repeat that, Justin.

“He looked up at her and grinned.  “Pizza?”

“You know what, kiddo?” She got up, pulled him to his feet and crouched down in front of him. “Instead of just hoping you don’t get upset…let’s just buy you a raincoat.”

 

Recycle your loved ones, please

“Francis Snyder isn’t producing oxygen, Dack.”

A thin man with a few wisps of strawberry blond hair on his head stood just in the entrance of his supervisor’s office. A poster hung behind the supervisor’s desk. Two children stood in front of a tree. A speech bubble over the boy said: “Thanks Mom and Dad. Because of you, we have a future.” And underneath in shimmering purple and silver letters it said LifeTree: Save the planet for your children.”

“Sentimental.” Said the man with the clipboard.

Solomon Dack, a man of twenty-five with the scowl of a cantankerous geriatric, rolled his eyes.

“The higher ups sent it over. It’s some retro thing from when they started the program. Back when they had to convince people it was in their best interests to be executed and recycled to fertilize a tree. Higher ups claim it improved morale. Like we have to bother with improving morale now that it’s illegal to live past forty-five! I think it just makes them feel better about reducing the age limit from 50 to 45.

“But don’t change the subject! Whaddya mean Snyder isn’t producing oxygen? It’s what trees do! They can’t help it! You keep coming and telling me these trees stop producing and I tell you, it’s impossible! What was the last one, just some meter malfunction, right? That’ll be it again. Your whole job is making sure those things run right.”

His junior just recited the facts in a monotone, his bulging eyes and sallow face expressionless. “Computer registered a fault, so I went out to check and she just isn’t producing anything. No problems with the computer, or the meter, or anything as far as I could tell. The tree appears to be withered.”

The supervisor took his feet down from his desk and groaned, slamming his hand down on a pile of paperwork. “This is the third problem this week! And now they’ve lowered the age cut off again they’re sending me more and more corpses every day, but does anybody think of the infrastructure? No. Dumb computer probably fed the tree nuclear waste or something…” Dack turned to his computer and said, “Pull up Francis Snyder.”

The two men stood in silence as the computer read to them: “Francis Snyder, born August 2032, recycled July 2081. African American. No known health problems. Became Silver Maple, Acer saccharinum. Average .71 lbs oxygen per day. Mild case of anthracnose fungus in 2097.”

“Well that tells us absolutely nothing.” Dack grouched.

“She was recycled in 2081—people were still hiding from the recycling gangs back then. Unusual to have volunteered.”

“Idiots.” The supervisor said. “Like they couldn’t see the ground cracking in front of them, even if they didn’t believe we’d burnt up the ozone layer. Computer, any special notes about Francis Snyder?”

“Francis Snyder was one of the first volunteers for the LifeTree program. Her daughter was suffering from Oxygen Failure Disease (OFD) and she believed her death would help her daughter breathe again. She read this before entering the recycling center and requested that the audio clip be entered into her file.”

“Back when they got stupid requests granted just by asking,” Drack said in aside to Harris.

The voice of a black woman came out of the speaker. Once it might have been a rich, full voice, but emotion made it squeak and crack. “Gloria. My daughter. I want so much for you to enjoy life. I can’t stand to see you struggle to breathe every day and know that there is something I can do to save you. You have married a wonderful man and you deserve a life together. Live long, and live well, daughter. Tell my grandchildren—”

“That’s enough of that.” Said Dack, and the recording clicked off. “As I said, idiots. Like one stupid old person dying is actually going to stop anybody’s OFD. Or Global Warming!” He pushed off the table and stomped past Harris. “Come on. Let’s go look at Snyder.”

They stepped out of the office building to a world split in half. On their left, cut off from them by a cloudy film that stretched up into the air, the sun beat down on cracked red soil and a few clumps of yellowed grass. On the right, endless rows of silver-grey bark and green leaves along paths dappled with fallen leaves and shadow. Each tree had a plaque, a meter, a wire running up its trunk and a balloon suspended above it. Harris and Drack climbed on an electric four wheeler and drove off down one of the rows.

Tree seventy-two was a large silver maple whose leaves had a sickly brownish hue and were withered. The plaque in front of it read Francis Snyder. Dack jumped out of the four wheeler and planted his feet. “Now look here!” He said, pointing a finger at the tree, “You made this problem! You were part of burning the ozone layer away! So you fix it! I don’t want to see any shirking on my farm, understand?”

Then he laughed, shook his head and bent down to tap the meter. “You know the government just asks for it, insisting we put up those stupid plaques for headstones and use their names. They’re dead! Who cares who they were?”

“Indeed.” Harris said.

While he fiddled with the meter, Harris pulled a plaque out of his pocket and moved over to the next tree, a sapling recently planted. Harris shoved the sign down into the freshly upturned dirt. “Forgot to put that in when that lady got planted yesterday,” he explained to Dack. “Corpse from the newest age limit reduction.” He stopped, an odd look on his ugly face. “Real pretty corpse. Makes me glad I bought that exemption.”

“She look young?”

“Very.”

“Eh, well. If you’ve gotta look at a dead person, why not look at an attractive one, I say. Better than some wrinkly old geezer, right?” Dack stood up and scratched his head. “The meter’s reading fine. The line’s connected, the computer is operating properly. What the heck is going on here?”

Both men looked up at the tree as a breeze stirred the leaves into a papery susurrus. The breeze died away and the leaves drooped like used tissues. Some of the edges had already began to curl into a crisp brown. The whole tree seemed to sag, a dark, withered thing against the acres of fresh green leaves.

“Well…” Dack said with false cheer, “It’s only one tree. They gotta die sometime.”

Harris cleared his throat. “Actually, sir, since we planted the new harvest of recycled people there are several more of our older trees doing the same thing…”

“How many?” Dack’s gaze was sharp.

“…Eighty-six.”

“What!? That’s almost ten percent of our trees!” Dack swore and jumped into the four wheeler. “Get in! If this is a blight, we have to stop it now! You realize if these trees die, our exemptions are worth crap? Everybody dies if they die!”

They sped away. As the dirt settled, a leaf from Francis Snyder fluttered down through the air, floating back and forth and finally landing in front of the new sapling’s plaque. The plaque read: Gloria Snyder. Born 2062 -Recycled 2107.

 

Drowning

His eyes were swimming pool blue. The cars on the street, the smell of a passerby’s cigarette, the shriek of the espresso machine inside the cafe, all faded away when he looked at her; a thrill like the first time you dip your feet into pool water on a hot summer day.

 

“I’m so glad you wanted to meet me here, Cara. I’ve just—been dealing with some stuff lately, and I need to talk to somebody. You’re the best listener I know and I just need to talk to someone about Jenny.”

“Didn’t you guys break up…a while ago?”

“Yeah. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I’m still dealing with all kinds of junk from that relationship. She just had all these demands. She was so controlling. Anyway, now she wants my couch.”

“Your couch? Seriously? She just all of a sudden wants your couch?”

“I know, right? It’s absurd! It’s just kind of opened up a bunch of old feelings and stuff. Sounds stupid, but you get used to being bullied around like that. Partly why I wanted to talk to you. You’re so undemanding, Cara. I love that about you. I feel like we can sit here and enjoy coffee and you don’t have all these expectations, like I’m a performing dog, or something.”

“Well, coffee for you, and a hot chocolate for me! … But I’m really glad you feel that way. You can come talk to me any time, seriously. I’m always available! Um…to be a listening ear, I mean. Always glad to listen. And help. However, you know. I’m a help-y type person!”

“Ha, well, that’s why I’m here! Came to the right place, I guess?”

“Yep. Help. Maybe not so much on not being socially awkward, but…”

“Oh, I like that part of you, too.”

 

The water in the swimming pool was as cold as it looked and she surfaced, gasping in shock. Too fast—she’d intended to slip in slowly, but she surfaced laughing, anyway, and floated on her back as the sun made crystal spangles out of the water lapping around her.

 

“Oh, hey Parker! You rearranged while I was gone! I thought we were going to do it together, after you’d got all your stuff moved in?”

“Yeah, but your energy was all messed up in here, and I just couldn’t take it. I’m taking that yellow chair of yours down to the curb—that thing is an eyesore. Where on earth did you even get a piece of crap like that?”

“It was my grandma’s…I really love that chair, Parker. I always sit there in the mornings with my breakfast. Reminds me of her. Please bring it back.”

“I can’t believe you’re making a big deal about this. You’re usually such a chill person. It’s an eyesore. I’m doing you a favor.”

“But—”

“Look, don’t get all mad at me. I just want to keep the peace. If you have to have it, we’ll put it in the dining room. And hon, you’re not eating breakfast alone anymore, remember? At least, I kind of hope you don’t want to sit alone in a chair, when I’m going to be back in our bed, eating the fantastic bacon and eggs and pancakes breakfast I’m making for us tomorrow.”

“Mmm…yeah? That sounds pretty good. I guess…I guess it can go in the dining room. –But only if I get breakfast in bed a lot, hear?”

“Anything for you, babe.”

 

She squinted against the glare on the water, a headache tightening behind her eyes. She wasn’t ready to get out yet, but it looked like there was some shade over at the far end of the swimming pool that she could rest in. But after a few moments paddling through the water, the edge of the pool looked very far away, almost as if she’d been swimming away from it all this time. Confused, she put her feet down to stand up and get her bearings. She sank. The water had closed over her head before she reacted and thrashed to the surface, spluttering and wiping water out of her eyes. There was nothing underneath her. Experimentally, she went underwater again, reaching for the bottom, and again she kept dropping, down, down… Opening her eyes, she looked beneath her. A deep, fathomless blue sunk beneath her. There was no bottom. Surfacing, she shut her eyes and breathed in deeply. No need to panic; she’d just swim back to the edge and get out.

 

“Are you ready to go, Park?”

“What? Ready to go where?”

“To the concert! You know, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, playing the score from Star Wars? The one I’ve only been talking about for months?  I’m so excited! I actually went out and splurged on a necklace I thought would look nice with—wait, what are you dressed like that for? It’s a formal event; come on, let’s get ready! I don’t want to be late—I like to hear them warm up; all that mixed up jangle of strings and horns and…why are you looking at me like that?”

“You know it’s pool night.”

“What do you mean, pool night? We planned a date night, remember? I bought these tickets forever ago, and I got a dress—”

“I told you two weeks ago it’s Rob’s birthday tonight and all of us guys are celebrating tonight at pool night.”

“I…but…I can’t believe this. You don’t even like Rob! You called him an ‘pompous idiot’ just last week!”

“What the heck is your problem? Why do you keep doing this? Every time I don’t do the thing you want me to do, you throw a fit and get all crazy—”

“I’m not throwing a fit I just—”

“And it’s never your fault. You’re completely reasonable, only your ‘completely reasonable’ means I have to toe the line, I have to do every little thing the way you want it. I’m sick of your controlling attitude! You used to be so hands off about things—I don’t know what the heck happened to that girl, but she sure isn’t the one I’m living with now!”

“Parker—I didn’t mean to—”

“I’m leaving. I’ll be back by one.”

“…I’m sorry.”

 

Her arms and legs ached. The final rays of daylight were shooting through pink and gold clouds, but down by the pool a cool air began to rise off the water. She told herself she’d not been swimming as long as she thought she had. There had to be an edge soon. Everything would be fine. Glassy ripples flamed a reflection up to the sky, and she could see nothing.

 

“I bet you think you’re real clever, Cara.”

“What do you mean?—hey, can you taste this? I don’t know if I put in enough salt.”

“Don’t change the subject. I know what you were doing last Tuesday at lunch.”

“…I was eating lunch…”

“Oh you’re really funny, Cara. I’m splitting my sides. See, I was across the street at Nathan’s Diner, and I saw you there. I saw you with another man. Do you think I’m going to let you get away with that?”

“Now, wait, just hold on—it was my boss. He had that brief I did all the overtime for, a few weeks ago, and he offered to get me lunch just as a thank you—and I even texted you, just like you always ask me to, to ask if it was okay, and you wouldn’t answer because you were mad at me, remember?”

“Oh no you don’t! You are not making this my fault. You always make it about you, poor little victim Cara! Too bad I know better.”

“Okay, okay, calm down! I’m sorry! It was just lunch!”

“Stop making excuses! I know the truth! Tell me the truth!”

“Ow! Stop, Parker, stop!”

 

The darkness swelled around her. The only part of her visible was her head, just barely bobbing above the sheet of black water. Her hair was pasted to her head and she shivered. Desperate, she spoke into the void: “Help?” Silence answered. There was nothing else to do, so she kept calling: “Help! Help me! Please! Help!”

 

Far away, a light flipped on, just a bright dot in the darkness. She started swimming for it.

 

 

 

 

Burnt Consequence

Every time, he resisted. But it was like an unbearable itch, burning into him, a need to know that singed his nostrils with smoke.

They were being seated at a restaurant when he saw the waitress recognize him. He held out, keeping his eyes on his plate when she came by, feeling his parent’s stares drilling into him. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your mouth shut. But as she handed them the check she paused and said to him, “You’re that guy, right? The one that went into the fire?”

And it burst out. “Do you think I did the right thing?”

He heard his father’s huff of breath, knew his mother had turned her head away, his sister had shut her eyes, but he kept his eyes fixed on the surprised face of the girl in front of him. She fiddled with her blonde ponytail.

“I mean…you do what’s good for you, right…?” But her eyes avoided the pink, drooping side of his face standing out in high contrast against the rest of his dark skin. “Um. So, anyway, you guys have a good day!”

In the car, his father exploded. “What do you want, Travis, somebody to come and fawn all over you, boy? We moved past that stuff when we moved past all that religious trash. You know the law. You know we don’t judge people no more! You want her to tell you what a good thing you did? You know that’s unhealthy, you know that’s rude as all get out.”

“You need to think about other people.” His mother said, her voice quiet, but hard. “How are you making them feel? Every time you ask that question, and you want praise for your choice, how do you think it makes the ones who chose differently feel?”

He sat in the backseat beside his sister, who had her arms crossed and her jaw stuck out. “I thought you said the counseling sessions were going well,” she snapped. “You’re so embarrassing! That doctor whatever is a quack, Mom.”

“Tessa.” His mother scolded. “The doctor is doing his best.”

Travis stared out the window and remembered smoke and flames.

Six months ago he’d been walking home through a poorer neighborhood. A lot of the houses were historical but their tenants or owners weren’t able to refurbish them to their proper historical glory and had to leave them falling down. He’d smelled the smoke first, a harder, sharper smoke that made his stomach clench in unease. And then he saw her long before he saw the building burning in front of her. She was standing on the sidewalk, bent double, like someone was kicking her in the stomach, and holding onto a crying toddler. “My baby!” She screamed. “My baby!”

On either side of the burning house, her neighbors were quietly hosing down the sides of their own houses, backs towards her pain.

But Travis felt her voice cut into him. She was fear; she was desperation. There was nobody coming to help her, at least not in time. When they passed the Tolerance Law five years ago they had to disbanded the volunteer fire department in favor of a randomly selected, government organized fire department. Response times were notoriously slow. He saw her clutching the toddler’s shoulders, heard her over the crackle of the fire, “Stay here, okay? You stay here! Be a good boy! Mommy will be right back!”

He didn’t even think. He just ran, dropping his backpack as he darted across the street and raced the woman into her own home.

Five minutes he was in the building. He inhaled the smoke. He was set ablaze as a wall burst into flames as he passed. He dropped, rolled and kept going. He found the baby, scooped it up against his chest, and turned and ran.

When he came out into a burst of fresh air there were lights and shouts all around him. He had a dim memory of dingy yellow canvas arms reaching out to pull him to safety. The baby left his arms at some point.

Two things he remembered clearly. One: the neighbor, one of the ones that had been busily hosing his own house down, stood against the white backdrop of the house, surrounded by the deep greens of summer lawn foliage, glaring at him. The depth of loathing on his face made Travis cringe back, stumbling away from him.

Two: They were strapping him onto the stretcher to be taken to the hospital. A head appeared in his vision, blocking the blue summer sky. He couldn’t see the features clearly, but hot tear landed on his face and he knew it was the mother whose child he’d saved. “Thank you,” she sobbed, “Thank you. You’re a hero.”

Those two memories were the clearest pictures that remained in his conscious mind.

The doctors did what they could for his burned face and arm at the hospital, though the mass of pink, burned skin bubbling up from the right side of his face and arm would probably never go away. It would stay with him like a badge, announcing to the world that this boy had ignored the Tolerance Laws.

At night, the flames consumed him again. His mother just cried. His father was silent. What have you done to us? Their silence said. How will we pay these bills? How will you ever get a job, looking like that? You think you were so self-sacrificial, but you never considered us. The guilt settled on him, as painful as the burns contorting his face.

They signed him up for a counselor afterwards. He’d gone into the office feeling hopeful, stuck out his hand to a white man with an untamed head of hair, an aggressive mustache and too many teeth.

“Hey Dr. VanBruen. Nice to meet you, sir.”

But VanBruen only bared all his large teeth at him in what Travis hoped was a smile and said, “We’ll see.”

Unnerved, Travis made his way to the couch and sat in it, instantly enveloped by pillows. It was so cushiony it was uncomfortable and he found it hard to think straight when one of the cushions kept poking him in his sore eye. The couch, it turned out, was the best thing about the counselor.

He had hour long sessions. Each session began with the Reading of the List:

  1. By my actions, I implied that I was making a better choice than Ms. Carter’s neighbors. [This was how he learned the woman’s name for the first time.] I am sorry for being arrogant and judgmental towards Ms. Carter’s neighbors.
  2. By my actions, I proved that I do not think about my parents’ needs or show proper appreciation for their efforts to raise me. I am sorry that my actions have caused my parents financial, emotional, and psychological difficulties.
  3. The choices I make must not destroy other people’s right to choose what’s best for them. This is the principal taught by the Tolerance Law.

Then Dr. VanBruen would start in, expounding on each point until Travis, still woozy from pain meds and poor sleep, would nearly nod off just listening to him. The doctor had him recite the points at the end, and usher him out of the office without even a “Goodbye.”

And Travis would get back in the car and smile at his parents. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Great session.”

The only thing he couldn’t hide were the questions.

He asked over and over again, to anybody who would listen to him. Was it wrong to do something drastic to save someone else? The thing that scared him was that he was angry at those neighbors who took care of their houses while a woman’s child burned. He knew that saving the baby had been terrifying, and dangerous and carried an almost certain chance of self-harm. So what right did he have to feel they had done the wrong thing?

He asked people about it for exactly one year. The last time, he’d been at school, hanging out with his friends and a new guy. They’d been laughing and talking, until Travis noticed the new guy trying not to stare at the pink skin twisting across his face and down his arm. All his friends had stopped talking about Travis’ choice with the fire and he appreciated that, but he couldn’t ignore the thought that this person might have answers for him.

“Hey,” he’d said to the new guy while everyone was talking. He gestured to his face, “You heard the story?”

The new guy nodded, wordless.

“So,” Travis leaned forward and put his elbows on the table, “Should I have done it?”

The new guy looked at him, the corners of his mouth turned down, eyes lidded. The seconds ticked by. Travis felt his ears growing hot as the other boy just stared at him, expressionless.

He finally spoke, his voice cold. “All I see here is an ignoramus who wants everybody to feel sorry for him because he made a bad decision.”

Travis didn’t ask anybody questions after that. It was too easy to be misunderstood, he told himself, and it wasn’t something he should dwell on. So he said what his counselor wanted him to say, he smiled, he made choices that validated other’s life choices, and he tried not scream when he woke up from a nightmare about burning to death.

His scars were healing. His face was still gnarled, but it faded from a raw meat pink to something closer to his own skin tone. Everything was returning to normal. He’d accepted reality, he’d taken responsibility for his actions. As he passed his parent’s room one night, he heard his mother’s voice through the door, “I’m so glad he’s gotten over that. I guess every kid gets into some kind of trouble, right? It’s such a relief he’s getting past it.”

Almost before he realized he’d done it, he stretched his face into his best attempt at a pleasant, well-adjusted smile and walked on past.

That spring his father talked him into co-coaching the first grader’s baseball team together. Travis agreed—it was nice that his father wanted to do something with him again instead of just be embarrassed. He was a good coach, and he enjoyed it.

One evening, as the sky went purple and the peepers began to sing, Travis walked into the restroom area after a practice. He stopped before coming around the corner as he saw his entire baseball team clustered around the snack machine. The plastic cover was off and each boy was taking a handful of candy bars or chips from the inside of the machine—all but one.

“Guys,” dweeby little Nathan Dreer squeaked, “We shouldn’t do this! It’s wrong!”

One of the taller boys, their first baseman, swung around to glare at Nathan, “Okay, first of all, dumbo, if we don’t get caught it’s not wrong. And secondly, who made you the one who can decide what’s right and wrong for us?”

Nathan stuck his chin out. “I don’t care. It’s wrong!”

The first baseman lifted his fist. “I’ll show you wrong, you little—”

Travis stepped around the corner and the boys froze in tableau. In the back, someone hissed, “You’re gonna get it now, Nathan!”

The first baseman straightened up and pointed a finger at Nathan. “He’s trying to force me to do what he wants!”

Travis looked at them, their angry faces, their muddy uniforms. He jerked his head over his shoulder. “All of you, get out. Time to go home. Nathan, stay a moment.”

They filed out, several boys snickering or glaring at Nathan as they stuffed candy bars in their pockets.

Then they were gone, leaving Nathan alone in the restroom hallway, clutching his hands in front of him. Travis’ dad would have reminded Nathan of the Tolerance Law, talked about how important autonomy was, how selfish and low it was to take that right away from people. He’d talk about respecting others choices and protecting other’s rights. He’d sound real good and patriotic.

Travis knelt down on one knee in front of Nathan and looked the boy in the eye.

“Listen,” Travis said, glancing over his shoulder quickly, “Don’t tell anybody, but—what you did just now—it was right. It was good. I’m proud of you. Don’t you let anybody tell you something else, okay? A lot of people believing something’s right—it doesn’t make it right.”

Nathan’s mouth fell open. Travis got up, still glancing over his shoulder. “Now, if anybody asks, I chewed you out big time, right? Go on, get out. I think your mom’s here to pick you up.”

His face lighter, Nathan scampered out. Travis followed him and stood in the archway watching the boys cluster around the field gate as their parents pulled into the parking lot. He ran a finger over the deformed whorls and pock marks on his face and stepped onto the field to go help his Dad clean up the dugout.