ALSO BY BROCK BOOHER
Return and Continue With Honor: A Guide for Returning Missionaries
The Charity Chip
ALSO BY R. C. HANCOCK
An Uncommon Blue
ALSO BY MARILEE JACKSON
ALSO BY RANDY LINDSAY
The Gathering: End’s Beginning
Call to Arms: Nations Fall
ALSO BY JANETTE RALLISON (Janette also writes as C. J. Hill)
Just One Wish
My Double Life
All’s Fair in Love, War, and High School
Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Free Throws
Blue Eyes and Other Teenaged Hazards
My Fairly Dangerous Godmother
ALSO BY STEPHEN J. STIRLING
Persona Non Grata
Shedding Light on the Dark Side
ALSO BY LAURA L. WALKER
Pierced by Love
R. C. HANCOCK
STEPHEN J. STIRLING
LAURA L. WALKER
TYPERACTIVE PUBLISHING ™
Delivery © 2015 by Brock Booher
Time Flies © 2015 by Brock Booher
Milk Run © 2015 by Brock Booher
Brains © 2015 by R. C. Hancock
Match and Mirror © 2015 by R. C. Hancock
Fur, Fangs, and French Class © 2015 by Marilee Jackson
Judgment © 2015 by Randy Lindsay
Perchance to Slumber © 2015 by Randy Lindsay
Time Enough to Die © 2015 by Randy Lindsay
Crush © 2015 by Janette Rallison
The Christmas Warrior © 2015 by Stephen J. Stirling
Dreamers and Schemers © 2015 by Laura L. Walker
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form whatsoever, whether by graphic, visual, electronic, microfilm, tape recording, or any other means, without the written permission of the original author, except for brief passages used in critical reviews and articles.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, names, incidents, places, and dialogue are products of the authors’ imagination and not to be taken as real.
Published by Typeractive Publishing
Cover Design by Brock Booher
Book Design by Randy Lindsay
Typeset by Guy Rallison
Edited by Paul Soderberg
Delivery by Brock Booher
Time Flies by Brock Booher
Milk Run by Brock Booher
About Brock Booher
Brains by R. C. Hancock
Match and Mirror by R. C. Hancock
About R. C. Hancock
Fur, Fangs, and French Class by Marilee Jackson
About Marilee Jackson
Judgment by Randy Lindsay
Perchance to Slumber by Randy Lindsay
Time Enough to Die by Randy Lindsay
About Randy Lindsay
Crush by Janette Rallison
About Janette Rallison
The Christmas Warrior by Stephen J. Stirling
About Stephen J. Stirling
Dreamers and Schemers by Laura Walker
About Laura L. Walker
Writers don’t always bleed when they sit down to write, but sometimes it feels like it. Sometimes the muse, along with the inspiration, disappears and we are left alone to struggle with the prose and plot of a story. But occasionally, when we least expect it, an idea forms in our head with so much energy that our fingers fly over the keyboard struggling to keep up. Those are the days we writers live for.
When we finish a story our next hope is to find a home for it, a place where it can be enjoyed by readers as much as we enjoyed writing it. But alas, it is not always so easy. Writing the story is often much easier than getting it published. So good stories languish in the notebook, or hard drive, waiting patiently for their moment in the sun.
We offer these clean short stories to you, Dear Reader, because we want you to enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed writing them, even the stories that made us bleed a little.
by Brock Booher
Beep. Beep. Beep. Becky backed the delivery truck up to the rear entrance of the funeral home and set the parking brake. Just the thought of this delivery made her chest tighten and she squeezed the steering wheel until her knuckles were as white as funeral lilies. What is wrong with me today? You would think that after all this time I would get over this. She leaned her forehead against the steering wheel and closed her eyes. Just concentrate on the flowers. After a few moments, the aroma of roses, orchids, and lilies calmed her. By mustering all of her willpower, she delivered the floral arrangements to the funeral home.
When she made it back to the truck, her breathing returned to normal and her hands no longer felt clammy and cold. She told herself that nothing worse could happen today, but before she could drive off, her phone vibrated. It was her ex-husband.
She stared at the phone for a moment, wondering if she should answer. She hadn’t heard from him for over two years. You know he only wants money. But he could be in trouble again. Who’s going to help him if I don’t? A wave of unwarranted guilt washed over her. She sighed, and tapped the phone. “Hello Nate.”
“Hello Becky,” he replied. His voice seemed strained like he was having difficulty forcing the words from his mouth.
“I’m not giving you any money.”
“I’m not calling for money.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I need to speak to you in person.”
Becky took in a deep breath to firm her resolve. “I don’t think so.”
“It’s a matter of life and death.”
“Whose life and death?”
“Mine. But you have to promise that you won’t tell anyone.”
Becky clenched her teeth. For years she tried to save her ex-husband from himself, even after the divorce, but to no avail. But she still loved him and her heart ached when she thought of how much the man she once loved had suffered. “Okay. What time? Where?”
“Tonight. At your flower shop.”
The bell hanging on the front door jingled as the last customer left the store. Becky turned the sign in the door to “Closed” but didn’t lock the door. She looked up and down the street for her ex but didn’t see anyone.
She worried as she swept up all the dead flowers from the floor. What does he want this time? “Matter of life and death”? Just mentioning the word death made her chest tighten and her hands clammy and cold. She frowned and bit her lip as she scooped up the dead petals and tossed them into the trash. When she turned around she was face to face with a man dressed in a black suit. “Whoa! You startled me,” she said, clutching her chest. “I didn’t hear you come in. Can I help you?”
The man gave her a thin, toothless smile. “I’m here to meet someone.”
“Meet someone? I’m about to lock up.” Becky looked the man over and her stomach crawled up her throat. “Are you a funeral director? A mortician? All you have to do is call our number and we deliver.” She could feel the necrophobia seizing her like some invisible boa constrictor tightening around her chest and making it hard for her to breathe.
“I prefer to do my work in person.”
Becky moved behind the counter, hoping to regain a sense of security. “When’s the funeral and what would you like? I can show you some samples.” She pulled out a binder and plopped it on the counter.
The man sauntered around the room with his hands folded behind his back. “Why are you afraid of me?”
“Afraid?” stammered Becky.
The man turned to face her and gave her the same thin smile. It was the same smile used by every funeral director she had ever met. “Yes, afraid. Your heart rate is elevated, you have shortness of breath, and your skin is cold and clammy.” He shook his head. “Why have you been afraid of me for so many years?”
Becky swallowed and unstuck her thick tongue from the roof of her mouth. “Look Mister. . . ?”
“Mister Black. Mister Mort Black.”
Becky gripped the counter and steadied herself. “Look Mister Black, it’s closing time and I’m going to have to ask you to leave now.” She grabbed a brochure and offered it. “Just call us tomorrow during business hours and we’ll be glad to help you.”
Mister Black looked at the brochure, but didn’t take it. “I’m not here for you.”
The bell on the front door jingled and Nate shuffled into the store with the help of a cane. “Hello Becky,” he said with forced breathing. “Hello Mister Black.”
Becky’s mouth dropped open. She barely recognized her ex-husband. His hair was all gone and his once athletic build was nothing more than ashen skin on brittle bones. “Nate?” She shook her head as if trying to awake from a nightmare. “You know this man?”
Nate nodded and moved closer to the counter. “He’s here for me,” he whispered. “He’s here to take me home. Deliver me.”
Becky frowned and shook her head. “Home? Deliver? I don’t understand.”
Nate leaned on his cane and shook his head. “Pancreatic cancer. It’s ironic, really. All the years of drugs and alcohol didn’t kill me, then along comes pancreatic cancer and does the job in just a few short months.”
“Irony is almost universal in death,” said Mister Black, “as well as fear. But truthfully, neither is necessary.”
Nate looked at Becky with tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry for all the pain I caused you. You have loved me more than I ever deserved.” He glanced at Mister Black. “He gave me a little extra time so I could see you before I had to go.”
Becky wanted to rush around the counter and wrap her ex-husband in her arms one last time, but instead she steadied herself on the counter and tried not to pass out. Tears began streaming down her cheeks.
Nate pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket and placed it on the counter. “This is for you.” He reached out and put his hand on hers. “Goodbye, Becky.” He turned and nodded at Mister Black. “Okay, I’m ready.”
“No!” shouted Becky, but Nate collapsed and fell to the floor. She hurried around the counter and put her cheek next to his face. He wasn’t breathing. She put her finger on his neck and searched for a pulse. Nothing. He was dead. When she looked up at Mister Black, she expected to see the cold face of death, but instead she saw kindness in his eyes, and his thin smile had been replaced with the look of satisfaction, like an artist who has finished a great work.
An apparition of Nate appeared beside Mister Black, and smiled at her.
“Becky,” said Mister Black, “I love to see the flowers you deliver to the funeral homes. You always seem to add compassion to the arrangement. When we meet again, you have no need to fear.”
Nate and Mister Black locked arms and walked through the display window in the front of the store and disappeared.
The anguish on Nate’s face had been replaced with peace, and she felt the phobia that had plagued her for so many years melt away. She knelt beside the body for a moment as her breathing returned to normal, then stood and plucked the envelope from the counter. The papers had a musty smell as she pulled them out and unfolded them. It was the life insurance policy they had taken out on Nate right after they were married. Her name was still listed as the beneficiary.
Becky arranged the flowers for Nate’s funeral, and delivered them without a panic attack.
by Brock Booher
It took exactly forty-seven seconds for the prison door to slide open. After spending six years, four months, fifteen days, ten hours, twenty-three minutes, and thirty-nine seconds behind bars, you would think I had learned patience, but you’d be wrong. I learned to wait. Patience is different than waiting.
My lawyer was there to greet me with his politician’s smile when I walked out a free man. “How does it feel to be exonerated?” he asked.
I stared right through him for five whole seconds but didn’t answer the question.
He had never served a day of time in his life and nothing I could say would make him understand. On top of that, his efforts didn’t set me free. While he cleaned out my savings account, I gave information to the Feds until the case broke, and they arrested the real criminals. Now he wanted to stick me in front of the cameras and bloviate about saving innocent people. I never even smiled for the camera, and saved my energy for more important matters.
When the press conference was over, he pulled me aside and put on his courtroom face. “She’s here in the U.S. now. She wants to see you Jack. She wants to apologize.”
She was Beatríz—chocolate skin, brooding black eyes, and even blacker hair. She told me she loved me. She told me she wanted to marry me. I believed her, right up to the point when she betrayed me.
I wanted to see her too, but not to apologize.
I jumped in a cab and headed for the rendezvous location so I could hear her apology, or something like that. The sky was a crisp blue with puffy white clouds, the perfect kind for cloud chasing, just like the day they hauled me to jail and clipped my wings. All I ever wanted to do was fly, but jailbirds don’t fly. They flap their wings in the yard like some fat chicken, but never get off the ground. Beatríz had betrayed me, and her betrayal kept me on the ground for six long years. Now it was time for payback.
The cab pulled up and I saw her sitting in front of the Starbucks with sunglasses on. She stood when I got out of the cab, and for a moment I thought she was going to rush over and hug me. I think the look on my face stopped her.
She took off her sunglasses when I walked up. “Hola Jack, it’s good to see you,” she said.
I stood there with my arms folded and didn’t say anything.
She reached out to touch me but drew back her hand. “I’m very sorry.”
I glared back and sat down. I was trying to decide if a Starbucks cup could be used as a deadly weapon. Several other people sat at nearby tables engrossed in their phones. I wished I had insisted on meeting somewhere private, someplace without cameras, or witnesses.
She sat down and slid a cup across the table. “It’s dark roast, just the way you like it.”
What did she know about what I like anymore? How could she possibly think that an apology over a cup of coffee could set things right between us? I ignored the goodwill gesture and asked, “What do you want?”
She looked at me with brooding eyes. “I know you’re angry, but it really wasn’t my fault.”
“Angry? Not your fault?” I began to mimic her pleading voice from six years ago. “‘Por favor, Jack! It’s just one suitcase. My cousin is in the hospital and needs these things. You don’t even have to take it to him. Just get it on the airplane and a family member will pick it up in baggage claim. Please!’”
I was happy to see a tear roll down her cheek. My rage searched for a way to extract revenge on the spot, but six years of learning to wait kept me from it. I waited at least a minute for her to speak.
She wiped a tear and said, “They threatened to kill my family if I didn’t convince you to carry that suitcase for me.”
I knocked the cup of dark roast off the table and stood. “So you chose your family over me? I was expendable? You didn’t trust me enough to let me in on the secret?” I leaned forward and grabbed the small metal table at the edges gripping for something to control my rage. “You stole six years of my life!”
I stood there grasping the table and clenching my teeth as hot breath surged in and out of my nose. She put her face in her hands and began to sob. I wanted to somehow extract six years of pain in sixty seconds. I noticed that a man sitting nearby stood and began recording with his phone. I glared at him, like only a convict can, making him cower and mind his own business. I released my grip on the table and sat down again.
I checked my watch. I had waited six years, four months, fifteen days, twelve hours, forty-one minutes, and eighteen seconds for this encounter. The exact moment of my revenge had arrived and in the end it felt more hollow than an empty prison minute. I looked up at the sky, the deliriously burning blue, and longed to escape the heavy emotions that had kept me on the ground. I realized that revenge would only serve to ground me again, and I could never spend another second as a jailbird or another minute unable to fly. The moment I had waited for was not to be filled with revenge, but with release of the past that weighed me down like sandbags on a hot air balloon.
I stood to go. “I don’t care anymore. I just want to get on with my life.”
Beatríz slid an envelope across the table. “He loves airplanes. He has your eyes and looks just like you.”
My pale hand trembled as I reached out for the sealed envelope. A knot formed in my stomach and worked its way up my throat as I tore it open and revealed the photo. I cradled the photo in my hands and gawked at the almost six-year old face of my son. He was holding a red toy airplane.
by Brock Booher
Deputy Crawford sat in his cruiser with the window open enjoying a ham sandwich and the warm spring night when his radio came to life.
“Dispatch to Crawdaddy,” sang the radio.
The diligent deputy swallowed and picked up the mike. “This is Deputy Crawford. Go ahead.”
“Your wife called, Crawdaddy. She wants you to pick up some milk on the way home tonight.” Laughter echoed over the airwaves as the dispatcher held the microphone button down after making his transmission.
“I would remind dispatch,” spat Deputy Crawford, “that county regulations do not allow for personal transmissions over official frequencies.”
“Okay Crawdaddy, forget I told you to pick up some milk on the way home, but don’t ask me to explain to your wife how you came home empty-handed when she has hungry mouths to feed.” More laughter.
“I would also remind you to refer to me by my official title of ‘Deputy Crawford’ when you address me over the radio.”
“Sure thing Crawdaddy.” Laughter erupted again.
“Deputy Crawford out,” snarled Raymond Crawford, the newest deputy of Jessamine County.
He polished off his sandwich and washed it down with his Coke. “I get no respect,” he mumbled to himself as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “They stuck me out here on this country road because of a bogus tip and tease me over the radio.” He spat out the window and shook his head. “No respect.”
A black Camaro zipped past with the lights off.
“What the devil!” Deputy Crawford flipped on his lights and brought the cruiser to life. He burned rubber as the tires connected with the asphalt and the black Camaro disappeared around the next bend. Deputy Crawford grinned at himself in the mirror. He loved a good chase. It reminded him of his days on the racetrack before his wife made him quit racing and get a real job. County regulations didn’t prohibit him from modifying his cruiser, and he had taken the liberty of upgrading and improving his machine. He was on the Camaro’s bumper in less than two minutes.
The black Camaro pulled over and came to a stop. Deputy Crawford shined his spotlight on the license plate and ran a background check—nothing out of the ordinary. He tucked his ticket book under his arm and slipped from his cruiser, adjusted his belt, and kept one hand on his gun as he approached the vehicle. The black Camaro had the windows tinted, but the driver had turned on the dome light and rolled down the window. Deputy Crawford gave a sigh of relief when he saw the driver’s hands on the dashboard, but didn’t take his hand off of his gun.
“Going a little fast, ain’t we?” asked Deputy Crawford as he approached the open window and shined his flashlight at the driver.
“Sorry officer, I was just trying to get home to my babies.” The woman’s voice was silky smooth and dripping with penance.
Deputy Crawford gawked at the woman in the front seat. Her hair was blacker than the Camaro and her doe eyes were as brown as the leather seats. Her blouse seemed to be missing a few buttons. “Wh . . . wh . . . why such a hurry to get home to your babies?”
She batted her eyelashes and shifted in her seat. “I’m breastfeeding twins and I’m about to pop.”
Deputy Crawford swallowed and loosened his collar. “Twins? Uh . . . license and registration please, uh . . . ma’am.” He dropped the beam of the flashlight and shifted his focus to the car hoping she couldn’t see how flushed his face was. He shined his flashlight along the smooth lines of the machine and tried to stay focused on doing his job. He loved fast cars—the sound of roaring engines, the smell of burning rubber, the feel of pushing the suspension to the limit in a turn. He shined his flashlight at the tires and wrinkled his brow.
“Here you go officer,” said the woman as she handed him the requested papers. Her hands were reddish and rougher than he expected.
He looked over the papers. “It says here you live in Madison County.”
“Yes sir, out in the country all by myself . . . with my twin babies.”
“Then what are you doing in Jessamine County going away from Madison County at a high rate of speed?”
She sighed and adjusted her blouse. “You got me officer. I don’t have twins.” She smiled a devious smile. “I’m on my way to a little secret rendezvous and the excitement of it all made me drive a little too fast.” She winked. “You do know what its like to get . . . excited, don’t ya?”
“Uh . . . yes ma’am,” replied Deputy Crawford as he pushed up the rim of his hat with his flashlight. He shined the light at the car. “You mind telling me why your car is setting so low on its suspension?”
She leaned out the window letting her blouse open even more. “It looks fine to me.”
“I’m going to need you to open the trunk,” said Deputy Crawford as he focused on the sleek lines of the Camaro.
“The trunk? Why?”
“I suspect that you are transporting beverages from unlicensed producers for sale on the black market.”
Her face turned sour, and she buttoned up her blouse. “You got a warrant?”
“Don’t need one. I pulled you over on a legitimate traffic stop and saw evidence of a crime. The law gives me the right to investigate.” Deputy Crawford shined his flashlight in her face and put his hand on his gun. “Now, open the trunk.”
The driver shook her head, leaned forward, and popped the trunk. “See for yourself.”
Deputy Crawford grinned when he opened the trunk and shined his flashlight – the tip was right. The trunk was full of large mason jars packed in coolers of ice. It was the mother lode. He strode back to the front of the car. “Ma’am, I’m afraid I’m going to have ask you to step out of the vehicle.”
“For that?” she said as she pointed her thumb at the rear of the vehicle. “That ain’t hurting nobody.”
Deputy Crawford straightened himself up to his full height. “Kentucky Administrative Regulation 902 prohibits the transportation, or sale, of raw milk. I can see from your red hands that you do the milking yourself. On your way to Lexington to sell it to some unsuspecting city folks?”
“Look Deputy, it’s milk for crying out loud. It ain’t like I’m running moonshine. It’s milk! You know, cow juice, moo-moo, crème de la crème—MILK!” She shook her head. “Don’t you have something more important to do, like catch REAL criminals?”
“A criminal is someone that breaks the law. You are clearly in violation of Kentucky Administrative Regulation 902, and that makes you a criminal.”
She shook her head. “Do you starch your own underwear or do you make your wife do it for you?”
“Now just a minute . . .” Deputy Crawford stopped midsentence. He scratched his chin with the butt of his flashlight. He grinned. “I believe that the regulation does allow you to share the milk with friends and family. You wouldn’t happen to be visiting family in Jessamine County would you?”
The woman’s mouth fell open. “Uh . . . why yes, I am visiting my aunt Susie. She lives in Jessamine County. She loves my milk.”
“That looks like a lot of milk for Aunt Susie. Do you think you could spare a little for friend . . . in law enforcement?”
When Deputy Crawford turned his cruiser down the lane to his house at the end of his shift, he had two mason jars full of ice-cold cow juice on the back floorboard, each with a thick layer of cream at the top.
Brock Booher grew up on a farm in rural Kentucky, the fourth of ten children, where he learned to work hard, use his imagination, and always believe in himself. He began writing out of sheer arrogance, but the writing craft quickly humbled him. During that process, he discovered that he enjoyed writing because it is an endeavor that can never quite be mastered. He still gladly struggles every day to improve his writing and storytelling skills. He has published two novels: Healing Stone and The Charity Chip. He also wrote Return and Continue With Honor: A Guide for Returning Missionaries. You can find him on Facebook (AuthorBrockBooher), Instagram (brockbooherauthor), and on Twitter (@BrockBooher). web page http://www.brockbooher.com/# .
For interviews or events – [email protected]
by R.C. Hancock
Getting eaten by monsters is not as much fun as it sounds. Not that I’ve ever actually been eaten (or seen a live monster for that matter) but when you’re the smartest girl in your fourth grade class you just know these things.
While being brainy is great for impressing teachers and winning arguments with your parents, it’s much more important in the early detection and escaping of monsters.
This particular evening I’d just been sent to my room for sassing my mother (being brainy can also get you in trouble). I had flipped on my light and was halfway to the bed when my superior intelligence told me something was wrong.
I froze. An eerie chill flowed through my body, like I’d swallowed a gallon of ice water. Something was watching me.
It was no good calling for parental support. They’d think I was trying to get out of my punishment.
I was on my own.
Keeping absolutely still, I reviewed the four steps of survival (which I had devised last Halloween after watching the Friday the 13th marathon).
The first step (Detection) had already been completed.
Next came Location. That was easy. With the closet door closed the only other way the monster could be watching me would be hanging from the light fixture or hiding underneath the bed. Ready to dive to safety, I flicked my eyes upward. The ceiling was clean.
So it was a Bed Monster. I shuddered. Beddies were the second worst, right after Attic Snatchers. Fortunately smart genes also tend to run with those for bravery, so I was able to keep my cool and think of the next step.
Evasion. Running back into the hall was no good. If my mother caught me she’d lock me back in my room, and then I really would get eaten.
Hiding in the closet wouldn’t work—there was no way of knowing whether it was also an Under-The-Door Slider. (Even superior intelligence can’t tell you everything.)
My only chance was to jump. Assuming this wasn’t a Long-Armed Bed Monster, I should be able to make the flying leap onto the mattress before the beast sunk its claws into my juicy calves.
I wiped my palms on the front of my shirt and sprinted toward the bed. With only a few feet to go I zigzagged and hurtled over the footboard, landing safely on my unicorn comforter. I gasped with relief.
That last little maneuver had been a stroke of genius. The Beddie would’ve been waiting by the side of the bed, hardly suspecting I would find another path to safety.
Now I was free to move on to the fourth and final step of survival—Taming.
Of course Bed Monsters are harder to tame than others—that’s why they’re second worst on the list (which I devised last summer after watching the entire Nightmare on Elm Street series).
The only known way to tame a Beddie is to jump on your bed until it gets so tired of the noise it crawls out and asks you to stop.
I know what you’re thinking. What’s so hard about jumping on your bed? The hard part comes next. No matter how scary or ugly or evil-looking the monster is, you have to look it straight in the eye and say, “I’ll stop when you become a vegetarian.”
If your spring-squeaking is annoying enough the Beddie will quickly agree and that will be the last you’ll hear from it.
Now while I was sure I had the brains and courage to pull this off, I was already in trouble with my mom and didn’t want to get into any more by jumping on the furniture. There had to be another way to pacify this lurking fiend.
Then it hit me. Why not feed it something else? Then it would no longer be hungry for my succulent flesh. It was the perfect plan. I climbed under the covers to wait.
Yes, wait. Anyone who’s ever been sent to their room knows you can’t come right out asking for food (even if you explain it isn’t for you). Parents tend to believe a lot less in monsters and a lot more in wild imaginations.
After the house grew quiet, my mom peeked in on me and turned out the light. (I’ve got a really convincing fake snore.) Ten minutes after she’d gone, I threw my covers onto the floor.
While the Beddie was distracted by my falling pile of blankets, I hopped on top of my dresser, made a flying leap to the center of the room, and scrambled to the door. I didn’t stop until I was safe in the hall with the bedroom door shut behind me.
Once more, I froze. Had I made too much noise? I waited, but nobody appeared to usher me back into my room (and certain death.) The sound of my father gargling in the bathroom drifted down the hall and my shoulders relaxed. My parents hadn’t heard.
As quietly as an Under-The-Door-Sliding Closet Chomper, I crept to the kitchen and opened the fridge. What did child-eating-monsters like besides miniature femurs? Nothing in the fridge looked remotely appetizing to me, so it certainly wouldn’t tempt a monster. Then I opened the freezer and knew I’d found it.
Ice cream cake. Who didn’t like moist chocolate cake layered with vanilla ice cream? I took a bite to make sure it was delicious enough. Mmmm. This Beddie would never know what hit him.
Not wanting to give myself away by dirtying dishes, I dug a handful of the frozen cake directly from the container and scurried back to my room.
My fingers had gone completely numb and were starting to throb as I opened the door and dashed for my bed. Just before I jumped to safety, I lobbed the hunk of dessert like a softball. Bingo. It disappeared into the blackness under the bed.
With a squeak of springs I landed unharmed next to my stuffed companions and listened for a sign that the Bed Monster was going to emerge.
Nothing. The cake had done the trick. I slid under my covers and slowly licked my fingers clean. Another monster tamed by sheer mental power.
A week went by without a single monster sighting. By the middle of the second week I began to get worried. Surely the cake couldn’t have held its hunger this long. Had it really left for good or was it preparing to make a second attack? My panic grew when I learned that my father had finished the last of the ice cream cake.
That’s when the smell came. Almost as if the bed monster had brought back all his toilet-dwelling buddies to hang out in my room.
It was too much to hope my mother wouldn’t notice. That evening when she came in to tuck me in, she gasped with disgust. In a matter of seconds she had her nose waving all around the room like a mouse sniffing for peanut butter. When her nasal search led to my bed, she pulled the whole thing back from the wall.
I screamed too, but only so she wouldn’t feel silly screaming on her own. There on the floor lay the bed monster (or what was left of it). It moved and pulsed like its skin was boiling off. I got closer and saw that something was swarming all over it. Cockroaches.
My mom sent the insects scurrying, and I finally got a good look at the Bed Monster. All that remained were a few fuzzy green lumps that had fused into the carpet.
Mom was not happy. Although she lectured me for twenty minutes about not eating in my room, I knew the real reason for her anger. She was horrified that a nasty Beddie had almost devoured her only daughter. I, on the other hand, started to feel a bit sorry for the little guy.
I mean, everybody knows that getting eaten by cockroaches is not as much fun as it sounds.
by R.C. Hancock
Why hadn’t Fawn bothered to put some clothes on? She looked completely out of place standing next to the dilapidated mansion.
Admittedly, if Nix had looked like that in a bikini she probably wouldn’t want to take it off either. But still. The pool party ended an hour ago. And the breeze blowing through the moonlit trees was seriously cold.
“I think most of us have made it up the hill,” Fawn called from the back porch without so much as a shiver. “One of my upperclassmen friends got the back door open, so we’re finally ready to play.”
A boy in a tank top clapped loudly next to Nix, startling her.
“We need one more volunteer,” Fawn said in a throaty voice, “someone who’s never played Match and Mirror before.”
Around her, people nudged their friends, but no one seemed anxious to participate. What kind of game did you have to break into an abandoned house in the middle of the woods to play?
On the raised porch, a line of teenagers already waited behind Fawn. “Diego, why don’t you come up?”
Nix stood on her toes, following Fawn’s line of sight.
Diego Padilla was the type of boy who made girls forget they had boyfriends. Since Nix had never had anything resembling a boyfriend, she tried to stare every chance she got.
A nervous laugh came from somewhere to her left.
And there he was, glowing in a patch of silvery light, like the ghost of some prince.
It had only been a few months since she’d last seen him, but Nix’s memories of Diego were outdated and grossly inadequate. The boy was cocaine for the eyes.
Beside Diego stood a thin guy with white-blond hair, half-hidden in the shadow of a bushy fir tree. Nix pushed her way over to him.
“Nix Winkle,” Jordan said, his braces twinkling in the silver light. “How did you get up here? I thought you had to work.”
“Got off early and found a ride.” Actually she had quit her job and borrowed her neighbor’s bike. She had also, unfortunately, overestimated her ability to ride uphill and had ended up walking most of the nine miles to the party. At least she’d finally made it. Even if she had missed the swimming. And the food. And most of the partying.
Jordan grinned and Nix found herself smiling back. She couldn’t get over how different he looked. At the start of summer he’d gone away a short, dorky kid with crooked teeth. He’d come back taller, with shaggy hair, and a tan—in short, much less dorky. It made Nix sad. They used to be dorky together, pretending not to care what the other kids thought. Now from the look of it, Nix would have to be dorky by herself.
Somehow that didn’t seem as much fun.
“How about it, Go-Go?” Fawn called.
Nix realized the eyes of the crowd were still on them.
“Go-Go?” Nix whispered.
“That’s Fawn’s pet name for Diego,” Jordan whispered back. “He hates it.”
Nix turned to face Diego and her train of thought momentarily derailed.
There were plenty of attractive guys at Cross High.
Diego was something else. Some part of her wanted to punch him for stealing Jordan for three months, but a larger part was completely occupied with those tight lines that outlined his mouth when he smiled.
This close, however, Nix could tell the smile was forced. It was obvious Diego had no intention of volunteering. He almost seemed scared.
Strange. Guys were usually aching to prove their macho-ness, especially in front of swarms of girls.
“Go ahead Diego,” Jordan said. “Can’t be that bad.”
Diego shook his head and smiled again, although it quickly fell into a grimace of supreme discomfort.
“Go-Go, don’t be a baby,” Fawn called, apparently enjoying herself.
“Let someone else do it,” Diego said, lamely.
Fawn turned to the masses for back up. “Who wants to see my Go-Go play Match and Mirror?”
The crowd cheered and a few kids began chanting his name. Nix watched Diego’s expression go from embarrassed to mortified. It was clear no amount of chanting was going to change his mind and he was looking more awkward by the moment.
Nix knew that feeling—dozens of eyes staring at you, waiting for you to make a fool of yourself. It was a feeling that ugly people got used to.
But Diego was beautiful—he shouldn’t have to feel like that. Nix wanted so badly to help him, but what could she possibly. . .
“I’ll do it!”
The chanting died, leaving the sound of the rustling trees. Nix felt a hundred faces turn from Diego and fix on her. Maybe not the best idea she ever had.
“Who invited her?” a boy said, earning a few laughs.
Fawn, on the other hand, had a look of deepest annoyance etched on her face. “Excuse me?”
Nix was about to withdraw her reckless comment when she saw Diego’s expression. He watched her with a kind of worried relief, as if grateful she’d shifted the spotlight and hoping the ruthless crowd would allow her to go in his place.
“Let me try,” Nix said. “I’ve never played before.”
Fawn rolled her eyes. “Nobody asked you.” A few people made rude statements of agreement.
Nix’s windpipe seemed to grow smaller, but she could also feel Diego’s pleading gaze. “We’ve already wasted ten minutes. Are we going play or sit around all night?”
From the look on Fawn’s face, if she’d had a nail gun, she would’ve put it to good use. Some of the kids in the yard, however, seemed to agree with Nix.
“Let’s just do something,” one called.
“Yeah, it’s getting boring, let her try.”
Fawn seemed to sense her control over the mob slipping, and quickly changed tactics. She smirked at Nix. “Fine. If you’re so intent on being the center of attention, get up here.”
“Yeah!” Jordan said, giving her a mock shoulder rub. “Go Nix!”
She thrilled to see Diego’s look of appreciation as she made her way up onto the porch.
“What’s your name?” Fawn asked, grabbing Nix by the arm and pulling her to the edge of the porch. “Ticks?”
The cloying scent of flowers and overripe fruit hit Nix like a garbage truck. She coughed. “It’s Nix. Short for Phoenix.”
Fawn stared up at her with an expression clearly indicative of her interest level. And in that moment the contrast between the two of them became brutally clear to Nix.
Fawn stood there in her negligible swimwear, short, slim, and pale. Everything Nix was not. And although they had more or less the same color of dark brown hair, Fawn’s curly locks fell in shiny tresses while Nix’s just sort of stuck out, as if repelled by the rest of her.
“So you think you’ve done my boyfriend a favor?” Fawn said in a softer voice.
“You think he’s cute?”
Nix just stared. Was that a trick question?
“Here’s a tip,” Fawn said, moving in closer. “Just because he doesn’t mind asking fat awkward girls for help doesn’t mean he wants to date them.”
Nix felt like she’d been punched in the gut. At least with the dark nobody would see the blood in her cheeks.
Fawn smiled at Nix as if they’d just shared a private joke and turned back to the kids in the yard.
“The rules are simple,” she shouted, finding her enthusiastic party voice again. “Heidi has written a message on one of the mirrors somewhere in this house.”
A girl with multicolored hair raised her hand, obviously pleased with herself.
“The players spread out and look for the message alone,” Fawn continued. “You will know you found the correct mirror because there will be a single match close by. The first to find the match has to light it, read the message, then escape.
“But the other players aren’t just going to let him stroll out and win. Once someone has struck the match, all the others have to keep that person from getting out of the house. If everyone can get to the match-lighter before he escapes, he loses. But if he can get out of the house and tell us the correct message, he wins.”
“That’s stupid,” someone yelled, “why don’t we just hide Easter eggs while we’re at it.”
“It’s a little different than an egg hunt,” Fawn spat, “since the power is off and there are no flashlights allowed.”
An excited murmur spread through the crowd. While most of the kids were distracted, Nix took the opportunity to wipe at her eyes. Normally she wasn’t a crier—she’d gotten used to comments about her weight. Fawn had just caught her off guard.
Still, it made her wonder if she really wanted to go through with this. She wasn’t scared of the dark, but she didn’t like the idea of wandering around, trying to tackle people in it. She’d probably end up walking into a wall and knocking herself out.
She looked down at the sea of faces. Diego and Jordan were beaming at her. Instantly a vision opened up and she saw herself barreling out the back door screaming the secret message while everyone cheered. The others were coming out after her, complaining how quick and stealthy she was. Then Diego was approaching, glowing, inclining his head toward hers . . .
“Hey, dork! The match is inside!”
Nix realized she stood alone on the porch. All the other participants had gone into the house. Apparently Fawn was playing too. Good. This was Nix’s chance to beat the self-proclaimed queen of the high school. Or at least pile-drive her after she lit the match.
Nix focused all her attention on getting inside the house without tripping or running into anything. As she entered she noticed a section of window broken out of the door. That must have been how Fawn’s friend had gotten in. This proof of their crime seemed to jar Nix. What was the penalty for breaking and entering?
It didn’t matter—it was too late to turn back. She’d just have to hope Woods Cross P.D. had better things to do than patrol this far up the hill.
Once Nix got away from the back windows she waited a moment to let her eyes adjust. The sounds of people bumping into things echoed through the black corridors. A house this size probably contained dozens of mirrors. But only one held the message that would defeat Fawn and earn Diego’s admiration.
She decided to make a plan before blindly feeling her way into corners. Heidi would have put the match as far from the exit as she could, so it was most likely not on the first floor.
After groping along the walls and nearly getting knocked down by several fellow match-seekers, Nix located the staircase to the second story. Climbing steps in the dark was harder than she expected, but she clung tightly to the railing and was soon exploring the dusty upper rooms of the Abendroth mansion.
Although the hall was pitch black, most rooms were fairly well lit by moonlight filtering through the windows. An occasional noise made its way up from the floor below, but it seemed Nix had the upper floor to herself. So close to victory. As long as she didn’t knock herself out this would be a piece of cake.
She slipped from room to room, quickly identifying seven mirrors. Four attached to dressers and three above bathroom sinks. Still no match.
By the time Nix had made her way back to the first floor, she realized the sounds of people bumping into things had fallen silent. Come to think of it, it had been a while since she had heard any sounds at all. Had someone found the message already? Wouldn’t she have heard all the running and screaming of people getting tackled?
That’s all she needed—to come wandering out after the game was long over. Especially if they’d all gone home.
Nix made her way to a back window and peered out. There were still people out there. Although most of the them seemed bored, they were definitely watching the mansion for some sign of development in the game.
Maybe the other players had given up. At any rate the match must still be inside somewhere, along with her chance to be the hero. Full of renewed determination Nix spun around and collided with a piano, sending a less-than-musical echo through the house.
A few hoots of laughter came from outside. Nix massaged her hipbone. At times like this she was grateful for her extra padding. She sidestepped the piano, and began her search of the first floor a little more cautiously.
For a while she explored the main level, getting more anxious by the minute. Where was everybody? In the darkness she felt a doorknob and turned it. A coat closet. She moved on to the next door, which stuck a bit, but finally swung open. Inside was darkness. No windows. A bathroom?
She stepped into nothing. Her foot had gone past the place where the floor was supposed to be. Her stomach lurched up into her ribs, as if looking for something to hang onto. Just as Nix opened her mouth to scream, her foot hit something. The next step. She flung her arms out and caught the banister.
Nix could almost hear her heartbeat echoing off the walls. Wouldn’t that have been a great way to end the evening. Game’s over—the fat girl fell down the stairs. Who wants to haul her to the hospital?
Why hadn’t they warned them about the basement? Suddenly Nix realized the significance of her discovery. Downstairs would be a perfect place to hide the match. She made her way down the remaining stairs, making quite sure there were no more steps before taking her hand off the rail. The only trouble now was that she didn’t have the light of the windows to use as a reference. She may as well have been in the coat closet.
Nix moved more slowly, systematically checking the wall for doors. The basement turned out to be larger than she expected. After what seemed like an hour of bumping around in the pitch black, she began to question the intelligence of this game.
Sure, it sounded fun at first, but this had to be unbearably tedious for the spectators outside. Sort of like watching football with the TV off. Not to mention the amount of time they were all wasting.
What time was it? What if it was already past her curfew? She didn’t think it had been that long, but who knew. Cut off from her senses down here, her mind was starting to play tricks on her. Like the sound of a doorknob slowly turning—surely that was just the house creaking in the wind.
What would happen if she didn’t show up when her mother expected? She’d probably call her work and find out all kinds of inconvenient things from Mr. Dibble. At which point Nix would become an endangered species.
The sooner she got home, the greater her chances of survival, but she couldn’t just walk out of the mansion without someone finding the message. Maybe she could guess it. It was probably “Heidi is the best” or something equally narcissistic.
She heard the noise again.
It sounded even more like a doorknob rattling. Nix stopped and strained her ears.
A creak. Barely perceptible over her quick shallow breaths. Was someone else down here? Why were they being so quiet? “Hello?” Nix said into the blackness.
No answer. She suspected as much. If they’d already gone to this much trouble not to be discovered, they certainly weren’t going to pop out and say, “You caught me, you clever thing, you.”
Or perhaps she really was alone. Maybe the sound she’d heard was a rat. Nix rubbed her fingers on her clammy palms and took another couple steps. Even over the noise of her sneakers shuffling on the tile, she heard the next sound. A single footstep as if someone had decided to move, then discovered how loud his feet were.
Although the whole situation was downright creepy, the fact that Nix wasn’t the only one still wandering around the house actually made her feel a little better. The other person was probably just as terrified as she was. Most likely Nix had surprised someone in their search of the basement and they hadn’t dared move for fear of being tackled.
Nix couldn’t resist. She strode toward the footstep, reaching into the darkness. She waited for a scream or the sound of someone scurrying away, but nothing came. Instead she smacked her wrist on a doorknob, sending pain shooting up her arm. The door swung open wider with a slight creak.
Nix was too disconcerted to even rub her throbbing hand. Loud Footstep Guy had somehow vanished without making a sound. Had he left the room? Or maybe he’d just entered and was waiting for her inside. Nix’s body went cold. She wasn’t one to scare easily but this whole situation was getting strange.
No turning back now, though. Her curiosity had a firm grip on her will, and was twisting it into unnatural shapes. Why couldn’t she just leave and forget the whole thing? Why did her need to know trump her need to live? There had to be something wrong with her. Chronic Reckless Curiosity Disorder—that’s what she had.
Holding her breath, Nix slipped through the doorway. (Which was quite a feat considering the opening was narrow, she was wide, and the only thing she could see was a big black nothing.)
Inside, the room was warmer and smelled a little dank. She felt along a wall. Light switch—useless of course—some sort of hook, a towel hook? Yes. She felt the sink. It was a bathroom. She reached up blindly and touched the cool surface of the glass in front of her. Her fingers slid down until something smeared. Yes! She’d found it. The message must have been written in lipstick. Hopefully she hadn’t made it illegible with her clumsy smudging.
The vision of her triumphant reception returned full force as she feverishly felt along the sides of the sink. She was going to win this.
She felt something slender, like a garden tool, resting on the sink, but no match. What if someone had already found and lit it? No, she would have heard the tackling. The match had to be there. Heidi would’ve tried to make it tricky. Nix lifted the large object and felt underneath.
Sure enough, something small slid onto the ground. She crouched and found the match quickly considering her visual impairment.
But before she straightened up she caught another whiff of the musty smell. Body odor mixed with something else . . . a flowery scent. Fawn. She was either in the room or had been very recently.
Of course. Fawn had found the match, but instead of lighting it—and getting clobbered in the process—decided to wait and clobber someone else.
Ha! Fawn didn’t count on the girl built like a rugby player finding it. As if that scrawny little pageant-queen could clobber anything, anyway.
Nix stood with the sliver of wood in her sweaty fingers. She had the match, she was seconds away from knowing the message and nobody was going to keep her from getting outside. Let them try.
The problem now was how to light the match. She’d heard of people doing it on their zipper, but she didn’t know if that would work. She certainly didn’t want to ruin the match tip—this whole stupid game would be for nothing. She decided to go with the wood cabinets under the sink. They felt weathered enough to create some friction.
The first strike yielded a spark and a funny smell, but on the second, the match flared. The glow seemed like a hundred-watt bulb after so much wandering in the dark. Nix held the match on its side to catch the wood as her eyes adjusted. Would Fawn tackle her before she’d had a chance to read the message? Nix decided she’d best hurry and read it before the match burned out—she could deal with Fawn when the time came.
She held the match close to the mirror and leaned forward. Her own face appeared on the glass, dirty and shiny with sweat.
In front of her image was the message. It was nothing like she’d expected. For one thing it was very crudely done—it didn’t look like Heidi could have spent more than a couple seconds on it. A layer of blackish muck covered the mirror and the message seemed to have been written in it with a finger. With some difficulty she could pick out the words, but it still didn’t make any sense.
Her fingers grew hot as the flame crept down the length of the match. Had she read the message right? What on Earth could it mean? She looked down and saw the object she had moved to uncover the match.
It wasn’t a garden tool.
There on the sink, covered in the same dark goop, lay a long, slender kitchen knife. Nix recoiled and looked back at the mirror, her mind grappling for the answer that was just out of reach. As the flame sank closer to her exposed skin, Nix read the smeared message again.
Your prints are on the knife.
Then something else in the mirror caught her attention. She stopped squinting at the message and looked past it. Something was behind her on the floor.
Nix spun around and at that same moment, the fire touched her finger. She yelped and dropped the match. The flame traveled to the floor, sending shadows crawling up the walls, and for half a second, illuminating the figure in front of her.
It was Fawn. But she wasn’t crouched ready to pounce. She was lying in the bathtub on top of several other bodies. An instant before the match spluttered out on the floor, plunging the room into darkness, Nix saw the blood.
She screamed. She flung herself sideways out of the bathroom. She couldn’t stop screaming—the terror consumed her and kept her vocal chords ringing involuntarily. She screamed as she stumbled to the stairs and crawled up on her hands and knees. She screamed as she scrambled through the halls toward the back door, every second expecting to feel the cold knife driving into the flesh of her back.
Then a thought hit her that brought hope and despair all at once. He would let her live to take the blame. Someone had planned it all, and Nix had walked right into the trap.
Bruised, exhausted, and trembling, she finally reached the back door and burst onto the porch. Hundreds of wide eyes fixed on her. Nix felt like she was going to cry and vomit at the same time, but she forced her ragged voice to the maximum decibel. “THEY’RE DEAD—SOMEONE KILLED THEM ALL!!”
Instead of the widespread panic Nix expected, the crowd broke into riotous laughter. Nix stepped back in shock. Didn’t they understand there was a murderer on the loose?
Then it hit her. There was no murderer. Who would kill a bunch of kids and then take time to write a note on the mirror? It was a joke.
Sure enough, through the door behind her, tromped the other players, all covered with theater blood, all laughing hysterically.
“Took you long enough, tubby,” said a boy with red goo stretching from ear to ear along his throat. “I nearly suffocated at the bottom of that pile.”
“We were ready to give up!” squawked another in a red-stained shirt.
The crowd in the backyard didn’t seem at all surprised. Obviously word had circulated that the purpose of the entire charade was to make a fool of the last volunteer. Nix’s mortal fear melted away leaving a much more unpleasant feeling: complete and utter humiliation.
She smiled stiffly, trying to keep the pain from showing in her face. So she’d made a fool of herself again. Big deal. But then she saw Jordan and her heart broke. He was laughing.
She didn’t cry—she shut off all emotion and continued to grin sheepishly. She felt dead inside. With the smile permanently etched on her face, she walked down the steps past Jordan and Diego.
“Sorry, Nix,” Jordan said, dropping his grin as he grabbed her arm. “We didn’t know, honest! They told us after you’d gone in.”
“That’s okay,” Nix answered softly. “What time is it?” She felt cold and distanced from what had happened, like she couldn’t cry if she wanted to.
“Don’t be mad. It was kind of funny.”
“What time is it?” she asked again.
Diego, who she noticed still looked a little queasy, pulled out his cell phone.
She was supposed to be home from “work” in fifteen minutes. A virtual impossibility.
Most of the kids were making their way to the road, still chuckling about the spastic girl.
“You guys need a ride home?” Diego asked. “I was gonna call my mom.”
Before Nix could answer, Fawn appeared and planted a kiss on Diego’s cheek. Diego pulled away. “I can’t believe you wanted me to do that.”
Fawn laughed. “I wish you would have. It took Sea World an hour just to make it into the basement.”
Jordan’s expression darkened and he opened his mouth, but Diego beat him to it.
“Don’t call her that.’
“Go-Go, you’re so cute when you’re defending people.”
“And don’t call me that,” Diego said, his eyes growing cold. “In fact don’t call me at all.”
Fawn rolled her eyes. “My Junior friends only have two more spaces in their car, so your little pals will have to find their own way home.”
She grabbed Diego’s arm but he shook her off. “They’re getting a ride with me. And I’m serious about you not calling me anymore. We need a break.”
Fawn stared at Diego for a moment with her mouth slightly open, and then shrugged. “I was tired of your Mexican body odor anyway.”
Nix accepted Diego’s offer. She felt guilty for leaving the bike, but she could always return for it later. And after Fawn’s nastiness, Nix suspected Diego might be in need of a little consolation, and the idea that she could be the one on hand to offer such comfort was thrilling.
On the ride home, however, he didn’t seem at all bothered by Fawn’s reference to his heritage. Or his smell. What must it be like to have that kind of confidence? He laughed with Jordan about their attempts to water ski over the summer while Nix sat quietly between them, not noticing any unpleasant smells.
After Mrs. Padilla dropped off Jordan the car grew quiet. Nix couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say, so she stared out the window, wishing there was some way to scrub the evening from her memory.
When they pulled up in front of the trailer, her mother was already standing on the steps. Nix was so distracted by the shouted obscenities that she didn’t even answer Diego’s good night.
Her mother had obviously called Mr. Dibble. And probably the police as well. As Nix stood at the bottom of the steps with verbal fire raining down on her, she realized she hadn’t heard the car pull away.
She glanced back to find Diego standing beside her. His sudden appearance seemed to surprise Mrs. Winkle as well, because she faltered midway through her list of Nix’s deficiencies.
Diego took advantage of the lull and for the next ten minutes, Nix stood mesmerized as he talked Mrs. Winkle from furious to mollified, to chuckling. Nix hadn’t heard her mother so much as snicker in months. Nix looked back at Mrs. Padilla who was watching from the car with a half a smile, as if her son diffused domestic violence situations on a regular basis.
Once Mrs. Winkle had gone inside and closed the door, Nix hesitantly met Diego’s eye. “Does your dad really have a job for me at the feed store, or was that just to calm down my mom?”
“They always need help,” Diego said with nod. “But it’s hard work and you might end up smelling like a Mexican.”
Nix didn’t know whether to laugh, but then his grin made it clear he was making fun of Fawn.
Diego opened the car door. “We’d better get going.”
“That was impressive,” Nix said before he could get back into the car. “I’ve never seen my mother take to someone like that.”
Diego shrugged as if he couldn’t help being universally loved. “You helped me out. That whole business at the mansion was messed up.” He climbed into the back seat, and shut the door. Mrs. Padilla started the engine. Diego rolled down his window. “Nix, let me know if anybody at school laughs at you about the Match and Mirror crap.”
Nix smiled and nodded. It was a nice gesture, however impractical. It was probably the only thing Nix would hear about for weeks.
“I’m serious,” he said. “I’ll ask when I see you. Write down their names and I’ll have a chat with them. And you can tell me if they’re just mean in general.”
Nix laughed, but her heart had swollen to the size of a balloon in her chest. She managed a nod.
“I’ll see you at school on Monday,” Diego called as the car pulled onto the street and disappeared.
Nix wiped at her face and started up the stairs.
She would be looking for him.
RC (Recalcitrant Conformist) Hancock began his writing career with a story about a dead cat which his second grade teacher thought was brilliant. Convincing others of his literary genius has taken longer than expected, but along the road he has acquired a domestic goddess, four hairy gnomes (who, thankfully, look more like their mother), and a degree from BYU in Recreational Management & Youth Leadership (which gives him license to act like a child). Learn more about R. C. and his debut novel, An Uncommon Blue (2014 Cedar Fort), at his website. AnUncommonAuthor.com or facebook page https://www.facebook.com/AuthorRCHancock
by Marilee Jackson
Jade watched the trees pass by through the passenger window. The excitement she’d been feeling had grown into fear. A solid ball of panic had settled in the pit of her stomach . . . she just might vomit.
This was her chance to finally get Kevin’s attention. They had been in the same French class all year, but he never seemed to know she was there. Who could blame him? She wondered. He was a jock, popular, athletic and smart. Everyone loved Kevin, including Jade. But she had always been self-conscience because of her glasses and unnatural love of archery. She blamed that on her dad’s hunting addiction—she had grown up surrounded by weapons and the crossbow was her favorite.
The Jeep slowed to a stop and Frannie, Jade’s best friend, jumped out and stretched her long dancer’s legs. They had been friends forever, even though they were total opposites. Jade was short and average with brown hair and blue eyes. Frannie was tall and slender, a redheaded ballerina with hazel eyes. But they made it work. If it hadn’t been for Frannie’s invite to the senior camping trip Jade wouldn’t be there.
Jumping out of the SUV, Jade smoothed the road wrinkles from her black top and khakis. Four other various cars pulled into the campground parking lot. Jade looked around the peaceful forest and took a deep cleansing breath; the woods had always been a place of solace for her. There was a flat clearing about the size of a baseball diamond in front of them with a stone circle in the middle. On one side was a large dark lake. The lake looked strange to Jade, too dark and really deep. Suddenly chilly, Jade rubbed her arms and pulled on a sweatshirt.
After greetings and tent setups Kevin built a fire in the pit and the ten seniors sat around the fire roasting hot dogs and marshmallows. Frannie pulled out her phone and turned on some music. A few of the others began to pair off making Jade uncomfortable. Standing she brushed the dirt from her pants, grabbed a flashlight and decided to take a walk. When she got to the to the lake’s edge she walked to where the trees began and a chill cut through her. Shivering she scanned the glassy black surface; an odd feeling began to creep up her spine. Taking a few steps toward the water she hesitated.
A swim sounds nice, she thought.
Crunching on the rocks broke through her thoughts.
“It’s not safe to wander around the woods at night.” Kevin was standing on a rock behind her.
“Oh.” Jade was startled to see him. “I’m okay; I’ve been in the woods my whole life,” she told him.
“Really?” he asked.
The moon had raised enough to make his grey eyes sparkle. Jade just nodded.
“You’re not like other girls.”
“I know,” she said, a little hurt.
“No, it’s a compliment,” he said. “I like different.”
“You do?” Jade met his eyes. He nodded while holding her stare. Kevin took her hand and pulled her a little closer to his six foot frame. His eyes never left hers, she swallowed a lump that had formed in her throat and began to shake.
“You’re cold,” Kevin said, wrapping his strong arms around her shoulders. Jade closed her eyes and breathed in his cologne mingled with campfire smoke.
“Is that better?” He asked looking down at her.
“Yes,” she whispered.
Kevin’s head slowly began to come toward hers. She closed her eyes in anticipation.
A branch broke in the forest beside them. Jade’s head jerked toward the noise. Her whole body became tense.
“What was that?” she asked scanning the forest edge.
“Who cares?” Kevin tried to pull her back but her hunter’s instincts had taken over. Leaving Kevin standing in shock Jade ran to the jeep and pulled her crossbow from the back.
“Where are you going?” Kevin asked as she rushed past him into the woods.
Thankfully the moon was full enough for her to see. Silently she moved from tree to tree until she found was she was looking for . . . fresh paw prints. She picked up speed as she followed stealthily. Her ears pricked as she heard the animal breathing . . . panting. Crouching lower in the brush she waited for it to emerge. Out of the pines fifteen feet away sauntered a giant white dog.
Jade leveled her crossbow, took aim and pulled the trigger. The arrow sliced right through the beast’s front leg. Howling in pain it ran through the woods in the opposite direction. Jade stared after it, debating whether to follow or not.
“Jade!” Frannie yelled. “Where are you?!”
“Jade!” Kevin’s voice sounded scared.
Jade turned and walked back to the lake and campsite.
“Holy crap, Jade.” Frannie hugged her. “What’s wrong with you? Why did you bring that?” Frannie pointed to the weapon in Jade’s hand.
“I always take it when I’m going to the woods,” Jade said as if it were normal behavior for a teenage girl.
“What made that noise?” A few of the others asked.
“It was a wolf.”
Horror appeared on their faces.
“Don’t worry, it won’t be back tonight. I got his leg.” Jade said.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Kevin broke his silence, “but you could’ve been killed.”
“But . . . I’m okay and the wolf is gone,” she offered in apology.
“Yeah, but maybe we should take turns keeping the fire going tonight . . . just in case,” Frannie said. “Jade and I’ll take first watch.”
After a few hours of silence Jade looked up from the fire saw Frannie staring at her with a quizzical look.
“I was watching you and Kevin by the lake earlier.” Frannie smiled.
“And . . . ” Jade’s gaze dropped back to the blaze between them.
“And it looked like something was about to happen before you went all Katniss and took off through the forest, arrows blazing.” Frannie mimicked shooting a crossbow.
“Maybe . . .” Jade trailed off.
“No maybe, there was about to be some serious lip locking going on there.” Frannie shook her head.
“So, I thought you liked Kevin?” Frannie asked, eyebrows bouncing.
“I do.” Jade lowered her head to her knees.
“So why go barreling off into the trees?”
“I couldn’t help it, instinct kicked in and I just ran.” Jade tried to explain, but Frannie just shook her head again.
“Well, aren’t you glad I got the wolf? It could have come here in the night and attacked or something.” Jade asked matter-of-factly.
Frannie grunted and the next set of fire watchers came to take their place. Jade was asleep as soon as she finished zipping her sleeping bag.
The sun was barely peeking over the horizon when Jade woke up and stretched. Nature called. When she finished, Jade came around the tent and saw Kevin standing on the lake’s edge. He had taken the last shift of the night. She decided she should talk to him about the night before. Kevin took a few steps into the lake.
“What’s he doing?” Jade wondered aloud. “Kevin!” she hollered. He turned and looked at her and then jumped into the dark water.
Maybe he’s just going for a morning swim; maybe he’s taking a makeshift bath. The thoughts swirled around in her head. Her lungs ached; she didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath, waiting for him to resurface.
“What’s going on?” The other campers had come out after her shout.
“Kevin jumped in the lake.” Jade’s voice was on the edge of hysteria.
“Oh brother, Jade. He can swim; no need to scream like a banshee.”
They all agreed.
Jade barely heard them, she was still searching for any sign of Kevin. The moments ticked by. Panic stabbed Jade’s heart. She pulled her sweatshirt over her head and kicked off her shoes on her way to the lake.
There were sounds of shock and awe from the campground but she didn’t stop, Kevin needed her. She hesitated on the water’s edge. Taking a deep breath she jumped into the icy depths.
The freezing water stole the air from her lungs and she involuntarily sucked in water. Pushing her way to the surface she broke through and choked and sputtered until she could breathe again. Feeling more prepared she once more dove for Kevin. Under the water she opened her eyes. She couldn’t see anything. Diving deeper she silently begged Kevin to appear. After several trips to the surface for air her heart dropped and she began to loose hope. On her final dive she held her breath until her lungs burned. Finally, in the black cold depths she spotted something white. Kevin’s hand. Jade grabbed it and pulled as hard as she could, slowly they made their way to the top.
When her head was above water she yelled. “Help!”
The other guys in the group waded in and helped pull Kevin out. As soon as they laid him down he began to gasp and cough and breathe. Tears streamed down Jade’s face. He was alive.
“What happened?” Kevin asked with his eyes closed.
“You almost drowned dude,” one of the guys said pounding on Kevin’s back.
“I think we should get him to a hospital, just to make sure he’s okay,” Frannie said.
A few hours later they were all sitting in the emergency room waiting area. The door opened and Kevin’s mom came out wiping tears off her cheeks.
“He’s going to be fine. You should all go home and get some rest.” She smiled. “Thank you…Jade?”
Jade jumped out of her chair. “Yeah?”
“Thank you so much, I understand you went in after him.” She threw her arms around Jade’s neck.
“You’re welcome,” Jade said awkwardly into Mrs. Jones’s shoulder.
Jade left the hospital emotionally drained and physically tired. She took a shower and went to bed. She reached up to take off her glasses and realized she hadn’t had them on all day. Her tired brain deduced that it must have been adrenaline causing her to see without them.
Sometime after midnight Jade woke up to a knock, she went and opened her door; no one was in the hallway. Soft snoring came from her parents’ door. Jade shook her head to clear the fog of sleep. Another knock and she spun around to the window. The hair on the back of her neck prickled and stood up. She took a few steps to the window and parted the curtains an inch.
“Kevin?” Jade asked.
“Can I come in?” he asked.
Jade opened the window and he jumped in the opening.
“Thanks.” He pulled a chair from the desk and sat down.
“What are you doing here?” Jade asked. “It’s late.”
“You pulled me out of the water,” he said.
Jade nodded, her face feeling flushed.
“Thanks.” He fingered the crossbow on the desk.
“Um . . . yeah, you’re welcome.”
“You wanna go for a walk?” Kevin put his hand out to her.
“Now? It’s late and we have school tomorrow.” Jade scrunched up her forehead confused. Something was off about him. “Maybe another time,” she offered.
“Sure.” He jumped up. “Another time.”
Kevin walked to the window. He pulled Jade to him without warning and smashed his mouth painfully onto hers.
Jade rubbed her throbbing lips.
“Goodnight Jade. See you in French class,” Kevin said.
“Goodnight . . .” Her voice trailed off when she noticed his eyes were gold in color. Before she could think of what to say Kevin jumped out the window.
Jade leaned her head out after him, but there was no trace of Kevin. Never one to sit around and wait for answers, Jade grabbed her bow and jumped out the window too. Once outside she had no idea where to go or what to do. There was a faint howl down the street. She followed the sound. Instead of taking the sidewalk where any of the neighbors could see her, Jade took the trees that lined the back of the houses.
After a few minutes she could hear growling and howling. When she got to where the sounds were coming from there were two wolves, huge wolves, rolling around the forest floor. Jade ducked behind a tree and took aim. They were moving so much she couldn’t get a clear shot. Shrugging her shoulders she pulled the trigger and an arrow glanced off the darker wolf’s front leg. It growled but ran away. The lighter-colored wolf turned and stared at her before trotting away.
The next day Jade felt like a truck had hit her. She hadn’t slept much after the wolf incident. Where were all these wolves coming from? Jade took her seat in French class. Kevin came in after the bell rang and instead of his usual seat, he sat in the one beside Jade.
“Hi Jade,” he said.
“Hello,” she said, biting her lower lip nervously.
“Are you okay? You seem distracted.” He touched her right arm.
Jade glanced at his arm and noticed a bandage.
“I’m fine. Are you? What happened?” She pointed to the dressing.
“I seem to have cut myself. Just clumsy, I guess.” He smiled making his golden eyes twinkle.
“Are you wearing contacts?” Jade asked staring into his eyes.
“No, are you? Where are your glasses?” He reached out and brushed her cheek.
“No, I lost my glasses at the lake and so far I can see just fine.” Jade shrugged.
“Kevin? Jade?” Mr. Scott called out. “Something you’d like to share?”
“No,” they both said.
After school Jade put her books in her backpack and headed out to the parking lot. As she neared her car the hair on her neck prickled. She looked around but everything seemed normal. She threw her bag in the backseat and slid in the driver’s seat.
“Jade, please don’t scream,” a guy said.
Jade turned around. Sitting in the backseat was Robert. He had graduated two years ago.
“What’re you doing in my car?” He looked like he hadn’t cut his hair in months. “You stink.” She covered her nose.
“Thanks,” he said flatly, “I need your help.”
“Help with what?” she asked through a pinched nose.
“Do some research on werewolves.” Robert started to get out of the car.
“Wait. What?” Jade called after him.
“Notice any recent changes?” he asked.
“Maybe . . .”
“Just do the research.” He got out of the car.
When Jade got home her parents were still at work so she went straight to the laptop. Same stuff she already knew. Silver bullets, change with the moon. What was Robert getting at? Kevin’s a werewolf. Or did he think she was one?
After dinner the doorbell rang. Karen, Jade’s mom, went and answered it. When she returned she had a box for Jade.
“This was at the door.” Karen handed the package to Jade.
“Thanks.” Jade looked at the return label. All it said was “A friend.”
“Who’s it from?” her dad asked.
“Just a friend. I’m gonna go finish my homework. Night.” She kissed both parents and went up to her room. Once the door was shut she tore into the package. It contained four arrows, each one had a silver head.
During her homework, Jade kept one eye on the arrows. The clock rolled over to ten o’clock. Jade stood to stretch. She walked to the window to get some air. Standing in the backyard, looking up at her was the light-colored wolf. The air on her neck prickled and her pulse quickened. The wolf looked at her, then toward the tree line and back at her. Jade took her bow and new arrows and crept downstairs. Her parents were watching TV in the family room and didn’t hear her sneak out the back door.
The wolf was still standing there. They stood staring at each other for a while. Jade wasn’t sure what to do now. Finally, the wolf pulled its top lip back in a snarl. Baring his teeth, he growled, a low deep noise. Instinctively Jade pulled her crossbow up and leveled the wolf in her sights. The wolf turned and trotted into the trees. Jade followed. Jade found herself in the clearing from the night before. There was the wolf. He crouched and leapt at her. She turned and rolled just in time. The wolf turned when she stood and jumped again. Jade was ready this time. She squeezed the trigger and the arrow buried deep in the huge animal’s fur. Soundlessly it hit the ground.
Jade watched in disbelief as the wolf shook and convulsed and then a flash of light blinded her. When her eyes adjusted she saw Robert lying on the forest floor, an arrow in his side.
“Robert?” she whispered.
“Thank you.” He coughed.
“What?” Tears pooled in her eyes.
“If you hadn’t figured it out, I’m . . . was a werewolf. You’ve freed me, now you have to help Kevin.” His breathing made a sickening sucking sound.
“I can’t kill Kevin. I didn’t know it was you . . .” She trailed off.
“I made you shoot me. It was the only way to save me. Kevin still has hope. He can be freed by killing the king wolf.” He stopped to catch his breath.
“I don’t understand any of this.” Jade took Robert’s head into her lap.
“The lake . . . it’s a portal to the king’s lair. He lures people into the water and turns them into werewolves-uh- it happened to me two years ago. But because you willingly jumped in . . . you’ve become a slayer.” Robert pulled the arrow out.
“A slayer? What’s that?”
“You selflessly offered your life for another, you’re brave . . . the qualities of a slayer. But now the king is after you. You have to kill him . . . and save Kevin.” Robert took a labored breath.
“Why wouldn’t that have saved you?” Jade asked trying to make sense of what was happening. “Why did I have to kill you?”
“I’ve been a wolf for two years. After your first transformation, it’s permanent. Tonight is Kevin’s last night to be saved.” When Robert grabbed Jade’s hand, his was ice cold. “Please . . . save him.”
He dropped her hand and with a soft gurgle stopped breathing, tears slopped down Jade’s cheeks. In the distance a wolf howled. Her head snapped up in attention. Jade gently slid Robert’s head onto the ground and grabbed the bow and arrows. Silently Robert’s body vanished. Jade had no time to lose; she ran home and got in her car. She slammed her foot down on the gas pedal and flew down the road toward the lake.
Halfway there Jade came around a corner and slammed on her brakes. The car swerved and skidded sideways before stopping in front of a giant auburn wolf. Without thinking she locked the doors, and pushed on the gas. She had to make it to the lake. After she took care of the king she’d come back for Kevin.
Her car skidded across the gravel and came to a stop in the campground parking lot, Jade jumped out of the car and ran toward the lake. She had no idea how to find the portal, it was dark now and she couldn’t see in the lake during the day.
Oh well, she thought.
Pulling her jacket off, she heard a growl. The auburn wolf was beside her. The wolf jumped at her. With a scream, she flung her foot and caught wolf Kevin in the side of the head. He yelped and staggered backward.
Jade took the split-second distraction and jumped into the freezing water. She plunged head-first down, down, deeper and deeper. Her lungs screamed for air and her heartbeat thundered in her ears. Just when she thought she’d black out, there was a small patch of light at the bottom of the lake. Jade stretched her fingers out and tangled them in the weeds, pulling herself closer to the light. When she got close enough she felt her body being sucked into the light.
She was standing on the bank of the lake but it was different somehow, dream-like. Instead of a giant wolf Kevin was standing before her.
“Jade!” He rushed toward her and threw his arms around her.
“Kevin, but how?” Jade asked.
“I’m trapped here. Some big dog thing keeps us all here,” he said, pulling back. “Oh no, you’re trapped too?”
“Us?” Jade looked around and saw about a dozen people. Their clothes were from various decades.
“No, I came here to save you. Apparently, I’m a slayer.” Jade’s blood turned to ice when she reached for her bow and arrows. She’d left them in the car.
“Jade you have to go . . . now.” Kevin tried to push her away.
An ear-splitting howl tore through the trees.
“Oh no, it’s too late.” Kevin sighed.
“A slayer? Did I hear you right?” A growling laugh came from the trees where an enormous grey wolf stood on two legs.
Jade squared her shoulders and gave Kevin’s hand a squeeze. “That’s right, a slayer.”
“Come to kill me, have you?” The king laughed again.
“Well then, come and get me.” He put both arms out wide, inviting her advance.
Jade took two steps toward him then hesitated. What could she do without her bow?
“Grr, haha.” The king laughed. “Some slayer.”
“I’m just wondering why you hide here?” Jade asked, stalling.
“What? I don’t hide.” Anger flashed in his eyes.
“Then why don’t you come get your own werewolves? Why lure them to you?” Jade began backing toward the lake.
“I don’t have to answer to you,” he growled.
“Lazy or weak—that’s it, right?” Jade mocked.
The king growled and ran toward her. She turned and jumped back into the lake. The swim back took less time. Treading water she ran feeling like she was in slow motion. Just as she reached her car the wolf king jumped out of the lake. Jade’s hands shook as she fiddled with the door handle. The wolf king slowly sauntered in her direction. Finally the door came free and she grabbed the bow. As she leveled the king in her sights wolf Kevin pounced on her, knocking her to the ground. The air flew out of her lungs in a whoosh. Huge, furry paws pinned her down. Bearing his teeth he lowered his head until his teeth were touching her nose. Jade closed her eyes and put both feet against wolf Kevin’s stomach. Pushing with all her strength she made him lose his balance. She rolled out from under him. Grabbing the bow, she swung and connected with his skull. The beast’s body went limp.
“Well, well, well, maybe you’re a slayer after all.” The king laughed and came toward her.
Raising the bow she got him in the sights. He took two steps and swiped the bow out of her hands; his claws tore the flesh on her arm.
“Ow!” Jade cradled her wounded arm.
“Maybe not.” He growled hot foul breath in her face.
He swiped again and knocked her to the ground. He stood on her legs as well as her chest. Jade struggled to no avail.
“Poor little slayer, never had a chance.” He lowered his head and drool ran down her cheek.
She flailed her arms, desperate. Her hand hit something hard and smooth . . . one of the extra arrows. Closing her fist around the arrow she shoved it into the king’s side. He staggered back letting her go. Jade jumped up and kicked the arrow deeper into his chest. The king let out a howl so loud that Jade had to cover her ears. The king exploded in a flash of light. Jade flew back and hit her head on her car.
When Jade woke up light was streaming through her bedroom window. She came down the stairs and found her parents at the table.
“Good morning, Sleepyhead. How you feeling?” Her dad asked.
“My head hurts. How did I get home?”
“Kevin brought you home. He said you slipped on rocks at the lake. Next time, at least let us know you’re going out.” Her dad kissed her on his way out the door.
The doorbell rang.
“That’ll be Kevin. He said he’d come check on you in the morning,” her mom said.
Jade ran to the door and threw it open. Kevin was standing on the front porch. Her heart leapt. He raised his eyes to hers, his grey eyes. Relief flooded her.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“You’re the one I should be thanking,” he said. “You saved me.”
Kevin pulled her into his strong arms and gently pressed his lips to hers. When he released her from his grip she felt light-headed.
“What about all the others that were trapped in the king’s lair?” Jade asked.
“I guess they’re still there,” Kevin said.
“Well then, I guess we have work to do.” Jade smiled.
“After French class,” Kevin said as he handed her the bow and arrows.
From the first time she picked up an R.L. Stine book, Marilee was hooked on reading. Now she reads anything she can find. She wrote her first horrible story in third grade. Since then her writing has improved; her first novel, Midnight Runner, was released in February 2015. However, there are so many stories fighting for attention in her mind there will be many, many more. After all her favorite quote is “I write because kidnapping people and making them act out my interesting make-believe worlds is technically illegal.”
Marilee Jackson lives with her husband and children in a tiny town (don’t blink, you’ll miss it) in Northern Arizona. She spends her days staying home and chasing around her four rug rats. Her nights are spent traveling through time and space as she writes, erases, and rewrites her stories.
Like and follow Marilee on Twitter, Facebook or on her blog: http://jacksonjacket.blogspot.com/
by Randy Lindsay
The slightest of tremors tugs at my consciousness.
It buzzes. It rattles. It annoys.
For a brief moment it stops. My eyes remain closed with the hope of sinking once again into perpetual sleep, but the noise returns. Louder. Closer.
Agitated, I growl and the ground shakes as if the Earth itself fears the awakening of me and my wrath. How well the planet should remember when last I roamed the surface. Perhaps that is why it has kept me secluded and hidden for so long.
The pattern continues; disturbance and then peace. During the moments while I wait for the return of fond oblivion, I notice that the cycle of activity and calm matches the flow of night and day. Those tiny measurements of time ceased to have importance eons ago.
I decide to find a quieter spot and open my eyes. The inner walls of my resting chamber have closed in, surprising me with how much I have grown during my extended sleep. Since none could stand against me when I retired, surely the bounty of the world awaits me now.
And yet hunger does not stir within my bowels; only the call to sleep on.
With a stiff groan that rattles the pebbles in the chamber, I prepare to rise.
The stone walls resist me.
Bracing myself, I try again. My limbs are too cramped to bring my full strength into play. Only the space around my head offers room to move.
I slam my head into the wall on the left side of the cavern.
My anger swells up from my untamed breast; a force that I have not felt in ages. Accompanied by a furious roar, I unleash the rage that aided me against the horrible foes of my past. Now when my head collides with the cavern wall, cracks appear and bits of the ceiling fall away. One final push with my back legs and I burst out of the hill, like a hatchling breaking through its shell.
The sun is out.
On the surface of the neighboring hill, I spot the source of the disturbance. Small creatures race about. They have nearly stripped the hill of all greenery. I can see the trees being carried away along a thin path in the dirt.
A couple of steps take me close enough to inspect these tiny pests. They are unlike any of the creatures I have encountered before; hard-shelled and completely different in size, shape, and color. The curious thing about them is they move about on short round legs, rolling as it were, like Thhurghamanasss did when he curled up and fled our last and greatest battle.
The creatures are infected with small pale parasites that are everywhere on the ground. The soft, disgusting things scuttle about on two legs and climb on and even inside the shelled ones. Just looking at them gives me an itch and I reach out to swat a clump of them away from me.
For a moment, my anger at being disturbed is stilled at the sight of these industrious creatures so heavily burdened with parasites, but it passes. It is their problem to deal with, just as it is mine to find a new resting place. For all I know it could be the other way around and it is the parasites who are in charge. I allow myself a snort of amusement at the thought, before marching towards the ocean.
The sun has scarcely crossed a quarter of the sky when I happen upon a nest. Both the shelled workers and their parasites are present. The nest itself shows a great deal of structure with thin mounds that are taller than me and built in straight lines.
An irregular stream of the shelled ones has positioned themselves between me and the nest, as if they intend to stop me from progressing any further. Such a marvel of assembly on the part of the creatures represents a minimal level of intelligence and I consider skirting around the nest, but it extends quite a distance in either direction. My impatience wins out and with a growl of respect I march straight ahead, toward the very center of the nest.
Small puffs of mist belch from the mouths of the creatures.
Immediately, my hide is pricked. So is my anger.
Gone are the thoughts of treading lightly through their nest. They have dared to challenge me and for that affront I will flatten every mound in my path.
With a single swipe of my paw I send dozens of the creatures hurtling through the air, to slam against a hillside some distance away. A couple more swats and the shelled ones flee, taking refuge among the narrow confines within the nest.
Tearing through the structures proves more difficult than I expected. These are no sun-dried mounds of mud. They contain stone and bright shiny bone. As I push over one of the taller structures, the creatures attack me from behind. A wave of tiny bites washes over my back.
This time I find the shelled ones have fliers among their ranks that spit tiny splinters of fire. They make themselves even more troublesome than their ground-treading companions by staying out of my reach.
They are a crafty bunch.
Breaking the top off one of the mounds, I hurl it at the nearest swarm. Several of the pests are crushed by it. I continue to knock the fliers out of the air with chunks of their structures until none remain.
Unopposed, I resume my march until I reach the ocean. My wounds are many, but they are of no consequence. They will heal. The water will soothe the itches as I sleep.
Plunging into the peaceful blue liquid I swim to the cool depths below. Even before I settle into place, sleep tugs at my eyes. Then as oblivion creeps over me I think one more time about the creatures. How dare they disturb me and then think to do harm. When at last I hunger and wake again—then shall they know the fullness of my wrath.
by Randy Lindsay
Winston Robert Thorngate IV peered out the shuttle’s portal at the landscape below. Bombs had pockmarked the ground with the scars of war. Although the craters looked small, the smoking hulks of destroyed grav-tanks and other military vehicles proved that most were large enough to park a heavy cargo truck there.
Dark columns of smoke rising from destroyed buildings and machines formed a black, ghostly forest. Amid the somber evidence of war stood a pristine white minaret of a ship that towered high above the chaos and ruin that surrounded it.
The shuttle landed alongside the council ship; Winston gathered his troops, which is what he called the scribes, statisticians, diplomatic aides, economists, and lawyers who served on his staff. They were the highly educated soldiers of discreet warfare.
Winston cleared his throat. They looked his way.
“Hundreds of thousands have died in the conflict with the Ch-k-k-k Trrrr. The liberal use of military force on both sides has failed to control the half-dozen inhabitable worlds that occupy this section of space. Now, as you all know, the Enlightened Council has ordered an arbitration hearing to settle the matter.”
His sweeping gesture directed his audience to the landscape below.
“Look out the portals and you can see two armies sitting impotently across the battlefields from each other. With the Enlightened Ones watching, neither side dares fire upon the other.” Winston paused for effect. A brief look at the war-ravaged scenery below would pump-up his troops better than mere words. Handled correctly, death and destruction were highly motivating.
“The fate of millions will be determined by the words of a few. Humanity waits for us to utter those words and seize victory.”
The diplomatic team cheered at the end of Winston’s speech. Good! He needed them pumped-up and ready to unleash their peculiar brand of battle on the “Clackers.” In Winston’s mind, there was no doubt that the winner of the arbitration would enjoy prosperity and the loser would suffer hardship, perhaps even starvation, among the nearby colonies. Only fools believed that the diplomatic nature of this contest made it any less deadly.
Behind Winston the airlock opened with a soft whooshing sound. He straightened to his fullest height. He squared his shoulders and jutted his chin forward. Then he led the rest of the team across the battle-ravaged sod to the council ship.
A short, stocky, multi-armed alien waited for them inside the council ship. It reminded Winston of a furry, upright spider. With a motion of its two right arms, the alien directed the humans to follow it. Then it turned and waddled away.
They walked to a room where the Clacker’s representatives waited. All three stood about two-and-a-half meters tall, small for the species. Four of their six appendages served as feet, leaving the two smaller forward limbs as arms. Cobalt blue exoskeletons topped a brilliant turquoise underside. The Clackers’ colors provided aerial camouflage on their home world.
“They look much larger in person,” whispered Simon Hughes. As the mission’s number two negotiator, he demonstrated an appalling inability to grasp diplomatic nuance.
“You seem impressed by their size,” Winston replied in a quiet tone. “A seasoned diplomat needs to recognize those factors that may sway others in order to organize a winning strategy; however, he must remain above such influence himself.”
“Of course,” Hughes said sheepishly. “What I meant to say was that the Clackers are physically larger than we are.”
“A fact that I noticed when I studied the mission file,” Winston responded in a whisper. “Why do you suppose I brought so many assistants to the arbitration? With greater numbers we will appear larger and more powerful than the Clackers, and that will allow us to negotiate from a position of strength.”
“Very clever of you, Ambassador Thorngate,” fawned Hughes.
“Of course,” said Winston with a smile and a nod.
Simultaneously, the multi-armed alien motioned the Clackers forward with its two left arms and the humans with its two right arms. Winston allowed the Clackers to move first.
Hughes leaned close. “Will the Clackers entering before us be taken as an indication of their superiority by the Enlightened Council?” he asked quietly.
“More likely the council will view it as graciousness. Going second dispels any sense of desperate eagerness on our part and avoids an air of superiority. And, as any first-year diplomat knows, arriving last grants the best opportunity for making a grand entrance.”
Only one Clacker followed the multi-armed alien. This surprised Winston. Thinking fast, he signaled for five members of the team to remain where they were. Unprepared for the quick change in plans, the humans bumbled into each other. Members of the group shuffled left, right, and forward as they sorted out who would stay behind and who would go along. Winston maintained his calm, friendly façade despite the damage he knew this buffoonery wrecked upon their credibility. At last, they moved into the room.
Winston entered first. Two small, copper-colored tables stood ahead of and to either side of the doorway. In front of the tables stood a long white bench, like the ones the judges of earth sat behind during criminal trials. Despite good lighting, which emanated from a source not visible to Winston, the far recesses of the room faded into darkness before revealing any walls. It gave a sense of existing in some private pocket-universe to which only those in the room had been invited.
The Council members occupied the bench and watched the two delegations as they entered the room. Despite the obvious differences in size, all of the Council members looked down upon the proceedings from the same height. Not a great height, to be sure, just enough to establish their superiority.
Pictures he had studied from the diplomatic archive allowed Winston to identify to which enlightened species each of the Council members belonged. What appeared to him to be an emerald-green lizard with a giraffe-like neck was one of the Slinndar. They were the youngest of the enlightened ones, having reached the pinnacle of evolution a mere 340,000 years ago.
The Dray-Ho-Tan had helped create the council. They were small, thin humanoids with light gray skin, large round eyes, and large heads. In physiological terms, they were the closest to humans of the five enlightened races.
Least like the humans were the Photolons. They had taken the primary role in founding the council. Composed of pure energy, they didn’t exhibit a defined form—at least none that the humans could discern. They appeared as softly glowing clouds of pastel light. It was rumored that they had originally been corporeal life-forms who eventually developed into their present state.
The WeeHooRaa looked like parrot fish with tentacles instead of fins. They were an aquatic species that had manipulated their evolution to become amphibious. This was an important step in their goal to explore the stars. A small mobile machine misted the creatures, but despite the moist skin they still looked miserable.
In the center of the bench sat a Gurgar. It resembled a large humanoid hedgehog with a prehensile nose. The Gurgar were the work-horses of the Council. Individual Gurgars acted as liaisons between the council and gas-breathing species. They were the most commonly encountered Enlightened Ones.
Except for the Photolons, the members of the council wore clothing of the same pearly white material. The style varied, but all displayed the Blazing Sun emblem of the Enlightened Council. For the Photolon, a plaque, atop the bench, displayed the council emblem.
The Clacker delegate had already positioned himself at the desk on the right. Winston walked over to the remaining desk and unpacked his briefcase. He had intended for his briefing papers to be spread over an area much larger than the surface available to him. He wanted the council to know the humans were well-prepared and had plenty to say. Instead, he covered the desk with the papers he expected to use most frequently and packed the rest away.
“Which of you speaks for the humans?” the Gurgar asked.
“I do, Your Honor,” Winston replied.
“Very well, please keep in mind that you, and only you, are permitted to address the council. It is expected that any species which has reached out to the interstellar community should be unified enough for a single member to represent the species as a whole. Any breach of this protocol will result in the expulsion of the offender from these proceedings, which will adversely affect your presentation.”
The speaker delivered the message in perfect Earth Standard Dialect (ESD). When she finished, she faced the Clacker and addressed it in what Winston suspected was perfect bug language. Clacks, chirps, and twirps were relayed to the humans in ESD through the translators they wore in their ears. The Clacker acknowledged that it was to speak for the species. First it asked for permission to record the proceedings to take back to the Assembly of Hives.
Five species made up the Enlightened Council. Each of the enlightened races had advanced to nearly god-like understanding and power many millennia past. They had the ability to lay waste to entire worlds and destroy lesser civilizations with impunity. Older members of the intergalactic community insisted that a war between the Enlightened Ones would end with the destruction of the universe.
Despite the horrible powers available to them, the universe was not threatened. The Enlightened Ones possessed surprisingly few systems and expressed little interest in expanding. If they could be believed, their respect for the rights of others and not fear of mutual destruction stayed their hands.
Together the enlightened races regulated the space-traveling species of the universe. They monitored more than they meddled.
Lesser species were permitted to build empires, advance in their understanding of the universe, engage in commerce, and even wage minor wars against one another. The council interfered only when they perceived conflicts had escalated to an unhealthy level. This meant unhealthy on a cosmic scale and was not always apparent how to the lesser species.
“So there will be no misunderstanding,” continued the Gurgar, “know that the decision of the council will be enforced. Please understand that our goal is to see all species thrive and progress.”
“The Ch-k-k-k Trrrrr will respect and abide by the decision of the council,” clacked Winston’s opponent. It was a given that everyone would honor the judgment of the council since none of the lesser species could stand up to the might of the council peacekeepers. The gracious response, uttered first by the Clacker, was a brilliant maneuver. It established a positive rapport from its willingness to cooperate without hesitation.
“We recognize the superior wisdom of the Council; the humans will gladly heed the verdict.” Winston added a few honoraries to his statement, but he knew that coming in second had scored him no points.
“Very well,” the Gurgar continued. “Who would like to go first?”
“If it is all right with the Ch-k-k-k Trrrrr representative, I would.” Winston did not want to come in second again.
When the Clacker snapped its claws in agreement, the Gurgar faced the human delegation.
“Tell us about yourself.”
“Do you mean us humans?”
“However you interpret the question.”
Winston paused for a moment. In this situation, he was the humans. He had been selected to represent the human species and, to his mind, Earth had done well in making that choice.
Standing tall and straight, he took in a big chest-inflating breath and began: “I am Winston Robert Thorngate IV. If Earth is going to be judged by the merits of one man, then know that I am descended from doctors, statesmen, and diplomats who have loyally served their fellow humans. I stand here, now, ready to continue that practice.
“In the tradition of human greatness, I have forged peace treaties with the Kogethtarvi and the Lun, thus bringing trade and prosperity to our species and theirs. I traveled to the Purrenne homeworld during a dispute between our two worlds and labored, in that vulnerable setting, to make amends for the misunderstanding perpetrated by one of our exploration frigates. Our sorrow over the unfortunate event was great, and I steadfastly pushed to award them the largest concession that I had been authorized to give.”
Winston briefly wondered if the large quantities of second-hand equipment and technology could even be considered a concession. It was more a small token of regret taken from humanity’s outdated military surplus.
“On a less epic scale, I am an accomplished artist. My work in oils and watercolors vividly expresses the passion I feel for the beauty of nature and the diversity of human accomplishment. During college, I participated in a quartet. The four of us explored the range of exquisite harmonies that the human voice is capable of uttering and studied the spiritual meaning of the lyrics.
“Out of a sense of modesty, I prefer to withhold the list of awards and merits I have received for my own endeavors. Instead, let me tout the accomplishments of the human race. Few species have attained space flight so early in their development. Our level of technology far surpasses almost all species of a similar age. Already we out-develop, out-explore, and out-trade any of the species who surround us, and we are still considered fledglings in interstellar terms. We are destined for great things.
“Speaking of exploration, I would like to mention to the Council that Earth discovered the planets currently being discussed and were the first to lay claim to them.”
Winston took a deep breath in preparation for the rest of his speech, but the Gurgar nodded slowly and majestically at him then turned to the Clacker. In the Clacker language, she asked the same question.
“I am nothing,” stated the Clacker. “I do my part and I expire. The hive is nothing. It breeds, it labors, it expands, and it is subject to the whims of nature. Only the species has significance. Through the species comes eternal evidence of our worth. Through it comes lasting value to the universe.”
It stopped. Winston waited for it to continue. It didn’t. Sure the speech had a humble quality to it, but if that was the best that could be said, the humans had this bagged.
“Thank you,” the Gurgar said. “The Council will now take time to confer amongst ourselves. Please remain where you are. If it appears that the discussion will be lengthy, someone will be sent to escort you back to your quarters until we are ready to announce our decision.”
All five of the council members moved away from the bench and were swallowed up in the darkness beyond.
Winston looked at the empty bench and then to each of his assistants. The shocked expressions on their faces confirmed that they were as unprepared for the verdict as he. He recovered quickly and asked each one to express his thoughts on the exchange. The last of them had just finished his report when the Council returned.
“The Council has made its judgment.” The Gurgar paused to ensure everyone was paying attention before she continued. “The Ch-k-k-k Trrrrr will retain control of the six disputed planets. Human colonists will be allowed to remain there under Ch-k-k-k Trrrrr rule, and human merchants will be permitted to ply their trades under the same restriction as apply to all the inhabitants and visitors to this region of space. As a sign of compliance, we expect human military forces to be withdrawn immediately and without further hostilities. The Ch-k-k-k Trrrrr will be expected to provide safe passage to any humans entering and leaving the disputed area.
“That is our decision. The Ch-k-k-k Trrrrr delegate is dismissed. We ask the humans to remain a few minutes longer.”
The Clacker gave a formal nod of recognition and then packed up its recorder and left.
Winston listened to the clickity-clack of its four legs as it walked out of the chamber. It didn’t make sense. As he scored it, the humans were slightly ahead in arbitration. They had excelled in both substance and delivery. How could they have failed to win?
“We empathize with your sense of loss in this situation. Since this is the first time the humans have appeared for arbitration by the Council, we would like to add to your understanding, if we can.”
Winston roughly grabbed up the papers spread out on the small table. “What influenced your decision?” he asked.
“On a cosmic level, we are nothing. Even the enlightened races are no more than motes of dust floating amid the vastness of the universe. We have nothing to boast about when our exploits are compared to that which surrounds us. And embracing that fact gives a species the necessary outlook to progress.”
Winston rolled his eyes as he carelessly stuffed a handful of papers into his briefcase. “Do you think the clackers believe that?” he asked. “They said what they thought you wanted to hear.”
“I suspect that is so. The Ch-k-k-k Trrrrr are an aggressive species.”
“Then why award them the planets?”
“Because, they are aware of what is necessary to progress, even if they are unwilling to take the next step. A species cannot act on a principle until they know what it is and that places the Ch-k-k-k Trrrrr further along the road to enlightenment.”
“But is awarding them six planets because they know what to say, just a little bit excessive?”
“Certainly for the humans the stakes in this matter are significant. However, we believe suffering a set-back of this magnitude will provide incentive for the humans to think hard upon what you have heard.”
“Tell me, what would have happened if we had given the same response as the Ch-k-k-k Trrrrr?”
“We would review the recent history, for each of your species, to determine how well you live the principles you claim to embrace.”
“So, unless a species conforms to your rules of conduct you prevent them from progressing.”
The Gurgar let out a series of gentle, mirthful grunts that Winston took for laughter.
“My dear child, we stop no one. The laws of progress are as old as the universe. We are where we are because we abide by them, and in order to become like us, so must you. I hope you will see that we do not act to restrain others. We work to teach the younger species to free themselves from the limits of their egos.”
The Gurgar inclined her body forward in a reasonable imitation of a formal bow. Then the light that illuminated the bench went out. Neither the bench, nor the walls, were visible. For a moment, it appeared to Winston that his small enclave alone occupied the tiny dimension composed of two small copper tables.
A light scratching sound caused the delegation to turn around. The multi-armed alien motioned them to move through the open door behind him. Winston slammed his briefcase closed and slowly strode out of the room and then out of the ship.
Only Winston’s brooding eyes betrayed the fact that his emotions were not as calm as the expression on his face. As he neared the shuttle, a sneer twitched into existence and then was quickly subdued.
Winston felt shame at losing a case pivotal to mankind’s galactic expansion. He feared that this blemish on his record could irreparably damage his career. Above all, he raged at these aliens who aspired to be gods and used their scientific advances to bully the evolving species.
Despite what the Council might think, Mankind was not a cranky teenage race to be restricted to its room until it learned to play nicely. Humanity had reached the stars, without help, and could determine its own path. Earth would deal with the Enlightened Council as they would deal with any bully.
Winston boarded the shuttle. His troops trudged through the hatch after him.
“What now?” Hughes asked.
“We draft an eloquent acceptance of terms where we praise the Council for their wise and benevolent guidance.” Winston arched his left eyebrow. A wicked smile formed. He looked at Hughes and continued. “In our mission reports to Earth, we explain the Council’s inflexibility toward humanity, as well as their frivolous arbitration process, and recommend that we adopt a more furtive policy in future dealings alien species.”
“Will that . . . I mean, should we?” sputtered Hughes.
“Let me explain it to you in terms you’ll understand,” said Winston. “We are going to thank the Council for their parental advice. Then we will do as we please behind their backs.”
by Randy Lindsay
Taken from the journal of Dr. Henry Fetz.
13:01 – Monday
Despite numerous delays the time module is finally ready for testing. My father’s pocket watch will be the first item to travel through time. The choice to use it is a bit of an indulgence on my part. He considered my studies a complete waste of resources, both temporal and cerebral. Even if he were alive to witness all of this, the irony of the situation would be lost on him.
When the module is activated it will generate a field that will move through fourth-dimensional space. The direction and distance it travels is currently beyond my control, but the data gathered during the trip will allow me to make adjustments to the design.
The module, and the watch, will continue to travel through the seas of time until the power source on the field generator fails. At that point, a rubber-band effect should automatically return them both to the present.
Here goes nothing.
13:31 – Monday
It worked. Incredibly, it worked.
For a moment it looked as if there had been an equipment failure with the module. As soon as the unit was activated all the power indicators failed. It wouldn’t have been the first time an energy surge fried the circuits.
Upon closer examination, however, I noticed a discrepancy between the time on my father’s watch and the clock on the laboratory wall. Both had been carefully synced together. Only now, the pocket watch indicated that 87 minutes had elapsed since I activated the time module, while both the wall clock and the computer showed it had been closer to 30.
I want to climb up on the roof and shout my victory to the world. I want to take my father’s pocket watch and shove it in the face of all those who mocked my research. Most of all, I want to go over the data that were gathered during the trip and pry open further secrets of the fourth dimension.
Today, the door to the universe has yielded its biggest treasure to me. With the ability to travel in time, there is no mystery that can remain hidden, there is no affliction that cannot be cured, and there is no injustice that cannot be undone. Mark my words; this is the beginning of greatness.
09:01 – Wednesday
It will take years to fully evaluate the data from the first trip. With all of it recorded and safely stored away, I am free to continue my experiments and return to the drudgery of data analysis at some later date.
Two days have passed since the first trip and my father’s pocket watch remains solid and in perfect working order. I polished it up a bit to return it to the condition in which my father had always kept it.
Although I had originally planned to send a sampling of materials with the time module so as to evaluate the effects of traveling through the fourth dimension, the excitement of my success has prompted me to transport a live creature next.
An ordinary white lab rat will have the honor of being the first time traveler. It seems a rather mundane and unimaginative choice for a test subject, but I cannot stifle my enthusiasm long enough to wait for a more appropriate substitute. As a lesser gesture I have named the rat George, after the fictional time traveler in the story by H. G. Wells.
How I envy you, George.
9:52 – Wednesday
George has returned from his historic journey alive and well. At least, that is the finding of my initial examination. Several weeks of careful observation will be necessary to ensure that there are no ill effects from the trip.
I cannot be sure, but George seems to show a little more life in his movements. It could be no more than a heightened state of mental agitation from experiencing the fourth-dimension in its quintessential state. Although, I harbor the suspicion that contact with Crono-Ether may have had a rejuvenative effect on the rat.
Pardon the pun, but only time will tell how this trip has affected George.
7:57 – Thursday
Fortune favors the bold. George is still alive. I can’t wait any longer; I must experience the miracle of time travel for myself.
My mind reels with the possibilities.
8:15 – Thursday
Passing through the Chrono-Ether is beyond my ability to describe. Yet, for the sake of science I will try my best.
How appropriate were my earlier comments about swimming in an ocean, because that is the closest mundane experience to which I can relate it. Amid bright flashes of color came images of the real world; whether reflections of our dimension or another I cannot be sure. They flashed by like so many bits of flotsam caught in the currents of time. So too were sounds, mostly segments of dialogue, that passed in a similar manner. All of it transpired too quickly for me to tell for sure, but it seemed that the images and sounds had no connection to one another.
More remarkable than the parade of future events that I witnessed was a sensation that I will never forget. It felt as if all knowledge waited at my fingertips. That all points, past and future, were within my grasp and I merely needed to reach out and take them. Indeed, while in the fourth-dimension no secrets existed for me.
Unfortunately, that knowledge remained in the waters of time. I can recall only a few of the scenes that I witnessed, but the secrets are gone.
On my return, I made a startling discovery. I am younger than when I left. Or perhaps it would be better to state that my body no longer exhibits any signs of aging. The few gray hairs and wrinkles that I had are now gone. My muscles feel youthful and my knee no longer creaks every time I stand up.
Considerable research will be required before I know for certain the cause of this renewed youth, but I can guess that immersion in the Chrono-Ether may have stripped away the effects of time, leaving me in prime physical condition.
Ponce de Leon searched in vain for the Fountain of Youth and here I have discovered it quite by accident.
Even though I feel renewed, the ordeal has taken a toll on me. A small nap should help and then I can continue with my experiments.
21:47 – Thursday
My nap lasted longer than I had anticipated. When I returned to the lab I discovered two disturbing facts. The first was that my father’s pocket watch has tarnished. It has been a little over a day since I polished it and yet it looks as if it has sat in drawer for many long years, forgotten and neglected.
The second development is that George has gained a limp. I have seen this sort of affliction in rats of an advanced age.
What has caused this accelerated temporal decay? And how long before it affects me?
9:47 – Friday
George is dead. An autopsy indicated death by natural causes—old age. Except that there’s nothing natural about the rate at which he aged.
My initial instincts are to associate this pheno -
9:54 – Friday
Whatever happened to George and the pocket watch has just happened to me. Minutes ago, while typing my morning report, I felt an intense burning sensation on the back of my hand, like I had been lashed with a flaming cord. When I looked, I noticed a strip of flesh wrinkled and spotted with age; quite a contrast to the youthful skin around it.
10:47 – Friday
Once again, a portion of my body has aged; a large section of my forehead. I nearly fainted from the pain. When the attack subsided, I checked the clothing I wore during the trip in time and found that patches of it have faded.
The localized nature of the time reversal would seem to rule this out as a natural reaction to contact with the Chrono-Ether. Such a side effect would be uniform over all areas. This is definitely a previously unknown force.
With a few adjustments, I suspect that my current instrument array will be able to detect what is at work here.
23:11 – Friday
The attacks occur on a steady schedule. Whether this is due to the linear nature of time itself, or some other factor, I am not certain. What I do know is that the changes have been made to my equipment which will allow me to peer into fourth-dimensional space while I am still here.
Completion of the task has come none too soon; as I can barely move my right hand to work any more. Other parts of my body have aged as well, but my eyes retain the clarity of youth. I wonder if my hand will crumble to dust while the rest of me yet lives?
There is no more time to waste, I am throwing the switch.
23:59 – Friday
I find it difficult to believe what I’ve seen – a monster.
Perhaps that is an unfair conclusion. Many creatures exist in the bottoms of the oceans or dark recesses of uncivilized lands that are called monsters. In reality, they are a normal part of nature. It is only their hideous appearance that lends fancy to the claims of monstrous origins.
And by that definition I have stood face-to-face with a monster that could only have been spawned in the twisted imagination of an insane mind. My machines revealed a creature about six inches in diameter. A nebulous cloud formed its body, which was no more than a pretext for the connecting of three fang-filled maws. Each of the three faced a different direction, the joints of each mouth nearly touching the two others. And from the body wispy tendrils of mist formed and dispersed at seemingly random intervals.
As I watched, one of the tendrils lashed out and connected with my wrist, causing another bout of pain like those that had been plaguing me since yesterday. The aura of energy that surrounded my body lost chunks of light with every touch of a tendril; which was then fed into one of the three mouths. With my normal vision I watched the skin on my hand shrivel with every attack.
When I whipped my hand away, the life-stealing tendrils elongated until they were as thin as spaghetti strands and then it changed targets and went after my face.
I fled the room and the attacks stopped. Briefly.
No doubt, this is some sort of parasite that feeds off the Chrono-Ether. I hope that another trip through time will not only restore the temporal essence that I have lost, but will also rid me of the creature. As it is now, I can barely operate the time module. If I wait any longer I will surely die.
02:01 – Saturday
Success! At least, partially. My body is once again youthful. However, the creature remains. It waited at the spot my body would reappear in the room and began its attacks as soon as I popped back into my original point in time.
The pain is a distraction, but at least I know that I can continue this process of rejuvenation while I search for a solution.
How do you kill a Time Leech?
20:15 – Sunday
A second leech appeared shortly after midnight. As should be expected, I am losing my temporal essence at twice the rate. I tried to escape them in my car, driving at reckless speeds to the neighboring city of Glendale. Neither distance nor physical barriers are effective in stopping them from sucking me dry. I am safe only when I am moving.
My mind is sluggish from lack of sleep and yet I dare not rest. I estimate that my loss of temporal essence is roughly equal to when I made the second trip. With two of the monsters eating away at me I will be dead by this time tomorrow.
Another trip through time will give me a brief respite, but then what? I suspect that I will have another of the creatures attached to me; one of them for each of the trips I have made. However, they could just as easily be doubling their number. Three. Four. Does it matter?
13:01 – Monday
It is done.
I set a trap for the creatures. Enticing them with a fresher source of Chrono-Ether, I activated the module with them inside. A programming change allowed me to use the redundancy systems in the module to make a second jump before the primary power source failed. In theory, they would return to the point of the second activation, thereby leaving the creatures stranded somewhere else in time.
All I know for sure is that my time machine did not return. The leeches are gone, but at what cost? Whenever it exists, the module waits to be taken by any idiot who stumbles across it. My notes remain and with enough time I could build another machine.
Therein lies the problem. I have no time. The leeches have nearly drained me. I consider myself lucky to have finished this last journal entry. With my frail, trembling body, I will attempt to reach my bed and then hope there will be a tomorrow.
Randy’s wife calls him “The StoryMan.” He is so named because everything he encounters is rife with story possibilities. Starting in 2013, Randy had short stories published in the science-fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. His writing ranges from funny to downright spooky. His first two published novels, The Gathering: End’s Beginning and Call to Arms: Nations Fall, provide a realistic view of the events preceding the Second Coming of Christ.
On the following pages, you will find three of Randy’s short stories. In the first, Perchance to Slumber, Randy invites you to play a little game he calls, “Name that monster.” Then rocket towards the center of the galaxy in Randy’s second tale, Judgment. Find out which species has grown up enough in galactic terms to sit at the grownup table. Randy wraps up his science-fiction trilogy with Time Enough to Die, written in homage to the early masters of speculative fiction.
Randy can be contacted at www.RandyLindsay.net
by Janette Rallison
Zoe glided up to my locker with a glowing, satisfied look. “Alyssa, guess who’s having a party on Friday?”
Only one thing makes Zoe glow these days. “Joel?” I asked.
“No,” she said, still smiling. “Kent Vogt.”
I pulled out my math book and slid it into my backpack. “You’re over Joel already? That was fast—even for you.”
She tilted her head at me, spilling loose blonde curls onto her shoulder. “I am not over Joel. How could I be over Joel when he’s clearly my soul mate?”
“Uh huh.” Zoe’s soul is apparently like all the white socks in my laundry basket. She keeps thinking she’s found her mate, but on closer inspection it’s never the right match.
“The thing is, Joel will be at Kent’s party because they’re friends. Plus, and this is the best part: Andrea won’t be there. She’s grounded for flunking English. Can you believe my luck? I mean, who flunks English? That takes a special kind of stupid.”
Andrea is Joel’s on-again-off-again girlfriend. I know this because Zoe has been giving me Joel updates for the last three weeks. I know who he hangs out with, where he lives, and who his favorite band is. I know what position he plays on the football team, that he doesn’t like olives on his pizza, and he owns a Jack Russell Terrier named—originally enough—Jack. When Zoe falls in love, she does a thorough job of investigating her victims.
My chemistry book joined my math book, and my backpack immediately grew heavier. “So are you going to Kent’s party?” I asked her. Neither Zoe nor I are the partying types. Zoe doesn’t drink and I see no point in sitting around trying to make small talk with the people who usually snub me during the day. Besides, Kent is a senior and the quarterback of the football team, while we’ve only been upperclassmen for a month
and a half. I don’t think he even knows who we are. And how humiliating would it be if he turned us away? The thought made me shudder with a mortification so deep that I could imagine it still stinging at our ten-year reunion.
Zoe fiddled with her books while she waited for me. Her nails were bright pink with little white polka dots. “The party is going to be really casual, because it’s his birthday. His parents will probably even be around.”
I stared straight into her Windex blue eyes. “Wait, you want to crash somebody’s birthday party?”
“It’s not crashing if you bring a gift. We’ll get him something nice.”
She looked at me imploringly. “Well, I can’t go alone.”
Thoughts of being turned away from Kent’s party and the accompanying mortification rushed back into my mind. I could suddenly picture our high school ten-year reunion. Andrea would be there, wearing a tight black cocktail dress and the two-carat diamond ring her attorney husband had given her. She would smile at me over some fruity drink and say, “Do you remember that birthday party you and Zoe tried to crash . . .”
I was deciding whether to knock the fruity drink out of her hand when Zoe brought me back to the current decade.
“Come on, Alyssa. It will be fun.”
I shut my locker door and hefted my backpack onto my shoulders. “I don’t even know Kent. You can’t show up at someone’s birthday party when you don’t know them.”
She followed after me. “Why not? You could get to know him. Who knows, you might even like him.”
But that’s the problem with Zoe. She doesn’t understand the delicate intricacies of being shy. Zoe is the type who can laugh her way out of awkward situations. Things which would mortify me to the point of no return, she shrugs off like it’s all just another adventure. Zoe’s mother says I’m a good influence on her, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think anyone influences Zoe. She’s like a jeep that occasionally goes off road and
plows over rocks, shrubbery, and No-Trespassing signs. You either hang on for dear life, or you jump out of her way.
“You’ll have to get someone else to go with you,” I said. After all, I’m Zoe’s best friend, but she has plenty of others. Zoe makes friends as easily as I make excuses.
“I helped you when you had a crush on Quinn,” she said.
“You mean you stalked him to the point of embarrassing me.”
“I got him to talk to you, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, he asked me why you kept hanging out at his locker.”
“And if you had one flirtatious bone in your body you would have smiled back at him and said, ‘Zoe’s just giving me a reason to bump into you.’”
Right. I never think of witty repartee when I need it, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to bring myself to say it.
Quinn had asked me about Zoe as I was leaving calculus—a class he and I shared together but never spoke during. He sat toward the front and I sat at the back of the room where I could admire his broad shoulders and the wave in his dark hair. I imagined his warm brown eyes studying integrals intently. I didn’t have to see the curve of his lips or the strong line of his jaw. I had those things memorized. For me, calculus class consisted of numbers, equations, and Quinn’s serious, thoughtful expression. I didn’t have the courage to actually make eye contact, let alone ever speak to him.
When he had walked up beside me and brought up the subject of Zoe’s recent encampment in his part of the hallway, I’d just stuttered and blushed and dropped my math notebook in an effort to give myself something to do other than answer his question. I hadn’t expected all of my old quiz papers to spill across the floor, especially since some of them had the word “Quinn” doodled in the margins. And I really hadn’t expected him to bend down and help me pick them up.
He handed me back one of my one-hundred-percenters—I save my quizzes to help me study for midterms—with a perplexed look on his face. “Why does this say Quinn on it?”
“Oh, is it one of your papers?” I asked, faking ignorance. “I’m not sure how it got mixed in with mine.”
“No, it’s your paper, but you wrote Quinn on the side of it.” He examined it further. “And you put little bubbles surrounding it.”
They were supposed to be daisies but I’ve never claimed to be an artist. I stared at the paper as though I’d never seen it before. “Oh, that—that’s not your name. See, I was working on my French vocabulary and quinn is actually a French word.”
“Really?” He didn’t sound like he believed me.
“Yeah, it means to rush away. As in, I’d love to stay and talk with you but I’ve got to quinn to my next class.”
“Really,” he said again.
I didn’t answer. By that point I was quinning down the hallway as fast as I could.
After that disastrous encounter, I always made sure I was the first student out the door when calculus ended. I didn’t want to chance having to speak to Quinn again. I also told Zoe that I didn’t like him anymore. It wasn’t true, but at least that way I knew she wouldn’t plot to get us together.
She might have done it anyway, but shortly thereafter she fell in love with Joel and that’s taken most of her energy ever since.
“Going to Kent’s party would be good for you,” she told me as we walked out of school. “You really should get out and meet new people now that you’ve decided Quinn isn’t for you. . .” she let her statement drift off until it became a question. I didn’t answer. Some things are best left the way they are.
Zoe didn’t mention Kent’s party again until Friday night. I’d just finished dinner and was settling down on the couch with a novel—and feeling sorry for myself because the only romance in my life was a book about a saucy young countess named Fleur—when Zoe called. “There’s been a glitch in our plans,” she said.
“Kent’s party. See, Joel is hanging out at Quinn’s house beforehand and instead of going to Kent’s party they might go to a movie. It’s undecided. I never could get a clear answer from my source, and now I don’t know if we should go to Kent’s party or go watch Road Patrol and try to casually bump into them.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment. If I’d had one ounce of common sense I would have told her that it didn’t matter to me, because I was going back to the couch to live vicariously through Fleur, who not only had fiery eyes but a pert, welcoming mouth.
It’s not that I didn’t want to help Zoe. Trust me, she wouldn’t have made it through any of her math classes without my assistance; it’s just that I’ve come to realize something about her. Zoe only wants guys that she can’t have.
I’m not sure why this is. I have a hard enough time talking to guys who are obtainable. I can’t imagine chasing after those who aren’t. Zoe isn’t that way. The more impossible the conquest, the more she falls in love. Joel and Andrea might not be together this minute but they’d been dating more or less for the last two years. The guy had unobtainable written all over his forehead.
I mentioned my theory to her when she first told me about her crush on Joel, but she brushed off the idea. “I’ve just had bad luck with men—but now I know why that is. Things weren’t meant to work out with any of those other guys because Joel is my soul mate.”
Yep, and another white sock was thrown into the laundry basket of her love life.
So really I should have returned to the couch to live vicariously through Fleur, who never had to doodle guys’ names on her old calculus papers. She was too busy riding her father’s prize stallions over the English countryside. But no. I heard the words “Joel is hanging out at Quinn’s house,” and my brain stopped working.
For one moment I saw myself with Zoe—borrowing her bravery. It wouldn’t be so awkward to run into Quinn at a movie theater. I could nod and say hi. I could follow Zoe as she surreptitiously arranged for us to sit next to the guys. And seeing Road Patrol with Quinn would give me something to talk to him about in calculus besides my inability to draw recognizable daisies around his name. He might even completely forget about my doodle.
I heard myself telling Zoe, “Fine, I’ll be right over to your house.”
“Wear your dark jeans and black sweater,” she said.
I didn’t question her. Zoe frequently gives me fashion tips.
As it turns out, my dark apparel wasn’t a fashion statement, it was camouflage. Zoe’s plan was to stake out Quinn’s house until the guys left, and then figure out where they were headed by seeing which direction they went. If they drove left, it meant Kent’s house. Right meant the movies. Zoe might not have a head for math, but the girl can figure out the answer to any story problem that involves guys.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t park near his house. That would be too obvious, especially since Zoe drives a very recognizable car—a white VW bug with a blue passenger door. The blue door actually came from another car. She broke the first one by pulling out of her garage before her brother had shut his door. The door caught on the passing garage shelving and bent so badly it wouldn’t close anymore.
Zoe’s parents bought a door off a junkyard car and told her if she wanted it painted she had to pay for that herself. Instead, she decorated the blue door with white flower decals. Everyone in the school could recognize Zoe’s car. We couldn’t let the guys see it anywhere near Quinn’s home.
Instead, Zoe parked her car a long way down the street and we walked up to Quinn’s house. Then we hid behind the bushes by his driveway.
Sometimes Zoe’s ideas seem reasonable when she suggests them, but when you put them into practice you realize they’re insane. That’s pretty much how the whole bushes thing turned out to be.
We sat there huddled behind these prickly evergreen shrubs and nothing happened. No one came out. Ten minutes went by, then fifteen. “Shouldn’t they have gone somewhere by now?” I asked.
“Not necessarily,” Zoe said. “There’s more than one showing of Road Patrol and Kent’s party will go on for hours. Don’t get any dirt on your clothes. Remember you have to show up either at the party or the theater in them—does my hair look okay?”
“Your hair is fine.” Which is the truth. Zoe’s hair always looks great. I have to gel, manipulate, and hairspray mine to make it look good, which since my crush on Quinn has become a daily, pointless ritual.
Another ten minutes went by. My muscles cramped and the night grew colder. If I moved the wrong way, branches jabbed into me. I probably had pine needles stuck in my hair. This, I told myself, is what idiots feel like. For all we knew they’d decided to stay inside and play computer games. Besides, what kind of pathetic desperation drives a girl to hide in a guy’s bushes?
“This isn’t working,” I whispered, “and I don’t want to crash someone’s birthday party or go to some action flick and have to watch exploding cars anyway. Let’s just go home.”
Zoe let out a tormented sigh. “You know what your problem is, Alyssa? You don’t want to even try and get a guy’s attention. You’d rather hide in your house than face the chance of rejection.”
My mouth dropped open and meaningless grunts escaped from my throat. “My problem?” I repeated. “I don’t want to hide in a guy’s bushes, and so I’m the one who has a problem?”
“I know you still like Quinn, but you won’t even look at him at school, let alone talk to him. So yeah, I think you have a problem.”
There was more sputtering on my part. This whole thing was her stupid idea, which to be quite honest had followed a whole parade of other stupid Zoe ideas.
“And do you know what your problem is?” I whispered back to her. “You have commitment issues. You never like a guy who is actually capable of liking you back.”
“That isn’t true.”
I was not about to let her brush off my theory this time. “Oh yeah? How about Rodrigo, the guy you liked the last month of his senior year before he left for college in Oklahoma.”
“Simply bad timing.”
“What about the Mormon missionary you fell head over heels for?”
“Hey, Elder Sorenson was gorgeous, and kind, and—”
“Unable to date girls while he served his mission. The only time he used the word, ‘love’ in a conversation with you, was to tell you how much the Lord loved you.”
She got a dreamy look in her eye and let out a sigh. “Yeah, but it was still worth sitting through all those lessons just to watch his lips say it.”
Pieces of gravel cut into my knees and I brushed them away. “Which reminds me, how is your new religion working out, anyway?”
She kept her voice light. “Good. Great. I don’t miss coffee much, but get this— Mormons go to church for three hours every Sunday. Three hours. And I thought Catholic mass took a lot of time.”
“Ah yes, Catholic mass. How could I forget to include your crush on Father Flanagan?”
“Can I help it if I’m attracted to religious men?”
“Thank goodness we didn’t live a few thousand years ago or right now we’d be somewhere in Israel hiding behind Moses’ bushes.”
She sent me a superior look. “Moses never lived in Israel. See, those are the kind of details you learn when you go to church for three hours every Sunday.”
“Joel isn’t interested in you. He’ll probably be back together with Andrea within the week, and deep down you know it. This is all just—” I didn’t finish. The front door of the house opened. That wasn’t supposed to happen. We’d been waiting for the garage door to open and a car to pull out.
I saw Quinn’s mother step out onto the front porch followed by Quinn and Joel. She had none of Quinn’s physique, but the same brown hair was swept up into a knot at the nape of her neck. Her gaze darted around the lawn. “Someone was out here . . .”
Quinn stepped around her and scanned the yard. “I don’t see anybody.”
I tried to shrink into the bushes as much as I could. I also stopped breathing in hopes this would help my bush-disguise.
Quinn looked ready to return inside but his mother stood fast. “I know I heard voices. They were arguing.”
Quinn glanced down the street. “It was probably some people passing by.”
She grunted and took a step back to the house. “Maybe you boys shouldn’t go to the party. I don’t want to be left alone if there are burglars around.”
Joel and Quinn exchanged a look. “You’ll be fine,” Joel said. “Lock the doors if you want. I’ll take my key.”
She said more about this, but her voice was so low I couldn’t hear what. I let out a small whimper, and then stopped myself. Bushes shouldn’t whimper.
“Okay, okay,” Quinn said, soothing his mom. “How about this—we’ll let the dog out and see if he finds anyone.”
Zoe grabbed my arm. Her eyes grew wide. From the porch we heard Quinn call, “Rocky—here boy!”
“Run!” Zoe whispered. She didn’t wait to see if I followed. She shot out of the bushes in a full sprint.
I sat there frozen, my mind going over the options, trying to find the best one. They’d already seen Zoe dart across their lawn and she had a head start on me. Perhaps they’d think she was the only one in the bushes and if I stayed here, hidden, they wouldn’t find me. But no, they’d probably look around, or at least let out the dog, and besides Zoe had the car. If I didn’t follow her I’d have to walk home through the dark. I jumped up and ran after her. My indecision had cost me several seconds. I pushed myself into a sprint, unsuccessfully trying to catch up. The girl was fast.
Back at Quinn’s house, his mother shouted in alarm. A dog barked. One of the guys yelled at us to stop.
Not likely. I ran past house after house, wishing there was somewhere to turn, to hide. Zoe’s car still seemed so far away. With every footstep I prayed, Please don’t let Quinn catch me and fervently followed this with: Please don’t let him realize it was me. The latter consequence was almost as disastrous as the first. I mean, exactly how do you explain to a guy why you and your best friend were crouching in his bushes?
As I ran, I wished I’d spent three hours in church every week. I bet God was actually listening to Zoe’s prayers.
Behind me, I heard footsteps. The dog barked again, closer this time. I’m not talking about the squeaky little bark of a poodle. This was the deep, throaty bark of a big dog. And since Zoe was ahead of me, Rocky would catch me first.
Without thinking about it, I darted into the side yard of the house I’d just passed by. I would lose the dog somehow. I would climb a tree, jump a fence, something. I plowed headlong through a garden area, trying to make out the shapes in front of me without slowing my pace. I listened for the sound of paws gaining on me. Which is probably why I didn’t notice the fishpond directly in front of me.
People really should put lights or warning signs or something in front of those. I mean really, is it safe to have giant holes full of water in your yard? I think not. My first step plunged me into the water. Caught off balance, I fell forward, only briefly noticing the splash before the frigid water drenched me.
Luckily, the pond wasn’t deep. Cold, yes, but not deep. I sat up coughing and sputtering. When I finished with that, I started swearing. Half a dozen frightened koi glared at me from the other side of the pond. My purse slowly sank beside me. My cell phone was undoubtedly ruined, and I could feel the slime on the bottom of the pond. Worse yet, I had an awful taste in my mouth—probably the result of breathing in the aforementioned slime.
Then I heard laughing. I looked up and saw Quinn, hands on hips, staring down at me. A doe-eyed golden retriever stood beside him, wagging his tail and looking at me expectantly. “Are you okay?” Quinn asked.
Well, besides wanting the earth to open up and swallow me whole—yeah, pretty much. I didn’t say this, though. I just nodded and tried to stand up. My foot slipped on the slime, and I stumbled, falling back down.
I swore again, then added, “Pardon my French.”
He held his hand out to help me up. “Yeah, you speak a lot of that, don’t you? Are you about to go quinning off again?”
I took his hand and he hauled me out of the fish pond. “Would you let me if I tried?” Water poured down my jeans and made puddles around my shoes.
“Not until you explain why you were in my bushes.”
“Oh, um, sorry about that. We didn’t mean to scare your mother.”
Rocky plodded around me, sniffing. I gave the dog’s head a soggy pat. The night air was making me shiver. So was Quinn’s gaze. He didn’t say anything, but he kept watching me, clearly waiting for the rest of my explanation.
I didn’t want to rat on Zoe, but I figured that was better than letting Quinn think we were stalkers or trying to break into his house or something. “Well, you see, Zoe gets these ideas, and the problem is that I listen to her. She wanted to run into Joel . . .”
“In my juniper bushes?”
“No, she didn’t know whether you were going to Kent’s party or the movies so we were waiting to see which way you drove.”
“Oh.” He looked me up and down and laughed again. I could tell he was trying to stop, but he didn’t. “We were going to the party.”
“Yeah, thanks. I’ll let Zoe know when I see her.” Water was still dripping from my sweater at a constant rate. Finally I took hold of the front of it and rung out as much as I could.
“She might have driven off already,” Quinn said, still amused. “I’m pretty sure I saw her get into a car.”
“Great.” Not only would I have to walk home in the dark, I would have to walk home in the dark, wet, cold, and dripping slimy pond water.
“Why don’t you come back to my house and dry off. You’ll catch pneumonia out here.”
“I wouldn’t want to trouble you . . . I mean, your mom . . .”
“Wouldn’t want you to catch pneumonia either. When you’re dried off I’ll drive you home.”
What other choice did I have? My fingers felt numb and my shivering was getting worse. We turned and walked toward his house in silence.
Well, I had wanted something else to talk to Quinn about in calculus class and it looked like I’d gotten it. Now instead of being the girl who doodled his name on her papers, I’d be the girl who hid in his bushes, then ran off and flung herself in the neighbor’s fish pond. Who says you need to go to church for three hours a week to get your prayers answered?
“I’m really sorry about this,” I said.
“No problem.” He looked down across the street and not at me. “Hey, isn’t that Zoe’s car parked in front of my house?”
It was, and Zoe and Joel stood beside it talking to each other. The street was dark and they were so engrossed in each other they didn’t see us approaching. “Where could she be?” Zoe asked. “I never should have made her come over here. It was a stupid idea.”
I was about to yell out that I agreed, but she went on, “It’s just that I had to do something to get her to talk to Quinn, and this seemed like the only way. She’s liked him forever but positively refuses to speak to the boy.”
I stopped walking. I couldn’t take another step. I couldn’t look at Quinn. I worried what his expression would reveal.
And here I’d thought the most embarrassing part of the evening would be falling in the fish pond. But no.
Joel said something back to Zoe; I didn’t pay attention to what. I could only concentrate on the fact that Quinn stood beside me silently. Laugh it off, I told myself. Zoe would find a way to laugh this whole situation off.
However, I’m not Zoe. I stood there as stiff as stone.
Quinn whispered my name.
I didn’t look at him, couldn’t. I took a few steps backward. I didn’t know where I was going, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk in on Zoe’s conversation now.
Quinn followed after me, taking hold of my arm. “It’s okay.” He said the words so softly that I looked over at him. He stood close, wearing the same serious expression he used when contemplating calculus equations. “It’s . . . you don’t . . . I mean . . .” Then without finishing the sentence, he put his hands on my shoulders, leaned over and kissed me.
I was so surprised I couldn’t move. Although if I’d had a long time to analyze the situation, I wouldn’t have moved. Quinn was kissing me. The warmth from his hands spread down my shoulders. His lips were gentle, perfect, and he tasted like peppermint. My new favorite flavor.
I kissed him back. Which was also a surprise. I was standing out in the open where anyone could see me—where Zoe and Joel could see me. I wanted to put my arms around him, but I didn’t want to get him wet.
And then as quickly as it had happened, it ended. Quinn let me go.
I stared up at him, blinking, and couldn’t speak.
He took hold of my hand and pulled me toward Zoe’s car. “Hey, look who I found!”
Both Zoe and Joel turned and peered at me. Zoe gasped out, “What happened to you? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” I said and couldn’t believe how cheerful my voice sounded. “I just had a run-in with a fish pond.”
Zoe walked over to me, examining my pitiful condition. She picked some sort of pond-weed off the front of my sweater. “You must be freezing. Come on, I’ll take you home.”
Joel stepped over to us. “You don’t need to miss the party, Zoe. I mean, I know how much you wanted to wish Kent a happy birthday. How about . . .” His gaze skipped between Quinn and me. “How about if Quinn takes her home.” He put his hand to his chest. “Well, I can’t miss Kent’s party either. The two of us are tight. We’re football brothers.”
I couldn’t believe what a blatant manipulator Joel was—which is when I realized that Zoe might have found her soul mate after all.
Quinn grinned back at Joel. “Yeah, that’s fine. I can drive Alyssa home.”
Zoe and Joel disappeared into her car, exchanging happy, plotting smiles. Quinn pulled me toward his house. “I’ll get you some towels. And probably you should have some hot chocolate or something to warm you up.”
I went with him, liking the way his hand felt in mine. The night hadn’t turned out so badly, I realized. And when you came down to it, Zoe is brilliant.
Quinn and I walked into his house and Rocky followed after us, wagging his tail.
Janette Rallison/C. J. Hill writes books because writing is much more fun than cleaning bathrooms. Her avoidance of housework has led her to writing 23 novels that have sold over 1,000,000 print copies and been on many reading and state lists. Her books are fantasy, sci-fi, and romantic comedy because hey, there is enough angst in real life, but there’s a drastic shortage of humor, romance and hot guys who fight dragons. She lives in Chandler, Arizona, with her husband, kids, and enough cats to classify her as eccentric.
by Stephen J. Stirling
A million stars illuminated the heavens as they moved slowly across the Judean night—cold, crisp, silent. The light of a waning moon bathed the earth and sky in a quiet brilliance that seemed to extend forever. Only a light breeze interrupted the perfect stillness that filled the air. Klaus sat on the brow of a hill overlooking a tiny shepherd village of the desert and breathed in the freedom. For the first time in over ten years, his life was his own.
Klaus had only been 15 when the Roman soldiers had swarmed over his little Germanic town, far to the north. The masters of the world attacked his people without warning—killing, pillaging and burning every hut to the ground. He was carving wood that day in his father’s shop. He remembered trying to fight back. But what did he know of fighting? He was woefully unprepared as a youth to give battle to the butchers of the Roman Empire. However, time would change all that.
Amidst their scoffs and jeers they took him prisoner—the lone survivor of his hamlet—and carried him back to Rome. What an amusing prize he was—this red-headed novelty of the north countries—as they sold him into slavery. He was purchased at auction by an agent of Herod the Great and transported in chains another thousand miles to Jerusalem in Judea, where the merciless monarch had established his “kingdom”.
Had Klaus been purchased as a mere slave his story may have ended there. But Herod’s servants had selected this husky, wild-eyed youth to be trained as one of the king’s gladiators, to fight in the arena as a spectacle for the entertainment of his guests. And indeed, Klaus proved an able student, driven by anger and defiance of the Romans who had made a slave of him. Within three years, he not only mastered every weapon in Herod’s arsenal, but built his body into the perfect tool to wield them. His frame became a seamless network of muscles from his head to his foot, accented by a thick, red beard that made him the most fearsome warrior in the school of gladiators.
From the moment Klaus first stepped into the arena, he became a favorite—a fighting machine of such skill, agility, speed and shrewd intelligence that he bewildered and overpowered his rivals as much as he delighted the spectators. But surprisingly none of this brought any satisfaction to the young gladiator. Perhaps because none of the rage of his training accompanied him into the arena. His only motivation in the heat of combat was a burning desire to survive, together with a knowledge, deep within his soul, that there was more to his life and destiny than this—something worth living for.
With that conviction sustaining him, Klaus fought on, and lived on. He left the anger behind and developed a deep, booming laugh that was infectious and encouraging to his fellows. He grew big-hearted and good-natured. And he survived. The life expectancy of the typical gladiator was one or two years. Klaus endured for three, then four. And he fought on—for five, six, and finally seven years. Until, even the cruel Herod the Great was persuaded to grant this prize gladiator his freedom—with a reward of a thousand denari. And now, Klaus was going home.
And none too soon. It was rumored in Herod’s palace that one of these villages was to be the victim of his royal brutality. As early as tomorrow the king intended to kill all the children of a single town out of an insane fear that one of them threatened him as a rival. Klaus understood none of it. It was enough that Herod could commit such lunacy. Klaus was one in a million to have survived Herod’s madness. He was leaving Judea forever. He was going home away from this insanity.
Klaus inhaled a huge breath of the Judean night air and stretched his massive arms as he took one last look at the tiny village enveloped in darkness below him. What was its name? Bethlehem. He hoped it wasn’t the town that was to be the target of Herod’s wrath. Standing from the sand and picking up his traveling bag, he flung it across his shoulder. He had a long journey before him. It was time to go home.
He had only taken a few steps when a sound reached his ears—the sound of a scuffle, followed by the shouts of men, muffled by the wind in the night. He froze in his tracks to determine the direction of the struggle. But then he heard a noise that alarmed him, sending his head upright like a sentinel. It was the cry of a woman. Klaus sprang without hesitation, turning and sprinting to the brow of the sandy hill behind him.
His powerful legs catapulted him to the top as if he were in combat. Arriving at the summit, he swung his head around, surveying the situation instantly in the moonlight. A young man in his twenties and a young woman, no, a girl, no more than a teenager, were being accosted in the night by three Roman soldiers. A donkey, startled by the brawl trotted fifty feet away. A glance told Klaus that these soldiers were no mere thugs of the Empire. Rather they were mercenaries in Herod’s employ. But to Klaus, there was virtually no difference. A suppressed anger he hadn’t known for years flared in his heart. He reacted instantly. The two soldiers beating the young man were closest to him as he charged over the hill. Dropping his own gear he was upon them in one massive step.
The soldier within reach had just knocked the young man on the ground, fallen upon him, and was about to strike him in the face. Snatching the soldier by his outstretched fist, Klaus yanked him from the spot with one powerful jerk, practically pulling his arm from its socket. The startled soldier pivoted like a swinging gate, until his face came into sudden contact with the gladiator’s enormous fist, which sent him sprawling to the ground unconscious.
Klaus instinctively knew he did not have a second to lose. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the other soldier turning his attention from his brutality to lunge quickly at him. The big gladiator avoided a dagger thrust by only inches, but inches were all he needed. Lashing out with a speed and strength that terrified the Roman mercenary, Klaus grabbed his dagger hand, twisted the knife from his grasp and then quickly snapped his wrist with an audible crack.
He didn’t wait to survey his work as the man screamed and stumbled down the hill. (Klaus knew he wouldn’t be interested in either fighting or holding a dagger for a while.)
He turned immediately to the final, large soldier who was manhandling the young woman, struggling with her over a small bundle in her arms. Klaus’s legs churned into the sand with superhuman strength, but the hulking soldier and his victim were several paces away. He felt himself moving in agonizing slow motion as the Roman brute finally shoved the girl to the ground with a cruel slap. The bundle fell to the ground beside her, and then Klaus heard a sound that chilled his heart—the cry of a baby piercing the night. The soldier did not stoop to examine the infant or pick it up. Instead, Klaus watched helplessly as the trained murderer unsheathed his sword and took dead aim to kill the child. Yet as the blade thrust downward, Klaus stretched out his hand with all his effort, catching the hilt and stopping its descent in mid air.
Klaus held the sword there with a strength that not even he knew he had as he brought his second hand to the hilt and his eyes level with those of the huge Roman. The man’s face was hard and cruel. He gritted his teeth, glaring with hatred at this red-bearded intruder while his eyes burned with a will to follow through with his execution. Klaus stared back intently into those fiery eyes—eyes whose depth and meaning and earnestness he knew from the arena. This man was determined to kill! Klaus only had seconds to respond.
Unloosing one of his hands from the quavering sword hilt, and concentrating with all his might to hold the deadly blade in place with one hand, Klaus reached to his belt where his own dagger hung. As he did so the sword inched toward the baby. The Roman grinned. Now was the moment. Klaus felt his fingers on the hilt of his knife, but even as he grasped it and drew it forth to strike, a voice whispered to him in a command he could not ignore. No more killing. Responding impulsively like the gladiator he was, he rotated the dagger in his fingers and, with all of his strength, smashed the Roman in the temple of his head with the hilt of the weapon. The sword fell to the sand on its side and the soldier crumpled to the ground beside it without a groan. He lay motionless.
Klaus stood, straddling his vanquished foe, breathless and exhausted. But momentarily he gathered his thoughts, glancing up at the young man, righting himself a few yards away, and the girl, who was stirring just within reach. He was about to turn to her when he was diverted by the cooing of the baby in the bundle at his feet. Feeling drawn to the child, to the exclusion of all else, he stooped down and lifted the bundle from the cool sand, cradling it in his massive arms. Strange. He had never held a baby before, but it felt so natural—so comfortable.
He shielded the infant from the night breeze with his immense body and looked into its eyes. Reaching up with its tiny arms the baby looked up at him and smiled, and then the smile vanished, but the eyes—innocent, bright and brown—continued to study him. He paused, captivated in the gaze of those eyes that seemed to be peering into his very soul. And then to his astonishment, he heard a voice—a peaceful, still, small, yet clear and powerful voice—speaking to the very center of his heart.
Klaus, for the service you have done me this night you shall be blessed uniquely among men—for the life which you have saved shall give life to the world. In immortality, you shall likewise give. Your laughter shall give joy. Your great heart shall share kindness. Your good nature shall warm the troubled spirit. And your generosity shall impart glad tidings in all nations. You shall never be forgotten in the memory of mankind, and you will live in the hearts of children everywhere forever.
Klaus stood, transfixed, gazing into the face of the tiny angel in his arms, the words of promise still echoing in his mind. As he stared in wonder he felt the hands of the young woman reach up to his face and gently stroke his beard. He forced himself to glance away from the child into the eyes of the teenage mother who looked intently up at him, smiling, with tears in her eyes. Momentarily, her young husband stood beside her, holding her with one arm and clasping Klaus’ burly bicep with the other. Not a word was spoken.
Gradually Klaus loosened his hold on the swaddled child as the mother took the babe in her loving arms. He watched mother and child in their personal reunion and then turned away, leaving them to their moment. He straightened to his full enormous height and took in a full breath of the fresh, desert air. He suddenly felt more alive than he had ever felt in his life.
Striding to his bag on the ground he reached inside for his pouch of denari. Counting out one hundred of them he turned to the young father and handed them to him. He spoke no Aramaic, but did his best to impress upon him to hurry in his departure, and use the money to advantage. Herod and the Romans would be in pursuit soon enough, but there was time now.
Gathering up the family’s few scattered belongings, Klaus packed them onto the donkey and readied the couple to go. When he finally turned to them for his farewells, the young mother looked up at him again and, handing the baby to her husband, raised a hand to his beard. As gently as she could, she slowly pulled his face down to hers and kissed him sweetly on the cheek, before letting him go with a smile.
Klaus pulled back in surprise. With the single exception of his mother, no woman had ever kissed him. And that had been a long, long time ago. A deep laughter slowly rumbled irresistibly within his huge chest and suddenly burst from his red cheeks, resounding into the night. He wrapped the young father and mother—and the child—once more in his muscular arms and released them. There was a tear in his eye.
Turning, he tossed his bag over his back and went on his way, through the night, rejoicing. He marched until morning and on through the day. He rested the next night, but never really seemed to get tired. He continued over the weeks to walk north through Syria, and then east through Cappadocia, Galatia, and Asia. He spent very little of his remaining denari on his own needs, but instead bought food, and clothing, and care for those who needed it.
As he journeyed, he found himself drawn to children and they were drawn to him, his happy nature and his booming laughter. He shared stories with them, spent time with them and carved gifts for them. And wherever he went, the little ones remembered him.
He traveled on through Thracia, Macedonia, Dalmatia, and Germania—from town to town and country to country—fulfilling the promises of the child of Judea—giving generously until his money was gone. But still he continued to give of himself and his heart.
The weeks stretched into months, and the months into years. Over those years and miles Klaus grew older, his beard turned in time from red to grey to white. But in a real sense Klaus never seemed to age. He was forever vigorous and hearty, always kind, endlessly good, and forever sharing his gifts, as well as the message of the holy child who had sent him. And finally, in the passage of time, Klaus ventured from his homeland to the countless nations beyond, where children awaited him, year after year, for the gifts which he brought them and the spirit he bore.
And it was ever said of him that his laughter gave joy, his great heart shared kindness, his good nature warmed the troubled soul, and his generosity imparted glad tidings. He has never been forgotten in the memory of mankind, and he has lived to this day in the hearts of children everywhere, and will forever.
He came to be known as Santa Klaus.
Stephen J. Stirling was born in Los Angeles, California, and grew up in Huntington Park is Southeast LA. Graduating from high school in 1970, he received a scholarship to Brigham Young University at the age of seventeen.
He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism in 1976 and spent the next few years wandering America in search of adventure. Interspersed through his college career and days on the road, he served a mission in Chile and taught for eight years as an early morning seminary teacher.
Settling briefly in Chicago, he entered the profession of advertising, a field in which he ultimately held many positions with companies from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast. He eventually planted roots in Orange County, California, where he established Stirling Communications and spent fifteen years as a freelance copywriter, scriptwriter, and video producer.
In 1994 he was hired by the Church Education System and relocated with his family to Gilbert, Arizona, where he has fulfilled a lifelong dream of teaching released-time seminary for the past twenty years.
He and his wife, Diane, were married in 1981 and are the parents of five children—Jennifer, Lindsey, Brooke, Mariana, and Vladimir. Brother Stirling is the author of several books, including The Ultimate Catalogue and Shedding Light on the Dark Side.
by Laura L. Walker
Who said a dog is man’s best friend? Or a woman’s, in my case? My parents’ normally fun little Norwich terrier, Plucky, certainly wasn’t after I discovered what she’d been up to. After I had driven for almost nine hours to my parents’ home in Oklahoma City from Ames, Iowa, Plucky greeted me at the front door with her exuberant barking. Laughing, I set my purse and keys on the side table in the entrance hall and picked her up. “Hi there, Sweetie. Did you miss me? I sure missed you.” With a slurp on my cheek, she happily lapped up all my attention. I sighed in contentment as I scratched her ears.
I was home.
My brother, Matthew, was marrying his fiancée, Evie, tomorrow. Although I had only met her recently, I knew they were perfect for each other. With their longing gazes, light touches and breathy sighs, they had the look of a couple in love. It was enough to make me sick.
Okay, so maybe I was a little jealous. Especially since I’d once had what Matt and Evie have. Then Tim Stratton smashed my heart into tiny pieces by telling me that he was ready to “move on.” The jerk.
But that was over a year ago. Just because he was my brother’s best friend and I was going to see him tonight at the wedding rehearsal was no reason to go all gooey over him.
“Isn’t that right, girl?” I said in a singsong voice, rubbing Plucky’s gray fur and relishing its sweet-scented softness. My younger sister, Callie, must have just given her a bath. “Yep. I’m so over Tim Stratton.”
“Brooklyn? Is that you, honey?”
Mom’s voice carried from the kitchen, drawing me further inside the house. I’d always loved the openness of the great room with its vaulted ceilings and natural lighting. An interior decorator, Mom had accessorized the large windows and furniture in pastel blue and sunflower yellow, which complimented the wood floor beautifully.
“Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad.” I set Plucky down on the floor.
My parents gathered me in for a hug. Glancing over their shoulders, my eyes took in the gleaming maple wood of the new cabinets facing me. Intricate rosebuds had been carved into the bottom corners of each one. Nice. “I love your cabinets.”
Mom’s mouth twitched. “Guess who made them?”
“Old man Watters?” I guessed.
A peculiar spark lit Mom’s eyes. “No. Tim did. He owns the business now. He bought it from Sam Watters and has turned it into a thriving business. He’s not only getting customers from the outlying areas but even some from Tulsa.”
“Really?” Looking at the cabinets again, I could see why. His work was fantastic. “Kudos for him for following his dreams.”
“We’re glad you made it safely. Have you eaten?”
“Just an apple since lunchtime.”
“We’re serving dinner right after the wedding rehearsal. It starts in thirty minutes. Your father and I need to leave now.” Glancing at her watch, she asked, “Think you can make it in time?”
“If I take a quick shower and head out right after, I’ll be fine.”
“Okay. See you there. Neil, will you grab that box of wedding gifts on the way out?”
“All right, Hon.” Dad, ever the meticulous cartographer, lifted the box with care. “Callie, let’s go,” he called. My fifteen-year-old sister whizzed by with a hurried hello. I soon closed the door behind them.
Twenty minutes later, after a refreshing shower, I was dressed in a colorful blouse and cream-colored slacks. I went to the entrance hall to grab my keys, but they weren’t on the side table where I’d left them. Hmm. Maybe Callie had put them inside my purse. I dug around in it for a few minutes. They weren’t there.
A thorough search of the house proved fruitless. The wedding rehearsal would start in only a few minutes. Where were they? I tried to staunch the panicky feeling that threatened to take over. Pulling out my cell phone, I called Mom.
“Did you see my keys before you left the house?”
“No, Sweetie. I was too busy getting everything else together. They aren’t where you left them?”
A sigh came from Mom’s end. “We’ll have to search for them later. The rehearsal’s starting right now. I’ll send someone over for you.”
Reluctantly, I agreed. I had just hung up when a thought struck. What if Plucky had run off with them? It wouldn’t be the first time she had done something like that. She was known around the neighborhood as The Plucky Bandit. I guess my parents just didn’t have the heart to close off her doggy door, no matter how many times I tried to convince them she’d be safer that way. Or maybe they didn’t want to curb her sense of adventure.
I had just stooped down on my hands and knees to look under the couch in the great room when the doorbell rang. With a huff, I stood and brushed off my clothes and righted my lopsided chunky necklace. I was unprepared for the hunk that met my eyes when I opened the front door. Wavy dark hair fell to his ears, accentuating thick eyebrows and soulful mahogany eyes. I’d never considered myself to be one of those simpering ninnies you read about in romance novels, but his heart-stopping smile almost caused me to wilt.
“Sorry to bother you,” he began. His voice held a nasal tone but a girl could overlook that. “You must be the long-lost Brooklyn I’ve heard so much about.”
He’d heard of me? Well, this must be my lucky day.
“Y-y-yes.” I was getting a little annoyed with myself at this point. I really wasn’t a simpering female but how often does a hottie plant himself on your doorstep? I must have been dreaming. “And you are?”
“Grayson Kipling. I’m your parents’ new neighbor. And I think your dog left another housewarming gift for me. Aside from the odorous first one she left on my front lawn, that is.” The corner of his eyes crinkled as he held up my pair of keys.
“Oh! You found them!” With a loud whoop, I launched myself at him. Stumbling back slightly, Grayson caught me. The hug probably lasted longer than it should have. When I pulled back, he smoothed his shirt. Oops! I must have wrinkled it. “Thank you so much! I’ve been looking for these for over ten minutes and I’m late for my brother’s wedding rehearsal.”
The wedding rehearsal! Oh, yeah. I’d forgotten. In the excitement of the moment, I hadn’t noticed the gold sedan that pulled up to my curb or the guy who stepped out of it—the one whom I had also considered hunky at one time—though in a different way.
His golden brown hair was cropped in the way I remembered so well and his almond-shaped eyes—which were narrowed at the moment—drew me like a magnet. His normally-prominent dimples were missing, as was his easy-going smile. The moment I had dreaded since learning of Matt and Evie’s engagement just got a whole lot messier by my ex-boyfriend seeing me hug my parents’ good-looking neighbor. I took a shuddering breath and forced a smile. “Hello, Tim.”
“Tomorrow, we do this for real, Babe.” Amid the mingling and dancing at the restaurant after Matt and Evie’s rehearsal, my brother had sneaked up behind his bride-to-be and wrapped his arms around her.
Leaning into him and tilting her head up, Evie gazed into his eyes. “I can hardly wait.” She looked so gorgeously happy. Her upswept hair allowed easy access to her neck, which Matt zeroed in on with his lips.
Just when I opened my mouth to protest, a low voice growled, “Hey, cut it out, Man. You’re making the rest of us want to gag.”
Chuckling, Matt told Tim, “You have no room to complain. You had your chance with a certain blonde but blew it.” He sent a meaningful look my way. Despite the levity in his voice, I knew that Matt was as disappointed about the turn of events as I had been. I suspected that he and Tim had exchanged heated words soon after the break-up. The one time I had asked him about it, Matt clamped up. “He’s not worth worrying about, Brooklyn.” But now they were best buds again. It must be a guy thing.
That familiar ache after Tim broke it off with me pierced my chest. He probably didn’t remember all the fun we’d had together with water balloon fights and silly string ambushes or the romance we’d shared in the form of moonlit walks and stolen kisses. Why hadn’t I been good enough for him? I wanted to ask him that question before I took off for college but chickened out. I wish I’d been a little braver.
Even now, as I turned away from the group, I berated myself for my cowardice. Here I was, a Journalism major at Iowa State University, and I couldn’t even sniff out the top story like the proverbial bulldog? I guess I needed to work on my communication skills.
“You may kiss the bride.” Matt didn’t waste any time at the pastor’s invitation.
Amid a mix of polite clapping and loud catcalls from the crowd, I glanced across the aisle at Tim, who was rocking the tux and boutonniere look to perfection. He’d always been buff, first from playing football and now from the man tools he used to create those spectacular cabinets. It hurt to think that even Mom and Dad were turncoats. Tim, I was learning, had become like a long-lost son to them.
Speaking of which . . .
“Welcome to the family!” I hugged my new sister-in-law. She looked like a regal queen in her lacy gown and dainty tiara. I hated to admit it, but even I felt like a princess in my flowing teal gown.
“Thank you, Brooklyn. I’m so honored to become your sister.” Callie strode up beside me and moved in for a hug as well.
“Hey, what about me?” Matt reached for her expectantly. “I’m your awesome big brother, after all.”
“Whatever.” Callie rolled her eyes in typical teenaged fashion but obliged him, anyway.
“Congratulations!” A sudden lump in my throat surprised me. Matthew was now married. Our family dynamics would never be the same again. But this was the way it was meant to be.
Tim approached from my left. “Congrats, Man. See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“Best thing I’ve ever done.” Matt’s goofy grin was all the evidence I needed to know that he was indeed a happy man. But Tim’s words bothered me. If it wasn’t hard, then why had he walked away from this? From us? Oh, I was driving myself crazy with all these whys!
I swiveled and bumped into a solid chest. “Oh! Excuse me!” Embarrassed, I backed up and heard a yelp as my heel connected with another object. Barely managing to keep my balance when my ankle threatened to snap, I turned around again. Callie was hopping on one foot. I reached my arm out to support her. “Sorry, Cal.”
“No problem, Brooklyn,” she said weakly.
Grayson Kipling’s voice broke my concentration on my sister. Again, it held that slightly nasal quality. “Hello again, Brooklyn, Callie.” He nodded in greeting. “Beautiful wedding.”
“Yes. And just the way I like them. Short and sweet.” I hadn’t realized that he would be at the wedding. Did he even know Matt and Evie?
Just then, I felt a hand on my back. It was Mom’s. “Oh, Brooklyn. I’m glad to see you’ve met our new neighbor, Grayson. I’ve been telling him about you.”
“So I heard,” I mumbled before offering him a smile. He returned the favor and oh, my—his second smile was as wonderful as the first had been.
“Would you care to dance after the toasts?”
Would I? If we were living a hundred years ago, I’d have allowed him to fill every available spot on my dance card. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Tim glaring at Grayson. Startled, I said, “I would love to.”
“Great. I’m looking forward to it,” he said in a softer tone that sounded like it was meant just for my ears. Although Tim didn’t look too pleased, I ignored him.
But wouldn’t you know it? The first song Grayson and I danced to was one that Tim and I had considered a favorite. Unbidden, memories of dancing under the stars with Tim on a sultry summer night two years ago at an outdoor concert in Myriad Gardens overcame me. My knees buckled. Grayson tightened his hold on me. “Are you all right?”
His hot breath in my ear wasn’t as romantic as all the romance novels make it out to be. “Yes,” I said, pulling a little away from him.
As Grayson twirled me around on our third dance, I caught a glimpse of Matt and Tim discussing something from across the dimly lit room. Matt flung his arm outward. Then they both looked my way. Matt was speaking in earnest, his face wearing a determined look whereas Tim’s was one of curiosity. Whatever Matt was saying, Tim must have been listening because he set down his drink and made a beeline toward me.
Valiantly trying to hold my nervousness in, I took a deep breath. Unfortunately, my heart was pounding so hard I feared that I would faint right then and there. All too soon, Tim tapped Grayson’s shoulder. “Mind if I cut in, Pal?”
With raised eyebrows, Grayson stepped back but didn’t let go of my hands. “Only if the lady agrees.”
“It’s fine,” I croaked, surreptitiously wiping my hands, which had risen in humidity levels close to that of a rainforest, down the sides of my dress. Tim pulled me to him with his arms around my waist. My arms curled around his neck, just like old times. With my strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes, our friends and families had told us we made a striking couple and foolishly, I had believed them.
We didn’t speak for a few moments. It was as if neither of us wanted to break the tenuous connection. Strains of a Rascal Flatts song played with my conscience as Tim quickly took control. Our movements came together as one. Yes, our road had been broken but couldn’t we fix it? Should we even try?
“So…I haven’t had a chance to congratulate you on your scholarship to ISU. I know how badly you wanted it.”
“Yes.” He had encouraged me to apply.
“I’m proud of you.”
Those four words lit up my insides like a Christmas tree. “Thank you. I heard that you own the custom cabinet business. So I guess we’re both progressing toward our dreams.”
A hint of remorse puckered his brow. “One of them, anyway. The other dream I held turned out to be just that.” I knew he was talking about me.
I shook my head in consternation. Surely Tim knew that if he’d asked the question that every girl dreams of being asked, I would have accepted in a heartbeat.
Maybe he didn’t know. Had I ever told him? I’d been so wrapped up in our courtship, I hadn’t worried about our future and the practical aspects of marriage.
We had fallen into another uncomfortable silence. I cleared my throat. “The cabinets you made for my parents are gorgeous. I love them. You certainly have a gift.”
His tight expression eased. “Thanks. It makes me feel good to help folks improve their homes, make them more functional while adding beauty.”
“You’re definitely doing that.” The smile I gave him was genuine.
The final notes of the song drifted away. Then a lively line dance had people scrambling onto the dance floor. The ladies hiked up their dresses and kicked off their heels. Those who wore boots stomped right along with the men. Both Tim and Grayson had gotten in on the action. I scurried away from the crowd to gather my wits.
Ten minutes later, after giving myself a pep talk and rinsing my overheated face in the ladies’ room, I hesitantly approached the party again. Bad timing! Females of all ages, shapes and sizes were gathered for what could only be the traditional tossing of the bridal bouquet. I considered backtracking but Callie and Mom rounded me up much like cowboys would a steer.
“On the count of three. One! Two! Three!” Evie sent her bouquet flying. It arced and bounced out of two girls’ grappling fingers, right into my fumbling hands. What? How was that possible? I had deliberately stood in the back, far away from the main group of eligible females. My astonished gaze met Evie’s smirk. Ooh, I was going to have to watch out for my sneaky new sister-in-law.
“So who’s the lucky groom?” Matt grinned as he and Evie approached, arm in arm. “Bachelor Number One or Bachelor Number Two?”
My face flamed. “Um, nobody.” I wanted to leave it at that.
Unfortunately, Matt didn’t. All traces of humor fled as he pulled me aside. He lowered his voice and said, “For what it’s worth, Sis, I hope you’ll give Tim another chance. Yeah, he screwed up big-time but with good reason.”
Placing one hand on my hip, I asked, “And what would that be?”
Matt shook his head. “It’s not my place to tell you. I always felt that if Tim couldn’t level with you, he wasn’t much of a man. You deserved better than that.”
Matt squeezed my shoulder. “Anyway, I have a feeling that he’s getting antsy to talk to you. Are you willing to hear him out?”
Matt’s eyes bored into mine, silently pleading. If what Matt was saying was true, the moment I’d both hoped for and dreaded was close at hand. For all my pomp, I wasn’t sure if I could handle Tim’s confession—that he’d been interested in someone else. “Maybe it would be best if I just went back to Iowa.”
“Brooklyn!” Matt growled. His jaw was tight, his eyes steely. “I’m serious. Give Tim a chance. I know that Mom and Dad are hoping for a match between you and that new guy in town, but Tim is the right man for you.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, Matt. I’m over Tim!” Or at least I had been. Now, I was just confused.
I didn’t realize how loudly I’d raised my voice until half the people in the room stared at me, including the man in question, who was only standing about ten feet back. With a clenched jaw, Tim stormed out of the church.
Shame flooded my senses. Matt stared at me as if I had just committed a heinous crime. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I didn’t mean it like that.” Without a backward glance, I fled the room and hid myself in the ladies’ room.
Mom found me there later, mopping up the streaks of mascara that had run down my face with damp wads of toilet paper. “Honey, it’s not as bad as you think.”
“Yes, it is.” I gulped a pocket of air. “I embarrassed Tim and upset Matt—on his wedding day, no less! I take the cake for World’s Worst Sister.”
“Matt isn’t upset with you. He’s upset with himself for pressuring you. In fact, we’re all guilty. We saw the wedding as an opportunity to get you and Tim back together.”
My brows wrinkled as I considered the implications of her statement. That didn’t make sense at all. “I thought you wanted me to meet Grayson.”
Mom’s cheeks colored with a telltale blush. “I have a confession to make. Grayson was a decoy.”
“He’s not really our new neighbor. Mrs. Carlson is out of town for a few months. Grayson, her nephew, is house-sitting for her. He’s a student actor at the community college.” Mom eyed me sympathetically. “I figured it wouldn’t hurt to introduce you to him. That is, if getting Tim’s attention didn’t work, I hoped Grayson might take an interest in you.”
“Gee, thanks for taking our feelings into account.” In my frustration, I quickly gathered my makeup, curling iron, and other primping supplies that I’d scattered around the dressing room in the bridesmaids’ frenzy to be ready for the wedding on time into my garment bag. I took off my strappy heels and hooked one finger through them and another through my car keys.
“Brooklyn, please don’t be mad. We all care for you. It’s obvious that you’ve never gotten over Tim. We just wanted to help.”
I twirled in anger. “Was Tim in on this as well?”
Mom looked down in shame. “No. We wanted to open his eyes to the beautiful woman before him and show him what he’d given up.”
At that moment, I realized that was what I’d wanted, too. “Thanks for trying, Mom. Even if it wasn’t the best way to go about it.” The warm embrace that followed helped me feel a little better.
After stashing my belongings in the front passenger seat of my car, I rounded it and sank down into the plush seat, reliving my brief conversation with Matt shortly before he and Evie took off for their honeymoon. Although he hadn’t been in on the deception like everyone else, he’d sought me out to apologize for pushing me toward Tim. “If you really don’t want him in your life, I’ll support your decision. You’re a terrific sister. There’s a guy out there who is just as terrific.”
“Thanks, Matt,” I whispered, hugging him to show my appreciation.
Now, as I turned the key in the ignition, nothing happened. “Great.” I banged my hand against the steering wheel in frustration, staring in disbelief at the battery light on the dashboard.
That baritone could only belong to one person. I looked up into Tim’s warm brown eyes. The planes of his face were softened by the street lamp behind him. “My car won’t start. Dead battery.”
The corners of his scrumptious mouth lifted. “I can help you with that.”
He parked his truck closer to my car and lifted the hood. I lifted mine as well. In no time, he had the jumper cables hooked up. “Okay. Give ’er a try.”
The car started without any problem. When I got out of the car to thank him, I was struck by the intense way Tim watched me. What came out instead was, “I thought you left.”
He shrugged. “I just went for a walk. I needed to work off my frustration at seeing you with that other guy.”
“Um, yeah. About that…I’m sorry I spoiled your evening with my stupid comments.”
To my surprise, Tim said, “That’s okay.” Then he drew closer to me, the scent of his spicy cologne bringing back happy memories of dreamy kisses. “You had good reason to. I was a jerk.”
“Yes, you were.”
He burst out laughing. “That’s one of the things I love about you, Brooklyn. You’re not afraid to speak your mind.” He let go of me so abruptly, I wondered if I should have kept my mouth shut.
But when I realized Tim’s purpose was to turn on his truck radio, I relaxed. He quickly found a Country music station playing a love song by Brad Paisley. With a bow, he asked, “May I have this dance?”
I stared at his proffered hand, debating. It had been a long day. Tim gently placed his arms around my waist just like he’d done earlier tonight and led me in a slow dance. We swayed to the rhythm in comfortable silence. I remembered how good it had felt to be held in his arms.
“Nice wedding tonight.”
“So when will it be our turn, Brooklyn?”
When Tim’s quiet question finally penetrated my foggy brain, I asked sharply, “Our turn? Last I remember, you weren’t ready to take that step.”
“I am now.”
I pulled away from him. “I don’t know if this is a good idea.”
“What wasn’t a good idea was walking away from you in the first place.” There was no mistaking the sincerity in his voice.
“Why did you do it, Tim?” My question came out as a whisper.
With a feather-light touch, his hand cupped my cheek. He brushed his thumb against my flushed skin. My heart beat an erratic pattern. Tim sighed. “I was afraid.”
I scoffed. Mr. I-Can-Fix-Anything afraid? “Of what?”
He looked away and swallowed. “We spent most of our time together going places and doing things. We talked a lot, but you might have noticed there were times when I shied away from discussing certain topics in the news or from a book you were reading. Whenever you’d try to give it to me to read, I tried to pawn it back off on you without making it look like I had a problem.”
Was I hearing him right? What kind of a problem? “I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t because I never explained. Now, after a heavy amount of persuasion from Matt, I realize how foolish I was to try to hide it.”
“You mean…” I hesitated to draw my own conclusion, hating how far off base I’d been the first time. “You have a reading problem that you didn’t want me to know about? You weren’t just going after another girl when you broke up with me?”
With a tender look, Tim said, “You thought that’s what I was doing? Oh, darlin’, I’m sorry I confused you. Brooklyn, you know how I love to work with my hands. I love creating stuff. I’m not the studious type. The fact of the matter is that I never will be because I have dyslexia.”
So that was it. Understanding washed over me. “I wish I had known. You should have told me.”
“I agree. But you come from a well-educated family and I will likely never hold a college degree. Do you know how that makes me feel?”
“Probably as badly as I feel to know that we’ve wasted all this time. Tim, I can’t fault you for something like that. You work harder than any man I know. And I am totally amazed by your woodworking talent. It truly is a gift.” While he mulled that over, I decided to go for broke. “You know, Tim, I spouted off that garbage about being over you earlier because Matt cornered me. But the truth is, I never stopped loving you.”
Tim smiled. “Good. That means we’re even. Because I never stopped loving you, either.” He leaned down and captured my lips with his. His kiss was everything I remembered and more.
I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. Maybe this wasn’t the most romantic backdrop for a kiss with our car engines running, and me standing in my stockinged feet, but for me, Tim’s kiss brought me home.
And I never wanted to leave again.
LAURA L. WALKER
Laura L. Walker grew up in southern Arizona where she spent her summers swimming and camping on the Graham Mountains. Although her life has definitely not gone as planned, a few of Laura’s childhood dreams have actually come true, including publishing her two novels, Pierced by Love in 2014 and The Matchup in January 2015. She met her husband, Rob, at Northern Arizona University, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. They and their six children are avid readers and alas, a few of her children have even picked up the writing bug, which validates Laura’s vivid imagination! Laura can be contacted at www.lauralwalker.com.
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