Are all superheroes really vigilantes? (Encore)

superheroShort answer: yep, pretty much.

At least in the context of my Villains, Virgins and Vigilantes thesis which holds that these three character types are the primary staples of popular fiction. There are two other categories I’ll also discuss — VIPs and Vegetables — but they’re far less important, for reasons that will become apparent soon enough.

For now, we get to talk about vigilantes!

According to the American Heritage Dictionary (which publication I heartily endorse), a vigilante is: “a person who is not a member of law enforcement but who pursues and punishes persons suspected of lawbreaking.” I prefer a more broad interpretation for our purposes; I’d expand the definition to read: “Anyone who endeavors to right wrongs, with or without official government sanction.”

Rosebud-Vigilantes

Care to explain your recent activities to these gentlemen?

In most “official” contexts, vigilantes are frowned upon. They’re considered extra-legal, and most folks would equate vigilantism with an attack on the rights and/or freedoms of individuals. But we’re talking about fiction, and in the broader context I proffer, anyone who fights back is a vigilante.

Consider the real heart of popular fiction: conflict. Without it, there’s no story, and without characters, there’s no conflict. A tree falls in the forest, and no one cares; whether or not it makes a sound is immaterial. Put a person near that tree, and instantly there’s a potential for conflict.

In the Villains, Virgins and Vigilante schema, conflict occurs when bad things happen, usually because the villains and vigilantes are reacting to something about to, or which has already happened, to the virgins, er… victims. Think of these types as a three-legged stool on which a story rests. It’s the very definition of stability! The oft-sited protagonist vs. antagonist arrangement completely ignores a class of characters to which most of the negative stuff occurs. How is that fair? Or reasonable? And with only two legs on which to stand, it’s inherently unstable.

And before I get too far off-topic, I’ll rein myself in.

The role of the vigilante is critical, as any reader of superhero comic books can attest. But for some reason, new writers will often overlook this simple type and serve up a bunch of characters who don’t really do much. god-touching2They’re often parked in a potentially interesting setting or given a hypothetically intriguing problem, and then they’re left to fend for themselves, or else God steps in and fixes things. Neither resolution will likely find a home in print. (The first is sometimes referred to as a HAITE script — Here’s An Idea The End. The second is a deus ex machina.)

So, if your story isn’t working, take a step back and figure out which of your players is a villain, which is a victim, and which is a vigilante. I’m willing to guess that if the majority of your players don’t fit any of these categories, your story is suffering from a terminal lack of conflict. Worse still, there’s a good chance all your characters may be vegetables. They don’t do anything, they just sit there. They may be colorful, even zesty, but they aren’t engaged in a solution. They can’t cook themselves.

Vigilantes can be almost anyone, from a bumbling comedic clown, like John Belushi in “Animal House,” to Jean Valjean, the long-suffering parolee who dedicates his life to doing the right thing in “Les Misérables.”charlottes-web Surely, somewhere between those extremes, you can find a character type willing to do something to kick start your balky plot.

It occurs to me that digging up examples of the kind of character represented by the vigilante trope is just too easy. Any hero or heroine qualifies. Anyone, in fact, who tries to “do the right thing” (emphasis on do), whether or not they succeed, also qualifies.

There is a special sub-group that deserves mention: Very Important Pals or VIPs. More often than not, these characters can be lumped into the vigilante category. Virtually all sidekicks qualify, including BatKid, Tonto, Dr. Watson, and Lassie, although one could reasonably argue that Timmy, Lassie’s supposed “master,” would more accurately wear the label.

Why single out this group? Because many of them don’t always act like vigilantes. Quite often their role is more observer than player, and yet they still get involved in the action from time to time. There’s also a subset of anthropomorphic things. These include talking animals and robots, of course, but also self-aware cars and spacecraft. For those familiar with children’s fiction, sentient trains, skateboards and backpacks won’t come as a surprise. Such critters are closer to VIP status than they are to being vigilantes.

Speaking of Kid Lit, I believe too many of these things have replaced human characters who make decisions and take stands. Gadgets have supplanted trial and error; button-pushing has replaced risk-taking. Oy. Kids these days!

Just because your character is playing in the superhero’s favorite role, you needn’t make your vigilante super. Give him or her some foibles and a serious weakness or two. It doesn’t have to be kryptonite, but if you make it understandable, your character’s vulnerabilities will translate into strengths, at least from a reader’s standpoint.

Greatest american heroA couple examples come readily to mind. The first was a TV show from the early 1980s called “The Greatest American Hero” and featured a milquetoasty school teacher named Ralph who’s given a spandex costume that grants the wearer super powers. Unfortunately for Ralph, the suit didn’t come with a manual, and the poor schlep spends much of the series crash landing before, during and after his adventures. Yes, it was funny, but his vulnerability also endeared him to viewers.

In another TV drama, “The Closer,” Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson is a whiz at solving cases and extracting confessions, but she’s also a closet junk food junkie who keeps a drawer full of candy and cupcakes handy for whenever she’s on edge, which is pretty much all the time. Viewers loved it because they could identify with her. Your vigilante could do much worse. In fact, I recall at least two such characters who had a deep and abiding love of soap operas. This stuff matters, folks.

BenjiThe last area I want to touch on in regard to vigilantes concerns dogs. More than any other non-human animal, dogs appear in popular fiction. And more often than not, they’re vigilantes. Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Asta, Toto, Snoopy, Gromit, Goofy, Pluto, Scooby-Doo, Bolt… The list of such famous fictional and sometimes non-fictional dogs goes on and on, and for a very understandable reason: people love ’em! They can imagine their own pets standing in for these fictional fidos. Cats? Not so much.

At the risk of offending a legion of cat lovers, felines just don’t have the same heroic cache’ that comes with the tail-waggers. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. If Jon Arbuckle ever fell in a well, a highly probable event, few people on Earth would believe that Garfield might go for help. Pizza? Maybe. A fireman or an EMT? Not happenin’.

That wraps up my introductory look at Villains, Virgins and Vigilantes, the power tropes of popular fiction.

I challenge my readers to think of a fictional character, from film or print, who doesn’t fit any of these V-types.

–Josh

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Happy–cough–New–snort–Year!

So, I’m sitting here at my machine, and in between sneezes, coughs, and attempts to clear my sinuses (and everything attached thereto), I’m thinking it’s way past time for me to post something useful and writerly. (“Writerly” is a word, by God; I don’t care what Grammarly says.)

Alas, the muse must also be sneezing, coughing, and blowing her nose, because she certainly hasn’t blessed me with any ideas about a topic. We’re sick, y’see. Both of us.

Honking, hacking, and hankies have become our/my stock in trade. I picked up this damned bug in suburban Portland, Oregon, where it likely gestated for a geological age or two, just waiting for some poor schlub from the hills of Appalachia to come along and give it a home. Mission accomplished. The Portland pathogen has arrived. Yea team. <wheeze>

And then it occurred to me that I could write about being unwell, physically. Mentally? Who the hell knows, or cares? The thing is, fictional characters can be ill, too. And that got me to thinking about the characters I’ve dreamed up who weren’t in the best physical shape.

I’ve featured several characters with disabilities: Meadow in Whisper  had a club foot; in Treason, Treason! two characters, Benedict Arnold and Joel Dawkins–one historical and one fictional–both suffered from the effects of gunshots to the leg. In the Druids trilogy, an untold number of characters suffered from dreadful wounds, and in one case, cancer. But as best I can recall, none of my characters ever had a cold.

As someone who prides himself on finding ways to complicate the lives, and by extension, the plots of my characters, it’s clearly high time to drop a bucket of bacterium on one or more of them. Heh, heh. Poor darlings. But I won’t be killing them, oh no. I’ll simply let ’em stew in their own microbial juices. Their lungs will become phlegm factories; their sinuses will flow like Victoria Falls in the rainy season. Their heads will become storage areas for cotton bales, and their ears will pop if and when they cease to ache.

Oh, and their doctors will be away on holiday, all of them. The nurse practitioner at the local pharmacy will likewise be unavailable. The ER at the nearby hospital will feature a sign that reads: “Standing Room Only!”

Over-the-counter meds will provide temporary respite but only at the cost of muddled brains, upset bowels, and/or nervous tics. They’ll be sneezing on loved ones, coughing on their offspring, growling at their pets, and wishing they had the energy to crawl into a shower stall and hose themselves down. That, of course, assumes there would be any hot water available.

If “write what you know” is truly a thing–and I’ll offer my thoughts on that in a broader sense at some point–then I’m merely taking advantage of what I’ve “learned” in this latest mucus laden lesson.

(I’m feeling positively gleeful right now–giddy, giggly, and vengeful. It’s most likely due to the meds. The labels on those old plastic pill bottles didn’t fare well when the bathroom flooded. Or maybe it has something to do with what I added to my coffee. Whatever.)

In short, I’ll deliver unto my cast of imaginary victims everything I’ve gone through during any illness I can recall, including the effects from the current plague of microorganisms running amuck inside me now. “Pestilence is mine,” sayeth the writer!

I’ll show them!

[cough]

By cracky.

[sneeze]

–Josh

 

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Christmas Cheer — Part Five

This will be my last post for 2019, and while the content isn’t brand new, the sentiment behind the story will never go out of date. Please understand, I love teachers; I even married one! And I do a bit of teaching myself, so don’t think of this tale as being–in any sense–mean or degrading. This is also the last of the Christmas stories I’ll be posting, and like the others, it’s just a wee bit different. Please let me know what you think. Enjoy!

                                                  “Do one thing every day that scares you.”                                                                                                            ~Eleanor Roosevelt

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Casey Bolen’s old teacher, the round and amiable Miss Emry was replaced by an angular woman whose lipstick and fingernail polish always matched. She wrote her name on the whiteboard in a flourish of bright purple: Ms. Chantre. She even underlined the Ms.

Casey couldn’t understand why no one else noticed how she maintained order. After all, none of the other teachers turned their unruly students into hamsters. Yet, whenever he tried to tell anyone, they just gave him The Look and walked away.

Casey and his two best friends, Ray and Marybeth, sat at a small table preparing to play “Phonics-opoly,” which, despite being the world’s stupidest game, was vastly more interesting than memorizing multiplication tables. Casey ignored Marybeth as she dumped out colored tokens and cardboard squares. He concentrated instead on the drama near the teacher’s desk.

Billy Garber, who spent more time out of school than in, had been busted for calling Simon Smithers a bag of snot. “That’s neither nice nor accurate,” Ms. Chantre said. “He’s a human.”

“Are you kidding?” Billy laughed. “He’s a snot machine. Just look at him!”

Ms. Chantre escorted Billy to the back of the room where small animal cages crowded the wall-length countertop. She sat Billy between the hamsters and an overweight rabbit, then stood between him and the rest of the class, hiding him from view. When she returned to her desk, Billy was gone–bad attitude and all.

Casey was still staring at the cages when Ms. Chantre tapped a ruler on her desk to get everyone’s attention. “The school board and the PTA require that you do an art project,” she said. The students perked up. Art was cool. Best of all, it meant they didn’t have to do any work.

“There are materials on the front table for your use. Your parents would probably prefer you do something related to the holidays. I don’t care what kind of art you commit, just do something. And please, do it quietly.”

During the rush to grab materials, Casey slipped to the back of the room to look for his classmate. Sadly, Billy was nowhere to be found. Casey did, however, find an extra hamster. It looked pretty much like the other four except it had orange fur–exactly the same color as Billy Garber’s hair.

“She did it again,” he told Marybeth when he returned.

The girl’s normally friendly features quickly shifted into The Look. “You are so weird,” she said. “Ms. Chantre is the coolest teacher we’ve ever had.”

“I liked Miss Emry.”

“She was fat,” Ray said.

Marybeth chimed in quickly, “And Ms. Chantre never makes us do anything but phonics and multiplication tables. When Miss Emry was here, we had to do hard stuff.”

“But haven’t you noticed that every day, somebody disappears? Today, it was Billy. Tomorrow, it could be us!”

“Billy didn’t even come to school today,” Marybeth said.

“Yes, he did! Don’t you remember? He called Simon a snotbag.”

“So? That’s what he is,” Ray said.

Casey laughed. “I’ll ask Simon. I bet he remembers.” Casey crossed the room to where Simon sat alone drawing a sky full of flying pogo sticks, each of which appeared to be releasing an impossibly large load of bombs on a broad square blob labeled “skool.”

“I heard what Billy called you,” Casey said.

“Kaboom! Chuka-chuka!” Simon said, furiously rubbing the acreage in his drawing with a flat, brown crayon.

“And I saw what happened to him.”

“Budha-budha-budha, pow!” Simon said. He paused to wipe his nose on his sleeve, then grabbed crayons in both hands. Streaks of red and yellow Crayola fire pierced the brown layer.

“Did you see it?”

“Blamo!”

Casey gave up. If only he had a hidden camera, he could prove Billy had really been there. His dad had a camera, but it was way too big. It’d be easier to hide a pony. Walking back to his seat, he wondered what it would feel like to be a hamster.

~*~

At the dinner table, Casey struggled to explain what he’d seen to his parents.

Mrs. Bolen, Casey’s Mom, was a permanent member of all the PTA committees, including the Winter Holiday Task Force, which despite a name change to protect the overly sensitive from hearing the word “Christmas,” was still the organization’s most prestigious workgroup. She listened patiently before leaving the room to retrieve a well-worn paperback book. “Let’s just see what the experts have to say.”

Casey slumped forward until his head rested on his crossed arms. It had been just a week since she’d last used the book–when he announced that the only thing he wanted for Christmas was a ferret. She had thumbed through several chapters before announcing: “The experts say ferrets are terribly expensive. And, they bite.”

Case closed.

Casey almost cried. He’d never wanted anything so much in his life.

“What’s it say about hamsters?” Mr. Bolen asked.

She scanned the index. “Nothing, but there is an item about hallucinations.”

“Hala-what?” Casey asked.

“Seeing things that aren’t there,” she said. Her left eyebrow inched upward. “What did you have for lunch the day you claim your little friend turned into a rodent?”

~*~

The first few times trouble-makers were sent to Ms. Chantre, everyone paid attention, but almost immediately, they all lost interest. All except Casey. He watched as victims were marched to the back of the room where they were hidden from view while Ms. Chantre turned them into small animals. Stranger still, no one else ever seemed to notice.

Casey offered to take care of the small but growing zoo, and he had no idea who would provide that care during the Christmas break. He counted heads every day before and after class and kept track of the changes on the inside cover of his spelling folder since it wasn’t being used for anything else.

He also took notes on who went missing, and when. Billy Garber, for example, came back to class after a one-day absence, but some kids stayed gone much longer. And for reasons he couldn’t understand, everyone else explained those absences the same way.

One busy morning in early December, three older boys arrived. Well-known bullies, none of them had or wanted other friends. The rest of the students in the school merely represented a steady supply of lunch money.

Ms. Chantre made them wait in the hall while the custodian retrieved a big cage from storage and put it with the others in the back of the room. He had to stack several of the smaller cages to make room for it. When the custodian left, she brought the three villains into the room, one by one, and carried out their sentences.

At lunch, Casey found three guinea pigs in the new cage. Once again he alerted Ray and Marybeth to what he had seen.

“If you keep saying such crazy things, they’ll put you in a cage,” Marybeth said.

Casey looked at Ray. “Do you think I’m crazy, too?”

“No,” he said. “Only, sometimes I wish you’d talk about something else.”

“If I could just take movies of it or–”

“Use a tape recorder? My dad gave me one,” Ray said. “It’s small enough to fit in your pocket.”

Casey felt a ray of hope. “Could I borrow it?”

“You’re both crazy,” Marybeth said.

~*~

After school, Casey took care of the animals, including a new one he hadn’t seen before. Ms. Chantre called it a hedgehog. Casey thought it looked like a pygmy porcupine. And even though it was covered in prickly spines, he wondered if a hedgehog would make a better pet than a ferret. He decided he’d have to do some research before he made up his mind. Moving on, he filled the water bottle on the guinea pig cage and fed the chubby rabbit. It seemed to like him a great deal.

“Thanks, Casey,” Ms. Chantre said. “You’re a good worker. I’m sure our little friends appreciate all you do for them.”

Casey shrugged. It wasn’t the first time he’d been alone with Ms. Chantre, but she still made him nervous.

“Sadly,” she said, “they won’t be able to remember.”

“Remember what?”

“You, of course. When they return to human form.”

Casey swallowed, hard. The windows were all locked, and Ms. Chantre stood between him and the only door out of the room. Trapped!

“I know you know,” she said. As Casey backed away, she pointed at him, the sharp nail of her index finger was tinted blood-red. “It’s okay. I don’t mind. In fact, you can do it, too.”

“What?”

“Don’t play dumb, Casey. Unlike the others, you’ve seen what I can do. Would you like me to show you how it’s done?”

“You’d teach me how to turn people into animals?”

“Sure.”

“But, I’m just a– a kid. I can’t do magic!”

“Stuff and nonsense,” she said. “Here, I’ll show you.” She walked to her desk and took a small, silver box from the bottom drawer, then reached into her huge handbag and pulled out a set of note cards bound with a wide rubber band. She tossed the cards to Casey. “Go through those and find the one marked ‘White Mouse.’ Pull it out.”

Casey stared at the cards. They were blank.

“Oops! Wait. You can’t read them without these.” She slipped a dainty pair of spectacles from her nose and handed them to him. The lenses appeared to be plain glass, but when he looked through them, words hovered above the cards like special effects in a 3D movie.

Though the cards were all different, a line of text floated across the top of each. Near the middle, in English, was the name of an animal. Casey guessed the word was repeated in other languages. A series of symbols and partial words appeared on the body of the card. He knew many of the words since they were simply the names of common critters, but one card stumped him. It bore the word Esrever, but he couldn’t imagine what sort of creature that might be. However, since there were other exotic animals like Manticore and Gryphon, he assumed it was something like that.

“You don’t need to memorize them,” she said, her voice snarly. Patience was not a word one used with Ms. Chantre.

Finally, Casey found the white mouse card. “Got it! Now what?”

Ms. Chantre opened the silver box and took out a pinch of green powder as fine as talc. She put the box on the counter, reached into a terrarium, and captured a plump frog. It squirmed in her grasp, its eyes bulging and its front and back legs making swimming motions. “Now, now,” she mumbled and dusted the amphibian with powder. In moments, it quit wiggling and lay limp in her fist like a sock full of sand.

“Is it dead?” he asked.

“Of course not. It’s merely–” she groped for a word “–suspended.” She flicked the index card with her finger. “Now, read the card out loud. All of it.”

Casey stumbled at first but then took his time, pronounced each syllable according to his best phonetic guess, and got all the words right. He looked up in time to see the frog sprout fine white hair as its limbs became shorter and furry. In moments the last traces of the frog vanished, replaced by a tiny mouse with an extremely busy nose. Ms. Chantre held it in her hand and rubbed it between the ears with a crimson fingernail. “See how easy that was?”

Casey realized his mouth had fallen open. “Are you saying I did that?

“Of course! Anyone with The Sight can do it, and you obviously have it. As long as you know what a creature is when you start, the words on the cards determine what it will become.”

“And how do you change ’em back?”

“There’s a spell for that, too. It’s in there,” she said, pointing at the cards in his hand. “I can’t give away all my secrets, but I will share one: none of this works without the powder, and I’m the only one who knows how to make it.” She held up the silver box and chuckled. “You’ve probably heard people say, ‘take a powder,’ but I’ll bet you never knew where the expression came from.”

He not only didn’t know; he didn’t care. “That’s all there is to it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. There’s much, much more–enough to keep you busy for years. The training takes a long time, but you could do it. And, you’re smart enough not to say anything about it to anyone.” Though she held his shoulder lightly, each of her sharp fingernails dug into his skin. “We can always use new blood.”

“I should talk it over with Mom and Dad.”

“Suit yourself. They’re down there.” She nodded at a pair of pale blue parakeets sharing a perch in a cage at the end of the counter. “Cute, aren’t they?”

Casey turned slowly in their direction. Breathing became difficult. Mom? Dad! He turned to look at the teacher. “What did they do wrong?”

Ms. Chantre pursed her lips. “Your mother chairs the Winter Holiday committee which hasn’t done anything to prepare for the Solstice. Can you imagine? The shortest day of the year, and her entire committee ignores it like it’s not going to happen. What’s wrong with those people? Anyway, I got tired of waiting and put someone else in her place.”

“But, Dad? He’s never done anything with the PTA!”

“Exactly. What a clever boy you are! But your father?” She gave a deep sigh. “Not like you at all, I’m afraid. He could have been so much more helpful.”

Casey put his face next to the cage. The birds edged sideways as if afraid of him.

“Don’t get too close,” she said. “One of them tried to bite me.”

“Really?” Casey felt a touch of pride. “How long before you change them back?”

Ms. Chantre removed the lid from a glass cage containing a python. “Not much longer.” She put the little white mouse in with the snake and closed the top.

“Some changes,” she said, her voice almost too low to hear, “are permanent.”

~*~

Mrs. Groves, Special Assistant to the Superintendent of Schools, glared at Casey as he sat in a hard wooden chair across the desk from her. “Let me get this straight. You think your teacher is turning people into animals?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’ve seen her do this?”

Casey nodded. “She was sneaky about it at first. Now, she wants my help. I’ve got a list of everyone she’s done it to.”

Mrs. Groves stood up, walked across the room, and opened the door to the outer office. She motioned to someone, then turned back to face Casey. “Why are you just now reporting it?”

“‘Cause it’s getting worse.” He explained about his parents, the white mouse, and the snake. The snake bothered him most of all. Ms. Chantre had brought it with her when she arrived. It might have been a person once, but he had no idea who it might have been.

The Special Assistant to the Superintendent of Schools stepped away from the door as a man in a dark suit entered the room. “Casey, I’d like you to meet Dr. Carr, our staff Psychologist. Do you know what a Psychologist is?”

“Sure,” Casey said. “They work with crazy people.”

Carr laughed. “I don’t think you’re crazy, Casey. By the way, do your parents know you’re here?”

“I told them I was coming.”

“And what did they say about that?”

“Nothing. Parakeets don’t talk much.”

~*~

“We told you we’d be out of town,” Mrs. Bolen said. “You were supposed to stay with the Hills, next door. Remember?” She smiled at the man in the dark suit. “I’m sorry you had to drive all the way out here.”

“My pleasure,” Dr. Carr said. “Your son certainly has a bizarre imagination.” He patted Casey’s head as if he were a spaniel.

Casey growled as Carr walked away.

“It’s a good thing we came home early,” Mrs. Bolen said. “Poor Mrs. Hill would’ve had a heart attack if you hadn’t shown up.”

~*~

“It’s not working,” Casey said. He held Ray’s tape recorder out for inspection. “Listen.” He pressed the PLAY button, but the sound came out muffled.

“That’s terrible,” Ray said, “where did you record it from?”

“Right here at my desk. I had it in my book bag.”

“Well, duh!” Ray grabbed the recorder and pointed to a spot at one end. “This is the microphone, but it’s kinda crummy. You’ve gotta get it closer to what you want to record.”

“How am I gonna do that? Shove my desk next to the teacher’s?”

Ray shook his head. “Do what I do when I want to record my big sister and her boyfriend out on the porch.” He grinned and pointed at a switch on the back of the little machine. “Put it on automatic. It’ll start recording whenever somebody talks. You should hear some of the tapes I made of my sister!”

Casey looked at the teacher’s messy desk. And then he smiled.

~*~

The following day, after school, Casey stood beside Ms. Chantre’s desk as she made notes in a ledger. He had just cleaned the hamster cage and was brushing cedar shavings from his shirt into a trash can. “Is there any kind of animal you can’t turn somebody into?” he asked.

“No, but I don’t do big ones. People might ask questions.”

“You mean you could turn somebody into a dinosaur or a dragon?”

“Sure.” She jotted a number in her book and turned the page. “But it’s not practical. For something like a dragon, I’d have to draw too heavily on the essence bank.”

Casey plunked himself down in a chair beside her desk. “You can get dragons from a bank? I thought you used the magic cards.”

She leaned back and crossed her arms. “The cards aren’t magic. They’re just… cards. The ink is tricky, sure, but it’s not magic, and neither are the transformations. Ever heard of physics?”

Casey nodded yes. “But I don’t know what it means.”

“People here call it a science.” She chuckled. “Anyway, according to the laws of physics, matter can’t be created or destroyed. It can only be changed into some other form. When we change something big into something small–like a boy into a blue jay–there’s a lot of ‘stuff’ left over. It’s called essence. We can store it for later, or let it turn into energy, which is pretty wasteful unless you like bright flames and smoke.” She tapped her teeth. “But it looks lovely at night.”

“And when you turn somebody back into a person, you use the essence stuff to sort of fill ’em back up?”

“Yes, but any extra essence stays in my personal account.”

“Like money?”

“Better. This is the essence of life. The more you have, the longer you live. Lose a lot, and you grow old. Lose too much, and you die.” She dragged a bright red fingernail across her throat. “I’m only here to build up my account.”

“You mean, you really don’t care about teaching?”

She laughed until her face turned as red as her lipstick and fingernails. She was still gasping when Mrs. Groves walked through the door.

“I’d better get my stuff and go,” Casey said. He stepped to a table beside the teacher’s desk, reached into a mound of books where he’d hidden Ray’s machine, and pressed AUTO-RECORD.

He smiled and waved on his way out of the room.

~*~

The following day, Ray and Casey huddled in a back corner of the lunchroom. Marybeth chose to eat with “normal” kids. Casey held the recorder in his lap. They leaned close together and listened to the voice of Mrs. Groves: “Is he the only one who knows?”

“Yes. I’m sure of it,” Ms. Chantre said.

Ray looked at Casey. “Know what?”

Casey shushed him.

“Do you think he’ll play along?” Mrs. Groves asked.

“I think so. He’s not terribly bright.”

Ray giggled, and Casey punched his arm.

“Thankfully, none of them are,” Mrs. Groves said.

Casey stuck his tongue out at Ray.

“Now that everyone brings me their behavior problems, I average two transformations a day. I ran out of cages last week. Plus, I’ve still got old what’s-her-name in the rabbit pen.”

“That’d be Hazel Emry. People have been asking about her. We can’t keep this up much longer. We need to pile up as much essence as we can.”

“I’ve altered the spell,” Ms. Chantre said. “Anyone I restore comes back smaller than they were, and we bank the difference. I haven’t transformed anyone skinny yet. No one will notice.”

“In the meantime, while they’re still animals, you’ve got to watch out for overcrowding. In the mice, especially, or they’ll go crazy. They’ll eat each other y’know.”

“Casey keeps them fed. I needn’t worry about that.”

“Not now, maybe, but we can’t leave him behind. Sooner or later he’ll find someone who believes him.”

The boys stared at each other in surprise.

“I can always turn him into a rabbit when I bring the old teacher back. I’ll use the same breed. We’ll be long gone before anyone notices.”

Sounds of chairs scraping interrupted the voices. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” Mrs. Groves said.

“Relax. I’m an expert.”

“Things can change a lot in a thousand years.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” said Ms. Chantre.

~*~

“See? The rabbit really is Miss Emry!” Casey said. “We’ve gotta tell Marybeth.”

Ray gave Casey a blank look. “Tell Marybeth what?”

Casey’s shoulders slumped like a deflated balloon.

Ray smiled. “Just kidding,” he said.

Casey wanted to hit him, then had the urge to hug him instead. He settled on shaking his fist as Ray laughed.

“Marybeth can’t do anything,” Ray said. “Why don’t we just take the tape to the Principal?”

“Good idea. C’mon!” The boys pushed away from the table and turned toward the lunchroom exit. The Principal and Mrs. Groves stood in the doorway, talking. They waved to Ms. Chantre across the room.

The boys dropped back into their seats, defeated before they’d begun. “We need a new plan,” Casey said. “I don’t know who we can trust.”

“There’s only one person, besides you and me,” Ray said.

“Miss Emry?”

“Yeah, but she won’t be much help the way she is now.”

But instead of feeling sad, Casey began to smile.

~*~

After school, Casey worked his way down the long shelf, cleaning cages and refilling food and water dishes. He gave Miss Emry a little extra and quietly promised her everything would be okay. He wanted to give the hedgehog a treat, but he didn’t have any fresh insects. They tended to be scarce in the winter. As usual, Ms. Chantre sat at her desk working on her ledger.

Casey tried to act normally. Ray should have already arrived. It was his job to get the teacher out of the room while Casey went through her things to find the powder and the cards. Once he had them, all he had to do was read through the cards and– The glasses! Why hadn’t he thought of them? He couldn’t read the cards without the glasses.

“Ms. Chantre! Come quick!” Ray stood at the door, panting. “Marybeth fell and landed on her head. She’s not moving!”

Casey waved his arms to call Ray off, but he was only warming up. “There’s blood everywhere,” he wailed. “Her brains are leaking out! You gotta come now!”

Ray hurried down the hallway with Ms. Chantre close behind him. Casey ran to her desk and opened the bottom drawer where he’d seen her put the powder.

The drawer was empty.

He felt sweat beading up on his forehead as he yanked open the other drawers–no time for caution. He pulled books, ungraded homework, a box of tissues, and other junk out of the drawers as he hunted for the silver box. He dug frantically through every drawer while the clock ticked on and on. So little time left!

He looked out the window at the playground and saw Ms. Chantre pinching Ray’s ear, dragging him back to the building. If only Marybeth had gone along with them, he would’ve had more time. Now, Ray was in for it. And if Casey didn’t find the box soon, they would both be in for it.

Tick.

Tock.

Still no silver box.

Still no green powder.

Angered by his failure and impending doom, Casey slammed his hand on the desktop sending a shockwave through Ms. Chantre’s stuff. A coffee cup tipped over and sloshed its cold contents over the desk. Casey reached for the cup and almost knocked over the little silver box sitting beside it.

“Yes!” he whispered and turned toward the huge purse where he had seen Ms. Chantre put the cards. He yanked it open and reached in with both hands.

“Casey! Come out here,” she commanded from the hallway.

“Just a minute,” he yelled. “I’ve gotta finish one last cage.” Desperate, he continued to rummage through her purse.

“What are you doing in there, Casey?”

“Almost done,” he said. Her voice and Ray’s squeals grew louder as they neared the room. He kept digging in the handbag.

“Get away from there!” she barked from the doorway.

Casey’s breath caught in his lungs. He stumbled backward clutching the little silver box behind him.

Ms. Chantre stood in the entrance as Ray squirmed in her grip. “How dare you betray my trust!” Her eyes grew dark, and her brows pinched down like daggers. Casey backed away, fumbling with the lid on the box. There had to be a trick to opening it.

“I trusted you. I was going to teach you great things, but you’re no better than this whining little brat!” She gave Ray’s ear a cruel tug, and his friend howled.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen, Ray! I’m so sorry!” The lid on the box still wouldn’t budge.

“Not as sorry as you’re going to be,” Ms. Chantre said. “You’d be amazed by how hungry my python can get. Did you notice what happened to the little mouse I threw in there? It ran around the cage until it was exhausted, then the snake curled up around it and crushed the air from its lungs. It’s not a very strong snake, so it took a long, long time.” She chuckled. “And then the silly thing didn’t want to let go, but of course I had to take the mouse away. I like to keep the snake hungry.” She gave him a wicked smile. “You’ll make such a yummy Christmas dinner for it.”

Casey felt something click on the bottom of the box. The lid flipped open. He stopped retreating, though she kept coming.

“You know, I can change the spell just a little and make sure you understand what’s happening to you. Tiny creatures like mice are too stupid to get the full measure of fear you deserve.”

“Casey,” Ray pleaded, “do something!”

“Oh, yes,” Ms. Chantre said, “by all means, do something.” Her lip curled into a sneer.

“Now!” yelled Ray as he kicked savagely at her shin. She cursed and let go of his ear.

As Ray fell out of the way, Casey tossed a handful of the green dust over the woman’s head. A look of pure hatred flickered across her face before she came to a stop, like a toy robot whose batteries just went dead. She blinked once, then her focus faded, and her head slumped forward.

Casey snatched the glasses from the end of her nose and put them on, then dug his hands into the deep pockets of her sweater. There he found the index cards.

Ray was still rubbing his mistreated ear as Casey tore off the rubber band and searched through the cards for the ones he wanted. “Go get Miss Emry,” he said, then nodded at Ms. Chantre. “But hurry. I don’t know how long she’ll stay frozen.”

“Right,” Ray said. He trotted to the back of the room.

Casey’s heart pounded a rock n’ roll beat as he clawed one card from the deck after another. Finally, he had the two he wanted and paused long enough to take a deep breath. He prayed his mind wasn’t playing tricks on him. If he’d made a mistake, if the meaning of the card marked Esrever wasn’t what he thought, then….

But, no! He’d done his homework. There was no such thing as an Esrever. At least, not in this world. Of course, Ms. Chantre most likely didn’t come from this world, in which case an Esrever might really be something–a gigantic, kid-eating gollywhumpus, or maybe even a tyrannosaurus rex.

“Got ‘er!” Ray said, his arms bulging under the weight of the corpulent bunny. He settled his burden on the floor near the statue-like Ms. Chantre. “You sure this is gonna work?”

“I hope so,” Casey said. He sprinkled some of the fine, green powder between Miss Emry’s long droopy ears. When her nose stopped twitching, he looked straight into Ray’s eyes. “You’d better step back.”

Ray stepped back.

“And,” Casey continued, “if she starts turning into anything other than our regular old teacher…” His voice trailed off.

Ray suddenly looked as nervous as he had when Ms. Chantre pinched his ear. “If she turns into something else?”

“Yeah.”

“Like what?”

“I dunno. A dinosaur maybe.”

“Geez! What do we do then?”

“We run for it,” Casey said.

Ray looked like he’d forgotten how to breathe. “Maybe we should go for help.”

Casey pointed at Ms. Chantre who had managed to tilt her head upward. Though her eyes hadn’t focused on him yet, that seemed to be her goal. “There’s no time for that.”

He began reading the card he’d chosen for Miss Emry. If Esrever meant anything other than Reverse, spelled backward, they would be in deep, deep trouble.

Turning his back on Ms. Chantre, Casey finished reading the spell he hoped would bring their old teacher back. He crossed his fingers and almost closed his eyes, then realized that would be a huge mistake, especially if the bunny rabbit became a bunny rex. Or worse.

Fortunately, the spell merely restored Miss Emry.

Or, most of her.

Asleep.

“She sure looks different,” Ray said, stepping forward once again. “Is she alive?”

“She’s breathing,” Casey observed. “That’s a good sign. But you’re right about her looking strange.” He squinted at her, then realized the glasses might be at fault. But even after he took them off, she still didn’t seem to be her old self.

“She’s almost… skinny,” Ray said.

Casey giggled. “Well, duh! She’s been eating nothing but rabbit food for weeks.”

Suddenly, an eerie growl emanated from Ms. Chantre. The two boys spun around and faced the woman’s dark, angry glare.

Casey immediately began to read from the second card.

Ms. Chantre moved her arms in his direction, and there could be no doubt she meant to grab him before he could complete the spell.

“More powder?” Ray asked, his voice a whisper. The teacher’s eyes quickly shifted toward him–a python in search of prey.

Casey ignored the thought and finished reading.

And Ms. Chantre began to shrink.

“What’ll we do with her?” Ray asked.

“When she stops changing, we’ll stick her in the rabbit cage. At least for now.”

Casey glanced from the green powder in the silver box to all the cages in the back of the room, and all the animals in them. With any luck, he’d have enough powder to bring everyone back.

On the floor, Miss Emry continued to snooze.

“If we can finish this before she wakes up,” Casey said, “maybe we can sneak out and not have to answer a lot of questions.”

~*~

On Christmas day, Casey and his parents enjoyed a quiet morning, listening to carols and exchanging gifts. Mrs. Bolen was cooking a turkey, and the wonderful smells of the bird and all the trimmings had Casey longing for the big meal.

“Oh,” his mother said, “I forgot to mention. Miss Emry will be joining us for dinner. The poor dear doesn’t have any family, and she can’t remember a thing about her mysterious disappearance. Fortunately for everyone, she felt well enough to take her old job back.”

“I just don’t understand people anymore,” Mr. Bolen said. “In my day, when someone had a job, they stuck with it. Now, people just up and quit in the middle of a contract. We’ve lost three from the school system just this past week.”

“Three?” Casey asked.

“Your new teacher, the principal, and Mrs. Groves, from the Superintendent’s office. They all took off without so much as a how-do-you-do.”

“Weren’t they all new this year?” Mrs. Bolen asked.

Just then, the doorbell rang. Casey ran to the front hall and welcomed Miss Emry into the house. She gave a basket of plump, hot dinner rolls to Casey’s Mom, then went back out to her car for something else. Casey waited patiently for her to return.

Casey’s dad gave a little wolf whistle as she walked out to her car.

Casey’s mom jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow. Moments later the slender Miss Emry returned to the house.

“I have a favor to ask of you,” she said. She held something large, square, and covered with a sheet in her arms. She brought it inside and put it on the floor.

“Sure,” Casey said. He couldn’t remember Miss Emry ever looking so pretty. “What do you need me to do?”

“Well,” she said, smiling, “I’m still trying to sort everything out, but when I returned to our classroom, I found two animals in cages at the back of the room. One was a snake, which I turned over to the nature preserve, and the other was this.”

She pulled the sheet away from the cage. Casey dropped to the floor for a closer look.

“It’s a ferret,” Miss Emry said. “I need someone to take care of it over the holidays.”

“Cool!” said Casey. He tried not to stare at the little animal’s bright red claws.

“What will you do with it after the holidays?” asked Mrs. Bolen, a little nervously.

Miss Emry shrugged. “Ferrets make marvelous pets, you know. I hope to find a permanent home for it.”

“I know a place!” Casey said.  He didn’t add that he also knew just the right person to keep an eye on it.

~End~

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Christmas Cheer–Part Four

“A family is a unit composed not only of children but of men, women, an occasional animal, and the common cold.” ~Ogden Nash

For most children, Christmas morning is the most magical part of the most magical time of the year. But not for Jedidiah Ashworth Tartikoff, IV. That distinction, in the mind of the 10-year-old from Powder Springs, Georgia, belonged to the day after Christmas, when he and his family made their annual pilgrimage to the home of his namesake, the patriarch of the Tartikoff clan.

The trip was neither lengthy nor arduous, and the Tartikoff mansion could easily accommodate ten times as many visitors. Nor did ill health, incompatibility, or a lack of manners dictate that the familial sojourn be limited to a yearly event. The senior Tartikoff had instituted the rule long before the arrival of a third iteration of Jedidiah Ashworths, let alone a fourth, and the reasoning for it was quite simple: old Jed spent most of the year traveling, and while he remained far too absorbed in his studies to bother with trivial holidays, he always paid enough attention to know when Christmas Day was at hand. And, since most people who traveled home for the holidays wanted to be home on December 25th, Jed Senior never had trouble finding a seat on an airplane, his preferred method of travel since the invention of pressurized cabins.

The annual ritual commenced with an afternoon meal catered by a firm with whom Jed senior had a long-standing contract. The table in the Tartikoff dining room stretched like the deck of an aircraft carrier, comfortably accommodating the two dozen relatives who made the journey each year.

The clan included five children in addition to Jed-IV, all girls and all of them older, taller, noisier and–to young Jed’s way of thinking–far less adventurous. Though allowed to sit with the older Tartikoffs (plus a handful of Johnsons and Mahoneys who married into the family), the children were clustered at the far end of the runway where they were less likely to disturb the adults as they jockeyed for acknowledgment by the head of the clan.

Gifts would be distributed after the meal to all who attended, and while everyone had a notion about how the patriarch decided who got what, no one really knew. The overwhelming consensus held that making the old man smile would result in something useful, perhaps even valuable, while displeasing him would almost certainly garner for the hapless relation a useless oddity. Membership in the community of grovelers was restricted to those old enough to vote, thus exempting the children from the need to embarrass themselves, assuming any were capable of such.

A gentle rap of knife on crystal quieted the crowd. Jed senior cleared his throat and addressed them. “Thank you–all of you–for humoring an old man and sharing your holiday with him.”

Jed-IV, a precocious fourth-grader, had only just learned about speaking in third person but knew of no one besides his great-grandfather whoever did it.

“Every Christmas this old man wonders if it will be his last.” Forced to pause, he raised his hands to quell the chorus of denials. “And every year he is rewarded with another. It is gratifying beyond words.” He took a sip of wine then set the glass on the table with an unsteady hand. “This year, however, will almost certainly be the last.” Once again two dozen voices of protest drowned the old man out, and he closed his heavy-lidded eyes and waited for them to settle down.

“Many of you are no doubt wondering what will become of this house and all its contents.” He raised his voice above a more subdued range of protests. “But that hasn’t been decided, yet.” Great shaggy brows drew down over sharp hazel eyes as he scanned the gathering, pausing to stare into each face as if to recognize it, or worse, to find some flaw.

“We all appreciate your great flair for the dramatic, Granddad,” Jed-III said, removing his napkin from the front of his shirt. “But I’m sure you’ll share many more Christmases with us.”

“So your father thought,” observed the eldest Tartikoff, the only one willing to bring up any unpleasantness at the traditional dinner. “Perhaps if his father had been less indulgent, Junior would still be with us.” He sighed and shook his head. “See that you don’t make the same mistake.”

Jed-IV tried not to squirm as twenty-three pairs of eyes turned in his direction. He discovered that juice from his cranberries had mingled with his mashed potatoes, the result being a fair topographical rendering of South America. He used his fork to dredge and widen the Amazon then launched a green bean seed canoe into it from somewhere in Brazil.

“Meanwhile,” continued the elder, “let us consign such thoughts to another time and adjourn to the drawing-room.”

Jed-IV vacated his seat before his fork hit the plate and accelerated through the double doors of the dining room. He slalomed into the long central hallway leading to the library, conservatory, and assorted other high-ceilinged rooms the last and most spacious of which had played host to Tartikoff gatherings for three generations.

Ensconced in a leather easy chair, its smooth surface warmed by the flames from a man-high fireplace, Jed-IV waited in strained silence for the rest of the family. They trickled in slowly as if walking to an execution rather than the dispersal of amazing, and quite possibly stupendous artifacts from the most exotic and obscure places on the planet and, for all young Jed knew, beyond.

Ritual demanded that everyone be present before Jed-I took his seat in a raised and curtain-backed alcove at the front of the room, ignited one of the enormous black cigars he allowed himself every season, and cradled an exquisite Chinese vase in his lap. The brightly decorated ceramic would contain precisely two dozen hand-painted marbles, each of which would bear the name of a country, the picture of an animal, or some other reference. The elder Tartikoff would extract the marbles one at a time and summon a beneficiary to a brief conference during which something about the gift was revealed. Marble in hand, the recipient would then be given leave to figure out the nature of the object.  Those who solved the riddle would be told where to find the gift. An unspoken rule insured that everyone solved their own puzzle. Any cheating, if Jed senior twigged to it, would be remembered the following year with dire consequences.

The children welcomed the challenge of the riddles. Jed-IV recalled the previous year when his marble was decorated with the images of ostrich feathers and a leopard pelt, and Jed-I told him the object was a tool more important to its owner than a knife, fork, and spoon. Much to his mother’s dismay, the youngster guessed correctly and collected a genuine, hand-crafted Watusi hunting spear.  Little Jed immediately began a dance around the crowded room during which he brandished the weapon. The ebony shaft and leaf-shaped blade elicited frightened screams from his female cousins and stern warnings from the adults. Somehow, everyone survived. Jed’s mother had the spear mounted, semi-permanently, on the wall of his bedroom. Jed had visions of claiming an elephant gun or a rhinoceros this year.

The adults were far less enchanted with the riddles. In years past, many had gone home with nothing more than the marble and a vague reference to an uncollected gift to show for their trouble.  Nor did success at solving the riddle ensure the recipient of something rare, although a few of the gifts were astonishingly valuable, like the 3-carat, pear-shaped diamond the elder Jed’s daughter-in-law received the previous year, or the Land Rover Jed-III drove home the year before that. In years past, one of the Johnsons took home a Polynesian fertility charm, and now there were five Johnsons in all.

The Mahoneys, by contrast, took home a myna bird with both perfect pitch and, much to Mr. Mahoney’s surprise, an astonishingly accurate memory and playback capability. The divorce was finalized by the following Thanksgiving, and the court granted custody of the two younger Mahoneys to Jed-IV’s aunt.

One by one, Jedidiah senior called out names and conferred with family members. One by one they turned away, some smiling and some clearly puzzled, but none of them held any marbles. Instead, each came away with a small white package bound by a satiny ribbon. Finally, Jed the eldest summoned Jed the youngest, and the latter scrambled toward the patriarch as quickly as he could.

Having anticipated the gusto with which his youngest namesake would undoubtedly approach, Jed-I intercepted him with an outstretched cushion, softening the blow and folding the boy into his lap in one swift, neat maneuver.

“You called me last!” the boy chided as he looked into the watery eyes of the old man. He had an odd sort of sour smell, too, not that it mattered. Jed-IV often bore odd smells of his own. “Why’d ya make me wait, Gramp?”

Jed-I smiled. “As trite as it sounds, I like to save the best for last.”

The boy held out his hands. “I’m ready for my marble. I’m ready to guess my present. Is it a gun? A big gun?”

Jed shook his head ever so slightly.

The boy grinned, his eyes growing wide with anticipation. He turned to block the view of anyone else in the room who might be tempted to share his moment of triumph and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Is it a rhino?”

“Good God, no! Can you imagine me trying to gift wrap a rhino?” Jed senior splayed his hands upwards in a show of theatrical frustration, then grabbed the boy around the middle and tickled him. “You can’t imagine how squirmy they are. Almost as bad as you!”

Jed-IV giggled and kicked and did some serious squirming, just as he imaged a young rhino might if he ever got his hands on one. Unfortunately, the tickling stopped all too soon, and the old man just smiled at him.

“Don’t I get a marble?” the boy asked. “How can I guess if I don’t even get a clue?”

“I’m doing things a little differently this year,” Jed-I said. The boy noticed a slight rasp in the old man’s voice, and his words didn’t seem as distinct as they had in the past. He reached into a shopping bag beside his armchair and withdrew a small white box which he placed carefully in the boy’s hands. “I’m giving everybody one of these instead. Don’t open it ’til you get home. I’ve asked everyone to wait.”

Jed-IV stared up into the rheumy eyes of his great-grandfather. “What is it?”

Old Jed smiled and said, “It’s my gift. I give you the world.”

~*~

The drive home was excruciating. Jed-IV kept the little white package in his lap but couldn’t resist the temptation to shake it. Other than a slight sloshing sound, it made no noise. Nor did it weigh very much, certainly nowhere near enough to contain even a small continent, let alone the whole world.

Jed’s parents had similar packages, both of which sat undisturbed in his mother’s lap for the entire journey. When the nearly endless 30-minute drive finally came to a conclusion, the boy tore the ribbon off his box.

“Stop!” his father said. “Wait until we get inside.”

Jed-IV raced to the front porch of their modest home and danced from foot to foot as his parents eased slowly toward the house. The boy’s mother had just recently celebrated her 35th birthday, and he prayed he wouldn’t be so feeble when he reached her age. There was hope, after all, Gramp was much older than his mom, and until this year he’d never been so poky. “C’mon!” the boy yelled as his father negotiated the door lock.

At long last Jed tumbled through the opening. The red satin ribbon and a layer of white tissue paper floated in his wake as he slid across the floor and came to a stop with his back against the foyer wall and Gramp’s gift in his hands.

He stared down at it as a wave of disappointment washed over him. His parents ignored him as they put their coats in the hall closet. He heard them muttering, but the sounds didn’t register as anything save more noise to mingle with the static in his brain.

“What is it, dear?” his mother asked.

Jed-IV held the object up for their inspection.

Jed-III squinted. “Ah. It’s one of those snow scene things. Shake it, and you’ll see little white snowflakes swirl around inside.”

The boy did as instructed and little white snowflakes did indeed swirl around inside. They orbited a small green and blue ball that might have represented the Earth if it had been painted with any precision.

“How nice,” said his mother, skepticism heavy in her tone. She held an identical snowy globe in her hand.

Jed-III sighed as he unwrapped his own and set it on a table. “I’m afraid this doesn’t bode well for the Tartikoff fortune. I’ll bet the old pirate squandered it all.”

“Who’s an old pirate?” the boy asked.

“Never mind,” said his mother. “It’s past your bedtime.”

“But Mom, wait! Maybe we’re missing something. Maybe these things are a riddle just like the marbles Gramp used to give.”

“He used to give clues with the marbles,” Jed-III observed. “He didn’t say anything like that to me this year.”

“He told me the future was in front of all of us,” Jed’s mother added. “How’s that for an original concept?”

Jed’s father nodded. “He said that to me, too, but I blew it off. I mean, really. How lame is that?”  They looked at their son. “Did he say anything to you?”

The boy shook his head and held up the snow globe. “He said something about giving me the world. I didn’t think he meant something stupid like this.” He put it on the table next to his father’s. “There’s gotta be something more to it. Couldn’t we at least call him and ask?”

His father shrugged, picked up the phone and dialed. He held the receiver to his ear and waited, but there was no answer. He hung up. “Maybe he went to bed. He wasn’t looking terribly well. I’ll call again in the morning.”

The next day they learned that Jedidiah Ashworth Tartikoff, Senior, had left for Sri Lanka the night before. Three months later, he died.

~*~

The Tartikoffs, Johnsons, and Mahoneys celebrated Christmas on December 25th the following year. Rather than grouse, giggle or genuflect over baubles from the family patriarch, especially since there no longer was one, the surviving adults spent their time arguing about the disposition of the estate. Not that their wishes had much bearing on the issue as Jed senior had seen fit to obtain the services of a phalanx of lawyers who advised family members not to plan any precipitous job changes or early retirements as the estate would be tied up in legal knots on a Gordian scale for the foreseeable future.

The day ended in a ferocious argument, and the various elements of the clan took off in different directions vowing to establish their own family traditions for all the Christmases to come.

Thus passed the next eleven years. Jed-IV saw nothing of his relations except for one of the un-adventuresome female cousins who accepted a blind date with one of his university chums. The relationship failed to flower, however, and Jed never did find an opportunity to chat with her. However, the incident did cause him to think once again of Christmases past and the mystery of the snow globes.

He had kept all three of them on a shelf in his room where they had accumulated a nearly impenetrable coating of dust. He selected one, carried it to the garage, and proceeded to clean it with an old pair of gym shorts and a dose of the industrial-strength soap his parents marketed in hopes of one day restoring the Tartikoff fortune.

While executing a final rinse, the globe squirted out of his hands, bounced off the front edge of the washtub and plunged to the concrete floor where the sealed environment became dramatically unsealed. Snow, water, and planet lay amid scattered bits of broken glass on the oil-stained cement.  Cursing his clumsiness, Jed-IV swept the world his great-grandfather had given him into a 10-gallon Rubbermaid trash can.

By the merest chance, Jed happened to notice the end of a tiny roll of paper protruding from the base of the malformed planet where it had once rested on its pristine plastic base. Skillfully dodging the glass fragments surrounding it, Jed rescued the world, removed the paper, and read the cryptic words written on it by an obviously unsteady hand:

Stop! Say nothing, but drop everything. Take this note to the Atlanta offices of Badenheim, Borgeron, Bartlesby, and Smith and identify yourself as the heir to Jedidiah Ashworth Tartikoff. I promised you the world, and assuming BBB&S hasn’t abused my trust, you shall have it.

Congratulations, & Merry Christmas!

–JAT

Jed stared down at the odd note trembling in his hand, trying to decide if he should summon his parents or simply follow the instructions which had lain dormant for so many years. He decided he owed it to Gramp to follow his wishes. He did, however, borrow his father’s car and made the trip to the tony lair of Badenheim, et al, in record time.

After a short delay, the receptionist ushered him into the oak and leather sanctuary of Leonard Bartlesby, the last surviving member of the original partners. The aging barrister gestured to a seat as Jed-IV entered the spacious office.

“I had all but given up hope that anyone would come forward,” Bartlesby said, his southern accent tinged with an undertone from somewhere in the northeast.

“It’s true, then?” Jed asked. “Gramp left me a gift after all?”

“Oh, absolutely.” The two men looked up as a very efficient looking woman in a sternly cut gray suit entered the room and deposited a box on the lawyer’s desk. She left without a word or a glance at either of them.

“Scary woman, that one,” Bartlesby said, then removed several sealed envelopes, examining the names until he found the right one. “Here it is,” he said. “J. A. Tartikoff, the fourth. That’s you, isn’t it?”

Jed nodded vigorously, and the attorney passed him the envelope. While Jed examined its contents, Bartlesby fed the rest of the envelopes into a shredder.

“What are you doing?” Jed cried.

“Following instructions,” the attorney said. “Your great-grandfather insisted that there be but one heir to his estate. You’re it. And, if you’ll forgive me a moment of crass commercialism, may I point out that even if we hadn’t managed to triple the size of his estate while it was in our care, you would still be one of the richest men in the country.”

Jed’s heart crashed repeatedly into his ribs. “I don’t know what to say.”

Bartlesby laughed. “You’re not required to say anything. We’ll need your signature on a few documents. After that, it’ll take us a few more days to see that the proper papers are filed with the courts. There are a couple lawsuits pending, but now that you’re here I feel sure they’ll be dismissed. We’re authorized to disburse the estate to you in twenty annual payments — or transfers of equivalent securities. Your only obligations are listed in the document you have in your hand.”

The smile on Jed’s face had grown so wide that it had nearly become painful. He tried to tone it down, working his jaws to loosen them as he read. When he finished he glanced at the attorney. “I really have to do this?”

“Oh, dear.” Bartlesby looked down at the shredder and frowned. “I hope you aren’t going to tell me you can’t agree to the terms.”

Jed shook his head. “No. I mean, yes! I agree. It’s just– Well, except for my parents, I haven’t spoken to anyone in my family in years. Now I’m supposed to pull them all together every Christmas?”

“Correct. And you’ll provide for the transportation of any who live out of town. Further, you will spend a portion of every year outside the country locating suitable gifts for every one of them and any others born since the death of Jedidiah senior.” Bartlesby gave Jed a severe and lawyerly stare. “Naturally, we will monitor such events, though at a respectful distance. Should you fail in your duties, further payments will cease and the balance of the estate will be turned over to charity.”

“But–”

“The arrangement is iron-clad, Mr. Tartikoff.” The attorney preened. “Badenheim, Borgeron, Bartlesby, and Smith is the best law firm in the business. We’ll do whatever it takes to see that these terms are carried out. Is that understood?”

“Absolutely,” Jed said. “I understand completely. There’s no problem.” He got up to leave and made it as far as the massive oak office door.

“Oh, wait!” Bartlesby exclaimed, “there is one more thing.” He rummaged around in a lower drawer of his huge desk. “Your great-grandfather mailed this to us a few weeks before he passed away. He asked us to give it to you in the event you showed up here.” The aging barrister surrendered a lumpy envelope. Written on the outside in a now-familiar scrawl were the words:

Jed, sorry this is so late.

He tore off the end and shook the contents into his hand: a miniature hunting rifle and a tiny porcelain rhinoceros.

~End~

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Christmas Cheer–Part 3

“To the world, you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world.” ~Brandi Snyder

The gate agent wears a Santa Claus hat, but offers neither a smile nor a “Ho ho ho,” as the old man approaches him at his station. A wide counter bedecked with metallic green garland separates them, and the agent avoids eye contact as he makes one computer entry after another. He pauses only to look over his shoulder at the electronic display looming above and behind him. Though only the two men stand at the counter, the younger one is too busy to chat.

The old man watches as the sign showing the arrival time of flight 373 is replaced by a one-word pronouncement:

Delayed.

And instantly the old man ceases to be alone.

“When will…” His voice fades, swamped by a dozen others, all younger. All louder. The agent steps out from behind his protective wall and moves toward the concourse. Though slowed and surrounded by questioners, he still moves too fast for the old man to follow.

He watches the mob slowly dissipate as the agent seeks respite from the public, a comet trailing disappointment.

The rest of the crowd remains, camped in purgatory. Carry-on luggage and soon-to-be-exchanged gifts litter the walkway between crowded rows of seats. The old man shuffles by them, lost in thought. Though among them, he is not of them; he is a trespasser, not a traveler.

Thirty minutes pass.

He glances at the glowing red digits on the wall clock, then at his watch, then back at the clock.

“May I help you?” asks a cop, summoned by a concerned passenger.

The old man shakes his head. “I told her I would be here,” he says as if that explained it all. “I have to be here.”

“You’re meeting a flight?”

He nods, yes.

“Do you have a Gate Pass? Otherwise, you can’t be here unless you’re a passenger.”

He digs out the paper they gave him when he arrived.

The cop examines it and hands it back. “Ah. I see. You’re okay, then.”

The old man shrugs. Worry is not “Okay.”

“You’re sure you’re all right?”

The old man shakes his head and moves to the periphery.

Christmas music plays in the background, though largely obscured by the sounds of a busy airport–announcements, voices, the incessant beep of a golf cart used to shuttle VIPs from one gate to another. Through the windows he sees the tropical foliage of Florida beyond the runway and then is distracted by a child singing along as “Jingle Bells” pours from hidden speakers. The child knows most of the words but few of the notes.

People in the main corridor scurry by, searching for other gates and other flights. They are the world: a menagerie cloaked in noise and anonymity.

The old man ignores them as they ignore him. They look away as if they don’t see the skinny legs protruding from his running shoes or the sweat sock slipping down around one ankle. The image of the old man, his belly pushing against the waistband of his rolled-up walking shorts, is easy to catalog, easy to forget. Aged. Weak. Frail.

The neck of his T-shirt is stretched and reveals a tuft of thin curls on his chest, the same wet-newsprint grey as the few strands on his head. Centered on the shirt is a printed color photo of himself with his arm around a smiling, dark-haired woman. His face bears fewer wrinkles. A caption beneath the photo proclaims:

“I’ve got everything!”

He moves on, traversing old ground.

Cautious footsteps carry him through the overheated air by a huge window and deliver him into cooler shadows where his image is reflected on the glass. His strongest feature, a fiercely patrician nose, angles down steeply above an unlit cigar. Trailing behind is the faint odor of tobacco–unsmoked–he’s been told he cannot smoke. His rheumy eyes drift neither left nor right but stay locked on the carpet as if his stare alone will part the masses all around him.

It doesn’t work. Instead, he must maneuver between them and does so in silence.

An hour passes.

A heavy man in a flowered shirt stands in the middle of the aisle talking to a woman of similar size wearing a dress with the same floral pattern. “They never tell ‘ya nuthin’,” he says, and the old man turns away.

A child lands at his feet, dumps a mound of building blocks on the carpet, and begins to play. The old man turns again.

The flower-shirted passenger is still talking to his female counterpart. “Remember the crash they had a couple years back? Horrible. Terrible tragedy. And they never said a word about it. Sure, it was on the news, but nobody at the airport found out ’til later.” Shaking his head, the big man shifts his bags from seat to floor, then drops into the vacated space.

With his hands clenched and jaws set, the old man moves on.

Another hour passes.

“The Midwest? I’d never fly out of there,” says a woman whose jewelry and nail polish match the trim on her velour jogging suit. She talks into her cell phone, but her voice seems so loud she doesn’t need it. “Storms are so bad, they knock planes right out of the sky.”

“They should have extra planes standing by,” mutters a mother of three little ones in need of naps. The old man could use a nap, too, but that’s not possible–not yet, not until she’s safe. He drifts on through the restless crowd.

The gate agent returns and approaches him as if they know each other. “Maybe you ought to go home. It’s getting late and there’s nothing–” A phone at the desk rings. The agent answers it and holds up a hand. The old man walks away.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the agent announces over a loudspeaker, “flight 373 has just been cleared to land. We’ll have the aircraft ready for boarding as soon as possible.”

Against a background of scattered whistles and cheers, the old man raises his head. The cigar disappears. His hands, no longer clenched motionless behind him, come forth. Like the rest of him, they become animated, suddenly alive.

The crowd pushes past him and presses toward the door. Ropes on either side of it define a canyon of bodies risen on cue. The portal is lost to him. He can’t see it; he’s too far back, but he knows where it is. After another eternity, the door swings open and bodies spill out, singly at first, then more and faster until they pour through–in plaids and hats, with garment bags, stuffed bears, holiday packages, briefcases, skinned knees, and shopping bags.

The flow seems relentless, an inexhaustible supply in never-ending variety. He waits for it to end, knowing it must, knowing he has no choice, and knowing she will be the last in line. Wheelchairs always come last.

Finally, the numbers dwindle until the door stands empty; the passageway is vacant, and the ropes become tracks across a prairie. He waits, resisting crazy, stupid, scary thoughts of flights denied and missed connections, until he sees a flight attendant pushing her chair. She, too, is anxious, though her fear passes when she sees him. Her name on his lips becomes a grin as he moves toward her, his step more sure, his stride no longer humble. Reaching her, he leans down and swaddles her in his arms.

A tiny liquid jewel sparkles from the corner of her eye.

The embrace lasts a long time, but eventually, he must stand.

She smiles. Her hair matches his now, and a wisp of it has come loose. She tucks it behind her ear and pats his hand as he steps behind the chair and nods goodbye to the flight attendant.

They are on their way home–together again–in time for the holidays. She leans her head back and to the side as if trying to get closer to his hand. He squares his shoulders and draws in his stomach. Now it’s much easier to read the caption on his shirt.

~End~

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Christmas Cheer–Part Two

“I don’t believe in mathematics.” ~Albert Einstein

The intensity of the cold surprised Toby as much as his sudden and painful arrival–face down in a layer of feathery snow too thin to cushion him from the hard-pack beneath it. He came up sputtering and brushing frantically at the frozen powder sticking to his nose and cheeks. His glasses dangled precariously from one ear having sustained substantial damage to the wad of tape which held ear and eye-pieces together. Toby stuffed them in his pocket and rubbed his face to restore some warmth. It worked but sent a trickle of frigid runoff down the inside of his collar.

Suddenly motionless, he ground his teeth and waited quietly for the shiver to subside. The silence was his only friend, at least until he got things sorted out.

He had no idea the Translation Effect would leave him so wobbly. He’d heard his father talk about it, but he never paid much attention. His dad talked a lot, usually about stuff Toby didn’t understand.

Clutching himself for warmth, he turned in a circle and squinted at the dark wasteland.

The sky was less forbidding. Vast waves of colored light floated in a sea of brilliant stars. Neither moon nor horizon offered any clues about where he’d landed. Not that he needed them. He knew. Who could’ve imagined his dad’s stupid machine would work with neither longitude nor latitude settings? On a whim, he’d typed in a destination never once actually believing it might work.

Man oh man, was it cold!

He slapped his arms and pumped his chubby legs up and down as a thin ribbon of snot edged over his lip. He rubbed his nose and sniffed, undaunted by the salty taste.

It never should’ve worked. The whole idea was crazy! He couldn’t wait to get back home. Luckily, the same gizmo housed both the LAUNCH and RETURN buttons. It looked about as complicated as a TV remote control, and he’d been holding it when he left the comfort of his dad’s lab.

Now, his hands were empty.

Abandoning silence, he dropped to his knees and blubbered a mixture of prayer and curse, accusation and denial. Again and again, he plowed through the frozen dust, scoring his knuckles on the icepack until at last his numb digits bumped something solid. He pounced and brought the gadget into the dim light of the stars, weeping like a first grader and not caring in the least.

“Yes! Yes!” he cried, his voice dissipating in the gloom. Hastily brushing snow from the control, he stabbed the RETURN button with a dead thumb.

Nothing. Not even a click.

He pushed it again.

Still nothing.

“Dad!” he screamed, “how could you do this to me?”

Maybe it’s frozen, he thought. Maybe if I stuff it inside my sweater I can warm it up enough to work. Into the garment it went. He put his hands over the hard cold lump, pressed it to his chest, and waited.

One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three….

He counted off several minutes, though he cheated on the last few. Unable to wait longer, he retrieved the device and pressed RETURN with both thumbs.

Still nothing.

His tears stiffened on his cheeks as he stared down at the useless gadget blinking at him in the dark.

Blinking?

He stared again. A tiny screen centered near the top of the device displayed a row of ever-changing, ever-decreasing numbers. A timer — there was hope after all. Provided he could survive another 47 minutes.

In sub-zero weather.

Without a jacket.

Or mittens.

Or….

He wondered if anyone would find his body. Not that it would rot or anything. Frozen woolly mammoths popped up in Siberia all the time, and who knew how long ago they died.

All alone.

Just like Toby.

“Think!” he yelled. That’s what his dad would do. He’d think his way out.

Start at the beginning. What had he done? Why had he come here? Then he remembered.

He’d come to prove a point. To himself mostly. Most other kids just took it on faith. That’s why he hadn’t asked any of them to come with him.  Besides, they would only have laughed at him. Like they always did. No, he had to prove it alone, and how else could he do that without actually making the trip? He remembered giggling as he typed in the destination, as if he were filling in for the kids who weren’t there. Somebody had to laugh at the geeky kid — it was a rule of the kid cosmos.

Once again he scanned the bare white plains all around, praying for a light, a sign, or tracks in the snow. He knew the cartoons had it wrong. There’d be no cutesy candy cane signposts or gingerbread decorations on the building, assuming there even was a building. He knew about magic, too. He’d read everything the library had about it–not tricks and stuff, sleight of hand–but real magic. Unfortunately, the only thing the books seemed to agree on was that names had power. Just mispronouncing the name of something magic could mess it all up. He wouldn’t make that mistake. No way.

Lord, it’s cold!

Teeth chattering, Toby walked in a circle, tramping down the snow. The powder squeaked under his loafers and trickled in around his socks where it made him even more miserable.

He thought about rolling big snowballs and stacking them to make a fort, or at least a wall, something to block the wind. Except, there really wasn’t any wind. The cold came from everywhere–up, down, sideways. He shivered for the gazillionth time, and when he finally stopped, he saw it.

A glow.

Not too bright, but not too far away, either. Difficult to tell without his glasses. He took them out of his pocket, but they were too fogged up to see through.

Could the glow be real, or was it some kind of arctic mirage? He remembered seeing cartoons where some poor shlub tried to swim across a mirage only to drown in sand. Would he fall victim to a snowy alternative? Who cared! At least it gave him a goal, something to do besides walk in a stupid circle until his feet froze.

He headed for the maybe-light. Maybe it was, maybe not.

Plodding through the snow, he pretended not to feel the cold seep into his shoes. A superhero, that’s what he needed to be. For a little while, anyway. And if not super, then maybe just special. Maybe he could be like Rocky Balboa training to fight the giant Russian, avenge his dead pal, and strike a blow for the American Way. He always liked those movies. Toby could be tough, too, if he had to be. He wasn’t just a near-sighted ball of blubber. He could be hard.

He could also be dead pretty soon.

The glow grew. He hadn’t made it up after all. A double row of blue lights stretched away from a cluster of odd-shaped buildings. The largest one looked like a giant tin can buried halfway up its sides in the snow. Of course, he had no way of knowing how deep the snow might be. It could be a skyscraper for all he knew. Maybe only the top floors were exposed!

Whatever. It had windows. And lights. Warm, cheery lights.

Toby trudged faster, churning through the powder with renewed strength. Maybe it was true after all–maybe this was the place! He hadn’t seen any reindeer, but he’d seen rows of blue lights before–at the airfield outside of town. Oh, yeah.

Whoever lived here knew how to fly. Ab-so-lutely!

His original plan, though ill-defined, had been to debunk the myth. And if it turned out to be true–the condition he’d not so secretly hoped for–then he had yet another job. He had to find The List. Once he had his hands on that he could… But, no. That would all come in good time.

He glanced down at the little screen on the TV thingy and noted that he had another 31 minutes to go before he was automatically recalled.

Toby tried to wiggle his toes, but he couldn’t tell if he’d succeeded. He desperately wanted to get inside the building, peel off his shoes and socks and rub his feet in front of a fire. With his face and his fingers burning in the frigid air, he stumbled on.

The building had no doors on the side facing him, so he went to a window. The snow had drifted up to the metal sill, and he had to crouch down to look inside. It didn’t look like any workshop he’d ever seen. In fact, except for a single string of Christmas lights over a chalkboard, it looked a lot like where his dad worked. Books and papers were piled everywhere. A half dozen maps hung from bulletin boards around the walls. Bookshelves bulged under manuals, computer gear, and other mysterious paraphernalia. That’s probably where he’d find The List. He glanced briefly at the cartons, boxes, and cans stacked against the curved exterior walls and at the bunk beds shoved against a flat central partition.

He saw everything but people, large or small.

This close to the big day, they were probably working. Underground! That made sense. That’s how he’d do it if he were in charge. He tried to open the window, but it wouldn’t budge.

Rising slowly, like Scrooge’s last ghost, Toby staggered on in search of the door. The knowledge that he might actually survive propelled him along the circumference of the tubular building. Without corners to mark his progress, he couldn’t tell how far around he’d come. But then he reached it–the entrance to the Great Man’s home, the lair of The List, the portal of life.

Weeping with joy, Toby searched for a door handle.

There wasn’t one.

Groaning, he dropped the remote control device with the blinking screen and the balky RETURN button and pounded on the door with both hands. Surely someone would hear him if only he beat on the door hard enough. When no one came, he added his voice to the commotion, screaming and crying for someone, anyone, to let him in.

But no one did.

Defeated, Toby sank to his knees and leaned against the unyielding door. Maybe the occupants were busy preparing for the Great One’s annual trip. Maybe they were celebrating in some subterranean factory. Maybe they were just sleeping and couldn’t hear him. It made no difference. They’d find him in the morning when they went to load the sleigh, or the jet, or whatever the Great Man used for his deliveries. Toby’s name would either be on The List or not, but Toby would be long past caring.

So close, he thought, shaking his head. The little lighted screen kept blinking, the timer down to 24 minutes.

Too bad I won’t make it.

In a last gesture of futility, Toby made a fist and backhanded the wall beside the door. Instantly, a light went on overhead, and the door swung open.

Astonished, Toby rolled backward into a small empty room lighted by a single bare bulb in the ceiling. Regaining his wits, he turned himself around and stuck his head back outside where he saw the kick switch he must have hit with his hand. Of course! Anyone loaded down with stuff couldn’t turn a knob, and anyone else would want to keep their hands in their pockets. The old guy was clever–maybe even as clever as Toby’s dad.

By the time he got back on his feet, the outside door had closed, and warm air leaked into the cramped chamber. After stamping the snow from his feet and brushing it from his clothes, Toby faced a pair of inner doors which gave easily when he pushed against them.

He peeked through the gap in the doors at the room beyond. Warm air coursed through the opening and compelled him to enter. So he did.

Delicious heat from the room’s central furnace washed over him. He approached it with reverence, arms and hands extended, head bowed. A nearby chair beckoned. He lowered himself into it, toed the loafers from his numb feet and groaned in grateful pleasure as he massaged his frigid digits. Heat had never–ever–felt so grand. He basked in it like a love-starved puppy in the hands of a puppy-starved boy. It made him sleepy, and Lord knew he deserved a rest. He closed his eyes for just a moment.

When the tingle in his toes subsided, Toby sat up and surveyed his surroundings, albeit in soft focus. He fumbled the glasses from his pocket, squeezed the slack from the tape wad on the hinge and propped them in place on his nose. The room came instantly into detail, though it remained as messy as it looked when seen through the window.

He smirked. Tidiness was obviously no requirement for inclusion on The List’s “good” side. Score one for kids everywhere!

All he had to do now was find it and read it. That shouldn’t take long, especially since he only intended to look for his own name. He wouldn’t think of trying to change anything.

Unless forced.

He checked the screen on the RETURN gizmo and all but panicked as the timer erased the last second over three minutes. Had he wasted time sleeping? How stupid! He gasped at the sound of distant aircraft engines.

Where was The List? He searched beside a desktop computer, its screen-saver alive with images of sunlit sandy beaches. On a low bookcase struggling to hug the inward curving wall he found a box full of wool mittens and socks, and a tin of candies. The word “lagniappe” was scrawled on the lid. Never crazy about oriental food, Toby left them alone. Besides, how could he think of food now? He paused, thinking. Hey, chocolate was chocolate. What could it hurt? He popped one in his mouth and chewed.

The liquid center burst and flooded his teeth and gums with something cold and harsh and alcoholic. The fumes cleared his nose, but whatever it was scorched his throat when he swallowed. He exhaled as if someone had punched him. He thought of Rocky Balboa again and suddenly felt sorry for the big Russian Rocky had pummeled in Moscow or Leningrad or wherever it was. Toby screwed up his face at the aftertaste and shivered. Still, he liked the way the stuff warmed his chest and belly. Maybe one more would–No!

He had to find The List.

Outside, the aircraft engine noise grew to a crescendo, and the plane’s colored lights blipped through the windows in tiny bursts of red and green. Naturally.

The last minute disappeared from the timer. 59 seconds remained.

58.

57.

Where was The List?

And where were his shoes? Man, if he left those behind, and the Great One realized he had broken in… Toby shut the thought from his mind, raced back to the heater, and jammed his feet into the warm but still damp leather loafers.

And there–right beneath the chair he’d sat on earlier–lay the biggest, fattest computer printout he’d ever seen. Bound in a thick paper cover the color of pea soup, The List occupied the most logical spot in the building. Of course it would be here, right by the heater, so the Great Man himself could stay warm while he poured over it night after night.

Toby grabbed it with both hands and dragged it out as the timer in his pocket started beeping. Five seconds left. Surely the names would be listed alphabetically. His hands trembled as he opened the cover. No, that wouldn’t work. They’d be done geographically. Or maybe… whatever. He’d just have to–

The Translation Effect hit him harder than the booze in the candy, wrenching him off the floor and twisting him to fit through an invisible window in geo-space and null-time, words his dad had muttered endlessly while building his transport engine. The bizarre Effect would have broken every bone in his body had they not all become squishy and soft. He prayed he wouldn’t barf.

He prayed he’d left no traces behind.

He prayed his fingerprints weren’t registered somewhere.

And then he just prayed.

Really, really hard.

As silently as he’d arrived in the snow an hour earlier, Toby appeared face down in the air two feet off the floor of his father’s laboratory where the Effect winked out, and gravity took over.

Toby’s nose and toes hit the floor at the same time. The timer in his hand bounced twice then pin-wheeled across the cement floor. Toby groaned and rolled over on his back, squinting up at the fuzzy, dark-haired figure hovering anxiously over him.

Dad? Why was he so out of focus? And where were his glasses?

“Are you all right?” his father asked.

Toby nodded. “I think so.” His words had a wheezy sound. Then things quickly came back to him–where he’d been, what he’d seen. But most especially: what he’d gotten his hands on.

If only he had something to show for it besides a bloody nose and a mild case of frostbite. Ah, but the next time– Things would be different then! He would prepare: wear warm clothes, bring a camera and some food. It would be great, and best of all, he could prove to the whole world the truth of what he’d discovered: not only did the Great Man exist, Toby could connect with him at will. Next to the Great Man himself, Toby would be the most popular person in the universe!

“Toby! Are you listening to me?”

Toby blinked. “Sure, Dad. ‘Sup?”

“When I realized what you’d done I went out of my mind. For cryin’ out loud, Toby, I haven’t even finished preliminary testing of this thing! Don’t you see? It’s not merely a geographical matter transporter, it’s cross-dimensional. I wasn’t planning to transmit living tissue for years, and I certainly had no intention of sending a human being, let alone my own son. My God… You could’ve been– I don’t even want to think about it.”

Toby coughed as he sat up. His father knelt beside him on the floor and sniffed. “Have you been drinking?”

Toby shook his head and briefly considered recounting his adventure, but without some sort of proof, nobody would ever believe him, including his father. So he mumbled something about a cold place and a makeshift shelter. It didn’t make much sense, but he didn’t care. In the back of his mind, all he could think about was the next trip.

Meanwhile, his father held him tight and gazed in unreserved horror at the equipment crowding his workspace.

Finally, Toby’s father handed him his broken glasses and helped him stand.

“I’m sorry about all this,” Toby said. “I hope I didn’t hurt anything. And if I did, I’d really like to help you fix it.” The more he knew about his Dad’s incredible device, the better. He could become the explorer of the year, maybe even the explorer of the millennium!

“Thanks for the offer, son,” his dad said. “But I won’t tempt fate twice. You go back in the house.” He turned and faced his invention. “I’ll join you later, after I’ve destroyed this thing.”

~End~

 

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Christmas Cheer–Part One

“The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.” ~Delo McKown

“They’re gone,” Mrs. Binderburg said. She set a plate of cookies on the kitchen table and lowered herself into a straight-backed chair. She stared at the cookies for a time, then pulled a wad of tissue from the pocket of her housecoat and blew a goose call into it.

“You’re sure?” Mr. Binderburg asked when she finished.

She looked out the window at the broad stump which was all that remained of the 100-year-old fir tree that once shaded their house. The folks from Rockefeller Center had paid them handsomely for it the day before and then hauled it into the city.

“The cookies went untouched,” she said, “so I’m sure they’re gone.”

Mr. Binderburg bowed his head and wrapped his wrinkled hands around his coffee mug as a tear worked its way down his cheek. “After all these years.” He raised his head, placed his hand gently on top of Mrs. B’s, and smiled.

“Thank God,” he said.

~*~

Tony Paschetti looked down in shock from the scaffolding surrounding the great tree in Rockefeller Center. He gripped the rail and stared at the scene on the ice rink below where a heavy-set man lay flat on his back, his arms and legs moving almost imperceptibly. Tony hadn’t seen the ornament fall, but he’d heard the commotion from below and feared the worst. The injured man lay like a target on the ice, surrounded by an inner ring of shattered ornament and an outer ring of curious on-lookers.

Moments later Abe Joli, the job foreman, arrived at his side. “Geez, Tony, how’d that happen? Don’t tell me you ain’t usin’ the locks on the bulb hangers.”

“‘Course I am,” Tony said, “ya think I’m nuts? I’m not out to kill anybody.” He looked up at the scaffolding and the brightly colored canvas which covered the huge tree while it was being decorated. “Somebody had to throw it off,” he said. “There’s no way a falling ornament could’ve slipped through that canvas.”

The two workers watched as a trio of emergency medical technicians burrowed through the crowd to reach the downed man.

Abe shoved his hands in the pockets of his work pants. “It don’t look so good for you, Tony. I mean, what’re the cops gonna think? You’re the only one working on this side of the tree.” He shook his head. “I hope for your sake you don’t know that poor slob down there on the ice.”

~*~

Detective Sergeant Mona Deevers pulled the collar of her coat close around her neck and looked down at the deserted ice rink from the plaza end of the Center. The decorations were magnificent, as usual. The bright colors of the many huge fiberglass toy soldiers all around added to the festive look of the massed state flags at the other end. Rockefeller Center had everything, except people.

“It’ll be Christmas in a few days. This place oughta be jammed.” She shivered. “It looks about as happy as a funeral parlor.”

Her companion, a uniformed officer named Bailey who had been on hand during two of the last four tree-related accidents, nodded. “Yeah, that fits–only the joint’s a graveyard. If ya ask me, I’d say that tree is haunted.”

Deevers laughed. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

He shrugged. “We’ve had guys stationed all around that tree since the second accident. There’s no way anyone could’ve got past ’em, climbed up the tree, and tossed those ornaments. But, they did. They hit the Zamboni machine twice before the driver refused to bring it out anymore.”

“I’ll bet it’s the wind,” Deevers said. “It’s gotta be. I’ll bet there’s a new building or something that’s caused the wind to behave differently.”

“I talked to one of the guys who decorates the tree every year,” Bailey said. “According to him, there’s no way an ornament could come loose on its own. They’re actually locked on the branches.”

Deevers turned to look at the officer and noted a change in the shadows behind her. “Look out!” she screamed as one of the gigantic toy soldiers toppled over and landed within inches of them. Deevers looked up from her hands and knees at the deserted sidewalks all around. Even the Metropolitan Art Museum shop had closed early for lack of customers.

“Did you see anyone?” she asked.

Bailey shook his head. “I told you the place was haunted. Now do you believe me?”

~*~

Mrs. Binderburg poured her husband his second cup of coffee and helped herself to another sticky bun–just one of the many culinary wonders she regularly produced. And she had the ribbons from the county fair to prove it.

Mr. B. set the newspaper down on the table and uttered a deep sigh. “They’re in the city ya’ know.”

She nodded. “I figured as much.”

He sipped his coffee. “We really oughta do something.”

“Why? We had ’em for years. It’s time somebody else took the responsibility.”

“But nobody else understands them like we do.”

Mrs. B. gently wiped her mouth on her napkin. Sometimes the caramel from the buns would stick to the little hairs on her upper lip. She hadn’t yet figured out how to remedy that. “I never claimed to understand them.”

“Well, no, me neither, but we’ve dealt with ’em longer than anybody else. That should count for something.”

“It counts for us being rid of them,” she said emphatically. “We’ve earned our holiday. Let the city folk earn theirs.”

~*~

“Who died?” asked Deevers as she stepped from her unmarked car and approached the uniformed officer who had called in the report of vandalism.

“Very funny,” he said. “I was standing right here when it happened. One by one, each flag dropped halfway down the pole and stopped.”

“Then you must’ve seen who did it.”

Bailey shoved his hands in the pockets of his blue greatcoat. “I didn’t see a soul. Folks come by all the time, but they don’t stay. It’s too dangerous.”

Deevers looked around at all the downed toy soldiers and crushed Christmas tree ornaments. Yellow police investigation tape mingled with streamers, garlands and holiday ribbons. Though colorful, the effect was anything but cheery.

“Well, they’re taking the tree down in a couple days, and that should be the end of it.”

Bailey looked at her and shrugged. “I hope you’re right, but I’ve got a funny feeling you’re not.”

“Intuition, Bailey?”

He paused to measure his words. “No,” he said, “more like fear.”

~*~

Mr. Binderburg clicked off the television and stormed into the kitchen. “Get yer hat and coat, Millie. We’re goin’ to the city.”

Mrs. B. frowned. “Now? I’ve got a sheet of brownies in the oven.”

Mr. B. unfolded the earflaps on his camouflaged hat and slapped it on his head. “Leave ’em. This is more important. I just heard that a cop at Rocky Center was nearly killed in some bizarre accident. I can’t imagine what those little buggers did, but if that poor guy doesn’t make it, I’ll feel responsible. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want to hear about anyone else gettin’ hurt just so’s I can have a pleasant Christmas. It ain’t right, Millie, and you know it.”

He hurried past her to a cookie jar shaped like a fat, cherubic friar, and dumped its contents into a plastic bag.

Mrs. B. reached for the bag. “You can’t take those! They’re for the Women’s Group at church.”

“Not anymore,” he said. “Now get a move on while I warm up the truck. We’ve gotta stop at the nursery on the way.”

~*~

Deevers met Bailey in the squad room, now dimly lit and otherwise unoccupied. “I read your report,” she said. “But I’ve gotta tell ya, it doesn’t make much sense.” She sat down close to the big patrolman. “The captain asked me to see if I could help you clarify it.”

Bailey crossed his arms and squinted at her. “You think I made it up?”

“No, I–”

“You think maybe I wrapped myself up in all those flags?” He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it open to reveal broad bands of elastic bandage. “Whoever did it fractured three of my ribs.”

Deevers put her hand on Bailey’s shoulder. “I’m trying to understand–really. But if you couldn’t see your assailant, how can you say it was a ghost, or anything else for that matter?”

“I didn’t say ‘ghosts.’ I said ‘spirits.’ There’s a difference.”

“Right.”

“What is it with you, Deevers? You weren’t there. You don’t know what happened. I’ve tried to warn people, but no one listens. Rockefeller Center is haunted! Anyone with half a brain can see that.”

Deevers pushed her chair back and stood up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Bailey scowled.

“The tree’s coming down this afternoon,” she said. “Maybe that’ll make a difference.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Bailey said as he re-buttoned his shirt. He gave her an intense look. “Will the department have people out there while the work goes on?”

She nodded. “The union wouldn’t have it any other way.”

~*~

Deevers watched as an elderly man and woman exited an ancient Ford pickup truck which they’d parked illegally. She couldn’t help but smile as an officer intercepted them before they had waddled a dozen paces. She watched them argue for a few moments, but when they became angry, and the cop had to restrain them, she sauntered over to investigate.

“Easy, officer,” she said, turning so he could see her shield. “What’s the problem?”

“I told them they’d parked in a loading zone, and if they didn’t move their truck, I’d have to have it towed away.”

She turned to the old couple. “He’s right you know.”

The old woman looked at her companion. “See? I told you.”

“Hush, Millie. These folks just don’t understand the situation. Once they do, I’m sure they’ll let us leave the truck right where it is.”

Deevers dismissed the officer and then glanced at the bag of cookies in the old man’s hand. “Is that your lunch, or are you bringing snacks for the workers?”

“Neither. It’s uhm, a little hard to explain.”

“Give it a try Mr….”

“Binderburg,” he said. “Walt Binderburg. This is my wife, Millicent.”

“It’s bait,” the old woman said. She pointed at a mini-grove of fir trees jammed in the back of their truck. “He thinks we can lure them out of the big tree and into the little ones.” She sighed. “Then I guess we’ll have to take ’em home again.”

Deevers conquered the urge to smile. “Take who home again?”

“That’s the hard part,” Walt said. “We’re not exactly sure what they are.”

“What, or who?” Deevers asked.

“We’ve never actually seen ’em,” he said. “They’re only active around Christmas.”

Mrs. Binderburg exhaled impatiently. “Tell her the whole story, Walt, or don’t say anything. She’ll throw us in the loony bin.”

“That isn’t too likely,” Deevers said, smiling. She nodded at the old man. “Go on.”

“We used to make ornaments out of bird seed and suet and hang them from that big tree.” He pointed to the giant, scaffold-shrouded fir towering over the skating rink. “It used to be in our back yard y’know.” He paused. “There’s not much time left. Can we put these cookies out while we’re talking?”

Deevers frowned. “Well–”

“It won’t take long, I promise. What can it hurt?”

Deevers looked back at their truck. Traffic was light. She shrugged. “Sure.”

The old couple split the contents of the bag and took turns setting them out on the pavement as they walked.

“Anyway,” Walt said, “one year we noticed that the ornaments were being eaten mighty fast, even though we never saw any birds. We thought it was squirrels or something at first, but we never saw any of them either. It didn’t make sense. So, the next year, we didn’t put any out.” He shook his head. “That’s when the trouble started.”

Mrs. Binderburg took over the story as he worked his way through the scaffolding.

“He shouldn’t be in there,” Deevers said.

The old woman waved off her objection. “He’s gotta get close enough to get their attention. There’s so much going on right now, it’s important we reach them right away.”

“Why?” Deevers asked. “Christmas is over. The damage has already been done.”

Both of them turned at the sharp growl of a chainsaw. The old woman grew visibly upset.

“They’re just cutting off the limbs,” Deevers said. “Makes the tree easier to transport.”

Mr. Binderburg rejoined them, dusting the knees of his worn coveralls. “That’s it,” he said, “nothing to do now but wait.” He stared at the workers who had cranked two more saws and were busy slicing limbs from the tree. He shook his head.

While Deevers watched, one of the larger limbs rose two feet off the ground and flew toward a workman. She yelled to get his attention, but the racket from the chainsaws drowned her out. The worker went down hard when the limb smashed between his legs and twisted viciously. His chainsaw hurtled into the air, then bounced off the cement sidewalk amid a shower of concrete chips.

“Stay here!” Deevers barked as she hurried toward the downed man. The chainsaw rumbled on the cement a few feet away from him. He seemed unhurt, and she helped him up. Despite her protests of innocence, he continued to look at her as if she were his assailant. Finally she just walked away.

“They’re just askin’ for trouble,” Walt said. “I wouldn’t stir ’em up any more than they already are.”

Deevers looked deep into the old man’s eyes, searching for some sign of insanity, but what she saw was care and concern. When the old man reached for his wife’s hand, Deevers made her decision.

“I’ll be right back,” she said and signaled to the foreman standing under a makeshift plywood shelter. Their argument didn’t last long, but when Deevers offered to cover the cost of an early dinner, the foreman told his crew to take a break. Deevers hurried back to the old couple who sat huddled in their truck with the motor running.

“You were going to tell me about some kind of trouble you had when you quit putting out food for the birds.”

“Right,” said the woman. “It wasn’t bad at first, the doorbell would ring at night, and sometimes the trash cans would be knocked over. We thought it was kids, but when we looked in the snow for tracks we never found any that they might’ve made.”

Deevers raised an eyebrow. “What kind of tracks did you find?”

“Small ones,” Walt said, “about the size of rabbit tracks, but nothing I could identify.”

“We tried to ignore it,” said the woman, “but the trouble only got worse. They broke windows, destroyed lawn furniture, flattened truck tires. It was awful.”

The old man chimed in quickly. “We called the cops, and they left a car by the house all night, but the vandalism went on like before. I stayed up all night a couple times myself–”

“With a camera and a gun!” exclaimed Mrs. Binderburg.

“But I never saw them,” he said, “even when they smeared stuff on the walls or threw snowballs at the squad car.”

“Nothing worked,” said the old woman, “until we started putting food back out on the tree. After that, things got better. From then on, when the Christmas season started, I’d bake something different every day and leave it outside. The only time we had any trouble was when I forgot, or if we took a trip somewhere. By New Year’s Day things usually went back to normal.”

Deevers scratched her head and looked back at the trail of cookies the old couple had left behind. Several disappeared as she watched. She looked in the back of the truck where the last of the goodies had been scattered. One by one, those, too, evaporated.

“Assuming everything you’ve told me is true,” Deevers said, “and these peeved pixies, or whatever they are, were the cause of all the problems we’ve had here, there’s still one thing I don’t understand.” She put her hands on her hips and tilted her head to one side. “Why are you trying to claim them? What’s in it for you?”

The old man looked at his wife for a moment, then back to the detective. “It’s Christmas, right?” He shrugged. “They’re the only family we’ve got.”

~End~

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