Can Science Fiction Be Funny?

Someone long ago told me the reason she didn’t read science fiction was that it took itself too seriously. “You can read that stuff all day and never even smile,” she claimed. I’d read enough Heinlein to know that wasn’t true, but I’d also read a lot of stuff which supported her argument. So I decided to write an SF story that had a little humor. This one comes from my short story collection Dancing Among the Stars available from Amazon right here.

Andi loved the beach. That’s why they went. The undead of winter: skin-shearing wind, rain like small caliber bullets—it didn’t matter. The sound of the surf in all its ferocious brown froth and sharp-edged waves didn’t deter them from a walk on the flat, depopulated expanse of sand and sodden vegetation. She felt the lure of the shells, or what was left of them. Miles and miles of mangled exoskeleton. The charm had no effect on Charlie. But it was the space she occupied and was therefore where he had to be.

“What the hell is that?” he asked, that being a ham-sized piece of greenish white flotsam sticking out of the sand like something clawing its way up from a grave.

“I can’t imagine,” Andi said, delighted by the find. She knelt to free the object from the sand, carefully digging around it like a crime scene investigator or an anthropologist, just like on TV.

When it didn’t come free, she dropped to her knees and dug into the sand with mittened hands, bulldozing the wet, gray grit away from her treasure. “You could help, y’know.”

“I could, but then I wouldn’t be able to watch your backside wiggle.” Charlie was a great admirer of feminine backsides, and Andi’s was unquestionably top-tier. It didn’t get any better than that. But, oh my, can it wiggle, he thought.

“Dig, you horny swine,” she said. “Or else.”

He dug.

They quickly freed the still unidentified object, which Andi rinsed in the frigid surf. “I don’t think it’s a shell.”

The slantwise rain had Charlie squinting and shivering. “Let’s take it inside. The light’s better.”

“What a wuss,” she said as she carefully stowed her prize in a Piggly Wiggly bag. “Okay. Let’s go. I need food.”

He gave silent thanks and linked arms with her for the march back to the beach house, his mind consumed with alternating thoughts of warmth and bourbon. And Andi. Wiggling. The plastic grocery bag clutched in her free hand had already fled his mind.

Lunch was soup. Bean and bacon, accompanied by grilled cheese sandwiches—his specialty. He used mayo, a squirt of chipotle sauce and a slab of cheese somewhat thinner than the average yoga mat, all compressed on thick raisin bread. His motto: screw the soup.

The lunch dishes done, Charlie endeavored to lure Andi into the bedroom where they might investigate the many wiggle-related elements of her anatomy. Sadly, her focus remained on the bony remnant from the beach.

“I’ll bet there’s more of it out there,” she said.

He offered discouragement, but gently. “If so, it’s probably spread across acres and acres of sand. Could be buried deep, too. We’d need shovels. Cranes, maybe. Earth movers. Toddy?”

“Shovels! Great idea. I think I saw a tool shed when we parked the car.” And just like that she launched herself on a mission, out of reach. Fully clothed and motivated. “C’mon! We need to get back out there before someone else finds ’em.”

Evidently she had failed to notice how empty the search area was, then and now. “I’m not too worried,” he said.

“You’re gonna make me do this alone?” she asked, the question punctuated by the sound of her zipper racing chinward.

He held up an empty grocery bag. “Perish the thought. Lemme just grab another layer or two of arctic weather gear and–”

“I’ll get the shovel and meet you on the boardwalk!”

Andi disappeared, though her scent and the exclamation marks with which she spoke lingered. Charlie sniffed appreciatively then zippered up and headed for the wooden walkway that linked their rental unit with the northern reaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

She had already begun a new excavation. Midway between the boardwalk and the water, Andi attacked the beach as if looking for survivors of a mine disaster. Bits of wind-born sand stung Charlie’s eyes before he altered his approach. “Find anything?”

“Yes! It’s another one of those whatsits like we found this morning.”

“Oh, joy.”

“What if they came from the same creature?”

“I don’t find that comforting,” he said. “Especially since we have no idea what the first thing is. If it’s a left-something, and you just found the matching right-something, then we could be faced with a really large something.”

She stopped digging long enough to fix him with one of those are-you-nucking-futs looks that women develop around the onset of puberty.

“How can I help?”

“I’ve got this chunk,” she said. “Why don’t you look for more.” It wasn’t a question.

“All righty.” He paused, searching for a diplomatic way to phrase the next question. “Uhm. How will I know if it’s a piece of the same critter?”

She rested her forearms on the end of the shovel, panting slightly. “Ignore shells. Look for anything that might be a bone.”

“Like a leg?”

“Or a tail, maybe. Or a skull….”

“A skull? Y’mean like a fish head?”

“I mean like a skull. Like the other end of whatever this is.” She stabbed the shovel into the sand and levered a greenish white artifact to the surface. Definitely a mate for artifact number one. She rinsed it in the surf and placed it carefully on the end of the boardwalk.

“There!” she said, pointing a few feet away. “There’s another piece.” She turned away from him and spied still more. “Look! There, too! And there—dig. Dig!

He couldn’t match her zeal, but he refused to quit before she did, no matter what. The pile of parts grew. They called them bones for lack of a better word, but they didn’t resemble any bones he knew of, though his familiarity with skeletal parts faded rapidly once he ventured beyond fish and fowl. Charlie could recognize a Buffalo wing as well as the next guy, but when it came to these things, his imagination was sorely taxed. Andi’s, however, was merely piqued.

The sun, rapidly becoming a smudge on the winter horizon, provided too little light to continue. To his great relief, Andi signaled a halt. “Thank God,” he groaned. “I need a drink. And food. And then maybe some sex. And then sleep. And then–”

“Help me,” she said, oblivious to his needs. “We need to get these inside so I can figure out how they go together.”

“Together?”

“Yeah.” She gave him a look of impatience. “Of course. What’d you think I had in mind?”

“I dunno. You’ve got a shell collection. I just figured–”

“These aren’t shells,” she said. “They’re bones. I’m sure of it.”

“What kinda bones?”

“How should I know?” She stepped carefully through the dunes and climbed up on the boardwalk. “I’m going in to get something to carry these on. I’ll be right back.”

~*~

Haulsmuch, the maintenance overseer, couldn’t remember a time he had ever been so angry. A mere two duty cycles before they were scheduled to rotate home, some germ-brained worker announced the discovery of an eater—an adult eater no less—in one of the on-board hothouses. An eater—on his ship! Worse still, nothing had been done to hide the discovery from the science overseer or the flight crew.

They killed the nasty thing immediately, of course, but they utterly abandoned common sense at that point. No attempt was made to hide the news. The flight crew refused to leave the backwater planet they had been parked on forever, and the science types refused to do any more work until the infected hothouse and all its contents had been spaced. They’d all be living on half rations while new crops grew. Worst of all, the ship would be quarantined for as long as it took to prove the infection had been eradicated. Knowing what sticklers the science and flight crews were, that could take a lifetime. One of his, obviously, not one of theirs.

On the floor in front of him, the offending worker had withdrawn into its carapace. Not a single appendage remained visible, though a steady nervous vibration emanated from it. “Proud of yourself, Crapmuncher?” Haulsmuch asked.

Not surprisingly, the worker was too terrified to respond.

“Next time something like this happens, come get me. Don’t try to think through your options; you don’t have any. Call me. Understood?”

The worker quivered in the affirmative, or close enough to satisfy Haulsmuch. “If this happens again, I’ll feed you to the eater before we kill it.”

The carapace contracted still further, and the maintenance overseer sighed in resignation. “Get the others. Harvest everything. Call me when you’re done.”

~*~

Charlie slept well that night, even without Andi sharing his bed. The dark hours passed quickly. He rose as the sky transitioned from black to gray and found Andi slumped forward on the table with her head resting on her crossed arms. Bones from the beach sprawled in front of her.

Circling the table slowly, Charlie hoped to identify the skeletal creature without waking Andi, but a varied viewing angle made no difference. The thing remained a mystery.

He appreciated Andi’s efforts, however. The bones—if bones they were—seemed to be lined up in an appropriate manner. Though not connected by tissue, the joints made sense in a sort of spidery fashion, there being an abundance of arachnoid knees and elbows. The head bore an impressive set of long and lethally edged teeth. Charlie touched a cutting surface in the upper jaw, convinced that very little pressure would be needed to sever the digit.

Andi stirred. Charlie leaned down and kissed the back of her neck. “You been at this all night?”

“Mmm,” she said.

“Want some breakfast?”

“Mmm.”

“Eggs?”

“Mmm.”

“Sex?”

She opened one eye.

“Coffee it is.” He set about making some. “That’s one hell of an impressive thing you’ve got there, whatever it is.”

“It’s rotting.”

“Really? Does it smell?” He sniffed. “I don’t smell anything. Do you?”

“No,” she said, “but look at the joints. Any places where I tried to fit two pieces together. It’s all crumbly.”

He had noticed a powdery substance near many of the joints, but chalked it up to sand.

“Touch one of the pieces,” she said. “Any one. Doesn’t matter.”

He did, and a fine rain of powdery white particles drifted down. It clearly wasn’t sand. “Maybe we should take a sample somewhere and have it identified.”

“Mmm,” Andi said. “Wake me when the coffee’s ready.”

~*~

Seesfar and Ponderslife stood over the lifeless maintenance overseer. Like the hothouse where they found the remains, there wasn’t much left to examine—some bits of shell, an over-articulated appendage, fluid stains and a disturbingly long piece of something from Haulsmuch’s digestive system. A pair of workers huddled in a twittering ball nearby. Neither appeared injured.

“You there, quit sniveling and stand up.”

One of the workers managed to comply, but it was a less than noble effort.

“Did you see what happened?” Seesfar demanded.

“Eater,” it said, as if the admission would cause it the same untidy end as that suffered by the overseer.

“Obviously,” Seesfar said. “Has it been caught, or is it still running loose?”

The worker collapsed. “Loose,” it said.

“Lovely.”

Ponderslife clicked a mandible in thought. “For the longest time I believed eaters were merely a distraction, legendary creatures meant to entertain the hive on long missions.”

“But you’ve seen one? Alive?”

“No, but I’d love to. Science is–”

“Yes, yes, science is god, and god must be fed; knowledge is food, blah blah blah.”

“Careful, Seesfar. There are those on board who take their religion seriously.”

“When the initial reports came through, I thought we would be safe. If they only found a single adult, then we had no need to fear their offspring. Aren’t they the true terrors?”

“They’re all terrors,” Ponderslife said. “They eat and they excrete. That’s it. They have no brain function—high, low or in between. They’re sole purpose in life is to transform useful material into shit.”

“From plant to fertilizer.”

“From anything organic to fertilizer. Even their mode of procreation is mindless.”

“How sad.”

“How frightening.”

~*~

 “They’re dissolving,” Andi said, her voice flat and as devoid of excitement as it had been overloaded when the bones first appeared. “Look. All of it. It’s turning to dust.”

Charlie ran his finger through the powder on the table. “Looks like cocaine.”

“How would you know what cocaine looks like?”

“From TV. It looks like this, right?” He corralled the powder with a cupped hand. “We need to roll up a hundred dollar bill and sniff it.”

“Great idea! Call me when the hospital discharges you.”

“I’m kidding, okay? Chill. Geez. What else can we do with it?”

“Let’s sweep it in the trash, pack our stuff and go home.”

Charlie tried not to smile. “The weather is supposed to clear; we can afford to stay another day. The beach is still empty.”

Andi looked through a rain-streaked window. “Mmm. This looks like a great day to stay indoors. Maybe take a nap.” She stretched in a languorous and thoroughly unnappy way.

Charlie brightened. “Lemme clean this up. I’ll join you in a jiffy.”

As Andi ambled into the bedroom, Charlie swept the powder from the table into a wastebasket. He used a wet paper towel to clear the residue from the wooden surface and then followed in Andi’s footsteps, tugging at his belt as he went. He never noticed the first faint stirring of activity in the trash.

~*~

  The order to go on quarter rations came as a surprise only to the workers, who reacted with a predictable level of panic to any change in routine. In fact, workers would be lucky to get any food at all. Those who starved could be replaced eventually; they had an abundance of frozen worker larvae. A few were bright enough to recognize the unfairness of it all, but knew better than to complain. There was always the chance that the emergency might end before the food stores did.

Dealing with an eater infestation was new to most of the crew, regardless of status. All surfaces, not just decks or hothouse access ways had to be kept free of moisture. Dead eaters had to be burnt, and their ashes dumped in an acid bath, lest their desiccated tissues escape. Contact with water invariably lead to the rise of eater spawn, tiny organisms with a microscopic share of their parent’s size, but a full helping of their life mission.

The ship would remain sealed throughout the quarantine. Until then it would sit, submerged, in the body of water the natives called the “Gulf of Mexico.”

Ponderslife frowned as he inspected the garbage chute into which Haulsmuch had stuffed the second eater, and where he’d fallen prey to the third. Someday, when the science crews were allowed to communicate with the various sentient species they studied, someone would have to apologize.

~End~

 

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Gods, gods, and more gods….

Here’s another selection from my Mysfits collection. If you like this one, you’ll most likely enjoy all the others, too! You can get a copy–right here–from Amazon. I’m pleased to reprint “Gods.”

 

Avery sat at his kitchen table, trying to ignore the Closet God pacing in front of the oven. He could see him clearly only in mid-turn which made the performance even more distracting.

“You’re not listening,” the Closet God said. “You know I hate that.”

Avery blinked. “Sorry. What were you saying?”

“Never mind. My shift’s up in a couple minutes, and the busybody will be back. She means well, but don’t close your mind to other viewpoints—like mine.”

“Uh, sure.” Avery glanced up at the Calorie Goddess taped to the wall next to the cookie jar. He could never keep their shifts straight. They’d all gotten along fine in the beginning, before Avery brought the cat home. How was he supposed to know they’d get upset about it? They were gods, after all, they could have warned him.

“Well?”

“Well, what?” Avery asked.

The two-dimensional god tapped his two-dimensional toe. “You tuned me out—again. Good luck finding clean shirts this week.”

“Give me a break, will ya?” Avery rubbed his temples. “I’m going to bed.”

“I won’t keep you,” the Closet God said. “Just promise you won’t agree to anything she suggests until you run it past me. Okay?”

“I suppose.”

“Good. Drat—time’s up. Gotta go.” The Closet God waddled out of the kitchen. Avery watched him round the corner to the bedroom.

“Is he finally gone?” the Safety Goddess asked as she slipped out from behind the refrigerator and pulled dust bunnies from the Scotch tape at her shoulders. “I thought the old blowhard would never leave.”

Avery rested his elbows on the table and cradled his face in his palms. “Don’t start, please?”

“If you ask me, I think he’s still upset there’s no yard to putter around in. Most of his tools wouldn’t even fit in that closet. If you really cared, you wouldn’t have moved into an apartment.”

Avery groaned.

The Safety Goddess extracted a wad of tissue from a pocket of her ancient, flowered housecoat, and blew her nose in it. “So, what’s your problem?”

You’re my problem!”

“Me?”

“All of you! I can’t get any work done; I can’t get any rest; I can’t entertain; I can’t even have a pet.”

“Ridiculous,” she said. “Get a fish.”

“I hate fish, that’s why I got a cat.”

“I didn’t have a problem with the cat. You’ll have to take that up with the Closet God.”

“But you were the one who said I had to lock it up at night. I didn’t know cats gave him the hives. He kept trying to bury it with my clothes. No wonder it ran away.”

The Safety Goddess crossed her arms and sighed. “Must we go through this again? You’ll make yourself sick dwelling on it.”

“I’m not dwelling on it. I’m mad about it!”

“Call it what you will.”

“Jail! That’s what I call it. I’m the prisoner—you’re the guards. You even work in shifts!”

“That’s only temporary,” said the Safety Goddess, “until you-know-who comes to his senses. Shouldn’t affect you at all.”

“No effect? Then how come the Phone God cuts my calls short and never takes messages? Why does the Television Goddess have to approve my choices? Who put the Fashion God in charge of my wardrobe?” He stared at her. “Don’t you see? I have no life. I can’t even leave the apartment for fear the Furnishing God will replace everything I own!”

The Safety Goddess put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “I can’t believe you’d say that after everything we’ve done for you.”

Avery snorted. “Name one thing you’ve done that I should be grateful for.”

“Oh, that’s easy—your car.”

“It hasn’t worked since I parked it!”

“Well, there you are, compliments of the Machine God. He saved your life. If you can’t drive, chances are you won’t be in any car wrecks.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Avery said.

The Safety Goddess frowned. “A little gratitude wouldn’t hurt, y’know.”

“I should be grateful you’ve made me a prisoner?”

“Now, that’s ridiculous,” she said. “We’re the ones who’re stuck here. You can leave whenever you like.”

“Like yesterday?”

“A rare exception.” The Safety Goddess shook her head slightly as she re‑rolled a curler and secured it directly above her forehead. “The elevator was scheduled to break down. If we had let you out, you might have been injured.”

“I could have taken the stairs.”

“Down, maybe. But would you have climbed up six flights when you returned? I don’t think so.”

“I can take care of myself!”

“Of course you can—if you’re willing to put up with mismatched socks, sorry nutrition, and a bedroom that’s only fit for pigs. I don’t know what they taught you in that college fraternity, but they certainly didn’t prepare you for the real world. You think you can manage on your own? Ha! If it weren’t for the Calorie Goddess, you’d be too big to squeeze through the door.”

Avery slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had it!” He stomped to the bedroom and stopped in front of the closet. Gripping the handles of the double doors, he took a deep breath, then opened them. The Closet God sat on the hanger bar directly in front of him.

“What’s this, a surprise visit?” asked the diminutive deity.

Avery ignored him and reached for his suitcase on the top shelf. Pulling it free, he set off a small avalanche of empty boxes, seldom-used camping gear, and a few men’s magazines.

“Nice move,” said the Closet God as he surveyed the mess. He pointed at the magazines. “Don’t let her see those.”

Avery glared at him but said nothing. Instead, he opened his suitcase on the bed and began to fill it with clothing, books and memorabilia, everything but the photos. Those he’d leave right where they were—over the washing machine, on the toolbox, in the cupboard—wherever his mother had put them. He threw anything else that mattered to him into the suitcase; there would be no return visit.

“Where ya headed?” asked the Closet God, still perched on the clothes bar. “Y’know, you’d get more in there if you folded it neatly. Want some help?”

Avery jammed the suitcase shut with his knee and struggled to force the latch closed. The Safety Goddess watched from the doorway. “This isn’t really a good day to travel,” she said.

He responded with “Sure it is,” as the latch finally clicked. “I’m outta here!” He wrestled the suitcase to the floor, extended the pull-out handle and tilted it forward on built-in wheels. “Don’t wait up.”

“When will you be back?” the Closet God asked.

Avery ignored him. He turned the knob, but the door wouldn’t open.

“Well?” The Safety Goddess’s voice harbored a note of irritation.

“I dunno,” Avery said. “Maybe never.”

The door swung open. “It’s your choice,” the Safety Goddess said. “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

Avery nodded and dragged his suitcase into the hall. The two gods leaned against opposite sides of the doorway watching him. One of the suitcase wheels had a bad bearing which caused it to squeal and pull to the side.

“I can fix that,” the Closet God said.

Avery let the suitcase veer into the wall. He pulled it along, ignoring the mark it scribed in the plaster as he hurried to reach the elevator.

“He’s always in such a rush,” the Safety Goddess said.

~*~

Avery flopped backward on the bed, his arms outspread. The last few days had been exhilarating, but demanding; he’d almost forgotten what life on his own was like. Though his escape suffered a rocky start, including a dispute with an over‑charging cabby who didn’t speak English, a lost bus ticket, and a decision to walk under a bridge loaded with pigeons, it had ended well.

Best of all, thanks to the intervention of an old fraternity brother, he’d even landed a job with the National Weather Service.

He smiled as he recalled how the gods had opposed his joining that fraternity. Sure, it cost a lot, but the contacts were worth it. Without them, he’d never have landed his new job.

~*~

Mail and supplies were dropped by parachute every other week into the string of Antarctic weather stations to which Avery had been assigned. He’d spent six weeks in training at the main base before boarding the cargo plane which took him to his outpost.

“Boy am I glad to see you,” said the bearded and bundled meteorologist Avery was replacing. “Six months out here is about all a man can stand.”

“I don’t know,” Avery said. “I’ve been looking forward to the peace and quiet.”

“You’ll get plenty of that.” The man extended a mittened hand. “Good luck,” he said, then climbed into the belly of the transport and closed the door.

Avery watched as the ski-equipped craft raced over the ice and became airborne. He turned and entered the building which would be his home for the next six months. After passing through a weather lock, he stamped the snow from his boots and hung his parka on a peg near the door.

The one-room building had a few creature comforts including a well-stocked bookshelf, a video collection, and most important of all, indoor plumbing. It also had a number of photographs taped to the walls. Avery swallowed hard as he gazed at the familiar faces.

“Surprise!” said a voice behind him. “You know, maybe we were wrong about your fraternity. If it weren’t for them, we’d never have found you.”

~End~

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A Semblance

Herewith, another previously unpublished tale, this one dredged up after 18 years in the trunk. I’ve dusted it off and trussed it up just for you.

From a distance, and without his glasses, the grass and scrub growing atop the dunes looked like creatures from a distant planet. Their single rank along the edge of the tide-piled sand resembled contorted pawns from an oversized chess set. Mark sighed. The image would be wasted on his sweet companion. He glanced at the child-sized form beside him. Lissa’s world contained neither sea nor chessmen. For her, it ceased to exist.

“Hungry?” he asked.

She faced him, neither afraid nor comprehending.

He mimed the act of eating, chewing on imaginary food and rubbing his stomach. Her pale brows dipped momentarily before she rewarded him with a smile. He kissed her forehead, then stood up, leaving her alone on the sofa in front of the glass wall of his beach house. He backed toward the kitchen just so he could keep her in sight. She watched him retreat, too weak to do more.

He blamed her frailty on the extended space flight that brought her to him, and while it had surely taken its toll, he knew the greater truth. And like all the others who sought the company of such migrant souls, he had ignored it.

Pushing a plastic cup under a pour spout built into the refrigerator, Mark pressed a button marked “Other” and waited while the appliance dispensed a pre-measured, pre-mixed dose of Lissa’s “food”—a low-protein liquid containing none of the vitamins and nutrients he consumed at every meal. For Lissa, Earth-spawned foods were toxic. Mark prayed the scientists would find a way to modify the components so that Lissa and her kind could eat like normal people. Sadly, their efforts to change the food had been no more successful than their efforts to modify her ability to digest it. Whatever the stuff was she ate—and the agency had come up with a variety of healthful-sounding names for it—barely fit the definition of food.

But it was all he had, and the only thing she could safely consume, so he smiled at her as he delivered the cup. She took it in both hands and sipped delicately. When she set it down, she revealed a thin ribbon of a pale blue liquid that outlined her upper lip. Looking straight into his eyes, she licked it off slowly with a single languorous sweep of her tongue.

Mark reacted instantly and turned away, embarrassed. How could she transform herself so easily from an innocent to a temptress? How could she so easily skirt his pledge of celibacy and arouse him?

He returned to the kitchen, chastising himself for being foolish. Lissa might be child-like, but she most definitely was not a child, and though her digestive system operated on a wholly different set of rules than his, her reproductive organs were close enough to Earth human that procreation was nearly possible.

His libido had increased in the years since Peg’s death, but he’d repressed it reasonably well, at least until Lissa arrived. Her uncanny resemblance to his late wife, though rendered at half scale, was no accident. The adaptive technique worked well for most, and in Lissa’s case, proved extraordinary.

Mark recalled the day he’d claimed her at the spaceport. Bundled and tagged like perishable freight, she and roughly a thousand other adoptees had been loaded into a transport vessel bound for Earth. The first shipments had contained only orphans, survivors of the windstorms and other natural phenomena which substituted for biological predators on her world. Lissa’s shipment, like most others recently arranged, may or may not have contained just orphans. Mark chose not to be too inquisitive. Her arrival made up for it.

He fell in love all over again.

Lissa’s broad, almond-shaped eyes, snowdrift hair, and milky blue skin looked fairy-like, yet completely natural, especially on her petite frame. In the first few weeks she’d been with him, her coloring had gradually changed, conforming somehow to a mental image he wasn’t consciously aware he projected. He had been warned to remove all traces of his late wife—holos, mementos, clothing, anything she might have touched, but he made no effort to comply. He wanted Lissa to look like Peg.

He knew she wouldn’t be Peg. The best he could hope for was a strong resemblance. But what if Lissa could do more? What if she could reflect some of Peg’s humor or mannerisms—the way she tossed her hair or giggled when she mixed up her words? Peg had done that a lot at first, self-conscious about the way her illness made her speech clumsy. As the disease progressed, however, she found less humor in it, or maybe she just lost the ability to show it.

None of which mattered anymore. For every day that passed since Peg’s death, the cleft in Mark’s heart grew wider, the void in his life more acute. Until Lissa.

He took her to the beach house as soon as she was healthy enough to travel. The journey through space had been difficult for everyone from her native planet, but the agency assured him she’d thrive at his summer home on the beach just as well as anywhere else. They were the experts—easy to believe as long as one didn’t examine their words too closely.

Most important, at least to Mark, was the knowledge that the beach house had been special to Peg. She always seemed healthier there, or at least content.

Lissa seemed to like the beach, too, though her ability to communicate was limited to smiles and frowns. He quickly recognized their nuances and learned the difference between riotous joy and mild good humor, fear and discomfort. But despite his many efforts to provide care and comfort in the ensuing months, her frowns outnumbered her smiles.

Mark called the agency, and they told him Lissa’s condition was entirely normal. As long as he maintained her diet he could expect another good year, possibly longer, and with any luck, there would be a breakthrough in the synthesis of her native foodstuff. He didn’t inquire about the consequences in the event no such breakthrough occurred.

He would have liked to explain it to Lissa but couldn’t, obviously. Such concepts were beyond her. Peg would have understood his need to explain everything, in detail. She would have reassured him. He cuddled with Lissa, drawing her thin frame close as they sat watching gulls feed in the shallows. She liked that, or seemed to. According to everything he’d read, there were no birds where she came from.

During the summer he took her for short walks along the beach. She held his hand as they explored the ever-changing shoreline and laughed at the frothy, magical fluid which washed over their feet then crept away, teasing the sand from beneath their toes.

Mark recalled similar walks with Peg. At first, they spoke of the future, later, of the past; ultimately they spoke not at all. He regretted Lissa’s inability to talk. He might have felt cheated, but with one look at her sweet face—Peg’s face—such thoughts quickly faded.

The agency called in the autumn to tell him about a new program to care for adoptees as they reached maturity. They sent him a list of things to look for, signs that he would need help to meet Lissa’s needs. No new foods had been synthesized, but according to the caller, “that could change overnight. Modern science often made astonishing progress, leapfrogging the pedestrian, inch-by-inch processes of the past.”

Mark wondered how much the agency had paid for a marketing consultant to compose the caller’s script.

By the time winter released its frigid hold on the coast, Mark no longer dared take Lissa outside. She made no protest, but her health continued to fail. In this way, too, she seemed more like Peg every day. And with that, a new chasm opened in Mark’s heart.

One early spring day as they watched the cormorants dart into the water, Mark made up his mind to take Lissa back. If he timed it right, she might have a chance to survive. There had to be something beneficial she could eat on her homeworld. The agency was wrong and had been from the start. Lissa could no longer afford to wait for Earth science to solve the problem.

But after a flurry of calls, he gave up and sat dejectedly once again beside his tiny charge. The next scheduled departure would not occur for months. Lissa wouldn’t last ’till then. Besides which, she’d need a reserve of energy for the trip she no longer possessed. Even if he had the means to charter a flight, which he didn’t, he’d waited too long. He felt a desperate need to apologize and stumbled through the effort knowing Lissa had no idea what he meant.

In the end, she went quietly, sitting beside him on the sofa, looking out to sea. One moment she gazed quietly at the breakers with him; seconds later, he watched them alone. He saw the waves pouring out their lives on the beach in a futile attempt to reach the grass and scrub which, from a distance, and without his glasses, looked like creatures from a distant planet.

~End~

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Tackling Tough Topics

Some stories are easier to tell than others, and I’m not referring to length or complexity. Sometimes the subject matter takes more of a toll on the writer than the reader. For me, this week’s offering is just such a story. I wrote the first draft twenty years ago. I have refined it several times in the interim, but I’ve never shared it before. Herewith:

“Daddy, no–please, don’t!” Allie twisted her fingers into a white-knuckled mass. “Not that one.”

Warner rolled a fist-sized seashell from one palm to the other blurring the shell’s broad bands of creamy white and rusty brown. “Actually,” he said, “it’ll do nicely.”

He placed the Chambered Nautilus gently on the floor.

Allie tensed as Warner raised his leg, his heel poised over the shell. She tried to hold her fingers steady, but the tremble only got worse. How could he be so cruel?

As if he’d read her thoughts, Warner lowered his leg. “You know the rules, Allison, and you know I’m not doing this out of spite. I’m trying to prepare you to be an adult.” He raised his leg once more.

“It’s not fair!”

He shook his head. “Life isn’t about what’s fair. You know that.”

“It’ll never happen again,” she said. “I promise.”

“I wish I could believe that.” The leg remained poised.

“You can!” Allie rushed to the display case, reached inside, and removed a double handful of shells. “Here, take any of these. I don’t care.”

“And what would you learn then? The painful lessons are the ones we remember.”

“But Mom gave me that one! Before she died, don’t you remember?”

“No, but I’ll take your word for it.” He stamped down hard, crushing the shell, then stepped into the hallway and stopped. “I want that cleaned up before you go to bed.”

Dumbstruck, Allie nodded.

“And don’t ever lock your door again. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. See, Allison? You’re learning.”

~*~

Janie squealed as only an imaginative freshman in a crowded high school lunchroom can. “Australia! Really? When?”

“Next month,” Allie said, without emotion. “Over Christmas.” She dropped her empty milk carton on her tray.

“Aren’t you excited? Maybe you’ll see Hugh Jackman! Would that be awesome or what? But really, any hunky Australian would do. The way they talk totally makes me melt. So, what’ll you wear? How long’s the flight? Is–”

Allie sighed. “It’s no big deal.”

“Not for you maybe, but I never go anywhere.”

Allie looked sideways at her friend. “You went to that outdoor adventure thing, didn’t you? Doesn’t that count?”

“Two weeks in the woods without a shower isn’t exactly my idea of a vacation. I couldn’t even get text messages.” Janie extended her hands, palms up, lifting first one then the other as if she were a scale. “Survival training. Aussie hunk. Survival training. Aussie hunk. Wow. Tough choice.”

Allie warmed to the challenge. “Okay, so maybe that doesn’t count, but you went skiing last year.”

“Yeah, and we stayed with my aunt and uncle. Not only did I not get any new ski clothes, I had to spend the whole time skiing with my dorky cousin.”

“You said he was cute.”

“Burt?” Janie wrinkled her face. “I’d rather kiss a toad!”

Allie laughed. “That’s not what you said before you left.”

“Yuck! Can you imagine doing it with your cousin?

Allie sobered. “No.”

Janie laughed. “Do you have any cousins in Australia?”

“I don’t have any cousins anywhere.” She thought for a moment. I have an aunt–my mom’s sister, Maggie–but she doesn’t have any kids.

“Trust me, you aren’t missing anything.”

Allie shrugged. “My dad’s only taking us along to make sure I don’t have a good time while he’s away. He thinks I might have a boyfriend or something, but he already chased away the only guy who ever asked me out.”

Janie nodded sympathetically. “What a butthead.”

“Anyway, it’s just a stupid business trip. My sister and I’ll be locked up in a hotel somewhere.”

“Poor things, stuck in a fancy hotel, having to make do with room service, a pool, and dinner out every night–that’ll be awful.”

“It won’t be a fancy hotel.”

“You don’t know that,” Janie said.

“I know Warner.”

“Why do you always call him Warner?”

“Well–duh. That’s his name.”

“I could never call my dad ‘Fred.’ Besides, he’d kill me if I did.”

Allie rearranged the trash on her lunch tray. “It wasn’t my idea.”

“No?”

“He asked me to. It started after– after Mom died.” She rubbed her eyes.

“You okay?” Janie asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Allie said.

~*~

The gift-wrapped package was waiting for her, exactly where Allie knew it would be. So was her little sister, Suzie.

The six-year-old crossed her arms and pouted. “He never gives me anything.”

“That’s not true,” Allie said, “You’ve got lots of stuff: dolls, toys, a bike–”

“Not like you!” The corners of Suzie’s mouth dipped even lower. “You get presents all the time.”

“You don’t understand.” Allie bit her lip. How was she supposed to make sense of it to Suzie when she didn’t know how to deal with it herself? It wasn’t fair.

Suzie lowered her arms and began to cry. “I do so understand. He likes you best!”

Allie stepped closer and gave her a hug. “It’s not what you think, honest. Maybe when you’re older–”

“You always say that!” She pushed Allie’s arms apart, ran to the kitchen counter and grabbed the package. “It’s prob’ly just another stupid shell.” She raised the box over her head.

Allie froze knowing how Warner would react if he thought she’d rejected his gift. “Please put it down.”

“How’d you like me to smash it? I could break it into a zillion pieces before you even open it. How’d you like that ‘Miss Smarty Pants?'”

“Do you want to get in trouble?”

“I don’t care!”

“Well, I do.”

“Then here, take it!” Suzie lofted the package toward Allie, then ran from the room.

Allie caught the box and put it back on the counter. She rubbed her temples; her eyes stung. There was no way she could explain to Suzie what the gifts really represented. She should have said something to someone the first time it happened, right after the night Warner came into her room. He said he was lonely, and he’d been crying.

That had been a strange, scary night. He talked to her for a long time, and as he talked, he touched her. That wasn’t unusual, he’d done it before. But that night, touching wasn’t enough. He rubbed her with perfume and something slippery from a tube. When she cried, he said he was sorry. He’d hurt her in other ways, before and since, and never apologized. Only for that, and only then.

Over the last two years his story, and his demands, changed. Now, he rarely mentioned her mother, only his need, and afterward, his love. The following day he always left a gift.

Allie knuckled away a tear and slipped the silver velvet ribbon from the package. The heavily-embossed, dark blue wrapping fell away easily. She’d seen the paper before, many times. Vancouver had a thousand gift shops, but Warner always went to the same one.

She lifted the lid, but before removing the contents, she went to her room and got the shell book. A gift from her mother, the huge book contained hundreds of color photos of seashells from around the world. She placed it on the counter next to the box, then reached inside where multiple pencil-thin spines greeted her fingers.

Allie removed the shell. Violet tissue drifted to the floor as she placed the unusual specimen on the counter.

She’d seen photos of it, but couldn’t recall its name. A conch, surely, but what kind? She flipped through the book until she found it. Spider conch. She peered at the text. No, a common spider conch, and based on the length of the spines, probably female.

Allie became caught up in the photos, as usual. She paged through to the chapter on cone shells, and noticed a passage she hadn’t read before. Several colorful photos adorned the page, including a close-up of the fabled “Glory-of-the-Seas” cone, but it was the Glory’s cousins which attracted her. Their common names were unspectacular: “Marble” cone, “Tulip” cone, and “Courtly” cone. The two she found most interesting had the most boring names: “Textile” and “Geography.” All were found in the Indo-Pacific, and all shared a feature not usually linked to shells–they were hunters.

Her eyes narrowed as she glanced at the calendar. Two weeks to go.

~*~

Janie and Allie rode the bus home; Christmas break had officially begun. “Can you bring me something from Australia?” Janie asked.

“Like what, a kangaroo?”

“I dunno, anything–a souvenir.”

“A lock of Hugh Jackman’s hair?”

“Sure!” Janie sighed. “I’m so jealous I can’t stand it.”

“Don’t be.” Allie looked away, feigning interest in something they passed on the road.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just nervous about the trip. It’ll be a really long flight. Suzie’s gonna be a pain.”

“So? You’re not her mother.”

“Try telling Warner that. Ever since he let Mom die, he–”

What?” Janie followed her theatrical whisper with a nervous laugh. “For a second, I thought you were serious.”

“I am.”

Janie’s eyes grew wide.

Allied nodded. “He took us on a picnic. Mom got stung by a bee.”

“And died?

“Yeah,” Allie said. “She was allergic to bee stings.”

“So how was that your dad’s fault?”

“Mom pleaded with him to take her to a doctor, but he said she was making a big deal out of nothing. He didn’t even want to start packing up right away. It wasn’t until she had trouble breathing that he decided to do something, but by then, it was too late. She died before we could get her to a hospital.”

“Geez, Allie, I’m sorry. I had no idea.”

Allie wiped her tears on the sleeve of her sweater. “He says he didn’t know about her allergy, but he’s lying. I just can’t prove it.”

Janie shook her head. “You can’t be sure.”

“Oh, I’m sure, all right,” Allie said, her grief turning to anger. “There’s just nothing I can do about it.” Not yet, anyway.

The bus wheezed to a stop. Allie gathered her books and stood up.

“You’re not gonna do anything stupid, are you?” Janie asked.

Allie shook her head. “Nah.” She smiled and waved goodbye.

Crazy maybe, but not stupid.

~*~

Despite its length, the flight from Vancouver to Sydney was uneventful. Warner rented a modest condo on the coast north of Brisbane. The girls spent the days at the beach while he worked. If his mood was any indication, business must have been good.

They’d been in the condo almost a week when Warner announced he wanted to celebrate a particularly good deal he’d made. The girls dressed up, and they went to a fancy restaurant for dinner. Allie enjoyed herself so much, she was almost able to believe she lived a normal life.

Back at the condo, Warner sent them off to get ready for bed with promises of a trip up the coast to the Great Barrier Reef the next day.

As Allie brushed her teeth, she saw Warner’s reflection in the mirror. He retrieved a paper bag from the hall closet, opened it, and removed a package wrapped in blue paper and silver ribbon. Allie shuddered as he carried the box out of sight into the kitchen.

Maybe, if I pretend to be asleep….

She rinsed her mouth, washed her face and Suzie’s, then called good night to Warner from the room the girls shared.

Once in bed, Suzie’s breathing quickly fell into the steady, regular pattern of sleep. Allie remained tense. She could hear the television from the other room and Warner’s occasional laugh. She prayed the drinks he’d had with dinner would make him drowsy.

At length, the blare of the TV went silent. She heard the click of a light switch and the creak of a door. She tracked his movements from bedroom to bath and back by sound. A squeaky bed spring in his room promised her a peaceful night.

Too tense to sleep, she stretched, her mind awash with conflicting thoughts and emotions. She forced herself to think only of pleasant things, but her mind continually drifted into areas she wanted to avoid. Finally, she quit trying to think of anything specific. She breathed deeply and let the air out slowly.

The trip would be good; the Great Barrier Reef was a shell collector’s dream. She smiled, and then heard the squeak of his bedsprings again.

Damn!

She rolled on her side, facing away from the door, and waited in the dark. She heard the creak of a floorboard and the protest of a hinge down the hall. Dim light spilled into the room as her door was pushed quietly open. She closed her eyes, waiting for his hand on her shoulder and the whispered commands.

No! I’m asleep. Just have to keep my breathing steady.

The whisper came without the touch.

She kept her eyes shut. I’m asleep. I can’t hear you.

The whisper grew insistent. Still, there was no touch. She heard the rustle of sheets, yet felt nothing. The realization hit her like a cannon shot. Suzie! Allie sat upright.

“Warner?” she asked, her voice loud in the dark.

He turned to her from his seat on Suzie’s bed. “Go back to sleep.”

“No.”

“This doesn’t concern you, Allison.”

“Like hell.”

“Watch your language, young lady!”

She almost laughed at that except her stomach was churning, and her real fear was that she might vomit. “Stay away from her!” she said, her voice harsh.

In the dark, she could just make out his features as the muscles in his tight face slowly relaxed into a smile. “Well, well. Look who’s jealous.”

“Allie?” Suzie asked, her voice sleepy-thick.

“It’s okay,” Allie said, “go back to sleep.”

Warner stared at his eldest daughter for a moment, then spoke. “All right then, let her sleep. You come with me.”

Allie looked at the small form in the other bed, then at the man seated next to her. He held a bottle of perfume in one hand and a tube of lubricant in the other.

You bastard.

Allie got up slowly and followed him from the room.

~*~

In the morning they were both up before Suzie. Warner stood at the sink drinking coffee. “I’m going out to get stuff for the trip. Need anything?”

Allie pushed the gift-wrapped package toward him. “I need you to get rid of this.”

A look of concern crossed his face.

She frowned. “Don’t you know how much it hurts Suzie when you never give her anything?”

He paused briefly before answering. “What has she ever given me?”

Allie felt the blood drain from her face. She took a breath and balled her fists, but managed to keep the anger out of her voice. “Just this once, why don’t you get her something nice?”

“Okay–for you.”

“No,” Allie said, “for her.”

“Whatever, but you’re the one who earned it.”

Allie swallowed, the taste of bile raw in her throat, then forced herself to be pleasant. “I’m a shell collector; what reward could be better than visiting the Great Barrier Reef? We’ll find something I want.”

“I don’t know crap about shells, Allison. You’ll have to tell me what you want.”

“I’ve got a better idea. I’ll give you pictures,” she said.

“What for?”

“So you’ll know what I want while we’re looking.”

“Can’t we just buy them?”

“I’d prefer we found our own. Then it would mean something–be something special.”

“Whatever.” He glanced at his watch. “Get Susan up and ready to go. I’ll be back soon.”

As Warner closed the door behind him, Allie opened the shell book and turned to the chapter on cones. She ran her finger down the column of text until she reached the part she wanted. For the hundredth time, she read about the hollow, needle-like tooth which cone shells used to stab their victims and through which they injected paralyzing neurotoxins to kill them. They grew an ample supply of the deadly little harpoons making it possible to sting repeatedly. Humans had died from their venom. The treatment was the same as for snake bites, but there was no known antidote.

Allie carefully clipped two color photos from the treasured book: Conus geographus and Conus textile. Not only were they the most lethal, but they were also the most plentiful. She sealed the clippings, back to back, in a clear plastic bag and closed the book as Suzie strolled into the kitchen.

“Good morning,” Allie said, feeling strangely chipper.

~*~

The drive took much longer than expected, and Allison pestered Warner the whole time about the cone shells she hoped to find. He lectured her briefly for defacing the big shell book but forgave her when she apologized, citing as her defense the excitement of actually going to the Reef.

The sun sat low in the sky before they found lodging. The girls changed into swimsuits while Warner unpacked the car. They met him outside as he brought in the last load.

Suzie had to use both arms to carry the plastic bucket full of beach toys Warner had given her that morning. She smiled deliriously at him. “Where’s your swimsuit, Daddy?”

“I’ll put it on in a minute,” he said.

Allison hoisted a shopping bag bulging with odds and ends. “I think we’ve got everything we need.”

Warner went inside and changed. He’d told Allie he didn’t relish the idea of wading in the ocean looking for shells but conceded it was less stressful than trying to make deals when most of his potential clients would prefer to be out Christmas shopping.

Since Allie claimed their chances of finding specimens were better during the early evening hours, Warner announced they’d eat dinner first. Suzie didn’t want to wait, until Allison explained they’d be searching for live shells instead of the ones which washed up on shore. She smiled as she stroked her sister’s hair. “Just stay with me, and we’ll find the prettiest ones in the whole ocean. Maybe even the ‘Glory’!”

“What’s a ‘gory’?”

Allison laughed. “The ‘Glory-of-the-Sea.’ It used to be the rarest shell of all. People paid thousands for ’em.”

Suzie blinked. “Really?”

“Yup.”

“Thousands of dollars?” Warner asked. “When?”

“In the 1800s,” Allie said. “I can look it up.”

“Don’t bother,” he said. “Stupidity doesn’t impress me.”

Allie bristled but said nothing.

They walked to the beach after dinner, and Allie eagerly approached a man selling soft drinks from a cart. “How long will it take to wade out to the reef?”

“A week or so, I’d wager,” he said, laughing.

Allison’s excitement faded.

“You need to take a tour boat to get to the reef. I haven’t been out there in years.”

“What’s the matter, Allison?” Warner asked.

She told him.

“I’m not paying for a tour boat,” he said. “We’ll get your shells in one of the shops.”

“It’s not fair!” Allie said. She wanted to stamp her feet and scream like her sister did.

Warner responded automatically. “Life’s not about–”

“Yeah,” Allie said. “I know.”

Suzie groaned. “I’m tired.”

“Me too,” Warner said. “Let’s get a good night’s rest. We’ll look into it more tomorrow.”

~*~

They had breakfast in a cafe near a wharf. Suzie smeared dark jelly on her toast, took a huge bite and then spit it out.

“What’s the matter?” Warner asked.

While Suzie wiped her tongue with a napkin, Allie examined the jar in front of the little girl. “It’s called Vegemite,” she said, sniffing the open container. “People really eat this?”

“I can’t stand it myself, luv,” their waitress said, “but people ’round here can’t get enough of it.” She shook her head, “Vegemite and rugby league–what’s the world comin’ to?”

Allie asked her about reaching the reef.

“Tour boats leave every mornin’,” she said. “I’ve got a brochure around here somewhere. You fancy a bit of snorkeling?”

Allie shook her head. “No. I want to look for shells.”

The waitress frowned. “Then don’t waste your time with the tour boats. What you need is a section of dead coral. That’s where you’ll find the best shells.” She crossed her arms.

Allie smiled. “Can you tell us a good place to look?”

“No, but my uncle can. I used to help ‘im find shells for the tourist trade. He’s retired now.”

“I wouldn’t think of bothering him,” Warner said.

“It’s no bother. Besides, he loves it when people treat him like an expert.” She walked away and spoke to a man drinking tea at a table across the room. He nodded and waved. The waitress returned with fresh coffee. “He says he knows just the spot.”

“It’s a sheller’s paradise,” the man said ambling up behind her, “or my name ain’t Duff Chaney.”

Allie chafed at the time spent retrieving Chaney’s boats and preparing them for the trip. It was past lunchtime when they packed a cooler with food and drinks into a dinghy towed behind a weathered skiff. Chaney said little as he arranged the party and their gear and shoved off. The ancient outboard reeked of motor oil and threatened to shed parts. When Chaney yanked the starter rope the noise frightened Suzie who embedded herself in Allie’s side. The trip took about an hour.

“I’ll be back by seven,” Chaney said as he secured a homemade sunshade over one end of their boat. He wrapped an anchor line from the dinghy around a slab of dead, grey coral, then fiddled with the choke on the antique motor in his own boat. “You don’t want to be out here after dark.”

“That’s only four hours,” Allie said.

Warner stared at her. “Only? Four hours is plenty.” He looked at the sky. “Maybe too long. What if the weather changes–”

“No worries, mate.” Chaney gave him a broad, gap-toothed grin. “It’ll stay like this all week.”

“You’re sure?”

In answer, Chaney restarted the outboard motor which belched a cloud of thick, white smoke. “I imagine you’ll be ready to go when I come back,” he said, laughing. “Use plenty of sunscreen. Now, mind the prop’!” Allie felt a sense of relief as he chugged out of sight.

“Let’s go!” Suzie shouted. She jumped into waste-deep water with swim goggles perched on her head. “Right behind ya!” Allie said, splashing in after her. Warner looked like he might spend the afternoon in the shade, but Allie finally coaxed him in.

The search began amid a surprising abundance and variety of shells. Suzie quickly switched her attention to the schools of brightly-colored fish all around them.

Allie held her diving mask in the water and stared through it to minimize the sun’s glare. She found the first cone in less than an hour. About two inches long and stunning to look at, the shell had neither of the designs of the Geography or Textile cones she’d memorized from the book.

“Allie! Come look!” Suzie cried. Allie abandoned her find and sloshed over to her sister. The little girl pointed at a large, conical shell partially buried in the sand. “Is that one? Is that a ‘Glory’?” She waved to Warner. “Come look!”

“What is it?” he asked.

“It’s called a volute, I think,” Allie said, lifting the shell from the water.

“A what?”

“A volute. It’s too big to be a cone.” She smiled at her sister. “And it’s a beauty! Should we keep it?”

“Yeah!” Suzie said.

Allie handed her the shell. “Go put it in the boat, okay?”

As Suzie trundled off, Allie glanced at Warner. With the plastic bagged photos in hand, he squinted down into the water, resigned to the search, but not happy about it. Sometime later he stopped mumbling, which got Allie’s attention. “Find something?”

“Could be.” Warner bent low to examine something in the shallow water.

Allie felt an adrenaline rush and started toward him. As she approached, he plucked a shell from the sandy bottom. He held it up and compared it to the picture, then smiled.

“How ’bout this?” he said as Allie reached his side. He held a four-inch shell between thumb and forefinger. “What do you– Ow! Shit.” He dropped the shell. “It bit me!”

“Shells don’t bite,” Allie said.

“That one did.” Warner inspected the fleshy pad of his thumb. “Felt like a bee sting, only worse.” He stared at the tiny wound. “Damn thing did have a stinger! Look.”

Allie inspected the tiny wound, then looked down through the water at their feet. A perfect specimen of Conus geographus lay in the sand. Her heart raced at the find.

“I read something about this kind.” She lowered her voice for the lie she’d often rehearsed in her mind. “It’s also called Lover’s Shell. The natives said the sting was an afri– afro–”

Aphrodisiac?

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“Not that I need it, but that’s still pretty cool.” He frowned. “I just wish it didn’t hurt so much. Can you get the stinger out? My hand’s starting to go numb.”

“I can try.” Allie picked at the tiny harpoon, but her nails weren’t sharp enough or long enough to grip it. “It’s too bad we don’t have any tweezers.” She’d made sure of that.

Warner leaned over the side of the boat and retrieved his cell phone from under a seat. He cursed at the lack of a signal, then grimaced when he saw the time. “Damn! It’ll be hours before Chaney comes back.” He held his thumb to his mouth and tried to get at the tiny barb with his teeth, but that effort also failed.

“Why don’t you sit in the boat for a while,” Allie said, “until you feel better.”

She watched him clamor over the side, her heart hammering like the over-worked piston in Chaney’s outboard motor. Almost done! Now, they only needed to wait.

When Suzie became bored, Allie quit searching for shells and played with her. They stayed close to Warner and the cooler. In time, his speech became thick, and he complained of blurred vision, two of the symptoms Allie expected. The toxin was working, but did he get enough?

“Allishon,” he said, “My lipsh are numb.” When she didn’t respond he added, “but nuthin’ elsh. Lights out early tonight, okay?”

Allie cringed then wondered how she could get the cone to sting him again. Maybe he’ll pass out. I could try then.

She played with Suzie for what seemed like an eternity, then turned back to Warner. “What time is it?”

“Almosht six,” he said. “Allie, I’m worried. I c-can barely move.” He had stretched his arm across the top of the cooler and rested his head on it. He spoke with his eyes closed.

She stared at the man who’d refused to help her mother the day she’d been stung by a bee. The fear in the woman’s voice still haunted Allie’s dreams. When Warner made a whimpering sound, Allie could barely disguise her loathing for him. How does it feel, Daddy dear?

Suzie stood in the water beside the boat drinking from a plastic bottle shaped like a cartoon character. She stared at their father. “Is he really-really sick?”

“In more ways than one,” Allie said.

Suzie looked down into the water. “Is this a ‘Glory’?”

Allie jerked upright as her sister reached for the cone shell Warner had dropped.

“Don’t!” she yelled, surging forward as Suzie lifted the deadly cone in the air. Allie scrambled toward her and knocked it out of her hands.

Suzie yelped in surprise, then began to cry hysterically.

“Did it sting you?” Allie asked as she grabbed her sister’s hands and inspected them.

“You scared me!” Suzie sobbed.

Allie put her hands on either side of Suzie’s head and forced the girl to pay attention. She spoke slowly. “Did–it–sting–you?”

“No,” Suzie said, pulling free. “I just wanted to look at it.” She gazed back down into the water. “Is that the shell that hurt Daddy?”

“Yes,” Allie said. She guided Suzie back to the boat and helped her climb in. “We need to put more sunscreen on. I’ll do your back if you’ll do mine.”

“Allie?” Warner groaned. When she didn’t answer right away he called her again, louder.

“What?” She responded, so severely Suzie shrank away.

“It’s– it’s gettin’ worse,” he said, his voice raspy, his tongue and lips dry.

Allie leaned close and whispered, “Yes, it is. And that’s how Mom felt. You’re dying.”

“No,” he groaned. His eyelids fluttered, and his fingers scrabbled on the gunnels of the boat.

“You need to understand,” she said in the same low voice, “I made it happen. And you know what?” While she waited for him to respond, she tore the cone photos into tiny pieces and scattered them in the ocean. “I’ll get away with it. Just like you did when you killed Mom. The only hard part is going to be pretending I’m sad that you’re dead.”

Warner’s eyes opened wide, and he struggled vainly to speak.

“You’ll never hurt me again, and you’ll never–ever–touch Suzie. We’ll go live with Aunt Maggie, and we’ll be fine.” She forced herself to smile at him. “You’ll be worm food.”

His face contorted with fear, and his voice leaked out in a whine. “I don’t want–”

“Nobody cares what you want,” Allie said.

“It’s not… It’s not fair.”

Allie shook her head just the way he had so often. “Life’s not about fair. You’ve told me that a million times.”

Warner didn’t hear her. Nor would he ever.

Allie gathered Suzie into her arms as the muted growl of Duff Chaney’s boat sounded in the distance. She smiled and kissed the top of her sister’s head.

~End~

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A Merger on Father’s Day

Here it is, Father’s Day, and the best I can do is offer this tale which is only marginally about a father and son.  I hope my own kids don’t think I treated them like this. My pride in them has no bounds.

Aaron ran through the house in search of his father. “Dad!” he cried, “Dad, guess what? I worked a deal!”

Solomon Mays turned away from the Kennedy/Nixon debate on the Philco. “Really? What kind of deal?”

Aaron puffed up his eight-year-old chest. “I got Billy Johnson and Jake Warner to stop fighting—them and their gangs, too!” His wheezing always got worse when he was excited, but just then he was too proud to care.

Solomon nodded. “And how did you manage this miracle?”

“I said I’d give ’em each a dollar.”

Solomon frowned. “You can’t buy peace, Aaron, and remember, the deal-maker never pays. Is that understood?”

“Yes, but–”

“There’s nothing to add, Son. Trust me—I know. That’s why so many people come to me to work out the toughest deals.”

“But Dad–”

“One other thing, Aaron. A good deal-maker never gives details to anyone who isn’t part of the bargain.”

“Yes, sir,” Aaron said, his shoulders slumping. He wanted desperately to explain how he collected a dollar from the parents of each of the smaller boys in both gangs as a reward for stopping the fighting, but now he never could.

“Did I tell you about my latest deal?” Solomon asked. “I brokered the merger of two unions: Federated Sock Knitters and United Hosiery Workers. I worked a deal everyone else just walked away from. I guess they got cold feet!” Solomon laughed, but Aaron thought it made sense.

~*~

Murph studied the memo for the hundredth time, and still couldn’t believe it. Someone had complained about him and used the magic words: sexual harassment—something you made jokes about. Nobody took it seriously, until now.

Probably that prissy blonde in Overdue Accounts, he thought. She’s just the type. He dropped the memo in his top drawer and locked it. It was nearly four, still sixty minutes away from freedom.

If only the damn phones would stop ringing.

They didn’t. He hated phone calls more than any other aspect of his job, but as a Supervisor the tougher calls were routed to him. He would rather have chewed glass.

“Line two, Mr. Scanlon,” Sara Broadnax said. “The guy’s pretty upset.”

Murph watched as she bent to water a potted plant on a low shelf in her cubicle. She oughta change her name to Sara ‘Broadass.’ He picked up the phone. “Scanlon here.”

“I’ve just wasted two hours trying to make sense of your lousy installation manual. Listen, I–”

“Hold on a second.” Murph turned to his PC. “How do you spell your name?”

The caller gave his name and address, but Murphy couldn’t find him in the system. “Did you fill out the warranty card?”

“Yes, but….”

“We don’t have a record of it.”

“Because I haven’t mailed it yet!”

Murph relaxed. “We can’t help you until we have the warranty card.”

“But I just bought the damn thing today.”

“So? Send in the card, wait a couple weeks, and give us another call.”

“No, wait–”

“G’bye.” He hung up. What a jerk.

Bev Pierce, a summer intern, walked past his desk. Murphy sucked his teeth, oblivious to everything save the sway of her hips. Oh, my! I wonder what she’d–

“Scanlon!” The Department Manager’s voice made him cringe. He’s probably sore about that stupid complaint. I’ll bet it was that secretary with the big–

The Manager stood scowling in the doorway to his lair, some twenty feet from Murphy’s desk. “Where are the productivity charts? I shoulda had ’em hours ago!”

“No problem.” Murphy poked around in his desk pretending to look for the hand-lettered charts, knowing they weren’t complete. He’d been too busy sweet-talking a file clerk into going out for a drink. She’d turned him down. It’s probably just as well, they’d card her for sure.

“Scanlon!”

“On my way.” He snatched the charts from a corner of his desk, grabbed his coffee mug—its contents long since cold—and paused a few beats until a mail clerk went by. Scanlon blundered into him, spilling coffee on the charts.

“Damn!”

“Oh, geez! I’m sorry,” the victim said.

“Nice going, you idiot! They’re ruined.” Scanlon stepped to the Manager’s door and curled his thumb at the clerk. “I’ll have to re-do them, thanks to him.”

The clerk drifted away in silent mortification.

“Well, hurry,” said the manager. “This merger business is going to keep us busy as hell. And forget about taking your vacation; nobody gets any time off before Christmas.”

Oh, Marge’ll love that. Maybe she can take the kids and go somewhere. I could use a little peace and quiet.

Bev Pierce caught his eye a second time as she returned from her errand. Murphy smiled. Oh, yeah.

~*~

Long ago, when Mavis Jones was young, a kindly preacher treated her and a handful of other migrant workers to lunch and a movie. Mavis, a deaf mute, couldn’t follow the story, but it didn’t matter, for in the film she glimpsed a lifestyle unlike anything she ever imagined possible—a woman who worked in an office.

From then on, Mavis often thought of such a life. She imagined herself wearing fine, clean clothes and sitting in a comfortable chair. She dreamed of knowing the mysteries of the printed word and using a telephone.

Of course, that was the movies; no one really lived like that. Still, the memory sustained her as she worked in the fields. Even if she could have told people of her crazy ideas, she wouldn’t have. It wouldn’t be right. Folks respected her as a healer, one whose knowledge came from a long line of people skilled in the ways of nature. If she started talking about clean clothes and telephones, people might lose faith, one of the strongest medicines she had.

Though she never again saw the preacher who took her to the movie, Mavis always felt she owed it to the churches to attend. A ride to Sunday Services was the only thing she expected in return for any healing she attempted, and any church would do.

Mavis didn’t expect much from life and thereby avoided a great deal of personal misery. She knew there were always good times to balance out the bad. So when the sickness came upon her, she accepted it as calmly as she accepted everything else.

~*~

“Of course I want you to work for me, Aaron,” Solomon said. “But I won’t start you at the top; it wouldn’t be fair to the others. In fact, you should really start somewhere else, learn the basics, and then come back here.”

“But now that I’ve got my degree, I thought everything was set. All my life I’ve wanted to work with you. It’s the most important thing in the world to me.”

Solomon shook his head. “No, Son, the most important thing in the world is always The Deal. Never forget that.”

Rather than work somewhere else, Aaron went back to school. His asthma kept him out of Viet Nam but didn’t stop him from earning his MBA. He went to work for D. Webster and Associates, where he became the youngest partner in Webster history. He couldn’t wait to share the news.

“Hello, Dad?” Aaron pressed the phone to his ear. “You won’t believe it–they’ve made me a partner!”

“Congratulations. But, aren’t you a little young for that?”

“I guess my work on the Kressworth merger made the difference. Imagine, twenty-six stores in a single chain!”

“Yes,” Solomon said, “I did read something about that, but I’ve been pretty busy myself lately. I just wrapped up a deal with the three largest department stores in the country—forty locations throughout the U.S. and Canada.”

“Gee, Dad, that’s great.”

“Keep at it, Aaron; one day you’ll be ready for the really big deals.”

~*~

“You don’t understand,” Murphy said to the lawyer. “I didn’t do anything I wasn’t encouraged to do.” Concentration proved difficult as the attorney happened to be a tall redhead with a spectacular figure, obvious despite her conservative business suit.

“Mr. Scanlon, the–”

“Call me ‘Murph,’ please.”

“According to the formal complaint, you not only made lewd remarks and unwelcome advances, you actually touched these women. With six plaintiffs, I can’t believe we’re even considering letting this go to trial.”

“Y’know, your eyes are unbelievably green. Has anyone ever told you–”

“They’re contacts, Mr. Scanlon, and you can discuss any other observations you’d care to make with my fiancé’.”

“I’m just trying to be friendly.”

“Like with the women in this complaint?”

“That’s not fair! I can tell the difference between ‘No, period’ and ‘No, not yet.'”

“Not according to this.” She waved the complaint before tossing it on the table in disgust. “My first loyalty is to our employer; they’ve retained me to defend you and them. To do it, we’ll need a character reference or two. Is there anyone who’ll vouch for you—a minister perhaps, someone in a service club, your mother?

Murphy shook his head. “The woman who runs the doughnut shop likes me, I think. ‘Course, I don’t know her all that well….”

The attorney drummed her fingers on the conference table. “Anyone else?”

“I’m thinking.”

“Save your energy, Mr. Scanlon. Use it to say good-bye to your assets, assuming we’re lucky enough to work out a settlement.” She gathered his file and slipped it into her briefcase as she stood up.

Murphy stood up as well, but slowly. Then he straightened and smiled. “You doing anything for dinner?”

~*~

“What’s the matter, Mavis? You haven’t picked much. You ain’t even close to quota,” the foreman said. “Besides, you don’t look so good.”

Mavis smiled and nodded, like she always did, though the pain in her belly almost caused her to double over. But if they knew she was sick, they might not let her work, and she couldn’t allow that—it wouldn’t do for folks to see a healer getting sick. As soon as the foreman looked away, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the last of the green-gray leaves which had sustained her in the fields. She chewed them slowly, waiting for the numbness to begin.

“We gotta finish here today,” the foreman said. “There’s a bunch of rich Yankees comin’ to inspect the place and we gotta look modern. That means y’all have to stay outta sight.” He looked at Mavis. “You understand? You better get movin’ now, as slow as you are.”

~*~

“Hello, Dad?” Aaron addressed the speakerphone built into his desk, just one of the perks he received as the CEO of D. Webster and Associates. “It’s great to hear your voice. Do you like the retirement home? Need anything?”

“No, I’m fine,” Solomon said. “They take good care of me here. Any chance you might get away for a visit?”

“I doubt it. In fact, I only have a few minutes right now. You wouldn’t believe what I’m working on, Dad, it’s the biggest, and toughest, deal of my career. In fact–”

“A tough one, huh? I remember my last one. The Middle East Peace Treaty was the hardest deal I ever worked on.”

Aaron smiled. “I’ll call you when I can.”

~*~

Murph needed time to think on his way back to the office and took the long route, along the beaches on the coast.

The company agreed to keep him on the payroll though his days as a Supervisor were over, and what he owed from the settlement meant he could forget about early retirement, unless he won the lottery. But then, he’d just been served with divorce papers, so even that might not be enough.

What I could use is a little something to take my mind off my troubles.

As if in answer to a prayer, he saw a woman in the distance struggling to change a flat tire by the side of the road. He didn’t need to make out much detail, the contrast between her tan and her white bikini was enough.

He never saw the 18-wheeler he turned in front of. Few attended the closed-casket service.

~*~

Mavis was embarrassed by the fuss everyone made over her. They brought more food than she could ever eat, tried to comfort her, and kept her company, though most of the time she just slept. She couldn’t tell them where to find the green-gray leaves she needed for her pain.

The foreman’s daughter brought a puppy to cheer her. It snuggled in the crook of her bony arm, as if it and the Bible at her side were bookends. Mavis relaxed, forever.

Though they buried her in a pauper’s grave, the service was conducted by three different ministers and the cemetery was crowded with mourners.

~*~

“Aaron? Are you all right? You’ve been out of touch so long I was getting worried.”

Aaron smiled into the phone. “I’m fine, Dad, really, but very tired.” And I won’t be wheezing anymore.

“A tough merger, huh? But you pulled it off?”

“Just barely,” Aaron said, knowing it was a deal no one would ever top. “I wish I could tell you about it, but–”

“No, Son, I understand.”

“I knew you would. Anyway, you’ll know all about it eventually, everybody will. Let’s just say the negotiations were out of this world—way out.”

“I’m very proud of you.”

Aaron smiled.

“By the way,” Solomon said, “did I ever tell you about my worst disaster?”

~*~

Murphy awoke propped in a wooden chair with a cane seat that pinched him every time he moved. Still, it beat not moving because it was the most uncomfortable thing he’d ever sat in. He tried to stand, but an unseen force pressed him down. Nor was the chair the only thing he couldn’t get away from. The surface of his desk was obscured by a legion of red phones—all ringing. It was eight A.M. on a Monday, as he instinctively knew it would be for all time.

Memories came back slowly; his orientation to this place had been quick and confusing. It was conducted by a man in a white robe and a woman who appeared to be wearing nothing but red paint. The man looked uneasy and apologized, explaining the disarray as a by-product of what he called the “ultimate merger.” The woman didn’t say much. She spent most of her time laughing, though there was no humor in it.

Murphy looked across the corridor at a woman lounging in a leather-upholstered swivel chair. She smiled happily as she spoke into a white telephone, dashed off a note, and appeared the very picture of blissful efficiency.

He stared at the nameplate on her desk. Mavis? What in hell kind of a name is that?

~End~

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I Love Cautionary Tales

Eventually, I’ll get back to offering writing advice, but for now, I’m going with another short story. This one first appeared in the anthology Between the Darkness and the Fire published in 1998. It has been reprinted a number of times since. It’s one of my favorites and is loosely based on my teenage years in Atlanta (and someone I knew way back then). Memories can be amazing sources of story material. Feel free to let me know what you think.

 

Tiffany waited for Don to open her door, then slid out of the car slowly, so he’d get an eyeful as her fashionably short skirt rode up during her exit. It was the least she could do in exchange for his willingness to cut Friday afternoon classes with her and provide protection on the trip to Cabbage Town, ground zero for much of Atlanta’s down-and-out.

Most white teens wouldn’t have the nerve to drive into that part of town under normal circumstances, let alone a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., but when Tiffany set her mind to doing something, it usually got done. Neither the law nor common sense could dissuade her.

She leaned seductively against Don’s side and patted his cheek, then moved away. “C’mon, it’s got to be around here somewhere.” She searched for street numbers but few of the squalid buildings displayed them. The cracked cement sidewalks, littered with cigarette butts and broken glass, provided treacherous footing. She stepped around a shirtless derelict lying on his back against a storefront; a huge parrot tattoo obscured his chest.

Don frowned at the man on the sidewalk, then looked at her.  “When your old man finds out you got a tattoo he’ll kill you. No–he’ll kill me for helping you!”

Tiffany laughed. “It’s only going to be a little one, not like that monster.” She pointed at the bum’s chest. “My parents are so anal, they never let me do anything. Besides, Daddy probably won’t even notice it; he never looks at me anyway.”

Don gave her the kind of long, appreciative gaze she’d come to expect from all males. “Yeah, sure.”

Tiffany held his hand as they walked past more squalor and misery. They stopped near a wall covered with posters for rap concerts while a breathy preacher railed against the ungodly from an unseen radio. Tiffany touched a square of hand-lettered cardboard taped to a door. It read: “Old World Skin Art.” She thought briefly of turning back, but when Don held the door for her she realized he was daring her to go through with it. Fine, she’d show him, too.

Inside, a thin, old woman with skin the color of dried blood sat in a folding chair to one side of the nearly empty room. A boy, not more than twelve, leaned against the wall behind her smoking an unfiltered cigarette. The stale smell of tobacco smoke mixed with the heavy odor of sweat in the poorly lit room.

Beside the woman stood a rickety card table, its surface crowded with small bottles and jars of various colors. A wooden mallet and a pair of finely honed icepicks lay beside them. A gooseneck reading lamp rounded out the array.

Tiffany eyed the collection hesitantly before speaking. “I want a tattoo.”

“No shit,” said the boy. He took a deep drag on his cigarette and blew smoke rings toward the ceiling. “Well, Mama Bim’s the best, if you got enough money.”

Tiffany shrugged. “How much for a ladybug?”

Don put his hand on Tiffany’s elbow. “I don’t think–”

“Butt out,” she said. “How much?”

The boy dropped his cigarette on the floor and crushed it under his basketball shoe. “That depends. How big? Where you want it?” Mama Bim stared at her but remained silent and still.

“I want a tiny one, here.” Tiffany slipped off her sandal and raised her leg. Resting her foot lightly on a corner of the table, she pointed to a spot on the top, between her ankle and her toes.

“Come on, Tif, this–”

“Get a life, Don!”

“Two hun’erd,” said the boy.

“That’s a lot.”

“Like I said, Mama Bim’s the best. You can always find somebody cheaper.”

Underage and impatient, Tiffany had few choices. “Can she do it now? How long will it take?”

The boy patted the old woman’s shoulder gently. She nodded and spoke, her voice like gravel in a can, “I do quick.” She clicked on the lamp. With a few strokes of a stubby pencil, Mama Bim sketched a dime-sized cartoon on a scrap of paper and handed it to Tiffany. “Like that?”

The girl smiled. “Yeah! Only make it smaller.”

The boy shoved a wooden chair toward her, and Mama Bim patted it with the flat of her hand. “Foot go here,” she said.

Holding Don’s shoulder for balance, Tiffany raised her leg. The seat of the chair felt cool against her instep. The old woman massaged her foot with papery-skinned hands. Tiffany shivered as if the devil had licked her spine.

Mama Bim put a bottle of black ink on the chair and adjusted the lamp. As she reached for an icepick and the mallet, Tiffany’s mouth went dry. “Wait a minute. I thought tattoos were done with some kind of electric gizmo.”

“Mama Bim’s tattoos are different. So are her methods.”

Tiffany blinked. “Will it hurt?”

The boy lit a cigarette and waved out the match. He looked at her with cold, reptilian eyes. “Hell yes,” he said.

~*~

On Monday, as soon as her summer school Civics teacher turned to the chalkboard, Tiffany slipped off her sandal, extended a smooth, tanned leg up the aisle between the desks, and waited for someone to notice the ladybug. Surrounded by guys, she knew the discovery wouldn’t take long.

“Check it out!” whispered a tall blond from the swim team. He pointed at the red and black figure and smiled. “Way cool, Tif. Where’d you get it?”

Tiffany brushed a cascade of perfect curls past her shoulder and shrugged. “Downtown.”

“I thought you had to be eighteen.”

“Not if you have connections.” She flashed her brightest smile at him.

“Did it hurt?”

Tiffany felt the shine fade from her smile as the memory of the ink-tipped icepick came back to her. She forced those thoughts aside. “Sure it hurt, but it was worth it.”

“What’d your folks say?” asked the dark-eyed running back in the desk just ahead of hers.

Laughing, she said, “Watch,” and slipped her foot back into her sandal. The strap across the top completely covered the tattoo. “They haven’t said anything.”

The running back grinned. When the bell rang, he accompanied her from the classroom and down the hall. “It looks awesome, but weren’t you afraid of catching AIDS or something?”

“You sound like my dad,” Tiffany said. “The first time I told him I wanted one, he got really pissed. Told me I’d end up with hepatitis or cancer or… or dandruff! He owns a car dealership–what does he know about tattoos?”

“Was it expensive?”

“A little. I’m supposed to go back in a week or two because they said they needed to ‘fix it,’ or something, but that costs extra. Besides, it looks fine; there’s nothing to fix. They must think I’m stupid.”

~*~

Within two weeks, everyone who mattered had seen the tattoo, except her parents. Tiffany resigned herself to covering her feet whenever they were around, which meant she’d have to be careful out by the pool. She smiled just thinking about alternative places to sunbathe. Whenever she climbed into a bikini–the only swimwear she owned–she preferred to be in a place where somebody other than her parents could see her anyway.

Tiffany stepped into a pair of sporty new loafers as she prepared to go shopping, and was surprised to see the ladybug in plain view. She’d tried on dozens at the mall before she found a pair that was stylish and kept the tattoo hidden–perfect for wearing around the house. Yet, there it sat, in plain view, and the colors didn’t even match her outfit. Had the idiot clerk given her the wrong pair? She inspected them, but everything appeared normal.

Kneeling, she inspected the tattoo as well. Suddenly, her breath deserted her. Not only did the artwork look larger than before, it was noticeably closer to her ankle. Not even the shape remained as it had the day she got it.

Feeling sick, she sat on the floor, grabbed a phone and called Don. He answered on the second ring.

“Don! Thank God. I need your help. It’s my tattoo. I think it’s moving!”

He laughed.

“It’s not funny, damn it!”

“It’s funny you suddenly need me again. You haven’t said two words to me since you got that thing.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.” She let her voice go soft. “Will you let me make it up to you? Please?”

“I don’t–”

“Please?” She whispered her plea.

“I guess.”

Tiffany imagined the smile on his face. “Good, I’d like that.” She held her breath for a moment, then went on. “So, can we go back today? I’m free this morning.”

“I’m not,” Don said. “How ’bout tonight?”

She’d have to cancel her date with the running back. No problem. “Fine. Around five? I hope they’ll still be open.”

“Sure.”

“Thanks.” She hung up and took another look at the tattoo. The oval ladybug had become rectangular, its six legs had become eight. The lines drifted into four distinct pairs. Even the polka dots were losing their shape. What had been a cheery, colorful design was rapidly turning into an ugly smear.

~*~

The streets of Cabbage Town were more crowded than before. They had to leave the car farther from the shop, and Tiffany huddled close to Don as they walked. She half expected to see the sleeping drunk they’d stepped over the last time.

They reached Mama Bim’s ratty storefront and opened the door. The room’s sole occupant was the chain-smoking boy. He sat in the old woman’s chair and glanced up as they entered. “Well, look who’s here.”

Tiffany stuck out her foot and pointed to the tattoo. “I want this fixed, now!”

“Can’t,” said the boy. “I don’t know how. And Mama Bim, she don’t work this late.”

“It’s not even six o’clock,” Tiffany said. “Besides, this is an emergency.”

The boy laughed. “Mama Bim don’t do emergencies.”

Don clamped his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “How’d you like an emergency of your own?” He applied pressure until the boy squealed.

A door opened. “What’s goin’ on?” asked Mama Bim, her voice raspy. Using a cane for support, she stood at the back of the room. “You want trouble?”

She rapped on the wall behind her, and the drunk with the parrot on his chest stepped into view. The design had changed. The bird’s wings were spread, and the man’s Adam’s apple made its head appear three-dimensional. The whites of the derelict’s eyes seemed oddly bright; he had a hunted, feral look.

“No, we don’t want any trouble,” Tiffany said. “We’re here because there’s something wrong with my tattoo. You said we should come back so you could fix it.”

The old woman shook her head. “Too late. Last week maybe I fix so it don’t change. Too late now; change already started.”

“What do you mean?” asked Don.

“She tol’ you,” the boy said, rubbing his shoulder. “If she don’t lock in the first design–fix it–it’ll change, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”

“It’s just a stupid tattoo,” shouted Tiffany. “They aren’t supposed to change!”

“No! Not just tattoo.” Indignation gave the ancient woman a regal look. “Art–art from life.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” Tiffany said. “When I tell my father what you’ve done to me, he’ll have you thrown in jail.” She walked to the door and stopped. “Now’s your last chance.”

Mama Bim shook her head. “Last chance was last week.”

~*~

It took Tiffany’s father several days to calm down, but eventually, he managed to share a meal without shouting at her. “I’ve arranged for you to see a specialist,” he said over breakfast. “He’s a laser surgeon. I’m told he’s had great success in removing tattoos.”

“I know what it is, now,” Tiffany said. “It opened its eyes this morning.”

“Did you hear me? I said–”

“Yeah, laser surgery. When?”

“Friday was the earliest he could work you in.”

Tiffany nodded, her eyes slightly unfocused. “I’ve only got to live with it for five more days.”

“I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” he said, pushing his chair back from the table. “The police still haven’t been able to find this Mama Big person.” He stood up and finished the last of his juice.

“Mama Bim.”

“Whatever. See you tonight.”

“Don’t you want to know what it is?”

He looked at her as if he wasn’t quite sure who she was. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”

“It’s a little frog.”

“Charming.”

~*~

By the time Tiffany reached her late morning biology class, the diminutive red and black frog had moved above the top of her white sweat sock. Tiffany hadn’t been feeling well, but when one of the other girls in the class saw the frog and made a big deal of it, Tiffany felt even worse. She’d even developed a nervous twitch that seemed hysterically funny to several classmates.

She slapped a hand over the tattoo and prayed that the lunch bell would ring soon. When it finally did, the room emptied. Tiffany intended to be the last one out.

“May I see it?” asked the teacher as Tiffany walked past her desk. “It’s none of my business, and I really don’t want to embarrass you, but, frankly, the story’s all over the school.”

Tiffany felt her composure crumble; she couldn’t keep her lip from quivering. The teacher stepped around her desk and put her arm around Tiffany’s shoulders. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m just scared. I don’t know what’s happening.”

“I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.”

“I’m going in for laser surgery on Friday,” Tiffany said. “That should be the end of it.”

“You’ll feel better when it’s gone.”

“I hope so, ’cause I sure feel lousy now.”

The teacher felt Tiffany’s forehead. “I’m not surprised. I think you’ve got a fever. Why don’t you sit and relax for a minute? This is your lunch period, isn’t it?”

Tiffany nodded and dropped into a chair beside the desk. She leaned back and stretched her legs.

The teacher stared down at the tattoo. “I’m amazed at how life-like it is–a dendrobate, I believe.”

“The tattoo? No. It’s a frog.”

The teacher smiled. “Correct. A tree frog.” She retrieved a book from a shelf behind the desk and quickly flipped to a selection of color plates. “Here,” she said, pointing to a full-page photo. “That’s a dendrobate–they live in the jungles of Central America. Their skin contains a neurotoxin which the native people sometimes use on the tips of their hunting weapons. In fact, they’re commonly known as Poison Dart or Poison Arrow frogs.”

“Poison?” Tiffany began to feel even worse.

The teacher nodded. “Yes, and quite deadly to smaller animals.”

Tiffany’s pulse quickened. “Would it kill a person?”

“Oh, I doubt it, but there’d probably be enough of the toxin in a single frog to make you pretty sick.”

“I think I’d better go home,” Tiffany said.

~*~

Tiffany couldn’t eat, but whether it was illness or her discomfort with her parents’ anger, she couldn’t tell. Nor did she really care. They’d remained strangely silent through most of dinner. “What is it?” she asked, finally. “I already admitted I made a mistake. What more do you want from me?”

Her father frowned briefly and then looked at his wife. She shrugged. “It’s not you. We heard some disturbing news today.”

Tiffany relaxed a little.

“I received a call from the detective who’s investigating the woman who put that thing on your leg.”

“Mama Bim,” Tiffany said.

“Yes. The detective told me she’s wanted for questioning in connection with the death of a vagrant, some poor man with a tattoo covering his face.”

Tiffany shivered. “Was it a parrot?”

Her father flushed. “How did you know?”

“I saw him earlier. How’d he die?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Daddy! I’m not a child–don’t treat me like one.”

He shrugged. “Apparently, the man choked to death.”

“He was strangled?”

“No,” he said. Tiffany’s mother stood and left the room. “His windpipe was blocked with parrot droppings.”

~*~

Friday had come at last. Tiffany sat in the doctor’s waiting room, shivering. She’d felt too ill even to apply make-up. Waves of nausea alternated with chills as cramps twisted the muscles in her arms and legs. A woman who looked constipated herded her two small children away from Tiffany to the far side of the tastefully-appointed room. Tiffany didn’t care.

She almost wept when her turn finally came. A nurse guided her into the treatment room where the doctor waited. He frowned when he saw her. “You should be home in bed.”

Tiffany shook her head. She forced her words past a tongue grown slightly swollen. “No, I want it off–today. Now!”

“I really hate to do this if you aren’t feeling well,” the doctor said. “While laser surgery isn’t particularly taxing, we can’t guarantee how every patient will react. You understand that we’re going to destroy the dye that’s coloring your skin. You won’t feel much now because we’ll use an anesthetic, but later there’s going to be some discomfort.”

The meaning of the doctor’s words slowly filtered through to her. “Will removing it be as painful as putting it on?”

“Probably worse,” he said. “That’s why I’d prefer you to be strong and healthy before we begin the procedure.”

“No. I can’t afford to wait.” Tiffany searched his face for sympathy. “Because of the frog; it’s trying to kill me.”

The doctor gave her a quizzical look. “The tattoo frog?”

“Yeah.”

He laughed. “Well, we’ll just get him first, then! How about that?”

Tiffany nodded, too weak to discuss it.

The doctor examined her leg. “The important thing is to hold still while I’m working. If you’re all shivery and tense, I won’t be able to focus the beam. You’re sure you feel up to it?”

Tiffany’s muscles ached from cramping, her head hurt as if someone had danced on it, and her mouth was almost too dry to talk. At least the twitching had stopped. Maybe, if she truly concentrated, she could hold her leg motionless while he worked. “Yes,” she said. “But please hurry.”

~*~

Tiffany’s father smiled at her as he took a seat in a chaise lounge beside the pool. “You’re looking chipper,” he said.

She smiled back at him. The laser surgery had been a success. Only a trace of the tattoo, on her calf, remained. In the weeks since the surgery, Tiffany’s health improved steadily. She felt wonderful.

“Nice swimsuit,” he said, “but kinda skimpy. Is it new?”

“Yeah,” she said, laughing. “I needed a white one.”

He shook his head. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you out here all summer.”

“Please, don’t remind me.” Tiffany rolled over on her stomach and propped herself on her elbows. “I’ve neglected my tan too long. I’m as pale as this suit.” She pushed a tube of suntan lotion toward him. “Still, I don’t want to get burned. Would you give me a hand?”

“Sure.” He knelt beside her and squirted a dab of lotion on her back. After smoothing it across her shoulders, he worked his way down her legs, then stopped. “That’s funny,” he said. “I didn’t know you had freckles.”

Tiffany sat up quickly. “Where?”

“All over your legs.”

Grasping her knees, she peered intently at the little spots. The color drained from her face.

“What is it, Tif? What’s the matter?”

“They aren’t freckles,” she said as a tear rolled down her cheek. “They’re tadpoles.”

~End~

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Who Else Would You Ask, If You Could?

This week’s offering is another short story, though it wasn’t inspired by anything European. This one is as All-American as it gets. Feel free to let me know what you think of it in the comments section below. Thanks!  (Copyright © 2019 Josh Langston)

The text floated in the center of the room; three readers—two of them dead—scanned each line as it appeared.

The count was two and two. Mason stepped back from the box, adjusted his grip on the bat and wished like hell he could spit. He eyed the bulky figure squatting behind the plate and longed to park a defiant wad near the big bastard’s foot, or maybe even on it, but only a moron would spit in a space helmet.

“That’s good. That’s really good, kid. I know just how he feels,” Cobb said.

Tim wasn’t entirely comfortable with using profanity, but the writing assignment had stressed the need for realism. He let the text scroll on.

Mason squared himself and turned his head to the mound. Despite his polarized faceplate, he squinted at the reflected sunlight glinting from several of the metal fittings on the pitcher’s suit. For the hundredth time he cursed the sweat trickling from his forehead.

“And I know that feeling,” offered Armstrong. “Pure torture.”

One spot in particular, where the foam padding failed to form a seal against his left temple, allowed pooled sweat to drip down his cheek. The resulting itch would have driven him nuts if there hadn’t been so many other things to choose from, like the pitcher. Like all of them: short and heavy with arms a gorilla would envy, except, he noted idly, gorillas were extinct.

Cobb groaned, “Yer gettin’ off the subject.”

“Oh, take it easy.” Neil Armstrong eyed the old ballplayer from Tim’s bed where the lanky astronaut was comfortably sprawled. “He’s got to put something in there to set the stage. Can’t have just baseball stuff if–”

“All I know is baseball. I know it better’n anything. If the kid’s gonna write a baseball story, he oughta stick to the basics and not get sidetracked.” Ty Cobb’s long legs dangled from the front of his straight back chair. It stood a foot or so from the wall and leaned sharply back.

Tim could see the trash can through which Cobb leaned. The ghost-like images of the two men both charmed and chilled him.

“Listen, guys,” Tim said, “I need your help if I’m gonna finish this thing. If all you’re gonna do is argue, then I guess I’ll have to get somebody else.” Even as he said it, Tim knew it wasn’t true. Calling up an Expert on the experimental system was tricky, but not impossible. Finding another baseball player or another astronaut/aeronautical engineer was another matter entirely. There were simply too many professions to be synthesized to allow more than one Expert per field, at least during the developmental stage.

Besides, he had no idea if these particular Experts had been programmed to respond to threats. He doubted it.

The baseball player appeared too intensely interested in the cuticle of his left index finger to comment. Finally, he broke the silence. “What’s this about ‘gorillas’? I thought this was a baseball story.”

“It is,” Tim said.

“On the moon, right?”

“Right.”

“Will you please let him work,” snapped Armstrong. “Our job is to answer questions.”

Tim restarted the scroll.

“Gimme somethin’,” muttered Mason. He dug his cleated boots into the surface.

The wind-up seemed slow compared to the delivery. The last few pitches had all been the same–screamers, high and tight. Except that “screamer” implies sound and without an atmosphere, there wasn’t any. More like meteorites, thought Mason. The next pitch was coming.

“Jesus!” Mason gasped after yanking his head back to avoid the missile. He heard a low tone in his earphone. Full count.

“Low tone?” Cobb asked.

“Yeah. Means the umpire called it a ball,” Armstrong said.

“He didn’t say nuthin’?”

“It isn’t that smart. It just monitors the position of the ball relative to the plate.”

“It?”

“The umpire’s a machine,” Tim said.

“Reckon I’ve heard ’em called worse.”

“Good call,” Mason said. He watched the catcher return the ball to the mound in a single fluid motion. The creature didn’t even shift position for the throw.

Time for an adjustment, thought Mason, I’ll just ease back from the plate a little. If the next pitch came in like all the others, he’d go for it. Probably have to come around pretty hard, but maybe he could send it down the first base line.

“Okay,” he muttered, “bring it on.”

“What inning is it again?” Armstrong asked.

“Bottom of the ninth,” Cobb said.

“Two outs?”

“One.”

The pitcher’s head swiveled on motionless shoulders, taking in the position of the runner at first, a kid named Johnson. The head swiveled back.

Mason swallowed. He watched the now-familiar, easy rocking motion that heralded the next launch. The pitcher came to a full stop, his glove hiding the ball in front of him. He held the pose briefly before stepping back, his throwing arm scribing the lower part of an arc.

Suddenly, the pitcher became immobile, like a robot that had just lost power. It stood motionless for a moment, then straightened up, arms falling to either side.

“Balk!” Cobb yelled. “It’s a balk.” He looked at Tim and rocked his phantom chair forward until it stood upright. “The runner advances. It’s automatic.”

“That’s not what I had in mind,” Tim said.

“Doesn’t matter. It’s a balk.”

Armstrong’s see-through figure sat forward, too. “Cobb, you’ve gotta be the most hard-headed, ill-mannered–”

Cobb crossed his arms. “Rules is rules. All I–”

Tim stabbed two fingers at the control console. Instantly, the two historical figures froze, then dissolved, along with their argument.

Tim tried to rub the headache from his temples; it didn’t work. With the program canceled, there was no need to continue the power feed to the neural net. He flipped one more switch on the console. The text was safely stored in his own computer which he also powered down. It was late. He should have returned the machine to his mother’s office hours ago, but since no one else was home he’d used the extra time to his advantage.

The machine was small but extremely heavy. He said a silent thank you to his mother for having the foresight to mount the experimental unit on casters. He rolled it out of his room then down the hall and into her office.

Once back in his own room, he slipped out of his shoes and collapsed into bed.The alarm clock buzzed a few inches from Tim’s ear.

“Five,” he groaned, and the clock went silent for precisely 300 seconds. When it started up the second time, it was louder than before. Tim decided whoever came up with that concept should be put to death. Immediately.

“Okay,” he mumbled, but not loud enough to satisfy the clock. The mechanical bee continued to buzz.

“Okay!” This time the command was met with silence.

After a quick shower, Tim fixed himself a bite to eat and rolled the workstation back into his bedroom.

Though his mother usually spent her waking hours at the university, she would occasionally come home unannounced. She often brought an administrator or two. Therefore, Tim had no intention of leaving the machine out of position. Not that Dr. Thomas would be angry, she generally allowed him considerable latitude when it came to his studies. The problem was the school officials. The university had lavished hard-won grant money on the neural net. The bean counters wouldn’t be happy to learn that a professor’s son was using it to do his homework.

“Time to wake up the Experts.” He reached for the controls.

Until the advent of the neural net, the term “Expert program” had only one meaning. In the traditional sense, it was a program which “learned” and then acted on the new knowledge. Most often employed in manufacturing and monitoring situations, the programs adjusted to varied input and chose appropriately from sets of responses provided by humans.

Tim powered up the net and linked it with the University system. Security was nonexistent since no one could gain access unless they were equipped with one of the heavy, super-cooled devices at Tim’s feet. His mother was the unit’s principal designer, and only a dozen prototypes had been built.

A single cable allowed command strings to be fed from Tim’s computer to the net. He kicked off the retrieval sequence for Tyrus Raymond (“Ty”) Cobb.

In moments the ghostly, three-dimensional image of the feisty ballplayer from the previous century was projected near the wall beside Tim’s desk. The image was based on photos taken of Cobb late in his career. Though dressed in his Detroit Tigers uniform, he carried a straight back chair instead of bat, ball, or glove. Tim wondered what the programmers who did the simulacrum had in mind.

Cobb promptly sat in his chair and rocked backward until it rested on phantom back legs against the wall. He looked in Tim’s direction and nodded a silent greeting.

“Mornin’,” Tim said.

The ballplayer began his never-ending inspection of the cuticle on his left index finger. Tim hoped the programmers had supplied his other Expert with a few more mannerisms or at least made him more sociable. He keyed in the retrieval sequence for Neil Alden Armstrong.

The second apparition came into focus as quickly as the first and walked directly to Tim’s bed and sat down. Of course, the image had no mass and could not really interact with its surroundings, but that hadn’t stopped the programmers from devising a method of scanning the projection “surface” and calling up routines to allow the image to appear to interact. Armstrong stretched out, his head floating slightly off the pillow.

“Welcome back,” Tim said. “Ready?”

“Roger,” Armstrong said.

Cobb nodded.

Tim pressed a few keys, and the text of his story materialized in the center of the room.

After a matter of seconds, the pitcher restarted his wind-up.

“I still say it’s a balk,” Cobb said.

“Give it a rest, will you?” Armstrong turned to Tim. “Go on kid, you’re doing fine.”

Mason had no idea what the pitcher was up to but guessed it had something to do with the way he addressed the plate. He stepped forward.

The pitcher’s mound seemed miles away due to the field’s exaggerated dimensions. Mason knew he’d have a hard time spotting the ball, especially if it arrived on an absolutely flat trajectory, but he was as ready as he’d ever be.

“I don’t get it,” Cobb said.

Tim looked at the grizzled ballplayer. “Get what?”

“Nobody can throw an absolutely flat pitch. I know, and I’ve seen some of the best. Fastballs, sliders, curves, hell, it don’t matter. The ball’s gonna move. Maybe down, maybe away, maybe inside. But not flat.”

“Oh, really?” Armstrong asked. “Have you ever thrown a rock on the moon?”

“‘Course not. Have you?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh.”

“The kid’s right,” Armstrong said. “The ball would move faster, but you can forget about curves and sliders.”

“Why?”

“No air. There’s nothing for the surface of the ball to react against. Knuckleball? Forget it. It’d float out there like it was hung on a string.”

“Change-up?”

“Might work, but it’d get to the plate in slow motion, just like a knuckler.”

“A hitter’s dream.” Cobb sighed.

“Maybe.”

Tim advanced the text.

Mason saw the wind-up, but not the ball, since the grey-white blur was nearly camouflaged by the pitcher’s suit. He tensed, held his swing for a fraction of a second and then whipped the bat around for all he was worth. He made contact over the outside of the plate, his swing carrying him full-circle.

The coach’s voice in his headset screamed at him to run. The bat drifted slowly away as he began the marathon charge toward first base some 165 meters away. He had no idea where the ball was. A homer maybe? He couldn’t tell; the leveled edge of the crater which served as the outfield fence was beyond the horizon.

“Now just hold on here,” Cobb drawled. “I’d kinda like to know when the fence got shoved into another state.”

Armstrong’s eyes and nostrils flared in unison. “It’s because they’re playing on the moon, you idi–”

“Uhm, I can explain,” Tim said. A fight might be interesting, assuming the programmers had coded some hand-to-hand combat routines. He made a mental note to check that out later. “I had to stretch the size of the field because any decent hit would almost put the ball in orbit.”

“He’s right again,” Armstrong said.

“So, how far is it to the center field fence?”

“I’m picturing the crater’s edge at about 700 meters from home plate,” Tim said.

Cobb looked dubious. “What’s that in real terms?”

“Real?”

“He means feet and inches,” said the astronaut.

“Feet’ll do.”

Armstrong looked at Cobb with an absolutely straight face. “Guess you’d call it a ‘ballpark’ figure.”

Tim ignored him. “If a field on Earth is around 400 feet, it’d be around 2,400 on the moon, assuming one-sixth gravity. I didn’t figure in any differences for atmosphere.”

2,400?” Cobb whistled. “Tough park.”

Mason lumbered toward first with a modified skip-step. He glanced to his left to check on the runner moving to second. He still had no idea where the ball was.

“Hustle, Mason!” The coach’s voice in his headphone was insistent. Precious little distance remained between Mason and first base when the coach yelled again, “Go for two!”

Mason rounded the bag and clumped toward second; his teammate headed for third as the ball sailed in on a shallow arc. The shortstop took it chest-high, whirled, and fired it toward third.

Mason watched in horror as the runner took a last, exaggerated step toward the base while twisting to look over his shoulder at the same time. The ball streaked in and careened off his faceplate; the third baseman followed it into left field. The runner crumpled.

From second, Mason screamed, “Time!” and raced toward the downed man who grabbed at his facemask.

“Smart,” Cobb said. “Can’t leave base without callin’ time first.”

“What an incurable romantic,” Armstrong said.

Mason reached Johnson, dropped to his knees and looked up at the players from the other team for assistance. They offered none. The third baseman strolled over and touched them both with the ball.

Mason glared at him.

Air boiled out of a crack in the thoroughly fogged faceplate of Johnson’s helmet. Mason could only imagine the terror on the player’s face.

“Stand by.” The voice of the trainer rang calmly in Mason’s ear, though the calm was not intended for him. “We’re on our way.”

Mason looked over his shoulder and saw several figures headed in his direction. They carried an inflated medevac tube and auxiliary life-support gear. Mason pressed gloved hands on the damaged faceplate hoping to cut off any more escaping air. The effort seemed futile.

Cobb grunted. “Believe I’d be gorilla huntin’ on my next slide.”

“Bad idea,” Armstrong said.

“Why? Ya gotta look out for your own; can’t just let ’em beat the crap out of ya’.”

“I meant sliding would be a bad idea. Might tear the suit.”

“I don’t think so,” Tim said. “The fabric used in suits nowadays is pretty tough.”

“Too bad he can’t file those cleats—make ’em a little more interesting.” Cobb glanced back at the text.

The emergency team pushed Mason out of the way and quickly zippered the injured player inside the medevac tube. Once sealed, the interior was pressurized and flooded with oxygen. The injured man was hastily carried off the field.

Mason got to his feet.

“Back to second.” The coach’s voice was tense, “Game’s not over yet.”

“Who’s runnin’ for Johnson at third?”

“Nobody. Johnson’s out.”

“They’re gonna count that tag?”

“Sure. Cameras had him from two different angles. He never touched the base.”

“Wonderful. Will he be okay?” Mason didn’t know him well; the player had just joined the team.

“Dunno, probably. Just concentrate on the game. We only need one run.”

Mason passed the shortstop on his way back to second. Like the others, it crouched motionless between pitches. Mason wondered if it was even alive.

The last of the text scrolled out of sight.

“That’s it so far,” Tim said. “I wanted to finish it this afternoon and then have you two look at it.”

“Fine with me,” Armstrong said.

Cobb nodded. “It ain’t like we’re going somewhere.”

“It’s just…” Tim’s voice trailed off.

“What?” asked the astronaut.

“I’m not sure which way to go with the ending.”

“Can’t help you there,” Cobb said. “Rules is rules.”

Tim shrugged. “I know. It’s gotta be my own work.”

He reached down to the console and flipped a switch. The images of the Experts faded away. Cobb’s response neither surprised nor disappointed him. The assignment was typical of a mid-term for courses leading to a Holistic Liberal Arts degree.

Everything about the program was interdisciplinary. Tim was expected to meld diverse ideas in unusual settings. The baseball story was his attempt to do just that.

Tim completed the story by mid-afternoon. Unless the Experts found major problems with it, he figured he’d have something suitable to turn in by the following morning’s deadline. The phone hummed just as he prepared to summon Cobb and Armstrong. He thumbed a switch on the edge of his desk, and his mother’s image appeared on his monitor.

“Hi,” he said. “Another long weekend?”

“Yes.” She sighed. “More problems with the net. Some of the Experts have been acting a little less than professional.”

“Oh? Anything serious?”

“Probably not. Anyway, I remembered you wanted to give the system a try and thought I’d warn you not to take anything an Expert says too seriously.”

“Now there’s an interesting piece of advice.” Tim laughed. “I know they aren’t real.”

Dr. Thomas smiled at him from the screen. “Wish I could be home sooner, but–”

“I know, ‘duty calls.'”

“It also pays the bills. Love you. Don’t wait up.” Her image faded.

Tim smiled and shook his head. He tapped in the codes for the ballplayer and the astronaut. In moments the three were reviewing Tim’s text.

Mason eased off the bag toward third. He wasn’t about to be fooled by the power in the catcher’s throwing arm, so he kept close enough to get back if the need arose. He watched as the first two pitches blistered past the batter: strikes. Both appeared high and inside. Damn strange strike zone, thought Mason, but if arguing with an umpire was futile, arguing with a mechanical one was downright stupid.

The third pitch started like the previous two, a missile headed unerringly for the plate. For some reason, the catcher flinched. The ball glanced off his glove and angled away with only slightly less speed than it had on impact. Instantly, the catcher was up and in pursuit.

Just as quickly, the coach’s voice rang out. “Run, Mason, run!” he screamed. Mason ran.

Taking giant, loping strides, Mason prayed he’d be able to stop without overshooting the target or having his headgear shattered by an angry throw.

The third baseman was crouched, arms extended toward home, blocking his path. Mason had too much momentum to stop standing up. He’d have to slide.

“Hot damn,” Cobb said. “Hope he gets those cleats up!”

Armstrong frowned. “Is it true you played with Attila the Hun?”

“Not that I recall. There was a big Swedish kid played for us one year. I forget his name, but he had a hell of an arm.”

“Never mind.”

“Couldn’t hit shit in a sock–”

“I said never mind!”

After seeing Johnson’s faceplate damaged, Mason had no intention of trying a head-first slide. He shifted his weight and leaped, legs outstretched.

He didn’t see the catcher release the ball, but he saw the blur as it headed for the base. Mason hit the surface and slid behind the defender.

He rolled to his left and flung out an arm to anchor himself to the bag as he went by. During one of those insane, adrenalin-induced moments of lucidity that seem to slow time to a crawl, Mason wondered what would happen if he pulled the bag loose and kept on sliding. Would he be safe as long as he hung on?

“Never thought of that,” muttered Cobb.

Armstrong squinted at him. “Amazing.”

“What would happen?” asked the ballplayer.

Tim grinned. “I’ve no idea. Besides, you’re the Expert.”

Cobb suddenly rediscovered the cuticle on his left index finger.

Third base held. Mason waited until the defender threw the ball back to the mound before he got up.

Despite tremendous advances in technology, space suits still weren’t as supple as sweatsuits. He got to his feet, but Mason was still winded.

“Good job,” said the coach.

“Thanks.” Mason eyed the brute roaming toward him then glanced back at the batter. The count was displayed in colored lights above the umpire: one green, two red.

While everyone concentrated on the scene between the mound and the tableau at home plate, no one saw the third baseman step down on Mason’s foot, pinning him to the bag. He was too startled to cry out, which was all the time it took for the defender to step away from him, the picture of innocence.

“That’s low,” Armstrong said. “Could he get away with something like that?”

Cobb grimaced. “Only once, if I was in the game.”

Mason was capable of only one thought: PUNCTURE! “Coach! Oh gawd. Coach–” he called, staring down at his boot, expecting to see a mixture of blood and air boiling out into the vacuum. Which is when the batter laid a perfect bunt down the third base line.

“Wake up, Mason!” screamed the coach.

“But my–” he started, then realized there was no damage. “I–“

“Run!”

As he left the base, Mason elbowed the third baseman in the gut. There didn’t seem to be any reaction, but he hoped it might at least slow the creature down. Mason surged toward home with the defender close behind.

The pitcher scrambled toward the ball which shot down the base path. Mason leaped to avoid him. The coach’s voice in his earphone urged him on.

All knees and elbows in his mad dash for home, Mason thought briefly of how Johnson had been cut down only minutes before. He shook it off and ran harder.

He was dimly aware of the ball sailing past his shoulder and saw it smack into the catcher’s mitt. He narrowed his focus to a single objective. He was going to the plate whether the catcher stood in his way or not. If that meant taking parts of the big monkey with him, then so be it.

The catcher had the ball and faced Mason flat-footed. The distance between them evaporated. Running hard, Mason put his head down.

The catcher braced himself for the impact.

The collision occurred in silence.

~The End~

The last of the text rolled off the screen.

“Bravo,” Armstrong said. “A bit Zen for my tastes, but well done.”

Tim grinned.

“That’s it?” Cobb asked. “You’re gonna leave it like that?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Well, because ya’ just can’t! It– It ain’t finished.”

Tim smiled, reached down to the console and touched the control studs. Cobb and Armstrong evaporated.

Standing beside his desk, Tim stretched and yawned. He almost looked forward to his next midterm and even had a few ideas. Indeed, he couldn’t help but wonder how Peyton Manning and Jacques Cousteau would get along.

~End~

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