A Fairy Free Fairy Tale

Here’s a new bit of fiction I hope you’ll enjoy. It’s a tad longer than usual, but I have faith your time will be well spent. I had hoped traveling in Europe would suggest some new material, and that most definitely happened. This is the first of those new stories.

The Crown and the Crone

“It’s time for a name change,” she said, smiling at herself in the mirror from behind long, raven tresses. “The old Magda is dead.”

She slipped into a lacy undergarment which somehow, free of magic, supported her bountiful cleavage; it would take some time to adjust to her new dimensions. The lingerie bordered on perfect needing only a pinch here, a pull there. Satisfied, she placed a graceful hand on her shapely hip and turned toward the window. Her smooth and freshly bleached flesh would benefit from a bit of sunlight.

“Perhaps I should become a Heather,” she mused then glanced at Filch, an associate from the old days. The feline gave no hint he’d even heard her question. She assumed he was an associate no more, thanks to her agreement with the warlock. Such is life, she thought, then turned her attention back to the question of a name change. “No,” she told herself, “Heather won’t do.” The name reminded her of the color green and ridding herself of that had cost too much.

“Fawn, perhaps?” She turned her head from side to side admiring the reflection of her now tiny nose, and the soft, mole-free contours of her formerly knobby chin. Her teeth were perfect, her tummy flat, her butt tucked, and her feet dainty. She was, unquestionably, the most desirable witch who ever lived. “But Fawn? No. Too dainty.” And beneath her new exterior she remained anything but dainty.

Still admiring her image in the full-length mirror, she relaxed. Names were silly things. She’d find the right one in good time, and if not, Magda would do.

“The old saying holds,” she said, quoting it, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

And she would prove it. “Look out, Prince Charming, you asshole. Magda’s coming!”

~*~

King Laurence had been ill for months, and turmoil threatened the land.

Everyone from Lord Evan, the High Chamberlain and the King’s closest advisor, to the lowest scullery maid assumed the great monarch was the last of his line. The once formidable presence had outlived every known heir. The search for a successor had been intense, but fruitless. The other lords of the realm petitioned the crown for permission to conduct their own search, one limited to the nobility which had served Laurence during his family’s long and peaceful reign.

Though it pained him, the king acquiesced. “So be it,” he whispered to his Chamberlain. “With any luck, I’ll be dead before those jackals choose my replacement.”

In the kingdom’s dark past, several of the families had battled ferociously to gain the throne. Laurence’s grandfather had found a way to subdue them all and established a bountiful peace which lasted for generations. That the land might be thrown back into bloody turmoil had everyone from lord to lackey fearing for the future.

Then, as if decreed by the gods themselves, a whisper of hope arrived in the guise of a young man who claimed to share King Laurence’s bloodline. The High Chamberlain agreed to judge the claim and summoned the youthful petitioner who marched straight through his quarters, ignoring the high ceiling, the massive windows, and the lavish furnishings.

Stopping before the official seated behind an expansive desk, the new arrival took a breath, summoned all his courage and focused on projecting the proper image. Anything less could spell his doom.

“I’ve heard your claim,” said the Chamberlain. “Why should I believe you? Why should anyone believe you, for that matter? You come unannounced, unaccompanied, and unknown. I don’t even know your name.”

“You may address me as Prince Harmon, milord. King Laurence is my father.”

The official regarded the young man with undisguised skepticism. “Your father?

“Indeed.”

“How odd he never mentioned you.”

“He and my mother spent very little time together.”

“Enough, evidently, to generate an heir.” The High Chamberlain drummed his fingers on the heavy desk. “Can you prove your lineage? Where is this woman with whom you claim the King dallied?”

“Alas, she’s no longer among the living,” Harmon said. “She succumbed to a swamp demon.”

“A what?” The High Chamberlain laughed out loud. “What would a noblewoman be doing anywhere near a swamp?”

“The best she could, milord; she did the best she could.”

“This is absurd!” The Chamberlain slapped his hand on the desk. “I should have you thrown in irons!”

The young man merely smiled and offered his hand for inspection. “Do you recognize this ring?”

The King’s premier bureaucrat stared at the ring with the gold-encrusted gem on the youngster’s middle finger. “How? Who? Where did you get that?”

“T’was a gift of gratitude from the King to my mother.”

“That ring has been missing since the reign of Laurence’s grandfather, King Stefan.”

“Missing?” The young man chuckled. “My mother and I have known its whereabouts all my life. I cannot speak for anyone else’s.”

“Remove the ring. I’ll take it to the King. If he acknowledges it, I’ll accept your claim as genuine. If not, well, you’ll find the accommodations in our dungeon to be less than pleasant.”

“Sadly, that’s not possible,” Harmon said. “My mother bade me swear to never take it off.”

“But—”

“You’ll simply have to take the ring, and me, to see the King.”

The Chamberlain’s growl spoke volumes about his displeasure at such an impertinent suggestion. “I could simply have your hand removed.” He scissored his fingers in the air.

“You could,” said Harmon with a shrug. “And if the King acknowledged the ring, he’d likely have something of yours removed. Your head would be my guess. Are you willing to take that chance?”

The official grumbled an acknowledgment of his defeat. “You leave me little choice. Just know that I can—and will—summon the royal executioner if you’ve bothered the king over nothing.”

“I’ll settle for that,” Harmon said suppressing a shudder. I had hoped to leave you no choice at all.

~*~

Despite the stunning image Magda knew she projected, approaching the castle grounds still gave her pause. So many things could go wrong. With the King ill, tempers among the nobles flared quickly. Fights had broken out everywhere, some between rivals who had lived peaceably for years. Keeping that peace, however, was no longer Magda’s job. It ceased to be her concern the day the swamp slut’s son stole her ring.

She had been a fool to think the youngster possessed an ounce of integrity, let alone a shred of honesty in his finely formed body. She’d watched him grow from toddler to teen and beyond. He had the looks and bearing of someone born to the upper classes, and in truth, his sire might have had a drop or two of lordly blood. But if any of it still coursed through his veins, the nobility had long since been diluted to nothing. His mother’s niche in the social hierarchy could not have been much lower. She would sleep with anyone, man or beast, who could afford to share a bed and a bowl of grog. It was through just such a union that she claimed a stake in the swamp‑side tavern where she birthed the brat.

The tavern had previously been run by a man of equally questionable caste, but Harmon’s mother somehow wormed her way into his trust. When he died, an event fraught with unanswered questions, she claimed an inheritance. Magda suspected that event had inspired the boy to seek even greater rewards for his own treachery.

She recalled the times the boy had been good to her, had earned her trust and thereby induced her to lower her guard. She had no doubt he was the one who snuck into her room in the tavern’s shabby guest quarters and slipped King Stephan’s ring from her hand. Who else could have given her a sleeping potion? Who else had access to the cooking grease with which he oiled her finger? Why else would he have fled in the night?

With the thief gone, Magda’s wrath fell on his mother. She had raised the boy after all, and taught him how to cheat and lie, how to take advantage of others to advance himself. Magda killed the harlot quickly, much as she had those who previously threatened the peace of the kingdom, for that had been the arrangement she’d struck with the old King. He had given her his ring, the greatest single symbol of his reign. In exchange, she agreed to use her powers of enchantment to halt anyone’s efforts to upset the peaceful tenor of the realm. If someone attempted to stop her or interfere in her affairs, she had but to produce the ring and invoke the power of the throne. The bargain had been beneficial to all for the better part of a century. Best of all, she secured for herself a lifetime supply of gravas, the kingdom’s most valuable export. Gravas—the liquor of the gods.

But then, along came Harmon.

Blissfully unaware of the calamity he engineered, he forced Magda to take steps she would otherwise have never considered. The most egregious of these was the trade she struck with Rathbone, the grand warlock. She traded her entire store of magic power for a meager pair of skills: the ability to change her appearance and the power to disguise the appearance of others. There were side effects, of course, but she felt comfortable with them since they offered her no personal threat.

Finding the warlock, striking the deal, and perfecting her image had taken time, but she wasted no more in tracking down the monster who had ruined her life. She knew where he would go, and she was close to catching him.

The walls of the castle keep loomed ahead. Shifting the unaccustomed weight of her bosom to better display her cleavage, Magda approached the guardian of the gate with a smile and a wiggle of her hips. Such movements, once foreign, now felt entirely natural, and she liked the way men responded to them. Such simple creatures, they had no idea how easily they were manipulated. In her natural guise, men shunned her. Now, they groveled at her feet.

~*~

“Prince” Harmon sucked a grape from the bunch held above his mouth by an accommodating serving wench. He’d had his choice of the lovelies available in the King’s manse, which, if all went well, would soon be his, along with the rest of the kingdom. He laughed to himself at the memory of his one brief encounter with the ailing monarch. The High Chamberlain had crept into the royal sickroom with Harmon in tow, flanked by a pair of brawny guards, one of whom kept a sword tip nestled in Harmon’s back.

“Your Majesty,” the Chamberlain began, his posture a study in obeisance, “I’m loathe to disturb you, but I had no choice. It appears you may have a son.”

The aging king opened one eye and gradually focused on the Chamberlain who motioned Harmon forward, ring hand first.

Harmon’s heartbeat reached a crescendo but he somehow managed to keep his fear and excitement hidden.

The King’s eyes went wide when he saw the gaudy ring, and his sharp intake of breath launched a coughing fit. When it finally subsided, the Chamberlain continued. “This man,” he said, gesturing toward Harmon, “claims to be your son.”

The King, however, could not take his eyes from the gold-encrusted jewel on the supplicant’s hand. “My… My son—” he began, then collapsed back onto his pillow, unable to utter another syllable.

To Harmon, the King’s words sounded like a question rather than an acknowledgment, and he shifted his focus to gauge the Chamberlain’s reaction. That worthy, however, ignored the King’s words and instead raced from the room in search of a physician. The two guards ushered Harmon from the chamber and kept their weapons drawn while they waited for the Chamberlain and the doctor to arrive.

That had been nearly a fortnight earlier, and the King had yet to awake. Harmon dreaded that moment, and when he wasn’t busy bedding the younger members of the great noble’s female staff, he prayed the man never would wake up.

~*~

Magda’s efforts to reach the false prince had not gone well. It seemed everyone she met made it their business to delay her, if not rape or seduce her. In the process, however, she learned a valuable lesson about taking care of herself. More than one overly aggressive guard had found himself walking into a bedroom with a winsome wench only to discover she had turned into a hag of the lowest order. This unexpected conversion usually left them more than a bit stunned, and Magda was only too willing to put that hesitation to good use. Though she lacked the mystical powers with which she had once policed the kingdom, she had no trouble using her fists, her feet, and a measure of rage to disable any undesired paramours.

It’s not that she had little interest in casual liaisons; she merely preferred to focus such efforts on men of noble blood, even though her primary target had none. The side effects about which she’d been warned would make a perfect reward for that miscreant, provided she could get close enough to take him to bed.

~*~

To Harmon’s great relief, King Laurence never awoke and therefore never said anything beyond, “My… My son—” Fortunately, the two guards who had been in attendance were called upon to testify and both recited the late monarch’s exact words. Firmly backed into a corner, the High Chamberlain had to declare Harmon the one and only legitimate heir. As soon as Laurence was laid to rest, the lad would be crowned King.

The new king’s first order of business was an immense coronation ball. Every single female in the kingdom, regardless of social status, was summoned to the castle to stand for the Monarch’s Review. Those younger than sixteen or older than twenty-five were excused, as were any with health issues. According to the decree, the King would select a dozen ladies to form his coterie. Though not specifically stated, most believed the King would select one lucky member of the group as his Queen. Despite a short timeline, the competition promised to be fierce.

~*~

Magda heard the proclamation since the new King ordered it read throughout the realm. The whoreson had given her the perfect means to breach his defenses! With the powers she possessed, no one else stood a chance. And while her age was older than twenty-five by at least a century, no one would guess she was other than she appeared. She would soon own the little sod and make his life as miserable as he deserved. Her passion for revenge would be sated, and her place in the kingdom’s history would be assured. And, if there were truly any justice in the world, she’d once again be served all the gravas she desired.

~*~

Laurence’s funeral preceded the coronation ball by a matter of days, and the city’s population swelled in response to the King’s summons. Despite the limits the sovereign placed on his order, far too many of the women who answered the call failed to meet his restrictions. Guards were assigned to question the respondents and group them by height, weight, age, and hair color. King Harmon drew up additional limits for each category. Though fewer than one female in ten passed the screening, there were still more bodies available than ballroom space to accommodate them. Harmon opted to organize multiple affairs.

The nobility responded with outrage. Not only had the new king stepped outside traditional boundaries, he had trod them into oblivion. The High Chamberlain maintained order, but with a profound impact on the state treasury. King Harmon remained unconcerned and claimed the kingdom would never again run the risk of lacking heirs; something he vowed to take care of immediately. His logic seemed unassailable though his methods drove the nobles to the brink of rebellion. Only the history of what happened to those who sought to challenge any of the last three kings kept them in check. Those punishments, though absent lately, had been swift and gruesome, with the results typically displayed for all to see, though who performed the executions remained a mystery.

Magda would likely have been selected on the strength of her enhanced appearance, but she took no chances. She surveyed the field of beauties surrounding her and selected several she thought would draw the most attention. Moving casually but consistently, she approached each one and cast a minor spell to temporarily obscure their finest features. Harmon would never see those attributes. Hers, of course, would be spit-polished.

The results were exceptional. Magda not only made the first cut, she stood at the head of the entire cadre. When the final ball ended, King Harmon had assembled fifty potential queens, only one of whom claimed noble status. Magda felt a title would give her the additional edge she needed, especially since the Chamberlain was in a state of extraordinarily high dither over the hurt feelings of the nobility. Perfectly willing to be magnanimous, Magda promoted herself from mage to minor member of the aristocracy.

It made little difference as Harmon was so taken with the raven-haired beauty that he paid little attention to the rest of the contestants for the throne. And, after a single passionate evening spent with Magda, he dismissed the rest and married her.

~*~

Slipping silently toward her own quarters, Magda could not have been more pleased as she left the imposter king behind, sleeping. With a wave of her hand, she revealed the early effects of their union—a touch of green and a bit of mottling on Harmon’s face, a discoloration which would grow more profound over time. Even more pleasing, she’d never need to bed the bastard again.

Harmon, however, was anything but pleased. Magda heard his anguished cry from the adjoining room and reached the distraught ruler even before his servants. “What is it, milord?” she asked sweetly.

“My skin! Look at it.”

She pretended to examine him as carefully as a child might inspect a captured butterfly. “It’s definitely green,” she said, hiding her joy as best she could. “And a bit scaly.”

He leaned closer to the mirror and verified her observation. “By the gods!” he groaned. “What’s happening to me?”

“It’s but a taste of what you deserve,” Magda said. She gestured with two fingers, and the discoloration instantly went away.

“What do you—” Harmon went silent. “It’s gone. Look! The green is all gone.”

“For now,” Magda said.

Harmon’s brows dropped into a sharp V as he stared at her. “I don’t understand.”

“You will.”

A handful of retainers entered the room and interrupted their conversation.

“I’ll explain later,” Magda said.

Harmon gave her the evil eye. “Damned right you will.”

~*~

The court physician could find nothing wrong with his new sovereign, despite the latter’s claim that he was turning green. “No, my liege, I assure you; you’re mistaken. Your complexion is perfect. You have nothing to fear.”

Armed with this knowledge, Harmon hurried to the Queen’s chamber. “Ha!” he barked as he burst into the room. “If there’s any color on my cheeks, it’s merely the flush of youth. The Royal Physician says I’m in perfect health.”

“And you probably are,” Magda said, “except for your wretched hide.” Once again, she wiggled two fingers at him. “See for yourself. My mirror stands ready.”

Harmon pushed his face close to the reflecting surface and examined his features. In the bright light of the Queen’s chamber, he could easily see his skin had taken on a subtly darker shade—distinctly olive. “What witchery is this?” he cried.

Magda set aside the tall glass of gravas she’d been sipping and yawned. “It’s actually quite basic witchery. Nothing fancy at all.”

What?

“And nothing less than you deserve. But know this, the color will only grow darker. And you’ll soon begin to see a few other delightful features as well.”

“What are you saying? Have I been bespelled?”

“Of course you have, you idiot. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

While he pondered her words, she allowed her appearance to shift from that of the stunning woman he’d wed to that of the vile crone he’d robbed near the swamp. Magda quivered with joy at his horrified reaction.

“You!” he whispered, his voice thin and shaky. “I’ll have you cut to pieces and fed to the hogs! Such treachery—”

“Treachery?” Magda broke into a peal of laughter. “You dare speak to me of treachery?”

“Guards!” screamed the young king.

Magda casually consumed her beloved gravas. “Just remember, my dear king, I alone control the way you look. Kill me, and that control is gone; everyone will see your true colors evolve. They’ll watch you change, and in a matter of weeks, you’ll resemble a prodigious toad. How long do you think the nobles will let you occupy the throne looking like that?” She laughed at a new thought. “Imagine the names they’ll have for you: King Croaker! Monarch of the mud! Sovereign of the swamp!”

Harmon waved his guards back as they swarmed into the room. “Never mind!” he yelled. “Go away.”

“That’s better,” Magda said when they left. She restored his appearance with a flick of her fingers. “Y’know, I think I’d like you better in a shade of emerald.”

He ignored her. “I’m surprised the guards didn’t attack you when they saw me in the company of a witch.”

“They saw no such thing,” she said. “You’re the only one who sees my true self.”

He covered his eyes with his hands. “Must I see it all the time?”

“Oh, indeed you must. Especially when I enter your chamber at night. I want you to see exactly who you’re making love to.”

Harmon gagged. “That will never happen.”

“It already has, my sweet. That’s how you’ve come to look the way you do. Consider it my gift to you.”

He appeared on the verge of tears. “If I give you back the ring, will you go away and leave me alone?”

She shook her head and made pouty lips at him. “That’s no longer an option. I no longer need the ring. You can swallow it for all I care.”

As he scrambled to leave her room, Magda finished off the bottle of gravas she’d opened that morning. It would be a lovely day; she just knew it.

~*~

Several weeks passed, and the loathing Magda and Harmon felt for each continued to deepen. When forced to be in the same place, typically in some official capacity, their bickering quickly reached a boiling point, but the High Chamberlain always intervened before they hurt each other. One day, however, he summoned them for a meeting which had nothing to do with their positions as royals.

Seated in a room once reserved for councils of war, the two sovereigns and their chief functionary faced each other across a narrow table. It sported a pitcher of gravas and two goblets. As soon as they were seated, the royal couple each grabbed one. Magda took two swallows for each one of Harmon’s, but they eventually drained both glasses.

“That’s the last of the gravas, by the way,” the Chamberlain said. “It came from my own private stock.”

The look on Magda’s face registered shock. “It’s gone? All of it?”

He nodded. “By a crown decree. The King ordered the royal stock sold to replenish the treasury.”

Magda turned on Harmon. “Are you completely insane? What will we do without gravas?”

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m not the one who can’t stop drinking it.”

“Swine!” Magda said with a snarl. “I’ll—”

“Please! This constant quarreling must stop,” the Chamberlain advised. “It’s wreaking havoc on the kingdom. For the good of the people, and for yourselves, you must find a way to end it.”

Harmon eyed the official with disdain then let his eyes wander the length of the room, taking in the pikes, swords, daggers and other tools of war on display. “Kings listen to the advice of subordinates. We do not take orders from them.”

“Ordinarily, milord, I would wholeheartedly agree. But we face two grave threats to the peace and safety of the realm.”

“Only two?” Magda asked, her tone falsely innocent as she continued to stare daggers at the King. “What might they be?”

The official took a deep breath before responding. “Despite our sovereign’s heroic efforts at procreation, there’s not a single female on or near the castle grounds who’s with child.”

Magda’s wrath softened to a chuckle. “He has the need but lacks the seed.”

“Silence, woman!” Harmon growled, then in a softer voice addressed the Chamberlain. “What’s the other issue?”

“It’s a plague of some kind,” he said. “Thus far it has afflicted over half the noble families. The male heads of households all report the same symptoms.”

“Which are?”

Clasping his hands in helpless angst, the Chamberlain answered, “They’re turning green, milord. Green and scaly.”

Harmon turned on Magda in a fury. “You’ve done this!” he cried.

Magda ignored him and walked the Chamberlain to the door, closing it once he’d left the room. She turned and faced the King with a smile of satisfaction.

“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” he asked. “You stand accused of infidelity with proof aplenty, and yet you smile at me like a fool?”

“I’m not the only one guilty of infidelity. Or did you forget you’re my husband?”

“That’s different.”

“Is it? You’ve taken to bed nearly every female within walking distance of the castle! I’ve at least restricted myself to a higher class of lover. And, if you must know, the worst of them was still far better than you.”

Harmon seethed and jumped to his feet, snarling, “Harlot!”

“Bastard!” Magda yelled back. She, too, stood upright, her face flushed with anger.

“Witch!”

“Fraud!” Magda emphasized the point by throwing her goblet at him.

He dodged the missile and threw one of his own.

In short order, the warring royals had cleared the table of projectiles and worked their way toward the weapons standing racked and ready around the room.

Though untutored in the art and tactics of combat, they knew enough to hurt each other and did so. Thrusts and parries were awkward and ill-timed, but occasionally effective. Pausing to catch their breath, the combatants quickly assessed the damage they’d sustained, then went back on the attack.

Magda drove a pike into Harmon’s belly eliciting a sharp, high-pitched wail, but the wound wasn’t immediately fatal. He countered with a downward stroke of a battle axe which split Magda’s skull in two. As she dropped silently at his feet, Harmon landed in a chair at the table and quickly bled out. He was dead before he slid from his chair and joined his dead queen on the hard, cold floor.

~*~

The High Chamberlain stood just outside the aptly named war room and waited until the sounds of battle from within subsided. It hadn’t taken nearly as long as he thought it might.

The potion he’d procured from Rathbone, the warlock, mixed easily with the gravas and worked as advertised. Anyone who drank it could be driven to a state of uncontrolled rage over the most innocent of remarks. Nonetheless, the Chamberlain made sure his remarks were anything but innocent, and the royal couple had responded with anticipated vigor.

Finally, the kingdom stood a chance of survival. The warlock had also provided a cure for the green plague, which the Chamberlain used as a bargaining chip to secure the support of the nobility when he soon declared himself King. In exchange, Rathbone accepted the role of Royal Enforcer and the lifetime supply of gravas that went with it. All in all, the arrangement bode well for the realm.

Harmon and Magda were buried side-by-side in a remote corner of the royal cemetery.

~End~

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That voodoo that you do….

Continuing the latest batch of short fiction to appear here, I’m happy to present a second helping of almost urban fantasy. This one comes by way of a little town in Mississippi. It was originally published in my collection of short fantasy tales, Mysfits (available here).

Cookies

Copyright © 2010 Josh Langston

Sara Sweets bit the arm off the postman and chewed contentedly. She had waited until after the day’s delivery in case anything interesting showed up, but nothing had. No surprise, Tuesday mail usually sucked.

She ate the other arm. The best thing about voodoo cookies, aside from the taste, was that they worked any time of year. St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, Arbor Day. Didn’t matter.

She thought about how her dog, Pretzel, had barely gotten out of the way when the mail carrier tried to kick her–the second time. Sara bit off one of his legs. And then the other. Cookie paraplegia. She giggled.

Pretzel, curled up at her feet, looked up as cookie crumbs landed on her head. She shook her ears, sniffed at one of the ginger-colored crumbs, and then ignored it. Pretzel had definite ideas about food. She preferred meat. Fresh or not didn’t seem to matter much.

Sara put the remains of the postman cookie in a Glad bag, sealed it, and dropped it in her apron pocket. It wouldn’t do to finish him right away. He needed time to think about what he’d done, and she needed time to remind him in case he’d forgotten. Anybody who’d kick a little dog like Pretzel had probably kicked dozens of others, maybe hundreds. Even thousands. The postman was a piece of work. Well, a piece of something.

She knew where he’d be: Hobart General. Loxahatchee wasn’t Biloxi, after all. One hospital was plenty.

“C’mon, Pretzel. Time to go.” She patted the wicker basket affixed to the handlebars of her bike. The little dog bounded up her leg, jumped into her accustomed place, and curled up again.

Bright fall sunshine and dark ominous shade alternated as she pedaled under stately hardwoods down McGlover Street toward the hospital. Dark and light. Happy, sad. Couldn’t have one without the other. She passed through what served as downtown Loxahatchee with its cherub-topped fountain. The sculptured water feature had been donated by Hobart’s widow, in a partially successful effort to elevate the public’s memory of the county’s most notorious bootlegger (and former state senator).

~*~

Pretzel had gotten the hang of the therapy dog business pretty quickly, and several patients–mostly children–dearly loved her efforts. It was a boon for Sara who lived for her volunteer work, though she was getting a little too old to be a candy striper. Wanda Wilkins, the charge nurse, had pointed that out often enough. Sara was too polite to tell Wanda her own retirement was considerably overdue. But, as soon as she managed to find a suitable artifact, Sara would bake a big-ass cookie with Wanda’s name on it.

“Hey Miz Sara,” said Jarvis Jones, the custodian. Jarvis had bloodhound eyes, a bald head, and a kind heart.

“How’s the family?” Sara asked.

“They fine, Miz Sara, jes’ fine.” He reached down and scratched Preztel’s head.

“We got any new customers?”

“Not yet,” Jarvis said, “but I heard the ambulance a while ago.”

Sara couldn’t suppress a smile.

“You wouldn’t know ‘nuthin’ ’bout that, right?”

“Not a thing,” Sara said. She stared into his dark eyes. “I heard Jarvis Junior got into some trouble.”

“Naw,” said the custodian. “A little argument is all.”

“With Nora Platt? Nobody has little arguments with Nora. Fact is, nobody in their right mind goes near that woman. She’s scary.”

“You scared of her?” Jarvis asked, surprised.

“Maybe.”

Jarvis crossed his arms and frowned. “Now I’ve heard ever’thing.”

It wasn’t that Nora frightened her. It’s just that Sara couldn’t get close enough to Nora to find an artifact without giving Nora the opportunity to find one of hers. Stalemate. “Is Junior okay?”

“He’s not walkin’ too good, but he’s still workin’.”

“Pain?”

“Some.”

She put her hand on Jarvis’s shoulder. “Want me to look at him?”

“Would you?”

“Bring him ’round to the house after dark.”

“You’re an angel, Miz Sara. You truly are. I’ll see you later.” Jarvis turned and walked away, pushing a cart loaded with tools.

“I can’t promise anything,” she called after him.

Jarvis waved without looking back.

Fortunately, the moon was full. That gave her some options. She was considering them when a door opened suddenly and knocked Pretzel across the floor. The dog regained her footing, if not her dignity, and Sara found herself nose to nose with Wanda.

“Oh, it’s you,” the charge nurse said.

“You almost squashed Pretzel! She’s–”

“Animals don’t belong in a hospital. Lord knows what diseases they carry.” She leaned forward and touched the strap of Sara’s apron with a pudgy index finger. “Ever wash that thing?”

“Of course. I–”

“Next time, use soap,” Wanda said.

Sara decided to make Wanda’s cookie even bigger. With sprinkles.

“There’s a new patient in 21B. He doesn’t like dogs.”

“That’s okay. Pretzel doesn’t like mailmen.”

Wanda fixed her with a suspicious glare. “How’d you know he was a mailman?”

“There are only about two secrets left in Loxahatchee, and neither involves him.”

Wanda scratched her head.

“I saw his mailbag in the ambulance when I came in,” Sara added.

Wanda sniffed, then stared at the dog. “That animal needs washin’, too.”

Lots and lots of sprinkles, thought Sara.

Wanda waved her down the hall. “Check with me before you leave.”

“Why? You gonna give me a paycheck?”

“We need to talk is all. Don’t forget.”

She left them alone in the hallway. Sheer habit caused Sara to look down at the floor where she spotted a long hair. She held it up to the light. Red. Just like Wanda’s. She pulled out an empty Glad bag, sealed the hair in it, and stored it beside the leftover postman cookie.

The rest of the day passed without incident, and Sara almost forgot about checking in with Wanda before she left. Pretzel remembered; she growled as they walked past Wanda’s office.

Sara knocked on the door, then entered. “You wanted to see me?”

Wanda looked over the top of her glasses the way old doc Swensen did. She probably thought it made her look intelligent. It didn’t.

“We’ve decided to terminate the Candy Striper program,” Wanda said. “It’s old fashioned, and doesn’t do much for the patients.”

“When did–”

“And no more therapy dogs, either.”

“What? Why?”

Wanda inspected the ceiling. “It isn’t sanitary. I’m surprised you got away with it as long as you did.”

“Who decided this?”

“The Administrative Team.”

“I didn’t know we had one.”

“We’ve always had an advisory committee. Now we’ve got a new chief administrator, and he values our input.”

Sara could imagine what input Wanda supplied. This definitely meant a stop for sprinkles at the Piggly Wiggly on her way home.

“So, that’s it,” Wanda said, standing. She held out her hand. “Thanks for everything. We’ll call if we think of something else you can do.”

~*~

Jarvis and Jarvis Junior arrived about the time Sara finished the dishes. She seated them at her kitchen table where the light was best and served them sweet tea and Nutter Butter cookies. It put Junior at ease.

“What d’you ‘spose set old Nora off?” Sara asked.

“Tell her, J.J.,” said Jarvis senior. “Tell ‘er what set her off.”

“You know she’s a big wig at the hospital,” J.J. said.

“Yeah, but I don’t know what she does. It sure ain’t work.”

J.J. sipped his tea. “She fires folks. She got Pap fired, but he was too scared to say anything.”

“I ain’t scared o’ nuthin’,” Jarvis said. “Least of all some dried up ol’ white woman. And I didn’t git fired; I got retired.”

“Same difference. You won’t get a pension.”

“Why not?” Sara asked.

“I’m not ‘vested.’ I’ve worked there for nineteen years, but I can’t get a pension unless I put in twenty.”

“Ain’t that a bitch,” Sara said, shaking her head. “That’s pretty low, even for Nora.”

J.J. set his glass down forcefully. “That ain’t the half of it. You know what folks say ’bout her.”

Sara frowned. “No. What do they say?”

“She got the power,” J.J. said. “That hoodoo shit. She can do stuff.”

Sara sat back. “Stand up and walk around for me.”

He limped around the room, then sat back down.

“Now gimme your shoe,” she said. “The left one.”

The young man hesitated, then untied his sneaker and handed it to her.

Sara held the shoe up to the light and squinted at it–all sides. She sniffed it, held it in both hands with her eyes closed, and finally set it on the floor and summoned Pretzel. The dog gave it a cursory inspection, then left the room. When Sara picked it up again, she was smiling. She reached inside and extracted a pea-sized pebble and set it on the table.

She handed him the shoe. “Try it on now.”

He did.

“Walk,” she said.

To his obvious surprise, the limp was gone.

“I swear I didn’t feel that in there before,” he said.

Sara was still smiling. “Wasn’t no hoodoo.”

“I wish fixin’ Pap’s job was that easy.”

She shrugged. “Y’all want more tea?”

They declined and eventually left. Sara cleared the table, put the glasses in the sink, then sat back down and examined the pebble. It was no more nor less remarkable than any other pebble one might find anywhere. Except that when Sara waved her hand over it, the pebble vanished. Satisfied, she finished eating the postman cookie.

~*~

The new chief administrator for Hobart General was a Yankee named J.B. Simion. Sara had no idea what the initials stood for, and didn’t much care. Anyone who took suggestions from the likes of Wanda Wilkins and Nora Platt was clearly an idiot and didn’t need to be in charge of anything.

Sara rolled out a thin layer of cookie dough and dusted it lightly with flour. She reached into the plastic tub which contained the cookie cutters her mother had left her and selected two generic shapes: one male, one female. Sadly, she didn’t have a nurse shape. Nor did any of the rest appear useful: cop, fireman, grocer, clown, soldier, cowboy. A few she couldn’t connect with a profession, although one of them favored a priest and another could have been a cheerleader. She opted to use the generic female shape with a good bit of extra dough. Voila–Wanda! She would just stretch the other generic shape to resemble tall, skinny Nora.

After cutting out the three shapes and adding pertinent details–an extra chin on Wanda, knobby knees on Nora–she stared down at the generic man shape. She didn’t know anything about J.B. Simion. She’d never met him. She mashed the dough back into the bowl then removed another gob, tossed it on the counter and rolled it out. At long last, she smiled. There was a little something she knew about Simion after all. She tossed the generic man back into the container and pulled the clown figure out.

She used a lot of sprinkles on all three.

~*~

“What’s this all about?” Wanda asked as she entered the room set aside for administrative meetings. It doubled as the gathering place for the Loxahatchee Kiwanis on the second Tuesday of every month. Sara liked the Kiwanis. They were always busy with projects to help the unfortunate, and Loxahatchee had more than its share.

“It’s just a little gesture of appreciation,” Sara said. “Pretzel and I thought it would be a nice way to say thank you for letting us be a part of Hobart General all these years.”

“You brought the dog?”

“Oh my, yes. We made a farewell visit to the children’s ward this morning. They were sad to hear Pretzel wouldn’t be coming back.”

“I hope you explained to them about the sanitation issue,” Wanda said. “We’re only looking out for their wellbeing.”

“I explained that in detail. And also that Mr. Jarvis wouldn’t be around anymore.”

“They know him?”

“Hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t drop by to tell ’em a story about how lucky they are to be at Hobart General, and how sick kids who come here almost always get better.”

Just then Nora and a man entered the room. “Mr. Simion, this is a former volunteer, Sara Sweets. Nurse Wilkins you already know.”

He nodded at both of them.

“Y’all just have a seat and git comfortable,” Sara said. “I’ve got some tean and cookies for you.”

“We’re all rather busy,” Wanda said. “We lost a patient last night.”

“The mailman?” Sara asked.

Mr. Simion appeared alarmed. “How’d you know?”

“Lucky guess,” Sara said. “He didn’t look very good when I talked to him yesterday.”

“You spoke to him? He was in intensive care.”

Sara smiled. “I never said he spoke back. I just chatted away like I usually do.”

When Wanda stopped rolling her eyes, she focused on the plate of cookies Sara left in the middle of the table. “Did you make those?”

“Yes’m,” Sara said, pouring iced tea into four tall glasses. She passed them around.

J.B. Simion reached for a cookie, but Nora brushed his hand away. “Don’t forget, we’re going out to lunch in a while. I’d hate for you to ruin your appetite.”

“I’m sure one cookie wouldn’t hurt.”

Nora cleared her throat. “Fact is, we should all watch our sugar intake.” She gave him a glare that nearly melted the buttons on his sport coat.

Simion withdrew his hand.

“Suit yourselves,” Sara said, reaching for a cookie. She selected the thickest one, its top crusted with multi-colored sprinkles and held it up for all to see. “It’s an old family recipe. Most folks love ’em.”

Nora swallowed hard as Sara took a slow, loving bite of the confection.

Wanda and Simion sipped their tea. Nora watched them closely. Eventually, she sipped from her own glass.

“This is really quite good,” Simion said. “The flavor is–”

“Unusual,” Wanda said. “But… delicious.”

Nora yawned, then straightened. “I quite agree. May I have some more?”

“Certainly,” Sara said. “There’s plenty.”

Wanda and Simion yawned, too, but managed to empty their glasses. Sara refilled them.

“Would you mind if I invited our custodian to join us?” Sara asked. “It’s his party, too.”

“Sure, sure,” Simion said.

Nora put her head on the table and snored.

Wanda pointed at her and laughed, then slumped sideways in her chair.

“S’matter with them?” Simion asked.

Sara shrugged. “Tired, I reckon.”

Simion’s head hit the table with a thud.

Jarvis opened the door and peeked in. “You okay, Miz Sara?”

“Absolutely,” she said, biting the head of the clown cookie.

The custodian reacted to the three sleepers with alarm. “Didja kill ‘em?”

“’Course not,” Sara said. “They’ll be fine, long about tomorrow. For now, we need a gurney and your truck.”

“You sure about this?” Jarvis asked.

“Damn skippy,” Sara said. “Now go round up that gurney.”

~*~

Sara and Jarvis sat in the cab of the custodian’s pickup. Though long past its prime, the vehicle was far more practical than Sara’s bicycle for moving bodies. They stared across the street to the fountain where, except for their sparkly party hats, Nora, Wanda, and Simion were as naked as the concrete cherub.

Jarvis spoke without taking his eyes from the trio wading around the fountain. “Tell me again why they movin’ so slow.”

“That’s ’bout top speed for a zombie,” Sara said. “Plus, the water slows ’em down a might.”

“Why don’t they just climb out?”

“They’re followin’ orders. Can’t do anything else. I told Simion to chase Wanda, but not catch her. Told Wanda to chase Nora and Nora to follow Simion. They’ll keep it up for another couple hours unless somebody ties ’em down.”

Sara patted Jarvis’ hand. “Before I told ‘em to climb in the fountain, I had them throw away your retirement papers and reinstate the candy striper therapy dog programs.”

Jarvis smiled contentedly and pointed at the photographer from the Loxahatchee Ledger, the weekly newspaper. “Them three could end up famous.”

“I ‘spect so,” Sara said. She handed him a cookie, and they munched happily as more and more locals gathered to watch Hobart General’s Administrative Team doing slow-motion laps around the town’s cherished water feature.

“How’d you do it?” Jarvis asked.

“It was the tea. I call it zombie juice, but it’s pretty much just tea with a little somethin’ extra added to it. It’s harmless. They’ll be back to normal in no time. ‘Cept they’ll most likely be unemployed.”

Jarvis suddenly looked worried. “Back to normal? They’ll have us locked up for sure. What’re we gonna do?”

She shook her head and rocked back and forth. “They might remember going to the hospital, but after that, everything’s going to be a blank.”

“You sure?”

Sara laughed. “Zombie juice only works during a full moon, but that’s the only drawback.” She gave him a hug. “You want another cookie?”

~End~

 

 

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When you discover it’s time to go….

Warning: If political correctness matters to you, please do not read this story; you will only be annoyed. The tale is simply a brief foray into the realm of the absurd and nothing more, but I’m quite sure some folks will still find it unsettling, or worse. I am not interested in discussing anyone’s politics, my own included, so comments inspired by this tale will be monitored closely, and any remarks I find personally offensive or overtly political will be summarily erased. Your cooperation is sincerely appreciated.   –Josh

Executive Order

Copyright © 2019 Josh Langston

On December 7, 2041, the one-hundredth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Attorney General of the United States announced the latest in a string of Executive Orders. President Joseph Jabari Shabaz, in a move heralded by the media as “bold, innovative, and timely,” made it a crime to be white in America.

The very same Executive Order, E10873-2, established a Federal Licensing Bureau to handle the anticipated deluge of ethnicity and minority declarations, protests, and arrests which would occur throughout the country. None of the 57 states would be immune, although the great population centers–Shabaz’s power base–would see less disruption, at least until the property disbursement hearings began.

Bob Smith turned off his radio at the end of the newscast and quietly emptied the antique coffee pot into his mug. He pondered the fat, pale, cream-colored vessel, its exterior only slightly less pink than his own. “Emily,” he said, “I think we may have a problem.”

“How’s that?” she asked.

He repeated what he’d heard on the news then activated the communications implant in his good ear.

Emily frowned. “Who are you calling?”

“The bank,” he said. “I thought I’d move some cash. You never know when– Damn. I can’t get through; all the customer servos are busy.” He shook his head. How long had it been since that had happened?

“You’re overreacting, dear. You always do.”

He ignored her and placed a call to his broker. Liebowitz always had a good grasp on these things. How else could he have maintained a record of investment profits throughout decades of falling stock prices on all four of the big American exchanges? The smart money had long since fled to Latin America. Thanks to Liebowitz, Smith had done well in Argentine manufacturing and Chilean pharmaceuticals.

“Joe,” he said when Liebowitz answered, “what’s going on? They said on the news that the president–”

“This isn’t a good time for me right now,” the stockbroker said. “We’re supposed to have a meeting in a little while, but….”

“But what?” Smith asked, his stomach knotting.

“No one knows where the senior partners are.”

“What’s happening to the markets?” He imagined Liebowitz’s characteristic shrug.

“The U.S. exchanges are a shambles. ‘Course, that’s nothing new.”

“How ’bout Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo?”

“Up sharply,” Liebowitz said.

“So, I’m okay, right? All my holdings are–”

“Sort of tied up right now.” He cleared his voice. “You’re white, Bob. We had to liquidate your portfolio.”

“You what?

“I’m really sorry, but we had no choice.”

“You’re white, too. Did–”

“I’m Jewish, a recognized minority.”

“But–”

“I’ve gotta go,” Liebowitz said. “Call me later. No! Wait. On second thought, don’t.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Liebowitz dropped his voice to a barely audible level. “Get out. Now. While you still can.”

“Out? I am out. You just said–”

“Get out of the country.” The phone went dead.

Smith looked out the window and swallowed. Twin plumes of dark, ropy smoke split the horizon and smudged the clouds. “Emily, we need to pack.”

“Don’t be silly, Bob. We can’t go anywhere. We’ve got dinner plans with the Johnsons, and my circle group meets on–”

“Em–listen to me. We can’t stay here any longer.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re in danger! We could be arrested. Look outside for cryin’ out loud. Who knows how long it’ll be before the looters arrive. We’ve got to grab anything of value we can find and leave. I’ll start loading the van.”

“Are you listening to yourself?” She sighed. “You need to relax. Sit down, put your feet up, and have a drink. You could give yourself a stroke.”

Bob stared at her in amazement. He willed his heart to stop racing and cleared his mind of homicidal urges. “Em, listen to me. I’m not hallucinating. My worst fears really have come true. We no longer have any rights in this country. Everything we own, everything we’ve worked for, will be taken from us. That’s the law. They’ve already seized our investments; it won’t be long before someone arrives to drive us out of the house. If we leave now, we’ll at least be able to take something with us. If we sit back and wait…” He shrugged.

They both turned at the sound of a siren as a police car turned into the driveway of a neighbor down the street. The vehicle had traversed the first deep snow of the season.

“Quick,” Bob said, “grab some clothes. Clear the prescriptions out of the medicine cabinet. Cram whatever you can into two bags–there’s no time for more. I’ll throw our camping gear and any food we have in the car. Hurry!”

Looking as though she finally understood their peril, Emily rushed up the stairs to their bedroom while Bob hurried to the garage.

Ignoring the usual care with which he typically packed for an outing, Bob threw things into the back of their van. On the wall over his workbench, he spied the shotgun his father had given him years earlier. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d fired it. Never much of a hunter, he hadn’t paid any attention when ammunition and reloading equipment were outlawed. Turning wistfully away, he left the garage and headed for the kitchen.

The pantry yielded a wealth of dried foods and canned goods which he piled into an empty laundry tub. He was halfway back to the car when Emily entered the kitchen pushing their largest suitcase. Its sides bulged, and the wheels creaked under its weight.

“Is that yours or mine?”

“Yours,” she said.

“Leave it there. I’ll load it and get yours in a minute.” He turned toward the garage then came up short. “I almost forgot. Get your mother’s old rings and any other jewelry you have, even costume stuff. Who knows, we may have to trade it.”

The corners of Emily’s mouth turned down.

“I hate it, too,” he said. “But one day, I’ll make it all up to you. I promise.” He hustled the groceries out to the car, dumped them in, then raced back to the kitchen. Emily hadn’t moved.

Smith squinted out the window toward the neighbor’s house. Two dark‑skinned men in uniform flanked Phil Bainbridge, their neighbor. They put him in the back of their car, then climbed in the front.

“Please, Em. We don’t have time for sentimentality. I already–”

“I’m not going with you,” she said.

“But, the cops– They’re almost here!”

“I know,” she said. “You’d better hurry.”

He stared at her. “This is no time to be noble, Em. They’ll haul you away and still come after me. Your sacrifice won’t buy me any time.”

“I’m not making a sacrifice. The law doesn’t apply to me.”

“Of course it does! Don’t be–”

“I hadn’t planned for you to find out this way,” she said, “but now I have no choice.”

Emily?

“I’m a lesbian, Bob. I’ve known it for years and registered long ago.”

“But–”

“That makes me a member of a recognized minority.”

Bob’s breath deserted him. He struggled to take in what she’d just said, but the concept remained at such a distance from everything he valued, he couldn’t accept it. He shook his head to clear it, then smiled. “You almost had me going there.” He started past her for the stairs, but she stepped in his way.

“I’m not leaving,” she said. “The longer you wait to accept it, the less time you’ll have to get away.”

“But–”

“I packed some tanning cream in your suitcase,” she said. “As pale as you are, you’ll probably need to use a lot.”

~End~

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So, what happens when a superhero retires?

In light of all the superhero movies that have come out lately, I thought it appropriate to post a short story that takes a very different look at the genre. It’s one of six tales in my science fiction and fantasy collection, Mysfits. (Available here.)

Night Warrior’s Last Stand

Copyright © 2010 Josh Langston

The county called it a rest home, but it was more like a rest stop on a back road to oblivion. The doors were open to anyone old and feeble and broke. It had nothing to do with who you once were, or what you once did. In the end, the testimonials and medals and certificates of appreciation counted for nothing. Such was the fate of the Night Warrior, a man who saved many and lost but one. I hadn’t come to gloat, nor did I believe anything had changed.

I came for the ring.

Little remained of the man I remembered from my youth. Sitting in his wheelchair, head tilted to one side, a tiny saliva bubble expanding and contracting at the corner of his mouth, he no longer retained a shred of the presence that once struck fear in what passed for a heart in the ranks of his adversaries. Yet, none of that rabble could claim victory over the Night Warrior. Time alone had brought the superhero down‑‑had made soft all the hard edges and made rough all the smooth lines. He sat quiescently; that little which moved, trembled.

The rock-like jaw, having deflected a thousand glancing blows now sported a three-day stubble and mustard stains. The raven locks lay limp, gray, and stringy, and the eyes, once glacial blue and piercing as a pike, squinted out from watery frames of viscous pink.

I observed him from a distance, unwilling to believe the stark truth in front of me, unwilling to cut the last thread binding me to the fantasy I had nurtured for so long. Did he still have the ring? If so, it hadn’t done much for him lately. Is that what I truly wanted for myself? I suddenly doubted it. Just before I turned to leave, he saw me.

“Leonard?” he croaked.

I wanted to run, to excuse myself, to plead ignorance of the hated name which first brought me to him thirty-some years ago. Instead, I stood my ground; it was the first lesson he ever taught me. “Yeah, Boss, it’s me.”

He raised his hand from the shabby upholstered armrest, the motion confined to his wrist, then signaled to me with a sweep of his fingers.

I had no desire to go near him, no desire to smell him, no desire to further impress his ruin upon my memory. I stared at him instead, trying to find the strong confident face that changed my life so long ago.

He cleared his throat, rattling like an old engine. “Leonard.”

That voice! The Night Warrior survived, if only in his voice. Though little more than a whisper, it was enough to compel me. I floated toward him, unable to resist, and came to a stop at his side. He wasn’t wearing the ring. No matter, I knelt beside him and put my hand on his, willing myself not to pull away from the dry parchment covering his bony knuckles.

“Beware,” he said.

I looked around slowly, taking in the drab walls and worn furniture of the rest home. Threadbare carpet housed mysterious stains, the flotsam of passing guests, and insect treasures. The staff consisted of two spindly matrons in flowered scrubs and rubber-soled, pastel flats. The only thing which threatened was the cloying odor of soiled linen and food prepared for people without teeth.

“Beware of what?” I asked.

“Trust me, Leonard, they’re everywhere.”

“What’re–”

“Shh!” He trapped my hand between his–leathery leaves grasping, pressing, insistent.

I lowered my voice. “What the hell is it?”

He leaned toward me and whispered, “Sometimes I see them out of the corner of my eyes.”

“Who?” I straightened and freed my hand.

“Keep your voice down!”

“Right,” I said. Then, upon reflection, added, “Why?”

He shook his head, but the motion failed to dislodge a single gray hair plastered to the pale flesh above his eyes. “The dead ones. They’ll hear you.”

I stood up and glanced at my watch. “Yeah, well, hey, it’s been fun‑‑”

“Don’t be a fool,” he said. “Stand tall.”

With my eyes closed, it felt just like the old days when the Night Warrior‑‑clad in black and gray Spandex and daring the world to laugh–stood beside me, his faithful protégé.

“I used to see them only in my dreams,” he said. “All the ones I–no, all the ones we–killed.”

I chuckled. “Listen, Boss, I’ll admit there are a lot of people in here who look dead. I mean, you don’t look so good yourself. But you can’t–”

“I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the Jester, the Pale Rider, and the Shrew. People we canceled–bad guys. They’ve come back from the dead. They think they can take me now.”

His eyes grew wider while he talked, and he managed to control some of the palsy I’d observed earlier. He even straightened up in his wheelchair and forced his shoulders back in a parody of a hero’s pose. How many times had I stood in the shadow of that pose while some rescued damsel or elected official fawned over him. Where were they now?

“You’ve still got the ring, haven’t you?” I asked.

“The bastards. They think that just because I’m old, I’m vulnerable.”

“What about the ring? The ring of invincibility?” I almost said, “My ring.”

He stared up at me with his rheumy eyes and didn’t say anything for the longest time. “You’re still mad about that, aren’t you?”

“Me? Nah. Why would I be mad about it? You only dangled it in front of me all my life.”

“I never said I’d give it to you.”

“You never said you wouldn’t.”

“I couldn’t give it to you, Len. You couldn’t become me; there could only ever be one Night Warrior.”

“I guess we’ll never know,” I said, slipping my hands in my pockets. It was an old truth, one I’d resigned myself to years ago. And I’d left the next day. Broke the partnership. The Night Warrior worked alone for a few years, his exploits against the villains of the world receiving less and less attention in the press. I half expected him to show up at the grand openings of discount stores, or maybe charity golf tourneys. He didn’t, thank God.

“I’ve missed you,” he said. The palsy returned.

I shrugged. “Who did you give it to? I don’t remember hearing about any other sidekicks. My guess is you couldn’t find anyone with sufficiently low self-esteem. Am I right?”

With what must have been a supreme effort of will, the once great Night Warrior raised his head and focused those cold-fire eyes at me. “I encased it in a brick of Lucite and gave it to the Superhero Museum. It was the right thing to do. Len, I once held the trust of a thousand cities, the faith of a million believers. I‑‑”

“Broke the heart of the only one who ever really cared about you.” I would’ve said more but was distracted by the slightest bit of motion I detected out of the corner of my eye. I nodded in that direction, and he turned his head slowly, all the while shrinking as if deflated.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I’m not sure exactly,” I said, “but it could’ve been either the Pale Rider or the Shrew.”

He took a short, sharp breath.

“Not that I care,” I said as I walked away.

~End~

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Survive? Without a cell phone?

One can’t, or at least shouldn’t, spend every waking moment chained to a keyboard churning out prose, priceless or otherwise. From time to time, one needs to get out into the real world. As a proud resident of the great state of Georgia, there are plenty of attractive options available for my free time, one or two of which are utterly unique. This past weekend I had the chance to spend an entire day with my son, Brett. The two of us ventured onto the hallowed grounds of the Augusta National Golf Course on the final day of this year’s Masters Tournament. It made 2019 a most memorable year indeed.

Like millions of others, I’ve spent a good bit of time watching previous Master’s Tournaments, but I quickly discovered there are a number of things which make this particular event different from all the others.

For starters, I had no idea that bringing a phone or a camera along was a strict No-No. At the Masters, phones will not be ringing at any moment, let alone during critical ones. Nor will anyone be taking selfies. Such things didn’t occur in 1934 when the Masters was first played, and by golly, they won’t happen nowadays either.

Luckily, we discovered that CBS had captured us during their coverage of the event. We saw ourselves on a replay when we got home a few hours after the match ended. Here we are at the green on the 11th hole, the first half of “Amen Corner.” The guy in the upper right-hand corner wearing a red shirt, is Tiger Woods, who, in case you hadn’t heard, won the thing. The blue smudge on the left is my son’s attempt to point us out. He’s wearing a green shirt; I’m wearing a straw hat from the ’96 Atlanta Olympics. And yes, this is as close to a selfie as we could get!

Photos of yours truly in that hat are understandably rare, but my bride was kind enough to snap one of me later to prove that the 4-micropixel portion of the image above is truly moi.

Despite the No Phone Edict, some things at the Masters have changed, but only slightly. Like, for instance, the food concessions. Help yourself to an egg salad or pimento cheese sandwich on white bread. Price: $1.50. A domestic beer, which by the way, you can’t purchase until the last church service in Augusta has ended, will set you back $4. (I’m told they cost ten bucks each at the Superbowl.)

I found some other interesting facts about this year’s Masters. The Augusta National Golf Club has a membership of 300, including four ladies (Dianna Murphy, Condoleezza Rice, Darla Moore, and Ginni Rometty). Jack Nicklaus was the only player older than Tiger to win the tournament. He was 46 at the time; Tiger is 43.

Average daily ticket prices for this year’s event ranged from $2250 to $2600. (And no, we didn’t have to pay anywhere near that much, thanks to a friend of a friend.)

Television coverage of the Masters began in 1956 with a two and a half hour show. In 2019, there were 18.5 hours of broadcast time devoted to the tournament. The good news, for viewers: commercials were limited to four minutes per hour. All 63 years of TV coverage has been on CBS.

The pot o’ gold at the end of this celebrated rainbow? Just under $2 million for the winner. (The winner’s caddy gets 10%.)

And, just so you know, 90% of the world’s golf carts are made right here in the Peach State. Maybe we should change our nickname to the “Golf Cart State.”

Okay, now you can go back to work on your epic.

–Josh

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Camera Angles and Paragraph Tangles

And you thought I was just a novelist. Sigh.

Ray Bradbury in 1982.

It’s funny how certain things can coincide in one’s life and suggest ideas and/or actions unlikely to occur on their own. Such was the case for me recently when I found an intriguing article on writing. It focused on a technique promoted by Ray Bradbury, one of the great masters of the craft. Shortly after reading the article and sharing it with one of the writing groups I work with, I had the opportunity to take an intensive, weekend-long course on screenwriting.

While I enjoyed both, the real bonus came from the discovery that what I learned in one was reinforced by what I learned in the other. Confluence. How absolutely lovely!

I’ll begin with Ray Bradbury, best known for Fahrenheit 451, his dystopian novel about a future where all books must be burned. He also gained world renown for such works as The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. These were in addition to 45 other books and hundreds of short stories, 65 of which he converted to screenplays for television. The man definitely knew whereof he spoke.

The article which grabbed my attention was devoted to his technique for breaking paragraphs. The following is from his essay entitled “Shooting Haiku in a Barrel.”

“All the paragraphs are shots. By the way the paragraph reads, you know whether it’s a close-up or a long shot… I may be the most cinematic novelist in the country today. All of my short stories can be shot right off the page. Each paragraph is a shot.”

This version of Bradbury’s epic SF novel was printed with an asbestos cover, presumably to prevent the book from spontaneously bursting into flame.

I’d never thought about it this way, but it made perfect sense. Then again, I’d never written a Hollywood style screenplay. At least, not until the weekend class, and then it made even more sense. A screenplay takes the very same thing into account. A scene generally takes place in a given location, but many shots go into the filming of it. When writing a short story or novel scene, the idea is to visualize the action taking place in each paragraph, including dialog.

Are there gestures one might capture? When someone speaks, what’s going on around them? What does the camera “see” during the narrative bits?

Translating the written word to a visual medium is often criticized, especially when it involves longer works, like novels. Short stories adapt much more easily because the stories are less involved. Almost all of Bradbury’s own screen adaptations came from his short stories.

Film is a visual medium, obviously, while novel reading is an immersive experience. Readers have the time to become fully engaged, intellectually, in every facet of the tale. That takes a good bit of time. Few people read a novel in a day unless they have very little else to do. Nowadays, the average screenplay is 120 pages long–that’s one page per minute of screen time. That’s why most novels don’t translate well to the screen unless they’re broken down into a series of episodes, and even then, it’s difficult to cover everything. Ask anyone who’s tried to compare the film version of “Game of Thrones” to the novels on which the series is based.

Even knowing the problems inherent in book-to-movie translations, Bradbury’s book has been done as a screenplay at least twice–in 1966 and again in 2018. The resulting movie posters are shown below. The critics were not terribly kind toward either one, although the original version has since been accorded some positive feedback.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m going to be giving this paragraph-breaking approach some serious thought. The little I’ve done with it thus far seems to have produced some excellent material. It has certainly caused me to rethink much of what I write. But I like what I’m seeing.

–Josh

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Does your hero have hay fever?

Huh? Why would that make a difference? Why would someone even ask such a question?

Bear with me. This all goes back to an article in The British Journal of Homeopathy, Volume 29, published in 1872. It included the following observation:

“Hay fever is said to be an aristocratic disease, and there can be no doubt that, if it is not almost wholly confined to the upper classes of society, it is rarely, if ever, met with but among the educated.”

So, what does this have to do with heroes? Only everything!

The reason the upper crust in Merrie Olde England were more prone to having hay fever, along with a host of other ills, is that they weren’t exposed to as many bugs and viruses as afflicted the common weal and therefore had built up little immunity. The rich typically came from smaller families, which also limited their exposure to germs introduced by siblings. Remember, the riff-raff had a much lower standard of hygiene. The rich even washed their hands from time to time! All of which led to a weaker immune system among the upper crust.

Now, think of the hero or heroine in your current work in progress, but do so in terms of the human immune system. The more germs, microbes, and viruses they encounter, the stronger their immune system will be, assuming said germs don’t kill them. Likewise, the more adversity they face, and the more foes they encounter, the more likely they’ll be to survive the ultimate crisis. It’s as simple as that.

If you constantly hose your character down with the fictional equivalent of antibacterial soap, he or she won’t stand a chance when the fertilizer hits the proverbial mixmaster. It would be like doing your children’s math homework for them. They’ll look great right up until they have to perform an equation in class, most likely on a test that’ll mangle their grade point average, and crush your dream of having a successful-looking kid, like a car smasher at a junkyard.

A hundred-plus years after the article cited above, another popped up on the same subject. This one focused on “Hay Fever, Hygiene, and Household Size.” The study examined the incidence of hay fever among 17,414 kids born in the spring of 1958.

Of 16 variables explored, the “most striking” was a comparison between a child’s likelihood of developing hay fever and the number of his or her siblings. It was an inverse proportion; the more brothers and sisters a child had, the less likely he or she was to get the allergy.

Simply put, those extra siblings provided more exposure. Does that mean your hero must constantly battle family members? Maybe, if the setting of your story features a single household. In stories with a slightly larger scope, those siblings are symbolic of the stumbling blocks you must provide for your protagonist in their quest to reach a goal.

For immune systems, it’s probably best if the ongoing exposure doesn’t escalate, though in nature, there’s certainly no guarantee of that. In fiction, however, the opposite should be the norm. The threat level and/or the degree of difficulty should constantly be on the rise. Problems should only get harder, and the villains more despicable as the tale progresses. If you’re unable to find suitable bad guys, there’s always nature, government, and the shortcomings and foibles of your hero to focus on. The point is, things should only get harder, the prize more worthy, and the perils more dire. That’s the way to grow a hero.

Now, lay off the anti-microbial, anti-septic, anti-germ hand soaps. Sneeze once in a while. It might be good for ya!

–Josh

 

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