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~

Posted in short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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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A Deal is a Deal

After seeing so much Renaissance art and hearing cautions about mentioning the Mafia while touring certain areas of Italy during our recent trip, I definitely wanted to address the subject matter. Hence, this cautionary tale. You may find the opening a bit difficult to stomach, but if you make it through the first dozen or so paragraphs, you’ll make it to the end, and I promise it’s worth the effort. (Copyright © 2019 Josh Langston)

Jennifer Cellino lay in the coffin-like box and watched the lid come down, squeezing the light into oblivion. Then she waited. “Just another roller coaster ride,” she lied to herself.

What was taking so long? If someone screwed up, she might not have to test the damn thing after all. That she could end it whenever she wanted didn’t matter. She still didn’t know when it would start, what it would be like, or how long she might last.

Come on!

The sound came first. What she thought would never begin, quickly threatened never to end. Like an unrelenting wind, the constant jarring roar was accentuated now and then by the buzz of a dental drill, its pitch starting high and revving higher, shrieking upwards into a keening, nerve-baring whine that sometimes faded and sometimes ended in a short, grating crunch like a hammer striking gravel. The sound alone kept her on edge, but there was more—too goddamned much more.

Just yell, “Time!” and it’s over.

The still, stagnant air proved the sound of the wind to be a lie. Jenn wanted to reach her nose and pinch off the fetid odors assailing her, but she had no hands; she had no body. She was a floating head—a sensory platform without defenses. She squeezed her eyes shut, but couldn’t keep them closed; she had to know what was coming, had to see whatever was next, though she could do nothing about it.

Her padded chamber disappeared, leaving her to share a damp, earthen tunnel with a variety of creatures. A beagle‑sized rat looked up from the toddler on which it fed, a length of ropy intestine dangling from its needle-toothed maw. Jenn clamped her jaws tight, wondering, since she had no body, where the bile scorching her throat came from. The rat watched her float by.

Hold on. Hold on. Yell, “Time!” and it’s done.

Something dark, feral, and porcine snuffled at her, probed her hair with its hoary, yellow tusks and coughed on her in ragged spasms. It eventually lost interest, urinated profusely, then trotted off into the gloom.

She floated on, through vignettes of suffering, terror, and despair. She saw people, and parts of people—saw them tortured, healed, and tortured again. Their screams blended with the sound of the wind until her ears ached. Yet, she could cope.

All I have to do is watch. I can make it.

Then came the insects.

At first, their touches seemed tentative and merely tickled. As they continued, lightly probing her ears, eyes, and lips, Jenn knew she wouldn’t last much longer.

Just hold on, damn it!

Something heavier landed on her face, wiggling and squirming with determination. It pushed and probed, its needle-thin legs scrabbling against her cheek and lips, struggling, striving, fighting to stretch her left nostril wide enough to get in. Soon there were more. Another started in on the right side and blocked her nose completely. She’d have to breathe through her mouth soon, and then they’d all….

Screw this. “Time!” she screamed, then grabbed a bite of air before clamping her lips against the onslaught.

The lid went up, the lights came on, and the noise stopped. A woman in a white lab coat leaned over her and smiled. “Relax, Mrs. Cellino, you’re okay. It’s over now.”

Jenn struggled against the straps holding her arms, unable to rid herself of the feeling that something hideous remained on her forehead. When her arms were free she grabbed at her nose and rubbed it compulsively, then pulled her hair straight back so nothing touched her face.

Her breath came in short, ragged gulps. Her legs and buttocks felt cold and clammy. “Oh, God, I’ve….”

The woman in white nodded comfortingly. “Don’t give it a thought, dear; it happens. What’d you expect? You’ve just come back from Hell.”

The nurse folded down one side of the vinyl-lined box and helped Jenn stand up. “It’s why we insist that clients change into a gown before testing.” She patted Jenn’s arm. “Your things are in the dressing room. There’s a sink, washcloth, towels—everything you’ll need to freshen up.”

“Thanks,” Jenn said. “I’ll be right out.”

“There’s no hurry. Doctor Vergil just called; she’s going to be tied up for a while. But go ahead and change, you can wait in her office.”

Jenn took a hurried sponge bath then dressed. Once in the doctor’s office, she relaxed in a comfortable lounge chair. Her thoughts drifted back to the day her mother-in-law, Gloria Cellino, summoned her. It came as a surprise since the old woman hadn’t bothered to attend the wedding two years earlier.

She’d been escorted to Mrs. Cellino’s parlor, a stiffly formal room in an eastside mansion purchased with mob money before Jenn was born. She remembered how nervous she’d been as the old woman stared at her, then spoke without smiling. “So, you’re pretty, but you must have something going for you other than that. With his money, Victor could have any woman. Why did he choose you? What were you before he married you? A dancer? Hat check girl?” Vic’s mother plucked a crystal bell from the silver tea service and rang it sharply. “Do they still have hat check girls?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Jenn said. “I worked at a travel agency.”

A uniformed maid entered. As the old woman issued instructions, Jenn noted the obvious origins of Vic’s features; his narrow face, sharp jaw, and high cheekbones were replays of his mother’s. Like Vic, the old woman even squinted when she spoke, confirming her universal distrust.

“It’s not important. What I think doesn’t matter; Victor doesn’t listen to me anymore, anyway. But he might listen to you, and that’s why I asked you to visit.”

“Mrs. Cellino, I—”

“Hear me out. Victor’s father and I were married for forty-two years. I know what influence a wife can have.”

Jenn shook her head. “Victor has never asked my opinion about anything.”

“Just like his father, but that never kept me from influencing him.”

“I don’t understand,” Jenn said.

“Don’t be naive. I suppose you think you love him?”

“Victor? Of course.”

“Nonsense. He’s twice your age, and you have nothing in common. I doubt you even speak to each other in bed.”

“That’s not true!” Jenn looked down at her hands.

A mirthless smile twisted one corner of the old woman’s mouth. “At least try to look at me when you’re lying.”

“What do you want from me?”

“Two things. One simple…” the smile touched the other side of her mouth, “…and one which may be more difficult.”

The younger Mrs. Celino remained silent.

“I want a grandchild,” the old woman said.

What?

“And I want Victor to survive to raise it.”

Laughing, Jenn shook her head. “Sorry. I’m not cut out for motherhood.”

“Your involvement would end with delivery,” said Victor’s mother. “I will see to the child’s care.”

“Vic doesn’t want kids, period. He’s made that very clear.”

The old woman squinted. Her cold, dark eyes commanded Jenn’s attention. “I don’t care what Victor wants.”

“Oh, fine,” Jenn said. “And just how am I supposed to keep him alive after he kills me for getting pregnant?”

“I will guarantee your safety, provided you follow my instructions.”

“Okay, just for the sake of argument, let’s say I play along. What could I do that his bodyguards can’t—especially  if I’m out to here with a baby?” She scribed an imaginary belly with both hands.

“I said it might be difficult. He’ll have to change, or there’s no hope. You’ll make him see the light.”

Jenn chuckled. “Assuming it’s possible—which I doubt—why should I? What’s in it for me?”

“Money.”

“I’ve already got money.”

“And freedom.”

The two women eyed each other; the older one broke the silence. “You never looked beyond the money, did you? Not until it was too late. You thought money meant freedom.”

“That’s not—”

The old woman silenced her with a wave. “Spare me; I’ve been there, too. We both learned the hard way. Without freedom, the money’s worthless. True?”

Jenn nodded. “So, if you can provide freedom, why don’t you do it for yourself?”

“Because I’m too old, and it no longer matters to me. My interests are quite different—still selfish—but different. You’ve heard of the Witness Protection Program?”

“I’ve heard Vic owns somebody inside.”

The old woman smiled. “That wouldn’t surprise me, but I have a network of my own. He doesn’t know my people; they’re all from the old country. Do what I ask and I can give you your freedom and the money to make the most of it. You’ll have a new identity, a new address—probably even a new country. Interested?”

Jenn had said yes. Now, three weeks later, the plan was under way.

“Ah, Mrs. Cellino,” Dr. Vergil said as she entered the office, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“No problem,” Jenn said. Vergil looked like Mrs. Santa Claus. Jenn marveled at the contrast—a kindly, grey-haired granny who sublet space in Hell. “I can’t get over how… how innocent you look.”

Vergil laughed. “I suppose it does seem odd, but we deal with a very delicate subject, and it’s crucial that my clients are relaxed. I confess I work at my image.”

“That makes sense.” Jenn rubbed her nose one last time.

Vergil nodded knowingly. “The roaches. It’s often the clincher.”

Jenn shuddered.

“Mrs. Cellino, it’s taken me a long time to develop the techniques demonstrated today. There are others, of course, but you’ll have to settle for a description of them.”

“I’ve seen enough,” Jenn said. “More than enough.”

“Then you’ve decided to proceed?” It was more confirmation than question. “You found the experience ‘real’ enough?”

“Are you kidding?”

“Hardly. The Hell scenario you experienced is our generic version, a sort of a non-denominational nightmare. While similar to some of our more orthodox themes, it operates on natural fears rather than supernatural ones. Still, it can be effective. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Oh, God, yes. If that doesn’t turn him around, nothing will.”

“We’ll certainly do everything we can to make that happen. But, you understand, even with our many successes, it’s not something we can guarantee.”

Jenn pawed through her purse searching for cigarettes. “Sure, I realize that.” The pack she found was empty. Oh, lovely. First Hell, now this.

“There are other risks as well.” The doctor stood and walked to a curtained window across the room. “How old is your husband?”

“Vic’s almost fifty-two.”

Vergil’s eyebrow crept upward. “And you?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Is there any history of heart disease in your husband’s family?”

Jenn was reminded of a long-standing joke about one of Vic’s relatives who “contracted heart disease” shortly after Vic learned he had traded family secrets for immunity from prosecution. She didn’t laugh. “No. The men in his family either die young or live forever. He’s got a grandfather and two great-uncles in their nineties.”

Vergil parted the curtains to let in the late afternoon light. “Have you finished his psychological profile?”

“Yes,” Jenn said. “As best I could. There’s a lot I just don’t know.”

“That’s understandable, but remember, the more we can tailor the experience to fit his belief system, the better our chances for success will be.”

“How good are the chances?”

“It’s difficult to say; so much depends on the profile. Was he brought up in an orthodox faith?”

“Catholic.”

“Good.”

Jenn blinked. “It is? Why? He’s not a believer. His form of worship is usually done with a checkbook.”

The doctor shook her head. “The issue is tradition, and belief based on experience. Consider the sensory nature of religious rituals. Many aspects of Catholic worship grew from the Middle Ages when the majority of the faithful couldn’t read.” Vergil leaned back against the windowsill. “Sensory input was terribly important. A life-size, life-like crucifix sent a powerful message. Just consider what God’s house looked like. The music in those old cathedrals was something to inspire awe, too. And don’t forget the incense and Communion. Taste, touch, smell—they were all important. They still are.”

Jenn remained dubious. “Victor’s a cold bastard. At least you don’t have to worry about his heart—he doesn’t have one.” She leaned back in her chair. “But this religion business bothers me. He goes to church maybe once or twice a year. Can you imagine what his confession must be like?” Jenn lowered her voice in a parody of her husband’s. “‘Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been six months since my last confession. Since then, I’ve killed a few people, sold dope to school kids, paid off cops, bought politicians, and spent a fortune on hookers and horses.’ Yeah, my Vic’s a real charmer.”

Vergil smiled. “If he was taken to Mass regularly as a child, the foundation for his belief system is probably still there. It’s just been a long time since he’s had a reminder that Hell is not a very nice place.”

Jenn remembered the rat and the roaches. “No shit.”

“It’s important that you plant the seeds. Over the next several weeks we’ll provide articles and information about near-death experiences which you can leave for him to find. We also have video of talk-shows on the subject. Meanwhile, we’ll be tailoring a scenario for him based on the information in the profile.” Vergil reached into a cabinet beneath the window and extracted a small glass vial filled with a colorless liquid. “When we’re ready, we’ll send you this via courier. You’ll need to call us the night before, then pour it into his morning coffee. Within an hour he’ll think he’s having a heart attack.”

Jenn stared at the older woman. “Then what?”

“You run to the phone to call an ambulance, but dial us instead. We’ll be there in minutes to pick him up and take him to St. Catherine’s. The VE mod’s already installed.”

“What’s a VE mod?”

Vergil smiled. “It’s what you tested. The name is something of an inside joke. Our equipment is derived from the work done in Virtual Reality, but because of our unique application, we prefer to call it ‘Virtual Eternity.'”

“Cute,” Jenn said. “But what about his bodyguards? They’re going to insist on going with him.”

“No problem. Unless they’ve had medical training, they aren’t going to understand what’s going on. Trust me, Mrs. Cellino, we’ve dealt with similar situations.”

“You don’t know Victor.”

“True,” Vergil said, “but we know the type.”

“He’s not some cranky old miser from a Dickens novel. He won’t frighten easily.”

“Of course he won’t, but a near-death experience is a far cry from what Scrooge encountered; it’s more like Dante than Dickens.” Vergil paused to consider the young woman. “Am I missing something? Have you changed your mind?”

“No. It’s just… What if it doesn’t work? What if he thinks it’s just a dream?”

“People wake up from dreams. Since he won’t be asleep, that option won’t be available to him.”

“Could he pass out?”

“Oh, he probably will, but we’ll be monitoring him. When he comes to, he’ll be right where he was before.”

“How will he know it’s Hell?”

The older woman adjusted her glasses and smiled. “You had a taste of it; was there any doubt in your mind? Besides, when we bring him around, we’ll tell him that, for a while, he was clinically dead. What other conclusion could he draw?”

Vergil opened a desk drawer and withdrew a sheaf of papers. “Here’s the contract. The deposit’s been paid.” She glanced at it. “It’s already signed. You can take it—walk away now and forget the whole thing—or we can get started right away.”

“And the fee?”

“As I mentioned in our initial interview, we charge a flat rate: one million dollars.”

“That seems awfully high,” Jenn said. Even if Vic’s mother does pick up the tab.

“That figure represents a significant amount of artistic development, to say nothing of the clinical services we’ll be providing,” Vergil said. “Our market is self‑limiting; there’s no repeat business.” She raised both hands, palms up. “And our overhead is stupendous.”

“It’ll be worth it, if it works. I can only imagine being married to someone decent, even if he’s scared into it.”

“This is the ultimate wake-up call,” Vergil said.

Jenn sighed. “Let’s hope so.”

~*~

Four months later, Jenn reported to her mother-in-law again. “I think it’s safe to proceed,” she said, “the tests were positive; I’m pregnant.” Though her own feelings about it were mixed, she assumed Vic’s mother would be excited.

“Are you certain it’s his?”

Jenn realized her jaw had fallen open. She closed it slowly, and clamped her teeth together until she knew she had herself under control. “Absolutely.”

“Good,” the old woman said. “Dr. Vergil said she was ready to proceed. I paid the last of her fee weeks ago.” She stared at Jenn as if looking at her would reveal some hidden message.

Jenn remained silent and concentrated on keeping her composure. The elder Mrs. Cellino finally spoke. “Since you’re the only one I know who’s tested it, I’ll have to rely on your judgment. Did it really seem like Hell?”

Instantly, Jenn drew both hands to her face. For months, her dreams had been crowded with replays of the experience. She shuddered and rubbed her nose, embarrassed by her Pavlovian response. “Yes,” she said, her mouth dry. “It was awful.”

“Good,” the old woman said. “Very good.”

~*~

The ambulance streaked away from Victor Cellino’s residence under a full complement of sirens and lights. It proceeded to St. Catherine’s hospital with half a dozen cars trailing behind. Several white-clad attendants stood ready. As soon as the gurney cleared the tailgate, they rushed it to a sequestered floor of a private wing.

Jenn followed the procession into a brightly lit room where a medical team connected Vic to an assortment of probes, monitors, and tubes. Dr. Vergil surfaced briefly and had an orderly show everyone out. Jenn and the bodyguards shuffled into the hallway where someone else in white directed them to a waiting area.

The bodyguards wandered aimlessly as Jenn played the role of grieving wife. Dr. Vergil was supposed to appear soon and tell her to go home. She hoped she wouldn’t have to wait much longer.

“Has anybody called his mother?” asked a bodyguard.

“Would you please, Vinny?” Jenn gave him a faint smile. “She needs to know.”

“No problem,” the hood said. “I saw a phone in the hall.”

Dr. Vergil entered the room. “Mrs. Cellino? We’ve got your husband stabilized; I believe he’ll pull through.”

“Great,” Jenn said, trying not to overplay her part.

“It’s too early to say if he’ll fully recover. He may not be the same after this.”

Jenn winced at Vergil’s words. Easy—don’t overdo it.

“I wish I could offer you some assurances,” Vergil said. “He has the best care available, but he needs time. Why don’t you go home? We’ll call if there’s any change.”

“Thanks, I’ll do that.”

As she turned to leave, Vinny re-entered the room. “More bad news,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Vic’s ma had a stroke about two hours ago. They took her to County General.”

Jenn felt faint.

“We’ll just have to hope for the best,” Vergil said.

“Yeah,” Jenn said. “I hope that’s enough.”

~*~

The vinyl covering of the sofa in the waiting room at Metro Reproductive Services clung to Jenn’s back and legs as if she wasn’t perspiring enough just thinking about what would happen if any of Vic’s guards followed her. The pregnancy hadn’t become common knowledge, and she intended to end it before it did. She made the decision the day before, after Mrs. Cellino’s doctor assured her the old woman wasn’t likely to recover.

There’s no way I’m going through with it on my own. Vic would kill me. Thinking of him reminded her to contact Dr. Vergil. She called from the receptionist’s desk.

“Well, what do you think? Is it working?”

“As I told you before,” the Doctor said, her voice tinny in the handset, “there are no guarantees. The scenario we developed for him includes some of the most vivid sensory manipulation we’ve ever done. We even used some of what you told me about him as a theme.”

“Some of what I said?” Jenn asked.

“When you acted out his confession, remember? Your remarks covered a lot of territory.”

“And all of it bad,” Jenn added.

“Think of it as inspirational,” Vergil said, “that’s what my staff did. In one scene, they surround him with zombie-like children who stab him repeatedly with hypodermic needles. In another, he’s beaten by thugs while a policeman watches, too busy to help because he’s accepting another thug’s bribe. There are several in that mode; my staff is quite creative.”

“I’m sure,” Jenn said. “Anything, uh, traditional?”

“You suddenly seem interested in details,” Vergil said. “Is there a reason?”

“I just want to be sure it works. By the way, how many times will he go through it?”

A nurse called her name and Jenn acknowledged her with a wave and a head shake.

“He’ll go through the entire scenario once,” Vergil said. “It lasts several hours, though drugs will distort his time sense, and it will seem longer.”

“Run him through it twice.”

“That’s highly irregular.”

The nurse motioned for Jenn from across the room. Jenn waved her off. “I’ve got to go. Promise me you’ll put him through it two times.”

“Really, I wouldn’t rec—”

“Do it,” Jenn said.

“I can’t guarantee what—”

“Just do it, goddamn it! I’ll accept the consequences.” Everyone in the waiting room turned to stare, but Jenn ignored them, too incensed to care.

“That would be a mistake, in my professional opinion.”

Jenn snorted. “What kind of professional drugs people for money and subjects them to Hell—literally?”

“Mrs. Cellino, really, I—”

“Did Vic sign any medical release forms? How do you suppose the Police and the state licensing boards would react to that?”

“Mrs. Cellino?” the nurse called. “We’re waiting.”

“I’ve got to go,” Jenn said.

“You’d implicate yourself?” Vergil asked, a note of superiority in her voice. “I have your signature on the contract. Right here, in ink: Gloria Cellino.”

Jennifer laughed. “You put Vic through that program twice, and be ready to prove it to me, or I’ll turn you in.”

“But—”

Grumbling, Jenn hung up the phone and bustled through the waiting room toward the nurse. The other patrons all stared as if she’d violated some rule about remaining quiet or moving slowly. Screw the rules, she thought.

~*~

“Did I tell you I saw Mother the other day?” Victor Cellino sat in an overstuffed chair in the posh living room of his fashionable home. Dressed in a robe and slippers, he looked much older than his fifty-two years. “She still can’t speak clearly, but the doctors say her recovery is amazing.”

“That’s great, hon,” Jenn said.

“She asked about you. That’s pretty amazing too; she usually doesn’t think about anyone but herself.”

Though it had been two months since his “heart attack,” Victor’s hand still trembled as he poured his young wife a glass of juice.

“We had a nice long chat,” he said. “It’s been ages since we had that much to say to each other.” He eased back in his chair. “Y’know, it could be that heart attack was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m tellin’ ya Jenn, it was horrible. I know what Hell is like, and I don’t want any part of it.”

Jenn sat back in her chair and tried not to smile.

“There’s gonna be some changes around here, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’m not taking any chances.”

He took a sip of juice. “I’ve already told the boys I’m outta the business. No more drugs, broads, or gambling for me. You’ll see.”

“I can’t tell you how happy that makes me,” Jenn said.

“There’s more, babe. I’ve got big plans.”

She smiled.

“I’m going to make a difference with my life, a real difference.” He finished off his juice and put the glass down. “From now on, my job is to do good. I’m gonna save people!”

“That’s wonderful, dear,” Jenn said.

Victor stood up and pressed a button on the arm of his chair. Vic’s bodyguard, Vinny, appeared at the door. He rolled Mrs. Cellino into the room in a wheelchair. Though her mouth was cruelly twisted from the stroke, her eyes remained as fiercely cold as ever. She remained silent, staring intently at Jenn’s trim, flat stomach.

Moments later, two burly men entered the room and took up positions on either side of Jenn’s chair.

“The first one I’m gonna save,” Vic said, “is you.”

As the men lifted Jenn to her feet, two others wheeled a large, coffin-like box into the room. They plugged in the machine’s power cables and erected an intravenous drip feed behind it. They opened the lid and dropped the front panel.

“I got this from an outfit called Virtual Eternity,” Vic said. “Mom told me all about ’em.” He patted the vinyl interior of the box. “I know it’s nothing like what I went through—actually being in Hell—but believe me, after a couple weeks in here, you’ll never be the same.”

~End~

 

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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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