A Breed Apart

As we swing into fall, I find myself thinking more and more fancifully. This little tale captures a bit of that. Let me know what you think!

“C’mon now, Lacy,” her father said as he prodded the sow toward his truck, “pigs ain’t pets. They’re livestock. I’ve told you a million times not to get attached to ‘em.”

“But her babies are only two weeks old.”

“They ain’t babies, Lacy. They’re piglets, and before long they’ll be bacon. Speakin’ of which, where are they?”

“In the hog pen,” she said. Most of them, anyway.

“I wanna see ‘em when I get back, y’hear? And I don’t want any arguments. Any of them runts that ain’t perfect won’t be around long.”

“But–”

“I’ll see you when I get done butcherin’ this old sow. You just see to them piglets and don’t make a big deal outta it. Understand?”

“Yes, Daddy,” she said. Lacy didn’t move as she watched her father drive the sow into his truck, secure the tailgate, and lurch down the rutted dirt track away from their barn. His destination was no secret, and the knowledge brought tears to her eyes. Lacy had been to the slaughterhouse enough times to know she never wanted to go back.

Her unwillingness to eat meat of any kind gave her soul some peace, but not at home where her father harangued her about it, or at school where the other kids labeled her “weird.” Her long-awaited graduation meant freedom from her narrow-minded classmates. Though she’d once dreamed of college, she knew she couldn’t leave the farm. Not yet, if ever.

No longer under her father’s scrutiny, Lacy hurried to the hog pen to check on the little ones. No doubt, some would be struggling, and their lives would be short. But Lacy refused to abandon them, especially the most severely deformed. These she would shower with affection; even if she couldn’t save them, they needed to know some love before her father butchered them, too.

The pen held all but one of the piglets in the farrow. Lacy smiled just thinking of the fancy word. Her father called them a “mess of pigs,” ignoring any and all naming conventions based on the animals’ age.

Of the eight little pigs still in the pen, two had obvious deformities. Not unusual considering her father’s zeal to breed the animals faster, and to force them to market faster still. There were always mutations. That meant nothing to him; he never showed his livestock at county fairs or auctions. He wanted big, fat pigs he could grow and slaughter in the shortest period of time possible.

His obsession for a quick turnaround from mating to meat-eating caused him to conduct wide-ranging experiments. Some came from legitimate experts in animal husbandry; others came from mysterious sources whose expertise was questionable at best. Lacy’s father didn’t care. He tried anything that might speed up the process–potions, proteins, or prayers. It was all the same to him. The less time he spent breeding, fattening, and killing, the faster his profits grew. He wanted only what worked, no matter if it came from science or magic.

Lacy, however, knew the difference. And she took full advantage of it.

After cuddling the two unfortunate piglets for a while, she returned them to the pen and ventured into the woods which separated her father’s business from civilization. The separation was mandated not only by society but by statute. Pig farms have a distinct aroma, one which can cling to the skin, hair, and clothing of those who live on or near them. Lacy had grown used to the smell, but it still offended town folk and nearly everyone in her school. Hence, the border area.

At first, she took great pains to bathe frequently and launder her clothing with strong detergents and “fresheners.” Over time, she realized the futility of her efforts. She was already disliked; dousing herself in perfume wouldn’t change that. If anything, the aroma of pig shit she bore to school every day helped to keep her tormentors at a distance.

Free from interference, she used her school time to advance her knowledge, if not her formal education. She wasn’t preparing for college; she had a greater goal in mind.

Eventually, she reached her oasis, a ramshackle cabin surrounded by crudely fenced pens. Most of the animals in them hurried to greet her, pressing tight enough against the twig and branch enclosures to loosen a feather, a scale, or hair. Lacy modeled her fencing after that of the ancient Celts whom she’d read about in school. She fed the animals with food secretly “liberated” from her father’s stores. Fresh water came from a small stream which ran through the pens and emptied into a swamp close by the piggery.

Lacy entered the structure, more hut than house, and went directly to the latest member of her menagerie, a perfectly formed piglet save for one distinct feature: a pair of wings which grew from between the animal’s shoulders. The piglet wiggled and squealed at her approach, its little snout aquiver. Lacy knelt down, and the tiny, porcine angel leaped into her arms, eager to bathe her in piggy kisses.

It was a sweet moment but short-lived. For the first time ever she heard the sound of construction vehicles in the distance. Terrified her hideaway might be uncovered by a roving bulldozer, or worse, by her father, Lacy disentangled herself. She hastily fed all the animals, then hurried back through the woods toward home.

She heard her father’s voice, calling for her, well before he came into view. “Coming,” she yelled back and ran faster.

“Where the hell have you been?” he asked when she finally arrived.

She took a calming breath, then said, “It’s a pretty day. I went for a walk.”

“In the woods?”

She nodded, yes.

“Did ya finish yer chores?”

“Yessir.”

He stared at her for a moment, then shifted closer. Lacy smelled the essence of dead animals emanating from her father’s dirt and blood-stained coveralls. She backed away, holding her breath.

“We got any losers?” he asked.

“Two,” she said. “But I’ll take care of them.” Not that she would enjoy removing the vestigial wings from the two piglets in the hog pen, but if he did it, their chances of survival would plummet.

“Aw right, then,” he said, turning away. “When yer done, get back in the house. I’m gettin’ hungry.”

“Yessir,” she said again, trying to hide her emotions.

He chuckled. “I want pork chops tonight. If you don’t want yours, I’ll eat ‘em.”

She avoided rolling her eyes with a conscious effort. “Um, Daddy?”

“What?”

“I heard some heavy machinery while I was taking my walk. Do you know what’s going on?”

“The county’s building a road, right through that useless chunk of woods. I ain’t pleased about it, but they paid me a little something for the right of way. I’ve gotta get somebody to harvest the trees though. Oughta make a buck or two from that.”

Lacy’s heart raced. Hoping her father wouldn’t notice, she hurried to the hog pen to perform the surgeries. From past experience, she knew a local anesthetic would suffice. It was all she had. The law required that her father’s animals meet certain minimum health requirements; the standards were upheld by a local veterinarian. She’d learned a lot from him and even assisted with rudimentary surgery.

She often begged him for something to use on the animals she tended. Because she was both earnest and smart, he gave in and provided her with the simplest of supplies: scalpel, surgical scissors, disinfectant, and suture material. That and the anesthetic were all she needed. Over time, she’d become fairly adept at such procedures. She also became adept at giving herself a five-finger discount on his other supplies, which included a vial of pentobarbital, the very stuff used to put sick animals down. She knew just such an animal.

A full stomach had its usual effect on Lacy’s dad, and he fell asleep watching pro wrestling on TV. He woke briefly in response to the needle’s sharp sting, shouting and rising to his feet, but moments later he succumbed to the drug and dropped to the floor. She managed to get his body back into his easy chair, comfortable in the belief the authorities wouldn’t bother with an autopsy.

Finally free of his overbearing, money-grubbing dominance, Lacy set about moving her collection of evolving animals back into the hog farm from which they’d originally come. The little, winged piglet would join the others of his kind, a whole collection of breeds very definitely apart.

Best of all, Lacy would be able to continue her quest to grow a dragon. But first, pigs must fly.

~End~

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Model Homes, a Not-So-Short Story — Part 2

Last week, we left our intrepid dollhouse hunter next to a barn at ground zero of nowhere. Her presence had just been discovered by the man she’d been following, a man she suspects of holding tiny humans captive. (You can read Part 1 here.) Herewith, the conclusion of:

… Karina spun around, her heart racing, an excuse already forming on her lips. “I– It’s not–”

The old man merely held up his hand and shook his head. “Please. Don’t take me for a complete fool. I saw you when you crawled into the back of my truck. I took the long way ‘round so you wouldn’t have an easy time figuring out where I was going.”

“It worked,” she said. “Where in the world are we?”

“This is what we used to call ‘the boondocks’ when I was a kid. That was a long time ago, but it still fits.”

“I meant–”

“I know what you meant, but I’m sure as hell not gonna tell you.” He swept his arm toward the front of the great old barn. “It’s not like it’s a secret anymore. You might as well see the whole thing close up.”

Karina stared hard at him trying to determine if he carried a weapon of some kind, but he merely turned and walked away from her, empty-handed. “You comin’?” he called without looking back.

“Yes!” she replied and scrambled to catch up to him.

Together they walked through the open door into the barn. The upper lofts stood mostly empty, though they could easily have accommodated hundreds of hay bales. The middle loft housed what appeared to be workshops of various kinds, some obvious, like those for metal or woodworking, and others more exotic as if devoted to chemistry, electronics, and other highly technical pursuits.

“This is amazing,” Karina murmured as she turned completely around to take everything in. “It’s an entire community!”

“Actually,” the old man said, “it’s an entire race. The whole nine yards, every last member. They all live, work, and play right here.”

Karina looked into the man’s eyes, emboldened by the weariness she saw there. “How can you live with yourself knowing you’ve kept so many lives locked away in obscurity? How–”

“Stop!” he commanded in a voice heavy with anger. “Who are you to pass judgment on me? What gives you the right to make assumptions about any of this? You’ve taken one look at something I’ve lived with for decades, and suddenly you’re the expert?”

“Well,” Karina began, “it’s obvious–”

The old man shook his head; his slumped shoulders suggested either a very different story or an expression of guilt. Karina couldn’t be sure which. He kept twisting the gold wedding band on his finger, something she’d seen him do in the shop when dealing with an angry customer. She assumed it was merely a nervous habit.

“I’m the prisoner here,” he said wearily. “I have been for many, many years.” He waved his hand at the miniature community crowding the limits of his barn. “They’re the ones in control.”

“What? How is that possible? You’re so much… bigger. How could they ever control you?”

He pointed to the wedding band. “This is my slave collar. When they need me for something, they send a signal here. It itches like crazy, but my knuckles are so swollen I can’t take the damned thing off.” He shook his head and exhaled in resignation. “You have no idea how many times I’ve contemplated just chopping that finger off. But not even that would be enough.”

“I don’t understand,” Karina said.

“They’ve injected me with something, some kind of poison. I have no idea what it is, but if I don’t get a daily dose of the antidote, it’ll kill me. And not in a pleasant fashion.” He closed his eyes and swallowed. A tear formed and slowly traversed his wrinkled cheek. “I saw what it did to my wife, but I didn’t have her courage. She died rather than remain in bondage. I’m not brave enough to do that.”

Karina reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “I had no idea, Mr. Uh–”

“Danzig,” he said. “Oliver Danzig.”

“Who are they?” Karina asked. “And where did they come from?”

The old man pointed toward the ceiling. “They said they were colonists from another world. I have no idea which one. The name they gave me is meaningless.”

He gestured toward the work areas and sophisticated equipment. “Most of what you see in here came from their ship. Earth wasn’t what they had in mind when they left their homeworld, but it was the nearest one on which they could live when their space vehicle malfunctioned. They spent years trying to fix it, but eventually gave up.”

“And moved in here?”

He nodded. “They needed things they couldn’t make. At least, not at first, that’s why they needed me and my sweet Gerta.” He swallowed hard. “We were happy to help, at first. But their demands grew, and we had no time for our farm. They didn’t care. I don’t know when they poisoned us, but it was long ago.”

Danzig leaned against a stout wooden post which supported a section of loft. “I’m so tired. They finally agreed to let me modify and sell some of the homes they’d built for themselves. Making the changes took little time and generated a great deal of money. Enough to live on. When they needed something special, the funds went to pay for those things, too.” He spat.

“I was their delivery boy, their mule, their robot.” The anger in his voice grew with every word. “I’ve had enough. I’m tired. Done.”

He dug in his pocket and pulled out a set of keys which he handed to her. “Here. Take the truck. Go home.”

Karina looked at the keys then back at Danzig. “How will you get back to–”

“I’m not going anywhere after tonight,” he said.

“But–”

“Please, just go. Now.” He pushed her gently toward the sliding door in the barn wall.

“Aren’t you worried I’ll tell people what I’ve seen? What you’ve told me?”

He shook his head. “Not anymore.” With a firm hand on her lower back, he guided her toward the exit.

Concerned about what he intended to do, she put on the brakes. “Wait a minute. What are you–”

“What I intend to do is none of your business. I’ve tried to be polite, but perhaps I need to remind you that you’re trespassing on private property. I didn’t invite you here. You have no right to stay.”

“I just don’t want you to do anything rash.”

His expression told her he had no interest in her thoughts or opinions. “Goodbye,” he said as he slid the heavy wooden door shut and barred it from the inside.

Karina stood looking at the big building and pondered its astonishing contents. Eventually, she turned and began the short walk to the truck but stopped when she heard a new noise—not exactly an explosion, more like a profound whump sound. Moments later, smoke and flames appeared through a loft window.

“Oh, my God!” Karina screamed. “He’s going to kill them all.”

She quickly reversed course and raced back to the barn door and put all her weight into an effort to open it. The massive panel wouldn’t budge.

Hurrying around to the back of the building, she paused to take a quick look through the knothole she’d discovered earlier. Flames and more smoke obscured the scene but not the sounds of tiny voices screaming in pain and terror.

Sticking her fingers into the knothole, Karina tried to tear the wooden slat from the wall, but like the door, it didn’t move at all. Abandoning that idea, she continued moving around the outside searching for a way in, or a way to let the victims of the blaze out.

Sadly, there were no other exits.

She circled the building and stood out front, staring up at the loft window she noticed earlier. A tiny figure stood on the sill, clearly terrified. Karina thought it might be a female.

“Jump!” she yelled, moving toward the blaze. “I’ll catch you.”

Instead of jumping forward, the doll-sized victim screamed as the flames swept over her, and she fell backward, out of sight.

Karina dropped to her knees, numbed by shock and grief. The rescue had been so close, so– possible. And just as quickly, it had disappeared.

The heat from the now fully engulfed barn forced her backward, and she began to fear it might set the truck on fire, too. She climbed behind the wheel, started the engine, and moved the vehicle to safety.

Almost as an afterthought, she extracted her cell phone from the pocket of her jeans to dial 911, the local emergency number. The “No Service” indicator on the phone told her the effort was futile. She shook her head knowing that even if she had gotten through to someone, the barn would likely burn to the ground before anyone could get there.

Her heart heavy with remorse, Karina vowed to stay long enough to look for survivors though she had no hope that anyone could have lived through such a massive and all-consuming blaze. She stood outside the truck and leaned back against it, her tears unchecked.

As the first rays of morning touched the eastern sky, Karina crept closer to the smoking ruins. Very little remained recognizable amid the sea of charred wood. Still, she picked her way carefully around the entire site, hoping to find something or someone who had survived. This was an advanced race, she told herself. Surely they had planned something in the event of a catastrophe like this. The smoldering wreckage, however, told a different story.

Turning her steps back toward the truck she almost missed the first sounds of distress coming from the woods a short distance away. Karina squinted but couldn’t make out anything in the shadows.

Soon, other voices joined the first, and a stampede of exceptionally small children emerged from the shadows racing pell‑mell toward the wreckage behind her.

One thought after another tumbled through Karina’s brain as she watched the horrified mob race toward their burned-out home. They hardly slowed down as they swept past her but came to a ragged and hysterical stop when they reached the vast pile of still-smoking cinders arrayed in front of them.

“Oh, you poor dears,” Karina said as she knelt down to get closer. “I’m so sorry.”

The tiny children were dressed in what appeared to be uniforms, their shirts and slacks all matched. The largest of the band, clearly their leader, stepped to the forefront, alternating looks of grief and hatred splayed across her face.

“Did you do this?” she inquired angrily, her finger pointed directly at Karina.

“No! Of course not. I would never–”

She was interrupted by the clamor of the adolescent mob, at least thirty strong, which stood behind their leader. Many of those voices called out for revenge, while others simply wailed for their lost families.

“It was Danzig,” Karina said, “not me. I swear it!”

“Who are you?” their leader asked as she moved closer, all the while motioning to those behind her to hold their place.

As Karina began to explain her presence, she felt the tiniest of pinpricks near her ankle. She reached down to rub it and saw the male version of the diminutive adult with whom she’d been talking. He held some sort of syringe in his hand.

“It’s done,” he said. “She’ll do whatever we need her to do.”

His co-leader looked at him and nodded, her expression grim.

“Or else,” she said.

~End~

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Model Homes, a Not-So-Short Story — Part 1

For some reason, I have a soft spot for stories about people who aren’t quite as big as me. I’m a six-footer, so there are quite a few folks who meet that definition. Here’s a story about some more. Herewith, the first half of “Model Homes.”

Karina stared through the window of the dollhouse, enthralled by the exquisite miniatures inside. The detail went beyond anything she’d ever seen before, including a tiny food spill on a highchair in the dining area. She used a magnifying glass to verify that the almost invisible milk puddle contained almost microscopic Cheerios.

“How in the world do you do it?” she asked of the old man behind the counter.

“Trade secret,” he said, making an involuntary whistle through a gap in his teeth.

Karina straightened, her eyes taking in the price tag on the toy building she’d been inspecting. “The scale is unusual.”

The old man raised his eyebrows, then pursed his lips in silence.

“It’s much smaller than what I’ve seen in other shops.”

Low laughter punctuated the old man’s words. “I struggle to keep my own shop stocked. I have no time to worry about the competition.”

“But how do you do it? Each room is perfect. The accessories match; some of the furniture even shows wear. My God, some of the wall hangings could be sold as separate works of art if only there were a way to magnify them. How do you do it?”

He frowned a little before clearing his throat. “All it takes is time. And patience.”

“Ordinarily I’d complain about prices as high as these, but the detail…” Her voice drifted off as the shopkeeper excused himself to assist another customer.

“Mrs. Vandergriff! How are you?” he said to a silver-haired matron who stood frowning just inside his door.

“I’m not happy, Oliver. Not happy at all.”

Too curious to ignore the issue, Karina sidled closer while feigning deafness as she absently examined miniature linens stacked in a tiny wooden armoire.

“Do you recall the playhouse I purchased for my great-granddaughter?”

The old man nodded. “Of course I do. It had a country kitchen with lots of cabinetry. What’s wrong with it?”

“Something died in it. By the time my little Penelope unwrapped it, the odor had become unbearable.”

“That’s terrible!” exclaimed the old man. “I can’t imagine how something like that could have happened.” He appeared genuinely upset to Karina, and his distress seemed to mollify Mrs. Vandergriff.

“Did you bring it with you? I’d be only too happy to clean it up and make it right.”

The matron sniffed imperiously. “I couldn’t bear to have it back in my home. Just the memory of that smell is enough to– No, I don’t even want to think about it.”

“Then perhaps you’d allow me to come and collect it,” offered the shopkeeper.

“It’s too late for that,” she said. “I told the gardener to burn it. I’ve had the house fumigated twice on the off chance some vermin may have escaped from it. One can never be too careful.”

The shopkeeper appeared crestfallen. “Is there anything left of it? Anything at all?”

Mrs. Vandergriff shrugged. “Ashes possibly, if they haven’t already been spread on the flowers.”

“Then there doesn’t seem to be much left I can do for you,” he said.

“There’s the matter of my refund,” she said.

“What refund?”

“I want my money back! You sold me tainted goods.”

The old man squinted at her. “I can’t refund your money unless you’ve got something to return.”

“I’ve been a customer here for forty years,” she said. “I’ve bought your dollhouses for my children, my grandchildren, and now my great-grandchild. Are you saying I haven’t earned a little something in all those years?”

“Other than my gratitude?” he asked. “No.”

She scowled so hard her cheeks wobbled. “You’ll be hearing from my attorney.”

“He likes dollhouses, too?”

Huffing like a steamship, Mrs. Vandergriff executed a full right rudder and sailed out the front of the shop.

Karina straightened and gave the man a sympathetic smile. “You did the right thing,” she said. “You have nothing to worry about.”

“Not from her, anyway.”

Karina tried to read his expression, but it appeared mostly blank.

“Listen,” he said, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to close early today. There are– I have some things to attend to. I can’t– I hope you’ll understand.”

“Sure, no problem,” she said. “I can come back tomorrow.”

He walked her to the door. “You might want to call first.”

~*~

Karina thought about the shop and its odd little proprietor all the way home. She had long since decided to buy one of the exquisite dollhouses, despite its insanely high price tag. Joe wouldn’t be happy about it, but he’d get used to the idea. But, just to be on the safe side, she decided to dig out one of the trashy little nighties he’d given her some years back. If she mentioned the dollhouse while wearing a half-ounce of lace and a smile, he probably wouldn’t ask too many questions.

The plan worked to their mutual satisfaction, and Karina returned to the shop the following morning, a Thursday, but it wasn’t open. Nor did the sign on the door suggest when it might re-open.

Results were the same on Friday and Saturday. By Sunday morning, Karina’s patience had worn completely through. By Sunday afternoon, she had convinced herself that the asking price for the dollhouse was actually quite reasonable, assuming she ever got the chance to shove some money at the old man. By Sunday evening, she realized that life without one of the dollhouses was simply unthinkable.

She had to have one.

Now–even if she had to sneak in after dark, grab one, and leave the money where the owner would find it. She contented herself with the thought that even though she had to break in, she wouldn’t be stealing anything.

It was a short drive to town, and the streets were empty save for the one in front of the First Baptist Church. She shook her head and muttered, “As if Hadleyburg would ever be big enough for a second Baptist church.”

The shop’s front entrance was shuttered and dark, so she walked around back and into the barren alley behind it. She carried a short pry bar she’d brought along in case she had to force her way in. A row of rear entry shop doors faced her, but only one held any interest. A single, naked bulb hung from a socket over the door and cast a feeble cone of light on the littered ground. The door stood slightly open.

Tempted to announce her presence and ask to make the purchase, she felt guilty for showing up at night when the store would normally have been closed. How would she explain that, or the pry bar in her hand?

Karina searched for a dumpster or a stack of boxes—anything she could hide behind while she waited for the old man to come out, but his truck was the only other thing in the alley. She touched it with a tentative finger then quickly withdrew her hand and wiped it on her jeans. The vehicle would have to do. She squeezed between it and the shop door and waited.

This is really stupid, she thought to herself. I should just go to the door, knock, and let myself in. There’s no crime in that. He’s got the dollhouse I want; I’ve got money. Who cares if it’s Sunday night? She set the pry bar out of sight on the ground and prepared to go to the door.

When the light over the door clicked out, Karina instinctively shrank deeper into the shadows. In the distance, a siren wailed. Her skin broke out in goosebumps. As if in accompaniment, the shop door squealed a ghastly harmony to the siren as the old man backed out of the building with a large cardboard box in his arms.

“Thank God that’s the last of ‘em,” he groaned as he levered the box into the back of his pickup truck. After locking the shop door he tried to raise the tailgate, but it wouldn’t stay shut. After muttering a string of obscenities, he secured the box with a pair of bungee cords and walked around to the front to get in.

Karina’s car was parked in front of the building. She had no chance to get to it without being seen, and if she waited until he drove away, she feared she’d be unable to catch up with him. He opened his door, and a light went on inside the cab. Karina bolted toward the back of the truck and scrambled in as the old man slowly eased behind the wheel.

Her pulse raced as he cranked the ancient engine, but beat even faster when she realized she’d heard something moving around in the box resting inches from her head.

She eased up to peek inside when the truck lurched forward, throwing her toward the box which crumpled slightly under her weight. Though surprised by the sudden jostling, it didn’t shock her nearly as much as the tiny, startled scream that came from inside the box.

~*~

The old man drove for what seemed like hours, though Karina never had a chance to look at her watch. All her energies were devoted to the goal of not sliding out the open end of the vehicle. The old man certainly didn’t drive like a senior citizen, and Karina avoided being tossed out by wedging herself sideways in the truck bed with her arms over her head.

They left town in minutes, then traveled through open countryside toward the low hills on the southern edge of the Smoky Mountains. Pavement gave way to gravel and then to dirt as the truck growled through the darkness. Karina cursed herself for being so stupid. Obviously, the old man was up to something, but that didn’t give her the right to stow away and follow him like some sort of spy. What would he do if he caught her? What would she do? And what—or who—was in the damned box?

Eventually, the truck slowed. Karina managed a hasty look before it came to a complete stop and saw a massive old barn, visible only because of a full moon and a cloudless sky. She scrambled to exit the truck before the old man could get out of the cab and work his way around to the back. Hoping to guess his intent, she knelt beside the tire on the passenger side and strained to hear him.

He muttered things she couldn’t make out, though it seemed clear he was unhappy. The bungee cords came free with a bit of clatter as they hit the bed of the truck. The old man grunted as he dragged the box toward the tailgate.

Worried he would suspect something because of the damage to the side of the box, Karina crept toward the front of the truck to stay out of his way no matter which direction he chose. The damaged container didn’t generate any comments from him as he lugged it toward the barn. He seemed oblivious to her presence as he reached the building, set the box on the ground, and struggled with a heavy, sliding door.

Though beset with worry over how she would ever return home, Karina also nursed a growing concern about the contents of the box, to say nothing of the man carrying it. When the door to the barn finally creaked open, she saw a brightly lit interior that left her stunned and confused. The door didn’t remain open for long as the old man closed it as soon as he had carried his burden through.

Karina crept closer, doing her best to remain quiet. She crept slowly around the old building hoping to find a gap in the boards or a window of some sort that would allow her to examine what she’d only briefly glimpsed. The mission seemed doomed from the start, but she stayed with it until she came upon a knothole that hadn’t been sealed from the inside.

Peering through the tiny viewport she observed what looked like a fairly ordinary suburban neighborhood, complete with single homes and apartment complexes. One thing made it odd, everything had been done in miniature. Unlike the dollhouses she’d seen in the old man’s shop, these buildings appeared whole; they had no open sides. Though she couldn’t be positive, she felt confident in her assessment that the little buildings were not only whole, but inhabited.

That conclusion brought her up short. What in hell was going on? Had the old man imprisoned an entire community of tiny humans? And where on Earth had he found them?

“Kinda figured I’d find you back here,” said the old man.

Karina spun around, her heart racing, an excuse already forming on her lips. “I– It’s not–”

~Stay tuned next week for the conclusion~

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Huh? Zeus Wears a Chef’s Hat?

Forgive me if I’m excited about my new book. It’s been a while since I released some brand new, full-length fiction, and this tale is about as new as it gets.

So, where did the new book come from? What inspired something with such a bizarre title? A little background information is in order.

Remember Pandora? No, not the online music provider, or the jewelry company, I’m talking about the hapless gal who supposedly had access to a box containing nothing but nastiness. We all know what happened–she opened the darned thing and let all of that bad stuff out! Few of us, however, know that one item remained in the box: Hope. That would be Elpis [Ehl-peez] in really old Greek. Do yourself a favor and remember the word “hope.” I’ll get back to it in a little while.

Here’s something else few people know: this whole blame-the-girl thing evolved long after poor Pandora left the ancient Olympian stage. It turns out she was married to a fellow named Epimetheus [Ehp’-eh-myth-oos], and he was the one who released all that nastiness into the world. My guess is folks went on blaming Pandora because her name was easier to pronounce.

Ah, but there’s more! Epimetheus just happened to be the brother of a truly famous dude. His name was Prometheus. You remember him, I’m sure. He stole fire from the gods and shared it with mankind. What you might not have known was that, according to legend, Prometheus created mankind from clay. Evidently, whipping up a batch of people was fine with the denizens of Olympus, but sharing fire with us? That was a major no-no. It allowed us to make progress and invent civilization. And who needs a legion of gods when they have civilization?

Ol’ Zeus got so upset that he sentenced Prometheus to eternal torment. The poor schlep was chained to a rock where an eagle ate his liver–every day! The liver would grow back overnight so Prometheus could go through it again and again. (I promise; for once, I’m’ not making this up.) Oh yes, Olympians. Charming folk.

Just between you and me, I couldn’t help but wonder, why the liver? Why not something more… I dunno. Accessible? You know, like an eyeball or an ear. Hey! Stop giggling!

Anyway, fortunately for Prometheus, a fellow named Heracles [Hee’-rah-kleez] dropped by and cut him loose. You might remember Heracles by a different name, made popular by actor/bodybuilder Steve Reeves back in the late 1950s: Hercules. (Every guy I knew wanted to look like Steve Reeves!)

At this point, I’m forced to deviate slightly from the narrative to remind folks that Prometheus was a Titan, one of the rulers of the universe before Zeus & Company arrived. Why he needed help from Hercules puzzles me, since he was actually bigger and beefier than his rescuer. Another of his brothers, by the way, was a fellow named Atlas. Yep, the same one who carries Earth on his shoulders.

Anyway, before Prometheus had his falling out with Zeus, he actually helped him overthrow the old Titan regime and take over. Can you imagine how angry he must have been when Zeus had him chained to a rock? Yikes!

Prometheus later became an even more powerful figure who represented human striving, particularly the quest for, and acquisition of, scientific knowledge. So, Prometheus was not only big and immortal, he was incredibly smart.

Now, remember his sister-in-law, Pandora? The gal falsely accused of releasing all things evil in the world? Imagine her teaming up with beefy, brainy Prometheus in order to get revenge on Zeus and his hench-gods. Science and revenge–what tremendously powerful stuff! (Nearly as powerful as my secret weapon: bourbon and Wikipedia.) Anyway, that’s what’s at the still-beating heart of–wait for it–Zeus’s Cookbook!

What? I can see you wondering how all this ties in. Just bear with me a bit longer.

In the sixth century BC, the Greek poet Theognis [Thee-og’-neez] of Megara [Meh’-gar-ah] announced to the world the end of the Olympians because they were no longer revered. They were done. Kaput. And that, my friends, is when I believe Pandora achieved her fondest hope. Remember the Greek word Elpis? Hope! ‘Twas finally at hand.

Picture the smile on the face of dear, sweet Pandora as she charmed her brother-in-law, Prometheus, into using his vast knowledge of science and alchemy to reduce the entire Greek pantheon, and all their revolting pets, to powder. She then stored their remains in little jars, like the one pictured here (and on the front of my book).

Oh, and just so you know, in the original Greek tale, Pandora was given an urn, rather than a box, which contained all the bad stuff. A box? Seriously? Sheesh.

So now you’re wondering what happened to all the little spice jars filled with powdered gods and goddesses, right? As you might have guessed, Zeus’s Cookbook begins to answer that question.

It all begins in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, where….

But you’ll just have to read the book to find out more. If you hurry, you can download a free copy right here. Please note: this offer is only good on August 26 and 27, 2019.

And, if you decide to grab a copy, please be kind enough to post a review. I’d really like to write more books about this stuff, but I’ll only do so if I think folks want to read it.

Thanks!

–Josh

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Flash Fiction–Plus Hot News!

Posting new material fifty-two times a year is a challenge, and I’m proud to say I’ve largely maintained that schedule for over seven years. Yay me! (Sorry.) In addition to writing, I stay busy editing, teaching, and working with other writers. So, this week, in addition to posting a dose of flash fiction, I’m happy to introduce my readers to books by two fine authors with whom I’ve worked. But first things first; here’s the short stuff:

“I’m Detective Williams,” said the man at the door. His plaid coat reminded Jerome of the one his mother made him wear. She never treated me like an adult.

“Come in,” the teen said.

Williams declined. “I was in the area and thought I’d drop by. I hoped you could tell us something new about your mom’s disappearance.”

“Can’t think of anything,” Jerome said. “I called when she didn’t come home from choir practice.”

“It’s only been a few days,” the officer said as he backed away. “We’ll keep looking. There’s still hope.”

Alone again, Jerome smiled. His experimental conditioner worked! Yes, it took a while, but once a subject’s bones dissolved, well….

~*~

Sandra glared at her beau. “Enough, Brad! I’m angry, but I’m too tired to argue. In fact, I’m exhausted. Take me home.”

He started the car and pulled into traffic. “Chill, babe. I just teased him a little.”

Teased? Hardly. You went way past that.”

“He started it, the little geek. Said I was French.”

“French?”

“Yeah. He called me a frog.”

Sandra had known Jerome since they were little. He’d had a crush on her since the 4th grade. “Are you sure he didn’t say, ‘trog’?”

“Yeah, maybe. I dunno. What’s a trog?”

“It’s short for troglodyte, someone who lives underground. Like a troll.”

“Then, the little shit had it coming. He owed me.” Brad reached for her, but she scooted away. “What’s your problem?”

“You are! You said you made those fancy lunches–just for me. But you stole them. How should I react?” She shook her head. “You’re disgusting. I can’t believe you’ve been picking on poor Jerome all this time. You know his mother is missing. She could be dead! Don’t you care?”

“Jerome Pilheim is a hideous geek,” said Brad. “If not for chem class, he wouldn’t have any life at all! Besides, I’m not picking on him, I’m just playin’ around with him. He prob’ly loves it.”

“You bullied him, and you know it.”

Brad shrugged. “Okay, I’ll apologize. Will that make you happy?”

“I doubt it,” she said. “We’ll see.”

~*~

Jerome finished his chemistry homework, then stretched and yawned. “God, I’m tired,” he said, smiling at the irony. Mother had been tired too, especially while her system fought to resist the conditioner he’d been putting in her food. Of course, once it destroyed her immune system there was nothing to keep it from causing her whole body to disintegrate, from the inside out. He’d had to put her in the basement those last few days for fear the neighbors would hear the screams.

Jerome turned off his night light and settled under the covers. A huge smile of contentment stretched his face as he thought about the special lunches he’d been preparing for Brad to steal. If his formula worked on him the way it did on Mother, the bully would be in for a big surprise any day now.

~End~

Okay, and now for some book stuff. Both of these new books were written by gifted writer friends, and I’m happy to show them off. Both are available now at Amazon (links follow). These two writers are amazing people, and they could use a little love. The best way you can show it is to buy a copy of whichever one tickles your fancy and post a review.

The first book, Coffee Hour in Flensburg, is a memoir by Erika Passantino which brings to life conditions in war-time Germany for a little girl and her parents, one a gifted pianist, the other a brilliant engineer. While the primary focus is on Germany in the 1940s, the full story ranges across three continents and several decades. It’s a fascinating read. I had the pleasure of editing the text and the many photos in this wonderful book. I know you’ll enjoy it. You can order your copy here.

Snapshots, the second book to debut this month, is a delightful collection of flash fiction–short stories under a thousand words. Written and compiled by a genius of the genre, Doris Reidy, these stories run the gamut of emotions from joy to sorrow and everywhere in between. You can order a copy here.

I’m extremely fortunate to know Doris, and even more fortunate to have her as my co-teacher for a writing class devoted to flash fiction. If you live in the metro Atlanta, Georgia, area and think you might like to join us, check out our class listing here.

Finally, an extra word or two about my own new release, Zeus’s Cookbook, which also debuted this month. Though I did a cover reveal last week, I didn’t take the time to say anything about the story itself.

Anyone who knows me also knows I’m no cook, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this isn’t actually a cookbook. Instead, it’s a book about some extraordinary flavorings–spices of an unusual, positively unearthly, variety. These spices will not only change the character of a meal, they can change the character of… well… a character. Fun stuff ensues!

You can find your copy right here.

–Josh

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A Back-to-Skool Shortie

It’s Back-To-School season, and in honor of the occasion, I’ve got a charming little bit of super-short, flash fiction to help folks bring it into focus, especially since the topic du jour is an on-going teacher shortage. (My bride taught in public schools for a long time, and I suspect this little tale may help explain a lot about school administrators.)

“The Superintendent’s on the line,” said Carla Jefferson to her boss, Juan Deangelo. She held her hand over the receiver. “You want me to tell him you’re dead?”

Juan smiled. “Nah. I’ll take it. I’m not due to die until next week.”

Carla didn’t hesitate. “Don’t you go believin’ anything that white devil tries to tell you.  Like I’ve said a thousand times, if–”

“You can hang up now, Carla. I’ve got it.” Juan picked up his phone and waited for the profoundly loyal black woman to cradle hers.

“Like I said–”

“I know, Carla, I know.”

He put the phone to his ear. “Hello, Dr. Granger. What can I do for you?” He still had Carla’s attention and motioned for her to close his office door. He didn’t relax until it clicked shut.

“I’ve got wonderful news,” Superintendent Granger said, his voice unnaturally pleasant.

Juan remained cautious. Good news at Horatio Dunbar Memorial High School usually meant none of the students or faculty got shot over the weekend. “Indeed. Kindly define ‘wonderful’.”

“We’ve got your replacement staff.”

The beleaguered principal perked up. “Real teachers, or more warm bodies like last time?”

“Warm bodies! That’s a good one, Juan! But seriously, you know I’m not one to raise false hopes; you do know that, don’t you? I really believe these people, the ones we’ve got more or less lined up, can be of tremendous help to you down there.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Are ‘these people’ real teachers?”

There was only a short pause before Granger responded, but it was enough to bring Juan back down to Earth. Any teaching experience these people were likely to have probably didn’t include academics.

“They know their subject material,” Granger said. “In fact, most of them have advanced degrees.”

“And they’re willing to teach down here in the ghetto?” Juan pursed his lips. “What’s the catch?”

“Now Juan–”

“What’s the catch?”

“Do you have any idea how difficult it is to hire qualified–”

“What aren’t you telling me?” demanded Juan. “They’re all convicted felons? They’ve all got some dreaded disease? What?”

“It’s nothing like that,” Granger said. “I assure you.”

“Well then, what?”

“They’re uh…  They’re all….”

“What?”

“Vampires.”

~End~

And, just so you know, my newest novel, Zeus’s Cookbook, will be out in a matter of days. Look for an email announcement soon. Here’s a quick peek at the cover:

 

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An Unsettled Settler

Here’s another tale culled from the trunk, from a time when I thought writing science fiction would be my road to riches. Unfortunately, when it came to real science, I quickly realized I was out of my element and needed to stick with humor. Hence, this:

Roger felt a small wave of relief knowing his wife and daughter were out back, in no immediate danger from the creature squatting on the rocks at his feet. Roger let his hand drift slowly toward his holster; he’d have time for one quick round: a head shot. I’ll pop the bugger smack on the nose–blow his tonsils right out his butt.

A head shot made sense, but not due to Roger’s marksmanship. The little monster faced him head-on, so he had no other choice. It hissed at him, and Roger moved his hand a little faster. As his fingers touched the upper flap of the holster, he realized with gut‑flushing clarity that it was velcroed shut.

Swallowing hard, Roger moved his hand away from the holster in the same deliberate manner as before. He couldn’t shake from his mind the words of old Jeb Freeman, a surviving colonist from the early landings. “Stay clear of the roaches,” Freeman said. “They’ll kill ya soon as look at ya–and it’s a lousy way to go.”

Freeman had lectured Roger along with all the other new arrivals. “They spit acid and attack anything that moves. When calm, they wheeze like a leaky bellows, but piss ’em off and they get quiet as death.”

The creature at Roger’s feet blinked, its yellow eyes hypnotic. Swell.

“I remember one poor fool,” Freeman said, “who took five days to die. Screamed the whole time. Trust me, if one gets ya, just go ahead and shoot yourself, or have someone else do it.”

Roger remembered how puzzled he’d been when Freeman passed around photos of one. “I thought you called it a roach?”

Freeman nodded. “Hobart’s roach.”

Roger still thought it a stupid name for a toad. He looked at the one in front of him as it hissed, lowered a heavy jaw, and belched. Two heartbeats later the odor engulfed him. To hell with you, Hobart–you and the roach you rode in on!

Freeman said Hobart was a senior crewman in the first landing, thirty years ago. Hobart theorized that any planet capable of supporting life would also have a dominant life-form. On Earth, of course, it was people. Somewhere else it might be giant gasbags, sentient squid, or, as Hobart predicted, roaches–hence the name for the dominant critter here, on Deneb IV.

The roach began to bob slowly up and down. At first, Roger followed its movements with his eys only, then matched its pace and motion with his whole head, bobbing up and down in synch with the reptile. He stopped when he remembered Freeman discussing their courtship rituals.

“Thank God they don’t breed very fast,” the old colonist said, “since they’re at the top of the food chain, or were, ’til we got here.”

Everything Roger had seen confirmed what he’d been told; Freeman had been quite specific. “They’re extremely touchy about sound. They’ll go after anything they think is a threat.”

Marvelous. Roger had no desire to provoke this one by ripping open a Velcro fastener. “Okay you, just relax.” He tried to make his voice soothing. It seemed to work.

My Lord, you’re ugly. Stretching 30 centimeters, tooth to tail, the specimen glaring at him looked nothing like an Earth roach. Easily massing a couple kilos, it looked like the horned toad from hell. Where a toad’s skin was pebbly, the skin on the roach was a lunar relief map; the insect-nabbing tongue was a small, but lethal, pitchfork, and the webbed toes were taloned.

“If he grabs ya,” Freeman had said, “he won’t let go.”

The roach at Roger’s feet curled back its lips as if Roger had requested a better look at its needle-sharp teeth.

Ugly buggers eat anything. While not strictly true, the animals suffered no apparent harm from dining on their brethren or even non-native plants. As the colonists quickly learned, they were actually attracted to the livestock and vegetables bio-engineered for the colony. As a garden pest, Hobart’s roach had no equal, but it earned its deadly reputation as a hunter.

Though the roach had been wheezing like a steam engine, the sound started to fade. Roger wished he had the needlegun, but it was stowed under the seat of the rover.

Used to harvest the sponge plants in Deneb’s shallow seas, the needlegun fired a slender harpoon attached to a monofilament line. Then again, I don’t want to rope the little turd; I want it dead–right where it sits.

A new thought clamored for his attention. What would Marla say? After all his whining to get a spot on the colony roster, he was finally faced with his first real crisis and didn’t know what to do. How’s that for self-reliance? His wife would love it; the airwaves would hum for weeks as she regaled her friends with tales of his inadequacy. As if she could do any better!

The roach belched again.

Roger remembered the cryospray in shed three. He could hose the roach with liquid nitrogen–quick-freeze it! Only this time he didn’t care about preserving the specimen for study. He’d have to be sure of the wind direction, he realized, or he was likely to put himself in the freezer.

Roger swayed to his left. The roach swayed with him as if measuring the distance before attacking.

Roger’s sphincter tightened like a vise; sweat ran down his temples. If I had a shotgun, I’d splash toad all over the rocks! Then he focused on one of his daughter’s toys and knew the shotgun option was out. Roach guts were caustic. A tiny drop on bare skin would agonize an adult for hours. With a child around, it was out of the question.

The monster began opening and closing its mouth as if practicing the chewing it would do when it landed on Roger’s face. He blinked sweat from his eyes and tried to concentrate on a solution before the creature lost patience and came after him.

The scrambler–over at the mining camp! Designed to reduce igneous rock to powder, the machine generated a field capable of destabilizing a variety of compounds. After several grisly and well-publicized accidents, they were banned from populated areas. Still, the thought of turning the roach into a puddle of solvent had appeal.

The roach closed its mouth, the wheezing barely audible.

Oh, crap! He clenched his fists and jaws in frustration at his own stupidity. The scrambler was half-way across the planet, and he no idea how to use it. But even if he did, the roach would be required to oblige him by not killing and eating his family while he went to get it.

Maybe I could torch him! Surely we’ve got some flammable liquids around here somewhere.

Roger stepped back; the wheezing stopped.

“Be cool,” he said, though for whose benefit, he didn’t know. He took another step; the roach didn’t move. Another step. Then another. Finally, he was walking backward, stiff-legged and tight, but out of the creature’s range.

He made it to the rover, parked some twenty meters away, ripped open his holster and slid his hand down to the sculpted grip on the gun. He held the weapon easily, with both hands, braced his arms on the hood of the vehicle, and drew a bead on the roach. Holding his breath, he slowly applied pressure to the trigger.

Fithwip! Poof! Roger’s tiny, self-propelled missile missed the roach by a half-meter and kicked up a cloud of dust and rock chips. The roach leaped away; the dust covered its movement.

While searching for his target, Roger admitted to himself he’d never been able to hit anything smaller than a convenience store at this distance. Wonder how long it’ll be before we have convenience stores here? He shook off the thought. A handgun was no use; he had to come up with something else. He holstered the weapon as the roach came to rest on hard, bare ground. Its slitted eyes and deathly silence promised revenge.

“I’ll run over it!” Roger said, then remembered he didn’t have Gramp’s old Buick handy. What he did have was the rover, which, like all the vehicles here, was an open model. If the roach wanted in, there wasn’t anything Roger could do to stop it. Damn it! He hurried to shed three. Maybe the cryospray isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Inside the cramped storage building, he inspected the tag on the canister of liquid nitrogen, but of course, the recharge date had expired. He gave it a quick test anyway. Nothing came out.

As he pondered the potential of lighting and throwing a jar of jellied petroleum at the creature, he heard his 7-year-old daughter, Jeanette. “Daddy, Daddy! Come quick!” she screamed.

Roger charged out of the shed and raced toward the rover, slipping on the loose gravel. “I’m coming baby, hold on!”

“Hurry Daddy, hurry!” the child cried.

“I’m coming,” he screamed again, struggling with the overly sticky flap on the holster. The gun would have to do; he prayed desperation would improve his aim, and ran on.

“Daddy’s coming!”

Finally yanking the automatic free, he popped the slide to chamber the first round and came to a shaky but complete stop.

“I got ‘im, Daddy! I got him,” Jeanette said, smiling as she patted her chest. She pointed down to the rock she had used to crush the creature’s skull. “You wanna tell Mommy, or can I?”

~End~

 

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