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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A Not So Simple Case of Stage Fright

Here’s something both new and a little different. Possibly even suitable for a younger audience. Let me know what you think.

“I’m done for,” Jack told himself. “If I weren’t such a chicken, I’d take my bike out on the interstate until somebody ran over me.”

“What’re you mumblin’ about, Jerko?”

”Nuthin’.”

Rotten to begin with, Jack’s day had just gotten worse with the arrival of the last person on Earth he wanted to see, Myron “the Beast” Blatnik.

“Look at me, Jerko,” the Beast said. “I want an answer.”

Jack knew what he really wanted was an excuse to punch Jack’s lights out. And any excuse would do.

“It’s nothing important.”

“So, you got my grade fixed?”

There it was, the grade thing. If only Jack hadn’t opened his mouth; if only he hadn’t claimed he knew how to change data in a spreadsheet. If only…. “Yeah, about that,” he began.

“You didn’t do it, did ya?” More statement than question, the Beast delivered his opinion with a quick shove and a dose of halitosis, both well-known Blatnik trademarks.

“The thing is, I got caught,” Jack said, trying to hold his breath long enough for the Beast’s breath to dissipate.

The Beast showed him a fist. “You better not have ratted me out to Mizz M.”

“I didn’t. Honest. I told her I was just lookin’. I wasn’t trying to change anything.”

“Did she believe you?”

Jack shrugged. Mrs. Melchior could be a mystery sometimes, especially when it came to doling out punishment. The one she’d given him was clearly over the top. Super, extra over the top.

“At least you didn’t get suspended,” opined the Beast.

“That would’ve been a lot better than what she came up with.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“I’ve gotta play the part of Romeo in the year-end class play.”

The Beast laughed so hard Jack knew everyone in the whole school could hear him, and thanks to the magic of junior high physics, everyone would know exactly why he was laughing.

“C’mon, man. Gimme a break.”

The Beast struggled to control himself. “I heard Four Eyes is gonna be Juliet.” He doubled over once more. “Oh, that’s frickin’ awesome. I can’t wait to see you smoochin’ up 4E.”

“I don’t think that’s required,” Jack said, though he doubted his own words.

The Beast poked Jack’s sternum. “Just don’t forget to fix my grade before the end of the term.”

“You don’t think Mrs. Melchior will notice?”

“Ain’t my problem, Jerko. Do it, or else.”

~*~

Jack put in more hours than he cared to count in an effort to memorize his lines, but when it came time to recite them, he struggled. It didn’t help that most of the class had front row seats for his mortification. And smack in the middle, where Jack could smell his rank, nasty breath, sat Myron “the Beast” Blatnik, laughing harder than everyone else.

4E, on the other hand, knew every line as if she were reading from a script. It wasn’t fair by a long shot. When Mrs. Melchior finally granted him a reprieve and ended the rehearsal, Jack wasted no time following his Juliet to her locker, hoping to learn her secret.

“How do you do it?” he asked the tall, dark‑haired girl whom everyone but the teacher called 4E. “How can you remember all this stuff?”

“It’s easy. Where I come from, everyone can do it. You just have to give the words a special look.”

Jack had no idea where she came from, but he was absolutely sure it wasn’t anyplace nearby. She had a vaguely Asian look, and one of his friends pegged her as, “Cute, but not Miss Universe.” Jack hadn’t formed an opinion about her since he hadn’t quite gotten into the whole girl and guy thing yet, much to the amusement of his alleged pals.

“That’s fine for you,” he said. “But what about me?”

“I guess you’ll just have to work harder.”

“Aw geez, 4E. I’m already workin’ overtime.”

She just shrugged and walked away, leaving Jack sad and frustrated. At least she didn’t seem to care about her nickname like some kids did. He figured that was because no one, including Mrs. Melchior, knew exactly how to pronounce her real name.

~*~

A few more days passed, and on the eve of the dress rehearsal, Jack concluded his situation was hopeless. He had even given serious thought to running away to someplace where nobody knew him. His overwhelming gloom drove him close to tears as he stood beside his locker and contemplated various forms of pain-free suicide.

“Wow,” said 4E as she sidled up to him in the hallway, “you look like you just received a death sentence.”

“Might as well have,” he muttered. “Every time I think I’ve got my lines down pat, somebody looks at me funny, or makes a joke, or sticks their tongue out at me, and then I can’t even remember what day it is.”

4E stepped closer to him and crossed her arms. “Since you’ve been pretty nice to me, I’ll do you a favor.”

Jack gave her his full attention. “What kinda favor?”

“If you can give me some kind of sign when you need help, I can give you your lines.”

“A sign?”

“Sure. You could wink or something.”

Jack’s laugh held little mirth. “I can just imagine how everyone would react to that! They’d never stop laughing at me. Couldn’t I just rub my nose?”

“Based on the way it’s been going, you’ll rub it completely off by the time we get to the end of the first scene.”

Jack felt tears beginning to form. He had no intention of crying in front of a classmate, let alone a girl, but he had nowhere to hide.

“I’ve got a better idea,” 4E said. “At the dress rehearsal, whenever you need the next line, just start thinking of something really, really weird and specific.”

“Like Eddie Bogart’s funky ear?”

She shook her head. “Nah. It needs to be something nobody else is likely to think about.” Her lips twisted to one side as she gave it more thought. “How ‘bout pickles on ice cream?”

“What good is that supposed to do?”

“You’ll see,” she said. “Oh, and by the way, my name’s not Four Eyes.” She then uttered something that included two tongue clicks and a short, breathy whistle.

Jack decided he’d stick with 4E.

~*~

At the dress rehearsal, Jack donned his costume as if it were required for the guest of honor at a firing squad. Nervous sweat dripped from everywhere, soaking his tights and his short jacket. The only thing which stayed dry was the feather in his monumentally stupid hat.

Somehow he staggered out on the stage where 4E waited for him dressed in similar period clothing. But just as she had no problems with her lines, her costume looked great. In fact, without her big glasses, she was edging closer to Miss Universe territory, and he told her so.

Her smile made her look even prettier. “Now don’t forget what I told you to do if you forget something,” she said.

He couldn’t begin to imagine how thinking of something stupid‑‑like pickles on ice cream‑‑could possibly make any difference, but he agreed. Since he was about to perish on stage anyway, in front of everyone he knew, what difference did it make? On the plus side, by dying out there, Myron Blatnik would be deprived of his main goal in life, Jack’s torture.

Jack somehow managed the first few of his lines without difficulty, but he made the mistake of looking at the Beast squatting at the edge of the stage making faces at him. The curtain shielded Blatnik from the teacher giving him a clear line of sight to the actors. Suddenly, Jack couldn’t remember anything.

His skin grew clammy, and he began shaking and stammering. The worse he got, the more the Beast laughed. Jack stared at 4E in desperation.

She smiled and winked at him which seemed to break the spell.

He closed his eyes and concentrated on a huge bowl of fudge ripple ice cream with sliced pickles piled on top. Suddenly, he heard a voice in his head. It was her!

He opened his eyes to see if she was talking, but she was just smiling, and he could still hear her speaking his lines!

Jack looked around to see if anyone else heard her, too, but it seemed clear no one else could. Mrs. M had grown impatient; the other kids didn’t bother to try and hide their giggles, and the Beast grinned and gave him the finger.

Finally, Jack blurted out his lines, just as 4E had recited them to him.

From then on, with 4E’s help, he made it through the rest of the rehearsal. At the end, Mrs. Melchior complemented both of her star players. The other students, with the exception of the Beast, crowded around them, clapping them on the back and telling them how great they were. Jack even began to believe them.

Once everyone packed up and started leaving, Jack hurried to find and thank 4E as she stood beside her hall locker.

“How can I thank you?” he asked.

“I’m not saying another word until you call me by my proper name,” she said. “It’s–” She rattled off a few syllables punctuated with clicks and a whistle.

“I– I don’t think I–“

“Adios,” she said, turning away. She didn’t seem to notice the smattering of kids who had hung around to watch them.

“Wait,” Jack said and gave it a try.

“That’s close,” she said. “Try again.”

Despite the laughter and the noise of the other kids, Jack did give it another try. And then another. And another. Until he got it right.

“That’s it!” she said, her smile wider than ever.

Jack wiped his forehead. “Okay then. How can I really thank you?”

She didn’t hesitate. “A kiss will do.”

The gang surrounding them thought this new development was insanely funny, and they all burst out laughing, especially the Beast.

Jack merely hitched up his tights, cleared his throat and said, “That’s fine with me, Juliet.” Then he kissed her full on the lips.

It was a long kiss.

Some of the boys continued to giggle, but the girls in the crowd elbowed them into silence.

By the time they finished that one, long kiss, Jack’s world had expanded exponentially.

~*~

With his confidence restored and his fear under control, Jack managed to play his role quite convincingly to a girl he now realized he adored. As a result, they both turned in performances that could only be described as masterful, even for junior high schoolers.

Afterward, at the cast party, the Beast pushed his way between Jack and 4E’s newly found admirers. “Hey, Jerko. You finished with our other project yet?”

With 4E holding his hand, Jack didn’t flinch as he looked the Beast square in the eye. “Before I answer, I’ve got a question for you.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you like ice cream? I mean, as big as you are, you probably eat a lot of it.”

The Beast seemed to expand right where he stood. “So what?”

“What’s your favorite flavor?”

“Vanilla. What of it?”

“Stay with me now,” Jack said, ready to launch into the tactic 4E suggested before the show. She had seen the effect the Beast had on him. He stared hard at Blatnik. “Try thinking of that big ol’ bowl of vanilla ice cream just smothered in pickles.”

Pickles?

“Yeah. Give it a shot,” Jack said. “Unless, of course, you’re afraid.”

The Beast actually growled at him. “Yer in for it now.”

“Oh, puh-leeze. Just take two seconds to think about that ice cream with lovely green pickle slices sliding down on all sides. C’mon. Give it a try.”

4E squeezed Jack’s hand as she smiled, not saying a word.

Suddenly, the Beast looked nervous, and his face reflected a growing fear. He glanced from side to side as if seeking an exist.

4E continued to smile, while Jack held his ground and then, at the appropriate moment, cracked his knuckles.

With that, Myron “the Beast” Blatnik reached the breaking point and pushed his way back out of the small crowd.

“Catch ya later,” Jack called out after him.

The Beast didn’t respond.

~*~

Jack walked 4E home a short while later. On the way he couldn’t help but comment, “I still don’t understand what you did to him.”

She chuckled. “Once you got him to focus on something odd, I was able to put a suggestion in his mind.”

“What kinda suggestion?”

“He now believes you’ve got a black belt in karate and could break his arms and legs as easily as you destroy pine boards.”

“No kidding? I don’t know anything about karate.”

“You might want to look into it,” she said. “Just in case.”

Jack realized he’d been holding her hand the entire time they’d been walking, and when they reached her house, he was reluctant to let go. “This whole thing has been amazing. And I still don’t know how you were able to memorize your lines so well.”

“It’s easy,” she said. “Where I come from, everyone can do it.”

Her response sounded familiar, and Jack squinted at her. “Just where, exactly, do you come from?”

“Promise you won’t tell?”

He nodded.

“I come from the fourth planet orbiting the star Earth people call Alpha Centauri.”

Jack laughed. “No, really, where do you come from?”

4E wasn’t laughing. “That is where I come from.”

“Right,” Jack said, still trying to make light of it. “I thought all you space aliens were supposed to be green or look like reptiles or something.”

“Only in the movies,” she said. “Although we do have one thing that humans don’t have.” She pulled the hair back from her forehead to reveal a third eye. “Any time I need to remember something forever, I give it a special look.”

~End~

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Taco Logic

Here’s a fable from my short story collection Who Put Scoundrels In Charge? (Available here.) I’d love for this to become required reading for anyone studying economics and/or political science. What do you think?

“Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius.” ~Fulton J. Sheen

No one could make a taco like Antonio, though many tried. His shells were so thin and light and crisp that only he could load one without crushing it. His lettuce was always green and fresh, his tomatoes always firm and ripe. Some say that the angels made his cheese and most agreed that if heaven had a taste, one could find it at Antonio’s humble stand.

Every day, long before Noon, Antonio would push his cart to the side of the plaza near the bell tower and prepare his ingredients. The people who worked near the plaza loved the aroma of his corn tortillas as they baked. Hours later, when the other vendors arrived, Antonio gave each of them a cheery greeting.

“Ola,” he said to Enrique, the sausage vendor.

“Buenos dias!” he cried to Olivero, the maker of pies.

“Como esta?” he inquired of big Rosita, who could eat a burrito for every one she sold, and often did.

Enrique only scowled, and Olivero turned away. Rosita would nod, but rarely spoke, for she and the others had made a pact. They knew that good luck accounted for Antonio’s perpetual cheeriness. He must have had many advantages as a child since everything he touched turned out so well. It clearly wasn’t fair, and so they decided to teach him a lesson. They agreed to ignore him as long as he refused to change his attitude. They had each other; it would be enough.

But after several weeks nothing changed–Antonio remained the same. So did the lunch lines, which stretched farther from his cart than any others. He didn’t have all the customers, of course. Some people simply couldn’t take the time to stand in Antonio’s line, and those from out of town didn’t know any better. A few simply didn’t like tacos, even if they did taste like heaven.

Since the pact failed to change anything, the others formed a guild. Enrique and Olivero named it The Brotherhood of Plaza Vendors. Olivero even designed a noble banner with words in somber black and a drawing of a man baking meat pies. Enrique liked the banner because he thought the pies looked like sausages. Rosita argued against the word “Brotherhood,” but finally settled for “Fellowship,” though it didn’t sound exactly right. She agreed to the drawing since the man in it wore an apron and could just as easily have been a woman, albeit a big one. Besides, she thought the pies looked like burritos.

They called to order the first meeting of the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors in Rosita’s home one morning about two weeks before the annual Harvest Festival. Working very hard, the three decided on all the important rules, including the one about membership. Anyone who attended the charter meeting automatically qualified as a charter member; anyone who joined later must pay a fee. That would show Antonio, who was too busy worrying about himself to attend the meeting.

The members of the Fellowship pushed their carts close together on the side of the plaza away from the bell tower. They erected their impressive banner and explained to anyone who would listen how they had organized for the betterment of the entire plaza. Oddly enough, the lines remained longer in front of Antonio’s cart.

“Perhaps he is closer to the fountain,” said Enrique, “and the people do not have to go so far to get a drink.”

“That may be,” said Rosita, “but notice also that his cart is in the shade of the bell tower. The people stay cooler there, and that is why they buy from him.”

Olivero disagreed. “The real reason is much more simple.” He waved his hands in the air. “The breezes always come from the west. They blow right across the plaza to the bell tower. The insects and the bad smells are thus blown away. I’m certain that’s his secret.”

“It just isn’t fair.” Rosita fanned herself. It had never seemed so hot before. “Antonio should not have all that shade to himself.”

Enrique nodded. “Nor should he be so close to the fountain. His customers should be as far from the water as ours are.”

“And may I remind you,” added Olivero, “no one owns the wind.”

“I agree,” said the big woman. “It’s time we did something.”

“Absolutely,” said Enrique rubbing his chin. “But what can we do?”

“We must come to the plaza before he does,” suggested Olivero, “and be the first to open for business by the bell tower.”

“Excellent idea!” said Rosita. “One of you can hold the space for all of us.”

“One of us?” Enrique and Olivero looked at each other. “What about you?”

“My burritos are made with a secret recipe, known only to my family. If I come to the plaza early, someone is sure to steal it.”

“You too have a secret recipe?” exclaimed Olivero. “It is the same with me. If anyone learned my special technique, I would be ruined. Enrique, my friend, for the good of the Fellowship, you must come to the plaza early.”

Enrique clapped his hands to his face. “Alas, I cannot. Indeed, I cannot even tell you why.”

“But we are friends. Surely you can trust me,” said Olivero.

Rosita pursed her lips. “I never knew you were such a man of mystery, Enrique.”

“All right,” he said, “but I’m counting on your confidence. This is something known only to my family these many years.” He looked around to ensure no one else could hear. “You see, my sausages must be made by the light of the moon. I must work nearly all night just to be ready for the next day’s trade. I cannot work all night and get up early, too.”

The Fellowship struggled with their dilemma all afternoon before they found a solution. That very day they called upon the Mayor.

“Senior Mayor,” said Rosita, “you must help us. Antonio has the water, the wind, and the shade all to himself. The people are so uncomfortable they will not trade with us.”

Enrique added, “If we earn no money, we cannot pay taxes. If we cannot pay taxes, you cannot maintain the town. If you cannot maintain the town, the people will throw you out and find a new Mayor.”

Olivero summed it up. “Clearly, Senior Mayor, it is in everyone’s best interest for you to make Antonio move his cart to the other side of the plaza.”

What the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors said sounded logical, and though the Mayor would have liked more time to think it over, he knew that elections would be held right after the Harvest Festival. Choosing between Antonio’s one vote and the Fellowship’s three required no great intellectual effort. “I will talk to him in the morning,” he promised, but he didn’t look forward to it.

The next day, Antonio arrived at the plaza as usual and wheeled his cart over to the bell tower where he found the Mayor waiting for him. “Good morning, Senior Mayor! How are you today?”

“Fine, thank you,” the Mayor said, “but I’m here on official business.” He explained that a complaint had been lodged against Antonio by a prestigious and highly influential organization. “They insist that you move to the other side of the plaza,” explained the Mayor who then spelled out all the Fellowship’s objections. “I tried to reason with them, but they threatened to call a higher authority.”

“I see,” said Antonio. “Did you point out to them that there is no shade at lunch time since the sun is straight overhead?”

“Indeed I did,” said the Mayor, wondering why the thought had not occurred to him.

“Then of course you must have also mentioned that the plaza is round so all vendors are the same distance from the fountain?”

“Of course! It goes without saying.” Which was true, for the Mayor had never said it.

“Then I know you explained about the wind.”

“Probably,” said the Mayor, “after all, we spoke at some length. Uh, which aspect of the wind did you have in mind?”

“Simply that in order for the wind to reach the bell tower here, it must pass through the plaza over there. I’ve been meaning to say something to you about the smells and the insects from that side.”

The Mayor bobbed his head in agreement. “I wish you had said something to me before. Now, it is too late. Will you move peacefully, Antonio?”

“Certainly,” said the taco vendor. Without another word he wheeled his cart across the plaza and parked beneath the banner left behind by the Fellowship. He noticed that one of the two poles supporting the banner was stuck in a sizable hill of garbage also left behind by the Fellowship. A dark green frog, as big as his fist, sat behind the pole snaring an occasional fly with its long, sticky tongue.

He sits there like a king, Antonio thought, staring at the mound of rotted pie fillings, discarded sausages and rancid burritos which served as the frog’s throne. Disgusting. Antonio shook his head and sighed. He almost envied the frog. “How easy your life is,” he said.

The frog eased around the pole where it could see him better and replied, “Easy? How would you like to spend your life sitting on a garbage pile eating flies?”

This so startled Antonio that he nearly forgot to breathe, a blessing considering the awful stench from the garbage. “You spoke!”

The frog rolled its eyes. “Can’t get anything past you.”

“This is a trick!” Antonio spun around quickly to see if someone was throwing his voice like one of the visiting performers at the Harvest Festival, but he stood alone. Scratching his head, he asked, “Are you enchanted? Are you really a prince or a king or something?”

“How did you know?” exclaimed the frog. “I thought my disguise so clever that no one would ever recognize me. What gave me away, the webbed feet? The big eyes? The long tongue? No–I’ve got it! The green skin! That’s it! Of course–all kings and princes have green skin! How stupid of me.” The frog drummed his tiny fingers impatiently.

Antonio felt a flush of embarrassment. “What I meant was, you see…” He paused to gather his wits. “I’ve heard stories about princes and evil magicians. I thought maybe you were someone important who had been turned into a toad.”

“I’m a frog,” said the frog, extending a limb. “See? Smooth skin. Toads are all warty and dry.”

“Aren’t you afraid I’ll capture you and sell you to the circus? Surely there’s a fortune to be made from a talking frog.”

“Worried? Nah. I wouldn’t cooperate. And if I didn’t talk, no one would buy me. Listen, I’ve thought about it. A circus job would be too much work. After all, I’m only a frog. I’m just tired of eating flies.”

“So what do you want from me?”

“Tacos, of course! Everyone knows yours are the best.”

“Frogs don’t eat tacos,” said Antonio.

“They don’t usually talk, either,” said the frog.

“Good point. But it doesn’t matter. I can’t work here. The smell is terrible, and the Mayor says I cannot use the other side of the plaza. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The frog appeared to give deep consideration to Antonio’s problems. “Hm,” he said at length, “maybe we can help each other.”

“How? Magic?”

“Will you stop with the magic already?” The frog did nothing to hide the exasperation in its voice. “I’ve got a deal for you. It can’t hurt to listen.”

So the frog talked and Antonio listened, and when the frog finished, the two made a bargain. Antonio squared his shoulders in preparation for the tasks ahead. He started by taking his cart home. For the first time since anyone could remember, the taco vendor did not open for business.

Later that day, across the plaza, the other vendors worked feverishly to keep up with demand. Long lines formed in front of all three carts. They reached the end of the day exhausted, but happy. When the Mayor came by to check on them, they heaped their praise upon him.

“You have done the entire village a great service, Senior Mayor,” said Rosita.

Enrique favored him with a weary smile. “We are in your debt.”

“Would you care for a pie?” asked Olivero.

“I think not,” said the Mayor, wrinkling his nose. “I just wanted to see how things were going. It’s only a week until the elec– I mean, until the Festival.”

“We can’t wait,” exclaimed Rosita. “This will be the best Festival in years!”

In the days which followed, Antonio left his cart at home and spent his time cleaning up the garbage, just as the frog suggested. Meanwhile, the members of the Fellowship enjoyed greater profits than they’d ever seen–right until the end of the week when Antonio reopened for business.

Garbage no longer occupied the western side of the plaza. In its place Antonio had installed a long, wooden table. He even planted flowers. In the space of a single day, all his customers returned, plus a few new ones. Everyone smiled. Including the frog, who sat in the shade of Antonio’s cart, munching on a taco.

The following day, as the aroma of corn tortillas and fragrant spices filtered through the air, the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors met in emergency session. “The Harvest Festival begins in two days,” lamented Olivero. “There will be twice as many people in town.”

“Then we should have twice as many customers,” said Rosita.

“Not if we have to battle Antonio across the plaza,” said Enrique. “There is something sinister about what he’s doing.”

“Like what?” Clearly intrigued, Olivero and Rosita leaned closer.

“Does anyone really know what kind of spices he puts in his tacos?”

“I think it’s a secret,” said Olivero.

Precisely! And why is it a secret?” Enrique squinted at the others, his voice dropping low. “What is it that makes his recipe so special? For all we know, he could be mixing vile narcotics in with those spices of his. I fear he has already addicted the poor people of this village, and that is why they rush to buy from him.”

“I never thought of that!” said an astonished Rosita. “Of course! You’re right. But what can we do about it?”

“I have an idea or two,” said Enrique. “But first we must hold elections.”

The actual voting was concluded quickly, since there were only three voters, but getting to that point proved problematic. Considerable wrangling had to be completed before they settled on which of them would run for the various leadership positions. Once they agreed in principle to exchanging titles at the annual elections, the rest became easy.

After the election, and in the spirit of good citizenship, the three newly elected officers of the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors visited the village physician to voice their public health concerns.

“Though we surely represent our membership,” said Chairman Enrique, “our first concern is for our fellow citizens.”

Vice Chairman Olivero wrung his hands. “Have you heard? This Antonio character encourages people to eat their meals on top of a garbage dump!”

“How can that possibly be healthy?” Secretary-Treasurer Rosita wanted to know.

The village doctor agreed the situation sounded serious, else the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors would not have sent their entire Executive Committee to complain. Using the authority given to him by the Mayor in cases of emergency, he dispatched his assistant to post public notice that henceforth, no food could be sold in the plaza until the village physician was satisfied of its safety. Pleased with the good doctor’s wise decision, the Fellowship gleefully provided samples of sausage, meat pies and burritos for inspection. All three vendors received certificates attesting to the purity of their wares.

When Antonio returned to the plaza the next morning, he found one of the notices tacked to his wooden table. As he read it, the physician’s assistant arrived to collect a sample.

“But I’ve only just arrived,” said Antonio. “Perhaps you could return later, when my tacos are ready.”

“Impossible,” said the official, “we were told this would be the best time to examine your food. Indeed, we received a warning that you might try to trick us with delays.”

Antonio struggled to hide his chagrin. “I’ll be happy to deliver a taco for inspection. Just tell me where to take it.”

“It must go to the physician, but it must go now. We will be too busy later in the day, and the Festival begins tomorrow. So bring it next week.”

“But by then the Festival will be over.”

“I don’t make the rules. But your clever tricks won’t work on me. It looks like you won’t be selling anything for awhile.” He waved as he walked away. “Adios, senior. Have a nice day.”

Antonio felt like weeping. He sat at his wooden table with his head in his hands, wondering how he could make it through the winter without any profit from the Harvest Festival.

Just then, the frog woke up. “Why aren’t you busy? I’m getting hungry.”

Antonio explained his situation to the frog whose advice had seemed so good after the last calamity. “So you see,” he concluded, “there’s nothing I can do.”

“Nonsense,” said the frog. “There’s just nothing you can do here. Now, load your table on the cart, and dig up those flowers. There’s little time, and you have much work to do.”

Once again the workers in the plaza missed out on Antonio’s tacos. Once again they had little choice but to patronize the Fellowship. But on the first morning of the Festival, the workers were greeted with cheerful music even though the celebration would not officially begin until after siesta. Two musicians went round and round the plaza playing their guitars and singing. After every few songs they made an announcement: “Antonio, vendor of tacos, invites you to join him for a Festival lunch! Free food! Just a short walk outside of town near the crossroads. Beverages available for a small fee.”

By the time the other vendors arrived, the word had already spread. Not only was Antonio back, but he was giving his food away! Since the Fellowship had no customers at all during lunch, they held yet another meeting.

“He has truly gone too far this time,” said Olivero.

“How can we compete when he gives his food away?” demanded Enrique.

Rosita was puzzled. “How can he afford to give his food away? Surely he must pay for his ingredients, just as we do.”

“Not if they’re stolen,” said Olivero.

“Or worse,” suggested Enrique.

“Worse?”

“Perhaps. What kind of man would violate tradition and begin the Festival with music before the good padres have blessed the harvest? What greater sins would he commit?”

“Antonio? In league with the devil?” Rosita was shocked.

Olivero slapped his leg. “Of course! Why didn’t we see it before? We must inform the church. It’s our sacred duty.”

“And we must do it now,” said Enrique. “There’s no time to waste.”

By the time the priest and the other vendors arrived, the luncheon party was over, and all the celebrants were gone. Antonio, who had worked all night, rested in the shade of a tree and appeared to be talking to himself. The ecclesiastical crew kept their distance, in order to observe the obviously deranged taco vendor who kept looking down at the roots of the tree as he spoke.

Rosita crossed herself. “Do you see, Padre? He has found El Diablo’s door!” Enrique and Olivero shuddered.

The priest looked around at the setting Antonio had created. Nestled among the trees just beyond the village limits, the taco vendor had erected a second table to go with the first. Gaily colored paper streamers hung from the trees and pockets of flowers brightened the grounds. A huge container of lemonade sat in the shade beside the taco cart, which was still fragrant from lunch.

“It doesn’t look so bad,” said the priest, for indeed the little clearing was most appealing.

“Do you see a cross?” asked Enrique. “Or any sign of the holy nature of the Festival?”

“No,” admitted the priest, not entirely sure the Festival was intended as a holy occasion. “We must not be hasty. I would speak with Antonio before I decide if he has done anything wrong.”

The four advanced on the recumbent restaurateur who was too weary to rise.

“Who are you talking to?” asked the priest.

“My friend, the frog,” said Antonio, waving a hand toward the amphibian.

Olivero kept the priest between himself and the taco vendor. “And does the frog respond?”

“Of course.” Antonio yawned. “This whole thing was his idea.” His voice trailed off briefly before flaring into life for a few more syllables. “I’m indebted to him.”

In a whisper, Enrique addressed the priest. “Padre, must I remind you that frogs are kin to serpents? And did you not teach us yourself that the devil is often disguised as such?”

The priest nodded, and the three vendors stared hard at him as Antonio drifted off to sleep. “He is doomed,” said Rosita.

“There’s no hope for him,” said Olivero.

The frog, guessing how the conversation would turn out, sneaked away before the zealots came after him. His disappearance provided the final proof Enrique needed. “You see? Even the devil has deserted him!”

The taco vendor slept as the four walked away, shaking their heads. They returned to the village and spread word of Antonio’s fate. After that, no one dared go near him, not even the musicians he had hired the day before.

“I’m ruined,” said Antonio to the frog.

“Only if you stay here.”

“Where else can I go?”

“Anywhere!” said the frog. “You make the finest tacos in the world. You will be welcome anywhere you go. If I were you, I would have gone to the city long ago.”

So Antonio moved to the city. Soon the people there began to say if one wanted a taste of heaven, Antonio could supply it. His fame and his business grew. He married into a respected family and fathered enough children to run an entire chain of taco stands.

In the village he left behind, the members of the Fellowship rejoiced throughout the Festival. Without the competition from Antonio, they sold everything they could make. But it wasn’t long before sales faltered once again, and they called a meeting to discuss the crisis.

Rosita pulled Olivero aside. “Everyone knows the aroma of my burritos is very subtle, but my customers can’t smell it because of Enrique’s pies. We should consider asking him to move to the other side of the plaza.”

Olivero turned to Enrique. “People need us, and they need the good, healthy meat we sell. But they think they must also buy Rosita’s burritos. It’s obvious they stay away because of the expense. The people will be happier if Rosita moves across the plaza.”

Enrique found a moment to converse with Rosita. “A balanced meal means meat and vegetables. With your burritos and my sausages, people really don’t need Olivero’s pies. He should move his cart as a public service.”

They concluded the meeting by disbanding the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors and replacing it with three new organizations, each one-third the size of the original: the Congress of Meat Pie Makers, the Brotherhood of Sausage Stuffers, and the League of Burrito Bakers. They often held their meetings in the middle of the day since customers remained scarce.

The frog, meanwhile, made a killing selling brown paper lunch bags to the people who no longer purchased their lunches in the plaza and opted instead to bring food from home. In the end, the frog and the labor leaders were the only ones who didn’t miss the humble taco vendor.

~End~

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