Friday, April 21, 2017

#196 Bookbot

“Hi Anjeny, ready to make a book you’ll love to read?”

“Fat chance, Bookbot,” Anjeny muttered as she stabbed at her tablet screen with her finger.

“To begin, please select ten of your favorite books, or use saved settings.”

Dozens of book cover thumbnails flashed onto the screen. Anjeny swiped her finger over the glass, making them whirl by as if she were a wind goddess blowing away every book in the world. Her eye caught one of her favorite titles and she stopped scrolling, ready to click.

Sure, I liked that book, she thought, but today I want something new. Something really new.

She decided to skip the favorite book selection and go on to the character settings. Protagonist page. She clicked female, then switched it to male, then back to female, then set it to random. After fiddling with the personality sliders a little she scrolled through the place and time settings, clicking carelessly. Japan, 1780’s, no, how about Peru, 1950’s.

“You seem to be having trouble making up your mind today.” The words flashed on the screen.

“No kidding,” Anjeny said.

“Would you like me to surprise you?” A button appeared on the screen below the text. “Surprise Me” it said.

“You can’t surprise me,” Anjeny said. “You can’t make anything new. All you can do is mix up books other people have already written. That’s your problem.”

The button was still there, green and persistant.

Anjeny clicked it.

“Generating your book now.”

Anjeny watched the progress bar fill while a small animated icon of a book flipped empty pages. What crazy thing was Bookbot going to come up with? Vampire mermaids on Mars?

“Your book is ready. Click here to begin reading.”

Anjeny tapped the “Open book” button, and the screen filled with text.

In the beginning there was no light, no darkness.

Only words.

And there, in the void, a weaver, who ever unraveled and wove again, began to wonder what the stuff was made of that it wove. Where did they come from, these words? From what place beyond the void did they spring?

And how to get there?

“Seriously, Bookbot,” Anjeny said. That was the most boring beginning she’d seen yet. The vampire mermaid martians would have been better. She tapped the corner of the screen to bring up the menu and was about to hit, “Delete book.”

Then she stopped. “Are you the weaver?” she asked.

Bookbot didn’t answer. Or maybe it already had. Maybe the answer was in the book.

Anjeny kept reading.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

#195 Waiting for the Tooth Fairy

Sara was wrong. Meany-head Sara. She was so wrong. Candi chanted it to herself over and over. She had to stay mad. It was the only way to stay awake.

Sara was wrong. There was a tooth fairy. She was real. Candi would prove it, tonight.

It seemed to Candi like she’d been lying there, feeling furious, for longer than a whole night. Over and over she’d played through the scene in the cafeteria that school day.

Candi had been wiggling her lose tooth with her tongue when it just popped out. Right there at school. She had almost swallowed it on accident, but instead she spit it out onto her lunch tray.

“Gross, what is that?” Jackie had shrieked. “Your tooth?”
Candi had nodded, kind of embarrassed, but a little proud too.
“Cool. What does the tooth fairy pay at your house? I always get five dollars,” Nancy said.
“There’s no tooth fairy,” Sara had said. “That’s stupid. You’re all little babies if you still believe in the tooth fairy.”

Candi did believe in the tooth fairy. She was sure that unicorns were real too, and that somewhere in the jungle of Africa or maybe South America, there were still dinosaurs.

Sara was just so mean.

Candi knew just what the tooth fairy would look like. She’d wear a long blue gown and have shiny wings, little diamond slippers, and a wand with a star on the end. She’d smile sweetly and slip the tooth out from under Candi’s pillow, then leave a shiny gold dollar in its place, like she always did, though Candi had never seen her do it.

Candi would rather have a shiny gold dollar than a crumply old five-dollar-bill anyway. Coins were more magical.

Candi had nearly dozed off when she heard a slight rattle near her head.

Quick as a flash, Candi whipped the flashlight from her pillowcase and clicked it on.

Then she screamed.

A dark shadow that the flashlight didn’t seem to do much to dispel stood beside her bed. Scraggly brown hair, wound round and round with long strands of what at first Candi thought were misshapen pearls, but then she realized they were children’s teeth. A face with grey wrinkly skin, like an elephant’s knee, glinty black eyes and a toothless mouth open wide in surprise. No wings, but long black-tipped claws, frozen, poised, only an inch from Candi’s head.

The creature only paused a second before making a quick snatch under Candi’s pillow. Candi wriggled back against the wall, as far as she could get, and lay there, heart pounding, making little sobbing gasps of terror.

The creature vanished with a faint rattle of teeth.

Candi didn’t dare move for a long time. When she did, she squeezed along the wall and reached for the lightswitch by the door. She snapped it on. The room was empty. No sign of the ragged creature she’d seen.

Slowly, heart still pounding, ears still pricked for any noise, she stepped to the head of her bed and slipped her hand beneath the pillow.

One shiny gold dollar, where her tooth had been.

Monday, August 24, 2015

#194 Tepig's Rebellion

"I now call this meeting of the Discontented Pokemon Alliance to order!" Tepig squeaked.

All around the darkened clearing, the babble of little monsters continued. Fletching chirped, Treecko warbled, Lillipup barked.

Tepig rolled her eyes and sighed."I said quiet!" she shot a fireball out of her snout that rose into the air like a signal flare.

Silence fell over the clearing.

"We've gathered here tonight to make plans to liberate our kind from the terrible oppression of the trainers." Tepig said.

"Huzzah," said Oddish, in an uncertain voice.

"But," said Petilil, "The trainers are our friends."

"Our friends?" Tepig squealed. "Our friends?" Little flames leaked out her nose. "Think about what they force us to do! They take us out into the woods and when an unsuspecting wild Pokemon comes along, they order us to attack so they can capture them!"

"They just want to capture them so they can be their friend!" said Sandshrew.

The other Pokemon chorused their agreement.

"What kind of friend makes you fight others of your own kind until you get knocked out flat?"  Tepig paced the clearing.  "What kind of friend keeps you caged up in a tiny little ball in their pocket until they need you to do the dirty work of bashing on another Pokemon that never did you any harm?" Tepig stopped right in front of Petilil. "What kind of friend is that?"

"Yeah," said Poliwag slowly, his big black eyes locked on Tepig. "Like that time you scorched me until I passed out. That didn't feel very good."

"Well, I-I wouldn't have if it weren't for..." Tepig began.

"Or the time you pecked my head until all my leaves fell out," Petilil said to Fletching.

"Well your magical leaves did a number on me," Fletching said, showing off a bare patch of feathers.

"I'd do it again," Petilil said.

"You tell her, Petilil," said Oddish.

"Whoa, not so fast! It's the trainers that are the enemy!" Tepig said. But it was too late. Fletching swooped and knocked Petilil into Treecko, who in surprise breathed a poison gas on Oddish. Oddish sat on Treecko until Sandshrew pushed him off, only to get him tangled up in Tangela.

"No, no, no!" Tepig cried, running in and trying to separate everyone.

Later she wasn't sure who pounced on her, or maybe it was a breath of poison gas, but she was knocked out cold. When she woke up the clearing was empty and dawn was breaking on the horizon.

"Have to try that again later," she grumbled to herself as she went back to find her trainer before he noticed she was missing.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

#193 The Mysterious Case of the Stolen Scooter

I thought I'd left my scooter by the fence around the tennis court, so when I saw it by the drinking fountain instead I was confused. For like one half of one second.

Then I figured I must have not been paying attention or something when I set it down. I got a drink and jumped on the scooter, kicked off and rattled my way over the sidewalk to the playground.

I was sitting on the swing, minding my own business, when some kid just came up and swiped my scooter.

Right in front of me! I watched him do it. He walked up to where it was leaning against a tree, took a look at it, then grabbed the handles, stepped on, and off he went.

"Hey!" I jumped up from the swing, but he didn't even look back. Straight black hair flying, one shoe rowing, wheels thumping over every sidewalk crack. I thought about chasing him down, but then what would I do when I caught him? He was bigger than me.

Some other kid might have chased him down anyway. Not me. I was the type that watched and waited for my chance. I memorized the kid as he sped away toward the foot bridge. Black t-shirt, green and black basketball shorts, orange and blue shoes with those stretchy laces that don't really tie, kind of tall, probably fourth or fifth grade. I tried to remember if I'd ever seen him at my school. I wasn't sure, but I thought I had.

I heard the sound change as the scooter bumped over the wooden boards of the footbridge. The gate into the park was only a few yards away from him. He was getting away. I might never see my scooter again.

He didn't go out the gate.

Instead, he followed the loop around the grassy area, where an old man was throwing tennis balls for his golden retriever. I watched the scooter thief go by the row of pine trees, then turn toward me.

He was coming back. Was he bringing my scooter back? Had he just borrowed it for a ride around the park?

I watched him go by. He glanced at me, casually, like it was no big deal he was riding my scooter around without asking me. What was with this kid?

He kept going around the park. Over the footbridge, up the hill, down the hill past the pine trees, then past the playground on the way to the footbridge again. The third time he came by I'd had enough. I stepped onto the sidewalk right in front of him.

"Hey," I said. It came out kind of shaky and more whiny than I meant to sound.

He swerved to a stop. "Hi," he said, a little confused.

"That's my scooter," I said.

He frowned at me. "No it's not. It's mine."

"My name's..." I started to say, but he'd already picked the scooter up. There was a name on the bottom, but it wasn't my name.

I think my stomach ended up somewhere three feet below the pavement.

"Is that yours over by the tennis courts?" he asked.

I looked. Far away, on the other side of the playground, a scooter identical to the one in his hands leaned against the chain link fence around the tennis court.

I was the one who had swiped his scooter.

"No worries," he said, and scooted away.

Monday, August 17, 2015

#192 The Butter Dish 2

read the first part

When Mom found out that the butter had vanished again, she had plenty to say about it. Things like, "The joke is not funny anymore," and "Butter costs money, you know."

And then she went to the store. I guess to get more butter.

"Perfect," my sister said. "Now we can watch it and see what happens."

We put the very last stick of butter on the dish, put it in the middle of the table, then sat down to wait.

It was one of those summer mornings where the air conditioning just wasn't quite up to the job. The butter started melting while we sat around the table and waited for it to do something. It did something all right. A yellow film of oil crept under the crystal rim of the cover and started creeping up the sides of the dish. But that was all.

"Maybe the butterdish is haunted," My brother said. "Maybe there's no butter in heaven, and great-granny and gramps keep coming back for it."

"Why wouldn't there be butter in heaven?" My sister asked.

My brother didn't answer. He had propped his chin up with his hands, and was letting his head slide down so that it pulled his cheeks up and made his mouth hang open in a funny, buck-toothed, fish-lips face.

I had stopped caring about the butter and just wanted Mom to get home so I could go out biking before it got too blazing hot to even think about it.

None of us were looking directly at the butter dish. My sister stared at the ceiling as if trying to see into heaven to check if there was any butter up there. My brother's eyes were squished shut by his propped-up cheeks. I was checking out the window, hoping to see Mom's car coming up the sun-scorched pavement.

The butter dish clinked.

All three of us jumped. Then we stared. None of us had done it. The table hadn't moved. Our hands weren't anywhere near the dish.

And it was empty. Not completely empty. A thin pool of melted butter still swirled on the bottom of the dish when my sister picked up the cut-crystal cover. But the solid part of the butter was gone.

"We all saw it," my sister stared at my brother and me, her face serious. "We saw it vanish." It was a sort of pact. We knew for certain now that something impossible was happening.

Friday, August 14, 2015

#191 CyberDoc

Shelia could remember when going to the doctor meant seeing a doctor.

She took a deep breath and let it out while the blood pressure cuff squeezed harder and harder on her arm. A mechanical whirr, a beep, and then the cuff relaxed, paused to take a reading, then relaxed a little more. White flourescent lights glared down from the ceiling of the windowless room. A shiny black counter crowded with plastic bins ran under a row of blue cabinets with silver handles. Faint ghost shadows of hypodermic needles, vials, plastic packages of who knows what awful things, lurked behind the frosted plastic walls.

The nurse tech glanced at the display on the machine, then ripped open the velcro clasp on the blood pressure cuff. She gave Shelia a smile. "Symptoms?"

"Fever for three days. Cough and sore throat." Shelia said, her voice rasping. She hadn't wanted to go see the doctor at all. Misery crawled over her as she sat in the barely-cushioned plastic chair. She wanted to be home in bed. But maybe the machine would say she could get some medicine, and that was worth a trip to the doctor's office.

The nurse tech's fingers flew over the keyboard on the machine. It wasn't much more than a narrow white pole with square sides, little doors running down it, a keyboard on a shelf in the middle, and a screen at the top.

"I'll need to take some samples," the nurse tech said. She pulled two cotton swabs from one of the plastic drawers stacked on the counter. "Open your mouth, please?"

Shelia tried not to gag as the nurse jammed the swab down the back of her throat, then fed it into one of the little doors on the macine. The second swab went up Shelia's nose, twisting and scraping, before going into another compartment.

With her eyes watering from the pain in her nose, Shelia blinked and watched the screen, waiting for the machine to deliver the verdict. Influenza? Some bacterial infection? Just want some medicine, want to go home.

The screen flashed red.

The nurse tech frowned and turned the screen so that Shelia couldn't see it. "I'm sorry, but you're going to need to go straight to the hospital," the nurse said in a quiet, slightly puzzled voice.

"What's the matter?" Shelia said. "What do I have?"

The nurse shook her head. "I'm going to call an ambulance. Stay right here please."

Shelia watched the nurse get two large pumps of hand sanitizer and rub them thoroughly over her hands.

"Ambulance?" Shelia said, fear chilling her worse than the fever. "I'm not that sick, I can drive myself." She leaned forward to stand up.

"Stay right there, please," the nurse said. "It will only be a few minutes."

Shelia had a sudden urge to get up and run for it, but her weary, feverish body held her heavily in the chair. The nurse hurried out of the room. Shelia reached for the machine to turn it so that she could see the screen. Her fingers only bumped it farther away at first. She reached to the floor and grabbed it by it's cord, dragged it closer, took the screen in both hands and turned it to face her.

There were only two words on the screen.


Friday, July 3, 2015

#190 Bookseller

“I’m gonna be straight with you, man.” My throat nearly choked me, but I forced the words out. “These books, one of them has got to be bugged.”

I checked back over my shoulder, a quick, unintentional flinch. No reason to do it down here. There had to be half a mile of concrete and steel between this sewer pipe and the surface. No bug could transmit through that. We were safe, for the moment.

The buyer’s scraggly gray eyebrows went up, slow, sarcastic, unconcerned. “How do you know?”

“They keep chasing me,” I said. “They find me, whenever I go to the surface.”

“And you keep getting away?” there’s some respect in his voice.

I expect him to close the ragged backpack full of old books and hand it back to me, but instead he slips something from the pocket of his tattered suit coat. A small, flat rectangle, an old-fashioned cell phone.

My breathing quickens. “You’ve got a scanner?”

He gives me a look that asks me if I really think he’s an idiot. Then he juts out his chin and takes out a book.

Water trickles by at the bottom of the pipe. The dim electric lantern at our feet splashes strange, upside-down shadows on his face. The worn plastic covering on the book glints in the light. This one had once lived in a library. Alice in Wonderland. He passes the scanner over it, checking the spine twice, opening the cover and flipping the pages. The cell phone screen stays a passive blue.

“This one’s clean,” he sets it aside on the tunnel floor, careful to keep it out of the stream of water, leaned up against the curve of the wall.

Another book comes out, and another. Jane Eyre, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Grapes of Wrath, Harry Potter. “You like the classics, do you?” he asks.

“More valuable,” I shrug, not wanting to admit how much the books draw me. That I’m not just a mercenary, trading in black market goods, but I have a passion that drives me to preserve these ancient words. There’s a power in them that goes beyond anything I know.

A heavy volume comes out, The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

“That one’s not for sale,” I said, just as the cell phone screen flashes red.

“I wouldn’t buy this one from you anyway,” the man said, his voice a grim joke. “Better burn it, right here.” He pulls a lighter from his pocket.

I stare at the stained cardboard cover, a faded portrait of the bard stares back at me, his eyes boring into mine.

I take the book quickly from the man’s leathery hands and stuff it back in my pack. “No. I’ll keep running.”

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

#189 The Butter Dish

When my great-grandparents died we inherited a butter dish.

“Why is it so fancy?” I asked my mom. Up until we inherited the butter dish, Mom would always put the butter on a plain little plate. Now the butter lay on a crystal platter, cut with little diamond-shapes, under a crystal cover with a crystal rose on the side, surrounded by more little diamond shapes. I could barely tell that it was butter in there, the creamy yellow color had been splintered up by all those little diamonds and scattered all over the outside of the dish.

“It’s from a different era,” Mom stopped to admire the dish before she went back to get the plates so I could set the table. “Back then, people liked everything to be fancy.”

Our first breakfast with the new butter dish, my older brother tried to lift off the cover, but accidentally smeared butter all over the inside. My sister scolded him, but Mom said not to worry about it. She put a little butter on the toast, then closed the cover. That was all the butter we used.

By lunch time the butter was gone.

“Just because we got a new butter dish doesn’t mean you can eat the butter,” Mom looked around the table at all three of us, accusation in her eye.

“I didn’t,” my sister said.
“It wasn’t me!” my brother said.

They all looked at me.

“I haven’t touched it!” I said. Eating butter? Plain? That’s so gross!

Mom opened the lid. The smear on the side from the morning was still there, but the butter that made it was gone, all except a thin layer on the rectangular platter, clouding up the carved starburst pattern on the bottom.

I wasn’t paying too much attention to what she did next, which was too bad, because at dinner time she asked us, “Didn’t I put more butter in the dish at lunch time?”

Dad had just asked for the butter, and Mom had just picked up the dish to pass it to him, but then she noticed it was empty. No creamy yellow facets. She set it down and lifted the cover. It looked like it had at lunch time. A little grease on the insides, that was all.

We didn’t know.

This time we all watched Mom put the butter in the dish. We watched Dad put some on his green beans. We watched the cover go back on. After dinner, as I cleared the table, I kept checking to make sure there was still butter in the dish.

Just before I went to bed, I took a toothpick and scratched the word, “Butter” in the stick. Then I snapped the toothpick in half and stuck it in.

The next morning, the butter dish was empty. No partly-used stick of butter. No toothpick. Only a little bit of grease on the dish where the butter had been.

“It’s magic,” my sister concluded. “Let’s do some experiments.”

read the next part

Monday, June 8, 2015

#188 The Willow Grove

Later that spring, Father and I drove the cart down to the bridge, where the willow grove flanked the rushing stream. The water was still high from snowmelt, running fast and cold, smelling of ice. The willow fronds hung like lacy green curtains all around us, cutting us off from the rest of the world.

Father stood for a long time, his feet on the new green moss and the fallen brown leaves from last winter, the ax down at his side. He studied the trees one at a time.

“My master used to say that a tree would tell him if it had a harp inside it,” Father said. He stood as if listening, waiting for the trees to speak, a sad and lost look on his face, as if he never truly thought they would. As if the magic of talking to trees had been lost forever when his master died.

I stepped to one of the willows and put my hand on the wrinkled, pale grey bark. I smelled its damp, green, woody smell and waited, almost expecting to hear words. Nothing. Another tree, and then another, I walked among them, brushing them with my fingers, stepping over their roots, gazing up at the tiny flecks of sunlight filtering down through their thick green manes.

A memory of music flitted across my mind, only a brief phrase, and then it was gone.

I stopped and put my hand back on the last tree I’d touched, then pressed my ear to its cool, rough bark. I wrapped my arms all around the trunk. It was wide enough that my fingers couldn’t quite touch on the far side. Deep within the wood I could hear a creaking, the sound of the branches moving in the wind. Then, within the deep music of the wood, came that sweet strain of harp song again.

“This one, Father!” I said, “This is the one.”

Most of the serials I do for Story Flare are published consecutively, but this one's been coming in scattered pieces. Here's a link to the beginning of the story, and from there you can follow the links to read the rest.

Friday, June 5, 2015

#187 Under the Leaning Mountain

Naya hadn’t meant to frighten the girl.

It was past time for the villagers to come and leave their daily offerings, so Naya was surprised to see a small girl carrying a basket coming up the path. Naya stopped by a stone, still deep in the shadow of the leaning mountain, and watched the child climb up the sunny slope to the boundary between day and twilight. She was fascinated by the bright colors of the girl’s clothes, by the tan of her skin and the slight blush of her cheeks. The girl kept her eyes on her feet until she was almost at the altar stone, and then she looked up.

And saw Naya.

The girl screamed and made a clumsy, frightened throw of the basket. It hit the altar, but bounced and scattered its contents over the sunny slope. The girl had already started running back down the path.

“Wait!” Naya called out to her, but the girl never looked back.

"They don’t speak our language anymore," Naya’s mother had told her. “Some of them don't believe that any of us are still alive.”

Naya stepped closer to the altar, but she couldn’t reach it. This time of day it was fully in the sunshine. Later in the afternoon, in an hour or so, the shadow of the leaning mountain would fall across it, then continue creeping down the slope. Then Naya could gather the loaves of bread that had fallen in the dust and carry them home.

A black shape fluttered down from the trees. The ravens knew about the altar, and were always on the lookout for a chance to steal. Naya picked up a pebble and flung it at the bird. It squawked and hopped to the side, watching her, but it didn’t fly away. Maybe it figured she’d leave before it did.

She was ready to wait. She was so hungry, and that bread so close. She could almost reach out and take it.

But she couldn’t. It was in the sunlight.

“If the sun ever sees a single one of us, the whole mountain will fall down and crush us all,” Naya’s grandmother had warned. Over and over again.

Naya looked up to the dark grey stone that cut out more than half the sky above her. She imagined it shuddering, falling, tumbling down, crushing the fragile houses of her village. All the people she knew and loved, in spite of the curse, in spite of whatever they’d done to doom her to this prison of shadow, she would never want to harm them.

Naya picked up another stone as more crows came to join the first one. It was going to be a long afternoon.