Sunday, November 30, 2014

#43 You Might Fall In

After hunting all over the house, I found my little sister Jillian out front, playing in puddles on the sidewalk. She’d splashed mud all over her pink shorts and her ruffly white blouse. Mom was going to be ticked.

“Jilly-bean, come on, it’s time for dinner!” I shouted from the front door.

She didn’t listen to me, but made another big splash.

“Cut that out!” I said. “Get out of that puddle. You shouldn’t be doing that anyway” I said.

She pouted at me. “Why not?”

“Because,” I said. “You might fall in.”

She stared at me, her face all scrunched up, as if she was trying to figure out what I meant.

I walked out onto the sidewalk to stand beside her. “See, look down there. There’s another world in there. Every puddle has another world inside it. And if you’re not careful, you’ll fall right through into it.”

She stamped her foot a couple of times, as if to test how sturdy the sidewalk was beneath her.

“It won’t happen unless you stand really still. If the water’s moving at all, you won’t fall in. But if ever the water is perfectly, absolutely still… zoop!” I said. “You’ll plop right down into that other world and be stuck there.”

She squinted her eyes at me. “You’re lying,” she said.

I shrugged. “Maybe.” I snatched at her hand, but she pulled it away. “Come on in, Mom says it's time for dinner.”

Jillian stared down at the puddle beneath her feet, as if trying to see her way into that other world I’d told her about. Great. I’d only made it up to scare her out of the puddle. Now all she wanted to do was find out if I was telling the truth.

“Hurry up, Jill-pill.” I turned and walked back toward the house.

I didn’t hear Jillian’s footsteps behind me, but I kept hoping she’d come on her own if I just kept walking. I didn’t want to have to pick her up out of that puddle and get muddy water all over my clothes. When I reached the porch step I turned to look back.

She was gone.

“Jilly?” I called. “Where did you go?”

There wasn’t any answer.

She had been right there behind me, in the middle of the sidewalk, just ten seconds ago. I held my breath in the still air, listening for her. It was a little dark outside, with the clouds overhead, but I could see the front yard perfectly clearly. She wasn’t anywhere in sight.

“JILLIAN!” I shouted, then waited for her to pop out from behind Dad’s car parked there on the street, or maybe hear her giggling from the front door because she’d somehow gotten around me. But no, she wasn’t anywhere.

I screamed her name out, angry and frightened, but nothing answered me, not even a breath of wind.

It was crazy, I know, but I had a horrible feeling that maybe she had fallen through the puddle. I’d just made that up! It couldn’t be true. I stepped to the puddle’s edge and looked down into the water.

I saw my reflection, and the dark gray clouds in the sky overhead, and the electrical wires, and the maple tree. As I watched, Jillian’s reflection came to stand next to me.

“There you are, you brat!” I said, and glanced up, reaching out to grab her arm before she could get away again.

There was no one in the yard with me.

Friday, November 28, 2014

#42 Cyopolis

They all thought I was going to die.

I gripped the straps of my backpack, trying to dry my sweaty hands, and stared at the gates in front of me. I wondered if there were more people here today for the ceremony than usual. I’d never been to one myself, so I didn’t know.

The massive gates stared down at us all.

A microphone crackled, and the city official at the podium began speaking. “Children of Cyopolis, who have come here today desiring to leave the walls of her safety, do you hereby relinquish all rights, responsibilities, and privileges of civilization and desire now to go back into the wilderness?”

My father was not in the crowd, but I knew my mother was here, watching. I wanted to look for her, but then again I did not. She would be crying, pleading with her eyes as she had with her words since I’d told them I was leaving.

I swallowed once and answered the official’s question. “Yes.” My voice hadn’t sounded as confident as I had hoped.

A murmur ran through the crowd, an angry sound like machinery starting up. I was no longer one of them.

“Then we release you,” the official said, stumbling over these words as if he had never read them before. He probably hadn’t. No one had left the city for as long as anyone could remember. Some of the elders could remember a time when every year, a few people came in from the wild, pledged to obey the laws of the city, and joined us. Exchanged their freedom for safety. But it had been a long time since that had happened.

Most people in Cyopolis thought that the wild ones were all dead.

I knew they weren’t. I’d seen one of them. Not quite a year ago, from the top of the wall. I’d seen a girl who had climbed a tree, as if to maybe get a look over the wall. She still had meters to go before she would have been high enough to see down into the city, but she stood at the top of the tree, staring up, wonderingly. I never knew if she saw me or not, but I had seen her, and it didn’t look as if she were alone. She was thin, but healthy, and wore clothes I didn’t think someone her age could have made on her own.

The gates creaked open. I watched them swing wide, and wondered at how long the tunnel was behind them. I had not known the wall was so thick at its base. The sound of the crowd rose as I stepped forward into the tunnel. My pack held everything that would keep me alive until I found the wild ones. I wondered if they would accept me, or if I would end up living on my own after all.

And then I saw her.

At the other end of the tunnel stood a girl. She was walking forward, staring in wonder at the lights on the tunnel ceiling. In her hands, a basket full of fruits, held out like an offering. Her clothes were made of… I couldn’t tell, but they were soft and natural and the dull colors of the earth. She watched me as we came toward each other in the middle of the tunnel, and I wondered if it was her.

It must have been her, the girl I saw in the tree.

She stared at me, questioning, and I stared back. She was coming into the city?

Did she understand that I was going out?

I passed her at the middle of the tunnel, then walked out to the far side. The trees out here grew right up to the wall, a tangle of undergrowth beneath them, no path that I could see anywhere.

I glanced once behind as the gates closed, and she was standing there, watching me from within the city, staring at me as if I was the only friend she might have had, and I had abandoned her.

The gates slammed shut.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

#41 Forgotten

There was once a young man who desired wisdom. So he went to see the wisest man in his village and asked if the wise man would share his wisdom with him.

The wise man thought for a while, for he was very wise and never did anything without thinking about it first. Then the wise man said, “Yes, I will gladly share my wisdom with you, but first you must bring me something.”

The young man, very eager for a task he could do to repay the wise man for sharing his wisdom, asked, “What must I bring you?”

“The name of it has been forgotten.”

“Where can I find it?” The young man asked.

“That has been forgotten too. But I know it is very far from here.”

So the young man set out on his journey to find the thing, the name of which had been forgotten. He searched high and low, but as he did not know what he was looking for, he could not find it.

At last one day as he walked along a road he met an old woman. She asked him where he was going.

“I am seeking the thing for which the name has been forgotten, which is in the place which has been forgotten too.”

“Ah!” said the old woman. “I know this thing of which you speak. It is in a valley far from here.”

“What is the name of the valley?” The young man asked, overjoyed to at last know the place where he could find the thing for which the name had been forgotten.

“I am sorry,” the old woman shook her head. “It has been forgotten. But if you go into the next village, my sister may be able to help you.”

The young man continued on the road, and when he reached the village he found another old woman so like the first he could not tell them apart. He asked her where to find the thing for which the name had been forgotten which lay in the valley for which the name had been forgotten.

“Ah! I know the thing and the valley of which you speak!” The old woman said. “They lie underneath a mountain that is not far from here.”

“What is the name of the mountain,” the young man pleaded.

The old woman said nothing for a long time. Then at last she bowed her head. “It has been forgotten. But if you go into the next city, my brother may be able to tell you.”

So the young man went into the next city and sought out the brother of the sisters who had forgotten the name of the mountain the name of which has been forgotten and the valley the name of which has been forgotten wherein lay the thing the name of which had been forgotten.

“Ah!” The old man said. “I know this thing and this valley and this mountain of which you speak. They are all beside a sea.”

“What is the name of this sea?” begged the young man, nearly in tears.

The old man sighed. “It has been forgotten, but I know it is very close. Do not give up your search!”

And so the young man continued on his way, and before long he came to a sea. “This must be the sea for which the name has been forgotten!” he said. As he walked along the shore he came to a mountain. “This must be the mountain for which the name has been forgotten!” he said. He climbed the mountain, and on the far side he saw a valley. With great joy, he descended the mountain side, saying, “This must be the valley for which the name has been forgotten!”

And there, in the middle of the valley, was the magnificent thing, the thing for which the name had been forgotten. Simply gazing on that thing made the young man feel as if he was wiser already.

And so, having found the thing for which the name had been forgotten, which lay in the valley of which the name had been forgotten, under the mountain for which the name had been forgotten, beside the sea for which the name had been forgotten, the young man returned to his village.

He went to see the wise man of the village and told him of all his adventures.

“And so,” said the wise man when the story was finished, “You have brought me the thing for which the name has been forgotten?”

“Ah!” Cried the young man. “I forgot!”

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

#40 Harvest Time

Completely ruined, Mishael thought as he looked over the planet below him. What a waste.

He had known for some time that something was wrong. As he slowed his ship to match the planet’s frame of reference, he’d watched from lightyears away, checking his scans every day as the aeons whipped by on the world he’d visited only a short while ago. A short while ago for him, but his travels near the speed of light had left it whirling at unimaginable speed in his absence. Since he’d last looked down at this planet, the land mass had split and drifted apart. The plant life he had seeded had flourished, grown…

..and then been cut back.

From far away, he had noticed the strange rise in carbon level. He had timed his arrival to be before the plant life reduced the free carbon in the atmosphere to the point that the plants began to have a hard time surviving. Instead, something had made the carbon rise again. He was worried, but he had never expected the devastation he saw when he reached the planet’s side.

Something had evolved. So very recently had it sprung up that the carbon spike had only appeared days ago for Mishael. Something had evolved that had discovered the vast reserves of organic residue Mishael’s plants had left beneath the surface of the planet. The organic residue that Mishael had come to claim and bring back to his home world.

They were using it! Not just to feed their crops, as Mishael’s race did, but they used it as fuel. The creatures had lit up the dark side of their planet with specks of light like stars, they moved about over the land and sea, and through the air, in strange metal vehicles that consumed it and burned into smoke. Their whole planet was rewinding, devolving back to the age where Mishael found it, hot and barren and rich with carbon, ready to be planted with life.

But there was no harvest. The whole thing had been spoiled. Mishael watched the creatures, watched their cities pass beneath him, watched the planet on which they had sprung up like a rot.

He wondered what to do. He could raze the planet and start over. Burn everything off. But still, it would be hard to kill all of these creatures. They were clever. Some might hide beneath the surface, some might find a way to survive. And then, even if Mishael seeded the planet again, he would return to find his harvest consumed once more.

He fingered the button on his control panel, the one that would cleanse the surface of the planet. Then he took his tentacle away without pressing it. He sighed and set his course for the next world on his route. These creatures would die off on their own, sooner or later, and then he could return and start again. Or maybe they wouldn’t, and the next time he came, this world would be home to another race of spacefarers.

Mishael sped away, watching the world behind him slow to a near stop as he approached the speed of light again.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

#39 Artist at the Bus Stop

An old man in a heavy, dark blue raincoat and a faded cap stood at the country bus stop. Around his feet, what looked like a bed roll, a pack, but also a black artist’s portfolio and a glimpse of a palette splashed with color. I passed behind him on my bicycle, glancing back once, wondering where he was from and what he was doing here.

I thought about him as I sped on down the path. Did he live near here, or had he come from far away? What had he been painting? When I reached the end of the path, I turned and headed back. Far ahead, I could see him still standing there in the gray morning light, but now he had left the bus stop and crossed the path to stand at the fence. He stared out over the fields and up to the mountains wreathed in clouds. I wondered if he was studying it for a painting.

He didn’t show any sign that he saw me, though I watched him as I approached. As I sped past him I called out, “Good morning!” His face stayed grim, he didn’t move.

My eyes back on the path ahead, I thought about turning around. I could go back. I could say, “You’re a painter? What are you working on?” Maybe he would be pleased that I was interested. Maybe he would show me what was inside that black portfolio, strange and beautiful visions, in all those bright colors I had seen on the palette. Maybe he would give me his card, say he had a studio in town. Or maybe he would be a foreigner, hardly speak English, and would forever after think how friendly the people were in my country.

Or maybe he didn’t want me to bother him. My feet kept turning the pedals, my wheels kept rolling me toward home. With every fence post I passed I thought I might turn back. Turn back at any moment and discover the mystery behind me. But I didn’t want him to know how curious I was, how much I wanted to talk to him.

I am an artist too, I paint with words. There are things in my soul that I want others to see. I know how it aches, to not have anyone to show them to.

My wheels have carried me so far now, I am closer to home than to the artist at the bus stop. I could still go back, but I am tired. There are so many things to do at home.

I do not turn around. All the way to my front door. Only when I am inside again, at my kitchen table, does the tragedy strike me. I will never see that man again, I will never know what he saw in the world and spread on his canvas.

Perhaps all he needed today, in his long and lonely struggle, was for someone to ask him what he was working on. For me look through the windows he had made to his soul, and be glad at what I saw. And instead I hurried by, afraid. Afraid he would not want to talk to me.

I should have let him make that choice.

Monday, November 24, 2014

#38 Elective Treatment

The key turned so easily in the lock, it was obvious the bolt was already undone. Natalie’s brain dragged itself reluctantly back from the seismic data she’d been combing through to puzzle at this. Startled, afraid, she turned the door knob, wondering if the house had been unlocked all day.

The floor was clean. Oh, that’s right, Mom was here.

Natalie came inside and shut the door behind her, locking it out of habit. There in the front hall, Bryce’s backpack hung neatly on a hook, his shoes below lined up and ready to go for tomorrow.

How long had it taken Mom to get him to do that? Maybe Mom had done it herself.

“Hi Natalie,” Mom said from the kitchen. There were sounds of cooking. “How was your day.”

“Great,” Natalie said, excited. “There were three quakes on the pacific rim today, and we were able to give thirty minute warnings for all of them. There was only one near a population center, so they closed some bridges. Nothing went out, but it’s good they’re starting to take more precautions. It was a little tricky to work out the potential epicenters because…” Natalie launched into a long explanation of all the technical details. She realized she’d been talking for some time without checking to see if Mom was really interested. Natalie stopped and studied her mother’s face. Did she look like she was interested? Did she look like she even understood? Was she even listening? It was always so hard to tell.

“The school called again today,” Natalie’s mom said.

“Again?” Natalie’s heart sank. Bryce had been doing so well these past weeks, but then having his grandma visit had completely thrown his routine into a shambles.

“Bryce was singing in class, and he wouldn’t stop. Also, when it was time to do his seat work, he just stared at his tablet for a whole hour.”

“I told his teacher that tablets are too distracting for him. He can’t handle screens.”

“Natalie, I tried something today,” Mom said. “When I took Bryce to school, after the bell rang for him to go to class, I walked up to where he was playing on the playground. I was standing right next to him, and I told him it was time to go to class. He just kept playing. All the other kids left the playground, and he just kept playing. The second bell rang, I don’t think he even heard it.”

“You let him keep playing until the second bell?” Natalie couldn’t believe it. Mom had let Bryce be late for class.

“I wanted to give him a chance to notice on his own. You can’t always be there for him, Natalie. I wanted to see how long it would take him to realize that everyone else had left the playground. He never did. A teacher came along and got his attention and sent him to class.”

“Mom!” Natalie said.

“He doesn’t mean to be this way. I know he doesn’t. He just can’t function like other people.”

“I know,” Natalie said.

“Have you thought about getting him treated?”

“I’m not interested in that,” Natalie said, reeling. Had Mom just suggested I get Bryce a treatment?

“Have you even looked into it?”

“Of course I have!” Natalie said. “But it’s not an easy solution. The outcome is so unpredictable. I can predict earthquakes better than they can predict the outcome of a  treatment.”

“You can give him a small treatment and see if it works. See if it does anything. Maybe it will help him.”

“Mom, Bryce’s brain is different. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I couldn’t do what I do if my brain was like everyone else’s.”

“Natalie, you were never this bad.”

“He doesn’t have to be normal to be happy.”

“He’s suffering, Natalie. And there may be something you can do to help. Have you even talked to your doctor about it, at all?”

“No,” Natalie said. “It’s not that simple. They’ll want to re evaluate him. It’ll take months. I’ll have to take a lot of time off work.”

“Bryce is more important than your work.”

“He’s making progress, Mom. He can learn to do better.”

“I’m just saying it’s an option,” Mom went back to stirring the pot.

Natalie went and sat down at her desk, fuming.

There was the doctor’s phone number up on the bulletin board. She could call. She could ask for an appointment. That didn’t mean she would have to go through with getting Bryce a treatment.

Natalie picked up the phone.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

#37 Disobedient Angel

There is something I need to tell you.

First, let me explain. You don’t know me. You’ve seen me on occasion, passing on the street, around the corner of the hall at school, in the distance at a game, or on the far side of the park. You think I must live here, nearby, somewhere. But we’ve never met. I’ve never introduced myself.

You are the only one who can see me.

Have you heard the stories, of someone who got in a car wreck, and they say someone pulled them from the car, but then when they looked again, no one was there? Those stories are true. That’s what I am. I’m a messenger. A task that needs to be fulfilled.

The universe was perfect when it was created, but people were given choices, and sometimes they make the wrong choice. When that happens, the universe gets broken in small ways. Those ways can add up, until things go really, really wrong. I’m a correction, a small adjustment of the course of the fate of everything.

But that’s all I am.

Once I make that adjustment in the course of time and space, I will die.

It won’t be death like you know it. You have an immortal soul. I do not. I’ll simply cease to exist. Once my task is complete, once I’ve done what I was sent here to do, I will be gone. Utterly gone.

I had something I was supposed to tell you. It was years ago when I came into being for this one task. I came and I found you, and I was about to do it. You might remember, though you probably do not. You were very young, and so I appeared as a child. A child who wanted to speak to you, but was too shy and turned away.

I wasn’t shy. I had gotten to like existing. In the short time it took me to cross the expanse from heaven to earth, I came to enjoy being alive.

Your message, I thought, could wait. And so I dallied. I wandered the earth and sky, I saw what good and evil there was among humankind, and with horror and wonder I pondered the purpose of it all. But most of the time I simply looked at things. At flowers, at clouds, at trees, at a rainbow. The ocean in its might and terror, the stately land, the deep blue ice of the north and south poles, the whales in the depths and the stars quietly watching over all. I saw all of the people, going about without seeing, for they do not know when their time is to come, their time to leave it.

But I know. It is my choice. I have been given choice too, strange enough, and that is my torment. Why have I been given this choice to make? To fulfill my purpose and pass away into nothingness, or to delay my destiny and continue to be aware of myself and everything around me.

I have not grown tired of living, but I have grown tired of being afraid. This message I have for you, it must be important. I do not know entirely what it means, but that is for you to puzzle it out. You will know what to do with the words I have for you.

I am afraid that by waiting this long, some terrible thing will come upon the world. I am a correction, a repair, I am here to undo something that should not have happened, but I was sent so long ago perhaps now it is too late. And if it is too late, should I sacrifice myself for nothing?

And if I do tell you, even though I am supposed to vanish, to cease to exist, perhaps because I have been disobedient for so long then I will not pass lightly into the void. Perhaps there is a special hell for disobedient angels. The terror of it eats at me. Perhaps I am already burning in it, and my only release will come when I finally deliver my message.

And so, now that you understand, I will ask you a question. I will leave this up to you. It is your choice now. Do you want to hear what it is that I have to tell you?

Friday, November 21, 2014

#36 Emergency Room

Even at midnight, the emergency room was crowded. Mason followed his mom a long way from the desk before they found two seats together. While Mom sat down with the clip board in her lap and started writing with a pen she took out of her purse, Mason curled up in the chair next to her and tried to get his head comfortable on the plastic seat back.

“Oh, Mason, sweetie, don’t put your face on that,” Mom said. “We don’t know if its clean.” Mom tugged a corner of Mason’s blanket up to cover the back of the chair, then tucked the rest of it around him better.

Mason snuggled down in his blanket, shivering. He wished they didn’t keep this room so cold, or so bright. His head hurt, and with every rapid beat of his heart his knee throbbed like someone was whacking it with a baseball bat. All around him sat other people with empty, sad faces. He wondered if any of them were as sick as he was.

On the front door of the emergency room, Mason noticed a bronze panel decorated with two snakes twined around a pole. As he watched, the snakes seemed to twist and move. Their bronze eyes grew brighter, and they slithered round the pole in a slow dance, then came down from the door and moved toward him across the floor.

Mason gave a whimper and curled up tighter in his blanket.

“It’s okay, honey,” Mom said, still scribbling on the clipboard. “Everything’s going to be okay.” As if she couldn’t see the snakes sliding over the white tile floor.

“Don’t be afraid,” the snakes hissed. “Do not fear us. We will do you no harm.”

Mason blinked at them, then glanced at the door. There were still two snakes on the door, coiled around the pole, but here they were in front of him, too, weaving their heads back and forth like cobras.

“Welcome to our realm,” the snakes said. “Do not fear. You are safe in this place. Our servants have taken an oath. First do no harm.”

Mason drew his feet up, his knees tight against his chest, trying to get further away from those long, bronze bodies.

“Do not fear us,” the snakes  slid up the legs of Mason’s chair. One of them put it’s metal nose near Mason’s face. It’s eyes flashed. “It is death you should fear.”

“Yes, fear death. Flee it. Come to us and we will save you,” The other snake coiled on the floor.

“But,” Mason said, “People die here.”

The snakes sighed. “Some come to us too late, some can not be saved. But many, many others, are well again. They buy more life, more days, more months, more years. They pay dearly for it, for death is to be greatly feared!”

Mason choked out the words in a whisper, “Am I going to die?”

“No, sweetheart, you’re going to be fine,” Mom said. “We’re here at the hospital now, the doctors will take care of you.”

Mason glanced at his Mom, her worried face staring down at the clipboard, then looked again for the snakes, but they had vanished.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

#35 Snow Angel

The snow danced lightly down from the sky. One flake at a time, it twirled and drifted, appearing somewhere high above as a tiny speck, then growing, falling. Some landed on the tall, dark pines, caught in the great drifts already on their branches. Some fell on the ground, slowly building the soft mounds of white even higher than they already were. Some fell on her cheeks, on her nose, on her forehead. Now and then one of the tiny flakes tried to kiss her eyes. Then she would blink them away. It was the only movement she made as she watched their mesmerizing dance.

She felt no cold. The soft drifts around her cradled her heavy body. Her bed of white feathers beckoned her to sleep. The snowflakes above danced a lullaby against the twilight winter sky. The woods smelled of cold, of ice, a sweet and peaceful breath.


She heard a voice somewhere in the distance, a sorrowful cry, barely rising above the gentle whisper of the falling snow. She took another slow breath, then rested again. That voice sounded familiar, but she could not understand why.

She wanted to sleep, to drift back into that lovely dream. It had been summer, and she had been able to fly! But then she had decided to wake up and found herself here. For a long time she had wandered, lost, in the cold, until she had gotten so weary she had to rest a while. Now she could not even remember what she had been searching for.

“Sarah!” the call came again. So lost, it sounded, so hopeless. Sarah. That was her name. She remembered now. The voice was calling for her. She would stand up, and go and find them.

After another moment. Now she was tired. She closed her eyes. The snow caressed her face.

Another sound, an excited yelping, a dog’s bark. Sarah opened her eyes again, startled, as she heard the footfalls in the snow. Then there was a dark nose, a warm tongue burning against her cheek, and the sound of barking in her ears.

“Sarah!” Now the voice was right beside her. Someone picked her up and held her close.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

#34 Dream Cat

Zeb crept between the cardboard moving boxes, his whiskers twitching. This old house had to be full of nightmares. He could smell it. Where were they hiding?

He paced the perimeter of the room, glancing back often to make sure Leisl still slept peacefully in her bed. For a moment he longed to go curl up on the blanket by her feet and take a nap, but that wouldn’t do. Right now was hunting time. The nightmares would be on the prowl. Where were they? Hadn’t they figured out that a little child had moved in?

Zeb knew he ought to stay in Leisl's room, but he couldn’t just sit there and wait for the nightmares to come to him. They were out there, lurking, somewhere in the big old house, waiting for him to let down his guard before they pounced. Well, he’d just take the fight to them, wherever they were.

Out in the hall, the place smelled of fresh paint. That made it hard for Zeb to know if there were any nightmares close by or not. He scanned the hallway, eyes wide in the dark, ears pricked, tail twitching. Then he saw one.

A velvet pool of darkness lurked along the baseboards, slowly creeping in and out of the shadows made by the streetlight shining through the trees out the window. It was a clever nightmare, trying to blend in with those wind-tossed patches of shadow. Zeb pretended he didn’t see it gradually moving closer and closer to Leisl’s bedroom door.

When the nightmare paused, as if finally realizing there was a cat in the hall, Zeb pounced.

The nightmare had been ready. It streaked down the hall with Zeb just behind it, racing over the floor, it’s misty black shape sometimes rat-like, sometimes snake-like, sometimes with wings of bat or bird, it was all the dark creatures of the world rolled into one. A claw shot out from the blackest part and snatched at the stair railing to make a sharp turn. Zeb skidded on the hall floor, then streaked down the stairs after it.

The nightmare made straight for the front door. Zeb watched it squeeze under the small crack and disappear. A cat-grin spread across Zeb’s face. That might have worked in Zeb’s last house, but this house had a cat door. That nightmare was going down.

Zeb leapt through the cat door, leaving it swinging behind him. Out in the windy night, the howling air filled his ears, so he flattened them back against his head and used his eyes and his nose to find where the nightmare had run to. He spotted it puddled among the roots of a tree, moving like a careless fog, just shifting a little.

Zeb slid into the hedge and moved silently along the outside wall of the house. As he got closer to the nightmare, it showed no sign that it had seen him. Closer, closer, close enough to strike, Zeb curled up and got ready to spring.



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

#33 The Audition

Cynthia checked herself in the front hall mirror one last time. Everything was perfect. Her hair, shiny black in a stylish cut that came down to just below her chin, her make-up she’d spent over an hour and washed it off twice to start over again but it was finally perfect. She’d picked out the outfit carefully to look casual and fun but still be dressy enough for this audition. She gave herself a nod and put her purse strap up on her shoulder. She was going to rock this.

“Come give me a hug before you go,” Cynthia’s mom called from the kitchen. Cynthia checked her watch. She had twenty seconds.

Mom was making dinner, carrot bits flying from the wok as she stirred hard and fast. Cynthia didn’t want to get too close. It wouldn’t look good to have greasy vegetable shreds on her blouse when she was doing her monologue.

"Bye, mom.” Cynthia waited until her mom stopped stirring and leaned over to give her a hug and a kiss.

“Drive safe, and good luck.”

“Thanks.” Cynthia wasn’t sure if her mom meant that part about good luck. Mom had always enjoyed going to Cynthia’s plays, but as soon as Cynthia said she wanted to audition for the arts magnet school, mom had got a little scared. "You don’t really want to be an actress," Mom had said. "What a terrible profession, especially for a woman!"

Cynthia stuffed down her irritation at the memory of her mom’s words, and instead let her monologue run through her mind. Can’t we all look at one another… goodbye to clocks ticking… do any human beings ever realize life while they live it… maybe she shouldn’t do something from Our Town. It was so last millennium. No, she liked it, and it was kind of classy. At least her musical selection was something modern, and she wasn’t singing something from Wicked like everyone else on the planet.

Cynthia pulled her car keys out of her purse and opened the front door. She was half-way to the parking lot when she noticed something was wrong.

Her car was gone. All the cars were gone. There was nothing in the parking lot but a big truck with a hose out the back of it, and some guy spraying water on the asphalt.

Bewildered, Cynthia stood and stared. Then she ran back to the house. “Mom! The car is gone!”

“What?” Mom hurried past her to take a look out the front door. “Oh! The repaving. That was today? Well, they could have…” Mom stalked across the parking lot and cornered the guy with the hose. I couldn’t hear what they were saying over the spray of the water, but Mom was giving him a good shout-down.

Mom came back at a run. “Your car’s been towed over to the visitor lot by the office.”

“What?” I wailed. That was half a block away.

“Come on,” Mom said. “I’ll drive you. I’m faster.”

I ran after Mom across the empty parking lot, headed toward the apartment offices. My perfect hair was going to be a wreck. Someday, if I ever had to play someone who was about to loose everything she ever wanted, I could come back to the absolute desperation of this moment.



Monday, November 17, 2014

#32 In Training

Jasper sat on the hard floor, his back very straight and his chin up. He hoped that if he looked confident and proud, like all the other boys, that no one would notice his tattered uniform, the patches that his grandmother had stitched in so that he could still use it. No one would guess his grandfather had sold their land to pay for his first year at this school.

One year. All he had was one year to prove he was one of the best. Then the school would let him continue to study without having to pay. He could become a soldier of the imperial army. If he didn’t make it, he’d be sent home.

The teacher’s footsteps sounded at the back of the room. Jasper didn’t turn his head, but kept staring straight toward the front. The man came in sight, his robes gently brushing the smooth wooden floor, the small white top-knot on his head bobbing solemnly.

When the man reached the front of the room he turned and looked out over the students. Jasper tried to blend in, to be like the others, for now. Soon he would want to be standing out, but not today, not when the only noticeable distinction was his poverty.

“I want you to close your eyes,” the teacher said.

Good, Jasper thought. Less chance for others to see that I’m wearing a second-hand uniform.

“Your mind is like a great, empty plain. Dry, packed earth baked under the sun. When the rains come, the water has nowhere to go. It spreads itself in an insignificant, shallow pool and then soaks in and vanishes.”

Jasper wrinkled his nose, trying hard to make a picture of a desert plain drinking up rainwater.

“Now, you stand alone in the midst of this plain, with nothing but a single, small twig. I want you to dig a mighty river, so that the water may flow swift and strong. How will you do it?”

No one answered.

“How will you do it?” the teacher raised his voice. “Tell me?”

Jasper imagined himself standing on the plain, with nothing but a tiny stick in his hand. What to do, to create a whole river with just the scratching of a stick? It seemed impossible.

But he began. He drew a line in the dirt, one single line. The water rushed in where his stick had made its mark, digging it deeper. He made the line longer, and longer, and the water followed, flowing, growing stronger. Like an irrigation canal at grandfather’s farm.

“HOW WILL YOU DO IT?” the teacher shouted.

Jasper stood up. “Sir, one stroke of the stick will channel the water, and then little by little the channel will grow.”

“YES!” the teacher said. “Your mind is like this. You will make small strokes, and your thoughts will follow. The rivers of your mind will grow and deepen, until they become a mighty current of action and power. You will learn the ways of the sword, stroke by stroke,” the teacher cast aside his robe, drew his sword, and performed a basic motion. “Until you can do this,” the motion became a whirlwind, a twirl, a flourish, a flip in the air.

The class gasped, awed.

“Any of you has the power to become a master,” the teacher said. “It will all depend on where you draw those first, simple lines in the desert of your mind. Now, get up! I will show you how we stand.”

Sunday, November 16, 2014

#31 The Quest Emporium

The shop bell rang. I looked up from organizing a gleaming display of hunting knives to see a shy-looking boy walk into the shop. His eyes grew wider and wider as he took in the impressive array of equipment lining the walls.

“Good morning!” I sang out. “And how can I help you today?”

“I need some things for going on a quest,” the boy said in a quiet, hesitant voice.

“Then you’ve come to the right place!” I came around the counter and thumped him on the back. “Welcome to the ultimate quest emporium, we supply all your needs. Quest big or small, we’ll outfit them all! Now, first I’ll need to know exactly what kind of quest you’re going on.”

The boy looked confused.

“Oh, there’s all sorts of quests,” I said. “I’ve got a whole catalog here.” I thumped the large book on the counter. He gave it a look that made me think he wasn’t the reading sort, so I began to enumerate the possibilities. “First of all we need to know what size of party you’ll be traveling with. Small group, medium group, small army, large army, an entire nation, or…” I put my arm around his shoulders and gave him a wink, “An army of one, aye?”

He didn’t respond, so I kept going.

“Once we know that, we can order up your mode of transportation. Will you be going on foot? Always popular, cheap option that, recommend it if you’re questing with an entire nation, but I’ve got horses, wagons, camels, dragons…” As if to punctuate my pitch, a screech and a bright burst of flame shot in through the back window. “All in the stables out back. Sorry, I’m fresh out of giant eagles, the last fellow who came in bought the lot of them.”

The boy frowned.

“I’ll also need to know what your objective is,” I said. “Are you going to fetch something? Or perhaps deliver something? Do you know exactly where you’re headed, or is your final destination a mystery? Is your questing target stationary, or will it be moving about? Will it matter if you return, or is it imperative that you stay once you reach your goal? Also, what’s the scope of your quest? Will you be saving the kingdom? The world? Your own village? Or perhaps just one person?”

The boy swallowed. “Just one person,” He said. “And I’m the only one going, really.” He dug a very unimpressive pile of copper coins from a small pouch at his belt. “It’s my sister. I have to find her. We think the fairies took her.”

Friday, November 14, 2014

#30 The Rescue

I saw a bee floating in the water.

At first I thought it was dead, but as it drifted closer on the ocean swells I could see it was still struggling, sending out tiny ripples as it tried to beat its wings.

I wanted to help it, but I didn’t want to get stung. A leaf was drifting in the waves nearby, so I picked it up and fished the bee out of the water. It climbed onto the leaf, but would not sit still and ride. Instead, it climbed over and over the wet, slippery surface. I kept turning the leaf, gently, trying to keep the bee away from my fingers without shaking it off the leaf.

I had to move slowly toward shore, I was concentrating so hard on the strange dance of leaf and bee. At first my toes could just barely touch bottom, but soon I was walking waist-high in the water. The bee slipped and fell, and so I dangled the leaf close again so it could climb back on. It crawled and crawled, I guess trying to get as far from the water as possible, trying to find the stem that belonged to this plant that had reached down and rescued it. Only the leaf kept turning over and over, forcing it to keep changing direction.

I reached the place where the waves were breaking around my knees. Only a few more feet and I could leave the bee safely on the sand to dry its wings in the sun and ocean breeze.

The bee fell off the leaf.

This time, instead of landing in gentle ocean swells, it was swallowed by a hungry line of white surf. The churning water rushed past my feet, erasing the bee from sight. I stood and watched for a long time, but none of the bits of debris were a mostly-drowned honey bee. Twigs, leaves, that’s all I saw. The bee I had tried to save was gone.

I had made things worse. While the bee was out farther from the surf, it still had a chance. If only I hadn’t been so afraid of a sting, maybe I could have cupped it in my hands. Maybe I could have brought it safe to shore and watched it fly away. Maybe if I’d been more patient I could have found a larger leaf, or a piece of driftwood, instead of the first tiny leaf that had floated by.

In the end, I gave up searching and went back to swimming in the gentle ocean.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

#29 The Clockmaster

It wasn’t until we’d walked half-way across the plaza in front of the convention center that I realized Dad was nowhere in sight.

“Wait, did anyone see where Dad went?” I asked.

Jodi shook her head. Nate kept walking like he hadn’t even heard me.

Dad was probably still inside, talking to someone. I didn’t dare go back in, though. I didn’t want to risk loosing track of Nate again. Out here at least I could see him, and the plaza went all the way to the river, no road on this side of the building. He could run around out here and chase pigeons for a while.

I waited for ten minutes. Dad still didn’t show up. Jodi was hopping from one foot to another, complaining about the cold and asking could we please go back in and look for Dad.

“I’ll just call him and tell him we’re out here. He’s probably in there looking for us.” I dug around in my purse for my phone. My fingers hit something a little bigger, smoother. I pulled it out. Dad’s phone. Dad’s phone was in my purse. It was there because he’d almost left it in the hotel this morning, but I’d spotted it and grabbed it, meaning to give it to him.

Missing Mom hadn’t been like I’d expected it to be. Most of the time I felt just fine. Almost normal. But then sometimes the pain would hit, like an ocean wave I didn’t see coming, the kind that would just pick me up and slam me down and fill my nose full of salt water and sand. Like right now.

I wasn’t old enough for this. I wasn’t old enough to be the mom. I wasn’t old enough to stand up to Dad and tell him we would have been safer if he’d just left us locked in the house with enough DVD’s and boxes of mac’n’ cheese to last us the weekend. No, he had to bring us along on his conference trip. And now I had no idea where he was, and Nate was climbing the railing.

“Nate!” I screamed, “Get down from there!” I ran toward him across the plaza. I could just imagine him falling over, down into the river, disappearing under the dark water. I never used to think of stuff like that, but for some reason since Mom’s accident, the universe seemed out to get all of us.

Nate climbed down, but I grabbed him and jerked him away from the railing anyway. “Don’t you dare do that again!” I told him.

He didn’t even shrug, just kind of wandered off to look at a crumpled gum wrapper blowing along the wall below the railing.

I thought about going back to the hotel. We could walk, maybe. Would that be safer than staying here and waiting for Dad to come looking for us?

“Excuse me?” a man’s voice said behind me. He sounded kind, and smart, like he was maybe another professor at the conference. I turned around and was surprised by how young he looked. His voice could have belonged to someone Dad’s age. “Are you the children of Doctor George Cummings?”

“Yes,” I said, tremendously relieved. “Is he looking for us? Do you know where he is?” I grabbed Nate’s hand and took Jodi’s too for good measure.

The man smiled and nodded. He pulled out a pocket watch and glanced at it, then reached out his hand to Nate. “Come with me,” he said.

“It’s all right, he’ll take us to Daddy,” I said to Nate.

The moment Nate touched the man’s hand, the world went crazy. Everything spun, and I was sure we’d somehow fallen through the plaza and were plunging down into the river.

Next thing I knew we were standing in what looked like a dark attic room, with sloping-roof sides and a very strange clock by the wall at one end. It was the skinniest grandfather clock I’d ever seen. There were no doors, and only one tiny window.

“Don’t be afraid,” the man said as soon as Jodi stopped screaming. “I’m only trying to stop your father from inadvertently destroying the world.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

#28 Grandma's Basement

Annie scooped the last of her clothes from her suitcase and stuffed them in the big dresser drawer that Grandma had showed her. She shoved the heavy drawer shut, then went to get the last thing out of her suitcase. Her flashlight.

All year, ever since Grandma had invited Annie to spend a week with her this summer, all alone, away from little brothers, she’d been looking forward to one thing. Annie clicked the flashlight on to check it. The beam shone bright and strong, thanks to the fresh batteries she’d put into it before leaving home. She had a second set of batteries in a plastic bag in her backpack, which she now slung over her shoulder.

“Grandma?” Annie called as she bounced down the stairs. They were wooden and old. The wood paneling on the walls were full of dark knots that looked like eyes watching her. Annie was way too old to be scared by that anymore, but a whisper of fear from when she was really little still tickled under her heart as she saw them.

“What is it, sugar?” Grandma called from the kitchen. She appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a towel with embroidered roses around the bottom edge.

“Can I explore your basement?”

Grandma frowned. “Basement? I haven’t got a basement, honey.”

“Yes, you do. I remember. There’s a door to it in your kitchen.”

“You mean the cellar? There’s not much to explore. It’s only the size of a broom closet. We used to keep things cool down there before we had a refrigerator, but I don’t use it for anything now.”

“Are you sure?” Annie asked. “There was a big basement. It was huge, and had a cement floor, and all these rusty metal grates covering roundish holes.” Annie slowed down as she finished telling the memory. It sounded kind of ridiculous, now that she said it out loud. But she had a clear picture in her head. She remembered finding the basement door and opening it, going half-way down the stairs before Grandma called her to come back up, and seeing that vast, underground space beneath Grandma’s house.

But who would have a basement full of holes in the floor, with rusty metal bars criss-crossed over the top of each hole? That was crazy.

Grandma shook her head and went to the narrow wooden door in the kitchen wall. She turned the oval knob on the lock, then pulled on the handle. A single dusty string hung down inside which Grandma tugged to light a bulb on the wall. Annie went to stand beside her and stare down into the very disappointing space below. It wasn’t much wider than the narrow stairs that ran down to it, and there were a few stacks of old newspapers at the bottom. The floor and walls looked perfectly solid.

“How about some lunch?” Grandma asked.

That night, Annie couldn’t sleep, wondering about her memory of the basement. Had she dreamed it? She must have. It bothered her so much she wanted to go back and take another look, just to be sure. But that meant she’d have to walk past the eyes.

She could do it. She’d just have to close her own eyes as she was going down the stairs. They weren’t really watching her, they were just panels of wood.

Holding her breath and moving as quickly as she could, Annie hurried down the stairs. It was cool, even though it was summer time, it always got cool at Grandma’s house at night. Annie wished she’d brought a robe, her pajamas were awfully thin. When her feet hit the carpet at the bottom of the stairs she opened her eyes and clicked on her flashlight.

In the kitchen she stared for a long time at the cellar door. What would she find in there? Probably just the cellar she saw earlier today.

She turned the lock and opened it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

#27 Fencing Lesson

Janae held lunge position as Madam Zabrieski walked down the line, examining each student with a steely-sharp eye. When Madam reached Janae she stopped.

“Turn your front foot out straight, a little more, like that, yes. And sword arm up higher, this, are you fencing a midget? No.”

Janae turned her toe out and lifted her arm higher, boiling inside. She always stops and corrects me! No one else. Why me? I must be the worst fencer in the entire class.

Later, at practice, while the other girls laughed and sparred each other, Janae was by the wall, firing lunge after lunge, trying to land her sword point at one single spot on the brick. Time after time she would be a little too high, a little too low.

“Terrible!” Janae exclaimed, and collapsed on the gymnasium floor.

“What’s the matter?” Tessa lifted her fencing helmet and stared down at Janae.

Janae stared up at the cracked plaster of the gymnasium ceiling. “I am the worst fencer this school has ever seen.”

“Liar,” Tessa poked Janae with the toe of her shoe. “You know that’s not true. You just want me to tell you that you’re amazing.”

“I am not!” Janae said. “Did you see Madam Zabrieski? She stopped and corrected me. Again! She goes all down the line, and I know there are girls who aren’t in perfect form, but who does she stop and talk to? Me!”

“You know why that is, don’t you?” Tessa said.

“Because I’m terrible! I’m clumsy and it takes me forever to learn anything and I have no talent! And because I keep loosing to everyone.”

“No,” Tessa said. “Guess again.”

“What else could it be?” Janae asked.

“Because you listen. You’re trying to get better. No one else comes to every practice. No one else is up before dawn, skewering the wall outside the girl’s dorm. Fencing, for you, isn’t just another class. You’re not doing it because you think it’s impressive, or because you want to show up the boys. The game got into your head. You want to play it because you have to get it right.”

“Then why am I so terrible?” Janae asked.

“You’re not,” Tessa said. “Get up and come over and fence with someone.”

“I’m not ready,” Janae said. “That’s a waste of my time. I have to get this drill right.”

“Drills aren’t going to do you any good if you don’t learn how to use them in a match. Here, who do you think is the best fencer in the class? We’ll go and give her a challenge,” Tessa said.

Janae thought hard. Helen was pretty good. Clarisse maybe a little better. But honestly, Tessa wasn’t bad at all. Actually, she hadn’t ever seen Tessa beaten by anyone else.

Janae got up. “It’s you. I challenge you.”

Read the next scene: Fencing Club

Monday, November 10, 2014

#26 The Anti-Bullying League

Jackson yawned and leaned forward, trying to get more comfortable sitting on the cafeteria floor. Up on the stage the woman at the podium seemed about finished with her presentation at last.

“And now I’m going to ask all of you to make a pledge to join the Anti-Bullying League. Remember, we respect everyone, speak up for ourselves and others, and tell an adult!”

Jackson chanted half-heartedly along with the rest of the students in the cafeteria. Sure, he guessed some bullying went on at this school, but not to him or to any of his friends that he knew about.

His stomach grumbled. It was almost lunch time. When was this lady going to stop talking?

His mind wandered until at last there was a cheer and a loud round of applause. The vice principal got up and started to dismiss the classes by grades. Jackson waited until his class was called, then filed over to the big plastic bin where all the lunch sacks were waiting.

When the floor cleared, the janitor started rolling lunch tables out into the empty space. Jackson looked in the bin for the black zippered lunch bag that was his. It wasn’t there.

“I left my lunch in my classroom,” Jackson told one of the lunchroom monitors. The woman nodded and pointed to the cafeteria door.

“Come back quick,” she said.

As Jackson got close to his classroom he heard voices inside. The door had a narrow window in it, just over the handle, and through it he could see his teacher sitting behind her desk. It was hard for him to read the look on her face, but she sure wasn’t happy. In front of the desk stood Principal Meyers in her orangy-pink business jacket. Jackson put his hand on the door handle, but didn’t open it. He wasn’t sure if he should interrupt.

“If I don’t see significant improvement in this classroom, I will have you transferred,” Principal Meyers said in a stern voice. “We can’t meet the state standards unless you put the kind of effort in that these kids deserve.”

Jackson got out of the way as Principal Meyers came through the door.

“Where are you supposed to be, young man?” She still had that hard edge on her voice.

Jackson’s stomach dropped down to about where his knees were.

“I left my lunch,” he managed to squeak out.

“Get it quick,” the principal said, then walked away.

Jackson went into his classroom. His teacher quickly wiped a tear of her cheek and gave him a smile. “Hi Jackson,” she said in a pretend-cheerful voice. “Did you leave your lunch in your desk again?”

Jackson nodded, grabbed his lunch, and headed back to the lunchroom, feeling horrible inside. He knew the Principal yelled at the teachers sometimes, and the kids even more often, but he didn’t know what that meant before.

The school principal was a bully.

But what could he do about it? His mind ran back over the presentation they’d had in the cafeteria just now. They’d talked about kids bullying other kids. What were you supposed to do when it was a grown-up, and important grown-up like the principal of your whole school, who was doing the bullying?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

#25 The Pearl of Altius

Palla heard the bells calling her to devotions, so she picked up her pace going in the opposite direction. Her sandals snapped loudly against the stone floor. She tried to walk more quietly, but that required a strange, uncomfortable, tip-toe gait. They must make all the novices wear these sandals to ensure we can’t go sneaking around anywhere, she thought.

One of the temple guards gave her a curious look as she shuffled past, trying to get to the balcony. Palla gave her what she hoped was a confident, convincing smile, and passed on by.

Hopefully the guard would forget her face, and no one would miss her in the crowd at devotions. This was the best time if she wanted to slip over the balcony and get to the cave entrance she had discovered a few days ago. There might be more relics stashed in there, or even a tunnel all the way through to the main cave system.

When Palla reached the balcony the sacred doves were in a panic, flying around and banging on the carved stone screens of their dovecote. At first Palla thought there might be a weasel around somewhere, but then she saw something worse. A pilgrim.

It was a boy, a little younger than herself, standing right next to the dovecote with his fingers hooked in the holes of the screen. He was making the birds crazy with terror.

“Get away from there!” Palla said in her most authoritative priestess voice. “You’re frightening the sacred doves.”

The boy turned a pale, foreign face to her, his strangely golden-hazel eyes wide. “It’s not me they’re scared of,” he said in an odd accent. Palla couldn’t place it. “There’s something coming.” He pointed out over the valley to the distant mountains on the far side.

Palla looked where he was pointing, and after a moment she could make out a swarm of black specks against the blue. It looked like a pack of flies, only so tremendously far away they must be huge. As she watched, and her eyes adjusted to the glare of the sky, they resolved into what might be bird shapes, but once again, they were too big to be birds.

One of them spurted blood-red flame.

“Dragons!” Palla said. “Dragonriders. They’re coming. Get to the caves!” She ordered the bewildered pilgrim. “That way! They’re coming to attack us. You have to get out of sight.” She gave him a shove in the right direction, though he continued to just stare at her stupidly. There was no time for idiot pilgrims, Palla decided. She ran for the sanctuary.

She found it guarded by one of the elder priestesses, Herenaia, who sat placidly beneath the stone goddess who held the pearl in her hand. Out of breath, Palla shouted. “Dragonriders, coming, from the mountains! Hurry, we have to warn everyone.”

“How many are coming?” Herenaia asked. She didn’t sound surprised, but grim, as if she had known this would happen someday.

“I don’t know. Dozens. A whole swarm of them.”

Herenaia turned to the guard. “Go and sound the warning bells.”

When the guard had left the room, Herenaia reached for and took down the pearl. It was large enough she had to hold it in two withered hands.

“Everyone knows you have explored the caves better than any other,” Herenaia said. Palla flushed. She had thought she’d kept it secret. “Now you must take the pearl to a safe place. Find your way through the mountain to the city of the moon and give the pearl to the king.”


Friday, November 7, 2014

#24 Varissa Skink

Varissa Skink tapped her black-painted fingernails irritably against the podium. She looked out over the scowling faces staring back at her from the nearly empty conference room. Hopeless, she thought. They were all hopeless.

“Welcome to the third day of the Evildoers Professional Development Seminar,” She forced a wry smile. The microphone squealed as feedback charged through the sound system. Varissa backed up and covered the microphone to make it stop. Then she went on. “Today we’ve finally gotten to the really good part. Your Moment of Triumph. Now, I need a volunteer.”

The audience stared at her skeptically. Lumps, she thought. Worthless lumps. Not a scrap of talent out there. Typical.

“How about you?” She pointed to a man in a long black coat. He shrugged and stood up, then walked to the stage as if he didn’t really care about anything. “Thank you, Mr…” Varissa bent to read his nametag. “Horus.”

He tipped his chin up in response, then crossed his arms and waited impatiently for instructions.

“I want you to imagine that you’ve finally defeated your arch-enemy. You have him at gunpoint,” Varissa handed Mr. Horus a fake but very authentic-looking handgun. “Now what do you do. Let’s see some good imagination here.”

Mr. Horus turned, staring at an empty point on the stage. He scowled, raised the gun. He leered. Then he threw his head back and laughed maniacally.

“Okay, stop, that’s enough,” Varissa said. “Thank you, Mr. Horus. Can anyone tell me what he did wrong?”

No one budged.

“He laughed!” Varissa said. “While he’s busy laughing, something like this…” Varissa kicked the gun out of Mr. Horus’ hand, caught it in mid air, and had it against his forehead in half a second. “…might happen.”

A feeble applause from the crowd. Varissa sent Mr. Horus down and took another volunteer.

“You might think of escaping, even now,” this one sneered. “But if you so much as move a muscle, I’ll shoot. Listen while I tell you how miserably you’ve failed, how soon I will rule the world!”

“Wait. Wait just one second,” Varissa interrupted. “Did I really just hear that? Are you going to tell your arch-enemy your evil plans?”

The volunteer looked confused. “It’s standard procedure,” he said.

“No no no no no,” Varissa laughed bitterly. “Never tell ANYONE your evil plans. They’ll always get away and defeat you.”

“Not anyone?” the volunteer asked.

“Not a soul.”

“Not even my evil minions?”

“No, they might betray you. Or get captured by the enemy and tell them everything.”

“How about my most trusted evil assistant?”

“Let’s take a hint from the good guys. They’re always saying, 'Trust me, this is going to work.' That’s all they’ll say when their buddies ask them what the plan is. Now, repeat after me. 'Trust me, this is going to work.' That’s all you need to say.”

Varissa thanked her volunteer, but before she could ask for someone else to come up, there was a crash as the door burst open. Police uniforms, men and women in colorful tights, one in an expensive suit, and two in trench coats.

Dang it. The cavalry is here.

“Stay where you are, evildoers! You’re all under arrest!”

“Remember what you’ve learned!” Varissa shouted. “We’re obviously outmatched! Everyone run for it!”

None of the villains listened to her. They all stood up and faced the new arrivals. “Come and get us, boys!” One of them laughed maniacally.

Hopeless, Varissa thought as she jumped off the back of the stage and crawled to her escape trap door beneath.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

#23 Mixing Machine

The cinnamon roll recipe made twelve rolls. There were thirty-eight people in my English class, so that meant I had to make… a quadruple batch.

I nodded and set the recipe book on the counter, then pulled out mom’s mixing machine. I had never used it by myself before, so it took a few minutes to figure out how to put the bowl and the strange metal mixing hook together on the stand. Then I added four times the amount of water in the recipe in the book, and four times the amount of yeast. I went to check my text messages on my phone while the yeast dissolved, because the recipe book said to wait five minutes.

Don’t forget to make rolls, Cassie had sent me.

Doing it right now, I sent back, feeling excited. Wouldn’t Mrs. Mason be surprised! Her favorite treat for her birthday.

By the time I finished answering all my texts, the brown stuff in the bowl was bubbling like soda. I started adding the rest of the ingredients. Melted butter, sugar, a ton of flour. When I was done, the stuff came right up to the rim of the bowl. I snapped on the lid and turned the knob.

The motor growled as it dragged the mixing hook through the flour. At first it went okay, but then it got kind of stuck. I turned the machine off, then turned it on again. Wrrrr wrrrr wrrrr, the motor complained. Frustrated, I put my hands on my hips and watched as it slowly pushed the mass of dough once around the bowl.

A loud pop and a bright flash of light came from the electric cord near the outlet. Smoke shot into the air in a long, white trail, and the motor went quiet. I stared, wide-eyed, at the black spot where the wires were showing inside the cord.

A smell like an overheated computer filled the air. I turned off the machine, a little afraid to touch it, then grabbed the cord well down from the broken spot and wiggled it free from the outlet.

“Wow, what happened?” My little sister came running from the dining room.

“The mixing machine blew up,” I said.

“Do I smell something burning?” Mom asked, close behind my sister.

I showed her the cord, and told her what happened.

Mom’s face was grim. “Well, it was twenty years old anyway. Things don’t last forever.”

“You killed it!” My little sister said. “You know what that’s like? It was like taking a really old horse and making it pull a cart full of rocks and it had a heart attack and died!”

“Thanks,” I said.

Mom sighed and checked the model number on the bottom of the machine. “Time to order a new one. I just hope they still make these.”

“Mom, I gotta make cinnamon rolls for school today, it’s really important. What do I do?”

Mom sat down at the computer. “You can knead it by hand,” she suggested.

“By hand?” I wailed.

“A hundred years ago everyone kneaded by hand.” Mom said.

I stared at the massive lump of dough in the bowl. “That’ll take forever!”

“Only ten minutes. Go ahead, dump it out onto the counter, then flatten it out and fold it in half, then do it again.”

And again, and again, and again! I turned the bowl upside-down and scraped the dough out. Some of it was still really liquidy, and stuck all over my hands. Flop, the big mess landed on the counter, sending out a spray of flour. I groaned and started to punch it flat. Then I picked up one edge and laid it over the rest of it, and started punching again.

Whoever invented mixing machines was a genius.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

#22 The Woodcarver

I will not live to finish this carving.

I work on it, though, every day that I can. Every day that my hands are steady enough, that the pain allows, I work hour by hour, to do what I can do. I can not walk anymore, but I can still carve.

I will not live to finish this carving, but still I continue, even though it would be easier to rest. Even though it will not be finished, there is something of me in the shape of the flowers, in the curl of the vines, in the soft feathers of the birds. I chose where they sit, and someone looking at this carving once I’m gone will still be able to see something of me.

If it were finished, though, more might see it. Unfinished, perhaps the only one to find it will be whoever takes care of my things once I’m gone. It will never be put on display somewhere, for my children, my grandchildren to see.

Still, I work.

The knife slips in my shaking fingers, slashing across flowers and vines, ruining the bird I spent so many hours on. I stare in disbelief, while cold fills my heart. I could almost die this moment. Ruined, I think. My carving destroyed. Not that it mattered. I would never live long enough to finish it. I want to set it down, to leave my tools aside, perhaps to never pick it up again. So tired, I am, why do I keep working on this? My hands are too unsteady, my eyes too dim. Look, by my ambition and stubbornness, I have destroyed it!

I lay the carving in my lap and lean back in my chair. The pain in my heart is stronger than the pain in my body.

I will not live to finish this carving, but I can not leave it marred.

Though my tool feels like lead in my hand, I lift it again. Gently, carefully, patiently, I begin to remove all the things I ruined. Flowers, leaves, I change the bird so that it is turned, twisted, the part of it’s body I cut is free now behind it. It leaves an empty gap, dark, sad, across the middle of the carving.

An empty gap, an opening, to what might be behind. I take my knife and begin to explore the space. It is not emptiness back there, but something in the distance, something I could not see before the curtain of vines parted. There is a house, tiny in the background, with porch steps and a partly open door. I scratch in the lines, the roof, the smooth sky behind. It invites, it beckons.

All this time, I was carving a house. I never would have known it. The vines and flowers I labored over were only a part of the picture. It is that house, deep inside, a place to belong, a place to go, that I wanted to make for those to come after.

I may not live to finish this carving, but what I have finished is beautiful.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

#21 Sand Canyon

The morning heat hadn’t yet found its way to the bottom of sand canyon. My little brother and I sat in the shade under one of the canyon walls, using rock chips to build rival castles. Well, he was still building his castle. I was already lining up weapons for my army.

“Are you ready?” I asked him.

“Not yet,” he added a flat rock to the top of his castle wall.

The sky above the rim of the canyon shone bright blue. I couldn’t see a cloud anywhere. In a few minutes, Mom was probably going to appear up there on the ridge and call us back to the cabin for lunch. “Hurry up,” I said. “Or I’m just going to attack.”

A sudden rumble made me think a plane might be passing by, or maybe a truck on some nearby highway, until I noticed the rocks of my castle were rattling.

Earthquake? I stood up fast. We didn’t want to be at the bottom of a canyon in an earthquake. The sound grew louder. Around the bend down the canyon I saw a wall of red-brown water surging toward us.

No time to run. I grabbed my brother and boosted him up on a shelf above us in the canyon wall. I tried to climb after him, but the water hit and dragged at my legs and feet. It was only about waist high, but it pulled me hard, away from the rock wall, and hurtled me down the canyon. I tumbled over in a murky flood, not knowing which way was up. I tried to push off against the bottom, but couldn’t find where it was.

The water slammed me into something hard and pinned me there. I found sand under my hand, and got my feet under me, then pushed up to get my head out of the water. When I came up, I could hear my brother screaming my name. The water plowed past me on either side, threatening to whip me around the boulder it was shoving me against and continue to drag me down the canyon. I struggled to climb to the top of the island of rock in the middle of the flood. The water sucked at my body, weighing me down, refusing to let me go. I clawed with my fingernails and scrambled with my feet until finally I got enough hold to start dragging myself higher on top of the boulder.

Finally I reached the top. The water was higher now, and still rising. I wasn’t sure if it wouldn’t swallow up the boulder, so I looked around for a safer place. The canyon walls were too far for me to jump, and even if I could reach them, there was nothing to hang on to.

Monday, November 3, 2014

#20 Mandatory Scan

The nurse said it like she was doing us a favor, “Based on your son’s brain scan, we’ve given him a diagnosis of potential sociopath.”

I glanced at Kerry, who sat on the floor, rolling a toy car over the white tiles. He was only five. All his life, now, he’d have this mark. His mandatory brain scan had showed him to be a potential sociopath.

The nurse continued blithely, “It means he’ll be eligible for special services. He can go to an intervention school. We have a wonderful program in our state, with very good success rates.”

Intervention school. The joke was that it was a place where they graduated you right to prison. I knew that wasn’t true, but how could Kerry ever be normal if he was going to school with all the kids whose brain scans showed they had tendencies to dangerous mental illnesses?

I stared at the report, the fuzzy grayscale printouts of Kerry’s brain, the sample “normal” brain images lined up next to his. I could barely see a difference. Through my mind ran all the little incidents, the things I had brushed aside. Kerry had always seemed indifferent to my feelings, to the feelings of other children, but that didn’t mean we had to put him in intervention school.

Could I afford a private school for him? There were still some private schools that didn’t require a brain scan. Maybe I could find one that wasn’t too expensive. A private internet school, so I could keep him at home, away from other children, so no one else would ever be able to guess. Maybe I could teach him, somehow, to understand that he had to act normal, even if he didn’t feel that way inside.

“Thank you,” I said blankly to the nurse, and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper from my purse. There was the kindergarten enrollment checklist. Immunizations. Physical Exam. Eye Exam. Brain Scan. I crossed off the last item on the list.

That was it, we’d done everything on the list and now Kerry was ready to start school.



Sunday, November 2, 2014

#19 The Hike

I stepped out of my house into sunshine and the sound of some good music. Next door, Sara bent over her guitar, the bright green and pink strap of her swimsuit tied behind her neck. She sang for her sisters and their friends, all sitting around in her open garage, in a bunch of folding camp chairs. I walked past them and they all waved.

Next house down, Peter sat on the ground on his front porch, hacking at a coconut husk with a good-sized sharp knife. “Hey, Pete,” I called. “Nat and I are going on a hike, want to come?”

He squinted up at me. “Nah, I got work later.”

“K, see ya,” I said.

I met Natono at the trail-head at the base of the hill behind my street. It led right up into the Hawaiian jungle. He already had his machete out. We were going to hack our way straight through to the top of the ridge, then hike around to some waterfall I hadn’t been to before.

It was a hot day, but not too bad in the shade of the guava trees. Their long, skinny trunks covered the hillside. Invasive species, I thought. Just like me. Natono picked a few and tossed one back to me. It took some work to suck the sweet fruit away from the huge wad of seeds in the middle.

We found a dry stream bed and followed it up the hillside until we came to a big pile of rocks in our way.

“Rock slide,” Natono pointed up the side of the slope. “Looks new. See that bush, it’s half-buried.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Hey, is that a cave?”

We climbed up to the dark, round entrance.

“Is this some kind of lava tunnel?” I asked, stepping inside. It was narrow, but it went back a long way. In the dark my foot touched something soft that crunched a little. My eyes were only beginning to adjust to the dark. I reached down and felt soft feathers, then something dry and hard, like dried palm leaves. There was something long and white there too, like a stick.

Bones! It was bones, and the feathers were part of a cape. I jerked my hand away. I could see dark shapes of wooden carvings now, with broad faces, big eyes, and fierce frowning mouths.

“My dad is going to freak!” I said.

“Yeah, he’s some anthropologist guy, right?” Natono said. “Better not touch anything, it might be cursed!” he teased.

“Yeah, right, more like my dad would kill me. I want to go back and tell him, right now,”

We scrambled back down to the dry stream bed and started home, but we couldn’t find the guava grove we’d passed through on the way up. That was no problem. In Hawaii it’s really hard to get lost. You go downhill and eventually you get to the ocean, and before the ocean there’s a highway, and there’s only one highway, so there’s no way to get really lost.

We ended up sticking to the dry stream bed and following it down. A flash of red darted by and at first I thought it was a cardinal, but then when it landed I saw it wasn’t the right shape. It had a long, curved beak.

“I’ve never seen a bird like that,” I said.

“I’iwi, I think,” Nat said. “I've never seen one either.”

A few more steps and the jungle parted into a beach.

We hadn’t crossed a road.