Wednesday, December 31, 2014

#70 The League of Magical Nannies

It had been a sort of a joke, something my sisters and I giggled over in the dark of our bedroom after we were supposed to be asleep. Wanted, nanny, thoroughly incompetent (Di had got that those words from one of the books she’s always reading), to look after three sweet, adorable, perfectly behaved little angels for three days. Contact Alanna, Dianna, or Reanna Jacobsmeyer. We’d made it into a paper plane and tossed it out the window.

I hadn’t expected it to work so fast, or so well.

Di and I studied the new nanny from our hidden perch in the corner of the upstairs landing. She was a fashion disaster, lace-up boots, blue and white stripped leggings, short black skirt, striped sweater, and one of those lacy yarn hats, floppy and round, with a lot of yarn flowers stuck all over it. I wondered if she had made the hat herself. Mom was showing her around the apartment, which was a disaster as usual.

“What do you think,” Di asked, “Want to go for an all time record?”

Our most short-lived nanny had been seven hours. She’d been texting someone on her phone on the couch downstairs when Di and I had decided to see if we could hook her eyebrow rings with our fishing pole. Yeah, there had been blood, and screaming, and then she was gone.

“Nah,” I said. “This one’s a keeper.” I crept to our bedroom door. “Hey Ree, how’s operation cowgirl coming?”

“Well,” Ree said, “If the market keeps fluctuating like this, we can be on a plane to Dallas in two days.”

I left her squinting at her computer screen and went back to where Di was studying the new nanny through her binoculars.

“I don’t see a cell phone or an ipod or anything. Might be in her backpack,” Ree said.

The new nanny’s backpack had a rainbow-colored gecko hooked to the zipper. This one was so going to be such a pushover.

“Girls!” Mom shouted. Come down and meet Miss Lizzie.”

“This is Alana, Diana, and Reanna,” Mom introduced us.

“Cool,” Miss Lizzie said. “I’m Lizzie. Nice to meet you.”

“Hi, Liz,” I shook her hand.

“I’m sorry I have to run,” Mom said, “But we’re opening tomorrow night and everything’s behind, It’s my big debut, and all.”

“Cool,” Miss Lizzie said.

“The girls have ballet at ten, here’s the address, see if you can get them to clean the place up a bit before you go.”

“Sure,” Miss Lizzie said. “Have a nice day, Ms. Jacobsmeyer.”

As soon as the door shut, Miss Lizzie said, “All right girls, let’s clean up. Whose socks are these?”

There was no way we were going to do anything for Miss Lizzie. I slunk off to the kitchen on the pretense of doing the dishes, but instead found some old frosting in the refrigerator. I tinted it with food colors, then did a nice landscape on the kitchen wall. It was Grandpa’s ranch in Dallas, complete with windmill and longhorn cattle grazing in a field. Out in the living room, I could hear Di bouncing on the couch and belting out Broadway songs while Lizzie tried to get her to help clean up. If I knew Ree, she had snuck back up to the bedroom to work her Wall Street magic.

Lizzie came into the kitchen to check on me. “What are you doing?” she squeaked when she saw the wall.

“Impressionism,” I said. “We have painting lessons twice a week. I’m practicing.”

She groaned and went back to the living room.

A few minutes later she was shouting, “Time to get ready for ballet, come on girls!”

“Not going!” Di was doing a handstand on the coffee table.

“Can’t make us,” I said, coming in from the kitchen, licking my fingers.

“I’m busy!” Ree shouted from upstairs.

“THAT’S IT!” Miss Lizzie shouted. She raised a hand above her head and snapped her fingers.

The house exploded. It was like a tornado hit. Socks, books, papers, empty cartons, dirty dishes, whirled through the air. I screamed and dropped to the floor. When the crashing sounds stopped I opened my eyes. The house was spotless, with Miss Lizzie standing in the middle of the room, fuming.

She handed me a small business card.

League of Magical Nannies. Miss Eliza Compton, Associate Member.

“Now go get your ballet things and get in the car!”

Maybe this hadn’t worked out quite as well as I had thought.

read the next part

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

#69 Freeway Tunnel

I pressed myself against the cold tiles of the tunnel wall as another car sped past, and it occurred to me for the first time that this wasn’t going to be the best place to hold a secret meeting.

The headlights of the cars stared at me out of the dim, exhaust choked air as they roared by. They seemed like empty machines, their windows black, but I knew there were people in there. Drivers. With cell phones. Any one of them could call in, “There’s a skinny girl in a jean jacket walking the curb in the freeway tunnel.” I kept my head down, my eyes on the toes of my boots, and hoped that at least no one would be able to get an identifiable pic of me while they were driving by at eighty miles per hour.

By the time I reached the “Emergency Exit” door at the center of the tunnel I felt dizzy from breathing the sour air. All those car fumes, I was probably going to get cancer just from walking this tunnel. I didn’t change my pace, just leaned on the door. They’d said they would disable the alarm, but still I held my breath as the door opened and I slid through it. I was sure sirens were going to start blaring and the police would come whizzing around the corner.

A chilly, dark tunnel with a little water trickling down one side stretched away behind the door, lit by one old-fashioned lightbulb in a wire cage. I grinned, loving the sense of adventure. Look for the utility door on the left, Maddie had told me. I walked past a fat, rusted pipe, then found a metal door with no handle, only a keyhole. I tapped on it and it swung open.

The guy at the door was a total screen zombie, one of those people with absolutely no facial expression. I’d seen plenty of them, but it still gave me a turn, trying to figure out what he thought of me standing there. He stepped back and let me pass, so I went into the room beyond.

I wondered if I’d come to the wrong meeting. I don’t know what I was expecting, monks dressed as the Dalai Lama maybe, or hippies with long hair and little round John Lennon glasses, but this sure didn’t look like the peaceful resistance crowd. Didn’t matter, I was open-minded. Someone was standing on a platform at the middle of the room, trash-talking the government. “Well, yeah,” I thought, “We all know that, but what about organizing a flash protest or doing a text blast or something?”

The crowd was muttering angrily at the end of every few sentences from the speaker. This had to be the wrong meeting. I looked around for Maddie, but didn’t see her.

“What are you doing here?” said someone beside me. Keith Ange, the last person in the world I would have thought to find here. The tone of his voice, the disbelief, the disappointment in his eyes, put a twist of betrayal in my stomach. This absolutely was the wrong meeting. What had Maddie been thinking?

“What are you doing here?” I snapped back, trying to keep some of my pride as the terror of how deep in trouble I might be for being here came crashing down on me.

Monday, December 29, 2014

#68 Thank You Notes

Mom made me write thank you notes for all my Christmas presents. “Can’t I do it later?”

“No," Mom said. "If you don’t do it now we’ll forget to do it at all.”

Dear Uncle Fred, I wrote, thanks for the yo-yo. I was really excited about it until I noticed that the middle was loose and it wasn't letting the yo-yo come back. Love, Charlie

Mom came out of the kitchen to check on how we were doing.

“Leonard, have you finished your notes yet?” Mom asked my brother, who was zooming his new quad copter around the room.

“I’m making a thank-you video,” he said. The copter hovered over his pile of loot, then turned its little camera eye toward Mom, who was not looking impressed.

“Written notes,” Mom said.


She came to read over my shoulder. “Where’s your yo-yo?” she asked me.

I picked through the bits of wrapping paper and open packages on the floor until I found where I’d dropped it when I realized it didn’t work.

Mom tried it.

“See?” I said when the yo-yo just sat, whirring, at the bottom of its string, when it should have rolled back up to mom’s hand.

Mom took it over to the computer and typed something in. The yo-yo company’s website came up, along with a video of some kid doing all these super fancy tricks.

“Oh, I see,” Mom said, sounding a little disappointed. “This isn’t a regular yo-yo. It’s a trick yo-yo. Would you like me get you a regular one instead? It’s going to be hard for you to learn to use this one.”

“No,” I said, watching in fascination as the boy in the video made his yo-yo dance and whirl and bounce off its own string. “I like this one. How do I do it?”

Mom had to go back to making Christmas dinner, so Dad helped me find a trick to learn.

We watched a video that showed us how to make the yo-yo come back up. The guy in the video made it look so easy, just wrapped the string over his finger, then under the yo-yo, then a little tug and snap! The yo-yo went right up into his hand.

Dad tried it and did it the first time.

I tried it and nothing happened.

Dad showed me again and again, but for some reason, when it was my turn, I just couldn’t do it. After a while Dad went to help my older brother with his copter and then it was just me and the yo-yo.

I wound the yo-yo up and threw it, just like Dad had showed me. I wrapped the string over my finger, under the yo-yo, a little tug, and... drop! It just spun there at the end of its string.

My brother’s quad copter buzzed my head.

“Fly that thing away from people!” Mom said. “At least until you’ve learned to control it!”

I tried again. This time the yo-yo actually climbed the string about one inch.

Another try, and the yo-yo smacked into my other hand.

Once again, and this time the yo-yo whirled up its string and leapt right into my palm, almost as if by itself. “I did it I did it!” I yelled, dancing around.

Mom clapped and cheered for me. “Do you want to write a new thank-you note now?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

#67 The Silver Bell

My aunt opened the glass-windowed doors of the china cabinet. “Pick something you like out of here. Anything you want. My brothers have already been through it, and I don’t want anything.”

I scanned the trinkets inside. Figurines, vases, even a few things that looked like they must have been my uncles’ high school art projects, all the things my grandmother had collected over a lifetime. At the back, a glint of silver caught my eye, and I reached for what looked like an old bell.

The ornate loop of the handle turned out to be the tail of some kind of creature that coiled around the rest of the tarnished bell. I picked it up and gave it a shake. No sound.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Not sure. I think they got that on their trip to Scotland,” my aunt said.

I turned it over to look inside the dark cup of the bell. A bent wire inside must have held a clapper at one time, but now the bell couldn’t ring. The creature on the bell had a beak and wings like an eagle, but a long snake-like body and four paws like a lion.

“I like this,” I said. “Maybe I can find a clapper for it.”

It went into my suitcase, along with some of grandma’s books I’d picked out, and the program from grandma’s funeral. I zipped it all up, said goodbye to grandma’s house, and rolled my luggage out to my aunt’s car so I could get to the airport and catch my flight home.

Once I got home, I put the bell on a little curio stand in the corner of my apartment. There it sat, still silent, for over a year. I found it one day while putting out Christmas decorations. Once again, I turned it over and studied the bent wire inside, forming in my mind the sort of thing I’d need to make the bell sing again.

While out shopping for Christmas presents I found what I was looking for. A pack of metal beads, just the right size. I bought them and brought them home.

It took some doing to get the wire unbent, slide the bead over the end, and bend it up again, but when I was done the bell rewarded me with a sweet peal of music. I thought about hanging it up on the miniature fake Christmas tree on my kitchen counter, and turned to carry it over there.

I screamed and dropped the bell. Something stood, or more like filled, the room behind me. A black beak like an eagle’s gleamed inches from my face, white feathered wings waved gracefully, a lithe golden body, lion’s paws, silver eyes with narrow slit’s like a snakes or a cat’s studied me with a sort of arrogant dismissal.

“For what have you summoned me?” it purred, as if it knew quite well I hadn’t been expecting it at all.

Friday, December 26, 2014

#66 The Semester Ball

So far the semester ball had been something of a disappointment. Balls, Janae thought, were much more entertaining to prepare for than to actually attend. She had been excited to wear the new gown that her aunt had sent her, but now that she was here she realized that though it wasn’t exactly out of style, it was something an older woman would have worn. The large roses and all the pleats and ruffles had seemed luxuriously elegant when Janae had first pulled the gown from the box, but now that it was on her she couldn’t help thinking that she looked rather like a self-important set of drapery that had been tied about the middle with a bow.

Janae looked around for Tessa and spotted her along the other wall, chatting with a group of friends. The dim gaslights in the assembly hall, the tall windows, the decorations, made it almost seem like a romantic place. If only Janae didn’t feel so out of place here. This wasn’t the kind of thing she liked at all. Balls were only entertaining, she thought, if someone was paying attention to you.

“Miss Flandry?” Janae heard Madame Zabriski calling her. She turned around to see Madame coming toward her, a big smile on her face, and a young man in tow. Janae’s eyebrows twitched up when she recognized the boy from last week’s fencing club adventure.

“Janae Flandry, this is William Clifton. He asked me to introduce you. I understand you encountered him at the fencing club last week, but that he never got your name.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Janae said, a little stiffly, as William shook her hand.

“I don’t know if you’re free at the moment, but would you care to dance?” William asked.

Janae stood up, watching William warily. Was he up to something again? “Certainly.”

The band was playing a moderate waltz. Janae thanked her feet for not stumbling for the first full turn around the floor. William spoke first. “I just wanted to let you know there are no hard feelings on account of you utterly humiliating me last week.”

“I should hope not,” Janae said, “Since it seemed rather obvious you were trying to humiliate me!”

“Humiliate you?” William seemed honestly shocked. “How so?”

“Taunting me like that, letting me get ahead, and then mowing me down to the last point.”

“I wasn’t trying to humiliate you,” William said. “I merely wanted it to be more of a challenge…”

Janae made a strangled sound in her throat. “So you’re saying that otherwise I wouldn’t have been a challenge?”

“Not exactly what I meant,” William said.

Janae stumbled a little, and William stopped for her to regain her balance.

“Sorry,” She said, “I’m not as practiced at my dancing as I am at my fencing.”

“You’re not? What a shock.” He nearly laughed. “Madame Z said you’ve put in more practice hours than many of her team members.”

“I love it,” Janae said. “It’s a fantastic game.”

William led Janae through the same figure that had tripped her before, and she stumbled again. “Trying to trick me up, are you?” she asked.

William let go suddenly, and Janae stopped herself two steps away from him.

“That’s your trouble!” he said, like it was a revelation. “All round this floor, I knew something was wrong. You think we’re having a battle. That dancing is some kind of contest. Fencing is a debate. Dancing is a conversation. Now, come, try again, and this time, listen!”

Janae stepped forward, felt him take her hand, felt the other hand securely on her back. Determined to show him she could do this, she tuned all her senses to his movement. The music played, he stepped forward, and she glided back, her eyes on the chandelier, her heart beating faster. He was right, she had been thinking this was a contest. William led her through the figure again, and this time she kept her balance, twirled out and back, and then continued the dance in perfect time.

Read the previous scene: Fencing Club

Thursday, December 25, 2014

#65 Fencing Club

Janae did not think she was ready to go to fencing club. Tessa practically had to drag her. That is if dragging her was picking her up at her dormitory and then walking with her through a light fall of snow all the way to the gymnasium, their fencing bags over their shoulders.

“Fencing club is for people on the team,” Janae said.

“No one said we couldn’t come. It’s an open practice session, and they’ve invited the boys fencing club. There will be a lot of people. Beginners too.”

“Ugh!” Janae said.

The gymnasium was warm and bright with yellow light when Tessa and Janae stepped in. They signed in under “visitors” on the roster, then went to the locker room to get in their gear.

There were two fencing strips set up at one end of the room with bouts going on. Several people were standing watching, some in gear and some just in plain clothes. Around the room others were practicing on their own or in pairs, but most of it was just watching or talking. Janae had imagined something more intense for a practice session. She felt herself relax, and at the same time was a little disappointed. She had wanted to learn something tonight.

Self-consciously, Janae went over to a corner to warm up, then started looking for someone to practice with.

“Over here,” Tessa called, grinning. “You’re up, Janae. On the platform.”

Janae shook her head.

“Come on,” Janae said. “You’ll do fine.”

Janae kept her head down as she climbed the platform steps. When she reached the strip she looked up and saw to her horror that there was a boy at the other end. One of the boys on the fencing team no less. This was going to be over quick, Janae thought.

Apparently he thought the same thing. Barely looking at her, he pulled his mask on and gave her a perfunctory salute. Janae returned the gesture sharply, then got into position.

“Ready? Fence!”

Two seconds later, Janae had her point planted in the middle of her opponent’s jacket. She stepped back. A lucky shot, she thought.

When she landed the third point, she knew he was toying with her. She narrowed her eyes and thought she caught a grin behind the wires of his mask. Maybe it was her imagination.

Fourth point went to Janae as well. Now she steeled herself. The match went to five points. Now he was going to try to come from behind and smash her.

Sure enough, after that fourth point everything changed. He parried everything she threw at him, and when she didn’t go on the offensive he had the point before she had time to think. Before Janae knew it, it was four to four.

She didn’t even care anymore. She knew it was suicide, but this time she was simply going to go for a simple, straightforward, explosive lunge and see what happened.

“Ready? Fence!”

Janae launched herself forward, and this time evaded her opponent’s parry with a perfect, tiny circle of her blade. To her surprise, her point landed.

“Point LEFT!” the referee shouted. Janae had won.

Janae stood there, stunned, while the crowd applauded. Her opponent was laughing as he took of his mask and shook out his damp curls. A little late, Janae remembered she was supposed to take off her mask to shake hands, and so she quickly pulled hers off too. “Good match,” He said sheepishly, shaking his head as he put out his hand.

She couldn’t help grinning. She grinned all the way home.

Read the next scene: The Semester Ball

Read the previous scene: Fencing Lesson

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

#64 The First Christmas

This is a story you have heard before, but perhaps you have not heard it told the way you will hear it now.

Once upon a time in a land far away there was a beautiful princess. But this princess did not live in a palace, only in a humble house in a small village. In the days of her ancestors, her kingdom had been conquered by another nation, and then another, and then another. Five times over, her kingdom was taken into bondage, and now was only an unimportant province of a vast and cruel empire. And yet, she was of the ancient royal line, and a princess. Perhaps she knew the secret, perhaps her grandmother had whispered it to her once, you are a princess, in hiding, and one day your kingdom will rise again.

One day a messenger came to this princess, crying hail, a greeting that would be echoed to her name by untold lips through the coming ages. Fear not, Mary, he said, and told her that she would bear a son, and that to this child the ancient kingdom would be restored. Startled, confused, Mary asked how this was to be, as she was not yet married. The messenger told her that the child she was to bear would be a miracle, unlike any child that had yet come into the world.

In this tiny village where Mary lived there was a man named Joseph, a prince, the heir to the ancient, much conquered, but never forgotten kingdom. He was engaged to Mary, but when he knew she was going to have a child he was deeply troubled. He must have felt a sting of betrayal, and great sorrow. It was his right to call for a public trial and execution, but gentle Joseph desired mercy. He thought to privately end his engagement to Mary. But then another messenger came, in a dream, and told him to take Mary as his wife, for the miracle that grew within her was the Son of God, and would sit upon the ancient throne of his ancestors.

As the time for the child to be born drew near, Mary and Joseph were ordered by the rulers of the land to return to their ancestral home and be counted for taxation. They made their way to Bethlehem, the birthplace of the ancient king from which Mary and Joseph descended. When they arrived, the city was so crowded they had to stay in a stable, and it was there that the child was born.

Mary and Joseph might have wondered why, if this baby was so important that angels had visited both of them to announce his coming, why he must be born in such a humble and rude place. But then as they rested, weary from the birth, relieved at the coming of their new beloved son, a small band of shepherds entered the stable. They had a story to tell! Angels! Angels had come to the fields and told the shepherds they would find the baby wrapped in swathing clothes and laid in a manger! For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord! Glory to God, Peace on Earth, Good will to men!

And so heaven was still mindful of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus on that night in Bethlehem, a third witness of angels had come to bear testimony that this baby was the Son of God in the flesh, and would be King over all the earth.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

#63 The Christmas Ornament

The clock struck three.

Adri waited for more bells, but the clock stayed silent. “Only three?” She asked. “But it’s eleven in the morning!”

Grandma laughed. “That poor old clock. It’s over a hundred years old, so we just let it do whatever it wants to and we don’t complain. We’re just glad she’s still ticking.”

Adri stared at the fancy black hands in the clock’s age-speckled face. The long hand to the eleven, the short hand to the twelve. What good was a chime in the clock if it didn’t tell the right time?

“Come and help me, Adri,” Grandma unwrapped a yellowed piece of tissue paper from around a glass ornament. It was shaped like a lemon, sort of, a lemon with very pointy ends. “Do you see this? It’s very old too, almost as old as the clock. Your great-great-great- I don’t know how many great grandmother brought them over from Europe.”

Adri cupped the shiny thing in her hands. Hand-painted leaves and berries circled the mirrored surface. She held it close to see her reflection. Then she almost dropped it.

The little girl’s face in the reflection wasn’t hers.

“Grandma,” Adri whispered, staring at the other girl. She had her dark hair in long braids, and wore a dress. The room around her was different, too. There was no piano, and the couch was more like a wooden bench with a cushion on it, and over the little girl’s shoulder Adri could see a huge fireplace, and on the fireplace mantle, Grandma’s old clock.

The little girl didn’t seem to notice Adri at all. She only stared back at Adri for a moment, and then the reflection began to move as the little girl stretched out her arm. The curved surface quickly made the girl look tiny while her hand and the lacy end of her sleeve remained huge. Green pine needles appeared, large around the edges of the image, and then the little girl let go of the ornament and bent to get another one out of the box.

“Hurry and hang it up, dear,” Grandma said. “There’s lots more.”

“Grandma, the reflection,” Adri said. “There’s someone else in it!”

Grandma squinted at the ornament. “I’d need my glasses, sweetheart.”

The whole box of ornaments showed a different room than the one Adri and grandma worked in. There were several children who came and went, a woman with a pile of dark brown hair done up on top of her head and an apron over her blouse and long skirt, and a man in a suit. Adri wondered who they were.

An hour later, the clock chimed again, this time Adri counted the twelve bells, just as it should be. The Christmas Tree was finished, and Grandma was putting all the wrapping paper away in the boxes. Adri checked her magic ornaments again, and this time saw herself reflected, with the clock on a bookshelf behind her.

Monday, December 22, 2014

#62 2014: A Christmas Carol

I heard my parents come down the basement stairs. “We’re going to bed now, Eb. Better turn off that game and come up,” Mom said.

“Sure, Mom,” I said on automatic while focusing all my energy on destroying the enemy Galactazoid fleet. “I will.”

“Santa can’t come until you’re asleep,” Dad offered.

“Yeah, right,” I said. I’d heard Mom and Dad moving around upstairs for the last hour or so, putting all the loot under the Christmas tree. Santa had already come, whether I was in bed or not.

“Good night,” Mom bent over to give me a kiss on the cheek. I had to be careful not to miss a shot because her head blocked some of my view of the screen.

Once Mom and Dad had gone upstairs I settled in for some serious blasting. I was going to beat level 37 tonight if it killed me.

A face appeared on the screen. Not part of the game, but reflected off the surface, a person’s face. I shrieked and nearly dropped my controller. It looked like… like my dead friend Jake!

The face vanished as I totally got toasted by enemy fire. Game Over appeared.

With my heart still pounding, I clicked the button to start the game again. Back at level one again. No way.

I must be getting really sleepy to be seeing things like that. Jake had died three years ago in a bike accident. Just thinking about it gave me the creeps. Now I was dreaming his face on my computer screen.

Good old Jake, we used to do a lot of gaming together.

“Yo, Eb!” I heard a voice behind me.

“Jake?” I gasped, afraid to turn around. If I did, I wouldn’t make it past level one. Embarrasing!

Jake, or what was left of him, came drifting sulkily into view. He was only half there, I could see stuff that was behind him. He was wearing a stained t-shirt and cargo shorts, I guess that was what he had died in, but the weird thing was, he was all tangled up in game controllers and computer cables. The controllers made funny plastic clicking noises as he moved.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. “Hey, could you drift a little to the left? I can’t see the screen.”

“I’ve come to warn you, Eb,” Jake said.

“What’s with all that junk?” I looked him up and down real quick while my ship was teleporting to the first quadrant.

He spread out his arms. A computer mouse rattled against an ipod dangling from knotted headphone wires. “These are the chains I forged in life. Your chains have grown even longer than mine in the three years since my death.”

“So, they got any good games on the other side?” I asked.

Jake made a kind of wailing, moaning sound that pretty much meant, “No! You wish!”

“Okay, okay,” I said. “What did you say you wanted?”

“You must change! Repent! Mend your ways! Three spirits will visit you tonight…”

“Whoa, no way, no need for that. I get it. I’ll change. I won’t play so much video games anymore. I promise.”

“Beware!” Jake said as he vanished.

I meant it, too. I was going to change. Just as soon as I beat level 37.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

#61 One Pound of Butter

One pound of butter. I stared at it while I felt the cold from the refrigerator case pour down over my shoes. One pound of real butter, not margarine. That was all I needed to make the Christmas cookies my grandma had given me the recipe for, the kind I used to snitch from the big glass jars at her house when I went to visit. I could still feel the hard, cold glass, smell the sweetness of sugar, lemon, and butter, the bright red and green candied fruits like jewels on top.

One pound of butter. So much more expensive than margarine. I sighed at my half-empty cart. I never spent more than we had. It was a pride I clung to, a game I played. There wasn’t quite room in the grocery budget for one pound of butter this week. Maybe next time. Christmas was still a few weeks away. I could buy the butter next week.

At the check stand, I gave a quick, apologetic smile to the person in line behind me as I handed the WIC vouchers to the cashier. The person behind me would have to wait a little longer than usual while the clerk scanned the vouchers for the milk, the cereal, the juice that otherwise would have been back there, un-bought, along with the butter. I gave a quick thought to my husband and baby daughter, it was nice that he had a light school schedule on Tuesdays so I could go do some shopping on my own while he watched our little girl. It would be so nice to give them both a taste of my childhood Christmas memories. I almost wanted to go back and get that pound of butter, forget the budget, it’s Christmas! But there was the clerk nearly done with the things on the conveyor, and this person behind me trying to be patient.

I’d get it next week.

On my way to the car, a scrawny man with wild gray hair straggling out from under a tattered baseball cap wheeled his rusty bike up right next to my cart. “Do you have any spare change?” he asked. “I’m trying to get a bus fare to Salem.”

I paused for a moment, then opened my purse. “I haven’t got much,” I said with a nervous smile. There were no bills in my wallet, just a few coins in the pouch. I gave them all to him.

“Hey, thanks,” he said, and rolled away.

Stunned, I rattled my shopping cart over the parking lot toward my battered blue car. I opened the back hatch with my key and loaded in the few bags of groceries that would feed us this week. Angry, why was I so angry and bitter that I’d given away the last of my change to some stranger who had just asked me for it? Here I had food, a home, a family, he might not have anything but that bike he was pushing.

I closed the hatch back and got in the driver’s seat, then collapsed against the steering wheel, sobbing. Shame, anger, frustration, all raining down in a torrent. And then peace, a sort of resigned peace came over me. I sat up and turned the key in the ignition. Time to go home.

The man with the bike was still standing there, watching me, puzzled, as if curious as to why I was crying.

I didn’t really understand it either. But I wondered if he would still have asked me for money if he’d known about the pound of butter, if he’d really, really known.

Friday, December 19, 2014

#60 Challenges Excepted

Today's story by Benjamin Carlson has a clever twist at the end. Enjoy!

Dave stared at the ornament.

It was a spherical Christmas tree hanging, with a hook on the top holding onto one of the many plastic stems of the fake Christmas tree his parents set up every year. From halfway across the room, ornament looked exactly like every other shiny orb hanging on the tree. Except that it was pitch black.

Dave stepped closer. The orb seemed to be pulling at him, encouraging him to peer further into that endless depth of mysterious darkn—

“Oh, no, no way. Not this time, you don’t!” Dave wasn’t having it. “There is no way I’m doing this today. I’ve got too much to do and not enough time.” Dave turned away from the deep black ornament and started to leave the room. The room promptly began to warp and fade into darkness.

“Oh, bother.” Dave sighed with frustration and looked around. The room had become a world devoid of anything visible. Suddenly a green light appeared, forming a ring a couple meters in diameter around his feet. The green changed to light blue, then to blue, then purple. It kept changing color, kind of like the ribbons on Dave’s computer’s screensaver. The circle then stretched, extending outward in front of him. Just like it always did.

“Right. Here we go again.” Dave said, resignedly. He walked down the “path” edged by the colorful lights. He wanted to stop looking at the lights. They were starting to give him a headache. They almost always did, but if he looked away from them, he would have no reference to tell him if he was still on the path.

After the light had extended to a certain point it split, one arc going upward, forming a doorway, the other broadening, forming a large circular area that would be “safe” to walk on. He’d tried walking outside the colorful edge. The results had not been pleasant.

Dave walked through the doorway. Almost immediately after he did, a voice sounded, visually represented by ripples of color-shifting light expanding from the center of the large circular “floor.”

“David Green, you have been chosen to face a series of Challenges. For each Challenge you complete, you will receive—”

“Oh, enough already. You’ve already told me this stuff a bazillion times. I don’t have time for your silly games today. I have to write a research paper and read the first ten chapters of “Pride and Prejudice” by tomorrow. Just let me Return Home, already.”

The voice grumbled, “No champion may leave without completing a Challenge. To this Rule there are no exceptions.”

“Then just give me a Challenge that will get me Home if I complete it!” David said, frustrated. He was really not in the mood for this today.

The voice hesitated for a moment, then spoke.

“Very well.” Five doorways, outlined by colorful light, appeared on the edge of the circle farthest from Dave. “One door leads back Home. All other doors lead to Challenges. Choose wisely.”

Dave stood there for a moment, thinking. Then he smirked. “I accept this Challenge.”

Dave turned around, walked through the door he had come through, and appeared back in his house.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

#59 Over the Fence

By the time I got back outside the building, some older boys were playing keep-away with my little brother’s ball.

“Hey!” I yelled. “Give it back!”

Some kid with a hoodie on caught the ball. He gave me this, so-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it? look, then shrugged and said, “Fine,” and chucked the ball over the fence.

The ball fell down the side of the steep slope, bounced off the rocks, and then landed in the water at the bottom. My brother’s green and white basketball, the one I’d got him for Christmas last year, his favorite thing to play with, there floating on the bay. It wasn’t too far out. I might  be able to go get it if I was quick. Then, as it started drifting farther out, I imagined myself hugging my little brother, telling him it was just a ball, and we’d get him another one.

Then I saw my little brother climbing down over the rocks and the dry yellow dead grass, trying to get down to the water.

I’d been staring at the ball, listening to the older boys’ cruel laughs, and hadn’t noticed him climb the fence. I shouted his name, called for him to come back, but he didn’t listen. I jumped the fence and hurried after him, scrambling down the rocks. I slipped and jammed my shoulder trying to stop my fall, but I reached my brother before he got to the water.

He was crying. I put my arms around him and was about to tell him just what I’d imagined saying, that we’d get him another ball, but then I looked up at the row of smirks on the other side of the fence, watching us. Didn’t they look pleased with themselves? Suddenly furious, I said, “Stay here, I’ll go and get the ball.”

I took off my jacket and my shoes, then waded out into the water. The rocks below the surface were slimy, and the cold ripples sucked against my jeans. The bank went down just as steep into the water as it had been on the side of the slope, and I had to push off and start swimming after only two steps.

From up on the pavement, the ball had looked really close to shore, but now down here in the water it seemed pretty far away. It was hard to move my arms and legs with all my clothes on in the cold water. For a while the ball didn’t seem to be getting any closer, but eventually it was bobbing there right in front of my nose. I grabbed it and turned around.

No way. The shore was so far behind me that the school and the fence along the top of the slope were only one tiny thing among a row of buildings and then the empty strip of airfield. My brother was still watching, there near the water, but the other kids were gone.

I started kicking, the ball held tight to my chest. The wind was picking up, so the swells often hid my brother from me, and sometimes even the whole shore. It was hard to tell if I was going in the right direction all the time. It was cold too, and I was feeling stiff and really tired. It took forever before I could tell I was getting closer.

By then there were more people at the fence. Someone had come down the bank and was standing with my brother, an adult. There was a police car at the top of the slope. Great. I was in big trouble now. No one was coming out in the water to help me, though. I guess they could tell I was doing okay.

I finally reached the shore and several pairs of hands pulled me out and someone wrapped me in a blanket. I offered my brother the ball, but he just threw his arms around me and hugged me tight.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

#58 Memories

I must have seen this movie a hundred times, and so when the scene I was expecting next didn’t happen, I sat forward and squinted at the screen.

“Did it skip a scene?” I asked.

“No,” Ashley, my oldest daughter, said.

“What about that scene where they get back to the house, and they find out the dog has eaten the box of chocolates so they have to take it to the vet?”

“That was the last scene, Mom. It happened.”

I sat back in my chair. Had I dozed off? Maybe.

The next morning was Sunday, but I’d forgotten to shut off my alarm for some reason. I smacked the “off” button and rolled over.

“Aren’t you getting up for work?” Dale asked.

“Mfff!” I said, my face buried in the pillow. “It’s Sunday.”

“Sunday was yesterday,” Dale said. “Come on, get up.”

“No it wasn’t,” I said. “I distinctly remember that yesterday was Saturday.”

Dale stood for a moment, his belt in his hand, his suit coat in the other. He was headed to work. On Sunday morning? But what if he was right, and it really was Monday? I searched my memory for Sunday, but came up completely blank.

I sat in a doctor’s office, staring at a magazine. How had I gotten there? What was I doing there? This wasn’t my doctor’s office. Breathing fast, I glanced at the business cards in a little holder by the receptionist’s desk. Neurologist, it said. Why was I here?

“Chandra Clark,” the nurse called me. I set down the magazine that I couldn’t remember picking up and followed her down the hall.

“Now, what are we seeing you for today, Chandra?” the nurse asked, her voice pleasant but her eyes busy on her clip board.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t remember.”

I was inside a machine. It was white, and humming, and I was staring at its metal panels that encircled my head. Blank as my memory of how I got here. I felt like I’d been there a long time, long enough to get bored, but I couldn’t remember any of it.

“Help?” I said, almost laughing. “What is this?”

“It’s okay, Chandra, you’re getting an MRI,” I heard Dale say. “Just lie still or they’ll have to do it over.”

“How long?” I asked.

“Another hour. You can go back to sleep if you like.”

My hands, how had my hands gotten so thin? All speckled and wrinkly, like old ropes. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t stand. I was in a wheel chair. When did my body start aching like this? I glanced around the white-walled room. Strange, everything was so strange. The blue drapes, a bedside table with flowers, and there on the wall, pictures! Photographs, tacked up, pinned, taped, along with drawings that must have been done by small children. What children I didn’t know, mine were teenagers. I tried to make out the faces in the photographs. There was Dale, but what had happened to his hair? It was all gone. I found Ashley, in a wedding dress, next to a stranger, and then another picture with her, the man, two children. There was my son Carl in a military uniform. I know he had always wanted to be in the army, but he was only sixteen. This man had to be in his twenties.

So much time had passed! All of it had slipped away from me.

“How long?” I whispered again. “How long?”

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

#57 Pacific Gyre

This used to be a fishing boat, back when there were any fish.

I wondered if the boat thought it strange that we were hauling a net on board again. Torn, ragged, but still a fishing net. Did the boat remember what it was like to have a hold full of fish instead of old plastic?

The net was so big, my brothers began to laugh, exclaiming that we could head for home after this, back home with our catch of garbage, to be sold and melted down into fuel.

All around us, things drifted on the rust-red surface of the water. The ocean used to be as blue as the sky. I wondered what it had looked like. Here was an old plastic oil barrel, bumping up against the boat. There an empty bucket, cracked, drifting. I hauled the net into the boat, hand-over-hand, and wondered what giant fishing vessel had once dragged it behind. Our little fishing boat could never have pulled it. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to bring it all on board.

Something moved under the murky water, something huge. I stopped hauling to stare as it broke the surface. It was no piece of garbage. A smooth hide covered with dead barnacles, it was a whale!

My brothers shouted, cries of surprise. A whale! Maybe the last one alive. It wouldn’t be alive for long, though. A length of bright blue plastic rope was cinched around its body, so tight it dug into its hide. I could feel its pain, almost as if the rope were around my own shoulders. But there was nothing we could do.

Or was there? The whale had come close to our boat, so close I could almost reach out and touch it, almost as if it wanted help.

I jumped into the water.

My oldest brother shouted angrily for me to come back, but I struck out strongly and reached the side of the whale. I took my knife from my pocket and started to work on the rope. The swells pushed me against the whale’s side and the barnacles cut into my shoulder, but I kept working at the rope, tearing fiber by fiber.

Maybe the whale hadn’t really wanted help, or maybe it changed its mind, because it blew out its top hole, then dove. Determined to get the rope free, I took a deep breath and held on. I would not see this last whale sentenced to death by some careless ancestor’s cast away rope. I could feel the water rushing past me, the light got dimmer, but still I worked. It was almost free.

No use, I had to give up or I would drown. I tried to push myself upward against the whale, but it dove so fast as soon as I let go it was gone. Above me the sun shone an angry red through the algae. I kicked and stroked, dropping my knife, cursing my clothes that dragged at me. My vision darkened as the air inside me turned poison and burned my lungs. Even when I could no longer see, I groped through the thick water for the surface.

My head broke out into the air and I took a long, deep breath before stretching out on my back in the waves. I heard my brothers shouting, and the soft whine of the electric motor as the boat came to pick me up.

“Stay in the boat,” was all my older brother said to me by way of a scolding. I think he understood.

Monday, December 15, 2014

#56 The Rabbit Cart

When I came out into the meadow I could see what the squalling was about. Those squeaky little wails came from a rather small woodsprite. He lay on the grass with a little cart the size of one of Pa’s boots upturned over the top of him. The rabbit that drew the cart lay on its side, kicking frantically but ineffectively.

“Poor little beastie,” I cooed, coming closer. I was a bit afraid the woodsprite would bite me, but it didn’t pay me much mind as it was too busy feeling sorry for itself. I could see it wasn’t strong enough to right the cart on its own. “Let me help you.”

Carefully, I knelt beside the cart, picked it up, and held it steady. The rabbit, frantic and terrified, tried to bolt, but its harness kept it back. At first the woodsprite kept wailing, but then it noticed me. For an instant it didn’t dare breathe. Then it let out an even louder cry, this one with an angry note in it, and leapt for my hands.

“I’m only trying to help you!” I snapped at it as I jumped back, not wanting the feel of woodsprite teeth in my fingers. The sprite leapt into the cart and held on tight as the rabbit charged forward. I noticed again how very small the sprite seemed. Full-grown ones could get to be about knee height, but this one was maybe half that tall. It seemed to be having a bit of trouble with the reins too. The rabbit bounded this way and that, back and forth across the meadow. The woodsprite didn’t seem to mind it too much, but whooped with excitement every time the rabbit made a crazy sharp turn.

I followed after, slowly, glancing down at my berry basket and my mind on picking enough for a pie. When I looked up again, I was just in time to see the woodsprite charge his rabbit cart straight into the river.

The little thing had a look of sheer terror on his odd, nut-brown face. The rabbit disappeared at once under the surging water, but the sprite stayed afloat, clinging to the cart, until the pale green hand of a river nymph reached up and snatched him down. He vanished with a gurgling squeak.

I stood and stared while a small troop of woodsprites came riding into the meadow, one astride a fawn and the rest in rabbit carts. They saw the cart in the river and set up a wailing and a moaning.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “He drove right into the river. I couldn’t stop him.”

But of course they didn’t speak my language. Sadly, I took my basket and left them there in the meadow.

Only as I walked away did I realize it. If I’d left the poor woodsprite alone, he wouldn’t have gone into the river. His clan would have come along to help him. I glanced back over my shoulder, but really, there was nothing I could do.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

#55 Parents, Guardians, and Mentors of Underage Crime Fighters

Mrs. Flanders walked in through the open doors of the high school gym, surprised by the number of parents she saw there. At least fifteen people were in the center of the floor, either seated in a ring of chairs, or standing around and talking.

When she reached the chairs she sat down next to a smiling woman with sunglasses stuck on top of her black, frizzy hair. “Hi,” the woman said. “My name is Traecia. Are you new?”

“Yes, hi, I’m Laurie,” Mrs. Flanders said. She sat down and said in an undertone, “So all these parents have kids who…”

“Who fight crime?” Traecia laughed. “You betcha. More than you thought, right? You should have seen it when I belonged to the New York chapter. We had to break into districts. Who told you about the PGMUACF?”

“The policeman who came to arrest the fellow that my Julie Ann caught, he handed me the flyer about the meeting.” Mrs. Flanders glanced down at the slightly wrinkled paper in her hand. Parents, Guardians, and Mentors of Underage Crime Fighters Meeting. She shook her head. “It’s all a little overwhelming.”

Traecia smiled and was about to say something, but a woman at the center of the circle of chairs called for order and asked everyone to get in their seats.

“Good evening, it’s nice to see several new faces here. We’ll start out with a presentation by Mr. Case on the most important thing you need to remember as a Parent, Guardian, or Mentor of an Underage Crime Fighter. Mr. Case.”

Mrs. Flanders shifted in her seat as Mr. Case got up. He was very tall and thin, with wire-rimmed glasses. He wore a plaid shirt with thin lines, and had a couple of pens clipped to a pocket-protector. “Good evening, everyone. I’m here to tell you how to avoid an untimely death.”

Mrs. Flanders burst out in a nervous giggle, but all the other parents nodded their heads solemnly.

“Yes, we’ve got a dangerous job, but death can be easily avoided if you do one simple thing,” Mr. Case said. “Can anyone tell me what that is?”

A woman across the circle raised her hand. “Feign incompetence,” she said with a nasal drawl.

“Absolutely,” Mr. Case pointed at her emphatically. “Feign incompetence and practice preoccupation. If your kids are sneaking out at night to fight crime, what do you do?”

“Pretend you don’t notice!”

“If you find out they’re investigating a crime, do you call the police?”


“If they have a crime-fighting-related problem they can’t seem to solve, do you take over?”

“It’s too dangerous!” said a bald man who was taking up two chairs over to the left.

“And why is this?” Mr. Case said.

“Well,” Tracia said, “for some reason, we don’t know what, the kids have to do it themselves. If any of us interfere too much, then…” She stuck her tongue out and made a strangling noise.

Mrs. Flanders stared around at all of them in absolute disbelief.

“You mean if we help our kids solve crimes, we’re going to… to… die?”

Tracia shrugged. “Welcome to the club, Laurie.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

#54 Bad Hair Day

I slammed the bottle of gel down on the bathroom counter. “This time, hair, you’re going down!”

I popped open the lid and squeezed a wad of purple go into my palm, then stared at the one spike of blond hair sticking out stubbornly from the side of my head. I usually didn’t use gel on my hair, but this was a serious case. I totally needed a haircut, that was obvious. I’d just been too busy lately, what with being in the play, and science fair, and everything.

I slapped the gel onto the side of my head, then combed down the sticking-out part. The piece of hair stayed down, but now I looked like someone had sneezed on just one side of my head. I rubbed gel everywhere, to make it look even, and combed some more.

As soon as it dried, that one piece of hair stuck up again.

“I give up!” I yelled. It was too late to try anything else. For a moment I thought about getting the scissors, but instead I grabbed my backpack and headed off to school.

“Nice look, bro,” my friend Kyle said when he passed me in the hall. “Was it 80’s day and nobody told me?”

“Ha ha, very funny,” I put my hand up to feel where my hair was sticking out, then froze. There was a ton more of it sticking out than there had been before. I ran into the bathroom to check in the mirror. Sure enough, a big patch of hair on the side of my head was all standing on end. I got my hands wet and slicked it down again. It sort of stayed.

The bell rang. Snap. I ran to class.

By third period, my hair stood out all around my head. Most people didn’t seem to notice, but Shyla raised her eyebrows and almost giggled, and Sam asked me if I’d stuck my finger in a light bulb socket. That was kind of what I looked like, I thought when I saw my reflection in the steel countertop in the cafeteria line.

As I crossed the lunchroom with my tray, I nearly ran over Anneliese Blair. She stood right in front of me, her frizzy brown hair doing its best to escape from the sideways braid that snaked down over her shoulder, and her eyes about twice the size they were supposed to be, staring at me through her thick, rectangular glasses.

“Did you do that to your hair on purpose?” She asked me.

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

“No you didn’t,” she reached up to touch my head.

I ducked away and tried to get around her.

She gasped, “You’re becoming a surge point! Quick, don’t move.”

I wasn’t sure how to not move quick, so I just kind of stood there and stared at her while she dropped her massive backpack to the cafeteria floor and started throwing out books and papers. “Aha! This will work!” she pulled out a stick of gum that looked like it had been down there for about six months.

Anneliese unwrapped the gum, then popped it in her mouth while she twisted and fiddled with the wrapper. She made the wrapper into a long silvery worm, curved it in a C, and handed it to me.

“Stick this behind your ear!” She said in an urgent whisper. “That way, when the energy blast strikes, it won’t take you into another dimension. It’s sort of like a lightning rod. It’ll protect you.”

I stared at her as she scooped up all her backpack stuff and put it back away. Slowly, hoping no one was watching, I put the gum wrapper behind my ear. Just in case on the crazy odd chance she was telling the truth. At least no one would be able to see it there, not with my hair going all spiky.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

#53 Must be the Mouse

A lot of things were going missing from the Hansen’s house.

“Annie! Bryce!” Mom shouted. “Who left out the Monopoly game last night?”

“Bryce got it out,” Annie said.

“You played it too,” Bryce said.

“You both can pick it up, right now,” Mom said.

“We’re missing some pieces,” Bryce said. “What did you do with them, Annie?”

“Nothing!” Annie said.

“Does anyone know what happened to my stamps?” Mom asked. “I had them pinned right up here on the tack board, and now they’re gone.”

“Mom, can you see any Monopoly pieces over there?” Bryce asked.

“No,” Mom said. “Annie, are those your markers on the table? Pick them up, we need to get ready for breakfast.”

“Where’s the green one?” Annie asked. “It was right here with the others.”

“What’s happening to all our stuff?” Bryce asked.

“Does anyone see the crossword I was working on last night?” Dad asked. He picked up a section of the newspaper and flipped through it. “The whole page is just missing from the newspaper.”

“It must be the mouse,” Mom said.

“Must be,” Dad agreed.

I froze, the green marker in my paws poised above the first square of 29 down. I glanced around my snug little room, nicely decorated with postage stamp pictures on the walls and a beautiful, green, wall-paper-like design. The monopoly pieces stood like little statuettes on either side of my front door, which I still needed to chew a bit to make it more even and less ragged-looking. On my floor, a lovely carpet of pale green tissue paper, a table and plastic chair stolen from the doll house upstairs. I twitched my ears and stared out my hole, watching the narrow space under the entertainment center, past which I could just see Bryce’s fingers groping around in the carpet, looking for his monopoly pieces, I presumed.

How did they know? I wondered. How did they know it was me?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

#52 Spellmender


The Leechdell Witchs’ Sircle met on the first Friday after every full moon. At this particular meeting, Elder Witch Grizzel had given a wonderful lesson on truly understanding your victim in order to match them with the perfect hex. After that, the sisters of the Sircle began their spell critique session.

Malinda kept her spell tucked inside the pocket of her cloak, patiently waiting her turn. She watched Cholerella perform a lovely wilting spell on a potted violet that had been brought for the demonstration. One by one, the other witches made remarks. Malinda sat on the edge of her seat, her mind in an excited twirl. She knew just what that spell needed.

“Have you tried adding a pinch of toadstool powder?” Malinda asked ever so demurely when it was her turn to speak.

“Why, no,” Cholerella said in surprise. She took a vial from her witch’s kit, and spoke the spell again, sprinkling the powder as she did so. The violet shriveled to dust, the nightshade flowers in Viperena’s hat dropped all their petals, and even the floral print of Ashen’s robes shriveled. The ladies applauded happily. Malinda smiled.

All through the evening, Malinda was able to help every sister improve her spell. She showed Trichsie how to take a spell for a single boil and make the victim instead break out all over. She helped Gastra transform a little thunderstorm spell into a terrible hurricane. When the sisters of the circle had all collected their hats, at last it was Malinda’s turn to share her spell.

It was a very complicated conjuration, and Malinda was a little nervous about it. She had brought a cow for demonstration purposes. The sisters had all watched that cow curiously throughout the night, and now they were about to see what its purpose had been.

Malinda brought the cow to the center of the circle. The cow seemed a bit sleepy, but that didn’t matter. As Malinda read the spell the cow shifted uneasily and bellowed a little. The ladies of the circle let out oohs and ahs as something began to sprout from the cow’s back and color began to spread unevenly over her body.

The admiring sounds stopped when the transformation was complete.

They were as polite as witches could be. “What the devil is that?” Trichsie squawked.

“It’s a dragocow,” Malinda said. The witches stared at her blankly. Malinda added apologetically, “She gives hot milk.”

The cow hadn’t changed much, but now she had short bat wings sprouting from her back, a snake-like scaly tail, and patches of shiny dragon skin raggedly among the coarse hairs of her coat.

On the way home Cholerella tried to comfort Malinda. “You’re just lovely when it comes to mending other’s spells, but you don’t seem to have much gift for writing your own. Why don’t you be content with what you can do? You’re a fine spellmender, and that’s a rare thing.”

“But why can’t I mend my own spells?” Malinda grumbled.

“And it might help if you give up this obsession with dragons, dear. They’re not real, you know.”

read the next part

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

#51 Beach Clean-Up

Do the beaches of my childhood all look like this? Or is it only here in the center of the Pacific that the sand is coated with chips of crumbling plastic like alien sea shells.

When I was young, and would visit the beach in Los Angeles, there would be soda straws, cup lids, occasional shards of glass, but never these hard plastic chips, bright blues and greens and pinks.

Now I could sit in one spot for an hour under this cloudy sky and pick them all out of the sand, each tiny bit, but there would still be so much beach to cover, and the plastic chips are not the only trash here. I find parts of rope, frayed squares of fish net, bottle caps, bottles, rubber tubing, pens, plastic flower pots, a broken part of a five-gallon bucket lid. An old toothbrush head makes me pause. It’s long, oval shape reminds me of the toothbrushes in a cup sat on the bathroom counter at my grandma’s house. The handle is snapped off and the bristles are worn down, and there’s brown slime growing on it. How long has this been in the sea?

I find a piece of white plastic with a few barnacles clinging to it. That I leave on the sand, not wanting to put something living in my trash bag with the other garbage.

“Mommy, I’m tired of holding the bag,” my son says.

“This is a service project,” I told him, “So we keep working even when we get a little tired. Here, I’ll hold the bag. You pick up ten things. We’ll count together.”

We don’t have to move from one spot. A plastic streamer with a soggy dead balloon tied to one end, a strand of blue-green plastic rope, tiny plastic chips, one piece of glass…

“You can leave that. It’s a seed shell. That’s natural. It can stay.”

Sometimes even I can’t tell what’s natural and what’s trash. I find a long, white thing that could be the bead for a window-shade pull, but I decide it’s the shell of some creature and leave it on the beach. I find the soggy remains of what might have been a nerf football, though at first I think it’s a dead fish.

Tired of scraping up the tiny pieces, I move along the beach now, looking for larger trash.

“Make footsteps, Mommy, and I’ll step in them!” My son says eagerly.

“All right,” I smile, and trudge across the beach, towing my bag, with him hopping behind.

What will his world look like, when he’s my age? Will he be able to follow my footsteps anymore, or will they be buried in strangeness, or washed away by some unbelievably high tide?

Together we move down the beach. I stop to show him the skull of a bird. There’s no mistaking this for something plastic. Even the density of the bone varies in the structure, I can tell from the way the clouded light comes through. Here is a masterwork of nature lying in among the detritus of the twentieth century. I almost overlooked it.

Is this the inheritance I leave to my children? A lifetime of cleaning the beach.

Monday, December 8, 2014

#50 The Queen's Hair

The queen wanted to wear all of her hair today.

Jada took the precious sandalwood boxes one by one from the large chest and laid them out on the queen’s bed. When the chest was empty she unlatched the first box and carried it, head bowed, into the queen’s dressing chamber. There in the box lay a silky coil of deep reddish hair, a strange color, unlike any that Jada had seen, except in the queen’s collection.

In the queen’s dressing chamber, the queen waited in her chair, her face unreadable, her own long, black hair looking strange and thin falling down her back. It was only in the early morning, as the queen readied for the day, that Jada saw her like this. The queen’s two chief maidservants stood by, readying their tools. One of them took the box from Jada with a bow. The maidservant set it open on the table and reverently lifted the length of hair from the box. The two of them began weaving it in with the queen’s own hair.

Jada took the empty box back, studying it carefully. No, not this time. It was perfectly empty. She brought another box, this one golden brown, and then another one white-blond. Box after box was empty as she carried them back. The maidservants were careful today. Jada wondered if they knew.

She had to be quick, because with each length of hair the queen’s power would be growing. With each length of hair, Jada’s chances of being caught increased. At last she could wait no longer, and when she opened a box of slick black hair, she very carefully removed a single strand.

The hair did not want to come without disturbing all the others around it. Jada clenched her teeth and tried to brush the others back in place with her fingers. At last the long, nearly invisible strand was free, and Jada quickly tucked it into the sash at her belt. Trying to keep her face still, trying to silence the pounding of her heart, she took the box into the next room.

Jada desperately tried to think about something else, something other than the fact that she had just stolen one of the queen’s hairs. She tried not to think of being hung over the edge of the eastern wall of the castle until the sun burned her dry. When she handed the box to the maidservant, the woman took it without a pause. The queen did not open her eyes, or even move when Jada passed.

Jada rubbed her own bald head self-consciously as she went to get another box. The maidservants didn’t have enough hair to read minds, only single locks were left on their heads, locks divided and woven with beads to make it look as if they wore mesh caps of hair, just enough that they could use a little magic to do their work.

Hours later, the queen was transformed. Her hair stood out from her head, the way light shone from the sun. All the warm colors of earth surrounded her face. Jada made the mistake of meeting the queen’s eyes.

The queen stared back, and for a moment Jada was sure the queen knew. But then the queen rose from her chair and passed by as Jada bowed her head, more in relief than in reverence.

Jada found the quarters where she slept to be empty. She ran to the curtain where a few loose stitches in the hem had made a safe pocket for her to hide her growing stash of hair.

Her fingers slipped inside, but felt nothing except the rough, plain cloth of the curtain. She dug and searched, her panic rising. All the hair she had been collecting was gone!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

#49 Safer on the Moon

It was crazy, I knew, to feel safer on the moon.

I stepped off the shuttle into the metal tang of filtered air and took a deep breath of relief. There was something snug about the glass dome above me, something that made me feel more secure than the open skies of Earth.

Once you’ve lived on the moon, Earth never quite feels like home again.

I could see the earth low on the horizon, nearly full, the one spot of color in a black-and-white landscape, like a huge blue jewel against a scattering of diamond chips on a velvet night. It had been nice to be away for a while. I’d enjoyed being able to walk for miles without coming to a wall. Everything down there seemed so huge. It was a wonder to walk through a store and see how many things, how many different things I could buy, and for so cheap! I would laugh at the price of apples. I’d bought a whole bag of them for my daughter. She missed apples, living here on the moon.

I rolled my suitcases to the checkpoint. This was part of why I felt safe on the moon. All the luggage would be thoroughly scanned, no weapons allowed. Here on the moon there were only about five thousand people at any time, half of them tourists and half of them residents, and none of them would have a gun. Ever. Crime was almost unheard of. Getting to the moon was so expensive, there was no way to steal enough out here to make it worth it.

But that was not enough reason to really feel safe. I knew that the vaccum of death was right outside the walls, all the time. And if, for some reason, the supply ships stopped coming, we’d all starve pretty quick. Of course we grew some of our own food, but it was only on an experimental basis. Someday the colony might be self-sustaining, but for now it cost more for us to produce our own food than to ship it up. Habitable space was at a premium here on the moon, and we needed it for people, not for crops.

Still, I felt a sense of relief being here again, far more than any worry about the isolation. All around me I heard dozens of languages in the chatter. The faces of the people in all different colors and forms, like a garden of humanity. Men and women from all nations of the world came here, not just the tourists, but the scientists, the students, even the artists who came and lived here for the inspiration, for the unique perspective it gave them on the universe. The average IQ of residents on the moon was 130. It suited me.

I stepped into the scanning booth, and could see my husband and daughter waving at me from the other side. In just a moment I’d be with them, opening my suitcase to show them the treasures I’d brought from Earth below. Spices, picture books, new clothes for Abby, and of course the apples.

A buzzer sounded and a red light came on. The security guard in her blue gloves spoke over the intercom. “I’m sorry, Dr. Clay, your immune system is too high for me to let you through quarantine. You can either wait in isolation here until it resolves, or you can take the shuttle back to Earth.”

I knew that if it turned out to be something serious, there’d be far better medical care on Earth, but my family was here. The moon was my home. Even if, by some remote chance, I was going to die, I wanted it to be here.

Staring at the faces of my family, I said, “I’ll stay.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

#48 Spellwriter

White clay from Stonehenge, red clay from Uluru, yellow ash from Easter Island, black clay from Black Mesa, and then the finest graphite from Ceylon, Phae measured them all into her mortar, then ground them together. This time, this one was going to be something special.

The grinding process took hours, but Phae wouldn’t do it by machine. No, that wouldn’t do at all. It took the touch of a human hand to bring out the magic. Around and around the pestle went, until all that remained was a soft, dark powder. Phae mixed in enough water to make a soft lump, then patted it into a cake to dry.

The next day she ground it up again, singing as she worked. At last she was satisfied with the texture, and mixed in water once more. She put the lump in the extruder and pressed the lever. Out came long, thin lines, which she carefully cut to the right length, then set aside.

Now for the wood. Up until now, Phae had focused on the graphite and clay mixture, but this time she had a very special piece of wood. She had found it at an antique shop, a straight rod with a carved handle. When she picked it up she knew at once it had once been a magic wand. It was made of fine cedar, oiled and polished, and what had given her the idea was that it was just about the right size around for a pencil.

Phae chose her thinnest saw blade and set the rod very carefully on the saw table. She took a deep breath to still her shaking hands, then turned on the machine. The cut went straight and true, and the rod was in two halves. Then Phae switched to the grooving blade and cut a round groove down the center of each flat side.

The leads had dried, so Phae packed them in a crucible and slid them into the kiln in the corner. By tomorrow she would be ready to assemble the pencil.

The next morning, Phae selected the best lead from the batch, and set it between the two halves of the rod, and glued it together. After waiting another day, she painted the pencil silver, and a few hours later used the little crimping machine she’d inherited from her great-grandfather’s pencil factory to clamp the metal band that held the eraser into place.

The finished pencil almost tingled in her fingers. Surely this one would work as well as the one she’d had when she was a little girl. She looked out the window to the clear blue sky, then took out a new white sheet of paper and wrote a little poem about the rain.

Still clear blue. Phae sighed. Maybe next time.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

#47 Dear Evil Overlord

Dear Princess Tulip Marzipan Alabaster III,

It is with great eagerness and pleasure that I embark upon this correspondence with you. It is an honor and delight to have you for a pen pal. I hope you will tell me all about yourself, your family and friends, and your country.

Your friend,

Lord Coalscuttle Blackmarsh Murkmount Venomir


Dear Lord Colesckuttle Blackmarsh Murkmurk Venemir,

Thank you for being my pen pal. I have always wanted a pen pal. Thank you for your question. My family lives in a castle. It is the only castle in our kingdom so if you should come to visit you will be able to find me. I have a mother named Queen Tulip, and my father is the king. I have seven brothers and three sisters, and one pony. Do you have any pets?

Your friend,

Princess Marzie


Dear Princess Tulip Marzipan Alabaster III,

I was most delighted to receive your letter, and am very grateful for your friendship. It would be of great interest to me if you could tell me something of your country, especially the way the land lies, and perhaps where your father has stationed his armies. I am most interested in military matters, you see.

You asked if I have any pets. I have a rather large collection of reptiles in my possession, and I’m very fond of them. My most prized pet is a very large constrictor which I keep in my dungeon to assist me with punishing those who do not obey the laws of my country.

Yours most truly,

Lord Coalscuttle Blackmarsh Murkmount Venomir


Dear Lord C.B.M.V.,

I hope you do not mind I made your name shorter. It is very difficult to spell it. If you want you can call me Marzie.

I like my country. There are lakes, and mountains, and forests, and farms, and cities. The weather is very nice because it snows a little in the winter, and it gets a little hot in the summer, but not too much. How is the weather in your country?

I know we have a lot of soldiers. I saw them in a parade once, but I do not know where they are now. There are some in the castle, but the rest of them went somewhere else.

We are going to have a party for my birthday, and it would be lovely if you could come. I don’t know if you can because you live very far away.

Your Pen Pall,

Princess Marzie


Dear Princess Marzie,

Thank you for your letter. It is nice to hear about your country. The weather where I live is always very cold, but I hope some day to move to your country where it is nicer.

Perhaps you could tell me something of your father? I have always admired and respected him very much and am curious as to how he fares these days.


Lord Venomir


Dear Lord Venomir,

Papa is very cross lately, and I don’t see him very much, but when I do he is cross. Mama says not to worry about it, so instead I ride my pony and think about my birthday party. I hope I get lots of shoes. Those are my favorite. My foot is seven inches long, in case you wanted to know.

Do you ever have birthday parties? What do you like to get?


Dear Princess Marzie,

I have never had a birthday party, but if I should have one, a nice new kingdom would be an excellent present. Perhaps I shall get one for myself this year. I hope you enjoy the shoes I sent, and that snakeskin is not too unfashionable among those of your court. It would be best, perhaps, if you do not mention to your father who sent the shoes to you. I look forward to continuing our correspondence.

Your friend,

Lord Coalscuttle Blackmarsh Murkmount Venomir

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

#46 Dragon Poacher

Molly let out a long breath, squeezing every bit of air from her lungs, and wriggled forward another inch under the boulder blocking the mouth of the dragon’s cave. She carefully, silently pushed her bone cloak and her pouch ahead of her. This was a tight squeeze, but she’d gotten through tighter. She rested a moment, took a sip of sour sharp dragon-smelling air, then blew it all out again and edged herself forward with fingers and toes.

It took a long time, Molly didn’t know how long, but she was patient. At last, with her hips bruised and her hands and knees scraped, she pulled herself out from under the boulder and slid beneath her bone cloak. With her pack clutched to her chest, she crept forward, her eyes wide to see in the dim slivers of light that came in from the cave entrance, around the fat boulder that Mother Dragon had used to block it while she slept.

Molly skirted the treasure pile and went straight for the pit that Mother Dragon lay draped around like a half-moon of terror, smoking like a furnace. Sweat dripped down Molly’s back and plastered her grimy hair to her face. Moving on all fours, silent as a ghost, Molly stole up to the edge of the pit and looked down.

A piercing scream ripped through the air.

Startled, confused, Molly flattened herself to the cave floor under her cloak and held her breath. There was someone in that pit!

“Quiet,” Mother Dragon grumbled. Molly heard a grating sound, as if maybe Mother Dragon were stirring her eggs with one sharp claw. “No use in screaming. There’s no one can hear you.”

Molly heard a sob and a soft wail from the pit, and then silence.

Mother Dragon shifted herself around the pit, and for a moment Molly thought for sure she would be discovered, but then the rumbling dragon snores began again.

Molly knew the smart thing would be to wriggle herself right back out of the cave. What did she care if some idiot had got herself caught by a dragon and got left in the nest to be the hatchling’s first meal? It happened. None of Molly’s business. The eggs was her business. And she couldn’t very well get out alive with one of them eggs if someone screamed again and woke the dragon.

Just to see who it was, Molly carefully peeked her eyes over the rim of the pit again.

It weren’t no ragamuffin egg poacher like Molly. This was a girl in a tattered satin gown with long, dirty, bedraggled curls of gold. A nobleman’s daughter, maybe even a princess. She looked awfully well fed, and Molly wondered if she’d even be able to fit her under the boulder. There was a reason Madame Grindy kept her poachers half-starved. A fat princess wasn’t going to be able to wriggle back out of the cave.

The girl saw Molly again, but this time she didn’t scream, just looked up with big pleading eyes.

Molly took her rope out of her pack and lowered one end to the girl, putting her finger to her lips. The princess nodded her head. Molly cursed herself for being so stupid, but she held tight while the princess struggled her way up the side of the pit.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

#45 The Singing Castle

There was once a cruel queen who would bear no singing in her castle. She had forbidden it entirely.

One day as the queen walked through the dim, stone passages she heard a sound from the great hall. A voice, a girl’s voice, in a lilting country song. Furious, the queen turned aside into the hall and found a scrawny servant girl scrubbing the floor and twittering like a lark. She immediately called for her guard to take the girl and throw her into the dungeon.

Now the servant girl had meant no harm in singing. Perhaps she had forgotten the rule, which had been told her among so many others, or perhaps she had thought no such rule could truly be. No singing in the castle? Why ever not? But there she was, in the dungeon, with nothing but a little bread and water every day, and only the rats to keep her company.

Three days later the queen brought her back into the great hall. There were all the queen’s household, from the highest noble to the least of the servants, assembled together. The queen sat in her high place, and before her was a stand on which stood a man in a dark hood, holding an axe.

The girl was brought up to the stand before the queen.

“Because you have decided that you can sing in my castle against my express wishes,” the queen said, “Then sing you shall. You will sing every song that you can think of, and when you are done and can think of no more, then you shall be beheaded. Now, go ahead, you may begin. Sing for us.”

The girl stared from the shiny blade of the axe to the block that was for her neck and the basket that was for her head, and not a single note of a single song would come into her mind.

“What about that song you were singing the other day?” the queen asked, her face white and her smile wide. “Can’t remember? Very well, then, we can proceed with the execution.”

The girl closed her eyes as the guards led her forward to the block. She took a deep breath, and then began to sing in a shaky voice. The queen waved for the guards to stop. They stepped back a pace as the song grew and filled the hall with sweet music. When it had ended, the girl began another.

She sang songs of home and of far away, songs of freedom and war, songs of love and songs of loss. The queen’s household listened, silent, captivated, while the queen’s face grew whiter and whiter. When at last the girl faltered, exhausted, it was long after sundown. She hung her head and shook it sadly. She could remember no more.

Somewhere in the crowd, someone began another song.

The girl raised her head, and joined in singing. Yes, she knew this one too. The queen shouted for her to stop, but she kept on while the soldiers searched the crowd for the second singer. But a third joined in, and then everyone was singing together.

“Enough!” The queen shouted, “Carry out the execution now!” but no one could hear her for the singing, except the guards and the executioner, who carried out her order.

The crowd fell silent with the axe, but strangely enough, the girl’s voice did not. The very stones of the castle seemed to echo with it. Alone, the sweet voice finished the song, and then began another.

The queen sent everyone away, and the girl’s body was taken and buried, but there was no way for the queen to bury the voice that continued to float through the great hall, singing song after song. It sang through the night, and was still singing the next morning. At first the queen pretended she could not hear it, but it sang right through breakfast and all the next day. The queen could hear it in her highest tower and even in her deepest dungeon, singing the songs of home and far away, the songs of war and freedom, the songs of love and loss. At last, driven mad, the queen fled the castle and was never heard from again. But if you would like to hear the singing for yourself, only go to the ruins and stand in what was once the great hall, and you will hear it yet today.

Monday, December 1, 2014

#44 Cub Scout Cookies

I charged for the front door, hoping Mom wouldn’t catch me. “Bye, I’m going out!” I called.

“Not yet,” Mom stepped out of the kitchen just in time to cut me off. “First you have to do something out of your Cub Scout book.”

“What?” I whined. “I can do that later.”

“you’ve been a Bear now for six months, and we haven’t done a thing in here,” Mom picked up the book and started flipping through the pages. She sighed and held it out in front of my face. “Here, you read through this and find something you’d like to do.”

Scowling, I sat down at the kitchen table. I turned page after page. Too hard. Too boring. Hard and boring… wait, what was this?

“Hey, Mom, can we make cookies?”

“Cookies?” Mom asked.

“Yeah, look here. We can make cookies.”

Mom took the book, nodding. “Okay, my sister posted a recipe on her blog I want to try. We can do that. I have time. Great. Go wash your hands.”

When I came back in the kitchen, Mom was getting the sugar down from the cupboard. She handed me a sheet of paper with a picture of beautiful round cookies with mounds of white frosting and colored sprinkles on top. “Read this recipe,” Mom said.

“Do I have to do it all by myself?” I asked. There were, it looked like, twenty ingredients!

“No,” Mom said. “I’m going to help you.”

Mom showed me how to push the buttons on the control panel of the oven to start it heating up.

“Now we need to soften the butter in the microwave,” Mom took some butter out of the fridge and peeled off the white paper wrapper. “You watch it through the window and the moment it starts to melt, you tell me.”

“Why can’t you watch it?” I asked.

“Because I’m getting out the ingredients, and putting dishes in the dishwasher, and getting ready to cook dinner. Do you want to do all that instead so I can watch the butter?”


The microwave hummed and the butter turned around and around on its plate. Nothing was happening. Nothing at all. Then, all of a sudden…

“Mom! MOM! The butter!” I yelled. It was caving in.

“Well, push the button! Turn off the Microwave!”

The butter wasn’t entirely melted. Mom scraped it into the mixing bowl.

Then she got out a measuring cup and showed me how to scoop in the flour, then level it off with a knife.

“Like this?” I asked, sending a cloud of flour into the air.

“Yes,” Mom said, trying to be patient, “Except over the flour bag, please.” She went to get the broom and dust pan.

Mom let me put the ingredients, one by one, into the mixing bowl. “Hold the spoon over the bowl when you pour the vanilla… wait! You have to pour it slow!”

It was too late. I looked down at the big, dark brown puddle of vanilla that surrounded the mound of flour at the bottom of the bowl, with the melted butter and the egg yolks floating in it. “Sorry.”

“It’ll be okay,” Mom said. “Now, use that knob to turn on the machine… stop! We have to put the lid on first!”

A cloud of flour filled the kitchen. Mom went to get the broom and dust pan again.

The cookie dough smelled really good. Mom showed me how to drop spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet. Hers looked nice and round. Mine were kind of slug-shaped. I couldn’t figure out how she got them to fall off the spoon in little round balls.

After Mom put the pans in the oven, she said I could go.

When Dad got home, the cookies were done and cooling on the table. “They’re kind of strong,” Dad said when he tried one.

“It’s just vanilla,” Mom said.

The cookies didn’t exactly look like the picture on the recipe. “Can we do the frosting and sprinkles?” I asked.

“No,” Mom said.