Friday, January 30, 2015

#96 Spy Copter

The backyard on the other side of the wall was like something off the Home and Garden Channel, and I don’t mean one of those shows where they’re fixing up a place. It was unbelievably plush, with perfectly trimmed green grass, a swimming pool with a little rock waterfall, trees, flowers, and an expensive-looking dog sleeping in the shade.

“Come on, focus, you have to hold it level!” Curtis said.

I hiked myself a little higher on the tree branch and tried to figure out how I was going to hold his quad copter level while I was trying not to break my neck. “What’s level?” the closest level surface was the top of the high stone wall that surrounded Anjeli’s snooty gated community, and that was four feet away and down.

“Guys?” Marianne called up to us from the ground, “I really think we should be working on our own project instead of wasting our time spying on the other team.”

“But we want to know how hard we have to work to beat them,” I told her.

Marianne threw her hands up in the air, then turned her back to us. “I can’t believe you’re actually doing this.”

“Just do your best,” Curtis said, ignoring Marianne.

I held my breath, hugged the tree hard with one arm, and held the blinking copter as steady as I could with my other. Curtis fiddled with his controls, the copter beeped, then the propellers engaged.

“Drop it,” Curtis said.

The copter swooped down out of the tree, then rose up and cleared the wall.

I watched the grin on Curtis’ face as he maneuvered his copter around the swimming pool and right up to the giant sliding glass back doors. Inside, we could just hear Anjeli and her team talking, just barely.

“Camera engaged,” Curtis said with satisfaction.

“Can I fly it?” I asked.

“Not now!” Curtis said. “This isn’t as easy as it looks.”

A small, confused yip let me know the dog had woken up. He was staring at the copter, as if trying to decide what he should do about it.

“Dog! Dog!” I said.

“I know,” Curtis said. “Just hang on. We need more footage.”

All of a sudden, the dog decided. He came bounding toward the copter, barking at the top of his lungs.

“Get it out of there! Someone’s going to see!” I squeaked.

Curtis had already pulled the copter higher into the air and was trying to maneuver it off the back porch. It banged the porch roof, bounced off a glass table-top, and went whizzing smack into one of the trees. There it hung, blinking red and green, like a weird alien Christmas ornament.

“Go get it!” Curtis told me.

I looked at the wall, four feet away and down. I looked at the dog, who was still barking and jumping like he wanted to rip that copter into little plastic shreds. “No way,” I said.

“We can’t let them find it!” Curtis said.

Too late. Anjeli had opened the back glass door. Curtis and I froze. I couldn’t tell if she could see us, but she could certainly see the copter. She walked over to it and stared at it for a while, then went to get a long pole with a net on the end that was hanging up by the pool.

Curtis and I didn’t move as we watched her knock it out of the tree, then take it back into the house.

Curtis gasped, “Oh no!” then started to shimmy down the tree branch. “Come on, we’ve got to get around to the front and get it back!”

“What’s the hurry,” I said. “We’re already busted.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Curtis said, his face going from white to red so fast it reminded me of the blinking copter. “That video I just took isn’t the only one on there.”

Thursday, January 29, 2015

#95 The Dragonslayer

A single claw stretched forward out of the shadow of the cave, then another, and another, each of them as long as a man was tall. Green scales glittered gold in the late afternoon sun as the dragon’s head emerged. Its blazing eyes stared down at the tiny figure before it. “Who dares challenge me?” it boomed in a voice like thunder.

“It is I, Alfred the Dragonslayer!” shouted the armored man on horseback. “I have slain a hundred dragons and you will be the one-hundred and first!”

The dragon roared in fury. “I will avenge my one hundred brothers! You will die before sundown this day!”

A terrible wind rushed over the dragonslayer as the mighty dragon beat its wings. The horse panicked and threw its rider to the ground as the dragon rose higher and higher in the air. The dragonslayer stood and watched in awe as his terrible foe circled higher and higher into the blue, until it was nothing more than a blot against the bright sky, a long, lithe body with wings outstretched, graceful as a swan but terrible as lightning.

The dragon’s shadow changed, the wings contracted, and the dragonslayer trembled. It was like looking down the shaft of an arrow aimed straight for his heart.

Screaming a battle cry, the dragon dove. Faster and faster it came. The dragonslayer cowered behind his shield, waving his puny sword. He knew he was no match for this dragon. He had finally met his end. The dragon’s jaws opened wide, ready to snatch him off the ground in a single bite. He could feel the flame drawing closer, the dragon was almost upon him…

“George! Time to come in for dinner!” George’s mother called.

“But Mom, I’m in the middle of a game!” George called back.

“Hurry up and finish,” Mom said.

“Okay!” George called back.

George leapt back into the air, flapping his wings until he was high above the toy knight again. Then he swooped down and chomped.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

#94 Artificial Flowers

Dorrica dabbed her paintbrush in the blue watercolor swimming on her pallete, then swirled it with the black. On the canvas in front of her she carefully brushed out the curve of the cockatoo’s beak, then added some shadows to the palm frond where his gray feet curled. Another swirl, this one with more black, and she touched in the dark circle of his eye, leaving a bright highlight.

“Dorrica Lantos?” the school secretary called from the doorway.

Startled, Dorrica let her brush splay, spraying flecks of dark paint across the cockatoo’s perfect white body. She gasped.

Everyone in the room stopped painting and stared at the woman in the doorway.

“Dorrica, please gather all your things and come to the office. You will not be returning.” The woman said.

Numbly, Dorrica set down the palette on the desk beside her easel. She noticed the others staring at her now, whispering to each other. She knew what they were saying, but it wasn’t true. She wasn’t being taken out of school because her uncle couldn’t afford to pay the tuition. It wasn’t that. It couldn’t be.

She slowly took off her painter’s smock, that belonged to the school, and gathered her brushes, those were hers. Her sketchbooks, her pencils, she kept her chin up and tried to hold back angry tears as she marched from the room and down the hall to the office.

“I received a telephone call from your uncle,” the secretary said, cold as ice. “You’re needed at home. Your uncle will be here to pick you up in a few minutes.”

Dorrica watched the palm trees and white houses roll by out her uncle’s car window. She kept her self turned away from him so he wouldn’t see the silent tears streaming down her face.

“It won’t be long, Dorrica,” Uncle Istvan said. “Only until things get better. Then you can go back to school.”

Dorrica had heard something like that before. Mother won’t be in the sanatorium long, only until she gets better. Mother was better, she had been better for over a year now, but she still hadn’t come home, and Dorrica was still living with Uncle Istvan and Aunt Rosa, who had taken her out of art school.

That thought nearly brought fresh tears as Dorrica followed uncle Istvan up the front steps. When the door opened she heard her aunt’s voice call.

“Is that you, Istvan? About time! Send Dorrica back here!”

Boxes and stacks of colored tissue paper lined the spare room that had been turned into a shop. Aunt Rosa was in the back, surrounded by red paper poppies with wire stems.

“Quickly, we have to get these arranged in vases and to the studio by one o’clock,” Aunt Rosa ordered. “Well, why are you just standing there?”

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

#93 Exile

Driel knew she was innocent. She didn’t deserve this imprisonment. It made it all the harder when her taskmasters neglected her, wouldn’t even give her the tiny dribbles of energy she needed to keep her vessel functioning.

She sent out another signal, the final warning before she had to shut down. Where were those huge, blundering creatures? Her visual sensors were up against something again, and she couldn’t see a thing.

Vibrations shook the spherical command center where she sat at the limited controls of her inter-dimensional pod, its dimensional slip disabled for the length of her term of punishment. At last, someone was coming. Driel felt the pod being lifted, swung through space, while the gyros of the command center kept her mostly upright. This was an old model, lacking in comforts, but not lacking in security. She’d spent many lonely hours trying to get the slip drive to function without making it look like she was trying to get the slip drive to function. It was her only amusement.

Even if she did manage to commandeer her prison vessel, where would she go?

A loud snap sounded through the command center, and Driel watched the energy levels of her pod start to rise. She turned on the visual, but before she could resolve the image into something comprehensible, a communications order came in.

She read the code coming up on the screen. Ah, her master wanted her to contact Akiel’s pod. Akiel, now there was someone who deserved to be right where she was. Loathesome person, Driel thought. She relaxed back into her seat and let her mind wander through space, searching for the barbed and twisted consciousness that was Akiel.

A half-formed thought lashed back at her, “Eh, what do you want?”

As if Akiel didn’t know. Driel smirked inside as Akiel reluctantly hooked up the connection between their minds so that the masters could communicate with one another. Driel squirmed a little, thinking that if she wasn’t a criminal before, being exiled to this place and having to associate with minds like Akiel’s would probably make her one.

The instant the master sent the signal to terminate the contact, Driel severed the connection with relief. She sighed and thought about getting some sleep while her vehicle’s power continued to rise.

A message came over the dimensional frequency. Fully alert now, Driel sat up and patched it through.

You’ve been cleared of charges, we are restoring your slip capabilities now.

Driel cried out a cheer, then began entering coordinates. She was going home! She reached inside the controls with her mind and pulled with all her might, and the world of her exile dissolved around her pod.


“Hey,” I said, “Has anyone seen my cell phone? I thought I left it here charging last night.”

Monday, January 26, 2015

#92 The Genie in the Spray Can

Rows and rows of pale, yellow certificates in shiny frames stared down at Matt from the wall behind the lawyer’s desk. This guy knows what he’s doing, they said. You can trust him.

The lawyer finished typing at his keyboard, then turned to face Matt and his parents. “That should be all I need. Thank you very much for coming in today, Matthew, Mr. and Mrs. Acuna. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.”

Matt’s parents said some pleasant and polite things as they all stood up and shook hands. The lawyer reached down to shake Matt’s hand too. “You’re a very lucky boy, Matthew,” the lawyer said, and Matt thought he saw a flash of jealousy in the lawyer’s eyes, so black that Matt couldn’t tell where the pupil was.

“Thanks,” Matthew gave him a half shrug.

“It’s a very special thing to find a genie in a… where did you say you found him?”

“A can of orange spray paint,” Matt showed the lawyer his orange stained finger tip.

“Ah, yes, an unusual imprisonment, but not unheard of,” the lawyer smiled again, then bent his tall, thin frame down so his face was on level with Matt’s. “Now remember, Matthew, for the next few days you must be very, very careful not to say the words, I wish, not until I’ve got your wishes properly written up for you. Do you know why?”

“Because,” Matt said, “you have to be careful what you wish for.”

“That’s exactly right!” The lawyer said. “They don’t imprison good genies in lamps or rings or spray cans. Only the bad ones. And the bad ones always find a way to turn your wishes against you, unless your wishes are put in proper legal terminology.” The lawyer turned to Matt’s parents. “Now, as for my fees, don’t worry about that. We’ll simply add a clause to one of Matthew’s wishes to wish some money into the firm’s bank account. I’ll call you when all the documents have been drawn up.”

On the way home, Matt sat in the back of the car and listened to his parents discussing all the things they could do with the hundred million dollars that Matt wanted to wish for. Without warning, the genie appeared beside Matt in his orange spattered turban. “Are you really going to wait for days and days to make your wishes, my boy?” the genie asked. “You don’t really think I mean you any harm, do you? I’m merely grateful for you setting me free from that can of spray paint. Terribly smelly in there, it was.”

Matt thought of all the stories he’d heard about wishes gone wrong. He thought of the hour he and his parents had spent with the lawyer. He thought about the genie, imprisoned in that can of spray paint for who knows what reason. Could he really go four days without saying “I wish” on accident? What if the lawyer made a mistake writing up the wishes? What if he made a mistake reading them?

Was it really worth it?

Matt whispered so his parents couldn’t hear, “I’m going to make my first wish right now.”

The genie grinned from ear to ear, mischief flashing in his eyes.

“I wish you would go back in your spray can and leave us alone.”

The genie vanished.

When they got home, Matt’s dad said, “So where is this genie? I want to meet him.”

“I wished him back in the spray can, Dad,” Matt said.

“You what? But what about your wishes?”

“Now dear,” Matt’s mom said, “I think Matt made the right decision.” She sounded relieved.

“But what about the legal fees? We can call the lawyer up and tell him to stop writing wishes, but the consultation alone was expensive!”

“Well,” Matt said, “Maybe we could offer to give him the spray can.”

Sunday, January 25, 2015

#91 They Might Be Us

It always made me feel like a little child to wander these ancient underground halls.

The ones who built them had been so much taller than us. I have to reach over my head to touch the smooth ceramic panel that will open the door. The heat from my hand powers it somehow, makes the massive stone slab glide to the side, even now, millions of years after it was first built.

I step into the great public hall. We don’t know what they used it for, but I imagine it something like a public park. There are stone sculptures, at least that’s the way I see them, columns that stretch up to the dark ceiling where the light I’m carrying won’t reach, and carvings on the walls. This one is a low-relief landscape, I recognize the profile of the ridges that can be seen from the top of the shaft, but what’s different is that smooth area that must have been a lake or a sea. Now it is dry, empty. I think there might be things that resemble plants, or at least fragile mineral structures that have been swept away after millennia of sand and wind.

The next panel looks more familiar to me. It’s more mountains, but they’re covered with trees. A forest. I reach up to brush at a dusty patch of pine needles with my gloved hand. There are creatures here, abstract but identifiable. Something very much like a deer, but with an elephant’s snout. Another one like a porcupine with a club tail. A bird that stands taller than me, like an ostrich with an eagle’s beak.

It’s Earth, millions of years ago.

The next panel shows our entire globe, carved from the red sandstone in perfect detail. Oceans, continents, mountains. It’s amazing. This isn’t the only place where we’ve found it. They had an obsession with Earth, these creatures, whatever they were.

But for some reason, with all the depictions they made of their neighboring planet and the creatures that lived on it, they never left any images of themselves.

I climb up onto what might have been some kind of bench, that is if these creatures sat down. They left no remains of themselves, no bones, nothing. Some think they were gelatinous blobs, or maybe they were living rocks and their remains are lying around as rubble all over their tunnels here deep beneath the surface.

There’s a carving of mars too, small, up and to the left of Earth, their own world a mere afterthought in the stone mural.

And then I notice something new, something I haven’t seen before in all my studies of this place. There’s something on the wall between the two spheres. So small I overlooked it. I shine my light on it and it disappears. I need shadows to see it well. When I aim my beam just above it I can see it. There’s a whole row of them, marching like a line of ants between Mars and Earth.

These creatures, what if the left no remains because they all went away, and took everything that was part of themselves along? What if they all traveled to Earth?

What if they… they might be us.

Friday, January 23, 2015

#90 The Shadow Warrior

Keep him fighting, stay close, stay alive, Zrig chanted to himself as he circled the shadow warrior. He hissed and bared his teeth, then sprung, twisting away at the last moment to avoid a bolt of deadly energy. The shadow warrior lept after him, swinging his sword, and Zrig felt a sting on his back flank before he managed to get away. Furious, he whirled, panting, but instead of going in for another strike he let the Shadow Warrior regain position. Zrig side-stepped over one of his fallen companions while the Shadow Warrior turned to watch him. Zrig didn’t have to make another futile attempt to kill him, he only had to keep him fighting.

The shadow warrior’s form flickered, and he half turned his head for just a moment. Zrig’s heart thumped faster. It was coming. His moment. He was about to see the realization of his plot. He slunk closer, waiting, watching.

The shadow warrior sent another bolt of energy at him. Zrig sprang backwards while the rock where he’d been blackened and sizzled. Too much distance! No! Zrig scuttled forward though his paws burned on the hot rock. Just in time, too. The shadow warrior’s form began to fade. Almost laughing, Zrig sprang forward and caught hold of the warrior’s boot just as he disappeared.

A shock ran through Zrig’s body, leaving him stunned. When he opened his eyes again he knew his plan had worked! He had followed the shadow warrior into the shadow realm!

He heard voices, an elderly human female in a harsh, scolding tone, “Spencer, the bell rang five minutes ago? Why didn’t you go to class?”

It took Zrig a moment to realize this woman was speaking to the shadow warrior. How dare she? Was there no honor in the shadow realm? Did she have no fear of the warrior’s wrath?

The shadow warrior shrugged, and as Zrig looked on him he realized with joy that the stories were true. In the shadow realm, the shadow warrior was only a little child! How easy it would be now to destroy him.

Zrig tried not to laugh as the old woman continued to scold the shadow warrior. Neither of them had noticed Zrig, lying there in the grass beside them. He looked into their foolish, unseeing faces and anticipated leaping up and shredding them both to ribbons, leaving them brutally wounded to die a slow and delicious death.

“Your teacher looked out the window and saw you tearing around out here all by yourself. Didn’t you notice the other children had gone in?”

The shadow warrior gave her another shrug.

It was the last thing he would ever do. Zrig spread his claws and leapt. He smacked into something soft and bouncy.

“Oh!” the woman said. “What a funny little lizard! Sorry, it startled me. It just jumped at your shoe.”

Zrig shook himself, then looked down. He was only a tiny hatchling!


Thursday, January 22, 2015

#89 Old and Young

After the first dance, Annie followed Tom as he limped out onto the wide porch. “That’s enough for me,” he said as he dropped into a chair. “Tell me, Annie, why does a pretty young girl like you waste your time with a tired old soldier like me?”

Old? Why had he said old? “You’re not old,” Annie tried to make her laugh light. “You can’t be a day over twenty.”

“Things aren’t always as they seem,” Tom said, and there was a thoughtful sadness in his voice that made Annie’s insides chill. Did he know? He couldn’t know her secret.

She knew she had to tell him, but not yet, oh no, not yet. One more evening, that’s all. Then she’d tell.

They sat on the porch together while inside the music started up again.

“Well, even if you are a day over twenty, I prefer you to any of those other silly boys in there. You suit me fine.” Oh dear, Annie thought as soon as she’d said it, what a terrible thing to say. How can I lead him on like this? I have to tell him. Have to tell him now. She tried to find words to begin, but nothing would come.

“Would you mind going for a little walk?” Tom asked. His voice sounded heavy, as if he had something he wanted to say too. Annie’s heart beat faster with fear, dread, and excitement. If only, if only she didn’t have this awful secret. If only this wasn’t all a sham.

Together they strolled through the village in the moonlight, slowly, because of Tom’s bad leg. Neither of them said a word for a long time.

“Annie, I’ve got something to say to you,” Tom said.

I have some thing to say too, Annie thought, but I wish I didn’t have to say it.

“There’s no other girl I like as much as you, and that’s the plain truth.”

Annie suddenly burst into tears. “Oh Tom, you’re going to hate me, I just know it. I hope you can forgive me. I’m so, so sorry, I would never have done it if I’d known this would happen!’

“Annie, what is it?” Tom asked.

“I’m old, Tom! I’m old. I’m a shriveled old crone that you wouldn’t even look at if you saw how old I really was.”

Tom didn’t say a word.

“There’s a pool in the wood,” Annie whispered, choked through her tears. “If you wash in it in the moment before sunrise, it makes you look young again. But it only makes you look young. I’m still old inside, oh Tom, I’m so sorry. I should have told you sooner, should have told you before…”

“So it was the pool!” Tom said.

“What?” Annie asked.

Tom laughed and picked her up and swung her around before setting her down again on the path.

“It was the pool,” Tom said. “I thought maybe it was the village, but it was the pool. Annie, I have two things to say to you now. At first I was only going to tell you the same thing you’ve just told me.”

Annie took a step back from him, not daring to let the hope leap up in her heart.

“I’m old too! Or I was, until I walked into this town. Folks were treating me different, like I wasn’t a bent old soldier, but a fine young man back from the wars. I didn’t understand it until I got a good look at my hands, at my face. I’d turned young again. I didn’t know how it happened until now. I’d forgot all about sleeping by that old pool in the wood, and stopping to wash when I woke up before dawn.”

Annie was laughing now, still crying, but laughing too.

“Now the second thing. Annie, I haven’t got many years left in me, but what I have, I’d give them to you, if you’ll have me.”

“Of course, Tom, of course!” Annie said.

And arm in arm, they went back, slowly back, to the dance.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

#88 Oh Deer

Soon as I got past the sheep shed in the back field I saw something on the other side of the barbed wire I sure wasn’t expecting. It was two deer. Took me about two seconds to realize they were both fake. Their fur weren’t quite the right color, kind of too reddish, and one of them’s antlers was missing a prong and I could see the plaster, or plastic or whatever they were made of, white in the broken place.

Who woulda put two great big lawn ornaments like that out in the middle of a sheep field? I looked around on the other side of the barbed wire and didn’t see any houses. There was a vineyard, a corn field, a stand of trees, a big ol’ hay stack made of yellow bales like gigantic bricks, but no sign of anything that would tell me what these deer were here for.

They sort of made it look like it was Disneyland, like I was on the jungle cruise ride and there were some fake animals peeking at me from out of the shrubs. Curious, I climbed through the barbed wire and went up real close to one of the deer. I’d almost touched its nose when I heard the crack of a rifle and a prong exploded off the deer’s antlers.

I dropped on my stomach in the grass and yelled, “HEY!” as loud as I could. Why would someone be shooting at me just for touching their stupid fake deer? Another shot made the fake deer above me jerk. It settled a little crooked in the grass. It wasn’t me they were shooting at. These deer were here for target practice!

I couldn’t quite tell where the gunshots were coming from. I crawled along through the grass, trying to put distance between me and the deer before I tried to stand up. Then I put a little more distance just in case whoever was shooting was a really bad aim. Then I decided not to move until the gunshots quit. I took off my baseball cap and flagged it in the air, in hopes of signaling the fake deer hunters that they’d better knock it off or they might kill someone.

Whoever it was eventually ran out of bullets, I guess, and after I’d counted to a hundred I felt safe standing up again. There were a couple of kids coming across the grass, big kids in plaid shirts, each one carrying a rifle. It suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t on Grandpa’s property, and I wanted to be on the other side of the barbed wire fence by the time they got over here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

#87 Saturday Nights at Grandma's

When I was a little girl, how I loved to go to my grandmother’s house! She had a pink guest room and a big fluffy bed piled high with pillows. I had a little dresser drawer all my own, where grandma kept a set of pajamas just for me.

I took a pan of cookies out of the oven and checked the clock. Adri would be coming over any minute now. While I moved the cookies from the hot pan onto the rack I remembered how my grandmother used to always have a special tin filled with my favorite baked treats.

When I came over, Grandma would pour me a big glass of milk, and I’d sit down at the table and eat cookies while we talked. It was hard at home, with my dad out of work and my mother gone so much, and always tired and worried whenever she was there. Grandma’s house was a perfect escape. She always made me feel like a princess.

I went to the guest room to make sure the bed was ready for Adri. I took down another pair of pillows from the closet and set them by the head of the bed. Pajamas in the drawer, washed and folded and put away since her last visit, a toothbrush waiting for her in the cup by the sink. I smiled at my white-haired reflection in the bathroom mirror and thought how it didn’t seem so long ago that I was the grand-daughter.

Grandma had a special set of dolls that she had collected. They had costumes from all over the world. She would let me take them out of their glass case, look at them one by one, take off their shoes and dresses and put them back on ever so carefully. We would pretend they were talking to each other, telling each other of their adventures.

Dinner was nearly ready, and still no Adri. I sighed at the clock again, then went out the front door to look down the street. She lived only two blocks away, near enough that she often biked over on her own. The street was empty.

My grandmother had a special set of dishes for me when I came over. They had roses on them. After dinner, when we’d wash up, she would put them back in their special place in her china cabinet.

I’d just finished setting the table when my cell phone rang. My heart thumped a little harder as I saw Adri’s name flashing on the screen. “Hi, Grandma?” Adri’s voice came over the phone.

"Hi, Sweetie,” I said. “I’m ready for you to come over.”

“I’m sorry, Grandma, I can’t make it tonight,” Adri said. “I’ve got a big project for school due on Monday, and there was soccer all day today so I haven’t started yet, and mom says I have to clean my room too before I can come.”

“That’s all right, darling,” I said, trying to hide the cave-in inside me. “We’ll try again in a couple weeks.”

“That’ll be great, Grandma. Thanks. Love you!”

“Goodbye, dearest,” I listened to the silence, then gently closed my phone.

I sat down at the table and stared at the empty dishes, and for the first time thought that maybe my grandma had needed me just as much as I needed her.

Monday, January 19, 2015

#86 Making Friends

The ocean wants me dead.

I know this for a fact. I learned it as a very young child, when I’d go visit my grandpa in California. My grandpa practically lived in the ocean, and his idea of the best way to teach me to swim in it was to have me just follow him out into the waves while he fired off advice faster than the swells were smacking me in the face. He knew I’d get knocked down a few times, get tumbled over in a blinding, churning froth of sand and salt, and then be picking grains of sand out of my ears for days afterward, but that was all for my good. It would help me get over being afraid of it.

It would have worked great if I lived near the ocean. As it was, I only saw the ocean once a year, and every time I got in it, it pounded me. So deep down, even though I was an adult now, I felt that the ocean was still going to try and kill me every chance it got.

Ready? Lin signed impatiently, already up to her hips in the surf. I stood with my toes digging into the sand and nodded, trying to make my body language say, sure I’m ready. There was no way, with my limited sign language, to explain to her how I felt about the ocean, and how it was all my grandfather’s fault. I hoped she couldn’t see the fear in my eyes.

She put her fists on her hips and waited for me to come out into the water. Why did we have to go to the beach today? The waves out there were as tall as I was. I made myself jump in and start paddling toward my doom.

A family was playing in the surf, kids with life-jackets on, and a dark gray mop dog paddling bravely along side them. Lin clicked her fingers in the air, the sign for dog, and pointed with a smile. I nodded and pantomimed the dog’s frantic strokes, paws striking out right in front of his raised chin. The dog’s owner shot me a sharp look, as if she thought I was making fun of their dog. Well, I was, sort of, but not in the way she thought. She didn’t know Lin couldn’t have heard me say, “Yes, I see the dog, he sure is cute the way he swims.”

I tried hard to keep Lin in my sight as we got closer to the place where the waves were breaking. If she got in trouble, she could yell and I’d hear her. If I got in trouble, I wasn’t sure what would happen. Maybe I’d have to depend on the people on shore to hear my screams. No, Lin was keeping an eye on me. I saw her check on me just before she dove under the first wave.

I hate this part, I hate this part, I thought as the wave started to crest over me. I dove late, felt the massive pressure of the water push me down, but then I shot forward under it and the back of the wave lifted me up again. Gasping, surprised at how easy that had been, I clawed my way toward the next wave with all I had, dove, and came up in the calm swells beyond.

Lin was already there, floating peacefully on her back, a slight smile on her face. The water was deep out here, I could see the bottom well below my blurry, kicking toes. But the swells were gentle, the ocean almost friendly. I stretched out on my back and it cradled me, held me up, with the sky bright overhead.

It was like that good feeling after you’ve just made a new friend.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

#85 Raising Dragons 6

I had come to dread going to the weir, so much that I’d started having to leave earlier because it seemed to take me longer to get there every day. It wasn’t just the exhausting work, and knowing that I was missing out on study time. Now I had the added dread that someone might have seen the advertisement I’d nailed to the wall of the supply shed and decided they wanted to buy Aspen.

On my way to the weir I passed another advertisement, this one huge and plastered to a smooth stone wall. Professor Crumpadon’s Guaranteed Entrance Exam Preparation Course for the Royal Academie of Magiks. The amount he was charging people to take the course made me raise an eyebrow. Down at the bottom in very small print I noticed something I hadn’t known. The words said, in very large and flowery language, that Professor Crumpadon was in no way officially offiliated with the Academie. He certainly hadn’t told me that.

Across my mind flitted the idea that I might go and ask him for help. But he would just ask me to endorse him again, and I still felt too betrayed by him to do that. Besides, he wouldn’t help me. He didn’t care about me. He just wanted people to enroll in his course.

When I got to the weir, the manager gave me an urgent wave. “You’re late!” he scolded. “There’s a fellow here want’s to look at your dragon. I told him you were due at five o’clock and he’s been waiting.”

I sized up the man who wanted to buy my dragon. He was about my parents’ age, just a bit of grey in his hair, and had a solid, kind look to him. He hadn’t seen me yet. He was standing in front of Aspen’s cage, and she was right there on the other side of the bars, watching him with equal interest. Well, that was a good sign.

“Hello, I’m Tomas. You wanted to see me about my dragon?” I said.

I took Aspen out and led her to the open field above the weir, all the while the potential buyer, a Mr. Cooper, chatted with me about dragons. I could tell he loved them as much as I did.

I showed him all of Aspen’s tricks, then called out, “fly!” and she launched into the air. I made a circle with my hand over my head, three times, which she obeyed by racing around the markers at the edge of the field as fast as she could go.

Mr. Cooper glanced at his pocket watch and gave a nod of satisfaction. “She’s beautifully trained, and decently fast. Were you thinking of racing her?”

“I hadn’t considered it,” I said.

“You’ve named a fair price,” the man said, “And I’m glad to pay it, but I’d also like to ask if you’d be interested in coming to work for me as her trainer. Dragons bond with their first trainer, no one else will be able to get the same performance, at least not for a long time. Besides salary, I’ll offer a cut of what she wins in the races.”

This wasn’t what I expected. A chance to sell Aspen, get her out of the weir, and also a chance to still be with her, to work with her. It seemed wonderful.

But something stopped me.

“I’d like to work for you, sir, but I can’t take your offer right now. I’m enrolled at the Academie, and I won’t be able to devote my full attention to Aspen’s training.” It was as if half my soul was being ripped out of me as I said, “I’m getting out of dragons for now, you see.”

“Yes, I see,” Mr. Cooper gave me a disappointed smile and shook my hand, then offered me his card. “Of course I’ll still buy your dragon. And promise me this. On the summer holiday, come and see me.”

“Yes sir, thank you,” I said, still aching inside.

I almost gave in when I heard Aspen's plaintive warble. She had craned her neck around to look back at me while Mr. Cooper led her away.

"Goodbye, Aspen," I called out, trying to reassure her with a calm and cheerful voice, "See you this summer!"

Aspen tugged on the lead, trying to get back to me.

"Go on, girl." I said. "It's all right. go on!"

Mr. Cooper shot me an understanding smile, then patted Aspen on the neck and said something that calmed her down so that she followed him quietly out of the yard.

I counted out the rest of the money I owed into the manager's hand, then left the weir forever. Sad as I was, as much as I missed Aspen already, I felt surprisingly light as I walked back to school, as if a heavy burden I'd been carrying for a long time had suddenly left me. I couldn't say if I'd done the right thing or the wrong thing, but it was what I had decided to do, and I wasn't going to waste time regretting it.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

#84 Raising Dragons 5

“I expected better from you, Tomas,” Professor Elzen said.

I didn’t say anything. I could feel the weariness right down to my bones. I had studied for his exams while working at the weir, a book open under a dull yellow lantern while I chanted the lines I was supposed to memorize to the rhythm of the shovel as I pushed mountains of dragon dung. I’d done my best, it wasn’t like I’d neglected my studies. There just wasn’t time.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said.

“You realize that if these grades don’t improve, you will not be returning to the Academie next year.”

Not return. Go home. What a relief that would be, to not have to keep Aspen here in the city, but to take her back home. But then what about becoming a mage?

“Does this have something to do with dragons?” Professor Elzen asked.

I nodded. Professor Elzen knew, everyone knew. The scent of dragon was impossible to entirely remove, though I did my best not to reek of it. For some, it was a mark of distinction. But for me, it meant I wasn't putting my heart into my studies.

“I have a dragon,” I said. “I raised her from a hatchling, and I brought her here with me. She’s staying in the weir up the side of the mountain. But I can’t afford to keep her there unless I work.”

Professor Elzen nodded. “You will have to decide what it is you really want, then. Would you rather be a dragon keeper now, and never a mage, or would you rather become a mage now, and then perhaps a dragon keeper later.”

“I suppose,” I said, “that I wouldn’t want to waste my potential.”

Professor Elzen chuckled kindly, “Tomas, we are all of us an unfathomable well of untapped potential. No matter what course you choose, you could have chosen infinite others and excelled in any one of them. That is why you must decide what you want most. Becoming a dragon keeper is a respectable profession, and I would not criticize that choice. But you are here at the Academie, and to me that says that somewhere inside you is the desire to become a mage. If that’s what you really want, you will have to set some other things aside for a time.”

I have to sell Aspen, I thought.

No. How could I?

“Thank you, sir.” I stood up. “I’ll think about what you’ve said.”

“Good.” Professor Elzen stood up too and offered me his hand.

I left the building, turning my collar up against the bitter wind as a light snow began to whip across the campus.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

#83 Raising Dragons 4

Visiting Aspen always made me feel better.

I’d been worried about keeping her in a weir, but the one they had near the Academie was a nice one. It had been dug into the side of the hill, carved out of a limestone deposit, so she had a real cave to crawl back into, instead of my rock pile I’d made for her at home. Her green scales were shiny and the white fur around her horns and down her back had been washed and brushed. Gold eyes bright, claws neatly trimmed, she was getting the pampered life, that was for sure.

It wasn’t until I’d brought her back from taking a walk together on the grounds that I noticed a piece of paper wired to the bars of her enclosure. I wasn’t sure if someone had put it there while we’d been gone, or if it had been there before and I just hadn’t noticed.

NOTICE, it said, OF UNPAID SERVICES. My eyes popped wide at the amount due. Scowling, I put Aspen back in her enclosure. She stared at me curiously, as if wondering what was wrong.

I marched to the front desk. “I thought everything was paid for,” I showed them the bill. “What’s this?”

“Your account was paid up until the end of last week. These are this week’s charges,” the clerk said.

I stared at those numbers in disbelief. Of course Professor Crumpadon had said he’d pay for my dragon’s boarding while I was in his entrance exam training course. That ended one week ago, with the entrance exam. I hadn’t thought about this at all. Who was going to pay for Aspen to stay here now? I couldn’t keep her in my room, she wouldn’t even fit unless I took out all the furniture and forced her to curl up in a knot. I didn’t have time to take her home. She wasn’t strong enough to carry me yet, and walking would force me to miss the first two weeks of classes.

I could sell her.

No, never. I’d raised her from a hatchling, and in a few months she would be strong enough to carry me. I couldn’t give her up now.

But the money. My weekly stipend from my scholarship would only cover a fraction of this cost.

“I don’t have the money,” I said. “But I can work. I’m good with dragons.”

“A mucker’s pay won’t cover the enclosure she’s in, but we could move her to a smaller one,” the manager said. “Come on up here after lectures tomorrow, and we’ll get you started.”

“Thank you,” I said, relieved, in a way, but my heart still sinking. When was I going to study? When was I going to sleep?

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

#82 Raising Dragons 3

I knew I had passed the entrance exam the moment I completed it. I knew that I’d be accepted to the Royal Academie of Magiks. What I never dreamed was that I’d get a full scholarship, with room and board, and a small stipend to cover books and other expenses. On the last day before classes began , as I dropped my stack of just-purchased texts onto the small desk in my tiny but private – something I’d never experienced before growing up in a household of twelve – room, I felt an extreme sense of satisfaction. Things were going perfectly, all my dreams about to come true.

There was a pleasant little knock on my door frame.

“Come in,” I said.

“Congratulations, Tomas! Congratulations again,” said Professor Crumpadon as he came in the room to shake my hand.

“Thank you,” I said, surprised to see him.

“Well, this is a nice spot, even better than you had over at the course,” he smiled. “I am so pleased with how well things turned out for you.”

“Yes,” I said. “Thanks for your help. If it hadn’t been for you, I might not have come.” I had, in fact, decided not to, until he showed up at our door, looking for me, on account of my application to the Academie. Top ranking application, I might add.

“You’re very welcome, and now, I’ve come to ask you if you might be willing to do me a little favor in return.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. I would be starting school tomorrow, and would be very, very busy with my studies. “What did you have in mind?” I asked.

“Seeing as how you’ve done so very well with my entrance exam preparation course, I was wondering if you might be willing to come with me on some little recruiting excursions. I go about to the various primary schools in the city and let the students and faculty know about my training course, for any who might have their eye on the Academie. If you could come along and perhaps say a few words of praise for my training course, perhaps let them know what you’ve achieved, I would be much obliged.”

I stared at him. “You invited me to come and take your preparation course so that if I did well on the entrance exam, I could endorse you.”

Professor sputtered. “Well of course that’s why I did it. Why else did you think I’d go hunting up talented young wizards from all over the countryside?”

“But you didn’t tell me,” I said. “I thought…” I didn’t know what I thought. I thought Professor had invited me because he thought I had potential. Because he thought it would be a shame if I turned down my chance to take the entrance exam.

“I’m only asking. I think it would be ungrateful to you to refuse me, but if you feel you don’t want to help me in return, after all I’ve done for you.”

“All you’ve done?” I asked. Had he been there all those days and nights I spent practicing magic in my room, until mother nearly despaired of me ever doing my chores?

“You said yourself you wouldn’t be here without me,” he said.

Maybe not, but I wasn’t going to have him take all the credit for my success. “Perhaps not, but I’m afraid I won’t have time to do what you’ve asked. I have my studies to attend to.”

“Very well,” Professor said, his voice turned cold. “Good luck to you, Tomas.”

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

#81 Raising Dragons 2

I had nearly forgotten about my letter from the Academie when Professor Crumpadon showed up.

It was my little sister that told me someone had come to see me. I found my visitor in the kitchen chatting with mother, while two of my little brothers were trying to play catch-me-if-you-can under the rungs of his chair. He was laughing and snatching at them, missing on purpose, and sending them into wild giggles of their own.

“Hullo, Tomas,” he said, turning a bright smile on me. “My name is Professor Crumpadon.” He had dark-brown eyes, a round, bald head, and his fine mage’s robes bulged over a very well-fed belly. “I wanted to talk to you about your application to the Academie. You were one of the top ranked candidates, you know.”

“I didn’t know,” I said.

“Your mother tells me you weren’t planning to go take the entrance exam.”

“No, I wasn’t,” I said. “It’s an awfully long ways.” My excuses were sounding quite feeble. “Mum can use me here at home.” One of the top ranked candidates? I had no idea. Was that true? That meant I had a chance to get in. “And then there’s Aspen.”

“Aspen?” The professor asked.

“My dragon. She’s molting right now. I can’t leave her.”

Professor wanted to see her, so I led him out back to her enclosure. I wished he could have seen her on a better day. Her scales were dull, even her eyes had lost their gleam. She rubbed herself against the enclosure fence, muttering miserably in her long throat.

“Hi Aspen,” I said. She stopped scratching to look at me reproachfully. I wanted to get her opinion of Professor Crumpadon, dragons are a very good judge of character, but she didn’t purr or hiss, just groaned and went back to rubbing her flank against the fence.

“What a magnificent creature,” Professor Crumpadon said. “I can see why you wouldn’t want to leave her. Have you thought about bringing her with you?”

“Bringing her with me?” I asked.

“We could put her in a weir. There’s a fine one not far from campus.”

Could never afford it, I thought. “I don’t think she’ll like it much,” is what I said.

“They’ll take good care of her,” Professor said. “And if you’re worried about the cost, I’d be willing to cover it while you’re preparing for the exam. You see, I have a preparation course for hopefuls to the Academie, and I’d like to invite you to enroll, free of charge. Transportation, your room and board, everything will be covered. And, in your case, I’ll even board your dragon for you.”

All I could do was stare. I couldn’t believe it. I might get to go to the Academie after all.

“Do you have any further objections to coming to the Academie with me?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “None at all.” I laughed and shook his hand. “Thank you, Professor!”

He laughed too. “Good. We’ll leave tomorrow.”

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Monday, January 12, 2015

#80 Raising Dragons

When Ma stopped the cart in front of the gate, all twelve of us mobbed her.

“Did you get my new blade?” Ry asked, digging through the sacks at the back. He pulled a sheathed sword from the pile and drew it. “Yes!” he breathed, grinning at his reflection in the polished metal.

“The dragon chow is back there, Tomas,” Ma called to me. “And there was a letter for you.”

“A letter?” I paused with the sack of dragon food just hoisted to my shoulder. Who would be writing me a letter, except…

Ma jumped from the cart and came toward me, all smiles. She gave me a big hug, then handed me a very official-looking parchment scroll with a wax seal, with the insignia of the Royal Academie of Magiks impressed in it.

I should have been thrilled. Absoutely giddy.

“Thanks, Ma,” I bent down to give her a quick kiss on the cheek, then walked off toward the back of the house. Glancing back once, I saw her watching me with a puzzled expression.

“All right, everyone help me unload the cart!” She clapped her hands sharply and all my brothers and sisters stopped admiring Ry’s new blade and jumped to help.

Slowly I trudged toward the stone pen out back, balancing the heavy sack on my shoulder and prying open the scroll with my other hand. My breath came faster as I read, “Your recommendations and submitted spellwork were most impressive, however, we will not be able to give a final decision on your admittance unless we conduct a personal interview and entrance examination to be held the week following this upcoming summer solstice. You will please report to the academy at that time if you wish to continue to be considered for enrollment.”

It was what I had always wanted. A chance at being a mage. Everyone had always said I had the talent for it.

As I came to the wall of the pen, Aspen crawled from inside the rock house I’d built for her and looked at me with her wise, golden eyes. I remembered a premonition I’d had the day I got her. “If you buy this baby dragon, you’ll never be a mage.”

Ridiculous, I had thought. Lots of mages keep dragons.

But I wasn’t a mage, not yet, and I knew I couldn’t take Aspen to school with me.

Even if I went, even if I took the entrance exam, what were the chances that I would pass? I was only a country boy, only sort-of apprenticed to the village wizard on the days he had time to bother with me.

Aspen’s long neck snaked over the wall. She sniffed at the sack on my shoulder and made her purring sound. I scratched the fur around her antlers, then set down the sack and opened the top. Ma had made it plain that she didn’t have time to care for a dragon. If I went away to the academy, I’d have to sell Aspen, or give her away. And then, if I failed to get in, when I came back, Aspen would be gone. I’d have lost everything.

“Here girl,” I said, holding up the scroll. “Ready? Fire!”

Aspen shot out a spurt of flame. The scroll caught and sizzled into ash in a few seconds.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

#79 Carried Away

Glori brushed one of the fuzzy pink flowers with the toe of her shoe as she marched out onto the playground field, following the rest of her class in line. The playground was covered with them, little pink puff-balls, where there used to be dandelions. A few spots of yellow still remained, but they looked like they were having a hard time of it. It had only been a year since the Sera had come, but already those fuzzy pink flowers they had brought were everywhere.

Most of the school was already out there, all the younger grades seated in rows. Glori’s heart skipped to see the silver bulk of a small Sera ship resting in the grass, out in the middle of the baseball diamond. There was a Sera standing next to the open hatch, looking about as human as Glori had ever seen one. His hair was still brilliantly white, but his face wasn’t glowing and he was wearing an ordinary human business suit. Glori wondered where he’d gotten one large enough. He was so tall he would have bumped his head on the ceiling of her classroom if he’d come inside the school.

The principal didn’t have a microphone, but her voice was being magnified somehow anyway. Sera technology. “Please be seated everyone, I have an important announcement to make.” She sounded excited, nervous, and sort of fake happy. Like she always did at an assembly.

Glori sat down in the grass next to her friend Birema. Birema was scowling. “I know what they’re going to do,” she said. “My daddy told me this morning. It happened yesterday in some other countries.”

“What are they doing?” Glori asked.

Birema shook her head as the principal’s voice boomed out over the assembly.

“Our friends the Sera have generously offered to take some of our best students in order to educate them. If you choose to go, you will be leaving immediately. You will have no need for anything, everything will be provided for you. All you need to do is get on board the shuttle. Once again, this is an invitation. No one will be compelled to go. When I call you, you may come forward.”

No one moved at first, then several students raised their hands. “When are we coming back?” “What about our families?”

“No questions, please,” said the principal, and started reading off names.

One by one, a few children stood up and moved toward the front.

I whispered to Birema. “Those little kids, do they understand they’re not coming back?”

“If they call you, go,” Birema said. “Daddy told me everyone who stays behind is going to be burned.”

I stared at her. Her brown eyes were dead serious, her face a hard crust over soft, sick despair. How did her father know that? Was it true?

“Glori Pace” the principal called my name.

I didn’t move. I didn’t care what happened. I wasn’t going anywhere with the Sera.

Friday, January 9, 2015

#78 Always Do Sound Checks

I couldn’t help sneaking a grin at the audience as I set my laptop down on the media cart. They were out there, waiting, waiting for my moment to shine.

“Just plug this in here?” I asked as I picked up the flat end of the HDMI cable. The student tech crew guy nodded, and I stuck the end in the slot. My fingers flew over the touch screen as I brought up the slide show presentation. I’d spent half the night putting it together, hunting all over the internet for the perfect images. I glanced at my dance crew, they were ready, we’d practiced all afternoon yesterday while everyone else at drama camp was at the lake. Once everything was all cued up I showed the tech guy what button to click and then picked up my microphone.

So what that my demo video didn’t upload correctly last week? So what that all the talent scout at this year’s Junior Rising Stars Drama Camp had to see of me so far was digital garble. Right now I was going to wow everyone in this room with my genius. My group had worked the hardest, and I had definitely written the cleverest lyrics. We were going to win the song parody competition for sure.

I gave tech guy a nod.

Sound came blasting in over the speakers. So loud that several audience members covered their ears. Someone needed to turn that down. I glanced up at the soundbooth, sending them a silent plea.

The soundbooth was empty. Black windows. No lights on in there. There was nobody in the soundbooth of this auditorium! How could that possibly be?

That meant all I had was tech student guy. He looked pretty pathetic down there, frowning at the screen of my computer. He glanced up, his eyes a perfect mirror of the horror and confusion inside me.

Later, even years later, when I would run through this agonizing scene in my head, when it got to this point I’d yell CUT! Then I’d stomp up on the stage and tell myself to put down the microphone, shut off the track on the computer, adjust the volume, apologize to the crowd and start over.

That’s not what I did.

I started to sing.

Smile on, dance moves going full swing, I belted out my lyrics, the ones I’d worked so hard on. I didn’t think anyone could hear me. I certainly couldn’t hear myself. I could only hope my dance crew was moving behind me, just like we’d practiced. My eyes somehow found the talent scout out there in the audience, we locked gaze. He didn’t have his ears covered, but his face was a perfect mask of pain. Pain for me, pain for the fool I was making of myself, pain for his injured artistic sensibilities.

I saw the agony in his eyes, put on my biggest smile, and kept right on singing.

Just when my head was getting used to the numb pressure around my ears, the music cut out. I gave tech guy a murderous glance, but he didn’t seem to care. He was probably just thinking that he’d saved everyone from premature deafness. My voice rang out, the only sound in the auditorium, and I realized I’d been singing flat. Just barely flat. Enough to give anyone with a decent sense of pitch that fingernails-on-the-chalkboard feeling.

I kept going, but only to the end of the second verse. Then I stopped with my slide show still blinking pathetically behind me, as if it was hoping that somehow the music was going to start again. That I’d get another chance.

Not happening.

After a while, a few people clapped. A little bit. If only to thank the tech guy for ending the torture by pulling the plug on my music.

I smiled, gestured for my dance crew to come forward, and we all took a bow. A little more applause, and a lot of giggles. I snapped my laptop shut, ripped out the cable, and marched from the stage. That was it. I knew it. I was feeling kind of plucky and defiant right now, but that was just the high of being on stage. It would wear off, and then I was going to be through. Totally through. I was never, ever, going to show my face in showbusiness, not ever again.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

#77 The Hairless Hares

There was once a tribe of hares that lived high in the snow-covered mountains to the north. They had the most wonderful coats of warm, soft fur to protect them from the chill, and so they lived quite happily in a place that most creatures would find too cold. Year by year the tribe prospered and grew, until men discovered that the warm, soft coats of the hares made excellent coats, hats, and mittens. Trappers and hunters began coming up into the mountains, catching and killing the hares for their fur.

When the hares saw that their numbers were dwindling, they chose the swiftest and bravest hare among them and sent him down into the valleys below to ask the help of the fairy queen. The fairy queen heard the hare’s petition and granted his request. “Return to your home,” she said. “Your tribe will no longer be hunted.”

Joyfully, the hare bounded all the way back up to the mountain and burst into the snug warren where all his kinfolk lived. To his surprise, instead of the beautiful white, furry faces he knew so well, he saw a horde of ugly, pink, scrawny creatures huddled in the corners. “Who are you!” he demanded. “What have you done with my family?”

One of the strange creatures came shivering up to him. “I’m not surprised you do not recognize us. I am your brother, we are all here, but we’ve changed. So have you, if you haven’t noticed.”

The hare gasped when he looked down at his paws. Bare and pink they were, the fur he had been so proud of had vanished.

“It’s the fairy queen’s magic,” one of the elder hares said. “She has protected us by taking away the thing that the hunters prized, but without our fur we shall surely freeze in the cold. Hurry back down, and ask her to give us our fur back again.”

And so the hare bounded out of the warren again, shuddering in the cold, and went as swiftly as he could back to the court of the fairy queen.

“We thank you for your assistance, your highness,” the hare said, “but we humbly ask if you could please restore our pelts, for without them we will freeze.”

The fairy queen laughed. “Your fur is still there, if you will bother to close your eyes and feel it. I have only made it invisible.”

The hare closed his eyes and nibbled at his paw. Sure enough, he felt the long strands of silky fur still there. With a joyful leap, he thanked the fairy queen again and returned to his home. Once there, he explained what had happened. All his kinfolk came creeping out of the corners of the warren, laughing at themselves, for now they realized that they had only imagined that they felt so cold.

The hares were no longer hunted for their fur, and every year when they shed their winter coats they collected the cast-off hairs and sent them to the fairy queen in tribute, as thanks for her help. The fairies used them to make wonderful invisible things, like ropes and stockings and felt hats. I have one of those hats myself, and as you can see, I’m wearing it right now. The tale ends well, that’s all there is to tell.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

#76 Truth or Lie

There was once a king who was very clever. In fact, he was so clever, it was said he could always tell whether someone was lying or telling the truth. The king himself was proud of his cleverness, and offered a reward for any man who could come and deceive him. The king promised a bag of gold to anyone who could tell him a truth that the king would take for a lie, or tell him a lie that the king would take for truth.

Many long years passed, and though the king heard outlandish truths of all kinds, brought to him from many lands, and also the most fiendishly cunning lies, he was never wrong in discerning what was true and what was false.

One day a young peddler who was passing through the kingdom heard of the king’s offer, and decided to try his wit against the king’s cleverness. There was a set day each month when the king would hear those who wished to win the bag of gold, and when that day arrived the peddler stood in line with the rest of the hopefuls. The morning wore on, one person after another tried to fool the clever king, but to no avail. The king could see through their lies or spot the truth every time.

At last it was the peddler’s turn.

“First, let me thank you, your highness,” the peddler man said, “For permitting my presence in this great and marvelous audience chamber. In all my travels I have never seen one so magnificent, truly befitting a king as clever as yourself.”

The king smiled and nodded, waiting for the peddler to go on.

“And these lovely young ladies, your daughters I presume? Why they are fairer than a May morning.”

The three princesses giggled to each other, then waited eagerly to hear the peddler utter his truth or his lie.

“And you, yourself, your majesty, what an honor it is to be in the presence of the cleverest man on the earth.”

“Yes, yes, enough with all of this. What story do you have to tell us? Get on with it now.”

The peddler bowed again and said, “But your majesty, I have already told you three stories, all of them lies, which you most willingly believed. I am sorry to report but this is not the most magnificent hall I have ever set eyes on, and your daughters, while fair, can’t really compare to Lady Springtime, and as for you, sire…”

“Enough!” the king rose, furious, from his throne.

He would have ordered the peddler executed at once for his insolence, but his three daughters fell at his knees, begging him to have mercy. Their pleas calmed the king, who sank back into his throne wearily.

“It seems you have won the bag of gold,” the king said, and ordered it to be brought from his treasury. It was given to the peddler from the hand of the eldest princess, and the king promptly sent him on his way. He left as quick as he could, lest the king change his mind about that execution!

So the peddler man got his gold, and the king got a bit of wisdom to go with his cleverness. The tale ends well, that’s all there is to tell.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

#75 The Amateur Detective

[embedyt][/embedyt]Mrs. Diggory Frances Algernon III corrected a small smudge in her lipstick with the tip of her pinky finger. “I hope you don’t mind, dear, but I’ve taken the liberty of inviting my friend Clara for the weekend.”
Diggory threw his head against the tall back of the velvet chair and groaned, then shook out his newspaper and sulked into the pages. “Didn’t I ask you not to, Millie? Didn’t I? After the last time?”
“Did you?” Mrs. Algernon blinked her long eyelashes in ignorant surprise. “I have no recollection of such a thing. Why should you object to Clara? She’s quiet and sweet and ever so clever.”
“This is Clara Masterfeld, correct? The amateur detective?”
“The same. And so what if she has an unusual hobby. We were schoolmates, Clara and I. She was up to it back then too, always finding stolen pens and catching people who were cheating on tests.”
“Pencils are all very well,” Diggory turned a page of the newspaper. “But now the quiet, sweet, and clever thing is into murders.”
“Really, Diggory! The way you say it, one might think that you thought she was the one murdering people.”
“Maybe she is,” Diggory said. “Maybe she hires people to murder people, and then she pretends to solve the mystery, just so she can get to be a famous amateur detective.”
“I can’t believe you! All those people she’s helped, how can you possibly think of such a thing?”
“Well, why not. Think about it, Millie. Every time she goes on a trip, someone gets bumped off, and she has to work out who-done-it. What happened when she went on a cruise to Spain? Someone got murdered. That train tour of Egypt? Someone got murdered. It was all in the papers, Clara Masterfeld has done it again, huzzah, and all. Getting highly suspicious, don’t you think?”
“Ridiculous! Now you’re just teasing me.”
“Mark my words,” Diggory said, folding down the paper so he could more easily get at the crossword puzzle. “If she’s here for the weekend, someone around here is going to kick the bucket, and there’s going to be foul play involved, and she’s going to be too busy scampering around after clues to sit and chat with you, darling.”
Mrs. Algernon pouted into the mirror and fussed with one of her ringlets.
There was a light tap at the door. “Mr. Algernon, sir?” the butler said.
“Yes, what is it?”
“There’s a message from the vicar. He won’t be round for tea. Poor Mrs. Mayberry has passed on rather suddenly, and he’s assisting with the arrangements.”
“Oh, how dreadful!” Mrs. Algernon cried. Then she rounded on her husband. “Now don’t give me that look! Clara isn’t even here yet!”
Mr. Algernon sunk his face down behind his newspaper so that all she could see were his raised eyebrows.

Monday, January 5, 2015

#74 Fair Trade

Today's story by the amazing Susan Kaye Quinn is set in the future world of her upcoming "Singularity" series. Visit her website,, for more about her and her bestselling books.

Risha hurried through the entrance of the market, grasping her satchel of paintbrushes in one hand and pushing aside the rough canvas flaps of the tent with the other. The thick smell of human-made foods and human-type stink reassured her. After her encounter on the tram, barely being saved from the virtual reality addict by a handsome boy several years older than her, it was good to be back where the dangers were more familiar. And less likely to end up with her dead.

Plus she was a whole chit richer than when she left!

She had no idea why the boy bought her gray-market brushes for a full chit— any fool could see they were worth less than half that. It left a weird feeling in her chest: kindnesses weren’t the kind of thing you traded in Seattle. The city was filled with bots and left-over humanity and the occasional ascender, with their super smart nanotech brains… humans were at the bottom of that pile, and you had to fight to even get a fair trade half the time. At least the gray market was better than the black, where a reasonable bit of bargaining could still get you dead, if you angered the wrong types.

But the boy had given her a kindness… and now she had a whole chit riding in her account. It was a full half-chit more than her uncle would expect back for the two brushes she’d sold. Risha wound her way past heaps of clay pots and woven throw rugs, her fingers crossed. Maybe Tuval would have one of his amazing chocolate pastries in his stall today. Why… for a half chit, maybe she could even bargain him for two! But she’d have to eat them quickly. Destroy the evidence, before her uncle found out.

“Hey Risha!” The voice stopped her dogged search for the smell of chocolate buried in human odors. It was Samuel the Orphan. His parents had been exiled by the ascenders. The bots took care of him now, but Risha only ever saw him at the market.

“Hey Samuel.” She gave him a tight smile, but her eyes were still hungry for Tuval’s stall.

“I found something perfect for you.” Samuel was her age, fourteen, but he acted like he’d been a grizzled trader all his life.

“I don’t have money for shells,” she said, absently, still peering through the bustling commerce for Tuval’s stall. Samuel haunted the beaches where the ascenders won’t go, scavenging seashells then trying to sell them. It’s not much of a business—although she’d seen a few of the girls use them to decorate their hair.

“Not for sale,” Samuel said as he dug through his bags. He had dozens of them, small and large, all carrying his worthless bounty from the sea. “This one’s special.”

Risha frowned. Not for sale? Was this some kind of new trade gimmick? Samuel’s face lit up as he found his prize: he pulled an unbroken shell the size of Risha’s thumb from his weathered paper bag. It caught the dim light of the market and gleamed blue.

He held it out to her. “It’s perfect. Not a scratch. And the pearling on it is blue. Very rare.”

She took it, just to be polite, and turned it over, admiring it. “It is pretty, Samuel. You should be able to find a buyer for this one.”

He looks disappointed. “No, it’s for you.”

She tried to hand it back to him. “I told you—I don’t have chits for shells.” Although a twinge in her chest nagged at her: she was dying to spend a half chit on a pastry that wouldn’t last the next five minutes. The boy on the tram hadn’t hesitated to help her when she needed it… and now she was hoarding her windfall like it belonged just to her.

Samuel took her hand but just folded her fingers over the shell. “And I told you—this one’s for you. I knew it as soon as I saw it. It’s pretty and different. Unique.” He dropped her hand, his gaze suddenly intense on the bags before him.

Risha’s face heated as she stared at her fingers closed around the shell. Another kindness. “Thank you.”

He nodded but kept his head down.

She wished she hadn’t been so adamant about not having chits for shells… but now it was too late for that. “Are you hungry?” she asked.

Samuel peeked up. His gaunt cheeks spoke of an ascender-allowance-only diet—the kind that barely kept you moving. She had never noticed it before. The heat in her cheeks grew stronger.

“Come on.” Risha held out her hand, the one not holding the shell.

Samuel shuffled around his barricade of sacks, and she towed him toward Tuval’s stall. If he was still open, she reckoned a kindness would taste even better than his famed chocolate pastry.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

#73 Magical Aptitude and Interest Survey

Plop! The stack of papers slapped down on top of the spell diagram I was sketching on the back of yesterday’s homework. “Magical Aptitude and Interest Survey” It said. “Is a magical profession right for you? Find out by answering these 50 questions.”

I scowled down at the paper. Like I needed a survey to tell me something I already knew. My economics teacher moved through the room, cheerfully explaining the instructions as she put a packet on everyone’s desk. I was only half paying attention, my mind still on that spell I was trying to work out. I glanced at the first question.

  1. Is it difficult for you to stay up all night?

I smirked and circled “Never”

Are you afraid of snakes. Never. Do you prefer cooking in a cauldron over an open fire to baking in an oven. Always.

This might be kind of amusing. I worked my way through the questions. Can you sometimes tell what other people are thinking. Are your preminitions about the future turn out to be correct? Do inanimate objects talk to you? Can you see things that no one else can see?

I finished the survey and followed the instructions for calculating my score, wrote it in the correct box on the back page, and then went back to diagramming my spell. I erased one of the pentagrams and moved it closer to the center of the pattern, then added a circle of power. It was just about right, but it was still missing something. Maybe some vortices.

While I pondered on that, I noticed the teacher up at the front of the room doing something at the whiteboard. There were three students’ names written up there, and numbers beside them. Oh, she’d been asking the class for the top scores. The highest score up there was Jared Bingham, that boy who had a crush on me, tiresome kid. That was a little surprising. I checked my score again, I had completely forgotten the number. Twenty points higher than his. I shrugged.

“If you scored well on this survey,” the economics teacher said, “You might want to consider pursuing a magical profession.”

Garbage, I thought. Baloney. I raised my hand.

“Grace?” the teacher called on me.

“Well, I was just thinking, this survey isn’t really all that valid.”

There was dead silence in the room.

Thinking they didn’t understand me, I went on. “I mean, the questions were obviously kind of slanted. You could tell what you should answer if you wanted to seem magical, so if you think of yourself as a magical kind of person, you’d get a better score, whether you were or not.”

The teacher was looking at me as if I’d just turned into a toad. Or maybe a snake. She didn’t seem to know what to say. “Well, you’re right, but I would hope that people would answer the questions honestly.”

And then I realized it. I knew why everyone looked so awkward. They didn’t know I’d scored the top score in the class. They thought I was complaining about the survey because I had been beaten by Jared Bingham, Sun Won Lee, and Coral Bates on a magical aptitude test, when everyone in the school knew me as the girl who was always showing off her latest spells. I’d been so busy working on one of those spells, I’d neglected to share my score with everyone, and now it was way too late. I couldn’t tell them now. That would look even worse.

My face felt hot. I wanted to disappear. No one would ever believe a word I said, ever again.

I never could remember exactly what happened after that, but I think I did disappear. At any rate, the teachers in my next two classes marked me absent, even though I was in the room both times, I swear. I tried and tried afterwards to figure out how to go invisible like that without being royally embarrassed first, but I never could manage it.

Friday, January 2, 2015

#72 When Momma Has Work

When Momma has work, there’s food in the cupboard. Grapes and apples in the refrigerator. Plenty of milk and even cheese and yogurt.

When Momma has work, sometimes she leaves before we do in the morning. I lock up the house, and make sure my little sister gets on her bus. Then I walk to school. It’s not too far. I used to stay after school, but now that I’m older I come home. I have to hurry, can’t stay and hang out with friends, because I don’t want my little sister to have to wait on the steps for me too long.

When Momma has work, there’s birthday presents, and sometimes even a birthday party. Christmas we get lots of stuff. Things she gets to pick out for us herself.

When Momma has work, if my shoes wear out, we get new ones. When school starts, we don’t have to use last year’s backpacks, and maybe we even get a few new clothes.

When Momma has work, she’s tired all the time. Sometimes she gets home so late I have to do the cooking.

When Momma has work, sometimes we go out for ice cream, or hamburgers, or even to the movies.

When Momma has work, it’s just my sister and me after school. We play the old game system my uncle gave us. It works most of the time. After Momma gets home, she stays up to help us with homework, even if it gets really late.

When Momma has work, we can go places you have to pay to get into, like the zoo. But we still don’t go very much because Momma’s got work.

When Momma has work, the house gets me-eh-ssy! I help sometimes, but it seems like no matter what there’s always clothes baskets and stacks of papers and dirty dishes everywhere.

When Momma has work, she doesn’t look worried all the time. She doesn’t take us out to the park all day and just sit there, staring off into the distance, as if she’s watching out for something bad that might come and get us.

Momma has work today, and I’m glad, I guess.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

#71 Time Witch

The sound of the grate creaking open overhead woke me from my sleep.

I didn’t move, not quite yet. I was still sleepy. I wondered what they had brought me this time? Another scrawny thief? The political executions were often the best, some fat, juicy official who had angered the king in some way. At any rate, the emptiness in my stomach would soon have something to fill it.

My ears twitched at the sound of something, make that someone, falling to the floor. The soft thud betrayed someone light, small. I was disappointed.

I cracked my eyes open. The flickering firelight from the torches held in a ring above the grate showed me that a small girl had been dropped into my pit.

She stared back at me, her dark eyes wide, but not with fear. “Oh,” she cooed, “you’re beautiful”

Angry, I pulled myself up from the floor of my prison. I had been beautiful once, yes, but not anymore. Years of no sunlight, no hunting, nothing but human garbage for food, had left my coat patchy and my muscles weak. How dare this small, impudent creature call me beautiful?

A small meal, perhaps, but an easy one. I lunged forward and clamped my jaws down…

…on nothing.

Was she an illusion? I spun around, searching to see where she had gone. She stood behind me now, in the corner by the wall where I slept, still staring at me with that wondering look.

Time witch! No wonder someone so small had fallen under the ire of the crown. She was a time witch. That meant she’d be a challenge to catch after all, but not impossible. I could wear her down until she was too weary to slip through time and escape my pounces. My tail twitched eagerly. I could catch her. She had been caught before, at least once, or she never would have been thrown into my pit.

I bounded into the corner, staying on my toes, not committing myself, so that I could make a quick turn when she slipped away. She vanished, but a quick thought whispered in my ear, “If you kill me, I can’t help you.”

I growled and twisted my body, sniffing the air to find where she had gone this time.

She still wasn’t afraid. Her face was as calm as if I were a kitten she’d found in the street. This time, before I’d even moved, she had vanished again. Another whisper, “I can help you escape. I can take you with me.”

In a sudden burst of fury, I charged around the edge of the pit, determined to catch her if she was sulking anywhere against the wall. I bounded into the middle, and came close enough to snatch away a strip of cloth from the hem of her dress. Above us, those watching murmured in approval and satisfaction.

“You’ll have to pretend to catch me,” the time witch said, with perfect confidence. “They won’t open the door again unless they think I’m dead.”

I couldn’t so much hear the words, as that they were suddenly in my mind, whispered to me from outside of time as she brushed by, invisible, intangible. I turned my head and snapped at her presence, but she had gone to the other side of the pit again.

“Stand still, then,” I growled. “Let me catch you.”

She vanished once more. Another message, “When they open the door again, I will stop time. Carry me with you, out of the pit, and run while everyone is frozen.”

It was a tempting offer. Freedom. How long had it been since I had tasted freedom? I had forgotten what it meant, but I wanted to remember.

The time witch stood with her back against the wall, her hands gripped the stone tight behind her, as if she had to hold on to keep herself from slipping away from me. She gave me a slight nod.

I lunged, and this time my jaws closed on flesh. Only so tight, though. Not enough to break it. We would make this deal, then, and see if she would keep her bargain.