Thursday, April 30, 2015

#166 The Well

My ancestors came to this land from the East. With their own hands, they built this house. With their own hands they dug the well. Twenty feet down to fresh, pure water for them to drink.

I stand beside the well diggers and watch as the machinery grinds and whirrs, burrowing into the earth at a depth I can’t imagine. Three thousand feet down. Over half a mile. When I look out over the dusty fields, three thousand feet must be about all the way to the abandoned silo on the Miller’s place. All that distance, only straight down into the earth.

I remember when the river ran in the bottom, when we could draw water from it to irrigate. I remember when there were orchards in this valley as far as the eye could see. Now there’s a patchwork, only a few squares of green where folks had the money to dig for water.

Every minute the drill pushes farther, and every minute the cost grows higher. If we don’t find water, I’ll have no harvest this year, and no way to pay the debt to the diggers. The house my ancestors built with their own hands, the ancient window glass, bubbled and warped, that they placed in the panes, will be lost along with the land it stands on. Someone who cares nothing for it will knock it to the ground, or leave it to slowly rot in the sun and the dust.

If we don’t strike water soon, not even a good harvest this year, or the next ten years, will pay for this well.

“That’s it,” one of the workers says. “Water.” He says it as if he knew all along they’d find it, as if it wasn’t the shape of my life, my family’s life, all depending on this.

The first flow comes up, pumped from deep beneath the surface. Thick and red like blood, it spills onto the ground.

Then clear water follows, washes the stain away.

We have bought ourselves a little more time.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

#165 In the Twilight and the Rain 4

read the first part

The harper left early the next morning, but his music stayed with me all day. The melodies he played teased at my mind, half-forgotten. I thought I might go mad unless I could hear them again. I wanted to hum a bit as I worked, but father was unusually silent that day, and I didn’t want to disturb him. He had a long, thoughtful look on his face, sad and deep.

That night, after supper, when Father would usually sit and watch the fire and talk of the doings of the day, instead he went out with a lantern. I watched him going toward the barn, a single lone light bobbing in the dark. Some time later the light reappeared, coming closer and closer, until I could see Father was carrying something. A bundle all wrapped up in leather and tied with cord.

On the outside, the leather was mildewed and rat-chewed. Mother made a pinched face of disapproval when Father set it down on the table, but she didn’t say anything. Layer by layer the wrappings came off. My sister and I watched eagerly. “What is it, Da?” my sister asked, but he never said a word.

When the last layer of leather wrappings came unwound, at first I was sorely disappointed to see nothing but a bundle of oddly-shaped pieces of wood. But then I watched as Father set one here and another there, and a familiar outline took shape.

“It’s a harp!” I breathed out the words. A sudden hope lit up in me, a hope I hadn’t dared to admit to myself. Ever since I’d heard the harper’s music last night, I'd had an ache in my bones. I wanted to make that music myself. I had to.

Father didn’t seem to hear us, didn’t seem to see us. The only thing in the room was the bones of this unfinished harp. He fit the pieces together, two at a time, studied the joints, then dropped the pieces to the table and and buried his face in his hands.

“What is it?” I asked. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s been too long,” Father said. “The wood has warped, the pieces no longer fit. I canna finish this harp now.”

“But you know how to make one,” I said. “Can you make another? Start again from the beginning?”

Father took a small bundle from among the pile and opened it up. A gleam of metal shone in the firelight. Fine wires of brass coiled tight in a ring. Father carefully unwound one from the others. “The wires are still good,” he said, his voice dull, almost as if it didn't matter.

“I’ll help you,” I said. “Please?”

read the next part

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

#164 Canary Man

It wasn’t hard to find the address from the newspaper once we got on the right street. It was the only house that had stacks of canary cages set out in the front yard, each one full of fluttering yellow birds. Mother swerved around a horse-drawn vegetable cart that was coming the other way, then parked the car along the curb. Before the car wheels had stopped turning I’d burst out the door and run up onto the lawn.

“Which one do you want?” Mother asked, adjusting her hat, then folding her hands primly over her purse. I could tell she didn’t like the look of this yard or the shabby little house behind it.

“Hello, hello,” a small man with a big smile came out the front door. “You want canary?”

“Yes,” I said. “My old one died.”

“You pick. Take your time,” he bowed and smiled again.

I walked around all the cages. A bird with a little bit of gray on his wings caught my eye. He had a funny way of hopping from side to side, and kept looking at me as if to ask, “Please take me home with you!”

I pointed the bird out to the little man. He nodded and opened the cage door and caught the bird in his hand. “One moment, wait here, I will put him in a box for you.”

While Mother dug in her purse I followed the little man into his house, not wanting to get too far from my new bird. He went inside and down a set of stairs to his basement, with me right behind.

At the bottom of the stairs I froze. The room was full of big cabinets with dials and buttons, microphones, speakers… it was radio equipment! I had never seen so much radio equipment in real life. Only in the movies, or I wouldn’t have even known what it was.

“YOU!” the man shouted. He now had a box in his hands, and had just turned around and noticed me. “Out! Now!”

My heart pounding, I ran back up the stairs and out into the sunshine. I didn’t dare say a word to my mother,, who was watching the canaries flutter around in their cages.

For a moment, I was afraid the man wasn’t coming back out, and that I’d never get my canary. At last he came, no longer smiling, but with the box in his hands. He took the money from my mother and handed her the box, ignoring me like I didn’t exist.

My heart was still pounding as mother drove us away. I could hear the gentle scratching of my bird moving around inside his box. What was that man doing with all of that radio equipment in his basement?

Monday, April 27, 2015

#163 Wrong Turn

"Get on the freeway here!" My little sister said, shaking the map in a panic.

"Going which way?" I asked.


"Aaaaah!" I wailed as we hurtled under the overpass. "I was in the wrong lane! You have to tell me sooner."

"It was confusing," My sister leaned back with the map over her face. "I didn't figure it out until just when I told you."

I pulled over to the right and turned us into a parking lot. Breathing hard, head on the steering wheel, I tried to get up the courage to get back on the road. Why hadn't I brought my phone? Navigating by map was impossible.

"Hey, guys, what's that building?" My little brother said from the back seat.

I hadn't bothered to notice what kind of a parking lot we had pulled into. It was mostly empty, only a few cars gathered at the base of a tall, brick building.

There was something wrong with that building.

I stared at it in disbelief. Can a building exude evil? Because that's just what this one was doing. It felt wrong, like some kind of affront to nature.

The sign at the base said, "Ashton Medical Facility." Nothing sinister about that. Except the word medical. And facility. Okay, Ashton sounded kind of creepy too. Like ashes of dead people.

"Do you feel that?" I asked my sister. "That building is evil."

She nodded, staring out the window.

That's when I noticed something else about the building. There were no windows on the ground floor. No windows on the second or third floors either. Only the top half of the building had any windows at all. I couldn't see anything inside except for long fluorescent bulbs on the ceilings of the upper floors.

"What do you think they do in there?" my little brother asked.

"I don't want to know," my little sister said quietly.

I wanted to get out of there, get back on the road, take the right freeway entrance, and go home. On the other hand, I really wanted to know what was making that building ooze out a horrible feeling of badness. I'd never felt anything like it. It didn't make sense.

Could it just be because of the lack of lower floor windows?

Seriously, why would they put windows on the top floors  but not on the lower floors unless they were doing something in there they didn't want anyone to see.

None of us said anything for at least a minute. As much as I wanted to know what was going on in there, no way was I going to get out of the car. I wasn't even going to drive any closer and see what that small print was on the sign.

"Let's go home and look this place up on the internet," I said, turning the car around.  I gave the building one more glance as we pulled away, and the cold, dark feeling hit me again, hard as ever.

What was wrong with that place?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

#162 Lone Robot

guest post by Colin Carlson

Bits of dust rain down from the copper colored sky. The dying star sets in the west, its red glow fading to black. The dust carries with it a deadly poison. Luckily, I cannot be poisoned. I am K.E.M, Keeper of Earth unit M. I was left on this dead world when the humans left. I was to keep alien races off the planet while they were away. But none came. And the humans didn’t come back. So I roam endlessly, wandering the planet, waiting and hoping for the humans to come back. It has been hundreds of years. Thousands. I honestly don’t know why anyone would want this world anymore. The water for the most part evaporated or became deadly. The plants and animals all but died out. Not even a cockroach survived.

Now the earth is as barren as our neighbor mars. Occasionally there are little traces that humans had lived here. A block of stone standing atop another, a hole dug 200 miles deep, and us. The humans left before things got really bad. The tectonic plates shattered. Each continent tearing into small pieces. The pieces shift along the surface. You can watch them if you have the time, which I do. The little shards of land grind together. You can feel it sometimes, and you can always hear it. Many of the bots have died. I don’t really know how many remain, but I will see the occasional dead shell of one of my own.

Earth cracks and crumbles beneath my metal plated feet. The dust is so thick here it just slides out from under you. I patrol the land, watching the skies for signs of life. Signs of anything more than a dusty surface lit by a dying sun. Dust storms fling the particles into the sky. I sit and wait out the torrent in a small alcove. My sensors indicate something a little more out of the ordinary deeper in the cave. I walk in further and find a small object. I feel its surface with the sensors in my hand, and risk turning on my one remaining eye-light to show the object.

A stone figure, etched into the shape of one of the creatures on my database. It amazes me that this stone object has not crumbled in the heat. As if reacting to my thoughts, the object crumbles to dust in my fingers. This dead world holds no life, and never can. I mourn, for I know that the humans shall never return, so I am fated to wander this dead planet endlessly, until I run down and become yet another of these dead relics of a dead world, to decay and crumble like the statue.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

#161 Volunteer

I knew I’d had this dream before. I couldn’t actually remember when, but it all looked familiar. I was in the high school cafeteria with everyone in the whole school. Up at the front, an old guy in a grey suit was talking into the microphone.

“We are sorry we can not help you more,” he said.

Suddenly the cafeteria became a concert hall, and the same old man was in a tux and tails, up there on the stage. His voice filled the auditorium. “If we were to try and come to your aid, Voraak’s forces would destroy us. This is the best we can do.”

Voraak. I knew that name. They’d told us before. That’s what this was about. Voraak was coming.

Now we were all outside, seated on a grassy slope. Down below the old man had some kind of forest ranger uniform on. The kid next to me scratched at his bare knee.

“We need volunteers,” he said. “Even though we can not hope to defend your world, we can teach you how to defend yourselves.”

This was a fun dream. I didn’t want to wake up.

“When Voraak comes, he will bring great changes with him. Your world will be enslaved as many others have been. None of the weapons you now have will be any use against him. You must learn to use the same powers he wields. There is very little time.”

Now we were on a space station. I could see Earth out the window, a huge curving arc of blue and white in an ocean of stars. The old man stood at the front of the room, dressed in silvery robes.

“Who will volunteer to defend your world against Voraak’s invasion? Who will train with us and prepare to meet him? If you are willing, stand up.”

This was the best dream I’d had in ages, or at least since I’d had it last time I’d had it, though I couldn’t quite remember when that was. Sure, I’d fight this Voraak. It sounded exciting.

I stood up.

The old man was right in front of me.

“Thank you,” he said, and touched my forehead.

I actually felt the touch. In my dreams, things don’t usually actually touch me.

I woke up. In my bed. Everything normal. Two minutes before my alarm went off.

What a disappointment. It had only been a dream.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

#160 Mothership 3

read the first part

“Come,” Mother said, her voice soft and mysterious. “Look here.” She pointed to a place in the wall where a panel was slowly rolling aside.

Dawn opened her eyes wide in the dim light, trying to make out what was back there in the dark. A soft red glow bathed something small and floating. It twitched, and Dawn jumped back with a little squeak. When she drew closer again, she could make out a round head, large eyes dark through translucent eyelids, arms, hands with tiny fingers, and even legs with feet and toes.

“It has legs and feet, just like mine!” Dawn said.

“She does,” Mother said. “I hope you will help me teach her how to use them.”

Dawn looked up into Mother’s smiling face. Mother didn’t have legs, she had always said she didn’t need them. Her place was in the home, Aiko did everything that had to be done outside. From the middle up, Dawn was like Mother, with arms and hands, a body, a head, a face, but where Mother was planted into the floor, like a tree, Dawn had legs to move around. She sometimes thought her legs weren’t as fast or as steady as Aiko’s wheels, or the drones’ whirring propellers that let them fly, but they were what she had. Her alone, out of everything else in the world.

But not anymore. Now there was someone else.

“This is your sister. What do you think we should call her?” Mother asked.

Dawn blinked, surprised. Mother never asked her to help name things that came out of the home. Things that came from the world outside, Dawn always got to name them. But the koi in the pond, which had come from the home, all the fruits and vegetables and flowers in the garden, they had come from the home, and Mother had taught Dawn their names. Now here was something that most definitely had come from the home, but Dawn was being asked to name it.

Dawn watched her sister’s tiny hand, the whole hand the size of one of Dawn’s finger tips, move up to the face as if to shield her eyes from the light. “Day,” Dawn said. “Because looking at her makes me feel like sunshine all over.”

“That sounds beautiful,” Mother said. “We will call her Day.”


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

#159 Mothership 2

read the first part

The plants of mother’s garden had always seemed weak and frail next to the thick, broad leaves, fat tree trunks, and heavy vines that covered most of the bottom of the crater. Dawn snapped a ripe green pea pod from the thin stem of a garden plant as she passed by and popped it into her mouth, enjoying the crisp taste and sweet juice. Here were things Mother had named for her, tomatoes, carrots, pumpkins, potatoes. Outside the garden were things for Dawn to name. She thought about what to call the round, yellowish fruit in her hand that she had brought with her from beneath the crater’s rim. Moon fruit, she decided, after the bright yellow moon. She hoped this fruit would be something she could eat. It smelled delicious.

The door slid open for Dawn as she came close to the round, white home she shared with Mother, Aiko, and the drones, Ganymede and Callisto. Callisto had been buzzing around overhead as she and Aiko had been out walking, but she wasn’t sure where Ganymede was. She could check his cam when she got inside.

“I found a new fruit, mother,” Dawn said. “Will you analyze it for me?”

“Put it in,” Mother’s voice said. “And come over here, I want you to see this.”

A panel in the wall slid out and Dawn dropped her fruit inside. The panel rolled shut again, and Dawn could hear the whir of her fruit being shredded up into tiny pieces for analysis.

Dawn ran to Mother’s place by the wall and gave her a hug, felt her warm, soft arms around her.

“I’m going to dim the lights,” Mother said.

The door rolled shut and the lights in the home grew soft and red.

 read the next part

Monday, April 20, 2015

#158 Mothership

Dawn tipped her head back until she could see the bright blue of the sky over the rim of the crater high above her. She wrapped her fingers around one of the thick vines that climbed the rock wall and gave it a tug. It seemed strong enough to hold her.

“Aiko, if I climbed up there, could you follow me?”

The lens of Aiko’s one eye rotated, measuring the cliff face. “No,” Aiko said. His wheels turned, backing him down the slope. “Which is why you mustn’t climb it. Not until you’re older.”

Dawn sighed. “How much older?”

“Your mother will tell you when you’re ready,” Aiko said. “It is time to go home now. Your mother has something to show you.”

Dawn gave the top of the ridge one last long stare. She could climb it, she could climb it right now. She’d climbed trees that were higher. Why did she need to wait?

Aiko began rolling his way down the slope, his tires crushing the thick, deep green leaves of the vines. Dawn followed in his path, stopping to collect a fleshy yellow fruit she hadn’t seen before. Maybe this one would be something she could eat.

“Be careful with that,” Aiko said. “It hasn’t been analyzed yet.”

Dawn could no longer see the cliff face behind them. She passed a familiar tree, the clump of rocks where she liked to sit and watch the buzzers dip into the stream for a drink, sometimes to be caught by the snake plants that grew just beneath the surface, and then they came to the clearing where her home, low and round and white, stood surrounded by Mother’s garden.

read the next part

Sunday, April 19, 2015

#157 Wiggle Tooth

It started at lunch, when I bit into a carrot and my milk carton fell over.

At the time I didn’t think that biting into a carrot could possibly make my milk fall over. I just thought maybe I’d bumped the table. It could have happened. I wasn’t paying much attention because when I bit that carrot, my tooth came lose, and that hurts!

“What happened?” Joe asked.

“You okay?” Kelly watched my milk puddle all over my tray.

“My tooth is loose,” I said, holding my hand up over my mouth to hide the chewed bits of carrot.

“Awesome,” said Andy. “Does the tooth fairy bring you a dollar?”

“A dollar? I get five dollars when my teeth come out,” said Kelly.

I grabbed some napkins and started mopping the spilled milk, then gave up and just went to throw out the rest of my tray.

It happened again during class. Mrs. Reed was talking about prepositions or something, and I was staring at my pencil lying on top of my language arts worksheet. My loose tooth still hurt a little from the carrot during lunch, so I pushed at it with my tongue.

The tooth wiggled. So did my pencil.

I made a kind of sniffle-snort of surprise. Was there an earthquake going on. I looked all around the room, but nothing else was shaking.

I pushed at my tooth again, staring at the pencil. Wiggle tooth. Wiggle pencil.


I tried it with some other stuff in the room. I made the American flag over the front board wiggle, but no one seemed to notice. I guess they thought it was just the air conditioning. I tried to make the second hand on the clock go around a little faster, but I couldn’t quite get the timing right, and just kept making it go back and forth. I even made Mrs. Reed’s glasses wiggle, so she wrinkled up her nose, then took them off and set them on her desk.

On the way home from school, I was so busy looking for stuff to wiggle I didn’t notice my brothers arguing at first.

“You have to give it back to me!” my little brother Tyse said.

“No, you traded it to me. It’s mine now,” my big brother Tim was being a jerk again.

“I’ll give you back your guy.”

“I don’t want him back. You traded and that’s it.”

My little brother shoved past me and ran out into the crosswalk. He turned to scowl back at my big brother. That’s probably why he didn’t see the car coming around the corner.

“Tyse!” my big brother shouted.

I stared at my little brother as the car braked and swerved, trying to miss him. There was no way to reach him in time.

I grabbed my tooth and pulled as hard as I could.

My brother jerked out of the way of the car, as if someone had pulled him on a puppet string. He landed on his backside in the road just as the car squealed to a stop. An old lady got out and started yelling at us for running in the street.

My little brother Tyse, his eyes big and scared, stared up at me, and at the bloody tooth I was holding in my fingers.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

#156 Spellmender 6

Malinda and Botula didn’t need to stop in Addersvale for directions. The burned-out section of forest was visible from miles away as they whisked along on their broomsticks.

“When I suggested that you make a dragon, I didn’t mean for you to turn it loose on the countryside,” Botula said.

“It wasn’t my intention,” Malinda said. “It didn’t like the growth spell I put on it, and it bolted.”

Botula grunted derisively.

The two witches landed in a clearing at the edge of the trees. There was something lying on the ground that at first Malinda took for a scorched goathide sack.

It was a goat. A whole dead goat, dried and shriveled, as if all the juices had been sucked out of it. There were burn marks, and a jagged round hole near its neck.

“Doesn’t look like a dragon attack,” Malinda said.

“How would you know?” Botula said. “Dragons aren’t real. What did you make this dragon out of, anyways?”

“A louse,” Malinda said. “I thought it was a good way to start, with something small, you know. But it was just a little too small, and so…”

“Fantastic,” Botula said. “Just fabulous. Do you know what youv’e done? You’ve created a fire-breathing, blood-sucking, vampire dragon! And it’s GROWING!”

“Oh dear,” Malinda said.

“All right,” Botula said. “What’s your plan?”

“Catch it and take it home?” Malinda suggested.

“How about turn it back into a louse?” Botula asked. “Do you think you can do that?”


Botula's eyes bulged. She pointed to the goat, then to the smouldering forest, then threw her hands out as if to demand why in the world Malinda wouldn’t just want to undo this horrible disaster that she’d created.

“Oh dear, I suppose you’re right,” Malinda said. “Give me a few moments to work out a spell reversal.”

Malinda sat down and read through her spell again. It was a good spell, one of her best, even though she’d only dashed it off in an hour or so. That was the trouble, she hadn’t been thinking it through carefully enough, and now with Botula pacing the clearing and shaking her head at the dead goat, it was even harder to think.

Doing a reversal wasn’t too complicated, Malinda could do that, it was a matter of mechanics, but there was something else tickling at the back of her brain. Some idea that maybe she could find a way to mend this spell if she just kept staring at it long enough.

A burst of flame flashed in the woods, and Botula shrieked ias a long, armored neck with a gigantic louse’s head reared up over the burning tree tops.

Too late for thinking.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

#155 Spellmender 5

Malinda found out later that she’d actually won third place in the spell writing contest for what the judges had called her “whizzing spark.” She wondered if anyone had noticed that she’d made a teensy dragon. Any really experienced witch would have been able to tell what she was trying to do from the words of the spell, but who was to say what kind of judges they had got for a random contest at the Leechdell Spelling Convention. She got a certificate and a bag of rotting bog scented bath salts, which she shoved in her ingredients cupboard just in case they might come in handy some time.

In the back of her mind, she worried a little about the dragon, but it was long gone, nothing she could do to bring it back. Besides, how much damage could a potato-sized louse-dragon do?

A week later, as she was scrolling through posts on Hagbook, she caught sight of an article about dragon sightings in Addervale, several miles to the south. This dragon wasn’t the size of a potato though, as it had been when it crashed out the castle window. More the size of an elephant. Several goats had gone missing, and a good part of the forest had burned down. Most of the locals suspected a prank, but one old witch claimed she had actually seen the dragon.

More like a giant insect than anything else, she’d said, with bulging bug-eyes and plate armor and huge, sucking mouth parts. Oh, and bat wings and breathes fire, like a proper dragon.

Malinda had barely sat back in her chair to think of what to do next when she got a text on her spell phone. It was from Botula, had a link to the article, and asked, IS THAT YOUR DRAGON???

Malinda wasn’t sure if her friend was excited for her, or if she was accusing her of terrorizing the countryside. Probably both.


She waited, pacing the floor of her squalid hovel, trying to come up with a plan, until the reply came back.


Malinda grabbed her broom and threw her spell phone in her bag along with her dragon spell, some spare quills and parchment, and her best wand. What worried her was that if this was her dragon, it was apparently still growing, and she knew that any spell that made something get bigger and bigger without stopping was headed for trouble.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

#154 Spellmender 4

read the first part

The tiny dragon, which had looked fierce and defiant before, twisted in rage as soon as the magical order to grow settled over him… or her, Malinda wasn’t sure if she’d plucked a male or female louse from her hair for the transformation. At any rate, the dragon lifted off the ground, contorting and spouting a tiny flame smaller than a candle’s, then far faster than Malinda would have guessed, shot out of sight. The only clue that it had gone in one direction rather than the other was the smouldering tip of Cholerella’s hat.

The judges of the spell writing competition and the onlooking crowd applauded vaguely, a little confused. Malinda realized that none of them had been able to see such a tiny dragon. Maybe she should have asked someone to volunteer their cat.

“The judges will retire while they make their decision,” the shrill, skinny witch standing up on the chair announced. “Thank you, ladies, we await your return.”

In a bit of a daze, Malinda watched the judges file off. They hadn’t seen her perfect little dragon. Hadn’t seen it at all. If they had, they would have surely been much more excited.

It had flown off before it had time to grow.

By now it would be bigger, Malinda thought. Maybe if she found it and brought it back, the judges might give her a more favorable consideration. As she began to edge her way through the crowd of waiting witches, she began to wonder exactly when the dragon might stop growing. How big was it going to get? She hadn’t specified.

Further down the corridor, the crowd thinned. Malinda searched the shadows, squinting in the smoky torch light, hunting for an angry dragon the size of a bean. This, she thought, was going to be impossible.

A distant crash sounded somewhere ahead.

Curious, Malinda walked, and then she ran, searching for what might have caused the sound. Up staircases and down long passages, until she was thinking she ought to give up and go back to see if the judges were ready to name the winners of the contest. But then she saw a scorch mark on a tapestry, and pushed on ahead.

And then, down at the end of another corridor, she saw the pale moon shining through the jagged opening in a broken window.

The opening was big. If her dragon had made it, he wasn’t the size of a bean anymore. More like the size of a potato. Malinda stood there with the cold midnight air blowing on her face and listened to the whistle of the wind, searching the empty black landscape for the least flicker of dragon flame.

She saw nothing.

Monday, April 13, 2015

#153 Spellmender 3

read the first part

“All entrants in the spell writing contest must register by midnight!” came a screechy voice from far down the corridor behind.

Malinda whirled around so fast that her knit bag knocked the hat off a very short witch who was passing by just then. The short witch retrieved her hat and shot a curse at Malinda that slid right off and stuck to the shoe of a one-eyed witch who was hurrying in the other direction.

“Spell writing contest!” Malinda said. She hadn’t heard of any such thing. “Where is it?”

The skinny witch standing on a chair who had been hollering over the heads of the crowd pointed in the direction of the registration booth.

Malinda dashed to the booth and found the scroll for the spellwriting contestants waiting on the table. Only a handful of other witches had signed up. The contest, it said, was to be held at midnight there in the corridor beside the registration booth. Cackling to herself, Malinda scratched her name in with the quill on the next empty line.

She needed a place to concentrate, so she left the crowded castle corridors and found a lonely spot in the parapets. With a bit of witch fire on the brim of her hat so she could see, she pulled out a scroll and started scratching lines of a spell, a spell that would turn a living creature into a dragon. A full-blown, fire-breathing, bat-winged, spiky tailed dragon!

As the castle clock struck midnight, Malinda ran down the stairs and reached the booth where the other contestants were waiting.

“We’ll go in order of entrance,” Said the creaky voice of a bald old witch whose warts had warts.

That meant Malinda was last. She politely watched the others working their spells, carefully keeping to herself the little flaws she saw. The judges, a panel of young witches who had been volunteers at the convention, applauded and shrieked after every spell. One witch conjured a boquet of roses with a poisonous scent. Another gave spider’s legs to a shoe, which promptly crawled away and couldn’t be found again.

At last it was Malinda’s turn.

Malinda rubbed her fingers through her hair until she found a fat louse, then carefully worked it out with her fingernails and set it down on the stone floor. She bent low and whispered her spell in it’s invisible ear. The louse began to twitch and change. It swelled and sprouted wings. A long neck with a hideous tusked head stretched from it’s armored body. In a minute, the transformation was complete. A perfect dragon, the size of a moth, stared defiantly back at the crowd of witches surrounding it.

It needed a little something more, Malinda thought, and with a shake of her wand added a word to the spell to make the dragon grow.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

#152 Catching the Bus

The bus was supposed to come by any minute. I dash to the street corner and scan the opposite side for a bus stop while I wait for the light to change. I don't see one. Further and further down the street I search, until there at the next corner I see the back end of a bus, waiting at a little covered bus stop, a whole block away.

That can’t be my bus, can it?

It probably is. No way am I going to catch it now.

I watch for the bus to pull away from the stop, but it doesn't. Maybe the driver knows the bus is early. Maybe the driver is waiting.

I still have a chance.

Come on light, change! Change change change.

Traffic growls by, palm fronds rattle in the wind, myna birds peck at someone’s spilled French fries. The traffic light finally blinks green and the walk signal flashes white. I jog into the crosswalk, speed up, and hit the corner of the sidewalk at a dead run, wishing I was in shoes and not my thick-soled sandals.

Flop-slap, flop-slap, I push myself as hard as I can with my lap top computer tucked under my arm and my purse banging my side. The bus still has its doors open. Gradually, the yellow-green dots that spell out the bus number come into focus. Bus 55. My bus. The bus that only comes once an hour to take people from the city up to the north shore.

The bus doors close. I am still a whole parking lot away.

Wait for me, wait for me, wait for me, bus! I chant silently to the rhythm of my flapping sandals, too out of breath to say anything out loud.

Brakes squeak, the engine revs.

I bang on the glass doors.

The driver had been looking at something to her left. She pauses a moment. I  see her thinking, I totally don’t have to open this door for this girl. I could just drive away. But then she scowls at me and leans over to yank on the handle.

“Thank you!” I gasp, digging two one-dollar bills out of my wallet, then counting another fifty cents from the change pocket. I feed them into the indifferent machine. “All good?” I ask.

The driver nods, and I go as quick as I can to find a seat. I plop down, sweaty and out of breath, next to a pregnant woman who is looking at something on her cell phone. My short-sleeve jacket had come half-way off as I ran, so I pull it back on my shoulders, trying not to grin too big in case one of the other passengers might be looking. I had actually caught the bus!

The brakes squeal and the engine revs, and we lurch away from the curb.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

#151 In the Twilight and the Rain 3

read the first part

The rain still beat on the house, the only sound. My father’s silent tears held us all captive, wondering.

The harper spoke first, in the gentlest voice, “Is there a story you have to tell us, man?”

My father ran his hand over his face. “I know that harp. I was there when it was made. I was the maker’s apprentice.”

“Ye’re a long way from home, then,” the harper said.

“I am, I am,” my father said. “He died, and the shop went to his brother. The brother let me keep one set of tools, and a harp I was working on, but I didn’t have the heart to finish it. I went to the wars, then came home and married, took up farming. That’s all there is.”

“Nay,” the harper said. “How did your master die?”

“Worked himself to death. I let him do it, too. I should have stopped him. The king ordered a harp made in three days. It was the last one my master ever built.”

“Tell me the story,” the harper said. “Everything you can remember.”

read the next part

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

#150 In the Twilight and the Rain 2

read the first part

It was well past dark when Mother had the meal ready, but it was worth waiting for. There were wheat cakes and honey, our guest had his own dish of salt, and Mother kept fussing over him, asking if he wanted more clotted cream or sausage. It was as good as a holiday dinner.

Mother fluttered around the table, shy and in awe, hardly stopping to sit down before jumping up again to get something or take away something, but father sat and talked with him like an old friend, telling him about the farm and his days as a soldier. The stranger listened intently, as if he were etching every word in his mind, just like the runes on his sticks, so as not to forget.

Still stinging from having mistaken his rune sticks for kindling, I kept to myself, ashamed to say a word. After a smile or two from the stranger I relaxed a little, but I still wouldn’t say anything.

After we ate and everything was cleared away, the man went to the hearth where he had left his harp, still in its oilskin wrappings. “Would you care for a little music?” he asked us, his eyes bright, as if he knew full well we had all been dying to ask him to play for us.

“Oh, yes!” my sister clapped her hands.

When the covering came off the harp, my father’s face changed. I couldn’t say whether he was pleased or no with what he saw, but he went deep inside himself, and turned away to the shuttered window where the rain was still pounding.

The harper took his instrument between his knees and listened for a moment to the silence, then brushed his fingers over the strings. The sound blended with the rain, echoed it, sang along with it, made it a drumbeat to the music.

The tune changed, flowed on, grew stronger, and all of a sudden I could see in my mind a great hall around us. Not a low ceiling of beams and board and thatch, but lofty stone walls. Not a tiny hearth, but a great bonfire in a round firepit. Not a few rough-made chairs, but high seats at a long table, filled with men and women in the finest clothing. And then, just as I grasped at it, the image was gone.

The harper began to sing, stories of long ago, of great wars, of the time when our land was our own and the king one of our own, not a foreign conqueror who knew nothing of our ways. He sang us tales of the Good Folk, who are all now sleeping under the hills until the land is free again.

When he was finished, my father had tears in his eyes.

I’d never seen my father weep. Not for anything. I felt as if I were suddenly underwater, the air in the room too cold and thick to breathe.

read the next part

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

#149 In the Twilight and the Rain 1

In the twilight and the rain, half-way between dark and light, half way between water and air, I wasn’t certain at first if there were someone coming in the lane. Father and I had finished with the work and had nearly made the house when I spotted what might have been a dark figure leading a pony, but what might have been a trick of the mist.

By the time we reached our front step it was clearly a man in a long black coat, hood up and head down against the rain. Father went out to meet him, then walked him up to the door.

“Mother, lay another place at the table,” Father called into the house.

Mother glanced out from the dry, firelit warmth into the chilly dimness of nightfall, and with a little gasp, said, “Of course! Welcome! Come in and get dry.”

“I’ll see to my pony first,” the man said. He had such a voice that when he spoke, even the door posts and stone walls must have listened. His eyes were deep set and shadowed, but when I looked I could see them bright blue, like a fire deep in the back of a hearth.

Father went with him to put up the pony, and Mother gave my sister a broom and told us both to make the room as smart as we could.

“There’s a great man come to stay with us tonight,” Mother said, “And you’re to be on your best behavior.” A spark of anticipation lit her voice, like the day of her cousin’s wedding, or the night before the fair.

When the man came back to the house he had a bundle of sticks with him, and a large thing on his back all wrapped in oiled leather. The thing on his back was as big as mother’s spinning wheel, and shaped something like a giant axe head.

“May I take those for you?” I asked, reaching for the sticks. “Shall I put them in the wood box?”

The man laughed and held them tight. “How quick the innocent would burn all of history, if we do not teach them its worth. Nay, lad, these are not kindling wood. Look and see.”

He held out one stick to show me. Notches ran down its length, some crosswise, some diagonal, making shapes that looked like strange bird tracks.

“These are runes, and each one begins a line of a song,” the man said. “So I won’t forget.”

“What is that?” my sister asked of the strange burden on his back, drawing a scolding hisht from Mother.

“It’s a harp,” he announced, as if proclaiming that the king had entered the room.

read the next part

Monday, April 6, 2015

#148 Spellmender 2

read the first part

Malinda strode down the corridor of Leechdell Castle, carefully sidestepping the crowd coming the other way. She glanced at her schedule to check the location of next hour’s lecture on fancy toad breeding, then looked up to see an old familiar face at one of the vendors' tables.

“Hallo Botula!” Malinda crowed, pushing her way through the crowd to where the smiling blond witch sat with a darling turban perched on top of her head. “Haven’t seen you for two years, have I? Not since the…”

“Spelling for Profit Seminar,” Botula reached over the table to give Malinda a hug. When she sat back down, Malinda couldn’t help notice the spread of spell books on the table. 101 Creative Hexes, Curses for All Occasions, Find Your Inner Demon.

Malinda gasped, “And here you are, peddling your spells! How lovely! Sales going well?”

“Decently,” Botula sat back with a smile. “How about for you?”

“Oh, I’m still fiddling around with my partial transformations. I finally perfected the dragocow, but as Cholerella pointed out, do you remember Cholerella? Yes, as she pointed out there are easier ways to get hot milk. I do have a smashing idea for a cross between a dragon and a rocking chair that I’m working on now.”

Botula gave Malinda a blank and puzzled look. Malinda was used to that reaction to her work, but she had hoped to see a little excitement at least.

“Malinda, darling, have you ever considered perhaps just conjuring a dragon? I mean, that would be something. They’re not real, you know.”

“A dragon? Just a dragon, nothing else?” Malinda asked. That would be difficult. Very difficult. “Right out of thin air?”

“Well, you could start with something appropriate, a lizard or maybe even a snake, and finish up with a full-on dragon.”

“No,” Malinda said, staring off at the stone castle wall while the crowd flowed on behind and around her. “No, I haven’t.”


Sunday, April 5, 2015

#147 It Was Going To Rain

It was going to rain, I knew it.

I stood on the front porch by the garage door and watched the mist curling over the hills. The puddles reflected a cloudy sky. The thought of arriving at school cold, wet, and muddy kept me from even starting to get my bike out. “Mom?” I called back into the house. “Can I have a ride to school?”

“A ride?” Mom came to the screen door, frowning. “It’s all done raining, the ground is just wet. Avoid puddles, give yourself extra time to break, if you have to go through a puddle go slow.”

“But Mom, look,” I pointed to the sky. “It’s going to rain again.”

“No it won’t,” Mom said, disappearing back into the house. “I checked the radar.”

But the air said rain. The screen door banged behind me as I followed Mom back in. “Can I have a ride, please?”

IN the kitchen, one of my brothers spread peanut butter on his triple-decker sandwich while the other one watched little figures move from hex to hex on his computer screen in his favorite battle game simulation.

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t want to get wet,” I said.

“You won’t unless you plow through a puddle,” Mom told me. “There won’t be any more rain until mid-morning. The next cloud bands are miles out to sea. Do you want to see the radar?”

“Show me the radar,” I said.

I followed Mom up to her bedroom where her computer screen displayed a weather report. In the corner, a colorful map of our area showed a bright orange, yellow and green cloud band out at sea. Mom clicked the “play” icon and the cloud began to move toward the coast, slow and steady but still a long ways away.

Maybe Mom was right.

But then, another band of green formed between us and the coming cloud, just at the last second. When the animation stopped it hung there, right along the beach.

Mom played the animation again.

“look at that,” Mom said, tracing the new cloud band with her fingernail. “I guess you were right.”

Back downstairs, Mom announced, “The boys need a ride to school. It’s going to start raining again any minute.”

“I can take them,” Dad said. “Call the neighbors and see if they want a ride.”

A few minutes later, my brothers, my Dad, and the two neighbor kids all stood on the front porch, watching a downpour.

“Ready to run for the car?” Dad asked, almost laughing at the rain.

“Thanks for insisting on a ride to school,” Mom said to me through the screen door. “If you’d left on your bike, you’d be getting soaked right now.”

“I can smell rain, Mom,” I said. I had known it was coming.



Thursday, April 2, 2015

#146 Fire and Ice

The sun grew smaller every day.

I kicked aside a heat-shriveled plastic bottle at the top of the subway stairs, the aftermath of last summer’s holocaust. Yellowed newspapers crumbled under a coating of frost, their desperate headlines rendered irrelevant by the new reality. Earth had fallen from her orbit, disturbed by a passing black dwarf. Anything that had lived through our brush with the sun now had to face an unimaginable winter.

All that mattered now was this. Had something edible survived in the darkness of these subway tunnels?

The grip of the cold grew less as I descended and turned on my headlamp. It was dimming, just like the sun. I had to find some new batteries. I spotted a newsstand in an alcove, looted of food and drink, and batteries of course, but still with plenty of heat-crisped reading material. If I decided to stay down here instead of going back to the colony at least I wouldn’t die bored, so long as I was careful about turning the pages.

I smashed open an office door with my crowbar and rifled through all the drawers in the desk. I spotted a battery, but it had been burst open by heat, same as an old can of tuna that had left dried and shriveled flakes of fish meat coating a shelf. Solar fish jerky. I ate as much of it as I could scrape off.

It was the only thing I could find on the platform.

For longer than I should have, I debated whether to go down the subway tunnel. That untouched can of tuna, even though it was behind a locked door, made me think that this part of the subway system had remained uninhabited. What I wanted was to find a cache of supplies stashed away down deep, carried down into the tunnels where the deadly heat hadn't penetrated. Preferably abandoned, but if not, I could try and persuade the owners to join the colony.

If they didn't try to kill me first.

Keeping my crowbar ready, I slid off the platform and down onto the subway track.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

#145 Dragon Courier

I reached the landing in time to see them pull the other courier off of his dragon.

They had to cut him free from his saddle. He moaned as they eased him down, and I couldn’t believe he was still conscious. It didn’t seem right. I stared at his torn and bloody uniform and put my hand to my chest to feel the stiff, new material, untouched, whole.

Was that going to be me at the next checkpoint?

Mason cut the man’s pack off and brought it to me. The leather had claw marks on it. Small claw marks. A whole horde of wyrms must have swarmed the courier. But that wasn’t all.

His dragon wasn’t in good shape. It let out a low scream and tried to drag itself after its rider, but its back leg was useless, ripped open by another dragon, and from the look of it one of the big battle breeds, not a lithe messenger.

Were they still out there, someone on a battle dragon with a flock of wyrms, waiting to tear me out of the sky as soon as I got off the landing.

My hands shook as I tried to undo the buckles on the other courier’s blood-stained pack. I had to stop thinking about this. No use thinking. It didn’t matter. All I needed to do was get into the air as quick as possible. I always felt better once I got into the air.

I took the letter, folded up in a slick, black leather wallet, and shoved it into my own pack. One of the boys offered me a dark lantern, but I waved it away. The least glimmer of light would bring the wyrms to me like moths to a candle. The night sky was as black and empty as the inside of a cave, and the gusty wind would make it hard for me to get my bearings, but Rift had flown from here to the next check point a dozen times in all kinds of weather. She’d make it. All I had to do was trust her.

And get into the sky. When I looked out into the darkness, all I saw in front of me was the other courier’s face, dripping blood from a row of gashes, mouth opened in an agonized moan.

No thinking. Get on the dragon and go.

I climbed into Rift’s saddle. Her velvet black scales would be an advantage tonight.

Behind me, I heard the crew start the chant.

“For King! For Country!”

“For the love of flying,” I murmured, then shouted, “Go, Rift, Go!”

Rift’s powerful body launched us into the dark.