Collected Stories of 2009: The Greatest Gig

Tourists from many worlds enjoy cruises on the Elegant Slipstream for all the amenities and the cascading relativistic auras that surround the ship when it reemerges into normal space.

First Technician Chrystal Eagle never tired of the show. First Technician, she preferred starship plumber. Much better title. People — no matter the species, humanoid or not — expected sanitation systems to work invisibly.

The worst part of the job wasn’t the systems. It was the passengers. Still, greatest gig in the galaxy.

A story for those who enjoy big, bold, fun science fiction universes.

🚀

Coughed up into normal space, the Elegant Slipstream, rolled in the light of a cold blue Sun, giving the passengers, and one First Technician, a show worth dying for – of cascading relativistic auras. While the rest of the crew busied themselves with transition mechanics Chrystal enjoyed a forward lounge with a drink in her hand and a plate of genuine Terran truffles. Unless one of the Yelephant monks decided to use the humanoid facilities again she didn’t have anything to do except watch the passengers and the show outside.

Greatest gig in the galaxy, starship plumber. Or Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, but plumber worked and was less of a mouthful.

Speaking of mouthfuls, another truffle was in order. Studying the plate, her light suddenly was blocked. Chrystal looked up. Great. One of the passengers. She didn’t even know the species on this one. Humanoid, mostly. The cluster of wiggly blue, red and tan tentacles at the top of the shoulders didn’t exactly count as a head. The tentacles started out tan in the outer-most ring, longer and rougher looking. The red made up the innermost ring and looked almost pornographic. Were the black dots at the ends of the blue tentacles eyes? Who knew?

“Yes?” she asked, not knowing if the being would understand.

A translation bracelet on its disturbingly human-looking arm spoke up. Thought-controlled? Or was it making noises outside her range of hearing? “Pardon me. Are you a member of the crew?”

As if the blue coveralls and embroidered name didn’t give it away. But with so many species one couldn’t always tell what counted as fancy dress. She’d seen beings that thought wearing still-dripping bloody skins was the height of fashion.

“Yes. But I’m on a break.”

“Excuse me, you are broken? Do you require medical assistance? Should I call the Steward?”

The volume of the bracelet needed to be dialed down. “Jeez. Keep it down.”

Chrystal stood up and stepped closer, smelling something like ginger. Not bad. Too bad she couldn’t tell where to look at this being. She was taller than it and looking at the absence of a head was too disturbing. She focused on the intricate weave of its textured black shirt. Looked like some sort of artificial polymer.

“Look, what is it that you need?”

“I was using the facilities back there for the purpose of defecation –”

“That’s what it’s for.”

“– and something odd happened.” The passenger interlaced its hands together. It appeared to be waiting.

“I need a little more than that. What do you mean something odd happened?” She raised a hand. “Without getting too gross. I see enough shit as it is. I don’t need that kind of detail. And if this is a medical odd-thing, then I’m not the one you should be talking to.”

The bracelet sounded distressed. “I am in perfect health and do not appreciate the insinuation that my condition would be otherwise.”

“Jeez, I wasn’t saying that. Sorry. What was the problem?” Passengers. Greatest gig in the galaxy, but sometimes the passengers could be the greatest pain in the arse. And she was missing the show outside. Any moment now the relativistic cascade would surge and then the backwash would pass over the ship. She didn’t want to miss it.

“The disposal mechanism appeared to be jammed. It did not function properly.”

“Okay, great. I’ll fix it. You did the right thing reporting it.” She pointed at the huge transparent lounge wall. “But watch this, okay?”

The relativistic auras increased in activity. Fractal patterns exploded into view, spread, multiplied, spanned colors only seen in dreams. It became so bright that many beings looked away even though the screens wouldn’t allow any harmful radiation through. It was a birth-of-a-universe moment, only in this case the Elegant Slipstream was the universe. The CrunchBang drive collapsed the ship and everyone aboard at the departure point only to explode out at the destination point. Chrystal understood plumbing, not the drive, but she appreciated this moment when the ship was reborn in normal space. The trick? Don’t think about the “crunch” part.

At the moment the auras became their most intense the entire show vanished. For a long three seconds those that could hold their breath did. The passenger beside her didn’t twitch a tentacle where its head should be. Then a blinding wash of activity appeared and swept over the ship.

Chrystal popped a truffle into her mouth, chewed and washed it down. “We’re back. I’ll fix the loo. Enjoy the truffles, if you can.”

🚀

Chrystal waved into the facilities, the auto-servicing lockout triggering right away. The light panels above all of the stalls looked green indicating everything in good functioning order and unoccupied. The place smelled of antiseptic and cleansers. Even with the ventilation filters. But it could be, and had been on other cruises, worse. After the Yelephant monks had used the humanoid facilities she’d had to suit up in full bio-hazard gear before Larry, the Ship AI, even let her inside. That was the trouble with a cyanide-excreting species.

The first stall looked just as it should, like a complicated medical device with so many hoses and armatures that most new passengers needed an hour long orientation just to understand how to use the thing. Giving them plenty to eat and drink during the orientation help ensure that any initial hesitation would be overcome. Designed to function for nearly a hundred know species, the stall worked for all and wasn’t comfortable for any. Chrystal moved down the line, banging open each door. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. A bit of something on the floor there not cleaned up yet, but nothing to prevent a species from using the stall. Or, if exceptionally fastidious, any of the other stalls. Nothing. Visual inspection turned up exactly squat.

Maybe she should go back out and drag that passenger in here by his tentacles and ask him again exactly what his problem had been. But that ran the risk of being interpreted as a sexual advance. Rules stood very clear on that point. Avoid all reasonable risk of any behaviors that might be construed as sexual in nature. Grabbing some passenger’s tentacles? Yeah, that could be bad.

“Larry?” Chrystal called out. “I could use some help here.”

The smooth tones of the Ship AI came through her ear-piece. “Technician, why do you insist on using that nomenclature to address me?”

Just to see if I can piss you off. Fortunately Larry didn’t have telepathic capabilities. Too expensive. “You sound like a Larry to me. A passenger reported one of the stalls in here had jammed. Do you have any record of the event?”

“I do not record the private activities of passengers.”

“Never? Not even to study how biological intelligences behave behind closed doors?”

“Never.” Larry’s voice never varied. No emotions.

And yet she believed that Larry had emotions. There’d been hints over the years. Sooner or later she’d get a response out of him.

“What about the logs from the stalls? Any sensors detect any anomalous readings? Any interruptions in service?”

One of the stall lights switched to amber. Fourth down the row. “The indicated stall picked up an overload thirty-three minutes ago. Distribution fans in the initial capture chamber shut down to prevent damage. However the blockage appears to be clear now.”

“Clear? How could it clear if the fans shut down? Without fans there’s no airflow, no suction. Nothing to move material further down the system.”

“Nevertheless,” Larry said. “The system appears clear now on all sensors.”

“So I’m supposed to accept that it is clear? Based on a reading that could be faulty? I don’t think so. I do that and more passengers complain then I have a problem with the Captain. Shut it down. Send out the droids. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“As you wish, Technician.”

The amber light switched to red. In the wall opposite the stalls a panel slid up. Three squat egg-shaped chrome droids hovered into view, each about the side of her fist. The red sensor lights on their pointy ends traveled back and forth. All three hovered over and lined up in front of her.

“Okay, boys. We’ve got a passenger complaining of a jam in that stall. I need a volunteer to take a look inside the initial capture chamber.”

The two left-most droids floated back away several inches. The other one dipped briefly to the floor in defeat.

“Okay. Let’s do this. Come on Huey.”

She walked over to the indicated stall and pushed open the door. Huey floated right up to the door and stopped. Chrystal snapped her fingers. “Come on Huey, take the plunge!”

Huey let out a raspberry of protest and rose up to the seat. The droid position itself right above the seat and turned to face her. The red sensor light dimmed. It gave a small whistle of despair. “Sorry Huey. Gotta flush you.”

She pulled the release lever hit the override button to open the capture chamber seal. Huey hung for a moment above the open capture chamber and then dropped out of sight. Chrystal pulled her tablet out of her pocket and with a couple flicks pulled up Huey’s feed.

The capture chamber walls rose up around Huey, gleaming with the red light from his sensor beam. The upper part of the chamber looked perfectly clean without out any trace of what the chamber was used for or any sign of problem. Huey let out a questioning warble.

“Nope. Look down, Huey. Let’s assume that any problem would be lower.”

Huey screeched like a horny Moh’bunian. Then the droid rotated around its center of gravity until it could see the bottom of the capture chamber. There. Past the vents and fans, some sort of glistening blue shape in the bottom of the capture chamber. The blue whatever it was reflected the light from the droid, giving it a sort of purplish cast. The shape shrank back away from the droid.

Huey beeped and started to float up away from the substance. The blue stuff swelled out of the bottom of the capture chamber. Chrystal knocked the release lever back up. The top of the capture chamber rotated shut. Huey’s beeps became more frantic. The droid bumped against the top of the chamber with a dull thunk and still the substance rose into the space. She couldn’t see many details with only Huey’s light in the chamber.

“Larry! Can you get the scoop on whatever is in that capture chamber?”

“Sensors do not detect anything in the capture chamber.”

Chrystal looked up at the ceiling. “Yeah. What about Huey?”

Huey clanked against the top of the capture chamber again. The droid’s muffled beeps came faster. The other two droids floated into the stall and took up positions on either side of the unit.

“The sensors in the capture unit are designed to detect the presence of waste products. Not cleaning and maintenance droids.”

“Fine. Access Huey’s feed.”

More thunks on the lid of the capture chamber. On her screen she could see that the bluish substance now filled at least half of the chamber. Huey hardly had room to stay above it. In the dim red light she couldn’t make out many details. Whatever it was didn’t look liquid.

“Visual analysis is inconclusive.”

“Great.” Huey banged against the lid repeatedly. The droid’s beeps merged into a continuous sound of distress. “Alert the crew. There may be a hazardous substance in the waste disposal system. I’m going to try flushing it to composting and processing. Maybe I can clear it out.”

The stuff had nearly reached Huey. The droid screeched.

“Sorry Huey.” Chrystal waved her hand in front of the flush panel. An override prompt appeared on her tablet. She thumbed it. “We’ll get you out.”

One of the droids at her feet gave out a hiss of static. She faked a kick at it. “We’ll get him out. Really.”

The system fans kicked in creating a powerful suction. Fans in the capture chamber started to move. Huey’s distress signal cut off as the droid made a dizzying dive down to avoid the fans. The blue substance shrank back down into the drain. Huey dropped after it. The droid spun about, pointy end pointing up at the closed top of the capture chamber. Weak anti-gravs struggled to hold the egg-shaped droid out of the drain but soon proved no match for the suction. Huey spun around and with a loud sucking noise followed the blue gunk down the drain. Down, into the pipes and through the system.

Chrystal pocketed the tablet. “Let’s go get him, boys.”

🚀

Using the tablet Chrystal tracked Huey’s progress through the system. Now that the system had sucked whatever it was through the pipes, Huey dove after it in pursuit with cleaning brushes extended. With the other two droids trailing on her heels like a pair of baby ducklings she ran out of the facilities back into the lounge area. She turned and went through an unobtrusive door discreetly marked ‘Crew Only’. Behind the scenes she could really run. She grabbed a rail sled, pulled it down, stepped on and kicked off. The droid right behind her managed to get up on the sled and grabbed the front with an extruded manipulator. The other missed the jump as the sled shot off down the corridor. She twisted the throttle full up. The sled sped down the corridor at high speed. The rail guide lights flashed red ahead to alert anyone in the corridor of the oncoming sled.

The ship resembled a giant strand of DNA, a double-helix with a passenger side and a crew side. The sled reached the main crew strand and spiraled down to the lower processing levels, just one level up above the engines. She slowed right at the main access hatch and expertly stepped down. The sled snapped up. Faster than the droid which hadn’t relaxed its grip yet. A plaintive wail came from behind the sled. Chrystal pulled it down. The droid rolled out and bounced across the floor. The red sensor light dead. Chrystal walked over to it and gave it a nudge with her foot. A small spark of red appeared.

“Yeah, I know you’re not dead, Dewey. Come on.”

The light came on and moved back and forth over the pointed end of the droid as it rose from the floor.

“Don’t look at me like that.” Chrystal looked at the tablet. Huey had nearly reached this level. “Let’s go give an evacuation route.”

Through the hatch, droid close on her heels. This was on one of the cross chambers connecting the two strands of the ship. Massive and full of all sorts of equipment, the facility was capable of processing waste from over a hundred known species with up to ten thousand different passengers and crew at any given time. Crew technicians of many races in white coveralls walked with purpose. Every phase had to be monitored. With so many species waste handling could be a big deal. Even so they snapped to attention as she came through the corridor. Her blue coveralls announced her presence as a First Technician, top of the slop. Head of Biological Waste and Recycling on board the Elegant Slipstream.

“Don’t hold your noses now, get in there!” She waved them back to work. She ran down the corridor towards the central command center. A fat bead strung between the crew and passenger strands the C Prime coordinated all the waste handling on board. She came at the transparent doors fast enough that they barely slid open enough for her to get through. The doors snapped shut behind her. Dewey crashed into the door.

Miguel Stacks bounced up out of the command chair, his tan coveralls showing his rank as Second Technician. “Chief!”

Chrystal gave him a nod and dropped into the chair. Still warm. “Can somebody get me some iced tea?”

A junior tech appeared at her elbow with a steel, black-capped thermos of iced tea. Chrystal took it. Dewey managed to get through the door and hovered over to her chair.

“Miguel, there’s a blockage coming down the system. Tap into Huey’s feeds. I want it diverted into an empty and clean holding tank.”

“We’re at capacity. To free a tank we’ll have to shift waste. We might have to vent the excess.”

“And have the Captain deduct the cost of the organics from our budget? I don’t think so. If you need to bag and store it. We can reintroduce it into the system after I’m done.”

Miguel started shouting orders to the technicians. Droids and techs spun to work. Dewey waited beside her foot. She sipped her iced tea. Dewey whined. “I told you, we’ll get him out of there. Besides you volunteered him for this mission.”

Dewey sank lower.

“Larry?”

“Yes, Technician?”

“How long until Huey and the blockage reaches the chamber?”

“Two minutes.”

“Has the Captain been informed of the situation?”

“I have not informed her of the matter at this time since it has not threatened the integrity of the ship or passengers.”

“Good. Keep it that way. I’ll report after I have a chance to figure out what’s going on.” Chrystal got up, slipping the thermos into one of her pockets. “Come on Dewey. You’re in this with me. Miguel! I’ll be at the tank.”

“It’ll be ready when you get there,” Miguel said. “We’ve bagged the excess and stored it.”

Right. Back out of C Prime, down the corridor back to the main Crew strand. She followed the directions on her tablet to the tank, one of thousands of blisters sticking off the main strand. She waved a hand at the access hatch. It turned green and the hatch opened.

“Go on,” she told Dewey, nudging the droid in.

Dewey beeped in protest.

The tank looked pristine. The smell of bleach hung strong in the air. Given the turnaround time, not bad. She pulled her tablet and checked the feed. Huey whistled joyfully and plunged after the bluish blockage. She felt the breeze from the air being pumped out of the pipes leading into the blister. All other paths had been blocked off. Whatever it was, it was coming in here.

“Let’s wait outside,” she told Dewey.

The droid chirruped and darted around her when the door opened. She let the chamber seal behind her and turned the wall transparent. Just in time. A mass off blue doughy material appeared in the pipe. It oozed out down towards the floor. More and more poured out. With a last pop it fell free and landed on the floor. It immediately rose back up, moving. Three blobs appeared along the topside. Two lengthened and narrowed. The rest of the material rose up higher, then the lower section split into two trunks. It’d taken on a vague, doughy humanoid shape.

“Who’s that shit-head?” Chrystal asked.

Dewey gave a questioning warble.

“Let’s find out.” Chrystal waved open the chamber. “Larry, kill the fans.”

The door opened and Huey fell out of the pipe in the ceiling. The droid hit the blue person-thing, bounced off and managed to come to a rest an inch above the floor. Manipulators retracted leaving the droid a smooth egg-shape again. Both Huey and Dewey turned sensors towards the figure at the center of the chamber.

The shape continued to change and become more humanoid. In fact she could see now definite signs of maleness. The creature firmed up. Details began to take shape, features in the blue head. Right before her eyes the substance changed from a doughy caricature of a person to a gorgeous muscled guy with beautiful sky-blue skin and a sunny smile. Navy blue hair hung down to his shoulders.

“Hello there,” he said, clearly happy to see her.

Chrystal shuddered. “Okay. Icky. Do you know what you just came out of up there? You need a shower before you touch anything. Then, you need to explain what you were doing clogging up my pipes.”

The stranger nodded. “Whatever you say.”

🚀

Chrystal waited near the door to the finest restaurant on the Elegant Slipstream wearing a tiny black dress. She felt very exposed without her coveralls. But it wasn’t every day that the Prince of a planetary dynasty asked to take her to dinner for saving him from the complexities of the waste management system. It turned out he had attended the orientation for the humanoid facilities but had to revert to his unformed state to expel waste. He should have been in the non-humanoid facilities. Anyone could make that sort of mistake.

Prince Harris, as he asked to be called, walked into view. Dressed now in a fine black tuxedo, with his blue skin he looked exotic and lovely. And, he had assured her, entirely clean. He had promised that he had washed everything, not just his hands, before dinner. The Captain was pleased that her quick action had prevented some sort of diplomatic incident, which could have happened had the Prince been cooked, chopped and composted.

Watching him walk towards her with such easy grace Chrystal thought she’d gotten the best end of the deal. Starship plumber. Greatest gig in the galaxy.

🚀

3,548 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 72nd weekly short story release, written in April 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Discards.

Placer Crime

Beau Clayton loves the hustle of Eureka Gulch. Men swarmed to the growing town, caught in gold fever. A perfect place to begin a new life, build a new library, and bring culture to the new community.

Twice now his love of detective stories led him to help solve crimes. Sheriff Mullins wants help again with a dispute over a claim.

Trouble is, the story the miners tell sounds impossible.

💀

Gold fever wasn’t an illness. The people of Eureka Gulch didn’t lie around in their beds moaning with sweaty brows. They did puke in the streets, mostly outside of any one of the twenty some-odd saloons and similar establishments that had sprung up faster than the miners could dig out the ore. If anything gold fever made them stronger than normal men; the sound of hammers never stopped in Eureka Gulch these days.

Yes, things were happening and Beau Clayton was right in the middle of it all. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Creasor, owner of the Creasor hotel and other valuable properties, and the support of Ms. Emily Collins, Beau’s public library was getting a proper building after spending the past weeks in a log-base tent. The new construction was going up conveniently right across the road from the current tent library. The support came in part thanks to his help in resolving questions in a couple unfortunate deaths.

He was thin, of average height, with a dark charcoal suit, patched and worn. He wore a bowler hat over dark hair. His face was clean-shaven with high cheek-bones, a strong jaw and dark, intelligent eyes hidden under a deep brow. A thoughtful face, turned now to the building going on across the street.

Beau sat in a split log chair, sanded now to prevent splinters, with a copy of The Strand in his lap. It had only just arrived on the last stage up from Spokane with the camp’s mail, and Beau was quite excited to see it contained a new story by none other than A. Conan Doyle, “The Story of the Beetle-Hunter.”

He hadn’t started reading yet, choosing to savor the moment and he was distracted by the sight of the walls of the library going up. Built with strong timbers and then raised up. Down came the hammers! A flurry of nails driven into place and in moments the walls stood erect on their own.

He was the only one paying any attention to the library’s construction. All around the camp new buildings were going up. General merchandise stories, druggists, clothiers, mining supply companies, and of course, the saloons that the temperance movement couldn’t touch out here.

Each day he took a walk through the streets, marveling at the growth in the town as the population swelled in anticipation of the opening of the south half of the Colville reservation for mineral claims. Yet again those hopes had been dashed, a week earlier on June 8th, when the anticipated announcement had failed to come.

The mood in the camp was tense, swollen to bursting with dreams of getting rich. Thousands had poured into the region from all over. Sooners spotted claims out in the country, not legal claims yet, but there were many out there waiting for the word. The hotels were full, the women’s boarding houses and the drinking establishments alike were busy with customers. The merchants couldn’t keep enough shovels and picks in stock to meet the demand. Many men dreaming of their own claims had turned instead to working the already richly proven mines in the north half, like the Republic and Lone Pine claims. Everyone waited for word from President Grant that the bill had passed.

This was all a long way from his father’s established law offices and the courtrooms where he practiced. There had been a letter too, among the post, from his father’s firm. The letter sat unopened next to his coffee cup, on the stump beside his chair.

The Strand or the letter? Which to read first? With the Strand the outcome was already decided. He would enjoy reading the magazine. With the letter? That outcome was also already decided. There wouldn’t be any good news coming from that letter.

When he had broken the news of his decision to head north and establish a library, his father had thought him mad. So did everyone else. Who threw away a legal career in one of the most exciting cities in the west? Spokane was a center of activity and prosperity. It benefited from its placement, from the natural resources surrounding it, and the stream of men moving north to places like Eureka Gulch and Idaho. It was a modern city, full of modern ideals, and was a good place for a law firm to prosper.

Had Beau wanted to pursue that career, his future would have been secure. Instead he had thrown it to the wind to establish a library. A mad dream, yes, perhaps. Yet he was absolutely convinced, to the depths of his soul, that reading was the ultimate key to prosperity. He had always enjoyed reading. Everything, anything that he could get his hands on. It came to him that he could do much more good in the world by encouraging others to read. By offering books to all, and classes in reading, he could have far more impact on people than his father ever had in his law firm. Making the wealth of human knowledge available to everyone, what higher calling could there be? Surely that was better than the role of a lawyer!

Try telling that to his father who saw most common people as barely a step above illiterate savages. Given the examples of humanity that he saw in his practice, that was hardly a surprising attitude. When it became clear that Beau really meant to leave the firm and pursue his mad dream, his father had threatened to disinherit him. For all he knew, that was the contents of the letter. It’d be like his father to serve official notice that he had been disinherited.

Stuff it all. He’d left that behind and didn’t need the reminder. Beau left the letter untouched.

Across the street, the men working on the library swung down from the beams. They dropped their tools and walked away down the street. Beau pulled his pocket-watch out. Past noon already. They wouldn’t resume their hammering until later in the afternoon, when it began to cool slightly. This would be a good time to get some reading done. Or would be, except that sheriff Mullins was making his way down the street toward the library. The sheriff’s attention was clearly fixed on Beau, although his eyes still watched everyone around him. He nodded congenially to those he passed, his clear blue eyes catching everything with a hawk-like intensity. His long mustache and sharp nose emphasized the hawkishness of his face. He was young, but there was nothing green about the sheriff. He had that look on his face as he got closer.

It was a look that said Beau wasn’t going to get a chance to read his magazine. He set it aside and stood as the sheriff strolled up, boots kicking up dust.

“Mr. Clayton.” Mullins extended his hand.

Beau shook. The sheriff’s grip was strong. “Sheriff. Looking for something to read?”

Mullins’ lips twitched. “I haven’t finished the Tolstoy you gave me to read. Maybe I should have waited for winter.”

Beau chuckled. “Maybe.”

The sheriff turned and looked across the street. “The new library is coming along.”

“Yes. As fast as they work, we’ll be moving the books in before long. Ms. Collins is already arranging a ribbon-cutting ceremony.”

Mullins stroked his mustache. “She is a fine lady. It’s hard to credit the doctor with such a daughter.”

Dr. Collins was an odd man and maybe slightly too fond of whiskey for “medicinal purposes” to be considered strictly professional. Ms. Collins had mentioned that the loss of her mother had changed him. Hardly surprising.

“I think her late mother deserves much of the credit.”

“Just so,” Mullins said. He looked like a man at a loss for words.

“You didn’t come by to discuss Ms. Collins,” Beau said. “And since you’re not looking for another book, there must be another reason for the visit.”

Mullins stuck his thumbs behind his suspenders. “Yes. I did have a reason, although seeing the library going up, I see that there’s little point in raising the matter.”

“Sheriff, you might as well tell me since you came down here.”

“Okay, then. I will. I was thinking of asking if you’d like a deputy position. I could use someone smart and educated to keep me from making a fool of myself.”

“You don’t need me for that,” Beau said. “No one would make the mistake of thinking you a fool.”

Mullins’ blue eyes sparkled. “Maybe not. I still could use someone like you, if you weren’t busy running a library, that is.”

Beau glanced at the letter from his father’s law firm. A sheriff’s deputy? No, he wasn’t really suited to that either. He looked back at Mullins.

“You’re right, I’ve got a library to run. And you need men that can shoot straight and break up fights. That’s not me.”

“Of course. Sorry to trouble you.” Mullins started to turn.

“Sheriff?”

Mullins turned back around.

“I would have time to consult, from time to time, as needed.”

“Consult?” Mullins rubbed his chin.

“Reading isn’t the camp’s favorite vice, although my storytelling sessions have attracted a fair share of miners interested in hearing something other than the Bible. What I mean, is, if there are problems that require someone smart and educated, I expect I’d have time to assist.”

“As it so happens, I’ve got a dispute between some men right now, that could use some expert advice.”

“A dispute?” Beau scooped up the letter and pocketed it. The Strand he left on his chair. “Tell me more.”

💀

Beau’s borrowed mare bounced him in his saddle as he followed Mullins along the San Poil. The river was still high from the flooding a couple weeks earlier, but down from that torrent. The water was mostly clear now, instead of the muddy, foamy froth that had rushed down the river bed during the storm.

Other than the sound of the horses’ hooves on the packed trail, once they were away from Eureka Gulch, a quiet fell. The sort of quiet that city men never knew. It still struck Beau when he was away from the bustle of Eureka Gulch just how quiet it was in this wilderness. The sound of the shallow river flowing over the rocks, the bright bird song off in the trees that shaded the river bank, and little else. Truthfully, it was a bit unnerving. Beau watched the woods carefully. Would a bear make a noise before it attacked? What about wolves? There was probably more to fear from half-savage sooners that camped out in the wilderness waiting for the chance to strike gold when the south half opened. Not to mention the Indians from the reservation. Twelve tribes, including Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, and some men were bound to hold grudges. Either way, the quiet made him uneasy.

“How far are we going?” He asked Mullins.

The sheriff’s gelding clopped along in an unhurried  fashion. The sheriff twisted around to look back. “Not far now. Not as far south as that trouble we had.”

That trouble being the murder of one Indian, and the attempted murder of both the Mullins and Beau. Fortunately a fate they had avoided.

“Just up here, around this bend.”

Around the bend revealed a wide sunny bank stripped of plants and a good deal of dirt. Two men sat on piles of dirt. Panning gear, a rocker box, and shovels had been left lying on the ground while the men ate what looked like a rabbit roasted over a small, almost smokeless fire. Horses were tethered further up the bank. Both men were dressed in dirty clothes, worn and patched. They were skinny, with deep-sunk eyes and similar long faces. They might have been brothers, although the one on the left had deeper creases in his face, less hair and what there was of it tended to gray. A father and son, then?

The older man dropped his tin plate and stood up. The younger slowly followed. Dark eyes glanced at Beau and back to the sheriff.

“Sheriff,” the older man said. His few teeth were yellow and long. “You find that thief yet?”

Mullins’ reined in his horse. “Not yet, Mr. Higgins.”

A scowl deepened the lines on the man’s face. “What’re you doing back here, then?”

Mullins gestured at Beau. “I brought my consultant down to hear what happened. This is Beau Clayton, he’ll be helping me out.”

“Consultant?” The younger man said.

“That’s right,” Mullins said agreeably. “You just tell him your story.”

Mr. Higgins spit, a high long arc that splashed into the slow-moving river. “Couldn’t you jus tell him yourself, instead of riding out here?”

“I could,” Mullins said. “Except I want him to hear it from you so he can ask questions if he wants.”

“I’ll try not to waste your time,” Beau said.

The young man laughed, which earned him a scowl from the other. Mr. Higgins hitched his thumbs in his suspenders.

“Fine. What happened, Mr. Clayton, is that a dirty con man took our money and left us an empty claim.”

Clayton looked at the torn up bank above the river. “You bought this claim?”

Mr. Higgins nodded. “Yup. Paid twenty dollars for it. We were working our way down stream looking for a place to work when we came across a man here. He only had a shovel and a small pan, not much equipment, but we could see the gold in the pan as we rode up.”

“So you offered to buy his claim?”

The younger man spoke up, his tone bitter. “No. We didn’t. Would’ve moved on. Should have done.”

“Yeah, we should’ve done so. My son told me as much, but I didn’t listen. He had the gold right there in his pan. Told us he was finding it much harder work than he had thought, and wanted to go back to making shoes, and wondered if we’d like to buy the claim. He even dug out some more ground and washed it right in front of us, showing us the gold.”

Beau recognized the story. “So he took the gold he had already found, your money and left you with the claim.”

“Right,” Mr. Higgins said. “I feel the fool. He was gone on his donkey and we got to work. We found a few small flecks, nothing more. By the time we stopped, he was long gone. I sent my son up to talk to the sheriff.”

“And I brought Mr. Clayton to consult on this,” Mullins said.

“What’s so confusing about this?” Mr. Higgins said. He jabbed a finger at the dig. “There’s no gold here!”

“I’ve read about cases like this,” Beau said, trying to calm the man down. “The con man loads a shotgun with a small amount of gold and shoots it into the ground. Then he pretends to discover the gold but lacks the means to realize the claim himself so sells it off to someone else.”

Mr. Higgins shook a finger at Beau. “See! That’s what happened! He shouldn’t be that hard to find, sheriff! Mark told you what he looked like!”

Mullins tipped his hat up. “Yes, he did. Why don’t you just tell Mr. Clayton and be done with it?”

Clearly, Mr. Higgins was reluctant to say anything. He rubbed his jaw, and spit again with great accuracy into the river.

“Jus tell him Pa!” Mark Higgins said.

“Fine!” Mr. Higgins squinted up at Beau. “He was small, a dwarf. Odd-looking, his face wrinkled but somehow he didn’t really look old. He wore a funny coat, square and red, worn and patched but dressy, with a ruff round his neck and lace at the ends of the sleeves.”

Beau rocked back on his horse. Surely, the man wasn’t describing what it sounded like.

Mr. Higgins went on. “Also had buckles on his shoes, a leather apron and a cocked hat on his head! That’s the way he looked, I tell you!”

Mr. Higgins’ jaw clenched, as if he dared Beau to dispute him.

“And you said he rode off on a donkey?”

“That’s right. Man that size, he’s not going to ride a horse, is he? Ask around, you’ll find ‘em and get our money back!”

Everyone was looking at Beau, Mullins and the miners. Was this a joke? Mr. Higgins certainly didn’t look like he was kidding, and less likely to have read Yeats.

“Forgive me, Mr. Higgins, maybe I’m misunderstanding something. Are you saying that this man was a leprechaun?”

“Leprechaun!” Mr. Higgins scowled. “I never said that!”

“No,” Mullins said. “You didn’t call him that, but this is why I asked Mr. Clayton to come down and talk to you. He’s setting up a library back in Eureka Gulch, he’s an educated man and I thought he might recognize what you were describing.”

The younger Higgins surged to his feet, hands clenching into fists. “What are you saying? My Pa told you what he looked like!”

Beau held up a hand. “I didn’t mean any offense, son. A man named Yeats compiled a book ten years ago on fairy and folk tales. The  man you describe sounds like a leprechaun, the one-shoe fairy.”

Mr. Higgins turned to Mark. “Get it.”

Mark turned fast, nearly tripped and scrambled across the uneven ground to the other side of the fire where he rummaged in their gear. He ran back holding something in his hand and gave it to his father. Mr. Higgins turned and offered it up to Beau.

It was a shoe. Beau took it. The shoe was leather and well-made, narrow at the tip with a silver buckle across the top. It looked new. The smooth leather didn’t show any signs of wear. There was little dirt on it, mostly from the miners’ hands. He passed it on over to Mullins, who turned it over in his hands too.

“Where was this?” Beau asked.

Mr. Higgins pointed over to a log near the dig. “Found it over there, figured he left it.”

Mullins said, “You didn’t mention this before.”

Mr. Higgins shrugged. “Didn’t see no point. Might be worth something, we don’t get our money back. You mind?”

Mr. Higgins held up his hand.

Mullins  glanced over at Beau.

Beau shrugged. Keeping it wouldn’t help them find this man, leprechaun or not. Mullins tossed it down to Mr. Higgins.

The man caught the shoe. “So, sheriff? You gonna look for ‘em or not?”

Mullins laughed. “I’ll keep an eye out for a little man in a red coat on a donkey. If I see him, I’ll ask about your money. My guess? He’s moved on already.”

“Figures,” Mr. Higgins said. “Just our luck, you know?”

“Keep the shoe,” Beau said. “Maybe it’ll turn out to be lucky when the south half opens.”

Mr. Higgins held it up, looking at it. “Maybe so.” He pointed the shoe at Beau. “You believe us?”

“Mr. Higgins, I’d be delighted if we found this man you talk about, I’d have many questions for him.” That much was true.

💀

The ride back to Eureka Gulch passed mostly in silence as the day wore on. Beau mulled over the story in his mind. The miners hardly seemed the sort to make up such a story. And what about the shoe? It was real enough, quality craftsmanship. Just one shoe. What did that prove? Mr. Higgins could have heard the stories about leprechauns, but why make up the story? What would it gain him, except ridicule if word got out?

Riding over the last hill, the town lay beneath them. Mullins reined in his horse and fell in beside Beau.

“You’ve been quiet,” Mullins said. “What do you think of their story?”

“The details are right,” Beau said. “The obvious answer is that they set it up themselves. Except I don’t get the sense that Mr. Higgins would deliberately lie about what they saw. He seemed genuinely angry about the money he claims he lost.”

“That’s my sense too.” Mullins chuckled. “A leprechaun, though? Running a scam like that?”

“It’d fit. According to the legends they are fond of pranks, gold and drink. A town like this? They’d be right at home. You might want to start looking for him in the saloons, sheriff.”

Mullins laughed. “I’ll keep an eye out. Somehow I doubt I’ll have much luck.”

They reached the rode and headed on into town. The noise of Eureka Gulch washed over Beau, a welcome change from the quiet out in the wilderness around town. He touched his hat.

“Thank you sheriff, that was an interesting diversion. I wish I was more helpful.”

“You’ve helped plenty,” Mullins said. “Thank you for your time.”

“You’re welcome. I’m always happy to help.”

Their paths separated. Beau rode back to the livery and left the horse. He was on his way back to the library when he spied a familiar, and welcome sight coming down the street ahead.

It was Emily Collins, the lovely daughter of Dr. Collins. She wore a simple blue hat, with a white ribbon, over her dark hair and a plain but neat blue dress. Today she also wore white gloves. She smiled warmly as he approached, then wrinkled her tiny nose when he got close.

“Mr. Clayton, you are covered in dust! What have you been doing?”

“The sheriff and I rode out to talk to a couple of miners, victims of a prank at a placer mine.”

“Prank?”

He doubted the sheriff wanted stories of leprechauns spreading around the camp, but the rest of it didn’t matter. “A con man discharged gold from a shotgun into the San Poil river bank, then panned it out of the ground, thereby proving that there was an easy deposit of gold to be found. He sold the claim to the miners and left with the gold and their money.”

“The lure of gold does attract all sorts of men,” Ms. Collins said. “Any chance that the sheriff will catch the man responsible?”

“Perhaps,” Beau said. “His description was distinctive.”

“I hope he is caught. We don’t need thieves around here!”

“Better the sheriff catch him before anyone else,” Beau said. “The men around here tend to believe in a very swift form of justice at the end of a rope.”

“I would hope that they would respect the order of law.”

“As I would,” Beau said. “Would you like an escort?”

Ms. Collins’ smile widened. “I would. I’m returning back to my father’s house for supper. Would you like to join us?”

Beau’s stomach rumbled in response. Ms. Collins laughed.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

He smiled in return. “I do apologize, the sheriff took me away before lunch.”

“Then you must join us. I insist.”

“It’d be my pleasure.” He brushed at the dust on his clothes. “If I’m not too dusty?”

She laughed. “We will manage.”

Beau gestured and they walked on down the street.

Ms. Collins was just telling him about the progress on building the new school when he saw a small gray donkey tied up outside of one of Eureka Gulch’s many saloons. “The Cobbler’s Tankard,” according to the sign.

His heart nearly skipped a beat. He touched Ms. Collins’ arm. “Excuse me, one moment.”

“What is it?”

It was a mad, impossible thing, but he had to see. “I need to see a man about a book.”

He hurried off to the saloon. The donkey was covered in long hair, and wore a tiny leather saddle. There was a rolled blanket across the back, and bags of goods strapped to the small beast. The stock of a shotgun stuck up out of the rolls.

Beau went on past, up onto the wood porch, and shoved open the door. The interior was dim and smelled of smoke, beer, bread and meat. His stomach growled again. Behind the bar the bartender, a gray-haired man gone wide around the middle, leaned on the bar and watched him over a drooping mustache. Other than the bartender, there were only a few men, sitting alone or in small groups around the rough wood tables in the place.

None were wearing red jackets or a cocked hat. He got a few glances in his direction, standing in the doorway, but most were more interested in their drink or food. He turned, feeling foolish, except for the fact of the donkey outside.

Back in the shadowy corner, light glinted on metal. His eyes began to adjust and he made out the small shape of a man at the table. He made his way across the room, expecting something, anything except what he saw when he reached the table.

A wizened face peered up at him from the dark shadows beneath his cocked hat. Thick whiskers ran down the sides of his jaw. Dark eyes looked back at him. The man’s coat was red, with golden embroidery and rows of shiny buttons. Just as Mr. Higgins had described, there was an Elizabethan ruff around the collar and lace on the ends of the sleeves.

“Ye been lookin’ for me?” The man said, his voice high-pitched.

“The sheriff is looking for you,” Beau said. “About a claim you sold to some miners.”

The man, Beau couldn’t think of him as a leprechaun, leprechauns didn’t exist, lifted his glass and drained it down. He clunked it down on the table and belched.

“That’s what I think of de sheriff!” His dark eyes glittered. “What business is it of yers?”

“He asked for my help.” Beau took a breath. “Why don’t you come with me back to the sheriff’s office? We’ll straighten it out there.”

The man stood up on his seat, which put him nearly at Beau’s height. He sneered. “I don’ think so.”

He reached into his coat and pulled out a silver snuff box. He opened the lid and offered it up to Beau.

Beau lifted his hand. “No, thank you. I really think —”

The man took a pinch of the snuff and flung it at Beau. The dust hit Beau’s face with the rich scent of tobacco. He coughed and the dust tickled his nose. He sneezed explosively and heard the man laugh. He sneezed again, then a third time before he recovered. He rubbed a hand across his face and looked for the man.

He was gone. The table was empty.

Beau spun around. None of the other customers were paying him any attention, and there was no sign of the little man.

He rushed to the door and burst outside. There wasn’t any sign of the man, and the donkey that had been tethered outside was gone. Ms. Collins stood right outside of the saloon looking up at him. Her eyebrows raised.

“Mr. Clayton, are you quite alright?”

“Did you see where he went?”

“Who?”

“A little man, in a red coat…” How foolish did that sound? Beau stopped himself before he could continue. The leprechaun — what else could describe him? — was gone.

“Little man?” Ms. Collins said. She looked up and down the street. “I didn’t see anyone. Does this have to do with the man the sheriff was seeking?”

Beau looked down at her. If he chased this, he’d look crazier than he already did. He smiled. “Yes, but I must have been mistaken. I thought I recognized him from the description, but he’s not here.”

“Okay. In that case, should we continue to my father’s house? He does get grumpy if his supper is late.”

Beau descended to the street. He took her arm. “Supper sounds fantastic. Don’t let me delay things any longer.”

“Very well.”

They started walking. Beau decided not to mention this to the sheriff. The library was getting built, no matter how crazy it might seem to his father. He touched his jacket and felt the letter. Later, he’d read that and see what news it contained. For now, tonight he wanted to enjoy a meal with the lovely Ms. Collins and Dr. Collins, safe from troubling news or meddlesome leprechauns.

There was enough gold fever in Eureka Gulch without chasing after fairy stories!

💀

4,721 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 71st weekly short story release, written in July 2013. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story The Greatest Gig.

This Treehouse is Haunted

Joel returned to start over. Seeing his best friend’s house for sale felt like fate. A new job. A house he remembered from childhood. Even the old treehouse remained.

Almost as if time stayed still here. As if everything had waited for him.

You never forget your first loss. On either side.

💀

For Joel the yellow ranch house represented a homecoming, and yet not, at the same time. The house itself hadn’t changed much since the summer days he had spent here playing with AJ. It was still that same sunflower yellow with the bright green trim. Obviously it had been repainted because it looked just like he remembered it. The stone-walled flower beds out front hadn’t changed at all either, but the satellite dish perched owl-like on the corner of the house was new. Standing on the wood porch everything felt askew and out-of-proportion. He was too big for the porch, and it was empty of the worn nylon patio furniture that AJ’s parents had kept on the porch. Even stranger was looking across the street at his old house, hardly recognizable, with piles of junk and several rusted cars decaying on what strands of grass remained.

Joel knocked his fingers against the sturdy white post beside the steps, just to assure himself that it was real. He was back, in the town that he had never expected to return to, owning his best friend’s old house. He knocked once more on the post and went inside, feeling like a visitor in his own house, to confront the piles of boxes scattered around the house. Kitchen first, he wanted the coffee maker, coffee and his thermos. Fuel for the rest of the day.

Not having to report to work at his new teaching job until Monday, Joel spent the day unpacking and putting away his few belongings. One of the bedrooms became his office with his computer desk in the corner, the glass surface actually having made the move without getting broken. He set up his two computers, monitors side by side flanked by the scanner and the printer. From his tan microsuede chair he could lean back and look out the window at trees across the brown backyard. Surprisingly the treehouse where he had spent so much time with AJ still looked intact despite all of the years. Others must have kept it up in the years since AJ’s parents had moved away. When night fell Joel made himself a plate of spaghetti, with a spicy Italian sausage sauce from a jar, and carried it into the office. He put it down on the clear glass in front of the monitors while he pulled up his latest project on the right computer. TweetDeck filled the screen on the second computer, the constant stream of tweets giving him a sense that he wasn’t entirely alone.

At about nine, long after the sun had set, a light flickering in the window pulled Joel’s attention away from the article he was writing. He leaned back in his chair and looked out the window. A blue light flickered in the distance. It was so dark at first he couldn’t even decide how far away the light was, but then he realized that it was coming from the treehouse. A bolt of fear shot through his nerves. If local kids were playing in the treehouse they could get hurt —

He pushed back from the desk and ran out of the room. The house was dark but he flicked on the light switches as he advanced through the house. First the hallway, then the kitchen and dining room, and last off all the light above the back deck. Joel unlatched the slider and stepped out into the yellow circle of light cast by the fixture above.

Cold air slipped through his t-shirt and across his chest. A loud chorus of frogs filled the night air with their music. Thanks to the bright moon didn’t look as dark outside as it had through the window. The porch light didn’t carry far past the deck but he could see the long overgrown back lawn, the flower beds marking the edge of the lawn, the large square of the garden filled with dried remains of plants and past that the field that was the main part of his property. Across the field stood the trees where he and AJ had built the treehouse.

The blue light flickered and bobbed within the treehouse, shining out of the single window facing the house. Clearly someone was there. Joel rubbed his jaw, stubble rough against his hand. He didn’t want to scare them, but just the thought of kids up in the treehouse made him feel queasy. He walked across the deck, skipped down the few steps to the lawn and started across. He’d have to get out there and tear it down. The treehouse shouldn’t have been left up all this time.

His eyes adjusted as he made his way across the lawn. He saw his faint shadow moving ahead as he reached the edge of the lawn and stepped off into the wilder field beyond. Dry tall grass tickled his elbows. He picked his way through the field, stumbling at times on the uneven ground. The blue light flickered and moved, reminding him of a candle, but what candles gave off that sort of light? Probably wasn’t a candle at all, but some sort of glow stick that the kids were holding.

Joel remembered another time, coming out here on a hot summer night with his sleeping bag tucked under his arm and his heart hammering a thousand beats per minute. The air hadn’t felt so cold that night, but it was cooler at least than his room. It was AJ’s idea that they sneak out to the treehouse and camp out for the night. Of course he couldn’t ask his parents if it was okay, his mom wouldn’t have thought it proper for him to camp out in a treehouse with a girl. At the time he both knew that his parents disapproval had something to do with kissing, and he thought the whole thing was weird because it was AJ. They always hung out together. But camping out together was something new, and exciting because they were sneaking out.

Now, as he got closer to the treehouse Joel still couldn’t make out anyone in the treehouse, just the blue glow coming from the window. The light flickered, dimmed and then brightened. Sort of like what he’d expect from an electronic device. A video game? But the light stayed a deep blue color and didn’t change. About ten feet from the trees Joel heard whispering. He stopped and listened. He heard the incessant croaking of the frogs, the wind rustling through the grass, and in the far distance the sound of a car. Nothing more from the treehouse.

Joel walked closer, almost to the first trees in the clump that held the treehouse. “Hey! In the treehouse! Come on down from there!”

The light winked out.

Joel put his hands on his hips and wished he had gotten a flashlight. “Come on, I need you to get down from there.”

Nothing. Nothing but the frogs and the cold wind that cut through his t-shirt. Bright stars and the moon lit everything clearly, and nobody came out of the treehouse. With the blue glow gone the window was a inky well of darkness. Boards nailed across the curved tree trunks made a ladder up to a trapdoor in the base of the treehouse. He could go around to the other side, there were windows in each wall, but he probably wouldn’t be able to see anything else. He couldn’t tell but they might have hung curtains in the window. It sure didn’t seem like the moonlight was getting inside.

“Listen,” Joel called. “That treehouse is very old. You could get hurt. Come out now, or I’m going to have to call the police.”

He crossed his arms and waited for the creak of the trapdoor opening, but nothing happened. The seconds passed and he started getting pissed. Maybe these kids were used to playing in the treehouse but they had no business being up there. This was his place now, and he and AJ had built the damned treehouse. They had no right to it. Even if they called his bluff about the police he was going to tear it down. He couldn’t have kids up there.

“Last chance, I’m warning you. Come on out now!”

A spark of blue appeared in the window. It flickered and danced but didn’t look quite like a flame. Then it spread out in all directions and thinned. The blue light poured almost like a liquid, tracing cheeks and a nose, swirled around dark eyes and poured over parted lips. She looked out the window at him with eyes that reflected back the moonlight.

Joel’s breath caught in his chest. He thought his heart might simply stop beating.

AJ.

That face, he knew it, the delicate features insubstantially traced in that blue glow, shifting almost like a candle flame, that was AJ. He took one step back and suddenly could move again. He turned and ran across the field toward the distant yellow porch light of the house. He tripped on a clump of grass and sprawled face down in the field. He scrambled up and ran again.

Joel reached the lawn, crossed it in a few strides and sprang up onto the deck. He yanked open the door and stepped inside. Only as he slid it closed did he look back.

The treehouse was dark again. No blue lights. No sign of AJ.

Joel groped for one of the dining room chairs and sat down. He put his elbows on the table and clasped his hands to stop them from shaking. His head hung as he focused on breathing. In and out, just the breath flowing past his lips. When he felt steadier he raised his head and looked out the sliding glass door, dreading what he might see. The treehouse was dark. The porch light cast a yellow circle of light on the red-stained boards of the deck. Superimposed over it all was his own ghostly reflection. A man on the verge of forty with extra pounds showing in his face and around his waist, his sandy brown hair buzzed close to his scalp. Hardly the skinny boy of thirty years ago with a mop of hair always in his eyes.

Slowly, feeling his years, Joel stood up and turned off the porch light. He went back through the house, turning off the lights as he went until he got to his office. There he sat down in front of the computer and with a few clicks opened his pictures folder. He scrolled through and opened the folder with his childhood photos. It took a few minutes to find the one that he wanted, but then he saw it and opened it in the picture viewer.

Two grinning, tanned kids stood waving on a bright summer day in front of the treehouse. AJ looked like a forest sprite with tiny daisies braided into her hair. Her nose had a small wrinkle between her eyes as she smiled, and there was a spray of freckles across her cheeks and nose. It was definitely her that he’d seen in the treehouse. He had hoped that somehow he was mistaken, that his memory was tricking him, but that was her. The picture was taken only a couple weeks before she died.

Joel rubbed his eyes. Had he really seen her ghost out there tonight? That’s what it seemed like, but that couldn’t be, could it? He stared at the picture. He hardly recognized himself, but AJ, she looked mostly the same. More vibrant and alive in the picture, of course. Not made of glowing blue smoke or whatever that was that he had seen, but it didn’t matter. He knew he had seen her.

He shook his head and hit the keystrokes to turn off the computer. Then he turned to the other computer and shut it down too.

Maybe he had seen her ghost. Maybe she came back because he moved into the house. He didn’t know and it didn’t matter, tomorrow he’d work on tearing down the treehouse. It should have happened a long time ago.

Joel turned out the light switch as he left the room. He hesitated and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Gradually he could make out the moonlit field and the dark shape of the tree in the distance. Nothing else.

He went to bed.

💀

The sun was almost straight overhead before Joel put aside the latest flattened cardboard box and admitted to himself that he was avoiding go out in the back yard. Even on this bright sunny, but cold, day, he didn’t want to face the treehouse again. But if he put off tearing it down would AJ come back again tonight?

He didn’t want that. He couldn’t face it again. Joel went over to the garage wall were he had been hanging his tools. He took down the long crowbar and headed out the back door into the yard.

The treehouse looked less frightening beneath a clear, sunny sky. The frogs were quiet. A few crows clung to the branches above the treehouse. Joel started across the lawn and the crows took off, flying out across the field toward the woods that ran along the back fence. Joel knew this whole area, which had managed to remain mostly unchanged despite the years. Part of that was the creek that snaked along the west side of the property, causing most of the property to fall under wetland buffer laws. It had kept this area from being developed the way the neighborhoods had taken over the other side of the street where he had lived as a kid. Not that he and AJ ever spent much time at his house. Why would they, when he only had a small yard and AJ had acres to explore? Plus the woods, which seemed to stretch on forever.

His first day back in town he had driven by the houses just to see what the places looked like and he had seen the for sale sign in front of AJ’s old house. It felt like fate when he called the realtor. Now he clutched the crowbar and looked at the treehouse and wondered if he had made the right decision. Maybe he should have stuck to places across town, it would have been closer to work, instead of acting on impulse and buying this place. But the price had been good and most of his memories were positive. All except the end.

Joel tromped through the last of the grass in front of the trees and came right up under the treehouse. The trapdoor was closed. He lowered the crowbar and then leaned it up against the trunk. Before he could question what he was doing he grabbed the boards that made up the ladder and hoisted himself up onto the trunk. It didn’t go up all that high but just being off the ground made him feel slightly dizzy. He looked up at the trapdoor and climbed up, carefully testing each board for any weakness before he trusted his weight to it. He wasn’t a skinny kid anymore.

At the top he reached up for the trapdoor and felt sticky spider webs on his fingers. He jerked back and looked closer. Webbing stretched across the trapdoor and old webs dangled, moving slightly in the faint breeze. A fat spider crouched in one corner, watching the web. Tiny mummified corpses hung from other strands.

Joel swallowed. Clearly no one had been inside the treehouse in a while. But then a ghost wouldn’t need to disturb the webs, would she? He grimaced and reached through the webs to the latch on the door. It had rusted and didn’t move easily but he pried at it until it popped loose and hung free. Then he pushed up, half expecting the latch inside to be fastened as well but the trapdoor lifted, hinges squealing and webs breaking. The spider scurried for safety across the bottom of the treehouse.

With a thud the trapdoor dropped back into the treehouse, shaking loose dirt and debris that rained down on Joel. The smell of dust and mildew filled his nose and he sneezed. He shook his head, wiped his face on his sleeve and peered up at the opening. He could almost hear AJ’s voice telling him to come on up, but there wasn’t really anything except one of the crows calling in the distance. His back ached from clinging to the boards. Up or down, he had to decide.

Joel sighed and climbed up the next couple steps. He put his hands on the floor on either side of the opening, wet slick leaves slipped beneath his fingers. He stood up and was in the treehouse at chest height. It didn’t look like anyone had been in the treehouse in a long time. The leaves piled in drifts in the corners and were matted down against the boards. Small plants had sprung up from the litter, including a small tree growing near the center of the treehouse. There was a gap in the moss-covered roof above. Spider webs hung thick across the underside of the roof, and stretched across the open windows. Up close the treehouse didn’t look all that safe. The boards could easily have rotted so much that they wouldn’t hold his weight.

But his plan had been to climb up inside and start by dismantling the roof first, and work his way down the walls, removing the floor and the ladder last. If he couldn’t stand inside then he was going to have to rethink his plans and get a tall ladder or something so that he could work from the outside. He reached out and pounded on the floor with his fist. Leaves squished beneath his hand but the floor felt solid and strong.

Joel braced his hands on both sides of the trapdoor and boosted himself up. Already into the movement he felt a sharp pain on the right side of his chest and in his right shoulder. He almost collapsed and dropped through the hole, but managed to sort of topple over onto his left side into the treehouse. The floor didn’t crumble beneath him. It felt strong and solid. Joel groaned and sat up, scooting back so that only his legs dangled through the open trapdoor. The boards seem secure enough, but his shoulder burned with pain. He must have pulled a muscle. He cradled his right arm in his lap and shook his head.

So stupid! He was supposed to start work on Monday and now he had hurt his arm. He had to go into work, he couldn’t afford to jeopardize this job. If he minimized writing on the chalkboard he might make it through okay.

Despite the debris and signs of age the treehouse looked very much like he remembered. With the trapdoor closed there had just been enough room for him and AJ to roll out their sleeping bags.

“I wish the ceiling opened up,” AJ said. “Then we could see the stars.”

Joel didn’t move, he didn’t turn to look at her. He cradled his arm and looked down between his feet. From here it looked like a lot farther down, but not too high, just high enough. One slip, and AJ had fallen, her arms spreading out like wings. Then she was on the ground, lying flat on her back looking up at the treehouse. Joel had expected her to move, to roll over, cry, groan or laugh. He kept waiting for her to do something but she didn’t do anything. A freak accident, his parents called it later. If she had fallen an inch or two to the right the fall might have knocked the wind out of her, but there was the branch and she just didn’t move.

“Don’t you wish we could see the stars?”

Then he turned his head enough to see her sitting on the opposite side of the treehouse with her legs drawn up against her chest, her arms wrapped easily around her knees. She was hard to see, the blue light she was made of was washed out by the daylight coming through the windows. She was like a faint blue flame on the verge of being blown out, but he could still recognize her.

“It’s daytime,” Joel said. “We can’t see the stars at all.”

“Oh.” AJ cocked her head at him and squinted. “You don’t look the same.”

Joel nodded, surprised at how calmly he was taking her presence. “Right back at you, kid.”

She laughed, her voice faint and high.

“What are you doing here, AJ?”

“Waiting for you, like always. You’re so slow.”

A shiver ran up his arms and Joel winced.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“It’ll be okay. I’ll ice it at home.”

“I think we should go see the stars now, why wait?”

“It’s daytime.”

“But the stars are always there.” AJ sprang to her feet and held out a faint hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

Joel reached out with his own hand, also blue and faint in the sunlight. He turned his arm, marveling at the way he could see right through to the sapling growing at the heart of the treehouse.

AJ took his hand and, despite the fact that both of their hands looked insubstantial, he felt her warm grip in his. Not only that but his hand matched hers in size. He stood and looked down, realizing that he had changed. His body was his as he remembered the last time he was with AJ, a young boy playing in the summertime.

Far down below he lay on his back beneath the treehouse, looking up with wide open eyes. Joel couldn’t see the crowbar but he knew it was there too, beneath him. A freak accident, people would say. He must have been climbing up to tear down the old treehouse and fell, landing on the crowbar.

Joel looked into AJ’s clear blue eyes that he had missed for so long. “Let’s go look at the stars.”

And they did.

💀

3,708 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 70th weekly short story release, written in March 2011. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Placer Crime.

Collected Stories of 2009: Witness to Dust

The Dust came and Death followed. An alien pandemic unleashed on the world, transforming people into Dusters.

They called themselves Witnesses. Witness to what?

Delancie Haines didn’t know. She read the news, saw the reports about the new minority, hated and feared by everyone. Stories of loved ones transformed, turning on their own families.

She didn’t understand. Not until Death chased her down the trail.

🚀

Delancie Haines didn’t have breath to curse but she sure as Hell swore silently with each step as she ran from Death down the old railroad trail.

Nowhere else to go. On either side the ground dropped off into deep ditches clogged with brushes beneath the drooping bows of the Douglas fir and cedar trees. If she tried leaving the trail the creature would be on her in a minute.

So she kept running. No fun left in running now. Her arm pulsed with pain and the blood ran down before flying off her elbow. Her breath sounded ragged to her own ears. And behind her, she heard the sound of the creature’s claws scrapping on the pavement with each stride. Death’s breath came hot and heavy, thick with excitement.

But he’d have to work to catch her. She wouldn’t make it easy.

Despite the pain, she found she didn’t feel scared. Pissed, yes. It galled her that she’d be fodder not only for the beast but the newspapers. The forest on either side looked beautiful, rich and green, glistening from the constant drizzle that rained down from the cloudy sky. It pained her that she’d never see it again.

Ahead, at the bottom of the slope, she saw the bridge over the Deschutes. The wood planks ran across of the old railroad bridge. Chain-link fences lined either side. During good weather people swam in the pool beneath. But today there’d be no one.

Except for the house overlooking the river.

Delancie stumbled. No way she’d make it that far. It sounded like the creature was right behind her now. She half expected to feel his claws at her back but she regained her stride and pumped onward. He had to be so close. She could smell him again. A rich organic scent like a freshly turned compost pile. She’d smelled it before he came out of the bush but she hadn’t recognized it until she saw him.

If she hadn’t been running already this chase wouldn’t have happened at all. He misjudged and she got away with only the cuts his claws left in her shoulder.

Across the bridge. If she could make it that far, get help from the people in the house. It was a chance.

She concentrated on moving her legs. Her breath rushed in and out. She pumped her arms in time. Death’s breath panted relentlessly behind her. She didn’t dare look back.

The bridge was right there. Delancie imagined her feet hitting the wood. The hollow sound it made with each stride. It hadn’t been that long ago that she’d run across it coming the other way. She could almost see herself running blissfully in ignorance towards her death.

A low snarl behind her and something snagged her shirt. Fabric ripped. A chill ran through her limbs and she pushed as hard as she could. Running with everything she had until she felt like she was going to puke. Fine, puke, but she wouldn’t stop. Not for that. Not for anything.

She wanted to see the Sun shine again. She wanted to admire Mt. Rainier towering like an impossible snow-capped colossus over the landscape. She wanted a hot double-cheese pepperoni pizza straight out of the oven. Or a night watching movies with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. Hell, even another day at work, never mind what anyone might think.

The bridge was only a half-dozen strides away now. Delancie ran for it.

Claws raked fiery pain down her back, the fabric of her shirt shredding like tissue paper. The force of the blow nearly drove her to her knees. She cried out. She screamed with as much rage as pain. No fucking way! Not like this!

Delancie slammed her elbow back. She connected with something that felt like a wood post but the beast fell away and she was still on her feet. She ran ahead onto the bridge. The chain link rose up on either side taller than her head.

Trapped.

She heard the beast’s claws on the wood. She felt sick and weak. She hated it and knew, she knew, she couldn’t make it to the end of the bridge.

Desperately she jumped at the chain link. She caught the wire and climbed despite the pain. The beast growled. She heard it coming.

She kicked out at the sound with everything she had. Her foot hit the beast solidly. She climbed. Grabbed the top of the fence.

Sharp spikes of pain sank into her calf and a terrible weight nearly pulled her from the fence. She clung to the fence and screamed.

“No, fucker! No fucking way!” She slammed her free leg down on the beast. Pain flared up in her leg and her stomach heaved.

Vomit exploded from her lips. She tasted her salad with Italian dressing again. She felt dizzy. She kicked down again as hard as she could. Again.

The weight vanished. Her arms felt like lead but she pulled up. Her breasts scraped against the top but she bent over..

…vision swam…

…water dark and rippling below…

A growl and scrambling on the wood.

Delancie swung her legs over the top of the fence. Her fingers still hung onto the wire. The beast hit the fence and shook it.

She blinked and saw it clearly, inches away through the fence.

A man, except not. A bare muscled chest and arms like two small tree trunks. Nice. Thick neck leading to a face not too human. A short muzzle with dozens of small, sharp teeth. Eyes an impossible blue like a high mountain glacier lake. Shimmering blues-black layers of chitin surrounded the eyes, covered his cheek bones and spread back over his head like a helmet. Despite the alienness she thought it was a nice masculine face.

“Fuck you,” she said sweetly.

She let go. Falling felt like rest. She closed her eyes. It ended too soon. She hit the water and it knocked the wind out of her.

She went under. Oh Hell.

🚀

Delancie grabbed the bed rails and pushed herself up. Pain ripped along her back and shoulder. She cried out.

“Whoa, you didn’t try to get up, did you?”

The speaker was a fortyish black nurse giving her a look that forbid any disagreement. The room had plain walls with a television on a mount above the bed. Metal rails on the sides of the bed. A hospital then. She should have known from the medicinal smell alone. Delancie eased back down, that hurt, rolled onto her good side and breathed a little easier.

She attempted a smile. “Better?”

“I’d better not find you getting up again,” the nurse said. Delancie saw her name tag read Sarah.

“Okay. Where am I?”

“Saint Peter’s hospital. You’re lucky to be alive after a Witness attack.”

A Witness. Delancie closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them again Sarah wasn’t in the room but she found an older man sitting in the chair beside her bed. She must have fallen asleep. So had her visitor. He sat slumped in the chair. He had neatly trimmed white hair, pale skin, and wore slacks with a comfortable-looking brown and white knitted sweater.

His eyes opened. “You’re awake.”

“So are you.”

His lips twitched but he didn’t actually smile. He rose from the chair and placed his hands on the bed rails. No wedding ring but he did have a ring on his right index finger. A surprisingly delicate gold band which held a shiny blue-black stone. No, she thought. Not stone at all. Chitin.

“You’re a Witness.”

“At least you didn’t use the term Duster. I appreciate that.” His voice was calm. He seemed patient.

“Isn’t that considered rude?”

“Yes, but I am also being rude. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m called Wainwright. I’m here to be your sponsor, Delancie.”

“Sponsor?” Delancie shook her head. She felt her gut sinking. She knew what he meant. “I don’t need a sponsor. The guy that put me here needs a sponsor.”

Wainwright nodded. “Yes, indeed. He’s already been identified and is receiving the care he needs. But we’re talking about you. Unless you trust me next time it could be you attacking someone.”

“I’m not going to attack anyone!”

“That’s what we’re going to work on. I’ll be in touch. Here’s my card.” He left the card on top of the service table.

“Wait, shouldn’t you be answering questions?”

Wainwright shook his head. “Not just yet. It’ll all make more sense later on. Get some rest.”

Delancie lay back in the bed, grimacing at the pain. Although, to be honest, it didn’t hurt all that much. Most likely they had her on some good painkillers. She remembered the feel of the Witness’s claws raking down her back, and…

 

A thrum of excitement fills the air as she stands before the crowd. The houses have segregated themselves. Blue Hive clusters closest to the stage. Their chitin gleams like oil beneath the Sun’s light. To her left gather the Green and Red Hives, each keeping an extra space of separation between themselves and the neighboring hives. On her right are the members of Yellow Hive, only slightly fewer than Blue. The wind brings with it the co-mingled scents of so many people. Her mouth-parts vibrate as she draws in the odors. Their excitement pours across her pods like a fiery rush of hot blood. This is why she performs. This moment when she stands at the confluence of these hives beneath a deeply blue sky.

 

Delancie gasped. She clutched the bed sheets. For an instant she’d been somewhere else. Someone else. She still felt the sadness that underlay the excitement of the impending performance.

She lay in the hospital bed and turned the experience over in her mind. The people in that audience hadn’t been human at all. As it unfolded she hadn’t found anything odd in the way they looked because she hadn’t been herself. She’d been… Someone, the performer. She knew the name. It stuck in her mind like seeing an actor she recognized in a movie and not being able to recall the name.

But there wasn’t an Internet Movie Database for this.

Like everyone she’d read about what the Witnesses went through but she’d never realized it was like this.

The door to the room opened. Sarah came in and for a half second Sarah looked like the alien. A strange, soft, oddly colored alien. Her weakness made Delancie’s mouth water. Sarah looked like food.

The sensation passed in an instant and Sarah was only Sarah, her nurse. Even so it left Delancie shaken. She pointed at the service table just out of her reach.

“Can you give me the card, there?”

Sarah smiled. “Of course, hon. Here, let me move this closer.”

She wheeled the table up so it extended across the bed above Delancie’s waist. “Is that better?”

Delancie picked up Wainwright’s card. Just his name, number and email address. Nothing more. Plain type.

“Yes, thank you. Are my things here? My cell phone?”

“I’ll get them for you, they’re right over here.” Sarah opened a small cupboard in the corner of the room.  A LCD monitor hung on a monitor arm off the side of the cupboard. Sarah took out a plastic baggy. “I’m sorry, your clothes were ruined.”

“That’s okay, just the phone.”

🚀

“You’re telling me I’m going to be a werewolf?” Delancie stood in her own tiny half-painted green kitchen, her arms crossed, staring at Wainwright reclining on one of her so-called antique wood dining room chairs. No matter what he sat in he seemed to recline and melt into the furniture. His calm vibe got on her nerves. “Really? Isn’t that the gist of it?”

Wainwright shook his head. “We don’t like being called werewolves any more than Dusters. And with my help you can learn to control the change. You must, or you’ll make someone else the victim.”

“How many people just give up and eat a bullet instead?”

Wainwright grimaced. “Too many. I don’t think you’re one of them.”

He had her there. Delancie turned away from him because if she didn’t she might start shouting. And it wasn’t Wainwright’s fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, even the poor bastard that lost control.

And she didn’t want to be like that. She’d just put in the new bamboo eco-counter top in her kitchen. She picked up a plain hemp dish towel and wiped away a few crumbs from her morning toast. Wainwright was right. She wouldn’t eat a bullet.

That didn’t mean she needed to accept what he’d told her either.

She shook the crumbs in the sink and turned back around. “There has to be a way to cure this. Something that can be done before it goes any further. Aren’t there treatments?”

“Treatments? No. Not the way you mean.”

“So I don’t have any choice?”

Wainwright stood up. He smiled sadly at her. “You can either accept my advice or take the consequences if you don’t. You choice. You know how to reach me.”

Delancie slammed her hand down on the counter. “You can’t just walk away!”

Wainwright paused and looked back. “Watch that temper.”

Then he left. Delancie swore and leaned on the counter. She needed to run. She always felt better after a run.

🚀

When she hit the trail she turned towards Yelm. Not running away from what happened. She wanted to see different scenery. Six miles to Yelm, another four out along the Yelm Prairie Line trail and then back. Twenty miles. After a run like that she wouldn’t need to worry about changing into a monster. She’d collapse and sleep for ten hours.

She ran toward the Sun and it played hide-and-seek among the trees over the trail. A few clouds decorated the sky. Her breath moved easily in and out of her lungs. She felt good. Her wounds didn’t hurt. She didn’t even have any scar tissue. That freaked her out when she noticed that there was hardly any marks left by her attacker. Wainwright explained it but she hadn’t needed the explanation. She knew right away what it meant. She’d known since her first inherited memory.

She was a Duster. A freak. A werewolf.

Her face burned at the thought. She didn’t think that about other people. She understood that they didn’t have any choice about what they were, any more than anyone else with an illness. She didn’t approve of treating them like lepers. She’d always believed that the condition could be controlled.

But now she felt violated. It wasn’t even the attack. It was what happened. Like carrying a rapist’s baby. The thought of alien bio-tech coursing through her veins, remapping her DNA and changing her into something else made her angry. How dare they send that out into the universe, knowing that if it worked it would profoundly alter whatever life forms it came into contact with?

Much more practical than trying to send out starships to colonize other worlds. Just send out dust spread by the solar winds to rain down on other worlds and remap them to match your own physiology and embed memories so that the culture carried over as well. Better than any message. No need to decode it because the transformed organisms would simply understand the memories as if they’d lived them.

Delancie breathed deep. Her muscles flowed smoothly. She noticed a cross street ahead and checked for traffic on either side. Then she saw the name of the street. Bighorn. She’d reached the outskirts of Yelm already.

She checked her watch. 24:30:23. Impossible. She couldn’t run a four-minute mile. She considered stopping but she felt great. Fantastic. She crossed the street and kept going.

She ran past a housing development, the Nisqually Valley Golf course and then on into Yelm itself. She reached 510, darted in front of a large SUV and was across, ran past the metal wagon wheel onto the Yelm Prairie Lane trail. She kept running. She hadn’t even been trying before. She pushed harder. She felt her muscles work smoothly. Her left knee didn’t bother her. The wind blew past her face.

It didn’t take long for her to reach the end of the trail. She checked the time. 39:02:03. Delancie stopped. She put her hands on her hips and waited to be sick. She felt fine. Her heart dropped back to a normal rate. She didn’t even feel sweaty.

Impossible.

She turned around. Could she beat the time back? She grinned and took off running. She pushed. She sprinted. She didn’t hold back at all. She flew down the trail.

Pain!

It felt like a baseball bat connected to her skull and tried to drive her head out of the park. She dropped and her momentum rolled her across the trail. She ended up on the grass curled into a fetal position. She clutched her head as if she could hold it together.

She screamed. She lost all control then and seized. Her body thrashed in the grass. Her fingers burned. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t even scream anymore. She rode the convulsions until she thought she’d die and they kept going.

Delancie eventually realized that the convulsions had stopped. Warily she tried moving. Everything hurt. She reached up and froze.

Her fingernails hung by strips of skin. In their place were dark blue-black claws. Lighter blue chitin covered the backs of her fingers to her mid-knuckle.

“Fuck no.” She sat up and carefully reached into her pocket. The claws made it awkward but she got her cell phone out. She pushed the voice command button. “Call Wainwright.”

He met her on the trail with a baseball cap, sunglasses and gloves. Delancie snatched them out of his hand.

“Thanks.”

“Take a breath,” Wainwright said.

Delancie glared at him. He looked so soft and he had the gall to stand there and tell her what she should be doing.

“Think,” Wainwright said. “Think about what you’re feeling. Why are you so angry?”

“Because…” She couldn’t say why but it felt like everything must be his fault. She growled deep in her throat.

Wainwright held up a mirror in front of her face. He might as well have thrown a large bucket of ice water in her face. She shivered.

She’d always known that she was pretty. Twenty-four years old, with fair skin and a complexion her girlfriends always admired. She felt guilty because she didn’t have any extensive regime to maintain her skin. Even with all the running and weather her skin usually glowed with health. No one would be signing her up to win a beauty pageant but that’s only because she didn’t fit the standard mold. With her green eyes and little nose she looked good. Unconventional, but pretty.

She didn’t recognize the face in the mirror. It looked like her jaw bones had been pulled apart, widened. Rays of chitin extended from her now-missing eyebrows back over her head. And her green eyes had gone over to a deep sky blue. It was a striking face still, but broader and more powerful than her own. An alien face.

Wainwright lowered the mirror and held out the glasses. Delancie took them, slipped them on and then did the same with the hat. Before she could put on the gloves she had to brush away her fingernails. It seemed like it should hurt but it didn’t. She pulled on the gloves. She shoved her hands into her pockets as they left the trail to walk over to where Wainwright had parked on the street.

At home Delancie stripped off the hat, gloves and sunglasses and went straight to the mirror near the door. Wainwright came in and shut the door while she studied her modified appearance.

She looked at him. “How long does this last before I go back to looking like normal?”

Wainwright shrugged. “I couldn’t say. It varies. Some never switch back.”

“Have you changed?”

“Yes.”

“Did you attack anyone?”

“I killed my wife,” Wainwright said. He didn’t look away. He didn’t whisper. “I got mad. I got mad a lot in those days. It didn’t take much. Someone driving too slow on the freeway. Anyone working in customer service. I wasn’t mad at her. As usual she just got to hear about how my stupid boss pissed me off.  Then I went into convulsions. She tried to help. She called 9-1-1 but before they got there I’d already changed and killed her. I injured two of the EMTs before I ran out. I was stalking a young girl walking home from school when the police shot me.”

Delancie’s knees felt weak. She went to her couch and sat down. She grabbed one of the pillows, saw her claws pricking the natural cotton cloth and tossed it away. She hugged herself instead.

Wainwright walked over to the chair-and-a-half and dropped down. He swung a leg over the arm and watched her.

She felt like crying. She felt like tears should be pouring out of her eyes but nothing came. Her eyes stayed dry. She couldn’t cry. She looked at him and couldn’t bear it. She looked away.

“What happened after that?”

“I healed. While I was in the hospital I changed back. A Witness came to me and helped me. That was still in the early days.”

“You didn’t know you’d been exposed?”

“No. It was the Dust back then. I didn’t know until the change. It’d been in the news. You remember how it was.”

Delancie nodded. She remembered the fear bordering on panic. The alien pandemic that turned people into monsters. No wonder people had been terrified. But the world went on and there was a new minority for people to hate. If anything the hate burned brighter because this was a contagious condition. She closed her eyes.

In the darkness she listened to her house. The refrigerator made noises, the ice maker. Wainwright’s breath sounded soft and steady. She focused on that. Matched his breathing. In and out.

She felt an odd sensation. Like her fingers had become straws in an extra thick milkshake and they were trying to suck up the ice cream. She kept breathing. The pressure built and then popped. She felt a pressure growing on her head and jaw. It didn’t so much hurt as it felt like a chiropractor making a difficult adjustment. Then everything felt better.

Delancie opened her eyes. Wainwright gave her a small smile and held out his mirror. She reached out and stopped. Her claws were gone but her nails were still missing. The tissue looked pink and fresh. Tears sprang up in her eyes. She took the mirror and looked at herself. She had her face back. Except her eyebrows. Tears ran down her cheeks. She set the mirror down and wiped the tears away.

She took a deep breath and looked at Wainwright. “Okay. I get it. What do I need to do? This changes everything, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, more than anyone unmodified realizes.”

🚀

That night Delancie went out in her backyard and stood beneath the bright full Moon. She didn’t change into a monster. It didn’t have any sway over her. The stars burned bright above, the Milky Way a cloud of stars across the sky. The air felt cool on her skin. She rubbed her arms. She didn’t know what the future held. But whatever happened from this point on she knew she’d handle it. She wouldn’t let this beat her and make her into a monster. And maybe someday she’d actually understand why someone up around one of those stars had done this.

Because right now she didn’t have a fucking clue.

Delancie gave the stars one final look and went back inside. Time for a movie and Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. She’d earned it today. Hell, she hadn’t killed anyone.

🚀

2,007 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 69th weekly short story release, written in November 2009. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Better the Boy.

Cross My Heart and Hope to Die

Librarians keep secrets. They keep secrets all the time and consider it part of their jobs to keep secrets.

Like many teenagers I was curious about sex. Unlike many teenagers i went to the library and checked out books. I’m sure others do the same thing. Don’t they? I’ve always been a book person. When I want to learn something I naturally look for a book.

When you’re a teenager and curious about changes that are going on in your body, you have questions about relationships, dating, sex and all of that you’re not going to talk to your parents. Or maybe you did. I have a great relationship with my parents but it wasn’t something I was going to ask them about. No particular reason. And not being religious I didn’t have any lessons drummed into me about how sinful it was or anything like that.

It was just private.

The most difficult thing was overcoming my embarrassment to take the books up to the counter to check out. At the time they didn’t have computers. No self checkouts where I could discreetly check out books without having to hand them to the librarian. Without really thinking too much about it I trusted that the librarians weren’t going to tell my parents what I was reading.

Kids have privacy rights and librarians have a responsibility to protect those rights and keep materials confidential. As a parent I feel strongly that it is not the librarian’s responsibility or job to interfere with whatever my son reads. I’d be furious if a librarian told my son he couldn’t check something out, or if they called me about what he borrowed. Fortunately most librarians wouldn’t dream of it. Rather it is some parents that actually want librarians to get involved. I don’t want to be in between a parent and child. I’m just going to step over here and you can discuss it with your kids.

And be happy that your kid is reading. Build trust and maybe they’ll actually come to you when they have questions. Or not. Free speech requires the ability to access speech that others might disagree with, to have the opportunity to make up your own mind.

Librarians keep what you borrow secret. Cross my heart and hope to die.

Plenty of Variety

Hard at work on creative projects (dictating to the computer).

Kristine Kathryn Rusch calls it popcorn kittens. Others might say that I have difficulty paying attention. I often find myself thinking, “Ooh, shiny!”

There are just so many things that I want to do. Stories to write, pictures to draw and paint, and so much more! What follows is a short list of some of the projects on my plate right now, that doesn’t include things I’m doing for work or school that might be creative.

Drive-By Stories

Drive-By Stories is up. It’ll never be complete. I expect the site will continue to develop and evolve as time allows. Still, the basic functionality is in place. When you visit the site it displays a random piece of flash fiction that I’ve written during my commute.

Things still to do:

  • Create a theme for the site.
  • Add cover illustrations (which will be randomly selected like the stories).
  • Write more stories.
  • When I hit 50 stories, publish first collection.

Illustrations

I want to work on illustrations. Not only for Drive-By Stories, but for all of my books and other projects. I’m continuing to work on my studies and practice, though with library school and work I don’t have as much time as I would like to continue working on it.

New Stories and Novels

I’d really like to get more longer stories and novels written. I want to return to series like Moreau Society and Goblin Alley, write the next book in the Land Lubbers series and release the first trilogy, and work on other series that I have notes and ideas for but haven’t had time to pursue.

Other Projects

I have some other projects too, that I’d like to do, as soon as time allows. That includes projects that are simply an idea phase as well as projects like new websites and new additions of my novels. In the weeks ahead I’ll share more details about each of these projects, my progress and challenges faced.

What About You?

What are you working on? Do you find yourself pulled in multiple directions?

Better the Boy

New pups mean trouble. Bones found himself pushed aside when the Masters brought home their new pup. The Boy. Unable to walk or do much. It didn’t last.

Now the Boy takes Bones’ place in the Masters’ bed. He walks. Grabs. Pinches. Bones watches the Boy carefully.

Whatever else the Boy might be, he is part of the family, a small Master — and Bones protects the Masters.

🚀

Bones heaved a sigh and dropped down on the blankets beside the bed. He put his muzzle down on his paws and sighed again. The stump of his tail twitched slowly and ebbed. The Masters had said, No! Go lie down! But he wanted up on the bed with them, beneath the heavy blankets, out of the cold. Instead the Boy was sleeping between the Masters. Bones’ ears pricked up to the sound of the Man rolling onto his side. Bones groaned over his stiff legs as he stood up and shook. Sometimes when the Man was on his side he allowed Bones up on the bed beside his legs. Bones shoved his nose beneath the edge of the blankets. It smelled of the Masters’ sweat and beneath that the milky smell of the Boy.

A hand pushed his head back. “No! Go lie down!”

Bones drew his head back. He licked his lips and walked out of the room into the dark hallway. A plastic gate stretched across the hallway at the end by the stairs, blocking his way downstairs, so he couldn’t get on the couch. Bones turned the other way and walked down to the bathroom. He inhaled and smelled dust and a faint rich fishy smell. Two eyes looked at him from atop the toilet and a low growl filled the air. The Cat. Bones stopped in the doorway and licked his lips again. He didn’t dare check the box with the Cat crouched on the toilet. Cautiously Bones went into the bathroom, only far enough to reach the metal bowl of water on the floor. He kept his ears alert for any sound from the Cat as he lowered his head. He lapped at cold water.

A blue light flashed through the window. Bones lifted his head and saw the Cat turn and do the same. Bones watched the window. The light came again, a bright flash of blue light. The Cat turned and jumped quietly off the toilet. He hugged the ground as he scurried past Bones and down to the Boy’s room. Bones backed slowly into the hallway, watching the window.

The blue light flashed again. He heard something this time. His ears pricked up and he heard a low humming noise. Not a car noise or a rain noise. Bones whined in his throat. He turned and padded down to Masters’ bedroom and went inside. The light flashed again, around the edges of the curtains blocking the window. Bones went to the edge of the bed and shoved his nose beneath the blankets again, shoving his nose right up against the Man’s bare leg.

“No! Bones, lie down!”

Outside the blue light flashed again.

Bones whined and poked his nose back beneath the blankets. A hand roughly shoved him back.

“No, Bones!”

The humming noise sounded closer and louder. Bones sat down and watched the window carefully. On the bed he heard the Man’s breathing slow and soon he started snoring again. The Boy made a sniffling noise and sat up in the bed. Bones could see him sitting between the Masters, facing the window.

The blue light flashed again and the Boy giggled, his voice high and painful to hear. Bones whined. The Boy’s head turned quickly and his tiny eyes looked right at Bones.

Bones stopped whining. He didn’t dare move. He waited for the Man to shove the Boy and tell him to lie down but the Man didn’t move. The Woman was snoring too. The blue light flashed again, and the Boy giggled more. This time he moved, crawling down the bed between the Masters. Bones stood up and considered his escape options. When the Masters first brought their new pup home the Boy couldn’t do much of anything. But now he had mastered running around on two legs and grabbing things with his hands, including pinching ears.

The Boy reached the edge of the bed and swung his legs down to the floor. He ran around the bed right at Bones as the light flashed again. Bones turned and ran out into the hallway. He stopped and looked back as the Boy came into the hallway. The Boy went straight to the gate and reached for the latch. Bones tensed. Surely the Boy couldn’t —

The latch popped free. With a grunt the Boy shoved the gate and it swung open above the stairs. Bones took a couple hesitant steps closer. He looked into the bedroom but the Masters didn’t wake. The Boy didn’t hesitate. He went to the top of the stairs and looked down, wobbling a bit. Bones worried that the Boy might fall, he did that often. But the Boy sat down and scooted forward until he dropped down to the next step. He giggled again.

Outside the blue light flashed again and still the noise continued. It wasn’t loud but Bones felt it through his feet all the same. The Boy kept moving, one step at a time, until Bones had to go to the top of the stairs to keep him in sight. Bones looked back at the bedroom, whining but the Masters didn’t wake up.

Bones barked.

“Bones be quiet!” the Man shouted. “Bad dog!”

Bones cringed. His tail stub tucked up tight against his body. Meanwhile the Boy had made it all the way down the stairs and was running away. Bones whined. If anything happened to the Boy, the Man and the Woman might blame him. Bones hurried down the stairs after the Boy.

Downstairs the blue light flashed even brighter through the kitchen windows. The Boy clapped his hands together and laughed. He turned and looked at Bones.

“Bone!” The Boy said happily.

Bones watched him warily. There was no telling with the Boy what he would do.

Then the Boy turned away from Bones and ran out of the kitchen into the dining area. Bones followed. If the Boy wanted food off the floor there wasn’t any. Bones had checked before they all went upstairs. But the Boy didn’t look for food. He went over to the door and pushed the flap on the dog door. Bones whimpered. The Masters had told the Boy not to touch the dog door but the Boy didn’t stop. He got down on his hands and knees, and then crawled through the dog door! The blue light flashed as the door flapped back and forth.

Bones ran over to the door, his nails clicking on the wood floor. He got to the dog door and pushed his head through. The Boy was standing up again on the porch. Moonlight lit the smooth grass, flower beds and the raised garden beds where Bones wasn’t allowed to dig. And past all of that, where the hill rose up to the fruit trees a dark shape hung in the sky right above the trees. Bones smelled something on the wind, a spicy sort of smell that made his nose itch.

The blue light flashed and lit the whole orchard and yard for a moment. Long enough for Bones to see small shapes moving around the orchard. More little masters! He whined even as the Boy clapped his hands and walked to the edge of the porch.

The Boy pointed. “Light! Boon!”

Bones pushed through the flap and stepped out onto the porch. He shivered. They shouldn’t be outside at night. He was being a bad dog, but he couldn’t let the Boy go by himself. He barked softly at the Boy.

The Boy looked at him. “Bone!”

Then the Boy sat down on the top porch step and scooted off. It only took a moment for him to reach the bottom step and then he got up and ran off across the lawn. Bones followed, keeping up easily, but he felt sick inside. Halfway across the lawn the blue light flashed again and Bones saw new little masters gathering together ahead of them, just beneath the fruit trees. The Boy fell forward when he stepped off the lawn but he picked himself back up and kept going. Bones stayed beside him.

The blue light flashed on again and stayed on this time. The Boy stopped and the new little masters were just ahead. Bones whined deep in his chest. The new little masters were taller than the Boy. They had bigger heads that lacked fur. Large black eyes shaped like the Cat’s eyes looked at the Boy and at Bones. One of the new little masters made noises like a bird and held out a hand with four long fingers to the Boy.

Bones jumped forward, barred his teeth and growled. His fur stood up and then he sneezed. He growled more and barked. The new little masters shrank back. Bones took a step forward, still growling and showing them his teeth. He barked again and again. The Boy started crying and Bones felt sick inside. He didn’t know what to do, but these new little masters were too much. They had to go! He charged forward, barking.

That did it! The new little masters turned and ran away up the hill. The blue light flashed brighter from the thing humming and hovering above. Two of the new little masters vanished with the light.

Bones heard the door back at the house bang open.

The Man shouted. “Liam!”

The Woman shouted something too.

Bones kept up his barking at the fleeing little masters. The light flashed quickly and each time two more vanished. Bones heard the Man reach the Boy as the last of the new little masters vanished. The humming increased and the object in the sky flew away faster than a crow, going straight up until it disappeared from view. He heard the Woman reach the Man and the Boy

“Bones!” the Man cried.

Bones cringed. But then the masters and the Boy were all around him, petting him and praising him. “Good dog!”

Bones’ tail stump waggled as fast as it could move. Bones licked hands and faces that pressed close. He wanted it to go on forever but eventually they drew back again and headed back to the house. Bones followed, running around them all the way. When they got back inside his people got out food, poured milk and sat around the table talking in excited voices. The Man gave Bones a big milk bone. He flopped happily beneath the table and chewed on the unexpected treat.

Eventually the milk bone was gone and his people sounded tired. The Man yawned and then they all got up, the Boy already asleep in the Woman’s arms. They all went upstairs to the bedroom and the Man latched the gate again. Bones wearily walked over to the blankets piled on the floor but the Man lifted the covers on the bed.

“Come on, Bones.”

Bones didn’t need to be asked again. He crawled up on the bed against the Man’s legs and closed his eyes.

🚀

1,873 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 68th weekly short story release, written in November 2011. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Better the Boy.