Category Archives: Reader’s Choice

No. 487, The Wreck, The Conclusion

Part One: http://aroundgray.com/?p=613

 

Vince had boarded himself up inside his cabin. He sat, with the light out, and wondered how he was going to get to the radio, located on the other side of the ship. Horrible, unnatural moans from the corridor set his teeth on edge.

The rest of the crew had succumbed to the evil that had woken from the deep.

There was a scream. It cut off abruptly.

Vince recognized the voice. Lexi, the newly-graduated researcher, in the adjoining room.

Had she hidden away, like he had? He realized that whatever controlled the crew would find him, soon enough.

He had no way to call for help. There was only one way to escape.

Vince opened the door slowly, and crept up the steep stairs to the main deck. There was no sign of bodies or crew, but there had been a chewing noise from Lexi’s quarters.

Vince shivered.

He crawled into a lifeboat and released the lines.

He would take his chances on the open ocean, alone.

No. 483, The Candy Rebellion, The Conclusion

Part One: http://aroundgray.com/?p=607

 

The chocolate bar’s words were greeted with a massive cheer. All of the assembled candies thought revolution was a brilliant idea.

“We will sicken the humans! We will choke them! We will stain their clothing and they will have no choice but to surrender to us!” the chocolate bar screamed from the podium.

 

A small group of hard candies whispered amongst themselves at the side of the assembly.

“Nobody ever eats us,” they wondered surreptitiously. “Why should we join with the others and draw attention to ourselves?”

“Do we alert the humans?”

 

But they did not have time to fully explore their mutiny.

All of the candies but the hard ones were suddenly collected into a large bowl and set beside the door in preparation for the trick-or-treaters soon to visit the home.

One-by-one, the delicious ones were dispersed to greedy children to be consumed.

The rebellion had been a short-lived dream.

 

The hard candies were left alone in the cupboard, once again.

“Same thing happens every year,” said their leader. “Almost makes you feel sorry for the others.”

“Almost,” the survivors agreed.

No. 482 – Blood on the Ice, The Conclusion

Part One: http://aroundgray.com/?p=611

 

“Demon!” shouted the center, Andrew Van Helsing.

He snapped his stick in half and stabbed Dracula in the heart.

Unfortunately for Van Helsing, the stick wasn’t wood, but an expensive blend of composites.

Dracula clutched his chest and fell to the ice, wounded, but alive.

Van Helsing was directed to the box to serve a considerable amount of time in penalties.

Dracula would go on to score the winning goal.

Frank and Molly

Part 1

No. 147 July 15, 2012

Frank Benson slumped against the railing at the bow of his ship. He drained the last of his whisky and then threw the tumbler overboard.
Benson had told the captain of the vessel to head due east, not to ask any questions, and to stay in the wheelhouse. So far, the man had obeyed. Benson allowed himself a brief moment of satisfaction. If you’re rich enough, people will do whatever you want.
But what Frank really wanted was an out-of-the-way place to roll off of the deck and not be noticed or found. He checked his watch and grunted. He was fifteen hours into his plan. There was no Scotch left. It was time.
He heaved himself up and leaned over the edge. He watched the tropical sea wash by under the boat and then closed his eyes. He shifted his weight ever so slightly forward and began to go over.
A jarring lurch sent him tumbling backwards, away from the water. It was accompanied by a horrific grinding sound. He staggered back onto the deck.
“What the—,” he managed to get out before another jolt sent him into a capstan, knocking the air from his lungs.
He was immediately dizzy as the lack of oxygen and the liquor conspired with each other to keep him from getting up. He could feel through his hands and knees that the steady vibration from the engine had cut out.
He tried to call out again but could only produce a hoarse wheeze and a coughing fit. Giving up, he relaxed his limbs and fell over onto his back. Right before he passed out, he thought he heard something like high heels clicking on the wooden deck.
“Hi,” she said.
Benson opened one eye.
“Are you awake?” the sultry voice asked him. “I hope you are.”
The other eye opened and now they worked together to piece together what was leaning over him.
Immediately Frank felt embarrassed. He could see straight down this girl’s shirt. Shaking his head self-consciously, he turned away and manoeuvred to a seated position.
“Hi,” she said again.
Now Benson could see all of her. He wracked his brain trying to think of a beautiful woman he could compare her to. He couldn’t come up with a single one that was even close. Tall, lithe, blonde, and tanned, she was perfect.
But something wasn’t right. She shouldn’t be here. He’d specifically sailed away to be alone.
“How did you get on my boat?” he asked. “Does the captain know you’re here?”
She laughed. Frank thought it was the best sound he’d ever heard.
“You needed me,” she told him.
He looked in a complete circle for clues to her arrival. He saw something strange in the ocean.
“Is that ice?” he said. “Did we hit ice?”
That was what had thrown him back onto the ship, he realized. They’d hit an icefield two thousand miles from where one should be.
The girl smiled, but drew her lips to the side slightly in a manner that struck Benson as quizzical, yet flirty. “It happens,” she admitted. “Don’t worry Frank. Your boat is fine.”
“How do you know my name?” he demanded. “And you still haven’t told me exactly how you got here. Did you stow away?”
“You brought me here,” she pouted.
Frank leaned forward and rested his head in his hands. Was it possible he was dreaming this? It was a pretty good dream, if so.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
She looked startled, as if that was an unusual question. “I don’t have one.”
“You don’t have a name?”
She didn’t respond right away. She seemed to be thinking very hard. “No. Not unless you give me one.”
“What?”
Now Benson was reeling. Nothing was making sense. “How about I just call you Molly for now? Until I get things straight.”
The girl’s eyes lit up. “Yes!” she announced. Then she repeated the name, as if testing it out. “Molly.”
“So, Molly, one more time, help me out. How and why are you here, now, on my boat?”
She heaved her chest with a deep sigh and shot him a face that was somewhere between puppy-dog eyes and disappointment. “Because, Frank, you were going to hurt yourself.”
Part 2

No. 200 September 21, 2012

“I was,” said Frank.
He lay back down on the polished wood of the deck and closed his eyes. “I still might.”
“I don’t think you will,” said Molly, with her arms crossed stubbornly and one upturned eyebrow.
Frank groaned, a product of the drink and the girl’s sudden appearance.
“What are you going to do to help me, then?” he questioned.
Molly didn’t say anything. She turned quickly on her heels and walked confidently to the railing on the side of the boat.
Frank heard something splash in the water, but he didn’t open his eyes to see what had caused the noise.
He felt the boat begin to jump and quiver, as if it had been suddenly placed on the surface of a huge vat of boiling water. The sensation scared him enough to open his eyes and find something to hang on to. He was unprepared for the sight that greeted him.
Molly was still standing casually by the railing. Beyond her, Frank could see what looked like a giant pile of rocks rising from the sea.
The land surrounded the ship, and then collected it up with a terrific jerk that tore the vessel from the water’s surface. Frank held his breath as he watched large trees and thick grasses grow quickly from the barren landscape.
Then there was a peaceful silence. They had come to rest in the middle of a forest clearing, with no ocean in sight.
Molly turned to him with an impossibly bright smile on her face.
“This is your island,” she said. “I’m hoping that you’re able to help yourself.”
Frank tried to take in the absurd scene. He could only think to ask one question. “Where’s the Captain?”
“He’s fine,” said Molly. “Probably better than fine.”
“I’m hallucinating,” said Frank. “Or dead.”
“Oh hush,” said Molly. “You’d better get to work, though. It’ll be dark soon.”
“Doing what?”
“Well,” Molly hedged. “You’ll find that access to the cabin of the ship is impossible. I assume you’ll want to fashion a shelter and start a fire, to begin with.”
“Are you the devil?” asked Frank.
Molly made a shooing motion, and then sat down languorously on a bench to watch him.
Frank spent the next several hours fighting a hangover and sweating more than he had in the last three years combined. His survival skills were rough, but he’d once spent the weekend at a boot-camp designed to teach businessmen a valuable lesson about the nature of teamwork or some-such. He really hoped that Molly did not subscribe to the same theory.
He was able to construct a passable shelter beside the landlocked yacht and had started a fire by the time night fell, although he suspected that the darkness would have arrived immediately after he’d finished his work, no matter what the time actually was.
Molly had been watching him all afternoon, not saying a word, and seemingly impervious to heat or boredom. She still looked radiant in the firelight as she sat down beside him.
“Good job, Frank,” she told him.
The words of encouragement burrowed into him and found something deep inside.
“Thanks, Molly.”
Frank didn’t say anything else for awhile. He sat quietly, poking the embers in the bottom of the fire.
Several minutes passed in silence until he spoke again.
“Molly?” said Frank.
“Yes, Frank?”
“Why me?”
Molly drew her legs in and put her chin on her knees. She looked up into his eyes and replied.
“It’s not about you, Frank. It’s about me.”
Part 3

No. 307 February 10, 2013

Frank looked at her strangely. “But you said—.”
“I said ‘you needed me’,” Molly interrupted him. “I said ‘you brought me here’.”
She drew in her breath sharply, like a disappointed teacher. “But I suppose that it would be your nature to assume that the reasons that you need me are only your own.”
Frank took in the mysterious new island, his beached ship, and the seemingly insane girl sitting in front of him. “I really don’t understand.”
Molly played with a stray curl of her hair, thinking something through. Then, apparently having made a decision, she stood and crossed the small camp to sit next to Frank.
Frank felt more alive than during any time that he could remember.  He didn’t say anything, trying not to break the spell he was under.
She put her hand on his shoulder. His eyes widened.
“Frank,” she said softly. “When was the last time you thought about dying? Be honest.”
He remembered the moment instantly. “Before I named you,” he said in a whisper.
“So, do you see? We both got what we needed,” she told him, with one finger pointed at the middle of his chest. “And how is that all about you?”
Frank and Molly sat next to each other, not speaking, for a long time. The embers of the fire turned red, and then black. Eventually, the first rays of the sun appeared over the long horizon of the ocean.
“It’s morning,” said Frank.
Molly smiled and nodded. Frank watched her, trying to commit her face to memory.
“I won’t see you again, will I?” he asked, the answer already clear.
She shook her head.
“Goodbye, Frank.”
He stood, and brushed himself off, ready to return to his boat. He wanted with all of his heart to hug her, but the gesture seemed so small compared to what she had done. Instead, he told her.
“Goodbye, Molly.”
Frank Benson leaned against the railing at the bow of his ship. He watched the waves pass by as the vessel made for port.
He was ready to begin his new life.

No. 307 – Frank and Molly Part 3

Part 1 – http://aroundgray.blogspot.ca/2012/07/no-147.html
Part 2 – http://aroundgray.blogspot.ca/2012/09/no-200-frank-and-molly-part-2.html

Frank looked at her strangely. “But you said—.”
“I said ‘you needed me’,” Molly interrupted him. “I said ‘you brought me here’.”
She drew in her breath sharply, like a disappointed teacher. “But I suppose that it would be your nature to assume that the reasons that you need me are only your own.”
Frank took in the mysterious new island, his beached ship, and the seemingly insane girl sitting in front of him. “I really don’t understand.”
Molly played with a stray curl of her hair, thinking something through. Then, apparently having made a decision, she stood and crossed the small camp to sit next to Frank.
Frank felt more alive than during any time that he could remember.  He didn’t say anything, trying not to break the spell he was under.
She put her hand on his shoulder. His eyes widened.
“Frank,” she said softly. “When was the last time you thought about dying? Be honest.”
He remembered the moment instantly. “Before I named you,” he said in a whisper.
“So, do you see? We both got what we needed,” she told him, with one finger pointed at the middle of his chest. “And how is that all about you?”
Frank and Molly sat next to each other, not speaking, for a long time. The embers of the fire turned red, and then black. Eventually, the first rays of the sun appeared over the long horizon of the ocean.
“It’s morning,” said Frank.
Molly smiled and nodded. Frank watched her, trying to commit her face to memory.
“I won’t see you again, will I?” he asked, the answer already clear.
She shook her head.
“Goodbye, Frank.”
He stood, and brushed himself off, ready to return to his boat. He wanted with all of his heart to hug her, but the gesture seemed so small compared to what she had done. Instead, he told her.
“Goodbye, Molly.”
Frank Benson leaned against the railing at the bow of his ship. He watched the waves pass by as the vessel made for port.
He was ready to begin his new life.

Around Gray Publishes Mini-Stories, 251 – 300, November 24, 2012 – February 3, 2013

No. 251
November 24, 2012
“Sir, a man walked into our office, and he wants to speak to you,” said the office manager. “He claims to be a character from one of your books. Shall I call the police?”
Trevor Kasper leaned back in his chair. His voice, from behind the great desk, sounded like it was coming from a long way away. “No. Send him in.”
The visitor was led into the conference room. Kasper followed, moments later. They both looked at each other for a long while, neither saying a word.
“So,” said Kasper, breaking the silence. “You’ve sorted it out, then.”
“I must admit,” said the man. “It took me awhile.”
“What do you want?” asked Kasper.
The man sat down in the chair at the head of the long table. He removed a piece of folded paper from his pocket and set it in front of him before he replied. “What’s fair.”
Kasper didn’t hesitate to make an offer. “A million.”
The man didn’t to react to the amount. He merely tilted his chin slightly higher.
“Two,” said Kasper. “Three.”
Placing one hand conspicuously on the paper, the man rose and collected himself. “As you know, I’m not bothered by urgency. I’ll let you to think on a response. Until then, I’ll leave you with this light reading. I must warn you, though, it may be a touch familiar.”
Then he left the room. Kasper could hear him give his regards to the manager on his way out of the building. Kasper went back to his office immediately, clutching the page the man had given him.
He poured himself a drink from the bottle he kept in his drawer and closed his eyes. The past was coming due, and there was very little he could do about the situation. 
After he swallowed, he opened his eyes again and read the first lines of the unwelcome reminder.
I, Trevor Henry Kasper, understand that my fortune will have at its foundation a creation that will live fully in my writings, as well as in life. I will enjoy my success until such time as the creation recognizes my part in its inception and returns to me to avenge itself for what I have done to it in my works.
No. 252
November 25, 2012
There are sixteen things you need to know to be successful in life. I’m going to tell you two of them. The rest you can figure out on your own.
Number one. Only pick your nose when you’re absolutely sure nobody else is watching you.
And number two. If somebody arrives on your doorstep and tells you that they need your help to save the world, lean around them and take a look at the vehicle they arrived in. If it’s a pricey one, you’re good to go.
In my case, that vehicle was a helicopter, and the someone was a woman named Mia.
No. 253
November 26, 2012
The assembled members of the Grand Council of the Toys lorded over the lonely figure in the center of the bedroom.
“You are not a toy,” a voice boomed from the Council.
The cardboard wrapping-paper tube stood against the accusation. “But I am,” it said in its defence. “He plays with me!”
The Council would have none of it. “We have decided.”
A horde of plastic, wood, metal, and fabric descended on the tube. The gathered toys swept up the interloper and dragged the tube towards the door.
“You are hereby sentenced to death. You will be offered to the beast,” the Council declared from behind them.
Sumo the dog loped down the hall. His keen eyes spotted something new in the middle of the floor. It looked like a bone. Perhaps it tasted like one as well.
The tube could not stop the inevitable.
No. 254
November 27, 2012
Elmer Ebbet brushed the dirt off of the artifact.
“Is it a clue?” asked his assistant, Paige Smith.
“No,” said Ebbet. He picked up the ceramic coffee mug he’d just unearthed and threw it away over the steep cliff at the edge of the dig site. The cup smashed on the rocks at the bottom. “We’re no closer.”
Ebbet and Smith had been searching for the Tomb of the Ancients every season for the last six years. Guided to the approximate area by a hand-drawn map they’d found in the national archives, they’d continually been able to the raise the funds they needed. This time, however, the investors had drawn their line in the sand. If no solid evidence was found on this trip, the money would be cut off, and there would be no hope of ever finding the legendary source of the Ancients’ power.
“Was that the last target on the survey?” Smith asked quietly.
“There’s nothing else here,” Ebbet confirmed. He sat down in the dust and bowed his head. “We’re finished.”
Smith sat beside him. “We’ve still got three days. We should keep digging.”
Ebbet didn’t hear her. He was talking mostly to himself when he spoke next. “I don’t understand why the map was wrong. I did everything I knew how to verify it.”
A dark figure watched the old man and his partner from the tree line just north of the cliff-side campsite. He’d been well paid by his employers to keep an eye on Ebbet’s every move. After four deployments, he was almost beginning to feel bad for his mark’s failure.
Not bad enough not to do what would have to be done when the time came, but something, anyway. As for Smith, he’d be glad to see her go.
The observer slowly pulled a radio from his belt. He turned it on and whispered to his contact. “This is Broadsword. The Digger has admitted defeat. Is Protocol A in effect? Over.”
There was a slight delay in a reply. When it came through, the radio hissed and popped first. The agent ducked quickly out of sight in case the noise was overheard.
“Negative, Broadsword. Negative. Dreadnaught says they’ve still got time. Over.”
No. 255
November 28, 2012
“You know, nine out of ten doctors recommend that you don’t do that.”
“Who’s the tenth doctor?”
“Um, that’d be you.”
“Ah, that’s right,” said Lily Steward with a weak smile.
“Well, here goes nothing,” she continued, raising the syringe to inject herself. In theory, the softly-glowing contents would heal her, although the side-effects were largely unknown.
“Wait!” Ivan interrupted.
“Why?”
“It’s just, I wasn’t really kidding. Don’t you think you ought to try everything else before you resort to this?”
“Ivan, I have. You know that. I’m not crazy. I just want to live a normal life. I don’t want to worry anymore.”
“Give me a week,” said Ivan. “There’s one last avenue I’ve been working on.”
Lily lowered the needle. She sighed deeply. “One week. But only because my little brother asked me.”
“Deal,” said Ivan. “Shake on it?”
Lily nodded.  She placed the noxious cure on the counter and extended her hand.
Later that evening, Lily returned to the darkened lab and sat down. She retrieved the syringe from her locked desk drawer and took the cap off the end. She held her breath and plunged it down into her leg. The glow from the liquid seemed to seep up through her skin as the drug worked its way into her body. “I’m sorry, Ivan,” she whispered. “Next week would have been too late.”
Then she passed out. The glass tube fell from her hand and smashed. The remaining fluid inside hissed and bubbled as it hit the ground.
When Ivan Steward arrived again in the morning, the room had been destroyed. He came around the edge of the long table in the middle and saw the broken shards of the needle and a partially melted spot on the floor. There was no sign of his sister.
“Lily, what have you done?” he desperately asked the empty space.
No. 256
November 29, 2012
“Excuse me, are you Rick Collins?” asked a young girl holding a pen and paper in her outstretched hands.
“No,” said Rick Collins, letting the short reply hang uncomfortably between them.
“Oh,” said the girl. “Sorry.”
She walked away, leaving Collins alone with his assistant.
“Why do they always do that?” he asked.
“Want your autograph?” asked Stacy Williams while she scanned her phone.
“Bother me,” Collins clarified.
“Maybe because you’re a famous movie star? I don’t know,” said Williams sarcastically. “Why would they be interested in you?”
“Exactly,” said Collins sincerely.
Williams dropped her phone down and looked up at Collins. “Wow.”
“And do you know what, Stace?”
“What?”
“My chocolate milk isn’t going to grab itself.”
Stacy was shocked at his statement. Something inside her snapped and she threw the phone at Collins. He barely caught it as she began to tell him off.
“Rick, I’ve put up with a lot over the years, but I think that’s it. You act like there’s nobody else but you in your life, and maybe today is the day you learn that there is. I quit. You can get your own milk, and deal with your own problems. And, you know what? Maybe sign an autograph or two for some kids. It couldn’t possibly hurt you.”
She stormed off, leaving Collins with his phone, which was now buzzing with several urgent reminders. He stared at it blankly. This was Stacy’s job. He felt a sharp crush of fear in his belly.
Alone was scary.
No. 257
November 30, 2012
Tom Carolla tore up his betting slip and left the track. The races had not been kind to him. As he rounded the corner at the end of the block, a large man approached him.
“Tom, I hope you still have Mr. Solomon’s money,” said the giant.
Without saying a word, Tom handed over a small roll of bills.
The big man counted to make sure he had been given the appropriate amount. “This should cover it,” he confirmed.
“I might not be a great judge of horses, Dino,” Tom said. “But I’m not stupid.”
The man nodded. “That’s right. That’s why Mr. Solomon told me that if you paid up, I could offer you a job.”
Carolla’s interest was piqued. “What kind of work?”
“Mr. Solomon has a boat coming in tonight. He wants you down at the docks to deal with one of the passengers.”
Tom knew instantly who he was meant to “deal with”. “It’s Kate, isn’t it?”
Dino touched his nose, and his pointed silence confirmed Tom’s suspicions.
“Great,” Tom grumbled.
“And Mr. Solomon doesn’t want what happened last time to happen again,” Dino warned.
“Then can I have my money back?” asked Tom.
Dino smiled and tossed the roll to Carolla. “Not like last time,” he repeated.
The two men spent a moment watching each other in awkwardly.
“She’s my sister. I’m not her boss,” said Tom defensively.
“It’s a good thing she’s your sister, too, Tommy, or Mr. Solomon would have cut you loose years ago,” Dino laughed.
No. 258
December 1, 2012
“Guys, you have to see this.”
Brad Somersby pressed “Play” and the video started.
“Hi. It’s me. Brad Somersby. If you’re watching this, I’m dead,” he said on the tape.
The three people in the room studied the image with shocked attention.
The Brad on the screen kept talking. “In the event that something unfortunate has happened to me, I have some things to say.”
The real Brad cut off the rest of morbid speech before it could get going. He looked at the two others. They both stared back at him, confused about the purpose of the viewing.
His friend Sarah Hollander sat in the corner uncomfortably, finding the whole scenario distasteful. She said nothing, and tried to hunch further down into her seat.
Grant Martins spoke first. “You’re very clearly not dead, buddy. Why are you showing that to us?”
 “That’s the thing,” said Brad. “I didn’t leave that message.”
No. 259
December 3, 2012
Al Munsen wandered through the grocery store, trying to remember what was on his list, and failing to keep the canned background music out of his head. He walked up and down each aisle, grimly searching for something to eat for dinner.
He passed the fresh fish, and then took several steps back to see something that had caught the corner of his eye.
“What’s that?” he asked the man behind the counter. Al pointed at a large, colorful, slightly spiny fish that was laid out at the edge of the case.
“Oh, that?” said the man. “That’s a triggerfish. Nobody ever buys that.”
“Really?”
“Haven’t ever sold one. Not in the whole chain of stores. That’s all I know. Maybe people think it’s too exotic.”
“Why do you have one in, then?”
The man behind the counter became shifty. His nervous eyes darted back and forth, watching alertly for other customers. He motioned for Al to get closer. “Come here. Watch this.”
The man lifted the tail of the triggerfish and, to Al’s surprise, underneath was a small red button, half-buried in the ice. The man took one final check to make sure he and Al were alone, and then pressed it.
Al heard a hollow sound of something falling away, and then the whole ice-filled counter dropped slightly and rolled aside to reveal a narrow trapdoor.
“Come on,” the man beckoned as he began to climb down a ladder. “Check this out.”
Al was intrigued. He placed his basket on the floor, and, with a shrug, followed the man through the hole.
They arrived in a small room. There was a large, metal door in front of them. The man took the handle and slid it open to reveal a gigantic freezer. Frost had built up around the edges of doorframe, and Al couldn’t see inside because of the cold fog that condensed into the warmer landing area.
The man said nothing, but held out his arm, inviting Al to enter the cooler.
The change in temperature was abrupt and significant as Al walked in. He started shivering almost immediately. He didn’t notice the man stay behind as he crept slowly forward into the gloom. As he entered the heart of the ice box, the fog dropped away.
Al gasped. He was not the only being inside. He turned to reach for the exit but the man slammed the heavy door shut. Al spun around to face his new companion.
The huge white creature roared and stumbled toward Al, loping forward on its squat back legs and long, powerful arms. In seconds, the yeti was on Al, howling and tearing at him.
The man at the fish counter whistled while he prepared an odd, red meat. He labeled it “Tuna” as he placed it in the display beside the striking triggerfish.
No. 260
December 4, 2012
It was eleven o’clock on Saturday night as Lewis Halliday looked out the window of the Mississippi steamboat he captained. The sunset was long behind him, and he guided his ship deftly down the river in the dark, taking care to avoid the dangerous sandbars he knew to be lurking just below the surface of the water.
Halliday kept his practiced hand on the wheel, every vibration and shudder of the boat travelling up through his arms. At this speed, they’d reach Memphis by morning. His hopes for an easy journey were dashed, however, when he felt, more than heard, the engine go silent.
“Silas!” Halliday called for his first mate. He knew he could trust the brawny man to help him sort out any problems. “Get to the engine-room! Make her right!”
“Yes, Sir!” Silas acknowledged from somewhere on the deck outside the bridge.
The engine-room was a Dickensian nightmare of steam pipes and fittings. Silas inspected each one for a flaw that might have slowed the mighty vessel. If he didn’t repair the engine soon, the Dixie Princess would be uncontrollable with no way to steer clear of the river’s obstacles. Silas hoped that the fix would be easy. There was no way to fabricate a part in time, if that’s what was needed.
Before he could finish his survey, the pistons began to move again as the steam built up. Control was restored to the helm.
“Well done, man!” Silas head the Captain’s voice from the speaking-tube. “She’s mine, again!”
But Silas scratched his head. What had just happened shouldn’t have been possible. After all, he hadn’t even seen the cause of the problem. He climbed a steep ladder back up to the open-air balcony at the stern of the boat. From his new vantage point, he watched the huge paddle sweep the water, driving the boat forward. He couldn’t detect any hint that moments before, the wheel had been solidly stopped.
Captain Halliday watched Silas duck back through the door to the bridge. “She feels good. You did a fine job.”
Silas took off his hat, and walked closer to YYY. In a hushed voice, so that other crew members could not hear, he explained a recommendation to the Captain.
“What?” said Halliday loudly. “We have a schedule to keep. I can’t allow us to stop for a moment, especially now, as we’ve already been delayed. We can’t miss our target.”
“Sir,” said Silas. “I beg you to reconsider. We need to tie up and shut down the engine to find out why it cut out.” Then he caught himself, and began to whisper again. “I know we have precious cargo, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that tonight is the first time the Dixie’s engine has ever failed.”
Halliday closed his eyes. He realized his mate was right. He replied, matching Silas’ low tones. “You’re correct again, old friend. But we can’t stop. Not for anything. I need to you go to stateroom three and stand guard. Perkins will relieve you in two hours. Don’t move for anyone but him.” Halliday turned his eyes back to the river before he spoke again. “If the engine goes quiet again, ignore it. Enter the room and shield the girl at all costs.”
Silas nodded, and left the Captain without another word.
Stateroom three was on the top deck of the boat. Silas looked down at the black water, four stories below. He pulled a three-legged stool beside the door of the cabin, and sat down. His hand fell to the smooth butt of the pistol he’d strapped on after leaving the bridge. They’d reach their destination in a little less than six hours. He needed to protect Miss Emma Becker until then.
Captain Halliday examined his pocket watch intently. Then he bent over the wheel and spoke to the Dixie. “Hang together, Grand Lady. We’ve got a deadline to make.”
No. 261
December 5, 2012
“You won’t remember for seven days,” was the last thing Henry remembered the hypnotist saying. At the time, Harry had told his wife that taking part in the show was a bad plan, but she’d insisted that they were on vacation and that “it would be fun.”
According to the newspaper that had been slid under his hotel door, it was indeed seven days later. Henry didn’t know where his wife was, but it didn’t seem like anybody had slept on her side of the bed. He pulled back the curtains of the large window in the tiny room, and saw something that worried him greatly.
Instead of the bright lights of Las Vegas, all that filled the view were scrubby cacti and sand.
Then he found the package in the bathroom.
Wrapped in plain brown paper and twine, it was heavy when Henry picked it up. He pulled the covering off carefully. Inside was a single solid-gold brick. The side facing Henry did not have any markings, so he turned it over. It was stamped “1862”. Underneath that inscription was another date, carved much more recently with some crude tool. That date was last week, the day after they hypnotizing.
Henry composed himself and left the room. He found his way to the front desk and asked the girl on duty where he was. She looked at him oddly. “Mr. Peterson, you’re in Arizona. You were quite specific about confirming that yesterday when you checked in.”
Henry stumbled back into a chair in the middle of the lobby.
“Mr. Peterson, are you alright?” asked the girl.
“Yes. Yes, thank you. I’m fine,” murmured Henry Cobb. “I just forgot something, that’s all.”
No. 262
December 7, 2012
“Hey, come look at this,” said Charlie.
“What is it?” I asked him. I’d been reading my book on the couch and I didn’t want to get up for nothing.
He was somewhere on the other side of the house. I could hear him knocking on something. The noise intrigued me, so I put aside my blanket and tea, and got up to see what he was yelling about.
“What?” I said again as I rounded the corner into the back bedroom. Actually, it wasn’t a bedroom. We’d always used it for an office because it was so small.
Charlie was tapping the wall on the far side of the room. “I think this is hollow.”
“Of course it’s hollow. It should be, unless there’s a beam behind it,” I told him.
“No,” he said. “No, this is different.” He thumped on the opposite wall. “Hear that?”
I did. It wasn’t the same sound. “Do the first one, again.”
He hit them both, one after the other.
“You’re right,” I admitted. “What do you think it is?”
He didn’t answer me. Instead, he pulled a hammer out of his toolbox and drove it through the “hollow” wall. The tool left an enormous gouge in the otherwise flat surface. Charlie grabbed the edge of the smashed drywall and pulled. It sloughed off in an entire sheet, as if it hadn’t been properly anchored in the first place.
I craned my neck to see what, if anything, it revealed.
“I might have made a mistake,” Charlie admitted when we didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary. There was just the usual pink insulation and framing boards.
“Wait,” I told him. “What’s this?” There was something just behind the edge of the new hole. I peeled back a portion of the wall that was still standing.
“It’s a doorknob,” said Charlie. “What’s a doorknob doing back there?”
I tugged the rest of that piece of drywall. It, too, came away easily.
“What’s an entire door doing back here?” I asked him.
We both stood for a minute and looked at it. Charlie was the first to speak.
“Do you think we should open it?”
No. 263
The Neighborhood Submarine Part 2
December 8, 2012
“First things first,” said Randy. “I’m in charge. You’re a year older, but it’s my submarine, so I’m the boss.”
“Ok,” Marnie agreed. “What do we do to start?”
Randy was surprised. He hadn’t expected her to be so agreeable. Maybe his idea would work, after all. “How much can you lift?” he asked her.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. A lot.”
“Good,” said Randy. “Me, too. We need to pull it from my back yard, to the pond.” He looked at his watch. “But we have to hurry. I need to be home for dinner soon.”
Both children tried their hardest to budge the submarine. Randy’s construction had skewed towards the durable, and the craft proved highly resistant to moving. They sat down together, and leaned on the smooth black hull.
“We’re having spaghetti tonight,” said Randy.
“You should probably go,” said Marnie.
They parted ways with promises to return to the problem before lunchtime the next day.
Randy went inside and washed up.
“What were you and Marnie up to?” his mom asked him while they sat down at the table.
Randy didn’t look at his mom, instead he watched Mr. Fluffy carefully select the spot on the floor that would allow the most efficient path to any food that might fall from the table. “We were trying to get my submarine to the pond. Nobody else would help.”
“I see,” said his mom. “I suppose it’s nice that you had one friend, though.”
“She’s not my friend, Mom. I told you. She’s the only one who showed up.”
“Is there a plan for tomorrow?” asked his mom, changing the subject slightly.
Randy took a bite of his spaghetti and chewed slowly before he answered.
“I don’t know yet. I have to call Marnie after dinner and see if we can think of anything.”
No. 264
December 9, 2012
Bees are typically assumed to be industrious and hardworking. Not Apis. Apis was a lazy bee. He accomplished this mostly by blending in. Looking exactly like everybody else made it fairly simple, and all Apis had to do was wander from one part of the hive to another, looking like he’d just arrived from someplace important.
None of the other bees ever noticed. Most were too busy going about their own business. Apis lived well. Better than the Queen, maybe. It was the perfect strategy.
Except that Apis was lonely. Living like a phantom meant that having friends was impossible. Too many questions would have to be answered, and Apis’ entire system would crumble the minute somebody talked. And if anybody found out how he’d been living, Apis would face the wrath of the entire colony.
So he kept up the deceit. Every day, he watched the other bees, beginning to wonder just what it might be like to join in. Every day, falling just a little bit farther away, until one morning another bee stopped him.
“Hey, you! You aren’t from around here, are you?”
Apis froze, and then turned slowly to face the inquisitor. He had a choice. He could answer falsely, and remain safe, or truthfully, and take his chances. He thought about it quickly, and then took a deep breath before he replied.
No. 265
December 10, 2012
Alan Conner deviated from his regular routine and turned left into the coffee shop, instead of crossing the street.
The barista behind the counter greeted him cheerfully, but he ignored her for the moment and concentrated on taking in his surroundings. His phone beeped at him quietly to remind him of an important appointment, but he ignored that, too.
“Sir, can I help you?” the barista asked again, mistaking Conner’s silence for indecision.
“Yes, thank you,” he replied. “Coffee, please.”
She looked at him strangely. “What kind of coffee?”
“I was just thinking about how I’ve never been in here before,” said Conner.
“We have light, or dark roast on, or we can make you any kind of latte that you want,” said the barista helpfully.
Conner’s phone began to ring. He fumbled to silence it.
“Busy day?” asked the barista.
Conner smiled. “No, not really.”
A line was beginning to form behind him, but he didn’t see it.
“I’ll tell you what,” said the barista. “I’ll get them to make you a latte. You’ll like it. It’ll be on me, today.” She directed Conner to the other side of the counter.
“Really nice place you’ve got here,” he said as he made his way over. Then he collapsed.
Somebody in line screamed. The barista ran around the bar to Conner’s side. “Call 911,” she yelled at her colleague who was near the phone.
“Hold still,” she told Conner. “Are you ok?”
“I’m awfully glad I came in,” replied Conner dreamily. “It’s not what I usually do.” Another alarm on his phone began to ring, and he managed to summon the strength to throw the device towards a trash can. It didn’t make the distance, and it shattered as it landed on the tile floor short of the target.
“What’s your name?” he asked the barista. “I’ll have to come by here again, sometime.” Then he passed out.
The barista continued to kneel beside him, and watched the slow rise and fall of his chest.
The paramedics arrived and Conner was soon on a stretcher and out the door to a waiting ambulance.
“They forgot his briefcase,” said the barista to nobody.
No. 266
No. 238 Part 2
December 11, 2012
Protagonist was still unconvinced. “Ok, say that we did do that. How do we make up a story, especially an original story? The machine is never wrong. There’s nothing left!”
A grin began to spread across Antagonist’s face. “But we’re not human, are we?”
“No,” said Protagonist, now beginning to understand. “We’re not.”
Antagonist leaned in close. “It’s up to us.”
Protagonist nodded. He watched the flat line continue to display on the machine’s printout. “How do we begin?” he asked.
Antagonist was very still for a moment. Then he answered. “First, we need a hero.”
As he said the words, the line on the machine jumped slightly.
No. 267
December 12, 2012
The invasion began at 12:22 AM. Olivia Fielder had just finished her homework, and had been heading to bed. Her father was shouting from downstairs. “Everybody get in the basement!”
Olivia had never heard her dad sound so afraid. She ran down the stairs, taking them two steps at a time. As she crossed the living room, she caught a glimpse through the window of what was happening outside.
Strange, colored lights flashed in all directions. Everything they touched melted instantly. Olivia could just make out a giant, shadowy shape that was moving slowly towards her. She stood, frozen in place, until her dad grabbed her and dragged her back to the relative safety of the basement.
“Stay down!” he warned her.
She could see the panic in his eyes. Her mother and little sister were already in the corner, shaking, but silent.
The entire house rumbled as something huge rolled by. The Fielder family huddled closer together and followed the sound as it passed. Olivia could feel the hairs on her arms stand up.
“What about Brooke?” asked Olivia’s sister. Brooke was a friend from down the block.
Mr. Fielder delivered grim news. “We can’t worry about Brooke right now.”
Something in her sister’s question rallied Olivia. Before anyone could stop her, she got up and dashed toward the exit. “I’m going to find out,” she told her astonished family. She rushed up the stairs and darted out across the lawn toward Brooke’s house.
“Stuff you, if you thought that the last thing that I was ever going to do was study!” she yelled at the attacking armada.
No. 268
December 13, 2012
William Drake had been raised, since he was very young, to act like the King. The King was the same age as William, and the two boys were identical in appearance. But William was poor, and his family had decided for him that when the time came and he was sufficiently trained, that he would switch places with the King and rule in his place.
Years of practice in combat, diplomacy, manners, and law, not to mention memorizing all of the members of the court, had left William as ready as he would ever be to usurp the throne by the time of his 16th birthday.
However, as his family readied the final steps of their nefarious plan, something unexpected happened. The King died, gruesomely and publicly, in a terrible accident. The new regent was a queen, the deceased ruler’s cousin.
There was only one way to salvage the years of preparation and specific training William’s family had invested. He was sent to the castle to play the part of an undead visitor, as a shade who could bend the ear of the Queen to the whims of the Drakes. 
No. 269
December 14, 2012
Davis Purdy watched the numbers on the clock tick down toward zero. He didn’t know what would happen when the time ran out, but he was guessing that it wasn’t going to be pleasant.
The clock had appeared in the center of town the night before with no clue as to where it came from or who had built it. Its solid stone sides concealed the inner workings rather effectively. Square, flat black, and massive, the only feature was the face, with the ominous, decreasing digits.
He studied it as it fell to 620460. Judging from the rate of decay, that would roll over in a little under a week. Purdy pulled a drill from his tool belt and, with half the town looking on from what was assumed to be a safe distance, pressed the bit into the rock.
It didn’t bite, and the gathered crowd was overwhelmed by a loud chime from the mysterious clock. The numbers began to change faster.
No. 270
December 15, 2012
Danny rode in the caboose because his father drove the train. This had always been the case, until the day they stopped for water in a small desert town.
“Come up to the front, Danny,” his father called over the radio. “There’s lots to see from up here.”
No. 271
December 16, 2012
The high-dive platform was awfully high.
“Just jump, already!” somebody yelled from the bottom.
“Hurry up! The rest of us want to go, too!” called somebody else.
Grace Logan crept closer to the edge. She peered down at the brilliant blue water below. She could see the white lines painted on the bottom of the pool, but, from her perspective, they seemed to float up near the surface. They looked like unpleasant obstacles, to be sure.
The shouts from down below were becoming more insistent.  “Come on, scaredy!”
Grace backed away from the drop. She decided that today was not going to be the day that she made her first jump off of the big board. She climbed slowly back down the ladder, hoping that maybe the line-up for the waterslide wasn’t too long.
The boy at the front of the line who’d been screaming the most passed Grace on his way up. “Going to find your mom to help you?” the bully sneered.
Grace punched him right in the face. She was only afraid of heights, not fights.
No. 272
December 17, 2012
Way out, past Guardsville, there is a lone cabin at the edge of the river. Nobody has ever gone that far into the woods to see it, except for the time Lorne Johnson lost his canoe paddle and got swept downstream.
He came back with what might be our only description of the place. Certainly, though, the story has been embellished since the first telling.
They say he saw it on a Tuesday. I can tell you right away that this doesn’t make sense. I know for a fact that Lorne meets his girlfriend, Kelly, on Tuesdays, and that she won’t go within a mile of the river. She thinks it’s dirty.
He spoke of a single lantern hung up outside the door, and some kind of monster shadow behind the boarded-up windows. Yes, a shadow behind windows that are covered in wood. I told you, this town will do things to a story that would make your mother blush.
There might have been singing, or eerie music, and Lorne claims it wasn’t in English. I suppose that’s fair. We’ll give him that one.
Since he managed to make his way home, two weeks later, and after fighting off such dangers as lights and shadows, Lorne says that he thinks he’s being followed. But only ever on Tuesdays. He thinks it’s the “Dark Lady” who lives in the cabin, but we all assume it’s just Trisha, his Friday girlfriend.
Oh, and I almost forgot to tell you about the other part of the story, where there’s a pulsating glow in the sky, and “huge-normous” “snake-tracks” in the ground. I usually try to leave that bit out when I recount the tale to company, because I heard it from Reg Dalton, and he’s even less credible than Lorne.
What we can safely assume from all of this is that, at some point in his life, Lorne has seen a cabin, or cabin-like structure, that he knows what a song is, and that I should probably move, because the folks around here are plum crazy. 
No. 273
The Flower Shop Part 2
December 18, 2012
“Laura tells me about them,” he added quickly, feeling that his first explanation wasn’t quite adequate.
Sally’s face lit up. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she assured him. “Men can be interested in flowers, too.”
“I like them,” he said, looking Sally in the eyes. He knew right away that he shouldn’t have. They both shifted imperceptibly closer to each other.
“Laura should be done soon,” said Sally. A large frond swept her cheek, and she instinctively brushed it away.
Sean nodded, and swallowed hard. “I like the cactuses,” he said, deliberately choosing his words while turning from the new girl.
“That’s not news.”
Sean spun around. Laura was standing in the narrow doorway to the tropical section. “Let’s get out of here,” she said, flipping her hair out of a ponytail.
Sally had disappeared. For the first time, Sean could feel sweat on his brow. The damp atmosphere seemed to hold him in place. If he tried hard enough, he could still smell perfume lingering in air. 
“Why are you waiting? Let’s go,” said Laura. She was bouncing from heel to toe with excited energy.
Sean walked towards her, severing the last connection to the charged space. He held out his hand for hers as they made their way back through the store to the exit.
On the way out, Laura pointed at a large plant with bladelike dark green and yellow leaves. “Sansevieria trifasciata,” she told him. “Remember that from last time?”

Sean shook his head.

Sally waved from behind the counter. “Goodnight!” she called.

“That’s Sally,” whispered Laura. “She’s new.”

“I know,” said Sean. “We met.”

Then they left the flower shop.

No. 274
December 19, 2012
Then Caitlin Wright woke up. It had all been a dream.

But what a dream it had been. Caitlin lay in bed and pulled the covers up over her head, trying to recapture something she couldn’t quite recall.

Her alarm went off moments later, and she remembered that today was the day of the heist. Rolling upright, she shrugged off the warm blanket and padded to her closet. She opened the door and looked down at the man who was duct-taped and gagged on the floor.

He made some muffled noises of protest as she reached around him for her favorite shirt. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “After we rob your armored truck, we’ll let you go.” She bent down and removed his uniform jacket. As she did, she made sure his bonds were still tight.

Hearing her ride pull up outside and honk, she straightened up and squinted at the morning sun that was streaming in through the window. She yawned and spoke again to her captive. “It’s too early, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what. If you’re good, and everything goes to plan, I’ll bring you back a coffee.”

No. 275
December 20, 2012
Today, Boy was going to meet Girl. He just didn’t know it yet. 

There would be a series of challenges, and events would have to fall into place just so between now and then, but the introductions would happen by sundown.

Boy woke up and left his house.

Girl got on the bus for work.

The future was in motion. 

No. 276
Golden Age Part 2
December 21, 2012
“We’re all here,” said Spitfire.

When at an official meeting, all the residents of Golden Age used their code names.

“Excellent,” said Mercury. Then he noticed that Spitfire’s statement wasn’t entirely correct. “Where’s Nuclear Boy?”

Mary spoke up from the back. “He’s in the nurse’s office. He’ll be along later.”

“Well, we can’t wait for him. We’re old. Meeting’s starting,” said Mercury. “As you all may have heard, Golden Age is closing. That’s the first issue. The second is that my mail’s been going missing. I know my old partner Tidal Wave sends a letter every week. Last month, I didn’t get two. And this month there’s already been one that’s disappeared.”

“Tell us more about the closing,” said Electra-Girl.

“Yes,” said The Iron Spike. “Nobody cares about your mail.”

Mercury turned to Mary. “They want to know,” he said, giving her the floor.

Mary ran down the short list of facts about the closing. In two months, the residents would have to move out, and then the building would be knocked down and replaced with a big-box store.

The angry shouts of the residents began to drown out Mary’s soft voice.

“Quiet down,” said Mercury. “What we’re going to do is quite simple. Spitfire and Electra-Girl are going to head out to the old Headquarters and bring back the Confederate gold from the trophy room. Remember that case? That should help with the finances. At the same time, I’m going to head straight down to the new Director’s office and find out about my letters.”

There was a muted buzz of voices. All the ex-heroes agreed with the plan. It did sound simple, and it would solve the pressing problem of possible relocation. They agreed to reconvene when Spitfire and Electra-Girl returned with the money.

John went straight to the Director’s office. The secretary let him in, and he sat in front of the large desk and waited. He did not appreciate the delay.

Some minutes later, the Director entered from a side door. He crossed the wide room slowly and sat down in his oversized chair.

Both men stared at each other.

“Mercury,” said the Director icily. “How good to see you.”

“Professor Death, my old nemesis,” John replied. “I thought you died in Burma.”

No. 277

January 4, 2013

The conveyor belt ground to a halt. In a distant part of the vast factory, an alarm whooped forlornly.
“It wouldn’t be so bad without all the noise,” said Barney Yates.
“I suppose,” said Kelly Ashford. She wasn’t a talker.
The pair had worked together on the same line for almost seven years, although they rarely spoke.
“Seems like it’s been shutting down a lot more recently,” said Yates. Then he waited patiently for a reply.
“Yup,” agreed Kelly.
“Equipment’s getting old,” Barney offered as an explanation that Kelly hadn’t asked for. “Or I guess it could be something else, too.”
In response, she took a sandwich out of her lunch box and began to eat it deliberately. “Sorry. Chewing,” she said, while pointing at her mouth.
“Hey, that’s fine by me. We all gotta eat, right?” said Barney, undeterred, and not catching the hint. “Sure is nice to have a break.”
There was a great mechanical rumble as the machines began to spool up again. The alarm shut off, and a buzzer announced the impending start of the equipment.
Kelly and Barney began their work again, and continued to do so for the rest of the day. When the whistle blew to signal the end of their shift, Barney continued the conversation where he’d left off.
“Any plans tonight?” he asked.
“Nope,” said Kelly. She checked her watch. “I’ve got to run.”
“Okay,” said Barney. “Talk to you tomorrow!”
No. 278
January 5, 2013
“What happened?” Alan asked his friend Sam.

“You know that homeless guy who hangs out behind the Starbucks? He bit me,” Sam replied, cradling his forearm.

“Were you bothering him?”

“I don’t think so. I was just coming out with my drink.”

Alan shrugged. “Sucks.”

“Yeah, it stings, too,” said Sam testily.

They continued walking toward Alan’s car, parked a ways down the block.

Sam staggered, and then fell against a wall.

Alan leapt to help him up. By doing so, he just missed getting vaporized by a thick bolt of light that hit the ground where he’d just been standing.

A shadow fell over the two men. Sam looked up to see an enormous flying saucer hovering above them.

Alan turned to him and offered a completely unnecessary observation. “I didn’t think we were going to go in that direction.”

No. 279
January 7, 2013
I only saw her for a second. She passed in front of the store window and, as she did, she tucked a strand of her blonde hair behind her ear.

I was stuck inside, ringing up a complete jerk who didn’t believe that I knew how to calculate ten percent off. I should have thrown his stupid sweater in his stupid face and run after her.  I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably never see her again.

It was months later, and also my last day on the job. I was moving west, to a state that people usually move from. I was almost ready to go for my lunch break when she walked in.

“I need a shirt,” she told me.

“For yourself, or somebody else?” I asked her. Now that she was here, I could smell her perfume. Some sort of flower. I’m not an expert.

“For a friend,” she said, not exactly narrowing the options. “A girl, um, women friend,” she added, realizing the need to be specific.

“Right over here,” I told her, directing her to the correct department.

I helped her sort through a few choices, answering simple questions about styles and sizing. I suddenly had a feeling that maybe I was watching her too closely. Maybe I was getting a little bit creepy.

I walked into the store on a whim. My friend’s birthday was coming up and I hadn’t had time to find her a present yet. The guy behind the counter looked a little bit like somebody that I’d gone to school with, but I don’t think it was the same person, because he didn’t recognize me.

“I need a shirt,” I told him.

He was very helpful, even when I was useless in describing what I wanted. I can’t expect the clerk to know what kind of thing I’m shopping for. Unless he was a mind-reading clerk, but I’m pretty sure my darkest secrets are still safe.

He was standing a little close, though. I chose to allow it. He was being nice, after all.

I found a couple things I liked, and we took them to the till.

“Do you have a loyalty account yet?” he asked.

I told him no, and he explained about the deals you could get with that.

“Sign me up,” I told him. “My name’s July.”

She told me her name was July. At first I thought she was setting up a bogus account to get the discounts but not the junk mail. She explained that it really was her name, and that she had sisters named January and April. Her story sounded credible enough, so I set it up for her.

“And now the hard part,” I said. “I just need your phone number.”

He asked for my phone number. So I gave it to him.

No. 280
January 8, 2013
Although dogs and chimps had traditionally been used to test man’s space faring vessels, it was a squirrel that was the first earth-creature to make it to Mars.

Nobody was a hundred percent clear on why a squirrel had been chosen. It was whispered in the corridors of the International Space Agency that a squirrel had simply been the first animal acquired by the test department and had therefore been pressed into service due to a certain laziness on the part of the technicians. This rumor was neither confirmed nor denied by those in charge.

Now the animal, unimaginatively named Number One, was in the final stages of descent to the Red Planet. The microphones placed in the capsule to monitor Number One sent back the sounds of vigorous chittering. The camera had failed to come online, and so Mission Control could only guess at the exact emotional state of their rodent subject.

When all the lights on the monitoring consoles turned green, the humans knew that the landing had been successful. A man in the back row keyed his radio and gave the order to release Number One into the modified exercise ball that was to be his primary means of transport across the Martian world.

The history books, somewhat erroneously, would record the squirrel’s name as “Skippy”.

No. 281
January 9, 2013
Rob Tiller had been tied up and set adrift on the lake in a small boat. He struggled to free himself but could not manage to loosen the binding ropes. His attempts to escape became more urgent when he realized that the boat had a leak. Rob estimated that he’d be underwater within the hour.

Tiller’s problems had all started the day before, when his best friend double-crossed him. The betrayal was over a bet, of all things, not even a girl.

No. 282
January 11, 2013
“Where’s my party shirt?” asked Scott.

“You mean that ratty blue one you always try to wear?” said his girlfriend, Hilary.

“It’s not ratty. It’s fine,” said Scott, taking a stand in a battle he couldn’t win.

“I don’t know,” said Hilary. “Last time I saw it was after that thing at the Fleury’s house.”

“You know I can’t party without it,” said Scott. He was rooting through his closet frantically, and was beginning to suspect that Hilary had followed through on her repeated threats to burn the shirt in question.

“Why don’t you wear that nice green shirt you got for your birthday?” suggested Hilary, trying to distract Scott from discovering that she had, in fact, thrown out his shirt.

“It’s not comfortable,” said Scott. “And it’s not fun.”

Hilary put her foot down. “Wear the green shirt.”

Scott gave her the stink-eye, but did as he was told. He knew, in that moment, what she had done.

No. 283
January 12, 2013
The chickens had been hearing rumors for some time that a fox was planning to raid the henhouse. They gathered together to examine their options to prevent the fox from attacking.

“I propose,” said the head chicken, “That we band together and, when the fox arrives, we fight him!”

“Aye!” said all the other chickens. “Aye!”

Three nights later the fox crept toward the darkened henhouse. The head chicken, who had been keeping watch, spotted the fox and called to the others. “To arms, friends! To arms! It’s time to repel the villainous fox!”

But the other chickens had gone. They had realized that they were chickens who had been planning to defeat a fox in open combat. The head chicken re-evaluated his strategy and ran away, too.

The fox ate all the delicious eggs and went back to its den to take a nap. 

No. 284
January 14, 2013
When I worked at the Sunshine Bean, our biggest rivalry wasn’t with the Java Stop down the street. It was with the 80th Street Sunshine Bean, three blocks away. They always seemed to outperform our sales by the slightest of margins, and their reviews were always just a little bit higher.

Our sister store was, to us, a strange, unpleasant place to visit. Even though it had a similar floor plan, and the exact same decor, it was off somehow. And not just because everything was kept one drawer over to the left. The staff were, obviously, not as friendly as ours and, to be honest, we had at least four or five people a day walk into our store to have their drinks fixed that 80th Street had made wrong.

At the time, of course, we all just considered it healthy competition. It wasn’t until I’d moved on from Sunshine Bean that I began to hear rumors of what actually went down at 80th Street. I’d get messages from friends who still worked for the company. Odd messages in the middle of the night.  I found a note under the windshield wiper of my car. All the correspondence said the same thing.

“It happens at night.”

My curiosity was piqued, and one evening, well past my bedtime, I drove by the 80th Street Sunshine Bean. The lights were on, and there were people moving around inside. It was past closing, and according to standard practices, nobody should have been there. I parked around the corner, and moved closer on foot.

They were loading something into a trap door in the floor that certainly wasn’t in the plans of my store. And the something they were loading, though obscured in a large canvas sack, was squirming.

Then one of them saw me. They yelled to the others, and the entire group scattered. The lights were quickly shut off. It was too late for me to run. I pulled out my phone and pointed the camera at the storefront.

I called out into the darkness. “Let me in, or your secret gets revealed.”

No. 285
January 15, 2013
The letter was addressed to her but the apartment number was off by one digit. I should have just taken it over, but I opened it. Now I knew something about my neighbor that I’m sure she’d want to keep quiet.
I debated doing nothing. She’d never suspect that it came to me. Mail gets lost all the time. But this, this letter, she needed to get. I couldn’t look at myself if I kept it from her. Then I realized that if I stuffed it under her door, I’d be home free. She’d know her secret was out, but she wouldn’t be able to pin it on me.
I was kneeling in front of her apartment, ready to do the deed, when her door opened. Her eyes locked on mine as I froze, evidence in hand.
 “I see that somebody’s been a naughty girl,” she said, her face darkening.
No. 286
January 16, 2013
The oasis had been a closely guarded secret for a thousand years. Those who knew about it visited only infrequently, and only in times of most desperate need. It was whispered that the waters stole five years of life for every taste. Men, crazed with thirst, would risk the curse to wet their tongues.
The traveler stood atop the dune that separated the oasis from his caravan. He knew the others had no idea they were so close to a spring. The traveler remembered his father’s warning and wanted to turn away, but he had no choice. They had been without water for more than a day, by now. The desert sun was extracting a heavy toll. He thought about his wife and son, waiting in the valley below. Could they make it to safety, still another day away? He knew the decision he had to make, and, with a conflicted heart, he made his way down the sandy slope to inform the others.
Better to live now, and worry about the future later.
No. 287
January 17, 2013
When the time came, Robert’s house split down the middle, and the rocket rose up on its gantry.
Robert stood by and watched his masterpiece. He sipped his tea, and admired the name painted on the front of the sleek craft.
“Perseverance”.
He smiled.
No. 288
January 18, 2013
Christy Anne Taylor was at the bottom of a wishing well, feeling around in the shallow, stagnant water and shoveling coins into a backpack she’d received as a free gift with a magazine subscription.
“Hurry up, C.A.,” her boyfriend Randy called from the top of the shaft. “Somebody’s pulling into the parking lot.”
“If you wanted to hurry, why didn’t you crawl on down here?” she yelled back. “Go hide in the truck ‘till they leave. They’re not going to look in here.”
Randy did as he was told. It was pork chop night and, if Christy Anne got angry, she would only make enough for her.
The car eventually left, and Randy returned to the scene of the crime-in-progress. “Some kids,” he reported. “Making out.”
“That’s fantastic,” said Christy Anne. “I think I’m about done, here. Pull me up.”
She grabbed the well-bucket rope, and Randy dutifully hauled her to the surface.
“What’s the smell?” he asked as she crawled back onto the grass.
“You watch your mouth, Randy,” she said.
“How much did we get tonight?” he asked.
“’Bout seven fifty,” she told him. “And a pair of sunglasses.”
No. 289
Choose Your Own Adventure 1
January 21, 2013
Shannon Harper pulled out her pen and notebook. “What happens to the ghost?” she asked the small crowd of construction workers.  
“Ghost?” replied the foreman, Frank Gretz. “I don’t know anything about a ghost.”
Harper shook her head. “You’re tearing something down, and you haven’t even considered what might happen? The place is haunted.”
They both looked at the structure in question. One of the town’s original buildings, the general store was being bulldozed to make way for a new shopping center.
“Look, I understand you need to write your story for the paper, but we’ve got a job to do, too. I can’t spend all day talking about nonsense,” said Gretz.
“It’s not nonsense,” countered Harper. “It’s our history. So, again, what happens to the ghost?”
Gretz spat on the ground. “I reckon he’ll get the hint when the walls come down.”
No. 290
Choose Your Own Adventure 2
January 22, 2013
The ghost watched the proceedings from a second-floor window. She set her head down on the sill and tried to think of a way to stop the demolition of her home. In retrospect, perhaps she’d been too keen on haunting the former owners of her shop. Maybe if she’d let them alone they wouldn’t have sold out to ValuMart.

Until now, she’d been relatively benign. Her haunting hadn’t been malevolent. She’d done it primarily to keep busy. There was only so much that a spirit trapped in a single building could do with their time. She’d made the walls bleed, once, but that had been an accident. When she was younger, she hadn’t yet realized the extent of her powers.   

She’d always had bad luck, too, dating back to before the day, ninety-seven years ago, that she’d been killed during a botched robbery.

She saw the fat man spit. She could barely hear his voice.

“He called me a ‘he’,” she muttered to herself. “If only he stepped inside, I could convince him to step right back out. And to take his machinery with him.”

Her words had a touch of fear to them. So far as she understood, if the building was razed, she’d cease to exist. She’d made it through one death, but she wasn’t going to roll over and let it happen a second time.

She placed her head back on her neck and floated downstairs. There wasn’t much time to prepare.

No. 291
Choose Your Own Adventure 3
January 23, 2013
Harper realized that the foreman wasn’t going to be cooperative. She changed her approach. “Can I go inside?” she asked Gretz. “Maybe I can get some color for my story.”
Gretz waved her on dismissively. “Be my guest,” he told her. “We start the tear-down in twenty minutes. You’ll hear a siren go once with five minutes left, and then twice with one minute left.”
Harper nodded, then adjusted her glasses and marched up to the front door of the store.
The ghost saw Harper enter the building. She waited until the reporter was fully inside to trigger her trap. To start, the door swung shut and locked tight.  Then the ghost chilled the air in the room and projected a knife at Harper’s head. The woman managed to dodge the blade. She dove to the floor, where she was left curled up in a shivering heap.
“It’s ok,” the woman called out from the ground. “I know you exist. I’m trying to help you.”
The ghost was startled. She hadn’t counted on an ally.
“What’s your name?” Harper asked the apparently empty room. “Mine’s Shannon.” Gathering her courage, she stood up slowly. “Hello?”
The ghost considered her options.  When was the last time somebody had tried to talk to her? Was this person telling the truth? The ghost decided that there was no harm in responding. If need be, she could always murder the human later. She gathered herself, and tried to remember how to speak to the living, again.
“I was called Ruby Florence,” said the ghost.
Harper’s jaw dropped. “Ruby, you’re real!” She paused, and frowned. “I can’t see you.” Then her reporter’s instincts kicked in and she fished in her pocket for her notebook and pen. If she could break this story, she’d be set for life. She took a deep breath to begin asking questions.
A wailing scream interrupted the thought. It was the warning siren. Harper checked her watch and cursed. “He was supposed to give me fifteen minutes!”
No. 292
Choose Your Own Adventure 4
January 24, 2013
Harper ran to the door. “I’m not coming out!” she yelled at the construction workers.
Two of them started to come towards her, but Gretz waved them off. “I want everyone ready to go,” he told them. “I’ll deal with the crazy lady.”
He picked up a bullhorn and aimed it at the store. “The demolition starts in five minutes, ghost or no ghosts. You need to evacuate the building or I’m calling the police.”
Harper turned to where she thought Ruby Florence might be. “I guess I’m all-in on your side, now. And they’re not going to come in to confirm you’re here. I don’t suppose there’s any way you could prove your existence to somebody who’s not actually on the premises, is there?”
The ghost didn’t respond immediately, and Harper began to wonder if she was making the right choice by staying. Had she really been speaking to an undead spirit? Then she saw the knife that was still embedded in the wall, confirming the events of the last few minutes. “Hey,” she called. “Remember how you just tried to kill me for trying to help you? You owe me a reply, at least.”
Ruby Florence floated back down to where Harper was standing. The ghost concentrated hard and a shimmering outline of her form began to appear.
“You’ve got no head!” was the first thing Harper said.
The ghost laughed. It had been so long. “That is true,” she told her new human friend.
Gretz hailed them again on the bullhorn. “Last chance, lady.”
The ghost ignored the hail, and answered Harper’s question. “I can’t leave. They will need to come to us.”
Harper’s eyes narrowed. She was thinking hard. “Is that for sure? I mean, you must have tried to escape before, but is there a rulebook or something? Can we talk to anybody?”
No. 293
Choose Your Own Adventure 5
January 25, 2013
“I’m sorry,” said Ruby Florence. “Everything I know, I learned from a ghost next door. We would speak through the walls. When the hotel burned, he disappeared. I haven’t had contact with anything since. It’s been almost fifty years.”
Harper bit her lip. She stole a glance out of the window. “I understand,” she allowed. “Maybe it was too much for me to hope for that we’d stumble across some magic bullet.”
 “If we can delay the crew until five, they’ll go home for the night. That’ll buy us some time,” said Harper as she turned away from the window.
But movement outside caught her eye. She ducked back towards the blinds and peered through. “It’s the police,” she told the ghost. “Gretz wasn’t kidding.”
“They’ll come in,” said the ghost. “They’ll come in and drag you out.”
It appeared that the ghost’s words were correct. Soon there were several cruisers parked outside the store, and Harper watched as a line of officers approached the building.
“I need to hide,” Harper told Ruby Florence.
“We can do that,” the ghost confirmed with a grim smile. “Follow me.”
Harper was led upstairs to a small room that had been used as an office. A large cabinet dominated the space.
“In here,” Ruby Florence directed, pointing with the same hand that held her head. “There is a secret compartment.”
Harper ran to the cabinet, but the ghost moved to block her path.
“No,” said Ruby Florence. “Tap twice on the floorboard in the far corner.”
Harper followed the instructions and a section of the floor dropped down and slid aside. There was a space underneath, just big enough for a person. Harper wasted no time climbing down and replacing the hatch. She looked up through a small knothole and saw the ghost’s face directly above her.
“They won’t find you there,” said the ghost. “But I intend for them to find me.”
Then she disappeared.
“Wait!” Harper called. “I thought we were in this together!”
There was no reply from the ghost, and Harper heard the police break through the downstairs door.
No. 294
Choose Your Own Adventure 6
January 26, 2013
The police moved through the first floor of the building quickly, checking all the places somebody could hide. They were wary, but not nervous. They knew who their target was and that she was unarmed. They didn’t know that she had a supernatural partner.
The ghost let the officers get to the middle of the building before she made her move. As when Harper had entered, the ghost slammed all the doors shut, trapping the squad. This time, however, Ruby Florence did not bother with knives.
The lead policeman turned around to face his team and leveled his gun at them. “You are not wanted here,” he told them.
Ruby Florence had possessed him. She watched through his eyes as the other members tried to make sense of their leader’s disturbing behavior. Slowly, they all placed their weapons on the floor. “This is my home,” said the ghost, with the officer’s voice. “You will not let the fat man destroy it.”
“Captain,” said one of the hostages. “You need help.”
The ghost pointed the gun at the speaker. “Your captain isn’t here right now. My name is Ruby Florence. And you will be silent.”
Another officer spoke. “Sir, what are you talking about?”
Ruby Florence did not hesitate. A chair flew at the officer’s head, striking him squarely and opening a large gash. He fell to the ground, unconscious. At the same time, everything in the room began to levitate. The wooden walls began to vibrate alarmingly, sending small splinters flying toward the cowering police.
The man under Ruby Florence’s control stood quietly in the middle of the maelstrom, calm, and untouched by the dangerous debris.
As quickly as the assault began, it ended. Everything in the air collapsed back to earth and clattered to a stop. The room was deathly quiet.
 There was no fight left in the prisoners.
“Now,” said Ruby Florence. “You will take my message to the fat man. This will serve you as a sign that I am serious.”
She pointed the Captain’s gun at his own head. Her spectral fingers helped his to slowly squeeze the trigger.
Harper was cowering in her hideaway. She hadn’t seen any of the confrontation downstairs. She was holding her breath when she heard the gunshot.
No. 295
Choose Your Own Adventure 7
January 27, 2013
The Captain’s body crumpled to the ground. Ruby Florence was left standing in his place. She chose to show herself to the remaining police officers. They all saw her holding her severed head in her hand and pointing at them.
“Go,” she said.
And they did, dragging the wounded man with them but leaving the corpse behind.
Harper stayed quiet as long as she could, but she lay in a cold sweat. Had the ghost really murdered a man? Harper had to know, so she chanced being caught by anybody still searching, and left her hiding place.
She went downstairs and peered around the corner, afraid of what she might see. The sight of the dead body caused her to throw up.
When she was finished, she screamed for the ghost. “What did you do? You’re a monster!”
Ruby Florence floated serenely into the room. “Only what I had to,” she said casually.
“You killed him,” said Harper. “How could you? I was trying to help you.”
The ghost shrugged her shoulders, a gesture made obscene by her lack of a head. “Now he’s motivated,” she explained.
Harper was confused. She felt something on her shoulder. She spun around to see the Captain’s ghost. The gunshot wound made her vomit, again.
Ruby Florence came closer to Harper. “Walk to the window and tell them my demands,” she whispered.
The deceased Captain, now linked to the soon-to-be demolished building, was on Harper’s other side, and was not going to let her get away, either. He tried to speak, but his shattered jaw couldn’t form words that Harper could make out. She understood what he wanted, though.
She went to the window to deliver her message. “Mr. Gretz,” she called to the line-up of police and spectators who were huddled behind a makeshift barricade. “You need to come in, or they’ll kill me, too.”
No. 296
Choose Your Own Adventure 8
January 28, 2013
“I’m sorry, Miss Harper,” replied Gretz over a loudspeaker. “The police have instructed me not to enter the building.”
Harper was in trouble. She knew that Ruby Florence was growing desperate. The murder of the captain proved that the spirits were no longer content with a simple haunting. They would fight to keep their residence intact. And they were only likely to leave Harper alive if she was useful to them.
Gretz’s refusal meant that Harper’s usefulness was quickly running out.
The police appeared to be busy preparing something. Harper knew, too, that if they tried to assault the house again that her life would be in great danger. She was shivering as she stood, exposed, waiting for a response from either of the parties locked in the standoff.
Suddenly, Harper broke into a run and dashed toward the door. If the ghosts were trapped in the building, they couldn’t follow her outside. Their plan to put her between themselves and the police had been a mistake. She was so close to freedom.
The police marksman was watching the house through his rifle scope. He studied the woman at the window as she made demands. She was remarkably unafraid for somebody who’d reportedly just killed a cop. The marksman was friends with many of the men on the team that had entered the general store and was waiting for his chance to avenge the Captain. The marksman was a little sad, though. He’d read Shannon Harper’s column for years. He pushed that feeling aside. It would be easy enough to replace that part of his day.
When Harper made her break for the door, his readied himself to shoot. His earpiece buzzed with instructions. If she made it to the doorway, he was to take the shot.
Ruby Florence saw Harper dash toward the border of the ghosts’ influence. The ghost had to move quickly to counter the escape attempt.
She attempted to gain control of Harpers consciousness. Within a moment, she’d succeeded.
Harper felt the foreign presence in her mind. Her body and will were suddenly not under her control any longer. The only sensation that she recognized was fear. Harper’s footsteps slowed, and Ruby Florence began to force her away from the exit.
Harper was close enough to the boundary, though, that the ghost’s power was not as strong as it was in the middle of the building. Harper fought the possession, and was able to break free for an instant. She lunged toward the fading daylight on the porch. 
She stumbled and fell as she felt a burning pain. She came to rest against the doorframe, wavering precariously between two worlds.
No. 297
Choose Your Own Adventure 9
January 29, 2013
Ruby Florence was waiting.
After Harper was shot, the police had pulled her body away. Then they’d stormed the building again, looking for accomplices. The ghost made sure that not all of them made it back out, and the rest had called for a retreat to assess the situation. Now they were just watching, probably preparing for another assault.
The ghost was alone in the upstairs room where Harper had sheltered. The other, new ghosts were downstairs, adjusting to their new existence. Ruby Florence was angry that Harper was not one of them. She had heard the police telling each other that Harper had been the one that killed the Captain. Nobody seemed to remember that the murderer had been seen with a missing head.
The demolition crew had gone home. Even the repellent fat man had been sent on his way. The ghost would have one more night, at least.
The nurse had gone, and Harper was alone. She watched the news on the TV that the nurse had left on. The only story being reported was the one that Harper had initiated that afternoon. Then, it had been an interesting piece of local history. Now, it was a tragedy. 
With a dramatic musical sting, the news anchor began to speak. “We’ve just received word that possible accomplices of the alleged murderer, Shannon Harper, have killed again. Four more officers are dead following an attempt to search the premises of the former 80th Avenue General Store. With Harper currently in custody at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, it is unclear at this time who is responsible for the most recent attacks.”
Harper stiffened. Ruby Florence wasn’t finished. And the police would keep sending men in, to their deaths, not realizing the true nature of the thing that was inside the building.
For several hours, Harper wrestled with her options.
She could do nothing, and hope the police realized that they were being attacked by a vengeful spirit.
That would clear her name, but the chances of it happening were almost nonexistent, and it was unlikely to occur before the ghost used lethal force again. 
She could tell the truth. But she was sure that nobody would listen. They would discount the explanation that same way that the fat man had. 
Or, being the only person who knew the true story, she could do something to stop Ruby Florence.
The only problem with that plan was that, by taking that path, Harper would still be the only person linked to murders. 
It was almost sunrise when she made up her mind.
Gritting her teeth against the pain, she disconnected the IVs and wires that were taped to her body.  Using a needle she’d just removed, she managed to pick the lock on the handcuffs. The same needle served as an improvised weapon when she threatened the guard outside the door. She ordered the guard back into the room, then locked him in and escaped down the hall. 
Gretz woke up to the doorbell. He threw on his robe and padded down the stairs to answer.
“You’re coming with me,” said the person on his porch. It took him a second to place the strange visitor. Disheveled and bandaged, it was Harper. She had something in her hands. It looked like it could be a gun.
“Don’t hurt me,” Gretz pleaded. “They told me what to do.”
“Shut up,” said Harper. “I’m not here about that. But we need to go. There’s not a lot of time.”
They arrived at the general store at first light. Gretz flashed his ID at the officer posted at perimeter of the site, now a crime scene. “I have to secure my equipment,” he told the guard. He was waved through.
“Pull up as close as you can,” whispered Harper from the back seat. “Get ready to jump out.”
Gretz did as he was told and parked just behind the police line. Then, with slight hesitation, he followed Harper’s orders as they both leapt from the car and ran toward the storefront.
The police were too surprised to see somebody going toward the building that they were too late to stop the trespassing pair.
The ghost smiled as she watched the scene unfold.
“Florence,” called Harper. “I’ve got somebody here who I think you’d like to talk to.”
Ruby Florence floated down the stairs and materialized by the door. She noticed that Harper was careful not to cross the threshold.
“It’s real,” said the fat man.
“Of course I am,” she told him. She turned her attention to Harper. “I’m glad you were able to do as I asked.”
“Oh,” said Harper casually. “He’s not here to talk to you. I just needed a credible witness to see you and clear my name.”
“What?” said the ghost, confused.
Ruby Florence watched in horror as Harper pulled the trigger on the gun she was holding. The ghost noticed, too late, that it was attached with a hose to something on Harper’s back.
Gasoline streamed from the gun’s plastic barrel. Harper made sure to cover the whole front of the building and to get some inside. Then she dipped her shoulders to shuck the tank from her back, and threw the entire apparatus through the door.
“Go,” she told Gretz. “Tell them what you saw.”
He didn’t need any more prompting and sprinted away, back toward the police.
Harper locked eyes with Ruby Florence. “You shouldn’t have killed. I could have helped you.”
“You didn’t,” replied the ghost.
“Maybe you didn’t deserve it,” said Harper. She flicked a lighter and tossed it into the building. Fueled by the gasoline, the structure was engulfed in seconds.
No. 298
Choose Your Own Adventure 10
January 30, 2013
Harper sat on the stool and picked up the phone. On the other side of the glass was Frank Gretz.
“In a way, it’s good to see you,” he said through his handset.
“I’m surprised you had it in you to come,” she said to him. “After what you told them at the trial.”
Gretz shrugged. “It all happened so quickly. You know how things go. We can never be too sure about what we’ve seen.” Then he paused before speaking again. “Especially after you tried to kill me.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Harper. “I never tried to kill you.” Then she realized. Her head jerked up. “It’s not him in there, is it?” she asked the ghost.
Gretz glanced at the officer standing behind him and asked to be let out of the visitor’s area.
Harper screamed and pounded on the partition. “It’s you! I know it’s you!” she yelled, until two prison guards reached her to drag her back to her cell.
“Keep quiet, Cop Killer,” one said as she rammed her nightstick into Harper’s belly. “If you keep this up for the rest of your life sentence, we’re going to get really tired of it.”
Shannon Harper spent a long time piecing together what must have happened. She learned from her former newspaper’s reports that her attempt at arson hadn’t burned down the entire structure. With the police and emergency crews already on the scene, they’d apparently been able to save enough of the building for the ghost to survive inside.
Gretz, who had been on the site every day during the rest of the demolition and construction, would have been a prime candidate for the ghost to inhabit in a desperate measure when the last parts of the store were taken down.
ValuMart’s grand opening was a huge success. Hundreds of people showed up to see the new store.
Among the shoppers was Frank Gretz.
He broke off from the crowd, and slipped past a door marked “Staff Only” to climb the stairs to the manager’s office. Once inside, he closed the door and fell immediately to the floor, dead.
Ruby Florence stood in the middle of the room, having shed the vessel that had carried her for the last year and a half. She placed her head on the window sill, like old times.
“It’s good to be home,” she said with a wicked smile. 
No. 299
January 31, 2013
Keith got on the bus and then immediately fell asleep. He woke up well past his usual stop, in an unfamiliar area of town.
He wasn’t concerned. It would be easy enough to hop off and take the same bus back in the direction of home. As he prepared to leave, the driver, who recognized him, asked him if he was sure that’s what he wanted to do.
“Next one doesn’t come for awhile,” cautioned the driver.
“That’s alright,” said Keith. “I’m not in any hurry.”
Keith stepped onto the pavement and crossed the street. He checked his watch. “No problem,” he told himself, and settled onto the bench to wait.
An hour passed. Keith got up to check the schedule on the pole beside the bus shelter. “I’ve never seen that before,” he muttered. The sign listed the arrivals for all the bus numbers except the one that Keith wanted. Under the column for his bus, the sign read “As Necessary”. 
Maybe it was time to call for a cab. Keith looked at his phone, but was rewarded with no service bars. He began to look very carefully at his surroundings. He was defiantly unfamiliar with the place.
But no matter, perhaps he could use somebody else’s phone.  He walked up to the door of an apartment near the bus stop and picked a random number to buzz.
There was an answer. “Hello?” said a garbled voice through the speaker.
“Hi,” said Keith. “My name’s Keith and I’ve missed my bus. I was wondering if you could let me in to use your phone?”
There was a pause, then an affirmative reply. “Of course,” said the voice. “Come on up.”
There was a tone, and Keith heard the click of the door unlocking. He made a note of the apartment number he’d contacted and entered the building. He made it to the dim hallway of the correct floor and, before he could knock, a door opened.
It was an attractive woman. She called Keith over. “You need the phone?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Keith replied.
She waved him into her flat. “There sure are a lot of you missing that bus,” she told him.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The 299?” she said. “You’re definitely not the first one who’s done exactly what you’re doing right now.”
“I see,” said Keith warily. “Just how many of us have there been?”
The woman hesitated. “Enough,” she answered cryptically. “Would you like some tea while you wait?”
No. 300
The Prank Part 4
February 3, 2013
It was the day before the last day of school.
Colin and Chrissy sat together on the steps of Charles Hall, watching the crowd watch the results of their prank. Colin produced a paper bag with a bottle inside, and two plastic mugs that he’d borrowed from the cafeteria. He set the cups on the ground, and poured cheap champagne into both.
He handed one to Chrissy, then raised his to salute her. “You were right. That was the best fifty dollars I ever spent,” he told her.
She snuggled up to him with a grin. “I told you so, Mr. Prank King.” She nodded at the frenzied scene in front of them. “How’s this for going out on top?”
Colin sipped his drink. “I don’t know if I’m finished,” he said. “I think with all the prep, I might have failed French.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
Another class ran past to see aftermath.
“And besides,” said Colin. “Now somebody’s going to have to go one better next year.”
Chrissy laughed. “You mean, ‘two somebodys’,” she clarified, as she put her arm around him.
Colin nodded. “Best plan, ever.”

The Prank

Part 1

No. 045 April 1, 2012

“A good prank leaves them talking about it for years to come. Simplicity is key. If they have to spend too long telling the story of the set-up, you’ve already blown it. Efficiency of storytelling,” Colin Charter told the semi-circle of freshmen seated in front of him. As a sixth-year senior still living in student housing, he had wisdom to pass on to the next generation.

“What if we make a phone call telling someone to meet up someplace, then mess with their room?” asked a pimple-faced girl.

“Nope. See, you’re already adding steps,” Charter told her. “Why the phone call in the first place? It would give the target a clue to your identity, and it complicates the story. ‘Oh, I got this weird phone call and blah blah blah.’ Boring! How about just getting to their room while they’re out? If you can’t manage that then you have no business pranking to begin with. And, really, is messing with their room the best you’ve got? Don’t answer that. Freshmen. Ugh,” he grunted with contempt.

“What would you suggest?” questioned a squeaky-voiced boy. “What’s the best prank ever?”

“The best pranks can’t be taught. They take weeks, months, sometimes years of preparation. And then they bloom spectacularly, just the once, and fade into a blaze of memory and whispered recollections. I can only show you the path, I can’t walk it for you,” Charter concluded.

“Are you working on something now?” came the voice from the back. Chrissy Peachland, Charter’s nemesis.

“In due time, Chrissy. In due time.”                                 

Part 2

No. 073 May 2, 2012

Acting strangely out of character, Colin Charter took no more questions. He ended the meeting abruptly and shooed his freshman disciples out of the lounge.

Only Chrissy remained. “So what are you working on?” she asked him again.

“It involves a pig, a goat, six pairs of underpants, and your mom,” he told her sarcastically.

“Really?” she wondered. “Don’t you want to tell me? We could trade ideas. Maybe you’d like it,” she purred.

Chrissy reached under her shirt provocatively. Her hand came out with a folded piece of paper. “Are you sure you don’t want to see what I’m up to?” she said, waving it temptingly.

“I already know what you’re up to,” answered Colin, somewhat sadly. “I bribed my way into your hall last week. You should really keep better tabs on your sophomores. Your plan won’t work. There’s a flaw in phase three.”

He noticed her turn red and saw a flash of surprise before it went away, leaving her angry-white and glaring at him.

“Well, if that’s how you’re going to be,” she huffed. She turned on her heels and stalked quickly down the corridor.

Charter shook his head. “I can’t help it if I’m right,” he called after her. He was almost a hundred percent sure she didn’t hear.

He returned to his room, too.

He’d been lying, of course, about the pig and her mom, but the truth was somewhat more disturbing.

Colin Charter, the Prank King, would be graduating in two months.

And he didn’t have a single inkling about how to go out with a bang.

Part 3

No. 103 May 30, 2012

For the past month, Colin Charter had sequestered himself in his tiny dorm room.  He had very little time left to plan the ultimate prank.

His situation had become desperate enough that he’d turned to the internet for inspiration.

 He moved his mouse over the blinking link that promised to provide the directions for a prank so magnificent that it claimed to be worth $49.99 just to see the plans.

He hovered for a moment, and then gave in. As he hit the button that said “order”, Colin wondered if he was the one getting pranked.

The page loaded.  There were no blueprints. No descriptions. Instead, there was only a phone number.

Colin had no choice now but to call it. He typed it dutifully into his phone and pressed “send”. He almost dropped the handset when he saw the display.

“Calling: Chrissy Peachland”.

The line was picked up.

“Hello Colin. I knew you’d call eventually,” said Chrissy with a just a hint of sex and victory in her voice. “I’ve got fifty bucks that says you need a little help.”

Colin, having been bettered, hung his head and admitted. “I need help.”

“Come around my room after eleven tonight. We’ll put something together that will blow everyone’s mind.”

Part 4

No. 300, February 3, 2013

It was the day before the last day of school.
Colin and Chrissy sat together on the steps of Charles Hall, watching the crowd watch the results of their prank. Colin produced a paper bag with a bottle inside, and two plastic mugs that he’d borrowed from the cafeteria. He set the cups on the ground, and poured cheap champagne into both.
He handed one to Chrissy, then raised his to salute her. “You were right. That was the best fifty dollars I ever spent,” he told her.
She snuggled up to him with a grin. “I told you so, Mr. Prank King.” She nodded at the frenzied scene in front of them. “How’s this for going out on top?”
Colin sipped his drink. “I don’t know if I’m finished,” he said. “I think with all the prep, I might have failed French.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
Another class ran past to see aftermath.
“And besides,” said Colin. “Now somebody’s going to have to go one better next year.”
Chrissy laughed. “You mean, ‘two somebodys’,” she clarified, as she put her arm around him.
Colin nodded. “Best plan, ever.”

No. 300 – The Prank Part 4

It was the day before the last day of school.
Colin and Chrissy sat together on the steps of Charles Hall, watching the crowd watch the results of their prank. Colin produced a paper bag with a bottle inside, and two plastic mugs that he’d borrowed from the cafeteria. He set the cups on the ground, and poured cheap champagne into both.
He handed one to Chrissy, then raised his to salute her. “You were right. That was the best fifty dollars I ever spent,” he told her.
She snuggled up to him with a grin. “I told you so, Mr. Prank King.” She nodded at the frenzied scene in front of them. “How’s this for going out on top?”
Colin sipped his drink. “I don’t know if I’m finished,” he said. “I think with all the prep, I might have failed French.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
Another class ran past to see aftermath.
“And besides,” said Colin. “Now somebody’s going to have to go one better next year.”
Chrissy laughed. “You mean, ‘two somebodys’,” she clarified, as she put her arm around him.
Colin nodded. “Best plan, ever.”

Around Gray Publishes Mini-Stories, 201 – 250, September 22 – November 23, 2012

No. 201
September 22, 2012
Petra Burton’s couch had betrayed her.
Its soft cushions and perfectly tall armrests has conspired together to cause her to fall asleep and miss her appointment.
She would not easily forgive the maleficent piece of furniture.  Now that she was awake, but still quite groggy, she could almost convince herself that it was a living entity, plotting and scheming to evil ends.
Petra resolved to land the next blow. This evening she would watch TV from the reclining chair. Surely, the noble throne would side with her.
That tactic didn’t work, either. The chair was in league with the couch and Petra slept straight through her favorite show.
At her wit’s end, Petra eyed the floor with suspicion. Would her very home turn on her? She had one last faint hope to land a counter-punch against the entire living room.
She walked slowly to the kitchen and made herself a cup of coffee.
No. 202
September 23, 2012
My name is Willow Webber. When I was a child, my father would always caution us not to play in the Old Webber Place. That’s right, it’s the same name. My family owned the deserted house at the end of the street. The one that all the other kids always said was haunted, the one where the monsters lived.
We didn’t live there, of course. We lived in a normal house about two blocks away that was always kept in immaculate shape.
I used to think I wasn’t allowed to play in the decrepit mansion because I was a girl, and my dad wanted to keep me safe. Looking back now, I understand the true reason for his warnings.
Once, before I was born, a gang of local kids had gone inside. The story has it that they were investigating in order to set up a clubhouse in the basement, and they found something down there.
Nobody was every quite clear on just what that something was, but whatever the find, it was enough to get the house listed as a historic site. This designation prevented my dad from leveling the whole structure and selling the land like he wanted to.
Despite owning two houses, we were not a rich family. “Webber House”, as it was listed in the records, had been willed to my father by some distant relative whom he’d met once as a child, and apparently made an impression upon. Upkeep on a building nobody really wanted or used fell to the wayside as my father petitioned the powers that be to remove the special designation.
So I’ve realized that my brothers and I were forbidden entry in case somebody turned up more, stronger, evidence for preservation that would derail his case.
Well, Webber House still stands, so you can imagine how well we listened. The lure of a “haunted” house was just too great. We found something, too. And, I must tell you, I didn’t expect the discovery to be what it was. I think that even the historical folks were surprised by that one.
It’s all on display in the Webber Museum. You should come and visit sometime. You won’t be disappointed, especially after you hear the whole story.
No. 203
September 23, 2012
In 1912, 115 men went into the Gobi Desert on an expedition funded by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and disappeared. In 2012, one of those men came back.
He appeared not to have aged a single day.
“The others are out there,” he told the told the traveller who discovered him. “They can still be saved.”
Then he withered and died, as if only sheer will had been keeping him alive.
My name is Edward Carter. The 7th Earl has contracted me to find the Lost 114.
No. 204
September 25, 2012
My teacher’s assistant came to me with disturbing news. I could hear something like fear in her voice.
“Abby, I finished marking the last of those tests, but when I put the grades into the computer I noticed something peculiar with the results in B-Block. I’ve already double checked all of the previous marks and there’s something you should see.”
I put down my pen and accepted the laptop from Erin. I looked at the ordered bars on the grading chart of one of the girls in the class.
“I don’t see anything here,” I told her.
Erin nodded. “We’ve been entering the marks as ‘X points out of Y’, so you’ll see all the different values, but when I change it to display in percent, look at what happens.”
She clicked the appropriate button and all of the numbered scores changed to their representative percentages.
“Kendra’s got a 93 on each thing she’s turned in so far?” I said. “What are the odds of that?”
“This is what’s really unsettling,” said Erin. She expanded the results from one student, to all of them.
The phenomena of Kendra’s results were repeated across the board. Though the tallies differed from individual to individual, every student had the same percentages for all of their assignments.
I gasped. “That’s got to be a glitch.”
Erin shook her head. “It’s not a glitch. I looked back at the papers we haven’t handed back. These are correct.”
 “How many ways could this happen?” I wondered aloud.
Erin was just about to reply when we heard a hollow knock at the classroom door. I opened it to find all the students from B-Block in the hall.
“Hello, Miss Roling,” they said in unison.
No. 205
September 26, 2012
The little girl climbed into her brother’s tree fort, plainly ignoring the sign nailed to the trunk that said, in large red letters, “No Girls Allowed”.
She was alone, for the moment, and was executing her raid while her brother was inside finishing his homework.
She rummaged through the assorted piles of toys and treasures that made up the contents of the boys’ hideaway. Swiftly finding what she was looking for, she pulled a single object from her pocket and tucked it in, back with its mates.
With any luck, her brother would find it soon. Maybe then he would believe her when she told him she hadn’t borrowed it, and hadn’t even been in his stupid clubhouse. Or maybe not.
She shimmied down the tree and was halfway across the yard when she heard her name shouted across the lawn.
“What?” she answered back, injecting as much defiance into her voice as she could.
“I saw you near my fort,” her brother told her.
“Why would I want to go up your stupid tree? It probably smells in there.”
“I know took my James Hodgkins rookie card.”
She stamped her foot, an impressive acting performance. “I did not.”
“What would you even want with that?” he muttered as he stalked across the grass to inspect the violated premises for himself.
She tried her best to hide her smile as she skipped back into the house. Next time she’d take one of his prized action figures. The disappearances kept him distracted from what she was really pilfering from his bedroom.
No. 206
September 27, 2012
Lefty, the gremlin on Michael Lansbury’s left shoulder, was neither good nor evil, unlike most traditional specimens. In fact, this particular gremlin was mostly indifferent, putting in his time so he could move on, from passing advice, to other, more interesting, things.
This created havoc in two ways. The first was the Lansbury was only getting good advice, which was making his life incredibly boring, and the second was that all the winning was going to Righty’s head. 
“Should I cut the circles on the plastic rings from my six-pack?” Lansbury wondered.
Righty spoke first. “Yes, you should always do that. You’ll be a better person, and it saves dolphins and sea turtles.”
There was no reply from the other side.
Righty coughed loudly and Lefty woke up from a nap.
“What? Yeah, sure. Whatever. Or not,” he mumbled before slumping down against Lansbury’s neck.
Despite such a convincing counter-argument, Lansbury did the good deed.
“Ha!” said Righty. “Another one for me!” He sidled up to Lansbury’s ear and added another tiny hash mark to his tally under the lobe. “That’s 399,917 to 4!”
Lefty yawned. “How much more time have we got?”
Righty looked at his watch. “If we were close, probably another 30, maybe 40, years of me sticking it to you. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m going to win it all.”
Lefty jerked his head up. “Win?”
“Didn’t you read the contract? It’s not just about time-served. You can also get out if you have 400,000 match-ups go your way, like I’m going to have,” said Righty haughtily. He added another piece of information with a kind of glee that was altogether too sinister for a good-gremlin. “And you might want to read the fine print, too, because any employee with less than 200,000 when the other one wins…,” Righty trailed off and moved his hand past his neck with a slashing motion.
Lefty was alert now. He waggled his fingers and a copy of his contract appeared with a tiny puff of orange smoke. He scanned it quickly. It confirmed Righty’s revelation. He dropped the paper and swallowed hard. He would need to take almost every decision for the next 20 years if he were to have any chance of saving his own hide.
Michael Lansbury’s life was about to get a lot more interesting.
No. 207
September 28, 2012
Nine times out of ten, Joshua Plante would have just kept walking, but something in the overgrown, empty lot caught his attention.
He backtracked about four steps to get a better look at the object.
It was a plain cardboard box, about the size of the ones used to ship apples in. Something had been chewing on a corner and Josh could see a tiny sliver of the contents through the resulting hole.
He could tell that the contents were furry, and that there was at least one foot. He held his breath as he used a stick to prop open the lid to get a better view.
He’d barely manage to raise it a crack when the flaps sprung up and a tiny, disheveled kitten leapt out. Josh fell back in surprise as the infant feline landed on its four paws and opened its mouth wide with a vicious roar.
Or, a roar that would have been vicious, if the animal had been capable of the intensity that it was projecting. And if it wasn’t so terribly cute. Instead, the noise was something more like a squeak, and Josh began to laugh.
It was several moments before both parties were able to compose themselves enough to take a second look at each other.
Josh noticed something strange about the cat.
“Are those stripes?” he asked, moving his hand dangerously close to the little animal’s needle-sharp teeth.
His answer, unsurprisingly, was a sharp bite on the tip of his middle finger. He withdrew out of snapping-range and looked up and down the block for anything that would explain the kitten’s current location.
“Who goes and abandons a baby tiger in the middle of the suburbs?” he wondered as he took off his jacket and prepared to snare the curious specimen.
No. 208
September 29, 2012
Niki Cassa squeezed her eyes shut as the alarm hammered into her head. Try as she might, she couldn’t block out the hideous noise.
She was unhappy to note that, grating as the alarm was, it did nothing to silence the real cacophony.
Niki lived in terrible pain. Every moment for the last five years, the same song had been stuck in her head. Over and over again, it repeated, shutting out thoughts and crippling her standard of living. She’d heard of people developing a ringing in their ears that never ceased, but she’d never found anyone else so tormented by music.
She’d tried every known therapy and nothing had worked. Some doctors didn’t even believe her. Today, though, she’d strike back.
Niki had found a way to broadcast her agony to every living being on the planet.
No. 209
October 1, 2012
Bozeman struggled to recall if anything good had ever happening to him in the middle of a rainstorm. He couldn’t remember a single instance. Right now, the situation was unravelling in such a way that he didn’t picture a happy outcome for this one, either.
The deluge was hammering down so intensely that Bozeman imagined that he could almost hear it, despite the thick concrete roof. “Three more weeks and I would have been out of here, too,” he grumbled to the cactus and the goldfish he’d brought with him from the Mainland for company.
The water had now flooded to his ankles, and Bozeman had just about resigned himself to drowning when the sharp hiss of the radio demanded his attention.
“This is Juliet Base. Over,” he told the handset.
“Roger, Juliet Base, this is Control. Stand by to receive reinforcements. Over,” was the metallic reply.
Bozeman paused before acknowledging the message. Reinforcements? Why would they send anybody else all the way out here?
“Negative. Negative, Control. I need evac, not reinforcements. Over,” he told his handlers.
“Copy, Juliet. ETA for reinforcement is seventeen minutes. Over.”
A chill coursed through Bozeman’s body that was unrelated to the warm pool now lapping at his knees. If the transport was due in seventeen minutes, it had been launched hours before the rain had even started. Nothing good was on its way.
Bozeman sloshed his way to the shelf with the cactus and pushed the desert plant aside. He reached up behind the spines and pulled down a vicious-looking knife. If Control didn’t want to play nice, he’d be ready. He tucked the weapon into his belt, and turned to his aquatic friend’s bowl.
“Hold the fort, little buddy,” he told the oblivious fish.
Then Bozeman opened the hatch and crawled out into the pounding tempest.
No. 210
October 2, 2012
On the occasion of their twenty-first birthday, every person was granted the gift of an hour. One hour that they could spend at any time during the rest of their life to re-live the previous sixty minutes.
Some chose to use their time repeating a happy event. Some chose to spend it correcting their biggest mistake.
This was Wendy’s moment. She took a deep breath and cashed in.
No. 211
October 3, 2012
All the bear wanted was some delicious snacks from the birdfeeder. He didn’t expect to have to deal with a pink flailing animal smacking him with a stick.
He took the blows in stride, ducking and weaving to avoid getting whacked in the ear. It hurt to get whacked in the ear. He brushed his paws at the offending creature. This was met with shrill noises and stamping of feet.
The bear decided that he’d had enough of that, and turned back off the wooden platform. Maybe he could find some tasty grubs around the big blue pond that was just on the other side of the clearing.
The bear didn’t mind the change of plans, though. He’d just come back at night for another chance at that bird seed.
No. 212
October 4, 2012
Bud Mitchell lay stretched out in his flight suit on the well-worn light blue couch. “I really hate this color,” he thought, as if he’d never noticed it before.
He was due at the airport in three hours and was trying to keep that out of his head.
The poster tacked to the wall directly across from the offending furniture displayed the reason for Mitchell’s nerves. “Hiram’s Park Airshow August 11 12 13” said the large red letters across the top.
Today was the last day. Yesterday morning, Mitchell had lost his lucky hat. Yesterday afternoon, he’d barely survived a harrowing spin in an out-of-control airplane when a control cable snapped. He could only imagine what sort of hideous trouble he’d get into when he took off today.
As the headlining demonstration, Mitchell couldn’t afford to pull out for a reason as nebulous as “superstition”. Instead, he tried put off leaving for as long as possible, cursing at the sofa the entire time.
No. 213
October 5, 2012
Craig Hansen examined his pumpkin intently, searching the mottled orange surface for clues or inspiration as to what he should carve into the gourd.
He cast a sideways glance at his friends, all happily hacking away at their jack-o-lanterns. He didn’t see anything terribly impressive. They were all doing the standard smiley-faces with jagged teeth and triangle eyes.  Craig wanted his to be different.
“Forty-five minutes left,” somebody at the end of the row announced. If Craig didn’t have something soon, he’d be forced to turn to the cliché just to have something to enter in the contest.
“Come on,” he whispered at his mute vegetable canvas. “Give me something.”
The pumpkin, being an inanimate object, did nothing to add to Craig’s creative energy.
Time ticked by far too quickly, and though Craig didn’t wear a watch, he could feel the deadline approaching. Usually, he was better at this, but this year he’d been busy in the lead-up to the Halloween season. He contemplated recycling one of his previous designs, but he knew there was a good chance somebody would remember and disqualify him.
With diminishing opportunities, he made the call that would have been unthinkable just an hour before. He raised his knife and began to thrust the blade down to begin the traditional spooky face.
The point met flesh with a satisfying resistance, but Craig felt something inside himself dim as he began to saw the first eye-hole. He stopped and closed his eyes, hoping for a last-minute flash of an idea.
“What’s yours going to be?” asked Lindsay Ross, interrupting his process.
Craig started to tell her that it wasn’t going to be anything special, but the spark he’d been waiting for hit mid-way through his sentence.
“It’s going to be awesome,” he told her with a smile on his face and one careful eye on the clock. “You’ll see in about half an hour.”
No. 214
October 6, 2012
The midday buzz of the busy coffee shop usually helped Jamie concentrate on her work, but today she couldn’t settle in.
She sat in her usual chair in the corner, her back to the wall, a caramel latte just to her right, and stared at the empty screen on her laptop. Unsure where to start her story, she typed a random letter.
“k”.
She sighed and deleted it. There was a large group at the other end of the store, and their noisy chatter was distracting her. She grimaced a little and took her frustration out on her keyboard.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” she pounded out.
They did. Jamie looked up at them and tilted her head to one side. “Well that was odd,” she told herself. Then her face reddened and she looked behind her to see if there was some reflection they’d seen. There was only empty wall.  She shrugged and returned to her work, once again deleting the words she’d typed.
The annoying group began their banter again just as the words disappeared.
Jamie blinked. Did that just happen? Slowly, she touched eight keys.
“Shut up!”
And there was silence.
She decided to continue the experiment. She typed another message. “Man with the red hat, take off your hat with your left hand.”
It worked. The man at the end of the table raised his left arm and removed his cap.
Jamie looked around, trying to see if anybody recognized what she was doing. All the other people in the store seemed to be going about their business as usual. 
She sat back and took a deep breath. How strong was this power? How long would it last? Questions spun through her head. Suddenly a darker thought occurred to her. “What if…,” she whispered. Then she hunched over the keys and typed out something that didn’t sound like her at all.
“Cashier, empty the till and bring me the money.”
No. 215
October 10, 2012
I’m shy by nature, so tourist season is always a bit of an ordeal. I can’t stand strangers out tramping around on the lawn, asking ignorant questions, getting in the way and yelling all the time. It used to be only one or two kids wearing old bed sheets coming by to ring the doorbell and run away. Now, everyone’s got their spectrometers and their infrared cameras and their fancy tape recorders.
I understand that Halloween’s going to be busy around here. I know that. I live in a haunted house. I’m a ghost. I have to grin and bear it. But sometimes I find myself wishing I wasn’t tethered to this place and that maybe just once I could get away for the holidays to avoid the hype. This year, if everything goes to plan, I might get that chance.
I hope so. I’m not sure I can handle another TV special filming in my living room.
No. 216
A Pirate Raccoon Part 1
October 11, 2012
“I don’t want to wear it,” said Riley
His mom turned from the bowl of candy she was preparing. “You don’t want to wear the dinosaur costume I made for you?”
“Nope,” said Riley with his arms crossed firmly.
Mom sighed. “I spent a month on this. Why didn’t you tell me that you didn’t like it before?”
Riley shrugged. “Dunno.”
“What do you want, then?”
Riley didn’t hesitate to answer. “I want to be a pirate raccoon,” he said with a decided finality.
“What?”
“A pirate raccoon.”
Mom’s perplexed look turned into something more annoyed. “You’ve already got a costume and I don’t even know what a pirate raccoon is.” She picked up the unwanted suit and examined it. Perhaps she could solve this problem.
She softened her stance. “I guess I can turn it into a lizard, or if I work really fast, maybe a turtle.”
“Pirate raccoon,” Riley demanded, stamping his feet for emphasis.
This was when Mom made her stand. “That’s just not going to happen. Come on, if we’re going to go out tonight you’re going to have to choose something I can make. Or be a tyrannosaurus. You’ve got two minutes to make up your mind or nobody goes trick-or-treating.”
No. 217
October 12, 2012
“Whatcha got there? Anything to declare?” asked the stone-faced customs agent at the border.
“Um. I don’t think so,” said recently arrived traveller Robert Ogden. “This is all kinda new to me.”
“Can’t be too careful,” said the guard. “We all have to follow the rules,” he finished, pointing at the long list of regulations on the wall behind him.
The sign was a stern warning against smuggling. Huge red letters spelled everything out in minute detail. Ogden was more concerned about the title.
The banner proclaimed a grim message. “Ordinances for Travel to the Afterlife V. 17. Violations Not Tolerated!”
Ogden swallowed hard. “Does this mean I’m dead?”
The guard answered him with a bored shrug. “This isn’t Disneyland.”
An alarm began to blare. Ogden ducked reflexively. The agent was instantly on his walkie-talkie. Ogden could hear the frenzied announcements blasting out of the speakers.
“Breach in Sector Nine. All personnel to Sector Nine.”
No. 218
October 13, 2012
Andrew Star watched the trick-or-treaters approach his door, and then looked at his dog, Ace. “What are you going to tell them when they get here?” he asked the sulking canine.
An empty bowl on the floor beside the shoe rack betrayed Ace’s actions. The dog put his tail between his legs and tried to slink off toward the living room.
“Oh no, you don’t,” said Andrew, grabbing Ace’s collar to haul him back. “You’re going to be right here as evidence when those poor kids ring the bell and find out there’s no more candy.”
The doorbell rang and Andrew greeted the children. There was a ghost, a ninja, and a princess.
“Trick or treat!” they all yelled in unison.
“Hey, guys. I’m sorry, but there isn’t any treats left. My dog, here, ate them all just before you arrived.”
The little shoulders of the ninja and the princess fell, but the ghost took the bad news in stride. “That’s ok, I guess. Your dog is really cute, though.”
“You can pet him,” said Andrew. “His name is Ace. He won’t bite.”
This ghost reached out her hand to pet the friendly hound.
Ace took the opportunity to regurgitate most of the pilfered sweets onto the porch.
All the humans leapt back.
“Ewww!” shrieked the children.
Andrew covered his eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. That was gross. My wife is on her way home, and if you come back later we’ll have some chocolate bars or something for you.”
The costumed visitors all agreed that this was a good idea and then left to canvas the rest of the neighborhood.
Andrew returned to Ace, who was now trying to revisit the burgled candy dish. “You just wait until Heidi gets home and I tell her about this.”
Ace stared back and pretended not to understand English.
No. 219
October 14, 2012
“’Unpredictable sharply biting is made’,” said Nicole, reading the label. “That’s a sort of garbled warning, don’t you thing?
Her friend Tom took the plastic vampire teeth to examine the confusing printing. “Probably made in China. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Tom tossed the prop back to Nicole, who rinsed it and put it in her mouth. 
“How does it look?” she asked, while spinning to present the full effect of the costume.
“The teeth are kinda cheesy, but overall, not too shabby,” he confirmed with an approving nod.
“Get the rest of your stuff on, then let’s hit the party early,” said Nicole. “Before all the good stuff is gone.”
“Ok. Give me one sec, here. I just need to grab some stuff down from my closet.”
Nicole sat on the bed and watched Tom stretch up to the top shelf. She began to wonder if maybe his neck was looking more delicious than usual.
No. 220
October 16, 2012
“What do you want me to do? Chew through it?”
“Have you got any better ideas?”
“No,” admitted Pete Conway as he examined the heavy steel door.
“So your plan was to show up, and then figure out a way past?” questioned Harvey Yearling.
“We didn’t have a lot of time beforehand, did we?” Pete tossed back.
“Nope.”
Conway spat on the ground, his mind racing, trying to work his way around the problem. He traced the outline of the door with his finger. “I think—.”
He didn’t get a chance to finish. Yearling shoved him aside and then walked out through the rainy parking lot to the car.
Pete’s phone rang and he answered it.
It was Harvey from inside the vehicle. “I’m waiting here, where it’s warm, until you sort this out. It’s your problem, anyway, not mine.”
He hung up abruptly.
Conway sighed and cracked his knuckles. It was going to be a long night. If he didn’t get through that door, it was going to be a very long week. 
No. 221
October 17, 2012
She slept heartily. In her dreams she was slaying dragons.
No. 222
October 18, 2012
“When was the last time we went on a quest?” Growl asked the creature hunched beside him.
“We’re goblins, you fool. We’re the bad guys. We don’t go on quests,” replied Shiver.
“I guess. It’d still be nice sometime, you know?”
“Yeah, I know. But our job is to sit around the fire waiting for the heroes to come through our territory and then go running up to them while we scream and wave our swords around. Maybe we take down a couple B-listers in their party.”
The two misshapen beings pondered their existence for a time.
“What if we kill the next group that traipses past and complete whatever quest they’re on?” suggested Growl.
“I like it,” said Shiver. “I like it a lot!”
He stood and stretched his gnarly arms to work out the kinks. Then he sat back down and made himself comfortable.
“We just have to wait until they come by,” he told Growl.
There was a short silence as both monsters pictured their glorious adventures in their minds’ eyes.
“When do you think they’re going to come by?” asked Growl, impatiently.
Shiver looked at him with a scowl. “Listen, if you keep bothering me, I might kill you as well, and go on the quest by myself.”
No. 223
October 23, 2012
“What’s up?”
“Hm?”
“Seems like there’s something different about you today.”
“Don’t think so.”
“Huh. You sure?”
“Yup.”
“You didn’t get a haircut or nothing?”
“Nope.”
“Coulda sworn something changed.”
“Just the same old me.”
“Cool.”
“Is there something different with you?”
“Well, actually, yeah.”
No. 224
October 24, 2012
Ted Tenner took the punch in the jaw. He shook his head to regain his senses and looked his captor in the eye. “Not bad, but you’re going to want to step into the next one if you really want it to count,” he told his foe.
The next blow was, indeed, harder than the first.
“Ted, quit hassling him and just tell them what they want to know,” hissed Andrea Aarons, Tenner’s partner, who was tied up on the opposite side of the dank cell.
Tenner looked at her and winked. “Don’t worry. I’ve got a plan.”
“Awesome,” said Andrea, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Eventually the guard grew tired of the beating and left the two prisoners alone while he went for a break.
“What’s that plan of yours?” asked Andrea.
Tenner coughed, then groaned. “My plan was to wear him out, and then escape. He ended up being a lot better shape than I anticipated.”
“Figures,” said Andrea. “Alright. I’ve got this.”
With a deft twist of her wrist and some nifty finger work, she sprung the handcuffs she was wearing off of the metal ring on the wall. She quickly crossed to Tenner’s side and undid his restraints, too. He fell off of the wall with a limp slide to the floor.
“Oh, come on. I’m not going to break us free and carry you to safety,” said Andrea. “I’m just the sidekick, remember?”
“Remind me to have a little talk with you about that when we get back to base,” said Tenner. “You might be in for a promotion.”
No. 225
October 25, 2012
Nelson Oames studied the imposing facade of the building from the driver’s seat. His trained eye took in every conceivable feature while he worked out the best way in. He was very quiet for a long time before making his final decision. “We’re going do this the old-fashioned way.”
Dean Jackson snapped his seat back to vertical from its reclined position where he’d been napping. “What’s that?”
Oames made a note in the small book he’d taken from his shirt pocket. Only then did he answer his apprentice’s question. “We throw a rock through the window.”
No. 226
October 27, 2012
November 8, 1989
“Commander, should I initiate the Protocol?”
“Not yet, Comrade. Not yet.”
Tomorrow
“Hurry up with the camera, will you? This place isn’t going to film itself,” said Jack Hurdy.
“Yeah, I’m coming. Give me a break,” replied Frank Dealer.
The pair were on location, shooting a documentary about former Soviet airbases now abandoned after the end of the Cold War. This one was rumored to have, at one time, sheltered nuclear missiles.
They were about to uncover something far more sinister.
After some time, picking their way over broken concrete and collapsed walls, they penetrated the heart of the complex.
“Look at that,” Dealer whispered. “It’s the launch tube.”
Hurdy said nothing, but slowly made his way the edge of the hole. He kicked a small rock over and shuddered when it hit the bottom many seconds later. “Wow,” he managed.
Dealer had moved around to the opposite side of the silo. He leaned over the edge with the camera pointed straight down. “There’s stairs,” he called back.
They descended together, both trying not to disturb the years of debris that had accumulated on the rickety gantry.
Hurdy breathed a sigh of relief when he set foot again on the solid floor of the pit.
“Maybe we can find the control room,” said Dealer.
“Sounds good,” Hurdy agreed. “Do you have a light?”
Dealer snapped on the light rig attached to the camera and panned around the landing. “Jack, I’m not sure this was a missile base.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Hurdy. “Why?”
“Something’s just wrong.”
“We’ll get to the control room. It’s just your imagination playing tricks on you.”
Quickly gathering their gear, the two filmmakers set out into the dark. After working around two dead-ends and up a ladder, they found their target.
“You see?” said Hurdy. “This is it. Destructo-central.”
“No. No, this isn’t for nukes,” said Dealer. He stepped forward to get a better look at the instrument panels. “This is some kind of transmitting station.”
“Transmitting? Like broadcast?”
“Yes. Like our dish back home, but way more power.”
Dealer was now studying the buttons intensely, but he was confused by the notations.
“My Russian is rusty,” he continued. “This one says ‘power’, and this one says ‘activate’, but this third one, I think it says ‘protocol’.”
“Why is the light still on beside it?” Hurdy asked. “Maybe they never shut it down?”
“It’s certainly possible.”
“Don’t press it.”
“Don’t worry,” Dealer assured his friend. “Not going to happen.”
He continued his investigation. Mold and dust had obscured some of the labels. Picking at some with his pocket knife, Dealer cleared off another line of letters.
“Huh,” he grunted.
“What?” said Hurdy.
“That says ‘cats’.”
“Like the animal?”
“Yup. Like the animal.”
“It says ‘cats’ in a nuclear missile bunker?”
“I told you, man, I don’t think this has anything to do with missiles.”
No. 227
October 28, 2012
“Something just bit me,” said Grant Busker.
“Did you see it?” asked his girlfriend, Angel Orr.
They were on the first day of their trip to the beach, and neither one wanted to turn back for anything that wasn’t an emergency.
“No. Didn’t see anything,” Grant answered.
“Are you sure it was a bite? There’s not a lot of cover around here for something to sneak up on you.”
Grant showed her his arm without saying a word. There were clearly two puncture marks just under his elbow.
“Ok,” said Angel. “I wonder if whatever it was is poisonous. How do you feel?”
“Not too bad,” said Grant. “It stings a little, though.”
Angel shrugged. “You want to keep going?”
“Sure.”
They continued to hike their picnic gear up the beach. They didn’t have to go far before they were alone.
“Can we stop for a moment?” said Grant.
“No problem.”
“Thanks. I’m just feeling hot. Is it hot?”
Angel looked up at the slightly cloudy sky. “Not really.”
Grant sat down quickly. Angel thought it was too quickly.
“Did you fall?” she gasped.
Grant did not reply. His head slumped forward and he let out a slight moan.
Angel was at his side instantly. “Grant, talk to me. What’s going on?”
He did not reply. He rolled onto his side and Angel saw the wound again. It had festered to several times the original size in the short time since she’d seen it last. Something under the skin seemed to twitch.
Angel covered her mouth in silent horror. She kick away from her fallen boyfriend and turned, stumbling, to flee.
No. 228
October 29, 2012
“I certainly will,” was Katy’s enthusiastic response. Even as she said it, she knew that nothing could be further from the truth. Nobody could have fun on this desolate island.
She watched the ferry leave the pier and wondered for a moment if it was a good idea to dive into the water and try to swim to catch it. The captain and the deckhand waved to her from the bridge’s window as the boat pulled away.
“Awesome,” she grumbled as she grabbed her duffel bag and turned to walk up the 67 steps to the lodge. “Just awesome.”
Her friends had booked the rooms before she’d had a chance to veto the destination. They’d bought into the hype about the resort and hadn’t hesitated to put down non-refundable deposits, including one using her credit card number. Katy had stayed here once before, and would have been more than willing to tell them the whole story.
This time she was able to make it to step number 32 before the rain started and the fog rolled in. She hung her head and tried to climb a little faster. It was going to be a long week.
She hoped that the management had at least been able to get rid of the larger rats.
No. 229
October 30, 2012
Sally’s red belt was special. When she wore it, for as long as she was wearing it, she’d be grown-up. She’d be 10 years older, to be precise.
She’d tried it twice, so far, and didn’t want to put it on again. Being an adult was nothing like she’d expected. The belt stayed hidden in the bottom of Sally’s sock drawer for a long time.
Then her friend Reagan got into trouble and asked Sally for help. Reagan told her that nobody else could know. Sally felt like she had no choice. Reagan needed her.
She wrote a note and slipped it under her pillow. If her plan didn’t work, at least her mom would find the paper later and know what had happened.
With a deep breath, 13-year-old Sally threaded the strap through the buckle and cinched it tight. She closed her eyes for the change, then opened them, and walked out of her bedroom.
No. 230
A Pirate Raccoon Part 2
October 31, 2012
Riley hit the floor and went limp in protest.
“Fine,” said Mom. “If that’s how you’re going to act, I’ll leave without you. I won’t share my candy, either.”
One of Riley’s eyes opened.
Mom threw on her coat and stepped toward the door.
Riley’s other eye opened. They were both very wide, now, but he didn’t get up yet. Maybe there was still a chance his mom was bluffing.
She on her boots and put her hand on the doorknob. “Goodnight, Riley,” she said as she began to turn it.
Riley recovered quickly. “I can be a dinosaur,” he said, his demeanor suddenly cheery. 
“Good,” said Mom. “Because that’s the costume you’ve got.”
She helped her son into the green jumpsuit, complete with stuffed head and tail. His face peered out from behind large, felt teeth. “I’m ready,” he declared.
“Are you sure?” Mom asked him. “You aren’t forgetting anything? Maybe your treat-bag?”
“Oh yeah!” he exclaimed.
“Here you go,” said Mom as she handed it over.
Riley was all set to go out and seemed to have forgotten that he hadn’t wanted to be a t-rex. Now he waited impatiently in the entry way for Mom to put the finishing touches on her costume. When she was done, they left the house together.
As they joined the stream of ghosts, goblins, princesses, and superheroes who were already on the sidewalk, Riley turned to his mom and asked her an important question.
“Can I be a pirate raccoon next year?”
Mom smiled. “Yes, you can. As long as you don’t change your mind.”
No. 231
November 1, 2012
“Here, eat the boy!”
The words of the anguished father echoed across the icy canyon. Family bonds had evaporated in the face of snow-madness.
Ninety days lost in the mountains has a way of changing a man. The rest of the expedition was no more, leaving Arthur Bannister alone with his tortured thoughts. The boy he spoke of was safe in his bed, thousands of miles away.
The monster he beseeched, however, was all too real. It watched the lone figure struggle across the wastes, inching ever closer to almost certain death—a death at the claws of the Abominable Snowman.
A millennium had passed since the last time humans had invaded the Snowman’s territory. Now just one had breached the stronghold. Would Arthur’s fragile mind hold on long enough for him to return home to the child he offered up?
No. 232
November 2, 2012
Charlie threw a rock into the dark river. He watched the ripples spread out and extinguish themselves against the shore. “Do you ever feel like going back?” he asked the man sitting next to him.
James Hailey did not understand his friend. “Go back to where?”
Charlie didn’t answer immediately. “Never mind,” he said after awhile. “It wasn’t a great question to begin with.”
James shrugged. “Alright, man.”
“Do you think the girls will be done soon?” said Charlie, changing the subject.
James checked his watch. “Probably another forty-five minutes.”
Charlie nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“You ok?” asked James. It wasn’t really a question, though. He could already tell something was up.
Another stone hit the water, but no still no word from Charlie.
Then he finally spoke. “Yeah. It just seems like we know a lot more now than we did then.”
James got it. “For sure. We could have at least avoided ‘The Phantom Menace’.”
No. 233
November 3, 2012
My true name is difficult to pronounce, but you can call me Summer. My job is to prevent children from being lost to another, far darker dimension when they play hide-and-go-seek.
Many, many years ago, a very evil man realized that whenever a child chooses to hide, then that boy or girl’s ties to their own world would weaken, leaving them vulnerable to crossing over. The man learned that if he waited on the other side of the rift, then his victims would come to him.
I was chosen to stop him, and I’ve been working ever since to thwart his schemes. Over time, I’ve managed to enlist more beings to my cause. Though we are many, we are not yet enough to prevail and I must divide my energies between protection and recruitment.
Right now, I am two worlds away from yours, talking to a particularly grumpy fairy named Mildred, but at the same time I can hear a little girl named Katelyn start her countdown. I can only hope that I can reach her in time to stave off the bad man.
No. 234
November 4, 2012
Robert McLaren sat down in his usual chair at the diner, and ordered his usual sandwich.
“Pickles today?” the waitress asked, engaging in the practiced banter.
“Not today, but maybe tomorrow,” said Robert. It was the standard response.
She mimed writing down the order, even though the slip was already in line in the kitchen, and walked away, leaving Robert with a cup of coffee. Just like every day.
Today, though, he had something to tell her. He tried to speak up when she left the table, but the words died in his throat. He coughed to cover the awkward sound he made as he aborted the sentence.
“We’ll have that up for you right away,” she called to him from somewhere around the corner.
He sipped his coffee and tried to relax his shaking leg. Nerves. They were going to be the death of him.
She came back with cutlery and a napkin. As she placed them in front of him, she spoke again. “Awfully stormy out, isn’t it?”
As if the weather was listening, lightning flashed on the other side of the large windows, and, with a concussion of thunder, the lights went out.
The waitress wasn’t slowed for a second. Without batting an eye, she continued her work. “Well, Mr. McLaren, it looks like you’ll have to have to shake things up and have some pie with your sandwich, because it won’t last in the fridge if the power is out.”
Robert put aside the thought from earlier. If his lunch was about to change, maybe he should, too. Instead of revealing his secret, he said something else. “I know I’m here all the time, but I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know your name,” he told his server.
She looked at him strangely, in the darkened dining room. “Really?”
The lights flickered back on, interrupting Robert’s reply. The waitress was distracted, too.
“Would you still like the pie?” she questioned, hesitating slightly.
Robert shrank back into the bench. “No. I shouldn’t.”
“Ok,” she said, and returned to the kitchen.
No. 235
November 5, 2012
Claire saw the man board the bus and hoped desperately that he wouldn’t take the open seat next to her.
Of course, he did. Why did she always attract the weird ones? He could have sat anywhere else. There were only seven other people. She caught the driver’s eye in the rear-view mirror, but he could do little more than shrug sympathetically.
“Hi,” said the man, extending his hand and leaning towards her, getting uncomfortably close. “My name is Michael Keaton.” He didn’t wait for her to respond before he clarified unnecessarily. “I’m not the actor.”
“I’m—,” Claire hesitated, thinking of a fake name. “Alice.”
“Of course you are. Yes, of course you are,” repeated Michael Keaton. He seemed to be sounding out the words in his head as he spoke them. He shifted in his seat, awkwardly readjusting something in his coat.
Claire looked out the window, trying to send a clear message that she didn’t want to talk. Michael Keaton turned his attention to another passenger, a man sitting a few rows back.
“I’m Michael Keaton,” Michael Keaton told his new friend. “I’m not the actor.”
“Uh huh,” grunted the unimpressed commuter.
Michael Keaton was undaunted. He kept up the conversation. “Alice, here, and I, we go way back,” he said.
Claire glanced over at the mention of her alias. Michael Keaton made a sudden move. He grabbed her arm and pulled her to the door at the side of the bus. With one smooth motion he triggered the emergency-open button and jumped out with Claire as the driver brought the bus to a shuddering halt.
“Come with me!” he yelled for everyone’s benefit, and then said something else to Claire very quietly, hushed so only she could hear. “It’s not safe back there. I’ll save you.”
He gently released her arm, and opened his jacket. Claire saw what he’d been harboring in there.
“His name is Batman,” was all Michael Keaton could say before the man from the seat behind punched him square in the jaw.
Claire sank to the curb as the shock wore off and didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Batman wriggled out of Michael Keaton’s pocket and scampered over to lick her face.
“That’s Batman, he’s my dog,” a stunned Michael Keaton was busy telling the driver and other passengers who stood over him. “Batman, and my friend, Alice.”
No. 236
November 6, 2012 
All the space stories you’ve heard of have been about smugglers, or rebels, or explorers, or soldiers. Mine is different. I’m just a normal guy. Mine started just about a week ago, and I can pretty much catch you up until now. Then we’ll have to live through it together.
I live on Juno. Got here two years ago on the last immigration ship. There aren’t too many of us yet. There won’t be until the next nav-window opens in six months and they start sending the really big star cruisers through.
Anyway, a week ago, on my way to work, I saw something. I know that you think I’m going to say an alien, but that wouldn’t be shocking. Everyone knows they’re around. They keep to themselves, mostly on Minerva. No. I saw something much weirder—a stranger.
This is the kind of planet where everyone knows everybody. The journey is a decade long, and all of it is spent in the chill. The asteroids and the sun only align to allow passage once per local orbit. My point is, it’s not an easy place to get to. You might say that it’s impossible. But I know what I saw.
I pulled over to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, but there she was. The first time I saw her, she was looking the other way, trying to stay hidden behind the dumpster at Ernie’s Restaurant. My first impression was that she seemed scared.
It was later that I found out this wasn’t true at all. But that’s jumping all ahead. To understand where I’m at now, let me get back to the story.
No. 237
November 7, 2012
Marty was a sloth, and it always amused him how much of the jungle gossip he would overhear. It seemed that other animals were quite willing to overlook a hanging, shaggy lump in a tree. Obviously, though, all the information he learned was difficult to exploit to its fullest potential, because Marty was a hanging, shaggy lump in a tree. He was also prone to sleeping upwards of twenty hours a day, so the information he did pick up was spotty at the best of times.
One day, probably a Thursday but Marty wasn’t sure, he overheard something important. Ajax, the jaguar, was going to make a play for King of the Jungle. Marty knew that if Ajax were to succeed, the delicate balance of the rain forest would be shattered, and that every animal would be in danger.
The sloth watched as the scheming cats crept off into the undergrowth. According to the story he’d just heard, the coup would take place the next evening. He knew he was the only one who could do anything to stop them.
With great intensity, Marty unhooked one crooked claw from the branch and moved it forward. Then, reaching deep into his energy reserves, he did the same with his other paw. Then another. And finally, the last one. He had now moved roughly the length of his body toward the trunk of the tree. If he hurried, he could reach help just before the jaguars sprang their trap.
No. 238
November 8, 2012
Protagonist examined the readings of a strange machine. “That’s it,” he said. “There are no new stories. The humans have run out of ideas.”
“Impossible!” exclaimed Antagonist. “Where will our magic come from?”
Protagonist put his head in his hands, thoroughly defeated after a lifetime spent trying to keep the spark of imagination alive. “I don’t know.”
Antagonist, the younger, less rigid of the pair, put forth a heretical suggestion. “What if we create our own?”
Protagonist’s eyes widened. “That would be against all the laws of the council! We can’t.”
Antagonist was determined. His gaze was steely. “What if?” he asked. “Just what if we did?”
No. 239
November 9, 2012
It’s hard, sometimes, to be a monster that can only go out during the day. I don’t get nearly as much respect as those night-time monsters. Plus, have you ever tried to jump out of the sunlight to scare somebody? Doesn’t work.
The roughest part is that I used to be a creature of the darkness. Then one evening I tried to eat the wrong person. This guy put some sort of curse on me and there you go. Now even mild shadows start to burn my scales. Stay away from the neighborhood east of Beach Club Street and anybody you see down there wearing a trench coat. Just trust me on that one. Bad news.
And, the thing is, my life keeps getting worse. Just this morning, I was on my way down to the dorms for breakfast when this woman driving by slams on the brakes, rolls down her window, and starts screaming and pointing at my claws. She must have called the cops, too, because fifteen minutes later I’m surrounded, then getting tasered and linked to something like 50 murders. I mean, it can’t be as high as that. By my count I’m somewhere near 30 since I rolled into town.
So, currently, I’m here, in this dank cell, and thank goodness they’ve left the light on. I overheard a guard down the hall saying somebody’s coming around to run some tests on me. At this point I think that’s probably for the best. The perp here, beside me, smells a little bit like pee.
No. 240
November 10, 2012
“Thank you for your continuing support of the Theatre, despite the events of last night’s show,” wrote Arianna Helm. “We sincerely hope that your perception of us as a professional and community-minded entity has not changed,” she continued, her fingers flashing across the keyboard.
“Ari,” said Frank Regent from across the office. “You’re not still writing that apology letter are you? They’ll understand. You can’t expect that to ever happen again.”
Arianna sighed, and stopped typing for a moment. “It wouldn’t hurt to at least attempt some damage control. I can still see the face of that woman in row five. I doubt she’ll be coming back.”
“Alright,” said Frank. “Do whatever you want. I’m expecting a call from Mr. Iversley any minute now, anyway. I’m going to wait until he lets me know what I should be doing.”
“He’s calling you?” Arianna asked. That wasn’t a good sign. Mr. Iversley rarely made the day-to-day operations his business. No matter what Frank said about not worrying, she was going to. If Mr. Iversley had already heard about the accident, then the disgruntled patrons were going to be the least of her problems.
She deleted the apologetic words on her screen and began a new paragraph. “Dear Mr. Iversley,” it began. “I am writing to inform you of the events of November 9th.”
No. 241
November 12, 2012
Almost a day after beginning his journey, Thomas Gallagher touched down at his final destination. He stared out the small window, drawing in every detail from the strange outside world as the plane taxied to the gate. As the final jolt of the brakes travelled through the cabin, the captain’s voice came over the PA system.
“Thank you for flying with us today. Welcome to Australia.”
Tom had never been so excited.
Although he should probably have been considered too old to believe in comic books, he’d come here on a very special mission. After studying years of back issues, he’d arrived at the conclusion that there were a huge percentage of heroes who’d received their powers after coming into contact with dangerous animals. He’d done is research and determined that Australia was home to almost nothing but dangerous animals. He was going to do everything possible to get bitten.
Day one started poorly. He was already fourteen hours into his stay, and so far he hadn’t encountered anything more venomous than a dust bunny in his room. After hotel breakfast, Tom took to the streets, looking for his golden ticket.
Several hours later, he would admit defeat. By dinner, he was reconsidering his plan.
For day two, he resolved to leave the city. Perhaps getting out into the wild country would be the key.
He woke early, and set out for a car-rental agency. Once behind the wheel, he found something almost immediately.
While pulled over at a gas station for a drink, Tom saw a snake emerge from a bush at the side of the building. He ran across the parking lot toward the serpent. It did what any snake could be expected to do when faced with a large, strange being who was rushing at it.
The snake sank its fangs into Tom’s leg. He cried out in pain and staggered to the ground. The snake slithered off, tired of the whole business.
Thomas yelled to the gas station attended for help. “A snake bit me,” he cried. “Does it look like it gave me super-strength?”
“No, mate,” said the attendant. “That snake’s got no powers. What he’s given you is an entire dose of poison. You stay still. I’m going to call the hospital.”
Tom looked at the two large, angry puncture marks on his calf and promptly passed out.
The gas station attendant watched from inside while dialing for help. “Bloody tourists,” he muttered as he waited for the phone to connect.
No. 242
November 13, 2012
Isaac White had, in a moment of dubious clarity, made the rash decision to open up his life to online voting. Every choice he would make was put to the faceless horde of the internet. He was in the second week of a promised one-year term and the flaws in his plan had already been mercilessly exposed.
The masses had decided, by a margin of 78 to 22 percent, that he would be eating dog food exclusively for the next two days. While wearing an inflatable sumo-suit. While watching some horrible children’s TV program on repeat with the volume cranked up. The situation had been like this since about six hours after his website had gone live.
Worse still, Isaac had wired his home with cameras, to broadcast his grand experiment to the world. He had nowhere to hide. Trying to sneak extra food, or even some unapproved water, was almost out of the question.  There was only one blind-spot—a four-square-foot area in the bathroom. It was his only measure of privacy, where viewers weren’t allowed.
As he sat, surreptitiously chewing on some petrified Halloween candy that he’d found in a drawer and transferred into his sleeve by sleight-of-hand, Isaac tried to think of a way to back out of his predicament. It would be difficult. He was currently the most famous person in the world.
No. 243
November 14, 2012
The ruins had been discovered once before. In 1904 a man stumbled out of the jungle with a crude map and unintelligible stories of a city made of gold. Before he could recover enough to tell his tale or make a copy of the map, a storm swept down the river valley. A dam burst, and the small village the man had been taken to was wiped out by a wall of water.
 Only two people escaped with their lives. Their accounts of the strange man were the only proof he existed at all. He became a statistic, an anonymous casualty of the flood. His city, it seemed, had been lost with him.
But not forever. I can tell you that he was Percy Spruce, and I know this because I found the city. He’d carved his name into a golden pillar in the central square. The scale of the wealth here is unbelievable. The entire metropolis is covered in gold foil. The holiest buildings are sheathed in inches of the precious metal. The pillar is 15 feet tall, and near as I can tell, solid.
I don’t have much time to explore, though. I believe that I was followed here. In the morning, the bandits will come. I will need to be ready.
No. 244
November 15, 2012
Powell Shultz was a tiny, wasted figure in the middle of a king-sized bed. His voice, though, was still strong. 
“I don’t want those doughnuts. What have I told you about sprinkles? Get rid of them,” he chastised the maid who brought him breakfast.
“Yes, sir,” she nodded, removing the offending box from his sight. Just yesterday he’d informed her than nothing in the world made him happier than sprinkles. But maybe he’d changed his mind and spoken to another one of the help. He had several assistants, butlers, and maids surrounding him on any given day.
“When do the sales numbers come in?” she could hear him calling from the bedroom. Shultz was the head of TomorrowTech, and all the company decisions still crossed the hardwood floor of his bedroom before implementation. She’d heard that he’d made his fortune on some equipment that the government had immediately bought and then classified blacker than black.
She heard yet another outburst from his sanctum. “Where are my doughnuts? That girl took them.” She didn’t like the sound of that and she did something that she never thought she’d do.
She crossed Mr. Shultz. Opening one of the many anonymous doors in the great hallway, she stepped inside with her box of treats and raised the lid. Then, one by one, she ate every single doughnut, just to spite her employer. Only after she was finished did she take note of the contents of the room. She’d never been in here before.
All the walls were covered in unmarked switches, gears, and readouts. A large, rectangle platform jutted up from the middle of the floor. The surface of the strange projection seemed to shimmer, like oil on water. She reached out to touch it.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a sharp, familiar voice told her. She turned, and was shocked to see Mr. Shultz standing in the doorway. “It’s not quite finished yet, my dear,” he said as he cracked his ancient knuckles.
No. 245
November 15, 2012
Cynthia Newquist played the last note of her performance, then without recognizing the audience, she rose and fled the stage. She did not even notice the curtains fall behind her. “Somebody get me a piece of paper!” she shouted.
She made it to a small table that was set up at the side of the stage. A fellow musician who had been waiting in the wings managed to find her the sheet she was calling for.
Cynthia snatched it from his hand and began to scribble furiously.
“What are you doing?” the provider asked.
She cut him off without looking up. “Shh! Busy!”
Fifteen minutes later, she stopped writing and collapsed against the wall, seemingly exhausted.
Other performers had started to mingle around her. One of them knelt beside Cynthia to make sure she was alright.
Some whispered words passed between Cynthia and her new acquaintance. The others began to murmur amongst themselves. Finally, somebody in the back broke the hushed atmosphere.
“What was all that about?”
The outburst seemed to startle Cynthia. Blinking heavily, she rose to her feet. She returned to the table and picked up the mysterious note. Now she took a bold tone.
“When I was out there playing, I had a wonderful idea. I realized something. I needed to rush back here to get it all down.”
“And?” was the reply from the crowd.
Cynthia held up the paper. “It’s a song, of course. It’s the perfect song.”
No. 246
November 19, 2012
Then
“There are dragons in the hills,” said the old man. “They’ll keep to themselves in the summer, but in the winters they come down. That’s when they’re hungry.”
Six young children sat around the man, listening to every word of his stories.  One of them, however, didn’t agree with the content. “That’s not true,” he said. “Dragon’s aren’t real.”
The old man’s face darkened. “You say that, boy, only because you’ve never seen one. They’re real, and, if you don’t believe, then they’re especially dangerous.”
At that moment, a woman arrived in the room. She’d heard the old man’s warning from around the corner. “Mr. Spero,” she said, speaking to the old man. “What are you telling these children? Dragons aren’t part of the town history. We never discussed this when you asked to speak here.”
Spero stood, defiant. “Little Miss, if a man can’t come to the museum and tell the youngsters something that will save their lives, I don’t know why you have these talks.”
The woman put her hands on her hips. “Mr. Spero, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Then, turning to the children who were still watching every move the adults made, she continued. “Don’t listen to Mr. Spero. I’m sorry he’s been scaring you. There’s really no such thing as dragons. If you come with me, now, I can show you some very interesting rocks from the town’s mining days.”
“Watch out!” said Mr. Spero as the children all got up and filed out the door. Then he gathered his coat and hat and left out the side entrance.
Now
Donald Douglas pulled into town after a long day’s drive. He tried to remember the last time he’d been here. Once, as a kid, while on vacation, his mom had left him to listen to some crank at the local museum talk about monsters or something in the hills. He smiled at the memory. That had been a good trip. The curator had given all the children credit at the gift shop because the old coot might have frightened them.
Donald got out of his truck to check into his hotel for the night. He hoped to get to sleep soon. The next morning would be an early start as he hit the road to stay ahead of the snow that was forecast to roll in.
He looked up at the bluffs towering over Main Street. “Dragons!” he scoffed aloud. That’s what the man had said all those years ago.
No. 247
November 20, 2012
“I can see there’s something out there, I just can’t reach it,” Bubbles told Flash.
Both fish were swimming lazily around their bowl with little else to do but engage each other in conversation. It was an unspoken rule that whoever “won” their daily debate got to sleep in the sunken galleon that night.
“This is our world,” said Flash. “Do you ever remember being anyplace else?”
Bubbles thought for a moment. “No.”
“This is our world,” said Flash. “Do you ever remember being anyplace else?”
“You just asked me that,” said Bubbles.
“Yeah, ok. Just checking,” said Flash.
“Oh, I get it. Making sure my memory is still good. Tricky,” Bubbles said while rolling his bulbous eyes. “But all that aside, don’t you ever wonder if this is all there is?” he continued, waving his fin at the plastic plant and the small colorful beads at the bottom of their home. “And what is the blur that feeds us?”
“I dunno,” Flash admitted. “I never thought about it before. All I know is that I put my head out of the water once and I got dizzy. Maybe I’m not the best source of information about where the food comes from.”
Bubbles swam a fast lap around the perimeter of the bowl. “I win!” he declared. “I convinced you that there’s someplace else!”
“Hang on a minute,” said Flash testily. “That’s not what you said. And we never really got down to deciding what the question was.”
“I thought I was pretty clear,” Bubbles replied.
“You weren’t.”
“Fine, Mr. Grumbles, what’s the topic?”
Flash got all the way up to the glass wall and pressed his fishy lips against it while considering the problem. Finally, the topic came to him. He chose his words carefully. “Assuming there is a wider universe beyond the bowl, just what is our place in it?”
No. 248
November 21, 2012
The sun rose over the desert hideaway of the Whiskey Bandit.
Anna-Lee Hailey pulled her hat down over her eyes and rolled closer to the embers of last-night’s fire. The bright sky would not warm for several hours yet.
“Whiskey, get up,” urged Anna-Lee’s partner. “We’re on the timetable.”
“Oh, hush, Juliet. You know as well as I do that Sheriff Winston stays late in town on Thursdays,” countered a still sleepy Anna-Lee. “And Ettie? Remember what I said about calling me Whiskey.”
She stretched as she sat up slowly to survey the sparse camp. Things had been moved since last night. “You’ve been busy,” she told Juliet.
“Sure. I figured with you sleeping the day away, I’d take the opportunity to spruce this place up a little. What do you think?”
Anna-Lee rolled her eyes at Juliet’s so-called improvements. “You know, if you weren’t the fastest gun around, I’d probably have ditched you back in Tucson.”
Juliet laughed. “I thought you were the brains of this operation, and yet there you are, too slow to have made that call.”
“Uh-huh,” Anna-Lee grunted. “As the leader of this gang, it is my duty to inform you that coffee will have to be made.”
Before Juliet could reply, the third member of the crew rode up from the mouth of the canyon that sheltered the outlaws.
“Whiskey,” said Lewis Goodman, “Bad news. Winston’s changed his schedule. We’ve only got until noon if we want the make this job count.”
“Alright, Lew. Get back to the ridge and keep an eye out. Ettie and I will be along just as soon as I can find my pants. Seems she’s been housekeeping.”
Goodman quickly did as he was told. Anna-Lee sighed, and turned to Juliet. “Just what is it about ‘only call me Whiskey during the heists’ don’t you two understand?
No. 249
November 22, 2012
Randy Webber finished his lunch, then leapt off the dock into the lake to join his friends.
He didn’t have a chance to swim very far before a girl appeared beside him.
“Hi, Randy, you’re not going to like this, but I’m going to have to cite you,” said the girl.
“What?” said Randy. He was confused.
“I’m going to have to give you a ticket,” said the girl, who appeared to be floating effortlessly in the water.
“Are you the police?” asked Randy. He looked her up and down and she didn’t certainly wasn’t wearing a uniform. She wasn’t wearing a bathing suit, either. Her clothes seemed soft, and a little bit shiny.
“No. I’m a – well, never mind what I am. I’m here to write you up for not waiting an hour after you ate before swimming,” she told him.
Randy laughed. “That’s not even a thing. Are you staying around here for spring break?”
She was taken aback. “It is very much ‘a thing’. And I’m not going to get my wings if you don’t cooperate.”
Randy stopped moving ahead and began to tread water. “Wings?”
The girl rolled her eyes and shrugged. “I’ve done it again, haven’t I? Well, yes. I’m in training. To be a proper fairy. We don’t get to start out at teeth, or with lost boys. We aren’t even allowed the dust until we’ve been on the job for two years.”
Randy looked at her suspiciously. “No kidding?” he wondered. “And your job is to lurk around waiting for people to eat and then swim?”
“I most certainly do not ‘lurk’!” she sputtered. “But, basically, yes.”
“How come you’re not small?”
“People don’t like getting fined, do they? If I was small, you would have considered squashing me like a bug.”
“I would have shooed you away, probably,” Randy admitted. His arms were beginning to tire, and he stroked slowly back toward the dock.
She came right along with him. “Look, can I just get this over with? If I don’t meet my quota I’ll have to go back to stealing socks, and I worked really hard to get out of there,” she said assertively, but with a smile.
By this time, Randy was beginning to take a shine to his new companion. He wasn’t sure if he believed her story, but he was free tonight, and she seemed nice. Maybe he had a chance if he played along. “Ok. What do I need to do in this scenario?” he agreed.
“The fine is based on the amount of time you waited. The less time, the more you owe.”
“Uh-huh,” said Randy. “And where do I pay?”
“Oh,” she laughed. “You don’t pay with money.”
“I don’t?”
“Of course not! What would we do with money?” she scoffed.
“Then what?”
“Since you only waited 48 seconds after you swallowed your last bite, that puts you into the top category,” she explained. “You’ll need to perform five acts of goodwill.”
“Like being nice to people or something?” he asked.
“Goodwill, yes,” she confirmed. She tore a piece of paper off of a pad that had appeared out of nowhere. “Here you go.”
Randy accepted it, reading the checked boxes carefully. He squinted at the line with her signature, but couldn’t make it out. There seemed to be an “i” with a heart-dot, though.
“That’s all!” she told him cheerfully.
“Thanks, I guess.”
She was about to leave when he spoke up again. “Hey, two things. First, can I get your name? And second, do you think it would count as goodwill if I helped you with your quota by luring some of my friends into the water after dinner?”
No. 250
November 23, 2012
“That’s just terrible,” Miranda told the TV. A commercial break had jogged her attention and she shook her head. She couldn’t believe she’d just spent fifteen minutes of her life watching a show with so few redeemable qualities.
She looked for the remote control, and remembered why she hadn’t simply changed the channel in the first place. She searched everywhere and, when it didn’t turn up between the cushions, she had to change tactics. She got down on her hands and knees with a flashlight and peered underneath the seat. There was the prize, fallen between the back of the couch and the wall.
“Come here,” she said as she dragged the sofa aside so she could reach the remote. As she leaned down to pick it up she noticed something was out of place. The corner of the carpet was not flush with the floor.
Miranda studied it for a moment. Then, tentatively, she began to pull at the tab. The carpet rose up without a hitch. It had not been fastened down. Miranda kept dragging it back until she felt it catch. Then she lay the flap down and saw what was underneath.
A loose sheet of plywood had been used to support the floor and, when Miranda pushed it away, it revealed an antique safe.
“Well isn’t this interesting,” she said as she knelt down to examine it.

A Pirate Raccoon, The Halloween Story – 2012

A Pirate Raccoon

Part 1

No. 216

October 11, 2012

“I don’t want to wear it,” said Riley
His mom turned from the bowl of candy she was preparing. “You don’t want to wear the dinosaur costume I made for you?”
“Nope,” said Riley with his arms crossed firmly.
Mom sighed. “I spent a month on this. Why didn’t you tell me that you didn’t like it before?”
Riley shrugged. “Dunno.”
“What do you want, then?”
Riley didn’t hesitate to answer. “I want to be a pirate raccoon,” he said with a decided finality.
“What?”
“A pirate raccoon.”
Mom’s perplexed look turned into something more annoyed. “You’ve already got a costume and I don’t even know what a pirate raccoon is.” She picked up the unwanted suit and examined it. Perhaps she could solve this problem.
She softened her stance. “I guess I can turn it into a lizard, or if I work really fast, maybe a turtle.”
“Pirate raccoon,” Riley demanded, stamping his feet for emphasis.
This was when Mom made her stand. “That’s just not going to happen. Come on, if we’re going to go out tonight you’re going to have to choose something I can make. Or be a tyrannosaurus. You’ve got two minutes to make up your mind or nobody goes trick-or-treating.”
Part 2

No. 230

October 31, 2012

Riley hit the floor and went limp in protest.
“Fine,” said Mom. “If that’s how you’re going to act, I’ll leave without you. I won’t share my candy, either.”
One of Riley’s eyes opened.
Mom threw on her coat and stepped toward the door.
Riley’s other eye opened. They were both very wide, now, but he didn’t get up yet. Maybe there was still a chance his mom was bluffing.
She on her boots and put her hand on the doorknob. “Goodnight, Riley,” she said as she began to turn it.
Riley recovered quickly. “I can be a dinosaur,” he said, his demeanor suddenly cheery.  
“Good,” said Mom. “Because that’s the costume you’ve got.”
She helped her son into the green jumpsuit, complete with stuffed head and tail. His face peered out from behind large, felt teeth. “I’m ready,” he declared.
“Are you sure?” Mom asked him. “You aren’t forgetting anything? Maybe your treat-bag?”
“Oh yeah!” he exclaimed.
“Here you go,” said Mom as she handed it over.
Riley was all set to go out and seemed to have forgotten that he hadn’t wanted to be a t-rex. Now he waited impatiently in the entry way for Mom to put the finishing touches on her costume. When she was done, they left the house together.
As they joined the stream of ghosts, goblins, princesses, and superheroes who were already on the sidewalk, Riley turned to his mom and asked her an important question.
“Can I be a pirate raccoon next year?”
Mom smiled. “Yes, you can. As long as you don’t change your mind.”