Monthly Archives: June 2013

No. 408

Twelve-year-old Ben Foster watched the fireworks blast up into the sky with a keening hiss and then explode into scintillating colors. He felt the concussive force in his chest as the wave of sound hit him.

Deep down, he knew that this would be his favorite night of the year. But it was not his intention to be a mere spectator. He longed to be the one to put flame to fuse. His parents’ ultimatum still rang in his ears. “Not until you’re older.”

But Ben was not to be denied. He snuck away from the party in his backyard, retrieving his bicycle on the way through the gate.

Once he was sure that his absence had not been noticed, he hopped onto the bike and began to pedal furiously down the block. Almost every home was having their own celebration, and the night was brightened by countless festive detonations.

Ben knew he would only have to convince one group of revelers that he should be the one to launch the rockets. He travelled two-and-a-half blocks before stopping, to lessen the odds that his new friends would call his parents immediately when he rolled up asking to blow things up.

He spotted a likely mark straight away. He let the bike fall to the ground and approached the target casually.

“Hey mister,” said Ben. “Those are pretty cool.”

The man looked up at the new visitor. “They are,” he said, while trying to work out if the child would be a passing annoyance, or someone he’d have to put effort into dealing with.

“I’ve done a few, before,” Ben lied.

“Uh huh,” nodded the man, giving every indication that he didn’t want to be bothered.

Of course, Ben ignored the cues. “I could help you,” he offered congenially.

The man sat back from the next round that was set up on the pavement. He flicked his lighter and glanced back at his two female companions. They did nothing to endorse or deny Ben’s proposal.

The man shrugged. “I guess so. I don’t see why not. How old are you?”

“Thirteen,” Ben told him, lying again.

“Ok, sure,” said the man, handing over his lighter. “Don’t hurt yourself. After you light it, come back over here.”

Ben held the lighter tightly. The flame jumped and shook in his hand. He knelt down and held the fire to the cord. It caught with a flash and Ben almost fell over in surprise. He scooted backward on all fours, like a crab, and reached the safety line just as the first burst left the cardboard tube.

“Wow,” he laughed as it zipped up overhead. He flinched as it separated into a dozen streamers that fell back toward the ground. “That’s bigger than the ones at home,” he exclaimed.

The man suddenly realized what had occurred. The boy had scammed him. “Hey, where is your home?” he asked, suspiciously.

Ben was already back on his bike. “Just down the road,” he said, keeping the details vague. “Thanks a lot for letting me shoot that one.”

 

The man watched Ben disappear around the corner. “Strange little kid,” he said to the women.

“Brave,” said one.

“Kind of dirty,” said the other.

Bonus Story – Rejected No. 403

“Everybody lies,” Grandpa whispered to his grandsons, Trent and Royce. “So, when I tell you a story, you’ve got to look out for the bits that aren’t true.”

“Ok,” the small boys nodded in agreement. “Tell us the one about you, the flood, and the bees.”

“Dad,” their father called from the other room. “Are you giving my kids that ‘everybody lies’ speech again? What did I ask you about that?”

“Son, it’s a lesson they need to learn.”

No. 407

The cracks in the wall are becoming alarming. Perhaps more so because, about ten minutes ago, I think I saw something moving around inside there.

Don’t quote me on this later, but whatever it was seemed fuzzy. And either there’s more than one, or the whatever-it-is is bigger than a raccoon.

You’re going to say that I should have expected something like this for the price that I’m paying. In my defense, the pictures in the ad were pretty sweet. Now, I suppose, when I see a “beautiful mountain cabin” touted, I’ll know to do a little more research before I hand over the cash for a week’s stay.

But I’m getting off topic, here. The main problem is the whatever-it-is. I’ve done a thorough search of all the cupboards and closets, and my best tools are, at the moment, a tennis racquet, a bent golf club, and a wicker basket.

I’ve got to get it, or I won’t be sleeping here tonight. It’s a six hour drive back home. It’s too late for that. I have no choice but to attempt a capture.

Nothing that’s really dangerous makes a chirping noise, right?

No. 406 – The Molten Kingdom Part 6

Clue reached the heart of the complex. Along the way, she’d had to incapacitate several more of the Queen’s soldiers. When she’d been too close for lightning or flash-freezing to work, she’d temporarily blinded some with bursts of light. In the back of her mind, she knew that Mr. Mouse wouldn’t approve of the more forceful methods she’d taken to using, but she told herself that she’d have that debate with him on the journey home.

She turned the last corner and arrived in the treasure chamber. There was only one piece. A golden, jeweled crown was set on a pillar in the middle of the room. A moat of lava separated the small island from the door where Clue was standing. Clue could see the empty settings on the crown where the two diamonds had come from.

But she wasn’t interested in the priceless metals or gems. Around the band of the crown was an inscription. The tiny words twisted their way through the elaborate decorations, and anybody who didn’t already know that they were there would easily miss them. Although the writing wasn’t in English, Clue knew that it was the location of the sunken continent of Atlantis.

Clue lowered the temperature of the air, and a solid crust of rock formed at the top of the lava as it cooled. Once it was thick enough, she simply walked ahead and picked up the crown. She clutched it close as she crept back up the passageway. She had very little time to rescue her friend.

 

She didn’t get far.

Suddenly, two thick slabs of rock fell from the ceiling, one in front and one behind, trapping Clue in the narrow hall.

She heard the Queens voice, carried through some trick of the acoustics.

“Outsider, do not think that you will escape with our secrets. We have noted your powers, but they will not help you, now.”

The roof began to lower. Clue could feel the vibration of some massive mechanism working behind the walls. She ducked as she was squeezed down toward the floor.

For once, she couldn’t think of a way to get free.

No. 405 – The Molten Kingdom Part 5

Clue surveyed her cell. There wasn’t enough room for her to sit, so she leaned against the back wall, looking for a weakness in the bars. Unlike the majority of the settlement that she’d seen so far, the bars were not rock, but metal that had been cast into place. In the hall beyond, Clue could see a single guard who had been left to watch her.

Her plan had always been to end up here. There had been no other way she would have been able to infiltrate so deeply into the subterranean fortress. However, the arrival of Mr. Mouse had accelerated her timeline. She had hoped to have learned the location of the artifact from the Queen, first. But Clue knew she was close by, now, and escape would not be a problem.

First, Clue ionized the air around the guard, and then directed a charge of electricity to the back of the woman’s neck. It wasn’t fatal, but, if the underground people were anything like humans, the guard would have a miserable week.

Then, Clue coated the bars with moisture from the air. Using alternating currents of cold and hot wind on the wet metal, she was able to rust through them in minutes.

With a solid kick, she was out.

She took a moment to remember the way she’d been brought down to the prison level, and then went in the opposite direction at a light jog.

 

Mr. Mouse was not happy. He was still in the cage that had been presented to Clue. He’d already tried to gnaw through his bars, but they proven to be resistant to his sharp teeth.  Presently, he was anxiously awaiting the shift change of the soldiers, after which he’d be thrown into the lava pool.

He’d guessed that Clue’s capture had been deliberate after he’d seen her dragged off without so much as a flicker of her powers. Now he hoped that she’d be back for him before his execution. Still without a clear understanding about what Clue was up to, all he could do was twitch his tail and wait.

Around Gray Publishes Mini-Stories, No. 351 – No. 400, April 9, 2013 – June 18, 2013

No. 351

April 9, 2013

“Son, if you slay the dragon, then you will bring the family much honor and glory. If you are killed by it, still some, but less. If you return home without the beast’s head, you will bring more disgrace with you than our name can bear.”

Those were the words that Thomas the Grand told his son, Andrew, on the young man’s 16th birthday.

 

Four hundred years later, Justin Coward delivered them during a school presentation about his ancestors.

Britney Sanders, in the back row, laughed. “Aw, was little Andrew afraid of the big, bad monster?” she taunted.

Justin coughed. “No, not really. When he came back after a year in the hills, he claimed he’d seen no dragons. Unfortunately, as you can tell, the townspeople didn’t believe him.”

Several other children began to giggle. “Coward’s a scaredy-cat!”

“Alright, class,” interrupted the teacher. “Let Justin finish his report.”

 

Justin went home that afternoon in tears.

“What’s wrong?” asked his mom.

“I had to give my speech today. The other kids made fun of me.”

“There, there,” consoled his mother. “Did you tell them the end of the story?”

“No,” sniffled Justin.

“That’s good. The Cowards have always been a patient lot,” she told him as she threw a piece of meat through a trapdoor in the kitchen floor.

From somewhere deep below there was a muffled snort, and something that sounded like the stirring of great, leathery wings.

 

 

 

No. 352

April 10, 2013

Mickey Dallas was a magician, a long-time fixture of the children’s-birthday-party circuit.

“It’s magic!” he would always insist when asked the secret behind his illusions. Of course that wasn’t true. The real secret was time spent practicing, and a devotion to his art.

But, since 10-year-old Madison Green’s pool party two weeks ago, he’d been pausing before answering those questions. There, under the close scrutiny of two dozen 4th graders, Mickey had performed an illusion that not even he fully understood.

The idea that he’d tapped into some form of actual magic frightened him immensely.

 

Now Mickey was performing in front of another crowded room full of children. He reached the penultimate movement of his act, the same one where the unknown had occurred before.

Even as he prayed silently to himself that he was mistaken, and for the illusion to fail, Mickey was compelled to perform. He needed to know for certain if the prior episode had been a fluke.

Breathing deeply, he closed his eyes and said the magic word.

“Abracadabra!”

And, with a flash of light, Mickey’s worst fears were confirmed.

 

 

 

No. 353

April 11, 2013

Joey was watching a movie he didn’t like to spend time with a girl that he did.

The film was brutally bad, far worse than he’d expected.

“This was a terrible plan,” he whispered to himself.

“It is?” asked the girl.

“Uh, yes,” he said. She’d heard him. Crap. “Yeah, they shouldn’t be teaching all those underprivileged kids how to play clarinet,” he covered. “They should learn trumpets, or something.”

“I see,” said the girl, who was quickly drawn back to the screen.

Joey did notice, however, that she’d moved almost imperceptivity away from him.

“Awesome,” he grumbled sarcastically at the new development.

“Really?” she said.

Joey realized that he needed to stop saying things out loud. “Oh, sure. They’re dancing now. Look at them go. I love it when they dance,” he spewed, clutching at straws.

“Me, too,” replied the girl as she snuggled up to him.

 

“You see,” Terry told his girlfriend Sara as the TV program ended. “That’s just a terrible plot device. None of that would happen in real life. That show was even worse than most of the ones you like.”

“Is that so?” asked Sara icily. “Well, maybe next time I’ll just watch at my house, and you won’t be invited.”

 

 

 

No. 354

April 12, 2013

“So, in the story, the ocean’s a monster, and it’s attacking the people, and it’s all ‘Graaa! Rrrr!’, and the people are running around, and they can’t stop it, and it’s taking over everything, and the people are all ‘Ahhh! Oh no, ocean! Ahhhhh!’, and the ocean’s all ‘Sploosh!’, and everybody dies.”

“That’s certainly an interesting idea, Charles,” said Miss Freemont. “Is there any way you could tone down the killing?”

“No,” said Charlie. “You can’t fight the ocean.”

Miss Freemont considered his answer. Reluctantly, she agreed. “Ok,” she said. “I’ll allow it. But remember, it’s due on Tuesday, and I’m not going to grade it if it isn’t finished.”

 

 

 

No. 355

April 15, 2013

Ralph Conner woke up with waves lapping at his feet. Upon feeling the cold water, his eyes snapped open and he rolled up to a seated position.

Another wave soaked him, this time reaching his knees. Conner scrambled back from the water’s edge, stopping halfway up the beach to consider the bizarre situation.

The last thing he could remember was leaving the pub after his 23rd birthday party. The pub was nowhere near the ocean. He rubbed his head in an attempt to clear his thoughts, but the gesture was of no use. Still having no idea where he was, or how he got here, he stood up for a better look at his surroundings.

The sandy beach stretched away, out of sight, on both sides. The angle at which is disappeared suggested that Conner was on an island. A thick band of jungle blocked the way further inland. If he jumped, he could just make out a tiny white speck on the horizon, possibly a boat. He began to collect as much wood as he could, with the intention of making a signal fire.

 

A man in the lab coat passed the binoculars to a woman wearing a black jumpsuit. “Subject 299 is adapting well to the scenario,” he remarked.

The woman steadied herself against the rocking motion of the boat and trained the binoculars on Conner. She watched as he tried desperately to light the soggy wood using a technique she knew wouldn’t work. “He appears to be more resourceful than the others,” she replied. “I’d wager he lasts a week, no more.”

There was an uncomfortably cold efficiency in her voice. The man in the lab coat had no doubt that she was correct.

 

 

 

No. 356

April 15, 2013

“Ha!” said Lynne as she jabbed her unsuspecting friend in the ribs with her fingers. “Poke!”

“Ow!” said Tony, giving her a dirty look. “Stop it!”

She laughed and, ignoring his protest, tried again.

This time he had warning, and twisted out of the way. “So, you’re just going to keep doing that, then? You’re like a child.” He exaggerated an eye roll.

“Don’t worry. This’ll never get old,” she assured him.

“Great,” he said sarcastically. “Awesome.” But he was smiling, too.

 

 

 

No. 357

April 16, 2013

Douglas bought the bird on a whim.

He’d seen the sign staked in a yard on his way home from work. The deal was quickly negotiated and now Douglas was the proud owner of a small green parrot named Willy.

They eyed each other suspiciously on the ride to Douglas’ house. When they arrived, Douglas set Willy’s cage on the couch and opened the door. Immediately, Willy flew to the top of the highest bookshelf in the room.

“Bad man,” the bird squawked.

“Hey, I didn’t know you could talk, too,” said Douglas, neglecting the bird’s message. “Hello! Can you say ‘Doug’?”

“Bad man,” repeated the perturbed bird. “45-7-18-55. Bad man.”

“What are those numbers?” Douglas asked, speaking gently and trying to coax Willy down with a piece of bread.

“47-7-18-55,” said Willy. “47-7-18-55. 1920 Lakeside Drive.”

“Is that where you lived?” Douglas didn’t remember the exact address of the seller’s house.

Willy wasn’t interested in having a conversation. He kept repeating the three phrases.

Douglas, who was now becoming frustrated, turned to his computer to solve the riddle. He carefully typed in the address. “That’s the bank!” he said, surprised. “What do you know about the bank?” he asked the uncooperative bird.

“Bad man,” was the answer.

“Well, I’m obviously not going to find out from you,” Douglas told him. He found the bank’s phone number and called.

“Hi, my name’s Douglas Stone. I have a strange question for you,” he told the person who picked up. “Do you know anything about a green parrot, or the numbers 47-7-18-55?”

There was silence on the other end. “Hello?” Douglas asked again.

“Sir,” said the person at the bank. “Please hold for a moment.”

“Sure thing,” said Douglas. “Quiet down,” he told Willy, who had not stopped chattering during the call.

“Sir,” the line crackled with the return of the banker. “What’s your address?”

Douglas gave it, and was put on hold again immediately after.

He was still on hold when he saw the first police car outside his front window. He dropped the phone and looked at Willy.

“Bad man,” said Willy.

Several police officers stormed into the house and pinned Douglas to the floor.

“What’s happening?” he said, now pathetically outnumbered.

“Don’t play games with us,” said one of the officers. “Just tell us how you knew the alarm code for the bank that got robbed yesterday,” Her tone was very serious.

“No,” Douglas protested. “Not me, the bird! I just bought him an hour ago! He knows the code.”

Willy cocked his feathery head and looked at the officer out of one beady eye. “Bad man,” he said for what had to be the hundredth time.

“Bird says you’re a bad man,” said the officer to Douglas.

“Just go check out the place where I got him. It’s on Lakeshore, just down from the bank.”

The officer looked at her partner. “Are we buying this?”

Her partner shrugged. “It’s his word against a parrot’s. We should probably at least take a look.”

“Ok,” said the first officer. “But you’re coming with us, just in case,” she warned Douglas.

 

Two days later, the case had been cleared. Douglas was released when the true criminals were picked up at a hotel the next town over. They told the police that they’d had no idea that the parrot that they’d stolen during a prior home invasion had been capable of speech.

Willy, who turned out to be a girl named Sunny, was returned to her original owners.

Douglas went on three dates with the officer who’d arrested him, but the relationship didn’t last. From then on, he did research online before considering a new pet.

 

 

 

No. 358

April 17, 2013

At the end of a narrow, dirt lane, far into the woods, lived a man few people had met. Whispers in the surrounding villages were that he had powers, that he was not like normal men.

Makua did nothing to silence these rumors.  They kept the curious at a respectful distance. And they were true, for the most part. Although he had no powers, Makua wasn’t like regular men. Indeed, it would be more fitting to call him a creature.

His ship had crashed on earth in 1947 in a dusty, distasteful place the humans called Roswell. He’d escaped the wreckage before the army had a chance to descend on his ship. They took it away, stranding Makua without the means to leave the planet, or communicate with his people.

And so he waited. Perhaps they would return for him. He waited for many years, and they did not come.

 

But, one day, somebody else did. A boy, too young to understand the warnings about the strange settlement, knocked on the door of Makua’s home. “I’m lost,” the boy called through the door. “Can you help me?”

Makua considered ignoring the child.

“Please,” said the boy. “I’m all by myself.”

Makua fought his instincts and opened the door. “So am I,” he told the boy.

The boy saw Makua. His eyes widened, but he stood his ground. “Are you a monster?” he asked.

Makua turned his mouth into what he knew the humans considered to be a friendly gesture. “No,” he said. “I’m just different from you.” He knelt down beside his scared visitor. “What village do you live in? I know the way to most of them.”

“I live in Sea View,” said the boy.

“That’s very far away,” said Makua. “Beyond the forest. How did you get here?”

“I’m not sure,” the boy shrugged.

Makua was quiet to collect his thoughts. The child clearly needed help, but helping would place Makua in considerable danger of being discovered. He looked at the walls of the place he’d spent the last half century, then at the small boy on his doorstep.

Perhaps it was time to take a chance.

“Give me a moment to collect my things,” he told the boy. “And then I’ll take you home.”

 

The alien and the boy left down the trail a while later, their mismatched shadows stretching out in front of them.

 

 

 

No. 359

April 18, 2013

They told her that if she dug a hole straight down, she’d hit China.

Miranda turned aside the first shovelful of backyard dirt, even though her calculations showed that she’d actually end up somewhere south of Madagascar, in the middle of the ocean.

She wasn’t terribly worried about that, though. She didn’t seriously think she’d make it all the way through. She did, however, hope to strike gold sometime before spring break ended.

 

 

 

No. 360

April 19, 2013

The light gunship, Flower, was drifting in the Uncharted Zone. Its crew was gathered in the mess hall for an emergency meeting.

“We haven’t seen any trace of pirates in two weeks. We’re lost,” said the First Officer.

“Space is a big place,” replied Captain Marlow calmly.

“With our sensors, we should have had them already,” countered Charles Conrad, the technology officer. “We know they hit New Sardis. We know they fled this way. They should have left a trail but there’s nothing.”

The Captain turned to a crewmember in the corner of the room. “Roberts, what’s our status for supplies?”

Marla Roberts looked up from her datapad. “We’ve got another week of fuel and possibly a week and a half of food, if we stretch it.”

“You see,” said the Captain to the crew. “We’ve got enough to search another three days. If we haven’t found our villains by then, we’ll turn for home.”

The crew grumbled about cutting close to the wire, but to return to base empty-handed was almost equally unappealing. The bounty would only be paid upon capture.

Though the compromise was distasteful, the vote was unanimous. The Flower would continue on and then limp back to port on fumes.

 

Roberts spent an uneasy night, awake in her bunk. The figures she’d given the Captain were true, but there was a critical piece of information she’d left out, so as not to frighten the others. Any fuel the Flower spent in combat would have to be made up from the captured pirates’ stores. She had taken a gamble that the pirates would have fuel on board to be captured.

Currently, the Flower had enough to explore and to return home, but not to fight.

 

 

 

No. 361

April 20, 2013

Jefferson Jackson had prowled the desert canyons for almost twenty seasons. Ostensibly looking for gold, Jackson would have settled on a mother lode of almost any marketable mineral but had, so far, proven unsuccessful.

He made his discovery three days before the rains were meant to begin.

 

A weathered human skeleton lay propped up on the rocks blocking the mouth of a narrow crevasse. Jackson dismounted his horse and moved closer to the remains for a better look. He searched the body for any hint of identification, but there was none. It was only when Jackson shifted the bones that he noticed something strange.

The skeleton’s left arm fell from the moldering clothes that the corpse still wore. The bones were silver. Jackson examined them and determined that they were not merely the color, but solid metal.

“How does that happen?” he said, his first words spoken aloud in almost a month. He looked up at the shadowy gap in the rocks that the dead man guarded. “Was it in there?” he asked the grinning skull.

Jackson approached the fissure, stepping gingerly around the deceased. There was something scratched into the rock.

“CURSEI”

It appeared that the letter “d” had been started but not completed. Jackson ignored the warning and peered into the dark hole. There was a faint glow from within the crevasse. The slot was too narrow to enter and Jackson worked his body around so that he could reach toward the tantalizing shimmer.

 

Many years later, another man rode through the same valley. He saw two skeletons. There was a word gouged into the wall behind them.

“CURSED”

 

 

 

No. 362

April 22, 2013

Lillian Lockhart had lived a completely normal life before the day she removed the envelope from the post-box without looking at the address. The letter was home and opened before Lillian realized that she was not the intended recipient. Still, now that the deed was done, she read it.

The letter was written to a Mr. Henry Black, and detailed the outfitting of an expedition to “confirm or capture the Beast of Broad Rock”.

Lillian’s heart pumped hard in her chest. Every child knew of the Beast. It was said to live in a cave at the end of an icy maze, deep within the mountains. Many had sought it out. Few had returned.

The endeavor was to begin on June 12th. It seemed that Black was to be the leader of the team, having been hired by the organizers for his vast experience tracking wild game.

Lillian looked out her window at the drab wall of the apartment next-door. The harrowing journey described in the letter triggered her imagination. In her mind she was the one coming over the top of the ridge, pointing down at the creature below. She was jolted back to reality when she realized that she was out of breath.

She glanced at the now-crushed paper clutched in her hand and began to form a daring plan.

She put the crumpled sheet on her desk, smoothing it to read the sender’s information. She copied the address to the outside of a fresh envelope from her drawer. Then, after only the briefest hesitation, she placed a fresh page beside stolen correspondence and began to write.

To whom it may concern,

Mr. Black has taken ill, and will be unable to perform the duties outlined in your letter of April 22.

In his place, he recommends the hiring of his associate, Ms. Lillian Lockhart.

 

 

 

No. 363

April 23, 2013

Stanley and Livingstone were alligators kept by the Rowland’s Circus. The Circus’ time, however, had come to an end, and all assets were to be sold at auction at the end of the week.

Henry Morton, the reptile’s caretaker, was not about to see his charges removed from him and sold to the highest bidder. He had four days to save his cold-blooded companions.

His first attempt failed. Planning to lure the beasts from their pool with large pieces of meat, Morton had not taken into account that they’d been fed recently, and would have no interest in expending energy chasing surplus food.

His second attempt, to drive them away by beating them with a stick, was similarly unsuccessful. The animals’ thick scales prevented them from feeling their keeper’s prods. They sat still, exactly where they were.

Livingstone, the frisky one, did, however, attempt a lazy bite at the stick.

On the third day, Morton tried to move the entire tank onto a flatbed truck and abscond with the creatures, but a roving security guard intercepted him before he could get close enough with the crane, and Morton was lucky to explain away his presence as “routine maintenance”.

By the time the auction started, Morton was almost inconsolable at the thought of never seeing Stanley and Livingstone again. But he was surprised to discover that, while the bidding had started beyond his financial means, it had soon fallen to a more reasonable level.

In the end, Morton simply bought the Livingstone and Stanley. As it turned out, nobody else was keen to own two thirteen-foot, potential killing machines.

Morton eventually set himself up on a small piece of swampy land in his hometown and charged the local children an inflated price to watch the alligators bask in the sun and do absolutely nothing exciting.

 

 

 

No. 364

April 24, 2013

“Did you see that?” asked Officer Kelly Dale as she and her partner sped down the dark forest highway.

Brandon Irwin, who was driving, slowed the cruiser and turned on the spotlight. He turned around and retraced their path back down the road.

“What did you see?” he asked, peering intently into the night.

“Something was moving along the shoulder. It looked human, but it was kind of off, somehow.”

“You haven’t been reading the tourist brochures again, have you?” Irwin asked her. The forest around them was on the edge of an enormous park, and the locals liked to play up Bigfoot sightings.

Dale ignored him, and continued to scan the edge of the woods.

“Look!” she pointed. “There.”

Irwin slammed on the brakes. He couldn’t believe what was loping across the road in the beam of the headlights.

The creature was tall, and had a shaggy brown coat. It turned toward the two police officers and raised its arms.

Dale leapt out her side and braced herself against the open door. “Freeze!” she shouted at the strange animal.

Irwin followed her lead, but whispered through the car at her. “I don’t think it will speak English.”

“I do,” said the beast. It lifted off its head to reveal a teenage boy.

The police officers looked at each other.

“Step to the front of the car,” Irwin ordered.

The boy did as he was told, leaving the costume’s mask in the middle of the street.

Once the officers searched him and found nothing illegal, they began to question him.

“My name’s Mike Harmon. I live around here,” he told them.

“What are you doing so far from town?” Dale asked him.

“And why are you wearing that suit?” Irwin added.

“You’re not going to believe me,” Harmon told them.

“Try us,” said Dale.

“I heard there was a party on the other side of the hill. I wanted to see if I could get in.”

“A party?” said Irwin. “Who has a party out here?”

Harmon looked around suspiciously before he leaned in to whisper his answer. “It’s not a regular party.”

Irwin stepped back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Maybe we’ll have to check it out,” he concluded.

“You’re going to want this,” Harmon said, indicating his furry suit.

 

A short time later, Dale had changed into the Bigfoot getup. “How come I have to wear this again?” she asked Irwin.

“Because we flipped, and you lost.”

“Sweet,” she said. She was not amused. “Tell me where you think this party is,” she told Harmon.

“Like I said,” said the boy. “Just over this hill,” he pointed to his left. “There’s a valley on the far side. It should be close.”

Dale grabbed her radio and a flashlight and headed off into the trees. Struggling against the cumbersome suit, she made her way up the rise to where Harmon had indicated. Upon reaching the top, she dropped to her belly and inched ahead the last few feet.

 

“Irwin,” his radio crackled.

“Dale?” he answered.

“You’re going to want to see this,” she told him.

Irwin turned to Harmon and hustled the boy into the back seat. “Stay here,” he said, slamming the door shut.  Then he rushed up the hill to assist his partner.

She saw him coming and waved her arm for him to stay low, as well.

He crawled up beside her.

“What is it?” he asked, slightly winded from the climb.

“Look,” she pointed.

There, in a clearing in the small valley below, was the strangest gathering of beings Irwin could have imagined.

“Is that a—?” he asked, trailing off.

Dale nodded. “Yup.”

“And a—?”

“Uh huh,” said Dale.

“This has got to go in the brochures,” Irwin gasped.

 

Back at the car, Dale was on the radio back to base, while Irwin stood over a smug Harmon.

“That’s right,” Dale told her dispatcher. “A sasquatch, a fish-man, some kind of Loch-Nessy-looking thing, a giant bird, and what I’m guessing is a chupacabra.”

There was a garbled question from the other end.

“Yes, that’s right,” Dale clarified. “Real ones.”

 

 

 

No. 365

April 25, 2013

Kate Shaw finished the story. “The end,” she said.

“Can you tell us another one, Mom?” her two boys asked as she tucked them into bed. “Ranger must have plenty more adventures.”

“Not until tomorrow,” Kate told them. She gave them a kiss. “Goodnight.”

She turned out the lights and closed the door.

Making sure she wasn’t followed, she tiptoed down to the basement and typed a code on a disguised keypad.

The wall swung open, revealing a hidden room.

Kate stepped inside and pulled on her mask. Then Ranger snuck out of the house to fight crime.

 

 

 

No. 366

April 26, 2013

“The Australian Outback?” asked Betty Porter.

“No,” said her husband, Richard

“Why not?” Betty pressed.

Richard put down his book and looked up at her. “Snakes.”

“Alright,” said Betty. “Where do you want to go?”

Richard considered the question. “Antarctica, maybe?”

Betty shook her head. “Too cold.”

“Mexico?” Richard tried again.

“We’ve already been there.”

“Yeah, but we liked it.”

“That’s true. But we should go someplace new.”

There was an awkward silence. By now, the vacation discussion had been lingering on for most of the evening. Both parties were getting annoyed with the other.

“Well, I don’t know,” said Betty. “Why don’t we just stay here?” she suggested facetiously.

Richard leaned forward at the suggestion, his interest piqued.

Betty’s eyes widened.

“Road trip?” they both asked at the same time.

 

 

 

No. 367

April 27, 2013

Every day at summer camp, after craft time, each boy was allowed to choose two pieces of candy from the snack window’s selection.

On Wednesday night, three days into his two-week stay, Josh Hill outlined his plan to his astounded cabin-mates.

“We rob the joint,” he told them. “Hit it fast and hard.”

Eyes widened in the flashlight-glow of the secret conference. “That’s brilliant,” said somebody in a top-bunk.

The rest of the boys agreed wholeheartedly.

Josh laid out the details of the heist. “Tomorrow, right after lunch, we’ll need a distraction. Two of you will head out on the lake in a canoe. At exactly 1:05, you’ll start shouting for help. I’ll have swiped the keys and four of us will go in through the back door while the counsellors are occupied with the rescue.”

“Sounds awesome,” said Robby Parker. “But there are twelve of us. What are the others going to do?”

“I’m not finished,” Josh assured him. “We’ll have three on standby, in case the canoe caper is resolved too quickly. One of them will have to fall into poison ivy. That’s nine. The other three are essential to the getaway. After the breach-team escapes, the alibi crew goes to work. You’ll plant a portion of the loot in the dogwood cabin, incriminating our rivals and throwing the fuzz off the scent.”

“It’s perfect,” Robby whispered. A chorus of satisfied murmurs from around the room affirmed his appraisal.

“Are there any questions?” Josh asked.

The conspirators were silent.

“Good,” said Josh. “Now get some sleep. We’ve got a busy day ahead. This time tomorrow night, we’ll be eating like kings.”

 

 

 

No. 368

April 28, 2013

Wayne drove the ball downrange. He immediately felt something wrong with his swing and, without looking up, scooped another ball onto his mat to try again. This time his performance met his standards and he tracked the shot, watching it arc up into the distance and then drop near the target placard he’d been aiming for. Allowing himself half of a celebratory exhalation, he lined up his next drive.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you,” said somebody from behind him.

Wayne turned, annoyed, to face the discourteous speaker. It was a woman.

“But could you show me how to do that?” she continued.

Wayne evaluated her quickly. She was young and pretty, and her clothes and clubs suggested that she’d spent a good deal of money to be properly outfitted. Her nervous bearing, however, indicated that, although she might look the part, experience was severely lacking. He decided to forgive her error in etiquette.

“What’s your name?” he asked, before answering her question.

“Emma Conner,” she told him. “I’d like to learn,” she said. “The lady in the clubhouse told me that you occasionally taught lessons.”

“Did she, now?” said Wayne. “The lady behind the counter told you that?”

Emma nodded. She tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear.

Wayne readjusted his hat. “She’s my wife,” he said.

“So, could you teach me?” Emma pressed. “I’m a quick learner.”

“I suppose,” Wayne agreed. “How about you set up in the box beside me, here, and try to hit a couple. I can take a look and see what we’re working with.”

She hurried to do so, while Wayne looked back towards the clubhouse. It was true that he’d once given lessons, but the last time had been ten years before. He wondered what his wife was up to with this suggestion.

“Ok, I’m ready,” said Emma excitedly, addressing the ball with an entirely incorrect stance.

Wayne returned his attention to her. “Go for it.”

 

 

 

No. 369

April 29, 2013

The Noise had descended on the town four days earlier. Oddly, no one could agree on a description. Some called it a “buzz” while others insisted that it sounded more like a whistle. A faction dedicated to keeping the peace between the two camps labeled it a “hum”.

Tensions ran high, as people struggled to cope with the constant din. A meeting in the community hall was called.

“When will it end?” somebody shouted from the crowd.

Silas Barry, the mayor, had no answer.

“How far does it extend?” was another question. “Can we escape?”

A chorus of voices rose, all asking variations on the same thing.

Mayor Barry held up his hand to quiet the rabble. “We don’t know,” he said.

The audience began to turn on him.

“Wait,” he said. “We tried to find out. I sent Oscar Landry to find out about that. He made it as far as Clarksville and he could still hear it. But when he asked the folks out there when the Noise had reached their town, they looked at him like he was funny in the head, and asked him ‘what noise?’.”

“What’s that mean?” Ellen Fairfield demanded from the front row.

“It means,” said Barry, with a worried breath. “That we might be the only ones who can hear it. And we may have to wait it out.”

There was a loud burst of shattering glass from the back of the room, then screams. Someone had broken a window in frustration.

The riot began almost immediately.

“Please,” Barry implored. “Patience!”

But nobody was listening to him anymore. All they heard was the Noise.

 

 

 

No. 370

April 30, 2013

She was perfect, in the videos.

Every night before Nick went to sleep, he would stop at his computer and watch. He was in love with her.

He didn’t know who she was, exactly, just that she would occasionally post brief updates about her life on her blog. Every time she added a song, or said “goodnight”, he wished it was about him.

Even though there was a link on the page that said “Contact”, he was too scared to click it. What if she didn’t feel the same way?

Once, she didn’t update for three weeks. Nick feared that she was gone forever. It turned out that she’d been on vacation. He was relieved when she returned.

The break spurred him to make a move.

 

He set up his camera and stared into it. He was about to speak when he realized that it wasn’t recording yet. Fumbling with the buttons, he turned it on.

“Hi, my name is Nick,” he said nervously. “If you’re watching—I don’t think you are, but— if you are— I want to say hello, I guess.”

It wasn’t much, but it was something.

 

Of course, she never saw his introduction. If she had, she would have thought nothing of it. She wouldn’t have known it was for her.

 

Nick understood, later on, the impossibilities.

 

 

 

No. 371

May 3, 2013

Initially, Conner didn’t notice anything different. He brushed his teeth, like usual. He ate his cereal, like usual. He fed his fish, like usual.

It wasn’t until he left his house to catch the bus that the first hairs stood up on the back of his neck. Nothing seemed out of place, but he didn’t recognize anybody in the street.

Shaking off the strange feeling, he hustled to the bus stop. The 8:55 was always on time and he only had a few minutes to get there.

“Good morning,” he said to the only person waiting in line.

“Hi,” she said, dismissively.

Conner didn’t pick up on the clue, and pressed the conversation. “I can’t believe it’s already May, can you?”

The woman looked at him oddly. “Yeah,” she said. “Tomorrow.”

He returned the look. “What do you mean, ‘tomorrow’?” he asked.

“You said it was May,” she told him. “It’s not May.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s May.” Now her tone was making Conner feel defensive.

“Whatever,” she said with a shrug.

They both spent the next minute ignoring each other, waiting for the bus to arrive.

Conner couldn’t leave the subject alone, though. “What day do you think it is?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Really? It’s April 31st.”

“That’s not even a day,” Conner laughed. “I thought I was going crazy for a moment there.”

Before he could explain the many reasons that the woman was wrong, his watch beeped. He looked at it. It read “9:00”.

Then he noticed something else. It also said “04 31”.

He made a closer inspection of his surroundings. He felt his stomach drop as he realized they were all very familiar but, also, quite different from the ones he knew.

He knew, in that moment, that he was very far from home.

 

 

 

No. 372

May 4, 2013

Station X was on the far side of the middle of nowhere. Visitors never came, and the two men assigned to guard it had long since exhausted every topic of casual conversation. There was nothing to do at Station X but wait.

Indeed, the men had never been told what they were waiting for. On one console of the barren shack that comprised the entire base was a large red light. If the light ever turned on, the men were to press the yellow button on the opposite wall. Under threat of treason, and the firing squad, they were not allowed to leave before completing the task.

“They’ve forgotten us,” said one man.

“Maybe,” said the other.

Time passed slowly.

 

 

 

No. 373

No. 372 Part 2A

May 5, 2013

The years went by.

In the Capital, an archivist found reference to a “Station X”. He brought the discovery to his superior’s attention.

“Sir, there’s no record that these men were ever relieved.”

The commander examined the documents. “Send a team.”

 

The transport landed just short of the windswept outpost. The archivist and two soldiers disembarked and approached the entrance.

A single old man was there to greet them. “You finally came,” he whispered.

“Where’s the other one?” asked the archivist.

The old man was silent. He pointed at a rough pile of rocks.

“I see. In any case, you can stand down. We’ll take you back home.”

The man from Station X’s eyes welled up. “This is my home.”

“As you wish,” said the archivist. He motioned for the others to follow him back to the transport.

“Wait,” said the man. “I have a question.”

“Yes?”

“What was the button for?”

The archivist shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s classified. Just be grateful you never had to push it.”

The old man nodded once, and then returned to his post.

 

 

 

No. 374

May 6, 2013

“The boy tried to attack me,” the wolf told the excited pack that had gathered around him. “But I narrowly escaped.”

The other s “oooed” and “ahhed” appropriately.

The problem was, the wolf was lying. He’d seen the human at a distance, but at no point during his sheep-hunting was he ever threatened in the least.

“What are you going to do next time?” asked one of the other wolves.

“Oh, he won’t know what’s coming, that’s for sure,” the wolf boasted confidently. “Now that I’ve seen him, I know his weaknesses.  I’ll probably eat him.”

 

The rest of the pack was keen to see this and so, the next day, they all met on the hill opposite the sheep paddock.

“You show that boy who’s boss,” they told the wolf, and pointed him in the direction of the shepherd.

The wolf crept slowly toward the child, while at the same time trying frantically to work out just how he was going to make the kill.

“Go get him!” the pack urged him on when he looked back.

And so he moved closer and closer. But he made a grave mistake and allowed his tail to brush against a dry bush with a rattling sound.

The shepherd turned immediately and spotted the wolf.

 

“That’s too bad,” said the pack leader when the rest were safe in their lair, gunshot still echoing in their ears. “He had such potential. I suppose that’s what happens to the wolf who cries boy.”

 

 

 

No. 374

No. 372 Part 2B

May 7, 2013

A year went by.

The men at Station X had resigned themselves to the fact that the light would never illuminate.

Then, on a stormy winter morning, it did.

Bradshaw leapt to hit the button, throwing his chair aside.

Mitchell intercepted him halfway there. “Don’t,” he said, looking Bradshaw in the eyes.

“I have to,” said Bradshaw. “We can go home.” He strained toward his target.

Mitchell held him fast, and repeated his plea. “Please don’t.”

Bradshaw’s struggles subsided. “The light is on,” he protested in vain.

He reached for the button again.

Mitchell drew his pistol and pointed it at Bradshaw. “You can’t.”

“What’s wrong with you? We’ll be here forever!” Bradshaw was becoming frantic. “Why?”

Mitchell kept the weapon trained on his companion. “Because I know what the button is for.”

The answer was too much for Bradshaw. He lunged forward, ignoring the gun.

 

A single shot from inside the hut echoed across the windswept landscape.

Mitchell sat alone inside the shelter. He did not press the button.

 

 

 

No. 376

May 8, 2013

“You ate it? I can’t believe it!”

“Yeah, well. Not on purpose, obviously.”

“How did it taste?”

“Crunchy.”

“Crunchy’s not a flavor!”

“Do you really want to know what a bug tastes like?”

 

 

 

No. 377

The Return of Fangy

May 9, 2013

After a particularly violent attack on a mailman, Fangy had been sent to live at the zoo. But Nicholas had been given a free pass, so they still saw each other regularly.

Despite the frequent visits, however, Nicholas was unhappy with the arrangement. It was his opinion that Fangy had been unfairly blamed for the mauling. The neighbors had recently bought a new dog, a vicious one, by all accounts, and it had been seen running free on the same day of the alleged incident.

Because of this suspicion, Nicholas spent most of his time at the zoo looking for ways to break Fangy out of his exhibit.

Fangy had spent his time in captivity trying alternately to burrow his way out, or to sneak through the open doors at feeding time. His constant activity and inquisitive-yet-deadly nature made him popular with zoo visitors, and with his keeper, Mr. Marsh.

 

“Hello, Mr. Marsh,” said Nicholas as he walked by the “Staff Only” entrance to the velociraptor pit.

“Hi, Nick,” Mr. Marsh said, waving at the boy. “Fangy’s been in a little bit of trouble since you came the other day.”

Nicholas gritted his teeth. He had a plan to bust Fangy out that evening, but when Fangy got in trouble, that usually meant he wasn’t allowed in the outside part of his pen for a few days. “What did he do this time?” he asked casually, trying not to show his nervousness.

“Clawed a tourist who got too close to the edge while taking pictures. Tore him up real good,” said Mr. Marsh sternly. Then he winked at Nicholas. “But the tourist had it coming.”

That’s why Nicholas liked Mr. Marsh. He always took Fangy’s side.

“Is he locked up?” asked Nicholas.

“Well,” said Mr. Marsh. “We had to for a little while, until picture-guy left the park. But I couldn’t leave Fangy all cooped up like that all night, so I unlocked the gate before I left.” Mr. Marsh paused for a moment. “Come to think of it, though, I haven’t seen him out today.”

Nicholas thought the man was acting strangely, but didn’t want to draw attention to it, lest Mr. Marsh wonder why Nicholas seemed jumpy, too.

“We should see if he’s OK,” said Nicholas.

Mr. Marsh agreed, and they pair went together through the maintenance area to Fangy’s stall. To their surprise, the dinosaur wasn’t in his den. The straw on the floor in one corner had been disturbed, and sunlight shone through a large hole in the wall.

“Uh oh,” said Mr. Marsh loudly while he looked around. “It looks like he chewed his way out.” He pulled out a walkie-talkie and began speaking very quickly. “Code red, velociraptor escape. Code red, repeat, Fangy has escaped.”

Then he knelt down next to Nicholas and whispered. “Sorry, I had to make sure it seems real. Of course Fangy can’t chew through concrete, but they don’t know that. You should be able to find him down by the lake.”

“Thanks Mr. Marsh,” said Nicholas happily. The keeper’s plan had been much simpler than his. And now Fangy was free.

“A dinosaur should be with his boy,” said Mr. Marsh. “But be careful . If he eats anybody else, he’ll have to come straight back here.” He laughed. “Anybody that we like, that is.”

 

 

 

No. 378

No. 368 Part 2

May 10, 2013

Emma swung and missed the ball completely.

“Yup,” Wayne noted.

“Can you tell me what I did wrong, there?” she asked, spinning to face him.

Her direct eagerness surprised Wayne. He wasn’t ready with a reply.

“Almost everything,” he finally managed, with a laugh.

Then he tried to remember the last time he’d laughed. It wasn’t recently.

He showed her how to line up properly and had her hit a few more times. She was a quick learner, for sure.

 

By the end of the lesson, he had yet to get a good read on her, though. He was usually able to size somebody up quickly, but Emma seemed to prove the exception to his rule. Short of asking her directly, he’d tried everything he could to figure her out.

“Should I come back at the same time tomorrow?” she asked as she put her clubs back in her bag.

“Whatever works best for you,” Wayne told her. It wasn’t like he was going to be busy.

“Alright,” she said happily. “Same, then. Sounds good. See you tomorrow, Wayne.”

Then she left.

 

Wayne stood still for a moment. Then he walked back inside to the front desk. His wife met him at the counter.

“How was she?” his wife asked him.

“Good,” said Wayne. “For a beginner,” he added.

His wife looked at the clock on the wall. “You were out there for a while.”

Wayne shrugged. “First lesson.”

“Yes,” his wife agreed. “We could use the business.”

“Right,” said Wayne.

“Is she coming back?”

“Tomorrow.”

There was an awkward silence.

“You know, you sent her out to me,” he told his wife abruptly.

“I most certainly did not,” she said with her arms crossed.

 

 

 

No. 379

May 11, 2013

The Tower dominated the landscape. It had been built when the forest had been a flat plain. Now, the trees had grown full and tall, and it still dwarfed its leafy neighbors.

Princess Alana could see the Tower looming above her as she chopped her way through the underbrush. She tried not to look up very much. Although it was her destination, the Tower frightened her.

But there was a prince at the top, and he needed her to rescue him. She had to press on.

 

 

 

No. 380

May 14, 2013

Jack moved his chair to follow the umbrella’s shadow. He’d been watching people walk past the patio and hadn’t noticed how far the sun had moved. Reaching for his glass, he was annoyed to find that the ice had melted. He shook the condensation off of his hand and looked back toward the shop. He wondered if he should buy another drink, or live with the warm one he already had.

He didn’t see Amy until she sat down beside him.

“Hi,” she said. “How’s it going?”

“Yeah, fine,” said Jack, startled by her sudden appearance. “I’m just killing time.”

Amy worked at a restaurant across the street, and knew who Jack was waiting for.

“When’s Kelly done?” Amy asked.

“Ah, should be soon,” Jack replied. “It was supposed to be twenty minutes ago, but I think something came up.” He’d told Amy about his feelings for Kelly the week before. Now Amy made sure to ask him about her every day.

“I see,” said Amy. She leaned over and stole Jack’s cup. “Does she know you’re here for her?” she asked with the straw in her mouth.

“I think so,” said Jack. “I said something yesterday.”

Amy smiled. “What exactly did you say, yesterday?”

Jack slid back further into the shadow. “I said we should do something, sometime.”

“I’m going in to see if she’s still here,” said Amy.

Jack didn’t say anything. Amy stood up and walked around the table to Jack’s side.

“Get up,” she told him, grabbing his arm, and lifting. “You’re coming, too.”

“But—,” Jack protested.

Amy was having none of it. She hustled him forward toward the door. “Move! At the very least, you can buy your sister something for her parched throat on this ridiculously hot day.”

“Fine, whatever,” Jack mumbled. “But it’s only going to be a small since you just finished mine.”

 

Amy burst into the lobby with Jack in tow. “Kelly?” she shouted across the counter. “Are you still here? My brother has something to tell you.”

Kelly was nowhere to be seen. A man behind the till spoke up.

“Kelly’s gone home,” he told Jack and Amy.

“Who are you?” asked Amy. “I’m here all the time and I’ve never seen you before.”

“I’m new,” said the man. “This is my first shift at this store. I’m Mike.”

 

“And so, four years ago, that’s how Mike and my sister met. I’m going to take credit for it.” Jack finished his speech. He raised his glass. “To the bride and groom.”

He sat down when the applause was over.

“Hey,” Kelly whispered in his ear. “You never told me that story before. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t until a month after Mike started that you asked me out.”

 

 

 

No. 381

May 15, 2013

AJ didn’t like the look of the rash on his right hand. It had started small, a few days earlier, but had now grown to cover everything but his thumb.

“You should probably get that checked out,” his roommate, Shawn Raymond, told him, as AJ left for work.

“Yeah, I think so. I’m busy today, but I’ll try to fit it in,” said AJ on his way out the door. He flexed his fingers experimentally. The dull itch had turned into a worrying burning sensation.

As he drove in to the office, the pain began to intensify. When he arrived, it was only to throw his bag on his desk and let his boss know he was going to the doctor.

 

AJ never made it that far. He pulled his car to the side of the road and tucked himself into the foetal position. He’d never experienced such agony, and the inflammation had reached his elbow. He used his opposite arm to claw at the wound.

He was horrified to see the flesh flake away, disintegrating into a sandy texture. He closed his eyes in misery. Once rid of the tissue, though, the pain slacked.

When he opened his eyes, he regarded his limb curiously. The skin and muscle that he expected to see were gone. Underneath was shiny pistons and cables. He opened and closed his hand with a faint whine of gears propelling the metal skeleton.

“What is this?” he gasped at the sight. Then, worryingly, his left little finger began to itch.

 

AJ threw the car in drive and sped home, hoping desperately that Shawn was gone for the day.

He was in luck. The apartment was empty when he came through the door with a sweater over his arm. He hurried to his room and, after leaving a message for Shawn that he’d be away on business, closed the door and didn’t leave for a week.

 

When he emerged, he was reduced to a technological framework, completely machine.

“Hey,” he greeted Shawn, who didn’t turn around.

“What’s up?” Shawn asked.

“I’m a robot, apparently,” replied AJ.

Shawn kept his focus on the TV. “Yup. We all knew that,” he said without a reaction.

AJ was floored by the news. “What do you mean, ‘you knew’? And who is ‘we’?”

“Almost everyone. It was pretty obvious.”

 

 

 

No. 382

May 16, 2013

“We yawn so that the little aliens who live in our brains can get some fresh air,” Jocelyn told her little brother, Caleb, after repeated questioning.

“That’s not true,” he replied.

“Really? Because you’re the one who asked me, so you’re the one who doesn’t know.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he admitted, then returned to playing with his truck.

 

“She’s on to us,” said the alien commander. “Prepare to evacuate!”

 

“Hey, what was that?” said Caleb.

“What was what?” said his sister, annoyed at being interrupted again.

“Something just flew out of your ear.”

She waved nonchalantly. “Probably just a bug. Stop bothering me.”

“I bet it was the aliens.”

“Are you kidding me? I just made that up.”

 

 

 

No. 383

May 22, 2013

Will checked his phone for messages. There were none. The clock said 8:53. He made up his mind and leaned forward to speak to the limo driver. “She’s not coming. I can still make it in time if we leave now.”

The driver tipped his cap and started the engine. “Perhaps she wasn’t right for you, anyway,” he offered from the front seat.

“Maybe,” said Will. “Maybe you’re right.”

When the car began to move, Will didn’t look back.

 

 

 

No. 384

May 23, 2013

After Rich had racked up more than a hundred dollars in library fines, they suspended his card. That didn’t deter him, though, from finding another way to borrow books.

He had managed to jimmy the lock on the woman’s-bathroom window. At night he slipped inside and simply stole the books that caught his fancy. He was doing well for himself, filling an entire bookshelf in his apartment in a little under two weeks.

Everything was going swimmingly until one Saturday night when he ran into a problem he hadn’t foreseen.

 

He made his way through the window as usual, making sure beforehand that there was nobody else around who might see him. As he dropped to the floor on the inside, he froze. He thought he heard breathing from one of the stalls.

Creeping forward, he paused in front of the closed door. He took a deep breath before pushing it carefully, with one finger. It swung open.

“Alright, you’ve got me,” she said, resigned to her fate.

Rich almost pooped himself. There was a girl in here! He stumbled back in surprise.

“I, uh,” he managed to say.

They looked at each other. Then the truth of their mutual situation dawned on them.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” they said in unison, each pointing that the other.

Rich tried to think of an excuse in a hurry. “I’m the janitor,” he stammered feebly.

She rolled her eyes. “The janitor that sneaks in the window. Right.”

“I, uh.”

“Yeah, save it,” she told him as she closed the distance between them. “I’ll just be straight with you. I’m here to borrow some books.”

“You mean ‘steal’,” Rich corrected.

“That’s such a dirty word.”

Rich shrugged and scratched his head. “Well, I suppose we’re here now,” he suggested.

“Might as well.”

They left the washroom. Rich held the door for her. They parted and each went to their favorite section.

 

The heist was completed in minutes, and afterwards they returned to the window.

The girl threw her haul out and was quick to follow it. As Rich was steadying his books on the ledge to make his escape, she stuck her head back through and smiled at him.

“Same time next week?” she suggested coyly.

Rich was not expecting this offer.

“I, uh.”

“That’s a ‘yes’,” she called back to him as she disappeared into the night.

 

 

 

No. 385

May 24, 2013

In between the void of inspiration and the page is the place that half-finished stories and discarded characters go. Most will never leave this domain of maybes and what-ifs.

Usually, only a great author can save one, once it’s been abandoned. Most of the time, they’re left forever.

 

Wallace Cooper was not a great author.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he hit the backspace button on Moira Maynard, a supporting character in his detective story whose plot he couldn’t resolve.

 

“Another one?” asked High School Comedy In Space. “How many has this guy sent over in the last week?”

Sexy Secret Agent checked a list. “Seven titles, two abandoned concepts, and thirteen protagonists.” He doubled-checked his list. “And nine villains.”

“Ridiculous,” said High School Comedy In Space. “Doesn’t this Cooper know we’re almost full, here?”

“Probably not,” said Reverse Reality Show, joining the conversation late. “I just spoke to this new Moira.  She said there were four other characters in her story in more or less the same situation she was.”

“Something’s got to be done,” said Sexy Secret Agent.

“How?” Reverse Reality Show asked.

His question led to a spirited discussion. Nobody had a solid suggestion until High School Comedy In Space weighed in.

“We find our own ending to Wallace Cooper’s novel.”

“An ending?” gasped Reverse Reality Show. “None of us have ever met an ending.”

“I heard of one, once” Sexy Secret Agent volunteered softly. “She spends a lot of time by herself on the other side of the realm, though.”

“Who is she?” High School Comedy In Space asked. “Can we see her?”

Sexy Secret Agent swallowed nervously before answering. “Her name is Everybody Dies.”

 

 

 

No. 386

May 25, 2013

Danny found treasure at recess. It was an honest-to-goodness gold coin just lying there, in the grass on the soccer field.

He spent it immediately on grape bubble gum.

 

 

 

No. 387

May 27, 2013

I resolved to burn down the cathedral.

In retrospect it was a poor choice. We all make mistakes when we’re angry. I was tired of knights clambering up the hill and chucking rocks into my cave and daring me to come out and fight them. I could only handle so much hassling before I snapped.

Before that, I’d never even thought about hurting anybody, or wrecking their stuff. I’m a dragon, sure, but have you have ever tried eating a human? Ugh. Especially these guys. These guys are not clean.

Well, you can imagine what happened after I destroyed their building. Their trips to my cave are becoming even more frequent and agitated. There are posses. Mobs. One fellow tried to smoke me out of my home. Like I was a problem mole. Come on.

They are angry enough that I may have to move. And moving blows.

You know what, though? Why should I move? I was here first. I should have wiped them out when they built their first stupid little shanty. But no, good dragon that I am, I left them alone. Like I wanted to be left alone. Is that too much to ask? Being civil to each other? I suppose so.

Forget moving. I’ve made up my mind.

If one more person shows up at my door acting like an idiot, I’ll raze the entire town.

 

 

 

No. 388

May 27, 2013

History books say that between 1975 and 1981 NASA didn’t launch any manned missions to space.

 

October 3, 1980

“Houston, this is Polus 2, we are go for lift-off.”

“Roger, Polus 2. We are starting the countdown. Good luck.”

 

December 12, 1980

“Mommy, look! There are lights on the moon!” said Sally.

“Well, honey, the moon is bright most of the time,” her mother assured her.

“No, Mom. They’re moving.”

“It’s just your imagination. Goodnight, dear.”

 

Now

Sally Baker left the meeting feeling numb.

Her department at NASA was facing severe budget cuts. She had just been informed that she had two days to find a new project with approved funding, or begin telling her staff that they were all going to be out of work.

She sat down at her computer, head spinning with the news. How was she going to save the Prospective Missions Division? Their main role to date had been proposing hypothetical scenarios for future exploration, and then passing their reports to Engineering for feasibility studies. Mostly, it was for good PR stories to take to elementary schools to inspire children’s imaginations about space.

She leaned back and closed her eyes, trying to fight off the headache she could feel forming right between them. She squeezed her temples and took a deep breath. She stayed like that for some time, letting her mind wander.

 

When she opened her eyes they fell on her framed poster of Neil Armstrong on the moon and its caption, “July 20, 1969”.

She stared at the date. It triggered an old memory, something she hadn’t thought about in decades.

Sitting up quickly, she grabbed her security pass and phone from her desk. She dialed with one hand as she hurried out the office door.

“Archives? Hi, this is Dr. Baker. I’m going to be down there in about ten minutes and I’ll need an escort for the classified documents room.”

 

 

 

No. 389

May 29, 2013

Every summer, tourists flock to Pikesville to see the “Hole to Nowhere”.

“It’s bigger than last year!” some convince themselves, even though the size of the Hole never changes.

If anything, it is growing smaller, a cause for great concern among the locals dependent on the outside dollars.

 

The Hole first appeared in 1962. Visitors are told it swallowed a horse, even though nobody present at the time could remember losing a horse. Like most sinkholes, its birth was dramatic and unexpected. A horse could have conceivably fallen in, so the legend wasn’t an outright lie.

What was false was the part of the story that said the cause was unknown.

Clarence Humphrey, the warden at the Hole, knew exactly why the ground had given way. Three other men and one woman knew, as well.

Only Clarence and the woman, Sheila Betts, knew that the name was also misleading. They had learned where the Hole went.

 

“Throw down the rope,” Clarence whispered from the bottom of the pit.

Sheila did as she was instructed, dropping the coiled line over the edge. Then she shimmied down the steep sides to meet Clarence.

“You weren’t followed, were you?” he confirmed on her arrival.

“Of course not,” she hissed back. “I’m not stupid.”

“Just making sure,” Clarence mumbled.

Sheila and Clarence were not friends.

Clarence checked his watch. “Come on. We have an hour till the morning shift arrives up top.”

Sheila rolled her eyes at the obvious information, but her contempt went unnoticed in the dark of the Hole. “You say that every time.”

The pair cleared away a loose pile of dirt along one wall and revealed a passage big enough for one person at a time to enter on their belly.

Without speaking, Clarence followed Sheila through.

They arrived in a vaulted chamber, another sinkhole waiting to happen right beneath Harley’s Grocery. Water dripped down from the ceiling into a crevasse in the floor.

Clarence deftly tied the rope around a rocky outcrop and let it down into the split. Without pausing, he turned and slid down it to somewhere below.

Sheila did the same, but not before checking the knot at the top.

Now, far from the surface, the two came upon the final leg of their journey. A steep tunnel led up, toward the hills north of Pikesville.

“45 minutes,” reminded Clarence.

“I seriously don’t know why you time us every week,” Sheila told him. “Get moving if you’re so worried.”

They left down the tunnel at a light jog, arriving soon after at the secret of the Hole.

The spring was small, just a trickle out of the rocks. It was at the end of a narrow box canyon that would have been impossible reach to without taking the route through the Hole.

Clarence immediately dipped his cupped hands in the water and drank.

Sheila produced a shot glass from her pocket, which she filled and then emptied into her mouth.

“That takes care of that,” Clarence grunted.

“You know,” Sheila told him. “The worst thing about finding the Fountain of Youth is that I have to share it with you.”

 

 

 

No. 390

May 30, 2013

The Republic of Steveistan was an independent nation located just south of the rest stop with the diner on Highway 102.

Steven Otter had won his territory when the local law enforcement community agreed to leave him alone if he stopped calling complaints about border incursions by the cars passing by.

The generally accepted frontier was a straight line from the big oak in Otter’s backyard to the shoulder of the highway on the north side, a curved line that followed his neighbor’s wire fence on the south, and the bank of a small creek through his backyard to the east. The total area of Steveistan was just over an acre.

Otter had declared himself Commander for Life of Steveistan. His wife, Judith, was his deputy. The children had long since grown up and emigrated. Otter printed his own money and issued passports to any townsfolk who wanted a discount on his home-brewed beer, Steveistan’s only export product.

 

“Honey,” Otter called down the hallway of the Capitol building. “I’m going on a trade mission.”

“You’d better not being going to Gerry’s Market,” she yelled back from the kitchen. “Remember, you’re banned from there.”

“Yes dear,” Otter replied. “Is there anything we need?”

There was a slight delay as Judith checked the pantry. “We’re low on sugar, so get some if it’s on sale.”

“Alright,” said Otter as he walked to the garage. “Don’t forget to take the flag down when you hear the door close.”

“I won’t,” Judith told him cheerily.

 

When Steve returned, almost two hours later, he wasn’t in a very good mood.

“What’s wrong?” Judith asked him.

Otter shuffled awkwardly, trying to ignore the question. “Nothing.”

“It’s not nothing, and you know it,” Judith scolded him. “What?”

“I got banned from Food Giant,” Otter admitted.

“What did you do this time?”

“The sugar wasn’t on special, so I took some. As an ambassador, I tried to tell them I had diplomatic immunity. But they wouldn’t let me explain.”

Judith shook her head. “That only leaves Valu-Mart on the other side of town to shop at. I hate Valu-Mart.”

Otter wrung his hands together. “I know.”

“I’m invoking the National Emergency Act,” Judith said with a stern finality.

“I don’t remember that one.”

“It’s all written down in the Charter,” Judith told him, reaching for the spiral notebook that occupied a hallowed place in the middle of the dining-room table. She flipped to the correct page. “See, it says here, ‘In the event of the incapacity of the Commander for Life, his second will assume the role and all powers and privileges granted by the title.’”

“This is a revolution!” Otter gasped. “A coup!”

“Only until you apologize to the store managers you’ve upset,” Judith assured him. “Don’t worry. Steveistan will be safe with me in charge.”

 

 

 

No. 391

May 31, 2013

Will came upon an old man in the forest who was sitting beside a freestanding door.

“What’s on the other side?” Will asked the man, even though he could clearly see that beyond the door was more of the same forest.

“Bears,” said the man.

Will nodded. “Sure. But don’t bears just go around the door?”

The old man scowled at Will and pointed angrily with his walking stick. “I didn’t say the door was for the bears, did I? Now move along.”

Will, not wanting to upset the man further, did as he was told.

 

The next day, Will sent his friend Jack into the woods to see if perhaps he could discover the true purpose of the strange spectacle.

 

Jack returned late in the afternoon with a black eye.

“No luck, then?” Will asked.

“Nope,” said Jack. “I asked the geezer specifically what the door was for, and he straight-up whacked me with his stick. That’s it. Didn’t say a word.”

“Huh,” Will grunted, deep in thought and ignoring his friend’s wound. “There’s got to be somebody in town who knows what this is all about.”

“Whatever. The dude’s crazy, is all I know. I’m going home.”

“Ok. Right,” Will dismissed him absently.

“See you later,” Jack called on his way out the door.

 

Will spent all night obsessing about the old man and the door. He tossed and turned under his sheets, with all the possible scenarios racing through his head.

Was the door magic?

Did there used to be something built around the door?

Why did the man say “bears”? How did the bears fit in?

On and on it went, until first light when Will got up and left immediately to the cafe on Main Street for breakfast.

 

“Hey,” he said as he slid his chair up to the counter. He looked around and saw several old-timers with their morning coffees. “Has anybody heard about an elderly man in the forest who sits beside a random doorframe?”

“Oh sure,” said a woman at the next table. “That’s Crazy Bob. He’s been up beside that door for who-knows-how long.”

“Why?” Will asked, leaning forward.

“I think mostly because he likes to hit people with his stick,” said the woman’s friend. “After all, his name is Crazy Bob.”

“That’s it?” Will pressed.

“Pretty sure,” said the woman.

“So far as I know,” confirmed her friend.

Will had one more question. “Do you know why he told me about bears? He told me there were bears on the other side.”

“Bears?” said the woman. “He said ‘bears?’”

“Yes.”

“I really couldn’t tell you,” she said. “There hasn’t been a bear around here since, well, since before my time, anyway.”

 

Armed with the new information, Will returned to the forest to confront Crazy Bob. He found the scene just as he’d left it, two days before. “I know who you are and I know there are no bears,” he told Crazy Bob.

Crazy Bob did not lash out, as Will was half expecting. Instead, the man leaned back. “Is that right?” he asked. “Well, then you tell me, what’s that?” he said, pointing again with his stick.

Will looked where the old man indicated. There, on the far side of the door, was a giant bear. When Will turned back to Crazy Bob, the man was smiling and the door was open. “If you’re worried about the bear, just step on through.”

That was when Will decided it would be a good idea to make a run for it.

 

 

 

No. 392

June 4, 2013

15 July 2013

Dear Sir,

 

As per your instructions on 3rd July, we began excavations beneath the stage floor of the Triton Theater on 9th July.

I must inform you that what we have found so far is highly irregular. I therefore request that you visit in person to provide further clarification regarding the direction of the project.

I have made a complete inventory of our discoveries to date to familiarize you with the situation.

 

9 July

-Slate slabs, ½ inch thick, forming a complete layer under floor

10 July

-Hand tools, dating to approx. early 1900’s

-Sealed tin box with padlock

-Wooden signboard, letters visible – “Cro t”

11 July

No findings, dug 2 yards

12 July

-Stone construction, later found to be the roof of a chamber

13 July

-Stone and brick vault, no clear entry points

-Pair of iron handcuffs

-Sword handle, indeterminate date

14 July

No new artifacts, dug out vault, now 6 yards below Theater floor

15 July

-Possible passageway intersecting vault

-Spyglass with smashed lens

-Human bones, partial right hand

-Wooden oar

-Brick with word “HOME” scratched into it

 

We have stopped work at this time, and await your arrival.

Regards,

Daniel White

 

 

 

No. 393

June 5, 2013

Brian Allen stole road signs. From the time he turned thirteen until he was sixteen years old, he amassed an enormous collection.

His friends would often ask him what he was planning to do with them, and Brian would always smile and decline to answer. His friends would shrug and assume that it was just “Brian being Brian”.

Of course, Brian had a plan.

The night before his driver’s test, Brian visited the shed where he’d stored his prizes. Under cover of darkness, he replaced all the signs along the route he knew the test would take with his own directions.

 

He passed with flying colors, and a very confused instructor.

 

 

 

No. 394

June 6, 2013

“Grandpa, tell me that story you told me before.”

“I don’t know what story you mean. What was it about?”

“Well, it started with ‘Once upon a time’.”

Grandpa smiled. “Well, you’re going to have to help me out. All stories begin with ‘Once upon a time’. Can you think of anything else?”

The child nodded. “I think so. ‘Once upon a time, there was a boy and a girl, and a great big world.’”

“Ah, yes,” said Grandpa. “I remember, now. That’s the best one.”

 

 

 

No. 395

June 7, 2013

Jackson began to see her every morning while he rode the subway to work. She, like he, always chose the same car to ride in, one back from the front. She would usually bring a book and read intently until she heard the chime for her stop, two before his.

Jackson spent his journey drawing his fellow commuters on a small sketchpad. As time passed, she became the subject of more and more of his portraits until, eventually, she was the only one. He was almost certain that she knew what he was doing, and that she knew that he knew that she knew.

 

One day, things changed.

She didn’t get off at the usual place. Instead, she leaned forward when the train started moving again.

“I think you should give me one,” she said to Jackson.

“What?”

“One of your pictures. Give it to me. I mean, it’s only fair.”

“Right,” said Jackson, tongue-tied by the attention. He tore the first page out of his book and handed it over.

She took the paper and examined it. “Not bad,” she appraised. “A little super-creepy, but not bad.”

The person sitting beside Jackson stood up to leave. She swapped into the empty seat.

“Let’s see the rest,” she said, holding out her hand expectantly. “There aren’t any pervy ones, are there?”

“No,” said Jackson quickly. “Of course not.”

She flipped through the book, pausing occasionally and smiling to herself.

Jackson’s stop was announced and he began to gather his things to go. Her proximity made him very self-conscious.

She sat perfectly still and watched him stutter and flail as he made his way toward the door. “You forgot something,” she told him as the train lurched to a halt. She held his sketchbook out.

He took it and mumbled a thanks.

“Just be aware, tomorrow it’s going to be harder to draw me. I plan on sitting here beside you the whole ride.”

Jackson nodded and dashed through the just-opened doors.

 

 

 

No. 396

June 10, 2013

The safe had been in the corner of the offices of Lysander and Plank since the founding of the company. The current owners of the business, grandchildren of the original partners, paid little attention to the hulking artifact. It was just another fixture to them, like a desk, or a lamp. Certainly, nobody living had thought to open it.

 

Clarissa Lysander arrived soon after being called. Luke and Elizabeth Plank were already standing in front of the building, surrounded by a fleet of police cruisers.

“What do we know?” Clarissa asked as she got out of her car.

“Not much,” said Elizabeth. “The security company called Luke and told him there was a suspected break-in. The police are still searching the building.”

“Is somebody still inside?”

“We don’t know,” said Luke, handing Clarissa a cup of coffee. “My sister wanted them to be thorough.”

“It’s their job,” Elizabeth countered.

 

Before Clarissa had finished her drink, an officer approached the group. “We’d like to take the three of you inside, before the rest of the employees, to do a quick inventory. Let us know if anything’s missing,” he said. “Also, we have some questions about something that I’d like to show you.”

The three looked at each other.

“Alright,” said Clarissa, speaking for everyone. “We’ll follow you.”

 

Nothing appeared to have been disturbed as they walked through the building. If there had been intruders, it seemed that robbery was not their motive.

“Just in here,” said the police officer, as he led the way to the inner sanctum of Lysander and Plank.

Clarissa, Luke, and Elizabeth froze as they turned the corner into the back room.

“That’s it,” said the officer.

“I don’t know,” managed Luke. “I just don’t know.”

The safe was open. If there had been contents, they had disappeared. And somebody, in the past or present, had dug a tunnel up from behind a false wall and then burned their way into the safe from the back.

The only clue was an old photograph of Andrew Lysander and Walter Plank taped to the inside of the door. Taken during the war, the men were posing in front of a squad of captured enemy soldiers and a large, unmarked crate.

 

 

 

No. 397

June 12, 2013

The only reason we know Travellers have been here is because, very occasionally, one of them screws up. Obviously, visiting us in their past gives them a massive advantage. And we’re not even sure what they’re up to. Are they coming back here for research, or some other, more nefarious purpose? Our assignment may be dangerous.

With that in mind, the mission of this unit is to capture one. The future can’t hide from us forever.

 

 

 

No. 398

June 13, 2013

Natasha and Tom reached the top of the cliff and looked over the edge at the pool below.

The water seemed dark and uninviting.

“I’ll jump if you jump,” said Tom.

Natasha didn’t hesitate. She leapt off the rock ledge and hit the water a second later.

Tom remained still.

Natasha looked up at him. She pulled a strand of wet hair from in front of her eyes but didn’t say a word.

Tom turned and made his way down the path to meet her at the base.

“I wasn’t serious,” he told her as he wrapped his dry sweater over her shoulders.

“I know,” she said as she held the sweater tightly to stop the shivering. “But I needed to know if I could.”

 

 

 

No. 399

June 14, 2013

Carl Dunn worked nights at the airport. During the quiet hours between flights, he cleaned the floors. His section was in baggage claim, from the customs’ gates to the arrivals pick-up hall.  His job, like his life, was very ordinary.

Besides occasionally speaking to Veronica Jordan, who worked in the food court, Carl kept mostly to himself. There weren’t many folks who were around so late, anyway.  Carl liked it like that.

 

One day, on a shift that began like any other, Carl was sweeping near carousel four. As he made his way around, he spotted something wedged between the side of the conveyor and the row of carts stacked beside it. After looking around to see if there was anyone who could have left it, he knelt down to get a closer look.

He didn’t know that, by doing so, he was beginning the first act of his origin story.

 

 

 

No. 400

The Molten Kingdom Part 1

June 18, 2013

“I have heard of it. They say the volcano is three days from here, to the east.” said the man, pointing into the distance. “You won’t make it that far, by yourself,” he cautioned.

Clue Restacks nodded. “That would be true. But I’m not alone.”

Mr. Mouse appeared on her right shoulder and cast his wily gaze on the surprised guide.

“A rat?” asked the man incredulously. “You are going to cross the Great Desert with a rat? You will surely die.”

“He’s a mouse,” Clue clarified. “And I think we’ll be fine.”

“I hope so,” said the man. “If you return, I will be waiting here.”

 

Clue and Mr. Mouse bid him farewell, and began the long trek toward their goal. Clue used her powers to create a bubble of lowered temperature around them, protecting the duo from the potentially lethal rays of the blazing sun.

“He sure was grim, wasn’t he?” she asked her fuzzy companion. “This is nothing we haven’t seen before.”

Mr. Mouse made a sound that seemed affirmative and Clue smiled. Then he squeaked a reminder.

“That’s right,” she told him. “I forgot.”

Summoning a greater level of concentration, she forced a high pressure zone of air under her feet. She wobbled slightly as she rose a short distance off the ground. “Let’s go,” she said as she propelled herself forward with a focused gust of wind.

 

Travelling in this manner, the adventurers reached their destination by nightfall.

The volcano towered above them, a deep glow emanating up into the dark sky from the lava at the bottom of the crater.

Clue picked her way slowly to the summit, deflecting airborne boulders with well-timed blasts of lightning.  “A walk in the park,” she remarked to Mr. Mouse.

He wasn’t sure if he shared her enthusiasm for the task.

“Do you want to come with me, or stay here?” she asked him after reaching the shore of the boiling pool of rock.

Mr. Mouse chose immediately. He would remain right where he was.

“Your loss,” Clue told him as she shrugged off her pack. She reached behind her back and pulled a small bundle from the waistband of her pants. “Take care of this while I’m gone,” she said to Mr. Mouse as she tossed the contents toward her partner.

A diamond twice his size rolled to a stop in front of the surprised rodent.

Then Clue encased herself in a thick layer of ice and launched herself into the fiery lake.

 

 

 

 

No. 404 – The Molten Kingdom Part 4

Clue was ushered to the throne room of the underground citadel.

The queen of the underground beings sat on a throne chiseled from a single piece of volcanic stone. She did not wait before addressing Clue. “I have been told that you possess the Eyes.”

“That’s right, your highness,” said Clue, bowing low. “I have one here. The second is close by.”

“That is good,” said the Queen. “We will not have to kill you immediately. Now, show me.”

Clue held up the diamond. Another guard took it from her and carried it to the royal dais.

The Queen inspected it closely before setting it down on the arm rest of her throne. “Tell me what you have really come here for, outsider.”

Clue didn’t have a chance to answer. There was a commotion outside the door to the throne room, and a group of soldiers entered with a small cage.

“A mouse was found in the fortress,” they reported. “It has come from the surface. There is a breach in our defenses.”

The Queen turned to Clue. “Did you bring an animal with you?” she asked.

Clue shrugged. “What would I do with a rat?” she said dismissively.

The Queen considered the answer.

“Take this one to the dungeons,” she ordered the soldiers. “Kill the creature.”

The soldiers grabbed Clue roughly and hauled her toward the deeper corridors of the stronghold.

“But the other Eye,” she yelled as they took her away. “You won’t find it without me.”

“I am not concerned. It must be nearby,” said the Queen. “And perhaps, before long, you will consider revealing where you hid it.”

“No!” screamed Clue. “You can’t take me.”

But it was no use. She was soon locked away, deep beneath the earth.

Exactly where she wanted to be.

No. 403

I suppose you could say that things ended poorly between us. I’m not going to get into details, except to say that it was his fault.

He never could take responsibility for anything.

No. 402 – The Molten Kingdom Part 3

She did not have a chance to land a blow. The doors began to open on their own accord. Clue lowered her hand and stepped back as they swung toward her.

A tall, thin man appeared in the entry way. At least, he seemed to have once been a man. His skin was covered in dark scales that seemed to shine with the faint orange glow of cooling lava, and his proportions were wrong, somehow. In his hand was a vicious sword, which he held pointed at Clue. He began to talk and, although Clue was almost certain that he wasn’t speaking English, she understood him. “Why have you come, surface dweller?” the words boomed throughout the chamber.

Clue bowed slightly and replied. “Your people have something that I need. I am willing to trade for what I want.”

“We need nothing from your world,” the guard told her. “Go.”

“I think that I have something you’ll want,” said Clue. She produced another diamond, twin to the one she’d left with Mr. Mouse. She held it out. “This, and the other.”

The guard leaned closer. “Where is it?” he asked.

“Someplace safe.”

There was no reply for several seconds, then the guard lowered his sword and stepped aside. “This way,” he told Clue as he opened the door completely.

Clue returned the stone to her pocket and walked ahead. “Take me to your leader,” she said to the guard with a smile that she fought to keep to herself.

 

Mr. Mouse had, by now, decided that he had a bad feeling about the entire situation. He cast one more long glance toward the lava pit before making up his mind.

Pressing the diamond forward with his nose, he made for a small patch of black sand. Once there, he scraped out a shallow hole and shoved the gem into it.

After burying the treasure, he scrambled up the steep walls of the crater to the rim. Without the ability to survive in the lava like Clue, he was going to have to find his own way to the center of the volcano.

No. 401 – The Molten Kingdom Part 2

Mr. Mouse waited alone on the windswept mountain.

He looked at the diamond that Clue had left behind. Its presence unsettled him. He’d noticed that Clue had been acting differently, lately. Her control over her powers had increased, but she was using them so casually that it frightened him. The diamond’s sudden appearance also reminded him that he didn’t even know exactly what they were seeking on this trip.

Still, he watched the roiling lava, and hoped she would be back soon.

 

Clue, meanwhile, had descended into the mountain’s core. As she pushed deeper, she continually replenished her icy shield. Upon reaching the correct depth, she moved sideways and then kicked upward, surfacing in an underground chamber. She pulled herself out of the magma and onto a solid, rocky shelf.

She lit the cave with her powers, and used the same levitating technique from the desert-crossing to float down the tunnel that stretched out before her.

As she rounded the last corner of the corridor, she came face-to-face with a set of enormous metal doors. Covered in elaborate carvings, they stretched up three times as tall as Clue, into a pitch-black cavern.

Clue shut down all of her powers and approached the gates carefully. She hesitated slightly before she raised her arm to knock.