Short Story: The Visit

 

Autumn was cold that year, frigid by all accounts. But in Chicago, I hardly noticed since I couldn’t see many signs of life on the Southside, much less the beauty of autumn that I was accustomed to from my Wisconsin upbringing. I felt cold most of the time I lived there, no matter the season.

I taught kids for as far back as I could remember. Now, I was getting paid to follow my passion. It was a good deal, except I felt like a fish out of water. My white skin didn’t fit in, my naiveté often set me up for a fall, and my past haunted me.

Dealing with kids from broken homes kept me safe from dealing with my own broken life. Teaching assured me that I was in charge. Until a letter arrived.

My dad had been out of my life for so many years; I could hardly remember his face. I harbored no hatred. No guilt. Just a mountain of sadness. Sadness that kept me comfortable in its very familiarity. I liked walls. And a mountain makes a terrific wall.

During my second year in Chicago, I received a letter from my father. He was going to be on the North Shore, touring with his new wife. They were both highly educated, well paid, and living in another world. I remember the feel of the crisp, thick paper in my hand, and my surprise that it had actually traversed the distance from his home out east to my present abode. Quality paper like that hardly seemed real as I scanned the stained, cement sidewalk, the broken glass littering the street side, the scraps of candy papers blown by a forlorn wind.

He had asked if he could drop by and see me. A short visit, since he’d only spend the weekend in town. But would I mind? Seeing him. Visiting a bit.

I stuffed the letter in my jacket pocket and descended the apartment steps. Looking around, I realized there was nowhere for me to go. My lesson plans were complete for the following week; the afterschool kids had gone home hours ago, everyone I knew was gone for the day. Yet, I must go somewhere.

I trudged back to school with no object in mind. It was late on Friday afternoon; no one would be around. As I crossed the playground toward the redbrick building, I saw Mr. Carol. His stooped back bent over a broom as he swept up the latest mess in a continuous stream of litter and broken bottles. I wondered for the zillionth time where all the glass came from. Did vicious, little gremlins dance about each night and sprinkle broken bits like confetti? Hardly likely. But it was a better vision than the alternative.

I stepped up to the old man, though I realized anew that he wasn’t really old. It was his clothes, his shoulders, and his demeanor that left the impression of elderliness. Oldness. Worn out like his faded jeans. “Hey, Mr. Carol. You’re working late.”

It was a stupid comment. He worked early, late, and all the time in between. A maintenance man’s work was never done.

Mr. Carol turned, startled. He rarely spoke, and I never dared to break through his own private wall. But this time, he smiled. Looking me up and down, he seemed to see something that I didn’t realize I was showing. With a wave of his hand, he pointed to the cement steps leading to the front door. “Hey, yourself, young lady. What you doing here?”

Feeling very much like one of the kids I taught, I shrugged. I didn’t have an answer, except the one in my pocket.

He leaned the broom against the wall and lowered himself to the middle step and gestured. “Sit a minute. Keep an old man company.”I remember the burning tears that filled my eyes. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want my mountain to crumble. But I sat anyway. For a brief second, it seemed as if the world was perfect, as if everything were where it was supposed to be, and I was destined to be sitting on the third step with a man in faded jeans and a worn, blue shirt. I clasped my hands tight, hoping to hold my voice steady. “Do you have any kids, Mr. Carol?”

Mr. Carol looked off into the blurry distance and tented his fingers in steeple position as if in prayer. “Yeah, I do. A daughter. But I haven’t seen her since she was a baby.” He looked at me. “She’d be about your age by now.”

The rightness of things settled into quiet conviction as I sighed. “I have a dad.”

He smiled. “Most do.”

“I haven’t seen him for a long time.” I pulled the letter out of my pocket.

Mr. Carol stayed very still as if he was afraid of frightening a mouse back into its hole.

I tapped the cream colored envelope. “He’s going to be in town and wants to see me. But it’s been an awfully long time. And he’s bringing his wife.”

Mr. Carol leaned back onto the second step and stretched his legs. “You know, I have thought of writing such a letter. Many times. Though I have no wife to bring along.” He sighed. “But, you know, my writings not so good. And my girl’s got her own life now. Besides, I don’t have anything to offer. It’s too late to meet up and start over. But, still, I’d like to tell her something.”

The earth was rumbling under my feet. I could feel clods of dirt scuttle passed me as my mountain, and my voice, shook. “What would you tell her?”

“I’d tell her that I never stopped thinking about her. That I wish I had been a better man, a better father. A real dad.” He shook his head. “There’s no excuse, I know. I failed. I wasn’t there for her, and I’ll always be in the wrong about that.” He stood up and took the broom from the wall. “But, you know, I regret it. Deeply. I think of her every day.”

I stood up and crunched the letter back into my pocket. “You think I should see him?”

This time, Mr. Carol shrugged. “I’ve found that it wasn’t the things I done that I regretted the most. It was the things I didn’t do, the things I left undone. You know what I mean?”

I pictured the lined, school paper stacked on a shelf in my apartment; it wasn’t thick and fancy, but it was letter sized. “Yeah. I do.”

Mr. Carol returned to his endless sweeping as he nodded. “Good.”

A.K. Frailey’s Short Story Schedule 2017

A. K. Frailey 2017 Summer and Autumn Literary & Science Fiction

Short Story Schedule

ENJOY!

June 23 ~ The Visit

June 30th ~ Mirage

July 7th ~ Fiery Furnace

July 12th ~Summer Poem: Truth of Loveliness

July 14th ~ Mirage-Reborn

July 21st ~ Crucible

July 28th ~ Mirage-Reborn: We Are LuKan

August 4th ~ Decorum

August 11th ~ Mirage-Reborn: A New Life for Lucius Pollex

August 18th ~ Drama Trauma

August 25th ~ Mirage-Reborn: Grace Nelson’s Murder

September 1st ~ Visions of Grandeur

September 8th ~ Mirage-Reborn: Vera’s Wings

September 15th ~ Guardian

September 22nd ~ Jeremy Quinn

September 29th ~ Same Spirit

October 5th ~ Autumn Poem: Soul’s Birth in Morning Soil 

October 6th ~ The Dwarven Pillar

October 13th ~ Critical Power

October 20th ~ Xavier Pax’s illusion

October 27th ~Skeletons

November 3rd ~ The Life and Times of Yelsa Prator

November 10th ~ Addicted to Me

November 17th ~ Jazzmarie

November 24th ~ Good Deed

December 1 ~ Riko’s Uncle Clem

December 8th ~ Survival of the Fittest

December 15th ~ Common Destiny

December 22nd ~ Encounter

Never Forget

earthtree

Planet: Sectine II

Aliens: Uanyi are slim creatures with rubbery exoskeletons as well as internal bones and enormous eyes.

Setting: Riko’s home, late evening after a surprise attack by Uanyi Extremists.

~~~

Riko held his mother’s body in his arms, rocking silently as tears streamed down his face. Burning rocks flew to pieces, and raging flames cast his spartan living room into eerie, violent shadows.

With his legs tucked under him, he sobbed silently. He had scrambled across the room to her when the first blast broke the west wall sending shrapnel in all directions. A section of the window frame protruded from her side.

Bending close, he pressed his ear to her chest, but no sound, no movement other than his own rocking motion signaled life. “Aw, Ma!”

~~~

A Lunar Cycle Later

Riko stood next to a grave mound while his sister, Rhianna, hunched next to him. A tall stone with a picture of a falling star etched in the middle perched at the head of the mound. Riko bowed his head.

Rhianna placed her arm around his shoulders. “Ma would want us to move on. It was a mistake coming here. We thought we could keep the race wars from following us, but it was a dream. We’re not meant to live in Old-world Uanyi. To be honest, Old-world Uanyi wasn’t so so great, even back in its glory days.”

Riko lifted his head and stared at the two suns in the sky, one only a third of the size of the other. “Let’s go. We don’t want to be late for the transport.” He peered around. “Where’s Zero?”

The woman bellowed a trumpet-like call across the brown, moss-covered expanse.

A miniature Uanyi came trotting from around the side of an octagonal structure with dirt smeared across his white shirtfront, a tear in his brown leggings, and his bulbous, black, insect-like eyes wide and blinking.

The woman shook a slender finger at him. “Zero! You’ve been fighting again?”

Zero shook his head, his gaze as frozen as his little body.

Riko glanced at his sister. “You gotta train that kid. He’ll never survive on Newearth.”

The woman shrugged. “He’s survived so far. Better than some.” She stretched out her long, rubbery arm. “Come on, little one. You’ll have to carry things for me. You’ll do that won’t you?”

Riko watched his sister and nephew pad away to the round-shaped house with vivid colors painted on it in a pattern unique to their family line. He shook his head.

A larger, hulking Uanyi trotted forward, waving one hand. “Hey, Riko, glad I caught you before you left.” He stopped suddenly, peered sharply at the stone and the grave mound, bowed low, and then turned his attention to Riko, taking him by the arm. “You ma left you something. I had to wrestle your mother’s brother for it, but I got it. Stupid fool thought that no one knew.” He struggled to get something out of a deep pocket. “Your ma was a better businesswoman than most gave her credit for. Pity. She should’ve lived to see us transform this place—”

Riko held up his hand. “She died trying to transform this place.” He heaved a sigh. “Never mind. What ya got?”

“Units. Over twenty thousand, and they’re in your name.” He lifted a data-chip into the air and handed it onto Riko’s open palm. “Look, I know it was terrible, what happened to your ma and all, but sporadic fighting isn’t the end of the world. Not this world anyway. Don’t give up on us. We’re trying to dig down to our roots, grow a new culture from the ancient soil of our—”

Riko stared at the chip in his palm and lifted his other hand to stall his friend. “Stop, Uncle Clem! Your brother is gone, and ma is dead. I’ve heard all the propaganda I ever want to. I’m done changing the world, saving our race, or whatever it is you think you’re doing. I’m heading to Newearth to find work and mind my own business.”

Clem glanced away. “And what about Rhianna? And Zero?”

“I’ll look after them. Best as I can. Rhianna’s like Ma—headstrong with good business sense. They’ll be fine.” He looked up and stared at the structure. “I think.” He shrugged and started toward the house. “Anyway, you can always check in on us. I’ll send my contact info as soon as I get to Newearth.” He shoved the chip deep into his own pocket. “I appreciate everything you’ve done—and this.” He tapped his pocket. “Few would’ve cared what happened to us—at least to me.”

Clem threw his arm around Riko and jiggled him, friendly-like. “You saved my life once, remember? I’ll never forget that.”

“Yeah, well, it was luck on both our parts. Sometimes you get lucky, you know.” He stopped and glanced back at the grave mound. “Sometimes—not so much.”

Clem shoved Riko forward. “Better hurry. I bet you’ll have zillions of units by the time I visit.” He chuckled. “You better.”

Riko sighed. “We’ll see.” He looked up at the suns. “God knows, it’ll take more than units to make Newearth feel like home. Never really had a home.”

Clem shrugged. “We’re all trying to find our place. Your Ma wanted you to set down roots. But never forget—” He wagged a finger in Riko’s face, “—you’re a Uanyi!”

Riko nodded and padded away, leaving his uncle and his mother’s silent grave behind.

Melchior Chapter One

Chapter One

Hairy Hedgehogs

Melchior felt the sneeze pulsing through his head like liquid fire. Squeezed under his bed, arms lodged tightly against his body, he had no opportunity to stem the rushing tide.

“Agh! If-only Chloe-dusted more-thoroughly! Slovenly house-maaaaaid! Achoo! Achoo!”

The smarting pain to his head when he smacked his skull against the wooden frame definitely checked the relief of the explosion. Melchior grimaced. The real object of his interest lay just out of reach. He stretched as far as his short stature would allow; the vellum roll merely sat there, completely indifferent to his struggle.

“Aw! Hairy hedgehogs! Why can’t I do this one thing? Why does everything have to be so…damnably difficult?”

“Father! Faaaather!”

Melchior’s head smashed against the underside of his bed one again as he struggled to extricate himself before his daughter entered the room and found her noble father’s backside peeking out from under the bedstead. He had his reputation to protect…among other things. But Melchior’s respectability could hardly cloak his body at this crucial moment. Although he wiggled backwards as fast as he could, the sneezes grew in proportion to his anxiety.

“Oh, Mother Most Holy, I’ll say my devotions more regularly if only—”

“Father…? Father! What in Woden’s name are you doing down there?”

Melchior’s whole body slumped against the dusty floor.

“One more incident like this,” his eldest daughter had warned him just yesterday in her most despairing tone, “and I’ll have to send for Aunt Martha.”

Yes, yes! Roaring rabbits! He was getting old, and perhaps a tad bit forgetful, but that wasn’t what led him to squiggle under the bedstead. He had a perfectly good reason for getting down on all fours and lodging almost his entire body between his hard bed and the dusty floorboards. It was all because of that treacherous roll of vellum. He needed it. He must have it! Who cared for dignity when the whole world waited on the brink of despair for this one piece of momentous news?

Angels above be praised! He had discovered the most amazing thing. He, Melchior, son of Jeremiah and Freda, simple thane, wordsmith, and inventor, had discovered, well, it had been revealed to him in a dream – the one unifying principle of reality! He knew it, and he knew he knew it….or at least he had known it last night when he woke up in the pitch black with the vision still clear in his mind. So, he had done what any intelligent, honest, decent man would do. He struck a flame to his candle, retrieved his quill, and, snatching his precious roll that contained all his inspirations, he wrote down this most amazing bit of universal truth. Why, the world would never be the same once he shared what he had learned!

Unfortunately, after having scribbled down the vision in its entirety, he was exhausted. He carefully rolled the vellum and placed it beside his bed. When he awoke this morning, he remembered his great good luck, but to his horror there was no sign of his treasure. He searched frantically all over the room, tearing it to pieces. Not that there was much to tear apart; his personal possessions consisted only of a bed, a desk with one leg slightly shorter than the others, and a single straight-backed, armless chair. He had tossed his clothes upon the floor in his desperate search…or were they there already? Never mind that!

Perhaps the roll had merely fallen and rolled under the bed? When he got down on all fours, which was no easy feat, he could see the edge of what looked very much like his precious document. Without premeditated thought, he began to squiggle…and thus…here he lay…bare legs sticking out from under his bed. What else might be laid bare; he shuddered to think.

“Father? Are you ill? Having some kind of a fit?”

Melchior sighed.

“Harry! Come here! I think father’s had a fit and died half under his bed! Hurry!”

“Hurry, Harry!” mimicked Melchior under his breath. “Hurry and save your already dead father! Bah!”

Before either Harry or his eldest daughter, Adele, could rescue him, Melchior managed to squiggle backwards the last bit and fully extricated himself from the humiliation he had plunged himself into. He sat there, his head propped on his arm, which was propped rather casually upon his knee. He stared at his two children, rather surprised that the whole brood hadn’t followed them up the stairs into his little sanctuary. After all, their house only had a few rooms, and every squirrel and bird knew exactly what went on inside each. He blinked like a cat as he waited for the inevitable.

“Father, what were you doing? You scared me half to death! I thought…well…I don’t know what I thought, but—”

Melchior put up his hand wearily. “Don’t say another word. I know what you imagined, and I must say, you have a deplorable lack of faith in your father. Do you think I’d die in such an unceremonious way? When I’m ready to die, I’ll let you know.”

He looked at his son, whose mouth hung slightly open. Although Harry possessed a kind and gentle soul, he was not the brightest candle on the lampstand. But he was strong, and that was worth something. “Help your father to his feet, Harry.”

Harry obliged.

Melchior surveyed his eldest daughter and then his son. His shoulders slumped. They were truly the kindest people he knew, but times were hard and there was so much decency being lost from their everyday world that his heart nearly broke when he thought of it. He remembered the stories his father and grandfather used to tell of the Roman days and how things used to be. But now, all was rot and ruin. There was so little of the old grandeur left.

If only his wife, Edwina, had not passed away, leaving him to manage everything. He still owned a small portion of his lands. As a full-fledged thane, he maintained five hides as the law demanded. And he possessed a name and reputation as an educated man. He was considered wise in a land of ignorant, inarticulate…. Oh, never mind! He must not think of it. If only Edwina had been able to pass along more of her own noble strength. But she had been so busy raising the babies and maintaining the household that she had had little time to speak about the past and what they had known…their honorable name and stolen inheritance. Melchior forced himself into the present moment. “Where are the others?”

Harry’s mouth hung open, but Adele spoke up in her usual brisk fashion. “They’ve gone to the festival. Don’t you remember, Father? You gave permission last week. Lord Gerard is holding a feast in honor of his daughter’s betrothal to Lord Marlow with games and races and food and drink. You promised everyone might attend.”

“At this hour? Why the sun has just risen!”

Adele studied her father, one eyebrow raised. “You’ve been up half the night again, haven’t you? Oh, father!”

Melchior grimaced at the reproach for he had been up half the night; undoubtedly the morning had flown by while he slumbered, but still…. Melchior fell to his knees again.

Adele shrieked. “What now, Father?”

“My roll! My parchment fell on the floor―that’s was why I was half buried under the bed when you found me.” Melchior struggled to his feet and, carefully appraised his two children, eyeing not only their size but also their agility and mental acuity. He pointed to his daughter. “Adele, get under there and retrieve my roll. It’s very important, and I must have it!”

Adele shook her head one last time before she got on her knees, wiggled under the bed, and returned with the roll pinched daintily between two fingers. She held the dusty vellum out to her father. “What’s it this time?”

Melchior pursed his lips although his eyebrows furrowed anxiously. What if he had imagined the whole thing? What if he had dreamed that he had discovered the one great unifying principle of the universe? What could he say?

“I’ve discovered something very important, but I’m not ready to reveal it yet. Besides, the world, as it stands today, isn’t ready for what I have to offer. We live in a land of fools ruled by barbar—”

“Father! Don’t speak so loud! King Radburn is very powerful and has many spies. Besides, we owe him our allegiance.” Adele’s gaze fell, her cheeks flushed.

Melchior lips stretched back with a slight hiss. “Yes, they are rather treasonous words, but they have meaning―at least they should.” He had more intelligent conversations with merchants than with lords, and the Saxon king was one of the most loutish men he had ever met. King? Why, Melchior could name three hunting dogs with more sense! But that was none of his business. All he had to do was manage his own estate, keep his children alive, and stay out of trouble. He snatched the roll from his daughter’s outstretched hand. “Yes, well, this will help to keep my mind on better things.” A sudden frown crushed his heavy brows over his eyes. “Why aren’t you two at the celebration?”

Adele ran her fingers through her hair, a sheepish grin replacing her serious expression. “Ahh, we’re going…but there were things to attend to. You want something to eat? Some bread and meat?”

Melchior rubbed his lean belly. Yes, food would definitely help. Hot food and a mug of warm ale would go a long way toward improving his mood. Then he could read over his work in the quiet of an empty house. Peace and quiet? Why this would be a prize! “Is everyone going?”

“Not Selby. I’m leaving him behind to watch over things―in case you need something.”

Melchior put on his most benevolent face, a wide smile to match his wide eyes. “Ah, let the poor man go. Even if he can’t partake, he can watch, and you might slip him a little something.”

Adele’s pursed lips and scowl disagreed. “I don’t know if Lord Gerard would like that. Slaves aren’t invited to such things. Father, what can you be thinking?”

Melchior could feel his quiet time slipping away. Selby had an uncanny ability of finding him alone when he least desired company. The old fool would sidle forward with a ridiculous complaint or some “momentous” news (the cow had calved, the oats were up, it looked like a storm was coming), and then the garrulous codger would start to chatter. Why he could chatter a man’s two good ears right off his head.

Melchior aimed his gaze and spoke so clearly, that no one, not even Harry, could mistake his meaning. “Adele, I order you to take Selby and the rest with you. Say that they’re to help with the children. Say that they’ll help with the cooking or the cleanup. Say whatever you wish, but take them away and stay a good long time! You understand?”

Adele nodded and sniffed. She understood all too well. Her father was up to one of his schemes again, and he wanted to be alone. Well, she wouldn’t get in his way. She had better things to do than fret about an old man’s foolishness. It would break her mother’s heart to see him now. He never took care of himself. He never bothered to dress neatly and he was so reclusive that all their neighbors were saying that he was mad. He was an old man, it was true, but Adele knew her father better than anyone, and she knew that he was as wise and crafty as ever, but he obsessed over strange secrets.

In a fit of lonely desperation, he once recited some notable quote to Lord Gerard but Lord Gerard had only laughed, pounded him on the back, and said that he had drunk too much strong wine. Melchior, who already hated the man, hated him even more and avoided him after that. Adele winced at the memory. Though she had no love for the conquering Saxon, she did like the look of Lord Gerard’s nephew, Robert. She dearly hoped that her father’s eccentricities wouldn’t make her less attractive to her neighbors.

“As you say, Father. We’ll be leaving in a few moments. I just need to get my cloak. The night will surely be chilly.” Adele left the room with one final direction to her brother. “Get father’s food, will you, Harry? See that Selby carries in the tray and a flask of ale.”

Harry, used to obeying his sister’s commands, turned away.

Melchior watched him go with a slight ache of regret. He hardly ever spoke to the boy in kindness for there was so little to praise. Suddenly his heart smote him, and Melchior called out to his son’s retreating figure. “Have a good time, Harry! Dance with one of the pretty maidens for me.”

Harry turned and gazed at his father. He knew when people were making fun of him for the sting bit deep, but he realized with an indecipherable sense of sadness that his father was not taunting him but wishing him well, saddened all the while that it would never happen.

As soon as everyone was gone, Melchior picked up his scroll and carefully began to unroll it by the window. He stared wide-eyed, anxious to uncover its marvelous contents. First, there was the part about the stars alignment, which he had begun to chart five years ago after he had seen a propitious sign leading him to believe that his future was exceedingly bright. After a bit, he had become frustrated with the clouds forever covering the night stars so he began to record his family tree, and, although it wasn’t particularly detailed, it pleased him to have the whole family in one place. Then, of course, there was that bit about animal husbandry…but his interest had faded after a disease nearly carried off all the cows. In the margins, he printed quotes of learned men that he soon memorized. He used to recite them at gatherings to amaze his family and impress his friends.

Finally, here it was. Why? What had happened? The first few words were clear, for he had still had some ink on his pen; he must have wet it with his tongue as was his usual habit but…. Oh, flummoxed foxes! He had forgotten to dip his pen in ink. All that remained of his vision were some scratches and stray marks where his fingers had smudged the material. Just a few faint words were all that bore testimony to his vision, his wonderful knowledge that would save the world from disgrace and utter ruin!

Melchior stepped away from the light and fell heavily onto his bed, his hands hanging at his sides. How could this have happened? How could he have both been given such a gift and then had it snatched away all in one pitiless day? Did God not care for him? Did the Heavenly Host laugh at his attempts to understand his mighty world? Or was this the work of the devil to send him straight into the arms of the mistress of despair? If so, Beelzebub almost won.

Sighing, Melchior rose off the bed and went back to the light streaming through the window. There were a few readable traces upon the parchment. Melchior considered throwing the whole document into the fire, but then he remembered that such costly vellum was hard to obtain, and he would have nothing to write upon if he threw this away.

“Bah! What does it matter? The greatest knowledge in the universe has just slipped through my fingers. I am not likely to have that vision twice! And I can’t even remember the first thing about it other than it was lovely, and I was happier thinking about it than I had ever been in my life. But it’s gone now. The treasure has been stolen not only from my grasp but from my mind as well. Oh, Lovely Mother, have you no pity for your servant?”

Melchior heard the song of a bird just outside his window. It was a perky sparrow bouncing about from branch to branch as if it had nothing better to do than dance away the day. But as Melchior stared, the light fell on the vellum in such a way that the first scratches were discernible and Melchior bent in closer. “What’s this?” Melchior peered at the vellum and the words were suddenly quite clear.

“And he showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal….”

Clenching the velum in utter frustration, Melchior shouted, “What in eternity does that mean?” Yet his heart was lightened, for although his entire vision did not come back to him, he did sense the unspeakable joy he had known when he had first sat upon his chair in the blackness of night and wrote the message he was sure had come from God. Well, if God did not want him to know the whole message now, so be it. God was a mystery. He still had hidden within him this marvelous secret, and when God wished him to remember, he would recall the vision in full. And next time…he would dip his quill in ink!

Short Story: Trust Me

cobra

Eric peered through hooded, yellow eyes. His lithe, perfectly toned body stood at attention with his hands clasped serenely behind his back. He studied his boss, Simms, with absolute composure. Nothing could surprise him—he was a master of self-control trusted no one.

Simms, a human with more replacement parts than he liked to admit, could not hide his boxy shape, though he tried. His hair, though not his own, appeared thick and black, while his olive skin tone complimented the wine-colored shirt and trousers he wore. A gold pendant hung at his neck while his bejeweled fingers flashed with color.

He sat leaning back on a well-padded chair, his feet propped up on a wide window ledge. He licked a large, chocolate-chip ice cream cone wrapped in a freeze-sleeve, which kept it nice and cold, preventing drips. Simms did not like drips. He slurped a large swipe of ice cream and then darted a glance at Eric, gesturing with his free hand. “Just say yes and make us both happy.”

Eric licked his lips. “You haven’t told me your plans.”

Simms slammed down his feet, swerving his ice cream cone dangerously close to his desk. “What? I have to tell you everything? Who do you think I am—a beggar-boy? A Bhuac maybe?” He drew in a long breath and regained his accustomed position, swinging his feet back up on the sill. “No. You just say yes. Then I tell you my plans.” He chomped down on the top of the cone and slurped his words. “Don’t you trust me?”

“I already killed once for you; I think that merits some—”

“Aw, hell. You killed nobody. A nothing. What I’m talking about now is real business. My business. I have plans. Big plans.” He shrugged his shoulders. “You want in or not?”

Eric straightened his already straight shoulders. “Yes.”

A wide smile broke over Simms’ face. He swung his feet back onto the floor and tossed his ice cream cone into the trash. “Good! Okay, let’s get down to business. I’m gonna build the biggest interstellar docking bay this side of the Divide. I’m gonna—”

Eric shook his head. “Newearth already has one of the largest docking bays this side of Bothmal. You really think that—”

“Shut up, imbecile. I have already thought this through. I’ve Ingots, Uanyi, and even a couple dozen Crestas ready to follow my lead. I just need someone I can trust.” He peered up at Eric’s impassive face. “You know, killing that crossbreed was my idea. Right wasn’t going to do it, but I showed her the logic of the situation, and besides, I wanted to see you in action.”

“I take it, I performed to your satisfaction.”

“Aw, don’t talk like that, like some cheap robot off a passing trader.” He clasped his hands, lacing his fingers together. “You’ve got to be perfectly straight with me. I need someone who’ll be my eyes and ears, listen, but never talk, except to me. You get the idea? I’m gonna make Newearth the greatest trading center in the universe. And that’ll make some high-profile personalities jealous. They’ll try to stop me or cut in and try to replace me. And I won’t stand for it!”

He waved to his wall of medals, attesting to his award-winning skill at Zinzinera, a tough, body-wrenching, head-cracking Ingoti game that many players never live to see through to the end.

“I’ve got the skills to make this happen. It’ll be good for Newearth, good for every trader who wants to increase business, good for you, and good for me.” He frowned. There’s only one person who might give me serious trouble.”

Eric’s eyebrows rose. “Who might that be?”

Simms heaved himself out of his chair and strode over to his wall of trophies, studying them. “A Luxonian by the name of Cerulean. He’s been around a long time, since before the beginning—of Newearth, I mean. He’s got a reputation as a nice guy. But he isn’t. Trust me. He’s as dangerous as they come.” He swung around and faced Eric. “I want him outta my way.”

Eric folded his arms high across his chest. “Luxonians are hard to kill.”

“I didn’t say kill. I said I want him out of my way, traveling to foreign parts, or back on Lux—whatever. But wherever he is, I want you to keep your eyes on him. I want his reputation tarnished. I want everyone to see him for what he really is.”

“And what—exactly—is he?”

Simms shrugged. “He thinks he’s a guardian, a protector, like some Knight of Oldearth. But it’s all a lie. There are no heroes these days—they don’t exist.” Simms padded up to Eric and peered into his eyes. “Look into Cerulean’s soul and see what you find. Then report to me. We’ll find a way of destroying him—from the inside out.”

Eric unfolded his arms and nodded. “Simple enough.”

Simms shook his head. “Not simple. Necessary. How else will I get everyone to trust me?”

Persian

“They don’t think like us—you know that—don’t you?” The fluffy, white Persian with only one piercing blue eye stretched lazily across the porch floor in a patch of sunlight. Two kittens batted the leaves of a potted plant like players in an obscure Olympic game.

A miniature Panther sat on his haunches and blinked at a passing farm truck. “But they’re highly motivated; that’s what troubles me. Their whole demeanor of desperate devotion hides an unscrupulous plot—a cunning trick—to be sure.

“Unscrupulous? You’ve been listening to the boy at his lessons again, haven’t you?” Persian flicked her tail and eyed her kittens. “You give them too much credit. Most are as stupid as posts, though Clarabelle, now, she may have shepherding in her blood, but notice which critters she chooses to corral. Wouldn’t mind nipping that puppy in the heels, I’d warrant.”

Panther stretched. “You’d think the bipeds would sense the tension, but no, they just pat everyone on the head in the same enthusiastic way. The lady’s the worst, repeating that stupid mantra—My little loves—revolting.

A little boy jogged to the bank by the roadside and watched a tractor rumble nearer. Clarabelle raced by in a blur, weaving close to the huge, revolving tires.

Persian rose. “She’s at it again. One of these days—”

The boy screamed.

Persian scrambled down the wooden steps and raced across the yard with Panther dashing close behind.

The tractor rolled down the road—oblivious. The boy scuttled down the embankment and trotted to the pavement. He lifted a limp, fluffy, little body off the blacktop. Clarabelle barked and raced in circles around him.

Persian yowled. “Darius!”

Panther shivered. “I wondered where he’d gotten to.”

Tears streamed down the boy’s face as he climbed the hill and jogged toward the house. A lady flew out the door and raced down the steps. She stopped and knelt on the freshly mown grass at the boy’s side.

Persian cantered closer and swirled between them, meowing plaintively.

A pitiful cry issued from the limp kitten.

The woman looked from the Persian to the boy, one outstretched finger caressing the kitten’s head. “Look, even his mama’s worried…. I’ll take him inside and see what I can do. You go off to Daddy. He’s in the barn.” She lifted the limp body into her arms.

The boy stared up at her mutely.

“Go on; he needs you. We’ll see—” She turned and climbed the steps.

The boy watched her disappear behind the screen door, stuffed his hands into his pockets, and trudged away toward the barn.

Persian stood, glaring at the door. She trotted forward, scampered up the steps, and clawed at the screen.

Clarabelle sprang onto the porch and nosed her. “It’s no use. They’d just throw you out.” She sat on her haunches. “I tried to get in a few times, but—”

The Persian turned with a snarl and raked Clarabelle across the nose. The collie jumped with a yelp and trotted away with one, baleful, backward glance.

Panther edged closer to Persian, eyeing the retreating figure. “Take it easy. There’s nothing you can do.” He stepped between the mother and the door. “The lady will do what she can. You better get back to the others before something else happens.”

Persian yowled. “He’s my kitten!”

“They think he’s theirs. No point in arguing.”

Persian darted down the steps and hurried away, a warning growl vibrating deep in her chest.

Panther trudged down the steps and headed toward the barn.

Clarabelle stepped in Panther’s way. “I was only trying to help. Darius would already be dead if I hadn’t been there.” Clarabelle lifted her nose to the wind as two other dogs galloped closer. “But I shouldn’t be surprised—Persian never liked me.”

Panther eyed the collie, blinked, and then turned. “Like as not, you pushed Darius under the wheels.”

Clarabelle sneezed and watched Panther amble away before the two puppies pummeled into her. She snapped at them. “There’s been a tragedy, fools! Quit acting like drooling idiots.”

The hound snorted. “You mean that ball of calico fluff? Please, it’s been wandering far afield since the first day Persian let him out of the barn. I always said, coyotes or cars—”

The beagle yawned. “Never did see the use of all these darn cats. Two would do the job just as well. Sides, they’re so narcissistic!”

Clarabelle tackled the beagle and nipped him in the ear. “Awful big word for such a small quadruped.” She cocked her head toward the barn. “I’m going to check on my boy. He’ll be taking it hard. Always does.”

~~~

The sun flickered between the tree trunks as it crested the horizon. The lady, the man, and the boy stood with bowed heads near a small mound of freshly dug earth.

The boy raked his sleeve across his tear-streaked face.

The man slapped a cap on his head and shuffled his feet. “It’s just a kitten for heaven’s—”

The woman glared at him.

The man knelt down beside the boy and squeezed his shoulder. “It’s part of life on a farm, son; you gotta accept that.”

The boy leaned forward and buried his face into the man’s chest, his sobs muffled by the man’s plaid shirt.

The man cleared his throat, glanced at the woman, and lifted the boy into his arms. He placed the child high on his shoulder and carried him away.

The woman sighed and picked her way across the dewy grass to the house.

Persian trotted to the small mound, sniffed, and scratched the crumbly surface.

Panther ambled over. “You’ve got two left. Not bad—considering.”

Persian’s one eye pierced him with an icy glare. “You’ll never understand.”

Panther yawned and strolled away. “Not my job—understanding. I’m a hunter. That’s why I’m here.”

Persian closed her one good eye and sat on her haunches.

Clarabelle circled around and plunked herself down out of scratching range. She blinked at the rising sun. “Males don’t think like us. Can’t grasp what it’s like.” She rose and trotted over to another, slightly larger mound, covered in short grass and dandelions. She pawed at the mound and then stared at Persian. “Poison. It was a mistake—the man felt bad—but she died a terrible death just the same.”

Persian’s whiskers twitched. “You think you understand me?” Her yowl was incredulous.

Clarabelle shook her coat and trotted toward a car pulling into the driveway. “Someday, there will be mounds for us all.”

Persian climbed the porch steps and was about to settle down in the sun when the woman came out and scooped her into her arms. She sat on the large, wooden rocking chair and smoothed Persian’s ruffled fur. She tucked a stray lock of her gray hair back into her disheveled bun. “Ah, Lordy. It’s not easy getting old; seeing so much hurt and loss and not able to stop a bit of it.”

Persian couldn’t help herself. She stared across the emerald lawn, over the treacherous road, toward the concealing woods, and her whole body relaxed into the soft folds of the woman’s lap. A vibrating purr began deep within her being. Someone understood.

Romantic Reality

romanticreality

Bala lay in bed, his arm around his wife, and stared up at the ceiling. The room glowed in soft, semi-darkness as faint starlight flowed in from the window. An abrupt snore from across the hall broke the silence. Bala chuckled. “After six of ’em, you’d think I’d get used to the idea that kids snore, but it always seems so ridiculous.”

Kendra shrugged. “I don’t see why they’d be any different than the rest of us. Blocked nasal passages are a part of life.”

Bala squeezed Kendra’s shoulder. “That’s what I love about you, so romantic!”

“Just telling it as it is.” She grinned. “Do you remember when we met?”

Bala stiffened. “You mean the very first time I saw you, or the first time we spoke, or the first time I kissed—”

Kendra jabbed him in the ribs. “The very first time, man-o-mine.”

Bala licked his lips. “Go ahead, refresh my memory.” He tickled her arm. “I know you’re dying to.”

Kendra rose up on one elbow and stared into Bala’s eyes. “Just for that, I’ll tell you what you never knew! So there!”

“Uh, oh. Can I rephrase—”

“Too late, boy-o. You’re going to get what you deserve.” Shoving her pillows up against the headrest, she sat up and pulled the blankets straight. Her long-sleeved, purple pajamas appeared black in the dim light.

Bala heaved a sigh and curled up on his side, propping his head on his hand. “Don’t mind my relaxed pose. I have to fight six children onto a transport in the morning, and I need to conserve my strength, what’s left of it anyway.”

Kendra kicked his foot and then positioned herself like a storyteller of old, tapping her fingers together meditatively. “I was seven—going on eight. You were nine—going on fifty.” She peered down at him, through the shadows. “You remember the playground at Saint Robert’s? Nothing but hard cement and a few rickety swings?”

Bala nodded.

“And you trudged up the driveway with your little sack slung over your shoulder. Full of provisions, I was sure. You looked like some kind of off-world trader, come to sell his wares. I was agog with curiosity.”

Bala’s eyes glowed as he watched her hands gesturing. “Agog? Oh, my, you’re not supposed to do that in polite society.”

Kendra maintained her composure. “I didn’t tell anyone, but I watched the exchange as you explained yourself to Mother Superior. You looked like a miniature soldier reporting for duty. Your family sent you with no escort, no explanation, just your provision bag, and a datapad saying that you were there for the duration.”

Bala sighed. “I remember.” He frowned. “How did you know?”

Kendra’s grin gleamed in the half-light, which slanted across the bed. “I was very good friends with the Head Mistress. She thought the world of me. Dare say, after a few pointed questions, she told me what I wanted to know—fact wise. But I was still curious. So, I used to follow you around.”

Bala slapped his forehead. “That was you? I thought that bully, MacKery, was teasing me.”

“He was. I beat him up. Then I took his place.”

Bala snorted, clasping his hand over his mouth to stifle any further outbursts.

“Anyway, I liked what I saw. I decided that one day you’d marry me, we’d have a family, and live on Newearth. It was my grand scheme.”

Bala huffed. “Silly me. I thought I came up with the idea.”

Kendra stroked the side of his face. “You would’ve, in fact, you did. Once I told you.”

“You planned the six kids too, I suppose?”

“Hardly. They’re gifts. I just hoped.”

Bala nodded, raised himself to a sitting position, and folded his hands. “So, what plans do you have now?”

Kendra sighed. “That’s just it. My plans only went so far. They sort of—well—life took over. I stopped planning and just tried to keep up.”

Bala chuckled. “I know what you mean.” He pulled Kendra into his arms. “You know, wife-o-mine. It was no accident that my bedraggled, little body showed up at that school.”

Kendra tilted her head to the side, a gleam in her eye. “Oh? Really?”

Bala nodded as he shifted closer and wrapped both his arms around her, nuzzling her cheek against his. “Yep. You weren’t the only one making plans. And—” Bala gazed up as though he could see through the ceiling into the impenetrable, night sky. “I don’t think He’s done.”