Big Plans

Summer here at last. No more masks and no more school. I wished I could get rid of Christine. No luck there though. Father would never bail me out of jail if I killed her, so yeah, I got stuck with her.

Dear Mother always told me that the bond between sisters must remain forever sacred. I would’ve been perfect with only me, but no, they wanted another child. I hated them for that decision. There was never a need for her.

I locked my door. Nothing was going to get between me and going to our private island. Great Grandfather bought it as a gift for Great Grandmother. A sort of getaway place during the holidays. There was always the option of flying somewhere but it was always our island.

Christine banged on the door. I ignored it and packed for the summer. There was nothing more appealing than spending time on our island. Enough of school. Enough of that stupid plague, pandemic thing. It was perfect studying at home. I locked myself in my room and did the work I was supposed to. Of course after that, I vid chatted with everyone.

The school board thought it would be best to have summer school. Of course it was a nay vote. Who would agree to that? Summer was for fun and excitement while traveling and shopping.

Father went to Vietnam to negotiate a deal with a big company over there. Mother went to Manhattan to visit her sister. It seemed my precious cousin got sick with something. So it was only me. Christine didn’t count.

I woke up the morning of my big plans. Go there and invite everyone who was anyone to party all night long. No parents meant we could do whatever we wanted.

I grabbed my bag and opened my door. That turned out to be a big mistake. I wanted to swing my suitcase and knock her down so hard. That was when I heard Father in my head. Gee, thanks dear ol’ Father.

“You know. You need to decompress. Let go of all of your stress. Then maybe you wouldn’t be so hostile. Studies have shown—”

I didn’t knock her down only a slight nudge. OK, it was hard enough for her head to clunk on the floor. Big deal. There were plans to fulfill.

I pulled my suitcase after me and got in my car. A quick trip to our dock to get on our boat. I smiled when I turned the engine on. Paradise, here I come.

One hour and forty-five minutes later, I arrived. Took care of the boat and got my stuff before leaving, after that, only a matter of a brief hike up the hill. There was nothing as beautiful as the sight before me.

Two story thirteen hundred square foot house with white siding. If no one could picture the size, I always thought it was perfect little house for the setting. Of course, nobody needed to know that.

While everyone was busy doing their own thing, I came here to prepare to party. I didn’t miss a thing. Built in speakers so didn’t need a DJ.

Food of all kinds and I knew how to grill so that wasn’t a biggie. The drinks took skill to get, after all, nobody realized who I was so that took some doing. The guest bungalow was clean and prepared. I sent everyone an electronic invitation complete with instructions. With the party the very next day, there was time to relax and get some sun.

A little sunscreen, didn’t need the wrinkles or that sunburn, and my pink g-string I made it out to the beach. If it wasn’t for those damn bird who wanted nothing else than looking for food then things would’ve been ultra perfect. As it was, things were eh.

When the air turned cool, I got up and went back to the house. A good long hot shower was what it took. Being all by my—

“Brielle, are you here? That wasn’t very nice. You know, I could have brain damage. You’re my older sister. You’re supposed to take care of me and nurture me when Mother isn’t around.” She stood in my doorway.

She didn’t die after all. Pity. Needed to try harder next time around. “You know, Christine. You are nothing but a waste of space. You take up too much precious air for my liking.” I stood in front of her and watched her eyes bulge open. “I could very easily do you in. So why haven’t I? The answer to that is simple.” I put my hand around her neck and felt the urge to squeeze. “You serve a purpose.” That and I’m too much of a coward to do anything. I lowered my hand. “So right now, you have one of two choices. You don’t choose, I’ll make the choice for you.” She ran away.

I shook my head. She thought she could reason with me so she could have fun along with me. Never going to happen.

She returned. I looked behind me. “Still haven’t learned.”

“Why is it you try so hard to be mean? How come? You’re not mean. I’ve seen you with your friends. To have friends you can’t be. It’s just no possible. Yet, you threaten me with everything. I don’t understand. That’s why I told you, you need to decompress. Sort of clear your thoughts and relax.”

“It won’t take anything for me to strangle you to death.”

“Of course it would. You would lose everything. If you really intended for me to die, you have done it a long time ago. So let’s go have something to eat then we can sit down and talk.”

“Christine, it was never my intention for you to be here. I don’t care if you live or die. I really don’t.” I came towards her but she didn’t move. She thought I lied. “You don’t leave… .”

“And then what? Besides that, I know you’re secret. Things just come to you without any work involved. It could be from animals or people. It doesn’t matter. I know because I have the same thing as you. I accepted it. How come you can’t?”

Things got freaky from that point. Nobody was supposed to know. I didn’t even know but she did. How could that be? “I’m not some freak out of one of those side shows they used to have. I am the one who everybody looks to for fashion sense. Guys wait to find out if I’m available.”

“Nobody said you were from a freak show. I’m not a freak show. I’m only saying I know what you’re going through. I told Mother and Father about it. Father smiled at me and ruffled my hair. Mother kissed my forehead and told me I needed to go to the salon. You might get a different reaction.”

Oh, I wish those birds would go away. This was never their property. “Why would I announce to everyone what happens to me? You know how embarrassing that would be? I refuse to become society’s laughing stock.”

“Brielle, you are the most stubborn girl. You know that? How would you be the laughing stock if nobody knows about it? Hello. And you call me an empty headed bird brain.” She straightened her arms and smirked.

“I would if I told Mother. Wouldn’t I? She would tell Marjorie, and from there, everybody in the neighborhood would know.”

“Like I said. And you call me an empty headed bird brain. You counteract that by telling everybody Marjorie’s daughter didn’t make into Fashion University. She flunked the entrance exam by a hemline.” She shook her head. “Just calm down and relax. The party or get together or whatever it is you’re planning may be a good idea. You can spend the rest of the time relaxing. Find yourself. You’ve got the entire summer. Well, from now until about mid-August anyway.”

“There was no way you would find out. I only told one person and that one person would never speak.”

“Do I need to make a list of who Michelle told?”

“You’re guessing.” I reached to slam the door in her face but she reached out and held it.

“She’s not exactly trust worthy. That’s how everybody knew of your secret crush. I even knew about it.” She put her hands on her waist. “Let’s get back to the subject at hand. OK? So it’s getting late. Get some sleep. We’ll continue tomorrow.” She reached out and closed the door.

Maybe if I bribe a judge he could let me off without prison time.

“You wouldn’t really want to do that.” She said that loud enough for me to hear it through the door.

I sat on my bed. My perfect weekend. Shot to hell. God, I hated life. Maybe all I needed was a good night’s sleep before the weekend long party.

Nine o’clock was not a time to sleep. It was a time to talk and have fun. That was the reason I couldn’t fall asleep at all. It was a good thing I had the foresight not to let anyone arrive until noon.

Sure enough, my people didn’t arrive until twelve-thirty. I got the food going, Michelle poured the drinks, and everybody partied. Christine stayed inside to read. Why would anybody read if school was not in session?

A hint of disbelief lingered about Michelle, so I came up with a way to test her. David was there as a somebody’s guest. Not mine, because I had no interest in him because he was short without any muscles. His only interest was computers.

I grabbed Michelle’s hand and pulled her over by the grill. “Do you see David over there?”

“You mean Mr. Nobody over there. Yeah. So?”

I smiled. “He may be a Mr. Nobody, but there’s something about him. Something I can’t explain.” The lengths I had to go through to prove something. Bleck.

She spit out her drink. “You like him? Tell me you’re using him for test purposes and I can walk away happy.”

I shook my head. “By the time school starts I would have been with him and made his blood boil so hard.”

She gasped.

“Don’t say anything. This is between you and me for now.”

“Of course not. Ew.” She walked away.

If Christine was right, the entire party should know by the end of the night or at least him.

With food served, and everybody buzzed, I started guiding people to the guest house. Sleeping bags had been put out for everybody to sleep on. I walked away taking note of Michelle and David.

At about noon the next day, I walked outside to start picking up. Heaven forbid the birds should find it distasteful. A few of them found some leftovers to eat.

A few squirrels joined them in the feast. I shooed all the animals away before picking up everything.

“I was wondering if you were ever going to get out here,” Christine said.

I turned my head around. She was concerned. Not that I believed it.

With a garbage bag in my hand, all of the used cups, half eaten food, and various other stuff got picked up. Christine tugged on the bag with thoughts of getting the trash. I scrunched my eyes together.

“You get the furniture. I get the trash and other stuff.” She smiled. “In the end, you’ll be the one hurting. Ha.”

Too tired to think anything about it, I took her suggestion and picked up everything else.

A few hours later, people started vacating the guest house, leaving to go home. David smiled at me. Then he made this weird face with his eyes scrunched together and pursed lips.

He walked towards me. “Hi. Uh. I’m David. You know that already. Uh. So… .”

“Hi, David. Are you leaving?”

“Yeah. Uh. In a bit. Uhm. What I wanted to ask was if you wanted to go to the Comp Cafe this weekend?”

Did Michelle tell him? “Why would you be asking that? We have absolutely zero in common. You’re all of what? Five four? Don’t play sports?”

“Yeah but, I thought you were supposed to like me. I was going to teach you some programming.”

“Maybe another time. Like when the Earth turns into a feather.” I walked away to find out if Michelle left yet or not.

She wasn’t there. All of the rooms were empty, which meant, she left with someone while I wasn’t looking. That didn’t matter. I’ll have my revenge when I get back, and I won’t forget.

I stood in the middle of the living room with the knowledge that things changed. For the worse or the better I had no idea. I stood there because it was what I did. Thinking about everything that was said and done.

What I wanted was to change and go down to the beach. What I needed to do was to clean. I wanted to come here. I needed to take responsibility for it. Mid-August couldn’t get here soon enough.

The Job Offer

Growing up, I dreamed of becoming a cop. That old man’s tales was what got me started. All I wanted to do. I knew the dangers and the risks but that only made me want to do it more.

My dear old father, he told me he didn’t approve of my life’s choice. He called me an unfilial daughter and that I should take Home Economics and work as secretary in a big company. Then I would at least start to become a filial daughter. Marry the CEO and produce a grandson who would take after his grandfather. That led to countless arguments.

I saved up all of my money from working Parking Enforcement and found a place to live. Not a glamorous job, but I wasn’t looking for that. The thing I wanted to do would take money and time that I needed to find a way to do it.

A few years after that, I got accepted into the police academy. Not at all easy, but I did it. I graduated with top scores. Too bad Dad didn’t come. Although I wasn’t too sure his presence would’ve changed things.

That led me up to today. Online courses were great because I squeezed it in. I dreamed of becoming a lieutenant or captain but I needed education to do that.

The term paper was due the next day. That meant endless hours spent at home putting it together. The research was already done. Well, I thought I might go out and walk around town. Get a feel of the outside before burrowing into a hole to complete that paper.

I reached my door and a pot sat on the Welcome mat. Red clay, engraved flowers, water stained on the bottom, and no indication who it belonged to. No Made in China sticker though. A rolled up piece of paper was inside. I went into my apartment and locked the door behind me.

I pulled out the note and unrolled it. I half expected spiders or scorpions to appear, but that would be my imagination. It said in order to fulfill my duties, I needed to fill it with pure water from one source. A map on the bottom showed me where to find it.

Fulfillment must be the word of the day. It seemed to be the focus of everything. About to get the coffeemaker started, the doorbell rang.

I looked through the window. Tall woman, her head reached the top of he door, black suit, white shirt, and sunglasses. Why the sunglasses when the sun set a long time ago? Hard to tell if she was armed or not.

It rang again.

She opened the door and smiled. “Well, Zody Meriwether Whipple. Made Walstreet Journal’s list of top five corporate owners. Personal worth of five-hundred-twenty-five million dollars. Single no lovers. The strange thing that nobody is sure of what your real name is. It’s one in a long line of aliases. There are theories that you are responsible for the murders of various people, but no evidence and no witnesses. Therefor, no prosecution because it’s conjecture.” She let the woman in.

Zody laughed. “I suppose I should be flattered and reassured that I made the right choice. We’ll go over those minor details later.”

“Minor details. Interesting.” She walked to the kitchen to start the coffee. The woman in her living room was the focus of that paper. With her right there, it made things more difficult. How, she wasn’t sure yet. “You already know my name. Tell me what this pot or pitcher is all about. Why me?”

“That’s strange. I thought a woman of your intelligence would be able to figure that out.”

Anne grabbed a cup and poured the coffee while she ground her teeth. “It’s a pot. It had a lot of uses before this. Anything else? A test or initiation into an exclusive club? Of which, you would provide with very little detail if any? A society so secretive nobody knows about it and that’s how you’re able to stay away from the law. Along with enough doctors and lawyers to inhabit their own country. The underground tunnels that form a network under the streets are used constantly for your purposes only and if anyone asks they’ll only say that the Chinese used to use them centuries ago.” She took a big sip of the hot liquid and felt the burn all the way down. “You see, I don’t have the answers to those questions and only you do. So excuse me if I’m not begging at your feet to let me into a network of women across the globe to do your bidding.” She slammed the mug on the counter.

“All right. All right. Let’s calm down. Nothing can be solved with hostility.” She put her up hands.

“Hostile? You think this is hostile? You haven’t seen anything yet, lady. I use that term loosely.”

“Anne, please…”

“Please what? Huh?”

Zody approached Anne with open arms. “I am not the enemy. Despite what you might think, neither is your father. His ideas might be centuries old but—”

Anne opened the door and watched Zody.

“Please… .”

She had it with this woman. “Please what? Fill that pot with tap water and tell you here you go. Here’s your precious water. Oh. Not what you wanted? OK. How about a nice tall bottle of melted ice from the great iceberg of the north instead?”

“That’s not what it is.”

“Isn’t it?” She opened the door wider. “I’ve got work to do. Thanks to you, I don’t have much time left.”

Zody let out a big breath and walked out.

Anne slammed the door behind her. She went back to the report to put it together. It would take all night.

Out of all the choices available, she had to get that one. It looked interesting at first. After the encounter though, it was anything but. Nevertheless, it still needed to be finished. “You can’t pick the vics or the perps.” She laughed as she remembered the TV series that line came from. All too true.

Typed up, read through, and errors fixed it was emailed to the professor. After that, wait two weeks to get the scores back. Three o’clock in the damned morning which gave her three hours to sleep. She took it.

Nothing too out of the ordinary. The drunk with the triple F name, was still in holding. Rumor had it they were waiting on a psyche eval since he kept going on about how the aliens were going to gather up all the humans and make them their new food source. Problem was, he stole a truck’s worth of aluminum foil to hide the cheese.

Granted that was a TV show once upon a time, but unless they came back to TV in rerun form, it caused her to take a few steps far and away from him. A few calls here and there, nothing too far out there. She was happy for that.

With the paperwork completed and taken care of she went home. She sent up a silent prayer for no calls as she worked on her homework assignment. That report was turned in but there was still some questions and answers that needed to be done.

There was something soothing about brushing teeth. It always relaxed her and made it easier to fall asleep. The phone rang as soon as she finished.

She looked at the screen on her phone before she answered. Unlisted number. She turned it off and went to bed.

She got up and got ready. Once out the door, it felt like somebody was watching her. An unseen presence she passed off as work related stress.

Car started OK, and once out of the parking lot, she started her radio. Maybe some tunes might help to ease things.

She kept looking around but everything seemed normal. There were the typical Cadillacs, Lincolns, Toyotas, and a few Harleys but nothing to say these were the people following you. Not that anyone would have a billboard on their car stating as such.

Even at her desk that feeling was still there. She used every bit of will she had to stop herself from jumping every time somebody came up behind her. With the following day off, she planned to use that day to work on her studies and maybe relax a bit. A day away from everything was maybe what would work.

As much as she would love to turn her phone off, she couldn’t. She put it on vibrate instead. The way it rattled on the table always got her attention.

She opened her text and her laptop to start studying for a midterm. Too early to find out how she did with that report. She included everything she needed to, but in the end, it always depended on whether or not the teacher liked it.

Her phone rattled. An unlisted number again. Jorge knew how to get a hold of her when he needed to. Dad would never call and Mom didn’t want to do anything that would get him angry. So she would never call. Chances were it was a telemarketer. There was always a loophole.

She knew she was hungry but for what she had no idea. Nothing sounded good. The doorbell ringing brought her out her endless search.

“I tried getting a hold of you but there was no answer,” Zody said. “That’s why I’m here. I really could use your help.”

Not again. Anne leaned against the doorjamb. “We’ve already been through this. So unless you want me to beat something over your head in the hopes a hole would open up to let in the information it’s going to get, I suggest you leave now.”

“Please, Anne. Somebody is after me.”

Oh, how funny. “Let’s see, between the white Cadillac, blue Ford F-150, and the yellow Mustang none of them could protect your precious soul.”

“What? What are you talking about? I don’t own any of those cars. None of my people do either. How long have they been out there?”

“You know, for someone who has a rather large bank account, you don’t have very good body guards. And they’ve been there since your arrival. What was I supposed to think?”

“We’ll talk about that later. Could I come in now?”

Anne stopped leaning when something clicked from behind Zody. She grabbed Zody’s arm and pulled her inside to shut the door. There were multiple law enforcement personnel that lived here. Nobody dared to do anything. Ever. Did someone not get the memo?

A shot fired before she had a chance to shut the door. She ducked. “Down.”

Zody was face on the floor. Blood didn’t pool around her, but she had to check. “Are you OK?”

“Now do you believe me? For the record, I have body guards. It is a necessity. With so many here in law enforcement I didn’t believe I needed them.”

A short black woman banged the door open. “Ma’am… .”

“Which one? Your boss is alive and on the floor. Your humble servant is the one talking to you. Get out of my doorway and call 9-1-1 if you haven’t already. I take it you know the details.”

“Right.” The black woman reached into her pocket and took out a smartphone.

“I need you. Please? Don’t ask me where that thing came from. That cheap jug, jar, ugly rotten vase thing. It has a way of showing up without me knowing about it. I need someone by my side. You’re it.”

Anne stood up. She looked outside her doorway to see red and blue flashing lights with a noise she would never tire of. That ol’ familiar yellow convertible.

“Jorge. Come in.” She laughed as he jogged through the bushes. “You could just walk around.”

He shrugged. “Don’t you know it’s dinner time?”

“Gee. Sorry to disrupt your enchilada.”

“How did you know?”

“It’s Wednesday.”

“Right. What happened?”

She pointed at Zody still on the floor. “Talk to her.”

She went to the kitchen to make that pot again. One of these days, the ol’ coffee maker was going to refuse to work. That would be the day she would cry. It’s been a lot of years since they found each other. It was love at first mug.

It took some time before the police left. A quick glance at the microwave told her it was twelve-eighteen. Zody found a way to get up off the floor it seemed. She covered her eyes and laid her head back.

“Ma’am, might—”

“Might I suggest you call one of your body guards and escort you home? I’d agree except there’s one thing. You see, I have this thing about following something through. I came with the intent to put you by my side. I’ll even pay your tuition. Just come with me. You’ll receive full benefits, accrued time off, and whatever else you may need that I’m sure I’ve got the documents for.” She uncovered her eyes and stood from the couch. She walked passed Anne and opened the door. She had that lady’s shirt in her hands. “I don’t care what time it is. You get your ass to my assistant’s house and get her over here. I don’t care if she’s in her PJ’s. It’s clothes. Get moving.” She pushed her out the door and closed it. “I’ve had contract negotiations that weren’t as deadly. Close but not quite.”

Anne raised her eyebrow. “Ma’am. Perhaps you should reconsider. If you’re looking for someone with law enforcement experience, this building is full of them. The apartment right above me, he works for the FBI. The one next to him, works homicide. Three apartments on this floor alone, are all ADAs. All you need to do is knock and be prepared to answer a whole lot of questions.”

“I understand that. Who I want is you. I don’t know what I want. When I want it is now. Where I do I want it? I’m not even there yet. What’s taking so long?”

“Road construction. Look, I’ve got things I have to get done.”

Zody dropped her head and shook it. “No. No. And no. You tell me who I need to talk to and let me take it from there.”

Someone knocked on her door. Zody opened it. “What do you want?”

“Excuse me young lady, didn’t your mother ever talk to you about manners?” An old woman asked.

Anne smiled. “Welcome to comedy central. Coffee?” She hoped her mother would accept the attempt at humor.

Zody laughed. It worked on someone.

“Just who are all of these people and why is it I had to find out what happened from Mrs. Stone?”

“Because you have nosy neighbors who are insomniacs. To answer your question, most of them are hers.” Anne pointed to Zody.

“You will not—”

“I will talk to my daughter in private. This does not concern any one of you here.” Dad stood in the door way.

Could this night get any worse? “Just come right in. Good to see you, oh dear Father. Gee, I don’t even remember the last time we saw each other. It’s been ages.”

“That is quite enough. After this event, I expect you to leave the police and return home where you will learn how to be a proper housewife.”

Anne approached. “You need more practice at the shooting range. Get out. Now.”

“Hmph.” Her father stuck his nose up in the air. “I did no such thing.”

“Leave. Now.” Anne was done with the night.

He opened the door and slammed it on the way out.

Anne fell to the floor and dropped her on her knees. 

Time Traveler

The door slammed shut behind me, and I found myself walking in a load of sand. I held onto my pocket watch while moving through it. The watch had a red glow to it, which meant this was the correct point and I had to fix whatever went wrong.

A lot of noise and men yelling. A couple whistles and calls from somewhere as well. The air was hot and the wind didn’t help any.

Gigantic machines with giant metal structures told me I landed in a construction zone. That would account for the sand. The hazy sky didn’t match the weather. Of course, that could’ve been pollution.

I walked out of an open gate and onto the sidewalk. A lot of tall decorated buildings around, and one of them, had a replica of the Statue of Liberty. That didn’t tell me where I was, though.

The hat on my head was still there. The 1940s dress was still in good shape. Although, there were runs on top of runs in my stockings.

A quick glance around told me I wasn’t in 1940s England anymore. A newspaper would give me a better idea what time it was. It seemed I walked around for ages and no news stand.

A store that sold television sets and one of them faced the window. It was 3:45 PM on July 3rd, 2021. Wow. OK. Based on what I saw around me and on that TV, I needed to get new clothes.

Without money, though, that would not happen. What I had wouldn’t pay for anything. I needed to get my bearings first before I started looking.

Wait, that TV mentioned Las Vegas. The last time I was here was in 1953. I kept Marcello Caifano happy. Whatever and whenever he wanted something, I got it. That included the arson job in retaliation for being denied his pleasure. Sometimes, I hated history.

The place changed a lot since then. Well, I won’t know why I arrived for a while. How long that while lasted could vary.

The heat I could do without. The dress didn’t help any and the sand in my shoes I didn’t need. After pouring the sand out of my shoes, I went inside one building and a cool rush of air swept over me. I never felt so much relief in an instant as I did at that moment.

Dings and buzzes all around with people talking. Slot machines have become a little brighter and a little more entertaining since I last saw them. The style may have changed, but the concept didn’t.

OK, the best way to get money was to find a job. A place like this, there should be a lot of jobs available. Before I did that, though, I needed to find out why I came here.

I must’ve circled the casino floor about a hundred times and nothing. Well, it gave me a chance to cool off. Freezing cold, I walked outside only to be blasted by desert wind. It didn’t take long to defrost, so to speak.

The sun set down some, although it still burned my eyes. It didn’t help any; I didn’t have money. I think I had that thought before. Nothing could be done about it, though.

I walked up and down the sidewalk among other people while hoping I might feel something. Those high hopes plummeted because again, there was nothing. Maybe it wasn’t so much a time or a person. If not, then what could it be. A vacation? I laughed.

I walked into a big building called Treasure Island to get out of the heat and sit for a bit. A woman walked by me. She set off my radar. Not having any other choice, I followed her despite my tired and aching legs.

There had to be something. As I got closer, the more it pinged. I wouldn’t know why until I confronted her. More often than not, finding out information was easier said than done.

We ended up outside. She must’ve felt something, because she kept looking behind herself. I had to hide. I stopped between two potted plants and watched as she opened a time doorway.

I ran through and followed. The lit path was the one to take. Step outside the boundaries, and one get could lost in time for an eternity.

We returned to 1940s England. She wasn’t a Time Traveler. I was familiar with everybody, and she wasn’t one of us. If that was the case, how did she open a door?

Glad I didn’t change clothes after all, I followed behind her until she stopped in front of someone’s house. I needed a bath and to wash my clothes. Here I knew how to do that.

I didn’t know this street, but that only meant I had to walk around to find out where I ended up. I made a mental note of where I was and started looking around. The house on the corner with the green door. I had dealings with that house. That meant I could trade them a chore for an opportunity to wash up. They always needed something.

I knocked on the door, but nobody answered. I tried the doorbell and still nobody. Well, I had to push through what I wanted to what I needed and it was necessary to find out more information on that woman.

That and food would be good.

I went back to the house I knew before I left and knocked. The door opened. “Yes. May I help you?” Frank asked.

“Is there a small woman here with you?”

“No. No. No.” He shook his head and moved his left hand out in front of his stomach and pointed behind him. “Nobody here.”

Two things telling me contrary to each other. “I’m sorry. I must be mistaken. Lost American.”

He reached for me and pulled me inside before closing the door. Take off your shoes, he mouthed while he pointed at them.

I nodded and set them by the door. He pointed toward the sitting room. She’s in there, he mouthed.

I tip toed to the room and walked behind her. “What are you and how did you get here?”

She stood from the chair and turned towards me. Eyes and mouth opened wide she ran from the room screaming. “No. You weren’t supposed to find me. This was my only chance.” She ran up the stairs.

I caught her as she stepped onto the landing. “You can never escape a Time Traveler. It is never an if it is always a when. Explain.” I picked her up and held her against the wall.

“You wouldn’t understand.”

I stood close, but I let go. “I have heard any and every excuse anyone could ever think of. Nothing you tell me would surprise me.”

“Yeah, but… .”

“But what?” This was annoying.

“I needed to get back to my time. I made a horrible mistake. I met someone like you and he traded me. My life for his. Only problem was, he didn’t tell me how to work the watch. Since I dropped it, I don’t think it works anymore, anyway. Please, just… just drop me off at June 1, 2019 and you won’t see me anymore.”

“A he you said.” Took me a minute to remember. There would be only one. He always complained about changing times, no money, and how hard he had to work to stay alive. “Would that be Julian?”

“Yeah. That’s him. I can’t forget that weird name. He gave it to me, but he didn’t tell me how to work it. Please, you have to tell me how.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I opened them again with the inevitable in mind. “You do not control where or when you go. The watch you hold controls everything.”

She opened her eyes wide and shook her head. “No. That’s not right. You’re supposed to set the watch to where and when you want to go. He told me. He just didn’t. Please, you have to help me.”

There it was. Every rookie that became a Time Traveler went through the same thing. Being one of the more experienced crowd, it was left up to us to teach them what wasn’t taught. I hoped that this wouldn’t take long.

Here’s hoping. “The watch controls everything. It is up to you to find out the information, do what needs to be done, and move on.”

“No. No. No. You don’t understand. I have to go back.” Her face turned red with tears streaming down her cheeks. Hands spread out on either side of her body. Then the sobbing.

“I already told you. The watch controls where you go and when you go. You do not control it. It controls you.” Why couldn’t I find a nice deserted island somewhere and bury the watch?

“You don’t understand. You have to help me reset it. Please. Don’t you know how?” She brought it out of her pocket and held it out.

Oh boy and there it went. “My name is Paige by the way and I already told you. It. Is. Not. Up. To. Us. It. Is. Up. To. The. Watch.” Maybe the slower pace might help. I didn’t know anymore. I ran out of ideas.

“You can’t be. I left you and—”

The sirens blared. I grabbed her hand and pulled her behind me. Frank pointed in the direction of the backyard. After he closed the door, we went inside the buried metal structure. He closed the door.

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Rose. Don’t you remember?”

Either the woman had mental issues, or suffered from an emotional trauma. I didn’t know which. I didn’t know what else to do other than wait until the sirens stopped.

Leaving memories behind was a common occurrence. The theory was that there would be too many memories to hold with too much emotion attached to them. Therefore, the mind guarded itself by not remembering certain events or people. However, I think I would’ve remembered this woman if I met her before.

Yes, she was cute. Short, petite, yellow blonde hair with sky blue eyes. Other than that, she was not… oh what was that word. Anyway, she was someone I couldn’t forget.

She stood next to me and squeezed my hand until the sirens stopped. Frank stood and opened the door. He poked his head out for a while before he turned around. “I think everything is OK.” After he left, he got up and lay down on the ground to help us out.

“I’d invite you for tea but supplies are scarce with the war and all. About all I can do is offer you some water and what they call bread. Dry, hard, and tastes like dirt I say.”

I smiled. “That’s fine. Thank you.”

I sat down at the table and Rose sat next to me. She became attached to me all of a sudden. All I had to say I’ve already said. There was nothing more. I didn’t know how to get her to understand.

After our snack, we retreated to a couch in another room. I almost felt guilty with everything that happened. I never expected it to take this long.

I bowed my head and closed my eyes in the hopes that an idea would come to mind. How do I get rid of her and get her to understand? Thank you, Julian, for giving her the wrong information. I’d slap you if I could.

I raised my head up and opened my eyes. Nothing changed. She still sat next to me. I didn’t want to have another round about argument.

It was time for lights out. I didn’t mind staying on the couch so I lay down. She opted to lay on top of me. I tried to push her off but she continued to crawl on top of me.

“You are not a child. Stop and find somewhere else.”

“Nuh uh.” The sniffling had to come from her.

Great. “You are not a child. I’ve said and done all I could. Unfortunately, I can’t leave until you understand that.” At least, that was the assumption that ran through my mind. Otherwise, I would’ve been gone.

“You have to help me. He said you have to set it. So you can set it.” She held up her watch in front of her face.

“If you start screaming, you’re going to wake him up and I don’t think you want that. You know my response to what Julian said.”

“Then why would he tell me that? Why would he lie?” She put down the watch and grabbed my hands. “You’re not telling me something because you love me.”

“That’s for him to answer. Not me.” I tried to push her off again and about as far as that got was her sitting on the floor.

A thump followed by more sniffling were the next noises. I laughed into the couch because it was either that or screaming.

Did I need to worry that the sniffling stopped? No, but I was curious. I looked up and she fell asleep.

My watch turned green. Five… four… three… two… I hope the next stop was a tropical island.

Those plans changed when I felt something grab me from behind. Rose must’ve ran inside while the door was still open. I didn’t want to push her off the trail but she gave me no choice.

She wouldn’t be the first one or the last. I continued down the pathway until it stopped.

I heard people calling from somewhere when I walked through the door. The dim lights didn’t help much. By the sounds of it, I was still in England.

“He struck again. He struck again. One of the whores was murdered.” He grabbed my collar. “You have to help her. Do something.”

I grabbed his hands and pulled them off my collar. “If she’s already dead, there’s nothing much that can be done. If anything.”

He shook his head. “Bloody hell. Limbs and blood all over I tell you. He killed her.”

Here we go. This would be the point I either got called an idiot or something worse. “Could you tell me where I am?”

“It shook you up to. Didn’t it? I should’ve known. A fine lady like you should not see such things. This is Whitechapel. Third of April in 1888. Remember now?”

Yeah, that did sound familiar. That would be about the time and place of the mysterious murders. Jack the Ripper.

“Body parts, everywhere, I tell you.” He grabbed my collar again. “Isn’t there anything? I saw that strange door you walked through. You are with him. I know you are. You can’t play innocent. Not for long.” He ran away screaming after that.

That meant not only did I find that body and alert the authorities, but I had to find whoever it was that man saw.

I threw away my hat. One of the street beggars would find it there. In the meanwhile, see if I can trade this dress for something a little more time consistent.

I looked in the rubbish containers, like everybody else did around here, and found a few things. They stunk, plain and simple, but it was the best I could do. Maybe with the next rain, I could scrub it against something to get most of that rotten smell off.

I opened my watch to check on it and it had a yellow glow to it. If it was yellow, then something or someone messed up this time period to his or her every advantage. That also meant, not only did I have to fix whatever needed fixing, but I had to disarm and render them a non-traveler.

Maybe if I got myself arrested, I could think of it as a break. I laughed at the thought and walked around a bit longer.

Between the dim lights and the thick smelly air it was not a pleasant place to be. I had to start looking when the sun rose, until then, stop somewhere and rest.

I’m a Believer

Baxter wanted to meet in Paris Beaubourg. The food was not great, but it wasn’t bad either. I’d give it a three out of five stars if anybody asked.

I got here at ten. It turned eleven and yet no Baxter. I paid the bill and left the cafe to get to the airport.

Once there, I got the first available flight back home. I got on board and went to the premium economy class. The middle seat was not available, so it was an aisle seat all the way. It didn’t matter so much, because then nobody could nap on me.

The food wasn’t awful, and after that, a satisfying nap was what I needed. I woke to an announcement that we would be landing soon. After the necessities were taken care of, I got back to my seat and buckled in.

After baggage claim, I found my car. I was never so happy to see it again because it meant home. That also meant finding out what the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks happened.

That was the longest twenty-minute drive I ever had. I opened the front door, glad to be back, and I gasped. “What?”

“It’s about time you got back.” Baxter stood from the EZ-chair. “Ready to go to the cafe? Or did you indulge in the Parisian patisserie too much? Hmm? By the way, your mail is on the dining table. Bills.”

I dropped my bags. “Do you realize where I came from? Do you realize how much of an inconvenience to even go there and not have you show up?”

“Oh Zoey, darling. You didn’t get my message? I said the Paris hotel and casino. We can enjoy something there. When I found out you made an extra trip, I arranged for services to get you back. Now, we have some work to do.”

I oughta—I raised my fist. “There was no extra service to get me back. I did what everybody else did.”

He patted my fist. “Oh my. Certainly not lady like. We have some treasure hunting to do. I will return here at eight in the morning on the clock. All right?” He turned around and opened the door. “Toodle-loo.” He left.

Toodle-loo. Toodle-I screamed and kicked my bag all the way to the room. He didn’t even explain or offer an apology. I hoped he got run over by something.

My foot throbbed, and it kept me up all night.

I limped my way through the morning and then my doorbell rang. Baxter had my key so it wouldn’t be him. I looked through the window and my eyes opened wide.

I opened the door. “What are you doing here?”

She smiled. “Well. Nice to see you too. Long time no see.”

I slammed the door on her. “No matter the relationship, you must always show yourself as the best that you can.” I lost count of how many times I heard that from Baxter.

I opened the door again. “Yvonne De Santiago. Prime member of the community. She could do no wrong. The one who had a very large, shall we say, following. Yale, Harvard, and even Cambridge. Any of the prestigious Ivy League colleges vied for her attendance.”

She smiled. “Something I said?”

“Get on with it.” I realized how hard it was to talk through gritted teeth.

“Baxter MacAlister told me to team up with you to get the book written by Aphrodite. It happened to be one of the missing texts from the Archival Library.”

“Sure it is.”

“Why would I lie?”

“I don’t need to answer that.”

“I don’t even know why you’re mad at me. Nobody else slams the door in my face.”

I swallowed hard. “After the stunt you pulled in high school, I don’t need to answer that, Miss Thing.” I snapped my fingers.

She shrugged.

I squeezed my fist. “You know, somebody told me once, that if the only answer a person can give you is an uncertain answer, maybe they’re not worth talking to.”

“Things were different back then. Times moved on. Who cares what happened?”

I laughed. “I don’t even know why I’m wasting my time. The only reason you’re still standing is because Baxter was supposed to have sent you.”

“I have responsibilities you know.” She smiled. “As for hurting me, my lawyers could take you for everything you have. Of course, you don’t have the backing that I do.”

It was scream or laugh. Instead, I slammed the door on her again. My feet wouldn’t move. I closed my eyes and tried to think of a spot I could take myself to. Failing that, I called Baxter.

“Yes. MacAlister.”

“Baxter, I’m furious with you right now. Why in the hell would you send her to my door?” My jaw tensed.

“Easy now. Calm yourself. Don’t give her the satisfaction of knowing she hurt you. Let her believe you moved on. Besides that, she is the only one with the connections you need to retrieve that book. The love and romance section over here has a hole and that book will fill it. First, you must retrieve it. She has the necessary paperwork to get the book. What happens after that, is up to the both of you. Agreed?”

“Baxter… .” I let out a long deep breath. “All right. I’ll go. You’re lucky I’m not doing anything since this thing with the pandemic started. Email me a copy of what you sent her so I can take a look before we get there.”

“Sugar Plum… .”

“Sug—You’re up to something. Come on. You know how to use a computer.”

“Yes. I do. Very well. Maybe if both of you have the same information, the end result may come about that much quicker. It will take a bit. Toodle-loo.”

He hung up. While I waited for that email, I packed a few things to get me through. He was right as usual.

The laundry wasn’t even done yet. Good thing I had a lot of clothes.

When I finished packing, I checked my email. Sure enough, Baxter sent the information to me. Something about that book didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem right that they had books centuries ago. Even one that Aphrodite wrote. According to the note though, she did, and we had to find it.

I groaned because he contacted her again. I could go out and get the damned book if that’s what he wanted. The place was not hard to get to and getting it wouldn’t be a big deal. I wouldn’t even think about bringing her along. What would she be good for? Picking out the proper nail file?

Before those thoughts got any further maybe a blog entry would help. I wrote about my time in Paris and the places I visited. I included some pictures too. As soon as I turned off the computer, my doorbell rang. Here we go.

I opened the door. “Seems as though we’re supposed to work together. Any idea why?” I sure don’t.

“To be honest, I would rather be in Switzerland than be here chasing down a book that might not even exist.”

Pity, assault and battery were chargeable offenses. “So why are you even here?”

“None of your business.”

So predictable. “Uh huh. Translation. I’m only here to keep my parents happy. Baxter happens to be an old family friend, and if I don’t do what he says, I’m out of the family and all of that delicious precious money.”

She raised an eyebrow and smirked.

“Yeah. Let’s get a move on.” Stupid is as stupid does after all. “Let me get my things and I’ll be right outside.” I left her there and closed the door behind me. Bag and backpack in hand, I met her outside.

She got into her Jaguar and I got into my Toyota. The clouds got dark but no rain came. That was a bummer. We could use it to disintegrate the proud and the mighty De Santiago.

The map led to an area in South Africa. The only way to get there was by plane. About the time I thought about looking behind me to see if she was there, a blue Jaguar sped up and cut in front of me. It didn’t take much for me to figure out who it was.

She wants to play. Fine. They were doing road work up ahead, which meant, that area would be rerouted. I laughed as I got into the left turning lane and made a U-turn.

I pulled into Chick-Fil-A on the corner to grab some food. I forgot to eat something before leaving. I sat and studied the map. That was about the time I realized Baxter never did show up. I started to wonder what this game was all about.

Baxter thought that the book was bought by a collector in the local area. That made things easy. He couldn’t verify it but it was the best lead he had. However, the lead in South Africa was the best bet. That’s why Yvonne was necessary.

I fluttered my lips, said a few choice words, and started up my car again. I called the local number and a man answered.

“Yes? Caruther’s Books.”

“Hi. My name is Zoey. You were supposed to have a book written by Aphrodite. Do you have it?”

“Aphrodite. Aphrodite. One moment.”

One thing about telephones, was the wide variety of hold music. This one was Mozart. Lucky for me, Baxter taught me the classics.

“Yes. I have it. You will need to bring some sort of proof with you so I can be sure I’m not being taken.”

Huh? I looked through the papers, and sure enough, a letter with a note on top saying to give it to the holder of the book.

“Will a letter from Baxter MacAlister do?” It was all I had.

“If you know Baxter, then you could answer this question. What is his favorite coffee?”

It had to be a test. That would be the only explanation for it. “He hates coffee. He hates water just as much. That’s why he drinks tea every chance he gets. Sometimes lemonade but that’s on rare occasions.”

“I look forward to seeing you. Bye.”

He hung up. I hung up too and kept looking at my phone, half expecting Baxter to call me to tell me it was a huge joke on his part.

Since that didn’t happen, it was a trip to that bookstore. It turned out to be a little shop downtown next a car repair garage. It took five trips up and down the same street to find it. A quick look of the parking lot, and no Yvonne.

I grabbed the note and left my car. I locked it of course. This area was known for car thefts.

I gave the letter to the man at the counter, he nodded and left, but he came back a few minutes later with the book. He nodded and opened the door.

Strange how all of that worked out without saying a thing. Made me wonder if he had psychic powers or something. Still no Yvonne. I hoped she got lost.

Happy to see my car was still there, I got in and left. I needed to get that book back to Baxter. Since I had the car, it would be easy to drop it off. However, he never stayed in one place for very long so it was always easier to call him.

I got back home, with that precious book in hand, and I should’ve known. “Baxter, you know, why do you even bother? I mean, here you are, in my house to do what exactly?”

He took off that hat, the one with the round top. He told me once what that type of hat was called but I forgot. Anyway, he turned towards me, “The purpose of the book was to put the both of you together. To work side-by-side. Instead, I get a screaming woman on my telephone because you were being unreasonable.”

Unreasonable? “Look, Baxter, I was not being unreasonable. Being unreasonable would mean her mouth being wired shut.” While spreading rumors that she caught on to a new diet. The wired mouth diet.

“I put the both of you together for a reason, my little Sugar Plum Fairy. Huh?” He stood from the chair. “I had hoped that you would learn forgiveness.”

“Is that what this stuff is all about? I have nothing to be sorry, you—”

“Yes. Yes. Vile creature. How can you love without first learning how to forgive? Everybody deserves love, my dear. That was the point of all of this.”

“You want me to forgive her? I could never. Not in a million years.” My body got very warm at that point. I turned around and went into the kitchen to grab a beer. I opened the fridge and discovered it was empty. I slammed it shut.

He put his hands on my shoulders and turned me around. “You have to start somewhere. The starting point for you would be to learn to put the past behind you. From there, learn how to open your heart again.”

Dammit. I hated tears. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Did you read the book?”

“No.” You wanted me to read a book?

“I had hoped you would. So you can learn something. She may be the most disgusting bitch and getting the nerve to actually say I forgive you is the farthest thing on your mind. If you can work passed that feeling, then you can learn to find love. Make this old crotchety man happy and find someone to hold forever.” He put his hand over his heart. “Where it counts.” He lowered his hand.

I looked up at him. “So all of this was for nothing?”

“No. It was in the hopes to teach you to find peace. Find forgiveness. Find love.”

I shook my head. None of this made sense. “You’re not going to die right now are you?”

“Someday. Right now, this old man is hungry. What do you say we get something to eat. Something not in the fast food category.”

“All right.” I nodded and reached for the book. “This is the book you were looking for.”

“Splendid. While we’re eating, I’ll tell the history of this book.” He smiled. “After that, you can help me resort the books.”

I looked up at him. “Resort. Every. Damn. Little. Book. I ain’t doin’ it. I don’t care if it’s burning down.”

“Oh, come now. It won’t be that bad. Besides, they love you.”

“Yeah. Uh huh.” Sure they do. Little dolls come alive at night too.

Personal Assistant

Teal was not going to like this. It was a blanket of white outside with a high of fifteen degrees. As the one in charge of her career, Ralph should have known better before sending her here. She’s told him countless times.

He would meet us at the hotel, not here on the bus where she can give him a good swift kick.

Oh, she’s waking up. Great.

Tony pulled up to a local coffee shop to get everybody their morning round of wake up juice. Strong, black, and hot coffee was what she liked. I preferred Earl Grey tea with lemon and honey.

Tony returned about the same time Teal came out. He set down the coffee while she sat at the table. She looked at me with squinted eyes.

“How many times do I have to say I hate snow, I hate the cold, and most of all I don’t care to be in it? Huh? What is so difficult to understand? You are replaceable.” She hit the table hard enough to cause coffee waves.

Deep breath in. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I explained it to Ralph. He pushed me out of his office and slammed the door in my face. I tried to tell you, but you gave me the same reaction. So here we are for an interview with a local radio station to talk about your latest release. Since the lake has frozen over, boats are not for rent. Instead, I rented a log cabin that looks over the lake. Far enough away from town, yet close enough to get whatever you would need. Ralph, in the meantime, will stay in the penthouse suite at the Regency Hotel.”

She opened her mouth but closed it. She stared at her coffee between sips until it was all gone. At least I thought it was gone because she threw the cup away. “I’ll talk to him. If he slams the door in my face, he’s done.”

I had to get over being blamed for this. We would be here in Porport for three days. I was lucky enough to arrange some time for her at Soneva Jani in the Maldives. She loved the water, and with the hotel right on it, she would enjoy that. They promised everyone would respect her need for privacy and relaxation and would do everything in their power to be sure she had that.

With that completed, I still needed to find a warm outfit for her to wear to the interview. It had to be something good enough to help avoid getting yelled at again.

Her hair was dark mahogany. Matching that color with her eyes was not always easy, but I had practice. After all, having one blue and one grey eye made it challenging. Not impossible.

She needed to be at the station for a meeting before the interview. That gave me a few minutes to get her some clothes. Ralph wanted this, and he got it. He better be prepared for the bills, though.

She left wearing a midnight blue turtle neck with a black leather trench. I recognized the outfit from a couple interviews ago. She commented to me that it was appropriate. I understood she wanted better.

Luck was on my side when I found a clothing store next to the station. Wool, cashmere, and angora on every table with a tag to match. After a lot of looking, I bought her a charcoal grey cashmere sweater, black and white tweed plaid pants, and she already had that leather trench. They looked warm and she would look stunning in them. On top of that, they were on sale.

Purchase done, I returned to the bus and worked over them with a cleaning spray and a lint brush. Best I could without taking them to the cleaners.

She walked in. “You did buy me a new outfit. The trench coat is fine, but this outfit has gotta go. They better be warm too.”

I opened the closet and brought out the clothes. She ran her hands up, down, and inside out of the sweater with a smile that grew. That smile grew wider when she saw the pants. “Perfect. It takes a woman to know what a woman wants. The trench will work. I’ve got a pair of black leather boots. This is a keeper.” She went into her room and threw the clothes she was wearing out the doorway.

I gathered the old clothes and put them aside to be cleaned and donated later. In my head, I jumped for joy and yippeed at getting something right. She came out wearing a turtleneck and denim pants. “Call him. Now.”

I called the number, and he didn’t answer. I tried again and nothing. “Tony, we need to get to Ralph’s hotel.”

“Roger.”

A few minutes later we arrived. As soon as we stopped, Teal bolted out the door. She would send me in, but this must be big if she’s doing it herself. Tony jogged behind her.

I took the time to email Mom and let her know I would be by in a few days to visit. It would be nice to see them and Sara again. With no idea how long I would get to see them, I would take any to get away.

Drunken binges, Paparazzi, psychos, etc., started getting to me and that was my indication I needed a break. To be able to breathe, sleep, and eat without wondering about anything bad was what I longed for. It sounded stupid, but until this job, I had no idea the simple things in life could be taken for granted.

She came back, slammed the door, and took a seat across from me.

Tony opened it and looked at me. He shook his head and put his finger against his lips before he closed the door. After that, he started up again and off we went. I assumed to the cabin.

About a half hour later, we made it. She walked to the door. “I’m not even going to ask why you never told me Ralph hired you to take care of me. Next time, if there is one, be sure to tell me everything. I hate finding things out at the last minute. On that note, the radio station interview has been canceled and unless there is anything else, give me the key so I can go inside.”

It felt like her eyes pierced right through mine. She didn’t move, look away, or change her look for that matter. I didn’t know what to do so I sat there and took it.

Ralph told me he would take care of everything. I made a mental note to confront him about that later. In the meanwhile, after getting into my pocket, I took out the key and put it in her hand.

She slammed the door on her way out. That poor door was going to shatter if she kept that up. Without the heater, it was going to freeze in here. It’s a good thing I brought along a down blanket. Guaranteed to keep me warm. The only thing left was to find food.

We had a stock pile of chips and beef jerky but I wanted something substantial. That meant—

The door opened. Teal narrowed her eyes at me. “You were planning to come along, but you forgot something so you stayed behind to look for it. In the meanwhile, you told Tony to go get some food for us to eat. All of that is well and good but you’re taking an awful long time. Don’t you think?”

“Ma’am, you’re instructions were to never assume I would be coming along with you anywhere. I was to stay behind unless you gave me specific instructions otherwise before hand. You needed to present perfection and couldn’t do that with underlings following you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “When did I say or do all of this?”

“Right after I told you Ralph hired me to take care of you exactly nine months and three weeks ago.”

She ducked her head and closed the door. I stopped trying to figure out what or why when I got hired for this job. It was easier.

I reached into the closet and pulled out a down blanket, guaranteed to keep me warm even in twenty degrees below zero weather. She took the bed in the back which left me the make-a-bed where the dining table sat.

The door opened again. “Tony brought food and promised it’s edible. One spaghetti and meatballs, one cheeseburger with the fixings including cheese fries, and one open faced turkey sandwich with lots of gravy on top. One hot coffee, one hot tea, and one soda to drink. So unless you expect me to eat and drink all of that why don’t you come along. We’ll figure out the sleeping arrangements when the time comes. That is unless you would like me to find a flame thrower to melt the ice come morning.”

Tony got all of that food but that’s what he does. My new plan was to go in there and get my food to bring back here to eat. He would drop her off at the airport to be on her way to the great getaway. So what changed?

She came in and closed the door. “So either we’re coming back in here and you’re going in there. It’s been the three of us since the beginning. Why change now?”

“You’re instructions were—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK. OK. I gave a lot of half-assed instructions to piss people off. Well, I’m changing those instructions. So you’re either coming on your own or I’ll find a way to bring you with me into the cabin. Yes, that includes carrying you over my shoulder if I must.”

Maybe after dinner, I could go back to the hotel and talk to Ralph. I had no idea what was going on or why all of these changes. I could take the bus. I had the license to drive it and it wasn’t that big.

“All right. I’m coming.” I followed her to the cabin.

Once we came inside, we went into the kitchen. The burger and the soda were taken. Teal grabbed the turkey which left me with the spaghetti without the garlic bread. I couldn’t complain.

Once we finished, I grabbed everything to throw away in the outside dumpster. I looked around to see where everybody went. Tony sat on the sofa and was doing something on paper. No Teal in sight so she must be busy elsewhere.

I started up the bus and returned to the hotel. I got to his room OK, and when I knocked on it, he wouldn’t answer. Some people were hard sleepers and sometimes even harder after a meal which could’ve been the reason.

The cleaning lady came around, and after I slipped her a fifty, she opened the room for me. He lay sprawled out on the bed staring at the ceiling with his mouth wide open.

Pale skin and dead eyes made me curious. I poked him and he turned to dust. I jerked my hand away. Normal people would scream at such a sight. I didn’t but I never regarded myself as normal. Look what I did for a living.

I went to the bathroom to rub my face with some water. I needed to wake up from this… this whatever, and move on. Problem was, he was my boss. He hired me to do a job so without him what would I do.

I left the room and returned to the cabin. During that time, I realized that the only person that saw him was Teal. He could have had other visitors but that was the only one I thought of. Everybody was capable of killing but very few would follow through with it.

I returned to the cabin and decided to stay. I made my bed and lay down in it. I faced the wall and wanted to forget what happened. That was not normal. Normal was a simple word with a complicated definition, granted, but simple in this instance.

Ralph was not a good man by any means. None of that made him bad enough to be killed though and turned to dust. How?

I got up at some point after trying to close my eyes to get to sleep. Too dark to go anywhere but the cabin. If everybody was sleeping, noise would wake them up.

“It’s about time you came back,” Teal said. “Where did you go? Tibet?”

If she killed or fired me because I needed to know then so be it. “You killed him didn’t you?”

“Yes. I did. He was a no good person. People struggle everyday. His answer to all of that was a laugh, shrugged shoulders, and the hottest deal he made in this lifetime. His pockets bulged. Yet, he told me he couldn’t spare any of it. I couldn’t believe I actually followed him. It needed to stop so I eliminated him. Tony never saw it happen, but he did see the after effects.”

Did I dare ask? “So what happens now? He was my boss. He hired me to do a job. Whatever the reason, that did not give you the right to play judge, jury, and executioner. Without him, I don’t have a job any more.”

She smiled. “It’s OK. Nothing will hurt you. You still have a job. You take orders from me now instead of him. Things will be how they are supposed to be. Nothing more.” She cupped my cheeks. “Savannah, it is the three of us. As it was meant to be. I came to this world a long time ago. You are one of only three people I wish to be by my side. You and Tony are two. The other one died of a heart attack at the end of World War II.”

Things got creepy. I couldn’t believe what I heard. This didn’t feel safe any more. My body shook but I didn’t know where that chill came from. I shook my head and tried to get away. I got out the door but I wasn’t paying attention and fell into the snow. I got back up but couldn’t see anywhere around me. I picked a direction and hoped that was the cabin.

Hands grabbed me from behind and spun me around. I closed my eyes tight. I didn’t want to see anything. Maybe she would let me go and forget that I existed.

“Savannah, you can open your eyes. The light isn’t that—”

“Hey, everybody OK?” That was Tony’s voice. “I guarantee you, I make one call and I can get people here in thirty minutes.”

Teal left me. I heard mumbling and should have taken the opportunity to run, but run where? I ran straight ahead in the hopes the bus would be there. My hands slapped something solid and felt around for the door latch. I turned the lights on and locked the door.

I dialed 9-1-1 in the hopes somebody would be here in time to help. I couldn’t believe she killed someone and smiled. Why would she kill? I remembered what she said but still. Why?

I hung up. What good would it do anyway? It would take them too long to get here.

She came back in “Well, Tony just wanted to be sure his girls were OK. I hate the cold and the snow. So let’s hurry it up.”

“I can’t can go in there with you. I’ll stay here.”

“No. You will come with me.”

I shook my head.

“OK. All right. Freeze me to death why you don’t you. I’ll be back in a few minutes. It’s going to take the three of us to move back in.”

What did she have in mind? Kill both of us?

“It won’t take so long if all of us—”

Tony came inside with blankets. “The only thing in there we need. Everything else is still in here. I get the front bed.”

“Teal, I’ll make a deal with you. I won’t say anything about what happened and… and… you can use me for anything you want.”

She scrunched her eyes at me. “What? I will not go into how that sounds. Let me think you’re exhausted. That’s why you’re talking nonsense. You made that one already.” She pointed to the bed. “Good night, everyone. It’s been an eventful day.”

Tony slept hard. That left Teal who could hear ants walking when she slept. The door made noise when it opened, but if I closed it while being careful it might not make noise.

I waited until I heard heavy breathing before I attempted to open the door. It felt like the time I turned sixteen and got in after curfew. Mom and Dad had no idea.

I closed it the same way and realized I should’ve grabbed a flashlight and my bag. Too late to go back.

I walked ahead while feeling my way through. I got to the point I saw lights and went towards them.

Someone behind me. They walked towards me from the sounds of it. I didn’t realize how hard it was to run in the snow. Good exercise but I wasn’t looking for that at the moment. I needed to get going.

“Savannah, what’s got you— Never mind. Don’t answer that. Just stop.”

I did that and turned around. “Teal—”

“It’s OK. I played judge, jury, and executioner with Ralph because I had to. You? I can’t. The three of us have become too close. Closer than I ever imagined. Do what you need to do, but don’t leave me. I’m begging you.” She dropped to her knees. “Please don’t leave me.”

Go? Stay? Holy shifting sugar. “I need a break. I need to visit family. Give me that.”

“Of course. Two weeks? You put me in the Maldives for two weeks. You have yours. I have mine. We come back. Right?”

How did she find out about that? I didn’t even tell her about that yet.

“Right? Savannah?” Her eyes glowed in the dark.

“OK. Two weeks. Yeah. Uhm… You have a concert in Miami. We’ll meet there.”

“I assume you mean in my dressing room. That sounds fine.” She stood up. “Now my legs are cold. Can we go back to the nice warm bus now?”

I nodded. She didn’t move. I moved ahead of her while trying to listen for anything that sounded funny. We made it back to the bus and I sat down on the bed. She gave me a peck on my forehead before she went to hers.

“No more sneaking out. You hear?” She pointed at me.

I nodded. Too cold and tired to try that again anyway. I lay down while wondering if I would live to see another day.

Christmas Break At Grandma’s

I loved winter break. Midterms done to begin with. I got through them, hated them, but I got through them. Sweatshirts, baggy pants, the food, and skiing was the other thing. The best part, there was no waking up at o’dark-thirty in the morning. I had been looking so forward to spending Christmas week in Colorado. Vail, to be exact.

That plan failed big time. Mom and Dad said that plans changed. No going to Colorado to do anything. As in no Christmas and no skiing. When I asked why, they told me the strangest thing I ever heard. They made plans to send me to North Pole, Alaska, while they had business to do. Who works during Christmas?

An eighteen-year-old girl with a driver’s license, capable of buying groceries, cooking food without burning the house down needed to be looked after. Despite them saying otherwise, I knew how to stay on budget. I screamed. How could they?

Monday morning, at the worst part of the day, the three of us made it to the airport. I got on my plane before they got on there’s. Why is that fair?

Ten hours later, I arrived at a woman’s house that I had never seen before. We sent Christmas cards back and forth, but nothing beyond that. I shook my body, not because of the snow on the ground, but I also wanted to be sure to get rid of any bad vibes. Not that it worked.

A woman answered the door. She had grey hair in a pony tail and wore ear muffs. Tank top and cargo shorts with flip flops on top of that. “Well. You did arrive.” She pulled me inside. “Imogen said she did plan on you arriving but she never said you would be here.” She kept a hold of my hand and pulled me into the kitchen. “Do you have any knowledge of what a carrot looks like?”

Either this woman was dense or she slept in a cave. “Yes, I do.” I took off my coat and gloves and lay them on the chair by the door. Almost too afraid to open the coat closet.

“Splendid. Get four of them. Do you know how to count?”

If I guessed right, I would get an A in Pre-Cal and she’s asking me if I can count? “Yes.”

“Terrific. Now for the hard one. Do you how to use a knife?”

Dad and I had cutting contests when it was his turn to cook. I couldn’t blame her for asking, though. She had no idea, so take in a deep breath and smile. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You’re Imogen’s daughter? I only ask because nothing worked when I tried teaching her how to use one. Are you sure you are who you say you are and didn’t imagine any of this? You didn’t look anything up on those weird thingamadoohickies?”

I could tell her or I could show her. I got out four carrots from the refrigerator. I saw a knife and cutting board already out, so I used those. After a glance around to see what kind of dish was being cooked, and not spotting any, I went with the standard carrot coins.

She got out one of those huge stewing pots and dropped the carrot coins in it. After that, she got out three potatoes from a closet in the kitchen, and instead of cutting those into chunks, she cut them into big coins. The same was true for everything else she put into the pot. There should be uniformity, granted, but I never thought about making everything the same shape. Dad and I never did.

If I guessed right, it would be another four hours until that pot would be ready. I could be wrong and it could take longer or shorter. “So… uh… how’s the weather?”

“It’s the winter and winter means cold and snow. That also means the sun won’t be out for long. No sirree boop.”

Was there a possibility that I could maybe run away? This was getting too weird. I didn’t see a TV, and chances were, she didn’t have a computer. So I sat at the table and stared at the fireplace while wondering what thingamadoohickies were.

That was when she put a bowl, dish soap, and a cloth in front of me. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Haven’t you ever cleaned the table before? You see, you get that cloth, dip it into the wet and soapy water, and wring it out before wiping the table down. Then when you’re done with that, do the dishes. After that, make a list of everything in the refrigerator. When that’s done, think about what kind of food we’ll need. Everybody gotta eat, you know. You can’t work without it, although the government sure makes it hard. Maybe they’re coming out with food pills. Take the red for your meat. The green one for the veggies. The orange one for the fruit. The white one for the milk. Yeah, that’s what they’re doing.”

I started cleaning the table as I thought about what she said. Food pills? Never heard of that and wasn’t sure where she was going. The table shined when I finished.

It took five seconds to do the two dishes in the sink. I didn’t see a dishwasher, so I did them by hand. As for the refrigerator, nothing in there but eggs, bread, milk, and butter. Out of curiosity, I opened the freezer to see bags of meat. That’s all there was in it. I didn’t want to know any more than that, so I closed it.

I made a list based on what we ate back home. All done while wondering why I didn’t notice anything when I was in there earlier. It was pretty straightforward with meatloaf on Monday, tacos on Tuesday, whatever Wednesday and so on.

“Oh, no dear. Don’t do that. I’ll make the food list. You just clean the table. You young people don’t know how to write, anyway.”

I bit my tongue to keep from answering back at that comment.

She walked over and stared at the table. Against the wall, across from the table, sat a storage cabinet. She opened a drawer and pulled out a piece of cloth. A square on a circle didn’t look bad, but looked odd. At least to me when the cloth was smaller than the table.

“Well, it’s too dark to do anything else. So just go to bed and we’ll continue tomorrow. Don’t stub our toes, don’t forget to brush your teeth, put some clothes on, and don’t forget your underwear. Lights out at six-thirty.”

I scanned the living room and the kitchen for a phone. She didn’t have one. I got out my cell to text Dad one simple message. It seemed like I waited hours instead of the five minutes it did to check for a response. Either he didn’t get it or he’s ignoring me. “Just get me out of here. Dad. Help.”

“Why are you still awake?” Grandma asked from the hallway. “You’re supposed to be sleeping. Whatever it is can wait until morning.”

“It’s only six-thirty. I’m not a little kid who goes to sleep at that early hour. Geeze, Grandma.”

“No. No. No. No. And no. Six-thirty is the perfect time to sleep. You’re a little kid because you don’t have grey hair yet.” She stood there looking at me. “On the other hand, you did spend a day in those big metal contraptions without a chance to get up and do an obstacle course. Your body must still have energy in it if you can’t sleep. Maybe Imogen needs to find that phone number for the Sandman again. You need his help.”

She walked over to the chair and grabbed my coat and gloves before she herded me into another room. Each wall was decorated with a different holiday. One wall was Halloween, another was Thanksgiving, then Christmas, and then New Year’s. I couldn’t get over it. One wall led to another as if it told a story.

She put the coat and gloves on me before placing keys in my hand. “Those keys unlock the lock that keeps it from running away. Bikes do that, you know. When they’re neglected, they run away never to be found again so don’t lose the lock or the keys. Cross your heart and say you will never lie, the keys will always be with me.”

I did what she said while still waiting for the padded truck to arrive. Along with the latest in fashion for crazy wear. OK, maybe I was being too judgmental, but this woman was far beyond anything rational. It was a wonder Mom came out like, well, Mom.

She patted my hand. “That’s a good little princess.” She pinched my cheek. “Now you go on. Be back by Eve.” She left the room.

What Eve and my cheek hurt. That woman could pinch. I looked at the keys and only one of them looked funny, almost like the keys found in computer games.

On my way out, Grandma stopped me in the hallway. “Oh, and by the way, the bike won’t let you slip. If you don’t tell it what to do, it’ll do it for you. And… and… oh I’ll remember later.”

Uhm. Yeah. OK. Definite candidate for the funny farm. As soon as possible, I’m telling Mom and Dad no more Grandma visits. That woman’s loony with a capital L.

I went outside and found the bike. The locks weren’t difficult. Insert key and turn.

It looked sort of small and wondered if I would be able to ride it without feeling like my knees would hit my nose. I got on anyway and prayed to anyone who would listen that I wouldn’t end up dead.

I started pedaling and the bike got bigger. It didn’t feel child sized. It felt my size. I was all of five foot eight and my knees had room. OK, so where to now?

They say the words pitch black was like saying black black but that was the perfect way to describe the scenery. After the light turned on, all by itself I might add, I could see for a foot in front of me. “OK, so where do I go? I could go to the airport and fly home. This is too weird.”

Without my knowledge, the bike went up into the air and flew on its own. My hands may have been on the handlebars, but I was not turning it. It turned and pedaled itself. I had a haunted bike.

OK, breathe in and out. In and out. In and out and it was not working. OK, I needed to remain calm. If there was the possibility that that old lady put a magic spell on this bike, it wouldn’t last forever would it? There had to be an expiration date. Right?

Before I knew it, we landed somewhere by a river. I did what the old stories said to do and that was to follow the river. It led to a set of golden gates with a face on it. I could’ve sworn it even smiled.

“Well. Greetings. Happy to see a newcomer here in Christmas Village. I am the Gate Keeper. What are you called?”

“Uh… My… my name is Marlowe.” Things went from weird to bizarre.

“Greetings, Marlowe. What would you like?”

How to answer that question. “Could I take a look around?”

“Of course. You must bring me a holly wreath before you enter. Are you willing?”

“I guess.”

It laughed. “So silly. The holly is around you. Take a look behind you and gather as much as you need. Shape it the best you can and bring it to me. Your gift will be granted to you.”

The gate was right. The leaves were poky so I had to be careful. The more I looked, though, it seemed there was a choice between those that were and those that weren’t. I picked the ones without pointy ends and used those. The gloves made it hard but not difficult. When done, I held it up to look at it. It was round with a lot of holly leaves and berries on it. Not the greatest but I got it done.

I held it out when I got to the gate.

“Oh my. That is beautiful. It needs to be hung above me.”

A little hook hung above its head so that’s where I put it. The gate opened.

I almost forgot about the bike but it followed behind me. It brought me here in one piece so it couldn’t be so bad. It didn’t run me over or anything.

Gingerbread and snow sculptures ran around and decorated the streets. There were snowflakes that skated on the frozen waterways. Trees decorated with bright lighted orbs and berries.

A hidden place where magic was a part of everyday life. It had to be. Bakeries and candy stores of every kind lined the street. A reindeer corral with all of them in their place, even Rudolph, in a stable by the road.

A large castle sat on top of the hill. It could be Santa’s house. He wouldn’t have a castle would he? He could but I didn’t think so.

About to go up the hill, the bike got in front of me and wouldn’t let me pass. It looked like a bull ready to charge the way it was going.

“Look. I don’t know what your problem is but I am curious as to who lives up there. So if you’ll excuse me… .”

It transformed into a motorcycle and revved its engine. It kept pushing me back and that was when I backed into something hard. I turned around and read the sign. Welcome to Christmas Village. Magic lives forever.

“OK. And?”

It sorta kinda pushed me towards a small building. Town Archives.

“Let me guess. I’m supposed to go in there and find out who’s up there. Right? Forget that. I ain’t doin’ it. I’m on vacation here, at least I’m supposed to be. I’m eighteen and do not, I repeat, do not have to do anything you tell me to do. So you’re taking me home and that’s final.”

It shutdown. The lights went out and the motor stopped. I tried to turn the key and engine wouldn’t turn on. That was when it turned into a tricycle.

“Great. Just great. How am I supposed to get out of here? While I’m stuck here I might as well let Mom and Dad know they can rent out my room seeing as how I no longer live there. Is that what you want?”

It didn’t budge.

“OK. Fine. I’ll go. Is that what you want? Look at me. I’m arguing with a tricycle. I lost my mind. Wait until everybody hears about this. They’ll think I went bonkers which wouldn’t be too far from the truth.”

Archives were a place with old books and papers. Why would I even bother? This was not home. A quick check of the gate and it was closed. The face disappeared.

I tried texting Mom and Dad to get me out of here and it wouldn’t go through. I turned it off and back on again, checked my connection, and that was where I had the problem. No sign or info indicating anything about a Wi-Fi password. Wonderful. Of all the places I get stuck and it was out in the middle of Snowy Nutsville. I screamed as long and as hard as I could. It didn’t work.

My feet were frozen, I couldn’t feel my face, and I wasn’t sure I still had my hands. My solution was to take that hike all the way up the hill. Maybe some physical activity would help to warm me up.

Holy friggin’ sugar. God, help me get out of this crazy place.

Cory

Hmm, Road Closed barrier up ahead. I turned off my Harley and looked around a bit. No big piles of sand and it was too early for snow. That didn’t come until about Thanksgiving. No big equipment either. It had to be his idea.

As much as I loved my bike, I didn’t want to take a chance with her either. I walked her over to the side and hid her between two hills of dirt. I left my gloves on but took my helmet off.

I kept low while running to the edge. A large facility lay beneath me. No personnel. There should at least be half an army down there and nobody around. Something seemed funny about all of this.

I hung around waiting to see any sign of people, but nothing, until two large trucks came in and stopped. The back opened up and soldiers poured out. The last man to exit was good ol’ Uncle Xander.

I went back to my Harley and made it back to my lab. The military had trained specialists in every field one could think of including computers. If one was foolish enough, one could try to penetrate the defenses.

I told someone I thought I could trust about my accomplishment only to have it backfire. My program that I worked on for years, night and day, had come about. I was so excited it was done at last. I bragged about it to the wrong person, and after that, it was gone. Who else could’ve done it since that person was the only one I told? The person I told was my own uncle. I didn’t even tell my own Mom.

Yeah yeah, sure sure, someone hacked my system and got it that way. It’s done all the time and they happened to get lucky. Ransomeware thieves and all that. It was all too coincidental. It had to be him. I have enough protection on my systems to keep out everyone. When they do penetrate, I would’ve been notified. He got lucky when I turned my back on him. I still don’t know who the stupid one was.

I got onto my computer and through a series of misdirections I got into their systems. That wouldn’t last long so I had to act fast. They would’ve erased me from their files by now but I had to try. By the off chance I logged in and sure enough I couldn’t get in.

Plan B included going in through the mundane files such as keeping track of electricity output, inventory, and assignments. It wasn’t as secure which could work in my favor. After all, did they need to secure the fact that they had one hundred rolls of toilet paper or that ten people must’ve used a blow dryer?

A small base, small system, not that much security and I got in. It set off an alarm which told them someone got in and I had thirty seconds in which to get out and erase my presence. Not a problem. Download completed in ten. Insert program to erase my presence commenced. A smiley face to make them happy.

Got in. Got my prize. Got out. So simple anybody could’ve done it. I wished it was that easy. Half of me celebrated while the other half waited for the inevitable knock on my door.

While I waited, I went through the program I retrieved. The bastards changed everything about it. Not a single original string existed. I got out my notes and started from scratch.

One of my mentors told me once, equipment may not always be available. Memory may not always be reliable. Computers can be stolen. As long as good notes existed, somewhere, a program can always be rewritten and started over again.

Before I began this project on my own, Cory and I had already begun setting plans and getting the baseline work of this done. If it wasn’t for her generous father’s financial backing and contacts it wouldn’t have been possible.

I put the program in another mainframe that had the necessary storage. I made a solemn vow not to tell anyone about this. I learned my lesson to not trust anyone ever again.

It had been five days since I penetrated their computer systems. Either they couldn’t find me or they gave up. On the other hand it was the military. It was only a matter of time.

In the meanwhile, I turned it on and waited. “Up and at’em, Cory.” Then I saw that face and smiled.

It seemed to take an eternity before I got the invalid response message. The screen turned blue before blacking out on me. There must’ve been something I missed.

I erased everything and input the program one piece of data at a time. I must’ve been too in a hurry the first time. I caught several missing pieces of data I didn’t remember inputting.

I stood up and went to the door. I had a feeling. “Well. Just as I thought. Uncle Xander. What a surprise it took you this long. What happened? You lost the map and couldn’t tell right from left?”

His face turned red. “That’s enough, young lady. You will treat me with respect. I am a man.”

“Respect given is respect earned. Waddaya want anyway? I’m busy.”

“I want the Computerized Operational Regional Device returned to me.”

I had no idea where he came up with that. I laughed. It was the funniest thing I heard. I stepped outside and shut the door behind me. “What was that again? I must’ve had a brain freeze or something. I could’ve sworn you said Computerized Operational Regional Device.”

“Yes. Yes, I did. I designed it myself. As any man can since men are more mechanical than any woman. Hmph.”

A deep breath inhale to prevent the spew of cuss words from coming out of my mouth. “Hmm. So I am to believe that one, men are mechanical. Two, that women only exist.”

“There are only three things any woman should remember. Any woman of good upbringing by a good father would’ve taught their daughters those things. I do not need to repeat them as I taught them to you.”

I took a quick glance at the soldiers around him and their jaws tightened as their eyes narrowed. There were a couple who shrugged.

“Well, dear Uncle Xander, your ideas are archaic at best. I’ll leave it at that. As for what you came here for, you haven’t answered me.”

“Yes, I did answer that. A very good fellow will be leading my unit of good men. A good man named Colonel Edgar. He and I will get along very well. He has a good household with a woman by his side and two fine kids. Not one of those mixed up families.”

How many times could I count to thirty? Before I had a chance of further contemplation, a military vehicle pulled into the parking lot. A black woman dressed in camouflage stepped out. Tight bun on the head too.

I laughed at Uncle Xander’s expression of wide eyes as his mouth dropped open. That alone told me he made everything up and never looked to see who was attached to the name. Was it too early for that feeling of satisfaction?

I tried to suppress laughing any more when she turned to me. “Good day. I am Lieutenant Colonel Wilma Edgar. You may address me as Colonel Edgar. If we could step to the side so that we may discuss your involvement.”

“Yes, Colonel Edgar.” I nodded my head and followed her a few steps away from the others. I glanced to see Uncle Xander try to side-step his way closer. Colonel Edgar looked at him and he stopped.

I told her everything that happened and she kept smiling.

“That’s where we are right now.” It felt like a bomb was about to fall.

She nodded and raised that eyebrow. “Do you have proof?”

So much for the bomb but I could still feel it. “I won’t show you the notes. However, I have personal vlogs that you could watch.”

“I will take the personal vlogs and the notes.”

I opened my mouth but she put up her hand.

She took one step closer to me. “I have enough background knowledge to know what I am looking at. I assure you, they will be returned intact. Everything given to me will be seen by me and no one else.”

She could be one of Uncle Xander’s friends but I doubted that. She was a strong independent Black woman. “All right. Just know that the last time I did this, the reason why he’s here, is because I trusted him.”

“I understand.”

I watched her and she didn’t shift. She stood there smiling as she looked at me.

“It’s going to take a few people to carry the boxes.”

She turned towards the other men and motioned them over. “Follow Ms. Maguire. She will point to where some boxes are located. Load the vehicles with the boxes. Do not look at them. Do not drop them. Do not pick off the tape. Do not tear the box tabs. Am I making myself clear?”

They stood at attention and saluted. “Yes, Colonel Edgar.”

“Carry out your orders.”

They followed right behind me to where I kept everything. After I pointed to them, they took them out one by one. I remembered my declaration but I didn’t have a choice. I only hoped it wouldn’t backfire again.

When I came out, Colonel Edgar gave Uncle Xander a going over and yelled at him a few times. Something about being too old and overweight. After everything and everyone was loaded up they left.

I closed my eyes and fluttered my lips as a silent prayer went up. There were back up notes I had stored away. Not as clean as the ones I gave the colonel but they were the same ones. I went back to reprogramming to be sure Cory worked the way she was supposed to. I don’t think I even slept during that time.

About to try Cory again, someone knocked on my door and I opened it. “Colonel Edgar.”

“Yes, ma’am. May I come in?”

I opened the door wider to let her in. “Is there something wrong?”

“I have a huge apology to make. I am so sorry that I didn’t look further into this when I should have. The other thing is that I admire your dedication. It took you so long to fulfill a promise only for someone to take it away. That wasn’t right.”

I was confused. “Ma’am?”

“I’m talking about Cory. Xander Maguire will be disciplined by the military to its full extent. All of your notes and all of your vlogs are sitting outside waiting for your go ahead. They will return them as they found them. I promise that nothing was copied.”

“Uh. OK. Thank you.” Did I need to feel relieved?

She got on her com device and told them to bring the boxes in. I opened the door and they did return them. I followed them and they put the boxes down where they were before.

“As for you young lady, you have some explaining to do. Every part of the army database is secure, but it seems, someone found a way in. You are going to come with me and show me exactly how you did it. That way we can prevent something like this from happening again.”

“OK. Now?”

“Now.”

“OK. Give me a couple minutes and I will be back.” I ran inside to double check everything. Computer off and rough notes put away, I grabbed my purse and my keys and came back.

We got into the vehicle but she didn’t turn the key. “What got your attention to begin with?”

“Well, I was out for a drive on my Harley one day and was going to visit someone. I saw a road closure sign and decided to investigate. I didn’t see any sand dunes and it’s too early for snow. No construction equipment either.”

She turned towards me and smiled. She turned the key and drove out. We got to the same road closure signs and she moved them aside. She got back in and we kept going to the base.

Show and tell time once I got there. She laughed through most of it because it seems she warned her superiors of such a thing but they never did anything about it. Now that proof existed, the higher ups didn’t have a choice any more.

I got a bite to eat and returned to my warehouse. I started Cory up again. I had confidence all the pit holes were filled, so she should run as I thought she would. Yes, I had confidence, but certainty didn’t exist. Not yet.

I waited for the smiley face to appear. “Up and at’em, Cory.”

“Please input security code.”

So far so good. “Cory Ellen North. Two. One. Five. Waldo. Mr. Whiskers.” The dog loved me but that cat hated me.

“Security code accepted.”

Yahoo!

The next thing to do would be to check if the rest of her worked. “What’s the weather today?”

“It is sixty-degrees Fahrenheit with winds out of the northwest at ten miles-an-hour. The sun rose at six o’clock and will set and six-thirty tonight.” It smirked. “Really, after all of that, that was the best you could do?”

I laughed. “It’s good to have you back. Your base programming is set. You will eventually be running the information systems in a medical facility. Not yet though. When you were first conceived, talking computers were an idea. It’s too normal now. I need to take you beyond that. For all intents and purposes though, you are set and ready to experience the world.”

I sat back and smiled. Memories of Cory talking forever about how cool it would be if it was a mother computer in a medical facility instead of a car. She loved that show and wanted to do what I accomplished. Staff could concentrate on the patients instead of hackers and lost paperwork.

“I am Cory. I exist in this computer as an aid in the medical system. My duty will be to be sure all system are secure against intrusion. To provide comfort and care to the patients. To have the database to store medical information for ready reference.”

I smiled. Things were good. Hmm. “All right. What’s my financial worth?”

“Processing. You have a two-thousand dollar credit limit no outstanding bills. Five thousand six hundred dollars and thirty-five cents in your checking account. Two-hundred-fifty thousand dollars in an annuity.”

I laughed. “All right. All right. I get the picture. You know everything.”

“Yes. There should never be any question. Your net worth is two point seventy-five million dollars.”

No. There was never any question. I had a feeling this was going to be a long and interesting journey. Maybe after all of this, I could learn to trust again. “All right. Let’s see where we can make some changes. Shall we?”

The House on the Hill

I laughed when I saw the house. It had to be a joke. I turned around and returned home. As soon as I got in, I emailed Ashley: Call back. Too complicated for texting.

Sure enough, she called back. “So?”

“Ash, you got to be kidding me. You want me to stay in that house for the weekend? The roof is in shambles, no windows whatsoever. Well the prior owner did, but what they left of them would not be considered as such. I don’t even know if they have plumbing. Unless you have a million dollars that you can give freely, I am not doing it.”

She laughed. That meant she was up to something, but I didn’t care. She was going to pay me back for this.

“I know something you don’t know.” She laughed.

So you want to play, huh? “Not unless it involves math, history, and how to write that stupid report in English, most likely you don’t. I can sit here and tell you everything about anyone.”

“Oh. Well, then I guess you’re just not interested in joining the Rose Bowl.”

“You want me to play football? Are you crazy? In case you’ve lost your mind, I’m not playing. I am on my way to become a lady. Ladies don’t play football. And unless you’ve already been there, and can prove you were in that house without a doubt, there’s no reason I even need to be.” Give her a minute to think. I’ve known her since kindergarten.

“I’m not talking about sports. I know you would never and you don’t know everything.”

Could I have missed something? Oh wait, she’s not — “You’re talking about the Red Rose Porringer Society. There’s an enormous difference, and only the elite can join. You must be invited in by a fellow member. They would never send any of their members into a place so disgusting. Never in a million centuries.”

She cleared her throat and went silent. I got her. Nobody can beat me for knowing something. A lot of people tried and failed.

“OK. Look. I made a bet with Beth Whatshername. Can you just help me out? Please? Honest. I told her if I could get you to go into that house, she would introduce me to Brian Mayhew. Huh? You know I’ve been after him since school started. Please? Pretty please? I’ll write your history paper for you.”

“Are you talking about that disgusting Beth Anderson? The one that’s always smiling and swings her bleach blonde hair so big it hits everybody standing around her? The one whose mother works for that dime store and whose father is a used car sales agent? Her?”

“Well… .”

“Ashley, I told you about her. She never wears anything in style and any guy worth anything never pays attention to her. She’s getting something extra out of this or she wouldn’t have said that or agreed. Are you that stupid?”

“Well, no. Please?”

I grumbled. If anybody else asked I would’ve flat out told them no. This was Ashley. We’ve known each other since kindergarten. What choice did I have?

“You better have a slice of triple chocolate mousse tart, a salmon burger with dill cream sauce, truffle fries, and a glass of homemade ginger beer ready and waiting. You have connections, so I am expecting perfection. Along with that, I want one week of salon treatments of my choosing. You hear me or I’m not doing it.”

“It’s a deal. Thanks. You know you’re my sister from another mother. Love ya lots. Toodles.”

A little too easy-peasy. She’s up to something. A deal is a deal until otherwise proven. Oh yeah, cover story. Email Ash: When my parents call you, I’m staying at your house for the weekend.

She texted me back: Oh NP Love ya.

This better be worth it. I hate it that she uses text language. She’s never going to get any better if she doesn’t practice, but oh well. Why would I care? She’s got me so confused. I needed to stay focused.

Well, lucky for me, it was simple to sneak out of the house. I wished Mom would think of a better alarm code than her birthday. Please. Everybody knew. As for the super annoying beeps, she turned those off because it interrupted her meditating.

Once out, I took out my cell and turned the alarm back on. OK, I walked to the bus stop and got on the ultra disgusting bus. Ew, I needed to get decontaminated the first chance I had. It was the only way I could guarantee me getting away with this. They would never believe I needed to drive to Ash’s house since she lives right next door.

According to the bit of digging that I did, it turns out it was once owned by a widow who died of a heart attack. It kept getting bought and sold until everybody lost interest in it. Too many rumors about demons or some such nonsense. The city took it after that.

I got out my flashlight and looked at it again. I would never buy this house. Never. It looked too weird with a long roof and super skinny side with a super weird line. Anyway, I had a huge favor to fulfill.

If I die, Ash was so paying for it. Clouds of dirt swirled around me. I had planned to make a sleeping area on the floor, but from the looks of it, that would not happen. Holey couches and chairs on top of that.

I thought about going upstairs, but they fell apart about halfway up. Then a light turned on. I spun around to the source and a big fire sparked in the fireplace.

A doll stood in the middle of the mantel. A velvet dark green dress with a laced collar and shoes to match. Her brown hair was wavy with a green flower, and a pearl in the middle was clipped on the side. She seemed to smile at me. I closed my eyes and shook my head, and I wasn’t imagining anything.

“Good evening. My name is Louise. Ann named me as if I was her daughter. She cared for me as such. It is a bit late for you to be out and about.”

Did that doll talk to me? I ran around the first floor to search for someone to explain. I didn’t find anyone. “No. It can’t be. You’re so far beyond any pre-programmed doll I’ve seen. This has gotta be a joke.”

She laughed. “Yes, it was me. Be careful. He lurks around in search of victims to bring back to his domain. Do not let him fool you.”

I had no reason to be there, so I tried to leave. All the doors slammed shut at the same time. Either a sudden blast of wind blew through or it’s a horror story come to life. The fireplace blew out only to come back to life again. I touched nothing.

“OK. Whoever is playing games, I am done playing. Do you hear me? I do not appreciate this whatsoever.” I walked to the door and it wouldn’t open. “What is this? What do you want? Ashley, I am done playing.”

Music played. Where did it come from? I searched the entire floor and no source of music around.

They didn’t appear all at once. Music started before they even showed themselves. First a violin, second a viola, and the last thing was a cello. Unless I missed my guess, it was a Waltz by Frederic Chopin. Afternoon tea with the Senior Women’s League taught me a lot.

A man took my hand, and we danced around the room which changed. Stone pillars and marble walls, long pea green velvet curtains draped the windows, and no statues or other decorations.

As we danced, I glanced at the others. There were other women dressed like me. I tried to get somebody’s attention, but they continued to dance as if they noticed nothing.

“Calm down, my sweet little princess,” he said. “Nothing will happen. That I promise you.” He kissed my cheek.

“Uh… .” I needed to get my mind working again. I could not look stupid. I refused. to appear as such. “I do apologize. I wasn’t invited so I thought the best thing would be to go home. That’s all.”

“You are home. I am Lucien. You?”

Right. Introductions. “I’m Melissa.”

“You wouldn’t happen to be Melissa Auclair?”

“Yes. It seems strange you know who I am.” Rather creepy too.

“A young lady of such refinement would be well known.” He brought my hand up and kissed it. It didn’t feel romantic.

Refinement? “Look, I’m just trying to get home. It’s been a long day.” I also need to have a serious discussion with someone. “If you could point me towards the door, I would greatly appreciate it.” That and you’re giving me the creeps.

“The night is not done yet, my sweet.” He kissed my hand again. “A couple more dances perhaps. Yes? Then something to soothe the savage beast that resides within.”

What was it they said about hitting a man where it hurt? It would be rather obvious but it wasn’t as if anybody was watching.

The end of the song came, at last, I brought my knee up while I had the chance and he didn’t do anything. No reaction. So now what?

“Do you have a problem?”

“Oh, uh, leg cramp.” I smiled as if that was believable. Not.

“Hmm. Perhaps it would be time to freshen up a bit then.” He smiled as he grabbed my hand.

I tried to wiggle out of his grasp but that didn’t work either. He didn’t squeeze my hand but it was tight. We went down a hallway and stopped at a door.

He pointed to it. “Through that door, you will find everything you need. I will be waiting.”

I smiled while I prayed there was a window. I went inside and no window. Out of desperation, I looked for an explosive. No luck there either. About five different brushes, an entire line of Pearl Essence cosmetics, not to mention a man waiting by the door. A bit extreme for a public venue.

I came outside and he held out his hand. He grasped mine again as we returned to the room. “It seems your face has been smeared by someone’s finger. You should have redone yourself while you had the opportunity. You must always represent perfection.”

I want to get out of here and he’s worried about my make up? Men. I shouldn’t have expected anything else.

My cheeks hurt from smiling so much. “It’s fine. Look, the sun is almost up. My parents would be worried sick. You know how parents are?”

“Surely such a mature woman would be more concerned about her appearance. Maybe to appear refined. Dignified.”

Why would I be worried about that? He’s irritating. I tried to wiggle free again but he only grasped tighter.

Louise appeared in the doorway except she was life like and not a doll. Either somebody slipped me something or I got caught in the worst nightmare.

I couldn’t move us towards her so I tried to motion for her to come over. She must’ve gotten the hint. She danced with a man around us.

“He will challenge you until the rising sun. Always lead with your heart, then with your head.” She disappeared.

I didn’t even have a chance to ask her what she meant by that.

The sun shone through the windows. A cacophony of sound took over from the Waltz. The people around us shed to reveal skeletons that danced around the room.

I looked at Lucien and he grew wings. He had long black hair in a pony tail. He smiled as he swept his hand through the air. Everything disappeared.

Talk about a gorgeous bod. What was I thinking? I needed to get out.

“No no no, darling. You are mine now. You were promised to me by another.”

You were promised to me by—Ashley. So that was it. “Whatever it is, was, whatever, will not be fulfilled. You would have to kill me to keep me here. I’m not staying. Either let me out of here or I swear to you—”

“You were supposed to be mine.” His voice got deeper and he growled. “For I am Lucien.”

Lucien, yeah he said that before. Something about all of this seems too familiar. Almost as if I heard the story. Couldn’t think of it.

“I am the best of all in all things. You should be at my feet begging to be by my side. Not begging to leave.”

What is it with this guy? He’s so… so… that’s it. “You’re Lucien. The demon who steals all things loving and kind.” It took me a while. “Unless someone promises another to you, you can’t take them.” There was something else. I hated it when my brain refused to function.

I had to remember. All those stories during Sunday brunch over and over again. How come I couldn’t? “On top of that, you want me to stay here with you? You’re nothing but a butt ugly teeny weeny little boy. Look at you, I bet you don’t even have a driver’s license, don’t drink, or even had sex yet.”

His face turned tomato red and steam escaped his ears. He screamed and the next thing I knew I was in my room. More like it.

I looked at the time and it was nine o’clock at night. Too early for bed but I was exhausted. I stripped and dropped my head onto my pillow. That was it. He only had from sundown to sunup to lure someone into his domain. Why couldn’t I remember that when it counted?

I got up, avoided the parents, and went over to Ashley’s. If I told her once, I told her a million times to not put the key in the roses. A little too obvious. After a groan, I got into her house and all the way upstairs in her room.

Wall-to-wall pictures and posters of herself in various poses. He said I was vain? Yeah. He never saw this.

I pinched her nose and waited until she woke up. “Oh. Surprised to see me? That I’m still here? That I even still exist in this plane of existence? Huh? You think you could get rid of me that easy? You’re not just a nobody. You’re an idiot. And to think I considered you an equal. You are so pathetic. From this day forward, we are not even.” I turned around to leave.

Ashley rubbed her nose. “He promised me an endless life if I delivered the most beautiful girl I knew. Of course, that had to be you.”

I knew she was desperate but please. “What do you think I am?” I asked. “Huh? Just forget it. I hope you are so happy with yourself. Oh and don’t be surprised if the entire school knows how you pick your clothes from the second hand store.”

She opened her mouth wide. “I never. You don’t know what it’s like. Oh, there goes Melissa’s friend. Oh, you’re Melissa’s friend. My name is Ashley Sorrenson.”

“Hmm, well that just proves which one is the better one. Oh and, Brain Mayhew will be mine now. Ta ta.” I blew her a kiss.

She screamed so loud it woke her parents up. I waved to them as I left. I got back home and made myself some breakfast. It was time to think about all of what happened.

Computer

With the buses lined up along the side of the school, I went to the front gates to wait for Dad. Silver Lexus SUV, Rocky Road 24825 Fig. Yup, that was it.

I opened the door and Dad looked at me. “I’ve gotta meeting to get to and I promise, we will get something after,” Dad said. “Your choice as long as it’s not something like tarantula pizza or maggot casserole.”

Up a highway that led to a backlog of traffic that dissipated before another street we had to turn down. Pluto Communications Corporation, in gold letters on a black sign. The guard at the gate seemed nice. At least he smiled.

We parked inside a parking garage on the second level and stood in front of an elevator. It dinged and he put his hand on a black panel. It took maybe a second before we stopped. We walked on a walkway above the street.

He slid a card into a slot by a set of sliding doors. He took wide steps down the hall while I ran next to him. We stopped by a hallway and he pointed. “Look, my office is down the hall. Last door on the left. Can’t miss it. It’s OK to use the computer in my office. Authorization not necessary. Bathroom’s attached. Just stay there and do whatever it is you have to do. Be done as soon as I can.”

“Yeah. OK. And Dad, Ew. Maggot casserole and tarantula pizza?” First Mom, then Dad had a meeting. Brian doesn’t count because… he didn’t.

Dad went one way, and I another. I pushed the lever, and the door opened. The light switch was easy to find. Dad’s posters were all the same. An enormous blue bubble in the middle of a black piece of paper. As if whoever saw it was supposed to understand. He told me once that his colleagues thought it was great. The poster had to be the most uninteresting picture I ever saw.

I sat at his desk and finished my English homework in under an hour. I could type it up on my laptop at home. That left math.

Math was the subject I had the most trouble with. Beyond basic math, I always got lost. Mom helped with math and got me through whatever my math teacher didn’t.

Mr. Barbonski’s lecture about absolute values went through my head as I looked at the page. When I got to the assignment, however, that lesson might as well have been a dream. Out of desperation, I turned on the computer and an enormous picture of the galaxy appeared. There were icons, but no labels. I clicked the one with the picture of a satellite and hoped it was somebody’s idea of an internet link. A blinking cursor at the top left almost beckoned me to type in something.

I remembered my manners and plugged in my problems. After whoever helped me by explaining the process, I finished homework. Before I had a chance, the page disappeared. I couldn’t find it again.

I turned off the computer and counted to thirty before turning it back on again. I hit the satellite icon and typed in a basic math problem without a response. Someone out there helped me with this issue, and it was my duty to find out who. Problem was, I couldn’t think of a TV program with a similar issue.

Then the screen turned red. “Warning. Unauthorized access. Warning. Unauthorized access.” A loud horn sounded at the same time as the room flashed red.

I turned off the computer and packed up all of my stuff. About as sudden as it started, the lights and noise stopped. One Mexican man and a Black woman came into the office. “Evening. What are you doing here? You realize this section is for personnel only,” the woman said.

“My dad, he dropped me off. He’s supposed to be in a meeting right now. I’d call him for you, but I don’t know what the number is. I’m sorry. I just wanted to play a game.” You’re a big fat liar.

“All right,” the man said. “Nothing going on in here?” He came inside along with the woman. They inspected every desk drawer and the long cabinet in front of the desk to be concluded with the filing cabinet. I had no idea what they were looking for. They stood in the doorway. “Just be sure you don’t touch anything you’re not supposed to. Understood?”

“I understand.” I smiled.

I could tell he didn’t believe me because he raised his eyebrow. That and I had a hunch. They left the office and closed the door.

I took in a deep breath and let it go. Nothing happened, and at worst, I’d get a Dad lecture about faith and values and ethics. That was when my stomach growled.

Maybe I should’ve asked them if they had vending machines. Of course, I could get their attention again. No, that wouldn’t be a good idea. I had to hang in there until Dad finished. Oh, I wished he’d hurry it up. Nature called. Wait a minute, he said it was attached.

Once I found the door, all was right again except my hunger.

Dad came into the office. “I heard about the incident. Explanation?”

“Sorry Dad, but I was just trying to finish my Algebra homework. When I found something, it shut off before I could thank them. That was the sirens and lights went off.”

He walked to his desk and turned on the computer. “What exactly did you do?”

“I turned on the computer, clicked the satellite link, and typed in: If anybody is out there, I need help with absolute values. I would greatly appreciate any help you can give. Please? Thank you.”

I watched him and he got nothing either.

I shrugged. “It happened.”

“Yeah. Yeah. OK.” He typed in a string of letters and numbers that didn’t make sense. Nothing came up after that. He made a phone call and stared at the screen.

He looked at me and stood from the desk. “Well, I’m not sure what you did. I’m not saying you’re lying. According to a coworker, they had dismantled the satellite tower. All links to it should have been scrubbed, but it wasn’t. I’ll look into it in the morning.” He turned off the computer. “So, what would you like? Remember your vegetables.”

Right. Sure. Why is it I had to remember my vegetables but nobody else did? “Ms. Huang’s Chinese Food. They have awesome soup dumplings, also their fabulous vegetable chow mein, sweet and sour pork, walnut shrimp, their shrimp siumaai is to die for and that would be about it. Oh, and Iggy’s Ice Cream for their strawberry cheesecake ice cream.”

“I got everything but the ice cream. You have that and you will be rolling instead of walking. Let’s go.”

I took the hint but still groaned about the loss of ice cream. Strawberry cheesecake ice cream was the best. Everybody had to have it.

“I need it.”

“No, you want it. You need food. You want the ice cream.”

“Yeah, I need it.”

“That’s enough whining. I’ll cancel the Chinese food order and get a raw vegan meal instead.”

“You wouldn’t.” A complete meal with only vegetables? I’d die.

“You know I would.”

I crossed my arms. “Fine. I’ll just tell Mom.”

“And you know what the result of that would be.”

I looked at him and fluttered my lips to avoid the endless string of cuss words. I hated parents. I couldn’t get my ice cream.

On the way there, I imagined all sorts of torture I could inflict. He came back with the food and gave it to me to hold. The aroma that came from the bag made me think twice about torture. I used every restraint to keep from tearing the bag open.

About to pull out of the parking lot his phone rang. “Answer it for me would you? Take a message. At this hour, everybody should be home and relaxing.”

“Hello?”

A computer voice answered. “The string is incomplete. Please resend transmission.”

“Hello?”

“We cannot proceed as the instructions are incomprehensible. You must fix and resend.” It hung up.

“Who was that?” asked Dad as he pulled into the driveway.

“I don’t know. It just said to complete the string and resubmit.”

“It?”

“Yeah Dad. It.”

He started the car again and left the driveway. Maybe I should’ve lied and said it was a wrong number. I’m going to starve to death.

We returned to Dad’s work, and I carried dinner. I was not going to starve on account of Dad. That would not happen.

He sat at his desk typing into the computer while I ate. I left enough food for him to eat. Although he would complain and declare he would learn how to cook Chinese food.

He looked up at me. “All right, call them again.”

“I didn’t call them to begin with. They called me.”

“How did they call you if you didn’t call them? You had to have contacted them somehow.”

Dad never watched TV. “It’s really easy to hack someone’s phone number. Because, hello, internet?”

“Try it.”

“I can’t. I don’t know what number to dial.”

He stood and searched me for his phone. “Well, where is it?”

“Assuming you’re asking about your cell, it’s in the car.”

He ran out of the office while I wished I was home watching TV. I was missing my favorite show about vampires. The boyfriend was supposed to tell everyone he’s a real live vampire, and I missed it.

Dad came back and pushed a bunch of numbers. “Where is it?”

“Why are you asking me for? I don’t know.”

Something beeped. Dad watched his screen. “What the—”

“Greetings. I am here to serve you. What would like me to do? It is eighteen-thirty hours on two thousand and twenty the fifteenth day of the tenth month.”

“Dad who was that lady?”

“That was the computer.”

“Computers don’t talk.”

“This one did.”

“There are two in this room. An older male and a younger female human. Have both been invited?”

Dad put his head on his hand. He stared at the screen while his mouth hung open.

“No response. Security protocols will proceed.”

Dad sat up. “No. No. Don’t do that. Everything is fine.”

“Understood. Anything that requires immediate attention?”

“No. Everything is fine. Thank… thank you.”

Oh my God he stuttered. Dad never did that before. Maybe the computer sucked his brain or something.

“Very well. Will shut down until further notice.” The room went dark. I couldn’t see anything.

Dad must’ve turned on the computer screen because that was the only light in existence. I found the light switch but it wouldn’t turn on. Dad got out his cell and turned on the flashlight.

Dad stood from the desk. “How about if we go home? Sound like a plan?”

“Uh. Yeah. Sure Dad. And Dad?”

“I have no idea what just happened or even who that was. I don’t even know how to explain. Did you need something?”

Did I need something? I looked at my hands and discovered I still held Dad’s portion of dinner. “No. I still have your portion of dinner.”

“Right. Dinner. And with any luck, Iggy’s is still open.”

I didn’t want to ask and make him realize what he said. I didn’t want to take my chances. I got my ice cream.

We left the building and climbed in the car. Dad took out his cell and plugged it in. I watched as bit by bit a smiley face materialized on his screen. That smiley face wouldn’t be on Dad’s phone. He hated them. They were too fake he always told me.

We pulled up in front of Iggy’s and they were still open. He left the car and came back a few minutes later with a quart sized container. He handed it to me and I peeked. Strawberry cheesecake ice cream.

I stomped my feet a couple before I remembered Dad hated that. I took a quick glance and no reaction. Maybe he was still stunned.

He picked up his phone again and no reaction. After punching in something, he started the car and returned to the building.

“Let me guess, your office?” Where else?

“Yeah. I have to talk to someone about this. Just stay there.”

“Right.” I went into his office still unlocked.

They must have some security system not to lock their doors. I tried to turn on the light but it wouldn’t do anything. “How do I turn on the light when it won’t turn on?”

“Ah. Yes. Did you need servicing?”

“What?”

“If you watch the monitor, I am here and ready to be of service.”

“Could you turn on the light? It’s pitch black in here.”

“Yes.”

The lights turned on. I looked around and expected something to be in here. Something like a robot or an android but nothing. So I did what I was told to do and holy macanoli. Another smiley face, but this one on his computer.

“Greetings. I am the interface with which you communicate with. I am able to transmit anything to any place and assist with anything. What I need from you is a designation? A name if you will.”

Uhm. Right. OK. “A name? I don’t know. I just can’t get over the fact that Dad’s computer is talking to me. A name? I don’t know. Computer comes to mind.”

“Computer it shall be then. You were the one that searched for assistance at seventeen thirty on this date. Confirm or deny.”

“Uh. Confirm.”

“Do you require more assistance?”

“No.” Oh boy. Brian would never believe this in a million years and neither will Mom for that matter. Holy macanoli, I only wanted help on my math.

Did I even want to find out if this thing could break into the government’s computer? Nah. I shouldn’t. It would be neat to try, but the boatload of trouble I would get into. I did not need another lecture from Dad. “So. Do you have any computer games? Dad might be a while.”

What I Did Last Summer

I rode my bike to the community pool for a little fun. The temps felt like it already hit above the one hundred degree mark. Perfect for swimming. One foot inside the pool felt awesome.

All that sunscreen washed off my body I bet, but who cares. This was worth it.

Between the mini polo games, swim races, and sword fighting I made five laps before I came out to take a dive in the diving pool. It took a few minutes to wait for the area to clear. After all, diving on someone wouldn’t be a good thing.

The wait was worth it. I left the area to go up again. This time though, a tall girl stood in front of me. From where I stood, her head reached the clouds she was that tall.

She did a fancy dive far beyond my capabilities and it looked perfect to me. After I finished, I felt insignificant at that point, but this was my fun time so I kept swimming. I had an hour.

My fun time done, I returned home. Mom worked which left me to clean the house and get dinner. Chores didn’t take long even the vacuuming didn’t take long. Mom still insisted on the old fashioned vacuum cleaner. She couldn’t trust that something that small could pick up any sort of dirt. Whatever, so I did it the old fashioned way. Lucky for me it took fifteen minutes to complete the house.

It was a Friday and that meant fun food. There was enough money in the food jar to get pizza so that’s what we were going to do. Half pepperoni and half ham with pineapple was our pizza choice.

Mom mentioned something about going up to the attic to get some pictures. I could do that since she wasn’t home yet. Another shower wouldn’t hurt.

I grabbed the pole and hooked the latch. The ladder unfolded as the door opened. Six steps up and I was in. The chain to turn on the light was somewhere in the middle. My head hit it before so I used that as my guide.

Light on, about six different boxes sat against the wall. Did we have that many? Without any sort of description it was hard to pull the picture or pictures she wanted. A wooden crate sat all by itself in the middle. I didn’t remember that one not that I’ve been here a lot.

A metal latch kept it closed. Well, it couldn’t hurt to look. I had to know what was inside.

I pushed the lid up and a magnifying glass sat inside. I grabbed the glass and cushion it sat on came up with it. It showed a camera. An old camera from the looks of it with those big disks that pointed to the front.

Mom came home. I put everything back and started down when I heard her clearing her throat. “You wanted to see what sort of species of spiders we had?”

“Ew. No. I wanted to get those pictures you mentioned out for you.” I went to the kitchen to wash my hands.

“Oh. Don’t worry about those. Those aren’t necessary at the moment. Besides, I don’t even know what boxes they’re in.” She left the kitchen.

The magnifying glass and camera stayed in my head. Should I shouldn’t I ask about them? That would only be too nosy.

“So how was the community pool today?”

“What makes you think I went?”

“One, I saw a towel in the laundry room. Two, it is summer. Three, you’re my daughter.”

I laughed. “One, we don’t have a laundry room. Two, you caught me. It was fine. Three, a new girl showed up today.”

“OK, laundry closet. Anything else? Whose medical bill will I be paying by the way?”

“Mother.”

“My medical bill? I’m in perfect health.” She smiled.

The doorbell rang. “That would be dinner.” I paid the delivery man and put the pizza on the table. The aromatic smell of sauce, herbs, and dough made themselves known. Heaven as far as I was concerned.

“Wait, before you leave… uhm… there’s something that I need to talk to you about since you went up there.” She folded her napkin into a crane.

I sat back down.

“There’s a box up there. The contents of which are very old. One is capable of finding things that cannot prove something’s existence any other way. The other is—maybe it’s best I show you.”

She grabbed the pole and pulled the latch. She came down again a few minutes later with the magnifying glass and camera in hand. The next thing I know, she grabbed my hand and pulled me after her.

Somehow, she kept hold of those things and my hand and was able to grab the keys off the side table by the door. She opened the back door of her car and put the glass and the camera inside. I got in the passenger side while she went in the driver’s side and started the car.

We ended up at the community sanctuary. They were supposed to help local species of any sort of animal or insect. No public allowed.

She put the magnifying glass in my hands and started walking. “When I was your age, all I was told was that it was our responsibility to keep the gate secure. No one and nothing should or ever pass through them.”

“Yeah but the sanctuary?”

She fluttered her lips. “Don’t worry. They stay on their side we stay on ours and we’ll be in Scotland before them.”

I looked at her not sure where she was going with that.

The first thing that came to mind was the story series about a young wizard. Animal sidekicks, magic wands, beasty books, and a place for the weird to belong. I didn’t read the stories until after the movie series. I loved them both.

“Start using your glass and look towards the ground. You should see something.”

“What is it I’m looking for?”

“You’ll know it when you see it.”

She could’ve been more descriptive. I didn’t see anything except grass. It took a couple steps before I did see something different.

Green step stones that created a path. I followed them to a golden door. “I think I found it.”

She looked around. “Yeah. This would be about the place.”

Sort of weird and yet all too funny we ended up between two big trees. “So now what?”

“Now you’re going to take pictures. Here, there, and everywhere until you run out of film.”

“Film? Does that still exist?”

“What do you think?”

“I just asked. You don’t have to be so mean.” I brought up the camera and did what she told me.

“I’m sorry. It’s just I hated waiting until this moment to do it. Something about maturity and time line and how it all plays together in the end to create a better gate keeper.”

I ran out of film. “I don’t know if anything came out.” I handed it over.

“Oh it did. You could be the worst photographer and these pictures would still come out. You have to promise me you won’t tell anyone.”

I shrugged. “Nothing to tell. My Mom gave me a camera and I took pictures? Big whoop.”

“OK. OK. I get it. Let’s go home.”

We made it back home and she pulled me into her bathroom with her. Door closed and lights off, she switched on another light that gave everything a blue glow. “Awesome.”

“Yeah, it does.” She opened the camera and took out the film roll. In one canister, some chemicals went into it, and then she put the roll into a machine and it whooshed as pictures came out. “I’ll teach you how to do this later. FYI? This is not how you develop pictures. Only these pictures.”

“Right. OK.”

Off one light and the normal light came back on. To say the process was confusing was an understatement of the century. I still had no idea what happened.

“OK.” She put the pictures in front of me. “Here are the pictures you took. Notice anything different?”

“No.”

“You can’t tell if you don’t look through them. Now look again.” She pointed to the pictures.

I had no idea what I was looking for. Everything seemed normal. The trees, the birds on the trees, the little people with wings on the trees—wait what? I looked at the pictures again. “There’s fairies on the trees.”

“They are supposed to be there. They help protect the area from invaders and signal for help when necessary. Anything else?”

I looked at all of them again. The last pictures was of a fairy who waved and smiled but nothing else. “No.”

“Good. That’s how it should be. From this moment forward, it is your responsibility to be sure that the gate you saw stays locked. If it’s open, that means trouble and you will tell me pronto. Intellexerunt?”

“Wha?”

“Understood?”

“Yeah. OK. How long and how often do I have to do this?”

“Until you have a girl and she turns sixteen or for the rest of your life depending on how fate works for you. As for how often rely on your instincts. They’ll get stronger as time goes on. Got it?”

“I guess. Are you going to teach me how to work the developer?”

“Yeah. That’s tomorrow when we take more pictures. In the meanwhile, there’s a movie on tonight and we still have ice cream unless you ate it all.”

“No. It’s still there. I’ll get it. You just find the movie.” I went into the kitchen as I thought about it. Still had no idea what happened or what I was supposed to do. As far as I was concerned, it was all a nightmare or a practical joke. My money was on the practical joke idea. On the other hand, this was Mom so maybe a nightmare. Ice cream ready, I brought it out to Mom.

“I found a movie. Romantic comedy. We can laugh at how unreal it is.”

I shrugged and sat down. Good thing school started soon. I hated it but at least then I had an idea of the comings and goings. It made sense.

The next morning, a duffle bag and a computer tote sat by the door. Mom walked by with keys jiggling in her hand. “I got a text bright and early this morning. My work wants me in Dallas until Wednesday. That means you’re on your own. That means you have to follow the rules or suffer the consequences. The likes of which you won’t be able to have any sort of fun until your retirement. Got it?”

“Does that mean I can’t party?” I smiled.

She got in my face. “What do you think, Missy?”

“You’re serious. OK. I promise.”

“Yes, I am. I don’t like it but I have to do it. No trouble of any kind. Remember your promise. A man’s word is worth nothing if he has no intention or will to fulfill that promise.”

“I understand.”

“Good.” She hugged me and kissed my head before she grabbed her bags and left.

That left me wondering what that was all about. It was the weekend. What happened that couldn’t wait until Monday?

Cereal for breakfast. Quick and easy meal to start the day. I was going to sit with my laptop when something made noise by the front door.

Somebody leaned against my front door. “Who are you and how did you get in?”

“Hmm. Greetings little one. Mother didn’t say you would be so tiny. Hmm. Well, I’m Mischeleine.”

“I’m short. Not tiny. If you don’t leave, I’m calling 911.”

“I was hoping we could get together and have some fun.” She put her finger under my chin and lifted it up. “Hmm? Come now. Since we have to work together I thought we might as well become friends. What do you say?”

I had no idea who she was or how she got in. I ran away from her to grab my phone from my room. I turned it on to dial EMS when it got jerked out of my hand and into the air.

I backed up and away from her. Who was she? “Now look…” My mouth turned dry. “There’s isn’t much money. Take whatever you want. Take me if that’s what you want.”

“Tsk Tsk. Tsk.” She held up my phone, looked at it, and then it floated back to me.

I grabbed my phone. Her voice was higher than I thought it would be. Sort of like a witch’s voice from the old movies.

“You really think my voice is too high?” She cleared her throat. “All right then, how’s this?” She jumped in the air, laid on her side, and floated to me. “I just wanted to have a little fun. With Mother being so boring of late, I wanted to find out if my new partner would be willing to get wet again? Your diving lacked finesse and style.”

She read my mind? “Holy cow.” I gulped. “How? Uh… What… What did you have in mind?” I hoped it didn’t involve eye of newt and dragon’s blood.

Somebody rang the doorbell. What was it? A silent telegram went out to everybody that said Mom’s out of town. Quick, go bug Leighanne?

I went to answer the doorbell and holy mother of god she was gorgeous.

“Greetings. I am Mischeleine. And you would be?”

Confused. “I’m Leighanne. Did you need something?”

“There is someone here that does not belong. She is about as tall as I, bean pole skinny, long yellow hair, gray eyes, has a mousy voice though she does try to hide it.”

“Yeah. She was just here.” I scanned the area and didn’t see her. “I don’t think she’s here anymore.”

“Bull’s pizzle.”

“Say what?”

“Never mind that. She is the owner of no one good quality so I suggest you stay away from her. Never agree to anything she says. Understand?”

I let her inside so she wouldn’t be stuck in the doorway. “I would if you could explain why.” Ever since yesterday, things went from strange to downright bizarre.

“As simple as I can explain, good for her bad for you. Repeat exactly what she told you.”

“Nothing really. Just that she was surprised that I thought her voice was too high and she wanted to play with me. That’s all.”

“All right. Since when have you been a gatekeeper?”

“Since yesterday.”

“Since yesterday? You have been given this responsibility since yesterday?”

“Yeah.”

“My name is Mischeleine. Her name is Frieda. Remember that. If you say her name three times she cannot transform until the next full moon. When she does return, call out my name. I will come. Where is your guardian?”

“I don’t know.” I knew I forgot to ask something. “She just went out on a business trip.”

It was scorching hot outside and she wore a black leather trench coat. It took me a little bit to realize that.

“This?” She took it off and threw it in the air. “Better?” That revealed a blue tank top and denim shorts.

I nodded. “Now—”

Frieda floated towards me again. I pointed in Mischelein’s direction and that was when spit and blood flew in the air. They poofed out of the house.

The phone rang. “Hello?”

“Hi baby girl. How’s things?”

Tell her truth? “They’re all right.”

“Sounds a lot better for you than me. I’m stuck at the airport. In the meanwhile, don’t forget to lock the doors and always spread the smudge stick on your windowsill. I usually do that but I can’t. Obviously.”

Now she says something. “OK. Anything else?”

“Don’t burn the house down and always take pictures of your area even when you don’t see anything. It doesn’t have to be of that particular area. Any space. OK?”

Couldn’t she have told me that sooner? “Will do. Travel safe. Come back in one piece.”

“I plan on it. See ya later, Kiddo. Love ya.”

“Love you too.” Alone at last. Maybe there’s a good show on that I could lose myself with.

I flipped through one thousand and something channels and not a darn thing to watch. I went back to my computer to do something. There had to be a good game I could play.

That kept me occupied until my stomach growled. I heated up some canned spaghetti to eat and got ready to go outside. The sun wouldn’t go down for another few hours yet.

I grabbed the magnifying glass and went back to the sanctuary. Nothing seemed out of place since last time. I went around the trees and a wall existed that I didn’t notice before. Maybe because I didn’t look. About halfway around on the right side, I saw a hole.

No sharp edges and it was a clean cut.

“Yes, I see.” A hand came towards mine which made me scream. “Oh, don’t worry. It’s me.”

“Mischeliene?”

“Yes. I see a hole that should not exist. That was how she escaped. I will alert the others. What you need to do in the meanwhile is to keep her occupied any way you can. Use a forked tongue and go along with whatever she tells you to do until further notice.”

“Huh?”

“Lie. She will be coming any moment now. You go and I will stay here. I will hold your glass until then. Go along now.”

I left her there and considered what she said. Lie and go along with Frieda. What did that mean? Kill someone? Rob a bank? I had to go back to the house to get my cell so I could call Mom. What the hell was I supposed to do?

And they said summertime is the best time.