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.

The Treasure Hunter

There it spread before me, Dead Man’s Crossing. Sure it was miles of sand without any lurking predators. Rumor had it, a lot of people tried crossing the desert landscape leaving a lot of people missing. According to the instructions given, it was an obstacle to get to the other side without a way around it.

I turned around and went back to my jeep to find Juan Carlos. He was the expert in this desert landscape, and if I wanted to stay alive, the man to see before I dared crossing. Miles of cacti and sand later, Tur Foraminis came into view. The name meant watering hole, and it was small enough to have that name. Three stools at the bar and no tables. I couldn’t worry about that because my only goal was to get proof, the Precious Treasure Tunnels existed.

Straw hat with the top missing, messy hair and beard, loud enough to be heard across the road, and drunk. It had to be him. Either that or the description my backer gave me turned out to be a practical joke.

“Juan Carlos.” I walked to him, and although I didn’t want to touch him, I poked his shoulder. “Are you Juan Carlos?”

He turned around towards me, stood from the stool, and dropped to the floor. When he didn’t sit up, I got the bartender’s attention to get a pitcher of water. I glanced at the pitcher before I poured it, glad I had no plans to drink anything.

Pitcher of water later and no movement. He could’ve dropped dead, but he picked up his head and shook it, which got me wet. Nothing I could do about that.  He sat up and looked up at me. “You… you’re ear… early.”

Uh huh. This would be a long hunt. Why couldn’t he be a clean man who didn’t drink endless barrels of whatever? Because they wouldn’t be my contacts, that’s why.

Afraid to take in a deep breath, I smiled instead. “You must be Juan Carlos who’s supposed to lead me across the desert.”

“To… Tomorrow. First thing.” He smiled and dropped to the floor again.

First appearances were everything, which made me question his validity, but there was always tomorrow. I hoped.

The rest of the day I spent in a dollar a day hotel room and studied the story. It seems a civilization hid their treasure in a secret location to hide from invaders seeking to expand not only their income but their land. Hence the existence of the Precious Treasure Tunnels. Nobody has ever come back with proof of its existence. Several theories existed as to its whereabouts, but none has returned with said proof.

I’ve been to every theorized location, and then some, to search for it but have come up with nothing. This was my last shot.

Out of money, out of motivation, and out of sponsors, I had to make this work or be forever labeled as the wanna be treasure hunter. I refused to be snickered at as the little lady who couldn’t.

The next morning somebody knocked on my door. I opened it a crack and Juan Carlos stood smiling at my door. “Morning.”

No hat, beard, or drunken speech, and his clothes were clean. “Yes, it is. First, call me JC. Nobody calls me Juan Carlos. Second, nothing on you except what you’re wearing and a light pair of shoes. Third, you will do as I say when I say it. Fourth, the legend is true. Those that attempted to cross never made it. All of them got eaten alive. If you follow my directions, we will make it. Deal?”

I wasn’t into taking orders, but under the circumstances, I didn’t have a choice but to nod.

“Good. I took care of your room, so don’t worry about it. We need to get going.”

He didn’t have the Mexican accent that I expected. Whatever made him drink like that yesterday made me curious. Not enough to ask about it.

We rode in his jeep until we arrived at the same location that I stood in front of yesterday. He jumped out. “This is it. Dead Man’s Crossing. Now you’re thinking why the name. What’s the big deal? It’s just a bunch of drunken rumors. Let me show you something.”

He reached into the jeep and pulled out a dead rat. He threw said dead rat into the sand and it went from a desert to a landscape filled with something that made the carcass disappear in a matter of seconds. “Holy hell.”

“Yup. When I say go, you run as fast as you can. When you fall, get up as fast as you can and keep running to the top of that dune. Nobody knows what’s inside. Nobody wants to know what’s inside. On and off as fast as you can. Got it?”

“Yeah. Keep running and don’t look back. Got it. Just so that I know we are not running endlessly?”

“You see that trail up ahead.” He handed me a pair of binoculars.

I looked through them. “Yeah.”

He took them from me and threw them in the jeep. “That is our destination. We will talk about part two after we make it over there.”

Something flew over our heads. When I looked up, four drones in the sky carried two large carcasses. Dead cattle maybe, but I didn’t look at them too long, ready to run the mile in ten seconds flat.

The bodies fell, and the landscape changed again. I followed the path to the top. That bright sun over me didn’t make it so easy, but I made it. About ready to run again, he held me back.

Two more dropped, and we crossed the distance. About three more steps and I tripped over my own two feet. I got up and kept running. We got halfway when he held my arm.

Panting and wishing for anything wet, I bent over in pain. My sides hurt and my legs refused to move. I didn’t know if I could make it to our destination.

He took in a deep breath. “We did good. We follow this trail to Paradise City. You’ll find out why they call it that. When we get there, let me do the talking.”

When and if, he meant, but I gathered whatever energy I could and moved my feet. We got to the end of the trail and entered a tented city with animals of every species around including trees and water holes. Clinking and clanking of something was all around us.

He put his hands on my shoulders. “Stay. I’ll be back.”

“Ruff.”

He shook his head and walked away. No idea how long I stood there and waited. When he came back, he pulled me behind him and we walked over to a small tent.

“For the telling of a story or two, and the promise of cooking something for them, I could negotiate a three day and two-night stay. Complete with bath and enough supplies to last for seven days. They will go with us until the edge of their land, and then we are on our own. One of their elders will explain the story of the Precious Treasure Tunnels.”

“Anything. Does it come with an enormous glass of something wet?”

“Of course.” He smiled. A piece of cloth hung on the wall. He pulled it as far as it would go. “This is the only tent they had available. This cloth is meant as a divider.”

“Right. OK.” I looked around and noticed two piles of pillows. Somebody threw in pieces of cloth to my side. I held it up and discovered they were clothes.

“Done?”

“Why? What now?”

“I sleep. You bathe. Wake me when you get back. You reek.”

I laughed. “You weren’t exactly, shall I say, smelling like Old Spice yesterday.”

“Eh.”

I put the clothes on and left the tent. A woman bowed in front of me and motioned me to walk ahead. No way to know where to go, I followed the yellow brick road so to speak.

We stopped in an area that smelled like sulfur. I took a few more steps and noticed the natural hot water springs. I took steps toward it but the lady shook her head and pointed me to the left. She stood behind me and nudged me over to an empty bench. She took off my clothes and gave them to another woman.

The woman brought my head back and got it wet before putting something in it. I had no idea what it was but it had an herbal and flower scent to die for. After that, she scrubbed my back while I scrubbed the front.

It didn’t feel awkward because all I did was take a bath before having a soak.

Assuming that we finished I stood up from the bench. She wrapped a cloth around me from behind and nudged me again to go ahead. This time I could lounge in the hot springs. She came to get me a little while after that.

The clothes came back with a brighter look to them. I dressed and returned to the tent. JC stood and left.

That was when I had a chance to look at my surroundings. It reminded me of the fabled tents of the nomads I heard so much about growing up. Tents large enough to fit a semi, made from a durable material that kept the harsh sun away, and supplied with rich colored silks and soft cushions. A pitcher and two goblets sat on a table in the corner.

I didn’t care what it was. I poured the contents of the pitcher into my mouth before I put it down. Maybe I should’ve left some for JC. Too late to think about that.

I pulled the divider to one side because it wasn’t necessary anymore. They needed me to get dressed before I returned so they had to make him do the same thing. The comfy looking fluffy pillows in the back looked perfect to catch a nap. A brief inspection told me they were clean.

Someone shook my shoulder. I opened my eyes and saw a little girl stand next to me with a note in her hand. I took it and they were ready for the night’s feast. To be honest, I forgot about it.

I was led to what I assumed was the cooking area with pots and fires and food all around. After coming up with a plan, I fulfilled my end of the bargain. Complete with a funny adventure story.

They told me their part of the story. The Precious Treasure Tunnels was nothing but a myth that was created to help with the tourism business. The more people came, the more business they had. I had a problem with that story, because of the constant exchange of glances and that story took so many turns it was easy to get lost.

I remembered returning to the tent and crashing on my pillows. My arms screamed at me when I tried to roll over. That same little girl stood over me with a smile on her face. She had trouble waking up JC so that would be my duty.

She left and I threw everything at him that would wake most people. I even borrowed the goat. Well, I did what I used to do with Gramps and that was wave a cup of coffee under his nose.

He opened his eyes. “What?”

“It’s about damn time. They came to wake us which means it’s time for us to get moving.”

He stood from his spot. “You’re going. I’m staying.”

He what? “Uhm. OK. Why?”

“I was paid to bring you here and I’ve got another client.”

“JC—”

“I gotta go.” He gathered up a backpack and slung it on his shoulder. “Nice knowing you.” He left.

Great. That left me to figure how to get out of here and what did he mean he was paid. He wasn’t supposed to have been paid until all of this was done and over with. So what did mean he was paid?

Before I had a chance to think about all of this, a woman showed up and motioned for me to follow her. So I did.

She brought me over to their animals. A camel had packs on its back with a tether line around its neck. Another one had a saddle on its back with camel fitted reins on it. That was transportation. Somewhere in the story they told me were instructions on how to get there. Gramps always told me to bring along a paper and a pencil. I thought he was kidding until that point.

After talking to the lady, it seems the camels knew where to go. I didn’t but they did. So I hopped on and enjoyed the ride. Such as it was. It gave me an opportunity to figure out what to do.

I couldn’t take pictures because they were too easy to be doctored. That didn’t leave much else other than samples of the environment. That wouldn’t be easy because of beliefs and culture.

That was when the problem came up. If I couldn’t take anything, how was I supposed to prove its existence? After all, that was reason for this entire adventure.

I continued my trek through passageways and caverns. I came upon an underground lake with a single stalagmite pillar in the middle that looked like it held up the ceiling. About as perfect in shape as anything man made.

I stopped before another cave. Water dripped and a wind blew in from somewhere as if it didn’t encourage me to go. I saw the lost civilization.

I had no idea where the light came from but it illuminated the area. Jars and jugs on different sized pillars. The carvings told they were grain. The area ahead had drawings of everyday life. The area next to that held baskets of something. The carvings told they were supposed to be fruits. There was no big treasure chest worth an extraordinary amount of money. That was it.

Of course the paint was faded and the carvings weren’t as clear as they should be but it didn’t take much to put the dots together. That wasn’t it though.

It couldn’t be. If there was one rule that Gramps taught me, never take things at face value. There is always a story. There will always be something more. It’s our job to find it.

There was nothing else though. Pictures and carvings and jugs and bones so nothing else. The more I looked at the pictures the more I realized it wouldn’t take much to create these. Without sophisticated equipment, I had to take things at face value.

So something had to be out of place. If something were that precious wouldn’t they tag along to be sure everything would be all right. Nothing made sense anymore.

I picked up every jug, bone, rock, and sand that I could see. I even tap danced my way around the room. What if there was another room that nobody had seen yet?

I poked my head outside and looked around. Nobody there, I left that room and side stepped my way down the path a bit. I found a crack and went inside. No light inside and no way to create a light. I felt my way around the room and my hand hit something.

I always loved the Indiana Jones movies. It gave me a picture of what Gramps did. He always laughed at those movies and called them comedies. I only mentioned that because it felt like an Indiana Jones movie. Misled adventures and all.

I landed on my butt. Thank God it wasn’t a rock. I stood up and felt my way around. Something on the ground made me trip, without something to hold onto, I tried to grip the wall and that was when the lights turned on.

“Holy Mother of All Creation.” Clear blue crystals covered the walls. A light above gave them a holistic feel. A narrow path by a pond led passed them. I followed it to another room. Rugs, pictures, material, and bound parchment filled the room.

I took the time to examine the find. If my guess was right, this was an entire civilization of women. Maybe I should’ve studied history like Gramps suggested because I couldn’t think of any civilizations that were made of women. The existence of the Amazons was always a hot debate so they didn’t count.

This was the Precious Treasure Tunnels. Not the crystals but this room. This find had the power to turn everybody’s head with the possibility that history was wrong. I had to grab something unique to verify my findings. I grabbed a parchment and held it close to me. This would be an adventure I would never forget. Proof existed and I had it.

A Labour of Moles

The throbbing in my head woke me up. I sat up and glanced around. Somehow, I ended up in an underground tunnel. With the help of the wall, I stood up from the floor. Except for a few dirt spots on me everything seemed to be all right.

The walls looked intact, and the track wasn’t broken. Five or six people remained on the other side, maybe several yards away. I patted around my head to be sure it wasn’t bleeding and no blood on my hands.

“Hey!” No reaction. “Hey. You over there.” They ran off. So much for that. I turned around to what must’ve been the stairs to lead up top. Rubble blocked them, though.

I stopped to listen but nothing, so I took a chance and crossed the tracks. I kept going, and they moved down. Even without stairs, I could feel the slope move downward. Lights were still there, cobwebs and street art decorated the walls.

The usual rats, mice, and bugs were absent. No vagrants down here either. Where did they run off too? Why did it smell so clean?

Up on a wall, a big yellow poster with black letters across the way got my attention. “Stop the war. It must end or the conclusion of humanity will be upon us. Defy the government.”

That’s right. We entered another war against Korea. Mass evacuations, financial institutions declaring bankruptcy, and any health care facility were packed. Bombs fell and everybody ran for cover. Someone must’ve pushed me down here or left me behind.

OK, so now what? The only thing I could do was to keep moving. A feel around my body and pockets, I realized no electronic equipment was on me. Not even my wallet. My smartwatch was missing. Somebody stole them. None of that was necessary at the moment, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t need them.

It had to be at least five miles and it hasn’t ended yet. Maybe Mother dearest put me down here and wished for the best. Who knew? Chances were though, at the first clue she arranged to get out without a care in the world for someone else.

I reached the end. At last. It had to be with a mixture of rocks, cement, and pieces of metal blocking the rest of the path again. The light got dimmer too.

Something made a noise, and when I turned to the left, someone stood in a shaft and waved me over. Well, that meant I had to cross the tracks again. Up and over and… they disappeared.

After calling out several times, and not getting an answer, I persisted anyway. I should’ve gone back, but there was nowhere to turn around to.

Either a chemical weapon exploded and changed all the animals into enormous beasts or something had a very long tail. I believed the latter. It led the way down a burrow. The walls changed from cement and metal to rocks and dirt. There were even skeletons scattered about.

I didn’t stop to investigate to find out if they were human or animal. A sudden shiver went down my spine. “What on God’s green Earth did I get myself into?”

To persevere was to generate progress. Either that or end up like whoever or whatever they were. I needed to stay focused instead of letting my mind wander. There was a mission to carry out. Dammit.

OK, calm down. Deep breath in and out. We, or I should say myself, ended up at an entrance. Voices, clanking, and other noises came from beyond. The tail disappeared. I needed something to keep on track. Tails do not exist on their own. They’re attached to something. “Get a grip.”

I stepped over a pile of rocks at the entrance and it was a unique world. Some animal grew up to be life-sized wearing clothes. Rats or mice or something. “Unbelievable. I had no idea an entire society existed below the surface. The scientific research that could be done to help understand how they could live down here undetected would be an undertaking. To say the least.”

Something stepped in front of me and made noises. Pointy noise, rounded ears, and long whiskers. It had on a blue sundress even. “It is about time. Sometimes I forget that humans can’t run as fast.” It laughed. “I’m Dixie. I’m a juvenile down here and when I went out exploring I found you. You don’t look well for a human. We get them down here, but they rarely last long. The elders say they lose their minds because they can’t process what their new life has to bring. Some do though. Not very many.” She made noises again.

“Is your stomach mad or something? There’s a noise that sounds like hunger pains. Is that you? If it is, I know where you can get sustenance.”

Boy she liked to talk. What I took as a smile and a cheerful voice I went along with it. Better to make friends than enemies. “Hi. I’m Adelaide Quartermaine.” I left it at that.

She stared at me and clicked her tongue before she ran away. I came this far, so I thought I might as well keep going. Everybody looked alike. Sure, these creatures wore different clothing, but there had to be another way of defining who they were as an individual. Not as a group. A lot of communication is done with scent. We saw it in dogs.

I kept going, and no one paid attention to me. I seemed to be ignored. The further I kept going, the more I saw. The deeper I explored, the more humans came to light. “So that’s where they were. Down that passageway.”

Many people like me, none of them resembled those creatures back there. I kept going as I looked at the human population. Some had human children. A door stopped me from going any further.

I didn’t want to intrude, so I turned back around to be met with three creatures. This time, they had white hair instead of tan like Dixie had. “Hi. Can I help you?”

“Yes. We are the elders here. One of our juveniles mentioned that she brought an out of sorts Topper down here. We were wondering if you might help us.”

“If I can.” I wondered if I would end up as dinner if I didn’t give them what they wanted. God, make them vegetarians.

They stayed quiet as we went through tunnels and chambers filled with these creatures. I had no idea what to call them. Giant mice came to mind, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful. Animals were not my area of expertize.

We stopped in a metal-lined room filled with books of every sort. “Some of these we have been able to translate thanks to our Toppers. Others couldn’t comprehend the language enough to explain to us what the meaning of these words entails. Could you?”

I knew American English and Latin. “May I see?”

He reached for one and gave it to me. Foundation for Scientific Research in bold letters on the cover. Not like them to leave these around. I opened the cover.

This was talking about my division. “This one is explaining the cataloging of genetic markers in viruses for better identification.”

“What would be the purpose of such a thing?”

“To better identify them in case a vaccine is necessary. Sometimes viruses mutate and can return. In which case, we would need to seek out a better way to break down their genetic structure.”

“Oh yes. Yes, of course. All right. And this one?”

Another one from the same place. Lab G: Genetic Manipulation of Living Species for Better Understanding. That was the God Complex division. I opened the first page and his picture right smack dab in the middle. Tobias Sheridan, division head. Rumor had it he got the job because the Board of Trustees needed to fill a spot. That and his family made up a majority of the board.

That division researched to combine species for other uses by the government. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to know anymore.

I gulped and prayed they didn’t read it yet. “This is just talking about the same thing.” You are such an awful liar.

I held it out for him to take. “The words seemed more complicated than that,” the older male said. “Are you certain of this? Not that we believe you speak with a forked tongue. It is that no one wants to tell us what is in it.”

“Really. I’m not lying.” What was it they said about it being easier to tell the truth? Less to keep track of?

“All right. If you wait a bit, we will see that you are taken care of. Thank you for your service.”

Another turned around. “We just need to righten your burrow and bring you your sustenance.”

That one spoke with a female voice. Maybe the other one’s wife? I needed to concentrate.

“Uh. Excuse me.”

They turned around. “Would you mind if I stayed here? I’d love to read this.” So I could find out if I needed to get ready for a six foot deep hole.

“Oh, of course. Of course. That way, we will know where to find you.” They left at the same time.

Dixie came back and pulled me along behind her. I had no idea where we going. I hoped it wasn’t to the execution chamber.

Well, I found what these creatures were called and how they came about. They labeled these creatures as Molers. They were created to be the government’s new weapon. They started research in WWII and didn’t stop until this new war. After years of genetic manipulation, they thought they had it right. Creatures they had control of, lacked human emotion, unable to reproduce, lacked cognitive ability, and since they created them, they could destroy them. I worked for these people and had no idea this was going on.

Whoever was in charge of this project failed to do the necessary observations. If they did, they would realize they got every one of their goals wrong.

They created another sentient being. I had to get my mind off that subject before something happened.

She took me to a spot out in the tunnels where a table had been set up. Various fruits, vegetables, and breads sat there. I sniffed the mug and it smelled like wine.

“Thank you. I’m not sure what to say.”

“Quite all right. Quite all right. If you wouldn’t mind clearing up after yourself. Predators might sniff the area, you know.” She left.

I had no idea what she was talking about, but I was hungry enough not to care. Everything tasted fresh. The fruit was so sweet and juice squirted when I bit into them.

I ate everything and cleaned the table. I was happy to do it. After that, I looked around to see what I could find.

A section of workers judging by the headlights and them not having any clothes on. They ignored me and kept on working. A little further down from that I found the farm. UV lights and shelves of plants.

I mentioned this before but an entire society—

“Adelaide,” Mother said.

I turned around and sure enough. “Mother. I didn’t expect to find you here.”

“Where else would I be?”

“Uh huh.”

“I’m the one that pulled you down here. You should be grateful to your lifesaving mother.”

“Uh huh.”

“Well?”

“Well, I’m waiting for you to explain to me how it is you got here.” Why do I have the feeling you had everything to do with this?

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because dirt is beneath you.” Above you and on all sides. “Let’s face it. You would have a panic attack at the mere thought of you touching dirt.”

That smile of hers faded. Gee, I wondered why.

“What are you implying?” Her lips came together as if they were magnetized and she had slitted eyes.

I would’ve loved to have been able to tell her that I had better things to do. At the moment, there was nothing. I heard that noise again.

“Oh, there you are,” Dixie said. “Toppers don’t come down this way. Walls fall in down here until they’ve been doubled up. Come. Your burrow is ready.”

I was never so happy as to see her again. It gave me an excuse to continue with that nonsense conversation later. The only thing I could figure was she funded this thing. For what reason I didn’t know.

We stopped near the entrance, about a few holes down, when we stopped. I peeked inside and noticed a pile of straw with a few pieces of material stacked next to it. A short passageway that led to the back. “Is this it?” I asked, as I pointed.

“Yes. Be sure to turn out the lights before bedding. For elimination purposes, there is a separate room for that. I don’t think I brought you there yet.” We left my burrow.

Down the alley with other people, behind the closed door, was the what she referred to as the elimination room. It should’ve smelled horrible but it didn’t. Again with the workers chatting away at each other. “This is where you eliminate. All we ask is that you do the best you can to be sure you don’t make a trail. It can be hard, we know, but try your best.” We left the area.

We made it back to my burrow and Dixie left but Mother stayed. It had to finish at some point because I had a feeling I would be called out for my lie.

“OK, Mother,” I said as I turned around to face her. “Start explaining. These people didn’t just appear out of nowhere.” Don’t you dare say it’s all a figment of my wild imagination.

She cleared her throat. “I don’t have to answer to you. You have to answer to me. I am on the board you know.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, none of that would make a difference. In case you forgot, chances are any remnants of a life on the surface would have been destroyed. So start talking.”

“I still have age on my side and I don’t have to answer to you.”

“I guess I don’t have a choice then. I’m sure the elders would let me read the reports from the Foundation about this society they created. A new army. They created them. They could kill them. Dig holes. Dig tunnels. Provide a safe space to stay until all the bad guys are dead and nobody would be the wiser. Of course people would find out. It would only be a matter of time. You can’t stop people from talking no matter how hard you try.” I stood close to her out of the need to see her squirm. “So either you tell me or I find out the facts for myself. I recognized a few staff members and I’m sure they would love some company.”

“All right. Fine.” She ran her hand through her hair. “I funded this program because they told me a war was about to start and the only way to stay safe was to continue to fund it. So I did. You and me don’t get along but that doesn’t mean I wanted to see you dead. I put you in your position so that you would have a safe space when war broke out.”

To say, I saw red would have been an understatement.

“They’re stupid people. They can’t read or write. They can’t even go shopping. Why would you care?”

I pointed toward the opening. “Get out.” She didn’t move. “Get out of here now. I was told I got in based on my own work. They liked it enough to hire me and put me in my position. You turn around and tell me you had everything to do with it.” I needed a breath so I went to the opening for a second before I turned around again. “These are not stupid people. One of the elders explained to me that they translated some texts. That tells me while they don’t read our language they created their own. That’s not stupidity. As for going shopping, they’re a self-sufficient people. Why would they need to go shopping?”

I heard that familiar chattering. Sure enough, “Dixie… .”

“I will let the elders know the goings on here. They will need to know.” Dixie left.

“I expect you to get me out of any trouble you got me into.”

Oh, dear Mother. I had no intention of doing that. “You got yourself into this mess. You can get yourself out.”

Two Molers came and escorted us in the same direction as those metal rooms. Once we got there, I caught a glimpse of Dixie with her now red ears, her lips up, and teeth chattering. The slit eyes completed the look.

The same elders came to us. “It is our understanding that there is a bit of chattering between the both of you.”

“If I may ask, what are you saying?” I was confused.

“What we are saying is that the both of you were heard from quite a distance. Everything was heard and recorded. So the only thing we would like to know is, were you speaking with forked tongues?”

“No. Unfortunately. I’m sorry. It’s just… Dixie brought me here. She was nice and all but I didn’t know if you wanted me for dinner or not. What I mean by that is I didn’t know if you had eyes on me as your dinner. I kept a lot back, and yes, I spoke with a forked tongue when you asked originally to interpret the journals. I should’ve been up front with you.” Guillotine, starvation, ants, or any method that would be painful.

“We accept your word,” the male said. “We were unsure about you as well. The older one of you gave us an uneasy feeling when we socialized with her. We had hoped that it was only because we are a new people.”

I let go of the breath I didn’t know I was holding. Some how it didn’t make anything better. There had to be a catch. There always is.

The female stepped forward. “We asked another Topper to read the book for us as we interpreted it for others to read. It is our story about how we came to be. The juveniles have a right to know. What you say, is what the book told us. Because of that, we believe you no longer speak with a forked tongue. Instead, we would like you to be a member of our community. Come back to us after a full moon and we will talk again.” She stepped back and they left at the same time.

I closed my eyes and felt any amount of tension leave my body. I opened them to see Dixie standing in front of me. “Does this mean you don’t hate me?”

“You mean think of you as a member of another clan? No. I have to take you back to your burrow. Toppers get turned around down here.”

She led and I followed. I looked back at Mother and she still stood there. Not sure what she thought and didn’t know if I wanted to ask. I was almost afraid of the answer. Whatever she planned to do from this moment, I hoped didn’t include me.

Bench to Judgment

Couldn’t believe spring got here, because winter hung on from November until now. Then it did every year. May got here, and the temps shot to the mid-seventies instead of the thirties and forties we’ve been having.

It seemed everybody wanted to revel in the weather also, because all the benches were occupied. The city blocked the red one, but other than that nothing open. I didn’t need to sit and enjoy it, anyway.

I had to get back, seeing as how it was Sunday and Sunday meant chores to finish before the work week started. I didn’t want to starve, so a quick trip to the store was necessary. Going hungry would be bad. 

I got back to my car and pulled out of the parking lot. Not too much traffic to deal with, which was a wonderful thing. It made it easier to get to the store.

With groceries in my car, my laundry needed to get done. That and I needed to vacuum. An ongoing picture in my head included the vacuum cleaner and it yelling at me while it did its duty always came to mind. I could’ve gotten the robovacuum cleaner, but that meant no exercise.

Chores done, relaxing time came at last. I pulled a pizza out of the freezer and heated it up. Movie on TV and my night was set. Nothing to complain about the weekend. It was good.

Monday came, and I needed to get up at five o’clock in the AM to be sure to move the body. Then get ready to get to work. Eight o’clock, perfect, I signed in.

Kids everywhere, some screaming and some crying. Mine came up to me and smiled. “Hi, Ms. Biddy,” they said. I preferred Bidelia but Biddy was easier for three-year-olds to say.

The day went along as planned. Sometimes my life worked. These were the times it did.

I always dreaded the days where one thing would go wrong and would escalate into a colossal mess at the end. Those times didn’t happen often, but they did.


It started with me getting up from the floor of my bedroom. With no idea how that came to be, I got ready for work.

As if the start of my morning wasn’t enough, I got to work ten minutes late because of an accident that happened ahead of me, once there one of my kids bit me, and I had to do overtime because that same kid hadn’t been picked up yet and it was closing time. It should’ve stopped there, but it ended with me listening to a message from Mom because Dad died of a heart attack. I couldn’t find the words to describe that day.

After a phone call to my boss, I breathed. She let me take three weeks off for grieving. I got to Mom’s house to help with arranging the funeral.

About a dozen phone calls later, everything from the funeral itself to anything to do with finances were taken care of. Things didn’t get emotional until I looked for him to ask about the car.

Once it started the crying didn’t seem to stop. Such a minor thing cause that kind of reaction. I needed some space. It sounded horrible, but a break would be great.

I didn’t want to see my reflection, but I did. Red and puffy eyes with a nose so stuffed I couldn’t breathe. The shower didn’t wash anything away except dirt.

Mom approached me from the kitchen with a smile. “Bidelia, dear, I need time. It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s just that I need to gather myself together.” She grasped my hands and smiled. Tears welled up and flowed down her cheeks.

“I understand. I thought about going to the lake myself. Maybe we just need to be somewhere else other than here.”

She nodded and kissed my cheek. “You and your father always did.”

“I will be back.” I got to the door. “Love you.” With that, I left for my destination.

The roads didn’t have any traffic, which was weird. It was a regular day, no holiday. People packed the lake any chance they got. Maybe they found something else to do.

After parking the car, I continued towards the benches without caring if anyone was there and sat on that red bench. People appreciated nature. The birds, bugs, and squirrels seemed to get their attention. That is everyone but me. It never fascinated me, so I stayed away from places like this. At that moment though, I welcomed the change in scenery.

The red one looked over the space between two trees with a cliff a couple steps beyond that. A bit further and ducks swam in the water.

I closed my eyes and heard the birds. A whoosh of wind blew by me. I opened my eyes and a tall woman stood in front of me.

“It is not your time,” she said.

I looked up and she dressed in a black leather coat, black pants, black wide-brimmed hat, with black hair that cascaded down her back. The white shirt looked odd with all of that black.

I stood from the bench. “Who are you and what are you talking about?”

“I am Constantina.” She smiled. Her voice was deep for being a woman. Almost whispery. It gave me goosebumps. “Your time has not come. Unless you wish to leave this plane of existence now.”

I couldn’t see her face. Somehow, shade kept me from seeing it. “I’m Bidelia and plane of existence. I sat here because of the view. That’s all. There’s no sign saying nobody can sit here.”

“Perhaps you were not informed. It does not matter. There was once a man who sat there. He was warned the same as you. ‘I don’t care. My wife and my daughter would be better off without me. I can’t forget about something I did a long time ago.’ Those were his words before he had been given his last warning.”

There was a moment she sounded like Dad. I must’ve needed sugar or food or something because I was hallucinating. I glanced at the trees for something else to look at while thoughts came together. I looked where she stood, and with another gust of wind she disappeared.

Not knowing what else to do, I went back to Mom’s. A note on the table said she would be back in a while. That meant waiting until she got back before talking to her about it.

I crashed on the couch and stared at the blank TV. I couldn’t wait anymore and went around the house to look for something, anything at that point. Maybe we missed a paper or an odd coin somewhere.

A thorough search of the home-office turned up naught. That was until the bookcase caught my attention. Dad didn’t read. OK, he did the odd magazine article, but as far as books he didn’t. It never did until now.

“Of Mice and Men? Crime and Punishment?” What the… .

All one-hundred-eighty-seven pages Of Mice and Men glued together except the back of the book. A yellowed envelope fell out when I opened it.

All seven-hundred pages of Crime and Punishment was the same way. Well, a pull-string pouch existed inside a square hole with a key in its depths. It looked old, and in a design I never saw. Sort of like a skeleton key, I guessed.

I put the pouch aside while I read the note. It only said that inside all will be revealed. What did he mean by that? “Dad!”

Mom said she would be back in a while. Lucky for me, she got a cellphone.

“Mom? Are you OK?”

“Oh yes, dear. I decided to stay for a while at your aunt’s. Uhm, if you need me, just call me.”

“Are you sure you’re OK?”

“Now don’t judge me. I’m not a strong woman. Leave me alone.” She hung up.

That was a shock. Give her a bit to calm down before I go after her. Maybe go after her was a little too severe. Maybe try again would be better. Back to this mystery.

In the movies, they often revealed a secret passage when a book was pulled. Starting from the top, that’s what I did. Until I got to A Tale of Two Cities on the bottom left and the bookcase opened to reveal an exit. I put the key in the hole in the middle, and it turned. On its own. I gulped and stopped to think for a moment as the door creaked open.

With every step, lanterns lit on the wall. The house didn’t look big from the outside, the typical ranch style single family home. The passageways made it huge. I had no idea how long it was before it led me to a room.

Lanterns puffed on one at a time on the walls. The room was round with a red carpet in the middle. What kind of man was he? Yeah, he was my old man. Football weekends, worked nine to five, drove a Toyota, grew up in the Midwest, loved beef and everything sweet. He never showed me any of this.

A pile of leather-bound papers piled on a desk. Ten of them. “Dad, what’s going on here?” I kept turning around, in awe of… well… everything.

Did I want to sit down and read about his thoughts and emotions? That stuff was personal and without him here it would be intruding. There were questions, and those books would help to answer them. Mom hinted that she might be awhile.

I pulled out the chair and picked up the one on top. The pages were written in a hand I had never seen before. His handwriting always looked like a doctor’s with squiggles and lines forming unidentifiable words. These were neat and well formed.

I got through the first one. A secret society meant to protect the innocent. Huh? Too confusing to even comprehend. About as far as I read was the beginning of a love story between him and another woman. Not Mom, but a woman married to a wealthy industrialist.

These things got me wondering. My hand shook as I reached for the second journal. It didn’t feel cold, so why would it? I snatched it up and read that one. All about training and procedure. A more technical side to the tale.

She wanted to leave him and had begun the proceedings. That was as far as I got. Yeah, I thought I finished before but Mom came home. The slammed door shook the house.

It took a bit for me to get out from there. About to close the bookcase Mom called me.

“Bidelia, I have been calling you and calling you. Have you gone deaf?”

“Mom, everything will be OK. Just relax.”

“You know I don’t like to be kept waiting and where were you and why did you destroy the house.”

With no other way to explain, I held her hand and took her through the maze. I let go of her hand and waited for her to take it all in. I half expected her to look around and poke at things.

Instead, she pointed her eyes at me. “Well? You destroyed my house too.”

“Mom, I didn’t do this. I’m guessing this was Dad’s secret office.”

“He didn’t have any mysteries. He was my guy and my companion. I knew everything about him.”

After all that yelling, a soothing tone would’ve made her listen. “Maybe all he wanted you to know.” We stood there and beamed at each other. “Take a look.” I swept my hands around the room. “See the journals over there on the desk.” I pointed to the stack. “They might have—”

“How dare you suggest my husband would have secrets from me? From me. His own wife. He was my man, and he always told me whatever I needed to know. Even things I didn’t have to. It’s what a married couple does.” She slapped me.

It stung, but not as much as her speech. “I’m only suggesting that you take the time to read his journals. It might hold the answers.”

“To what? To what, huh? What are you keeping from me? Huh? I can’t believe you. Secrets from your own mother.”

“I didn’t do this. I wouldn’t know how.”

“Yes, you did.”

“How? How could I accomplish all of this?” So much for a quiet approach. “I live all the way across town. You were always home. Tell me how I could do all of this.” I was only surprised nothing fell after all that reverberation.

“I don’t know. You just did. You had to have. My husband would never keep any secrets from me.”

She didn’t want to hear me. We glared at each other before I left her standing there. I didn’t realize the key sat in my pocket until I reached into it. 

They always said death was never easy. Nothing like this has ever happened though. Did it? I mean, my father led a secret life nobody knew about only to be discovered when he died. He’s the only one with all the answers to this big giant mystery.

I wailed as intense and as long as I could muster. It felt draining, but I thought of that as a good thing. All of those trapped emotions must’ve lurked under the surface. Whatever they were. With nothing more to do, I put the key in and turned it.

Mom in front of the door. Her lips quivered. Deep breath in, I turned off the engine, and left my car to find out whatever else she might want.

“No. You go on right ahead. Let the construction people know they forgot to put in a floor and walls and—”

Maybe one more time. “You didn’t read the journals did you?”

“No. Did you?”

“Not all of them. I read the first two.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“Don’t yell at me. I’m an old woman. I don’t like to be yelled at, especially by the likes of you. Traitor.”

I couldn’t do it anymore. “I’ll be there for the funeral. Otherwise, let me know when you are willing to talk.” The keys jiggled in my hand as I walked away. The quickened pace spurred the tears to fall.

The car started and I left. For good or not I had no idea. I didn’t know what to do or say. Not anymore.

I walked into my apartment and crashed on my bed. The next thing I knew, my clock read 07:45 AM and the middle of the bed was wet. Maybe a good shower would wash everything away.

A couple days passed before I had to get ready for the funeral. That time creeped every second before that point. Black pants suit on with a black shell top and my black flats, I was ready for the funeral.

Mom sat on a bench in front of a hole in the ground. I guessed it was the place that they were going to bury Dad. No rush in getting there, so I walked as slow as I could. There was no telling how Mom would react to my presence.

I had to try to at least be civil. “Good day, Mother.”

She looked at me before she bolted upright and squeezed the daylights out of me. I looked beyond Mom’s greying hair to my aunt who smiled. She kissed my cheek and held my hand while she led me to the bench. She patted it as she continued to hold it. I took that as a good thing.

After that, it was time to go home. There was still some stuff to take care of, but they didn’t have to be done at that moment. I waved goodbye before I started to walk to my car. “I just wish I would stop crying. It’s all I’ve done.” I dried the tears, or at least tried to, while I made my way down.

I still had another week before I had to get back to work. I had a feeling that week would go by real quick.

“Bidelia,” Mom said. “Bidelia.”

I turned around to Mom running towards me. “Yeah?”

“Let’s go home. There’s something we need to talk about.”

“OK.”

I followed Mom back to the house. What did she want to talk about? Was there something she needed to clarify? Did she read the journals and not understand? Not that I did, but I didn’t know. The longer we took the more questions popped in my head.

We got there. I turned off the engine and sat there as I watched her walk up the sidewalk. It’s not that I wanted to but I had to. Deep breath inhaled, let it all out, and… I had to get out at some point and stop this nonsense.

I followed her to the office. “Mom?”

“Oh, come here.” She waved me forward. “Nothing bad will happen I promise.”

I walked towards her ready to get yelled at again. “What is it?”

“You say that like I want something bad to happen.” She took my hand and held it. “Just let me finish before you say anything.”

“OK.”

She patted my hand and smiled. “I talked to your aunt about everything and she yelled at me. How could she? My husband died and she yelled at me. I couldn’t understand why until she told me. ‘Your daughter lost a father. Here she is trying to tell you about something she found and you bit off her head. You want her to just come back to you and say I’m sorry Mommy?’” Mom sat down in Dad’s chair. That was when I realized the door was still open. “It did sound outrageous. So I’m sorry, my baby girl. Sorry for reacting the way I did. You just found out something I never knew about my man, my husband, my love. It felt like you wanted me to just forget about everything and discover something I never knew. I couldn’t forget and realize there were new things to learn. He was everything to me and I couldn’t.”

I got tired of standing. He never had any chair for guests because it was his office and his office alone. I leaned against the wall instead.

“I still haven’t read those journals. Well, I did what you told me you did and it was a man I never knew. I stopped there and didn’t go on. I’m affraid to go in there and discover things about him I never knew beyond… beyond this.” She swept her hands around the room. “That’s where I’m at now. So I am sorry.”

Well, she did apologize. However long it took. I couldn’t fault her. It had to be hard for her to learn that there was more to dear ol’ dad than what he presented. “It’s OK, Mom. I wouldn’t have started looking if it wasn’t for meeting this strange woman by the lake. I don’t know what to do. I tried looking for her again but I haven’t been able to find her. No number or address so I turned up a big fat nothing.” I looked at the bookcase. “How long it must’ve taken him to dig all of that up. It must’ve taken years to build and I can’t figure out how he did it.”

Mom nodded. “How about if we sit down with a cup of coffee. There’s cookies in the pantry we can have with that. Afterwards, we have to explore what’s in it. I don’t want to know but I have to. I just need you to do it with me. Please, Baby Girl?”

“Sure.” I smiled. It felt like old times.

The morning after, I went back to the lake to try one last time. “Constantina, if you’re listening I wanted to tell you that because of you, a room full of secrets was discovered.” Nothing. The red bench was taken away. I shrugged and went back to my car. So I get called for being a lunatic. Oh well, worse things can happen.

I stopped at the entrance to be sure the traffic was clear. One last check in the rearview mirror, she stood behind my car and when she looked up I screamed. She didn’t have any eyes. They were black pits and her face was a white sheet.

I floored it, cars or no cars. That was something I wanted to forget. All of this because Dad died.

The End

Another World

After compromising with Mom and Dad, I got ready to take us to our cabin. Without internet or WiFi, it would be the ideal place to sit down and talk.

Dad told me about Ashley. She was one in a lengthy line of loving the prestige of being in a relationship with someone who wore a badge. I wanted to prove him wrong. Plus, I did not follow in his footsteps, so why did I have to worry. It was my life and he couldn’t tell me what to do. Not the brightest speech I made.

Every opportunity she had, she filmed our world and put it up for the people to examine. It could be a brief story about family or how traumatized she was to find out there were no bullet wounds. Without specific details, people were not interested, and it showed when they didn’t watch.

The arguments grew to be too much. They never stopped, and I got sick of it. No romance, funny mishaps, or time spent being together. None of that ever happened.

That’s what led us to the cabin. Peace and her full attention for what I needed to do. After bringing our bags in, I put them by the door and stared at the fireplace for a minute. She pushed her way by me and stood right there.

“Uh. Hmm. It seems my baby isn’t working. You’re buying me an extra one.” Ashley smiled at me and put her finger under my chin.

I sighed because I knew that was coming. It shouldn’t matter anymore after this, though. “Ashley, I will leave the bags here because we need to sit down and talk.”

“No. You’ll put them away.”

OK, I can do this. Deep exhale out. “After this weekend, we will not be together.” Right now, if I had my way. “We are done. We will no longer be together. Do you understand?”

“You did remember that I definitely must have internet connection so that I can post my life. People absolutely want to know.”

I yelled her name.

“You do not need to yell. I am right here after all. Besides that, I am not a working class citizen.”

“Stop and listen, Ashley.”

She sat on the sofa, crossed her legs, and put her hands on her knees as if she wanted to impress someone. All of that while she sneered after glancing around the area.

“Ashley, you and I don’t have a relationship. You may be fascinated with my life, but only because you find it amusing enough for people to watch.”

She looked up at me. “Hmm. What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know what that means. At first, it was something you did. OK. But we need not record every single little damn thing in our lives. I told you again and again to stop. Borderline picking you up and throwing you out the damn window.”

“Everybody is curious what happens in our lives. I must provide the details. This is the age of recording everything. Now pick up our bags so we can leave and go somewhere that doesn’t allow mangy mongrels. Now go.” She shooed me away.

It took everything in my power not to pick her up and find out if she would fit inside the chimney if I threw her up said object. “Get your own bags and get out.”

“Good. It’s about time. I am not a… a… hill billy you know.”

That was it. I couldn’t take it. I picked up her five bags, opened the door, and threw them out.

To say she opened her mouth wide was an understatement. I could’ve sworn her tonsils were in plain view.

“How dare you? Those are custom made to my specifications. It took an eternity for them to get it right. You threw them out as if they’re garbage? Like your—”

“Say it, and I pick you up next.”


She huffed and puffed at me while she stood there with her hands clenched. 

I slammed the door shut on her and waited about fifteen minutes before checking to see if she left. I wondered how she would get back to the city without a car. Not my dilemma, but it made me curious.

Things didn’t go as planned, but I should’ve known better. Too bad I had to leave Titus with Nathan. He would’ve loved to come up here, but the fewer distractions I had the better. Not that it would’ve made a difference.

I got the fireplace going. Funny how the dancing flames made me hungry. It brought a certain amount of peace.

I brought along some sandwiches. So all I needed was a good pot of percolated coffee. The old-fashioned kind of coffee. Dad got me hooked when I turned eighteen.

I went upstairs to get to bed. The loft was the perfect space with the down comforter and king-sized mattress. It never felt so good.

A weight on my body woke me up. I opened my right eye and noticed two brown ones looking at me. His tail whipped back and forth.

“Titus? What are you doing here?” I sat up and heard someone snoring. I knew that snore.

“Never mind.” I uncovered myself and climbed down the stairs. “Yup.” 

The only thing to accomplish the impossible task of waking up baby brother was Titus sitting on him. It didn’t matter where.

After that, he lifted his head. “Oh. Hi. Mom sent me. I brought food.” I left him to peek in the kitchen. Bags full of food on the counter and even more in the fridge. What did she think, I brought an army up here?

“Nathan. Nate Nate.”

“What. What.” He sniffed and yawned.

“Mom did know that it was going to be just me. So why all this?”

He shrugged. “I’m gonna shower. Titus did his thing. He’s good. Be back.” He turned around and left.

“Well boy, how about if we go for a hike huh? You would like that especially with the possibility of a squirrel. Huh?”

He danced in place and barked before sitting as he whipped his tail so hard it thudded against the door. I got my gear on, and wondered if Nathan bothered to bring Titus’ backpack. I found it on the bottom along with the portable water bowl. Huh, he even brought along a bag of liver treats. Well, I had my bag and Titus had his. I left a note for Nathan on the door and it was off to the wilderness after that.

“Oh my, I so missed this.” I took in all of the smells and the sounds. Nothing could replace it.

I walked along the river. There was something soothing about the noise of the water as it passed over the rocks or any obstacles for that matter. The path of the water washed away all of my stress as I pictured Ashley flowing down with the current. I would take this over traffic any day.

We went a little bit further and saw a moss covered tunnel. Titus lay down next to a log on the right side of it as he watched. Something had to be there. I took a few steps forward when someone slid out of it.

Moss covered chin and lips didn’t make for a good landing. May have been soft but gross in my opinion. “Are you OK?”

She lifted her head and spit something out. “Sorry, but there is moss in my mouth.”

“Ew. OK. Can you stand?”

She stood. “I am Sanne.”

“S-A-N-D? or S-A-N?”

“S-A-N-N-E actually.”

I put out my hand for her to grab. “Hi. I’m Tressa.”

She grasped it and shook it. “Where am I? Do you have a location?”

“This is Angelmoor Mountain. It’s quiet up here if you come in between fishing season. What happened?”

“Oh. I am not sure. One minute I was sleeping and the next I end up in the tunnel. I am uninjured.”

It sounded funny, but for the lack of anything else to go by, I took her word for it. “How about if we go back to my cabin? You can get cleaned up there if you want.”

“Please.”

I waved for her to follow and started back. Titus sniffed her until we started moving then sneezed. It could’ve been the moss and whatever else lingered in that tunnel. He stayed by my side all the way.

Once back, I looked at the door and the note was gone. A folded blanket and a pillow sat on the sofa.

“Oh, I’m sorry. The shower is up the stairs and in the only room with a door up there. You’ll see a king sized bed and to the right of that is the shower. Take as long as you like. Anything you might need is in there.”

She nodded and jogged upstairs. Titus followed her all the way up. It made me curious but not worried.

Yeah, every lecture I ever got in my thirty-year life span went through my head about strangers. There was something about this woman though. She didn’t feel threatening. Not a good thing, no, but she didn’t give me any sign that she had malicious intent.

Titus was curious about her and she didn’t say or react in a negative way with his presence. He always growled and stayed low as he watched Ashley but didn’t do that with Sanne. I took that as a good sign.

Dad always told me to trust my gut and my gut told me she was OK.

I looked in the fridge to see what kind of food got dropped off. Mom’s famous mac and cheese casserole, four BLTs, five red apples, two oranges, a ready made salad, and strawberry Jell-O.

The casserole and other stuff we could have later. I went with the BLTs and apples. Sure enough, we had a bag of tortilla chips in the cupboard. Bottled water from the fridge and we were set for lunch.

She stood in the doorway. “Thank you for letting me get cleaned up. I scraped my chin though. It stung but it will heal. What are you doing up here?” She laughed.

“Oh. You’re welcome.” I looked at her chin and it did get scraped. The moss didn’t provide a soft landing. There was a first aid kit in the bathroom but maybe she didn’t feel she needed it. “As for what I’m doing here, I’m enjoying a bit of a vacation.”

“Vacation?”

“Yeah. I know. Spring break and I choose to come here for a vacation. It worked out though I think. There usually isn’t too many people up here during this time. If you go about ten more miles down the road, there’s where you might find everybody. It’s an entire recreation area with hiking, fishing, rafting, and staying in log cabins and such. No hunting though. It’s an animal preserve”

She nodded. “Do you know where I might find a place that would people that dealt with… strange things?”

That got my attention. “Strange things? That’s a pretty vague description.”

“I am not sure how to describe, and seeing as how this isn’t my home, you hold the advantage over me.”

I got it. I didn’t like what she implied, but like she hinted at, she was the stranger. “We have a lot of different people here. Some that work in the typical nine to five jobs. Some in the not so typical nine to five jobs. Then there’s everybody else that lingers on the borderline between a normal job and the jobs that require a bit imagination to understand.” That was about as vague.

She smiled and laughed. “How about if I just ask if you know anyone that deals with something that changes forms?”

We made progress. I noticed her shifting eyes to the table. I forgot about the food. I shook my head as I pulled out the chair.

We sat across from each other. The light gave her hair a sort of orange glow.

I bit into the sandwich, and like I expected, there was cheese in it. As for the question, “I don’t know if anyone studies that. Why do you ask?”

She put her sandwich down. “Well… uh… this is a different world than mine. You’re the only one here.” She cleared her throat. “My mate is a lycanthrope.”

“Lycanthrope? What’s a lycanthrope?”

“The most basic meaning is that they are werewolves and I need to know of any weakness they may have. Not because I want to kill my mate but because there is something far deadlier that we have been fighting against.”

Huh. “If we were in the city I could help you more. About the only thing that may come to mind would be guns, knives, arrows, poisons, a sudden beheading.”

She nodded. “Wolfsbane repels them when in wolf form. The weapons must be made out of silver and the hunter must be able to use them at a moments notice while the hunted is in human form. However, this new breed is impenetrable and does not transform. Almost impossible to kill unless you can get close enough to sever their head.”

I nodded. That almost made them impossible. There had to be a weakness. Every animal had one.

“I was hoping that while I was here, I would find an answer.” She looked up at me and tilted her head. Almost like Titus when he wanted something.

“I’m sorry. I just don’t know. Unless you dump a jar of fleas on them to distract them I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

Her head straightened up and she smiled. “Thank you. That might not be such a bad idea. Just enough of a distraction. Thank you. We had forgotten about that I think. Everything needs food including parasites.”

“You’re welcome?”

We finished our meal and she waited by the door. Nathan barged in.

He nodded towards her. “Guess who I had the pleasure of picking up?”

I groaned and noted his sarcasm. They hated each other form the get go. “Leave her out there. Maybe she’ll run when she sees a rabbit or something.”

“Titus?” Nathan smiled.

I shook my head. “Chances are she’ll call animal control. Then what?”

“I got connections. Titus. Here boy.”

He appeared from somewhere and stood in front of Nathan. He opened the door and Titus growled from the doorway.

Ashley screamed so loud, the next thing I knew, birds squawked in return. I got to the doorway to see flocks of them fly up in to the air. As for Ashley, her so-called personal suitcase fell apart when she tried to run. I couldn’t stop laughing.

I grabbed Titus and pulled him inside. Nathan left to get him a liver treat. I closed the door and tried to regain my composure. “I am so sorry. Just someone I found out was not meant to be.”

She smiled. “I understand. Sometimes princesses are in their own class and cannot look passed their own beauty.”

“OK. So now where were we?”

“You gave me an idea. It will be hard but not difficult to gather those parasites. First though, I must return to the tunnel.”

“Do you know where you’re going?”

“If I go in wouldn’t it lead me straight back where I came from?”

I shrugged. I had no idea.

“I will enter running and hope I end up back home. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself. It’s that this is not my home.”

“I understand. That won’t guarantee you would end up where you came from.”

“I understand. It is the only chance I have. The only chance we have.”

“What’s going on?” Nathan stood to the side of us while he scratched Titus’ ear.

“Uh. Nate. Uhm… I’ll be back?”

“I hope so. If you don’t, you know what I can do.”

“Yeah. I know. Just be patient. I don’t know how long this will take.”

He nodded and opened the door. “I reserve the right to call Dad.”

I laughed. “Do you remember how far you’ll have to go in order to get to a phone that will reach the city?”

“I reserve the right.”

We both laughed. “OK. All right. Fine. Like I said, it may take time.”

“Roger dodger.” He saluted.

I shook my head as I left. The birds seemed to find their way back. Not only did I hear them, I saw a few of them as well.

We must’ve been a couple of feet from the tunnel with it in plain view when I heard Ashley whine and whimper. “There she is officer. Her mean dog ripped me apart and tore open my suitcase.”

The officer didn’t look at her instead looked at me with one raised eyebrow.

I pointed to Titus as he lay next to the tunnel. The officer looked back at Ashley. “Ma’am, unless you have proof that can’t be disputed like a picture or witness to the attack, there’s nothing I can do.”

“Uh huh. I got a witness. I got a witness right there. That blonde thing in front of the tunnel.”

“Blonde thing? Excuse me ma’am. My name is Sanne and I am not a thing. I am—”

I put my hand on her shoulder and shook my head. It would take ages for Ashley to understand, in the meanwhile, the entire universe would know of her existence.

“I did not witness the canine behave in such a manner as you have explained to the authority.”

“See? Told you that flea bag did it. She even said so.”

How did I even put up with this woman? “Officer, even if he did bite her he has had all of his shots.”

“I have received no evidence to say that dog attacked someone. I will leave now. Good day.” He nodded and left.

“Ashley, what are you doing? Do you even know? Or are you just being a pain?”

She smiled. “I like being a pain and causing trouble. It’s fun.”

Oh God, strike a lightening bolt on me so I can die. I looked at Sanne and she stood in front of the entrance.

“You reminded me of something very basic and I thank you for it.” Sanne backed up a few steps and re-entered the tunnel running. A flash of light and she didn’t come back.

“I will sue you for a million dollars plus and there isn’t a thing you can do to stop me. Oh and, I will find a way to get rid of that flea bag.”

“God, please forgive me for what I am about to do.” I moved so Ashley had no choice but to stand in front of the tunnel. I pushed her in and a flash of light later she too disappeared.

“Titus. Come here, boy. Time to go home.”

A Lesson Learned

“No. No. No.” Mr. Scabbard yelled each time he reacted. His eyes and the top of his head turned red, which contrasted with his white hair and beard. “You read that script as if it was solely a piece of paper. Put heart into your character. You have expectations, desires, and other emotions so express them as you see fit.”

The man talked with his hands so much, surprised nothing got knocked over or that he didn’t hit anyone.

“Mr. Scabbard. I did.” What was his problem? I did put feeling into the character. It’s not as if I didn’t put any effort into it.

“Everyone, leave for the night. It’s eight o’clock. Remember to practice your role as if that person existed. Not merely as this script reads. This is a play full of meaning and feeling, for God’s sake. These are not mathematical equations, so stop treating them as such.”

Everybody filed out the door as I almost did when I realized my keys were missing. A short jog back on stage and they shined under the light. They somehow managed to lay next to a violin.

A musical instrument of some sort made a noise four times. “OK, this is not The Bells Tolls. It’s the Lover’s Bell. This one doesn’t have music.” It repeated, and I ignored it. A thorough search back and forth, up and down, nobody around to do anything.

I stood on stage and looked out toward the empty chairs. Row upon row of seats to be filled with people who payed to watch me perform. All those pairs of eyes on me.

I memorized and practiced my dialogue, but Mr. Scabbard kept yelling at me to put more soul into it. Damn it all to hell. The old man needed to retire.

What a fool I was to think this would work. This little company created some of the biggest stars and he was responsible for it. Maybe I should quit and admit everybody was right while I was wrong.

Somewhere a violin played. It couldn’t be. Instruments were inanimate objects and needed us humans to get them to make noise. Despair, empathy, or desire didn’t exist within them. They didn’t have a soul. How could it?

I watched it and right before my eyes it floated in midair and played. I wished I knew the tune. So beautiful, the notes conjured images of couples in old gowns dancing around the room.

I felt a hand grab mine. I opened my eyes, and he smiled at me. Taller than me with ebony hair. His closed eyes didn’t allow me to see them. He bowed to me, and I bowed to him. We danced with everybody else, as clumsy as it was.

A constant pulse went through me when we moved around the room. It became a part of my thoughts, so much so, I thought in the same rhythm it played.


From corner to corner and back again, we stepped and twirled around. My legs had a mind of their own. It didn’t matter if I thought it was time for a break or not; they kept going, as if they wanted to prove me wrong.

What was going on? I controlled my intentions and feelings. Not some musical instrument. “Stop!”

It didn’t. The instruments kept playing, and everyone continued dancing. A look around while we danced, and it wasn’t the stage. It was some place else with an enormous area and a humongous chandelier overhead. Candles floated high up. So while nobody bumped them they made for a sight to behold.

Wake up, you idiot. This was no time to dream. “I said wake up.”

Nothing again. “Listen, let me go. There’s someplace I have to be.”

“Shh,” the man said. “Words heard in silence. The heart beats loudly in its own rhythm. Only the two can meet when all is well.”

What? What did that mean? “I have to leave. Now if you would let me leave.” I struggled to wiggle my hand out of his grasp, but it wouldn’t loosen. He put his head on my shoulder, and we continued dancing.

An attempt to steer him toward the door failed as couple after couple blocked the way. What was this? Why was this happening?

“Will somebody please call 9-1-1?”

Not that I expected anybody to, but I had to try something. Some how, we danced our way back to the middle of the room. There had to be a way to get out of here. Forget about through the roof without anything to climb on the ceiling was a lengthy way up.

One door in and out, and no luck the first time I tried. No windows, and I didn’t think anyone would help me to clamber through them. Nothing around to break them with, anyway.

“You continue to search,” he said. “All efforts have failed. Instead, listen to the sound. It vibrates through you. There will be your answer.”

I wish he offered me his name so I could tell him off. All this talk about listening and feeling. I’ve been doing that and not—wait. Granted, the music had a weird beat to it, almost like the heart, but that didn’t have to do with anything. Did it?

OK, fine. I gave up. No clock in the room either, yet one chimed eleven times from somewhere. A deep breath inhale… and I let it all out because that didn’t help.

In math, a problem is presented, and through a series of steps the answer is found. I should’ve stuck with becoming a teacher instead of acting. Math was much more logical and there was an answer. Most times.

Kept dancing and kept dancing, around and around. “Stop. I had enough.” Of course, nobody listened. 

“You seek an answer. Yet, the answer is there. You fail to feel. You fail to listen.”

“What are you talking about? You are making no sense whatsoever.”

“Darling Stephanie, do you not hear?”

“Yes. I hear you rattling on about nonsense.”

He laughed. The bastard laughed at my misery. “The one thing you never learned to listen to is giving you the conclusion you seek, my dear. Without that, the triad within you cannot exist.”

“You see. More nonsense.”

He stopped moving. I took that as my opportunity to wiggle out from him but it didn’t do any good.

“Knowledge and logic is in the mind. Understanding and suffering is in the heart. Processing is in the liver. That is the triad within everyone.” He continued to dance.

It sounded like something that philosophical studies would teach. I growled and grunted as I followed him around. Continuing around the room gave me a chance to think about that.

Knowledge is in the mind. Feeling is in the heart. The beat to the music resembled the heart beat. “Of course. Unless I stopped to feel the music, I wouldn’t hear it. I would follow along without hearing the music. Ha.” I laughed at myself as I stopped to listen.

He had been out of pace since this started and I didn’t notice. He opened his eyes and showed dark, empty pools of nothing. I stopped our progress and started again in beat with the music. Even if I screamed, nothing would happen.

The surroundings faded, and I was back on stage with that script in my hand.

I didn’t memorize the lines. I learned them as I became the character. Her thoughts and feelings became clear the more I spoke. A character was much more than a name. A character could become as real as we wanted them to be. Her in my case. We made them real with feelings.

I spent the next two days in the heart and mind of my character until the night of our opening. When I got stuck, all I had to do was picture that violin and it would all come back. Standing ovations the three nights of our performance. The critics even loved it.

The closing night, a violin sat in the open. “Thank you. You taught me a lot. You also reminded me of something very simple. For that, I thank you.”

Mr. Scabbard walked on stage towards me and bowed. “You see, all you had to do was listen with your heart and not your head.” He laughed as he disappeared.

The violin remained on that chair. The bow moved enough to make noise but not enough to produce music. Then it too disappeared.

There had to be a story about this theater, but I ran out of there too quick to find out. Maybe another time, because at that moment all I wanted to do was go to the local bar and get drunk. It wouldn’t solve anything, but it gave me a ready answer to what happened.

The End