Part 5 – And Now a Word from Our Sponsors

            Hey! Ron Brianson here. When I started Questae, Inc., I hoped for success, but I never anticipated just how fast the market would clamor for what we make. In our ever-changing world, technology is brand new one day and obsolete the next. And that always concerned me. What do we do with the flip phones and clunky desktop computers that no one uses anymore? Where do they go? Responsible consumers take them to recycling centers. But how many people even know those exist? Our society’s obsession with obtaining the newest model leaves the old in a landfill to pollute our planet.

            From the very beginning, I wanted to alter the mindset of the industry. How can we sell a product that will not add to our environmental problems? That, I think, has made all the difference. Rather than worry about carrying around a 14-inch computer everywhere, the customer’s brain becomes the computer. Some would argue that it has been an organic computer from the very beginning, so this transition, adding a technological component to the center of our being, felt natural to us.

            Once the MPlant started to sell, we of course had to construct expansions. Who needs five different social media accounts? So, we built a streamlined platform that has it all. NAYA lets people do everything they would have done on the old social media sites, whether posting pictures, writing comments, or sharing news. It also has automatic guards in place to eradicate any hurtful content and false information. For many parents, this product has saved lives as it can act as a GPS locator for lost or kidnapped children.

            Last year, we put out our most successful expansion to date, the Music Ultimate Sensory Experience. MUSE is the only system with access to every song ever produced and transferred to a digital format. Everything from “Buffalo Soldier” to “Defying Gravity” and “Back in Black” to “Du Hast.” Rather than destroy eardrums with earbuds, we plug the music right into the brain. You get all the benefits of enjoying music without the risk of hearing loss.

            So how do we top that, you ask? Coming this holiday season, is the MUSE-L. The Music’s Ultimate Sensory Experience – Luxury edition comes in five new colors, including my favorite, aquamarine. In addition, we have better targeted the pleasure center of the brain. Our users will feel a sense of contentment with every use. We at Questae, Inc. know that you will crowd the nearest communications stores for more details. Just remember to recycle your outmoded products to receive a 15 percent discount on the purchase of your next Questae product.

            This message, paid for by Questae, Inc. Offers and products not available in all regions. See your local communications stores for details. Uploaded to NAYA September 16.

To Be Continued…

Part 4 – Unpalatable

            Nothing in the dining hall appealed to Jason. He wondered why he had come for breakfast since he usually skipped it. As he stared down at the tray of hash browns under a heat lamp, he felt a light shove from behind. Surprised, Jason dropped his empty plate, allowing it to clatter against the floor.

            “Woah. Wake up, man.”

            Jason glanced behind to see Chad standing there, adding a spoonful of hash browns beside the apple, a pile of sausage, and hard-boiled eggs already covering most of the basketball player’s plate.

            “What? I’m not angry with you for ditching me yesterday.” Chad popped a grape into his mouth and chewed as he spoke. “Even if you did stay for that long-toothed Neanderthal. You have parents who care whether you get on the Dean’s list. I get it.”

            Jason moistened his lips, searching for the right response. Whatever it should have been, the words eluded him.

            “What are you planning to eat? Air?” Chad walked away without waiting for an answer. “Meet me at our table, okay?”

            Preoccupied, Jason reached out to add a few food items to his plate. The ingredients were a haphazard mush of disparate dishes he could no longer identify. His stiff legs took robotic steps to join his friend.

            “I’ve had the weirdest morning.” Jason shook his head.

            “Ah, so you heard how that old motormouth bit it, huh?” Chad smirked.

            Jason forgot how to breathe for a few seconds. “Chad? Why would you—”

            “Oh, come on, dude. You know what kind of man he was. A waste of our tuition dollars, if you ask me. Couldn’t even get a glass of orange juice to concentrate.”

            Jason’s heart thudded.

            Chad picked up a sausage link and ripped off a chunk with his teeth. “They sent out a cop to ask me some questions this morning. I hope you don’t mind. I said I was with you. After spending all day tearing it up on Troll Smashers, I didn’t really have anyone who could say I wasn’t anywhere near that old goat’s toll bridge.”

            “You used me for an alibi?”

            “’Course. I’d do the same for you. All you need to do is remember when the broad comes out to ask you questions, make sure you back my play.”

            Jason stopped his fork a few inches from his open mouth. He dropped it onto the floor along with the speared bit of ham on its tines.

            “Wow, J. You’re dropping everything. Stay away from stained glass today.”

            “Um. Is there a way you could say you mixed up who was with you?”

            “No way. I practically had to swear on every translation of the Bible that it was you gaming with me all night. Why?”

            “I think I’m gonna be sick.”

            Chad waved a dismissive hand. “You haven’t even taken a bite. You look a bit pale, but that’s no biggie. So, are you gonna help me out or not?”

            “I can’t.” Jason’s big eyes pleaded for forgiveness.

            For once, Chad did not have a ready answer. “You – you can’t? Is that it?”

            “She already found me this morning. I told her the truth.”

            “You sold me out?” Chad’s eyes blazed.

            Stunned stammers attempted to negate the claim. “How could I have – I didn’t – I – but she came to my – didn’t know until now—”

            “We’re supposed to be buddies, Ramos. I guess now I know what that means to you.” Chad picked up his plate and stormed off to discard his half-eaten meal.

            Jason’s head dropped into his hands, inches above his food. All he needed now was for someone to push his face into the mush, and his morning would be complete. Minutes later, he sensed somebody approach and heard a chair across the table scoot out over the carpeted floor.

            “Morning, Jason. What’s that you’ve got there?”

            He looked up to see Mary Crest. In typical Crest fashion, she wore a loose-fitting plaid shirt and jeans. A black knit cap covered her short black hair. The oatmeal in her bowl had the look of drying plaster. She took a picture of her breakfast and uploaded it to the social media platform, News Access + Your Activities, more popularly known as NAYA.

            “It’s a big mess.” He sighed.

            Mary smirked at the glop on his tray. “I can see that. I was wondering if you were constructing modern art over here. Are you okay?”

            “Ever feel like you wish you could skip a whole day and save yourself the trouble.”

            Mary’s eyes glanced at the ceiling for ten seconds before answering. “Nope.”

            “Someone killed Dr. Vellion last night.”

            Mary swallowed hard on her oatmeal. After a cough, she asked, “Killed? What? How is that not campus-wide by now?”

            “Give it a few hours.”

            “Man, I’ve gotta put this on NAYA. My MPlant’s gonna blow up with all kinds of notifications when my parents see it. So much for a small school being safe for their precious little girl.”

            Jason slapped the table. “How can you be so glib, Mary? He was one of my professors!”

            “Look, I’m sorry. I’m sure he was a great guy. But I’ve never even laid eyes on Dr. Hellion.”

            “Vellion!”

            “Sure. Him. But you can’t expect me to feel much when I’ve never met the guy. People get murdered every day. Am I supposed to cry about them all to prove I have a smidge of decency?”

            Standing to leave, Jason mumbled under his breath, “Maybe we should.”

            “Aren’t you gonna finish your breakfast?”

            “I can’t stomach another bite.” He picked up his tray and dumped his food into the rubbish bin. His empty stomach murmured, reminding him he would have needed to consume at least one bite to have “another.”

Continue to Part 5 by by clicking here: https://vantolswritingvortex.com/2020/01/22/part-5-and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsors/

Part 3 – A Rude Awakening

Warning: If you have not read Part 1, click here to read from the beginning. https://vantolswritingvortex.com/2019/10/30/part-1-the-luddite/

            Jason Ramos heard the knock on his dorm room door and growled. He glanced at the clock and wondered why anyone would disturb him on a Saturday morning before 8:00. Flexing his stiff, right hand, he noticed his knuckles had gone a yellowish purple. After pulling on a pair of pants, the trespasser hammered on his door again. Why does that have to be so loud? He massaged his forehead.

            “I’ll be out in a moment,” he grumbled.

            “Police! Open up.” It was a woman’s voice

            An officer? Jason scanned the room and gulped. He crossed the room and let himself out. Closing the door, he stationed himself between the cop and his room. “How can I help you, ma’am?”

            Officer Wexler wore a dark blue uniform and cap. Unlike campus security, she had an air of authority about her that made Jason want to fade away into the background. “You are Jason Ramos, correct?”

            “Yes. What’s this about?”

            “I just need you to answer a couple questions. Could we step inside?”

            Jason looked up and down the hallway. A few guys on the floor stared his way. He tried to glance at the carpet, but fear would not allow it. “Is that necessary?”

            The officer’s eyes fixed on him with icy determination. It was a glare that said she would have her way no matter what. “I’m taking statements from Dr. Conrad Vellion’s students. Could we step into your room, sir?”

            Jason stuttered as he opened the door and beckoned Officer Wexler inside. “Dr. Vellion? What do you want to know?”

            Wexler took half a minute to appraise the dorm room before answering. She frowned. Her nose wrinkled at the musky scent of sweaty socks. “As I understand it, Mr. Ramos, you were involved in an altercation with the professor yesterday.”

            “An – an altercation?” Jason tried to suppress a guffaw. “I’d hardly go that far.”

            “Then describe it to me, Mr. Ramos.” The officer took out an electronic pad and stylus.

            Jason ran a hand through the morning tangle on his head. He felt a jolt in his stomach. Realizing he had not thrown on a shirt to cover his scrawny torso, his cheeks colored. “Well it was mostly Chad. He – was making fun of the professor just as Dr. Vellion walked in. They exchanged words, Chad left, and I went to take my seat in class.”

            “Words?”

            “Dr. Vellion said Chad should leave and go waste his life with a video game or something like that. Chad called him a fool and left.”

            “And that’s all that happened?” Officer Wexler peered at him the way his mother would when he claimed not to have touched the last piece of pumpkin pie in the fridge. “You didn’t talk to Dr. Vellion after that?”

            “Well, I mean – he stopped me before I could leave for the dining hall. Wanted to talk to me about what Chad had said earlier.”

            “What was your reaction to this talk?”

            Jason pursed his lips and shook his head. “It was fine.”

            “Fine?”

            “Yeah.”

            Officer Wexler turned a page in her pad. “According to a witness, you left the lecture hall ‘distraught and angry.’ Says you punched a wall.”

            Jason hid his right hand behind his back.

            Officer Wexler raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to revise your statement, Mr. Ramos?”

            Jason sighed. “Okay, so maybe fine isn’t the word. Sure, I was ticked. He called me a coward. No one’s ever – I just – I hated that I couldn’t convince myself he was wrong.”

            “I see.” Officer Wexler scribbled. “And what did you do next?”

            “I ate dinner and went to a party with some buddies.”

            “How long were you there?”

            “Wait. You’re asking questions about an alibi, aren’t you? What is this all about? Is Dr. Vellion alright?”

            “No. I’m afraid not.” Officer Wexler looked up from her pad. “The professor was murdered in his home last night.”

            Jason’s eyes widened. He could not shut his mouth. He sank into a nearby chair. “What? Why?”

            The cop’s gaze softened along with her tone. “That’s what we’re trying to determine.”

            “And you think – oh, crap! No! No way! I did not kill Dr. Vellion.”

            “Then help us rule you out as a suspect. What time were you at this party?”

            “It was right after dinner, so 6:30ish. I didn’t leave until 11:00. Maybe later.”

            “Can you narrow those times any?”

            “I wasn’t looking at a clock.” Jason heard his voice crack. “I just wanted to forget – to have a good time with my buddies.”

            Officer Wexler nodded. “And these ‘buddies’ of yours have names?”

            “Yeah. Sure. It was – uh – Mary Crest, Omar Lafferty, and uh – uh—” Jason snapped his fingers as if that would call the name to memory. “Carter Maguire.”

            “Was Chad Rodgers among the ‘buddies’ at this party?”

            “I didn’t see him there, but – you don’t think—”

            “I’ll need your contact information in case I have any more questions.”

            “Of course.” Jason shared his phone number and home address. “Home’s out of state, so I’ll still be here until Thanksgiving.”

            “Do you have an MPlant?”

            “What? No. Can’t afford the surgery. Or any of the other bits. Not if I want a college education, I mean. Mom says a phone plan is plenty expensive already, and—” Jason realized he was babbling. “Why?”

            The corner of Officer Wexler’s mouth curved up. “It just makes transferring my contact from the pad to you a little faster. But in lieu of that, I want to give you my card. If you think of anything else, I want you to call me.”

            “Right.” Jason held the card a foot away from his eyes and read the name “Becca Wexler” next to a picture the officer that must have taken five years before when there were fewer frown lines around her eyes and lips.

            The officer left his room and closed the door. Jason folded his arms across his chest. His shaky breaths made him feel as though he were still under the officer’s scrutiny. Slimy sweat clung to his body. He knew a shower would make him feel better, but he could not stand on wobbly feet. And his heart thumped hard. Who could have – Why? This makes no sense.

Continue to Part 4 by by clicking here: https://vantolswritingvortex.com/2020/01/14/part-4-unpalatable/

Reggie's Renderings

            Reggie’s first self-portrait belonged nowhere near the Louvre, let alone a small town’s art museum. He had drawn a large, wobbly circle two inches to the left of the paper’s center. With uncoordinated fingers, he sketched out a smiley face that looked as though the lips were made of a single strip of bacon. Four stick-thin limbs protruded out from the circle’s edge like stretched-out wire hangers. Despite his lack of any discernable artistic talent, Reggie’s parents cooed over the work their three-year-old rendered.

            Five crayons in hand, Reggie scribbled a mess of goldenrod, emerald, red-violet, violet-red, and gray all over the portrait. His surreal self-representation bore little resemblance to himself, but he did not have the wherewithal to assess this failing. His mother framed the scrawled image in an aluminum frame.

            “We’ll hang it right on the refrigerator,” she said. The frame’s magnet clicked against the appliance as she hummed. She imagined her son’s future, seeing patrons beg to support his work. In her mind, Reggie’s creations would be so evocative as to leap from the canvas.

            In the following months, Reggie produced many works covering the silvery exterior of the fridge. With practice, most children demonstrate a modicum of improvement, but the child’s cats, dogs, cows, rabbits, and trees all looked about the same. His insistence upon scribbling unrealistic colors all over the parchments did little to help distinguish what Reggie drew. Days after creating anything, even he could not identify what the picture was meant to be.

            In the ensuing months between Reggie’s fourth birthday and his preschool debut, Reggie continued his sloppy production of an ark’s worth of animals. By this time, the family’s refrigerator had few available spaces for new works. His mother wrinkled her brow at her husband’s suggestion to throw out a few.

            “He won’t even notice.” He ripped off a picture that could have been a rock with arms and legs or an okapi. “He made this one two months ago. Why do we need to keep it?”

            “Don’t you love your son?” The mother’s counter-argument and tears stunned the father into a guilty silence. “He’s going to be great one day. You’ll see. You’ll see!”

            A few days into preschool, Reggie busied himself pressing playdough through a mold to make inedible pasta. When Miss Margie tried to stop him from dropping one of his manufactured noodles into his mouth, he screamed and kicked his teacher. The attack would not have been worth mentioning, except Reggie landed the blow at just the wrong time, causing Miss Margie to topple right onto him. Reggie’s head struck the floor hard, lodging the playdough in his throat.

            Reggie gasped for air and thrashed about. Miss Margie scrambled to position herself to clear his airway. Her hands shook over his mouth. The pre-k teacher had to force herself to take a calming breath before she could pry his jaws open. No longer trembling, Miss Margie reached in with deft thumb and forefinger and pulled the playdough noodle free. She flicked away the soggy bit of clay and watched for her student’s chest to rise and fall.

            Miss Margie bellowed an epithet when she realized Reggie had stopped breathing. She yelled out to a classroom aide to call 9-1-1. As she proceeded through the steps CPR training had taught her, two of her other students screamed. The other four began chanting their newly learned four-letter word as they bounced around the room. They did not know what the word meant, but they liked the way it sounded.

            Half a minute later, Reggie coughed. His face regained its color, banishing the bluish tint that had begun to emerge. Miss Margie sighed and collapsed onto her back even as four toddlers chanted a word that would soon cause several parents to file a complaint against her. Reggie spent three days in the hospital following the incident with the playdough.

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

            Two years passed. In the intervening time, Mom grew troubled over the way her son’s behavior lacked consideration for safety. She had to hide anything that might harm the boy, stealing them from sight with practiced snatches. On one recent occasion, she had to stash a lighter in her purse before Reggie could ignite himself. She did not stop to think that her son might not be able to flick on the flame. The mere possibility mandated quick action. On the other hand, freaking out over cracked Easter Eggs might have been going a bit far.

            Two days into first grade, he drew a new picture. If anything, the quality of his skills with a crayon had diminished so that each line appeared jagged as a cracked windshield. He had never held writing utensils with proper form, but now the implements seemed to rebel against Reggie’s every intent.

            “What’s this sweetie?” Reggie’s mom spoke with a calm voice that conflicted with her frown and furrowed brow.

            “It’s Crazy the Clown!” Reggie held up his picture of a mutilated circle containing a manic smiley face. He had chosen to smear the page with a scribbled mixture of burgundy, sepia, orange-red, and mahogany. “Isn’t it great?”

            “Yes dear. Real great.” She patted her son on the head as she sighed. No longer enthusiastic about Reggie’s artistic endeavors, her mind raced through worst-case scenarios. She feared Miss Margie had allowed her son to suffer irreparable damage and pondered what that might mean for her boy’s future. “Would you like a juice box?”

            “Yeah! I want a fruit punch, Mommy!”

            “Is that how we ask for things?”

            Reggie looked up at his mom with a blank stare. “I’m thirst, Mommy. Want a fruit punch.”

            His mom let out a long breath. She carried his surreal rendering, the paper warbling in her unsteady grip. After hanging the picture on the fridge with a green clip magnet, she retrieved her son’s beverage and inserted the red-and-white striped bendy straw.

            Ripping the fruit punch juice box from his mother’s hand, Reggie squirted the living room’s beige carpet with the sugary red liquid. The affected area stained like a blood-soaked crime scene.

            “Reggie! Look what you just did!”

            The boy blinked up at the ceiling rather than where his mother pointed. He giggled as he squeezed another ounce of juice out through the bendy straw. The liquid dribbled onto his hands.

            Gnashing her teeth, Reggie’s mom stalked back into the kitchen and snatched up a handful of wet wipes. Reggie noticed what his mother clutched in her fist and dashed away. He dropped his juice box on the floor, leaving it to spill another puddle on the carpet.

            “Don’t you dare touch that—” Reggie’s mother growled. “And you touched it.”

            By the time Reggie’s internal engine ran low on fuel, he had laid sticky fingers on almost every surface in the house. Traces of sugary residue shown in child handprints all over the place, a tempting lure for ants. Reggie’s mom gripped her son by the wrist and scrubbed his hands with the wipes. She grunted and wrinkled her nose as she thought of the mess.

            “Why do you have to be so obstinate?” Mom shook her head. “You just enjoy making everything difficult, don’t you?”

            Reggie’s mom reached into her purse and withdrew her secret weapon for keeping her son preoccupied. The boy took the tablet with a smile as if he had not just burned off all available energy. With no other distractions to worry about, she began to disinfect the house and eradicate all evidence of the afternoon’s pandemonium. She could not figure out how Reggie had managed to smudge the windows and walls so high up considering he still needed some assistance climbing into cars. By the time Reggie’s dad came home from a day of fishing on his friend’s boat, Mom had only managed to revert a small fraction of the home back to its pristine state.

            “Hey, Hun. Do we have any beers?” Dad often asked questions he could have answered with a little investigative work on his part.

            “Didn’t you drink enough already?” Mom snarled the words as if preparing to hunt down her husband.

            Reggie’s dad either missed the aggravation in his wife’s voice or hoped it would dissipate on its own. “No. Davy stocked up on some weird IPA that tasted like silage. Smelled even worse. Kept all the fish away too.”

            “Whatever. Check the fridge.” Not caring a whit for her spouse’s sob story, she did not bother to look up from her work with removing carpet stains.

            Dad considered the abruptness, blinked, and reached into the fridge. He appreciated the appliance’s chill far more than that emanating from his wife. After pulling out a bottle of Brewster’s Winter Ale, he slammed the door, twisted off the cap, and gulped down a third of the bitter beer. Lowering the bottle to waist-level, he stared at the fridge door and tilted his head to the side.

            “What’s this supposed to be?”

            Mom, busy with scrubbing the carpet with a bristle brush, thought her husband had been referring to the massive cleanup underway. “Reggie decided to juice our house.”

            “Huh?” Dad could not take his eyes off the new paper hanging on the refrigerator. “No. I meant this.”

            Mom at last took her eyes off her task and comprehended. “New picture from our burgeoning artist.”

            “But what is it supposed to be? A snow hare blinking in a blizzard?” He lifted his beer to his mouth and downed a mouthful.

            “Snow hare?” Wondering where that obscure guess had come from, Mom set the brush aside and marched over to her husband’s side. Her eyes bugged out. Every wax marking on the page had disappeared. If she had not known better, she might have thought someone had posted an unused sheet of copy paper. “What happened to Crazy?”

            “What’s crazy?”

            “He’s gone!” Mom ran fingers through her hair.

            “Who’s gone?”

            “Crazy!” Rubbing her forehead, Mom explained how Reggie had drawn a clown that afternoon before rampaging through the house like a spooked cat.

            Dad gripped the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. “Are you sure you put up the right paper?”

            Mom stared down her nose at him. “What kind of moron do you think I am?”

            Dad shrugged, his palms facing up. “I mean…I’m just saying…” He scratched his scalp as he glanced away from his wife’s increasingly lethal death glare.

            “I know the difference between a blank page and one Reggie’s scribbled over.” Mom whispered the words through her teeth.

            “Then how do you explain this?”

            “I don’t know. How do you explain spending all day on a boat when you could’ve been home spending quality time with your son for once?”
            Dad groaned and stalked away, still hefting his beer. “You’re not allowed to make me feel guilty for making plans with friends. I’ve barely spent any time with Davy since—” He stopped himself from finishing the thought when he set eyes on his son. “How long has Reggie been on that tablet?”

            Mom growled. “Did you miss the part where I said I had to clean up after his mess?

            Their argument lasted all through dinner. Thanks to their preference for sarcasm over raised voices, Reggie took no notice of the dispute. Instead, he flicked peas on the ground with his spoon.

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

            On the following day, Reggie colored three new pictures. Although the only visible deviation from portrait to portrait was the color, the drawings portrayed an elephant, a tiger, and a lion tamer. Mom wondered where the circus motif had come from as she hanged each one on the refrigerator with floral magnets.

            Minutes later, Dad called attention to Reggie’s new artwork. “Ridiculous. Why do you keep doing this? You can’t tell me you didn’t realize you put up three blank pages.”

            “What?” Mom insisted she had done nothing of the kind and described each creature down to its mismatched eyes. “I know what I saw!”

            “Look, I get that you’re feeling stressed.” Dad placed a hand on her shoulder, but she flinched away. He frowned. “Why don’t I take Reggie with me to the park? It’ll give you a chance to—”

            “I’m not making this up!” As much as Mom liked the idea of a few moments of peace, she could not stand the thought of her husband doubting her sanity. “I watched Reggie draw on all three of these papers. Why can’t you believe me?”

            Dad sighed and shook his head. “Hey, Reg! Come get your shoes and jacket. It’s a bit chilly out there. Only in the 60s.”

            Sniffling, Mom watched her son scamper through the kitchen to the shoe rack by the laundry room. Dad and Reggie trooped out through the garage. At the sound of a car engine revving, she sighed.

            Mom opened the kitchen cabinet over the microwave and felt around for a means of calming her mind. Unable to see what she grabbed, she pulled out a PAM spray can at first, which she returned to its place with a frustrated grunt. At last, she took out a rosé bottle with a calligraphed aardvark inked into the label. The wine from “Goode Grapecious Vineyards” may have been a cheap buy, but quality did not seem to matter much now.

            The cap unscrewed, a scent of fermented grapes and fresh daisies wafted through the air. The wine trickled into her glass until it stood an inch below the brim. Little bubbles rose to the surface for a few seconds after Mom stopped pouring. She turned around and leaned against the counter, her purse to her back. As she brought the glass to her lips, the alcohol’s abrasive odor almost prevented her from taking a sip. She smacked her lips as the sweet, dry taste flowed across her taste buds.

            Within minutes, Mom readied herself for a refill. Something like a squeaky trumpet blared right behind her. Her hand slipped on the wine glass’s stem. Shards scattered across the tile floor. Making use of Miss Margie’s infamous four-letter word, she stooped to pick up the largest fragments, careful not to cut herself on the sharp edges. She frowned at her wasteful carelessness and deposited the glass into the trash.

            The second bugle blast started a ringing in Mom’s ears. She spun around and clapped a hand over her mouth, stifling her scream by ten percent. A seven-foot figure towered over her. Standing on two stick-thin legs, the thing’s frame looked like a squiggled circle slashed with random, unharmonious color. Small patches were transparent. Though it lacked a head, unfocused eyes beamed from the middle of its body.

            “How is this possible?” Mom had never known of drawings coming to life, but arguing against undeniable evidence when it came close to staring her in the face never occurred to her.

            Reggie’s “elephant” roared again, sounding more like a brass instrument than an actual pachyderm. Mom shrank away and gasped in pain as her bare right heel landed on two shards of glass. She lifted her leg and attempted to dislodge the splinters, but another voice caused her to drop her foot back onto the tiles. A smear of red painted the floor.

            “Hey! Wanna hear a riddle?” A four-foot figure identical to the elephant in all but hues had appeared out of nowhere. It spoke in an exaggerated, cartoonish voice as if every word led to a punchline. “What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back to you?”

            Mom rolled her eyes, having heard her husband tell this same dad joke at least five times since winter began. “A stick.”

            “No! It’s a boom-away-ng! Get it? ‘Cause it goes away-ng!” Crazy the Clown giggled at his “cunning” answer and capered back and forth on his two unbending legs. A bike horn squawked, though Mom could not identify what had produced the sound. “How about another riddle? What do you call a fake noodle?”

            Mom knew the answer to that one as well, but she had no intention of playing along with this drawn clown’s games. Especially if she would have to use the non-word “impasta.”

            “Do you give up? It’s playdough!” Crazy said, dancing his jig again and sounding his invisible bike horn. Recalling her son’s near-death experience flashed through Mom’s mind, making her gasp. “One more strike and we feed you to the tiger!”

            “What?” Mom’s voice squeaked. Her foot throbbed and her mind marathoned. “Lion tamer! Where are you?”

            “Tiger thought he tasted good!” Crazy hooted a laugh that more than suited his name. The sound churned Mom’s blood. “Last riddle! What did the ocean say to the sailboat?”

            Mom wracked her brain for the answer. Her husband had earned a groan or three from her the last time he had invited her onto Davy’s boat. After a solid minute of anxious thought and temple massaging, she had it. “Nothing. It just waved.”

            “Incorrect!” Crazy’s gleeful guffawing brought out goosebumps. “The ocean said, ‘Don’t rock the boat!’ Get it?”

            “No! That makes no sense!”

            The clown lifted his curved arms in a shrug. “Oh, well. Time to make like tiger chow and feed our kitten!”

            The elephant trumpeted a “Wah! Wah! Waaaah!” It kicked open the pantry door, bringing into view a third figure as grotesque as the first two. Snarling, it tottered toward her on two legs, flailing its upper extremities like a car’s antenna in a strong wind.

            Whipping her head from side to side, Mom scanned for a means of defense. She grasped the only conceivable weapon within reach. The tiger’s large, potato-shaped body and slow steps made it an easy target. Mom hurled the Goode Grapecious Vineyards bottle, which struck the monstrous tiger between its disproportionate eyes. The bottle exploded on impact, releasing the remaining rosé to splash all over the crayon-rendered tiger.

            At first, Mom thought her plan had failed, dooming her. The beast kept waddling like a penguin, inching closer and growling every second. But then she noticed how the scribbly colors began to bleed into one another. The tiger let out a curious roar as if wondering why it had started to wash away. Before long, the faux feline had transformed into a pile of waxy sludge.

            The clown tittered. “Didn’t see that coming. Too bad you don’t have any more of that sour grape juice!”

            Her triumph had been brief enough, and Crazy’s accurate observation proved she could not rely on one success guaranteeing anything. Mom thought through her options. She could outrun these animate drawings without too much difficulty, but that would leave anyone who came home at the psychotic clown’s mercy. Allowing any threats to her son to go unaddressed would not do. Plus, running with two pieces of glass poking through her foot would make every stride painful.

            Then she remembered where she stood. The kitchen contained so many ways to eliminate creatures such as these. Baring her teeth in a determined grin, she formed her plan. All she needed was for the clown to come a little closer.

            “Hey, Crazy? Want to hear a riddle?”

            Crazy leapt into the air. “Do I ever? Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!”

            “Why can you never trust a cloud with money?” Mom hoped this would work. She held her breath until the answer came.

            “Because they don’t have pockets?” Crazy, for the first time, sounded unsure of himself. His bacon-shaped grin flattened.

            “Nope. Because they like to make it rain!” She had to force herself to laugh at the joke. “That’s strike one! Take five giant steps forward.”

            To her surprise, the clown complied. It stood just the right distance away.

            “Second riddle. What do you call a pachyderm that never cleans its room?”

            The clown giggled, his pitch rising with his anxiety. “A…um…umm…a dinosaur?”

            Mom scoffed at the ludicrous response. “No. It’s a Mess-tadon. Strike two! I’m getting out the PAM!” She pulled out the non-stick spray can from a nearby cabinet. “Last chance, Crazy. What do you and a compost pile have in common?”

            Crazy moaned and mumbled about how it could not figure out the answer. Mom reached into her purse on the counter and reached inside. Beginning a countdown at ten, she unnerved the clown as she rummaged around for her prize. At “two,” she had it.

            “Give up? Answer is…you’re both on fire!”

            “Huh?” Crazy’s eyes widened.

            Mom pulled the lighter from her purse, flicked it on, and sprayed the PAM at the clown from behind the small spark. Her makeshift flamethrower felt hot in her hand, but she would not relent. Crazy the Clown shrieked as the fire melted it to a liquid pulp. The stench of smoke and charred paper filled the room. Her spray can emptied just as the lighter burnt out. What remained of her opponent resembled hardening lava.

            The last thing to take care of was the elephant in the room. Since the beast did not present as an imminent danger, she at last had time to remove the glass thorns in the flesh. With those afflictions gone, a new flow of blood dripped down the underside of her foot until the wound clotted. Cautious not to step on anything else, she approached the last of Reggie’s renderings. It produced a burst of mournful notes. Mom reached out and patted the beast. It felt smooth and gummy, and it left a green and fuchsia residue on her palm.

            A sustained humming announced the garage opening. Moments later, Dad and Reggie entered the house chuckling over something one of them must have said in the car. Whatever the joke had been, the laughter stopped when Dad took stock of the alterations to his family’s kitchen.

            “What’s all—” Dad grunted and pointed. He raked his hair with quaking fingers. “Broken glass…and wine…all over the place…a mess…like a tornado.” He sniffed. “Blech! What’s that smell? Burnt rubber?”

            Reggie cared less about the house’s disarray, paying more attention to the strange creature standing a few feet away. Gasping, he hid behind his mother. “What is that?”

            “It’s your elephant that went missing.” Mom ruffled his head and urged him forward.

            “But that not look like a elepant!” Reggie dug in his heels to resist his mom’s push. He squinted at the enormous creature as it bellowed the beginning of The 1812 Overture.

            “No kidding.” Mom rubbed her hands together. “So you can take care of your new pet. No need to get a puppy now, right? And in the morning, we’re signing you up for art lessons. Honey? Clean up our son’s mess, please. I’m done with that for today.”

Part 2 – The Night of the Fifteenth

Warning: If you have not read Part 1, click here. https://vantolswritingvortex.com/2019/10/30/part-1-the-luddite/

            Conrad Vellion approached his red sportscar in the dim-lit parking garage, his shoulders slumped from the weight of his briefcase and the day’s challenges. As usual, most other vehicles had already left the structure for the night. Without his wife waiting at home, the professor lost his motivation to head there before security demanded he leave the office. Of all the lecturers employed at Ploford College, Conrad’s office hours had become the most available. Somehow, that had not translated into a multitude of students taking advantage.

            Inserting the key into the ignition of his Zing, Conrad wondered if he were as stuck in the past as Chad had claimed. Most cars these days would start with a thumbprint reader. So many ways that could go wrong. It gives new sinister meaning to the phrase, “I need your digits.” There was something satisfying about the way a key fit into its slot. It made him the master of his vehicle, not a mere user. When the Zing roared to life, that was his doing rather than a program running its course. Of all the dozens of reasons to avoid upgrading his vehicle, the first to spring to mind involved the classic nature of his car. One anachronistic tweak would detract from the artwork of this masterpiece.

            The more he thought about it, the problem coalesced into a clearer picture. He had grown up in a time just before the world’s progression toward technological dependency. Back then, having anything more advanced than a color television in the home had been unimaginable. Now, streaming video on any screen not placed in a window had become a matter of course. When the dean at Ploford College had insisted he live-stream lectures for ill students, Conrad had balked, knowing people would stop coming altogether. His incompetence with the new software worked in his favor. Conrad could not decide what bothered him most: the rate of change or people’s dissatisfaction with delayed gratification.

            Dr. Rovain, one of his younger colleagues, brushed off Conrad’s concerns. “Oh, everyone thinks the next generation is destroying our way of life. People always asking, ‘What’s the matter with kids these days?’ But we’re still here, right?”

            That attitude was too laissez faire in Conrad’s view. Perhaps his studies of history had rendered complacency impossible. People who remained silent when they saw problems allowed the furtherance of evil. History judged such people as complicit, even if they did not participate. No amount of hectoring would keep Dr. Conrad Vellion from speaking out against what he perceived as steps off the right path. Does that make me a codger? Stuck in the past? I don’t think so.

            His Zing’s headlights cut through the darkness. The radio announcers listed the day’s headlines. Representative Pommel unveiled his intentions to run a Presidential campaign. Franklin Motors had recalled one of its older makes due to an electrical issue. Burger Bum released a new sandwich which had Conrad fearing the sound of sizzling grease coming through the speakers might be enough to clog his arteries. Questae, Inc. had announced the successor to The MUSE would arrive in stores four weeks before Christmas.

            As he drove down the main road, Conrad fumed about Questae’s continued influence over the general public. Why would anyone buy one of their MPlants? He heard a slight crunch. It sounded as though he had driven over a Styrofoam cup. In the rearview mirror, he could see a college-age girl shaking her fist at him. Whatever he had done to offend, he could not imagine. At least this one did not have MUSE wires dangling from her ears. Seems like kids these days can’t survive without their devices. Put them in a wilderness with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and they’ll be flailing their arms like inflatables.

            Conrad opened the garage door and pulled the Zing into its spot. The door clattered back into place as the professor stepped out of his vehicle. He patted the roof as one might do with a prized puppy. Looks like you need a wash.

            “I’m home!” No one replied. That had been normal for the last three years. Studies claimed that husbands usually went first, but that had not been Conrad’s experience. Even so, he called out this greeting as if Jasmine could still hear. He touched her framed portrait with regretful fingers as he passed. There should have been more time.

            He pulled out a container of leftover pasta from the fridge. “You would not believe the day I’ve had, honey. That Rodgers kid actually called my bluff today. Didn’t think he’d have it in him.” After the microwave worked its magic on the meal, Conrad tested a noodle. The marinara sauce had lost some of its pep in reheating, so he added a second sprinkling of parmesan cheese.

            “But his friend, Jason? I think there’s something about him. I guess it’s a little early to tell yet. Hmm. This spaghetti might’ve needed another twenty seconds.” Sighing, he popped the meal back in and grabbed two wine glasses while he waited. “How about a glass of Merlot, dear?”

            After filling both glasses with the dark beverage, he set one of them at the place where his wife should have been. He sipped his Merlot. “They’re talking to me about retirement, Jasmine. I know it’s something we planned for. Trips to Italy and Britain. But I’m not sure I could face it now. Alone.”

            A loud sound startled Conrad. His hand shot up, spilling alcohol on the floor. He came close to dropping the glass as he realized the noise had been a window shattering in the next room over.

            As Conrad stood, his chair groaned against the laminate floor. His unsteady hand set down the glass. “Is someone there?” His voice quavered as he took cautious steps toward the front door. A gray brick lay on the floor a few feet from the great room’s window. His gaze shifted from the intruding object to a hole in the glass large enough for a grown person to step through. Someone’s broken in! Where’s Jasmine?

            A heavy object slammed into the back of Conrad’s head. He stumbled but did not fall. Too stunned to flee the attack, he turned just in time to see something wooden and rounded swing at his chest. The strike broke a few of his ribs and knocked him to the floor. He lifted his hands to block the barrage and begged for mercy. By the time the fifth blow landed, Dr. Conrad Vellion was dead. The beating did not end when the victim’s heart stopped. The weapon swung even as splinters flew off in all directions.

Continue to Part 3 by by clicking here: https://vantolswritingvortex.com/2019/12/18/part-3-a-rude-awakening/

Part 1 – The Luddite

            “He’s such a codger.”

            As he entered Lecture Hall 47, Jason Ramos squinted at his friend. “Codger? Who talks like that anymore?”

            “Sorry, Jason. Shall I put it in simple speak so even you can understand?” The student wearing the school’s red-and-gold varsity jacket for the basketball team bent down to Jason’s level as if speaking to a small child rather than a fellow undergrad. “Dr. Vellion is an old grump who refuses to change with the times.”

            “I do comprehend the word’s meaning, Chad. Jeez!” Jason stopped at the professor’s desk and ran a hand through his hair.

            “I mean, have you listened to him rail against our reliance on technology? Every other day, it’s ‘Social media is bad’ or ‘Take that phone out of your face and read a book!’ It’s like he’s never seen a piece of tech he hasn’t hated. You know what I mean? C’mon. He’s stuck in the past. You know it. I know it. And we’re wasting our time in this stupid history class. ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ Can you come up with a more clichéd quote? If you really don’t want to repeat history, why do you say the same thing every week?”

            A briefcase clicked open behind Chad. “Thank you for that frank appraisal of my teaching, Mr. Rodgers. Perhaps you’ll find your dorm room more to your liking.”

            Chad turned to face his college professor. Dr. Vellion stood no more than five feet tall in a tweed jacket. The thin white hairs struggling to cover his scalp stood up on end at the slightest of breezes. With arms crossed, the lecturer stared up at his student awaiting a response.

            “Y’know, I am a little behind on my gaming.” Chad grinned as Dr. Vellion’s assured smile faltered. “As Henry Ford said, ‘History is bunk.’”

            “A frequently misquoted, misapplied saying. Something you would realize if you actually paid attention to history. But if you prefer to waste your life away with your butt planted in front of a monitor, you must make that determination for yourself, Mr. Rodgers.” The history lecturer pulled out a stack of papers from his briefcase. “If you wish to leave my lecture hall, feel free to do so. Realize, however, that your actions here will have consequences later.”

            Chad chuckled. “Can you believe this fool? A monitor? Could he be more out of touch? Come on, Jason, let’s go.”

            Jason took a step to follow his friend, but he stopped to glance back at his professor. He gulped as he watched Dr. Vellion slam his stack of lecture notes against the top of his desk to straighten them. His eyes darted from Chad’s retreat to the remaining students occupying their desks.

            “Mr. Ramos, either take your seat or clear out. Either way, the spot in front of the blackboard is mine to command.”

            His mind flashing to the academic scholarship that made his education possible, Jason made for the third row, plopped down his backpack, and withdrew a red notebook. With a pencil at the ready, he opened the notebook to a blank page. To either side of the young man, most of Dr. Vellion’s other students made similar preparations. A few in the back of the lecture hall, however, spent the duration of the professor’s explanation of the Battle at Gettysburg with MUSE wires plugged into their ears. From the professor’s perspective, technology had advanced too far. People’s willingness to implant devices into their bodies made him shiver, but this new generation thought little of the consequences to progress. Their heads bobbed to the beat of music only they could hear.

            “War. What is it good for? If you asked President Lincoln, I’m sure he would respond, ‘Absolutely something!’ Right?” No one made a sound after the reference aside from a hesitant coughing fit. Dr. Vellion tried to ignore those few who appeared to him to have the attention span of a passionfruit, but their apathy irked him. He cleaned his glasses with a clean cloth before repositioning the specs with shaking hands.

            As he wrapped up the session for the day, Dr. Vellion reminded his students to check their syllabi for upcoming due dates. The horde of notetakers and MUSE enthusiasts vacated the room, racing to be anywhere else. Last to leave, Jason slung his pack over his shoulders and walked toward the door.

            “Mr. Ramos?”

            Jason stopped dead in his tracks and gulped. “Yes, Dr. Vellion. Do you need something?”

            The professor leaned against the front of his desk, keeping himself aright with hands gripping the edge. “Why did you choose to stay today?”

            “Sir?”

            “I heard everything Mr. Rodgers said to you. Calling me a codger. Saying I refuse to change with the times. You didn’t correct him or agree with him. That leaves me with two options. One, you stayed today because you disagree with your friend but are too cowardly to confront him. Two, you stayed because you agree with your friend but are too cowardly to confront me. Which do you think is correct?”

            Jason jerked his head, confounded at the accusation. He adjusted the strap to his backpack. “I – I don’t think I’m a coward.”

            “Do you know how Webster Dictionary defines ‘coward’?” Dr. Vellion did not allow his penetrating focus on his student to shift. “One who shows disgraceful timidity or fear.”

            “But I didn’t—”

            “You permitted your friend to speak about a person whom you believed was not there to defend himself. By not standing up to Mr. Rodgers, you were consenting to his opinion. If you truly agree that I am nothing more than an eccentric, you are too fearful to say so to my face. If you disagree, then you are too fearful of losing a slanderer’s good opinion of you. What would you call that if not cowardice?”

            Jason’s mouth worked, but his voice box did not cooperate. Half-started squawks and mumbles were all he could manage. He did not agree, but he felt powerless to articulate a proper response.

            “My point is not to shame you, Mr. Ramos. Otherwise, I would have done so with everyone else still here. I simply want you to think about how you interact with others. It all comes down to history.”

            “History?” Jason’s eyes narrowed. “What does any of this have to do with history?”

            “There was a time when a man came into power. He claimed that several groups of people were the cause of everyone’s troubles. People knew this was not true, but they did not speak up because they were too fearful. They didn’t want to be next. So they went along with the lie. Some of them even started to believe the lie and harassed anyone who called it a lie. Do you see where I’m going with this?”

            Shoulders slumping, Jason nodded.

            “So which is it? Which kind of coward were you?”

            Knowing any further denials would be fruitless, Jason cleared his throat. “The kind who didn’t want to lose a friend.”

            “That’s what I thought.” Dr. Vellion packed his briefcase, clipping the latches back into place. “I’ll see you next Monday, then, Mr. Ramos.”

            Jason stood still, watching his professor walk out of the room with head held high. “Wait. Dr. Vellion, why did you stop me?”

            The history lecturer paused and turned back. “Isn’t it obvious?”

            Jason shrugged.

            “I teach history so that your generation doesn’t make the same mistakes that mine made. You were a coward today. But you don’t have to be one tomorrow.”

Continue to Part 2 by clicking here: https://vantolswritingvortex.com/2019/11/19/part-2-the-night-of-the-fifteenth/

Turnover

            How difficult can it be to remember to file paperwork properly? Percy Elton kicked a rock as he fumed. Gnashing his teeth, the human resources bureaucrat felt his spindly fingers balling up. It’s simple! A process a baby could follow. A helpless baby! What does that make Roger? Can he remember to turn in his 1533s on the second Thursday of the month like a civilized person? Of course not! That would require him to get off his dumb ass and do his damn job!

            A voice in his head reminded him to calm himself. That this was a problem he could solve. There’s always turnover. When he had joined the esteemed ranks of HR, the thought of hoping for turnover would have made his skin crawl. Percy was, after all, supposed to make the working environment feel safe. But now he rubbed his hands together and grinned at the thought of watching Roger hear the news. Anyone who can’t tell the difference between a 1533 and a 1353 has it coming.

*                                  *                                  *

            Roger Veckser stepped out the elevator before the doors were all the way open. His eyes beamed at anyone who passed by. In his hand, he held a coffee carrier laden with six steaming beverages. On his way to his desk, Roger handed out each one to the members of his team. Though not a caffeine addict like most of his colleagues at PWX Sales, he always wanted to keep his people happy. As happy as one can be with turnover always lurking in their minds.

            “Good morning, Faith. How was the weekend?” He held out the last of the brown paper cups. “Two creams. No sugar.”

            “Thank God for you.” Faith grabbed the cup with such force, the lid came close to popping off the top and allowing a flow of scalding liquid to splash into her face. “You know, I don’t know if I could stand it here without you. The way you go out of your way to—”

            Roger smiled. “Oh, it’s no bother. No turnover for our team, right?”

            Faith’s smile faltered. “Mmm. Smells like Heaven.”

            Nothing can smell like Heaven in a place like this. “You know what they say. A happy team is an efficient team.”

            Faith nodded, sipped her coffee, and let go an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Just limit the talk of – well, you know. No one wants to think about it. Even as a joke.”

            “Right. Sorry.” The word had slipped out his mouth without a thought. The last time the head honchos of PWX had brought up turnover, the office had become a wasteland of vacant eyes staring at computer screens. A sweaty stench had overpowered the floor. Darryl from marketing had needed paramedics to administer a tranquilizer before he could calm down. Roger shuddered as he made his way to his desk.

            Roger had seen turnover in action three months ago. He had always known how terrible it would be, but to watch it happen to Marci in reception? He rubbed his neck, imagining how crushing it would feel to face that harsh consequence over a single customer complaint.

            Two hours into the workday, the door to the manager’s office squeaked open. Heavy feet thundered into the work space. “Attention!” Few mortals could ignore Mr. Tooms’s voice, and none of them worked at PWX Sales. “It has come to my notice that someone in this office has been driving down efficiency under my very nose!”

            Though substantial, Mr. Tooms’s nose sniffed out slackers and timewasters like a raptor.

            “You all know what this means.”

            Roger noticed Faith’s mascara running down her cheeks. He wanted to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but no one could move while Mr. Tooms boomed. He heard the boss’s next word resounding in his mind before Mr. Tooms’s voice confirmed the worst.

            “Turnover.”

            All around him, Roger heard whimpers. Dread drained the color from Roger’s face, hoping he would not know the victim too well.

            “Roger Veckser!”

            What? It can’t be me! How can it be me? Please, no! There must be a mistake! Unsteady on his legs, Roger wobbled to his feet. “Yes, sir?”

            “Do you recognize this form, Mr. Veckser?”

            A beefy hand thrust a paper up close to Roger’s face. Within moments, Roger recognized his signature at the bottom of the 1353 he had filled out three days prior. A form detailing resources his team had used over the course of a month. A form he filled out once a month. Swallowing, Roger confirmed that he knew the form. No point lying.

            “Are you aware, Mr. Veckser, that you have filled out a 1353 every month for the last seven months?”

            “Y-yes. Sir, I—”

            “DO NOT INTERRUPT! Are you also aware that your job requires you to fill out a 1533 and not a 1353?”

            “W-wh-what?” His dry throat would only allow him to whisper.

            “A 1533. A form that lists all resources your team will require in the next month. Quite different from a 1353, yes?”

            Roger struggled to keep himself upright. His dizzy mind tried to recall a time anyone had ever mentioned this crucial information. He was on the point of collapsing, sure that his time had come. All that effort to prevent turnover, and all for naught.

            “Volume 3 of your employee handbook clearly states that team leaders are to fill out a 1533 every second Thursday of the month. How is it you did not know this?”

            “I-I-I—” Roger felt his stomach squirming with nausea.

            “Incompetence of this nature costs our company time and thus revenue. The consequences of negligence are quite clear. Is that not right, Mr. Elton.”

            Smirking behind Mr. Tooms, Percy Elton nodded. “That’s right.”

            Roger fell to his knees, crying. “Please. I’ll do better. I’ll get it right next time. I didn’t know. Please don’t—”

            “We will now turn over—”

            “No! Please! I’ll fix it!” Roger’s heart thudded like a meat tenderizer on a cutting board.

            Mr. Tooms withdrew a remote from his pocket and pressed down on a large red button. Claxons sounded. Yellow lights flashed. In the middle of the office, the floor opened like a mouth. Humid breath stank up the room. Faith wailed, averted her eyes, and backed away from the long, snaking tongue that sprang up from the orifice. A hand gripped Roger by the arm and started dragging him toward the mouth in the floor. Percy’s glee shone in his eyes.

            “We will now turn over Mr. Elton for negligence in training team leaders.” Mr. Tooms retired to his office.

            The tongue sprang forward, lashed around Percy’s leg, and tugged at the HR worker. Percy shrieked as he slid closer to the edge and held onto Roger. The two struggled with each other, punching and kicking as if that could stop the inevitable. Roger at last wrenched himself free inches away from the foul mouth in the floor.

            “HELP!” Percy screamed.

            The mouth closed with a crunch, spraying a fountain of hot, red blood.

            Mr. Tooms spoke into his radio. “Send Clean-up Crew 13. And tell them no dawdling.”

The Continuing Narrative of All the Ways My Little Brother is a Spoiled Brat

            No one ever seems to believe me when I tell them about how Tommy has made my life one disappointment after another. I don’t get it. Why is it so hard to accept? He’s a spoilsport who ruins everything! No, I’m not yelling at you.

            Maybe it’s because I see things the rest of the world will never hear about. In that case, I think the time is ripe for me to be the whistle-blower and reveal how supernaturally troublesome a sibling he is.

            My first time going to a summer camp happened last year. You would not believe how exciting it is spending a whole week away from home. Mostly because I didn’t have to put up with my little brother at all. No having to keep track of him as he embarrasses me in front of friends or anything. Plus, most of my time at Camp Wallop involved games like Ultimate Frisbee and shooting paintballs with slingshots.

            I was so excited to go again this year until a few weeks into summer break. I came home from playing at a friend’s house and found my brother begging mom and dad to let him go with me to Camp Wallop. His cheeks were practically shimmering with tears. In that moment, the only wallop I wanted Tommy to see was one for his rear end. But I didn’t have a say in the matter. My parents were quick to cave to his pleas as usual. What really made me grind my teeth that night was when they pulled me aside and asked me to watch after their precious middle child. Sometimes I wonder if Cain had the right idea about little brothers. Why should I sacrifice my fun to be his keeper? Just don’t tell my mom and dad I said that.

            After the parentals made me promise to be a “good big brother” for the spoiled twerp, I started packing for Camp Wallop. You take the basic necessities. Clothes, sleeping bag, toothbrush, shampoo, and fresh underwear. Pretty simple, right? Well, my little brother thought he needed to bring every toy from the bin of stuffed animals with him. My mom had to set him straight, and he sulked the entire time as he put his toys away. Considering he just finished third grade, his playing with stuffed polar bears and kittens gives me migraines. I stopped way before that age. Then again, I was never as bratty as my little brother.

            I made one last attempt to make my parents see reason. My little brother would ruin camp for me just as he ruins everything else. I gave my asthma as evidence. Dad put his foot down and said, “If your brother doesn’t go, you don’t go either.” That decision was nowhere in the vick-city of fair, but I didn’t argue. When my parents pull out ultimatums, you know they mean business.

            The next weekend, it was time to leave for camp. The bus ride lasted hours, and for a large chunk of that trip, I pondered how best to handle my brother. It occurred to me that my parents would never know if I were actually protecting him from the imaginary dangers they envisioned eating him alive in the forest. After all, the worst I had encountered last year were mosquitos, and we packed bug spray for that very reason! Camp Wallop shattered that hope by placing my bratty brother in the same cabin as me.

            That first night of camp, I realized Tommy had managed to sneak one of his stuffed toys back into his bag. Empanada the Chihuahua had been his favorite for a few years, and its worn, tan fabric showed how much he loved it. Great, I thought. I’ll be the guy whose brother carries a toy dog everywhere.

            As it turned out, Camp Wallop had a Fiesta theme that year, so people thought the Chihuahua was a cute touch rather than a sad sign of childishness. In spite of that, seeing his stuffed animal every day bothered me. Why did he get to be a spoiled brat and get away with it?

            Our week at camp flashed by faster than a wary rabbit. For once, it seemed my little brother’s bratty ways had not ruined my life. As we packed up to go home, though, his high-pitch squeaky voice dashed that possibility.

            “Where’s Empanada?”

            “What?” I couldn’t believe he was spending all his time searching for a dumb toy when he still had a sleeping bag to roll up and toiletries to put away. But Tommy just had to know where that stuffed dog had gone as if it could have walked off on its own. He started accusing everyone with a face of stealing his stuffed critter. It’s a good thing our cabin didn’t have a clock on its walls.

            Camp Counselor Carter noticed my brother’s dilemma and asked me to assist in the search. Groaning, I stomped after my brother all over the grounds in search of his bean-filled toy. Why it should have been at the Ultimate Frisbee field, I could not guess, but Tommy insisted on searching every inch of Camp Wallop. Every time we determined that Empanada was not in one place, I noticed tears pouring out of my brother like a broken fire hydrant. I rubbed my forehead and felt like snorting fire, flabbergasted at Tommy’s attachment to the stupid dog. He doesn’t even like dogs in real life! He screams like a prissy girl every time one comes close.

            After spending my last hours of summer camp scouring Camp Wallop for a toy I didn’t care about, it was time to board the bus and head home. The entire trip home, I could see my brother weeping with his head resting limp against the bus’s window. I sat several rows away, hoping the distance would allow me to save face. Or at least as much face as I had left to save.

            Once the bus pulled up to the drop-off location, my parents were waiting for us, excitement wrinkling the edges of their smiles. I told them about how much I had missed them. That’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to say at a reunion, right? But you can probably guess what my brother did.

            Tommy sobbed as he greeted my dad with, “Empanada’s gone!”

            That statement startled dad. The whole way home, he disclosed his disappointment with my brother’s carelessness and selfish attitude. For once, I thought my bratty brother would get what he deserved. But then my dad asked why I had not been watching after my little brother. Sitting down was painful for a whole month. I gnashed my teeth, unable to fathom how Tommy had once again ruined everything.

Kara Pace and the Loathsome Dorian Bray

            Kara Pace thought she had heard all the jokes. After a time, she surrendered her frustration with the rest of the world if only to keep her sanity. Kara could tune out most wisecracks, but every so often, a new one would remind her how tenuous friendships could be. Calling her slow was one thing, but comparing a hurricane to her kind was one step too far.

            “If I hear them say that waiting for a hurricane is like being stalked by a turtle one more time, I might just snap!” Kara fumed as she frowned down at a fresh head of lettuce. She had learned from a young age to use her shell as a shield against threats, but nothing could block hurtful words.

            Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Dorian Bray standing beside the water cooler. Kara had always thought him a great ass, but his willingness to repeat these insults had begun to worsen her opinion. He probably didn’t even notice I was there to hear him. But that’s no excuse.

            Dorian had joined the company four months ago as a member of the sales team. Since then, he had managed to win every weekly competition despite his grating laugh. Somehow, his stubborn persistence charmed customers. Kara decided to listen in on one of those calls. She could never speed over to stand behind him, but she could tap into his phone line.

            “Hello?” Whoever had answered the phone sounded as though he had a piece of food in his mouth. The squishy sound of mastication reminded Kara of her own supper.

            “Hi, this is Dorian Bray. Whom do I have the pleasure of speaking to today?”

            There was a pause before the person at the other end replied. “I’m Brady Pus. What can I do for you?”

            “Hi, Brady. I hope I’m not calling at a bad time, but I was hoping you could answer a few quick questions that could save you hundreds.”

            Kara knew that opener from the company cold-call script. Whenever she had tried using it, there was a sixty-percent chance of a hang-up and a ten-percent chance of an unhealthy dose of profanity.

            “Hundreds, you say?” Kara could hear Brady chewing some more before continuing, his voice coming through the line in a lazy drawl. “Ask away, Mr. Bray.”

            “My goodness, I didn’t realize I was talking to a poet.” Dorian laughed that obnoxious bike horn laugh of his. To Kara’s astonishment, Brady joined in with a choked snicker of his own. She wanted to disconnect from the call, but her curiosity overrode her hatred for the noise. “Brady, how are you protecting yourself if a major storm were to blow down your home?”

            “Well—” Brady crunched down on another bite of something that sounded like leaves from an exotic salad. “I haven’t given much thought to that.”

            “Oh, dear. Brady, we’ll have to fix that.” Kara thought she could detect actual concern in Dorian’s voice. “Here at Canopy Insurance, we believe everyone should be fully covered. Could you tell me a little about your current home?”

            “It’s a treehouse in the Amazon.” Brady munched a bit. “There are several others on the market.” He waited a few painful seconds before completing the thought, “but deforestation is a constant worry.”

            “I understand.” Dorian replied. “We do have the option of adding in an ‘Act of Man’ clause. That would include any damage from wildfires and manmade machines falling from the sky.”

            He is really good at this. It’s like he assumed from the beginning Brady would buy from us.

            “I think I’ll need that. Do you offer assistance with moving?” Brady sounded captivated, his pitch rising with each word. “The nearest trees are several yards away.”

            “Sure thing. In cases of home destruction, we arrange monetary compensation that will help with replacing what you lost, and we provide discounts on temporary housing and moving services.” Dorian nickered. “It sounds like we’ve identified your needs here. I’ll be transferring your case to a colleague in a moment for underwriting purposes. I just wanted to go over everything we’ll be covering for you. Flood, acts of man, and storm damage.”

            “Do you really think I need that last part? This tree has been around for many years. Why should a storm destroy it now?”

            Kara could hear Dorian sigh into the phone. “Brady, do you know how dangerous storms can be? Why, a massive hurricane was all set to hit Florida last year. We tried to prepare everyone in the Everglades, but some occupants would not believe they were in any danger because their homes had survived worse before. Several chose to go uncovered and lost everything. You see, waiting for a hurricane is like being stalked by a turtle. It looks far away and unthreatening, but it sneaks up on you and bites you in the—”

            “Shut up!” Kara shrieked, unable to contain herself any further. Too late, she realized her line tap did not shield her outburst from the call. All around her, the coworkers dropped what they were doing and stared. Embarrassed, she disconnected her link to Dorian’s call and focused on slowing her breathing for a while. Slow was always better in her opinion.

            Half an hour later, a manager paged Kara to come into the HR office. Taking deliberate steps, Kara found Dorian Bray waiting with Malaya Tigris, their boss. Kara gulped as she watched her boss licking a striped paw.

            “It has come to my attention that you have been misusing company resources to spy on a coworker.” Malaya growled when Kara opened her mouth to argue. “Your efforts not only cross a line in our company’s ethics clause, but they also lost Canopy Insurance a potential client.”

            Kara’s neck shrank back as the instinct to flee into her shell overcame her. “I wasn’t spying.”

            “Oh?” Malaya clacked at a keyboard and turned a screen to show a report of Kara’s browser history. “Then I suppose your running a background check on Mr. Bray here doesn’t count. Or stalking each of his social media accounts. Or accessing his birth certificate. Tell me, if this isn’t internal espionage, what is it?”

            “It’s a violation!” Dorian declared.

            “It’s retaliation!” Kara snapped. “For all those times you compared me to a hurricane. How dare you?”

            Malaya snarled. She picked up a phone and shouted for security to come into her office. “I have an unruly former employee I need you to escort out of the building. And bring a scooter. If she tries walking out under her own power, she might not make it out until hurricane season’s over.”

The Curse at Castle Dread

            Prince Dimm kept his horse to a plodding pace. The woods’ sudden dark sliminess kept him on his guard. It was as though the trees defied any light to pass through their canopy. Their limbs twisted into shapes that created shadows like predatory beasts. Based on the stories surrounding the Castle Drear, any attempt to breach the walls resulted in disaster of the ghastliest sorts. Tales of flesh-eating creatures in the water and ravenous trolls along the road were the least of his concern. Especially if the dragon was real.

            Planning this assault upon the haunted palace had taken three hours. Anything more than that, and his friends would have begun to name him craven. As it was, the two-hour mark had prompted relentless teasing about how he was too soft to make the attempt. “Soft as satin,” they had said. Now that the dense forest choked his courage, he wondered whether that mockery might have some basis in truth.

            If I can come up with a witty tale of a daring quest, maybe they’ll back off. No. That won’t do. They wanted proof, didn’t they? Sighing, he slumped in his saddle, closing his eyes to the tree branches creeping down to snag him. Fear and an overactive imagination were enemies greater than the sum of their parts.

            After twenty minutes of cautious riding, Dimm at last could see the chestnut brown fur of his horse, Scepter. The animal lifted its head and shook its mane as if relieved to see sunlight as well. Dimm encouraged the horse onward with a few clicks of the tongue. The pair emerged from the dark forest at a trot, free from the oppressive dread.

            Well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought.

            “You there! Stop!”

            The voice came from Dimm’s right. His hand darted for his sword hilt at the sight of an eight-foot-tall creature with pale, green scaly skin and reptilian snout. It carried itself like a man on two legs, but those shining, gold eyes were as inhuman as anything Dimm had ever seen. Unsure what monster this might be, the prince could say little beyond, “St-stay back!”

            “State your business and be quick about it!” A forked tongue darted out from the creature’s mouth.

            “N-nothing. I’m not on any particular business.”

            The creature’s neck curved to form an “S.” Its head flattened. “You are trespassing little lordling. Go back whence you came and never return.”

            “I – I can’t do that. You see, my friends dared me to – to—”

            Hissing, the giant reptile bared fangs dripping with venom. “You came to mock us! Thought you’d just sneak up on an unsuspecting Snathan and take his head back for a trophy? I assure you, this will not stand.”

            The young prince felt his horse rearing up. Scepter pawed the air with both forelegs and screeched. Dimm lost hold of the reins and fell from his saddle. The ground bruised his royal posterior. He called out for Scepter to stay, but the horse sprinted away, vocalizing its fear until the steed returned home. Abandoned, Dimm watched the Snathan highwayman stomp closer.

            “No. That’s not what happened. I didn’t even know what a Snathan is until now!”

            The monstrous warrior unsheathed a curved blade crusted over with dried blood. “Do not insult my intelligence, lordling. What else would you find out here?”

            Dimm crab-crawled away. “A – a – a princess!” That stopped the creature in its tracks. “My friends. They told me about an evil witch who placed a sleeping curse on a princess years ago. She’s supposed to be guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, and my friends dared me to—”

            The reptilian head turned ninety degrees as if trying to measure the prince from another perspective. “What were you supposed to do? Slay the dragon? Wake her with true love’s kiss?”

            Dimm nodded. He mouthed an affirmative, but his voice abandoned him. His arms lost the strength to keep edging away, so he collapsed back onto his sore rear.

            Its lower jaw unhinging, the Snathan’s mouth opened wide enough for Prince Dimm to see down the monster’s dark throat. But instead of an attack, the creature unleashed a torrent of laughter. Venom splattered the grass, withering the plants on contact. It took the giant a full two minutes before it could regain a modicum of control, but the prince dared not move a muscle. The warrior still held that cruel blade at the ready.

            “You’re telling me that your friends wanted someone like you to take on a dragon and kiss a princess you never met for no other reason than assuaging boredom?” The Snathan held its side as if to prevent it from splitting, suffering through a relapse of the giggles. “Your friends are, without a doubt, the absolute worst! To think a scrawny twerp like you could face off against a wolf cub, let alone a dragon, it’s like they wanted to see you as a skeleton.”

            Dimm glanced down at his body, knowing what he would find. He always seemed a bit behind other boys his age. Where most of his friends could scale a castle wall without trouble, Dimm spent most of his energy before reaching the quarter-height. The sword master frowned whenever Dimm took to the practice field, most often commenting that the prince needed to hold his weapon steadier. Too much of what his peers wanted to do required more upper body strength than Dimm could muster no matter how hard he tried.

            “Are you going to kill me, then?” Dimm gulped. “Will you roast me on a spit or fry me in oil?”

            The Snathan sheathed its blade and stepped closer. Now in more direct sunlight, Dimm noted how the warrior’s scales glistened like emeralds. Its golden eyes blinked with vertical lids. “Kill a defenseless shrimp like you? Wouldn’t be worth the trouble. My duty is to scare off any who would intrude into our lands.”

            “But they say no one has ever come back from the Castle Drear alive!” As he listened to his words, Prince Dimm wondered if he should be pointing out such facts. I sound like I have a death wish.

            “True. None come back alive. But none ever made it there in the first place either. Humans who see me or one of my brothers or sisters in the field tend to flee without hesitating. From the smell of them, they usually soil their undergarments too. You were the first to try arguing with me, little lordling.” The creature’s voice sounded almost impressed.

            Astonished at this revelation, Prince Dimm let his lower jaw hang open. His mother would have warned him that flies would take refuge in his mouth if he did not close it soon.

            “This princess you were supposed to kiss,” the Snathan said, “what do your friends say of her? Other than her ‘dragon sentry,’ I mean.”

            Prince Dimm searched his mind for details, but the dragon had been the one thing his friends had gone on about at length. “She’s supposed to have a copper head. I guess that means she has red hair or something. Or does that mean she’s sunburnt? I couldn’t say.”

            For a time, the Snathan did not respond. Aside from tasting the air every so often, it appeared lifeless. In a sudden, swift movement, it spun around and retreated several paces. It paused, turned its head like an owl, and urged Prince Dimm to follow. “I know where she is.”

            “The princess?”

            “No. The seven-headed woman who invented croquet. Of course I mean the princess!”

            Prince Dimm could not decide what to do at first, but the prospect of returning home without succeeding recalled all those insults to mind. I am not soft as satin.

            Both prince and Snathan trudged on in silence as a golden sheen of sunlight bathed the grassy fields leading up to the Castle Drear. Three conical turrets poked at the clouds like spearheads. As the pair approached, Prince Dimm noticed how the path sloped up toward a wall. A lowered drawbridge covered a small section of moat. The closer his vantage point, the better he could ascertain the structure’s need for repair. Weathered stone cracked from top to bottom, indicating a storied past inconceivable to Dimm. Until now, he had never seen anything older than a century, living or inanimate. Warring kingdoms did not permit much to stand any longer than that.

            The Snathan crossed over the drawbridge. Trailing behind, Dimm frowned at the swampy moat, wondering what dangerous beasts might infest those murky waters. Long, shadowy figures swam below the surface, making Dimm’s skin crawl. Looking up from that gulp-inducing horror show, he watched the Snathan guard’s tail disappearing into the castle. He jogged to catch up and stumbled into its side. He fell back as the guard bared its venom-dripping fangs at the prince.

            “This is no place for play, lordling. If it is games you seek, turn back now.”

            “N-no. I am here to rescue the princess.” Dimm swallowed the lump in his throat. “I have to complete the task or—”

            The Snathan hissed, blinking its vertical eyelids. The reptilian creature swiveled about and slithered up a spiral staircase, its scaly toes scratching against each step. Dimm followed at a distance, a wary hand on his sword hilt. His mind kept wondering where the dreaded dragon from his friends’ tales might be or whether his guide might lead him into a trap. But why would this Snathan go to all that trouble? I’m at its mercy. He’d tear me apart without a struggle.

            Higher they climbed, the air growing warmer and more acrid. The scent of burning mold made Dimm pinch his nose, but that invasive stench still caused a lurch in his stomach. Reminding himself of how close he had come, he convinced himself to go on. The stair’s stones heated his feet as if he were walking through a blacksmith’s bellows. After ascending what seemed an everlasting spiral, the two came upon a landing. An archway of glowing red stones framed a room Dimm hesitated to enter. Wiping a sheen of sweat away, he wondered how much hotter it could get.

            “You have a visitor, princess.” The Snathan guard folded itself into a bow. It stepped out of Dimm’s way, gesturing to the prince with an extended limb.

            “Hello?” Prince Dimm tiptoed up the last of the stairs. I thought she was under a sleeping curse. He placed a hand on the archway for the briefest of moments before snatching it away. The flesh of his hand smelled charred. “I’ve come to rescue you from the dragon.”

            A cloud of smoke floated through the room, choking the prince. Once it cleared, Dimm’s eyes took in a massive, scaly creature. Even seated on a throne, the beast’s head came close to scraping the ceiling. The dragon’s mouth formed a wide, toothy grin. A diamond tiara topped her coppery head as twin plumes of smoke billowed from her nostrils. Dimm staggered back a step, stunned into silence.

            “Are you the prince who’s come to rescue me from this curse?” The dragon’s roaring voice thundered for miles around. “You don’t look like much.”

            Gulping, Dimm knelt before the dragon princess. “My apologies. I was not prepared for – no stories I’ve heard led me to believe you’d be so gorgeous.”

            The sound of her laughter would have smashed windows if the Castle Drear had any. “Gorgeous? That’s a new one. Well, you’ve come all this way. I suppose you’ll want to kiss me now and vanquish my curse. Then you can go your way and have minstrels sing songs of your daring.”

            Dimm shuddered. That had been the intent all along, but something in the dragon’s voice warned against admitting such plans. “Forgive me if I offend, majesty. I don’t even know your name. Would you deign to tell me?”

            “I am Iliana. Princess of the Snathans.”

            Dimm’s face lit up with an indomitable smile. “Princess Iliana, your name is fitting for one as bright as you. The very sound of it lifts me up like a—”

             “Sure. Right.” The dragon lifted a clawed hand to her face and scratched at her muzzle.  “So are you going to kiss me now, or do you want to keep flattering me? I’ve only waited my whole life to have this curse lifted.”

            Confused, the young prince’s smile reversed course. “Would you not prefer getting to know each other first?”

            “Seriously?” The Snathan guard sprang forward. “You were all set to break the curse thinking she’d be sleeping! And now you want to slow things down when the woman is willing and ready? What the hell is wrong with you?”

            “N-nothing. Nothing at all. I mean, I just thought—”

            “Do you want to end my curse or not?” Princess Iliana’s suffocating fumes burned away the breathable air.

            Coughing, Dimm nodded, imagining how even more magnificent Iliana would appear once he proved the depths of his love. The dragon princess lowered a clawed hand for the young prince to step onto. Standing in the center of the palm, he rose to her mouth. The two shared a kiss. Change occurred in seconds. Princess Iliana’s gargantuan bulk transformed into that of an old woman, stooped and frail. Dimm, meanwhile, dissolved into a pile of flaming ash.

            “Poor dumb boy.” The princess shook her head. “Bring me a mirror.”

            “Poor dumb boy.” The princess shook her head. “Bring me a mirror!”

            The Snathan delivered a looking glass into her shriveled hand. She examined the wrinkles and scant white hair. Slamming the instrument against the floor, she screamed. Once she recomposed herself, she shook her head and clicked her tongue at herself. “Another spell to expunge from my grimoire. There’s got to be some way to stave off my eternal sleep. It just isn’t true love’s kiss.”