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.”

Advertisements

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.”

The True Narrative all about how my Little Brother Ruins Everything because He’s the Worst

            My little brother ruins everything. Mr. Hammond, my fifth-grade teacher, says that’s “hi-per-bowl-ee,” but what does he know? I’m pretty sure he made up that word cuz I couldn’t find it anywhere in the dictionary. In any case, if you ever met Tommy, you’d have no choice but to agree. He’s made life miserable since I knew how to pronounce the word “brother.”

            What? You don’t believe me? Well, thanks to him, I’ve got asthma. No kidding. I have a respiratory disease that’ll affect me the rest of my life because my little brother ruins everything.

            It all goes back to a family trip from four years ago. My parents took us all to a farm where some of my mom’s distant cousins live. I don’t really know why we went. There wasn’t enough time to get to know anyone, and there wasn’t anything fun to do there aside from eating at a huge barbeque. My parents wouldn’t even let me climb on the tractors in the barn. Now that I look back on that, though, they probably made the right call for a seven-year-old.

            Anyway, we arrived at this farm, and this family had a bunch of cats roaming around. And I don’t mean that, like, twenty cats live there. Hundreds! Literally. I’m not even joking. Hundreds of cats. You could barely step anywhere without having to avoid tripping over one.

            I had not grown up with a whole lot of cats. Before now, my parents had owned one, but they got rid of it shortly after my birth. Something about the cat getting jealous of the attention my parents gave me, I think. But me, my sister, and little brother (who ruins everything) wanted to handle each of these cats. I told my parents how it would be nice if we could take one home.

            Cousin Obediah overheard that comment and told my parents that they could take as many cats as they wanted. I looked at my sister, Hannah, and we both grinned. And I could see the same look on my parents’ faces. We all had the same thought in mind.

            For the rest of that day-long visit, Hannah and I tried to identify the best cat to take home. It did not even occur to me that we might not take one home. It was going to happen, and I knew it. But then we almost lost that dream. Thanks to my little brother who, as you know, ruins everything.

            My dad picked out a beautiful gray, short-haired tabby kitten. She had sharp eyes and an athletic body. Her every movement displayed grace and dignity just as a cat ought to. My mom, Hannah, and I loved her right away. But who should set an obstacle in our path but Tommy? Of course. Because he ruins everything. He wanted to bring home this black-and-white long-haired mangy mutt. Who knows why?

            Tommy said, “If we don’t get this cat, I don’t want any cats.”

            I wanted my parents to tell my little wart of a brother to suck it up and deal with it. But mom and dad conferenced and decided to take both home with us.

            Now, four years later, we have to say goodbye to both of our cats. I started having wheezing attacks last weekend. I keep struggling to breathe. The doctor says I have asthma, and the cats need to go. It seems their dander aggravates my situation. And which cat produces the most dander? Why the dumb long-haired cat my brother wanted! So now we have no cats because my little brother ruins everything.

A Striking Impression

            Astra held her purse over her head as she streaked toward the sliding door. The sensors detected her and granted entry. Panting, she turned around to see the torrential downpour cease all at once. “I can’t – I can’t—” she could not stop huffing as her lungs struggled to refill on oxygen. “I can’t believe I made it!”

            Drenched strands of hair dripped water down Astra’s angular face. She tugged loose locks away as she examined the state of her disheveled garments. Her sopping yellow blouse and capris hugged her shape, concealing little. Already, wolf whistles chased after her. Her cheeks brightened at the sound. Forcing herself to straighten her posture, Astra stalked into the retail store, determined to find out what her father saw in this place.

            Astra wrung out her braided ponytail, splashing the white tile floor. “Where do you keep the – uh – the umbrellas?”

            “The what now?”

            “Umbrellas. You do work here, right?” Why did I have to ask for something so pedestrian?

            “Work here?” The balding man’s blue vest and nametag suggested as much, but his focus fixed below Astra’s neck rather than on her words.

            “I need some help. Are you going to show me?”

            “Show me?” He licked his lips.

            Gnashing her teeth, Astra abandoned the effort and charged through the aisles, intent on the search. Her father never seemed to have this kind of trouble. People always snapped to attend him, and that was without awareness of his importance. Maybe it’s the location. All the good ones at home. This trip strikes me as a bust.

            “Dang, girl! You’re lookin’ mighty fine. You wanna get outta here with me? Just the two of us in the back of my pickup?”

            “Seriously?” Astra whispered at the floor. “Is this bravado supposed to be attractive?”

            A woman held up a hand to her eyes as if shielding them from extreme brightness. Though squinting, she seemed incapable of looking away from Astra. All around, it seemed the entire store had come to gawp at the pretty, soaked stranger. None of them could capture Astra’s heart. Did father really meet mother this way?

            Astra’s hair stood on end as the need to return filled her thoughts. The amassed crowd of onlookers shouted at her for attention, refusing to stand aside. She stormed by, shoving a few out of the way. Her touch dropped them to the floor, smoke rising where her hands had made contact. A sonic boom knocked down all within ten feet of her. Before anyone else could protest, Astra bolted for the exit.

            The doors slid open. As soon as her feet touched the outside pavement, the hostile precipitation resumed. She did not complain that it always rained whenever she went out. After this interaction with humanity’s worst, Astra welcomed a return to normalcy. She leapt heavenward and did not descend.

            In the clouds, a voice boomed her name. Frozen to the spot, she awaited judgement.

            “Why did you not return to me immediately?”

            Astra stammered, unable to find the right words. How it wasn’t fair that she could never walk abroad on the Earth or know what it was to fall in love. She could not raise her eyes to the man towering over her. His fatherly glower displayed more than disappointment.

            “Because of your recklessness, three people are dead. Atropos had to make a hasty cut, and now reality itself is at risk. What were you thinking?”

            Astra found her courage at last. “What are you going to do about it? Ground me? Those people were pigs! The whole lot of them. Did you see the way they spoke to me? As if I were nothing more than a pair of breasts. All I wanted was to follow in your footsteps. A chance to meet someone down there. And I can’t even have that, can I?”

            Zeus frowned at his daughter. “Astra, you are one of the most beautiful creations in the heavens. Yet your touch is lethal. Lightning is meant for admiration and grandeur, not love.”

A Stargazer’s Journey

            Yosef stared up at the stars every night. He did not know what they were or why they shone whenever the sun’s light went out. It was one of those unanswerable questions like: where does the snow go during the summer? Although ignorant, Yosef loved that he could see the shimmering dots with such clarity in Carmarthen’s dark sky.

            “Hey, boy! Get yourself in here this moment!”

            Sighing, Yosef picked himself off the ground and brushed off the nubs of grass his clothing had gathered onto itself. Making Master wait never ended well. A good ear boxing seemed the man’s favored method of discipline, but he had a way of inventing new tortures that baffled the mind and battered the body. Especially when he was drunk.

            “Yes, Master?” Yosef bowed at the waist as per expectations. A lock of his curly black hair tickled his nose.

            Master stood from his dining table, swiping a stained napkin from under his chin. The man’s ratty, tangled gray beard reached down to his chest. His belly could have been a kettle drum if it were not so gelatinous. Despite Master’s flabby exterior, he possessed a strength Yosef’s face knew all too well.

            “You were out there again, weren’t you?”

            Yosef shrugged. “Should I have been—”

            “Do not interrupt, pup.” Master lifted his arm as if to backhand the boy. He sneered when he saw Yosef shuddering. “It is your duty to see to my needs. Do I need to find a hair in my venison?”

            Shaking his head, Yosef wished his hair were not so long. “No. Of course not. I’m sorry master. Please. It won’t happen again.”

            “It most certainly will not.” Master lifted his flagon, peered inside, and slammed it back on the table. “Though it seems you cannot do a single thing right, can you? Why do you allow my thirst to go unquenched? Pour, boy!”

            Yosef wished he were not such a poor boy. Or, rather, he wished his family had not been thus. If they could have afforded to feed themselves and him, Master would not be his master. He could have apprenticed with a far kinder man. Perhaps the town scribe or tanner. They had always been the reputable sort. But when Master had appeared on his parent’s doorstep with a money sack that rattled some, they had been all too eager to part ways with Yosef.

            He poured amber ale into Master’s flagon, dripping a miniscule amount on the table. Master snatched his drink and imbibed until echoes of his slurping announced the mug’s emptiness. Yosef repeated the process, hoping his efforts to keep Master happy would not fuel an unprovoked raging.

            “Boy, go get the book off the stand.” Master pointed with a finger that knew the general direction with the weary certainty of drunkenness.

            There was no point in asking which book Master meant. The man knew how to read, but he placed value in only one book. Leather-bound and heavy as a watermelon, the tome looked as if it could have held the entirety of humanity’s wisdom. Yosef wished those were the contents as wisdom might have improved Master’s disposition. But no. If there was one thing Master repelled, it was wisdom.

            Once Yosef had succeeded at lugging Master’s book onto the table, he stood back a few paces out of Master’s reach. He watched the man leaf through pages with reckless, graceless hands that grabbed the corners as if he wished to tear through the linen paper. When he found the right page, Master’s grubby finger trailed beneath the words as his eyes squinted. Halfway through reading, Master fell into the book and began snoring. He sounded like a wolf growling at treed prey.

            Yosef shook his head and pinched his nose. He grabbed the flagon away so that no traces of ale could stain Master’s precious book. Master would blame him for anything awry whether it made sense or not, and a splotch on the page would infuriate the man more than an empty tankard. Wondering whether he should also take the book back to its proper place, Yosef glanced down at the less obstructed page. The letters were nothing but a scribbled mess to him.

            He lifted Master’s arm out of the way. The man’s hot breaths stank of stale alcohol and rotting cheese. Yosef scooted the book away before Master could roll back on top of it. To his surprise, the squiggles on this page made sense.

Escape from your suffering in a snap.

Recite these words while Master takes his nap.

Posterum incognita exquiro.

Forget your world to become the hero.

            Before he realized that he had spoken the words aloud, a bright, blue disc of light engulfed Yosef. Only the light’s sudden disappearance rivaled its arrival. As soon as Yosef stepped out of the ethereal light, he found himself with enormous structures surrounding him. He could not tell where the sky began and the towers ended.

            Despite the late hour the full moon evinced, he could not see the stars. He feared they may have fallen out of the sky or ceased displaying their magnificence. Just as Yosef raised a finger to scratch his head and ponder the question, a blaring horn sounded in his ear.

            “Hey, buddy! Get your ass out of the road!” The screaming woman sat inside a metallic box on wheels. The box put out a dense fog that choked Yosef.

            Yosef did not spot a donkey anywhere and wondered how he could help this perturbed woman. If she were seeing animals that did not exist, perhaps a leeching would be beneficial. On the other hand, perhaps he had been looking in the wrong direction. Stray donkeys in the road often caused delays for the regency as they journeyed from city to city.

            When Yosef scampered to find the offending beast of burden, the metallic box spun its wheels and screeched as it sped away. “Moron!”

            More on what? Clearly, she was disturbed in the head. Yosef noticed the incomprehensible woman’s metal box was not the only one sending up noxious fumes. It seemed the whole world had altered for the sole purpose of accommodating these mechanical monsters. They varied in size and color, but they all lacked a trait that might have given Yosef a better impression of this new world order. These boxes quarantined the user from life, and the people within appeared satisfied with that separation.

            “Look at his clothes! Dude! The Renaissance Fair moved on months ago.”

            Yosef did not know what a Renaissance was, but he did not believe in taking clothing advise from a man twice his age who dressed in flashy, immodest rags. You can see more than half his legs.

            After an hour of aimless walking through this choking, smoggy city, Yosef’s stomach began to rumble. He reached into his coin purse and smiled when he felt a few florins. He stopped outside a window and peered in to see people eating two meals’ worth in one sitting. Yosef entered through the door, jumping as a beeping tone startled him.

            “Welcome to Burger Bum. We’ll be with you in a moment!” Yosef could not see who spoke, but the voice sounded annoyed, contrary to what he expected from a gracious host.

            The dining establishment smelled of boiling oil and salt. So much salt. Yosef wondered if he were close to the ocean. If not, then the owner of the business must be wealthy to import so many spices. I hope they won’t turn away a mere apprentice.

            Yosef stepped up to the counter. “Hello. Would you happen to have a kidney bean pie and some oats? I assure you I can pay for it.”

            The tall girl standing behind the cashbox gave him a stare most would have reserved for a madman. Considering how many gold rings pierced her eyebrow, Yosef thought she would have been accustomed to anything peculiar. “Uh, this is a Burger Bum. Don’t you want a burger?”

            To Yosef, the word sounded like an odd name for someone living in a village. He leaned forward on the counter and whispered, “Wouldn’t that be cannibalism?”

            “Only if you’re a cow.”

            Gaping at the girl, Yosef counted out his florins. There was no way he could afford to buy a cow with such meager funds. “What could I get with these?”

            The girl narrowed her eyes at the gold coins as if unfamiliar with their worth. “Uh, sir? Are you from another country or something?”

            “It certainly feels that way. Nothing around here is familiar.”

            “New in town, huh?” The girl whipped her head about as if making sure no one was watching. “I’ll tell you what. Dinner’s on me just this once.”

            “It’s on you?” Yosef could not see any food on her body anywhere.

            “Sure. Keep your coins. Maybe you can trade them for real money at a pawn shop.” The girl’s fingers danced on a screen attached to the cashbox. “I’m not really supposed to do this, so don’t tell anyone.”

            Not sure of what had just transpired, Yosef waited at the counter until the girl handed him a gleaming yellow tray with curious-looking food. She called the round lump wrapped in paper a “double cheeseburger” and named the tall, crispy things “fries.” He smiled and thanked the girl for her generous gift before taking the tray to a table where two other people ate similar items.

            “Hey! We’re eating here!” The man shoved at Yosef.

            “Yes, I saw that. I thought perhaps you would want company.”

            “There’s a table for you over there. Leave my girl and I alone!”

            Yosef turned in the direction of the abrasive man’s pointing finger. “But it’s empty.”

            “Exactly. Piss off!”

            Once again, these people’s phrases left Yosef’s mind circling as he attempted to comprehend their meaning. Why would the man demand privacy in a place where so many shared the space? How could he speak about urine in front of a girl he intended to court? And what was the urine off of?

            At his lonely table, Yosef unwrapped his double cheeseburger. A red substance leaked out from beneath the squishy bread and splattered his rough-spun tunic. Uncertain of what to expect, he lifted the food to his mouth and took a tiny bite. In all his years, Yosef had never tasted beef before, and now he wanted to have nothing else ever again. The meat’s juices ran down his throat. The chef had managed to combine so many unfamiliar tastes into such a small masterpiece, and Yosef could not wait for an encore.

            As he finished the cheeseburger, Yosef watched the girl with the eyebrow rings walking over to his table. “How was everything?”

            Yosef wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “These were the best victuals ever to touch my lips. My life will never be the same again.”

            She giggled. “It’s only a burger. We serve millions of them every day. Quadrillions if you include international chains.”

            Millions? What are those? “Would you sit with me a moment? I don’t usually eat alone.”

            The girl shrugged before taking a seat opposite Yosef. “Why not? I can take my break now. So what’s your deal?”

            “Deal? I don’t sell anything.”

            Her ring-bedecked eyebrow raised half an inch. “You wear unusual clothing, try to buy food with money unlike any I’ve ever seen, and until recently had no idea what a burger is. What’s your story? Who are you?”

            At last, a question he could answer. “My name is Yosef of Carmarthen. Though I’m originally from a village two miles away from Carmarthen, but you probably haven’t heard of it.”

            “Nice to meet you, Yosef. Mine is Charise. I’m not sure I’ve heard of Carmarthen.”

            “It is a beautiful place. Everything is lovely there except—”

            Charise munched on a fry. “Except what?”

            “I always look up at the stars at night there. And they’re so magnificent to gaze upon. I just wish Master understood my need to study their brilliance.”

            “Wait. Master?” She brushed grains of salt off her hands with a napkin. “Are you a slave, Yosef?”

            “Slave?” Yosef chuckled at the notion. “No. I work for Master. He’s training me to take over for him when I’m old enough. My parents sold me into the apprenticeship when I was a small lad.”

            “Your parents what?” Her breaths sounded heavy. “Yosef, this can’t be right.”

            “Well, I wish they had sold me to someone else, but Master offered enough for them to eat for a month. And I’ll have a reasonable skillset once I’ve learned everything I need to. If Master doesn’t beat me to death first.”

            Every word Yosef uttered seemed to pain Charise, as if his tongue had the power to cut wounds into her soul. Perhaps my view of the world makes as much sense to her as hers does to me. Then a topic sprung to mind that could do no damage. “Charise, do you ever wonder what stars are made of?”

            Charise took the last fry and ripped it in half. “Can’t say that I have. If I ever want to know something like that, I just search it on the Internet.”

            Yosef’s face twisted. It sounded like she wanted to go fishing, but that idea did not fit in with the conversation.

            “You do know what the Internet is, right?” The girl took out a rectangular box and pressed a button on the side. The screen illuminated with a picture. With several swiping motions, she changed the image so that Yosef could see a photograph of a star. “It says here that stars are made of very hot gases. Hydrogen. Helium. Others too.”

            “And this magic box holds all the answers to life’s questions?”

            Charise smirked. “Not yet. But you can find almost every piece of information you want to know. Why?”

            “Could you look up Master on that thing? I want to know if he’s going to punish me for reading his spell book.”

            “Uh, sure. What’s his name?”

            “Merlin.”

A Sparrow’s Triumph

            Fourteen girls sat in the crew leader’s living room. The scent of potpourri infested the room. Valerie brushed her hands along the soft, beige carpet as Crew Leader Zinnia called the meeting to order. Val found herself wishing she could be anywhere else. Even stuck in a broom closet. But Mom had insisted she give this group another chance. A phrase from the crew leader won her attention.

            “The top sales Sparrow for the week will win a prize.”

            “Prize?” Cassandra’s hand shot up as she shouted her question. “What’s the prize?”

            Crew Leader Zinnia gaped for a moment before answering. “I can’t tell you that right now, but it will be amazing.”

            Valerie imitated Cassandra’s exuberant interrogation technique as her own hand went up. “More amazing than a year’s supply of ice cream?”

            “It is not polite to interrupt, Val.” Crew Leader Zinnia stared the ten-year-old down with pink heat rising in her cheeks.

            “But Cassie—”

            “But Cassie nothing. When I’m talking, you’re not!”

            Valerie deflated. She took sharp, frustrated breaths. Out the corner of her eye, she spied Cassandra sticking out her tongue. Valerie wished she could rip it out of that spoiled brat’s mouth and boil it over an open flame.

            “I’ll give each of you an order form in a moment. But before I do, I want you to remember these safety rules. Do not…and I repeat…do NOT try selling from these catalogs by going door-to-door. Second, do not sell to your friends.”

            “What? Why not?” Cassandra stood from the prescribed “criss-cross applesauce” stance.

            “Because your friends will order things based on their stomachs. When it comes time to pay, they won’t be able to fork over the money. Good question, as always, Cassie. Finally, do not sell outside a local store.”

            Valerie thought over each restriction. There did not seem to be anyone to whom she could sell anything except her mom. That would not be possible. She raised her hand.

            Crew Leader Zinnia frowned and rolled her eyes. “Hands down, please.”

            “But Crew Leader Z—”

            “Must I repeat myself? You know I don’t like having to do that.”

            Valerie knew how true that was. The crew leader had not allowed her to have marshmallows at last weekend’s campfire because she asked for Zinnia to repeat an instruction about tying a sailor’s knot. Cassie had earned double marshmallows after the crew leader tied the perfect knot for her.

            “Crew Leader Zinnia, how are we going to sell if we can’t sell door-to-door, to friends, or outside stores?”

            “Excellent question, Cassandra! I’m so glad you asked. My recommendation is that you take this order form home and ask your parents to take it into work with them. They’ll sell to their coworkers and friends. If you go to church or synagogue or mosque or some other house of worship, your parents can sell there as well.”

            Valerie thought she could identify a problem already. If parents were the ones doing all the sales, how could the Sparrow with the most sales expect a special prize? That girl would not have done any of the work. She raised her hand to point out this paradox.

            “How many times do I have to say this, Val? I’m not taking questions now. One more time, and I won’t give you your order form.”

            “Dang!” Cassandra giggled. “She straight roasted you!”

            “How was that a roast?” Valerie asked, her forehead wrinkling.

            “Enough! Valerie, I’m very disappointed. I’ll be talking to your mom when she come to pick you up.”

            “Look! Val looks like she’s about to cry!” Cassandra pointed at the girl. All twelve of the other Sparrows took this as a cue to laugh and point.

__________________________________________________

            When her mother’s old sedan pulled up in front of the crew leader’s house, Valerie stood on shaky legs and stumbled to the vehicle. Dried tear streaks itched on the girl’s cheeks. Behind her, Crew Leader Zinnia marched out to the car, her hands balled into fists. Valerie’s mom lowered the passenger window. The crew leader stuck her head through the opening and began to recite her complaints from the day’s Sparrow Meeting. Valerie could hear the frustration venting into the car.

            On the way home, Valerie moped in silence. Her hair covered her face as she sat with head bowed.

            “How do you think today went?” Mom’s voice sounded curious rather than furious.

            “Not good.”

            “Could you tell me why?”

            Valerie shrugged.

            “I’d like to hear your version. Tell me everything.”

            “We’re supposed to sell things from a catalogue. Why do we have to do that, mom? It seems pointless. There’s a prize for the Sparrow who sells the most, but that’s never going to be me.”

            “Oh, I wouldn’t say ‘never,’ Val. Why don’t you tell me what’s really bothering you?” Mom waited for the response without another prompting.

            “I don’t think Crew Leader Zinnia likes me very much. She always gets upset when I talk. She never gets upset with anyone else. Especially not Cassie.”

            “That must seem unfair. What about your other friends in the Sparrow Crew?”

            Valerie wished she could identify one of the other girls with that label. “Cassandra won’t let any of them be nice to me. She always gets them to laugh at me. When I’m in trouble. When my clothes don’t look good. When I don’t have my hair done up like theirs.”

            The two contemplated the situation for the rest of the drive home. They entered the trailer together, Mom holding onto the catalogue. She examined each page and commented on the way the picture made her mouth water. Mom had a great affection for salted caramel.

            At dinner that night, Mom levered a slice of meatloaf onto their plates. “Val, sweetie. I just wanted to tell you. You’re going to win this competition.”

            Valerie’s nose crinkled at the notion. “No, I won’t.”

            “Sure, you will!”

            “How? We’re not supposed to sell door-to-door, to our friends, or outside stores. Our parents are supposed to take the catalogues in to work. So you can see how this is all impossible, right?”

            Mom shrugged. “Impossible is a strong word, dear.”

            “You work as a janitor, mom! How are you supposed to—”

            Mom chuckled. “I thought you were more creative than this, Val. Think about it for a second. Doesn’t another option spring to mind?”

            A literal second passed, and the girl shook her head. How can she always be so optimistic? With a whimsical wink, Mom smiled and held her daughter’s hand. Behind her eyes, the machinations of Mom’s industrious mind turned.

__________________________________________________

            At the next week’s Sparrow Crew meeting, Valerie entered the crew leader’s home with head held high. She clutched the results of her labor in her hand as if it were a diploma. Mind racing about whether she had done enough, she smiled at the total amount. Seven days of hard work had earned her far more than she had anticipated. Her backpack contained a bag with all the checks, dollar bills, and small change she had collected in that time. Valerie and Mom had spent their days volunteering at nursing homes, hospitals, and churches throughout the town. Mom had been right. When people see a ten-year-old pursuing a dream, most are willing to spare a few dollars from their wallets and purses. It did not hurt that their efforts had left Valerie feeling as though she had done more than simply outselling the competition.

            Yet a nagging thought would not go away. What if someone had been able to collect more? Was all that effort worth it?

            Crew Leader Zinnia gathered the Sparrows around her and asked the girls how they had fared during the week. Two of them had forgotten all about the fundraiser. Most of the others had not sold more than a single item to their parents. Cassandra stood with a smug smile plastered onto her face.

            “I collected $1,002.15.” Cassandra sounded altogether too proud of herself.

            “How did you get that much?” the Sparrows chirped.

            “I did just what mommy said. She took the order form into work and her boss bought twenty of everything.” Cassandra shook out her hair in triumph as Valerie’s face fell.

            “What about you, Val?” The crew leader asked the question with a dismissive tone, as if anticipating nothing.

            “Well, not as much as Cassandra.” Valerie handed her order forms to Crew Leader Zinnia.

            The crew’s sponsor stared at the papers in her hands. Her brow wrinkled. “Val, how did you collect $736.85 in one week?”

            Cassandra stood up and ran behind the crew leader as if needing confirmation. The other Sparrows in the crew gasped.

            Valerie described the undertaking as best as she could. A few times, she would veer off track, but the essentials of the tale came through clear. Unlike Cassandra, Valerie had done the work herself.

            “Well, this was good work, Val. Good job.” Crew Leader Zinnia sneered as she said the words. The grudging compliment sounded forced. “But the winner of our competition is the one who sold the most. Cassie, that was you. Here’s your prize.”

            Cassandra received a five-pound bag of gummy bears. The girl who had not earned her meager prize frowned at the bag as if it contained poison. “That’s it? I thought this prize was going to be amazing. Isn’t that what you said, mommy?”

            The dozen other girls in the crew did not cheer on the winner. Instead, they crowded Valerie, congratulating her on her great effort. Appreciation made her feel like the real winner. When Mom informed the crew leader that her daughter would form her own Sparrow Crew, Valerie’s new friends vowed to swap nests. From then on, Valerie and her Sparrows made many headlines as young girls making a positive impact on their community.

Behind the Mirror

Warning: Story may contain disturbing imagery

            A shadow. That’s all it was. A shadow moving across the mirror. Wes shivered, backing away from the bathroom. Compact as the woman who lived there, his grandma’s apartment was a cozy place full of browns and dark greens. But the bathroom was a blight on the place. The one room that unnerved Wes upon every visit. Whenever his mom and dad dropped him off for their date night, Wes would only enter as a last resort. Or when forced. He always felt watched in there.

            “Did you finish brushing already?” His grandma stood behind him wearing a white gown with vertical pastel stripes. Pink curlers stuck out of her hair beneath a hairnet.

            Wes shook his head. He had tried lying last time, but she had known somehow. It was as though the curlers were antennae tuned to his lies’ frequency. Sighing, Wes turned back to the door. Moonlight painted the door in a ghostly glow. The shadow moved again.

            “Come on, now. Before you start growing beard hairs. Mamma’s gotta take her teeth out.” The woman walked back out of her bedroom, and the sound of her hide-a-bed creaking like a loose floorboard met Wes’s ears.

            Just make it fast. Inducing himself to run, Wes stubbed his big toe on the bathroom door and found himself hopping on one foot and made as if to kiss his injured digit. A tear streaked down his cheek, and he set down his foot, careful not to jar it again. He flicked the light switch, but the bulb’s filament snapped within seconds. Groaning with furrowed eyebrows, he squeezed out twice as much toothpaste as he needed, too hasty to exert control. A small glob landed on the coffee cream-colored counter. Wes ignored the spill and brushed his teeth faster than ever before.

            As the taste of fluoride stung his tongue, he spat out the paste. When he raised his head to face the mirror, he thought he spotted reflected movement. Wes turned to see if his grandma had returned to check on his progress, but there was no one. He was alone in the bathroom. He turned back and almost screamed. A face was staring out at him. Its feral grin exposed needle-sharp teeth.

            Wes took a step back, but furry black limbs reached out from the mirror. Claws extended, it swiped at Wes, slashing a gash into his shoulder. He fell to the floor, weeping and holding his bloody arm. The creature crawled out of the mirror, climbing down the sink’s front like an overgrown gecko. Fox-faced, the creature licked its chops as it inched closer to him.

            “Help.” His voice was weak, but he could not make himself louder. Fear had constricted his vocal cords. “Mamma. Help.”

            The creature chuckled in its throat. It grasped Wes by the armpits and hoisted the boy aloft. “You’re coming with me.” The thing’s voice was a raspy, guttural sound like a distant, rumbling engine.

            He writhed, attempting to escape, but that sent the claws deeper into his flesh. Somehow, the pain allowed him to scream this time. The sound of scrambling feet preceded his grandmother’s arrival in the bathroom. The creature froze in mid-step.

            “What is the meaning of this?”

            “Mamma! Save me!”

            The old woman bent down to look at her grandson. “What have you done to yourself? You’re a bloody mess! What did you cut yourself on? Glass?”

            “It’s going to eat me, Mamma!”

            “Right.” She sighed the way she did whenever Wes talked to her about make-believe stories. “Let me go wet a cloth, and I’ll get you cleaned up.”

            Wes watched as his grandma walked away, muttering to herself. The creature pulled Wes to a place of bones. No amount of struggling would bring him back from behind the mirror.