Ring of Fire

This prompt was about fire–myths, practical use, and such. I like playing Dungeons & Dragons, so this is where my mind went. 🙂

Image from WikiMedia.

“Look, officers, I didn’t mean to set the building on fire.” The sorcerer pushed a lock of long, blond hair out of his face, adding another smudge of soot across his freckles.

“You set four buildings on fire,” the watch captain corrected, taking a seat behind her desk, and glowering at the sorcerer. The officers who’d escorted him, none too gently, into the room, left after she nodded at them.

The sorcerer watched the guards go, booted feet tapping, and hastily stilled when the Captain’s red eyes narrowed in a glare so scorching it could start a new blaze.

“I set one on fire,” he explained, “when I firebolted the orc trying to crush my skull in, and he went crashing through the window of the tavern. Which had, unfortunately, a straw-covered floor. The tavern caught the building next to it on fire. I would’ve put the fire out before it spread, had I not been arrested.”

The captain’s glower intensified to the point where her bushy eyebrows met over her nose. “You were arrested for good reason!”

“Was I supposed to let him crush my skull in? Would you have let him crush your skull, if you’d seen him swinging that huge spiky hammer thing at your head?”

“No,” the captain said, “I’d have kicked him in the balls.”

“And I’m sure he’d have been very sorry if you did so.” The sorcerer shrugged. “If I’d have kicked him in the balls, he’d have hit me anyway.” 

He wobbled a hand across his body in a way that indicated his scrawny arms, dusty and less than impressive legs, and complete lack of anything resembling armor or a weapon, other than a small eating knife on his belt.

For a long moment, the captain considered him. The eating knife wasn’t even particularly large. “So if we hadn’t arrested you…” She trailed off invitingly.

“I didn’t expect the orc to get up, still on fire, and run out into the street. Or for him to flounder into the wall across the street, which maybe shouldn’t have that much dead vegetation in front of it, really–” he paused as the Captain’s expression turned murderous again.

“But I have spells to extinguish flames,” he continued hastily. “I could have–and definitely would have!–extinguished both him and the tavern, just as soon as he stopped trying to flatten me.”

“Wizards. The whole lot of you should stay in your towers, and quit causing problems for the rest of us.”

“I’m not actually a–” the sorcerer began, then shut his mouth. “I’m very sorry?” 

“You’re sorry,” she said.

“Yes. Very, very, very sorry. I don’t have much money, for repairs… but I can, say, speed the growth of trees for lumber. Or summon food that will make it easier for people to make repairs. Or, I heard there’s a manticore with some treasure in the forest, and I could help–“

“We’ve had more than enough of your help,” the Captain said. “I don’t particularly want you in my jail, however.”

“I don’t want to be in it! I’ll make it untidy, probably.” He ran a hand through his golden hair, caught his fingers on a twig, winced, and untangled the vegetation. He stared thoughtfully at the twig, with two battered-looking leaves clinging on, and then held it out with a hopeful smile. “See?”

“Stop your nonsense. I won’t be charmed.”

He nodded, and folded his hands in his lap, trying to look penitent and somber, and achieving a sort of pained expression.

“You’re not going to be sick in here, are you?”

“No, no,” he traded his efforts for an attentive look.

The captain leaned away from him, face twisting in disgust. “We’ll be seizing your assets to defray the cost of repairs. I’ll send someone to speak with you about what you can contribute for the rest. It’ll be someone who knows magic, so don’t go trying to pass off a spark in the pan spell, mind.”

“I would never!”

She growled, the sound making him shrink in on himself.

“Okay, okay, I might. But I absolutely don’t want you to hunt me down and kill me. If you don’t believe in my integrity, believe in my self-preservation.”

The Captain stood, hands on the edge of her desk, muscles shifting in her arms and she dug her nails into the wood. “I don’t like it. I don’t like you. But you’ll do as you’re told.”

“Of course!”

She sighed, straightening.

He tried to keep a blank expression, his other efforts having failed so spectacularly.

“Olerin!” She bellowed, and a delicate face leaned around the door frame.

“Yes, Captain?”

“Deal with this–” she clicked her teeth shut on her next word. “Deal with this. The wizard’s promised spells for repairing the four burning buildings he damaged.”

“Yes, Captain.” The elf stepped to the side of the doorway.

“Get out of my sight, wizard,” the captain snapped.

The sorcerer scrambled out of the chair, though he couldn’t resist tossing over his shoulder. “I’m a sorcerer, it’s different, because–” his words ended on a yelp as Olerin yanked him away from the office.

“If you’d like to see tomorrow, I suggest you learn to do as you’re told. What did you do to that orc, anyway?”

The sorcerer brightened. “That’s kind of a funny story, really…”

“Summarize it in ten words or less,” Olerin said, his slender fingers tightening painfully on the sorcerer’s arm.

The sorcerer thought, his fingers twitching as he counted and recounted. “He couldn’t take a joke?”

“Oh, great, you’re an idiot. Come on, let’s see what you can manage that isn’t burning down half a street.”

No Intelligent Life Here

This prompt was about order and balance. My mind immediately went on a sinister twist…

Image from WikiMedia Commons by
Stiller Beobachter

We knew there was other intelligent life out there. Stands to reason, right? And we had protocols in place for when we met them, out in the vastness of space.

Instead, they found us. On our first colony, barely hanging on, a tiny cluster of domes on a desolate moon. They had a protocol, too, it turned out. Which involved, among other things, the composition of the visitors. Two equal groups, from two alliances, both with a handful of species in them.

The groups approached us together, offering a clearly memorized greeting that one representative started, and another finished. We were welcome to remain separate from either, but equally welcome to join an alliance. Each could offer advances in technology, employment opportunities on settled planets, and a wealth of cultural knowledge.

Sapients for Optimal Protocol included several species like us–thick skinned, armed with sharp teeth or claws, boasting a tail. That endeared them to us from the start, to see ourselves mirrored in their eyes.

The others, The Independent Cooperative, called the Sapients something like ‘stick-spines,’ or, perhaps ‘rigid.’ They called themselves Indies, or Coops, or something untranslatable about light refracting prisms.

The Sapients called the Independent Cooperative the Independent Cooperative. 

The Cooperative was… strange. We didn’t warm to them at first. They had one species much like ours, but also a strange tailless biped that completely lacked scales, or hide, except for a small amount perched ridiculously atop its head like a hat. Another traveled in a semi-transparent envelope, flooded with a murky blue-green gas, with glimpses of chitinous limbs that triggered hatchling horrors of spiders. We didn’t study them closely.

We spoke to both alliances, of course. The Sapients offered lists of the technology we would access, and descriptions of the habitats of the worlds they claimed–some even with atmosphere we could breathe, unlike the moon we currently stood on. Reams and reams of data, enough to take days to wade through.

The Cooperative seemed less organized. They had a presentation, in more general terms, of the good they could offer. But strangely, they focused on their interpersonal arrangements. How they worked together, adjusting for each species’ needs. How strengths could balance out a weakness.

Their species that resembled us, the Thritek, had small scales in a mottled green pattern they told us matched the vegetation of their homeworld. When they saw that we were most comfortable with those like us, they drew us aside, to tell us a story.

On their planet of origin, they had an embarrassment of riches. Dense foliage, plants that grew to towering heights we could scarce believe, more water than we could imagine, and so much life. Burrowing life under the dirt, life scurrying along the ground, life climbing the tall plants, life flying between the branches, life in the large flowing waters and pools.

Pools of water so big you could not see across them. We thought that must be a lie, but the Thritek showed us image after image, until we conceded it might be true. 

From this teeming life emerged not one, but three intelligent species. The Thritek, from a large, scaled ground carnivore, the Qhel, from a small, flying insectivore, and the Braxar, from a medium, furred ground omnivore. 

There was a Qhel, among the representatives of the Cooperative. They were not very small, by our reckoning, being about two thirds our height, with wings far larger than us. There were no Braxar. Not in the group, or anywhere else. None living anywhere.

This information sent a ripple of dread through us, and we wondered why the Thritek had chosen to tell us such a tale. But we listened, still.

The three species had cooperated well enough, with the Braxar and Thritek developing the closest rapport, because they didn’t have to compete for resources. The Thritek ate very little that wasn’t meat, and the Braxar ate very little that wasn’t vegetation, so they could share the excess of their hunting or farming, and be content.

When approached, as we had been, the Qhel chose to strike out on their own with the Cooperative, and the Thritek favored, as we did, the Sapients and their technological focus. Their partners the Braxar came with them, to work together in a better future.

But there was, the Thritek said, tail drooping, a reason so many of the Sapients resembled each other. They believed in order. Uniformity. Efficiency. In finding the best option for the greatest number, and in mass production of whatever goods or process they found optimal.

On their homeworld, the Thritek hadn’t thought much of how the Braxar varied from them. Larger, with more joints on their hands, and much a different ocular apparatus. Before, the two species had worked well, side by side, though often with specialized tools.

The complaints of the Braxar had seemed petty at first. They were a patient people, and both species were used to cooperation, to helping each other. The Thritek made the new technology work. But when the Braxar were paired with other Sapients, no accommodations were made.

Rules would be followed, strictly.

So, there were accidents. A slow, but steady, attrition.

Finally, the Braxar’s patience was exhausted. They wished to be free of oppressive rules. The rules required that species who separate from the Sapients must leave as they came. Surrender each piece of technology, each bit of stored supplies. The Cooperative and the Sapients are allies, but not particularly friendly ones.

For all their lives lost, the Braxar felt owed something. No matter the rules. 

The Sapients disagreed.

In the aftermath, the Thritek couldn’t remain with the Sapients. They struggled, for a time, alone, and then the Qhel coaxed them to the Collective, where they found less technological wonders, but a warmer welcome.

We listened to the end of this story in silence. We knew one of us must speak. Glances exchanged, heads cocked, tails swished. The shorthand of a species.

“That is… a great loss.” I said, feeling the inadequacy of the words. “One we can confirm?”

Someone hissed behind me, but the words had been said.

“Of course, easily done.” The Thritek said, unbothered. “It’s part of their history. Other species have made the same… they call it an error. Or theft. It’s quite rare, and they are proud of that fact.”

“What has your story to do with us?” My partner asked. “You say your species blended well. Would we not do the same?”

“You’re like them, but no two species are identical. We only wish to ensure you understand what you’re being offered. And what you will need to do in return. The Sapients integrate and homogenize. They embrace order, unity, and law, with very little flexibility. Consider that, as you decide.” 

“A valid point,” my partner conceded. This new information would alter the debate going forward, if confirmed.

Dragonslayer

Another prompt–I have a back log!–about finishing the quest. Success looks like something different for different people, but here’s a dragonslayer’s story.

Image from WikiMedia by Petar Milošević

Roberta was a dragonslayer, and she was excellent at the job. The problem was–kings. Kings and their fondness for offering their daughter’s hand in marriage as the reward for slaying a dragon. Luckily, not every king thought the ability to kill a large, carnivorous beast meant a person was good royalty material.

But some of them were too poor, too lazy—or sometimes too embattled by other kingdoms wanting the princess for their heirs. Of course, they didn’t want to give the princess to Roberta, their goal being a king who could help produce future heirs to the throne. 

Roberta could do a lot of things, but she couldn’t get another woman pregnant.

So, each time she pulled off her helmet and revealed her face, there were… discussions. Often, loud royal snit fits, but in the end, they’d negotiate. Being known as a king who cheated a dragonslayer guarenteed no one would slay any future scaled invaders. As long as she got paid, Roberta was happy.

Until she went to rescue Princess Lenore, who was being held hostage by the monster, and not waiting safely in the castle for her knight in battered armor. Lenore held her own pretty well, which wasn’t usually the case. The princess escaped the dragon before it ate her—dragons didn’t, contrary to myth, hold onto any human, royalty or not, for longer than it took the beast to get hungry. She hid in the cave, unable to escape through the open countryside surrounding the dragon’s lair without risking getting caught again. She scavenged food and water, and stayed alive for the two weeks before Roberta arrived. Eight assorted knights and nobles died in the interim, failing to rescue Princess Lenore.

After the dragon lay dead, Roberta peeled off parts of her armor to check her injuries and wipe off the sweat. Despite what people assumed, Roberta wasn’t hiding her gender. She had good, practical armor, which didn’t include two curving pieces over what wasn’t a particularly ample bosom.

She saw the princess limp out of the cave, and nodded, starting to redon her armor for the presentation.

“You’re a woman,” Lenore noted, her expression thoughtful.

“Don’t tell me your father’s offering you as a reward,” Roberta puffed, exasperated. The dragon, fat and well fed, had been in stupor, and not the most difficult kill she’d had. But it still wasn’t easy to kill a beast that size, and she ached from the effort. 

“He is, and I can tell you’re not pleased.”

Roberta shrugged. “I’d rather be paid.”

“I’ll ensure that happens,” Lenore promised, “but why don’t you marry me anyway?”

“What?”

“Haven’t you killed enough dragons? Don’t you want to live the rest of your life in some kind of peace?” Lenore asked.

Roberta couldn’t argue about that, but she saw plenty of weaknesses in this plan. “Yes, but–” 

“Hide your face, and we’ll work something out,” the princess said.

“Work something out?” Roberta echoed. “I don’t see how!”

The princess considered, her dirty fingertips tapping on the rocky cave wall. “No, it’s perfect. My father’s heir, after me, is a cousin of mine. The dragon killed most of his family…”

“Yes, perfect,” Roberta said, stung by the casual way the princess spoke about the slaughter.

“I don’t mean it like that. It’s terrible, how many people have died. But, I can’t change that. I can change the future.”

Roberta made a ‘go on’ gesture.

 “What I mean is… he’s young. We can raise him, and his younger sister, as our heirs. They’re next in line. No need for me to go through childbirth.” She shuddered.

“And your father will go along with this, after he finds out I’m a woman?”

“We’ll have to make sure he doesn’t have a choice. Say you’ve made a vow, or are under a spell or something, so you can’t remove the helmet.  We can work out the details. Then you take off your helm after we’re married, in front of some important witnesses.” Lenore considered. “I can think of a few who would keep him from stopping us.”

“And the rest of the marriage?”

“What do you think princesses do, with all those ladies in waiting, kept away from any men?” Roberta winked.

Current of Time

The prompt this time was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It made me wonder how such ruins could have been concealed, and why.

Image from WikiMedia by DestinationFearFan

“The hanging gardens of Babylon still exist,” a voice slurred behind me.

I turned. A disreputable looking young man, shirt partly untucked from his pants, a section of hair standing up in the back, and smelling distinctly of beer, gazed earnestly at me.

“Do they now?” I asked. 

Clearly he’d overheard part of my discussion with fellow archeologists, musing on whether or not we’d ever be able to safely explore under the waters of the Euphrates, and discover if the gardens had in fact been flooded.

“Yeah. Underwater. You can see ‘em by boat, though, with a flashlight.” He raised a hand, folded some fingers, squinted at his digits, and rearranged them. “Scout’s honor.”

“Ridiculous. If it were that simple, we’d have discovered the gardens already.”

“You hafta be in the riiight spot.”

“Of course.” I stood, grabbed my satchel, and nodded to my colleagues. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Tragically, I didn’t see Gustavo the next day, or any after. He and Brynn had stayed to listen to the drunk, and then she’d retired for the evening, leaving Gus behind.

No one paid much attention to the two men leaving the bar, both weaving and in good spirits. A parking lot camera caught them disappearing into the darkness. And that was the end of the trail, a paucity of information that meant there was no way to know if it was misadventure or malice behind Gus’ disappearance.

Though I’d never been particularly fond of Gus, knowing that I’d contributed to his end was painful. If I’d demanded the drunk leave us alone, maybe Gus would still be alive.

Fifteen years later, I still thought of Gus from time to time, a worn-down ‘what could have been’ type of worry. Especially as I sat in a pub as I did now, the remnants of a substandard meal in front of me.

And then I spotted that same drunk–his straw-brown hair sticking up on the side, in a t-shirt and shorts instead of a button-down. But the same exact red-flushed face, with a constellation of freckles, and watery brown eyes.

Impossible. He hadn’t aged a day. Maybe a son, or a brother, or some other relation.

He waved a hand, and my heart leapt. The drunk from before had been missing his two smallest fingers on his left hand, only stumps remaining. Ugly remnants that had caught my attention, because you’d usually get that surgically neatened up.

It had to be him. Impossible, yet somehow true.

I had to know.

Settling into a corner, I nursed a variety of non-alcoholic beers, until he finally made his goodbyes and left. I slipped out after him a minute later, scanning the parking lot for his stumbling form.

Empty. Silent.

My ears strained as I turned in a slow circle. Nothing but the whine of crickets. Deflated, I headed to my car, keys jingling.

The lock popped, and I opened the door. A hand fell on my shoulder, grip so hard I yelped.

“It’s you again, isn’t it?” It was the drunk, only he wasn’t drunk. His gaze was steady and cold, and he no longer wobbled in place.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I swept my arm out to knock his hand off me, but my forearm clanged painfully off his.

He snickered. “You weren’t as subtle as you thought you were.” His gazed flickered past my shoulder, and he smiled. I wasn’t generally prone to exaggeration, but his expression was… evil.

Someone cleared their throat from behind me. I whipped around, straining to turn with the man still gripping my shoulder.

It was Gus, unchanged from my memory of the last time I’d seen him fifteen years ago.

He smiled. “You shouldn’t have left so early. You missed an amazing discussion.”

“What? How?” I couldn’t marshal my thoughts. This was simply too much.

“If you survive the conversion, I’ll explain,” Gus said. “And you’ll finally get to see the hanging gardens for yourself.”

The man behind me shifted his grip, and clamped a cloth over my face. As the world swam and darkened at the edges, I found myself wondering which I hoped for–answers, or an escape from whatever had claimed Gus?

Love Words Curse

The prompt for this one was curses. Sometimes the writing comes slow, other times it goes fast. As soon as I have the spark of an idea, I start writing, and see where it goes.

When I got the the end of this one, however, I had no idea what came next. I still don’t.

What do you think?

Image from WikiMedia by George Chernilevsky.

“I not-hate you,” Alan murmured to his wife.

She smiled at him. “I not-hate you more.”

“No, I not-hate you the most!” He kissed her forehead, her nose, and then her mouth.

“Will you two get a room! You’ve been married a month, surely you’ve got most of that kiss–” Thomas choked, the gangly twelve-year-old grasping his throat, eyes bulging.

Alan and Isobel hurried over.

“Oh, no!” She cried.

More practical, Alan thumped Thomas on the back, as the young man coughed and hacked. Several moments and thumps later, a toad leapt out of Thomas’ mouth.

“Can you breathe, Thomas?” Isobel asked, rubbing soothing circles on his shoulder.

 Alan rushed over to the town well, and drew a bucket of water, bringing it and a scoop over to the stricken Thomas. “You know you shouldn’t use those words. Think before you speak. The Curse War ended two years ago, and it’s been almost half that since the not-hate curse took all the not-ugly words away from us. You’ve got to remember.”

Thomas took too big a swig of water, sputtered it out on the ground, took a smaller sip, and regained his composure. “I was just having a bit of… not-dull.”

“We understand,” Alan offered. “Better not-danger than speaking in toad, though, eh?”

Thomas grumbled. “Yeah, yeah. It’s cruel, what those wizards did. I don’t even understand why they did it!”

“They kept building up the spells, I think,” Isobel said. “They were small at first, and each side thought they’d win with just an annoyance, but they didn’t, so they kept trying.”

“Wizards,” Alan growled, a common complaint in the town.

“We’ll get not-worse, all of us, someday,” Isobel said, offering each of them a reassuring smile. “And it could be worse, we didn’t get the blindness curse that hit past the river, too, just the speaking one.”

“One day, I’m going to grow up not-weak, and I’ll go show those wizards what they did,” Thomas promised.

Isobel’s smile wavered, but she fixed it in place, gave him another pat, and stood. “I’m sure you’ll be plenty not-weak, Thom. We should get going, Alan. Don’t want to be late.”

Alan nodded, ruffled Thomas’s hair, and they walked off, arm in arm. Neither wanted to talk to Alan about what had happened to the wizards to end the war.

Fruits of My Labor

This was from a writing prompt about quests. This protagonist is a rather practical sort, but in a post-apocalyptic world, don’t you kind of have to be?

What skill do you think you could bring to a post-apocalyptic setting? I have an assortment of random facts that might be useful. Maybe!

Image from WikiMedia, public domain

So, hello, stranger. You want to join the village? Be safe? Let me tell you how it works. You have to complete a quest. 

On your sixteenth birthday if you’d been born there, or after you’d rested up for a week if you’d come from outside–that’s you–you have to go outside the barricades. Sometimes they’d give newcomers longer if they were injured. But only if you had something they wanted. Otherwise, they’d refuse to let you in, or kick you back out even if you made it past the gates.

You’re not injured, so you’ll be going out tomorrow morning.

What quest, you ask?  Scavenging for basic supplies. Edible food, or safe-enough-to-use medicine. The village council will give you a list of things they need. Really need, and say, go find these. Quest through the burned out, broken rubble. Keep an eye out for the feral dogs and cats, and especially the escaped zoo animals. The crocodiles are doing well in the river, and the lions will eat you if they catch you.

And, of course, always keep an eye and an ear—or maybe both—out for the roving bands of humans. The broken in heart and spirit, who’ve decided to be even worse than the lions that will at least kill you quickly.

This village, which I stumbled on when I was an underfed thirteen—and started a debate that continued for days, about whether I should be sent out in a week, or three years—they try to be kind.

Obviously I was tough enough to survive out there, but rules were rules for a reason, so they settled on my sixteenth birthday. No skin off my back. I was happy to accept that almost three years of safety. And you better believe I ate as well as I could.

Since I knew what was coming, I kept up my skills with short little forays in small groups. Mostly with other teenagers and at least one adult. The village doesn’t send their teens out blind, they aren’t wasteful.

It wasn’t so bad, gathering and hunting nearby. We kept quiet and hid way more than we fought anything, and we stayed clear of any known dangerous areas. 

And on my birthday, I took the small pack and the well-wishes they offered, and I walked alone into the hellscape that had been my life from ten to thirteen. 

Up until two months before I found the village, I’d had company—my older brother–and that had helped, but not as much as the stout walls, barbed wire, lookout towers, and hidey holes did.

I’d noticed that the teens got a longer list than the strangers—but I didn’t need it. I’d found a stash I knew they’d want, three days of hard travel from the village.

I’d move fast, but careful, and stuff my pack full. Then I’d come back to plenty of praise. See, we had food, or nearly enough, from carefully tended gardens and scavenging.

That was the only reason the village welcomed newcomers at all. It had started out as a small group of survivors seven years ago, and they knew enough to know they needed more people–both for the next generations, and for all the hard work that needed doing.

But what they didn’t have much of was variety. 

So the gone to seed urban garden I’d found on a rooftop was my ticket to staying. I could’ve told them about it years before, but obviously I didn’t. Instead I gathered up fruit and vegetables with precious seeds, and you should’ve seen the council’s faces.

And now I’m part of the council, and everyone gets to enjoy my harvest. I went back with a group later, and everyone was impressed at my lucky find.

Lied? Yes, I lied. If you pay attention, you know that the world isn’t really fair. I seized my advantage.

You should, too.

What I Did This Summer

Inspired by a prompt about summer vacations. This unnamed, teen narrator is writing an essay for school about what they did over summer vacation–and the answer is something the teacher wouldn’t expect.

My most unexpected summer experience was probably at a campground–either the time the whole tent blew into a lake, or the time the camp owner had a quarter-bobcat kitten, which was impressively large, with tufted ears.

Have you ever had a surprising summer experience?

Image from WikiMedia by Kelly.

This  summer I didn’t do too much. My parents, my older brother Joe, and I were going to go camping first thing, but it rained for two weeks straight, so we had to put it off. I’ve been camping in the rain before, and the mud gets everywhere. And then it dries, and that’s worse.

Anyway, we finally had enough sunny days in a row that we could go. We packed up the van with our tents—one for me and Joe and one for our parents, and the cooler full of ice, and the sleeping bags, and air mattresses, the portable grill, all the cooking supplies, and everything else you need for camping not to suck.

First thing, we picked out a spot, not too far from the river, which was moving faster and wider than usual from all that rain. But the ground was dry, just a little soft, so the tent stakes went in easy. The family rule is, you get everything set up first, then you can explore.

 So we put up the tent, inflated the air mattress, and spread the sleeping bags and pillows out. The food went into the bear safe lockers the campground provides, which are a pain to get to and from, but way better than a bear trashing our stuff.

And then, after Mom and Dad tacked on million chores to set up, Joe and I finally escaped camp. We’d been here a bunch of times, and we’d explored a lot of the area already. Down by the river, there were usually some interesting shells or rocks, and tiny silvery fish.

Joe clambered over the bank, reaching out for flowers growing in the shallow water, picking a bouquet for Mom. 

Suck up.

Some weird, twisty-looking craft, like a kayak in shape, but mostly under the water, swept by on the current, knocking into his hand as he reached. Startled, he yelped, and fell in.

Water splashed, but Joe had landed on the warped kayak-thing, so he wasn’t really in the current. The boat bucked under his weight, the far end tipping up, showing off a bunch of pipes and cables under a clear covering, like saran wrap only sort of green.

Joe flailed, clawing at the boat-thing, and it shifted, cables sliding under the covering, and wrapping around him. It got him trapped, and then it took off down river.

“Joe!” I yelled, and I heard him shout something back, but then he was gone. I ran after him, and then I realized I’d never catch up. So I turned around, and ran back to camp, hoping I hadn’t made a mistake.

You were supposed to get help, right? Not follow along and maybe end up needing rescue, yourself?

My parents didn’t believe me, about Joe and the weird boat that had scooped him up. And they didn’t buy the story he’d told, when we’d found him, two hours after we started looking—which was an hour and a half after I burst into camp, shouting that Joe’d been eaten by a kayak.

We were just being funny, they said.

I didn’t think it was funny, as I listened to Joe talk about the strange smell of the boat, metallic and green, like a pool of stagnant water and blood. How it felt, plasticy and slick, but strangely dry, the water beading off the surface as soon as it splashed on. He couldn’t remember much—landing on the craft, the feel of it moving under him, then over him, like he was drowning in the air.

It had wrapped around him, pinning his legs, and hands, and then he’d felt a patch of cold on one arm, and a patch of heat on the other, a sharp tingling sensation running from his legs to his chest… and blackness.

The next thing he knew, Joe said, he was on the shore, bone dry, his head spinning.

And of course, our parents thought he’d fallen in, and bumped his head, then luckily been washed to the shore. The day wasn’t bright enough for a couple hours to dry his clothes, but they let that little detail slide. 

We were telling stories, or confused, and that was that.

I stewed over that injustice for a while, but I stopped trying to tell the story pretty quick, when it became clear that neither of them were going to listen. Joe didn’t give in so quickly, until they started talking about therapy, and made him go to a session. Then he changed his tune, stretching the blackness part to cover the rest. 

He’d been picking flowers, fallen in, hit his head, and maybe been washed up, or maybe half-woken and pulled himself out, and then passed out again.

End of story.

Except Joe was still moping around. Rubbing his arms, where he’d said he felt cold or hot, or flexing and shifting his legs like they’d fallen asleep. So I started campaigning for a winter camping trip, which we don’t do so often because it might snow. But I think I can win them over.

And then I’ll have something to write about for what we did over winter break, other than family visits and who burned what dishes.

Reading Challenge Progress 2021

Image from WikiMedia Commons by Evan Bench.

I started tracking my books read in 2012. Each year from then until 2020, I read 350 to 400 books. At the halfway-ish point, I thought I should check my numbers.

This year, as of June 13, I’ve read 146 books.

That math says I’m probably not clearing 300.

And that’s fine. I adjusted my goal to a reasonable number, and we’ll see how it goes. Reading that many books represents an over abundance of free time, and I’m glad to have other things to do with it. (Hopefully things that will be productive, or have lovely memories attached to them.) And, of course, as I’m a pretty speedy reader, even if I can only read for a few minutes every day, I’ll still get through a decent amount of books.

The real issue is that one of the things I do with my time is read book reviews, book blogs, and talk with people about books. I already want to read more books than I can manage, and my TBR list reflects that!

Do you keep track of your reading and set a goal? Are you on track or behind?

Happy reading!

Fast Food

Image from WikiMedia by rahematshah kadri

When I first walked in, I was speechless. My best friend and my husband, locked in an embrace in the kitchen. Laura was almost hidden from view, except for one neon pink converse and the fall of her teal hair.

“Honey! How could you?”

Greg straightened, a smear of blood on his nose. “Oh. You’re early.” 

“Greg!”

He eased Laura down into one of the wooden chairs by the table, and wiped away the blood from her already closing neck wound. 

Her eyes were closed, expression dreamy.

“Oh, I um, sorry, dear. I got hungry, and you know, she was right there…” he shrugged and offered a weak smile.

“I told you not to eat my friends!” I snapped, scooping Laura up and carrying her into the living room, propping her up against the arm of the sofa, and turning on the TV. “Sit down!” I jabbed my pointer finger at the marching love seat.

Obediently, he sat. 

I perched next to him, channel surfing to find a good movie, and elbowed him in the side. “You’ve got blood on your nose, you pig.”

He scrubbed at entirely the wrong place. “Did I get it?”

“No,” I hissed, pulling out a tissue and applying it with more force than strictly necessary.

He winced, but held still.

Clean and rather red-nosed, he pretended to be engrossed in the movie. A few moments later Laura stirred, blinked, and then smiled, settling back on the sofa. The human mind was elastic. Something in vampire saliva helped smooth the gap between the moments before the bite and when they woke.

Unless the vampire was stupid and tramuatized the heck out of their meal, the human wouldn’t recall the bite at all.

As far as Laura knew, she’d watched some movie with Greg, fallen asleep, and I’d joined them. 

I narrowed my eyes at my husband, determined to have a talk with him later. He tended to be lazy, and grab whatever was easiest. Which was fine, as long as it wasn’t any of my friends.

Karma Check

II

Image from Wikimedia by Wolfgang Rieger.

I’d been waiting for this day for three years, five months, and one day. That time, plus two weeks, was how long I’d been working as Miriam Lindstrom’s karma balancer.

As a balancer, I did good works. As many as I could. And I suffered the misfortune of her bad karma–twisted ankles, broken umbrellas, bird poop on my favorite sweater–you name it, it had happened. 

I paid her debt constantly, wearing it down in small manageable bites. Some people tried to pay off a debt in one big lump sum–the most lucrative option, but also the most dangerous.

Try to redeem too much bad luck at once, and you’d likely suffer a permanent loss–of a limb, a loved one, or even your own life.

Miriam Lindstrom paid me handsomely for the balancing, of course. She didn’t want to have to worry overmuch about bird poop or hang nails. Some bad karma got through, but rarely, and very minor inconveniences.

She still railed at me over those hiccups, as if I could do my job any better than I did. Each time I accepted her payment, I got some kind of lecture. Instead of a simple direct deposit, she wrote a check because she wanted to hand it over in person and hear me express my gratitude. Gratitude! For doing a job, a difficult job she certainly didn’t want to do?

Entitled twit.

I hadn’t hated her at first, but when I’d picked up my first check, and she’d refused to release it from her manicured fingers until I’d groveled enough… That had done it. Kindled a burning in the pit of my stomach that couldn’t be quenched by anything except revenge.

And today, she’d finally delivered my revenge along with the check.

“Now, Lily,” –My name wasn’t Lily, it’s Dahlia, but the woman doesn’t listen to anything she doesn’t consider important– “Your work has been slipping lately. I broke one of my favorite heels, and I just cannot.”

She paused, tapping her fingertips to her glossy red lips. “I cannot express how that hurt me. You will simply have to do better the next week, then you’ll find the next check at previous levels.”

I didn’t reach for the envelope, my heart racing, but my expression calm. I’d gotten better at swallowing rage and offering a serene smile. “Some bad luck is inevitable. It isn’t possible for one balancer–or even two or three–to remove every possible negative event in a life. It’s in the contract.”

She sighed, as if I deeply wearied her, and dropped the envelope to the gleaming surface of her desk. “I’m not interested in arguing with you, Lily. If you’re going to be unpleasant, I can always replace you.”

No. 

I controlled the lurch in my stomach, and shook my head, eyes downcast. “I didn’t mean to be unpleasant. Only remind you of the contract. I didn’t write it, it’s standard for all karma balancers.”

“Yes, yes, I know you didn’t write it.” She waved at me dismissively.

I scooped up the envelope, and hesitated. 

“Well, go. I’ll see you in two weeks. And remember my shoes!”

Pressing the check to my pounding heart, I nodded in the deep almost bow that made her happy, and scurried away. She hadn’t fired me, which meant I’d finally, gloriously won.

Karma balancers were well paid, because no one would do such a terrible job without generous recompense. And most of my clients, I didn’t mind. They were polite, paid promptly and electronically, and hardly registered in my life. I did the job, served the term of the contract, renewed or didn’t, and moved on.

Miriam Lindstrom had clearly not read that contract, the one she thought I was too dumb to write. Which was very, very careless of her.

I opened the check, and saw she’d docked 500 dollars from it, which made my eyes well with indignant, pointless anger.

Well, not pointless. She’d broken the contract–she couldn’t alter my payment without written agreement. And she wasn’t allowed to dock my pay for any misfortune she received, unless she could prove I’d deliberately shirked my job.

Right there in the parking lot, I took out my copy of the contract, and pressed the check to the surface of the paper. It hissed and sizzled, the paper giving off heat that stung my face like standing over an open, working oven.

The words “contract void due to provider misconduct” appeared in bold red print across every page. 

Satisfied, I returned the pages to the folder, tucked them into my bag, then started the car.

I’d deposit the check, because I’d earned that money. Best to do it quickly. Miriam Lindstrom would very soon be realizing why she should have read her contract.

Misconduct on her part came with a steep price–all the karma she’d shed on me, which I had balanced with my good deeds and suffered through the negative–it would all rebound on her, in a flurry of misfortune.

I wished I could be there to see it happen.