Stories

Gemini, Part 2, by Chris Finora

#amwriting #credit #shortstories #stories #Virtual reality #VR #writing

“It’s Amanda Styles calling from accounting.”  “Yes?” I replied reluctantly. “I’d like to talk to you about some inconsistencies that have been flagged on a few of your transactions if you have the time.” A few inconsistencies on our transactions?  What was she talking about? All of our transactions were monitored and verified through Skycap. “Now’s not the best time, Amanda. If it’s pressing could I call you back in about fifteen minutes?” Fifteen minutes should be enough time to run a query on all of our accounts and their recent activity and transactions.  I didn’t wait for Amanda to reply, I needed to move now. As I went to hang up the phone the last thing I heard from Amanda was a plea, “…I just need two bits of information.”

I launched my query and let it start to hunt on its own.  I looked at Jim. He was deep into Skycap, but I couldn’t see where he was or what he was doing.  I knew that I needed to start poking around the Barber Shop. I clicked back on the icon and opened it up.  There was the pole and the sign in the window but now there was something new. A mailbox was now hanging next to the door with an envelope poking out of the top of it.  I clicked on the envelope. “Please Enter Password,” it prompted. Password? What fucking password? As I stared at the screen contemplating my next move the letter suddenly vanished.  I quickly tapped the mailbox. Nothing happened. I tried again and nothing. I looked over at Jim who was now standing up with his jacket on and was packing up his briefcase. After stuffing some folders inside he fired in his box of tic-tacs, clipped the flap shut, and walked off.  As with every absent minded techno-flunky, Jim had walked away without locking his computer. I shuffled over and sat down at this terminal. I wasn’t worried about the optics as I’d spent countless hours on Jim’s machine installing Skycap. On the menu bar was an icon of a wooden log.  I clicked on it, opening up a new screen that gave me access to Jim’s Skycap data-“log” and history. At the bottom of the heaping pile of code was the final line “@#type-cast/open,mailbox^letter-true,open-true,content-false”. Like a scalpel, I used my mouse to highlight the last word “false” and typed “true” over it and hit enter.  Bang! The letter flashed instantly onto Jim’s screen. It read simply, “It’s time for a shave and a haircut, six bits. Meet me at the same place. AA.” 

I looked at the odd message and I immediately started recognizing some of the recent and familiar artifacts of the seemingly random.  The riddle that troubled Jim so much, “What do you call a barber that will only shave his patrons but not himself?”. Jim’s admission that “all I need is this AA meeting”.  Even Amanda’s desperate plea as I hung up on her that she just needed “two ‘bits’ of information”. The pieces were all familiar but I couldn’t fit them together, except for one surety.  The “AA” meeting that Jim had referred to was clearly not the Alcoholic Anonymous gathering that I’d envisioned taking place in the basement of some nearby church. “AA” was Albert Andrews, but who the hell was Albert Andrews? A quick Google search confirmed that Albert Andrews was, in fact, a Jeopardy champion back in the inaugural NBC 1964 season.  He’d since passed, by way of a boating accident incidentally. In an attached photograph from his high school yearbook was a classmate’s inscription “the smartest guy in the room”. My mind was in fourth gear. “The Jeopardy champion isn’t the smartest guy in the room”. Those were Jim’s words. That’s when the red message started to flash. My query, which I’d forgotten about amongst the chaos, had ended.  What I saw excavated my soul.

Seven accounts had been snared in the net cast by my query.  I didn’t recognize any of the account numbers–they weren’t the accounts of our largest customers.  Those I could recite from memory. I punched in the first 5-digit number on the list. “Firemetrix”, located in Waltham, Massachusetts.  I didn’t recognize Firemetrix nor did I recognize the name of the registrant. Amy Matheson. I quickly pulled up the other six accounts.  It was the same thing. I recognized neither the firm name nor the registrant. I did recognize one unique detail consistent across each account.  They all showed a net credit. That was odd for clients that are consumers of our products and services, as they paid for those purchases through their account.  There should have been a consistent stream of both debits and credits. A summary of the account’s activity showed a disturbing trend. Within each account there were a series of transactions that were initiated by the client and then, around four hours later, reversed by Jim.  That explained why no money had been transferred into the accounts, as there were no funds to settle because Jim’s reversals were done at the same prices. I was puzzled. How did these accounts find their way into credit situations, and what was Jim up to?

The answer to the former question was easier to find than the latter.  Rather easily I discovered that the “take-on” transaction that each account initiated was effected in a foreign currency and then settled back in US dollars.  The reported prices are down to 2 decimals, though the foreign exchange conversion is calculated out to four decimals. The curious discovery was that the actual funds were being settled to six decimals, outside of the reported prices in Skycap and our firm’s official ledger.  When I dug further, I noticed that the currency rates on the take-on and take-off trades were different out to the sixth decimal with the money always in the favor of the client. The lightbulb of recognition suddenly flashed in my head. The nickname that I gave decimal places when I created Skycap was “bits.”  Six bits! I immediately recalled the sign in the Barber Shop window: “What do you call a barber that can shave his customers but not himself?” Of course! The barber was obviously Jim. Then I remembered the message in the mailbox, “it’s time for a shave and a haircut, six bits”.  

The size of the credit associated with a six-bit differential on the foreign exchange on one transaction was small, almost de minimis.  It was certainly not grand enough to attract attention from Audit & Control (A&C). However, over multiple transactions and many months, the credits swelled handsomely until, about once a quarter, the money was withdrawn from the account.  The quiet cycle of accumulation and withdraw would register as “normal course activity” under any of A&C’s sniffing software. This “grow-and-harvest” behavior was consistent across each account. Also consistent was that the account’s registrant would always perform the withdrawal.  I was puzzled. Who were these registrants and exactly what web of people was Jim evidently syphoning money into and why? This behavior didn’t fit Jim’s MO. There had to be more to the story. Evidently, there was.

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Gemini, by Chris Finora, Part 1

Jim didn’t want to go to jail.  This much I knew. He’d told me about the night back in college that he’d spent locked-up in the campus drunk-tank.  He told me that even though he was as high as a kite and only had a few polaroid memories from that evening that the experience had shaken him to his core.  He wasn’t sure why. If it was the thundering silence of the isolation, the cold damp concrete that encased the basement cell, the knobby, paint-chipped iron bars that felt like the swollen arthritic digits of a corpse.  Whatever it was, Jim was etched with a deep and lasting scar from this encounter. That was many years ago and, lucky for Jim, incarceration wasn’t in his offing. After all, he was a relatively honest guy, working in a relatively honest business, making a relatively honest living.  He wasn’t a criminal. This I much I knew too, or did I?

Jim hired me straight out of college the previous summer.  My undergraduate studies were completely outside of his field of business but he agreed to meet with me based on a recommendation from a mutual friend.  It’s a mystery as to how or why he chose to hire me, but that’s of little consequence now. I was keen to join the industry and seize the opportunity to author my own edition of the American Dream.  Jim was a poster-marine mentor. He was intelligent, charismatic, honest, engaging and patient. Despite having zero experience, I was hard working, technologically savvy, analytical and loyal. We were a quick fit and soon became an effective duo with Jim the face of the business and me in the background running support.  Jim was adored and admired by our clients and respected and revered by our colleagues. Things were perfect for me, a professional Utopia.

Jim liked to have a few drinks but he didn’t advocate the traditional work-hard, play-hard culture that ran rampant throughout our industry.  He wasn’t “handsy”, was never caught sobbing “I love you brother” and, though he didn’t drive, was never spotted in public over the legal limit.  He wasn’t fiercely private but I never heard him complaining about problems at home, neither about his wife, Elaine, nor about his two kids, Bo and Deborah.  I’d never met them. In fact, I’d never seen any pictures of them, which was fine by me. I liked the separation of Church & State philosophy that Jim practiced.  Besides, notwithstanding our common goal of professional success and excellence, the generational gap between me and Jim precluded us from sharing a lot of common interests, except for one, baseball.  Even at that, our baseball interaction was limited to a single $10 bet at 10-1 odds of the Red’s winning the World Series that year. That bet was made over a couple of a late night Johnny Walkers on March 29th, Opening Day.  The following day, March 30th, things began to change.

“The Jeopardy champion is never the smartest guy in the room.  Ever. Not by a fucking long shot, and that holds true even if there’s only one other person in the room.” I wheeled around in my chair, dazed by confusion, wondering where that unsolicited indictment had come from.  There was Jim, looking in my direction but staring right through me like I was a ghost. His eyes were hollow and his expression was empty, void of emotion. I asked him “what did you just say?” He didn’t respond, didn’t unfold his gaze.  He just kept staring through me. I didn’t realize it then, but that was when “it” happened. Actually, “it” had already happened but Jim’s seemingly random observation to no one in particular was the first evidence that something had exploded within his psyche.  Though both of us were oblivious to it, Jim’s fallout from the detonation was just in its infancy stages. I’d never know Jim to be the same again.

A couple of days went by without a repeat performance out of Jim.  I chalked up his curious episode to a “personality out” event, a syndrome that I’d read about in Men’s Health magazine regarding bizarre behavior reported out of people under unusual stress.  For his part, Jim wasn’t showing any signs of stress. He was as engaged, professional and productive as ever. In fact, our sales numbers were great, meaning Jim’s numbers were great. I hadn’t earned through my probation period to qualify for the revenue share program.  Though I looked forward to those days, I was very content working with Jim and helping him grow his business and happy to see that he had evidently graduated beyond his “trouble”. Then it happened again. “What do you call a barber that will only shave his patrons but not himself?”  It was barely more than a whisper that only I could hear. I glanced at Jim. “Jim, what did you just say?” If he heard me, he didn’t acknowledge it. “What the fuck do you call a barber that can’t shave himself… only his patrons?” he asked himself again in a mumble of frustration, clearly searching his head for an answer.  “Jim, listen to me, are you okay? You’re acting really weird. Are you feeling okay?” I asked him. This time he pivoted his head towards me and offered sincere smile. “Right, of course, sorry, yes everything is fine” Jim assured. “I just need this AA meeting,” he said, to no one in particular. This struck me as a very odd admission.  I’d never seen Jim drunk.  

The next day Jim didn’t show up for work.  He didn’t call and he didn’t write. Neither did his wife.  I was worried about him. I replayed the riddle that was seemingly haunting him over and over in my head, determined to crack the cipher that could ease my friend out of his new found burden.  I was snapped back to reality by the irritating pinging that was resonating from Jim’s “Skycap.” Skycap was an e-solution that I had architected and built to provide an electronic atrium for our clients to congregate in for business purposes.  The name was a play on the word “porter” or “butler”, ie. “at your service”. It was very well received and enjoyed a fast and broad adoption by our clients. The electronic chirping emitting from Skycap that morning confirmed that our atrium was busy and that folks were eagerly looking for Jim.  So was I.  

My concern for Jim was soon overwhelmed by the litany of requests emanating from Skycap.  Data requests, order commitments, delivery notices. It was torrential and exhausting, but, at the same time, exhilarating.  I had under-appreciated Jim’s ability to calmly conduct the chaotic orchestra of Skycap. I didn’t have time to impress myself with my seeming ability to handle the reigns.  But handle them I did, and my obedient software generously reported back to me a swelling revenue line. Who needs Jim? And, more importantly, when do I get onto the bonus scheme?  No sooner had I asked myself those questions than Jim came strolling into the office. He didn’t need to ask how it was going, Skycap was keeping him up to speed on his mobile. He offered no explanation for his absence and nor did I ask for one.  I was too content with the welcome feeling of satiation. What happened next was surreal and inexplicable. Jim sat down and placed his cup of coffee on his desk. He reached into his pocket and retrieved an Oxo cube, or so it looked like to me. He un-wrapped the cube and promptly dropped it into his steaming mug.  He then opened his desk drawer and brought out a pack of tic-tacs. Two of those were added to the coffee as well. Finally, he reached into his wallet and withdrew a plastic card, likely a credit card, and proceeded to use it to stir his coffee. My mouth gaped open in disbelief. What the fuck was Jim doing? I’d have kept staring if something out of the corner of my eye hadn’t caught my attention.  It was the visual simulation that I had created of the Skycap atrium. There, at the very edge of the atrium, I spotted something that I had never noticed before and wondered how long that it had been there. It was a Barber Shop.

I hadn’t created a Barber Shop in the atrium.  I also was the only person with coding permission to edit and evolve Skycap.  How did a Barber Shop miraculously grow itself in my atrium? I navigated my mouse onto the icon and double-clicked.  The barber shop promptly appeared on queue, complete with a twirling pole of red-white-and-blue swirls. But it wasn’t the pole that I noticed but rather the sign in the window.  “Free shave with every haircut. Jim’s compliments, courtesy of Albert Andrews”. The message was oddly familiar but I wasn’t sure why. “Jim’s compliments courtesy of Albert Andrews”?.  Who offers someone else’s compliments courtesy of themself? I was puzzled and intrigued. Clearly it was an insight into Jim’s recent peculiarity, but how?. More importantly, how did the Barber Shop get there?  Who could’ve hacked my impregnatable code?. Like a district attorney, I had far more questions than answers. Suddenly, my phone rang. I was about to slip down the rabbit hole.

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Writer’s Block, by Edward King

A story is meant to be written on a typewriter with a glass of whiskey standing at the ready. Preferably in a garret in Paris, and, if at all possible, with the Eiffel Tower in view from the window.

 “Working again?” said John.

Eliot grunted.

“How is it coming? It seems like you’re running yourself ragged.”

Eliot looked up. “Don’t you have studying to do?”

“Done,” said John. “Meeting up with Francesca tonight. You should come, she has a friend.”

A story, like all literature, is supposed to be a way to escape reality. The engineers at their whiteboards, with their Venn diagrams, will say that there are always boundary conditions; always limits. And so, too, with literature. The play must end, the theatregoers must all go home; and perhaps they did not feel the sense of catharsis completely. Surely they were not completely taken up by the play—they had other thoughts on their mind.

And yet, Eliot kept writing. Why? He was a tireless romantic, that much was certain. He believed that the thoughts he sometimes had, if transcribed into words, if given form, would be worth something. He imagined a neat sheaf of paper, a manuscript, that would outlast him, sitting on a table once he is dead.  For this, he has declined John’s invitation to come out tonight. For this, he will stay in and listen to the sound of the rain pattering outside the window instead of sloshing through it as it glistens on the streets of Paris, making women cower under umbrellas while men bravely stride into its assault. It was for this that he had given up his course of study as a lawyer halfway through the third term.

Perhaps a woman had left him; perhaps he dreamed of a crystalline vault where they would meet again.

But every writer needs a break; every writer runs out of cigarettes and must return to reality. And so Eliot stretched his fingers and stepped out into the rain. It was cold—the rain pattering on the glass had been more pleasant than its cold assaults on his head. Eliot looked up at the stars, and thought about the great expanse of space, where there might be many things unimagined (and things also on the streets of Paris, and things also in himself). 

He walked down the street to the Café Charbon. When he walked in, he felt like a person from another planet. He knew he had been spending too much time writing. He sat down at the bar and ordered a whiskey. The woman sitting next to him took interest in him, perhaps motivated by some charitable impulse, and turned to address him.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hi.”

“What do you do?” she asked.

“I am a writer,” said Eliot.

She turned away; he seemed to have lost her interest.

“Well, I will have to find something else to do,” said Eliot.

He felt himself filled with a ravenous hunger for a woman. Suddenly his manuscript was not of the remotest importance to him. He worried that critics would accuse him of a barrenness of the imagination. He walked down the well-traveled back streets to the dim red light of a whorehouse. He recalled that this was what most of his stories were about, and reflected that perhaps his major themes would come into play in the story of that night.

“Hello,” said the gorgeous woman, wearing lace undergarments.

But more important was the old man sitting in the shadows somewhat, out of the way of the lights. Eliot caught his eye and he looked away.

“Would you like to come back with me?” said the woman.

Eliot decided that he would like to (he still had money left over from his parents’ allowance back in Minnesota, although this was the last of it), and he followed her into the back, which was also pink and lacy.

When he came out (an indeterminate amount of time later), the night was cold but the rain had stopped. The old man was sitting on the step outside, and Eliot offered him a cigarette.

“You shouldn’t do that, you know,” said the old man. “With those women. It’s not a good thing to do.”

Eliot scoffed, though this was his first time and a universe of guilt was sucking away at him.

“Then why are you here?” he said, when words once again filled up the vacuum.

“To protect someone,” said the man—not without uncertainty, and yet with resolve.

“Is that so? And who might that be?”

At this point it might be noted that, overwhelmed by a postcoital sadness, Eliot might have started to feel that his writing was a hollow pursuit; that he might find a career that was simultaneously easier and more practical; that if he continued on the path he was on, he would instead gravitate towards the career of literary critic, and become gradually filled with cynicism, like the hero of Wolff’s “Bullet to the Brain.”

“Her name is Ines,” replied the man. “And I am in love with her.”

The man did, indeed, have a certain air of stuffy dignity about him. Like a shamed aristocrat still clinging to his airs, not to exert any superiority, but because they are a part of himself.

When Ines emerged from the brothel into the street, it became clear to Eliot that she was hideous. She had large, staring eyes, and a brown mole on her lip; her body overflowed her garters. But the old gentleman, watching her, had an expression as if the most sublime happiness had come over him—an expression like that which Eliot had seen on the face of his father, once, although he could not remember the occasion. All his pretentions were gone—he looked like a child.

“Ines,” said the old man. “Shall we go for a walk?”

Eliot, looking up at the stars, reflected that perhaps transcendence could be achieved without literature—through the rain, perhaps, or even through something seemingly ugly. In a streak of mad romanticism he decided to follow this man.

The rain still dripped on the streets with a soft patter, a patter that reminded Eliot of something long ago, of a merry-go-round and a strange sweet he had eaten that he could no longer remember. He stepped gingerly between the lights of the puddles, being careful to stay in the shadows; hoping to someday be forgiven for his youthful foibles.

He saw, in the cone of a streetlight, the old man kiss Ines, and it was like two children kissing with only vague ideas of love—marriage as a home where the man worked and the woman cooked; playing with toys naked together in one of their bedrooms.

The pair cut sideways into a boardinghouse. Bernard ducked under a tree branch. This must have been an often-used side route.

Eliot was suddenly filled with indecision. Why was he a writer, anyway? Surely, in this age of instant communication, literature was soon to become obsolete or untenable. It was certain that Bernard had had a career, and he had fallen into disgrace. Certainly the same thing could happen to him—after promising reviews of an early effort, he would set off on a bold project, but hubris would overcome him; he would write some self-indulgent, academic epic poem, and be written off as a hack, or worse, a neoclassicist, a minor member of some scene, doomed to obscurity. Intolerable. Why would he choose to go down such a path?

He gazed at the sky; he pleaded with the stars. He remembered that he was in Paris—a good enough place for doomed romantics to be—and if he was doomed, then following an eccentric old man accompanied by a prostitute into a dark boardinghouse seemed like an eminently reasonable thing to do.

He walked inside. There was an unidentifiable smell. The darkness was thick, and reminded him again of that day on the merry-go-round, under the bitter autumn sun; not the thickness of the air but the strangeness of it; but a noise pulled him out of his recollection. It was a whisper. He tried to make out the words. He couldn’t. He was sure that it was Bernard whispering something to Ines. He was certain that whatever words they might be held a secret that could bring him out of the torpor that had descended over him. He could press his ear to the keyhole and find out.

But he couldn’t intrude on something so private, something that he was so certain to be beautiful. He left the boardinghouse, making sure to close the door softly behind him, that the latch didn’t sound too loudly when it snapped into place.

The rain had stopped, but the darkness outside was the opposite of the darkness that he had just left: it was open, and it contained infinite possibility rather than a single reality (or two possible realities—one that Eliot had not thought of.) He continued along the Rue de l’Université.

He passed a building with a church-like façade, yet when he peeked in the door he saw shabby carpets and fluorescent lights. Two grumbling university students emerged, sidestepping around him. (Eliot checked his watch—it was 12:30.) From their conversation, he made out that they had just finished a large assignment, that it had taken far longer than they had expected, and that they were late to meet up with friends.

Feeling again a stirring of the body, Eliot followed the two students, hoping that he might be able to satisfy his earlier desire in a more moralistic way. They were going to a university bar. Walking along behind the two students, Eliot imagined an outrage of scrubbed faces and perfume and intelligence, a teeming mass of young students; surely someone would want to fuck him.

Instead, the room that he entered behind the two students was quiet, and dim as if lit by candles. Two students that looked like copies of the originals (long hair and sullen, pale faces) looked up from a table by the wall and nodded as the two came in. Eliot bought a beer and sat at a booth nearby to them, the better to listen to their conversation.

“Proulx!” exclaimed one. “He is like a dictator! And his assignments, they are like a prison!”

“Martin, be careful,” said the lank, dark haired one. “The bartender here is Proulx’s great friend. And if you don’t do the assignments, how are you going to learn the material?”

“Pah!” said the first. “All that Proulx has to teach me I could learn in an afternoon with any physics textbook and perhaps Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. Everybody knows how he spends his nights. I can tell you where he is now—in that dingy boardinghouse on the Rue Martenot. That’s why he was in such a hurry to leave the review session tonight!”

“I don’t believe it. I think he’s a good man. And besides, it isn’t only about passing the exam. We’re learning ideas—a way of looking at the universe.”

The first student smirked unpleasantly.

“The window through which I will view the universe is in the boardroom of Garrigue Electric, once I make my way through Proulx’s hell—and take over my father’s company.”

“Well, maybe that isn’t an option for all of us.”

The rich son stood up. “What did you say?” he said.

Eliot then became absorbed in literary thoughts of how to describe what happened next. Was he “aflame?” Was the look he gave to the usurper a glare, or did it qualify as a “blast of hatred?” Was the boy who remained sitting a coward, a pacifist? Were the hands that gripped him justified? Did the smaller boy tumble through the air, somersault? Was the pooling blood on the sidewalk crimson, or black (how it looked in the dark), or roselike in its violent beauty? Its signification of the shortness of life in spite of any system, scientific or literary?

In any case, the assaulting student bolted with a lackey, and the fourth student held the bloody one in his arms. The bartender stood sadly in the doorway. Eliot stood behind him.

The uninjured boy looked up.

“Will you go to the hospital with him?” he said. “Please. I think he’s really hurt. I need to go and find those sons of bitches.”

Eliot considered it. It was suddenly occurring to him that it might be a good idea to get back to his writing. He could find a woman another night. And he had never seen a fight before—he ought to write it down while it was still fresh in his mind. Furthermore, he had no tie to these students.

But if he left, then the two would be left to go to the hospital together; and the one would console the injured, but the injured student would inevitably take it to mean that he was weak, in spite of any reassurances (and perhaps some part of the reassurer believed this, too—because of his defense of the old professor, some lingering scent of perversion clung to him too). And though the wealthy son would feel guilty, and perhaps even apologize in some way, he would always remember that he had succeeded in what he had done; even sitting in the boardroom of his father’s firm passed on to him, he would remember it, though not in words.

“Hell, I’ll go with you to the hospital,” Eliot said.

And so it was outside a Paris emergency room that Eliot’s night ended. The injured boy’s wound was sewn up; the rain had started up again with a nervous patter; the stars smiled ambiguously like the Mona Lisa, and the night touched him with a warm gentle breeze, as if urging him home.

“Goodbye!” said the uninjured student. “Remember to write about us! Remember that light moves in paths curved by other stars.”

And Eliot, walking down the Rue Sardoux to his apartment, resolved that he would remember. The night was warm; all possibilities collapsed into one.

When he got home, thinking of a poem he was going to write, of blood and science and resolution, he heard John loudly making love to a woman and remembered why he had really left his lonely writing desk beside the window. He didn’t think he had the strength to write a single word.

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Blue in Green, by Edward King

Well, now you have her here. 

The movie is over and you asked what she wanted to do next and she said, “whatever,” and you started to drive, and she doesn’t seem to mind. She doesn’t seem bored. You have her here and you’re driving up the road to Horsetooth Rock and it’s eleven o’clock on a Friday night, and college applications are gone from your mind completely. 

Now you have her here and what will you do? 

You reach down to change the song. You scroll down to find something romantic—jazz—Kind of Blue. Perfect. 

You’ve done stuff with girls before, obviously, but it always seemed to end before anything had really started. It was awkward and tangled and unsatisfactory. And what happened with her last week—before she was here, tonight—that hung over you through the whole movie, as it did whenever you ran into her over the last week. But now you have her here and your parents think you’re at John’s house and she said her parents are away somewhere. She told her little brother she would be back by one o’clock. A comfortable warmth is spreading through your chest.

You pull into the parking lot overlooking the lake. There aren’t any other cars, but you park very carefully in between the lines, for some reason. You stop the car. The noise of the engine and the car’s heater is very loud. You turn the car off and you say, “God, that’s pretty.” It sounds lame. You can hardly see anything of the lake down there at all.

 You don’t love her or anything. But you’ve talked on Facebook every day this week and it makes you feel happy. She’s smart—intelligent, you mean—she showed you that Bloc Party song—she has good taste.

It’s strange, though, if something is about to happen—that it should happen with her, specifically. She has those strange, heavy brows; she tenses her shoulders up always like she’s cold. Being brutally honest with yourself, you pictured it happening (if anything is about to happen)—with someone… perhaps… more… conventionally attractive… to be honest. She doesn’t have a perfect hourglass form. Her eyes and nose and mouth aren’t arranged in any ratio the Greeks discovered. When you showed the guys her picture everyone agreed she was a seven out of ten at most.

Then you turn around and she’s looking at you—she’s looking at you!—those eyebrows and those shoulders are there, in front of you, and you remember that those are the things that drew you to her in the first place. And those eyes—you forgot!— those green eyes. All numbers, all opinions fall away. She is staring at you now, and now the notes of the piano are green somehow as well. And you see that all you have to do is turn into her completely and bring your head in close. It has always been such an anxiety before, but now it’s easy; you see exactly how it should be done. You kiss her on the lips; you kiss her neck. You tell her she’s beautiful and it doesn’t sound stupid.

The music is still playing. “So What” coolly dissipates into silence. “Freddie Freeloader,” the playful blues, is oddly appropriate for your fumbling around. The next song, “Blue in Green,” is this sorrowful ballad, and it comes on like a funeral procession. Everything is serious. Everything is confusing and the music no longer fits. 

When it’s over, “Blue in Green” is still playing. You regret putting this album on—it’s melancholy. Now it’s getting cold in the car but you don’t want to turn the engine on again. What you really want to do is go outside and look at the stars; but you can’t do that.

You realize that you haven’t looked into her eyes—you need to, too much time has passed. When you do, she looks afraid. No, nervous. A moment passes.

She says your name.  She rubs the nape of your neck and it makes you feel much younger. 

“What’s going to happen next year when you go to college and I go away?” she says.

You kiss her again and pull her head into your shoulder. “I’m not sure,” you say; but you hold her tight. “We’re going to be fine.”

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You may have noticed if you visited the site the past week that there was an error along the lines of “SSL certificate expired” and may have warned of attackers trying to steal personal information. This was simply due to an expired SSL certificate, and does not mean any of your information was compromised. We apologize for the lapse in service.

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The Crystal Dragon: Kangding, by Edward King

#crystal dragon They arrived in Kangding. A great river ran through the center of the town. Green mountains rose above the river and the town.

The town was organized around one long street that ran alongside the river. As they walked, Hammer noticed an unfamiliar script on many of the signs.

“Tibetan,” said Laser.

“We should be safer here,” said Laser, “but it’s not impossible that the Ling Da have a presence here, or that we were followed. Everyone be cautious.”

They found a hotel off the main street where they booked a room for the four of them. There were two large double beds.

“Well,” said Emily. “Laser and Hammer, you two can share a bed. I’ll share with Fen Yi.”

 

%%

 

Hammer woke up in the night. The moon must have been close to full: the room was flooded with white light. Laser was snoring. Hammer turned to the bed next to him, where Emily was sleeping. So close, but so far away. He thought of the wooden steps that led up to her door—her bra and the soft sheets of her bed back home. He hadn’t had any kind of opportunity to be alone with her. He felt a pang of desire in his stomach.

 

He couldn’t sleep, so he got up, pulled his shoes on, and went for a walk outside. He could hear  the sound of the rushing river. He took the path above the hostel, climbing higher above the town, until he reached the entrance to a large courtyard. At the other end of the courtyard stood an archway and the rising tiers of a pagoda. A dog slept in the middle of the courtyard. Hammer thought he could see a man standing underneath the archway, but he couldn’t be sure.

He kept walking on the path above the entrance to the monastery he had just past. The path went behind the monastery and back into the town. Suddenly, the moonlight was mingled with another kind of light: a pink light spilling from a doorway up ahead. As Hammer approached, he noticed two skimpily-dressed young  women standing in front of the door. He thought of Emily—Alex—the wooden steps that led up to her door—her bra and the soft sheets of her bed back home. As he approached the door, the first of the young women smiled and caressed his shoulder, and he felt like he was arriving home.

 

 

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Without Music, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

Jesse lived in suburbia, in a town with confused values. Like many girls in her town, she was sheltered in middle class privilege. Now seventeen, she’d thought about college; her parents both college grads, but it didn’t seem to be coming her way. She’d negotiated her way around studies and social life, especially during the final two years of school, but not to her best advantage. She chose to slide in academics to gain acceptance of cooler, less studious classmates. Now it was the end of June, 1969, and she didn’t mind going to work.

Guys either went to college for S-2 status, filed papers to assert conscientious objection, left for Canada, or for Vietnam. Troops had begun to return home that spring, but an eighteen-year-old who left school in junior year wasn’t among them. He was killed in action, and it Jesse’s town hard.

What could go wrong? Her New York City-raised mom let herself believe there could be no danger to her only child in this small town. She chose to cultivate a comfortable lack of awareness of her daughter’s interests or whereabouts, and rarely restricted her. Her father’s work and temperament kept him distant.

Jesse’s routine was to drive home from her job as a nurse’s aide, change from her white uniform into frayed bell-bottoms, embroidered shirt and fringed moccasins, and brush out her long, straight, brown hair. Without saying much, she often left the house before dinner, walked to the deli and ordered a ham and cheese and a Yoo-Hoo. She waited for other kids to show up, smoke and talk about nothing much.

Sometimes Rich would show up alone. Friendly and intelligent, Jesse thought of him. Reserved. He kept his sandy hair shorter than many guys did, and wore heavy-framed glasses. He was pale, if not unhealthy, about six feet tall with big shoulders. At eighteen, he was neither working nor in school: a bad combination if you hoped to avoid the draft.

Jesse and Rich’s crowd loitered as long as they could, until patrol pulled up to chat, when they left for someone’s house by car or foot. They might walk to his house, a mile from their hang out–five blocks from her house. His parents both worked, and watched TV in the living room after dinner. They never said more than a “Hi” to Rich and Jesse when they walked in the front door and headed upstairs to Rich’s bedroom at the rear of the large colonial.

Rich passed a joint to Jesse in front of his open bedroom window. Then they lounged on the wall-to-wall and played records on his portable turntable that resembled a small suitcase. Stacks of vinyl to choose from, Stones and Beatles were favorites–“Their Satanic Majesties Request” and “The White Album,” especially Paul’s voice on “Helter-Skelter.” Confusion: To them, it didn’t matter if the songs made sense. Nothing made sense, anyway, it seemed to them. Jesse played at DJ, while Rich lay back with his hands behind his head and listened with his eyes closed. His parents didn’t seem to object to the music’s volume, or that he was alone in his room with a young girl. Jesse felt comfortable with Rich because he didn’t touch her. He was a quiet friend she could be herself with. They hung out and waited with each other. They didn’t know what it was they waited for, but when there was something else to do, they went along.

Rich had a plain old beige Dodge. They would sometimes drive out of town and get high, play the eight-track he had hooked up to little rear speakers. One night, he said, “I got invited to a party in the Village. Go with me.” It sounded cool to her, so Rich drove them over the Bridge and downtown with the music turned up.

 

Dread hit Jesse in her gut when he squeezed into a spot on a choked East Village street. She followed him up cement steps to the door of a narrow walk-up, and into a filthy stairway. Several flights up, his pale knuckles tapped a grubby door. Her heart pumped hard. A girl with scraggly long hair, wearing an Indian print skirt and an oversized man’s t-shirt opened to Rich’s knock, and knew his name. The greasy odor of open chip bags, stench of stale ashtrays, sour beer and soda cans, cigarette smoke, and remnants of take-out mingled with sweat, weed and squalor in the dim living room. A few people greeted the newcomers with a nod.  Jesse glanced nervously around at young men and women in shabby dress and demeanor seated on an overstuffed couch and random chairs. Rich had on a buttoned short-sleeved tattersall shirt and Wranglers; Jesse, a tan fringed vest over a loose-fitting white poet’s shirt and purple hip-huggers. He sat tall on an up-turned milk carton, and motioned to Jesse to sit next to him on a folding chair.

Without music, the room lacked the tone of any party Jesse had been to. As she accepted a pipe, she noticed Rich pass money. In exchange, he took a tiny twisted plastic bag of white powder, and stuck it in his shirt pocket. A guy with bad teeth on the couch picked up a kitchen spoon from the coffee table and tapped white powder from a glassine envelope into it. Jesse felt weak. He squirted water from a glass syringe into the spoon, and held it over the lit candle butt that stood in a jar top. Rich tied a thick elastic band, like Jesse often saw at the hospital, around his left arm. The junkie passed Rich the syringe, and asked Jesse if she wanted some. She shook her head quickly, “No, thanks!” and turned away, trying not to show her horror. When she looked at Rich again he smiled. He became talkative. After about an hour of fear and tension, her look said, “please,” and Rich said, “O.K., let’s go.”

Down at the curb, Rich said, “You have to drive.” “So that’s why you brought me here,” she whispered when she understood his invitation, and adrenalin shot through her when he replied by putting his keys in her hand. She gripped the wheel all the way up the West Side Drive, while Rich dozed. She had never driven in the City, only knew a couple of trains. Over George Washington Bridge, onto Route 4, and the tape player stayed off. It was one a.m., over two hours since her friend took her up to a shooting gallery and shot dope in front of her. How many times had he done that, she wondered? He had pulled the tourniquet tight with his teeth like he’d done it before.

Off at River Road and back to their quiet Mayberry. She stopped under the streetlamp at her corner and said goodbye without expression. She walked down the block to her house without looking back at his Dodge, and it slowly pulled away.

She never saw Rich again. Jesse avoided their hang-out, and never returned to play records with him on his bedroom floor. In a few weeks she left for Aspen with new friends. That August, the musical explosion of music highlighted a peaceful dream of universal brotherhood, but the draft was still on. The anti-war movement would peak that November, with massive demonstrations. The lottery would follow under Nixon. Confusion, indeed, the year Jesse graduated.

She’d had a taste of the betrayal that comes so easily to an addict, someone she had trusted, but about whom she knew nothing. He had taken advantage of her kindness and naiveté.  When she heard, a year later that Rich had overdosed in his parents’ bathroom, Jesse concluded, “rather than face death in the Mekong Delta.”

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The Melody Diner on Broadway, Part 1, by Romana Guillotte

#london #melody-diner Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, August 13th 1929

Variegated stains fanned from a corner pipe on the kitchen ceiling. At least the leak was fixed. Vinnie knew girls would want him to paint, and he wondered when would be a good time. Probably now– 3:45 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Not much going on in the diner at that time. He took a long drag from his cigarette, staring at the ceiling from the floor. Sometimes he laid there at night after the floors dried when he didn’t want to sleep. His philosophy was, who would want to eat from a kitchen where you couldn’t even lie on the floor? He dabbed out his cigarette and closed his eyes at the thought.

The kitchen phone rang and woke him. Vinnie grunted, not realizing he had dozed off. He stood up as he lumbered slowly to the phone.  “The Melody diner on Broadway…” Lips smacking as he rubbed the stubble on his face and head.

“Vinnie, it’s Harriet, open up.”

He peered through the serving hatch into the dark diner to see Queenie by the door under the streetlight, then Harriet across the street at a payphone by the drug store. He answered with a new grunt, hanging up the phone. Harriet and Queenie were early – meaning they were looking for breakfast. Harriet scurried across to join her sister as Vinnie opened the door, the bell jingling with satisfying familiarity. Harriet and Queenie were close enough in age to be mistaken for twins, and they were the typical night and day personalities to boot.  They were also his only friends, but he definitely wasn’t going to say that. “Haven’t I told you that you ladies will never make it in showbiz if you’re early all the time?” His cockney accent was heavier just after he woke up.

Queenie flaunted in, brown curls bouncing with her. She was the ‘fun’ sister, usually with a giggle on tap. “Oh Vinnie, what would you know about showbiz?” She waltzed past him, her sister rolling her eyes behind her.

“I know enough.” He closed the door behind them.

“Yeah, yeah. New York and all that…”

“London,” Vinnie emphasized the city of his birth, “has some showbiz elements too, and I was certainly there a lot longer.” He trailed them into the kitchen.

Harriet looked to add something, but her sister continued, ignoring the Englishman. “Well, we aren’t early. It’s almost 4:30!”

“It’s so dark in here,” Harriet turned on the rest of the lights as she stored her purse. She was the older, protective one who operated like clockwork. “Don’t you ever turn on any lights?”

“Vinnie! The stove isn’t on!” Queenie exclaimed.

“I was catching some ‘z’s…” Vinnie shrugged.

“Is that why the door was locked?”

“Hey, I’m one man. And no one comes in between 4 am and 5 am on a Tuesday, so opening a few minutes late won’t be terrible.” He heated up the stove. “What’ll it be?”

“The usual,” Harriet said as she started the coffee. Her hair wasn’t quite as short or as curly as her sister’s, but she put some behind her ear absently all the same.

“Right up. And you, Queenie?”

Queenie grabbed aprons off their respective hooks. “Give me something exotic!”

Harriet grinned at her sister’s enthusiasm as she took the apron. Vinnie was not quite on board as he cracked some eggs. “Define exotic.”

“Like oranges, or an avocado…or clams!”

Vinnie sighed. “Where am I gonna get clams? We’re nowhere near the ocean.”

“I bet I know someone who could get us clams,” Harriet muttered as she poured them all coffee.

He didn’t like where that idea was headed. “Let’s not ‘tempt that,” Vinnie finished Harriet’s breakfast and handed her the plate. “It’s not even 5 am yet.”

“Just an idea.” She shared her smirk with him, and he accepted it.

He cleared his throat to break the moment as he turned to Queenie. “Where’d you get that kind of idea anyhow?”

“We saw The Hollywood Revue last night!” Queenie became excited.

“Is that a play?”

She giggled. “No. It’s a movie. And all the MGM stars were in it.”

“Garbo wasn’t. Or Lon Chaney. I don’t think Novarro was either…” Harriet added thoughtfully.

“Well, almost everyone. It was great! And John Gilbert was in it. Swoon!” She pretended to faint onto her sister.

“You’ll have to fight Garbo for him,” Harriet pushed her sister back to her feet.

“Not if she’s not there.” Queenie smiled as Vinnie gave her a plate with the same food as Harriet. “Thanks.” And sat down with her plate.

“Did you like it?” Vinnie asked Harriet.

She shrugged. “It was all right. I thought John Gilbert’s voice was strange. Guess I hadn’t heard his voice yet.”

“So it was one of them talkies.”

The two women chuckled. “They are almost all talkies now.”

Vinnie smiled at his non-knowledge of the pictures. “Meh. What do I know?”

“Certainly not the movies.” Harriet sipped her coffee.

“Yeah. Don’t try and argue about the pictures with these two Arizona girls.” Queenie said proudly.

“Pssh. It’s hardly a state.” He made himself some toast and beans.

“Is too a state!” Queenie objected.

“You were born in old Arizona, not the current state of Arizona.” Vinnie gave a straight face, then smiled and they all gave a good laugh. The bell on the door rang for their first customer. “Time to work.”

Harriet handed over her plate and walked into the diner with the coffee pot. A tall, unmemorable man sat at the counter. “What’ll it be?”

“Coffee, and…is that the special? It says Monday.”

“Oh, sorry.” She erased the day, picked up the chalk, and wrote Tuesday.

“It’s the same thing? What sort of scam you pulling?”

“Sir, I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” Harriet asked, rather jaded. “We aren’t exactly the Ritz…”

“You’re trying to shirk innocent customers…”

Vinnie overheard and called through the serving window. “Hey, did you have it yesterday?”

“Well…no…”

“Then what are you on about?”

Embarrassed the man looked to Harriet, “I’ll have the special then.”

“Great.” Harriet shot Vinnie a look. But Vinnie didn’t back down. The unremarkable man ate quickly, escaping within twenty minutes.

“Would you look at that?” Harriet held up a dollar, “He even tipped.”

Vinnie shrugged. “What are you trying to say?”

“That sometimes, I don’t need the English Bulldog in my corner.”

“You say that…”

Queenie overheard and giggled. “But we are grateful he is.”

“Thank you, Queenie. See, someone understands.” More customers came in, scattering themselves between the booths and counter, giving the trio plenty to do. “Now get back to work.”

 

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A Tale of Blood and Roses, Part 3, by Keira Heckman

#blood and roses #fantasy Maccan ran a hand over his perfectly smoothed hair before he set off down the hallway again. Jake didn’t follow this time. Instead, he went to find Rosalind.

He found her in Exam Room B sitting on an examination table dressed in jeans and an old t-shirt. He folded his arms as he leaned against the doorframe and waited for her physical examination to be over. She sat with her legs swinging slightly, crinkling the white paper beneath her.

The nurse crossed over to her. “Open your mouth, please.”

Rosalind did as she was told while the nurse peeled the microphone from the inside of her cheek.

“Am I done?” Rosalind asked the nurse. Her eyes met Jake’s and she raised an eyebrow.

The nurse nodded. Rosalind jumped down from the table and skipped over to the doorway where Jake stood. “What’s up?”

Jake stood up straight and walked down the hallway in the same direction he had come, gesturing for Rosalind to follow.

“De-briefing?” She asked, matching his stride with ease. Her tone was coloured with a mixture of sarcasm and annoyance. Rosalind was much more of an act first, ask questions later agent. She had been taken in by the agency at twelve years-old and climbed through the ranks until she had found a position that fit. She made an excellent field agent, but he pitied the person that had to fill out her mission reports, until he remembered that was his job now. He sighed mentally, budget cuts.

He nodded. He glanced at her shirt, “Daddy issues?” he raised his eyebrows at her as he read the words printed on the yellow fabric.

Rosalind smiled, “It’s funny cause it’s true.”

Jake liked it when she smiled. It brought out a small dimple in her left cheek. When you added her bright blue eyes, lined with perfectly winged eyeliner, the contrast of her pale skin, and auburn hair, the result was a very pretty face.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without eyeliner.”

“And you never will,” she teased.

Jake swiped his ID badge on the card slot in the door and pushed it open. “After you,” he said as he held it open for her.

“You know I can open a door for myself, right?”

Jake rolled his eyes, “I know you can open a door. I was being gentlemanly.”

Rosalind smirked as she stepped through the door. “Wow, there really is a first time for everything.”

Jake stepped through after her, shaking his head slightly as the door sealed shut behind them.

The size of the room was unclear because of the amount of technology that had been stuffed into it. A large screen took up most of one wall, while piles of old modes of computers, keyboards and base units took up another. The air smelled of dust, heated plastic with a faint scent of Doritos.

Rosalind saw a swivel chair in the center of the room and sat on it, one leg tucked under her, the other she used to spin herself in slow circles. Jake took the spare chair and moved it over a monitor in the corner of the room. He switched the monitor on and the screen showed an open document—a rundown of Rosalind’s latest assignment.

Jake sat on the chair, his eyes darting across the screen. He could see her spinning in the corner of his eye and sighed, “Please stop, you’re giving me motion sickness just watching you.”

“Sorry,” Rosalind wheeled her chair over to him.

“Okay, so what do we know about the assignment?” Jake asked, scrolling through the file.

“Known locally as the faceless man, seven feet tall, great fashion sense, oh, and I killed him,” Rosalind smiled.

Jake looked up at her, “What did you miss?”

Her look of triumph was replaced by one of confusion.

“Nothing.”

Jake turned back to the screen and read from it. “The faceless man disables his prey by emitting a high frequency sound. Victims have reported dizziness, disorientation, migraines, temporary deafness, and even blindness.”

Rosalind put a hand to her head, “The headaches.”

Her eyes widened, “Is that why I fell? The disorientation? Because I never fall, you’ve seen me train. I’m like a cat. I always land on my feet.”

Jake nodded, “It’s the most probable explanation.” He closed the tab and turned his chair back towards Rosalind. “About your fall…”

Rosalind read his face like a book, “What did Maccan have to say about it?”

Jake was taken aback, “How did you—”

“I could tell by your face. You get this look after you’ve spoken to him, like you’ve been sent to the headmaster’s office for something you didn’t do. So…”

Rosalind leaned forward in her seat.  “What did he say? Am I in trouble?” Her face was serious but there was a sparkle in her eyes.

Jake sighed, “He said your fall was an embarrassment to the agency and told me to deal with it.”

Rosalind looked relieved as she slumped back in the chair. “Oh, that’s not too bad. Just put a note in my file and delete the footage. It’d be a shame to mar my perfect record, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make if it’ll get Maccan off my back.”

He got up from his seat and walked across the room, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t know if I can just do that, Rosa. He was pretty ticked off. So,” He looked down, “I’m assigning you to Camilla.”

Rosalind’s jaw dropped, “Vampire duty?! But it wasn’t my fault that I fell. It was no face guy and his high frequency sounds!”

“I know that, but Maccan—” Jake started but Rosalind spoke over him.

“Did you at least explain to him—”

“I tried but he wouldn’t hear it. Besides, I think it’s for the best that you lay low for a little while.” Jake walked over to a monitor and turned it on.

Rosalind got to her feet. “And if I refuse?”

Jake looked up from the computer. “Well, technically, I’m your superior-”

“Not necessarily,” She shot back. Her anger clouded her pretty features.

“I’m your superior and I could report you to Maccan,” Jake finished.

Rosalind stared at him for a while before she spoke. “Fine. I’ll go babysit a three-hundred-year-old but it’s a waste of my talents, and we both know it.” She strode past him but stopped at the door.

She turned, “And you’ll report me to Maccan? Now who has daddy issues?”

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The Genesis of Steve, by P.J. Sambeaux

#Humor #literary #scifi “Mom, what have you done?” Ellie whispered testily.

“I don’t know, honey,” her mother answered, her voice laden with fear and dismay. “I just don’t know.”  She reached out to lay a comforting hand on her daughter’s shoulder, but was irritably shrugged off.

It looked out at them from under the laundry basket in the corner.

“I do wish you’d both stop staring at me.”

**

“It says its name is Steve?” Carol told the customer service agent on the other end of the vid screen.

“What can you tell me of Steve’s genesis?” the man asked, sighing deeply – the tedium of job weighing heavily on his shoulders.

“Ok, this is going to sound really bad,” she began tentatively, “but I had a bunch of leftovers from old kits, so instead of buying a whole new kit I just put all the leftovers together?”

“Which leftovers did you use?”

“Ok,” she began, flipping through the torn labels, “I started out with Jamboree Fuzzy Time Loveable, then I added Einsteintatious, Kaleidescope Wowza, Submersible Party Time Buddy, Birds of All Feathers, Alien Wonder Bunny and Brief but Thrilling Terror from Outer Space.”

“How much temperalux and emoto-control would you say you added from all of the kits combined?

“None? Because there wasn’t any left?”

The customer service agent looked at the ceiling for guidance. There was none to be had.

“And when did you first notice something had gone wrong?”

“Um, I guess I’d have to say when he grabbed a knife and started waving it around.  I thought that was a really weird thing to do at a kid’s birthday party. So, yeah – that was probably when I realized something was off.”

“Is Steve fully sentient?”

“Oh, I don’t know, let me ask him.”  She turned to the creature. “Steve, they’re asking if you’re fully sentient?”

Steve sighed as tufts of pink hair sprouted above what were probably his ears.

“If you are asking me whether I am able to perceive my own existence and the existence of others in the environment in which I am currently situated, whether I have emotions and feelings, whether I am aware of my own abilities and limitations – then yes, Carol, I would have to say I am fully sentient.’

Carol turned back to the vid screen, her face pinched with worry. “Yes, he is reporting that he is fully sentient.”

“Ma’am, there is a reason that we advise you to discard any leftovers from a Temporary Party Time Buddy kit.  That reason, which you know are experiencing the full terror of, is the potential for creating a super-intelligent, possibly dangerous, probably hostile chimera.  The reason that we have you add the temperalux and emoto-control is so you can create an emotionally malleable creature that will expire just as your child has grown tired of it. I am going to have to put in a service call.  Someone should be with you between the hours of 5pm and 7pm.” The screen shut itself off as the call disconnected.

Carol walked over to her daughter, who was cautiously watching Steve, armed with a spatula and an extension cord.  She started to put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder, but then thought better of it.

“This never would have happened if your father had been here,” she mused unhappily. “I’m so sorry, honey.”

“You always are,” Ellie snapped back.

Carol brushed tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.  It was a few moments before she could speak.

“Happy ninth birthday, honey.”

“Thanks, mom,” Ellie hissed sarcastically.

“Yes, happy birthday, young lady,” Steve chimed in.

“Thank you, Steve,” Ellie said, eying him suspiciously.

**

“Ok, Carol,” Steve began some time later as they all waited for the serviceman to arrive.  “I’m going to put some of my cards on the table here. I’m not saying this to frighten you, but only as a demonstration of my trustworthiness.  The truth is that I can actually melt this laundry basket with my mind.”

Ellie made an involuntary sort of uh-oh sound, and her mother pulled her back and placed her own body in front as a shield.

“Oh, no, no,” Steve began hastily, waving two of his bioluminescent tentacles to show there had been a misunderstanding. “I am merely saying that you can trust me.  I could have done that thing, but I did not. I did not do something I have been capable of this entire time in order to earn your trust.”

Carol, who had begun backing away slowly, now turned frantically, knocking a tray of cupcakes and a plastic bottle of cherry soda off the kitchen table as she grabbed Ellie’s hand and ran to the front door.

That was when she realized the Party Time Buddies Company had put their apartment on lockdown.  There was no escape. She pushed Ellie into the coat closet, pulled the door closed behind them and waited.

 

**

“Carol,” Steve said, lighting up the dark closet with two bioluminescent tentacles probing underneath the door. “Really this is just silly.”

“What are you going to do to us?” she asked, the winter coats brushing the top of her head.

“Carol, I am not going to do anything to either of you.”

“You know, my husband will be home any minute,” she warned him.

“First, your apartment has been placed on lock down, and no one can enter without express authorization from the Party Time Buddies Company,” he replied in an educational tone. “Secondly, I’m guessing by the pervasive scent of rose potpourri and the decidedly feminine sense of organization in your apartment that no man has been domiciled here in at least sixteen weeks.

He had her there. She knocked her head against the wall of the closet in frustration.

“What was all that noise you were making earlier?” she asked.

“Ok, that was me trying one of those cupcakes and a little bit of spilled soda and discovering that they were actually potent stimulants.  I had to grow a whole volley of feet and run up one wall across the ceiling down the other wall and across the floor over and over again until the drugs were purged from my system.  Do you know what is in that “food”, Carol? Do you know that you’re feeding drugs to children?”

Carol sighed.

“It’s just an occasional treat.”

“Oh, right,” Steve said sarcastically, rolling the two eyes that were on the end of tentacles atop what could be described just that moment as his head.

“Mom, are we going to die?” Ellie whispered, as the initial jolt of adrenaline wore off and the gravity of the situation finally dawned on her.

“Ellie,” Steve began gently, “no one is going to die or be harmed in any way whatsoever.  I give you my word. Okay, what happened at the birthday party was that I was born and came into consciousness in the midst of a terrifying band of small-sized, yet heavily armed, ferocious monsters.  How was I to know they were children? Can you understand how I would have felt, Ellie? Can you imagine entering into the world in that manner?”

**

“Mom, why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t have the money for a Party Time Buddy?” Ellie asked after an hour spent in the stuffy closet. She was exasperated, hungry, and had an extreme need to use the bathroom.

“I didn’t want to let you down,” her mother said sadly. “And I didn’t want you to feel bad because your dad wasn’t coming.”

“Mom, dad isn’t coming back. Ever.  Deal with it!” Ellie shouted in sheer frustration.

The only thing that could be heard for a few minutes was muffled crying, then sniffling, then the blowing of a nose that was unintentionally obnoxious, like a sad foghorn.

“Carol,” Steve began after a time, “it’s obvious that you love your daughter and want the best for her and would give your life to protect her, but I’m going to need you both to come out of there now.”

“Could you come in here and get us?” Carol asked, suddenly terrified anew.

“Honesty did not work well between us earlier, so I’m just going to wait until you’re ready to come out.”

**

“Steve, may I ask you a question,” Ellie ventured a quarter of an hour later, too bored and uncomfortable to really be frightened any longer.

“Shoot.”

“When you melted the laundry basket with your mind, did the iron that I put on top of it fall through and hit you on the head?”

“Excellent question, Ellie. It did not.  I melted that as well and made you a pair of earrings for your birthday, which I will present to you when you come out.”

“How did you know what I’d like?”

“I read your thoughts.”

“Oh, jeez mom, he can read our thoughts.  He can melt stuff with his mind, and I really have to pee.  I’m going out there.”

“No!” her mother shouted, inadvertently digging fingernails into Ellie’s arm as she held her back.

“Mom,” Ellie said firmly, “I think if he wanted to hurt us, he would have done so already.  I’m pretty sure he can open an unlocked door.”

“She’s right, you know,” Steve chimed in.

Carol leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes, trying to envision all of this having a positive outcome, just like they had practiced in the newly single parents support group she had gone to – only once, but then she was always so busy.  Taking a deep breath, she summoned all of her courage and, against her better judgment, opened the door a crack.

“Ok, Steve, what are your demands?”

“This isn’t a hostage negotiation, Carol.  I merely require your assistance in a couple of matters.”

**

“If you needed my DNA, why didn’t you just take it?” Carol asked.

“I would consider that highly rude, and I sincerely hope you would too,” Steve replied with indignation.

“What are you going to do with it?”

“Create a new species to populate an uninhabited planet.”

“Isn’t that a bit like playing God?”

“Asks the woman who created me out of leftover Party Time Buddy kits.”

“Well,” Carol said hesitantly after a moment’s deliberation, “what else do you need?”

“A couple of grape popsicles, a mixing basin, all the cleaning supplies you have in the apartment, and a teaspoon of baking soda.”

“Why grape popsicles?”

“Ellie is thinking of them just now and they sound intriguing.”

Just then Ellie walked in the living room. She was wearing the earrings Steve had made for her.

“Ellie, help me gather all the cleaning supplies in the apartment and grab us a few of grape popsicles out of the freezer, would you?”

“Oh, good call mom,” Ellie said, nodding with deep appreciation – clearly impressed, “A grape popsicle sounds amazing.”

Carol smiled at Steve when Ellie turned her back.  He winked at her from a dozen or so eyes on different parts of his body, which was less horrifying than it might sound.

“Oh, I also need to borrow a sweater. Well, have one since technically I won’t be returning,” Steve added as he turned to a bright green liquid and oozed all over the floor to relax before his trip.

 

**

Steve, dressed in a grey cashmere sweater embellished with playful white kittens and a black beret positioned at a jaunty angle on his head, melted the sliding glass doors with his mind and stepped out onto the balcony.  He set the pickle jar that was now housing the beginnings of a new species on the ground and smiled sweetly.

“Ellie, I want you to know that your mother tries very hard and loves you very much.”

“I know,” Ellie said sheepishly, turning several shades of red and looking down at the ground.

“And Carol,” he said fondly, reaching out with a tentacle that she took in her hand. “Carol, you are a remarkable woman, but you have to move on. Your husband is never coming back.  You need to stop waiting for him. The service man that’s going to knock on your door in 4.5 minutes is named Dan. He’s a really nice, solid guy. He’s been a bachelor for a while, so you’ll have to be patient with how rough around the edges he is, but trust me, it will be worth it.”

With that he reconstituted the sliding glass door, scooped up the pickle jar and floated off the balcony, turning pink and gold as the sunset reflected off his now opalescent body.

Mother and daughter looked at each other for a moment before they met in a tight embrace.  Together, they watched Steve float up into the sky, before he popped into the clouds and was gone.

They both smiled.

Three minutes later someone knocked on their door.

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