Captain Misnomer

City Smoking

“Is that all of ’em?” Dash asked, between heavy gasps of air.

Strong looked around, then darted across the square and back before Dash finished blinking. “I didn’t see anyone, but maybe we need Stretch.” Unlike Dash, his breathing was normal.

“Need me for what?” Stretch yelled. They looked up, and up. Shading their eyes, Dash and Strong saw a Stretch-shaped silhouette poking from a broken window in the building behind them. He looked to be ten stories up.

“If you see or hear any more damn robots,” Dash said under his breath, groaning to stand. He coughed in the thick, smoky atmosphere.

“Okay!” Stretch called back.

“I’ll pop over and see if Rad’s found that submarine,” Strong said quickly, and was off before the other two even thought to respond.

Dash looked up to the building again. He could vaguely make out Stretch, through the naturally-waning light of dusk mixing poorly with the smoking fires from the armored vehicles around him.

Stretch’s shape cupped hands around its mouth. “All clear!” He shouted. “I’m. heading. down.”

A small breeze passed between the skyscrapers, clearing smoke and cooling Dash’s sweating face. He couldn’t see any movement either, but had learned to never count on his limited sight.

“Nothing to report from Rad yet,” Strong said, at Dash’s elbow. Not surprising, the huge man nearly jumped out of his spandex.

“Sorry,” Strong added quickly, grinning.

Dash waited for his heart rate to slow, clapping a giant hand over his chest as he recovered. He was tempted to “accidentally” clap his speedy associate on the shoulder in response; but that sort of trick only worked once, and once had come a long time ago already.

Deliberate, even footfalls echoed behind them. They turned to see a tall woman with a wet, black ponytail jogging through the rapidly-clearing mists. “Rad,” Dash said, happy that the approaching steps had not belonged to more enemies.

“Strong. Dash.” Radio acknowledged, as she reached them. She tucked a stray strand behind her ear calmly, subconsciously smoothing her minuscule gills as well. “I searched most of the bay, and could not find our target.”

The door of the nearest building opened, and Stretch descended the stairs to join the party.

“I may have heard a motor in the water just before the robot army opened fire,” Stretch told Radio. She gave him an exasperated look, to which he shrugged.

“Next time, tell Rad before she has to get her feet wet,” Dash reprimanded the forgetful Stretch. Sometimes, he felt Stretch missed obvious sights and sounds as he sought the subtle ones.

Strong bounced up on his heels, impatient. “Where’s Shade?” He blurted.

Dash looked around quickly -quickly for him. “I don’t know! I forgot she was with us during the fight!” He couldn’t believe he’d lost track of her.

Radio laid her hand gently on his massive bicep. “It’s okay, Dash. She usually waits in the plane. I forgot she came along, as well.” She turned to Strong, raising a dark eyebrow expectedly.

“Right,” Strong said, and was gone before he was done speaking.

“Didn’t Snipe come along, too?” Stretch asked Dash. Dash rubbed a sooty hand in his short, blond hair, considering.

“I don’t know.” He concluded.

“Well,” Stretch joked, “If you don’t know, we’ll never find her.” He laughed his nasally snorting chuckle for a bit, then stopped when no one joined in.

Radio looked sideways at Stretch. “Isn’t that your area of expertise?” She queried.

Chastened, Stretch nodded. “I’ll… um, I’ll go look around,” he said, and headed into the damaged square. The only lingering smoke was centered around a few smoldering trucks, but it was enough to irritate his movement-tracking.

“I wish you’d found that sub,” Dash grunted. “I’d like to smash the guy that just blew up a whole city block.”

Radio closed her eyes in agreement, then opened them to meet Dash’s fierce scowl. “I did sense a somewhat warmer stream near a suspicious outcropping,” she told him. His scowl cleared. “But,” she continued, “I lacked the necessary strength to move it.”

Dash was thinking about possible options, that would hopefully not put him under water, when the streak of Strong returned. Dash opened his mouth, then closed it at Strong’s panicked expression.

“I need you, now,” he said, and was off again. Dash and Radio spent a precious half-second to look at each other, then ran in the direction Strong had. They caught brief glimpses of him as they moved, impatiently tapping a foot or literally bouncing up and down as he watched their much slower progress.

Dash cursed mentally, lacking the energy to do so aloud. He had trouble enough keeping tabs on Strong’s position in normal situations. In the waning sunset light, amidst the battle detritus, he had an easier time following Radio’s wagging ponytail than Strong’s intermittent pauses.

The more lithe Radio pulled ahead of Dash, who was breathing heavily again. She disappeared around a sideways assault vehicle; he pumped his stocky legs to catch up. As such, Dash nearly ran right into the back of her.

He bent over, supporting himself on the vehicle’s undercarriage, gasping. The metalwork groaned. “Careful!” Strong cautioned, raising his hands. “You’ll crush her!”

Peering around Radio, Dash saw the prone form of Shadow. The poor woman’s arms were wrapped several times around a deactivated robot’s carapace. Both lay in the shadow of the amtrack Strong was pushing against. He desisted, supporting himself on his knees, instead.

Radio drew closer, carefully. “I think it’s dead,” Strong guessed.

Dash straightened slightly, and stalked forward to check. Radio would be better at helping Shadow anyway, if she could be helped. He kept him eyes down, on the robot, focusing on its inanimate body.

“She’s still breathing,” Radio noted, as she squatted. Dash and Strong let out relieved sighs.

Dash began routine diagnostic checks on the robot, initially verifying that it held no self-destruct automations. He tried to ignore how Radio’s efforts pulled his project side to side; how her concerned mutterings grew anxious. Finally, Dash found a small, pulsing power source.

“Stop!” He commanded Radio, who had successfully unwound a layer of Shadow’s left arm. She paused, holding the oddly-flat appendage. Strong jumped and was suddenly at Radio’s side. Under their undivided stare, he pointed to the faintly-glowing battery. Strong immediately backed a few hundred yards away, though Radio held her position.

“It’s not completely dead, but that’s probably why Shadow isn’t, either,” Dash called to the flighty Strong. Radio nodded.

“I see,” she said, looking up into Dash’s sweating, dirty face. Dash saw that she remembered the last time a team member had approached a recently-destroyed robot; the last time they had fought with the naive, young, and overeager Invincible.

Strong remembered as well, choosing to keep his wary distance. “Get her off and run!” He recommended.

“I’ll need to do it, Rad,” Dash urged, gently. She nodded once, set Shadow’s arm down carefully, stood, and retreated toward Strong’s position.

Dash looked at the pulsing light, at the position of Shadow’s wrappings, and at the dead visual sensors of the robot. Somehow, Shadow had applied enough pressure to disconnect its receivers without turning it completely off. “She must have passed out from exertion,” he mumbled. Shadow groaned, barely audibly.

Attempting to imitate the gentler Radio, Dash continued her work of unwinding Shadow’s twisting limbs. He kept glancing anxiously from the arms, to the light, to the robot’s head. He kept his ears tuned for the telltale beeping of an activated self-destruct.

He needed only to lift the robot body once more, to free the last layer of arms, when he heard the warning knell. “Strong!” He shouted, lifting the metal casing. Before the last echoes of his comrade’s name could fade -just before throwing the flashing, fiery, exploding robot over the armored vehicle; Strong came. Dash saw Shadow’s body pulled free and quickly removed from sight.

Dash felt a sudden, heavy pressure on his back as the assault vehicle fell onto him. His ears rang with sound; his face felt singed. Dash coughed. “I guess I’m not the handsomest guy on the team anymore,” he told the churned-up asphalt beneath him.

Someone else coughed, very near to his crouched position. “What makes you say you ever were?” Sniper’s voice asked, from just outside the vehicle. Dash pushed up, throwing the car from him, to glare around.

Sniper laughed her tinkling laugh, from the deepening twilight nearby. “If you’re finished resting, let’s go check on Shadow.”

Dash grunted, and limped to where Strong had been. Holding a wall of rubble for support, he made his way around a small pile of passenger cars and down a deep groove. “Strong?” He called. “Rad?”

“They’re just ahead,” Sniper’s soft, mischievous voice told him. She sounded a few feet behind him, but he could never be sure.

They cleared an upturned truck on a ridge of street, and found the rest of the party. Stretch looked up as Dash approached, apologetic. “I couldn’t find -” he began, but Dash held up a hand. Sniper giggled, and Stretch’s expression changed.

“That’s enough,” Dash admonished, then turned to Radio. “How is she?”

“She’s alive,” Strong responded without hesitation. He sensed Dash’s disappointed stare. “What?”

“We need to get her back immediately, but she is alive.” Radio smiled gratefully at Dash, then turned to Strong. “Thank you, Strong, for rushing to grab her.”

Strong looked modest, and pleased. Dash considered defending his pride, but agreed with Radio about the praise. When they’d needed him most, Strong hadn’t hesitated.

“Will you carry her, please?” Radio addressed Dash. Nodding, he stooped to cradle the fragile Shadow. She weighed nothing in his enormous arms. He looked around at the battle-scarred, smoke-smudged group -except for Sniper, of course.

“You know we can’t take the plane now,” Sniper piped up, from next to Radio. Radio started slightly, but tried to cover her surprise. Reacting to Sniper only encouraged her.

“You’re right; we’ll have to walk,” Dash acknowledged. Shadow was their only pilot. He hoped he could make it to headquarters.

“No problem,” Strong said, and was off. Darkness was falling, but even daylight would not have helped them follow his trail.

“Show-off,” Sniper’s voice said, in Dash’s ear.

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Blog Post Brew

Dedicated to Marissa. Happy very late Birthday!

—————————————————-

jars

“Let’s begin, Igor!” Frank cackled and rubbed his hands at their palms.

Igor rolled his eyes as he rolled the enormous pot from the storage closet. Its metallic ringing reverberated from the expansive cement walls, from the myriad hanging tools and laden steel tabletops nearby. It landed with an excessively-loud Bang! near the giant burner.

“Igor!” Frank chastened, as he jumped. “You nearly restarted my heart!” He drew his bushy eyebrows forward to deeply scowl over reproving eyes.

“Sorry, Man,” grumbled Igor. “Master!” Retorted Frank. Igor shrugged, and smiled lopsidedly once he turned away.

Igor pushed optimistically against the pot. It barely moved. “We need to put this on the fire,” he grunted, summoning Frank from his notes-study. “Of course!” Came the engrossed reply.

Igor tried again. “Master! We need to both put this on the fire.” The scientist finally looked over. He noted the heavy cooking vessel, the assistant with a raised eyebrow, the vacant burner. “Ah!” He exclaimed, abandoning his review to stalk over to Igor.

Shoulder to shoulder, they hunched to shove an edge of iron up the side of the short floor-platform. They paused, supporting, as it teetered. “Again!” Frank commanded; they complied. With a screeching metal, Eeeee! it slid to position. Clunk!

Frank sunk to sit, back to pot and bottom to floor. Igor leaned against an arm on the black lip of the cauldron, patiently catching his breath.

“To work, Igor!” Frank realized, standing as he shouted, bolting to his notes. Igor sighed, then leaned slightly further down to check the burner’s settings. He stepped away, kicking the igniter switch.

Fire flared dramatically all round the base of the dark iron cauldron. “Ready, Frank!” Igor called. “Master,” came the muttered correction.

Keeping his eye and finger on the yellowing page, Frank picked up his notebook and strode to the cooking area. He looked up for an instant, then down. “Two, I think,” he told Igor, who complied by bending to lower the gas output to the burner by half.

“Perfect, Igor! Perfect!” Frank laughed maniacally. “Mwahahahahaha!” Igor sighed resignedly.

“What first?” He asked, genuinely curious.

The scientist frowned. “I’ve told you, Igor! It’s a delicate process! It’s never been done!” He paused, looked up to meet his assistant’s eye. “It will be done -TONIGHT!”

“What will?” Igor inserted, cutting off another impending cackle. Frank looked pained.

“I told you!” He paused, for effect. Lightning flashed obediently outside the warehouse windows. “We’re going to create The Perfect Blog Post!” Before Igor could stop it again, Frank threw back his head and laughed. Thunder outside boomed as background.

Igor cleared his throat. “What first, then, Frank?”

Master,” Frank said. Then, “A CAT!”

cat

“Oh dear,” lamented his assistant. “But what about PETA?”

“Never you mind,” the obsessed scientist reassured. He stirred in some liquid Igor hoped to be water. He pulled a lenticular poster from the nearest tabletop, brandished it somewhat dramatically, then threw it in after the liquid. “It’s only a gif,” Frank explained.

“The spoon!” He commanded. Igor complied, stumping over to the supply closet and back again. Igor handed the large wooden spoon to Frank, handle-first. He leaned closer to watch Frank use the rounded end to push a yawning feline beneath wet clockwise swirls.

“What now, Frank?” He wondered.

“I’ve told you! Call me Master!” Came the indefatigable reply. Then, a mumbled, “We’ll need to appease the Skimmers.”

“The what?”

“The Skimmers,” repeated Frank. “Those that do not read everything, even if they have the time.”

“Oh,” said Igor, thinking. “Just make a few ingredients bold.”

“Of course!” The scientist exclaimed, “And, a few of varying sizes or appearance!

Igor nodded. His employer was brilliant at times, besides merely eccentric. He looked over at the available cache of ingredients. He’d helped gather many of them, not knowing what he had been collecting them for.

“So… is this what the parsley, sage, and rosemary are for?” He asked. “They don’t seem very bold.”

Frank didn’t even look over.
“You forgot the thyme!” He snapped, from the stove, “Er,
I meant that you will need all four.
They’re for singers, poets; prosaic lore!”

rosemary

Igor stood, herbs in his fist.
Then, he found the thyme that he’d first missed.
Grasping tight to stems and leaves,
he stumbled over; threw them in, relieved.

He watched the plants sink into the depths, then scrambled over to the collection nearest Frank. “What is this one for?” He wondered, lifting Mark Twain’s head. It looked surprisingly good for its age.

Frank glanced over. “Careful, Igor!” Letting the spoon fall against the side, he stretched out to gingerly hold it in two hands. White fluffing hair drifted against his wrists as he carried it to the pot. He dropped it in.

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started,” bubbled up from the steaming solution. Igor snickered. “He already has a head,” he commented. Frank stirred, ignoring them both.

“Now, we need something for Romance!” He shouted, over an underwater Twain speech of, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.”

“Romance, Master?” Igor asked, also speaking over the spewing quotes.

“Yes, yes, Igor! Love, lust, kissing, sex, fondling, romance.” Frank looked wistful. Igor looked over the contents on the tables.

“This?” He asked, holding up a piece of meat.

“No, no, Igor!” Frank sounded exasperated. “That’s for horror. Bring the chocolate! Deep, rich, dark, enticing!”

Igor set the dripping meat back down in its bloody puddle, reluctantly. “I thought a piece of meat was a good idea,” he said under his breath. Finding the chocolate, he brought it over to the waiting scientist.

chocolate

“I do see you picked one with nuts,” he observed, smiling crookedly up at Frank. “Of course!” Frank ejaculated. He always had to be on top.

Submissively, Igor watched the melting pools stir into the cat, into Mark Twain’s babbling head. The chocolate was thick enough to block out whatever it was trying to inspirationally say next.

“Quickly, Igor, we need Science Fiction!” Frank yelled. Igor gave him a deadpan expression. The scientist, looking up from the steaming concoction in his secret laboratory, felt inspiration flash through his mind as lightning flashed again outside.

“Of course, Igor! We’ve more than allowed for that.” Frank raised his tufted brows in thought, then grabbed at an unidentifiable goo nearby. “I’ll throw in this alien slime, just in case.” Splurk! Said the slime, as it touched the simmering surface. Who knew what affect it might have as it slowly seeped its way into the other ingredients’ spaces?

“This is taking too much time!” Frank shouted. “No one has patience for this long!” He caught Igor’s eye. “Quick! We’ll need that meat!”

Slinking away, Igor remembered a time when he hadn’t merely assisted the scientists. It was a time long ago, long before the police had sent him into hiding. Long before he’d caught his wife, her lovers; and his mother-in-law, and her lovers, all hiding in his small brick house out on the moors.

Igor hefted the meat, its dripping flesh reminding him of the full, wet weight of a recently-deceased body -particularly ones that he had–

meat

“Igor! Now!” The scientist could feel his mixture thickening, could see it rising.

Igor dripped his way back across to the pot, and dropped the meat thickly onto the moving surface. “Excellent, Igor,” Frank complimented, “And, good work appeasing the mystery- and gore-lovers as well.” His face was deeply shadowed from the basal flames as he glanced at Igor. Igor shrugged, wiping blood casually on his thighs.

“We’re nearly there!” The excited scientist observed.

“Don’t you think we’ve skipped a few?” Igor wondered aloud.

“Like, who?” Frank asked, distractedly. The slime was congealing oddly.

“Mommy bloggers,” Igor threw out. “Um, How-to, recipes,” He thought, hard. “Fan fiction? Politics?”

Frank stirred, but thought as well. “Grab that lovely, chic, repurposed kichen décor,” he decided. Igor looked over the remaining table items, then held up a pile of leaves, squash, and berries. A few spiders skittered out of it, down his arm, and to the floor.

Yard refuse

“This yard refuse?” He asked. “That’s what I said!” Frank snapped. Igor threw it in.

“Now, this link of chain, the acceptance letter to Bogharts, and a few crackers,” Frank commanded, pointing at each item in turn.

Igor hefted the link. First, he chose the weave he liked. Second, he chose a design. After selecting materials and tools, he was ready to drop his finished product into the brew. It cascaded in a long, sliding Shoosh of clinks amidst the gurgling materials.

Next went a tattered paper, stamped with the Bogharts seal. It congratulated Frank Stein on his acceptance thereto, and listed what materials he’d have to purchase from Horizon Tall Street. Frank pushed it beneath the slimy bubbles and noxious steam without a second thought.

“We need a cracker, you Gypsy!” Frank berated Igor.

“I feel triggered,” Igor resisted, folding his arms defiantly.

“Fine!” The scientist conceded. “I said political anyway, not racist.”

Uncrossing his arms, Igor looked over what was left. “There’s only this pile of cash and these empty bottles,” he noted. “Yes! That’s what we needed,” Frank shouted.

Cash

Shrugging, Igor dumped nearly all the bills, fluttering, into the mix. He felt he was throwing it all away. Hopefully, it would turn out well spent.

Just behind came the empty bottles. Igor could read their labels as they sunk: Promises was printed on each.

“It’s working!” Came the exultant shout. “It’s happier; it’s rising!” Igor was surprised at the positive results. He’d thought they would need better ideas, a slogan, or actual data.

Frank stirred frantically. The Blog Post Brew threatened to boil over as it inched ever higher in the pot. Choking steam billowed out and around the warehouse. Igor could hardly see his employer; he caught a flash of lab-coat white in the occasional flare of firelight.

A sudden Poof! sent Frank flying backwards. He was stopped, accidentally, by the faithful Igor.

The warehouse rang with echoed silence. They looked to the dark, silent pot. It sat, inert, atop the extinguished burner. A few black tendrils of vapor curled from the nearly-empty cauldron. Frank and Igor edged closer, closer, closer. They peered inside.

“Hmm,” Frank observed, poking at the black lump in the bottom with what remained of the wooden spoon.

“You seem to have made dubious food, Master,” Igor commented.

“Well,” the scientist conceded, “At least the Gamers will be happy.”

The Garage Between Worlds, Part II

Continued from yesterday

Sean stepped away, running his hands down her goose-pimpled arms. He held each of her hands and looked intently into her large hazel eyes. He hadn’t seen Rose clearly without glasses for many years; but still had not recalled her eyes ever shining with such radiance, such depth of emotion.

“I will never leave you alone,” he told her sincerely. Rose smiled, and looked away shyly. A lovely, long, brownish sheet of hair coyly obscured part of her face. He brushed it to the side and secured it behind her left ear. He ran a finger gently down her cheekbone till she returned his gaze again.

Rose nodded; said, “Okay, Sean.” He nodded as well. They smiled.

Together, they turned and started across the sliding sand toward the music. A drum now faintly accompanied the lively guitar chords. Rose thought she could make out a rustling maraca or two.

“A path,” Sean suddenly said. Rose started at the interruption, and so did a tiny bird that had been resting near them in a small pineapple bush. It flapped in consternation, then took offended flight into a plant a little farther along.

Rose looked down at where Sean indicated and saw that, yes, a few round stones poked through the sand of the beach. Looking up, they saw the foliage carefully curved around the open space above the stones. A veil of swishing flowers hung from a tree on the left a few feet ahead. Beyond it, an unlit tiki torch sat where the trail seemed to end.

Cautiously, they walked forward into the arched jungle tunnel. Rose’s feet tickled in the sand and cooled on the wave-rounded stones. She ran a timid hand across a hanging leaf as they passed.

Sean stopped at the torch, so Rose paused just behind him. “What is it?” She whispered.

“It’s the end of the trail,” Sean told her, also in a whisper. Where they had assumed the rock-path ended, it had instead curved. He looked ahead at something, his face showing uncertainty.

On tiptoe over his shoulder, Rose saw the real trail’s end. A few yards ahead, the stones continued to a bamboo enclosure of sorts. She could see a small fence of braided palm leaves, strings of lights, flowers; and could hear the music more clearly. She heard laughter.

Sean turned his head. Rose saw concern in his ocean blue eyes, concern for her. She thought of the old shed door and its safety.

Then, Rose remembered what was beyond the door into their poky garage: A dirty kitchen. A cluttered front room. Her own bedroom, barely traversable. Then, there were the children’s rooms. The children themselves. She loved the children, but always felt so tired when they came to mind. She bit her lip again, and swallowed.

“Let’s get a little closer,” she decided. Surprised, Sean nodded. He reached down with his left hand to protectively hold her right. They started forward again.

Their bare feet barely shuffled across the sandy walkway. Rose’s long hair barely swished against her back. The upbeat instruments continued, with punctuations of talking and more laughing. The sounds of both grew louder as Sean and Rose slowly drew closer.

“A sign,” Sean quietly announced. He stopped; Rose looked where he pointed. A windworn sign hung casually from the end of the palm-leaf fence, just under a bright wreath of tropical flowers and multi-colored lights. Black, friendly paint spelled the words: Annual Parents’ Getaway.

Sean looked at Rose. He rubbed his bottom lip with his right hand in consideration. Rose looked at Sean. Her left hand found a few loose strands of hair to twist as she deliberated.

“Ah, I see you finally arrived,” A new voice said.

Sean and Rose jumped. Rose pulled at Sean’s hand in an effort to run back down the trail. Sean pulled at Rose, in an effort to free his hand in case he would need it to defend them both.

A tall, smiling, Polynesian man stood next to the sign. He managed to make his dazzlingly white grin even larger. It was he who had spoken, they realized. A deep, affable chortle sounded from his faux animal print-clad midsection. “No need for that, you two,” he assured them.

Rose stopped pulling; Sean retained his defensive stance. “Oh?” He asked. “Why not?”

Impossibly, the man smiled wider. “I am Stephan,” he said with a small bow. “You are late. If you’ll calm down, I will be happy to explain about this place.”

Sean barely relaxed. He pulled Rose close to his side. “Okay.” He said, trying to sound calm.

Stephan laughed again. “This is a magic place,” he began. He swept a hand around to indicate the trees, path, birds, sand, and ocean. “We are here for you. We are not a TV show, timeshare gimmick, or even a dream.” He allowed this information to sink in, then continued. “You have earned an evening here.”

A throat cleared behind the divider, behind Stephan. They could barely hear it over all the party noise beyond. A hand thrust a clipboard near Stephan’s muscular arm, which he hurriedly read as he frowned slightly. He raised his left hand, using his right to count each finger. He did so two or three times, then shrugged and cheerfully gave up. The other hand and clipboard retreated.

“Well,” Stephan smiled, “You really are late. It would appear you’ve been needing to come here since about five years ago.” He chuckled.

Rose looked at Sean, confused. “What do you mean?” Sean demanded. “What are you talking about?” Rose squeezed his hand, gratefully.

Stephan sighed, still managing to look unbelievably happy and helpful. “This place is a magic place,” he repeated. “Besides existing just for parents, we enjoy certain time benefits here.” He met each of their gazes to be sure they were paying attention. “When you are done, you will come back to the same time you left.”

“That’s impossible,” Rose automatically responded. She was surprised, however, at how hopeful her accusatory tone sounded. Stephan chuckled again, reassuring.

“It’s true,” he simply told her. “Plus,” he added, straightening, “You earn your time based on the number of children who are waiting for you at home.” Here, Stephan laughed outright. “And,” he said, wiping a happy tear from his eye, “that means you two get to stay at least all night if you wish.”

Rose blushed slightly. Sean looked unconvinced.

Their host was unaffected. “Come in and see for yourself!” He invited, stepping back and gesturing to his right, to the music and the laughter.

Hesitantly, Sean walked forward. Rose was still holding his hand, or his hers. They paused at Stephan’s side, and saw he spoke the truth. On the other side of the papery wall was a veritable mob of couples talking, joking, smiling, drinking, eating, embracing, lounging, or even swimming.

Yes, Rose saw, there was a gorgeous pool just beyond a stage of tireless musicians and dancing couples. Waterfalls ran down lava rocks amidst rain forest foliage, terminating in a huge swimming area of varying depths. It was the sort she had seen people post online, saying how they’d go somewhere like that someday. She had known better when she saw them; known she would never see a paradisaical setup like that in person.

Yet, here it all lay before her. “Wow,” she breathed. She looked to Sean, to gauge his response, and saw the affable Stephan just behind him.

“Go right ahead,” Stephan supplied. “Everything is open to you: the swimming pools, the bar, any food…” He coughed a discretionary sound, then added, “Even some private rooms, once you get more comfortable.” Sean turned quickly to look suspiciously at Stephan, who shrugged a pleasant shoulder in innocence.

“Sean,” Rose said, “I see Tiffany and Michael!”

Now Sean turned quickly to Rose. “What?! Where? Did they follow us here?!”

“Oh, not our Tiffany and Michael,” she quickly explained. “Tiffany and Michael JONES, our neighbors.” She pointed, near a vivaciously-red flower topiary near the closest waterfall.

Sean looked, squinting, then his face cleared. Still, he hesitated.

“Look,” Stephan said, startling them, “No one is actually an alien in human suits or something. I promise it’s all exactly as it appears.” He smiled ever wider. “Go on, and ask your friends you just saw.” He gave Sean a friendly push, laughed uproariously, and walked off toward the private buildings he’d mentioned earlier.

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to at least go ask,” Sean told Rose, reassuring himself. She nodded. They stepped forward together, Rose timidly keeping very close to his side. Everywhere they looked they only saw happiness, relaxation, love. They skirted the dancing group near the music. They walked past candlelit tables of men feeding women tidbits on forks, or women spooning bites past their husband’s waiting lips.

Soon enough, they reached their lounging neighbors. Tiffany noticed them first. “Rose!” She exclaimed, overjoyed. She and Michael stood to meet them; Rose and Tiffany hugging while Sean and Michael shook hands and patted arms.

“We’re so glad you two made it!” Tiffany exclaimed. She looked over at Michael, who nodded and smiled. She treated the encounter like an accidental run-in at the grocery store.

“So, this is real?” Rose asked, shyly. It seemed an odd question to pose with the physical evidence of their friends nearby. Tiffany and Michael, however, only laughed.

“Don’t worry,” Michael said to Sean. “We didn’t believe it when we got here two years ago.” He shoved Sean playfully on his arm. “Too good to be true, huh?” Sean smiled weakly.

“He nearly punched Stephan when we first found it,” Tiffany added solemnly.

“Oh. Yeah,” her husband remembered. He looked down. “That was embarrassing.”

“Anyway, it’s real. It’s true.” Tiffany reassured Rose. She turned to Sean. “Some couple set it up years ago, according to what we can find out. Stephan says it’s not like a TV show, but there’s gotta be something sci-fi about how it all works!” She laughed.

“Yeah,” Michael agreed. He looked thoughtful. “Honestly, we don’t really care anymore. It’s just nice to have a break.” He reached back to pick up his drink. Condensation ran invitingly down the sides, and a small umbrella rested on its very top. He raised it in mock toast, and added, “Go on, and enjoy yourselves. If you remember us, we’ll head back together when you’re done.”

“But, Michael,” Tiffany reminded him, “We only have three children. We can’t stay as long as they can.”

Rose blushed again. Sean looked indecisive.

Michael chuckled a bit, and drank a sip from his fluted cup. “Well, if you want to head back in a few hours, let us know and we’ll go together.” He winked at Sean.

Dismissed and convinced, Rose waved a friendly goodbye. “Thank you,” she told them.

“Enjoy!” Tiffany and Michael chorused, then smiled at each other, sat, and continued their private conversation.

“Sean,” Rose said, as they meandered toward the inviting pool. “Hmm?” He asked.

“I’ve been thinking that we could spend an hour or two here, then go back.” He paused, and his eyes met hers as his left hand found her right. A million questions flitted between them. “That way, we could have fun, and be sure we get back to the kids in case there is no time thingie,” she explained.

Sean thought it over, then said, “I say we try to make a run for it and see if anyone stops us now.” He looked around furtively, as if the swaying trees and happy couples were set to pounce at any moment. “Ready? Let’s go!” He took off toward the fence with the sign, pulling Rose and her flying hair behind him.

They reached their goal unmolested. In fact, except for a few entertained glances their way, no one had seemed to even notice. Rose shrugged, but then Sean was off running back toward the beach.

She followed, caught in some of the flying sand of his barefoot sprint. He reached the cave with Rose puffing somewhat just behind. The door to the garage was still ajar. Rose could see their battered minivan skulking in the shadow of boxes beyond. Sean reached out to the door.

“Sean?” She ventured. He turned, and paused at her flushed face, disheveled hair, and pleading eyes. Automatically, he stepped closer and put his arms around her again. Rose reddened, but caught her breath to continue.

“What if it’s all real, and it disappears if we go through the door again?” She searched his face, practically begging for assurance.

He considered. “If it all goes away, I will take you somewhere like this as soon as we possibly can,” he promised. She smiled and looked shyly away, curtaining her face. He once again gently brushed her flowing hair aside; gently kissed her lovely cheek.

“Okay?” He asked. Rose nodded.

Taking a deep breath, she pulled out of his arms and walked toward the dilapidated brown door. Sean hurried to walk beside her. They entered the musty garage, then immediately turned to look back. The beach was still there, the palms were still swaying, the ocean still shushing against the shore.

“Quick, go check the time!” She told Sean. Realization entered his eyes beneath mirrored lenses, and he sprung to the door of the house. His movements were impeded slightly at the return of his former bulk. Peeking through the garage side of the kitchen door, he announced, “Eleven o’clock. Is that what time it was when we left?”

Rose considered, then remembered the beeping clock as they crossed the kitchen. “Now it’s Eleven-oh-one,” Sean amended.

“Then it works!” Rose called. “Unless it’s been twelve hours or something,” she added, thoughtfully. Sean looked back at her, then ran to join her again.

“Let’s try it, then,” he said, nodding toward the waiting beach. “It’s worth it to me to make you happy.” She looked up at his face, so familiar and so loving.

“I’m happy just to be with you,” she said. He smiled a half-smile in response. “But, I do like how I look on that side of the door,” she added playfully. Sean’s smile spread.

“Me, too,” he laughed. “I mean, about me, too.” He took her hand. “Maybe we should check out one of those rooms before running back this time,” he teased. Ignoring her scandalized look; he walked through the door once again, pulling Rose happily along.

The Garage Between Worlds, Part I

“Mahm! Maaahhhmm!” A bump jarred the pictures against the wall, and a boy squealed.

Rose sighed, and tried to keep reading. She was unable to actually see the words on the page, however, as the noises next door escalated.

“Gimme back Staceeeeey!” A girl screamed. Rose heard audible scrambling, and thudding. Crying. Footsteps.

Her door burst open, hitting a well-formed groove on its splintered surface against her dresser. The baby in the nearby crib hiccuped in his sleep at the sound.

Rose lowered her book to see Johanna’s wet, red face and frustrated body standing in the doorway. Sighing, Rose set the open pages onto her crumpled bedspread. She nudged her long, brownish hair off a shoulder.

Jackson came up quickly behind his sister, also angry and crying. “Mom, Johanna wouldn’t get off my -” he immediately began.

“That’s not true! You had my Stacey! -” Johanna defended loudly, as Jackson cut her off with,”I wouldn’t’ve had your doll if -” Their accusations mingled rapidly, shrilly.

Shoving toys, clothes, and the comforter aside, Rose sat up and pushed herself off the bed. Two steps across the crowded floor brought her within reach of the caterwauling children. She gently pushed them apart, whisper-yelling, “Jack, Jo! Quiet! The baby’s sleeping!”

Jackson and Johanna stopped yelling, contenting themselves with making faces when they thought they could get away with it. Rose sighed, and pulled them into her room somewhat. “Where is your dad?” She asked them.

Jackson shrugged and looked at the TV, mutedly flashing a commercial from the worn dresser-top. “He went downstairs,” Johanna supplied, also turning like a moth to the screen. She pulled a raggedy plastic doll from her brother’s limp grip. Rose sighed again.

“Jackson,” she began. He grunted. “Jack, why were you even in the girls’ room?” He didn’t respond. Tugging at his arm, Rose repeated her question.
“I dunno,” he supplied.

She tried Johanna. “Johanna?” Her daughter turned, questioningly. “Jo, why was Jack in your room?”

Johanna paused, seeming to search inside her brain for an answer. She also shrugged. “‘Cause he’s a jerk,” she concluded.

“Am not,” Jackson countered, distractedly.

“Are, too,” Johanna responded.

“Am not. You are,” Jackson said, never taking his eyes from the screen.

Rose walked over and switched the television off, breaking the spell. The two children looked up at her in surprise. “It’s way past bedtime,” she announced, “And you have school tomorrow. And, your brothers and sisters are sleeping.”

Her son made a disgusted face and cast around for something else to look at. He flopped on the bed, on top of her book. “Okay, Mommy,” her daughter said sweetly. She skipped around a shoe pile and out of the room, Stacey Doll swinging from her side.

Rose looked down at Jackson for a minute, hands on tired hips. He didn’t shift.

“All right, all right,” she said. She sat next to his pretendedly-prone body. She saw his face automatically grin, though he squinted his eyes closed. Rose ran a hand tiredly through her locks, loosening a few knots and positioning it out of her face. Leaning down, she reached around his middle and added, “Let’s go to bed, Jack.”

Grunting, sighing, and heaving, she managed to slide him off and onto his feet. He teetered, threatening to fall back down. “Jack, stop,” Rose chastened, in her best Mom Voice. He opened innocent eyes to check how serious she might be.

Some seriousness, tiredness, or hopelessness got through to him. With the air of an always-obedient child, he smiled, wriggled from her grip, said, “’Night, Mom,” and ran from the room.

Rose blinked, then realized something. She walked to the doorway. “Your room, Jack,” she yelled as quietly as she could. Giggling, Jackson retreated from the end of the hallway and into his own room. Hopefully, Rose thought, he’d actually make it to bed.

She paused, lingering. She looked back at her bed where One Man’s Desire lay closed and crumpled on the blankets, thanks to Jackson’s intentional resistance. She suddenly didn’t want to continue reading about people with no responsibilities, who somehow managed to travel to the Caribbean, and had endless spending money. The book couldn’t yell louder than children, smell better than the dirty clothes piles, or paint a picture of spaciousness amidst her bedroom clutter.

She scanned the clutter. Shoes rested in unmarried clumps near dropped pants, clumped socks, and old toys. Clean shirts and underwear hugged dirty friends between and beneath the shoes. A recent attempt by three-year-old Missy to feed herself had left everything with a light sheen of Cheerios.

Rose considered cleaning, again. Her eyes moved past the floor to the bed, the crowded dressers, to Luke’s sleeping form in the old crib. She distractedly combed at her head with her fingers again. Luke was such a good sleeper, and so peaceful to watch. Exhaustion won out for Rose.

She decided to go find Sean. He was supposed to have been to bed an hour ago, and she missed him.

Rose turned her bedside light off and headed out toward the stairs. It wasn’t an easy journey in the dark, but she didn’t want Johanna, Jackson, Luke, or the other sleeping children to suddenly wake. “Ouch,” she whispered; then, “Ooh;” then, “Uh,” as various invisible floor litter poked her feet through their fraying socks.

She felt along the wall of the hall, listening for any non-sleeping sounds from the two kids’ rooms on this level. They seemed silent.

A sudden gap beneath her outstretched foot told Rose she’d reached the stairs. Her groping hands found the wall just inside. She flicked the dim, bare bulb on. There was no use putting her life at risk for sleeping children when it came to the stairs.

She carefully navigated the maze of puzzles, dolls, socks, dress-up heels, and forgotten food crumbs that led downward. Her long hair fell from one side to the other as she peered ’round her midsection to see where each foot would land.

Her slow descent brought her to the crowded, dark family room. Squinting, she realized she’d left her glasses upstairs by the lamp. She peered around the old bookshelf, cringing as she stepped solidly on a Lego piece.

There, at the end of the room: a small light; a phone screen backlight reflecting from eyeglasses. Sean.

Her heart fluttered at the sight and her stomach flipped. Though they both looked a bit different now, Rose still felt those fleeting feelings she first had when she was sixteen.

He had been seventeen, studiously watching some game on television -just as he was studying a different sort of game now. When she’d walked in with his younger sister, he’d turned immediately. Their eyes had met. He’d smiled.

Sean continued staring at his phone.

Rose picked her way over a carpet of toys toward him. He sat slouched, his body curved and sunk against the couch. His phone was propped atop his bulging stomach. His face frowned at what it was watching.

Rose waited. Sean watched his game.

“Sean?” She finally ventured. His shrouded blue eyes blinked and looked up in surprise. A thousand potential phrases crossed Rose’s mind as she saw the tired lines of Sean’s face, the strained state of his gaze. She smiled, to comfort him, and decided on, “I just wondered if you were outside because the light’s on in the garage shed.”

Startled, Sean frowned. “No, I’m here,” he said. “I didn’t even go out there after work.” He glanced back at his screen for a few seconds, then lifted a strong, heavy hand to the side of his phone. The family room dimmed to near-darkness in the sudden absence of backlight.

“Maybe it was Daniel,” Rose suggested. Despite wishing for undivided attention, she felt sorry for interrupting Sean’s down time.

Sean hefted his large frame from its cushioned groove. He pushed his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose. Pocketing the phone, he then took Rose’s hand. He smiled at her in the half-light sneaking down from the stairwell. “Don’t worry, Rosebud. I’ll go turn it off and lock up.”

“Thanks, Dear,” she responded, relieved. She really did think Daniel had left the light on, or maybe Sharon. Since it was the tool shed in question, she suspected Daniel more. He’d been talking about building a pinewood derby car already.

Down the basement hallway leading away from the family room, however, the lights were dark. Daniel, the other boys, and the other girls’ bedroom lay in that direction. If Daniel had been outside, it hadn’t been recently.

Sean and Rose navigated the staircase upwards, the tiny great room, and then the kitchen. Sean’s steel-toed work boots creaked and clicked as the sticky laminate flooring complained of people crossing it at such a late hour. Rose’s socks stuck softly, without accompanying groans.

All was silent in the sleeping house besides the floor they’d just crossed. Rose sighed in relief.

Sean peered out the flimsy curtains that separated the kitchen door from its neighboring garage. A door with a window should not lay between a garage and house; it was just another quirk of the old place.

Sure enough, a sliver of light ran beneath the shed door in the corner. Sean could see it between boxes and the minivan, just barely. Rose peered over Sean’s broad shoulder. She smelled his Old Spice; she shivered at teenage summertime memories.

“I was going to go turn it off, then I got busy with dinner and the kids…” her voice trailed off.

The tiny digital clock on the counter beeped as the hour changed to 11:00 p.m.
“Don’t worry, Rose. I said I’d be happy to lock up.” Sean unlocked the deadbolt and carefully pulled the door open. The loose handle threatened to come out in his hand. “Gotta fix that,” he mumbled, as he had for the last month.

He clumped down the cement stairs, his mind on loose doorknobs. Rose tread quietly just behind, looking furtively left and right in the crowded garage space. She pulled the door closed carefully, to avoid fumes getting into the house. They squeezed between the van and wall, ending just in front of the shed door.

It was shut. “Sean,” Rose began. She hadn’t remembered the light inside being orange. Had one of the kids changed out the bulb? Douglas, perhaps?

“Hm?” Sean answered absently, as he turned the knob and pushed inward.

Whatever Rose had intended to ask him flew completely out of her mind as she stepped closely behind him again, and stopped. They both stared.

Where a narrow, gas-fumed space had before housed paint cans, tools, and dead spiders; Sean and Rose now saw -the mouth of a cave? They stood in their garage, yet also stood at the entrance of a small, round, rocky cavern.

Sean stepped forward in shock, Rose gripping his elbow. The cave opened onto a wide, shaded swath of sand. Palm fronds swept above and around their startled figures. A brightly-colored bird soared across the sunshine in surprise. Gently moving air brushed across their skin in a lightly warm embrace. The endless, engaging song of forever-lapping ocean played just a few hundred yards down the beach from their toes.

Their toes? Unconsciously, Sean had continued into what had been the shed. Rose had followed, not wanting to let go of Sean for anything. Simultaneously, they looked down at their feet -and could clearly see them.

Not only were Rose’s feet bare, but she was wearing her swimsuit with a wrap. Not only was she wearing her swimsuit and wrap, they appeared brand-new. She appeared brand-new. “I’m skinny!” She exclaimed in excitement.

“Well,” she amended, as she turned this way and that, sweeping each shoulder with her hair in process, “I’m skinnier.” She smiled at Sean, and realized she could see him clearly although she was still not wearing her glasses. He, too, was thinner, and not wearing glasses or day clothes. But what struck her first was how much more awake he appeared. The tired lines were gone, the slumping manner, the hopelessness he’d often seemed to walk around with -all gone.

“Sean, you look …handsome,” Rose said, and blushed. Sean smiled, and took her hand. He brushed some of her hair away, and tucked it gently behind her ear. “You look beautiful,” he told her sincerely, and made the blush run more deeply. Rose was certain even her neck was red.

She turned and looked back at the door they’d come through, biting her lip in indecision. Sean followed her gaze. The door was still ajar, and still the shed door. Its peeling brown paint was comforting, though this derelict condition had reminded them of necessary repairs in the past.

Just then, they heard the faint sound of actual music. A guitar, perhaps? Rose now looked at Sean, a question written in her trusting eyes and worried eyebrows. Sean shrugged, then said, “I’ll go check it out.”

He pulled away from Rose, but she tugged at his arm. He turned back. “Don’t leave me here alone,” she pleaded.

Sean stepped near, closing the space between them. Drawing his arm from her light grip; he put it around her back, around her soft, flowing hair. He could feel her body; smell her fresh, young scent he knew so well. Rose felt the tension of passion in his strong arms as Sean pulled her abruptly into his embrace and kissed her deeply.

Rose relaxed in the tropical breeze. The sand warmly cushioned her tired feet and the birds, waves, and rustling leaves sang only of paradise. She drank his love.

To Be Continued Tomorrow…

Invaluable

Self-esteem is a tricky little bugger.

I’ve always had issues with mine; I mean, with the small amount that I even allow to exist.

Perhaps it’s my childhood? My sometimes non-religious views? A realistic attitude about what I actually provide to the world?

After reading a very good article written from the perspective of an artist this morning, I attended a local Mothers Of Preschoolers group my neighbor told me about. The article, about devaluing, opened my mind. The MOPs, whereat a fellow mother honestly detailed her life with anxiety and depression (and OCD and body image issues and …well, you get the idea), opened my heart.

“I’m sure men and boys experience it too, I know they do, but in my personal experience it’s women who consistently undervalue their work, their time and their talent and it’s women who desperately seek approval by making themselves small,” Johanna (the artist I mentioned) notes.

Caroline, the brave MOPs woman with constant struggles, spoke of a lifetime of hiding. She thought others would only want to see the perfect her, the one she wasn’t ashamed of. She was flawed.

Although I have not been diagnosed with a specific condition (yet), I felt like these women were speaking to me, or even about me.

Woman Alone

“…I had subconsciously believed that valuing myself meant devaluing others which would make them feel bad which would make them not like me.” Johanna continued, “I had kept myself in a nice little box that would be no obvious threat to anyone.”

I feel my own box. Like a bad mime, I keep people away from the invisible walls with my facial expressions, body language, and comments. I push away, instead of invite in. Sometimes the box is literally my car, my house, or my closet.

Sadly, Caroline felt similarly. She spoke of assuming her own family wouldn’t want to know this dark side. She described herself thinking how her husband and child would be better off without her in their lives.

This is an extreme position to take, a sure sign that you need to talk to a counselor.

It is also one I understand, and have felt. Blearily, tiredly, I’ve looked around and seen the only problem is me. No self-esteem. The only logical parts able to stop anything remind me that death would screw up my children psychologically, or that I might fail and be stuck as a vegetable.

If I was truly logical, however, I would see that my thinking is, as Caroline said, twisted.

I have spoken with a therapist, a counselor. When I mentioned how deeply I’d allowed myself to sink into self-loathing, she agreed the thinking was wrong. “You need to see a doctor,” she said. “You need to test your hormone levels,” she said.

We wonderful, emotional women are extremely down on ourselves, and it’s often because of hormones.

In fact, hormones can be blamed for everything. Of course, despite my pleas to my husband, we cannot simply be rid of them. They are essential to other feelings, and to basic body functions.

Woman Sun

Aside from functionality or regulation, I would also like to applaud an approach Johanna details partway through her crafting article.

She wrote the post to talk about an art submission to Craft Town, and how she had mentored applicants for this event in the past. “(A)bout six years ago, I banned my students from saying the word sorry, and we did a little experiment. They had to present their work without saying a single negative word about it, and throughout the exercise they would have absolutely no encouragement or feedback from me whatsoever. So no negativity from them and no approval from me.”

The results? “What happened shocked me. Some students weren’t even able to begin speaking. They looked at the floor, they took deep breaths, they took several minutes just to find words to begin with that wouldn’t include any sort of apology. Some were even brought to tears by the sheer frustration of not being able to criticise themselves.”

Can you make something, gift an item, talk about yourself -without devaluing? I cannot.

Well, I can. But, I don’t. I believe I should try.

Why? Fabulous results. From Johanna, one last time:

There would be a change in tone and volume that was so moving, so utterly inspiring that I can’t even describe it to you. They would speak without apology, explanation or expectation, about what they loved about their own talent. Then they would realise that no one was laughing at them, no one was horrified, no one had stopped liking them, and that they weren’t in trouble, then their voice would get stronger and clearer and calmer.  And when they shone, something would happen to the other students in the room, and to me;  we’d feel just a little bit closer to our own value because we could see someone else connecting with theirs.

And, what about Caroline from the mothers’ group? She admits to still struggling. However, as a plug for the group, her help came from joining MOPs but also from opening up. Instead of apologizing, hiding, pretending, she wore herself on her sleeve.

We are valuable women, valuable people.

Self-esteem has to come from within, my paid friend tells me. Johanna and Caroline have given me some tools to begin with. I hope we’ve helped you as well.

Writing Prompt: Badlands

Write a short story and it must contain the following words somewhere: downtown, graveyard, passenger, decoder, suave, badlands.

Photo

It was a typical late afternoon for K. Jones: dusty, dry, barren. Even when she wasn’t standing as she was then –hands folded across her chest surveying the badlands– K. never shook the feeling of orange. Bits and pieces of windblown world caught at the edges of her tied handkerchief and protective sunglasses. She’d find them in every crevice of her equipment later.

*Jones* her left hip crackled. *Jones, Bwishda gurb donet!*

Quickly unfolding from her stoic stance, K. grabbed at the radio hanging to her side. She deftly activated its decoder switch in time to translate the end of the garbled message to “…Station 5 at Sundown, over.” She waited for the message to repeat, and was rewarded with silence. K. rolled her eyes. How difficult did her team find simple tasks, exactly? –Tasks like following certain protocol so a person had time to grab her radio and get the whole message, for example?

K. brought the mouthpiece near her face, squeezed her thick gloves over Respond, and enunciated, “Jones here.” She waited the required five seconds before continuing, “Repeat full command, over.”

Static. Then, she heard an impatient, “Smith here.” Roughly three seconds followed, if K. counted generously. “Assigned rounds completed. Will meet at Station 5 at Sundown, over.”

The setting sun pierced through a cloudbreak and caught K.’s glasses at an annoying angle. She squinted, repositioned. Shading her eyes, she peered off toward the general direction of the station referenced. It was either past the butte, down the dirt path, and near a distant mountain; or she was experiencing miragelike imagery.

Shifting the radio from one bundled hand to another, she applied the Respond button once again. “Jones here.” Five seconds. “Request transport en route. Will wait at Camp Point One near butte, over.”

K. used her right boot to shift adobe-colored sand over the top of her left boot as she waited for an answer. “Smith here.” K. mentally counted to two before Smith immediately continued, “Will meet as requested. Watch your back. Over and out.”

Though no one could see her expressions, K. smiled a wry, experienced look. She wasn’t novice enough to laugh aloud at Smith’s suggestions, however. Confident and skilled she might be, but anything could change on the swirling sunset landscape of these uninhabited zones. –Of these usually uninhabited zones, K. mentally amended.

She glanced right, left, behind, up, down, forward. She carefully deactivated the decoder option on the radio and returned it, swinging, to the side of her ocher pant leg. Following protocol, she checked the readings on her instruments. They were set to alert her if any anomaly appeared. As such, K. would have to remember to tone her tracker down a bit once she reached Camp One. She didn’t want to impulsively vaporize her ride just because of nerves.

She hefted straps, instruments, and packs from one sore area to another and began walking. Fingers of moving sand sank in a circular divot around each of her carefully-placed footfalls. The oranged sky outlined her bulky frame as airborne copper dust pushed and pulled at her tired body. She was regretting the rash, confident decision she’d made to patrol on foot.

A shape suddenly shadowed the glaring natural light and K. automatically reacted. In less than a second, laden as she was, she’d assumed a fighting crouch facing the unknown risk from the West. She breathed heavily beneath the kerchief, fogging her vision with each exhalation.

It was only a landform. Her heartbeat slowed in much less time than it had accelerated.

In fact, she knew this rock. It was a sort of gateway to an area they’d nicknamed The Graveyard. Beyond the tall Stele lay a carefully silent sort of valley decorated with small, oddly-placed stones. When K. and her team had first encountered the area, outlining its features by swinging desert-dusted beams, they’d all been struck by a creepy cemetery familiarity.

Cutting through The Graveyard also shaved five minutes off her trek to the rendezvous butte. K. looked at its shady entrance, then glanced toward the area she could go in order to intentionally not walk through there. Up a scrambling red-rock slope and down through a very wide, open area of squat, wide rocks they’d named Downtown ran her longer option.

The sun seemed to sink more quickly. Graveyard it was.
Readjusting straps once again to cover for the unaccountable fluttering in her stomach, K. stalked determinedly into the tiny valley.

Red-yellow motes magically suspended among the headstone dirt and stoneforms K. suddenly remembered. The whole valley reminded her of an old toy her grandfather had let her play with decades ago. Whenever she had shaken the glass ball in a pudgy hand, swirling white pieces had danced and then floated slowly back down upon a small, smiling child on a sled.

The badlands were no winterscape, however. K. felt she was tiptoeing through the polar opposite of a cheerful, safe sledding holiday. The dead, hot air was oddly still in The Graveyard, but still omnipresent. The particles may have been suspended in this sudden wind shelter, but they never disappeared either.

K. felt a small pulse from her chest-mounted sensor. Her heartbeat increased once again as natural terror primed her body for action. That sensor could only activate when it sensed movement of a living thing –other than her and her team members. K. increased her pace, sweeping her view around and attempting to keep her back to the randomly-placed rocks.

The pulse grew stronger as she neared the center of The Graveyard. K. tried desperately to see what was triggering it. She peered from one shadow to another in the dimming evening red-orange that barely penetrated her current location. Her mind constantly tricked her in the unfamiliar crowd of stones and sweeping sands. Imagination aside, everything appeared empty.

She continued her slow, hyper-sensitive, circular tread to the opposite side of The Graveyard. The pulse grew faint, and died. If nighttime and her ride were not so imminent, K. would be required to search until the source had been found. Fortunately, she thought, the rules clearly stated that no parties were to be on The Badlands after sundown. She could thank P. Brown for that, if he had still been around to thank.

K. stalked up the sandy incline exit, trying to keep everywhere in sight –especially the area she’d just left. She still saw no movement. Another sensor, one near her wrist, began to vibrate instead. Looking up, she saw the butte just ahead and to the right. Her wrist sensor indicated that a vehicle was nearby, hopefully the one carrying J. Smith.

Despite the landscape and unnatural gravity, K. increased her pace. She came out into the buffeting wind and tinted sunlight once again. The sun really was dropping quickly, as it always did when teetering on the edge of night. She could hear an offroad motor rumbling, even over the overpowering shrillness of moving air.

The pulse on her chest began again, very faintly. Stumbling in surprise, K. turned back to The Graveyard. No, she told herself and her trained senses. No, she did not see light in that vale. And yet, something that was not orange, not the setting sun, and not just a rock was moving. In fact, it was moving nearer. Quickly.

Like dreams where she tried to run and felt instead like she was slogging through mud, K. tried desperately to sprint the few hundred feet to where she knew Smith was waiting. Sunset sand particles flew from her muted, skittering footsteps. Her view was again fogged and unfogged with her heavy breathing. The jeeplike transport was there around the bend; Smith turned her direction.

He stood suddenly; yelled in surprise. She knew better than to look behind, but real or imagined noises pursuing told her she wasn’t going to make it to that passenger seat.

She looked up at Smith again, noting his suave, steady figure. He was the only one she knew who didn’t resemble a rambling, bloated marshmallow in his desert suit. Tiredly, she saw he had raised something. She was nearly to the rear tire when she realized he held their one allowable defense since Command had limited firearms to lower ranks two years previously.

K. heard the small *fzzzz* noise of the tiny laser pistol and watched, distantly, from some other place, as it floated over her left shoulder and made contact with something directly behind her.

“Aiiieargghhhhhgggggguuggh!” Something inhuman reacted.

K. reached the side of the transport. Smith dropped his gun to drag her panting form onto the seat, then immediately sat and gunned the engine. They shot forward in the dying twilight, scattering badland sand and rock sharply outward from the squealing tires.

Bracing herself unsteadily against the jouncing framework, K. realized she’d made it. Still breathing heavily, she turned to the dark outline of her teammate. He stared ahead, his face determined.

“Thank you, Jim,” she said, though first names were against protocol. Rules were irrelevant now.

Inspector Mère

“Now let me get this straight,” Inspector Mère drawled, as she extracted a pencil and notepad from an inside pocket. “You say you were nowhere near the accused at the time?”

She peered down at the small man, her left ear raising as her left eyebrow lifted in a questioning expression. She pursed her lips and waited.

“Well, no, I didn’t say I wasn’t by him. I said he came up to me when I was working, and then he shoved me down and said I took his Lego piece.” Imploring eyes raised to Mère’s face, innocence emanating from the diminutive body.

“Hmmm,” Mère supplied. She made a note. “So, you were near the accused, yet you did nothing to provoke him?” The question wrote itself across her features yet again.

The accuser paused to consider. “Ye-e-e-es,” he slowly replied.

“Mmm-hmm,” the inspector noted aloud, as her pencil noted her observations on her pad. Scratch, scratch, scratch, it said.

“Thank you for your testimony. You may be dismissed,” she finally instructed, to excuse the fidgeting youth. He stopped kicking his own toes and ran out of the room.

“Next, please,” she announced to the door he had exited through. Another young man came in, adjusting his clothes and face.

“And, what testimony can you provide?” Inspector Mère inquired. On her paper, she wrote Accused, and underlined it. Then she stuck the end of the pencil barely between her lips and studied his face intently.

“I was playing downstairs and saw that he,” the accused paused, to point toward the open door, “That he had messed up my sets again. I came upstairs to talk to him, and he smiled at me and wouldn’t show me what was in his pocket.” He took a deep breath, then continued with, “And he stuck his tongue out at me.”

“I did not!” Piped a voice from the hall.

“Did so!” Retorted the youth in front of her.

“That’s enough,” Mère loudly stated, across their continued volley of accusations. An uncomfortable cease-fire silence fell. She looked at the accused, closely. He seemed to be intently working on a neutral facial expression.

“So, your statement reads that you attempted conversation with your accuser, that he refused to show you evidence, and that he mocked you.” The inspector looked at his face as she read and wrote, ensuring that all information was correct and met his approval.

He considered, then nodded.

“Accuser, please return. It is time for my report and judgment,” Mère called.

The first young man sidled back inside the room, evidently from a waiting place just outside the doorway. He walked forward hopefully, confidently. He stopped and stood near the other youth, just beyond his arm’s reach.

“I have listened to both accounts of the incident, and have made my decision,” Inspector Mère began. “Since descriptions varied, I have no choice but to assume error with each.”

The boys began complaining immediately; but she held up a hand, and a stern face. The noise eventually quieted; mutinous expressions waited for her to continue.

“Eric,” Mère addressed the accuser, “You were innocently working, then were physically assaulted by the accused.” She studied young Eric, who appeared slightly confused. “You were not doing anything, and Tom pushed you,” she translated, tapping the pencil against the open notepad. Eric’s face cleared and he nodded. Tom’s face clouded.

“Tom,” Mère turned to the accused, “You uncovered evidence of property damage, sought restitution, and were denied.” She studied her notes, then added, “And were insulted with a rude facial gesture.” Raising her gaze past the paper to meet Tom’s gaze, she was met with his somewhat suspicious nod.

“Therefore, Eric, you are instructed to turn out your pockets.” Inspector Mère said abruptly to the first boy. Surprised into action, he reached into the pockets of his jeans. Making an unreadable expression; he withdrew a blue rubber band, gum wrapper, half a plastic army man, two pennies, a smooth garden pebble, and two red Lego bricks attached by a blue hinge piece.

“That’s mine!” Exploded from Tom, who shot a hand out to take the Legos immediately. Mère was forced to intercede, stepping forward between them and retrieving the pieces herself.

“The evidence speaks, Eric,” she told Eric reprovingly. Lacking the sense to appear guilty, Eric pouted a glare in response.

“Now, Tom,” Mère said to the other, depositing three Legos into his hand, “You are required, by law, to make verbal restitution for injuring a family member.” She looked expectantly at Tom, waiting. Behind her back, Eric imitated her countenance, including the same raised eyebrows.

It was Eric’s turn to glower. He gladly did so, till he caught Inspector Mère’s eye. He looked down. “Sorry,” he mumbled to his hands.

Mère studied one child, then the other. “Both parties may be excused, on the condition that each promises to adhere to family guidelines of behavior,” she instructed to each disgruntled face. Quietly, tensely, the boys broke away and returned to their previous tasks.

Inspector Mère sighed, closed the notepad, and pocketed it with her pencil.

“Case closed,” she declared.

Cafeteria Plan

“Next!” An average-sized man of medium hue lifted his neutral expression from his clipboard to the never-ending line of anxious, excited, impatient adults. A woman shuffled eagerly past him, and he made a mark on his paper.

I was nearly there. I could read a few words on his data sheet whenever he absently swung the clipboard down to his side. The information wasn’t entirely intelligible to me, but was some distraction from the endless waiting. And this was the Express Line.

Soon, I counted three people in front. Then, two. Then, one. The man didn’t even need to say, “Next,” and I was at his elbow. His face may have finally registered a different expression, but it was almost too fleeting to tell for certain. His right hand pointed to the dark hallway, his left gripped the clipboard, his eyes scanned his list.

I moved forward, finally. The wait felt interminable, though I knew I had only stood for about eight months. I had watched others be directed to the Ten Year Line, or even be turned away with a dismissive, heartless shake of an administrative head. I had reminded myself of these facts whenever impatience had crept in.

The hallway opened into a large room. In here, the walls were bare and curved upwards to meet in a peak high above my head. The floor was a clean, nondescript, waxed laminate reminiscent of the kitchen floor of my childhood home. Glass-fronted serving areas lined the far wall, and the room was full of queuing people. Chattering, shuffling human noises were amplified in the reflective, unadorned space.

At least this line moved more quickly, I noticed. Perhaps that was due to more workers attending to everyone. As I watched, a man at the start of the counters took a carrier from the stack. Pushing it along the grooved metal track, he stopped briefly at each opening and spoke with a helper there. Soon, he had his order complete and was walking away peering closely at it. He had finished in roughly five minutes.

I stepped forward after the woman in front of me did. She kept bobbing up on her toes, though she was only a bit shorter than the man in front of her. Whenever a new person started his order, her eyes followed his progress closely, hungrily. I realized that she had to be at least fifteen years my senior, though I was not always good at guessing age. I did much better guessing which musical instrument someone had played. I studied the back of her head and her bouncing curls. Definitely in orchestra, I decided.

Very soon, it was Curly’s turn. She snatched a carrier and plunked it down eagerly on the metal. She moved as if someone might suddenly cut in front of her; her left hand gripped the handle such that Death himself would have difficulty prising it from her.

I could hear some of the words the workers asked her, but not her responses. Those string players are so soft-spoken! “Boy,” “blessing,” laughter, and something about “energy” was all I caught. She was nearing the end. I suddenly felt panic.

A woman sitting at the first opening turned my way. She looked vaguely like my favorite aunt, though without the sarcastic twist to her mouth. She nodded helpfully at the rack of baby carriers, then smiled warmly as my hands reached forward and removed one. I heard the clunk as I automatically placed it on the stainless steel track before her.

“Now, dear. This is where we decide if you get one or more. Most people get one, but you’ll need another carrier if that’s not the case.” She smiled as a slight concern settled over my features. Then, she looked at the display in front of her. A second later, she looked up and smiled again. “Just one, dear. Congratulations.” She nodded and I moved on to the left.

This space held an older man who didn’t look like anyone I knew, unless I’d seen a frog-sloth hybrid at a zoo in my youth. He smiled as well, his wide mouth nearly reaching his small ears. “Now, we get to see if you’re having a boy or a girl.” He tapped his screen, then added, “Do you have a preference?” I shook my head. I didn’t see the point of having a preference if I couldn’t actually choose. He smiled a smaller smile, then announced, “Boy! Congratulations.” He nodded and I pushed my carrier down the row.

“You get physical attributes here,” barked a woman, before I was even fully in front of her. She tapped her button and drummed the fingers of her left hand. “Small, slight build; brown eyes; brown hair-” She paused to glance up and note my dark eyes and hair, then read, “A bit pigeon-toed, attached earlobes, photoptarmosis, webbed toes, etc.” She ripped off a printed page and handed it to me. I was able to see a gray body outline with mapped notes before she snapped, “Next!”

“Here is your list of other attributes,” an airy voice said, at the next counter. The voice belonged to what had to have been the actress who played Glinda in “The Wizard of Oz.” She waved a dainty hand of sparkly nails toward my left, dismissing me as effectively as her grouchy neighbor -but somehow more politely and regally.

I barely had time to read “Precocious, indifferent, hyperactive, intelligent,” randomly from a long paragraph, before someone clearing his throat interrupted me. I looked up to see an older man, who looked like my husband’s Orthodox Mormon grandfather, looking at me sternly at about the top line of his glasses – just as my husband’s grandfather did.

His left finger ran across his display as he read along:
Congratulations on becoming a parent. Your child will now be assigned random quirks and foibles. 1. He will delight in challenge. 2. He will avoid uncomfortable situations. 3. He will finish a fight. 4. He will leave a trail wherever he goes. 5. He will be responsible. 6. He will get frustrated at correction. 7. He will seek deep relationships. 8. He will not be a picky eater. 9. He will doubt. 10. He will become hyperactive when happy, or after swallowing Benadryl. 11. He will sleep well, never for more than seven hours. 12. He will respond well to reason.

He handed another paper to me, which I numbly added to the first two. I was feeling overwhelmed. He cleared his throat again, dismissing me.

“Did you go ‘natural?'” a voice behind me asked. I turned to see a nurse holding some sort of machine.

“Um.. ” I began, taken aback. I gathered my thoughts, then said, “I was going to go as long as I could and then decide.”

“Right,” the nurse said. She had a sarcastic lift to her mouth.
“Here ya go, then,” she said, then quickly applied the end of her machine to my exposed forearm. I gasped as intense pain flashed across my midsection. Forever later, or maybe a few minutes, I straightened up and hobbled to the last window.

“Here you are, dear!” A nurse enthused, as she briskly deposited a new baby into my unencumbered right arm. “Have a nice day!” She clipped out like a perky robot, then turned to service the next customer.

I looked down at my sleeping child in disbelief.

“Exit’s over here, dear.” Another grandmother-type was pointing to the door beyond her. Sure enough, a green EXIT sign glowed over it.

I gathered my papers, carrier, and child more closely to my body. Stunned at the suddenness of responsibility, I stumbled forward, then out the door.

Mr. Right and Mrs. Wrong

“I like parks,” Tom cheerfully observed. He sat back, resting his hands supportively in the thick grass and closing his eyes in the warm spring sunshine.

“Mmm-hmmm,” Abigail responded, in a noncommittal way. She squinted into the bright light, feeling wetness seeping through the small blanket and into her jeans from the moist lawn. A slight breeze carried a tangible whiff of dog feces from somewhere nearby.

Tom turned to Abigail, opening his blue eyes to stare into her brown ones. Unfortunately, the angle of her face made the sun reflect off her glasses and he couldn’t quite see them. He shifted, then smiled as their eyes finally met and her face brightened.

“There are just so many things in life to be excited about,” Tom continued, confidently. He’d finished his first week at a new job, one he’d selected after all the companies he’d applied for offered him a position. “Like, today, for example,” he said. “It’s a beautiful Saturday, and I have you to spend all afternoon with.”

Abigail recoiled slightly at the sincere praise. She had spent that morning at yet another interview. A whole month had passed since the last company she’d worked for had decided to downsize. She found herself feeling unwanted lately after so much rejection. “Yeah,” she said, attempting to echo his positive tones. “I’m glad you planned this, Tom.”

Frowning somewhat, Tom amended, “Oh, I didn’t plan today. I just thought we could wing it.” He laughed. “We could do anything. The sky’s the limit, you know!”

The $20 bill Abigail had dusted her apartment for felt smaller in her pocket, as she considered how much sky might end up costing this afternoon.

“So what do you want to do?” Tom asked.

Oh, great, she thought, I need to say something fun and adventurous so I don’t sound like a stick in the mud. Sticks and mud were already poking at her ankles. She cast around for an idea.

She chickened out. “What do you think would be fun?” Hopefully, he’d keep it under $20.

“Well,” Tom began immediately, whipping out his cell phone, “I actually made a list.” Activating the screen, he scooted closer to Abigail so she might see the ideas he’d compiled. He still subconsciously managed to sit in a dry spot.

He read aloud as she did so silently, “Tubing down the river, going to the pier, spend the day at Six Flags, try paragliding, see a movie, ride a zipline, eating dinner at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, rent bicycles…”

The list continued a few more lines. None of the options seemed inexpensive. None of them fit the mood Abigail was in, which was to simply sit somewhere and recuperate after an emotionally-stressful week.

She liked Tom, a lot. He was intelligent, capable, organized, and he liked her. He said he liked her. He’d truly seemed to after their last date, during that first, lingering kiss just outside her apartment building. Too bad it had been that time of the month, literally during dinner. She’d have been screwed without that spare pad in her purse.

Well, Abigail thoughtfully amended, I’d been screwed if it hadn’t been that time of the month.

Coming back to the present, Abigail realized Tom had stopped reading his list. He was looking at her expectantly.

Tom liked Abigail, a lot. She was thin, kind, laughed at his odd jokes, and seemed to like him in return. She had a great butt, and kissed well. He thought she might not feel the same as he did after they’d only kissed last time, but then she had texted him on Wednesday to ask if they were still on for Saturday. Despite his many great qualities, sometimes girls would not answer him back when he texted.

Tom waited for Abigail, his face betraying some impatience. The day was nice, but would pass quickly. They needed to make a decision and go.

He reached over casually and touched fingers. Their hearts fluttered as each intentionally shifted and held the other’s hand.

Ignoring memories of the catastrophic bicycle accident of their first date, Abigail decided to trust Tom. It could be fun.

She took a deep breath. “Scroll down your list, and I’ll point to one with my eyes closed.”

Tom looked ecstatic. “Great!” He said, activating his sleeping phone.

Abigail closed her eyes, her finger hovering over the screen. She jabbed her finger down before she could change her mind. Gingerly, she opened her eyes.

Tom peered around her nail, and read, “Paddle-boating on the lake.”

“Let’s go!” He enthused, stood, and bent to collect his shoes. Abigail stood as well, checking her backside discreetly to see how obviously the grass had affected it. Tom picked up the blanket, frowning slightly in confusion at the wet spots.

He waited for Abigail to collect her things, then held her hand once again as they headed toward the boat rental dock.

Tom had never been on a paddle boat before. This will be fun! He told himself, noting the bright orange of the boats and the warm glint of sunlight on the lake’s surface.

Abigail hadn’t been on a paddle boat since she was ten. Her father had accidentally shifted the boat too roughly and she’d fallen in. After two weeks of feeling sick, they’d taken her to the doctor and discovered she had Giardia. I won’t fall in, I won’t fall in, she repeated, in an odd sort of mantra.

They reached the sales office, and stood in line behind some giddy teenagers.

“Are you ready?” Tom asked Abigail.

“I think so,” she bravely replied.

Science has invented a pill… your spouse doesn’t want to die.

Writing Prompt:
Science has invented a pill that will cure any illness and prolong life for another twenty years, at the expense of your personality. Anyone who takes the drug will become an entirely different person, with a completely different set of interests and memories.

Your spouse is terminally ill and doesn’t want to die.

“As you can see,” Dr. Mortem concluded, “We don’t recommend Paraphenyloxomene for every layman.” He carefully cleared his throat with a polite medical cough, then continued in the same bored tone he’d been using for the past fifteen minute lecture, “I encourage you to look into the options we discussed at our last meeting before going this route.”

Finally turning his attention to Ken and I, the doctor stopped speaking. Given his tone, somewhat-slumped posture, and the fact that he was making eye contact with the wall art somewhere above our heads, I wasn’t certain Dr. Mortem actually expected a response. I began to wish the assistant was back. Then, at least, we’d have literal excuse for saying we felt like we were talking to a machine.

“Well,” I began, to help the doctor understand that we were still there, and able to speak, “We understand the risks. As I said when I first asked about it, we really wondered if you had any patients who had used it and if they thought it was worth taking.”

I saw Dr. Mortem animate slightly at my mention of “any patients” and cringed a bit inside. “I’m sorry, but we respect our patients’ privacy and I couldn’t tell you that information.” He slumped back to resting position and now studied the light switch.

I wondered why we would be charged the doctor visit for this, when I’d found out just as much doing my own research.

I looked over at Ken, who sat miserably slumped in his plastic chair that matched my own. I reached over and took his hand. As usual, he slowly, painfully rotated enough to look back. He gave me as much smile as he could muster: the effort and expression I’d always loved.

“Dr. Mortem,” I said clearly and slowly, “We understand the risks.” I turned from Ken and tried to get the doctor to meet my eye, then continued anyway, “We’re out of time, and we’ve decided to take Diversis.”

Sighing, Dr. Mortem stood and collected his tablet. He tapped the screen authoritatively a few times, frowning in the reflected glare of its filtered display. Soon, he held the device out to us. A lengthy page of legal agreement scrolled before me.

His hand shook slightly in the strain of the lightweight computer, so I relieved him of it and began reading.

“You’ll receive a copy to review at your leisure,” he intoned.

“Thank you,” I answered him, continuing to read. It was like any other medical disclaimer I’d read in my life, up until the Possible Side Effects section. I wished the researcher had livened things up a bit to alleviate the main, uncontested outcome of Diversis, but all prescriptions must have the same, dry author.

“Less common side effects include dizziness, lethargy, upset stomach, dry mouth, mild nerve pain, and weight loss.” I read first, out of interest. Everyone knew about the main effects, the ones I was avoiding even though Dr. Mortem all but tapped his foot as I tried to be thorough. I distracted myself in perusing these milder ones.

Like any human drawn to morbid news, however, my focus irresistibly pulled upward. “Main side effects include, but are not limited to: personality alteration, complete memory loss, mood swings, lack or loss of previous interests, and all effects associated with the aforementioned effects.”

“You’ll both need to sign, unless your husband has granted Power of Person to you,” Dr. Mortem supplied, nearly shifting forward with impatience. The man had lower body mass than Ken. I wondered if he ever went long distances unassisted.

Sighing, I allowed the text to scroll to the end. I hesitated, at the proverbial point of no return.

I felt a touch at my right elbow. Surprised, I turned to see Ken staring intently at me. His eyes shifted pointedly to the tablet. As wordlessly as he had been for about a month, I moved the device within his tenacious reach. If he’d had the muscle control, I was sure he would have put his tongue between his teeth the way he used to when concentrating, as Ken wrote his name as slowly and clearly as any kindergartener.

He made a slight noise as his hand dropped to his side, and I pulled the screen back. The consent for treatment line still held a space for my signature, but I stared at the blank space with dread.

I loved Ken, so much. Marriage wasn’t like the movies, though. Marriage was two people deciding to live together after initial attraction and the decision to make sharing your possessions easier. We’d had to reconnect and readjust every few years as goals, jobs, children, natural brain chemistry, and disease had sauntered in and shaken up our comfortable dynamics.

“I’ll need your signature, too, or we can’t move forward,” Dr. Mortem prompted.

Ken grunted.

Resisting my overwhelming urge to smash the whole thing to the floor, I signed my own name next to my husband’s. “Goodbye, Ken,” I whispered. I handed the tablet back to Dr. Mortem.