Category Archives: Short Stories


It was hot, for October. Just a little over a week before Halloween, and it was still 90 humid degrees on the Texas Gulf coast.

I sat on the patio, fan on and ice tea in hand. My mom’s two foofoo dogs, Alice and Charlie, panted near the sliding glass door. No one knew their exact parentage, but they were small, white, and fluffy. Mom adored them, but I preferred dog-sized dogs to these snack-sized fur nuggets.

My aunt, who lives in Oregon, had heart surgery, and Mom volunteered to stay with her for a couple of weeks while she recovered. I was voluntold to petsit Alice and Charlie while she was away. I didn’t mind, actually. My SO, Chris and I were going through a rough patch and, frankly, we could use the time apart.

So here I sat, on a Friday evening, drinking ice tea, listening to an audio book, and trying to cook dinner in the outdoor kitchen. I had ditched my work skirt and heels for shorts and flipflops the instant I walked through the door, and weekend mode had taken hold soon after. I could play the book as loud as I wanted, because the closest neighbor was half a mile away, and no one would eavesdrop on the spicy romance I was currently consuming.

The gas grill had a trick to it, and I hadn’t mastered it. There had to be more temperature selections than “Off” and “Incinerate,” but for the life of me, I couldn’t find them. I was about to give up and go into town to see what I could find – this was terra incognita to GrubHub – when I heard it.

A baby crying.

Alice growled, her hackles rising. Charlie tucked his tail and whimpered.

“Shhhh.” I shook my head at the dogs, then peered into the gloom. “Hello?”

I turned on the back yard lights. The open grassy area was lit up like a Friday night football field, but the trees cast eerie shadows that moved and flickered in the night breeze. Not even the halogen penetrated the thicket at the edge of the property, and I felt uneasy, as if I was being watched.

I listened again for the baby, but only heard a few crickets.

“It was just some animal,” I assured the furballs. “A rodent, probably. C’mon pups. Let’s go inside.”

I made sure the gas grill was off, and the dogs scrambled inside the instant I pulled on the door. Giving one last glance over my shoulder before I followed them inside, I saw nothing unusual. I did, however leave the outside lights on.

I was looking for my car keys when my text chime went off. It was Chris. The part I could see read, “I really need to tell you something…” Was he going to tell me he missed me and couldn’t wait for me to get back? That he was glad I was gone and hoped I could stay longer? Not entirely sure I wanted to see the full message, I tapped on the text bubble icon.

“I really need to tell you something. I’m sorry. Moving out. I’ve met someone. Sorry.”

That explained a lot. Honestly, I felt more relieved than sad. I suppose I’d known for some time that we weren’t right for each other. I just hadn’t wanted to admit it. Inertia can be a terrible thing.

How should I reply? It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but nothing I said was going to change anything for either of us. “Fine. Whatever.”

It would be weird, going back to an empty apartment. But I would be fine. Better than fine. I might even stop by the shelter on the way back and adopt a kitten. Chris hated cats. Ha. Maybe I’d get two.

That didn’t solve my immediate problem, though.

“I’m going to get dinner. You two be good,” I told the dogs as I turned on most of the downstairs lights.

The truck stop hadn’t changed much since the last time I was there, years ago. Fried everything. Large portions. Quart-sized red plastic tea glasses. This week’s special was the gizzard platter – greasy, gristly globs surrounded by mounds of fried pickles and French fries. With thin, brown gravy. My years away at college and living in Houston had bent my taste buds in a different direction, and I now had a difficult time finding something on the menu that appealed to me.

“Sue? Good gosh almighty! Your mother didn’t tell me you were in town.”

I looked up to see that my waitress was Margarite Tremont, one of Mom’s oldest friends.

“Yeah. I’m looking after her dogs while she’s taking care of Aunt Cynthia.”

“That’s right. I knew she was going out of town. Didn’t think about the critters. Know what you want, darlin’?”

“Um, I think I’ll have…the grilled cheese on wheat bread with a dinner salad.” I knew the salad was a risk. Hopefully, the lone tomato wedge would be closer to red than green.

“Sure thing. Ice tea to drink, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How could I forget? You and Cody were so close for so long.”

“Right.” I smiled and nodded.

It had almost seemed like fate – our moms were best friends, and we’d known each other since we were babies. We thought we’d stay together, long distance, as we headed out to different colleges, and we did at first. But we inevitably drifted apart.

“I’ll go get your order turned in. Food’ll be right out.”

“Thanks, Miz Tremont.”

She winked at me as she tucked her order book into her apron pocket and made her way back toward the kitchen, pausing to fill a tea glass here and take another order there.

I sat and continued reading that steamy romance on my phone while I waited. I was just getting to the good part when I heard the loud clearing of a throat. Irritated, I looked up.

“’Scuse me, Miss. Is this seat taken?”

“Cody?” Wow. He’d filled out a lot since the last time I’d seen him. He wasn’t the lean, lanky young man I remembered. Still lean, just not lanky. Did his mother text him and tell him to come here? “Of course! Sit down. I didn’t know you were…”

“With the po-lice?”

“The uniform looks good on you.” Really good.

His mother came by with another ice tea. He raised it, as if in a toast. “How’ve you been?”

“Good. How about you? Mom said you got married.”

I hadn’t meant to blurt that out. I was in grad school when she told me, and I was too busy to think much about it then. Or maybe I just didn’t want to.

“I did. But Kelly and I had…irreconcilable differences. Didn’t quite make our first-year anniversary.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

We spent almost two hours catching up. I could have talked longer, but I was starting to yawn, and the puppers still had to go out to do their doggy business.

He walked me to my car. “Drive safe, now.”

I almost told him about the baby crying earlier, but decided it was silly. “I will.”

I didn’t see or hear anything unusual when I took the doglettes out. In fact, there was nothing unusual for the next three days. Other than Cody and I texting each other every evening.

On Tuesday night, I was almost asleep when I heard a thud, then it sounded like a herd of buffalo was running across the roof. Charlie and Alice hid under the bed. Apparently, discretion is the better part of valor when you’re a mini-pup.

“Come on, you two. It must be the wind blowing a tree limb across the roof. Don’t be so silly.”

I got up and pulled back the curtain. Nothing moved under the moonlight, although dark clouds smothered the starlight to the west. I closed the drapes and slipped under the covers, pulling them up to my chin. The roof stomping died down after a few minutes, but my light stayed on all night.

I invited Cody to the house for dinner Wednesday night. When I went to turn Charlie and Alice out in the back yard, he said, “They shouldn’t go out without supervision. There’s coyotes around. And owls. You’d be surprised what they can carry off. And you should be careful, too. One of your neighbors went missing Friday night. Personally, I think he just skipped town to get away from the repo man. But you can’t be too careful. I’ve been driving by, before my shift ends. Just to make sure everything’s okay.”

I wished he would stay over, but he had to work. At least there were no roof walkers that night.

Cody was going to pick me up on Friday to go out. I was almost ready when I heard a knock at the door. I glanced at my watch. He was fifteen minutes early. I started down the stairs to let him in when Alice ran in front of me and bit my ankle, hard enough to draw blood.

“What is wrong with you?” I shouted at her.

She only growled in response.

I went the other way, into the bathroom to get a bandage. By the time I came back, she was nowhere to be seen, but I did hear nails clicking on the hardwood floor below. Maybe I should call the vet in the morning to make sure she’s current on her rabies shots.

“Coming!” I shouted, hoping Cody could hear me as I hurried down the stairs.

Earrings in my hand, I opened the front door. Cody wasn’t there. No one was, and there was no car parked in front of the house. I slammed the door and locked it, then turned on all the downstairs lights, and the outside lights, for good measure.

When Cody arrived ten minutes later, Charlie and Alice greeted him like he was their long-lost best friend.

He looked around at all the lights. “Everything okay?”

“I thought you were at the door a few minutes ago. I heard a knock, but there was no one there.”

He stepped outside and looked around for a moment. When he came back in, he held a nut. “You got that big ole oak tree that overhangs the front porch. It is fall – there’s acorns everywhere on the ground. I’m sure that’s all it was.”

“You’re probably right.” It was then I noticed the dark circles under his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Long night. There was a traffic fatality just down the highway. Driver swerved off the road. Maybe trying to avoid a deer or something. She was more messed up than she should have been – I guess the smell of blood attracted scavengers before anybody found her.”

I shuddered. How awful.

All the lights stayed on. I didn’t want to come back to a dark house.

It helped that Cody came in with me after our evening at the dance hall. Poor guy. He was so tired he’d fallen asleep on the couch by the time I got back into the living room with two glasses of wine. I covered him with an afghan and went upstairs. I will say that I slept better with him in the house, and I would wake up to face the monsters refreshed.

Saturday was Halloween, and Cody was working a double shift. I was surprised at how many kids fit in the back of a pick-up truck to come around to the houses out in the sticks for trick-or-treat. The candy ran out around nine and I turned off the outside lights. I had skipped dinner, and for a while, I didn’t miss it. By 10:30, my stomach was growling and I was low on groceries. The only solution was to drive to the truck stop for another grilled cheese. Nothing else was open, and that can of mushroom soup in the Mom’s pantry just wasn’t going to cut it.

When I returned to the house, I parked in the garage and come through the back door. I was glad of the garage, because the wind had picked up blown in billowing clouds. The dogs were silent. That was unusual. I caught a glimpse of something moving in the living room. My heart skipped a beat.

Was that lightning, or someone shining a flashlight in through the window? Fight or flight kicked in, and I chose fight. I’m not sure why. I charged to the window and was horrified to see the pane sliding up, and long fingers creeping under the sash.

Mom didn’t have security cameras, but I did have my cell phone. I wanted to have a photo to show the cops, so I took several shots with the flash on. Then I called 911 and put the phone on speaker.

The long fingers were slipping away, and I wanted to try and catch this punk. Maybe I could even hold him until the cops rolled up.

“No!” I yelled, grabbing a couple of the fingers and pulling them backward against the wall as hard as I could. Anger flowed through me, and I was more than happy to hurt this jerk trying to break in to my mother’s house. Thunder grumbled in the distance.

The dispatcher stayed on the line with me, and I shouted answers to her questions through gritted teeth. I dropped the phone so I could push down on the window to keep the burglar’s arm trapped. As red and blue lights strobed down the lane towards the house, he gave a final desperate wrench and pulled his arm away, disappearing into the dark.

I opened the front door as Cody and another officer ran up onto the porch. I told them what happened. The other officer went to see if he could track the thief while I showed Cody the photos.

“I know it’s Halloween, but if this is a joke, it isn’t funny.” he said.

“What?” I looked at the screen and almost dropped the phone. Staring back at me was a pale, wrinkled face, eyes clouded as with cataracts, but a black, vertical pupil was clearly visible. Instead of a nose or mouth, it had a curved, sharp beak. A Halloween mask? Was this some sick prank?.

Something dark lay on the window sill.

“What’s this?” Cody picked it up.

It was a large feather, black horizontal bars on a grey background. What was it from? A hawk? An owl? If it was from an owl, it was a huge one.

Outside, a baby cried, then the sound was lost in a boom of thunder. The windows rattled.

“Brooks!” Cody called out. The other officer hadn’t returned from his search, and it had been twenty minutes.

I didn’t want to be alone in the house, so I walked around the property with him, looking for Officer Brooks. There were only four city police officers. Two were here, one was on the way, and the other was on vacation. Cody had called the county sheriff for reinforcements, but they were a half hour away.

We looked all night in the rain for Tony Brooks, and a search team combed the area for two weeks, but he was never found.

But that all happened a long time ago. Cody and I got married not long after that, and had four beautiful babies. Now, our kids have grown up and flown the nest. Cody died in a car crash…has it been two years, now? They never did figure out what made him swerve off the road. But I’m not alone. On short autumn nights, the owls sit outside my window and call to me. Someday soon, I’ll join them.


September, 1836

Buffalo Bayou, near the burned out ruins of Harrisburg, Texas


“I don’t think this is a good idea, John,” Quinn said.

“Of course it is, my good man. Sam Houston is the toast of Texas. A town named after him can’t help but succeed. Especially if I can get my fellow representatives in the Congress to make it the capital of the Republic of Texas – indeed, we’ve already started construction on the capitol building! The Texas government is clamoring for settlers, who will, of course, need a place to live. If we dig out this stagnant old stream, we’ve got the makings of a grand port,” John Allen replied. He gestured to the sluggish bayou in front of them, moving just fast enough to keep the mud churned up in the water and scent the air. A perch glinted silver at the surface as it grabbed a water strider that had ventured too far away from the bank, then disappeared into the murk.

Quinn looked at a pair of yellow eyes floating just above the surface of the opaque water and shrugged. His companion thought it was a basking alligator, a common enough beast in the Gulf Coast swamps, but he knew better.

“Isn’t the capital already set up in Galveston? And there’s already a major port there, too. Why would any ships come all the way up here?”

“Galveston is the interim capital. We are going to make Houston the permanent one. As for ships coming this far, that’s easy. Rail, my good man. This spot is fifty miles closer to existing railways than Galveston. They don’t even have a causeway to the island to run a rail line.”

“But there isn’t any rail here,” Quinn said. The yellow eyes in the murky water at his feet stared balefully up at him.

“Not yet. But it will come. The plans are already in the works.” John slapped at a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing around his ears.

“You’ve taken leave of your senses, John, you and Augustus both.”

John laughed loudly, and a snowy egret fled the water for the safety of the trees. “No one thought General Houston could beat Santa Anna, now did they? After the massacres at Goliad and the Alamo, and being outnumbered almost two to one at San Jacinto, only a fool would have bet on Sam Houston. Ha! It’s Manifest Destiny, my friend, the will of the Almighty.”

Quinn frowned. John Allen squeezed his shoulder. “I’ve business in Nacogdoches that I must attend to. You won’t go wrong buying a parcel of land here, I can assure you. My brother will be most delighted to assist you with the deed while I am away.” With that, he mounted his horse and trotted off, crashing noisily through the underbrush.

When the commotion of his passing had quieted, and the twitter of birds and occasional grunting snarls of alligators resumed, the eyes that had been fixed on Quinn rose out of the bayou water. The creature that belonged to the yellow orbs stood upright. Her skin was so dark green as to appear black, unless the sun struck it a certain way, and it was marked by small, vaguely square striations. She was a sobek, and while the ancient Egyptians had painted her kind as alligator-headed people, Quinn knew that modern humans had long ago lost the skill of discernment – they would see nothing but a reptile when they looked at her.

“They must not stay here,” she growled, water dripping from her large, re-curved teeth.

“I’m trying to discourage them,” Quinn replied.

“Try harder,” she answered.

“If you think this is so easy, why don’t you have a go?” Quinn snapped.

“Swamp fever has kept humans away for many years with– it was a gift they gave us themselves when they brought others of their kind here in chains to labor in their fields. The fever arrived with them. They come, many die, the survivors leave. So it has been, but I fear that not enough of these invaders will perish if they come in great numbers.”

“Perhaps not,” Quinn replied.

He was in two minds about humans. His mother had never forgiven them for killing his father, and yet, he’d had a human foundling child named Virginia who was as kind as she was beautiful. He did not know, however, if she was the exception or the norm. His work often brought him into contact with people. Although, they were typically involved with demons, so they were perhaps not the best representatives of their species. Still, he couldn’t help but like John Allen.

“It was my understanding that you were here to provide assistance,” the sobek woman said.

“I am. I’m just not sure I can accomplish your request.”

The alligator fay snarled at him before she slipped back under the murky water of the bayou.

Quinn didn’t appreciate being dismissed so harshly, but he didn’t fancy going in after her – no telling how many others of her kind were lurking in the muddy water. Besides, the rest of his Mundane Intervention Team – Siobhan, Eoin, Aleksei, and Malik – were waiting for him in Galveston. They had arrived to broker an agreement between the burgeoning human population and the merfolk, who had used the island since it was little more than a sandbar. He shook his head. He hated diplomatic missions, and here he was on not one, but two concurrent ones.

He shifted into the form of a great black horse, and galloped along the waterway. If the bayou was deeper, it would have been faster for him to take his natural kelpie form and swim down to Galveston Bay. Even so, this was not the place to dive in – water fae were notoriously territorial, and the last thing he wanted to do was cause an incident, especially since he was on his own.


Moonlight made the waves shimmer like cut glass, and glinted off the breakers that foamed white before they rolled up onto the beach. The fresh sea breeze was a welcome relief from stifling heat that had oppressed them during the day. Quinn and his team, with the addition of one human in the personage of a Montreal transplant named Michel Branamour Menard, waited at the furthest point on Galveston Island from the busy port, hoping the representative of the West End Sea Tribes Union would arrive soon. She was already late.

Quinn looked at Menard, then at his MIT. Except for Eoin, they could all assume human form, and no one was the wiser. Eoin had his own tricks, however. It would seem that the urisk, who looked human from the waist up, but goatlike from the waist down, would garner a fair amount of attention from panicked humans. But they could stand in front of him and never notice he was there. Unless he desired it. Aleksei, the blue-skinned Lesovik, is what people see when they catch movement out of the corners of their eyes and feel they are being watched in the woods. Unless they look straight at him, in which case he appears to them as a large bush. Even if sighted, recollection of him is slippery, and slides out of the pool of memory like silk over skin. Malik was a djinn, and could take any shape, including none at all, and often did for the sole purpose of amusing himself with pranks against humans. Siobhan could not be readily be distinguished by mortal eyes from a comely young lady of the homo sapiens species. The tips of her ears were perhaps a little more pointed, and her eyes were slightly larger than the typical human.

On the beach, the tide had risen substantially, and warm water encroached on their gathering.

Quinn looked around and shook his head. “It would seem the merfolk have changed their minds. It is half an hour past the designated time, and their representative has not arrived.”

“What does this mean?” snapped Menard.

“It could mean several—” Quinn was cut off by an exquisite and ethereal singing.

Somehow, they had completely missed the approach of the mermaid, because now she sat on the beach not twenty yards away. Her long hair skimmed the sand, and was the same golden brown as the sargassum seaweed that blanketed the beaches in spring. She did not glow, as such, yet even Menard could see her plainly in the dark.

Quinn’s team was immune to her song’s spell, but they could still appreciate the aching beauty of it while they waited for her to finish. Mr. Menard, on the other hand, was utterly mesmerized.

“Greetings,” said Quinn, after the song had stopped.

“Felicitations. Are you the ones that have come to chaffer with me?”

“Indeed,” Quinn replied. “And we have brought with us one Michel Menard, who has ambitions of founding a city on your island.”

He shook Menard’s shoulder, which pulled him out of his trance, then pushed him toward the mermaid. Siobhan rolled her eyes and shook her head.

B-b-bon soir, m-m-madame,” the man stammered.

“I am called Zara,” the mermaid said, casting her silver eyes up and down the quivering human in front of her. “We have no quarrel, in general, with humans. The Karankawa people lived here for many years in peace.” When she spoke, her sharp teeth flashed in the moonlight.

“B-b-but there are no Indians here now,” Menard said.

“Do you know why that is?” Zara asked.

Menard shook his head. Quinn was unable to determine whether Menard was fearful of Zara, or just dumbfounded by her bare breasts.

“Have you heard tales of the criminal Jean Lafitte?” Zara asked.

Menard nodded.

“Lafitte and his band of miscreants took over the island. They had been here some years when they captured one of our people. She was, of course, reported by the humans to be a Karankawa woman. But when our friends, the tribesmen, tried to free the captive mermaid, they were massacred by the pirates. My people raised the storm that obliterated all of the human habitations and drove them from the island.”

Menard took a step back. “Mon dieu! You claim to call storms?” His voice had lost its nervous stutter and now contained an edge of skepticism.

“You doubt our abilities? Do not force me to disabuse you of your misapprehensions, sir. As long as your people do not harry or harass my people and do not take more than your fair share of fish, we will not be in conflict. It would be ill-considered for you to do otherwise, Mr. Menard.” One of Zara’s eyebrows arched as she spoke. “We are fond of this island, and do not wish to damage it, but we will not be mistreated.”

“Equinoxes cause the big storms, that is common knowledge – that is why they are called ‘equinoctial storms,’ after all,” Menard said, crossing his arms over his amply-padded chest, as if he had suddenly been injected with a massive dose of courage.

“Is that so, Mr. Menard?”

Suddenly a great howling, as of wind screaming around the corners of a building, rose from the sea and swirled around them. Quinn saw the faces of dozens of merfolk bobbing in the surrounding waters. Aleksei and Eoin chattered nervously together, probably making a contingency plan, given that Aleksei couldn’t swim.

Clouds scudded in and smothered the moon. Lightning flashed in the distance. A few fat drops of rain splashed lazily on the group standing on the beach.

“Is it the equinox, Mr. Menard?” Zara asked. Her voice was not loud, but it could clearly be heard over the keening of her people and the howling of the wind.

Oui. Perhaps. The autumnal equinox is in two weeks.”

The howling increased. The wind got stronger. Menard’s pomaded hair flapped wildly in the squall, and he squinted against the blowing sand. Water ran up the beach and poured over his feet. A clap of thunder boomed above Menard, nearly knocking him to the ground. The force of its rage rippled through the sand. Rain began to torrent down, blown nearly horizontal by the wind.

Arrêter!” Menard shouted. He dropped to his knees and covered his face. “Please stop. I believe you,” he whimpered.

The howling ceased and the wind went dead calm. The downpour became a sprinkle, and the lightning stopped flickering across the horizon.

“Do we have an agreement?” Zara asked.

“That my people will leave your people alone, and not overfish? Is that all?”

“That is enough. Break this contract at your peril, Mr. Menard.”

With a flick of her tail, Zara pushed herself off of the beach and into the surf.

“That was easy enough,” Quinn said. “Now, what are we going to do about the Allen brothers?”


The Mundane Intervention Team had opted to stay in Mrs. Reynaud’s boarding house for the few days they’d be in Galveston.

Bon matín, mes amis!” the widow sang at them as they filed into the dining room for breakfast. The smell of fresh-baked bread made Quinn’s stomach protest having to wait another moment for food.

“Good morning,” they all responded, but far from in unison.

Mrs. Reynaud disappeared into the kitchen, and moments later, she returned with plates of food. A young lady of African descent helped serve. Quinn could not help but notice that about half of her left ear was missing. When she noticed him looking, she looked away and turned her head. He felt a twinge of guilt for staring at her.

The MIT was famished, the baguettes were hot, and the cheese was delicious. Their hostess even flaunted tradition and provided a jar of fig preserves, probably from the immense fig tree that shaded her front porch, and a large portion of her yard.

A loud banging on the front door interrupted their meal. Mrs. Reynaud’s assistant fled, bumping into Siobhan in her haste.

“Open up, Miss Rayno. I believe you got some property of mine,” called a loud voice.

Monsieur, I have no property in this house that does not belong to me.”

Quinn could see the shadows of three men on the front porch against the lacy curtains.

“Now, Miss Rayno, we don’t want to have to break down your door, but we know you got a colored girl in there. She’s a runaway slave. Did you not know that, ma’am?”

“I do not know what you are speaking about. Go away. You are disturbing my guests.”

Quinn looked around at his team, and his lip twitched into the ghost of a smile. “Invite them in,” he said.

Je ne comprends pas. This makes no sense.” Mrs. Reynaud replied, shaking her head. Her expression implied that death was both preferable and likely if she complied.

“Your secret is safe with us.” Quinn gestured toward the door. “Invite them in.”

Cautiously, Mrs. Reynaud opened the door. Three heavily armed men pushed their way inside.

“Jim Bowie, God rest him, always said you were gonna be trouble,” the man who had done the shouting at the door said. “Now, if you will kindly turn over our property, we’ll be on our way.”

“What property is that?” Quinn asked.

One of the men knocked over a porcelain vase filled with flowers. It smashed on the hardwood floor, scattering water, blossoms and fragments of delicate delft blue floral tracery. It was difficult to tell whether the act was deliberate or accidental. He grinned like an oaf either way.

“Colored girl, ’bout so tall…” He raised his hand, palm down, to his chin.

“What color is she?” Siohbhan asked. “Blue? Orange? Green?”

The three men looked at each other, perplexed. “She’s the same color as your tea, ma’am,” replied the one who had shattered the vase.

“What would you want with her? If such a girl was even here?” Siobhan answered.

The spokesman took a step forward. “Women ought to know their place.”

Quinn glanced at Malik. A grin spread over the djinn’s face, and his eyes glowed metallic green. A breeze blew across the room, and swirled, faster and faster around the three men. They seemed to be frozen, then disappeared for a few seconds. When they re-appeared, they were not at all themselves.

Instead of three armed white men, there stood three black men, shackled and chained together by iron collars. They started to talk to each other, and discovered, to their obvious horror, that they could only speak Swahili.

Aleksei laughed out loud. “There are three slaves who now look like men that were here, yes?”

Malik nodded.

“I would suggest, Mrs. Reynaud, that you quickly get these three to the auction house. Eoin and Aleksei will help you.”

“Non. I would not wish that on even these men. Would you set them free? I’d rather to turn them loose, and let them make their own way.”

Malik nodded, and the chains disappeared.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Siobhan said.

Mrs. Reynaud smiled. “Moi aussi. Me, too.”

The clock struck eight.

“We must be on our way,” Quinn said.

Once outside the boarding house, they strolled to the back of the building, away from prying eyes. Six feet pounded by on the sidewalk as the three slavers-cum-slaves fled Mrs. Reynaud’s boarding house. Malik waved his hand over the MIT. In an instant, they stood just outside of the building site that was quickly turning into the City of Houston.

“I don’t think there’s any way to stop the Allen brothers,” Quinn said.

“Agreed,” replied Eoin.

“You could always eat them,” said Malik.

“I’m assuming that was sarcasm,” Quinn said. Malik knew full well that, although he was quite capable of dining on humans, they gave Quinn terrible indigestion.

Malik shrugged. “People flow to this place like sand through an hour glass. One grain, more or less makes no difference.”

“But what about the sobeks in the bayou?” Siobhan asked.

“Would they consent to being relocated?” Eoin asked.

“Probably not,” Quinn replied.


A man came around the corner, spitting and wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He clutched an empty tin cup in one hand and a roll of papers in his other.

“Are you alright?” Siobhan asked.

“Fine, fine. This milk has gone off. Doesn’t last long at all in this heat.” He wiped his hand on his pants and extended his hand to Quinn, who was nearest to him. “Gail Borden, surveyor. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“I believe we’ve met,” Quinn said. “John Allen is an acquaintance of mine, and I call upon him from time to time.”

“Ah! So we have. You’re that fellow he’s been taking around town, aren’t you?”

“Yes. These are my associates.” He gestured to the rest of his team, but did not go to the trouble of introducing them to Mr. Borden.

Malik pulled a glass bottle from a pocket in his roomy pants and removed the wax seal from the stopper. “Perhaps you should cook it first,” he said, taking a drink from the bottle.

“Cook it?…Oh, yes the milk! Grand idea, that. Yes. I shall have to look into it. Now, were you looking for Mr. John Allen?”

“I believe he’s gone to Nacogdoches,” Quinn replied.

“Augustus is about, somewhere.”

“We will locate him, should we require his presence. Thank you.”

Borden carried on with his perambulation, and the MIT continued down to the bayou. They had to walk some distance to be out of sight of the construction operations. After calling to the sobeks for nearly an hour and getting no response, Quinn returned his team to the Mundane Activity Monitoring and Intervention Center (MAMIC) in Blackthorne, in the realm of Faery.

MAMIC authorized Quinn to buy a number of plots immediately along Buffalo Bayou to help delay the inevitable conflict between the sobeks and swelling population of the new capital of the Republic of Texas.


August 14, 1838

Quinn found himself back in Houston two years later, at the sweltering apex of summer.

“You know, my good fellow,” John Allen said to him, as they walked along the water front, “Those plots you bought are highly coveted. Shall we build on them for you? I’m sure you could put a fine house and a business or two on them. Even with no improvements, they’d still sell for a pretty penny.”

“I don’t wish to sell them right now,” Quinn replied.

“I see.” Allen leaned in and lowered his voice. “Confidentially, I’ve had a change of heart. I have told no one yet. But instead of a port, I believe that the bayou should be filled in.”

“Why is that?”

“We had one steamboat come upstream last year. One. And the bayou is so shallow and choked with weeds, that it was a slow and miserable trip. No, I think it will take too much work to make it of any use. Best to fill it in and rid ourselves of these cursed mosquitoes.” John slapped one of the offending insects on his arm, and it left a bloody smudge on his arm.

Quinn caught a glimpse of yellow eyes in the murky water, but they were gone so fast he wasn’t sure he’d even seen them.

“They seem to be especially bad this summer,” John continued.

Quinn noted small red welts, some scratched bloody, on the man’s bare forearms. He also noted that John looked thinner and paler than the last time they’d met.

“Well, here we are,” John said.

They had arrived at a makeshift tavern, which fit right in with the mostly shanty-town section of city.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” Quinn said.

“Having a drink? Surely not.”

“No. Filling in the bayou. Are you alright?”

John Allen had crossed his arms over his chest and was rubbing his upper arms as if they were cold.

“I’m, fine,” he replied, perhaps with too much emphasis the last word. “Just a little fever. It comes and goes.”

As they entered the saloon, John’s knees buckled, and Quinn only just caught him before he hit the floor. Quinn laid him out on one of the rickety tables, and the town doctor was called. His office was only next door, and he arrived within minutes, black bag in hand.

The doctor reeked of cheap whiskey, and Quinn wasn’t particularly confident in his abilities. But his diagnosis fit.

“Congestive fever,” he said, nodding his head. “This is the third round of it. Every two days he gets a fever, and he’s sicker each time.”

John Allen, mumbling in his delirium, was carried to his house, but he never woke up.

He died the next day.

Quinn stayed for the funeral. John was only twenty-eight, and had no wife to mourn him. He was laid out in his own parlor, and his mother sat beside the open casket, veiled and dressed in black from head to toe. Quinn shuddered inwardly as he approached to pay his respects – Mrs. Allen wore a large locket with some of John’s hair fixed in a basket weave pattern inside. It was a morbidly peculiar habit, these humans had, he thought.

A tall woman, face disguised by a heavy black veil, stood near the back of the room.

“One Allen down, one to go,” she said as Quinn got near her. He recognized her as the female sobek from the bayou, although none of the humans seemed to notice her.

“I don’t think you’ll be able to stop the humans from coming. There are already too many of them, and more arrive every day. For your own safety, I’d like to help relocate your people.”


There was little point in arguing. He sighed softly. “As you wish.”


December 22, 1857

“I’m very sorry about your mother,” Quinn told the young sobek. He had not yet lost the blotchy cream stripes of a juvenile, and leadership had been thrust upon him by his mother’s untimely and fatal interaction with a steamboat.

“Thank you. She never gave up on trying to reclaim our territory from the humans.” He looked down and sighed. “Even though many in our tribe had long believed it was a lost cause.”

“I understand.” Quinn said. Miles of rail lines linking Houston to parts north, west and east were already in operation, and grew longer every day, snuffing out any flicker of hope the sobeks might have had about eradicating the human interlopers from their ancestral home. “A place has been cleared for you, about thirty miles to the southwest of here. There was a human river landing built there, but it has been removed. The Brazos River is slowed by many bends in this area, so it should meet your habitat requirements.”

The young sobek nodded slightly and opened the door to what human eyes would perceive as a garden variety stagecoach. It was actually a spatial bubble, which would expand to fit as many as necessary on the inside, but remain the same on the outside.

Quinn held the carriage door open, and the young leader stood opposite him, calling to his people in the croaking, booming language of the sobeks. In small family groups, they rose from the bayou and made their way to the carriage. Heads down, defeated, they walked slowly, and it took longer than Quinn had anticipated to collect them all. When the tear-stained face of the last one disappeared into the inside of the coach, their young leader took one final, sorrowful look around, and climbed in, pulling the door closed behind him.

Quinn climbed into the shotgun seat, and the driver shook the reins and clucked to the horses. Actually, they only looked like horses. In reality, they were a hitch of kelpies – one was even Quinn’s cousin – who could do twice the work of a mortal horse in half the time.


It was late afternoon when the coach arrived at its destination, and twilight was already creeping in on this shortest day of the year. The driver pulled up under an immense, Spanish moss-draped live oak tree on the banks of an oxbow lake, formed by a looping bend in the Brazos River. Tall clumps of Texas giant cane shaded the opposite banks and waded partway into the lake. Sabal palms were sprinkled among the oak, hackberry, and pecan trees. A bull alligator, sunning himself just out of the water, looked up cautiously at them.

Quinn opened the stage coach door, and the young leader was the first to emerge.

“It’s beautiful!” he exclaimed. “It certainly seems a natural park.”


September 8, 1900

“We’ve got a live one,” Quinn said to his team.

They sat around an oaken table in a conference room at the MAMIC headquarters.

“What is it?” Aleksei asked.

“There’s a demon, possibly two, who’ve helped some humans capture a mermaid. We’ve got to free her, acquire the demons, and neutralize the human witnesses. The method depends on how much they know.”

“Where are we off to, then?” Eoin asked.

“Texas. Again,” Quinn answered.

“Seems to be a lot going on down there,” Siobhan added.


It was still dark when Quinn, Siobhan, Aleksei, Eoin and Malik stepped through the portal onto Galveston Island. Again, they were in the far west section of it.

“It’s about time,” Zara growled.

“I’m sorry for the delay,” Quinn said. “We have been advised that one or more demons is holding one of your tribe captive. Can you apprise us of the situation?”

Anger flashed in Zara’s eyes. “Enough talk. You will do something, and do it now, or I will!”

“I understand that you’re upset. We will do everything we can to rescue the mermaid. But we’ve got to contain the demon. Or is it demons? If we don’t, this will just recur.”

“There are two of them. They’ve shown some of the humans our abode. But our sister. They’ve put her on display at the docks.”

Quinn and Siobhan exchanged looks. “That complicates things. How many of the towns people have seen her?”

“Most. Perhaps all.”

Aleksei swore in Ukranian.

“Do what you will, but know this: a storm has already been called. It is on its way, and is far too big to be stopped,” Zara said. “And we would not do so, even if it were possible. These human vermin have been infesting our island for too long. We have been too patient. No more. They have broken the pact, and they will suffer the consequences.”

“How long do we have before the storm arrives?” Quinn asked.

“It will arrive this afternoon. The sooner, the better.”

“Eoin – I need you to relay this information to Dame Rowan at MAMIC. Aleksei, you’re with him. Guard the portal. Go now.”

The urisk and the Lesovik headed back to the portal, leaving little goat tracks and odd two-toed footprints in the damp sand.

“Take us to where they are holding your sister,” Quinn said to Zara.


The docks heaved with people waiting to pay a nickel each to see the captured mermaid, who was being held in one of the warehouses.

Quinn shook his head. “This makes it much more difficult,” he said, surveying the crush of people.

He, Siobhan, and Malik stood at the edge of the crowd. Quinn spotted the first demon right away – it was the one collecting money from the people waiting in line to gawk at the poor captive. Humans, of course, couldn’t see that he was a demon – he looked like any other bow-tied salesman to them. But Quinn and company could see its bulging yellow eyes, with their vertical slits, and its grass-colored scales. It hadn’t locked onto them yet, but it did pause and wrinkle its nose as if it smelled something offensive.

“Malik, you’ll be the hardest for them to detect. Go through the line to check on the mermaid and see if you can find the other demon. If there is an unobtrusive way to free her, do it, but do not call attention to yourself.”

Malik nodded.

“And take this trap with you.”

Quinn handed over a clear quartz pyramid, the base of which was a little larger than the palm of his hand. Malik tucked it into his voluminous pocket and joined the queue.

“Shall we move to the exit? I think this fellow’s a bit suspicious of us,” Siobhan said.

They strolled around to the other side of the warehouse to wait for Malik. When he finally emerged, his face was grim.

“She looks very unwell,” he said. “Her skin is quite grey, and she is gaunt, as if she has not been eating. I doubt she will survive the night if she’s not released.”

“What’s the layout of the place? How is the mermaid being held?” Quinn asked.

“There is a warehouse with a trap door in the bottom so a barge bearing cargo can pull underneath it and offload the freight directly into storage. The mermaid is secured in a fishing net which dangles through the trap door, half out of the water, so she can be observed. There are other offices and storage areas throughout the building. I tried to slip the rope holding the net and at least lower her into the water, but it is fixed in place with a spell. “

Quinn scowled. “Any sign of the second demon?”

Malik grinned and retrieved the crystal pyramid. A red liquid swirled furiously around inside of it.

“Outstanding,” Quinn said. “Take that back to MAMIC for safekeeping, then return here.”

Malik left.

Quinn wished the circumstances were different. It was perfect beach weather, warm and sunny. It would have been nice to stroll around with Siobhan and enjoy the day. The breeze had started to pick up, and the water was a little choppy. Although the seagulls were conspicuous by their absence, there was no other hint of what was coming. Something grabbed Quinn’s shoulder, hard, and he winced.

Apparently, there was a third demon.

Siobhan pulled a crystal trap out of her handbag, but before she could activate it, the demon whirled around, Quinn still in its deadly grip, and kicked it out of her hand. It landed in the water with a plop and a splash, then sank out of sight.

“Run!” Quinn yelled.

He shifted just enough that his eyes turned black from edge to edge and his teeth went from flat human to sharp kelpie. He spun under the demon’s grip and bit down hard on its arm. The beast yowled and let go of Quinn’s shoulder. Quinn wiped the demon’s black blood off of his face as he fled, following Siobhan.

Demons are not fast runners, and Quinn and Siobhan quickly outpaced it. However, what demons lack in speed, they make up for in stamina. It would hunt relentlessly until it found them.

“Back to the portal. Need reinforcements,” Quinn panted as he leaned against the side of a dilapidated wooden house. He brushed against a large rosemary bush, thick trunk gnarled and twisted, and it released its resinous aroma profusely.

“Where is it from here?” Siobhan asked.

“Not sure.”

“Hello? Who’s there?” called a female voice, cracked with age.

Quinn and Siobhan rounded the corner and discovered an elderly woman with coffee-colored skin and white hair sitting on a porch swing. She wore a pearl earring in her right earlobe, but most of her left ear was missing.

“Sorry ma’am, didn’t mean to disturb you,” Quinn said. “We’ll be on our way now.”

“Wait,” the woman said. She tilted her head and furrowed her brow. “I know you. It’s been a very long time. You look…exactly the same. How can that be?”

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Siobhan answered.

“Yes. We have. I’m sure of it.”

“I don’t think so,” Quinn replied, although there was something vaguely familiar about her. He could hear the slap-slap-slap of the demon’s leather boots on the boardwalk, and it would be on them any second now. “We really have to go.”

The woman stood up and hobbled the few steps to her front door. “Come inside. Please.”

Siobhan nodded to Quinn, and they both ducked into the house. The woman entered behind them and closed the door. She raised her gnarled index finger to her lips, commanding silence. The demon’s footsteps were loud now, outside the house. They could hear it snuffling around, trying to catch their scent. Frustrated, it ran on.

“I hate those things,” the woman said.

“What things?” Siobhan asked.

“Lizard men. Nasty creatures. That’s why I have all the rosemary outside – they hate the smell, and it keeps them away.”

Quinn nodded. “Most people can’t see them. Odd that you can.” Only happens to humans who have been touched by fae. “Thank you for saving us,” Quinn said. “But I don’t believe I know you.” He was only half convinced now that this was true.

“I’ve waited over sixty years to pay back this debt. I was in Ms. Reynaud’s house when the slavers came for me. You stopped them. Both of you.”

“You…were the girl?” Siobhan asked.

“Yes. Lucy is my name.”

“Lucy, it is so good to meet you again. There isn’t much time. You have to gather any friends and family that you care about, and get off the island. Today. Now. There’s a storm coming, and it’s going to be a bad one. We have to go. So do you,” Quinn said.

Lucy nodded. “I guess Dr. Cline was right about his hurricane warning, then.”


By the time that Quinn and Siobhan made their way to the portal and rendezvoused with Eoin, Aleksei and Malik, the afternoon shadows were just beginning to lengthen. The wind had kicked up and the tide was high, higher than normal. To the east and south, the sky was black with rain. Away from the town, they could hear the wrothful howling of the merfolk, calling the storm, making it stronger, pouring their rage into it. They were almost out of time to capture the remaining two demons.

With a blink of his eye, Malik took them back to the docks. The earlier crowds had dispersed, no doubt battening down their hatches, for all the good it would do them, against the approaching storm. Cautiously, expecting a trap, they neared the warehouse. What they heard was someone crying, wailing in grief. Inside the warehouse, they found Zara underneath the dock, clinging to the netting that held the captured mermaid. The captive lay limply on the bottom of the net, arms and hair drifting in the current. The rising water had floated the corpse nearly up into the trap door, and the high swells occasionally pushed her partially through it.

Zara’s head jerked up as they entered. “They have killed her! They will pay for this. They. Will. Pay.” She turned and dove into the water, splashing them with a contemptuous flick of her tail.

A door slammed behind them, in the depths of the warehouse. They all ducked behind wooden crates or bales of cotton, whichever was closest to each.

“Talco?” a demon’s gravelly voice called.

Malik eased a quartz demon trap out of his pocket and handed it to Eoin, who silently twisted the top half of it open.

The demon never knew what hit him as he came through the door. By the time he realized he’d been ambushed, it was too late, and he was locked inside the crystal. Malik tucked the pyramid away.

“Nooo!” screeched a deep, raspy voice.

The demon that had been collecting money to see the mermaid came roaring up at them.

Malik tried stunning it with a spell, but the demon swiped his magic to the side. Aleksei put his head down and drove his shoulder into the demon’s midsection with enough force to knock the wind out of him. As he staggered back, Eoin grabbed one of his arms, while Aleksei wrapped his own arms around the demon’s opposite leg. Demon claws raked Aleksei’s back and head, and deep blue blood oozed from the scratches. Malik grabbed at the flailing claws as the demon lifted Eoin off his feet with the arm that the urisk was attempting to control. The demon would not be laid down on the floor, so Quinn grabbed his foot. He was rewarded with a kick in the face hard enough to bloody his lip, but he and Aleksei were able to yank its feet out from under it. Taking Eoin and Malik with him, the demon thudded to the floor with a loud “Ooof!” Finally, they pinned him to the floor, barely.

Rain pounded the windows, increasing in fury. Wind moaned across the roof, pelting the building with small, forsaken items. Surging water splashed through the open trap door, pushing the cargo net with the dead mermaid onto the warehouse floor.

“We’ve got to get out of here. Who has a trap?” Quinn asked, wiping blood from his mouth.

No one, it turned out.

“I really hate doing this,” Siobhan said, She pulled a golden dagger from her belt. The demon fought – it knew what was coming. “I’m so sorry. If there was any other way…” she said. Then she raised her hand and drove the dagger deep into its heart. The demon bellowed, then exploded in a cloud of noisome ash.

“Go, go, go! We have to get to the portal, now,” Quinn called.

The five fae raced out of the warehouse. The furious wind ripped shingles from the roof, and planks from the walls, and hurled them after the MIT with a vengeance.


Behind them, in the collapsing warehouse, a boy began to wail for the father whose slaughter he had just witnessed through a crack in cargo area door.

“Shhh, Balcones. If you want to live long enough for revenge, we have to go,” his scaly mother called to him.

The seeds of vengeance took root then, in what passes for a demon’s heart, and demanded to be watered with the blood of his enemies. Pain and anger fused into incandescent rage, burning him from the inside out, just like malaria that had consumed John Allen.

“Yes, Mother,” he answered, his yellow eyes fever-bright.


A Murder of Crows

Jim Bob Renfro needed a helper, and I really needed a summer job. His opening at A Pest Free Palace was available, and it paid $12/hour – a fortune to a high school sophomore with no experience.

Most of the time, I vacuumed up mouse turds and fetched things from the truck. Stuff like that. From the start, I didn’t like Jim Bob – Mr. Renfro – much. Not sure why. He hadn’t said anything mean to me, and he looked like an average middle-aged dude – nothing weird or creepy. One thing, though – he had a flashy gold watch that he was uber-proud of.

Once, he saw me looking at it and said, “You work hard, save your money, and maybe you can get a watch like this. It’s very expensive.”

What I was thinking was, “Did he really pay money for that gaudy bauble?”

I hadn’t been there long when we went to a house for a follow-up visit. We climbed the rickety pull-down ladder to the attic to check the de-ratting progress. I had a trash bag tucked into my belt, and I held the flashlight for him while he rummaged around in a dark corner.

“Open the bag,” he grunted.

He tossed a glue trap with an emaciated, dead rodent into the sack.

I felt queasy.

There was some rustling and squeaking, and Mr. Renfro produced a second glue trap with a terrified, live rat stuck to it, squealing and struggling to get free.

“You’re not going to just toss it in the bag, are you?”

He cocked his head and looked at me as if I’d asked the question in Russian.

I pointed to the trap. “The rat? It’s alive.”


“You’re going to throw it in the trash and let it suffer?”

Renfro smirked and dropped the trapped rat onto the floor. Before I realized what he was going to do, he slammed his heel down on the rat’s head.

“Now it’s not suffering. Clean it up.”

I gagged as I tossed the bloody mess into the garbage bag. Maybe I should start looking for another job tomorrow.
Renfro headed toward the ladder. “Put out some more glue traps.”

I did. I just didn’t remove the plastic layer that covered the glue.

By the time I came down and refolded the ladder, Renfro was finishing up with the homeowner.

“Good bye, Mrs. Thompson. We’ll see you next week.”

“Thank you, Jim Bob! I don’t know what I do without you.”

As it turned out, job opportunities were hard to come by, so I had to grit my teeth and stick it out for the rest of the summer. I was never so glad to see August roll around – couldn’t wait for the first day of school.

It was a few months later when my mom called me to the phone. I think we’re the only people I know who actually still had a landline.

“Hey, it’s Jim Bob Renfro. Got a big job Saturday, and I wondered if you could use some extra cash?”

I could definitely use extra cash. “I have plans that night, but I’m free during the day.”

It was Halloween, and Randy – one of my buds – was having his annual party. He and his brothers made their own haunted house in the garage with black plastic sheeting to form the corridors. Sure, sometimes it was cheesy, but they also had a pool, and it was still usually 80 or 90 degrees in October. And his mom went nuts with all the Halloween food. Spider cupcakes, mummy meatballs, witch’s fingers breadsticks. And then some.

“If we start by eight, we should be done in the early afternoon.”

I was saving up for a car, for when I got my driver’s license over the summer. I needed every penny I could get, because Dad said I had to pay the insurance, too.

“Sure. See you Saturday morning, Mr. Renfro.”

“Crows. Filthy birds, even worse than pigeons. Started roosting on an office building, and we have to encourage them to leave.”

“Oh?” I was afraid to ask.

“We have to install bird spikes, stuff like that. I’ll tell you all about it Saturday.”

Saturday was a little chilly, and I was glad I had a jacket when my mom dropped me off at A Pest Free Palace’s office. Being here reminded me how much I hated this job. Probably too late to call in sick. I just had to think of the beautiful car I would buy with my saved-up money.

Mr. Renfro waved at my mom as he opened the door. She drove away. I wanted to run after her. But if I wanted my own car, I had to come up with the cash. I forced a smile.

“Morning, Mr. Renfro.”

“Morning. Everything’s already loaded up. Let’s get ‘er done.”

The crow-plagued office building was across our small town, at the edge of the city park. Fifteen minutes after setting off, we arrived. A few of the black birds watched us from the trees as we tacked down bird spikes, installed rotating reflectors, and hooked up a motion-activated predator call broadcaster. Sometimes they flapped around and cawed to each other, but mostly they just watched. I felt like I was trespassing.

As I walked across the roof to string some cable, I heard a loud crunch and the roof started to give way. I threw myself backward and landed on my butt. At least my foot didn’t go all the way through the shingles – just left a big dent. Renfro didn’t ask if I was okay, but he did take a picture to send to the building manager to they could get a roofer up to repair it. Priorities, I guess.

When we finally got the equipment installed, we sat under the awning over the office’s front door and took a break. I seriously wished I’d brought more than a PBJ sandwich and an apple.

“Now,” Renfro said between bites of his own meal. “There’s one more thing we have to do.”

I’m not sure why this made the food in my stomach curdle. Maybe it was the way he looked at the watching crows.

“Pigeons, sparrows, they’d see all that stuff and just go away. Not crows, though. They’re too smart for their own good. They’ll find ways around the spikes, and realize the reflectors aren’t a threat. Nope, crows, you have to send them a message.”

I didn’t like the way that sounded. I just nodded. Something bad was getting ready to happen, I could feel it coming.

Renfro packed up his lunch kit and took it to the truck. When he came back, he had a BB gun and a sparkly glass bead the size of a grape.

He chuckled softly. “They can’t resist something shiny. Watch this.”

Renfro rolled the bead out onto the grass beneath the tree where the crows were perched. They cocked their heads from one side to the other, trying to get a better look. After muttering amongst themselves, they hopped, branch by branch, to the lowest part of the tree. One must have been the lookout, because it stayed perched in the leaves and kept its beady little eyes on us while the other three flew down to investigate.

Renfro carefully sighted in on the middle crow in a group of three and pop! Down went the bird, struggling and flapping on the ground. The other three flew off, cawing loudly.

I don’t think you should have done that.

He took the bird by the feet and carried up onto the roof. He used a heavy-duty staple gun to secure it to the roof, out of sight from the street, but easy to see if you were a crow flying over the building. It squawked both times he stapled it, and I jumped each time. I couldn’t really see it, but I could guess what he was doing.

You really, really should not have done that.

“Welp, that’s it. The crows won’t roost here anymore.”

He gave me $100 in cash and dropped me at my house – it was on the way back to his shop. The bills were new and crisp, but they felt dirty.

I tried playing Assassin’s Craft online for a while, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor crow stapled to the roof. My mom had dabbled in reupholstering chairs, so I found her tack removal tool and stuck it in my pocket, pulling my shirt over the long bit of the mini-crowbar that stuck out of my jeans.

“I’m going to ride my bike,” I told my dad.

He barely looked up. “Don’t be gone too long if you want a ride to Randy’s at seven thirty.”

“I know.”

It took about twenty minutes to get to the office where we’d worked earlier, and dusk was just settling in. I didn’t have a ladder, but I pulled the fire escape down and used that to get up on the roof.

There were crows everywhere. They surrounded the bird that Renfro had stapled down, and they moved silently out of my way as I approached their fallen comrade.

I pulled up the staples, and the bird just laid there limply. I thought it was dead, but one of its eyes opened. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I couldn’t leave it there. I put it inside my shirt and tucked the shirt into my pants.

As I started toward the fire escape, a flash of something shiny and gold caught my eye. When I turned towards it, I noticed a huge hole in the roof, where I’d nearly fallen through earlier. What had made it collapse?

Curiosity was not my friend. I looked over the edge.

Lying on the polished concrete below was Mr. Renfro. What on earth could have brought him back to the office building? He knew the hole was there – he took a picture of it. I thought of the shiny object at the edge of the collapsed roof and swallowed hard.

I called 911and scurried down the fire escape.

The fire department broke through the glass doors, but it was too late for Mr. Renfro. They suddenly became very suspicious of what I was doing there. I called my mom to come get me, and I told them what had happened. Everything. I even pulled the half-dead crow out of my shirt to show them.

One of the police officers looked at him and said, “My girlfriend’s a wildlife rehabber. Why don’t you let me take him to her?”

I handed the bird over. What was I going to do with it?

Needless to say, I didn’t make it to Randy’s party. After taking such a long time to go to sleep, I was annoyed at being woken up at a quarter of six by cawing crows. Then came the pecking. There were birds pecking on my bedroom window. Irritated, I went to shoo them away.

I opened the window. “Let me sleep, you idiot birds!”

Something shiny glittered on the window sill. I rubbed my eyes and picked it up.

It was Mr. Renfro’s watch.

Memories of Water

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The water was only up to the edge of the middle slab of the driveway. Still far enough from the house. Too deep to drive through, though. If only the damned rain would stop. It’s been four days. Enough already.

Once, when it had slowed to a drizzle, Harvey tried going for a walk, just to get out of the house. It didn’t take long before the torrent returned, and coming home was like trying to move through a car wash.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

When had the roof started leaking? It was fine before. It wasn’t even that old. Maybe TV would take his mind off the water.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He clicked through the channels. No. Nope. What? Three and a half times he cycled through before he settled on a comedy prank show – it didn’t really matter, he wanted the company more than entertainment. Harvey watched a shadow seep across the floor and pool just beyond the doorway. He looked up. She said nothing.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Harvey shook his head and looked back to the TV. When his glance returned to the doorway, she was gone. Should he have said something? Surely, she knew how much she’d hurt him when she’d left. Her picture, beaming in her wedding dress, smiled down at him from the opposite wall. She looked so much different now. Ravaging cancer had left her gaunt and scarred, and the once-vigorous Rita was a frail ghost of her former self.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He stalked to the window and peered out. The water had come up maybe a few inches. Not much. The driveway was still more than half clear. He looked out the back. The runoff pool in the yard had stretched further and wider. It still wasn’t up to the deck, though. It should be fine. The rain had slowed down now, and there was food, water, and power in the house. Surely it would be over soon. It couldn’t rain forever. Could it?

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Harvey slumped into his chair. The transformer groaned and boomed. Lights flickered and went dark, TV pranksters silenced in mid-guffaw. He stared hopefully at the screen. During storms, it wasn’t uncommon for the power to go out, only to come back on a minute or two later when the backup circuit kicked in. The second hand staggered around the filthy face of the crooked plastic clock. The television remained dark.

He felt her come into the room behind him. Her hand on his shoulder was ice. The cold frosted his heart, and it cracked along old fault lines.

“I’m glad you came back.”

For a long time, she did not reply. Finally, in a voice so soft he wondered if he’d imagined it, she said, “I know.”

Harvey closed his eyes, yearning for what used to be. He ached to sweep her into his arms, but his body refused to move. A solitary tear crept down his unshaven face.

Her bloodless fingers caressed his cheek and the wood floor sighed as she left the room.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He emptied the pot into the bathtub and set it back under the leak. Drops of water clattered against the empty aluminum container. The noise jangled his nerves. His jaw clenched. Harvey strode out into the living room and jerked the front door open. Rain tumbled from the sky in silver shards that shattered on the ground and flowed like quicksilver to join the roiling lake that was slowly but surely swallowing the driveway. As long as the levee holds…

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He needed to talk to her. Harvey knew that. But he was afraid. Afraid of her cold silence. Afraid of her sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. He shuddered. Things weren’t his fault. He was healthy, for his age. He had needs. The girls didn’t understand. Harvey’s eyes fell on the shadow-drenched hallway that led toward the master bedroom. Not yet. Breakfast dishes needed cleaning. Not that tidying up had ever been a priority for him – yesterday’s dishes also still needed washing. But it was a handy excuse for putting off the inevitable.

Harvey shuffled into the kitchen. Peeling linoleum, worn through to the concrete below in spots, hinted at the sunny yellow of better days. The gas water heater didn’t need electricity, and he put the stopper in the sink to soak the crusty dishes a few minutes before he began his half-hearted scrubbing.

Wiping a plate with the tattered dishrag reminded him of washing his girls in the sink when they were tiny babies – first Carla, then two years later, Celia. So small, so fragile. Both were married with daughters of their own, but they were still his girls. Too bad neither had spoken to him after their mother left. They blamed him.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Water splashing into the pot was louder here and it echoed in his head. He was only half-way through the washing up when he couldn’t take the noise of it any longer. Flinging the cloth into the murky dishwater, he padded down the hall to the bedroom he’d shared all those years with Rita. Wet carpet squished beneath his feet, splattering on the walls. Dark footprints trailed behind him down the corridor.

The room was submerged in twilight. Gloom twisted behind the doors and flowed from under the furniture. Harvey shivered, but whether the chill in the air was real or imagined, he couldn’t tell. The tap was running in the tub. Dread weighed on Harvey like sodden wool, and he struggled to breathe.

Still, he forced one foot in front of the other. One step. Two. Twelve steps from the bedpost to the master bath. Steam fogged the mirror above the vanity. Water splashed on the floor from the overflowing tub. His heart pounded in his ears as he rushed in to turn off the faucet. Where was she?

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Déjà vu grabbed Harvey’s insides so hard he wanted to puke. He plunged his arm into the near-scalding water, searching for Rita underneath the raft of bubbles. She wasn’t there. Gradually, he became aware of someone watching him. His breath caught in his chest when he whirled and saw her standing behind him. She looked different somehow, but also the same, wearing that same broken smile she seemed to reserve for him alone.

Rita raised her hands toward him, palms up, beckoning. Harvey slid his feet on the treacherously slick tile toward her, then took her icy hands. He closed his eyes as her gelid breath fell on his face when she leaned in and kissed him.

Euphoria exploded within Harvey and pooled in rainbow puddles of bliss. It was like the first time he’d ever kissed her. He opened his mouth wider, greedy for more. The ecstasy faded, and Harvey went from floating to falling.

He opened his lids, but instead of the familiar soft brown eyes he was expecting, what he saw was black. Soulless black where the iris should have been, merciless black where he expected white. Harvey whimpered and jerked away, feet skidding out from under him. He saw stars as his head smacked against the side of the tub, felt hot blood running down his scalp.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The funeral director closed the side door behind the departing clergyman and stole a glance at his watch. The cremation chamber warm-up cycle was almost complete. Mourners stood up and began milling around. The two daughters stood near the main door. No one stood near the casket.

He watched as the pitiful handful of dearly beloved ebbed toward the door.

“I’m so sorry, Carla. It must be very hard losing your father so soon after your mom.” The man was somewhere in the grey area between middle-aged and elderly.

“Thank you, Uncle Ike.”

“Good riddance.” mumbled the young woman next to Carla.

The woman clinging to Ike’s arm dabbed at her eyes. “Celia! Is that really necessary? He was your father.”

“Our mother’s dead because of him, in case you’ve forgotten, Aunt Beulah.”

“It was an accident!”

“He was there while she drowned in the bathtub!”

Carla held up her hands. “Please!” She blinked back tears. “It doesn’t matter now, does it? Can we please just finish up the service?”

The funeral director’s watch vibrated. He slid in between Carla and her uncle. “It’s time.”

Carla nodded. Celia grinned.

The director pulled the fancy drape off the plain container that held Harvey’s body. Why is he wet? Somebody has really screwed up. What is that black spot on his collar? Surely it’s not mold. At least no one in the family noticed. There would be a staff meeting about his on Monday. Completely unacceptable.  

He closed the lid and pushed a button. The conveyor that held the flimsy coffin started to move, dragging Harvey closer to the eager flames of the crematorium. Water droplets fell from the corner of the box, disappearing into the dark carpet.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The Seventh Circle

Mr. Hughes loved Halloween.

He once told me that it had been his wife’s favorite holiday, and he kept up the decorating to honor her after she’d died. An elaborate shrine to the dead, if you will. Instead of “Sweets for the sweet,” “Deads for the dead?” But I digress.

Every year, he created a different theme. Last year had been the best yet. A realistic cemetery erupted from his yard one morning. Bats hung from the trees, and giant spider webs stretched between tombstones. On Halloween night, he added a fog machine, and a hidden projector threw stalking specters against a nearly invisible mesh. Younger children were too scared to come close to the trick-or-treat bowl, but the older ones loved it – it was almost like a free haunted house.

He always made a costume that matched the decorations. One year, I helped him pass out candy, and he was surprisingly good at making me up like a zombie. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and it terrified me for a moment before I realized that it was me. The makeup was too realistic, too perfect. Made me think of the nightmares I used to have when I was in the hospital. I didn’t sleep that night. Or the next one. By the time I got to fifty-six hours, I was starting to hallucinate. I collapsed on the sofa and slept twelve hours straight. But at least I was too tired to dream. Another plus: my house was incredibly clean and my closets were more organized than they’d ever been.

The year after that, he did a werewolf scene. A disguised post supported a leaping canine monster, and I couldn’t tell you how creepy it was to go to my mailbox and be faced with a werewolf in mid-attack. Did I mention that it moved? It gave me the heebie-jeebies. Reminded me too much of the time my aunt’s big dog attacked me when I was little. Still have the scars on my jaw. I even go the long way around out of the neighborhood so I don’t have to drive past that monstrosity on the way to work. I couldn’t even look out the living room window in the evening – those glowing eyes haunted my nightmares.

Aside from his Halloween obsession, Mr. Hughes isn’t a bad neighbor. If you don’t mind obsessive grass mowing. At seven in the morning. But he always smiles and waves when he sees me. Although I suspect he might have been the one to complain to the HOA about my edging. That’s how the lawn service company does it. Not my fault, is it?

But this year, he’s got the most over-the-top tableau I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, given his decorations. It looks like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Layers of ragged nylon fabric dance in the breeze of a fan, simulating flames. Damned souls writhe in the fires, and motion sensor-triggered sound effects wail in anguish. An enormous three-faced Lucifer head with pointed teeth and gaping maws was tethered between the two oak trees.

The night he put out the display, I woke up screaming. It had been months since that happened. I had to call my shrink at three AM. I think it’s probably been two years since the last time I had to do that.

Mr. Hughes. It was almost like he knew. Knew my most vulnerable spot, then gleefully sucker punched me. Was he trying to drive me insane? He couldn’t possibly know. But why? Why on earth would he choose this scene?

Surely, if he had been there, listening to my wife and kids screaming as the house blazed around them, he wouldn’t have done it. There was nothing I could have done as I lay on the ground, grass slick with my own blood, jagged bone ends sticking out of my thighs. I had tried to drag myself to the front door, but my legs were worse than useless. An explosion – later I found it was a gas line – shattered the windows and roared through the house like the Devil himself. I had been upstairs and got thrown through a picture window into the front yard. I lived. Not sure if it was a blessing or a curse. I had survived Hell, and for what? To be mocked by Halloween decorations? But this year, I could do something about it. I called up Mr. Hughes and offered to help with the final touches.


Sunday, Halloween morning, was cool and dull. Thin clouds lazed by, briefly exposing the wan sun. Clots of neighbors paused on the sidewalk, admiring Mr. Hughes’ pièce de résistance. A very realistic corpse had been added to one of the jaws of the three-faced Satan. The body’s head and neck vanished into dark mouth, and the arms were raised, hands against the teeth that were trying to chomp it down. The grass had been torn up, as if there had been an epic struggle. The character wore the kind of robe common to Christmas pageants – perhaps he was meant to be Judas? But I’m not really sure. Almost as soon as I’d arrived at Mr. Hughes’ house the prior evening, he’d offered me whiskey from an expensive, imported bottle. We each had a shot, then another. We went outside to look at the display, and he told me that this would probably be the last year of his Halloween extravaganzas. I agreed, fingering the length of clothesline I had in my pocket.

Watching from my darkened window, I could see that the neighbors’ concern increased to panic as Halloween evening stretched on, and Mr. Hughes had not appeared to pass out candy. I saw Mrs. Montoya, his other next door neighbor, standing on the sidewalk in front of his house, talking on her cell phone. I went to see what she was up to.

She ended the call before I got out there, and as I got closer, I could see that she was crying.

“What’s wrong, Mrs. Montoya?” I kept it formal – I didn’t know her all that well.

She sniffled before she turned to me. “Ernie seems to be missing – he hasn’t come out with candy, and he won’t pick up the phone. I’ve called the police. I’m afraid he may need to go to the hospital.”

Too late for that. “Really? Why?”

“He was diagnosed with an aggressive pancreatic cancer. He only has a few months to live.”

“I didn’t know. I’m very sorry to hear that.” You have no idea how sorry.

I sat on the curb and started to laugh. I was still laughing when the police arrived.


By Emil G. Skrubb

Today, I learned to never trust Halloween dances. They may seem innocent at first, but never, ever fall into their trap.

Allow me to explain.

It was Friday, October 30th, and everyone was hyped up for the big Halloween dance after school. I didn’t plan to attend, since none of my friends were going to be there, but everyone kept on trying to convince me that it would be fun.

“Why aren’t you coming to the dance? It’ll be fun!” they all said. I didn’t even know these people. It was almost like they were in some sort of Halloween-dance cult. Seriously, why can’t people mind their own business? It’s not like I had five bucks to spare, anyway. I needed that money to buy snacks from the vending machine! I could be doing things with my life instead of wasting my money at some boring dance. I had been to these kinds of things before, and they were rarely anything but flashing lights and LOTS of noise.

The straw that broke the camel’s back is when even the teachers started nagging me to go. “Who’s going to the Halloween dance tonight?” they would ask. Most everyone’s hands went up. They tried all sorts of things to convince us to show up, including offering extra credit and free candy if we came.

“Fine, I’ll go to your Halloween party,” I sighed, exhausted from everyone annoying me and trying to convince me. It became clear that they wouldn’t give up anytime soon. Besides, I really needed that extra credit.

After the last bell rang and we were let out of class, I grabbed my things from my locker and walked downstairs hesitantly. There was still a chance to get on the bus and leave! Then, I remembered the extra credit. I didn’t really have much of a choice at this point. I walked up to the admission table, paid my five dollars, and got a bright pink wristband.

“Have fun!” grinned the teacher in charge of admission. I was positive that I wouldn’t. I walked into the cafeteria, which was covered in cheesy Halloween decorations that were probably from the local dollar store. It was absolutely full of people, every one of them screaming and dancing. I made my way to the refreshments, possibly the only redeeming factor of this so-called party, and tried not to get trampled in the process. Unfortunately, all the good food had been eaten already, and all that was left were the less popular choices. I decided to pass. I mean, it’s not like any of it was healthy enough to justify eating it, anyway. Just then, they started blasting my least favorite song at full volume. I desperately tried to cover my ears, but I could still hear it clearly.

All of a sudden, loud, grating feedback played over the speakers. Nobody else seemed to notice; they were too caught up in the party. Then, it happened again. They should really get their sound system fixed!

I suddenly got this overwhelming feeling that something was horribly, horribly wrong. I couldn’t put my finger what it was, but I felt like I had to get out of there. I ran to the front door, but I was blocked by the principal.

“Leaving so soon? Don’t go yet! We’re just getting started!”

I screamed and ran to the other door. I tried to open it, but it was locked! Just then, the principal took the mic.

“It seems that someone wants to leave early. We can’t let THAT happen, can we?”

All eyes turned to me. Everyone had this disturbing, devilish grin. “Of course we can’t!”

They all surrounded me, still smiling like maniacs. “Don’t be afraid! It’ll only hurt a little!”

“W-what will?! What are you going to do to me?!” I cried.

“Oh, you’ll see!” they replied cheerfully, as if this was a completely normal thing that they all seemed to enjoy.

They took me backstage, right by the speakers, and pulled out knives. Lots and lots of knives. They had what appeared to be a punch bowl with them.

Well, now I know what caused the feedback. And it wasn’t the sound system, after all…

If you ever go to Halloween parties, remember not to drink the punch. But in the event that you do… Well, you’ll see!

Post Spring Break Contest

The first person who correctly identify the beach I was sitting on when I wrote this short story wins a signed copy of their choice of one of the following: Earthbound, Cheval Bayard, Confessions of a Troll, Dragon by Knight, The Hanged Man’s Wife, or The Magician’s Children. Reply in the comments.

Spring break was almost over, and the clouds were rolling in. The fog was so thick that even the midday sun hadn’t been able to burn through it. The wind had churned the waves to nearly the color of chocolate milk, and the mist that shrunk visibility to only a few dozen meters was only a few shades lighter.
“Should we start packing?” Carmela asked, pulling her hoodie down around her neck.
“We still have one more night in the campsite,” Madison replied.
“Supposed to rain,” Carmela said, disappointed.
She was not a fan of the ghostly white crabs that scuttled on the beach when they’d walked down to skinny dip in the wee morning hours. Last night, even the tiny sliver of moon had been obscured by clouds. The fog seemed to make the roaring waves sound louder and the crabs bolder. There were more of them last night than ever.
Today, the beach was mostly deserted. A frustrated kyaker and a family with two toddlers were the only other people around. Even the seagulls hadn’t bothered coming out. The other four girls, Carmela and Madison’s school friends, had left this morning. Carmela wished she had joined them.
A sand piper paused in its race down the wet strand of beach and dipped its long bill hopefully in the sand.
“You want to go up the seawall to Ben and Jerry’s?” Carmela asked.
They were down to their least desirable provisions, and there didn’t seem to be much point in just sitting on a chilly, empty beach with Madison.
It sounded like someone had thrown a large rock into the water.
“What was that?” Carmela asked.
Madison rolled her eyes and sighed. “I’m sure it was just a fish jumping. They do that, you know.”
They do that because something’s chasing them. But Carmela didn’t say it out loud.
“Fine. Let’s go get lunch,” Madison said.

After pizza and ice cream, Madison used her mother’s credit card to rent a pedal car, and the girls spent a few hours riding up and down the seawall. The spring break crowd had thinned considerably.
“You sure you don’t want to head home back early?” Carmela asked.
The girls picked up some sandwiches and headed back to their tent. The fog had turned to drizzle, and Carmela couldn’t think of many things she’d rather do less than be stuck in a tent with Madison and nothing to do for the next twelve hours. Maybe she could catch up on some much-needed sleep.
“I need to call Caleb,” Madison announced when they got back to their camp.
“Okay,” Carmela replied.
“I need some privacy.”
Carmela frowned. “It’s raining outside.”
“It’s not raining that hard. Besides, you can take my umbrella.” Madison held out a pink, heart-spattered collapsible brolly to Carmela.
Madison nodded toward the tent flap. “Yes.”
Carmela should have put her foot down, should have stood up to Madison. But that was the funny thing. Nobody ever stood up to Madison, no matter how much they ought to have. Carmela snatched the umbrella and crawled out into the rain.
All the other campers had had the good sense to pack up and go home. Madison’s green and white tent was the only one left in the entire campground. At least that meant that she’d most likely be able to use one of the flush toilets instead of one of the portables. She climbed the ramp and opened the first door.
The fluorescent light flickered and hummed. Just don’t go out while I’m in here. As bathrooms go, this one was quite large, with built-in benches lining the corner facing her. There were no windows, of course, but Carmela did consider dragging her sleeping bag into it, despite the signs forbidding just that. It would be nice if her cell battery wasn’t dead. She could at least text Emily while she was waiting on Madison to finish her oh-so-important private call with her boyfriend. But, lacking anything better to do, she went out to the beach.
It wasn’t quite dark, so she wasn’t too worried about the crabs being out just yet. She hadn’t walked very far down the beach when she noticed strange tracks in the sand – a large body, pulled along by flippers. Could it be a turtle? There were “Report Nesting Turtles” signs everywhere. Although, Carmela hadn’t thought they were that large.
Carmela whirled around, but saw nothing. That was it. Phone call or no phone call, she was going back to the tent.
She headed over the boardwalk towards the campsite. She was surprised to see Madison coming towards her.
“Bathroom,” she told Carmela.
“I want to show you something when you get out,” Carmela replied.
Madison nodded. While Carmela waited, she looked over the edge of the dunes to the wild sea. A vee of pelicans glided silently above the beach.
Something wet and cold flopped onto her shoulder. She yelled as her elbow flew back and struck its target.
“Ow!” complained Madison, rubbing her jaw. “What did you do that for?”
“Why were you sneaking up on me? How was I supposed to know you weren’t some perv?”
“Whatever. What is it you wanted to show me?”
“This way. I think there may be turtles on the beach.”
The tide was going out, and the tracks on the beach were still intact.
“I think that’s more than one turtle. Look how wide it is. Should we call the park rangers or something?” Madison asked.
“Probably. But my phone’s out of batteries.”
“Go get mine. It’s under my pillow.”
Carmela shook her head as she trudged through the deep sand to the boardwalk. Madison was wading into the water. What she saw in that cold water, Carmela would never understand. Besides, the strange tracks and odd noises made her uneasy. She’d get the phone and try to talk Madison out of the sea while they were waiting on the ranger.

Phone in hand, Carmela paused in front of the sign at the end of the boardwalk to dial the turtle hotline. She reported the location of the track as she walked back toward the ocean, then hung up.
Madison, however, was nowhere to be seen.
“Madison! Where are you? This isn’t funny,” Carmela shouted, her voice lost in the wind. She walked perhaps a hundred yards in either direction, but there was no sign of her.
There was no reply.
Carmela decided to check the bathrooms and the tent, but Madison wasn’t there, either. Fear seeped into the corners of her mind. She ran back to the water, but she was alone on the beach. Completely alone.
Madison’s phone dinged, and Carmela looked at the screen. “Battery Critically Low! Plug into Charger.”
Not even a pale, spidery crab had emerged in the thickening dusk. Carmela spun and ran back to the bathrooms, slamming the door behind her and locking it. She slid down the wall and plopped onto the bench in the farthest corner from the door. The light bulb lit up, although it still sputtered. Her hands were shaking so hard she could barely turn on Madison’s phone.
The screen lit up, then went black. “Goodbye!” the message read before the phone fell completely dark.
“No!” Carmela yelled at it, before throwing the useless thing onto the floor.
She pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them against her. She sat there in the flickering light, heart pounding.
Carmela was sure she heard a grunting noise outside, as if there was a giant pig rooting around at the base of the bathroom structure. She held
her breath. Maybe it was just the wind.
It felt like at least an hour had passed, maybe more. It was quiet outside now. Had she just imagined the strange snuffling? Or maybe the wind had blown something up against the bathrooms? She let her breath out slowly.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Something pounded on the door.
Carmela was sure her heart stopped. She hugged herself even tighter.
“Hello?” called a voice from outside.
“Who’s there?” Carmela said, her voice too loud, too nervous.
“I’m from Parks and Wildlife. Someone called about nesting turtles, but I can’t find anybody.”
Carmela flew across the room and threw open the door. She’d never been happier to see someone in uniform in her life.
“That was me! My friend and I saw the tracks. I went back to get her phone to call, and now I can’t find her.”
“Let’s go make sure she’s not waiting for you on the beach. If not, we’ll call the Coast Guard for a search and rescue.”
Madison had still not turned up. Neither had the crabs. The turtle track was forgotten as Carmela and the park ranger called for her. At least Madison might be able to hear, now that the wind had started to die down.
Something bright green was caught in the beam of his flashlight.
Carmela felt ice in the pit of her stomach. Madison had been wearing a bright green shirt.
“Over there,” she said, suddenly hoarse.
They approached the object gingerly. It was a scrap of fabric. There was a tiny piece of a black printed mustache at one jagged edge.
“That looks like the shirt she was wearing,” Carmela said. “What could have done that?”
“You don’t know it’s her shirt. Every shop on the seawall has those.”
There was an odd sound behind them, like something heavy being dragged over sand. As Carmela turned to look, she heard the same grunting she heard earlier.
There was something large pulling itself across the sand towards them. Carmela cried out, and the ranger swung around, catching the thing in the bright glow of the flashlight.
At first, Carmela thought it was an alligator. A fifteen foot alligator. But she saw that it had flippers, rather than legs and feet. it was black and smooth, and glistened in the beam.
Carmela was sure she’d seen a picture of one of those before, if she could only think of where. She was also sure that the scrap of green fabric caught in its recurved teeth was from Madison’s shirt.
“Run!” yelled the ranger.
Carmela was rooted to the spot, so he grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her along. The beast wasn’t fast on land, and they easily outran it. The ranger radioed for help, but by the time the Coast Guard choppers arrived, the monster was gone. Carmela didn’t dare to be alone, so she stayed with the ranger. He followed the drag marks along the beach until they disappeared into the surf. Just at the water line, he bent over to pick something up.
He held it under the flashlight and examined it. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff wash up on the beach before. I’ve even hunted for fossils in South Dakota. And If I didn’t know better, I would swear this was a mosasaur tooth. Only it isn’t fossilized.”

Meanwhile, in the Universe Next Door

Meanwhile, In the Universe Next DoorMeanwhile, in the Universe Next Door

 “…But in spite of all of that, his credibility was completely trashed when pictures surfaced on the internet of him wearing nothing but assless chaps.”

“Assless chaps? Isn’t not having an ass what makes them chaps instead of just leather pants?”

“I’m no expert on that, Darrin, so I’ll just have to take your word on that,” Tim said, trying to squelch a giggle. “Please join us next week when we’ll be talking with one of our favorite authors, the prolific Rick Nedbracken. Rick has a new book out, “Time Tunnels,” about how alien technology can manipulate time and space, creating wormholes not only in space, but time as well. This is the end of the free segment, so if you’re Primo, stick around. Otherwise, we’ll catch you next week. Coming up after the break, we’ll start with an owl story of a different kind, involving Native American skinwalkers. Is there a connection between these shapeshifting legends and The Greys? Mysterious Multiverse wants to know.”

Tim Cumby clicked the stop icon on his screen and took a long glug of water before he pulled off his headphones.

“I’m ravenous,” Darrin White said, as he removed his own headgear. “How ’bout we pop across the street to that new Five Guys?”

“Why don’t we give it another ten minutes? The lunch rush should be just about over. I’ve got to grab that music clip, anyway.”

“If I pass out from hunger, you’ll throw me over your shoulder and lug me over there, right mate?” Darrin asked, squeezing out his chair in the recording booth.

“Only if you raise your vibrations,” Tim answered, opening a .WAV file and putting his headphones back on.

“Bastard,” Darrin replied as he shut the clear glass door.AsianSphynxCA

 Tim ordered, while Darrin claimed one of the three available tables. The smell of fries made his stomach rumble. He slapped at his neck – there seemed to be an insect crawling on him. When he checked his hand, there was no evidence of bug remains. His full attention was now on Tim, who was approaching with a tray of food. Any fly that came near his lunch was taking its life in its own wings.

Tim set the plastic tray on the table and Darrin grabbed his food. As Tim unwrapped his burger, he paused to scratch at his neck. And noticed something that made him drop the sandwich back onto the tray.

“Darrin!” he whispered as forcefully as he could.

“What is it?” Darrin snapped, frustrated by his burger’s inexplicable second wrapper.

“Look to your right, four tables over,” Tim said.

Darrin sighed in protest and glanced at the other table.

“What the…” he said, hunger suddenly vanishing.

Two very tall, thin men sat at the table, watching Tim and Darrin intently. Each wore a black suit, crisp white shirt and a skinny string tie. The black fedoras that topped each head accentuated the nearly luminescent pallor of their skin. Mirrored aviator glasses that hadn’t been in style since the 70’s completed their peculiar look.

“Are those-” Darrin started to ask.

“MIBs” Tim cut him off.

In perfect synchronization, the Men in Black rose and approached the podcasters’ table.

“Yes,” said one of them, as he loomed over Tim.

“Yes, what?” Tim asked.

“You will come to hunt ducks with us, yes?” the second MIB said.

“No,” Tim and Darrin said, nearly in unison.

The Men in Black looked at each other, and a wordless conversation seemed to pass between them.

“It will be fun. Many ducks,” the second one tried again.

“I’m sorry,” Tim said, “but we’re dangerous criminals, and we’re not allowed to have guns.” The corners of his mouth twitched as he worked to stop himself from grinning.

The first MIB frowned. “There is nothing in your file—”

“Tsssst!” the second MIB cut him off. “We will find another fun activity, which we will invite you to. But we have another appointment now.”

As soon as glass door closed behind the MIBs, Darrin gave Tim a skeptical look.

“Was that a set up? Just ‘cuz it’s my birthday?”

Tim nearly choked on his burger. “No, of course not. I might put an S&M soulmate card on your number plate, but I’d never get fake MIBs to come after you.”

Darrin, clearly unconvinced, crammed too many fries into his mouth.

“Dudes!” a shaggy young person of indeterminate gender approached their table. “Saw what just happened, bros. Just wanted to let you know, my pack and me, we got your backs.”

“Your pack of what?” Tim asked.


“I’m sorry,” Darrin said. “I don’t mean to be dense here, but eight whats?”

The interloper glanced around and leaned over the table. “We’re werewolves,” he said, nodding.

“Oh. I see. Thanks for the support,” Darrin said. “But if you don’t mind, we’ve got to finish our lunch so we can get our episode finished.”

“Sure, bro,” the unkempt stranger said with a wink.

The alleged werewolf turned and shuffled back to a table, where five other, equally scruffy companions clustered around half eaten lunches. They all grinned and gave Tim and Darrin a thumbs up.

The two podcasters, waved half-heartedly.

“Let’s take this food back to the studio,” Tim said.

“Perth is overrun with weirdness today,” Darrin said as he re-wrapped his sandwich. FlyingHumanoidCA

After the podcast was finished and loosed upon the interwebs, Tim and Darrin locked up the office and walked out together.

“I’ll have to take a rain check on the birthday cake – Tamara’s got dinner plans for us tonight, some of her old school mates are in town. They’re all at our house – probably be blind drunk by the time I get home,” Tim said.

Darrin opened his mouth to answer, but instead, “What. The. Hell?” came out.

Tim looked up. Standing in front of the elevator, a man in a green polo shirt petulantly poked the “up” button. There was nothing remarkable about him. From the waist up. Below his shirttail, hairy goat legs, cloven hooves and all, comprised his lower half. The door slid open, and the man walked in, short goat tail wagging behind him.

“I’m done. I’ve had enough of today, thank you,” Darrin said.

“Should we go back in and try to figure out where it went?” Tim asked.

“No. And not only no, but hell no. I’m just going to my brother’s for some beer and cake.”

“Let me drop you off.”

Tim swore softly after he dropped the car keys into the crack between the driver’s seat and center console. As he groped for them, he heard someone tapping on his window.

“Don’t look up! Just get the keys and drive!” Darrin all but shouted.

“Please sir, can you give us a lift?” a voice said outside the window.

“No!” Darrin shouted. “Go away! You’re not getting in this car.”

Tim found the keys and eased them out of the tiny space.

“Let us in!” the voice outside blustered, and his fist pounded on the glass.

Unable to stop himself Tim looked up to see two teenaged boys glaring into his window. Their skin was oddly pale, but their freakish eyes, dull, dead black from lid to lid, almost made him drop the keys again.

Tim grunted as Darrin body checked him and grabbed his right hand.

“Are you insane? Don’t open the door!”

Horrified to find his hand hovering over the door lock button, Tim gasped and jammed the keys into the ignition. Tires spun, spraying gravel, and the vehicle careened onto the roadway, leaving the two black-eyed kids glaring after it.

“I swear,” Darrin began, “if anything else happens today, I’m just going to drown myself.”

“That would be a terrible waste,” said a voice from the back seat.

Tim and Darrin whipped their heads around, only to discover that the two Men in Black from lunch were sitting in the back seat.

The car’s engine suddenly quit, and the radio stopped. Seemingly on their own, the car doors opened. The MIBs got out first, followed by Tim, then Darrin.

“Would you look at that?” Tim said, bending to inhale the perfume of a brilliant red flower. “This is amazing.”

“I don’t know why we were so scared,” Darrin said, dreamily, “everything is going to be just fine.” Small2LegCADragon

When Tim opened his eyes, something felt wrong. He was cold and his limbs felt oddly heavy. Darrin lay on a metal table a short distance away, making a gentle whirring sound as he curled and extended his fingers.

“What happened to us?” Tim asked, surprised by the tinny sound of his voice.

“Welcome to the singularity,” a dapper man with a close-cropped beard said.

Servos whined as Tim turned his head.

“They’ve turned us into robots,” Darrin said.

“No. We’ve uploaded your personalities, your souls, if you will, into sentient avataristic mechanisms, or SAMs, as we like to call them. You have gained immortality!” The man said with a grin and a flourish of his left hand.

“I don’t want immortality!” Tim said. “I want to have dinner with my wife. Change me back.”

“I’m sorry that you feel that way,” the man said. “The process is irreversible.” His eyes strayed to two clear, man-sized containers, filled with dark red goo. “You will live forever. Forever, don’t you see? You no longer have a need for offspring, or messy physical…gratification.” The bearded man grimaced, as if the very idea of bare skin offended him.

“Why have you done this? Why us?” Darrin asked.

“An excellent question. You see, Mars is a very long way away. And there’s no oxygen there. The best way to set up a colony there is to send an advance party to set up the terraforming equipment. You’ll have no trouble doing that – you no longer require food, water, or oxygen, and the equipment practically runs itself. Once that process is up and running, the colonists can be sent for. Some of them, of course, will be in SAMs, but most will be old-fashioned flesh and blood. We’ve got to propagate human DNA throughout the solar system, you know, and personalities have to be grown in meatbags before they can be uploaded to SAMs. We got the idea for all of this when one of our programmers won your jet ski for being the millionth subscriber. With such a big listener base, it would be easy for you to convince many of those expendables, I mean followers, to sign up to become Mars colonists, especially if it meant joining you two on the red planet.”


“…and that’s a wrap for this week’s Primo episode. This is Tim Cumby”

“and Darrin White”

“and we’ll catch you next time on Marvelous Mars.”

Tim clicked the “stop” button. “That buys us three days. Maybe we’ll get it this time,” he said, standing up.

Darrin ducked out of the way of the three feet of steel rod that protruded from Tim’s neck. His own head only rotated about 90° now, and one of his optical sensors was broken, so it was a little awkward for him.

In the hundred and fiftty years they had been marooned on Mars, they’d discovered three things: 1) being sixty million miles from home and awake 24/7 is not as fun as one might think, 2) SAMs are practically indestructible, no matter how hard one tries, and 3) Mars has large deposits of lodestone.

The SAMs’ data storage units were located about where real humans’ hearts would be, and they were heavily shielded from radiation, electromagnetism, heat, shock and liquids. Darrin had pulled out some wire from one of the terraformers, and he sat and stripped off the insulation, while Tim worked on ways to get the protective SAM chest plates off.

Craaaack! Pop!

“Darrin,” Tim smiled, “I think I just voided the warranty.”

“Well done, mate!” He hurried to strip more plastic off the wiring. “What’s all that?”

“Some kind of gel,” Tim frowned, pawing at the squishy, yet tough gelatinous material encasing the data unit.

Darrin poked at it with the wire stripper, but it resisted puncture.

Hours passed. It also resisted bolt cutters, a laser knife, a soldering iron, a screwdriver, a hacksaw, a pipe wrench, an acetylene torch, a fire extinguisher, and a shard of broken glass.

Dejected, Darrin stared out the window, towards Earth. He wondered who was living in his house, and if his sexy neighbor still lived next door, the one who used to sunbathe nude in the backyard on summer mornings. An American friend had taught him how to make the perfect margarita, and Darrin had always planned to show up one morning with a pitcher of the icy beverage. But he’d never followed through. In his mind’s eye, he could see the pitcher, sitting forgotten in the sun, condensation pooling on the table, all the remaining ice crystals floating in the center. Ice crystals. Ice…crystals.

“Tim. We have to go outside.”


“Outside. Look at the thermometer. It’s -107°C. The hydraulic fluid inside the SAMs has an antifreeze, right? But if we take the covers off, and the gel isn’t protected, it might freeze, right?”

“It’s worth a shot, mate, worth a shot.”

The automatic airlock seemed to take forever to open to the outside. Tim lifted the chest panel that hung by one corner over his data unit. Darrin looked around for a rock. When he found a good one, he smashed Tim in the chest as hard as he could.

The flash-frozen gel shattered and fragments of it spewed out of Tim’s chest.

“Yes!” Tim said. “I need some tools to get your chest open. Let’s get back inside.”

In half an hour, Darrin’s chest had been opened, the gel shattered, and they had returned to the terraforming control room. Darrin wrapped bare wires around a softball-sized chunk of lodestone, and Tim did the same to an even larger piece. Then they each hugged the rocks to their data units. Tim rested his hand on the power supply switch for the shut-down terraformer. Darrin nodded.

“And that’s a wrap,” Tim said.

Then he pulled the switch.

No App for That, Part 1

I knew there wouldn’t really be anything in the mTalk store for under $150. Even with the 50 bucks Mom offered to chip in, there was nothing I could afford. Didn’t stop me from looking. Or from feeling let down. Guess we’d have to try the used phone place my BFF Stacy told me about.
“Don’t worry, Lauren. I’ll buy you the best phone ever,” my dad had said when he called last month. Then he sent me a check for $100. That wouldn’t even buy me a decent mom phone. Happy birthday to me.
“Stacy said it was just across from the yogurt place,” I told my mom.
I tried to cheer myself up. At least Dad sent cash, instead of having his new wife, Twila pick out something for me. At Christmas, she sent me some earrings from the dollar store and the most hideous sweater in the history of mankind. Seriously. The cat wouldn’t even sleep on it, and I left it in her basket for two weeks before I used it to wash the car. But Dad thinks she’s an expert because she’s only three years older than me.
At least summer break was coming up and I could work more hours at Grocer-Ama. If this place, Allbrands Refurbished Phones, didn’t have what I wanted, at least I had a $150 head start. Might have that mTalk by July. Bye-bye prepaid cheapo. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a sleek new phone in my hand. Purple skin like Kaia’s or rhinestones like London’s?
The smell of freshly made waffle cones made my stomach growl.
“Want to get a yogurt first?” Mom asked.
I ordered cheesecake and strawberry swirl. With sprinkles, of course.
“What are you getting?” I asked Mom.
“Oh, I’m just not really in the mood for something sweet right now.”
I knew she was lying. She’s always in the mood for something sweet. She was only working four days a week now, and money was tight.
I picked up an extra spoon from the basket on the counter. I put it in her hand on when we found a place to sit and I pushed the cup of yogurt to the middle of the table.
“Thanks, ba-Lauren.”
I prepared myself for disappointment as we walked across the corridor to the used phone store.
The man behind the counter looked kind of old, but he had blue-black hair and very dark eyes. Dying your hair after a certain age is just wrong.
“Is there something I can help you find?” he asked.
Mom cleared her throat.
“Yes, sir. Do you have any mTalks?”
“But of course.” He pointed to a display at the end of the counter.
There it was. The newest model – the mTalk MultiFinity. Stacy was always going on about how great her mTalk was. It has the best apps, and blah, blah, blah. And she didn’t even have a MultiFinity. This one was only $75.
“What’s wrong with it?” It seemed way too good to be true.
“Ah. The MultiFinity. Scratch and dent.” He slid open the glass door and picked up the phone. When he flipped it over to show me the back, I could see what he meant. Two deep scratches ran from top to bottom and a little dimple slumped between them.
“The damage is only cosmetic,” the man said as he slipped in a battery. The phone vibrated and lit up.
“This is how you connect to the internet.” He pushed a button with a cube on it. Then he put it in my hands and went to talk to my mom.
I heard them talking about contracts and service plans, but I didn’t pay much attention. A news page flashed onto the screen. I navigated to my favorite band’s site. Steve, Justin and Zack, The Mercury Fish, appeared. Then I went to Stacy’s blog and left a comment.
No way I was leaving this thing in the store. With a skin, nobody would ever see the scratches. I started picking through the mTalk covers on the pegboard.
“I guess that means you want the phone, Lauren?” Mom asked, right behind me.
“Yes!” I hoped I hadn’t sounded too much like a kid.
“Thought so. They have a basic plan I think you can afford.”
“Kewl.” I went back to the skins. By the time Mom had finished all the paperwork, I found a blue metallic leopard print one that I liked.
My mother handed me a brochure when we got in the car. “This is what your plan covers. I do expect you to pay for this. No pay, no phone, understand?”
“Sure, Mom.” I was too busy putting the skin on and personalizing the phone to read the brochure. It would still be there later.
I went over to Stacy’s almost as soon as we got home.
“Hey, Stace! Look what I’ve got.”
“An mTalk? ‘Bout time.” She touched the screen. “How’d you score a MultiFinity?”
“Birthday fundage.”
Stacy cocked her head and looked at me. “From your dad? Did he sneak out while Twila wasn’t looking?”
“Don’t know. He sent a check. I cashed it.”
Just then, we heard the front door open and close. I looked up as Stacy’s brother came in.
“Hey, Jeff.” I said, trying to sound very casual.
Stacy rolled her eyes. I’d been crushing on him for years now. He was in college and so much more mature than high school boys.
“Lauren’s snagged a MultiFinity. Check it out.” Stacy said. “She’s one of us now.”
“Cool. Let’s see.”
I had trouble breathing when he sat down next to me on the couch. When he brushed my hand to pick up the phone, my skin tingled and shivered. I could feel the heat of his body next to me, and I could just about pretend it was me he was interested in instead of my phone. Too soon, he got up, reminding me that I was nothing more than his little sister’s friend. Sometimes, reality sucks. I held in the sigh.
When he had gone, Stacy elbowed me in the ribs. “You’re so pathetic. Just an FYI, he has a girlfriend now.”
“Why should I care if he has a girlfriend?”
I almost dropped my phone when it rang a few seconds later. It was Mom, telling me to come home for dinner.
* * * *
Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the clock. What was that noise and why was it happening at 12:01 AM? On the nightstand, my phone was glowing. I closed one eye to cut down the glare and looked at the screen. 1 New Message. Why is someone texting me at midnight?
I looked at the message. The sender was an unfamiliar jumble of numbers. Welcome to dNet. Thanks for activating with us. A whole new world awaits you!
They woke me up to tell me that? I turned the phone off and went back to sleep.
The next four days were the last short week of school. Awards ceremonies, report cards, turn in textbooks, yearbook autographs and all the usual stuff.
I had Friday completely off, no Grocer-Ama until Saturday. Stacy and I spent the day bumming around at the mall, then hanging out by her pool. Jeff didn’t show while I was there. Bummer. I had the hottest bikini ever. Mom would have died if she saw it.
“Hey, Lauren? Let me hook you up with some killer apps.”
I handed Stacy my phone while I went in the bathroom to change clothes.
“You ready for Driver’s Ed on Monday?” Stacy asked when I came out.
Mom had let me drive her car a little bit in the empty parking lot of the bank on Saturday afternoons. It had a clutch and I had to remember which pedals to step on and how to shift gears. It was hard and I was looking forward to having an automatic to learn on.
“Yeah, I guess. Wonder who’ll be in our group?”
“Don’t know. As long as it’s not Perry. I can’t stand to be in the same room with him. He smells.”
“I don’t think it’s all his fault. I think his mom feeds him lots of garlic to keep girls away.”
Stacy laughed. “Girls? Maybe. Anyway, it works.”
I was tired when I got home, and I went to bed early. I fell asleep playing with my MultiFinity, trying to figure out some of the new stuff Stacy loaded for me.
Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt.
I sat up so hard I almost fell out of bed. I had been dreaming that something with claws was holding me down, trying to push all the air out of my lungs. I was glad the phone woke me up. I looked at the clock. It was 12:01 AM.
What useless message does dNet have for me tonight?
It wasn’t dNet. It said ‘Jeff.’ No last name. Odd. The message read, ‘Cum outside & meat me undr tree.’
Meat me?
I looked out the window. I could just make out a figure darker than the shadows under the live oak tree. That totally creeped me out. That couldn’t be any Jeff I knew. I texted back, “No thx”
I left the phone on my nightstand, went in Mom’s room and got in bed with her.
“What’s wrong, baby?” she muttered, half asleep.
“I thought I saw someone outside.”
“What?!” She was suddenly awake.
Putting on her bathrobe, she called the police and picked up the golf club she kept in her closet. Dad always wondered what had happened to his 9 iron. Cordless phone in one hand, club in the other, she walked around the house, turning on all the lights, indoors and out.
The police cruiser showed up about ten minutes after Mom called. He asked me about what I saw. I was afraid to mention the text. Mom would take my phone away for sure if she knew. The officer looked around, but didn’t find anything.
“Could be a transient,” he hold my mother. “There’s been more of ’em lately, you know.”
“I see,” Mom answered.
“I’ll make sure I come back by a few times during the night. You probably scared him off. I don’t expect he’ll be back.”
“You don’t expect? That isn’t really good enough. I have a teenage daughter to look out for,” my mother snapped at him.
“Easy, ma’am. If he was just under the tree and not trying to get in the house, he was probably just passing through. I would recommend you leave your outside lights on, though.”
We sat up watching old reruns, the ones you find on network TV after midnight. We didn’t have cable anymore. My mom cannot just sit and watch television. She has to DO something. Usually, she knits. By the time I fell asleep around three, she had most of a scarf done.

No App for That, Part 2

Saturday was the same as just about every other Saturday. Have breakfast, go to work. Come home. No date. I almost fell asleep during dinner. I went upstairs to lie down for a minute and the next thing I knew, it was morning.
I didn’t have to be at work until four. Stacy and I went to the mall to play crazy golf. It’s indoors and everything is glow-in-the dark. Before we went in, I took our picture and posted it on FaceSpace.
We were on the bus on the way back when my phone buzzed. It was a text from London. ‘OMG. Who’s the guy?’
‘?’ I replied.
‘W/U & S @ mall’
I looked at the picture in my phone. Nobody but me and Stace. I went to the internet and opened my FaceSpace page. There were Stacy and I. Behind us stood a guy in a black shirt. I could tell he had blond hair, but the top half of his face was cut off, And his hand was on my shoulder.
My hands started shaking. I deleted the pic.
“What’s wrong with you? You suddenly turned white,” Stacy said.
“Nothing. Here’s our stop.”
* * * *
I opened my eyes and looked around. I had left the lamp by my bed on. The clock read 12:00. I sat up. Nothing seemed wrong. Not until my phone lit up and buzzed. It was 12:01.
The message was from “Jeff.”‘LET ME IN.’ I heard someone tapping on the glass of the back door.
‘NO NO NO NO NO. GO AWAY’ I turned the phone off and took the battery out. The tapping stopped. Text me now Jeff, if that’s even your name.
Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. It felt like someone was pouring icewater on my head. Cold fear dripped onto my shoulders and down my back.
TTYL  Jeff replied.
I threw the phone and the battery into the night table drawer. I was taking it back tomorrow. I didn’t care how good a deal it was.
Taking a deep breath, I crept to the window and peeked out through the edge of the curtains. Nothing unusual outside. I picked up a book and tried to read, shivering under the blanket and staring at the same page for hours.

“Lauren. Wake up baby.” Mom was shaking me.
I opened one eye. It was 6:45.
“What?” I asked.
“Driver’s Ed, remember? I’m dropping you and Stacy off on the way to work.”
After I got dressed and ate breakfast, we got in the car.
“Didn’t you sleep well?” Mom asked me, her eyes narrowing. I wasn’t sure if she was worried about me, or if she thought I was up to something.
“I was going to talk to you about that. I need to take this phone back and see if they maybe have a different one.”
“Why’s that?”
“Somebody keeps texting me in the middle of the night. Must be a wrong number or something.” I didn’t bother telling her about the text after I’d pulled the battery out. She’d never believe it.
“Texting you? What are they saying?” Mom swerved into the other lane as she jerked her head in my direction. Good thing we weren’t out in traffic yet.
“Nothing, really. Just wanting to meet up.”
“Absolutely, we’ll get your number changed. We’ll go back to the store this week, tonight if there’s no overtime from work. You can just turn it off and leave it downstairs so it doesn’t wake you up until then.”
We pulled into Stacy’s driveway and she came out to meet us. Mom was taking us to class, and Mrs. Halloran was picking us up. We’d already done all the classroom stuff and watched the gory car crash movies. Now it was time for what Coach Smith called the “practical education” part.
Mom and Stace good-morninged each other and off we went.
There were four of us in the group: me, Stacy, James and Emily. I had to drive last.
“Turn right at the next intersection,” Coach Smith said.
I put on my turn signal and started slowing down. Maybe a little bit too soon. I triple checked for cars and pedestrians. I didn’t’ see either as I started to turn.
Then I saw him. Walking into the street, right in front of the car.
It was a guy with kind of greenish skin and white blond hair. And black eyes. Not just dark colored irises. The whole eye was black with no white at all. In fact, it could have even been a zombie version of Stacy’s brother. I screamed as slammed on the brakes with both feet. The car screeched to a stop and everyone lurched against their seatbelts.
“Lauren, what in God’s name is wrong with you?” Coach Smith shouted at me.
I got out of the car, searching frantically. “Where is he?”
“Lauren, who are you talking about?” Coach Smith had gotten out of the car, too.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t see him. That guy that stepped off the curb right as I turned the car.”
“Lauren, nobody stepped off the curb. You’re imagining things. Why don’t you just get back in the car. On the passenger side. I’ll call your mom, okay sweetheart?” His voice was suddenly soft and sweet.
Great. Now he thought I had lost my mind.
“Fine. Whatever.”
I got in the car. My heart was still thumping against my ribs and I was breathing hard from the adrenalin. Nobody said a word as Coach Smith drove to the nearest parking lot and called my mom. I stared out the window. I’m not crazy. I’m NOT crazy.
Mom met us at the school. She hugged me, then she lifted my chin up and looked at my eyes and felt my forehead.
“Go sit in the car, baby. I just want to talk to Coach Smith for a minute.”
I sat in the passenger side with the door open, hoping to catch a little breeze in the stifling heat. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could see Coach Smith’s mouth moving and Mom frowning and nodding her head.
When Mom got in the car, she started the engine to get the AC going, but didn’t go anywhere.
“Okay, Lauren. I’d like to hear your side of the story. Tell me what happened.”
“This guy stepped off the curb, right in front of me. I slammed on the brakes, but when I got out of the car, I couldn’t find him.”
“I see. Why do you suppose no one else saw this person?”
“I don’t know.” Tears started to well up in my eyes.
Mom closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Have you been using drugs?”
“What? No!”
“Well, something has changed. You aren’t sleeping at night and you’re having hallucinations. If it isn’t drugs, what is it? Are you having a mental disturbance? Or is this some misguided ploy to get attention?”
“So those are my choices? I’m a junkie, a nut job or a conniving brat? Is that really what you think of me?” I couldn’t stop the tremble in my voice or the tears from overflowing onto my cheeks.
“Lauren, I don’t want to believe any of those things about you. But if there’s another alternative, perhaps you could tell me what it is.”
“It’s this stupid phone, okay? Ever since I got it, weird stuff has been happening to me.” I told her about the texts from “Jeff,” wishing I hadn’t deleted them, and I told her about the picture I put on FaceSpace. I even found it on my phone and showed it to her. And I still had the text from London about it.
“Okay. Let’s go to the phone place.”
She didn’t speak to me on the way. I could tell by the way she was gnawing her bottom lip that she was thinking about the problem, looking for a logical explanation. The trip to the phone place was probably more to buy time to figure out what to do than because she believed me.
We parked in our usual section and went in the door closest to the yogurt shop. As we got closer, I started looking for the Allbrands sign. I didn’t see it. Could they be closed on Mondays? We were directly across from the yogurt place and there was no phone shop, only the painted screen that makes it look like there is a store there.
“Excuse me,” Mom said to the lady behind the yogurt counter, “But do you know if that mobile phone store across the mall from has moved to another space?”
“Mobile phones? There’s never been any mobile phone place over here. Can I get you some yogurt?”
“No, thanks.”
Maybe now my mother would believe me.