Category Archives: Short Stories

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.

No App for That, Part 3

“Okay. I’m sure they’ve just moved. Or closed down. Let’s go look at the directory.” She grabbed my wrist and hurried me down the corridor.
“But Mom – you heard what the lady said.”
“She may be new and just not know. Or she may not care.”
We stopped in front of the “You Are Here” directory and map. Mom read the name of every business in the mall. Three times. I didn’t bother. I knew there would be no listing for Allbrands Refurbished Phones.
“I put the paperwork in the glovebox,” she said. “It’s still in the car. That’s bound to have a phone number on it.”
She marched us out to the parking lot and hunted furiously through the glovebox and under the seats. “It has to be here somewhere,” she muttered.
But it wasn’t. Even under the blaring sun, her face was pale and her eyes were wide.
“Alright. I have and idea. You said the problems started when you got the phone. Let’s just try an experiment. Get in the car.”
Mom’s fingers drummed on the steering wheel as she drove. I didn’t like to see her so upset, but at least she seemed to believe me now.
She pulled into the parking lot of a large city park between the mall and our house. It was 98° and not a breath of air. The park was abandoned. Mom took a plastic grocery bag that had some trash in it from the floor of the front seat and got out of the car. I followed her to the farthest possible trash can, where she emptied the bag.
“Turn off your phone and give it to me.”
When I handed it over, she wrapped it up in the plastic bag, then looked around the park. “Tip the trash barrel, but not all the way over.”
The barrel smelled like mildew, vomit and dog poop, and I had to stand there holding the disgusting thing while she used a stick to dig a little hole underneath. Sweat was running down into my bra and I thought I was going to hurl from the stench of the trash can.
“There,” she said as she snuggled my plastic-wrapped phone into the dirt. “You can put the trash barrel back, now.”
As much as I had wanted my mTalk, I was glad for it to be gone. After we got home, I ate a bowl of cereal and went upstairs to chill in my room. The next thing I knew, Mom was shaking my shoulder. I looked at the clock. It was three hours later.
“Stacy’s on the phone for you.”
Groggy and disoriented, I sat on the edge of the bed, trying to get my bearings. “Tell her I’ll call her back. Please.” I was too embarrassed to talk to her after the Driver’s Ed incident.
I had just over an hour before I had to be at work, so I splashed some water on my face, brushed my teeth and went downstairs. Mom had her headset on and was typing at the computer. Must be trying to work from home.
“Baby, would you mind getting the mail? I just saw the truck go by and I’m sure hoping there’s a check from your father in there.”
I got myself a cola and went out to the mailbox. There was a lot of stuff jammed in there. Something clattered to the pavement at my feet. I looked down.
It was my phone.
I screamed. Mom came running out of the house, cable dangling from the end of her headset.
I was shaking too hard to talk. I just pointed to the phone on the ground. My mother’s face went white. She picked it up and slammed it to the concrete, over and over until the casing broke open. Then she stomped its electronic guts into the road and kicked the parts into the storm drain.
She put her arm around my shoulder and guided me towards the house. She took the pile of mail from me and I flopped onto the couch.
“Let’s see that thing try to come back now,” Mom said. “Are you feeling up to going to work this afternoon? If so, you’d better eat something, baby.”
I looked at the clock. Work seemed like a great place to be. Nothing weird ever happened there. Everything was completely, boringly, normal.
I went into the kitchen and fixed myself a cheese sandwich. I couldn’t manage more than three bites of it, but I did finish my cola.
Mom dropped me off at the store and Inez, the manager, gave me a ride home after closing. The whole phone episode was starting to feel like a bad dream.
Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, paying bills when I came in. “How are you feeling, Lauren? Work okay?”
“Fine, Mom. I’m just really tired. Night.”
“Goodnight, baby. Love you.”
I was in the middle of brushing my teeth when the knocking started. It was downstairs, at the front door. It was loud, but slow and steady, like a metronome. Knock…knock…knock…
I froze. People knocking on your door after ten at night can’t be good. I could hear my mom ask, “Who’s there,” and a voice asked to be let in. I slipped my robe on over my nightshirt and walked quietly to the top of the stairs.
I recognized the voice of the person at the door. Stacy? What was she doing here this late? I came halfway down the stairs. Then I stopped. There was a guy with her, the zombie Jeff I thought I’d run over during driver’s ed. Something was way beyond wrong.
“Stace?” I called to her. My breath switched from normal to shallow and I gripped the railing to keep my balance.
“Lau-ren.” She sung my name, like she was calling a dog.
I looked at my mother. She stood completely still, staring into Jeff’s all-black eyes. “Mom? Mom!”
She didn’t move.
“She can’t hear you, Lau-ren,” Stacy sang. “Not since she let us in.”
Stacy started towards the stairs. I started backing up.
Then she smiled. It was the most horrifying smile ever. It was almost as if someone standing behind her pulled her lips up and back to show her teeth. But worse, much worse, was what happened to her eyes. As I watched, they went from normal to completely black. No iris. No white. Only black.
I turned and bolted towards my room. Stacy appeared at the top of the stairs, blocking my way. Her back was to me.
“Lau-ren,” she sang. Slowly, her head swiveled around a complete 180° and she was looking at me from where the back of her head should have been. She giggled, then her face got fierce “Run!” she snarled.
She didn’t have to tell me twice. I took a shortcut by vaulting over the railing where the stairs made a right angle turn. Not only did I bang my head on the edge of the stairs going down, but I didn’t quite stick the landing and I heard something crunch in my ankle. I would feel it later, when the adrenalin rush faded.
I sprinted the five steps to the antique china hutch that stood under the staircase. Stacy met me there.
A gurgling, giggling sound seemed to be coming from her, but her mouth was closed. “Lau-ren. Time’s up.”
“Why, Stacy? Why?” I had to keep her talking for just a minute while I eased open the drawer behind me.
“Why not?” The freaky giggling got louder.
“But you were my friend.” I found what I was looking for and curled my fingers around the handle.
Stacy cocked her head at an unnatural angle. “Yes. I still am.” The horrible grin again. “Don’t fight me and I promise it won’t hurt. Not much, anyway.”
As she lunged towards me, I whipped the silver-plated cake server in front of me and held on to it with both hands. I scrunched my eyes closed as tightly as I could. I wasn’t sure it would work and I didn’t want to see what happened either way.
I felt a bump and heard screaming, snarling and bellowing, as much inside my head as in my ears. It was a tsunami of sound and I wondered if I would drown in it. I thought my head would implode. Then silence. I let go of the cake server, but found my hands were empty. Taking a deep breath, I opened my eyes.
Stacy and zombie Jeff were gone. Mom was lying on the floor, her left arm bent between her elbow and wrist. I crawled over to her. She was still breathing. I managed to drag myself over to the phone and called 911 before I passed out.
I gradually became aware of voices. My mom’s and my dad’s. I opened my eyes. Mom was sitting in a chair near the end of my bed, her arm in a cast and a sling. Dad was next to me. I was in a hospital room.
“Hey, Sunshine!” Dad, said, squeezing my hand.
There was no sign of Twila. Things were looking up. “What happened?” I asked, trying to shake the cobwebs off.
You broke your ankle and had a nasty blow to your head, baby. They wanted to keep you overnight for observation,” Mom said.
I don’t know if Mom remembered what happened. But I did. Every awful moment.
“Somebody broke into the house. Home invasion robbery. Odd thing was, the only thing they took was a silver-plated cake server,” Dad said, shaking his head. “Drugged out wackos.”
The door squeaked open and a nurse came in with a vase full of red and orange poppies. She set it on the counter by the sink. “What nice friends you have!” she said as she smiled and handed me the card.
Can’t wait to see you again. Get well soon! Love, Stacy

The Bridge Club

 Ellen kissed her husband on the cheek. “Bye, Mark. See you later.”
 “Have fun at your bridge club.” He didn’t look up from his football game on the TV, didn’t hear her sigh as she walked away from him.
 A black-framed picture of a small blond boy hung by the back door. On her way out, she kissed the tips of her fingers and pressed them against the photo. It had been a year and a half since four-year old Daniel had died.
 She turned the radio up loud after she started the engine. She needed that wall of noise to distract her from her own thoughts. It was still a few hours from twilight and the heat from the relentless sun shimmered on the pavement in black pools that disappeared as she moved closer to them. A lot like Mark, since The Party.
 Three cars were already parked on the packed-down dirt near the bridge abutment. Kane was at the bridge railing, securing the rigging. Alma and Rodrigo sat on the hood of their car, talking aimlessly with Herky and Chuck. None of them, this new circle of friends, knew about The Party last spring. Ellen liked it that way. She didn’t have to be pricked by the guilt in their eyes when they talked to her. Guilt because her other friends, her old friends, had all been lounging in the pool, chatting away about guacamole sauce and vacations and nothing. Not one of them noticed the little boy slip under the water. It was her fault. She was his mother. She should have been watching. She told herself that she didn’t blame her friends, didn’t hate them. But if that was true, why did she avoid them now? Elyse called her at least once a week, but Ellen always let the calls go to voice mail, never returning them.
 Ellen parked her beige family sedan next to Kane’s flashy red convertible. She had met him six months ago, at this same bridge. It was coming up on the one year anniversary of Daniel’s funeral. She had been standing on the pedestrian path, staring at the thrashing water, thinking of jumping.
 “I’m gonna jump,” he had said, appearing out of thin air behind her.
 “I said I’m gonna to jump. Wanna have a go?” He had an accent that she thought might have been Australian. Even after six months, she hadn’t bothered asking.
 Ellen had stared at him blankly. He smiled at her and fastened a thick rubber cord around one of the bridge supports.  He put on fingerless gloves and slipped into a harness. Kane had slopped a quick kiss on her mouth before he hurled himself off the bridge. The dark cord snaked out behind him, whipping through the chilly January air. He bounced up and down a few times before he dangled at the end of the cord like a black and red spider, just above the water.
 Then he started to climb back up the cord. It stretched and quivered as he inch-wormed his way back to the bridge. Grunting and sweating, he heaved himself over the railing. Ellen glimpsed the outlines of hard muscles as his flannel shirt stuck to the sweat on his back and sides.
 “Ready for a go?” he’d asked, as if he were asking her to dance.
 Ellen shrugged.  “I’m no good at climbing rope.”
 “S’all right. I’ll haul you up. I usually just drop into the water, but I don’t have my wetsuit today.”
 “Yeah, okay. Why not?” It might be a good preview for plunging off the bridge with no cord attached.
 “I’m Kane, by the way,” he had told her.
 “I’m…El-Elyse.” She had given him a friend’s name. The friend who threw The Party.
Ellen hadn’t been to this bridge since the time she met Kane. She remembered that very first jump. She’d stood on the lip of the bridge, toes curling inside her shoes. Adrenalin had made her innards squirm and her hands tremble. Kane had said something to her, but she didn’t listen. She pulled in a deep breath of snow-fresh air and spread her arms. Closing her eyes, she let herself fall.
Her stomach lurched up into her throat. Rushing air pressed hard against her diaphragm and she couldn’t breathe. Her eyelids snapped open and she saw the frothing river rushing toward her. The rocks got bigger. She clenched her eyelids together, certain she would slam into the dark water. A tug at her waist pulled her back up for a few seconds, then she fell again. After a few bounces, she hung above the water. Even in the cold, she could smell the pungent mud on the river bank and the water and the stones. Her heart had throbbed against her ribs and her skin tingled.
Now, the only time she could feel anything was when she was hurtling toward the earth. That’s why she had joined the Bridge Club, why she was here now.
Ellen sat in her car, putting on lip balm and watching Kane. He was just finishing up. His bare back was to her, fresh sweat glistening on ripped muscles. He was easy to look at, easy to sleep with. She hadn’t intended to. He tried hard to please her, but she was beyond his reach. Sometimes, she let him believe that she wasn’t. She had gotten good at faking almost everything in the past eighteen months.
 She opened the car door. The sticky smell of too much honeysuckle drifted up from the river bank, where a large vine of it had overpowered a rusty barbed wire fence. Shaking her head, Ellen locked her purse in the trunk and went to meet the rest of the Bridge Club. They met every Wednesday evening at 6:00 to bungee jump off of one of the many local bridges. Her husband thought she was playing cards. If the weather was bad, she usually went to Kane’s apartment.
“Hey, Elyse!” Alma called to her.
That name again. The once-upon-a-time-friend from a different life. “Hey. What’s Kane got for us tonight?” Ellen asked.
“Like you don’t know.”
Their affair was not exactly a secret. Ellen didn’t care what the others thought, not as long as she got to jump. They didn’t know anything about her. If they didn’t like her, screw ‘em.
“Got a new rig,” Kane said, coming down from the bridge. He tickled Ellen’s back. “Ankle harness.”
“Are you thinking head dips?” Herky asked.
“Seems too rocky here. Maybe Tanner Road Bridge would be better for that,” Rodrigo said, putting his arm around Alma.
“Nah,” Kane said. “Not going more’n a few inches in. Water’s maybe ten foot deep just under the bridge.”
“I’ll do it,” Ellen said. She didn’t care about their bickering. She just wanted to fly.
She followed Kane to the top of the bridge. He wrapped a towel around each of her calves, then strapped on the ankle harness. He told her things about jumping in an ankle harness, but she didn’t pay attention this time, either. A chilly puff of air tugged at her clothes and sent a shiver up her spine. It was just wrong in the summer heat. She was sure she heard a sound, the voice of a faraway child, carried on the breeze. “Mom! Mommy.”
She was finally starting to lose it. No one else seemed to hear it, so she pretended it was nothing. Even so, it flapped like a tattered grey moth inside her mind.
Kane helped Ellen to the edge of the bridge. She was desperate to go, to get that sound out of her head. As soon as she was clipped in, she dove, feet pushing hard off the concrete. The swirling water seemed to make a pattern. As she got closer, she could see a figure. Closer still, she could see Daniel. He was under the water, reaching both arms up to her. “I’m coming, baby!” she shouted, knowing it wasn’t, it couldn’t be him. Even so, she stretched out her arms to scoop him up out of the water, the way she should have done before.
She didn’t feel the rigging give way as her weight hit the end of the cord. She didn’t feel her neck break or her spine shatter as she hit the rocks. All she could feel was her little boy, back in her arms.
“I love you, Mommy,” he told her.
“I love you, too, baby.”
“It’s time to go.”
“Yes.” She didn’t even glance over her shoulder as Daniel led her into the blinding white light.