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March 31, 2008

Always Invite The Gnome

The garden gnome couldn't sleep. The thumpa-thumpa coming from the neighbour's house made the windows vibrate. Albert turned on his side and stuffed the tip of his red cap into his ear. Nothing. He could still hear the sound of people having fun without him.

Why hadn't he been invited? He was a nice gnome, polite and respectful. He mostly kept to himself, sitting on that tuft of moss in the back yard. He hardly ever crept up on anybody using magic and it had been a whole month since the last time he'd spied on the neighbour while she was dressing.

Albert dressed and went out to the garden. The grass didn't tease him about not being invited to the party. The lawn could be sarcastic, but for once, it kept quiet. That almost made it worse; he must be pitiful if even the grass had decided to put on its tact gloves for him.

The lawn transmitted minute vibrations originating a couple yards away. A party goer must be trespassing. The nerve! He'd show 'em!

Albert tiptoed closer to the source of the grassy disturbance. A figure silhouetted against the moon, murmuring under its breath. There was a shovel in its hand.

"Ehem" Albert coughed . The creature jumped and turned around, clutching a sack.

"I won't give it to you!," shouted the leprechaun.

Leprechauns always thought you were after their stash of gold and they were capable of anything to protect it.

"This is private property," said Albert. His eyes widened; he had an idea. It was evil and twisted. It was perfect.

Without hesitation, he reached for the leprechaun's stash and chucked it over the wall into the neighbour's yard.

"You! You!," shouted the enraged leprechaun. The creature darted off, tearing through the brick divider as if it were styrofoam and crashing the party with, well, a crash.

From the other side of the wall, came shouts and the sound of broken glass. A symphony of havoc. Albert smiled. He'd sleep well tonight.

March 28, 2008

Dinner at 'Gaststätte des Flußmädchen'

Our food arrived quickly. My wife, still not quite well, had only ordered bread and water. For me, the waiter presented a plate of spaghetti with fish in a creamy sauce.

I twisted a mouthful onto my fork and, on eating it

--saw a woman, pale hair falling waist-long down a tall figure, standing atop a cliff with a fair-haired man. They argued. The river rushed past below them, frothed white by rocks. The woman shouted of secret wives and lies, and threatened exposure.

The man pushed--

tasted something good, I think, but barely remembered it after the strength of the hallucination. Trying to ignore the residual unsettled feeling, I ate a chunk of carp.

--and she fell, screaming. Cold struck her hard, so hard, or was that the rock? Flailing in the water, light and dark playing havoc in her eyes, her mind, and pain spreading from her chest. Water against her.

Water wrote eddies of curiosity across her skin as the pain slipped away. A whisper in her ear. A greeting.

The water is home now and the rock your seat, said the river. Sing for me, maiden, sing sweet songs, sing to fill me--

"Rob, are you all right?"

I realised it was Susan talking. "I... don't know. I think I might have your flu."

Concern coloured her voice. "You should try to eat a bit more. Then we'll go back to the hotel."

Nodding, I ate more of the pasta.

--A song on a stormy evening. A small fishing boat tossed by waves, fighting the white.

The teenaged boy paused in his terror-screams. The song laced his ears, stirred thoughts of home, bed, love.

He felt nothing as the rocks sliced his boat to pieces, as the river tongued him downwards. As the maiden wept.--

"We should go," Susan said, and called for the bill.

Several minutes later we left. I stumbled into the street, as if feverous. The husband's face lodged in my mind. And I thought of the woman, trapped in the river.

"Tomorrow," I said, "we need to visit the Rhine."

March 27, 2008

The Zanzibar Vertebrate

It began simply enough, with a TV overheard out an open window on a summer’s evening in the mid-1980’s on the suburb fringes of St. Louis. Over the buzz of the lawn trimmer, I heard snatches of a Monty Python rerun and, as I wound up the extension cord and swatted early mosquitoes, I thought I heard an exchange that went as follows:



“A Zanzibar invertebrate?”

“A Zanzibar invertebrate.”

“A Zanzibar invertebrate!”


If there was more, it was lost behind my brothers’ shrieks and howls of laughter. I looked in the window in time for a blurred glimpse of British comedians in pith helmets batting each other with taxidermied ostriches.

By the time I got inside, the show was over and something else was on.

For a couple days, I wondered what I’d missed. Then, I forgot about it.

A few years later, I went to college and lived down the hall from a clutch of python-philes. Hardly a conversation went by without some chance word being taken as an oblique cue, and off they’d go, launching into elaborate, multi-voiced recitations.

One night they compiled an alphabetical list of every python sketch.

“Hey,” I said, “You missed the whole Zanzibar invertebrate thing.”

I did my best to describe what I remembered, and we were up until three while they spun theories as to why they’d never seen it -- which season it might have been an outtake of, which lost episodes or rehearsal tapes had been aired during PBS fund drives.

Two years later, in a different dorm’s dining room basement, I overheard a different group of enthusiasts. The words had shifted slightly, but there was no mistaking it: “A Zanzibar vertebrate?” “Indeed.” And much laughter.

I wound up behind one of them in the next day’s breakfast line. I asked for more details -- did he know what the ostriches had to do with it? He didn’t. He hadn’t seen it any more than my old friends had.

It was years before I heard of it again, mentioned in passing on some documentary on British comedy. I checked the web, and found full scripts, annotated with analysis, sketches, links to fan reenactments. I searched Google, YouTube and Wikipedia with every term I could think of -- no sign of the original footage. I think I know why: it never existed.

Whatever I misheard, the sketch didn’t exist until the fans began rehearsing and repeating it.

March 26, 2008

The Worst of Times

Herr Professor Gesunkenspiegel gestured grandly at his device. "Ladies! Und
Gentlemen! I present to you the Timeviewerscope! Mit this machine I will peel
back the veils of time to dot we may look upon the ancients! View the caveboys
and der cavegirls! See der fishies swimming out of the sea and growing with the
legs! Watch Elvis!"

The professor's audience consisted of three reporters with nowhere better to be,
the janitor's son, and a busload of Dutch tourists who thought they were
attending a minimalist opera.

Reporter Darrel Kaufman waved a lazy finger. "Is this going to work any better
than your telematterporter? Or that perpetual emotion engine you showed off last

"Those? Those were mere tinkertoys next to my Timeviewerscope! Watch as I switch
it on! Marvel as I tune it to view-- to view--"

"Dinosaurs," yelled the janitor's kid.

"Der dinosaurs? Very well, dinosaurs it shall be!" He turned to an instrument
panel and flipped a trio of switches, adjusted a dial, and then pulled down an
enormous knife switch. Sparks began climbing a jacob's ladder that didn't appear
to be connected to anything. The odor of ozone grew.

One of the other reporters leaned over to Darrel. "Isn't that the same equipment
from his Antigravitypullerupper dingus?"

"You'd think he'd just use a computer," said Darrel.

An oval area above the equipment grew hazy. Darrel looked around the hall for a
fire extinguisher.

"Behold!" shouted the professor. "Der dinosaurians!"

When the first carnivore burst through the haze and landed in a welter of folding
chairs, the Dutch tourists applauded politely.

March 25, 2008



Through solid information I had heard that Minaesphoptuian Hirentheah, a minor demon, a particularly slippery class six, had been at Valentino’s Bar and Grill. Valentino’s was a real spiffy pool joint; two floors, over a hundred tables, a sexy wait staff; place got real crowded on Sat nights. It fit Minaes’s modus operandi; debauchery and desire. Money and sex and egos flying around along with drunken pool games made for bad bargains and easy dealings.

Why work harder than you need to, the last demon I had collared said to me. And I agree. But I don’t take bribes, I collect bounty. Big difference.

As I enter Valentino’s I think of her sitting in the secured cell in my basement. Sooner or later a bounty to go out on her, and the rest of them.

Minaes stands out in the crowd to me, clear as day. I see right through her guise of zoot-suited pool shark. Then she sees me when shouldn’t. I’m masked to the gills way above what a class six can detect. But her glances betray her and she shows me the positions of the five major demons at the bar and tables. To the crowd they look like grizzled under cover cops.

Minaes dissipates into the ether, not bothering to cover her tracks but I can’t follow. A storm of demonic magic flies at me. Curses. Words of binding. I buckle in pain as the demons encircle me.

“Bounty on you, Ilyanna,” one of them says. “Illegal detention of Infernal-kind.”

I try to escape but I have no strength.

“There are bounties on all of you,” I say. “Hunters that have been on your tails for centuries. Release me and I shall hunt them…”

“A deal?” Another of the demons says. They are quiet. Conversing in each other’s minds. The crowd is running out of the joint in panic, thinking it’s a raid.

“Seal the deal in blood?” the first one asks.

It’s a dangerous game, opening my veins voluntarily around their kind. Voluntary is the key for them to have a hold on me. A guarantee I’ll keep my part. I don’t know if its gonna make things worse, but I’m not going back to Pandemonium, not tonight, so I might as well try.

I allow them to open my vein and I ready to receive the blood.

- END -

March 24, 2008

How Captain Mojo Struck the Wrong Note

Powered almost entirely by whiskey and attitude, Captain Mojo’s ship "Chastity’s Bottom" sailed its way across the sky in search of trouble and rock 'n roll—but more importantly, in search of her.

The crew had sold all the cannon for hammocks and guitars. The First Lieutenant gave herself the nickname "Ten-Shot Hammond," the Second Lieutenant called himself "Six-string Butler," and everybody called the Third Lieutenant names that could not be printed in the presence of gentlemen—or ladies, for that matter.

They swept through the air, and the other travelers of the skies feared them, especially when they started to play.

"Tell us where she is," they would shout across the range of clouds, "or we will start a fifty-minute guitar solo!"

So folk in their air boats would lie rather than listen.

"She’s in the City of Rain!"

"She’s dead!"

"She’s joined a band and they’re on tour in the Twelve Currents!"

"She never wants to talk to you again, she hates you, and she wants all her sheet music back!"

"Who the heck are you looking for? Who is she?!"

Only fools asked this question: Captain Mojo would answer them in song, before he burst into tears and hurled empty whiskey bottles across the abyss between ships; he would tell them of her red, red hair, and her glow-in-the-dark tattoo, and her smile like a thunderhead looking for a fight.

The last whiskey bottle flung, he would always end by leaning his elbows on the gunwale and sobbing, "If you see her, tell her I meant it as a compliment!"

March 21, 2008

The Mad Scientist's Evil Twin

His brother started it. Fame and fortune weren't enough for Stephan. He had to rub it in Eldon's face every day by being gracious, magnanimous, and successful. Curing cancer, solving world hunger, inventing a practical matter transmitter, discovery after sickening discovery. Whatever Stephan did just added to his wealth and reputation. He got more girls. He even had a better name!

Eldon was not going to be a copycat. Being the second most famous scientist in a family just didn't cut it. He chose a darker path.

* * * * *

Eldon specialized in biochemistry and genetics. He started small, a new viral disease here, a rust that ruined the taste of sweet corn there. He wore black, cultivated a mustache and goatee, and found that this persona drew women to him like vultures to a sheep carcass. He smiled a lot, and stroked his beard. He married frequently, if not well, and spent a lot of time in the lab. His brother was never far from his mind.

* * * * *

Carol buzzed around him, angry reminder of another almost-successful experiment. Maybe next time he should try something more substantial, something with a bigger brain. Not a mantis or spider; something benign, harmless. Perhaps a grasshopper, or a katydid. That was it! He'd always liked that Steely Dan album.

Carol came to rest on one of the windowsill plants. As the green jaws closed she realized she'd chosen poorly. Her tiny struggles grew louder, then were muffled, silenced. To his first wife, a housefly was nothing more than a snack. The Venus fly trap rattled its leaves suggestively.

Eldon pressed a button on his desk.

"Ms. Collins? Would you assist me in an experiment?"

* * * * *

Eldon picked up on the second ring. "Stephan! So good to hear from you. I'm in the midst of a groundbreaking experiment, Stephan, so you'll just have to wait. Perhaps lunchtime on Friday, my treat. Yes, let's meet in my lab."

Eldon turned back toward the examination table, where Miss Collins rolled her eyes frantically above the duct tape. Eldon adjusted the controls on the somatic gene-therapy transformer.

"This won't hurt a bit."

* * * * *

Eldon slammed the cup down over the oddly deformed grasshopper. "Got you!" The grasshopper hopped weakly, bumping into the glass. He dumped it into the terrarium. The machine had performed perfectly on this last run. Friday he would use a cicada.

the end

March 20, 2008

An Old Lion's Roar

Rabbit sat in the shade, scratching his ear with his hind paw. A strand of grass was stuck between the gears of his head, and it tickled mightily.

In the distance, he heard He Lion roar. Mechanical birds screeched and whirred to safety. Possum played dead, although it should have known by now that its tick-tack gave it away. Even Bear lumbered away. But Rabbit didn't move. It was getting too old for He Lion's roaring. It was getting too old to play the same games over and over again. It was getting too old to hop all over the place. Besides, the straw in his ear itched. So Rabbit stayed put and listened to the roaring coming closer.

"Me and Myself! Me and Myself," roared He Lion when he saw Rabbit.

Rabbit scratched his ear.

"Me and Myself, I said," said He Lion.

"Yes, I did hear you. I may be old, but I'm not yet deaf."

He Lion snorted and shook his whitened mane. It wasn't just Rabbit who'd gotten old.

"Well, aren't you going to run away?" said He Lion.

Rabbit considered this carefully. He Lion might need his gears oiled and wound more than he needed to eat Rabbit, but he still might crush Rabbit with his foot, just for the fun of it. Rabbit and He Lion went back a long way, but the lion was a stickler for authority.

In the old days, whenever Lion got in a funk like this, Rabbit would trick him into meeting Man. Man always knew how to take care of Lion, what with his guns and all and then Lion would behave for a while. But Rabbit was tired and Lion was old and Man was quite possibly dead by now. Man was the most literal of all the fabled clockwork creatures of the jungle and, as such, one couldn't expect much from him and certainly not infinite survival.

"Can't run," Rabbit said. "Got something in my ear."

Lion clambered up to Rabbit and sat down, realizing he wasn't going to get much fun out of the hare today.

"Hmm," growled Lion, "That sucks." Lion turned to face the sun, eyes half mast and lay down. He always did like to bask.

March 19, 2008

The Sorceress's Tale

The acolyte knocked before going in. He didn’t hear a response, but he knew she’d heard him.

The air inside was thick with the reek of rotting fabric and rich with the sound of hundreds of crickets. The Grand Metropolitan Sorceress hadn’t left this small room in over a decade, but still she kept the peace throughout the city and the suburbs beyond.

“Mistress?” said the acolyte. “Your dinner?”

“Keep it,” said a husky voice from the darkness.

The acolyte hadn’t heard her speak more than a murmured “leave it on the table” or “less pepper next time, please” in months.

“I’m doing a great working tonight,” said the sorceress. “My last, if it works.”

“You need to keep up your strength madam.” The acolyte felt around until he found an empty chair, and set the tray on the seat. “When you skip meals, you always feel it the next day...”

“If this works,” said the sorceress. “Tomorrow won’t happen.”

The acolyte stumbled back into something that jingled like crystal.

“That was too dramatic,” said the voice from the darkness. “There will be a tomorrow; it just won’t happen for many years. I’m turning back time.”

“What? You can’t.”

“I have to.” The sorceress’s voice had dropped its usual commanding tone. “I can’t hold back the hungry realms more than another few weeks. We can’t win against them.”

The acolyte swallowed twice. “But everything might change. And we still won’t be able to stop them.”

“We would have been safe, if I’d never done the Spell of Cold Knife.” Her voice was right in front of him. “It’s my fault.”

“But,” said the acolyte, “without that spell, you couldn’t have stopped the apocalypse meme. Thousands would have died.”

“I’ll find another way.”

“My parents,” said the acolyte,” they met in one of the refuges, while the knife spell ran.”

“They might still meet,” said the sorceress.

The acolyte swung at the voice, felt his nails scratching her cheek.

“Mistress! I’m sorry...”

“Blood,” said the sorceress. “The final ingredient, and I couldn’t shed it myself.”

The acolyte tripped as he stumbled back. The darkness was going out.

“Thank you,” said the Grand Metropolitan Sorceress. “I hope we meet again.”

Then the room was gone and Eyve Ariel was a girl again, neither a sorceress nor grand, standing in a vacant lot with mud on her journeywoman’s gown, no one to see or hear her as she shivered in spite of the heat.

March 18, 2008

Beetle Mercy

My mother was Suzanne Miller, the woman who used to win prizes for her vegetables at our county fair every single year, even the years she didn't enter.

"How do you do that?" Asked Maureen next door. "It must be witchcraft."

Of course this was true. But if every magic has a signature, my mother's was in loopy, if exact, handwriting, the kind of handwriting that tells the reader that here is a person who used to put hearts instead of dots over her "i's."

She used to turn beetles into birds for the day, then turn them back in the evening. When we saw her doing it she would say to us, "I think they need a change of scene."

"Suzanne," our father would say, and somehow fit whole ranges of reproach and love and weariness and desire into her name, notes which I can only hear now, when I'm grown up, and remember the exact sound of his voice.

When they took her up to the hospital and we followed in the car, our father saying softly, "Suzanne," to himself and the wheel every now and then, we knew something would happen, even if we only felt the knowledge under a blanket of tears.

When we saw her sitting up in the the hospital bed we knew but we didn't want to know. Our father looked at her and took her hand, and she said, "not long now," terribly sad for his sake, and he said, "I know." She took us each in her arms and tried hard to squeeze the breath out of us the way she used to when we came home from long trips, but she was already too weak. And she kissed our father the same way he said her name.

"Suzanne," he said once more.

"A change of scene," she said seriously, and then she wasn't there. I guess we must've all blinked at once, not to see her go. The sheets settled back where she'd been.

When we got home the house finches over the door had finished building their nest, and my brother crawled out on the roof and counted three eggs.

"One of them will be her," he said, very sure.

March 17, 2008


You know that you are related to the Trians who own you, though your body is much smaller and your three legs longer in proportion. But you are a Secret-Runner, and your kind, as far as you know, is always property.

You are on a strange planet, you're told: Earth, the human planet, but you never see anything except Secret-Runner nests and the long, narrow, smooth tunnels bored beneath the ground from one Trian habitat to another. The tunnels are narrow ovals in cross-section, tilted to one side, a perfect shape for you as long as you are moving at top speed, your three legs out like spokes, spinning from one foot to the next, moving so rapidly that the world is a blur. But if you are tired, or simply want to stop for a moment to remember who you are, then the tunnel is cramped and uncomfortable: you can't stand on all three legs, you're forced to lean, and you feel you can hardly breathe. Better to keep moving and not think.

Because you can see nothing when you spin, you're taken by surprise today when the walls of the tunnel are no longer there, when you're tumbling helplessly through space. You crash into a wall of dirt and rocks, and pebbles rain down on you.

"Got it!" says a human, the first one you have heard with your own membranes, and you try to look up, but the light is blinding and painful. You're thrown into a cage, and the cage is covered.

You know why they've broken into a tunnel and taken you, because you have only one purpose. The long, complicated message-secret you were given this morning, which one of your Trian owners throbbed to you over nearly an hour--that's what they want. They must know that you have been conditioned, brought up, even bred for secrecy, so they must think they have some power that will break your conditioning. You are frightened to imagine what it might be.

The cover slips, and you see it is now less bright outside. Thousands and thousands of pinpricks of light gleam far above you in a soft, black sky. You have never seen anything farther off than a few dozen meters. Now you are seeing what you know must be stars, they are light years away.

Do you wish you had never been captured, now?

March 14, 2008


Dimitri had the forge almost ready to melt the silver when they found him, his mother’s list held out in front of them like a warrant.

The fact no one warned him there were visitors did not bode well. From the cavernous main work area steel clanked and molten metal hissed as it poured into great ceramic molds.

Behind the heavy door beside him was the space Dimitri had covertly co-opted for his mother. Her arcane texts, full of astrology, Da-Vinci’s drawings, and roman mythology still littered the floor, surrounding the silver orrery she had built, in erratic orbits. But the flying machine, along with Mother, was gone, and had been for almost a day.

Dimitri thought his mother was brilliant yet mad enough to leave a list with the steps of everything she had done.

The visitors were a man and a woman clad in modern black suits. Dimitri wondered if they were agents of the Czar or the Bolsheviks and hoped nothing worse.

“The bazaar of Mercury?” the woman asked, and upon hearing what he took for gibberish, Dimitri thought everything might turn out okay after all.

Then she passed a strange device over Mother’s list. He had never seen anything like the sleek, metallic thing before. It fit snugly in her hand and cast a purple light that revealed glyphs and characters overlapping each other with its glow. Orbits of the Earth and planet mercury criss-crossed the page.

Something worse, Dimitri thought and remembered Mother just after she had built the orrery and had asked him for help with the cabin for the flying machine.

There’s not a lot of air in there, he said.

Doesn’t have to be. Trip will only take a minute, Mother said.

How are we getting this thing out of the foundry? Dimitri asked.

We’re not. I’m launching from here.

Launching, Dimitri had thought. And where was she going? Nowhere unless she had a secret tunnel in mind. Mother was capable of mad feats big and small, she cured colds, delivered babies and saved their mother’s lives. She had predicted the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and the fortunes of the Czars who came to her clandestinely. Dimitri was a man of science and steel yet he did not doubt his mother.

The male visitor pointed to Mother’s list.

“Mercury circles the sun every 88 days. For three minutes on the 87th night it disappears from sight,” he said.

“Where does it go?” Dimitri asked.

The pair laughed and Dimitri saw what he took for fanaticism in their eyes. It didn’t bode well. He looked for a steel bar he could use as a weapon.

“It goes nowhere,” the woman said. “All come to Mercury, for the great bazaar.”

He could sense her need, palpable as run-off steam.

Mother had wanted the orrery made of silver.

In case things went wrong, they couldn’t touch it, she had said.

Was this demon, this non-person, this thing from another world what she had in mind?

“The door is open?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” Dimitri said.

She shot him in the head, killing him.

She pushed open the heavy door, eager to find the orrery and divine direction to the bazaar and maybe finally a way back home.

March 13, 2008

Hunting Monsters

The waitress nodded at them from behind the bar. A chupacabra and a Florida skunk-ape looked up from the pool table. The sasquatch at the back corner table was staring at a half-empty bottle.

The alien, the werewolf, and the yeti headed to their usual table and had barely settled into the creaking wooden chairs when the waitress arrived with their usual drinks.

“So,” said the werewolf. “Anybody see anything?”

The alien shook his head and used his mind to twirl the little paper umbrella in his glass.

“I checked the camera traps this afternoon,” said the yeti. “Nothing. One had a bunch of blurry pics of satyrs..”

“That’s a waste,” grunted the werewolf, and peeled the label from his beer with one claw.

“I don’t think he exists,” said the alien in a quavering voice that always seemed to come from somewhere behind you. “I’ve never gotten anything on any of my scans, not once.”

The yeti leaned forward in his chair so that he loomed over the alien’s egg-shaped head. “I tell you I’ve seen him. And there’s all the evidence -- the tracks, the magazine articles, the endless TV documentaries.”

“I used to believe,” said the werewolf, “but I’m starting to wonder -- maybe cryptozoologists don’t exist.”

Way in the back, the sasquatch made a coughing noise but, when the alien, the werewolf and the yeti looked his way, he was taking a swig of his drink.

“Hey,” said the werewolf, “what’s Sass doing here?”

The alien shrugged skinny shoulders. “That’s his usual table.”

“But he’s in the Wednesday dart league, and was up against the thunderbird last night,” said the werewolf. “Nobody beats the bird, and Sass is a sore loser. He shouldn’t be back until Saturday, at least.”

The sasquatch didn’t look in their direction, but seemed to know that the three of them were staring at him. He wiped his brow as if he were sweating. One of his eyebrows stuck to the back of his hand.

“It’s him!” said the alien, and everyone turned in the fake sasquatch’s direction.

He ran out the door faster than the real sasquatch -- faster than the jackalope even.

They found his camera where he dropped it and, when the alien developed the film, found it was full of great candids that they framed and hung behind the bar.

But they never saw the cryptozoologist again.

March 12, 2008

The Hardest Step

I should have known when we took the ship too easily. "She's cursed," one of the prisoners told me smugly. I looked at her where she hung still in the water. "You board," said my Captain.

I hauled myself aboard, sweating in the tropic night, wondering why I couldn't smell gunpowder—but then, few shots had been fired. We had won by the trick of having more guns than they, and they could not have known that we were nearly out of balls and powder both.

I took a step towards the aft deck and jumped in the air when a voice spoke beneath my feet.

"Where do you come from?"

"Fr-from the sea," said I.

"And claim this ship?"

"I d-do," I answered, choosing that that would be the last time my voice shook.

The voice laughed with a creak and boom below decks.

"Then take the wheel."

"I will," I said.

The first step was not the hardest. The night pressed in on me suddenly, squeezing the breath out of me, tight as a corset, thick as August in Tortuga.

But I bore it. I had before. The air parted again.

The second step was not the hardest. A riptide of blood covered the deck, washing me to the knees, while out of it rose every man I had killed in battle, clutching their wounds, looking at me with eyes that stared into my future and saw my end. I smelled the stench of iron in their bloodsoaked clothes.

I faced them all a second time. The tide receded, taking them with it.

The third step was the hardest. The lights from the other ship went out, the water stood empty, then surging waves shook the whole sea and I saw the ship I stood upon, and I myself, sailing down into a terrible maw with teeth of foam that would surely take me—alone, all alone.

But I kept my sea legs. I had earned them. The lights blinked back over the still water.

"Take your ship, girl," said the voice.

"Not so loud," I said.

I took the wheel, and called across the water that the ship was mine, could I have a crew?

"You've got balls, I'll give you that," laughed the Captain. "Very well, I will send you a crew if you will sail under me."

"For a while," I called back. "Long enough."

March 11, 2008

Left in her Cupboard

12 Feburary, 1914 --
The following items were found in a cupboard in Elsa Greer's house, two days after she was discovered missing:

1 x empty box for an orrery

1 x copy of popular children's novel A Travel Guide to the Solar System with the section on Mercury torn out

Assorted cut-offs and shavings of wood

Assorted scraps of fabric

Assorted lengths of piano wire

1 x note, which reads "Gone to find my sister."

March 10, 2008

The Night Stocker

Here's my first question: how the hell does a head without a body wind up in a vegetable box in a Safeway stock room, anyway? Sure they call them 'heads' of lettuce, but that's just rife with wrong. Second question: how much wronger is it that the head opens its eyes and starts gabbling away in Spanish? Third, and wrongest of all: why does it happen when I'm here? I mean, I've been good, mostly.

Pretty handsome, as heads go. Long dark hair, deep brown eyes, straight mostly-white teeth in a mouth without a bottom. Ew.

I'm Tina Tryon, night stocker. These things happen to me.

No way is this some joke of Manuel's or Pablo's. For one thing, they're both backing away in horror, hands totally visible.

"What's he saying?" I ask. Sure, I want to retreat, too, but vegetables is my beat. Somebody's got to stick around. Guess I'm elected.

From behind the forklift, Pablo says, "He's very tired, and he wants his body."

"Fair enough," I say. "Tell him we don't have any in stock. Manny, call the cops." I know this script; somehow by the time they come the head won't be there or it'll turn into lettuce, and I'll look like some kind of kook. But maybe if I don't call them it'll get worse. A lot worse.

"So why's he here?" I ask Pablo. "Ask him what he's doing contaminating my lettuce." If I know Alan Parkins, the store manager, he's just going to have me wash the stuff and put it out anyway. Hell, he'd probably have me put the head out in the freezer case marked $7.99 a pound.

"He says he is a powerful brujo, a wizard, and often turns his head into a crow to spy on his enemies." Neat trick. "Sadly, he takes on crow habits, like trying to grab food. He landed in a truckload of lettuce, ran out of magic, and turned back into a head. Without hands he's stuck this way."

I hear sirens approaching. It'll be the simplest thing in the world to let them have the head. Then I can go back to stocking.

Boring, boring stocking.

Or I could grab the head, hitch south, and learn Spanish. Maybe learn magic.

Maybe lose my head. "Pablo," I say. "When the cops get here let them in. I'm going to keep an eye on this head and make sure it doesn't get away." I shrug at the head, and get the impression he'd shrug back if he had shoulders.

March 7, 2008

Old Bear

Mars wandered through his dead mother's house, using a data gun to tag items for storage, the estate sale, gifts. His dead parents' things seemed to glare at him, and wished he could run out the door and not come back, have some kind of service do the work, but he knew he'd regret it if he didn't make some kind of goodbye. He retreated to his old room, a sanctuary. He'd tag there for now. It should be easier.

His room had filled with twenty years with junk: his parents' old holorecordings, unused craft supplies, spare curtains. The only clear surface was the toybox, which his mother had used as a bench for her sewing station. Mars relaxed, opened it, and began to sort through the items. The dusty pathos of the long-abandoned toys was easy to ignore compared to the echoes of his mother in the other rooms.

Near the bottom of the box was a stuffed bear, still plugged in: Boxer, his old teddy bAIr from before he went away to boarding school. His father'd had to run an extension cord through a hole into the toybox, because if Boxer was left out as he charged, Mars would stay up late into the night to talk to him. Boxer had been Mars' best friend for years, but he hadn't been allowed to bring him to boarding school, and when Mars finally began to make real friends, human friends, he'd forgotten.

"Please put me down!" said the bear. "I belong to Mars."

Mars dropped the bear as if it were leaking acid.

"Boxer?" he said. "Boxer, have you been turned on in there this ... the whole ... ?"

"I'm waiting for Mars," Boxer said. "He left me in the box. I thought up a lot of things to do with him when he gets back."

"It's me," Mars said hoarsely. "Boxer, it's me. It's Mars."

Boxer brushed the dust from his glassy black eyes with one paw and stared. Finally, he shook his head.

"No," he said. "Mars is a little boy, and you're old. Grown-ups don't need bears for friends."

Mars dropped to the floor, clutching Boxer, and hot tears spilled down his face. He sobbed chokingly and clutched the squirming bear, embarrassed and miserable.

"Oh ... maybe grown-ups do need bears," Boxer said in a hushed voice. "You can keep me until Mars comes home, if you want to. You don't have to be sad."

Mars nodded and dragged his sleeve over his face.

"OK," he said. "Maybe just until Mars comes home."

March 6, 2008

Guilt, Always So Much Guilt

Guilt, always so much guilt.

Merswe floated on his back down the river Mawkee, scouting for a mate. Around him, other males hooted and paddled, lifting sensory pads up to the sky, waiting for the females to come to them.

Such was his anticipation, so exquisite was the tension in which he floated for days, that Merswe almost missed it when it happened. The strain had worn him out and he was dozing when the women began falling. He caught one by pure chance, grabbing onto her hair and pulling her up before she could sink under the grey waters of the Mawkee.

They wept from the joy of having found each other, and from the sorrow of watching so many women die as they rained on the river and drowned before a male could reach them and pull them afloat.

Her name was Xi.

They fell in love instantly and floated together for a fortnight, making love while Merswe held her close to him to keep her from drowning.

Finally, Xi laid her eggs and Merswe took them inside himself, carefully stashing them in his innermost gill, close to his soul.

"I can take you with me," Merswe said, bravely, "I feel so strong..."

But they both knew it was wishful thinking; manly bluff. Merswe needed his strength to make it all the way down the Mawkee and onto the rich muddy waters of Hope lake, where their children could hatch.

He cried as he let her go and she didn't flinch as the water closed in over her. Around him, Merswe heard the cries of a thousand females who weren't as brave as Xi and pleaded with their lovers to carry them on, only for a minute, only for a day. But none of the men were stupid enough to try. Eggs came first and the eggs must make it to Hope lake. The men pried their lovers' desperate fingers from their fins, unravelled the knots of hair that tied them together and pushed them away. Soon enough, the cries ceased.

Merswe floated down the Mawkee, eyeflaps rippling red with grief. Xi's eggs were safe, as were the eggs of Maya, Thi and Tes and all the others who had come before them. Finally, tears spent, he turned his gaze to the sky and waited for more women to fall.

Of his sorrow only guilt remained. Guilt, always so much guilt as Merswe floated on his back down the river Mawkee.

March 5, 2008

March 5th

Can you help me? I mean, I suppose you would if you could, you look like the sort who'd help if they could. But, I don't know, is there anything you can do?

Who's talking? Me, March 5th. Ridiculous, right? You've heard of people being trapped as werewolves, as giant cockroaches, even as Certified Public Accountants, but that's all fiction.

That was a joke there, that last about CPAs. For all I know you are one. But listen, this isn't a joke, it isn't a dream, it's not some writer's crazy plot. It's me, stuck here being a day. One minute I'm grading papers in my tiny little office, then the clock at the church starts ringing twelve, and the next thing I know I'm being stretched and squashed in directions I didn't even know I had. I've lost my past, I don't know what's going to happen after 11:59 tonight, but I have a bad feeling it's going to mean some kind of end for me.

It makes me wonder. Are there three hundred sixty four others like me? And an extra one for leap day? That doesn't sound right. Or are there millions of us, stretching back in time? One missing person a day, that doesn't sound like too many. And what about before people evolved? Did some primate become a day before days were measured? Or some three-toed sloth? Or a dinosaur before that, and an ammonite even before that? A few million years from now will it be a super-evolved dragonfly?

Tomorrow, will it be you? See, if there's something you can do to help, it might help you out as well. So stop reading for once and see what you can do to help me out of here.

March 4, 2008

Demon Dog Treats

(Sequel to "The Ham Sandwich of Destiny," by Kat Beyer)

At first Crystal thought the guy in the café was hitting on her, which distracted her from the funny taste of the sandwich. The guy seemed nice enough, if a little eccentric, dropping into the seat across from her and not even introducing himself. She got out fast, though, when he started babbling about sandwiches with souls!

By the time she got home she was sure the sandwich had been spoiled, but she had to walk Demon anyway.

"Hi Britney." Britney was walking a pair of shaggy squat dogs for Mrs. Nyimso.

"Morning Crystal," Britney giggled.

Britney had the most irritating laugh. She probably didn't even know the dogs she walked every day were the physical manifestations of tibetan spirit messengers. "May they eat her bowels," Crystal muttered, rubbing her cramping stomach. She left Demon in the apartment with a stern injunction to eat any shi dogs that might show up, but to leave the furniture alone. She'd have to run to make it to the botanica in time, and she was definitely feeling queasy. At a stoplight she saw a parade of translucent floating figures clad in saffron robes. They were crossing against the light. Could food poisoning cause that?

Madame was already raising the shutters when Crystal panted up to the door. "Crystal, good morning. I've got some concrete statuary in the van. I want you to set it out where the big Euphorbia used to be."

"Yes ma'am."

Crystal was already inside the van when she realized the statues were shi dogs. Why was Madame buying Chinese spirits for a Mexican magic shop? She jumped back, but one of the statues caught her ankle. She fell heavily, got off one good blast from the whistle around her neck, and concrete jaws closed on her wrist. She heard barking, rapidly growing louder, then the shi was yanked away from her arm. She screamed and doubled up around her ravaged wrist. As soon as she could, she began pushing the pain away. When she looked up Demon was chewing on concrete gravel and Madame was standing in front of her. "You will have to pay for the statues your dog ate." Crystal nodded. As doggie snacks the shi were kind of costly. The apartment door would be expensive, too.

"Now let's take a look at your injury."

When Madame touched Crystal's wrist she looked up sharply. "Are you pregnant?"

The end

March 3, 2008


When the announcement came that he was being called up, Marek didn’t even own a suitcase. His neighbors and regular customers pooled their money and bought him one. He let them think it was happiness that took his voice away.

It was, everyone told him, an honor. A miracle.

He’d had to read the letter three times but still didn’t understand why he needed to bring anything with him-- after all, he’d be pure mind, all electronic, after he went up. Whether he wound up in the place between planets or the place between stars, it’s not like he’d bring the picture of his late wife, the framed first dollar their kiosk had earned, his daughter’s bronze star, or the flag they’d given him at her funeral.

But the cab driver, who loaded the suitcase into the trunk so gently that nothing clinked, explained it: the memories would be anchors, digitized and uploaded, that his personality could hold onto.

“Otherwise,” said the cabbie, “you’ll lose who you were and just be a machine.”

Marek stared at the city sliding past.

He’d spent days distracted by all things that he couldn’t put in the suitcase -- the way the kiosk looked, when all the flowers were fresh and all the buckets were full, first thing in the morning, when the light seemed to come from inside the petals. The pressure of Tina’s hand on his; the weight of their daughter in his arms. When he explained, none of his friends understood.

“I’ve taken lots of folks to the up station,” said the driver. She tried to catch Marek’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He knew that tone of jealousy-edged pride from his friends’ voices.

On the dashboard, a pair of picture-sculptures morphed though what looked like snapshots of the driver, her friends, her family. Between them, a dried, unopened rose bud; a string of pebble-beads; a sea shell; and a flag Marek didn’t recognize.

“Yeah,” said the driver, “I’ve taken paying uploaders and five or six lottery winners like yourself.” This time she was the one who looked away from the rearview. “The luck hasn’t worn off yet.”

Marek squeezed his hand out of the shimmering holoprinted paper and held the wristband over the seatback.

“Here,” he said, “You go.”

He had to repeat himself.

“You can use the suitcase,” he said, and, somehow, that was the thing that convinced her.