November 23, 2012

Around Gray Publishes Mini-Stories, 201 - 250, September 22 - November 23, 2012

No. 201
September 22, 2012
Petra Burton’s couch had betrayed her.
Its soft cushions and perfectly tall armrests has conspired together to cause her to fall asleep and miss her appointment.
She would not easily forgive the maleficent piece of furniture.  Now that she was awake, but still quite groggy, she could almost convince herself that it was a living entity, plotting and scheming to evil ends.
Petra resolved to land the next blow. This evening she would watch TV from the reclining chair. Surely, the noble throne would side with her.
That tactic didn’t work, either. The chair was in league with the couch and Petra slept straight through her favorite show.
At her wit’s end, Petra eyed the floor with suspicion. Would her very home turn on her? She had one last faint hope to land a counter-punch against the entire living room.
She walked slowly to the kitchen and made herself a cup of coffee.

No. 202
September 23, 2012
My name is Willow Webber. When I was a child, my father would always caution us not to play in the Old Webber Place. That’s right, it’s the same name. My family owned the deserted house at the end of the street. The one that all the other kids always said was haunted, the one where the monsters lived.
We didn’t live there, of course. We lived in a normal house about two blocks away that was always kept in immaculate shape.
I used to think I wasn’t allowed to play in the decrepit mansion because I was a girl, and my dad wanted to keep me safe. Looking back now, I understand the true reason for his warnings.
Once, before I was born, a gang of local kids had gone inside. The story has it that they were investigating in order to set up a clubhouse in the basement, and they found something down there.
Nobody was every quite clear on just what that something was, but whatever the find, it was enough to get the house listed as a historic site. This designation prevented my dad from leveling the whole structure and selling the land like he wanted to.
Despite owning two houses, we were not a rich family. “Webber House”, as it was listed in the records, had been willed to my father by some distant relative whom he’d met once as a child, and apparently made an impression upon. Upkeep on a building nobody really wanted or used fell to the wayside as my father petitioned the powers that be to remove the special designation.
So I’ve realized that my brothers and I were forbidden entry in case somebody turned up more, stronger, evidence for preservation that would derail his case.
Well, Webber House still stands, so you can imagine how well we listened. The lure of a “haunted” house was just too great. We found something, too. And, I must tell you, I didn’t expect the discovery to be what it was. I think that even the historical folks were surprised by that one.
It’s all on display in the Webber Museum. You should come and visit sometime. You won’t be disappointed, especially after you hear the whole story.

No. 203
September 23, 2012
In 1912, 115 men went into the Gobi Desert on an expedition funded by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and disappeared. In 2012, one of those men came back.
He appeared not to have aged a single day.
“The others are out there,” he told the told the traveller who discovered him. “They can still be saved.”
Then he withered and died, as if only sheer will had been keeping him alive.

My name is Edward Carter. The 7th Earl has contracted me to find the Lost 114.

No. 204
September 25, 2012
My teacher’s assistant came to me with disturbing news. I could hear something like fear in her voice.
“Abby, I finished marking the last of those tests, but when I put the grades into the computer I noticed something peculiar with the results in B-Block. I’ve already double checked all of the previous marks and there’s something you should see.”
I put down my pen and accepted the laptop from Erin. I looked at the ordered bars on the grading chart of one of the girls in the class.
“I don’t see anything here,” I told her.
Erin nodded. “We’ve been entering the marks as ‘X points out of Y’, so you’ll see all the different values, but when I change it to display in percent, look at what happens.”
She clicked the appropriate button and all of the numbered scores changed to their representative percentages.
“Kendra’s got a 93 on each thing she’s turned in so far?” I said. “What are the odds of that?”
“This is what’s really unsettling,” said Erin. She expanded the results from one student, to all of them.
The phenomena of Kendra’s results were repeated across the board. Though the tallies differed from individual to individual, every student had the same percentages for all of their assignments.
I gasped. “That’s got to be a glitch.”
Erin shook her head. “It’s not a glitch. I looked back at the papers we haven’t handed back. These are correct.”
 “How many ways could this happen?” I wondered aloud.
Erin was just about to reply when we heard a hollow knock at the classroom door. I opened it to find all the students from B-Block in the hall.
“Hello, Miss Roling,” they said in unison.

No. 205
September 26, 2012
The little girl climbed into her brother’s tree fort, plainly ignoring the sign nailed to the trunk that said, in large red letters, “No Girls Allowed”.
She was alone, for the moment, and was executing her raid while her brother was inside finishing his homework.
She rummaged through the assorted piles of toys and treasures that made up the contents of the boys’ hideaway. Swiftly finding what she was looking for, she pulled a single object from her pocket and tucked it in, back with its mates.
With any luck, her brother would find it soon. Maybe then he would believe her when she told him she hadn’t borrowed it, and hadn’t even been in his stupid clubhouse. Or maybe not.
She shimmied down the tree and was halfway across the yard when she heard her name shouted across the lawn.
“What?” she answered back, injecting as much defiance into her voice as she could.
“I saw you near my fort,” her brother told her.
“Why would I want to go up your stupid tree? It probably smells in there.”
“I know took my James Hodgkins rookie card.”
She stamped her foot, an impressive acting performance. “I did not.”
“What would you even want with that?” he muttered as he stalked across the grass to inspect the violated premises for himself.
She tried her best to hide her smile as she skipped back into the house. Next time she’d take one of his prized action figures. The disappearances kept him distracted from what she was really pilfering from his bedroom.

No. 206
September 27, 2012
Lefty, the gremlin on Michael Lansbury’s left shoulder, was neither good nor evil, unlike most traditional specimens. In fact, this particular gremlin was mostly indifferent, putting in his time so he could move on, from passing advice, to other, more interesting, things.
This created havoc in two ways. The first was the Lansbury was only getting good advice, which was making his life incredibly boring, and the second was that all the winning was going to Righty’s head. 

“Should I cut the circles on the plastic rings from my six-pack?” Lansbury wondered.
Righty spoke first. “Yes, you should always do that. You’ll be a better person, and it saves dolphins and sea turtles.”
There was no reply from the other side.
Righty coughed loudly and Lefty woke up from a nap.
“What? Yeah, sure. Whatever. Or not,” he mumbled before slumping down against Lansbury’s neck.
Despite such a convincing counter-argument, Lansbury did the good deed.
“Ha!” said Righty. “Another one for me!” He sidled up to Lansbury’s ear and added another tiny hash mark to his tally under the lobe. “That’s 399,917 to 4!”
Lefty yawned. “How much more time have we got?”
Righty looked at his watch. “If we were close, probably another 30, maybe 40, years of me sticking it to you. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m going to win it all.”
Lefty jerked his head up. “Win?”
“Didn’t you read the contract? It’s not just about time-served. You can also get out if you have 400,000 match-ups go your way, like I’m going to have,” said Righty haughtily. He added another piece of information with a kind of glee that was altogether too sinister for a good-gremlin. “And you might want to read the fine print, too, because any employee with less than 200,000 when the other one wins...,” Righty trailed off and moved his hand past his neck with a slashing motion.
Lefty was alert now. He waggled his fingers and a copy of his contract appeared with a tiny puff of orange smoke. He scanned it quickly. It confirmed Righty’s revelation. He dropped the paper and swallowed hard. He would need to take almost every decision for the next 20 years if he were to have any chance of saving his own hide.
Michael Lansbury’s life was about to get a lot more interesting.

No. 207
September 28, 2012
Nine times out of ten, Joshua Plante would have just kept walking, but something in the overgrown, empty lot caught his attention.
He backtracked about four steps to get a better look at the object.
It was a plain cardboard box, about the size of the ones used to ship apples in. Something had been chewing on a corner and Josh could see a tiny sliver of the contents through the resulting hole.
He could tell that the contents were furry, and that there was at least one foot. He held his breath as he used a stick to prop open the lid to get a better view.
He’d barely manage to raise it a crack when the flaps sprung up and a tiny, disheveled kitten leapt out. Josh fell back in surprise as the infant feline landed on its four paws and opened its mouth wide with a vicious roar.
Or, a roar that would have been vicious, if the animal had been capable of the intensity that it was projecting. And if it wasn’t so terribly cute. Instead, the noise was something more like a squeak, and Josh began to laugh.

It was several moments before both parties were able to compose themselves enough to take a second look at each other.
Josh noticed something strange about the cat.
“Are those stripes?” he asked, moving his hand dangerously close to the little animal’s needle-sharp teeth.
His answer, unsurprisingly, was a sharp bite on the tip of his middle finger. He withdrew out of snapping-range and looked up and down the block for anything that would explain the kitten’s current location.
“Who goes and abandons a baby tiger in the middle of the suburbs?” he wondered as he took off his jacket and prepared to snare the curious specimen.

No. 208
September 29, 2012
Niki Cassa squeezed her eyes shut as the alarm hammered into her head. Try as she might, she couldn’t block out the hideous noise.
She was unhappy to note that, grating as the alarm was, it did nothing to silence the real cacophony.
Niki lived in terrible pain. Every moment for the last five years, the same song had been stuck in her head. Over and over again, it repeated, shutting out thoughts and crippling her standard of living. She’d heard of people developing a ringing in their ears that never ceased, but she’d never found anyone else so tormented by music.
She’d tried every known therapy and nothing had worked. Some doctors didn’t even believe her. Today, though, she’d strike back.
Niki had found a way to broadcast her agony to every living being on the planet.

No. 209
October 1, 2012
Bozeman struggled to recall if anything good had ever happening to him in the middle of a rainstorm. He couldn’t remember a single instance. Right now, the situation was unravelling in such a way that he didn’t picture a happy outcome for this one, either.
The deluge was hammering down so intensely that Bozeman imagined that he could almost hear it, despite the thick concrete roof. “Three more weeks and I would have been out of here, too,” he grumbled to the cactus and the goldfish he’d brought with him from the Mainland for company.
The water had now flooded to his ankles, and Bozeman had just about resigned himself to drowning when the sharp hiss of the radio demanded his attention.
“This is Juliet Base. Over,” he told the handset.
“Roger, Juliet Base, this is Control. Stand by to receive reinforcements. Over,” was the metallic reply.
Bozeman paused before acknowledging the message. Reinforcements? Why would they send anybody else all the way out here?
“Negative. Negative, Control. I need evac, not reinforcements. Over,” he told his handlers.
“Copy, Juliet. ETA for reinforcement is seventeen minutes. Over.”
A chill coursed through Bozeman’s body that was unrelated to the warm pool now lapping at his knees. If the transport was due in seventeen minutes, it had been launched hours before the rain had even started. Nothing good was on its way.
Bozeman sloshed his way to the shelf with the cactus and pushed the desert plant aside. He reached up behind the spines and pulled down a vicious-looking knife. If Control didn’t want to play nice, he’d be ready. He tucked the weapon into his belt, and turned to his aquatic friend’s bowl.
“Hold the fort, little buddy,” he told the oblivious fish.
Then Bozeman opened the hatch and crawled out into the pounding tempest.

No. 210
October 2, 2012
On the occasion of their twenty-first birthday, every person was granted the gift of an hour. One hour that they could spend at any time during the rest of their life to re-live the previous sixty minutes.
Some chose to use their time repeating a happy event. Some chose to spend it correcting their biggest mistake.
This was Wendy’s moment. She took a deep breath and cashed in.

No. 211
October 3, 2012
All the bear wanted was some delicious snacks from the birdfeeder. He didn’t expect to have to deal with a pink flailing animal smacking him with a stick.
He took the blows in stride, ducking and weaving to avoid getting whacked in the ear. It hurt to get whacked in the ear. He brushed his paws at the offending creature. This was met with shrill noises and stamping of feet.
The bear decided that he’d had enough of that, and turned back off the wooden platform. Maybe he could find some tasty grubs around the big blue pond that was just on the other side of the clearing.
The bear didn’t mind the change of plans, though. He’d just come back at night for another chance at that bird seed.

No. 212
October 4, 2012
Bud Mitchell lay stretched out in his flight suit on the well-worn light blue couch. “I really hate this color,” he thought, as if he’d never noticed it before.
He was due at the airport in three hours and was trying to keep that out of his head.
The poster tacked to the wall directly across from the offending furniture displayed the reason for Mitchell’s nerves. “Hiram’s Park Airshow August 11 12 13” said the large red letters across the top.
Today was the last day. Yesterday morning, Mitchell had lost his lucky hat. Yesterday afternoon, he’d barely survived a harrowing spin in an out-of-control airplane when a control cable snapped. He could only imagine what sort of hideous trouble he’d get into when he took off today.
As the headlining demonstration, Mitchell couldn’t afford to pull out for a reason as nebulous as “superstition”. Instead, he tried put off leaving for as long as possible, cursing at the sofa the entire time.

No. 213
October 5, 2012
Craig Hansen examined his pumpkin intently, searching the mottled orange surface for clues or inspiration as to what he should carve into the gourd.
He cast a sideways glance at his friends, all happily hacking away at their jack-o-lanterns. He didn’t see anything terribly impressive. They were all doing the standard smiley-faces with jagged teeth and triangle eyes.  Craig wanted his to be different.
“Forty-five minutes left,” somebody at the end of the row announced. If Craig didn’t have something soon, he’d be forced to turn to the clichĂ© just to have something to enter in the contest.
“Come on,” he whispered at his mute vegetable canvas. “Give me something.”
The pumpkin, being an inanimate object, did nothing to add to Craig’s creative energy.
Time ticked by far too quickly, and though Craig didn’t wear a watch, he could feel the deadline approaching. Usually, he was better at this, but this year he’d been busy in the lead-up to the Halloween season. He contemplated recycling one of his previous designs, but he knew there was a good chance somebody would remember and disqualify him.
With diminishing opportunities, he made the call that would have been unthinkable just an hour before. He raised his knife and began to thrust the blade down to begin the traditional spooky face.
The point met flesh with a satisfying resistance, but Craig felt something inside himself dim as he began to saw the first eye-hole. He stopped and closed his eyes, hoping for a last-minute flash of an idea.
“What’s yours going to be?” asked Lindsay Ross, interrupting his process.
Craig started to tell her that it wasn’t going to be anything special, but the spark he’d been waiting for hit mid-way through his sentence.
“It’s going to be awesome,” he told her with a smile on his face and one careful eye on the clock. “You’ll see in about half an hour.”

No. 214
October 6, 2012
The midday buzz of the busy coffee shop usually helped Jamie concentrate on her work, but today she couldn’t settle in.
She sat in her usual chair in the corner, her back to the wall, a caramel latte just to her right, and stared at the empty screen on her laptop. Unsure where to start her story, she typed a random letter.
She sighed and deleted it. There was a large group at the other end of the store, and their noisy chatter was distracting her. She grimaced a little and took her frustration out on her keyboard.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” she pounded out.
They did. Jamie looked up at them and tilted her head to one side. “Well that was odd,” she told herself. Then her face reddened and she looked behind her to see if there was some reflection they’d seen. There was only empty wall.  She shrugged and returned to her work, once again deleting the words she’d typed.
The annoying group began their banter again just as the words disappeared.
Jamie blinked. Did that just happen? Slowly, she touched eight keys.
“Shut up!”
And there was silence.
She decided to continue the experiment. She typed another message. “Man with the red hat, take off your hat with your left hand.”
It worked. The man at the end of the table raised his left arm and removed his cap.
Jamie looked around, trying to see if anybody recognized what she was doing. All the other people in the store seemed to be going about their business as usual. 
She sat back and took a deep breath. How strong was this power? How long would it last? Questions spun through her head. Suddenly a darker thought occurred to her. “What if...,” she whispered. Then she hunched over the keys and typed out something that didn’t sound like her at all.
“Cashier, empty the till and bring me the money.”

No. 215
October 10, 2012
I’m shy by nature, so tourist season is always a bit of an ordeal. I can’t stand strangers out tramping around on the lawn, asking ignorant questions, getting in the way and yelling all the time. It used to be only one or two kids wearing old bed sheets coming by to ring the doorbell and run away. Now, everyone’s got their spectrometers and their infrared cameras and their fancy tape recorders.
I understand that Halloween’s going to be busy around here. I know that. I live in a haunted house. I’m a ghost. I have to grin and bear it. But sometimes I find myself wishing I wasn’t tethered to this place and that maybe just once I could get away for the holidays to avoid the hype. This year, if everything goes to plan, I might get that chance.
I hope so. I’m not sure I can handle another TV special filming in my living room.

No. 216
A Pirate Raccoon Part 1
October 11, 2012
“I don’t want to wear it,” said Riley
His mom turned from the bowl of candy she was preparing. “You don’t want to wear the dinosaur costume I made for you?”
“Nope,” said Riley with his arms crossed firmly.
Mom sighed. “I spent a month on this. Why didn’t you tell me that you didn’t like it before?”
Riley shrugged. “Dunno.”
“What do you want, then?”
Riley didn’t hesitate to answer. “I want to be a pirate raccoon,” he said with a decided finality.
“A pirate raccoon.”
Mom’s perplexed look turned into something more annoyed. “You’ve already got a costume and I don’t even know what a pirate raccoon is.” She picked up the unwanted suit and examined it. Perhaps she could solve this problem.
She softened her stance. “I guess I can turn it into a lizard, or if I work really fast, maybe a turtle.”
“Pirate raccoon,” Riley demanded, stamping his feet for emphasis.
This was when Mom made her stand. “That’s just not going to happen. Come on, if we’re going to go out tonight you’re going to have to choose something I can make. Or be a tyrannosaurus. You’ve got two minutes to make up your mind or nobody goes trick-or-treating.”

No. 217
October 12, 2012
“Whatcha got there? Anything to declare?” asked the stone-faced customs agent at the border.
“Um. I don’t think so,” said recently arrived traveller Robert Ogden. “This is all kinda new to me.”
“Can’t be too careful,” said the guard. “We all have to follow the rules,” he finished, pointing at the long list of regulations on the wall behind him.
The sign was a stern warning against smuggling. Huge red letters spelled everything out in minute detail. Ogden was more concerned about the title.
The banner proclaimed a grim message. “Ordinances for Travel to the Afterlife V. 17. Violations Not Tolerated!”
Ogden swallowed hard. “Does this mean I’m dead?”
The guard answered him with a bored shrug. “This isn’t Disneyland.”
An alarm began to blare. Ogden ducked reflexively. The agent was instantly on his walkie-talkie. Ogden could hear the frenzied announcements blasting out of the speakers.
“Breach in Sector Nine. All personnel to Sector Nine.”

No. 218
October 13, 2012
Andrew Star watched the trick-or-treaters approach his door, and then looked at his dog, Ace. “What are you going to tell them when they get here?” he asked the sulking canine.
An empty bowl on the floor beside the shoe rack betrayed Ace’s actions. The dog put his tail between his legs and tried to slink off toward the living room.
“Oh no, you don’t,” said Andrew, grabbing Ace’s collar to haul him back. “You’re going to be right here as evidence when those poor kids ring the bell and find out there’s no more candy.”
The doorbell rang and Andrew greeted the children. There was a ghost, a ninja, and a princess.
“Trick or treat!” they all yelled in unison.
“Hey, guys. I’m sorry, but there isn’t any treats left. My dog, here, ate them all just before you arrived.”
The little shoulders of the ninja and the princess fell, but the ghost took the bad news in stride. “That’s ok, I guess. Your dog is really cute, though.”
“You can pet him,” said Andrew. “His name is Ace. He won’t bite.”
This ghost reached out her hand to pet the friendly hound.
Ace took the opportunity to regurgitate most of the pilfered sweets onto the porch.
All the humans leapt back.
“Ewww!” shrieked the children.
Andrew covered his eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. That was gross. My wife is on her way home, and if you come back later we’ll have some chocolate bars or something for you.”
The costumed visitors all agreed that this was a good idea and then left to canvas the rest of the neighborhood.
Andrew returned to Ace, who was now trying to revisit the burgled candy dish. “You just wait until Heidi gets home and I tell her about this.”
Ace stared back and pretended not to understand English.

No. 219
October 14, 2012
“’Unpredictable sharply biting is made’,” said Nicole, reading the label. “That’s a sort of garbled warning, don’t you thing?
Her friend Tom took the plastic vampire teeth to examine the confusing printing. “Probably made in China. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Tom tossed the prop back to Nicole, who rinsed it and put it in her mouth. 
“How does it look?” she asked, while spinning to present the full effect of the costume.
“The teeth are kinda cheesy, but overall, not too shabby,” he confirmed with an approving nod.
“Get the rest of your stuff on, then let’s hit the party early,” said Nicole. “Before all the good stuff is gone.”
“Ok. Give me one sec, here. I just need to grab some stuff down from my closet.”
Nicole sat on the bed and watched Tom stretch up to the top shelf. She began to wonder if maybe his neck was looking more delicious than usual.

No. 220
October 16, 2012
“What do you want me to do? Chew through it?”
“Have you got any better ideas?”
“No,” admitted Pete Conway as he examined the heavy steel door.
“So your plan was to show up, and then figure out a way past?” questioned Harvey Yearling.
“We didn’t have a lot of time beforehand, did we?” Pete tossed back.
Conway spat on the ground, his mind racing, trying to work his way around the problem. He traced the outline of the door with his finger. “I think—.”
He didn’t get a chance to finish. Yearling shoved him aside and then walked out through the rainy parking lot to the car.
Pete’s phone rang and he answered it.
It was Harvey from inside the vehicle. “I’m waiting here, where it’s warm, until you sort this out. It’s your problem, anyway, not mine.”
He hung up abruptly.
Conway sighed and cracked his knuckles. It was going to be a long night. If he didn’t get through that door, it was going to be a very long week. 

No. 221
October 17, 2012
She slept heartily. In her dreams she was slaying dragons.

No. 222
October 18, 2012
“When was the last time we went on a quest?” Growl asked the creature hunched beside him.
“We’re goblins, you fool. We’re the bad guys. We don’t go on quests,” replied Shiver.
“I guess. It’d still be nice sometime, you know?”
“Yeah, I know. But our job is to sit around the fire waiting for the heroes to come through our territory and then go running up to them while we scream and wave our swords around. Maybe we take down a couple B-listers in their party.”
The two misshapen beings pondered their existence for a time.

“What if we kill the next group that traipses past and complete whatever quest they’re on?” suggested Growl.
“I like it,” said Shiver. “I like it a lot!”
He stood and stretched his gnarly arms to work out the kinks. Then he sat back down and made himself comfortable.
“We just have to wait until they come by,” he told Growl.
There was a short silence as both monsters pictured their glorious adventures in their minds’ eyes.

“When do you think they’re going to come by?” asked Growl, impatiently.
Shiver looked at him with a scowl. “Listen, if you keep bothering me, I might kill you as well, and go on the quest by myself.”

No. 223
October 23, 2012
“What’s up?”
“Seems like there’s something different about you today.”
“Don’t think so.”
“Huh. You sure?”
“You didn’t get a haircut or nothing?”
“Coulda sworn something changed.”
“Just the same old me.”

“Is there something different with you?”
“Well, actually, yeah.”

No. 224
October 24, 2012
Ted Tenner took the punch in the jaw. He shook his head to regain his senses and looked his captor in the eye. “Not bad, but you’re going to want to step into the next one if you really want it to count,” he told his foe.
The next blow was, indeed, harder than the first.
“Ted, quit hassling him and just tell them what they want to know,” hissed Andrea Aarons, Tenner’s partner, who was tied up on the opposite side of the dank cell.
Tenner looked at her and winked. “Don’t worry. I’ve got a plan.”
“Awesome,” said Andrea, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

Eventually the guard grew tired of the beating and left the two prisoners alone while he went for a break.
“What’s that plan of yours?” asked Andrea.
Tenner coughed, then groaned. “My plan was to wear him out, and then escape. He ended up being a lot better shape than I anticipated.”
“Figures,” said Andrea. “Alright. I’ve got this.”
With a deft twist of her wrist and some nifty finger work, she sprung the handcuffs she was wearing off of the metal ring on the wall. She quickly crossed to Tenner’s side and undid his restraints, too. He fell off of the wall with a limp slide to the floor.
“Oh, come on. I’m not going to break us free and carry you to safety,” said Andrea. “I’m just the sidekick, remember?”
“Remind me to have a little talk with you about that when we get back to base,” said Tenner. “You might be in for a promotion.”

No. 225
October 25, 2012
Nelson Oames studied the imposing facade of the building from the driver’s seat. His trained eye took in every conceivable feature while he worked out the best way in. He was very quiet for a long time before making his final decision. “We’re going do this the old-fashioned way.”
Dean Jackson snapped his seat back to vertical from its reclined position where he’d been napping. “What’s that?”
Oames made a note in the small book he’d taken from his shirt pocket. Only then did he answer his apprentice’s question. “We throw a rock through the window.”

No. 226
October 27, 2012
November 8, 1989
“Commander, should I initiate the Protocol?”
“Not yet, Comrade. Not yet.”

“Hurry up with the camera, will you? This place isn’t going to film itself,” said Jack Hurdy.
“Yeah, I’m coming. Give me a break,” replied Frank Dealer.
The pair were on location, shooting a documentary about former Soviet airbases now abandoned after the end of the Cold War. This one was rumored to have, at one time, sheltered nuclear missiles.
They were about to uncover something far more sinister.

After some time, picking their way over broken concrete and collapsed walls, they penetrated the heart of the complex.
“Look at that,” Dealer whispered. “It’s the launch tube.”
Hurdy said nothing, but slowly made his way the edge of the hole. He kicked a small rock over and shuddered when it hit the bottom many seconds later. “Wow,” he managed.
Dealer had moved around to the opposite side of the silo. He leaned over the edge with the camera pointed straight down. “There’s stairs,” he called back.

They descended together, both trying not to disturb the years of debris that had accumulated on the rickety gantry.
Hurdy breathed a sigh of relief when he set foot again on the solid floor of the pit.
“Maybe we can find the control room,” said Dealer.
“Sounds good,” Hurdy agreed. “Do you have a light?”
Dealer snapped on the light rig attached to the camera and panned around the landing. “Jack, I’m not sure this was a missile base.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Hurdy. “Why?”
“Something’s just wrong.”
“We’ll get to the control room. It’s just your imagination playing tricks on you.”

Quickly gathering their gear, the two filmmakers set out into the dark. After working around two dead-ends and up a ladder, they found their target.
“You see?” said Hurdy. “This is it. Destructo-central.”
“No. No, this isn’t for nukes,” said Dealer. He stepped forward to get a better look at the instrument panels. “This is some kind of transmitting station.”
“Transmitting? Like broadcast?”
“Yes. Like our dish back home, but way more power.”
Dealer was now studying the buttons intensely, but he was confused by the notations.
“My Russian is rusty,” he continued. “This one says ‘power’, and this one says ‘activate’, but this third one, I think it says ‘protocol’.”
“Why is the light still on beside it?” Hurdy asked. “Maybe they never shut it down?”
“It’s certainly possible.”
“Don’t press it.”
“Don’t worry,” Dealer assured his friend. “Not going to happen.”
He continued his investigation. Mold and dust had obscured some of the labels. Picking at some with his pocket knife, Dealer cleared off another line of letters.
“Huh,” he grunted.
“What?” said Hurdy.
“That says ‘cats’.”
“Like the animal?”
“Yup. Like the animal.”
“It says ‘cats’ in a nuclear missile bunker?”
“I told you, man, I don’t think this has anything to do with missiles.”

No. 227
October 28, 2012
“Something just bit me,” said Grant Busker.
“Did you see it?” asked his girlfriend, Angel Orr.
They were on the first day of their trip to the beach, and neither one wanted to turn back for anything that wasn’t an emergency.
“No. Didn’t see anything,” Grant answered.
“Are you sure it was a bite? There’s not a lot of cover around here for something to sneak up on you.”
Grant showed her his arm without saying a word. There were clearly two puncture marks just under his elbow.
“Ok,” said Angel. “I wonder if whatever it was is poisonous. How do you feel?”
“Not too bad,” said Grant. “It stings a little, though.”
Angel shrugged. “You want to keep going?”

They continued to hike their picnic gear up the beach. They didn’t have to go far before they were alone.
“Can we stop for a moment?” said Grant.
“No problem.”
“Thanks. I’m just feeling hot. Is it hot?”
Angel looked up at the slightly cloudy sky. “Not really.”
Grant sat down quickly. Angel thought it was too quickly.
“Did you fall?” she gasped.
Grant did not reply. His head slumped forward and he let out a slight moan.
Angel was at his side instantly. “Grant, talk to me. What’s going on?”
He did not reply. He rolled onto his side and Angel saw the wound again. It had festered to several times the original size in the short time since she’d seen it last. Something under the skin seemed to twitch.
Angel covered her mouth in silent horror. She kick away from her fallen boyfriend and turned, stumbling, to flee.

No. 228
October 29, 2012
“I certainly will,” was Katy’s enthusiastic response. Even as she said it, she knew that nothing could be further from the truth. Nobody could have fun on this desolate island.
She watched the ferry leave the pier and wondered for a moment if it was a good idea to dive into the water and try to swim to catch it. The captain and the deckhand waved to her from the bridge’s window as the boat pulled away.
“Awesome,” she grumbled as she grabbed her duffel bag and turned to walk up the 67 steps to the lodge. “Just awesome.”
Her friends had booked the rooms before she’d had a chance to veto the destination. They’d bought into the hype about the resort and hadn’t hesitated to put down non-refundable deposits, including one using her credit card number. Katy had stayed here once before, and would have been more than willing to tell them the whole story.
This time she was able to make it to step number 32 before the rain started and the fog rolled in. She hung her head and tried to climb a little faster. It was going to be a long week.
She hoped that the management had at least been able to get rid of the larger rats.

No. 229
October 30, 2012
Sally’s red belt was special. When she wore it, for as long as she was wearing it, she’d be grown-up. She’d be 10 years older, to be precise.
She’d tried it twice, so far, and didn’t want to put it on again. Being an adult was nothing like she’d expected. The belt stayed hidden in the bottom of Sally’s sock drawer for a long time.
Then her friend Reagan got into trouble and asked Sally for help. Reagan told her that nobody else could know. Sally felt like she had no choice. Reagan needed her.
She wrote a note and slipped it under her pillow. If her plan didn’t work, at least her mom would find the paper later and know what had happened.
With a deep breath, 13-year-old Sally threaded the strap through the buckle and cinched it tight. She closed her eyes for the change, then opened them, and walked out of her bedroom.

No. 230
A Pirate Raccoon Part 2
October 31, 2012
Riley hit the floor and went limp in protest.
“Fine,” said Mom. “If that’s how you’re going to act, I’ll leave without you. I won’t share my candy, either.”
One of Riley’s eyes opened.
Mom threw on her coat and stepped toward the door.
Riley’s other eye opened. They were both very wide, now, but he didn’t get up yet. Maybe there was still a chance his mom was bluffing.
She on her boots and put her hand on the doorknob. “Goodnight, Riley,” she said as she began to turn it.
Riley recovered quickly. “I can be a dinosaur,” he said, his demeanor suddenly cheery. 
“Good,” said Mom. “Because that’s the costume you’ve got.”
She helped her son into the green jumpsuit, complete with stuffed head and tail. His face peered out from behind large, felt teeth. “I’m ready,” he declared.
“Are you sure?” Mom asked him. “You aren’t forgetting anything? Maybe your treat-bag?”
“Oh yeah!” he exclaimed.
“Here you go,” said Mom as she handed it over.
Riley was all set to go out and seemed to have forgotten that he hadn’t wanted to be a t-rex. Now he waited impatiently in the entry way for Mom to put the finishing touches on her costume. When she was done, they left the house together.
As they joined the stream of ghosts, goblins, princesses, and superheroes who were already on the sidewalk, Riley turned to his mom and asked her an important question.
“Can I be a pirate raccoon next year?”
Mom smiled. “Yes, you can. As long as you don’t change your mind.”

No. 231
November 1, 2012
“Here, eat the boy!”
The words of the anguished father echoed across the icy canyon. Family bonds had evaporated in the face of snow-madness.
Ninety days lost in the mountains has a way of changing a man. The rest of the expedition was no more, leaving Arthur Bannister alone with his tortured thoughts. The boy he spoke of was safe in his bed, thousands of miles away.
The monster he beseeched, however, was all too real. It watched the lone figure struggle across the wastes, inching ever closer to almost certain death—a death at the claws of the Abominable Snowman.
A millennium had passed since the last time humans had invaded the Snowman’s territory. Now just one had breached the stronghold. Would Arthur’s fragile mind hold on long enough for him to return home to the child he offered up?

No. 232
November 2, 2012
Charlie threw a rock into the dark river. He watched the ripples spread out and extinguish themselves against the shore. “Do you ever feel like going back?” he asked the man sitting next to him.
James Hailey did not understand his friend. “Go back to where?”
Charlie didn’t answer immediately. “Never mind,” he said after awhile. “It wasn’t a great question to begin with.”
James shrugged. “Alright, man.”
“Do you think the girls will be done soon?” said Charlie, changing the subject.
James checked his watch. “Probably another forty-five minutes.”
Charlie nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“You ok?” asked James. It wasn’t really a question, though. He could already tell something was up.
Another stone hit the water, but no still no word from Charlie.

Then he finally spoke. “Yeah. It just seems like we know a lot more now than we did then.”
James got it. “For sure. We could have at least avoided ‘The Phantom Menace’.”

No. 233
November 3, 2012
My true name is difficult to pronounce, but you can call me Summer. My job is to prevent children from being lost to another, far darker dimension when they play hide-and-go-seek.
Many, many years ago, a very evil man realized that whenever a child chooses to hide, then that boy or girl’s ties to their own world would weaken, leaving them vulnerable to crossing over. The man learned that if he waited on the other side of the rift, then his victims would come to him.
I was chosen to stop him, and I’ve been working ever since to thwart his schemes. Over time, I’ve managed to enlist more beings to my cause. Though we are many, we are not yet enough to prevail and I must divide my energies between protection and recruitment.
Right now, I am two worlds away from yours, talking to a particularly grumpy fairy named Mildred, but at the same time I can hear a little girl named Katelyn start her countdown. I can only hope that I can reach her in time to stave off the bad man.

No. 234
November 4, 2012
Robert McLaren sat down in his usual chair at the diner, and ordered his usual sandwich.
“Pickles today?” the waitress asked, engaging in the practiced banter.
“Not today, but maybe tomorrow,” said Robert. It was the standard response.
She mimed writing down the order, even though the slip was already in line in the kitchen, and walked away, leaving Robert with a cup of coffee. Just like every day.
Today, though, he had something to tell her. He tried to speak up when she left the table, but the words died in his throat. He coughed to cover the awkward sound he made as he aborted the sentence.
“We’ll have that up for you right away,” she called to him from somewhere around the corner.
He sipped his coffee and tried to relax his shaking leg. Nerves. They were going to be the death of him.
She came back with cutlery and a napkin. As she placed them in front of him, she spoke again. “Awfully stormy out, isn’t it?”
As if the weather was listening, lightning flashed on the other side of the large windows, and, with a concussion of thunder, the lights went out.
The waitress wasn’t slowed for a second. Without batting an eye, she continued her work. “Well, Mr. McLaren, it looks like you’ll have to have to shake things up and have some pie with your sandwich, because it won’t last in the fridge if the power is out.”
Robert put aside the thought from earlier. If his lunch was about to change, maybe he should, too. Instead of revealing his secret, he said something else. “I know I’m here all the time, but I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know your name,” he told his server.
She looked at him strangely, in the darkened dining room. “Really?”
The lights flickered back on, interrupting Robert’s reply. The waitress was distracted, too.
“Would you still like the pie?” she questioned, hesitating slightly.
Robert shrank back into the bench. “No. I shouldn’t.”
“Ok,” she said, and returned to the kitchen.

No. 235
November 5, 2012
Claire saw the man board the bus and hoped desperately that he wouldn’t take the open seat next to her.
Of course, he did. Why did she always attract the weird ones? He could have sat anywhere else. There were only seven other people. She caught the driver’s eye in the rear-view mirror, but he could do little more than shrug sympathetically.
“Hi,” said the man, extending his hand and leaning towards her, getting uncomfortably close. “My name is Michael Keaton.” He didn’t wait for her to respond before he clarified unnecessarily. “I’m not the actor.”
“I’m—,” Claire hesitated, thinking of a fake name. “Alice.”
“Of course you are. Yes, of course you are,” repeated Michael Keaton. He seemed to be sounding out the words in his head as he spoke them. He shifted in his seat, awkwardly readjusting something in his coat.
Claire looked out the window, trying to send a clear message that she didn’t want to talk. Michael Keaton turned his attention to another passenger, a man sitting a few rows back.
“I’m Michael Keaton,” Michael Keaton told his new friend. “I’m not the actor.”
“Uh huh,” grunted the unimpressed commuter.
Michael Keaton was undaunted. He kept up the conversation. “Alice, here, and I, we go way back,” he said.
Claire glanced over at the mention of her alias. Michael Keaton made a sudden move. He grabbed her arm and pulled her to the door at the side of the bus. With one smooth motion he triggered the emergency-open button and jumped out with Claire as the driver brought the bus to a shuddering halt.
“Come with me!” he yelled for everyone’s benefit, and then said something else to Claire very quietly, hushed so only she could hear. “It’s not safe back there. I’ll save you.”
He gently released her arm, and opened his jacket. Claire saw what he’d been harboring in there.
“His name is Batman,” was all Michael Keaton could say before the man from the seat behind punched him square in the jaw.
Claire sank to the curb as the shock wore off and didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Batman wriggled out of Michael Keaton’s pocket and scampered over to lick her face.
“That’s Batman, he’s my dog,” a stunned Michael Keaton was busy telling the driver and other passengers who stood over him. “Batman, and my friend, Alice.”

No. 236
November 6, 2012 
All the space stories you’ve heard of have been about smugglers, or rebels, or explorers, or soldiers. Mine is different. I’m just a normal guy. Mine started just about a week ago, and I can pretty much catch you up until now. Then we’ll have to live through it together.
I live on Juno. Got here two years ago on the last immigration ship. There aren’t too many of us yet. There won’t be until the next nav-window opens in six months and they start sending the really big star cruisers through.
Anyway, a week ago, on my way to work, I saw something. I know that you think I’m going to say an alien, but that wouldn’t be shocking. Everyone knows they’re around. They keep to themselves, mostly on Minerva. No. I saw something much weirder—a stranger.
This is the kind of planet where everyone knows everybody. The journey is a decade long, and all of it is spent in the chill. The asteroids and the sun only align to allow passage once per local orbit. My point is, it’s not an easy place to get to. You might say that it’s impossible. But I know what I saw.
I pulled over to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, but there she was. The first time I saw her, she was looking the other way, trying to stay hidden behind the dumpster at Ernie’s Restaurant. My first impression was that she seemed scared.
It was later that I found out this wasn’t true at all. But that’s jumping all ahead. To understand where I’m at now, let me get back to the story.

No. 237
November 7, 2012
Marty was a sloth, and it always amused him how much of the jungle gossip he would overhear. It seemed that other animals were quite willing to overlook a hanging, shaggy lump in a tree. Obviously, though, all the information he learned was difficult to exploit to its fullest potential, because Marty was a hanging, shaggy lump in a tree. He was also prone to sleeping upwards of twenty hours a day, so the information he did pick up was spotty at the best of times.
One day, probably a Thursday but Marty wasn’t sure, he overheard something important. Ajax, the jaguar, was going to make a play for King of the Jungle. Marty knew that if Ajax were to succeed, the delicate balance of the rain forest would be shattered, and that every animal would be in danger.
The sloth watched as the scheming cats crept off into the undergrowth. According to the story he’d just heard, the coup would take place the next evening. He knew he was the only one who could do anything to stop them.
With great intensity, Marty unhooked one crooked claw from the branch and moved it forward. Then, reaching deep into his energy reserves, he did the same with his other paw. Then another. And finally, the last one. He had now moved roughly the length of his body toward the trunk of the tree. If he hurried, he could reach help just before the jaguars sprang their trap.

No. 238
November 8, 2012
Protagonist examined the readings of a strange machine. “That’s it,” he said. “There are no new stories. The humans have run out of ideas.”
“Impossible!” exclaimed Antagonist. “Where will our magic come from?”
Protagonist put his head in his hands, thoroughly defeated after a lifetime spent trying to keep the spark of imagination alive. “I don’t know.”
Antagonist, the younger, less rigid of the pair, put forth a heretical suggestion. “What if we create our own?”
Protagonist’s eyes widened. “That would be against all the laws of the council! We can’t.”
Antagonist was determined. His gaze was steely. “What if?” he asked. “Just what if we did?”

No. 239
November 9, 2012
It’s hard, sometimes, to be a monster that can only go out during the day. I don’t get nearly as much respect as those night-time monsters. Plus, have you ever tried to jump out of the sunlight to scare somebody? Doesn’t work.
The roughest part is that I used to be a creature of the darkness. Then one evening I tried to eat the wrong person. This guy put some sort of curse on me and there you go. Now even mild shadows start to burn my scales. Stay away from the neighborhood east of Beach Club Street and anybody you see down there wearing a trench coat. Just trust me on that one. Bad news.
And, the thing is, my life keeps getting worse. Just this morning, I was on my way down to the dorms for breakfast when this woman driving by slams on the brakes, rolls down her window, and starts screaming and pointing at my claws. She must have called the cops, too, because fifteen minutes later I’m surrounded, then getting tasered and linked to something like 50 murders. I mean, it can’t be as high as that. By my count I’m somewhere near 30 since I rolled into town.
So, currently, I’m here, in this dank cell, and thank goodness they’ve left the light on. I overheard a guard down the hall saying somebody’s coming around to run some tests on me. At this point I think that’s probably for the best. The perp here, beside me, smells a little bit like pee.

No. 240
November 10, 2012
“Thank you for your continuing support of the Theatre, despite the events of last night’s show,” wrote Arianna Helm. “We sincerely hope that your perception of us as a professional and community-minded entity has not changed,” she continued, her fingers flashing across the keyboard.
“Ari,” said Frank Regent from across the office. “You’re not still writing that apology letter are you? They’ll understand. You can’t expect that to ever happen again.”
Arianna sighed, and stopped typing for a moment. “It wouldn’t hurt to at least attempt some damage control. I can still see the face of that woman in row five. I doubt she’ll be coming back.”
“Alright,” said Frank. “Do whatever you want. I’m expecting a call from Mr. Iversley any minute now, anyway. I’m going to wait until he lets me know what I should be doing.”
“He’s calling you?” Arianna asked. That wasn’t a good sign. Mr. Iversley rarely made the day-to-day operations his business. No matter what Frank said about not worrying, she was going to. If Mr. Iversley had already heard about the accident, then the disgruntled patrons were going to be the least of her problems.
She deleted the apologetic words on her screen and began a new paragraph. “Dear Mr. Iversley,” it began. “I am writing to inform you of the events of November 9th.”

No. 241
November 12, 2012
Almost a day after beginning his journey, Thomas Gallagher touched down at his final destination. He stared out the small window, drawing in every detail from the strange outside world as the plane taxied to the gate. As the final jolt of the brakes travelled through the cabin, the captain’s voice came over the PA system.
“Thank you for flying with us today. Welcome to Australia.”
Tom had never been so excited.
Although he should probably have been considered too old to believe in comic books, he’d come here on a very special mission. After studying years of back issues, he’d arrived at the conclusion that there were a huge percentage of heroes who’d received their powers after coming into contact with dangerous animals. He’d done is research and determined that Australia was home to almost nothing but dangerous animals. He was going to do everything possible to get bitten.
Day one started poorly. He was already fourteen hours into his stay, and so far he hadn’t encountered anything more venomous than a dust bunny in his room. After hotel breakfast, Tom took to the streets, looking for his golden ticket.
Several hours later, he would admit defeat. By dinner, he was reconsidering his plan.
For day two, he resolved to leave the city. Perhaps getting out into the wild country would be the key.
He woke early, and set out for a car-rental agency. Once behind the wheel, he found something almost immediately.
While pulled over at a gas station for a drink, Tom saw a snake emerge from a bush at the side of the building. He ran across the parking lot toward the serpent. It did what any snake could be expected to do when faced with a large, strange being who was rushing at it.
The snake sank its fangs into Tom’s leg. He cried out in pain and staggered to the ground. The snake slithered off, tired of the whole business.
Thomas yelled to the gas station attended for help. “A snake bit me,” he cried. “Does it look like it gave me super-strength?”
“No, mate,” said the attendant. “That snake’s got no powers. What he’s given you is an entire dose of poison. You stay still. I’m going to call the hospital.”
Tom looked at the two large, angry puncture marks on his calf and promptly passed out.
The gas station attendant watched from inside while dialing for help. “Bloody tourists,” he muttered as he waited for the phone to connect.

No. 242
November 13, 2012
Isaac White had, in a moment of dubious clarity, made the rash decision to open up his life to online voting. Every choice he would make was put to the faceless horde of the internet. He was in the second week of a promised one-year term and the flaws in his plan had already been mercilessly exposed.
The masses had decided, by a margin of 78 to 22 percent, that he would be eating dog food exclusively for the next two days. While wearing an inflatable sumo-suit. While watching some horrible children’s TV program on repeat with the volume cranked up. The situation had been like this since about six hours after his website had gone live.
Worse still, Isaac had wired his home with cameras, to broadcast his grand experiment to the world. He had nowhere to hide. Trying to sneak extra food, or even some unapproved water, was almost out of the question.  There was only one blind-spot—a four-square-foot area in the bathroom. It was his only measure of privacy, where viewers weren’t allowed.
As he sat, surreptitiously chewing on some petrified Halloween candy that he’d found in a drawer and transferred into his sleeve by sleight-of-hand, Isaac tried to think of a way to back out of his predicament. It would be difficult. He was currently the most famous person in the world.

No. 243
November 14, 2012
The ruins had been discovered once before. In 1904 a man stumbled out of the jungle with a crude map and unintelligible stories of a city made of gold. Before he could recover enough to tell his tale or make a copy of the map, a storm swept down the river valley. A dam burst, and the small village the man had been taken to was wiped out by a wall of water.
 Only two people escaped with their lives. Their accounts of the strange man were the only proof he existed at all. He became a statistic, an anonymous casualty of the flood. His city, it seemed, had been lost with him.
But not forever. I can tell you that he was Percy Spruce, and I know this because I found the city. He’d carved his name into a golden pillar in the central square. The scale of the wealth here is unbelievable. The entire metropolis is covered in gold foil. The holiest buildings are sheathed in inches of the precious metal. The pillar is 15 feet tall, and near as I can tell, solid.
I don’t have much time to explore, though. I believe that I was followed here. In the morning, the bandits will come. I will need to be ready.

No. 244
November 15, 2012
Powell Shultz was a tiny, wasted figure in the middle of a king-sized bed. His voice, though, was still strong. 
“I don’t want those doughnuts. What have I told you about sprinkles? Get rid of them,” he chastised the maid who brought him breakfast.
“Yes, sir,” she nodded, removing the offending box from his sight. Just yesterday he’d informed her than nothing in the world made him happier than sprinkles. But maybe he’d changed his mind and spoken to another one of the help. He had several assistants, butlers, and maids surrounding him on any given day.
“When do the sales numbers come in?” she could hear him calling from the bedroom. Shultz was the head of TomorrowTech, and all the company decisions still crossed the hardwood floor of his bedroom before implementation. She’d heard that he’d made his fortune on some equipment that the government had immediately bought and then classified blacker than black.
She heard yet another outburst from his sanctum. “Where are my doughnuts? That girl took them.” She didn’t like the sound of that and she did something that she never thought she’d do.
She crossed Mr. Shultz. Opening one of the many anonymous doors in the great hallway, she stepped inside with her box of treats and raised the lid. Then, one by one, she ate every single doughnut, just to spite her employer. Only after she was finished did she take note of the contents of the room. She’d never been in here before.
All the walls were covered in unmarked switches, gears, and readouts. A large, rectangle platform jutted up from the middle of the floor. The surface of the strange projection seemed to shimmer, like oil on water. She reached out to touch it.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a sharp, familiar voice told her. She turned, and was shocked to see Mr. Shultz standing in the doorway. “It’s not quite finished yet, my dear,” he said as he cracked his ancient knuckles.

No. 245
November 15, 2012
Cynthia Newquist played the last note of her performance, then without recognizing the audience, she rose and fled the stage. She did not even notice the curtains fall behind her. “Somebody get me a piece of paper!” she shouted.
She made it to a small table that was set up at the side of the stage. A fellow musician who had been waiting in the wings managed to find her the sheet she was calling for.
Cynthia snatched it from his hand and began to scribble furiously.
“What are you doing?” the provider asked.
She cut him off without looking up. “Shh! Busy!”
Fifteen minutes later, she stopped writing and collapsed against the wall, seemingly exhausted.
Other performers had started to mingle around her. One of them knelt beside Cynthia to make sure she was alright.
Some whispered words passed between Cynthia and her new acquaintance. The others began to murmur amongst themselves. Finally, somebody in the back broke the hushed atmosphere.
“What was all that about?”
The outburst seemed to startle Cynthia. Blinking heavily, she rose to her feet. She returned to the table and picked up the mysterious note. Now she took a bold tone.
“When I was out there playing, I had a wonderful idea. I realized something. I needed to rush back here to get it all down.”
“And?” was the reply from the crowd.
Cynthia held up the paper. “It’s a song, of course. It’s the perfect song.”

No. 246
November 19, 2012
“There are dragons in the hills,” said the old man. “They’ll keep to themselves in the summer, but in the winters they come down. That’s when they’re hungry.”
Six young children sat around the man, listening to every word of his stories.  One of them, however, didn’t agree with the content. “That’s not true,” he said. “Dragon’s aren’t real.”
The old man’s face darkened. “You say that, boy, only because you’ve never seen one. They’re real, and, if you don’t believe, then they’re especially dangerous.”
At that moment, a woman arrived in the room. She’d heard the old man’s warning from around the corner. “Mr. Spero,” she said, speaking to the old man. “What are you telling these children? Dragons aren’t part of the town history. We never discussed this when you asked to speak here.”
Spero stood, defiant. “Little Miss, if a man can’t come to the museum and tell the youngsters something that will save their lives, I don’t know why you have these talks.”
The woman put her hands on her hips. “Mr. Spero, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Then, turning to the children who were still watching every move the adults made, she continued. “Don’t listen to Mr. Spero. I’m sorry he’s been scaring you. There’s really no such thing as dragons. If you come with me, now, I can show you some very interesting rocks from the town’s mining days.”
“Watch out!” said Mr. Spero as the children all got up and filed out the door. Then he gathered his coat and hat and left out the side entrance.

Donald Douglas pulled into town after a long day’s drive. He tried to remember the last time he’d been here. Once, as a kid, while on vacation, his mom had left him to listen to some crank at the local museum talk about monsters or something in the hills. He smiled at the memory. That had been a good trip. The curator had given all the children credit at the gift shop because the old coot might have frightened them.
Donald got out of his truck to check into his hotel for the night. He hoped to get to sleep soon. The next morning would be an early start as he hit the road to stay ahead of the snow that was forecast to roll in.
He looked up at the bluffs towering over Main Street. “Dragons!” he scoffed aloud. That’s what the man had said all those years ago.

No. 247
November 20, 2012
“I can see there’s something out there, I just can’t reach it,” Bubbles told Flash.
Both fish were swimming lazily around their bowl with little else to do but engage each other in conversation. It was an unspoken rule that whoever “won” their daily debate got to sleep in the sunken galleon that night.
“This is our world,” said Flash. “Do you ever remember being anyplace else?”
Bubbles thought for a moment. “No.”
“This is our world,” said Flash. “Do you ever remember being anyplace else?”
“You just asked me that,” said Bubbles.
“Yeah, ok. Just checking,” said Flash.
“Oh, I get it. Making sure my memory is still good. Tricky,” Bubbles said while rolling his bulbous eyes. “But all that aside, don’t you ever wonder if this is all there is?” he continued, waving his fin at the plastic plant and the small colorful beads at the bottom of their home. “And what is the blur that feeds us?”
“I dunno,” Flash admitted. “I never thought about it before. All I know is that I put my head out of the water once and I got dizzy. Maybe I’m not the best source of information about where the food comes from.”
Bubbles swam a fast lap around the perimeter of the bowl. “I win!” he declared. “I convinced you that there’s someplace else!”
“Hang on a minute,” said Flash testily. “That’s not what you said. And we never really got down to deciding what the question was.”
“I thought I was pretty clear,” Bubbles replied.
“You weren’t.”
“Fine, Mr. Grumbles, what’s the topic?”
Flash got all the way up to the glass wall and pressed his fishy lips against it while considering the problem. Finally, the topic came to him. He chose his words carefully. “Assuming there is a wider universe beyond the bowl, just what is our place in it?”

No. 248
November 21, 2012
The sun rose over the desert hideaway of the Whiskey Bandit.
Anna-Lee Hailey pulled her hat down over her eyes and rolled closer to the embers of last-night’s fire. The bright sky would not warm for several hours yet.
“Whiskey, get up,” urged Anna-Lee’s partner. “We’re on the timetable.”
“Oh, hush, Juliet. You know as well as I do that Sheriff Winston stays late in town on Thursdays,” countered a still sleepy Anna-Lee. “And Ettie? Remember what I said about calling me Whiskey.”
She stretched as she sat up slowly to survey the sparse camp. Things had been moved since last night. “You’ve been busy,” she told Juliet.
“Sure. I figured with you sleeping the day away, I’d take the opportunity to spruce this place up a little. What do you think?”
Anna-Lee rolled her eyes at Juliet’s so-called improvements. “You know, if you weren’t the fastest gun around, I’d probably have ditched you back in Tucson.”
Juliet laughed. “I thought you were the brains of this operation, and yet there you are, too slow to have made that call.”
“Uh-huh,” Anna-Lee grunted. “As the leader of this gang, it is my duty to inform you that coffee will have to be made.”
Before Juliet could reply, the third member of the crew rode up from the mouth of the canyon that sheltered the outlaws.
“Whiskey,” said Lewis Goodman, “Bad news. Winston’s changed his schedule. We’ve only got until noon if we want the make this job count.”
“Alright, Lew. Get back to the ridge and keep an eye out. Ettie and I will be along just as soon as I can find my pants. Seems she’s been housekeeping.”
Goodman quickly did as he was told. Anna-Lee sighed, and turned to Juliet. “Just what is it about ‘only call me Whiskey during the heists’ don’t you two understand?

No. 249
November 22, 2012
Randy Webber finished his lunch, then leapt off the dock into the lake to join his friends.
He didn’t have a chance to swim very far before a girl appeared beside him.
“Hi, Randy, you’re not going to like this, but I’m going to have to cite you,” said the girl.
“What?” said Randy. He was confused.
“I’m going to have to give you a ticket,” said the girl, who appeared to be floating effortlessly in the water.
“Are you the police?” asked Randy. He looked her up and down and she didn’t certainly wasn’t wearing a uniform. She wasn’t wearing a bathing suit, either. Her clothes seemed soft, and a little bit shiny.
“No. I’m a – well, never mind what I am. I’m here to write you up for not waiting an hour after you ate before swimming,” she told him.
Randy laughed. “That’s not even a thing. Are you staying around here for spring break?”
She was taken aback. “It is very much ‘a thing’. And I’m not going to get my wings if you don’t cooperate.”
Randy stopped moving ahead and began to tread water. “Wings?”
The girl rolled her eyes and shrugged. “I’ve done it again, haven’t I? Well, yes. I’m in training. To be a proper fairy. We don’t get to start out at teeth, or with lost boys. We aren’t even allowed the dust until we’ve been on the job for two years.”
Randy looked at her suspiciously. “No kidding?” he wondered. “And your job is to lurk around waiting for people to eat and then swim?”
“I most certainly do not ‘lurk’!” she sputtered. “But, basically, yes.”
“How come you’re not small?”
“People don’t like getting fined, do they? If I was small, you would have considered squashing me like a bug.”
“I would have shooed you away, probably,” Randy admitted. His arms were beginning to tire, and he stroked slowly back toward the dock.
She came right along with him. “Look, can I just get this over with? If I don’t meet my quota I’ll have to go back to stealing socks, and I worked really hard to get out of there,” she said assertively, but with a smile.
By this time, Randy was beginning to take a shine to his new companion. He wasn’t sure if he believed her story, but he was free tonight, and she seemed nice. Maybe he had a chance if he played along. “Ok. What do I need to do in this scenario?” he agreed.
“The fine is based on the amount of time you waited. The less time, the more you owe.”
“Uh-huh,” said Randy. “And where do I pay?”
“Oh,” she laughed. “You don’t pay with money.”
“I don’t?”
“Of course not! What would we do with money?” she scoffed.
“Then what?”
“Since you only waited 48 seconds after you swallowed your last bite, that puts you into the top category,” she explained. “You’ll need to perform five acts of goodwill.”
“Like being nice to people or something?” he asked.
“Goodwill, yes,” she confirmed. She tore a piece of paper off of a pad that had appeared out of nowhere. “Here you go.”
Randy accepted it, reading the checked boxes carefully. He squinted at the line with her signature, but couldn’t make it out. There seemed to be an “i” with a heart-dot, though.
“That’s all!” she told him cheerfully.
“Thanks, I guess.”
She was about to leave when he spoke up again. “Hey, two things. First, can I get your name? And second, do you think it would count as goodwill if I helped you with your quota by luring some of my friends into the water after dinner?”

No. 250
November 23, 2012
“That’s just terrible,” Miranda told the TV. A commercial break had jogged her attention and she shook her head. She couldn’t believe she’d just spent fifteen minutes of her life watching a show with so few redeemable qualities.
She looked for the remote control, and remembered why she hadn’t simply changed the channel in the first place. She searched everywhere and, when it didn’t turn up between the cushions, she had to change tactics. She got down on her hands and knees with a flashlight and peered underneath the seat. There was the prize, fallen between the back of the couch and the wall.
“Come here,” she said as she dragged the sofa aside so she could reach the remote. As she leaned down to pick it up she noticed something was out of place. The corner of the carpet was not flush with the floor.
Miranda studied it for a moment. Then, tentatively, she began to pull at the tab. The carpet rose up without a hitch. It had not been fastened down. Miranda kept dragging it back until she felt it catch. Then she lay the flap down and saw what was underneath.
A loose sheet of plywood had been used to support the floor and, when Miranda pushed it away, it revealed an antique safe.
“Well isn’t this interesting,” she said as she knelt down to examine it.

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