September Stories (9/7)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-7

The Egregia Cum Laude Adventure
By Danielle Davis

 It wasn’t the first time someone had contacted him about a case as he was walking to his 6am Political Science class, but it was the first time someone had thrown a rock at him to do it.

“OW!” He staggered and rubbed the back of his head. When his probing fingers found a lump already forming just behind his ear, he turned with a livid glare to find the culprit. His eyes found a tall young man jogging towards him.

Instinctively, Sherlock Holmes noted several details all at once. The man was still in his pajamas, the kind with white and blue stripes down the button-front shirt and pants. The touseled clumps of his hair stood up in several directions, and he was barefoot. These things he absorbed without even consciously realizing he was doing so.

What he did consciously note, however, was that the man’s face was creased with worry, and the eyes that locked on his appeared wide and anxious. The worry and anxiety were of no interest to Sherlock. What incensed him was the lack of apology in it.

“Are you Sherlock Holmes?” the man asked in a breathless voice as he halted in front of Sherlock.

Sherlock gave him a withering glare. “Why, was that rock meant for someone else?”

“I had to catch you before you went into the building,” the man said with a sheepish duck of his shoulders. “I was aiming for the steps to one side of you. I’m Reginald Dawes.”

Sherlock continued to rub the back of his head and glare.

Reginald gave a nervous glance around the open campus area around them, as if making sure there was no one else about. Sherlock rolled his eyes. Having no one about was exactly why he chose the early morning classes every semester—so he had to deal with as few people as possible. Other than a pair of women walking together on the opposite side of the university mall, there was nobody else in sight.

Sherlock let out a pointed sigh. “You have two minutes before I walk away to my next class. As much as I detest Poli Sci, I detest idiots wasting my time even more.”

“Right. Well…” To Sherlock’s frustration, Reginald  became hesitant to continue. “There’s been a…a murder.”

“Of course there has. People are murdered all the time.” With an irritable flap of his overcoat, Sherlock turned to leave.

“No! I mean here, on campus!” Reginald ‘s voice cracked in his panic.

Without stopping, Sherlock said over his shoulder, “Statistically speaking, there have probably been more than five since the campus was opened. Good day.”

The door to the building was half open when Reginald shouted behind him, “They’re saying it was an accident. But I know better. And I think I know who did it.”

Sherlock paused with his hand holding the door open. “Then why haven’t you told the police?” His voice still sounded brique, but it had lost its angry tone.

Now Reginald’s voice turned hopeful. “I did. But they’re the ones saying Ben died by accident.”

“I see.” Still Sherlock didn’t move. “But you think otherwise?”

“That’s right, sir. Ben wasn’t the kind to die from…what they said. He was real careful about his medications.”

“Hmm.” In a quick movement, Sherlock pivoted and took several large strides to stand in front of Reginald, who gazed at him with naked hope on his face. “And what do you want me to do?”

“Get enough proof together that the police will reopen the case. And arrest her.”

“Her.”

“Ben’s girlfriend.”

“Who you think killed him?”

“Who I know killed him, sir.”

Sherlock nodded to himself. “Why do you think the police will listen to me?”

“Word around town is that you solve problems, find things other folks miss. I’ve heard you worked with the policemen around here before.”

With a grimace, Sherlock averted his gaze. “Worked with yes? Made lifelong friendly connections, no.” At Reginald’s questioning look, he added, “They don’t like it when you show them how stupid they are.”

“So you’ll take the case?” Reginald thrust out his hand, waiting for Sherlock to shake it. “I can pay,” he added quickly.

Sherlock cast a calculating glance behind him. “Well, I don’t know…” He frowned and steepled his fingers in front of him. “I’ve got a Poli Sci midterm due in two weeks. If I were to take this case, I’m not sure I’d have time to give it proper attention and study…” Sherlock let the idea trail off suggestively.

“Oh, I can write that for you!” Reginald exclaimed. His face lit up with a wide smile.

Sherlock responded with a wan, knowing smile. “Excellent. Now show me where they found him, and tell me everything you know about what happened.”

Reginald’s dead roommate was a senior classman named Benjamin Boscomb. Sherlock learned that Ben was a studious boy from the Brent borough. Well-liked and sociable, Ben had been pursuing a degree in Biology. According to Reginald, Ben had suffered from epilepsy but had never had an issue that Reginald had noticed. When Sherlock asked if he’d been seeing anybody, Reginald’s face darkened.

As he turned the key to open the dormitory he’d shared with Ben, he said the name “Sandy Truelove” like the name was an insult.

“Ah, so there’s a story there?” Sherlock said in a light tone. Relationships, especially other people’s, tended to bore him. They were all together too tedious to maintain the minutiae of.

Reginald snorted. “Story? She’s the one that murdered him.”

Sherlock raised his eyebrows at that, then stepped inside the dormitory. It seemed easy to tell two differing personalities lived there. On one side of the room, the bedsheets were haphazardly strewn and towers of textbooks served on either side as bedside tables. One of these sported a small bottle of pills, two ink pens, and a small wooden figurine of a duck. Sherlock noticed three semi-filled mugs of coffee lying in random places: atop a dresser, on the arm of a stuffed chair, on a writing desk atop a messy stack of papers. It smelled of stale coffee and body odor, as if the sheets had not been changed in some time.

The other side was everything this side wasn’t. The bed was neat, minus the pulled back comforter, with a small trunk lying at the foot on top of a linen-weave rug patterned with red and tan circles. The writing desk was clear, with a few papers neatly set to one side and a small rack that sorted various-sized envelopes. A small corkboard was set on the wall above the desk, with small notes pinned to it.

Sherlock turned back to the messier side of the room. “Did you or anyone else move any of his things?”

Reginald blinked. “How did you know this was his side?”

Glowering, Sherlock sighed. “Careful observation. Now, did anyone move anything here?”

“What did you observe?”

Sherlock let out a small growl of frustration. “Really, Reginald. If I have to take the time to explain every single detail I notice that you didn’t, we will be here until the end of the semester. So I won’t ask again: was anything moved?”

Reginald frowned and glanced around Ben’s side of the room. “No, I don’t think so. They–” his voice caught “–they took his body out last night, but I think that was it. Nobody’s come by to collect his things yet.” Sherlock could hear in his voice that he wasn’t looking forward to the encounter.

Sherlock moved to the desk pushed against the wall. Papers were strewn all over it in no discernable order. He pushed a few around, noting several academic papers, some handwritten letters from someone who liked to dot their I’s with hearts, a pharmaceutical receipt, and what looked like class notations scrawled in an unruly hand.

Next he strolled to the bed, taking in the messy sheets, the strand of blonde hair stuck to the side of the mattress, the deep indentation on the pillow where someone’s head had lain. The pill bottle perched on one of the book towers caught his eye and he picked it up, spilling a few into his palm. Most were small, white, and semi-flat, except for two that had a slight bluish tinge to them. Sherlock glanced at Reginald, but the other man was staring morosely at his own bed. With a deft movement, Sherlock slid the palmful of pills into his coat pocket, then examined the bottle. The writing on the outside of the bottle identified them as silver nitrate, prescribed by a physician named Whitlowe, from an office on Howland St.

“How do you know it was murder?”

“Ben had epilepsy since he was a little kid. He’s been taking medicine for it for as long as I’ve known him. We went to grade school together. He was religious about taking his pills. He knew what would happen if he didn’t. The police said he had a fit in the night and died from it. But I don’t believe that—those pills helped him. He stopped having fits when he took them and he never missed taking them.”

“Why do you think it was the girlfriend?” he asked in a distracted tone. His attention had turned to the bookshelf, which housed a fascinating array of textbooks. Almost none of them seemed to be pleasure reading.

“The night they said he died, I came back from a study group. I heard them arguing about something through the door. It sounded like she was really mad. I heard her tell him he would be sorry, and then I left. Spent the night with a mate of mine upstreet. When I came back in the morning, he was dead.”

“And you think that makes her the murderer?”

“Well, she was the last one to see him wasn’t she?” Reginald’s fists crept into fists at his side and a sharp line creased between his eyebrows as he scowled at Sherlock. Sherlock stared impassively back.

For a long moment the two stared at each other. Then, “You’d probably best get started on that paper,” Sherlock suggested as he moved toward the door. “I’m going to want to review it before I turn it in.”

“What’s this then? You’re leaving? Why?”

Sherlock was already out the door, but his voice floated back in answer. “I’ve got a doctor’s appointment!”

The hansom cab dropped Sherlock in front of a spare brick building. The office he wanted was on the second floor. When he stepped into the small waiting room, a sallow-faced woman behind the desk blinked up at him sleepily.

“Are you here for an appointment, love?”

Sherlock stepped forward with a winning smile. “Yes, madame, I am. I’d like to see Dr. Paul Whitlowe, please. I’m his–” he glanced at the wall clock behind the woman, which read five minutes until nine “–nine o’clock.”

The woman glanced down at a list in front of her. “Mr. Idleman?”

“Of course! May I go on back?”

She waved him through the door to the inner offices, where he found a young man about his age behind another desk.

“Hi, I’ve got a prescription question,” Sherlock began, as his shoulders slouched and his face softened to a meek expression. The dark-haired man behind the desk look up with a frown. “It’s about my brother’s pills.”

The other man stepped out from behind the desk. “Dr. Whitlowe is busy with a patient, but I can probably help. I’m his assistant, James Murdock.”

“Oh, excellent!” Sherlock gushed. He fished a few of the pills out of his pocket and held them out in his palm. “My brother Benjamin takes them for his epilepsy. Can you tell me what they are? He only has a few left and he sent me to get more. He said Dr. Whitmore prescribed them a few weeks ago.”

The man examined the pills. “The white ones are probably silver nitrate, but the blueish ones…we don’t prescribe those for epilepsy. You must have mixed up his pill’s with someone else’s.”

Sherlock frowned down at the pills as if just seeing them. “Oh dear. I could have sworn I got them from the same bottle… Are you sure these wouldn’t have been in there?” He peered curiously at James, gaging his reaction.

“Dr. Whitlowe wouldn’t give out the wrong medication.”

“…So it was Dr. Whitlowe who gave him his last set of medication?” Sherlock tried to make the question come across as offhanded, but something in his voice must have betrayed him.

James’s face seemed to harden, his eyes growing cold and distant. “I’m sure it was. What did you say the patient’s full name was? I can look up what he gets in his records.”

Five minutes later, Sherlock strolled out of Dr. Whitlowe’s office. When he reached the street, he glanced one way and casually pulled out the pill bottle James had given him. He pulled off the cap, poured some into his palm, and examined them. All small, white, and semi-flat. He nodded to himself as if this confirmed something, then put away the pills and bottle.

Stepping out toward the street, he waved his hand to flag down a cab. A moment later, one pulled by a dark-bay horse rolled to a stop in front of him and he got in.

“To the university,” he instructed.

Back on campus, he stopped by the Arts and Sciences hall, sat down on a bench, and waited. A half hour later, students began streaming out the door, chattering to each other in excited voices. Sherlock eyed them until he saw a red-haired girl in a short maroon skirt stride away. In her arms was a sketchbook. He hurried to catch up to her and slowed to match her pace. He noticed a pencil poked behind one ear.

“Sandy?” he inquired.

The girl gave a startled yip and jumped a few paces away. “Do I know you?” She peered at him with mingled doubt and suspicion.

“No, but I’m a friend of Ben’s.”

At the mention of his name, her face grew ashen and she looked down at the path under her feet. Her arms clutched the sketchbook tighter to her chest. “Oh. How did you know where to find me?”

“Ben had a note to meet you this morning at the Art Hall.”

“What do you want?” From the challenge in her voice, he thought it best to get to the point.

“Why did you two fight the other night?”

“If you’re such good friends, why didn’t he tell you?” she countered.

Sherlock gave her a thin smile. “Good question. But I’m trying to figure out something. No doubt you’ve worked out that it seems strange that he died shortly after having a spirited fight with you…?”

She stopped and looked at him with wide eyes. “You’re talking like I might have killed him. But I heard he died from an epilepsy fit. Natural causes, right?”

“Well, that’s what I’m trying to confirm.” The lie came easily to his lips. It was the end result, after all, that was most important. The truth, always the truth.

She looked at him a moment longer, then rolled her eyes. “It wasn’t so much a fight as a breakup.” At Sherlock’s raised eyebrows, she continued. “I broke up with him. He was… he wasn’t ever around. We didn’t go out, we didn’t do…anything.” A slight flush worked its way up her cheeks. “He was always studying. Studying, studying, studying! Even though he had one of the best GPAs on campus, it wasn’t enough. He wanted to be the best.”

“As confessions go, that one leaves something to be desired.”

Her flush deepened to bright scarlet circles in each cheeks. “I’m not confessing anything, you dolt! I didn’t kill him!”

“Are you quite sure about that? Sure you didn’t just get mad and grab a pillow and put it over his–”

Her hand snaked out and slapped his cheek. His face flared with pain, but all he did was clap a hand to his cheek and watch as she stalked away. He rubbed his cheek a few times, then reached up to rub the goose egg that had risen behind his ear.

“Why is it always the face?” he murmured to himself. His encounter with Sandy didn’t seem to have resolved anything. In fact, he actually felt more confused about this case than when he started. For the first time since he’d started taking on amateur student cases, he felt he’d reached a dead end.

So he did the only thing he could think to do. He set off at a brisk pace to the Psychology building, his overcoat flapping like a bedsheet behind him.

He made his way to the eighth room on the left, opened the door without knocking, and flounced inside. Behind the large oak desk, a man of about sixty leaned over a piece of paper with his pen. As his door slammed open, he glanced over the rims of his glasses and watched as Sherlock sank with a huff into the overstuffed leather chair that sat directly in front of the desk. He flung his legs over the arm of the chair and draped his upper body over the other arm so that he was staring at the ceiling.

“I’m stuck, Albert,” he moaned. The older man watched patiently. “I’ve checked out both options and neither of them showed me anything. Except more questions.”

Albert carefully set down his pen and went about straightening the papers on his desk. For several moments, the only sounds in the room was the swishing shuffle of papers being moved about, punctuated by the occasional whoosh of a drawer being pulled open, then shoved shut.

“Aren’t you going to ask about it?” Sherlock said.

“Narcissistic personalities cannot help but talk about themselves. All you have to do is wait.”

Sherlock raised his head and glared across the table. “Are you saying I’m a narcissist?”

Albert moved a book to the side, then looked at Sherlock and grinned. “I’m saying I’m a patient man. Now, what has you so, as you put it, stuck?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes toward the ceiling as he carefully chose his words. “Let’s say I have a hypothetical situation–”

“Like the last one with the married professor and the Dean of Engineering?” Albert interrupted.

“No. Well, yes, somewhat. Let’s say this situation is more about a dead person–”

“Dead person?” Albert scowled as his voice took on a hard edge. “Do you mean a corpse or a person who has died? Context is important, Sherlock, I’ve told you this.”

“A person who has died–”

“Let the police handle it then.” Albert’s tone indicated he was through discussing the matter.

“But they did,” Sherlock protested, sitting upright now. “And they botched it.”

Albert leaned forward and fixed Sherlock with hard eyes. “I indulge your ‘hypothetical situations’ because I know you like to fancy yourself a detective. And your hunches about certain issues are often correct. However, your hypotheticals rarely deal with things of consequence. But anything involving the death of a person is a serious thing, something you should leave to the professionals.”

“But that’s why I’m here,” Sherlock said in a pleading voice. “This is a serious thing but the professionals have it wrong. Hypothetically, of course.” He added the last part as a hasty afterthought.

But the iron look didn’t leave Albert’s expression. “You know I cannot advise you on things that have serious legal ramifications, Sherlock.”

“I just wanted your advice on a hypothetical situation, Albert. Come on, sir. You always help me find the thing I missed.”

Albert’s eyes measured Sherlock’s for a long moment, then he sat back with a sigh. “Ok. What options did you check out?”

“The pharmacist and the girlfriend. But now all I’ve got is a dead guy, who was fanatical about taking his meds, and a girlfriend who broke up with him because he didn’t make time for her. Hypothetically.”

“Why not?”

“Too busy studying.”

“That’s what she said?” Albert asked in a thoughtful tone. Sherlock nodded. “And you believe her?”

Sherlock screwed his face to one side. “Why would she lie?”

“People always lie, Sherlock. It’s our nature.” He leaned forward and picked up his pen. “Maybe he was a good student and maybe he wasn’t. Thank goodness there are records kept of such things.” His voice trailed away, and he glanced pointedly back up at Sherlock over the rim of his glasses.

Sherlock smirked. “And if that doesn’t work?”

“When solving a problem, I always find retracing my steps to be helpful. You never know what you missed the first time.”

The clerk in the records department owed Sherlock a favor from the time he helped her find out who stole her bicycle. She was able to show him the student files for Benjamin Boscomb. It turned out, that neither Reginald nor Sandy had given him the full story about Ben’s studying habits. From the grade records, Sherlock learned that not only was Ben a good student, he had one of the highest GPAs possible.

“He’s got some amazing numbers,” said the records clerk wistfully. She pushed her glasses back with a finger on the bridge. “Sad news about him. He was one of the three vying for egregia cum laude status.”

Sherlock looked up from the records and frowned at her. “I’ve never heard of that distinction.”

The clerk grinned at him. “Then you’ve never had the grades to know. It’s the highest distinction the University offers. Students can graduate summa cum laude by being in the top five percent of GPAs. But only one student can make egregia. That goes to the student with the highest GPA and most rigorous honors curriculum.”

“You said he was one of three?” The clerk nodded. “Who were the other two?”

The young woman dug into the folders filed in a desk drawer. Finally she produced a sheet of paper and handed it to him. “James Murdock and Conrad Bills.”

Sherlock smiled so widely at the clerk that she gave him a startled smile back. Then he dashed for the door and, with a flap of his coat, was gone.

“You’re welcome!” she called, leaning over the desk to yell after him.

One hansom cab ride later deposited Sherlock back on a front stoop on Howland St. This time, he charmed his way in as “Mr. Overholster” to the pretty, young woman behind the desk. When he strolled into the inner office, however, he nearly ran into an older man with a large, handlebar mustache wearing a white doctor’s coat. The white fabric gave stark contrast to the dark red patches on the man’s face. The sunburn on his forehead had begun to peel away, revealing peach-colored skin underneath, but the bridge of his nose and cheekbones were still an angry red. A stethoscope draped over the back of his neck like a snake. Across the left breast of the jacket, Whitlowe was stitched in curling script.

“Can I help you, young sir?” The doctor’s voice had a pleasant Scottish brogue to it.

“I’m here to check about my brother’s medication,” Sherlock began. “Benjamin Boscomb.”

Whitlowe’s expression didn’t change but the eyes grew flinty. “I’ve seen that family for generations now. Lad doesn’t have a brother.”

The matter-of-fact tone startled Sherlock enough that he paused and floundered as his mind raced for a response. “Right. Well. You’ve got me there. I’m actually investigating something about his death and–”

“The boy’s dead? Oh, my gracious.” The doctor’s shoulders sagged as he looked sadly at the countertop. “I’ve seen that boy since he was a wee ‘un. ‘S a shameful thing to have happen to that nice family.”

The emotion was too obvious, and therefore too discomforting, for Sherlock to address, so he skipped over the doctor’s words entirely. It was one reason those that knew him called him an unfeeling statue. “Can you identify something for me?” Sherlock fished in his pocket for the pale blue pills that had been mixed with Ben’s medication.

The doctor peered at them for a moment, then said, “Looks like thallium to me. But I’d have to look at the records to be sure.”

Sherlock nodded, then said in a bright voice, “How was the vacation?”

Whitlowe’s eyes lit up and he gave Sherlock a wide grin. “Wonderful! Took the family to stay with my sister in Cyprus. Beautiful weather there, not like the nasty cold stuff here. But, as you can see, I got a fair bit o’ sun while we were there.” He waved a careless hand in a circle around his head.

“When were you there?” Sherlock asked with a small arc of his eyebrow.

“Oh, the last few weeks. Just got back.”

“And who filled your orders while you were gone?”

Whitlowe glanced around, then gave Sherlock a rueful frown. “My assistant, James. But he doesn’t seem to be about right now. Should I have him get back to you about a question?”

“No, thanks. You’ve told me all I needed to know.” Sherlock nodded his head in thanks and left with a superior set to his lips.

Two days later, Sherlock slammed open Albert’s office door and sank into the armchair with a dramatic sigh. His legs were over one arm while his head and shoulders dangled over the other.

Albert slide a thick book into place on one of the bookshelves that lined the wall of his office. “Another hypothetical situation you got on your mind?” he asked without turning around.

“Hardly,” gloated Sherlock. “My mid-term Poli Sci paper’s done and it’s wonderful.”

“Proud of yourself, are you?” Albert crossed the room to his desk and sat in the chair behind it. He interlaced his fingers together and set his hands on the desktop while he regarded Sherlock.

“Very.” Sherlock smiled smugly at the ceiling. “I don’t even have to make any corrections to it.”

“Did you ever find the solution to that other thing you were wondering about?”

“Oh yes. I’ve decided recreational drugs are ok as long as you can find a reputable–”

“Not that one!” Albert hissed. “And I didn’t just hear that. I meant the one about the hypothetical dead person.”

“Oh. Yes to that, too. Turns out, he’d been poisoned. Thallium.”

Albert raised his bushy eyebrows in surprise. “That’s an interesting one. By whom?”

“His physician’s assistant. I figured out that he was vying with my dead guy for some top honors status. And then, when he lied to me about his boss having given the dead guy his medicine, I confirmed it when his boss revealed that he’d been on vacation when the dead guy had received the pills. Even though the pills were a slightly different color, I don’t think my dead guy ever noticed. I think that’s what the assistant was counting on. I mean, how often do you just dump a pill in your palm and swallow without looking, you know? Especially medication you’ve been taking for some time?”

“I’m apparently not as well-versed on drugs as you are,” Albert said in a dry voice.

“Anyway, so I got a few of the oafs at that miserable excuse for a police station to come with me when I confronted the assistant. He was quite happy to admit it to me, though he was less happy when he discovered the police had been waiting outside the door listening.” Sherlock snickered. “It was really pathetic how easily he gave it all up. I suppose narcissists just love to hear themselves talk, huh Albert?”

Albert cocked an eyebrow, but Sherlock didn’t notice as he rambled on.

“Thanks, by the way, for helping me out. With the hypothetical situation, of course.” Sherlock sat up and peered at Albert. “How did you ever become so adept at deduction?”

With a small smile, Albert gazed over the many volumes lining his bookcase shelves. “Some things you acquire with experience. Others are common sense.” His eyes shifted to Sherlock’s and they held a heavy knowledge that seemed to stretch beyond his years. “And as a psychologist, it is my business to know what other people don’t. Perhaps someday it’ll be yours, too.”

“That is truly amazing,” Sherlock said in a soft, awed voice.

“Not amazing,” Albert laughed. “Elementary.”

Total Writing Time: 3 hr., 45 min.

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September Stories (9/6)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-6

Dragon Eyes: An Unconventional Fairytale
By Danielle Davis

 Once upon a time, there was a princess whose parents locked her in a tower.

Once upon a time, there was a dragon that guarded a tower rumored to house a beautiful princess.

Once upon a time, these were different stories.

King Prince and his wife Mylena loved their daughter, who was born after a long period of doubt whether an heir would even be possible. From the start, she was like something from a fairytale. Her hair curved in long, silken waves the color of ripe chestnuts. Her figure was slight, her skin fair. Such were the luminous nature of her eyes, people several kingdoms over heard of the clearness of their hazel depths and how they sparkled with intelligence and wit.

What they didn’t know was that she could also turn into a dragon.

Well, that’s mostly true. She couldn’t change at will, but rather was forced, by whatever element of nature caused the transformation, into her dragon form for three consecutive months out of the year. Usually, this took place in the winter months, when her warm dragon’s hide favored the brittle kiss of ice and snow. But it meant that for every nine months of dancing and fostering and treatise counciling the kingdom enjoyed, there were three months of solitude. Visitors to the gate were turned away regardless of their standing. All but essential personnel were granted winter leave of their duties at the castle, to resume at the beginning of the new year. It was a tidy solution to a rather awkward problem.

However, it only worked for a few years. At first, keeping a dragon child secreted away in the castle, playing games and learning lessons from only a handful of personal servants and tutors, was easy. But as the child grew, so did her dragon form. So it was, on the eve of her ninth birthday, that she was sent to another area of the kingdom: in an isolated, abandoned castle that had once housed a minor Duke before his family fell ill to a plague. There she and her contingent of servants stayed for the winter months, until the spring buds showed their naked tips to the world and they were able to travel back to her parent’s castle.

So it went, for a little over a decade. Princess Sheena grew from a smiling, observant child into a beautiful, witty, young woman.

Well, a beautiful, witty young woman and a fantastically large dragon. Who learned to breathe fire. But more on that later.

What’s important to know now is that this…peculiarity…affected how her parents raised her. There were no lessons on proper harp playing, a common practice when it came to beguiling potential suitors. No embroidery, to sew favors to give to knights at tourneys. Her parents were careful to ensure there was no expectation on her part, as was instilled in the other princesses she knew, of snaring a likely Prince Charming of her own.

Their intent was benevolent—to save her from the disappointment she surely would face later. They could not, in good conscience, give her hand away to a man who would shortly discover exactly what he’d married come their first winter together. What that gave to Sheena, however, was a freedom of study unknown to the other princesses she knew.

Instead of learning the harp, Sheena decided she preferred the jingling johnny, a clashingly raucous percussion instrument she’d once seen a minstrel play at the Summer Fair. She built one herself using a sturdy staff and fixing all manner of tin items to it: small bells, rocks trapped between two tin plates…you get the idea. Instead of embroidery, she learned darning instead—an ironic joke considering her likelihood of becoming the Spinster Princess. She spat when she coughed up a snot during cold season. She played chess better than her father’s military general and argued politics with his councilors. She wore men’s riding pants when she charged out on the fat warhorse she’d begged off her parents because she loved his dapples.

And when suitors arrived, she behaved as she normally would. Over dinner, she asked their opinions on the likelihood of a peace treaty with the barbarian tribes of the south. She asked after their kingdom’s imports and offered suggestions for improving their economic leverage. Most got the hint before dessert. Those that didn’t got to enjoy her warbling rendition of “happy birthday” with jingling johnny accompaniment.

Then, with the last leaves of fall making their sad descent to the ground, she and her attendants bade her parents a tearful goodbye and left for the Iron Castle, so named for the iron bars that fortified the doors and lower windows.

What nobody counted on was how, well, tedious this whole procession began to be for Sheena. Year after year, it was always the same: come home, pretend to be a normal girl, then hide away in her tower. Transform, rinse, repeat.

And though she appeared to take great delight in besting suitor after suitor, it wore on her. Her parents were thrilled—it seemed their diffidence to the idea of finding a man had worked to everyone’s advantage. But she had a longing in her that she couldn’t quite name, a desire to actually find a like personality, to be able to debate about topics of interest with one who matched her enthusiasm for them. To find someone who accepted her as she was rather than what she pretended to be.

She also noticed, as she moved from teenager into young woman, certain changes in her dragon form that her human one didn’t share. Not the obvious ones, mind you. The internal ones. As a dragon, she retained the power of speech and intellectual reason—that remained about the same regardless of her form. But most of the emotions she felt with raw acuity as a girl—love, fear, sadness, hatred, and (most especially) boredom—were dulled to the merest afterthought when she was a dragon. All her dragon form cared for, foremost, were those emotions attributed to lesser creatures: hunger, territorialism, mating instinct. She could still feel the “human” emotions as a dragon, but their importance was minimal.

Inevitably, she learned the one major down-side to being a dragon: knights. One injudicious outing on her part—a brief foray into a nearby farm for a midnight snack of raw lamb chops—resulted in accidental discovery by the farmer’s son, who had gone out to make sure the cows had enough hay for the night.

Rumor being what it was, word spread about the dragon scourge that had taken up residence in the abandoned Iron Tower. And, since rumors reproduced like bunnies, there were soon others. The dragon guarded a princess trapped in the tower. There wasn’t one dragon, but five! That the dragon had slain three members of someone’s uncle’s second cousin’s daughter’s family.

The average number of knights she had to dispatch every winter was about five. The first one or two were usually rookies, newly knighted youths whose shiny armor reflected the sun from two counties away. These she usually ate before they even knew she was nearby. With a carefully angled aerial attack, she found she could eat both knight and horse in a single gulp, if the horse was smallish.

The third, and sometimes fourth, knights were usually more seasoned. Their armor had nicks and dings from a few significant battles, maybe they’d led a war party or two for their king. These knights put up more of a fight on account of being handier with a sword. Sheena learned that a few fireballs distracted them enough for her to unhorse them with her tail and then swallow them whole.

The last few knights of the season were the worst. These were the battle hardened warriors. Those whose armor had faded to a dull glint from the countless battles they’d fought. After nearly losing her head (literally) to a fellow calling himself Sir Thomas the Bold, she learned to blast them with fire before they got close enough to use their swords. Under a steady stream of flame, they usually cooked within their metal boxes in under two minutes. She did always like her meat well-done.

The year Princess Sheena turned twenty, though, everything changed.

“Regina, can you bring me another of those memoirs from the library? I’ve finished the one on King Balgus the Huge last night.” Sheena’s voice rumbled through the room like the sound of distant thunder, making Regina flinch. “Sorry,” Sheena grimaced. Well, she grimaced as much as her sinuous neck would allow.

Regina gave her a dark look but put down the tray of smoked meat she’d brought and turned to leave. “Mistress, you read faster than I would have given you credit for, given how small those pages are.”

Sheena grinned, revealing her double set of needle-like teeth. Her long, black tongue lolled from the side of her mouth. “I learned a new trick for turning the pages. If I just hold the covers with my claws and blow gently to one side, I can turn the page. It helps me read much faster than before.”

With a laugh, Regina’s dark look turned to an affectionate glare. “At this rate, you’ll run through the entire library before December!”

“Ugh.” Regina sent a disappointed puff of dark smoke from her nostrils. “That would make for a tedious winter.”

Regina grinned and left the room. Aside from her, Sheena only took two other attendants these days: a cook and a tutor. Since both of them were out on errands for the afternoon, Sheena was surprised to turn towards the rock slab that served as her bed to find a young knight standing in the middle of her room.

Sheena reared back. The movement brought her head several feet off the ground—and out of reach of the knight’s sword, though it remained sheathed at his hip—and close to the ceiling. Her neck coiled into a curving S shape as she flexed the muscles along her back to flair the sharp scales at the base of her neck and shoulders. Though most of her was covered in tiny, fine scales as soft as hide, her protective scales were thicker and more rounded, able to deflect a sharper blow that might otherwise break the skin elsewhere on her body. She flexed her scythe-like claws and fixed the knight with her best glare.

“Who are you?” she demanded. When she didn’t try to soften it, the natural volume of her voice made the furniture in the room tremble.

The knight remained in place, silently regarding her as he leaned slightly back to take in her full height.

“Answer me!” She stomped one foot and rattled the protective scales threateningly. The knight didn’t move, even as small pebbles rained down on his armor with small pings.

Sheena rolled her eyes and snorted, which sent the frills at the back of her jaw fluttering. “This is the part where you draw your sword, genius,” she said in a stage-whisper.

The knight slowly reached up and slid his helmet off his head. He stared at her with wide, wonder fill eyes. An unruly lock of dark hair fell over his forehead and he brushed it back as if it barely registered. “I had heard tales of you, you know. How fearsome your teeth. How hot your fire. How querulous your temper—“

“Querulous, me?” she interrupted. She snaked her head down so that it was at eye-level with him. “Are you sure you heard that right?”

The knight paused. Even with that cow-like expression of confusion on his face, she had to admit he was good-looking. Not that it mattered.

“I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard.” He lowered his gaze and frowned, thinking. “I mean, it sounded similar…” He looked up and met her gaze directly. She marveled at the lack of fear and guile she saw there. “What sounds like ‘querulous’ but means ‘dangerous’?”

For a moment, she wasn’t sure how to respond. Was he mad? Didn’t he realize he was staring down a dragon that had not only spoken to him, but which had killed several men before him? But he continued to stare at her, with a little frowny line between his eyes that she found endearing.

“Perilous?” she suggested.

He clapped his gloves together and pointed at her. “That’s it! For some reason, I always confuse those two.”

She stared at him for a long moment. “Right… Well, let’s rewind this a bit and get back to my original question. Who are you?”

“Gareth.” He said the name in an offhanded tone, as if it were unimportant. He was still staring at her with a mixture of awe and fascination.

Sheena rose to her full height and fixed him with her most menacing glare. She prepared to launch into her speech, the one she used for the more experienced knights in the hopes she could dissuade them from a fight. So far, it had worked on two of them. “Well, Gareth, I will give you one chance to leave without issue. If you choose not to heed my warning, I can guarantee your death will be most… Why are you looking at me like that?”

He shrugged and grinned at her. “Are you sure the rumor I’d heard wasn’t actually ‘garrulous’?”

She lowered her head again to his level. “You have got to be the rudest knight I’ve ever met. How did you ever make it to knighthood?”

His grin didn’t falter. “I kept my mouth shut mostly.” She noticed his eyes were blue as a summer lake and sparkling with mischief.

“I doubt that’s an ability you possess,” she muttered and huffed a dark cloud of smoke into his face.

He twisted away, hacking and waving to clear the air around his face. “You surprised me. I expected you to ask why I was here.”

Sheena gave the best approximation to a shrug her dragon form allowed. “Why would I ask that? Past experience would tell me you’re here to kill me.”

“That would be a most unwise thing to do, I think.” He turned away from her and strolled around the room, pulling his armored gloves off as he spoke. It was the first time a knight had ever—knowingly—turned his back to her. “I imagine you could kill me faster than if I jumped from this tower.” His fingers grazed over the periwinkle tulle that formed the canopy of her bed. He made an appreciative noise and turned his attention to a painting on the wall.

“Care to get to the point anytime soon? I have a Latin lesson in a half hour.” Sheena let him hear the irritation in her voice, but inwardly she was intrigued. This had gone like no other meeting she’d ever had.

Instead of answering, he pointed to the picture. “This you?” He looked over his shoulder at her with raised eyebrows, waiting.

The painting showed her, sitting demurely on a chair with her body turned away from the viewer. But her face curled back over her shoulder to return the look. The painter had captured her eyes almost perfectly so they dominated the entire image with a piercing gaze.

She gave him a suspicious look, then nodded.

He looked back to the picture, then turned and fixed her with an appraising look. “I think I like you this way better, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

Her eyes widened in shock. For a moment all she could do was stare at him. Then she moved with the liquid grace of a predator to stalk a circle around him. “Explain yourself.”

“You’re certainly a beautiful woman, don’t get me wrong. But the eyes. In that picture. They don’t look any different on you as a dragon. But they suit you better this way. At least as a dragon, you don’t have to hide what you are.”

Despite herself, she was curious. “And what is that?”

In a soft voice so low she had to ease closer to hear, he said, “Wild. Fierce. Maybe a little bit feral around the edges. But smart. And brave. And…” He looked down again, struggling to find the words. “Oh, I can’t define it. It’s just…as a girl, those eyes make me think someone’s hiding on the inside, that there’s more to her than I see on the surface. As a dragon, your appearance personifies what I feel like might be hiding there.”

She gave him a long look and saw something similar within his eyes. There was a look of wildness there, too. Something unconventional. Something searching. Something exotic, but at the same time familiar. Something that beckoned her. Something waiting for the right person to unlock the secrets there.

“Tell me,” she said in a coy voice. “What are your views on the prospect of the local kingdoms expanding their trade options with the southern nomads?”

Gareth thought for a moment. She watched the ideas flicker within his eyes as he formed his answer. After several long moments, he met her eyes. “I think it would be a wise move if we could get their guarantee of safe passage through their territories. They have a textiles reach to the east that we haven’t been able to extend, no matter how hard we’ve tried, and we have an agricultural advantage they might appreciate given their nomadic culture.”

Sheena bared her teeth in a wide smile. Gareth returned it. “I don’t know how you got up here, Gareth Silvertongue, but I hope you’ve given some thought as to how you’re going to get back down. If you’ll excuse me, I have a Latin lesson to prepare for.” Still smiling, she turned to leave.

“Wait!” Gareth called. “Can I come see you again?” The naked hope in his voice made her heart turn over.

“I won’t be here. My transformation ends in a few days. Then I’ll return to my human form and my parent’s castle. Since you prefer my dragon form, I’m sorry to say I won’t be in it for quite some time. Much longer than a knight like you cares to wait.”

In a gentle voice heavy with emotions she didn’t dare name, she heard him say, “My cares are my own business.” When she reached the doorway and glanced back over her shoulder, he was already gone.

The disappointment she felt surprised her, but she knew it was for the best.

The next day, she woke to find a white rose lying on the windowsill. Around the middle, a silk ribbon attached the rose to a note. In a simple, unadorned hand she read: You aren’t the only one who isn’t what they seem on the surface. See you in a few days.

Total Writing Time: 3 hr., 6 min.

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September Stories (9/5)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-5

Finders Keepers
By Danielle Davis

I remember it clearly because I was dating Todd then. To celebrate our two-month anniversary, he wanted to take me to the movies. There was a new Terminator movie out, and he was fair to bursting to see it.

“We’ll go on opening night. That’s always the best showing,” he confided with the air of one who knows. He always seemed to know the best way to do everything. “Even if we have to stand in line for a couple of hours, it’ll be worth it. Because that’s how much you mean to me.” Then he chucked me under the chin with his bent forefinger the way his dad always did with his mom. I always asked him not to do it. Same story with the way he’d always say, “Have a little faith, Faith” and then laugh like it was the first time he’d ever said it.

Not that it mattered.

Though standing in line for two hours sounded thrilling, I had been more interested in going to the Festum Extraordinarium, or the Circus of the Extraordinary, that was coming to the FedEx Forum that weekend. Nobody really knew how to explain the festums extraordinarium then. (They’d only just begun cropping up thanks to the new discoveries in Scotland, the Canary Islands, and in Antarctica, where someone figured out how to cross into the fey realm and return back. With proof.).

But back then the whole idea was still new. And one was coming to Memphis for the first time.

Part acrobatic circus, part carnival of wonders, the festum extraordinarium was different for every city. It depended on what creatures and acts the owners had acquired along the way. Sometimes different festums would trade certain acts, if the creatures were, well….extra extraordinary, but folks could usually count on each festum being different than the last. (Remember this part, because it’ll be important later.)

They were such strange attractions that they became their own thing–even though it became common knowledge that “festum” mean “circus” in Latin, people never called them circuses. No. They were always festums.

Anyway, Todd had zero interest in them because they didn’t feature famous people or explosions and because the kind of people from school that would recognize him at a movie theater didn’t usually attend them. He liked to be recognized, Todd. It validated certain things for him that he never articulated, but that I later came to understand anyway.

Funny the things you see later, after the filter’s worn away.

I’d talked him into getting tickets, even though he was still quite vocal about his dislike for it. “Fairytales? Mythological creatures?” he scoffed. “Watch, this is all going to turn out to be one big hoax, like global warming. It’s so quixotic, I’m surprised you’re even interested in this sort of thing.” Which was Todd-speak that indicated he thought me immature and naïve for my curiosity.

And at that point in my life, I worried he was right. Todd had a masterful way of misdirecting, of being able to share his opinion on a thing without actually mentioning it. His superhero power was that of being oblique. I admired it so much. It always seemed to involve some delicate turning of a phrase or careful nuance of body language as he said it.

In return, I became as finely calibrated as a tuning fork to the way he said things. With a casual phrase, he could have me anxiously trying to remember what I said that wasn’t to his liking. One glance could make me rethink my entire outfit choice for the night or feel like a goddess. I was so interested in this guy, the handsome guitar player who hit on me when he came through my checkout line at the grocery store, that I wanted to get it right. All of it. Around him, I felt a sort of frantic electricity as I strove to behave as expected with the least amount of correction from him.

So for me to insist anyway was a big deal. It was an even bigger deal that he listened.

You know how the FedEx Forum is more like a huge covered arena? Despite Todd’s disdainfully hovering eyebrow or his slight commentary on the people that shuffled through the entrance with us, I was excited. I expected the arena in the middle to be decked out like a traditional circus, with small bumpers designating different performance sections and the bleachers rising up all around the whole area like a mountain range of squeaky, foldable seats.

Instead of walking through the doors to the sight of a filling amphitheater, we saw a tent planted in the middle. It looked like an old circus tent, except the topmost supports were asymmetrical, giving the whole tent a slanting, crooked appearance. The tent material was thick enough that it was impossible to see any light filtering through, and it was patterned in an unsettling combination of thick black and purple stripes.

“They can’t even get the tent set up properly!” Todd snickered as he placed a hand possessively over my shoulders as we looked for our seats. It was an awkward embrace for a thin aisle so I had to contort sideways and crab-step down the stairs to avoid the oncoming traffic of people going up.

We had to ask an usher where to find our seats, since none were printed on the tickets. He informed us there were no assigned seats, and that we were to enter the festum tent when we were ready. I noticed a curious half-smile on his face as he said it—and that wasn’t all–, but Todd didn’t. The moment he heard we didn’t have seats, he began craning his neck around to see if anyone else was seated. Perhaps getting special treatment he should ask about.

“Did you see that?” I hissed in his ear as we walked away from the usher. Todd steered me toward the entrance to the festum.

“Do you mean the don’t-give-a-damn-about-my-job attitude or the mildew smell of his uniform?” Todd didn’t look at me as he spoke. He was too busy scanning the crowd for faces he knew.

“No, the weird way his hair was around his usher’s cap. It kinda looked like he had…” Horns is what I’d been about to say. But my internal tuning fork for Todd’s mood began to vibrate in a way that made me pause. I didn’t want him to think I was naïve. I also didn’t want to see the amused condescension on his face as he informed me about the special effects they guy probably used to heighten the mood of the place. Just a gimmick. A hoax. Like everything else we were about to see tonight. This would be said in the tone of someone who knows about such things.

“…dandruff,” I finished lamely, hating myself a little. But it produced a positive effect.

Todd smiled down on me, the smile he used when he was proud I was on his arm. “Eww. Someone should have told him.” In a tone that implied he would have liked to.

I glanced over my shoulder at that, just a little peek, and found the usher staring at me with that strange half-smile. Like he knew what I had almost said. And he knew why I hadn’t said it.

Of all the things I saw that night, he was the most normal.

I’m not going to try to explain everything that went on under the canvas ceiling of the Festum Extraordinarium that night. It was both incredible and otherworldly.

There were smells I couldn’t identify, but that made my body flush with terror, shooting adrenaline speeding through my body. Then the scent would change and I’d feel a tingling wetness in my lower belly and thighs and hear my own breathing panting quickly through my lips. When I glanced at Todd beside me, though, his face would show some other emotion, like triumph or confusion, so I knew that whatever we were smelling, it acted in different ways for different people.

I saw, or thought I saw, a woman transform into something with a serpent’s body and waving green tendrils for hair. Then, when I’d blink, she’d be a performer in a brightly colored leotard, waving a hula hoop once more.

Certain areas of the rooms we were shepherded through—all by ushers who looked identical to the usher that told us about the seats outside the tent, as if there were multiple copies of himself stationed throughout the festum—would shimmer like a 3D image. Tilting my head one way made the room look like a fully furnished Victorian sitting room. Tilting it another made the room look like a dungeon, where a body hanging from one corner leered at me and winked.

Even now, my memories of that night play tricks on me. Some of the things I remember have reappeared in my dreams, while others seem to happen in varying orders of events. Sometimes the fairy room appears at the end of the tour and at other times it’s somewhere in the middle.

But it’s the room I remember most vividly. Partly because of what was in it. But partly because of the woman standing outside of it.

Goldie Torres. That was how she introduced herself. A plain, unassuming black woman with hundreds of long, perfect braids of hair that fell to her hips like a beaded curtain. I remember she was in a navy polo shirt and plain khaki skirt, like she was a tour guide at the zoo or something. Only her shirt bulged in places that it shouldn’t have and sometimes the bulges moved as if fat snakes were moving underneath.

Somehow—and I don’t remember how—we’d lost the crowd we’d walked in with. That’s one of the other things about my memory: I remember vividly some rooms where we’re surrounded by people, even up to the room before the fairy one, but I don’t remember at what point we lost them. However it happened, we ended up alone.

Goldie had something about her that I liked immediately. It could have been the soft, intelligent way she spoke. Or the way she never seemed to make unnecessary movements, and when she did move, it was with a fluid grace that made her appear confidently relaxed. It was very soothing overall.

And in her presence, Todd finally shut up.

He’d been commenting almost nonstop in my ear since we walked in, though the things he commented on where mundane things like the scent of a room or the temperature in the tent or the way one of his shoes was rubbing a blister on his right foot. He didn’t make a single comment about any of the oddities I saw. It was as if he couldn’t see them. Wait, no…he’d have commented on an empty tent. But whatever it was he saw didn’t seem to be the same thing that I did.

But around Goldie, I didn’t hear one offhanded comment about anything. So it was in complete silence that we entered the fairy room.

The room was small—maybe 10×12 at the most. Black curtains acted as walls that sealed us off from the rest of the world once the curtain door was drawn shut. Two-tier shelves lined the room and made a three-sided box, from where we stood at the entrance, around a support pole in the center. Small tea lights hung like the gaps in a chainlink fence all around the curtains. Still, though there had to be two hundred of them, it was still too dark to see how they were attached to the fabric.

On the shelves were jars. And in them were fairies. At least two dozen of them, each within their own oversized Mason jar covered by a thin mesh duct taped over the opening.

Goldie acted as the tour guide. She moved as fast or as slow as we did around the room and told us about each fairy we bent to examine.

In one jar, a small naked figure stood staring defiantly up at us with eyes made of ice chips. “An ice fairy,” Goldie said in a soft voice. The figure was about as tall as my hand if I measured from wrist to the tip of my middle finger and looked to be male, though his genital area was smoothly rounded like a child’s doll. His skin glittered all over with a fine dusting of hoarfrost. On his head were small, frosted icicles of hair that stood up like a hedgehog’s quills. His hard wings, attached to his back near his shoulder blades, formed sharp geometric triangles of ice fractals. They fanned the air in spurts like a butterfly.

In another, a spider fairy. As tall as the first, this one appeared to be female, but with the same rounded genitals and small, pert breasts that had no nipples or areolas. Her wings, though, consisted of firm black spines that flexed and unfolded as a spider’s legs might. The sections in between consisted of thin cobweb strands that fluttered gently when the fairy moved its wings. Goldie told us these fairies were born flightless, with only the spider leg spines in place. The fairy had to collect actual spider thread and weave its own wings before it could fly. Like the spider, the fairy caught small insects in its wings for food. But when I leaned forward, squinting, I asked about the large hairy tusks that curved out of her mouth and covered the bottom half of her face. Goldie informed me those were the fairy’s mandibles and pointed out the sharp black barbs at the end. “That’s what the females use to inject the poison into their mates after intercourse.” I stared into the fairy’s eyes, the two large black orbs on top and the smaller four in a row below them, and wondered what she was thinking.

Another jar on the opposite side of the room contained nothing but a darkness that even the candles behind it couldn’t seem to penetrate.

“What’s that one?”

“A starry night.”

“Why’s it named that?” But when I moved closer, I noticed the two small pinpricks of white light that came into view.

“Those are what it uses to attract prey. Much like the…” Goldie frowned at the ceiling, searching for the word. “You know, the fish with the light on its head…?”

“Anglerfish?” I supplied, and Goldie snapped her fingers as she grinned at me.

“Yes! That’s it.”

I gave Todd a sideways glance, surprised he didn’t comment on my useless knowledge of deep sea creatures. It was the sort of thing he would have done earlier in the night. I was starting to enjoy the fact that in here, within the festum, I seemed protected from it. The thought made me smile.

Goldie knew them all. She offered small bits of information at just the right times. This one only fed on the morning dew it collected from holywoods, a rare species of flower found mostly in the Caribbean. That one defended itself by shooting poisonous darts as fine as slivers from the dark spots on its back. The one with the metal shavings in the bottom was an alchemical fairy that made intricate geometric sculptures from them when it got bored.

All had stories. And all were just as fantastic as the next.

Finally, at the end of the tour, Goldie stood before us near the door with an expectant smile on her face. She was looking at me. Todd, oddly enough, just stared at one of the lights on the curtains with a small frown on his face as if he was trying to remember something elusive.

“Now,” Goldie grinned, “we have a moment to ourselves. You have an interesting name, Faith. It has great significance to some of our kind.”

“Your kind?” I repeated. But Goldie didn’t answer. Instead she just smiled at me in a way that suggested I already knew the answer.

“I’ve seen a lot of people come through today. But only a few who were worth actually seeing.” She brought her face close to mine. “You are worth seeing.” Her breath smelled like honeysuckle. In my peripheral vision, I saw movement from something under her shirt and heard a sound like many voices whispering. Wait, wait, they called

She walked behind me and strode over to a fairy jar resting on the upper-tier of the opposite corner shelf. When she returned, she held out the jar cradled carefully in her long-fingered hands and gestured for me to take it.

Inside was a small fairy sitting on the clear glass bottom with her arms loosely circling her knees. A burgundy cascade of hair covered her naked figure. She was grinning at me. When I brought the jar up to eye level, she lifted one hand to wiggle her fingers at me in a mischievous wave.

“What in God’s name am I supposed to do with a fairy?”

“You like her?” Goldie asked. “You may take her. She will bring you luck.”

I cast a wary eye at the fairy, who gave an enthusiastic nod as if to lend support to Goldie’s words. When she grinned, I saw her teeth were sharp needles.

“What kind of fairy is she?” My voice sounded cautious, but in truth, I was already planning how I was going to keep her in my room without my parents finding out. How to keep her hidden at school—maybe in my locker…?—and if she’d help me pass my Calculus midterm next week.

The fairy chastised me with a theatrical frown, as if to say for shame, and shook her head.

“Her power is unique. Her kind is called a finder fairy, though the name is a bit deceptive. She doesn’t so much find things that are lost, like your car keys, so much as she reveals things that were once hidden.”

“And what sort of thing do I need found?”

Goldie’s eyes filled with a sense of knowing. I had no doubt, then, that she knew what was on my soul and had compassion for what she saw there.

“Where are her wings?” I asked in surprise, for I just noticed she didn’t have any.

“They are there. But she doesn’t want you to see them yet. Don’t worry, that will change once she trusts you.”

The whole situation was surreal and yet my intuition told me this was going to happen.

“I can’t accept this.”

“Then borrow her for a while. Come visit me again the next time we’re in town, and bring her back with you.”

That, I found, I could accept.

Todd, meanwhile, still stood in the same stance I’d left him in. When I put my arm through his, he jumped, startled, and asked in a distracted voice if I was ready to go. I glanced back at Goldie, who nodded, and then told him yes.

I slipped the fairy jar in my purse, careful not to jostle her, and left.

On the ride home, in my Prius, Todd broke up with me. It wasn’t me, he said, it was him. He couldn’t handle a girl who could change her own tires and who laughed loudly in crowded places like nobody else was around and who danced in the rain without caring if other people saw her do it. In general, he concluded, one who didn’t act like she didn’t need a damn hero to rescue her.

“And I need to be the white knight,” he pleaded. “I need someone who lets me do the heavy lifting once in a while. I’m afraid we’re just not compatible.”

He was right about that part, but wrong about the rest. I had no idea where his rambled list had come from, since I didn’t know how to do any of those things. But my intuition told me this was necessary. So, however little I understood it, I let Todd Basker break up with me on our two-month anniversary.

And that was just the first step.

Years later, I tried to give the fairy back. She brought me all manner of luck, but she required a lot of attention. By that time, scientists had been able to identify almost 200 species of what they called fey fauna, and the subject was already being taught in school Biology classes.

But I never saw anything called a “finder fairy” ever appear in the lists. And trust me, I looked.

As a last resort, I called the manager of the FedEx Forum and asked for the contact number of the last Festum Extraordinarium that rolled through there. He said no such one ever had. When I faxed him the ticket stub I’d saved from that magical night, he laughed, congratulated me on a well-executed prank, and hung up.

Since then, I’ve gone to several festums, but few of them have fairy rooms, and of the ones that do, none of them are guided by a strange, black woman named Goldie Torres. And none of them have heard of a finder fairy.

She sits on my desk now, in my dorm room at Rhodes University. Though she sits in plain sight now, my roommate hasn’t once commented on it. It’s as if Mary can’t even see her.

So I’ll tell you this: if you ever have a chance to capture or acquire a finder fairy, do it. Pay any amount, go to any length. Because even though I was willing to give mine back, it’s not like they’re not worth the effort. And honestly? After a while you get used to the work.

And another thing. If you ever attend a Festum Extraordinarium and make it, strangely alone, to a fairy room run by a woman named Goldie Torres? Tell her thanks for me. I think she’ll remember my name.

Total Writing Time: 3 hr., 11 min.

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September Stories (9/4)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-4

Diospyros
By Danielle Davis

“I’ll be honest, boss,” Merrin said with a dubious frown at the vis-screen, “I have no idea where this thing came from.”

Akasha scowled at him. “Unacceptable.” The quiet menace in her tone made the engineer grimace.

“You can—“ Merrin’s voice dropped in a baritone mimicry “—‘unacceptable’ all you want, but the fact is this ion cloudstorm came up on us faster than the system could detect it.” Merrin sat perfectly still in his chair with his fingers touching the vis-board like a pianist about to begin. Data charts raced across the vis-screen as Merrin used the technokinetic connection to scan through the system’s weather detection files.

Akasha walked over and clamped a hand on his shoulder. As she leaned her full weight on it, she growled close to his ear, “Ion cloudstorms take days to mature. They. Cannot. Just. APPEAR!”

Merrin flinched away from her yell with a curse, his fingers slipping from their connection on the vis-board. Immediately the vis-screen went dark. With a dark glare at his captain, he resituated himself and replaced his fingers on the indentations of the vis-board. A light blue glow faded in at the points where each finger initiated a technokinetic point of contact. As the rest of the crew watched, the vis-screen flared back to life as Merrin resumed the system scan.

“And it’s ‘Captain’,” Akasha grumbled at him.

Merrin finally found the file: the meteorological scan log. “And yet…this one seems to have done just that. Captain.” Merrin’s voice was soft with wonder and Akasha gave him a sharp look to make sure he wasn’t mocking her again. Nothing startled Merrin. He was the top systems engineer on board—hell, one of the best around for about four galaxies—but this seemed to have genuinely given him pause.

According to the log, this ion cloudstorm had risen in mere hours.

“That is impossible,” Clotha murmured next to Akasha’s shoulder. She jumped, then turned her glare to the psychic. The woman often seemed to simply appear when she was needed, with next to no noise announcing her arrival. Clotha’s milky eyes, pure white with no discernible pupil or iris, stared at the screen.

“Unless,” the psychic continued in a calm voice, ”the energy from the ship’s atmospheric shield was manually boosted. Such energy pushes have been known to kick off the ionic reactions that precede ionic cloudstorms. Of course, that could only have been done by an engineer, and I’m sure First Lieutenant Merrin would know if one of his engineers had performed such an action…”

“This is hardly your area of expertise,” Merrin grumbled.

Clotha turned her unblinking gaze down to look at him in silence. After a few moments, she cocked her head. “Professionally you resent my presence on the bridge. You feel my abilities are unnecessary when it comes to data analysis. But, from a personal perspective, your resentment is also territorial.” Akasha opened her mouth to intervene, but Clotha held up a hand without deterring her gaze from Merrin’s. “It is all right, Captain. He cannot help his animosity. Like a hound marking his territory by peeing on a sign post, it is an instinctual reaction.”

A deep flush suffused Merrin’s cheeks and he made as if to stand. Akasha stepped between them, placing a hand on Merrin’s chest to push him back in his seat. She held her hand in the air inches from Clotha’s chest. She knew firsthand how uncomfortable it was to be drawn into Clotha’s visions, and physical contact made the connection stronger.

The Captain looked at her engineer. “Merrin, look over the last few days of meteorological scans. Tell me if there’s been an increase in ionic activity building. Also keep an eye out for some transverse radiation—sometimes there’s radioactive residue from the ion reactions.”

When she turned to Clotha, she had to suppress a shiver. Looking into Clotha’s empty, white eyes was unnerving. As if reading her Captain’s thoughts, Clotha’s lips curved into a small smile. “Clotha, I want you in the lab. I need you to continue to monitor Judge Gushiken’s condition. Tell me if his dreams give any clue about what happened. We need to know why he collapsed.”

Clotha nodded her head in acknowledgement and left the bridge. If Akasha hadn’t watched her walk away, she would never have heard the woman leave.

“Like a damn ghost,” Merrin muttered and Akasha looked at him in surprise. Surely he wasn’t turning psychic on her, too. But he was connected to the vis-board and meant the way the cloudstorm had appeared. He stared up at the corner of the vis-screen, where a jagged line showed the transmission static rendered by the ion cloudstorm.

“Boss, while the cloudstorm’s throwing all that signal noise around us, we’re unable to transmit.” Akasha sighed and rubbed her temple. Without a signal, they couldn’t alert the Central Docking Station that the Judge had fallen ill. Of a disease the medical examiner couldn’t identify. Two days before he was to rule on one of the biggest federal hearings in history.

“Can’t we just fly out of the cloudstorm, Captain?”

She turned at the meek voice and found it belonged to a cringing girl in uniform. “Merrin, who let this Cadet—“ Akasha spit the word out like an insult “—onto my deck?”

“No one that I heard, boss.”

Akasha arced an eyebrow expectantly at the Cadet, who flushed a bright pink.

“I was on the…you know…over…” The Cadet waved her hand vaguely at the Viewing Room that served as the waiting area for people unauthorized to be on the bridge. A glass wall separated the room from the activity on the bridge, but visitors could monitor all bridge conversation via the intercom system. It was the perfect place for passengers so that they could feel involved without interfering with the crew’s work.

“Anyway,” the Cadet continued, staring at the Captain’s shoes to avoid eye contact, “I know ion cloudstorms are slow-moving. Why not just fly until we’re out of its range of interference? Then we could radio back to the…” Her voice died as she peeked at the Captain’s face.

“Arturo!” Akasha exclaimed in mock-surprise. She frowned as she turned to her Senior Navigationeer. “The Cadet is brilliant! Why don’t we just fly out from underneath it?” Akasha made a fluttering motion with her hand like a bird soaring up into the sky. From the corner of her eye, she could see the Cadet’s lips tighten to a thin line.

Arturuo’s upper body pivoted in place so that he was facing Akasha and the Cadet. “The cloudstorm mucks up with our navigation, Captain,” Arturo reported back in a monotone. Because the spaceship was older, the microchip that served as his brain lacked the voice modulators some of the newer-navigationeer androids had. Arturo himself had an advanced silicon cover that made him appear like a human from the waist up, but there his “body” ended. Where his hips would have been, instead was a large cylindrical casing that housed the wires and cords that connected him to the ship’s navigational controls.

Message delivered, his upper body swiveled back around to the vis-screen in front of him. Akasha glared at the Cadet. “And since you’re so well-versed in ion cloudstorm activity, I’m sure you already know that cloudstorms can cover an entire planet. So without navigation, we’d have no idea if we were flying out of the storm or further in. Does that satisfy your curiosity, Cadet…?”

“Middleton,” the Cadet said in a quivering voice. When Akasha’s eyebrow arced warningly, she added, “Captain.”

Akasha nodded. “And what is your primary field of study, Cadet?”

The Cadet straightened her back and snapped out a salute. “Galactic aerodynamics and warm fusion, Captain.”

“Uh-huh. And that makes you an expert in meteorological studies, too?” At the Cadet’s renewed flush, Akasha nodded as if she suspected as much. “If all is to your satisfaction, Acting-Captain Middleton, perhaps we can get back to work then?” She wielded sarcasm like master swordsmen managed their blades, and her words were pitched for maximum effect. A humiliated tear rolled down the Cadet’s cheek. “And never let a superior see you cry, Cadet. It’s a sign of weakness. Now get off my bridge.”

Cadet Middleton nodded furiously and scurried away.

“You didn’t have to make her cry, boss,” Merrin intoned behind her.

“She made herself cry,” Akasha retorted. She gave him a sidelong glance. “And that’s ‘Captain,’ Merrin. Geez…”

“Sorry, boss. Hard habit to break.”

Akasha stalked off the bridge, scowling at the smirk she heard in his voice. Sleep with the man for two semesters while at the Academy and suddenly he thinks he’s got some kind of pass when it comes to the chain of command. He was hardly just a two-semester diversion though, she thought. If she let herself remember correctly, there might have been a time she had thought herself in love with him. Of course, that all changed when she made the top of her class and was promoted, as a result.

Which ultimately was the reason she was Captaining this wretched trip in the first place. Mere weeks after she’d graduated and been given this rattletrap of a ship, she’d been given her first mission. Though her commanding officer had tried to make it sound like a privilege—transporting the High Judge of the Universal Federation–, she’d seen it for what it really was: a grunt mission. Go fetch that passenger and bring him back.

Only now they were stuck. And their passenger, their very important passenger, had collapsed and now lay in the medical quarters in a coma. All in all, this entire mission, grunt work though it may be, had the serious possibility of irredeemably sinking her career.

“Not while I’m on board,” she growled. “Not on my ship.” She slapped a hand over the scan panel of the elevator and stepped in. “Med room!” The doors swooshed shut with a quiet hiss.

Seconds later, they opened to reveal the ship’s expansive medical laboratory. Since it had been a medical research vessel in a past life, the ship was equipped with some of the newest technology available, despite being an older model.

“What cha’ got, Doc?” she called.

“He’s dreaming about persimmons again.”

That halted Akasha. “Um…what?”

Dr. Giancarlo glanced over her shoulder and shook her head. The beads in the tight braids that made up her hair clacked together gently. “It’s all he’s thought about since he came in. Otherwise I don’t have any answers for you, Captain.” Her accent made almost anything sound wonderful, said as it was with the lilting dialect of those that used to live in Jamaica on the planet of Old Earth. “I found a small puncture mark on the back of his neck, but his symptoms don’t seem to give me any new answers.”

Akasha walked over to where Judge Gushiken lay prone on the laser stretcher. He was undressed to the waist, leaving the colorful whirls and designs of his tattoos visible. Underneath him was the red glow of the laser stretcher, with the thin beams of light that were as solid as steel extending all the way to their source in the wall.

The Captain passed a hand over her face. Gushiken’s face had the still look of someone dead, rather than merely sleeping. There was a gray pallor to his tan skin that she didn’t like the look of.

“Please tell me you’ve got something better than that,” she pleaded in a tired voice.

Dr. Giancarlo pursed her full lips as she pressed a dark red dot on one side of the laser stretcher. A glowing holo of the Judge’s body appeared in the air above him. At the head, colored blobs light up here and there around a stenciled image of a brain. Farther down, two oblong sacks contracted and expanded in time with his breaths. In the chest area, a video image of a heart beat as clearly as if it were exposed to the open air. Throughout the whole image, small red and blue lines traced spidery paths like ants marching in formation across his entire body.

“What are those?” Akasha murmured.

“Bloodflow. But here’s what concerns me.” The doctor made a pinching motion at the brain images while her other hand made a quick wiping motion to the side. The rest of the body image disappeared and the head image enlarged. Dr. Giancarlo pointed to several bright red blobs that pulsed and shifted across multiple areas of the brain. “Those are the areas being affected right now. The red shows abnormal brain patters. I remember seeing something like this in a very old textbook once, back when I was doing my med studies. The damage is occurring in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes simultaneously. Those are the areas that handle intelligence, judgement, and behavior; memory; and language.” She pointed to each area as she named them.

“What did the textbook say, Doc? I have a feeling time’s running out.”

The doctor’s steady brown eyes turned to Akasha’s. “Captain, I fear time has already run out. This man is showing the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”

“That’s impossible,” Akasha snorted. “That disease was—“

“I know. Eradicated almost two centuries ago. But here’s where it gets weird…” The doctor pressed more buttons along the edge of the laser stretcher.

“You mean it wasn’t up till now?” Akasha muttered. She wondered how it could have all gone so wrong so fast. She’d run through all the checklists before undocking. Double- and triple-checked the background of each person on her flight crew and passengers, which had taken the better part of a month. And she was watching it all unravel right in front of her. In the span of hours

“Here,” Dr. Giancarlo said. She waved a brain scan image up so that it floated parallel to the first one. While the first image showed the abnormalities in red blobs all over, the second image showed nothing but blue and green blobs shifting in and out. “The second image? That was taken when Judge Gushiken boarded the ship.”

“Two days ago,” Akasha supplied.

The doctor nodded. “But since then, the Alzheimers-like illness has consumed his brain. Such damage should have taken years to reach that point.”

“At the very least, we would have noticed something when he boarded.” Akasha’s eyes suddenly burned with fatigue. “What could cause this kind of rapid-onset, Doc? I’m running out of functional brain matter myself here.”

“Well, Captain.” Dr. Giancarlo hesitated. “The puncture mark is the best clue we’ve got. The only way I can conceive of something like that would be if he had something injected into his spinal fluid.”

Akasha fixed the doctor with eyes that seemed to glow in their intensity. “Do you know what it could have been?”

Silently, the doctor shook her head.

“What do you need to find out?”

Dr. Giancarlo opened and closed her mouth several times. Each time it seemed she had an answer and then changed her mind. Finally, she put a thumbnail in her mouth and chewed on it. “I’d need a sample of what he was injected with. I suppose it could be a variant on an old disease. That would explain why none of our tests have made any matches to diseases known or eradicated. It would be just different enough to throw the machines off. If I had a sample, I could break it down and hopefully reverse the damage done.”

With a sigh, Akasha gave a weary nod. “I’ll do my best, Doc. In the meantime, you keep him alive.”

She was halfway down the hall on the third tier when Merrin came flying down the hall.

“Boss! I got something.” He halted in front of her, then bent to brace his hands on his knees as he tried to recover his breath. In between gulps of air, he gasped out, “I checked the engine logs. On a hunch. Something Clotha said…” He noticed Akasha’s uncomprehending look and waved his hand. “Nevermind. Doesn’t matter. The important thing is that all my crew on the engineering team were accounted for at their stations in the hours leading up to the ion cloudstorm.”

“This is not helpful, Merrin,” Akasha said. “I’ve just found out someone had the nerve to attempt murder under my nose and they very well might get away with—“

However,” Merrin said loudly over her. “That didn’t stop someone from making an unscheduled trip to the engine room after it had been cleared for the hour.”

Akasha wanted to reach out and shake him for making her ask. “Who then? Who was it?”

Merrin cocked an eyebrow at her. “Me.”

“That’s impossible. You were on the bridge long before the cloudstorm could have begun. How could you have been in two places at once?”

“A very good question, boss.”

“What happened in the engine room during this…visit?”

Merrin gave a rueful nod. “The log isn’t as specific about that part. But I did cross-check some of the external ship stats around the time of that check-in. Seven minutes after my ident code was entered at the engine room entrance, we sustained a surge in electromagnetic blast output. And you’ll never guess what caused that blast.”

Akasha came to the conclusion at the same time Merrin answered, “Manual boost of the atmospheric shield!”

“How could someone have lifted your ident code? Isn’t that something that’s supposed to be memorized. Did you ever right it down?”

Merrin shook his head.

“Then how could someone know what was—“ Akasha broke off.

Her eyes widened fast enough that Merrin grabbed her arm in alarm. “Boss? Akasha? Are you—“

“I need to conduct a search,” she said. Her eyes sparkled with the urgency of her idea. “I need you to call an all-hands on the bridge. Essential personnel only.”

“Why only the essentials, boss? It could be anyone on the crew.”

On impulse, Akasha leaned forward and pressed her lips tight against Merrin’s. When she pulled back, Merrin had the dazed look of someone in a dream. A small smile played at one corner of his mouth. She grabbed his shoulders in both hands and squeezed as she looked him in the eyes.

“Because one of the essential personnel just tried to murder Judge Gushiken to keep him from making it to that federal hearing. I need to confirm my suspicion with some proof. Just get everyone on the bridge and wait for me.” She started to move away, then paused. “Oh, and send that upstart Cadet to help me. Middleburg was it?”

“Middleton, boss.”

“Captain,” she sighed in exasperation.

“Captain Middleton? Pretty sure she was just a Cadet, boss.” Merrin’s eyes sparkled with mischief. A small smirk curled the corner of his lips.

Akasha leaned forward until they were in kissing distance once more. Her lips were pulled to one side in a wry grimace. “And fire yourself while you’re at it, ok?”

Merrin’s smirk turned into a full grin. “Sure thing, boss.” She stuck her tongue out at him.

An hour later, the essential personnel were getting fractious.

“You can’t keep us here without telling us why the Captain called the all-hands,” a midshipman raged at Merrin. Merrin stared back impassively.

“And where is the Captain, Lieutenant?” Clotha crossed her arms as she sauntered toward him. “She called us here but did not choose to attend herself? Most unusual.”

Merrin glared at her and mimicked her stance by crossing his arms, too. “She has her reasons. I’m sure she’ll be here soon.”

“Just how soon is soon?” Clotha’s voice carried a thin thread of anger as she leaned forward. Her blank eyes seemed to bore holes into his. He had the uncomfortable feeling of shuffling going on in his head, as if someone where moving things about in a hurry. “You don’t know,” she said, surprised. “You’re just as in the dark as the rest of—“

“I hope you didn’t start the party without me!” Akasha declared as she marched onto the bridge with long, easy strides. Behind her, Cadet Middleton struggled to keep up. She clutched something small in her hands.

The midshipman took an authoritative step forward into Akasha’s path. “Captain, what is the meaning of—“

Akasha skipped on nimble feet to one side and continued around the midshipman as if he hadn’t spoken at all.

“Clotha! Just the person I wanted to see. It has come to my attention that Judge Gushiken did not fall ill, as we’d thought. Well, not by himself, I suppose. Someone tried to have him killed.”

Clotha’s eyes widened as a startled gasp went up around the people assembled on the bridge. “Captain, are you sure?”

The captain gave her a smug smirk. “Dead positive.” Then her voice changed to a lighter tone. “Thankfully, Dr. Giancarlo was able to discern the virus from a sample of the serum and is whipping up the antidote as we speak.”

Clotha narrowed her eyes. “The doctor already has an antidote?”

“She will,” Akasha said in an offhanded tone. “Soon.”

Clotha seemed to gather herself and gazed suspiciously at the shocked faces gathered around them. “I assume you want my help in discovering who the culprit is? My services are yours, Captain.”

“Not quite. We already know who it was.”

Clotha paused in her examination of the faces nearest them, then cocked her head toward the captain. “You do?” Her voice was carefully neutral.

“Oh yeah,” Merrin spoke up, with relish. “It was obvious from the start.” He missed Akasha’s look of shocked indignation. “How they thought they could get away with it simply reveals how incredibly careless and idiotic they are. I mean, to be so stupid as to think we—“

Akasha rubbed her temples and sighed. When she looked up, she spoke right over Merrin. “Clotha. You’re bound by law for the attempted murder of Judge Gushiken. You are hereby stripped of all administrative rights and privileges aboard this ship.”

For a moment Clotha gaped at her. “Me? You think I could have done something like that? What makes you think so?”

Cadet Middleton stepped forward and displayed the item she carried. It was a syringe with a small amount of viscous, yellow fluid in the reservoir. “We found this hidden among your personal things.”

Clotha’s laugh pealed through the room like clanging bells. “You think that is mine? Anybody could have planted that there!”

“But nobody could have known Lieutenant Merrin’s ident code and used it to access the engine room while he was on the bridge.” Akasha’s voice was deadly quiet. Her eyes held a predatory look as she gazed at Clotha. “But a psychic… I imagine it wasn’t too hard for you to glean that information, now was it?”

Clotha’s white eyes didn’t deviate from Akasha’s. “You have no proof.” Her voice, too, was soft and carried a menacing edge. Merrin narrowed his eyes and quietly moved a few steps closer.

“I don’t need it. You have a copious amount of excuses but I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to come up with a convincing alibi for the time between when we picked up the Judge on Navarro and the time he—“

“Navarro?” Arturo’s monotone voice spoke up. “That was the last navigation point referenced prior to our return trip to the Docking Station. It is also the hometown listed in the file of Clotha Marigold Harridan.”

Akasha and Merrin shared a surprised look. “Homedown, huh? Merrin, do you think I might be able to find some connection between Clotha and Judge Gushiken?” Akasha’s voice was sharp with sarcasm.

“Oh on a tiny moon like Navarro?” Merrin echoed the same tone. “I’m sure you probably could, boss. It’s a pretty backwater area, though. I imagine the money needed to get to a central planet like the Docking Station might be hard to come by without a certain benefactor. Money like that is often traceable…”

Clotha’s face tightened on itself as she sneered at Akasha. “You cannot do this. I am a certified Guild Telekinetic. You cannot just accuse me without proof.”

“Actually, I can.” Akasha smiled and gestured to the small gold pin attached to her uniform lapel. “See this insignia? That means I’m the Captain. Means I get to make the rules. And until we can contact the Central Docking Station for proper legislative procedure, I get to decide how to keep order on my ship.”

Akasha straightened and nodded to the man on her right. “Midshipman Kean? Please escort Clotha to our solitary brig. Find a few friends to help you, please?”

“At once, Captain!” The midshipman saluted before snatching Clotha’s arm and dragging her toward the bridge entryway. With a furious huff, Clotha acquiesced, though, from the white knuckles on the Kean’s hand, Akasha guessed Clotha would have some serious bruises in a few hours.

She dismissed the rest of the personnel back to their workstations, then turned a weary eye to the vis-screen ahead of her. The electric crackle of the ion cloudstorm raged onscreen, casting a spectacular light show of violet, lavender, and white charges across the display.

“Now if we could just figure out a way home,” she murmured to herself.

“Actually, Captain?” Cadet Middleton’s timid voice came from next to her shoulder. Akasha jumped and turned to see the Cadet peeking shyly at her. “I might be able to help with that…”

“I’ve gotta admit, I did not see that coming.” Merrin gave a rueful shake of his head as he and Akasha strolled down the ramp at the Docking Station. “I mean, to use the shield’s energy field again? Brilliant! She’s got quite a brain on her, that one.”

Akasha gave him a sideways look. “Yeah, I suppose she did ok.”

Merrin halted and stared at her in shock. “Ok? OK? What she did defied anything I’ve been taught about the thermodynamics of atmospheric shields. To create the anti-ion charges that cause the negative reactions… I mean, she actually dispersed an ion cloudstorm using the thermal thrust calculations to alter the shield’s energy field. So far as I know, no one has every dispersed an ion storm.”

“Ok, fine, I’ll say it. Upstart Cadet Middleton did a good job. Happy now?”

Merrin grinned and nodded. When Akasha began walking again, he followed. “So what will you do with her?”

“I’m going to recommend her for a promotion.” At Merrin’s suspicious glare, she continued, “And I might have offered her a position on my crew once she graduates.” She jabbed a finger at the air under Merrin’s nose. “Might have.”

Merrin rolled his eyes with a smile. But it faded as three orderlies in haz-suits wheeled Judge Gushiken past them on a hovering gurney. “Will he be ok?”

Akasha followed the group with her eyes and shrugged. “Doc seemed to think so. Luckily there was enough residue in that syringe for her to discern that he’d been injected with a mutated strain of Alzheimer’s—that’s why the brain scans seemed so similar to it. Someone had added a bioaccelerant to hasten the effects so the serum did the maximum damage in a few short hours. I hope they’re able to get him back. He’s important to the federal shindig going down at Central.”

“Did Dr. Giancarlo ever figure out why he was dreaming of persimmons?”

With a bark of laughter, Akasha grinned. “The antidote she needed came from them. Well, actually from the genus of the persimmon tree, to be exact. Diospyros. Old Earth Greek for ‘divine fruit.’”

“How’d he know?”

“I don’t think he did. But perhaps his subconscious was reacting to the serum. I know Judges and federal officials have to undergo certain gene alterations—for all I know he was able to detect the presence of something foreign in his body. Either way, once the doc broke it down to a cellular level, she was able to combine the strands of the mutant version with the old cure developed centuries ago. She had to do some fun splicing and dicing, but he’s still here when he shouldn’t be. That’s gotta count for something.”

“And us?”

Akasha stopped and gave him a long searching look. “Us?” she repeated softly.

“What’s to become of us?” One of Merrin’s fingers trailed lazily down the arm of her uniform.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Akasha said in a breezy voice. “This was just our first run.” Her eyes sparkled at him with barely concealed mischief. “I can’t wait to see what happens on our second mission.”

Total Writing Time: 5 hr.

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September Stories (9/3)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-3

Burnt Heart, Bound Feet
By Danielle Davis

They knocked on his door at ten of ten. He’d been told by the clergyman yesterday, at mid-day mass, the time intended to give the small group of volunteers a few hours to achieve their purpose before the witching hours of the night. Indeed the monsters—if any certainly existed—were said to come out then, and surely would to prevent them from succeeding at their grim work.

Thomas wanted nothing to do with the rest of them or their work. It meant little to him–the townsfolk’s stories of creatures and vampires. All he wanted was to be alone with his grief and his memories, not traipsing around the family cemetery looking for ghosts in the night.

The only ghost he saw now was the lingering shade of his wife’s presence that sat like a layer of dust over their small home. When she’d been alive–back before the wasting sickness set its hooks into her chest and lungs—her light and laughter had lit up all areas she visited like a lamp in a dark room. Whether at the barn, tending to the few cows, sheep, and chickens that sustained their tiny farm, or indoors or weeding the vegetable patch behind the northeastern corner of the house…she was like a sun, not reflecting the rays from the sky but generating them from herself. Her voice, the tinkling peal of her laughter, the playful glint of her eyes lit everything around her.

It certainly lit him. He basked in the glow of her like a snake on a rock, reluctant to ever move from the warmth of her.

When she died, a chill settled into the place. It slumbered in the wood of the house like a sickness and sucked the air from your lungs when you walked across the land. Candles couldn’t make the rooms bright enough, nor the daylight to make the garden as green as when she’d been there. She was the beating heart of the farm, and when she left, a part of it died, too.

“Mr. Chambers, open up.” He recognized Matthew Carolson’s voice, muffled as it was through the thick front door. But he remained slumped in the old chair near the empty fireplace, staring into the empty hearth. The shovel he was supposed to bring on their excursion hung loosely in his hands.

There was another set of pounding knocks and then a new voice, timid and reedy. “Mr. Chambers? Thomas? It’s time, son. Let’s not draw this out longer than we have to.”

At that, he glanced toward the door as if he’d notice the gaunt, sagging face of Father Albert peering back. Didn’t they understand it had already gone on long enough?

When he opened the door, seven anxious faces peered back at him. There was Father Albert and Matt Carolson, the butcher, and behind them William and James Murdock, the tailor brothers; Josiah Scott, who owned the neighboring farm to the east; young Jeremiah Johnson, who helped Josiah with the farm chores in the summer; and Benjamin Henley, who managed the town bank.

Thomas grunted as his eyes passed over their faces. “Didn’t expect to see you here, Benjamin,” he said softly. His voice sounded hoarse and ill-used.

The banker’s round face flushed in the lamplight and his chest swelled visibly. “I have a family, too, you know Thomas. Any one of them could be taken by this…thing. Up to us to put a stop to it.” Benjamin nodded, once, as if congratulating himself on a speech well-said. He tried to meet Thomas’s gaze but it fell under the farmer’s tired, sad eyes.

Thomas leaned toward Father Albert, acutely aware that the other men also leaned slightly forward to hear, too. “I’m not so sure I’m up to this, Father,” he whispered. “I–”

“I know how much you miss her, Thomas,” Father Albert said. He laid a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “We all do. Alice was as fine a woman as they come. But you must realize that she went to be with our Lord God. Her spirit is in a place of light and beauty unimaginable to the minds of mortals such as us. What you put into the ground was just the shell of the body she left behind.” He leaned farther forward so that their foreheads almost touched. “That’s not Alice anymore. What has taken possession of her body is most horrid and demonic. It must be stopped before someone else gets hurt.”

Thomas remembered when she first got sick. The tiny, dainty coughs that soon turned into hacking roars of breath. Alice hadn’t wanted to see a doctor—it was just a touch of a summer cold and fever, she insisted—but when he noticed the spatters of blood on her handkerchiefs, he called Doc Hammond straightaway. Consumption was the diagnosis, and all he’d been able to do was try to keep from catching it as he watched her fade away.

It was too soon to face her grave again, which was probably only just covered with a fine green stubble of late summer grass. It was too soon for any of this foolishness he’d been roped into.

But he found he was too tired to say the words. So he just nodded sadly and pulled on his wool coat. Alice had made it for him two winters ago. On the inner left breast, she’d stitched a small red cross over where the jacket rested against his heart. He was acutely aware of how that area felt warmer against him than the rest of the coat.

The group trudged silently over the rolling pastureland and squeezed through the thin fence rails that separated his property from Josiah’s. The only sound was a gentle clinking noise from a burlap sack Josiah carried slung over one shoulder. The men moved with the labored steps of men who had traveled a great distance and still had further to go, though they weren’t but a few miles from the main town. The purpose of their trip laid heavy over them, like a storm cloud, as their leather shoes soaked up the dew collecting on the night-chilled grass.

When they got to cemetery and approached the grave of Alice Chambers, they paused in a circle around it. The flickering light of their oil lamps cast caricatures of their shadows across the slight mound of packed dirt and in the grass behind them. The shadows leapt and danced like demons around the fires of Hell. In the darkness beyond the light, the tombstones stood like rounded teeth poking up from the earth.

Though the men cast uneasy glances at the shadows and features of the other men around the circle, Thomas had eyes only for the grave. His eyes feasted on the gentle curving letters carved into the tombstone that read Alice Chambers, beloved wife and daughter.

How he had wanted a daughter! It had been on his mind a great deal in the lonely, endless nights since Alice’s funeral. How badly she’d wanted a baby, too, and how he’d sell his very soul just to see a glimpse of Alice’s beautiful features again, even in the chubby face of an infant. Though they’d loved each other long and tirelessly in their seven years of marriage, God had never blessed them so.

And now this.

Thomas felt like he was suspended over a precipice, dangling, wondering when the rope would snap and he’d fall to the black pit waiting below. It was a common feeling for him since Alice died. He’d long since become comfortable with the understanding that the black pit may be the grave. If only to see her again.

And now this.

“Well, let’s get to it, lads,” Benjamin Henley said in a too-loud voice. But his pickaxe remained at his side and the light from James’s lamp showed the nervous way his eyes darted around at each man in the circle. Though it was obvious he was a child whistling in the dark, nobody laughed or made to pick up their shovels or pickaxes. They all merely stood there, staring like Thomas, down at the gentle brown mound in front of them.

With a sigh, Jeremiah plunged his shovel deep into the dirt and stepped on it, driving the blade in to its shoulder. Without sparing a glance to see if the other men were joining in, he tossed the load of dirt to the side and drove the shovel back in again.

Jeremiah was a young man barely into his twenties. Though he primarily worked the Scott farm, he’d come over to help with calving once or twice on Thomas’s farm. Alice would bring the two men lemonade and tease Jeremiah about his inability to grow a full beard. She said the patchiness of it reminded her of a piebald pony. Despite having shoulders to rival a breeding bull’s, Jeremiah was a soft-spoken fellow who blushed easily and worked harder than a mule.

But in that moment, Thomas hated him. Seething and sad, he made a vow that Jeremiah would never again set foot on his property. At least not as long as he was alive.

After a few long moments where they all stood watching Jeremiah shovel by himself, Josiah barked, “Well! Get to it then!” and they all lifted their tools. Thomas, however, stood back and watched as the lamplight made each divot seem like its own small grave and turned the digging men into hunchback horrors leaning over them.

He dropped his shovel and hugged his arms around himself. He could picture Alice, laying peacefully in her coffin below them all, hearing the digging and grumbled swears going on above her. Each scrape of dirt on metal grated across his ears. He finally closed his eyes and waited, hugging his arms to his sides while he concentrated on her face turned golden by the firelight the last time they made love. They hadn’t known it would be the last.

It seemed years passed before someone gave a startled shout as his tool hit wood. The noise roused Thomas from his memories and made him aware of the deep ache in his joints where the cold had seeped in. The night chill had turned him to stone in his inactivity and he had to shake himself, not unlike a wet dog, before he could move forward to see what they’d unearthed.

There was the simple pine panel he’d carved himself for her. Its beautiful cover had been scratched and splintered in the middle—the first strike of Jeremiah’s shovel–and around the edges from where the digging tools had struggled to scrape the dirt away around the lid, but otherwise, it was untouched.

Someone had thought to bring a crowbar and it was passed now into the hands of William. He offered it with a silent gesture to his brother, but James shook his head quickly. Looking doubtful, William shrugged and clambered into the hole. He worked clockwise, prying each nail up as he shuffled around hunched over. When he was through, he held up his hand and James slung him back out.

As one, the men all turned to Thomas. “Come on, Tom.” Matt’s voice at his shoulder startled him. He looked back but they stood far enough back that the lamplight didn’t quite reach them. The shadows obscured most of Matt’s face and turned his eyes into gaping, black sockets.

Like an old man, Thomas shuffled to the edge of the grave and used his shovel to flip one side of the casket over. They all gagged at the stench that billowed out. William and James turned together to vomit on the grass behind them. Benjamin uttered a shocked curse and whipped out a silk handkerchief from his pocket, which he used to cover his nose and mouth. Everyone else looked away, except for Josiah. When Thomas averted his face away from the sudden cloud of rot, he saw Josiah staring at him, not Alice, with a mixture of pity and resignation on his face.

Thomas covered his nose with his wrist, using the linen of his shirt to filter. He opened his mouth, took a deep breath, and looked back.

She was unrecognizable except for her gown. The beautiful purple one he’d bought her for their fifth anniversary. She’d loved that dress like no other and it hadn’t seemed proper for her to be in anything else. At her breast still lay the wrinkled remnants of the bouquet he’d placed in before they closed it up—lilies. The same flowers he’d brought the first day he courted her.

There were strange stains that spotted the bodice and gown, like there had been leaks in the casket and she’d been dripped on. But the cracks in her skin were crusted with something like pale scabs from whatever had built up enough to split the skin and then pour out. Her cheeks, chest, and arms looked like hardpan dirt that had cracked from too long in the sun.  He couldn’t bring himself to examine her face—that wasn’t the image of her he wanted stuck in his head long after this was over.

None of this was.

“Now I will say a prayer,” Father Albert intoned. He could have been reciting mass for all the emotion his voice held. “I will invoke the spirit of our Lord and Savior to take the foulness from this poor woman’s corpse and to free her soul from its unnatural bondage.” He placed his palms together and closed his eyes.

Thomas barely heard the words the priest said. He was too busy trying to slow his breaths against the wail that threatened to break forth. He could feel it rising, a hysterical sort of sob that made his stomach clench and his lungs quiver with the effort of holding it all in.

“It’s time,” Father Albert finally said.

Thomas merely looked at him. “What are you going to do?” he ground out.

“Not me, son. You have to do it.”

Thomas shook his head. He didn’t realize he’d tried to back away until Benjamin and James locked their hands like manacles on his upper arms and thrust him firmly toward the open grave. “You cannot ask this of me, Father. You cannot. Have I not been through enough already?”

“Hasn’t this town already been through enough?” Benjamin exclaimed in an indignant voice. “Should we have to suffer and watch our own families fall to the predations of this creature–”

“That creature was my wife!” Thomas shouted as he thrust his face close to Benjamin’s. The banker recoiled as if Thomas were a rabid dog lunging for his throat, but he tightened his grip around Thomas’s arm just the same.

“Not anymore she’s not. What’s in that hole is a vampire. We all know it.” Josiah’s voice was quiet but it carried to all of their ears. The words seemed to hang in the air over the grave.

As Josiah crouched to dig into the bag he’d been carrying, Benjamin muttered, “Besides you can still see the blood crusted around her mouth. Wonder who the unfortunate victim was?” This time, Thomas ignored him.

Josiah removed a small hatchet and a pair of gloves. After donning the gloves, he reached back into the bag and pulled out a twisted, tangled mass of thorny vines.

“What in God’s name is that mess?” William murmured but Josiah ignored him.

“What have we to do, Father?” Constraining Thomas seemed to have emboldened Benjamin for now he stood tall with his chin nobly raised. His voice rang with the authority of a man used to being obeyed without question.

“Burn the heart. Bind the feet with thorns. I will say the appropriate prayers that will usher this poor woman to her eternal resting place at the feet of the Sovereign. This should end the vampire threat that has blighted our town.”

Thomas sagged. It took the combined efforts of Benjamin and James to hold him upright.

Father Albert gave Thomas a grave look. “Son, you’ll have to–”

“I’ll get the heart,” Josiah interrupted, with a surreptitious glance at Thomas. “I’ll do it.”

He snatched up the axe and lowered himself carefully so that he stood with one foot on either side of the body. He gave Thomas a long, unreadable look. Then he bent to his work. The hatchet flashed like quicksilver in the lamp light as it rose and fell, rose and fell to the pattern of Josiah’s even breaths and the sharp, brittle crack as the axe struck quickly to the bone. There were several sharp cracks as the ribcage gave way, then a wet crunch.

Finally Josiah stood. In one gloved hand, a blackened gob the size of a fist.

Thomas put his feet underneath him carefully and stood. He moved forward to take the heart. It squished in his hand, spilling dark, coagulated goo over his hand to drip down his wrist. He barely felt it. His head was filled with the screaming he’d managed to hold back.

And in his hand he held his dead wife’s heart.

“Burn it,” intoned the priest. Like a man in a dream, Thomas turned and opened the glass hatch of the nearest oil lamp. After placing the heart carefully, oh so carefully on the grass, he tipped some of the oil from the side and then touched the lamp flame to it.

The heart caught immediately.

For a moment he was transfixed by the sight. He watched the blue and gold flames lick and dance over the slick oil that covered the dark mass of his love’s heart. It was a tenacious sort of fire. The kind that continued to blaze and glide instead of dwindling as its fuel turned to ash. It seemed so very alive as it burned its way through to the inside chambers. Small holes appeared, so that the heart seemed to glow with a light of its own.

Then the gloves were thrust into his hand and he turned and gazed blankly at Josiah. Josiah assessed him with a grim look, then began pulling the glove over Thomas’s limp hand. Thomas turned away and continued to watch the heart burn. When Josiah finished the one hand, he moved to glove the other.

Hands, finally, turning his shoulders so that he pivoted and faced the grave. Something like cords were thrust into one hand. When he glanced down, he saw it was the thorny vines someone had tried to tame into a coil like rope.

He stepped forward and lowered himself into the grave, standing on either side of Alice like Josiah had.

The purple of her dress, turned near black in the dark, called to him. He pulled the gloves off one at a time and ran his hands through the thick mass of the fabric. The coil of thorns in his hands immediately dug like small needles into his hand as he clenched his fists into the purple material, feeling its weight, savoring the bite of the pain.

He deserved this, he knew. He deserved it all.

He lifted the bulk of her legs and began to wrap the vines around the swollen, cracked skin of her ankles. Through the dress material, he felt some of the skin give and slide. But he just pulled the vines as tight as he dared so they wouldn’t snap.

The whole time, as the priest droned prayers over his head, he prayed too. That this would bring someone peace. That this whole ordeal didn’t damn his soul to hell. That he would get to see his Alice once again. That it would be soon.

All at once it was done. Father Albert pronounced her body “clean” and a few of the men reached down hands to help Thomas out of the grave. Some of them, like Benjamin, were even smiling slightly, as if glad it was over or proud of themselves for sticking it out.

But Thomas didn’t take their hands. Instead he turned and looked directly at his wife’s face for the first time that night. His eyes showed him the face he’d gone to sleep next to for the last seven years of his life. The radiant skin that glowed with its own light. Her silky, brown hair that tumbled like silk into his hands. Her eyes were closed, but he knew that beneath them were the lovely brown eyes that had captured his attention at the barn dance years ago. The eyes that always seemed to hold a glint of mischief, like she knew a secret nobody else did. He thought he saw the clear skin of her breast rise with a slight breath, as if she were merely asleep, and then he understood.

He smiled tenderly. He knew how to fix it. She had shown him how.

Carefully, he leaned forward. His hands braced themselves against the sides of the coffin as he stretched his body over hers, not touching but only just barely. His ears registered a slight commotion behind him, those of shouts coming from some long distance away.

Still he smiled at his wife.

They told him how careful he had to be with his wife down with tuberculosis. How quickly it spread and how deadly. The very air she breathed was tainted, they said. So he cared for her with a handkerchief held carefully to his mouth. This she insisted on. She could not bear it if he fell ill, too, she said. He did it for her. Everything he ever did, really, he did for her.

He lowered his head until his face was within kissing distance of hers. That beautiful face. Those soft, pink lips.

The air of the coffin was very still here. It gave Thomas the feeling that time had stopped. Whatever was left of her soul, tainted or otherwise, it almost felt like she was still there—whatever had made her her—suspended forever.

He inhaled.

He inhaled.

He inhaled.

Total Writing Time: 4 hr., 2 min.
Source: The Great New England Vampire Panic of the 1800s

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September Stories (9/2)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed yesterday’s, go here.

9-2

Loterie de Bébés
By Danielle Davis

“It’s a crazy idea, Corinne.” Marie hissed the words so fast in French they all blurred together. But despite the mumbling and the sudden wail from the baby in Marie’s arms, Corinne understood the meaning behind them. Marie grumbled at the child in a soothing voice, even as she darted anxious glares at Corinne from the corners of her eyes.

The baby continued to cry, even as Marie bounced the child onto her opposite hip for support. Corinne corrected Marie’s other hand, which held a bottle whose nipple was coming perilously close to the little boy’s eye. Marie gave her another glare in reply and adjusted her hold on the bottle.

Corinne merely smiled as she adjusted the baby on her own hip and carefully knelt to remove the fingers of another as they clutched at the lace hem of her skirt. “It isn’t, Marie,” she said in a calm voice. She had confidence in the idea, even if no one else did.

In a month the calendar would roll over to start 1912, a year of promises such that France had never known. Her idea would work. It was the end of the year, which meant good things had to happen—there was no time left for them not to.

She walked across the nursery floor to the line of cribs set against the wall. About her, women in white headscarves hurried about, tending to the cries or needs of the other twenty-five babies in the ward. Corinne set the baby she held into one of the cribs, on its belly and rubbed the tiny back with her hand. It wailed and twisted its small limbs trying to get traction. Corinne just hummed to it and patted the back.

The cribs were little more than cages, with tall metal bars painted white to make them seem less so. Each one had a thin mattress in the bottom, not much thicker than a pillow, and a small blue or pink blanket folded at the foot. The row of them against the long side of the wall in the large nursery area always reminded Corinne of teeth.

With all the noise, which never really dimmed so much as it subsided to a dull roar at the quietest of times, she was always amazed at how quickly the infants were able to get to sleep anyway. The sound of it sometimes felt so deafening to her ears, she could barely tell the cry of whatever child she was tending to over the rest of them.

Though the Foundling Hospital was a small building, they still managed to accommodate most of the children that were sent to their doorstep (or sometimes left on it, as was more common in winter). The upper floors were devoted to the older children, while she worked with the infants in the basement nursery.

Organized like a hospital ward, the nursery was white, sterile, and noisy. It was cleaned meticulously every night to keep down the vapors and malodorous spirits that posed a threat to the infants’ and workers’ hygiene. Even with the toy chests stationed around the room, the nursery ward always seemed cold, barren, despite the constant presence of so many small children.

It was no wonder they had such trouble finding homes for the children nestled here.

Marie appeared next to her, with her hands on her hips. Corinne glanced back to see the one little boy asleep in his high chair and the other laying on its back on the floor holding a toy ball to its mouth. “It’s a crazy idea, Corinne,” Marie repeated. “A loterie ? That’s not even legal!”

Corrine shushed her. “But it is,” Corinne whispered back. “I asked my cousin. He is a policier here in Paris. He cannot find anything wrong with it.”

“But they’re children, Corinne! Bébés! How do we even know the people who got them would be suitable parents?”

“We investigate them, of course, same as if they walked through our doors! Honestly, Marie, what would you suggest? Do you think all this–,” Corinne swept her hand around to indicate the hospital nursery “—is working? We have received more foundlings this year than we have over the last two. We cannot hold all of them!”

Marie shrugged under her smock. “So we take what we can and turn the rest away. But you can’t honestly believe such an idea—“

“I can and I do,” Corinne said in a curt tone that indicated the conversation was over. She didn’t add that she’d already spoken to Monsieur Porte, the hospital administrateur.

It had been a short visit. She always tried to keep them that way, as she despised Monsieur Porte with a passion. He had a grating habit of licking his lips so loudly she could hear it. Each flick of the tongue was like a moist smacking in her ear and she hated it. She hated him, too, both for his supercilious attitude and for the bulbous mass of his stomach that always peeked through the straining buttons of his tailleurs—she didn’t know how, with all of the layers he wore, any amount of flesh could still peek through. But as she walked into his office that morning, there they were, small tear-shaped gaps between each button winking at her like flesh-colored eyes as he shifted his weight.

Still, she put on her best smile and smoothed her short brown hair before addressing him. A stack of papers caught her eye, stacked haphazardly at the corner of his desk—they had the hospital’s insignia and what appeared to be rows of numbers. Parfait, she thought.

When he gestured to the chair across from him, she made sure her leg bumped the desk as she turned to sit. The papers tumbled like oversized confetti over the edge and onto the floor.

Ah non!” she exclaimed as she bent to help pick up the papers. They were already in her hand as he waved her away saying “Non, non” as he struggled his bulk out of the chair and to the floor. He snatched the papers from her hand, but she’d already seen enough to confirm her suspicions—they were account invoices and the numbers worked out in her favor.

Monsieur Porte fell back into his chair with a red-cheeked huff, and she let him have time to compose himself by becoming very interested in smoothing her skirt. When he gestured for her to begin, she wasted no words.

“We have an overwhelming lack of foster parents,” she told him with a direct look. “We are getting more children in than we are moving out and we cannot continue at this pace, Monsieur. I believe we must try something new to gather interest into the plight of these children. Something that will catch peoples’ attention right away.” She took a deep breath. “I think we should hold a loterie de bébés.”

“A baby lottery? Are you mad, Mademoiselle Barre?” He frowned at her. “What makes you think such an outrageous idea would work? Besides, it would be illegal.”

Corinne clenched her jaw and smiled at him. “I can assure it is quite legal, Monsieur. I have already contacted the local bureau de police about it. I merely think it would provide an entertaining spectacle, a new way to celebrate December. And it would work.”

“How can you be so sure? The idea it’s…ridicule!” Monsieur Porte plucked at the bottom of his suitcoat to straighten it. The motion made her think of the way a cat would wash to self-soothe after an irritation. This man is an irritation, she thought. He has no more interest in these children than the people who leave them on our doorsteps.

Non, pas ridicule, Monsieur. It will be done before Christmas. That gives us three weeks to organize.” She leaned over the desk, letting the full weight of her determination show in her eyes. Monsieur Porte frowned and leaned away from her. “This hospital cannot afford another year like this, Monsieur. We are losing money to protect these children and we cannot turn them out to the streets. Give me a chance to gather interest. Let me hold the loterie. I can use the Christmas season to our advantage in this, I know it.”

Monsieur Porte eyed her. For the first time, she noticed, he allowed his dislike of her to shine openly in his face. Part of her was surprised but only a little—she’d never been a favorite of his, certainly. She spent too much time arguing for resources for the nursery, better swaddling cloths for the infants, more toys, better quality food, and never enough time ingratiating herself to him.

For a moment, she worried his dislike of her would color the logic of her argument and he would say non. Then he nodded, once. She leapt forward, leaning far over the edge of the desk, to grasp his shoulders and kiss each side of his cheek.

Merci, Monsieur! You won’t be sorry!” She left before the pink marks from her lips had left his cheeks.
Three weeks later, she stood like a barker at a carnival, calling out to the crowds of people passing in the streets. She had dressed in an eye-catching gown of rose-colored cotton with a light turquoise panel down the front of the skirt. It also sported a white applique on the bust and ornate, flowing lace donning the hems of the sleeves and skirt. When she moved her arms in wide gestures over her head, the effect of the sleeves made it appear as if she had an extra pair of arms fluttering about. All in all, it caught the eye, which was precisely her point.

It hadn’t taken long to attract a crowd. The people gazed up at her as she strode across the wooden platform calling out attributes of each child and pointing to the child’s corresponding number on the round metal wheel behind her. She’d commissioned a local clockmaker to make it—it rose behind her in a giant wheel, where each number printed along the rim connected to a curving spoke that arced gently to the inner bolt. The spokes created a spiral effect that Corinne used to her advantage: for every loterie number she called, she reached up with the graceful, flowing sleeves fluttering in the breeze and gave the wheel a firm spin. When it finally came to rest, she pointed with a slender stick to the winning number. It had a dazzling effect on the crowd.

“Who will be next to buy a billet de loterie? Only 15 francs earns you the chance to win one of the beautiful babies looking to find their new family!”

It was like a song. She found if she just kept singing the numbers, occasionally providing dramatic flourishes of her arms or pointing stick, people would stay long enough to realize what she was offering up.

At first people bought their tickets as a joke. She could tell from the way they snickered behind their arms or the way they’d bid and poke an elbow into their companion’s side as if to say watch this, let’s see what happens next.

Corinne acted as if it was all perfectly normal: she on her wooden stage with large burlap sacks adorning the frame along either side of her and across the front rim of the platform, closest to the audience. In each sack hung a baby, like presents stuffed into a fireplace stocking. Around each of the children, she’d tied a large bow of sparkly ribbon.

She gave a dramatic flourish of her pointing stick to one of the babies to her left. “What about this beautiful baby girl? Six months old and loves to smile! She’s looking for a mommy who will dress her like the doll she is. Or this young boy—“ she pointed to a boy hanging on her right “—who wants to grow up just like you fine men–Merci, Madame!” She pointed the stick to a woman in a white blouse and heavy wool skirt dyed the color of blood who had just bought a raffle ticket from Marie.

Estelle, the older matron who ran the number booth, gave Corinne a small nod. Immediately she raised her arms in dramatic arcs over her head. “It’s time to draw another number! Who will it be? Who will win one of these angels to take home for Christmas?” As she gazed over the crowd, she saw them gazing back in rapt attention. Even in the outside air, it seemed everyone was holding their breath for the number.

Estelle reached into a small box and withdrew a scrap of paper. With the dignity of a queen, she marched her thick figure up the stage stairs to hand the paper to Corinne. Corinne noted the number and then handed the paper back.

“We are looking for nuuummmbbbeeeerrr—“ She drew the word out so that it was pitched low and raised to an excited, high note as she gave the wheel a dramatic spin. “–Numéro cinquante-cinq!” She rapped the metal wheel with the stick pointed at 55 and waited for the shriek of delight as someone realized they held the winning billet.

Though there were only sixteen babies to be raffled off, Corinne estimated there were more than fifty people gathered about holding raffle tickets. Corinne was delighted—by that estimate, they’d already made three times as much as a single adoption fee the Foundling Hospital normally charged. She gave a quick grin to Marie, responded with a beaming flash of teeth.

Corinne stepped over to the girl, who hung calmly in her sack to the right of the metal wheel. As if the girl was no heavier than a picture on a wall, Corinne lifted her off the nail and handed her, still in the sack, to Amélie, the thin-faced nursery maid waiting nearest the foot of the stage stairs.

As she turned her sing-song prattle back to selling the loterie, she saw a couple make their way through the crowd to Amélie and cuddle the baby girl in their arms. The woman’s hat obscured Corinne’s view of the baby, but she could tell from the delighted smile on the man’s face that they hadn’t expected to actually get her. He looked like a child opening the first gift of Christmas.

She didn’t need to see Monsieur Porte step up to the couple to know that he was gathering the information the hospital would need to investigate the couple later. One of the hardest points she’d had to make to get the loterie approved was to guarantee the hospital would make sure the people getting the babies were suitable as foster parents—honestly, it was the same practice the hospital already had in place, so Corinne couldn’t see why anyone would expect her to handle it differently now. What did it matter if the parents walked in through the front door of the hospital or won a random loterie raffle? The kids were finding homes and they would be paired with families who wanted a child, same as before. All procedures were the same, it was just the pairing that went a little differently now.

She cast a quick eye over the remaining babies still hanging serenely in their display sacks. Though it had taken half the day to get nearly half the kids raffled off, the size of the crowd assured her the rest would have homes before the sun began to cast purple and orange smears across the horizon.

There were only two weeks left until Christmas. Two weeks left in the year for miracles to happen. Each baby that had already found a home counted as one to her. And she was confident she’d see several more happen before the end of the day. The odds were in her favor.

Total Writing Time: 5 hr.
Source: This MentalFloss article about That Time Paris Had a Baby Lottery

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September Stories (9/1)

Here begins the first entry I did on 9/1 for my September Stories project! You remember, that’s the project where I crazily decided I didn’t have enough stress in my life, so I’d write a story a day for the entire month based off volunteers’ answers to specific criteria. I make no guarantees about the quality of the work–I mean, c’mon, they’re written in 1 daypeople!–but I certainly had to think around a few corners to get them down. Check back here every day in September (and the first week in October) to see what I djinned up. Now, without further ado…

9-1

Lost and Found
by Danielle Davis

“The most important thing to remember is calm. You stay calm, try to keep them calm, do your best to make the whole residence calm. Always calm. The residents don’t get riled up too often, but sometimes you’ll see the odd Alzheimer’s or dementia flareup and they can get…shrill. Some folks are just quarrelsome and some can never be pleased. You don’t have to take their crap, if they decide you’re their Whipping Girl, but you shut it down in a calm, confident manner. If it ever gets too much for you, just walk away.”

“Have you ever been attacked before?” Maria asked the question in a too-breathless voice that revealed how frustrated she was getting. It was a lot to remember. Also she couldn’t remember if she’d put on deodorant that morning in her rush to get to work. Making a good first impression on her first day would prove a lot harder if she smelled like she was wearing yesterday’s gym clothes.

Jerome cocked an eye at her. “Once. But not by a resident. Another attendant got upset when I turned him in for smoking Mr. Sperry’s glaucoma medicine. Broke my nose and beat my car so hard it forgot its own name.” When he paused in the hallway, remembering, Maria took a casual, deep sniff near her shoulder. So far, so good.

“Asshole,” Jerome muttered, then strode forward so quickly Maria had to scurry to catch up. “It’s always Mr. and Mrs. Whoever. Some of them will ask you to call them by their first names, and that’s ok, but you have to wait until they offer it.”

Jerome hung a right at a hallway intersection without breaking his overview of House Rules. There was a manual all orderlys were required to read upon employment at Rollingwoods House, but Jerome wasn’t talking about those. “You can read,” he’d told her. “But you need to know the House Rules that aren’t written down.” These were the things, she learned, that made Rollingwoods House run more smoothly for the orderlys who actually had to deal with the residents.

The adult care facility was set on a gently wooded expanse of land that used to be a nine-hole golf course. Though the clubhouse had been rebuilt to accommodate multiple resident apartments under one roof, the whole atmosphere was designed to reflect a peaceful air of privileged retirement rather than an old folks’ home. At least, that was what she was coming to figure out as she followed Jerome on his rounds for her first day on the job.

“Now, your social life,” Jerome paused. “You got one?”

She shrugged, unsure of how to answer. Did it earn her more brownie points to imply she had one or that she didn’t? She could mention she’d been invited out to a comedy club with her friends later that night. Or maybe it was better to mention it but reassure him she had no intention of leaving early to get ready for it. Or should she instead admit that she actually had no intention of going because it was entirely too noisy and full of people she didn’t know and probably didn’t care to know?

It didn’t appear to matter to Jerome, because he continued as if she’d given a real answer. “Not anymore you don’t. Shift hours here aren’t a joke so much as they’re a minimal recommendation. You’re going to find yourself working a lot after-hours. Folk don’t get in bed when they should, gotta track ‘em down. Someone else decides he sees his high school sweetheart down a trail, goes out for a midnight stroll, falls and breaks a hip. Gotta call an ambulance… Something always comes up, though it’s usually not that exciting.”

She nodded as if that didn’t bother her. Actually, now that she was thinking about how little a social life she really did have, she wasn’t sure if it did or not.

Outside one apartment, where the open door allowed soft strains of some bluesey music to whisper past, he paused and looked deep into her eyes. It was the first time he’d made eye contact with her, past the cursory glance over when they were introduced—though she was used to getting casual, admiring glances, she got the impression from Jerome that he was less checking her out and more sizing up her character.

“And above all else, you do not, under any circumstances ask about or mention their tallys.” He flashed his own wrist at her and the thick band of his watch shifted a little down his wrist. It revealed an inch-long red tally mark that shone against the pale skin of his wrist. She stared at it a moment longer than was appropriate, noting that it was red, not black–he was in love with someone who didn’t love him back. She looked back at his face, but she’d looked too long and he’d noticed.

It was rude to stare at someone’s tally marks, but much like eavesdropping, people usually did it anyway when they thought someone wasn’t looking. The marks were simple hieroglyphics that told everyone’s love story or lack of. They appeared, changed colors, or faded into scars by themselves and no matter of wishing could change them. They were tied only to the person and the object of his or her affection. Since the tallys were fluid, they were an obvious way for people to display changes in their romantic relationships.

But some people didn’t want such intimate information shared. Given the thickness of Jerome’s watch band, it would seem he was one of them. A muscle flexed in his jaw as he glared at her.

She cleared her throat to break the awkward silence that stretched between them. “Why not? Uh, ask about the tallys, I mean.”

He screwed up his face in an are you crazy expression. “Do you know where you are? This is the place people come, either on accident or on purpose, to be forgotten. Most of the time, they just want someone to talk to because they’re lonely. And most of the tally marks you’ll see are going to be about the very people they’ve lost or who’ve forgotten them in the first place. It could make them upset, which would violate our Rule Numero Uno. They might bring up the subject themselves, but you do not ask. Ever. Got it?”

With wide eyes, she nodded. He continued to glare at her for a moment, as if to drive his point home, then knocked on the doorframe.

“Ms. Sylvain? Jerome and Maria checking in, m’am. Is now a good time?”

“I’ve told you before, Jerome, call me Margery.”

Jerome flashed a conspirator’s grin at Maria. “Sorry, Margery. I keep forgetting.”

“Your memory’s worse than mine,” the older woman grumbled as she shuffled into the living area from her bedroom. Though she stooped behind her rolling walker, her feet scuffed quickly along the floor in her gray slippers. She wore a fleece dressing gown that zipped up the front and came down to her ankles. What was left of her hair floated like a wispy cloud around her head, so thin Maria could make out the items on the wall behind her through it.

The older woman glared up at Jerome. “And it’s not.”

“Not what, Margery?”

“Not a good time. NCIS is about to come on.” Ms. Sylvain moved toward them so that they had to step back to keep from colliding with her. As she passed between them, Jerome gave Maria a look that seemed to say say something, fool.

“Sure thing, Ms. Sylvain!” Maria chirped in a too-bright voice that earned a disgusted look from Jerome.

The old woman settled in an armchair, moved her walker to one side of it, then glared suspiciously at Maria. “Who are you?”

Jerome stepped forward. “Maria, m’am. She’s—“

“Nothing wrong with my ears, Jerome!” Ms. Sylvain have a dismissive flap of her hand. “I mean, dear—“ she fixed an intense gaze on Maria “–who. Are. You?”

With a nervous glance at Jerome, Maria took a deep breath. “It’s my first day, m’am. Jerome’s taking me around to meet everyone. I hope you don’t mind my stopping by to say hello.” From the corner of her eye, Maria saw Jerome give a small nod. So far, so good.

“Keep your eyes open, Maria,” Ms. Sylvain advised. Her voice was steady and oddly gentle. “Things have a way of getting lost here. Time works different in these walls than it does outside. Passes slower. Gets faded around the edges. Be sure you don’t get lost, too.”

After they left, Maria turned wide eyes to Jerome once they were out of earshot. “What was that all about?”

He shrugged. “She’s harmless. Some days she’s clearer than others. Today must be one of those muddy days.”

“And the bit about things getting lost?”

He stepped close to her and spoke in a sarcastic, low undertone. “Look around you, Maria. Do you see a lot of visitors around? What do you think she meant?”

They passed through endless halls full of twists and turns Maria knew she’d never keep track of. Sometimes residents would wave hello to Jerome as they passed, others even calling him by name. Others drifted along past them like faded ghosts with dreamy eyes that saw far away places only they could see.

It should have creeped Maria out, but it didn’t. She rather liked the solitude of it. She could be in a room with someone, changing a bedpan or set of sheets, and they’d look through her like she wasn’t even there. Almost like she was the ghost then.

After lunch, Jerome let her try her hand at what he called A Routine. It meant dropping by someone’s apartment, like they had with Ms. Sylvain earlier that morning, to do a regular check-in. She was supposed to ask if the resident needed anything, make sure he or she was physically all right even if they weren’t mentally.

He led her to one of the apartments in the North Hall, home of one of the clearer-minded residents at Rollingwoods House. “Now if you need anything, just hit the call button on your walkie there.” He gestured to the standard piece of equipment all orderlies had to keep on them while on duty. “I’ll be in the Northwest Hall doing Routines, ok? Come find me when you’re done.” Then he was off, taking long strides down the hall, before she could even nod her assent.

It was almost like she was a ghost to him, too.

She checked the name against the list on her clipboard. Ms. Felicity Sullivan, Apt. 703. Maria took a deep breath and knocked gently, almost fearfully. About the time she realized Ms. Sullivan probably couldn’t hear her, a wavering voice called “Come in.”

She stepped into the spare, clean apartment and breathed in the lush floral scent that permeated the room. She grinned in surprise as she called, “Ms. Sullivan?”

“Back here!” the voice called again. Maria followed it into the bedroom, where Ms. Sullivan sat gazing mournfully at a ripped quilt.

“Everything ok, Ms. Sullivan?” Maria asked.

“Felicity,” the woman murmured. “Call me Felicity, please. And you must be Maria?” She raised rheumy blue eyes to look at Maria. “Thomas—Mr. Johanneson, to you, I imagine—told me we had someone new running around.” Be warned, they gossip like children, Jerome had warned her. It was one of the unwritten House Rules. Expect that anything you tell one will come back around the next day like a senile game of Telephone.

Maria nodded, trying not to act surprised, and Felicity turned her gaze back to the ripped material in her hand. She was quiet for a long time, and Maria felt too conspicuous standing half-in, half-out of the bedroom doorway. She couldn’t remember if it was ok to walk in to someone’s bedroom without explicit permission or not.

“Can, er…can I get you anything, m’am?”

“Felicity.” The word was a breeze of a sigh. “This got torn somehow…” Felicity gazed around her room with a confused look. Maria noticed her head waggled slightly from side to side. “I’m not sure when. But I need a new one, I think. It gets cold here, some nights.”

With a directive to act on, Maria stepped forward. She reached out a hand for the quilt, saying, “Sure thing, m’am, I’ll just take that—“

In a flash, Felicity was on her feet. “No!” She held the quilt to one side of her. It rippled as the trembling palsy of her hand became more pronounced. She glared at Maria, who stood frozen, her hand still outstretched. “It’s mine!”

“I wasn’t going to take it—“ Maria began softly, but Felicity sagged to the bed with a wheezy grunt. She lifted the material to her face and rubbed it gently across her cheek and nose, inhaling with a shuddery breath. “It’s all I have of him,” she murmured. Her tone, though reedy, was apologetic.

“Who, Felicity?”

Felicity looked up at her and held out one arm wrist up. An inch-long scar sat in the middle of the wrist, still visible among the blue map of veins and the tendons that looked like thin twigs under the skin of her forearm.

Maria couldn’t ask. Jerome had said so. Had been very explicit about it.

And yet, even as she repeated his admonition to herself, her lips betrayed her. “Who was he?” she asked softly.

Felicity looked down at the inch-long scar on her arm absently, as if unsure how it got there. But when she spoke, her voice was warm and confident with the memory and barely wavered at all. “James. James Sullivan. We met on a train headed to Dallas when I was in college.” Her long thumb rubbed over the line of the scar, still straight despite the tissue-like thinness and wrinkles of her papery skin. Maria thought she could just see a faded darkness to it from the black tally it used to be, as if a darker mark was hidden under the almost-translucent thinness of the skin and showed through only barely.

She gave a surreptitious glance at her own wrist, then rubbed her other hand over the smooth, unmarked skin of it. Someday, she told herself. Someday.

“He was the son of a potato farmer, back during the Fifth Depression. I was the daughter of a politician, headed to support my Daddy at a rally.” Felicity’s lips pulled thin as she smiled up at Maria. The expression brought a light to the woman’s face that seemed to smooth the wrinkles away. Though Felicity’s jowls sagged in a way that made her look a bit like a frog, when she smiled, her face lifted in a way that transformed her. As if a small glow began under her skin, she appeared younger and lighter. “It was very Mark Twain, our romance,” she drawled. Maria nodded as if she knew what that meant.

Felicity gave one final rub with her thumb and her smile faded, taking the light out of her face with it. Once again, she was just an old woman with a slouching, ancient frame. “He’s been gone near thirty years now.”

Maria frowned. “But that meant that you were in your…” She let the question trail off hopefully.

“Early fifties,” Felicity supplied.

“So why is there only the one?” If Jerome heard any part of this conversation, he would fire her on the spot. But she couldn’t help the question. She’d surreptitiously noted all day that most other residents had at least a couple marks on their arm, some faded to scars, though several still sported a black tally on their wrists as bold as a fresh tattoo. For those folks, their spouses were usually in the same apartment or just down the hall.

Felicity gazed up at Maria with a pitying look. “Because he was my one true love.” Her voice was so wistfully matter-of-fact that it broke Maria’s heart. That voice still held a longing to see him again, like he was on a trip and wouldn’t be back for a while. The sadness in it seemed too intimate, too embarrassing.

Maria found she couldn’t meet the older woman’s eyes. “I’ll get another quilt for you, m’am.”

She was almost to the door when Felicity spoke again, though it was soft enough Maria wasn’t sure if the words were meant for her or not. “The worst part?” she said, as if Maria had asked the question. “The thought that I’ll live long enough to forget who the mark was for at all.”

It was a horror Maria almost couldn’t imagine. She ducked out of the room and hurried down the hall, brushing angrily at the tear that crept down her cheek.

For the rest of the day, each visit, each somber duty, felt like it had sucked part of herself away. She started to understand why Ms. Sylvain had said time moved differently there. Everybody was in slow-motion, the tasks unchanging, unchallenging. A fresh supply of sheets here. A bedpan needing changing there. New pillows. Change the TV channel to this channel or that one. By the time her shift was up, she felt like a washrag that had been rung dry.

She drove home on autopilot, her mind fixed on the residents she’d met, on their silence, their misremembering of her name, theirs…and above it all, their tallies. They were marks she couldn’t get out of her head.

At home, choked down a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then headed upstairs to take a bath. She had a strong desire to let the heat soak away the terrible sadness that clung to her skin like clothing. She stripped, scattered some scented Epsom salt in the bottom of the tub, and settled into the empty basin as the hot water began to fill. She closed her eyes, breathing in the steamy aroma of lavender and eucalyptus as the water crept up her body. It was an effort to push the faces of the residents from her mind, so she counted her breaths instead. One. Two. Three. Four. If she got so high she lost count, she started over.

At some point while she was distracted with the gurgling splash of the water and with keeping the right number, she began counting inch-long marks that faded in and out of her mind to be counted. A black one, a red one, a flesh-colored line… She gave herself a mental shake and switched to counting heartbeats.

When the water was high enough, she turned off the water and let her head sink under the surface until only her nose poked out. Underwater, the whooshing bellows of her breathing filled her head. Here there was no need to count. Just focus on the in and out of each breath.

And still she could see them.

Mr. Garrett, whose left side of his face remained frozen in a sneer from last week’s stroke; his inner forearm patterned with three scarred tallys—three dead loves and perhaps not even the memories of them left. Mrs. Mason, who was nearly blind; her wrist sporting five scarred tallys and a bold red one—five dead loves and one who didn’t return her love. Hers was all the more depressing given her husband, who lived down the hall and who had a few scarred tallys and one bold black one marking his arm. Maria wondered who the black mark represented, if not his wife. Ms. Sullivan’s radiant smile as she rubbed her single scarred tally, the lost husband who’d had no successor, her only love after eighty-plus years.

Maria sat up, wiped her eyes, and blinked angrily at the tiled wall. “I’ll quit.” It made the most sense. She wasn’t cut out for this line of work, with these sad, forgotten people set aside like dusty furniture nobody wanted anymore. At seeing their faces light up because they mistook her for some family member come to visit, or worse, because they knew she was just a nurse and they were that lonely for someone—even a stranger—to remember them. And all the scarred tallys lining those crepe-skinned forearms.

Her hand rubbed absently at her unmarked wrist. Which was better? To reach that point in her life and have several red or scarred tallys marking her arm, reminiscent of earlier times where she’d loved freely and widely, presumably with an array of experiences that varied with each lover? Or to be like Mrs. Sullivan, with just the one mark, scarred or not, having felt the single burning love of just one person and never needing another for comparison?

Things have a way of getting lost here, Felicity had said. Be sure you don’t get lost, too.

She glanced at her phone lying on the edge of the counter nearby. 10:00. Her friends wouldn’t be getting to the comedy club until 10:30. And she was only fifteen minutes away.

With a pop, she twisted the drain plug open. The water gurgled happily as it drained away and when she rose from the water, she felt a fresh sense of renewal. She snagged a dry towel off the wall hook and wrapped it around her. The knowledge that today had been her first and last day was revitalizing. She felt bold.

As she got dressed, a thin gold bracelet caught her eye and she put it on. When she twisted her wrist, it sparkled in the light, highlighting the pale, untallied skin of her wrist. It was eye-catching, so it was perfect. Because tonight, she was going out. She knew she might not find someone that would put a tally mark on her skin. But she also knew it couldn’t hurt to show that she was looking. She’d find someone or be found herself. It was one step away from loneliness, away from becoming lost. So far, so good.

Total Writing Time: 3 hr., 15 min.

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