Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Weekly Story #8: The Pool Party

Yes, I know it's the second story in a row with the word "Party" in the title. I'm just rolling with it. The prompt went something like this:

  • Forest - Caller/911 Operator - Pool
This is the point where I start getting less attached to the prompts themselves, and use them more as springboards. The 911 operator is not a major part of this story. 

I kind of wound up pleasantly surprised by this one. I seem to have become attached to the idea of the Fair Folk finding the most mundane human things utterly fascinating, sort of like Yotsuba Koiwai on overdrive. I hope you enjoy it!



THE POOL PARTY

"Y-yeah. My name's Lazar Willis, and I'm 13 years old. Thank God I got you. There's barely any signal out here."
"Is there an emergency?" the woman on the other end said.
"Kind of. Yes. Definitely. I'm in the middle of the woods. I'm lost." He'd woken up in his cabin and seen a strange light through the window and wandered out to the woods, only to lose the trail in the darkness. Then he'd dropped off a ledge and rolled down a steep slope. Now he sat leaning on a tree trunk, with no clue where he was.
"You said you're lost? Are you injured?"
"I don't think so. Nothing serious." He could still move all his arms and legs and fingers. That was a good sign. "A little dinged up, but I can move."
"All right. Stay put. Where are your—" Static fuzz blocked out the operator's voice. Lazar didn't have to guess what she was asking.
"My parents are back at their cabin in Wylde Cove. I've been trying to call them, but the signal's so bad I haven't been able to reach either of them." And Dad kept his phone turned off at night. If anyone knew he'd wandered off, he'd be in a ton of trouble. They'd probably be in a ton of trouble, too. "I don't know what happened."
But no one heard him. The phone had disconnected. Instead of showing him signal bars, it said NO SERVICE. The whole reason he'd been allowed to own this phone was to make sure he could call somebody in an emergency, and now he couldn't even do that. 911 was his last chance.
He turned on the flashlight. A deep fog had descended on the forest since he slipped out the window. Even with the flashlight, he could barely see three feet in front of him. He could hardly tell which direction he'd come from.
The operator had said to stay put. Lazar supposed that was a good idea. All he could do at this point was guess where to go. The wrong direction could get him even more lost, even killed. There might be mountain lions, or coyotes, or bears. His phone was only at 20% of its battery life, and he knew a weak signal could suck the battery dry. He turned the phone off. No sense in wasting juice or drawing attention to himself. He'd just have to wait until sunrise.
It was about 2 AM. He'd be waiting a while.
Lazar craned his head back and gazed at the sky. The clouds shrouded the stars, and only a sliver of moonlight peered through. He hoped it didn't rain.
But before long, another light emerged ahead of him—the same strange light he'd seen from his bedroom in the cabin. It glowed with an odd shade of blue.
Lazar stood up. Could someone already be looking for him? No. It wasn't moving. It rippled and flickered like a torch, but it never changed position. Still, a light was a light. It could be a spotlight, or maybe the porch light of a cabin or a farmhouse. Plenty of people lived out in this cove. Surely a kind soul would be there to help a lost child reunite with his family.
He started walking toward the misty light. Somehow, in that direction, he could swear he heard... laughter?
Lazar cleared the trees, and found a pool shining like polished glass. The light came from a flower posted on a branch above the water. Four children were swimming under this light—or at least, Lazar thought they were children. If it weren't for their pink and green and blue skin, and the odd shapes of their heads, or the occasional tail, he'd have thought they were ordinary grade school kids. Their swimsuits could have come from any Wal-Mart. All these unusual kids, swimming in the middle of the night... Was he even really seeing them at all?
A boy with skin the color of a red apple burst from the water, splashing all over the other kids. A single horn projected straight out from his head. "Hey, look! A big kid! And he's human!"
"Wow." A small blue girl with hair that resembled a moth's wings and a set of feathery antennae waded toward Lazar. "I knew the flower would bring somebody!"
"Took him long enough," a violet boy with the same moth-like hair said. The girl's brother, maybe? "How about it, you wanna play with us?"
The other children cheered. "Yeah!" "Play with us!" "Please! Please!"
Lazar's feet stayed locked to the ground. "I... uh..."
"What'sa matter? Didn't bring trunks?" The red boy ran his fingers around his waistband, then pulled, and suddenly he was holding a second pair of swim trunks identical to the one he was wearing. "Here you go. Put 'em on." He tossed them over, and Lazar caught them. "I even made 'em your size."
"Um, well... thanks, but I don't know. I'm kinda lost, and I need to get home."
"That's okay," said a sunflower-yellow girl with antlers mingled with her hair. "So are we."
"We ran away from home," the blue boy said. "Dunno where we are, but no reason we can't have fun." He said "can't" like "cayn't," just like Lazar's great-aunt. "I'm Rion."
The others introduced themselves as well. The red boy was Arctur. The blue girl was Siope, and the sunflower-yellow girl was Ibra. There was also a smaller lime-green boy with two rows of small horns on his head named Lynx. He didn't seem to say much. He just floated on his back.
"I-I'm Lazar." He clutched the trunks in a wad. "It's nice to meet you, but..."
"What, you like stayin dry or somethin?" Ibra waved her arm, and a glob of water the size of a soccer ball floated up in front of her. When she flicked her hand, the water launched out and hit Lazar head-on. Now his shirt was completely soaked through.
"There ya go!" Rion said. "Might as well jump in! You're already wet!"
"Okay, fine. But I need a place to change."
"So use that bush," Arctur said. "We didn't come here to see no human wingdings."
Lazar went behind the bush, changed as quickly as possible, and returned to the edge of the pool. It was only when the light shone on him again that he saw the bruises and scratches all over him. One of his palms had been scraped, and there was a cut on his shoulder, with blood trickling down his arm.
"Whoa, cool," Siope said. "So much blood!"
He saw their delighted grins, full of shark and tiger teeth, all aimed at him. Was he about to become the main course in a feeding frenzy?
"You see, Rion?" Siope said. "I told you it was red."
"If I had blood like that, you'd never know I was bleeding." Arctur raised his hand and swayed it side-to-side. "Here."
Lazar felt a buzz inside him. He looked down, and watched the bruises fade before his eyes.
Siope threw out her hand. "I got the cuts!"
The blood on Lazar's arm dissolved, and the cut knitted itself back together and vanished, along with the scrape and all the scratches. "Wow." Lazar patted his chest and arms and face. Nothing even stung. Even that zit next to his nose was gone. "Thanks." He stepped into the pool. There was no bite of cold water. It was warm right away, as if he'd been sitting in it all night. "I guess I had you guys all wrong."
"You thought we were gonna eat you, didntcha?" Rion chortled. "Oh man, you humans."
"We told you we wanna play, didn't we?" Siope said. "We can't play with you if we eat you, can we?" She grabbed Lazar's hand. "Ooh, so spongy."
"Hey, Lynx!" Ibra called to the green boy, still floating on his back. "Ain'cha gonna come meet Lazar?"
"Nah," Lynx said. "I'm fine right here."
"Is he always like that?" Lazar said.
"Pretty much," Arctur said. "He only ran away 'cuz I was going."
"Uh huh." Lazar waded around the kids toward the middle of the pool. "And why did you run away?"
"Cuz we were bored," Ibra said. "Our parents don't let us do anything."
Rion scowled as he floated out of the water into the air. "It's all learn the legends this, and pay obeisance that, and don't stick your tail there, you don't know where it's been. We'd rather take our chances in the human world." He flipped and took a dive into a deeper part of the pool.
"Yeah, you got all those cool machines!" Arctur said, splashing the water with his fists. "You can do anything with all that stuff! I wanna see those... whatchacallit... those zoomy-loomy things. Rolling thunders?"
"Roller coasters?" Lazar said.
"That's it!"
And to think, he'd gone to Six Flags on a class trip just a month or so ago. "But you guys can do all that magic stuff. That's way cooler than a roller coaster."
"I told you he wouldn't get it," Ibra said. "Look, we're sick of stayin home, and I'm sick of thinkin bout it. That's why we called you here! We never played with a human kid before."
"Yeah!" Arctur swam closer. "We wudn't a'thought we'd get a big kid like you, but that's even better!" He waved his arms, and Lazar felt himself rise out of the water. There wasn't even anything pushing him or pulling him. But before he knew it, his feet were an inch above the water, then a foot, then five feet.
"Get ready!" Siope called.
Lazar braced himself.
He dropped straight down, with just enough time to curl his arms and legs up. His cannonball hit with a grand splash that rained on the children to raving laughter. The waves rocked Lynx up and down, but he showed no reaction.
The kids made the pond spray fountains in the air. They raised a giant block of water into the air and dropped it on top of themselves. They built water slides out of ice and rode them down, then melted them instantly when they were done.
Lazar forgot how frightened he'd been just a few hours before. Hours? It felt like minutes. He couldn't believe it wasn't a dream. When he said so, Rion swatted him with his tail. That seemed to prove it.
Mostly he felt like a babysitter, but while they played, Lazar enjoyed hearing all about their families, about their homes, about their hobbies.
Rion and Siope were indeed brother and sister, and had a pet sporg back home they called Ropa. "He's such a sweet little sporg," Siope said. "I wish we'd brought him with us."
"My dad's a lumberjack," Arctur said. "He can carry five trees in each arm."
"I live with my grandparents in a crystal tower," Ibra said. "I hope they're not too worried."
"What about you, Lynx?" Lazar said. "Where are you from?"
"Same place as them," he said.
"You ain't gonna get anything outta him," Arctur said. "He's just a big spoily-sport. Ya hear that, spoiler-sport?"
Lynx made a gesture at Arctur that seemed to make sense to both of them, because Arctur replied by sticking his tongue out. "Honestly."
"He's just been no fun since we left," Siope said.
"Hey, don't be mean," Lazar said. He certainly knew what it was like to be left out of other kids' games... or to leave himself out because he couldn't see the appeal. "He doesn't mean any harm. Just looks like he wants to relax."
"He's right," Rion said. "If Lynx wants to start having having fun, he's welcome to join us. Until then, let's party!"
And on it went through the night. Soon Lazar began to think Lynx had the right idea. These kids just wouldn't stop. Did they ever get tired? Or hungry? Or go to the bathroom? Lazar was running on only a few hours' sleep, and still needed to get back to the cabin. Every time he stopped to rest his eyes, one of the kids smacked him in the back.
Occasionally he did manage to slip out and turn his phone back on. Still no signal, and the battery was barely hanging on at 12%.
Yet it still hardly felt like any time passed at all, and Lazar almost didn't notice when a pale light began to stream in through the trees. "Hey," he said, "the sun's coming up."
"Aw, man," Arctur said, then shouted into the sky, "Go away, Ilios! I'm not ready to go yet."
"Well, I am," Lazar said, climbing out of the pool. "I have had a lot of fun, but I really need to get back to my cabin. I'm still kinda lost. Maybe you guys can help."
"Why?" Siope said.
"Because... I'm not supposed to be out here. My parents are gonna wake up and wonder where I am."
"And?"
"We ain't supposed to be here, either," Rion said. "You don't see us complaining."
Lazar put his soggy shirt back on. "Well, honestly, you need to be heading back, too." There was a bloodstain on the sleeve. How was he supposed to explain that to Mom and Dad? "Your families are probably worried. I don't know how far away from home you are, but—"
"So you're not coming with us?" Arctur said.
"Come with you?"
"We never been to Earth before. We were hoping we could get an Earth kid to come with us, show us around, help get us outta trouble."
"Um, what?"
"You don't really wanna go home, do ya?" Ibra said. "You gotta show us the rolly boosters and the bouncy castles and the airports!"
"I—" Lazar barely even knew his way around his own neighborhood! "Look, I really need to be going. You could come with me. When I explain things to my parents, I—"
"No!" Arctur slammed his fists into the water. "No grownups! They're just gonna make us go to bed early and leave the seat down... and they'll try to make us go home. I ain't goin home!"
"I understand, really." Lazar tried to remind himself, for all their strange powers, these were just kids. Just a bunch of rambunctious kids craving a taste of independence. "I just..."
Rion began tugging on one of his antennae. "I dunno, Arctur. I'm starting to miss Ropa."
"Me too," Siope said.
After hours of lying there on the water, Lynx pulled himself upright.
"Oh come on," Arctur said. "You backin out now?"
"Now that I think about it," Ibra said, "my grandparents need me. There's so much they can't do on their own. Maybe we should—"
"No! No! No!" Arctur smashed the water with each word. "We aint going home! We ain't! We are not!" He glared at Lazar with shining yellow eyes. "It's your fault! We never should have got you here." He rose out of the water and hovered over the surface. He drew up a ball of water and let it fly. Lazar jerked to the side, and it brushed his arm before bursting against a tree in a huge splash. Arctur bared his wolf-like fangs. "Maybe I should eat you!"
"Cool it, Arctur." Lynx slapped him in the back of the head and stepped out of the water beside Lazar. "I told you this was a bad idea from the beginning." He crouched and dug into Lazar's loose pants.
Lazar said, "Hey, what're you—"
"Come on, Lynx," Arctur said. "You're the one who said you didn't wanna follow the General's footsteps."
Lynx took out Lazar's phone and waved his hand over it. "Yeah, but I didn't wanna blow it up into this whole big thing. I just came along to keep an eye on you." He held down the power button.
When it settled on the home screen, it had full bars, and the battery was at 100%.
Arctur had actually begun to cry. "B-but I wanted to see more of the human world. I wanted to meet more humans. Play some human games."
Siope said, "I did have a great time here. But Ropa... and Momma..." She held Rion's hand.
"Don't worry, I'm makin a call," Lynx said.
"You know how that works?" Lazar said. He watched Lynx type looping digits Lazar didn't recognize.
"The General confiscates 'm from smugglers, so I've tried 'm out." Lynx held the phone to his ear. "Um, hi. My friends and I ran away to Earth, and we need help getting home."
Arctur slumped his shoulders, and lowered himself back in the water, down to mouth level, and started blowing bubbles.
Ibra waved up at the flower. The light faded, and the flower shrank back into a seed, which fell down to the pool. Ibra caught it before it touched the water.
"It has been nice meeting you." Lazar yawned. "I really did have fun, and I'm glad you like my world. And... I dunno, if you help me get home, maybe we could play a board game."
All the kids gasped—even Lynx.
"Fine, I guess I'll go," Arctur said.
"A board game?" Rion said. "I gotta see that!"
Lynx said into the phone, "We'll be at Lazar's cabin. He's gonna show us a board game. I know, right? Thanks, bye." He gave the phone back to Lazar. "And thank you."
"I'm just glad it's getting a signal," Lazar said. "Except... um, how're they gonna find my cabin? You didn't give them any directions. And I don't know the way back." The GPS map wasn't giving him much to work with. It hardly showed any roads, just vast empty space.
"Don't worry, you dummy," Siope said, hopping out of the water. "If we can get there, they can find us. Here." She poked the phone. An arrow appeared pointing behind Lazar, toward the left.
"Well, okay, and what about..." He gestured at his head, trying to indicate the shapes of their horns. He had no idea how his parents would react to that.
The kids all twiddled their fingers, and in an instant the colors on their skin shifted to different shades of pink or brown. The irises in their eyes changed shape and color, and the horns faded from sight. They all now looked like ordinary children. As they climbed out of the water, new street clothes appeared on them out of nowhere, again no different from what Lazar would see on any playground.
They then patted themselves, and patches of dirt and grime appeared all over them. Anyone would have thought they'd been surviving in the woods for days.
"Lead the way, chief!" Rion hollered at Lazar.
Lazar worked his pants back on over the trunks, stuck his briefs into his pocket, and put his shoes on. As he led the kids among the trees, following the arrow on his screen, his phone rumbled. His mother's name covered up the map.
He answered. He could hardly understand what she was saying through her anguish. "I know, I'm real sorry. It's just... well... there are these kids here in the woods. They ran away from home and got lost."
"Hi Lazar's mom!" Ibra squealed. The other kids shouted their own greetings.
"Yeah, that's them," Lazar said into his phone. "I'll be back soon. Somebody's already coming over to get them. Yeah, I'm exhausted. I love you, too." He ended the call and watched the arrow.

"I still can't believe it," Lynx said. "We're gonna play a board game."

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Weekly Story #7: The LAN Party

  • LAN Party - Bartender/Regular - Drugs
Bit of a shorter one this time around. We're only a few weeks away from the end of my first batch of stories. After that, it will almost exclusively be stories written after July 1st, 2018. Thank you for reading!


THE LAN PARTY

Pete looked out at the computer towers and monitors rigged up across the tables as the first players walked through the door. He'd made sure they'd scheduled it on one of his slow nights, when the bar wouldn't already be stuffed wall-to-wall. He just hoped they would spend enough to make up for the reduced space.
Samuel Long appeared right at the same time he did every day, and Pete poured him a Shiner Bock as he gave a token flash of his ID. Sammy was in his fifties, but Pete's manager had been clamping down on ID checks lately. A Chili's down the road had just had its license suspended for serving a 17-year-old. "What's going on, Pete?"
"LAN party," Peter said. "A friend of mine suggested it as a way to drum up business for the bar."
"And what is a lann party?"
"Basically, they're going to be hooking all those computers together so they can all compete in a video game. I think it's the newest Halo."
"No kidding. I played a little Wolfenstein back when that was new. Any way I can join in?"
"You'd have to ask Gordo, and he's not here yet. I think this is a full-blown tournament, so you'd have to register."
"Never mind then. I'm not interested enough to compete for it. What's the prize?"
"A bunch of games."
The door swung open, and Gordo walked in with a massive duffel bag. He came to the bar and laid the bag down. "Evening, Pete. All set?"
"Ready as I'll ever be."
* * *
The lights were dimmed, colored lights were dancing on the walls and ceiling, and the air was crammed full of noise, either from the game or the players. Pete had to stay at the bar to man the taps. He felt like he was at Cosmic Bowling. Occasionally Sammy would wander around, watching over the players' shoulders.
When he came back, he told Pete, "You know, I think I recognize one of those gamers."
"No kidding."
"It's gonna bug me all night. I'm gonna be wondering who this guy is, and it's gonna come back to me next week, and I won't be able to do anything about it."
"Which guy is it? Maybe I know him."
"Down there, on the left, in the short sleeve button-down."
"Well, I took his order, but other than that..."
"Don't worry, I'll figure it out sooner or later."
Sammy took his seat again, and Pete kept an eye on the man in the button-down shirt. Pete thought he looked familiar, too, but couldn't quite place him. Frankly, Pete needed to keep his attention on Sammy tonight. The man had gone through rehab earlier this year—not for alcohol abuse, but for cocaine. Sometimes, Pete wasn't sure how much beer Sammy should even have; his absolute cutoff was three drinks.
Sammy went out to explore the crowd again once he got his second drink. This time he started chatting people up, and remarkably, the younger guys had no problem cracking jokes along with a man in his fifties. After the arena match ended, Sammy returned to the bar.
"Man, now I wish I'd gotten into stuff like this. If I could've played Wolfenstein in a team, back on my old Windows 95 computer, I'd have been in heaven."
"I know what you mean," Pete said. "I have a lot of trouble getting into games nowadays, so lately I just watch people playing them on YouTube."
"Ever stop and think just how insane that is?"
"Occasionally."
Pete spotted a young man at the other end of the bar, who didn't seem to have a drink. "What can I get for you?"
"Oh, just a Diet Coke," the man said. "I'm not much of a drinker." His eyes were on the screen, which was providing a live feed of the game.
"Not a problem." Pete poured him one. "Need a food menu?"
"Not right now, thanks." The man looked pensive. He obviously had something he needed to say. If it affected the bar, Pete needed to know.
"Anything else I can help you with?"
"Well, okay, so..." The young man bobbed his head toward the end of the bar... toward Sammy. "You know that guy down there?"
"Sammy? Of course I do. He's one of our regulars."
"Okay, well, we were talking a few minutes ago, and he kept asking me these weird questions. I think he was trying to ask me if I snort coke, but really evasively. I overheard him trying to talk about crack with someone else. I don't wanna get anybody in trouble, but is he okay?"
Pete shook his head in dismay. "Shit. Thank you for telling me." He slid the Diet Coke forward and moved on to another customer. As he poured an IPA for that customer, he looked over at the man Sammy had pointed out, and finally knew where he'd seen him before. He headed back to Sammy. "Hey."
"What's up?"
"That guy over there? With the button-down shirt?"
"What about him?"
"His name's Kel Omeratos. He's the officer we called in to drive you to the hospital. You remember that night? When you OD'ed?"
Sammy said nothing, but he nodded slowly.
"Yeah. And just now, somebody was telling me how you were asking people about cocaine."
"Well, you know, this place, this whole event, it takes me back..."
"I understand, to the raves, the parties, the hookers?"
"I was just kind of putting some feelers out."
"Of course. Look, I don't want anything bad to come of this. If this whole night's going to be one big temptation, then maybe you need to be somewhere else."
"Oh come on, nobody here even has anything!"
"I'll bet they don't. And I'll bet Officer Kel over there doesn't, either. But then what happens after this? I hate to cut you off early, but after you're done with this one, i'm closing your tab."
"But it's only my second drink. You're no fun."
"Those guys are here to have fun. I'm here to make sure they keep having fun, not helping you relapse into a coke binge."
Sammy shook his head. "You know I don't want any trouble."
"Of course not."
And that was that. Sammy closed out his tab, and Pete called him a taxi. It turned out not to be the only cab he'd call for somebody. The second-place winner of the tournament got so hammered he could barely stand up straight.
Frankly, tonight went a lot more smoothly than Pete could have hoped.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Weekly Story #6: The Jewels of the Chief-Lord


  • Hayloft - Journalist/Informant - Adventure

Out of that prompt, I managed to spin out, of all things, a follow-up to a previous story: "The Gnomes of Rock City." It's based on a local tourist attraction with scenic views, interesting rocks, and a gnome as a mascot. Apparently it started out as one of the country's first mini-golf courses. It also features prominently in Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I recommend reading "The Gnomes of Rock City" before starting this—fortunately, "Gnomes" is pretty short, so it'll only take you a minute.


THE JEWELS OF THE CHIEF-LORD

The shouts and battle cries faded off into the distance as Bennett barred up the barn door. The storm remained, and battered the roof. Stacks of hay stood top to bottom in both the lower floor and the loft. Behind him, Luann Reynolds ran toward a ladder in the back. Just moments ago Bennett was meeting her for the first time at a Waffle House off the interstate in some town in middle Tennessee. She'd promised a story, and he got one.
"We won't be safe long," she said. "Up here."
"Whatever you say." Bennett had thought she was crazy when she emailed him, and when he spoke to her on the phone, and when she saw her in the parking lot. But after what he had just seen chasing them, he would do whatever she said. He waited for her to reach the top, and climbed the ladder after her. "What the hell were those things?"
The ceiling was low. Luann stayed on her hands and knees. "It's just like I said. Those were gnome warriors."
"Gnomes..." Based on her first email, Bennett had thought she was some crank with a unique bigotry against people with dwarfism. But the people that chased them were only about a foot tall, and had turquoise and magenta skin, and wore iridescent plate armor. And they'd come with those animals, the most bizarre things he'd ever seen. "And they were riding..."
"They're called forest greeps," Luann said. "They went into hiding at the same time as the gnomes."
"After the Civil War?"
"Right. You understand now why I called you?" Luann picked dried grass off her shirt. "They've disappeared into history, but they still exist. They're not just a cartoon mascot for a tourist trap. They're real, and the world needs to know."
"You may be right," Bennett said. "The idea that they actually helped beat the Confederacy... They'd have to rewrite the history books. How'd you find them?"
"How else? I'm on a hike across Sequatchie County, and I find a strange mirror in the middle of nowhere, and I fall into it into a day-glo cave kingdom." She took out her phone. "I tried to take pictures, but they all came out blurry." She showed him a photo that could have been a close-up of an eyelash, for all it mattered.
Bennett would have liked some pictures himself. He tried to take some at the Waffle House, but he dropped his phone, and it got crushed in the gnome-and-greep stampede. "All right, assuming we get out of this alive, how do I convince an editor to take the story?"
"Don't worry. I brought proof." Luann reached into her handbag and pulled out three glowing jewels, one red, one green, and one blue. "I think they have special powers, but I haven't figured out how to use them."
"I've never seen anything like them," Bennett said. They weren't just beautiful, and they didn't just glow. A thin mist swirled around them, almost dancing, building strange runes within the glow. He reached for one. "May I?"
"Take one, please."
Bennett plucked the red one out of her palm. A warm energy shot through his fingers. "Wow. Incredible. Do you know what they are? Where'd they come from?"
"I found them when I was exploring their world. I didn't think anybody would miss them."
The gnomes' shouts emerged outside the door. They were crafty creatures, and couldn't have been fooled for long. Metal clanged in rhythm from behind the barn, interspersed with sudden percussive chants. They must have surrounded the whole place.
Bennett shot Luann a curious look. "Ms. Reynolds..."
"Please, call me Luann."
"Luann, these jewels wouldn't happen to be the reason they're chasing us, would they?"
"N-no. I think the gnomes are trying to keep their existence secret. They wouldn't even let me leave."
"Did they give you a reason for wanting to keep you?"
She scratched her arm and looked away. "No."
"It wasn't because of the jewels?"
"What do you take me for, some kind of criminal?"
Bennett didn't want to say "Yes" or "No," but there was something about that first email she'd sent him that made him wonder. Some of his friends had gotten similar messages. There was a marked emphasis on how famous they'd become when they broke the story, and how much money they'd make on the book and movie deals. Bennett, though, was content just being a reporter and columnist for an online news magazine. The occasional appearance on CNN was as famous as he ever wanted to get. Truth was, he'd mainly agreed to meet with her because he liked Waffle House.
The gnomes bashed at the door. The wood split apart, and the blade of an axe pierced through.
"Tell me the truth," Bennett said. "How did you get these jewels? Tell me."
The axe struck again, leaving a gash through which the gnomes and greeps could look through.
"Are they here for you?" Bennett brandished the jewel. "Or are they here for these?"
The boards in the door split open, and the rain splattered in—rain that hadn't started until the chase began. The sky had been clear only an hour ago.
Luann said, "They... may... be more valuable than I first suggested."
"How valuable?" Bennett saw a gnome warrior step through the gash in the door, the armor concealing every inch of his flesh, making him resemble a giant beetle. The axe that had chopped through the door was attached to the end of his gauntlet. A couple of troopers in lighter armor hopped in.
"Well," Luann said, "there was this shrine..."
"Oh for the love of... You stole religious artifacts?"
"You expect me to leave this kind of treasure alone? I could be set for life!"
The warrior waved a hand, and the two troopers began to scout through the lower level of the barn. That hand—the one without the blade—came up and drew the helmet off, revealing a weathered face with a silken white beard and a single antler above the left eye. He set the helmet on the ground.
"I am Chief-Lord Bolg." His voice roared like a raging waterfall. "You harbor a fugitive from our land, who has stolen something priceless to us. If you value your life, you will turn over this fugitive or her stolen items."
Luann pulled Bennett behind a pile of hay. He grabbed her hands and tried to pry them open. The gnome couldn't have been clearer: the jewels or their lives. He just had to throw them out to Bolg down there and then find a way back home. If only Luann's skin weren't so slick with rain and sweat, and her nails weren't scratching his arms.
The floor of the hayloft rattled from the gnome troopers clomping up the ladder. Bennett knew he shouldn't have answered that email. She was no crackpot—he was willing to grant that. No, this woman was nothing more than a greedy opportunist who'd gotten in over her head. He did not recover from that fist fight with a Northern Alabama ISIS supporter just so General David the Gnome could murder him over jewelry.
Bennett tossed the red jewel to the middle of the hayloft. Now he had both hands free. He locked her arm in his elbow, wrenched her fingers open, plucked out the remaining jewels, and threw them to the same spot as the red one.
Luann bit his hand.
Bennett clenched his teeth and held back a shout. She tried to crawl over him to get them back, but he threw his arms around her and wrestled her down. Bennett peeked around the hay. The gnomes reached the top of the ladder and found the jewels. One of the gnomes waved down to Chief-Lord Bolg. In a moment the Chief-Lord pounded his feet up the ladder. He took off the gauntlet with the axe on the end, releasing his hand.
Bolg took a box and a set of tongs from a pouch on his waist, kneeled, and murmured what might have been prayers as he picked up a jewel with the tongs, as carefully as if he were picking up a hot coal, and laid it inside the box.
"Stop! Stop, please!" Luann stretched her hand out with tears in her eyes as the gnome locked her fortune in a box. Bennett held her back.
Chief-Lord Bolg and his troopers stared straight at them. Bennett seized up, squeezing harder on Luann, staring at that axe-gauntlet on the floor. But the gnomes returned their attention to the box. Bolg raised the box and bellowed out a pair of indistinct syllables, then repeated the ritual with the other two jewels. He handed the box to one of the troopers, who bowed and wrapped it in a cloth embroidered with the same runes the jewels gave off. Cradling the box in one arm, the trooper climbed down the ladder. The other trooper bowed, then went down after him.
Bolg put the axe-gauntlet back on. "You have done well to return what you have stolen. I am a gracious Chief-Lord, and therefore will forgive this slight against our people. Be warned, base thief, that should you ever return to our realm, we will have your head."
Luann whimpered.
Bolg pointed at Bennett. "And you, scribe, will never tell of what you have seen. When the gnomes are ready to reveal ourselves, we will. Until then, do us this favor, and let us pass into legend."
Bennett nodded. Such a big voice, from such a tiny, tiny man.
Bolg jumped off the ledge, straight to the ground, and put his helmet back on, concealing everything except the antler and the beard. "Farewell, thief and scribe. I pray we never meet again.". He gave the soldiers outside a wave, and they withdrew. The tails of the greeps whipped past the gash in the door. The rain had stopped. Chief-Lord Bolg walked out as a silhouette against the sunlight that reached into the barn.
Bennett relaxed his grip. Luann crawled off of him. She still had streams of tears on her face. "How could you..."
"It's very simple," Bennett said. "I don't want an axe in my skull."
"But our story..."
"Your story." Bennett got up and walked hunched over to the ladder. "Maybe my editor can pay for the damage."
"Who cares about the damage? We could have both had more money than we knew what to do with! We could have gone down in history."
"I'll have to see if I can manage." He climbed down.
On his way back to the door, Luann yelled, "You call yourself a man? You could have taken that little piece of crap."
"Not taking that chance." A fist fight with an ISIS sympathizer was one thing. But Chief-Lord Bolg had the hardened face of one who had defeated many enemies much bigger than himself. "On second thought, you try settling things with the farmer. I'm going home." Bennett reached the door, with the hole big enough for maybe a dog to pass through. He raised the bar and walked through the wheatfield toward the highway. The gnomes and greeps had left no sign of their presence, other than the dew from the rain.
The sign for the Waffle House where he'd met Luann stood on the hill up ahead. Bennett had thought that morning that he might get a different type of story. But if he were to risk his life for journalism, he at least wanted it to be the kind someone could explain to his mother. "He was working with a whistleblower to expose corporate crime." Or "He was infiltrating an extremist group." Not "He was an accessory to theft of magic artifacts that belonged to your lawn decorations."
Bennett arrived at the parking lot and got straight into his car. He didn't care about his pulverized phone. He didn't see it on the sidewalk, which meant someone had probably picked it up and thrown it out already.
Luann would probably catch up if he stayed here too long, so he drove off and had lunch at a different Waffle House.