Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Weekly Story #17: The Wedding Venue

A shorter one this time. Lately I've been a little busier at work than usual, and I have a novel draft in progress, so my writing schedule has been sort of out of whack. I've even had a few that, full disclosure, I didn't finish until early the next week. Shorter stories like this help me get back into the swing of things.

Also a bit of an exception to the more science fiction/fantasy-oriented stories I've been doing since I restarted this project in July. Sometimes it's good to stay in the real world for a little bit.


This coming weekend (Nov. 2-4), I'll be in Washington, D.C. attending Doxacon at St. Sophia's Orthodox Cathedral! Hope to see you there!

  • Billiard Room - Wedding Planner/Bride - Maple Syrup


THE WEDDING VENUE


"So I have to admit," Sandra said with the smell of a cigar in her nose. "This isn't quite the venue I was expecting."
"I know, it's unorthodox," Roni, the bride-to-be, said. "But I've always had a soft spot for this place."
The place was an establishment called Bill's Billiards, just a few blocks away from the Interstate, right off Castille Street. Sandra didn't come to this part of town very often—certainly not in a long time. The residents here weren't exactly her usual clientele, which tended to have an extra digit or two in their salary. Roni herself lived in Verdure Heights—not the wealthiest, but definitely in the upper part of the middle. Sandra had planned wedding receptions at billiard clubs before, but those were usually not the types frequented by bikers, nor the types that had smoke hanging in the air at all times. Not to mention, Roni didn't just want the reception here—she wanted the wedding.
It was 3 PM on a Tuesday, and there were only three other people at the bar. One sat just a few seats down from Sandra. He had smoked three cigarettes since she and Roni arrived. All of his attention was on the Tennessee/Alabama game on the flatscreen behind the bar. The other two patrons were a couple of unshaven gentlemen playing 8-Ball at one of the tables.
"I'm just not sure this is really the type of place that would normally host a wedding," Sandra said. She sipped her Fat Tire, then waved at the bartender. "Excuse me, sir? Is it possible to reserve this place for special events?" She had to shout over the Thin Lizzy playing on the jukebox.
He shrugged. "Don't think we ever have. You have to ask Bill."
"Oh. You're not Bill?"
"Nope, I'm Rocky."
Roni chuckled at something, maybe an old joke she'd just remembered.
"Okay, Rocky. My friend here's getting married, and it turns out she wants to have the wedding here."
"Oh, hey, Roni," Rocky said. "I saw the post on Instagram. Congratulations. But... the wedding? Here?"
"I always said I wanted my big day to be unique," Roni said.
"I mean, it's your wedding. I just don't know that Bill would care much for the idea. I could see maybe the reception, or the bachelorette party. You do realize we don't allow kids in here, right?"
The Thin Lizzy song ended, and an Iron Maiden song replaced it.
"That's what I was wondering," Sandra said. "Roni, I'm not sure how people are going to feel about an adults-only wedding. I've never been to one."
"I didn't say I wanted it in here," Roni said. "You know that empty lot behind the place? We can set up back there, Bill's can provide some food, and if anyone wants to, they can come in here for some pool."
"Okay, so that makes a little more sense. Unorthodox, but I guess if you're comfortable with this place..."
"I am. I've been coming here since college. Bill's has always been great to me. And besides, I just cannot wait to see the looks on Mommy and Daddy's faces when they figure out where they are."
"Troll weddings. I don't get a lot of those." Sandra had seen pictures of Mommy and Daddy—the kinds of people who owned more than one car, and paid someone else to drive them. "Rocky, any chance we can work something out?"
"You'd have to ask Bill." Rocky looked toward the back of the building. "Don't think we've ever done catering. Speaking of which, you ready to order?"
"We'll both have the pancakes," Roni said.
"Wait, I'm not done looking," Sandra said.
"They're the best damn pancakes in town. Trust me, when you taste them, you'll want to have your wedding here, too."
"But this place isn't even open in the morning."
"No," Rocky said, "but we do get enough night owls who feel like breakfast when they show up here. And she's right, they are really good." Rocky scribbled down the order. "You'll still need to talk to Bill, though. I'm really not sure he'd go along with the wedding."
"I don't mind calling him," Sandra said. "In fact, I'm actually very interested in speaking with him. You see, my full name is Sandra Underhill."
Rocky whipped his head up and stared at her. "Underhill?"
"Am I supposed to know who that is?" Roni said.
"I'm surprised you don't, if you're a regular here," Sandra said. "Chester Underhill was my grandfather. He built this place."
"Chester's your grandfather?" Rocky said. "My God, he's a legend! Whatever happened to him?"
"Currently in Florida. Still has his old hog. My dad was even a bartender here, before the place got sold. I'm glad to see something's happening with it."
"I had no idea," Rocky said.
"I had no idea," Roni said.
"I had no idea," the cigarette-smoking man said as he moved down to a closer stool. "I used to come here back when your pop was tending bar."
"So you think Bill might be willing to make an arrangement?" Sandra asked Rocky.
It was the smoking man who answered. "I think he might." The jukebox switched from Iron Maiden to Jethro Tull. "Bill McKenzie, at your service."
"I was wondering how long you were gonna take to say something," Roni said.
"Ah. Well, then, Mr. McKenzie," Sandra said, "if we can get the lot out back on March 15, and some light catering—I guess we'll want burgers, fries, wings, and those pancakes Roni was talking about—I'm pretty sure you'll be well compensated."
"We will spare no expense," Roni said.
"I think we can handle that," Bill said. "Rocky, their next drinks are on me. Tell Chester I said hi."
Sandra swallowed some more beer. "I just hope those pancakes are as good as Roni said. I'm going to want plenty of syrup."

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Weekly Story #16: The Forgotten Tomb

There may be more to this story than I had time to write in a week. It definitely does more to raise questions than to answer them. We shall see. I based Dr. Townsend on an old art history professor, who I believe passed away within the last few years. Hope you enjoy it!

  • Ancient Ruins - Student/Teacher - Jet Pack

THE FORGOTTEN TOMB

Dr. Townsend climbed down the rope and took the first steps inside the ruins. "Just think," he called up to the surface, "we're probably the first people to see this site in over ten thousand years!"
Ursula climbed down next, followed by Brad and Dermott. "Incredible," Ursula said. "So much of it is still intact."
Dermott helped Brad set up the lighting rig that they'd lowered in ahead of Dr. Townsend. They made the connections they needed and turned the lights on. The reliefs, the statues, the writing on the walls, all revealed themselves clear as day. Ursula immediately whipped out her camera and started taking pictures.
"What're you thinking, Dr. T?" Brad said. "Sumerian? Harappan?"
"Anything's possible," Dr. Townsend said. "The writing seems similar to cuneiform, but has features of Indus Script. And yet, the figures in these reliefs remind me more of Egypt, but with a hint of the Mayans. If we can translate any of this, it could add a whole new chapter to history."
Ursula halted before taking a picture of the southern wall. "Um, Dr. T? I think you should see this."
"Sure, what've you got?" Dr. Townsend jogged up beside her and gazed up at the relief. It was twelve feet tall, and depicted a giant with the head of a warthog. A smaller figure flew in front of it wielding a sword. "That is interesting."
"Look at that rig on his back." Brad pointed at the smaller figure, and the smoke shooting below him. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think that was..."
"A jetpack?" Dermott said.
"Hm." Dr. Townsend pointed his flashlight at the smaller figure. "Are we sure those couldn't be wings? He could be some sort of divine figure vanquishing a primordial evil, or a hero granted a boon."
"I don't know about that." Ursula went over to the western wall. "Over here we've got somebody riding some eagles, and their wings don't look anything like the jetp... what that guy's wearing." She spotted something in the corner of the image. "Hang on. There he is again. And his jetpack's next to him."
The figure's equipment, standing upright, resembled a fighter plane, seen from below. "That's definitely a jetpack," Brad said.
"So either this society had higher levels of technology than we do now," Ursula said, "or they had the concept of science fiction."
"If we can decipher the writing, that would help narrow down the possibilities," Dermott said. "Wouldn't be the first time an ancient civilization had something that seemed high-tech in its artwork."
"Good to see some critical thinking," Dr. Townsend said. "Personally, I think this place is going to end up on Ancient Aliens no matter what we do, so let's just seek the truth, whatever it is. Ursula, you got plenty of pictures?"
"Just about every inch."
"Fantastic. What say we move on to the next room?"
They left through a pointed arch in the northeast corner. On the way, they kept their flashlights on the walls, where men fought with spears in one image and rode what looked like motorcycles in another. Yet another image showed a colossal city surrounded by a dome, where faceless soldiers tried and failed to invade.
A brick shifted under Dermott's foot. Suddenly, the entire hallway lit up as if there were fluorescent lights hidden in the masonry. "Okay, this is getting weird," Ursula said. "And I'm pretty sure that's a robot in that picture."
"Ancient artificial lighting," Dr. Townsend said in awe. "And it still works after all these years."
Brad said, "Have we considered that maybe somebody's trolling us?"
"Long way to go to play a joke on a bunch of grad students," Dermott said. "Guess it means we don't need these anymore." He turned off his flashlight and dropped it in his bag. Everyone else put theirs away as well and continued down the hall.
"This is getting way more Indiana Jones than I ever expected when I got into this," Brad said. "And I got into this because of Indiana Jones."
"As long as there are no death traps," Dermott said. "I mostly got into it because I think ancient Mesopotamia's cool."
Ursula continued snapping pictures. "Linguistics for me. And this is a pure treasure trove. They must have written on every brick."
"Maybe they explain why they're not mentioned in any other records."
"As far as we know," Brad said. "You guys hear something?"
A strange oscillating hum came from down the hall. They hurried on to the end and entered a vast chamber, lit by columns that hung from the ceiling like stalactites. A staircase took them down to the main floor. In the center, at the top of a raised platform with its own set of stairs, was a sarcophagus.
"Should we go up?" Ursula said.
"I'll take a closer look," Dr. Townsend said. "You three stay here. If I tell you to run, you all run. Got it?"
Brad, Ursula, and Dermott all said, "Got it."
And they watched their mentor, adviser, and employer climb up the steps.
When he reached the first landing, a light flashed on the sarcophagus.
The lid rose up.
Dr. Townsend froze.
A decrepit figure lifted himself upright on thin, feeble arms. He wore a headdress of golden chains, and had tubes and wires sticking out of his neck and arms. The sight reminded Ursula too much of her grandfather when he was on life support. The man looked at Dr. Townsend. "You... have awakened me," he said with a hoarse voice.
Dr. Townsend stammered out a response. "I... You speak English."
The withered man nodded. "Then my ancestral tongue now exists. What year is this?"
"2018, Common Era."
"I see. Then his time has not yet come. You shall leave here now." The withered man started to lean back.
"Wait!" Dr. Townsend stepped closer to the sarcophagus. "What is this place? Who are you? How do you speak our language?"
"You are very impertinent." The withered man glared at Dr. Townsend, then down at Ursula, Brad, and Dermott. "Why have you disturbed me before my time?"
His voice seemed to reach right into Ursula and shake up her heart. "I... We... We're just archaeologists. We thought this was just ruins."
"We're just here to study," Brad said. "We had no idea you were here."
The withered man said, "Had you known of my rest, would you have come?"
Ursula, Brad, and Dermott all looked at each other, unable to offer an answer.
"Answer! You stand in the presence of Gorkol, last emperor of the Strimori. Your past and future depend on my awakening at precisely the right time!"
"Please, we don't mean any harm," Dr. Townsend said. "We've never heard of the Strimori. This tomb seems to be the only record of your culture left in existence. We just have a few questions, then we can leave you alone."
"More of that insolence," Gorkol hissed. "What is your name?"
"I'm Doctor Albert Townsend."
"And you, down there! Your names!"
"I'm D-Dermott Jones. This is Bradley Arthur. And this is Ursula Patten."
"Ursula... Patten?" Emperor Gorkol waved at her. "Come up here."
Ursula hesitated, but then Dr. Townsend beckoned for her as well. "I think it's all right."
When she got to the top, she forced herself to look at his decayed face. His face had perhaps once been handsome, but now sagged as if barely even attached anymore. He had almost no hair, except for some patches on the sides. He blinked his reddened eyes. "Remarkable. To think I would meet you like this."
"I--I don't understand."
"No. Perhaps it's better that you don't. Very well. Each of you may ask me one question. Ursula Patten may ask me two." Emperor Gorkol looked at Dr. Townsend. "You may ask first."
Dr. Townsend coughed. "All right," he said. "Where did you learn English?"
"From my grandfather. I knew him as Akhormeth, he who led the Strimori to glory. He taught it to me and my siblings in private, telling me in his time it would be one of the most commonly-spoken. Only the imperial family knew this language. If the year is 2018, then he surely has yet to be born."
"So then--"
"Ah!" Emperor Gorkol raised his finger. "One question. You, down there!"
"Me?" Dermott said. "Or him?"
"Whichever!"
"Okay... If that didn't count as my question, then... Are you saying your grandfather was a time traveler?"
Emperor Gorkol gazed off into the distance. "I believe that was how he referred to it. Next."
Brad said, "So I guess he brought all this technology with him, whoever he was. Is there a way to decipher the writing?"
Emperor Gorkol nodded with a smile. "I learned your language. You should be able to learn mine. If the memory of my empire has been lost, perhaps it shall be your duty to restore it. Now, Ursula," he said. "Your first question."
"A-all right. You said our future depends on you awakening at 'exactly the right time.'"
"When I awaken again and my strength is restored," he said, "I am to be my grandfather's escort to Strimor, where he will ascend the throne. It was his inventions that defended us from the invaders from the south, the east, and the sky. "
Brad spoke up. "Hold up, did you just say the sky?"
"You have already asked your question!" Emperor Gorkol jabbed a finger at him. "Although... I must know, have the Ameshites returned from the clouds?"
"We've never heard of them," Dr. Townsend said.
"You will. Akhormeth battled them once. When they return, I will be ready to drive them back again. Ursula, you have one more question."
"All right," she said. "Am... am I supposed to know you? Or this Akhormeth?"
Emperor Gorkol lowered his head. "That question I cannot answer. You will one day find out on your own." He lay back in his sarcophagus. "On these walls you will find everything you need to know. The Ameshites will return. Akhormeth has witnessed their return. I must rest and prepare myself. You must rest and prepare yourselves."
"Wait," Dr. Townsend said. "There's so much more--"
"The walls will tell you everything." The lid of the sarcophagus closed over Emperor Gorkol, and any further answers from the last survivor of an ancient civilization.
Ursula took a photo of the sarcophagus. She'd nearly forgotten about the camera the entire time they were talking to the emperor.
"So," Brad said. "That was more than I expected."
"What say we head up topside?" Dr. Townsend said. "I think we've got more than enough to chew on for one night. Ursula, you all right?"
"I... I dunno." She put her camera into her bag next to the flashlight. "You heard him. He... he acted like he knew who I was. Who am I supposed to be? Akhormeth's mother? His wife? Do I have something to do with those Ameshites? What am I supposed to do with this?"
Dr. Townsend started off down the stairs, with Ursula close behind him. "I can't answer that. Although, I do feel safe in saying we're in scientifically uncharted territory across the board."
"But how can he hang that over my head like that? I'm never going to get that out of my head."
"He is an emperor." Brad led the way up the stairs to the hallway. "Didn't exactly seem terribly friendly to begin with."
"If there's anything I've learned in my career," Dr. Townsend said, "it's to be comfortable not having answers, even when you need them. I'm sorry about this, Ursula."
"It's all right," she said. "I just... I need some time to process this. It's not easy having a destiny you don't know about."
Ursula was the last to enter the corridor. She took one final look back at the sarcophagus, at the message from the past and the future that stopped short of reaching her. Somewhere in the carvings on these walls could be something else about her life to come.
Once everyone else had reached the entry chamber, Ursula tapped the glowing tile and shut off the lights.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Weekly Story #15: A Favor at the Playground

Not really much to say, except that I'm reasonably satisfied with this story, and enjoyed rereading it while giving it one final edit before publishing. See if you can spot the hidden Fist of the North Star reference!
  • Playground - Fairy - Obstinacy




A FAVOR AT THE PLAYGROUND


It had taken some effort to convince Mom, but even if it was after dark, Yvette needed to take Mary to the playground. Mom had objected that it would be empty, that it would be dangerous, and that Mary was grounded anyway, so she had no business going anywhere. Yvette's response was that of course Mary would never be left alone, and it wasn't so she could play. It was so Yvette could have a heart-to-heart with her little sister about her behavior.
Though even that wasn't entirely true.
Throughout the drive, Yvette kept glancing through the mirror in the backseat. Mary sat in a sullen slump, staring out the window. Earlier today her first-grade teacher had caught her yanking a classmate's hair bands right off her head. Last week their brother Michael had caught her setting one of Dad's books on fire. And the week before that, she'd gotten into a fight on the playground at Tate Park—the same one they were going to. Mary had never acted like this before, and no one could explain what had gotten into her. Was someone picking on her? Was something wrong with her? Was something wrong with the family?
Yvette knew, though. She'd been the same sort of little hellion when she was a kid, and if her theory was correct, it was for the same reason. And that reason was at that playground.
"You hate me, don't you?" Mary groaned from the back.
"Nobody hates you," Yvette said. "We're just disappointed. You know perfectly well that what you've been doing isn't right. If we can get this to stop, then everybody can be happy, including you."
"But what're we going to the playground for?"
"There's something I want to check out, and I want you to help me. You know, I used to go to that same playground when I was little. I loved to climb that tree in the middle of the field."
"I know. You've told me."
"Right. But there's something I used to do there. Someone I used to play with. I want to tell you about her, but we need to do it alone."
Mary curled up her arms and legs, shivering. There was definitely something at that playground she didn't want Yvette to see.
Yvette parked on the curb, beneath the glow of the street lights. It was late enough that she didn't have to pay the meter. There were still plenty of people in the park, even with children, but they were mostly biking or picnicking or walking. The playground on the other side of the field was nearly empty. Mary hunched over, clutching Yvette's hand as they crossed the field. "Yvette," she said, "I don't wanna go to the playground."
"Look, I'm sorry, but we need to settle this once and for all. There's something Mom and Dad and Michael don't know about in that playground, isn't there? Something that gives you all these bad ideas?" Yvette decided it was time to drop the real bombshell. "Does the name 'Ocera' ring a bell?"
Mary gasped, and shuddered, and squeezed Yvette's hand.
"I knew it," Yvette said. "Look, Mary, I met Ocera when I was a little girl, too. She wasn't any different back then. She told me the same things, got me into the same kind of trouble. If you don't want to get into any more trouble, we have to deal with Ocera."
Mary dug her heels into the ground. "No! Ocera's my friend!"
"I'm not going to hurt her. I just need to talk to her." Yvette took Mary around the slide, through the swings, to a circle of white mushrooms near a line of trees. "Yeah, I figured." She dropped to one knee and wrapped her arm around Mary. "Let's see how much I remember... ruiden... shiu... moha emao."
Mary whimpered.
The mushrooms began to glow. Lines of light formed a set of overlapping diamonds in the center. A tiny young woman, only six inches tall, fluttered on dragonfly wings up from the design. Her skin was blue like a glacier, and her hair was a bright neon pink. "Mary! What a surprise!" Her voice was like a piccolo, just as Yvette remembered.
"Good evening, Ocera," Yvette said.
Ocera took one look at Yvette and fluttered back. "What? A grown-up? Mary, I told you—"
"It's my sister," Mary said. "And she said she knows you."
"I'm Yvette. You remember me, don't you? I'm a little bigger now, but ten years will do that to you."
"Yvette... Yvette..." Ocera swayed back and forth in the air. "Where have I heard that..."
Yvette grabbed Ocera's ankle. "You know perfectly well who I am." Ocera flapped her wings furiously, but couldn't break free.
"Stop!" Mary cried. "You'll hurt her!"
"Right. Wouldn't want to do that." Yvette released Ocera. "Let me jog your memory, Ocera. It was at this same playground. You appeared only to me, and to two other kids. You told a little boy to pee on that tree in the middle of the field. You told a girl to bite her older brother on the arm. And you told me to throw a dog turd at another kid."
"Whoa, really?" Mary said.
"That's just for starters, Ocera. You told us you'd teach us magic if we did what you said."
"Look, I play with a ton of kids around here," Ocera said. "You can't expect me to remember every one."
"Yeah, but nobody did more than me. I shoplifted for you. I started fights for you. I came this close to burning down my father's tool shed for you. We're both lucky I came to my senses in time."
"Oh, Yvette!" Ocera twirled in the air. "I was just thinking about you a week ago! Your name was on the tip of my tongue!"
"I'll bet it was. You know, I had to convince myself you weren't real. I told my parents an imaginary friend made me do it, and that I already beat her up. I thought I was done with you. And now you're after my sister?"
"Your sister, eh? I guess I do see a resemblance. You have the same chin."
"I'm not joking around, Ocera. What'll it take to keep you from ever coming back here?" Yvette picked a mushroom, and the light in the cap instantly went out. "This?"
"It'll grow back. But why get rid of me? All I'm doing is answering when people call. Remember all the fun we had? All the games we played?"
"They weren't fun, and they weren't games. I was just easily impressed because I was a little girl and I was talking to a fairy. You think I enjoyed those things you got me to do? I was terrified! I only did it because of what you promised. Mary, be honest, did you have fun doing anything Ocera asked?"
Mary tightened her lips. She didn't answer.
"Oh like she's gonna tell you," Ocera said. "She knows she's in trouble. You think she won't just blurt out whatever you want to hear?"
"Look, this isn't just about Mary. Even if I keep you away from her, it's not going to stop you from corrupting other kids." Yvette leaned closer. "Now, I do think we can resolve this like adults, Ocera. There's no reason for this to get ugly. How do I get you to leave these kids alone?"
"Hm." Ocera crossed her arms and drifted down on top of one of the mushrooms. "Maybe you could do me one last favor."
"Nope. No favors. You do your own dirty work."
"What, I'm supposed to get nothing out of this? Negotiations are all about give-and-take. There's gotta be a way to make us both happy."
"What do you even get out of this? Out of making small children do bad things? Do you feed off of bad feelings or something? Or do you just think it's funny?"
"Oh no no no, nothing like that." Ocera flew up in front of Yvette's face. "I do benefit from it. It's not just for fun. Can you guess why?"
Yvette paused to think. It was difficult, with Ocera zipping to and fro in front of her. "If I guess, will you leave?"
"Not until my favor is done."
Mary said, "Do you sell bad feelings?"
"No, but I like the way you think," Ocera said. "Neither of you will ever guess."
Yvette mulled over the possibilities. Ocera didn't gain strength from bad deeds. She didn't get any money out of it. So what good does a child committing arson do her? Would she grow to giant size? Would she make something out of the bad feelings? Would she win her freedom from something?
If it was freedom, freedom from what?
Yvette picked at the mushroom Ocera had been sitting on. She lifted it out of the ground, extinguishing the light inside. Ocera flickered like the screen on an old TV set. She might have done that before, but Yvette's attention had been on the mushrooms themselves.
There was one thing Yvette had never seen Ocera do.
"Ocera," she said, "have you ever left this circle?"
"What do you mean?"
"Can you actually get away from these mushrooms? Every time I've ever seen you, mushrooms are around."
"Hey, you're right," Mary said. "I never saw you leave here, either."
"What, you think I'm not powerful enough?" Ocera said. "You think I can be limited by a bunch of mere mushrooms?"
"So do it," Yvette said. "I dare you."
"Hey, I do the daring around here."
"So do something daring. Just go over there, to the sandbox."
Ocera gave her an angry look, then flew over to the outer edge of the circle. She got about a foot past the mushrooms, and simply hung in the air as if something had grabbed her leg. Her wings became almost invisible as she flapped faster and faster.
She let out a huff, then turned toward Yvette and Mary. "You see? I can leave."
"But not very far," Yvette said. "Do your favors have something to do with that?"
"All right, you got me," Ocera said. "I'm trying to gain full access to your world. Ever since King Oberon sealed all the portals for everybody, the best I can do is appear in this thing. But it turns out those 'bad feelings' you mentioned are a potent energy source! If I harvest enough of them, I can break the seal, and go wherever I want."
Mary began to sob. "So... so you weren't gonna teach me magic?"
"No she wasn't," Yvette said. "She was just using you."
"It's not like that!" Ocera said. "Mary, I am going to teach you magic, just as soon as I can break through. I just need you to do one more bad thing. Something that makes you feel really bad."
Yvette waved her arm between her sister and the fairy. "Hold on. Something isn't adding up. You're telling me a child's guilt and shame is powerful enough to break that seal, but you, an actual fairy, aren't?"
"Energy's always gotta come from somewhere."
"Right, but what kind of magic were you planning to teach Mary? Or me?"
"Really, really awesome magic! Like you wouldn't believe!"
"It's powerful magic," Yvette said, "but it can't break the seal."
"Not one set by King Oberon."
"But when my baby sister regrets what she did, that's powerful enough?"
"It's... different." Ocera put her hands behind her back.
"You don't actually know any magic, do you?"
"I know some."
"Anything good?"
"Um... well... I can do this." Ocera's body became completely transparent. "See?"
"You were gonna teach me how to do that?" Mary said.
"Well, it's kinda the sort of thing only fairies can do." Ocera faded back into sight.
Yvette said, "So you actually have nothing at all to teach anybody. Except maybe the depths of their own souls."
Ocera sank down toward the ground.
"What did you even want to do in our world? Business? Pleasure? Is King Oberon oppressing you or anything?"
"Not really. He's no Queen Mab, but he's okay. I mostly just, you know, think maybe I could do a better job. And I've heard your world has a lot of iron. Could've been useful but..." Ocera sighed.
"I see," Yvette said. "Okay. So we've figured out why you want us to do you a favor. Now tell us, what do we need to do?"
Ocera sat cross-legged on the grass. "Fine. Okay. Do this, and I will stop answering the Ruiden call. I'll just have to find some other way to visit your world. Maybe there's a way I can smuggle myself through."
"Want us to get you an iron?" Mary said.
"What, like, for laundry? No, no, I don't need an iron, I need iron ore. You don't own any mines, do you?"
"Afraid not," Yvette said.
"So do this," Ocera said. "Take a picture of Mary and me, together."
"That's it?"
"That's it. I don't want her to start thinking I'm an imaginary friend."
"If you say so. Mary, how does that sound? Want a picture with Ocera?"
Mary nodded. "Okay!"
"All right, then." Yvette dug out her phone. She positioned Mary in front of the circle of mushrooms, with Ocera over her shoulder. The camera on her phone focused, but Yvette didn't take the picture just yet. "Mary, grab some of Ocera's hair. Ocera, grab some of Mary's hair."
Mary leaned further over the mushrooms so Ocera could reach her without straining, and pinched a lock of pink hair in her fingers. Ocera, in turn, wrapped her hands around a lock of Mary's hair. Yvette figured this would make it harder for her or Mary to someday shrug off as Photoshopped.
"Say cheese," Yvette said.
They did, with big, broad, toothy smiles, and she took the picture.
"Okay, then," Ocera said. "A deal is a deal. I will never appear at this playground again. Been nice knowing you. Have a wonderful evening!" Ocera touched her toes to the ground on the design in the circle. The lines and mushrooms intensified their glow, then faded. Ocera was now nowhere to be seen.
On the way back to the car, Mary said, "I don't understand why we couldn't just give her some iron."
Yvette unlocked the doors. "Look, Mary, I'm not so sure she wanted to do anything nice with that iron. We're better off just taking the photo." She made sure Mary got buckled in. "Are you going to cause any more trouble from now on?"
"No Ma'am."
"Glad to hear it." Yvette straightened her back. She actually had a positive moral influence on her little sister! Between this and getting her license, she definitely felt more adult now. "And if you ever see anything else strange or mystical, you come talk to me first, okay?"
"Sure."
Yvette climbed into the driver's seat.
"Can I see that picture?" Mary said, then quickly added, "Please?"
"Very good. Here you go." Yvette gave Mary the camera with the photo queued up and started the car. Mary chuckled. "Is it that funny?"
Mary held the phone out to her. "Here. See her tongue sticking out?"
Yvette took a closer look at the photo. Ocera was indeed sticking her tongue toward the camera. Yvette could have sworn that fairy was only smiling when the photo was actually taken. She was certain of it.
"Mary," she said, "you'll tell me if you see Ocera again, won't you?"
"I will."
"And you won't listen to a thing she says?"
"I won't."
"Good." Yvette drove home, eager to tell Mom and Dad she'd accomplished her mission.
For now.