Thursday, September 12, 2019
Monday, July 01, 2019
And now we come to the final story in this whole project. This entire time I knew I wanted to write a new story with characters from my novel, Thresholds of the Grand Dream, and as week 52 came closer I decided a mini-sequel would make a perfect sendoff. One challenge was in avoiding anything that might give too much away about its predecessor. I don't think spoilers are really that important, but on the other hand, I do intend this as sort of an advertisement for the novel.
As far as future plans go, I have some novel drafts that need polishing, though I'll probably go a more traditional route with them. I have a few unpublished stories I'm trying to shop around. I definitely want to put together some illustrations for each of the weekly stories, whenever I can find time. I also want to publish collections of every story on this site.
For now, I can consider this whole thing Complete. To those who have been reading week to week, thank you. Whether a particular story was to your taste or not, I hope it was an interesting experience.
THRESHOLDS OF THE ROAMING NIGHTMARE
Not many sixth graders go to school knowing what a good number of their classmates' dreams are like, but Sonia Obata did. During the day she led a more-or-less ordinary life. She went to class, hung out with friends, watched TV with her dad and his girlfriend. This morning she stood at the bus stop along with other kids from her apartment complex, as she always did.
But whenever she went to sleep, she had access to the Baku's Fang, which enabled her to leave her own dream and travel to others. Most of the time, she passed through unnoticed. The rest of the time, people tended to see her pixie cut hairdo and mistake her for a boy… but that was their problem, not hers.
Even now, at the bus stop, she was standing next to an eighth-grader she'd just bumped into about three weeks ago, as he was giving an oral report to a classroom full of beetles. She'd used his dream as a shortcut through town while searching for a nightmare that had gotten loose and invaded other dreams. Part of her was still waiting for him to recognize her and bring it up somehow, but so far nothing. Just as well. That wasn't the conversation she'd want to have first thing in the morning with some dude she barely even knew.
The bus arrived, and Sonia got on, and as usual, sat next to Rebecca… who was looking a lot more bleary than usual. "You okay?" Sonia said. She checked a few rows back, where Rebecca's twin brother Isaac was yukking it up with his buddies.
"Yeah, yeah, fine," Rebecca said, fiddling with her braid. "Just had the worst dream last night. Woke up at 5 AM, and couldn't get back to sleep."
"Aw, no, that's awful. Wanna tell me what happened?"
"You think you can help?" Rebecca knew all about Sonia's abilities. Sometimes Sonia brought her along into the dream world to have some fun together. "I don't remember everything."
"Anything at all." Sonia never did find that one nightmare. But surely it wouldn't have run into Rebecca, would it?
Rebecca bundled up her jacket and hunched her head over. "I was at some kind of carnival… I was supposed to go to a piano recital, but I couldn't find the booth. But then this really awful… thing… came out. It was a spider, but instead of a regular spider head, it—"
"Had three horse heads? And they all had sharp teeth?"
Rebecca stared at her.
Sonia said, "That's the loose nightmare I've been looking for the last few weeks. Rebecca, I'm sorry. I should have killed that thing by now."
"It's not your fault. I mean, didn't you say it was really fast?"
"Yeah, and it keeps disappearing on me. I thought I had it cornered at the dam last night, but then I just… lost it. That must have been right before it found your dream."
"You think it'll still be there tonight?"
"I doubt it," Sonia said. "Nightmares like that always escape before the dream ends." And now it had wrecked one of her friends' dreams. "You wanna help me try to catch it?"
Rebecca leaned back and gazed out the window. "I guess it has been a while since we had an adventure together."
The bus dropped them off at Baker Middle School, and Sonia and Rebecca met up with Erin in the cafeteria. Erin scowled at Isaac—he knew what he did—but with Sonia and Rebecca was nothing but sunshine. "Hey, you guys! How's it going?"
"Going just fine," Sonia said.
Erin looked at Rebecca's drooping eyelids. "You sure? You don't need to see the nurse, do you, Rebecca?"
"No, I'm fine. But listen, there's some dream crap going on, and Sonia needs our help."
"Ooh, a mission." Erin grinned with shining eyes. Sonia sometimes brought her along to other dreams as well, and Erin especially enjoyed them. "What kind?"
They gathered at a table. Sonia filled her in.
"Problem is, I have no idea where it'll go next. It's moving around constantly, and I don't have a way to detect it long-distance. If I could set a trap for it… but how?"
Erin had been deep in thought while she listened. "Is there any kinda pattern for all the places you found it?"
"No, and I could hardly tell which dreams it was going to until it got to Rebecca. The only way I have to look for it is the cloud of dreamstuff it gives off when it's outside, or hope Firecracker can catch its scent."
"Maybe if we fan out over the city," Erin said. "Whenever one of us finds that cloud, we can regroup and gang up on it."
"I like that idea," Rebecca said, resting her head on the tabletop. "Maybe Isaac can help."
"Nope. No way," Erin said.
"Only if we need to," Sonia said.
"Oh well," Rebecca said. "I hope we find it. I like being able to punch my nightmares."
"I can't wait to get my hands on it myself," Sonia said. Normally she didn't like acting out of anger—she had too much of a history with that. But if this nightmare kept running around too long, it could turn truly monstrous and start seriously screwing around with people's minds, maybe even the whole city. She had been given the Baku's Fang specifically to prevent things like that from happening.
It had already gotten on her last nerve.
The bell rang, and everybody scattered to their classrooms. Sonia was glad for the help, but wished she'd asked sooner. Erin and Rebecca had helped out with plenty of dream problems already, including loose nightmares, but Sonia had thought at first that this nightmare would be simple. After all, originally it was just a spider. She'd been stubborn enough to think it wasn't getting out of hand. Now she couldn't deny it.
What would that thing turn into next?
Sonia kept her home dream in the main office of her apartment complex. When she stepped out into the night, glowing lines cross-crossed over the parking lot in bright colors. The circles marked the thresholds—the entryways into other dreams. The fringes—the outer boundaries—spread out and shifted slowly over each other. Up in the sky, beams of colored light pointed to the locations of dreams on the ground. Every dream had a real-world location, invisible when awake. Only someone with Sonia's abilities could exit their own dream and see them.
The Baku's Fang hung from her neck, shaped like an upside-down teardrop, glowing with a bright blue. Sonia raised it and spoke into it like a microphone: "Firecracker!"
Her baku appeared in front of her, wiggling his trunk, thrashing his tail, his mane shimmering with many colors. She gave him a quick rub on the forehead and hopped on his back. "Okay, who's first?" she muttered. "Rebecca or Erin?"
She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. Focusing her mind let her draw on the Fang's powers, and right now she used them to feel around the city for Rebecca and Erin's dreams, wherever they might be. One time she gained the ability to do virtually anything, even detect any dream she wanted, in an instant. But that wore off quickly, and now she'd have to meditate like a monk all night to find an isolated dream like that.
Fortunately she knew a workaround. She'd figured it out a month ago, and it really opened things up for her.
Finding a physical location in the real world was easy—one of the first skills she'd learned, in fact. She knew where Rebecca and Erin lived, and now felt a path through town to each of them. Not that she didn't remember the way by heart. But by detecting Rebecca and Erin, she could focus just a little further, and follow the energy of their thoughts to wherever they were sending their dreams. She even found an unrelated dream that could give her a shortcut to Erin's.
After a few minutes of concentration, she knew exactly where to find her friends' dream selves.
Rebecca was close—her dream was down the highway, next to a car dealership. Sonia rode Firecracker down there in less than a minute. The threshold took up the right lane in front of the Toyota lot. Firecracker walked over it, and the threshold flashed, and the baku faded from beneath her. He couldn't survive within a dream, so he'd wait outside.
Sonia's feet touched soft, less-than-stable ground.
She was standing on a cloud, and in front of her stood a colossal tree, with the ground miles underneath. Rebecca was hanging on to the trunk, pulling herself up to the next vine.
Sonia ran down the cloud as well as it would let her until she was right behind Rebecca. "Hey Rebecca, I made it!"
Rebecca looked over her shoulder. "Oh, hey. Right—I thought we had something to do tonight. Um." She looked down. "Little help?"
"I gotcha." Sonia crouched and laid her hands on the ground and focused. Energy from the Fang flowed through her into the cloud. It shifted from a soft powder into a glassy clay—the original dreamstuff the cloud was made of. Now that it was unshaped, Sonia extended it toward the trunk, under Rebecca's feet, then turned it back into cloud. Rebecca stepped off and joined Sonia on the cloud. Sonia did the same thing on the other side to get to the fringe and leave the dream.
Firecracker reappeared beneath Sonia, as if she'd never stopped riding him.
"So I guess we're looking for Erin next?" Rebecca said as Sonia helped her onto Firecracker's back.
"Yup. She's over on the other side of the ridge. Here we go!"
In the path Sonia had felt, there was a dream on Highway 58 she could use as a shortcut. Space within dreams is often distorted, so sometimes she could take a few steps inside, and when she left, wind up halfway across town. This dream put them—minus Firecracker, of course—outside an ancient Aztec temple. Sonia and Rebecca only had to run from one side to the other to find the fringe. It let them out on top of a hospital building on the west side of Missionary Ridge, just minutes from Erin's dream. Rebecca had to climb back onto Firecracker again before they rode off.
They found the threshold on the roof of a small theater. It must have been pretty artsy, because Sonia couldn't think of any other reason for the mannequin legs sticking out of the front wall. But she'd would have to figure that out later. As soon as Firecracker even got close to that building, he started acting antsy. He climbed to the top, growling the entire way, waving his trunk everywhere.
"What's wrong, boy?" Sonia said. "You smell something?" If he'd picked up a scent, then… No! "Not here! It can't be!"
"So the nightmare's close?" Rebecca said, hopping off of Firecracker's back. "He doesn't think it's…" She nodded toward the threshold of Erin's dream.
"I think so." Sonia dropped down beside Rebecca. "But how? It would have to… But…"
Sonia broke the tip off the Fang and passed it to Rebecca. She ate it, and along with it a portion of Sonia's power. "Ready?" Sonia said.
They went into the threshold.
The sky turned blue.
"A carnival?" Sonia took a few uneasy steps ahead. A ferris wheel rolled next to a tilt-a-whirl down in the west. The building the girls were standing on became the platform for a roller coaster that ran toward the ridge. Something in the air gave off a grimy unease, like when it stops raining but the sun isn't out yet. A sure sign the nightmare was here.
"Weird, just like my dream," Rebecca said. "I don't see Erin."
"Gimme a sec." Sonia shut her eyes and focused. Soon she could feel the rules of the dream—and not all of it came from Erin. "This dream wasn't supposed to be a carnival. I… think it might have come with the nightmare."
"What about Erin?"
"Erin's in… let's see… coming down the road… On one of those boats. You know, the kind they ride in Venice?"
"Gondolas?" Rebecca peered over the edge of the platform. "Hey, you're right. There's a stream now. Which way's she coming from?"
"The way we just came. She's about to go under the roller coaster. But the nightmare…"
"I think that's her coming up! Pass me a Fang piece!"
Sonia broke off another piece and ran to Rebecca's side to hand it over. Crystalline water now rippled through the canal that had been a city street. There were gondolas anchored along the sidewalks, with people milling around in front of the game booths and vendors. One gondola drifted underneath the scaffolding of the roller coaster. Sonia could see the pilot with his oar, but not Erin. At least, not until two eyes peeked over the edge of the gondola.
Erin saw them and waved, but also stuck her finger up over her mouth. Sonia understood and waved back. They couldn't make too much noise. The nightmare might hear.
Sonia and Rebecca went down the steps to the sidewalk. Rebecca hopped into a parked gondola and jumped from there into Erin's, while Sonia looked around for some sign of the nightmare. She hadn't been able to feel where it could have gone. A spider with three horse heads shouldn't be this hard to miss.
Rebecca and Erin hopped back onto solid ground next to Sonia. Erin was holding a battle axe. "Did you just make that?" Sonia said.
"Unshaped a chunk of the boat the second I gave her the Fang piece," Rebecca said.
"Gotta be ready," Erin said. "It's still here somewhere."
"Where's the last place you saw it?"
"Back there, by the cyclone ride. Sonia, it's even worse than you said. It's—" Erin screamed.
A hideous black shape was crawling on the roller coaster, with eight legs and three horselike heads. But now it had grown an extra set of pincers, and its bulbous spider's abdomen had changed into a sharp scorpion's tail.
The nightmare crawled down the scaffolding.
The girls ran.
People screamed as the nightmare leaped onto the ground. Some jumped into a booth or under a platform, others into the water. Sonia checked over her shoulder and saw the nightmare rampaging behind her. "Keep going!" Sonia said. "We're almost at the fringe!" The sound of the nightmare's legs tapping on the concrete made Sonia queasy. The whole creature looked like solid living death. Those teeth already made it hard enough to get a grip on it, even with a baku. Those claws might make it impossible.
Erin stopped beside Sonia and threw the axe in a perfect arc toward the nightmare, but a simple flick of a pincer swatted it away. The axe hit the water with a dull splash. "Worth a shot!"
The fringe lay across the sidewalk just before the intersection. Sonia could hear the heads hissing.
The girls jumped over the fringe, back into the night. Sonia called Firecracker back to her. "We don't have much time," she said. "Any ideas?" Firecracker ran to Sonia's side.
"Not me," Erin said. "All I had was the axe."
"I still can't figure out why it was a carnival," Rebecca said. "Or how it found both me and Erin!"
"Well don't ask me. It would've had to—"
The nightmare appeared from over the fringe. Dreamstuff wafted off of it, slowly dissolving it—too slowly to destroy it.
Sonia sprang onto Firecracker's back, and Rebecca and Erin scattered. But the nightmare only seemed interested in Sonia. It kept advancing, and she had Firecracker keep backing up. If she could only take a moment to focus. The nightmare would only need a second to sting or slash her. It couldn't kill her, but it would hurt. And if she woke up, she'd be back to square one the next night, and by then this thing could have evolved even further. It could grow wings for all she knew.
"What are you?" It couldn't be a coincidence that it found both Rebecca and Erin. The question was how? It would have had to know that Sonia knew them, and it would have needed a way to detect their dreams.
Rebecca and Erin both started jumping and yelling, trying to get the nightmare's attention. But only one head looked back, and it never stopped advancing toward Sonia.
It was after Sonia all along. It wanted her to find it.
"Listen!" she shouted. "I'm the one it wants! It doesn't care about you! Let me distract it while you think of something!"
"Way ahead of you!" Rebecca called back. "Just a minute."
The nightmare snapped its pincers, almost close enough to snag Firecracker. Sonia had him skitter back. She couldn't forgive herself if she let Firecracker get hurt.
"Hey, ugly!" It wasn't a voice she was used to hearing, but it came from the sidewalk. And there Sonia was, riding her baku, several yards away from the real Sonia. "Why're you going after her? I'm right here!"
One of the heads saw her, and the nightmare stopped.
"Not her!" Another Sonia appeared on the other side of the road. "Look, you think I need a baku to take care of you? Come on, show me what you got!"
The nightmare turned toward that Sonia. Exactly what the real Sonia needed.
She had Firecracker grab its tail.
The nightmare tried to shake her off, but Firecracker bore his weight down, out of reach of barb, claw, and teeth alike, and able to keep up with its movements. Now Sonia could focus. Her energy flowed from her hands into the baku, through its arms, into the nightmare, so she could unshape it. If she could absorb some of its memory, figure out how it got here, so much the better. Things like this were big and unruly, so they could take a minute.
The tail began to smooth and glisten.
It broke off, and Firecracker gobbled it up immediately. That made one less thing it could stab her with. Still plenty of claws and teeth, though. And now the nightmare was no longer fooled by Rebecca and Erin's decoys. It wouldn't let Sonia out of its sights.
She'd felt its hatred for her, its desire to hunt the hunter, its craving for a final showdown. But it still didn't make sense how it detected her friends' dreams. Finding specific dreams wasn't easy, even when it was someone you know!
Still, she saw an opportunity. Without the tail, it was defenseless from behind. It wanted a showdown? She could give it one. She had Firecracker leap into the air, twist around, and land right on its abdomen. He dug his hind claws into the exoskeleton, and his front claws into the nightmare's shoulders. The nightmare bucked and rocked like a wild bull, but Sonia held on. It had gotten smarter, but maybe a little too smart for its own good.
Sonia focused her mind. Rebecca and Erin, back to their true forms, cleared back.
The nightmare began to slow down. Sonia tried to read as much of its memory as she could. Its origins were nothing special. Just a dream about a carousel with an unwelcome spider. Then the spider escaped. Then she started chasing after it.
Then it started sniffing after her.
The nightmare froze into solid dreamstuff. Finally. Sonia slid off Firecracker's back and let him feast.
Sonia and her friends gathered together, the others hooting and cheering. "That was amazing!" Erin said. "Rodeo Sonia, rustlin' up nightmares!"
"You really showed that thing who's boss!" Rebecca said. "Just wish I'd gotten a crack at it."
"Hey, you still got time," Sonia said. "Firecracker hasn't gotten to the faces yet."
"You're right!" Rebecca ran over to the crumbling nightmare and gave each face a solid right hook, bursting them into powder. Firecracker sucked the powder up into a glob.
"That thing had my scent," Sonia said to Erin. "Or not really mine. The Fang's scent. That's how it always got away. It was so sensitive it could react whenever I even got close." Rebecca came back with a broad grin. "But since I've shared the Fang with you two so much…"
"It sniffed that and tracked us down," Erin said.
"Funny." Rebecca held up her dusty fist. "It didn't look much like a greyhound."
"I think I read once that spiders have a strong sense of smell. Sonia, any chance you can get Firecracker to do that? Save you some time every night?"
"Nah." Sonia sat down on the curb. "Firecracker only has a nose for nightmares."
Firecracker was snuffling up the last bits of the nightmare off the road.
"I should have asked you two for help sooner," Sonia said. "There's still so much I don't know about nightmares, or the Fang. If I'd thought for a second that it could find you…"
"Well, live and learn," Erin said. "Something to keep in mind for future nightmares."
"Still… We could've stopped it before it came after you."
"Sonia, you've beaten up my brother," Rebecca said. "This is the last thing I'm going to hold against you."
Sonia's head dipped down. She hated to be reminded of that incident, but she appreciated the sentiment. At least now the nightmare was over.
"So we haven't shared powers in a while," Sonia said. "What do you wanna do now?"
Rebecca and Erin looked toward the weird artsy theater. Erin said, "That carnival should still be there. How about it?"
Sonia got up. "As long nothing makes us puke in our sleep. Let's go."
Monday, June 24, 2019
And now we come to the penultimate story, which in fact was the second story I ever wrote for this project, based on the very first improv prompt I took from can-I-get-a.com. It also has one of my favorite titles in this series. Normally, to be quite honest, I hate coming up with titles, but this one came together quite nicely, if I do say so myself.
THE INDIGO FENDER OF SPECTRA Q
But that wasn't the real reason Lita was excited.
As soon as Mom parked the car, Lita grabbed her suitcase and rushed to ring the doorbell. The door opened, and her uncle, Benedict Diego, swept her up in his arms. "Lita! Oh good Lord, you've gotten so tall! No way you're in high school already. Tell me it's not true."
Lita laughed as she squeezed Uncle Benny. "Started just a couple weeks ago."
"Good God." He grinned at Mom. "Better be careful, won't be long before she'll be driving herself here."
"She might never leave," Mom said and gave Uncle Benny a hug. "How are you, Ben?"
"Great as always, Wanda. I guess Harold couldn't make it?"
"Nope, you know him. Saturday night's game night with his dad. Couldn't possibly miss that."
"Of course not. Well, ladies, make yourselves at home, as always."
Lita picked her suitcase back up and carried it up the stairs. On the way, she glanced over at the door to the basement. Uncle Benny kept his most personal stuff down there, and she'd never been allowed in. "No kids allowed," he'd say, until she no longer needed him to tell her. Before this last summer, Lita had never realized what could be so important. She'd never questioned how he could afford a house like this.
But then a few months ago, she watched that movie, and heard that song, and looked up that band, and saw none other than Benedict Diego listed as the lead guitarist.
Lita tossed her suitcase onto the bed in the guest room and checked the messages on her phone. On the home screen was the cover for the self-titled debut album of Benny's band, Spectra Q. The sight of it still made her heart leap. The band members posed in front of a green VW Beetle, with Uncle Benny on the far right, holding an indigo Fender Stratocaster. The same Fender had appeared on their other album covers as well, and in their few music videos.
One of Uncle Benny's acoustic guitars rested on a stand next to the window in the guest room. Lita had strummed that guitar during previous visits, always furtively and softly, to avoid anyone noticing her. But that guitar wasn't enough this time. The indigo Fender had to be somewhere in that basement, along with God knows what other kind of mementos from her uncle's not-quite-grunge-not-quite-ska band. This weekend, she was going to find that indigo Fender and play it.
She sat through dinner with her mom and uncle, listening to them talk about friends, about family members Lita hardly knew, about Mom's job. Guitars did come up, but only in reference to Lita. "I heard you've been taking lessons lately," Uncle Benny said.
"Not lessons, really," Lita said. "I got some self-teaching books a few months ago, learned some chords." Lita had yet to even speak about Spectra Q with her parents, so as far as Mom knew, this was just a new hobby.
"Hey, a few chords is all you need most of the time. What kind of guitar?"
"Just a plain acoustic one, like in the guest room." She hadn't even brought it with her.
"Oh yeah, I tuned that up just for you. You can get some practice in. "
Lita nearly dropped her fork. She'd always thought it was a prized antique, not something you'd just hand off to an amateur. Yet he wanted her to play with it? "Th-thank you."
"You'll have to play something for us this weekend," Mom said.
No. Absolutely not. All Lita could do was strum chords and play a few lullabies. Even when she found the Fender, she wasn't going to play it for anybody else, only herself. She couldn't bear to humiliate herself in front of a rock legend. "I'll think about it."
"And if you need any tips, just ask me," Uncle Benny said.
And he and Mom went on talking about life as if one of them had never been a rock star. Lita had no idea how to bring it up. There was so much she wanted to know. How did Uncle Benny feel about his fame and fortune? Was he still friends with the drummer, Keith Pilking? What was Mom doing during all this? Did she like the band, or did she hate every aspect of it?
Fortunately, this house was big enough that you could wander around for a while without running into anybody, even when everyone was wide awake. So a few hours later, after texting some friends back home to catch up on everything, she headed downstairs to carry out her mission.
To reach the basement door, she first had to pass by the open archway into the kitchen without anyone seeing her.
And there was Mom at the kitchen table, drinking some coffee, reading an issue of Time. "Oh. Evening, Sweetie."
"Hey, Mom." Lita stopped in mid-step, then changed course toward the kitchen. "Uh… Just came down for a Coke."
"We're out," Mom said. "Benny's out to get more. You're welcome to some of this." She wiggled her coffee mug.
"Sure, why not?" This was such a big house, Lita had never even heard Uncle Benny leave.
Lita poured herself a cup—she was the only one she knew who took it black. Mom seemed totally relaxed in her bathrobe and slippers. She must have just taken a bath. Lita wanted one bad—all that time in the car had left her stiff and sweaty. But all that could wait until the basement was explored.
At a quiet moment like this, with Mom sitting nice and cozy, and Uncle Benny out of the house, it might have been a perfect time to ask about Spectra Q. Mom could tell her more about what it was and what it meant, and why no one told Lita. On the other hand, Mom might know too much—some of the trouble Uncle Benny might have gotten into. The kind that could destroy any appeal in the indigo Fender.
Lita went up to the table. "Watcha reading?"
"Oh, it's an article about one of the artists that's at the festival tomorrow. Audra Gaines. She takes photographs, puts them in the middle of the canvas, and then paints a new scene around them." Mom held up the magazine to show her.
"Cool. I'm still hyped about seeing Junya Shinkai."
"The anime artist?"
"Excuse me, he's a professional illustrator. He just happens to do the art for that one series I like."
"Of course. I saw you packed that Blu-Ray for him to sign."
"Gotta bring him something, right?"
"Anyway," Lita said, "I'm off to…" She checked toward the hall. "To the living room. I'm just gonna chill out in there for a little bit, message my friends." This was a pretty big kitchen in a pretty big house. Hopefully Mom wouldn't hear her open the basement door.
"All right. Maybe we can watch a movie when Benny gets home."
"Sure. Sounds like fun." Lita sipped a little bit of coffee on the way out. After leaving the kitchen, she peeked back in to make sure Mom's eyes were on the magazine and not the archway.
Lita crept down the hall to the basement door.
She turned the knob and opened the door just wide enough to fit through. It was totally dark. She switched the coffee to her other hand, flipped the switch, and drew the door closed.
She lowered her feet as slowly as possible, and managed to reach the bottom without a creak. There was a whole hallway down here, stretching from one end of the house to the other.
Lita took another sip of coffee. Now to find out what was worth hiding down here.
The first door she opened was only a supply closet. The next was a bathroom, then a laundry room. Slim pickings so far.
On the other side of the hall, she began to hit paydirt. As soon as she opened the door and turned on the light, she found herself in the control room of a recording studio. She took a big gulp from her mug, set it on a table, and stepped in. All those buttons, all these monitors, and there, on the other side of the glass, a piano! A bass! An acoustic guitar! Drums!
Uncle Benny was still recording! Was he starting up a solo career? Does he have his old buddies from the band over for jam sessions? Were there future hit singles lurking inside this computer at this very moment? Oh, Lita wanted to mash on that piano, bang those drums, thrash that guitar right this instant. If she were the only one in the house, she might do it, but just seeing all this was more than enough.
She shut off the lights and moved on down the hall in a daze. Maybe someday she could record something of her own in that studio.
If that studio was paydirt, the next room was the motherlode: guitar after guitar after guitar after guitar. Gibsons displayed with Les Pauls, Fenders hanging next to Rickenbackers, basses standing beside twelve-strings. Some of them were signed—Jon Bon Jovi, Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana, Joan Jett. There were black and red and green, oak finished and gunmetal, and one traveler's guitar that was basically a box with a neck. There was even a set of acoustic guitars along the far wall, just like the one in the guest room, except for the one guitarrón mexicano.
The only thing Lita didn't see was the indigo Fender. She checked the room top to bottom several times, but the Fenders were the wrong colors, and the blue guitars were the wrong models.
As much as she wanted to strum every one of them, she couldn't stay. Uncle Benny might be back by now, and he and Mom might figure out she wasn't in the living room. Maybe the indigo Fender was hiding in another room.
She headed down the hall, opened the door, and turned on the lights.
It turned out to be a rather ordinary office. The desk took up most of the corner, and was surrounded by posters of classic paintings and bikini models. There was a bookcase next to the door, mostly full of crime novels. The only musical instrument in here was the lime green Les Paul leaning against the file cabinet.
Lita dropped herself into the desk chair. All this effort, all this anxiety, and no Fender to show for it. All those guitars in the other room… how was the Fender the one thing he got rid of?
Well, she came down to play something. She took up the Les Paul and strummed with her fingers the chords she knew best—the chords for "Red Heart Fire," the song that introduced her to Spectra Q. She tried to work that into a solo, but only managed to pluck a scattered set of notes with no progression.
Lita set the guitar back into place and left the office.
No one was waiting at the top of the stairs. Lita could hear Mom chatting in the living room with Uncle Benny. Lita crossed to the next flight of stairs. Hopefully they wouldn't mind that she wasn't actually in the living room like she said she would be.
"Lita!" Mom called.
Lita doubled over halfway up the stairs. Had she been caught?
"Lita, you still wanna watch a movie?"
A movie! Of course! Just like Mom had mentioned earlier. "In a little bit, Mom," Lita said. "I could kinda use a bath." She'd gotten so sweaty since going downstairs.
"All right. Well, don't take too long. We'll start as soon as you're ready."
Lita grabbed a towel and ran straight for the bathroom. It would be a hilarious irony if the movie turned out to be the one with the Spectra Q song. But knowing Mom and Uncle Benny, the way they were now, it was probably something like Mrs. Doubtfire.
The sweat and fear washed off as soon as Lita dipped into the water.
The sun shone bright through the window. Lita had slept snug and warm. The memories of what she had seen down in the basement flung each other around in her head. She smelled sausage and bacon, and bet herself that Mom was helping out with breakfast. She changed clothes and brushed her hair and went downstairs. And indeed, both Mom and Uncle Benny were in the kitchen, with Mom coaching him over the stove.
Today, when they were at the arts festival, Lita would ask Mom everything: about Spectra Q, and Benedict Diego, and the time when he was a celebrity. They could talk at their own pace before bringing it up with Uncle Benny.
A fresh pot of coffee waited on the counter. As she passed by the kitchen table, Lita spotted a half-empty mug.
The same mug she'd drunk from the night before. It was still half-full of cold, black coffee. But that wasn't where she'd left it. Where did she—
Oh crap. The recording studio. She never took it to the the guitar room or the office…
And now someone had brought it upstairs. Which means either Mom or Uncle Benny knew she'd gone down there.
She shuffled over to the cabinet for a mug, as casual as possible. Maybe it wasn't the big deal she thought it was.
"Morning, Carmelita." Uncle Benny backed away from the stove. "Yo, Wanda, can you take over for a second? Gotta have a word with my niece."
Lita's spine felt like a steel rod.
"Certainly." Mom took over stirring the eggs.
Uncle Benny clapped his hand on Lita's shoulder and led her out of the kitchen, into the hall, into his sitting room.
"Uh, is there something wrong?" Lita said.
"That's up to you," Uncle Benny said. "I found your coffee downstairs. You take it black, right?"
Lita's stomach sank.
"You know that's my personal space down there," he said.
"Of course," Lita said.
"So you understand how it feels to have someone poke around in a place like that."
"Of course," Lita said. She wouldn't have wanted Uncle Benny going through her diary—him least of all. "And I'm so sorry. I just couldn't stop thinking about what might be down there. I'm never going anywhere near it again. I promise." And anyway, it wasn't as if she saw anything bad down there.
"Well, anyway, your mother says lately you've seemed interested in my old career."
"Really?" Lita said. So Mom noticed? "I guess if you mean this…" She woke up her phone and showed him her home screen. "That's you, with the Fender, right?"
A bright warmth burst out on his face. "Yup."
"So why didn't you ever tell me? Why'd you keep stuff like that studio secret? I mean, you were a rock star! That's so cool!"
"Well, yeah. Not denying that." Uncle Benny scratched the stubble on his chin. "I guess I mostly didn't want you to think of me as just a rock star. I wanted you to think of me as your uncle."
"I can do both."
"I know, and I guess you're old enough to get it. Probably been old enough for ages, really. It's just, that's an important part of my life, but it's not really my life anymore. I still play, and record, and all. But touring… Well, I didn't always get up to the most wholesome stuff back then. A lot of things I'm still working through. Not like other rock stars were doing prayer and Bible study, but still…"
"Well… whatever you did, you're still my Uncle Benny."
His head reeled, and he put his hand over his heart. "That means so much, you have no idea," he said. "You know, back when you were just a little baby, your mom and I used to talk about how we might let you in on all this. She figured you were gonna get curious eventually. Now that you have, I suppose I got nothing to hide."
"Okay, so answer me this." She showed him the home screen again. "That blue guitar there. I couldn't find it downstairs."
"Oh, of course not. I sold that in a charity auction years ago."
Lita slapped herself in the forehead. "I can't believe you! A sweet Stratocaster like that and you gave it up? I started teaching myself guitar just so I could find that guitar and play it!"
"Not like I was ever attached to that one. I've got plenty."
"Isn't this the one you did 'Red Heart Fire' with?"
"No, no no no. I did that one on a Les Paul. After you get back from that art thing, I'll take you down and show it to you."
"A… lime green Les Paul?"
"Yeah, it's in my office. You see it?"
Lita's whole body filled with red blazing fire. Her fingers crooked into chord positions. She'd touched it. She'd played on it.
She'd found it.
"Yeah," she said. "I saw it."
"All right," Uncle Benny said. "How about, after you get back from that art thing, I take you down and show it to you?"
"Oh, Uncle Benny!" Lita threw her arms around him and kissed her uncle on the cheek.
"Easy, easy. Let's get back to the kitchen. Breakfast is almost ready. You know, your mom's got a lot of great stories from back then. You should ask her about them. She'll talk for days on end."
They crossed the front hall into the kitchen, and Lita poured herself a cup of coffee, wondering how she'd be able to stand waiting for another chance to play that Les Paul.
Monday, June 17, 2019
Sometimes I'll say something is the stupidest thing I've ever written, but this one I think really is the stupidest thing I've ever written, and I love it for that. It was originally written last summer, when I'd first resumed writing weekly stories again. I wound up liking it enough to start shopping it around to actual editors. Then recently I took another look and decided it was better off here.
For best results, imagine H. Jon Benjamin as the voice of the asteroid.
ON THE PHONE WITH THE DANGER ZONE
Dr. Keith Mailer looked up from the decades-old Bausch & Lomb microscope on the antique store table and turned to the younger man beside him. The man looked back and said, "Did you say something?"
"I thought you did," Dr. Mailer said.
"Nope, not me," the man said.
"Hey." That voice again! It sounded so close, yet there was no one else in this section of the antique store. If this other fellow hadn't heard anything, Dr. Mailer would have thought he was starting to lose it. Too many late nights at the observatory, probably.
"Hey you. Can you hear me?" the voice said.
"Is that your phone?" the man next to Dr. Mailer said.
Dr. Mailer slipped his smartphone out of his pocket. It wasn't a terribly good phone, so it took a moment just to load the home screen. But when it did, all it showed was the time and wallpaper—a nebula photographed by the Hubble Telescope. No messages, no missed calls, no voicemails.
But the voice came back.
"Is anybody there?" The voice made the phone hum in Dr. Mailer's hand.
Dr. Mailer put the phone to his ear. "Hello?"
"Oh hey, can you hear me?" It was a dry, almost bored voice. "Finally."
"Can I help you?"
"Yeah," the voice said, "I don't suppose you could get out of the way, could you?"
Dr. Mailer walked to a more isolated corner of the store. "Okay. Does that help?"
"Of course I did. Where are you? Who is this?"
"Okay, right. Sorry about that. I'm an asteroid."
Dr. Mailer checked the screen again. It had gone to sleep, and when he woke it up, it still only showed the time and wallpaper. If he could have, he would have hung up right there. "What kind of prank call is this?"
"What's a prank call?"
"You can't be… why am I wasting my time with this? Goodbye." He put the phone back in his pocket and resumed browsing the shelves and display tables. That was a nice Underwood typewriter they had here. He'd always wanted to try his hand at writing, and he knew from a friend of his that he could still get ink ribbons for these things.
"Hey!" The voice rang out louder, breaking the quiet of the antique store. Other customers turned their heads. "I need you to listen to me!"
Dr. Mailer took his phone back out and switched it to airplane mode.
"Come on," the voice said.
Dr. Mailer powered the phone off.
"Look, I'm trying to help you here."
Dr. Mailer hissed into the inactive phone, "How are you doing this? Are you a hacker?"
"What's a hacker? I told you, I'm an asteroid. That's the word for things like me, right? I'm a solid mass of rock and metal in space."
"Asteroids can't talk."
"But that's what I'm doing. I'm talking to you, aren't I?"
Dr. Mailer figured he might as well humor whoever this was. "How?"
"Beats me," the voice said. "All I know is, I've been hurtling through space for billions of years, I've been orbiting the inner part of the solar system for the last million, and right now there's a blue planet in my path, covered with little autonomous bits of carbon. So can you please get out of my way?"
"Out of—" A devastating, fiery image entered Dr. Mailer's mind. "You're saying you're going to crash?"
"Yeah, that sounds right."
"How far away are you?"
"I'd say about ten times the distance from your satellite. Give or take."
"So about 4 million kilometers. How big are you?"
"I don't really know how to answer that. I've never compared myself to anything before."
"Well, how are you contacting me? You're just a piece of iron."
"Just a piece of iron? Sure, and you're just a lump of carbon. Your planet just has water on it. Look, I tried asking your planet, and she said I was better off calling one of her inhabitants, so here I am."
"So then… are… are you asking us as a species to move out of your way?"
"Maybe. She didn't seem concerned about getting hit, but she wasn't sure about you."
Just the idea of Planet Earth having a point of view made Dr. Mailer dizzy. "All right. Except, depending on how big you are, that might not really help."
"If you're small, you'll probably burn up in our atmosphere. If you're larger, depending on your composition, you might explode, but still not harm anyone. If you're big enough and make it to the surface, millions of people could still die just from the aftereffects. We could even go extinct."
"Is extinction bad?"
"From our perspective."
"Okay. Huh. I was mostly just trying to be polite. Didn't realize it was a life or death situation."
Dr. Mailer's heart began to pick up speed. If this was serious, then the fate of humanity really was at stake. "The best we could potentially do is try to move you out of the way."
"You could do that?"
"I said potentially. We'd have to fire a missile, and maybe detonate something. These missions usually take months of planning. But that's going to be hard on such short notice." Dr. Mailer calculated in his head. If the asteroid is 4 million km away, then depending on its speed, it could collide in about one to three days. That wouldn't give them much time. "Can you tell where on Earth you're about to collide?"
"Is that what you call it? Nice name." The meteor murmured to itself. "I can't really make out any landmasses from here, but I know we're both coming toward each other. Your planet is turning to the right. And the entire left side is totally dark."
"The entire left side?"
"That's what I said. It's like half and half."
"Are you coming from above or below?"
That actually did help. The asteroid—assuming this was actually an asteroid—was flying toward the nightline, and roughly level with the tropics. It was about 2 PM now, Eastern Standard Time, in late summer. That meant the sun would be rising in Asia right about now.
Dr. Mailer knew some people at NASA, and a colleague in Beijing. He could put in some calls, have people point their telescopes and see if they could find this asteroid. Then they could verify whether anything really was on a collision course with Earth.
"Can you give me a minute?" Dr. Mailer said. "I need to make some phonecalls."
"What's a phonecall?" the asteroid said.
"It's sort of like how you're speaking to me now."
* * *
Dr. Kate Jeffries had just poured her morning coffee in her apartment in Hawaii when Dr. Mailer called her on Skype. "You heard from the asteroid too, huh?" she said.
Dr. Mailer didn't know how to respond. He had thought it was just him. "Um—"
"Sounded awfully casual for something trying to warn us about our impending deaths, didn't it?"
"I… that is, I'm not really sure it understands the concept of urgency. It spoke to you, too?" Dr. Mailer cleared aside some of the scattered papers on his desk. He'd headed straight to his office at the observatory after he left the antique store.
"About an hour ago. I nearly threw my phone out the window." Dr. Jeffries took a long gulp from her coffee. "I wonder how many people have done that today. I wonder how many it spoke to."
"I was wondering why it would only talk to me," Dr. Mailer said. "Yet it spoke as if it was."
"Same with me. We're already dealing with a profoundly alien intelligence, from something that shouldn't have intelligence. Maybe holding simultaneous one-on-one conversations is one attribute it has."
"It told me it even spoke with planet Earth."
"Me too. I tried asking what Earth is really like, but it had trouble answering." Dr. Jeffries hunched over her desk. "Assuming we survive, this could be the most profound scientific discovery in history. Who else have you spoken to?"
"I've called Dr. Igleed at NASA," Dr. Mailer said. "They're training satellites in what we're hoping is the asteroid's direction."
"How did you explain it?"
"I just said I found an irregularity last night, took a while to review my notes, wanted them to look at it."
"Right. I can help process data. Contacted anybody in Asia? Seems if anyone's in the best position to check with a ground telescope, they'll be there."
"Just Dr. Guan in Beijing. He and Igleed both said they'd reach whoever they can on that hemisphere. Beyond that, I think I've done what the asteroid asked."
"Same here. It's a pain with the limited resources we have, but…" She took another sip of her coffee. "This still doesn't feel real. We could be going the way of the dinosaurs in only a few days, yet here I am with my coffee as usual."
"I'm ready to knock back a cold one, myself." Dr. Mailer's pit stains had spread down to his sleeves.
"Just beer? Right, you never were much for liquor, were you?"
"Too rich for my blood." Dr. Mailer took out his phone and laid it on his desk. "You think it's still listening?"
"I'm afraid to find out," Dr. Jeffries said. "I left my phone in the next room."
Dr. Mailer leaned over his phone. "Excuse me, asteroid. Are you there?" He was so glad he wasn't on video right now.
"Huh? Yeah? What?"
"I'm not disturbing you, am I?"
"No, no, not at all. I've been busy talking with this guy named Chadha. He's trying to see if he can find me from where he is."
"Chadha." Dr. Jeffries said. "I went to grad school with a Chadha."
"Oh hey, Kate," the asteroid said. "How's it going? You sound a little far away."
"You can hear me? All right then. Basically, we're trying to verify your location and trajectory to make sure whether you're really on a collision course with Earth."
"I'm pretty sure I am, though."
"We still want to make sure."
"This is sort of unusual for us," Dr. Mailer said, "so we want to try and check for ourselves."
"Have you not been hit by an asteroid before?" the asteroid said.
"Well, we haven't. But the creatures that were here before us have. It's the reason they're not around anymore."
"Right now," Dr. Jeffries said, "all we can do is wait for the data to come in. Then we can decide what to do about it."
"What about you?" Dr. Mailer said into his phone. "Aren't you worried?"
"About what?" the asteroid said.
"About crashing into us. You'll almost certainly be destroyed."
"Hm. I guess I hadn't thought about that. Honestly, I haven't really thought about anything until now. I've always just noticed. Like, hey, the sun's over there now. Hey, there's that stripey gassy planet. I've never really considered who I am or where I'm going."
"So how do you feel about that coming to a stop?"
"I dunno. All this thinking is actually kind of annoying." The asteroid paused for a moment. "I don't have to keep this up if I miss you, do I?"
"I can't answer that. But once you've started, I doubt you'll stop."
"Then if crashing into you will stop this thinking, maybe it won't be so bad."
Dr. Mailer and Dr. Jeffries looked at each other through their screens in horror.
"You can't be serious," Dr. Mailer said.
"I don't even know what 'serious' is. All I know is, I've gone billions of years without having to think a thing, and now it won't stop. Maybe I shouldn't have tried calling you. I kinda wanna crash now."
"What about us?"
"Figure something out."
The phone went silent.
"Asteroid?" Dr. Mailer didn't get a response. "Asteroid!"
Dr. Jeffries lifted her coffee and took a big chug.
* * *
The next eight hours were a frenzy of international phonecalls, data processing, and analysis. Telescopes in China and India, and later in Austria and Italy, confirmed the existence of the asteroid, now provisionally designated as 2019 QH, and which Dr. Mailer had privately nicknamed "Jon." An orbital telescope managed to take a photograph.
After further observations and calculations, the astronomers of the world knew Jon's trajectory.
Alone in his office, Dr. Mailer spoke into his phone. "Asteroid?"
"What? I'm trying to enjoy some peace and quiet here."
"We have answers now. Do you want to hear them?"
"Might as well."
Dr. Mailer clenched his fist. By now the news had leaked to the press and caused a panic on the Internet. Jon could at least try not to act like a spoiled teenager. But no, Dr. Mailer could hold in his frustration. "You're not going to crash into the Earth."
The asteroid made what sounded like a sigh. "Dammit."
"Not yet, anyway. You're going to enter our orbit, and if we don't do anything, you'll definitely crash into us in about fifteen years."
"Only fifteen years? That's awesome! I can take another fifteen years."
Remarkable, Dr. Mailer thought, considering it took only an hour for Jon to get sick of thinking. "You realize that gives us plenty of time to try to divert you? Or destroy you?"
"The second one."
"We may go with the first one. Less chance of us having to deal with your debris." And either way, with all that time, there were more chances of budget cuts, red tape, and general bull-headedness that could scuttle the mission, giving Jon exactly what it wanted. Dr. Mailer almost wished this were still an immediate emergency.
"If you're not going to destroy me," Jon said, "couldn't you at least, like, send me somewhere that can?"
"What? Can you?"
"I don't know. We don't usually send something to another planet specifically to be destroyed. Not to mention, you're about five kilometers across. That's a pretty big payload."
"What about your moon? I've checked. Nobody's there. Same for that red place."
"Not sure that's a good idea. We were kind of hoping to visit them at some point."
"Man, you are no fun. How about that cloudy one? You know, the one a little closer to the sun?"
"We don't plan on visiting, but I'm still not sure about crashing anything there. Hm. How about Jupiter?"
"The big one."
"With the stripes and the red spot? I like that place. Haven't seen it in eons."
Dr. Mailer could run it by Igleed. They'd both been teenagers on opposite sides of the country when Shoemaker-Levy 9 crumbled and crashed into Jupiter, leaving pockmarks all over its atmosphere that cleared up in hardly any time at all, cosmically speaking. The spectacle had inspired both Mailer and Igleed to become astronomers, a fact that made them fast friends when they worked together at Houston. Surely that planet could handle a five kilometer asteroid. "It would take you a long time to get there."
"Fine, I guess I'll manage. As long as it happens eventually. Think you can steer me away soon?"
"If by 'soon' you mean some years, then possibly." Mailer and Igleed would have to answer a lot of questions, such as the scientific purpose or the ethical ramifications, even if this was a planet that would suffer no long-term effects. The rocket would have to be designed, the launch planned. Politics would have to be navigated around. But all that was so far ahead. "We'll do what we can. In the meantime, there's so much I still want to know."
"Dunno what I can tell you."
"Well, you're an asteroid. We've never encountered a talking asteroid before."
"And I've never encountered little carbon things like you before."
"Do you have any idea how you're able to communicate with us?"
"I dunno. I'm kinda just looking at your planet, and expressing myself. That's about all there is to it, right? Your planet told me you'd have a lot of questions. And you're about the chattiest one, ever since Chadha went off to… what'd he call it? Sleep?"
"But I still don't understand. Are you really alive? Is Earth alive?"
"I'm not really sure what you mean by 'alive.' And honestly, I don't really care. I could use some rest, and I'm gonna do my best to get it until you get me to Jupiter. That sound fair?"
"But—" It knew the meaning of "fairness" and "fun" but not "alive"? "But—"
"Look, I'm gonna go. You have a lovely planet. Too bad I can't come visit."
"Can I please just ask a few more questions?"
"Good day, sir."
"Just one more!"
"I said good day!"
Dr. Mailer spent the next day yelling into his idle phone to try and reach the asteroid he called Jon. He never got any answer. Neither did Dr. Jeffries, nor Dr. Chadha. Jon passed by the Earth, still refusing to respond.
On some nights, Dr. Mailer would lie awake with more questions he wished he could have asked Jon. To know that piece of interplanetary rock was alive… to communicate with it… There was so much Jon could have taught him, and the rest of humanity.
But Jon never spoke again.
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
After Pascha, it seemed fitting to write a story springing from the word "Resurrection." And as I've said before, my tendency for writing villainy or corruption is to take something good, admirable, even holy, and twist it into something wicked. With only three stories left, this is the last one related to Lent/Easter.
I submit to you, the reader, that in the history of English-language literature, no one has ever come up with a name better than "Frankenstein." It's fun to say. It's evocative—I'm pretty sure you're thinking of test tubes, electrodes, and neck bolts right now. In its own way it contains within itself the entire genre of science fiction—the perils of scientific innovation, and the promise. I'd just reread the original Mary Shelley novel last year, so the story's relatively fresh in my mind. Frankenstein was never my favorite monster (that will forever be Godzilla), but when I saw a chance to write a Frankenstein story, I knew I had to take it.
In this story, I worked in a few nods to the movie versions, my verdict on calling the Creature "Frankenstein," and what I hope is a respectful portrayal of disability.
The next two weekly stories will be pieces I originally wrote last year as part of this series, but tried to shop around for a short time. One was written in January 2018, the other in July. Following them will be one last original story, a follow-up to something I've written before. To anybody who's actually been reading these, I'm very grateful.
A TALE OF THE FRANKENSTEIN
"Well, you were right, this whole thing is sketchy." He took her place in the driver's seat while she stayed outside. "I'll be ready to go as soon as you are."
"I'll give you a signal if it turns out it's okay. If I don't, and I'm not out in ten minutes, get out of here, call the police."
"Got it. God forbid."
"I really appreciate this, Marco." She gave him a kiss, and as she backed away from the car, said, "I love you." Then muttered to herself, "This is so not worth a PhD."
Professor Warner was one of the top biologists in the country, no, the world. Which is what made it so much more unusual that he'd call Teresa up and practically order her to come out to the country on such a lousy night on such short notice.
She hiked up the staircase embedded in the hill, up to the front porch, where she closed the umbrella and knocked on the door. She was already exhausted. Her left thigh ached.
Professor Warner answered, his hair uncombed, his skin pale. "Ms. Yeung. So nice to see you. Come in."
"Yes, I made it." Teresa stepped into the warm and dry living room. Clothes and notebooks lay scattered all over the floor, and the smell of rotting garbage hung in the air. Electrical diagrams, anatomical drawings, and assorted sketches hung pinned on the walls. "How long have you been up here?"
"Since Sunday. I'm on the verge of performing the most important experiment of my life, probably anyone's life. I have no time to waste. Are you familiar with the work of the Frankenstein family?"
"I'm vaguely familiar," Teresa said. "I've seen one of the movies. Didn't the whole thing turn out to be a hoax?"
"Oh, it's not a hoax, not a hoax at all." Professor Warner wiped his newly-formed beard with his palm. "You thirsty? All I have is 7-Up, is that okay?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, that's fine." No alcohol. She supposed that was a good sign. He was already crossing enough lines right now without getting her drunk. He ran to the kitchen, and she followed him to the doorway. "Listen, the other grad students and I are worried about you."
"I'm sure. I'm sure," the Professor said. "But I'll have some free time once this is done."
Teresa glanced over at the dining table, and spotted three old leather-bound journals stored in plastic bags, with thick spiral notebooks beside them. Names were written on each bag, with the same names on each notebook: Victor Frankenstein; Heinrich Frankenstein, Friedrich Frankenstein. The Professor seemed to have developed a Frankenstein fixation. "So why did you demand I come all the way out here?" she said.
"Well, you are my top student. I've always felt like we had something of a rapport." He brought her a can of 7-Up, as promised. She opened it herself. At this point she was more worried about her professor's health than anything else. This was the worst he'd gotten ever since the divorce.
Too much longer and Marco would leave and call the police, so Teresa went to the window and gave him a wave.
The Professor continued, "I know what this probably sounded like when I called you. Professor, grad student, alone in the woods. No, I brought you here for something far more important." He brushed past her to the table and picked up one of the bagged notebooks. "I have here the notes of three generations of Frankensteins, along with my own translation. I've been studying them for years, since I myself was an undergrad."
"And they're real?" Teresa said.
"Quite real. And they make for the most fascinating reading. Follow me."
He took her up the stairs. "You see, Heinrich and Friedrich both started out trying to disprove Victor's theories. They considered him a madman—a disgrace. But as the journals go on, they start to find him more compelling. They start to carry out their own experiments. They refine them. And they succeeded. They all brought the dead back to life. That is why I brought you here."
He pulled a chain, and the lights flooded on, revealing a crowd of machines packed together in a small loft. Medical equipment connected to computers that connected to tubes that connected to something on the other side of the door. The Professor had managed to assemble so much in one small cabin.
It was all equipment they had used in the lab back at the university, for their own experiments. Experiments on cadavers, and human tissue.
"Oh no. Don't tell me…" Teresa began to feel dizzy. "Our experiments… restarting that heart… that arm… we put together a working digestive system! Was that…?"
"Yes!" Professor Warner cried out. "To ultimately replicate the Frankensteins' experiments. I had to test it on smaller scales before I brought it all together in one."
The strength in Teresa's right leg gave out, and all her weight went onto the left. She leaned on the railing around the staircase and rubbed her left leg. Her thigh badly needed a massage, but she was in no position to take off the prosthetic to do so. "I… I thought this was to help people who need transplants." Not follow in the footsteps of grave-robbers who thought they were scientists.
"And it will," he said." "It already has. But if we can raise the dead, the sky's the limit. You won't just be contributing to life-saving medicine. You'll be part of a revolution!"
Teresa backed away. "Th-The medicine was enough… Wait! If you're trying to replicate a Frankenstein experiment, then where…"
"Over here." He went to a chest freezer in the corner. Nausea hit Teresa as soon as she s saw it. She knew what was in there right away. "Come here," the Professor said, "it won't bite you."
She could try to run, but down all those stairs, all the way to the car? The Professor would catch up before she got halfway down the first flight. So she limped over, her right knee unable to stay firm, her left aluminum knee unable to loosen up.
He opened the freezer. Even knowing what he was about to show her, the sight of a dead body still knocked the breath out of her lungs. It was a white male, middle-aged, naked with frosted skin, bald but physically fit. Autopsy incisions ran across his chest. His knees were bent to help him fit inside, making him look almost like he was taking a nap.
"Wh-where did you get that?" Terror stopped Teresa's voice, so the words only came out as breaths. What had the professor become?
"Pulled some strings at the med school," Professor Warner said. "He gave his body to science, and I'm here to oblige him." He laughed. "What, you think I killed him? No, this poor fella died of liver cancer."
"You're going to wake him up."
"Yep. I had to replace a ton of organs, but look, our experiments are paying off. The incisions of his chest are healing! I just need your help real quick. Grab his legs."
"No." Teresa backed away. "I'm leaving."
"On that leg?"
Now Teresa wanted to slap him. In all these years, Professor Warner had never made light of her disability this way. "All right, listen. My boyfriend's in the car outside. All I have to do is scream and then we are both out of here." She was partly bluffing. She and Marco had never planned for what to do if he heard screaming. He could take that as a cue to drive off and call the police. The police would come, but he would be gone. Or he could barge in, start a fight, and get everybody hurt. "I mean it! Here goes!" And she took a breath—
—and the Professor slapped her. "Shut up and grab his legs. We're taking him outside."
Teresa's heart pounded. There was nothing but noise left in her head, just the sting on her cheek, and all she could do was watch the Professor hoist the cadaver up by the armpits. "Now!" he said. She grabbed the ankles, and they lifted him up out of the freezer, and dangled him between them over to the door. The whole time Teresa got a full view of the poor cadaver's moles, wrinkles, genitals. She couldn't stop wobbling.
"Oh come on," the Professor said. "It's not like you haven't handled a dead body before."
"Well, no, but…" But they were cadavers, obtained legitimately, not through whatever bribes or threats the Professor had used, not lugged around like a sandbag. There were supposed to be procedures and protocols and equipment for this. Carrying the body like this, she now felt very much like a grave robber.
He brought her out to an open-air deck, currently being rained on, but with a tent on the far end. With no umbrella, there was nothing Teresa could do to avoid getting wet. Two thin steel towers rose high into the night sky on each side of the tent.
They carried the cadaver in and laid it on the table. Teresa could finally take her eyes off it. "Am I done now?" This was all so surreal, as if this wasn't even her, as if she were watching this from somewhere closeby. "Am I?"
"Of course not, I need a witness. There's supposed to be lightning tonight. All we need is to have it strike one of these two rods here."
"And then what happens?" Teresa said. "What are you going to do with this man after he comes back to life? Wh… What happened to the people the Frankensteins brought back?" The ones in the movies didn't exactly become flourishing members of society.
"You know, that's the part I was never able to crack." He stared off wistfully, as if he hadn't just slapped a woman half his age square in the face. "Friedrich Frankenstein talked about his creature adjusting fairly well, even learning to sing, but after a certain point, his diary just peters out." A dim thunder rumbled in the distance. "There we go. We don't have much time." He attached electrodes to the cadaver's chest, strapped on some tubing and wiring, and inserted IV needles. "Now we just—"
A man's screams echoed from downhill.
Teresa yelled back, "Marco!"
"Polo!" Professor Warner said.
"That's not funny!" Teresa ran out of the tent to the deck rail. "Marco! Marco!"
Next there were footsteps splashing up the steps outside the cabin.
"Who else is out here?" Teresa asked the Professor.
"You got me," he said. For the first time tonight, he seemed uneasy. "It's just you, me, and your boyfriend out there."
Then the cabin shook, the deck along with it. The footsteps tromped inside and up the stairs. At the same time, the Professor ran in. As soon as he got through the door, he let out a piercing scream and backed out.
A shape came out of the door with him. When it straightened its back, it stood seven feet tall, with the bulk of a heavyweight boxer, and skin like a dead field in the heart of winter. Scars suggested the seams in the skin where parts had been grafted on.
"Good," the shape said with an impossibly deep voice. "I'm not too late."
"All right, buddy," the Professor said, "I'm not here for a fight. You can have anything." He reached into his back pocket. "Here. Take it." He dangled his wallet in front of him. "It's yours."
The shape wrapped his giant hand around the Professor's wrist, and lifted him three feet in the air. The wallet fell to the floor. "Do you not realize who I am?"
Professor Warner sputtered without giving an answer. Still holding the man's wrist, the shape turned to Teresa. Her right knee gave out, and only the railing and her left leg kept her standing. "And you?" the shape said.
Teresa couldn't stop stuttering, but she managed to spit something out. "F-F-Friedrich's? Or Heinrich's?"
"Victor's." The creature slung the Professor to the ground. "Two hundred years damned to be a Frankenstein. Hard to die after coming back." He plodded around the Professor's crumpled body. "You said I could have anything? I'll take the cadaver."
"No!" Professor Warner lifted himself up and crawled in front of the Frankenstein. "My research! My revolution!"
The Frankenstein bent down to meet him face to face. "I'll take the journals, too. And that wasn't a request." He moved around the Professor toward the tent.
Professor Warner shot to his feet. "Don't you realize what you're doing? We could extend the human lifespan by years, decades, indefinitely! Treat illnesses that couldn't be treated! Do you have any idea how many people will die, and stay dead, if you do this?"
The Frankenstein froze at the entrance to the tent. "Do you have any idea what it's like to live life inside a corpse? This experiment is over. When the time comes for the dead to rise, they will." He entered, and came out a moment later with the body in his arms. "I'll take him where he belongs. Now, where are the Frankensteins' notebooks?"
"No dice," Professor Warner said. "You're not taking—"
"They're downstairs," Teresa said. "On the dining table!"
The Frankenstein nodded. "Much obliged."
"Teresa!" the Professor cried.
The Frankenstein kicked him in the shin, knocking him to his knees. He said to Teresa, "You may go. The others and I aren't quite finished here."
"Heinrich's and Friedrich's."
Teresa sidled along the railing, keeping her distance from the creature. "Wh-what about Marco? My boyfriend? Out in the car?"
The Frankenstein adjusted the cadaver. "He saw Friedrich's and got frightened. He'll be fine."
As she reached the door, she asked, "And the Professor?"
The shape looked behind him, where the Professor was shivering in the rain. "I've killed before. It's since gotten tiresome. He'd be wise not to tempt me. Just go. And don't turn back."
And Teresa went, as fast as her mismatched legs could take her. She didn't see anyone else. Maybe the other creatures were hiding elsewhere around the cabin, or somewhere in the woods outside. She thought it best to trust the shape, and not to wait and see who else might appear.
She reached the car to find Marco shaking, ghostly pale, ready to seize her in his arms, and then drive as far away from here as possible.
All her work, all her study, all… for that.
Wednesday, June 05, 2019
This time, I believe the keyword for word-association was "Palm," after Palm Sunday, with the King entering his capital city to die. It marks a return to the world of "The Last Battle of Monument Beach" and "The Survivor of Ornhuist," at a different point in its history. Not much else to say about it, except that I'm happy with how it turned out.
She got confirmation when her attendants announced that Captain Geler had arrived… alone. Adha ran as fast as she could to the throne room. Blood covered the Captain's shirt.
"Your Highness!" he cried, kneeling. "I bring terrible news." He breathed in large huffs. "The king… Bandits…"
"What happened?" Adha said. "Is my father all right?"
"I… we did everything we could…" He lowered his eyes to the ground. "He took three arrows. His guards are bringing him back as we speak, but it's a struggle. They're injured, too."
Adha glared out at the crowd around her—the servants, the visiting nobles, her cousin Ora—and shouted, "What's everyone waiting for? You heard him! Bring a medic! Gather the soldiers! Any delay could cost His Majesty's life!"
The crowd scattered, leaving her alone with Ora and Captain Geler. But the delay might not matter. Three arrows. Depending on where they hit, and how long the guards took to arrive, there might not be much hope, even with a witch. Orlynne witches were talented healers, but even they had their limits. "Captain," she said, "how far ahead were you of His Majesty?"
"I couldn't say." He remained on his knees. "The bandits were relentless. His Majesty ordered me to run ahead so the castle could make preparations."
"And where were these bandits from?"
"They wore no uniform, and said nothing as they attacked. I'm afraid I have no answer."
"Then perhaps you can answer my next question. How could a reigning monarch surrounded by armed guards have fallen victim to mere bandits?" She could feel the growl in her voice scraping her throat. Her cousin Ora, still a little girl, took a step back. Captain Geler whimpered, but didn't answer.
Adha turned away from both of them. If worse came to worst, then in a short time, she would no longer be Her Highness. She had thought she might have years before her time on the throne, if it ever did come. At times she even flirted with the idea of leaving for a convent, for a life of quiet simplicity, forgetting even the idea of royalty. But her family's lineage was sparse. Her father had no siblings, and neither did she. Her mother passed when Adha was younger than Ora. Without her father, and without herself, they would have to go with Gilbert, Ora's shiftless bard of an older brother. And he wasn't here.
She silently cursed Captain Geler, her father's guards, even her father herself, for foisting this on her before she was ready. If one could ever be ready.
Footsteps echoed from down the halls. Adha snorted in a deep breath. Until her father arrived, until his fate was certain one way or the other, Adha was regent of this castle.
A trio of witches rushed into the throne room, two women and a man. Several mats hovered behind them, levitated by their magic. "How many do we need?"
"How many are on their way back?" Adha asked Captain Geler.
"Two were killed by the bandits immediately."
Adha spun back to the witches. "One king, one captain, and three guards."
The witches laid out the mats side-by-side along the wall, laid out the sheets, and set aside their equipment. As Captain Geler lay down, the First Lieutenant appeared and bowed. "Your Highness! We have fifteen units ready for your orders."
"Spread out over the valley. Subdue any bandits you can find. Try to capture as many as possible. If you can't avoid combat, do what you must, but leave at least one alive. Whoever finds my father, have him send out a flare and bring His Majesty straight back here. Right away!"
The Lieutenant stared up at her for a moment, his mouth drooping open. Ana hadn't expected anything like that to come so clear from her mouth, either. She had never had any interest in military matters. Everything simply fell into place just now like a puzzle piece.
She went to the throne as the Lieutenant ran off.
But she did not sit down. As far as anyone knew, the king was still alive. She was not queen yet. Instead she fell into her own seat, leaving her father's empty.
Ora stepped up to her with hesitation. "Is… is there anything you need me to do?"
"Just stay with me," Princess Adha said. "Right now I need family more than anything." The only thing left was to wait for the Lieutenant to return with his troops. She prayed that none of the arrows struck anything vital, that the witches over there could heal the wounds easily. She'd seen soldiers die before, brought in after a campaign. The thought of such a thing happening to her father, of him experiencing such agony, made her sick to her stomach. What was she supposed to do without him? How could she ever hope to take his place?
"When I was your age," she told Ora, "my father used to take me to Ornhuist, to go fishing. He loved fishing. I think if he never had royal blood, he'd have joined some crew and gone out to sea. We haven't gone to Ornhuist in a few years. We were planning on going again in the summer, when the lakes are plentiful."
"I'm sure he'll be fine." Ora patted her hand. "His Majesty's strong. A simple bandit couldn't kill someone like him."
"Hm." Of course Ora would say that. The man was a giant compared to her. Even at his age, he could sweep her up and prop her on his shoulder without breaking a sweat. But even if he lived, would he ever be the same again? Adha had met soldiers who limped from campaigns that took place before she was ever born, and others who'd had limbs removed outright. Her father may be king, but he was still human.
On the other hand, something about what Ora said made Adha think. There had always been bandits, and until now, none had been so demented as to ambush the king. How did they even get into the hunting grounds?
"Captain Geler," Adha said, "could you tell any sign of where these bandits were from?"
"No, Your Highness." He sat up, and a witch nudged him back down.
Adha said, "Did they say anything? Make any demands? Do they speak our language?"
"They did, but they didn't ask for anything. They simply attacked."
Adha felt a black cloud form within her. "Were they townspeople? Farmers?" The thought of her own people attacking her father…
"Perhaps," Captain Geler said. "There has been unrest in recent months. Last year's harvest was poor. The bridge in Amas has collapsed. Forgive my boldness, but it could be said that perhaps His Majesty has been slow to respond."
"But that wouldn't call for open treason."
One of the witches chimed in. "I know some people are upset that their favorite chariot racer got arrested."
"Not Toza?" Adha said. "The one found to be kidnapping farm girls and holding them prisoner in his stables?" Adha saw the distress on Ora's face, and patted her on the shoulder.
"No one ever said blind loyalty had to make sense." The witch rinsed her hands in a bowl of water. "Some people, you could have anyone on the throne, as long as the races start on time."
Adha leaned on the arm of her chair. "But to go this far…" If this was a true rebellion, they wouldn't stop with her father. Her own head might be on a pike before this was over. She might have to deliver worse to any rebels before that happened.
"Your Highness." Another witch, a young man with violet hair, stood up. "May I have a word?"
He stepped up and kneeled in front of her. He glanced at Ora, and Adha directed her to stand aside, out of earshot. Adha leaned forward to listen.
"There's something Captain Geler isn't telling us," he said. "I used my magic to analyze his wounds, and they don't match the blades typically used by farmers or highwaymen. Nor do they match the known weapons of any foreign enemies. He was wounded by the weapon of a fellow guard."
"Then… one of the guards betrayed the others? Or more than one?"
"Perhaps. I even considered the possibility that a bandit could have stolen a weapon. But why avoid mentioning such a thing?"
"You're not suggesting… He…"
"We won't know for certain until the search party returns."
Adha took a long, slow breath. "Does Captain Geler have an interest in chariot races?"
"I wouldn't know."
Adha heard the jingling of armor and chain mail. A sentry ran into the throne room and stumbled to a stop. "Princess! The flare! They've found your father!"
She sprang from her chair. "Open the gates, lower the drawbridge! Make sure nothing obstructs their passage through! Witches, do you have everything you need?"
"We'll be fine."
And she sank back down. The sentry left the doors to the throne room open on his way out. Ora shuffled up quietly and said, "You sounded exactly like a real queen just now."
"Please." Adha rubbed her eyes. "Don't say that." Tears were pouring faster than she could wipe them away. "Don't say that." Ora had never known Adha's mother. Sometimes even Adha's memory of her was as dim as a night mist. What she did remember was a soft-spoken woman who seemed to respond to everything with a joke, and a mother who could be kind at some times, and unbearably distant at others. Adha was nothing like her.
She was just starting to wonder if they'd show up at all when they came in like the flood of a burst dam. The sentries carried the surviving guards in on gurneys, along with the king. Adha ran to him as soon as she saw him. His skin had turned as pale as his beard. He was unconscious, but still breathing. The sentries laid him and the guards down and transferred them to the mats. The witches immediately got to work, roping the sentries in as assistants.
One witch said, "The Captain told us three guards had survived. Here there are only two."
"Sergeant Fuio succumbed to his wounds before we arrived," the First Lieutenant said. "He's on his way to the morgue. We already sang the Hymn for him."
Adha hovered over her father as the purple-haired witch waved his hand over him. The king had ventured out in blue. His blood had stained it into dark wine.
One of the guards groaned. "Captain… Captain Geler…"
"Not now, save your strength," his attending witch said.
Ora stayed in the corner, watching from a distance.
"I'm right here," Captain Geler said, still on his mat. "I'll be fine."
The guard groaned again.
The king breathed with incredible struggle. The witch grimaced in frustration. Adha had feared the worst, and now the worst was here.
"I'm sorry," the witch said. "He's already lost so much blood. All I can do is…"
A sob pushed up through her throat. "I know." The witch could ease his pain. Nothing more. Even magic had its limits.
The king's eyes fluttered open.
The witch said, "Your Majesty!"
The king looked straight at Adha, and smiled. "Ah… There you are… I made it."
Then he died.
Adha stood and stared down as peace returned to her father's face. The witch ceased his magic and stood up and began singing the Hymn of the Soul.
All other talk in the throne room ceased. Others joined in the Hymn—first the other witches, then the soldiers, for whom the Hymn was a nightly ritual. As they sang, Adha paced toward the throne. She did not add her voice.
Soon the Hymn ended. The First Lieutenant cried out, "The king is dead! Long live—"
"DON'T!" Adha shrieked loud enough to be heard in Ornhuist. "Not now."
Still, though, she could no longer question or protest her fate. She took a seat on the throne. Even with the cushioning, it was the most uncomfortable chair she'd ever sat in.
One of the guards cried out again. "Traitor! Murderer! Captain Geler! He led us to the bandits! He started to flee when they attacked!"
"Slander!" Captain Geler shot straight to his feet. "You dare dishonor your fallen king with such accusations! You inflicted these wounds on me! You are the traitor!"
"You talk about dishonor?!" the guard said. A witch and a sentry had to hold him down to the mat. "You gambled on the races, put everything on Tozus! This wasn't even for politics! It was for your debts!"
"We could ask your friend there, but he seems in worse shape than either of us."
"You'd be right," the third witch said. "I'm not letting him regain consciousness in this condition."
"I'm telling you, arrest the Captain!" the guard said.
"Everybody shut up!" the Princess said. Leaning on the arm of the chair, she sent a glare over the throne room. "Were any 'bandits' captured?"
"Yes!" a sentry said. "Our unit brought in three. No telling yet about the others."
"Bring one of them here. One who looks like he knows the most."
The same sentry ran out. Adha was amazed at how little she felt right now. As if all feeling inside her died along with her father. Feeling like this, she could not promise to herself she'd act like a princess.
No, her time as princess was done. If God and fate and those bandits didn't want her to be one, she supposed she wouldn't.
The guard came back with a burly young woman with hair like unruly black wires. She wore gray with a brown tunic. As soon as the sentry brought her in, she said, "Your Majesty."
"His Majesty's dead," Adha said. She pointed to the sheet covering the body. "That's him over there. You don't seem like much of a bandit. Tell me, do you enjoy the chariot races?"
"I've been known to attend a few. And little Miss Monarch, you could at least ask my name. It's Loze. Tozus is my brother."
"Ah, so I guess your position's understandable. Were you part of the group that attacked the king?"
Loze smiled smugly.
"Okay. Listen, thanks to you and your comrades, my reign is off to a terrible start. My father has been murdered. And regardless of whoever loosed the arrows, I have reason to believe that one of these two men betrayed him." She gestured to the guard and the captain. "But I don't know which. Perhaps you could tell us."
Loze kept smiling, and said nothing.
"So that's how it is. Do you not know? Or, no, I got it, maybe they both betrayed him. Or neither. They could be so distraught that they blame the first person they see. Am I getting warm?"
"I'm sure I sound hilarious to you," Adha said. "Just this morning I was joining the ladies of the castle in their sewing circle, without a care in the world. Now I have a king to bury, an army to command, and criminals to bring to justice. I hold your life in my hands."
Loze said nothing.
"I could have you killed on the spot. I could order your brother executed. I could even ban the races."
There were shouts from the guards. "There'd be riots!"
"No, you're right. I could be a compassionate ruler. I could set you free. I could set your monster of a brother free, inflict him on the world all over again."
Loze said, "It wouldn't do any good. After all, there's still the matter of the king's overgrown droppings sitting on the throne."
An icy draft blew from the open door, brushing against Adha's cheek. "Put her back in the dungeon."
The guards dragged Loze out and shut the doors behind them. Adha stood and started toward the side doors. "We're obviously not going to solve this problem tonight." She gestured to the guard and the captain. "Keep those two under watch once they've recovered. Ora, come with me."
The girl followed her out. Her face was smeared over with tears. "Is… is everything going to be okay?"
"It'll be fine," Adha said. "We'll find out whoever was responsible, and bring them to justice, and restore peace to this kingdom."
Ora snatched her hand. "But you'll be queen, not the princess. You'll have so much work to do, and we won't be able to spend any time together. It won't be the same. The work will be so important. Already it's not the same."
"No. It won't be the same. Just… promise me something. Whatever responsibilities I have, don't let me forget that I'm still your cousin Adha."
Ora rubbed her face, probably not understanding completely. But then she said, "Okay."
"Thank you." Adha and Ora arrived at her bedroom, with Adha's bed on one side and Ora's smaller bed on the other. In coming days Adha might have to move to her father's old chambers, but not tonight. For now, wherever she slept, that would be the Queen's bed.
Before going to sleep, Queen Adha looked out the window over the valley, blackened by night. The valley where her father had been betrayed. The valley that now belonged to her. Somewhere below, she heard chants, at the same time both joyful and mournful. They must have started when they thought she couldn't hear them.
Long live the Queen!
Long live the Queen!