Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Weekly Story #30: The Fool in the Falls

This is somewhat of a special story for a number of reasons. As far as this weekly story project goes, this is my first overtly religious story, for one. It draws on a very particular figure in Orthodox Christianity: the Fool for Christ, who feigns madness in order to squelch their pride and/or conceal their piety from others. Notable examples include St. Basil of Moscow (who is said to have told off Ivan the Terrible in person), St. Xenia of Petersburg (who dressed as her late husband and gave his name as her own), and St. Andrew of Constantinople (who received a vision of the Virgin Mary). "Crazy Steve" is definitely intended to be part of this tradition. It's also the last story of this project that will use my improv prompts. From here on, the stories will be created with a different method. Frankly, I'm amazed I kept that up so long. In some ways I feel like I'm a little out of my depth with the subject matter—both Holy Fools and domestic violence—but I figure it's worth a try anyway. The prompt:

  • Waterfall - Secret Love - Holy

 

THE FOOL IN THE FALLS

Pete was supposed to be in his bedroom. His father had no idea about Roberta, or the waterfall where she suggested meeting up. Pete always risked a lot by sneaking out. Dad had fists like a sledgehammer. Pete had called out sick from school more than once so no one would see his bruises.

He slipped out at dusk and arrived at the waterfall first, with only the dimmest haze of sunlight overhead. It was a short hike from the house, downhill from the pharmacy, about twenty feet from the top of the bluff. There was a road that curved past the bottom of the falls nearby, but hardly anyone ever used it.

As far as Pete knew, Dad also had no idea about the cave behind the waterfall.

"Pete," Roberta whispered from behind, tapping his shoulder. Pete turned around, and she greeted him with a kiss, deep and warm. "Sorry I'm late," she said. "My sister wouldn't leave me alone."

"No big deal," Pete said. "I just got here myself."

"No problems with your dad?"

"Not yet. He's usually drunk in front of the TV this time of night. As long as he stays out of my room for the next few hours, I should be okay."

They headed toward the waterfall. "We shouldn't have to keep hiding like this," Roberta said.

"He can't know. He just can't." On one hand, Pete could imagine his dad being thrilled that he'd found a girl. But they didn't go to the same school, or live in the same neighborhood, so naturally the question of how they met would come up. If Dad knew they met at a college guy's party, sharing a beer Pete had stolen from the fridge, when Dad thought he was at a movie, then Pete was as good as dead. "This is a guy who whaled on me because he thought I told him off. It was actually something on TV."

"God…"

Pete and Roberta passed by the graffiti that covered the rock face and slipped behind the falls. Some of the water sprayed onto their backs. The cave went deeper, but they didn't need to go too far. It was already too dark for anyone to find them. He'd anticipated this night for what felt like forever—his first night alone with Roberta. However Dad reacted, whatever he was going to do, he couldn't take this away.

They'd hardly begun kissing before Roberta pushed him away. "I think I see something."

"What? Where?"

"Down there, further in." She moved away. "I don't think we're alone."

"No, it can't be." Pete could just barely see Roberta's face in profile silhouetted against a slight glow. She took out her phone and turned on the flashlight. "You're not seriously gonna check it out, are you?" Pete said.

"I'm just gonna look. If anybody's there, we leave."

"Let's just go now. It's not worth it. What if there's—"

Roberta turned a corner, then Pete. Just as he feared, there was someone in the cave with them. A man with a thick, Santa-esque beard slept under a grimy blanket. The light came from a small oil lantern, its flame dancing gently. Above it was a painting of the Virgin Mary, stars on her red veil, the Christ Child in her arms.

"We better go," Roberta whispered. "I don't want to bother him."

"Right."

They headed back out of the cave, Roberta leading the way with her flashlight. "I'm sorry," she said, still with a soft voice. "I didn't think there'd be anybody here, much less they'd have a shrine. We'll just have to find some other place."

"I guess so." Pete felt like it would take forever to calm down, to think about anything other than the pressure of her body, or the taste of her lips. "What should we do instead?"

Roberta sighed. "I wish I knew. We can't keep sneaking around your dad forever."

"If I had somewhere else to stay, I'd feel better. Everywhere I go, I feel like he's right behind me."

They crept out in single file from behind the waterfall.

As soon as Pete saw the headlights, he pushed Roberta's hand down, the flashlight beam with it. "Don't move!"

Pete knew the sound of that terminally-ill engine anywhere. His father's Plymouth was idling on that side road, and Dad himself was wandering around, calling for Pete.

"Pete!" he yelled. "Where are you? Pete!"

Roberta laid her hands on Pete's shoulder as they inched together behind the waterfall. Eventually Dad would give up and move on to look somewhere else, but that didn't help Pete. Eventually he'd have to go home. Eventually he'd face the music, and he'd have to call out "sick" for a week. All because he wanted to spend time with a girl he met at a party.

Pete heard a cough. And it didn't come from Roberta.

They both jumped with fright. The homeless man was standing behind them, holding the lantern. He coughed again, smelling like death.

"That shiner of yours sure looked bad," the man said. "No way for a man to treat his kid. And that molar he took out? Oof. What a pity."

"What?" Pete said. His tongue felt the spot where the molar had once been, before Dad knocked it out. "How did you…"

"Mary told me. Be right back, I'll take care of that noise. Wait here."

And the man walked out of the cave, letting the water from the falls brush against his shoulder. Pete and Roberta left behind him, but stayed in the shadows under the bluff.

"Ho, neighbor," the man said in a rough voice. "Can't trouble you for some change, can I?"

"What?" Pete's father said. "Oh for God's sake. I don't have time for this."

"Please? I just need enough for McDonald's." The man turned to the side and snapped, "No, I am NOT sharing it with you."

Roberta pulled Pete back behind the waterfall. "Oh God, I've heard of this guy! It's Crazy Steve!"

"Crazy Steve?"

"Except he's not actually crazy. I have friends who've met him. They said he'd tell them things about themselves he couldn't possibly know."

"So he's psychic?" He'd have to be to know about the molar.

"I don't know. But if that is him…"

Outside, Crazy Steve and Pete's dad were still talking.

"Look," Crazy Steve said, "I can't fight the devil on an empty stomach. He's got hideouts all over town."

Pete's dad growled in frustration. If Pete himself acted like this, he'd get a beating, but of course Dad didn't pick on people his own size. "Just shut up for one second," Dad said. "I'm looking for my son, about seventeen, about yea big."

Pete peeked back out from the falls.

"Just me out here," Steve said, then, pointing to the empty space beside him, "Ignore this guy."

"Fine. Thank you. Here!" Dad pressed his hand on Steve's, then turned away. "That's all you're getting!"

"God bless, sir."

Dad grumbled to himself, and his voice faded away as he headed back to the car. Pete leaned on the cave wall and let out a long exhale. The Plymouth rattled away to look somewhere else.

Crazy Steve returned to the cave, shaking his head. "Your father… Such a withered soul…"

"Thank you," Pete said. "I don't know what to say."

"Here." Steve handed Pete a bill, the same bill his Dad had handed over.

Roberta shone her phone's light on it. "Twenty dollars?"

"It's dark out there," Steve said. "And your father was too angry to pay attention."

"But don't you—"

"I can take care of myself, Pete. Besides, it's more yours than it is mine."

Pete stuffed it into his pocket. "Thank you."

"But where's he supposed to go?" Roberta said. "If Pete goes home, his dad'll be waiting. He'll kill him."

"Yes," Crazy Steve said. "He will." He said it with such cold certainty, as if he had seen it himself. Pete grabbed Roberta's hand.

Roberta said, "If I had room at my place…"

Crazy Steve went on, "Roberta, I think your sister knows someone who can help?"

"How did you… Wow… You're for real… Pete, he's right. My sister's fiance has a spare room. I can give him a call." She checked her phone. "As soon as I can get a signal."

She stepped out of the falls and placed her call.

Pete stood in awkward silence beside Crazy Steve.

"So," Pete said, "why do you pretend like that?"

"Pretend like what?" Steve said. "Like I'm mentally ill? It's just so I don't start thinking I'm any kind of hotshot. I'm a sinner, nothing more. A sinner serving his Lord."

Pete dimly but distinctly heard his girlfriend say "Abusive son of a bitch" through the roar of the waterfall. Four words Pete found he wished he could say to his father's face. "Thanks again," he said to Steve. "How can I repay you?"

"Thank God," Steve said. "And pray for me. That's all."

"Pete," Roberta said, running in under the falls, "he's on his way to pick us up. He lives about five minutes away."

"You two take care," Steve said. "Although… I know you're young, and you're crazy about each other, but do try to keep it in your pants for a while."

"What?" Pete said, "Maybe you should mind your own—"

Roberta clapped her hand over his mouth. "It was very nice meeting you, Steve," she said. "Let's go, Pete."

They sidled out of the waterfall and headed uphill toward the main road. Sitting on a bench at a bus stop, they watched the headlights that passed by, waiting for the one that would take them each to a safe night's sleep.

And the man known as "Crazy Steve" returned to his icon of the Theotokos, made the sign of the cross, and laid down and shut his eyes.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Weekly Story #29: Whirlwind and Gust

So over the last few years, they introduced a son for Superman. I've read some of the comics, and I think it's the most relateable the Man of Steel's been in ages. They didn't need to make him Jesus or gritty or angsty; they just had to make him a dad. So when this prompt came up, I wound up developing a pastiche of Superman and the new Superboy, while also drawing on all the time I used to spend at the coffee shop.

  • Café - Kid/Parent - Flying

 

WHIRLWIND AND GUST

The boy seemed to have appeared at the counter out of nowhere. Cathy had been steaming a cappuccino, and hadn't heard the doorbell over the grinding noise. He seemed to be about ten or eleven, and was catching his breath. He wore a silver shirt with a blue mask that matched his cape and gloves, just like the local superhero Whirlwind. Nobody else was with him. The only other people in the coffee shop were the middle-aged woman who had ordered the cappucino, and Brad, who was sitting in the corner with his laptop and textbooks.

Cathy gave the woman her cappuccino and met the boy at the counter. "How can I help you?"

"Um, yeah, I need a…" The boy adjusted his cape, pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, and read the note. "One frappucino with whipped cream, and one decaf mocha."

"And a name for the order?"

"Call me 'Gust.'"

"Coming right up, Gust," Cathy said. "That's a nice costume. Big fan of Whirlwind, huh?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah. You could say that." "Gust" laid a ten dollar bill on the counter. "My dad said that would be enough. He'll be here in a minute."

"Okay, I was wondering." Cathy rang up the order and gave him his change. "Should be ready by the time he gets here. You know, I'm a big fan of Whirlwind, too. He got my sister out of a really bad wreck once."

"Cool." The boy sat down on the couch, on the opposite end from Brad, whose headphones kept him from noticing much.

Cathy got to work on "Gust's" order. A lot of people in this town owed Whirlwind a great deal, Cathy especially. If he hadn't delivered Stacey to the hospital when he did, she might not be around today. Rumor around town had it he used to be an EMT before becoming a superhero—Stacey had certainly made him seem like a pro. It didn't hurt that he helped take care of creeps like Dr. Stormbolt whenever they turned up.

Cathy just hoped this boy's father got here soon. She was a barista, not a babysitter, and she hadn't been one since she graduated from high school a few years ago. Some parents let their precious little darlings run wild, as if she didn't already have enough to deal with around here. But so far this "Gust" seemed like a nice enough kid. Wasn't getting into people's business or making a lot of noise—at least, nothing she could hear over the steamer or the blender.

When she was done, she called out "Gust's" name and carried his drinks to the counter, but he didn't come up to get them. The boy was sitting on the couch, watching something on Brad's laptop.

Cathy raised her voice. "Gust!"

"Oh, right!" Gust ran up to the counter, snatched the cups, and took them straight back to the couch to resume watching. Then as an afterthought, he said, "Thank you!" and sipped the frappuccino.

"He's not bothering you, is he?" Cathy said.

"No, we're cool." Brad pointed at his laptop. "It's Whirlwind. He's in a fight across the river. Somebody's livestreaming it right now."

The boy was staring intently at the screen, shaking his fist. "Come on… You can do it…"

"Thought he'd like to watch his hero in action," Brad said.

"Okay," Cathy said. So far, no problem.

The woman with the cappuccino opened the door, but then stepped back in. "You can see it from here!"

Cathy left the counter and ran out the door. "You're right!" They were only dark specks in the sky, like a pair of squabbling birds, but the force of Whirlwind's punches was unmistakable. So were the energy blasts coming from his opponent. Whirlwind dodged each one, but sometimes just barely.

"Geez," Cathy said, "feels like every week there's a new guy trying to take him down."

The woman wasn't listening; she had started recording the fight on her phone.

Cathy went back inside and joined Brad and Gust at the laptop. It did give a better view. It looked like it was being recorded from the roof a nearby building, so it was more level with the two combatants. Whoever Whirlwind was fighting had a red crest on his head, and the blasts came from his giant chrome-plated gloves. He was flying thanks to jet engines in his boots.

The supervillain fired another blast. The camera shook, turning everything into a pixelated blur. Gust said, "Hold still! Come on, what's happening?" He then muttered something that sounded like, "I should be there."

When the camera finally settled, it showed Whirlwind with smoke wafting off his shoulder. Gust let out a wail, his hands clawed tight on his frappuccino cup.

"Oh geez," Cathy said. "I hope he can beat this guy."

"Of course he can." Gust's voice shook. "He's got to."

"I swear," Brad said, "half these guys aren't even stealing anything or trying to take over the world. They're just trying to prove they're the bigger alpha."

"I agree," Gust said. "Except this guy. I think he stole some tech from the power plant."

"Sure, that's a nice theory. I guess we'll find out when this is all—"

Gust screamed again, this time jumping to his feet. One of the supervillain's energy shots struck Whirlwind right in the arm. He sank down in the air, but didn't fall. The villain had his back to the camera.

"What's he even using to power that thing?" Cathy said.

"If I had to guess…" Brad pointed at the villain's back. "It's this bundle here on his belt. Those stripes on his costume might have cables and circuits for the gloves and boots."

"You think so, huh?" Gust had taken a flip phone out of his pocket. Cathy didn't even realize they still made those. His dad must have thought he was too young for a smartphone. Gust clicked out a text message, and as soon as he sent it, he fixed his eyes back on the screen.

Brad furrowed his brows. "Is Whirlwind checking his phone?"

Cathy stared back at Gust. His teeth were clenched, his eyes on the screen, his fist wrapped tight around his phone.

On the screen, Whirlwind lunged forward, and after grappling with the villain, managed to grab hold of his belt. After a few attempts to pull it off, he slipped behind, and crushed the bundle on the villain's back like an aluminum can.

The villain began to fall, but Whirlwind immediately caught him.

"YES!" Gust jumped with his fists in the air. The cap came off his frappuccino, scattering shaved ice on the floor, the table, and on Brad's shoulder. "Oops, sorry. I'll clean it up."

"It's okay, don't worry," Cathy said. She noticed Brad staring at Gust, and knew they both had the same thing on their minds. "That… That was you texting him, wasn't it?"

"He went for the belt almost as soon as I said it," Brad said.

The boy's face turned red. "Well… I did say Dad was busy."

The screen showed the red-crested villain sitting on top of a police car, his equipment now useless. Whirlwind was flying offscreen.

The middle aged woman burst in. "He's coming this way!"

And before anyone knew it, a masked man in blue and silver dropped from the sky, landing on his feet, his arms still giving off a little smoke. He opened the door, ringing the bell.

"Dad!" The boy ran to Whirlwind and threw himself into a hug.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," Whirlwind said.

"I saw the whole thing!" Gust said, pointing at Brad. "He's the one who thought of the belt!"

"All right then," Whirlwind said, and came over to shake Brad's hand. "I owe you one."

"N-No problem," Brad said. "It was just easier to see on the livestream."

Whirlwind saw the bits of the frappuccino on the couch. "I hope my boy didn't cause any trouble…" He read Cathy's name tag. "Cathy."

"Not at all," Cathy said. "I didn't even know you had kids."

"Figured it was about time to start showing him the ropes, now that his powers are coming in." Whirlwind looked down at his son. "Did you remember to leave a tip?"

"D'oh." Gust slapped his forehead, zipped to the counter, and threw his change in the jar. "I knew I forgot something." He came back with some napkins and started wiping the slush off the table.

"Let me heat this up for you." Cathy picked up the mocha. "It's probably lukewarm by now."

"Much obliged."

She took the cup behind the counter, removed the lid, and ran the steamer through it. When she handed it back, she said, "You know, some time back you saved my sister from a car wreck. I've always wanted a chance to properly thank you."

Whirlwind lowered his head. "You're too kind. How is she?"

"Doing just great. She's about to start fifth grade."

"Ah, same grade as you, Gust." He patted the boy on the shoulder. "Well, we'd better get going. Have a great day. Tell your sister I said hello."

"I will. Her name's Stacey."

"Stacey." A look of recognition crossed his face. "I do remember… She was clutching a little plush rabbit for dear life. Wouldn't go anywhere without it. So terrified…"

"She still has it," Cathy said, her throat tightening. "Not in the best shape anymore, but she keeps it on her windowsill." All this time, and he still remembered…

"I had no way to follow up after I dropped her off at the ER," Whirlwind said, "so I've often wondered how she was doing… whether she pulled through. Tell Stacey I'm glad she's all right. I'll have to come back here sometime. See you around, Cathy."

"Looking forward to it. And see you around, Gust."

"Later," Gust said, and sipped some more of his frappuccino.

Cathy waved as Whirlwind and his son Gust walked out the door.

The two jumped in the air, and kept going up.

"I can't believe what just happened," Brad said.

Cathy couldn't believe it, either. "Wait till I tell Stacey," she said. "He remembers her."

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Weekly Story #28: Specific Codes to Communicate Vital Info

Another shorter one this time. I definitely had a more hectic time at work during the first week of December, and had trouble getting to my writing when I was at home. So here's a goofy little story about aliens!

  • Crop Circle - Joker/Sucker - Judgment

 

SPECIFIC CODES TO COMMUNICATE VITAL INFO

The crop circle was just supposed to be a joke. Sarah had persuaded Rhett to come out to this wheat field in the middle of a cold Autumn night on the promise that building their own circle would summon the aliens that were secretly spying on Earth. All they really needed were some small wooden planks to press the wheat stalks down with their feet, and some rope to hold onto the board. Sarah mostly wanted to see how long she could keep him revved up about aliens, like Linus over the Great Pumpkin, before she revealed it was all a hoax. Participating in a little vandalism on a school night was just a nice bonus for her.

Then the flying saucer showed up, floating down as they headed back to her car. It hovered over their crop circle for a moment, then shone a light directly at the two of them.

Three figures materialized with a blue glow below the ship. They were gray, with black eyes and elongated arms and legs, like the classic greys of urban legends. The alien in front pointed over his shoulder, toward the crop circle. "Did you do this?" he said.

Sarah could only stammer in response.

"We both did," Rhett said. "Thank you for answering so quickly!" He fell down on one knee. "I'm at your service."

The leader of the aliens turned back to the other two and whispered with them for a moment, before saying to Rhett and Sarah, "You really call this a crop circle?"

"Huh?"

"The edges are jagged," one alien said.

"The shape is off-kilter," another alien said.

The leader said, "Our circles are made with specific codes to communicate vital info from our scouts. We were worried that this time they had consumed too many of this planet's recreational substances before coming. But you're just locals playing a prank. You've wasted our time."

The aliens vanished, and the flying saucer drifted away, leaving Sarah and Rhett with only their flashlights. They continued on toward Sarah's car. "Not what you expected, huh?" Sarah said, still shaking a little from what she had just seen.

"Everybody's a critic," Rhett said. "I told you we should have drawn it out first."

Meanwhile, the three aliens on the flying saucer were laughing—or whatever their equivalent was—over the looks on those Earthlings' faces. Scaring humans never got old.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Weekly Story #27: Tyrannosaurus

Ooh, this is a special one. It's loosely based on a painting by my mother, Julia Morgan-Scott, called "Naughty Naughty." The original was sold at Dragon Con back in the 90's, but we still have prints of it. Here's the painting right here:

 © 2019 JuliaMorganScott.com. Posted with permission

That's me in the red sweater. I still have some vague memories of posing for this, though my mom didn't actually paint the picture for some time. When the prompt came up for this week's story, this painting was what came to mind.

  • Boston - Principal/Teacher - Dinosaur

 

TYRANNOSAURUS

Principal Timothy Haller entered the teacher's lounge for a cup of coffee, and found Ms. Simone Ulrich, one of the kindergarten teachers, on the floor. She was down on her hands and knees peering under a desk in the corner. "Is there a problem?" Mr. Haller said.

"Oh! Tim! So glad you're here." Ms. Ulrich sat up. "I need your help."

"Sure. You lost something?"

"I had to confiscate a box full of dinosaur toys from one of my kids this morning, and I lost the tyrannosaurus."

"All right." Mr. Haller knelt beside the couch and lifted the flap. He found a plastic fork and an old magazine, but no dinosaur. "Why'd you confiscate them?"

"Well… They weren't exactly your usual toys."

"Too noisy?" Mr. Haller said. "I'll bet the kid couldn't leave them alone. You know how children are about dinosaurs." In all his years since childhood and since becoming an educator, one thing had never changed, and that was children's fascination with dinosaurs.

Ms. Ulrich got to her feet. "No, that wasn't it. How do I put this…" She crawled across the room to a bookshelf with a gap at the bottom. "They moved."

"Remote control?"

"No. They… You're not going to believe this. They're..." She moved her hands as if trying to grasp for a different word. "Alive."

Mr. Haller got to his feet. "Alive?"

"They're plastic, but they're alive. Living miniature toy dinosaurs, all in a box. He let them out during show-and-tell, and I didn't want wild animals running loose in my classroom. I brought them in here for safekeeping when I took the kids to lunch, but then the T-rex got loose."

"Where are the rest of them?" Mr. Haller said.

"Over there, on the desk." She pointed to the cardboard box sitting next to the computer.

Mr. Haller opened the lid. He saw a triceratops, a pterodactyl, a pachycephalosaurus, a stegosaurus, and a brontosaurus, and conspicuously, no tyrannosaurus. They were also very conspicuously still. "These are just regular toys."

"I'm sorry?"

Mr. Haller took the triceratops out of the box. "Just a plain, ordinary, plastic toy dinosaur, just like what I had when I was a kid. It's not moving at all." His old dinosaur toys hadn't been quite so naturalistic, but then he did grow up in the days before Jurassic Park.

"That's impossible," Ms. Ulrich said. "They were walking around and interacting with each other. The T-rex even bit the brontosaurus."

"I imagine that's why it has the bandage on the tail."

"Yeah, I had a few kids cry over it. The boy who brought them gave the T-rex quite the talking-to. And muzzled it. But why aren't they moving?"

"Because they're just regular toys."

"No! They're alive. Just take a look!" Ms. Ulrich got out her phone and pulled up a video. It showed her classroom, with the kids sitting on the floor in a circle, around the same dinosaur toys Mr. Haller was holding in the box.

This time, they were moving.

The dinosaurs padded around among the kids, taking a closer look at them, as if trying to determine whether they were potential predators. Some of them let out squeals that were probably more imposing at full size. The T-rex snapped at one girl, and a boy shouted "No!" The T-rex jerked its head back and skulked away. It seemed to know who was the boss around here.

It passed by the triceratops, which yelled at it, and the stegosaurus, which swung its tail at it. It then managed to sneak up on the brontosaurus, which plodded across the floor, its tail swaying side-to-side. The T-rex opened its mouth and caught the tail in its jaws.

Then the screams started. That same little boy shouted "No! Bad rex! Very bad rex!" He jumped into the circle and pinned down the T-rex as the camera swung away and went still.

"That's when I went to grab some bandages," Ms. Ulrich said. "Crazy thing was, even when they were moving, they still felt like plastic. I don't know how he did it. I'm not sure I want to know."

The box began to rattle.

"Yeah, you can't fool us anymore," Ms. Ulrich shouted. "Now, you gonna help me look for the T-rex or not?"

Mr. Haller said, "Sure."

He checked under the other couch, but still didn't find anything that resembled a tyrannosaurus toy. With any luck, it hadn't escaped to the halls yet.

Something darted past in the corner of his eye. "What was that?"

"There it is!" Ms. Ulrich jabbed her finger toward the door. A small red lizard was running in front, its tiny arms dangling underneath it, its monstrous jaws open wide. "It got the muzzle off!"

Mr. Haller dove after it, arms forward, but it leapt aside, ran toward Ms. Ulrich, then veered for the bookcase. The little thing was quick as a bird. It was like his uncle's backyard chicken coop all over again. Mr. Haller refused to go near it as a child because of an especially aggressive rooster that acted up whenever it saw him. And that rooster didn't have the bite of one of Planet Earth's deadliest killing machines.

Now that he thought about it, weren't tyrannosaurs supposed to be distantly related to chickens?

Ms. Ulrich picked up a small trash can, made of steel mesh. She dumped out all the old papers inside, and jumped at the T-rex. It leapt out of the way just as she brought the can down. It roared, or rather squealed, and dashed for the door. Mr. Haller grabbed the trash can. He was all set to make his own attempt, when Mr. Hovard, one of the first grade teachers, opened the door.

"No!" Mr. Haller watched the T-rex run between Mr. Hovard's feet, out to the hall. "Out of the way!" He shoved Mr. Hovard aside.

"Hey, watch it! What was that?"

"Ask Simone!" Mr. Haller saw the T-rex make a beeline toward the cafeteria. Yet now Mr. Haller had the advantage. The floor was wide open. Hardly anyone was walking around. The T-rex had no place to hide.

Mr. Haller launched himself forward and swung the trash can down to the floor, right over the tyrannosaurus. "Gotcha!"

"Thank goodness!" Ms. Ulrich said as she caught up with him. "But how do we get it out?"

"Hm." Mr. Haller watched the T-rex ram itself against the mesh of the trash can and try to gnaw on it. It screeched and jumped and kicked, scratching the metal with its claws, so much like an angry rooster. "That's a very good question."

"Hey! That's my dinosaur!"

A small boy came running up with tears in his eyes. Ms. Ulrich said, "Sam, what are you doing out of the lunchroom?"

"I—" He sniffed. "I just want my dinosaurs back, Ms. Ulrich. I promise they won't hurt anybody." He squatted, looked into the trash can, and asked the T-rex, "Have you been bad again?"

"Y-yes, he's been very bad."

"He didn't bite you, did he?" Sam asked Mr. Haller.

"No. He just ran off. These are some remarkable toys you have here."

"Thank you, Mr. Haller. Can I have my dinosaurs back? I'll put them somewhere safe and I won't bring them to school ever again."

"Can you get this guy to sit still?" Mr. Haller said, as Ms. Ulrich ran back to the teacher's lounge.

"Okay." Sam tapped the trash can. "Hey, stop it."

All the noise and motion inside the trash can stopped. Mr. Haller looked through the mesh, and saw a plastic toy tyrannosaurus tilted over and leaning on the inside of the can. He picked the can up. "All right. He's all yours."

Sam picked up the T-rex with the most tender care. "Where are the others?"

"They're right here." Ms. Ulrich returned with the box. All the other dinosaurs were lying still just like the T-rex. Sam placed the T-rex among them. Mr. Haller watched them in case they all tried to shift away from it, but they remained unmoving plastic.

"I'm really sorry, Mr. Haller," Sam said. "I just wanted everybody to see my dinosaurs. I feel really bad."

"Eh, it's all right," Mr. Haller said. "Everything worked out in the end."

"But I told my mom a lie. She's gonna be mad at me. I told her I was bringing my Transformers."

Mr. Haller bristled at the thought of what that could bring to his hallways and classrooms. "Next time, why don't you just bring one toy, okay?"

"Here, let's get back to the lunchroom," Ms. Ulrich said, directing him away from Mr. Haller and the upturned trash can.

Mr. Haller stayed seated on the floor, his elbow propped on the bottom of the trash can, with Mr. Hovard still in the doorway behind him. The dinosaurs were out of sight, where Mr. Haller didn't have to think about them or wonder what could have made all that possible. There was the power of imagination, and then there was whatever he'd just seen. "All I wanted was some coffee," Mr. Haller said. "I didn't just dream that, did I?"

"Don't ask me," Mr. Hovard said. "You're the one who was chasing a dinosaur toy." He turned back to the teacher's lounge. "Guess I've got my work cut out for me next year."

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Weekly Story #26: Checkmate

Happy New Year! We're now halfway through the project, and so far so good: I only missed one week of writing, and I haven't missed a week of posting. This time, just a little goof-off of a story. Enjoy!

  • Arctic Research Camp - Friendly Rivals - Confession

 

CHECKMATE

Sergio searched the board, but couldn't find any way out. His only defenses were the bishop and rook, and neither of them could move without getting captured. He reached across the table and shook Mikhail's hand. "Good game."

"Good game," Mikhail said, raising his shot of rum. Sergio raised his, and they tapped the glasses together in a toast, and downed the drinks, and shuddered.

"Start again?" Sergio said.

"Nah, I think I'm ready to check in." Mikhail started gathering up the pieces off of the board. "Same time tomorrow?"

"Sure thing." Sergio got up and headed out of the dining tent into the bitter Arctic air. It was ten PM and the sun was still shining over the rocky coast. He'd been here five weeks, and was scheduled to fly back to Anchorage in another five days. He and Mikhail and the twelve other people at this camp had been gathering and studying microbe samples from the ocean. Every night, he and Mikhail had played chess to unwind.

And every few nights or so, Sergio let Mikhail win.

Sergio had been the champion of his high school chess club. He had enough trophies at his mom's house to show he was no slouch at the game. Sure, he liked having an enthusiastic partner at this relatively isolated campsite. Hardly any of the other technicians and grad students seemed interested, but Sergio hardly had to lay out his board before Mikhail sat down asking to play. It's just that Mikhail was so lousy. He would move a bishop when he needed to move a knight, or send a queen forward when diagonal was so obviously the best move. Sergio had to make similar moves just to keep Mikhail from losing too easily.

Sergio never had the heart to say anything.

Which wasn't to say that Mikhail wasn't improving. Sergio had to make fewer adjustments in this last game. This was the closest it had felt to Mikhail winning fair and square.

Still, Sergio looked forward to getting back home and playing with more serious chess players.

He slipped into the tent he shared with three other researchers. After nearly six weeks, he still had trouble remembering their names. None of them were really the type to make idle conversation. As it was, Sergio mostly counted the days to when he could return home and focus on compiling data in a warm apartment where night could actually fall in the middle of summer.

Sergio took off his coat and thermal pants, dropped into his bunk, and started to sleep.

But then he heard Mikhail's voice come in from outside the tent. "Sergio, you awake?"

"For the time being," Sergio said. "What's up?"

"Can you come outside for a minute? I want to ask you something."

Sergio got up and put his thermal clothing back on, then unzipped the tent entrance and braced against the cold air. After zipping the flap back up, he went with Mikhail toward the shore.

"Something's been bothering me about that game you just played," Mikhail said. "Did you let me win?"

Sergio shook with a jolt. "Why do you say that?"

"It's mostly just little things I can't put my finger on." Mikhail picked up a pebble and threw it into the sea. "But what got me was when you had that knight in exactly the right position to take my bishop. And then you put it right in the bishop's path. It was just so obviously wrong."

It was obviously wrong, which was why Sergio had hesitated before doing it. If Sergio had taken the bishop, Mikhail might never have recovered. But all he did was give himself away.

"It's true, isn't it?" Mikhail said. "I figured you're not that stupid, but what about me? I know I'm not that good at chess, but I'm a grown man. I know how to take a loss."

"All right," Sergio said. "Yes, I let you win. I'm sorry."

"Thank you," Mikhail said. "How about a rematch? I want to see what you can really do."

"Do we have to?" Sergio rubbed his eyes. "I'm completely exhausted."

"Sure, so am I. We can play in the morning. How's that sound?"

"You're on." Sergio shook hands with Mikhail, then the two of them went back to their own tents to go to sleep.

They met up the next morning during breakfast and started the game as soon as they were done eating.

It was no contest at all.

"Checkmate," Sergio said.

"N-No way," Mikhail said, scanning the board, retracing his steps. He had lost his queen early on, and his rooks and a bishop after that. Now his king was trapped between Sergio's queen and rook. "Merciless."

"You see why I don't like winning that way?" Sergio said.

"You could have done that from the very beginning," Mikhail said. "I would have left you alone."

"But I like hanging out with you. And besides, who else would I play chess with?"

"You're an ass."

"At least now I'm an honest one."