Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Lion In Plaid

 


Mina studied the artwork hanging at the foot of her bed. A line of pre-evolved wild animals and birds sat on the back of a wild-bear, appearing to ride it. “Daddy? Why is the blue bird on the wild-bear’s head?”


“She’s giving the wild-bear directions.”


“Oh.” Mina thought for a second, then asked, “Why is the wild-mouse sitting in front of the owl? Isn’t he worried about getting eaten?”


“No. That would violate the wild-bear’s Terms of Service.”


“What are Terms of Service?”


“It’s an agreement between the user and the service provider. In this case, in order to ride the Wild-Bear Bus, you have to agree not to eat any of the other passengers.”


“Cool. Is that one of the Terms of Service on the school bus, too?”


“Yes.” Mina’s father smiled, showing just a hint of tooth. “Are you nervous about tomorrow?”


“No. I was just wondering if I’d be allowed to eat any of the other kids.”


“Well, you’re not.” He tucked the sheet around his cub the way she liked it and gave her fur an affectionate ruffle. “And you tell a grownup if anyone tries to eat you.”


Mina laughed at the idea of someone eating her. Looking back at her preschool self the night before her senior year, she realized it had been incredibly naive to think that her status as a lion put her at the top of the school hierarchy just because wild-lions are at the top of the food chain. She’d be taking neither the Wild-Bear Bus nor the school bus tomorrow and would be riding her bike in. Although the bike had been a birthday present a month before, she was certain the scurry of squirrels that actually ruled her school would find several dozen faults in it, probably including an assertion that it was already out of fashion.


Sometimes Mina wondered about what Earth had been like before the rapid evolutions of the late human era, back when a group of extinct primates had somehow managed to be in charge of everything. When everyone was the same species, did everyone get along? Was high school somehow harmonious? Or were there still mean kids who didn’t literally eat the weak but metaphorically had them for lunch? Too little of their literature survived to know for sure.


She sighed as she laid out her uniform for the morning. There was undoubtedly a cool way of altering it this year that no one had told her yet. Last year it had been rips on the sleeves. The year before, it had been bleach stains on the skirts and trousers. Back in middle school, it had been the addition of pins. Mina and her best friend Yentl still wore a button on their headbands proclaiming them besties for life. Yentl’s had a lioness from an ancient book about a wild-lion who was also a king and Mina’s featured a wild-skunk in a flowerbed taken from an equally old artwork. Mina slid her pin into her new headband, the one in Senior Class Plaid that replaced her Junior Class Polkadots. She smiled faintly, reflecting on how much she’d missed Yentl over the summer and how awesome it would be to see her in the morning.


When Mina made it to school the next day she was at first relieved that she’d made it in early enough that none of the squirrels were there to spot her. Then she saw Yentl.


Yentl stood near the entrance with a troop of lemurs with similar fur patterns to her own. She had ribbons dangling from her belt and her headband was devoid of pins. She saw Mina looking at her, glared, and turned away. She walked off as Mina approached.


In homeroom, Yentl still refused to speak to Mina or meet her eyes. She did, however, slide a note across the aisle.


Mina opened the missive with shaking hands. “Our friendship was unnatural,” it said. “Herbivores and carnivores shouldn’t hang out together. You should go talk to the hyenas or something.”


Shaking her head, Mina took out a pen to scrawl out, “You can’t mean that. We’re not wild animals! We’re people!”


Yentl didn’t write back.


“I don’t even eat meat! I only eat synth! You know that!” Mina tried again, this time speaking in a hushed tone designed to carry to her neighbor and no further.


This time Yentl took pity. “It’s not about what you eat, Meens,” she whispered. “It’s about nature. And we’re only friends because we sit next to each other in home room, which we only do because we’re sorted by alphabet. If I had a different last name, we never would have spoke. And that would have been better for both of us.”


“No, it wouldn’t!”


A few heads turned because Mina had said that last bit much louder than she’d meant to.


Yentl gave her oldest friend a gentle look. “We’re going to different colleges anyway. Let me have a decent senior year instead of being a freak for my entire high school career.”


The skunk waltzed to the front of the room to talk to the teacher, who nodded and directed one of the front row students to move to Yentl’s old seat under the premise of Yentl’s tablet having poor reception in the back of the room. It wasn’t a great excuse; everyone was issued the same type of tablet and the coverage was universally good throughout the school.


A fellow lion named Deshaun slid into the recently vacated spot, adjusting the seat to accommodate his taller size. “Been there, done that,” he whispered to Mina. “It sucks.”


Mina’s thoughts were reeling enough that it took her a while to remember what Deshaun was talking about. He dated a deer sophomore year, until she dumped him for “aggressive potential” even though he was the chillest and most mellow person in their class and had never so much as bared his teeth at her. “Yeah,” she said as he rummaged through his bag for something.


A moment later, Deshaun held out a ribbon to her. It said, “Preds for Peace” on it, advertising the school club he was president of. “Come to our meeting today. Three o’clock in O’Kent’s room.”


Although she’d been somewhat derisive about the group before, calling them hippies and accusing them of spending more time smoking weed than actually promoting coexistence, Mina took the ribbon and tied it to her belt. “Yeah. I’ll try.”


“And…” Deshaun paused for a deep breath before saying in a rushed jumble, “Feel free to eat lunch at my table if you want.”


The offer made Mina want to cry all the more, but she nodded. There was no doubt the day was going to suck. She reached up and took the pin off her headband, not caring if it left a hole. It was appropriate for it to leave hole to match the hole in her heart.


Hole in her heart? She drew herself up straighter. That was not the kind of thought Mina Saint Clair was going to have.


“Hey, Deshaun?”


The male leaned toward her with poorly contained eagerness. “Yeah?”


Mina pointed at Deshaun’s belt, which had about two dozen ribbons tied to it. “Think you could spare a couple of those?”


He gave her the careful large carnivore smile, the one that managed to cover his teeth so as not to alarm smaller people. “Sure thing. Although in some cultures, I think that would mean we’re married.”


Taking the clump of shiny strands he handed her, Mina smiled back with a less careful smile, knowing Deshaun could handle her teeth. “It’s cool. Giving them back tomorrow will make us divorced.”


Deshaun snorted out a laugh. “As long as no one owes alimony, I’m down with that.”


In the front row, Yentl turned to look at her old seat with a frown. Mina stopped smiling, but didn’t stop showing her teeth.


Quickly, Yentl turned back to the front, obviously spooked. It made Mina feel a little bad, but not bad enough that the more aggressive side of her mind didn’t snarl, “You shouldn’t have provoked a carnivore if you didn’t want to get eaten.” She gasped at the thought, took a breath through her noise, and said out loud, “Yeah, I’ll definitely be at the Preds for Peace meeting this afternoon.”



The image above is "Traveling with Friends" by Andrea Doss. You can buy this charming piece at UGallery. It was offered as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday Project.


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Who Says Camels Don't Ski?

It is said, at least by t-shirts sold outside Ski Dubai, that camels don’t ski. Josef al Shameel, a camel technically owned by a minor noble in the United Arab Emirates but granted the freedom to roam about the desert on account of how he freaked his owner out, could only read Arabic. As the shirts were generally written in English, he didn’t know that they said he shouldn’t do the thing depicted. All he knew was that he’d seen a human wearing a picture of what was clearly a camel on flat planks of wood going down what Josef took to be a sand dune. He’d seen that and thought to himself, “That is a thing I want to do.”

In the history of the Ski Dubai indoor ski area, no camel has ever shown up and asked for a lift ticket. Josef didn’t either, possibly because he didn’t know what snow is and possibly because when he tried to find someone to design camel-sized skis for him, the human’s first thought was to contact a film crew because he’d discovered a talking camel. Sharif the Engineer got on the phone to his cousin Mustafa the Film Student posthaste.

The crew arrived in the early hours of the morning. It was mid-January, which is also mid-ski season, although determining when ski season is in an area that only sees a scattering of snow every decade or so is a challenge. They found Josef sitting by the roadside waiting for them.

After dispensing with greetings, during which the film crew professionals did their best not to blurt of things like, “Holy hellfire, a talking camel!” they moved on to the matter most important to Josef. “Where are my sliding planks?”

Mustafa, who most interested in fiction but willing to start out with a documentary, supplied him with a word in English. “Skis.” He then added in Arabic, “The planks are called skis. And they’re in the van.”

When the documentary hit the internet of the skiing and talking camel, the overwhelming response was for people to complain that they were sick of CGI animals. No matter how many interviews he gave, Mustafa was unable to convince the world that the whole thing hadn’t been faked. And Josef refused to give any more interviews after seeing some of the more hateful things being said about him on Twitter.

The story ends well though. Mustafa landed directing job for an Arabic reboot of Lost in Space featuring a CGI camel in the place of the robot, one of several projects he would undertake for Netflix. And while Josef never did learn what snow was, he can still be found still getting his turns in on the dunes of the UAE. If you look closely in the distance while traveling through some of the less populated parts of that nation, you just might see him.

The above image is an untitled travel piece by Missy Dunaway. Dunaway is releasing her graphic travel diaries soon. Details can be found at http://www.missydunaway.com/travel-journal

The prompt was offered by my Wording Wednesday Project.

Further inspiration came from my Ski Dubai "Camels Don't Ski" t-shirt. I would have taken a picture of it for you, but it appears to have gone into storage and I won't be able to get to it until next year sometime.


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

On a Hot Desert Highway

 


Calico whistled her way down a remote roadway, her body more relaxed and at ease than it had been for decades. Unless she managed to catch a ride before the sun finished rising, by the end of her walk she’d go from a light bronze tinged brown to a deep mahogany. Her mother would have tsked had her mother been paying attention to anything that happened on Earth.


If not paying attention to Earth was something Calico could do, she’d have been doing it. It wasn’t though; not anymore. Thanks to a summoning ritual that the participants had foolishly video taped back when tapes were something humans recorded on. If they’d spent more time worrying about their protective sigils and less time worrying about their camera angles and lighting, they might still be alive.


How the man who had summoned her had obtained her true name, the one needed to drag her from the depths of Hell, she’d yet to ascertain. If she ever figured that out, she’d have to get back to killing. But all he’d known was that it was whispered to him by a voice in the dark. Completely useless information. He’d hoped confessing would save his life, but that just went to show how little he understood demons.


Calico had killed her summoner as his followers had fled. She got a few of the stragglers, but then had to spend decades tracking down not only the people who had been there but the people unfortunate enough to be told of the ritual’s success. Arguably, the people being told were unlikely to actually complete a ritual themselves since they were being told how easily one could go sideways, and none of them had been given her name, but it was easier just to kill them anyway. The tape had helped, as had Calico’s gift for forcing people to tell the truth, which worked even when they didn’t actively remember the details of the truth and were too scared to even try very hard as they were being stared down by an honest-to-Satan demon.


After asserting that the last of the summoners, a middle-aged gentleman who had promptly left the summoning ceremony to enter seminary and had spent the last thirty years trying to save souls, had told no one what he saw, Calico had calmly obliterated both the man and his car. There would be no evidence for mortal police to try to trace to her, just as there had been no evidence of any of the other slayings. The stereotype that demons are into overt violence and blood splatter is both harmful and inaccurate. The vast majority of hell’s children are happier not to see evidence of the icky things humans store inside themselves.


She strolled away from the death site, pulling her luggage behind her. After a few steps, she realized she didn’t need the video tape anymore. She tossed it to the side because she enjoyed the gesture, but then sent a pulse to disintegrate it where it landed. It simply wouldn’t do to have someone find it and possibly release it to the public. Sure the public would assume it was fiction of the found-footage genre, but why give them that much?


Calico shifted the song she whistled, replacing a tune she knew from her childhood to something by a human named Elvis. Within steps, she’d replaced whistling with words. “Viva Las Vegas....” Sounded like as good a destination as any.


Above image is by Ric Nagualero and entitled "Wherever I May Roam." You can buy a copy at https://pixels.com/featured/wherever-i-may-roam-ric-nagualero.html.

It was offered as prompt on my Wording Wednesday Project.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Comfort of Dragons



Farla guided Shyler’s magic in the glass dragon the pair were crafting and smiled at how enthusiastic her partner was about this project. This was the thirteenth dragon and Shyler’s joy over creating smaller replicas of herself had yet to dim. Starting their next project might well lead to a pouting dragon, but creating this mobile for Farla’s niece had been a lot of fun.

After waiting for the crystalline dragon to cool, Farla tucked it carefully into a padded bag with two others and left the studio with Shyler perched proudly on her shoulder. The pair received varying reactions on their journey. Those of the neighborhood who knew them offered waves and cheerful greetings, but strangers shied away. A few people even crossed the street. It was hard to be sure if they were prejudiced against Farla’s elven ears or Shyler’s red hue. Elves tend to be stronger with magic than human channelers, which makes some humans nervous, while red dragons have a completely unearned reputation for aggression. And, of course, there had been a rising sentiment against using magic at all lately.

People who knew Farla and Shyler recognized two of the most highly regarded artists in the nation and remembered how much of their income Farla spent on helping local families. The driver of the city bus the pair caught knew them well enough to shake his head at the couple who got up and moved to a further seat after she sat down near them. He made sure to use both her and Shyler’s names when wishing them well as they disembarked.

Upon reaching her sister’s house, Farla took a deep breath. Her sister was out of town, as was her husband and their six-year-old. The house was being watched by Farla’s brother-in-law’s sister. The sister, Elise, had soft grey eyes, warm brown hair, a gentle smile, a stately figure, and a deeply rooted sentiment against magic-channelers, all of which she’d inherited from her mother. Farla and Elise had known each other for close to a decade, and had a few interesting conversations early on. Then the conversations dried up, leaving only some glances that Farla struggled not to read much into from across rooms and dining tables. It had been two years since Elise did anything other than ignore Farla as much as possible.

When Elise opened the door, Farla expected her to stand aside without a word before going to read in the study as she had done every other time. She did not expect Elise to follow her into Katchya’s room and watch her bring out the final three dragon sculptures.

“These are the last ones?” Elise whispered, sounding scared. Her gaze was locked on the floor tiles beneath her feet.

“Yep.” Farla put extra pep into her voice, trying to pretend that she wasn’t unsettled by the change in routine. Shyler flew up to sit atop a bookshelf along with an assortment of plush animals but watched Elise with open distrust. “Once I attach them, I can hoist this baby up and it’ll be all ready to surprise the birthday girl when she gets home next week.”

Elise’s eyes moved to the ceiling, where the hook for the mobile was already installed. “I wonder how long it will take her to notice.”

The thought of their niece entering the room and going about her normal business before suddenly going, “When did that get there?” made Farla chuckle. “She’ll either see it immediately, or not until she gets into bed.”

“Agreed.” As though mentioning the bed had reminded Elise it existed, she sat down on it as she watched Farla deftly attach the new dragons. Each of the glass reptiles was a different color, which would work perfectly since Katchya’s room already looked like a rainbow had exploded across it. “Um…” Elise said after several minutes. “I don’t want to sound rude. But… Are they enchanted?”

Farla’s fingers paused and she looked up. Her eyes met Elise’s and she processed what she saw there. The other woman was openly concerned. It would have made some channelers angry, but Farla figured it was a mixture of possessing ignorance and honestly caring about a little girl they both adored. She could never be angry at someone wanting to protect her beloved niece. “I couldn’t love Katchya more if she were my own daughter. The only magic in these guys was from their formation and a mild spell to make it harder to shatter them.”

Elise’s lips pressed together for a moment before she nodded. Then she licked them as Farla tried to think about something other than Elise’s lips.

Farla went back to double-checking the attachments on the mobile, making extra certain that the metallic chains the dragons were to hang from were secure. Satisfied, she waved Shyler over. “Time to get this up!”

“Wait!” Elise sprang to her feet.

Shyler hissed at the sudden sound and flew to hide behind a curtain. Elise stared at the lump the dragon formed behind the curtain fabric as Farla waited for an explanation. Eventually, she gave up on that and said, a little testily, “I already told you I didn’t cast any big scary spells on it.”

“Oh.” Elise blinked a few times before meeting Farla’s gaze. Her eyes dipped as though she was cowed by what she saw. “That’s not what I meant. I meant to say, please hold on for a moment because I wanted to ask if you could add an extra enchantment.”

Her head tilted as Farla studied the other woman. “I thought you hated magic.”

“No… Not really.” A hint of tears clouded Elise’s eyes as she continued to study the floor. “That’s… I was raised that way. And my husband, he feels that way…” Her voice trembled as she spoke, but when she looked up her eyes were filled with anger. “But I’m sick of shutting up and ignoring my own opinions just because he ignores them. I’m leaving him. Or I want to. But when I told him that I wasn’t going to come back from this trip, he threatened Katchya.”

As Elise crumbled, collapsing onto the mattress and burying her face in her hands, Farla breathed in and tried to still a growing rage. The bed creaked as she sat and put a tentative arm around Elise. “Have you told Ethaniel?”

“Do you think I told Ethaniel?” Elise asked with a bitter laugh. “Is he on holiday with Katchya and Yvonne or in jail for murdering his brother-in-law?”

“Yeah, alright, I see your point.” Farla’s hand rubbed against Elise’s shoulder in a way she hoped was comforting as her anger turned to resolve and her thoughts shifted to planning. Shylar, reading the change in her partner’s emotions, emerged from the curtain at ground level and took a few hesitant steps towards the pair of elves. She stopped a ways shy of them and watched closely as she sent a sense of support to her partner. “I can enchant the mobile easily enough. But I think maybe you need something too. And we’ll need to put a charm on Katchya to protect her when she’s not in her room. Everyone already knows I made her the mobile, so we’ll need a piece of jewelry we can say is from you.”

Elise nodded. Her expression was numb and her voice toneless as she answered, “Of course. Just tell me what to buy.”

“I have some rainbow stone back at my place. It’s good for holding enchantments. Especially if you wrap it in gold. I have a little bit of that too. So we just need a chain.”

“Okay.”

Farla’s chest felt tight as she gave Elise a squeeze and stood up. “You don’t have to stay for this part if you don’t want to.”

Elise looked up slowly. “I want to stay if that’s alright. I’m curious.”

Farla quirked her eyebrows. “So you really don’t think you’ll be damned by being around someone misusing God’s power?”

“No.” Elise shook her head and let out a soft sigh. “You couldn’t do evil if you tried, Farla. You’re the kindest, most godly person I know.”

Her lips parted as Farla replayed the words in her head. She had no idea how to respond to them.

“I’m sorry I let you think I hated you,” Elise went on. “I… I just couldn’t let Aris know I didn’t. If he had any idea how I actually feel about you… He wouldn’t handle it well.”

“How you actually feel?”

The softest of smiles graced Elise’s face. “Don’t get distracted. I’ll tell you all about it after we make sure the niblet’s safe.”

“Okay,” Farla all but squeaked. Could Elise be saying what Farla so desperately wanted her to be saying? No… Probably not. She probably just meant she wanted to be friends, right? Farla told herself not to let her hopes get too high and that now wasn’t the time for fantasies.




Early the next week, Katchya ran into her room and spotted the change right away. “Everybody!” she yelled. “There are dragons in my room!”

Laughing, the adults walked down the hall to admire the project. Her mom and dad looked up, making sounds of astonishment while her aunts smiled at each other.

Katchya put a hand on her hip. “Was this you, Aunt Farla?”

“Why would you think that?” Farla asked with a grin. On her shoulder, Shyler clicked merrily in the dragon equivalent of laughter.

“It was,” Katchya said to the others before running back to stand under the mobile. She lay on the floor so she could get a better view. “They’re so pretty.”

“So you like dragons?” Elise asked in a teasing voice. “I didn’t know that, Niblet.”

“Everyone knows that,” Katchya said.

“Okay, fine. I knew. That’s probably why I bought this.”

“Bought what?” Katchya bounced up again and looked eagerly at the package her other aunt held out to her. She grabbed the present and ripped the paper off it with excited efficiency. More gently, she took the lid from the box thus revealed. Her eyes went wide at the sight of a gold dragon clutching a rainbow-colored crystal to its chest. She squealed. “I love it!”

“Good,” said Elise. “I never want to see you without it.”

“You only see me on holidays,” Katchya said. “But I’ll wear it everyday.”

“Alright.” Elise smiled as Yvonne helped her daughter secure the clasp of the new necklace. “You’ll be seeing me more often than that from now on though.”

Ethaniel gave his sister a curious look. “She will?”

“Yeah.” Elise drew a deep breath. “I’m divorcing Astir.”

Everyone paused for a moment, then Yvonne blurted, “Thank God,” as Ethaniel said, “About time.”

“And…” Elise reached out for Farla’s hand. “And I’m moving in with Farla.”

There was another pause, during which Yvonne and Ethaniel shared a smile.

“Thank God,” said Ethaniel.

“About time,” Yvonne added.

“Awesome!” proclaimed Katchya. “This is the best birthday ever!”


Above image is by deviant art user Sandara. I urge you to check out her feed at https://www.deviantart.com/sandara and considering purchasing some of the works she has for sale. (A list which includes this imagine.)

It was offered as prompt on my Wording Wednesday Project

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Leaving the House During the End of the World As We Know It


The following isn't fiction. It's not even really narrative nonfiction. It's just a little essay about what I did last weekend and what I saw when I left my house during a pandemic. I'm writing it largely to get it out of my head, but feel free to read it anyway. :)

For background, I live in Western Washington State. You know, where the COVID-19 pandemic first set foot in the US. By Saturday morning our social gathering buildings (restaurants, pubs, theaters, etc) had been closed for five days. It felt like longer. We were still being told we could go outside, though, so long as we did it without getting within six feet of people we don't live with. This was one of the first warm sunny days of the year, which would normally mean people were pushing towards outdoor activities, and with everything indoors cancelled, I knew that push was going to be strong. 

I left my house for the first time in weeks. (Months? Years? Or maybe only days. My perception of time flow was seriously off and had been since the COVID-19 virus made it my state.) The first time since before the social places closed, certainly. My companions both lived with me; it had been a while since I saw someone who didn't.

We got to the state highway that runs through our town at around nine in the morning. Traffic seemed normal. I was on my way to ski even thought the lifts weren't running, but what was everyone else doing? I had no idea.

We passed by a small stocked lake. Its parking lot was completely full and there were more boats on it than I'd ever witnesses before. I hoped everyone had kept their distance while waiting their turn for the single boat launch.

We made it to I-5. Traffic seemed a little light, but not alarmingly so. Until we got to Everett. Everett is normally where traffic starts to be headache inducing, but there were no more people there than there had been back before the interstate went from two lanes each way to four. In fact, it seemed like maybe there were fewer. Several cars passed us doing about 100mph like they thought traffic laws had been suspended, but we soon starting see speed patrols. The whole thing was rather surreal.

Driving along, you can clearly see several stores from the road. The sporting goods place was packed like it was Christmas. Home Depot looked pretty typical for mid-morning Saturday. And Walmart? I don't think I've ever seen a Walmart parking lot that empty, certainly not on a weekend. I wondered if this was a Washingtonians being all about outdoor activities thing or something happening nationally. I wondered how the people in the sporting goods store could possibly be keeping proper distance from one another.

The lack of traffic remained until I-90, where it went back to what I'd expect for the time of day on a Saturday. I assumed most of these people were going hiking and the overflowing parking lots I glimpsed from the interstate bore that up, as did the decrease in traffic by the summit of Snoqualmie Pass. I could only hope people were staying far enough apart near the trailheads.

At the Snoqualmie Ski Area, things were an odd level of active. There weren't nearly as many people as there would have been if the lifts were turning, but there were many more than tend to show up in the weeks after the lifts stop in a typical year. (The above photo is one I took before heading up the slope.) We certainly had no trouble staying far away from other groups while skiing.

I had expected to see many more people just playing in the snow than were actually there. I only saw a few families with sleds. Nearly everyone there was hiking or skinning up the slopes to ski or snowboard. This helped with the whole stay-far-from-each-other thing.

We drove by our land and observed that the parking lot at that ski base was much more full than the one at the base area we went to. Possibly because this is where the Nordic trails are, but also possibly because Hyak has some greens you can hike up and ski down blacks, so it's really the easiest area for touring or bootpacking. Again, people seemed to be getting out of their cars and spreading out, so it seemed that despite the number of cars around people were still doing a decent job of trying to prevent the spread of the virus.

Over the course of the day, I used three separate DOT bathrooms. Sitting in the car at the ones on I-5, we observed that most of the other people there looked old enough they might should be more worried about COVID-19 than they seemed to be. And they did not look like they were trying to do something outdoorsy. I don't know what they were doing. I stayed as far away from them as I could. At the stop on I-90, it seemed to be mostly other outdoorsy people, but I stayed away from them too, even when put in the odd position of having to wait for a sink even though there had been a ton of open stalls. I assume that, like me, other people are now spending much more time washing their hands than usual. I hadn't expected that to be one of the markers of the End of the World. No one ever washes their hands in zombie movies.

What I didn't all day see were airplanes. It was really weird. No planes, no chemtrails. The skies hadn't been so clear of traffic since September, 2001. I'm really not sure why. Maybe the recreational airports closed. Maybe very few people live with their usual copilots. I don't know.

We crossed a bridge on the way home. Typically, it has walkways on both sides of the vehicular traffic, but they've closed one of them for bridge maintenance. This meant that groups of people were shuffling by each other in a space that's maybe a meter wide. It's a long bridge, so there were each passing by several other groups doing this. I saw that and thought we needed to close the bridge to pedestrians ASAP. Because apparently people couldn't look at it and say, "Gee, maybe today isn't a good time to walk across this bridge." It's in the middle of nowhere, so it's not like they were actually traveling on foot; they were just being tourists.

When we got home, I learned that some of the larger and better known parks in the area had closed down their more popular access points because they were too crowded. I wasn't surprised.

That was three days ago. Since then my state governor has asked us to stay at home unless doing essential things. Exercise is considered essential, but I'm thinking I'm not going to be going skiing again for a while because even if I'm allowed to I can't really justify using the DOT restrooms. (And not using them isn't an option at the distance I currently live.) There are closer places to exercise. Granted, I'm allergic to what's outside my house right now, but c'est le pandemic, n'est ce pas?

Thanks for letting me process all that. I don't really have a decent diary at the moment. Next time I post it will be a story, with an actual plot and everything. Stay tuned!


(Above: My skis looking happy. )

Friday, March 6, 2020

Into the Misty Dark

Note: This piece originally appeared on my LiveJournal way back in 2010.



The chair rushed up behind us, faster by far than the ones on the lift we came off of. My son faltered, thrown off by the speed. The attendant pressed the stop button. The men behind us groaned.

We sat on the chair, which stayed put well past the point I was embarrassed and the kid was bored. Slowly, it started up again.

My son tapped his ski poles against his legs, nervous or impatient, I couldn't tell which.

We climbed through the loose fog we were already used to from the last run. Up over the race course the skiers behind us were anxious to get back to. Up past the top of the lift I would have rather taken had it been running that night. Up into thicker fog.

The fog kept getting more dense. I could see the chair in front of us, but not past it.

"This is taking forever," my son said.

"Lift rides always seem too long in the fog. It's the lack of visibility.” But inside I was thinking he was right, that we had been on the lift too long. And the lift was so much faster than I'd expected... What if it was the wrong one? What if I was confusing it with a lift at one of the other ski areas and I'd just put us on something going too far up the mountain, something leading to runs we couldn't handle?

“It's spooky.”

I smiled and tried not to look worried. “Yeah, it is.”

It was getting spookier too. The higher we went, the less well-lit everything was. I had no idea where we were going. The slope under us could be anywhere, all I could see of it was a tiny sliver. It was steep, too steep. But wide. Maybe. It was supposed to be. We should be able to cut across rather than go straight down, giving us a harder run than the one we were bored with while still being well in Eric's comfort zone. If this was the right slope.

“Are you sure we're on the right lift?” Eric asked.

“Yes,” I lied. Not well from the look he gave me.

“Mom, is this the wrong lift?”

“I'm not sure.” I put an arm around his shoulders and pointed at the ground. “But see the way the slope goes across? There's nothing between here and the last slope we were on, so we can cut back no problem.”

“Okay...”

The fog grew heavier. I could barely make out the chair in front of me. Then we sailed past the last light. I touched my jacket, feeling the bump from the headlamp I'd taken from the car just in case. Still there. Good.

Finally, the end came into view and my son gave a cheerful, “Tips up!”

When we unloaded, there was a map board barely visible through the fog and dark. But when we skied up it it, we found the map itself was completely unreadable. Damn. I could read the signs pointing to different slopes, but none of the names meant anything to me. Double damn.

The racers swept past behind us. I watched where they went, knowing I didn't want to go that way. Far to the right of them was a welcome sign.

“Easiest way down,” I read, pointing out the sign to my son. If we were where we were supposed to be, the easiest way down was a very easy intermediate slope, more of an advanced beginner slope. If we weren't where we were supposed to be, and I honestly couldn't tell... Well, it couldn't be harder than the race course and we'd both done harder slopes than that, just not while people were racing and we couldn't see anything. “All we have to do is follow the signs until we can cut back to where we were.”

Ninety percent of the lift traffic went to the race course, so we were able to hobble down the easy way without worrying about other skiers at all. We skied into the light and I saw trees that I was almost sure were ones I knew. Almost. It really was hard to tell since I'd never been there in either fog or darkness before.

The fog got heavier, but we didn't panic. It was part of our adventure.


The above story is a piece of narrative nonfiction about a dark and foggy night on a ski slope. It was ten years ago. The little kid with me, the one who was worried I'd gotten him onto a slope that was too hard, is now an adult and a professional ski instructor who can do that run backwards. Meanwhile, I've gotten older and less willing to try things in the dark due to failing vision. C'est le vie.

The photograph was grabbed from a YouTube video collecting a series of night lift in the fog shots. (https://youtu.be/jxLYocI3ipY) It shows more visibility than we had, but it was the closest thing I could find in the time I gave myself to search.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Ghost of the Claw Machine



There are a variety of ways in which people respond to being dead. Some take the news well and start new lives in the world of Shadow, happily continuing on as ghosts for years or even centuries. But others try to deny their deaths, attempt to act as though it never happened and they're still alive. The souls in this latter group will usually pick one place of importance and stay there doing whatever is logical in the spot, like the grandfather who continues to sit in his recliner napping all day or the frycook who keeps trying to flip burgers.

What every spirit who remains in Shadow has in common is that they possess a purpose for remaining. The guy sleeping in his chair? He's probably worried about his widow or their grandkids. The frycook? He's worried about that coworker he was crushing on, or maybe he wants revenge on the manager who made him work until closing and is the reason he crossed the street at 11:30 instead of 8:30, which is how he came to be killed by a drunk driver.

Mara Brisbane remained living-adjacent rather than moving on to the true afterlife because of one thing: a claw machine. Well, a claw machine and a mentaly unstable young man with a gun.

On the afternoon of June twelfth, 1987, a gunman entered the Midtown Mall Arcade. It was years before Americans would start thinking of mass public shootings as normal events, but despite the fact that he injured five people and killed one in an age where this didn't happen several times a week, the news was too busy talking about Ronald Regan telling Mikhail Gorbachev, "Tear down this wall!" as though the Soviet Premier might start taking direction from the President of the United States to fully cover it.

Mara knew her murderer from school, where they'd shared a trigonometry class. She wasn't the reason he was in a homicidal rage, though. That honor went to Brittany Smalls, who had not only turned him down for prom but made certain everyone knew how ludicrous it was that he'd thought he stood a chance of her going with him. Brittany frequented the arcade regularly, but wasn't there that day. Even in the realm of people willing to commit murder, most people would go home and come back later if the object oftheir plan wasn't there. Not this guy. In the absence of the brunette he wanted to shoot, he shot at every brunette he could spot in the time between drawing his weapon and being taken down by off-duty cop who had been ordering cookies nextdoor when he heard gunshots.

It would have upset Mara to be murdered no matter what, but what really upset her about the whole thing was that she was absolutely certain she was a second away from finally managing to snag the plush wolf in the claw machine bin.

The wolf was important. It was for her kid sister, who needed it to comfort her as she had surgery scheduled the next week. Annie loved wolves. And Mara loved Annie.

That was over thirty years ago and Mara is still standing in front of the claw machine.

Over the years, she's developed the energy to work the machine's controls. That's how everyone knows the thing is haunted. She only uses it when the arcade is closed, but when she wins things, she leaves them where they fall. There hasn't been a wolf in there for years, you see. And she isn't interested in anything else.

I've pieced all this together over the last few weeks, through a series of conversations with Mara. It's only been a few months since I moved to this town and when my parents brought me into the arcade gushing about how they loved places like this "back in the day" I instantly spotted the teenaged girl in a short denim skirt, jean jacket, and high top sneakers. If I didn't have so much experience with ghosts, I would have thought she was being retro, but she's far from the first spirit I've come across. When I realized no one else seemed to see her, I was confident she was dead.

A couple named Jonesevich own the place and roll their eyes at the assertions of the place being haunted. Their daughter, Camille, though… She believes. And she helped me arrange for there to be a wolf in the claw machine. She also let me in after hours, which is why we're both walking up behind Mara as she concentrates on the machine.

"She's there, isn't she?" Camille whispers. She's shorter than I am, but her boobs are bigger and she's all-round prettier than I could ever hope to be. Her heart-shaped face is filled with awe and hope as it shines up at me from under a teal fedora, and her hands are grasped in front of her chest like she's about to break into prayer.

"Yes," I confirm. "But sush, she's concentrating."

Even though she knows Mara is there, Camille lets out a little gasp as the claw in the machine starts to move. It lowers, grabs a toy, and moves to drop the prize in the shoot to the collection bin.

Mara breathes out. "Okay. I should be able to get the wolf now. Can you get that thing out of the way?"

"Sure." I move over to where I can bend and retrieve what turns out to be a really cute blue dragon. Personally, I'd rather have a dragon than a wolf, but I don't say anything.

Aware that Mara doesn't care about the dragon's fate, I take it to Camille. "She says to give you this thanks for all you've done."

"Oh!" Camille grabs the plushie and hugs it tightly. I feel a twinge of envy for the dragon. Camille is my age, my type, and openly bisexual judging by the blue, purple, and pink heart pin attached to her hat. I'm not silly enough to think that means I stand a chance with her, though.

We wait as Mara takes a few tries to grab the wolf. When we first met, I asked her how she could operate the arcade machines without using tokens. She'd shrugged and said that when she came to after being shot, they just worked for her without her knowing why. Her theory is that her energy is somehow tricking them. I don't have any better explanation.

Finally, the wolf drops into the prize box and Mara takes it out with a whoop. She doesn't manage to hold it long; manipulating our world takes a lot of energy and she would already have been tired from using the machine controls.

I pick the wolf up off the floor. It is pretty adorable, although I stand by my assertion that the dragon was the better prize.

"Did she move on?" Camille whispers.

"No. She's still here."

Mara moves around, looking at as much of herself as possible. "Yeah, I kind of thought something would change."

"Maybe you need your sister to get the wolf," I say. Camille and I brought a box and we sit on the floor to put the wolf in it and seal it up. Annie's address, which I paid a service to get and hope is right, is already written on the shipping label and ready to go out first thing in the morning.

"Have you seen my sister?" Mara asks, standing over us.

"Not in person," I admit. "I found her Instagram account, though."

I open my Instagram app and put in Annie's username. A page full of pictures, mostly of two little girls and a Siberian Husky, pops up and stand to show it to Mara. "See? She's doing well. Those are your nieces. She never says their names, but their initials are MM and and SA."

"Mara Marie," Mara whispers. "My middle name is Marie. She named her daughter after me?"

I shrug. "Maybe. Probably? I thought about asking, but was afraid I'd sound creepy."

"And SA would be Sarah Anne. That was our grandmother's name, the one Annie was named for." Mara's eyes continue to focus on the screen. "Where do they live? Is that a beach?"

The picture she's pointing out does seem like a beach. "Her address is in Maine, so, I guess so."

"Maine? That so far away… But she's okay, isn't she? Like really okay?"

"I think so." It's hard to tell how someone is doing from an Instagram account, but she seems to have a nice balance of activities and interests.

Mara smiles. “That’s all I ever wanted. For her to be okay.”

Even as the words fade, Mara’s body starts to take on a transparency. Without further comment, but with a peaceful smile, she shimmers and is gone.

I stare at the spot Mara used to be in. I’ve never actually witnessed anyone moving on from Shadow before. “She left,” I whisper. “I think… I think she’s in heaven now. Or being reincarnated. Or, you know, whatever happens after Shadow.”

“Oh. So she just needed to know her kid sister's alright?” Camille looks where I am, although she never saw Mara in the first place. There’s a mist in her eyes. “That is so sweet.”

“It really is.” I bend over and pick up the box. “Think we should mail this anyway?”

Camille nods. “Absolutely.” She climbs to her feet. “And… Um… There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask, but it didn’t seem like right time before…”

My heart-rate picks up even as I tell myself she’s not about to ask me out. More likely she wants to know if she can learn to see ghosts too or something like that. “Okay. Go for it.”

“I…” She draws a shaky breath. “I was wondering…” Her eyes drop to the floor. “Would you maybe…” She brings her eyes back up, her expression saying it’s hard to look at me as she speaks. “Would you like to go out with me?”

I try not to stare. “Like on a date?”

“Yeah… I mean… You do like girls, right?”

I nod.

“And I know it’s a stretch to think that maybe you’d like me specifically, but-”

“I do!” I interrupt. “I like you specifically. Very much so. I would totally have kept that dragon otherwise.”

She laughs, relief making her body loosen. “Okay. Good. You pick where. Anywhere that isn’t an arcade.”

I join the laughter. “That’s really limiting, but I’ll think of something.”

With the box tucked under my left arm, I wrap my right hand around Camille’s as we walk out into the deserted mall.

The above image is Arcade by Kelsey Smith. You can find it an other works by the artist at INPRNT.com.

It was offered as a prompt for my Wording Wednesday Project.

If you like ghosts, you might be interested in my novel I'd Rather Not Be Dead.


Drew McKinney never liked living in Pine Bridge, North Carolina, but she liked it a lot better than being dead there. No way does she want to haunt this stupid hick town for the rest of forever. She doesn't want to haunt anywhere if she can help it. The whole dying thing knocked Drew back in time several weeks, so she's got a shot at saving herself from Hell in Appalachia if she can figure out why she died. Unfortunately, not only is she clueless about what killed her but there's a soul-eating fog after her, the ruler of the ghost realm is interfering in her afterlife, and the only living person Drew can turn to for help is Cooper Finnegan, who is hands down her least favorite person on the planet.

Available for Kindle and other digital retailers or in print.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Eeshkik's Last Watch



“They’re doing it again,” said Eeshkik. “The humans. You know, the ones we’re supposed to be watching. They’re launching something new. The North American ones.”

The only crew member to so much as glance at her was Kakal, who was wearing a shirt that ironically featured the human letters ‘e’ and ‘t’. He gave her a stare with his huge black eyes and tapped the side of his pretty green head in the gesture their species uses to communicate, “So what?” No one else looked up from the game they were playing.

In the defense of the entire uncaring crew of The Muse of Stars, the game they were playing was one they’d picked up from the planet they orbited and had been tasked with studying. Also in defense of the crew, they were circling Earth waiting for the planet to settle down long enough to make first contact, and while they had only been doing this for half a year, their civilization had been doing it for centuries and the planet was pretty much as studied as it was going to get. In a few weeks, they’d get to go home and some new saps would be left watching the endless wars the local barbarians so loved to engage in. Still, Eeshkik was their captain, so she felt they really should pay at least a little bit of attention to her when she said stuff.

“I’m captain here,” Eeshkik proclaimed. “You need to listen to me!”

Geklac met her gaze. “You’re only captain for another ten minutes. Then it’s Acklec’s turn.”

“I’m aware of the rotation.” Eeshkik sniffed. “But I’m captain for now, and I need someone to write up this new satellite.” She paused for a minute. When no one volunteered, she said, “Geklac, get started.”

“But I’m winning!”

“I don’t care.”

“You’re not winning,” said Kakal. “I see your raise. Anyone else in?”

The other two who had still been in the round nodded their heads to indicate they declined and quietly folded their cards. “Alright, then,” said Geesh, who had been dealing. “Show us what you have, boys.”

“Yeah, let’s see what you went all in with,” Kakal told Geklac.

Geklac did a little shimmy as he flipped his cards. “Full house. Three kings and two eights.”

Eeshkik’s eyes widened in dismay on Geklac’s behalf. The kings were sitting in the middle of the table, on what was called the river, meaning everyone got to use them. Betting all of his chips on the hand had probably been a mistake. Sure enough, Kakal gave an amused huff and revealed his cards to show that he also had a full house, but his was kings and aces.

The curse Geklac handed out doesn’t translate well into English as humans don’t have the body parts referenced, but if you can imagine the most disgusting thing someone could say about your mother’s nether regions, you’d be close.

With a hum of annoyance, Geklac pushed back from the table, rose, and stormed off to find a computer to enter the data on Earth’s latest launch into. Eeshkik slid into his vacated seat, her eyes going to the chronometer. Eight minutes and she wouldn’t be captain anymore. She leaned back, putting her feet in Kakal’s lap. She’d hoped doing so would prompt her husband to massage her calves, but he instead tapped the table to prompt the next deal. Which was proper; personal relationships were expected to be ignored when one was serving as captain. Even if you were down to seven and a half minutes on the job.

Cards went out to everyone at the table, minus Eeshkik, because captains also don’t get to gamble with the crew. “Seven minutes…” Eeshkik muttered under her breath.

Another two minutes passed, during which half the table folded and two new cards came out on the river. Then everyone flinched as the claxon started blaring.

“Collision imminent!” screamed the computer.

“What the Ghost?” Eeshkik exclaimed as she leapt up and rushed to the control room with the rest of the crew running behind her. “Geklac, report!”

“It’s coming straight at us!” Pointing at a screen, Geklac brought Eeshkik’s attention to the display that tracked all the crap the humans had littered their planet’s orbit with. One object was quickly approaching their ship. “How do they even know where we are?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Eeshkik snapped. “Kakal, emergency procedure gamma!”

“Gamma launching!” came the swift response. “Everyone hold on to something! In three... two... one...”

Everyone who could grabbed hold of chairs or the handles spread around the compartment. Everyone else went flying as the ship lurched into motion.

“It’s following us!” reported Geklac. “And I don’t think we can outrun it without stardrive.”

Sure enough, the display indicated that whatever weapon the humans had lobbed at The Muse of Stars had altered course to track with the ship. Which meant that the humans had developed the technology to overcome the jamming illusions all Kuykkan vessels put out when trying not to be seen by primitive civilizations. And had launched a weapon without so much as broadcasting a hello. Talk about rude.

Eeshkik gurgled in exasperation. She still had four minutes left on her shift. “How much time do we have?”

“About a minute. It’s still gaining.”

Well, there was no helping it then. “Fine,” grumbled Eeshkik. Initiating stardrive inside a solar system would be unspeakably dimwitted; the odds of hitting an object before you see it are just too high in such a crowded place. Which meant they had to destroy the weapon despite the fact that this would confirm their presence. The humans had spotted them anyway. “Zap it.”

“Zapping aye,” said Acklec. A few second later, he followed up with, “Target eliminated.”

The crew cheered, but Eeshkik glowered at the chronometer. Still two minutes left on her shift as captain, which meant that the piles of paperwork required anytime the zapper was used were going to be her responsibility, as well as the nightmare task of writing a report trying to explain that humanity now posed a threat to anyone close to their planet.

“Set a course to the other side of the astroid belt,” the captain said in a defeated voice before slinking off to her cabin as she griped internally about how if all of this had happened just five minutes later, it would have been Acklec’s problem and he would be the one spending the next several shifts dealing with bureaucracy. Some things really weren’t fair.

The above image is from a poster by an unknown artist. You can buy it on Amazon.
 
It was offered as prompt on my Wording Wednesday Project

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Queen's Holy Orb

As the three gnomes sat in a tree, Minz, Moin, and Maleka felt rather overwhelmed and quite sorry for themselves.

“They just keep playing with it,” Minz moaned, her eyes on the pair of very large canines batting The Queen's Holy Orb around the clearing. The trio of gnomes were at their wits’ end. Clearly, they couldn’t just let the dogs continue to play with the religious artifact they’d been charged with carrying through the forest from its old home in Egdasmont to its new home in the recently built cathedral in Umnaspurt. But the dogs were massive, both taller than Maleka, who was herself much larger than Moin, who was in turn taller than Minz. And the dogs were obsessed with The Queen's Holy Orb, to the point of ignoring the similar sized ball the gnomes had already tried to distract them with. Although, on the plus side, they were also too obsessed with The Queen's Holy Orb to try to eat the gnomes, something the gnomes greatly appreciated.

“Hey, dogs!” yelled Maleka. “That belongs to the church! It was a gift from Queen Elspin!”

The dogs were not impressed. They didn’t so much as glance at Maleka as they wrestled each other for the honor of being closest to The Queen's Holy Orb.

Moin leaned forward, balancing so that his arms rested on his legs as they dangled from the branch he sat upon. “There are two dogs and three of us. If two of us could each distract a dog, the third could grab The Queen's Holy Orb.”

“Sure,” agreed Minz. “But how would we do that?”

“We could jump on them.”

Minz and Maleka stared at their companion. “Jump on them?” Maleka repeated. “You mean after we ask them nicely to lay down and be still? Hey, dogs! My friend wants to jump on you! So if you could stop running around and lower yourself closer to the ground, that would be awesome!”

No one was surprised when the dogs failed to comply, choosing instead to growl at each other as they tried to push The Queen's Holy Orb in different directions. The growling made Minz shiver. She’d had a bad experience with a Pomeranian as a child that had instilled a great distrust of all canines into her psyche. She’d been the first to climb the tree and was determined to be the last to leave it.

“What if we hit them with something?” Moin said. “You know, knock them out? Don’t you always carry a pouch of sleep powder, Minz?”

“I do,” the shortest gnome answered. “But I’d have to hit them right on the nose, which would be hard to do from up here. And there’s only enough for one of them.”

Maleka made a thoughtful noise. “Okay. So we’d have to send someone down to hit one of them right in the face and then hope the dog doesn’t try to eat that person while waiting for the powder to kick in. But that would still leave one dog obsessed with The Queen's Holy Orb. If we assume we couldn’t successfully jump on him and steer him away, what could we do?”

All three gnomes shook their heads, stumped.

“Do we have any food?” Minz asked, remembering that dogs like food.

Between them, they found a hard candy that had seen better days, a melted piece of chocolate, and a quarter of a donut that Moin had been saving for later. They tossed the donut and one of the dogs did actually notice it, but only for as long as it took to swallow the baked good in one gulp.

“Well,” said Moin. “I think I would have been better off eating that myself.” And the others couldn’t argue otherwise.

“Could we steal a dog whistle?” Maleka asked. “One of us could run far away and blow it, then the others could grab The Queen’s Holy Orb when the dogs ran to the whistle.”

They all liked that idea, but no one had any leads as to where they could find a dog whistle.

“We could pray?” Minz offered. “I mean it is a HOLY Orb, right? So maybe the gods would try to protect it? You know, if we told them a pair of dogs was playing with it.”

The other two shrugged and they all bent their heads while Maleka addressed their deities. “Oh heavenly parents, ill has befallen the most sacred Orb of the Heavens. Please help us free The Queen’s Holy Orb from the beasts that have taken possession of it so that we may see it interred in the cathedral in Umnaspurt. Um… We offer you this piece of chocolate and hard candy in addition to our adoration as we pray that you will come to the aid of us, your unfortunate children. Thank you for listening. Amen.”

“Amen,” the others chorased.

Then they all looked around expectantly, their shoulders falling as no bolts of lightening struck the dogs. Moin sighed. “Maybe they didn’t hear us? Should we try again, but louder? Maybe if we all spoke at once?”

Frustrated, Minz ripped a pinecone from the tree they sat in and lobbed it at one of the canines. It bounced off with no effect other than to make the dog let out a bark of annoyance. No one was surprised as throwing things at the dogs to get them to run away was the first thing the gnomes had tried.

From somewhere behind the gnomes, a door opened. A human voice cried out, “Hestor! Brunhilda! Dinner!”

The dogs’ heads snapped up. Before the woman had finished calling for them, they were sprinting toward her, The Queen’s Holy Orb completely forgotten.

“Ah,” said Maleka. “I suppose the gods don’t work instantly.”

The gnomes slid down the tree and the taller two picked up The Queen’s Holy Orb between them while Minz kept a lookout to make sure the dogs weren’t returning.

When the trio finally made it to the cathedral in Umnaspurt, they handed The Queen’s Holy Orb over to the bishop and went straight to the pub, where they offered a toast to the gods but swore never to take another job from the church.

The above image was painted by Alfred de Dreux. 
It was offered as prompt on my Wording Wednesday Project

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Roll for Initiative!


Jarreth gulped at the beast before him. He knew he shouldn’t have come this far into the caverns on his own, but it was no use berating himself over the choice now. He gripped his sword before him, settled into a wide stance, and stared directly up at the looming monster. It wasn’t that big. Merely twice his height. And it only had six arms. Or six legs? Jarreth couldn’t really tell. They seemed to all have hands on the end, but several were being used for standing on… And the creature’s skin probably wasn’t really made of stone or it wouldn’t be moving so easily, right?

The monster smiled. With its huge, protruding teeth, its smile wasn’t exactly comforting to Jarreth.

“Roll for initiative,” a voice called.

“What?” Jarreth blurted, his eyes flicking to the ceiling the voice seemed to come from.

The monster picked up one of the odd shaped rocks before him and gave it a toss. The rock had a lot of sides, each one with a number written on it. “Fifteen,” the creature said as the rock came to a rest. The monster then looked up at Jarreth like it expected him to do something interesting now.

Jarreth shifted. His arms were getting tired already.

The voice returned. “The human forfeits his right to roll. You go first, Hubert.”

“The human did what?” the human asked, but everyone ignored him.

“I swing my pitchfork in his direction,” the monster announced. He rolled the rock again. “Curses. Nat one.”

The ceiling laughed. “Okay. You swing your pitchfork at the human invader, but you hit the ceiling by accident. A chunk of rock breaks off and falls on your head. Roll a D8 for damages.”

“A D8? Sheesh.” The monster rolled a different rock and let out a relieved breath. “Two.” He picked up a piece of chalk and made a mark on the wall. I’m down to 20. Could have been worse.”

“Okay,” said the voice. “You’re up, human.”

“Um…”

“I assume you’re going to battle him,” said the ceiling in a leading sort of way.

Jarreth took that to mean he should be taking action. Attacking made sense, so he took a swing at the beast.

“Hey!” The monster jerked back with a hiss and stared at the line of blood that bloomed on its arm. “You swung your sword at me! What the hell, man?”

“Aren’t we battling?”

“In D&D, dude!” The monster put another few feet between them. “What kind of asshole actually swings a literal sword? Did you even bring your dice?”

“Um… No. I don’t own any dice.”

The monster gaped. “You went into a D&D dungeon without any dice? How do you expect to beat anyone without dice?”

Jarreth jiggled his sword around. “Well, I kind of thought I’d use this.”

“Dude!” The monster plopped down on its rump. “This isn’t that kind of dungeon. This is a D&D dungeon. Didn’t you see the sign at the entrance?”

“No?” Jarreth thought back to his entering the dungeon. “No signs… There was a painting of some kind of serpent.”

The monster sighed. “That was the D&D logo. You know, Dungeons and Dragons?”

“Never heard of it.” Jarreth finally allowed himself to lower his weapon. He didn’t seem to be in danger and his arms were seriously aching.

“It’s a game,” the monster explained. “It allows people to fight without getting hurt. Which is better for everyone, don’t you think? You can win without having to get buff enough to actually hold that sword properly. Or you can lose without actually dying. It’s pretty fantastic. You can take my treasure, or I can stop you, but either way, everyone gets to go home and no one has to bleed all over the place.”

“Huh…” Although he’d never heard of this, the idea was intriguing to Jarreth. It wasn’t like he enjoyed working out or having his skin pierced by things like pitchforks. And he was absolutely certain he wouldn’t enjoy dying. “And everyone abides by this?”

“Oh, yeah. If you don’t, the Dungeon Master will smite you.”

“Come again?”

The voice from the ceiling popped back in. “You play by the rules or I kill you. Since you clearly didn’t know any of this, I’m giving you a pass on hurting poor Hubert here, but if you swing that stupid blade of yours around anymore, you’ll get a lightning bolt to the chest.”

Jarreth wasn’t altogether certain the disembodied voice could summon lightning, but figured it probably wasn’t worth taking a chance on. Instead, he slid his sword into its scabbard. “Sword’s going bye-bye.”

“Good,” said the voice. “Now… We’ll pretend you rolled what just happened. How bad’s your cut, Hubert? About a point of damage or is it worse?”

“I don’t think I’ll need a bandage or anything,” Hubert responded. “So certainly not worse than a point.”

“Okay. So you lose a hit point, but so does the human.”

“Why me?” asked Jarreth.

“Because you strained a muscle. Moving on… Hubert?”

“I pick up the rock that fell on my head and try to bash him with it.” Hubert grinned and rolled a die. “Yes! Nineteen. I assume that hits?”

“Yeah, that hits. The human obviously has a low armor class. What the damage?”

“Blunt damage…” Hubert rolled a rock. “Six.”

“Nice. Human, you lose six hit points.”

“Okay. What are hit points?”

Somehow, Jarreth got the impression the disembodied voice was rolling its eyes. “Okay, we’ll say you had fifteen. Then you lost one to the strained muscle. And now six to being bashed with a rock. So you’re down to eight. You need to grab a copy of the Player’s Handbook before you come back. Now, what are you doing to do?”

“Stab my sword into his eye! The left one!” Jarreth felt clever for coming up with that.

“I don’t suppose you know your agility stat?”

“You would be right.”

The voice sighed. “Okay, well, as you can clearly see, he has tiny little eyes and the lighting in this room isn’t great and he’s a lot taller than you. So you’re pretty much going to need a nat twenty to do that, but go for it.”

Jarreth shook his head. “How? I mean, you told me not to really use my sword…”

“You roll,” said Hubert helpfully. He held out a twenty-sided die. “With this. You can borrow mine.”

“Thanks.” The die was larger than one made for a human would be, but Jarreth managed to toss it anyway. It tumbled a few times, then landed with a one pointing upwards. “One! That’s the best, right?”

Hubert gave him a pitying look as the voice asked, “Were you not paying attention earlier? Twenty is the best. One is the worst you can do. It’s so bad that you’re likely to hurt yourself failing. In fact, you just did. You rush toward Hubert, intent on spearing him in the eye, but you trip and fall onto your sword yourself. Roll for damage. Piercing with a sword is a D6.”

Jarreth rolled the die again. “Twelve.”

“That was a D20,” Hubert said. He held up a cube. “This is a D6.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said the voice. “I’ve realized he pierced his own eye instead of yours and the sword sliced right into his brain. He’s dead.”

“But!” Jarreth threw his hands up. “That’s not fair! I can’t be dead just because you said so.”

“Dude…” Hubert waved four of his hands around. “Drop it. Accept what the DM says and come back with a stronger character next time. Maybe a party. Definitely your own dice. Using your opponent's is bad luck.”

“But-”

The lightning bolt that land right next to Jarreth’s foot got him to shut up. “Okay,” he squeaked. “I’m dead. I’ll leave.”

“Great!” said the voice, suddenly sounding friendly. “There’s a cute little shop in town called Leaves of Adventure. There’s a woman there named Amanda who can sell you all the stuff you need and get you up to speed on the rules.”

“Amanda’s great,” Hubert put in. “Tell her I said hi. I’d go with you, but the townsfolk tend to freak out when we dungeon dwellers show up on Main Street. And they don’t play the game out there, so people get hurt for real. It’s pretty sad. Not to mention barbaric.”

“Right.” Jarreth nodded. “Go find Amanda at Leaves of Adventure.”

“Oh!” Hubert straightening in excitement. “And can you bring some ginger sparkle-sweet when you come back? And maybe some of those cherry sugar ropes they sell at the candy store down there?”

“I guess, sure.”

Hubert waved as Jarreth turned and left the dungeon. By the time he made it to the entrance, he had himself half convinced the whole thing had been a hallucination brought on by some kind of gas in the cavern system. But there it was, the painting on the rockface of what he now realized was a dragon twisted into an ampersand. And when he made it to town, there really was a place called Leaves of Adventure. A book in the window had the same picture as the cavern entrance and it was sitting beside a pile of wildly colored dice in a variety of shapes.

Not sure how his life had gotten to this strange spot, Jarreth nevertheless went into the shop and asked for Amanda.

The above image is by Guy Davis. More of Mr Davis's artwork is on his website at https://www.guydavisartworks.com/ 

It was offered as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday project. Other responses to the prompt may be shared on the official Wording Wednesday blog.