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