Situation Analyst, Fiction Writer, and Part-Time Futurist
I grew up somewhere between Wisconsin and Iowa, not very far from the Mississippi River, where I dreamt of far-off worlds and their strange inhabitants. I enlisted in the U.S. military and traveled all over, learning that those far-off worlds weren't very far away and sometimes the real world was stranger than anything I dared imagine.
These days, I can be found in Maryland alternating between life as a management analyst at a federal agency, and being a husband and father at home, happily sharing stories and solving problems as the situation requires.
I'm a storyteller at heart - I love to start with "what if..." and see where the answer takes me. My first story began with a wheelchair-bound man rescuing a little girl, but that sounded boring. I asked "what if she was hiding something" and the rest of the story unfolded with mysterious strangers hunting her because she can change her appearance at will.
I'm also a gamer - especially ones that encourage players to create stories about their characters or settings. Recently, I've had success with running games of Fiasco at several area gaming conventions. If you aren't familiar with it, think of a movie where events spiral out of control for the actors, like "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?", and ask yourself how you'd make things worse if you were one of the actors.
I'm a futurist - I don't make predictions, only look at current trends and imagine what sort of future they might produce. There are specific processes used by futurists that tend to make for more credible results and I encourage you to learn more at the World Future Society.
Lastly, I'm an avid reader - any decent author reads and not just in the realms where they write. If you'd like to see what I'm reading (or what I've read), visit me at Goodreads.com, an online community for readers.
Here's what I'm currently doing with my free time:
Designing and Playing Games with Construct 2"
I once proposed a game where chickens multiplied as they ran loose around a farm and mutated into increasingly dangerous versions as their population grew. Your only chance as Farmer Brown was to collect eggs, avoid the birds, and stay alive until nightfall when they roosted. With the versatile game engine Construct 2, I can finally bring "Farmer Brown and the Coop of Doom" to life!
"Gates" (draft novel)
A young woman investigates her father’s murder by emulating a childhood pulp hero, but digging into the man’s past for clues threatens to reveal a dark secret of her own - the ability to reshape living flesh with a touch.
Screenwriting Course (film)
Completing an online course with Industrial Scripts to build my screenwriting skills for visual stories (web shorts and interactive fiction).
Novel or short stories -- take your pick.
Opening Night - A town restores the local theater years after society collapsed. (Speculative)
The La Fey Sisters - First in a series of 'dime novels', stagecoach riders heading west encounter a mysterious Irish immigrant named Morgan La Fey. (Fantasy)
A Soldier's Life - A seasoned professional contemplates the mental side of fighting wars. (SciFi)
Time's Cruel Sands - Markings discovered in a pocket watch lead to a surprising message from the previous owner. (Speculative)
Dockside - Grandfather and child go fishing. (Speculative)
Sunset - An immortal tree sprite visits a dying man. (Fantasy)
Cheater - Cautionary tale of what could happen if you cheat at online poker. (Fantasy)
Shadow of the Oak - Childhood trauma compels an old man to make a dreaded regular pilgrimage. (Horror)
Twilight Interlude - Facing extinction, the last Dire Wolf struggles to preserve his culture's rich past. (Fantasy)
Board games, learning new stuff, backyard astronomy, and repairing an old pinball machine.
Join me on one of the following social media sites, but don't forget to introduce yourself!
"It's time," said Mr. Patrick as he descended the projection room steps, wiping his hands with a greasy rag. He was good at fixing things, which is why I suppose the government sent him from city to city fixing phone lines so that people could talk back and forth like they used to. I think he was glad when I showed my father and him the abandoned theater one morning, even though he complained about how cold the equipment would be and stomped his feet a lot. It gave him something to work on instead of sitting around our house waiting for it to warm up enough to leave.
Father checked his pocket watch and peered outside one last time. "Do you want the honors?"
"Naw," he replied in that curious southern drawl. "Let Becky do it. This is all because of her in the first place..."
I shrieked and ran to the switch behind the concession stand. My hand paused until I saw my father's smile and slight nod. One flick and marquee lights sprang to life above the entrance to announce the Imperial Theater's first showing since the world died.
At least that is how Mr. Patrick described the day of the Pulse and he should know. He was there in DC when the President gave the order to kill all the computers. I was too young to remember, but others said he had to do it after the computers got sick. No one realized just how much they would lose when he shut them all down. No more television, or cell phones, or music players; no more ATMs to give money and banks forgot how much money people had. Like Ms. Thompson said in class, everyone had to start over.
Starting over must have been hard for a lot of people. They had to learn new ways of living and didn't have time for things like an old theater. I used to look at the faded posters in the windows on my way home from school and wonder what it was like back then. Now I was inside that theater and filling bags with freshly popped corn for our customers.
Mr. and Mrs. Alphern were first to arrive. He looked funny, dressed in a dark suit instead of his butcher's apron and paper hat. Father greeted both with a warm handshake and thanked them for coming as he took their coats. Mr. Alphern hesitated with his wallet in hand, unsure of what to do next.
"Put that thing away, Richard," Father said and handed him two tickets. "The management humbly offers these complimentary passes and hopes that everything is to your satisfaction."
That last part was Mr. Patrick's idea. He said that if we gave the tickets away, they would be worthless but everyone around town probably had earned a complimentary pass after all that they had endured. I didn't get it until I saw the looks on people's faces that evening as I handed out cups of warm cider while they waited for the movie to begin.
Mother arrived shortly after dark. She always worked late at the power plant this time of year, when people were turning up their heaters to hold off the bitter weather. She took over for me behind the counter still wearing her coveralls under a red theater jacket and gave me a peck on the forehead before sending me off to help Mr. Patrick finish getting ready.
The room at the top of the stairs still frightened me a little, even though Mr. Patrick had fixed it up. I found him hunched over, making last minute adjustments to the projector with his little screwdriver. My gaze wandered over to the giant platters holding the film and traced its winding path through the projector and back out again. Father tried to explain once how the little pictures flickered on a screen so fast that they made images seem to move like my shadow in the candlelight on the bedroom wall at night. I thought he was joking until Mr. Patrick told me the same thing one day as he scrubbed rust off of one of the many tiny pieces that made up the projector.
"Are you ready, Becky?"
"Yes, sir!" I answered, climbing into my seat near the viewing window and leaned forward like a sprinter in a starting block. He toggled the theater lights three times to signal that the picture would begin and I leaned out to watch townspeople take their places while chatting about various things they had forgotten until now. The excitement in the room rivaled my own.
"Lights...," said a voice behind me and the theater went dark.
"Camera...," he whispered as the great platters starting rolling flat strips towards the hungry machine with a loud 'tick - tick - tick - tick'. A bright flash of light erupted and colors splashed on the great white screen. I held my breath.
The La Fey Sisters; or Eyewitness to a Sorcerous Showdown,
as told to C. Rauscher
Chapter 1: High Magic on the High Plains
I reckoned I'd seen my share of strangeness in that terrible war between the states, but I never imagined the things I'd witness in my journeys out west. Steam locomotives racing along endless steel tracks may make travel faster from one destination to another, dear reader, but true adventure still lies in the empty expanse between.
One time I met a sorceress on the No. 4 coach heading west from St. Louis along the Oregon trail to Fort Laramie. Circumstances had left me in need of a hasty departure and I chose not to ask too many questions on the nature of my benefactor, a supposed woman of means traveling alone.
There were four of us crammed into the narrow carriage when it finally departed, with the last minute addition of two coarse looking men. One was an oversized fellow with mean eyes and sour disposition; the other, a slim unshaven man who nervously laughed at odd moments. The driver signaled us by slapping the side of the coach and we barely had time to brace ourselves as we lurched forward with a crack of a whip.
We sat in silence for hours on end, bouncing around so much that my backside ached despite the thin padding my jacket afforded from the hard wooden seat. I took stock of our solitary lady traveler with a dark green cloak wrapped protectively around her lovely frame and long scarlet tresses, the color of a fine wine in candlelight, loosely braided down the back. She noticed my gaze and smiled back.
"Dost thou wish to ask something of me, Mr...?"
"Lucian, Ma'am. Begging your forgiveness, but I find myself at a loss as to what manner of business could force a lady of your stature to risk traveling alone through untamed country such as this. Some one ahead in California called for you, a husband perhaps?"
She laughed behind a lace gloved hand, her eyes mocking me. "Not I, of a surety. 'Tis far too much effort to properly educate one and I fear my business will wait not. And what of ye, Mr. Lucian? Would ye be riding to or from your destiny?"
I glanced at our companions, who despite the rough terrain we traveled, managed to nap. "A bit of both, I reckon. Behind us is the war, or what's left of it; and ahead of us, who but the almighty can say?"
"My, my, Mr. Lucian. Long time 'ere such clever words I've heard. Pray gift me more."
My cheeks grew warm and I turned away from her emerald eyes. "I must beg your leave, ma'am. Words seem to have escaped me for the moment."
"Pity," she sighed and produced a delicate fan with a flourish from within the folds of her cape. I continued to stare out at the oceans of prairie from the coach's tiny window, desperately trying to think of something else to say to this captivating beauty and before long found myself drifting asleep to the sound of her fan flapping like the wings of a songbird against the bars of its cage.
Our journey westward was punctuated by the occasional stop to water the animals or tend to more personal matters. During these respites, our coach driver took aim at the local wildlife while his spindly assistant stood ready to retrieve the fallen game for our evening meal.
The two ruffians entertained themselves by wagering on the driver's marksmanship, with the Lady and myself declining to join. This proved to be a wise choice, since the sack of fresh kill proved too meager to stave off our hunger when we finally stopped to make camp for the night. Tempers flared as complaints turned to accusations and I stepped in to broker peace among the party members to no avail.
"Bí i do thost, glórach páistí," cried a voice from within the coach. The lady emerged and clapped her hands sharply together. Whether from the shock of her appearance or the commanding tone, everyone grew silent.
"'Tis better," she announced and stepped down from the coach with a sigh. I couldn't be sure if she was referring to the quiet or the feel of earth beneath her bare feet.
"Mr. Fisher. When first I approached ye and procured your guarantee for safe passage, 'twas with the understanding that ye might take on other passengers, only inconvenience me not. I trust that ye still desire to honor yon agreement?"
"Of course, Madame," the driver hastily answered while clutching his dusty hat nervously in both hands. "And my aim with this here rifle is true enough, but for my shoulder's aching bad lately on account of that Injun arrowhead still lodged in there..."
He rubbed the troublesome spot for effect, but she dismissed him with a wave of her hand.
"I bid ye halt your words. To keep civil tongues, I shall fetch some thing of substance for our meal." She picked up a stray branch as the others gathered around and began to trace an intricate pattern onto a bare patch of dirt nearby.
"Oh, this is swell," said the louder of our two companions, who pushed aside the smaller man to confront the driver. "Are we all gonna stand around and watch the funny talkin' dame scribble some purty pictures? If so, then I'm a taking a couple of those squirrels for my supper and the rest of you can fend for yourselves."
The driver hesitated and then tossed the burlap sack down at the man's feet. "Watch yer tongue, Clay. You've got no clew what you're dealing with here."
"L.l.l..look!" said the young assistant, pointing towards a patch of trees not too far away. From out of the shadows came a solitary hesitant figure. A fair sized doe walked towards us as if it were set to beg for dinner scraps like a hound. I reckon it had never seen the likes of us before and decided we were harmless; a foolhardy choice it would not live to regret.
All present, the driver included, stood in amazement as the creature continued right up to the woman and her strange drawing. Had it not been so bizarre a vision, I'm sure one of us, the driver perhaps, would have taken up arms and shot the beast.
The deer sniffed her hand, ears twitching this way and that with nary a trace of fear. She bent down and whispered to the deer, who I swear nodded back. Then without warning, the creature's eyes rolled back and it fell to the ground, as dead as my aunt Nelly.
"Gather wood and prepare this noble sacrifice, Mr. Fisher. Fresh water lies off to ye right. I'll take my leave of ye until nightfall."
Then the lady walked towards the woods where the deer first appeared, her dress flowing smoothly around her like a cloud of smoke with nary a tangle in the tall grasses.
"You heard Madame La Fey," the driver barked. "Let's get this animal dressed and cooking before she returns, and only those that help will get a share, I'll promise you that."
"Where d'ya think she's off ta?" the short one asked. Clay swung the sack at the man's chest and pulled a wicked looking blade from his belt. "Don't just stand there flapping your jaws, Bill. Looks like we'll be dining on juicy venison steaks tonight!"
Major Stephano loved war. He loved waking to the sound of gunfire, eating cold rations from a can with his regular issue survival knife, spending nights staring out over the perimeter when he wasn't dreaming of past battles. Most of all, he loved the rush of adrenaline during a heated firefight and the musical whump-whump-whump of his assault rifle keeping rhythm with the turbocharged pulse pounding in his ears. Many people weakened under the onslaught of violence and death, but not Major Stephano. He thrived on it.
When mankind reached the stars, he found them populated with a multitude of habitable worlds, each contained a wide variety of life and pleasant landscapes. Cyberius-4 was an exception. With a climate ranging from freezing to near vacuum coldness and gale force winds that cut deep channels into the rocky, ice-covered terrain, the Protectorate did not expect opposition to their military outpost settlement.
The natives of Cyberius-4 took exception to the outpost, which was why the Major was humming a small tune as he shaved in his thermally sealed tent on the god-forsaken northern range of the planet. The troops were mustering outside per his orders, but he decided to let them wait until he finished. It would harden them up a bit and he couldn't be seen looking unkempt. It was bad for his image.
Inspection of the troops went without a hitch. He briefed his men on the day's attack schedule and gave them one hour to prepare to move out. By nightfall, he expected to take the neighboring ridge. Thoughts of countless similar engagements echoed around him along with the faces of those who didn't make it. Major knew that several of his men would not meet them on the ridge tonight, but that was what war was about, wasn't it? He shoved the melancholy thoughts aside and continued to pack his belongings.
He was nearly complete when the chime sounded to signal a visitor. He waved the acknowledgement and his guest stepped in. The heavy parka concealed the identity, so the Major poured himself another cup of coffee and waited. After stomping his boots and knocking most of the icicles off his jacket, T.S. Wallace removed the heavy gloves and hood. He paused as if expecting the Major to greet him by name.
"What's the matter, sergeant? Forget how to salute your superiors?"
"Sorry, sir." Wallace snapped a quick salute to the Major's back.
"Something on your mind, sergeant?" The Major turned around to stare at the man who was fidgeting nervously.
"Is all this really necessary? I mean, so many lives just to hold one little outpost?" the man blurted out and then immediately wished he hadn't.
Major Stephano reflected. He had been watching this new guy for a week now and had expected this. Like a dozen times before, a man would step forward and question why. Why all the death, the violence all around. It was, on the surface, a reasonable request, but one must not divert the men from their jobs. A soldier's life is not to question why, it is to do or is to die. The little ditty he memorized so long ago in recruit training still held true. And he could understand the man's fear of death. On this planet's bleak surface in the arms of an enemy who could suck the life from your body with an icy touch was not how the Major had envisioned his end. Many poor souls had been found frozen where they stood on the battlefield, an icicle whose silent scream echoes for all eternity. But Major Stephano had seen many worse ways to die. He knew that doubt and fear could strike you dead faster than any weapon.
Sergeant Wallace waited, anticipating the worst from the man before him. He was shocked speechless when the Major calmly poured another cup and handed it to him.
"Sergeant, I understand how you feel." Truthfully, he didn't, but he sensed that it was what the young man needed to hear. " What we must remember is not what little part we seem to play, but how important it is to do our part well. More lives are counting on us than you could possibly imagine. Now drink up and let's show them what kind of men we are."
Major Stephano drank deeply and watched over the rim of his cup as the young sergeant did the same. Too bad, he thought to himself, He would have made one hell of a soldier.
The phone rang, but Dr. Wallace was expecting it. He smoothly picked up the receiver without glancing away from his monitor and nestled it in the crook of his shoulder so he could continue typing. "Wallace here."
"No, Mr. Director, I'm finishing up my report now. Your simulator worked just fine. I was able to patch in to the patient without any problem."
"Well, I wish you would wait for my report..."
"Okay, Mr. Director. I recommend continued stasis for Patient Stephano. Cerebral isolation has magnified his acceptance of violence to the point of psychosis. He is convinced that direct confrontation to the point of death is normal behavior and I believe he is incapable of future integration with current societal norms."
"Alternatives? Well that depends -- do you know of any wars we can send him to?"
I grabbed the magnifying glass from Tank's hand and dragged him closer to the light in the hallway. "Come over here where the light is better."
He took the black handled lens back and peered closely at the pocket watch I'd picked up at a nearby pawn shop. Tank said he still couldn't see any treasure map, making me scowl and demand he give the watch back.
"I never said there was a map," I snapped, "but some letters along the rim. Greek, perhaps."
"Or Phoenician, but who in the world would write in Phoenician on the case of a watch?" My roommate turned the timepiece this way and that, trying to gain a better view through the glass. "Let me borrow that ancient languages textbook of yours from last semester. With any luck, I can decipher this and be on my way before Mandy stops by."
Amanda McIntyre was a gorgeous sophomore he'd been tutoring for close to a month and definitely worth some alone-time, if you know what I mean. Dorm rooms were far too tiny for much: two beds, a table, lamp, and fold-up chair I brought from home, as well as a banged up mini fridge where leftover pizza went to die. Hell, we were freshmen living on campus and couldn't afford much else.
"Yeah, sure. Secret writing on a crappy old watch. Kind of like last week, when you found that rare first edition comic?"
I winced, remembering how crushed I was when the dealer at the mall told me how much my 'find' was worth. "So can I use the book or not?" I shot back.
Tank dug around in his closet and extracted a thick textbook, which he dropped into my outstretched hand. I immediately flipped through the pages to identify the writing I'd seen.
"Am I interrupting something?"
Tank and I spun around to see Amanda standing in the doorway, holding her World History books provocatively across her chest.
"Umm... sorry, Tank. I need to get going." I said, grabbing the book along with some paper and a pen. "If you need me, I'll be down at the break area studying."
Tank looked at Amanda, who shrugged as if to say 'humor the dope' and he whispered to me as I edged past, "Take your time, Rick."
I settled into an empty chair where the light was brightest and used the magnifying glass to sketch the tiny letters. They were Greek according to the textbook, from the classical period about a hundred years before Christ, and a chart in the back of the text made translation easy. It read:
A device out of time lost at sea for ages
marks a message well hid in a sea of pages Trust only the holder of time's cruel sands and unlock with the key from Zimmerman's hands.
"What is that supposed to mean?" said Tank, when I showed him my work. In the background, I could see Amanda sitting on his bed looking quite annoyed at the interruption.
"Think about it," I said. "A 'sea of pages'. Where can somebody find lots of pages? At the library, of course." Tank shrugged and pushed me away to close the door. "Why don't you go and check out the library?"
Hours later, I finally admitted to myself that the library was a dead end. I found some interesting books on ancient Greece, even a mention of some encrusted gears found that seemed too advanced for their age, but nothing resembling a clue. No writing on pages, inserted slips of paper, nothing. So much for my finding the message in a sea of papers, I thought.
The reading lounge was pretty empty for a Sunday afternoon, so I sprawled out across the couch, put some tunes on my MP3 player, and nodded off. In my dreams, I was stranded with the cast of Gilligan's Island and the Professor needed my help making a computer out of coconut shells and bamboo. We got a picture, but it was all jumbled up and no matter how hard I clicked with a poor tethered crab for a mouse, I couldn't get the text on the screen to make sense.
I awoke with a start, realizing that what I had missed. "Wrong sea," I said as I looked at the banks of public computers and sat down at the first one with a lit screen. Maybe the inscription wasn't talking about pages in a book. What if it meant web pages?
"What were those gears called? Anti... something. Here it is. Anthikythera mechanism."
There were over 84,000 matching pages, so I tried to narrow the search to something manageable. I tried words and phrases from the inscription with either too many or too few results to help. When I added 'cruel sands' to the search, one item on the results page leaped out at me. In the summary below the link was a name - H.R. Glass. Hourglass. Holder of time's cruel sands.
I clicked on the link which led to an old publicly-edited encyclopedia that fell out of favor after Wikipedia exploded onto the internet. The entry duplicated the same old facts I'd seen on other sites right down to the stock photograph of encrusted gears.
"Crap. Just another dead end, Ricky, old boy. So where would you hide a message on a web page?"
"In the source code," answered a voice behind me. A pretty blonde stood there tapping something into her sequined cell phone, looking quite annoyed at its tiny screen. "Damn it, Kim. You were supposed to be here an hour ago."
I grinned and thanked my beautiful savior. "If she doesn't answer, I'll give you a ride just as soon as I check on one more thing."
She smiled, grabbed an empty spot beside mine, and introduced herself. "Gina."
It took me a couple of tries to figure out how to view the source code behind the web page, then Gina took pity on me and helped navigate the patchwork of tags and text used to display the article.
"There's your message," she said, scrolling the cursor over rows filled with five digit numbers that weren't visible on the regular page. "So what is it supposed to mean?"
"It is some sort of code," I said and briefly explained what I had found so far. "I'm betting Zimmerman could tell us how to read it if we only knew who Zimmerman was."
I ran a quick search for 'Zimmerman' and 'code', which revealed references to a cryptic WWI telegram sent to entice Mexico into joining Germany's side, which helped turn the U.S. against Germany. Another article described the process they used to decipher the code, and after pages of scribbled notes and crumpled attempts littered the floor, we succeeded in reconstructing the hidden message.
TO MY DAUGHTER,
IT PAINS ME TO KNOW THAT I WILL NOT SEE YOU GROW INTO A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN LIKE YOUR MOTHER, BUT WE OFTEN DO NOT GET TO CHOOSE HOW LIFE UNFOLDS. DEATH WILL ROB ME OF THE CHANCE TO MEET YOU, SO I CAREFULLY SEEDED MESSAGES SUCH AS THIS ACROSS THE NETWORKS IN HOPES THAT YOU WILL FIND THEM IN TIME AND HEAR THE ECHOES OF A FATHER WHO LOVED YOU DEARLY. LET MY FATHER'S WATCH CONTINUE TO GUIDE YOU AS IT ONCE GUIDED ME.
WITH LOVE, DAD
"Do you think she knows?"
I sat back and took my glasses off, resting them near the tarnished gold watch that started everything. "I don't know. Someone should find out, though. I guess that someone is me."
Gina's ride arrived and she hesitated, unsure if she should go. She placed a hand on my shoulder, then stooped to give me a kiss on the cheek. "I'm glad I met you, Rick. Call me if you want some help?"
"Want to know a secret, Grandpa? There's no fish in this river. Probably hasn't been any here since before I was born."
"Hush up and watch your line."
"Who's going to hear us? We're sitting on this cruddy dock getting sunburnt with not another soul around."
They sat in silence for a while, watching their brightly colored bobbers dance in the gently flowing river current. The older man liked this spot because the water was a surprisingly deep blue and free from debris choking the rest of the river.
"Can we head back soon? I'm supposed to meet up with Terry and the others online at 3..." the boy said as he started pulling his line in.
"Patience, young man. A little more time out here with me won't kill you." The old man dug around in the cooler at his side. "Sandwich?"
"Sure." The boy unwrapped it and took a bite, dangling his pole off one leg.
"Your grandma used to make me sandwiches just like these for my lunch. Those days, of course, the fish were so plentiful you could just about walk from your boat to the treeline over there to take care of business. That was before the plant moved in and messed up the river, but me and the guys always found time to sneak out and toss the ol' pole in the water."
The old man looked out at his bobber and tightened his line a bit with the oversized reel. "Tommy was the last to go," he reflected. "I'd hope your dad would join me one day, but..."
"Hey, did you see that?" The boy pointed toward the water where one of the bobbers dipped below the surface and popped back up. "Oh, jeez! What do I do, Grandpa?"
The old man smiled and set down his pole to help the excited youth reel in the line, much like his grandfather had once showed him. A tiny bluegill splashed and wriggled in the air, spinning around the grinning boy's face and at that moment, it was the greatest fish either one had ever seen.
She appeared in my room after the nurse departed and sat on the edge of the bed, her slender fingers nervously stroking the thin cotton sheet draped over my feet. She hadn't aged a day since I first saw her in that courtyard, playing a careless tune as she danced barefoot on the manicured lawn near the ancient tree in its center.
"Are you sleeping?" she whispered in a voice so soft that I barely heard the words over the constant beep and hiss of the monitors chronicling my remaining time on earth.
"No," I whispered back. "I'm glad you came." The morphine drip wrapped the world in a muffled haze and I struggled to stay focused on something, anything, just to make this moment last. My eyes settled on her short cinnamon hair adorned with fiery red and orange feathers that reminded me of autumn foliage.
"Does it hurt?" she asked, gesturing toward the wires and tubes snaking out from my covers.
I tried to smile and shrug, but a tidal wave of pain crashed over me and I lay still for a moment before answering, "Not as much as before... the medicine helps."
She crinkled her nose at the word 'medicine' before leaning over and gently patting my exposed arm. Instantly, I felt the tingling flush of warmth and calmness spreading through me like I was basking in the sun on a beautiful summer day. She smiled back at me as she let go of my arm and I pretended not to notice the way the feathers in her hair were less colorful and drooped a bit more than before.
"When you didn't come to visit me yesterday, I got worried and decided to come look for you." She cocked her head to one side and peered into my face. "It was yesterday, wasn't it?"
I shook my head. I haven't been well enough to leave my room for a month now, but what are a few weeks to her kind?
"No matter, I found you now. Would you like to hear about the empty nest I found, or perhaps what the gardener said when I made his string break on that smelly spinning thing." She hid a giggle behind her fingers at the memory.
"I've got something... important to tell you," I said as another wave of pain coursed through me. I squeezed the trigger in my hand, but the drug dispenser was already at its limit and to give me more so soon might silence my already weakened lungs. "Remember... when I told you about my disease... how it was making me sick?"
"Stop," she said, shaking her head. I'd tried several times to explain, but she wouldn't or couldn't understand what it meant to die. The closest she ever came was that it was like when the sun set and everything grew dark.
I shut my eyes and nodded. "Okay. How about the courtyard... would you describe it for me? It has been so long... and I miss seeing it through your eyes."
She clapped her hands, somber mood erased. "Oh, Matthew. The sunrise was breathtaking, although the grassy dew was chilly on my toes."
She pulled a violin out of the air and fitted it to her chin with a natural ease. It wasn't possible, of course, but that is how her magic worked; she wanted something and it appeared for her. I closed my eyes and let the noise of the monitors fade against a gentle pure note that hovered for a moment before another arose to take its place as if the melody were painting the pale blues and billowy whites of morning. Fingers plucked at strings here and there like birds in search of their breakfast.
The notes grew in richness that suggested a lazy midday sun beating down upon my face like it did when the two of us would meet by the tree -- me with knowledge of things beyond the walled yard, and her eternal cheerfulness and amazing way of revealing wonder in the ordinary.
Her fingers confidently strode up and down the neck of the violin, teasing and pulling a cascade of pattering sounds not unlike an afternoon shower, with jagged notes breaking through the rhythmic downpour in streaks of purple and grey. I watched as memories and emotions colored her face as she played, unsure if any mortal could reproduce such beauty unassisted by magic. Just as quickly as it had appeared, the crashing subsided and a sense of calm returned to the music.
She was looking at me now as her song approached its end. Notes stretched and lingered a bit longer, finding fewer harmonies to tie together. "The sun isn't coming back for you in the morning, is it?" she sighed.
"I don't think so." The pain was growing stronger and I couldn't feel her warmth anymore.
A hint of sadness escaped from the strings she played and I could hear the trembling of her chin resonating on each new note.
"Who will I play for when you are gone?"
"There will be others... and they'll find you... just like I found you."
The song was nearly complete, its sun had set and the last precious sounds hung in the air between us. I could tell she was right and that this was likely my last sunset. With one last bit of strength, I raised my hands and clapped.
She blushed and turned away as my hands fell, but to our surprise the applause continued. Call it magic or the wish of a dying man, but I was not the only one moved by her recital as it echoed up and down the corridor -- some cried, some cheered, but no one would deny that it was the finest performance they'd ever heard.
Hayden looked at his cards on the screen and grinned. His simulation predicted a pair of fours and there they were. He called the bet when it was his turn and nodded as the flop revealed another four and two jacks, just as predicted.
It was too easy.
Hayden wasn't always a poker cheat. Once he dreamt of getting a mathematics degree, but the lure of cracking so-called secure algorithms protecting online casinos proved too much to resist. He told himself that they could take their losses out of the money they made from annoying flash advertisements he had to endure.
The dealer with its perpetual smile deftly scooped up the cards and added the winings to his total. Hayden admired the high-end graphics, but thought they should have sunk a little more money into their card shuffling routines. Two more hands like the last one and he'd log off before anyone caught on. Sometimes he stayed too long and got his IP address blacklisted, which was a pain. It took time to find new poker sites to crack.
Two newcomers joined his table. One was new, judging by the size of his account, and the other he recognized from last week. How could he forget a name like 'CyberWiz666'? Probably some mascara-wearing college freshman wearing a dog collar with the chrome spikes, he thought.
It was his turn to ante. The smiling dealer tossed cards smoothly across the table to every occupied seat with a flick of the animated wrist. Hayden didn't even bother to pick his up. Instead, he watched the other players. Newcomer folded quickly, followed by CyberWiz666 calling the bet. "Good," Hayden said to the screen. "Three of a kind won't beat my flush, though."
The flop held two of his five clubs. Hayden raised the bet, but not by too much. He didn't want to scare away any contributors to his winning pot. A player folded anyway. Before the dealer could toss the next card, the messenger window pinged.
<cyberwiz666> Aren't you going to look at your cards before you bet?
Hayden looked startled for a moment, then typed while reading out loud. "I feel lucky tonight, C-Wiz."
The turn card was another club. Another raise, this time doubling the previous amount. The others called.
The window pinged again louder and somehow sounding more urgent.
<cyberwiz666> You seem awfully sure of your hand, sight unseen.
Hayden had a bad feeling about this. CyberWiz was taking quite an interest in his cards. The other player folded, leaving the two of them to fight it out. Then again, Hayden thought, maybe he's been trying to psyche out all the other players too. He called, hoping his nemesis would raise the bet, which he did.
The dealer stared at him, this time making him a little uncomfortable. It was definitely time to log off. The final card flicked out and spun in place for a second, then flipped over to reveal a heart.
Hayden called, then called again when his opponent raised. He was only too glad to turn over his cards and reveal two more clubs. He waited for the dealer to do his thing, but the image didn't move. Another message appeared on his screen, this time without the ping.
<cyberwiz666> Cheating is illegal.
"Who cares!" he chuckled and flipped off the screen. "You're just a sore loser." Hayden reached for the keyboard to respond, but the screen flashed a new message before he could begin typing.
<cyberwiz666> You should have read the User Agreement closer, Hayden. I have the right to demand compensation for your illegal acts.
Hayden felt a chill down his spine as he read his name. Bluish sparks flew from the keyboard and he tried to pull his hands away, but couldn't. The hair on his forearms stood straight as the charge flowed up and across his body, bathing him in its strange glow. He could barely make out the words on the screen before all went dark:
<cyberwiz666> I invoke that right...
Hayden felt different somehow. He was standing, but his legs wouldn't move. He couldn't turn his head from the green felt of the table before him. Shadowy images wavered on the far side of the table and his hands reflexively picked up the cards in front of him and began flicking them to marked spots.
He tried to cry out, to beg for another chance, but no sound came from his frozen digital smile.
... As I make my way up the path to the woods at the end of the cul-de-sac, I hear his voice calling out, just like always, from somewhere up ahead. It is a little game we play -- a sort of hide and seek. Coming, I reply. Maybe a bit slower than before, but time does that to you. I leave behind idle bulldozers amid the skeletons of partially built townhouses and memories return with each step...
Roy and I were best friends. Right from the time my parents and I moved in next door, we were inseparable. He probably spent more time at my place than his own, what with having a mom that had died and a dad who worked nights at the plant. Come summertime, there wasn't much we didn't do together, whether it was hanging out in the Wilds north of Miller Farm or catching frogs down at Carver Pond and putting them in Darlene's mailbox for kicks. The folks around town took to calling us "The Harper Twins" -- when they weren't too mad at us for something or other. Life was pretty good.
... I stop to rest. The 'Wilds' are named well, I tell my absent friend - one of the last untamed areas in the county, although an orange splash on a nearby trunk marks the latest incursion of developers. Soon enough, construction crews would arrive and remake everything in the name of progress. Until then, I suspect I am one of the only ones to venture inward in a very long time. The trees and bushes eagerly fight to reclaim the trail I follow, but no matter how much they blanket the landscape, I never lose my way. I continue to come here, although not as often as I used to, or should. A promise only matters when it's fulfilled. Up ahead, beyond the dry streambed and around a rock outcropping, is the place I seek...
It was early June when we first happened on that oak tree deep in the Wilds. We were out late one afternoon, trying to scare up some small critter we could kill and take back as a trophy, when we found the ancient tree. This thing stood tall amongst the others, gigantic in girth, with branches spread out at least twenty yards from the trunk. Some of the branches were even big enough for us to stand on with ease. Old and gnarly, I could almost see the oak standing on the plains long before any settler set foot in this region. We stood in awe, drinking in the sheer size of the behemoth, when I spied the hole up near the top. Every now and then, you may see a small hole in a tree just perfect for hiding small valuable objects or perhaps a safe haven for some mother bird and her young. The hole I had found was all that and more. It was big enough to walk into. My thoughts had quickly turned to tree forts and how this could be the best darned fort ever built. Why, the thing had been nearly finished for us!
... A noise startles me from the bush on the left. I stand there staring at the disturbed branches and flash of black feathers. A sigh of relief, of humor at an old man spooked by a harmless bird, yet how can I ignore the pounding of my heart? Break time is over, I tell myself, drawing strength from what I am here to do; back to the path and the tree at the end...
When I had told Roy about my ideas, I mistook the look that flashed across his face for the same flush of excitement spread across my own and continued rambling on with my hastily crafted plans. After a brief hesitation, Roy added a few clever changes to the plans of our soon-to-be-built master fort. The rest of the afternoon was a flurry of activity and I never gave the matter another thought. Looking back, I'm sure it was something else which had dominated Roy's thoughts. It was fear.
... The tree is still here, towering over the others, like an old shepherd standing guard over his flock. Time will not diminish its greatness, or my awe for it. I wish to forget this pilgrimage and go home now, but I continue onward, taking comfort from the cold smooth metal in my pocket...
We began work the next morning. Neither one of us spoke as we circled town in a seemingly random course, all part of our grand secret. It seems kind of silly now, but in those days a good fort was highly prized and no one could learn of our new creation until it was ready. Roy's dad didn't complain when we borrowed his tools and we didn't bother to ask, since we knew he disliked anyone interrupting his sleep. Extra rope and scraps of lumber were obtained from a sprawling vacant lot that doubled as a junkyard. It was nearly dark when we had gathered the necessary supplies and covertly transported them to the tree. The oak looked decidedly more ominous, creaking and swaying in the evening breeze like it had a life of its own. Roy and I shivered quietly in the shadow of the oak tree and agreed to continue our work tomorrow. We ran back most of the way and were out of breath by the time we had reached my house for supper. Before we went our separate ways for the night, we promised each other not to work so late again. Not because we were chicken, of course, but so we wouldn't catch hell from our folks.
... A rope, long rotted, sways in the wind, waving hello like an old friend. For the thousandth time I remind myself to cut that thing down before some small child decides to climb up it and into the branches above. I know that eventually children will find it, but I still cannot bring myself to get close enough to chop down the dreaded oak...
Later that summer, our fort was completed. A deck connected two broad limbs and led into the large opening in the trunk. The hole was larger on the inside than it looked, deep and dry, and it provided cover from the rain while it hid us from view below. It had taken much longer to finish than we initially planned due to missing supplies and having to repeatedly clean up debris that formed around the base of the tree. All in all, I recall being pretty darn proud of the fort. Many hours I spent daydreaming about how we could live there until winter if we wanted to. Even Roy had begun to share in my enthusiasm and, when we could, we promised to ourselves to spend the first night camping out in our newly constructed home.
... So many years come and gone, yet here I am, back where it all happened. The massive oak stands untouched by time. It is hard for me to imagine this great beast as a tiny sapling long before people arrived to this area in covered wagons. Sometimes I fear the years of my own pitiful life will be a few dozen rings beneath its bark -- nothing more...
August came and nearly went before we finally received the green light. I had told my parents that we were staying at Roy's that night and he told his dad the same line. Sure, it wasn't original, but it worked anyway. Waving goodbye to my mom with a backpack of supplies and my green sleeping bag tucked under my arm, I strolled off in the direction of Roy's house. Once safely out of sight, I sprinted to the Wilds and the fort.
Roy met me at the base of the tree just as the sun's parting rays lit the highest branches. I uncovered the pilfered candles that I had hidden earlier under a pile of stuff and lit them with unsteady hands. Roy climbed up first. We hauled up my pack, then his, into the candlelit interior. Once settled, Roy opened up the crackers and we sat munching and listening to the Wilds coming alive all around us. As I recall, we joked for a while and talked about kid stuff to take the edge off our nervousness. This was my first night camping alone, so to speak, so it took me quite awhile to fall asleep. Not true for Roy. Once the crackers were gone and the candle snuffed, his snores were soon intermingled with nocturnal cries and rustling outside.
... I still fear the Wilds, with its unknown creatures and unexplained noises. I try each visit to make my peace with this place and, after living a lifetime within its shadow, cannot see its beauty. I wonder if others would find it as terrifying as I do. I doubt it...
I'm not really sure what woke me up. It could have been the newness of the place or perhaps I had heard Roy's muffled cries. As I became more fully awake, I could sense something was wrong. The whole tree seemed to be moving and I could hear Roy struggling to disentangle his legs from the sleeping bag, or so I thought. The rumbling was becoming more intense and I fumbled with the matches as I hurriedly tried to light a candle. One flared to life but before the flame could take hold, the match shook free and tumbled to the floor where it flickered and went out. What I saw before the light vanished has haunted me ever since. I swear I saw poor Roy in the back of the hole we had called home. His legs had already vanished from view into the gaping maw of the tree. Roy's tortured face stared at me and his lips formed silent words pleading for help, which would not come in time. I think I screamed as I leaped from the tree while branches writhed about and snatched at my clothes as I fell. I called out for Roy, but all I could hear were horrible crunching sounds from above and the rain of broken lumber shards all around. After an eternity, the nightmarish noises ceased and quiet returned to the Wilds.
There was no sign of Roy.
I ran blindly in a direction I hoped led homeward and the next thing I remember, I was waking up in my bed with Mother's concerned face over me muttering soothing words.
... I arrive at my usual spot, a boulder just large enough to let me rest my weary bones. I settle into a worn spot on its stony surface that serves as the closest thing to a comfortable chair I can muster. Slowly the world outside this place fades to gray and the past unfolds as clear as yesterday. Teardrops form on my cheek and I let them fall undisturbed...
Police searched for days but eventually they gave up when they could find no trace of Roy. They wanted to question me as well, but my father's stern refusal was the closest they could get. Common talk around town was that some mysterious stranger had abducted Roy and nearly succeeded in taking me too. Many accepted my silence as confirmation and their interest gradually faded away.
... Each Sunday, when I am able, I make the journey to this place. I promised him that I would not forget; that somehow I would find a way to finish it. But how do you fight something as ancient as this? After so many years, I found this icy perch was the closest I could force myself to approach the sinister oak. I return, as promised, but with little solace to offer...
My health slowly returned and I tried to forget, but each night Roy visited me in my dreams. I could hear his voice crying out, see the terror in his eyes and his outstretched hand grasping for my own. I would wake up bathed in a cold sweat. Finally, I could stand it no longer and when morning came, made my way down the winding trail that I would come to know by heart.
... So I bring news each visit. Sometimes it is mundane events from our small town, other times I bring major news of the world. I told him when Dad passed away, also when Darlene married and moved to the big city. Week after week, I chronicle events from a time that Roy would never get to enjoy; it is my penance for living -- even if it was a life frozen in time by guilt...
I chose to return to the spot from my nightmares in the comforting light of day. The oak tree stood there like all the other times, silent and old. I had almost come to believe my parents' lie when far above, where I half-expected to see the abandoned fort, I spied only the dark edge of a hole through the thinning autumn leaves- gaping wide and inviting. Scraps of board and cloth, like crumbs from a birthday cake, littered the base of the trunk. I sank to my knees and sobbed for a long time until I could cry no more. Wiping my tear-streaked face with the back of a hand, I swore that I would find a way to make things right, no matter how long it took.
... I pull the can from my overcoat and begin shaking it back and forth with a rattling sound. The color of the cap looks close enough for all but the sharpest eye. The construction foreman I met assured me that, once marked, no tree would stop his equipment from making room for new homes and shopping plazas. He must have thought my smile odd.
All I need now is a few precious moments near the base of the oak and its fate will be sealed at last. What it may do to me afterwards is of no consequence. When they cut the monstrosity down and the insides are split open, my promise will be kept and maybe, just maybe, Roy will forgive me....
The last of the Dire Wolves lifted his head to the evening sky and sang the songs of his forefathers. It was a lonely sound that echoed around the hilltops and wooded valleys. Somewhere below him, a startled deer crashed through the underbrush. He waited for a reply as long as his empty stomach would allow, then loped into the dark in search of supper.
The large wolf yearned for the juicy taste of a large kill, but tonight he had to settle for a scrawny rabbit. Mammoth no longer roamed like they once did and his constant search for food had led him far from the place of his birth. He lived long after the others of his pack grew grey in the face and departed to join in the great hunt. He missed the pulse-quickening race along the grasslands with his pack mates. They'd chase the great wooly beast until it was exhausted and then surround it. Dodge in, snap at the tough hide for a chance at the tender underbelly, and dart back before their prey could strike with its long ivory tusks. Before long, he'd be singing a joyful song of the hunt for the others of his pack to hear and follow. His mouth watered at the thought of fresh meat instead of skin and bones.
A twig snapped low to the ground. The wolf froze and his ears swiveled to follow the noise off to his right. A rock shifted against another, then the dry rustling of a leaf brushed by fur. His stomach growled as he silently padded after his prey. Whatever it was, it did not act normal. It did not move in fits and pauses like a rabbit or mouse, nor did it try to avoid noisy approaches like the deer and bobcat. This creature ambled along like it was searching for something and did not care who could hear its footsteps.
The dire wolf silently padded across the rocky overhang and peered over its edge, his outline concealed by the thorny bush above. A small wolf; like his kind, yet different in coloring and shape. The cub was not even a full season old, barely old enough to leave the den on her unsteady legs. He left the rock and circled widely around the cub for the scent of its pack. They would not roam too far from their young and he was not interested in trespassing on their home turf. Once he may have dared to take on a group of wolves by himself, but those days were long ago.
He found a scent not too far away, but not one that he expected. It was the smell of another hunter he knew from the plains -- the long-toothed cat. Instantly, his ears went back as he scanned the dark branches of the trees above.
"Where are you," he growled in a voice almost too low to hear. "Your smell is fresh upon the tree and I will find you."
"No attack ancient hunter," said a voice softly from somewhere above. "Only eat unclaimed child."
"I claim the child. Go and find another for your meal."
"Will share meal, yes?" asked the voice from the left.
"No," he snarled back, all the while trying to catch a glimpse of the sleek feline mocking him. It was an old trick to make him think there was more than one big cat in the trees.
"Shame you not share," the voice chuckled from a different direction. "Must eat child alone."
The dire wolf bounded forward and ran towards the unsuspecting wolf cub up ahead. He gave three short barks to warn the youngling of danger and hoped she would understand. In the treetops above him, he caught a glimpse of a dark form racing along as well.
He knew he would not make it in time to save the cub. He raced as hard as his tired legs would go, and then pushed on harder. Over logs and through narrow gaps he flew, ignoring sharp pains in his face and flanks from the thorny branches. All he knew was that this she-cub would not grow up to join her pack mates if he failed.
The great cat had already cornered the young female by the time he arrived. "Run quickly, no breath. If fight, you lose." The cat bared its teeth, exposing the twin curved blades protruding from its upper lip.
"Face me and we will find out," the dire wolf growled. "You are not the first of your kind to make that mistake and my teeth ache to bite into hot salty flesh."
The cat glanced back at the whimpering cub only for a moment. "Snatch child, climb tree. You slow -- no stopping."
"Then turn your flank to me and take your chances. I wouldn't stumble if I were you." He stepped closer as he spoke, never taking his eyes off of the feline.
The cat swished its tail as it decided what to do, then leaped to the nearest branch. "Not today..." it murmured. "Perhaps tomorrow. Lower guard, she's mine."
The large wolf watched the figure vanish into the woods and turned to check on the wolf cub who sat watching him with wide eyes and quivering nose. She was smaller than he thought, barely weaned, with chubby rolls of baby fat under the darkening pelt. He sat, ears forward, and let curiosity overcome her fear of him. She took several nervous steps towards him, sniffing the air with her stubby muzzle. He remained still.
"You're not my mother."
She crinkled her nose at him. "You smell funny, but not like that mean old cat. Momma says to stay away from big cats."
The old wolf smiled. "Your mother is right. Where is she?"
"I'm not sure. Momma went to catch something to eat, but she got lost."
He guessed that this cub's mother could be not too far away, so he raised his muzzle to the trees and sang of discovery in the hopes that the worried mother to hear and follow. The young cub cowered at the sound and he stopped when he realized she didn't know what the simple melody meant. It dawned on him that there was no one left who would know, other than himself.
A voice called out from behind him. "Get away from her, strange one."
The large wolf turned to greet the new arrival and heard the rustle of her leap before his eyes could locate her. He barely had time to react before her small body crashed into him. He rolled with the force of the blow and quickly regained his feet, but she was quicker. The angry mother took up a position between him and her child, keeping her head low and growling through bared teeth. Despite her threatening stance, he couldn't help but notice her lovely violet eyes.
He responded with a low growl of his own, but did not advance. Something in the back of his mind knew that an angry mother defending her young was capable of injuring even something of his size. Without taking her eyes off of him, the slender female flicked her tail to order the child's retreat.
"Go. Now!" she snapped.
For a moment, the old wolf was unsure who she was ordering, perhaps both of them. "Listen to your mother, small one. These woods are not a safe place to wander alone. Remember our visitor?"
"You mean Big Tooth? You chased that bad cat away."
The female's ear twitched and swung towards him for an explanation and he ignored her for now. "Big Tooth will come back. These hills don't have large game to keep him fed. You and your mother should get back to others of your kind where you will be safe."
The dire wolf nodded to the female to see if she understood. She nodded back, but the way she hung her head told him that something was wrong.
"There are no others. We will fend for ourselves. That is our way."
This news surprised him. Did northern wolves not hunt together? "In lands to the south, all of us hunted together and shared chores as freely as the food. I claimed the she-cub from the hunter in the trees and I will defend her as long as I am able."
The female wolf sat and stared deeply at him as if trying to read his heart. Her attention made him a little uncomfortable. Finally, she spoke. "You would do that -- help me keep her safe?"
"That is my way."
The female edged by him with a quick brush of muzzle against muzzle. "We should get moving before the little one is too tired to walk. You are welcome to escort us while we look for a new home away from the big cat."
He grinned and led the way up the side of the ridge, with mother and daughter close behind. The dire wolf raised his muzzle to sing of joy, but paused when he remembered the cub's reaction. Perhaps if he taught her to sing, she would not be so afraid. For the first time in a very long while, he dared believe that the songs of his forefathers would not fade into silence.