calvin writing

Season 11, Week 30, Portfolio, "Lost "

Re-do story for "My True North":  "Lost in Love" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/38989.html


LOST

Clark Ericson didn’t know in what direction he was walking, but he had to admit it was his own fault.  The newspapers had made that clear, and so had the letter of dismissal from the university.  If you destabilize true magnetic north, even by accident, then in all decency, you ought to accept the blame.  Still, Clark didn’t like being a pariah, nor did he like getting lost every time he left his house.

He had told an angry world that the effect might be temporary, but that was a small consolation.  Airplanes were grounded, ships had to steer by the stars, and birds migrated to the wrong places.  North and South Dakota fought over which was which, and everybody was lost.

Worst of all, his family hated him.  But his immediate problem was food.

“You screwed things up,” his wife had said, “so you find the store!”

If he couldn’t locate a grocery store, he knew he would be banished to his little lab in the garage.

So here he was, hoping for the best and desperately wanting not to be recognized.  Even though the weather was hot, Clark wore his son’s sweatshirt and pulled the hood down to hide his face.  A pair of dark glasses helped.

His disguise created its own problems, of course, by making it hard for him to see where he was going.

“I don’t suppose it matters,” he thought when he left home, towing his kids’ old wagon to carry the groceries.

It was going to be a long walk.  The nearest grocery store was three miles away and he couldn’t drive.  His experiment had affected the electronics in the car, and now it wouldn’t start.

“I wish I hadn’t crossed those wires,” he thought.  “I’m a physicist, not an electrical engineer.”

It was an innocent mistake, the kind people make every day, but which usually didn't result in earth-changing consequences.  Magnetic true north had always moved a little bit over time, and no one had really cared.  But Clark had caused it to start moving thousands of miles a day and in random directions.

“They said it couldn’t be done,” he thought as he turned another corner.  “I wish I’d listened.”

All he had wanted to do was find proof of gravity particles, which were missing from the Standard Model of particle physics.  This had flummoxed everyone from Einstein on down.

“I should never have gone to the fair,” he thought, as he found a gas station he might never need again.

Clark had ridden the Starship Gravitron at the Grant County Fair.  It was circular, and it spun so rapidly it had pinned the riders up against its walls at incredible speed.  He had almost passed out, but that state of semi-consciousness had freed his mind and the idea for a gravity particle generator had popped into his head.

It was a simple add-on to the campus’s particle accelerator, just a few more magnets really.  He'd called it the Gravitron in honor of the amusement ride.  The particle physicists had all thought it was ludicrous, but Clark had worn them down.  No one had ever imagined it could have such dangerous effects.

And it hadn't, at first. Not until Clark had crossed the red wires with the green wires leading from the magnets.

“It was such a small error,” he thought sadly, as he came across a game store.  “Oh, hey—the kids will like that."

The chances of finding the store again later were small, but still, maybe then they wouldn’t hate him so much.

“Those sparks were probably a warning,” he thought as he trudged along.  “Maybe I shouldn’t have turned the particle accelerator on.”

He rounded another corner when – hallelujah! – there it was: Lucky Groceries.  His family wouldn’t starve and he wouldn’t be living in the garage . . . yet.

He finished the shopping quickly, and then encountered his next problem: he still had to find his way home.  Clark stood in the parking lot with his wagon and closed his eyes, trying to remember what he’d passed on the way there.  The first step was the dry cleaner’s, which he could see up at the next corner.

And so, slowly and tortuously, with several wrong turns, he made his way back home.  One of his errors led him to a pizza parlor, so he bought an extra-large combination see-what-a-great-dad-I-am pizza for his family before continuing his journey.

He felt so relieved when he finally opened the door to his house.

“I’m back,” he said, “and I brought . . . .”

“Pizza!” yelled his son, who ran into the kitchen and grabbed it with all the gratitude of a feral child who hadn’t eaten in ten minutes, and then ran off with it.  Clark thought he heard a growl.

“You were gone nearly three hours,” his wife said.  “The ice cream’s melted.”

There was no kindness in her voice.  Their invisible daughter stayed in her bedroom.

“There’s no forgiveness here,” thought Clark, on his way to do penance in the garage, intent on staying out of everyone’s way for a while.  He checked his email on his phone and the world was still mad at him.  He had never felt lower.

Clark headed for the cot, to settle in for a pity session followed by a nap.  He got neither.  Instead, he got an idea.  Sitting on top of the cot was a box of old, failed inventions.  And the one on top was his attempt at a flux capacitor for time travel, inspired by “Back to the Future.”  It hadn’t worked, of course, but it had been fun.

At the heart of a flux capacitor was a nuclear quantum-stream reverser.  And that was what gave him his idea for how to repair magnetic north.

All he had to do was induce a negative charge into the quantum tube in his Gravitron device and hook it back up to the particle accelerator.

“. . . and uncross the wires,” he said to the dog, who really didn’t care since there were no kibbles in sight.

To do all this, Clark would need access to his old lab and some time with the particle accelerator.

This required permission from the head of his former department, Prof. Sophia Agnelli.  A phone call resulted in a stream of emphatic profanity, followed by “never again.”  Her reply to his follow-up text message was even shorter: “restraining order.”

But Clark knew he was right.  He still had his keys for the university, which the security guards had failed to collect when they'd escorted him off the campus.  He just needed to wait until no one would be near the particle accelerator, which, on a Friday, would be unusually early.

He spent several hours diagramming his idea and checking the math before leaving for the 11:30 p.m. bus to the university.  It took him only 45 minutes to find the bus stop.

“Hey,” said the bus driver after he opened the door, “aren’t you that #@%! who . . . .”

“No,” said Clark, who pulled his hoodie lower and hurried to the rear of the bus.

Since the new passenger was either a mad scientist or a middle-aged wanna-be-thug, the driver didn't stop him.

“They don’t pay me enough to deal with this crap,” muttered the driver, and left Clark alone.

By the time Clark found his office, it was 2:00 a.m. and he knew he had to hurry.  He opened the Gravitron, fixed the wiring, and induced a negative charge in the quantum tube, then carted it over to the particle accelerator and attached it.

After waiting for the accelerator to reach full power, Clark re-routed the particles through the Gravitron. It hummed briefly before throwing off the dreaded electric sparks and dying in a small, unexpected explosion.

All the power on the campus went out, leaving Clark more in the dark than usual. But there was one important change.  He wasn’t lost anymore, and he ran.

Once he got back to his garage, he found a compass.  It pointed to the old north again now, and it stayed there.

“I did it!” he yelled at the dog, who still didn’t care, not even when Clark broke into the approximation of a victory dance.

The world was grateful and everything returned to normal.  Birds knew where to migrate, ships could navigate, and North and South Dakota found something else to quarrel about.

Unfortunately, the police also found it easy to locate Clark’s house, so they could arrest him for trespassing.  While he was in jail, the university served him with a bill for the damage he had caused, which only added to his misery.  But after his wife bailed him out, and he finally got home, he saw a blanket and a pillow on the sofa.

Gradually, life returned to normal again.  The university forgave Clark for trespassing and for the destruction from the explosion in exchange for the Gravitron, which had significant potential for gravity research -- if properly wired.

His family life also returned to normal, because Clark, for all his faults, was a good husband and father, and he had only almost destroyed the world just that one time.

The dog, whose main interests were still shaped like beef-flavored rocks, never noticed or cared either way.


*     *     *     *     *     *
If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries https://therealljidol.livejournal.com/1161522.html.
Complete Portfolio

1. Favorite: "The Pirates" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/37750.html
2. Lifeboat: "Bunkers and Blueberry Pie" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/44294.html
3. Fermentation: "FTSEC" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/44034.html
4. Champion (whipchick) "Buddha Nature" https://whipchick.livejournal.com/75957.html [I am so grateful for her willingness to be my champion and for the excellence of her story]
5. Re-Do of "My True North" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/38989.html : "Lost" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/44632.html
calvin writing

Season 11, Week 30 Portfolio: "Lifeboat"



BUNKERS AND BLUEBERRY PIE


Jack was sitting at the counter inside Annie’s Restaurant when the world didn’t end, yet again.  The asteroid had missed, or God had forgiven humanity, or the mystic calculations were off just a little, or whatever the excuse was. Jack was just happy to be eating his second piece of one of the best blueberry pies he’d had in a long time.  It was a good morning.


The most recent for-sure-end-of-the-world event had passed by, and all those doomsday preppers had crawled out of their bunkers and started looking for a new reason for the coming collapse of civilization. 


Jack didn’t mind – the business was always good.  Many of the preppers had bought luxurious Lifeboat bunkers from him for this last would-be Doom Event.  Now he could sell them conversion kits to turn their bunkers into rec rooms or underground man-caves or whatever they wanted, so they wouldn’t look as crazy as they actually were. 


Jack Chatham was the balding, overweight owner of Lifeboat, Inc., and a natural-born salesman.  He was a genius at finding people’s fears, stoking them, and then selling the solution: a Lifeboat luxury bunker. 


Any fool could build a bunker by using a backhoe to bury some old shipping containers for starters.  Jack targeted the high-end social paranoiacs, and built small houses underground with armored, radiation-proof exteriors and loads of room for storing supplies and weapons.  Every comfort was provided so that his customers knew they would be safe in the post-apocalyptic world of their choice.


But the most recent doomsday panic was over, and now it was time for a break.  Blueberry pie was a great place to start.


“How do you get such a flaky crust?” Jack asked Annie.


“I use a little vodka in place of some of the ice water,” she replied.


It was clear she knew her pies.  Jack only knew the eating part.  Annie was in her mid-thirties, and Jack found her attractive in a Betty Crocker kind of way. 


Her restaurant was in Styx River, a tiny hamlet popular for its fishing, hiking, and river-rafting.  The few businesses catered to tourists, so it was pretty empty during the off season, like now.  The restaurant was the only one for miles and it was generally busy, but it was slow at the moment. 


“What brings you here?” Annie asked, brushing her hair back.  She was curious by nature and liked talking to her customers.


“I sell doomsday bunkers,” Jack replied.


He was always reluctant to explain his job because he thought it made him sound fringy when all he did was sell to the fringe.


“Must be a good market,” said Annie.  “Lots of people worry about that stuff around here.”


“I sold some units up in the hills,” said Jack.


“Well, with the River Styx nearby and all those dead wandering around waiting their turn, who can blame them?” said Annie.

Uh, oh, thought Jack. A crazy baker.


“Besides the Styx,” said Annie, “just over the hill there’s the hellmouth in that old mine.  Why we couldn’t get a few angels, I’ll never know.  But still, there it is.”


Jack never liked high-level weirdness unless a sale was near. He'd been thinking about a third helping and more conversation, but decided he'd better order the pie to go instead.


“I know what you’re thinking,” said Annie as she made up his order, “but I’m not crazy.”  Her smile made him forget the weirdness but not the pie, which he made sure to take with him.


He wasn't sure he'd be coming back soon, but then again, there was at least one wealthy client in the area who'd be good for a conversion.  Definitely the man-cave type, which was always profitable.  Jack never liked to leave a sale behind, so a return trip might be needed after all.


“That smile and that pie . . .” he thought as he drove away.  It was a pleasant thought, but he had a lot of other work waiting for him at home. 


One of Jack's recent ideas had been to increase business by contributing to internet conspiracy sites about the coming economic collapse or starvation or zombie plague, or any other fear-of-the-day.  That always got the internet buzzing with people seeking ways to save themselves.


When the frenzy peaked, he would know it was time to sell some Lifeboats.  He’d come up with a new design this year, that incorporated remote-control machine guns for increased firepower and safety.


Now that the most recent doomsday scare had dissipated, it was time to begin the next business cycle.


Jack started working the conspiracy sites again to help build new panic, and this time he triggered a new tipping point after only seven weeks.  Sales of his new Lifeboat design were brisk for several months, but then they started to slow.  He thought of Annie.  He was in a stressful business and a little relaxation would be perfect – just what the doctor ordered.


“You’ve got to make some changes,” his doctor kept saying, “eat better, get some exercise, get your blood pressure down.  You’re not young anymore.”


Jack always promised to try, and then ate a pizza instead.  A travelling salesman’s diet was awful, but his was worse than most. 


He decided to visit Annie that very night. It was a pretty drive to Styx River and the moon was high when Jack stopped for some gas half an hour away.


“It really is gorgeous,” he thought as stopped for coffee and antacids at the Gas ‘N Sip. 


Sitting in his car, he popped a few of the antacids and washed them down with the battery-acid coffee.  He wasn’t feeling good.


“I need to rest for a bit,” he thought.


He took a brief nap in the parking lot and felt much better when he woke up, better than he had in years.  He was eager for some pie and that smile.


The moon was full when he crested the hill outside of town, and the light gave it a pale blue glow.  There were a lot of people wandering the streets, most of them in the direction of the docks.


“Pretty busy for so late at night,” Jack thought.  “They're probably fishermen.”


He didn’t know anything about fishing, but midnight seemed as good a time to fish as any.


Jack parked his car in Annie’s lot.  He was curious about what everyone was doing, but he wanted some pie first, and to see if she still had that smile for him.


Everything shimmered in the moonlight and Jack found it hard to focus, especially on the people. 


Annie was behind the counter and she flashed him a wide grin.   She was so light and beautiful that Jack couldn’t look at her.


“I knew you’d be back,” she said.  “Welcome to Forever After.”


Jack couldn’t move.  “What the hell?” was all he could say.


“Not necessarily,” said Annie, “but probably so in your case.”


“Am I dead?” asked Jack, as he noticed that his skin seemed to be radiating a blue-white color.


“You had a heart attack back in your car,” said Annie.


Jack always thought he’d probably die on the road, but he'd also thought it would be years before that happened.


“You should have taken better care of yourself,” Annie said.  “You had a weak heart.”


Jack didn’t know what was going on.  He closed his eyes and thought he would faint.


“And you should have been a better person,” said Annie.  “Your work wasn’t kind to your soul.  You fed on people’s fears and then sold them products they didn’t need and couldn’t afford.  You didn’t care what you did to them.”


Jack opened his eyes.  He was starting to feel the pull of the river.


“Who are you?” he finally said.


“I’m a Guide,” said Annie.  “I’ll take you to the river and then you’ll cross over.”


Jack’s light was glowing stronger as his body started to fade.


“Over to where?” he said.


“Not Heaven,” she answered.  “That’s someplace else.  You’ll find out on the other side.  The old mine’s been glowing red lately, so the hellmouth’s open.”


Jack's body started to fade away, leaving only light. “I guess it’s time for me to go,” he said.


Annie went with him to the pier, where many other souls were waiting.  They would be herded onto Charon’s ferry and then carried to the other side of the river. 


“It’s crowded here,” said Jack.  “All these souls – I’m frightened.”


“Don’t be,” said Annie.  “Everyone crosses over.”


Jack could see other Guides, who glowed brighter than the souls.  He wished he could see Annie smile one last time, but all he saw now was the river, the other side, and the ferry.


The boat was full of souls by the time Jack got on.  As they crossed the river, he looked back and he saw Annie disappear, and then the town, until he could only see the approaching shore.


There were new Guides on the other shore to sort everyone.  He saw the hellmouth burning brighter in the distance as minions claimed some of the souls near him and used whips of fire to steer them to eternal torture.  Jack was afraid.  He knew the life he’d lived.


“That’s not for you,” said a Guide.  “You’re going to Purgatory.”


Jack felt relieved.  It wasn’t Heaven, but at least it wasn’t Hell.


“It was a close call,” said the Guide.  “But Annie said anyone who loved blueberry pie that much should not be abandoned to the Pit of Despair.”


Jack turned around, and now he could see Annie there on the far shore again. Her black hair and baker’s apron looked like they always had, and she smiled at him before heading back to her restaurant. 


“Maybe this won’t be too bad after all,” he thought, as he moved off with the other souls headed for Purgatory.  “Maybe they’ll have blueberry pie.”

*     *     *     *     *     *
If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries
https://therealljidol.livejournal.com/1161522.html.

Complete Portfolio
1. Favorite: "The Pirates" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/37750.html
2. Lifeboat: "Bunkers and Blueberry Pie" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/44294.html
3. Fermentation: "FTSEC" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/44034.html
4. Champion (whipchick) "Buddha Nature" https://whipchick.livejournal.com/75957.html [I am so grateful for her willingness to be my champion and for the excellence of her story]
5. Re-Do of "My True North" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/38989.html : "Lost" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/44632.html

calvin writing

Season 11, Week 30 Portfolio: "Fermentation"



FTSEC

Woody had loved the white, two-story house as soon as he’d seen it.  It was perfect.  It was bland, boring, and dull.  It was at the end of a cul-de-sac of similar houses, mostly rentals.  It had lawns, a few low shrubs, no trees, and a wood fence in decent shape.

More importantly, the sight lines were unobstructed.   They could put a sniper on the second floor and see anyone coming for at least a quarter mile.

As Woody pulled up to it now, the only problem with it was the black SUV out front.

“Damnit,” he thought, “how many times have I told them?”

Nothing said law enforcement like a black SUV.  Unless it was the watchvan, which was parked down the street.  It was meagerly disguised as “Smith Bros. Painters” and bristled with antennas.

Woody was driving a gray Honda Civic.  There were at least two more parked out in front of nearby houses.  It attracted no one’s attention, unlike the other two vehicles.

“Next time,” thought Woody, “they should just paint ‘safe house’ on it.”

Woody was Marshal John Woodsman of FTSEC, the Fairy Tale Security branch of the Library of Congress.  It was the smallest operation in the federal law enforcement empire and he was the only employee.  It was funded under “office supplies” for WITSEC, the Witness Security Program in the U.S. Marshals Service.

For this witness, he’d borrowed “real Marshals,” as they called themselves, but he’d hated to do it.  He'd had been given the clowns in the SUV for this operation, and WITSEC had thrown in the watchvan as a good faith gesture.  Recently, relations had been tense.

“They sure as #@%! had better not have blown my safe house,” thought Woody, as his blood pressure reached perilous heights.  “This case is too important.”

Woody was there to check on the security arrangements before the witness was due to arrive later.  He found the deputy marshal asleep on the sofa with the TV on, which was inexcusable.  After waking him up, Woody decided to go it alone without any more “help” from the real marshals, their SUV, or their watchvan.

He drove back to the office to get his own equipment. FTSEC was located in WITSEC’s former confidential operations center, located under Bannister’s Brew Pub.  Bannister’s combined a micro-brewery in back with a sports bar up front.  Woody nodded to the bartender as he went in, and continued through to the back.

The brewery had several large fermentation tanks, along with all the other equipment needed to produce its currently fashionable beer.  The last fermentation tank was an elevator in disguise, which Woody rode down to FTSEC headquarters.

FTSEC HQ was a large underground room, which WITSEC had stripped bare after relocating to its new, modern OPCENT.  Woody had a desk, a lamp, and a filing cabinet nobody wanted.  It was a dark, murky space where everything smelled of beer-- even his laptop.

“No one cares about literary crimes,” he'd thought, when he was transferred from WITSEC because he'd asked for protection for Prince Charming, who had agreed to testify against the Evil Queen in exchange for immunity and witness protection.

“WITSEC doesn’t handle lit crimes,” his boss had said.  “You don’t really fit in here, but the Library of Congress is looking for someone with your background.”

Woody had built FTSEC from the ground up, which didn’t mean much since he was still its only employee.

Prince Charming was now Chuck Johnson, a store clerk in Omaha.  With his help, the Evil Queen had been arrested, but she had escaped on a technicality.

But now all of Woody's energy was on his current case, the biggest one yet.  He had flipped the Wicked Witch of the West, who was now prepared to testify against the Fairytale Witch Consortium for violating the Black Magic Protection Act.

The Wicked Witch had come to Woody.  She had known him in his days as the woodsman who had rescued Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf, and she knew he could be trusted.

“I’m so tired of it all,” she had said, “especially those flying monkeys.  They’re out of control, hunting people down and causing nightmares on their own. They can't get enough of it.”

The Witch wanted immunity and a new identity as far from water as possible, plus a lot of plastic surgery.  In return, she would give Woody everything he needed to bring down the Consortium.

He was scheduled to meet with the Wicked Witch that night at the safe house for the first debriefing.  She would be flying in at midnight, under cover of darkness.

Woody finished gathering up his supplies, and left. He stopped off at the Beef Barn for their SpudSteak dinner, and then drove to the safehouse to get everything ready.

He parked in the garage and took his video equipment out of the trunk. He double-checked it, then set it up in the family room and waited.  At the stroke of midnight, the Witch landed in the backyard, and came inside and parked her broom in the kitchen.  They got right to work.

“It all started with Glinda the Good,” the Witch said with a cackle.  “She’s not as good as people think.  Her first gang was those miserable munchkins, but that wasn’t enough for her.  She wanted to get all the evil witches together.  ‘Think of everything we could do’ she said to us, and we went along with it.”

The Witch told him bombshell after bombshell, stopping when it began to get light outside.

“I’ll be back,” she said as she retrieved her broom and headed to the backyard to take off and return to her castle.  “It’s feeding time for those monkeys . . .”

But before she could finish, the automatic sprinklers popped up.  No one had even thought about them, and they hadn't been disabled.  It was too late for Woody to rescue her-- she gave a gut-wrenching shriek and melted right before his eyes.  It was agonizing to watch, and it seemed to take forever.  Finally, nothing was left but a steaming pool of liquid witch.  Woody picked up her hat, cloak, and broom to take back to the office.  He kept them as a reminder that no detail was too small.

Woody had never lost a witness before, and it hit him hard.  He had hours of videotape, but none of it could be used at a trial. Without the Witch, the case was ruined.  The drive back to the brewpub was miserable and long.

While he was working on the extra lost-witness paperwork, a large soap bubble appeared, and out stepped Glinda herself, all sparkles and light.

“Too bad about that snitch,” she said with a smile.

“That’s cold,” replied Woody.  “But I’m not giving up, now that I know who you really are.”

“Me?” she said sweetly.  “I’m Glinda the Good.  You’ll never touch me.”

With a wave of her wand, Glinda disappeared.

“No one’s untouchable,” thought Woody.  “I’m not giving up until I bring her down.”

With that, he turned back to his paperwork.  He knew what they’d think over at WITSEC, but he didn’t care.

“None of them ever flipped a witch,” he thought.  “I did it once, and I can do it again.  I’m FTSEC, and I can kick their lazy asses any time.”

He started to play the Evil Witch’s video.

“At least she was honest about who she was,” thought Woody.  “I owe it to her to see this through.”

The Wicked Witch was right – the Woodsman could be trusted.  A year later, he had Glinda doing a perp walk on the courthouse steps.  She arrived in her bubble, which burst as soon as she saw the crowd and the reporters with their cameras.

The newspapers ate it up: “The Real Wicked Witch” and “Glinda the Goon!” screamed the headlines.  One picture caught her with a particularly ugly snarl on her face.  Another paper printed her mugshot, without her crown or wand, both of which had been confiscated.

It had been a difficult case to put together, but Woody finally had the witnesses who could corroborate the Wicked Witch’s information: the captain of the Wicked Witch’s Guard, the Scarecrow, and Dorothy herself.

“You’ve got no case,” Glinda’s attorney had told Woody before the arrest.  “The Scarecrow didn’t have a brain, the captain of the Guard got a sweetheart deal to lie about my client, and Dorothy’s in Kansas, living a black and white life. She thinks she dreamed everything up.”

But Woody knew better.  He kept the pressure on and after her arrest, Glinda did what all the smart ones do.  She flipped.

Woody interrogated her back at the safe house and she gave up her whole operation, including the Wizard himself.

Glinda wound up as a barista at a Starbucks in Portland, where she can still be found, making Iced Caramel Macchiatos with a subtle wave of her hand.

The scent of Glinda’s perfume would linger on in the safe house for a long time, reminding Woody that no one was out of reach of the law.

With his debt to the Wicked Witch paid, Woody moved on to his next case: hate crimes against fairytale canon for leaving out the dark parts..

He was still a one-man operation, still stuck under the brewery.  But his case against Glinda made him even more determined to pursue literary crimes and keep exposing the seamy underbelly of the fairytale world.

*     *     *     *     *     *
If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries https://therealljidol.livejournal.com/1161522.html.
Complete Portfolio

1. Favorite: "The Pirates" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/37750.html
2. Lifeboat: "Bunkers and Blueberry Pie" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/44294.html
3. Fermentation: "FTSEC" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/44034.html
4. Champion (whipchick) "Buddha Nature" https://whipchick.livejournal.com/75957.html
[I am so grateful for her willingness to be my champion and for the excellence of her story]
5. Re-Do of "My True North" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/38989.html : "Lost" https://rayaso.livejournal.com/44632.html
calvin writing

Week 29 "Milkshake Duck"

I have used all three prompts in each of the triple-prompt entries, including this one. For Gary’s purposes, the prompt for this story is “milkshake duck,” which I have not designated as an entry's prompt before.

THE BOUNTY HUNTER

A duck milkshake, properly made, is creamy, frosty cold, and has a real kick at the end. It goes down easy and for many people, it comes up the same way. Make one badly and it’s chunky, with the visible remains of feathers, eyeballs, and beak. It has enough tequila to make it past the tongue, but not enough for anyone to keep down. When it reappears, all the pieces are there plus breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Bill knew this – he’d had both kinds, when one had been more than enough. He’d vowed never to have another, but still, there it was, right in front of him, with a bar full of people daring him to drink it. There was only one way out.

“Where’s the egg?” he said to the barkeeper. “I said I’d drink a duck milkshake, but this isn’t one without a raw duck’s egg on top.”

“It’s not in the recipe,” said the bartender.

“Recipe?  Amateur.” said Bill.  “If you don’t need a recipe for a single malt Scotch, neat, bring it to me over in the corner.”

He headed to a table, his stomach and honor intact.

Generally, Bill didn’t much care for bars, but once in a while he went to one for his job. The Glass Cliff was a neighborhood joint that was beginning to show the signs of creeping gentrification. He didn’t care, since he wouldn’t be back, especially after some aggressive regulars had dared him to drink a duck milkshake. He couldn’t back down – he never did.

He liked the music in the Cliff, which made waiting for the woman easier. There was a classic jukebox with oldies, and right now it was playing “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers, with their incredible harmonies.

“Part of rock’s dark side,” thought Bill.

He knew that in their early days, the brothers had used their voices in other ways – as hit men for the mob. They could harmonize on the death note and cause a listener’s head to explode. They had never been caught because no one had thought it was possible. When their rock career had taken off, they had put that part of their lives behind them. But Death knew.

Bill knew a lot of things no one else did, dark things, evil things. It was all part of his job as an agent of Death. He ranked below doomlets and deathlings, who could reap souls. He was so insignificant he couldn’t carry a scythe or wear scary robes, unless loud Hawaiian shirts counted. At the moment he was wearing an eyeball-searing red one.

“We want you to locate lost souls,” the Administrator had said when he had first been hired. “We lose track of them every now and then. If people don’t die at their appointed times, it’s embarrassing and drives our stats down. It’s quality control.”

Bill like to think of himself as Death’s bounty hunter. It sounded better than just “agent,” and it conjured up an image of some leather-clad, beefy guy barely on the right side of the law.

The job paid extremely well and had a great death benefit. For each day he worked for Death, his own end would be delayed one-half day.

The job involved a lot of travel, but Bill didn’t mind. He had been a police detective, so he was pretty much non-social, with an ex-wife, no children, and few friends. He had been looking for work after he’d been kicked off the force for accidentally shooting his partner during a drug raid.

Not long after, he had been approached by a deathling, and offered the agent’s job.

“You’re just what we need,” the deathling had said. “You’re great at finding people. Once you’ve found a soul, you just fill out Form 32 with the current address, then turn it in.”

Working for Death wasn’t his dream job, but Bill had taken it until something better turned up. It never did.

At the moment, Bill was looking for Rose Arbogast. At 27, her time was nearly up and Death had lost her. Dwizzle, her case doomlet, had sent Bill a Form 142 “lost soul” notice.

So far, he’d tracked her down to the Cliff as a Happy Hour regular. All he had to do was wait, so he studied her file.

“Pretty thin,” he thought, “even for 27.”

She was due to die in three weeks in a car crash following a night at the bar.

“Single, college, work – probably Purgatory,” he thought. “Not good enough for Heaven, not bad enough for Hell.”

Death had no input on Final Destinations, but he still liked to guess.

Bill nursed his drink, but he didn’t have to wait long.

“There she is,” he thought, when she came in the door. She had long blond hair, a sweet face, and she was wearing a tight blue dress with style.

“No contact,” he sighed.

That was Rule 1 – agents could not interfere in a soul’s life. Just do your job and move on.

He filled out the Form 142 with her current location. With that, Rose was now found and Dwizzle could track her until the end.

“No drama, no fight, no nothing,” Bill thought. “Where’s the fun in being Death’s bounty hunter?”

He daydreamed about quitting and interfering with Rose back at his hotel. Passion would lead to love and he would save her from that car wreck.

“What the hell,” he thought. “In a few months, she’d be gone and I’d be out of work with Death mad at me.”

Bill watched her until she left with some guy who thought he was a pick-up artist, then he headed back to his hotel.

A large manila envelope was waiting for him at the front desk with another assignment. Death was stuck in the paper age because the budget didn’t include computers. Those were reserved for Heaven and Hell.

“That’s why I lose souls,” Death would fume during budget meetings.

Bill went upstairs, sat down, and opened the envelope. The lost soul was for a baby, only four months old. Bill hated these and he always felt like quitting rather than do them. He and his ex-wife had never had children, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. They had given up after the third miscarriage.

The form was marked “urgent,” so Bill started right away. Putting it off would only make him feel worse.

The baby’s last known location was St. Matthew's Hospital, where little Emily had been born. It was just around the corner so Bill walked over, found Maintenance and stole a uniform. He went to the maternity ward and started cleaning a computer which someone had left open, found Emily’s file, and got all the information he needed.

Emily’s family had moved and some doomlets had lost track of her, but Bill hit gold with the grandparents’ address. He went to their house when they were gone and, using his special all-access agent key, entered and found her new address. All he had to do was get visual verification.

Verification was crucial. One agent had gotten sloppy and the wrong person had died. No one saw that agent again.

Bill sat in his car and waited until he could see the baby.

“I just can’t do it,” he kept thinking. “Let this one go.”

But as soon as the family appeared with Emily, he did what he had to do and filled out the form.

Everything went blank and Bill found himself in Death’s office. Death was tall and wore black flowing robes with a hood which hung low over his skeleton face and burning red eyes. The blood-tinged scythe was leaning against the wall.

“That’s it,” thought Bill. He imagined himself being sent to the part of Hell reserved for stupid agents who didn’t follow orders.

“Relax,” said Death. “You’re not in trouble.”

His voice was surprisingly normal.

“Every year I get a week’s vacation. I need a substitute while I’m gone, and this time the honor’s yours.”

Bill’s brain locked down. Death waited until his eyes regained their focus.

“What does that mean?” said Bill. “How can I be Death?”

“You don’t have to kill anyone,” said Death. “Just wear the robe and sit behind the desk. The operation pretty much takes care of itself. Of course, we’ll have to change bodies.”

Bill’s brain shut down again.

“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” Death said. “Do this, and little Emily gets to live, along with that blond, Rose, who will find you unbelievably attractive.”

Bill knew he had to do it.

“Why me?” he asked.

“You’ve always been reliable with even the most difficult cases,” said Death. “I knew I could count on you. Rose and Emily were tests, and you passed; if you could report them, I knew you could be me, at least for a week.”

The transfer of consciousness was painless. Bill found himself in Death’s skeleton and Death was in Bill’s body.

“You should take better care of yourself,” said Death.

“Easy for you to say,” said Bill. “You’re a skeleton.”

Bill enjoyed being Death for a week. He didn’t have to do anything deadly and he got to swing the scythe and scare some doomlings.

Death asked Bill what he should do first for some fun.

“There’s this bar, the Glass Cliff,” he said. “Order the duck milkshake and make sure it’s with the egg. You’ll never forget it.”

Death didn’t. He liked it so much, he had a second before leaving for his vacation.

When the week was over, Death re-transferred their consciousnesses. He felt refreshed and ready for more reaping of souls.

Bill is still Death’s bounty hunter. He checks in on Emily from time to time to see how she’s doing and he visits Rose much more frequently. He still won’t drink a duck milkshake.
 * * * *
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"Bye Bye Love" by the Everly Brothers.  Listen at your own peril.

calvin writing

Week 28. Sawubona (“I See You”)



THE SCIENTIST

The lab was a mess, even to the most charitable visitor. Unfinished projects littered every flat surface, especially the floor, with spare parts and equipment scattered about. Maintenance had refused to clean it until everything was put away.

The problem was, Dr. Vasily liked it that way. He had a jumpy mind and the jumble inspired him. He also knew where everything was and to put it all away would make his ideas neat, ordinary, and useless. It would also take a lot of boring work.

“Nobody’s inspired by a clean room,” he had told Maintenance.

But now he had run out of ideas for his latest project, an invisibility suit.

“I’m stuck,” he thought. “I need a change of scenery.”

Dr. Vasily was famous for inventing the Time Chamber, which allowed him to travel to different dimensions. He decided to visit the Fifth Dimension for a break. The Time Chamber was about the size of a closet. He opened the door, went in, and zapped himself to the Fifth Dimension. The darkness was just what he needed to concentrate.

“I’m hungry,” he thought after a while. “I bet there are brownies on Earth.”

That meant a choice: inspiration or brownies? Brownies won. His invisibility project could wait. He knew that if he didn’t get brownies soon, he would starve.

“Once I finish my invisibility suit,” he thought, “I can take all the treats I want and no one will know it’s me, but right now it’s time to go back.”

Dr. Vasily activated the Time Chamber, and with a bang, a flash, and a little smoke, he transported back to Earth.

“What was that noise?” yelled the cook. “We’ve told you before, no more explosions, especially in the house!”

She was going to have to search Stanley’s bedroom again. Who knew what he had in there?

“I hate that,” she thought, remembering the lizard under his bed.

“I need it in case any Sea-Monkeys escape,” Stanley had said.

The Sea-Monkeys had never hatched, but he had wanted to be ready if any got out of the aquarium.

“Time for a snack?” asked Mom when Stanley gave her a hug. She knew he was hungry when he did that.

She put a plate of double-chocolate peanut butter brownies in front of him with a glass of milk. She loved his smile.

“What are you doing in your room?” Mom asked. She rarely liked the answer.

“It’s a secret,” said Stanley.

“What good is an invisibility suit if everyone knows it?” he thought.

Suddenly, he had a breakthrough.

“Can I have a roll of aluminum foil?” he asked.

“It’s in the drawer,” said Mom. Aluminum foil didn’t sound too dangerous, but with Stanley she never knew.

The aluminum foil was perfect for his invisibility suit. He already had the other parts, a mirror and duct tape, in his lab.

After eating some more brownies, he returned to his lab and got to work.

“If I can reflect light off of me,” Dr. Vasily thought, “no one can see me.”

It took a while to wrap himself in the aluminum foil, using the duct tape to hold everything together. He made a foil hood to cover his head, and then he taped a mirror on his chest. If he was careful, he could move without tearing anything.

The last step was the transmogrifier, which allowed him to change himself into anything he wanted. It was disguised as a large cardboard box with a red construction paper dial on it. He wrote “invisibility” on the crowded dial, then climbed in. The transmogrifier hummed briefly and combined all the different pieces to make an invisibility suit. When he got out, he couldn’t see himself.

“It worked!” shouted Dr. Vasily.

“Inside voice,” yelled the cook, who was afraid to ask what worked. She never liked the answer.

Dr. Vasily walked carefully from his lab to the kitchen.

Mom saw Stanley creep by her covered in aluminum foil and lots of duct tape, with a mirror on his chest.

She didn’t need to ask what he was doing. Stanley had been talking about invisibility for at least a week. She got another cup of coffee, then sat at the kitchen table and watched him walk out the front door.

Mom knew where he was going. He always went down the street to show Annie his inventions. She called Annie’s mother to warn her.

“I think he’s supposed to be invisible,” said Mom. She could hear Joan sigh – Mom heard that a lot from people.

Dr. Vasily went to Annie’s lab. No one said anything to him along the way.

“They can’t see me,” he thought.

He rang Annie’s bell and her assistant opened the door.

“Who’s there?” said Joan. “I can’t see anyone.”

Dr. Vasily walked quietly past her and went to Annie’s lab.

“You’re covered in foil and tape,” said Annie. “What are you supposed to be?

“I’m invisible,” said Dr. Vasily.

“But I can see you,” she said.

“I turned off my invisibility suit,” he said.

“Turn it back on,” said Annie.

“I need to save power,” replied Dr. Vasily. “Isn’t it neat?”

“No,” she said. “You look like a stupid foil mummy with a mirror on you.”

“You’re just jealous,” he said. “What are you doing?”

“Reading. Leave me alone – I’m in time out again. My mom said you can’t stay.”

“OK,” said Dr. Vasily, who left her room and shut the door behind him.

“I’m invisible now,” he said through the door.

“No, you’re not,” said Annie.

Dr. Vasily walked slowly to the front door and left.

Joan didn’t say anything to him; she just sat at her desk and wondered again how Stanley’s parents put up with him.

“I’d have him do more chores,” she thought. “And I sure wouldn’t let him leave the house covered in aluminum foil.”

On his way back, Dr. Vasily walked past Mrs. Schmidt, who lived nearby. She used a cane and lived by herself. Stanley liked to visit her -- she kept a bowl of hard candy and had a friendly cat named Jake.

“Hello, Stanley,” she said.

“I’m invisible,” Dr. Vasily replied.

“Why, so you are dear,” she said. “Say hello to your parents and visit me when I can see you.”

“O.K.”

As silently as possible, he returned home and went to the kitchen. The cook was making something smelly for dinner. He went straight to the cookie jar to get some more brownies.

“The best part of being invisible,” he thought, as he lifted the lid.

It was empty. It had a new label: “invisibility jar.”

“Invisible brownies – the best kind!” he thought, as he groped around inside it, hoping to feel one, without success.

Dr. Vasily went back to his lab. He was tired of no one seeing him, so he carefully took off his invisibility suit, packed it in a bag, opened the door to the Time Chamber and sent it to the Fifth Dimension.

“If I wear it over there,” he thought, “maybe Overlord Vqrut won’t eat me.”

It was then that he noticed the signs. There was a new one on the Time Chamber’s entrance (“Caution: Radiation Area”) and another (“Laboratory of Dr. Vasily”) on his lab’s door.

“The engineer’s been busy,” he thought. “Maybe now Maintenance will leave me alone.”

“Dinner’s ready!” he heard the cook shout.

“There’ll be dessert,” he thought. “With a dinner that stinky, there’s always dessert. It better not be invisible.”

There was no dessert, but dinner tasted better than it smelled.

After eating, he went back to his lab. He needed a new project.

“Maybe Annie can help,” he thought. “I’ll call her tomorrow.”

He started to clean up the lab a little. Annie liked things neat, and maybe his Mom would bake some cookies. Tomorrow was going to be a good day.

* * * * * *

If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.

Sea Monkeys.jpg Two Sea Monkeys.jpg
                 Sea-Monkeys

There are six earlier stories about Stanley.
“The Teddy Bear Detective”
https://rayaso.livejournal.com/22954.html
“Home on the Range”
https://rayaso.livejournal.com/26263.html
“The Mars Expedition”
https://rayaso.dreamwidth.org/1771.html
“Keep It Safe”
https://rayaso.livejournal.com/35790.html
“The Pirates”
https://rayaso.livejournal.com/37750.html
"The Gold Run"
https://rayaso.livejournal.com/39532.html
calvin writing

Week 27: Values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same, but you leave ’em all over everything




A FAIRY STORY

“. . . and the Giant’s ring fell to earth, where it can still be found today if you know where to look.  Sweet dreams,” said the storyteller.  Just as Amy fell asleep, he touched her forehead and whispered a spell in her ear, then left her bedroom.

“She never goes to sleep without a fuss,” said Mrs. Abernathy, as she paid him.  “How do you do it?” she asked, as they always did.

“Trade secret,” he said, with a wink.  “Now she’ll go to sleep whenever you read her a story and she’ll grow up to be a good girl.  It’s all in the invoice.”

He disappeared the same way he arrived, with a flash and a puff of smoke.

“Why can’t I just fly away?” he thought when he reappeared outside, coughing and flapping his shimmering wings to get rid of the smoke.  “Those fireworks are dangerous.  Still, it was in the job order.”

Killian was one of the last fairy storytellers.  He was about three feet tall with red hair and green eyes; he wore earthen brown pants, a green tunic of leaves, and a sky blue bycoket hat[1] with a sunny yellow feather on it.

Killian’s services were not cheap, but it was worth it to desperate, frazzled parents who just needed a good night’s sleep.    He would tell a story to the fussy child, who would sleep through the night and give the grateful parents some relief.

He offered many options, including a fairy blessing, which these parents had chosen.  It was a very expensive add-on, but it was worth it.  Who wouldn’t want a good child from the touch of his finger?

Killian flew home to his little cottage deep in the forest and far away from any human settlement.  It was a traditional white, timber-framed cottage with a steep roof and stone chimney.  It had once belonged to a witch who liked children too much, so it could easily be decorated with candy and frosting, but that had been long ago.  Now, it just looked homey.

Once inside, Killian could relax.  He entered his ID number on the keypad hidden by the bookcase and submitted to the retinal scan, which always made his eyes hurt.

“Why can’t they just use fingerprints?” he thought, before remembering he didn’t have any.

The elevator doors opened, which took him down to the first level of a huge underground complex.  Killian walked straight to Costumes.  He changed into his own clothes, a Led Zeppelin t-shirt and fairy-sized jeans, then turned in his uniform (“it still itches!”) to Kzll, a bridge troll who still didn’t care.

“You’re wanted in Assignments,” growled Kzll.

“So soon?” said Killian.  “I’m overdue for a break.”

“Still don’t care,” barked Kzll, who had been stuck in Costumes ever since he had broken the power generator after smashing it with a sledge hammer someone had left behind.

“Use me,” the hammer had said, and Kzll couldn’t resist.

Killian felt sorry for Kzll.  There was no demand for bridge trolls anymore and he was lucky he had not been placed under a sleeping spell.  Administration kept him awake just in case.  Battle trolls had been luckier and had even been featured in a few movies, but since no more were planned, they would be put under the spell soon.  It cost a lot to keep them fed and quiet.

“There’s always work for fairies,” thought Killian, especially ones with his particular skills.

Not every fairy could tell a bedtime story.  One time, Killian had been accidentally overbooked, so Aerie had been sent in his place.  The poor child had had nightmares for months after Aerie had read “The Girl Without Hands.”  Administration had been forced to refund the fee and Aerie had been placed in the dreaded birthday party pool.

Assignments had its offices on the third floor, which also housed Sleeping Characters.  Bed after bed lined the cavernous floor, each one holding a character that no one needed anymore.  They had been placed under the same spell used for Sleeping Beauty, but there would never be a true love to break it with a kiss.

Assignments was divided into two rooms: Disney and Everything Else.  Every character hoped to work on Disney jobs, but these had become scarce after Disney had started creating its own stories with new characters.  Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and the others would always have work, but it was just reruns, doing the same thing day after day after soul-crushing day.  To Killian, that was Hades.

Everything Else was usually staffed by witches and he liked to stay on their good sides, which wasn’t easy.  They liked a child now and then to torment, but Administration frowned on this, so Killian tried to smuggle them some chocolate pudding from the Cafeteria, which they liked almost as much.

“Good work today,” said Baba Yaga.  “What? No pudding?”

“Not available,” he said.

Baba Yaga zotted him with a small lightning shock.

“Don’t lie to Baba,” she said, with a smile.

Killian liked Baba, despite the occasional discharge.

“They need you next door,” she said.

“Next door” was Disney.  Unlike most, Killian didn’t like to work there.  Sure, it could lead to permanent work, but he didn’t like their rules (“You’re off script!”  “Where’s your Disney smile?”) or the hordes of people wanting to touch his wings.

The Three Princesses of Whiteland were working the Disney office today.  They were bitter because no one knew them.

“We’re real Princesses from a real story,” they would say, always speaking together, “not like those phonies.  Why can’t we have a movie?”

“You have an emergency assignment in Disneyland,” they told Killian.

“What is it?” he asked.

“They’ll tell you when you get there.  Better hurry.”

Even with a boost from some fairy magic, it still took Killian a long time to fly that far.

“You’re late,” said Emily, the Disney personnel officer, who had lost her Disney smile.  “We have an emergency.  Both Tinkerbell and her substitute are sick.  We need a flying fairy and you’re the only one available.”

“But . . .” said Killian.

“No buts,” said Emily.  “Here’s your costume and wig – make them fit.  And remember to shave.”

Killian headed to the locker room.  With a lot of paper towels here and a tightly cinched belt there, he forced himself into the costume.  The wig fit, but the shoes did not.  This was going to be a painful job, but at least the crowd wouldn’t see him up close.

He headed to Make-Up.

“You were supposed to shave,” said Hank, the chief technician.

“I did,” said Killian.

“Arms and legs too,” said Hank.

Killian groaned, borrowed a razor and got the job done.  He wondered how long it would take to grow back.

“Be thankful we didn’t make you wax,” said Hank, smiling.

When everything was done, Killian looked at himself in the mirror.

“Not bad,” he thought.  “I didn’t realize I had such a nice . . . .’

“No time for that,” said Hank.  “They need you at the castle.”

Killian was escorted to the top of the castle to meet Peter Pan, who gave him his flight plan.

“You’re the real Peter Pan!” said Killian.  “I’m such a fan . . . .”

“You’re not the real Tinkerbell,” interrupted Peter Pan, “so here’s what you do.  Screw up, and it’s the sleeping spell.”

It was actually very simple.  Killian flew higher than usual so no one noticed the difference.  He did a few loops, waved Tinkerbell’s wand, fireworks exploded, and the crowd roared.

Killian was only needed for a few days until Tinkerbell recovered.  He found that he enjoyed it, but enough was enough.

He got to meet the real Tinkerbell before he left, who gave him an Authentic Tinkerbell Wand from a gift shop.

After he got back, Killian immediately reported to Everything Else for his next assignment.

“Welcome back,” said Baba Yaga.  “Here’s your schedule.”

Killian gave her his Tinkerbell Wand.  She almost smiled and her parting lightning zot was a small one.

“Where’s my pudding?” she called after him.  “Weren’t there any extra children at Disneyland you could’ve brought me?”

“Maybe next time,” said Killian, who noticed that his schedule now included on-call work as Tinkerbell’s #2 replacement.  He groaned.

At Costumes, Kzll gave him his storyteller clothes.

“I cleaned them with sand,“ growled Kzll, “for that extra itch all you Disney superstars like.”

“Good to be back,” said Killian, as he placed a sledge hammer from Tools on the counter.

“Use me,” it said.

“Disney wants a troll for their bridges,” said Killian.  “I told them you were the only active one.  You should report to Assignments.”

Kzll made the sledge hammer useful on his way out.

Killian liked his new schedule.  It was nothing but storytelling for the whole week.

He was last seen in the Library looking for some new material, whistling while he worked.

*     *     *     *     *
If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.








[1] The kind of hat worn by Robin Hood, a few elves, and other sharp-dressing fantastical characters.
calvin writing

Idol Week 26, Open Topic: “If It Weren't For My Horse, I Wouldn't Have Spent That Year In College”

I am grateful to karmasoup for her wonderful suggestion for a topic.

A HORSE IS STILL A HORSE, OF COURSE

“Parents are everything,” said Hank Albers, as he stared into Belle’s big brown eyes.  “Mine were a mess, but yours were the best.”  His parents had bankrupted Albers Racing, one of the premier horse racing stables and home of three Triple Crown winners, including Belle.  The horses had brought in enormous fees which his parents, both gamblers, had thrown away.

Now they were in jail, guilty of the oldest horse racing scam – repeatedly selling the same shares of their legendary horses.  They had been caught, of course, and later everything was sold in bankruptcy.  This left his parents’ bookies unpaid, but that was their problem; their debts would be collected in the prison yard. 

Hank watched as Belle was led away, the last of the racehorses.  He gave the stable’s keys to the bankruptcy receiver and prepared to leave.  His parents had lost everything, even the money Hank had earned for college.  He was allowed to keep his clothes, his aging pickup and horse trailer, and Eddie, his horse. 

Eddie had never been intended to be a racehorse – his only value was in his novelty.  He was the last descendent of the legendary ‘60s television star Mister Ed, the talking horse.

“Too bad you can’t talk,” thought Hank as he loaded Eddie into the trailer.

He needed a temporary place to stay, so he drove to the local Ranchotel (“It’s a Ranch and a Hotel!”) which catered to horses and their owners.  He checked them in and then stretched out on the bed, trying to come up with something better. 

“I’m eighteen, broke, with a horse,” he thought.  “I can’t sell him, but I might have to.”

The next morning, he still had no ideas so he went to check on Eddie in his stall.

“How’d you like to join the circus?” Hank said.  “It’d be easy to fake your talking.  ‘The World’s Only Talking Horse,’ -- that’d sell tickets.”

“Not on your life,” said Eddie.

When Hank came to, Eddie was poking him with his muzzle.

“Not what I expected,” said Eddie.  “You some kind of wimp?”

“You can talk?” said Hank, getting to his feet.

“I can sing, too,” said Eddie, before launching into a soulful “Empty Feedbag Blues.”

“When I get up for breakfast
There's no oats in the bin;
Cause everything is going out,
And nothin's comin' in!”

“Why talk now?” Hank interrupted.

“I didn’t need to,” said Eddie, with a toss of his mane.  “I was happy until your parents screwed up.”

“Maybe you could star in a new ‘Mister Ed,’” said Hank.  “If they can reboot ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ why not a talking horse?”

“Who’d watch?” said Eddie.  “I’ve been thinking and I’ve got a better idea for some money.  We’ll start slowly with Part 1.”

A roadhouse out along Route 42 had an open mic on Thursday Nights.  Blind Pig Burgers 'N Blues was famous for its cheap drinks, greasy food, and live blues.  Happy Hour lasted all night on Thursdays, so by the time the mic opened up, everyone was too drunk to care if the act was good or bad.  But when Eddie took the stage, they all sat up as best they could.

mister ed dark glasses.jpg

Eddie Sings the Blues

Hank could play enough piano to get by and when Eddie finished, the tip jar was full. 

After a couple of weeks, they had enough money for Part 2 of Eddie’s plan.  The goal was to earn enough to pay for Hank’s college, with money left over to cover Eddie’s stable fees and maybe a pretty little filly for company.

“What’s Part 2?” asked Hank one morning while he combed Eddie’s mane back at the Ranchotel.

“We need big money,” said Eddie as he nuzzled Hank.  “It’s time to play the ponies.”

“After my parents’ disaster?” said Hank, frowning.  “No chance.”

“Then what’s your idea?” asked Eddie, kicking straw onto Hank’s shoes.  “More tips from singing?”

Hank was silent.

“Your parents had no idea how to bet on horses,” said Eddie.  “They didn’t know which races were fixed, which horses were running with injuries, which jockeys were drunk.  Get me near a racetrack, and I’ll find out.

“Look, horses talk.  That’s what all that whinnying’s about – you just have to know the language.  Take me to a racetrack and I’ll tell you the winners.  You place the bets and when we’ve won enough, we leave.  Your parents could never quit, but that’s not us.”

Hank thought about it.  They didn’t have much to lose but he hated the idea of gambling.  College was expensive and so was owning a horse.  He didn’t see this going too far, so maybe it would work. 

“Why not place my future in the hooves of a talking horse?” he thought.

Foothill Downs was the nearest big racetrack.  Security was tight, but after Hank unloaded Eddie early in the morning, he looked like just another exercise boy as they wandered around.

First Eddie wanted to see the horses warming up for the day’s races.  If he saw anything, he wasn’t saying.  Next stop was the stables.  Eddie just wandered around, listening to the horses.

“I got this race,” whinnied Laser Roller, trying to intimidate the other horses. 

“Not with your jockey,” whinnied Lucky Star.  “He smells like bad whiskey.”

Lightning King had new horseshoes and the farrier had done a bad job.  Rupert’s Dream had a cold. 

Eddie kept his eye on a black horse who was off by himself, not saying anything. 

“That’s the one,” said Eddie.  “Put everything on Satan’s Promise in the 3rd.”

They kept wandering around while Eddie made his picks for two other races, including a trifecta in the last race, as well as picking a few losers so that Hank wouldn’t stand out.

At the end of the day, Hank had about $50,000, enough for another day at a different track.  In the next month, Hank and Eddie worked all the major tracks in the state, losing some but winning more.  After the Million Dollar Derby at the Meadows, they had enough for their dreams.

One more bet with all their winnings would also pay off Hank’s parents’ bookies.

“I can guarantee it,” said Eddie.

“Not our problem,” said Hank, who had yet to forgive his parents.  “We said we’d stop, so we’re stopping.”

Hank enrolled in State A & M, which had an equine major, and he bought a little ranch not too far away with lots of room for Eddie to roam free, plus a filly for company.  Eddie took one look at her and sang “Pretty Little Filly.”

Eddie never spoke again, but Hank knew why: there was no need to -- happy horses don’t talk to people.

*     *     *     *     *

For the real story on Mister Ed, see “The Quiet Desperation of Mr. Ed” from Season 9: https://rayaso.livejournal.com/1899.html

The Original Mister Ed sings "The Empty Feedbag Blues."

The Empty Feedbag Blues
When I get up for breakfast
There's no oats in the bin;
Cause everything is going out,
And nothin's comin' in!
Believe me when I tell you
I have heard the news:
I got those empty feed bag--
Empty feed bag blues!!
My pretty filly told me
To stay away tonight;
'Cause all that I bring with me
Is a healthy appetite!
Why am I so unlucky?
Me with four horse shoes?
I got those empty feed bag--
Empty feed bag blues.
-- “Mister Ed.” (1961)

Pretty Little Filly
Got a date a little later
when the moon is on the trail
with the cutest triple gaiter
my pretty little filly with the pony tail
Got a bag of oats to call with
Hay I'll bring her by the bale
want to share a double stall with
the pretty little filly with the pony tail
Gee, if she would just agree
she'd be mine today
but no matter when I ask
the answer's always "neigh neigh neigh neigh"
If she'd name that day of wedlock
I would be there without fail
Got the ring made for her fetlock
the pretty little filly with the pony tail!
-- “Mister Ed.” (1961)

calvin writing

Week 25 "Catbird's Seat"


SARGE

Sarge sat quietly at the foot of the stairs. He wanted to savor the moment. In a few minutes, he would climb them to the stage and address the newest batch of applicants to the Academy. When he finished, that would be it, his career would be over, a thought which saddened and scared him. What would he do next?

“Damn that bullet,” he thought. “If only rehab had gone better . . . .”

Still, shot while saving his partner was not a bad way to go out. If they didn’t have each other’s backs, who would?

“At least I’m not some old burnout, chained to a desk,” he thought. “I was made for the streets.”

Up on the stage, his partner, Al McCarthy, was finally finishing his introduction.

“A true hero blah blah blah the best ever blah blah blah.”

“Hurry up and get this over with,” thought Sarge. He was getting nervous and starting to pace.

“The best that I can say is he took a bullet for me – come on up, Sarge!”

He walked up the stairs, slow and steady, concentrating to hide his limp and the pain that went with it. The crowd of applicants was noisy and undisciplined.

“That’ll get fixed,” he thought.

He stood in the middle of the platform in front of a huge Metropolitan Police Force banner. Sarge squared himself and faced the crowd with his shoulders back and his posture perfect.

He stared at the applicants until they quieted. When they were finally looking at him, he held their eyes – and waited. It was clear who was, and always would be, the alpha.

“You’re the worst bunch I’ve ever seen,” he barked at them. “Quit now and run back to mommy, because you’re sure as shit not going to make it into this dog’s Academy. Half of you can’t stop smelling each other’s butts and the other half let them!”

The training officers finally got everyone under control, except for those with fleas, who could not stop scratching. The first step in the application process was grooming for a reason.

This was a motley crew. There were the usual German Shepherds and Dutch Shepherds, some Rottweilers and Doberman Pinchers, with a scattering of Belgian Malinois and Bouvier de Flandres.

“The Academy gets breeds from all over the world,” Sarge thought with pride.

There was even a dachshund, who could be trained for tight spaces. Sarge never liked working with little dogs in tactical situations. They barked too damn much.

Sarge was a mixed breed, mostly German Shepherd, and he always had a weakness for mutts. “K-9 Units aren’t some damn fashion accessory,” he would say when breeding came up.  "It's performance, not pedigrees."

“Look to your left,” Sarge growled.

A quarter of them turned right.

“Crap,” thought Sarge, “this is worse than usual. They’re young, but still . . . .”

He waited for the T.O.s to get them straightened out. He decided to skip the “look to your right” part.

“This is the most difficult training you’ll ever go through,” he barked. “Forget about learning to sit or fetch – that’s for puppies. Most of you won’t be accepted for the Academy, and most of those will be sent home, tails between their miserable legs. Only the very best of this mess will get hired as police dogs.”

He waited for this to sink in and for some to quit drooling.

“As a K-9 unit, you’ll protect and serve, even cats.”

This brought the usual reaction. He waited for the barks and growls to die down.

“You’ll be able to subdue idiots stupid enough to run away. You’ll learn to sniff drugs, even hidden under coffee grounds and rotting fish. Some of you will be cadaver dogs and others will work with the bomb squad. And then there’ll be the trackers. The work is dangerous and the pay is lousy.”

A few of the dogs thought this was a good time to take a nap. Their T.O.s quietly removed them. They might make good pets, but never a K-9 Unit.

“Tell them how you won the Golden Nose,” said his partner, with a grin.

Officer McCarthy knew Sarge hated talking about his awards, especially that one.

“The Golden Nose,” said Officer McCarthy, “is only awarded for outstanding field work. Only four have been awarded in twenty-five years. Sarge is a hero, so you mutts better listen up!”

Sarge nipped him playfully. They’d settle this score later.

“It was the catbird case,” Sarge growled. “And it was Officer McCarthy, not me, who deserves all the credit.”

The catbird case was one of the weird ones; it was the only case to be taught at both the K-9 and human Academies.

It was a complicated crime and Sarge knew these dogs didn’t have the attention for it, so he made it simple.

“Portmanteau Pets, a black-market pet designer, violated Animal Code section 442 by combining a predator with its natural prey and made a catbird, with a cat body and bird wings. It escaped, a birdwatcher saw it and reported it.

“I tracked it for three days, even across the garbage dump. We finally found the catbird sitting in a tree in a park. McCarthy got the net from the van and opened a can of tuna fish. The catbird couldn’t resist, and when it flew down, he netted it, put it in an animal carrier, and took it to Animal Control for a proper placement.”

He didn’t tell them the sad part. Predator-prey combinations were illegal because eventually they ate themselves. It was in the DNA.

The applicants were silent for once, and when Sarge finished, they broke into loud barking.

“No other K-9 Unit could do that,” said Officer McCarthy, petting Sarge on his head. He knew Sarge hated affection on the job.

“Settle down,” barked Sarge.

All the dogs, even the little dachshund, were quiet.

“Sit,” commanded Officer McCarthy.

Everyone sat.

“You’ve heard from a legend,” he said. “Keep him in mind during your training. Maybe one of you will earn a Golden Nose.”

“Dismissed,” barked Sarge.

The training officers led the candidates away.

Sarge sat down. His leg was killing him and he knew it was over. He was now a retired K-9 Unit.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Officer McCarthy.

Sarge knew where they were headed – his surprise party at Barkers, a K-9 Unit hangout. They served the best kibble in town and drinks for their handlers were cheap.

Barkers was crowded. Everyone had a story to tell about Sarge. The one story no one told was how he'd been shot. It was still too early for that one.

When it was finally over, Al McCarthy took him to his new home, with Al’s family. The kids were waiting at the door.

After working with Sarge, Officer McCarthy had requested a transfer to Major Crimes and later became Detective McCarthy.

“You think I’d ever work with another dog?” he had told Sarge before putting in his papers.

Sarge had rubbed up against Al and drooled, just like he had as a recruit.

* * * * * *
no title
       The Catbird
calvin writing

Week 24 "I'm the Usain Bolt of Running from My Problems"

Intersection #2 with hwango.


hwango and I began with the same starting point: the idea of putting your troubles under a rock, walking away, and leaving them behind.  We traded a few ideas to see if the idea was workable, but we did not know what the other would write after that.


THE ROCK

Brigadoon was the last of the magical towns, but even its magic was finally wearing out.  It used to appear for a day only once in a hundred years and then vanish again, but now it was every year and it stayed for a week.  Before long, it might never disappear and then it would be just another quaint old town in Scotland with an unusual history, good for tourism but not much else.

Morris was part of the tourist horde that invaded the town after its recent appearance. He was not one of the gawkers who rudely took pictures of Dooners, as they called themselves, and interfered in their frantic efforts to re-stock the town before it disappeared again.  Nor was he part of the other main group, the seekers, who hoped Brigadoon’s magic would rub off on them.

No, Morris was simply a common ordinary-grade sad sack.

“I need some magic in my life,” he had thought before getting on board an airplane to Scotland.  “Maybe I can find it there.”

Like a few visitors every year, Morris planned to stay in the village until it disappeared, taking him with it and out of his miserable life.  There were always a few each year, “stowaways” or “stowies” the Dooners called them, and one of the best events of the Return was the stowie round up, when the sheep dogs were used to drive them out of the village before the Disappearance.  There was a prize for the dog who found the best-hidden stowie.  That would never be Morris.

“I’ll just sit in the bar,” thought Morris, “until Brigadoon vanishes.”

Angus was the bartender at the Taigh-seinnse Brigadoon on Prìomh Shràid.[1] The pub looked “authentic” to gullible outsiders; its employees, except Angus, dressed in Renaissance costumes and the menu was printed in Olde English.  It was only open during the Return and drew a huge crowd of outsiders looking for the true Brigadoon experience.  This kept them away from the busy Dooners, which was its real purpose.

Angus was perfect for the job.  He was gifted at making up genuine-sounding drinks, like the Bitter Widow, which tasted awful and were made from ingredients left over from the previous night.  He also knew lots of toasts and jokes, and he could be both funny and a good listener.  The Dooners thought he was more than a little bit elvish from the tell-tale golden flecks in his eyes.  Several of his ancestors had been known to wander in the nearby Enchanted Forest to seek their company before the first Disappearance.

Once Morris entered the bar, it didn’t take him long to claim the stool at the far end, away from all the noise.

“He’s one of those,” thought Angus with a sigh.

Morris’s head hung low and his shoulders drooped.  He didn’t respond to Angus except to nod when he wanted a new drink.  Angus made a faint effort to draw him out, but soon gave up.

After his third Dooner Stout, Morris started mumbling to no one in particular.

“I’m so tired,” he said.  No one replied.

“No matter how hard I worked, I was always a failure.”

Nearby customers started edging away.

“I just wanted a family, but look at me now.”

People near him started to leave.

Angus knew he had to do something.  That kind of gloom could take over the whole bar and send a lot of people out into the streets, where they’d just be in the way.

“Having a bad day?” Angus said to Morris.  “Have a Bitter Widow on me.”

Morris took a big swallow, made a face, then nudged it aside.

“I hate my life,” replied Morris.  “My wife kicked me out, making the kids happy.  I hate my job – never made enough money for them.  Now I live in a crummy apartment near a bus depot, and my boss said if I don’t start performing, he’ll fire me.”

Angus tried to distract him with a pretty girl.  He waved at a waitress to come over.  She took one look at Morris and turned away.  Morris gave a see-what-a-loser-I-am shrug and mistakenly took another swallow of the Bitter Widow.

Angus wanted to get Morris out without a fuss.

“Ever hear of the Trouble Stone?” asked Angus.

“What is it?” said Morris.

“It’ll get rid of your troubles,” he  began.  “We left it behind when we first disappeared.  It’s in the Enchanted Forest near the town and it still has some magic in it.”

“Why should I care about some stupid rock?” said Morris.

“If you write your troubles on a piece of paper,” replied Angus, “and put it under the rock, then pour an offering over it and walk away, you can leave them behind.”

Morris had made a fool out of himself over stupider things and he’d had enough Dooner Stout to make this sound reasonable.  Besides, he needed a walk to clear his head.

“O.K.” he said.  “Give me some paper and a pen, and whatever the offering is.  And some directions.”

Angus gave Morris everything he needed and sent him out the door.  Now he could go about making the other customers happy again.

The directions read “Walk north out of Brigadoon, enter the Enchanted Forest near the stream, head for the big hill and find a sunny glade.  The rock is in the middle.  It’s about the size of small dog, round, and black with silver and red stripes.”

“Easy enough,” thought Morris.  “But which way is north?”

Once he got squared away, he entered the Forest.  It was very old and densely populated with lots of trees and thorny bushes.  It had once been the home of elves, imps, and other fairy tale creatures, all of whom had left long ago.

He followed a vague path until he found what had once been a sunny meadow, but it had long since become overgrown with tall grasses and plants.  Morris could not see any rock.

“You looking for me?” said a deep, gravelly voice.

Morris looked around, but he couldn’t see anyone.

“I’m right in front of you,” said the rock.  “If you trip over me it’s gonna hurt, moron.”

“Where?” said Morris, as he started to search the grasses.

“For god’s sake,” said the rock, “even bats can echolocate.”

“I’m not a bat,” said Morris.

“EEW ay EEW ay EEW ay . . . .” yelled the rock until Morris finally found it, about five feet away.  The rock was just as Angus had described it, black with silver and red streaks, and big enough to sit on.

“Get your ass off me!” said a muffled voice.

Morris jumped to his feet.

“Are you the Trouble Stone?” asked Morris.

“I’ll give you trouble if you sit on me again,” said the rock.  “So, Angus sent you?  He must have thought you were pretty pathetic.  He only sends the worst.  Are you gonna cry for me?  No?  Damn.”

“How can you . . .?” Morris started to say.

“Talk?  Those godamm elves,” said the rock.  “They started it and once I got the hang of it, they left.  Go figure.”

“Can you help me with my problems, like Angus said?” asked Morris.

“Sure,” said the rock.  “Just get on with it.  I’ve been here since the last ice age.  You got your list?  Then put it under me.”

The rock was heavy but Morris was able to slide his paper under it.

“And the offering?” said the rock.  “This is the best part.”

Morris got out the bottle Angus had given him and poured it over the rock.

American beer?” said the rock.  “That Budweiser swill?   I told him Guinness!”

“Not my fault,” said Morris, his voice getting firm.  He was tired of this.

“Ok, Ok,” said the rock.  “Now comes the last part.  Push me up on the other side and take out the paper.”

It was hard, but Morris managed to do it.  On the paper was a list; the words were faded and smudged but still legible.

“My mother?” said Morris, “My kids?  My ex?  What is this?”

“These are your new troubles,” said the rock.  “You didn’t think this was free, did you?  What a chump!  You leave your problems and get someone else’s; later, someone will get yours.  If you want to leave yours, you’ve got to take Bonnie’s.  Fair’s fair.”

“But I don’t want Bonnie’s troubles,” said Morris.  “I want to start fresh.”

“That’s not how it’s played,” said the rock.

“Then let’s play another game,” said Morris, as he sat on the rock again.

“Get off me!”

“Are you sure about that?” said Morris.  “I had a lot of beer at the bar, and if I stand up, I might have to piss on you.”

“Ok, ok,” said the rock.  “But you have to do something for me.”

“What?” said Morris.

“First, get a wheelbarrow and I’ll tell you the rest,” said the rock.  “But you don’t have much time.”

Morris ran back to Brigadoon, borrowed an unattended wheelbarrow, and took it back to the rock.

“Put me in it,” said the rock.  “Then wheel me back to town.  I wanted to be in it when it first disappeared, but those goddam Dooners just left me here.”

It was hard, but Morris managed to get the rock into the wheelbarrow and take him back to the bar.  If anyone would know what to do with it, it would be Angus.  Then he could get out of there and leave his troubles behind him.

The streets were empty.  The dogs had rounded up the few stray outsiders and chased them out of town.  Wee Jack, a Westie Terrier, had won first prize by finding someone hiding in an empty wine barrel in the basement of the church.

It was nearly time for Brigadoon to vanish for another year.  Morris was too tired from moving the rock to worry.  He left the wheelbarrow outside the Brigadoon Pub and went in.  Angus was busy securing the bar before the Disappearance.

“What are you doing here?” he said.  “Leave now!”

“I brought the rock,” said Morris. “It’s outside.”

“You didn’t . . .” Angus said.  “You actually listened to a talking rock?  You’re worse than I thought.”

“But you said if I . . .” replied Morris.

“It was a joke,” said Angus, “a way for the rock and me to have a bit of fun.  No one can run away from their problems.  The rock has been trying to get to Brigadoon since the first Disappearance.  You were the first to fall for it.  You’ve got to get out now and take that loudmouth with you.”

Suddenly, the town shook, like a small earthquake.

“Too late,” said the rock.  “You’re stuck with me.”

Morris tried to run, but there was another, larger earthquake and Brigadoon was gone for another year.

The tourists waiting outside the village all cheered and then got in their busses, happy to have witnessed the last magical event left in the world.

No one knew where Brigadoon went or what happened while it was gone.  The Dooners would never tell.

A year later, Brigadoon re-appeared.

Morris was now happy as Angus’s assistant.  He had made a new life for himself and been accepted by the town as the first new Dooner in hundreds of years.

The rock was not so fortunate.  It would never stop talking and the Dooners were forced to try something drastic.  The village smith used his heaviest sledgehammer to break the rock into pieces.

“At last,” said one of the bigger pieces, “time for some real fun.”

The other pieces cheered.

The desperate Dooners gathered up all the rocks and put them in a box and stored them in a barn at the edge of town.  The rocks didn’t mind – they had the best possible company.

At the next Reappearance, the first thing Morris did was take all the rocks back to the Enchanted Forest and dump them back in the old glade.  They can still be found, talking to each other and heckling anyone unfortunate enough to walk by.

Angus no longer sends unhappy customers to the rock, but he knows a talking waterfall who could use some visitors.  Best of all, it would stay put.

*     *     *     *     *

My intersection partner is hwango.  His excellent intersection can be found hereIf you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.
It was halfshellvenus’s idea to have the rock talk.  Her imagination still amazes me.

The legend of Brigadoon is from the musical of the same name by Alan Jay Lerner (1947).

















[1] Brigadoon Pub on Main Street.  Scots Gaelic is second only to Welsh in its silliness, so I have relied on Google Translate.
calvin writing

Season 11, Week 23 "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn"

Intersection Partners: halfshellvenus and rayaso

This is the third time that we have partnered together for an Intersection.  In the past, I started the story while halfshellvenus finished it.  This time, we wanted to do something different.  We started with the same two main characters, their occupations, and the general location, but wrote our own stories after that.  We had no idea what the other was writing.  Where we wound up may (and hopefully will) be wildly different.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
THE CLOSED DOOR

It was late at night, too late for honest men to be about, but not for Otto.  The heavy, cold fog from the river had swallowed the city, muting his footsteps on the worn sidewalk.  The occasional streetlamp could only manage a weak glow and the foghorns could barely be heard.  He enjoyed walking in this part of the city, with its old shops and older memories, and this was his favorite time to do it, when he was alone and everything was closed.

As the owner of H. Drosselmeyer & Sons, Custom Toymakers, Otto had too much time for walking.  Customers were scarce these days and for the first time in many generations, there would be no one to carry on the family business of creating exquisite hand-made toys.  It saddened him to think that his family’s artistry would die with him.

His store was next to Abe’s Instrument Repairs.  Abe spent most of his time beating Otto at chess.  He never tired of telling Otto how he almost got to restore a Stradivarius violin; mostly, though, he tuned pianos in the neighborhood and gave affordable piano lessons to indifferent children.

Abe and Otto had been friends for over fifteen years.  They had lived next door to each other for the past five, after Stu’s Shoes had gone out of business and allowed Abe’s Instrument Repairs to move next to Drosselmeyer & Sons, shortly after Otto’s father had died.

The shops both had second-floor apartments.  The building had originally been a huge house, but long ago it had been cut in half to make two retail units with the two apartments above them.  The wall between them was made of heavy lathe and plaster, and it split the building’s original architecture in half.  The only opening between the two sides was a locked door between Otto’s and Abe’s bedrooms, which they had never tried to open.

Otto’s walk ended back at his shop.  He was damp from the fog, his feet hurt, and the cold made his arthritis worse.  He was feeling older than his sixty years.

“Thank goodness it’s spared my hands,” he thought as he entered his workshop in the rear of the building.  “Those pills Abe gave me never work.”

He took them anyway because he didn’t want to hurt his friend’s feelings.  The bottle was in a drawer under the workbench along with his most delicate tools.  He prided himself on his detail work, which exceeded even his father’s.   Franz Drosselmeyer had been the most talented artist after Herr Drosselmeyer himself, whose few surviving toys were highly sought by wealthy collectors.

Right now, Otto was working on a commissioned project: a table-top, wind-up carousel with each of the twenty-four animals representing a different fairy tale.  It played three different tunes as it rotated, with the animals moving up and down.  The music sounded like angels’ harps and Otto wouldn’t tell anyone, not even Abe, how he built such music boxes.

It was to be a present for the Schmidts’ three-year-old daughter’s birthday and he needed to finish it soon.

“Such a waste,” thought Otto, who imagined it broken a week later.  “It belongs in a museum, not that girl’s toy box with her doll that doesn’t have a head.  So much money and so little sense.”

Little Lisa dragged the poor doll around the neighborhood and she wouldn’t let anyone replace it.  She was notoriously hard on her toys, but her parents would just buy new ones and say, “So what can we do?”

“Plenty,” thought Otto, who viewed himself as an expert on children, even though he had never had any.

When asked why not, he would always say with a laugh, “It takes a wife, and who would marry someone who looks like me?”

Otto was tall, with a thin, angular face.  He liked to wear black clothes and he had lost most of his prematurely-gray hair years ago.  Even as a young man he had looked old, with a slight stoop from his hours spent at the workbench, bending over his beloved creations.

Otto liked to work late at night, while Abe went to bed early.  “I’m getting older,” he would tell Otto, “and I need my rest.”  Still, when Otto would finally go to bed, he would always knock on the wall between them and Abe would always knock back.

One day a stranger came into the toy store.

Once, this had been common, when Otto’s handmade toys had been coveted despite the prices.  He had never made the wholesome wooden toys sought by overwrought parents, the crude horses or trains on wheels, gifts that children seldom played with but parents still bought.  A Drosselmeyer toy meant something special.

While the Drosselmeyers had always sold fun regular toys that children loved, they had specialized in making beautiful collectible ones, things to cherish and hand down over generations.  They weren’t really meant to be played with, but to be placed on shelves and admired.

The new customer looked about fifty years old and carried an ornate walking stick that was clearly much older than he was.

“Good morning, sir,” Otto greeted the stranger.  “How may I help you?”

The man waited a minute and looked around the store, admiring all the items for sale.

“I knew your ancestor, Herr Drosselmeyer,” said the man, with a thick German accent.  “He would have been proud of your work.”

“How is that possible?” said Otto, “that would make you . . . .”

“. . . too old,” said the man, “nonetheless, before he died, Herr Drosselmeyer asked me to give you this.”

He set his walking stick on the counter.

“He told me to give it to a descendant who exceeded his abilities.  You are the first to do so, so the stick is yours.”

“But . . . ,” said Otto.

Before he finished, the stranger turned around and left the store.

Otto hurried from behind the counter out to the sidewalk, but he could not see the stranger, only an old man shuffling down the street.

Otto and Abe ate all their meals together.  Today for lunch Otto made tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches with some Posner’s Pickles.  It was Abe’s favorite and it always made him smile.

While they ate, Otto told him the story of the stranger and showed him the walking stick.

“It’s made of very old polished ebony,” said Abe, who knew his woods.  “And those symbols are from ancient Egypt.”

“Do you know what they mean?” asked Otto, who had a great respect for his friend’s knowledge.

“No,” replied Abe, “but I know someone at the museum who might.”

After lunch and their usual chess game, Abe went to see the Egyptologist at the museum and left the stick with him for examination.  Prof. Robertson had been very excited to see it.

Early one morning, Abe got a telephone call from Prof. Robertson.  He took careful notes and then showed them to Otto over breakfast.  Abe had made waffles and sausages, one of Otto’s favorites, with that awful coffee he liked.

“This is the staff of the Egyptian sorcerer Sahir,” said Abe.  “Professor Robertson said it’s supposed to give its owner long life, success, and one wish.  It’s very valuable.”

Otto noticed that Abe’s eyes, which always looked so strong, almost sparkled with excitement.

“He said the last known owner was the composer Tchaikovsky,” Abe continued, “who may have given it to his friend, Herr Drosselmeyer, your great-whatever grandfather, after he wrote the score for the Nutcracker Ballet.  Maybe that was his wish?”

“I would wish for my hair back,” said Otto with a laugh.

“You never had any,” said Abe.  “You should wish to beat me in chess.”

Abe forgot about the staff, but not Otto.  He didn’t believe it had any magic powers, but still . . . .

While working on the carousel, Otto thought he might wish for a Stradivarius violin for Abe, or perhaps a Steinway piano.  Long life didn’t appeal to Otto because of all that he would outlive.

“One life is enough for me,” he thought.

After he finished a little work on the carousel, he felt tired and went to bed early, skipping his nightly walk.

Otto kept thinking about the Egyptian staff, which he had left on his workbench with the carousel.

“What would I do with one wish?” he thought.

He knew what he wanted, what he had always wanted.

“I could wish for that,” he thought, “but I want it to be real, not some sorcerer’s spell.”

Otto was starting to drift off, so he knocked on the wall.  Abe did not knock back.  Instead, he opened the door.

“It’s time,” Abe said.

“You want to play chess at this hour?” said Otto.

“No,” said Abe.  “No games.”

With that, he entered Otto’s bedroom and their lives began anew.

The next day, Otto took the door off its hinges and stored it away.

He kept the sorcerer’s staff on display in his store, but it was not for sale.

Business for the stores improved, but the two men always had time for a game of chess, a good meal, and meandering walks, especially on foggy nights, which were no longer so lonesome.

* * * * * * * *
halfshellvenus is my intersection partner.  You can read her entry here.
If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.