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Season 10, Week 26
calvin writing
Topic: The Goal Is Zero


“I’ve gotta keep an eye on that,” thought Dave as he drove down the highway.  His truck’s odometer was getting close to 400,000 miles, and he wanted to see it hit all those zeros.  He was proud of his Chevy, although it looked like hell.  “These old ones were built to last, kinda like me.”

He’d bought the pickup from a rancher up north when it had had about 250,000 miles on it.  The price was right, and the old guy selling it had even thrown in a few cans of oil because of a leak.

Now, it was time for a break.  “I need some breakfast,” thought Dave, as he pulled into a nearby diner.

Dave took a seat and looked up at the T.V. over the counter.  The news was covering that accident from a few days ago.  A freighter had run into a bridge in broad daylight.  The bridge had to be closed and they still couldn’t move the ship because of the hole in its bow, right next to a sign painted on its side: The Goal Is Zero.  “They were just asking for trouble, a sign like that,” said a waitress as she brought his coffee.  He couldn’t disagree.

He was a couple of hours from his destination near Sharps, a little farming town upstate.  “I hope it goes well,” he thought, drinking his coffee.  “They sounded pretty desperate.”

Dave the Destroyer was one of the area’s few zombie goat exterminators.  The menace was growing and he’d go anywhere, even Sharps.  “No job too small,” he sighed.

Zombie goat extermination was a growing field, but it wasn’t exactly licensed and some of his competitors were pretty shady.  “I’m the only one with a flame thrower,” he would tell people, “and I’ll let you fire it for free.”  That would usually seal the deal.

The zombie goats had started about two years ago.  It was still mostly in the Midwest, but a single infected animal could ruin a whole herd.  At first, people had laughed.  “Sounds like a bad movie,” they’d said.  But it was spreading and Dave was pretty busy these days.

Some had blamed Allied Hazardous Waste Disposal, for improper storage of its materials.  Some had blamed a guy named Steve Johnston, but that didn’t seem right, because he was just the goatherd.  Allied had used his goats to eat the weeds on its property as part of a PR campaign.  Unfortunately, one goat had gotten into some old medical waste storage containers, and instead of killing him, it had turned him into a zombie, the infamous Goat Zero.

To be sure, the goatherd should have noticed the glowing red eyes, lurching walk, and mindless aggressive behavior, but when you have a whole herd to watch, one strange goat just doesn’t stand out.  Before anyone knew about it, that one goat was threatening a whole industry.

Right now, blame didn’t matter as much as solutions, and Dave had always been handy at solving problems.  One of his neighbors had had some zombie goats and didn’t know what to do.  “Nothing kills ‘em,” Rick had said, “and if it gets out some of my goats are infected, I’m ruined!”

That’s when Dave had remembered the flamethrower out in the shed.  He’d kept it from his days in the Army and used it mostly for blasting weeds on his property, but sometimes just for fun.  “Always been a bit of a pyro,” Dave would admit if asked.

“Let’s just turn ‘em into barbecue,” Dave had told Rick, and he had thrown the flamethrower onto the bed of his truck and followed Rick back to his place.  The zombie goats had been pretty easy to spot, slowly lurching around and trying to attack the goats too stupid or busy eating to run.  Once a zombie bit another goat, that goat would turn, and a rancher'd have real trouble. A few squirts of flame had taken care of Rick’s problem, and he’d been so grateful he’d tried to give Dave $100.

Goat ranching’s a pretty tight community, and word got around.  That’s when people had started calling him the Destroyer.  There had been a real demand for Dave and his flamethrower as the infection spread, and other ranchers had called him.  He charged a whole lot more than $100 these days.  “You’ve got to be pretty desperate to hire an old retired guy with a flamethrower,” he’d thought, and now he was on the road more often than he was home.

Sharps was a tiny town, but it was in decent goat ranching country.  No one ever got rich off goats, so the outbreak at the Double D Ranch was bad news for everybody.  Double D was the biggest outfit around, and if Dennis Demarco went under, well, people didn’t know what would happen, but it wouldn’t be good.

Dave drove down the main street on his way to the Double D.  It looked deserted, even for a Sunday, and he had the street to himself.  “Fear does that,” he thought.

The scientists had been unanimous.  Zombie goats could not infect people.  “Cross-species infection just won’t happen,” the Centers for Disease Control had said.  But nothing the medical experts could say would help.  Everyone thought it was only a matter of time, and they all knew what would happen after that.  “Remember the Ebola virus?” Doc Everton, the local vet, had said.  “It jumped from bats to people.”

“Better safe than sorry” was the rule in Sharps, so the town had pitched in to help Dennis hire Dave, except Petey Arbuckle, the local Lutheran, who had said that God would provide, but really, Petey was just cheap.  The rest had thought it would be prudent to help God along and get Dave down there fast.

Dennis Demarco was waiting for Dave out at the gate to his spread.  “Here’s your money,” he said, handing Dave an envelope.  “You better be good.”

“I’m the Destroyer,” said Dave.  “You can rest easy.  Where’s the problem?”

Dave could see Dennis eyeing the flame thrower in the truck bed.  “That it?” he asked.  Dave showed him how to use it, and Dennis happily burned down his mailbox.

The zombie goats were isolated in a pen by the barn.  Dennis didn’t believe in spending money when he didn’t have to, and it was clear he’d tried a little goat extermination himself, but nothing had worked.  Some of them were hobbling along on three legs or with broken necks and gunshot wounds.

“You’ve gotta cut off their heads,” said Dave.  “That’s what kills ‘em.  I use the flamethrower so I don’t have to get close and it makes the bodies safe for disposal.  Can’t be too careful.”

“Amen to that,” added Dennis.

There were about 10 goats, just wandering around with their red eyes, bumping into each other until they saw the two men.  The goats rushed to the fence, pushing and shoving, trying to get to them, but Dennis believed in strong fences, especially where zombies were concerned.

Dave had to get inside the pen to be close enough to flame them but not damage the fence.  This always made him a little nervous.  The zombie herd started moving his way, but the flamethrower did its job.

Except for one goat.  It was behind Dave and he didn’t see it.  When he turned off the flamethrower, the goat rushed up and butted him to the ground.  It was too close for the flamethrower, so Dave pulled out the machete he carried for backup.  Just before he cut off its head, the goat managed to bite Dave in the ankle.

It didn’t hurt much and only drew a little blood.  He had a first aid kit in the truck, so he put a bandage on it.

“You’ll need to bury the remains,” Dave told Dennis before leaving, “but wait a day or two just to make sure.”

And with that, Dave drove off to his next job.

Half an hour down the road, he pulled over at a rest stop.  He wasn’t feeling too well, and thought he’d take a quick nap.  Dave the Destroyer never woke up.  His ankle had become infected and the infection quickly spread, killing him in his sleep.

When his eyes opened, they were burning red.  He could only grunt and moan, and he was hungry, hungry like he’d never been before.  He fumbled getting out of the truck, and started to shuffle and stagger.  People screamed and ran for their cars, all except for a teenage couple stretched out on the grass, eyes closed with music in their ears.

Eat was all that registered with Zombie Dave.  Patient Zero had found Patients 1 and 2, but he wanted more -- he would always want more, and so would they.

The CDC could never explain how the zombie virus spread from goats to humans, and soon they were overwhelmed trying to develop a cure.

For now, a military quarantine around the Sharps area was holding, but panic was spreading.

Everyone knew how it would end – they’d all seen the T.V. show – and it wasn’t going to be pretty.

* * * * * * * * * *

Season 10, Week 25
calvin writing
Topic: The Waffle House Index


The Waffle King had it all – a job he loved, a good salary, a nice car, and a house with enough room for a family.  One thing he lacked was a better nickname.  Albert would have preferred something with a bit more dash; after all, he worked in the exciting Breakfast Unit at Paulson, Paulson & Love, the most successful small brokerage firm on Wall Street.

Ridiculed by jealous competitors as the Waffle House, Albert’s group bought and sold breakfast futures around the world.  There was the Toast Exchange in France, the Egg Market in London, the Bacon Auction in Iowa, and the granddaddy of them all, the Waffle Index in Belgium, his true love.

Albert was a natural, but he also worked hard, eating at diners whenever he could, talking with waitresses, seeing what people ate.  “I was the first to know that chocolate chip pancakes were passé,” he had proudly told a waitress at Bacon Heaven.  “I noticed a kid at a Breakfast Barn order pancakes topped with ice cream, berries and sprinkles instead.”  She had just smiled.  Waitresses liked Albert, and not only for the big tips.

Albert’s clients had sold their chocolate chip futures and bought sprinkles at the lowest price in years.  They had all made a killing.

But the markets had been quiet for weeks and he was getting bored.  When he caught himself building forts with his pencils, Albert knew he had to get out of the office.  “Time for a field trip,” he thought.  “Product research,” he called it.  “Playtime,” said his assistant, who booked him a quick trip to the Nebraska State Fair.

It was true, Albert loved the fairs, with their exciting rides, fascinating exhibits, cultural oddities, and interesting people.  He preferred them to going out with “the gang” for expensive drinks after work and playing credit card roulette.  Somehow, he always lost.  But what he truly loved was fair food, the innovative heart of American cooking.  Where else could you find deep fried butter, fried pigs’ ears, or fried beer?

Three days later, Albert was back at his desk, feeling rejuvenated and confident about the state of waffles in America.  “Forget maple syrup,” he advised his clients, “buy the exotics!”  He had seen the future at the Midway.  People had been eating double-fried BBQ pulled pork waffle sandwiches and chocolate-dipped, deep-fried waffles on a stick, recipes which would have appalled the purists but were destined for the Waffle Hall of Fame.

As successful as the trip had been, Albert still felt something was missing from his life.  “It’s lonely at the top,” he thought.  He knew that certain sacrifices had to be made when you were the Waffle King, but a Waffle Queen would have been nice, and not the mail order kind, no matter what Devon said he should try.

Devon was the top broker in the whole firm, and he was always giving Albert friendly advice.  “Dress for success,” “buy a hotter car,” and “ditch those glasses for contacts” were some of his suggestions.  It was Devon who had first called him the Waffle King.

But his devotion to his job left Albert little time for romance, so he bought a cat and named her “Waffles.”  Devon shook his head when Albert told him, then promptly told the others.

The other brokers were always going out to new, expensive restaurants for lunch.  He preferred to work through lunch, or if he was hungry, he went to Cindy’s Luncheonette around the corner.  It was small with only a few customers, but the food was good.  He had discovered it on one of his research safaris, as he called them.

Cindy served breakfast all day.  Her French toast was decent, but her waffles had been a little soggy until he suggested that she turn up the heat on the waffle iron and add some corn meal for a little extra crunch and flavor.

“Where did you learn that?” she had asked him.

“From my mother,” he had said.  “She taught me a lot about cooking.”

None of the other brokers knew anything about cooking, but Albert thought it was important when selling breakfast commodities.  Besides, he liked working in the kitchen when he had the time and he was good at it.  He had recipes from as far back as his great-grandmother, and he had made most of them, although he had yet to try possum fritters.

After his improvements, Cindy started calling her waffles “the Albert Special,” and she would always come out of the kitchen when she saw him and talk for a few minutes.  Albert liked her smile.

One day, he took Devon to Cindy’s for lunch to try the Albert Special.  “Diners aren’t my thing,” he had said, “and who eats meat loaf in Manhattan?”  He had spent a lot of time joking with Cindy.  “The cook’s hot,” he had said, but Albert hadn’t liked his pun.

The next time he stopped by for lunch, Cindy had asked about “your friend with the sparkling eyes,” and Devon had asked Albert for the luncheonette’s phone number even though it was online.  Shortly afterward, while waiting for a cab after work, he had seen Cindy and Devon walking down the street together holding hands.  Devon had waved and smiled, but Albert had pretended not to notice.

Albert thought it was past time to go on a safari and find someplace different for lunch.  “Variety is the spice of life,” he had told himself, “and that applies to work as well.  I need a new friend.”

Albert had worked extra hard after that and he had received a nice bonus.  “Don’t burn out,” the partners had said.  “Take some time off.”  But where would he go and what would he do?  Besides, who would take care of Waffles the cat?

One day, Albert was in the file room when he heard Devon’s voice.  “I never stick with one babe very long,” he said.  “’Use ‘em then lose ‘em,’ that’s what I say.  Take that cook I’m seeing -- time to place a new order.”  His audience laughed loudly.

Albert got his file and left.

The breakfast markets were starting to settle down after the election.  With more time for lunch, he thought it was finally time to try the Albert Special again.  Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed with a big “For Rent” sign in the window.  “Too bad,” he thought.  “I miss her waffles.”

Albert also had more time in the evening.  Although Waffles was a great cat, her conversational skills were weak, so he decided to take a cooking class at the Culinary Academy: “Intermediate Breakfast.”  If nothing else, he could sharpen his kitchen skills.

There were about eight other people in the class, a nice mix of men and women of various ages.  Each week brought a new topic and a new chef.  Some things Albert knew, some things he learned for the first time.  “Try thick pieces of challah bread soaked in a heavy custard mix,” the French toast chef advised.  Albert wondered if he would learn anything in the waffle unit next week.

The surprise was in the chef.  “Tonight, I was going to show you how I make the Albert Special,” said Cindy.  “But since Albert is actually here, perhaps he could show you himself?”

Albert didn’t like getting up in front of people and he had never cooked with anyone watching before, but one thing he knew was waffles.  When Cindy smiled at him, he walked to the front and told them everything he knew, which was a lot.  Everyone’s waffles were perfect, and at the end the class applauded, even Cindy, who clapped the longest.

“Thank you,” Cindy said as Albert cleaned his work space.

“I was surprised to see you,” said Albert.  “What happened to your restaurant?”

“It never attracted many customers,” said Cindy.  “The ones I had were loyal, but it just wasn’t enough.  Now I do catering.  It’s going OK, but weddings are hell.”

“What about Devon?” asked Albert, still charged with the adrenaline from his demonstration.

“I dumped him after two weeks,” she said.  Albert could see her blush.  “He was all hands.”

They stood around awkwardly, neither one leaving and both unsure about staying.

“As long as we’re in a kitchen,” said Cindy, “why not have some coffee and just talk?”

Cindy made great coffee, so they sat and had a cup, and then another.  The conversation got easier, and they found they had a lot in common.  Both loved fair food and a good roller coaster.  Their laughter became more natural and frequent.

"I've missed seeing you," Albert said.  "And I don't want to let another Devon get in the way again."

“One Devon is more than enough,” Cindy replied with a smile.

Summoning the daring that had made him the Waffle King, Albert asked Cindy the second-most important question of his life.  “Would you like to go to Coney Island and ride the Cyclone?  We could eat fried pickle dogs and have funnel cake for dessert.”

Cindy gave him her second-most important answer.  “Only if we can see the Mermaid Parade!”

Back at work, Albert surprised the partners – he took Saturday off.  And then Sunday, too.  How long this new behavior would last, no one knew and no one cared.  The Waffle King was clearly at the top of his game.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Thank you once again, halfshellvenus, for your perceptive comments, and otherwise beta reading this.

Season 10, Week 24
calvin writing
I am taking my first (I believe) bye this week.

Season 10, Week 23
calvin writing
Topics: Backing the wrong horse
            Bannister effect


Some inventers change the world, such as Thomas Edison and the commercial lightbulb.  Other inventors change nothing but are still remembered, like “Crazy Uncle Larry,” creator of the Flatulence Deodorizer Pad, whose experiments were not always confined to his garage workshop.  And then there was Leopold Abernathy, whose efforts resulted in the Promptimorph.

The Promptimorph was a 19th century device, useful to writers with assignments they didn’t like.  Bad case of writer’s block?  The Promptimorph was your savior.  Resembling a meat grinder, the unhappy author could simply put the offending request into the chute, crank the handle, and voila!  A new topic would appear out the front.

Some assembly was required, of course.  The desperate writer would need to paste together the resulting scraps of ground paper, but the effort was always worth it.  Stymied by “Lethargy”?  Try “halt grey” or “lager thy.”  Who wouldn’t be inspired by “gar el thy”?  “Bannister Effect” produced such gems as “crabs fifteen ten,” clearly the distress call of a foundering fishing boat assaulted by angry crustaceans.

Lewis Carroll was an early user, giving the Promptimorph his highest praise: “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”  T.S. Eliot denied using the Promptimorph for “The Waste Land” for years, until Hallmark Cards released a letter commissioning a jingle about “a delta swan” for a birthday card.  These were exciting times for the literary community.

The Promptimorph
Courtesy of the Leopold Abernathy Museum

Unfortunately, the Promptimorph was a commercial failure despite its usefulness.  It was briefly revived in the 1930s as experimental “chance writing.”  Whole novels were ground up, spit out, and reassembled.  James Joyce used it for “Finnegan’s Wake,” but the Promptimorph was soon forgotten until LJ Idol burst onto the scene, with its inhuman demand for weekly topic-related entries.

Since the Promptimorph was not specifically banned, one writer was unscrupulous enough to turn to this long-forgotten invention for assistance.  Fortunately, a crack team of literary investigators was able to discover only one instance of Promptimorph-enhanced writing (“PEW”), resulting in the expulsion of the author.

The PEW team has announced that LJ Idol is again Promptimorph-free.  The following entry is included for historical purposes only.

* * *

Week 23
   The cab king wren goth shore
   Cab fifteens rent
   Rag ethyl
The Inventor

Cab Fifteen’s rent was due, and its driver was desperate.  Sure, being a taxi driver was a glamorous and rewarding job, but Jake Bannister was feeling the effect of those damn fly-by-night Uber jockeys.  Even his ex-wife had gleefully admitted to taking Lyft to their divorce hearings.  “That’s our marriage in a nutshell,” Jake had thought at the time.  “No damn loyalty.”

Ragin’ “Rag” Ethyl, his supervisor, was not known for her patience, and her job was on the line as well.  She needed all the cabbies to clear their accounts.  The pressure was on – more fares, or lose Cab Fifteen.

Even the Cab King, Wren Gothshore, was calling it quits.  Maybe it was time for Jake to move on.  But what could he do?

Returning home later that evening, Jake saw the mess his life had become.  Dishes were everywhere, nothing was clean, and he hadn’t done his laundry in weeks, which the fares were beginning to notice.  Sitting on the couch, he drained his last beer and threw the crumpled can on the floor, narrowly missing the greasy box from his breakfast pizza.  “Don’t care,” he thought, “wife’s gonna get the house in a few months anyway.”

Only one place ever felt like home to Jake – his garage.  He loved his workbench, with each tool in its place.  Staggering out to the garage, Jake suddenly realized his future – he would become an inventor!  Of what, he didn’t know, but even in his beer haze, he knew he could do better than the farting Fanny Bank or the Fat Magnet, which removed fat from food with a wave of its electronic wand.

Next morning, Jake quit work and headed to the garage to tap his true genius.  He felt exuberant and knew that success was just an idea away. “This’ll be easy,” he thought.  “I’ve got the tools, and now I’ve got the time.”

Three days later, his confidence gave way to doubt when the mailman brought a pile of bills.  “I wish someone had given me a swift kick in the ass!” he thought.

This moment of despair finally unleashed his creativity.  “That’s it!” he thought, “a mechanical ass-kicker for dumb ideas!”  And so was born the Kick In The Butt.  The design took only a few minutes.  “It even exercises your arms!” thought Jake.  “Who wouldn’t want one?”

The Kick In The Butt

It took several days of hard work to build a prototype, but now he was ready for the next step.  He was a little fuzzy on how to sell the Kick In The Butt to the hordes of waiting customers, but he knew enough to make an appointment with Margaret Anderson, a patent attorney.

The meeting lasted five minutes.  A patent had already been issued to another mechanical wizard.

Down, but not yet out, Jake drove home to try again.  However, it was lunch time and he was hungry for a consolation meal.  Then it hit him – “what if I could cook while driving?”

Bob’s Burger Shack would go down in history as the place Jake sketched the Tailpipe Smoker on a napkin.  It would not only use the heat from a car’s tailpipe to cook, but the Smoker would give food that special exhaust-fumes flavor.

The Tailpipe Smoker

After seeing the prototype, Ms. Anderson had more bad news.  “Don’t ever come back!”

But Jake was not discouraged.  His fertile mind even found ideas just by looking around the kitchen.  There were Bread Gloves, which conveniently made his hands into a sandwich, followed shortly by the Anti-Eating Face Mask

                                                                  anti-eating face mask.jpg
                                                   Bread Gloves               Anti-Eating Face Mask

Unfortunately, with more inventions came more failures, until Ms. Anderson finally obtained a restraining order.  Luckily for her, after creating both sourdough and raisin bread gloves, Jake was finally out of ideas.  Not even a lukewarm beer cooled by his car’s A/C (a companion to the Tailpipe Smoker) helped.

“Maybe I should reconsider all this,” he thought.  “I hope Cab Fifteen’s still available.”  But his old supervisor wouldn’t take his calls.

Other than inventing, Jake’s only skill was driving.  He had just one choice: join the enemy.  He spruced up his old car and signed with Uber.  “This is low,” he thought, as he picked up his first customer.

Lisa Bacher was young, fresh-faced, and enthusiastic.  “Take me to 367 Main Street,” she said.  Jake recognized the address immediately.  “Isn’t that the office of Margaret Anderson, the patent attorney?” he asked.  “I can only take you within 500 feet.”

“How did you know?” said Lisa.  “I have a great idea that’ll make millions.”

“I’ve done some inventing myself,” said Jake.  “Tell me about it.”

“It’s a computer program to help overcome writer’s block,” replied Lisa.  “You just type in your topic and it reorganizes the letters to give you a new prompt.  I call it the Topicator.  It can’t miss!”

Jake couldn’t help himself.  “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, and I’ve invented a lot of ‘em!”

Through his rear-view mirror, Jake could see that Lisa was crestfallen.  “Look,” he said, “buy me a cup of coffee and we’ll talk about it.”

For over an hour at the Cuppa Joe Café, he told Lisa everything about his projects and his life as an inventor.

Lisa paid close attention.  Finally, she said “You’re a master of failure!  I bet lots of people would pay for your advice.”

Jake had one last idea, whether fueled by caffeine or Lisa’s smile, he didn’t care.  “Look,” he said.  “I know bad inventions and you know computers.  Let’s create some kind of advice service.”

“Failure.com!” Lisa said.  “An online site for inventors – we could offer evaluations and discouraging advice.  Who doesn’t need a kick in the rear to crush their dreams? My parents taught me well.”

Six months later, Failure.com was up and running.  Inventors could submit their ideas and receive honest evaluations from Jake.  No one went away encouraged.  The open comments section was a big hit with the reddit crowd [“what the #@$% is that piece of &%#?”].  Failure.com was not for the faint of heart.

In another nine months, the web site expanded into Life Coaching and Lisa’s parents were hired as experts for the “Listen to Your Parents!” premium package.  “What did we tell you?  We said you were just a screw up!” seemed to hit many nerves.

On its second anniversary, Failure.com went from niche internet start-up to a public corporation worth millions.

Fame followed fortune, and Failure.com was featured in Newsweek: “The Success of Failure.”  Not to be outdone, Time led with “Judge Me,” an article on how Failure.com managed to profit from internet criticism, which had been free and abundant.

Even their private lives were now scrutinized.  People ran an article on the budding romance between Jake and Anna.

Success did not change Jake or Anna.  He still liked to invent new products, including the baby mop, and from time to time, he would call his old cab company and drive Anna around town in Cab Fifteen.  One time, he parked right in front of Ms. Anderson’s office and offered Anna a smokey Tailpipe Burger with a ring on top.  It was his best idea ever.
dEhn Te

*     *     *    *    *

The Flatulence Deodorizer Pad

The Fanny Bank

The Fat Magnet

The Baby Mop

Season 10, Week 22
calvin writing
Topic: “Trespassers William”


William Jones had never respected property lines, personal boundaries, or any other restriction in his long and eventful life.  He was the ultimate trespasser, and he would go anywhere, say anything, or do whatever he wanted, the rest of the world be damned!  It made him very unpopular, but a great fixer.

“Not a fixer – the Fixer,” he was known to snort.  William was very particular about some things.  It was William, never Bill, and especially not Willy.  He was also sensitive about his height.  “I’m undersized, not underpowered,” he would say.

He had always been thin, all angles and bones, while his formerly unruly hair and beard were now white and had been neatly trimmed for many years.  He had a pointed nose and his eyebrows were always raised as if in astonishment, but disdain would be more accurate.  He had grown careful about his appearance and now wore expensive suits, dark blue or gray, with a crisp white shirt and a precisely knotted tie.

William was a rarity – he worked free-lance.  Most fixers were lawyers with prestigious firms, but not William.  While they would discreetely clean up their clients’ personal problems, lawyers had a drawback – they obeyed the law.  That was a line they wouldn’t cross.

William didn’t let the law or anything else get in the way, and he charged more than anyone else.  While his rates were exorbitant, no one complained.

Sometimes, though, he didn’t charge at all.  “Why work free-lance and not be free?” was his stock reply to the inevitable question.    When working a free case, William sometimes thought of himself as the Robin Hood of fixers, and it made him feel good, at least for a while.

William never talked about himself and he wasn’t much of a conversationalist.  “I help people, but I don’t like them,” he once told a particularly talkative client, offended when told to “get to the point or get out!”

No one knew anything about him, including how to contact him.  If you were in trouble, and very, very lucky, William would just show up and offer you his services.  No one had ever turned him away.

He had a weakness for helping children, and he would even attend Parent-Teacher conferences.  A few words from William, and a teacher would work extra-hard with little Stevie, making sure he succeeded.  There was never a second meeting.

If the situation interested him, William would help.  Right or wrong, good or bad didn’t matter, but children seemed to be an exception.  He once worked with a drug lord to resolve a territory dispute, provided she never sold to children again.

One day, William appeared at the door of Rebecca Miller’s house.  Unseen by the Millers, over the years he had watched little Rebecca grow up.  No real harm had threatened her, until now.

William could see Rebecca through a window, with her fair skin, luxurious blond hair, and sky-blue eyes, just like her mother.

William stood quietly on the doorstep, doubting the wisdom of what he was about to do.  He always had a plan, and this bothered him.  “What if I’m wrong?” he thought.  His bad leg began to ache, so he finally knocked on the door with his cane.

“Who are you?” said Rebecca after opening it.  She had never seen the strange little man before.

“You don’t know me,” he began.  “You have a problem, and I’m here to fix it.  I’m very good at what I do, and my services are free.”

Rebecca would never talk to a stranger, let alone invite one in, but there was something compelling about William.

Once inside, William looked around.  It was a small house, but everything was neat and well-cared-for.  Her parents worked in a bakery and while money was tight, they had always managed.

“Tell me about the baby,” said William.

An obviously pregnant Rebecca blushed, painfully aware of the absence of a wedding ring.  For her, it mattered a great deal.

“It’s going to be a girl.  She’s due in two months.”  Rebecca felt compelled to add that the wedding would be in three weeks.

“There’s a problem with the baby’s father, isn’t there?” said William.

Rebecca wondered how William knew this, but he seemed oddly trustworthy.

“Yes.  He won’t marry me unless I have a fancy wedding dress and we can’t afford one,” said Rebecca.  “I know he’s no prince charming, but what can I do?”

William played with his cell phone for a few minutes, and then showed it to Rebecca.  “Is this acceptable?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” said Rebecca.  “It’s so beautiful!  But I can’t afford it.”

“I said my services were free.  The dress is taken care of,” said William.  “But if you must pay me, give me your bracelet.”

Grateful, she handed it to him.  Without another word, William left and quickly disappeared from view.

When Rebecca told her mother about William, her mother just smiled.  The wedding dress was delivered the next day.

One week later, he returned.  This time, Rebecca let him in without hesitation.

“The wedding dress will fit perfectly!” she said.

“But there’s still a problem, isn’t there?” said William.

“It’s my fiancé,” said Rebecca.  She couldn’t look at William.  “Now he says he won’t marry me unless my father pays him $10,000!”

“Problem solved,” said William, writing a check for the money.  “You must take it,” he added.  “Give me your earrings in return.”  He then left as rapidly as before.

Standing in the doorway, Rebecca wondered why she had accepted the money, but she hadn’t been able to refuse.  Once again, her mother smiled when she told her about William’s generosity.

A few days before the wedding, William visited a third time.  He could see that she was still unhappy.

“Tell me your troubles,” he said.  “I’m your fixer.”

In between great sobs, Rebecca told him what he already knew.  She did not love her fiancé and he did not love her.  There had been just one night, and then the baby.  “I must marry him,” she said.  “I won’t let my baby grow up without a father!”

“But your daughter must not grow up in a family without love,” William said gently, giving her a card.  “I can fix this, but you must visit this address tomorrow morning.”  And with that, he abruptly left, as usual.

The address was in a wooded area outside the city, down a long lane.  There was a huge mansion with large park-like grounds, and scattered about Rebecca could see a slide, swing set, jungle gym, and other playthings, all being used by happy, noisy children.

William met Rebecca at the door, and took her inside.  Some teddy bears were having a tea party in the dining room.  He took her into the kitchen for some real tea and freshly baked cookies.

“My mother told me who you are,” said Rebecca.  “It’s hard to believe, but I won’t say your real name.”

“It’s OK,” said William, “It’s always been OK.  I would have told you soon myself, like I told your mother and those before her.”

“Are you really Rumpelstiltskin?” asked Rebecca.

“Yes, but I go by William now,” he said.

She still had trouble accepting the truth, but it explained so much about him.

“But what’s all this?” she said.

“These are some descendants of Elizabeth, your great-great-great-great grandmother, the one I spun straw into gold for, the one who married the King.  They didn’t love each other either.  The Grimm Brothers got everything wrong, as usual.

“I was a fixer of sorts back then, too.  Elizabeth’s father was a silly man who told the King his daughter could spin straw into gold.  The King was going to kill her if she didn’t do it, so I stepped in, and for a few of her trinkets I spun the gold.  She was forced to marry the greedy King, who only wanted more gold.  Later, after she became pregnant, I offered to help again.  Elizabeth agreed to let me take the child and love it as my own, but later she changed her mind.

“Of course, I would never have forced Elizabeth to give up the baby.  I’m a hobgoblin, not a monster.  The Grimm Brothers made up most of that ridiculous story, including the part about guessing my name.  I did stomp my foot through the floor in anger, but I was furious with the King over how he had been treating Elizabeth, and my leg has never been the same.

“I can’t have children,” said William, “and all I wanted was that baby girl to love and bring up as my own.  It’s all I have ever wanted.”

“But these children here . . . ?” said Rebecca.

“Ever since, I have been following Elizabeth’s many descendants, taking in those who have needed my love.  I can do the same for you.”

“But I love my baby!” said Rebecca.

“And I would never separate her from you,” said William.  “But there are too many children here for me to take care of.  I pay for everything through my work as a fixer, and now I’m the one who needs you.  You do not love your fiancé and your life will be miserable.  Live here with your baby and help me!”

Rebecca did not have to think long before agreeing.  She could not marry a despicable man she did not love, and there were all these children who needed her.  Still, it was an odd arrangement, and William was certainly an oddity himself.

But she knew that William would love her daughter as if she were his own, and they would all be very happy together.  Everyone would live happily ever after, which is always the best ending, and maybe someday he would tell her what really happened between Cinderella and her Prince Charming.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is a link to the Grimms’ Rumpelstiltskin.

Season 10, Week 21
calvin writing
Topic: Current Events

This was inspired by an editorial in the Sacramento Bee titled “This cute doll can spy on your kid. Why doesn’t the Legislature seem to care?”


It was a long, cold trek from the Monitoring Unit to the Head Elf’s office, but Sugarplum needed to deliver the news in person.  She hated the snow.  “Why can’t I work in some tropical paradise?” she thought.  “We’re all on the Internet anyway.”  Everyone but the Big Elf.  He was still stuck in the past and didn’t trust modern technology.

“The snow doesn’t bother him, he can just magically transport himself,” grumbled Sugarplum, as her boots grew wetter and her feet colder.

As manager of the Monitoring Unit, Sugarplum and her crew were responsible for watching all the kids to see who was naughty or nice.  “Spy elves,” some called them.  Santa Claus had the final say, of course, but the grunt work was done by her Unit.

One of the big tools was the Internet.  “It’s amazing what those kids post,” thought Sugarplum.  “Don’t they know we check Facebook and Reddit?”  Too many nice children were being lost to naughty these days.  Krampus was happy, but the North Pole had been losing too much business.

Now there had been a clear violation of the Protocols, and Sugarplum had to report it.

The Protocols were centuries old and governed the relationship between Santa and the children.  Protocol Number Three was “Good Behavior and Distributing Presents,” right behind “Believing in Santa” and “Cookies by the Fireplace.”  Sadly, they had been losing ground on all three.

Santa blamed this on the overall decline of imagination, but always the optimist, he had hope for the future.  “What would a child’s life be like without me?” Santa always said.  As usual, it was the Internet’s fault.  “Too much information, too little heart.”

Well, Santa was going to hate Sugarplum’s news, but she had to go up the chain of command.  Santa was a stickler about these things.

Cold and miserable, Sugarplum finally made it to the Head Elf’s office.  Evergreen was on a cookie break, so Sugarplum grabbed some hot chocolate and a cupcake, and waited.  And waited some more.  Monitoring was a minor priority in the Summer, when all the attention was on Toy Production.  “Those things don’t build themselves,” Evergreen liked to say.  Actually, they did, but it still took a lot of time -- there were a lot of nice kids in the world.

As far as bosses went, Evergreen wasn’t bad, but you never wanted her help after a cookie break.  An elf on a sugar rush could be scary, but Sugarplum couldn’t wait; her news was too important.

Finally, Evergreen returned, carrying a large mug of hot chocolate with extra marshmallows.  The chocolate chip cookies had been tasty and plentiful, so she was in a good mood.

“What’s the problem?” said Evergreen.  “Your message said it was important.”

“I want to report a massive Protocol violation – Number Three,” said Sugarplum.

“Behavior and distribution?” said Evergreen.  “What’s going on?”

Evergreen was concerned.  There hadn’t been a Protocol violation in decades – not since that glut of cheap toys hit the toy stores and the children just weren’t interested in Christmas anymore.  That had taken care of itself with the advent of Nintendo and GameBoy, which had caused a real increase in good behavior in order to get one for Christmas.

“There’s this new doll, ‘My Friend Cayla,’ on the market . . .” Sugarplum began.

“I’m aware of it – its wish-list presence is pretty small to be a problem,” interrupted Evergreen.

“But it’s an evil spy doll!” said Sugarplum.

The Cayla doll had long blond hair and blue eyes, and looked completely inoffensive.  But she was really an internet portal in disguise – just an Echo or HomePod with a plastic smile.  The doll hooked up to the Internet with a WiFi connection, and she had a speaker and a microphone so a child could talk with her, ask questions, play games, and do many other fun things.

But Cayla was always “on,” constantly gathering information from anyone who spoke within range of her sensitive microphone.  That feature laid bare a family’s private life, to be used for marketing or whatever purpose any data buyer wanted.

“But that’s wrong . . .” sputtered Evergreen, choking on her hot chocolate.

“That’s only part of it.  There’s also Amazon’s new drone delivery service,” said Sugarplum.  “No Santa, no Rudolph, no sleigh.  The drone just flies through the air and delivers Cayla.”

“It doesn’t matter if they’re naughty or nice -- this doll just appears on their doorsteps?” asked Evergreen.  “Where’s Santa’s magic in that?”

The idea of a doll as a secret internet data collector horrified the two elves.  “No wonder Cayla’s manufacturer wanted to avoid Santa,” said Sugarplum.  “Germany has already banned it as an illegal surveillance device and asked parents to destroy its microphone.”

“Put Cayla on the Naughty Toys list,” said Evergreen.  “There will be some disappointed children this Christmas.”

“What about Amazon’s drones?” asked Sugarplum.

“That’s for Santa to decide,” replied Evergreen.  “The Big Elf isn’t going to be happy – he may be jolly, but this will upset him.  Type a report and send it to him immediately.”

The typewriter did as it was told, and the report flew off to Santa’s office.  Santa might not have liked computers, but magic was different and it was usually allowed for office work.

After Santa read the report, he was so angry that a blizzard struck the North Pole.  The elves hadn’t seen one this strong in years.

Evergreen and Sugarplum made the slow, freezing trudge through the gale to Santa’s House.  For a building made of gingerbread, frosting, and candy canes, it was surprisingly sturdy and warm.  Santa’s office was a mess, with papers and plates of half-eaten cookies scattered about.  “I have my own filing system,” Santa kept telling Mrs. Claus.  His pack was in the corner, overflowing with new toys waiting for approval.

Santa was pacing angrily in front of the fireplace, puffing on his pipe, the smoke circling his head like a storm cloud.  His eyes were no longer twinkling.  The elves had never seen him so upset.

“We let the children down,” said Santa, dispensing with his customary Ho Ho Ho. “I wasn’t even thinking about the Internet when I approved that toy.  It just looked like any other doll.”

“I think that was the point,” said Sugarplum.  “It was designed to fool everyone, even you.”

“Those people have to be punished,” ordered Santa.  “Put it on the Bad Toy List.  They won’t be selling any more of their spy dolls.”

Under Protocol Number Seven, Santa’s approval was needed for any new toy to succeed.  Without it, no good child would want one and sales would plummet.  Recently, the Banzai Bump N’ Bounce had made the Bad Toy List and it had failed miserably.

“But what about the Amazon drones?” asked Evergreen.  The drones were clearly infringing on Santa’s magic, and enough was enough.  The declining value of the Santa brand worried her, and it was her job as Head Elf to see to the business end of things.

“I’ve warned Bezos about Amazon many times,” said Santa.  “He wants to take over all sales, everywhere.  He is not nice and he just ignores me.  The drones are the last straw.”

The elves could see that Santa was getting even angrier.  He might have looked soft, with the cozy red jacket and pants, but his belly wasn't shaking like jelly, now.  It shook with anger.  Finally, he spoke.

“Unleash Krampus on Jeff Bezos,” Santa said.  “Now.”

With his horns, dark hair, and fangs, Krampus was the embodiment of the anti-Christmas spirit.  Normally, he threatened the worst children with his lash, and if they did not become nice, Krampus would haul them off to the underworld in a sack.  Santa rarely let him loose on an adult.

“Bezos is going to wish he’d never created Amazon,” thought Sugarplum.  “He’s in for a real scourging.”  She secretly hoped he’d wind up in the underworld.

“And stop accepting Wish Lists sent electronically,” said Santa.  “I love to read the little kids’ letters with all the mistakes.  E-mail from their parents just isn’t the same.”

Although the blizzard was gone now, it was still another cold walk back to their offices for Sugarplum and Evergreen, but they knew cookies and hot chocolate would be waiting.

If adults didn’t care about spy dolls, Santa did.  Santa loved little children, even those who did not believe in him.

The excitement, laughter, and joy on Christmas Day made the whole year worth it for Sugarplum, even with all the snow.

It was time to get back to work.  Santa still needed to know who was naughty or nice, and the Protocols didn’t protect themselves

A North Pole elf’s work was never done, even in the summer.

* * * * * * * * *

My thanks to halfshellvenus for beta reading this.

      Cayla                     Banzai Bump 'N Bounce    Krampus

Season 10, Week 20
calvin writing
Topic: Open


“I’m ready,” said Professor Steve Johnston, breathing rapidly.  He was nervous – who wouldn’t be?  His project had reached the human trial stage, and he was the designated human.  He couldn’t ask others to risk their lives on something he wouldn’t try himself.  There were volunteers, but this was something he had to do.

His assistants – what were their names? – strapped him firmly to the specimen table and closed the test chamber door.  He stared up at the huge lens of the projector module.  From this angle, it was almost beautiful, with its wires and circuits.  It was huge, weighing nearly a ton, not small and convenient like the original design -- the power requirements alone were simply too much.  Miniaturization could come later, but first he had to prove to all the doubters that his machine actually worked.

The Transmogrifier was the culmination of his life’s work.  Sure, he’d faced the scorn of his colleagues and the laughter of an ignorant public, but Steve was used to this.  “I know it will work,” he thought, waiting for it to begin.

The idea had started in his childhood.  As a lonely and unpopular child, little Stevie had turned inward and read everything he could, but especially comics.  Superman, Batman, Spiderman in all their crime-fighting glory made up his universe, pushing the taunts of the other kids away.  But the one closest to his heart had been Calvin and Hobbes, the amazing imaginary adventures of another weird kid and his stuffed tiger.

The Transmogrifier had been the strangest of Calvin’s odd inventions.  Unbounded by reality, Calvin had been free to use a large cardboard box to transmute objects, turning himself into a miniature duplicate Hobbes, his friendly tiger.  Once Calvin had built a transmogrifier pistol, he and Hobbes had started a free-for-all, turning each other into a pterodactyl, a duck, and other animals.

Using squirt guns, Legos, and tape, Stevie had built his own transmogrifier guns, each more elaborate than the last and each just as useless, except for shooting his little sister with transmogrification fluid, which had annoyed her and angered his mother, who had to get the stains out of her clothes.

Steve had never forgotten the Transmogrifier.  It had even inspired his college senior thesis on the disassembly of matter.  The core process had involved a lot of dynamite.  His graduation had been delayed so he could erase the “F” by submitting something less violent and pay for the damage to a science lab.

Steve had eventually become a brilliant engineer and physicist who had designed and built equipment essential for particle physics research.  His Transmogrification Project had been tolerated by the University as long as he had independent funding and no one had found out about it.

“Transmogrification is really two processes,” he had once explained to the Review Board.  “Matter is first disassembled and then reassembled.”

The first part was easy: apply enough energy, and anything could be reduced to subatomic particles.  Unfortunately, this process also resulted in its own violent release of energy.

“’Nuclear bomb’ is such an ugly term,” he had explained to yet another disciplinary committee.  “There are always going to be a few bumps in scientific progress.”  A large research grant from the Department of Defense had helped him smooth that one over as well.

The key to disassembly was to do it on such a small scale that the energy release was harmless.  This had finally been solved when he invented the transmogrification lens.

The problem of reassembly still remained until the creation of the 3D printer allowed particles to be assembled into any form. If plastic glop could be turned into a gun, why couldn’t elemental particles be formed into something more useful?

By combining the world’s most sophisticated (and largest) 3D printer with the transmogrification lens, Steve had been able to change an orange into an apple, one which unfortunately glowed in the dark, making it suspect as food but useable as a nightlight.  “Just a little detail,” Steve had said, “but it mostly works!”

Following a few interesting adjustments, several years later the Transmogrifier was at last ready for Steve, who had updated his will to provide for the care of his cat, Hobbes 2.0, in the event Assistant #1 was right about the photon circuit.

For Steve ’s pioneering transformation, he programmed the machine to make him into a replica of his cat.  The machine hummed, the lens glowed, and then BAM! – when the assistants opened the chamber door, they found an orange tabby cat.  “He’s cute!” said Assistant #1.

Steve was aware of the change, because human consciousness was unaffected by transmogrification.  However, he was in all other respects a cat.  “I want some tuna and a nap,” he thought.  He got neither, not even a litter box.

As a safety protocol, a timer caused him to be re-transmogrified after only five minutes.  The only ill effects were a massive headache and fleas.

Assistant #2, the intelligent one with glasses, wanted to be next.  After she was strapped down and the chamber door secured, the Transmogrifier started to hum and glow, with only a little shaking.  When the door was opened, there was R2D2!  “Beep boop beep,” said R2, before changing back to its original, less functional humanoid configuration.

Assistant #1 briefly became Albert Einstein, but without his genius.  Assistant #1 wasn’t that smart.

After they had each had a turn, the celebration began, complete with boxed wine and a few stale cupcakes from the vending machine.  Steve let his imagination go wild, and wondered what it would be like to go to his high school reunion with a Nobel Prize medal around his neck.

As pleasant as that sounded, he was still dedicated to his ultimate goal, the one he had really pursued all these years, but had kept to himself.  “I’m not going to let them make fun of my dream,” he had thought.  “Besides, no one would ever fund it.”

After the assistants went home, he stayed behind for one last experiment.  This time he programmed the Transmogrifier himself and disengaged the automatic return function.

Steve also created an automatic overload.  There would be no going back, and no one could follow him.  Now that he had proved the success of his invention, he had also realized that a functional transmogrifier was simply too dangerous to exist.  There was nothing to stop someone from changing a pineapple into a nuclear bomb, creating a super army out of ants, or turning straw into gold.  The world was simply not ready (or responsible enough) for that.

Steve secured the chamber door, stretched out on the specimen table, and pushed the “start” button.  He waited expectantly until BAM!  If anyone had looked, the test chamber would have been empty.

Steve had become part of his perfect world.

Two-dimensional existence was a little odd at first, as were the thought bubbles that formed over his head, but he didn’t care.  He just wanted to know where his tiger was.  “Hobbes!  Where are you?” the bubble read.  “Over here!  And I found the buried treasure.”  The words formed over Hobbes, who was in the next panel, wearing a paper pirate hat and brandishing a wooden sword.  Susie Derkins was up in the treehouse, frowning.  Dad was burning a steak and Mom was calling him for dinner.

Becoming Calvin had always been Steve’s real dream.  He had wanted to live in a world where he could become Spaceman Spiff, torment Miss Wormwood, or create armies of cannibal snowmen to take over imaginary towns.  He wanted the weird to be commonplace, and most of all, he wanted a reality where his imagination would rule.

Trading in the real world for this four-panel paradise (with color on Sundays!) had been easy.  He knew he would not be missed and the University Administration would be relieved.  He'd also made sure Assistant #1 would give his cat a good home.

Dreaming a Calvin-life had been simple, as all dreams are, but creating the technology had been hard.  It had taken Steve fifty years and two Ph.D.’s to pull it off, but he had finally done it.

Working and waiting all those years (and earning those degrees) had been tough, but for Steve, it was completely worth it.

He was Calvin now, a little boy with boundless energy and hours of playtime every day. He would have lifetimes to create bizarre ideas and adventures, and share them all with Hobbes.

It would be a wonderful future, made just for the two of them—a fantastically weird kid and the best stuffed tiger a boy ever had.

* * * * * * * * * *

My gratitude again goes to halfshellvenus, for beta-reading this story.

I thought that making a defunct comic strip central to a story might be risky, because if you are not familiar with Calvin and Hobbes this story may not make as much sense.  I hope that it stands on its own.

calvin and hobbes.jpg            
Calvin and Hobbes    Transmogrifier       Transmogrifier            Spaceman Spiff

Calvin transmogrified into a miniature Hobbes

Idol 10, Week 19
calvin writing
Topic: Invitation


Lia was convinced she had magical powers, but the problem was, no one else at the Elsie Smith Community Pool knew it.  Sure, she raised a few water spouts, but everyone said she was just spitting pool water and it was gross.

Lia also knew she was really a selkie; she just had to shed her skin and prove it.  The lifeguard kicked her out of the pool for trying to take off her swimsuit.  “They’re just jealous,” she thought to herself, as she headed home.

The pool administrator had called her mother to complain again.  “You’re not a magical selkie,” sighed her mother, who had been hearing a lot of this lately.  “You’re an ogre, and that’s special enough.  You can’t shed your ogre skin or cast spells.”

When she was four years old, Lia’s parents had volunteered for the Ogre Revival Program.  Due to slow rates of reproduction and “misunderstandings” with humans, the ORP had been established to preserve the ogre species.  Her family had accepted one of the early invitations for admission to the program.

Lia had seen pictures of their old cave, and their house was a definite improvement.  Their new names were certainly shorter than their ogre ones, which were difficult for humans to pronounce.  Her parents had regular jobs and Lia went to the local school.

It had been hard being in the ORP, but Lia had tried to make the best of it.  It hadn’t been too bad at home. School, on the other hand, would always be a problem.  Her classmates were mean and obnoxious, and she wished she could turn them into tasty little frogs and eat them.  She also yearned for the sea, but had to make do with the swimming pool.  She was lonely, and she didn’t know what to do about that.

Lia’s only friend was a human, Rebecca, whose father worked for the ORP as her family’s Adjustment Counsellor.  He knew all about ogres, and his job was to help them adapt to the difficulties of their new lives.

Rebecca’s father had understood Lia’s unhappiness, and had asked his daughter to be Lia’s friend.  “I’m only hanging out with you because my dad asked me,” she had told Lia in the beginning.

But Rebecca had needed a friend as well.  She had never been a popular girl, but now she was being teased by some kids because she had said she wanted to be a witch.

After a few weeks, Rebecca had told Lia she could cast spells.  The only spell she had tried would make small objects disappear from one hand and reappear in the other, but they kept falling to the floor.

Rebecca had never minded that Lia was an ogre and they would eat lunch together, although Lia’s raw meat sandwiches still grossed her out.  Rebecca was small, with delicate features and long blond hair, while Lia was big, with coarse brown fur and a loud voice.

When Lia had first told her she thought she was a selkie with magical powers, Rebecca had said “cool.”

Once Rebecca had asked Lia what it was like to be a selkie. She never asked what it was like to be an ogre.

On her ninth birthday, Rebecca’s father gave her a copy of Beginning Spells: A Witch’s Primer and a wand.  The next day, Lia and Rebecca stayed after school to try an easy spell.  They met at the playground because Rebecca wanted to make a swing move by itself.  She said the magic words and waved her new wand.  The swing moved a little, but it was a windy day so Lia wasn’t sure.

“Let me try,” said Lia.  She chanted the magic words, waved the wand, and the swing spun completely around.   “Cool!” she said.  Rebecca only looked down before announcing, “It’s time for me to go home.”

Lia told her parents about it, who looked at each other, then sighed and grumbled.  “Rebecca’s not a witch,” her mother said.  “I know she wants to be one, but she has no magic.”

A few days later, Rebecca had something for Lia.  “It’s a present from my father,” she said.  Lia unwrapped it.

It was a wand.

Rebecca seemed surprised and not especially happy.  “You can’t have my spell book,” she said, before leaving early for class.

There was a note with the wand.  “You’ll make the right choice,” was all it said.

The next day, Lia couldn’t find Rebecca for lunch, so after school she went by herself to the swing set.  After everyone had gone home, Lia took out the wand, said the magic words, and the swing went around again.  Then she tried to move a small rock, which didn’t budge.  Finally, she tried it on a candy wrapper and it moved a little, but it was another windy day.

Rebecca kept avoiding Lia, even after Lia left a note in her locker.

After a week, Lia waited for Rebecca outside her class.  “I miss you,” said Lia.  “I miss you, too,” said Rebecca, and they started eating lunch together again.

They also started practicing simple spells from the Primer.  Once in a while, one would work for Lia.  Nothing ever happened for Rebecca, who was getting discouraged.

Shortly before her tenth birthday, her parents needed to talk to Lia.  “I promise not to sigh,” said her mother.  When her father promised not to grumble, Lia knew it was serious.

“You really are a magical selkie,” began her mother, waiting for the explosion.

“You lied to me!” yelled Lia, who ran to her bedroom and slammed the door.

“I bet you got mad too, when you went through all this,” said her father.  Her mother only nodded.

Once Lia calmed down and came back, her mother told her everything.  All female ogres were related to selkies, but with a big difference.  They were born as ogres, but on their sixteenth birthdays, they had to make a choice.  They could remain ogres and live on the land, or they could shed their skins, become mermaids, and live in the sea.

As mermaids, they would be so beautiful they would even bewitch sailors who caught merely a glimpse of them.  They could have many friends and live happy, wondrous lives.

Female ogres also possessed magical powers, which increased as they got older.  But if they became mermaids, they had to leave their land lives behind – magic, family, friends – everything.  They could only keep their memories.

“But I don’t want to leave you,” said Lia as tears formed in her eyes.  “And what about Rebecca?”

“Rebecca’s just an ordinary girl,” said her mother.

“But I’ve never seen you use any magic,” said Lia.  "How do I know it's true?"

“My powers are weak, and I have to keep it hidden,” said her mother.  “That’s why we’re talking now.  You can’t practice in public anymore.  Lia’s father said humans are starting to talk.”

It had been clear to Lia’s parents for a long time that their daughter’s abilities were unusually strong, so they had asked Rebecca’s father to give her the wand and the note to prepare her for The Talk that all female ogres customarily had on their tenth birthdays.  The choice to be made was a hard one, and it was best to give ogre girls a long, long time to prepare.

The intervening years passed quickly.  Lia’s desire for the sea grew stronger, especially after her parents started taking trips to the ocean.  Her powers increased under her mother’s guidance, and Rebecca remained her close, and only, friend.

Lia felt torn.  Life as an ogre among humans was lonely and hard, but it was all she knew and she couldn’t leave her parents and Rebecca.  Becoming a mermaid would be perfect, with its promise of love and acceptance.  But then there was her magic.  Could she really give that up?

By her sixteenth birthday, she still hadn’t decided, and time was running out.  Her parents were waiting with her by the ocean, afraid they would soon be losing her.

There was so much about being an ogre that Lia hated.  She was living in a human world in which she would never belong, but she could not go back to the family cave – that was a life she barely remembered.  As a mermaid, she would finally be accepted, but she would no longer be Lia and she would lose her family and Rebecca.  And her magic – who knew where such power would take her?  But so much of her needed the sea.

Midnight was approaching.

Finally, she knew.  The question of which choice would make her the most unhappy had a far clearer answer.

“I can’t give you up,” she announced.  “The price is just too high.”

Her mother understood.  She took Lia aside, and tried to console her.  “I couldn’t do it either.  But I found love and happiness with your father, and then you were born.  I still ache for the ocean, and I always will, but you will be able to do something I never could.”

“But how will that ever help?” asked Lia

“Your power is so strong, that someday you will be able to change your shape,” replied her mother.  “You can never shift into a mermaid, but you can do the next best thing, and become a seal.  You can swim in the ocean and even visit the mermaids, although you will never belong there.”

“But will I ever belong anywhere?” asked Lia.

“No,” replied her mother, “but you’re an ogre, and ogres are strong and they adapt.”

The waves sparkled in the moonlight, and Lia was suddenly very tired.  It was time for her to leave the sea behind, hard as it was.  But she knew she would return.  Even if she could never fully live in the sea, at least she could visit.

And if she did not belong among humans, she knew she belonged with her family.

That, she realized now, was enough.

* * * * * *
My deepest appreciation to halfshellvenus for beta reading this story.

Idol 10, Week 18
calvin writing
Topic: the distance between us
Intersection with halfshellvenus at http://halfshellvenus.livejournal.com/706090.html

Please read my story first.

Pictures of the toys in this story are included below.


“KEEP FOREVER” the boxes read, but nothing lasted forever, especially marriages.  “Here’s to ‘death do us part,’” Jenny said to the empty room as she drained another glass of wine.  The boxes in the attic were the last ones she had to move before turning the house over to the asshole-formerly-known-as-her-husband.  “I’ll keep the house,” Steve had said, “but you’ll get the . . .” blah blah horseshit.  His new “soulmate” just couldn’t wait to move in, and it was killing her.

Her boxes held her past and her hopes.  Those hopes were dead now, but at least Jenny still had the past.  These were her favorite toys, saved for children that would never be.  “Keep or toss out?” thought Jenny, as she sat down with another glass of wine and opened the first box.

“My Barbie!” she thought, remembering all the hours spent making the perfect worlds that waited for her when she grew up.  Barbie had also helped her through her parents’ divorce when she was 7.  “My Barbie never divorced,” thought Jenny.  “She always had true love with Ken.”

She opened the other boxes, and found her brother’s G.I. Joe, Gumby, and all the others.  Jenny had dreamed of playing with these with her kids.  “Why couldn’t I have had a Barbie life?” she thought, as she picked up her favorite doll.  “What would Barbie have done with my life?”

* * * * *

The Troll didn’t care where he was, as long as Ken’s fist was more than an arm’s length from his nose.  “I hate this job,” the Troll thought, examining his nose in a mirror.  “Bent, but not broken,” he concluded, casting an admiring glance at his wild orange hair.  He had become something of an expert on his nose over the years.  Girlfriends had said his nose had “character.”  Ex-wives had been less kind, but they had all loved his innocent smile and twinkly eyes.

It all started when Gumby hired him to help in Barbie’s messy divorce case.  Not many P.I.’s would work for that shyster lawyer, but the Troll had an open mind when his bank account hit empty.  Broken noses, bad marriages, and good scotch were expensive, so what was a troll to do?  Besides, Gumby paid well and the Troll had always admired the way Barbie was molded.

The Troll’s current office was wedged conveniently between a pawn shop and a liquor store in a part of town that combined seediness with despair.  Once he had been famous as the P.I. of the Toys, and his life had been as flashy as his hair, but that had been too many years and too many bottles ago.   Now, he took whatever walked in the door, leaving him plenty of time to read the Racing Form.  Pokey in the 5th race looked pretty good today, with word on the street that the fix was in.

Before he could call his bookie, the Troll looked up and was surprised to see Gumby entering his office, with his stiff walk and slanted head.  The Troll had met him when he was still big time and Gumby was just starting out.  He had done Gumby a favor on a case, and Gumby had said he owed him.  It looked like he was a toy of his word.

“It’s been a long time,” said the Troll.  “Have a chair.”

“No thanks,” Gumby said, “it’s easier to stand.”  Gumby had never been very flexible for a poseable figurine.  “I need your help.”

That meant that no other P.I. would take the case, but the Troll had stopped being particular a long time ago.

“I need someone discreet for a divorce case,” said Gumby.

“Who’s the client?” asked the Troll, knowing it had to be big time for Gumby to take it.

“Barbie,” said Gumby.

The Troll tried to whistle, but his smile just wasn’t made that way.  “That was supposed to be forever,” he said.  He didn’t believe in true love, but he had always thought those two had a chance.  Barbie was such a doll and Ken, well, Ken was Ken.

“What went wrong?” the Troll asked.

“The usual,” said Gumby.  “Ken got bored, quit trying, and started looking for a better model.  Barbie thinks he found a new plaything, so that’s where you come in.”

“How’s that?” said the Troll.  He didn’t like where this was headed, and it was getting to be happy hour.

“I need you to find out who it is and get some pics,” said Gumby.  “Barbie wants to take Ken for everything, especially the Malibu Beach House.  She says Ken never worked a day in his life, just sat around watching football and drinking with his loser buddies.”

The Troll hated domestic cases.  Peering into bedroom windows wasn’t as exciting as it used to be, and with his stiff legs it was hard to run away if he got caught.

“My camera’s in storage,” said the Troll, “so I’m gonna need an advance.”

“You’ll get your advance,” said Gumby, “but you have to stay off the sauce.  You screw this up and you’ll never work in this town again.”

The threat didn’t bother the Troll much, since he was barely getting by anyway.  But a good job here, and maybe he’d make a comeback.  That Prince Charming fiasco had nearly cost him his license, and he had had to agree not to work fairy tales again.  Who knew the Wicked Witch really could turn someone into a toad?  It had all been downhill after that.

Gumby gave the Troll the basics and set up a meeting with Barbie at the beach house in a week, which gave the Troll plenty of time to get his camera back from the pawn shop and follow Ken for a few days.

The day of the meeting, the Troll saw the fabled Beach House for the first time.  It was two stories of glorious pink with a special feature which allowed the front of the house to swing open, so Barbie had beach views from every room.  Ken hadn’t liked all that pink, but what could you expect from a guy who’d only wear swim trunks?

Gumby met Barbie by the swimming pool.  “She still looks fantastic,” thought the Troll, who spread his arms wide in greeting.  Barbie was wearing a two-piece swim suit with high heels.  She still wore her hair in a ponytail, and no, she wasn’t too old to wear her hair that way.  Barbie looked a lot younger than her age.

Barbie couldn’t wait to tell Gumby all about her marriage, how she had wanted children, but Ken never did because they were too “inconvenient,” all their arguments, and how he’d been more interested in going out with his lazy “buds” instead of her.

Gumby also found out the most important piece of information.  Ken had been making a lot of credit card charges for the Ritz Motel, which the idiot hadn’t even tried to hide.  The Ritz was one of those cheesy places where you could pay by the hour and you didn’t need your real name to check in.

The Troll knew all about the Ritz, and Barbie was right, it wasn’t the kind of place you’d expect to find a happily married man.  Barbie was sure that Ken was at the motel that very moment, because the beach buggy was gone and he had left without telling her.

The Troll drove over to the motel, and it was as dubious as ever.  Wonder Woman was behind the desk, since no one else was available.  She always wanted to do the right thing, so it was easy to get Ken’s room number.

Gumby went back to his car for his camera.  He wasn’t going to need his squirt gun – this wasn’t that kind of case.   He just wanted the pictures so he could get his fee.

As cautiously as he could with his big feet, the Troll crept over to Ken’s room.  He put his substantial ear to the door, and heard Ken’s voice.   “I hate these cases,” thought the Troll.

The Troll was in luck, the blinds were open a little and he could see into the room.  There was enough space to get some really good pictures.  Suddenly, the door was opened, and there was Ken, wearing nothing but his underwear with his fist headed right for the Troll’s nose.  That was going to hurt, but his nose was used to it and at least he had the pictures.  Gumby was going to have to pay extra for this!

* * * * * *

I know, you hate cliffhangers as the cheapest form of literary suspense.  You need to read halfshellvenus’s entry for the rest of the story.  [http://halfshellvenus.livejournal.com/706090.html]

The Troll                Gumby                  Barbie                   Ken                   The Beach House
troll.jpg gumby.jpg barbie.jpg ken.jpg beach house.jpg



Season 10, Week 17
calvin writing
Topic: It’s always been enough


When Gene first got the message to contact Zeitgeist, he was energized.  He hadn’t had any work in weeks.   Alice was being difficult, but she was always in demand and didn’t understand why he wasn’t getting more work.  He hadn’t done anything since the part of “Wakeful Child” in a revival of Wee Willie Winkie.

“It’s the whole poem, not just the little nursery rhyme,” he had told Alice, but she hadn’t been happy.  “You’re meant for bigger things!” she had said.  Again.  Nothing was ever going to be good enough for her.

After contacting Zeitgeist, Gene knew that this new assignment wouldn’t help.  He was only going to be “Beaver #10” from Over in The Meadow.  He had never heard of it, and after he read his part he was crestfallen.  He had only one line, shared with nine other little beavers:

"Over in the meadow in a cozy, wee den,
Lived an old mother beaver and her
Little beavers ten.
"Beave," said the mother,
"We beave," said the ten, and they
Beaved all day in their cozy, wee den."

“How do I beave?” thought Gene.  He could fence, ride a horse, cry on cue, even whistle while working, but beaving?  “It’s not in my data – I’ll need additional programming.”

Alice’s reaction to the news was predictable.  “You can’t possibly take this, it’s beneath you!  Once you start working nursery rhymes, you’ll never do better.  What’s next, gifs?”

“Quit interfering,” said Gene.

He hated it when she was right.  He loved the craziness that went with Alice, but what he really needed was stability, which he would never have with her around.

As a generic .lit data file, Gene could easily be programmed to be any literary character, but he wanted a permanent role, like Alice.

But first, the Alice problem needed fixing.

“I am not a problem,” said Alice.  “I’m a Classic!  You have to love me.”

Gene had to assert his own data structure.  “You’re just too volatile,” he said.  “As long as you’re with me, I’ll never get anything big!”

Ever since Alice in Wonderland, when Gene had been the Dormouse, there had been some leftover Alice.lit data in his file, and he couldn’t get rid of it -- she was permanent data, like all Classic characters.  Only Zeitgeist could help him.

There was just something unstable about the Lewis Carroll folder overall.  Jabberwocky definitely looked like data corruption, but no one could be sure.  With Carroll, anything was possible.

This could never have happened in the old days.  Gene knew about books, with their permanent data retention systems.  When someone read a book, all the characters were right there, ready for their parts.  But now, in the digital age, everything was fragmented and scattered.  Without Zeitgeist, when readers called up Hamlet, all they would have seen would have been barren words.  It was the Zeitgeist program that used files like Gene to bring the data to life in the reader’s imagination.

Hamlet,” thought Gene, “now that would be something!”  Hamlet was in the Firmament level of Zeitgeist, and every .lit file’s dream.

The internet had created a fresh demand for even the most obscure writings, not just giants like Shakespeare. So, when someone wanted to read Over in The Meadow, Zeitgeist had to generate a new cast, including ten little beavers, each needing its own .lit file.  The whole process was instantaneous, but it meant a lot of work for generic .lit files like Gene.

“The real issue isn’t working in nursery rhymes, it’s you,” Gene told Alice.

“I’m warning you,” said Alice, “don’t even think about dumping me out of your data!”

But Zeitgeist hated data corruption and even if Gene could ever be Hamlet, he knew that Alice would interfere.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question: why is a raven like a writing desk?”

“No wonder I can’t get serious work,” thought Gene.  “Nonsense in Shakespeare gets me deleted.  Nonsense in a nursery rhyme still puts Baby to sleep.”

“I am not nonsense,” said Alice.  “Just ask the Queen of Hearts.”

“Better flash over to the Programmers for my beavifying,” thought Gene.

Most .lit files could handle stock characters without modification, but occasionally specialized data was needed, such as beaving.  This had its benefits. A quick trip to the Programmers would take care of the emergency beaving backfill – and if he was ready, it would also take care of Alice.

Programming subroutine 427 had modified Gene before, and knew all about Alice.  Zeitgeist wasn’t perfect.  Its filters still let in authors like Bulwer-Lytton, but data corruption between .lit files was rare.  Most of it seemed to be caused by Alice, or those like her.  It was usually fixed by adding new data, when the error could just be overwritten by new information.

“Good to see you again, Gene,” said 427.  “You reported your Alice problem –”

“Still not a problem!” interrupted Alice.

“– so I’m ready to overwrite with the Little Beaver #10 stuff,” continued 427.  “It’ll just take an instant.”

Adding Beaver #10, even with its critical beave data, took less than 12 KB.

“OK, you’re good to go,” said 427  “But the Little Beaver file was too small to replace all the Alice stuff, so I added The Goops.  Zeitgeist just sent out an emergency request, so I gave it to you.  See you next time.”

Gene had no idea what a Goop was, so he accessed the file.

"The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth--
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I
Am not a Goop--are you?"

Alice would have been upset.  “Another nursery rhyme – and it’s about table manners!  I am going to wind up as a gif,” he thought.

Time to sort this data later; first he had to beave.  Gene lined up behind Beavers #1 - #9 and got ready for his line.  “Wait for the cue,” he thought.  “Wait for it . . . think De Niro . . . wait . . . be the beaver . . . and now!”

“’Beave,’ said the mother . . .”

“We beave” said Gene, joining the other nine little beavers.

“Off with their heads!” shrieked Alice, doing her best Queen of Hearts imitation with glee.

A child’s heartbroken cries could be heard, leaking in from Reality.

“I’m still here!” said Alice.

“We’re here, too!” said the Goops, interrupting their elders.

“For the love of Zeitgeist . . . .  No!!!!!!” said Gene.

It was getting very crowded in his file.

A return trip to 427 proved useless.

“You must have a virus,” 427 said.  “We can’t delete any of your old roles.  Right now, it’s just Beaver #10, Alice and the Goops – but who knows what you’ll store next.  I can do a full file reset, but that would return you to original specifications.”

“No!” said Gene and Alice.  “That would be rude,” said the Goops.

Because of his predicament, Gene could no longer be used for any new roles.  Zeitgeist tried him in Alice in Wonderland, but the Goops kept misbehaving during the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  Alice used Goops as croquet mallets in The Goops, which they enjoyed.  Beaver #10 spent its time beaving whenever it could, although it missed its cozy, wee den.

After a few attempts in each of Gene's previous roles, it became clear that Zeitgeist's fallback plan was not working.  Readers were complaining and children were crying.  Zeitgeist's reputation was suffering.

Finally, Zeitgeist had had enough.  It converted Gene from a .lit file to a .improv file, where all of his character roles could work at once whenever the files of Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters were accessed.

Now Gene was constantly at work and everyone was happy, even Alice.  This would never lead to a permanent role, but it was fun and Gene enjoyed the company — even Alice, now that she was happy.

He'd been lucky, in the end.  Having all this mixed data should have made him completely dysfunctional, but Zeitgeist had made it work, at least for now.   Children were no longer crying, and Gene knew he was making the world a happier place.

If 427 ever found a fix, Gene wasn’t sure he’d even take it.

*          *          *         *          *

A big thank you to halfshellvenus for beta reading this.

The Goops (1900) is by Gelett Burgess

Over in The Meadow is a traditional counting song from approx. 1880, and begins:

"Over in the meadow
In the sand in the sun, lived an
Old mother turtle and her
Little turtle one.
"Dig," said the mother,
"I dig," said the one, and they
Dug all day in the sand in the sun."

Complete song:  http://lyricsplayground.com/alpha/songs/o/overinthemeadow.shtml