Your Vote Required!! in the April 2011 SDMB Short Fiction Contest - Anthology Thread!!

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Anthology Thread of the SDMB Short Fiction Contest - April 2011 Springtime Theme edition. A quick recap of the rules -

At 9 AM EDT, Wednesday, April 27th, 2011, I posted a link to a photo (found by random means) and also three words, again obtained by random means, in an auto-reply message at sdmbpoetrysweatshop at gmail dot com. Writers still have until 10 PM EDT, Sunday, May 8th, 2011 to write an original piece of short fiction on a Springtime theme, no more than 2,000 words in length, based in some way on that photo and those three words. All interested participants will be working from the same compulsory material.

As of the posting of this thread, there will still be ~56 hours left to any interested participants.

Writers - send your completed work to me, preferably in a .doc format, at sdmbpoetrysweatshop at gmail dot com before 10 PM EDT on Sunday, May 8th, 2011. I will verify that it is 2,000 words or less, and I will post it in this Anthology Thread. Please include your SDMB username. I will post the stories as a ~100 word teaser, followed by the rest of the story in a spoiler box, (Click the button labeled ‘spoiler’ to reveal the text, for those not familiar with the SDMB.) with the authors’ names in separate spoiler boxes.

At 10 PM EDT, Sunday, May 8th, 2011, a multiple choice poll will be established to determine the readers favourite story. I would also ask voters to choose those stories that have incorporated the compulsory material in the most interesting manner. At the end of a week, the poll will close and we will declare a winner of the PoeHenryParkerSaki award.

The poll, once established, will be a secret ballot type poll. No one need ever know how you voted. I would, however, encourage everyone to please vote. You are providing an important source of feedback to the writers.

While we welcome readers’ comments, may I please request that readers hold off until after the poll is established. That way, the first posts in the thread will all be the various stories. After the poll is established, your comments are enthusiastically encouraged.

To recap the compulsory material -

A Springtime Theme
The Photo

and the three words -


And now, here are the stories that this contest has produced. I want to point out - the authors’ user names are in spoiler boxes at the end of the stories. Please do not be fooled by the fact that they appear in ‘replies’ sent by me - only one of these stories is mine.


Le Ministre de l’au-delà

Somewhere in a middle eastern town the “dog” was looking at the object besides the road, it looked at the bag with suspicion and attempted to find a good place to stick the prove to sniff at the bag and rip it open, the soldier operating the robot with small “tank tracks” moved it closer to the bag.

From a safe distance the soldier’s lieutenant in a low voice commented, “Are you sure that thing can detect if it is a bomb without…”

[spoiler]The tremendous explosion prevented the lieutenant from continuing, the other soldiers, safe in the tank and Humvee replied to the sight, “Whooo hooo!!” “Look at that!!” “What? I cant see a thing!

It is usual to see many things flying around after a typical roadside bomb, but it is not usual to see what tumbled close to the squad.

The FIDO remote controlled robot did its job of protecting the life of the soldiers, but it came at a price,

“Well,” a soldier said, “there goes a million dollars up in smoke.” It is more likely that it was just 200 grands, but still… it would be weeks to get a replacement and the insurgents were getting more clever on finding materials to make more of those cursed roadside menaces. standing next to the remains of the robot the operator examined the remains of the Fido. The 2 metal tracks were gone and the front smashed,

The lieutenant approached the operator after the others had secured the area, “Well, Mr Salvat? Do we have any replacement coming soon?

“Sir, the latest report told me that we will not get any until next month, unfortunately the Fido unit is beyond repair, so we will use some other remote devices that we have.”

“That will have to do.”

Fortunately, the families of the soldiers had taken initiatives of their own to send soldiers items like remote controlled truck toys, a very rough solution but already they has shown to be effective in routing out the intentions of other suspicious packages or structures in the roads of the cities the platoon had to pass.

April was the gifted 11 year old daughter of Mr Salvat, after the first tour of duty Mr Salvat had gone for a few months back to home, it was mostly to his wife that he had reported about the problems they were having in the filed and she and his daughter got together to prepare a special package.

April’s gift was to hack and program an unlocked Global System for Mobile Communications cell phone, in Europe and the middle east they use a different frequency so one just can not use any standard phone from the store, with another group of gifted students, a remote control program was installed in the phone to control the RC truck and something else…

The package that arrived was not what Mr Salvat expected, it had the RC truck modified to be more rugged in desert conditions, but it also included a little toy dog, “from April, get home soon and well dad, remember that you promised to take me to the zoo to feed the giraffes!.

At the beginning, it looked like just a simple device that reacted when people enters a room, useful to get some reactions if one is sleeping in enemy territory as one can set it just to vibrate too. Later it showed that there was something else added to the “toy”.

A few weeks later, it was a sunny spring day and the platoon had orders to relieve the squads in one of the most dangerous parts of the town, fortunately the packages observed turned to be false alarms or innocent. On the helmet of Mr Salvat, he had the little toy dog strapped, with the face of the dog looking back.

The group settled down on the improvised head quarters in an abandoned house and began to prepare the patrols, other soldiers and snipers had taken positions over and around the small building and began to relax a little as there was no recent incidents reported and vary little activity on the roads.

Mr Salvat looked at the cell phone and tested the remote toy truck on a small yard surrounded by a wall, a safe place from enemy snipers he thought, but there were some breaks on the wall that allowed for a well placed sniper to take a shot.

It came after just a few minutes of testing the RC, it would had been a direct hit, but it wasn’t because the small dog toy on his helmet dropped from it and instinctively Mr Salvat reached for it.

The sound of the bullet hitting the wall and the shot heard later alerted other soldiers and replied in kind to the sniper. Thankfully no one else was targeted that day, suddenly a text message phrase appeared in the cell.

“Are you ok dad? I could not ell you to duck, so I had to make the dog to wiggle to get loose”


He could not reply as other soldiers came to his position, “Hey Gary! You lucky bastard! That was a round that not even a helmet would had protected you, what do you got there?”

“Oh just a gift my daughter gave me.”

Later in the evening Mr Salvat looked at the dog toy and noticed that the eyes of the dog were not standard issue. With the cell phone he was making a short call home, “April, did you hacked the toy to also see at a distance?”

“Yes, 45X optical.”

“Not sure what that is, but did you had a connection to a camera at home to see that I was in danger?


“I have to tell you that that was a foolish thing to do April, such connections are not allowed by the rules and regulations, you are risking my position and I could be dismissed as I’m responsible for what you are doing, do you understand?

Sobbingly at the other end April replied, “Yes daddy, I’m sorry.”

“Now listen pumpkin, I need to remove the power of the dog toy, but after I had to lay down the law I have to say, Thank you… so don’t cry.

It may be possible that if I introduce this solution to my commanders before the next missions that I could continue using it, but it can not be you at the controls anymore.

I will see you in a few weeks.”

It was a joyful occasion when the family got together to celebrate the end of the mission and the homecoming of Mr. Salvat.

While April was feeding the giraffes Mr Salvat talked to his wife,

“Do you know what was inside that toy dog?”

“I only knew about the software hack, but not about the optics she had added, did you got in trouble with your commanders?”

“A little, I had the trust of my lead technical officer and did tell him about the device and the amazing hacks applied to it, I got points detracted because the problem was that he demanded the complete plans and source code used. Giving April plenty of time and food for the giraffes is part of the negotiations to get them”[/spoiler]


“What if we don’t catch anything?” Ned asked as his heel bounced up and down beneath his chair.

Ben turned away from his strategic pose hovered over a dart rifle and glared at Ned. “There’s other, easier game, and bigger guns,” motioning towards the collection of rifles sharing the blind with them. “But if you don’t stop fidgeting, nothing’s going to even get near us.”

“Sorry man, I’ve got things on my mind. Election coming up, and all that. I’m a bit wired. Probably should have done some jumping jacks, and skipped the double latté.”

[spoiler]Ben smirked. “Speaking of which, not to detract from your reputation as local hotshot, but are you sure about this permit? Make no mistake, I’m super-grateful to have gotten access to this land. As you know, it’s a hot spot for sightings. But this area isn’t usually accessible to hunters, especially this time of year.”

“It’s all good, my friend.” Ned had a gleam in his eye. “Trust me, I know which strings to pull. And it’s well worth the reward of tagging along. I’ll try a little harder to… blend.”

Ben surveyed the forest. Normally the blind would be overlooking the large pond, but they had arranged to face it towards the woods, where they were more likely to catch sight of their quarry. And though unaccustomed to hunting during spring, he knew what adjustments to make.

Ned interrupted his concentration again. “Anyway, you lucked out. Besides my great and powerful machinations, thankfully, you have a nebulous property title in play. This particular section of real estate is in a sort of legal limbo. It might be owned by the state. Or it might be private. Or some other mumbo jumbo legalese I haven’t quite figured out how to Google-translate yet. In any case, no one’s going to notice or care that we’re here.”

“I feel a large wave of secure feelings swathing throughout my entire being,” responded Ben sarcastically.

Ned considered, and then decided against pretending offense. “Anyway, you ever catch any of these whatchamacallits?”

“Cryptids,” corrected Ben. “Just some fish, at least in terms of everything being on the up and up with regards to documentation and verification. But they’re easy. The freshwater ones, anyway– ocean ones are obviously more difficult. Also stranger.”

“There’s a sort of a spectrum, though. At one end, you have the true cryptids – nebulous entities borne of myth, with scant evidence of their existence. But at the other end, you have rare and merely thought to be extinct species. Have you read ‘Last Chance to See’?”

“Nope,” answered Ned.

“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?”

“I saw the movie.”

Ben rolled his eyes, but explained, “well, the author of the original book also wrote a non fiction book detailing some globe trotting he did with a photographer, to try and get some snapshots of extremely endangered species before they disappeared.”

Ned raised an eyebrow.

Ben considered his audience and summed it up, “my point being, there’s a spectrum. It’s not black and white; either/or.”

“What isn’t?” asked Ned.

“Cryptozoology as a field. Or what I do in general.”

“So what have you done,” asked Ned, “lately? Besides… the fish?” Hestifled a giggle.

“Well,” Ben considered the question, “I recently came back from Iraq. And compared to whatever shenanigans it took for you to get us this spot, believe me, that took a lot more.”

“So, Iraq is where ancient Sumeria used to be. Which is also where an ancient Sumerian figurine was found, that you would probably peg as an elk, but which some historians think might be the ancient giraffe precursor, Sivatherium.”

“The admittedly weak logic goes something like this – written history has a (potential) record, so to speak, of this evolutionary ancestor, therefore it’s within the realm of possibility that it’s still out there, in living color, if quite rare.”

“My research indicated some potential spottings. And giraffe precursors are not high up on the list of Cryptid hunts, so I thought hey, what I lack in popular appeal, I make up for in being maybe the only one to actually investigate, and potentially, make a discovery. Not that I have a hard on for bragging rights.”

“Of course not.” Ned decided to cut to the chase. “Long story short?”

Ben actually chuckled at that.

“Long story short. Keep in mind, the actual Sivatherium looks more like a short (regular sized neck and legs) giraffe, with deer-like antlers instead of knobby things. Before I even got what I thought would be truly immersed ‘in the field’, I’m in a remote village, and from behind a brick wall comes an ominous shadow. Vaguely, the right shape. It comes around the corner and….”

Ned leaned forward.

“It’s a fucking giraffe, with antlers strapped to it’s head.”

Ned widened his eyes.

“I mean, really,” said Ben. “A fucking Giraffe-alope. I travelled 7000 miles and all I got was this lousy t-shirt. Might as well be one of those novelty rabbit heads with antlers glued on. Fucking waste. Good thing I’m more or less what they call ‘independently wealthy. God forbid, I had to try and make my hobby into some kind of paying career.’”

Ned smiled. “Still better than fish.”

Ben almost busted up. “Mmmm… true.”

Ned continued, “but not quite as interesting as turtles.”

“True,” admitted Ben.

There was a pause in their banter, not quite awkward, but more digestive and contemplative, eventually interrupted by the faint, far off sound of twigs breaking.

Ben quickly offered up a hand signal to Ned. Ned had no clue when it came to hand signals, but given the context, he imagined it meant something along the lines of “shut the fuck up and get serious now.”

And he was right.

Ben was hunched over his dart gun again, and peering through his scope.

A short time, that seemed interminably longer, passed by.

Slowly and silently, the words formed on Ben’s lips, but made no sound.

“No… fucking… way…”

Ned sensed the gist of things and hesitantly donned some binoculars. What was that? Still far off. But unmistakable. A hairy, hominid, behemoth. But no other details were available at this distance.

“This is it,” said Ben, as he readied his dart gun.

As sure, and steady, and prepared, as Ben was, Ned wasn’t. There’s simply no other way to say it. Ned fucking lost his shit.

Instead of following Ben’s lead with a dart gun, or just stepping off the plate altogether, Ned grabbed a fully loaded shotgun and fired away.

There’s a saying about fools. And guns. And Cheney. But that’s for another time.

Needless to say, Ned, against all odds, armed with live ammunition, bravado, blind luck, and sheer adrenaline, found his mark.

The vague, distant, hairy, blur fell to the ground.

“What the fuck!?” exclaimed Ben.

Realization quickly dawned on Ned. “I… panicked?” He tried to justify his trigger finger. He eventually gave up, and continued to shrink.

“Shit! Even assuming, and I can’t even bring myself to imagine any other scenario without sharting my boxer briefs, we hit the proper thing… It’s much more valuable alive than dead. Fucking amateur!”

Ned actually crossed his fingers whilst calculating wheels upon wheels of political spins within wheels of political spins, and calculating a response with the appropriate amount of bravado, “let’s… check it out?”

They made a play… for probably a nano-second, at nonchalance, but quickly and inevitably succumbed to panic. Slow bravado evolved rapidly into frantic jogging towards the source of their dilemma.

They approached. Vaguely man-shaped. But quite hairy. Not quite as hairy as Chewbacca, though, and also much broader.

Ned decided, finally, to just shrink into the background and let Ben take point.

Ben tried to narrate an ad hoc post mortem.

“Umm…. vaguely hominid. Hairy. Naked. At least, no discernible clothing.”

Ned interrupted “is it really a Yeti?”

Ben corrected him again. “Not to nitpick your phrase. But, Yeti and abominable snowmen are from Tibet. It’s only Bigfoot and Sasquatch that come from the Pacific Northwest.”

Ned rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Is it really an ape man?”

Ben considered this. “Well… fuck.” He bent down. “Yeah… honestly. I didn’t expect his. But, yeah. It seems like a rather large ape-man.”

Ned smiled. He wavered back and forth and then went for it. He raised his arms, jumped up, and uttered a “woot!”

Ben darkened. “Umm… first of all, I wasn’t expecting an actual… capture.”

Ned said, “so?”

Ben continued, “well, there are several factors:”

Ben gave it some thought and then made a verbal list…

“Let’s just skip over the various obvious things.”

Ned asked, “such as?” with increasing dread.

Ben replied, “the aforementioned quasi-legality of hunting at this place and this time, based only on your ability to pull strings. For one.”

“For two, this was a long distance shot. Not exactly picture perfect visibility. For all we knew, this could be a hairy, flower loving, nudist. Come to think of it, as we get closer, this thing seems not quite as hairy, beastly, tall, and monstrous as it did when we first spotted it.”

“For three, even assuming every other possible life line and security measure…”

“Primates generally aren’t considered native to North America. All other factors aside, there’s not a lot of precedence with regards to whether or not non-human primates are viable slash legal subjects during hunting sessions.”

“Fourthly, for all we know, this could be a hairy nudist, frolicking about collecting buttercups. Err… I think I mentioned that already. But… blah blah DNA tests et cetera.”

It finally dawned on Ned that he should be worried about the potential ramifications, but he was pragmatic. “Well… only one way to tell.”

They approached the body.

Simultaneously, while in the back of their minds they succumbed to the inevitable intervention of the police or other judicial intimacy, and in fact, eventual potential trial, they said:

“So long, and thanks for all the fish.”[/spoiler]


“Daddy, why do elephants have trunks?”

“Um … because they need someplace to put their luggage?”

“Daddy! I’m serious!”

Bob looked down. His six-year-old daughter, Allie, looked to be more than a little perturbed that her father would take such a serious question so lightly.

“Well, it’s to help them eat, and to help them take a shower.”

“But why don’t other animals have trunks then?”

[spoiler]“I don’t know.” Thankfully, at that point, Allie was distracted by the giraffes being led out of their house, and tugged at Bob’s hand to go and watch. They arrived at the fence in front of the giraffe enclosure, where the spotted coats of the walking giraffes in the spring sunshine provided an interesting effect against the regular pattern and stable brickwork of their house.

“I know why giraffes have long necks, Daddy,” Allie said brightly.

“Why is that?” Bob asked, curious as to what she might say.

“Because they eat leaves in trees!”

Bob laughed. “I guess you’re right about that.”

“Did they grow long necks to reach the trees, or were trees shorter in the olden days?”

Bob tried to distract her. “You’re full of questions today, my little Allie-Cat.”

“How was the zoo?” Sue asked when Bob and Allie returned.

“Fun,” Bob answered, as Allie ran off to tell Paul all about their day and the animals they had seen. “Nice to see all the animals again.”

“I wish we could have gone too,” Sue said. “Poor Paul.”

“It happens,” Bob replied. “Better to have that happen here, instead of when we’re out.”

It was supposed to be a family Sunday. Allie had awoken early, as she often did on Sundays, and headed for the TV and a bowl of cereal; and at some point, had decided that the family should spend the day at the zoo. She had excitedly bounded into her parents’ bedroom to tell them that was the plan; and Bob and Sue, seeing nothing wrong with it, agreed. But as Sue was getting baby Paul dressed and ready for his stroller, he had an attack of the runs. Since Allie was bouncing around excitedly, saying “Let’s go-o-o-oh” as only a six-year-old can, it was decided that Sue would stay with Paul, and that Bob would take Allie to the zoo.

“I wish you had been there, though,” Bob remarked. You might have done better with Allie’s questions than me. Why does the camel have a hump, why do tigers have stripes, those sorts of things.”

“Well, you know the answers to those.”

“Sure, but with Allie it goes deeper. She was asking whether giraffes grew long necks to reach the tree leaves, or whether trees were shorter once.”

“I couldn’t have helped a lot with that,” Sue mused. “Evolution?”

“Guess so. But how do you explain that? Sometimes, I worry that she’s going to think I’m dumb or something.”

“Oh, don’t,” Sue consoled him, giving him a hug. “You’re her Daddy—the smartest, strongest, bestest man in the world.” Sue hugged tighter. “And in mine.”

“Aw, mush,” Bob chuckled, as he returned the embrace.

But later that night, after Allie had gone to bed, and Paul’s night had been seen to, Bob was sitting in front of the TV thinking. Sue had gone to bed, but Bob had begged off heading that way immediately, saying that he wanted to see the nightly sports wrap-up. And so, the TV quietly burbled away, talking of hockey playoffs and home runs, but Bob wasn’t interested.

He was looking at his hands—good hands, they were; working hands. Gentle enough to brush Allie’s tears away when she was hurt, and big enough to cradle Paul through many sleepless nights, but strong enough to handle a ratchet wrench on a stuck bolt. And Lord knew, he had done that many times. From his childhood, helping his father fix cars in the driveway, through trade school and his apprenticeship, then to the little garage across town, and finally to the shop in the big dealership, Bob Morton’s hands had been his living.

Oh, he used his head too, Bob reflected. The number of manuals he had studied, and questions he had asked—he had an uncanny knack for learning and retaining information. Foot-pounds of torque, engine timings, pressures, and other figures—he usually knew them immediately. But then, he directed his hands to do the work.

Is this all there is, Bob wondered. Thirty-four years old now, and maybe thirty more years of a mechanic’s job to look forward to. Oh sure, he could probably be a service advisor, working with customers; but that would be about it. Sales weren’t his thing, and the parts department wasn’t where he wanted to be. He liked his job; but really, there had to be more.

And truthfully, Allie’s curiosity scared him a little. Her questions at the zoo were just a sampling of what Allie wanted to know; she asked about many things. But outside of a person’s common knowledge, all Bob knew were engines; and when Allie went beyond typical kid questions, as she had today, Bob was stumped. He wished he could answer his questions with something other than “I don’t know.”

He had been kicking around an idea for a while, one that he hadn’t even mentioned to Sue yet. He remembered how excited he had been when he had got his mechanic’s ticket, and thought about how uninspired he felt now. But some of that excitement had returned when he spotted an advertisement in the paper recently. It said that the local university was offering night courses that could lead to a degree. Bob had never seriously thought about a degree, but the ad made it look easy, and maybe it was time to think about something new. Heck, he thought, as he watched the new baseball season’s highlights on the TV, it is springtime, after all. Maybe it was time to emerge from the winter of his discontent (and Bob smiled at the fact that he could still remember a phrase from high-school English), and to awaken into a new spring (and he smiled again—did he just create a metaphor?).

All it took to get further information was a phone call, the ad promised. Resolving to make that call the next day, Bob shut off the TV and went to bed.

“This came for you today,” Sue said, handing a big envelope to Bob when he arrived home from work. She pointed to the return address. “From the university?”

“Yeah—I was thinking of taking some courses.”

“University courses?”

“Well, science and stuff. Interest only, I guess; just curious about things.”

“Allie’s questions?”

Bob smiled. “You got me. Yes, I’m probably as curious as she is about a lot of things. An ad said I could take night courses. Maybe even get a degree. So I called and they said they’d send me some info. I guess this is it.”

“My husband, a university graduate,” Sue said, putting her hands around his waist. “You really are going to be the smartest man in my world.”

“Well, let’s not get carried away,” Bob replied. “For now, just a course or two, see how I do. Later—we’ll see.”

“Never mind,” Sue reassured him. “I’ll be proud of you for even trying.”

It had been difficult at first, Bob found. One night a week of class wasn’t all there was to it; there had been homework as well. Lots of reading and answering questions from the textbook, which he did at the kitchen table after dinner. Sometimes, Allie wanted to “help” her father with his homework, and Sue tried to distract her but wasn’t always successful; and Bob occasionally had to leave his studies at the kitchen table in order to play with Allie or to put Paul to bed or to do some other domestic chore that Sue couldn’t because she was attending to the children.

But for all the difficulties, Bob was liking his studies. His knack for retaining and understanding information was serving him well; and he found that he genuinely enjoyed being prepared for class and participating in the discussion. The course tests and exams worried him a little, but he studied as best he could, and was pleasantly surprised when another envelope arrived from the university one day.

“Sue!” I think this is my grade.” Sue came in while Bob opened the envelope and read the contents. “Wow! I got a B-plus on my course!”

“I knew you’d do well,” Sue smiled.

“And look—this course counts for credits towards a degree!”

“Well, you knew that.”

“Yes, but now I have those credits. I’m part-way there!”

“Don’t you still have a long way to go, though?” Sue asked.

“Yes—but not as far as I did a few months ago. What should I take next?”

The years went by. Bob took one course a semester, usually; but sometimes skipped a semester, when he found that the demands of family life would detract from his studies—such as getting Allie to music lessons, or Paul to soccer games. But sometimes, he took two courses a semester, and did summer studies some years. He did his best to remain the dealership’s top mechanic, and Sue’s husband, and Allie’s and Paul’s father; and while it was exhausting at times, Bob was happy.

For her part, Allie was growing into a smart young lady. Excellent grades at school, popular with her friends, and an accomplished pianist; she had happily discovered that the arts were where her future lay.

And Paul was turning out well too. Schoolwork was a struggle, but Paul was a natural athlete, participating in all the sports that school offered. And while schoolwork wasn’t his strong suit, Paul had inherited his father’s mechanical interests, and father and son spent many happy Saturday mornings in the driveway, fixing up an old beater.

Sue supported Bob every step of the way, sharing his joys at good grades, and commiserating with his when they weren’t so good. She shouldered a heavy burden with him studying, Bob knew, and he wanted to make her proud. So he persevered, and persevered, and persevered…

“John Allan Curtis.”

Sue applauded distractedly, as John Allan Curtis mounted the stage and walked towards the Chancellor. She was making sure the camera was ready.

“Mom, it’s okay, I told you I can take the photos,” Paul reassured her.

“Well, I know, but … you know.” Sue smiled weakly.

“Yes, I know, but relax,” Paul said. “They’re going alphabetically.”

“Of course,” Sue replied. “Just have to wait a bit, then.”

The announcer read off names, one by one; and one by one, the owners of those names mounted the stage. Elizabeth Patricia Franklin, Steven Bertram Howell, Heather Adrienne Jenkins, and a number of others, went forward to meet the Chancellor. Finally, the announcer intoned, “Jeremy Charles Macdonald.”

“Mom, get ready. Anytime now.” Paul held the camera.

Sue, on the edge of her seat, looked down at the stage.

“Allison Catherine Morton.”

Sue, smiling, applauded loudly as Allie marched across the stage and was awarded her degree by the Chancellor. Paul snapped photos and tried to applaud his sister. When the applause died down, Sue was back on the edge of her seat.

“Robert William Morton.”

The figure that made its way to the stage was obviously older than his graduating classmates. But there was no doubt that it was Bob Morton, and just so everybody knew, Bob turned to the audience during his walk and gave it a big smile. Sue applauded wildly, and Paul snapped photos; and Allie, who had never left the stage, waited to be the first to congratulate her father after the Chancellor awarded his degree. As she embraced him, Bob asked her what he had waited years to ask confidently.

“Hey, Allie-Cat—got any questions?”



I was the one who first noticed something was off. But that was back in December. When the Earth would be curling into her orbit’s wintry grasp. It was Christmas Eve, by myself, looking over NEO data – Near Earth Objects. I found one that night. You might even say, I found ‘The One’. The one that made this particularly mild winter one of the coldest, hardest winters of my adult life. What the data foretold, was something impossible. Something troublesome. Something no one wanted to admit was there. Yet, the data was corroborated a thousand times over across the globe. Our fears didn’t detract from the fact that this was to be our fate.

[spoiler]Over time, the astrometrical data suggested something troubling. Not only was it crossing Earth’s orbit, but hour after hour, day after day, the projections made it ever more clear: The NEO wasn’t moving. It had no orbit.

Less than a week in, as a million anxious eyes ceaselessly observed it, piling up mountains and mountains of superficial information, although, none more telling than this tiny, simple fact: She was parked directly on the Vernal Equinox of our orbit. And Earth, like a steam train with no brakes, carrying her precious cargo, is on a runaway collision course with oblivion. This could not be a coincidence. There seemed nothing we could do. There was nothing to do.

The Object: It was spherical, a perfect blackbody, which always radiated beyond the invisible infrared, but for a few minutes each day a wheeling rainbow of all the visible colors would slither over its pitch black surface. The patterns seemed random and fluid, but a pattern it certainly was. Contrived. Anyone who laid eyes upon it, would agree that, yes, my God, there was a dark intelligence that lay beneath.

No one could tell if this was perhaps some form of communication. Plenty had tried to crack the “color-code”. Plenty had failed – including myself. Thankfully, at the time, I was glad to have the distraction. It kept my mind off the imminent. Sure, people of all flavors had their pet theories on what it could be, and where it came from. My own colleagues pouring over data that reached back decades in hopes of finding a clue. But, nothing was found. Especially not when you have so little time; a few paltry months. Most saw it as an alien harbinger, some weapon, bringing forth abject destruction. Others saw it as a divine sign, the end of times. Still others, who saw it as a benevolent host, come to meet with us, and share its bounty of gifts. I had my doubts to all of these. And more agonizingly, no hunches of my own.

By late February, it was clear enough for most that this untold thing had no intention on moving. And if there was one phrase Humanity would want to impart – to scream at the top of its lungs, it was to move! Get out of our way! This is our path, you’re not welcome here! Yes, because if it didn’t – if it stayed where it was, then come March 20th, 12:24 Pacific Time, the Earth, and all her immeasurable treasures would collide into something roughly half the size, and a third the mass of the planet Mercury.

Of course, time did what it has always done best, marched unflinchingly onward, like Earth in her ancient orbit, until March 1st rolled the calendar over one last time. After all these eons, billions of years of evolution and pain, beauty and suffering, countless zillions of births and deaths as life itself adapted, again and again, to this bright, rocky dot who clung to its star for warmth. Was this it? After all this, could this really be it? This notion alone was more agony than I could bare.

At first, we sent the “dove”: A package containing all sorts of objects from different cultures and walks-of-life. Also media broadcasting video and pictures showing our greatest achievements in architecture, engineering, medicine, art, music, language and sculpture dating back for millennia. It was quite an achievement in itself in organization, logistics and presentation.

Yet, nothing. Our new dark master must not have been impressed. I can’t say I was surprised.

Days later, they tried sending an “army”: Half the world’s arsenal of nukes.

It was a pretty show, but still, no result, and more depressingly, no response. This time, I don’t think anyone was surprised. So, there it stood, an obsidian fist, a cosmic judge of sorts, seeing if we’re worthy (of whom; of what?!). Sneering at our attempts. Many argued we had just sealed our fate. I didn’t see how it mattered. This thing – whatever it is – it thinks it already has us figured out anyway. Our fate has already been determined.
Finally, on March 15th, we went for the hail-mary “olive branch”. I saw it as a weak apology. A grovel, even? The Earth, begging for its life, laying prone as it throws out its meaningless trinkets to an uncaring executioner. Pathetic. So, this time, I made a suggestion of my own about the contents. The committee heard me out, indulged me, probably most likely patronizing the discoverer of Earth’s immediate doom. Hell, I should be lauded. Nevertheless, I wanted this for me, not them, and certainly not it. I took a soggy walk that morning down to the creek that ran behind my mother’s house – where I grew up. A creek I had spent countless hours playing in and around with my sister and our friends, as our mothers realized we had discovered the joys of mud and brackish water. We built forts out of sticks and leaves and played capture the flag. It was the creek where I first spotted tadpoles, I was in awe of them. One summer, for my eleventh birthday my mom got me a small toy microscope. The creek was the first place I went to collect samples for the glass slides. And oh, the life I had found in there, in these teeny, tiny specks of water! That must’ve been the moment life blossomed in me. My very own proverbial spring. Deeply carving in me the idea that all of this is special, so vulnerable, so important. Our home and all of its inhabitants is a delicate speck chocked full of life, moving through a vast sea of cold indifference. I savor that thought, never taking it for granted, because it would be all too easy to lose. It dawned on me: We have to be the sentinels for this place, humankind, for who else would there be to take up the call? It took root in me, inspired by something that would probably give me dysentery, all the while shaping my walk in this life which eventually brought me here. An idea brought me here. And now, here I was, holding out a used 12-ounce bottle full of murky river water, teeming with life, yet still cool as the spring’s thaw only just days ago pried winter’s icy grip away. In the capsule the bottle went, in with all the other lost metaphors.

After this final attempt, The Object went dark. Completely dark. No radiation at all. And with that, hope was snuffed as well. For most.

Certainly this could be no sentinel?

It’s almost 9:00 am on March 20th. The snow’s absence reveals everything it had swallowed last December. Matted, wet trash; a lost, dirty glove; dead, brown leaves pressed against the earth like a forgotten flower pressed between a yellowed book’s pages. It’s almost time to pick up my sister and my four-year-old niece to go to the zoo. We decided it was the best place. It wasn’t going to be open, but I know a guy there who said he’d leave the back gate unlocked. No one cares when it’s the end of the world. Besides, she’ll get to see some giraffes. She’s a sucker for them. Me? I’ll be spending some time with the tadpoles. My niece likes squiggly things too.

I expected the East to be looming with darkness by now, but I see nothing except the sun, smack dab in the middle of a blazing blue backdrop as if it were just any other day. Its light feels so good. My niece says she thought she saw a rainbow flutter in the sky; she’s excited by that stuff. So was I at her age. I still am. I didn’t see anything, but being at the zoo, I couldn’t help but think of Noah’s Ark, and in my head I thought, “Only if!” which made me laugh out loud. My sister smiled back in curiosity, there were tears in her eyes.

“There’s no need to cry anymore.” I said.
The tears just kept coming, until we were both crying and embracing each other. I felt my niece grasp my hand. It’s so tiny and warm.

It’s 12:22 now, and despite the faint smell of the animals, there’s just something fantastic in the wind – lavender, perhaps? Or maybe a million different things? All of them, waking up after a long sleep, only to perfume the warm air with their tiny imperceptible yawns, as they’ve done for ages and ages this time of year, long before we were ever here. Whatever it is, it smells like spring, and feels like new breath.

I give my niece’s hand another squeeze. She squeezes back. We all giggle.

I’m savoring this.


“I don’t understand why you hated that painting so much.” she said as she crossed her legs. “It must have made you a fortune over the years.”

“Surely you know better than that - once it was first sold, that was it. $500.00 Canadian was all I ever saw of it.”

“What about the rights, the royalties? Even though the artist doesn’t see anything from the current auction price of the piece, you must have made plenty off the reproductions.”

“No, it was while it was in the apartment of the first buyer that someone from the World Wildlife Fund saw it. They wanted to use the image, and at the time, I signed away the rights to them in perpetuity. They’ve made a fortune off it, not me.”

[spoiler]“Couldn’t you have capitalized on its fame in some way?”

“Yes, and in a sense, I did, for a time. I made knock-offs, I tried to use it as the basis for my ‘style’. The thing is, it was just a one-off, a cool image that I saw while I was still working at the zoo. I went home and painted the fun contrast of incomplete patterns that I saw through the window on my lunch break. Right after that, I went back to what I’ve always wanted to do - photo-realist portraits of homeless people.”

“Which never sold…”


“Even with the fame from that one image?”

“Even with that. The art world is baffling, isn’t it? My attempts to reproduce that one success were criticized by my detractors for being derivative, even while other artists started cranking out neo-patternist tesselations - isn’t that the phrase, what Dubivko calls his stuff?”

“Yes, and he always cites you first as being a primary inspiration to him. It was seeing ‘Unsuccessful Camouflage and Loss of Habitat’ in the MOMA that got him out of his rut and made him his fame.”

“I know - I’ve met him. He saw ‘Fourteenth Street Disappears’ in my studio. Later, he painted ‘Varicose Veins and Whiskers’, based on a detail from that guy’s cheek.”

“He acknowledged the source, didn’t he?”

“Yes, and some gallery bought that one so they could show the two of them side by side as part of a retrospective of his work. I don’t remember what they paid, but it wasn’t much more that a couple of thousand bucks.”

“That was right around when you -”

“Yes. I thankfully don’t remember much of that period, and what I do remember, I don’t want to talk about.”

“You may not have the option - what little defense you have may have to rest on your, uhh, mental state.”

“I don’t care. The rest of them have probably ratted me out, making it look like it had been my idea all along. At least the painting is all but destroyed - if I have to spend some time in prison for that, well, it’s worth the price.”

“Well, that brings me to the gallery’s offer - they’ve agreed to drop the charges.”

“They can’t do that in any case, can they? This isn’t like a suit - I don’t understand the law but isn’t aiding and abetting, break and enter all beyond the power of the victim to forgive?”

“The criminal charges will stand. Depending on how you co-operate with the prosecution, you could be looking at the barest minimum of sentences. They are more interested in jailing the ring of violent thieves who have been stealing art than in an artist in dire straits who somehow got talked into helping them.”

“What’s the other side of the gallery’s offer?”

“That you restore the painting. If the restoration work is all yours, the value can only increase. Plus they get to look like they are reaching out to a troubled artist who’s fallen on hard times…”


“Promise me you’ll think about it.”

He looks into her eyes. He sees the severity of her beauty. He sees the baby she once was and the skull shining through her living face. He sees the corpse she will one day become. He sees the pain and the pleasure she daily lives through. He sees a fog of dreams, like an aura around her. He sees things he can’t begin to define and he sees her as luminous against the drab background of this prison meeting room.

He looks away, and sees the wire in the stippled glass of the window, its hexagonal pattern waving though the opaque surface like something at the bottom of a light grey pond. Then he sees a red brick wall, its precise rectangles delineated by white mortar in regular stripes, with an almost matching crazy quilt pattern of reddish brown irregular shapes and irregular white stripes. He knows that he can exchange one prison for another, but it’ll still be a prison…

“No!” he says.

Le Ministre de l’au-delà

Mike was standing in the middle of the crime scene, blood everywhere, and local news crews were angling for a shot of the dead body at the zoo.

Detectives Jones and Espinoza were questioning Mike about the events leading up to this scene.

Jones had just asked, “So, why did Mr. Bitner call you a racist?”

Mike had already explained this, but it looked like he was going to have to tell the story all over again.

“I said the giraffe looked black. I thought giraffes were always light brown, but this one looked almost black.”

[spoiler]Jones, who happened to be black, asked, “And would it be a problem for you if a giraffe were black?”

“No,” Mike said, trying to phrase this correctly, “I was just kind of surprised. It would be like looking at a brown polar bear…”

Detective Espinoza asked, “And would it be a problem if a polar bear was brown?”

Mike looked up, “Well, it might be a problem for the polar bear when it tried to hide in the snow…”

Neither detective was amused.

Mike went on, “Listen, I was just making a comment that I was surprised that the giraffe looked more black than brown and this guy, Bitner, suddenly got all bent out of shape. He said, ‘You’re a racist!’”

Mike took a breath and started to tell the story. Growing up, his parents had always made May 1st a special day. They would take him somewhere fun – the park, the beach, a movie, the zoo. Maybe it was nostalgia, but Mike decided to go to the zoo today and just wander around. He had been to see the rhino, hippopotamus and was about to go see the walruses and seals when everyone was quickly ushered out of the area.

“Why?” Detective Espinoza asked.

“Well, because it is spring and I guess they were horny and, well, the zoo didn’t want little kids to see the seals screwing each other so they marched everyone out a side exit. That’s how I wound up in the back area by the giraffe.”

There was video – some tourist from Illinois had it all on camera and Mike watched as he spoke those first words to the tall, strange guy hanging out by the giraffe.

“All I am saying is that the giraffe looks black…”

“You’re a racist!” Bitner yelled again.

Mike had tried to walk away but Bitner yelled again, “You’re a racist who can’t take seeing a black giraffe!”

People were starting to notice so Mike went back towards Bitner and said, “No, I am not a racist. I simply said I was surprised as I thought all giraffes were light brown. This one seems darker.”

“Maybe it is an African giraffe!” Bitner said.

Mike looked at him and said, “Uh, all giraffes are from Africa.”

Bitner took that as an insult, “I see, so every giraffe is African American?!”

“No,” Mike said, “animals can’t be African American because an animal has no nationality, but giraffes do come from Africa…”

“You’re telling me that this giraffe isn’t American – it is a terrorist or somethin’?”

“Oh for godsake – no …”

“Maybe the father was a zebra and the mother was a giraffe – maybe it is a Ze-raffe! Or a Gir-ebra! Ever think of that?! You got a problem with interracial offspring?”

A small crowd was gathering and Mike tried to explain, “First of all, I don’t think it is possible for a zebra and giraffe to create offspring, but that has nothing to do with …”

Bitner broke in, “So a zebra and a giraffe can’t love each other?

“Well, I suppose there is no law against them dating, but I don’t recall ever hearing of a zebra and giraffe hooking up, if that is what you are implying.”

“Aha! So you don’t believe animals of color can make love?!”

A normal person would have just walked away at this point, but Mike was not normal. He had been a member of an obscure Internet board known as SDMB for many years and, like a dog with a bone, he was not going to leave ignorance go un-fought. There was some irony in that he was discussing a giraffe, but that was an in-joke.

“All I am saying is that I was surprised that this particular giraffe is darker than most giraffes that are usually a lighter brown.”

Mike saw that, thankfully, many in the crowd were nodding in agreement.

Bitner wasn’t taking any of this and started to scream, “I am going to save this black giraffe from tyranny and racism and false imprisonment!”

The next thing Mike knew is that Bitner, a rather spry man for his tall size, had pulled out a handgun and started brandishing it about, causing the crowd to nimbly step back. Then Bitner started climbing the metal gate around the giraffe compound.

Mike made a stab at detracting the guy by saying, “…but the giraffe seems quite happy in there, and there is over an acre of grounds…”

Bitner was now waving his gun and the crowd began to cheer as he shouted, “Free black giraffes! Set him free from tyranny! Free from tyranny! ”

Mike was quietly stepping backwards, hoping to mingle in with the crowd and then disappear when suddenly the giraffe noticed the commotion. Bitner thought the roar was another cheer for his efforts to spring this creature from the shackles of tyranny, but in reality, the crowd was noticing the giraffe quickly moving towards Bitner.

Mike looked at Detectives Jones and Espinoza and said, “Giraffes can really move quickly…”

“Well, well – you seem to be quite the expert in giraffes…” Detective Jones said, with more than a hint of sarcasm.

“…at any rate,” Mike said, “as you can see on this video, the next thing you know is the giraffe was eyeball to eyeball with Bitner, who by that time had his arm and one leg over and around the top of the iron fence and, well, the giraffe licked his face. The entire crowd all went “aw…” as it was kind of endearing, but that kiss sort of threw Bitner off. As he pulled away, he accidentally shot himself in the head and then came flying down on the ground and that’s how it all happened…”

The detectives turned off the video. Bitner’s splattered body was still on the ground, covered with a tarp, but there was still quite a bit of blood around the scene. Only after signing a few forms and showing his driver’s license was Mike finally released from questioning.

This first of May had been quite a day, and it was already close to midnight by the time Mike was released. He decided to stop in a dive bar, “Cecil’s”, near his apartment.
There were quite a few people at the bar, but it was still sort of quiet.
The bartender, Ed, leaned over, “What’ll it be?”

“Miller Lite,” Mike answered.

Ed nodded and said, “Draft or long neck bottle?”

Mike didn’t hesitate, “make it a draft. I’ve had enough of long necks today.”

Ed started to pour the beer, “Hard day?”

Mike nodded, “Oh yeah – the police have held me for questioning for the past five hours! I tell ya, if it hadn’t been for those damn fucking seals, and me opening by big mouth, a tall dude wouldn’t have a bullet in his head……”

Mike later regretted that comment, not having heard the news in Pakistan that day.

The last thing Mike remembered before the paramedics arrived was a beer bottle, a long-necked beer bottle, flying at him from across the bar.


Mmm, giraffe back fat, a phrase we thankfully don’t hear too often, but a taste we don’t savor often enough, lest it detract from other savory giraffe chunks, especially the tongue, which despite my most fervent desires, my girlfriend lacks one of similar size and dexterity, and alas my dreams have been dashed.

Boyo Jim

I call them Brickites. And they’re trying to kill me.

Look, I know how this sounds. Believe me, I know. That’s why I haven’t told anyone. That’s why I can’t tell anyone.

I was sitting on a park bench at the zoo last week. That’s how it started. I was on a lunch break from work on a warm day in spring, sitting on a park bench near the giraffe enclosure, staring at a wall.

A brick wall.

Last year for Christmas, my sister got me one of those optical illusion books. Every page has a different abstract-looking picture on it, and if you stare at the page and let your eyes go unfocused, you can see a three-dimensional image hiding in the pattern. A parlor trick; an optical illusion. It was the sort of gift that was more something she’d like for herself than something she thought I would, but that didn’t detract from my appreciation. Hell, it kept me entertained at the Christmas party for fifteen minutes or so.

I’m pretty sure I’m never going to see my sister again.

[spoiler]Anyway, I was sitting on this park bench, and I had nothing better to do, so I stared at the brick wall in front of me, and I noticed that the bricks formed sort of a pattern. Kind of like some of the patterns in the book. I let my eyes go unfocused, like the book’s instructions say. Just for kicks. Just for fun.

Nothing happened, not at first. I didn’t expect anything to happen. I didn’t expect to see anything. And at first, I didn’t. Just the bricks, superimposed on each other in a weird, floaty way. It was an interesting enough effect, but that’s all. Then just as I was about to give up…I saw something flicker. Or thought I did. I blinked, and the bricks snapped back into their regular configuration. Just a wall. Same wall I stared at every day on my lunch break.

That was a little weird, I thought. But it was probably just my eye twitching; some sort of muscle tic. Or a floater – isn’t that what the eye doctors call those things? You know, the bits of crud that come loose in the goo of your eye and swim around in your field of vision. Floaters. Probably what I saw was just a floater. Still, though. I leaned back against the park bench and gave the brick wall the thousand-yard stare again.

This time it was quicker. The bricks floated over each other, and then…yes, something moved. With effort, I kept my eyes open longer. That was no twitch, no floater. Something moved. I kept staring. My eyes were starting to water. Slowly, just like in the optical illusion books, a figure swam into focus. A three-dimensional figure. I wanted to squint to make it out, but squinting would break my focus, break the illusion. So I just kept staring. This is fucked up, I thought. I should really get back to work.
Then I saw what the figure was. It was a face.

There was a face staring out of the brick wall across from my park bench. Staring, hell. It was looking at me.

It didn’t look human. It looked crude, carved. It looked brick. It had two eyes, though, and a nose, and a mouth. And it blinked. Oh Jesus, it blinked. I could hear the rush of blood in my ears; I told myself with the rational part of my brain that this was some kind of weird optical illusion, but I was scared as fuck. I wanted to run.
That’s when it talked to me.

Look, I already told you I know how this sounds. I know.

Its voice was like someone had taken the sound of stone grinding against stone and shaped it into speech. It said three words, a single phrase:

Tell, and die.”
I’m an accountant, okay? I get my hair cut at the same barber shop every four weeks. I drive a silver Honda Accord. I wear suits with paisley ties. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t have a wild imagination, and I sure as hell don’t hear voices talking to me from brick walls at the zoo.

I didn’t run. I blinked, because blinking is what breaks those 3-D illusions. But when I opened my eyes, the face was still staring back at me. Brick. Inhuman. You’re having a psychotic break, I thought. This is what going crazy is like.

I held perfectly still, thinking maybe that if I just didn’t move, the face would disappear. My life would reset to fifteen minutes ago, when everything was normal. Everything would be OK.

Then a brick started jimmying itself loose from the wall. All I did was watch it. I didn’t move a muscle. Run, I told myself, but my body didn’t respond. I just sat, frozen and watching, as the brick slid itself out of the wall, showering fine brick dust onto the grass below.

This isn’t happening, I told myself. Then the brick arced through the air toward me, about as fast as a major-league pitch on a good day, and smashed into shards on the bench where I sat. Two inches to the right of where I sat, to be precise. “Tell, and die.” OK, I get it. I get it now.

The message my brain had been trying to send to my body for the last few minutes finally caught up. I ran. I got up from that bench, and God help me, I ran, and I didn’t stop running until I got the office, sweaty and out of breath. I pulled myself together, got a drink of water from the cooler, straightened my tie. Sure, that was a little weird. Sure. But I’d been working hard, right? I sat down at my desk and logged in to my computer. Just like always. Just a regular day.

Our office has a brick fireplace. The boss thought it made the place look “homey” for clients. To be honest, I’ve never particularly cared for it.

I saw movement there. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement.

I didn’t look. I carefully collected my things, and keeping my eyes trained on the floor in front of me or my own hands or anywhere but the fireplace, I went to the secretary’s desk and told her I was taking the rest of the day off.

“You don’t look so good,” she offered. I nodded in agreement. No, I guess I didn’t.

People bitch constantly about shoddy modern construction, but I’ll bet you’ve never really bothered to notice just how much brick surrounds you every day. There’s a lot. It’s everywhere. Everywhere your eye wants to rest, there’s brick. I didn’t look at it. Not for more than a split second. But there was constant flickering motion in the corner of my eye.

I got to my car, the interior of which was thankfully brick-free. My car was a safe haven. A little bubble of normality. Yes, I’d start it up, and I’d drive home to my apartment, and I’d get some sleep, and then all of this would be a bad memory. I was not going insane. I was not seeing Brickites out of the corner of my eye.

I guess that’s when I named them.

Halfway home, I realized that my apartment building is brick. Don’t panic, I told myself. You’re not insane. There are no Brickites. But still…what would it hurt to stay at my sister’s for a night? My sister has a nice house in the suburbs. A house with fiberglass siding. I could grab a few things from my apartment – in and out, a surgical strike – and then stay at her place. Just for a night. Just until things settled down.

I pulled up to the curb outside my building and called my sister from my cell. I was still inside the car. I got as far as “Hey, Stephanie, this is going to sound a little weird, but…” when a brick smashed through my windshield and landed on the seat next to me. It must have come from my apartment building; fallen straight down from 20-some stories up, far enough and fast enough to leave a starburst pattern in the glass where it had punched through.

I screamed. I screamed, and nearly fell on my ass scrambling out of my car, and then I yelled at the top of the building, “Fuck you! Fuck you, asshole! I didn’t tell her a goddamn thing! That doesn’t count!”

And then that awful, grating, stone-on-stone voice again:

We were here first.”

That was a week ago. I haven’t been back to work. Or my apartment. I’m afraid to call my sister again. What if they hear me? What if they find out who she is?

I’m living in the woods now, sleeping in my car. I can’t make it much longer. Gas stations all have brick walls. So do grocery stores. I’m trapped out here.

The worst thing, though, is that brick. The one that came through my windshield.

I can’t find it. I looked. Believe me, I looked. It’s gone.

But there was fresh brick dust on the seat of the car earlier today.[/spoiler]


The warm breeze felt comfortable as I got out of my car and stepped onto the sidewalk. There were still a few puddles left on the road from the rain yesterday, but sunshine obviously had a plan to take care of them. I knew the address and which direction I should be going to find Justin’s house, but made a big deal of pulling out my phone and checking the memo anyway.

It bought me a few seconds of time to try and figure out if I was really going to go through with this.

But a few seconds don’t last long, and I found myself walking up to 208 Rosewood Drive and ringing the doorbell.

[spoiler]Justin took thirty seconds to answer the door, and seeing him startled me again. Sure, I’d met him in person that one time before, but as we’d talked on the phone and sent emails back and forth, I’d slowly changed the image of him that I had in my mind. Seeing him again, he was such a big, tall, beefy guy, with a bit of a beer belly, and that really short stubbly beard, and receding hair that wasn’t quite in need of a trim yet.

He certainly didn’t look the part of a practicing wizard and teacher of sorcery.

“It’s good to see you again, Lisa, and a good thing that you showed up more or less on time,” he told me, laughing. “Kids these days, they’ve got clocks in their cell phones but it’s not like being punctual means much to them. Do I need a jacket?”

“Umm… for what?” I asked, staring at him stupidly.

“To be comfortable, when I go outside.” He pointed to my own light weather polyester shell that I’d been carrying bundled up under my arm. “Looks like I might not really need one.”

“Why are you going outside?” I pressed. “I just got here.”

Justin shook his head, stepped over the threshold onto his little concrete porch, and closed the door. I expected him to pull keys out of his pants pocket, but maybe I should have remembered who I was dealing with - he just snapped his fingers, there was a clicking sound from the lock, and he tried the door just to make sure that it wouldn’t open. When Justin turned back to me he noticed that I was staring, and waved me over to try the results of his spell myself, but I shook my head no, too confused about all that was going on.

“You thought our first lesson would be inside, I guess, maybe in a stuffy room, with no windows, and candles burning?” Justin led the way down the walk, and I followed him.

“Maybe. I don’t know what I was expecting, or what I was ready for,” I admitted.

“I guess I can understand, if I manage to cast my mind back to the time before I was taking the art for granted,” Justin said. “But the biggest challenge in working sorcery, possibly the only challenge, is that of looking at the world and seeing that there’s magic in every part of it. Once you can do that by reflex, automatically - then just about anything is possible. So why not start our first lesson outside, and explore the magic of a quiet residential city neighborhood? It’s a beautiful spring day, after all.”

~~I kept walking along in silence for a long time, trying to figure out what my next line was. “So you’re not going to teach me any specific magic spells?”

Justin laughed and shook his head. “There are no specific magic spells that would work for me and for you, Lisa, at least not in the same way - no key phrase that summons the magic in a particular way. It might be easier to work magic if it were, but then there’d be lots of kids playing around with magic words and causing no end of trouble.”

I stopped and turned to face him. “Wait a second. If the only real requirement for magic is a sense of imagination and being able to look at the world through that perspective - then why aren’t kids doing magic before they even realize that they shouldn’t be able to?”

“Who says that they’re not?” Justin asked. “A lot of the time, they grow up never realizing that anything happened that wasn’t in their imagination. But a true sorceror’s sense of the magic in the world around him is not something that’s typically childish; not quite. There’s something else that requires a bit of maturity, though I’m not sure how to put it into words.”

~~“Okay, well, let’s not worry too much about the semantics of it,” I decided, “if the phrasing isn’t important. What about gestures? Did you have to snap your fingers to lock the door like that?”

“Not really - it helps me work the spell quickly, now. I didn’t bother for the first few times I did it, until I realized that I’d want to be doing that trick a lot because it saves time.”

“And could any other sorceror open the door that easily, or is it personal?”

“For that trick, just about any sorceror who’s ever figured out a lock spell could get in - but then, I don’t know any sorcerors that I particularly want to keep out of my house. If I did, I could probably come up with a more specific privacy spell that would be a lot of trouble to break, and tie it into alarm spells when it breaks, and so on and so forth. Five years ago this was still a safe enough neighborhood that I didn’t bother locking the door at all, but then someone ripped off my television.”

“All right.” Justin led the way across the road and down a side street. “Where are we going?”

“To the primary school. There’s something that I want to show you.”

“Okay.” I followed in silence, trying to work out why I had come to meet this guy and if I believed him. Sure, he’d snapped his fingers - but maybe the front door was a spring lock that he’d set before coming out. All of his talk about believing in magic and seeing it all around you wasn’t really reassuring me…

Justin tried a bit of small talk on the way to the school, asking me about my job and my friends, but I didn’t really get into the chatter thing. Finally, we had crossed the school recess field and he was leading me up to the exterior wall of the building, which was one of those interlocking red brick patterns.

But on the wall, there was a pattern of brown spots making up a recognizable shape. “Is this something that you did with magic?” I asked. “Made a giraffe on the wall?” The giraffe was impressively detailed, just tall enough to meet my gaze, except that it was looking off to the side, as any giraffe stuck to a wall would be.

“No, I assume that one of the students made it, with mosaic tiles and some kind of glue,” Justin explained. “But magic can bring him off the wall. Do you want to give that a try?”

“Right - how?” I asked. “Just look at him and - and imagine him real?”

“If you can, that seems like it would work,” Justin told me.

“Okay,” So I stared at that giraffe, and did my best to imagine it coming to life, and whatever I tried, nothing worked. I started wondering if Justin was actually playing a prank on me, and of course that didn’t help. “Maybe if you do it, and I watch, that would help with me being able to see the magic enough to do it for myself.”

“Okay, well… just partway, alright?” Justin looked at the wall for a moment, and nodded. “How’s it going.”

The giraffe trotted back and forth along the wall, its hooves making a clippety-clop sound against the bottom of it. I stared, amazed, watching the different bricks being hidden and revealed as it changed position. “Well enough, Mister J. Can’t complain. Who’s the girl?”

Justin chuckled. “This is Lisa W, and she’s a potential student of mine - if she can prove out my faith in her and tap into her magic.”

“Ahh, got it,” the giraffe said. “How did this faith get started?”

“Professional secret,” Justin said with that secretive smile of his. “So, Lisa, do you think you can bring our giraffe friend off the wall for a minute or two?”

Somehow this seemed even more hopeless than bringing a still giraffe to life. “I… I would if I could, I just don’t understand.”

“That’s okay. Maybe I shouldn’t have made this demonstration. Working sorcery always looks easy, and that can detract from your confidence if you haven’t done it yourself, especially since there isn’t a step by step process that I can explain to you.”

“No, I’m glad you showed me,” I explained. Justin turned away from the wall, and the giraffe went still. I peered at it, trying to decide if he was stuck in a different pose than when we’d first come. Wouldn’t the kids notice on Monday morning, if he was?
“Now I believe that magic is real, that it’s possible,” I explained, hurrying up towards Justin. “I guess the only hurdle left is believing that it’s something that I’m capable of.”

“Right!” Justin exclaimed, snapping his fingers. “Okay, then you should pick the spell this time, something that’s particular to you. Something that you can believe, deep down, that you’re capable of, even if all the experiences of your life so far are telling you that you aren’t.”

For a long moment, I wasn’t sure what that could possibly be, and then I turned to the bushes on the edge of the school ground. “Making a plant grow more quickly? Quickly enough to see it?”

Justin nodded. “That sounds like a great choice. Go ahead.”

I stared at the bush, fingering one of the little curled up bud leaves, and believed with all my heart. I thought of the magic that every spring brought, and knew that if I could tap into any magic, I could touch that power of growth and life somehow. It had to be easy once you looked at it the right way, as easy as making the giraffe talk had been, or locking the door…

Half a dozen branches of the bush started to grow their leaves. In only ten seconds or so, all the leaves were as big as the pads of my thumbs. I gasped for sheer joy and delight and looked up at Justin.

He was beaming at me. “Try making a flower bloom?”

I laughed in delight at the notion and jogged carefully across the empty street, pointing to a small, sleepy looking bunch of old leaves in somebody’s garden. “That’s pink turtlehead. It normally doesn’t flower until August.”

“Don’t keep me waiting that long,” Justin teased, and with a dramatic wave of my hand, I made the entire plant grow for the new season, fresh leaves, three stems, each with a yellow beard and pink-purple bloom.

“Aren’t you glad that I suggested going outside for your first lesson?” Justin asked. “You wouldn’t have been able to pull that trick in a stuffy room with candles burning.”

“You know what you’re talking about,” I admitted thankfully. “So, what’s next? If plants are as easy as this, and giraffes and who knows what else, then what’s the second lesson.”

“Learning what spells you shouldn’t cast,” Justin told me, his voice ominous. “Can you make it Monday evening?”

“Sure,” I agreed. “And no casting spells on my own until then?”

Justin let that question sit without answering it out loud most of the way back to my car. “Just plants, locks, and maybe a giraffe if you feel up to it,” he finally told me.



The first time it’d been a warthog, and Devin Green had gotten away with it. Later on things got more complicated, but right at the beginning, it had started out almost consequence-free…

[spoiler]Despite the fact that Devin was dutifully packing his duffel bag for spring break, it didn’t stop him from making a last ditch effort at avoiding the trip. As soon as his mother poked her head into the room to check on his progress, he went on the attack. “I don’t want to go, Mom. Don’t make me.”

Ellen Green sighed and looked towards the ceiling, as if she could find words of wisdom written up there. “You know you have to, Dev. You spending school breaks with your father is written into the custody agreement.”

“So? Am I gonna go to jail if I miss a spring break with Dad?” Devin asked irritably.

He thought he’d been a pretty good sport about things up until now, but this year, when he and his friends were actually old enough to do something interesting over break, his plea to stay home had been met with a resounding no. It wasn’t fair, he’d been packing up to wander all over creation with his father every spring since he was seven and he was sick of it.

“No one would send a fifteen-year-old to jail for missing spring break-” Ellen started to say, only to have her son cut her off.

“Well, would you go to jail then? For being a bad custodial parent?” Devin asked, getting more wound up.


“Then why do I have to go? It isn’t fair. You have an affair after Dad ditches you for work, and I’m the one who spends the next eleventy-seven years paying for it every spring and summer. Where’s the justice in that?!”

“Devin!” Ellen’s eyes flashed dangerously, and Devin knew that he’d pushed her too far. “You’re going and that’s the end of it.”

“Fine. Whatever. I’m going to go to college in Australia and never coming home,” he said petulantly as he dragged his duffel off the bed and stalked out of the room.

“If you can find a way to pay for that, power to you,” he heard his mother muttered behind him, and it did nothing to improve his mood.

Three more years and they’d stop being able to shuffle him back and forth like a rook on a chessboard. He couldn’t wait.


Three hours later Devin got off the bus and went into the station to look for his father. Rich wasn’t much of a father, but he usually had drinks and snacks with him when Devin got there, which was a point in his favor. This time was no exception and Devin spotted him clutching a Dunkin Donuts bag and bottles of Sprite.

“Hey, Sport!” Rich greeted him in the same way he had since before Devin could tie his own shoes. It was something his son found both annoying and endearing. “How was the bus ride?”

“Long. Hot. I sat next to the last living member of the Spanish Inquisition and spent the trip answering stupid questions about how I liked high school,” he said, taking a bottle and opening it for a long swig.

Rich gave him an uncertain smile, obviously not sure how to react. “Well, at least it’s over.”

“Right. Where to now?” Devin asked. “Are we backpacking in some dry place that’s never heard of plumbing, or are we going somewhere it rains twenty days a month?”

Neither possibility would have really surprised him because his father usually spent spring breaks dragging him to places that people who didn’t have “investigative” TV shows to host knew better to stay away from.

“Nope.” Rich shook his head. “This year we’re staying stateside.”

“Did you get fired?” Devin blurted out before thinking that through. Though, it would be interesting if the job that he’d picked over Devin and Ellen tossed him out on his rear.

Rich’s eyes narrowed. “I did not. I’ll have you know that we’re investigating urban magic this week.”

We’re. Rich always phrased it that way, even though Devin usually spent the entire time trying to keep out of the camera crew’s way, and definitively off-camera himself since his mother flatly refused to let his dad “exploit” him that way. During a good spring break he might get to lug some equipment for the crew so he had something to do other than miss his friends.

If his dad had been the sort of suburbanite commuting to and from a job in a nearby city, maybe these breaks every spring and summer might not suck so much because he’d have neighbors, and neighbors often had kids. The idea of friends he saw at his father’s might have been okay.

“Urban magic?” Devin asked when he realized the conversation had lulled. “Really?”

“Yup. We’re heading to Detroit.”


The next day found them driving through an abandoned neighborhood in Detroit that had once been home to blue collar workers whose jobs had evaporated during the great recession. Devin was tempted to ask if the magic involved fire, but he didn’t because it was unlikely that a wizard was responsible for the glut of burned-out buildings that detracted from the general ambiance. They might not be spending the week in a jungle, but it didn’t mean that the place Rich had picked was anything like nice.

“Here we are,” Rich announced, but he was speaking to the camera, not Devin. The show liked to tape arrivals, even if it meant “arriving” six or seven times to get the intro right.

It wasn’t a burned-out building, but both neighboring buildings were. Devin got out of the van and looked around. “Shithole” didn’t even begin to cover his opinion of the place.

A door opened and a wizened old woman the color of mahogany began to slowly approach, which one of the cameramen captured in loving detail. Devin didn’t stay close enough to hear his dad or the woman speak, but he could pretty much imagine the exchange. Viewers didn’t seem to notice that it was basically the same stuff over and over again, or maybe they did and they actually liked it. Either way, Rich’s show ‘What’s Out There’ usually made good ratings for something on cable.

After the whole meet and greet was captured on film, the cameras went off so Rich could speak to the witch, if that’s what she was, off camera to strategize. Viewers might think that everything they saw was completely spontaneous, but nothing could be further from the truth. It was in the best interest of everyone involved that both the host and the gracious guests were both put into the best light, and every detail of that was planned.

“Dad, I’m going to poke around,” Devin called before wandering off.

He contemplated exploring one of the gutted buildings before he decided that falling through a floor might be more exciting but not more fun. He was at a loss until he realized that he could see someone waving to him, so he went to check it out.

The someone turned out to be a girl about his age, and she had a complexion just about the same shade as the old woman. It made Devin feel absolutely pasty in comparison. “Hey,” he said cautiously.

“You’re with the film guys?” the girl asked. “You don’t look old enough.”

“'cause I’m not. My dad thinks that dragging me from film site to film site is father-son bonding,” Devin groused. “I’m Devin.”

She smiled at him. “Belle, and I’m totally with you. Grandma’s got the same idea, but I usually just get dragged to her clients’ houses.”

“So…is she a witch, or something?” Devin asked, not really worried about sounding rude. Belle didn’t strike him as the touchy type.

“Or something,” Belle agreed with a nod. “Fact is, anyone here can do what she does, they just don’t know it.”

“Just here?”

“For like the next four blocks, yeah.” Belle glanced around. “There’s something screwy about this place since everyone left. Grandma said that ‘the divide is bleeding,’ whatever that means.”

“Are you talking about magic, or…”

“Right. Magic.”


“Really,” she insisted.

“So you’re saying that I could do magic?” Devin asked dubiously.


“Uh huh.”

“No really. Close your eyes and think of something, anything, really hard. Concentrate on it, and when you open your eyes, it’ll be real.”


“What, are you scared?” Belle taunted.

This got his back up. “I’m not scared.”

“So try it.”

Sighing, he closed his eyes and thought really hard about something that would never wander through a half burned-out urban neighborhood.

Before he even opened his eyes Belle was squealing. “What is that? It’s so ugly!”

The warthog standing in the road didn’t seem to think much of Belle either, and glared at her with beady eyes. “Holy crap!” Devin yelped. “How do we get rid of it??”

“We-” Belle started to say, but she stopped when a speeding car barreled into the warthog and erased it from existence. It didn’t simply disappear, but the red, slightly furry remains would be hard to identify.

“Ewww.” Devin looked away. “So, can you make anything just by thinking about it?”

“Almost anything,” Belle amended. “I’ve never been able to get a giraffe right.”

“You’ve tried to make giraffes?” Devin looked surprised. He’d thought that replicating the warthog that’d attacked their jeep last summer was pretty clever, but it was disappointing to learn that the neighborhood had seen other exotic animals already. “Why?”

“Dunno, I just like them.”

“How do you ‘almost’ make a giraffe, anyway?”

“You kind of make them headless,” Belle muttered. “It’s not on purpose, I just have trouble with animal heads. Usually I stick to non-living things.”

“Uh…” The thought of a headless giraffe struck him as pretty unpleasant, but it did give him an idea. “Hey Belle, you want to make your grandma, like, the most famous person ever for a while?”

“If it’d get us out of here, sure. What do we have to do?”

“We’ve gotta wait until…” Devin outlined his plan, and Belle nodded along.


It wasn’t until people began to scream later on that the plan seemed like a bad idea. Devin had tried hard to imagine what would happen if, just when Belle’s grandma looked like she was concentrating hard, a headless giraffe suddenly appeared. But his imagination hadn’t done the image justice.

The poor beast lumbered around, swinging its long neck to and fro, before thrashing against the brick wall of Belle’s house. It gamely tried to get somewhere, but the lack of eyes, or a brain, made it hard for it to find its bearings, so it was more sad and horrific than anything else.

Everyone but Belle and Devin shouted in alarm, and at least one of the camera crew dropped a camera as they tried to do something, anything, about the headless ungulate. Belle poked him hard in the ribs. “Holy shit, we’re going to be in so much trouble.”

Devin shrugged. With everyone screaming and failing about, no one even seemed to know they were there, thankfully. “If they blame me, maybe I won’t have to spend the summer with my dad.” He couldn’t imagine that his mother was going to react well to a headless giraffe incident, so maybe it’d work out in his favor.


Later on, after the photos were published (a reporter got wind of it before the giraffe was banished) two things were crystal clear: one, ‘What’s Out There’ had never enjoyed higher ratings. Two, even if he was forced to spend more school breaks with Rich, it’d be hard to top the excitement of the magic in Detroit…but as mid-June rolled around, Devin found himself looking forward to what his dad had in store next.
The End


The poll is established, the entry list is closed and now, I’d like to open the floor to commentary and opinions. I invite you all to read and enjoy but please take a moment to vote on whichever of the stories strikes you the most.

And very well done! to all of our contributors this round!

Just a bump. I haven’t read all the stories yet, but I’m working my way through them, as time permits. Hope to have some commentary and votes, when I’ve read them all. From what I’ve seen so far, we have some great stories here. Good luck to all!

So far I’ve read up through “State of the Art”. I’ll read the rest over the next day or so, then vote (and discuss). I’ve enjoyed them all so far!

I’ll bump this up. Great job by all participants. I enjoyed every single one of the stories. Very impressive. I liked the development of the protagonist in The Brickites kind of slowly losing his mind. Rebirth was quite touching, too.

I still haven’t had time to read all of them.

Just a thought, but maybe it would also be good to offer a way to get all the stories in one file so people could download them to a Nook or Kindle and read them in one large collection of short stories?

I voted for me to assure I got at least one vote. I’m terribly vain and insecure.

I have a feeling that if no authors voted, there would be even fewer votes…maybe that’s a topic for the next logistics thread: asking readers what could be changed to encourage them to vote in greater numbers.

That’s actually not a bad idea. Maybe we can start here: Readers, Dopers, what would it take for you to vote and comment in greater numbers? Layout on the screen, more or fewer conditions, or (dare I suggest) shorter stories Or another idea?

My personal suggestion would be that instead of having all of the stories here in the thread (the spoiler boxes help, but it’s still kind of Wall o’ Textish), put up a separate page with a clickable list of the stories, and each story on its own page. I think personally it would be a lot easier to read a story on its own web page, rather than embedded in a forum thread. I don’t know, though, maybe that’s just me.