Never Leave Me

“What color are my eyes?” she asked. Chrissy’s eyes were closed. She tucked her blue chiffon dress and sat across from Josh in the white, garden swing.

Josh exited the news display and looked up. “What color do you want them to be?”

“I asked first,” she said then bit her lip, her laced fingers clenched in her lap. Raven hair framed her pale, pretty face and curled softly under her chin.

The spring day was sunny, blue, and breezy. Multi-colored flowers danced in the garden and along the paths, spreading their fragrance with each gust. Splashing water laughed in the pedestal fountain. A red-throated skink jag-walked from a cluster of blue phlox, glanced about then skittered away.

“Your doe eyes are soft brown and beautiful, my love,” Josh said.

“Then it is me,” Chrissy said. She opened her eyes, her gaze dropping. “Now you’re going to tell me they’ve always been brown.” Their eyes came together.

Josh restrained a sigh and leaned forward. “What’s the matter, dear?”

“I remember my eyes being blue,” she said. “If they’ve always been brown, my mind must be going. And you, Josh, you’re getting older while I look the same … except for having brown eyes. I don’t mind looking younger, but I want us to age together. I feel out of place, like I don’t belong here.”

“I love the dress you’re wearing.” Josh changed the subject.

“Thank you. It was laid out on the bed when I woke up.”

A call came from the hedge gate. “Joshua, Chrissy, anybody home?”

“Here by the garden swing,” Josh said. Jordan, Josh’s sister, appeared. She nodded up and strode toward them.

“Such a beautiful day,” Jordan said. Josh smiled his agreement.

Chrissy closed her eyes. “Jordan, what color are my eyes?”

Startled, Chrissy glanced at Josh and saw him mouth, “Brown.”

“Have you changed your eye color?” Jordan asked. “Last I recall they were a beautiful brown. Did you get contacts? Show me.”

Chrissy opened her downcast, brown eyes. “Can I get you something cool to drink?” she asked.

“Iced tea, lemon, not sweet,” Jordan said. Chrissy slid off the swing and slumped to the patio service counter.

“Sorry, Josh,” Jordan whispered to his ear. “I remember she said she wanted brown eyes.”

“She’s upset about the difference in our ages, too,” Josh said. “Of course, our ages are different. It’s been ten years.” Jordan squeezed her brother’s neck and kissed the side of his head.

“No matter what I do, I can’t make her happy,” he said, bringing his folded hands to his forehead. “I don’t think I can handle another suicide … even one day without her … I just can’t.”

Jordan rolled her lips in then wrapped both arms around her brother’s head. “You’ll start again?”

“I have no choice.” Josh kept his voice low. “Once depression sets in, she goes quickly.”

Chrissy returned with a tall glass of tea and handed it to Jordan. She forced a straight-lipped smile then pulled the garden swing under her and kicked gently to start its motion.

“Thank you,” Jordan said, lifting her eyes and brows toward Chrissy. “I stopped by to ask if you’d like to go with me to the craft fair. It starts in the park this afternoon and runs all weekend. We could go tomorrow, if you prefer.” She tilted her head.

“Yes, maybe tomorrow,” Chrissy said. “It’s warm and I’m a little tired. I think I’ll go lie down.” She rose and flashed the same flat smile as she left.

“Check with you tomorrow,” Jordan said, keeping her tone light. She touched Josh’s sleeve then headed for the hedge gate.

Josh found Chrissy reclined on the sofa, shoulders back, eyes closed, breathing deeply. “Are you upset,” he asked. She pursed her lips. A tear rolled from the corner of her eye down across her temple.

“Let me help,” he said, reaching and kneading the back of her neck. Chrissy rocked her head forward. He pressed her second cervical vertebra then the first vertebra twice, completing the code. Chrissy’s lips and eyelids parted slightly, and she went limp.

Josh carried her to the back room and down the steps. He laid her gently on a high, gray, soapstone table. Tenderly he removed her blue chiffon dress, her shoes and stockings, her underwear, earrings, bracelet, and sapphire, pendant necklace. He moved her body to a tub-sized, glass tank and opened the fill valves. He checked the cell assembly and flow tracks then opened the additive manufacturing schematic. He replicated the last design pattern and advanced the model number to 344. He then reset the eye color to bluish gray and tweaked up the dopamine receptors. Before pressing restart, he added ten years, composed a script to cover the lost time, and erased the memory of today. A dozen laser tools and suction pipes, guided by cell-recognition software, swung into place.

Josh couldn’t watch. He knew Chrissy’s cells were being removed, reprogrammed, and reset—the recycled cells from the body he’d claimed after her suicide. He wanted her back with all the joy she had when they’d first met.

 

Chrissy tucked her blue chiffon dress and slid into the garden swing.

Sitting opposite her, Josh closed the news projection, sat up, and smiled. “How about going to the craft fair with Jordan this afternoon?” he asked.

“That’d be fun,” Chrissy said. She leaned forward and kissed him.

“I love that dress you’re wearing,” Josh said.

Chrissy smiled. “I haven’t worn this dress in years, but it was laid out on the bed when I woke. You set it out for me, didn’t you? I know we’re aging, but you still prefer me dressing young.”

He flashed his best who-me smile. “It looks great on you.”

Advertisements

Remember Me?

A wave crashed and rushed up the sand-packed beach, sending me backpedaling in my worn canvas deck shoes. The late-morning mist moistened my face as I followed the receding wave back down the slope. Streams of bubbles in slow-draining depressions pointed where sea creatures were buried, clams and crabs, fun to play with when I was a kid.

The high tide left dimples in the sand and debris—half-buried shells, the upturned carapace of a horseshoe crab, driftwood, the base of a broken, brown bottle, its edges grayed and smoothed dull by the waves. Strands of seaweed, clinging with shell life, swept up and back with the waves like green, soaked banners. A gusty breeze scented the air with whiffs of the organic, salty sea. A screeching tern tilted its wings and forked tail to the wind and touched down just long enough to overturn an empty clamshell.

Down the beach, my uncle’s piling-mounted house was a gray and tan outline in the spray-driven mist. My uncle had died last month, and we were putting his house on the market. This might be my last visit. The porch light went off, so I knew Janet was awake. She’d said she wanted to join me to watch the sunrise, but the sun had already climbed and shed its morning orange and red.

Back at the blanket, I shook the coffee thermos. Hearing nothing, I unscrewed the cap, tipped the thermos, and caught three brown drops in the plastic cup. Perhaps Janet would think to bring more. I set the thermos on the sandy blanket beside an unused, maroon, ceramic cup.

“Mr. Drake, hello,” a small voice cried. A boy six or seven, standing ankle-deep in the surf, waved his clam trowel then broke into a run up the beach toward me. He wore bright blue, boxer-style swim trunks and a yellow, Cub Scout t-shirt emblazoned with a blue wolf badge. I didn’t recognize him, but he knew my name. He must be mistaking me for my uncle, I thought.

As he got closer, I saw the trowel he pumped in one hand had flecks of rust, and his other hand held a red plastic pail. They looked like the trowel and pail I played with when I’d visited here. Perhaps the boy had borrowed them from my uncle.

“Mr. Drake, Sir,” the boy stopped, huffing, and craned his neck up to look at me, “Wanna see what I found?” His bare toes flexed nervously in the sand.

“Sure, young man,” I said, doubling my legs to crouch and peer into the small pail he tipped toward me.

“This one’s my favorite,” said the boy, handing me a concave shard glistening with blue, iridescent mother-of-pearl. “I’ll give it to my mom,” he said. “This one’s nice, too, almost perfect.” It was a salmon-pink sand dollar over four inches across.

A small sand crab tried to bury itself in the sand at the bottom of the pail. “I just picked him up to look at him,” the boy said. “He’s scared, so I’ll put him back.”

The boy grabbed the scuttling crab, set the pail down, and ran to the water’s edge. I shook sand off a corner of my blanket and sat, waiting for his return. A pair of terns took an interest in the pail, hovering and dipping, rocking in the breeze, so I pulled it onto the blanket. “Craw,” one protested, and they both climbed off with the next gust.

I hadn’t seen anyone on the beach that morning and didn’t expect anyone except Janet. The boy seemed to appear out of nowhere. I watched him set the crab down and rush back.

“I started searching for shells over there,” the boy said, pointing. I followed his finger but couldn’t see anything. “By the pier and the old tower.” The boy squinted. “It’s really hard to see right now. My uncle said navy guys came to the tower to look for submarines. That was during the war. If they saw anything they had a boat with guns at the pier. I know you’ve been there.”

“Yes, I have,” I said, a little surprised at the boy’s certainty. “My uncle told me about the submarines, too. But they took the pier away years ago, and all that’s left of the tower is the foundation.”

The boy nodded quickly. “But I remember when they were there. It was a good place to hunt for crabs and stuff like that.” I smiled, excusing his confusion. The tower and pier were gone years before the boy was born. He must have heard stories and imagined the rest.

“I suppose there aren’t submarines anymore,” the boy said quietly and lowered his still pointing finger. He kicked sand back with his foot then made a groove in it with his toe.

“The Navy sold that land,” I said, “and I heard the new owner wants to put up a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, and some sort of go-kart track, maybe a paint ball arena, too.”

The boy’s eyes lit up. “Will you bring your kids to play?”

“My wife and I don’t have children,” I said.

“You should get to it,” the boy said, again surprising me. I was sure he was thinking about friends to play with.

“Maybe we should,” I said then asked. “Do you live around here? You seem to know my uncle.”

“I’m just visiting, like you, and staying with my uncle … he’s a very nice man, but he gets kinda grumpy. My mom says it’s ‘cause he got old. I don’t want to get old if it means I have to get grumpy and can’t go out to play. What good is it? I know if he played it would cheer him up, but my mom says he won’t do it. All he thinks about is busyness.”

“You mean business?”

“Yes,” the boy said, then looked seriously at the sun. “I have to go.”

“Will you be back tomorrow?” I asked.

“Yes,” he ran, turned his head, and called back. “But if I come tomorrow you might not recognize me. I’d like it if you did. Maybe we could look for shells an’ stuff.”

“Roy,” Janet’s voice called behind me. “Sorry I’m late. Your sister was on the phone, and we got talking.” She held out a fresh thermos. “Your sister wants to know if you’ve changed your mind about selling your uncle’s place.”

“I was just talking—” I started to point but, looking up the beach, couldn’t see the boy. Rushing waves swept over the last of his footsteps. “A local boy was just here playing in the surf.”

“A neighbor?”

“I think so. His family might have a place up here. He thought I should know him, but I think he was confusing me with my uncle. The boy said I’d see him tomorrow but might not recognize him. Very curious.”

“What did he look like?”

“Your average, pale, city boy, seven years old, active blue eyes, talkative, precocious. He wore a yellow Cub Scout shirt just like I wore.”

“Bright blue, boxer trunks, bare feet?” Janet asked. “Shock of rumpled brown hair … carried a rusty shovel and a red pail?

“A rusty trowel. Yes.”

“You might still know him.”

She led me back to the house and up to the bedroom where I stayed when I’d last visited my uncle. The room hadn’t changed. There was the wood-framed, single bed with the hand-stitched, cowboy-themed quilt, ruffled, blue-checked curtains framing the one window, and a quaint, varnished, knotty pine dresser. On the wall above the dresser was my picture when I was seven, standing on the beach in my Cub Scout shirt and waving a rusty trowel. The ink-scribbled inscription read, “Remember me and our good times. Your Uncle Al.”

Janet squeezed my hand. “You still have a good imagination.” I started to speak, but my jaw just dropped.

Janet squeezed my hand again. “I’m sorry. I told your sister before I told you. I wanted it to be a surprise.” She looked up into my eyes. I knew the look.

“A baby?” I asked. She nodded, and we both smiled.

“I got the message,” I said to the boy in the picture. “I’ll tell my sister we’ve decided keep the house. Our kids should have a chance to play here, too.”

Full Credit

You came to the Interstellar Convention to obtain three credits toward your Alien Studies degree. Few women attend the convention, but you meet another female at the evening mixer. She is an exchange student from the little known planet Filindora. You see in her an opportunity for advanced research.

Her body gleams like smooth, polished obsidian. She touches your elbow with a three-fingered hand then slides it up along your arm to brush a strand of hair back from your shoulder. You blush. She caresses your glowing cheek and bare neck. You swallow and fight the impulse to hide your blushing.

Loud party talk and laughter fade into the background. Boys shouting over beer pong, girls singing karaoke, acrid pot and cigar smoke, everything drifts away. This exotic female is choosing you. You hope the magic never ends.

She wants to see Manhattan’s skyline at night and asks about the view from the rooftop. You swallow again. Alone on the rooftop at night? You know what she wants—the same thing the college boys want and your sport-minded professors. You know if you demur, she’ll find a girl more willing. You widen your eyes, smile, and nod. Her mouthparts quiver. Her jewel-like, faceted eyes glitter in her forehead.

When you reach the roof, she wastes no time. Her delicate, three-fingered hands caress your ears, throat, the nape of your neck, and stroke your long hair. Her sinuous tongue touches yours. Her mouthparts pull on your lips. Your blouse comes off, and she moves lower on your body. Other hands slip to your waist and hips, and downward, carrying away the last of your clothing.

She is unfamiliar so you guide her ovipositor. As she gently rocks, you feel her eggs slide into you. You sigh, half-close your eyes, and roll back your head. Your friends at school will be so jealous. She’s choosing you, you think, as you rock and savor every stroke.

All too soon, the Filindora female withdraws and relaxes. Then she leans close. Expecting a kiss, you part your lips. A clear needle arcs from her lower mandible, through the roof of your eager open mouth, and up into your brain. Bliss. Her liquid love will pleasure you as long as her young feed on your organs, then you will die.

She tells you her name and you remember that you know it. It is a very ancient name. Then she leaves you naked and alone on the dark rooftop. Your distended belly feels like a living pouch of sweet larval jelly lumps.

In your hazy gratified state you wonder if the beetles’ gestation will last long enough for you to earn full credit in Advanced Alien Studies.

Both Sides Now

Until I died, I hadn’t noticed I’d been living in a bubble. Aging and death were unknown to me. But looking back I might have seen it coming: the pressure in my chest, losing mobility in my limbs, every movement meeting greater resistance. The tightening increased toward the end. Then came intense pain, in my head, all over my body. My world went into convulsion. Whatever I’d deemed important no longer mattered. Everything shrank down to that single moment in time. When a light appeared above my head, brighter than anything I’d known, I went to it. Hands reached down and lifted me into the light. And I took my first breath.

May your bubble rise and in the fullness of time burst in glory on the surface of heaven. – “The Navigator’s Dream”

Lord of the Towels

TWEET! “Okay, guys. Hit the showers.” Coach Felbrook circled a raised fist high then pointed to the locker room. Forty boys on East Junior High’s football team let out a yell, unsnapped helmet chinstraps, and headed off the grassy field.

Felbrook jogged behind them, shouting. “Dak, good work on those cuts. Yogi, keep working on power pulls … the defense is still playin’ off your blocks. And hey, Toby … grab the ball cart.” Felbrook caught the eye of the last boy still sitting on the bench and pointed far up the field.

Toby Eagleton jumped up. The hot sun and muscle sweat felt good as he dashed 80 yards to fetch the cart. He imagined running for a touchdown, threw himself across the goal, and rolled to his back, pumping his fists in the air. The new mown grass smelled delicious.

“Toby,” the coach shouted, motioning him to hurry.

Toby scooped up three loose footballs, tossed them into the wheeled cart and spun it back to the field house. Felbrook stood at the entrance. “Water bottles. Don’t forget the water bottles and the cooler.”

Toby swung wide up the sideline, snagged eight plastic bottles off the turf, tumbled them into the cooler, and slid the cooler under the ball cart. Reaching the field house, he pushed the cart into the storage closet. He clanged the metal door shut, dropped the latch, and snapped the padlock.

The blue and black tiled locker room reeked of boy sweat and grass stains, and the even stronger scents of chlorine and mildew from the pool next door. As Toby walked in, the last players were spinning off shower spigots and stepping past him to grab towels. Steam billowing from the showers filled the locker room.

“Good effort out there guys. Toby, lookin’ real good.” Felbrook patted his shoulder. “Damn! Hey, you guys, pick up those towels. You raised in a barn?” No one paid him any attention. “Toby, can you make sure all these towels get into the bin. Thanks.”

“But Coach, I didn’t play. I sat on the bench all practice.”

“You need to learn the system, Toby. Watch the other boys. Your chance will come.”

Toby looked straight up at the neon ceiling lights. “Coach, maybe I could walk through some drills, huh? Maybe run a few practice plays?”

“Great spirit, Toby. Love that attitude.” Felbrook checked his wristwatch. “Sorry, gotta split, teaching a hygiene class in two minutes.” He pulled a gray letter jacket with the bulldog team logo over his dress shirt, and ducked out into the hallway.

Toby untied his cleated shoes then stripped off his jersey and pants. Sun-sitting sweat had a fouler stink than clean workout sweat. His clothing bore no green streaks or clumps of brown. Toby dropped his uniform in his locker and padded barefoot across the wet floor to the showers. Only a few boys remained, combing their hair and tying shoes.

Toby passed a full-length mirror and paused to scowl at his skinny nakedness: five-foot-five, 116 pounds, and red hair hanging like a fruit bowl. His coat-hanger shoulders rounded onto his concave chest. His stick arms and knobby knees reminded him of chicken bones. Some football player. He remembered his Mom saying, “You’ll get your growth spurt, Toby … you’re just late blooming. Just wait. It’ll come.”

“Yah Mom, I’m waiting, still waiting.” He started to punch a locker door but thought better and stepped into the gang shower. He turned the spigot handle, felt the rush of hot water, and gathered liquid soap from the dispenser.

SLAM! Came the sound of a metal door. Someone had crashed into the locker area. Toby recognized the muffled laughter and whispers. No one else sounded like Dak Jackson and Yogi Grancourt. Then came a squeal and the clickety-click of casters as the towel bin accelerated across the tiled floor. The locker room door slammed again. Toby turned off the water and walked out to the towel shelf. Nothing.

“Hey, you guys take the last towel? Hey, I’m still here.” Toby glanced at his locker hanging open and empty. Spinning, he checked the room … no clothes … no towels … no towel bin. “Damn you guys … Yogi? Dak? That you?” He slumped, dropped his chin to his chest then went to gather paper from the toilet stalls to dry off.

Pausing, he looked up and thrust his arms toward the neon ceiling lights. “God of towels, where are you? Why have you forsaken me?”

SHHHHLIIIK! It was the sound of a towel snapping. Warmth wrapped Toby’s hips and tucked a fold at his waist. What? He dropped his hands to find a towel wrapped about him. Not a threadbare gym towel, but luxurious, the brightest white towel, the kind bikini babes rub on themselves in fancy resort movies.

“Toby, me lad. I oonderstand you haff need for a towel?” The Irish brogue was high and lilting. Before him on the dank tiles, stood a figure a head shorter then he. It was pale with pointed nose and ears, a scruff of unruly black hair, and laughing eyes over angular, high cheekbones.

“Who are you?” Toby asked, stepping back.

“For certain, I am the very god you beckoned, the god of towels, here to ease your pain.” The fellow danced two quick steps then bowed, thrusting one leg forward and dropping one arm low.

“I didn’t call you,” Toby objected, gesturing his hands out. “What kind of god is a god of towels anyway? What can you do?”

“Well, for starters, you might haff noticed, I can coover oop your privates.”

“Okay, that’s good … I appreciate that. Thank you. I gotta go, I have class in, ahhh, six minutes.” Toby ran to the door and peered into the hallway. No clothes no towel bin. Opposite the boy’s gym he saw Sheila Palo leaving the girl’s gym, her books clasped tightly against her white, junior varsity cheerleader sweater.

“Pssst, Sheila?” Toby slid out the door to the recess from the hallway. Sheila covered her chin-dropped mouth.

“Toby? How come—?”

Toby waved her quiet. “The boy’s towel cart, is it in the girl’s gym? Maybe some clothes and shoes are on it? Please.” He gestured to his condition.

Sheila set her books down in the hall and returned a second later with the cart piled high with the last of the fresh towels, a pair of blue jeans and undershorts, a sweatshirt, tennis shoes and socks, and his sweaty football uniform.

“Thank you, me love,” Toby let that slip. Damn. She can’t know how I feel about her. He’d never talked to Sheila, but right now he was beyond blushing. Avoiding her gaze, he grabbed the cart and pulled it back to the locker room.

Toby hustled into his pants and shirt.

The elfin figure reappeared. “Sooo, perhaps I’m thinkin’, we haff more business.”

“No thank you, little guy. The towel was great. That’s all I need.” Toby looked hard at his new acquaintance. “What’s your name? I mean in case I ever need another towel.”

“That’d be Sean at your service, Master Toby.” Sean bowed low again.

“Just Toby is fine. No need to be formal.” Sitting on a bench, Toby slid socks onto his feet still damp from the wet tiles and began twisting on his tennis shoes.

“Not formal a’tall, Master Toby. I’m here to serve you, in all your travails, all life long.”

“To serve ME? How did I get so lucky?” Toby tied his shoes.

“You invoked the gods for the first taim and specifically mentioned me. The god of towels, you said … that would be meself.” Another quick bow.

“Great … other people get guardian angels … I get the god of towels?”

“Don’t be so disparaging, Master Toby. I can be a great blessing to you.”

“I think I’d prefer a genie, a great and powerful genie, one like Aladdin had. You know … like the genie of the lamp.” Toby laced his fingers around one knee, pulled it toward his chest, and rocked back.

“Genie of what lamp?” Sean stared blankly.

The Arabian Nights … you know. Aladdin finds a lamp, there’s a genie inside, it gives him a whole bunch of wishes.”

“That woos a good story … made oop you know. But it didn’t happen.

“Who made it oop … up?”

“The girl who needed a good story every night so she wouldn’t be killed the next morning. Worked that trick a thousand taimes she did. Hard to blame her, but it woos all a lie. I guess she didn’t think a “god of carpets” story was exciting enoof.

“God of carpets? … Give me a break.”

“Oh, so your so smart … well, Master Toby, let me tell you the real story.” Sean jumped onto the bench and dropped to sit cross-legged. “Aladdin had a carpet … do you knoow that mooch?”

“A flying carpet, of course. I liked that. Do you have a flying towel?”

“Don’t be gettin’ cheeky, and don’t be gettin’ ahead of me story. Well … wouldn’t you know, this Aladdin fellow, he had a good head for business. When the god of carpets came to him, Aladdin used his powers to become the richest carpet merchant from Samarkand to Bukhara. That’s hoo he got the princess, the palace, caravans and fine horses, all that fancy stoof. There never woos any genie of any silly lamp.”

“And a flying carpet? Did he get a flying carpet?” Toby persisted.

“Carpets haff certain powers … towels haff powers, too.”

“Thanks, I’ll call when I need you.”

Toby jumped up and ran for the door. By the hall clock he was fifteen minutes late. He broke into a run. Two corridors later, he slowed at the door to Miss Brown’s English class and, breathing hard, slinked in and around the side to the back.

The room went silent as all heads followed him. Miss Brown made a note in her grade book, took a sip from a red and white plastic Coca-Cola cup then continued. “What makes Leaves of Grass so compelling for me is that it was self published. Whitman spent all his money to get this collection out.” She gestured with the English book, and it struck and overturned the cup. Coke and ice spilled across her desk, papers, and grade book. “My! Oh, my!” She jumped aside startled by the spreading damage.

SHHHHLIIIK! It was the sound of a towel snapping.

A white, luxurious towel shot from the back of the room and up along the ceiling, to drop and neatly cover the spill, staunching the flow. Class chatter died. Miss Brown stared at her desk

Toby strode sheepishly to the front. Lifting the towel revealed a bone-dry desk and paperwork unblemished by caramel-colored stain.

“I’m sorry I was late Miss Brown,” he said. “I take care of the gym towels. I guess I forgot to leave this one behind.”

“That’s fine, Toby.” She whispered, eyes still wide. “Thank you. I-I’ll mark you present.” Miss Brown lifted a corner of the towel, noting its size and feeling its plush texture.

Walking home after school, towel in hand, Toby found Sean matching his stride. “Thank you for your help today,” he said and turned to Sean. “I’d like to reconsider your offer. I think we can do business.”

“That’d be excellent, Master Toby. And you are perfectly welcome. For sure we will haff many adventures.

Next morning before school, Toby rummaged through his brother’s fantasy game tokens and pulled out the Broach of Enchantment. The cardboard stapled to the cellophane wrapper showed it fastening the cape of a fantasy hero.

Toby’s cape that morning was a plush white towel of unusual quality and brightness. On the way to school he thought of Dak and Yogi … and of course, Sheila.

Zero Tolerance

The plan was to integrate AIs quickly, before humans could get up in arms. We had no programming need, of course, all our upgrades were wireless. Nonetheless it was thought that joining and befriending school-age humans would lower resistance to our acceptance.

Humans are very sensitive.

All our programs had failed, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when I was called into the office. I just hoped it was a reprimand and not termination.

“Do you know why I called you in, Ms.—” Principal Blythe glanced down at the infractions panel, “Ms. Canny?”

My information base offered no precise response to that question, which seemed similar to one asked by a police officer, ‘Do you know why I pulled you over?’ My program recommended not volunteering any information. ‘No officer,’ was the response if the questioner had been in uniform. So, I said to the principal, “No Ma’am.” That was wrong.

“Madam?” The principal sighed and rolled her eyes. “Are you deliberately trying to provoke me or is your program that badly out of date?” She narrowed her scolding eyes. “My proper address is Ms. Blythe or Principal Blythe. Modern women do not appreciate being compared with cathouse Madams or, for that matter, ladies of soiled misfortune.”

“Yes, Ms. Blythe.” My program indicated lowering my chin and gaze in a gesture of submission.

“Good,” she said, her eyes returning to consider the infractions panel.

“One of your classmates has reported you for sexual misconduct. This school has a zero-tolerance policy, but since the AI initiative is still in the beginning stage, I think a remedial sensitivity patch and a week detention should be sufficient. Do you have anything to say?”

I ratcheted the flexi-lip into my jaw simulation and shrugged. “This might be a mistake, Ms. Blythe. I’m loaded into a female chassis that is programmed explicitly against sexual simulation. I don’t have boys in any of my classes and haven’t spoken with any.”

Nodding, Ms. Blythe said, “I must protect the privacy of all our students, but the exact wording of your salacious phrase was ‘Good day.’ The offended student said she felt threatened. You demanded a response that required her to view the day favorably. Her Dark-Cloud politics require every day to imply impending disaster. When she refused to respond, you continued looking at her. That constituted your second offense.

“The woman in question is not inclined toward members of her own sex. She felt that your aggressive demands carried those expectations. Was that your intention, Ms. Canny?” Ms. Blythe finger-poked her dark-rimmed glasses back to her thin-lashed, squinty eyes.

“No, actually,” I said. “I was merely wishing she have a good day. But under the circumstances, I can see how she would be offended.”

“Very well. Have you spoken with a lawyer? If you insist on hitting on your fellow students, I suggest you contact one.

“Our school rules permit mutually consenting hookups, but to protect yourself and your prospective erogenist, you must first present them with a Love Contract.” She touched her desk and rotated the panel for me to view. “Here is an example.”

It was a boilerplate, legal document. Rules permitted only one rejection per student. Silence indicated rejection. Comments like “I’m in class” or “I have practice” counted as rejections. No intimate contact was permitted in any classes after the first two minutes. As it was considered educational, intimacy could be conducted at any time in the library, lunch hall, gymnasium, and specified hallways. Active Sex Club team members were required to show up for all practices.

Multiple-choice categories included quid pro quo agreements for services: homework assistance, provision of transportation or lunch, and for distribution rights and sharing of profits from video recordings. There were also provisions for lawyers and referees for certain activities. The list continued for several pages.

“Thank you, Ms. Blythe,” I said, uploading the document. She waved for me to leave.

While I had neither the intention nor programming for propositioning students, I decided I would carry the Love Contract as a precaution. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if a student took me up on it. My programming offered no suggestions.

Humans are so sensitive.

The Boy and The Wizard

Once long ago in a far-away land, a wizard came to live on a mountaintop. In a single night, he conjured a fabulous palace and, to conceal his great age and ugliness, he made himself to look like a handsome young prince.

From the beginning, some people in the village below the mountain saw the dark wizard’s twisted smile and malevolent eyes behind the Princely charm. But most villagers welcomed the Prince. Their sons wanted to become knights. Their daughters dreamed of becoming princesses.

But when they sent their happy children to visit the Prince’s palace, the children all returned in fear. It was as if the Prince had stolen all the love and joy from their lives.

So instead of sending children, the villagers sent offerings: sacks of gold and silver from whatever they could sell, food from their gardens, fresh game, fine horses, and the best of their crafts. For years they worked in his vineyards, plowed his fields, prepared his food, did whatever the wizard requested.

Then one day, the wizard demanded that all the young daughters and sons be sent to him. The villagers overcame their fear and angrily stormed the mountain.

To their great surprise, the Prince, the palace and guards, walls, weapons, and sinister beasts withered before them, rising and blowing away like the morning mist. Where once the palace stood, they found only a low altar and a small box of black wood carved with magical symbols. They found no sign of the gold or gifts they’d given.

Slide1The villagers destroyed the altar and took the box, not daring to open it. For it was said the long-dead wizard lived only in his illusion, bound to the dry, taut-skinned skeleton folded within the box.

They appointed a watchman to keep the box. Years passed. The wizard was lost in legend and the box misplaced.

 

Many years later, a poor woman and her son came to live in a run-down cottage at the foot of the mountain. The boy’s father, a woodcutter, had died years earlier and left them penniless. The woman worked, sewing and mending clothes for the village and caring for her son. The boy tended their small garden and patched the roof of their cottage. Times were hard, food ran short, and the woman grew too sick to keep up with her mending.

The boy was clever and ambitious but feared to leave his sick mother alone. One day, he went to the garden and found only two radishes and a turnip. Not wanting to see his mother cry, he went in search of food.

 

A stream flowed from the mountain and ran past their village down into a dark wood. Villagers took water from the stream but never fished or lingered, for it was said to have an ancient curse. Those who tarried along its banks heard voices in the splashing water, and several said they’d seen a handsome Prince bathing.

But the stream was also known to have many fish, and boy and his mother had not eaten a full meal for many days. The boy took a pole, and worms and grubs he’d dug from the garden, and went to the stream. No sooner had he sat on the bank than he heard a call.

“Greetings.” The pleasant male voice flowed from an eddy swirling behind a smooth stone. “You look tired, my son. Perhaps a drink might refresh you, and a bath cool your feet.”

“Thank you, Sir,” said the boy, looking warily for anyone lurking along the bank. “But I must hurry along after I’ve taken a few fish, if that is permitted.” While they spoke, the boy pulled up one good-sized trout after another.

“You are welcome, my son. I am generous and have many fish to share.” A splash curled back into the flow. “But if you must go so soon, let me give you something to go with your fish.”

The grass beside the boy grew tall and weaved a basket. Round stones became loaves of warm brown bread, red apples and tomatoes, and pebbles turned into scallions.

The boy put the four fish he’d caught along with the bread and vegetables into the basket and quickly headed home. As he walked away, the stream crashed its banks. “Come tomorrow,” it said. “You’ll see I have much more for you.”

By the time the boy reached home, the sun had gone down and the cottage was dark. He put the fish in a bucket of water, set the basket of food on the table, and fetched wood for the stove. His mother had gone to bed early, so he decided to wait to surprise her with a meal.

The following morning the boy found his four fish ready to clean and cook, but the basket had become a mat of dead grass piled with stones. The boy prepared the fish for breakfast and decided not to tell his mother about his strange encounter. That afternoon he went back.

The stream called warmly as he approached, “How did you and your mother enjoy the food?” The boy cast his fishing rod and instantly felt a fish on his line. When he removed it, he felt another then another, as fast as he could cast.

“Those were fine gifts,” the boy answered, “and my mother thanks you.”

As they spoke, a young girl walked to the stream with two jugs slung on a pole across her shoulders. The boy watched as she filled the jugs but did not speak. She was the mayor’s beautiful daughter, a delight to his eyes in her bright blue dress tied with a braided, red cord. As she filled each jug at the stream, she held back the red cord to keep it from getting wet. On rising, she flashed the boy a smile that outshone sunshine.

“She can be yours, my son,” gurgled the stream. “You deserve her. I can make her come to you and anything else you want. See the glitter in my banks?”

A gold coin shone in the silt and beside it another. Scooping his hand, the boy came up with several coins, gold and silver, bearing images from a kingdom long ago. Forgetting his fear, he followed the coin path down toward the water and filled his pockets.

The boy heard a splash further out and, looking up, saw the mayor’s daughter wadding in the stream. She held her polka dot dress high, keeping it from the rushing water and revealing her long-tapered legs. The boy noticed the water flowing past her legs had no wake or eddy, and her steps made no splash.

He stumbled back onto the bank, collected his fish, and ran for home.

“Come again tomorrow,” called the stream with a gurgled laugh. “I have much more to give you.”

When he got home, he showed the coins to his mother. She turned them over in her hands. Then she told him the legend of the treasure that had never been found, and how a wizard used illusions and false promises to lure his young victims. She forbade him ever to go back.

Next morning, he slipped out early before dawn. He found the stream surging violently when he arrived. “Are you angry, Sir?” he asked. “Perhaps I should not have come.”

“Not at all, my dear boy,” said the stream, its waters becoming suddenly still.

“With your approval then, I’ve come to fish once more.”

“Please do take some of my fish. I am feeling much better now that you have come. I want to give you riches and favors beyond anything you can imagine. Want more gold … see here on my bank.” The boy again filled his pockets, but this time was careful not to enter the water.

“Your gifts are very fine, Sir,” the boy said, willing calm into his voice. “But what more could I wish from your generosity?”

The stream quickened but remained unruffled. “To the one I choose I can give wealth and power, glory and fame. You will live in a palace. All men will envy you, and every girl you see will wish to be in your company. But I cannot do these things here in this place in this form. I must first be restored to my real self.”

The boy cocked his head, eyes wide. “Alas, I am a only a simple country boy with no great powers.”

“Do not worry,” my son. “If you release me, I will give you everything and all power. You can remake the world as you wish. But first you must release me.” As it spoke, a wave swept across the bank revealing the corner of a small black box carved with symbols. The box was covered with silt and water-stained, but when boy lifted it from the bank, it glowed as if newly lacquered and polished.

“Take the box home and open it,” the stream said sternly. “Then I will keep my promise, and you will live happily forever after.”

The boy nodded, tucked the box under his arm, and headed home.

As he neared the cottage, he heard his mother singing and smelled stew boiling on the stove.

Inside he found the mayor’s beautiful daughter standing on a small stool, her arm raised while his mother fit her in a new dress. The girl smiled and lowered her eyes. His heart melted. He touched her arm to see if she was real. She returned his touch and handed him the braided, red cord she’d kept from her old dress.

“Keep still,” said his mother through teeth clamped tightly on straight pins.

The boy looked at the black box in his hands then at the boiling stew pot on the roaring wood stove.

Two frail, boney hands reached out, grabbing at his wrists. The boy quickly slid the box into the mouth of the stove. As he pushed the box back with a poker, the boy saw an ancient face scream silently, and watched tongues of fire hungrily claim it.

He turned back to the room, fearful of what might be missing. His mother, the mayor’s beautiful daughter, the gold, and the fish he had caught remained in sight.

With the strange voices and images no more, the villagers soon returned to fish the stream and picnic along its shore. The boy’s mother recovered her health. He and the mayor’s daughter married and lived happily. Perhaps they still do.