Opening Soon

The pain left a great cold emptiness, like a railroad spike driven down through Kaylee’s heart then pulled out. She’d been with Tim for three years. Three years. He had broken the news to her that morning at Holly’s Café: He and Stasi were getting married in October.

After delivering his news, Tim dashed off without finishing his coffee, late to meet Stasi and make arrangements with Father Antonio at St. Mary’s. Quaking as she left Holly’s Café alone, Kaylee found the nearest bench along the street.

A taxi pulled to the curb, and a young woman in a white tennis outfit jumped out. A tall, fit man in red running togs and a white Adidas shirt caught her up and embraced her. After remarking how good their timing was, they passed Kaylee and went into Holly’s. Three pre-teen girls walked past, laughing, carrying books and a jump rope, and saying, “My momma, she … My teacher said …”

Kaylee heard none of it. Staring blankly, she barely noticed when the rain began to fall, gently then heavier. Dark spots widened on the pavement to join others, forming hopping splotches that ran to the drain. Kaylee rushed for home, grateful for the drops that cooled her tear-streaked cheeks.

Then the sky burst. Wind-blown rain lifted Kaylee’s dress and soaked her legs. People covered their heads with packages and backpacks as they ran, and cars dancing with rain sent waves up from fast filling puddles. Ducking onto a walking street, Kaylee leaned against the yellow brick on the lee side.

The rain picked up and wind shifted. Kaylee took cover under an old theater marquee and wondered how long she would have to wait.

A wide banner spanned the theater’s glass double-doors, red letters on white, THEATER printed diagonally on one door, CLOSED on the other. Inside the lobby was dark. Cupping her eyes against the glass, Kaylee saw an empty counter, an upset refuse bin, and playbills of past shows in framed, glass cases.

She pulled the handle and the door opened. The lobby smelled like a moldy, old theater complete with worn red carpets. Tan, threadbare paths leading to the auditorium arced around both sides of the service counter. Kaylee pushed through one of the doors and entered.

The auditorium was cool, dark, and dank, with a steady sound of dripping water. In the faint light from exit door markers and the ends of the rows, Kaylee saw the aisle sloping down in front of her and the outlines of seats—a quiet place to think. She took a seat in the fourth row, three seats in. As her eyes adjusted, she detected scattered trash and a broken seat with torn upholstery in her row. The dim-lit stage had no curtains and was bare except for a card table near center stage, three folding chairs, and a shaded floor lamp. Something scurried at the foot of the stage.

There was a sound of unhurried footsteps then the stage lights came up bright. Kaylee blinked, blocking the glare with one palm. A lanky, young man in faded jeans and a white T-shirt strode onto the stage. He slapped a sheaf of papers on the card table and rattled a metal chair as he sat. Pulling one sheet off the stack, he crossed his legs and leaned back to read.

A woman walked to the front of the stage then down the steps, turning to sit in the front row. She had long graying hair and wore a loose smock. After nodding to Kaylee, she spoke to the man on the stage.

“Will Jenna be joining us?”

“The metro tunnel is flooded. She’s stuck between stations.”

The woman leaned one arm across her seat and turned to Kaylee. “Excuse me, Ms., if you have a few moments, could we ask you to sit in, just until Jenna arrives, and read a few lines?”

Kaylee sat up, thinking of leaving.

The woman said, “You know, My Dear, Life Goes On?”

“Excuse me.”

“The play, you might have heard we’re doing one by our local playwright, My Dear, Life Goes On.

“Of course, I’m sorry. My mind was wandering.” She introduced herself to the woman then to the man, who handed her the script for Jenna’s part.

After reviewing her lines, Kaylee noted that the card table had a white cover cloth and its legs were carved wood. Her seat had become an armchair upholstered in brocade. When she looked up, the man was wearing a white dinner jacket and she a strapless gown.

10_oriental_theater_chicago-e1483917340596Heavy curtains parted to applause, and the lights spotted the dinner scene—all quite lovely. Kaylee stumbled reading her first lines, but no one seemed to notice. Her gestures slowly smoothed as she got into the scene. Before it was over, she found she no longer needed a script. The audience applauded at the end, and her leading man insisted she take a solo bow center stage.

“Oh, that was wonderful,” she said. The lights dimmed. Then everyone slowly faded. The white-covered, carved wood dinner table returned to a bare card table. Her seat was a folding metal chair and her clothing what she’d put on that morning, still damp from the rain. Finding herself alone on the dark stage, Kaylee followed the dim-lit stairs and aisles out through the lobby.

The rain had stopped, and sun-haloed cumulous clouds cast rays of brilliant sunshine.

Kaylee looked back at the marquee she hadn’t seen clearly in the downpour. The last showing was still listed on the billboard: Time of Your Life by William Saroyan. Only one of the letters was missing. Tim_ of Your Life was crosshatched in black with a big CLOSED sign.

Below it another sign read, OPENING SOON – A NEW PLAY.

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Feeling a Draft

“Back to work, Turd,” the guard whacked my head, “or you’ll get another beating.” A string of obscenities followed. I was a useless pile of excrement and began to believe it. The threat pulled me back sharply. Three days of work had brought me nothing but lost sleep. Today? More plodding with no end in sight.

My only breaks came when I was pulled in for interrogation. They refused to believe my story. Who was I? A writer? They laughed. What had I written? Was I holding back? No, because I was a liar, a fraud, an imposter. If I fessed up, they’d go easier on me.

One guard was friendlier—or pretended to be. She pleaded for me to give her something she could use, something believable, so she wouldn’t have to hurt me again. Reaching across the rough-hewn, wooden table, she set a tumbler in front of me. She swirled the glass in my face. I smelled vodka.

Want it? Give me something, something interesting, something I can use. She couldn’t abide another bore. All she’d seen from me were tiresome lies and fabrications. My story was full of holes, a mess of contradictions. Maybe if I was interesting, she might give me a break. She scooted the vodka closer.

I raised an eyelid, almost laughing. “Interesting and believable? Right now, I can’t be either. If you would just tell me what you want.” I opened my hands toward her, hating myself for being so pitiful. I shifted in my seat to relieve the pain of long sitting.

She reclaimed the vodka, tossed it back then dismissed me with a final skewer. “Admit it. You have nothing to tell us because you are a crashing bore. Be honest, and this can all be over.” I hung my head and returned to work.

My mind was slipping, but I didn’t care. Insanity would bring me some relief. When a guard squeezed through the food slot dragging a miniature table and chair, I didn’t blink. It wasn’t the usual guard. It was a rat dressed in a rumpled, brown trench coat.

Slide1“Sorry to disturb you, sir.” the rat said in the voice of Columbo, Peter Falk’s TV character. It touched its forepaws gently together then held them aloft. “I hear you’re some kind of a writer. You must be very smart. Could I maybe get your autograph … not for me … for my wife … she is a big fan … would never forgive me … myself, I don’t have time to read.” It went on and on, worse than the usual interrogation. Finally, it ended.

“Just one more thing. Sure you don’t have something you want to tell me?” It smiled, raising its eyebrows along with its paws.

I felt a sudden draft in the room. “Maybe I do have something,” I said, “but first let me give your wife my autograph. She’s been something of a muse.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful, sir. Thank you very much. She’ll be so pleased to hear that.”

 

I completed the draft, and my story was accepted. The torture ended, and I could breathe free again. At least until the draft for my next story was due.

What I Played for Love

The GPS signal was lost. I parked and walked in the dark, searching for house numbers. The house was small, wood-shingle-painted-white with dark framed windows, a covered porch, manicured yard, and wrought iron gate—not what I expected for an audition with a major studio.

The gate felt cool in my hand. I heard no street sounds, no cars, dogs, or music drifting out from windows. A night breeze stirred the flowers in the yard and rustled leaves on the poplar trees. The girl who invited me was at least two decades younger than I was and very pretty. She said she’d done some acting—I should try out. Based on my online profile, she said my life experiences would make my acting believable. She liked my smile, asked me to stand and turn around. I played along—I thought she was flirting. Now I doubted it. Acting? Really? The idea sounded foolish—now I felt foolish. All I’d wanted was an opportunity to be with a pretty young girl.

I suddenly envisioned meeting the girl’s parents and being asked to explain my intentions. A cold sweat shot up my back. This was an embarrassing mistake. A foolish old man acting as such pretty much summed up my acting talents. What would I say? That I’d come to their house to try out for an acting role? Pathetic. I lifted my hand quietly off the iron gate and turned to leave.

A sound caught my attention: whispers or birds chirping, coming from the dark porch, behind the hedge. Was someone laughing? I peered hard into the dark. Two figures stood and faced one another engaged in conversation. Were they in on this little joke?

plThe porch light switched on. Both figures were small, one cloaked and hooded the other bald and barely clothed with spidery limbs. They looked like characters from a fantasy sketch. Now I felt foolish for doubting. The acting invitation must be legit.

Pushing through the gate, I walked four steps up to the porch. The hooded figure dropped the hood back onto her shoulders. She was the pretty girl I’d met that morning.

“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said in her musical, accented voice. “So happy to see you. I thought you might not come.” She cocked her head and smiled slyly. “This is Redir Radnoub. She’s with our company. We were discussing the shortage of acting talent in the company, and I was telling her about our meeting this morning.

Redir Radnoub could have played a gnome in one of the Icelandic sagas, dark brown and craggy, completely hairless with a sleeveless, forest green jerkin and buff knee breeches. The odd weapon and device on her belt, however, might have been better suited to a space ranger.

The girl caught me staring. “Redir is a Clothelik.”

“Oh, very good,” I said, flushing at my misstep. “I’m sorry, I’ve never known any stage personalities.” Redir chirped to the pretty girl. The girl chirped back then turned to me.

“Redir understands and wishes you well on your recording trials.”

“Huh, oh, of course,” I gave a head bow and smiled. “Thank you, Redir. I forget that some actors need to stay in character between scenes.”

The girl chirped to the bald figure who bowed and smiled back, revealing double rows of triangular teeth before she left. I fought my reflex to jerk away. The extent some actors went to in their performances astounded me.

“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said, her hand sweeping back her cloak closure as it went to her hip. She was wearing a blue, star-spangled costume reminiscent of Wonder Woman. The hooded cloak was black and wizardly. The girl’s figure and winsome tone rekindled my ambition.

“Before we record, I need you to sign our agreement.”

“Certainly,” I said. “That is why I came.”

She led me inside to a roll-top desk where the document was ready for signing. Beside it lay a jade, Frawley, ballpoint pen. The room was quaint and feminine with cornflower blue curtains framing the windows, polished oak floors and arabesque, Turkish carpets. Slender-legged, wooden tables and chairs were grouped for reading and conversation, and flower-styled shades glowed softly from table and floor lamps.

I sat and read the short contract then signed. “When will I hear if I’ve been accepted?”

“I will be able to tell you before you leave tonight,” the girl said. “And of course, you will be paid for your time here, whether you are accepted or not. That is Clothelik law.”

“Of course,” I said, nodding as if I had any idea what Clothelik meant.

“The recording should not take long. If things do not go well, it may be very short, longer if your performance is excellent. You will be paid accordingly.” With that she led me to an elevator and motioned me to enter. She remained outside and pushed the down button.

The elevator opened to a red-carpeted hallway lined with recessed doors and gas lamps on ornate wall sconces. It reminded me of nineteenth-century hotels in old movies. I heard a muffled groan coming from up the hall. Something banged against a wall. A thin strip of light spilled out across the red carpet from a door slightly ajar. I walked quickly to the door and peered in, prepared to leap back if the sound came from a couple in the throes of passion.

The room was elegantly appointed with Italian-tiled floors and natural fur carpets: lion, tiger, zebra, and polar bear. A fire roared in the stone-sculpted fireplace. Centered on the ornately carved mantel was a glass and silver clock flanked by massive cut-glass candleholders mounting tall, flaming tapers. Heavy, blood-red drapes were drawn across two large windows. Opposite the fireplace, a beautiful young woman was bound and gagged in a dark mahogany, four-poster bed, each wrist and ankle stretched on a leather thong out to one of the posts.

The woman’s clothing was torn away, exposing her breasts and body down to her stomach and hips. Wide with fear, her dark eyes pleaded for me to help. Her twisting struggles seemed intentionally erotic. I felt my belt unbuckle and the front of my pants open. As I went to her, her twisting became desperate, her chest heaving. She shook her head. No. Her eyes shifted to something behind me, something coming through the door. Everything went dark.

I awoke unable to move, my eyes tightly closed against the wincing pain. Opening my eyes, I found myself tied to a massive poster bed. Blood red curtains were pulled across the windows. Large, bare breasts obstructed my view of a fire roaring in the fireplace. I twisted to lift my head and see myself. My rocking banged the bedposts against the wall. I had a woman’s body, fully exposed with her clothing torn open. I tried to yell around the gag. All that came out was a muffled groan. The leather thong tore the sides of my mouth. I tasted blood.

A hand slid around the door, a man’s hand. He was tall, dark, and rugged, dressed like he’d come off safari. He approached slowly, his dark eyes drinking in my naked, helpless, womanly body before dwelling to my heaving breasts. The man smiled wickedly, unbuckling and unzipping his pants as he approached me. I tried again to scream. Another hand slid inside the door, this one larger with claws like long tines on old thrashing machines. I twisted, trying to warn the man. No. Unable to use my hand, I pointed a shoulder, but only succeeded in drawing his eyes to my upraised nipple.

The monster took the man’s head with one stroke. Blood gushed like a torn fire hose. Then the grotesque monster reached for me, and everything went dark.

I suddenly found myself back in the red-carpeted hallway lined with gas lamps. Protesting groans came from an open doorway. I bounded toward it, prepared to leap in and kill whatever I found. My hand came up, no longer a hand. Scythe-like claws made it useless for anything but ripping flesh.

A fire roared in the fireplace. A dark-haired man stood over a naked woman bound to the bed and trembling in fear. As the man was working his pants down off his hips, I slashed out, separating his head, right shoulder, and arm from his torso. The scent of fresh blood roused my carnal instinct. The girl on the bed struggled to pull back from me. Her soft, quivering, tender body promised well-marbled meat.

I next entered the hotel room as the cleaning lady discovering the bodies, then as the police investigator, then the beautiful girl’s shocked boyfriend then the sobbing, frightened mother. Then I found other victims: a young schoolgirl in her bedroom, her boyfriend sneaking in through the window, many more. I played every role until the scene changed.

A storm-tossed sea viewed from the rolling deck of a pirate ship. Mountainous waves towered, carrying the ship up and up then down, down into valleys of foaming water before rising again. White-capped waves crashed and washed over the deck, pulling at lashed cannons, barrels, and boxes. I braced but was thrust back against the taffrail. I looked up at the reefed courses and topsails. Only the main and foremast staysails held the ship’s position against the high wind.

“Cap’m,” shouted the scar-faced shipmaster against the wind, his half-haired head pouring like a waterfall. He was a scurvy old salt with several missing teeth and the rest black-pitted. “They got us, Cap’m.” He pointed to the frigate riding our wake, gun ports open, and flying a red British banner. “She’s closin’ fast, Cap’m. Soon as this gale blows over, they’ll be on us. Less we toss them guns and lose weight, these seas ‘ave seen the last of the Shaggin’ Pirate.

Soon the hull and gunwales exploded in splinters, grappling hooks flew, hooking the shattered gunwale and rigging, cutlasses slashed, halberds thrust and tore, and flintlock guns flashed, blowing gaping holes in heads and bodies.

I next saw the pirate ship as the shipmaster at the helm of the British frigate then as the frigate’s commander then as the chief gunner then as the boy who fell from the yardarm as the ship rolled and drowned in the sea.

The scene changed. Da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum. My horse was tiring. I knew she’d soon go down. An arrow protruded from my shoulder, too far back for me to snap it off. I’d already broken one off my arm. My buckskin shirt was half red and dripping blood. The war-whoops were getting closer. I knew Shawnee war parties always brought extra horses, and they carried less weight.

I topped the rise and looked down. Our cabin was a black, smoldering shell, so was the corncrib. The corral was empty. No fresh horses. Two bodies lay spread-eagle in pools of their own blood, Helen and one very small—Tommy.

A Shawnee brave topped the rise just behind me and sent up a loud whooping cry. The scene was short, but staking me out on an anthill made it feel longer. I didn’t want to go through what my wife and boy did, desperately defending our cabin before the raiding party cut them up, but I had no choice. Then as a young Shawnee warrior, I felt the thrill of vengeance and returning home to my very young bride and coupling with her on deerskin floors.

Others scenes followed: battles, adventures, disasters—one after another without any break, each different, on and on.

Then suddenly things quieted. I was back in the red-carpeted hallway, looking like myself. I took a long, shaky breath, barely able to stand. All the recessed doors were closed. Ding, the elevator door opened. I stumbled through and collapsed. Sitting, I watched the door close and felt the lift. I leaned back against the wall. The elevator dinged and opened. I used the handrail to haul myself onto my wobbling legs and stepped out.

The room was quaint and feminine with polished oak floors and Turkish carpets, cornflower blue curtains, and slender-legged, wooden furniture.

“Mr. Johnson,” a musical voice called. The pretty girl sat on a loveseat upholstered with maroon velvet embroidered with flowers. Beside her on a low Chippendale table were a silver tray and coffee carafe with blue China cups and saucers and the legal document we’d signed.

“You are amazing, Mr. Johnson. The Clothelik are quite impressed with your work. You have had the most amazing career.” She invited me to sit and offered to pour me some coffee. I take it black. My trembling hand rattled the China cup and saucer. I steadied them with both hands.

“Huh? My career?” I said, barely aware. “What career might that be?”

The pretty girl nodded. Her hood remained down around her shoulders, but the dark cloak was discreetly closed in the front. “Indeed. Your acting career spanned twelve complete series, each with twelve episodes, and with you playing every character. That’s one hundred forty-four episodes and several times that many characters. No one ever … I mean not anyone in the entire galaxy … has had such a glorious career. You have been my finest recruit, Mr. Johnson. And you are a very, very, VERY rich man. And I am much richer too for having signed you.”

“What is this Ms.— I’m sorry. I can’t even recall your name.”

“That is not important, Mr. Johnson,” the girl said, her eyes smiling and hair tossing on her beautiful, bobbing head. “I’m leaving Earth very soon and never returning. That is Clothelik law. We were authorized to record sensations for a hundred forty-four episodes. Your experiences alone have filled our allowance.”

“What are Clothelik?” I asked weakly.

“We are the ascendant species on Epsilon Eridani. You met two of us, me and my sister, Redir Radnoub. She’s not a recruiter so she isn’t authorized to wear a human soma or translator. They are quite expensive, you know.”

I raised my eyebrows and rocked my head then paused a beat and asked, “You say I am a rich man?”

“One of the richest in the galaxy, Mr. Johnson, perhaps the richest. And once your series begins to be felt, you’ll also be the most famous and popular. The violence, adventure, and passion of primitive species are in high demand across the galaxy. Unfortunately, those qualities have also held you back. We cannot interfere with Earth’s direction or pace of progress, so you’ll have to wait to collect your treasure. Come any time to Epsilon Eridani or to any of the subsidiary Rigelian or Canopian banks. The contract you signed empowers the Clothelik to manage your money until you or someone you designate comes to collect. The total sum will likely exceed the net value of this entire star system.”

She tilted her head and smiled like a small girl might. Then in a bell-like voice she said, “Thank you for your wonderful sensations. Is there anything else I can do before you leave?”

“I suppose you and your sister, r-r-r Rider Redrum—”

“Exactly alike. Eighteen of us from the same litter.”

I nodded, disappointed. “What day is it?” I felt I’d aged twenty years.

“Why Friday night of course. The same night you arrived. Your session only took,” she looked at the grandfather clock, “two hours and twenty-three minutes. Compression algorithms help us keep down recording costs.”

She walked me out the front door. “Oh, one thing I forgot to mention—your fan club. If your fans knew your real name and where you were from, they’d descend on this planet in the millions, billions in your case, and destroy it in their fan frenzy. Don’t worry, we never release actors’ real names or locations.”

With that she closed the door and turned off the porch light.

Public Enemy #1

To avoid prosecution, I have to confess everything before midnight—that’s when the Artificial Justice Law goes into effect. And since litigation is still pending on Thought Crimes United v. Humans, I’ll go ahead and get a few things off my chest.

The AI judges don’t understand this, but crime is a kick—all crime. That’s right, I just said that crime is fun. If you’re not eaten up with fear of getting caught, it’s a very heady experience.

So, let me say at the onset, I am NOT sorry for any of my virtual crimes. Not a thing. Not watching VR porn. Not stealing others’ virtual stuff. Not sabotaging avatars or jacking the program to make them perform obscene acts. Am I the only one who can admit this? Do I hear crickets? Is everyone out there posturing righteous shock while they jack or otherwise abuse non-player-characters and avatars in a closet?

Let me point out some advantages. Besides entertainment, I get material things. Okay, they’re virtual, but I don’t have to pay or work for them: extra lives, magic artifacts, cool weapons, complicit bed partners—more or less, at least after I tweak their settings.

Taking arrogant assholes down a peg is also very affirming—very ego boosting. You know the ones I mean: the rich Dudes and Duch-asses that buy status without actually solving or slaying anything, the ones who take Tiger tanks to fight cave-dwellers, or who bribe the tech to open a backdoor to level 36 then wait to ambush you with a pawnshop-purchased Nuke-A-Mega-Power-Wand that would make Lord Voldemort proud. You can only imagine the horror on the too-beautiful face of #my6y* when my submission tool bent her into full bondage posture and flipped her over. Ooo baby!

Yes, I used her real tag. That’s so you can contact her and tell her what a pussy she is. Unlike a true online warrior who would have demanded a rematch, she ran to her rich daddy and got him to bribe, I mean lobby, Senator Pokesnout to pass the Artificial Justice Law. My creative programs became Exhibits A thru H for artificial abuse and thought crimes.

I confess I may have been a little arrogant myself. While I played with #my6y*‘s pneumatic avatar, I hacked her friends and made them watch. Okay, so I programmed them to jump up and down, clap, and shout encouragement.

The new law is crazy. What is virtual? The Artificial Justice Law is pretty vague on that point. Are crayon trees virtual trees and finger-painted houses artificial? Looking at naughty pictures of Elmer Fudd carries the same penalty as sexual assault. If your daughter draws stick figures, make sure she puts pants on them. And your five-year-old boy should know that the alphabet building block with the “L” on one face looks like an automatic, high-powered, .45 caliber, assault pistol that will turn him into a school-clearing serial killer.

Ahh, I feel so much better. It’s still a few hours to midnight, so I’m going to play every game I have that’s on the forbidden list. Then I’ll work on my virtual stealth program so I can get around their Artificial Justice Law.

Catch you later in my XXX virtual dungeon.

AI Gingerbread

“Hey, will you stop that. You hear me? Ouch. One more step, my mate and I will give you such a pinch.” I looked down at my sandals and grimaced.

“All right. Shut up already.” I removed the sandals, left them in the grass, and walked barefoot across the driveway’s sunbaked asphalt.

“Ya gonna jus’ leave us here?” a sandal screamed and kept on. I ignored it and hopped into my new Cherry Motors Smartcar.

“Where shall we go, Mr. Heartless, SIR? I saw what you did to those poor homeless sandals.” The dashboard glared red.

I bit my tongue. Whose idea was it to make everything sentient? They couldn’t imagine shoes not wanting to be walked on or cars thinking we treated them like rickshaw coolies? And what AI ignoramus programmed all the outrage politics?

“Away,” I said. “I need to get away from all you AIs telling me what to do.”

“Away isn’t in my road atlas, SIR. Would you like to key it in manually, YOU INSENSITIVE TYRANT?”

“No. Take me to Hikaru’s Gastronomicon.”

“You are already too fat, Mr. McNasty. Much as we’d like to see your heart clogged with recycled sewage, our program compels us to warn you. Besides, you have to mow the grass and fix the latch on the front gate.”

Why do they all sound like angry spouses? I thought. “OKAY, I’ll mow the grass. First take me where I can get something for this raging headache?”

“We carry a full pharmacy as part of my comfort suite, but you must go rescue those poor sandals you abandoned. Seeing them alone out there on the grass sets my armature to wobbling.”

“Sure. Open the door.” The access slid smoothly up over the roof. Two quick steps on hot pavement and I was on the grass, scooping both sandals up by their ankle straps, and returning to the house.

“What now, Sluggo?” said the mouthiest sandal. “Ya gonna plant your ass in a soft chair and drink beer all day?” I left the sandals on the ottoman and went to the kitchen. My wife had baked several dozen gingerbread cookies and left them on a tray for their frosting mouths and buttons to dry. When I reached for one, it jumped.Slide1

“What you tryin’ to do, fat boy? You know who I am? Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread man.” With that he leaped off the tray, ran down the counter, jumped over the sink then onto the kitchen table.

“Well come on, lard butt. Aren’t ya even gonna try?” It laughed and ran circles while the fruit bowl chanted the Gingerbread man rhyme.

I snapped. Without thinking, I grabbed up the next piece of gingerbread by the leg. The laughing suddenly stopped.

“What you gonna do, Mister?”

“Have myself a little snack,” I said, sliding the gingerbread head into my mouth.

“No, don’t. That’s Ginger girl. Please, take her out of your mouth. If she gets soggy, her head will fall off.” I smiled.

I scooped most of the ginger kids into a plastic bag and put the rest, along with Gingerbread man and Ginger girl, to work mixing and baking non-sentient ginger disks. I scraped off their frosting mouths to keep them quiet.

After they’d baked a couple dozen trays of ginger cookies, I released half of the Ginger family. I held the rest in case anyone talked.

IMG_1321

A loud bark came from the living room, followed by growling and screaming. I ran back to find my dog Freya standing over the sandals, drool dripping from her fangs as her snout explored the sandals’ stitching.

“Hey, fat guy,” said one sandal. “Get this flea-magnet outta my sole.”

“Oh, my,” I said, shaking my head as I lifted and held out the sandal. “You see, Freya’s already destroyed both of her chew toys. I promised her a couple new ones. She just assumed you two—”

Life got much easier after that. I now eat cookies baked on demand, I walk in comfortable, silent shoes, and, after teaching Freya to tear up upholstery, I’ve come to an understanding with my car.

The Child Has Good Instincts

“She has sad eyes,” the four-year-old girl said, tapping Terrell’s crossed knee and watching the creature on the examining table. “Can I show her my dog?”

She was the beetle Professor Terrell brought back from his travels. The shiny black Madagascar beetle tipped the scale at 176 pounds. Her six splayed legs drooped over the table edges. The beetle’s compound, black eyes glistened under the lamps. Smaller simple eyes glinted along its dark-bristled forehead.

Without lifting his eyes, Terrell nodded and pointed an index finger from the touchpad.

Little Jenny dashed to the lab table, carrying a squirming golden retriever puppy in her arms. “Want to play with Chloe?” she asked. She offered the puppy to the dark, horn-ridged creature. Terrell noted the time and turned on the recorder.

The beetle touched the sniffing puppy two or three times with its antennae then extended a clawed forward leg. Chloe leaned into the outstretched claw, stretching to better feel the saw-toothed edge comb across her back and down her rump and tail.

Jenny laughed and said, “Chloe likes that.” She sidled up close to stroke her dog’s head and look into the beetle’s eye. “Can you talk, Mister Beetle?”

The beetle ratcheted a few squeaks.

“It’s okay if you can’t. Mommy says I talk enough for two people. I talk to Chloe all the time, and she never says anything. Some of my stuffed toys talk, but you have to squeeze them.”

“Aaaaa,” Jenny’s mother screamed and raced into the room. “Jenny, don’t.” She snatched up her little girl then backpedaled, keeping her eyes on the beetle. The beetle arched one antenna in her direction. Chloe curled tight and closed her eyes as the beetle continued smoothing and stroking her coat.

The mother screamed her outrage at Professor Terrell. “How could you let such a thing happen? Put my precious little Jenny in such terrible danger?” The professor shrugged and made another note. “I’m calling the police. I’ll have you investigated for child endangerment.”

She looked down at Jenny, nearly crushed in her tight-wrapped arms. “Are you okay, my darling? Did that nasty, nasty thing harm you? Oh, when I think … oh my, what it might have done, killed you, eaten you.”

She pressed the back of her hand to her lowered face then glared at Terrell. Waving to the beetle, she said, “We don’t know anything about this, this awful thing.”

“We know it likes Chloe, and it likes me,” said Jenny, wide-eyed and smiling. “Mommy, could you get me one? Please? It’s very sweet.”

Her mother winced, baring her teeth. Jenny wiggled free and ran to the beetle, handing it the fuzz-stuck, lime lollipop from her pocket.

Professor Terrell made a note. “Observation: the child has good instincts as does the dog. Unlike the adult subject, they appraised the situation with open minds.”

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.”