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.”

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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.

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.

Second Chance

“Goin’ up to the spirit in the skyyy,” Kip sang, rocking his shoulders, “… where ahhm gonna go when I diiie.” He never liked the recording until his son sent it to celebrate his second chance—Kip’s sentence being commuted from twenty-five years in prison to five years collecting trash in space.

“When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best.” He sang, scratched two fingers on the four-day stubble under his chin, and gazed at the wraparound display. Stars stood bright and unblinking in the black. A sliver of moon glowed like a white magnolia petal floating on a midnight pond. He called up the vector lines for incoming space debris. Nothing close to his position was larger than a pinky nail clipping.

Hearing his echo in the hollow operations chamber, Kip laughed then shouted, “… gonna go to the place that’s the best … well that sure as hell ain’t here.” He’d learned his lesson. That’s what he told his son. Next time he’d do different.

He’d volunteered for this, been tested, and done well. Smart was never his problem—least not technical smart. He’d done well in the training, too, not like he was competing against real astronauts. Only convicts got these jobs.

But technically, Kip was an astronaut. He hoped his new skills might translate to something better when he got out. Four more years, he winced. The moniker they gave him, ‘space junkie’, described how he felt—not much improvement over his juvenile sentence ten years ago, six-months collecting bottles, cans, and diapers tossed out on route 41 heading north out of Chicago.

It was all politics. He was getting rehab and a second chance. News feeds never mentioned the state getting money for sending him up, or the fact that no insurance for convicts meant he was cheaper than a machine or a real astronaut.

But running a space station was big responsibility, even if it was a glorified trash compactor. His orbit was the highest of any space junkie, three thousand miles above geosynchronous—which meant out of the money. Pulling in a dead geosynchronous satellite could net him a cool hundred grand plus an insurance bonus. Ease his return to civilian life. All he’d collected out here was busted parts and pieces: access panels, nozzles, machine screws, paint chips, maybe a sheet of silicon off a solar panel. Last year’s big find.

3033a

A quick review of the monitors showed everything in order. His three electro-magnetically formed, nano-fiber trawling nets bellied out like sails on a square-rigged ship. The nitinol talon he’d use if the nets ever snagged anything bigger than a baseball was charged and tucked in its pod.

“Oh, Commander,” the ever-sweet auto-service used the address he’d programmed, “one of your favorite fans wants to contact you.” It was probably Jolene. Kip expected her call. He thought he’d never want to hear from the bitch again, but the chirpy auto-service voice was wearing on him. He paused the music.

“Hey there, baby,” he said. Jolene’s face popped up: blue eye shadow over squinty eyes, ruby-painted lips, and chipped, tobacco-stained teeth. The new crop of lines on her face told him she’d jacked her drug dose.

“Hello yourself, Kipper,” she said, smiling mischief. Kip knew what was coming. “Did you like those sweet goodies I sent in your last supply run?”

“Wasn’t sure how sweet they was. Those Eroti-pop groans yours?”

“Every lick’s a reminder of what you’re missin’ back home.”

“So who’d you fuck makin’ the Eroti-pop recordings?”

“So many I forgot. Once you cleared out, they was linin’ up.” She scowled then flipped her hand and smiled. “Nah, jus’ kiddin’, nobody special. Dickey Ray, he come round last week and brung my regular stuff. Then he stuck round for his usual payment.”

Kip slow tapped the console dash with his fist but kept a tight smile over his clenched teeth. It was Dickey Ray got him here in the first place—him sniffin’ round Jolene and gettin’ into her panties.

Most men knew to keep away from Kip and what was his. He walked around with a hunched swagger and a hard look, a tight-wound spring, set to strike whatever touched him: a hand, a word, any slighting glance or gesture. But Dickey Ray wanted a slice. Kip remembered the morning he got home early from work. Dickey Ray’s service van was parked out front. Sneaking in quiet-like, he heard Jolene in the back, groaning to the steady squeak of bedsprings. That sent him for the ball bat.

In the monitor image Jolene jutted and pooched her lips like she was blowing a trumpet. “Oooo, baby. What’d you expect I’d be crossin’ my legs and keep on missin’ you? I got my needs. Dickey Ray got his. He givin’ me discounts on all my stuff.”

“Thanks for the Eroti-pops.” Kip punched disconnect. His tattoo caught his attention, a blue and red cobra sliding down his arm to a fanged face on his hand. Jolene said it looked like a sock puppet.

“FUCK.” Kip hammered the console. “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK. How’d I ever let that nasty bitch get to me?” He shook his head like a shiver.

“Oh, Commander,” the auto-service crooned, “something in our net requires your attention … No, it’s gone now. Sorry to disturb you.”

Happy for the distraction, Kip opened the stats window. One of the trawl net tethers reported uneven stress, but the problem had apparently self-corrected. He magnified that area of the net and rechecked the tethers.

The sensors registered no discrepancies and nothing in the net, but there was a meter-wide hole in its center, clean and round as if cut by a laser. What could have made such a hole, and why wasn’t it registering? Kip slacked the tethers on the left side of the net, and the hole slid left. It hadn’t grown or stretched, and the previously holed area appeared healed.

If nothing was in the net, it was a substantial nothing. What … an alien spacecraft? … more likely a secret defense satellite. What had he screwed up now … or found that he shouldn’t? He rechecked the vector scans and history logs. Nothing. Maybe it was a lost satellite. Maybe he’d get a bounty for finding it.

That did it. He couldn’t let it slip away. He considered using the talon gripper, but it was too clumsy, so he collapsed the trawl net and recalled it to the trash-sorting bay.

When Kip entered the bay, he did a double take. The hole appeared to extend through the net and out into space, right through the pressure hull. In the opening he saw a field of stars, yet pressure and atmosphere in the bay remained normal.

On examining the hole from many angles, it appeared to be a sphere. Wherever Kip stood, the opening behind it looked directly into space, and previous holes in the net and hull vanished.

Perhaps it was a window? Kip leaned to peer through it, and it grabbed him.

 

The bay and space station disappeared along with the field of stars and all light. Floating in black with no sensation, Kip touched himself to make sure he still existed. His body parts remained in the right places, but he wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. If there was any air, it was not moving and had no discernible temperature.

“Hey,” he shouted, but couldn’t be sure he’d made any sound.

Hair stood on his neck, back, and arms, and the sensation rolled across him like an electro-static wind. Violet appeared, shifted down the spectrum to red, then back half way until it blended to normal visible light. The background remained black. A floor formed under his feet.

“You are a human.” The low monotone voice came from a three-stilted bell jar. Kip wasn’t sure if it was a statement or a question.

A second bell jar stilt-walked to join the first and said, “It is a human.”

“I’ve never seen one,” said the first. “What’s it doing on my watch?”

“Must have stumbled into a bubble.” A glow in the bell jar shifted to Kip. “Did you find a bubble?”

“What sort of bubble?” Kip asked.

“Left over from the great blending—a bubble that never became time-space,” said the second bell jar, obviously senior. “Some still float in the human universe. You are from Earth, right?”

“Yes,” Kip said. “I guess your bubble thing got caught in my net.”

The bell jars consulted then transformed in an eye-blink to tall, beautiful humans with flowing hair and complexions of glowing gold.

Wide-eyed, Kip whispered, “You’re angels. I reckon I must be dead.”

“We have been called angels.” The senior’s voice was now melodic and warm. “But you are neither dead nor alive. The great blending of time and space that allowed you and your universe to exist never happened here. This place, our forms and yours are temporary concepts to enable this communication.”

As Kip struggled for words, the first angel answered his unasked question. “Of course, you must return to time and space. Order must be restored.”

Kip felt relief but also saw his dreams of big money vanish. “Kin I keep that bubble? I got salvage rights.”

“It was an anomaly that has been corrected, said the senior angel. “Restoring it to you may cause another disturbance. We’ll send you back to exactly when and where you were before you found the bubble.”

Kip tried another approach. “I’m a might put out by this whole sich’ation. I figger it’s you two what done it, so it’s you two what needs to do some fixin’.”

The two angels looked at one another confused. “What would you require to bring you peace?” asked the senior angel.

“Would it perturb your great cosmic order if I was to go back to some other previous time…say back on Earth a couple years earlier?” Kip said. “There’s somethin’ I need to set right.”

“Free will is built into the human universe,” the senior angel said. “What you do or undo will alter your future, but it will not disturb the greater order.” Kip nodded and indicated the exact place and time he wanted to return.

 

Dickey Ray’s service van was parked out front. Kip walked in quiet like before. The sound of bedsprings and Jolene moaning got his anger up. He remembered her taunting and clenched his fists. Like he told his boy, he’d learned his lesson. This was his second chance and he wasn’t going to screw it up. He slid the ball bat from the corner. This time he’d put his back into it.

My Visit with Kuday Kolun

All the cross training I’d done at Jacqueline’s Gym in uptown Manhattan hadn’t prepared me to climb fourteen thousand feet into the Tian Shan mountains. Every frost-billowing breath sucked heat from my body and drained energy from my limbs. I concentrated on hand and footholds. Cold stone and my heartbeat pressing into my throat numbed me to whatever wonder I might have felt seeing the bright yellow sun, crystal blue sky, and snow-capped peaks.

tianshan-mountains

I topped the latest precipice and, seeing no sign of Kuday Kolun or his temple, decided to rest. I wedged my quivering buttocks into a crevice out of the wind, pulled the flaps down on my argali-skin cap, and dug into my satchel for a boorsok fried pastry I’d saved from breakfast. I took a bite and sipped mare’s milk from the sheepskin flask I’d tucked inside my tunic to keep it from freezing. My entire body relaxed, wanting sleep, but a passing vision of being found frozen the next day kept me awake.

It struck me as funny that I’d been here before. Not the Tian Shan mountains but the point of no return, where going on seemed easier than turning back. That was funny, too, because I had no idea why I’d come, which pretty much summed up all my life decisions.

When friends asked why I’d dropped out of school, offhandedly I’d said, “I must seek the mountain of wisdom, fountain of truth.” It sounded good and went over well. Truth was I was bored with school, getting drunk, and the girls who hung with our crowd. I also wanted to avoid anything like actual work.

My beer-sodden brilliance told me that wherever the mountain of wisdom was, if it even existed, it most likely would be found among other mountains. And since Eastern wisdom always fascinated me, I headed eastward and upward. Several zigzag hops on various odd aircraft later, I found myself in Nookat, Kyrgyzstan.

The pilot from Osh-Avia airlines didn’t bat an eye. “Ah, mountain of wisdom, Kuday Kolun. I know way. Take you for small fee. Nephew Temir be your guide.” Osh-Avia had one plane, a tri-motor biplane.

Being a New Yorker, I suspected a hustle, but everyone assured me that the mountain of wisdom’s fountain of truth could be found in the great Tian Shan mountains. His name was Kuday Kolun, Kyrgyz for “Touched by God.”

After one night in a Nookat hotel room that could have passed for a prison cell, the pilot flew me to Shankol and introduced me to Temir. Mercifully noncommittal about my unpreparedness, Temir provided a sheep’s leather tunic, pants and boots, a fur-lined parka, gloves, and a head-wrapping cap. He carried our knapsacks, bedrolls, and sheepskin flasks.

We reached Sary-gol late the second evening and bedded down in a small brown woman’s family yurt. The village comprised seven conical-roofed yurts made of skins and felt, a run-down, brick-walled building, and a corral with three shaggy horses whose smells, along with smoke from the cooking fires, permeated the crisp air. Temir told me the brick building had been a rest station for Genghis Khan’s pony express. Sary-gol had once been on a major trade route.

Next morning our hostess greeted us in a red and gold flowered dress. When I mentioned my quest, her eyes lit up. “Oh, yes, Kuday Kolun,” she said and pointed up a very steep ridge.

I must make that climb alone, Temir had said, and I needed to bring an offering. Kuday Kolun met only with solitary visitors and survived on the benevolence of wisdom seekers. In recent years, those had grown few.

The few now included me, sitting in a butt-cold crevice. Another thought of freezing to death, more inviting this time, brought me to my feet. I looked down and back. Ahead still seemed best, so I hoisted my satchel strap and stepped up the slope.

Twenty minutes later, I saw a stone plateau not a hundred meters up. I quickened my pace. The plateau extended from the mountain face and a sculpted gate façade that framed a green-painted wooden door. Before the doorway, a wizened old gentleman sat in the lotus position. He had a flowing white mustache and long white hair that began well up on his forehead and joined his mustache to cover his shoulders.

The man neither spoke nor moved. His loose white robe, open at the throat, seemed ill fit for the cold and frosty wind. I struggled to cross my legs and sit on the frigid stone slightly below Kuday Kolun. Ten cold minutes passed.

“From where have you come, my son?” the man said in heavily accented English.

“I live in New York City, but originally I’m from Detroit.”

“Ah. How did the Tigers do this year?”

“The Detroit Tigers, the baseball team?” I asked.

“Yes, I’ve been a Tigers fan ever since I spent a summer with my uncle outside Toledo. We listened to the games on the radio while we rebuilt his barn.”

“They didn’t make the playoffs this year. No pitching.”

“That was always their problem.”

“Here,” I said, “I brought you something. It isn’t much.” I pulled out the bag of leftover boorsoks and a sealed ceramic bowl of beshbarmak noodles. “My hostess warmed them. The bowl still has some heat.”

“That will be fine. Please join me.” The man produced two spoons from inside of his robe and a short knife to pry up the seal on the bowl. I slid closer. We took turns scooping noodles and chunks of turnip and mutton.

“You are young,” the old man said after slurping a long, dripping noodle. “Much life journey lies ahead of you. What brings you to Kuday Kolun?”

“I guess I need to know why.” The words stumbled out of my mouth. Like everything else, I hadn’t planned for the moment. “Why life? Why confusion? Why evil? The great why.”

“Simple questions become great only because we reject their simple answers. Life is to experience. It is a gift. Confusion and wrongdoing are what we do with life.”

“But what direction should my life take?”

“That is for you to decide.” The old man, his mustache in the broth, sucked in another spoonful of noodles then held up his spoon. “If all decisions were made for you, the gift of life would be very small indeed.”

Feeling the cold, I laced my fingers. “It’s just that most of what I see is misdirection, fingers pointing everywhere.”

“Every garden has snakes hocking wondrous fruits with false promises. There are two things that will help you find your way.” The old man tipped the bowl of beshbarmak and finding it empty set it down and continued.

“You are not God nor can you become God, not with special diets or exercises, not with magic mushrooms or leaves, not with gold, telescopes, or mathematical formulas. So you can relax. You are not in control and cannot be of anything beyond yourself. We get neither credit nor blame for the world’s happenings—only for ourselves and our choices.”

I opened the bag of boorsoks and Kuday Kolun took one.

“You mentioned two things,” I said. “What is the other?”

“We are all on the same journey, not separate,” he said over his pastry. “So we are together and must help our fellow travelers.”

“Where does the journey lead?” I asked.

He smiled and looked to the sun dropping in the West. “I must turn in, and you must find your way down while it is still light.”

I took the hint, thanked Kuday Kolun, and repacked my satchel for the downward climb.

I had just left the plateau when the old man called down after me. “Nicholas, next time you come to visit, could you bring me a Tiger’s ball cap?”

Keeping my eye on the downward step, I called back, “Certainly, and I’ll bring you a blazer, too. You could use one up here.”

“Thank you, and when you’re in range of a cell tower don’t forget to call your mother. She has worried ever since you left school.”

I was too busy concentrating on my footing to answer and didn’t think about it until I got back to Sary-gol, but I had never given the old man my name.