The Beast of Lander Knoll

All us kids knew about the beast, but we never talked about it, not for long and then only in whispers. It was as though we thought it might hear us and get angry, kinda like my second-grade teacher Miss Jaspers, only worse. The beast might come to get us.

Then came the Scout Jamboree in October, where everyone was suppos’ to tell a scary story ‘round the campfire.

Fridge got booed when he said his scariest story was about finding an empty ice cream carton in the freezer. Like some ghost had snuck in late at night and eaten it all. Fibber, who was older than the rest of us and almost eleven, said the ghost was prob’ly Fridge’s fat sister, and all the scouts laughed.

Cowboy told the story about finding some animal’s missing foot in the forest, and the animal had really long teeth that dripped drool, and it couldn’t rest ‘til it came and got its foot back. I heard it before, but Cowboy told it real good.

I told one my grandpa told me about a crazy old man that lived on an island who told such great stories, boys ‘ed come to hear ‘em. The boys kept disappearing, but they never figured out it ‘as the old man what did it. When the old man’s voice got real soft, boys ‘ed lean in cause they wanted to hear. Then the old man, he stabbed ‘em with his cane that was really a spit for roasting wild bears and boars and such, then the kids got roasted, too, and the old man ate ‘em.

At the end, I whispered so they had to lean in, then shouted and held my hiking stick up like it was a spit. All the boys’ eyes were big as owls’. Kip fell off a log. “True story,” I insisted. “Really, it’s true.” I felt all warm after telling that story, like maybe I’d win a prize or somethin’.

Fibber frowned at me hard. He pressed his lips tight, nodded, and ran a finger under his nose. Then he broke our unspoken rule: he told about the Beast of Lander Knoll. We all got sudden quiet. As he spoke, I felt a chill on my neck, like monster breath. I checked behind me at the forest of shadows shifting in the campfire light. Cowboy and Fridge looked scared, too.

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Fibber said it was Indian legend from long before white men walked this land that the beast lived in a tree on Lander Knoll. The Indians told the pioneers not to cut the tree down, but they didn’t listen. They made a shed out of the wood and put it right where the tree was before. Nobody knew what the beast looked like, ‘cause no one ever lived that had seen it. People just heard that someone was gone, and no one ever spoke their name again. No one ever asked neither—cause they were all scared the beast might hear ‘em.

Far as Fibber knew—which was a lot more than the rest of us scouts knew, cause we kept lookin’ at each other and back to the woods—the monster never left the shed. Just kept pullin’ people inside, mostly kids. Maybe it didn’t live there at all and only came at night for its dinner, like steppin’ out of some gate to hell or somethin’.

 

After the Jamboree, kids all started talkin’ about the beast and the shed on Lander Knoll. Zeke the groundskeeper kept tractors, tools, nails, an’ stuff in it, so maybe the beast only came at night like Fibber’d said. Zeke used to go to Growler High School in town and played football. Last year when he hurt his knee, he decided he’d had enough school and took the groundskeeper job. Though big as my dad, Zeke acted more like a kid, and he joked with us, too.

When we asked him about the beast, Zeke gave us a funny smile and said it was true, all of it. “Don’t never go up there late, not after sundown, no matter what you hear. Bad things happen when boys come to the shed at night. ‘Cause if you do an’ the beast catches you, you know what it means?” He shook his head and grimaced. “It means I got a mess to clean up.” He laughed then said that’s why he keeps a big lock on the shed—to keep the beast in and small boys out.

 

That evening, Sally came over while my mom went to the wives’ club meeting. Sally was starting high school and trying out for cheerleader, so she still had all her cheerleader clothes on: a white sweater with a big green ‘G’ on the front, a green-and-gray pleated skirt, and saddle shoes, white on the toe and heel with black running up across the laces.

We ate supper on the bare, wooden, kitchen table: my sister in her highchair, me on a tube-metal chair with a red plastic seat. I watched Sally open a can of SpaghettiOs and boil two hot dogs. Her short blond hair bounced when she walked, and her skirt pleats shifted and pulled along her bottom. When she turned and caught me ogling, I got embarrassed. So I kept my eyes on her black and white shoes while she brought us our SpaghettiOs.

Later Sally practiced cheerleading in our living room. My sister and me sat on the sofa. Every step, hop, kick, and turn came with a shout. When she shouted for us to give her a ‘G’ or ‘O’ we’d shout the letter back. Every cheer ended with a hop and a kick and a big smile, and we cheered and clapped for her.

When I asked Sally if she knew about the monster, she looked a little scared. I showed her out my bedroom window how close we were to the shed, the closest house in the development, about as far as throwing a baseball from second base to home plate. Sometimes at night I heard strange sounds, something knocking inside the shed, and saw things moving, ‘specially after sundown.

Fibber said that’s when the beast came. It was hungry and needed to satisfy a terrible hunger, and it was good Zeke kept the shed locked. I didn’t tell Sally that I’d seen the door open: like last night and once last week.

“The beast won’t come for you,” Sally said. “It won’t leave the shed, so you mustn’t worry. Have you told anyone else about this?” No, I said, she was the only one, ‘cause I knew she wouldn’t laugh. Mom and dad were too busy to listen.

 

Next morning I decided to talk to Fibber and the boys. “Why ‘nt you go up an’ see for yourself?” Fibber sneered. “Just maybe you’ll learn somethin’.”

“And maybe you’ll die a terrible, bloody death,” Cowboy chimed in, nodding.

I looked Fibber in the eye. I wondered if I backed down, if Cowboy and the rest would still talk with me or laugh.

Then Fibber raised the stakes. “Good thing Zeke keeps the shed door locked to keep little kids like you out,” he said. “In a full moon that might not matter much—‘cause the beast is strongest then and it could break the lock.”

I was tired of being the little kid in the scout pack and tired of being the scaredy-cat, even if no one said that out loud. No one ever went up to Lander Knoll at night, not in a full moon. But I had to.

 

My shadow in the silvery moonlight reached out in front of me. Beyond it, the weather-worn shed glowed a soft gray. As I climbed the bare slope, a hundred reasons rushed through my head for not going up there. No one would blame me. Later would be a better time. I could wait for Cowboy and the others but knew they were more scared than me.

The chilly fall air smelled dry and dusty. A shiver ran through me. I swallowed and tried to keep my knees from shaking. My sweaty, yellow, scout t-shirt stuck to my thin body, and my wet belt scraped at my waist.Ignoring all the good reasons to not go, I swallowed again and took another step, then another.

Something stirred in the long dry grass then scurried quickly away. A single faraway bird gave a lonely twitter. I stopped to listen and breath then continued. Setting each foot down as quietly as possible, I worked around to the locked shed door.

Something clattered inside then scraped as it dragged or got pushed. I heard a long moan and a groan then a slam as the shed door kicked open, letting out the stink of fertilizer and gasoline. Inside the shed, on the floor beside a riding mower, a dark lump rose and fell as it breathed, rocking slowly like a rowboat alongside a pier and gaining momentum. The rocking became violent as I watched. I shook all over and wanted to run, but my feet were frozen to the ground.

A high-pitched cry suddenly split the air, and a human foot kicked out from the lump. It wore a saddle shoe, white heel and toe with black across the laces. I jumped back and my eyes caught a flash of white in the moonlight, a white sweater with a ‘G’ hung on a leaf rake handle. I gave a shout and the lump stopped rocking. A face emerged, a smiling face, then an arm grabbed and pulled the shed door shut.

“Who was it, Zeke,” said a familiar voice.

“Just some kid,” Zeke said.

I stumbled down the hill fast as my wobbling legs could go, certain the beast was right behind me. Soon as I got to my house, I ran inside, slammed the door, and leaned hard against it.

My mom yelled at me for slamming the door, and I said I was sorry. While catching my breath, I tried to remember everything what happened, as many details as possible, so I could tell it at the next campfire.

When I got to the part about the saddle shoe and the white sweater with a ‘G’ and the lump with the face and arm, I was stumped. “Why were Zeke and Sally in there?” As I heard my own words, the reason became suddenly clear.

 

Sally never came to the house again, and I never let on when I saw Zeke. I never told the story at the campfire, and not to Fibber, Cowboy, or the other scouts. And they never asked.

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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.”

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.

Looalee

The Looalee cleaned out the deer’s body then the hunter’s. It swept up the spinal cord and into the brain, collecting phosphorus, potassium, salts, and other nutrients in the rich fatty tissue.

It had learned from previous encounters that human brains also contained information that might be useful. The hunter knew the way to the other ocean, the one the Looalee had never visited, at least not since the great continent split. But first it wanted to visit the ocean called Lake Michigan, which the hunter knew contained fresh water. How could that be?

It left the hunter and poured back into the stream, flowing with the current into a larger stream then a river. In two days, it came to a canal and a lock. When the lock opened, the Looalee followed a ship through.

The full moon and lights along the sides of the lock reflected the silver blue sheen the Looalee imparted to the water’s surface. Workman pointed and ran along the walls, shouting to the ship’s crew, mistaking the Looalee for an oil leak. Diving beneath the ship’s hull, it kept low until the final lock was cleared then flowed into the wide lake.

The fresh water had pulled precious salts from its liquid body. It needed to feed sooner than it had planned.

MoonoverWater

Bright lights and manicured trees lined a walkway along the shore. The moon was still high and sunrise a couple hours away. A car swept along the parkway, headlights ablaze. The Looalee could catch one but knew that would bring humans with flashing lights. So it combed the edge of the lake searching for someone alone. Another car’s headlights illuminated a park bench and a very small, dark woman slumped forward clutching the top of a large cloth handbag in her lap.

It rose up from the lake, flowed across the concrete walkway, and slid through the dewy grass. The woman didn’t move, but the Looalee sensed she was watching it.

It flowed onto her scuffed, torn shoes, and in through the open toes. Callouses on the old woman’s feet collapsed and blocked her pores, so the Looalee moved up her leg to enter her body. The salts in her thin decomposed spine had broken down and dissolved slowly.

“My name it Ruby,” the woman said in a frail cracking voice. “It took you a long time to get here. I’ve been waiting.”

“You know who I am?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Certainly. I’m not dead yet. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You’re Death.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here.”

“Well, since you waited so long, you might wait one day longer.”

“Why would one day matter?”

“Today is my birthday. I’m ninety years old. My granddaughter’s coming over with her little boy. He’s two months old—my first great grandchild. I’m a great grandmother. Who would have thought it?” When no response came, Ruby asked, “Perhaps Death might visit me tomorrow?”

The Looalee knew, whatever it did, Ruby would not live long enough to leave the park, probably not this bench. Her neurons were shutting down, her blood slowing, and her heart was beating away its last few moments.

It pushed potassium and phosphorus back into Ruby’s system, widened the capillaries to her heart and brain, and restored failed synapses. It felt her heart’s rhythm steady under the reduced strain.

“Where will I find you tomorrow?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Oh, I’ll be right here. I always greet the morning by feeding the birds. They expect me. I couldn’t disappoint them.”

“Very well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Death. You are very kind.”

The Looalee knew Ruby would be there as she promised. She had that kind of character. But by morning, it would be far away heading to the Pacific.

First it had to feed—and fast. It flowed back down into the lake then out toward the bridge where a small boat was moored. Inside the boat, two young people were busily misbehaving, too busy to notice.

 

This is the fifth of my Looalee stories and the first I’ve posted. It comes in the middle of the series. The others are set on both coasts. I hadn’t planned to write a transition story then changed my mind. It is a primordial being tossed up by a seismic episode. It came ashore at the Looalee marina in South Carolina. First labeled a deranged serial killer then a monster, it was given the name The Looalee for the headline.

Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 2

Continuation from: Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 1

“My children will not feed for some time.” The lilting voice had become a piercing screech and was now behind him. “So I will store you, and you may contemplate your death a few days longer.”

Ju-lun swung his sword in the new direction, but again it bit only empty air. Strong silk thread snagged his arm and pulled it straight. He struggled but a powerful grip snapped and pinned both of his arms to his waist. Sharp feet poked, spun and wrapped him. This is how my life ends, he thought as each fold swept over him. The soft caress of silk touched his face as the first binding slid across his cheek.

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Lady Zhi’ Zhu at home

“Your silk is very fine, Lady Zhī’ Zhū, the finest I’ve felt.” His voice sounded detached and business-like, as if another was speaking.

“Thank you, noble warrior,” she said, continuing to wrap, “I am a master in silk, but a swordsman such as yourself is not worthy to judge.”

“But I am not a warrior. Like you, I am a master in silk. My mastery is in the dying and painting of silk. I see by this purest whiteness that your wondrous skills do not extend to that art.”

Zhī’ Zhū stopped spinning. “A master in silk dying? How can I believe you?”

“Free my hand and you will see that it is marked by my trade.” He felt the binding on one hand loosen and something like sharp forceps twist it out. A sudden light revealed a hideous head of black spines peering at his hand.

“Last week, my father and I worked with saffron and the purple we extract from a marine snail.”

“You have other colors?”

“Many,” Ju-lun wiggled his fingers, “besides these, we have reds, blues, gold and green, and others we design to customers’ tastes. I specialize in patterns and designs. You will find no greater silk dyers in the Kingdom of Wu, perhaps not in all China.” He noted her interest and timed his pitch. “You, Lady Zhī’ Zhū are the greatest weaver of silk. If you give me the fine threads I now have about me, I will bring you one water buffalo in exchange, or three goats if you prefer. And perhaps, if you are pleased you would accept a contract for future deliveries and my family’s humble services coloring your glorious silk. We desire freedom from the cut-throat dealings of the silkworm merchants. You and your family could settle into a comfortable trade with us as your partners.”

The next morning, Ju-lun stood again before Lord Liu in the throne room of the palace. “Great Lord, I have engaged with Zhī’ Zhū as you ordered. She will trouble the Kingdom of Wu no longer.” Bai giggled and covered her face with her fan.

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Lady Zhi’Zhu visiting Ju-Lun at court.

“Is this true, High Counselor?” Lord Liu demanded.

“It is, Great Lord,” Yi Kuo said and bowed low. “By means of—“

“Clever bargain finds target missed by keenest sword,” Ju-lun interrupted. “I shall make myself worthy to be your son-in-law, Lord Liu.”

And so it was that High Lord Liu invited Ju-lun and his parents into his household. Ju-lun and Liu Bai married and had many children. The Kingdom of Wu became the center of China’s silk trade for the next three hundred years. Lord Liu reveled in his family’s good fortune. He never questioned Ju-lun about his bargain or the annual visits of a strange dark woman with long raven hair and great beauty.

Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 1

The silk-lined entrance to Zhī’ Zhū’s lair began as wide as the gate to Lord Liu’s palace and funneled quickly down the jagged passage into her cave. Ju-lun touched the fine lacey silk. It glistened purest white, like frost in the moonlight, and stuck to his hand, strong and taut as a bowstring. A night breeze rustled the Ginko and Katsura leaves and shifted the soft gray and blue moon shadows in the forest.

Ju-lun pulled the Lord’s straight sword from his shoulder harness and cut away the silk. The sword felt unfamiliar in his purple- and saffron-stained hand.

Ten paces in, the tunnel sloped down and narrowed. The hot, charnel stench from below swept away sweet memories of magnolia blossoms in Liu Bai’s beautiful hair. Ju-lun hesitated. He knew he had nowhere else to go.

High Counselor Yi Kuo had found him sitting alone in the garden with Princess Liu Bai. Ju-lun was an unworthy commoner, a silk-dyer’s son marked by his trade. The Lord’s swift justice demanded a walk to the public square to kneel before the axman. But instead Yi Kuo had smiled and led Ju-lun before Lord Liu.

The High Lord too was pleasant. “Ju-lun,” he said, “I see you are a warrior come to claim my daughter Liu Bai for wife. Very well, you shall have your chance.” Ju-lun felt naked before the great lord and feared he would soil his homespun trousers.

Beside her father, Bai looked small and innocent, her face streaked with tears. When Ju-lun glanced at her, she lowered her head.

Counselor Yi Kuo grinned broadly and led Ju-lun from the room. He bade servants to bathe the commoner then gave him the red embroidered tunic and finely crafted sword of a great warrior.

“But I am unworthy, Master Yi,” Ju-lun said. The High Counselor bowed low, his hands clasped at his waist. The gold tassel on his conical cap swung off his shoulder to dangle over his chest. Yi Kuo brushed it back when he stood.chinese-ancient-clothing-costume-terra-cotta-warriors-clothes-costume-armor-costume_640x640

“No, Ju-lun.” Yi Kuo said. “You are most worthy. Your visitation with the Princess means you have accepted Lord Liu’s offer.” When Ju-lun looked confused, Yi Kuo continued. “It is posted at the palace gate and in the marketplace.”

“I do not read,” Ju-lun confessed. “Like my father and his father, I am a humble dye maker and painter of silks, most poor-quality. Our trade takes us to the silk houses, not to the marketplace.”

Yi Kuo nodded. “Lord Liu offers his daughter to anyone who engages Zhī’ Zhū and removes our problem. Of course, if that was not your intent, we can keep your appointment with the axman in the public square.”

Ju-lun shuddered. He knew of Zhī’ Zhū from his mother’s bedtime stories. She would be hungry after her long slumber. “Am I the first to make this journey, Master Yi?”

“Impetuous youth seeking wisdom very late,” Yi Kuo said. “Six have gone before you. All were brave, trained in the art of combat, and all were from great houses. By joining them in eternity, you honor your family. Your name will be remembered in the village, and Zhī’ Zhū will spare us until another full moon. So your death will be a most honorable sacrifice.”

As Ju-lun’s eyes adjusted to the darkness in the cave, he detected the blue glow of tiny luminous spiders crawling in the cave’s silk-lined walls. Ju-lun swallowed and continued downward. He tapped his sword high and low ahead of him like a blind man with a cane. Roots and stones met his short steps. He stumbled and touched the wall. A dozen sharp punctures stung his hand. Jerking it back, he peeled away the silk and spiders.

“You are early, young warrior,” a feminine voice beckoned. He felt the hair on his body stand through the sweat that poured down his back and neck. “Lord Liu must be eager to fill our contract.”

Rows of candles flared to reveal a high-vaulted cavern. Silk hangings draped the room like waterfalls of white. A tall, slender woman with long raven hair and great beauty reclined languorously across a contoured bed of stones. Her wide shining eyes and full red lips invited his approach. Ju-lun shook off the attraction and raised his sword.

“I would make your torment short,” the lilting voice said, “but as you can see, I’ve just eaten.” Zhī’ Zhū curled back her lips to reveal rows of triangular white teeth laced with ribbons of torn red flesh. Her mouth sprouted scythe-like fangs at the corners and grew wider. Her eyes expanded beyond their lids and migrated onto her forehead, which sprouted blisters of smaller black eyes. Her powdered white face melted to polished black. Slender legs split to pointed black spindles and split again angling out from her body.

Ju-lun lurched and staggered. The candles hissed and extinguished, plunging the room in darkness. He heard scraping and the rapid taps of needle-sharp feet on stone. Desperately, he swept the dark with his sword. — To be continued next week.

Once People Danced

“Ther number 38?” the Director called, looking up from hir lavender soft-bot.

“Yes.” said 38, feeling hir stomach tighten.

The Director’s windowless chamber was pastel blue with vases of soft yellow and green tinsels set fashionably on corner sconces. Hir desk was rounded at the corners and padded to eliminate sharp angles and hard surfaces.

“And ‘J’ is your little brl?”

”Yes,” said 38, rolling hir lips in.

“We’ve received several complaints.” The Director’s eyes locked with 38’s. “There’s been an incident. Before we talk, may I show you?”

“Please, Director. I want everyone to feel safe.” 38’s amoeba-footed soft-bot flowed smoothly to the virtual display platform.

The Director explained. “Touch-pass is a game for teaching cooperation and social skills without stirring aggression or competition.” 38 nodded and turned to the display.

A first grade classroom appeared with eight little brls sitting in a soft-bot circle. 38 identified hir little brl, J. An instructor pseudopod reached toward the circle and revealed a foam ball the color and size of a grapefruit. The first little brl took the offered ball. Everyone in the circle hand-patted to celebrate hir success. The first brl then handed the ball to the second and again everyone soft patted, and so with the third. Then the scene paused. J was next in line. 38 felt hir heart pound.

“Watch how J plays,” the Director said, and the play resumed. The ball was handed to J and everyone patted. But when J went to hand the ball to the next brl, the reach was further. J leaned and stretched. The scene froze again.

“The correct response,” the Director said, “was to ask for assistance and not to risk destabilizing the soft-bot.” The scene continued.

Shocked at the sight of J stretching, the next little brl refused to accept the ball and let it drop. J reacted by stepping one foot from hir soft-bot, stopping the rolling ball, and placing it in the little brl’s lap. All the little brls screamed and covered their eyes. The virtual instructor stopped the game.

“Yesterday I met with a ther who said hir brl had screamed all night. When I showed hir the scene you just watched, hir fainted. This morning hir reported nightmares of brls falling, heads bumping, and noses bleeding. Hir’s now on medication and is seeking long-term counseling.”

“I had no idea my J was so independent,” 38 whispered, tears welling in hir eyes.

“And so aggressive,” the Director added. “Walking is a reckless act that endangers everyone. Fetching the fallen ball demeaned all the other brls. We cannot permit anyone to do anything that everyone cannot do safely. Your brl reacted without thought, without consideration. Everyone in J’s class and many thers are being treated for stress. Several insist that both you and J be punished.”

“Perhaps another sensitivity session,” 38 said hopefully and accepted a tissue.

“When we issued J to you three weeks ago, we explained your responsibility.” 38 nodded. “You’re still young. Perhaps you don’t know how far our civilization has come.” 38 shook hir head. “As I suspected. Let me take you back.”

The classroom faded and 38 found hirself onstage with a dozen primitive humans. The humans were in strange tight-fitting costumes and stood precariously on legs without soft-bot protection.

“Oh my,” 38 said, averting hir eyes.

No, you must watch. This is from the time before civilization.”

“What am I seeing? Why do they look so strange?”

“In the 21st century, humans still walked on legs. They ate food they plucked from the dirt, had two sexes, and used their fun parts to procreate. Keep looking,” the Director shouted as 38 tried to cover hir eyes.

“I, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” 38 whimpered. “Why are they so oddly shaped?”

“Before we standardized the cylindrical torso and perfected external procreation, this was how humans looked. The differences helped them to identify one another and to attract mates. They called themselves women or men, depending on their genders. Thers were divided into mo-thers and fa-thers. Brls were girls or boys.

“Here we see a dance troop preparing for Balanchine’s Serenade. In the 21st century, virtual and robot dancers were just coming into fashion, and many people still danced.” 38 looked incredulous. “You can tell the female-gendered from the male by their blue tulle skirts. Now watch.”

As the dancers leaped, glided, and pirouetted, often brushing and touching one another, 38 winced and ducked. “What if someone falls or breaks a leg?”

“When dancers required repair, they were replaced. Otherwise they were expected to continue, to endure the pain.”

“But why?”

“We have no rational explanation. Even after virtual reality became common, some humans persisted in doing things with their bodies. They exposed themselves to sunlight, snow, wind, and rain. They swam, ran, jumped from high places, and danced like you just saw. They walked everywhere. Some took long walks in the countryside. And they worked for hours.”

“Worked?” 38 sat up. The scene faded and 38’s amoeba-footed soft-bot glided hir back to the Director’s desk.

“Yes, worked, worked like machines.” 38 shuddered. Hir soft-bot gave hir a warm squeeze. “Now do you understand?”

“I understand,” 38 said, lowering hir head. “When do you think I’ll be well enough to pick up my little brl?”

“We’re not perfect, 38, none of us. We must be constantly on our guard.” The Director caught 38’s expectant gaze. “Out of sensitivity to the thers and brls, we had J euthanized. Hir attempt to walk and dominate marked hir as a dangerous throwback.” 38 began to cry.

“Don’t worry. Clearly your brl was defective, and you were not programmed to handle that sort of problem. As soon as you’ve completed your sensitivity refresher, we’ll issue you another brl.”

38 forced a smile through hir tears.

* * *

This is a nerf-world story that projects an outcome from overprotection from all things real and imagined. Do or have you had any such visions or concerns?