Sample chapters from my novels-in-progress

How Do You Deal with a Dead Girl?

1.

 

 

 

“Goddamnit!” Ben shouted when the silver key snapped off in the deadbolt as he unlocked it.  He looked at the metal stub between his fingers. It gleamed mockingly up at him.

Ever since Mark dumped me, it’s been like this. (Un-fucking-believable!). At least senior year is over. I’m free and I can finally use my trust-fund money. Mom and Robert can’t stop me; they won’t even be back until October, anyway. I have this whole summer to lick my wounds and get over Mark (asshole!), and hopefully give Taddy the summer vacation he’s never had.

He tossed the shiny fragment into the bushes next to the stone-lined walkway. He turned to see his autistic, six-year-old brother, Tadzio, staring up from behind him. “Of all things to happen on our first day here, right, Taddy?” Ben smiled reassuringly down at him. “At least I stole the spare key too. We’ll have to lock the bottom one until I figure out about getting a locksmith up here.” He could hear his stepfather Robert’s voice warning him, I’ll skin you alive if I catch you up at our summerhouse.

(Let’s hope you never find out.)

Tadzio didn’t answer his older brother and instead wrapped his arms around Ben’s thigh.

“Hey!  What’s up, little man?” Ben asked as he gazed down at the small boy clamped to his leg. “I told you this was going to be fun! We’re going to spend the whole summer here, just the two of us. Don’t tell Mom and Robert that I took you out of Hardwick and we came up here, okay? They still think we’re in LA.”

Tadzio continued to embrace his brother’s thigh while patches of June sunlight filtered down through the pine trees and scintillated around them.  It was gloriously warm already at ten o’clock in the morning in this mountainous part of Southern California.  The two-story Victorian summerhouse cast its cool shadow over them offering some relief from the heat.  Ben wondered why there wasn’t a shaded porch waiting there to greet them beneath the northern gable. His mother, Vivian, an art gallery owner, had drilled an artsy-fartsy aesthetic into him since he was a little kid; he knew all the different styles of architecture.  

I thought a Second Empire house like this is supposed to have a front porch? Weird. The builder must have had his reasons, I guess. Maybe he was some kind of rogue architect like Gaudi or I. M. Pei, a real innovator of the 1900s?

Ben reached down a kind hand and ruffled his little brother’s brown hair.

“Fawn Skin Lake is nearby; we can fish and swim there.  It’s a little walk from here, but not too far.  The Delmar Mountains are beautiful.  And there are California spotted newts all over, too.  Wouldn’t you like to go find some?”

“Where’s Mark?  Why didn’t he come with us?”

“Taddy, you remember what I told you?  Mark and I broke up.  We’ve been through this before.  I know it’s only been a month, but I need to start moving on with my life, that’s what Dr. Waxman said,” Ben replied a little sharply.  The breakup had been very hard on him. He and Mark were childhood friends, and they’d been a couple since middle school. As far as everyone, including Tadzio, was concerned; Mark was part of the family. Ben and Mark spent almost every day together since high school: studying, playing video games, going to films, and on the weekends, trying to sneak into dance clubs. And now Ben was starting to realize the toll the breakup had taken on Tadzio. Mark didn’t just dump him; he dumped Tadzio, too.

Tadzio’s eyes flashed open, nearing tears.

“I’m sorry, buddy. Come here. You know I love you. That will never change,” Ben said, soothing the child as he knelt down to hug him. He released Tadzio from his grasp. “Which reminds me,” he continued and stood up. “I need to let Dr. Waxman know I won’t be seeing him while we’re up here. Maybe we can still FaceTime a few sessions.” Ben already had his iPhone in his hand as he opened the bottom lock with the spare key. 

Tadzio squeezed past him, tears forgotten for the moment, moved through the doorway, and off into the dusty foyer.  It was dim and damp inside.  The indoors felt nice compared to the summer morning outside.  After a four-hour drive from Los Angeles, Tadzio wanted to use the bathroom.  Ben began to leave a message for Dr. Waxman as his brother stepped closer into the darkness at the center of the summerhouse. 

Tadzio surveyed the living room.

Tall, narrow windows along the oak-lined walls let in thin bands of sunlight that did nothing to remove the ancient gloom.  It was hard to make out the objects on the tabletops and on the bookshelves.  Everything was in silhouette. The house felt old; the candelabras and inlaid tables, the gilt-framed oil paintings of melancholy seascapes belonged to some other time.

A small bronze satyr pirouetted on a marble-topped end table.  Tadzio walked over and touched the cloven hoof it held aloft.  Then he ran his finger along the satyr’s patinated leg. To the boy’s left, something shifted on an ornate sofa.  Just a small movement, hardly noticeable, really. Tadzio went over and lifted a velvet pillow from the other embroidered cushions.  A honeybee suddenly rose buzzing from the fabric and made its way into the bright kitchen. The boy, distracted from his errand, followed its lilting path through the musty air.  He passed a dark staircase on his right that ran up to the second floor.  Tadzio paused and took in the deep silence in the house.  From somewhere within its faded rooms a clock ticked softly. 

He heard his brother outside walking along the gravel path among the fallen pine needles. The bee flew up over the tiled sink top and bounced noisily against the window.  Tadzio entered the yellow kitchen and watched the bee’s angry dance. It flew up again into the back of the room, behind a large, freestanding chopping block, and landed on a door painted midnight blue. The bee crawled up to the frame and disappeared beneath the jamb. Tadzio stepped toward the blue door and tried the brass knob. It was icy cold.  It wouldn’t budge.

Locked?  

He let his hand drop and then reached up and tried opening it again, somehow expecting a different result. 

The doorknob was odd, as well.  It had a man’s grinning face, with a deeply furrowed brow, etched into the metal. Tadzio could tell that turning the knob one direction made the man smile, the other, upside down; the furrowed brow became his frown. Happy opened, sad closed; but it was locked just the same. Whatever secrets the door protected would have to wait.

Ben entered the kitchen and placed a few bags of organic food on the countertop. He took off his letterman’s jacket and hung it from a chair back. “We’re going to need to clean this place up a little bit, huh?  It looks like no one has been here in years. I can’t remember the last time Mom and Robert came up here. I’ve never even set foot in this place before today.”

“What’s in there?” Tazio asked while pointing to the blue door. Neither Ben nor Tadzio had ever been allowed to come to the summerhouse. It had been purchased a few years ago as a fixer-upper as one of their parent’s many private getaway properties. They rented it out occasionally too. Robert had shown Ben the plans for the renovation. Other than that, the summerhouse was for the exclusive use of the grownups. (No children allowed, Robert said as he tipped a gin-filled highball at his two stepsons.)

“What?”

“That door’s locked.”

“I think I remember from the floor plan, that door leads to the basement.  We can open it and explore down there later. Right now I need your help with bringing things in from the car.  Can you do that?”

“But why can’t we open it now?”

“I said later, Taddy.  I need you to help me unload the car.  Okay?”

“You’re not my boss,” Tadzio said staring right up at Ben.

“I am when Mom isn’t here. Do you want me to call Robert?” Ben asked. This was the thing both brothers feared most; their nasty stepfather.

Tadzio shook his head and then rushed past his brother and out the front door to the white Mercedes waiting on the dirt road.

“Slow down, Taddy!  There’s no hurry!” his brother shouted after him.  (That kid is such a spazz, his stepfather said cruelly. I think he’s just high-energy, Ben answered. You don’t have to take care of him, Robert replied.)  Ben began to unload the sundry items they’d brought from Whole Foods:  two jars each of peanut butter and all natural fruit spread, a loaf of flourless bread, bottled water from Fiji, whole-wheat pretzels, gluten-free canned soups, and a bottle of Stoli he’d taken from his stepfather’s liquor cabinet. 

In one of the counter drawers, Ben found a hand-drawn map of the surrounding area that the realtor must have left, and a small brass key tied to a blue ribbon. From the map, it didn’t look like there were any other houses nearby; it only showed the lake and a few penciled-in roads.  The closest people were in the town of Butler below them, about 20 miles away.  Ben picked up the ribbon that held the key.  Without thinking he walked over and placed it into the lock in the blue door and opened it.

“Aha!  It’s the basement key,” Ben said to himself as he pushed the heavy blue door back against the wall and slipped the key back into the nearby counter drawer.  A breath of stale air wafted up from the basement and surrounded him. He flipped on the light switch at the top of the landing and illuminated the staircase going down.  Ben could barely make out the bottom-most step.  Beyond it spread a grayish darkness.  He turned off the light and closed the heavy door.

That’s so strange. Why would the door lock from this side? I wonder what was locked up in there?

Ben busied himself with sorting the groceries into the tall cabinets.  The floral shelf paper cracked and bent up at the corners as he shuffled in the bottles and cans.  A hairy jumping spider lightly touched his hand and leapt to the floor.  He gasped and recoiled for a moment and then continued.  After the groceries were all put away, Ben folded up the nylon shopping bags and tucked them into the space between the counter and the refrigerator- 

This is just what I need: time away from everyone in LA asking all those stupid questions about Mark and me. I need time to get my life sorted out while Mom and Robert go commune with nature or whatever they’re doing in Quebec. Mark was my best friend. I’ve known him forever.  I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming.  And poor Taddy caught in the middle. I didn’t even think about him missing Mark, too.  I don’t want to hate Mark, but I do.  I really, really hate him for what he’s done to Taddy and me.  It was such a blow to my ego; he left me for some girl he met at the country club.  And now he’s straight and some kind of religious fanatic too?

(Un-fucking-believable!)

            Ben’s reverie was interrupted when Tadzio walked in dragging two fishing poles and two large Louis Vuitton suitcases. 

            “Wow, you can handle all that stuff?  Thanks, buddy.  Leave them there,” Ben instructed.  “I have a surprise for you.”

            “What is it?”

            “Look – I found the key to the basement,” Ben told his kid brother as he crossed in front of him and opened the blue door.

            “Cool!” Tadzio said as he approached the dark staircase.

            “The light switch is right here,” Ben said as he turned it on.  “Why don’t you take the fishing poles down to the basement and have look around down there while I put our clothes away in our bedrooms upstairs?”

            “I have to go to the bathroom.”

            “Okay.  Let’s see, I think it’s in back through the living room, down on the left, the door past the stairs.”

            Tadzio stared at his brother completely motionless. 

“Do you want me to show you?”

            “I can find it!” Tadzio said as he headed out into the hallway.

Ben carried the two suitcases out of the kitchen and mounted the stairs to the second floor.  Sunlight was streaming down from the top landing.

The upstairs rooms must be much brighter than the ones below.  Maybe there are larger windows up there?

As Ben walked up, the stair planks creaked beneath his weight. He found the master bedroom down the hall to the left of the landing.  A green quilt decorated with cut-outs of leaping fish and lily pads covered a lumpy queen-sized bed in the middle of the back wall.  Above the bed, pine boughs obscured the view of the lake that glinted through the double windows.

God, this place is bizarre. No wonder they loved coming up here. Mom certainly had a hand in making it so kitschy. Painted sea-shell owls? She loves to collect all this arts-and-crafts stuff.  

Ben tossed his heavy suitcase on the bed and then went out into the hallway to the bedroom next door, Tadzio’s room.  A loud gurgling noise came bubbling up through the walls, the sound of an old toilet flushing

At least that’s working, Ben thought. 

The second bedroom was smaller: a twin bed, a darkly varnished dresser and mirror, and a strangely oversized walk-in closet.  A dusty dormer window squinted back at him from the corner.  Ben placed Tadzio’s suitcase on the bed. The latches opened with two loud snaps.  He lifted a small red t-shirt up into the dim light and observed it. Ben thought about when his brother had been born. He was twelve at the time and his mother, the eternal free-spirit, had just become single once again. Even though they were struggling to get by, Ben remembered it as a happy time full of spur-of-the-moment picnics, his mother’s art gallery openings, and long summer afternoons spent on white sands of Redondo Beach.

That was before his mom met Robert and he swept her off her feet. He’d come into the gallery looking for a lithograph by Salvador Dali. They hit it off immediately. Robert felt that being with Vivian made him more ‘worldly,’ or something. And then they got married and she got all his money and all the craziness that came with it.

The difference in their ages made Ben and Tadzio more like father and son than brothers. Tadzio was one of the coolest things that ever happened to Ben. But he worried so much about him; Tadzio’s autism made him awkward around people, especially strangers. Sometimes he’d freeze up as if he’d been turned to stone or blabber on in a made-up language. Ben was very protective of his baby brother. (Come to think of it, Mark had been the first non-family member Tadzio really trusted enough even to talk to.)

With that thought, Ben shook his head, turned, refolding the limp shirt, and placed it in the top dresser drawer.  In went more shirts, underwear, and bundled socks. 

Jeans and Bermuda shorts into the middle drawer.

Two lightweight jackets went onto the hangers in the deep closet.  Ben closed it and then turned and slipped the suitcase beneath Tadzio’s bed. 

He returned to his own bedroom and put his vacation clothes away in the dresser and his coats and long pants in the wide closet along with the suitcase.  He entered the large master bathroom and put his Dopp kit in the freestanding sink basin.  Ben unzipped the leather case and put his Paxil prescription and a bottle of aspirin into the mirrored cabinet.  He looked at himself. 

Not bad for someone recently dumped.  Nice cheekbones and hazel eyes.

With his slight five o’clock shadow and strong jawline, he did look older than his eighteen years. Maybe twenty-one or twenty-two. Ben stood back and took in the rest of his 6’ 2” frame.  He adjusted his button-fly, and then rolled up the sleeves of his pink polo shirt, exposing his biceps and flexing them. Ben tilted his head from side to side. (Looking good!) He laughed and then returned to the job at hand.  His imported hairbrush and SPF 70 sunscreen went into the cabinet.  His and Tadzio’s toothbrushes and toothpaste were placed in the empty soap dish for now.

“Hey, Ben!” Tadzio’s excited voice rose up the stairs.

“What?”

“Come here!  Look what I found!” Tadzio shouted back.

“Okay, just a minute.  I’ll be right down!”

“I’m down in the basement.”

“I’ll be right there!”

Ben put his half-emptied Dopp kit on the toilet tank and headed downstairs.  He crossed through the sunny kitchen and started down the basement stairs.  It was dim in the basement with only the light from a few horizontal windows along the tops of the walls letting in the mid-morning sun. Tadzio sat holding a shoebox-sized wooden box, a treasure chest, near a medium-sized hole in the back wall.  A flat piece of stone rested on the floor.

“What is that?”

“I found it in there,” Tadzio said as he gestured toward the dark opening.  “I put the fishing poles over there.  And I saw that ball on the floor so I kicked it.  It hit the back wall and the stone came off.  The box was behind it.  Can I open it?”

Ben looked at the fishing poles leaning in the corner and then he saw the basketball a few feet away.

“You kicked the basketball into the wall and it broke?”

“The stone fell off.  Am I in trouble?”

Ben inspected the hole.  “It looks like someone did a pretty bad plastering job. Robert is gonna be so pissed when he sees it. Leave it as it is.”

“Should I open the box?”

“Finders keepers,” Ben said and smiled at his brother.

Tadzio tried the lid but it had swollen shut from dampness and age.  He pressed his fingernails under the sides and tried to pry it off.  He gave a little grimace and flipped the box over to see if there was another way in.

“Let me try,” his brother suggested.

“Okay.”

Ben grabbed hold of the top and bottom at the same time and gave a great tug.  The dusty box cracked open, its contents raining onto the floor.  Multi-colored marbles scattered to the basement corners, sprigs of dried flowers and paper clipping fluttered out, a tightly-bound piece of animal hide rolled out, and a small tin box toppled onto the floor along with a bow-tie-wearing, white, stuffed monkey. 

“Jackpot!”

Tadzio picked up the tin box and pulled it open. “Yuck, it’s got dead bugs.”

“What?”

He showed it to his older brother.  Someone had kept two dead honeybees inside.  Their empty husks curled under the decomposing tissue paper.  Ben picked up the white monkey.  It smiled a lop-sided grin and stared at him with black, glassy eyes.  He brushed back the hair on its soft forehead.

“It’s a shame his bow tie is undone.  I never learned how to tie those things.  You can put him in your room upstairs,” Ben said as he extended the soft toy toward his brother.

“I don’t like him.”

“What do you mean?” Ben asked, looking down at his little brother.

“It’s someone else’s.”

“But it’s yours now,” Ben said as he held out the toy again.

“I don’t want him.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t,” Tadzio replied blankly.

“Okay, have it your way.  He can stay down here with the mice and the spiders,” Ben said as he placed the monkey on its side on the floor. “What about the marbles?”

Tadzio shook his head.

“What’s up with you?  You love toys,” Ben said as he began to collect the scraps of paper and other items from the basement floor.  “From all these dried flowers, this stuff probably belonged to a girl.”

“I don’t want to play with a girl’s toys.”

“We don’t know that for sure.  It could have belonged to a nature-loving boy, too.  It’s not some pink baby doll; it’s a stuffed monkey and some marbles.  Anyway, this can all stay down here.  If you want to play with them, they’ll be waiting for you,” Ben said and left the dried flowers and paper scraps next to the stuffed monkey.  “Let’s leave it for now and go eat some lunch.  How about PB&J?”

“Okay.”

Ben placed the paving stone back, blocking the open hole.  The broken box and its treasures were pushed up against the cold basement wall.  Brother and brother went up the long staircase to the kitchen and to make their sandwiches. 

As the light went off and the blue door closed tightly behind them, something stirred softy in the darkness.  A faint breeze, almost a sigh, pressed its way through the quiet basement.  The white monkey suddenly up-righted itself.  It sat perfectly still for a few moments, cold eyes gazing off into space.  The air stirred again.  Then the frayed ends of the monkey’s bowtie began to move.  The red ribbon curled back upon itself, interlacing, until it formed a perfect, neatly tied bow.

 

 

***

 

After lunch, Tadzio decided to go upstairs and take a nap.  Ben sat at the round kitchen table and checked Facebook on his MacBook.  The wifi bubble on his iPhone worked nicely, although getting signal up in the mountains was tricky, and the summerhouse had no landline. That was one of his mother’s weird ideas. It was meant to be a vacation house in the woods completely away from civilization and all technology. No phone, no computers, no cable. But so far it wasn’t a problem. 

Hiding away in the summerhouse really had been a great idea, all things considered; although, his stepfather would kick Ben’s ass if he ever found out they’d come up there. (That’s a price I’m willing to pay.) Ben didn’t need to worry about money since he finally had a credit card to access his trust fund, which, with steadily accruing interest, was almost in seven digits. Robert had set up it up when he married Ben’s mother.

Ben was glad to put so much distance between himself and Mark (asshole!) and all the annoying people gossiping about them in LA.  Just to get away from his old life, all the lies and emotional abuse, all those fake people in Palos Verdes, aka “The Hill.”  He wanted isolation. This was his healing time.

As he paged through his laptop, Ben came across an old photo with Mark.  The two of them, both Juniors, in a long-armed selfie, were on a wild water ride at Six Flags.  There was so much real happiness in both of their expressions, their eyes bright and shining. They had their whole lives together stretching out in front of them like the Yellow Brick Road. They’d gone through puberty; they’d grown into their adult bodies together, learned each other’s secrets. Ben felt some forgotten emotion for Mark.  But then he remembered how the whole relationship ended – how he found those booty-call JPGs on Mark’s cellphone.  It made him nauseous now to relive it.  Some topless chick with whipped cream on her nipples.

And that was it.  Mark dumped him. Over and done. Ben didn’t even want to think about it. He had his unbreakable relationship rules and monogamy stood at the top. There was no way Ben would ever take Mark back. (No way!) He moused over the image of them, selected it, and then hit delete.  Then he clicked on the trash, double-deleting it.

Ben’s iPhone began to vibrate in his jeans.  He pulled it out.  It was Mark calling.

 Talk about shitty timing!

Ben felt sick to his stomach. He pressed the power button and let it go to voicemail. 

I have nothing to say to you, asshole. Nothing. 

He waited for the new message signal and was surprised that it never came. 

Did he just hang up on me? Didn’t even say why he was calling. 

Then the text message arrived.

I know you read these. I need to talk to you. Call me.

The fuck I will.  You probably think I’m still in LA.  Maybe you’ll even drop by and find out that I’m not there. You can make your calls and send more texts.  But I’m not going to answer you. (Ugh! Stop it!)  You’re obsessing about Mark.  Ignore him. Don’t let him back into your mind!

Ben deleted the text message on his iPhone and closed the laptop.  Then he sent a text to his best gal-pal, Lupita, aka Lulu.

Made it up here in one piece. Took Taddy out of that group home my parents put him in. I sort of had to lie to get him out. They always leave him there when they travel. I mean, he’s a kid. He should be having fun. It’s summer. We’re going to be up here for a while. Now I know what my parents liked about this place. Talk about remote!  We only saw pine trees and rabid squirrels for the last 100 miles! XOXO -B

Ben got up from the wooden chair and went over to the tiled counter top.  He carried their lunch dishes, the two glasses and two peanut-butter-smeared plates, and placed them in the sink. 

You’d think they’d at least have a dishwasher, but no such luck.  No phone, no dishwasher. Mom is such a weirdo.

Ben grabbed the bluish liquid soap left out on the counter next to the metal drying rack and squirted it onto a waiting sponge.  The water ran cold for a long time and then came out scalding hot. He remembered a time he burned his hand on a cast-iron skillet and his stepfather said it was his fault for not following directions. Ben was only fourteen at the time.

“Shit!” Ben cried out as he jerked his hand back.

Eventually he found the right combo of cold to hot water and completed sudsing up the plates and glasses.  After a quick rinse, everything was stacked up to dry out.  Ben wiped his hands on a dishrag dangling from an iron hook. 

Now, let’s have a look around. Taddy will be napping for half an hour at least.  Poor kid!  It’s been a long day already. He’s so sensitive. I’ll be fine. But Taddy really misses Mark.  I didn’t even think about how he’d deal with that.

To the side of the kitchen was a sliding glass door that led out onto a large glassed-in patio.

It looks like a hot house out there. 

Ben opened it and stepped out into the filtered sunlight. Wrought iron filigree twisted overhead, spreading black tendrils between the panels of leaded glass. Dead geraniums and peace lilies in clay pots lined the walls, their tan leaves gathering beneath them like decaying skirts, their blooms desiccated to the color of dried blood. There was the lingering scent of mildew and rot in the warm air.  He’d have to open all the windows at some point.

Ben crossed the patio and walked outside through the backdoor a few paces to have a look around. There wasn’t really a backyard at all; a small cluster of thin alders came right up to the house and then the Ponderosa and Sugar pines started a few feet beyond them. Ben walked closer and discovered a narrow trail through the trees he hoped would take him down to Fawn Skin Lake.  On his better judgment, he went back inside the house to double check the realtor’s map.  He ran his finger over the hand-drawn lines and contours and then decided that it was indeed the right way, and so back out into the yard he went. 

At the trailhead Ben found letters carved into a dogwood trunk. As he got closer he saw “S L + F L”. 

I wonder who they were? Taddy and I should carve something on here.

He continued down the dirt path through the clusters of white slipper orchids and sunny tufts of mustard flowers.  The air trembled with birdsongs. A light afternoon breeze carried with it the sweet scents of wet earth and fading honeysuckle.  Everything smelled damp and delicious; a great ripening perfumed the air.  Ben meandered on the winding trail for about fifteen minutes.  He’d have to turn back soon if he didn’t find the lake because Tadzio’s nap would be over.  He didn’t want his brother wandering around the house by himself yet. It was dangerous for him to be all alone in a strange place.

About one hundred feet ahead, through the low hanging pine boughs, Ben finally saw the first glimpse of the shoreline and the lake beyond it.  Excited, he broke into a sprint and ran as fast as he could to the water’s edge. 

Why am I running? Am I running away from something, from Mark and the pain of that dead relationship?  Or am I moving forward, toward something new and better?  I don’t really care; it feels wonderful to run like this.

His footfalls rang out on the trail, filling up the woods with a living rhythm. It sang in his ears like a heartbeat.

I feel free, like all those beachy summers with Mom when I was Taddy’s age. She’d pack a picnic basket with granola bars, red seedless grapes, Capri Suns, and a six-pack of Heineken (for her), grab the towels and sun screen, and off we’d go to battle the crowds for a small patch of white sand. But it wasn’t quite like this. Not so serene, not so beautiful.

Ben smiled to himself as he approached the sunlit water.

Fawn Skin Lake stretched out before him, dazzling him with its liquid light. It was like some great secret he’d just discovered. The lake was now his alone. Emerald rushes and dried-out cattails sprang up along the rocky banks.  To the left, about a half a mile away, Ben saw a wooden dock sticking out into the water.  It looked very old, like it had seen many summers like this one.  Small waves flopped along the stony shore.  The whole lake felt very much alive.  It had its own presence, in a way.  It drifted and swayed in front of him, as if beckoning him to enter it. 

Across the water, almost too far away to see, Ben made out what looked like a teenage girl with long black hair. She stood completely still in the summer bulrushes and stared at him. She wore a strangely out-of-fashion navy blue dress that fell below the knee.  He waved at her, but she didn’t acknowledge him or wave back.

Maybe she’s not looking at me? he thought.

“Hey!” Ben called out.

Her thin figure remained motionless except for her black hair that drifted back and forth in the sultry breeze. 

Maybe there’s another summerhouse around here?

Ben heard a snapping sound and looked over his shoulder into the line of trees.

Did Taddy follow me out here?

No one was there behind him. When he turned back, the girl in blue had gone. More like vanished. Ben shaded his eyes with his right hand and searched the distant shore for her.

I hope there are some other kids around, maybe someone Taddy’s age he can play with.  That would be cool.  I’ll have to walk over to that side of the lake and see who lives over there.

“Ahoy!”

Surprised, Ben looked over to his left and saw an older man in a wooden rowboat about ten yards away in the lake. He was so caught up in looking for the girl across the water he hadn’t noticed him approach. “Oh, hello!  I didn’t see you there!”

“But I saw you!” The man took off his sailor’s cap and wiped his sweaty forehead with the back of his deeply tanned hand.  His white hair stood up and glittered in the sunlight. “You’re the ones who bought the old Langmuir house?” 

“Langmuir?  I guess so.”

“It’s right there behind you, the big brown house tucked into the pines?” the man said gesturing past Ben.

“Yeah, that’s us.”

“Us?” he asked as he approached in the boat.

“Just my kid brother and me,” Ben said and suddenly regretted telling a stranger, even a friendly one, his business.

“And you have an Italian sounding last name.  Am I right?”

“What? How did you know that?” Ben asked, puzzled.

“Aha, The Great Oz never guesses; he knows!” he said and shook off a dripping oar and dropped it in his boat.  He slowly drifted closer to shore.

“I’m Ben.”

“Hello, Ben!  I’m Osborne. Or if you like Ozzy, or The Great Oz.  Hawaiian transplant.”

 Ben continued to shade his eyes and squint at the man in the boat.

“I was born and raised on Kauai, but my wife and I have lived here for years.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too. We don’t get too many new people up here.”

“Really?”

“We’re your closest neighbors,” Osborne said with a long breathy sigh. “Which reminds me, Jayne, my wife, sent me over here to invite you two young men to dinner.  How does tomorrow night sound?”

“How did she know we were up here?” Ben asked with a little alarm in his voice. He hoped Ozzy wasn’t friends his mom and Robert. Ben didn’t want him asking questions about where his parents were, even though he was eighteen, even though Ben was an adult in the eyes of the law, and he could be up here by himself. But now he felt really awkward.

“Jayne saw you two unloading your car. She thought you were with your son.”

Ben waited a few moments, considering his options. He didn’t want to be rude, either, because that could cause more questions and snooping around and maybe a call to Robert. “We just got up here today.  Can we raincheck on dinner?”

“It’s fine with me, but Jayne won’t take no for an answer.  You’ll see.  I’ll be knocking on your backdoor tomorrow afternoon,” he said while gesturing toward the house again. “Say, did you find your rowboat?”

“What?”

 “The rowboat on the west side of the house?  Did you find it?” Osborne asked as he dropped the other oar into the boat and made it appear that he wanted to come ashore.

“No.”

“I put it there so you don’t have to walk through the woods at night when you come to dinner.  Jayne will love having two young men in the house. She’ll love it. We have two full grown kids of our own. But they moved out a long time ago. We always keep the dock lights on.  You can’t miss us.”

“Is that your dock way over there?” Ben asked and pointed.

“Yep.”

“Who else lives at this end of the lake?”

“Just you.  There aren’t any other houses on this side,” Osborne said and began scratching at his beard.

“Really?  I saw a girl in the reeds over there across the lake.”

“Maybe picnickers, or day hikers from down the mountain.  It’s just Jayne and me, and you and your brother up here. What did you say his name was?” Osborne asked as he stared up at Ben, sizing him up.

“Tadzio,” Ben said. “Which reminds me, Mr. Osborne…”

“…That’s just Osborne.  No need for the mister.”

“Okay, Osborne.  I don’t mean to be rude but I have to get back home.  Taddy will be finished with his nap and he’ll be wondering where I am.”

“Oh, I do understand,” Osborne replied as he suddenly lifted the two oars and put them into the oarlocks over the boat’s sides and began to paddle away.  “I’ll call on you again tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

“And dinner, tomorrow night!”

“Maybe.”

Ben was relieved that Osborne hadn’t asked about his parents. But it was also weird that he hadn’t.

Maybe he hasn’t met them. He didn’t mention anything. It seems like I’m the first new neighbor he’s met.

He watched the older man paddle his way back towards the middle of the lake, the ripples trailing after his boat like a great shining cape. 

 


The Moss on a Dead Girl's Skin (sequel to How Do You Deal With A Dead Girl?)

Chapter 1.

 

“Cannonball!” Tadzio yelled as he leapt, tucking his tanned body, knees to sinewy chest, and crashed into the warm lake water right next to his friend, Sandor. Julie and Samantha, both wearing bikinis and slathered in sunscreen, lay on their bellies on the wooden dock and watched the teenage boys frolic in the water. The July sun sat at its apex above them, sending vertical light all the way down to the sandy lake bottom. The water rippled with pondweeds, green upon sinuous green, and silvery minnows flashed between the shafts of sunlight. Fawnskin Lake stretched out before them smooth and glassy, except for the frothy commotion of the two young swimmers at the dock’s edge. Junior year was finally over and the teens were looking forward to being seniors at Crow’s Landing High School in the fall, the graduating class of 2027.

 “You almost landed right on top of me,” Sandor said as he shook out his dark curls and splashed water in Tadzio’s face.

 “Sorry!” Tadzio replied and spat out a mouthful of water. “I didn’t know you were going to be a big girl about it.”

“Tad, misogyny is not cool in any form,” Michael, Tadzio’s older brother's boyfriend, scolded him from his dockside chair beneath the sun umbrella next to the two sunbathers. He turned up the collar on his teal Polo shirt and held his place on his iPad with his index finger. “There is nothing wrong with being a girl. Right Samantha?”

“Sure, it’s cool to be a girl.”

 “See?”

 Tadzio made a face and then dove beneath the emerald water.

“Do you want to go in?” Julie asked Samantha as she stood up and adjusted her bikini top. From the white line beneath it, she could tell her tan was coming along nicely. “I’m totally baking out here.”

“Okay,” Samantha agreed.

The two girls grabbed hands and ran giggling to the dock’s edge and leapt in. Sandor turned away from the giant splash. Ripples went out across the shallow bay.

“Oh, to be sixteen again,” Jayne, their elderly neighbor and the dock’s owner, said as she approached with Ambrose, Tadzio’s biological father. She held a sweating pitcher of freshly squeezed lemonade. Ambrose carried a plastic tray with seven glasses filled with chipped ice.

“Not me,” he replied. “I’ve had enough with pimples and puberty. And now I have to relive it all with Taddy.”

“He likes to be called ‘Tad,’ remember,” Jayne said. “Especially in front of female guests.”

“I know, I know,” Ambrose answered and shook his head. “But he’ll always be my little Taddy, even if he is almost seventeen.”

Jayne smiled at him. “Don’t they grow up fast?”

“Tell me about it.” Ambrose crossed over behind Michael’s chair and kissed him on the neck.

“Fresh!” Michael said, laughing. “Don’t let the kids see you doing that. You’ll give them bad ideas.”

“Believe me, they don’t need any help from me. You should see the bookmarks I found on Taddy’s iMac.”

Michael shot his husband a look.

Ambrose corrected himself, “I mean, Tad’s iMac. Hot-Titted Mamas and Big Beavers, Come & Eat ‘Em.”

“Ambrose, you weren’t going to mention that, are you?” Michael said quickly. “You got into Taddy’s private business; that wasn’t for you to see.”

“It’s okay, Worry Wart. He doesn’t know about it and he can’t hear me from over there,” Ambrose said as he pulled up a folding chair next to Michael.

“Didn’t you do things like that at his age?” Jayne asked as she placed the lemonade on a small table.

“Like what?” Michael asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, hide magazines under your bed?”

“Yeah, but they weren’t the kind with girls in them,” Ambrose said and winked at Michael.

“I suppose it’s different if you have daughters,” Michael said obliquely.

“Why?” Jayne asked.

“I don’t know. They express their sexuality in different ways, I guess.”

“I didn’t,” Jayne said. “I had a muscle builder magazine I kept hidden beneath my bottom sock drawer.”

“It was probably one of the one’s that Ambrose liked,” Michael said laughing.

“Of course it didn’t have naked pictures in it, just muscle men flexing for the camera. I had a crush on this dark-haired fellow named Joe. He looked like he was really nice.”

“What was the name of the magazine?” Ambrose asked.

“Oh, now you asking about something from the Stone Age. I can’t remember that far back. Men’s Physique or something. You know I’ll be eighty-three next month?” Jayne asked as she brushed back her white bangs with a stroke of her right hand.

“Really? Where has all the time gone? That means it’s been ten years since Tad and I moved up here,” Ambrose said wistfully.

“And you met me,” Michael added. “Married me and moved me in.”

“How could I forget that?”

“Like you forgot our eighth wedding anniversary, Mr. Brainiac.”

“He’ll never let me forget that one,” Ambrose said to Jayne. “I was busy refinancing the business. I’m sorry! It’ll never happen again.”

A girl’s loud cry came rushing across the water to the dock sending a wave of panic over the group. Julie was trashing her arms around and screaming. Samantha and the boys swam to her side to try and help.

“Something bit my foot! Get me out of here!” Julie screamed and paddled wildly.

Ambrose jumped up and ran to the dock’s edge. He could see a faint trace of blood tinting the water. Tadzio and Sandor were now holding Julie’s arms and leading her through the water to the safety of the wooden dock.

“What was it? Did you see anything?” Michael asked as he arrived next to Ambrose.

“I don’t know,” Sandor said. “I didn’t see a thing. She just started screaming.”

“Grab her hand!” Ambrose ordered, as Julie was lifted from the water.  “Everyone out of the lake!”

Jayne located a beach towel and rushed over to the injured girl. “Put her on this. Let me look at your foot. Which one is it?”

“The left one.”

Julie’s face paled as she lay down on the dry towel. The wound dripped a long trail of blood that dappled the sun-bleached planks. Jayne moved the girl’s leg around so she could examine the injury. Two semi-circular bite marks ran just below and above Julie’s left heel. From the distance between the teeth, the unknown fish had an almost human-sized bite.  In fact, the bite marks themselves looked rather human, the same incisors and canines. “I wish Ozzy were still alive. He could tell what kind of fish this was from these teeth marks,” Jayne said to no one in particular.

“Wrap it up in this towel,” Ambrose said. “Michael, go call an ambulance. She might have to have stitches.”

“Stitches?” Julie gasped.

“We don’t know that for sure, but we’d better have someone take a look at it,” Jayne said. “You don’t want to get an infection from the lake water, do you?”

Julie grimaced and held the wrapped towel tightly to her heel.

“That bite looks so weird,” Samantha said as she sat down on the dock next to Julie. “What about that ghost of an Native American girl who is supposed to live at the bottom of this lake? You know the story. Do you think she did it?”

“What?” Sandor asked.

Ambrose looked at Tadzio and then at Michael and Jayne. “I’m sure it was just an alligator gar.”

“An alligator?” Julie asked in a panic.

“No, an alligator gar,” Ambrose corrected. “It’s a nasty fish that likes to bite people.”

Tadzio walked away from the commotion and stared into the dark water beyond the dock. He adjusted his red swim trunks. The sun was very hot on his bare chest. Just then he thought he caught a glimpse of what looked like a pair of legs swimming off beneath the expanding ripples about ten yards away. He rubbed his eyes. The glare was very bright off the water; it was hard to make out anything in the distance. Was it just a reflection? Had to be. There’s nothing in the lake now but hungry fish. Tadzio snapped out of his reverie.  Poor, Julie, he thought, that bite looks like it really hurts. With that he turned and walked up the concrete steps that lead to the front of Jayne’s house and the ambulance that would arrive there at any moment.

ALPHA WAVE - Book 2, The Elusive Spark series

1.
Stop! Keira tried to scream through the rubber gag, but no sound came out.
The three doctors surrounded her, each wearing a plastic face mask and a contamination suit. They reminded her of industrial robots.
Keira was strapped to a cold examination table, her wrists and ankles in metal restraints. She turned her head from side to side, trying to get a glimpse of the operating room, but the blinding pool of surgical light cast such a small circumference. The rest of the room receded into total darkness. The first doctor stepped toward the table, a silver scalpel steadied in his right hand. She could see the other doctors watching, unmoving, at the edge of the swallowing blackness. Another person stepped from behind them.
Someone is filming me. Now he’s coming closer. I see my reflection in his shiny lens—but something’s wrong. It’s not my face; it’s an alien’s face—those huge dark eyes—that looks back at me. Who am I? Where am I?
Then the sharp blade entered Keira’s arm above the elbow joint. A searing pain shot up her exposed bicep….
Sleeper, awake!


Keira Fairchild woke up in a blistering sweat, bewildered, her breathing labored, almost gasping. She turned, wiping her damp forehead, and looked out the dirt-streaked window at the green and red lights of the oil barges drifting slowly into San Pedro Harbor on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She looked at the clock—3:15 a.m.
She opened the window a crack to let in the early-morning air. It was cool and calming. The metallic sounds of the distant buoy bells rang out from across the waters.
She wiped off her upper lip with the back of her hand and tried to forget the nightmare.
That’s the third time this week. The same dream: I’m on the table and they’re cutting me open with that knife. It’s like I’m there, like it’s really happening to me! But it’s not me; I’m an alien in the dream. What does it mean? Totally weird!
Keira rolled over and turned on her lamp. From her bedside table, she picked up a smooth stone box with two golden suns etched on top. It fit neatly into the palm of her hand. She traced the outline of the blazing suns with her fingertip. Each was inlaid in real gold and had six flame points radiating outward. The stone box belonged to her birth mother; that’s what the social workers told her. But none of them said if her mother, or her father for that matter, was alive or dead. Keira had entered the foster care system as a small child. Ever since she could remember, she’d carried the box everywhere with her. It comforted her and promised a connection to her real family, but it was as much a mystery. When Keira shook it, something inside rattled. But to this day, she hadn’t figured out what it was. She still couldn’t get the box to open. There were no seams or visible hinges, not even a keyhole. All she could get out of the stone box was the tantalizing sound. A sound she knew held the secret to her past and hopefully her parents.
Someday I’ll figure out how to open this damn thing up. I’m going to find out who my real parents are too, and then I’ll go find them. Someday.
Keira put the box back down on the table and picked up her hairbrush. The natural fibers felt good against her scalp as she brushed her shiny red hair. After a few passes of the brush, she placed it back on the table, turned off the light, and went back to her fitful sleep.


“Get up, lazy bones,” Mary, Keira’s sixty-five-year-old foster mother, said as she prodded her from her fetal curl beneath the checkered quilt. “You’ve got to eat something before you go to school. I don’t want to hear that you’re not hungry again.”
“All right, I’m up. Jesus,” Keira hissed back before turning over and pulling the warm bedding up over her head.
“And don’t take our Lord’s name in vain.”
“I wish, just once, you could manage a simple ‘Good morning,’” she said from beneath the quilt.
“What?” Mary asked, pausing in the doorway.
“Nothing….”
Keira heard the bedroom door close. She pulled the covers down and opened her pale blue eyes into the burning stream of sunlight coming through the opened blinds.
“God! That’s bright.”
Keira pulled her feet out of the warm bed, onto the soft carpet, and then into her green felt slippers. She yawned, sat upright, and rubbed a limp hand against her eyelids and cheeks. Keira looked down at her closely bitten nails. They looked awful, the skin underneath them red and cracking. 
She opened her right hand and studied her palm. Lines laced themselves together across the space and formed what looked like a small triangle within a larger one. She traced one side of the shape. This is my lifeline, I guess. Funny, there’s a gap in it, like one life ends and then another begins.
Keira got up and unplugged the charging X-Phone she kept hidden under her mattress. It was a pre-ACPA “burner” that didn’t run off of the government’s grid. Since the Affordable Cell Phone Act passed the senate last year, every US citizen now had a data-enabled cell phone, and free government Wi-Fi covered the whole country. Most people saw this as a money-saving opportunity and thanked the government. Keira saw it for what is was, a tracking device to spy on people.
She pressed her finger on the screen, unlocking the phone. Her secret email account unfolded. She was safe from federal data harvesters. All her info streamed through a channel hidden inside the government’s own Wi-Fi traffic. It was beyond VPN, beyond encrypted. What’s better than hiding in plain sight? She’d gotten the illegal phone off a Copperhead last year in exchange for an eighth of synth-pot.
There was nothing new in her inbox except a message from the Insemenoid fan club about another concert date. I won’t be going to see them anyway. There aren’t enough BitCredits for that. Keira closed the account with one swipe of her finger.
Just then the home screen flickered a little bit. A dark image appeared for a moment, a silhouette. The shape of a small person, like a child, wiggled in, blocking out the app icons. Keira stared down at the phone. As quickly as it had come on-screen, it squirmed off.
What the fuck? Is that some kind of malware? It’s not like I can take this phone in and get it cleaned! I hope it goes away. She tried to put it out of her mind. Maybe it’s a technical glitch. The phone must be getting ready to die. It keeps doing weird things lately. Keira shut off the device.
Her illegal phone was one of the many things she kept hidden from both her foster parents, Mary and Steve. As far as caregivers went, they were strict and misguided with their attention. In the few months Keira had been with them, both were more concerned about whether Keira was smoking synth-pot than if she was happy or not.
She’d been shuffled through the system mainly because of her faulty datachip. Hers never seemed to work properly. All Protective Care children had a government ID chip implanted in the back of their left wrists. It was easier for processing and placement. When she turned eighteen, it would be removed and she’d be issued the standard government adult ID wristband. The chip had been replaced four painful times already, but within a week or so, it would transform from active biosilicate into a static piece of plastic cartilage. Dead and useless. No one knew why.
Keira lifted her black robe from the chair back, slipped it on, and left her room for the hall bathroom. After she locked the bathroom door, she let the robe drop to the floor and she turned on the water in the teal shower. She pulled off her nightshirt and panties and hopped into the warm stream. As the water ran down her back, Keira wondered when she would get her period again; her cycles were wildly irregular. She hadn’t had it for over three months and she certainly wasn’t pregnant.
Keira was still a virgin in spite of herself. Mary saw to that.


“I smelled cigarette smoke on your jacket yesterday. You know we don’t approve of that,” Mary said as Keira, dressed in tight black jeans and a black T-shirt, sauntered into the kitchen.
“I’m not smoking. If you even set one foot into the girl’s bathroom at school, you get covered in smoke,” Keira said, placing her black leather shoulder bag on the kitchen table. “All the seniors are smokers.”
“Just as long as you don’t start. You’re fifteen, and it’s really bad for you.”
Keira wouldn’t dignify Mary’s last statement with a response. Instead she grabbed the LA Times from the counter and glanced at the headlines.
“That huge earthquake in Indonesia looks terrible. Those poor people.”
“It’s God’s way, Keira.”
“But why would he do that?”
“He punishes the wicked and the unbelievers. That’s a country full of heathens.”
“But it doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s all part of his plan, Keira.”
Keira knew she was entering dangerous territory. This was not a conversation she should be having with her foster mother. She’d learned early on to hide her real beliefs and to mimic the ones of her caretakers. Developing a “false self” was a survival skill, plain and simple. Maybe if she agreed with them, she wouldn’t be abandoned again. Maybe she could stay with this family, and they would learn to love and value her. Even if they were loving the part of her that was a complete lie. She’d take what she could get. Love was love. 
“I know it’s his plan. It’s sad when so many people die at one time.”
“He moves in mysterious ways.”
Keira put down the newspaper, grabbed her purse, and headed out of the kitchen toward the front door. “See you after school,” Keira said.
“Aren’t you going to eat anything?”
“Not hungry.”
“But you’ve got to eat something. You’re too skinny, Keira.”
“I’ll eat at school,” Keira lied as she turned to leave. “Bye!”
“I worry that you’re going to become anorexic,” Mary said.
“I’m not hungry. See you later.”
As soon as Keira was down the block, out of Mary’s eyesight, she produced a red pack of Marlboros, shook one out, held it between her full lips, and lit it. Cigarettes are food, she thought to herself. She walked the rest of the way to San Pedro High School trailing smoke like a long gray scarf.


“Is this the way to the Vincent Thomas Bridge?” Holcomb asked, pointing out the front window of his car.
Keira looked over at the older white man in a BMW, cruising alongside her. Nice car, weird guy. The shiny coupe slowed down and pulled over to the curb. Keira was still surprised by all the male attention she’d been receiving in the last year. At fourteen she’d been just another teenager, but a year later when her breasts came, the guys were suddenly very interested.
“What?” Keira asked as she tilted her head and glanced at the stranger.
“Is the bridge up ahead? I’m lost.”
“You’re going the wrong way,” Keira said, dropping her cigarette on the sidewalk and crushing it beneath her heel before quickening her pace.
“Do you know which way it is?”
“I’m late for school. Sorry,” Keira said, then turned right, past the chain-link fence, and walked onto the busy campus. She could feel the stranger’s eyes on her still, burning two holes into her back.
Holcomb brought the car to a stop and parked. He watched Keira disappear into the colorful huddle of high schoolers. An alert beeped up at him from his phone.
Proximity alert: ID chip identified, Keira Fairchild.
“I know,” Holcomb said to the phone and deleted the message.
Target acquired, he typed into the message field and hit Send.
I hope I’ve found her before Paragon, he thought.


“Class, today we’ll be studying the details of the rodent digestive system. That means we’ll be vivisecting live rats. Those of you who’ve opted out of this assignment with your parents’ signatures can report to study hall right now,” Mr. Hines announced at the beginning of fourth period Life Science. “I don’t want any fussing. Any student without a parent’s signature must complete this assignment, or be dipped in a vat of fluoroantimonic acid.”
“Dipped in what?” a nearby student asked.
“Fluoroantimonic acid. It’s a new superacid, thirty times stronger than sulfuric,” Mr. Hines continued.
The few conscientious objectors—a perky cheerleader, a young Sikh, a weedy nerd, and a Jehovah’s Witness—left in a small exodus. Keira perched on a hard stool at her lab table with her freckled, brunette partner, Lissa, her only friend at San Pedro High. Neither of her foster parents had ever asked if she had made any friends, and Keira wasn’t about to tell them, either.
On the solid plastic tabletop sat one extra-large Plexiglas jar and accompanying metal screw-top lid with a tiny hole in the middle, a tray of silver dissection knives, two pairs of thick leather gardening gloves, and a wax-lined dissection tray with skin-holding pins. There was also one huge, black rat in a tiny wire cage.
“I’ll be coming to each table with a cotton ball soaked in ether,” Mr. Hines said as he began walking around the classroom. “Listen carefully, people. Put the cotton ball in the glass jar, put the rat inside the jar, and seal the jar with the metal lid. Let the rat stay in there for about three minutes. This should knock the rat completely unconscious. I want you to see the living digestive system functioning, not in an autopsied dead specimen. Don’t worry, the rat won’t feel a thing. It’s important you follow all these directions. Let me know if you need help.”
“Okay, here goes!” Keira said to Lissa as she slipped on the leather gloves.
“Do you want me to open the cage?” Lissa asked.
“Yeah, sort of dump the rat onto my gloves and I’ll shove it in the jar.”
Lissa picked up the wire cage and pulled the latch, sliding the front panel open. The rat sniffed around outside of the opening.
“Now drop it into my hands.”
The black rat slid into Keira’s waiting grip. She grabbed it firmly with her right hand. The rat reflexively turned and bit down on Keira’s index finger; its sharp teeth piercing through the leather glove. The pain rushed up her arm. But before she could react, a shower of white sparks began snapping in the air, cracking and popping loudly, all around the rat. It gave out one high-pitched shriek as its greasy body tensed up in agony and then went completely limp.
The whole room was suddenly silent. All eyes were on Keira. She let the dead rat fall to the table. It landed like a beanbag, as if the rat’s internal organs had been turned into sand. Keira pulled off her gloves and examined the fresh bite on her finger. The blood was already gathering in the wound.
“What happened?” Lissa gasped.
“I don’t know,” Keira said, looking around the classroom.
“It must have been a discharge of static electricity from the air,” Mr. Hines said, quickly approaching the workstation. “You saw the electric sparks. It’s puzzling, though, because these work surfaces are supposed to be inert and free from static buildup. But that’s what killed the rat.” Mr. Hines turned to face the class. “Show’s over. Everyone back to work. I’m bringing the ether around now.”
“What should we do, Mr. Hines?”
“Keira, go to the storeroom and get another rat for you two,” he said. “They’re a few more on the shelf in the back. Then go see the school nurse about that finger. It doesn’t look too bad, though. I’ll put this rat in the dumpster.” Mr. Hines walked away with the departed test subject.
Keira looked at Lissa. They were both stunned. “That was too weird!” Keira said as she applied a paper towel to her finger, staunching the flow of blood.
“But it was cool!” Lissa said, excited by the strange event.
“How did it happen, though? It was so random!” Keira asked as she looked at her lab partner.
“He said static electricity.”
“It was so bizarro. You can still smell it in the air.”
The two girls paused to breathe in the acrid scent of ozone. Keira’s head was spinning a little bit from the strange experience. It felt like she was floating, like her mind had been set adrift to an unknown location.
“But what should we do now?”
“You heard him, killer!” Lissa giggled. “Go get another victim!”
“That’s not funny, Lissa.”
“Sure, it is.”
Keira strolled to the metal door at the back of the classroom—the equipment storeroom. She opened it slowly and went in. The single lightbulb cast harsh shadows in the dark, single-windowed room. Keira heard the rats scurrying around before she saw where they were. She approached the wire cages positioned in neat rows on the far wall. She dropped the bloody paper towel onto the floor. The rats, seven in all, stared helplessly up at her. She looked back at them. It was as if in that moment she was seeing a caged animal for the first time in her life. She suddenly felt the suffering of these creatures. It was too cruel.
I know how you feel, Little Rat, Keira thought as she approached the first cage. Passed around from place to place. And now this—your death—you have no control over.
Keira stood on her tiptoes and unlatched the narrow storeroom window and, with one hard shove, pushed it all the way open. One by one, she lifted and unlatched the first six cages and released the squirming rats into the sprawling juniper bushes on the ground outside.
Keira carried the last brown rat in its mesh cage into the lab, and walked over to the workstation to retrieve her books and purse.
“See you later at your place,” she said to Lissa.

“What? Where are you going?”
“Out of here- I’m not going to kill this rat. They can’t make me do it.”
“That’s cool.” Lissa smiled at Kiera. “What do I tell Mr. Hines?”
“Say I went to the nurse’s office.”
“Sure – and I have a surprise for you later,” Lissa said mysteriously.
“Really? I can’t wait. See you then.” Keira smiled and kept on going, strolling leisurely right out of the classroom and onto the campus below, not looking back even once.


Asmodeus had his orders from Dr. Albion. He bent his six-foot-five frame over the rusty green dumpster behind the Life Science classroom. He fished through the collected debris. The Paragon Institute had received an email earlier that something unusual had happened to a girl named Keira Fairchild at San Pedro High School.
He lifted the flattened cardboard boxes and soggy newspapers, pushing them aside and looking underneath. He hated getting his hands dirty; he was still adjusting to being flesh. Stinking mortal flesh. Asmodeus looked at his pale fingers and the backs of his hands. They were covered with thin black lines, like his pasty face and the rest of his body. Lines ran everywhere, intersecting and crisscrossing. They marked his skin like an incision diagram.
Asmodeus wished he didn’t have the US Government’s blood oath hanging over him. It was part of the conjuring. If only he could use his infernal powers to sort through all this rubbish, it would be easy. But a contract was a contract. It specified where and when he could use his dark gifts. It actually blocked his power from unwarranted use. That part was decided at his recent summoning by General Hesslop and Dr. Albion. Paragon knew how to control its newest employees, The Four Demons. Only after the contract was fulfilled would Asmodeus be released and receive his substantial reward.
He continued to search for the undeniable proof that this girl, Keira, was another of the missing Star Children they were looking for, one of the Twelve Heroes. Asmodeus adjusted the dark fedora that covered his two short ivory horns.
Then he caught sight of the furry body of a rat. There it is. He removed the flaccid corpse, slipped it into a plastic evidence bag, and pinched its lifeless form. Sand, its insides feel like sand, Asmodeus thought as he slid it into his trench coat pocket. She can cause crystallization of living matter. Interesting. I wonder what else she can do? And what’s this? He paused and sniffed the air, picking up an appetizing scent. Asmodeus smiled fiendishly. This girl is a virgin. That changes everything. I will have to ask for her as part of my price when I’m done. I can’t believe my luck. A human blood sacrifice will increase my power tenfold.
“Okay, Song Bird. Item is secured and in transit,” he breathed into the microphone on his shirt collar.
Something tapped Asmodeus’s shoulder. He turned to see a campus security officer standing directly in front of him. He’d been so carried away with the scent of a human virgin, he’d forgotten to check his surroundings. But no matter. Asmodeus could use whatever power he wished in this particular situation. That was part of the contract.
“What?” he asked, annoyed.
The guard stared at the strange person for a moment. He’d never seen someone with such bizarre tattoos, especially across the face. “This is a closed campus. I didn’t see you sign in at the office.”
“My daughter lost her purse this morning, and I was looking to see if it got thrown in here by accident,” he said, indicating the filthy dumpster.
“Who is you daughter, sir?” the guard asked as he closely watched the movements of the stranger.
“Keira Fairchild.”
“And where is she now?”
“In class, of course,” Asmodeus said smoothly.
“I’ll need to scan your ID, sir.”
“Certainly, certainly,” Asmodeus replied, suddenly very cooperative as he extended the ID band on his left wrist toward the guard’s black scanner. He passed it beneath the red laser beam.
“No record,” the guard said. “Let me try again.”
Asmodeus held his wrist closer to the blinking scanner.
“Have you been x-rayed or passed through radiation that you know of?” the guard asked, puzzled.
“No.”
“Weird. I’m not accessing your information. You better come with me to the front office. This scanner is acting up.”
This has gone too far, Asmodeus thought. He stared into the guard’s brown eyes. A psychic tremor started behind Asmodeus’s furrowed brow. The mental hooks came out. Little probing thoughts Asmodeus pushed invisibly, one by one, into the guard’s mind as if slipping fingers through the slats of a wooden fence. They attached themselves and fed freely on the guard’s brain impulses, sucking at his life energy. Asmodeus felt his own power surge with a heady rush. It was completely intoxicating. He was in total control.
“You don’t need to do that, Luis,” Asmodeus said, his eyes burning bright red. “You are going to forget that you saw me here. You will go back to your post and leave me alone.”
Without another word, Luis, who was suddenly so tired he nearly collapsed, turned and walked heavily back up to the campus. Asmodeus exited through the parking lot to deliver the crucial evidence, the tangy scent of a virgin female still in his nostrils.


“Rats are disease carriers!” Steve shouted at Keira as she sat on her unmade bed. “You can’t keep one in this house!”
“But he’s my responsibility. It’s part of a science project. I have to take care of him or I’ll fail,” Keira answered.
“I’m going to call the school. This is unbelievable. A disease-carrying rat in our home? No way!”
“Why don’t you believe me?” Keira glanced up at her foster father, a look of distrust and anger on her face.
“I’m not going to respond to that. You’ve been more trouble to us than what you’re worth these last couple of weeks.”
“Than what I’m worth?” Keira asked incredulously.
“The two grand per month Child Protective Services pays us,” her foster father said without any emotion.
“Is that all I am to you—a paycheck?” Keira asked in wide-eyed with disbelief of her seventy-year-old foster father.
Steve looked at his charge and said nothing.
“Go ahead and call the school,” she shouted. “See if I care.”
“You watch that attitude, young lady,” Steve warned. With that, he glared at her one more time, shook his head, and left the bedroom.
Keira leaned over to look at the rat waiting in its cage on her bedside table. It stared up at her. It poked its pink nose between the wires and sniffed, its black whiskers pointing forward. She put her index finger near for the rat to smell it, but not close enough to be bitten.
“Don’t worry, little guy, if he kicks you out, I’m leaving too,” Keira said. “See over there in the back of the closet, that green bag? It’s my Emergency Exit bag. I’ve run away from foster homes so many times. I always keep it ready. It might be that time again. We’ll see. I think it’s time that I really try to find my birth parents anyway.”
Keira took her phone from her pocket. It had been heating up. Maybe that weird animated malware is making it overheat? She placed it next to the cage and looked down the hallway to see where Steve had gone. He wasn’t in the sunlit kitchen at the far end of the house. He’s probably talking to Mary. Oh, well. I was starting to get used to this place.
Keira walked to the closet and pulled out the green bag. I’m supposed to be going to Lissa’s tonight anyway. I’ll say I’m going to the library again, like I usually do. They always believe that one for some reason. I’ll leave from Lissa’s. Maybe I’ll go up north. Portland or Seattle both sound like fun.
While Keira carefully repacked the contents of her bag, a tiny shadow moved across her phone screen. It had a head, shoulders, arms with moving hands, and a trunk with legs and feet attached. The dark figure wiggled on the reflective surface. It twisted its limbs around the frame’s edge as if it were trying to pull itself out. And then it rose up from the phone in a puff of black mist. It shimmered and snaked across the table and headed straight toward the caged rodent. In one swift motion, the dark form engulfed the brown rat and then disappeared down into its fur. The rat trembled, its eyes dilating wildly, and then it rolled unconscious onto its right side. It remained motionless for a few moments. The rat’s heart slowed down and finally stopped. As quickly as death had come, life returned to the slack body. The rat’s heart fluttered awake. The reanimated animal stood up on all four feet. It squeaked and scurried quickly around the cage, as if trying out its legs for the first time. Keira turned to look.
“Was that you?” she asked gently. “Is something wrong?”
The rat continued to fuss in the cage. Steve returned to Keira’s room. He looked angry.
“Your science teacher, Mr. Hines, wants his rats back.”
“What do you mean?” Keira asked as she pulled the green bag over next to her and tucked it behind her legs. She was ready for a fight.
Steve stared blankly at Keira. “This is the sort of behavior that will get you a one-way ticket to reform school,” he said and stepped closer to her.
“I don’t know what Mr. Hines is talking about.”
“Stop this, Keira. It’s time to admit your mistake and return the school’s property,” Steve said as he reached past Keira and tried to grab the cage.
“No! He’s mine. There’s been a mistake,” Keira shouted and stopped Steve by grabbing his right arm firmly at the wrist.
“Let go of me,” he growled at her.
“I won’t let you take him.”
“This is my house and my rules. The rat is going.” Steve tried to pull away from Keira’s grip.
“No!”
“Keira, let go of me!” Steve shouted and pushed her with his free hand.
As Keira began to fall backward onto the bed, a shower of white sparks snapped around the hand she clenched tightly to Steve’s arm. There was a brilliant flash and his shirtsleeve evaporated in a cloud of white smoke. Beneath her hand, Steve’s entire arm swelled bloodred, and then, cell by cell, the soft flesh became solid marble. Keira released her grip. The unexpectedly heavy limb tore itself free from Steve’s shoulder joint, leaving a gaping hole. It dropped to the wooden floor and shattered. Steve’s eyes rolled back into his head and his legs gave out beneath him.
Keira screamed. Her foster dad flopped around in front of her like a fish out of water. Blood began to pool from his open shoulder socket. She grabbed her phone, charger, and her twin sun box, then jammed them into her pockets. Green bag under her right arm and rat cage beneath her left, she ran from her bedroom, through the empty living room, and into the small backyard.
Where’s Mary? she thought, quickly looking around. I’ve got to get out of here before someone sees me! She paused to open the gate next to the garage, looked around again, and then hurried down the block. She put her head down and sprinted all the way to Lissa’s condo half a mile away.
 


Phaethon

 

1.

 

Jacob Ganz heard the distant rumble before he felt it.  Just a little quake, he thought, semi-awake. Then his thermo-bed shook for a second. He turned over and pulled the felt coverlet up to his stubbled chin.  Jacob shifted trying to find that comfortable spot again as he folded and unfolded the thin pillow beneath his head. 

“Jacob?  Jacob are you awake?  I’m sensing movement on your bed,” SUSI asked with her simulated voice.

Jacob ignored her mechanical prodding.

“I have an urgent message from General Habesha, code 925-R, hull breach warning.”

Jacob sat up slowly. 

“What time is it?” he asked groggily.

“5:54 am.”

“What, this early? Why’s she sending it to me?  I’m not the engineer.  Why didn’t she give it to Wiseman?”

SUSI did not respond.  Jacob rubbed his palms across his sticky eyes and placed his feet onto the cool pod floor.  He looked at the empty whiskey bottle on the bedside table.  Of all the things that had to be rationed; alcohol was food, was it not?  He shook his woozy head.  His osocat, Cindy, uncurled her wooly body and leapt from the mattress.  Jacob watched her brown and white stripes disappear under the bed.

“Would you like to hear the rest of the message?”

“No.  Call Habesha for me.”

“One moment.”

The digital image of an Ethiopian woman appeared midair in front of Jacob.  She wore sleeping gear and didn’t look too happy to be disturbed.

“What is it, Jacob?”

“Why I am checking on a hull breach?”

“You’re in charge of monitoring Delta sector.”

“But I’m the science officer.  Why not get Wiseman to do it?  That’s his job.”

“It’s in Delta.  Wiseman is all the way over in Upsilon.”

“What’s he doing over there at this time in the morning?”

“Do I have to remind you that this whole project is running critically behind schedule?  The first settlers are due here in a week.  We won’t get a single share if this biodome isn’t fully operational by then.”

“But I’m the science officer.  I don’t know anything about hull safety.”

“Just do it, Jacob.  You’re part of the Maintenance team.  It’s your responsibility.  There are only twenty of you staying on.  You better learn this stuff now.”

“Which, for the record,” Jacob interrupted. “I think is crazy.  That’s just too few of us to take care of a dome with a 20-mile circumference.  Even with all this 4-D automation.”

“Use your math skills, please.  It has a 6 mile radius so that’s a 18.85-mile circumference dome, to be exact.”

“Close enough.”

“Be that as it may, that’s how The Tetradome Corporation is doing things.  This is their phase of the project, so they’re the boss.  Now, get going.  The area has already been repressurized and sealed off.”

“What am I supposed to do when I get there?”

“Report back.”

“Why don’t you check the surveillance video?”

“Whatever happened out there cut the power to the hull sensors and the cameras.”

“That’s convenient.”

“Listen, Jacob, this is an order.  Quit stalling. Follow the coordinates to the estimated breach point, then report back.”

“Yes, sir,” Jacob said and paused.  “But what if it’s something major?”

The general stared blankly at Jacob, clearly losing her patience. “I very much doubt it will be.  It’s probably just a short from the quake.”

“What if it causes another delay?” Jacob said sarcastically.

“Phaethon is going to open on time even if I have to kick all of your asses personally.”

With that, General Habesha blinked off.

“And a lovely good morning to you, too,” Jacob said as he stood up.  “Okay, SUSI.  Send me the coordinates.”

“One moment.”

Jacob felt the infoband on his left wrist buzz with receipt.  He tapped its screen and gazed at the multicolored map, getting the general idea where the breach occurred.  I guess she’s right; it’s walking distance from here.  He tapped the screen again to close the map.  Cindy came out from under the bed, sat on her tailless rump, and began to howl for her breakfast.  She stood up on her hind legs and scratched at Jacob’ pajamas.

“Hey, lady!  Be careful.  I’m not a scratching post!”

Cindy stared up at him with feral yellow eyes.  Her round face was more cat-like than bear-like, but that was the genetic mash-up that produced her kind.  She was extremely intelligent and could walk upright on her brindled hind legs, as she did right now, walking out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. 

“If only you had thumbs, I’d really be in trouble.  SUSI feed Cindy.”

“One moment.”

Jacob heard the processed kibble clinking into the feed bowl below the kitchen counter and the sounds of Cindy beginning to eat.  He pulled off his sleep clothes and headed for the recycled water unit for his morning shower.  After quickly drying himself off and dressing in his uniform, Jacob went into the plastic–lined kitchen where SUSI had his meal waiting in the hydration chamber.  He pressed the red button and in fifteen seconds, a tray with his breakfast appeared from a thin aperture along the silver bottom.

“What is this today?”

“Tomato/soy/brown rice cake.”

“That’s not what it smells like.”

Jacob looked at the rectangular slab and noticed half of a large green caterpillar embedded in the side.  Just the top half, bulging eyes and sharp black legs.

“I thought Rin fixed that.  I’ll have to tell her the caterpillars aren’t getting ground up enough.”

“Do you want to send a message to Rin in Food Production?”

“No, SUSI.  Just talking to myself.  I’ll see her later any way.”

Jacob grabbed a mug and placed it into a metallic wall dispenser.  A draft of green tea trickled down into the receptacle.  He carried the warm mug as he lifted the cake to his lips and ate it in quick bites.  Cindy had finished her meager food ration.  She circled over to him, looking for attention.  Jacob was the only one in Maintenance with a pet.  At first, he’d been violently allergic to cats, but then he had experimental nasal filter implants that trapped and removed the allergens. Four others in the dome had the implants done, too,  at the same time Jacob did.  With recirculating air, it was important to monitor the pollen, dander, spores, fungi, and bacterial counts, all possible irritants.  That was one part of Jacob’s Maintenance job, and who better than someone who had allergies to do it?

“Come here girl,” Jacob said as he sat down at the kitchen table and patted his lap.

Cindy obliged by jumping up and curling onto his muscular thighs.  He ran is fingers through her thick fur.  She purred loudly.  Jacob touched the screen on the wall next to him.   No newsfeed or email awaited him, just more intra-project messages.  Only his department was ahead of schedule.  That’s why Habesha was making him do this.  And apparently the whole Phaethon complex was still cut off from the other settlements.  I thought the Installers fixed that before they left.  I can see why Habesha is pissed off right now.  How can settlers live here if they can’t even communicate with Outside?

 

Jacob took the quickest route.  He crossed through Delta Sector’s highly decorated courtyard:  next to its ceramic fountain and tiled murals, between preassembled benches awaiting settlers, and potted ferns and exotic palms, and along the empty, but soon-to-be-active, storefronts beneath the wide glass ceiling.  Phaethon’s dome consisted of see-through solar panels that continuously charged all the settlement’s electric cells and let in life-giving sunlight while filtering out harmful UV light.  Jacob had watched with interest as the glass panels were installed over the last few months.

Early-morning stars were just beginning to fade as the sky did its inky dissolve. As he got rear his destination, Jacob thought what he saw must be a visual distortion.  After all, the sun hadn’t quite come up; it was still pretty dark.  He walked closer to the far structure the coordinates indicated, a glassed-in janitorial unit. In the dawn light, it looked like some sort of black, triangular craft had crashed into the dome.  It couldn’t be more than about seven or eight feet across from tip to tail and about two feet thick.  There were no distinguishing markings on its surface. The front tip had pierced the metaconglomerate part of the hull that ran from the ground up five feet to where the solar panels began.  Jacob peered through the insulated windows into the pressure-sealed unit.  Tawny rubble was scattered all over the floor.  The black tip of the object stuck midway into the room.  The nose cone had broken off, exposing a dark, narrow opening.  Jacob lifted his info band in front of his suit.

“Call Habesha.”

“One moment,” SUSI’s voice answered from Jacob’ wrist.

A few seconds passed as the transmission reached its destination.

“What’s up?” General Habesha asked as she looked up at Jacob.

“Sir, something crashed into the dome.”

“What?”

“See for yourself,” Jacob said as he aimed his left wrist at the black ship.

“What is that?”

“I don’t know. It looks like some kind of vehicle.”

“I hope this isn’t an unscheduled safety test.”

“That doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen used in a test.  Wouldn’t they let you know if there was an inspection coming up, even an unscheduled one?”

“Of course, but they may be testing us to see how ready to react we are.”

“You should let someone know about this.  Call your boss.”

“Oh, I will.  Heads will roll if this sets us back any more!”

Jacob looked into the sealed storage space again.  He noticed the pressurized door on the far side was hanging off its frame.

“Sir!  This room is not sealed.  The collision must have knocked the other door from its hinges.”

“What?  Quickly, go in and see what the rest of the damage is.”

“But that black machine is open!  What if it let some sort of contaminant into the dome?”

“Now, you are just being paranoid. The air filters will have destroyed any toxins already.  You know that.  It’s probably a new kind of drone the corporation is testing.”

“I don’t like this at all.  Why don’t you have Wiseman come here?  He can tell you if this wall has lost its structural integrity.”

“Jacob, you are there now.  Go into that room and then get back to me!” General Habesha snapped as her image disappeared from the infoband.

“Yes, sir,” Jacob said into the air.

He approached cautiously.   The broken door was dangling outwards, partially open, clearly pushed by some great force. Jacob pulled the unhinged door fully open.  He grabbed a pressurization suit from the storage locker and quickly put it on, just in case. That would keep out any foreign particles. Then he noticed it; the strange wet trail of footprints running from the open nosecone across the room and continuing right through the doorway.  He whirled around and looked out into the silent courtyard behind him.  The trail led away toward the shops.  Jacob suddenly felt very hot and dizzy in his full-body suit. 

“Call Habesha,” he said to his infoband.

“One moment.”

“What’s the damage?”

“Listen, someone was hiding inside of that thing,” Jacob said, looking out of protective facemask at his wrist.

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said:  Someone was inside of there.”

“Did you see him?”

“No, but there are footprints leading out into the courtyard.”

Habesha paused to consider this. “Just one set of footprints?”

“It looks like it,” Jacob said as he studied the fresh trail.  “But they’re big feet.  It’s weird.  That nose cone is so small.  Who could fit in there?”

“Well, what are you waiting for?  Follow them and find out!”

“And then what?”

“Identify who is spying on us!”

“This is really an issue for Security.  Get O’Neill to do it.”

“You’re there.  Everyone else is busy right now.”

“This is not my department.”

“Jacob, I’ve got Singh on the other line with a gas leak.  Talk to you later.”

“But, I don’t,” Jacob started to say just as the general’s image once again disappeared from the tiny screen.

Jacob grit his teeth unconsciously.  He brought his left wrist up to mouth level.

“Call Habesha!”

“One moment.  I’m sorry, that party isn’t receiving calls right now.  Do you want to leave a message?”

“Ugh!  No.  No message.”

The trail of footprints led Jacob across the courtyard to an empty storefront.  From the look of it, it would be a women’s clothing store when the settlers got here. Jacob approached and saw that the shop door had been propped open with a paint can. Someone is working in here.  The footprints went inside.  He glanced through the large shop windows.  The ceiling lights inside blinked on and off a few times, and then came back on.  Typical!  Now that the Installers are gone, the circuit goes!  Beneath plastic sheets stood empty clothing racks and four or five undressed female mannequins.  The sound of metal hitting metal came from inside the store. 

He saw it.  A white shape moved quickly back beneath the track lights.  Jacob couldn’t quite make it out.  It didn’t look like a person. The chill ran up his spine as he moved closer to see.  The overhead lights blinked off again, throwing the store into semi-darkness.  Something turned around and moved sideways in the back of the store.   Its shape was rising and falling as if it were somehow expanding and contracting.  The silhouettes of strange limbs could be seen against the dark walls. The overhead lights came back on again and Jacob witnessed the intruder.  The being was four feet tall, completely white in color, and resembled a hairless ape.  It removed the plastic sheeting and stood admiring one of the mannequins, studying the shapes.  Its thick neck began to stretch upwards, bluish veins and arteries rising to the surface, as its whole body began to elongate to take on the contours of the female figure.  Its eyes and mouth receded and its face became as blank and smooth as the mannequin’s. Jacob froze. Then he noticed something else, Ortiz was lying on the floor, a paintbrush dripping in his right hand.  Jacob could see Ortiz breathing.  He’s alive! Slowly, Jacob moved over toward the front door.  The white creature was posing, its smooth body completely mirroring the curving forms of the mannequin. The lights flickered off again.  Jacob ran to the door and kicked the paint can out of the way.  He slammed it shut and pressed his infoband to the doorframe.

“Lock!”

The deadbolt loudly clicked.  It’s trapped inside!  Jacob turned to run to safety behind the large courtyard fountain when a loud banging came from the shop glass behind him.  He looked back and saw the pale form of the alien-as-female-mannequin standing at the window, both of its fingerless hands pressing against the glass.  Haloed by the darkness behind it, a pair of black eyes and a large red mouth emerged from the blank mannequin face.  The alien stared right at Jacob.  A huge smile passed across its lips as it exposed rows of pointed teeth.  It looked like it was laughing at him.  The creature pointed its hand at Jacob and then back at its open mouth, then its stomach.  Jacob knew, as a scientist, this was the most important moment of his whole life.  An undiscovered alien life form was communicating with him, but he did not like its message. Jacob only sensed malevolence.

The overhead lights came on.

The horrid being suddenly twisted back upon itself and began to morph, its thin limbs sagging and its white skin flushing bright pink.  Something like dandruff was falling from its body to the floor.  Its bulbous head began to cave in.  Its red mouth contorted in a silent scream. The rippling chest began to collapse, its skin sloughing off all around it like powdered sugar.  Jacob watched as the creature literally disintegrated in front of him. Every last bit crumbled like cake flour onto the ground.  It must be a reaction from the oxygen.  Air must be corrosive to its skin.  I bet it didn’t see that coming! A fan in the ventilation duct inside the store turned on.  The foreign substance must have triggered the air quality sensor. Jacob came closer and saw the small pile of material the alien had become.  It continued to disintegrate as he watched; breaking down into smaller and smaller molecules, until, finally, the intruder was all gone.  Its last particles drifted upwards on the air current like a wisp of candle smoke.  Jacob knew this vent would pass the bad air through UV lights, industrial scrubbers, and then into the furnace next to the green houses before being released outside the dome.  No need to worry about contagion. 

Or was there? 

Jacob remembered the ship.  He left Ortiz lying on the floor of the shop and headed back to the crash site.  When he arrived there was no alien craft to be found.  That’s impossible!  Only twenty minutes have passed!  There’s no way Habesha could have moved the ship in such a short time.  Jacob walked up to the diamond-shaped hole in the hull.  Polluted air was flooding into the structure from the spent world outside. There was the composite rubble on the ground, but not a trace of any vehicle.  With the foreign object removed, the jagged hole began to close itself up as sensors reactivated and molecular simulators started to make the structural repairs.  Jacob was relieved; he didn’t want to deal with Hoarders trying to sneak in through a hull breach looking for electronic refuse, food packages, and unattended children.  He shuddered thinking about the situations they’d had at Apollo and Hydra, all those missing kids and the oblivious settlers killed and then quickly gutted and skinned.  Even with those tragedies, no side arms or any other kind of weapons were permitted in the domes, by penalty of exile. 

The black ship must have disintegrated as well, or flown back remotely, Jacob thought.  In either case, it was going to be a huge problem for Habesha.  This whole place would have to be quarantined. Tetradome will have to come in and manage it.  As he left, Jacob was able to get the broken door roughly back into position.  This is someone else’s problem now.


The Sundial's Shadow

    The loud electric snapping noise woke me up.  It came from somewhere over in the cold darkness to my right.  And even before I opened my eyes all the way, I could see a faint, blue-white light coming between my half-closed lids.  
    That’s strange, I thought.  It’s the middle of the night. Where is that light coming from?
    I glanced sleepily sideways at the red glow of my digital alarm clock.  3:15 am.  I opened my eyes entirely and I saw, to my complete surprise, my best friend Jennifer standing in the middle of my bedroom looking down at me.  I threw back my orange comforter and let my feet drop to the carpeted floor.
    “Jennifer?” I asked, rubbing the sleep from my eyes with the heels of my palms.
    Jennifer’s image flickered in front of me: her long blonde hair parted down the middle and tucked behind both ears, her white nightgown shimmered, her delicate hands and long fingers floating at her sides, her bare feet hovering about 4 inches off the carpet.  She was glowing with some kind of translucent energy.  Her spirit-light cast moving shadows across the bedroom walls and on the ceiling.  It was like watching that scene in Star Wars when Princess Leia appeared from R2-D2 and said, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi!”  
    “Jennifer?” I asked again, watching her ghostly figure twist and scintillate, still not believing what I was seeing. Jennifer stared at me with her piercing blue eyes and smiled.  She began speaking, but no sound came out of her mouth.  Her lips were moving, she gestured to me with her hands, but I couldn’t understand it.  I thought I saw her mouthing my name:  Todd.  And then, just as quickly as it had started, Jennifer’s image dimmed, flickered like a bad light bulb, and blinked out completely, leaving only the early morning darkness all around me.  I reached over and turned on my bedside lava lamp, that only a week earlier my single mother, Eddie, had bought for me.  She thought it was “funky.”  I sort of hated it, but I needed a lamp, and what could I do about it anyway?  I was only thirteen, an eighth grader; and I didn’t have a job.  Eddie had all the money.
    What on earth just happened here?
    In the vibrant orange light of the lava lamp, I noticed something else.  The rosy quartz crystals I kept on my nightstand, next to my Rubik’s Cube, looked like they had fused together.  Jennifer and I had been collected them all last semester (Really, we’d been shoplifting them from Small Wonders in Peacock Alley.  So far we hadn’t been caught!)  The crystals were now neatly arranged in a perfect three-sided pyramid. As I looked more closely, there still seemed to be a kind of residual glow coming from inside the miniature crystal structure.  Tiny blue and white sparks danced through the quartz prisms and then faded out. I reached over and poked the crystals with my index finger.  They slid part making a loud clattering noise and came to rest on the nightstand.  
    Now that’s really weird!  Quartz isn’t even magnetic!  Those crystals can’t stick together like that!  It’s impossible!  And since my ghost, Leroy, isn’t around any more, I don't know how it could have happened!
    I rubbed my eyes again and glanced around the silent room.  
    Had I been having a waking dream?  
    Outside my small window the sky was inky black with only a scattered handful of stars.  I had been quietly constructing a symphony out of night sounds:  the mechanical rhythms of the hall clock, the first crickets chirping from the community garden, the distant whoosh of early morning traffic on Hawthorne Blvd. It would still be a few hours before the night began its indigo dissolve and became its morning pinky-blue.  I reached over and clicked off that stupid lava lamp, pulled my legs back up under my warm comforter, turned over, and went back to sleep.
    As I drifted off, I thought about all the crazy things that went on last semester at Malaga Cove Prep School.  So much had happened to both Jennifer and me during Winter Semester.  We played one of the best concerts of our lives under the direction of our grumpy conductor, Dr. Gundham.  I had been finally advanced to First Flute, First Chair in Orchestra class!  Jennifer was also now First Clarinet, which meant she sat directly behind me.  Jennifer helped me solve the complicated riddle of the famous picture book, The Masquerade, which led me to the hiding place of a solid gold rabbit sculpture.  Everyone was talking about it here on Palos Verdes.  I was now even more of a celebrity around Palos Verdes, California.  Not only was I the local musical prodigy who had won a Julliard Young Musician scholarship, but now I was also the winner of an international treasure hunt!  I’d even been interviewed on the ABC TV News about it!  But that’s not all:  Jennifer and I had been involved in a supernatural mystery involving a ghost!  His name was Leroy.  Jennifer and I summoned up his spirit in a séance one afternoon not knowing who he was.  Only after objects moving about by invisible hands, wooden doors slamming by themselves, disembodied voices speaking to us, and a paranormal dual between Leroy and an evil incubus (who had been harassing both Jennifer and me) did we find out our friendly ghost’s true identity.  But our ghostly companion, Leroy, left us soon afterwards and I really didn’t know if he'd ever come back.  Jennifer and I missed him.  He had been our protector.
    The 1982 Spring classes at Malaga Cove Prep School had already started last Monday.  We both were in our final semester there.  And now this otherworldly projection of Jennifer showed up in my bedroom at three o’clock in the morning and my quartz crystals formed themselves into some kind of electrified pyramid!  
    What could it all mean? I wished Leroy were still here so I could ask him! And what would happen next? 
    It looked right now as if this semester was shaping up to be just as crazy as the last one…

 


Near Wild Heaven

Excuses are the handiest things:  part lie and part truth.  It’s the balance that makes them believable.  If art imitates life, then making excuses is an art.  My friend Tim calls in a PETA bomb threat when he doesn’t want to go to work at Horton’s Furriers.  He’s lucky.  I have to tell my boss at library things like, “I’m trapped in the middle of a race riot right now.  Bricks are flying. Storefront windows are shattering.  I can’t make it in today.”  
Now that is an excuse.  
But I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me go back to the start:  It all began with a red helium balloon, sperm-tailed, aimed at the ceiling of a West Hollywood dance club.  I was at Revolver, a discotheque favored by “in-the-know” gay boys.  I had a sociology assignment:  Observing Body Language.  
I hadn’t noticed him at first, the cute guy with the balloon.
I was re-reading my messy notes on a yellow legal pad as I sipped at a very watery gin and tonic (my new favorite because the tonic water glowed in black light.)  
I know, cool, right?
Deee-lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart” pulsed from speakers strapped onto the walls and rafters.  Strobe lights blinked and spun around in their sockets like epileptic eyes.  It was very difficult to read what I had already written for my body language assignment.
Then he caught my attention:  the strapping man in a seersucker jacket, in stark contrast to the rest of the 20-something guys on dance floor who wore The Gap’s new rugby shirts.  
Why is he holding a single red balloon?
I quickly incorporated this new situation into my research.
Mid-to-late twenties, maybe five or six years older than me, tall and skinny, broad shoulders, sandy blonde hair slicked back and bobbed below his ears, strong jaw, really nice eyes.  Talking to no one.  Formal coat and slacks.  Did he just come here from work?  Why is he holding a child’s balloon?
“Do you want another one?” The cute Latino waiter tapped my shoulder.
“Yeah, same.  Gin and tonic.”
He has “the loner” vibe.  Is he single?  Maybe he’s waiting for someone.  Is the balloon a birthday gift or an anniversary present?  He’s watching the gyrating dancers.  He’s not looking around for anyone.  He doesn’t have a drink. Maybe he goes to AA? 
Dr. Wilde’s sociology project was in two parts, observe/record and then full disclosure/follow-up:  I had to approach my subject, let him know I had been observing him, and get his information.  The waiter returned and placed my second drink next to me.  The ice cubes shifted, as if sensing my restlessness.  I paid up, tasted the drink quickly, and carried it with me as I headed over through the fake marble topped tables to my subject.  I had on tight black jeans, a white, ruffled tuxedo shirt and black rosary beads, black cowboy boots, my fire-engine red hair spiked up.  
Hey, it’s April 1, 1992. My look is the height of alternative music decadence!  Ok, so maybe my look needs an update.  It’s not the 80’s anymore.  
I folded my notes tightly beneath my left arm like a sad wing.  
The helium balloon bobbed in the breeze from the air conditioning.  
“Nice balloon!”  I began, shouting over the throbbing bass line in the music.
“Oh, thanks.”  
“Who’s it for?”
“The balloon?  I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” I puzzled. 
“Some 18 year old asked me to hold it for him while he danced.  I don’t know where he’s gone off to now.”
“So he left you holding the balloon?”  I said returning to my notes and adding this new information in a fast scribble.  “And you are going to wait for him here until he returns?”
“Yes.  Is this some sort of questionnaire?”
“I’m sorry.  I’m Matt, Matt Dempsey.  I’m doing a sociological observation exercise for my class.  I’m studying your body language, taking notes, coming up with conclusions based on your stance, posture, clothing, etc.”
“Sounds interesting.”
“It’s just a project from college.  I couldn’t help notice your balloon.”
“Yeah.  It looks like that kid isn’t here anymore.  I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.”
“Why not let it go free outside?”
“Not a bad idea.”  
We stared up the long white string to the red balloon tethered at the other end.
“Let’s go out.”
“I’m not dating right now,” he said without missing a single beat.
“What?” I shouted over the blaring speakers.
“I’m not dating right now.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said, ‘Let’s go out.’ But I don’t want to date anyone right now.”
“I meant outside.  Let’s go outside and set the balloon free.”
“Oh!  Sorry.”
God that was awkward.  But, that settles it.  He is really handsome, too.  I kind of like him already.  You know when you meet someone and there’s that creative spark?  That bit of biochemistry that draws you in, blood iron to the heart’s dark magnet.  I was feeling it right now.
 “What’s your name?”  I asked.
Just then Annie Lennox’s new song, “Why?” came on the sound system, cutting me off.
“I love this song.  Do you want to dance, Matt?”  
“Sure,” I replied without revealing my total surprise.  “Let me put down my drink and notepad.”
I reflexively followed him out onto the dance floor, which had cleared out since “Why?” was a slow song.  My mysterious gentleman turned to face me and lifted up my right hand gently with his left and wrapped his right arm around my small waist.  
I moved closer to him, striking a waltz position.  
This is so crazy!  If he doesn’t want to date anyone, why is he dancing with me? I’m supposed to be doing a homework assignment.  This isn’t why I came here tonight!
Annie Lennox crooned her torch song as I leaned into this gallant stranger, our feet keeping perfect time.  
We moved like one body.
We danced without speaking.  
His body felt warm and inviting.  I watched my reflections twisting in his hazel eyes.  They were smiling at me.  A million things ran through my head.  We took several spins around the hardwood floor. I was tipsy from my second drink and totally perplexed by his behavior.  
Oh, well, Matt.  Enjoy it while it lasts.
The song’s aching chorus finally came to an end.  He stopped before me and bowed.  
God is that corny!  Who is he, Prince Charming?
“I still need one more thing from you for my homework.”
“Ok.”
“For statistical purposes only, mind you, I need your name and phone number.”
“Here’s my card,” he replied as he produced a tan colored piece of paper and slipped it into my hand.
“Let me get my notes.”
I turned, putting the card into my front pocket, and strolled across the dance floor to the table where both my gin and tonic and my yellow legal pad awaited my return.  I picked up the drink and swallowed the last of it.  I lifted the pad and tucked it away again under my arm.  Turning around, I was shocked to find this charming man had abandoned me.  I surveyed the club quickly, looking left, right and center.  
He wasn’t here anymore. No hazel eyes.  No balloon.  I didn’t find out what his name is.  Wait a minute!  Duh! He gave me his business card.
I fished it out from my front pocket.
Julian Miro, Film Maker
I rushed across the club and out the revolving front door.  I looked along the sleeping cars parked on Santa Monica.  I couldn’t find him anywhere.  No traffic pulled away.  The usually busy street was empty.  Out of the corner of my eye, like a forget-my-not, I saw the red balloon tied to a sapling just waiting for me.  I walked over and undid the tiny knot.  
The balloon drifted into the black sky like a prayer.
Oh, Julian!  Where for art thou, Julian?
I turned and pushed the revolving door and went inside for another anemic cocktail at the bar.

Diary excerpt:

 Liquors polish my liver; make it soft as the skin on a child's wrist. Every swig of Campari, Drambuie, Stoli whittles me thin as a stick.  I am somehow alive, in spite of tequila, the knots in my veins, an alcoholic rosary. I pray to lose the thirst, chase liquid spirits from my clasped glass. In the white toilet bowl in the morning, I don't look down, my piss fermented in the damaged casks of my kidneys. My life pours out, awful and sallow. In spite of this, by evening time, I’ll be mouthing down martinis, a sequence of daggers, the plot against my spleen.   And try as I might, I never die, but linger, an after-taste.

 


Limboville

 

Sally Moon’s daydream shifted once more; she was now reclining in the plush leather backseat of a hired limo.  She watched the firm ass of a thug-faced garbage man as he rubbed around an overflowing trashcan, opening the lid with one gloved hand and removing a large unremarkable vase with the other, and then slamming the lid down again.  
The limo started up and pulled away from the ever swallowing gutter.  
Today, Sally’s clothing emphatically said “uptown” with no argument.  The Kenzo dress she wore was a swish of slimming silk in an unconcerned black, slit up both sides.  She raised a yellowish flask filled with imported Dr. Raushka’s 40 proof  “liquid vitamins” to her crimson lips to wash down a dancing pair of Vicodin.  
What a kick!
Sally opened the automatic window and screamed “Bitch” at a startled blonde jogger, who stopped and stared blankly, sweat dripping across her white Nike swoosh.  As the shiny limo drove on, the dazed runner hissed something and scurried down a filthy alley.
 "Let's go home, please,” Sally decided aloud.  
It’s time for brandy and conversations about Anderson windows.
The hustling streets were garlanded with posters of that foul Madonna.  A sick wind blew rotting newspapers around.  To the left, a transient urinated sweetly in a doorway, covering the steps with a golden veneer.    Red pots like mouths on window ledges vomited geraniums.  
Sally waved goodbye, obliquely, to no one.  
“Put your foot on the gas, Hutt,” she told the obedient driver.
Sally gave him plenty of time to make the U-turn.  She swigged her amber flask, peered out on this scene, these ever-so-urban addresses.  The promise of  the winter fabrics collapsed in the Vogue in her lap.  A hush of low hanging branches scratched along the car.  If a boy had come to the back window, he’d have said to her, “Gimme a dollar.”  
Those drunken ladies and their singing children in this Spanish neighborhood. 
Movie stars shed their billboard rinds in the breeze.  
Sally Moon was not scared, not in a pinch.  She didn’t care.  Sally looked like a Neiman Marcus ad:  thick lipstick, the best, young shoes and clutch.   She played with a fragment of a lunar meteor dangling from her left wrist.  
To her right, street herds merged before her in the passenger side window.  Savages on the sidewalk, framed with advertising, chanting.   Out of the rabble, a handsome man appeared in the crowd Sally felt like straddling.  He loosened his cheap belt and his hand darted to his button fly.  He pulled at it like a villain in a moody portrait, hunger turning through his body, as Sally was pulled away. 
A few more miles.  
No matter where she went these days, Sally never seemed to arrive. 

The dream vehicle turned a corner and Sally was standing again in the center of the Carter Memorial Hospital waiting room, her mind racing.
What am I doing back here again?  
A pair of voices continued speaking from behind her.
Darling, it’s like giving a known criminal his bail. 
Sally, this is strictly about Tim’s alimony, remember?  
Sally turned and saw no one.  Her Blahniks clacked on the polished hospital floor as she headed out through the Admitting foyer.  She pushed open the glass lobby door to have a cigarette.  Once on the sidewalk, she lit a Dunhill up, and pawed Saturday night’s sleep from her eyes.  
I’ve never been a wholly perfect citizen.  Je ne sais quoi.  I’ve got to shake free of this rotten poker hand.  
Sally exhaled iron smoke furiously.  
Voices continued to spring from the air around her.  But Sally was alone; she couldn’t locate any hidden speakers. The unseen persons seemed to be answering her thoughts.  For some reason it seemed perfectly natural to Sally.  
The bleak reality is you’re that way, Schluffen.  
You’re the nightgown on the ceiling.  
Screw it! 
“Who said that?”
You’ll have to keep it a fair fight in those iron courtrooms, Darling.  
But you never intended for it to get so, what’s the term?, constipated.  
Sally was suddenly filled with happy visions, imagining her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Tim, being stabbed to death along an Italian marble corridor.
 Except it wasn’t Wednesday yet.  
José Menendez, whom she hired to do that particular deed, was nowhere near to the soon-to-be-dearly-departed Tim.  That death hadn’t happened.  When it did Sally would still be in bed, a hand over her face, unable to take a look at herself in the bedside mirror.  
“Now Sally,” she said aloud over the puzzle of disembodied voices, “Make plans.  Small plans.”
 Nothing to worry about.  You’ve always been strong at business.  
Even though we both know that you are now incapable of being young again.  
“I’m still… innocent,” Sally replied. 
 It won’t just blow over this time.  
“My skin is appalling.  For that I should be arrested.” 
Oh, sure.  They’ll be jumping to put the cuffs on you.  

 


Samples from my unpublished poetry books


From: Cryptopedia