I’ve released a new book, a collection of stories written over the last few years with a fantasy/fairy tale feel them. Some of humorous and some very dark, much like the original fairy tales collected before ‘happily ever after’ was a thing.
I’ve released a new book, a collection of stories written over the last few years with a fantasy/fairy tale feel them. Some of humorous and some very dark, much like the original fairy tales collected before ‘happily ever after’ was a thing.
This story came out of a challenge to write about the upside of a really bad thing.
John ‘Wolfie” Mulholland scrambled away from the latest wave of zombies. They grabbed and pulled at him with their splintered fingers. Mrs. Dougherty was in the front row. She used to give him milk and cookies and listen while he ranted about the latest atrocity from school. Now she was trying to tear him apart. He kicked her knee and she fell to the ground. He felt sorry for her, but not sorry enough to die at her hands.
It just wasn’t fair! John’s rage brought him to his feet and he pushed the shambling neighbours away and made a break for freedom. His flight brought him to the edge of an escarpment where the fence had been crushed by a fallen tree. John ran up the trunk and leapt out into space. The escarpment was a two hundred foot bank of dirt and rock looming over the Humber River. It was possible to ride the loose dirt safely to the bottom. John had done it last year on a dare. His feet struck dirt and started a small landslide. He skipped and jumped to avoid the outcroppings of solid rock and splashed alive into the river. Then the first zombie landed beside him, head first, then it rained zombies. John dove under the water and swam out into the current and let it carry him away.
Still warm enough that John felt no immediate need to get out of the water; he let the river carry him away from the horrible life he already missed. Swine flu induced encephalitis was what the authorities called it – zombie flu. It disinhibited the infected by destroying their upper brain function. There were no survivors, except John who, apparently, was immune.
He finally climbed out of the water and stripped off his wet clothes. His foster parents would have beat him for it. He didn’t care anymore. John used his hands to strip the water out of the fur that covered his body, relieved to be rid of clothes that didn’t fit quite right.
The streetlights were coming on in patches so he started looking for safe shelter for the night. That’s when he heard the screams.
His feet reacted before his brain could carrying him around a corner to where a mob of zombies had cornered a young boy. John yelled in rage and slammed into the group pushing them off the youngster. Zombies growled and mumbled, but they didn’t scream. The kid was also immune.
Some of the crowd turned on John and he found himself fighting for his life. John kicked knees, punched throats and whatever else he could manage. But it wasn’t going to be enough, there were too many of them.
Then a shotgun roared and the mob twitched as pellets tore through it. Again and again the gun blasted until the zombies ran off leaving John gasping on the pavement. The kid put the gun down and came over to him.
“I didn’t think there was anyone else alive,” John thought his voice sounded odd through the ringing in his ears. “Thanks for the help,” he said, “I thought I was a goner.”
“I left the gun in my bag. They caught me by surprise and I didn’t have time to get it.” The gun was slung over the kid’s shoulder. “I won’t make that mistake again, but we need to get somewhere safe.
John faded in and out until the kid dragged him into a house.
John heard a shower running. “Good, there’s still hot water, but it won’t last long. We’d better share.” John stood under the hot water. He closed his eyes as it washed away both gore and despair.
Gentle hands scrubbed his back with soap. John sighed and leaned against the wall.
John squeezed to the side and opened his eyes to see his companion. The first thing he saw was that his rescuer was no boy. She was at least his age. The second thing was the soft red fur that covered her whole body. She put soap in his hand.
John carefully washed all the blood out of that miraculous fur.
“My name’s Peke,” she said, “Short for pekinese.”
“Wolfie,” he said.
“Hmmm,” she said running her finger through his wet brown fur. “Suits you.”
She stepped out of the shower and dried off. Wolfie followed her. She walked past the clothes in the hall and curled up on the sofa. John lounged in a chair across from her.
“It’s called Robson’s Syndrome. It’s rare, only a handful of cases in North America.” She stroked her side. “It causes the fur, and for some reason immunity to the zombie flu.
“Now what?” he asked.
“We wait a few weeks for the fever to pass, then we go and look for survivors. It will take a while but we’ll rebuild. We might even learn something.”
“And what are we supposed to do while we wait?”
She smiled and stuck her tongue out at him. “I am sure we’ll be able to think of something.”
Well, once you get past the whole end of the world thing, this was turning out to be a pretty good day.
Aggie walked to the brow of the hill that overlooked the city. Aggie had never been to the city, but she loved to watch the traffic bustle in and out. Airplanes circled overhead waiting their turn to land, the dull roar of their engines muffled almost to silence by the distance. One day she had watched so long that she had seen the lights come on one by one until it was lit up like a fairy kingdom.
Today she arrived at the hill to find an enormous metal man leaning against the edge of the cliff. He was watching the city.
“Excuse me,” she said politely, “you are blocking my view.”
With a great grinding and clanging noise the metal man turned to face her.
“Who are you?” he demanded in a voice that was so deep that Aggie could feel it in her teeth.
“I’m Aggie,” she said, “I live with my mom and dad over there.” She waved her arm vaguely over her shoulder.
“You should go home,” rumbled the iron man. “This is no place for little girls.”
“This is my place,” Aggie said, “And you are rude.”
“I told you my name. You are supposed to say ‘Pleased to meet you Aggie my name is…'” she paused, “What is your name?”
“Name?” said the metal man, “I have no name. I am a robot.”
“What is a robot?” asked Aggie.
“A robot is….” the metal giant paused. “I am a robot.”
“Where are you from?”
“From? I am from nowhere. I was built over there from metal and glass.” The giant man pointed into the mountains.
“Why?” rumbled the robot, “To destroy the city.”
“The city?” cried Aggie. “Why would you want to destroy the city? It’s wonderful.”
“My master hates the people in the city. He says they are evil and selfish.”
“But even if they are selfish, they don’t deserve to be destroyed.”
“My master wants them destroyed. So he built me to destroy them.”
“But you can’t destroy the city.”
“It is what I am made to do,” said the robot. “I must do what my master made me for.”
“But it’s wrong.”
“I don’t know wrong. I only know obedience.”
Aggie walked to the edge of the hill and looked out over the city. She felt tears forcing their way out of her eyes. The cars and planes blurred. She thought of all those buildings broken and burning; people hurt and crying.
“No!” she shouted at the robot. “You can’t do it. Your master is wrong.”
The robot bent down further with more clanking. She could smell oil and electricity.
“I am not built to know what is wrong. I am built to obey. I cannot disobey.”
“I disobey my dad sometimes.”
“Your dad didn’t build you well.”
“Dad didn’t build me,” laughed Aggie, “I was born.”
“What is born?”
“I’m not sure. I asked my dad once and he just turned red.”
The robot shook his head.
“Whether born or made, we must do as we are told.” He turned again to look across to the city. The sun glinted on windows and winked from airplanes. A breeze blew the faintest sounds of activity to the hill.
“We start out doing as we are told, because we don’t know anything,” Aggie stepped up to the edge of the cliff. “But the more we learn, the more we need to choose for ourselves.”
Aggie heard the metal grind as the robot nodded his head.
“Come with me,” he said and held out his hand. Fearfully, she stepped onto his hand. He curled his fingers to protect her. “We will go and learn.”
Aggie was sure that his footsteps shook the earth, but she couldn’t feel them away up in the air cradled in the metal fist of the robot.
“I am listening to them,” said the robot after a while. “They are laughing because some geese are crossing the highway and traffic is stopped.” He walked on.
“They have seen us,” he rumbled. “But they won’t attack because they see you. They won’t hurt a little girl even to save themselves.” They arrived at the edge of the city. Police cars and fire trucks were lined up across their path. Planes circled overhead.
“It is time,” the robot said, “I must obey.”
“But you can’t.”
“Then you must stop me.”
The whole city watched what happened next. How a little girl stood in front of the colossus with tear streaked face and pushed on the robot”s foot. Miraculously it tottered, then fell backward with a great crash and lay still.
“He could not choose to disobey,” Aggie told them, “but he could choose to fail.”
Elle Burton:Missing, the second book in the Elle Burton series by Peggy Mound McAloon picks the action from the first book. Elle and Jimmy, the reformed bully need to rescue Elle’s brother, all while keeping the Fiori a secret. With strong characterization and a plot line which is about much more than the rescue, this is a terrific book for children as it deals with common issues of childhood without interfering with a rollercoaster of a plot. -Alex McGilvery of celticfrogreviews.
Have you ever had to sacrifice something to bring back something or someone you love? Peggy McAloon is here today to talk about the second book in her Lessons from Fiori series, Missing. Elle’s brother has been kidnapped. Will she be able to save him?
Kidnapping. Monsters. Magic.
Elle’s desperate to find her kidnapped brother. She teams up with the winged warriors from the dimension of Fiori to save him, but JJ isn’t the only one in danger. What will Elle sacrifice to bring her brother home? Can she fulfill the ancient prophecy and restore the magic of the Bronze Pendant?
You will love this Coming of Age, action-packed fantasy for middle-grade readers. Elle Burton’s goal is to rescue her brother. What she discovers is pure evil. The author provides a female role model who strives to overcome her flaws and inspire kids everywhere.
“Missing” blends the magic of a fairytale with the contemporary realities of the world today’s youth inhabit. You will discover a new world order through the journey of a young girl who exhibits both compassion and jaw-dropping courage in her quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy. Find yourself caught in the ultimate struggle between good and evil. “Missing” is the second book in the “Lessons from Fiori” series.
Sascha limped into the bar and took a table where she could sit with her back to a wall facing the door. A young girl came and deposited a mug of beer on the table. Sascha used a scrap of sleeve wetted with beer to clean the blood from her face. The girl appeared again and left a cleaner cloth. Shascha smiled thanks and went back to her ablutions. She drank what was left of the beer and settled in for a long wait.
A polished steel shield hung on the wall. From what she could see of the bartender in it he looked more troll than human. Sascha wondered what he thought of her. She knew even with her best efforts, blood caked in her eyebrows and hair, turning fiery-red dark. Fortunately none of the cuts and tears in her clothes were in places which could cause trouble.
Well after moonrise, Jacko slid into the seat across from her. The room had filled up and they were able to talk under the boisterous crowd.
“What happened to you?”
“A couple of bravos thought they needed my purse more than I did.”
Jacko winced, “Did you have to let them bleed all over you?”
“One thought he could hold me while his partner finished me. I had to cut his throat.” She shrugged. “It was messy.
“They must have been desperate.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“After all that you didn’t even check their purses?”
“Whatever else I might be I am not a thief.”
“You could have taken enough for some new clothes.”
Sascha stared at him until Jacko looked down.
“OK, OK, You’ll do anything for gold but steal it. I don’t get you, Sasch.”
“You don’t need to get me.” She leaned forward across the stained wood of the table. “Did you get the information I asked you about?”
“I did, the old man’s holed up in the old monastery outside the south wall.”
“Thanks” She dropped a handful of coins on the table. “Buy yourself a decent meal.”
Her stained and ragged clothing helped Sascha blend into the shadows well enough the guards didn’t notice her climb over the south wall. The moon shone bright enough to reveal handholds, but not so bright as to make her stand out. She reached the bottom and stretched out the cramps in her hands.
The place was more ruin than monastery. Walls and roofs now jumbles of stone. The only building still standing was the crypt for the monks who never left their retreat even in death. She pushed on the door and found it barred from the inside. She smiled, neither corpses or ghosts had any reason to bar the door. With the blade of her thinnest knife she lifted the bar and eased the door open.
The faint gleam of moonlight didn’t show anything but dust and bones. She entered the crypt and followed the faint scent of cheese. An old man waited for her.
“Robson sent you.”
“He wants the stone.”
“Ah,” the old man nodded. “Want some cheese?”
Sascha shrugged and took the chunk of cheese from his hand. She bit into it and almost cried at its sharp flavour against her tongue.
“There is water if you wish to clean up.” He tossed her a bundle of cloth. “My fellows won’t mind if you borrow a robe. The smell of death disturbs me.”
“You’re afraid of dying?” Sascha asked through the splashes of water on her face.
“I was hoping you would be. ”
“So I would just give you the stone?”
“I don’t want to kill you.”
“But you will if you have to.”
“I will do what I need for Gold.”
The old man looked at her sadly.
“I don’t see greed in your eyes.”
He reached into his robe and puled out a tiny bundle wrapped in silk.
“Silk is the only substance that the stone won’t effect. Be careful.” He handed it to her.
Sascha allowed the silk to move from the stone and touched it against a bone that lay on the floor. It turned into pure yellow gold.
“You are at the very edge of darkness. I didn’t want to push you over.”
“Then you understand.”
“Goodbye Sascha, you’re almost free.”
“Without Gold, I will never be free.”
“Remember the silk.” The crypt went dark.
Sascha found herself outside the crypt. She shook her head and patted the small weight of the stone in her pocket.
Robson was waiting for her in the room he called his throne room.
“You have it?”
He snapped his fingers and one of the thugs beside him pulled a little girl from behind Robson; her hair the colour fine gold.
“Mommy!” the girl cried.
Robson took the little girl’s hand and kept her from running to her mother.
“The stone first.”
“This is the last time,” Sascha said holding up the tiny bundle.
“Sascha, Sascha, you can trust me. Let me see the stone, then we’ll talk.” He let go of Gold and the girl ran to her mother.
Sascha tossed the stone to Robson and swept up Gold in her arms. She used the bit of silk to wipe the tears from her daughter’s eyes.
A friend Jason, who runs the Howlarium, asks interesting questions and curates responses from writers out on the net.
This month’s question is:
“The Tibetans don’t encourage meditating right away, actually. They insist that you know something. They say Listen, if you go meditate right away as an ignorant person, you will deepen your ignorance […] a kind of quietism that a lot of […] people get into where—they find the world jangly and bothersome, and then they withdraw into a place where they don’t have to think about it. It’s like a wonderful kind of Prozac. […] there’s no compassion in it. It’s a kind of narcissistic thing, actually. Great danger in meditation. […]
“Your writing is a kind of meditation.” –Dr. Robert Thurman, first American ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk
In the West, meditation tends to be thought of as an act of personal wellness, and some of us might view writing the same way.
Q: If you meditate and/or write (either one) to keep yourself well and sane, how can compassion for someone else play a role in that? Does it need to?
If so, how? If not, why not?”
These stories are part of my answer.
Petrov walked into the room and looked around. Well set out if unpretentious. A close inspection showed the beginning of wear on the upholstery. Old photos of peasants in the fields or uninspired watercolours hung on the walls . The fragrance of baking in another part of the house made him hope his host would see fit to offer something to eat.
The thought of his host made him shiver. The man was a hero of the war. Of several wars if the truth were to be told. Yet he lived alone on this estate far from the city. The mother country had come through some hard times, but now as things began to turn around, they could use someone of Dimishky’s stature to show the Revolution moved forward under the new generation of leaders.
It was a great privilege for Petrov to be here, even if his mission was to beg for the old man to come to Moscow to allow his name to be used in the service of the Soviet.
Petrov examined for perhaps the third time the photos of the peasants. The old men and women posed stiffly and stared at the camera with a fatalism belying the idea they formed the foundation of the revolution. How could such a lethargic people have risen to overthrow the Imperialist regime?
The door behind him creaked, and Petrov turned slowly and nodded politely at the old man. One didn’t get as far as he had in the service of the Soviet without learning to school oneself.
The old man led in an equally old woman who carried a tray with the hoped for baking as well as an rough tea service. She placed the tray on the table and left.
“Please sit,” Dimishkysaid, “I regret keeping you waiting, but I had some business to complete.”
What urgent business urgent could he find here? It didn’t matter. Petrov sat at the table and waited for Dimishky to join him.
“I suppose you are here to impress on me the need the Soviet has for my face and my name.” Dimishky poured tea into Petrov’s chipped cup.
The astringent odour made Petrov almost wrinkle his nose. He didn’t usually add anything to his tea, but he sweetened this brew and added cream too. He tried to ignore the sneer on the older man’s face. Still, the old man pushed a plate of biscuits over and he helped himself. It melted in his mouth; as sweet as the tea was bitter.
“I’ve no interest in shoring up the political regime,” Dimishky said, “I am content here.” He waved his hand out the window. For all the hand was thin and spotted, Petrov suspected strength still lurked in it.
“The government has need of you.”
“You mean they need of a face and a name.” The old man drank his tea straight. Petrov shuddered. “They wish to hold up a monster from the past and suggest there is still some truth in their threats.”
“They are not to be trifled with,” Petrov said, “The secret police…”
“Oddly, for the secret police to be effective, everyone must know they exist.” Dimishky stood and put his cup down. “Come with me. We will walk. If you still wish me to come to Moscow after, I will give you my word I will go with you. Perhaps it is time.”
They walked out of the house. Though Dimishky hadn’t said anything , the old woman waited with a coat and hat for the old man. She gave Petrov a look of equal part pity and disdain.
Petrov hadn’t dressed for the weather, but he was used to the cold. They walked out of yard and down the road toward the village.
“The people who live here are the same kind people as the ones in those photos you admired so.” Dimishky’s rasp startled Petrov.
“You mean their descendants?”
“There are no descendants from those in the photographs.”
They reached the village and the people looked up at them, then let their eyes slide past as if Dimishky and Petrov were only visible for the slightest second.
“You see,” Dimishky said, “they are cattle. They know what I am and what I do. They could come to my house and kill me in my sleep. Yet they send their own to cook for me and serve my needs.” He spat on the road. Without breaking step the old man opened a gate and led Petrov to a small house. The yard was sprinkled with with colour, rocks had been painted bright colours and placed in the grey dirt. They walked in through the front door without knocking.
The smell of baking was here too. A young man sat with an older woman, probably his mother. He looked up and seemed to be about to speak, but the woman put her hand on his. She got up and looked at Dimishky with the same eyes as the people in the photographs. Dimishky turned and walked away, the woman following him. The young man’s hands shook, and to Petrov’s horror, tears streaked his face. Petrov left him and hurried after Dimishky.
He stayed back until they came to a black building on the edge of the village. The old woman followed Dimishky inside. Petrov hurried to catch up. The inside of the building was no warmer than the weather outside, yet Dimishky carefully took off his coat and shirt and placed them in a wardrobe. He took out a long black coat, stiff with dirt. The woman simply stood and looked at Petrov with fatalistic eyes.
Dimishky, once satisfied with his coat, pulled wire out of the coat’s pocket and tied it around the woman’s wrists. He looped it over a hook attached to a chain.
“Over there,” Dimishky said, “Ratchet the chain up tighter.” Petrov hesitated. “You can tell your superiors how you failed your assignment, if you wish.” Petrov turned the handle until the old woman’s arms stretched over her head. The woman never looked at him.
“Tell the important visitor what is going to happen.” Dimishky said to the woman.
“You are going to kill me, like you killed the others.”
“Why don’t you stop me?”
“You have guns. You could kill all of us. Maybe you will leave someday.”
“This man thinks I should go to Moscow and be an important person in their government.”
“Then people will die in Moscow like they die here.”
“You see,” Dimishky said, “Cattle. No imagination, no spark.” He pulled a knife from a hook on the wall. “You are fortunate that this important man from Moscow is in a hurry.” He casually reached out and cut the woman’s throat.
The rich smell of blood wasn’t something he hadn’t encountered before. People died. In his work, rather a lot of them died. Few died to as little purpose as this peasant woman. He bit down on any comment he might have made.
“Many people have died in our history,” Dimishky said, “and there is always a need for those who are willing to kill.” He wiped the knife on the coat and hung it back on its hook. “I confess I used to get more pleasure from it, but I am old and cannot work like I used to.” He went to a corner and broke the ice on a bucket of water to wash his hands.
“Will your superiors will appreciate my work?”
“I don’t think they care,” Petrov said.
Petrov looked at the corpse hanging from the ceiling and shrugged.
“If you don’t hurry, we will be late for the train.”
“The people here will bless you for taking me away.”
“And others will curse me for bringing you to them,” Petrov shrugged again. “Some kill, some die, it is of no matter.”
They walked out of the building and left the door swinging in the cold wind.
My children ran wild with anticipation. There were hordes of them. I stopped trying to count them. The desire to go on this outing would be enough to get even the most obstreperous on the bus. Whoever said children were angels hadn’t met my brood.
The last layer of necessities laid in my case and I closed it up. I didn’t need the bag, other than to set me apart from the others. I climbed the steps of the yellow bus and sat behind the driver. He sweated in the heat, or perhaps from nerves. He rolled his eyes like a steer being lead to slaughter. Whichever, he honked the horn quick enough when I tapped his shoulder.
The children screamed with excitement and ran toward the bus. They pushed and fought to get on, then continued their battle for the best seats. A grossly fat boy deliberately sat on a waif thin girl. His smug grin turned to a pained grimace, then panic. I allowed myself a smile. She must have found a tender part. The boy lumbered away. She sat up and wiped her mouth, then gave me a cheeky grin. Clever girl; I’d need to watch her.
An especially brave imp chose to claim the seat beside me. There was one on every trip who foolishly thought to claim a part of my space. The others watched to see what I’d do, so I smiled and patted him on the head. He made the mistake of looking at me. They all do. His grin faded, then the rest of him until I sat alone again.
The level of chaos on the bus dropped far enough, I tapped the driver on the shoulder again. He closed the door and shifted the bus into gear. The wailing of those left behind came faintly through the glass.
The children always wanted to know how far, though they never dared ask. The truth? I couldn’t answer. Far didn’t have any meaning here, neither did long. The ride felt like an eternity because crossed a piece of eternity.
Yet not quite eternal. I felt the sudden heady pull of time. We’d arrived. The driver lasted long enough to put the bus into park before entropy took over and he fell to pieces. The children poured off the bus into the light of the created world. Some of them couldn’t hold themselves together in the time stream and vanished. Most managed to adapt and spread out into the world to explore and play.
The mortals surrounding us were unaware of our arrival. A couple of the more sensitive wrinkled their nose at what might have been a smell of death. Even if they could see us, they wouldn’t believe. We’ve been relegated to the status of fairy tales and a certain class of fiction. Fights broke out between mortal children who’d been playing peacefully. My children were quick learners.
I looked around the park and spotted the person I wanted. They were always there; torturing themselves with their temptations. His desire oozed from his pores. I sat beside him and soaked it all in. The furtive looks, the aborted searches on the web, the fear someone like him might find his own children, the envy of the ones who dared to act on their desires. I left him staring avidly at a little blond child who played in the sand while two bigger children threw sand and punches at each other.
While the man clenched and unclenched his fists fighting his desire and fear, I sauntered over to a woman eating an ice cream as she watched the children play. I stood beside her and watched too. My children had thinned out. Causing strife was easy, but once done, it was done. No real sustenance to it. A punch, a few tears and it faded away. The ones who didn’t learn quickly faded away and discovered the trip back much shorter than the journey here.
The real food lay in the struggle to choose between desire and restraint. The woman beside me frowned as one child, larger than the others, struggled to keep up. I glimpsed her view of herself in the mirror. She buried deep her loathing for all her perceived imperfections; a wrinkle here, a bulge there. Even the ice cream she ate tasted of both guilt and vanilla. The woman wanted to throw the cone away, but feared wasting food more than eating. The turmoil was delicious.
A disturbance on the other side of the playground caught my attention. A tall thin woman berated the man who’d been watching the little girl. Waves of self-righteousness washed over me from where I stood. The ice cream woman gathered her children and took them away. Her internal struggle over the sweet forgotten in fear for her children.
The waif from the bus stood to the side of the arguing pair. She saw me watching and shrugged, then went back to her feast. More subtle than the others, but still with a lot to learn. The shouting match drew in others and sound of sirens approached. There’d be plenty of drama, but it would vanish as quickly as it built.
I walked away from the park. The tiny blond girl followed me.
“Why do you do it?”
“You know why,” I wanted to be anywhere but here, talking about this. She was new, probably on her first trip.
“I know what they tell us.”
“It sustains us,” I said.
“You don’t need it,” she said, “The light would sustain you.”
“The light!” I choked on the word. For a moment I felt the cloying light which permeated everything, the pull to let it in, and the fear of what it would reveal.
She shook her head sadly.
“It would set you free,” she said. She reached out a hand as if she were going to actually touch me, but stopped. The last thing I saw were the tears running down her face.
The familiar darkness and fire surrounded me. Others surrounded me sensing weakness. I growled and disemboweled one while I tore out the throat of another. The rest backed away, this time.
The girl was right, the light would set me free, after opening all the shadowed depths of my being and cleansing it of the envy and pride. The mortals think hell is fire and brimstone, but is is worse.
Hell is knowing what I could be, and what I have chosen to become.
Joe leaned his cane against the counter and put the kettle on for tea. He put some biscuits on a plate and sliced some cheese to go with it. After a moment’s thought, he put a jar of jam out as well. Cups and plates completed the setting. The door bell rang; he took a final glance at the little kitchen. It would do.
He picked up the cane on the way to the front door. A young women stood on the other side of the door. Everyone looked young to Joe now, but she couldn’t be thirty yet. Youth glowed in her red hair and blue eyes. She smiled when she saw him. Joe liked that, even better were the faint smile lines around those blue eyes. He revised his estimate of her age upwards a decade.
“Hello, Mr. Baldur,” she said, “My name is Gina, I talked to you on the phone yesterday.”
“I remember,” Joe said and opened the door, “Come on in. I’ve put water on.” He led the way back to the kitchen. She put her purse under her chair and laid a pad and pencil on the table.
“Do you mind if I tape the interview?” Gina asked, “It’s helpful to make sure that I don’t misquote you.”
“Fine by me,” Joe said, “What do you take?”
“Just milk thanks,” Gina said as she fished a tiny recorder out of her purse and placed it at the top of the pad. “Gina Stapopolous, interviewing Joe Baldur, January 28, 2010 at his home. Anything you don’t want recorded just let me know and I will stop the recorder.”
“Thanks for coming by Gina,” Joe said, “It’s nice to have a new audience for my old stories.”
“I should start off with a few questions then. How old are you?”
“According to my birth certificate I am one hundred and fifty one this year.”
“That’s an extraordinary age Mr. Baldur.”
“Please, call me Joe.”
“OK then, Joe,” she said, “Do you have any other way of proving your age? It isn’t that I doubt you, but the oldest person on record is one hundred and seventeen and they live in a nursing home.”
“I’m afraid that anyone that might remember the day of my birth is long gone.” Joe smiled her. “I have no interest in trying to claim any record. I’m not interested in going through the media circus that would entail.”
“Yet you took my call and invited me here…”
“I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to have a pretty young woman give me her undivided attention.”
Gina laughed and marked a point in the air with her finger.
“So tell me what it’s like being your age?”
“Not many people are interested in the elderly anymore. Getting other people to take care of your parents or grandparents is big business. Put them in a safe place and get on with the important work of living. No one gives much thought to what it’s like for the old people who’re pushed to the edges. The last decent conversation I had was with the paper boy. He was collecting his money and told me all about the hockey tournament he’d played in on the weekend. That was five years ago. Now the paper is delivered by a girl in a car and I pay online for the paper.”
“That too,” Joe admitted. He pushed the plate of biscuits toward his guest. “Help yourself.”
Gina took a biscuit and put a slice of cheese on it.
“So if you are bored and lonely, why live by yourself and not talk about your age.”
“All the fuss about my age would just add annoyed to bored and lonely. I don’t want to be Methuselah.”
“The only thing anyone knows about him is that he lived to 969 years and was Lamech’s dad. That would be me. I would just be ‘the old guy’.”
“So, what do you want to be known for?”
“That’s a good question.” Joe took a long sip of his tea and looked up at the ceiling. Gina picked up the biscuit on her plate and took a bite.
“O my, this is good,” Gina said, “Where did you buy them?”
“I make them myself,” Joe said, “I can teach you how.”
“Really?” Gina gave herself a shake and looked at Joe. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you from your answer. What do you want to be known for?”
“A baker of really good biscuits wouldn’t be a bad start,” Joe said, “Try the jam, it’s from the strawberries I grow out back.”
Gina dutifully spread some of the ruby red jam on her biscuit and bit into it. She closed her eyes and sighed.
“Heaven,” she said, “So what else can you do?”
“I make most of my own food from scratch,” Joe said, “It isn’t like I don’t have time to give what I’m doing my full attention.” He bit into his own biscuit and sighed.
“That sounds like good advice. My dad used to tell me something similar.”
“Sounds like he’s a smart fellow.”
“He is, but he lives on the other side of the country now and I don’t see him much.”
“Don’t have time?”
“He’s pretty busy too,” Gina said, “He’s always off golfing with his buddies.”
Joe just looked at her.
“All my friends are my age. They are just happy not to have their parents telling them how to live their lives anymore.”
“Yes, that is a weakness of the elderly.”
“Not just the old,” Gina said, “You wouldn’t believe how many times my girlfriend tries to tell me what to do with my life.”
“Is her advice good?”
Gina laughed, “Heck no, she’s into relationships like an alcoholic is into beer.”
“Right, so it’s about the effect not the taste.” Joe took another bite of his biscuit. “So you put up with bad advice from your friend, but not good advice from your father?”
“Just because he’s older doesn’t mean the advice is better.”
“True.” Joe got up and opened the fridge, pulled out a tiny block of cheese and brought it back to the table. He carefully cut a slice. “Try this.”
Gina took the tiny sliver of cheese from him and popped into her mouth. Joe watched as something close to ecstasy passed across her face.
“What is that?” Gina whispered.
“That is a ten year old cheddar,” Joe said and passed her another sliver. “Some things, like cheese and whisky improve with age. If you have the patience and the knowledge to enjoy the difference.”
“And you’re saying that people are one of those things.”
“Some people, in the right conditions,” Joe said and cut himself a sliver of cheese. “I guess what I want is to keep improving with age.”
Gina looked at him and smiled.
“I think I could say the same thing.”
“It’s no easier at my age.” Joe cut her another slice of the cheese.
“But you manage.”
“I hope so.”
Gina pushed the stop button on the recorder. She looked at the blank pad that sat in front of her and picked up the pencil.
“You offered to teach me how to make these biscuits, how about you give me the recipe, then you can teach me how to make it work.”
“Only if you promise to make some for your dad and….”
“Come back to visit me.” Joe looked at her, his heart thumping with nerves. He didn’t want to be disappointed again.
“I think I can promise you that,” Gina said.
Joe grinned, “I’m feeling a hundred years younger now.” He went to the cupboards and began pulling out bowls and ingredients. “The trick to good biscuits is in how you mix them…”
This isn’t a short short, but it is a favourite of mine. I don’t remember the contest it was written for, but it wasn’t a twisted fairy tale. I have a number of fairy tales twisted in a variety of ways. Some dark enough to make people worry about me.
Cindy dug the shovel into the large pile of manure left behind by Cleopatra. The strong odour of the manure surrounded her and she breathed it in. Her sisters, step-sisters actually, could hardly stand to enter the barn, never mind help to clean it. Cindy loved the barn. It was her refuge from the annoyances of life in the manor house. She dumped the shovel load into the wheelbarrow and dug in for another load. It was truly astonishing how much one rather elderly cow could produce, both milk and manure. To Cindy’s mind they were of equal importance. The milk paid for the day to day expenses of the manor while the manure went to fertilize the garden patch that would feed them through the winter.
It took several trips to the garden to bring Cleopatra’s contribution to the garden and properly dig it in around the vegetables, especially the large pumpkin. She was hoping to enter it in the fair. Cindy could have made just the one trip, but her step-mother didn’t think it proper for her to sling the wheelbarrow around like a common farm hand. Besides it took longer this way.
Yet no matter how much she dawdled over the work, the work got done and she had to put away the tools and go back up to the house.
“Cindy,” Anatolia looked up from where she lounged on the couch. “When’s supper? I am famished.”
“I will start it immediately,” Cindy said.
“Cindy,” Zetta wrinkled her nose, “You stink, I will simply not eat anything you cook before you wash.”
“But I’ll die if I don’t eat soon.” Anatolia rubbed her generous stomach.
“I doubt that very much,” the girls’ mother said, “Cindy go wash. You must learn to be more careful. A lady doesn’t reek of the barn.”
Cindy guessed she wasn’t much of a lady then, since she usually reeked of the barn. She knew better than to say anything. Her step-mother wasn’t too lady-like to wield a rod to chastise Cindy. Not that Cindy liked stinking to high heaven, but she saw it as an inescapable result of her efforts to feed the family.
Her family, such as it was, was otherwise completely incapable of caring for themselves. Her father had been a successful and comfortable farmer. When he died, his second wife and her daughters discovered that it took a great deal of work to be successful farmers. Work that they were completely unwilling to put in. The farm was sold off piece meal until only the large ‘manor’ house and barn remained with just enough land to plant a garden.
She would have liked to have soaked properly, but the threat of Anatolia’s complaints drove her out the water. She dried off quickly and put her cooking dress on. It was an older mode with tighter sleeves unlikely to catch fire from the old stove.
Cindy didn’t like the kitchen as much as the barn. She didn’t mind cooking but there were constant interruptions.
“Is there something I can eat while I wait?” Anatolia asked as she shuffled through the narrow door. Another year and she wouldn’t fit.
“There are some peeled carrots on the table,” Cindy pounded on the tough meat to tenderize it enough to meet her step-mother’s exacting standards.
“I don’t want carrots,” Anatolia whined, “Don’t you have any sweets?”
“No,” Cindy said, “You know your mother has banned sweets.”
“And with good reason,” Zetta walked in a sniffed to check on Cindy’s level of cleanliness., “if you get any bigger you won’t fit your dresses and Mother doesn’t want to take them out again.”
Anatolia picked up a carrot and heaved a great sigh. She sidled back out of the kitchen.
“Make sure you cut all the fat off my meat,” Zetta said. “You missed some last night.” She followed her sister out of the kitchen.
Cindy had no idea what they did with themselves through the day. They never seemed to be very far apart. Her step-mother spent her days plotting how to restore the fallen fortunes of the farm without actually going so far as to do any work. Cindy was content with the way things were. She couldn’t manage a large farm by herself. Right now she was just able to keep the balance between being busy and being able to finish her work.
She supposed some people would be upset by the demands of her step-family. But Cindy would be doing all the work anyway. After changing her dress for dinner and eating with the others she did the dishes. The last thing she did every night was milk Cleopatra.
It was dim in the barn and the old cow mooed a welcome to Cindy. She set the stool beside the cow and set the bucket in place. Cindy marvelled that this last remaining cow continued to give milk in generous amounts. When the milking was done she put the milk in the cool urn, then spent some time brushing Cleopatra. Then put down fresh straw for the cow and fill the manger with hay and the trough with clean water.
Cindy took one last breath of the barn air redolent with smell of everything she loved, then closed up the doors and went off to bed.
She woke to the sound of the birds singing outside her window.
“Dratted birds,” she mumbled as she put on her barn clothes and went out to milk Cleopatra. She patted the old cow and went through the chores. After breakfast her step-mother sent her into town to buy a couple of things.
“I have work to do,” Cindy said.
“If I send Zetta, she will complain bitterly,” her step-mother said, “then come back with all the wrong things to punish me. Anatolia would just spend the money on sweets. Get on with you.” She put the few coins into Cindy’s hand. “You will take far too long with all your talking to people, but I know you will buy what I tell you.
So instead of working in the garden, Cindy put on her nice dress and walked into town. She didn’t mind much. She hadn’t seen her friends in a while.
“Morning, John,” she said to the dairyman, “Mother wants a cheese. You can deliver it to the house later.”
“Certainly, Cindy,” John said, “I’ll be going by that way later.”
She wandered through town picking up the few things on the list from the merchants. She greeted each one by name and they treated her well though she was only spending a few pennies. In the centre of town there was a crowd gathered by a poster. Those who could read were standing near the poster and announcing its contents to everyone else.
“Hey Cindy,” called one, “You going to the ball?”
“Do I look like I’m going to a ball?” Cindy said, “I doubt the Prince even knows I exists.”
“Says here that all eligible maids are to attend the ball.”
“Well then,” Cindy looked at herself, “I don’t look much like a maid.”
The crowd laughed and Cindy waved and headed off home.
The exchange unsettled her. She enjoyed the farming, but was it what she wanted for the rest of her life? She imagined herself married to one of Bill’s older brothers. They had a whole herd of milk cows and chickens too. She would be doing chores from dawn to dusk. She didn’t mind the work, but there would be nothing else. She thought of Bill’s mother’s eulogy last year was summed up in five words. “She was a hard worker.” Cindy found herself imagining what she would wear to the ball.
The prince stalked through the halls of the palace hoping that some servant would be foolish enough to get in his way; maybe that pert new servant girl from his mother’s wing of the palace. Imagining her heart-shaped face cowed with fear made him smile. He shook his head angrily. No smiles. The prince was a person to be feared today. No one feared someone prancing about with a silly grin on their face.
Reluctantly he pushed the thought of the girl out of his head and reflected on the recent conversation with his father, the King.
“So Father,” the prince had said, “Now that I’m twenty-one, are you going to make me your heir?”
“Humph,” The King glowered at him and tapped his fingers on the arms of his chair. “You’re too wild right now. You need to settle down and start producing heirs.”
“You make me sound like some bull at one of those tiresome fairs.”
The King looked the prince over and grunted, his fingers struck the wood like hammers..
“Those bulls have value,” he said finally, “all you do is cause trouble. I wanted to find you a nice princess, but you’ve scared them all away with your antics. So you will have to find someone from around here.”
“The only women around her are farmers and servants!”
“You don’t seem to find servants unattractive,” the King said, “In fact your constant attraction to them is costing the kingdom a fortune. At least a farmer would be able to explain the finer points of a prize bull.”
The prince swelled up to unleash his rage, but his father raised his hand.
“If you won’t choose a wife, then I will choose one for you. Be sure that I will have the future needs of the kingdom in mind.” The prince imagined the bride his father would select for him, some sturdy woman with a strong constitution and no grace. He shuddered.
“I am throwing a ball,” The King put his hand down and ran his hand across the arm of his chair. “for all the maids in the kingdom. You will choose one to be your wife. When your heir is apparent, I will consider making you my formal heir.”
The prince left the room very carefully not slamming the door. The King was not someone to be trifled with. As soon as he rounded the corner out of King’s quarters he let his boots slam into the stone floor and twisted his face into a scowl. He was no prize bull to be set out to stud! Though to be honest, he had…collected quite a herd. He leaned against the wall and went through their faces in his mind.
Cindy made it back home and took the small bag of purchases into the house. She discovered her step-mother running her hands over two bolts of fine cloth.
“What did you sell this time?” Cindy asked. “I know we didn’t have the money for that.”
“Don’t be impertinent,” her step-mother’s eyes took on the glare which preceded a beating., “Someone must look out for the welfare of this family.”
Cindy went looking through the house trying to think of what was missing that would have paid for that cloth.
“Well, at least she won’t always smell of the barn.” She heard Zetta say.
“But I’ll miss the fresh cream,” Anatolia said.
“Cleopatra!” Cindy ran out to the barn. Sure enough, the old cow’s stall was empty. She stormed back into the house and interrupted her step-mother measuring the cloth against her step-sisters.
“How could you?” Cindy said, “Cleopatra’s milk was the only thing keeping us from starving.”
“With a daughter married to the prince, I won’t have to worry about starving.”
“Every girl in the kingdom will be at that ball!”
“Which is why I had to buy the fabric; I need to give my daughters an edge.”
“You could at least have bought colours that would suit them,” Cindy said and ran up to her room.
She refused to come out to cook or clean. Her step-mother gave up on her and even went as far as to wedge the door closed with a chair. Anatolia came and begged her to cook. Zetta came to sneer and complain. Cindy ignored them all. She pulled out an old dress of her mother’s that had hung in the back of her closet for as long as she could remember. It used to smell of her mother, now it just smelled musty.
Cindy aired the dress out and tried it on. It was loose in some places and tight in others, yet fit surprisingly well. She spent some time altering it as best she could while she tried not to hear the steady tramp of feet in and out of the house. They would never be able to pay for all this fuss. Her step-mother was going to put them out on the street. There wasn’t much left to sell.
The day of the ball came and Cindy carefully rolled the dress up and fit it into a pillow case. She held the case as she climbed down the trellis outside her window. The only place she could think to change was the barn. She put on the dress and tried her best to tidy herself.
“Well it’s good to see that you can make yourself presentable,” her step-mother said as she walked into the barn, “but there’s no need for you to go to the ball. You have a fiancé already.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Farmer Jones needs a new wife. He’s had his eye on this farm for a while. Since you like farming so much, it is a perfect match. He doesn’t care about this ball since he only has sons.”
“Farmer Jones is old enough to be my father! I won’t marry him.”
“You may not like me, but I am your mother and you will do what I say.”
“I won’t,” Cindy tried to run past her step-mother, but the older woman was faster and stronger than the she expected. She caught Cindy’s arm in an iron grip and pulled her close.
“You will do what I say, girl, or some sad accident will befall you. I did it before; I can do it again.” She pushed Cindy back into the barn and slammed the door closed. The bar outside dropped with a bang. All the other doors would be barred too and there was no trellis to climb down.
She felt like she was going to burst. She kicked and pounded on the door, but though it was old it was still all too solid. The sound of horses pulling a carriage came through the door and she collapsed into tears. This really was it. There was no escape from her future life as Bill’s step-mother. She was younger than he was! If it had been someone else it might have been funny.
The barn was very silent without Cleopatra in it. Cindy sighed and leaned against the door. It was going to be a long night.
She wasn’t sure how long she had sat, huddled against the door before she noticed a strange light coming from Cleopatra’s stall. Cindy got up to investigate. She walked to the stall and peeked around the door. Busily cleaning the stall with a tiny broom was a women who didn’t stand as tall as Cindy’s waist.
“Well come in, dear,” the woman said. “It isn’t polite to stare.”
Cindy reluctantly walked into the stall. Somehow as she entered it, the cramped space grew larger and she found herself eyeball to eyeball with the strange woman.
“Don’t fret about it,” the woman said, “It will just give you wrinkles.” She waved her hand and a ball of light floated up above them. “Now, let me get a good look at you.” She made spinning motions with her hand and Cindy slowly turned around.
“I know that dress has sentimental value, but it just won’t do.” She waved her hand again and the sudden weight of a beautiful gown draped from Cindy’s shoulders. She struggled to breathe.
“Small breaths, dear, a corset takes some getting used to, but you’ll be fine.”
She made the spinning motion with her hand again and Cindy turned again.
“Better, better.” She waved her hand and Cindy’s hair crawled and tugged until she thought it would pull right out.
Finally it stopped and she lifted her hand to feel.
“Ah, ah,” the woman said, “don’t fuss.” She led the way out into the barnyard. The moon was just rising and gave the place a magical glow. The woman walked over to the garden and peered at the pumpkin.
“This will do fine.”
“But that’s going to be my prize pumpkin.”
“Listen, Cindy, I promised your mother to look after you, not to rescue you from your own stupidity. You can either go to the ball and marry the prince; or you can stay here, grow prize pumpkins and marry Farmer Jones.”
Cindy shuddered and turned away from the garden. The woman waved her hand and the pumpkin exploded into a fine coach. Two unwary rabbits became horses to draw the coach, another became a driver.
“Here are the rules, child,” the woman was taller than Cindy now, “You have until midnight to capture the prince; no later, not one second after midnight. At the fading of the last stroke of midnight the spell will end. Don’t worry about leaving early; I’ve given you a little advantage. The poor boy won’t be able to resist you. Just leave before the last stroke of midnight and you become the next princess. Stay any later and I won’t be responsible for what happens.” She smiled brightly. “But I know you will follow the rules. Now get your pretty glass slippers into the carriage and go.”
Cindy climbed into the pumpkin carriage and the rabbit horses dashed away. She pulled up to the palace much sooner than she expected. More magic probably. She wondered briefly about how her mother might have met such a strange person, but she didn’t have time to dwell on it. The guards helped her out of the carriage and sent it off.
“I’m supposed to leave at midnight,” she said.
“That’s your driver’s problem,” the guard said and pointed into the palace.
Cindy walked through the hallways in a daze. Torches lit the way and highlight gold framed portraits and marble sculptures. Her glass slippers clinked faintly on the stone. What would it be like to live here? She finally arrived at the doors to the ballroom. Bill stood by the door pulling at the neck of his uniform. His eyes widened when he saw Cindy.
“You look good.”
“And that’s a surprise?”
“No I mean you always look nice, but now you look like a princess.”
“All the better to catch a prince.”
“I’m not sure he’s that much of a catch,” Bill whispered. “Most of the girls here are terrified of him.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“My father is getting married again, probably to some widow who will do nothing but complain about how the place is run. My brothers are farmers, but I want something different. This is the first step.”
“So some glowing lady came and offered you the chance to change your life?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing, never mind.” Cindy took a deep breath. “You’d better open those doors and let me in. By the way, I’m supposed to leave at midnight. Let me know when it gets close.”
“Sure thing, Cindy.” Bill threw the doors open and Cindy walked into the ballroom.
The room looked like something out of a fairy tale. The walls were draped with fine cloth, a long table groaned beneath the weight of more food than Cindy’s farm grew in a year. Musicians on a balcony played a sprightly tune. Though the floor had been polished to a mirror-like shine, the glass slippers gripped it comfortably. In this setting magic was easy to believe in.
Then she noticed the reek of desperation. The huge room was filled with young women who wore grim faces and glared at each other, while they shot fear filled glances at the prince. He was dressed in white and was surrounded by other men in shades of grey and black. They danced with young women while the prince lounged on the throne that had been set at the far end. He was making no attempt to hide his boredom and contempt.
It was shocking how ugly a beautiful room could be made by the presence of the wrong person. The women who should have been laughing and enjoying themselves were dressed more by their fear or avarice than their fine clothes. The men wore their lust like finery. She shuddered. Cindy was almost ready to turn around and take her chances with Farmer Jones, when her eyes met those of the prince.
The prince was inescapably bored. The women hovered around him. They giggled nervously or tried to act like they weren’t just farmer’s daughters overdressed for the night. There were two girls who wore hideous dresses, one was stuffing her face at the buffet while the other scowled at everyone who approached her. Another girl curtsied in front of him and he twirled his fingers, she stared at him.
“Turn around,” he said, and rolled his eyes. She gulped and attempted a pirouette slipping and falling to her knees then ran off weeping. The door at the far end opened to let in some cow who couldn’t tell time. He glanced up to see what new torture was to be visited upon him and his eyes met hers.
If you had put a sword to his throat he couldn’t have told you the colour of her dress, but her eyes were the incredible blue of those flowers his horse ate on the side of the rode. He would never let his horse eat them again.
Without thinking about it he got up from his seat and went to greet this vision of loveliness.
Somehow his greeting turned into the first steps of a dance. The orchestra sat up straight and started playing the music for his dance. There was a collective sigh and the other girls started eyeing up his attendants in grey for possible dancing ability. Whatever dance he began she followed, she laughed at his jokes and not just a nervous titter either. He filled her plate with food and her cup with wine. As the evening progressed he paid less and less attention to the other people who inhabited the room.
One of his guards started making odd gestures at them. He glared at the man, someone who had just joined up that day, he’d have him flogged and cast out, but only after he had finished with this most enchanting woman. He led her out to the patio where they were out of view of the crowd.
The music was quieter here, but he was content to just hum along. No conversation was necessary with those extraordinary eyes on his. He heard the clock begin to strike midnight, time to end this farce of a ball. He would marry this woman and they would rule the kingdom as soon as the old man had the decency to die.
For some reason she was trying to pull away from him, but he was used to dealing with reluctant women and he just tightened his grip. The last stroke of midnight was fading when she shrugged and blinked.
The whole evening had been very strange, as if riding to a ball in an oversized pumpkin wasn’t strange enough. From the moment their eyes met the prince hadn’t left her side. Cindy had watched as desperation faded to resignation and the other girls started looking for matches not quite as lofty as a prince.
He insisted on feeding her and plying her with wine. It was probably the wine that made her forget about the time. She was feeling quite tipsy by the time he pulled out onto the patio. At least there was a pleasant breeze blowing out here. The prince was humming along to the music with a fatuous grin on his face.
The clock was striking twelve. She had to leave.
Unfortunately the prince was considerably stronger than her, and very determined that she not leave. As the clock hit the final stroke she gave up and shrugged. He would have to see what he was getting sooner or later.
The dress faded away as the sound of the clock vanished. She felt her hair tumble down to its usual tangle about her shoulders.
“What is that smell?” the prince asked.
“That would be the barn,” Cindy said, “I was locked in it before all this started.”
“Oh great,” said the prince, “I suppose it would have been too much trouble to take a bath?”
“My step-mother locked me in the barn.”
“Of course she did,” the prince rolled his eyes. “Well at least let me get a decent look at you. Turn around.” He waved his hand at her.
“You’ve been doing nothing but stare at me all night.”
“But now I want to look at you.”
Just her and the prince out here. The pleasant breeze of a moment ago turned chill and raised goosebumps on her arms. She crossed her arms to warm herself.
“Blast you stupid cow!” the prince shouted, “I will see what you have.” He grabbed her dress and wrenched at it. Cindy heard the fabric of her mother’s dress tear and the chill wind blew across her breasts. He grabbed at her and twisted her flesh.
Cindy didn’t know whether to curse herself or her mother’s friend. She settled on kneeing the prince between the legs. He stopped fumbling with his pants and went a little cross-eyed.
“Guards!” he screamed. “Guards, arrest this woman!” His fists clenched and he looked like he wasn’t going to wait for the guards before doing more damage. Cindy sighed and gave him a proper kick. His eyes rolled up into his head and he fell to the ground. She gathered the remnants of her dress about her and looked for an escape.
Too late. A guard approached her and stepped into the light surrounding her and the prince.
“I tried to warn you about the time,” Bill said, “If I’d known what a dastard he was I would have dragged you off myself.”
“So now I guess you have to arrest me.” Cindy held her hands in front of her. The wind caressed her skin. Bill’s eyes widened and he whipped off his vest and wrapped it around her.
“Come with me,” he said his voice breaking. He put his arm around her and pulled her into the darkness as other guards came running past. None of them paid them any attention.
“Did you think the night would end like this?” Cindy said, “You throwing me into the dungeons?”
“Don’t know where the dungeons are,” Bill said as a familiar smell filled her nose. “I rode Blackie here when I came to work. I expect he’ll be glad to carry me away again.” He held her gently by the shoulders. “I’m no prince. I’m just the youngest son of an old farmer.”
“Youngest sons are supposed to be lucky.” Cindy put her finger on his lips. “And right now I’ve had my fill of princes.” She helped him get Blackie out of his stall. Bill lifted her up, then jumped up behind her. Cindy could hear shouts approaching.
“I think it’s time to go.”
Bill kicked Blackie into a gallop and they rode out the gates. Cindy laughed and kicked the slippers off her feet.
The tinkling sound of breaking glass followed them as they rode away into the night.
This is one of those stories which start from a phrase. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” I enjoy writing stories in which things spin completely out of control and this is one. I really did build a fence, and goons did kick in lattice work sections. The rest is completely fictional.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I had put up a new fence around my property. It was straight and true – a thing of beauty. Even my neighbours liked it. The fellow on one side was no longer offended by my untrimmed bushes. (He cut his hedge with a level and kitchen shears.) The guys on my other side liked it because it gave them more privacy for their partying and kept their guests hemmed in.
The old woman across the road didn’t say anything, but she sniffed significantly less often while walking past ignoring me. Even my dogs liked it. It meant they could run free in the back yard, and I had put in a panel of lattice work so they could watch people going by.
That lattice work started the whole thing. The neighbourhood thugs thought it was amusing to kick it in on the way home from whatever they were doing at two in the morning. I got tired of replacing it and bought one of those wireless spy-cameras and hid it on my garage where I would get a good shot of the perpetrators. A couple of minutes later it was recording video of my lattice on a 160 gig drive. Enough for an entire night’s surveillance.
The next morning my lattice was still intact so I didn’t check the file. The computer would just keep overwriting the old file until I told it to stop.
It was a week later I caught my daughter and her friends watching a video on their computer. They were hysterical with laughter. It lasted about five minutes. Some boys were walking under a street-lamp. They stopped in front of a house and started making rude gestures. After a minute an old woman in a bathrobe came running out with a broom and screaming at them. The punks ran away laughing and she went back inside. It was completely disrespectful, but I was laughing too hard to give the girls a lecture.
It was titled “Mad Granny of Dublin”. They showed me others, all similar except for the weapon; sometimes it was a broom, sometimes a mop, once it was a toilet plunger. Then I noticed something in the earliest video. The angle was slightly different, and it showed my lattice. I sat down and tried to figure out how many laws I was breaking, and who had shifted the focus of the camera.
I decided to just remove the camera and not say anything, but I couldn’t find it. I decided to leave well enough alone.
Then the long weekend arrived and the boys next door threw the inevitable party. They were loud, boisterous, and rude, but they left a six pack of my favourite beer on my porch as half apology, half bribe. I had learned to drink the beer and ignore them.
The woman across the road who I continued to think of as the Mad Granny, would walk up and down the street and sniff at them. I don’t know if she was trying to scare them or flirt with them. She wore a black sports bra and a pink mini-skirt. When she dropped her cigarette she would flash her Depends.
My other ultimately fussy neighbour just climbed into his black Mercedes and zoomed off. It was a typical party weekend.
At two o’clock the party was still going strong and the punks came by for their amusement. Only this time they had a live audience.
“It’s the Mad Granny,” cried an inebriated voice, “I’m going to get in the video.” From my place on the porch I was too far away to suggest that it was a bad idea, even if he would have listened to me. The next thing I knew two of the guys have climbed into a gargantuan red pick up truck and driven it up into the Granny’s drive. They put on the high beams and waited.
They didn’t have long to wait, she came out with her robe flapping wide open, a bottle in one hand and a shotgun in the other. She threw the bottle which smashed on the windshield. I heard gears clashing as they tried to get the truck into reverse. They managed just as she shot out one headlight then the other, all the time cursing a blue streak.
The truck backed straight across the street and through my fence, yard and fence on the other side. It crashed into the backyard pool which promptly collapse sending thousands of gallons through my yard washing my gazebo and lawn furniture into the street.
The neighbour in the black Mercedes chose that moment to roar up the street. He swerved to avoid the furniture and skidded across the flooded street to slam into the light post. The cement post fell across another section of fence and crashed through the roof of my garage. Water poured into the hollow post and with a bang shorted out all the lights on the block.
The only thing left standing was that section of lattice.
The old woman looked at the devastation and yelled one last imprecation.
“That’ll teach you to mess with the Mad Granny.” She flipped a rude gesture at me and went back into her house.
Trains are full of stories, some of them on the noir side.
Five hundred dark miles until we arrived at our next stop. People were already settling in with blankets and cushions. Some of them even planned on sleeping.
I walked the cars checking tickets before they got too involved. The sleeper cars were next. I tapped on the door and a hand would show me the appropriate number of tickets, except for Cabin 31. It was flung open by an old man who made a move toward where his pockets would have been had he been wearing pants.
“Where are my pants?” he asked. An old woman paused in her undressing to reach under a pile of clothes on the floor and hand him the tickets. I checked them and closed the door.
There are certain things that are not meant for mortal eyes to see.
That was one of them.
I finished my walk and sat at my desk in the closet they call the “Conductor’s Office” I hadn’t been there five minutes when a woman flung the door open.
“You the conductor?”
“I’ve lost Pooky”
“Yes, she’s about eight pounds and wearing the cutest pink sweater.”
I looked at the woman again, taking in the once carefully coiffed hair, the expensive suit. the even more expensive implants. I made a bet with myself.
“She’s a toy poodle,” I said.
I owed myself about a million dollars. This was the biggest part of my job. Passengers were always losing things on the train; purses, wallets, their virginity. Most things I could find, some not.
“Where did you last see her?”
“I left her with a man and his daughter in coach. He was wearing a black leather vest. I needed to get off at the last stop.” She sniffled a little. “I broke a nail, and I just couldn’t find my manicure kit.”
“I see.” I send her back to her seat and headed for the dining car. A bit of cheese goes a long way to befriending vicious little dogs. Then I was off to coach.
I found the big man in the leather vest making serious inroads on a bottle of something cheap and alcoholic. When I interrupted him he came off the seat at me. I pushed him back into it. He lunged again. I put my finger on his forehead and pushed him back. As he gathered himself for a third try I asked him a question.
“Do you know how fast this train is going?”
“Why should I care?”
“Because it has a lot to do with how painful it will be when I throw you off the train.”
“What do you want?”
“A woman left her poodle with you, she would like it back.”
“That vicious little critter chewed my vest. I sent my daughter to take it back.”
“When was that?”
“How should I know? It was before we left the station.”
“Where is she now?” He just shrugged.
“She is your daughter.”
“Only until I get her to her mother’s. She’s fourteen and can take care of herself.”
I took away the bottle and deposited in the garbage before I looked for the kid.
She sat in the dining car holding a torn shirt with one hand and a coke with the other. I sat down across from her.
“Everyone else was doing it,” she said, “He didn’t like it when I changed my mind.”
“What does he look like?”
“I left him in a fetal position, moaning.”
“Good girl,” She burst into tears, so I offered my handkerchief and waited.
“Aren’t you going to lecture me or something?”
“Then why are you here?”
“I am looking for the poodle.”
“Pooky? Didn’t they get her back to her owner?”
“An old couple. They acted like kids in love. You know, holding hands, bumping against each other. It was kind of cute. They were in cabin….” She paused in thought.
“Thirty-one,” I said and she nodded.
“Thanks,” I stood up, “You stay here as long as you need.”
“The waiter told me I had to order something to sit here.”
“Usually you do, but tonight is different. If you do want something, just ask. It’s on the house.”
I waved a signal at Frankie and he came over. I left her ordering enough to feed an army.
Back at cabin thirty-one I could hear high pitched barking mixed with other sounds. I knocked on the door and a moment later the old timer flung the door open.
“You’ve come for Pooky,” he said as he deftly caught the small dog that was leaping and snapping at him. “She’s a nice dog, but I’m too old for a threesome.” He handed me the dog and I let Pooky smell the cheese in my hand. She quieted.
“We are running away from our kids,” he said, “They are going to be so angry.” He winked and closed the door. The kid was right. It was kind of cute.
Pooky’s mistress was delighted to see her so I took myself back to my closet.
“Another victory,” I said to the picture of my wife. Twenty years ago she had vanished from this very train. I never found her. I’m still looking, but some things can’t be found.
I turned and watched the darkness pass outside.