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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

You must be a lost angel
Dressed in your silk lace
Born somewhere between heaven
And hell, I don’t know what place.
  –  Don Felder, “All of You”

“So, how close are you to the end?”  Abe was so startled he almost fell out of his chair; he had been so intent on his work he hadn’t heard Doris come in.  “Oh, shit, Abe, I’m so sorry; I didn’t mean to scare you!”

“It’s all right,” he lied, badly.  “Close to the end of what?”

“It was meant to be a joke; you’ve been staring at that computer screen for so long, I was implying you must be binge-watching a show or playing a video game.  Sorry about that.”  Doris now regretted the inappropriate attempt at levity; Dr. Steiner was a hell of an astronomer and had the most amazing visual memory she’d ever encountered, but he wasn’t much of a “people person” and had very little ability to hide his emotions.  And that included his intense annoyance right now, and something else she couldn’t quite identify. hubble-deep-sky-image

“Since when are you in charge of monitoring productivity?”

“Hey, calm down Abe, I really was just joking.  It hardly matters what you do while that deep-sky program is running; Dr. Wilbur usually just sleeps.”

“Sorry,” he said sharply, then more gently: “I am, honestly.  I’m just trying to solve a problem and I don’t really like what I’m finding.”

“Would another pair of eyes help?”

Steiner looked up at the PhD student; since she arrived at the Urania Project six months ago, she had proven herself both friendly and trustworthy.  And maybe a fresh perspective could make sense out of what he’d discovered; his own conjectures occupied the zone between “disturbing” and “impossible”.  He decided to risk it.  “Can I trust your discretion?”

Doris suppressed the urge to answer with a joke.  “Of course.”

“You have to promise not to tell anyone.”

“You have my word.”

He turned the monitor slightly so she could see it dead-on; it contained a badly-composed picture of this room with Dr. Wilbur and a woman she didn’t recognize.  No, wait…”Isn’t that the representative from the Foundation who was here last week?”

“Yes.”

“Why is this picture so crooked?”

“Because I didn’t want her to see me taking it, so I had to hide the phone and limit myself to a few shots.  This was the best one.”

Doris thought it prudent to let the Director explain things at his own pace; it was clear this picture was somehow very upsetting to him.  So she just remained quiet while he fiddled with the keyboard and mouse, bringing up another image which looked like the same scene from a different angle.  “Do you see what I did here?”

“It looks like you ran it through our image rotation software.”

“Right.  Then I cropped it down and sent it to a friend of mine who works with reconstructing faces from skulls, and he sent me back this.”  The next image was the same woman, but full-face; it was clearly a constructed image rather than a purely photographic one, but a very good one.  “Does that fit your memory of what she looked like?”

Abe didn’t need to ask that; he could sketch objects from memory after seeing them once.  But he clearly wanted her reassurance, so: “Yes.”

A few more clicks, and he removed her glasses, changed the image to black and white and then moved it to the left side of the screen, bringing up another photo on the right; it was an antique photo of a woman dressed in the fashion of over a century ago, and had clearly been run through a program to clean it up and artificially sharpen the resolution.  The two women were both stunningly beautiful and looked virtually identical.  “Well?” he asked, impatiently.

“The resemblance is certainly striking, but both of these images have been considerably enhanced.  We can’t be sure the original subjects bore more than a passing resemblance to one another.”

“Absolutely true.  But I can tell you that this one” – he pointed to the modern woman on the left – “is an exact resemblance of Gabrielle Ealing, whom I spent considerable time with on her visit here last week.  I never forget a face, especially one like hers.  And every biometric measurement I can apply to the older photo matches up with Ealing’s.”

“Who is the woman in the other photo?”

“Don’t you recognize her?”

“I’m afraid not.”

He looked irritated for a second, then softened.  “I forget others don’t have my memory.  Wait here for a minute.”  After he left the room, Doris continued to stare at the two images; they certainly looked a lot alike.  Allowing for the differences in grooming, they even appeared to be about the same age.  A few minutes later Abe returned with a large framed photo which Doris recognized as one of those hanging in the lobby; it had been taken at the dedication of the original observatory out in New Mexico, in 1910.  Abe tapped on one of the figures in the image:  “There.”

It was clearly the photo from which the image on the right had been scanned.  “Who is she?”

“Angela Ealing, wife of Charles Ealing, who made an obscene fortune in mining and banking and was apparently uninterested in women until he met her sometime after he turned 50.  She was the one who convinced him to establish the Foundation, and after he died in 1919 she ran it until her own death in 1980.”

Doris squinted at the picture.  “She looks young enough to be his granddaughter.”

Abe chuckled.  “Now, now, my dear, that was considered far more acceptable in those days.  According to her official biography, she was born in 1888, which makes her 22 in that photo.  He was about 60 then.”

“Still young enough to father heirs, apparently.”

“One, a posthumous son named Michael, a hellion who lived just long enough to beget a son of his own before getting himself killed in some foolishness on V-J Day.  The mother was apparently uninterested in that role, so the boy was raised by Angela.  Gabrielle is supposed to be his granddaughter, thus Angela’s great-great-granddaughter.”

“That’s quite a resemblance for sharing only one-sixteenth of a genome.”

“Indeed.”

“So what, exactly, are you suggesting?”

He sighed deeply.  “I’m a scientist, not a science-fiction writer.”

“Abe, this is just silly.  You’re an extremely rational man; surely you don’t think a remarkable resemblance is anything like evidence that Angela Ealing is still spry, hot as hell and supervising her foundation at the age of 134?”

“Have you ever read the mission statement of the Ealing Foundation?”

“Well, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but no.”

“Its official purpose is to prepare the most comprehensive map and catalog of the universe possible; to that end it has funded telescopes in every part of the electromagnetic spectrum, given scholarships to promising astrophysics students like you, provided grants to develop better imaging software, and awarded prizes to scientists who think up new ways to observe, as the statement puts it, ‘the full extent of Creation, both visible and hidden‘.  For the past 20 years its’ been heavily investing in dark matter research.”deep-sky-dark-matter

“Well, yeah, I knew all that.”

“But do you know who wrote that policy?”

“Angela?”

“Yep.  At the ripe old age of 19.”

“But…she died 42 years ago.”

“As a recluse.  This is the only existing photo of her.  Would you like to see photos of Gabrielle’s mother, who incidentally was an Ealing too?  She was a single mother and supposedly moved to Sydney four years ago.”

“Do I really need to?”

Abe answered with a few mouse clicks, bringing up another enhanced image of what at first glance was exactly the same woman.  “She didn’t like pictures, but this was manipulated from a shot taken at a reception in 1999, the year Gabrielle was supposed to have been born.”

“OK, just for the sake of argument, let’s say I buy all this.  If it’s true, what’s she after?”

Abe pondered for a few minutes, trying to find the right way to express his idea.  “Imagine you’re a traveler; not an explorer or a scientist, just an ordinary tourist.  And let’s say some kind of accident happens, and your pilot or guide or whatever is killed, stranding you in some strange place far from home.  What do you do?”

“Well, obviously try to get home in any way I can.”

“And what if you don’t really know where home is, and neither does anyone in the country where you find yourself?”

Doris looked at the three images on the screen and felt the gooseflesh rise on her arms.  “I’d try to collect as many maps as I could until I saw something I recognized.”

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For a while I was getting nervous that I wouldn’t be able to come up with a good story for the opening position in The Forms of Things Unknown.  But as so often happens, when my Muse was ready she demanded my attention immediately, and within three days “Trust Exercise” was done.  Yes, I said three days; it’s a good bit longer than the short-short stories I typically write, weighing in at about 4000 words.  I think you’ll like it, and it will appear exclusively in the new book (which looks like it will come out on schedule in January).  But because I’m such an awful tease, I can’t resist giving you this sneak peak at what’s in the box; this is from about a third of the way into the story:shadow-woman

“So who is Zoe?”

“Why, I’m surprised at you, Doctor Lang; she’s my imaginary friend.  You know that.”

“That would’ve barely been an acceptable answer when you were ten, much less fourteen.”

“OK, then, let’s call her my spirit guide.  Is that a more palatable response?”

“I’m not your enemy, Dani.  I’m trying to help you.”

“Oh, please.  You’re trying to earn a living, same as everybody else.  You wouldn’t give a damn about me if my dad’s insurance weren’t reimbursing you.”

“It’s true that helping professionals need to earn a living just like everyone else, but that doesn’t mean I don’t genuinely care.  You might think of my income as a subsidy which allows me to do the work I find rewarding, which is helping young people with their difficulties.”

Dani rolled her darkly-lined eyes and sighed theatrically.  “And you’ll still kick me out at the 50-minute mark.”

“Good job trying to make this about me.  Look, I understand why you’re upset; your mom had no right to read your diary, and if I were in your place I’d be angry too.  She didn’t tell me she was going to do it, and I would’ve discouraged her from doing it if she had.  And I really am on your side, so if you’d rather not talk about Zoe we don’t have to.”

“I’d rather not.  Let’s just call her my Jungian shadow and leave it at that, OK?”

“Fair enough.  Do you want to talk about how your mother’s violating your privacy made you feel instead?”

And so they did, and many other topics over the next couple of years.  But Zoe never came up again, because Danielle had learned it was absolutely never a good idea to mention anything about her to anyone else, no matter what their age and relationship to her.  As she had aged the visits had become less frequent but longer, and more likely to occur when she was alone; she was also much better able to answer her shadowy visitor’s questions, and she began to understand that the reason for her confusion in the past was that Zoe and the others had never adapted their questioning to a child’s intellectual level, almost as though they hadn’t understood that she was a child.  But as that aspect of their interaction grew steadily less frustrating, another grew steadily more so:  Zoe absolutely refused to discuss anything about herself and the others, or to answer any of Dani’s questions.  All she ever said in reply was, “I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust me.”

And you, dear reader, will have to trust me that the rest won’t disappoint you.  You only have about a month to wait!

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Say to her, “My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here.”
 –  Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Prayer to Persephone”

Every year it’s the same; by the time August rolls around Mother has become so overbearing I can barely stand her, so it’s a good thing that’s the start of her busy season.  By the beginning of October she always turns morose, knowing as she does that I’ll be leaving soon, and on the night before I depart she lets loose with such a lugubrious display that a stranger might be forgiven for thinking that my annual return home was something new rather than a ritual we’ve enacted countless times since my youth.  The part I hate most is the tearful goodbye when the carriage arrives; that’s so awful I once tried to sneak out before dawn so as to avoid it, but Mother carried on so unbearably about it for the next several months that Father asked me to promise never to do it again.

asphodelAt least it’s mercifully short; for all her drama she knows better than to break our pact by excessive delay, and before long we’re past the lake and through the tunnel, and I can really relax for the first time in months.  I nearly always sleep through most of the journey; the pomegranate wine my thoughtful husband always sends along acts as a balm to my frayed nerves, and the gentle rocking of the carriage on the dark, cool, quiet road lulls me into the blessed rest I get so little of in my Mother’s bright, noisy house (where it’s impossible to sleep past dawn).  But after we come down onto the plains the road becomes rougher and the number of stops more frequent, and I remain wakeful the rest of the way home.  The sight of endless fields of asphodel brings peace to my soul, and when at last we reach the river I get out and sit beneath the willows to wait for the ferry.

Sometimes the wait is short, and sometimes long; even my driver, who has made the journey more than anyone else, is unable to predict so as to plan his trip accordingly.  Depending on my mood I’ll read or play solitaire, and if time permits I’ll have the driver go among those on the riverbank who lack the proper fare, and distribute it to them from my own purse.  Sometimes I even speak to the others waiting at the landing, especially if there is some notable thinker or entertainer among their number; on occasion I’ve even invited an especially-interesting person to ride the rest of the way with me, but the offer is rarely accepted.  It seems very few wish to arrive at my house any more quickly than absolutely necessary, and though I certainly understand that it still makes me sad.

Fear of the unknown is, alas, a fact of the human condition, and unlike me most only make this trip once.  Rather, they only recall making the trip once, but that’s a distinction without a difference.  So while I’m always happy and relieved to come home, the vast majority are reluctant or even terrified, and know nothing of my hospitality.  That is not how I would have it; were it up to me, I would periodically invite every poet and philosopher on Earth for a great feast at my mother’s house while I’m there for the summer, and tell them all of the beauty and rest which await them in my husband’s domain.  But the first time I mentioned that idea Mother wailed and tore at her hair, declaring that my beloved had warped my mind and begging Father to have the marriage annulled.  And once again, Father took me aside and asked me never to broach the subject again.

That’s the way it always is when I bring up my real feelings about virtually anything, except when they happen to agree with hers.  Though I’m older now than she was when she bore me, Mother has never actually accepted me as an adult, and I doubt she ever will.  She simply wouldn’t admit that I was not very much like her, and refused to believe that I found every nice boy she tried to fix me up with dreadfully boring.  But when I finally expressed an interest in a tall, dark, handsome, commanding and unbelievably wealthy older man, she suddenly decided that I was too young to be married and totally ignored anything I, my suitor or even Father had to say on the subject.  Eventually, I was so annoyed at being treated like a child that I eloped with Father’s blessing; I guess none of us recognized the depth of Mother’s possessiveness, nor the degree to which she was determined to relive her life through me (correcting every mistake in the process, naturally).  She told everyone who would listen that my husband had “groomed” me, that he had taken advantage of my low self-esteem, that he had plied me with expensive gifts and sweet words, and that he did not “really” love me (as if love were something whose purity could be determined with a touchstone) but only wished to “exploit” me.  When I explained to relatives and other concerned parties that this was not the case, and that I was an adult who could make her own choices, Mother declared that my husband had damaged my mind with hypnotic powers, and that I couldn’t be trusted to know what was best for me.  And when those who knew me found that theory rather dubious, Mother adopted a scorched-earth policy and filed rape charges against my husband, swearing that he had abducted me before the eyes of my horrified playmates.  Yes, she actually used the word “playmates”, as though I were still in the nursery.

Obviously, something had to be done; given Mother’s high position and the damage her extended tantrum was inflicting on everyone, there was no way it could be allowed to continue.  She wouldn’t listen to anything my husband had to say, and Father was stuck in the middle; it was therefore up to me, and despite Mother’s low opinion of my maturity I understood that someone had to be an adult here.  After consulting with my husband we decided that I would offer her a deal:  I would live with her for half the year and my husband for the other half.  Of course, that wasn’t good enough for her, and she demanded and threatened and carried on until we had to call in my great aunt to mediate.  We finally agreed to my living with her from March to Octoberpomegranate and my husband from November to February, and that he would be allowed to visit me periodically while I was at her house.  Of course, she did her best to be inhospitable while he was there, so eventually we decided on the occasional secret tryst at some other locale while she was otherwise occupied.  And in the interest of serenity we didn’t try to counter the silly tale she spread about how I had been “tricked” into staying with my husband even a third of the year; his fearsome reputation would’ve made countering her claims a difficult proposition at best.

So that’s my story; quite different from the version you heard, isn’t it?  I reckon it doesn’t matter; people believe what they want to believe, and some of them even seem wedded to the delusion that they can indefinitely avoid this riverbank, though none ever has since the dawn of the world.  I don’t need to convince them of their folly; like it or not, they’ll know soon enough.  And then they’ll cross on this ferry as we are about to, and come at last to the lovely lands beyond, which they have been taught all their lives to fear.  As for me, I’ll soon alight from this carriage into the waiting arms of my husband, and tonight we will dine together in celebration of my long-anticipated homecoming.

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Five years ago, in the introduction to “Concubine“, I wrote:

I must admit that I’m surprised I’ve been able to deliver [a new story] every month; I always used to say that unlike my dependable and constant Muse of Nonfiction, my Muse of Fiction was like a sulky girlfriend:  when she wanted me she demanded my undivided attention, but when she didn’t want me I couldn’t even get her on the phone.  But ever since “The Trick”, she has visited me without fail at least once per month, usually without my even having to beg her…

ClioI repeated the joke in the foreword to Ladies of the Night, and until last year it was true.  But as my available time shrank and my commitments increased, I found that inspiration often came more slowly, and I had to beg a lot more often.  Fewer of my stories were (in my own opinion) really inspired or especially memorable, and the ones that were revealed a lot more of my soul than was the norm before.  Several of the stories came to me literally hours before publication, then this past February I cheated by letting someone else tell a story, and last month I quietly and unceremoniously slipped another type of essay into the usual story slot.  But if I keep doing that y’all are going to notice, so here we are.  Some ideas were bouncing around my brain, but as of this writing none of them has gelled and I’m very tired and about to go and get myself a milkshake.  So what I’m thinking is, I’m going to take a brief hiatus from fiction; the next story I think of will be an exclusive for my new book, The Forms of Things Unknown, which I plan to start compiling this coming week.  I know this kind of sucks, but consider that I’ve had an almost unbroken run of one story per month for six years; that’s 72 stories in all.  That’s really very damned good; I don’t think many writers are that prolific.  I also don’t think my Muse has really returned to her old sulky ways; she’s probably just tired and wants a little vacation.  Or maybe she’s suffering from PMS, or thinks I’ve been neglecting her.  Maybe this is her way of getting me to do the book.  But one way or another, I’m sure she’ll be sending me inspiration again in short order, and I’ll soon be serving up new tales on a regular basis again.  And if not, it was a good thing while it lasted!

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None of woman born, coward or brave, can shun his destiny.  –  Homer, Iliad (III, 120-121)

If you’re unfamiliar with Aella, I strongly suggest you read the previous chapters in her story before proceeding with this one; they’re listed & linked in the introduction to last year’s episode.

Since I live alone, it was both startling and disorienting to be roused roughly from sleep by someone shaking me.  But when in response to my groggy queries, I heard a less-than-familiar voice say, “Wake up girl, for I have need of thee,” I sat bolt upright and strained my eyes to make out the figure looming over my bed in the dark.  The meager light filtering in from the front windows glinted upon metal, and I soon realized my nocturnal visitor was clad in ornate armor; she carried a helm under her arm and a sword with jeweled hilt hung at her side.

“Aella?” I asked.

“Show some respect, child,” she said gently.  “Though I am not wont to stand on ceremony, it would behoove thee to address an honored ancestor with something more than her common name.”

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled; “you did wake me up from a rather sound sleep.  Would ‘grandmother’ do?  We’ll be here all night if I have to list all the ‘greats’ which should precede it.”

She laughed, a strong but weary laugh that seemed to come from someplace deep inside her.  “Aye, it will do.  Dost thou always awaken so sluggishly?  What if enemies attacked in the night?”

“It would make little difference; my enemies are cowards who always attack with overwhelming force.  They fear a fair fight.”

She was not impressed.  “Any descendant of mine should be ready to at least give a good account of herself in battle.  Her enemies should long remember how dear a price they paid for their victory over her.”

“I’m sorry, honored grandmother.  Though I am a warrior in my own right, I’m afraid you would not recognize my battlefield as such.”

“So I am told.  Yet thou hast shown tremendous courage.”

“Well, that’s what some people call it.  It’s really just tremendous stubbornness.”

She laughed again.  “Then it is certain thou art of my blood, for my excess of pigheadedness was also lauded as courage both in my day and after it.”

“I’ve wanted to ask you about that for some time, but you’re not exactly easy to reach.  I’m guessing the legends about Amazons and Scythians settling in Galicia have a basis in fact?”

“Aye.  My son and his wife were unable to adapt to Amazon culture, and I was unwilling to let them return to Crete knowing full well I might never see them again.  So I recruited a group of colonists, Amazons and Scythians both, and we sailed toward the setting sun and settled north of Tartessos.”

“I seem to remember that you hated sailing.”

She shrugged.  “One does what one must.”

“Yes.  We all need to do things we hate and fear to accomplish the goals that are important to us.”

“Aye, child, that we do.  But make not the foolish error I did, of thinking that thy destiny is thine to command.  Thou hast a task to perform, and thy course was charted for thee by the blessed goddesses long before thy birth, even as mine was.  We are but the tools by which they accomplish their goals, which are not for the likes of us to divine.”

I replied quietly, “I like to think I have free will.”

She laughed once more, a soft chuckle tinged with pain.  “I, too, enjoyed that belief.”

“And what of Phaedra?” I asked, trying to change the subject.  “Did you ever see her again?”

“Nothing could have stopped me save the goddesses themselves; had I been told she was dead I would have battled my way down to the Styx to find her.  Her ships carried our colonists forth, and kept us supplied until my death.”

“I reckon loyalty runs in our bloodline, too.”  She nodded.  “Honored Grandmother, you said you were here tonight because you had need of me.”mounted Amazon

“Ah, that.  Well, truth be told, child, I’m here because thou hast need of me.”

“Oh.  Will the coming years be that difficult?”

“I am no soothsayer, granddaughter; I know not what lies in store for thee.  I know only that I was sent to remind thee of who and what thou art, to admonish thee not to forget the warrior blood that runs strong in thy veins, and to tell thee that though I lack the wisdom and learning to understand thy struggle, I am filled with pride for thy steadfastness and refusal to surrender. Thou hast done well, and I am certain thou wilt continue to do so.  Because if thou should dishonor my legacy by cowardice, I swear by our common ancestresses that I will return and beat thee to within a hairsbreadth of thy life.”

“Thank you, grandmother.  I think.”  She smiled, and laid her hand upon my shoulder, and then she was gone, leaving behind nothing but the weight of her millennia-long shadow upon me.

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Life is a sum of all your choices.  –  Albert Camus

1968 ImpalaHer sister’s phone call had plunged Liz into one of her periodic episodes of deep self-doubt.  While they had both gone to college, Mary had primarily used the experience as a means of finding a husband with prospects, while Liz had been inflamed by the spirit of women’s lib and decided she wanted a career of her own.  Mary had chosen well; her husband had just been made a full partner in his law firm, and they had a beautiful house and two newish cars.  They had two great kids and a third on the way, and it was obvious that they were still very devoted to one another.  And while Liz was doing OK and didn’t exactly regret her choices, they hadn’t made her either as happy or as wealthy as her sister seemed to be.  She still drove the dependable but aging ’68 Impala her father had given her when he bought his new Caprice a few years back, and insisted she didn’t really need a color television set.  And her rented house in a modest middle-class suburb had all the room she needed.

But now she had been offered a promotion and a big raise; one catch was that it required a move to the East Coast, and another, more serious one was that she wasn’t at all certain she could handle both the extra responsibility and a move to a strange city at the same time.  What if she made the wrong decision?  And which decision was the wrong one?  Staying here where she was comfortable but not really successful, or leaving her comfort zone in the hope of finding success?  What if she lost both comfort and success, and had to slink back home with her tail between her legs?  What if all this turmoil was the result of a poor decision in the first place, and she should’ve married Claude when he proposed?  She had heard through the grapevine he was doing nearly as well as her brother-in-law.  What if any decision she made now was wrong, because her previous decisions had been?  What if…

“May I have a cookie?”

The unexpected question startled Liz out of her ruminations; she turned to find a rather extraordinary little girl of perhaps seven standing outside of the open patio door.  She was dressed in soaking-wet blue jeans and a dirty T-shirt with a picture of Wonder Woman on it, and the state of her clothes and the fresh mud caked on her sneakers left little doubt as to how she had arrived in Liz’s backyard.

“Did you go into the drainage canal on purpose, or was it an accident?”

“An accident,” she said with a sheepish grin.  “I was trying to cross on the pipe and I slipped.”  The pipe in question was a conduit which crossed the canal from bank to bank, a few feet above the high water line; it was certainly wider than a tightrope, but Liz wouldn’t have felt comfortable trying to cross on it.

“I’m not sure I understand what that has to do with cookies.”

“Nothing, really,” the child stated matter-of-factly; “I just saw the package there so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.”

“Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

“Yeah, my mommy says that all the time.  I’m not sure what it means, though.”

Liz set a plate full of cookies and a glass of milk down on the patio table.  “It means if you don’t try something in the first place, you have no possibility of succeeding at it.”

“So if I hadn’t asked for the cookies, there was no chance of getting them.”

Liz handed her a paper napkin, realizing immediately how silly that was given her current state. “Right, and if you don’t try to tightrope-walk on a pipe, you’ll never know whether you could’ve done it.”

“Yeah, but you also wouldn’t have any chance of falling in the mud.”

“Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?  I mean, you’re filthy and you smell like a swamp – ” (the little girl giggled) ” – and your mom will probably scream at you, but you got some cookies out of it.”

“And a new friend.”

“You’re very sweet,” Liz said; “I think you’re just saying that because I gave you cookies.”

“No, really, you remind me of my mommy.”

“Oh, how so?”

“Well, you actually look a lot like her, and you’re about the same size, and you’re smart like she is.”

“I think you probably inherited that from her.”

“Maybe from both; my daddy’s very smart too.  He and mommy met in college.  Did you go to college?”

“Yes, I did.  I think you ought to go too, when you’re old enough.”

“TINA!” came a female voice from the other side of the canal.  “Come inside and get cleaned up before dinner!”

“I’m guessing that’s for you?”  The girl nodded.  “I hope I didn’t spoil your dinner.”cookies on a plate

“Nah, that was just like an appetizer.”

Liz laughed.  “What’s your mommy’s name?”

“Beth.”

“How strange; I’m called Liz.  Your mommy and I have the same name, Elizabeth.”

“Oh, yeah!  But it’s like y’all chose different parts of the name to go by.”

“It seems we made different choices in a lot of areas.  But that’s part of what makes life interesting.”

“Well, I should go before she gets mad.  Thank you for the cookies.”

“You’re welcome, Tina.”  And with that the child sprang up and went through the gap in the fence, and Liz stood up just in time to see her reach the other bank after crossing perfectly on the conduit.  She laughed a little as she heard Beth’s exclamations of dismay a minute later, then went back inside and picked up the phone.  “Mr. Perkins?  It’s Liz.  I’m sorry to bother you at home, but you did say to let you know as soon as I had made my decision.  I’m going to take that promotion.  Yes, thank you very much; we’ll discuss the particulars tomorrow.”

Then she walked back out on the patio, picked up the plate and ate the one remaining cookie.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, she thought.  If you don’t reach for the cookies you’ll never know how they taste, and Liz had decided she wasn’t going to be afraid of a little mud.

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android phoneHelen was a methodical sort of person; she believed in a place for everything and everything in its place.  That’s not to say she was stuffy; far from it.  But her friends often gently teased her about the way she liked to have everything just so, and she had a system for everything it was possible to systematize.  Take her phone, for example; every different alert was a distinctly different sound, so that she could know exactly what was happening and gauge whether to respond to it or not.  The sound she had chosen for text messages was a knocking sound: a sharp knock knock knock meant a new text, and it was distinct enough that she could make it out even in a noisy environment.

Tonight, however, it wasn’t noisy; in fact, the sound startled her in the quiet room where she was beginning to grow a bit drowsy over her book.  She stole a look at the clock; 1:16 AM, which meant it was almost certainly Angela and she was almost certainly high as a kite.  She picked up the phone; it was indeed her best friend.

hey baby wassup-thinking of u

Her finger flew quickly over the screen: “Hi honey, having a good time tonight?

There was a longer-than-usual pause, then knock knock knock!  “Nah tonite sux, went out but evryplace was lame

So are you home safe?

Another really long pause, then finally knock knock knock! “Not yet

So where are you?

The intervals between her texts and the replies were maddeningly-long tonight; usually Angela was quite a fast texter.  But finally, after her screen had been dark for several minutes, it came again: knock knock knock!  “not sure

Not sure? WTF? How much have you had to drink?”  Again the interminable interval, so she sent another one: “Angela? Talk at me babe.

A short pause, then knock knock knock!  “Alnost none just a crapy weak margarita

Then how can you not know where you are? Did some loser strand you somewhere?

She was just about to probe the silence with another text when knock knock knock! “yah

Oh, damn, sweets, you need to stop dating these assholes. Why don’t you just Uber home?

Almost ten minutes elapsed before the next knock knock knock!  “cant

Angela must’ve been much drunker than she was telling…maybe someone had drugged her drink?  “Honey, please ask somebody where you are or look at Google Maps and give me the address. I’ll come get you.

It wasn’t quite so long this time before the knock knock knock!  “no ill come there

Helen didn’t like the idea of one of her friend’s invariably-useless boyfriends having her address, but she was too worried at this point to care.  “Sure, baby, come on over.

There was no immediate acknowledgement, and Helen was just about to text again when the phone actually rang; it was the ringtone assigned to Angela’s sister Leigh.  “Hello, Leigh?  Do you know where your sister is?”

The voice on the other end sounded strained and distorted.  “Oh, Helen, I…I’m so sorry.  I don’t know how to tell you this…Angela’s dead.”

“That’s not fucking funny, Leigh!”

“Funny?  Of course it isn’t fucking funny!  She was in a fucking wreck; the cops say her boyfriend was drunk!”

Helen felt as though her brain was numb.  “Are…are you sure?”

“Yes I’m sure, I’m at the hospital now but there was nothing they could do.  She was already dead when the paramedics got there.”

“But…how long ago did this happen?”

“About an hour ago, maybe quarter after one.”  This time the long silence was on Helen’s end.  “Helen? Are you there?”

“Yeah, I…Leigh, some jerk has been texting me from Angela’s phone; they must’ve picked it up right after the accident, or else she left it in a bar or something.”

“What are you talking about?  I have her phone right here. It was in her purse, and I think the battery’s dead.”

“You have…but…Leigh…I…”

knock knock knock!

“Helen?  Sweetheart, if you want to come down here with me…”

knock knock knock!

“Helen, please say something!  If you don’t think you can drive I’ll send Todd.”

knock knock knock!

But Helen’s voice was frozen in her throat, and the knocking wasn’t coming from her phone.

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