{second tuesday tales}

The Making Of Alastair Beckworth, 008: The Ride

It was, his father told him, time to stop pretending like a child in a man’s world, and act as a man his age. The directives he’d been given were to Stop Faffing About and Do Something With Your Life. While his father’s newest wife stood by, bright manicured yands wringing in discomfited silence, Father had read him the riot act, beginning with how he’d done nothing but bother the maids and trouble the gardener since he’d been home, that it had been months since he’d done his A-levels, and that, no, a gap year wouldn’t do, since he obviously had energy to spare, and nothing to turn his hand to but pestering the staff. Something Must Be Done, and It Was Time To Get On With Things. Beckworth Men Were Men Of Worth and it was Time To Be Getting On In The World.

Unfortunately, Alastair had no idea how Getting On In The World was supposed to work.

It wasn’t as if he didn’t DO things already – hadn’t DONE things for the last several months. He wasn’t indolent, and knowledge had always come easily – too easily – to him, falling like ripe plums into his lap. When he’d been six, his mother already gone, he’d found the new nanny, a plump woman with a coronet of gray-streaked brown hair, weeping in the linen closet. Father had caught her teaching Alastair a skipping dance that morning, instead of drilling him his maths, and had threatened to sack her, even though she was once someone’s mum. Even though her husband had passed on, just like Alastair’s mum had, because Beckworth men did not gallivant around when there was work to be done.

If he had asked, Alastair would have told him that the skipping was a way to count that he hadn’t seen before. If he had asked, Alastair would have told him he’d danced that morning for the first time since his mother had died. He’d have told his father that he’d felt the iron bands around his chest begin to ease that morning, for the first time, and felt a little like smiling again, for the first time. But no.

The thought of losing Ms. Nan had stung like jellyfish whips. Alastair had made an unhesitating beeline for his Father’s study and, once his father was occupied, made sure to spill his tea all over the letter Father was typing to the employment agency. As Father cursed and sputtered, Alastair had wept glossy crocodile tears, then made such a hash of trying to “help” him clean it up that Father had bellowed for the nanny to come and take him away. Afterward, Alastair had made sure to be perfect for weeks after, so there was no more talk of turning Nan out after that.

In grammar school, things like spelling long words, and reading longer books had been side hobbies Alastair had pursued while the stalking more thrilling game like finding out why the chaplain was whispering on his mobile phone in the hall, and why the Games mistress would watch the highway every afternoon at three with a gloomy sigh. (The chaplain was a habitual gambler, making book with the local man down the way, while the Games mistress was watching for the lorry driven by her erstwhile love, the Estate Manager from Gorbals Park, who only had time to see her at the weekend.) (Those secrets had been fairly easy to suss out, once he’d cracked the code on the Dean’s phone, and filched the Games mistress’ stopwatch. An alarm had been set for three.) When Alastair had charged home for tea to relate the story to Nanny, she had been by turns amused and exasperated. “You’re going to get yourself into trouble one of these days, my boy,” she’d warned him. Alastair had simply shrugged.

By secondary school, Alastair had excelled at being both a thief and a spy. No longer content just to bedevil his teachers, he kept an ear to the floor – and to all doors – around the manor. Knowing the cook’s son had been bullied by a butler’s daughter put the cook in his debt, after he sorted the snotty little miss as to who really had the right to push others around. Watching his stepmother’s newer, brighter makeup and hair styles as his father’s business meetings multiplied made Alastair set himself to quietly finding out; was Father really away on business, or doing something – or someone – new?


Even as he learned what papers on his father’s desk meant, learning the languages of business to peruse contracts and writs, Alastair was writing brilliant essays and arguing confidently in his debate club. While slipping into his Father’s electronic books to track down where he really kept his assets, Alastair was excelling in higher maths, geometry, trigonometry. Just knowing things meant that there was more to know; after chemistry and physics failed to sate him, his satisfaction in knowing there was simply more to know itself a heady lure. If only he didn’t keep getting distracted by the things he knew… there was always something more to find out, though; another fact, another story, another secret just over the horizon. And then graduation had come, and he’d marched out with the rest of his peers, content to wander back to the estate and rusticate with nanny – now retired – for a bit, then, maybe later, attempt university, if he could wrestle down the reams of things which interested him, piqued his curiosity, or looked like things he could do…

And now Father was… ending the fun. He was being packed up, sent off, and locked away in the gray iron-and-cement vault of the London business world. He was meant now to be A Grown Man, a Beckworth Man. A Man of Worth.

Alastair had no idea if he wanted to be a man of worth. Even being a Beckworth was somewhat suspect, to his mind.

“They’re expecting you at Benchmark Monday morning,” Father said firmly. “You’ll stay in my rooms at Broderick’s, and set yourself to shadowing Errol for a few weeks, see what you can learn. I expect you to distinguish yourself,” he added. “At the very least, you can be out of my hair for a time.”

“If that’s what you want,” Alastair said tonelessly, furiously calculating how much time he had, where he could go, and what he could do to escape this.

“It’s what you need,” his father had barked, launching into one of his aphorisms. “Beckworths are men of character, men of consequence. We set our feet on the road and let no one stop us.”

Alastair paused. “Indeed,” he murmured thoughtfully, then looked up, his expression full of false heartiness as he made his decision. “Well, then, Sir,” he said, shaking his father’s hand. “I shall take myself off to London.”

When the family sat down to supper that evening, he was astounded to note that his son had packed a bag, instructed his rooms to be packed up, and had driven himself off in the old gray Audi he’d bought for the nanny to drive, years and years ago. Mr. Beckworth was undeniably piqued – but curious. He knew Alastair was probably not obediently going to show up at Benchmark Ltd. on Monday, ready to do his duty. He supposed he was lucky Alastair had come home after school was finished; he’d expected him to vanish somewhere in the countryside and to hole up with questionable peers at some house party. Instead, he’d come home as if he’d had nowhere else to go. Mr. Beckworth shook his head and applied himself to his steak and peas. There was no telling where someone like Alastair would end up.

It had been a long while since he’d been behind the wheel. Alastair shifted gears noisily, the clutch grinding threateningly. He only tightened his mouth, concentrated, and shifted again. Better. Better. He’d get up to speed back here on these flat country roads, and have things figured out well before he got to the airport.

From there, of course, there was no telling what he’d do. No one actually said that being at an airport meant he had to board a plane for London. Perhaps he’d try a train. A boat. A ship headed for the Foreign Legion. Who were the Foreign Legion, anyway? Pretend Frenchmen, signing up to lose themselves in the desert? Why? What did they have to hide?

How much would it be worth to them to make sure no one found out?

Alastair narrowed his eyes speculatively, his foot easing on the accelerator. Up ahead, there was a smudge of black on the side of the road. As he zoomed closer, it resolved itself into a waving figure, and then he was past. He braked convulsively, fighting the car as it skidded. Clamping his arm around the passenger seat, he wove his way backwards, grateful that there was no one else on the lonely road.

At the black-coated figure, he stopped, and let out a disbelieving laugh.


The old woman beamed. How she had gotten there, so far ahead of him, Alastair could only guess. She carried only her handbag, a clunky, old-fashioned thing, but which was usually filled with every necessity for a good adventure – boiled sweets, toy cars, handkerchiefs, and the odd cheese sandwich.

Alastair rubbed his chest. Sometimes, he missed Nan, and the little adventures they’d gone on when he was a child. Sometimes he missed the odd dance or gallivant. He wondered if Nan was up for a little fun.

She stepped forward, brows raised. “Going my way?” she asked demurely, waggling her handbag.

It seemed she was.

Alastair laughed, for real this time, and opened the car door to let her inside.

< /end>

This was fun, and reminded me of the Police Adventures stories I used to make up when I was eleven, about my friend Danny and me, being Smart Detectives. I figure that a.) 007 had to come from somewhere, and b.) we’re overdue for a 008 by now. So, here’s Alastair for you, before his Big Adventures (whatever those might be) and you’re welcome.

This month’s image comes from Flickr user Philipp Rein of Augsburg, Germany.

2♦sday Flicktions

If you hadn’t heard about the Tuesday Flicktions challenge some of my writing group is participating in, I hope you’ll pop over to Wonderland to read a basic write-up about it why we’re doing it, and to find links to other people’s poems and stories. If you do know about our writing exercise challenge, well, then, below is this month’s image, and the following is my little scribble about it. Enjoy!

Harryhausen Skeletons

Harryhausen Skeletons, by Flickr user Jürgen Fauth of Berlin.

Caught Up In Wire And Plaster

A heavy steam of golden syrup through our single-pane window, the sunbeam pressed me deeper within my nest of blankets, sweetly contented and relaxed. With my father elsewhere, and chores and other duties finally discharged, I was gleefully blessed with time to myself. I turned on our massive console TV to Channel 20, to find the Sunday Afternoon Movie. Always a double-feature, with no commercials allowed, the Sunday Afternoon Movie was pure gold. One never knew which cinematic clinkers would be unearthed each week; they ran the gamut from the Wizard of Oz to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, from Cleopatra to Cat Ballou. While my sisters would skive off to watch more modern shows on my parents’ tiny bedroom TV, I was all in favor of the oldies. If it was, as she called it, a “spaghetti Western,” my mother would settle in behind me, and drop off to sleep on the couch, while I watched with glorious abandon, my permission all but guaranteed by my mother’s insensate body. Though sometimes I was bored (I wasn’t as big a fan of Bridge Over the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia), and I spent more time with Shirley Temple and Bob Hope than can reasonably be expected of someone with the intent to retain their sanity, this Sunday afternoon tradition was a rare oasis of calm in a contentious household.

This week, there was a pair of adventure films on the bill. In the first, there were interesting costumes and a lot of dialogue – too much for me, so it was mostly ignored. At nine, I was vastly interested only if there would be dancing, animals, or stunts. Robberies, shoot-outs, and kissing scene were where I squinched my eyes closed, and if there was too much talking, I sometimes wandered away entirely. To my mind, this movie had a LOT of talking, but eventually, the bald, eye-glowy guy in fancy robes, the young woman, the other guy in a sort of baggy-ankled pant, eventually got …somewhere. The bald man did things, then disappeared, and then, only the couple were hurrying through a cave made up of improbably sharp stalactites and massive boulders, when suddenly, they come upon a chained dragon, scaly scale flexing mechanically. On cue, the woman gives a sharp, cinematic scream as another monster – a cyclops? – appears. They’re trapped, of course, between greater evil and lesser evils, but baggy-pants has a plan, and he somehow loses the dragon. Entranced, I leaned forward, toppled, and sank into the story without a splash.

It was a glorious afternoon. The acting was stilted, the monsters, completely ridiculous, and the stutter-step of the stop-motion animation of the skeletons as they emerged from underground and attacked the Argonauts – with eerie screams from what vocal chords? – was both hilarious and compelling. I was hooked, moving closer and closer to the television.

And then, from behind me, my father grunted, “Huh.”

I jumped.

I rarely lost track of my father, ever. Knowing his location was important, and as every rabbit watches obsessively for hawks, I watched for him. When he was home, the floor seemed made of glass, being scored by diamond-sharp words and cutting silences. When he drove away, the walls leaned in and exhaled, and chronic tensions which had held the foundations tense shifted, softening the floor and resettling the roof.
I turned my head, trying to watch him from the corner of my eye. Now that I thought about it, I’d vaguely heard a car in the drive, but when the front door hadn’t opened, I’d relaxed my guard. He’d come in through the backyard, I guessed. And now, when I was so deep into the story – and so close to the TV – that now, when I was dying to know how it ended, now he’d returned, and was staring, hands on hips, at the TV. Now was the silent judgment, but next would come the pounce, as his body uncoiled, one hand shooting forward to jab to the OFF button, while the other would come down, a weighty pincher claw on my shoulder. Then would come the tightly gritted lecture, perhaps the one where he told me that he had something for me to do, if I had nothing else to do but “waste the Lord’s time.”

I held my body to unnatural stillness, pushing internal furniture aside to lock down emotional response and resistance; already a rabbit going limp, even as I fumed that now I would never know how the skeletons got out from underground with shields and swords, nor would I know the outcome of the fight. The Sunday Afternoon movie rota would move on, and they might never show it again.

“Huh,” my father said again, then, rasping a hand over his scruffy chin asked, “That Sinbad?”

Warily, I turned my head. “Maybe,” I said. When he only hmphed again, I ventured. “It might be. See, there was this dragon, and then, these giant birds…”

“Naw, don’t remember all of that. That’s the skeletons, though.” He stood, transfixed, and so I turned, too, watching with him as the skeletons leapt in awkward jerky motion, and with voiceless yells, brandished menacing swords. Jason – or Sinbad? – and his men fought valiantly, heroic and dying dramatically, yet emerging at last, triumphant against their deadly wire and plaster foes.

When the scene changed, I heard my father shift behind me, and blow out a breath. I sat back again, waiting.

“Huh. Sinbad,” he said again, shaking his head with a chuckle. I sat, blinking, as he walked off, adding from around the corner, “Sit back from that TV some.”

I scrambled to comply, a rabbit streaking for the bushes, now that the hawk has passed by.

And so, my father went his way, perhaps to do something important and mystifying with a stub of pencil, grout, and a triangle rule. And, as I sank into the story once again, the foundations shifted, and the floor softened. From above my nest of blankets, the roof resettled.

Ficktion Friday: School Sucks, And Then It Rains

Raindrops like bullets
Shattering holes in my sanity
The yard grows wild.

“Rain is like bullets?” Dennis threw a dry erase marker at Esther’s head from the back of the classroom. They were meant to be taking study hall, or rather Esther was; Dennis was in English detention because he was behind an assignment, but no one seemed to be keeping track of him.

“What kind of crap is that? If rain was a bullet, it’d blow your freakin’ head off. Rain isn’t like bullets.”

Esther blocked the marker with her forearm and crossed out a word. “It’s not literal. It’s a haiku.” It was only the first week of school, and already Esther
hated everything, including the smell of the dry erase markers, the
classroom, and Dennis’ shoes. She hated that her mother wanted her to stay after class and join a ‘club;’ she was stuck messing around in the homework lab because she couldn’t go home.

“Haiku!” Dennis let out a huge fake sneeze. “Haiku!”

“Oh, shut up,” sighed Esther under her breath. Dennis had been in her class since second grade, but she never had been able to take his intrusive, jokey manner. “It’s for Mrs. Russo.”

“That cow,” Dennis said dismissively. “She and her ‘make the magic of poetry’ talk, and then she keeps me after because I can’t write poems. What, are you going to do a little dance and sing ‘Rain, Rain, Go Away?’ next? You girls and your poetry.” He said the word as if it stung him.

Esther sighed.

Stupid male humans
Quite possibly throwbacks from the pool
No swimmers, please!

“Are you writing another one?” Dennis’ chair legs landed on the floor with a thump. “Didn’t she only say we needed one?”

“We need to have five by the end of the week,” Esther told him. “We’re supposed to use words to evoke strong emotion, and give five examples of atmosphere in our daily haikus.”

“Daily?” Dennis sounded outraged. I hate crap like this! Nobody else has to write poems, for the whole rest of their lives, except in school. This is so lame!”

Esther shrugged.

What will be will be
School work to life’s work, place exchanging

“Sometimes I don’t think I’m going to make it,” Dennis said gloomily. He looked out the rain spitting down on the sidewalk, at the gray sky and the drooping trees. “I mean, does it really matter if I can identify a haiku? No. Does it matter if I can write a sestina? No. And don’t get me started on all that literature junk. It’s a total waste. It’s the first week of school, and I can’t take anymore already.”

Esther, who preferred school to home, uncapped another dry erase marker.

“Are you writing another one?” Dennis asked incredulously.

Nothing wasted
Everything gained and nothing put back
Take in every drop.

“Dennis?” Mrs. Russo stood in the doorway. “Have you thought of a topic for your haiku? Oh, hello, Esther. Are you helping him?”

Esther hunched her shoulders. “I guess,” she muttered.

“We’re writing about rain,” Dennis said grimly. “And how it makes you want to shoot yourself.”

There was a pause. Mrs. Russo winced. “I see,” she said finally. “Well.”

“We’ve written almost five,” Dennis said hopefully, ignoring Esther’s shocked and furious hiss. “Isn’t that enough?”

“Oh, it’s more than enough,” Mrs. Russo said hastily. “You can both go now.”

Esther opened her mouth. “What? Bu –“

“Hey, want to go and get a hot chocolate at Copperfield’s? Since it’s raining and all.”

Mrs. Russo beamed as Esther glared at Dennis, fury making her eyes gleam and her lips narrow. “Yes. And I want a muffin, too. And maybe a sandwich. And maybe — “

“Sure, sure,” Dennis said placatingly. “A muffin and a sandwich too. Come on.”

Mrs. Russo smiled after the two of them as they left her classroom, thinking mistily about young love and poetry. It was another cold, wet afternoon, but at home, there was a bit of mulled cider and a fire waiting. She turned off the lights, and closed the door behind her.

This is in honor of all the little duffers starting classes this week already. Based on this picture, taken by Flickr user Captured Light

Ficktioning: Spring Queens

Everything about Constantine Jollee was brighter, louder and more alive than anyone else in Gyle Crescent. Where our mothers were as thrifty with words as they were with their hoarded coins, Miz Jollee was profligate with her expressions, lavishing smiles and conversation on any of us who were near enough to be caught in her mischievous hazel gaze. Where our village was redolent with the stink of farms, orchards, honest sweat and hard work, Miz Jollee smelt of soft blossoms and long, lazy summer afternoons on far away islands, even when it was fierce winter cold. She was the new chemist’s assistant, and straight out of school she was, full of university learning and all the newest methods. The old women in the village were ever so glad not to have to ask Mr. Campbell to whisper across the counter to them about their constipation and bunions anymore, and the younger farm wives timidly asked her advice on matters even more discreet. Miz Jollee was forthright and no-nonsense in her profession, but her kindness was a breath of fresh air in our quiet town. It didn’t harm her any that she was a handsome woman, tall as a man with a head of thick, shining brown hair and fine, clear skin.

My Uncle Santry was the first to be mired in the maze of her warm, low voice. He was an old bachelor who lived on the hill above us with only his herds for company. Mam had pounded it into us that he, being Dad’s older brother, was our duty, and we
were to see after him for charity’s sake. She was as crossed as two birch switches when she sent Marla and me up after him one Sunday for supper, and he not sitting there, awaiting for her last minute invitation as always.

“He was what?” she asks us, sharp-like, when we tripped back down the hill to tell her.

“He was up to Miz Jollee’s,” Marla says again, giggles caught in the back of her throat. “He was washed and slicked and everything, Mam.”

Then she did laugh, a bright chortle that danced like birdsong, ’til Mam smacked her on the bum for no reason that I could see.

“Get away to your room with that nonsense,” she snapped, and went stalking to find Dad,leaving the gravy congealing in the pot, the roast drying out in the stove. And whatever Mam had said to Dad had sparked off such a row that we none of us got dinner, not for long hours, ’til it was all ruined, and my stomach was tight with knots and worry.

I liked my Uncle Santry, with his thick rumpled eyebrows, and his wild thatch of wiry hair, and it had given me a turn to see his his homely jug-eared head shorn and slicked into submission, as if to go courting he’d had to wrestle down his wilder,
woollier self. Seeing Uncle Santay so had filled me with anxiety. Is that what it
meant, to have a boy go courting?  Had our Dad had to go all meek and humble himself to come courting our Mam? And if so, had it been… worth it?

Neither Marla nor our brother, Nigel was bothered by Mam’s fusses like I was. Nigel, being a boy, was Dad’s problem, and Marla had been having go-rounds with Mam since she’d turned fourteen. She was sixteen now, and I asked if she minded the smacks and the sharp words, Marla just shrugged and said that soon enough she’d be out and gone, and she wasn’t about to let Mam’s old-lady clucking get under her skin.
It got under my skin, though. Everything did. I didn’t know why Mam sounded so angry, and the silence in our house after all the shouting only made it worse.

The village postmaster was the next man Miz Jollee’s coils of curly hair captivated. He wasn’t a bachelor, though, and it was the talk of the downtown busybodies, how Mr. Cullen made eyes at Constantine Jollee, his wife not five feet away, sorting the mail. Going in to get a stamp or send a package after that was a
dicey proposition. The postmistress felt that you were either for her, or against her, and expected loyal Gyle Cresent women to step up and take a side. Mam sent me to check for a package one day, and when I went to Mr. Cullen’s line instead of Mrs. Cullens, it practically sparked an international incident. Apparently Mrs. Cullen said something to Mrs. Airdrie, and she let slip to our neighbor, Mrs. McAuley, that she thought that the McIntyre’s youngest, Avril, would grow up wild.

“Just like that Constantine Jollee,” Mam had finished, eyebrows fairly crackling with lightning as she glared me down, storms brewing in her eyes. “Just what have you to say for yourself, Avril McIntyre?”

“Leave off, Janice,” Dad had intervened, his rare attention surprising. “She has no idea what you’re on about.”

And I didn’t, but Mam started giving me wary looks after that, as if I were soon going to commit some unimaginable wrong.

The men in our village fell head over heels with Miss Jollee, but I no longer cared. I had been betrayed, and felt a deep uneasiness that Mam would take up with the likes of Mrs. Airdrie against me, when she always said that Ethel Airdrie would rattle her tongue past Judgment Day, when a good woman would know to be silent.
I was only fourteen, and not ready to brave the constant battling Mam and Marla went through on a daily basis. I didn’t know how, but I was trying to avoid conflict the best way I knew how. Unfortunately, for Mam, the only thing I could have done to keep the peace was not grow up…

At the Spring Faire, Gyle Cresent was dressed to the nines and filled with little ones running around, begging change from their parents for pony rides and taffy candy. Each year, the local businesses employed their workers to pass out lollipops and balloons, thanking the village for their business and laying the foundation for another good year. The primary school kids worriedly practiced their words for the town spelling bee, and those of us who were older stood behind tables, selling coleslaw and slabs of pie to support school clubs. The air was thick with the savory smells of meat; the 4-H club roasted hundreds of chickens on
spits, and the Greek Orthodox group had a whole lamb being slow basted for the all-county picnic. The Vestry Committee of the Gyle Cresent Episcopal Church set up their yearly cakewalk on the far side of the square, just to the left of the podium where the mayor “blessed” the Spring Queen and her court.

Marla had already run off with her classmates by the time we got to the Faire and met Uncle Santry. Mam stiffened up and went quiet when she saw him, since Miss Jollee was with him, arm linked with his. Dad stopped to chat, while Mam stood in awkward silence, looking across at the Ferris Wheel set up in the field next to the high school.

I couldn’t help comparing them, my small, rumpled mother with her plainly braided hair and her plain white blouse with the embroidered cuffs and the tall, vibrant woman standing proudly at Uncle Santry’s  shoulder, her chestnut hair piled high on her head. Next to Miss Jollee’s vivid peacock silk blouse and high-waisted bolero slacks, Mam’s quiet outfit made her look provincial and countrified. Though my own blouse and clamdiggers were plain, I had never stopped to consider that other women my parents’ ages didn’t dress like Constantine Jollee. She looked like she was in costume. I realized that almost every woman that glanced our way looked at Miss Jollee, then looked at her again. Across the square, a group of women were staring at her.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed.

“Janice!” Mrs. Airdrie rushed up to us, her fair skin flushed with high color. “I’m gathering all the ladies. It’s time to prepare the Spring Queen’s court.”

“Oh, no you don’t,” Mam said immediately, stepping back. “I’m too old for that nonsense, Ethel Airdrie.”

“It’s all in good fun,” Mrs. Airdrie insisted, beaming brightly at all of us. “You’ll come, won’t you Miss Jollee?”

Mam’s mouth turned down. “ Ethel,” she began.

“’Course I’ll come,” Miss Jollee smiled. She trailed after Mrs. Airdrie. “What do I need to do?”

“Come on,” Mam said to me, dragging me along after them. “We’re coming too.”

I wasn’t any too interested in the Spring Queen or the Court. Every year before the Mayor “blessed” the court, the townsfolk lined up the Court in all their finery, and sprinkled them with a bit of water from a bouquet of roses. The rosewater was supposed to symbolize dewy youth or fresh beauty or something, but the meaning had been lost years ago, and now, once the Queen was crowned, she was doused with champagne. Inevitably,someone took the “sprinkling”  bit with the roses bit a bit far before the main event, and then it was a free-for-all, and the water fight generally left the Court in sopping disarray which the mothers bemoaned all afternoon, even though most of their daughters didn’t bother to change clothes, preferring to drag around their watermarked gowns, disheveled and amused. As far as I knew, Mrs. Airdrie had never bothered with the Court, leaving that to the younger folks, and Mam had never gone anywhere near the whole thing.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as Mam towed me along, but she said nothing, just picked up her pace. Mrs. Airdrie was hurrying Miss Jollee right up to the foot of the platform where the Mayor would make his speech. As I watched, women from the village gathered around, as if by some prearranged signal.

The first splash of water that landed on Miss Jollee came from Marla, flinging her roses enthusiastically. “Hey, Miss Jollee,” she shouted. “Happy Spring!” Her face was gleeful as she liberally sprinkled the people around her with water. There were squeals as mothers straightened their daughters’ tiaras and gowns, and cameras flashed as proud grandmothers and aunties recorded the day.

“Now girls,” one of the mothers called, “don’t mess up your gowns before the picture!”

“Marla,” Mam remonstrated, and Marla turned toward us, grinning and dunking her roses in the little bucket she was holding. I squealed and ducked as the water spattered onto my unprotected neck, but I stood up, fast, as I heard Miss Jollee’s shockingly loud scream.

Mrs. Cullen had hold of her on one side, and Mrs. Robinson from the bank held her wrist on the other. Mrs. Airdrie aimed a full bucket of water into her face, and Miss Jollee screamed again, flinging her thick hair to the side as she struggled between them. The buckets were small, but there seemed to be no limit to the number of women pressing close to douse Miss Jollee. The butcher’s wife, Mrs. Lomond,dumped one on her from behind while the choir director’s fiancée came at her from the front.

Mam sucked in air between her teeth as the water roughened the silk and made it hang limply from Miss Jollee’s shoulders. From across the square, I heard Uncle Santry’s laugh cut off abruptly. It seemed as if all activity in the entire village held its breath, as Miss Jollee fought her way free from the postmistress and the bank manager’s wife, and, holding a hank of her sopping wet hair away from her eyes,
blinked at the women gathered around her.

“Am I the Spring Queen, then?” Miss Jollee asked blearily, wringing a handful of water from the hair around her face.

There was an awkward silence. I turned to catch Marla’s eye. Miss Jollee didn’t know it wasn’t a joke. Shouldn’t somebody tell her?

Mam chose that moment to quickly reach for my sister’s bucket, sloshing its contents all down her blouse.

Mam’s scream of murderous rage galvanized everyone in the square. Every eye was on her, as Marla stumbled backwards on reflex. Girls with roses quit sprinkling and began dousing, laughing at what Marla had started. Miss Jollee got her hands on someone’s bucket,and sloshed half its contents full into Mrs. Cullen’s face. Half the Vestry Committee hightailed it into the church, and cries of “sanctuary!” came from the women running toward the doors.

“Marla!” My mother bawled, fastidiously wringing out her blouse. “You can see right through this blouse when it’s wet. Whatever has gotten into you? So help me God, when if I catch you, girl…”

Marla was still bewildered, had only moved away from Mam’s furious screams by reflex. Now she caught on, and a sly little smile lifted her face. Quickly, she sloshed the last of the water into Mam’s surprised face.

“Now, you’re the Spring Queen, Mam,” she
hollered back, and ran for her life.

So. The picture which inspired this Ficktion was taken from the web somewhere by riotclitshave. Find more Ficktion from the usual suspects at Ficktion.ning.

Ficktion (Not Quite On) Friday: Crown of Haiku. Sort of.

A crown of sonnets is seven sonnets which begin each with last line of the previous. The advanced version of this is seen in A Wreath for Emmett Till where the poet writes fifteen sonnets and the last sonnet is composed of the first lines of ALL THE SONNETS IN THE CROWN.

It is a stunning feat — one I am nowhere near able to do, not having time or patience. But I can do a mini-wreath of haikus.

Holy God, love die hard

Holy God, love dies

Hard. In the ink black night, cold,

It still burns, alone.

It still burns, alone.

Undying ember cherished,

Though it burns our laps.

Though it burns our laps,

A cinder glows, defying


Holy God, love dies

Hard. Her ink-smeared note still prays

Help to cut the cords.

Holy God, love dies hard.

This poem of sorts is in response to this week’s Fiction.ning.com picture Lost A Way in the Umbilical Cord of the World, taken by Flickr user Anastasia Y. Maleeva. More fiction this last week of October with the Usual Suspects, maybe, but none through November, so here character sketches will continue. TTFN.

Ficktion Friday: Experimental

(This is a companion story to Good Girl, which I wrote last April. Basically, the scariest thing about that first Stargate movie? The dog masks on the guards. Freaked me right out because they looked like the Doberman that bit me when I was a kid. Strange parallels our minds create. Anyway. Still riffing on the ‘aliens are Dobermans’ thing, I guess. Living in this Fine City where people take their pets “walkies” and let them go on the sidewalk probably also feeds into my nightmares… Just… go along with the crazy person’s story, okay?)


    The beaker exploded over the Bunsen flame, and Anega jumped back, lifting her blue rubber glove-clad hands clear of the shards of glass.

    “Damn. Almost had it,” she sighed.

    The stainless steel counter, the white walls and the shelves were spattered with bright red goo. It was time for another clean-up. The little whisk broom and pan was already gummy from the last failure, and it was eleven forty-five. Gena would be coming in to take over in a matter of minutes, and she had nothing but failure to report.

    The least she could do was be sure their workspace was clean.

    Picking pieces of glass out of the titanium dioxide solution on the counter, Anega found herself thinking, longingly, of simpler days, when the only pressure put on a laboratory scientist was by the pharmaceutical companies, if one were unlucky enough to be employed by them, or by the FDA, who specialized in a kind of scientist terrorism and subjected lab personnel to rigorous interrogation about their methodologies, in defense of the health of the American public. Most of it was bunkum, of course; the FDA were a passel of bureaucrats driven by the Almighty Dollar as much as anyone else, and could be, at higher levels, bribed. But in the lab they were demigods, regarded with terror. Who could have known that people would look back nostalgically at the FDA?

    Gena didn’t even realize what a different world she was inhabiting. She was a brilliant child, but she was a high school student, for goodness sakes. Things were so desperate that they were recruiting children. She would never have been allowed to focus her studies so narrowly, not before… not before she was so needed…

    The air pressure in the lab dropped, and Anega winced as her ears popped. Gena was early. She hurried to collect the last of the beaker, a little less careful of the slivers breeching the protection of her gloves. Gene was standing in the gowning room, suiting up in her lab whites, her silver-tipped purple hair carefully covered with the regulation paper cap. Even fully mummified in her uniform, Gena’s personality shone through. She was dancing in the isolation chamber, lifting her arms above her head as her body was bombarded with positive air pressure, whisking all trace of dust and germs away. Anega looked at her bleakly. Dancing in the face of death. Dancing while a war was on. Dancing like she never could. Youth, she thought from her hoary vantage of two years postgraduate.

    “’allo A-ne-ga,” Gena sang out, cha-cha-ing in the narrow space by the door. “Anything new, then?”

    Anega sighed. “The body count on beakers is up by two,” she offered, trying to smile.

    “Ugh.” Gena actually stopped dancing. “Well, can’t be helped, can it? Did it punk out on the amphoteric or the nonionic?”

    “Nonionic. Titanium dioxide.”

    “Interesting.” Gena went to scratch her neck as she did when she was stumped, but stopped herself, remembering she was gowned and gloved. She lifted her shoulder and rubbed twisted to rub her ear instead. “Well, today I was going to try the methylchloroisothiazolinone – but just as an anionic surfactant,” she said slowly. “It seems like the titanium should have worked, though. Damn. Damn!

    Anega was surprised to see the tension in Gena’s face. The girl was usually sunny and blithe at all times.

    “Gee? Something will work,” Anega heard herself saying soothingly. “Something will. Soon. It has to. We have the best minds on the planet pushing for this, ‘round the clock. Something will work.”

    “I know. I know.” Gena closed her eyes and rested her chin on her chest. “Today…” she sniffled a little, blinked wet lashes behind safety glasses. “It’s just today, you know?”

    Anega flicked a glance toward the gowning room and the air chamber. There was no one on their end of the lab, and it couldn’t hurt to ask what had precipitated the outburst. “Today?”

    “A month ago today my Dad was called to the Saxa,” Gena said softly. “He hasn’t come back.”

    Anega’s mouth moistened, and she swallowed hastily, feeling a tremor start in her knees. “Sometimes they do come back,” she said, and her throat filled with acid as she thought of how most of them came back, how Mark had come home. Changed. Doppelgangers of their original selves. Inhabited. A headache stabbed behind her eyes.

    “I’m not afraid he won’t come back,” Gena whispered. “I’m afraid he will.”

    The Saxa was  where they were from, the dogmen. In their own tongue, they were the Egelloc-Sgod, and Earth had believed that nothing malicious could inhabit those cylindrical blue ships called the Saxa after their resemblance to big blue salt shakers. The Egelloc-Hsorf were humanoid in appearance, with warm, intelligent eyes, slightly lugubrious expressions, bellies which were sleek and bodies which ran to fat. Their blunt clawed hands were clumsy and eager, and only their elongated necks and double rings of sharp teeth destroyed the illusion of cute helplessness. As they aged, their skin produced more hair, then took on a mottled appearance, tingeing a slight brown with cream and black as their years progressed.

    The first of the Egelloc visitors consumed prey on an international vid program. The host of Good Morning America was the first to learn that the alien race was only in the first of their developmental stages as an Ellegoc-Hsorf metamorphosed into an Egelloc-Hpos, a carrion-eater, on camera. After his poison sacs had receded, he had appeared bewildered, the host was completely mind-wiped, and the broadcast was unceremoniously cut. Later, when the show host abruptly died, there was a world-wide panic. It was too late by then.

    Egelloc-Roinuj were flesh eaters. Egelloc-Sroines played deadly games and consumed their prey on the run. Only the Egelloc-Hsorf were safe, but ‘safe’ was relative. Infant cobras are cobras still.

    “Dad organized a cell in our neighborhood,” Gena said softly. “I don’t think they knew that – they couldn’t have known that. But he was the first one to …kill one of them. He killed… a Hsorf.”

    Anega glanced involuntarily at the door again, feeling another swell of nausea. There was a CCTV in there for security purposes, in case of contamination in the wake of a mishap, and in case a room needed to be sealed. There was no microphone, and their masks hid their lips, and they were among friends… but her fingertips were cold. Gena could be executed for simply knowing someone who had killed one of the dogmen.

    “If he comes back… will you — ”

    “Yes.” Gena’s eyes were dark holes in her pale face. “Yes. If he comes back …different, I will kill him.”

    Anega nodded once, sharply, and silently went on cleaning up the last beaker disaster while Gena collected herself. Beneath her lab whites, her arms were goosepimpled by the focus on Gena’s face. She would kill her father, might have to kill him over and over and over again. Her NSA contact, Marith, had told her that millions of people like Gena’s father were depending on them to find a vaccine which would disable their genes from successful cloning.

    Which was ironic, Anega thought with disgust. After Dolly the Sheep and Eureka, the gorilla, the world had been holding their breath, awaiting the first successfully cloned human. And then the dogmen had come along and produced them, in the millions.

    And they were farming them. And feeding on them.

    Technology sharing had convinced the dogmen that Earth was no match for them. They still appeared, from time to time, on national vid programs, urbane and witty as always, their claws always a little sharper, their eyes always a little brighter, always smiling, laughing at their own wit with a silent panting, holding the nation polarized with terror before them, and laughing at them. It was not to be borne.

    It had taken only days before the disbanded FDA had come together and recruited the biochemists who weren’t afraid, had put them to work in abandoned pharmaceutical labs, under the fiction that they were producing a drug to make humanity more fertile, one which the dogmen fully approved. Finding biochemists who were unafraid and had not fled to the country was the FDA’s concern, but working quickly and effectively with those who were sent was Anega’s task… which was why these failures were unacceptable.

    Anega rinsed the rubber squeegee and went over the counter again. The shelves were next; the walls would have to wait until her next shift. Gena didn’t look as if she would notice if there was something dripping from the ceiling. She was frowning over the petri dishes on the shelves.

    “Is something wrong?”

    Gena hummed doubtfully. “Dunno. I think something new is growing in here. My inoculants must have been contaminated.”

    “Oh, no,” Anega groaned, her eyes following the path of dioxide splatters from the beaker breakage. “Do you think it was me? I’m so sorry, Gee. Is it anything useful? Do you have to start all over again?”

    “I dunno, I dunno…” Gena was muttering distractedly, peering at the surface of the agar. “Shouldn’t have been able to get in, the swabs were sterile, the dishes were sealed. Maybe…”

    She trailed off, and there was silence for several minutes. Anega realized Gena had probably forgotten she was there. She looked at the clock. She had two minutes to punch out. She was finished, Gena was here, why didn’t she go home?

    Because there was nothing at home but Mark, and Mum following him, heart in her eyes. Anega winced.

    “Gena,” she said forcefully. “Tell me how I can help you.”

    “Need a probe,” Gena muttered, still focused.

    “Microspatula,” Anega said, opening the autoclave and bumping the handle against Gena’s shoulder until she reached out her hand to take it. “I’m prepping a slide?”

    “Please,” Gena said, her voice trembling.

    “Distilled water or Gram strain?”


    Something in Gena’s voice was making Anega’s hands shake. She dropped the slide covers twice, and had trouble picking up the water dispenser.

    When Gena simply inverted the petri dish atop the slide instead of scraping the surface, Anega shrugged and allowed the younger woman to do what she would. The slides weren’t pre-labeled as she normally would have used, but that could be sorted out later. For herself, Anega took a scraping of the medium on an uncontaminated edge of the dish, added a tiny drop of water, and sealed it with the slide cover. There were two microscopes in the lab, after all.

    “Oh – my.” The words burst from her. “Gena, what… what the hell is this?”

    “It’s …beautiful,” Gena breathed, transfixed by the dancing, spinning microscopic bodies. Against the blackness of the slide, its luminescent lobes and pods quivered, bristling like so many spines from a central sphere. Miniscule iridescent cilia rippled along each coruscating arm.

    “It’s huge… and fast,” Anega murmured. “Oh, Gena… chica, I think you’ve got something.

    “What if we can’t duplicate it?” Gena wailed. “Anega, it’s splitting already!”

    “What?” Anega moved quickly from her microscope to Gena’s, frowning down into the eyepiece. “Holy smokes,” she muttered, well aware that she was dating herself with the archaic phrase. “It’s really moving.” She looked up from the slide, pushing up her safety glasses. “We don’t need to duplicate it if it’s willing to grow that fast.”

    “No.” Gena was busy extracting another sample, this time doing it properly, pre-labeling the slide, putting down a polypropylene spacer and a thicker white filter card. “I don’t know what did it.”

    “Maybe the titanium oxide got in somehow. It should be easy enough to duplicate, I know exactly what I did, and where it went wrong.”

    Gena looked up, grinned briefly. “Are you staying my shift? I’ll spell you if you need a little nap. I’ve got some stim packs, if you need them.”

    Anega shook her head. “Maybe later. If we get something, we can bump it up to R&D and have everybody working on it. I’ll sleep later.”

    “Right. Immunocytochemical or histochemical staining, do you think?” Gena asked, working quickly to prep more slides.

    “Both. I think an immunofluorescent scan will give us the best information on which direction to go next.”

    “Right.” Gena was distracted again. “So… will you be good to me, little beauty? Will you?” she crooned to the swimming creatures under the slide. Working quickly, she hummed to herself bobbing to an inner rhythm only she could hear. Occasionally she sang snatches of song, cha-cha-ing in place as she scraped and stained and prepped.

    Anyone watching the CCTV footage would have seen not one, but two women dancing. One dipped and glided slowly from counter to sink, turning in a complicated burlesque move to bump her hip against a drawer while lighting the Bunsen burner, then glided off to the back counter. The other woman twisted and gyrated, reaching onto shelves for pipettes and trays, occasionally throwing her hands in the air and flicking her fingers as if propitiating some kind of rain god.

    On their trays, the specimens, too, dipped and glided, twisted and gyrated… and grew…

Further inspiration for this continuing story comes from this interestingly textured picture, produced and provided by Flickr user TC Carlisle. Further madness might be found with some of the usual suspects, though I suspect that muttering into the dark emptiness of fiction is taking place all over the globe, and many writers are finding their creativity wells gone dry in the face of the horror that is NaNoWriMo. A pity.

Ficktion Friday: Three Uncles Went to Vietnam

Three uncles went to Vietnam.

Three uncles went to Vietnam, and one uncle seemed to have found “the life.”

Three uncles went to Vietnam, but only one came home with a sharkskin suit. He never said what else happened while he was over there, but he was full of the wonder of the tailors of Southeast Asia. “You can get a monogrammed shirt, tailored suit, sports coat, cheap,” he told us, checking his cuffs. He talked about silk, and the little women who stood on chairs to measure his massive Western self. He talked about colors – bright like those birds, you know, parrots. He talked about tiny, perfect stitches- as if his entire tour was comprised of stopping by small villages to check out the couture.

How rare a man, to return unscathed from a war which ground up men like grist in a mill. The uncle wore his sharkskin suit, shiny and gray-blue, together with glossy pick- toed boots, and a fedora. He dove into the garment district in the City. Its walls closed around him in a crisp cotton embrace.

The uncle went to Vietnam, and returned home to sire his sons and show the world what he’d learned. He put on that sharp suit, and tried to get noticed. He kept his nails clean. He bought a big, new house with air conditioning. He hated humidity, and was repelled by certain smells. He told his wife, the aunt, she smelled like rotting fruit. He slept badly. The uncle moved the aunt’s things into the guest room.

The uncle went to Vietnam, and returned home, dissatisfied, to his American wife, she who was as small-boned and big eyed as any Asian woman, but had a mouth which was powered by an American mind, which told her to speak it. She told him where he could go and take his “Big Man” sharply creased polished cotton Miami-Vice blazers with him. She told him what he could do with his loud, angry words like his slow heavy fists. “Shoulda got me an Asian girl. Shoulda gone that way,” the uncle would mutter over and over when the aunt’s unceasing intransigence nettled him. In the evenings, he would eye her darkly over the ironing board, snarling as he smoothed out the creases in his dress shirts. The uncle was obsessed with material – crisp, linen, dense wool, slick, cool, silk. He was obsessed with the cut of a garment, the lay of a seam, the angle of a crease. He insisted that his children pay attention – going so far as to turn his son’s clothes the “right direction” on the hangers, and punishing them when they forgot. The children of a clothier should know better! He was surrounded by Philistines in polyester !

How the man suffered. He longed for the garments – the cheap, tailored clothes – of those distant choked Asian cities! He was nothing but an errand boy in the district, a nobody the East Coast designers like Jordache and Calvin Klein would never see! The garment district was a murky interweaving of paneled trucks and delivery drivers with broken syntax and busted bank accounts. Uncle found a thread he could unravel, and began to pull.


Three uncles went to Vietnam.

Three uncles went to Vietnam, and one was his country’s shining knight, thank you very much, sir. One was his country’s Navy Seal – because he believed, and was stronger, better, faster. This uncle was once a lowly electrician, able bodied seaman, second class, but graduated to the fraternity of super heroes in the Underwater Demolitions Team. This uncle was codenamed ‘Sly.’

Sly the uncle was made for intrigue. He was made for honor. He was made for the swashbuckling role of the savior of the world, never give up, never retreat, never surrender, anchors aweigh, my boys and all of that. Frogman are able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; Sly the uncle dove and leaped and dodged death with sheer effortless grace – until they hamstrung him and told him it was time to go home.

But where was the glory at home? What was the use of “home?” Home wasn’t what he’d been fighting for; he’d been fighting because in Vietnam he’d learned how to live for a good fight. Home wasn’t where he wanted to go. Home was a travesty, a backwater town where they remembered him as Anita’s little boy who’d fallen out of a tree and broken his arm, as Will’s son, who’d been the quarterback on the high school team. No one at home knew who he really was.

But the Frogmen said ‘jump’ and Sly the uncle landed hard.

Home. His father poked at him. “Get on up, son. Get yourself a job. Go to school on that G.I. Bill.”

Home. His mother murmured, “Son? Don’t you feel like seeing any of your old friends?”

And then the night hours came, and the raging, roaring beast that lived in the uncle’s head came to life, and grew and howled and swung, great ham fists swinging, and launched red-eyed into the uncle’s dreams. The Frogmen know a thousand ways to kill with their bare hands. The uncle was lucky. The Frogmen scoured away the uncle’s memories when he debriefed. He was left with a nickname, but his hands were tied in the hollowness of his roaring nightmare.

“Wake up!” called the father.

“Wake up!” wept the mother.

The uncle woke up on a cold sidewalk in a city ten thousand miles away, staring up at a big red bridge in a town he called “Frisco.”


Three uncles went to Vietnam, though one put off his travel plans for about twenty-five years. A Trailways bus to points North came between himself and his government’s call; Ottowa Ontario, was his random destination. Mirrored sunglasses, draft card in his sock, his earthly possessions in a mail sack on his back, somehow he caught the attention of the sharp-eyed man sitting on the side aisle. A lone gangly African-American boy on a bus that far North – what else could he have been but derelict in his duty, AWOL, skipping out, skating off, dodging the draft?

“Son,” sucking his teeth self-righteously, “when my country called, I came.” The uncle noted that the sallow faced sheriff looked like the last war to which his country had called him might have been around 1918, and grinned to himself. The sheriff looked at him sharply, sighed. Kids these days. Least he wasn’t one of those hippie boys (what was the world coming to, anyway?). He didn’t even have that bushman hair, that “afro” they called it. Looked like a boy he woulda been happy to have working around his house.

“Gonna hafta hold ya, son,” he threatened, motioned the hulking uncle ahead of him into a cell. Striving to bring home to him the gravity of the situation. “Gonna have to stay here ‘til the draft sergeant shows up.”

Nothing could knock the guileless smile off the uncle’s face. Even his mother, working class patriotic, gutter-mouthed harridan, screaming obscenities at her second son, only made his brown animal eyes droop down for about an hour. “How could you do this to me?” she screamed. “Did you burn a flag too, you communist?” Even his brother, oozing sympathy and relief (it wasn’t his war, he’d already served, had three kids worth of insurance), shaking his head, bringing his wife and lisping baby girls to peer nervously into the visiting room, “Man. They gonna court-martial you?” – even they could not weigh him down with their burdens of damp, cloudy doubt. He smiled at the little girls. One waved, a shy crimping of fingers, and he winked at her snaggle-toothed grin.

Even the baldpated, screaming Army man who hurled him against the wall and called him a good-for-nothing-spineless-piece-of-worthless-stinking-excrement, spraying spittle all over his face and leaking noxious clouds of testosterone along with throat-closing aftershave, could not keep him from that thought that tickled him, that urged a smile onto those hangdog features. Even the thought of a dishonorable discharge, three long years of incarceration, the country’s scorn, the eleven-by-eighteen cell could not touch him for long. For the uncle had a song, and in his head, the song went like this:

I’m going to live I’m going to live I’m going to live I’m going to live I’m going to live I’m going to live


“Vietnam is one of the most beautiful countries in the world,” the travel agent’s hands fluttered like small graceful birds. “There are no good or bad seasons to visit. When one area is wet, cold or steamy hot, there is always somewhere else to go that is just right.”

“Sounds too good to be true.”

“It’s not…” her voice trailed off wistfully. “I was there once. It was an amazing trip.”

I stood. “Well, thank you. I’ll let you know.”

“My uncle went to Vietnam,” the travel agent said reflectively.

“In the war?”

“No — oh, no, two years ago, for the Tet Festival,” the travel agent blinked. “Not the war.”

I nodded. “Thanks again,” I waved, and pushed out into the summer sunshine. I tucked the brochures into my back pocket, and decided to drop by my niece’s house on the way home.

The burning pages in this photo by Flickr user tamelyn made me think of the power of story – bursting into flame, burning in your imagination, searing your perceptions, and leaving your assumptions in ashes.

Find Ficktion from the rest of the usual suspects at Ficktion.ning.com

Ficktion Friday: My Boss’s Dating Life Has Hit A Dead End

If he weren’t already dead, I could kill that Dewey dude, I really could. Okay, so someday it may serve me well to know that the Dewey Decimal number for the commercial processing of kidney beans is 664.805652, but it bugs me no end that Maelinda thinks I’m an idiot since I don’t know these things right off. What she doesn’t understand is that I didn’t get a library job because I wanted to organize things. I took the job because I wanted to read. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of reading in a library job. There’s not really enough time to do more than scan jacket copy and make a quick note of the author’s name before I need to put the book on the shelf, otherwise, I get bogged down, and I refuse to give Maelinda the satisfaction of not finishing a cart before I punch out. She already is looking for just about any excuse to fire me.

Usually, because I work evenings, well after school, Maelinda makes me do the crap jobs like re-shelving the archives, or running genealogy tomes out to library patrons, or shooing out the homeless people trying to catch a nap, but today when I punched in, she was waiting for me, her pale skin blotchy, her eyes all jumpy and weird. She said she wanted me to do something else.

“So, Bee? Could you do some work in the study carrels? We had a big group in here from the high school this morning.”

I raise my eyebrows. Bee? “Okay…? It it re-shelving, or anything in particular — ?”

“Just… take a look around in there, and in the YA room,” Maelinda says tensely, giving me a thin smile. “I’ll finish up in Zoology, and be right over to help.”

No one ever finishes up in Zoology, and I know a brush-off when I hear one. I was on my own. I shrugged and pushed a cart past the YA room, meeting the children’s librarian, Regina, behind a shelf.

“Oh, hi Betsy! Did Maelinda tell you what happened this morning?”

“No…?” I pause, straightening. Gina is the perfect children’s librarian, with a low, croaky voice, and a fondness for whacked stories. Her tidbits are usually worth waiting for. “What happened?”

“Maelinda didn’t tell you? We had some drama around here this morning. We had our usual September research groups here from the high schools, and even though they weren’t doubling up — some were down in the periodicals, and the rest of them were getting the basic Dewey drill, there were just too many of them, and it was chaos. Of course, a couple of them had to go off and get it on in the stacks, and of course, not only did Maelinda run across them while she was reshelving, one of the high school girls came at them from the other side of the shelf. Apparently the guy in question was her boyfriend, and she went into this screaming fit, and her friends and the faculty sponsor tried to drag her out, and she was doing the Jerry Springer thing and trying to jump the guy — before everyone had time to get clothes back on — Let me tell you, it was wild.”

“Eeeew!” I laugh and cringe at the same time. No wonder Maelinda is strung out. “That’s got to be a great start to the day. Were the kids from Featherstone?” Featurestone High is the school with the highest number of both dropouts and meth producers in the county. It’s notorious for teaching more than the bargained for ABC’s.

“No!” Beth grins, her sharp features alight with naughty glee. “That’s the best thing — these kids were from College Park!”

I blink. “No way!”

“Way,” Beth insists, leaning closer. Her green eyes sparkle as she adds, sotto voce, “Prep school nookie, complete with uniforms, berets and crested blazers. Maelinda may never recover!”

I laugh and shake my head. Beth, with razor cut, spiky hair, plaid tights and multiple piercings, is the antidote to the stereotypical old lady librarian. Her glasses are appropriately nerdy, but somehow the thick black Buddy Holly frames work. Maelinda, by contrast, wears her hair in a low bun, sports thick white cardigans from the Salvation Army and has cats — seriously. It’s like she’s trying to embody the whole stereotype, trying to put on this look that says ‘Victorian Spinster here, leave me alone.’ I can imagine finding a lurid, sweaty tangle of arms and legs behind the genealogy section would be a bit off-putting to someone who doesn’t look like they know where all the parts go in these scenarios. “Catty, catty,” I said to myself, angling my cart down a narrow aisle. Maelinda probably knows very well where all the bits go — she’s likely to have read a book, just like me…

The study carrels have the usual stacks of books and a bit of trash on the floor. I tidy things carefully, finding nothing more exciting than gum wrappers and crumpled notes. I find I’m a little bit envious of the students who got to get out of school today, even though I’d probably rather drop a bookshelf on my head than hear anything more about the life and times of Melvil Dewey. Since I’m doing Honors and work-study, all of my time these days is taken up with CLEP tests and independent study courses, and nothing normal like class outings, or even making out in public. In some ways, I’ve left high school light years behind me, but that’s how it goes when you’ve got to make it through as much school as possible before you turn eighteen and the government tosses you to the curb. My foster parents were a hundred percent behind me: this is what I had to do for now.

Sullenly, I reach under a desk for an anatomy book someone has wedged under a chair leg, grimacing at a wad of gum underneath a desk. “This is what you picked, Bets,” I tell myself as I straighten the pages and glance at the spine. “You could have had a normal high school experience…” But that wasn’t what I’d chosen, and I was going to get two years of college out of the way, all expenses paid, so I could hardly complain. Much.

I was scrubbing tape off the side of a lamp when I heard a short, sharp intake of breath, and a muffled scream. I glanced up, spooked, then grinned. Was Maelinda getting another little education? Ditching the cart, I raced up the aisle, peering between shelves. I saw no one, but I found a patron lying on the floor. I peered at him uncertainly, walked a few rows up, seeking the source of the gasp. There seemed to be no one on the floor but the sleeping guy. I sighed. If Maelinda came up, I’d have to wake him up anyway.


I feel stupid calling someone close to my age “sir,” but library protocol was library protocol. “Sir?” I repeat, crouching close and stretching out my hand. “Sir, I’m —” I suck in a breath and choke, crashing back on my rear end. The man is cold. Icy, horribly cold. The guy on the floor is irredeemably, unmistakably, irretrievably …dead.

How long has he been lying here ? Why hadn’t I seen him when I came upstairs? Oh, why hadn’t I looked around for …dead people when I’d first started on the floor? Maelinda is going to lose her wig. Sure, it’s not like I killed the guy, but somehow, someway, Maelinda is going to make this my fault, and I know I’ll be out of a job.

I can’t afford to be out of a job. Not when I have books to buy for my college classes, and shoes and bus fare… “Crap. Crap, crap, crap,” I hiss, struggling to my feet. Obviously some patron found the guy, freaked, and was off to get help. I tried to figure out a way to spin my obliviousness, but my mind was gibbering. Was I going to have to help move him? Had he… leaked onto the linoleum floors? Would someone be questioning me for not finding him sooner? Why couldn’t I have been working somewhere else, anywhere else?

I straighten with sudden horror. Wait. Maelinda sent me up here. Could she have something to do with this? Can I trust her? Oh, no, no, no… I shot to my feet and turned — and felt an ice cold hand clamp on my ankle.

I couldn’t help it. You would have jumped, too. As it is, we’re all lucky I didn’t scream louder than the little strangled squeak that piped out of my throat, or the roof of the library may have caved in. I thought I was going to swallow my tonsils.

“Are you another librarian?” His face is fishbelly white, and his eyes a strange greenish gray.

“Yes?” I can’t help the tremor in my voice, but I hate it. I take a deep breath. “Why?”

“Have you heard of Kant’s definition of analytic judgment?”

I straightened my spine. “No, but I’m sure there’s a book on it. Philosophy starts in the 100’s.”

He clears his throat. It sounds like gears grinding. “Wait. I want to know the definition… the definition of…” he slowly looks down, and I see he is lying on a book. I groan inwardly. Maelinda will blame me for that, too.

“You need a definition?”

He looks up at me. “Yes.”

I shiver a little, because even looking into the glassy eyes of a dead guy, I can still spot a lie. “Uh, dictionaries are just past the check-out desk downstairs. If you get stuck there’s a help desk down there.” I try to back away.

He smiles, and his teeth are a sickly yellow against his grayish gums. “By Maelinda’s desk?”

I can’t help it, the words leapt out of my mouth. “How do you know Maelinda?

“We dated. In high school.” He grins again, and I find my toes curling.


“Yeah, I always liked to come to the library. I’d ask her for stuff, and she’d say, ‘look it up.'”

“Oh.” That sounds like Maelinda all right, true to life. I back up another half step. “Well. She’s right downstairs. I’m sure she’ll… be happy to see you… again.”

I admit that it wasn’t the smoothest lie, but running away was weighing heavily on my mind, and I couldn’t focus while his lifeless eyeballs stared through my face. He grunted, and gave half a grin, and I was flooded with the knowledge of the meaning of the phrase ‘death’s head.’ He was gathering himself, jerkily, to stand, when I heard Maelinda’s shrill voice.

“Bets-ey! Betsy, where are you?”

Startled, he loosened his hold on my ankle, and I darted toward Maelinda’s voice, and I hoped, safety. “Maelinda,” I gaped, there’s a –“

“Yes, yes, one of the living dead is in the 500’s, I know,” she said wearily. Her cardigan was off, and I noticed that her blouse was sleeveless, and her arms were wiry with muscles. “I’ll take over from here. Get downstairs and cover check-out.”

I never get to check patrons out. I never get to do anything cushy. I looked at Maelinda again. Her hair was slipping out of its bun, and her glasses… were pushed into her hair. Her eyes were sharp. I opened my mouth. “Ma–“

“Betsy, go now,” she snapped, and I was out the door before I knew my feet were obeying.

It wasn’t until I was behind the checkout desk, my fingers nervously fluttering through a card catalog like a paper rosary that I wondered: was that a stake I’d seen in Maelinda’s hand?

Strange days engender stranger stories. This one is based on this picture by Flickr user Mr. Guybrarian, the library geek. More geeky tales by the usual suspects at the late great Fiction.ning.com.

Ficktion Friday: Should I Stay, Or — ?

“I guess I’m not a sentimentalist, then,” he’d laughed, tilting his head so that the light caught the almost colorless brush of lashes lowered over his green eyes. “I don’t hold with calling it The Big Day. Frankly, I think the big day is the Monday after the whole shebang gets over with.”

And everyone had laughed, and given Miercolette the kinds of smiles that indicated that they were sure they knew she and Alfred were a done deal, only the i’s needing dotting, and the wax to cool on the seal. He hadn’t asked her, but so many of his friends had made noises to her that it was ‘only a matter of time.’ They were as good as married to his crowd, and to his parent’s, as well, she soon found, as the invitation for a family vacation arrived a day later.

“Italy?” The intake of her breath had been only slightly louder than the pounding of her heart at finding an envelope in the post from his mother. “She wants me to go with you to Italy?”

“It’s our usual Spring jaunt,” Alfred had shrugged. “Mother likes to have a whole passel of folk along. Makes traveling with people less tedious, you know? Get sick of talking to someone, there’s always someone else.” He smiled, added, with his devastatingly dry wit, “There’s always someone else not related to you, at any rate. I think Mother tired of talking to us years ago.”

“Your mother wants me to go… what about your father?” Miercolette asked in a small voice.

Alfred shook his head. “Don’t worry about him. Don’t worry about any of them,” he said seriously, his ebullience for once subdued. “I mean that. Just — worry about me.” And then he’d grinned.

So Miercolette had found herself on a European vacation with a boy she sometimes felt she barely knew; dressing for a six course dinner every night, playing cultured games of Trivial Pursuit she felt were intended to ferret out just how smart she was not, and fending off questions from a group of well-moneyed, laconic, witty friends of his family’s. She was out of her depth with the heads of corporations and their trophy second wives and precious, precocious and perfectly attired toddlers. When the ‘young people’ were left to their evening’s entertainments, it was even worse; Alfred was good at the lightweight chat and socializing, but the longer it went on, the less Miercolette felt she had to say. Feeling naked and imbalanced, she started ducking and blushing and mumbling like an eleven year old. By the time they toured the underground monasteries, she was sick of herself and of the whole charade. Alfred would do well to look elsewhere for someone to marry — someone who could speak in complete sentences, for one thing.

There were all kinds of people in the tour groups passing by, and after a particularly embarrassing period of stammering silence between herself and a friend of Alfred’s father who was horrified to have already forgotten her name, Miercolette faded behind the crowd and slipped down a corridor. She found herself inside of a vaulted room, empty but for an altar table and some chairs. She more collapsed than sat, resting her hand on her head, trying hard to push away a pounding headache.

Mostly it’s all in your head, she told herself, fighting back the stinging in her eyes. It’s what you think you know about them that’s killing you, not what you really know. None of them has said anything awful to you, Mier, you just think they do. Alfie’s the only one who matters, right?

But another stern talk with herself wasn’t working. She felt panicked, like a bug in a jar, gasping away all the air, and angry because of it. Not with Alfie — he wasn’t putting her on display because she was exotic or odd — but with the voices in her head, she couldn’t be sure. “Is he maybe gay?” Anne had asked just the week before. “I mean, a year Colette, Lord. He’s been a perfect gentleman for a year?” And now this vacation, and her own self-doubt was overwhelming. He just wanted everyone to know her, that was why he introduced her to so many people, and sat her with a different group for dinner every night. He’d explained all that, and when he said the words, she could believe them. It was just when he wasn’t right there, saying them over and over again….

It was late in the game now, really late. She and Alfred had been seeing each other for almost a year, and now she’d met his parents. He must be serious, even if he hadn’t said so, unless he was gay…? But no… he wouldn’t have reason to lie like that, not to her. It seemed that this week was crucial to the both of them. She had to determine whether to go forward or back with this thing — to take the next step it seemed everyone was expecting her to take, or to go her own way. It would be so much easier if I knew what Alfred expected, she thought. He alone seemed completely ambivalent, as if he expected… nothing. Which was terrifying, in itself. She thought of Anne’s concerned, freckled face.

Be prepared. Make a choice. Be prepared. Make a choice. Make a choice... Miercolette practiced just breathing for awhile, until she heard shuffling footsteps. She swallowed hard and glanced up, expecting the tour group to have discovered her, and was relieved to see it was only a group of women in sweatshirts and jeans, entering from the other side of the cavern. They poured into the room, marveling in low voices at its size and at the echo of their voices. One raised a hand and sang a note in a pure contralto, and they stood in silence as the hushed reverberations of the note died away.

Miercolette found she was holding her breath as another woman sang, a song with words this time, but none that she could understand. It was a kind of round with one woman repeating a line of melody then abandoning it, while another took it up. The harmonics raised the hair of Miercolette’s arms, and she closed her eyes as the sound relaxed her mind, then her body. It took a moment for her to realize that someone’s hand lay lightly on her shoulder.


She opened her eyes with a slight frown.

“Miercolette,” Alfred repreated. “Are you …all right?”

“I’m fine,” she said, feeling the same clutch in her stomach that she always did when she looked into his eyes. “I just wanted to listen.”

Alfred glanced over at the group and smiled. “Yeah, they’re great, aren’t they? We have about an hour before their concert begins. There’s a tea shop if you want to have a bite.”

“Oh, sure,” she said, standing quickly, glancing at the women in the middle of the cavern, reluctant to leave. “I shouldn’t interrupt their rehearsal, anyway.”

“You’ll hear that song again,” Alfred reassured her, touching her shoulder. “It’s one of their most famous. They sing most of their old music in Latin, for effect.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a prayer,” Alfred said. “It’s says something like ‘God help me.’ Seems like it has a lot more words than that, though.”

Miercolette smiled automatically, then genuinely. “A lot more words than that,” she agreed. “It probably also says ‘now,’ and ‘please’ as sort of an afterthought.”

Alfred laughed, a single bark. “A whole lot of please,” he said. “As in, ‘Please don’t let my mother scare off my girlfriend. Please don’t let me make an ass of myself. Please let me keep my miracle.”

Miercolette could feel her face going slack. “… Alfred,” she said, feeling lightheaded.

He shrugged ruefully, hands shoved in his pockets. “Well, it’s what I’ve been thinking. I’ve been wondering if this was going to be the beginning or the end.”

Miercolette shook her head, unable to trust her voice not to break. “Alfred,” she began desperately.

“No pressure, Miercole,” Alfred said, and touched her shoulder lightly again. “No pressure.”

And Miercolette’s heart sank. For just a moment she had seen beyond the surface, for a moment Alfred had been about to say something, to let them get beyond pleasantries and euphemisms, and just that quickly, he had retreated. ‘No pressure’ could mean too many different things.

They were within sight of the rest of the group, and in a moment were surrounded and swept toward the tea tables. Miercolette paused as if reading the menu, gathering herself for a moment, her stomach fluttering. “Miercole,” he called her. Miracle. She glanced up at him, smiling and sure, surrounded by his friends. Why was she hesitating? Surely there really was no other choice to be made?

He was looking over his shoulder for her. She chewed the corner of her mouth, took a step — and…

The inspiration for this bit of story comes from Should I Stay or Should I Go On, which comes from ilgattoelavolpe‘s photo stream. Published 9/17, just posted now because I forgot to previously… There are more stories — or there will be — from the usual suspects. Stay tuned.

Mind the Gap

“This is a security announcement,” a metallic voice said confidentially over the loudspeaker. “Please do not leave baggage unattended. Unattended baggage will be collected, and may be destroyed.”

Heard that so many times it is blurring in my brain.

Unattended baggage may be destroyed.

Well, I am an unattended baggage, at least my mother always called me a snooty baggage, and now that she’s not here to say so anymore, I am unattended, adrift, abandoned, left behind.

I still don’t believe she just left me with him. Just picked up, took the train up to Guston, leaving me with him by myself , which really means leaving me by myself, since ever since Momma left, Daddy’s been… gone. Down at the Hydebound, drinking and watching the Raiders with his friends. He doesn’t want to come home and look at me.

Well, the feeling’s mutual.

I won’t go home, not when he’s banging around piling up dirty dishes in the sink and thinking it’s my responsibility to clean up after his slobbing. Not when I find him staring at me, staring at me dead on with some kind of evil marked all on his face. It’s safer here, in the station, staring down the old ladies and hitting up the sugar daddies for a bit of cash for some gum. And as long as I can avoid the station wardens, I’m in good shape. It’s no place Daddy will find me.

Daddy says she’ll come crawling back, but I don’t think so. I don’t want her to, anyhow, not unless she’s coming back to get me. If I stay here, I’ll see her before she gets out of the station, down to the bus stop, back to the house. If I can just talk to her, I’ll say, Momma, here I am… now we can both go, and never let her step foot in his path again.

Someone eventually comes for even baggage left unattended, don’t they?

this picture is the basis for this week’s story… more to come, see Ficktion.ning for more.