Thursday, January 31, 2013

This is the Last of Earth


Quincy sat in a rickety chair in a corner of a library.  The books surrounding him belonged to a friend, but he imagined that they were his father’s.
   
He had long since left the presidency behind him, but those were days that still haunted the old man.  He was sitting in the library mostly because he did not want to report back to the House of Representatives.  His colleagues were debating whether to honor veterans of the Mexican-American War.  This was something he vehemently opposed.  If he went back now, he was concerned that he might do something he regretted.  Or worse.
   
All his life he had known nothing but the great cause of the budding nation.  He could appreciate that many others could say the same, but few in quite the way he had.  In many days like this one, he had shared his father’s misery.  In many ways, he had become his father.
   
It was not an easy life.  His bones ached constantly, not from advanced age but from the constant strain, from the constant opposition.  So many wanted the same thing, but could not agree on how to obtain it.  Sometimes he wondered if they knew what they wanted, if they knew the peril they placed their future in by refusing to comprehend the events taking shape around them.  He saw a war on the horizon.
   
He had lived through two monumental wars already.  He did not consider the Mexican-American War legitimate, but he did the War of 1812, which had catapulted Old Hickory to the presidency.  He had experienced the Revolutionary War firsthand.  Younger people these days could not appreciate what that had been like, how desperate those days were.
   
His father used to ride a circuit around New England as a country lawyer, and then around Europe as an ambassador.  They were equally thankless pursuits.  How had he ended up the same way?  Somehow he attempted to master history, yet was doomed to repeat it.  Was that the truth of human nature, that there was no escaping the mistakes you choose to embrace?
   
He put his hands on a book and then hesitated, thought about another book, and then could not bring himself to open either one.  He knew them both already.  What did he expect to find in them?  Courage?  He was too old for courage.  All he had left was conviction.  It was no longer enough.  He felt his body giving way, betraying him.  It was bound to happen.  That was the story of his life.  There was no certainty for him.
   
He had always done what he thought best for the country, what he hoped would help it endure, survive even the wars he didn’t agree with.  This matter of the veterans vexed him.  He knew veterans of other wars.  Perhaps it was because he had not fought any campaigns himself.  Perhaps it was shame.  Perhaps humiliation.
   
He tried to get up and for a moment could not feel his legs.  He immediately collapsed, fell back into the chair, and it cracked audibly.  He believed with absolute conviction that he would soon sprawl on the floor, which had not been dusted in months.  He thought about the suit that would be ruined, how he could not report back to his colleagues in that condition.  Even if he could get up.  What could he possibly say for himself?
   
Then he tried again, after the split second’s doubt, and got all the way onto his feet.  He breathed a sigh of relief.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Use Both Hands

Aiko tended to spend the majority of her time ignoring the part of her life that dominated the outside world’s perception of it. She did this because it was easier to try and forget than to accept its responsibility. According to her own interpretation, Aiko was simply a young woman who had traveled to a foreign land, beginning a new life while earning her graduate degree. She had already attempted to distance herself from what she had known growing up in the selection of the graduate institute in Kyoto, or perhaps reconnect with something she herself had never known. Such distinctions were part of what she wanted to forget.

In America, in the institute at the Francisco Keys, Aiko met the man she would marry. It had not been intentional, but could be interpreted very easily by anyone who knew her as the outward manifestation of Aiko’s desire to absorb a new culture and thus new identity. Slowly she distanced herself from her old friends, escaped further into America, but found that her ultimate destination was back home. Things would be different, Aiko assured herself. This would be a triumph. Anyone who met her now wouldn’t think of the daughter of Akagi but rather the transplanted American and his wife.

She was preparing rice balls, rolling them in chilly water, altering hands as she withdraw one after the other, and trying to remember who she said she was supposed to be. Her husband was once again entertaining guests, and it was up to Aiko to prepare the refreshments. If there was anything that perturbed Aiko about her husband, it was this incessant desire to bring company into their home. It was a constant threat of her past coming back to haunt her. She put up with it because she loved him. Outside the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, a stark contrast to the scarred landscape, but a reminder that new life cannot be suppressed.

Her husband popped his head into the kitchen. “How much longer?”

“A few minutes. Tell them they can wait.”

“They’re not waiting for the rice. They’re waiting for you. You promised.”

Aiko knew that she had indeed promised. One of them had recognized her immediately, said that her face reminded him instantly of Akagi’s. He’d begged for a story there and then. Soon everyone was pestering her. It was all she could do to relent, promise one story, one story only, before retreating to the haven of her kitchen. She loved her husband. It was the only reason she could maintain her composure.

Minutes passed. The rice was ready and Aiko stood at the threshold. Though they were all expecting her, she was temporarily overlooked. Her husband and his friends were enjoying themselves, playing games. They’d forgotten about her. It was a rare moment, and Aiko relished it. She could still pretend that she wasn’t Akagi’s daughter. Absently, her husband turned in Aiko’s direction and saw her. He didn’t mention it. He protected her, and all Aiko could think to do in return was walk into the room and set down the rice. She demurred for an instant longer, and then announced that her story was about to begin. She ignored all other pleasantries. She might as well not exist. Why bother?

“A long time ago, before the earth was scorched, my father lived the life of a simple fisherman. It’s true. He was nobody. He would spend all his days on his boat, something his ancestors would have found familiar, and all the world washed over him. He meant nothing to anyone. One day one of his friends brought their boat alongside his, looking very solemn. This was how Akagi learned of the Danab invasion, almost as so much gossip. He did not expect in that moment that his life was about to change forever.

“Every government began conscripting soldiers into their armies. Japan was no different. My father spent precious months during this time continuing his life as always, a simple fisherman. Soon one agent came to his dock, and then another, until finally Akagi agreed to join the cause. By then it was impossible even for him to overlook the signs of what everyone was calling the apocalypse. It no longer mattered what he did with his life.

“He didn’t want to become a soldier, though, but a sailor. That was what he had been, and that was what he would become. Old friends helped Akagi adapt to new instruments, identified the similarities in concept between what he knew and what would come to define his life. He thought nothing of warfare, only fishing. This was something he always told me.

“The first time he met an alien, Akagi pretended that they were a fish. It was a Bith’mari, so you can imagine that it wasn’t difficult. Life was changing for everyone, but Akagi dealt with it by processing the differences through what he knew already, and in that way nothing at all felt different. He kept to himself, mostly, pretending that he was still on his boat. Even thrust into the greatest glory of the war that brought humanity into a new age, Akagi kept things simple for himself.

“It’s true that he could sometimes be difficult. Someone who is always trying to convince themselves that they are in control of their life will never be comfortable when contradictions arise. He was a kind man but he didn’t hide his emotions. Those who irritated him knew it, especially those who refused to adapt, as he did, even if he himself tried to pretend that nothing at all was different. He was always keenly aware of the details, though. That’s something you should remember. Akagi cared about the details.

“He married late in life, and had me still later. I knew the man who once again sat in a simple boat here, off the coast of Japan, when everyone else was scrambling to rebuild, and reshape humanity into something that the rest of the universe could respect. He was constantly asked to join the Space Corps. It’s said that Akagi’s refusal to do so set humans back for generations in that regard. Maybe so. But he had to live by his own principles. Great men don’t often care that others consider them great. Those who do probably don’t deserve such distinction.

“You want to know more. I know this. But this is all I am going to tell you. Thank you for listening.”

Aiko kissed her husband on the forehead and walked out of the room again. She could feel a dozen set of eyes trained on her, but there was more work to be done. Every time she allowed herself to remember her father, she felt a part of herself slip away, and talking about him only made it worse. In this particular moment she wondered if she weren’t after all being selfish about it. Her husband’s friends, and the millions other like them, were only curious, and it was only natural. That was why on very rare occasions she would indulge them.

Outside, among the cherry blossoms, in the garden she herself had planted and still maintained, Aiko let out a sigh. She was the daughter of a hero, of a legend, a giant. There had been a time that she thought she might try to live up to his reputation, but that was long ago, when he was still living. Tomorrow would mark the second anniversary of his death. There would be the ceremony to attend, and Aiko was only just beginning to think about it. The event would be handled by others. The memories would be left to her. Would she speak this year? Perhaps that was why she had given her husband’s friends a story, a way to test her resolve. Was it so wrong to want her own life? It was what her father had wanted, and he had given it up reluctantly. He hadn’t asked for anything more than Aiko herself wanted.

She became aware that the day was drawing to a close. From inside her home came the words of departure, her husband being the host and Aiko still commanding her own space. She walked idly back inside, just as the last of the guests were leaving. For a moment there was silence, and then Aiko kissed her husband on the forehead again.

“It’s not such a bad life we lead,” she said.

“I hope so,” her husband said. “Have you decided about tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Instrument Failure


His body had been breaking down for years.  It was simply a matter of finally acknowledging that fact, and it was only happening now because he could no longer ignore it.

Two nights ago, Sid had slipped on a rung chasing the Interceptor up a fire escape.  Not only did his mark escape, but Sid had fallen all the way to the floor of the alley below, cracking two ribs and badly spraining the wrist that had failed to brace his landing.  In his earliest days, Sid might have blamed the cape, but it was long since he even registered that he still wore one.  This was all second nature to him, first nature even.  He only called himself Sid because to the greater world he had become the identity he had assumed and gradually allowed to take over his whole life.  To everyone else, he was the Shootist, the only vigilante talented enough with guns that it didn’t matter how he dressed so long as he always, and he always did, came out on top of a duel.  He could afford a little fancy.

The only challenge still remaining was himself, as it had always been, but now it was growing worse.  When he started out Sid had learned how to let it all coalesce, all the elements of his training and methodology come together as a finely honed instrument of justice.  He had never perfected it, but the advantage Sid had was that he’d realized perfection wasn’t necessary, only a mastery of his ambitions, something everyone needed to succeed, no matter their interests.  The problem was that age had robbed him of the ability to keep it all working.

In his prime Sid would never have done something as embarrassing as slip on a fire escape.  It would have been unthinkable.  It happened because he was no longer bouncing back from injury like he used to.  A busted knee could no longer be ignored, and that was exactly what had caused him to tumble that night.  It gave out on him without warning, and the next thing he knew the space between the Interceptor and himself grew more rapid than he could imagine, and it didn’t dawn on him that it was because he was falling until he hit the pavement with an audible thud, just missing some trashcans and crates parked behind a diner he had just visited as a patron three weeks earlier.

There was no sense even thinking to continue the pursuit of the Interceptor.  That reprobate was long gone, probably hadn’t even stopped to gawk.  Sid had dragged himself ten feet before his retainer helped him to his feet, and inside the waiting van.  They drove off into the night, and Sid was grateful that Charlie remained silent for the whole of the ride home.

For two days he brooded, keeping the costume on, draping the cape around him, perhaps trying to hide, except Charlie regularly disturbed him with trays of snacks, some bourbon, and medical supplies.  Some time ago Charlie had managed the resolve to ask why he was still needed, if Sid went to the trouble of pretending he could manage on his own.  It was the old question of service, and yet had still taken him by surprise.  Charlie had always been faithful.  Well, perhaps Sid had taken him for granted on occasion.  He had believed he could afford to, that it was almost a privilege, both for himself and Charlie, this odd arrangement, the fanciful notions of a billionaire who thought he could fight crime and still come home to a hot meal waiting for him.  He never asked for much.  It was supposed to be assumed.

He thought back to his upbringing, the more innocent days of youth, studying at university and playing tennis, marveling at his own incredible reflexes, talent that could have taken him far if competition weren’t discouraged among the commoners.  His world had been insulated.  He would sometimes ask his parents why it was necessary to have a security detail with him even when he went to the mall.  They indulged him too much, they said.  It was for his own protection.  One day he wondered if there was something he could do to rebel against this system.  He decided to put on a mask and show off the many meaningless skills he’d been groomed into since boyhood.  Sometimes he would even patrol on a horse.

He never thought of himself as pretentious.  It never occurred to Sid that if anyone found out that he would be engulfed in scandal for the remainder of his life.  He didn’t think of protecting his identity so much as assuming a new one.

Now all that was crumbling down around him.  Who ever suspected that superheroes grow old?  He looked hard at one of his pistols, its ivory handle mocking the encroaching darkness.  What would it taste like in his mouth?  Would it taste like blood?  For decades there had been a rush of blood in his head.  Perhaps it had impaired his judgment. 

His body had been a tool, the only instrument he had ever learned to play, and now it was failing him.  What else could Sid do now but repudiate it?

There's Treasure Everywhere


Seabrook stood off to the side of the cabin, hesitating to enter.  The captain wouldn’t like what he had to report.

After the skirmish with the British frigate, nearly all forward momentum had been lost, which was just as well, because all of their weaknesses had been exposed and it was time to regroup, preferably in harbor, in their safe haven, Rose Cove.  The ship still held together, but barely.  The cannon had been lost.  For intents and purposes, they were now defenseless.  So much for being pirates.

Seabrook knew as well as anyone that the problem was the captain, who had been distracted for months, contradicting orders and putting them to port at every opportunity, so that all their careful planning came to nothing, every passing vessel left unmolested, all the precious cargo intact.  He’d been locked up in that cabin as if it gave him immunity to all the world’s real concerns, and his crew’s growing disenchantment.  Everyone knew he’d only listen to Seabrook, but even Seabrook knew there were limits to his influence.  The captain cared about only one person, and that was the wife he’d left behind in Gloucester to haunt the waters of the Caribbean, fifteen months ago.

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Sir,” Seabrook muttered at the threshold.  “We’re all wonderin’ if maybe we ought t’ shove off for Rose Cove.”

There was only silence in response.  It was just as well.  Many of the crew had begun to believe that the captain was no longer onboard.  He hadn’t been seen in weeks, might have slipped away in the night, with or without the help of Seabrook.  

“It’d be a blessin’ t’ us all t’ hear from ye,” Seabrook continued.  The first mate, a role never made official in the ship’s ranks but generally assumed to have been occupied by Seabrook on account of his relationship with the captain, shifted uncomfortably in his boots.  The deck beneath him seemed to give way.  There was mold in all the planking of the ship, where the British frigate hadn’t blasted it away, at least.  The feel of it always made Seabrook uneasy.  He came from a long line of sailors, of the legitimate kind, who’d fished New England waters for a century. 

Almost imperceptibly, the captain acknowledged Seabrook, who had served with him long enough to catch all the necessary subtleties.  The captain had been eccentric from the staart, but most of the crew hadn’t bothered to notice until it affected them directly.  He was also exceptionally young.  It was rumored that he was not far removed from reaching his twentieth year.  If Seabrook knew his full story, the first mate had chosen to be discreet about it.  Now he would need to decide how he would react to the thud of a fist banging faintly against the grand oak table he knew to stand at the center of the cabin.  There could be only one interpretation of this gesture.  The captain was in one of his moods again.

Whatever else he did or did not know, Seabrook understood what troubled the captain.  It was the wife left back in a lonely home on land.  She had never forgiven him for abandoning her, after the miscarriage.  They had two other children, growing up without a father, but the loss of the third had driven them in opposite directions, him to sea and a life of piracy, and her in her grief and desperation to the market, where she was forced to pawn her father’s silver plate, the one thing of value the family had ever owned.  It was the act of an ultimatum, revenge for the betrayal of her mate, at the time of the captain’s departure left in the air, but no doubt carried out not long after.  This was the affair that troubled him now.

If Seabrook cared to, he had no doubt that he might hear the sobs as well.  They were a constant refrain with the captain, never in front of his men, but so frequent that Seabrook swore that they had left tracks on the captain’s grimy face.

“Please, Sir.  It’d mean a great deal t’ us all,” Seabrook whispered, knowing that the longer he stood at the cabin’s door, the worse it looked, especially as he was forced to carry on a demeaning, one-sided conversation. The winds were picking up.  Seabrook pulled his coat tighter around him.

“This is only a setback,” he said, almost to himself now. He wasn’t even confident that the captain knew the full extent of their predicament.  It began to occur to Seabrook that he would have to take charge.  For all intents and purposes, the captain was lost, and there were decisions that needed to be made.  The longer they remained in their present location, the more vulnerable they were to another encounter with the British fleet.

Just as he was turning away, Seabrook heard the cabin door shove open.  “Ye come inside,” a hoarse voice called behind him.  He didn’t hesitate a moment to obey.  He was headed into near-darkness, but fought the urge to bring a lamp with him that hung just outside of the cabin. 

Once inside, Seabrook looked around, saw that everything, so far as he could tell, was in perfect order.  It was more than he had anticipated.  The captain was standing at the oak desk, and looked be groomed for the first time in months, every hair in its place, and his waistcoat buttoned.  He was holding himself with unpracticed dignity.

“There are new orders, Seabrook,” the captain said, suddenly clear in diction.  The whole portrait was inscrutable.  “We’re headed back t’ Gloucester.”

“But Sir…!” Seabrook stammered. 

“Don’t look in m’ eye and tell me what madness looks like,” the captain said.  “Doubtless ye have many questions.  Doubtless, too, ye’ve had many answers, m’ good man.  I trusted you.  Keep that in mind, Mr. Seabrook.  Now, go an’ tell t’others.  I’m sure they be interested t’know what I had t’ say.”

The last words came with a snarl attached to them, the only ones to reveal the captain’s true disappointment in Seabrook.  The first mate stumbled the first few steps, and then seemed to almost trot the rest of the way to the open deck, where he called in a loud voice for an assembly, and gave his report.  Dumbfounded expressions greeted him, and Seabrook wondered if he shared it.  He was going numb all over.  It was a surprise to him that he even registered the captain’s presence behind him.

“You all want to know why,” the captain said.  “Ye believe ye deserve an explanation.  I told ye when ye signed on for service with me that there was treasure everywhere.  Ye were not deceived.  Ye have just had a taste of it.  Ye have been rattled and ye have been frighten’d.  Ye have tasted the future, mateys.  There’s a war on the horizon.  The British won’t stop until every last one of ye are fast below the waves.  Ye are all Americans.  Ye thought ye were escapin’ the war.  Well now ye know.  Thirty years ago our fathers sacrificed everything so ye could spit on their graves and abandon yer country in its moment of need.  Ye weren’t snatched to serve under the Union Jack, but ye chose to serve under it all the same.  Omission is the same as sin.  We have all just had a taste of t’ war.  I hope ye liked it.”

You Ruin Everything!


“Please state the nature of the medical emergency.”

“Ha.  And I’ll thank you to take this seriously,” Trevor manages to say.  He is currently bleeding out from a vicious stabbing, and it’s his friend Cade who’s in shock.

“I’m sorry,” Cade says.  “This is not my forte.  Also, this is probably a bad time to admit that my phone is dead.  You used up the last of its power.”

“So use mine,” Trevor says.

“It’s, um,” Cade stammers, hovering a good five feet away, “it’s covered in blood.”

“So am I,” Trevor wheezes.  “You don’t hear me complaining.”

“Yah I do,” Cade says.  “You were crying bloody murder during the whole phone conversation.”

“That’s past tense,” Trevor says.  He’s going to kill Cade once this is over.  “Could you please try to keep this interesting.”

“You’re seriously freaking me out,” Cade says. 

“And you’re ruining everything,” Trevor says.

“Okay.  Remind me what I’m supposed to be doing.”

“Acting like it’s the end of the world, and figuring out the pertinent clues that will point us in the direction of the nefarious scoundrels who are hell-bent on some insane conspiracy, possibly involving the mechanical cat with the trapdoor and a valuable clue inside it.”

“Mom said no more swearing, Trevor.”

“It’s a legitimate word,” Trevor says, and then commences to spasm.  “The light!  It’s drawing closer!  I need to tell you something!”

“No, it’s not!  Mom was very clear about that the last time you used it.  I’m not playing if you’re going to get us in trouble.”

“All this ketchup is already going to get us in trouble.”

“Well, at least one of us,” Cade says.  Trevor often tries to claim that he’s the smarter one, but there are moments that suggest differently.

“Will you please just forget it and get back in the scenario?  I stayed up all night working on that clue!”

“I heard a lot of snoring.”

“You’re gonna hear a lot worse if you don’t stop messing around,” Trevor says, and dutifully pretends to faint from blood loss.

Cade, who has seen Trevor suffer from actual medical emergencies, momentarily doesn’t know what to do.  On the one hand, it seems perfectly obvious that Trevor is just playing.  On the other, the curse word is not the only debacle he doesn’t want to repeat.

He elects to poke Trevor as a test.  Trevor reacts by punching him.

Cade then decides that maybe he ought to leave Trevor alone for the moment and explore what his brother has just explained took him a lot of time to create.  The latch on the cat is trickier than he expects, and so Cade spends a few minutes working on it, although most of it is just him making Trevor pay for being mean.  He makes a few remarks about how hard it is just to make sure they both know what’s going on.  Which is not at all what it seems, and as boys go, exactly what it looks like.

Finally he pulls free the scrap of notebook paper, the weird yellow kind, and unfolds it.  For a moment, he stares at it in honest bewilderment.

“You really did have something to tell me,” he says.  “Perhaps that you have some stupid code?”

“No, just bad penmanship,” Trevor whispers, trying hard to maintain the illusion of his impending death.  There is ketchup touching the carpet now.  What he is really trying to do is not freak out.  They both know their mom really well.  “Just try to make it out.”

“I’m reporting you to the principal,” Cade sighs.  He squints, hoping that will make it better, but no luck.  He turns it upside down.  He looks at the back, to see if Trevor’s typically heavy-handed writing will have made the reverse easier to read.  He thinks maybe his dad’s glasses might help.  He ultimately decides not to leave the room because that will expose the ketchup to the outside world.  The window doesn’t count because there’s been a tree steadily creeping past it for years. 

“I’m gonna have to tell you, aren’t I?”

“No.  I expect that the Rosetta Stone will help,” Cade says, desperately attempting to stifle his laughing fit, the one that always angers Trevor.

“You need to stop reading those encyclopedias.  And please stop talking to me!  You ruin everything!”

“Okay,” Cade says.  He decides that if he can find a pencil, he will try and decipher Trevor’s handwriting by copying it.  He begins to feel like a true investigator.  The only problem is, there is not a decent pencil to be found.  Oh, there are plenty of dull ones and others with broken tips, but he is terrible with a sharpener.  He spies a crayon.  With Trevor playing dead, he’ll never know.  Trevor likes to judge Cade on a lot of things.  In all fairness it is, again, Trevor’s bright idea to have used ketchup.

After a few minutes, longer than it took to find the clue, Cade emerges from his scholar’s pursuit with a phrase he still doesn’t understand.  “What the heck does this mean?  ‘Beneath the starry sky lies a fruit bat of sacred nature.’  You are so stupid.”

“It makes perfect sense!  Now, will you please use this phone to call a doctor?”

“I guess it doesn’t make sense for me to have left you to figure that out.”

“Just make the call!”

“You’re a terrible editor,” Cade says, pulling the phone from his brother’s hand.  It has ketchup on it.  It is also a real phone, and it doesn’t belong to either of them.  It is in fact their mom’s.  This may be another reason for their inevitable indictment in family court.

Bewildered, he makes a real phone call.  It is to their dad.  “Do you know anything about fruit bats?”

“Cade, I appreciate a good imagination, but right now I’m a little busy,” a much older and deeper voice intones through the speaker.  They are both seriously impressed with their dad’s voice.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter what he says.

“Okay, bye!” Cade chirps, snapping the phone shut.

“We’ll pretend the paramedics are on their way,” Trevor says, thumping his head down in mock depression.  He inadvertently mashes ketchup into the carpet.

“Fruit bats are horrible for you,” Cade says wistfully.  “Dad said so.”

“Fruit bats are delicious!  Best candy ever.”

“Still, I guess there’s only one place to look for them.  Same place all the candy is kept.”

Both of them know exactly where that is, even though it’s supposed to be a secret, the way other households will place the cookie jar at the top of the refrigerator, to keep it out of the reach of those who will most appreciate it.

Cade skitters out of the room, and turns back to close the door when Trevor moans, seeping more ketchup, and incidentally making the mounting disaster on the carpet that much worse.  Cade thinks about the ketchup far less than his brother.  He steps cautiously for no reason down the hallway, pressing himself up against the wall and humming his own theme music, which is a badly disguised version of the melody from his favorite cartoon.

Mom is busy in the garden, or so they have both been assuming for the past few hours.  If Cade checks, he may have to explain himself, because mom always needs answers.

In the kitchen, there’s a cabinet that for years has been decorated on the inside with a star map, necessitated by another adventure so far in the past that Cade believes it should no longer be on record, on the basis that he does not remember it.  Suffice it to say, but their dad thought it would be easier to pretend that it was a star map, and so finished the job himself.

The candy has been kept in here for as long as Cade can remember, which to him seems like a really long time, but it is in fact only a handful of years.  The first time he found it, Trevor told him that it was his fault that there was an inexplicable star map inside the cabinet.  It’s funnier knowing that Trevor actually said “unprintable,” and believed he’d used the right word.  He more or less did.

There’s a tin with the slogan “Moxie Makes It Better!” emblazoned across the top, and inside is all the candy in the house, which is more than enough, if you listen to their mom.  It invariably has fruit bats, which are like any other gummy snack except in the shape of bats, in the mix.  Cade and Trevor have never seen fruit bats in a store. 

It was once rumored that they have been eating very old Halloween candy their whole life.  Trevor started the rumor, naturally.

To determine which of the fruit bats Trevor referenced in his stupid clue, Cade decides that he must first eat a few.  Because.  They have noticeably become increasingly stale over the years, which is why Trevor came to his brilliant conclusion in the first place.  They are presently crunchy.

Still, they’re candy.  Cade almost chokes. 

The very oldest one is stuck to the bottom of the tin, and Cade can’t get it loose with his fingers.  He throws open a drawer and causes utensils to shift loudly enough that his mom shouts from outside.  He hollers back that everything’s fine.

He grabs a fork and shoves it between the ancient fruit bat and the bottom of the tin.  The fruit bat pops off and Cade is a little frightened to see that it has left a dark stain behind.

There doesn’t seem to be much point to his prize.  Disappointed, Cade slaps the tin’s cover back on, closes the cabinet door softly, completely forgetting about the fork, and trots back to the room he has shared with Trevor since the dawn of man.  Or something.

Trevor is propped up on his hands when Cade reenters.  “You took forever.  I died like twice.”

“Calm down.  I found the sacred fruit bat.”

“If you’d eaten it when you had the chance, you would already have the ability to fly.”

“Don’t try to fool me, Trevor.  The guy who eats the sacred fruit bat always explodes.”

“Well, that too.”

“It has some mystical significance I do not fully appreciate yet,” Cade admits, though he is still examining it closely.  It is an odd and special piece of candy.

“It is going to get us all in really big trouble,” Trevor admits.

“Then why did you have me retrieve it?”

“The truth must stand revealed!  Humanity will be better off with the knowledge of the encrusted fruit bat!”

“You’re crazy.”

“No, I’m covered in ketchup.”

“Mom is going to kill us.”

“Well, at least one of us.” 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

980th Year of the Second Millennium


My name is Jimmy Cooke, and 1980 was an especially bad year for me.  The Phillies won the World Series that year, but that’s pretty much the only thing that went right.  The second Star Wars movie opened, but John Lennon was killed, so even by pop culture standards, I had it rough.  I began tracing most of my problems to Jimmy Carter’s Proclamation 4771, a direct result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  The Vietnam War was over; I didn’t want to fight, didn’t think I needed to fight, and all of a sudden, because of the ridiculous Cold War and a country that meant absolutely nothing to me, the so-called Selective Service System was going to make me eligible for the draft?
     
It actually gets worse, a lot worse.  President Carter signed Proclamation 4771 on June 27th, but my bad year was already well underway.  My father’s railroad had its last run on March 31st, and I lost the title of International Master to snot-nosed fourteen-year-old Nigel Short.  But I’ll get back to that last one.
     
I turned twenty in 1980, still didn’t have a clear about what I was going to do with the rest of my life, and was hitting the books in a college library when I heard the news about Proclamation 4771.  It was my buddy Harold who told me, Harold who still sported acne all across his face and barely looked old enough to attend senior prom, much less working on his senior thesis, which only Harold was bold enough to center on the particular merits of the first Star Trek film.  You might be able to work out that Harold himself was too old to worry about the draft himself, but immature enough to throw a white handkerchief in my face when he told me.  “Be prepared to use it,” he whispered helpfully.  Naturally I wanted to slug him, but considered it bad form to do such a thing in a library.  Harold knew all about my misfortunes that year.  He was a good enough friend that he could get away with not caring.
     
As I suggested earlier, I was never one for fighting.  Bullying, that was certainly something I had gotten used to, on the receiving end anyway.  It was only in college I finally escaped from that particularly odious behavior from classmates, and only because I mostly avoided everyone else, except for Harold, of course.  I was one of those “lover, not a fighter” types, except I wasn’t so good with the ladies, either.   I didn’t know about Proclamation 4771 in January, but I might as well have, because on the 24th of that month, I received the first bit of bad news of 1980: The Rock was ordered liquidated due to bankruptcy.
     
The Rock, otherwise known as the Rock Island Line, or more formally the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, was chartered in 1851, an extension of the Rock Island and La Salle Railroad Company, founded in 1847.  Abraham Lincoln actually defended the company against a lawsuit in 1857, some nine years before the company as posterity would know it finally came into being.  The Rock’s territory covered Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas, plus a few other points across the continental United States.   As the years advanced and transportation continued to modernize, the Rock struggled to keep up, though my father would always talk fondly of the Golden State, one of the finest first-class trains to ever travel on tracks.  By the time I was old enough to remember, I memorized the famed Chicago-to-Rock Island line, and somehow mastered the game of chess riding it.
     
I had two great loves, thanks to my father, the Rock was one of them, and chess was the other.  I couldn’t have had a better mentor for either one.  My father had served in Vietnam, and he always joked he took up the same two passions because they were the only things that helped him sleep at night, and I guess that was how, in time, I was able to play a game with such calm while in constant motion.  I’d watch the landscape pass by and calculate my next move without ever missing a beat.  My father said I found my rhythm on the rails.
     
By the time I was supposed to be developing into my own man, the world seemed to do its best to disrupt this personal sense of harmony.  I never actually played against Nigel Short, but I couldn’t escape the looming presence of that little bastard, either.  Every tournament I entered, nobody could talk about anything but the brilliant Nigel Short, the prodigy, the child game-master.  I never heard a word about him from my father, but that might have been because he had slowly slipped into the life of an alcoholic.  Perhaps I hadn’t noticed the transition for the same reason I stopped paying attention to him when I realized I could beat him, and that I wanted more out of my life than a measly living off a failing railroad.  I never even realized when I’d stopped loving the Rock, or how easy it was to take that last ride, to college, and leave my past behind, including my father.
     
When Harold told me about Proclamation 4771, I didn’t even think about my father’s Vietnam experience.  How could I?  I was terrified that I’d be sent to war myself. 
     
But I kept playing chess, no matter how many opponents spent more time in awe of Nigel Short, with most of my victories coming against these star-struck warriors babbling on and on about Nigel’s latest conquest.  How could I possibly prove myself if I couldn’t play a decent game myself?  My father had told me all about International Master.  Even when Harold told me about Proclamation 4771 and I still wondered what my major should be, I believed that was my destiny, even though by then, Nigel Short had made it meaningless.  How would there be any glory left over for poor Jimmy Cooke, now that Nigel Short had made it look so easy?
    
I almost quit playing chess in January, and then, just a few short weeks later, I learned the fate of the Rock.  I couldn’t believe it.  My first thought wasn’t even of my father, but of taking one last ride, but I was busy in my studies.  How could I possibly pull it off?  Then Harold appeared one day and told me about a trip he needed to take to Denver, and everything seemed to fall into place.  If only I’d known.  I should say now that I hate snow, that I now live quite comfortably in a climate where snow is, if not impossible, incredibly unlikely, even in the heart of winter.  Harold wanted to visit family, and even with that prompting I was insensible.  I hadn’t spoken with my father in months.  I didn’t even know he now lived in Colorado.
     
When we boarded the Rock on the 29th of March, I was still buried hip-deep in books, figuring that I could allay whatever deficit I might experience in my studies from taking this trip by taking my studies with me.  I may not have known what my future had in store for me, but I was determined to be prepared.  If only I’d known.  The snows began almost immediately.  At first, naturally, I didn’t notice.  Harold kept making comments, but I was used to ignoring him.  I was busy, distracted, and yes, insensible.  It was almost like basic training, and I was headed into a war zone, Proclamation 4771 dangling just in front of me.  But the snows continued, and the more it snowed, the more I realized what was happening.  It was snowing the first day, and I finally noticed on the second.  By the third I was inconsolable.  It finally hit me, that I was traveling the Rock for the final time ever.  I reached into my bag and pulled out a chess set, and prepared to play for the first time since learning of Nigel Short’s making International Master.  Harold was terrible, but I didn’t care.  I almost let him win.
     
Somehow we made it to Denver.  I’ll never be able to explain how, but I suspect Harold must have told him.  My father was waiting for us.  He had an inscrutable expression on his face, as if he were looking backward to all the days in his past, perhaps even a younger version of me, and all I could do was return it with a stupid grin on mine.  “Good to see you, kiddo,” he said at last.  I never saw him again.
     
We barely spoke.  I didn’t have anything to say, and neither did he.  We spent most of our time with Harold and his family, and all they were interested in was talking about the murder of Angelo Bruno, which had occurred earlier that month.  They were big into mob stories; my father and I still shared our apathy about that.  We’d heard plenty of tales in Chicago.  We knew about the great ones.  We made the trip back to college in a car Harold’s uncle had just given him, possibly the reason we’d gone to Denver in the first place.  My chess set remained in my bag this time, and I never even thought about it.  A few months later, Harold tells me about Proclamation 4771, and what I’ve really got on my mind is the news I’d recently received myself, that my father had died of a heart attack.
     
Of course, the United States didn’t become involved in the Afghan War, at least not directly, in 1980.  We were all still na├»ve enough to believe it didn’t concern us.  I wasn’t drafted, and never served a day in the armed forces.  I never played chess again, either, and after Harold graduated, lost contact with him.  I’d lost the title of International Master to Nigel Short, lost the Rock, and lost my father, and didn’t realize just how much my world had changed until years later, when I stopped to consider just how important that year had been.  Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan in November, by the way, and I wasn’t sorry to see him go.  The United States hockey team defeated the Soviets at the Olympics, the “Miracle on Ice,” but I never knew any kind of divine intervention in 1980.  I kept fearing that my world was going to come to an end, first because of little things, then because of bigger things, and eventually everything started to blend together.  I didn’t want to lose my life in some foreign land, fighting for a cause I didn’t believe in.  Well, as it turned out, I lost it on a train ride to Denver, lost it after years of putting my father behind me, during my last opportunity to ever reconnect with him, to acknowledge and thank him for everything he’d done for me.  Eventually I moved on, figured out what I was studying, graduated, got a job, lost it to another liquidation, and now here I am today, once again trying to put the pieces of my shattered life together again.
     
I sure miss you, Dad.

Before the War Ends


When he was an old man, Nestor fought alongside Achilles, Ajax, Odysseus, Menelaus, all the great Greek warriors in the siege of Troy that lasted for ten years.  When he was young, Nestor was an Argonaut, part of a league that included Jason and the legendary Hercules.  His comrades in the Trojan War knew this because he was constantly talking about it.

Now, just imagine what that would have been like.  He was not just an old man by the time of the Trojan War, but biblically old, far beyond the advanced age typically associated with our ancestors, well past his hundredth birthday.  He was no good in battle, but well-respected as an elder, counselor, and leader of men.  When he talked about the good old days, the heroes of the Trojan War were chastened.
     
Well, just imagine…

I remember it as if it were only yesterday, and I’m referring, of course, to our landing here on the shores of Ilium, we Greeks and our thousand ships.  When we disembarked, it was as if a massive tidal wave of humanity descended on the beach, the greatest storming in history.  The Trojans were ready, and hurled great balls of molten fire at us.  Many fell in an instant, never to wake again, but we were not to be chastened, not by the Trojans, not by the theft of the wretched Prince Paris of our Helen, the lost bride of Menelaus.  Mighty Agamemnon was ever marshalling us forward, from the day the plan was hatched to that great landing.  Many were the oarsmen who cheered when we reached those shores, for they would not drive us onward again until we have achieved our goal.  We had no idea it would take so long.
     
I herald these warriors, not for what they achieved, just as I do not chastise them for failing to succeed swiftly; rather, because they were all great men when we set out, like the bright rays of Apollo, full of life and vigor and ready to fight to the very death against those who would protect the adulterer Paris, brother of brave Hector, son of the wise Priam, children of all those who mastered the stallions of Troy. 
     
I can still recall how strong each of them were in their convictions, prideful but not without cause, even the troubled Achilles, who challenged the might of Agamemnon and lost, who has gone sulking in the tents of his Myrmidons.  I have seen many of these champions fall in battle since that landing, their crimson blood soaking the ground they fought on, lost to worthy foes who don’t understand their cause for the folly it represents.  We Greeks will win, in the end. 
     
My only regret in this age is that my age has seen so many years, that I am an old and shriveled warrior, incapable of supporting with my own strength these men who give so freely, too many, for too long.  Many nights have I sat restless in my tent, weeping at my own futility.  Many friends have tried to cure me of this melancholy, reminding me of all that I still do for them, the encouragement and sage advice they value like succor, or the many glorious tales I impart, freely, of the days long ago when I walked and fought alongside great Hercules, tamer of lions, bender of rivers, who conquered every labor set before him, even death.  I’m told I speak too much of those days, and I smile, because in my own mind, in my own dreams, those are the days I wish were still spread beneath the bright rays of Apollo.
     
This is what I say to Achilles, when I visit the tents of the Myrmidons, this is what I speak of, the sturdy example of Hercules, what Achilles could be if only he was in person what his men, what the whole of the Greek and Trojan armies already believe him to be, the greatest warrior who ever walked the earth.  I beg of him to forget his own slight misfortunes, the girl stolen from him like a thief in the night by cunning Agamemnon.  It is true, I tell him, that Hercules was among the most gifted of lovers in his own day, who tamed the wild hearts of Amazons, but he, too, was betrayed by his heart, with fatal consequences, journeys to the underworld of Hades and beyond.  Would it not be wiser to learn from the tales of Hercules, I hasten Achilles to realize, than sit amongst his Myrmidons in their tents instead of leading the charge of the mighty Greek armies against Hector and the horse-breakers of Ilium?
     
Hercules was wild in his day, too, and that is one reason why he no longer walks in the land of mortal men, and I do.  I have failed just as surely as the Greeks have in their siege of Troy, to bring about a speedy conclusion, and despite all my accolades, despite the pride men have in my presence, I cannot but feel myself a failure.  I have thought day and night as to how we might end this folly, reclaim Helen, the lost wife of Menelaus, and chastise the sons of Troy, yet day and night I am forced to reflect anew on the enduring struggle, the lost lives of champions, and the spreading chasm from the day we first landed until now.
     
I have spoken too often of the days of my youth, when men were gods among us, mighty Hercules the best of them all, but hardly the last of them.  I was counted among the Argonauts, led by courageous Jason, and I daily meditate on the belief that we Argonauts alone might have succeeded in this quest long ago, not without hardship, not without loss, but in sure victory, which even now causes me to wonder if I shall live to see it.  I hide behind my frailty, and the strength of other men, and bold words, but what is that to a committed child of Ilium, should our defenses, our ramparts and our shields, at last fall?  What if bold Achilles refuses to reenter the fray, proud Agamemnon refuse to relent in his pride, and the strongest of us fail in our offensive?  What if cunning Odysseus fails in calculating how best to defeat the horse-breakers of Troy, and should never see his wife and child again?
     
The gods, the gods are committed against us.  They plot and they toil amongst themselves, and daily interrupt our fortunes, the destiny all the Greek nations and hosts dreamed of, were assured by signs, and fought for since the landing on the beaches of Ilium, with so many brave warriors lost beneath the sands, never to embrace their kin again.  What right do these gods have, who are as much subject to us as we are to them?  Many a Greek must surely have viewed me as among those divine, so legendary were my exploits, and those I walked among, like strong Hercules, and yet was I so great as to live up to so much?  I sit in my tent and wonder the night away.
     
The thousand ships remain anchored on the shores of Troy, and I sometimes wonder if it would not be better to steer Achilles and his Myrmidons back to the sea, and return home.  Since Achilles has already chosen to forsake our Greek armies, and time has already stolen the best of my powers, would it not benefit all if we were gone, and no longer sitting in the sand fretting over the fortunes of our brethren?  Too many games have I attended in celebration of lost heroes, too broken in spirit and conviction, fearful that the day must inevitably come when I myself have joined those ignoble but glorious ranks, and not on my terms, but at the spear of a Trojan warrior, trampled by their magnificent stallions.
     
Too often have I argued with stubborn Agamemnon, pleaded with him to relent of his jealously towards Achilles, son of the gods we all cherish, but fear to meet too soon.  Too often have I heard Agamemnon repeat the same arguments, that it is the duty of one so mighty as Achilles to fight, and the pleasure of one so glorious as Agamemnon to enjoy the spoils of war, while just as often Achilles to speak of his pride, and the comfort of a soft woman beside him in his tent, which he suffers without now because of that same pride.  I wonder if the rigors of my age have confused what mighty Hercules would have done in such circumstances, if I have not augmented the pleasures of the past to spite the fortunes of the present.
     
Will this torment never end?  Will we Greeks not succeed in our great effort against Priam and his sons and all those who conquered stallions for the sake of Troy?  Ten years we’ve been here, ten years and never a word from home.  What might our neighbors think, those who remained behind, those who never understood the necessity of our quest, who doubted the very honor of Helen?  Might they have already declared ours to be a lost cause, from the moment our thousand ships set sail?  We boasted of victory before we ever left, and already there were murmurings of our folly.  I was among those who believed most fiercely of the inevitable victory, the swift defeat of Troy, of the joyous reunion between Helen and Menelaus, and now even I have come to doubt it, all of the warm tidings I had thought already written across the face of the earth, joined with the glorious days of my youth, when I walked beside Hercules and brave Argonauts.  I am an old fool.  There is no longer any use in denying it.
     
Yet there are days when I confess this weakness to Achilles, and he chastens me to remember myself, to remember the days of my youth, among the mighty Argonauts, the great victories then as surely there will be now, shining like the bright rays of Apollo across all mankind, Greek and Trojan alike, undeniable despite our many hardships, even those of brave Achilles, who confesses that even he sometimes wonders about the wisdom of his decisions, if spiting the prideful Agamemnon is worth the powerful doubt he observes within me.  I cherish him most then, not in the memories of his cunning on the battlefield, but in his humanity, the thing he recognizes in the aged face before him, the wrinkled visage he will never see reflected from himself, doomed by his own glory.  In this courage, I feel the strength to believe our cause is not lost, despite how it seems in the inglorious moment, when all of our strength clashes against the Trojans like great waves in the heart of Poseidon’s ocean, beneath the stormiest of Zeus’s skies, ineffectual as an old man fearful of the present, the past, and all that lies before him.
     
I boast of my days with Hercules, with the Argonauts, and all the great champions of the past, while those of the present sacrifice themselves to the torment of an unending war, against a foe represented best not by the cowardly and lustful Paris, but by his brave and loyal brother Hector, breaker of stallions and true son of Priam.  Many will fall before one side claims victory, and somehow I will not be among them.  That is not my fate, and this I believe just as I still believe that we will prevail, that the walls of Ilium will fall, Helen will be reclaimed, Menelaus will cheer, and all the thousand ships of the Greeks will return home in triumph, while Troy burns to the ground.  Ours is not the final nor greatest age the shining rays of Apollo will ever know, but we will have done our part, and I will have celebrated mine, relished the pleasures of my age, and finally, finally enjoyed a deserved rest.        

Monday, January 7, 2013

George Jackman and the Monastery of Burnside

When Ami Tautou met George Jackman, he was by his own admission fleeing from the tyranny of the Space Corps.  He was extremely reluctant to talk about his past otherwise, and hinted that "George Jackman" was in fact not his real name, but it was the one she would always use for him.

Ami's best friend Askre Casper was not as pleased to meet Jackman, but there was nothing much he could do about it, because Ami was strong-willed and didn't often take Casper's opinion on new acquaintances.  They lived on Burnside, a world that never rotated, and consequently as it name implied it was either a desert planet or a barren rock, depending where you lived.  Ami and Casper lived on the desert side.  They received few enough visitors, and the only noteworthy attraction anyway was the monastery, and monasteries receive few visitors, usually the religious, and they're easy enough to handle.

Ami herself had grown up on Burnside.  Her family made an honest living harvesting moisture from the atmosphere.  Casper had come to stay with relatives who did much the same, after his parents were lost in the ongoing turmoil with the Danab Empire.  Casper tended to dominate Ami's attention only because he was the only tolerable company on this wretched world, besides the monk who had been a family friend for several generations at least.  He was a Tikanni, but even for Tikanni seemed incredibly reluctant to age.  She knew him as Uncle Phan, but there was always the persistent rumor that he had once been important, not only among his own people, but in the Galactic Empire.  In fact, there was speculation that he was Lord Phan, one of the Alliance of Five, the founders who had been led by Trey the Conqueror, many centuries ago.

When Jackman arrived, dropped off unceremoniously by a Space Corps shuttle, Ami was busy doing the same thing she did every day, which is to say very little, because moisture farming pretty much handles itself, unless the condensers malfunction (which in truth happens all the time).  She and Casper watched as the shuttle descended the bleak skies and touched down like one of Burnside's many birds, which are more like the dinosaurs of Earth's past than the birds of its present.  Burnside saw Space Corps activity even more rarely than tourists, so it was certainly remarkable that the shuttle appeared at all.  Casper was always talking about his family's history in the Space Corps, and how one day he would continue that noble tradition, or perhaps someone else in his family.  He didn't suppose it mattered.  Ami said she'd believe it when she saw it, because the Caspers were pretty notorious for talking more than doing, especially Askre.

She convinced Casper to investigate the new arrival, which wasn't too difficult, because of course Casper was already chattering about how this unfortunate soul had probably been booted from the Corps, no better than Jimmy Smith, just another human in a long line of humans who had not gotten their fair shake of the experience, even though so much of recent Space Corps activity was dominated by them.  Old prejudices die hard.

Jackman was in a foul mood, and Casper said it was probably typical, but Ami wasn't sure.  She preferred to give new people the benefit of the doubt, which was easy for her because she rarely met new people, and so was inclined to this behavior on account of optimism not yet encountering harsh reality.

"Please tell me that this is not going to be a completely miserable world," Jackman said.

"This is not going to be a completely miserable world," Ami said.  She believed it, too.

"It doesn't matter.  I won't be staying long."

"I figured," Casper said.

"You should be quiet," Ami said.

She decided to take Jackman to the monastery.  With any luck Uncle Phan would be receiving visitors today.  He was always good for a story.  They made the journey, which took half the day because they had to walk, Ami's transport being busted once again.  By the time they reached it, the monastery was closed, but Uncle Phan was sitting outside under a banyan tree, clothed in his traditional robes, a hood pulled over his head.  He eyed Jackman and said, "Hello, Lance Nolan."

Jackman was surprised, but Uncle Phan simply said that he was not surprised to see him.  Ami sat for a few hours and listened to them talk, and had no idea what any of it meant.  Uncle Phan mentioned the Danab Empire a few times, and each time Jackman seemed to develop a glazed look, and then shared a few stories, most of them featuring humans, which was not so unusual.  Even though Lord Phan was definitely not human, he seemed to have a great affection for them, which Ami had always appreciated.  He was a monk, but he was personable.  Still, he had always been considerably more aloof than this.

She saw Jackman depart soon after, a gift of Uncle Phan's personal shuttle taking him off Burnside again.  The day drew on.  She never saw or heard from Jackman again.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Before Finnegan Wakes

Oliver Row had spent a lifetime seeking out the modern world's monsters.  He had obtained a book that outlined everything he needed to know, including their origins in the days before the flood.  Each of them had found their way into legend, but they also existed in reality, or at least so Oliver attempted to prove.

One day he heard of the existence of a centaur.  Like all monsters it had acquired the ability to hide its true nature from the world, a trick of the eye that hid half its body from observers, so that only its human half was visible, the equine somehow tucked out of sight.  Oliver didn't know how it was done, perhaps the gift of a higher power, or perhaps something lower.

The centaur worked in a bookstore, hidden away in one of the fringe commercial areas of a minor city called Colorado Springs.  Her name, at least as of the moment, was Eva Dallas, and when Oliver entered the store he found that he was as convinced as anyone that she was only human.  There was nothing to give her away.  Knowing better, however, he decided to approach with caution as well as calculation.

"Tell me what you have on mythology."

"We have a fine selection," Eva replied, seeming to give her full attention to him in an instant.  "I can show you if you'd like."

"I hoped you would be so kind."

"Of course," she said.  She was apparently a woman of her forties, pleasantly filled out with the world's pleasures, cheery as you'd expect from a typical sales professional.  They headed toward the back of the store, past rows and rows packed full of books.  Oliver skimmed the shelves, grimaced inwardly at their untidiness.  But his standards were more precise than others, and he came from a very different world.

They stopped in front of a wall dominated by the same kind of bookcase that populated the rest of the store.  Eva gestured at the mythology section, pitiably small by Oliver's strict standards, but this was not an occult shop, so he cautioned himself to not be so surprised.

"Thank you."

"If there's anything else...?" Eva offered.

"Now that you mention it.  I want to see you."

"I'm afraid that's not going to happen, but I am flattered, I really am," Eva said, maintaining her chipper demeanor.

"That's not what I mean.  I think you know."

The woman hesitated for a moment, then motioned for Oliver to follow her a little further.  Apparently the employee area was not far away.  As soon as they left the common area Eva's true form began to reveal itself.  Her back legs bucked as if to assert themselves.

"It's true, then."

"You weren't certain?" Eva said, finally dropping one level of her jauntiness.

"I'm never certain of anything.  It's what makes my line of work possible.  I've always been fascinated by centaurs.  You'll forgive me if I stare."

"You can't tell anyone," Eva said, losing another level.  There was true concern lurking behind her eyes.  It was unmistakable, at least to as keen an observer as Oliver Row.

"If I weren't careful, the world would know a lot more than it does.  You needn't be concerned.  I don't want anything from you.  You were merely a curiosity.  In truth I've got a more important matter on my mind, a far more troubling one.  There is a man, a priest of all professions, who is also a dragon.  Don't ask me to explain it.  I don't think even he understands it.  I expect your kind has had a very difficult time of it.  You've buried your true selves for too long.  This man is in desperate trouble, and it has nothing to do with his true nature, though I suspect it has everything to do with it.  A vampire has attached itself to his sister. I think the vampire is trying to accomplish the very thing I've dedicated my life to learning, what it means to exist in this world when the world says you shouldn't exist.  It's such a complicated matter.  Again, I apologize.  I'm now beginning to suspect I was rather rude in seeking you out the way I did.  It's just, I'm nervous.  I'm afraid of what I will discover, what will happen, if I pursue this.  The man needs me.  His sister is in danger.  I may be the only one capable of sorting it out, but it will come at a great cost.  You've confirmed something for me today, and because of it, I'm afraid I will reveal the layer of the world that separates all the truths we've attempted to deny. I am not a religious man.  I believe in too many things.  But only faith will help me now.  This is something I've already learned from Plato Finnegan, the man I've been speaking about.  I'm sorry.  Please excuse me."

Oliver walked all the way out of the store and didn't look back, and couldn't bring himself to even speculate on what the centaur might now be thinking.  The day was drawing to a close.