Great Hites 72

This week we have Stories by:

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Norval Joe <——— This week's WinnerWinner
And
Jeff Hite

Under Callista
By Norval Joe

Panicked and anxious shouts sounded through the door of Alphonse’s small chamber. He looked up from his philosophy texts, scowled and pondered the door, and the sounds beyond. Most of his lifetime had been spent in this very room, researching and compiling the history, philosophy and literature of Callista’s most recent millennia. The room had barely room enough for his bed, a desk with a chair, and book cases that reached from floor to ceiling. It was cramped, his knees were continually bruised from knocking against the chair and bed frame.
Many considered him the ultimate authority on Callista’s past and paid him handsomely to present lectures and teach classes at their various organizations and gatherings. He accepted, graciously, whatever amount was paid, and promptly turned it over to the brotherhood; the order of scholars, of which he was a member, vowed to chronicle and preserve knowledge of the past. He would gladly share his lifetime of learning for free, the brotherhood didn’t require payment for their services, but they didn’t discourage it either.
In his lifetime he had never heard shouting in the hallways of the brotherhood, but hearing it now, he knew it could only mean one thing; Ganymede had learned of their existence, again.
There was a sharp, urgent tap at his door. A familiar voice asked, “Brother Alphonse? You are wanted at the council hall, immediately.”
“Yes, Brother Wender, I will leave right away.” Alphonse announced to the door, and the man standing beyond, and then to himself, “Indeed, it is Ganymede. For a brother to interrupt and risk such impropriety, it must be a very serious situation.”
He entered the crowded council room. In contrast to his own chambers, this room was brightly lit with lighting bars set into the ceiling every few feet. Eighteen of the brothers sat in the front three rows, other acolytes and trainees sat behind. Alphonse approached the front of the room and slowed as he reached the head table. He waited for the head council to acknowledge his arrival.
“Brother Alphonse,” a small, shriveled, man slurred. Watery eyes squinted as Alphonse waited for the declaration.
“Brother Alphonse,” he said again, “you are recognized by the council and requested to speak freely, yet concisely. Ganymede approaches. We require your understanding and wisdom. Please advise us.”
“Yes, My Lord, Head Council.” Alphonse said and began his discourse.
“In my studies, I have found evidence of four such invasions in the past 200,000 years. There are other references to the Ganymede before the period, but the accounts are apocryphal and untrustworthy. The four historical instances are similar and indicate that the Ganymede do not maintain records. They have been surprised to find us here each time.”
He stepped to the council table and placed a clear, red, crystal box in the center, between the three council men. The shriveled man looked from the box and toward teh man on his left. Once eye contact was made, he indicated the box with a tip of his head and nodded at the other man. The second man reached out to the box and pressed down on its top with the palm of his hand until there was an audible hum. Seconds later a large graphic displayed on the plain white wall behind the head council.
“You see displayed the appearance of the Ganymede on each of the four invasions. Physically, they have evolved little over the 170,000 years between their first and last invasions, though their clothing has changed and their weapons fluctuated in effectiveness.”
The third councilman who had sat silently with his eyes closed, suddenly spoke. “Are they going to attack us, Brother Alphonse? Or can we continue this pleasant discussion all day?”
“Lord Second Advisor,” Alphonse said, unflustered, “most definitely. With each invasion they have treated us aggressively. The oldest two invasions, upon becoming aware of our presence, they began annihilation of our people almost immediately. On the third, they pretended diplomacy for a short period before an almost complete genocide. The fourth invasion was unclear if they even knew that we existed, as they landed their ships for a short period of time, took some soil samples and left.”
Brother Alphonse paused, choosing his words, then continued, “within five years, the Ganymede returned with a countless number of assault ships and bombed the surface repeatedly. The bombing went on for more than a year. It was as if they knew they were destroying our food sources. Our farms, being within 2 meters of the surface, were vulnerable and disrupted by the bombs. Nearly ninety percent of our farm land was destroyed. We are all aware, reckoning time for our modern era began at this most recent near extinction of our people, to commemorate the hardships they faced at that time.”
“Very well,” the chief councilman said. “We have our decision to make. We have suffered at the hands of the Ganymede, historically. After the last invasion, our forefathers established a defence, which we have faithfully maintained and preserved for this very eventuality. We have the power to vaporize the invaders from our atmosphere, and extend our retaliation to the very moon of Ganymede itself. Brethren, how do we stand?”
Brother Alphonse stepped to the side of the chamber as many of the brethren leapt to their feet in exclamation.
“We are a peaceful people, we cannot assault other living beings, even in self defense,” one man shouted.
“We may not survive another genocide by these consistently aggressive barbarians,” countered the brother to his side.
The head councilman was on his feet, though unsteady and leaning on the chief council’s table. All were silenced when they saw him stand. “We will take a few minutes to contemplate. In silence,” he added with a watery scowl. “You have your voting orbs. Make your choice and place the orbs in the reader, before you leave the room.”

One thousand kilometer away the long, flat, copper ships of Ganymede, approached their sister moon, Callista, black silhouettes against the glow of the largest planet in the solar system.

Jupiter Was Home
By: Jeff Hite

When I was sent to this priest, I didn’t understand why. I still am not sure why he is so important to our cause. I have spent the last three months tracking him down, and now I sit in his small chamber waiting for him to speak to me. When he finally spoke this is what he told me, as best as I can remember.
It was only ten years before the beginning of the Martian Earth wars that Jupiter and it’s many moons were settled. Jupiter itself could not be settled due to it’s size, but like a mini sun, it’s radiation could be harvested for power and, although only though only a dim reflection at one tenth the size of Sol, light. Jupiter, for all of it distance from Earth was a natural place to establish new homes. It had many attributes that made it a suitable place to go. First there was water, Europa had water, and it was close enough to supply the other pseudo planets in the area with all they needed. Io and her mother planet, did a dance that caused huge discharges of energy, that if carefully managed could be harvested and used to supply power for many things, Callisto and Ganymede had stable land that could serve as homes and research stations. There were other things of course. The escape velocities on these planets was low making transportation between the islands in Jupiter’s sky if not cheap, much less expensive than it was on the large planets. An of course if you were to choose a jumping off point to the edge of the solar system and beyond, then Jupiter with it huge gravity well that could be used to sling shot a space craft, made perfect sense. So when the Earth Martian war began, the Jupiter colonies Seceded from the Planetary federation in an attempt to stay neutral, and out of the war.
The war, from the opening salvo, was a very ugly and dirty war. It is now known through investigations that Earth sent a troop ship to Mars in an attempt quell the uprising and the desire by the Martian government to unshackle itself from the earth centric Planetary Federation, then deceitfully attached and destroyed their own ship. They were able to Blame it on the newly formed Martian Militia, and use the attack to justify an all out assault on the Martian colonies. Once this information came to light, it did nothing to stop the war. In fact, it had the opposite effect. The Martians outraged at the fact that Earth would provoke a war in such a way, and Earthlings disgusted that the the home world was provoked into such a tactic, fought all the harder to defend their home.
For many years the outer systems were left in peace. The Jupiter colonies became a refuge for civilians on both sides, and for the so called rovers that had been the primary transportation franchise between the planets since the space industry became a commercial venture. But, it was was short lived. The war that has now gone on for more than five decades was bound to draw in the rest of the solar system. The Jovian system, with her newly established colonies on the moons Saturn were to be no exception. These planets and their moons where ripe with resources, which both of the waring planets where in desperate need of.
At first the rovers were more than happy to provide transportation for goods services and people who were interested in fighting in the war. But as both of the planets economies began to collapse under the weight of paying for the lengthy war, many rovers were forced in the service. Some of them, second generation spacers, were seen as better pilots and captains then planet born humans found them selves in the middle of battles in a war that was not their own.
In the sixth decade of the war it was almost ended in a stalemate by two rovers, who had both risen to the rank of admiral in the opposing fleets. They were from the same family, and although distant were cousins had grown up together on a transport ship.
The two cousins, named Marcus and Alexander, were brilliant strategists, and they had arranged the largest battle between the two planets since the wars opening years. They massed to star fleets, with the best weapon systems that both sides could provide, and were to meet and do battle deciding the fate of the war in the space between Jupiter and Saturn. Both man had earned the reputation of being ruthless commanders, known for executing men for not following orders, and so when the fleets met and no one fired a shot, no man underneath them questioned this action.
Alexander and Marcus where able to effectively siege both sides of for nearly 6 months. Earth and Mars sent battle groups to infiltrate and capture or kill the two commanders, but as both of the cousins had the newest and greatest technology both sides had to offer, they were easily and quickly dispatched, and so the stalemate continued. It was not until the twenty second day of the sixth month of the siege that Marcus received word form a Earth commando group that they had captured his cousin and were taking him back to earth for trail that the battle had to begin again.
Marcus sent a group of his trusted men to liberate his cousin, and then with an unknown earthling commander as the new admiral of earthling fleet. He proceeded to destroy earth’s fleet, ensure that the losses on both sides were nearly equal, so that neither side would gain an advantage. Reports for the few survivors on both sides say that in the waning hours of the battle, the commando vessel that had captured Alexander was seen docking with the Earth Flagship, shortly before it was rammed into the Martian flag ship. The two cousins were presumed to have escaped on the commando vessel, but had not been heard from of seen since.
This is the History to the last ten years of the war. Both sides suffered greatly at the battle of the traders as it has since been called. Since that point both sides have attempted to rebuild their fleet, and then have both put in place rules governing the ranks and status of conscripted members of their military. Since then the rovers have been hunted as outlaws, but are still desirable as captains of smaller vessels and pilots due to their long background in space.
When he finished telling me the history of my peoples involvement in the war, much of which I knew but some of which I did not, he was silent again, presumably in prayer. It was not until much later that I understood why he told me all of this.

Great Hites Prompt for all of October

This month we are doing something a little different. We are only doing one prompt for the month of October.


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So this month’s Prompt:
“Creation, create your own creation story.” This can be a birth story, the creation of the universe, life from lifelessness (thank you Star Trek II), an Adam and Eve type story, whatever you like. Used your imaginations this is a wide open prompt so please have fun with it.

because you have a month here are also the modifications to the rules for this special.

1. Maximum story length is going to be increased to a whopping 10,000 words. I figure if most of the writers were already writing 2000-3000 word stories in a week that they could use the breathing room for a month long project.

2. The rating on these stories will still need to be PG. I am not going to change that. Sorry to all of you that thought that I might but nope.

3. All the other rules stand. I need a story, a recording in MP3 format if you can, and it needs to be in by midnight on October 31st. But you know me on deadlines, ask if you need more time, I am pretty flexible.

4. Please include your Name and “October story” or “December Story” as the case may be, in the subject so I can find it easily I have a busy in box.

Good luck and I can’t wait to hear your stories.

Oh one more thing, I will accept multiple submissions. That means if you have more than one story in mind, please feel free to send them all in

<a href="mailto:GreatHites@gmail.com?subject=Entry For October Your Name Here
&body=1 – Check out the rules 2 – paste the text of you story below 3 – Attach your audio that’s it”>Submit

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Great Hites 71

This week we have Stories by:

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Norval Joe
Marla J. Mercer
And
Jeff Hite <——— This week's WinnerWinner


It’s Just a Game.
By: Norval Joe

The spaceport bar was mostly empty. There were no large starships docked at the time, the occupants of the bar were mainly locals from other shops, or spacers waiting to apply for work on the next big ship to come in.
Justin sat at a dice table, alone, which was fine. He didn’t really want to gamble, he was really just looking for a mark. Someone smart enough to think that they couldn’t be taken, but not so clever that they would see through his pitch. As long as he looked like he was willing to gamble, no one would consider his loitering suspicious.
A creature entered the bar and stood just inside the door way, artificial light from the passage outside made a silhouette of the short stalky being. The bipedal creature scratched its head with a hand that sported many opposable fingers. Eventually, it faced his direction, paused as if looking at him, and headed his way.
Short green fur was illuminated as it passed under ceiling lights, set at random intervals to compete with the darkness of the bar. The creature wore a sleeveless spacer’s jumpsuit, cut low at the neck. Justin recognized the mammalian species as a Whooshahb, and as such, a female.
She approached the dice table and struggle to get her small body onto a stool next to Justin. Her jumpsuit was stained with sweat, a pocket zipper was broken, and the collar and cuffs were frayed. She was obviously not worth the time it would take to work a con, so Justin just smiled, as she settled herself on the tall stool.
She rested her elbows on the edge of the table, her chin was not much above her folded hands. Her long snout like face, covered with the same short green fur, jutted out over the gaming table.
With flabby, rubbery lips, she said, “Hello human, I am Showbleph. I have come to see if my luck has turned. Are you ready to roll the dice, or shall I?”
Justin expected such directness from a Whooshahb, and though it was not his nature, in an effort to avoid offending the polite little creature and drawing unwanted attention, he attempted equal directness.
“My name is Justin,” he said and nodded his head. ” Though my purpose of sitting at this table is to await a friend, if you wish to gamble, you may place the bet and I will roll the dice.
This was courteous of Justin. By placing the bet, Showbleph was able to limit how much she could loose, but could win many times that amount. The dice roller had a much greater chance of winning, but could also be required to pay as much ass 100 times the amount of the bet.
Showbleph opened a small purse and shook the contents into one hand. She placed the single token on the he gaming table. Even in a worst case scenario, Justin had more than enough credits to cover the bet, right in his chest pocket. He spun the dice hopper. A kaleidoscope of color swirled as Justin turned the handle again and again. until three of the twelve sided dice slipped from an opening at the bottom to rest in a small leather cup. He spilled the dice onto the table, turned each of the brightly colored dice over in his hand, checking each side, edge and corner. He placed them one by one, on the table in an order and arrangement that pleased him. Suddenly, with a single fluid motion the dice were swiped up and cast into the square box atop the table.
When the first roll of the three dice tumbled to a stop, the dice were totaled. The next roll would only be two of the dice. If their total was greater than the first roll of the three, for the better would win that round of the game. Therefore if the first roll was greater than 24, the game would already be over.
Payouts were small with a second roll win, usually even, or 2 to 3 times the bet. The biggest wins and losses came with a third roll that was higher than the second.
Calculating the payouts was complicated and based on the odds of the number that was rolled, compared to the odds of the number to be beaten.
Each dice roll was recorded by the table camera, odds were calculated, displayed on the tables backboard, and the payout required of the looser.
The house made its money on secondary betting against the odds of the second and third rolls. The players could also hedge their bets by betting with or against the house on subsequent rolls.
Justin’s roll was well above 24 and the game was over. Showbleph excused herself and left the bar.
He had just settled back into the affected contemplation of his drink, when the silhouette reappeared in the doorway. Showbleph didn’t hesitate but returned directly to the table where she had lost the previous bet, and struggled to return to the tall stool.
“Good Justin. Please permit me the honor of attempting to recoup my meager loss, by wagering this small family trinket.”
Justin picked up the ornately tooled metal box and turned it over in his hands. The craftsmanship was fine and he estimated the item to be worth about what he had just won from the small alien.
“Yes, Showbleph, I will roll once more, but then I must leave, as it appears my friend has been retained elsewhere.”
Showbleph nodded, and said, “that is good, and as much as I can ask.”
Justin spun three more dice from the hopper, examined them, then placed them superstitiously on the table as he had done previously. He scooped and cast them again.
To his horror, he counted the single mark on each die. “Three,” he whispered. It would be impossible for Showbleph to lose the next roll. Justin quickly gathered the two dice, shook and threw them onto the table. Four. “Impossible,” he shouted, and many in the room turned to regard the man who had exclaimed.
“Impossible,” he said again, took a single die and cast it onto the table.
The last die rolled to stop at a five. The odds were phenomenal. “That’s it,” Justin said, “I’m done.”
“Well, Showbleph, that was incredible. I’m afraid we must get your little trinket appraised, so that I may pay up.” Justin said, chagrinned that he had probably just lost 100 times what he had made on the previous bet. He placed the trinket onto the center of the green felt of the gaming table.
The trinket was scanned. Within seconds the computer announced. “The item is a rare, royal signet holder, from the fourth cycle, pre-galactic standardization. The item is valued at 12,500 standard credits. The sum of 1,200,000 standard credits must be paid with in 2 solar cycles or the debtor will be sought for incarceration.
Justin didn’t know how the diminutive creature had done it, but he knew that he had just been duped by a con artist. He stood and said to Showbleph. “That is an exorbitant amount. I will have to speak with a benefactor to secure your payment.” Without hesitation, he strode from the bar, and made with all haste to the docking port where his small starship waited.
Throughout the galaxy there were warrants against him for welshing on legitimate gambling debts, he was not about to pay a single credit to someone who had obviously taken him for a ride.

MONIQUE OF THE JUNGLE
by
Marla J. Mercer

Harry Hoffman leaned back in his chair and toyed with an unlit cigar. He smiled at the large female African elephant that stood in front of his desk.
“Trust me, Monique,” said Harry. “I didn’t make it to the top of my profession by giving out bad advice. My record speaks for itself.” With both hands, he gestured towards the scores of framed photos that lined the walls of his twelfth-floor office. Each autographed, eight-by-ten glossy bore the image of a famous client. Cheetah, Mister Ed, Babe, Lassie—almost every big-name animal star in show business had been with the Harry Hoffman talent agency at one time or another.
“This Ringling project is one sweet deal,” Harry continued. “I know a hundred elephants who would kill for an offer like this.”
“Well, I am not one of them!” huffed Monique. She shook her ruby-studded ankle bracelet and stared defiantly at her agent. At a towering eleven-foot ten inches in height, Monique was nearly as tall as the ceiling. Her cheeks were heavily rouged. Her turquoise eye shadow glistened with tiny iridescent sparkles. A pink feather boa was wrapped loosely around her wrinkled neck.
“It’s a lot of cash,” said Harry. “You should take the job. When I have ever steered you in the wrong direction?”
“I don’t care how much their offering,” Monique replied. “I refuse to wear some ridiculous tutu skirt and stand atop a giant ball. Monique-of-the-Jungle is not circus material. For crying out loud, Harry. I have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”
As if deeply offended, Monique dramatically turned her head towards the large window that dominated one wall of Harry’s office. With a tragic, yet regal expression on her face, Monique gazed in perfect profile at the smoggy Los Angeles skyline.
Harry smoothed back a well-oiled strand of his toupee. “Of course you’re a star,” said Harry. “I wasn’t saying otherwise. It’s just that right now there aren’t a lot of pachyderm-related scripts coming across my desk. That’s why I think this Ringling engagement could be a good thing for you at this particular time in your career. It’ll keep you in the public eye until something terrific comes along.”
Monique returned her gaze to Harry and regarded him suspiciously. “Have they offered you a kickback if I sign with them? Is that what this is about? You’re always working some angle or another. The usual ten percent is never enough for the great Harry Hoffman, is it?”
Harry grimaced as if in pain and clutched a hand to his heart. “You’re killing me here. How could you even think such a thing? Haven’t you always been my favorite client?” Harry pointed over his shoulder to a photo of Monique that hung on the wall directly behind his desk. “I’ll I want in the world is to make you happy, sweetheart.”
“Then find me something else,” said Monique. “How about television? Wild Kingdom and I go way back.”
Harry frowned. “I’m afraid that’s not an option at the moment. They still have some bad feelings about that little incident that occurred the last time you were on the show.”
“Well, what did they expect?” snapped Monique. “The director was inexperienced and completely clueless. In my big tranquilizer-dart scene, he kept insisting that I fall on my left side.” She rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Everyone in the business knows I always fall on my right side.”
“Of course, you do,” said Harry. “I totally sympathize. I just wish you hadn’t hurled the camera into the wildebeest dressing room. That little stunt cost you, sweetheart. You know how word travels in this town. You get a reputation for being difficult, and people get nervous.”
“Well, just forgot Wild Kingdom,” Monique replied haughtily. She lifted a front leg and admired the red polish on her toenails. “Who needs them? Surely you can book me on a decent nature documentary. They run them day and night on the cable channels. You’re holding out on me, Harry. I can tell.”
Harry brushed a piece of lint from the sleeve of his gold sports coat. “All right. All right. Maybe a little bird told me that there’s new National Geographic special in the works. But, I didn’t mention it, because it’s not you. From what I’ve heard, all they want is a little bark stripping, and then a few dead acacias get knocked over. Air time would be thirty seconds tops.”
“I want it, Harry! I want it so badly I can taste it.” Monique reached across the desk and grasped his lapel with the two fingerlike protuberances at the tip of her trunk. “Just get me an audition. I’ll show those bozos what it means to bring down a tree.”
Harry took the cigar from his mouth and rolled the wet stogie between his fingers. “I hate to do this to you, Mo baby, but I have to be honest. The truth is, they’re looking for a slightly younger elephant.”
“Younger!” Monique trumpeted loudly, shaking the windows and sending a photograph of Simba crashing to the floor. She curled her trunk against her forehead. “Look at these tusks! They’re the real thing—one hundred percent ivory. I’ve never used silicon. These are the tusks that Mother Nature gave me.”
“They’re beautiful,” said Harry. “I’ve always said you have the best pair in the business. But we’re talking Hollywood, and right now the demand is for the girth and wrinkles of a teenage elephant. You know I love you, sweetheart, but I’m not going to lie. You’re getting a little older. You’ve lost some weight, and you’re smoothing out a little bit. You and I both know that your creases aren’t as deep as they used to be ten years ago. Personally, I prefer the look of a more mature elephant, but I’m not the one doing the hiring.”
Tears brimmed on Monique’s long eyelashes. “Is that all they want—raw tonnage? What about talent? Doesn’t that count for anything? You remember my waterhole scene in Tarzan Meets the Leopard Woman? It takes a lot more than fat deposits to deliver a performance like that.”
Monique walked slowly to the window. With a bitter expression on her face, she looked out at the town that had once been hers for the asking. “Thirty years of paying my dues, and I’m left working for peanuts in some three-ring circus.”
“No, no!” protested Harry. “You’ve got it all wrong. They don’t call it the greatest show on earth for nothing. These Ringling people are positively drooling to snag a big name talent of your caliber. They’re on their knees, Monique. You’ll have it all—top billing, catered meals, a private stall. I’m sure I can do a little arm twisting and make sure they give you the best rhinestone head-harness that money can buy. And, you know how good you look in rhinestones.”
Monique coyly swung her trunk from side to side. She continued to gaze out the window.
“Think of the little people,” said Harry, “the millions of fans dying to see in person the most famous, female elephant star of all time. And we’re not talking small-town circuit—no way. We’re talking major venues—New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami. The Grand Tour. It’s the right move, Monique. And I’m not speaking as your agent now, but as your longtime personal friend.”
Monique sighed. She turned from the window and stood facing Harry. “Do you really think it’s a good idea for me to leave Hollywood? If I’m not attending parties, and award ceremonies, and charity events, I’ll drop out of the loop. You know how quickly people can forget about you if you’re not seen.”
“Are you kidding me?” exclaimed Harry. “How could anybody ever forget a big, beautiful, talented star like you? I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. You sign with Ringling for one year, and while you’re out there with your name up in lights, the studio bosses are going to find out soon enough what it’s like to work with this new herd of no-talent upstarts. By the time your contract is up and you come back home, every script that so much as mentions a large mammal of any kind will be piled high on your doorstep.”
Monique swished her tail and fanned her ears majestically. “I’ll need bottled water,” she declared. “You tell them that Monique-of-the-Jungle doesn’t drink whatever sludge that happens to squirt from a hose. I want bottled water written into to the contract, or it’s no deal.”
“Consider it done, sweetheart. Now you run on home and get some beauty rest. I’m going to give those people a call right this minute and make sure you get everything you want and them some. Don’t you worry about a thing.”
“Well, you’d better be right about this,” said Monique. “I don’t care how long we’ve been together. If this turns out to be a bad career move, I’m switching agents. I mean it, Harry.” Head held high, Monique gracefully sashayed from the office.
As soon as the door closed, Harry’s intercom rang.
“Mister Hoffman, Flipper is here for his ten o’clock appointment.”
Harry leaned forward and pressed the TRANSMIT key. “Thank you, Collette. Tell him I’ll be right with him. I just need a few moments to get things ready to accommodate his portable water tank.”
Harry stood and removed the framed photo of Monique from the wall behind his desk. He quickly exchanged it for a photo of Flipper that was hanging near the door. When Flipper’s picture was carefully positioned in the place of honor, Harry sat down and made a phone call.
“Louie! It’s Harry. The deal is good to go. She’ll sign a year’s contract for the price we discussed.” Harry paused. “Now, about those Lakers’ season tickets you promised me. We’re talking courtside, right?”

Creative Commons License
Monique of the Jungle by Marla J. Mercer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Never Con a Conman
By: Jeffrey Hite

“To every plan you need to have a plan b, how many times have I told you that Nellis?”
“I know boss but this seemed so fool proof.”
“Son how many times have I told you that there are no such things as fool proof plans?”
“I know I know.”
“You blew our cover, you wasted half of our capital, and we don’t even know where we are.”
“Come on boss, I feel really bad about this. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, I think we need to just work together and find a way out of this mess.”
“I know you do, I’m sorry, I just can’t get over the fact that we are stuck here.”
“Speaking of that, do you have any idea what this place is? I mean you have been down here long than I have right?”
“No I have never seen anything like this before in my life. The walls are too smooth to be dirt, and it does not feel like any kind of rock I have ever felt. Besides, the had a bag over my head when they brought me down here.”
“Hey did they say anything to you before they knocked you out?”
“Well boss not that I can remember, hey what’s this?”
“What’s what?”
“It feels like rungs on a ladder maybe there is a way out of here.”
“Keep talking Nellis, so I can find you.”
“Ok, I’m over here.”
“Why do people always say that when you are trying to find someone in the dark?”
“I don’t know boss, but I guess it is not very helpful is it?”
“No it really is owe!”
“What?”
“Something just smashed into my leg.”
“Are you alright?”
“I don’t know I…”
“Boss? Boss? Joe?”
“Nellis, I’m alright, I tried to stand up and lost my balance and ended up down this small hole.”
“Can you get out”?
“Well, I don’t know, let me try. No, no I can’t reach the top it is just out of my reach. You are going to need to come over here and help me out.”
“Alright Boss, I on my way over.”
“Nellis?”
“Yeah boss?”
“Be careful whatever tripped me is right near the whole in the ground. The last thing we need is for you to fall down the hole on top of me, or fall down another whole if there is one.”
“Right boss, Hey listen boss, I was thinking, how long do you suppose they are going to keep us down here?”
“I don’t know Nellis, you did try to swindle them, they might be pretty darn angry with us.”
“Alright I think I just found the edge of you hole.”
“Good good, lay down on your stomach and try to reach me.”
“Ok here is my arm, can you reach it?”
“Wait, I can barely hear you now, you must have found another hole, keep looking Nellis.”
“OK gottcha boss, I am going to crawl around up here so I don’t fall down another hole.”
“Good idea, just be careful there might be something sharp on the floor, I think it cut the sole of my shoe open.”
“Hey boss did you have to walk up hill to get to me?”
“No I don’t think so why?”
“’cause it feels like I’m going down.”
“Turn around Nellis you are going to the wrong way.”
“Yeah, Yeah… Ummm.”
“What now?”
“Well I can’t turn around.”
“What? Why? And speak up I can barely hear you.”
“There are walls on both sides of me. I’m going to try to stand up and. Owe! And apprently a ceiling over my head. I’m just going to back out. Woah, woah owe!”
“What just happened?”
“Owe, that floor was slippery, I slid right down it until a wall. I think my nose is bleeding.”
“Well worry about that later, for now can you get turned around now?”
“well maybe if I flip over on my back and the roll over, and roll over. There we go now I am facing up slope again. Just give me a few seconds I will get out of this mess.”
“Well keep talking ok?”
“Yeah, no problem. Hey wow this floor is slick. hey hey I am sliding back down.I can’t grip.”
“Try the walls, put your hands on the walls.”
“Yeah that is better. Alright I think I can make it up now. I must have crawled right down this pit here. Maybe when I get up I should just stand up, and sort of shuffle over to you.”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
“Alright I seem to be out now, it is level and again, and there are not walls, and yup no ceiling. So keep talking and I will come get you.”
“Just take it nice and slow we don’t need you falling into another trap, and maybe this one you can’t get out of.”
“Right, Just keep talking.”
“Nellis?”
“Yeah boss?”
“What was it you tried to sell them?”
“Well I told them, Wait, I need you to talk.”
“Oh Right, They were down right angry when the came and rousted me out of bed.”
“I know you should have seen their faces when they figured it out.”
“You are going the wrong way, you are getting quiet on me again.”
“Alright, wait, say something again.”
“Ok, what do you want me to say?”
“You have got to be right here. Yeah I have found a lip of what feels like a hole. Owe! it is sharp, let me take my shirt off so I don’t cut myself further.”
“Alright.”
“Ok reach up and see if you can grab my hand.”
“I gotcha, just hang on to me ok?”
“Alright hang one, 1, 2, 3, pull.”
“owe you are right that edge is sharp.”
“Ok let me put my shirt back on and we get back to that ladder.”
“Where was it?”
“I was just over, oh now I don’t know what direction is was.”
“It is ok Nellis, all we have to do is find the Wall again and we can work our way around to the ladder.”
“Boss?”
“Yeah?”
“I’m Scared, this place is really starting to freak me out.”
“Relax Nellis, It is going to be ok, we are going to find the wall. Then we are going to find the Ladder. then we are going to find the way out of here. Just one step at a time.”
“Boss, Joe?”
“Yeah?”
“I just remembered something. I told them that if they gave me their money, I would be able to put it in a place no one would ever be able to find it. When they figured me out, they said, turn about is fair play. What do you suppose that means?”
“I don’t know for sure but I think it means we are going to have to look harder for that ladder.”

Great Hites 70

This week we have Stories by:

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Norval Joe <——— This week's WinnerWinner
Ashley Redden
And
Jeff Hite

Lost and Found
By: Norval Joe

She feigned sleep while she listened to her mother grumble and drag on her jumpsuit. The clock on the table flashed the time. Her mother was late, as usual, for her shift. The little girl knew from the number of late night visitors and the creaking of the bunk above, her mother would be tired, irritable and late.
She avoided a probable clout and stayed on the floor, under the bunk and snuggled into her blanket.
“Lissie,” her mother said, stopping at the door, “stay out of trouble, today. I don’t want reports of you causing problems. Stay out of sight and I’ll be happy when I come back.”
“OK, Mom. I love you,” she said to the scuffed black work boots and the pant legs of wrinkled brown jump suit. She watched them leave as the door opened and her mother left without a reply.
Lissie waited a moment to insure that her mother was gone, and squirmed from under the bed. She drug her blanket from underneath and folded it neatly. She made her mothers bed and placed her own blanket at the foot of it.
Someone tapped lightly at the door, in a recognizable pattern.
“Hi,” Lissie said to another girl with short blonde hair and blue eyes, so similar to her own, that the two could be mistaken for sisters. “Come in, quick, before someone sees you.”
The new girl looked up and down the passage before she slipped through the sliding plastic door, and sat on Lissie’s mother’s bed. “This is really small in here. You should get a family unit. Oh, here’s a breakfast bar. It’s one of the good ones, too. Has chocolate in it.”
“Thanks, Bethany,” she said. “Are you on your way to school?”
“Yeah, I skipped yesterday. My mom will get really mad if I get in trouble today. Here’s what we learned so far. Make sure you get that crystal back to me later, I only have one other now.” She tossed Lissie the crystal and headed for the door. “Oh, and erase the answer sheet before you start, or the program will skip to where we ended the other day.”
Bethany stepped out the door and slid it shut. A moment later, she slid the door back open. “Sorry, I’m really an idiot. I forgot to ask, are you going out today?”
Lissie bit the side of her lip, thinking. “I don’t know, Beth. I didn’t sleep very well last night. It was too noisy in here, I think I’ll go back to bed, til my mom gets off work.”
“OK, whatever. If you do go out, here are some shoes. I hope they fit,” Bethany said and left the compartment.
Lissie’s eyes lit up and she ran to the door to lean her head out. “Thanks Beth,” she said to her friends back as she headed down the passage.
She closed the door, took the shoes from where Bethany had left them on the table and sat in front of the data terminal. She dropped the crystal in the interface slot and keyed the download. A moment later the screen lit up with the fourth year student course work outline. Other seven and eight year olds on the Inter Galactic Battle Base, or IGBB, were studying together, in class rooms through out the base. Lissie didn’t enjoy that luxery.
She worked for an hour at mathematics and grammar, but she was tired and fought to keep her eyes open.
“The shoes,” she said. The idea of going out gave her renewed energy. She pulled the flat soled shoes onto her feet. Her toes pinched together where they pressed against the end of the shoes, but she would be able to walk. Maybe, she thought, she could wear them only when she needed to. Stairs from one level to the next, above or below, were constructed from expanded plastisteel and would be like walking on cheese graters. Without shoes, Lissie had been confined to the immediate surroundings of her mother’s compartment. Bethany had given Lissie a veritable ‘key to the city’ in the form of shoes; she could now go anywhere her legs would carry her.
Lissie raced down the passage and around a corner, long tangles of dirty hair flew behind her, she sped for the stairwell.
Bare feet padded along the passage, the noise dampening pile of the carpet was intended to keep the small sleeping compartments quieter and more comfortable. Lissie ran in virtual silence. She was not the only person using these walkways in unheard. A tall man rounded the corner ahead and proceeded in Lissie’s direct path. She turned instantly, hoped that he hadn’t seen her turn, and walked as casually as possible in the opposite direction of the man.
“Young lady,” he called to her. She stopped, without turning, she waited for the man to approach. She frantically searched her mind for a plausible excuse to be running through the hallways.
“Young lady,” he said again as he walked up to stand at her back. She turned. He wore a uniform she didn’t recognize and had to crane her neck to look up into the blonde man’s icy blue eyes.
“I’m speaking to you girl. I demand the respect of a reply. Are you on your way to school?” His deep booming voice, forceful, not angry, shook her, and yet, it sounded familiar.
“Uh, huh,” she replied. Unable to look away from his grim face.
“There are no schools near here, which one do you attend,” he asked?
“Which one?” Lissie felt stupid. She didn’t know how to answer the question. She didn’t know where a school was. She didn’t know what it would look like if she saw one. All she knew was that her friend went to one, and that it was two flights above this one. She asked, “there’s more than one?”
“This is an Inter Galactic Battle Base. It’s 10.5 billion cubic meters in size. There are more than 120,000 people aboard ship. Of course there is more than one school. What grade are you in,” he asked?
Finally, a question she could answer. “I just started the fourth grade. I’m learning algebra and astrophysics. And grammar, but I’ve had that before. She thought about the lessons she had been studying just before leaving the compartment that day.
“Very good then,” he said, he sounded satisfied with her answer. “Hurry on to class, before you miss too much.”
“OK,” Lissie said and started to run off.
“Oh, one minute.” He stopped her. “What is your name?”
“Lissie. It’s short for Felicity.”
“I see,” he said. He paused a moment, then asked, “Why aren’t you wearing shoes?”
“They’re too small. They hurt my toes. I have them here in my shoulder bag and put them on when I need to climb stairs or cross a large grate.
The giant space ship spun continously as it shot through space. The cetrifugal force created a psuedo-gravity and encouraged the flow of air and liquids throughout the ship. The expanded plastisteel was designed to accomodate this free flow of air by making the regularly spaced stairwells into large open air vents from the inner levels to the outer. The plastisteel was strong, light weight and airy. Expanding the plastisteel, however, made sharp edges that were damaging to shoes, let alone bare feet.
“You should ask your parents to go to supply and get a pair of shoes for you that fit.”
“OK,” she said.
His eyes flashed with anger, which he quickly controlled. “You need to learn to respond to your superiors, rather, your elders, with respect. You must use ‘Yes sir’ or ‘Yes Ma’am’.”
She had never heard those words before. Her mother certainly didn’t ever use them, and her only other friend was Bethany. She carefully avoided all other adults.
“Do you understand me,” he asked?
She winged it. “Yes sir or yes ma’am.” She replied without a hint of sarcasm or malice.
The man’s face darkened, and he growled, “Very well. What is your father’s name.”
Lissie knew that she was in deep trouble, then. She didn’t like the feeling of being pushed, on the defensive. She declared, her back straight and head up, “I don’t have a father. My mother’s name is Jenny Mac Lean, but all of her friends all her ‘Honey’.”
Lissie thought the tall man would explode as his face turned bright red. A moment later, however, all color drained from it and his eyes softened. “Very well,” he said again, “get to class, if you truly have one.”
He left, this time, without a backward glance.
Within minutes Lissie found the stairwell. She put on the shoes and entered the door. She descended floor after floor, the stale filtered air gradually replaced with a rich, humid, pungency from the fermented sludge of the liquid waste recycling bays.
Lissie found piles of cast off materials in one of the outer rooms of the recycling center. She searched through bins of clothes and scraps of material for a serviceable pair of shoes. She pulled on a pair of boots and found, after lacing them, were more than a little big. She didn’t have time to look for another pair before the door to the room opened. Lissie just managed to jump into a bin and cover herself with old clothes, before two men walked her direction.
“OK. Grab that bin and bring it to the shredder, ” a man’s voice said, “I’ll get this one.”
Lissie felt the bin shift and she almost screamed to let her out, she didn’t want to be shredded. But within a heartbeat, the bin she was in, stopped moving, as the men pushed it aside to take the two they intended.
The day had become one of near misses, for Lissie and she felt shaken. She wanted to get back to her mothers compartment and get back under the bed where she would be safe and out of the way.
The boots were long and she tripped repeatedly as she climbed back up the stairwell. At least they didn’t pinch her toes. She thought of the embarrassing encounter with the man in uniform, of how he had asked her about her shoes, and school, and her father. She would have to ask Bethany more about school, so she could sound more believable if she was questions again, in the future.
She left the stairwell and was well along the passage before she realized she was on the wrong level. Lissie checked an identifier tab above a door and found that she was two floors above her own.
This was the level of Bethany’s school and Lissie became curious to get a first hand view of a class room. She wandered the passages listening at each door for the sound of children.
She needn’t have strained to theat each doors. She rounded a corner and there it was; the school spread out directly from the passage. It was a wide open area of the level, many times larger than the small compartment where she lived. There were children of different ages at tables in groups and at work stations as individuals. All were engrossed in their activities and no one noticed her spying from the doorway.
She saw Bethany at one of the tables and decided to wait for her friend. It wasn’t long before class ended and all the children filed out. Few gave Lissie a second glance, except, of course for Bethany.
“Lissie,” her friend exclaimed and hugged her impulsively. Lissie thought how good it felt to be hugged. It was an new experience for her.
The two girls walked together. Lissie told of her adventure in the recycling center and of climbing the two extra flights, but said nothing about the man in the uniform.
The teacher passed the two girls and spoke to Bethany. “Hurry home, I want that report rewritten appropriately by tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” Bethany said.
“Come home with me,” Bethany said. “My mom probably has something we can eat. I want you to meet her, anyway.”
“OK. She won’t get mad, will she?” Lissie was timorous, but the thought of food was enticing.
“No.” Bethany assured her, “she likes me to bring friends home.”

“Hi, mom. This is Lissie,” Bethany announced when she slid open the door from the passage, and entered the family compartment. The tastefully decorated communal area was at least four times the size of Lissie’s entire compartment. There was also a kitchen, dining room, study room, sanitation room, and bed rooms for the parents and each child.
“Wow.” Lissie said. “This place is huge.”
“My husband is a responsible man.” Bethany’s mother interjected. “He is the commander of a fighter pilot battalion. Housing is part of everyone’s compensation. The more responsibilities, the larger space you have.”
She walked over to Lissie. She looked the little girl over and noted, beside the objectionable odor, the worn out, ill fitted jump suit, oversized boots and mass of unkempt dirty hair. The woman couldn’t help but recognize the similarities between her own daughter and Lissie. They both had a strong squarish jaw, serious mouth, and questioning eye brows.
The door to the compartment slide open again. “Daddy,” Beth cheered, and ran to embrace her father.
“Hello, Honey,” he said to his daughter, “I’ve missed you.”
Lissie knew that voice. Not only did she recognize it as that man from the passage, earlier in the day, but she had heard those same words spoken, by this voice so many times in the past. As she lay under her mother’s bed, in the darkness, warned not to make a sound, she had heard that same greeting, countless times. “Hello, Honey. I’ve missed you.”
“Daddy, this is my friend, Lissie.” Bethany said as she stepped back from her father’s embrace.
He turned his icy stare toward the visitor, his serious mouth and questioning brow so similar to his daughter’s.
“Yes, we’ve met. In the passage, earlier today.” He said and gave Lissie a short but concentrated look, as he crossed the sitting room, and gave his wife a kiss.
“Cynthia,” he said to his wife, “please come with me, I have something to tell you.”
He turned back to his daughter. “Beth, honey.” He paused and looked at the floor. After taking a deep steadying breath, he said to her, “Help yourself to dinner, we may be a while. Also, after you eat, show Lissie how to use the shower, and wash and brush her hair.”
He followed his wife into the bedroom, but before he closed the door he said, “Lissie, I expect to find you in class with Beth, tomorrow. I’ve already made arrangements with her teacher for the transfer from your old school.”
“Yes, sir.” Lissie replied.
His smile was brief and sad, and he nodded his approval to Lissie as he closed the bedroom door.
When Lissie returned to her mothers compartment, much later that day, a package awaited her. In it were a new jumpsuit and shoes that fit properly.

Lotus Shoes
By: Ashley Redden

I was born in a small village in the northern hills of China in the year of the monkey, April of 1824. It is said that those born in the year of the Monkey are clever, intelligent, are very inventive, solve problems easily and have a thirst for knowledge. These attributes proved to be true throughout my life.

The exact village is unimportant save that it was located in the southern part of the north china plain. My family farmed alongside our fellow villagers in the ancient floodplains of the yellow river in what many considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. Of course none of the farmers in the village knew this fact or even cared. Though the soil in the valley was very fertile, life for the village farmers was very hard. Farming was done by the sweat of the brow and bend of the back making the young look old and the old appear truly ancient. Though there were many villagers, all lived a course existence.

My given name was Mei Lian which means beautiful lotus flower. According to my mother, the lotus has the ability to rise above the vulgar mud within which it began without being sullied. They named me thus because of my beauty as a child. Beautiful I was and still am a fact that has mattered greatly throughout my life. This would prove to be a blessing and a curse, but like many things in my life, one that I could not change directly but had to make the best of.

My mother began to bind my feet when I was very young, perhaps two years of age. By the time I was three or four, all of my toes except the largest on each foot had been broken. To say there was constant pain, unimaginable pain at times, would be a tremendous understatement. Sometimes I would notice my mother looking at me when she thought I was unaware with the most terrible look upon her face. She would always smile when I turned my head as if whatever the thought that was bringing her such distaste had never been there. I always wondered what I had done wrong to cause her so much pain, but would smile by best to match hers.

My family began to tell me over and over how lucky I was. My sisters were jealous that I sat inside all day while they worked in the fields, the toil beginning the long erosion of their youth just beginning to manifest. I began, even then, to associate pain with that particular word, lucky. As I sat by myself, being unable to run and sometimes unable to even walk when my mother had tightened the bindings because my body remained madding1y unaware that it was supposed to stop growing, watching my sisters and brothers run and play I would wonder at how lucky I truly was.

When I was twelve, I was sold into marriage. I say sold, because it was nothing if not a business dealing. My mother hugged me and told me to go with dignity into my new life. I smiled, even then I had learned to hide the pain in that way, and went willingly into the unknown.

I came to new life with as much dignity as I could bear. I was to be a sent to America, and must do as I was told, or else. Though we were never outright called slaves, slaves we were. Slave, indentured servant, conscript, they are all the same. The details of the compound are unimportant, what is important was that I survived my stay. In the west, cattle being pushed from one town to another are done so by means of a corral. If Chinese being sent to America were the cattle then this was surely the corral.

The or else became glaringly clear soon enough. The camp had several wells located prominently in the center. The most telling feature was the absence of a draw, no rope or bucket or anything else associated with bringing water up from any of the wells. The well structures were stark; each with no covering was open to the elements. We were told to follow instruction or be dropped down one of the wells. Our keepers proved this many times while I was there. It didn’t matter to them, man, woman or child, if you disobeyed, down the well you went. The lucky ones died on impact. The others, who survived the initial drop, surely suffered a slow often vocal bitter end.

It was during this time, before being sent to America, that I began to sing. My voice was heavenly, another blessing with which I had done nothing to obtain, but made use of when possible. I also learned, while staying at this corral for people, the subtle art of cooperation. Many were the times when being cornered by one of the wolves that prowled within the compound I was certain that my time had come to be tossed like so much refuse into one of those wells. But I continued to smile and sing and do what I was told avoiding that particularly gruesome fate. I do remember that I smiled most of the time that I was at the corral every moment of which I wept miserably on the inside.

When I was finally placed upon a ship born for America, even though my feet were still just as securely bound as they had been virtually my entire life, I felt more alive and free than ever before. I vowed to change my lot in life. I also changed my name to Ming-mei which meant smart and beautiful. I decided that these were the advantages that I had in this world and that my name should be reflective of this. I heard more than one girl speak of how lucky we were to be rid of the compound, but I quietly disagreed. Luck, for me, was nothing but a pox on life. I neither needed nor wanted any luck, I would make my own.

Upon entering America, I discovered that though the language and people were very different, some things did not change. This was another place that an unassuming lotus flower would be used up and discarded making way for the next shipment. I began to sing and make myself be known. A man happened to be enjoying my singing, along with the crowd that usually gathered. My keepers did not mind this for they begged money in return for the entertainment which some of the passersby obliged.

Though I had not noticed this tall pale man standing in the throng, he approached the wagon upon which I sat as we prepared to continue our long journey to somewhere in the American west, though exactly where I had not been told. He approached and asked about my shoes, the size of which was 3 inches long. Of course I knew only snippets of English, though I was learning all I could during the journey. One of my keepers spoke the tongue fluently enough and answered him.

It seems that he was interested in why my feet were so small. My keeper told this American that I wore lotus shoes explaining that my feet had been bound from very early in my life to resemble a golden lotus. The man seemed to rock back shocked and amazingly, seemed to pale even further. He looked back upon me then with new eyes wearing an expression that I had seen little if any of, compassion. He began immediately to speak in earnest with my keeper.

The next day I found myself in the presence of the tall pale man. He had bought me. I was suspicious then and quite sure now that he could not afford the stiff price set by my keepers, but miracles do happen. I’m proof of that. Well, he always insisted that he purchased my freedom not my person. But I refused to leave his side so he allowed me to accompany him west. I found out later that he was a Christian preacher taking the word of the lord into the wild places of this vast new land as commanded.

You are probably wondering how my English is so good, correct grammar and the like. Well, I may be Chinese born, but I am quite intelligent and very well read. I continued to learn English, painfully slow at first, but due to my diligence my understanding improved slowly at first then by leaps and bounds later. I ceased to be the property of the pale man and instead became his wife. He had always wanted me to unbind my feet, but a lifetime of binding had done unfaltering damage. I smile a lot now and have even learned to smile on the inside at the same time. Though I still hide pain, I am learning to express it, but old habits die hard and I find that I have so little pain in my life now as compared with before that it’s becoming easier to just smile and be happy most of the time.

We now live in San Francisco California and run a mission for the people there. I speak with the Chinese whose numbers have swollen since the discovery of Gold in what’s being called the great gold rush. They, like me, are a hearty folk. Those that immigrated from china and did not work did not survive. The ones that are left work like slaves which in some cases they essentially are.

I sing for them and speak about the one true God and for their part they listen politely and basically treat me like a queen. For my part, I am so appreciative. Sometimes when we are giving supplies, food and clothing, to those in need that many of the children will be looking for shoes that fit, more often than not, the shoes are much to big for their feet. When I hear complaining, I simply show them my tiny lotus shoes that still fit so well on my three inch feet. Their wonder at my smallish feet always seems to turn to embarrassment until I smile and laugh letting them off the hook. They always seem to laugh heartily, but I’ve noticed that the complaining evaporates like so much spilled water on a hot rock and does not return.

I think of my father sometimes and wonder if he knew where I was headed when he sold me into so called marriage. I whisper a prayer of forgiveness, and sometimes, I think that I may mean it.

I often think of my mother now as well, surely long dead ground down beneath the plow and the bearing of armies of children. I remember how she looked at me how I always wondered what I had done to deserve her resentment. I’ve begun to think that maybe what I saw in her expression was not a true expression of what was in her heart. I have begun to wonder if it was guilt being displayed there. After all, she was just a much a captive as I was, though in a different way. I try not to judge. What would I have done in her place? Would I have bound my beautiful child’s feet and sold her to slavery? Surely not, then again, who can say. I say a heartfelt prayer for her often that her heart should be at peace, mine is.

I also mutter a silent prayer for all of those who were tossed down those wretched wells. I ask God to have mercy on their souls. And though I know I should ask the same of their persecutors, I cannot as yet bring myself to do so. Perhaps in time I can find it in myself to forgive them as well, but it will be difficult. Their crimes are great. But who knows, through the lord all things are possible.

But the strangest thing of all has happened. Throughout my life I have railed at the very idea of luck. But as I look at my husband, speaking with such heartfelt compassion to everyone he meets, the joy and love in his heart overflowing into mine and making me whole. As I look at him I think of the word irony and how some words look simple, but have complex meanings. I had always before associated irony with tragedy which is often true. But now I find myself thinking of the word irony in a new tact. I’ve begun to consider the possibility that it might apply to me. After all, I have focused my entire life on making my own luck and not accepting that which came my way. But somewhere along the way, as I showed nothing but utter disdain for the word luck, something significant has changed. I look at my life now and consider myself, of all the inconceivable things…lucky.

Lost and Found
By Norval Joe

She feigned sleep while she listened to her mother grumble and drag on her jumpsuit. The clock on the table flashed the time. Her mother was late, as usual, for her shift. The little girl knew from the number of late night visitors and the creaking of the bunk above, her mother hadn’t gotten much sleep. She would be tired, irritable and late.
She avoided a probable clout and stayed on the floor, under the bunk and snuggled into her blanket.
“Lissie,” her mother said, stopping at the door, “stay out of trouble, today. I don’t want reports of you causing problems. Stay out of sight and I’ll be happy when I come back.”
“OK, Mommy. I love you,” she said to the scuffed black work boots and the pant legs of wrinkled brown jump suit. She watched them leave as the door opened and her mother left without a reply.
Lissie waited a moment to insure that her mother was gone, and squirmed from under the bed. She drug her blanket from underneath and folded it neatly. She made her mothers bed and placed her own blanket at the foot of it.
There was nothing left on the table for her to eat. Lissie looked through the drawers and closets and found a fruit flavored nutrition bar. She ate it quickly while she searched the rest of the compartment. She hoped her mother would bring something for her from the dining facility on her way back from work.
Lissie slid open the flimsy plastic door to the passage outside. She looked both ways and found it clear of people before she dashed out and down to the corner.
She ran through the dim passages of the habitation compartments wearing one of her mothers t-shirts, its collar so wide that it dropped off one of her shoulders and down to her elbow. She wore a pair of shorts and shoes that were, conversely, too small; cast offs from a legitimate, enlisted family. She had found them in the recycling center/waste dump on one of the starships outer levels on a previous exploration. Since visiting the dump she had felt a continuous urge to return, as if she had left something there, and forgotten what it was.
She heard voices approaching around the next corner. Lissie quickly located a panel, they were spaced every ten meters, and pulled it open. Inside the narrow, shallow panel, were electrical wires and refrigeration pipes. A diagram on the inside of the door identified each colored artery and vein, listed its purpose, origin and destination, to aid repairmen. If she squeezed inside and held the latch with one hand and a coolant pipe with the other, the door would stay closed enough for most passers by to be unaware of her presence.
Lissie heard the children laughing as they walked past, most likely on their way to classes.
Couples could sign on for the twenty year enlistment as a family and were authorized compartment space for themselves and two current, or future children. These children had their own sleeping chambers, clothing allotments, and food, guaranteed for the length of their parents enlistment. They were provided with education, sports activities, entertainment, and other diversions.
There was no provision for the children of enlisted members who signed on as individuals and fell in love on their journey, let alone the child of a drug addict who turned tricks to support her habit.
The voices of the children faded as they continued past Lissie, and down the passage. When they were gone, she cracked open the the panel, checked the way, and took off at a run. She had to hold the front of her t-shirt with her hands or it would catch between her knees as she ran.
She felt the inexplicable urge to return to the recycling level like a palpable wave as she reached the stairwell that would take her down to the outer levels. As she descended the stairs, the stale filtered air gave way to a pungent, humid, moldy smell. The desire to reach the recycling level became a tangible feeling in Lissie’s stomach, like the hunger that was a constant part of her life.
This strange hunger was not unpleasant, but hopeful and optimistic. Ignoring the feeling in her stomach she raced down the length of the starship to the recycling center access. Waste management filled half the width of the Intergalactic Battle Base and the aft third of the ship, nearly 1000 meters, on one of the outer levels of the giant ship. Centrifugal force from the continuously spinning ship created a pseudo gravity and aided the flow of air, water, and other liquids through throughout the ship.
She entered to the sound of pumps and compressors, the interlocking rooms and passages forming a great labyrinth of offal. Waste from humans and machinery were cycled through tanks and filters. The urge drew her down one passage after another, a turn here and there, she charged forward as if she knew exactly where she was going, as if she had been there many times in her short life.
Her short life. She didn’t know how old she was. Her mother guessed Lissie was about four or five. It wouldn’t be hard to figure it out, to count back the years she had been on the ship, but her mother didn’t really care. All she really cared about was getting enough credits to score some mist.
Base police had tried to locate the source of the euphoric inhalant sold illicitly on the ship. The syndicate of users and suppliers was to tightly closed, and too savvy of the investigators for the police to get it under control. However, only the serious addict had any negative effects from the drug, and most could be treated effectively through the sick bay, the police turned an apathetic eye from the trade.
Lissie crept into the room and edged along a catwalk a meter above the sludge being processed below her feet. Her eyes were drawn to a shadow on the wall opposite. She imagined the shadow was moving, pulsing, maybe oozing up and down the wall.
A rope, an arm, or tentacle, she didn’t know what it was; something grabbed the little girl by the leg and jerked her off her feet. He pulled her so quickly, her head clearly missed hitting the catwalk as she fell and splashed into the thick, sticky sludge. Her screams were downed out by the heavy chugging of pumps as she was dragged toward the oozing shadow. She screamed and clawed at her t-shirt as the current of sludge pulled it up over her face. She grasped the shirt and pulled it down in time to see the tentacle pulling her legs into the creatures open maw. She screamed and cried as giant slavering tongues reached out, wrapped around her small body and pulled her into its undulating throat.
And then she was calm. Her head remained outside the mouth, her body completely enveloped, but she felt not the slightest fear.
The tongues surrounded her, held her, supported, and massaged her body. At first they were warm, but then cooled to accommodate her body temperature. They lifted her and bounced her lightly like a mother bounces and comforts as baby. The tongues weren’t wet, as they had first appeared, but were, instead, covered with soft short hair like the fur on a puppies belly. The fur caressed her skin and drew away the sludge and anything else on her skin.
“My friend.” A voice said inside her head. “I’ve been calling you for a long time. Thank you for coming.”
Lissie floated in a euphoric half sleep. Her hunger was gone, and the aches and stiffness of sleeping on the hard plasticrete floor faded quickly. She had never been so comfortable and at ease.
The creature told Lissie stories of its home world, of its family, and finally of how it ended up on an IGBB light years from its origin. While it cradled Lissie in its center repairing her body and mind, the creatures tentacles searched the adjoining rooms.
Voices woke her in the first room of the recycling center. She lay between two of the transfer bins filled with articles of clothing waiting to be shredded. As the two men walked through the room, further into the center, she got to her feet and ran through the open front door.
She felt strong as she hurtled up the stairs to her floor, her long blonde hair, a glistening stream flowed behind her as she ran. Her ribs no longer shown through the skin of her chest. Her shoes fit her comfortably and her jumpsuit was clean and smelled fresh.
“I’m home,” she said as she closed the compartment door, and looked for her mother, who hadn’t yet returned, though the clock on the table said it was very late.
“You traveled safely,” the creature asked, its voice clear in her head?
“Yes,” Lissie replied. “No one saw me go. I’ll see you in the morning?”
“Please. I will always be here. Always,” the creature promised.

Bad Day, Good Dead
By Jeff Hite

I knew today was going to be a bad day when I put on my best pair of climbing shoes and they didn’t seem to fit right. I don’t know if it was that I had worn them to often or that the last time I wore them they got wet. Either way I didn’t anticipate the fay that I ended up having. I should have know better and stayed in bed, but no, I had to get up. And here I am at the end of the day still hanging on a cliff edge, wondering what just happened.

I should back up a little bit and say that Larry did warn me that what we were going to be doing today was going to be dangerous. He also told me that I didn’t have to go if I didn’t want to. But, being the nice guy that I am and knowing what was at stake if things didn’t go well today, I knew that I needed to go. Besides the way that I looked at every thing these days, it was better to die doing something that I believed in then to live and have my soul sucked away by inches at my old job.

When we first arrived Prometheus would not even talk to us for several hours, to matter how much we begged and pleaded. Even Larry was about to give up when he finally spoke.

“The Nymph, is she gone?”

“What?” I asked surprised to even get a response.

“There was a Nymph that lived in the tree above, did she forget about me or is she gone?”

“I will talk to her if she is still there.” Larry offered. To this Prometheus nodded his acceptance, and larry climbed back up the face of the cliff. After an hour he had not returned, and my muscles were beginning to cramp I was about to move when Prometheus spoke again.

“You are Human?” It sounded like a question but I knew he was making it as a statement.

“Yes.”

“Then you will need to find a place to hide, or the eagle will find you a tasty morsel.”

Until that point I had kept my back turned to the dizzying sight that was literally the end of the world beyond the cliff’s edge, but now I turned to see what Prometheus was looking at. The eagle was a huge grant beast, and even at this great distance I could see it was huge. It’s wing span had to be at least 20 feet.

I spent only a moment looking at the great bird before I realized the urgency, and started looking for a place to hide. It was too far to the top for me to make it before she would be here, so I had to find something near my level. Then I saw it. About 30 feet to my right was an out cropping that I might be able to hide behind. I quickly scrambled to over to it, letting my line out only enough allow me to move. It didn’t offer me much over, but it was better than nothing. I made it to the ledge and hoped that Larry was watching this and didn’t try to come down while the eagle was here. When she arrived it looked as though she had not seen me because she went right to work on Prometheus.

I started to breath a sigh of relief, but that was when it happened. I never expected to hear anything quite like that. At least not from a god. Prometheus, was screaming first in terror and then in agony.

This was the same god that when I first saw him I could not tell were the shackles ended and his arms and legs began. He had been hanging there for more than a million years, since man had first used fire, but he had obvious not grown accustomed to this pain.

I waited listening to his screams for only a moment when I had made my decision. It was obvious to me that it was not that the eagle was cutting him open and eating his liver, it was torturing him. I could not watch it any longer.

I didn’t know if what I was about to do would help in any way, but I knew that I had to do something. So with my piton hammer in my upper hand, and my lower hang lock ing off the line, I pushed out and toward Prometheus and the eagle as hard as I could. I watch in the intervening seconds as the emptiness swirled below me and wondered at what it would be like to fall all that distance, but then the moment was over.

My feet crashed into the eagle with a sickening snapping sound, and I brought the hammer down on her beak. She fell away from us then, down into the abyss below. She the great bird slipped below, I was left nearly on top of Prometheus, but on the other side. My line was not tangled in one of his shackle chains, and I had lost on of my shoes.

When I had recovered a little I looked over at the god. If possible he looked worse than then we had first seen him. His side had a ragged tear in it and blood flowed freely from it down the right side of his body. I knew in the rational part of my mind, I knew that he could not, would not die. But that was not the part of my brain I was listening to, at the moment due to the adrenaline coursing through my body.

“Larry, get down here, bring your extra climbing ropes and some bandages.” I didn’t wait for a reply “It is going to be alright, we are going to get you up on the ledge above and see if we can stopped the bleeding, and maybe close up that wound, just hang in there ok.” I was not sure if he could hear me because his eyes were closed and his head lolled forward.

“Rob I am going to toss the line down, what is going on down there?”

“Don’t worry about that now, just get down here and help me.”

“Rob, the Nymph…”

“Later ok,” I said cutting him off. I did my best to untangle myself from the chains above, and hope that my Tarzan impression had not damaged the line too much. Then I lowered myself down so that I was just about level with his feet. The Stanchion that had been used to fasten him to the wall was huge, so I knew there was no point in trying to move it, but the chains were not very large. I pulled my ice axe from my pack and began working on it.

As it turns out, that an ice axe is not a very effective tool against god forged chains, but in the end I was able to free his leg. I started to move to the other side when I saw Larry. He had brought some water and was trying give it to the still unconscious Prometheus. He had also managed to bandage the wound. The Bandage the was soaked with blood, but it looked as though the bleeding might have stopped for the time being.

“Do you think the rope will hold him,” Larry asked when he saw me?
“He is not that much bigger than either of us, and the lines are rated and three times our body weight.”

“Alright then. Once you get that other leg freed I will get the harness on him. I hope he wakes up before we need to move if, I don’t want to have to try to pull him up.”

“Agreed.”

It took me another hour, both of our ice axes and one of the piton hammers to brake through all four chains. By then Prometheus was awake. He had been watching us as we broke through the last of the chains but said nothing. With the last chain broken I lowered myself down level with him again.

“Prometheus, do you have the strength to climb?” He nodded his head. “Good, then when we get to the top we can rest a bit and properly tend to those wounds.”

“They no longer need any tending,” he answered and carefully turned around to face to rock wall. Then he doubled up one of his fists and smashed a rock that protruded from the cliff’s face.

“That had been rubbing against my back for the last million years.” Then without another word he climbed to the summit.

Bonus Episode – The fire Drill

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“The fire drill”
By Norval Joe

“How long do you think we’ll have to stand out here,” Jeff said to his co-worker.
“Enjoy the day, man,” the older man said. “Look around. This morning there was a foot of snow on the ground. Now it’s toasty warm. You can see the snow melting away.”
Their manager ran from where he spoke with a fireman.
“Come on, we need to get out of here. Carbon monoxide set off the alarm. Not fire.”
Asphalt from the parking lot stuck to their shoes as they ran to their cars.
Moments later the building collapsed into the newly forming volcano.

Fire Drill
By: Jeff Hite

“There is no way I am getting out of bed this time.”
“Come on man what if it is a real fire”
“What like the last 12 of these, every week it is the same thing. A new group or trainees and the first thing they do is pull the fire alarm.”
“Come on you know you have to get out of bed.”
“not this time!”
They watched from the outside as the dorms burned and alarm system falsely proclaimed, ” this is a drill this is only a drill.”
“Don’t you believe it.” said the flaming corpses from their beds

Great Hites 69

This week we have stories by:

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Norval Joe
Marla J. Mercer <——— This week's WinnerWinner
and
Jeff Hite

Life in a duplex
By: Philip “Norval Joe” Carroll

The car rattled to a stop in front of their duplex apartment. He knew that Jodi would be standing at the front door, by the time he got there. He could never sneak up on her, not with the car needing a new muffler. He had exciting news for her, and could hardly control his broad grin.
He got out of the car and slammed the door three times to get the lock to catch and hold. He all but ran to the door.
She opened the door as he reached for the knob. He watched his hand grab uselessly in the open air for the door knob that was no longer there, then looked up to see her smiling face reflecting the happiness he felt. Her brown eyes almost sparkled above her freckled nose. She was nearly twenty one, and in the two years they had been married, the freckles had barely faded, and he hoped they never would. They gave her face the youthful appearance he adored.
He stepped through the doorway, kissed and hugged her, and then stepped back to look at her and asked, “What are you smiling so big about?”
“I could ask you the same thing, you’ve been grinning like a jack o lantern since you got out of the car. But, if you must know. I have a secret.” She giggled.
“I know how you are about keeping secrets, so I might never know what it is. Fortunately, I have a secret too, and if you want to hear what it is, you’ll have to tell me yours,” he said, closed the door and followed her to the small table by the window in the kitchen.
“Sit down Jeff, I made your favorite dinner. Chicken, mashed potatoes, and steamed baby carrots.” The meal was already in covered dishes on the table.
“Wow, honey, you’ve been busy since you got home from work. Are you trying to butter me up for something?” He was feeling suspicious. “I think you had better tell me your secret first.”
“Ok,” she said. “Let’s eat. You can choose first. Breast, leg or thigh. I only cooked half the box. If you want more, we can cook the rest later,” she said.
He took the thigh. He always did, but not just because it was his favorite piece. He knew that she really wanted the white meat, and that was ok with him. “I don’t know if I will be able to wait until the end of dinner to hear what you are keeping secret. My stomach is all in knots just thinking about the possibilities. It can’t be too bad, because you seem happy about it, but I still can’t figure out why you are plying me with chicken and potatoes.”
Jeff was chewing a mouth full of chicken and potatoes when Jodi declared, “OK. I’ll tell you. I’m pregnant. We’re going to have a baby.”
The food in Jeff’s mouth turned to lead. He couldn’t swallow it, there was another lump of lead in his stomach as well. He couldn’t talk with the food in his mouth, so he just sat dumbly and stared at his wife, who still smiled, but more weakly, now.
Finally, he swallowed and said, “Um, How, no, when, no, never mind.” He shook his head, and felt guilty that we wasn’t sharing Jodi’s enthusiasm.
“I’m sorry.” He reached out and took her hand, and she squeezed his back. “That is absolutely not what I expected to hear. I got a pay raise today, and I was hoping to surprise you with the idea of getting a better car. We could have made payments with the extra money I’ll be getting. But, this changes that plan.”
He put down his fork, frowned and said, “I thought we had talked about waiting a while, maybe moving into a house, before we started a family. I don’t know if we’re, or rather, I’m ready for this. It sounds like you got ready on your own.”
He recognized an unexpected bitterness in his voice. Jodi obviously noticed it as well. She put her own fork down and said, “Well, yes, we talked about it, but you obviously didn’t listen. I have been telling you for months that I feel ready to make this change in our lives. You wouldn’t discuss it with me, you just made lists, and timelines, and decisions, but none of them included what I wanted, only what you determined would be best for us.”
“But the future, we need to plan,” he began.
She cut him off. “No. You don’t need to plan or prepare fro anything. You’ll just have to deal with it.”
She stood. Her composure, maintained until that point, appeared on the verge of breaking. She set her jaw.
“No,” she said again. “I’ll deal with this baby, with or without you.”
She turned and left the kitchen. He heard the door to the bedroom close and the knob rattled for a time while she set the lock.
Jeff sat, stunned, and stared sullenly at the chicken cooling on his plate. In the two years of their marriage they had never argued like this, with such anger. What was more; Jeff had never been locked out of the bedroom and was at a complete loss of what to do. Should he stand at the bedroom door and beg for forgiveness, or demand that she let him in so that he can set her straight.
Ultimately he decided it would be best to leave her alone for a while.
He sat in the car and pumped the gas pedal several times before turning the key. It cranked a dozen times before the engine finally turned over. “Now, where do I go at 7:00 on a Thursday night, by myself?”
Jeff considered going to a movie, but he would want Jodi to watch it with him. He didn’t have many single friends anymore, and most of their married friends wouldn’t really want him showing up unannounced, this time of night.
He ended up at the bookstore, down the street from the movie theater. The store had a coffee shop with its ubiquitous compliment of college students, musicians and pseudo intellectuals. He wandered up and down the aisles half heartedly scanning the titles for something that might distract him for a few minutes, or an hour. Reflexively, he looked up, expecting to see Jodi, each time a stranger approached in his peripheral vision.
“Seven thirty,” he said when he looked at his watch, again. “That’s way too early to get a good nights sleep on the couch.”
He took a book of humorous observations by a second rate comedian, and sat in one of the oversized lounge chairs, arranged, living room-like, in the center of the store.
Instead of reading, he glared morosely at everyone that walked past.
A child with a high squeaky voice was chasing after her mother, holding a book, her arm outstretched to the woman passing Jeff on her way to the cashier. “Mommy, here it is. Mommy, Elmo book.”
As she ran after her mother she dropped the book directly in front of him. When she retrieved it, she looked at Jeff. There was a look of such joy and excitement on her little face that he couldn’t help smiling as well. Startled, he felt a chill, like ice water poured down his back. He recognized her.
Her short cropped hair, the sparkling brown eyes, and the wash of freckles across her cheeks and button nose were an exact replica, in miniature, of Jodi.
Fear of being considered a child molester was the only thing that kept him from picking the little girl up and hugging her tightly.
He growled and cursed the car as he pumped the gas pedal and turned the ignition key. Jeff had to get home, he didn’t want to waste another minute.
The old, beat up car, shook and rattled, as the engine chugged and coughed, even after he removed the key. He slammed the door once and raced to the house, unconcerned that the door creaked back open.
He tapped on the bedroom door and waited for a response. When there was none, he tapped again, and asked, “Jodi? Are you there?”
Finally, faintly, Jeff heard, “What do you want?”
“I’m ready,” he said. “I’m ready for our baby.”

THE INSIDE STORY
by
Marla J. Mercer

“They say it came in with a shipment of bananas,” said Rae-Anne, “and that Donita is keeping it in a mayo jar and charging fifty cents a look.”

“I bet the only thing Donita Monelli has in that mayo jar is a big old wolf spider,” I scoffed.

“Well, you’re wrong,” said Rae-Anne. “It’s a real live tarantula.”

“No way.” I shook my head. “It’s a wolf spider.”

Rae-Anne and I were sitting in the back seat of our clubhouse. We’d been spending most every Saturday afternoon there for the past month, ever since someone left an old beat up car in the alley behind where my dad works. On the outside, our clubhouse looks like any other junker. On the inside, however, we’ve fixed up the car real nice, with newspaper-curtains on all the windows and bed sheets to cover the ripped upholstery. There are no visitors allowed in our clubhouse. Not even my dad, who is forever coming outside to check on us. The clubhouse is for members only, and that would be Rae-Anne and I.

“It is, too, a tarantula,” insisted Rae-Anne. “My brother says he knows three guys who’ve already seen it, and it’s about six inches long.”

“You’re brother is always making up stories to scare you.”

Rae-Anne and I are best friends. We even look alike, both of us with brown hair and ponytails, but in some ways, we are very different. To name one, I am a tomboy, and she is not. For another, Rae-Anne not only spreads gossip, but she believes everything she hears. I don’t. For instance, last spring, when we were still in fourth grade, a rumor went around our class that there was a dead body in the city water tower and that bits of blood and hair were coming out of people’s faucets. Rae-Anne was so afraid that she wouldn’t even take a drink of Kool-Aid when she came over to play. I had to fill our bathtub ten times to convince her that the story wasn’t true.

“Well, if you’re so sure it’s just a wolf spider,” said Rae-Anne, “then why don’t you go have a look for yourself. The back entrance to Monelli’s Market is right down the alley. That’s where she keeps it: in the storeroom. That’s what my brother says.”

“Maybe I will go down there.” I said defiantly. “I have my allowance money in my pocket.”

Rae-Anne looked suddenly worried. “Oh, Katie, don’t even think about it. I was just kidding. I wouldn’t ask my worst enemy to meet up with Donita Monelli.”

I jutted out my chin. “I’m not afraid of her for a minute.” I was lying, of course. Every kid in town under the age of twelve was terrified of Donita, even though most of us, including myself, had never actually seen her.

“You should be afraid of her,” said Rae-Anne. “You know what they say about her. If even half of it’s true, it’s not safe to go anywhere near her. My brother says that ever since she dropped out of school, she never leaves her dad’s grocery store, except at night, and then she creeps around looking in people’s windows while they’re sleeping.” Rae-Anne paused. “You know what I think? I think she might start bringing the tarantula with her and letting it loose in the bedrooms of people she doesn’t like. One bite from its fangs and her enemies would be dead just like that.” Rae-Anne snapped her fingers.

“Baloney,” I replied. I reached for the door handle. “I’m going to find out the truth about that spider.”

“Katie, no! Don’t do it.”

“I’ll be fine. You just stay here in the clubhouse. If I’m not back in ten minutes, go tell my Dad I where I went.” I opened the back door and stepped into the alley.

“Please don’t go,” begged Rae-Anne.

“Ten minutes,” I repeated, as I shut the car door.

A cool autumn wind was blowing off the river east of town. Scraps of paper and dead leaves swirled around my feet. I flipped up my jacket collar, stuck my hands deep into the pockets of my slacks, and started walking down the wide alleyway. On either side, pressed up against the buildings were dumpsters, wood pallets, and bundles of flattened cardboard boxes.

There were two doors at the back of Monelli’s Market. The first was a big garage-type door that had a metal sign on it that read Ring bell for deliveries. To the right of it, was a regular sized door. It, too, had a sign, but this one was taped on and was made from a piece of brown grocery bag. The message written on it was in thick black ink:

Genuine Deadly Mexican Tarantula
50¢ a look
Enter Here

I cast a quick glance at the clubhouse and saw that Rae-Anne had crawled into the front seat of the car. She had lifted up the newspaper curtains and was looking out the front windshield. I nodded to her and gave a little wave.

Trying to appear brave, I opened the door, and looked inside the storeroom. It was cool and dark, and the air stank sweetly of too-ripe fruit. As my eyes adjusted, I could see boxes of vegetables lined up along the cement floor, and crates of lettuce stacked six high. Dangling from hooks on the ceiling were huge bunches of green bananas that looked liked strange upside down Christmas trees.

“You here to see the spider?” It was the voice of an older girl.

It took me a moment to gather my nerve. “Yes,”

“Well, get in here and close the door.” It was an order not a request.

For a brief second, I hesitated. Then I stepped inside all the way. The heavy door slammed shut behind me.

“I’m around the corner by the pumpkins,” barked the girl. “Hurry up. I ain’t got all day.”

Squinting in the dim light, I saw a mound of pumpkins piled on the floor. Heart pounding, I made my way to them, walked around a partition, and found myself standing in a little alcove. About six feet in front of me was a very overweight teenage girl seated on a folding chair. She had a big bloated face that was red and pitted with acne. Her hair was black and stringy. Her skin was a sickly white color. Even though it was mid way through October and starting to turn cold, she was dressed in a Hawaiian muumuu. She filled it to the seams. At her feet was a bushel basket of red apples. A bare light bulb hung suspended from the ceiling, bathing her in a harsh yellow halo. She was sorting through the apples, tossing the bad ones into a cardboard box to the left of her chair.

She glanced at me. “Who else you got with you?” She had low scratchy voice that sounded angry and mean.

“No one,” I replied. My mouth had grown very dry. It was hard to talk.

“You sure there ain’t no boys hiding in the storeroom? You’d better not be lying. I don’t want nobody sneaking up and trying to get a free look. It’s fifty cents per person.”

“It’s just me,” I said. “Honest.”

“Who are you?” she demanded. “What’s your name?”

“Kathleen,” I managed.

“Kathleen what?”

“McKegan.”

“McKegan?” the girl echoed. She kept staring at me. “Your daddy the one that sells insurance on the next block over?”

“That’s him.”

The girl picked up an apple and examined it. “I suppose you know who I am?” she asked, not looking at me.

“I think so. Are you Donita Monelli?”

She gave a little nod and tossed the apple into the cardboard box. “I wasn’t expecting no little girl to come see a deadly tarantula,” said Donita. She spoke in a mocking way that made me feel bad. “How old are you anyway?”

“Ten and a half . . . next month.”

“Is that all you are?” scoffed Donita. She put the apple back in the basket. “I bet if I showed it to you, you’d start bawling like a baby.”

“I would not!” I declared. “Spiders don’t scare me.”

Donita cocked her head to one side, as if surprised by the way I had spoken to her. “Well, we’ll just see about that, little miss I-ain’t-afraid-of-no-spiders,” she said. “That’ll be fifty cents in advance.” She held out her open palm. It was as white and puffy as bread dough.

I quickly took out my allowance and dropped two quarters into Donita’s outstretched hand. She examined the coins and then slipped them into a pocket of her muumuu. She had a little smile on her face, but it wasn’t the least bit friendly. Reaching behind her chair she brought out a large mayonnaise jar. There was a piece of cheese cloth on the top, secured with a rubber band.

When she held the jar up to the light, my eyes nearly popped from my head. What I was looking at was only the biggest, hairiest, most amazing spider I had ever seen in my entire life. The thing was mostly brown, but it had bands of red, and orange, and yellow on its legs and around its head. I moved in for a closer look. As big as a mouse, Donita`s tarantula stood there on tippy-toes taking up the whole bottom of the jar. I couldn’t stop staring. For what seemed like a good half-minute, I just stood there like I’d been hypnotized.

“Time’s up.” Donita put the jar her behind her back. With her free hand, she gestured for me to leave. “Now, get out of here.”

I couldn’t seem to bring myself to move.

“What does it eat?” I asked. “Flys?”

“None of your business,” she snarled. “I told you to leave.”

I was still glued to the spot. There was something I wanted to say to her, even though I knew it would probably make Donita mad at me, and then I’d be in real trouble. I could almost see her opening my bedroom window while I slept and letting her tarantula inside to bite me. And yet, I just couldn’t leave without telling her what I thought.

Finally I blurted it out in a loud voice. “Donita, your tarantula is about the best thing I ever saw outside of a zoo. You could charge a dollar a look, if you wanted. But you shouldn’t be keeping it in that little jar. It’s not right. It’s a needs a bigger place to move around. Otherwise it won’t live very long, and it’d be awful if it died. It’s too special.”

Donita made a grunting noise. “Who asked you, you little runt? Get lost.” She picked up an apple and hefted it a few times, as if deciding whether to throw it at me.

I quickly turned and hurried into the storeroom. I was halfway to the back door when she called to me.

“Hey, you! Kid! Come back here.”

I stopped walking.

“I got something to show you,” said Donita. “It won’t cost you nothing.”

I was unsure what to do. I knew what Rae-Anne would say. Rae-Anne would say, “Run! Run for you life!” And I probably would have, except there had been something different about Donita’s voice this time. She hadn’t sounded so mean and angry.

“Come on back,” she called. “It’s a surprise. You’ll like it.”

I don’t know where I found the courage, but I turned around and headed for the alcove. When I peeked around the partition, I saw Donita on her chair, holding the mayo jar in plain view. She smiled at me, and this time it was a real smile.

“Watch this,” said Donita. She slipped the cheesecloth from the top of the jar and gently tilted the glass on its side. The tarantula crawled onto Donita’s big belly. It started walking all over her. She never even flinched.

“He ain’t nothing like he looks on the outside,” said Donita. She was speaking in a hushed whisper, as if we were in church. “The truth is, he’s tame as a kitten. I call him Pretty Boy. I looked him up in a book. He’s a Mexican Redknee tarantula.” Donita placed her chubby hand along side the spider. Pretty Boy stepped daintily onto her arm and crawled toward her shoulder. “He likes to be held. I think it’s the warmth he craves.” She looked at him lovingly.

I couldn’t speak a word. I just kept staring at the both of them.

“I keep him in a big box most of the time,” Donita continued, “but I want to make a nice home for him like the one I saw in the book. That’s why I’m charging to see him. I’m saving up for an aquarium.” As Donita talked, Pretty Boy climbed into her hair. “He eats roaches, great big roaches. He jumps on ‘em. I’m going to teach him some tricks, too. He’s real smart.”

And then—just like that—her whole mood changed. Donita was suddenly glaring at me, her thick eyebrows bushing together into a fearsome scowl. “If you ever breathe one word of this to anybody, I’ll kill you. I swear I will. You understand? People got to stay real scared, or I won’t get no business at all. It’d take me forever to buy Pretty Boy a home.”

My knees started shaking. “I won’t tell anyone, Donita, not ever in a million years, not even my best friend Rae-Anne.” I rattled off the words as fast as I could. “I promise.” I kissed my pinky finger, crossed my heart, locked my lips, and tossed the imaginary key into the basket of apples.

“Well, don’t you ever forget,” warned Donita. By this time, Pretty Boy had worked his way to the top of her head and sat perched there like a little hat. “You go on home now,” she said. “I got work to do!”

This time I didn’t linger. I gave a little parting nod and then ran out of the alcove and all the way to the back door. As I grabbed hold of the doorknob, I paused. “Thank you, Donita,” I called over my shoulder. “I’ll never tell. Take good care of him.”

Before she could say anything, I stepped outside and closed the door. Blinking from the sudden brightness, I looked down the alley towards the clubhouse. Rae-Anne was still sitting in the front seat. She waved frantically at me, and I gave her the thumbs-up signal. As I started walking towards that old beat up car, I couldn’t help wondering how long it would be until it got towed away to a junkyard. The workers there would take one look at it, and all they’d see is an old rust bucket with a blown-out engine and a dented hood.

It made me sad to think about it. But at least I know the truth, and so does Rae-Anne. I suppose you have to be a member of the club to understand.

Creative Commons License
The Inside Story by Marla J. Mercer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The Car
By: Jeffrey Hite

The Citroen duck looks a little like a VW Beetle, but without some of the nicer features of the VW. For example the Duck has less horse power and if possible less room inside. But that is what I drive, and it has been since I started this job nearly ten years ago. The car, such that it is, was supposed to be part of my compensation for this job, and was one of the reasons that I was willing to take a low paying job. In the end I was stuck with very little money and an old beat up Citron duck, that I have lovingly named Donald.
This was not the first time Donald had left me stranded. It was not even the first time he had done so while I was on a date, which means quite a bit when you consider that most women walked away from me laughing when they saw him for the first time. However, this was the first time he had stranded me with someone I loved.
To be fair, Marie was my first real love. I had fallen in love with her the first moment I saw her, and I had honestly avoided showing her Donald for a long time. Whenever we went anywhere we took public transit, or if it was close enough we walked. So maybe he knew, maybe he was just getting his revenge, for all the times I had ignored him.
Despite all of that Donald could not have picked a nicer spot to have stalled and died. I had been furious at first, but avoided pounding my fists into the steering wheel in rage because I knew Marie was watching. Instead I counted to one hundred in slowly in my head and tried the engine again. When it would not start I got out of the car and asked Marie to move to the drivers seat while I pushed Donald to the side of the road. I have to add at this point, that one advantage of having such a small car is that it is not too difficult to move it out of traffic when it stalls. Once Donald had been moved safely to the side of the road, I pulled out my mobile and called a towing service and a taxi, Both said they would be there in a bout 40 minutes.
It was only after this that I took a look around us for the first time. We had been traveling along the Rhine river Valley and had made it about 50 kilometers from the university where I taught, but I don’t know that I had ever really seen this little town before. Like most areas in this region the valley walls were covered by vineyards. There was a tower for collecting taxes on and island in the middle of the river and a small castle on the crest of the hill, on the other side of the river.
Together Marie and I walked a little way down the road, and got as close as we could the to the mighty river as we did we could hear the voice of the Lorelei. Marie tucked her arm through mine and pulled me close. I loved the way that felt.
As we stood listening to the voice of the Siren, still sounding young and beautiful as the day her father the river had put her there, I knew what I had to do, and I hoped that it was not the song that was drawing me to the rocks of my own life. I knelt down in from of Marie and asked her to marry me.
So in a way it was Donald that led to you. If he had not stranded your mother and I that night I would have never had the courage to have ask your mother to marry me. That it why even though he has not run in many years I still keep in the garage.

Great Hites Prompt 72

This weeks prompt comes from me, and is the last one for the podiobook:

“Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system.”

All Stories for this prompt are due by Midnight Tuesday September 22nd. Email the text of the story and a recording if you would like me to include it in the podcast to greathites at gmail dot com.

good luck. And don’t forget to come out to the site and vote for your Favorite stories this week. Remember to tell all your friends to come out and join in the fun.


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Great Hites Prompt 71

This weeks prompt comes from me and is:

“You have just been duped by a con-artist.”

All Stories for this prompt are due by Midnight Tuesday September 15th. Email the text of the story and a recording if you would like me to include it in the podcast to greathites at gmail dot com.

good luck. And don’t forget to come out to the site and vote for your Favorite stories this week. Remember to tell all your friends to come out and join in the fun.


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Great Hites 68

This week we have stories by:

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Marla J. Mercer
Norval Joe
Arlene Radasky
and
Mick Bordet <——— This week's WinnerWinner

Marla J. Mercer

My story is based on a newspaper item that I found in the Business Section of the Los Angeles Times dated 8/19/09. The headline reads, “Coffee Jar Case Isn’t Closed”. It’s about a former male model who is suing Nestle USA for using an image of his face on the Taster’s Choice freeze-dried coffee label without his permission. The piece gave me the idea for the following story entitled . . .


An Unauthorized Likeness
By: Marla J. Mercer

A woman in the dayroom is using my face without permission. I saw her reflection in the window today as I was taking a brief walk around the ward. She was standing next to the television. When I turned to confront her, she quickly darted into the water-therapy room. I immediately reported the infraction to the new nurse. He is a big man with thickets of black hair on his forearms. I believe his name is Nurse Roland, though I may have him confused with one of the characters in the novel I am writing—I’m not sure.

That’s one of the things I like about my stay here at the hospital. The members of the staff understand the subtleties of my craft and make no demands on me to sort out what is real from what is fictional and vice versa. When I lived at home with my husband, Benjamin, it was an unspoken rule that I keep my writing-mind separate from my wife-mind, a task I found extremely difficult and frustrating. Sometimes it took all my concentration to keep the filters working. In retrospect I’m surprised that the screaming didn’t start much earlier.

But, I digress. Getting back to my complaint, using the image of another’s person face without prior approval is a clear violation of hospital policy, and unfortunately, this is not the first time it has happened. On several occasions, I have noted that same forlorn-looking woman using an unauthorized likeness of my hands and upper torso. If appropriate steps are not taken to stop her, I may be forced to sue. I will ask my husband about it the next time he visits. Benjamin is an attorney and knows all about the law.

Take, for instance, the details of my commitment. Benjamin was able to quickly cut through the legal red tape and have me admitted for immediate long-term care, forgoing the usual 72-hour observation period. Everything is spelled out quite clearly in the meticulously prepared documents that he has since filed. Benjamin prides himself on being efficient and well-organized, which is why he considers me to be such a disappointment.

I suppose I can’t blame him for thinking that I have failed him as a wife. For the record, though, I would like to state that I tried very hard to be the kind of competent woman he wanted me to be. Each morning, before Benjamin left for work, we would carefully review the list of daily household chores and errands that he had prepared for me.

“Just work your way down the list, one task at time, and you’ll see how easy it is to get everything done,” he would say.

I would nod in agreement and kiss him goodbye, fully intending to follow his instructions to the letter.
It’s just that . . . I would find myself walking past the computer. And then I would start thinking about a story I was working on, and without even realizing it, I was Alice down the rabbit hole. Before I knew it, Benjamin would be home from work, and I would still be dressed in my pajamas, clicking away at the keyboard, and not a single item crossed off the list.

I have tried to explain the phenomenon of writing-related time warps, but Benjamin thinks I am crazy. To him, time proceeds in an orderly and methodical fashion. His minutes are well-trained soldiers on parade, each equal distance apart and marching in perfect cadence. He keeps a very close eye on them, too, and is forever checking his watch, especially when he comes to visit me.

Luckily, the fluid nature of clocks and calendars is no longer an issue that concerns me. The staff here keeps track of everything on my behalf. Visiting days, appointments, meal times, medication schedules—I need not give them a second thought. For the first time in my life, I am free to write day and night, without any restrictions.

It took my good friend, Doctor Melvin, to figure out that if I am writing, I am not screaming, which is why he has issued orders for the staff never to interrupt me when I am working. Their cooperation and support do not go unnoticed and will be duly acknowledged when my novel is published. I will also be including a special dedication to Doctor Melvin for supplying me with the most amazing computer imaginable. It has increased my productivity a thousand fold.

My old computer at home required me to manually type the words to my stories, a method so pathetically slow that only the tiniest percentage of my ideas ever found their way to my fingertips. Here at the hospital, however, Doctor Melvin has granted me round-the-clock access to a special brainwave computer that eliminates the need for any keyboard input whatsoever. With my new equipment, I am able to transfer each and every thought directly into the central processing unit at the same lightening-fast speed at which my neural synapses are firing. Though Doctor Melvin has yet to reveal the technical specifications of the hardware, I strongly suspect the circuitry involved is similar to the machine used for my shock treatments, for I often experience a tremendous rush of creativity after a session.

I have asked Doctor Melvin and the staff not to mention anything to my husband. If Benjamin were to find out about the brainwave computer, I fear he would have me transferred to another hospital. After what happened the night I was committed, I am convinced he would stop at nothing to keep me from pursuing my writing career.

“I’ve had it with this little hobby of yours” he had declared that evening.

I had just returned from the grocery store and was putting a sack of groceries on the counter. “What are you talking about?” I had asked.

“You weren’t here when I got home, and now it’s six-thirty, and you haven’t even started supper. I’ve tried to be tolerant and indulge you, Lena, but I’ve reached my limit. Look at this place. It’s a mess. Enough is enough. From here on out, you’re going to stop all this writing nonsense and get your priorities back in order.”

His words had slapped my face as surely as an open palm. “But, I can’t stop writing,” I had protested. “My stories are the only things in my life that—”

“Your stories are gone,” Benjamin had interrupted. “While I was here by myself, wondering where you were, I was forced to take matters into my own hands.”

A shiver of fear had run up my spine. “What do you mean?”

“I’m saying that I’ve solved our problem. I deleted all your document files and shredded your paper copies. I cleared everything off the external hard drive, as well.”

“You what!”

“It’s for the best, Lena. I read a few pages. Believe me—it’s no great loss. You’re a housewife, not a writer.”

And that’s when the high-pitched screaming had started. Until then, I hadn’t realized the full range of my vocal chords. At least, I think I was the one doing the screaming. It’s possible that it might actually have been a character in my novel. It’s so hard to keep these things straight. Or perhaps it was that very sad-looking woman who keeps using my body without proper authorization or consent. I have a hunch she is the one I sometimes hear crying when I wake up at night. Maybe I should write a story about her.

Then again . . . maybe I already have.

Creative Commons License
An Unauthorized Likeness by Marla J. Mercer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


Crowded Living Space
By: Norval Joe

“Come on, it’s over this way,” Dean said. He motioned for his cousin to follow, and ran forward, not waiting for a response. When he reached a bend in the passage, he turned to wait for the slower boy.
“Wait, Dean, let me rest a bit. No one is following us anyway.” Bent over, his hands on his knees, he gasped for air.
“We don’t know that Vance, my little brothers are sneaky and persistent. If you’d stop breathing so loud, I could listen for them, and know for sure.” Dean stepped back down the dark hallway and listened. Vance tried to control his breathing. For the few seconds while there was silence, Dean confirmed that they were, in fact, alone.
They held their lanterns in front of themselves. While the light illuminated the ground at their feet for only a few yards, it was picked up by reflected by small sensors on the walls for almost 100 feet. “Three more sensors on the left and then we turn,” Dean said.
“How can you be sure. I’m completely lost, and you think you know where you’re going?” Vance was skeptical.
“Look, Vance, you just have to pay attention. How far was it from our apartment, to the lowest inhabited floor?”
“Umm. Six, I think. Was it six,” he asked Dean?
“No,” Dean said, incredulous. “It was eleven. Then how many floors did we descend until got to the long passage? Think about it, four flights of stairs for every floor, you should have been counting.” He could see Vance wrinkle his brow and purse his lips in concentration.
“Ten?” Vance guessed.
“You have no idea, do you? Come on, you look rested enough.” Dean walked down the hall, his lamp creating an island of light in the vast darkness. “We descended eighty four flights of stairs. That’s twenty one more floors. Thirty two in all. At about twenty feet per story we’ve dropped 640 feet from our apartment and 420 below the last active air pump.”
“Air pump. Now I get it,” Vance said, and wiped sweat from his forehead. “Is that why it’s so stuffy down here?
There aren’t any air pumps working.”
“Yeah. Where the people live they have to pump the air in to keep it fresh. Once, I tried to get to an opening on our level. I wanted to see the sky and breath outside, in the open air. I walked for almost a day, maybe in circles, but I never found a way out. Here is the next turn. Come on, in here.”
They entered another passage. It ran a short distance, maybe 100 yards, and stopped at a heavy door.
“Be careful here,” Dean said to Vance. “Here, take this chair leg and jam it in there when I open the door,” Dean said and indicated the hinged side of the door. “It worked to hold the door open the last time I came through here, but it was tough doing it by myself.”
Dean pulled back a large spring loaded bolt, held it with one hand, and pushed on the manual door release with the other. Years ago the door may have been operated electronically; prismatic sensors on the door and wall were evidence of past technology.
Dean pushed the door open and Vance wedged it like he was told. Wind from outside rushed past them blowing their hair and clothes, and trying to force the door shut again. There was just enough space through the open door for each boy to squeeze through and onto a narrow ledge.
Dean was smiling as he watched the other boy make his way out onto the ledge and look down. The shock and fear on his face was clear and Dean laughed out loud, and shouted at his cousin, “slide sideways over this way. There’s a wider place to stand.”
They moved along the narrow shelf to a broader landing where they could sit, comfortably, and catch their breath.
The outer wall of the building dropped away into darkness impenetrable to the light of the small lanterns. Only a few feet away, across the infinite drop, was another building. It had a similar landing to the one where they sat, and an open doorway.
“So is this what you wanted to show me? A ledge above a bottomless pit,” Vance asked. “I mean, what can you see? All I can see is ways up to the side of the building and that other one over there.”
“No, this isn’t it. We’re almost there, though. It’s just through that door and way down at the end of the passage.” Dean replied pointing at the rectangular shadow on the building opposite where they rested. He got to his feet, took a few running steps and jumped across the chasm.
“Are you crazy? What are you doing?” Vance cried at Dean.
“Come on, you wimp. You could step across that big a space if you didn’t think about it. Let’s go. We need to get back home sometime.” Dean laid on the pressure.
They walked along the passage without talking for some time, then Vance said, “how many apartments do you think we’ve passed? And not a person in one of them.”
Dean started calculating, “well, there are supposed to be around 8000 apartments on the floor we live on, and that’s without crossing to other buildings on our same level. We’ve dropped 21 floors that are uninhabited, to where we crossed over to this one. If this building is anything like ours, that would be 42 floors total, so about 320,000 apartments. If you put 20 people in each of them, like we have at home, then you could house 6,400,000 people in the space we have walked.”
“Huh,” was all Vance could say.
“Hey, look ahead of you,” Dean said.
“Why? All I can see is five feet in any direction with this cheep lantern,” Vance said, then stopped, suddenly. “No, wait your right. What’ that?”
Dean didn’t answer. Instead he burst into a run, and shouted, “let’s go.”
They ran the rest of the distance to the open doorway at the far end of the passage where they burst through and fell gasping for breath on a landing similar to that at the opposite end.
Again, Dean watched the other’s face as realization dawned on his cousin.
The sun was only slightly smaller in appearance to the great orange planet above them. The sun stood side by side with Jupiter as if pausing for a moment before passing behind the gas giant.
“Perfect,” Dean said. “Last time I was here the sun was on the back side of the moon and all I could see was the planet. Let’s wait for the full eclipse before we head back.”
They ate crackers and protein slices they had brought with them and watched as the sun slipped slowly behind Jupiter. When the sun was completely hidden, Ganymede was cast into an eerie semi darkness, illuminated by the glow from the planet.
Narrow stairs climbed precariously up and down the cliff like exterior of the city building. Other buildings, like mountain peaks, rose from below, built upon the foundations, or even the backs, of other, more ancient structures.
“Come on, let’s head back. Our mothers are probably worrying by now,” Dean said. He got up and brushed cracker crumbs from his clothes. Vance followed and got to his feet as well.
“Dean, why don’t we stay here? It’s so crowded back home, with four families crammed into one apartment. Here we have plenty of space to move around, and the air is fresh. It doesn’t need to be pumped; we can just leave the door open.”
“There are only two problems,” Dean said, heading back up the tunnel. “Food and water. We need both to live, and right now the only source of those is Uncle Rob. He’s feeding all of our families.”
There was a slope to the hallway they hadn’t notice coming down. They were soon huffing as they hiked back up.
Between breaths, Dean suddenly said, matter of factly, “I saw one of the slaves.”
“You did not, liar.” Vance said, out of childish habit.
“I did. That time I was trying to find a way out on our level. It was carrying some packages for an old woman.” Dean slowed to allow his companion to catch up.
“Was it ugly? I heard they’re blue, I would kill it if I found one. For taking all our jobs. Well, for taking our parents jobs.”
Dean shook his head. “It was kind of blue, but kind of grey too. Something to do with how they lived underground on Callista.” He paused, then started again, “You’re right. It’s not fair that they come in here, get all the advantages of modern civilization, live with some rich old woman, and take all our jobs.”
“But then we wouldn’t get to have all the fun we do, if we weren’t squeezed into the one small room together, would we?” Dean asked sarcastically.
They both laughed as they stepped through the door way onto the inner landing, between the two buildings. The laughter ended suddenly and they stood, stunned.
“Well, ok. I guess my brothers will have a little more space in the bedroom from now on,” Dean said. “The door to our building is closed, and there’s no way to open it from outside.”

No karaoke for you! Bad wiring spells tone-deaf
By: Arlene Radasky

“Gracie? Where are we going tonight?” Josh’s voice carried over the stunted walls of the warehouse like office.

“Oh no, you didn’t invite him, did you Gracie?” Mary’s stage whisper didn’t carry as far but embarrassed me just a much.

“I couldn’t help it, he overheard us talking at lunch. You know how much fun he said he had the last time he came with us,” I responded in a muted grimace. “He invited himself.”

I stood up, looked toward Josh’s voice and saw him standing, no towering, over the half wall that separated us all like mice in a maze. He was at least six foot two and had a body of a tennis player. I always compared a lanky man’s body to a tennis player’s. I loved watching tennis and dreamed of meeting Andre Agassi and Roger Federer climbing the stairs of my apartment building. But Josh was a not a tennis player, his rangy dishwater blond hair hanging to his ears in disarray; he looked like the geek he was. His shirt pocket sported at least two pens and the black-rimmed glasses were not over his brown eyes, but slipped half way down his nose. And he wasn’t coordinated. As a matter of fact, we all had learned to step out of his way when he was up walking. He invariably would catch his feet under a chair or even his own foot as he made his way to or from his cubicle.

“Tony’s Bar and Grill,” I said.

He disappeared. I shook my head as I again imagined him climbing into one of those little clown cars. How comfortable can he be all day long in the tiny cubicle of our office spaces? It was hard for me to stay put all day in our individual cell-like squares.

I heard Mary getting ready for our departure and reached into the bottom drawer for my sweater and purse.

Mary stood waiting in the entrance to my cubicle while I turned off my computer and straightened up tomorrow’s work on my otherwise bare desk. Mary had pictures of all her nieces and nephews spread around the walls of her cubicle, a vase with a plastic rose, an tiny hour glass filled with sand from the Grand Canyon, a six inch Eiffel Tower and more that she arranged and rearranged everyday. She had been to the Grand Canyon last year and said when she held the Tower that she could imagine herself climbing its steps “all the way to the top to look over Paris someday”.

“Why don’t you at least bring in some pictures of your family?” she asked.

“I see them often enough, I don’t need pictures,” I said. I didn’t want to explain that there was no family to have pictures of. My twin brother and I had been orphaned, farmed out to foster families, after our parents were killed by a drunk driver when we were ten. Then he got sick three years ago, just before I started work here, and died. I remembered him just fine. Anyway, there were no pictures of him that I knew of. The foster families we were with never took pictures.

“Come on, if we don’t hurry, all the good seats will be taken,” I said. We caught up with Josh at the elevator. “We can take a taxi and share the fare or the train, take an hour and still have to walk a mile,” I said.

“Taxi,” they both said at the same time.

The three of us squeezed into the backseat, me in the middle because my legs were shorter, and I told the driver where we were going.

Just after we got started, Josh’s cell rang. We all had to squirm into yoga-like positions while he dug into his pocket. Finally retrieved, he opened his phone.

“Hello. No, Tamisha, don’t do that. I’m sure she’ll be fine. Just be sure there is water and food out for her and I’m sure she’ll come out when I get home later. Okay. Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

What…did he have a wife hiding under the covers at home?

I looked at Mary and she shrugged.

“Do you need to go home?” I asked.

“No.”

Brave Mary leaned forward and asked, “Well, who is Tamisha and who the heck is the water and food for?”

We didn’t know what his situation was at home, but I knew I remembered him saying he wasn’t married the last time he came out with our group. There was no way I would want to be out with him right now if he were.

“Tamisha is a neighbor. She lives in the apartment next to me.”

The silence was deafening, even with all the traffic on the streets and the songs on the taxi radio with words I didn’t understand.

Mary had not settled back into the seat yet and even found enough room to turn toward Josh. I squirmed as the little room I had between them seemed to grow smaller.

“Okay. Tamisha goes in and feeds Twinkie when I’m late. She loves my dogs, well, now my dog, and I’m hardly ever late so she told me to call her when I needed. I called her before we left.”

Now it was my turn to ask. “Twinkie?”

“Yes, Twinkie. She’s my miniature Dachshund. I had two but Burger died two weeks ago and Twinkie still misses him. She hides under my bed most of the day.”

Oh my God. A rush of memories flooded my brain. My brother had a Dachshund. He said he wanted a pet and a small dog was perfect. His dog’s name was Brandy. He said it was because she was the color of his favorite drink. She was five years old when she got cancer and died. He spent a small fortune, money he didn’t have to spend on a dog, on her. But she died anyway. It was just months later that he was diagnosed. At that moment, I realized just how much I missed seeing that little dog. All the times I saw them together, before her illness, I remember him smiling.

On my left Mary said, “Oh, I hate those little wiener dogs. They look so weird. I mean, why are they so long? And so low to the ground? I don’t like any dogs. I’m allergic.”

Now I realized just how little I knew about Mary.

“I love them,” I said. “Are you going to get another to keep Twinkie company?”

“I have my bid in with a family who has a litter of pups. They live near my sister. I have the pup picked out and he will be ready to pick up in two weeks, when he is two months old.”

“Yuck. Puppy pee all over your carpet and chewed slippers is all you have to look forward to,” said Mary.

Josh’s arm lying on mine, in this crowded cab, did not seem so much an inconvenience any more. Actually, I kind of liked its pressure on mine.

The taxi pulled up to the curb in front of Tony’s and we fell out of the back, one at a time, all reaching for our money. Paid, the driver took off, singing along with the song on his radio.

We found our table in the back, but with a fairly good view of the karaoke stage. Four others from our office were already there so we pulled up some empty chairs and joined them, Josh sitting next to me.

I loved karaoke. I don’t know why, but even with my fear of standing in front of any one and talking, to the point of throwing up before any meeting I have to give a presentation at, karaoke did not scare me. I loved to sing. And here was a stage, shared with others like me, who knew we would not get the chance any other time to sing in front of a crowd. Perfect. So I came as often as I could.

The noise was loud enough that I had to lean toward Josh and asked, “Last time you came, you didn’t sing. Are you going to tonight?”

He shook his head hair bouncing around his face, “No. I’m tone deaf. I can’t sing. I actually can barely tell one song from another.” His finger pushed his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. “I can tell by the words, but if it is instrumental, I can’t tell classical from jazz.”

I stared at him. “Really?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am a part of a study. I’ve been to Harvard Medical School three times now. There is a doctor there, who wanted to find out how different our brains were. I get all wired up and then she records what happens when she plays music. And she asks me to sing. Afterwards, we have a good laugh. My singing is really bad.”

“But then, why did you come here tonight?”

I think he blushed but it was hard to tell in that light.

“I want to get to know you better. And I thought it would be easier this way. I don’t do well asking women out on dates.”

“Oh… Me?”

“Yes. You. I like the way you smile and you are so nice to everyone in the office. Even Mary.” He smiled and I could see his eyes crinkle. I loved it when men’s eyes crinkle.

Suddenly I wanted to tell him everything. Everything that I had never told anyone in the office before. About my parents dying, about being raised by foster parents, about my brother’s dog, Brandy dying and then my brother, Terry leaving me. I wanted to get him into a corner of a quiet place and open my heart. Why? Why? Because he loved Dachshunds and his eyes crinkled.

“My brother had a Dachshund, named Brandy, who died of cancer. Was that what Burger died from?”

“No, his kidneys shut down.”

We were almost yelling when the crowd got quiet as the first karaoke singer started. It was Country Western night and a lot of teasing and cat-calls were expected at some of the songs that were going to be picked. All in fun. I smiled in anticipation.

It was my turn. I got up to the stage and made my request.

Two measures of music led into Ghost Riders in the Sky and I started singing.

An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day

Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way

When all at once a mighty pack of brown-eyed dogs he saw

A-plowing through the ragged sky and up the cloudy draw

Their tongues hung in greetings and their tails wagged hello

He knew the respect they carried and their hot breath he could feel

A longing of love went through him as they thundered through the sky

And he saw the pups coming hard and he heard their yipping cry

Yippie yi Ohhhhh

Yippie yi yaaaaay

Ghost Dachshunds in the sky

Yippie yi Ohhhhh

Yippie yi Yaaaaay

Ghost Dachshunds in the sky

Yippie yi Ohhhhh

Yippie yi Yaaaaay

I heard laughter I had heard before. Looking over at our table, I saw Josh laughing and wiping his eyes. It was my brother Terry’s laughter. The same from the belly laughter that I didn’t hear often enough from him. Yes, I told myself. I don’t care if he is tone deaf. I love his laughter. I want to get to know Josh much better and meet Twinkie.


The Pit
by: Mick Bordet

It had been a long day for Jim Sykes. Not only had he spent the last five hours with his mother, listening to her planning out the strategy for her entry into the World Cloutie Dumpling Championships, “they’re to be held in Lochaber, this year, you know, James,” she had told him at least a dozen times, but he had been volunteered to give his crotchety sister a lift back to her home in Auchterarder. If he didn’t know her well enough, he might have thought she was so crabbit* because she had spent the last week with their mother, a kind, well-meaning old widow who threw herself into each new venture with a passion rarely seen in the over-eighties. Up until the recent announcement that the dumpling competition was to be held in Lochaber, practically on her doorstep, she had been knitting scarves for “the old folks”, as she called everyone in her own generation. Now she had something with a challenge, a deadline and, most importantly, the opportunity to prove, once and for all, that she could out-bake Sadie MacIver and receive a trophy to prove it. Jim and his sister, Brenda, had sat patiently, listening to her admit that some arty-farty chef from one of the posh restaurants would probably win, but as long as she made it into a round higher than Sadie, she’d be happy.
Brenda always spent at least one week every year at her mother’s house and had been doing so since their father died. It had started with her feeling she should be there for her mother on the anniversary of his funeral, but as the years went on, she found she enjoyed the company more and more. She was quite happy living alone with her two dogs and a goldfish for company most of the year, avoiding most human contact, but had to admit that she always looked forward to her annual trips North, even if she always came home with a new set of neuroses about her mother’s latest infatuations.
“I may love them to bits,” said Sykes as he waited at the junction to join the traffic speeding by on the A9 towards Perth, “but thank God I live on my own. If Janice had been that intense, I’d probably have strangled her long before she got the opportunity to leave me.”
He was glad to be back on dual-carriageway after the last two and a half hours travelling under fifty around the highland roads. The scenery on the road to Lochaber was certainly more stunning and rugged than that on the East coast, but he was happy to exchange beauty for the chance to put his foot down and get moving again.
“Aw, damn it!” he cursed as he rounded a corner not much more than a mile further on to be confronted by a long tail-back of traffic. He tapped the screen of his satnav to work a way around the jam, which directed him to turn off onto a B road that would return him to the motorway on the other side of Perth. The new route took him back onto twisty country roads, through the village of Forteviot, where a line of cars had parked along his already narrow route. There was a group of people milling around in the middle of what had once been a field, but now looked like a cross between a construction site and a crime scene. His natural curiosity got the better of him and he parked his own car at the end of the line, locked it up and walked up to the gathering to see what was happening.
He was almost disappointed to see a sign announcing an open day for an archaeological dig that was taking place. That was not something he would expect to see drawing crowds like this, nor would it, in the past, have been of any interest to him. However, given his recent brushes with obscure ancient symbolism, he did now have a newly discovered interest in Scotland’s distant past, so headed towards the middle of the group of people.
There he found a young man with rosy cheeks and wind-blown hair explaining the latest find to those gathered round him with an infectious enthusiasm.
“… and it is clear from the items found in the tomb here, that this was a man of some standing within the community, most likely a king. The effort required to move a slab as large as this,” he said, pointing to a huge rectangular stone sitting to one side of the hole in the ground, “would not be undertaken lightly.”
Sykes glanced at the huge rock, impressed with the feat of engineering required to move such a massive object, but more interested in the artefacts the man had mentioned lay within the tomb. Only after a few moments did it occur to him what he had just seen. He moved closer to the rock and adjusted his glasses to look at the detail. There, carved into the stone, were a set of familiar symbols. Now he wished he had known about this earlier and had seen the man’s whole presentation.
“Excuse me,” he said to the man, interrupting his talk,”but could you tell us about these symbols?”
“Well, they are a bit of a puzzle, I’ll admit,” the youth answered, “you see, those were carved on the inside of the tomb, but their location is such that they would have been scraped away when the rock was dragged into position. It seems that they were etched there only after the stone had been laid in place, so either these people had some way of raising and then lowering four tonnes of solid stone, or…”
Sykes finished the sentence for him, “… or someone was buried alive.”

# # #

Alfrad thought back to the day it had all started, the day the stranger came to the village. His people had shown the man the same courtesy and hospitality that they had shown Alfrad eighty years earlier when it was he who was the stranger, looking for shelter from the biting rain. It was in their nature to welcome any such traveller or visitor on a quest and they saw nothing untoward in the new arrival. Within a day or two of his appearance, though, Alfrad started to notice that the man was constantly questioning people and most of the questions seemed to point back to him. Why was this person, whom he had never even seen before that day, so interested in his life?
Seeds of doubt had been sown amongst the people he considered to be his friends, his adopted family, even. Now they were asking him questions, clearly prompted by the stranger, about where he came from, why he had stayed here, so far from his own kin and, most telling, why it was that everybody knew him to be a visitor from an island far away, yet nobody had any memory of his arrival. He stalled the questions as best he could, but there was no good answer. How could he explain that he had been living amongst them for a dozen years before even the oldest of the elders had been born?
Over all the years he had lived in here, nobody had asked such things, indeed he didn’t believe the thoughts had even occurred to them. He had felt like this was his home, had never been more at ease, comfortable and loved, but for the first time ever he had become an outsider.
A group of eight men, guided from the rear by the stranger, had grabbed him from his sleep that morning, binding his wrists and legs and preventing him from reaching any of the tools he owned that he could have used to protect himself.
The shallow pit was of his own devising; he had taught the villagers the stone-working skills necessary to dig and line it, ready for use as a multi-purpose store for the harvest over the winter months and as a water store over the dry summer. He had struggled for his life when they dragged him over and threw him in, then all had gone dark as his head hit the stone floor.
He regained consciousness as the huge slab was being pulled over him, waking in time to see the last inches of daylight being blocked out.
“Help me! Why are you doing this?” he shouted in desperation.
“You have tricked us for too long, daemon. Connor has shown us the truth of it. You never age, your skills in stone craft are unnatural and you talk of strange things, the like of which we have never heard.
Alfrad was stronger than most men, despite his narrow frame, but with his hands tied and the sheer weight of the massive stone slab, he was unable to stop them closing out the daylight forever. He had never cried before, his people rarely did, but now he wept. Not for himself, but for the experiences he would miss, for his friends, misled by some unknown evil or insatiable greed to betray him and for their future, for without his guidance and teaching, they would be subject to the same diseases, famines and hardships as every other un-developed clan in the area. Then at some point, when it was too late, they would realise their mistake and rue the day they had listened to the twisted words of a stranger over their friend and ally.
All that remained was for him to wait for the end, his mind drifting off as the oxygen in his tomb was used up. Productive to the last, he worked with a piece of quartz from beneath him to scratch out a message to his people. He left the symbol for his own clan and alongside that, the symbols that said simply, “Forgive them”.

Notes:
*Crabbit – Scots word for grumpy