The house was still—so quiet and somber after Gran’s passing—but Kiri refused to turn on the TV or crank up her earbuds just to fill the silence with trivial sounds. She wanted to catch the memory of Gran’s voice, to hear that mischievous laugh again. Within that nothingness, the faintest of snuffles echoed in the hallway outside Gran’s study, where Kiri was reviewing for a test.
Putting her Econ book face down on the desk, she stepped close to the hall doorway and listened.
There it was again. Snuffle, snort.
Unnerved—she was alone in the house—Kiri poked her head cautiously around the door frame to look down the hall. Empty.
With a small sigh of relief, she walked down the hall and into the dining room to check there. The room was cramped not only with the eight-foot dining table, but also a sideboard, a corner cabinet and a large breakfront. She’d eaten many a meal in this room, with her Gran and, in the years before his death, Gramps presiding. Now both were gone. Despite the bulky furniture, the room felt empty, lifeless.
Scanning the area, Kiri noticed a small figurine on the otherwise cleared table. She picked it up. About six inches long and four inches high: An antelope with its feet tucked neatly beneath it, two short, thin horns, and large deer-like ears. It seemed to gaze at her with dark glistening eyes.
“Where did you come from?” Kiri addressed the object, turning it over.
Oribi, a small African antelope, the label affixed to the bottom said.
Kiri’s gaze wandered to the breakfront. In addition to Gran’s delicate china pieces with their faint blue cloud pattern, the shelves held a few other figurines: an impala and a gazelle, their horns much longer and more curved than the oribi’s.
Gran had a thing for antelopes even though she’d never seen one outside of the Philadelphia Zoo. “To be able to run with that grace and speed,” she told Kiri. “It must be an incredible sight on the savanna.”
Africa had been on Gran’s bucket list, but the Fates had another idea: cancer.
Kiri put the oribi back in its place, with the others, and closed the breakfront section. It had been a month since the memorial service and her parents’ decision that Kiri could live at the house, but how she missed Gran.
As evening came on, she cooked herself dinner, washed up, and went back to studying. Her class final was in two days.
Deep in thought on volume discount pricing theory, she was startled by another noise from the hallway.
Once again, Kiri followed the noise to the dining room, and there sat the oribi figurine, back on the table.
She picked it up, but this time, she carried it with her to the study. Clearing away a few papers and notebooks, she put the figurine under the desk lamp. How odd. Its head was turned now, instead of looking straight ahead. She ran her fingers along the antelope’s ceramic neck but could feel no place where it could swivel.
Two hours later, Kiri yawned and stretched. She had finished her review. She closed her laptop and textbook, and reached to switch off the lamp. The figurine had vanished from the desktop.
This time, Kiri jumped to her feet. What the—?
In the pool of light from the lamp stood the quavering image of an oribi—at about two feet high, it was the size of a medium dog, but with thin legs, small hooves, and no horns. Ethereal, the doe nuzzled Kiri’s thigh.
Then the realization hit her.
“Gran, is that you?” Kiri knelt and put her hands on either side of the creature’s face. It made no move to pull away, only looked at her with those same dark glistening eyes. Was that a hint of a smile? A moment later, Kiri was once again holding the figurine.
That night, she nestled the ceramic piece next to her pillow and dreamed of running fleet-foot across a sea of grasses under an equatorial sun.
The garrison commander had barely closed his eyes, ready for the escape that sleep would grant him, when the duty officer shook his shoulder. Newbolt was new but competent, so his lapse of protocol—waking him instead of dealing with the crisis on his own—surprised the commander. The fear in Newbolt’s eyes was genuine, though.
“Another checkpoint problem?” For more than two months, the Runeheads had been slipping past the guards, somehow blending in with the regulars on the route into Locke Town. The garrison’s whole purpose was to monitor the traffic in and out of the city, to stop the Runeheads from gaining a foothold there.
“No, sir.” Newbolt was nervous.
Mosby sat up in bed and reached for his tunic. “What then?” He dressed quickly but thoroughly, aware that the chill of this alien night would knife through him if he wasn’t prepared.
“It’s the blinking light, sir.”
Inwardly, Mosby groaned. It was difficult enough to keep the garrison fully staffed because of its remoteness from Earth-based settlements. Throw in a race that lacked humanoid features and resented the soldiers’ presence. Now he faced his latest challenge, dispelling rumors of the Runeheads’ telepathic control of energy. Three men in the last week had requested a transfer after reporting a flashing light that immobilized them.
“Show me.” He followed Newbolt out to the perimeter gate. The guard station was awash in floodlights, but the brightness stopped a few feet out and the terrain beyond was inky, empty and quiet. “Shut off the lights,” Mosby ordered. He and Newbolt stared into the sudden darkness for several minutes. With his hand on his stunner, he wondered if he could trust Newbolt. Perhaps the duty officer and the others who had seen the phenomenon were in the first stages of hallucination disorder. He would need to file a report, encourage them to seek treatment, and ask for additional staff while they were on sick leave.
“There,” Newbolt hissed.
Mosby scanned the blackness, hoping he would not see anything.
“There—do you see it?” Newbolt’s voice quavered. “What is it? It’s got to stop.” He disappeared into the night.
“Newbolt, wait.” Mosby listened for his footsteps but heard nothing. He moved to switch the floodlights back on, but above and to his right, a green light began blinking. It was small but insistent, and it was moving. “Newbolt?”
Yesterday Rebecca Forster posted a challenge on FB. Write about whatever pops into your head right now. I’d just listened to the 1st WH news conference and feeling an odd mixture of ignorant, apprehensive and sardonic this is what came tumbling out:
Only one Rhode Island Red crowed like that. And it hadn’t come from Scoundrel’s pen. Curly Tuwitt ground his teeth—all seven of them. He hated that wart faced, belly slitherin’, wrinkled old hag on a good day but this—this was the last straw from a lifetime of her crap.
Already het up over the never ending updates and dire warnings about that Chiineeze virus pouring from the TV, pissed that he’d failed to stock up on anything and was out of everything. (There was that one lone can of beans, and he hated to think what that could lead to.) A second, clearly distant call from Scoundrel chased out any thoughts of supplies and focused his blazing anger.
The first time he’d seen her was skippin’ across his grannie’s strawberry patch, just a pickin’ and a nibblin’ her way through those fat ripe berries like she done own it all; like she’s the one who’d been out in the last frost, barefoot and freezin’, just to get the young plants covered and then come early summer who you think did the weedin’ and the waterin’?
He wasn’t but six and that girl looked tall. Despite that he knew she weren’t much older than him. With that fiery red hair and those rusty freckles like she was in the way come sloppin’ time he knew this was Marjo Geordy. Pa said that whole clan was troublesome.
“Hey, you there! Put them berries down now or I’m a gonna whoop your skinny butt fer stealin.” Curly’d made his voice as deep and growly as he could and he’d stood his ground, frowning, like a man ready to make good on his word.
Marjo looked up, slowly placing a purloined berry into the basket on her arm. Her mouth, red with the smear of ripe strawberries, looked to be dripping in blood. A slow, malicious smile bared reddened teeth. “Where you want me to put ‘em, big scary man?”
Marjo didn’t sound scared and for a moment Curly was flummoxed. “Down. Put ‘em down. Right there.” Curly pointed vaguely to the edge of the patch. He hoped he sounded as stern as Pa when he caught Curly in the sugar bowl.
Marjo looked to where he’d pointed. Her smile got even wider and she turned back to him. “Okay. But you better be ready to grab this basket quick. I don’t give up easy.” Her long legs took three steps to the edge of the patch and reaching out one long skinny arm she placed the basket high on the top of a bush. Three reverse steps took her back in the patch. She didn’t have to say a word; her whole body screamed challenge.
Curly looked to the basket and knew he’d have to jump to reach it. I’m fast; I can do it. Running like lightening he’d leapt into the bush, grabbed the basket and got a snoot full of unmistakable scent—poison sumac. A cackle of mirth faded into the distance. That was just the first time.
Curly understood life takes us on unexpected paths. From his family’s farm down the road of economic highs and lows he’d come near his end in this dusty settlement of trailers, not more’n 60 feet from his nemesis. There was some satisfaction in seeing Marjo brought to the same pass but she had taken Scoundrel and that was the final poke she was gonna take at him.
Heaving himself out of the recliner he slammed out the door, grabbed his pitchfork and stormed across the open 60 feet. “Marjo Jean Geordy you give me back my rooster or I’m gonna use this pitch fork to take him.”
“Possession is nine tenths of the law. Got papers to prove that last one tenth?”
“You stole Scoundrel and you know it, you skinny old cow.”
“Naw. No stealin’. I just took him to try him out. I like him. That rooster is as purdy as everyone says. I‘ll trade ya for him.”
It was always like this. Marjo Geordy bein’ all reasonable like and Curly Tuwitt gettin’ flustered and maybe a little confused. “You can’t trade for somethin’ ya stole.” Curly glared at Marjo who leaned calmly against her little storage shed.
“Mebbe not in regular days but things’re a bit different right now. Might be there’s somehin’ you want more’n that rooster.”
Curly lowered his pitchfork, eyes wary as he saw the familiar smile creep over her lips. “What could I possibly want more’n the best Rhode Island Red in the tri-counties?”
Still graceful and wiry after all these years Marjo turned and pulled the shed door open, bowing like she was presenting the Queen of Sheba. Curly stared into the shadows at rows and rows and stacks and stacks of toilet paper.
It had always been like this and it looked like it always would.
Liz Cooper rushed around her apartment collecting everything she should have assembled last night: towels, sunscreen, hat, glasses. She thought she’d have more time this morning. And she would have, if she hadn’t hit the snooze alarm so many times that it shut off for good.
Today she was seeing Kathleen, her best friend since first grade, who had the nerve to marry a great guy who swept her out of Orange County and all the way north to Seattle. While her great guy sweltered at a convention in Atlanta, Kath had taken a bungalow for a week at Huntington Beach. Liz planned to spend all day Saturday with Kath and her three kids. Or what was left of Saturday, after the 30-mile drive to the beach.
Liz glanced around her apartment and quickly confirmed that she was ready to leave. As she slid her half-read novel into the outside pocket of her tote, the phone rang. She grabbed it on the second ring.
“Oh, Liz, you haven’t left yet.” Kath sounded harried. But with three kids under age nine, she always sounded that way.
“Sorry, I’m running late. I’ll be there.”
“No, this is great. My brother called and I need you to pick him up.”
“Pick him up?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you he’s coming to the beach with us today? The kids haven’t seen Uncle Joey in, like, forever.”
“Joey’s coming with us?” She remembered Kathleen’s bratty brother. The thing about kid brothers was that there was no reason to let them live. When Joey wasn’t releasing captured reptiles into Kath’s bedroom while they played, he was invading Barbie and Ken’s wedding with his army of Imperial Storm Troopers.
“Look, if you want to make this just family . . .”
“Don’t be silly. The kids want to see you and they want to see Joey. You haven’t seen him in years! This’ll be fun!” Kath gushed.
Liz doubted she’d find Joey all that fun, but for Kath and the kids’ sake, she agreed to pick him up. She wrote down the directions to his place, packed her gear and took off.
Before she reached Joey’s address, she saw a tall guy in trunks and T-shirt, dark glasses and carrying a gym bag, standing halfway into her lane. Kath must have told him about her car, because he waved her over with a “Hey, Liz!”
This couldn’t be little Joey. How long since she’d seen him? Seven years, at least. The brat had grown over six feet tall, with muscles filling out those scrawny little arms. The perpetually shaggy dark hair was cut somewhere between military short and businessman sleek. She guessed those three years in the Army did him good. But he’s still Kath’s kid brother, and she had a long memory for his disruptive antics.
“Thanks for the lift.” He tossed the gym bag into the back and folded himself into the passenger seat.
Liz answered noncommittally and headed for the freeway.
They were only 30 miles from the beach, but there was no easy route. The freeway gave way to surface streets, and apparently everyone else was driving to the coast today. She kept the radio turned up just loud enough so that they didn’t have to talk much. But after yet another driver cut in front and forced her to brake quickly, Liz let out a colorful description of what that driver could do to himself.
“Hey, relax, Liz,” Joey said. “We don’t have a deadline.”
“I”ve been running late all day.”
“What do you mean?’
Joey laughed. “You were always late. Late to school, late to graduation, late to your own wedding.”
Liz glared at him.
“Oh, I guess that’s something we can’t talk about.” He nonchalantly glanced out the window.
“My wedding? I should have been even later and missed it altogether. Talk about mismatched couples.”
“So it’s over?”
“It’s definitely over. Three years now.”
Joey turned his gaze back to the road. The radio was almost loud enough mask his quick “Good.”
The traffic cleared and Liz hit the gas. The car lurched forward then rattled to a stop as the engine died. She turned the key, and the engine rolled over and over, but didn’t catch.
“Damn.” The honking began a few cars back.
“I think it’s dead,” Liz muttered.
Joey opened his door and hopped out. The honking intensified. “Let’s get off this road.”
With him pushing and her steering, they rolled the lifeless car out of traffic. It glided to a stop on a side street, right in front of an auto shop that looked the least greasy of several lining the road. Liz popped the hood and looked over the engine compartment. She’d hoped she’d find a loose wire or a big switch that said “flip me,” but no such luck.
Liz backed away from the car and crashed into Joey. She whirled around to apologize and found herself just inches away from the guy. He took off his dark glasses and his eyes were oh-so-green. Green like nothing she’d seen in nature. Green like the bottles that hold the most premium beer available. Green and full of mischief, the good kind. The fun and sexy kind. He smiled and ohmigod! he still has dimples. They look so different on his all-grown-up face. So kissable.
Before she could say or do anything that would embarrass her for life, a mechanic came out from the repair shop to see if they needed help. Liz explained the car’s symptoms, got an estimate and handed over the key. The mechanic directed them to a waiting room filled with mismatched plastic chairs, vending machines and a coffeemaker that smelled like it had been heating the same inch of tar-like brew for hours. Joey headed to the soda machine with a handful of change. Liz plopped into a chair and worked to banish her earlier thoughts. Yeah, Joey’s cute, but he’s Kath’s kid brother, and the thing about kid brothers was that they were put on this earth to annoy older sisters and their friends, no matter how hunky they grew up.
Joey handed her a diet soda and took the chair next to her. He popped the tab on his root beer and kept his gaze on her as he drank down the can in one gulp.
Liz popped open her soda. “Sorry. I should have told you the car’s a piece of crap. My alumni association wants my license-plate frame back.”
Joey just smiled.
What does that mean? Liz wondered. She took a deep breath to keep from babbling, as she knew she would given the chance.
“I’ll put in a word for you. I belong to the same alumni association.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing since I got out of the Army?”
Come to think of it, she did remember Kath saying something about Joey going to their alma mater. “What”s your degree?”
“Oh, that’s useful.”
He chucked and hook-shot his empty can into the recycling bin. “Actually, I just got accepted at the sheriff’s academy.”
Liz pictured him in a tan uniform and a shiny badge. A very nice image, indeed. She smiled. “Who could resist a man in uniform?”
Joey leaned closer. “I hope you can’t.” And he kissed her.
Liz started to resist, to explain all the reasons why they shouldn’t do this. And there must be a million reasons why they shouldn’t do this. Starting with …uh… Liz ignored all the objections that popped into her head and kissed him back. They could wait.
Joey eased out of the kiss and pressed his forehead against hers. “Nice.”
“You know,”she said, “I’m old enough to be your …”
“…Older sister. So? You’re not 30 yet, and it’s not like 25 is so young for me. Sounds just about right.
Liz grinned. He was right. The thing about kid brothers is that they grow up.
Start your New Year with some new creativity. Here’s a sampling of recent calls for submissions.
Three friends, each survivors of a brutal childhood, grew up together in foster care. Now as women, they’re fighting for their lives again.More info →
And then there were three . . .
More info →
They're illegal. They're undocumented. They're disappearing.More info →
To save humanity, a reluctant spy must convince a handsome vampire to trust her, despite the dark secrets each carries, and the mutual attraction they can’t resist.More info →