Friday, April 30, 2010

Ninjas Love Coffee

Kaze snuck across the tatami mats, his slippered feet making no sound. He clung tightly to the mug in his hands, cupping his hand over the opening so no steam escaped. He just had to cross his master's room and then he was home free to enjoy his cup of joe.

"KAZE-SAN!" Two hand-claps echoed as the lights snapped on.


He couldn't run now. He'd spill it and burn himself. He was caught. Again. Kaze turned and saw his master sitting cross-legged on his favorite cushion. Sensei sipped his tea and set his cup down on the table infront of him. He stroked his long beard.

"Hmmm... Is that my favorite mug?"


He frowned. "Bring it here, Kaze-san."

Kaze sighed and set the mug on a coaster Sensei managed to slip under it before he could blink.

"Sit." Kaze did, lowering his eyes. Here comes the lecture, he thought.

"True ninjas don't have time for coffee breaks, Kaze-san," his master said as he put his finger on the coaster, dragging the coffee mug until it was sitting next to his teacup. His eyes dared his pupil to try and take it back.

"C'mon, Sensei, it's just one cup."

"No. Recite the discipline of the Ninja."

He rolled his eyes. "A Ninja keeps his body, mind, and soul pure at all times."

"You should drink tea. It's good for you."

"I don't like te--" WHACK. Sensei set down his staff.

"Ridiculous. Stop spouting nonsense and drink your tea," he said, pouring a fresh cup from the teapot and setting it before him. The steam tickled Kaze's nose and its color also described how he felt: nauseous.

"Have you even tried coffee, Sensei? It's good."

"A ninja keeps his body clean."

"Coffee isn't a drug - and if you're going to say it has caffeine then Tea has it too you know. And even if that was the issue then I could just drink decaff instead."

"What is decaff?"

"As in de-caffeinated. There's no caffeine in it."

"Fascinating." WHACK. "Get back to your training, Kaze. If I catch you sneaking coffee again, you will be cleaning Daisuke's room for a month."

"Why can't Daisuke--" WHACK. "Fine. I'm going." And he did, out to the training field with the other students.

As soon as Kaze was gone, Sensei inspected his favorite mug. He frowned at the dark substance that was leaving an unsightly ring in it. He sniffed the steam once, then again. He had to admit the scent was not altogether unpleasing. He rubbed his finger against the ring and some of it came off. He tasted it. Hmm. Perhaps he would study the properties of this coffee. Yes, that sounded like a good idea.

Sensei enjoyed the cup of coffee immensely, smirking as he watched his students hard at work on the training ground.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Last One Standing Tall #2

It all started here, but feel free to begin wherever you like.

Reed shifted uncomfortably in the saddle as Anna slipped down and led her horse on foot. They had to pass through the town proper to get to her house at the end of the street, which meant that everyone was watching them. He could not sit tall while under their stares, which came from the windows high up to the humans lurking in the alleys down between the tall buildings.

He could hear their whispers, but wished he could not. What he heard was not welcoming. They did not know what he was or where he had come from. He had hoped perhaps someone besides this young woman would know of his kind. To be seen as an alien disturbed him greatly. One of the townspeople said he was wearing a costume. He didn't know that word. He began to realize how little he did understand about the human race. He felt more alone here than he had at the village, even though he was completely surrounded. Maybe this hadn't been a good idea after all, good soil or not.

Human vehicles, which he had only heard vague descriptions of before passed them swiftly, some pulled by teams of horses and others moving under an unseen energy, rumbling like dragons, even spewing out steam. Something here smelled burnt and smokey and he looked up. Most of the buildings had smoke rising out of them through tall, bricked columns. He had heard the humans lived with fire in their homes, but he hadn't really believed it until now. Were they not afraid of it slipping out of their control and consuming their town? Fires were used by his people, but in moderation and certainly with respect. But it seemed to be everywhere here, even in the burning oil lamps along the street magnified through what he knew to be glass, another strange human material.

They were interesting creatures, but he wasn't sure how comfortable he was among them. He was no scholar and felt he had too much to learn. Besides the fact they distrusted him. He would stay here just long enough to recover and investigate the soil quality. Then he would move on. This was his final decision.

She walked him around the building she had indicated as hers, without stopping. He had assumed she was going inside.

"I thought this was your home?"

"It is," she said, "But you said you needed soil. I got plenty out back."

As soon as they turned the corner he saw what she meant. He couldn't help but marvel at human creativity. Before him was a building that was constructed almost entirely of glass. Condensation glistened from every pane and he saw that it must be fertile because nearly everything inside, although blurred by the mist and fogged up panes, was green with vitality.

"Do you like it? My father designed it. He called it a greenhouse."

"A fitting name," Reed said.

He looked up as they came closer and saw a metal box with flat, rounded blades. They were spinning, blowing out air.

"What are those?"

"Fans. They're part of the cooling system. It's not too hot right now, but in the summer they run full blast to keep the inside temperature at just the right level."


She smiled. "You haven't even seen the inside yet," She said as she unlocked the door with a brass skeleton key, opening it wide. He could smell so many wonderful scents, it was like home had been, during spring. He leaned forward and went too far, tumbling forward. She caught him and laughed. "Hold on a second, your foot is caught!"

After untangling him from the saddle, she helped him up and let him lean on her as they slowly walked inside.

Inside the greenhouse was even better. His feet gently splashed through puddles of more mineral water, chilled, but not freezing. His feet absorbed the puddles as he walked through them, appearing to evaporate behind them as they walked. The air was warm but not hot and dry like the desert had been. Here it was blissfully humid, almost like it was just about to rain. Surrounding him on all sides were plants of so many kinds, flowers, herbs, even saplings of trees and lush bushes. There were even clay pots suspended from the ceiling, raining down ivy, cascading spider plants, sprouting vivid purple petunias. He smiled. It was the first time he had in a long time.

Anna led him to a long workbench in the back and eased him down into a wooden chair that rocked back and forth. As his skin contacted the surface, he realized it had been treated with something so it did not absorb water, so it was wet with dew. He leaned into it, his skin absorbing every last drop.

"Wait here, I'll fix you a pot of soil." Anna said as she disappeared down an aisle.

He lost sight of her in the thick foliage. He still wasn't feeling well, but his spirit was beginning to heal. This place was doing wonders for him and he had only been here a few minutes at the most. He closed his eyes and let the chair rock. What an odd but wonderful place.

Soon Anna returned with a large pot in her arms, waddling carefully so as not to trip on any of the plants. She squatted slowly and set it down, wiping the sweat off her brow as it clanked on the ground. Reed looked into the pot and saw it was half-full of soil, rich in color and texture.

"Here," she pushed it closer to him, "Fresh as you can get."

He lifted his legs, carefully placing them into the pot. He leaned forward and let them sink into the soil. He took a deep breath and stretched. His roots extended deep into the pot, multiplying and spreading. It was good. How long had it been since he had absorbed the nutrients from soil this fertile? He could feel strength returning to his body, a rising tingle of energy that rose in him like a pitcher being filled. He stood up, could feel Anna's hands reaching to steady him. He took her hands in his and squeezed them gently. How could he thank her? The soil was so good that tears came to his eyes and he began to weep. If only he could have brought Willowbark here. And Waterlily, Dogwood, all the others. But such thoughts were only in vain. They were all gone now. He could not bring them back from death.

"Are you okay?" she asked, interrupting his thoughts.

"Yes," he said, "Forgive me. It is good. Thank you, Anna."

"You're welcome." She was smiling at him again. "Do you need anything else, Mr. Reed?"

He shook his head. A few of the dried leaves fluttered to the ground, as new ones grew in their place. He touched them gently with his fingertips. He would live after all.

"I should let you rest. If you need more water, that watering can on the counter is full. I have some things to take care of, but I'll come check on you later, alright?"

He nodded and watched her go. Such kindness. He had to find some way to repay her. He swore to himself that he would find a way. He would not leave until an equivilent exchange was found. Such was the way of his people. Balance was a rudimentary element of Nature itself.

He did not know how much time passed as he stood in the good soil. This was eternal summer. He basked in it in only the way that plants could. He stretched and grew, drenched in the filtered sunlight. He breathed deeply. The air here was so humid and full of life. He could feel the strength returning to him, his limbs bulking, shedding off the frail, brittleness the desert sun and winter winds had beaten him down to. During his meditative state his senses heightened and he found he could hear not only the beetles, flies and other insects buzzing about but the sounds of the town beyond and the humans within it. He focused on the humans and heard one group getting louder. Glass broke as the greenhouse shook violently.

The sound pierced his ears and his eyes opened immediately, his head turning in the direction.

"There it is!" A man pointed at him through the broken glass door, a fire burning in his hand. He came barreling inside, tripping over some of the plants. A few more men followed after him.

Reed retracted his roots and stepped out of the earthen pot. He was no longer wobbly. He stood tall. The man backed off a little, holding out the flame towards him. Reed did not flinch.

"I said get out of my garden!"

The heavy bucket of water collided with the side of the man's head, splashing everywhere, dousing the torch's flame as he fell to the ground. Anna was standing there, her eyes full of fear. One of the man's friends helped him up but the other two grabbed onto her hands, wrestling the bucket from her.

Reed whipped his arms toward them, growing and extending as they wrapped around their necks tightly. He constricted, and they choked.

"Release her. Now."

They hesitated but as he tightened his hold, they did so and he released them.

"I do not wish you harm," he said.

"Yeah right!" One of them said. But they did not attack again, retreating, knocking over many of the potted plants as they scrambled out the broken door.

"Freak! Get outta town!"

"Reed." She was scared. "I'm so sorry, are you okay?"

"I should leave." He walked towards the broken glass door.

She caught his arm, holding it tightly. He stopped. "Don't, please."

He turned toward her and gestured at the mess the men had left in their wake. "I am not welcome here."

"I need your help."

He was quiet for a moment. He did owe her, if nothing else than for freely giving him the rich soil. Not for his life, which he did not feel had much value anymore.

"What can I do, that this miraculous soil cannot?" he said, scooping some into his hand, holding it out to her.

"That's just it," she said, touching the soil, "I can't figure out why this is the only good soil. We heard from all over during the harvest this year. The ground is barren and cracked all over the place. No crops are growing anywhere but here in our town. If it goes on like this soon everything will die. Plants, animals, humans, it doesn't matter.

"Perhaps this is the way of things," he said, but not unkindly.

"No, this isn't natural. I know there's someone causing it."

"How do you know this?"

"Because after the harvest a man came into town. He was claiming he had the solution to our problem. A way to fertilize the soil. He didn't know we were spared from the calamity. So when he saw that we still had things growing he was shocked. The Sheriff was suspicious of him and ran him out of town. We all got to thinking this guy might be involved somehow.

"So one day him and his deputy went to talk to the other towns to investigate. But they never came back. We haven't heard from any of the towns. Now even the mail coach doesn't come anymore which means no more medical supplies coming in either when someone gets sick.

"To make matters worse, outta the blue last week a bunch of these rough-necks show up. Those fellows that attacked are in the gang. Now they've practically taken over town. Everyone's been ignoring them, hoping they're gonna move on, but I know better. They're here for a reason - and I think it's all connected somehow."

"I was investigating it all myself when I found you. I had heard your people had magical powers and were kind to all living things. I thought maybe, if I helped you, you could help us in return..."

Reed had been silent for a long time, letting her speak her mind. He stared at the soil in his hand, trying to take it all in. He didn't understand everything, but he had to agree that something was going on, and it was not natural. Even so, he felt a pang of regret in his heart. He squeezed the dirt in his fist. What did it matter? Even if he solved this problem, it wouldn't bring any of them back.

"How can I help your people," he said finally, looking into her eyes, "when I could not even save my own kind?"

"What do you mean?"

"I am the last of the Xylem."

This simple admission hurt him deeply, more so because he knew now that it was a fact. He had torn open a wound that had not healed in his heart, tears pouring down his face. He felt the loneliness of it all wash over him again.

She was silent, but her eyes said more than her lips ever could. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she first held onto his hand and then suddenly embraced him. He dropped the soil to the ground. It had been too long since he had felt such compassion.

Unlike before, when he had been by himself, he did not feel bitter. The pain was fresh and hurt him, but it was softened by her kindness and he found that when he was done, it was as if some of the loneliness had drained out of him. It was almost like they had split his pain between them.

"I will not let you suffer my fate," he said at last. "As long as I am still standing your people shall not die."

Continue on to Part 3?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Eleven & Counting

An urban fantasy serial.

Part 1 - Aunt Jenna's Present

"Sometimes life's not fair, Andrew," his mother said, herding him towards the aged sedan, dragging along his two suitcases, the same two he'd used since he was five.

Andrew's parents always made him go every year. He'd have much rather been in his room finishing the game that he had saved up his whole allowance for. He was proud of it because he had been able to save up for it himself, so it was technically his game. It was a really good one too, one that he could never have waited for another birthday (it was a month ago) or Christmas (it was only summer now) to get. It wouldn't be until school started up that he would get to play it again. It wasn't fair. Would it really be that much more trouble for them to send his little TV with him?

Andrew folded his arms in defiance, wearing a thick scowl directed at his father who was glancing at him occasionally through the rear-view mirror. After the first fifteen minutes though he was tired of holding his face in a permanent grudge and relaxed, leaning against the window, resting his cheek against the warm glass, watching a bit of his breath fog it up. He drew a frowny face in it. It wasn't hot yet, but he knew later in the day the whole car would be. He missed the air conditioning already.

"Dad, can I roll down the window?"

There was a pause before the question was repeated and a positive answer was given. Andrew furiously cranked the handle, again wishing they had one of those cars with automatic everything, including A/C. It didn't roll down all the way but it at least went halfway. His cares flew out the window immediately, as the blasting wind refreshed him, blowing his brown hair in all directions. He sighed. The ride was tolerable now. He couldn't wait until he could drive a car; maybe one of those convertibles so he could put the top down on a day like this.

The scenery wasn't so bad, he decided. He could see really far, across the farmlands which seemed to go on forever. They all looked the same to him, a barn here, a tall silo there, long lines of tall trees and endless fences. There were plenty of cows too, and he was glad he couldn't smell them. The corn rows were tall too, but he couldn't see any ears on them yet.

His dad turned off the highway and rolled down a gravel drive. Andrew didn't like the sound, it was loud and the car rocked around on the uneven ground. They slowly passed over a wide stream that was bridged by long, sturdy boards. He looked down and could see hundreds of black dots swarming in the stream, probably tadpoles. He had convinced himself he was too old for things like that now. How long had it been since he had been here last? He didn't know, but everything seemed shorter now, not nearly as big.

When he was little, Aunt Jenna's farm had seemed so huge, like it had it's own zip code. But now even the trees didn't seem as tall as they once had. And her ranch-style house didn't look nearly as long. He could remember it had taken him a whole afternoon just to walk around it, but that probably was because he had been looking for buried treasure. He smiled a little despite his mood.

Coming down the driveway was Aunt Jenna herself, slim and barefoot, even on the gravel, and arms waving, a wide-brimmed sunhat shading her face. "Sheri!"

"Sissy!" His mother opened the door before his father had completely stopped the car.

The two of them met with open arms and hugged each other tightly, Aunt Jenna nearly lifting his mother off the ground.

"So good to see you," she said. Her gaze turned toward the car where she spotted Andrew. "Is that little Andrew!"

"I know, he's growing like a weed," his mother replied and then directly to him, "Come out and say hello to Aunt Jenna."

I'm not five anymore, Mom, he thought. He knew how to be polite. He opened the door and was hugged as well. It crushed him a little but some small part of him didn't mind so much. Aunt Jenna was pretty nice, although it would have been better if she had some kids his age to play with. She didn't have any close neighbors either.

"How old is he?"

"I'm eleven," he said, but not rudely.

"Eleven already?" Jenna said, "I thought it was next year for sure. I didn't have time to prepare."

He wasn't sure what she meant by that, but his father was approaching now with the suitcases and talking to the two of them. Their words buzzed over his head as most adult conversations tended to do. He was still mostly thinking about how much he'd rather be at home with his game for the summer as he followed them mindlessly up the drive and onto the porch, kicking at the more interesting rocks among the gravel as he went.


He looked up to see his mother looking annoyed and she said very carefully, "Aunt Jenna asked you if you would like some lemonade." What she really meant was don't be a jerk, Andrew.

"Yes please," he said to Aunt Jenna who was all smiles, as usual.

Jenna leaned down and said quietly, "I might have something else for you too. Why don't you wait in the backyard? I'll bring it right out soon as I get your folks settled in."

Andrew was relieved to be dismissed and nodded, leaping down the steps and running around to the backyard once he was out of earshot. It blew off a little steam and he felt better.

A herb garden ran along the backside of the house. Aunt Jenna had tried to teach him what all the plants were, but he could never remember all of them. He did know most of them by smell though. He grabbed a leaf between his thumb and forefinger, rubbing it gently to release the oils as she had taught him and then smelled his fingers. Mint. Lavender. Basil. He went down the row until his nose was feeling overwhelmed and he backed off.

"Come now, they don't smell that bad," Jenna said, and he stumbled back even more.

She had that knack of sneaking up on him like a ninja. Even when he was little and playing hide-and-seek with her he had never beaten her. Maybe she was a ninja.

"Just smelled too many," Andrew said.

"Don't be in such a rush. If you smell all the roses at once you'll fall over," she said and laughed at her own joke. It was the sort of thing she always said. He didn't laugh, still feeling bummed, but he did smile. She was trying to make him feel good and he appreciated that.

He noticed she had an arm behind her back, and, almost as if she had read his thought, she showed what she was hiding.

"Happy eleventh birthday, Andrew!"

It was a present: a dark green box wrapped traditionally with a golden, hand-tied bow on the top. He had never received a present like this before. Normally everything was held together by tape with colorful, fragile paper that tore if you poked at it too much. She held it out towards him. He hesitated.

"I'm sorry it's so late. Normally I'm on top of these sort of things, but I suppose I'm getting older too."

She was right about that. Every year her packages always came exactly seven days before his birthday. He didn't think much about it until this year, when one didn't come. It had been part of the reason he was a little upset. Had he done something to upset her? But now she did have something for him. Why didn't she send it earlier? Also, hadn't she said she didn't know it was his birthday? Was she lying? If so, why?

"Go on," she insisted.

He took the gift, surprised at the weight. It wasn't heavy, but it wasn't as light as it had looked. It definitely wasn't full of knitted sweaters or socks. Not that Aunt Jenna had ever given him anything like that. That was mostly his other aunts. His mom had seven sisters and Aunt Jenna was the oldest, his mother being the youngest. He always wondered why he had never seen any of his cousins at her farm. So far as he knew, he was the only one to ever spend summer vacation with her. It's not like his parents were gone or anything. Why was he the only one to suffer? It just wasn't fair.

He knew Aunt Jenna meant well. He really liked her, he did, it's just that for once he wanted to be able to have the summer that all of his friends had: to go to the amusement park, to hang out at the mall and watch movies, even just walking to the convenience store for cheap soda and snacks sounded a lot more fun than the farm. Jenna didn't even have a TV. She did have a radio, but all it picked up ever was country stations and an occasional spanish one that sounded like it was all the way from Mexico. In short, being here was not how he wanted to spend his vacation. Even so, he appreciated the gift.

"Thanks," he said, trying to sound enthused for her sake. She must get lonely out here when I'm not here to keep her company, he thought.

"Don't thank me yet! You haven't even opened it, silly," she replied.

He experimentally tugged on one of the bow tails and the ribbon pulled apart fluttering down. He squeezed his fingernails under the box, holding it with his other arm and tugged. It came off with a whump as the air released. He placed the box lid under the box and looked inside.

Surrounded by a nest of soft white cotton sat a royal blue egg, as big as a whole pineapple. He touched the irridescent surface and it was warm. It moved at his touch. He pulled away his hand.

He looked up at Aunt Jenna, his eyes wide. "W-what is this?"

She was still smiling and put a hand on his shoulder. "Well now, Andrew, that's a secret. I suppose if you really want to know, you'll have to hatch it yourself."

Continue to Part 2?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Last One Standing Tall #1

A Fantasy-Western Serial by J.M. Rich

Reed buried Willowbark, the last of his elders, on eve of the Winter Solstice. How fitting, he thought. The lingering darkness only amplified his loneliness. With Willowbark gone, he was now the last of the Xylem. True, he was still in his prime, his vined limbs flexible, sturdy and green with new growth, but who knew if he would last through a mountain winter with no hot springs to shelter him from the cold.

Kneeling before the fresh soil, Reed removed the lid of an earthenware jar and scattered the remaining wildflower seeds with a flick of his wrist. Some of them blew away in a chilling breeze that rattled the leaves on his head and sent him shivering, while the rest settled unevenly along the surface. He let the jar drop to the ground and it cracked slightly. With all the others he had buried, he had taken the time to tend to each burial garden properly, but in the face of his new reality the ancient ritual felt pointless and empty now. He did speak a few words, but they lacked any true feeling behind them other than despair.

Reed remained in the village three days longer before he could stand no more of the silence and the pain welling up in his heart. He fashioned a woven bag from the leaves of the yellowing elder willow at the center of the village. Like everything else in the village, it reeked of death. He gathered what meager supplies he had and slung the bag over his shoulder. He walked down the winding path out of the Green Mountains which lead to the Great Desert beyond.

In truth, he went to the desert to die. When the last of his strength gave out, he fell hard against the sandy, broken ground. However, instead of death, he found life.

He felt his body being lifted, and opened his eyes to see a pair of brown human eyes staring back at him. It was a maiden, freckled-skinned with reddish-hair bursting from under a short-brimmed hat. She had a flannel shirt, unbuttoned at the top where a wet bandana was tied around her neck. She was smiling at him.

She cradled his head, lifting him gently to give him a drink of water from a canteen. The water was cold and pure. He held onto the canteen with both hands and drank greedily, instinctively. He could taste and identify each of the rich minerals: Young Copper. Fire-Zinc. Emeraldium. This was water that had been pumped from deep underground, miles beneath their feet. This nourishing water flowed through his vessels like a life-giving river, feeling returning to his dried limbs, which had been begun to resemble rotted corn husks. Now they uncurled and grew, seeking a place to take root. They found no true soil in the cracked, grainy ground and he cried out in despair. His entire body was still wilting, the water only a temporary relief from pain. He would die soon and he was now awake to feel all of it.

"Why do you taunt me with life? Let me die in peace," he said. She was only prolonging the inevitable. His life was no longer worth saving.

"I won't let you die," she said and then asked, "What do you need?"

He did not reply.

"Don't be so stubborn. I'm trying to help you." She offered her canteen again. He noticed more about it now. A light human fabric covered a thin metal shell and it weighed nothing, almost empty. He had taken so much, and he felt guilty. He could not take any more. He passed it back to her.

"I do not need any more. Save it for yourself."

"What do you need then?"

"Let me die in peace," he repeated, a little more harshly.

"No," she replied, equally as stubborn, "Let me help you!"

Not only cruel, but foolish as well, he thought. He was quiet for a few moments more, but her persistance had worn him down. At last he replied: "You cannot help me. There is no good soil in the desert."

She smiled. "Then you're in luck, since I know where to find some."

A human claiming she can discern the quality of soil in a place like this? Ridiculous. It almost made him laugh.

"I can take you there. Or rather Clark can. See?" Reed rolled his head to the side to look in the direction she was pointing. A fully-saddled stallion was standing nearby, looking restless as his long tail whipped to swat a fly on his backside. He whinnied uneasily when Reed made eye-contact with him.

"I do not like horses."

"That's okay, he doesn't really like anybody. Barely likes me! But he won't bite."

"What if I said no?"

"What if I said tough luck, I'm taking you anyway?"

Her smile was bright and he was finding it difficult to stay as angry as he had been before. He was still a little angry though. He sighed and closed his eyes.

"Look at it this way," she added, "You've got nothing to lose, so you might as well take a gander at my offer."

Her logic did make sense. It would take his mind off the pain at any rate. But he wasn't looking forward to riding on a horse. He had seen humans riding upon them before and it looked dangerous. Then again, maybe it would give him a swifter death. He was so confused, he wasn't sure what to think. Perhaps it was the heat.

"Well? What do you think?"

He pulled himself upright, still watching the horse uneasily. "I think I should see this soil for myself."

"Glad to hear!" She put a hand on his shoulder, "We'll have you fit as a fiddle in no time."

It took some effort, but between the two of them he was finally able to climb up onto the horse. The saddle itself was barely wide enough for the two of them as she dusted off her jeans and swung up, sitting in front of him. She showed him how she hooked her feet in the stirrups and he coiled his feet around them like a snake, holding tightly. She delighted in his ability, saying it was a neat trick.

Reed had never been in such close proximity to a human before. They smelled similar to other creatures but there was something distinctly different that he couldn't put his finger on. Riding atop a horse was also new as well and very strange. He felt completely ridiculous.

"What am I supposed to do?" He asked hesitantly, shifting in the saddle. He wasn't liking this already and they weren't even moving yet. The leather creaked with every movement.

"Just hang onto me and I'll take care of the rest."

He nervously wrapped his arms around her waist. She gave the stallion a sharp whistle and a gentle kick and they took off. Reed bounced violently in the saddle as Clark began to gallop along the dusty ground.

"Hold yourself up like this," she demonstrated. It was more difficult than she made it look. It took him a few hundred strides before he could find the rhythm and even then he felt sore, tired, and sick to his stomach. Why had he agreed to come along?

"You're a Xylem, aren't you?" she asked after some time had passed.

"Of course," he replied.

"How did you get all the way out here?"

"I walked."

She laughed loudly, her voice carrying on the breeze. "Yes, yes, of course you did," she said, "I'm sorry, what I really meant is why?"

Reed now understood why his kind hadn't much interaction with humans. They were rather strange.

He didn't know what to say, so he said nothing. She did not pester him for an answer this time. They became quiet again as her stallion continued to gallop across the desert wastes, past clusters of dried scrub brush and cactus patches called dead man's hands that seemed to creep along the ground.

"I just realized I don't know your name, stranger," she said, again breaking the awkward silence they had built up, "And I didn't tell you mine. It's Anna. Anna Daniels."

"I am Reed."

"We're almost there, Mr. Reed. My town is just over that hill."

The land ahead sloped upwards, dotted with dry looking trees. The were pitiful compared to the ones at his village. These looked more like saplings at best, but it was nice to see something other than the low plants of the desert. Anna slowed Clark to a trot. As they crested the hill, Reed's breath caught deep in his throat.

Never before had he seen a human settlement and he was mesmerized by it. This village had buildings as tall as some of the elder trees from his village, which towered over the people wandering the streets. At the north end of town, protected by low fences he could see five straight rows of trees that looked well-tended for the winter months. Scores of prairie grass covered much of the ground beneath them. It was dried now, but it looked healthy. Could it be? There was still good ground?

"That's my place there by the orchard," she said, pointing to a building near the grove of trees.

Her place interested him the most because it was full of color, green ivy draping up and down the mud-brick walls and small wooden boxes that had flowers in them. Winter flowers, flowers he had never seen before and blooming in such vibrant colors. They were alive and they were well. Had she been telling the truth? Was the soil still good here? If it was, it could change everything.

Maybe he would live after all.

Continue on to Part 2?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"Playing Along" - An Inter-Blog Choose Your Own Adventure


Don't start reading here! Go back to the beginning of this story, and Choose Your Own Adventure!


For those of you already adventuring, you chose Option 2:

"Try to play along with their charade and somehow alert his friends to what’s really going on?!"

Good Luck.


"What are you going to get?" Latoya said, her face as blank as a mannequin. "I want the grilled salmon." She pointed to the newspaper clipping crumpled in her fist.

"I don't care what I have as long as it's a huge steak," Toby said in the same dull tones, a bead of drool trickling down his beard as he turned slowly towards Michael, grinning ear to ear. He looked more like a crazed homeless bum than the kind man he had met at the music store.

Both his friends' eyes were vacant. Even though they were looking around, Michael knew they couldn't see what he could. They were still trapped in the illusion of a restaurant.

"How about you, Michael?" Toby swayed forward adding, "It's all on me."

"I don't know," Michael said slowly. He relaxed his grip on the baseball bat, pretending that he had reached over his shoulder to scratch the back of his neck. He scratched slowly up and down, his eyes wandering, trying not to stare too long at any of the Mendigans surrounding them.

He knew now that he couldn't risk destroying the heart-brain if his friends were still in a trance like this. He had to wake them up. He had to warn them somehow. But he also had to do it without the Mendigans realizing they had beaten the brainwashing. He didn't know how they had tricked them. All he knew was that each of them had broken through it before, and they could do it again.

Michael lowered his hand, slipping it into his pocket, feeling the warmth of his cellphone. The ringtone had cured him. It had to work on his friends. He closed his fingers around it, drawing it slowly out of his pocket, beads of sweat forming on the back of his neck. Don't make any sudden movements. He could feel countless alien eyes watching him.

An overpowering stench made him lurch forward. Their server, Michelle, had brought a trash can lid and on top of it was three dirty glasses filled with a dark green liquid and a vegetable that was wilted and brown but otherwise unidentifiable. He held down the retch fighting its way up his throat. Don't let them see you can smell it, he warned himself.

"One blooming onion, piping hot," she said, placing it on the table.

Toby and Latoya oohed and awed over the garbage rotting before them. Michael tried to keep a smile on his face, but the smell was making his eyes water. He nearly lost it when the two of them took the glasses and sipped from them. Apparently they could not taste what he smelled. He wasn't sure if he envied that or not.

"How are you folks doing?" a soft male voice asked.

Michael forced himself to stay still, his nerves flashing painfully. He hadn't even heard the other Mendigan approach but now he was towering over their table, leaning in close to examine them. His gaze stopped directly at Michael.

"I'm Rick, the manager, and I wanted to make sure you were being taken care of."

"Isn't that nice?" Toby said, "The food is delicious," he said, swallowing a bite of the garbage.

"I also heard," the manager continued, "That it's your birthday today, Michael."

He froze in fear. They knew his name. What else did they know? And why did this particular Mendigan sound so familar?

"Michael, you didn't tell me that," Latoya said sadly, her expression not changing.

Michael knew he didn't have much time. He had to act faster. He couldn't be subtle anymore. The fear in him grew as he slid his thumb along the screen. He hoped he knew his way around the touch-screen menus enough that he could do it without looking. All he had to do was navigate to the ringtone volume menu and turn it up all the way.

When the sound didn't come, he knew he had slipped and he dared a look down to his lap. He had brought up the text messaging menu by mistake. He couldn't waste any more time and he furiously clicked towards the ringtone volume menu.

Finally the tone began and it was the purest music. He would forever play this heavenly song on repeat. It only lasted for two seconds before he was pulled off of the crate he had been sitting on. His iPhone slipped through his fingers and skittered across the concrete floor, the song fading out as a countless number of Mendigans stepped towards their table from all corners of the room. He reached for his bat, but it was yanked from his hand and snapped in two.

"Let's give Michael a song!" the manager crooned and that was the moment when Michael realized who it was. His voice was the one they had heard on the Bach record. Latoya had been right. It was a trap, and he had fallen for it.

He fought against the manager, but his grip wasn't human, it was Mendigan and it pinched him like a vice-grip.

The Mendigans began to make a whorbling noise through their breathing tubes, rising in volume, their tentacles fluttering.

"Toby! Latoya! Wake up! This isn't real! It's not a restaurant!" Michael screamed at the top of his lungs, but it was lost completely under the pounding decibels of the Mendigan's song.

Michael screamed until his voice gave out as they dragged him away. The last thing he remembered before passing out was the heart-brain glowing a neon-yellow, pulsating along with the Mendigan's tones.

* * *

The next time his eyes opened, he was peering through oily amber liquid. A breathing apparatus was fastened around his face. He couldn't move but that wasn't what alarmed him the most. Just beyond the glass wall surrounding him he could see the blurred visage of Mr. Bernstein. A tear floated away from his cheek.

"I hope you had a happy birthday, Michael," said Mr. Bernstein, smiling.


Care to Try Again?