New Story Every Week

Submit your questions to be answered by Benjamin Freitag in the form of flash fiction by commenting on the Ask a Question page or on Twitter using #183questions. New stories will be posted every Thursday.

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Going Through the Motions

Does my character get spells?

*  *  34  *  *

“That’s it,” she said, carefully guiding my hands through the complex motions. The strands of energy that linked our limbs tingled, burning every time I got out of sync my mentor. “Took you long enough.”

The burns up and down my arms and legs told the story of my many failures in getting to this point.

“Now,” my mentor said, severing the connections, “I think it’s time for you to try with actual magic.”

I gulped. “Really? Already?”

“You’ve been going through the motions for twelve weeks now. It’s time for you to start burning through some actual stones.”

Trying to hide the trembling in my hand, I nodded.

“Good,” she said. “Now picture a small pinprick of light. Imagine it floating in the air in front of you, moving about like a firefly.” She moved her arms gently, indicating that I should begin working through the forms as I did this. “Now imagine that light getting bigger and brighter. Imagine it spreading as if it were the sparkling edge of a dark hole in space. Do you see it?”

“Yes,” I lied.

“Wonderful. Now as you move through the next forms, imagine your body disconnecting from your spirit. Imagine that spirit leaving your body behind to work through the forms on its own. Follow that spirit through the hole and into the void.”

I continued with the motions.

“Fly deep into the void until you can no longer see the hole back to reality. Let it fade away into a pinprick of light and then let that light fade to black.”

My eyes were shut tight, every muscle in my body clenched to remain in the strange configurations of the third tier forms.

“As you are flying, notice a planet up ahead. Fly to it with all the speed you have and land on its surface. As you look around this planet, notice that it is barren. A blank world for you to make your own.” Her voice was becoming more forceful, as though she were speaking to me from far away and still trying to be heard clearly. “Reach out your hand and will a small stalagmite into existence. Then step forward and break off the very tip of it. Feel its cool foreignness in your hand. Feel its unnatural weight.”

Now in the final forms of the routine, sweat was dripping down my face and back.

“Now drop it,” she said just as I finished the routine.

As my hands moved down to my sides and my foot pressed firmly into the ground, I heard a small clatter in front of me. Hesitantly, I completed the motion and looked to the source of the clatter. A few feet to my right, on the ground there lay what looked like a completely white cone. It was small and had a pool of dark liquid around it.

My mentor stepped over to the object and plucked it from the liquid, gently shaking off any excess.

“Well,” she said, a smirk crossing her face, “it looks like you might have some actual spells in you after all.” She looked at me with half-lidded eyes. “You weren’t picturing a single thing I said, were you?”

I turned my head away from her sheepishly.

My mentor placed a hand on my shoulder. “It’s fine. It was actually your resistance to my instructions that caused this to happen.”

I jerked my head toward her. “What?”

She laughed. “You think you get the break the rules of reality by following someone else’s rules? Absolutely not!”

“So then, the forms . . .”

“Are just things for you to rebel against. Just imagine what would you could do if you ignored everything I said!”

Let’s Imagine

Who invented numbers?

*  *  33  *  *

Jenny jerked awake.

Looking around at her sheep, something definitely seemed off, but she couldn’t put her finger on what exactly it was.

The girl stood and looked down the hill toward Glen’s flock.

Aren’t they taking up more space than before?

Jenny quickly took stock of her sheep and noted that they were taking up less space that they had been before. Leaving her flock behind, Jenny stomped down the hill to confront Glen.

“When did you get more sheep?” she asked.

“I don’t understand,” he replied.

“You have more sheep than you did last night.”

“No,” he said, a puzzled look crossing his face. “I have regular sheep. If I’m being honest, I don’t even know what moor sheep are. Is that the new breed the doc was working on?”g

* * * * *

Jenny jerked awake.

Looking out her window at her field, she could swear that the fence had moved. Without a second thought, she strode to Glen’s house to confront him.

“You stole my land,” she shouted, hammering on the door.

Glen opened the door, yawning. “I most certainly did not. We can even use those fancy new words you came up with. Just look. I have one land and you have one land. It’s all the same.”

* * * * *

Jenny jerked awake.

A grin crossed her face, and she quickly got ready for the day. Making her way down the street, she strode confidently up to Glen’s door.

“You owe me 32 coins,” she said smugly. “I would like them now, please.”

Glen smiled back. “Sadly, I only have 10 coins. Even with your fractions, you can’t take 32 from 10.”

* * * * *

Jenny jerked awake.

She hopped in her car and drove over to the university. “I did it,” she shouted at the dean. “I found a formula that will solve every cubic equation.”

Glen walked in behind her, peering over her shoulder.

“Sorry. You can’t take the square root of a negative number.”

Jenny “accidentally” stomped on Glen’s foot. “But just for a moment, let’s imagine that we can . . .”

* * * * *

Jenny jerked awake.

Activating her phase modulator, she passed through the wall of her room into the common room of the compound. On the far side of the room, a group of students were working on a slapdeck. One of them was showing the rest a clever mathematical trick.

“And so,” the little girl said, “since I didn’t break any rules of math, this statement must be true and 1=2. If I have two cookies and you only have one, it’s the exact same thing.” She grinned as the other students puzzled over her proof, desperate to find an error.

Glen walked through an adjacent wall and glanced at the board. “Right there,” he said as he pointed to one of the lines. “You divided by zero. This is a perfect example of why you can’t do that. Ever. It just doesn’t work.”

Jenny couldn’t stay silent. “Ignoring the jerkishness of taking that pleasure away from them, how do you know you can NEVER divide by zero? Maybe it’s like complex numbers. Maybe we just need to be more careful about how we . . .” Jenny trailed off as she noticed the girl who had written the proof was no longer there.

Tapping her wrist, Jenny pulled up a current feed of the girl’s location. It appeared that in the commotion, she had managed to acquire not one or even two but five of the cookies the other students were now not eating. A smug grin was spread across the girl’s face as she skipped away.

Jenny looked up at Glen and grinned. “Never mind.”

The Rusty Lemon

Have you written lately?

*  *  32  *  *

“I honestly don’t see the point anymore,” he said for the third time that day. “Who cares?”

“Whether or not anyone else cares is certainly not the point. If you thought that was the point, you’re a fool.”

“Then enlighten me, oh wise one,” he sneered. “Regale me with your superior authority on all matters of import.”

“Fine,” said the cat. “I will.” With a flick of his tail and a gravity-defying leap, the cat perched himself upon the mantle. “We have been living in this house for three weeks now. Three long, boring weeks. Other than to pick up food and bring it back here, how many times have you left? I have been hinting and hinting that you need to go outside and do something since day two. It’s not because anyone cares if you show up for a party. It’s not because anyone cares if you go out and hit on chicks. It’s not because anyone cares if you bathe or brush your teeth.

“It’s because you should care.”

The man crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “And why is that?”

“Because despite what you tell yourself day in and day out, you’re miserable. You can’t stand the idea that other people’s lives are moving on while yours is not. Do you know why your life isn’t moving on? Because you aren’t pushing it!

“Lives are stubborn things,” the cat continued. “They tend to persist in whatever gear you set them in. Overly busy people find it difficult to slow down. Their lives just blow past them out of control leaving them wishing they had brakes to slow them down.”

“And I promised,” said the man, “that I would never be one of those people.”

“And you have done a masterful job of not moving too fast in life.” The cat dropped from the mantle and in one swift motion, settled on the arm of the man’s chair. “Your problem is the exact opposite.” The cat paused to lick his paw for a long moment, seemingly waiting for his point to sink in.

After getting no response from the man, he continued. “Have you ever seen a car that hasn’t been used in years? It rusts. Things quit working. Getting it up and running again is a major chore. Your life right now is an old, rusted out lemon. If you don’t start doing some work on it, it’s going to continue to get worse until your only option is to sell it in pieces. Judging from the stack of empty bottles piling up over there, you won’t get much for your liver, and based on the amount of bacon on your plate this morning, I wouldn’t expect much for your heart either.”

“You know what?” the man shouted as he leapt from the chair. “I am so sick and tired of your condescending attitude. You think you’re so much better than me? What have you done to keep your life moving? Huh? Maybe your life is a rusty old lemming!”

The cat dropped into the chairs seat and began settling in. “I believe you mean lemon.”

“See? That’s exactly what I’m talking about!” The man was pulling his hair and flailing his arms in frustration. “You think you know everything about everything. But you know what? You don’t! You can’t read my mind. For all you know I meant lemming. Maybe I think your life is just waiting for an excuse to run off a cliff!”

The cat’s ears twitched. “Alright, then. Why would a lemming be rusty?”

The man screamed, “Because it’s a robot lemming!”

The sound of the front door forced the man to look up and see his roommate walking in with a sack of groceries. “Dude,” the roommate said. “Are you seriously yelling at the cat again?”

“He started it,” the man whined as he pushed the cat out of the chair and plopped back into it.

The roommate sat down the groceries and picked up the wounded cat. “You seriously need to get out more.”

The cat meowed in agreement.

Screaming Into the Void

Where have you been?

*  *  31  *  *

He opened his eyes slowly, hoping something had changed.

Alas, it had not.

He closed them once more and waited.

It was several hours before he worked up the strength to open them again at which point he took note of the fact that nothing in the void had changed and let his eyes return to their natural state.

He couldn’t remember a time before the void. Every memory he had was of this crushing darkness. He remembered that there was a time before, but he had no idea what it had been like. His earliest memory was of screaming and getting no response. His surprise over this lack of response was the only evidence he still held that there was supposed to be anything but silence.

That surprise didn’t come anymore.

 Yet, still, he screamed. With all his might, he screamed. It was always possible that today would be the day, so he screamed.

No response.

He waited what he guessed to be a few minutes and screamed again. Having no real way of measuring the passage of time, it could actually have been seconds or hours or days, but he hoped it was minutes.

Expecting no response, he didn’t even bother to open his eyes. Nothing would ever change.

Nothing.

“Hello?”

He opened his eyes at the sound of the small feminine voice. Sadly, no one was there. Was it possible that he had imagined the voice? Yes. In fact, it was likely. He closed his eyes.

“Hello?”

This time when he opened his eyes, he found himself staring not into the darkness of the void, but at a small glowing speck floating just beyond his reach.

“He . . . h . . . el . . . hello?” He whispered back.

“Omigod! You are real!” The voice was suddenly much louder as the speck tripled in size.

“Who a . . . a . . . are y . . . ou?”

“Omigod! I can’t even believe it! I am LITERALLY gonna lose it!” The speck doubled in size.

“Who . . . ?”

“Omigod! So, I’ve, like, been trying to find you for, like, the last two months!”

“Two . . . two . . . two . . . ?”

“Yeah! It’s been like, two months! Omigod! I heard you scream and then, like, I started trying to figure out where it came from. You’ve screamed, like literally a million times since then.”

“Two . . . ?”

The speck grew so bright that he could not look at it anymore. However desperate he was to keep his eyes open, he could not. Even with his eyes closed, however, he could still see how bright his world had become and it continued to grow brighter. Before long, it was so bright that even with his eyes closed, he wanted to close them again.

“Omigod! So, do you, like, wanna come over to this side?”

“Si . . . side?”

“Yeah! The veil’s, like, pretty weak right now. I could bring you over to this side of it in, like, a second. It would be literally no work at all.”

“Side?”

“Yeah! This side! Do you wanna come?

“Side.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. Hold on tight.”

He kept his eyes closed until the light was so bright, he was sure it would make no difference whether his eyes were opened or closed. Slowly, he raised his eyelids.

This new world he was in seemed to be the opposite of the void in which he had spent the entirety of his conscious existence. Where the void had been vast darkness in which he’d searched for light, this world seemed to be all light, leaving him searching for some point of darkness where it was safe to look. He found that in the silhouette of a small dog a feet feet in front of him.

“Hiya,” said the dog in the same voice that had offered to transport him. “You are literally infinitely more blonde than I expected you to be.”

“Blonde?”

“Yeah! Blonde! Look, let’s be, like, bestest friends! Ok?”

“Friends,” he nodded as he closed his eyes.

The light suddenly faded away and, as he opened his eyes again, he found himself staring back into the void. He began to consider the possibility that he had dreamed the entire even. He couldn’t take it. The fact that that was even a possibility began to drive him insane.

In a final act of desperation, he screamed.

“I’m, like, right here,” said the voice of the dog. “You don’t have to yell so loud.”

Soldiering On

What if Neville had been the chosen one?

*  *  30  *  *

“Run!” shouted the old man. “Get out of here!”

“You heard him,” said Arabella. “Get your asses in gear.” The trio ran as fast as they could, dodging curses left and right on their way to the cave’s entrance.

“We can’t just leave him,” shouted Luna. “We can’t!”

As Luna turned to run back to help their mentor, she was met by the glowing tip of Arabella’s wand. “Don’t you dare,” said Arabella. “Don’t you dare make his sacrifice worthless.” Her eyes seemed cold and empty, but the tears welling up in them softened her words. “No one else dies today. You hear me?”

Luna nodded and left the cave.

“What about you?” Arabella turned to face her other companion. “You wanna test me, Colin?”

Colin shook his head and ducked past Arabella and out into the dimming sunlight.

The trio regrouped at the bottom of the staircase that led to the cave. Arabella looked over her companions’ tattered clothes and battle-weary faces. The scar across Luna’s nose looked darker and fresher than ever. Colin was sitting on a rock, staring out at the ocean. He hadn’t said a thing since the second battle of Hogwarts. Losing a brother changes you.

Arabella knew that all too well.

“We have to keep moving,” she said, tucking her wand into the sash around her waste. “It’s gonna be dark soon.”

“My god, Arabella! Could you just have a heart for one second?!” screamed Luna.

Arabella took a breath and let it out slowly. “Look, I’m sorry. Ok? It’s been a rough day, but…”

“A rough day?” The look on Luna’s face melted from incredulity to hysteria. “A rough day? This was not a rough day. Do you even realize what just happened?”

“It’s been a rough day,” Arabella raised her voice and pressed on, “but if we sit here, things aren’t going to get any better. Now wipe those tears out of your eyes and let’s get some distance between us and this place before someone comes to investigate. Alright? The Order needs to know what just happened.”

“The Order already knows” said a deep, accented voice behind them. Colin seemed to take no notice, but Arabella and Luna turned to find themselves facing a Patronus in the form of a lynx. “Edgar and Emmeline are on their way to clean things up. You three need to get back here as quickly as possible. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” said Arabella, immediately snapping back into her training.

“Luna?” said the Patronus sternly.

Luna sighed. “Yes, sir.”

The Patronus walked past them both and stood next to Colin. The lynx told him something too quietly for either of the girls to hear and Colin nodded. Then, it was as though the lynx had never been there.

Colin got to his feet, gave the sea one more long look, and turned to face his companions. His eyes were set and more focused than Arabella had seen them in years. He nodded, placed a hand on each of the girls’ shoulders and closed his eyes. For a moment, Arabella was sure it was going to fail again, but then she felt a tug behind her navel that she had never grown accustomed to.

When the world resolidified, Arabella quietly left her companions behind and walked to her room. Tonks, her roommate, was already inside, sitting at the desk. “Was it really that bad?”

Arabella closed the door and collapsed to her knees. “He’s dead.” Arabella raised her head to look up at the only person left in the world that she truly felt she could call friend. “Alastor’s dead.” She had expected more of a reaction from Tonks than she was getting. “Didn’t you hear me?!” she screamed.

“Oh, I heard you, alright,” said Tonks. “Granger told us two hours ago that it was going to happen.”

Arabella clenched her fists. “Then why the hell didn’t she…”

“You know it doesn’t work that way.”

Arabella sighed. “You’re right.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “What do we do now?”

Tonks finally reacted with the fire Arabella had expected. “What do we do? The same damned thing we’ve been doing since the war started again.” Tonks dropped down next to her roommate to look her directly in the eyes. “You’re Arabella Potter, right? The one who single-handedly stopped the Fletcher Gambit. The one who invented the Butterfly Hex. The one who, when she couldn’t find her wand, drove a knife into Severus Snape’s chest.

“You know what you’re going to do? You’re going to get your ass into that bed, get a good night’s rest, then get up and do it all again tomorrow. Because that’s what we do. We soldier on.”

Arabella choked back a sob, set her jaw, and stood up. Without another word, she collapsed onto her bed, knowing that she would, without any hesitation, wake up the next morning prepared to go out there and rejoin the fray.

She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.

Futile Endeavors: The Call Harkens

Why is being productive so hard?

*  *  29  *  *

I was almost to the car. Just a few more feet.

But the squirrel scampered by, leaving me no choice but to follow it. I mean, really. What else could I do? It was a squirrel! I chased it across the park, dodging and weaving as best I could to stay on its trail. It finally zipped up a tree leaving me nothing to do but stare at it and wait.

So I waited.

And waited.

And . . .

The butterfly sitting on the trunk of the tree moved its wings slightly. Not a lot. Just enough that I couldn’t help but to see it. When it took flight, I did the only logical thing and jumped with all my might to try and catch it. Sadly, I failed and landed hard on the ground. The butterfly fluttered by without paying me another thought.

That’s when the nut hit me on the forehead.

I looked up to where I expected the nut had originated to find the squirrel staring down at me, snickering. It twitched its tail enticingly, forcing me to keep my eyes focused on it. It was almost as though . . .

At the last minute, I spun 180 degrees to find a second, fatter squirrel and a rabbit standing mere inches away from me. At the sight of my impressive and intimidating demeanor, they bolted. I couldn’t let such almost-perfectly-executed deception go unpunished, though, so I took off after them. Their legs could move faster, but mine were longer. I was gaining on them. In fact, I was just about to catch the fat squirrel by the tip of his tail when the butterfly drifted between us.

It was at that moment that I realized they were all in cahoots.

It was, really, the only logical explanation.

The squirrels, rabbit, and butterfly had all planned this from the start. From the very first moment I had laid eyes on the first squirrel, I had been playing into their hands . . . paws . . . and/or wings. It was time to put them on the defensive.

Mustering every ounce of self-control in my body, I ignored the butterfly and located the rabbit. She had circled around back toward the tree, so, knowing she must be turning back to regroup and reconspire with the ring-leader squirrel, I took off in her direction.

The Frisbee hit me in the side of the head rather hard.

Or at least it would have if I wasn’t so quick.

Ok, I’ll be honest. It wasn’t even close. But I did see one and for all anyone really knows a strong, well-placed gust of wind could have sent it careening off-course and then it could have gotten a crazy bounce followed by a well-timed trip on my part leading to my head coming into direction contact with the Frisbee.

It could happen.

Either way, the disc flew through the air with an unnatural wobble and just enough of a whistle to ensure that I heard it. Frisbees are crafty creatures. It’s never smart to turn your back on them. I usually go for the preeminent approach, personally.

I attacked the disc, snatching it out of the air and pinning it to the ground.

The butterfly flew by, so I dropped the disc.

The rabbit reappeared, so I forgot the butterfly.

The two squirrels regrouped and snickered from the tree, so I turned away from the rabbit.

A followed by someone else, so I chased them.

I familiar whistle sounded, so I dropped everything else.

My best friend waved to me from the open door of the car, so I remembered what I had been doing in the first place.

Finally, I managed to get myself safely into the confines of the car. My friend closed the door, started it up, and we were on our way. I stuck my head out the window, because what else are cars for, anyway?

It was the best day ever.

They Went There

How do you get rid of ghosts?

*  *  28  *  *

Another thud sounded from the second floor.

“See? There it is again,” said the man. “We need to do something about this.”

“And what exactly do you expect us to do?” asked the woman.

The dog scoffed. “The least you could do is go check it out.”

The woman turned to the dog. “And do what, exactly, when I find something?”

“Maybe there’s someone we can call,” suggested the man.

The woman sighed, her face melting from frustration to concern. “Nobody’s going to believe us unless we have some kind of proof.”

“So,” said the dog, her ears twitching, “we’re back to my idea!”

The woman scratched the dog behind her ear. “I suppose we are,” she said.

Ever since the woman’s niece had moved out, the second floor had remained virtually abandoned, so most of the lights were burned out. Normally, since there were lots of windows and skylights and no one went up there at night, this wasn’t an issue. They saved money by not replacing them. Unfortunately, with this thudding noise, it also meant that they would be walking into utter and complete darkness.

The trio grabbed flashlights (at least those with thumbs did (actually, since the man lost one of his thumbs in an accident, it might be more accurate to say those with thumb (of course, given the fact that there are only three of them and one is a dog, I’m sure there’s a better way to word that))) and headed upstairs.

The third door on the right was slightly ajar; the second door on the left was wide open; and the door directly at the end of the hallway had no doorknob. Individually, none of these were particularly disconcerting matters. When you considered, however, that there were only supposed to be three rooms on the second floor, all of those facts became disturbing.

Based on where the sound had come from downstairs, they determined that the knobless door most likely hid the target room.

“Are we really going to go there?” the man asked.

“You started this,” said the woman. “I was perfectly content to pretend it wasn’t happening.”

“So how’re we going to open it?” asked the dog.

The woman kneeled down and inspected the door, spending most of her time looking around where the knob should have been. Finally, she surrendered to the inevitable, stood and kicked the door in.

The room beyond was surprisingly well lit. There were fluorescent lights covering the ceiling, a chandelier hanging from the center of the room, and candles floating around the walls. In the center of the room was an old bald man no bigger than a child. His size, however, didn’t make them nearly as uncomfortable as the fact that he was floating about two feet off the ground and they could see right through him.

“About time you got here,” said the old man.

The younger man fainted.

The dog ran to the younger man’s side and sniffed him.

The woman stared at the old man, afraid that if she blinked, he would disappear.

“Well,” he said, “you gonna stand there all day or get in here?”

The woman’s mouth opened and closed as though she were trying to speak, but nothing came out. The dog finally gave up on the younger man and rushed to inspect the older man, bumping the woman out of her shock on the way. “What are you doing here?” the woman asked.

The old man laughed. “That’s the lamest question you could have possibly come up with.”

The dog, after having thoroughly inspected the old man, turned back to the woman. “Ok. We know there’s something here, so can we please call someone now?”

The woman smiled, realizing the ridiculousness of the situation. “And who, exactly are we going to call?”

The dog looked between the woman and the old man.

The old man grinned from ear to ear and descended until he was practically nose to nose with the dog. “That’s a good point, pooch,” he said. “Who you gonna call? Huh?

“Who you gonna call?”

Remote and Resigned

What would the world be like if we didn’t have TV remotes?

*  *  27  *  *

He looked across the barren landscape, praying for any sign of relief.

There was none.

As he crawled through the sand, he felt small, jagged rocks cutting into his knees. The heat from the sun had baked the sand so that it burned his hands while the wind kicked up dust that cut at his face. He couldn’t remember when he had begun his journey. Sometimes it seemed as though it had been mere moments before, but sometimes it seemed like years. Since the sun in this desert never seemed to set, he had no real way to measure time other than the exhaustion he felt.

He was beginning to feel as though it was a hopeless endeavor. Was it even possible to cross this desert? Was there a chance that it simply continued on forever? Would he be better off turning around and accepting his fate? He worked hard to keep himself from asking such questions, but at that moment, it was proving rather difficult.

Resisting the urge to give up and surrender to the elements, he pushed himself up to his feet to give his knees a break. His shoes, having proven themselves useless, lied somewhere behind him, far beyond his view. His bare feet had become so calloused and scorched that they barely took note of the hot sand trying desperately to slice them to pieces. They were not, however, immune to his weight. They still ached from their last stint as the primary mode of transport, but they were, at that moment, less cantankerous than his knees.

Unfortunately, sometimes even when one does not complain, one still cannot do the job.

His feet gave up, and he collapsed into  heap.

For a long time, he lay on his back staring at the pale gray sky. For a moment, he considered staring straight into the blazing sun and ending at least part of his suffering. If he was blind, then at least he wouldn’t be able to see that there was nothing to see.

It took a large chunk of his willpower to keep his eyes from turning toward the light.

It took significantly less to continue laying there.

A warm breeze whipped up, ruffling his raggedy clothes and tousling his hair. He closed his eyes and allowed the wind free reign to do with him what it willed. On several levels, he hoped that it would simply pick him up and take him away. The wind, however, seemed quite content to leave him lying there as it moved on toward fairer grounds.

After what felt like hours of lying there, allowing his body an opportunity to recuperate, he was filled with a surge of motivation. Something deep inside of him was screaming, begging him to return to his mission.

And he couldn’t let that part of himself down.

He pushed himself to his feet, ignoring their objections and reminding them that this was their job. They seemed to begrudgingly accept their role, and he continued his journey.

It didn’t take long to reap the benefits of their gracious sacrifice.

For the first time since he began this trek, he saw something in the distance other than desert: something near the horizon glimmered with a light that was something more than a mere reflection of the accursed sun. With a renewed sense of hope fueling his body, the man broke into a run.

Within minutes, he could make out the feint rectangular shape of the object. A few moments after that, he was standing before its magnificence.

He dropped to his knees and wept with relief.

After he composed himself, he reached up with a trembling hand and pressed one of the many buttons gracing the front of the object. Tears began to form anew in his eyes as the object reacted to his touch. It was finally over.

Turning away from the object, he looked back at the desert and felt much of that joy fall away.

He had changed the channel, but he still had to return to the couch.

The Call of Frivolity

Why is jumping in rain puddles so fun?

*  *  26  *  *

It was raining.

Again.

Audra was sick of the rain.

However sick she was of the rain, though, she was more sick of being stuck inside. She wanted desperately to go outside and play. Her bike sat unused in the garage. The trampoline in the backyard beckoned to her. The playground just across the street was as unreachable as a castle guarded by a water-spewing dragon.

She was starting to wish the dragon spewed fire.

“Audra, get your jacket and boots,” her mom called as though bearing a message from the heavens. “We need to run to the store.”

Audra’s heart leapt. With tears of joy in her eyes, she ran to her room, threw on her bright green rain boots and purple jacket and returned, knowing only a hint of the promises the journey ahead held in store. She knew the most important promise, however: she was no longer stuck inside the house. What was more was that the store was close enough to their house that a little bit of rain wasn’t going to convince Audra’s mother that it was worth the greenhouse gas production to drive to the store.

They were going for a walk.

As the two began their trek to the store, Audra tried her best to contain her glee. As per usual, her mother insisted that they hold hands so that Audra was less tempted to wander off. Audra, however, insisted on simply dragging her mom wherever her heart decided she should wander. Usually, it was a fairly easy pull. She had a rather accepting and free-spirited mom who was willing to indulge her little adventures. Today, however, there was business at hand, and Audra had to pull extra hard to divert her mother from the path.

As if a little extra work had ever stopped her. She simply pulled all the more fervently, leaving her mom little choice but to obey the call of frivolity. Or on the case of this particular day, the call of the giant puddle in the middle of the park.

In reality, the puddle could not have been more than a couple feet across. But to Audra, after being stuck inside begging to play in the rain, it may as well have been an ocean.

And she wanted to be a part of that world.

When they reached the edge of the puddle, Audra stopped and looked toward her mom for approval. There was a moment of contemplation as all the options were weighed. Finally, as the reality of the situation soaked through, a grin crossed her mother’s face, followed by a nod.

They both closed their eyes . . .

And jumped.

Audra expected the splash that followed, but she had felt confident that it was supposed to be followed by solid ground. That’s how puddles were supposed to work. Today, however, the solid ground never seemed to appear.

As she opened her eyes, the truth of the situation became apparent. The park was gone. The trees had been replaced by coral reefs; the playground had been replaced by a shipwreck; and, perhaps most shockingly, her mother had been replaced by a mermaid doppelganger. Audra looked down at her own legs to find that they, too, had been replaced by a long, purple tail. She flicked it around to test its movement and was overjoyed at the results as she went flying through the water toward the nearest reef.

A quick tug from her mom’s hand snapped her back.

She turned to see her standing in the middle of the puddle, unmoving.

Audra looked back to find at the coral reefs and shipwreck only to find that they had returned to their previous state as trees and playground equipment. She was, after a moment of contemplation, more than a little disappointed. She had really been looking forward to seeing what secrets that new world held.

But as they returned to their previous journey to the store, Audra took comfort in the fact that, just for a moment, she had seen something more.

She had been something more.

And that was enough.

The Baby and the Bicycle

What is love?

*  *  25  *  *

The first time I met Todd, he was nothing special. He was bald, weak, whiny and completely unwilling to listen to what anyone else had to say. He was two months old, but that’s beside the point. The point, if you were paying attention, is that he was nothing special. At least not when I met him.

That changed.

He and his parents came over to our house for some kind of meeting or party or something else that I wasn’t old enough yet to attend. Instead, I was left alone with Todd.

The adults were all in the adjacent room, so if anything had gone wrong (like, for example, if someone were to start screaming out in horrible, agonizing pain), they would be able to hear and come help. My dad told me it was my job to be the grown-up one of the two of us. I told him that if I was such a grown-up I should be able to go to the meeting or party or whatever it was that I wasn’t old enough yet to attend. They laughed and left me alone with Todd.

For the first five minutes, nothing happened. Babies are not generally particularly skilled conversationalists and he didn’t seem to have any interest in getting up or moving in any way, so we just stared at each other.

For five minutes.

Five minutes of just . . .

staring.

It was boring.

So I decided it might be a good idea to mix things up. I ran over to my toybox and started pulling out all my favorites. One by one, I showed Todd my Hot Wheels, my G.I. Joe, my Malibu Barbie, and an assortment of blocks and rubber balls. He seemed unimpressed, so I went for the big gun: my bicycle.

It was brand new, top of the line and all mine. Its beautiful green body was accented by streaks of grey and sharp black handlebars and seat. When I sat on that puppy, my legs barely touched the ground, it was so big. And to top it all off, my dad had added a bright orange horn that you could hear from all the way down the block. It had training wheels, but I had plans. Those babies were coming off as soon as possible. Like, tomorrow. It was practically a given. Practically.

So I rolled in on my bicycle, ready to knock Todd’s socks off. I wheeled it out in front of him, turned a couple of circles, displayed it proudly and waited for a response.

Todd’s socks remained firmly on his feet.

 He even yawned.

I was disgusted. How could anyone possibly view such a magnificent piece of machinery so callously? How could anyone be anything other than awed by its presence.

And yet, Todd sat there.

Yawning.

I realized that the only explanation for his apathy was that he couldn’t see it well enough, so I hopped on the bike and pedaled it a bit closer to him.

He yawned.

I couldn’t take it anymore. Todd needed to appreciate the beauty of what was before him. He needed to understand. So I parked my bicycle not one foot in front of him.

That’s when I finally got a reaction.

Todd looked up at me with a sudden awareness that I had never seen in someone his age. There was a fire in his eye that hadn’t been there a moment before. I knew immediately what had happened: Todd finally saw my bicycle, and he wanted it. As if to confirm my suspicions, he reached out toward it with his hand.

I felt confident that Todd couldn’t get to the bicycle before I could get away on it, so I didn’t worry too much about the hand.

Until the bike jerked to the right.

I was suddenly two whole feet away from where I had been before, Todd still sticking his hand out at me. His eyes were fixed and burning. His jaw was set and he was ready to take me on. I put my feet on the pedals and pushed as hard as I could, driving straight at Todd. He didn’t even flinch. He just flicked his wrist and sent me flying into the lamp against the wall. As his hand curled into a fist, I felt something tightening around my neck and dragging me up the wall.

I could tell from his expression that Todd planned on getting rid of me so he could have the bicycle for himself. I muttered to Todd, “No, Todd. Please. Don’t hurt me.”

Then he must have heard you guys coming, because he dropped me and started crying.

That’s exactly how it happened, Mom. I swear.