Thanks to Hugh for passing this along.
Ah, to be a boy again
Thanks to Hugh for passing this along.
Ah, to be a boy again
My lover is coming.
Perched on the stool atop the oriental rug, Anysia Willot froze, her fingers tight on the key of the clockwork toy. The pressed metal couple twirled one last time before the waltz ended on a tinny ping. Holding her breath, she waited a second. Two. In the clock tower two stories above, the gears, cams, and going trains of the tower clock rattled like a persistent heartbeat. She bit her lip.
Had she imagined that zing of electricity? That sparkle of freshness?
Her attention flew around the tiny workroom off her bedroom, taking in the paint chipped off the horses of the wind-up carousel on the warped wooden workbench under the window. Sunlight fractured on the frost snowflaking across the wavy poured-glass panes and sent rainbows onto the rusting bodies of Pierrot and Pierrette. The wheel of one faded Tin Lizzy lay against a strip of wallpaper peeling in a corkscrew curl.
She sighed and wilted atop the wobbly seat.
The same decay. The same emptiness. The same every day. And there had been so many days since she’d left the nothingness to be in the real world again.
Carefully setting the waltzing couple on the workbench, she leaned forward to grasp the crown key of the clockwork Ferris wheel. The handle popped off, causing the white pressed-tin framework to wobble. The tricolored flag of France plinked onto the warped surface.
The air glittered with magic. As time reversed, the flag rose from the bench and returned to the top of the Ferris wheel. The dented lattice straightened. The wallpaper rolled back up onto the wall and brightened to stark white instead of the dingy yellow of a moment ago.
A smile pressed so hard into Nysia’s cheeks her face ached. But it was a good ache, a delightful ache. Her lover was coming. To see her.
The clockwork toys brightened to new, their parts reassembling as time scrolled backward. She pinched her cheeks to add color and slid off the stool.
She dug her toes into the bright-green, cream, and red geometric patterns of the carpet through her woolen stockings and finger-combed her hair. Her ebony curls bounced back and brushed her cheeks. Zut alors! Why must her hair always be a bother? She glanced at the oil-stained handkerchief then dismissed the idea of covering the unruly mass. Eliot had said he liked her short curls.
But that had been so long ago.
How many winters had she watched frost ice the landscape? How many harvests had she watched from her window under the clock tower? How many had she missed trapped in the nothingness. Clouds fogged her memory, and an ache pulsed between her temples.
“Nysia, ma chérie.”
The deep baritone rumbled through the workroom. Her heart fluttered in her breast. Happiness carried her weight as smoothing her black velvet dress, she scampered into her bedroom. White lace curtains filtered the wintry sunshine. Ivory enamel gleamed on the iron bedstead. Wrenches and a hammer lay on her mahogany nightstand. Where was he? Where…? Her breath lodged in her throat.
Eliot Bontemps propped a hip against the gleaming wardrobe. Not a speck of dust marred his horizon-blue French Army uniform. He held his Adrian helmet in his hands, and golden curls caressed his oval head. Broad shoulders filled out his trench coat, and puttees emphasized his muscular calves. He breathed on the crossed cannons insignia of the artillery unit on his helmet then polished the brass with his sleeve.
He was so handsome. And he was hers! Forever.
“Eliot,” she breathed. Instead of embracing him, she clasped her hands to her chest, half afraid he’d disappear into the ether.
He spun on the heel of his polished boot.
“But, of course, Nysia. How many other gentlemen do you entertain in your bedroom?”
Heat sprinkled her cheeks, and her attention slid to the bed. They had spent one wondrous hour together before he’d left for the front. Her body tingled as the memories poured through her.
“I had imagined a different reunion for us.” Tossing his hat onto the nightstand, Eliot opened his arms wide.
A wrench clattered to the hardwood floor. She didn’t care. Her job no longer mattered. Eliot was here. Finally.
She dashed in front of the bedstead on tiptoes. A hot tear streaked her cheek. She fell against his strong chest, and his arms banded her torso. She turned her face to his, mouth open for his kiss.
His lips slanted against her mouth, cool, yet firm. His tongue danced with hers.
Gone were the heat and tang of black coffee. Even the tingles racing across her skin seemed muted. Yet, she always expected…different. Silly, of course. He was dead, while she remained trapped in boundless time, between life and death.
A shudder rippled through her, and she pulled away. Why must she always ruin their precious time together?
“I’ve missed you.”
He suckled her exposed neck, and his tongue flicked over her pulse. His fingers stroked her back, trailing down to the edge of her corset. Backing her toward the bed, he teased the strap of her chemise through her dress.
“Tell me how you imagined our reunion would unfold.”
Heat shimmered through her. Not the inferno of before, more like a banked fire on a wintery night. Still, so necessary for her existence.
“I imagined you…” She hooked her fingers through his equipment belt and tugged him toward the bed. “And me…” She worked the buckle free. His trousers dropped low on his hips. “…warming my bed.”
The feather tick mattress scratched the back of her legs. Rising on her toes, she kissed his jaw. The skin was pliable yet cold. She would warm him up. And he…
He would make her feel alive again.
Eliot cupped her shoulder blades.
“And did you imagine a stranger next door?” His words were vapor in her ear. “Hearing your every moan of pleasure?”
Fear cooled her passion. Her numb fingers released the lapels of his greatcoat, and her hips evaded the grind of his.
”Oh, la vache, c’est vrai?”
“Oui, ma chérie. It’s true.” He clucked her under her chin. A soft smile played with his lips.
They had so little time together as it was. She stomped her foot before gripping his greatcoat again.
“I don’t care.”
One yank, and he stumbled against her. He tugged playfully on her curls.
“Don’t you? I’ve heard you cry because the villagers whisper about the bad ghost in the clock tower. I see how you cringe when the older boys rush inside and shout insults at you on a dare.”
Of late, more girls had braved her home. Their taunts stung deeper than the boys’. They always had. Tears prickled her nose, and she rested her head against Eliot’s chest. She heard no reassuring heartbeat.
“They were not nice to me when I walked among them. Why would I expect them to be nice to me now?”
And why do I always respond to their taunts?
Eliot pressed a kiss into her forehead.
“Ah, mon petit chou, I know what softness lies under your brave façade.”
Nysia slid out of his arms and plopped onto her bed. The soft feather tick sighed around her bottom as the cast iron bedstead squeaked from her weight. Digging her fingers into the blue-and-yellow coverlet, she glanced at her lover.
“Shall I chase the boy away?”
Inside, she cringed at the thought of revealing herself. Few had seen her since she’d passed into the nothingness. She preferred it that way.
“Ah, but this is not a boy.” Eliot turned toward the door of her grandfather’s old bedroom.
Pépère had died before she had crossed. What right did someone have to use his bed? Her fingernails dug into her palms. Jerky strides carried her toward the room. She would chase away the interloper.
The glass knob was icy against her palm. She twisted it and yanked open the door. A floorboard creaked, but the door hinges remained mute.
A quilt in reds, greens, and white covered the heap in Pépère’s bed. Chubby Santa Clauses adorned midnight-blue socks hanging over the footboard. Nysia slowed her brisk strides. He was a big man. A very big man. Would he be frightened of ghosts?
With a snort, the interloper rolled onto his back. Long black hair fanned over the blue cotton pillowcase. His hand rested palm-up near the edge of the pillow. Muscle played under the white sleeve of his longjohns. Calluses dotted the pads of his fingers, and a pink line from a cut bisected his palm.
A workingman’s hands. Workingmen weren’t that easily duped. Her heart raced inside her chest, and her breath came in short bursts. A workingman definitely wouldn’t fear a ghost who bumped into walls.
And she would. She’d always been clumsy, except when it came to the clock and her toys. The jig would be up when she yelped in pain.
Because Eliot’s return made her as substantial as every living soul beyond the clocktower and its yard.
Hugging her waist, she backed away from the interloper. A wall of soft muscle prevented her retreat. Eliot set his hands on her back and pushed her toward the stranger.
She shook her head.
“Let me leave.”
“You must face this. Face him.”
Despite her squirming, Nysia couldn’t break Eliot’s hold. Her shoulders sagged in defeat and she stopped resisting.
“Why? Why must I face him?”
A water stain spread across the ceiling. Paint appeared on the wood paneling then slowly blistered and flaked off. The washstand dissolved in the slow burn of decay. Her lover was leaving her again.
Leaving her alone.
With a stranger.
She grasped for Eliot’s hand but found only her own shoulder. Her heart constricted.
“He is here to fix the clock.”
Eliot’s words were an arctic blast. Her ear needled from the cold. The grind of the gears in the clock tower nearly shattered her skin.
“Fix the clock?”
Her teeth chattered. Her job had been to keep the clock ticking. The Willots had always kept the clock ticking for Chronos, the god of time, and made certain the past, present, and future remained separate. She’d inherited the duty from her grandfather, and his father, and his father before him. Others like this black-haired man had come and gone since she moved into the nothingness. She’d resented each and every one.
Had rejoiced at their leaving.
Since the last clock man had departed a while ago, she’d been determined to let the clock wind down. To stop time. Just for a second. So she could die and spend eternity with Eliot.
But Chronos had prevented her. After the last sabotage attempt, she’d been banned from touching the clockworks. With winter’s breath fogging the window, December 31st had to be close.
Straightening, she glared at the interloper in the bed. He kept her from her lover.
“What do you want me to do?”
Pain spiked her heart. Eliot would ask her to be with another? Her knees shook. What about his vows of eternal fidelity? He’d sworn to be faithful to her, as he expected her to be to him.
Plaster dusted the floorboards as a crack traveled from the foundation and reached the ceiling. Eliot disappeared, leaving only a chilly imprint.
“You must, ma chérie. It is the only way for us to be together.”
His voice faded just as he did.
But she remained in the world. Trapped.
Nysia pressed her fist against her chest. Her gaze pinned to the man on the bed, she backed out of the room. She must seduce him. But how? She’d never seduced anyone in her life. Eliot had taken the lead in their courtship—she’d been too interested in gears, cams, and drive trains.
She shut the door and locked it.
Still, seduction couldn’t be too hard. She’d observed enough of the village girls flirt with the soldiers passing through.
And she was French down to her sabots. Too bad termites had devoured her wooden shoes ages ago.
Jay Dugan winced at the hammering inside his head. By Kringle, he hadn’t had that much eggnog last night, had he?
He cast his memory back to the night before. Two glasses with dessert, but the eggnog hadn’t been spiked then. His four brothers had waited until their children were put to bed before adding the brandy.
And then he’d had three—no, four cups. Tiny cups, but they made his mother’s gingerbread men taste so much better. Sugar cookies, but he had a hangover!
He folded the feather pillow around his head like a skull tortilla. The pounding intensified.
Jay gritted his teeth. Nice job, dipped cookie. Showing up sick on the first day of the new job is bound to make an impression. All of it bad.
He growled then massaged a hand down his face. He’d best start sobering up now. He still had a bit of packing to do before he found the magic portal to take him to Saint Sylvestre, France.
Shoving aside his brand new Christmas quilt, he swung his legs over the side. So far so good. His stomach wasn’t trying to turn itself inside out. Maybe his hangover wouldn’t be so bad. Cold leached the heat from the soles of his feet despite his Santa Claus socks. Great. He’d apparently forgotten to set the timer for the pellet stove. He’d give up eggnog for a year, if his day would start improving now.
A yawn threatened to unhinge his jaw. Eyes watering, he peeked at his surroundings. Light stabbed the back of his skull. He squeezed his eyes closed. Seeing was highly overrated. Besides, this was his apartment. He knew the space above his parents’ garage by heart.
Two steps across the wooden floor, his little toe slammed into something hard. Pain zipped up his leg and pingponged his eyes in his skull. What in the world? He never left anything on his bedroom floor. Must be his doofus older brothers. Hopping on one foot, Jay blinked the offending article into focus.
His tool box sat in the middle of a rug that was more dust than carpet. Water stained the ceiling in rings of brown and rust. Blobs of plaster dotted the floor like unmelting snowballs. The scent of mildew made his nose twitch. The mattress sagged, the head and footboard caving in as if to meet in the middle.
This was not his bedroom.
Not his apartment.
Was this some kind of prank? His brothers had threatened the night before to do something, one last hazing for the youngest Dugan sibling. Relocating him to some Grinch pit would do it. Jay ran his tongue over his fuzzy teeth. Maybe he didn’t have a hangover but was suffering the aftereffects of being drugged. He cracked his knuckles. There should be time to teach his brothers some manners before he left for his new job.
Shaking off his fatigue, he glanced around the room. Wind whistled through a crack in the windowpane over the bed. The wall sconce over by the door dangled by bare wires. His two bags stood near a decomposing washstand beside his boots. That settled it. He must be in Pumpkin. Only in a town dedicated to Halloween would someone make a place look this bad. Which meant he had a long walk home ahead of him. In the cold, snow, and uphill.
His brothers better not have unpacked his clothes. No man wanted his jingle bells frosted.
Rolling his shoulders, he crossed the room. The wooden boards creaked underfoot. Please don’t let me go through. Please. He held his breath, making himself as light as possible.
Reaching his luggage, he dropped to the floor and unzipped his bags. His neatly stacked clothes lay nestled inside. He selected a Doctor Who T-shirt, a gray flannel shirt, and tan cargo pants. Quickly dressing, he laced his boots then gathered his belongings. His coat and gloves had better be near the door, or he’d find the nearest phone and have his dough-head brothers come fetch him.
No way was he risking his tools to the damp and cold. Those things worked magic.
Setting his luggage near the door, he reached for the glass handle. It turned before his fingers touched it.
The skin at his neck prickled. By Kringle, if they’d stashed him in a haunted house, he’d wring his brothers’ necks. He hated ghosts. And Pumpkin was full of dead things. Jay stepped back. He raised his fist then swore. Punching a ghost wasn’t an option.
The hinges groaned, and wood ripped as the door swung open. A stooped old man shambled inside, a scythe-shaped cane thumping the floor every other step. He consulted a gold watch before tucking it back into his trouser pocket. Clear blue eyes looked up, pinning Jay.
“Leaving us so soon? You just arrived.”
Jay’s heart plummeted near his knees. This couldn’t be…
“Mister Chronos? Sir?”
How did one address the god of time—his new boss?
“Just Chronos.” Gnarled fingers smoothed the fringe of white hair around his pink scalp. “Not sir or mister.”
“Yes, sir, er, Chronos.” Jay’s tongue wrapped around the name. He was already in Saint Sylvestre. He eyed the waterstained wall. Maybe the place decayed as the year progressed and renewed at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day.
The old man grunted. “Scared you off, did she?”
Jay blinked, bringing his attention back into the conversation.
Chronos’s eyes twinkled with the light of galaxies.
“No. No, you haven’t met her in the past or present. Yet.”
After a quick inspection of the dresser, Jay lowered his toolbox to the floor.
“I don’t know who ‘she’ is, but I thought I…” He swallowed the words. Not all holiday towns liked being compared to others. “I didn’t know where I was.”
“Ahhh.” Chronos stroked his white beard and twirled the end around his finger. “Got a muzzy head, a fuzzy tongue, and a buzzing in the ears?”
“Yes, yes, and no,” Jay answered the questions in order. “I hear a thumpity-thump of…” His heart pounded. Since he was in Saint Sylvestre, then… “That’s the clock.”
The clock. The one that kept time for the universe. He eyed the cracked and stained ceiling. This was better than the TARDIS because it was real.
“Yes, yes. The one you were hired to look after, but first there are things we must discuss.”
A muffled sob penetrated the door Jay had assumed lead to the bathroom.
“Is someone else here?”
Chronos’s blue eyes narrowed and turned black. Bits of glitter were the stars in his eyes.
“I see how things lie.”
“Hmm?” The old man jerked his attention to Jay. “Well, some things are inevitable, I suppose.” He shambled across the wood floor. With every thump of his cane, plaster returned to the walls, water stains faded on the ceiling, and the cracks zipped closed. Only the furnishings remained shabby. “Come, I will buy you breakfast while we discuss…things.”
More sobbing echoed in the restored room. The clockworks clanged.
Jay’s hair stood on end. If he didn’t know better, he’d say the place was haunted.
Tugging on the neck of his T-shirt, he scuttled after the old man. He could put up with anything, as long as it wasn’t a ghost.
“You’re an alien.” I glanced at Dad then stuck a finger in my ear and wiggled it around. Nope, that hadn’t been an auditory hallucination. My hearing worked just fine.
The night cocooned us. Bats darted and dove against a velvet sky. Stars twinkled. A light blazed a trail along the southern horizon then burst in a pop of white. Three months ago, I would have made a wish on a falling star. Now, I wanted to check my phone to see if some new extraterrestrial had arrived behind a meteor strike.
“Eat your sandwich, Doodlebug.” Dad jerked his chin at my right hand. “Pops made those specially for you.”
“We don’t believe in aliens, Dad. You taught me everything was the government covering up for their experiments.” And I believed it until I learned differently. Death had a funny way of shifting paradigms. I stuffed the bite of egg salad into my mouth, then licked the remnants of mayonnaise off my fingers. The food dissolved on my tongue and my stomach growled at missing the feast.
Dad held open the insulated sack and offered me another of the sandwiches he’d packed. “We had to tell you that. We had to say it often enough so everyone we came into contact with would never questioned our beliefs and hatred for the government.”
Unwrapping the new sandwich, I ate half in one bite. Cucumber with garlic and chipotle peppers. I polished it off and looked for more. Three finger sandwiches always equaled one whole sandwich. And I needed a whole lotta calories. I snapped my attention back to Dad while retrieving the last wax paper wrapped rectangle. “So you’re saying our government is benevolent?”
Dad snorted. “No one in power is benevolent. Power is the great corrupter.”
That sounded familiar. Eating, I turned toward the hacienda. The boxy shape of luminaries lined the roof of the ranch house. Mom and Pops had left the light on. Not that I needed it. My CeeBees slimed everything in snot green, but I could see clear as day.
“I’m saying that aliens account for some of the bad in this world.”
“Aliens. Like you.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. I was responsible for hundreds of extraterrestrials in Arizona and had access to the names of the rest. Dale Gardner hadn’t been on the list. I would have known. Unless it was hidden. A cold finger trailed down my spine.
Could the United Earth Defense have kept it from me?
My fingers itched with the need to check my phone. Maybe my little blue bugs could hack the system and get at the truth.
Dad tilted his head.
Oh, boy. I guess I hadn’t reacted enough to the whole alien bit. Should I reveal who I was? My skin tingled and my scalped tightened. Right, no talking about my new job. For their own safety, my family had to believe I was a bean counter at a telephone marketing company. I nudged Dad’s arm. “I’ve seen Independence Day. Aren’t you supposed to be gray with a big head and large black eyes?”
His lips quirked. “There are some aliens that look like that, but I’m human.”
For a moment. One wild, hope-filled moment, I wished this was his idea of a joke. Dad always had a wicked sense of humor. Please, be a joke. Please…
“Ah-ha.” I pointed at him. “I knew you were just funning me. You can’t be human and an alien.”
“Sorry, Doodlebug.” He fished inside the bag and brought out the squares of brownies. “But there are a lot of humans born on planets other than Earth. I happen to be one of them.”
I sighed and accepted the dessert. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and I really wanted a drink, but we still had a mile to go before we reached the house. I needed the energy. “So you weren’t born in Kansas?”
“I was born on Antares.” He pointed at the sky, near the Big Dipper. “But I was able to travel to many worlds.”
His thumb formed an ‘L’ next to his hand as he swept across the horizon.
Antares. Antares? Where had I heard that name before? I filed it away for later and rolled the chocolatey goodness over my tongue. Life was always better with chocolate. “If you could travel to the stars, why did you stay here?”
“It’s a long story.” Dad fished a water bottle out of the sack. Next, he dipped his fingers in his pocket and removed a packet, which he dumped into the bottle. Water sloshed as he shook it, and the liquid turned purple. “Grape flavored.”
“My favorite.” My nose twitched from the delicious scent. I devoured the brownie then held out my hands for the bottle. Cold plastic pressed against my fingers as I raised it to my lips. Along with the sweet tang of grapes, I detected a bitter aftertaste. I lowered the bottle, breaking the seal with a pop and wrinkled my nose.
“I added extra electrolytes so it may taste funny.” Dad opened his own bottle and raised it in a toast. “I saw you tear across the orchard. With all that exercise, your body can use the salts.”
That was my Dad, always looking after me. All of us, Mom and Pops, and the folks at whatever place happened to take us in. Alien human, I would never turn him in. He was my dad. I tapped my bottle against his. “I’ll never tell about you being born in a galaxy far, far away.”
I drained half the bottle in one long gulp. The liquid snapped, fizzled, and popped on my tongue. The CeeBees must be applauding the addition of much needed resources.
Nodding, he capped his drink. The rocks had changed to sand as we followed the streambed toward the orchard. “I needed you to know, needed you to understand.”
My heart tumbled over a beat. “You’re not leaving, are you?”
I could keep him safe. I had the resources to change his identity, to give him a fresh start. My stomach cramped. I could if I wanted him in the system, wanted the UED to know about him.
“Leave my family? Never!” Dad looped an arm around my shoulder. “I just want to explain some stuff to you.”
“The long story?” I tripped over a tree root. Dang how had that leapt up at me?
“Finish your drink, while I tell it, okay?”
“Sure.” I smacked my lips. Dad might have put a smidge too many salts into the drink. Instead of quenching my thirst, it had made me thirstier.
“I arrived on Earth about thirty years ago.”
“Thirty? You joined us twenty-seven years ago.” I had the pictures of him holding me while I blew out candles on my birthday cake. There’d been three candles on the cake.
“No interrupting, Doodlebug. We don’t have much time.” He gazed at the lights of the house visible through the screen of dormant peach trees. A light breeze rasped through the dead grass.
I raised the bottle to my lips to keep from talking.
“I arrived thirty years ago in the Midwest. My team and I studied ancient Archa technology and my employers had recently acquired some very unique pieces.”
“Archa?” I couldn’t help speaking. That was another of the words I was supposed to know.
“An alien race, long since vanished from the universe.”
“Like the Hohokam?” The word clicked in my head. Ahh, that’s how I knew it. I was stuffed to the gills with Archa CeeBees. I brushed my neck to make certain, the little blue bugs hadn’t given me gills to be contrary. “So, you’re not the first extraterrestrial to visit earth?”
I made a zipper motion across my lips.
“My team and I made many breakthroughs while studying the new technology, but we couldn’t get the Cerebral-bots to do what we wanted.” He kicked at a fallen peach. The fruit shattered upon impact, spraying bits of pulp everywhere.
I clamped my lips together to stop myself from asking another question.
“Human nature is very war-like. We’ve gone out to space four times, cured diseases, famine, and conquered weaker races, but we still fight amongst ourselves.” He squeezed my shoulder. “I was in charge of finding weapons, new weapons, to give my own—, er, bosses the advantage.”
Cold air washed over my teeth. Dad designed weapons? “But you’re the most peaceful person I know. You rescue flies and put them outside.”
He kissed my temple. “I’m not the man I was. You, your Mom, and Pops changed me. Made me see that there had to be another way. But it was the CeeBees that put me on the path first.”
His nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed.
I followed his line of sight down the rows of bare-limbed trees. Nothing there. He must be remembering.
“I thought I’d uncovered the key to the CeeBees function, rogue code buried deep inside their make-up. I was certain this would allow me to turn the enemy’s infected operatives into our drones, incapable of free will. Flesh-cover automatons.”
“Robots?” My knees buckled. I didn’t want to be a robot only capable of following orders. I liked my free will just the way it was and wouldn’t trade it for all the grape soda in the universe.
Holding me up, he stared at the house, seeing the past as he lived it. “We would know all they did, could counter their every move and upgrade our weaponry so they would no longer be a threat to our way of life.”
I clutched him arms. I’d lost the feeling in my fingers. Were the spam dots turning me into their meat puppet even now? “What’s happening?”
Dad blinked. He dragged his gaze from the past and focused on me. “For millennia, we’d thought the CeeBees were there to guide humankind along. Stop us from going extinct like the Archa.”
My toes tingled and turned rubbery; my knees followed suit.
He gently lowered me to the ground and brushed the hair out of my eyes. “We’d detected the spikes you see. The rise in CeeBees and the number of people infected with them at every nexus point in human history. The CeeBees were there, and so was a leader to guide us through the tough times. To take us to the next step in our evolution.”
“Dad?” The word was foam in my mouth, sucking out the moisture. Something was wrong. So very wrong. My fingers spasmed and plopped onto my lap.
Opening his water bottle, he held it to my mouth. “But they weren’t there to help us. The CeeBees were there to destroy us. That bit of code, that was the map of our destruction.”
Cool water washed over my tongue, splashed down my throat. I tried to swallow but couldn’t. Oh, God, the blue bugs were killing me. I focused on Dad, his words, his presence. If I had to die, at least, I wasn’t alone. Not everyone was so lucky.
“When I revealed my findings, my team was recalled. We knew what awaited us. After all the time and money, we had nothing to show our employers.” He shook his head. “So we decided to sever our employment on our terms. You and your parents were camping in the woods when the ship exploded. You were hit.”
I was hit? I didn’t remember being injured. I didn’t have any scars.
Something rustled in the grass. Blue eyes glowed in the darkness.
Viktor. Given our past experiences, I didn’t think he was the kind to stick around when things got bad. I raised my hand to call him closer, let him know I forgave him. Old blue eyes stayed where he was.
Dad rocked me softly. “I shouldn’t have done it, but you were so tiny and you smiled even as you were dying.”
Dying. Dying. I was dying. My ears hummed. Weight rushed into my limbs.
“I woke up with your fingers holding onto my thumb. You told me to be brave, that if I took your hand we could walk together.” He brushed at the tears on his cheeks. “You were two and meeting death without fear. You are so brave, Doodlebug. I couldn’t let you die, so I used the CeeBees I’d lined my pockets with to save you. It wasn’t much, but you were so tiny.”
Sand filled my eyes. I wanted to sleep, to fall into the darkness sucking at my limbs. Dad was right; I wasn’t afraid.
“It wasn’t until later that I realized how much damage I’d done.” Tucking the empty water bottle into the sack, he pulled me onto his lap. “They’d multiplied inside you, and you could control them. You talked to them.”
My head lolled back. Finally, someone believed me. The CeeBees could talk. I hope he told Tobias at my funeral. Tobias… Warm air rushed past my lips. All those weeks with him sleeping next to me in bed, holding me when I had nightmares of being tortured and killed, and never once had I kissed him again.
If I had it to do over again. I would kiss Tobias and thank him for understanding.
And maybe…. Maybe we could have something more.
“We didn’t blame you. On those protests against Pop’s father, you didn’t have anyone to play with. So you created them and the CeeBees knit leaves, twigs, and branches into animated beings to sip tea and eat mud pies.” He lifted my hand and held it against his cheek.
It glowed a soft blue. I liked blue. It was better than the snot green.
“But then you animated the gnomes.”
Gnomes. I mentally shuddered. Those little pointy hatted freaks insane people tucked among the petunias. How could they not see the evil behind the frozen clay smiles?
“Pops tried to bring you in for dinner, but you didn’t want to stop playing. And they attacked him.” Dad’s grip tightened. “I was at the door when you screamed, but the damage they’d done…”
I saw his touch but didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel anything. Just like the last time I’d died. How long would I float here, outside my body before I saw a light? There had better not be a gnome guarding Heaven.
“That night, I made you a drink, just like tonight.” Dad slipped his arm under the back of my legs and rose. “I thought I’d cured you of the CeeBees, flushed them out of you. But I see now that they were only dormant, waiting for their chance to reawaken.”
The CeeBees. My thoughts thickened, sticking to my brain before they could be completed. The CeeBees were a part of me, a requirement to do my job. I liked my job. I closed my eyes, seeing was so overrated.
“I promise to kill every last one of the CeeBees infecting you, Rae.” Dad hugged me close as I drifted away. “I won’t stop until you’re free. I’ll hunt them down and keep killing them until they’re gone and you’re free.”
Yeah, it sounds like something a writer would make up. But it is real. Very, very real. Have you heard of stalagmites and stalactites, well meet their very snotty cousin.
Apparently this lovely bacteria hangs from caves and has the consistency of nasal mucus (aka snot) and seeing one live and in person should be on every microbiologist’s bucket list.
Just the thought of it makes me gag.
Have a lovely weekend!
Woo-hoo! July is shaping up to be an awesome month. I have a new romance released. So if you’re in the mood to celebrate the Christmas/New Year season early, pick up a copy.
Dodging desperate women eager to bag him as a husband is not Jay Dugan’s idea of a good time. He’d much rather find out how things tick. When the god of time offers him a job maintaining that clock for the universe, Jay jumps at the offer. There are only two rules: Maintain the clock and beware of ghosts from the past.
Anysia Willot wants nothing more than to join her dead fiancé on the Other Side. Nysia’s one chance is to trick Jay into stopping the clock; and she’ll use any means necessary, including seduction.
As the clock counts down to New Year’s Day, Nysia finds herself being seduced by both the technology of this new world and Jay. Can she stay with Jay? Or will time stop because the past isn’t finished with her?
“I thought CeeBees were supposed to enhance their host’s endurance?” Viktor jogged ahead of me. The showoff ran backward, a smirk on his lips.
I slogged along. One sneaker in front of the other took about as much effort as climbing the rope from hell in gym class. I never wanted a root to rise up out of the ground and trip someone so much. I would give my first born to watch Mr. Tall, Dark, and Latino fall tight buns over teakettle. To stop from sticking my tongue out at him, I chugged my soda.
Fizzy goodness dribbled down my chin. The blue bugs lapped it up before it dropped onto my t-shirt. Too bad, they didn’t kick in with a boost of power.
“Don’t tell me you’re winded.”
“I’m not.” Running was against my religion. Of course, that didn’t explain the drudgery of putting one foot in front of the other. The CeeBees hadn’t cared about my membership in the Church of the Couch Potato when I’d sprinted into the desert.
“Then why so slow?” Viktor turned about giving me a view of his taut backside before slowing so I could jog beside him when the path opened up.
Why indeed? But I knew. The CeeBees giveth, and the CeeBees taketh away. Especially when the Freudian spam dots read my subconscious and knew I didn’t want to run any more than a nympho wanted a cigar. I crushed the empty can and added it to the bag of trash. A coyote’s howl echoed in the sandstone canyons boxing us in. The pines and shrubs glowed a sickly pea-green in the darkness-night vision courtesy of the blue bugs.
“Maybe I’m not peachy keen on finding out what’s at the end of that scream of bloody murder.” I wasn’t a superhero, and I never played one on TV, either. I did have that bit part in grade school where I was a spider once, but I doubted freezing in place would help. Especially since we were at my folks’ current residence.
And that scream had sounded human.
My chest tightened and I picked up speed. Mom, Pops, and Dad had better not be hurt.
Viktor pumped his arms faster. “Your late night snack must be kicking in.”
“It’s not late.” I glanced up at the sky. A gray aura licked at the western edge of the buttes. The pines vanished as my soles scraped the rocky terrain. “The sun just set a half hour ago.”
But I’d been gone hours before that.
My parents probably worried I’d become lost.
I would have been worried. But my blue bugs guided me like an internal compass. I knew exactly where home lay.
And the dead thing separated us.
Halfway up a mesa, bushes rattled. The hair on my nape prickled. It could be the wind. If wind only blew in one area.
Viktor cocked his head and squinted at the same section. “Are your CeeBees detecting a predator?”
“Not really.” I blinked. I had spider senses and didn’t know it? I really needed to check the manual. Keeping the swaying bushes in my peripheral vision, I angled south. “Why? Do you see something with your X-Ray vision?”
“Enhanced vision, not X-Ray.” He winked. “If I want to see what’s underneath something I just ask.”
My muscles heated. “Do you always have to make things sound so sexual?”
“I don’t have to do anything, but I do love to see you blush.”
Jerk. I darted ahead of him and rounded the bend. His words sunk in. “You see in color?”
In the dark. So much for my advanced alien tech.
“Yep.” A rock shot in front of him as he caught up to me. “Of course, I can’t see in zero lighting like you can.”
“Good to know.” I grunted as a stitch knit my side. I dug my fingers into the soft tissue under my ribs. Something wasn’t right. I’d consumed more than the required calories after I’d woken. Why weren’t the spam dots behaving? I should be running like a gazelle with a pride of lions after her.
“Of course, if you wanted to play Hide and Seek, I could still find you.” He ducked under a manzanita bough. “But we’d have to play by my rules. The finder gets to ask anything of the findee, and she must submit.”
An owl hooted nearby.
Submit to Viktor? There was a time my heart would have pitter-pattered over the idea. But now, he kept me between his body and the thing on the ridge. Now, my heart only pittered; the traitor.
“Not gonna happen.” A branch tip snagged my shirt then snapped off. I bounded out of the wash and onto the bank.
Sheep huddled together in the clearing. Greenish wooly faces turned toward the ridge. In the distance, headlights bounced over the desert. Golden beams painted the shrubs in bright greens. Dad. He was always the responsible parent; the one that checked for monsters in the closet.
I needed to get there before he did.
Viktor clamped a hand on my arm. “Wait.”
I jerked to a stop instead of losing my arm. “What?”
“Let them get there first. They’ve no doubt brought weapons to investigate.”
“Weapons? Are you nuts?” I tugged on my arm.
He dug in.
“These are my parents. They’re pacifists to the nth degree. I wasn’t even allowed to hit a fly with a rolled up newspaper when I was younger. I had to catch it and put it outside.” And now my dad was out there, facing who knows what. I had to get to him. Kicking, my toes connected with Viktor’s shin.
I tore free and sprinted across the desert. Finally, my blue bugs cooperated. Hopping like a bunny, I leapt small shrubs in a single bound and sped past fluttering moths.
The meaty scent of blood thickened the air. Fresh kill.
My stomach cramped and my hind brain urged flight in the opposite direction. I powered on. My CeeBees had regrown a toe. They’d brought me back from the dead. I’m sure I could recover from whatever was out there. At least, I stood a better chance than my family.
“Rae. Dammit, Rae! Slow down.” Viktor’s footfalls pounded behind me. “You don’t know who was attacked.”
Who? Who? I sounded like a mental owl. Instead of picturing my parents slaughtered, my mind filled with a gutted sheep. Why would I picture that? The CeeBees. Was it true, or a measure to calm me?
“Rae.” Viktor raked his hand down my back.
“It’s a sheep.” I skirted an Ironwood tree and veered left.
The headlights grew bigger. The soft purr of an electric motor gobbled up the darkness.
“You can’t know that.” Viktor pinched my sleeve.
The ribbed collar of my tee-shirt cut across my windpipe, and I slowed. My thighs trembled, my knees shook, and my stomach growled. “I do know that.”
A lump of snot-green wool lay in a glossy black pool. My stomach churned. I was a cellophane carnivore, preferring my meat in its natural environment of the refrigerated section in the grocery store. This was a little too real.
Viktor huffed beside me. “It is a sheep.”
“Was.” Past tense. It was dead. I felt the emptiness inside me. Skirting the pool of congealing blood, I sidled closer to the steaming guts. “Why didn’t the coyote eat it all?”
“I don’t think a coyote did this.” After a quick tug on his pants, he crouched down near the split stomach. “Give me the fob.”
Clenching the snack trash between my knees, I dipped my fingers into my pocket. My nails scratched warm metal before I pinched the fob and slid it out.
“Hurry.” He snapped his fingers.
“Oh, hey! I’m not a dog.” The triangular ends bit into my palm. No way would I let him have it back. He could use it against my parents.
“Radiance.” Dad called out.
The ATV’s headlights smacked me in the eyes. Not that I wanted to see, but whatever animal did this was still out there. Blinking rapidly, I waited for my vision to adjust.
“I’ll do it. Just tell me what to do.” I swept my thumb over the crystal in the center. It remained dark. Uh-oh. That could be bad.
“Just point it at the carcass, then check your phone for the information.” He growled.
I pointed. No beam of light blasted out. I shook the fob twice and swept it back and forth for good measure. Nothing. Nada. Zip. I thumped it on the heel of my palm.
Viktor arched an eyebrow. “You broke it?”
“No. Noooo. I didn’t break it.” My spam dots just drained the life out of it. Little blue vampires.
He swore under his breath.
The cart zigged to the right and light raced across the desert to smack into a dwarf maple. The ATV braked and the cart behind it rattled to a stop.
“Rae?” Dad leapt out of the driver’s side. His wristwatch glowed fluorescent blue in the darkness. “Are you alright, Doodlebug?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” I slipped the key fob into my pocket and retrieved the trash. “Unfortunately, something decided to nosh on one of the ewes.”
Closing the distance between us, Dad ignored the animal. He opened his thick arms. “It happens, Doodlebug. Everything has to eat.”
I stepped into his hug, inhaled the citrusy scent of his handmade soap. He was there for me, like always. Making sense of the crazy.
“It must be a coyote.” Viktor cleared his throat. “We saw one in the bushes not too far back.”
I stiffened. I hadn’t seen a coyote, and he’d said nothing when I’d suggested it.
Dad squeezed my shoulders.
“Actually…” Gravel crunched. A broad shouldered silhouette cut across the spray of headlamps. The boy-toy Alexander Leech swaggered toward the carcass, sweeping the area with the beam from the flashlight in his hand. “There aren’y any tracks.”
He crouched on the ground, touching the area imprinted with the treads of my sneakers.
I shook my head. “Listen up, Great Carnac, I don’t know what kind of animal whisperer you think you are, but you’re not going to track an animal on commune lands.”
A muscle ticked in Alexander Leech’s jaw.
“We don’t punish animals for being hungry, Xander.” Dad squeezed my shoulder. “It was only following its instincts.”
“If it was an animal.” Xander shone the beam at the sheep’s stomach. He ran a finger along the slitted belly. “That looks more like a knife wound.” Next, he picked up a stick and poked around the entrails. “And it didn’t eat much.”
Viktor rocked back on his heels. “It could have been scared off.”
Testosterone poisoned the air. I’m sure I sprouted a chest hair. I shifted beside Dad waiting to see which of the primates could fling more crap.
Xander snorted. “There aren’t any tracks. There would be tracks if two predators went at it.”
He dipped his hand inside the belly and groped the organs.
I stepped back and wrinkled my nose. What kind of macho contest was this?
“Maybe Rae and I stomped on them, like we did the tracks.” Viktor pressed.
Ducking his head, Dad rubbed his bushy beard to hide his twitching lips. “Perhaps, you boys should take—”
“Ha!” Xander pulled out his hand. Blood and goo dripped from his fingers, marbleized his forearm. “Just as I thought. The adrenal gland is missing.”
Viktor’s nostrils flared. “The adrenal gland?”
Dad’s fingers tightened on my shoulder. “Are you sure?”
I gritted my teeth. Obviously, I was missing something. Something I might have understood, if I watched the news. “What kind of animal only eats the adrenal gland?”
Viktor’s fists trembled at his sides before he tucked them into his pockets. “Human poachers. But I doubt there’s a market for sheep’s adrenal glands in homeopathic medicine.”
Xander shook his head and leapt to his feet. “It all fits now. The reason why there’s no tracks, the missing gland. It was aliens.”
Fear pole-axed me, spearing me to the spot. Aliens. Aside from Viktor, the only aliens about were my aliens. The aliens I was charged with looking after. Oh crap. Oh crap! I should never, ever have given up swearing. Now my skills were rusty. I needed something, something a lot stronger than an F-bomb at the moment.
“Aliens?” Dad tensed. “You think aliens did this?”
Viktor threw back his head. His laughter flowed like a splash of cool water on a summer’s day.
My shoulders relaxed, my lips twitched. If he could laugh it off, then maybe it wasn’t so bad. Then why had he wanted to use the fob? I sobered. Okay, maybe it was aliens, but Xander and Dad didn’t need to know that. And I had no proof until I could power up my phone and see what kind of ET ate sheep guts. My laugh was high and tight, forced from my throat.
Xander’s jaw thrust forward. “It was aliens. This is a textbook case. Everyone knows they come at dusk and daybreak, so you can’t see their lights against the setting sun.”
Dad raised his hand and as if to calm the boy-toy. “Those are government lies, son. Cattle mutilations, sheep mutilations, and the harvesting of organs are all part of a conspiracy to help those in power live long lives. That’s the God’s honest truth.”
Xander’s teeth clicked shut.
Viktor’s mouth hung open.
I nodded. These were the things I was taught to believe growing up. These were the things I believed until the blue bugs infected me and revealed the aliens all around. “Dad has books on the subject, if you want to read more about it.”
“Why don’t you two boys load the sheep on the ATV and take it back to the ranch? Now that the government stooges have their organs, there’s no sense in the carcass going to waste.”
Viktor arched an eyebrow. Guess he wasn’t used to getting his hands dirty.
I smirked. “Try not to get any guts on you.”
Threading his flashlight through his belt loop, Xander picked up the forelegs. “Take the back. I wanna see this wound in a better light.”
Viktor sighed and obeyed.
The animal swung between them as they shuffled over.
Dad retrieved a sack from the driver’s side. “Keys are in the ignition. Rae and I will walk back.”
The ATV bounced as they laid the body on the back. Xander scrambled for the driver’s seat. “I’ll drive.”
Viktor glanced at me. “Rae?”
“Catch.” I chucked my trash at him.
He caught it, clamped his lips together, and climbed into the passenger side. Dropping the trash at his feet, he crossed his arms over his chest. “See you back at the house.”
The engine growled and Xander popped the brake. Gravel sprayed from the tires as he steered the ATV in a tight arc and headed back to the commune.
Dad nudged my shoulder. “You two make up?”
With Viktor? “No.”
He opened the bag and flashed its contents. Finger sandwiches from lunch. Baked zucchini chips. Brownies. And bottles of water with cucumbers inside.
I wanted to dive in and eat my way out. Instead, I selected the biggest sandwich and peeled away the wax paper. “Do you like Viktor?”
“Not if you don’t.” Dad unwrapped a brownie. “Just thought if you two made up, you would leave.”
Pain punched me in the stomach. The egg salad sandwich dissolved like ash in my mouth. “You don’t want me here?”
“I want you safe, Doodlebug. And I don’t think that you’ll be safe here.” Dad took a deep breath. “You see, Xander wasn’t wrong. An alien did kill that sheep.” He tapped his watch. For a second, wispy characters covered the faceplate and an arrow pointed behind them.
To the mesa where the bushes had shook.
I swallowed the pap in my mouth, then swallowed again to get the lump out of my throat. “Dad—”
He raised his hand to stop me from speaking. “I know there are aliens, because I’m one.”
Coming August 10th.