Toran: Gateway to the Other Side

Chapter 4

Adrienne’s heart beat so loud it drowned out the cacophony of downtown Phoenix. Her husband and son were alive. She stepped forward to cross the street and join them. 

Hands wrapped around her waist and yanked her backward mid-stride. 

Yelping, she swatted at the stranger’s hold. The world came rudely into focus—the clang of the light rail, the acrid stench of ozone, and the woodsy scent of cologne. Her husband and son disappeared behind the train cars. She rose on tiptoes to catch sight of them. They were gone, vanished as if they had never been.

“Are you okay?” A man shouted over the clatter of the light rail.

Adrienne blinked away her tears and focused on Mr. Woodsy cologne.

Black-rimmed, designer glasses framed wintery blue eyes. His tailored pin-striped suit showed off his gym-toned narrow waist and broad shoulders. He cocked one eyebrow in expectation of a reply.

She inhaled deeply. Don’t mention her dead husband and son. If she saw another look of pity, she’d throat-punch someone. “I thought I saw someone I knew.”

A good, sane rational explanation. She hoped he bought it. God knows, she didn’t.

“Must’ve been somebody important if you were willing to get flattened like a pancake for them.”

She sawed air into her lungs. Just two steps separated her from the light rail—a space she’d been oblivious to since she’d focused on strangers who her mind had tricked into believing were her husband and son. If this man hadn’t stopped her, she would’ve joined them in death. Was that what she wanted? Her knees threatened to buckle.

 The man squinted at her before taking off his glasses and chewing on the earpiece. “I’m sure whoever you saw wouldn’t want you to kill yourself to get to them, would they?”

“No. No, of course not.” The words came fast and hard, spring-boarding off her tongue to slam against her teeth. She wanted to join her husband and son, God knew she wanted to, but she’d gotten past that point, hadn’t she? An ache built inside her skull from the circular reasoning, and she pressed her thumbs against her temples, ignoring the angry red welts slashing her wrists.

“I think you need to sit down.” With his hand cupping her elbow, the stranger guided her to an empty bus bench in front of an Art Deco hotel. “Deep breaths.”

She sank onto the cold metal. Maybe she had stopped seeing her therapist too soon. Perhaps she wasn’t coping as well as she thought. Darkness encroached, and stars twinkled in her peripheral vision. She gulped air to chase them away.

He plopped down on the bench next to her and shuddered. “I did not want to witness anyone getting mowed down today.”

She lowered her hands. Not even a slight tremor. That was good. “I had no plans on getting mowed down today.”

But her husband and baby hadn’t planned to die either. She shut down the thought. She needed to stop thinking about them.

“I’m Dominic, by the way.” He offered a manicured hand. 

“Adrienne.” She slid her palm against his and noted the slight calluses and two nicks on his fingers. Despite the fancy suit and shiny shoes, Dominic wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Her husband had been like that, too—hunched over a computer all day creating a client’s electronic dreams then dinking around in his workshop all evening with her as his assistant. She’d have to go in there eventually, pack away another piece of their life together. 

Dominic cleared his throat.

Right. Focus on the here and now. “Thank you.”

He adjusted his cuff. “No problem. You gonna be okay?”

 “Sure.” Maybe. Probably not. If Dominic hadn’t stopped the hallucination of her husband, she could have died. Maybe she should consider another round of professional help. Her friends were always sending her links to grief support meetings. She surged to her feet. Her friends! She was supposed to meet them for lunch. Her phone. She needed her phone. She patted her pockets.

Empty. 

Where the blazes had it gone? 

Dominic tilted his head to the side as if studying her. “Is something wrong?”

“I need to get going.” She stepped forward then stopped. Pedestrians shifted around her, slightly miffed she impeded their path. Music throbbed against the closed windows of passing cars. Her phone had been in her hand just before she saw, thought she saw, her husband. Her attention dropped to the ground. A purple rectangle lay against the pole of a parking meter. She lurched forward.

“Right.” Dominic checked the clunky black watch on his wrist. “I’ll be late for a meeting if I don’t hurry. Perhaps, we’ll meet again, Adrienne.”

She bit her tongue to stop from crying no. She didn’t want to be rude; besides, it wasn’t his fault she noticed his hands. She backed away from him. “Thank you again. You know,” she jerked her head toward the street, “for saving my life.”

Turning, she faced the corner. She was surprised her friends were not waiting for her, checking again to make sure she hadn’t stood them up. A cartoonishly evil laugh swelled in the air. She recognized that ringtone.

Dammit, she hadn’t picked up the stupid thing. She pivoted about and collided with a solid lump smelling of expensive leather and woodsy cologne. No, not him again. She bounced off his chest. Despite the fancy suit and manicure, he definitely spent time keeping himself in shape.

Stepping back, he flashed her a set of dimples in his smooth-shaven cheeks and held out her phone on his palm. “I believe this is yours.”

“Yes. Thank you.” She moved to grab it.

He shifted it away and examined the purple case when it fell silent. “Not a crack in sight. I may have to get myself one of these cases. My screen is constantly cracking.”

“You can find them everywhere.” She gritted her teeth. “Look. I really have to go and meet my friends.”

There. She’d said it. Others were waiting for her. And she’d be damned if she thanked him again. That was getting monotonous. 

He handed over her phone.

She snatched it up. A green bubble meant one missed call and a voicemail—probably both of them ripping her a new one for blowing them off. Spinning around, she strode toward the corner. She could play the message in their company. Jenna would blush, but Cathy would loudly defend their actions. Telling them that she’d seen her husband and son would shut them both up.

A whisper of sound behind her caused the hair on her neck to stand on end. For fuck’s sake, why was the man following her? Stopping, she turned around.

Dominic stopped an arm’s length away. A white business card dangled from his fingers. “I don’t know what you’re going through, but obviously, it’s something major.” He offered his card between two fingers. “If you ever feel the need to talk…”

She braced herself for the rest of the line, the date or hookup part. Nothing. She plucked the card free and glanced at it. A soothing green color highlighted two silhouettes slumped on chairs. Bold black lettering marched across the bottom—Dominic Buchanan, Therapist.

Well, fuck. How high was her crazy flag? “You’re a therapist?”

He shrugged. “Therapy doesn’t hold the same stigma that it used to. And it helps that we meet in groups. Hearing that other people have experienced a similar trauma helps.”

Stigma? He thought she was worried about stigma? She opened her mouth to set him straight then stopped. She didn’t have time. Her friends were waiting. Her phone cackled evilly again. She tucked the card in her pocket. “Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome.” He didn’t move.

Good. Adrienne thumbed on her phone and headed for the restaurant. “Hello.”

Jenna’s voice cracked across the connection. “I’m telling you if she blows us off one more time, I’m going to agree with her parents.”

Cathy snorted. “We can’t agree with her parents. We are her friends.”

“Guys?” Agree with Adrienne’s parents about what? But she knew, according to her parents, a year was long enough to grieve. “I can hear you.”

“You know what she’s gonna say, don’t you?” Jenna lobbed back.

“I just hope she showered and changed out of those sweats.”

Adrienne bit her lip. Jenna had obviously butt-dialed her. This wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have with them. She hung up the phone. Oh, she would still meet them, but she damn sure wouldn’t tell them about seeing her husband and son. She slid her phone in her pocket, and her fingers brushed the card. Maybe she would see Mr. Buchanan after all.

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Friday Fun Fact

If you ever think it is easy to clean up a crime scene, break a glass in your house.

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Happy New Year!

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Toran: Gateway to the Other Side

Chapter 3

Eli rose partially out of his chair. Before him, the Mission Control computers indicated all things were operating normally. But that couldn’t be. Clearly, the program had a glitch. The emergency lights painted the cool nitrogen fog in bloody hues adding to the surreal scene.

Wearing her favorite dress suit, his dead mother stood between him and the portal in the center of his laboratory. Hell, her back was even reflected in the Toran’s mirrored surface. The drones fluttered like ravens around her before crashing to the floor.

Maybe he was hallucinating. He glanced to his left.

Ms. Onomi raised her cell phone, recording the event for posterity. Her eyes were owl-like behind her oversized glasses. “It’s amazing.”

Eli shook his head then glanced to his right.

Godmother Strattor stood straight. Even her black veil ceased swishing. “Do you know what this means?”

“I failed.” He was supposed to open a wormhole to another planet, a new place for humans to settle. Instead…instead, he’d gotten this—what sane, rational person believed in ghosts? His skin burned with embarrassment. Maybe the whole ghost thing was because of his neighbor and her phantom husband. Too bad, that didn’t explain why the others could see his mother.

The AC clicked on, and the frigid draft fluttered the papers on his desk. The nitrogen dewars spat a cold mist that swirled around the gateway’s base. 

“Failed? No, my dear boy. This is the greatest discovery of all time.” Godmother latched onto his arm. Her fingernails dug deep into his flesh.

Tossing the drone’s remote control onto the desk, Eli squinted at his godmother. Had the fire that nearly killed her snuffed out her good sense? This wasn’t a great discovery but a hoax. A fuck-up beyond belief trick. It had been years since his parents died. Unlike his widowed neighbor, he wasn’t desperate to believe the dead would come back to visit him.

Godmother shook his arm. “Your mother looks young. No fresh scars. No limp. It’s like the accident never happened.”

Eli glanced at his mother. His brain rejected the evidence of his eyes. She had died. He had buried her.

“Come and give your mother a hug, Elias.” Mother fiddled with the brooch pinned to her collar before throwing her arms open. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. Since I held you in my arms.”

 He shook her words from his ears. It just wasn’t possible. 

“She doesn’t even need a cane.” Godmother pulled him to his feet and dragged him out from behind the safety screen in front of the computers. “In death, all of her injuries are gone.”

Eli blinked, resetting his brain. He understood why Godmother wanted to believe that. She’d take comfort in no longer carrying the burden of her burns. But his mother… His heart beat wildly. Could it be? 

“Elias Branch, you get your butt over here and hug your mother.” The apparition stomped the sensible shoe that matched her gray pants suit. 

He shuffled forward. What the hell was going on? This wasn’t right. “Ghosts aren’t real.”

“I am not a ghost.” His mother stomped her foot again—a hard knock on the floor. “Ghost can’t do this. And I am as real as you, thanks to your doorway.”

Eli flinched at the echo of his mother’s anger. “No. There has to be another explanation.”

He pinched his forearm and winced at the rocket of pain. Clearly, he was awake, but he was damned if he knew what that explanation was.

“Another explanation?” His mother pursed her lips in disgust. “If you don’t believe your own mother, what do you need?”

Eli raised his hand as he approached the apparition. Evidence. He needed proof, like his fingers moving through her.

Her fingers closed around his, warm and soft.

Exactly like he remembered. Maybe too much like he remembered. It should’ve been different, shouldn’t it? “Aren’t you supposed to be cold?”

“My silly boy.” Mother smiled at him then fiddled with the brooch again. It dropped to the ground. “I keep telling you. I’m not a ghost. You brought me back from the other side.”

“The other side of what?” They weren’t a religious family. In fact, they’d often scoffed at the low-brows who gushed over orbs and EVPs.

“The other side of life. I am so proud of you.” His mother tilted her head as a sign of disappointment in her slow-witted son. 

He hated when she did that. Eli bent to pick up the brooch. She loved the clunky Victorian holdover. He swept his thumb over the gaudy swirls of gold and dots of rubies. Guess the other side hadn’t repaired the clasp. His fingers closed around it. Damn, it felt as real as her hand. He shrink-wrapped the thought. “You’re not real.” 

A siren wailed. Red lights strobed the room. He glanced over his shoulder.

Ms. Onomi and Godmother stared at the bank of Mission Control monitors. 

Eli whipped around, fisting the brooch. The filigree bit into the tips of his fingers, cutting the flesh, but the pain helped him concentrate. “What did you touch?”

The portal couldn’t be unstable. If it became unstable, then the people in transit would die. Death. Ghosts. He shut down the thought before it could go any further. 

Ms. Onomi raised her right arm with the cell phone clutched in her hand. “I didn’t touch anything.”

Godmother gripped her cane tighter but said nothing. 

He took a step toward Mission Control. He had to find the source of the problem. He didn’t believe in ghosts, but this was his mother. He needed to find out what the issue was and fix it before she disappeared again and he couldn’t ask her more questions.

“I don’t feel quite the thing,” his mother spoke.

Eli stopped and exhaled a long sigh. If it had been anyone else than his mother… He turned around.

She froze as if she were a buffering video. Then she faded, showing the ribs of the circular portal behind her. “Elias!”

Ms. Onomi gasped.

Behind his mother, the portal’s surface rippled like a puddle of disturbed water, then shrank to a single point and twinkled out. He stepped toward his mother and reached for her.

She disappeared. 

Eli slashed the empty space with his closed hand. Static electricity crackled across his skin.

“She’s gone.” Godmother rasped. 

“Where did she go?” Ms. Onomi whispered. Her attention fixed on Godmother before jumping to him.

Eli licked his dry lips, tasted the bitterness of an untruth, and strode toward the computers. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“You saw her.” Godmother raised her cane and pointed at the portal.

Metal ground as the ribs of the sphere returned to their regular place. He didn’t know what he saw. But he did know dead was dead. He clamped his lips together instead of contradicting her. 

“My dear boy, if she wasn’t real, then why do you still have her brooch?”

Eli uncurled his fist. The brooch shimmered in his palm—a drop of blood wept from the cut on the pad of his finger. The wound and jewelry looked real, felt real. 

Godmother’s veils swished. “Let me see it. We both know what it looks like.”

Good idea. Another set of eyes may help, maybe even stop Godmother from believing such nonsense. Two steps from Mission Control, his palm tingled. The brooch faded in and out like a dying light. He paused.

Godmother stepped forward and grabbed his hand, raising it. The brooch disappeared. “It’s gone.”

Eli closed his fist. The sliced flesh was the only reminder of the encounter.

Ms. Onomi’s cell chimed. Holding it to her ear, she glanced at him before her attention shifted to Godmother. “The car is here, and we have a meeting with the lawyers.”

 Godmother nodded before cupping his cheek with her gloved hand. “You did an amazing thing today. You may not see it, but I do. Millions will find relief in your discovery.”

Eli nodded. He did something, but what?

Leaning on her personal assistant, Godmother limped across the floor.  

He waited until the door closed behind them before sitting down at Mission Control. He set his fingertips on the keyboard. Tiny drops of blood smeared the keys as he typed. There had to be an explanation, and he needed to find it before Godmother told anyone what happened today.

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Wishing you

A very Merry Christmas.

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Making a List

I am on week 3 of my medical leave. I was healing just fine until I stupidly lifted more than I should have. Yes, my body reminds me that I am an idiot in a rather painful way. But I am capable of learning from my mistakes, so this post isn’t about that.

It’s about the doing nothing. Yes, it is the dream, but it is also irritatingly boring.

I watched a TEDx talk on retirement and moved from phase 1 to phase 2 in less than 3 weeks. I always was an overachiever.

Since my physical abilities are restricted, I have decided to take a page from Santa’s book and make a list of all the things I can do and try to pivot onto stage 3 for the next few weeks.

It’ll be a fun experiment, even if the list ends up in a drawer:D

Until next time, stay healthy.

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New Release: Toran: Gateway to the Other Side

Chapter 2

Adrienne West focused on her breathing. In. Out. She could get through this. It was just a lunch. Lunch in downtown Phoenix near where her husband had been killed. One hundred eighty-four days, thirteen hours, and fourteen minutes ago. Well, crap. She mentally slapped herself. The constant counting was not helping. 

She closed her eyes, blocking out the chatter of the other occupants on the light rail. The public transportation swayed as it glided down the tracks. A truck engine grumbled as the driver pressed the gas pedal, momentarily drowning out the electric motors’ whine. In. Out. She could do this.

Grief pole-axed her. She struggled to drag in oxygen. It shouldn’t hurt this much, not after One hundred eighty-four days, thirteen hours, and sixteen minutes. Her parents said so without looking her in the eye. Her friends nagged at her to leave the house still holding boxes of a life that had ended, the cartons of photos of her late husband embracing her and the basket of diapers still emitting the faint whiff of talcum powder.

Talcum powder. She crammed the heel of her hand into her mouth and doubled over. Every nerve in her body seemed to have exploded through her skin.  Just stop breathing. Just stop and it would end.

She could join her husband and baby boy.

It should be so easy. Yet, her lungs continued to draw in air. Her heart continued to beat despite being shattered. Hot tears prickled her eyes but didn’t spill over.

Laughter swirled around her.

Opening her eyes, she wiped her nose on the sleeve of her hoodie. Life wasn’t fair. And she was stuck here. Drying her sweaty palms on her black slacks, she stared out the window catching a glimpse of the hospital where her son had been born, at the park where she and her husband had lunched, and the building where he worked designing electronics for exclusive clients. Each place a scab she picked at, revealing the bloody wound underneath.

The train car glided into the station near the Burton Barr Library.

Her heart drummed in her ears. Leave. Now. Escape back to suburbia. To the safe memories. Phantom echoes of his presence in their room. Cold spots that still smelled of his cologne.

A female voice chimed that the doors were closing.

She stood up and faced the loft apartments where they’d lived as newlyweds, where they’d made love for the first time, where they’d conceived their son. Her feet wouldn’t budge. Not an inch closer to the memories.

The door closed. The rail car glided forward. 

She collapsed on the hard plastic seat and wrapped her arms around her stomach to hold herself together. She had to do it. It was just lunch. Thirty to forty minutes tops. Then she could call Lyft and take the freeway back to her suburban ranch, take off her bra and change back into her husband’s old sweatsuit. They’d promised to leave her alone for six months. Six months of not having to go out in a world where her husband and son didn’t exist anymore.

In. Out. In. The phone in her pocket vibrated. She tensed. Was her security alarm going off again? Would the screen only reveal static? Would she come home to find her underwear drawer empty and her cosmetics on the floor? Would she finally catch sight of her dead husband reaching out from beyond the grave? Would she finally have proof of the haunting to her parents, friends and neighbor? Only one way to find out.

She unfolded her arms and jerked her phone out of her pocket. ‘Jenna’ flashed across the screen along with a small bubble of her face. Smiling. Happy. Adrienne inhaled a shaky breath. People were allowed to be happy. Her friends were allowed to be happy. 

The ignore icon popped up—a big red button against the black background of her iPhone. So tempting, so very tempting. But Jenna knew where Adrienne lived and had a key. Her finger hovered over the ignore button. What was the point? Either they had a conversation on the train or in ten minutes when Adrienne arrived at the restaurant. 

She accepted the call. “Hello.”

“You chickened out on us, didn’t you?” Annoyance sharpened the edges of Jenna’s words. 

A bell chimed, and the computer announced her station. 

“No.” Adrienne pushed out of her chair. “I’m on my way.”

“She says she’s on her way.” Jenna didn’t bother to cover the mouthpiece of her phone. Why would she?

Thirty-two times Adrienne had made an excuse for not meeting them at a restaurant. She shuffled to the exit and crossed onto the outdoor station. “I am on my way.”

“Demand to see proof of life.” Her friend Cathy’s shout came through the phone. 

Adrienne winced. If she could hear Cathy, so could everyone else in the restaurant. But Cathy always spoke loudly. 

“Proof of life?” Adrienne could almost hear Jenna roll her eyes. “She hasn’t been kidnapped.”

“I don’t know,” Cathy persisted. “That’s probably the only excuse she hasn’t used so far to stand us up.”

If Adrienne thought it would have helped her escape their good-intentioned meddling, she might have faked a kidnapping. She fidgeted at the corner. “Dammit, I’m going to be there in a couple of minutes. I’m already at the corner of Third Avenue and Jefferson.”

She might have saved her breath.

“Yeah…” Jenna drawled. “But Cathy has a point.”

 “Fine.” They wanted a picture. She would send them a picture. But she wasn’t going to look at it. She didn’t want to see the guilt in her eyes. “Give me a minute, and I’ll send it.”

“If you don’t call us back in a minute, we will come and get you.”

“You won’t have to go far.” Hanging up, she stumbled over the uneven sidewalk. Either she stopped to take the dang picture, or she might actually have a genuine excuse for bowing out of lunch—like a broken neck. She swiped her thumb across the screen, activating her camera and reversing lenses. Pulling herself into the frame, she quickly snapped a picture. Don’t look. Don’t look at it.

She uploaded the image and texted it to her friends.

A baby’s shriek sent an arrow straight through her heart. Adrienne glanced up. The phone slipped through her numb fingers. The man across the street looked just like her husband—the same tight fit of his jeans, the same broad shoulders, and the same nice definition of biceps from his workouts.

  Stop it. She had to stop it. Her parents said so. Her friends said so. Her therapist said so. Only her neighbor Eli didn’t say so. He just listened. Her husband was dead, and he wasn’t coming back. She needed to move on, to live again despite the loss. Her breath lodged in her throat at the curl at the stranger’s nape. Andrew’s hair had always done that, and she loved to tug on it before kissing his neck.

Focus on what’s different. Her therapist’s words whispered through her thoughts.

Different. She could do that. Adrienne scanned the man from head to toe. Nothing was different. Nothing.

The man lowered the toddler to the ground. A shiny black band flashed on his wrist.

The watch. Her knees nearly buckled. She wasn’t hallucinating. She wasn’t losing her mind. Andrew would never wear such a watch. He loved the old timepieces with a sweep of hands for seconds, minutes, and hours. What else? What else could she see? Her gaze dropped to the toddler.

Apple cheeks bloomed in his chubby face. Even from here, she could see his cobalt blue eyes, so like Andrew’s. The flop of curly dark hair tugged at her. Oh, God, the boy was harder. Her son could have looked like that had he lived just a few months longer. They’d even talked of buying him a Diamondback’s jersey for their first baseball game.

Adrienne squeezed her eyes closed. She had to stop it. She had to stop seeing him everywhere. Stop thinking he was haunting her. The light rail rattled closer. Maybe she wasn’t ready to go downtown.

The toddler’s shriek dissolved into a giggle.

Her eyes flew open. 

Across the street, the man stood in profile, raising the laughing child above his head. 

She recognized the curve of the man’s jaw, the bump on his nose, and the velvety chocolate rumble of his voice.

“Caught you, you little terror.”

Oh my God! That was her dead husband!

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Friday Fun Fact

I used to think it was funny when my husband told me not to unknot his belly button as his guts would fall out.

Since they used my belly button to remove and repair a few body parts, I don’t find that as funny as I used to.

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New Release: Toran: Gateway to the Other Side

Chapter 1

Elias Branch chugged the last of his chai tea latte. Smacking his lips, he crumpled the cup and tossed it onto the trash collection on the floorboards. A flutter of yellow caught his eyes. His neighbor’s bold script stared back at him from the sticky note. You’ve got this.

Eli smiled. His neighbor Adrienne didn’t know what his big project was, but she supported his dreams. Friends did that. After sticking the note to the dash, he climbed out of his vintage Volvo. Behind him, a siren demonstrated the Doppler effect as an ambulance raced along Interstate-Seventeen. Hinges creaked under the coating of Bondo when he slammed the car door. 

With shoulders hunched against the winter wind, Eli hugged his late father’s suit jacket against his lanky frame. The belt buckle dug into his belly, and his feet slipped inside the oversized dress shoes. He would have been better off looking for a suit at Goodwill. But that would have cost money and still wouldn’t have impressed his billionaire godmother/benefactor.

He ignored the itch between his shoulder blades caused by thinking about Godmother Strattor. He understood why she covered herself from head to toe. She’d barely survived the third-degree burns, and even her money couldn’t restore her former carefully preserved looks. 

But why was she riding his ass about opening the portal to a new world now? He was only a year behind and five million dollars over budget. In the beginning, she had assured him neither the money nor the timeline mattered—only the result. Guess things had changed. 

He hustled across the street and up the sidewalk to the middle of the trio of rundown office buildings. Leaves rustled in the bushes, gathering in clumps in the desert landscaping. The pungent scent of paint filled the air, and blood-red droplets froze mid-drip from the new gang tag on the vintage ’70’s block building. 

The ancient sun-reflecting film coating the windows flaked off in bronze chips while shortening, elongating or bloating his reflection like a funhouse mirror. What would the world think when they learned of the gateway to another world? Would they learn of his shoe-string lab, with no rules and all risks? He never spoke to Godmother about what they would do after he stabilized the portal.

If he stabilized it.

He was so close, too close. Eli crossed his fingers then brushed them down his pinstriped trousers. No need to rely on superstition. He’d run the models in the simulations and double-checked the math. The program should work. 

Today, he would open a portal to another world, a habitable world if NASA’s scientists were right. 

And tomorrow, he and Godmother Strattor would pick and choose who would colonize a new planet. A world humanity wouldn’t fuck up like they had this one. A world where people like his neighbor could avoid painful memories.

Maybe he should check his calculations one last time? The test wasn’t until ten. He had two hours to run another simulation and verify the math. He swiped his badge across the black card reader near the door and then pressed the buzzer, allowing the biometric reader to confirm his identity.  

The lock clicked, and he twisted the handle. 

Muffled voices slammed against him as he stepped inside the empty reception area. The hair on the back of his neck stood up in alarm. No one should be here. He worked alone. He always worked alone. The only intrusions into his sanctuary were conference calls and web meetings.

No one showed up in person.

Not ever.

His hand dipped into his pocket and clutched the cellphone. Should he call 9-1-1 and report the break-in?

A shadow drifted across the window cut into the door to his lab.

The bastards were inside his lab. Blood roared in his ears. They could be stealing his stuff. He glanced left then right. Motherfucker. The reception area was empty. Not even a dust ball to set on fire and toss at the thieves. But there was a fire extinguisher right inside the door.

He could use that bad boy to craft a weapon—perfect for suffocating someone with the foam, crushing their skull with the torpedo-shaped body, or snapping their bones as the extinguisher rocketed into them. Or all three if he could get to the five extinguishers scattered around his lab.

Stepping out of his hard-soled dress shoes, he tiptoed across the scratched linoleum. 

The door opened as he approached.

A trim Asian woman in a scarlet blazer and matching trousers peered at him through her oversized glasses. Her cherry blossom lips parted when she spied him.

He skidded to a stop. He knew the thief, no, not a thief. Ms. Onomi was Godmother’s personal assistant.

“Mr. Branch.” Her impossibly long lashes nearly brushed her lenses as she blinked at his bare feet then his shoes abandoned in the middle of the room. “Ms. Strattor had to move up the appointment due to an emergency. That won’t be a problem, will it?”

Eli shrugged then shook his head. “No. Of course not.”

Not that it was really a question, nor did Godmother or her PA really expect anything other than acquiescence to the demand. It was all part of the Golden Rule—she who had the gold made the rules. 

He backtracked across the lobby and stepped into his shoes. His heels burned as they rubbed the leather, but what were a few blisters compared to a life-changing event?

Ms. Onomi opened the door and waved at him to precede her. 

Eli nodded as he passed. The doofus reflected in her oversized glasses bobbed his head. The anti-static mat squished under his feet as he entered his lab. Metal trusses divided the open ceiling into silver quadrants, and high-tech, sound-proof insulation lined the walls. Four-inch power cables snaked across the sealed concrete pad and plugged into the three metal rings forming a sphere on the black dais in the center of the space. 

His nose twitched with the distinct odor of ozone and motor oil. His electronics were too sensitive for greasing, but he never could figure out where that smell came from. He pushed a flap of black hair out of his face. And speaking of mysteries. Where had Godmother Strattor and her PA come from? His beater car had been the only one in the parking lot.  Godmother usually traveled with an entourage requiring three cars since she claimed the different seat styles aggravated her tender skin and made sitting uncomfortable. 

Eli rolled his shoulders. Speaking of uncomfortable… He faced her. “Godmother, you are looking as trim as always.”

In a flutter of a jet veil, she dipped her head then limped across the cement to stand in front of the glistening metal sphere. Her long designer dress swayed across her polished ebony shoes with her uneven gait. 

Stuffing his hands inside his pockets, he joined her. Gone were the warm hugs she used to greet him. Their last touch had been when he’d caught her as she’d stumbled upon leaving the burn unit. He could still hear her cry of agony nearly six months later. Godmother had always been a strong, active woman. Now he knew despite her sturdy frame, her strength wasn’t skin deep. The damage had been too severe, but at least she had survived.

She stroked a gloved hand down the portal’s rib and sighed.

“How are you feeling?” 

She faced him. The veil shifted.

Eli spied the blunted nose and sharp cheekbones. Her features didn’t look too bad, considering her face had nearly melted. 

She held out a trembling hand.

He brought his own up to meet hers to save her the display of weakness.

“I must say the thought of seeing your project in action has lifted my spirits.” Her words scratched the air like a smoke-stained whisper.

He leaned in, lowering his voice as if sharing a secret. “Today, we make history.”

Habitable world or not, they would be the first. He crossed his fingers on both hands then hooked his thumbs, repeating the gesture she’d taught him as a child.

She patted his arm. “We don’t need luck, my boy. I know you will succeed.”

“But a little luck wouldn’t hurt.” He grinned as he completed their well-rehearsed lines. He would succeed. If not today, then another day. For her. She may not be healthy enough to settle the alien world they would eventually find, but she could visit it.

Ms. Onomi cleared her throat.

Eli shook himself free of the future’s spell. There was work to do. A test to pass. “I understand you have a pressing appointment today, so let’s get this party started.”

He held out his arm, offering Godmother support to reach the couch in the corner behind a bullet resistant screen. 

She set her gloved hand on his arm and shuffled beside him. “Is it dangerous?”

Ms. Onomi glanced up from her iPhone, no doubt checking schedules and making sure Godmother kept her activities on track. The PA glanced at the sofa and its screen, to the sphere, then back again before locking eyes with him and cocking an eyebrow. 

Eli patted his godmother’s hand. “Don’t worry, a plume of energy won’t shoot out like on Stargate.”

More’s the pity. He would have liked something with a little more pizzaz.

“That’s a shame.” She stopped next to the liquid nitrogen dewar strapped to a metal pan he had bolted to the floor. The contraption looked like R2D2 with a metal halo. “What are these for?”

“To super-cool the metal. It reduces friction and allows the ribs of the sphere to move fast enough to reach event horizon critical mass.”

Godmother sighed. “Pity. It would’ve been cool to have it as a special effect, like fog rolling in.”

Eli smiled, knowing his design allowed enough nitrogen to leak, to create a more suspenseful atmosphere. “It’s a little of that, too.”

Leaning close, she whispered in his ear. “I won’t tell.”

He ducked his head to hide his red cheeks.

Godmother stopped next to Mission Control—the ring of monitors and mainframes he’d connected to run the gate. “I think I would like a bird’s eye view.”

Her gloved fingers bit into his arm as she pulled him into the center of Mission Control.

Eli hissed at the pain shooting up his arm.

Godmother released him, then perched on the ergonomic chair he’d designed and spun in a lazy circle.

Ms. Onomi pursed her lips as she strode to the corner and grabbed one of the rolling chairs next to the couch. Her knuckles flashed white from her death grip on the backrest as she pushed the chair toward Mission Control. “Perhaps you would be so kind as to move the protective screen over.”

“It’s not really necessary. I—” 

“Of course, it is,” Ms. Onomi snapped. “Otherwise, you would not have it. Now, move the screen. Please.”

Resisting the urge to salute at her command, he shuffled across the room. His hard soles slapped the cement until he kicked them off. They bounced against the wall then fell to the floor. He padded to the screen he’d fabricated from bullet-resistant glass and old cubicle walls. Stuffing his blanket, pillow, and change of clothes into a bin wedged between the sofa and wall, he planted his bare feet on the cement and pushed on the protective screen. 

Metal chittered against the concrete as the barrier’s legs slid forward. He huffed and puffed, throwing his weight against it. Inch by inch, he moved the screen in position between Mission Control and the gate. Breathing heavy, he leaned over and shoved the base’s bolts into the latch on the floor and locked the screen in place.

Ms. Onomi double-checked the bolts before dusting her hands on her pencil skirt. She jumped when her phone buzzed. Swiping it on, she hustled away as she answered the call.

Godmother scooted to the side.

Eli stepped into the center of Mission Control and reached for his mouse. His hand closed around empty space. How the heck did the mouse get all the way to the top of his desk by the phone? If he didn’t know better, he’d say his lab was haunted. Instead, there was probably a more prosaic answer. He glanced at his godmother, who stared at her personal assistant. 

They had been here before him. He released a slow sigh through clenched teeth then picked up his mouse and pad, moving them back to their proper positions.

Into her cell, Ms. Onomi cursed someone’s misbegotten ancestors in Japanese, then turned on her six-inch stilettos and promised to assist someone’s impending seppuku. 

Glad he wasn’t on the woman’s shit list, Eli stabbed his computer power button. He shifted to the right and double-checked the connections to the sequence of mainframes beneath his curved desk. 

“Fine.” Ms. Onomi ground out.

The tiny hair on the back of Eli’s neck stood on end. Nothing was fine when a woman said fine in that tone.

Ms. Onomi’s eyes narrowed behind her glasses. “But you can only speak to her for five minutes.” The PA crossed to Godmother. “The trust’s lawyers are on the phone. There’s a problem. Again. And only you can solve it. Again.”

Her words were terse as if the lawyer’s interruption was a personal failure.

Godmother chuckled and held out her gloved hand for assistance standing. “Sometimes, it is good to be the boss.” 

Eli felt her gaze through the veil. He turned as the workstation booted up.

“How long?” Godmother hated speaking on the phone, especially if she was repeating instructions.

Eli held up two fingers then answered aloud for the benefit of the lawyers waiting to speak with her on the phone. “Two minutes.”

Nodding, Godmother stalked toward the couch—back ramrod straight in anger and her limp barely noticeable. “You have one minute to state your case. Then I will give you the solution you should have thought of before disturbing me.”

Tuning out the ass-chewing, Eli shifted the keyboard closer then typed in his password. How could his workstation have gotten so messed up?

Ms. Onomi glanced over her shoulder at her employer before slinking closer to Eli. She bit her bottom lip. Her straight white teeth stood in stark contrast to her cherry lipstick. “Eli.”

 “Hmm.” He scrubbed a hand down his face. She wasn’t flirting with him. He wasn’t going to inherit more than a few million from Godmother’s estate. Somewhere out there, she had an oversized fiancé who could wrestle an elephant and win. Or snap him in half.

And that was nothing compared to what Godmother would do to him for screwing her staff. He kept his attention on his keyboard.

Shifting into his peripheral vision, Ms. Onomi ran a scarlet fingernail down the edge of the left Mission Control panel. Tracing the ‘T’ in the word Toran, she shifted his mouse over to prop her hip on his desk. “Toran. That’s an interesting name.”

“It means—”

“Passage or portal.” Removing her glasses, she bit the right earpiece and smiled at him. “Don’t look so surprised. It is an Asian word.”

“Yes, of course.” But from India, not Japan. Then again, it was about the entrance to a Buddhist temple. And many Japanese practiced Buddhism. He just hadn’t taken her as the religious type.

“I guess Stargate was already taken.” 

“Pretty much.” Eli’s skin burned. He’d been drunk when he’d told her his dreams of exploring alien worlds like Colonel Jack O’Neill then kissed her. She hadn’t protested at the time, but her boyfriend was another matter two days later. Eli had tasted drywall for a month after being shoved head-first through the wall. No way in hell would Eli have the best day of his life also be the last day he breathed. 

Godmother waved her arm in anger. A gesture wasted on the lawyers on the other end of the phone. 

“Everything all right, over there?”

Godmother chopped the air with her arm in annoyance.

Sorry he cared. Eli clamped his lips together then fished a coin-shaped jump drive out of his pocket. The edges lit up when it recognized his fingerprints on the center. His skin prickled with the sensation of being watched, and he glanced up.

Tilting her head, Ms. Onomi focused on Godmother. “She’s changing the beneficiaries of her trust.”

Eli dropped the jump drive in its concealed slot on the desk and plugged it into the computer. His monitor blinked, then slowly data streamed down as the drive took control. “They should be accustomed to her frequent changes. There’s always some new idea that could save the world.”

The Strattor family fortune was built on fossil fuel products like plastic, gas, fracking, and coal. Now that Godmother controlled the trust, she used the money to try to undo the damage fossil fuels had inflicted on the planet.

Or to escape to another world.

“Everyone wants to save the world, don’t they? The survival instinct is powerful.” Ms. Onomi shrugged and settled her glasses on her nose. “But, I’m surprised you aren’t concerned about being cut out of her trust.”

“Godmother set me up with my own trust after my parents died.” Not that it was common knowledge. Hell, no one knew about it. He planned to use the funds to pay for his new life on a new world. He met her eye. “I never expected to inherit anything else.”

A password prompt filled the screen.

“You really are an unusual person, aren’t you, Eli?”

He shrugged and typed in his password. The cellphone in his pocket vibrated, alerting him that someone had accessed his network. He tugged it out and opened his app to see the randomly generated code to confirm his identity. 

Ms. Onomi frowned. “You are not very trusting. How many more codes do you need to enter?” 

“That was the last one.” The screen cleared then the mainframe briefly welcomed him before replacing the words with images of galaxies he’d downloaded from NASA’s website. The cursor blinked near a text box, asking for his destination. “Now, I just need the updated coordinates of our target planet.”

 God forbid, they opened a portal into empty space. Just the thought made his teeth itch. Thankfully, Godmother had contacts at NASA who always sent the latest M-class world coordinates they’d discovered.

“I can help you with that.” Ms. Onomi patted her skirt then glanced at Godmother.

“I believe you need this.” Joining them, Godmother held out the phone. 

“Thank you, Ms. Strattor.” Ducking her head, Ms. Onomi swiped open the phone, thumbed through a few screens, then set her smartphone on the table next to his keyboard. A string of X-Y-and Z-coordinates marched across the front.

He almost had the numbers memorized from the last trial. Not that the coordinates should change much on a day-to-day basis. 

Ms. Onomi helped Godmother to the spare chair and positioned it just outside of Mission Control but behind the safety screens. “Are you ready?”

The computer crunched the numbers and asked him to verify the coordinates.

He typed in ‘yes’ then tapped enter.

<Engage Toran?> appeared on the screen. 

Godmother gripped her gloved hands in her lap.

After highlighting <yes>, Eli slid the keyboard toward her. “Want to do the honors?”

“Yes,” she rasped and tapped enter.

Eli held his breath. A second passed, then two. At three, the screen relayed that it was knocking on the portal. Liquid nitrogen vented from the dewars and fogged the three titanium circles forming the sphere in the room’s center. Metal creaked as it was super-cooled. The interior ring began to turn. The middle and outer ribs followed. Soon all three spun, picking up speed as the cold fog rolled across the floor.

A red progress bar appeared on the screen—five percent. Seven percent At ten percent, the progress bar turned yellow. At fifteen percent, a gray ball of energy twinkled in the center of the sphere. The laboratory lights flickered.

Ms. Onomi planted her hands on the desk and leaned forward. “How will we access the Toran if the sphere’s ribs are moving?”

The progress bar reached the halfway point. 

Farther than he’d gone before. The rest was uncharted territory. The bar kept climbing. The lab fell dark, leaving the hiss of nitrogen and the grumble of metal rings to fill the space. He blinked and the ox-blood emergency lights flickered on.

Godmother oohed at the effect. “What happens now?”

“The ribs will lock in place once the wormhole has stabilized. You should be able to just walk through.” 

Lights twinkled as the tiny ball spread into an ocean blue puddle in the center. Gray waves rippled toward the outer rings, but the wormhole wasn’t stable. Yet. They passed the sixty percent mark. He crossed his fingers and his thumbs.

Godmother held up her crossed fingers as well, then focused on the ever-widening puddle.

The outermost ring locked in place—the planet had been located. He glanced up and gave Godmother a thumbs-up. The bar reached sixty-five percent. The puddle widened and thinned, stretching like warm taffy to fill the innermost ring. 

Eli struggled to breathe. It was working. Really working. His world narrowed to the sphere as the weight of expectation countered the effervescent hope buoying him. 

The progress bar froze at seventy-five percent. 

His fingers spasmed. Was that it? Had he come so far only to fail? He raised his hand. The bar jumped to eighty then eighty-five percent. Teal, aqua, and silver rippled through the puddle as it lapped at the second ring.

At ninety percent, the middle ring stopped moving. The innermost ring quickly followed. The puddle now stretched across all three rings, completely filling the interior.

<Connection made. Checking stability.> Flashed on the monitor.

Eli’s heart drummed in his ears. Would it collapse? Or would it hold? His throat tightened, preventing him from speaking the thought and jinxing the project. 

The portal’s surface flattened into a silvery mirror. 

Godmother rose from her chair. With her fingers still crossed, she straightened, drawing upon her excitement to stand tall. She tore her gaze from the portal. “You did it.”

The computer monitor confirmed the good news. <Toran stable.>

Pixelated confetti rained down over the words.

“I did it. I did it.” He fist-pumped the air.

Ms. Onomi stepped closer to the portal. “Can we just go through?”

“No. Not yet.” Leaning over, Eli opened the drawer. Pens rattled inside as he removed a wing-shaped controller. 

He pressed the power button. Buzzing filled the air, then two military drones lifted off from the repair station in the corner. The whine of their rotors increased in pitch as they zoomed toward the portal.

“What are you doing?” Godmother snapped. Her voice was strong and rough.

“We need to see if we can breathe over there or if we’ll bake. The drones will tell us.” He guided the drones closer to the mirrored surface of the portal. They bobbed like drunken birds in hurricane-force winds. Damn, he hadn’t counted on his excitement affecting his flying skills.

Godmother and Ms. Onomi exchanged a look before Godmother nodded. “Naturally, we need to check the atmosphere. It’s hard to think of trifles when we just made history.”

Ms. Onomi raised her phone and aimed it at the portal.

Eli pressed his lips together to prevent him from asking her to stop recording the event. This was a moment in history. It should be recorded. The portal shimmered, darkening in the center. He blinked, but the black spot remained. He kept the drones hovering, then reran the system check. 

<Stable.> Despite the computer’s analysis, the dark blob grew and stretched, resembling a human silhouette.

No. No, it couldn’t be. Yet, they’d selected the planet because it could support life. Eli’s mind unspooled with possibilities. 

Ms. Onomi raised her finger and pointed to the spot. “That looks like a human.”

“Or humanoid,” Godmother rocked back and forth in her seat before rising. “Maybe someone is trying to come through and look at us. One without the foresight to think of a drone.” 

Eli froze. The drones dipped. First contact. Was it going to happen here in an industrial park, in an unsanctioned lab? Goosebumps raced across his skin. 

A hand came through first. An arm soon followed—slim, hairless, and resembling a human woman’s. A body emerged.

He forgot to breathe.

The stout figure wore a black dress and had a coral red and white cameo at her throat. Sensible heels encased her feet. Gray roots appeared through her brown dyed tight curls.

Eli blinked then sucked air into his lungs. She was still there. He rubbed his eyes. It couldn’t be.

Ms. Onomi whispered. “She looks human.”

Godmother gurgled.

The apparition locked eyes with Eli. “Elias. I knew if anyone could contact me, it would be you, my darling son.”

He shook his head as the woman approached. Closer. Closer. He made out the scar on her cheek from when she was a toddler. Noted the violet color of her eyes. Yet, his brain couldn’t reconcile the two. It just couldn’t be. She looked like his mother, acted like his mother. 

But his mother was dead.

He and Godmother had buried her more than five years ago.

amazon

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Cover reveal

I am pleased to reveal the cover for my latest sci-fi/thriller/suspense novel.

The design is by coveryourdreams.net. The book will be available on Wednesday at most etailers.

Until next time, stay healthy.

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