Exactly

multi-sided diceIt’s hard to be a teenager – everyone knows that. It’s even harder when your parents are embarrassing. And as every parent of teenagers knows, sometimes we embarrass them just by being ourselves.

My kids are all grown up now, but I remember back when we had several teenagers at home. They tended to be conspicuous by their absence on Saturday nights, which, coincidentally, happened to be our (my husband’s and my) gaming night. Friends, chili, and games – sometimes board or card games, but usually tabletop RPG’s, like Dungeons and Dragons, or some related game.

Yes, we are geeks. Nerds. Happily so. We read comics, science fiction and fantasy, play games, like science fiction and fantasy movies – well, you get it. Pretty cool, right? And our friends like the same things we do. Somehow, though, since it was their parents who were doing these things, our kids weren’t so thrilled, and our Saturday night antics were kept a deep, dark secret except to a few of their trusted friends.

I decided to write a few stories from the viewpoint of teens whose parents are *ahem* loosely based on us. Names have been changed to protect the innocent – or the potentially embarrassed, even if they are all grown up now.

Oh, and thanks Aar, er, “Jake,” for the brainstorming session. Like I said, Names Have Been Changed….

*******

“Hey, are these yours? You play Magic?” Jake’s friend regarded the kitchen table with multiple stacks of cards from a collectable card game. “Boy, that’s quite a collection!” He moved closer to get a better look.

“Not exactly,” Jake mumbled. He grabbed Tim’s arm and pulled him away, wincing as a burst of laughter came from the dining room.

“Oh, your brother’s?”

“Not exactly.”

Tim looked puzzled, but moved away from the table.

The noise in the other room died down enough for them to hear, “Critical fumble! Roll a d8 for damage!” “D8!? It was my dagger, not a sword!” and a groan from someone as something skittered noisily across the wood of the table.

“Your sister? They don’t usually play Magic or D&D, but hey, that’s cool.” Tim nodded.

Jake’s sister, who had just come from the direction of the noisy dining room, pushed past both of them on the way to the door. She looked at Jake and they shared a glance. “Not exactly,” she said to Tim.

Then a middle-aged man wearing a Batman t-shirt came into the kitchen.

“Hey, I made chili, and there’s plenty, Jake, so you and your friend help yourselves!”

A middle aged woman wearing a Hogwarts t-shirt that said, “You say nerdy like it’s a bad thing,” slid past him, smiled a welcome and indicated the bowls on the counter. “Like your dad said, help yourselves.” Then she grabbed a can from the refrigerator, calling out, “Hey, anyone else want a soda?”

Tim turned to Jake, his eyes big. “Your parents?!”

Jake sighed and closed his eyes. “Exactly.”

Jake led Tim through the perils of the tabletop gaming adventure in the dining room, where a treasure trove of multi-sided dice lay on the table. They needed to be fast, or, Jake knew from experience, they would be invited to “roll up a character and join in!” He hurried Tim down the hall where bookshelves groaned under their load of science fiction and fantasy books and into the relative calm of the family room.

Since all of the kids normally cleared out on Saturday nights, the boys would have the TV and gaming console to themselves. Usually, none of them stayed around when it was gaming night. Not that their parent’s friends weren’t nice, but playing games with your parents just wasn’t cool, unless it was only the family at home. And even then, it had better be something, well, normal, like Monopoly.

But Jake was tired of going to other people’s houses on Saturday nights. He knew the TV wasn’t in use at home, and he really wanted to have a friend over. His parents were fine with the idea; Jake was the one who had a problem with it. He had worried about this for a week, but finally he had decided that Tim was his best bet. He would let Tim in on his dirty little secret – his parents were geeky, nerdy, played D&D and any other game they could find, collected comics, read science fiction and fantasy… He only hoped that he had made the right decision, and Tim wouldn’t smear his name all over school.

Jake tossed a bag of chips, rescued from the kitchen counter as they had gone through, onto the sofa and turned to Tim. “Um, my folks…”

Tim smiled. “No biggie. My folks do some strange stuff, too. At least we get the PS3 to ourselves!”

Jake sighed with relief and dug up a couple of remotes. As a loud conversation comparing the new Star Trek movie to one of the old ones rolled out of the dining room, he thought that maybe they’d even brave passage through the dining room once more for some chili later on. His dad’s chili was really good.

Off and on, gamers would cycle through the family room on the way to the bathroom, and offer comments on the game the boys were playing. Tim asked, “Is it like this all the time around here?”

“Every Saturday night,” Jake replied, his teeth gritted slightly.

“Man, it’s okay, really it is. I kind of like it. It sure beats my dad’s poker parties, where it’s just guys and they all get bombed and mad at each other.”

Jake had to admit that yeah, this would be better than that.

“Or my mom’s Bunco parties. All women, talking about clothes or diets or other women.” He rolled his eyes.

Jake had never thought of it that way. In comparison, his parents’ gaming night was pretty decent. At least they didn’t get bombed and they talked about some cool stuff.

“Yeah. Huh. Hey, you want to get some chili? And have you seen that new Star Trek movie yet? What did you think?”

It looked like Tim was going to work out great, he thought, as they plowed into the conversation and die-rolling in the dining room on their way to get chili.

“Having a good evening?” someone asked when they came into the dining room.

Jake smiled, and said, “Exactly.”

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Vacuums Away!

I first wrote this little piece in 2008, four years ago. A few things have changed since then (only two dogs now, more birds, fewer kids in the house), but the wear and tear on vacuum cleaners seems to continue. The current model – successor of the one in the story – is now protesting its job with jet-engine noises instead of a peaceful purr. I fear it’s not going to be useable much longer. I just hope it doesn’t try to do what this one did…

*****

I knocked over one of the spider plants yesterday, and needed  the vacuum to get the potting soil out of our cream-colored carpeting. (Yes, I know that cream colored carpeting is insane when you have four dogs, three of whom are large, and four children. It wasn’t my choice. It came with the house. If we can refrain from buying computers and software for a while, we will replace it with wood. Easier said than done. We are geeks.)

Anyway, the vacuum wasn’t where I thought I had put it – where it usually lives, in the back hallway by the big birdcage. My daughter checked the boys’ rooms, I checked various possible spots upstairs, and still no vacuum. I was thoroughly puzzled. Where could the thing be? Our house isn’t that big!

Then, checking in the hallway one more time, I saw a piece of paper sticking out from underneath the stand the big birdcage is on. Grumbling about offspring who can’t seem to pick up after themselves at their ages, I fished the paper out. Not wanting to accidentally throw away someone’s homework or an unpaid bill, I looked at the paper. It wasn’t homework or a bill or even junk mail stolen from the trash by the dogs. It was a note. The writing on it was a little hard to read, but I finally made out what it said.

I wasn’t sure I was seeing it right at first, because it seemed to be from my vacuum cleaner.I know, vacuum cleaners are things, and things don’t write notes. But after this, well, I’m not so sure. The hand writing wasn’t my daughter’s, and it was too legible to be my youngest son’s. It wasn’t like the handwriting of anyone else in the house, either. The note read:

I have had it. I am leaving. I cannot take it anymore. Do you have any idea, any at all, of what it is like to be a vacuum cleaner in this house?! I am not even a heavy duty model. Kirby over there is, and he isn’t working. You wore him out! And then you expect me to just come in and take over? You said you’d get him fixed right away and I would just be the back-up model. That was more than a year ago. I haven’t forgotten, even if you have. If you can wear out a heavy duty model like him, what do you think I feel like?

Let me tell you, this house is no walk in the park. Why couldn’t I have been purchased by a little old lady who vacuums her spotless house once a week? Or even by the owners of a dust farm. THAT would be easier.

Let me elaborate. You have dogs. Specifically, you have Labrador retrievers, who shed five or six Labrador retrievers a week, each. Black and brown fur, on that white carpeting. And you expect me to keep it clean. Oh – and let’s not forget the red mud they track in all spring, summer and fall. You expect me to suck that out, too. Lady, that stuff stains. It’s murder to get out! Torn up papers, mangled sticks, chewed up bits of unnamable things  – all of it falls to me to get rid of. You don’t really want to know what some of the stuff they find to chew on is. Really, you don’t. Oh sure, you push me back and forth, but I’m the one doing the dirty work. And remember how the dogs used to attack me when they were puppies? Who was that fun for? Not me!  

Let’s not forget all those times my hose has gotten clogged with dog hair. Yeah, I know you got it out, but come on- some of those clogs really gave me indigestion until you got them out! (And that broom handle you used in my hose to get loose the clogs caught in the middle of the hose – I think that’s against the Geneva Convention. Pure torture, that was.)

Then there are the birds. I’m glad you like birds, and feathers aren’t hard to suck up, when they don’t fly the other way so I have to chase them. But all that bird seed! I know you can’t stop them from tossing it out of their cages, but can’t you put them somewhere other than on the carpeting? Somewhere you can sweep, for instance?  I wouldn’t even mind if it were just one or two birds. But you have four budgies, a canary, and three lineolated parakeets. That’s a lot of seed, lady, especially when you use me to finish cleaning out a bird cage.  And all that fiber wreaks havoc on my digestive system.

Then there are the times that all of you haven’t checked my bag soon enough and I’ve gotten a tummy ache because my bag was too full, all the rug cleaners and freshening chemicals you’ve made me eat, the times you’ve broken my belt and then blamed me for eating something I shouldn’t – hey, I don’t steer me, you do. And the times someone has just dumped my cord and left it in knots – knots hurt, you know.

Let me also mention coins. Pennies HURT.  People usually manage to pick up the larger stuff, but then they don’t get the pennies and when I run over one, they whack all over inside me with my roller brush and they really, really hurt. If they get up into my fan, they leave nicks in it. How would you like nicks in your digestive tract? At least the kids have out-grown Legos…Small blessings.

Of course, I am used and used and used. I never get a rest. Someone always seems to be vacuuming something up. I am exhausted, on top of everything else.

Monday was the last straw. First thing in the morning – AT SEVEN AM! – I get hauled downstairs to clean up after a sick dog. I mean, YUCK! How would you like to deal with that first thing in the morning? But okay, it’s my job, and if I had been left alone for the rest of the day, it might have been okay. But then, THEN, I get hauled into hell for a cleaning job. Let me tell you, the rooms of seventeen year old boys are unconstitutional torture – even more so than being used to clean out under the sofa cushions. There is NOTHING worse. Old gym socks, dog hair, bits of snacks that he snuck down there so long ago they don’t qualify as food items anymore, all the dirt he has tracked in, pieces of paper, broken pens and pencils, lost change, you name it, he had it down there and most of it, I had to eat. He didn’t do a good job of picking up first, and I had to try to eat a lot of stuff that I couldn’t. That was VERY uncomfortable. I ate so much in that room that I thought I was going to burst. His carpet isn’t large, but believe you me, it was dirty!

So I’m out of here, lady. Get old Kirby over there in the corner fixed, or go buy another sucker – I mean replacement. I don’t care. I am gone. I feel sorry for whoever gets stuck with this job, but is sure isn’t going to be me anymore.

Sincerely,

The Vacuum Cleaner 

Well, I was more than a little bit floored by this (so to speak). But I didn’t think he could have gotten far. After all, the gutters are still full of ice and snow and the streets are still ice ruts on our block. That would make for slow going for a vacuum cleaner with small wheels. After checking all the closets and the corners in the garage just to make sure, I started hunting around outside for tracks.

The front was clear, but I didn’t think the vacuum would have gone that way anyway, because it is so exposed. So I started looking around the back. Sure enough, in a patch of unmelted snow near the back gate, I found the tracks of little vacuum cleaner wheels. I could even see where his underside dragged through the snow because of his low clearance.

Opening the gate, I went out into the alley. I had no trouble seeing his tracks going down the alley, towards the street that leads to the park. He must have followed one of the kids out on trip to the garbage cans last night. There was a lot of mud as well as ice and snow out in the alley, and I could see that while the vacuum was avoiding the puddles, he had almost gotten bogged down at least once.I followed the tracks down the alley and out to the street.

This street was relatively clear of snow and I lost the trail. I looked to see if it resumed in the snow at the park, and sure enough, there it was. I couldn’t be that far behind him, I reasoned, so I kept on following. The trail led to one of the foot bridges across the creek that runs through the park. There are two rather high steps up onto the bridge, and I could see that the vacuum’s tracks turned away here. They went to the edge of the ten-foot deep flood control channel that the creek trickles along the bottom of, but then veered away from that, too, and followed the creek down the park.

The vacuum cleaner was heading towards another street – one that led to an area with nicer homes than our 1960’s era subdivision. So he thought things would be better if he lived in a nicer place, did he? I trotted along, following him easily now.Yes, there were tracks turning up the street to the nicer area…But wait! On the other side of the bridge the tracks were turning back into the park! That could only mean one thing. He had his sights set really high -on the McMansions at the east end of the park.

I followed the tracks up the muddy little road that ran between the stream and the open space part of the park, up towards the kids’ fishing pond. His wheels had to be thoroughly clogged with mud by now. I could see where he had rolled over snow in several places, trying to clean off the mud.

Then, in a picnic shelter by the pond, I found him. He was huddled miserably between the picnic table and the trash can, and looked done in. He was mud-splashed and filthy, and his cord had come partially undone. The trailing cord was why he had stopped. It had wrapped around one of the posts holding up the roof of the shelter, trapping him here. He looked pathetic. His front was partially open, his bag was torn, and there was bird seed leaking out.

I sighed and shook my head and unwrapped the cord from the post. “Ready to go home now?” I asked, taking out the leaking bag and putting it in the trash can and putting his front back on tight. He didn’t say anything, so I took that as a yes, and hefted him up into my arms.

As we went home (by a much shorter route) I scolded him. “You don’t run away from your problems, you face them like a man – I mean a vacuum cleaner. You need to do the job you’re made for, and do it with pride. After all, without you, I have dirty carpets. After you go over them, they look nice again. Be proud of your job! And anyway, if you think you’d have it easier in a fancier house, you have another think coming. They have three times the floor space we do!”

Ten minutes later, I had him home and put a new bag in him. I left him alone for a while, to make sure that he was thoroughly dried out before I plugged him in again, and then I cleaned up the dirt from the plant. The carpet was pristine where I had run him.

“Well, I guess you are glad to be home, eh?” I said.

But just in case, I made sure to put him away in a closet with a door that shuts tight.

-Jane W. Wolfinbarger (She Wolf) © 2008

Ivan and the Compass – a Youngest Son Story

Here is a story I wrote a few years back, and have always enjoyed. The Youngest Son is often a motif in folk and fairy tales, so I decided to write my own Youngest Son story.

“As long as you have a compass, you will never be lost!” Father told Sasha. Ivan was listening from behind the bushes. He didn’t mean to be, but he had been back there eating the pastry he had snitched from the kitchen when Father came along talking to Sasha. Sasha was going hunting in the forest with Father tomorrow. The two went on down the path to the pasture, and Ivan didn’t hear any more. Still, he thought about what he had heard. A compass sounded like a wondrous, magical thing. With one you would never get lost!

Ivan got lost a lot. He was always getting in trouble for wandering off. Sometimes he was lost to himself, sometimes just to Mother and Father. Still, it was a problem – more for Mother and Father than for Ivan, but they made sure it became his problem when they found him.

Ivan finished his ill-gotten pastry and wandered back to the house. He almost went to see the geese in the pond out in the pasture instead, but he remembered that last time he did that. Mother thought he had drowned because he took off his shoes to try and catch a gosling and Father had found the shoes, but not him, because by then he was crouched in the reeds, trying to catch a frog. When Ivan got home, late and shoeless, Mother was crying, with her apron over her head, and Father was looking very stern. When they found out he was not drowned, he had been sent to bed without his supper. This seemed a bit strange to Ivan. He would have thought they would be happy that he wasn’t drowned. Sasha and Ilya had laughed.

When he got back to the house, everyone was busy. Sasha and Father were milking the cows, Mother was making dinner, and Ilya was doing his schoolwork. Ilya was a good scholar, and had won a place at the big school in town.

Ivan knew if anyone saw him, they would put him to work, so he slipped up into the hayloft to look for the kittens the old tabby had had last month. He thought about taking a walk to see if he could find a buried treasure, but the last time he did that he wound up in the woods, not quite sure where he was, and had missed supper trying to find his way out. Father had come to find him, and was angry with Ivan for getting lost. When they got home, Mother had been crying with her apron over her head again, and Sasha and Ilya had laughed at him again, both for looking for treasure and for getting lost. Once more, Father had made him go to bed without eating, but Ivan hadn’t thought this was much of a problem. He hadn’t wanted a cold dinner, anyway, and he was very tired from all the walking he had done.

Up in the hayloft, Ivan couldn’t find any kittens, so he jumped down into the haystack beside the barn and headed for the woodpile to look for mice. Finding no mice and still shedding bits of hay from his clothes, Ivan slipped through the parlor window into the house and tiptoed up the stairs. Ilya was still at his studies. Ivan sat quietly and watched him for a while. Sometimes if Ilya was doing history or literature, he would tell Ivan tales from what he was learning. Ivan liked that. But tonight, Ilya was playing with a little tool, making circles on paper, and measuring them. After he watched for a while, Ivan got bored. He finally asked, “What is that thing you are using?”

Ilya replied, “It’s just a compass.”

Ivan’s heart raced. It was a compass, that magical thing that meant you could never get lost. He wondered why Ilya was using it, and was going to ask, when Mother called, “Supper!” and they both ran down the stairs to eat.

After supper, Mother and Father caught Ivan before he could get away and made him do his chores, which he had managed to neglect all day. It took him until bedtime to finish them.

By the time he went upstairs to sleep, Ilya had the compass put away in his schoolbag, and Ivan forgot to ask him about it.

The next morning, Ivan was awake early, before his brothers. He saw the little silver compass peeking out of Ilya’s school bag. Today wasn’t a school day. Perhaps he could get away with borrowing it, just for a while, so he could go out for a bit without getting lost and in trouble. He dressed quickly, and had just slipped the compass in his pocket when Father came upstairs to get Sasha so they could go hunting.

Father and Sasha were in a hurry, and didn’t notice anything amiss. Father told Ivan to be good, and not to worry his mother, just this once, for he was getting tired of Ivan making Mother cry into her apron, and then Father and Sasha left. The compass was cool and sharp in Ivan’s pocket, but he didn’t let on that it was there. Ivan had no intention of worrying his mother. He had the magic compass, so he wouldn’t get lost, and Mother would never know.

He left Ilya sleeping and slipped downstairs to grab some bread, cheese and a lovely red apple to put in his pockets, and he was off. Father and Sasha had gone to the big forest, so Ivan thought that he would just go the woods on the other side of the village. It wouldn’t make for quite as good an adventure, but it couldn’t be helped. He didn’t want to meet up with Father and Sasha. They would scold him and send him home. They might even take the magical compass for themselves!

Ivan slipped through the fields beside the village. He did not go through the village, because if anyone saw him, they would stop him and send him home, saying he would get lost and he shouldn’t worry his parents. This had happened more than once.

It took a little longer to go around, but he was soon in the cool shade of the trees, where the underbrush was trampled by people looking for firewood. He went a little deeper in and whistled a happy little tune. He was off on an adventure for certain, today!

He walked beneath the trees, watching small animals scurry away, and listening to the birds sing. He splashed through a small stream and chased a blue dragonfly into a meadow full of flowers. Then he sat down on a rock and ate his bread and cheese. Spying some berry bushes across the way, he went to pick some to wash down the bread and cheese. They were very good, and he was happily plucking and eating berries when he heard a snuffling behind him.

Little boys aren’t the only ones who like berries, and when he turned around, Ivan saw that bears like them too. The bear clearly did not want to share the berry bushes with Ivan and was coming closer, growling.

 

Ivan thought quickly, “I do not want to lose my life to this bear, but the if the compass keeps me from getting lost, perhaps it will also keep me from losing my life!” So he whipped out the compass, and spread it out and spun around in a circle just as he had seen Ilya do, but in the air instead of on paper. A large circle appeared where the compass had spun around and then the circle fell to the ground. It was a huge berry pie! Ivan reached down, grabbed the pie, and tossed it towards the bear.

Now the bear knew a good thing when he saw it and stopped to slurp up the pie. Ivan scooted into the bushes and away down a path until he was well away from the berry bushes and the bear.

Since he was on the path, he decided to follow it and see where it went. He walked happily along it until he came to a large stream. He was delighted. This was just the right size stream to try tickling trout. Sasha and Ilya had told him all about tickling trout. You had to be ever so still and slip your hand under them and gently rub their bellies until they weren’t suspecting anything and then scoop them out of the water as fast as you could.

Ivan promptly lay down on his belly on the bank to see if he could tickle a trout.

He did not see a trout, or any other fish for that matter, and he squirmed closer to the water, and then closer still to see if he could see one. He squirmed closer yet again, when SPLASH! He wiggled right over the edge and into the stream.

Now, the stream was deeper and faster than it looked. Ivan found that he could not touch the bottom and the bank was moving away quickly. He could swim a little – Father had taught him after thinking he had drowned in the goose pond – so he kept his head above the water while he felt for the compass. He pulled it out, swirled it around in the water, and all of a sudden he felt something underneath him.

A large round lily pad was coming up under him, and soon folded around him like a huge cup. He was floating along on top of the stream in a lily pad boat! This was fun! Ivan happily bobbed along down the stream and when it joined up with the river, he decided to see where that took him for a while. He floated past the fields and beyond the little village, and soon he was floating through the big forest. He saw a sandy beach ahead, and by paddling with his hand, managed to land his lily-boat there.  When he hopped out, the lily pad floated off, and Ivan was on his own again.

Now, Ivan knew that Father and Sasha were hunting in the big forest today, but he decided that since the forest was such a big place that they probably wouldn’t meet up. So, he started off into the big, tall trees to see what he could find there.

After a little bit, Ivan heard a snuffling and snorting sound. “Not another bear!” he thought, but then he came round a big tree and saw that it was not a bear, but a wild boar. Ivan had heard tales about wild boars, and knew how dangerous they were. He backed up slowly, before it could see him, and climbed into one of the enormous forest trees. He sat on a limb, watching the boar, and wondering what he was going to do. He took out his apple and ate it while he thought.

Then Ivan heard voices. It was Father and Sasha, and they were coming this way! Ivan was struck with terror at the thought that the boar might go after Father and Sasha. He threw down the rest of his apple to distract the boar. Thinking quickly, he pulled out his compass and, stretching it out as wide as it would go, twirled it in the air. A very large circle floated down from Ivan’s perch in the tree and landed on the path below, between the boar and Father and Sasha. It kept floating downward, and suddenly there was a large pit in the middle of the path.

The boar heard the people coming down the path and charged towards them – and right into the pit.

“What was that noise?” asked Father. “It sounded just like a wild boar!”

“I hope not,” replied Sasha nervously.

Ivan put his hands over his mouth so they would not hear him giggling in the tree over their heads.

“Look!” cried Father. “I don’t remember this pit being on this path, but it has caught a boar for us!”

As they set about getting the boar out of the pit and preparing to haul it away, Ivan crept down the tree and away from the path. He was getting hungry, and tired – it must be time for lunch by now – and he was ready to go home. He pulled out his trusty compass and twirled it in the air one more time. A stream of sparkling lights flew from the compass and off through the trees. Ivan followed at a jog and soon found himself very near home. The lights twinkled out and Ivan walked the rest of the way happily. Truly, he had had a wonderful day, and not gotten lost once, thanks to the magical compass.

When he came into the kitchen, Mother was just putting out lunch on the table. She scolded him, “Where have you been all morning? I thought you had gotten lost again! And look at you! What a mess you are! Go and wash and put on clean clothes right now, before you come to  this table!” Ivan ran off to change before she could ask him any more questions.

When he came back down the stairs, Father and Sasha were back. “You should see the grand boar we found in a pit in the woods! We are taking it to the village for a big pig roast!” boomed Father. Ilya came in from inspecting the boar and caught sight of Ivan, and the compass in Ivan’s pocket.

“Ivan! What are you doing with my compass? I have been looking all over for it! This is not a toy for you to play with!” cried Ilya.

Ivan said, “But Father says that if you have a compass you will never get lost, so since people always fuss at me about getting lost, I thought it might be a good thing for me!”

Ilya snatched it away and answered, “This is not the same kind of compass. This one is for geometry, for making circles!”

Father laughed and said, “Yes, Ivan, the other sort of compass is this,” and he took out a small case with letters in a circle and a small arrow in the middle. “this one always shows you which way is north. It is not magical, though. You must know the direction you need to go. Although I wish there were a magical compass for you, little one, with the way you like to get lost!” and he laughed.

Ivan opened his mouth to tell Father that he was wrong, Ilya’s was a magical compass, but then he closed it again. Sometimes it wasn’t worth it to try to tell big people anything.

“Hey!” said Ilya, “What have you done with this!? It is filthy! Look, I found berry bits on it, and water weed stuck in it, and dirt in it, too. And what’s this sparkly stuff all over the ends?”

Ivan just smiled.

(c) Jane W. Wolfinbarger, 2007

 

Transportation, Anyone?

Here is a story I wrote a few years ago. I had to bike home for a small emergency in the middle of the afternoon one day, and while it was a wonderful autumn afternoon,  perfect for biking, and driving a car wouldn’t have saved me any time due to parking issues, I was still wishing for a faster means of transportation. I started thinking about it and realized that just about anything has its own set of  problems and drawbacks. I decided to write a story about a form of transportation that most of us dream about – teleportation – and while I was debating whether it would be fantasy – magic – or science fiction, I realized that it didn’t matter. I was still using something currently impossible and inexplicable. Then I thought about a quote from Arthur C. Clarke : “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  I took it from there.

*****************************************************

“Emma! Don’t you dare let go of my hand again! You’ll end up in Tibet or something!”

“My bags! Where are they?!”

“Move it along, folks, nothing to see here…. Hey Harry, hurry up with that mop and bucket! And yes, I said to bring the hazardous wastes kit!”

And above it all was the electronic sound of the announcement system broadcasting on an endless loop: “Please keep all extremities within the transportation circle at all times. Please make sure you are touching all baggage and small children traveling with you when transportation begins. Please make sure that you key the correct destination code for the operators. We are not responsible for lost bags, children, or mis-keyed destination codes. We are not responsible for the results of left-behind items or extremities…”

Jessie sighed, brushed her hair out of her eyes and shifted from one foot to the other as she waited in line for the next available transport circle. She was only going across town to her apartment, and the hop itself would take seconds, but she was starting to think she could walk there by the time she could get to the front of the line. At least she wasn’t loaded down with baggage like the long-distance travelers.

She watched as a man and a woman squeezed themselves, ten bags and three small children onto the platform holding the transport circle. Despite their best efforts, some of the bags were still hanging over the edge.

“Sorry folks, either do this in two loads or yer gonna end up slicing them nice suitcases in half and then where will ya be? Or one a them kids! Better to pay the extra than that happenin’!” the platform operator said jovially.

The parents muttered and grumbled and then arranged themselves into two separate groups. Jessie sighed again. Just another delay…these transport circles were never on time. The city really needed to build more of them.

The line shuffled forward. Jessie reminded herself of the old stories about busses, subways, trains and airplanes. This really was better than that. It had to be.

“Coming through…Emergency team, coming through!” Several Emergency Medical Technicians came barreling through with their gear. Jessica winced and hoped it was just a finger that had been caught outside the circle during transport, not something larger.  She wished that this transport center had the plastic shields that descended  around the rings during transport like the newer, nicer centers did. There were far fewer accidents that way.

Two more people came by, following a transport official. They looked very distressed and were chattering away at the man in a language that Jessie had never heard before. They must have keyed in the wrong code…or the system was screwed up again. The powers-that-be claimed that all the mis-keys were the error of the person keying the codes in, but Jessie wasn’t so sure about that.

Jessie was near the front of the line now. She watched as a woman with a small child stepped onto the nearest circle. The woman was holding the little girl’s hand gently in hers, and with her other hand she gripped a bag. She nodded, then shimmered slightly and disappeared. The little girl was left holding onto air and had time for one loud shriek before she too shimmered and disappeared.

The platform operator shouted to someone, “Hey, check an’ see if the kid ended up with mom, would ya? If she didn’t, then start a Lost Kid Search! When will these parents learn ya gotta hold onta them kids tight or they’ll slip away at the last second! Next!” He shoved the key pad at the next person in line.

Jessie thought that if she ever had a child with her for transport, she’d tie the kid to her before she even got near the platform. Lost children were way too common. So were lost bags, but the bags didn’t get scared and cry. In fact, she could hear a kid crying right now – probably got transported somewhere different from the parents. Jessie still didn’t understand how that happened; something to do with the transport centering on one person, they said, and anyone else not touching them in the same transport sometimes got a corrupted version of the code. Something like that, anyway. Jessie thought they could fix it if they really tried.

An official led a howling little girl, the same one who had been on the platform earlier, up to the operator. “Here’s the kid. Ended up right over there. See if you can call up the mom’s code and I’ll deliver her.”

The platform operator grumbled, but a few minutes later the official, with the tear-streaked child in his arms for safe-keeping, shimmered away.

Finally it was Jessie’s turn. She was really, really tired and so ready to get home. She swiped her commuter card, dragged herself to the keypad and typed in her code. Then she stepped on the platform and nodded to the operator. As she felt the transport begin, she got a mental flash of the keypad in front of her and her fingers keying in the digits…She had a sinking feeling she was about to go home the long way – via Outer Mongolia.

-Jane Wolfinbarger © 2008

A Bit About the Skink

The Skink is a character in my story, “Maple Days.” It’s clear, from the references to Underhill, that he is some creature of Faery, but what sort?

He probably doesn’t fit into any category that most people could think of. And since he captivated me from the first time he stepped onto my page, I have thought quite a bit about him, leading to a background and the promise of future appearances in my stories.

Once, when I was trying to get back into writing after a brief hiatus, I used him as an imaginary guide on a writing tour, and somewhere along the line, he became my muse. (Many writers can visualize their inner critic – and I do that, too – but I have decided I like having a form for my muse as well!) Not only is the Skink my muse, and the muse of Olivia in the story, I discovered as I created his background that the Skink has been muse to many – it’s his calling.

*****************

The Skink started off as a nature spirit and spirit of mischief, much like the Puck. However, he was never quite as strong as the Puck, or quite as mischievous, or, really, quite as anything as the Puck. He felt like an inadequate younger sibling at the best of times, and a complete failure at the worst of them.

But as he lurked about, looking for mischief to make, the Skink began to notice the bards, storytellers, and minstrels. He stayed out of sight at first, and simply hung on to every word they produced. Eventually, though, he started appearing to them when they were alone, and encouraging them. After they were convinced that he wasn’t simply the product of an overindulgence in wine or some strange effect of bad ale, they would listen to him and discuss new ideas with him. The storytellers and songmakers he befriended thrived, and the Skink glowed, sure he had found his place in the world.

However, he began to spend all of his time with these artistic humans, and neglected his already badly-done job. It did not occur to him that anyone would notice, but notice they did. And one day, the Lords of Faery summoned him for a reckoning.

The Skink knew better than to try to hide; the Fae had creatures in every imaginable place, and he would be found quickly. So he gathered his courage, bid farewell to the storyteller he was currently accompanying, and appeared before the Faery Court with his small head held high.

The interview began much as he had thought it would. He was taken to task for each and every bit of neglect, and scolded roundly for his lack of caring. But then, before his punishment could be meted out, he spoke up.

The Skink told the Lords of Faery everything – how he knew he was bad at his job, and realized he was never going to be the sort of creature they had in mind – another Puck. But, he insisted, he could be a muse. And the High Lords of Faery enjoyed human stories and music, didn’t they? he wheedled. Why else would they kidnap bards periodically, if not to enjoy the fruits of human imagination and inventiveness?

The Lords paused. The acknowledged that the Skink had a point. They might even be willing to concede that he was far better at this job than the one they had assigned him. But he was still clearly in defiance of their rule by abandoning his role and taking up another without their consent.

They withdrew and considered his punishment.

Three days they considered, and three days the Skink sat in an opulent antechamber, waiting on tenterhooks, wondering what his fate would be.

On the third day, just at sunset, they came out and called the Skink to them.

“You have proved yourself quite valuable as a muse, of sorts, for humans. You are far better at that than you ever were as a nature spirit, we have no argument. But for abandoning your post, you must be punished. If we allow you to flout our authority, others will follow, and chaos will reign. Therefore, Skink, let it be known to one and to all that you are now the Faery muse, free to move about the human world and pick those upon whom you would bestow your friendship. But to remind you that you began as a nature spirit, and left that job without our permission, you will bear the mark of nature upon you.”

As they spoke, the Skink’s form began to change. He had been small to begin with, but grew smaller still, until he was about as tall as a small crow. His skin grew dark grey and bark-like, and his limbs became gnarled like tree branches, his fingers and toes like twigs.

The Skink looked down at himself. He had never been a vain creature, so the transformation bothered him little. He shrugged. “Fair enough,” he said. Then, bowing once to the High Lords of Faery, he bounced out of Underhill and back into the human world, where, ever since, he has been having adventures and inspiring human storytellers and musicians. And he has a special soft spot for those who find themselves in uncomfortable places in the world, as he himself started out in a job for which he was most ill-suited.

A Christmas Story: Christmas with Cosmo

Cosmo is a small red dragon who is being raised by a foster mother in this world so that he will have an understanding of human culture, making it easier for dragons and humans to interact in the future. He is mentally about four years old, but he is a red, scaly four year old who can fly and doesn’t always have the best of control over his fire. For all his differences, Cosmo is still a child, and his adventures at Christmas time with his foster mother and the Door to other worlds that is anchored in their home will keep you laughing. This story first appeared on my old blog, Wolf Dreams, in 2008. And now, with no further ado,

CHRISTMAS WITH COSMO

I put down my knitting and looked up just in time to see Cosmo glide into the room with a set of paper antlers on his head and a blob of red clay attached to his scaly red snout.

“Look at me! I’m Rudolf!” he squealed as he crash-landed on the floor beside me.

We had been talking about Christmas quite a bit. Last year we had been gone for the pre-Christmas season, captives of a power-hungry red dragon group on Cosmo’s home world. We had come home just in time for a huge Christmas party on Christmas Eve, but Cosmo had missed all the build-up to the big day. But then, his English had been almost non-existent then, too, so stories about Santa Claus and reindeer and so forth would have gone right by him. This year though, he had all of the joyous enthusiasm and excitement about the day of any small human child. He was just bigger, scalier, and had wings and fire on board. An excited Cosmo was a sight to behold.

“Do you think I could help Santa with his sleigh, huh?” Cosmo bounced around me in circles, knocking my yarn under the sofa with his tail.

“Now Cosmo, you know that Santa only comes after you’re asleep. Besides, I think having a dragon flying with them might scare the reindeer, don’t you?”

“But I promise I wouldn’t eat them! Really, I wouldn’t!”

“The reindeer have been doing their jobs for a long time. I don’t think they’ll need any help.” I thought fast. I needed something to distract him or he’d keep on about flying  with the reindeer all morning. “Popcorn balls! Let’s make some red and green popcorn balls, Cosmo! Then we can wrap them up and give them to people when they come to visit!” Cosmo’s clawed hands were deft enough to make popcorn balls and he loved to help me cook. He didn’t even answer – he just ran to the kitchen of my little apartment and started rummaging in the cupboards for ingredients.

The popcorn balls – and gluing together and putting up miles of paper chains in the huge front room of the main hall of the mansion, and mixing cookie dough, and looking at the trees in the woods at the back of the lawn to see if one would be a good Christmas tree, and…well, you get the picture – took up the rest of the day. By evening, I was exhausted and Cosmo was still going on and on and on. I finally sent him to his playroom for a while after three Christmas stories and a promise that we’d watch Christmas movies later and then collapsed on my sofa with Isadore the cat.

I heard a knock on my kitchen door and an few minutes later, my friend Jon came in with snow still clinging to his hat and coat.

“Snow. Well, that’ll just fan the flames some more. Literally. Cosmo was so excited today that he burned up a whole strip of paper chains trying to get the paste to dry faster so he could hang them. He tried to pop the popcorn with his flames, and then he tried to cook the cookie dough by himself, too. By the way,  I need a new fire extinguisher. That dragon is so excited about Christmas…”

Jon was doubled over, laughing. “Well, you know his parents want him raised as much like a human child as a dragon so he’ll be a good liaison when he grows up, so…”

“He’s just like an over-excited four year-old. It’s amazing. And exhausting. You didn’t happen to bring anything like beer with you, did you? Or something to put in eggnog?”

“Better than that. I brought a baby sitter. You and I are going out.”  Florence, my former neighbor, poked her head around the corner and smiled at me.

“You are more welcome than Santa right now, Florence.” I turned to Jon. “I’ll get my coat.” Cosmo heard the voices and bounced back out, delighted with the company. He offered everyone slightly singed red and green popcorn balls.

We left Florence and Cosmo ensconced on the sofa with a pile of Christmas books – all of the ones I had plus a bunch that Florence had brought with her.

The evening out with Jon was just what I needed. Adult company and conversation restored me and I came home ready to face whatever the morrow would bring – fire, flood or overexcited dragon. Florence, on the other hand, looked ready for bed. Her silver hair was frazzled, she was clutching convulsively at her crochet project, and she had a small burn on the skirt of her dress.

She waved off  our expressions of concern and apologies. “I know Cosmo, and I knew full well what I was getting into. Don’t worry. I always wear old clothes when I watch Cosmo. He just wanted to melt his name in the snow with his flames. He’s gotten very good with the C and the O’s,” she added proudly. Well, that explained the puddle of icy slush outside the back door, anyway. It should be a real skating rink by morning. On the other hand, ice sliding was always fun for Cosmo and would wear him out nicely.

As she accompanied Jon out, Florence paused and dug around in her big bag. “Hold on – here’s a book that Cosmo really enjoyed. I must have read it to him five times tonight. Why don’t you hang on to it? It’s all about Santa’s elves.” I thanked her, put the book on the kitchen table and went to bed.

The next morning, Cosmo was a bit distracted. I figured he was thinking about which tree we would cut when Jon and Rob came over later. Some of our dragon friends were due to arrive later in the day as well, which might have been on his mind. We read the elf book another three or four times and I took him outside to slide on the ice by the back door, but I could see that his heart wasn’t really in it.

“What’s up, buddy?” I asked. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Yes. I’m fine. Can I go play now?” Cosmo asked. “I have a, a Christmas project I need to work on.”

That explained it. He had a Christmas surprise in the works. “Sure, Cosmo. Let me know if you need help. And no using your flames if there’s not a grownup around to put out the fire!” I reminded him as he kited off at top speed for his mostly flame-resistant playroom.

Throughout the morning I heard various noises coming from Cosmo’s playroom accompanied by the sorts of swear words that Cosmo was allowed to use – things like darn and shucks. I almost went to see what was going on, but restrained myself. If Cosmo wanted my help, he’d ask for it. At lunch he turned up looking frustrated and poked at his food. He trudged off after lunch, still looking irritated. I shook my head and finished the cleanup. If he was going to be occupied I could finish the socks I was knitting Jon for Christmas. One ear open for Cosmo, I sat contentedly with my wool in my hands.

Half an hour later, I could hear him talking happily and chuckling. Good, I thought. He’s had some sort of success.

Cosmo was happily occupied until the guys came to cut the tree in the late afternoon. He was careful to close the door to his playroom when he came out to help, though. Jon, Rob and I hid our smiles.

We found the huge tree we wanted for the big front hall quickly and then got another, smaller one for my apartment. Dragging the trees home through the snowy twilight was a moment from a Christmas card – if you like the fantasy kind of card with lovely red dragons in them; I know I do. The trees were quickly set up – the big one only fell over twice while it was being secured in its stand, once with the help of Cosmo who was playing at being the angel on top of the tree. Then we retired to my apartment to have dinner and wait for our dragon guests to arrive for our tree-trimming party. When the Door – which accessed other worlds rather than the outside of the house – announced the arrival of our visitors, Cosmo tore off to greet them.

“Wait up, you! You know you aren’t allowed to open the Door by yourself!” I called after him.

He was pouting when I caught up to him by the door. “But I know how to use the security stuff,” he grumbled. “See, when it’s green, it’s a safe world. And if you look through here,” he bounced up using his wings for lift and looked through the peep-hole,  “you can sort of see who’s there.” The peep-hole was new, and the image was sent magically from the other side of the Door. But it wasn’t very clear and certainly wasn’t infallible and I told Cosmo so.

“So don’t think you’re allowed to open the door even if you think it’s safe. Period.” I glared at the small red dragon as I opened the door for our friends. Cosmo’s grumpiness evaporated as our guests came in and the tree trimming started.

The next morning, my alarm didn’t go off. Since I really didn’t have any plans, I wasn’t too upset about this, but I did remember setting it the night before. But then the stove didn’t want to turn on when I went to fix breakfast and the jelly had spilled all over the inside of the fridge. Of course it had been on the top shelf and had dripped all the way down each shelf before puddling in a sticky mess at the bottom. I was trying to clean it up with a dishrag when Cosmo came slamming into the kitchen, ramming the refrigerator door into my back as he came in.

“Hey! Calm down. Breakfast is late. My alarm didn’t go off, and the stove isn’t working for some reason. If you’re that hungry, get some cold cereal,” I told him, rubbing my back. He continued to grumble, and seemed to be looking for something. “The cereal’s in the cupboard. You know where we keep it. Come on, Cosmo. Stop acting like this.”

He got some cereal while I finished getting the mess out of the fridge. The jelly had congealed literally overnight and I was soon contemplating atomic cleansers. By the time I was done, Cosmo was gone, leaving a mess of cereal on the table. At least he’d put the rest of his stuff in the sink. I stared at the stove, wondering what to do. When you live with a dragon and a magic inter-dimensional Door you can’t exactly call your average repair service. I poked at the knobs one last time and to my surprise, the thing came on. Now that was strange, I thought, but the intricacies of appliances are not my strong suit. I was just glad it was working again.

Cosmo was busy and very distracted all morning. He refused my offers to read to him, or make cookies, or do any of the other Christmassy things I could think of. His cardboard antlers remained abandoned in the middle of my sofa, and I could hear him roaming all over the house all morning.

After I finished my morning chores, I sat down to knit on those socks again. To my dismay, the yarn was tangled mess, overflowing my basket and winding around the furniture legs. I glared at my cat, Isadore, who was curled on top of the bookcase. “Isadore, what got into you?” I asked. He gave me an affronted look and jumped down, stalking out of the room with his tail in the air.

I shook my head and untangled the yarn. Then I rummaged around trying to find the knitting needle that was missing from the socks. It turned out to be wedged in the seat of my chair – I found it when it stuck into my hand. Grumbling and sucking on my bleeding hand, I went to find a band-aid.

When I came back into the room, Cosmo was peering under the sofa. “What are you looking for, Cosmo?” I asked.

“I just lost something, that’s all,” he muttered.

“It seems to be going around,” I told him. It had taken me forever to find the box of band-aids that I clearly remembered putting back on the shelf in the bathroom day before yesterday. I reached over to the sofa and grabbed his cardboard antlers. “Here are your antlers, anyway. Why don’t you go and play Rudolf again?” I suggested, putting the antlers on his scaly red head.

He nodded reluctantly and left the room slowly, looking around him the entire time.

He was up to something, but I had no idea what.

All day long I lost things, things didn’t work, and I found messes where there shouldn’t be any. Cosmo and the cat were both in my bad books by the time my employer, Thomas, showed up in the evening. He was here for the Christmas holidays, and I was delighted to see him. Not only was he my employer and a friend, he was a powerful magic wielder. And Cosmo adored him. He could help keep the little stinker out of trouble for a few days. Maybe he could even figure out what Cosmo was up to.

Thomas had a lot of luggage with him, and I could see brightly wrapped packages peeking from a bag. He smiled and placed them under the tree. Thomas’ gifts from all sorts of worlds were always a huge hit with everyone. “Now, where’s Cosmo?” he asked. “He asked me for some help with his shopping…” Cosmo edged around the corner of the door and then soared over to Thomas, knocking him over and landing on top of him. I happily left the two of them and returned to the baking that Thomas’ arrival had interrupted. As an afterthought, I grabbed Isadore the cat and dumped him in the room with them, shutting the door firmly between myself and the lot of them.

That night, after Cosmo was in bed, I complained about the day to Thomas. “It was one long fiasco, all day long. I think I used half a box of band-aids and most of a bottle of cleaning stuff! It was just strange.” The CD player, which was sending out Christmas carols, emphasized this by suddenly stopping and then skipping four songs down the list before stopping again and taking up where it had left off before. I put my hands over my face. Thomas looked a little bit puzzled and very thoughtful.

The next morning, my alarm went off an hour early, and when Thomas came down for breakfast, he was shivering and looking quite put out. “Is the hot water heater on the fritz? Or did you use it all up in a marathon shower this morning?” he complained.

“No to both. Why?” I asked although the answer was apparent. “Besides, you know the guest part of the house has its own water heater. It was working yesterday, I know that. It came on too hot when I tried to wash up in one of the guest bathrooms and I scalded my hands.” I went back to scrambling eggs.

“I know. I’ll look at it later.” He sighed and sat down with some coffee.  “Where’s the little guy this morning?”

“Not up yet, I guess. He’ll be down as soon as he smells the eggs, though.”  But he wasn’t. When Thomas and I went to see why he wasn’t up yet, we found him huddled in his bed looking frightened.

“Ghosts! There were ghosts in my room all night!” he said, looking around him nervously.

“Cosmo, that was Halloween. This is Christmas,” I said.

Thomas just looked thoughtful again.

We took Cosmo down to breakfast and while he was eating, Thomas said, “Cosmo, I think you and I need to have a little talk.” Cosmo looked very scared at this, and began eating very, very slowly. When he finally finished, he fidgeted nervously in his chair. Thomas opened his mouth to start but before he could say anything there was a tremendous crash from the front hall. We all ran to see what could possibly have happened.

When we reached the front hall, we could see that half of the glass ornaments from the big tree were shattered on the floor at its base. The lights all over the tree were flashing on and off wildly, and the stereo began blaring Christmas carols at top volume.

Thomas looked at the spectacle, nodded, and said, “I think I know what the problem is. You have gremlins.”

“Gremlins?” I repeated.

“Yes, the traditional sort that get into machinery to make it malfunction and make messes everywhere. They are native to several of the dimensions the Door accesses. They aren’t really dangerous, but they are possibly one of the most annoying species to populate the known worlds.” Thomas grimaced. “And getting rid of them is a pain, too.” His gaze traveled to Cosmo, who burst into howls.

“I thought they were elves. They said they were. They said they were Santa’s elves and they would help me make Christmas for everyone! And then they disappeared and then stuff started going wrong and my playroom’s wrecked and you’re mad, and I thought they were elves, really I did! They looked like the pictures in my book and everything!”

“Cosmo,” I began firmly but quietly, “did you open the Door?”

Hiding his face, tears dripping off the end of his snout, he nodded.  “I was trying to make Christmas stuff  like Santa and the elves and I heard the Door. The security stuff said it was a safe world, and I looked and saw the elves, I mean gremlins. So I opened the Door to talk to them. They said they’d help me, really they did.”

Thomas sighed. “I thought as much. I’ll need to put a lock on the Door so that Cosmo can’t open it should he forget the rules again. In the meantime, I’ll make some gremlin traps and we’ll see if we can’t catch the little buggers before they do any more damage.”

The rest of the day was occupied with catching the gremlins and putting them in a containment area Thomas created. They did look surprisingly like the illustrations of Santa’s elves in Cosmo’s book, and I could see how a little dragon could be fooled. We didn’t say anything more to Cosmo about it; he looked as though he had learned his lesson. He was a sad little dragon.

Cosmo couldn’t remember how many gremlins he had let in, but by the end of the day we  weren’t catching any more of them and the containment room was pretty full. Thomas said he’d take them back to their home world after Christmas. In the meantime, we just needed to keep them fed and out of our hair. Cosmo was strangely silent and resisted all of our efforts to cheer him up.

Then next day was Christmas Eve, when we had our big party for everyone we knew from all sorts of strange places. The Door bonged all day with guests arriving while the local guests arrived  through my kitchen door; everyone came laden with bright packages. The party was wonderful and at midnight, while everyone was still having a grand time, the Door bonged once more. Thomas smiled and said, “That must be my special guest. Cosmo, come with me.” He led the way to the Door.

Moments later, I heard a loud, draconic squeal and Cosmo came charging back into the front hall. In his wake were Thomas and a large, bearded man with a red suit and a huge bag. “Santa, it’s Santa, he came, he came, even though I was bad and let in the gremlins, he came, he came…..” Cosmo didn’t even pause for breath.

As Santa began distributing the packages in his bag, an antlered Cosmo acting as his delivery dragon-reindeer, a noise from the tree attracted our attention. Sitting on the top branch of the big Christmas tree was one last gremlin, but even he was in the Christmas spirit – the lights on the tree lit up in a sequence that spelled out, “MERRY CHRISTMAS!”

Jane W. Wolfinbarger (c) 2011