Posts Tagged ‘Sandra M. Odell’

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Cast of Wonders 296: Artemis Rising 4 – Canary’s Refuge

Show Notes

Cast of Wonders is proud to present the fourth annual Artemis Rising event through March 2018! We have four original stories for you this year, guest-edited by assistant editor Katherine Inskip and associate editor Alexis Goble. This year’s artwork by Geneva Barton.

Artemis Rising is an annual month-long event across all four Escape Artists podcasts, celebrating the voices of women, non-binary, trans, and marginalized gendered authors in genre fiction. The resulting lineup is an incredible collection that celebrates the strength, ingenuity, and brilliance of the artists, the characters they create, and the performers that bring these stories to life. It also features the hosting, editing and production talents of a rotating cast. Part of the project’s mission is to give opportunities and experience in these publication roles traditionally held by men.

Don’t miss the full month of Artemis Rising stories across the Escape Artists podcasts!

Canary’s Refuge

by Wendy Nikel

“Feels good to finally be off that blasted ship.” Ben breathes in so deeply that his shoulder rubs against my bare one, a touch so slight I wonder if I only imagined it.

The elevator rattles as it carries us down the mineshaft, into the depths of this planet whose name I can’t even remember. Maybe it doesn’t have one. Not that it matters. They’re all the same as far as we’re concerned: barren hunks of mineral deposits, surrounded by unbreathable atmosphere. They’re ugly, cold, and unwelcoming, without a thing to make us want to remain on their surfaces. Without a hope of survival if we did. (Continue Reading…)

Cast of Wonders 267: Banned Books Week – For

Show Notes

Don’t miss our other Banned Books Week episodes.

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


by Sandra M. Odell


Maggie Alvarez leaned against the counter of the dry goods store to get a better look inside John’s satchel.  Was that a book beneath the flap?  Had to be.  Dingy white cover, faded black letters along the cracked spine.  All her life she’d watched Lessonkeepers hurl books on the bonfires at purity rallies.  Books were illegal, filled with the lies that caused the crumble of the old world.

Her heart sank, then bounced back twice as high.  A real book!

She eased her weight off her knotted left foot, and shifted hold on her crutch.  “So, John, you planning on settling here for a time?”

He leaned against the other side of the wooden counter.  “Nah.  Pretty soon I’ll head east to the Missip river and winter over in Nuloreans.”

Maggie didn’t catch her disappointment in time to keep it from her face, and John was quick to add, “I’ll be here for a time yet.  People always need their knives sharpened.”

“Of course,” Maggie said, and smiled to hide her relief.  “And you’ll be needing supplies.”

Pink touched John’s tanned cheeks and he picked at the edge of the counter top.  “Of course.”

(Continue Reading…)

Genres: ,

Cast of Wonders 261: Twice

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


by Imaani Cain

In the beginning, there was a world and the world was Marya.

In every photograph littering my parents’ mantle, there are the two of us, smiling tightly under the heavy gaze of the camera. I am always standing just behind her, my hand cupping her shoulder. She is looking up at me, her own tiny hand reaching up to grasp at mine. Each of us is holding tight enough to be painful: afterwards, when we are finally allowed outside to play, we compare battle wounds. They faded almost instantly but we spent the night recreating them, stifling any winces we might’ve ordinarily made. We created a game out of it, racking up points for endurance and creativity. (Continue Reading…)

Episode 255: Doors

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at


by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

It had been three months since I’d taken my brother anywhere. The last place we’d gone together was our mother’s funeral. Since then Zack had been difficult, more so than usual, refusing to put on his shoes, shushing me when I asked him to do his chores, even screaming and pounding his fists when it was time to drive him to the recycling facility where he sorted paper as part of a program for developmentally disabled adults.

But he had agreed to visit the county fair, though in the car on the way he had bruised his knuckles knocking on the window glass, an old habit Mom and I thought we’d broken him of.

At the fair, we walked down aisles of blue-and-white striped tents that sold fried Twinkies and Dr. Pepper, Texas turkey legs and popcorn balls. Zack demanded it all; the whole night he’d been signing the first letters of every food item we passed. I remembered why I’d put off an outing. Fun was exhausting, especially with a brother who wanted so much and didn’t understand that he couldn’t have it. Between school and the stack of bills at home, I could barely afford the fair tickets. The income from Zack’s job only paid enough to cover gas to get him to work and back.

The word “no” always sets Zack off, so I didn’t say it when he asked for giant sugar cookies and lemonade and funnel cake. Instead I walked in front of him, leading him through throngs of people, searching out booths with those magical words on display: complimentary, FREE. Thus far I’d found a magnet for a car rental agency, a blue balloon, a plastic water bottle which featured the portrait of a cartoon cowboy, four pens and a dozen flyers, all of which Zack would cherish as much as his photo collection.

In the background, the midway’s steel roller coasters quaked like giants. The musk of barn animals drifted from the livestock pens near the rodeo hall. These were two places I wouldn’t take him. If I did – as he begged me to, his non-signing hand pointed permanently toward them – we would never leave. I also avoided any booths which might remind me of what I could no longer accomplish, with Zack to take care of; the local travel agent’s booth was hardest to avoid, with its posters depicting far off places, monuments and museums I would never visit.

Instead I followed a series of arrowed signposts with a word nearly as good as FREE: $1 Tours, in bold orange marker. They guided us to a circular purple building which seemed to be a modified Starship 2000, a ride that Zack and I had ridden often as children, when I was just his sister and not his caretaker; the UFO-shaped structure contained about two dozen pads, each as tall as a person, which everyone would lie against. The conductor in the middle would fiddle with his levers, start the carnival music, and the ride would spin around his command station. The centrifugal force would push us up to the ceiling and pin us to the walls, pull our grins wide like grotesque masks. The tour building was the same eggplant purple, but the lighted sign that stretched across its roof proclaimed a different name: The Bender. A ramp led to a door which led inside. At the gate stood a woman all in black despite the atrocious heat, one of the handmade signs in her manicured grip. Sweat shone on her bare arms, and the curve of her long fingers folded around the sharp of the sign’s edges made my stomach flutter. Two more women in black leaned against the wall.

“What is this?” I asked, an excuse to hear her speak. Zack waved to the woman. He’d always been a bit of a ladies’ man.

“This is the Super Spectacular Space Bender,” she said. She had a strange accent, unlike any I had ever heard. “The main hub for this Multiverse, designed to take you through space and beyond!”

I smiled. My palms were sweating. It had been a while since I’d spoken to a beautiful girl. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as Zack made his way to one of the other women and stuck out his hand. She shook it.

“Oh really?” I said. “How do you manage that?”

“Tours are only a dollar. Questions will be answered at the end, though we make no guarantee as to truths, or satisfactions, or even that the questions answered will be the questions you requested.”

In my wallet I had exactly five dollar bills. I handed her two – her fingers brushed mine as she took them – and called to Zack. When he wouldn’t come, the woman he’d shaken hands with took his arm. People were always doing that, helping. Sometimes they asked if I needed it first. Always, I wanted to say, I need more help than you can give. Zack followed the woman up the ramp and into the Super Spectacular Space Bender. I could think of nothing else to say, so I followed him.

Inside, the Bender was shaped like a giant donut, a thin hall stretched around what must have once been the circular control room in the middle, now closed off with a wall of its own. I only knew it was still there because of the single arched door to my right. The size of the hall was impossible. It seemed to stretch farther inward than the outside suggested, but I chalked the optical illusion up to the red-and-white striped circus tent wallpaper, which made me dizzy. The pads that lined the Starship 2000 were gone. Instead, rectangular steel doors obscured the wall to my left, no more than two feet between each, the door we’d come through lost in the repetition. The Bender smelled like sugar and sweaty children. I glanced down at the floor. It was transparent, though the only thing visible through it was the concrete platform on which The Bender stood. Kernels of popcorn had been smashed into the glass.

“Look up,” the woman who’d been holding the sign whispered into my ear, her breath hot. I did as she asked. The ceiling too was glass, and through it stars gleamed as if the light pollution of the fair didn’t exist.

“I know, right?” the woman said. She maneuvered her way to the front of the small crowd of five, my brother and I included, and began to shout. “Ladies and gents, welcome! I would like to entreat all of you to wander these halls. Please do look in the windows of any doors you find, for as you see there are many doors, and please feel free to speculate on the nature of what you see, though I can assure you, you will be wrong. But you must not open any door, no matter what you see inside. Many have been lost to the doors.” Her words echoed through the vast hallway.

I didn’t see Zack or the woman he had been talking to; they’d managed to slip away down the hall.

My sneakers squeaked against the glass floor as I searched for them. When I still could see only darkness ahead, no sign of my brother, I leaned over to peer through a round porthole window in one of the doors that should have led back outside. I couldn’t quite believe what was behind it. Men and women in suits stood around with cocktails in their hands. Off to the only corner of the room I could see, ravenous party guests surrounded a table of hors d’oeuvres.

But the room couldn’t exist. There wasn’t enough space for a large party room; there wasn’t space for any room.

“What the?” I said out loud. But before my question could be answered, I spotted Zack walking through the crowd behind the window, holding a plate of cakes. Damn it, I thought. That’s what I get for being distracted. I tried the knob. To my surprise, it turned. I entered the room and shut the door behind me.

I shuffled through the crowd. I thought I saw Zack’s shoulder, but when I touched it, the man who turned to face me wasn’t him. I darted about, searching, but he was nowhere to be found.

“Have you seen my brother?” I asked people. “Have you seen a guy with Down’s Syndrome? Doesn’t talk?”

One woman nodded, pointed. I followed her lead. The room was too big, and I didn’t understand how Zack could move so quickly; normally he was slow, always glancing back as he walked, double- then triple-checking, like a tic. A glitch in the Matrix, our father once called it, before he packed up and left one day, at mom’s request, promising to return once she had changed her mind. We were younger. His leaving didn’t mean I would be saddled with all the responsibility of a parent. We still had Mom back then.

For a moment, and I swear it was brief, I stopped. I didn’t want to find him. I thought about what the woman had said – lost through the doors – and it sounded like a way out. I could save all my money, see the world like I’d always planned.

But then I remembered my brother, how no one here would know his name. I kept on.

Finally I glimpsed what appeared to be the back of his dark mop of hair near the far wall. I hurried to him and placed my hand on his shoulder. As I did I realized it was too high to be Zack’s shoulder, and then the man turned.

It was our father.

Wrinkles bordered his eyes, and his hair was white and grey. We had never gotten to see him that way. The couple he’d been talking to went on talking, so he and I were left staring at one another. My father’s lips pursed tight. In his hand he held a glass of amber liquor.

“What are you doing here, Nikki?” he asked.

“Why are you here?” I said, stumbling over words.

He rolled his eyes. “That’s a stupid question if ever I heard one. I’m not allowed to have a party in my own apartment? Are you the party police now?”

“You’re not gone,” I said.

“Oh, for God’s sake. You really are your mother’s daughter. So dramatic.” He shrugged my hand off his shoulder. “Did you come to apologize?”

Suddenly I didn’t care why or how he was back, or what this life was behind the door. I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him tight. The liquor sloshed in the glass and wet a spot on my shirt, cold through the cotton.

“It’s been so long,” I said.

“Don’t cry. Please, don’t cry. You don’t have to say it,” he said.

“Zack!” I said. “Where is he?”

My father scowled. “In his room, I hope. I asked him to stay there. He was getting belligerent, upset at all these people, I suspect.”

“You did? But wasn’t he happy to see you?”

“For God’s sake. If you want to raise him, go right ahead.”

As if it had all been solved – all questions answered, all apologies for invented crimes assuaged – our father stormed into the crowd. I decided to seek out Zack. At least I could judge the situation by Zack’s reaction.

I went down the first hall I reached, trying each door I passed. The first was a bathroom, occupied. The second a closet. Zack’s was the third. I found him on the bed with his plate of cake beside him, though he wasn’t eating. Instead he peered down at the floor, shaking his head, one finger twisting in the air as if he were trying to point but couldn’t quite make the fingers work right. His common expression of anger.

“Hey buddy,” I said as I sat beside him. “How’s that cake?”

He didn’t look up right away, but when he did, I realized that the area around his eye was bruised black. Immediately my hands went to touch it, to make sure it was real, but he jerked away.

“Who did this to you?” I asked.

He grunted. He wouldn’t know how to answer; descriptions of people beyond girl and boy and hat were difficult for him.

“Did you see Dad?” I asked, hoping to calm him. As soon as Dad escaped my mouth, he was off, screaming, shrill and violent, as he slapped his hands against his thighs. At first I chalked this reaction up to Dad’s being back, which was confusing even for me.

Then I remembered that I’d passed beyond the door. The words had been right there, in that woman’s mouth. The main hub for this Multiverse, designed to take you through space and beyond! If that meant what I thought it could mean – I’d read about the multiverse once, freshman year, a time of mind-altering trips down strange ideas lane – then Zack and I might have gone through a door into a place where our father had never disappeared. Or maybe I was crazy. It could also be a dream, but one glance at Zack and his black eye told me it wasn’t. It was too real for that.

“Listen to me, Zack. Did Dad do that to you?” I asked. “Your eye?”

Zack stared at me, but he didn’t respond.

“Yes or no?” I said.

He shook his fist up and down: yes. A cold wave spread through my body.
I grabbed Zack’s hand and tried to pull him from the bed, but he was heavy and unwilling to follow me. “Be right back,” I told him. “I’m going to get help.”

To get him to move, I would need the help of a beautiful woman. I moved through the party, trying to avoid the eyes of guests whose unknown intentions now frightened me. I didn’t trust anyone here.

I ran, searching for the door. When I finally found it, I jerked it open and tumbled back into The Bender’s rank hall.

It was empty, and the circus tent wallpaper seemed to pulse in the light which flickered from elephant-shaped wall sconces. I hadn’t seen them earlier, but they were dust-covered and faded, as if they’d been there for years. I bent down to rest my hands on my knees. The floor no longer revealed the industrial platform it had before. Instead, black went on forever, dotted with stars. Dizziness forced me to press my hand onto the door, which was cool and slick beneath my palm. When I was once more able to stand, I looked again in the door’s window. Our father was clomping toward the hall, a taller, darker drink in his hand.

I ran the length of the hallway until I couldn’t breathe anymore. I wasn’t sure how far I’d come, but one of the many windows to my left showed me another place, a beach in winter, covered with snow. I peered into the window of the command center door, which seemed to have followed me as I ran; it was the same arched door I’d seen before, when I first entered the Bender. As I’d run, I could always see it to my right, in the corner of my eye. Through the window, the three women in black and a man in a purple fedora lounged in chairs shaped like high heels.

I opened the door. None of them stirred. Two of the women were touching heads, giggling. The third woman, the one from before, the whisperer, chewed her nails and peered at a black-rimmed flat-screen television – it even had the SAMSUNG logo below it – on the far wall above a huge wooden wheel like those you’d find on a ship. On the screen a mess of colored dots and arrows and blue lines like the streets on a GPS shifted and changed. I thought for a moment I saw the outline of a fox disappear off the screen. The man in the fedora was speaking too loudly for the size of the room: “Damn it all, the bloody foxbusters! Can you believe we made it out of there, all intact? Or mostly, anyway. Holy key limes, crewsters!”

“Excuse me,” I said. “I need your assistance. My brother went into one of the rooms, and he won’t come out. Please, it’s urgent. I need a woman.”

The man whistled. “I’ll say,” he said. “I would drink to that.”

The three women turned their heads. The one from earlier stood. “I remember you,” she said. “My name is Belinda. Your brother is fine. I led him to the midway myself. I suspected you may have gone through.”

“But I just saw him. He was at my father’s party. He had a black eye. I need to get him out of there.”

“Impossible!” said the man. “You can’t take him out with you.”

“Why not?”

“You’re here only because you haven’t chosen,” Belinda said. “Your reality. That brother is not yours for the taking.”

“We have a plan for people like you,” said the man.

“People like me? Who the hell are you?”

“I’m Captain, of course. And I’m telling you, I know you. You’re unhappy with the way things are, back at home. You’re exhausted. You wake up every day on the wrong side of the road and wish you had a choice in it all. I’m here to tell you that you do. You have four choices, in fact.”

“Why won’t anyone help me get my brother?” I said.

Belinda reached out and squeezed my hand. “Please,” she said. “I’ll explain everything.” She turned to the man. “Captain, don’t you have some piloting to do? I’m afraid we’re quite off course.”

Belinda led me from the room so we could speak without distracting Captain, she said. She asked me to sit with her on the glass floor. I did, though I tried my hardest not to glance down.

“Don’t you worry,” she said. “You get used to feeling like you’re falling all the time.”

This is what she told me then: The Bender was indeed the hub for the Multiverse. I was smart, she said, to figure that out, never mind that she had flat out told me; no one ever believed the words of a state fair vendor, though they were often more true than a scientist’s. Each outer door led to a new reality. The brother I’d seen wasn’t mine, not really. Rather he belonged to the Nikki in his own world, a Nikki whose father had not left when she was young.

Then she told me that I was here, in the Primalverse with them, because I had not chosen a future. I had seen a world behind a door, and it had raised a question. I was asking myself if one of these realities might hold a happier me. This was a question she said she could not answer. This was the reason I would be given a choice.

Three doors. I had gone through my first and found it wanting. I could go through two more, experience those realities, see if they held an ideal world. After the third, I would be forced to choose. Any of the three I’d visited, or my own, which waited frozen for me, though it would not wait forever. I had twenty-four hours, and that was all. Already I had used a quarter of that time.

I didn’t say to her what it was flashed through my head; would there be a world where my brother could take of himself, where he could speak? Or where our mother had not left me with a man-sized burden?

I set the timer on my watch.

I searched the windows for a scene that called to me. Vibrant landscapes, dull white rooms I passed on, until I came to a window which revealed my mother’s house as it had appeared that morning. Only here, the light shone through the living room as it no longer did. Rarely did we open the curtains anymore; it would be like a betrayal of our grief.

As soon as I felt the brown shag beneath my feet, I smelled the sugar scent of chocolate chip cookies just browned enough to take from the oven. Mom always burned them; she couldn’t smell them being done as I could. I rushed into the kitchen, slipped the potholders onto my hands, and pulled the sheet from the oven.

“Oh, I forgot about them again,” said my mother’s voice from the hall.

“Thanks, dear. I guess you came just in time.”

Mom wore her ratty blue robe, a staple in her dying days, but she seemed different in it now. Her face glowed with life. Her hair was combed and wet, her cheeks free of the pillow marks that had taken over like wrinkles when she’d been confined to bed for weeks at a time. Her skin was smooth, and when I hugged her, hard, it smelled of soap and powder.

She hugged me just as hard back – always she had understood that sometimes, without explanation, people just need to feel the pressure of love – but she whispered into my ear: “Is everything okay? You seem frazzled.”

“It’s just you, Mom. You’re here. You look so good.”

“Why, thank you.” Mom pulled back, held her arms out to her side. “I gussied up just for you.” I was aware of tears in my eyes. Mom noticed them too, pulled me back into the hug. “Nikki, what happened?”

“You’re okay,” I said. “I had a dream, that you were dead.”

“I’m fine. I’m going to live a long time yet. You don’t have to worry about me.” She kissed the top of my hair like she used to do when I was a little girl. “What we do have to worry about is these cookies sticking to the pan. You want to help me?”

I began slipping the spatula under the cookies and moving them to the cooling rack. “Is Zack still asleep?” I asked. The clock told me it was noon, but he’d been known to sleep all day if we let him.

“Who?” Mom picked up a cookie and blew on it.

“Very funny.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Mom popped the cookie in her mouth, held her hand to my forehead.

“I’m fine.” I arranged three cookies on a plate. “I’m going to go wake him up.”

“Wake who up?”

“Zack, Mom. You know, your other child?”

“I don’t get the joke.”

That familiar wave of cold again. Without answering, I walked through the house to the hall, moved down it, checking doors as I went, light-headed. Deja fucking vu, I thought. All the rooms were the same, except for his. Where before his door had led to a dark den with a bed, a shelf of stuffed animals, a CD rack and a Djembe drum abandoned in the corner, now the room was filled with craft supplies: a sewing machine, several boxes of buttons, a few plastic containers full of beads and string. On the table by the far window a pair of pants dangled, empty of a body. Just like the room.

Mom appeared in the doorframe. “What’s going on with you?”

“I don’t have a brother?” I asked.

She shook her head, slowly.

“Sorry,” I said. “I must have dreamt that too. I’m tired. I’m just not feeling like myself is all.”

“You should lie down. I worry about you. Are you sleeping enough? You can’t let school stress you out, okay? You need an outlet. Do you have an outlet?”

My smile broke through. It was nice to have someone who worried. I’d forgotten how much it meant, how much I missed it.

“I do yoga,” I lied. “I’m fine. Stress is in line.”

I couldn’t lie down, not with Mom there, the scene so ordinary with the plate of cookies, her mug of cold coffee. I joined her at the table, closing my eyes as I slid into the seat. Every part of this I wanted to remember completely. We talked about school and romance, and I repeated every word she said in my head, hoping to commit them to memory. I told her I’d been so busy I didn’t have time for love. She said that was okay, that I would make time when I was ready, when I found the right man…or woman, she added. I didn’t say I doubted that was true, that there was no time to make, what with all my responsibilities. I could tell from the way her head tilted far to the side when she spoke to me that in this reality, I didn’t have responsibilities. She mentioned my father in a way that told me he had abandoned us here, too. I tried not to think of the father I’d met earlier.

Despite the warmth my mother radiated, our conversation felt hollow. I couldn’t tell her what I wanted to, couldn’t speak to her about grief, about Zack. I had to edit myself to keep from slipping Zack into the conversation, had to skirt around his existence. Without being able to confide everything in my mother, I felt as if I could confide nothing.

I couldn’t choose her at the expense of Zack.

I asked her for an old picture book I knew it would take a long time to find. Once she left the room, I went through the front door. There are some things you don’t want to have to do twice, and saying goodbye to a mother is one of them.

This time when I reentered The Bender, miniature stuffed animals were suspended from strings attached to the glass ceiling with duct tape. A llama brushed the top of my head as I ducked into the hall. They had been sewn from colored felt, deep reds and blues, beige, none of the usual flashy colors. I lifted my hand and let my fingers brush them: a lion, a bat, an earthworm. I held my breath and stared up at them until I could no longer see them as separate entities, just one colored blur above, blocking out the stars. I felt as if they were mine to see alone, and for a moment the choke in my throat from seeing my mother lessened.

From the control room, I heard music, what sounded like a synthesized polka. Also, voices. When I opened the door, the control room was different. Strips of silver hung from this ceiling and sparkled in the light of paper lanterns. The shoe-shaped chairs in which the crew had previously sat were now the shape of red lips, and I couldn’t see the crew, though I could hear them laughing.
As I crept further into the room, they came gradually into focus. Each of them wore a jumpsuit which matched the decorations so perfectly they had blended in. Captain came toward me, and as he did the colors of his clothes shifted with the objects he passed.

“Back so soon?” he said. “Still haven’t found your bread crumbs, then?”

“Not quite,” I said. “What’s the occasion?”

“For the party? What isn’t the occasion?” Here he leaned in so close I could feel his hot breath. Unlike Belinda’s, his churned my stomach. “I don’t know how you got here, you know. Usually people get stuck in the doors. Once they leave, they don’t ever come back. But you, Ms. Nikki, you found us here in the void. You must be a special kind of woman.”

“I’m not,” I said, backing away. “At least not in the way you would like.”

“If you say so,” he said. “Would you like a wink of wing juice? The bottle says toxic, but we think that just means enjoy in moderation!”

“No thanks,” I said. From the screen against the wall I heard a frantic beeping. A huge red dot was moving toward the smaller green, both of them traveling the length of a blue line. “Shouldn’t you be controlling the ship?”
“He doesn’t,” Belinda said, “control the ship.”

Captain mumbled his way back to one of the chairs.

“Why is he called Captain then?”

Belinda leaned in. “He likes to think he controls things. Really it’s us – me mostly – does the controlling.” She smiled. “He’s more like our entertainment. He likes you, though. We all do.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “Those other two haven’t really talked to me.”

Belinda shrugged.

“Those animals,” I said. “Who made them?”

“Do you like them?” She beamed. “I won them for you. I thought they might make you feel more at ease.”

“They did. Thank you.”

“Have you made your decision?”

“No,” I said. “I still have one door to go.”

She placed her hand on my shoulder. It seemed everyone was doing that these days. I’d forgotten how she had first made my stomach jump.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” she said. “Go.”

Choosing the third door was more difficult. No obvious choice presented itself, and so I rushed from door to door and pressed my hand against each, trying to let my skin decide. Most of them were cool, the same temperature as the hall, but then I came to one where the cold of the steel bit into my hand, startling in its variance from the others. I looked through the window and knew my choice had been made.

The other side of the door left me feeling immediately as if my choice had been wrong. I’d felt drawn from the window to its stark whiteness – how boring it seemed – as I used to be drawn to smaller Christmas presents, sure that they would hold the best treasure, as they so often did. But once the smell came at me – bleach and laundry detergent – I felt overwhelmed by the decision I would soon be forced to make. Still, I walked on.

I was in some sort of laundry facility. Washers thumped on one side of the room, dryers on the other. There were no people around. I found another door which led to a hallway that reeked of antiseptic. Down the hall, with closed doors to either side, I found a check-in desk like those at doctor’s offices. Behind the desk sat a woman. Her attention was occupied by a sheet of paper before her.

“Excuse me,” I said.

She looked up. Her eyes brightened. “Ms. Nikki,” she said. “We haven’t seen you in quite some time.”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “I’ve been busy.”

“I know,” she said. “How was the Czech Republic? I’ve seen some of your show.”

“My show?”

“You know, Zack’s very proud of you.” She leaned across the desk, as if she were going to tell me a secret. “Some of the nurses don’t think Zack understands very much, but I think he understands more than he lets on. He sees you on the TV sometimes, and he points, he laughs.” The television caught her eye, and she pointed upwards. “Speak of the devil,” she said.

On the TV, I stood before the backdrop of Prague’s Old Town Square, which was teeming with people and stalls selling colored eggs and beer in plastic cups. A logo in the corner read, TravelTimes with Nikki Nolan. The last name wasn’t mine; I was a Lyle, not a Nolan. Sure enough, as I held a fat soft pretzel up to the camera, a solid silver band glinted on my finger.

I wondered who she or he was, if she traveled with me. If I’d seen all of the world. What was it like out there, an almost infinite number of doors to choose from? Was I in love, with the world and with a someone and with the life I’d been able to live?

“Can I see my brother?” I asked.

“Of course,” said the woman. After I stood there a minute too long, she frowned. “Did you forget? Room 216,” she said.

I found 216, a wood and rough-grained door with a shiny gold knob. Inside Zack slept face down atop the blankets. I’d seen him sleep like that before, and it made me laugh. I said his name. His head jerked up. He looked older, much older than me, which he was – ten years older, in fact – but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized I might be older too. To be out there seeing the world as I was, I must have already completed college.

I gawked at the mirror hung on the backside on his door. I looked the same. Of course, people with Down’s syndrome often age more quickly, but Zack had always seemed so youthful in our reality, like a child. Perhaps, I thought, looking around at his dull white room, he’d matured. Or the home was to blame. I’d read that homes could do that to a person, worsen a condition. Being in a strange place would certainly stress Zack out, make him less comfortable than our own home. He wouldn’t like the bare walls, the absence of faces he had known since childhood.

He didn’t smile when I said hello, but he had never done that. I rushed to his bedside and hugged him close.

“I’ve missed you.” I didn’t know if it meant anything to him, but I had to say it. “How have you been?”

Zack swung his legs over the side of the bed. His eyes were trying to close against the light, still lazy with sleep.

“How have you been, Zack? Good, bad, okay?” I held my thumb up, down, to the side.

He gave me a thumbs up.

“Good? You’ve been good?”

He held two fingers in the center of his palm.

“Hot dog? You want a hot dog? I’m sure we could arrange that.”

I held out my hand, and he took it. I asked him to lead me to the cafeteria, but he kept falling back, so I followed the signs and led him there instead. The cafeteria was located in a large room with a serving line at the front, where a handful of patients moseyed with trays in hand. Round orange tables were scattered across the black-and-white tile, few of them filled. Zack and I waited through the line, and though there were no hot dogs, there were hamburgers, which we both ordered plain with ketchup only. I always used to forget that he didn’t like vegetables on his sandwiches, but it seemed important that I remember, at least this once.

We sat at a table near the back and ate. He repeated the hot dog sign a couple of times, so I had to point at his burger, sweep my hand down in an L – later. Later was another one of the words Zack hated. He shook his head, uttered his guttural no!

“It’s okay, Zack. Be happy, okay?”

And it was true, it was okay. There I was, watching him eat his burger, and it had only been less than twenty-four hours – I glanced at my watch, twenty-two hours, in fact – but it felt like weeks. “How long have I left you here?” I asked, voice shaking.

He didn’t answer, and I didn’t want him to. I knew it had been a long time, regardless that I still looked the same age, and he so much older. But, despite the graying hair, he still had the same tics, the same contempt for words, the same demands for the same foods. It was me who was really different. It was the smallest of changes, but it was significant; I couldn’t live in a world where my life hadn’t included my brother, despite him being happy, despite my own apparent happiness. There had to be some way to see the world and take care of my brother, some way to make it work.

I kissed the top of his hair; it smelled of oil and eucalyptus shampoo, his favorite back at home, too. I couldn’t say I was sorry. That word too was forbidden. Instead I thought it, tried to make him know it from the way my eyes met his. He kept eating his fries.

I backed out of the cafeteria, and once hidden from his view I ran through the halls, back to the laundry room door, slipping on the white tile. I burst through the door back into The Bender.

Belinda was waiting in the hall. Her jumpsuit shone purple in the light. She looked at her watch as I emerged.

“Cutting it close,” she said. “Forty minutes left. Have you decided?”

I nodded.

“Well, hold it in a bit longer. I have a proposition for you.” She took my hand. Together we entered the control room through the arched door. Captain was in a corner of the room, which now displayed the same striped wallpaper as the hall. The other women weren’t around. Without music or Captain blaring, I could make out the intermittent whir of an engine in the walls.

“Does Captain do anything but goof off?”

“He makes a mad orange scone,” Belinda said. “And his party tricks are to die for. He does this thing with an apple and a mouse. Absolutely brilliant. Though it does take some doing to find a suitable rodent.”

She stopped before the screen, pointed upward. Her other hand, soft and sweaty, squeezed mine. I tilted my head, and a giant ball of blue-green pulsated before me, waves of light snaking like tentacles from its center. It was so beautiful my breath left me. I raised my hands to the top of my head.

“I want you,” she said, “to stay with us.”

I looked back to her. She too was beautiful, though I hadn’t really noticed just how beautiful. I had trained myself not to fully notice things like that – too little time to stop and consider faces, lips; hers were right there in front of me, as if she was daring me to notice them, full and pink, curved up at the ends in a mysterious smile. I kissed her because I could.

“Is that a yes?” she asked when we parted. “Wait, don’t answer.” She turned to the screen, keyed in some letters and numbers, hit the red button. “Look at this, first. A complete map of this place, the Primalverse. We can show you so much.”

On the screen new dots winked and rotated. Upon closer inspection, I saw that five of the dots were shaped like ships. They drifted about in the void.

“What are those other ships?” I asked.

“Other hubs, for other universes. Where you don’t exist, where you don’t have to worry at all about family. About any of it. The craziest stuff you’ve ever seen lurks behind the doors in those ships. I can take you there. We can travel them together. I’m due for a vacation, after all.”

“How many?”

“Hundreds. This map is just the edge.”

The desert was nothing compared to this. Belinda’s hand was still in mine, and her lips had left the taste of salt. It made me thirsty. The intersecting colors on the screen resembled a piece of modern art you might see in a famous gallery, obscure and inspiring. Just watching it made my mind race. There is a difference between imagining love from a ring on a finger and feeling it right in front of you, an arm’s reach away. But there was no way to tear myself in two, to be both the people I wanted to be. I shook my head, slowly at first, then faster.

“No,” I said. “I don’t think I can.”

“He’s safe,” Belinda said. “We can make him safe for you. But you can’t ever go back there. You can’t enter any of these doors again, not in this hub.”

“You want me to give up my home?”

“Trade your home, for hundreds of others.”

There was a woman’s hand in mine, the soft warmth of skin I hadn’t felt in two years now, ever since Mom got sick. What would it be like, I wondered, to have someone to hold onto?

I looked down at our clasped hands. The timer blinked on my wrist. Twenty minutes, it read. I felt my heart speed. What if I just stayed here, right until the end? Made my decision at the last minute? Waited until my heart was beating so fast I couldn’t stand it anymore?

But I couldn’t. I would regret even this hesitation. I let go of her hand. I glanced around the control room once more, but I didn’t look at the screen. I didn’t look at the floor or the ceiling. I looked at the dizzying walls, at the sleeping Captain. I didn’t look at Belinda.

As I turned, I felt her hand, for a moment, enter my pocket, like she was trying to hold me back. I jerked myself away and continued through the door. Walked down the hall. All the doors appeared the same, and for a panicked moment I wondered how I would be able to recognize it; there wasn’t time to peer through each and every window.

But then I felt it, the sweltering heat of Texas drifting through the air-conditioned building. I looked through the window at fairgoers paused, frozen, as they pushed toward promises of life-changing visions and best value makeovers. A woman stood before The Bender, brows pinched in confusion, her mouth open, as if she’d been speaking to the invisible space where, an instant before, Belinda had stood. I exited.

Down the ramp I ran, across the paths, kicking dirt up into my mouth, zigzagging through the immobile mob. The bright lights of the midway arched before me, until I stood beneath them. The timer on my watch told me I had five minutes to go. I didn’t want Zack to be without me any longer. I didn’t want to be without him.

I knew where he would have gone: the roller coaster.

The line was long, but I spotted him toward the back. I ducked under the queue rope and stood beside him. His hands straight down by his sides, the fanny pack he always wore loose around his waist, his bright green shoes tied tight. He was half-smiling. That would change once he realized I’d returned. He’d be even angrier when he realized he needed ten tickets to ride the coaster.

But right now, he was the brother he’d been when we were little and we played Uno together or camped in our backyard, pretending our parents were a distant memory. We didn’t have to pretend anymore, and it wasn’t like we’d thought it would be then, endless cookies and late nights.

When we get home, I thought, I’ll make you cookies.

I leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. He would never let me do that. With two minutes left, I put my hands into my pocket, felt something there, and pulled out a sheet of bright red tickets. I recalled the weight of Belinda’s hand. I grinned.

I reached down and slipped the tickets into Zack’s open palm, closed his fist around them. Then I ducked back under the rope, looked him over one more time, and went around to the exit. There I would wait for him, to rouse, to ride, to go home.


Episode 238: Artemis Rising 3 – The Absolute Temperature of Outer Space

Show Notes

Illustration by Mat Weller. Artemis Rising logo designed by Scott Pond.

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.

The Absolute Temperature of Outer Space

by Sandra M. Odell

Dwanda watches her dad bound across the lunar landscape and shivers inside her jacket.  The Moon lifts him higher than anyone on Earth could jump and sets him gently down again, a kangaroo in a space suit.  Sunlight flashes bright white across his helmet.  She chooses not to notice the ragged tear down the right side of his bulky suit, or the way she can see through him to the gray, airless expanse beyond.

The shuttleport crowd paces around the clear observation dome to make room for their excitement and boredom.  They talk softly amongst themselves or watch the swarm of service bots making a final safety check on the shuttle Io.  A few browse the souvenir stands for last minute gifts or keepsakes from their lunar vacation.

Her mom settles beside Dwanda on the couch.  “Brought you some cocoa.”

(Continue Reading…)


Episode 182: A Troll’s Trade

Show Notes

Dedicated to Graham Joyce, Clarion West 2010 Instructor

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at

A Troll’s Trade

by Sandra M. Odell

Maybe I should have listened to me mudder, been a mason or a carpenter, but I was young, hornstrong, determined to make me own way.

“A what?” she said, and stirred the stew so hard the pot tumbled right off the fire and spilled into the river.

I picked me nose and spread it on a cracker with a bit of brie. “A florist.”

Me mudder scooped what she could of the stew back into the pot and set it back on the fire. “What would your da say? He built our bridge with -”

“With the sweat off his nose before he got tricked by the Maiden of Merriwether and turned to cheese, yah, yah, I know. Chisels and mortar and nails aren’t me thing, is all.”

“You’re a troll! Where are you going to live if’n you can’t find a bridge?”

I tossed a bit more gravel into the stewpot for a proper crunch. “I’ll find something, easy peas porridge.”

Yeah. Me mudder threw me out on both ears and without even the porridge. Too bad, because there weren’t no bridges neither. I looked long and hard. Looked so hard, me eyes bugged even more. Even went as far north as the Pigling Lakes, thinking plenty of water made for plenty of bridges. Did you know some folks think a fairy is a boat?

I figured maybe I could live someplace else, become a trendsetter. I mean, trolls don’t always got to be masons so it don’t always got to be bridge, right? I tried a vine trellis, even a vineyard row, but neither had that special hidey something that makes a place livable. Haylofts were awful high up, and root cellars offered no privacy. Chicken coops? No thank you; I have me pride.

So, I did the only thing I could. I went to live under a porch. It wasn’t proper or even fancy, but it was a roof over me head. The folk family kept goats and chickens, had a garden with lovely sweet peas in the spring and winter squash blossoms in autumn. There was even a field a good skulk away with red and orange poppies, and rose mallow. I grabbed the kids’ ankles at least twice a week to keep in shape. I could have wished the folk mum didn’t always hold the most tender, but, well, florists can’t be choosers.

Though it does make a mouth drool just thinking about it.

Thing is, there isn’t much room under a porch, not like there is under a proper bridge. Always dirty and spidery, no room for flowers or pots let alone a nice vase, and I could never stand up. Made for a nasty belly rash, that. Not even a place to set up a spit or me smallest cook pot.

No, life under a porch was not for me. The local bridges were all taken, all except for the comfy stone bridge south of the city proper with the not so comfy ghosts. I heard tell of a gray beard who lived under a city bridge and was maybe looking for something less busier, so I went to see what we could work out. Well, he worked me out alrighty, right out from under his bridge with a roar and a tumble. Him and his silver coins woven into his back hair sos the trollops might find him fancy. Fah!

And it was such a nice bridge, a right full overpass. Worked stone arches, strong pylons, no ghosts.
Fuddleswort up north said I would be better off going over the Old Bones Range and find me a gulley bridge. Edfart said Fuddleswort was full of stinky soup, and I should get me a big pot, cook up a folk stew with peppers and baby fern, and make meself at folk home. Fuddleswort said baby fern didn’t hold up, and to use kale.

“Baby fern.”


“Baby fern!”


They locked horns, and I left them to make out for themselves.

I almost crawled back home, but what with the rash and all I couldn’t take the pain. There was nothing to it but to braid buttercup crowns and thunk trollish thoughts.

The answer? Money. And for money, I needed folks.

The folk pa seemed a decent sort as far as folk go. He did have the heaviest step, but he didn’t tromp over me just because he could. A regular folk with no charms or trickery about him, which is good; cheese is for eating, not being. As I understood it, he worked the market selling fresh eggs and his wife’s bakings, more like burnings, actually, which was perfect for me.

I thunk me thoughts all the way through, and when he came down the two short steps early one morning to gather eggs I was ready for him.

I grabbed his ankle at the bottom step. The folk pa whooped and took a tumble, basket one way, hat another, and me holding on. He tried to jerk his foot away, and I jerked back. “I want to talk to you,” I said. I glowied me eyes so he could see me. I must have glowied them too well because he fainted dead away. Folks. Never scare when you want them to.

A few seconds later he came to and tried to get his feet, but I still had one. “I just want to talk.”
His eyes bugged and his face turned all sorts of colors before he settled down. There was enough of me hand and arm showing that he could follow it under the porch to me not so glowy eyes. “You’re real,” he said, rather, squeaked.


“The children. They said you – ”

“I’m a troll. That’s what I do.”

He gulped. “Are you. . .Are you going to eat me?”

Not without cooking him first. What does Edfart know. Grown folk are best braised. “No.”

He managed a sit and then bent low for a closer look. “What are you doing under my porch?”

“It’s me summer home. I need to use your fireplace.”

He moved his leg. I didn’t let go.

“My what?”

“Fireplace. Your fireplace.”

“My fireplace?”

This wasn’t going like I thunk it would. “That’s what I said.”

“All right. Why? And how did you get under there? I thought you trolls are, you know, big.”

Like that, I pulled his leg all the way under the porch.

The folk pa squealed. “Okay, okay! You’re a troll. Big troll, huge troll, massive, ginormous.”

“Better.” He smelled ripe with sweat, nothing a little oregano couldn’t fix. I gave him his leg back.
To his credit, he didn’t run. He got to his hands and knees, still peering under the porch. “So, if you don’t mind my asking, why do you need my fireplace?”

“I want to cook.”

His eyes bugged again. “Not the children, I hope.”

Kid pie with potatoes and pearl onions. Me drool made the ground all muddy. “No.”

I could have wanted for flowers, but food would do. I set out what I needed from market. He listened, nodding his head with all that floppy red hair. “I’ll, um, I’ll have to tell my wife. Midge. She’s my wife.”


He squinted his eyes for a better look. I glowied mine, and he decided he’s seen enough.

“Right,” he said, and mopped his brow with a muddy hand. “You’ll do your cooking, and then you’ll crawl back under the porch to eat. I hope.”

“No, then you take it to market.”

That’s when he figured it was best to get on gathering eggs. I liked him more already.

That night, when the candles were guttered and the dark everywhere, I crept inside and found me fixings on the plank table. Houses give me the willies with their shuttered eyes and walls and doors; they’re too housey. I put it out of me mind and set to work. True to our agreement, the grown folks stayed in their beds and left me good and alone. Good thing, too. I eat when I get nervous.

Before the first of them made a noise the next morning, a baker’s make of cherry clafoutis wrapped in checked muslin waited on the table. I snuck out of the house just as the most tender set up a hungry squall. Lucky for him I’d made extra.

With the eggs gathered and whatever folk do in the mornings done, the folk pa set off to market with the eggs, me luscious clafoutis, and two of his wife’s custard pies. “Have a good day,” I said around me last mouthful.

He nodded, and stepped a little faster on his way.

As usual, he was home after sunset, baskets swinging from his arms and a frown on his face. He settled himself on the first step and sat without a word. I heard a muted tinkle, muffled metal on metal.
What was he waiting for? I cleared me throat and he nearly fell off the step.

“Oh, you are there,” he said.

“Sit on the ground,” I said.

He did. I couldn’t see his face, but he worked the cap in his hands like a folk mum on wash day. “You sold them all?”

“I did.” He opened his cap, pulled out a few coins, held them low so I could see. “Five silver and three half-coppers. Your share.”

“What about your wife’s pies?”

His hands drooped, but he didn’t let go of the coins. “Still have them both. Everyone wanted more of your tart things.” He lifted the corner of the cloth over one basket. “I don’t even think I can get the goats to eat these.”

I wouldn’t want to eat the goat that ate her pies. “Too bad.”

He presented the coins a second time.

“Keep them for now,” I said. “You’ll be needing them for market tomorrow.”

“All of them?”

He sounded somehow wistful, and that’s when I was certain.

“We’ll work something out,” I said.

We started small, a few popovers here, a pile of raisin tarts there, on the folk holidays sugar buns stuffed with goat cheese and apricots. I added slugs and potash to me sugar buns, an acquired taste, I know. On the days he came home with empty baskets, I let him keep two silver coins and I buried the rest in a hole at the back of the porch. The kids soon had new shoes, and the oldest kid a red ribbon for her hair.

A baby goat went missing the night the folk pa counted out me hundredth piece of silver. No idea how that happened. Quite tasty with a toe jam glaze, though.

Like a good bridge, good business needed a strong foundation; the folk pa bought the fixings at market, and I did the cooking.

“We’re bringing in enough that I put silver down on Ha’penny Jack’s old stall today,” he said one evening from his place at the front step. “I’m moving over tomorrow. It’s big enough for a stool if I want, maybe even a second body if business keeps up. Midge thinks it’s a good idea.”

I wasn’t in the mood to be happy for his larger stall. The rash was bad enough I had taken to staying on me back, and now the tip of me nose was sunburned from poking up through the porch slats. “Fine.”
“You all right?”

“Just spiffy.”

“No harm. Just asking.”

I thunk about ways to rub me belly against the porch without catching me pelt in the cracks. What he thunk about, I hadn’t a clue or care.

The sun was an orange memory when the folk pa said, “There is one thing, um. . .Heh, I don’t even know your name.”

“Of course you don’t,” I said as testy as I pleased. “Trolls don’t tell folks their names because folks with magic can do nasty things with them.”

“Oh. I didn’t know. What, um, what do I call you? ‘Ginormous troll under the porch’ is a bit awkward.”
I huffed. “Call me Troll.”

“Troll. Makes sense. I’m Sando Loggerson.” He waited, shifted his feet, kicked up dust when I didn’t want to sneeze. I let him wait.

“So, Troll. Midge and I were talking last night before you came in, and she wondered.”

“Wondered what?”

“Well, if you could maybe share a few of your recipes.”

There wasn’t room to roll me eyes, either.

One late summer evening while I sat under the moon scratching and fretting on how me plans were taking longer than I thunk they should, Edfart and Fuddleswort surprised me with a visit. I don’t get many visitors; don’t really have a place for entertaining. Still, I set out some field greens with scabby bits and a light vinaigrette. Only the best for friends, I say.

I couldn’t make tails or nosehairs of me troubles, so I settled those two down and told the whole story.

Fuddleswort nodded, and picked his nose to garnish his salad. “Told you you should have looked for a gulley bridge.”

“I don’t want a gulley bridge,” I said back.

“Says the troll with porch rash.” He sniffed and went on eating.

“Why not’s just eats the folk and make a bridge of their house?” Edfart said, picking scabby bits from between his teeth and sucking his finger clean.

Even the thought made me shiver. “Don’t like houses, not at all.”

“Don’t got to keep it a house. Knock out the walls, leave the roof, and you gots yourself a bridge. Easy as mud pie.”

Now, there was a thunk. I rolled it over between me horns. “No, still too housey. It’s a bridge or nothin’ for me.”

Edfart gobbled up the rest of his greens. “Suit yourself.” He stood and headed for the house.

Just like Edfart to not listen. “I said I wouldn’t be knocking out the walls.”

He waved at me over his shoulder. “I heard you. I’m still hungry is all.”

Fuddleswort stood – “Now there’s an idea.” – and followed after.

“Hold on now.” I came up and hurried right behind. “You can’t be doin’ that.”

Edfart rubbed his belly. “The salad was nice, but no ways a meal for a growing troll.”

Fuddleswort smacked his dead-fish lips. “Yeah. You said they gots an oven. We could whip up a crust and make pasties.”

Human pasties with capers and fennel. Yeah. Almost as good as a braise.

Wait. No.

Quick like, I got ahead put out me arms. “There’ll be no eatin’ of the folks, understand?”

“No worries, there’s plenty for us all.” Edfart made to step around me, and I stepped with him. He frowned, and glowied his eyes. “Come on.”

I stood up straight, head and horns above either of them. “They’re my folks, and I says no eatin.”
“Like he said, there’s plenty to go around.” Fuddleswort wiped the drool off his chin. “Seeing’s as you’re the host, you get the first pick.”

They made to go around on both sides. I grabbed a horn on each and shook them up good. “When I says no eatin’, I mean NO E – eatin’.”

I couldn’t give a proper roar or I’d wake the folk, so I choked it off quick.

“Oi!” Edfart grabbed my wrist and tried to pull free. I held on troll tight. “Didn’t your mother teach you no manners? It’s rude not to share.”

“Yeah.” Fuddleswort waggled his head, but didn’t do no better. “What’s all this?”

Yeah. What was all this? It wasn’t like I didn’t have a taste for the most tender, or even the older folk sometimes. So why wasn’t I letting them have a sit down with me?

Maybe because I wanted the folk all to meself. Or could be I’d come to like having the folk around. Possibly. Sort of. A little.

I shook those two until their eyes rattled in their sockets. “They’re my folk and I can do with them what I please, and what I please is no eatin’. Got that?”

I slammed their heads together like pig iron bells and dragged them back to the stream.

I dropped them down, and settled myself between them and the folk’s house. Now and again Fuddleswort would look to the house, or Edfart would make to stand, and I’d glowy me eyes at them until they settled back down.

Finally, Edfart pulled up more greens and rubbed them around the inside of the salad bowl. He stuffed the whole scabby wad in his mouth and muttered around the stems.

I made like to reach for one of his horns. “What was that again?”

He swallowed the mouthful and hunched his head to his shoulders. “I said leave it to a florist to get all flowery soft.”

“That’s ri – ” Me thinking came back and dropped the last piece into place light as a rose petal. Flowers? Flowers!

I grabbed Edfart by both horns and kissed the end of his warty nose. “Edfart, you’re a genius!”
He wiped off the slobber. “Wait. What?”

“Flowers! Don’t you sees? I got so tangled up in thinking folks would pay for good food, I never thought they might pay for good flowers.”

Fuddleswort scratched the side of his head. “Do they pay before or after they wipe?” He covered his face with his hands. “Don’t kiss me!”

Straight away I had Sando bring me flowers whenever he could. I used up the folks’ pitchers and jars until he could bring home proper vases. While sweet and savory memories of me mudder filled the creepy house, I used dried moss and earwax as a base for me arrangements. Balance, proportion, color, and earwax. Lots of earwax.

Sando took me creations to market, and most often they sold better than me bakings. Business was good, as much as nine silver some days. The grown folk talked of finding a house in the city for the family, and a proper bridge for me. I sent me mudder a scroll with the good news. She sent me back a phbtbtbtbtbt, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Fuddleswort and Edfart were dumbfounded.

“What’s all this about?” Fuddleswort said one mid-winter night as I handed him an arrangement of holly berry and ivy. The snow made his bridge look less rickety, more bridgety.

“I made it meself,” I said, proud and a bit self-conscious. I was going places but still lived under the porch.

Edfart gave me a long sniff. “You smell like. . .pansies!”

“Hothouse sweet peas, actually.”

Fuddleswort held up the basket and looked it over. “What do I do with it?”

Edfart picked at a leaf. “I think it’s a salad.”

I slapped him upside the horns. “No, it’s not a salad. You put it somewhere nice to look at it. Here.” I took the arrangement from Fuddleswort and looked for a place where it wouldn’t get stepped on or lost in the snow. No good. I looked at the soffits under the bridge, and then to Edfart. “Behind you! A dragon!”

Edfart whirled around. “Where?”

I yanked out one of his back hairs, and wrapped one end around the basket handle. I bent the other end into a hook, considered me options, and hung it as close to the middle of the stretch as I could. I stepped back. “There.”

Edfart rubbed his back. “I still say salad.”

Fuddleswort stared at the bit of color hanging in the middle of the snow and dark. “I dunno. Brightens the place up a bit, don’cha think?”

During spring and such, extra flowers and greenery were kept fresh in a bucket wedged between two rocks in the stream. At the end of every market six-day, I made an arrangement out of what was left for the plank table to make the folk house seem less housey. I didn’t give the arrangements much thought after the fact until the night Sando and Midge came into the kitchen.

Mulberries are a favorite summer treat, me mudder’s mulberry and frog kidney pie in particular. Fresh out of frog kidneys, I can’t eat just one, I’d decided on mulberry pasties for market. In the middle of spooning out the next bit of filling, I heard a step and a low gasp behind me. I whirled around in a splatter of mulberry syrup.

Sando and Midge stood at the door to the loft stair, he shamefaced, she wide-eyed. “She said she would come down with or without me, so. . .” Sando hitched a shoulder and smiled as best he could.
A hand on her elbow, he led her to the plank table where I worked.

The spoon dripped in time with their steps. I licked it, and stuck it behind me ear. “Mind the mess,” I said. Some part of me noticed that she didn’t have the most tender with her, the rest of me was too surprised to care. Sando went to market, but he never did anything without her approval. She could end it all right here and I’d have to live under a porch foreverer. I’d be nothing but rash and stinky soup.

They stopped at the corner of the table. “Troll, this is my wife Midge,” Sando said, gesturing to us both. “Midge, this is Troll.”

Such a small woman; no wonder her step was so light.

Midge looked up, up, up at me. “You really are big, aren’t you?”

I shook me head, the spoon knocking against a horn not as loud as me knocking knees. “Not so much. You’re just short.”

I smiled. She paled. I stopped smiling.

Sando put his arm around her. “What he means is -”

Midge shushed him with a look and a wave of her hand. She pushed the bowl of mulberries and trays of dough circles aside, and climbed onto the table. Her robe and shift bunched up around her twig legs, not that she seemed to notice but Sando did. As he pulled her clothes stuff back down, he flushed and gave me a sidelong look. Folks is the craziest people sometimes.

Midge brushed Sando’s hands away, took two steps towards me, and looked me right in the throat. In fits and starts, she reached up and took me horns in her tiny folk hands. I let her pull me head down until we were eye-to-eye. Right to say that at that moment I’d have rather gone to live with the ghosts.

“Thank you for the lovely flowers,” she said, and kissed me on the peeling tip of me nose. “Tomorrow I’ll mix-up an oatmeal rub for that rash.”

I’m a troll. I don’t believe in happy endings, but comfortable ones aren’t so bad.
The city council approved Sando’s petition for a house, and he set to building. The family moved before the autumn rains. This new house has a room specifically for cooking. Another room; I’m not certain I like it.

Sando did something he calls hired to a kid, and now the kid minds the shop when Sando has other business. Sando’s oldest kid seems quite taken with him. No idea what she sees in him, though; folks aren’t much for looks. Midge helps me with bakings, and almost never burns things anymore. The younger kids love to take their friends across town to feed the ducks, particularly if they know I’m home.
Home. I’m a city troll now, and I have a city troll bridge. I’d paid another visit to the gray beard. He reached for me to show me what for, and I hit him over the head with me bag of silver. All them coins scattered out, and his eyes glowied right up. Said he wanted something smaller, less cluttered. I directed him to Sando’s porch.

The overpass is more than enough for one troll, and comfortable for three. I call the main arch me own, and Fuddleswort has the east arch near the stables. Edfart likes his span bridge over Lockjaw Gorge too much to move. Me mudder is coming to visit this summer, and I wonder if she wouldn’t fancy a place in the city, with rabbits and kids and squirrels fresh for the pot.

Yeah, maybe I should have listened to me mudder, but if I had I wouldn’t have such splendid flowerboxes under a bridge I can call me own.