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 Levi 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

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.”

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 83: The Dictionary’s Apprentice

Show Notes

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

The Dictionary’s Apprentice

by Sandra M. Odell

The narrow streets of Gretchentown echoed with barking dogs and late evening front stoop conversations as Johnny-J made his way to the rally grounds. He circled twice to be certain no one saw him before hurrying to the burn piles. The air was bitter with sulfur and char. He breathed in through his mouth.

So little remained of the day. He hadn’t been allowed to stand with the adults in the front row at the purity rally, but had seen enough of the burn selection as it was brought in to regret looking. Johnny-J salvaged what he could of the Lessonkeepers’ fervor: a woman’s startled profile; a sooty hand clutching a rifle; a bouquet of once pink roses. Tucking the pieces inside his shirt, Johnny-J hurried back the way he came, avoiding the stern bulk of the Elder Hall on his way to the tarpaper-roofed shack beyond the west cistern. Breath came easier away from the killing grounds.

The shack hunched still in the night, its single window dark, the rope door handle pulled in for the night. Johnny-J knocked softly on the plank door, looking back the way he came, certain that he’d been followed, if not this time then the next. He knocked again. “Friedrick?”

Shuffled steps sounded within. “Go away.” Gruff words, filled with suspicion. “It’s almost curfew.”

“Open up, Friedrick. It’s me.” Johnny-J shifted nervously from foot to foot. “T’was brillig, and the slithy toves.”

The door opened wide enough to reveal a head crowned with tufts of pale hair. Shadows tangled in the wrinkles around the nose and mouth. “Get inside, boy,” Friedrick Mullhouse said as he peered into the night. “Quickly now.”

“I can’t. I have to get back before curfew or Papae will beat me good. Here.” Johnny-J pulled the singed remnants of covers and pages from under his shirt and pushed them at the old man. “I gotta go.”

Friedrick dared a look at the treasure in his hands. “Good boy. Get off home, then.”

A bucket of water pulled from the cistern to wash his face and hands, and Johnny-J was home abed as the tolling of the curfew bell declared the official start of night, Papae none the wiser. He curled on his side as he scoured the memory of brittle paper from his hands with the hem of his nightshirt, hoping sleep would scrub away the memory of the burn piles.

“Eighty-three books. Can you believe that?” Mamae tsked her disapproval as she brought a bowl of steaming porridge to the table. “Carol June said the Elders are calling for Henry Kitcham to pay a twenty dollar fine, maybe even recant in public.” She settled herself on the bench beside her husband, tucking her skirt and apron under her legs.

“Mmm.” Papae did not lift his shaved head from his plate, shoveling spoonfuls of sausage hash into his mouth. He swallowed, wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his field shirt, and spooned the cereal into his bowl, crumbling a thick slice of bacon on top.

“Serves him right.” Mamae served up her own porridge and hash. “Henry always did have too much sense, an’ none of it good. A man like that is nothin’ but trouble. Dangerous.”

Across the table, Johnny-J gobbled hash until his cheeks bulged. “Muh ah buh. . .” He managed a few sips of water to ease the swallow. “May I be excused?”

“People should know better, is what I say. Sure you don’t want a biscuit, John Junior?”

Johnny-J finished his water and licked the back of his spoon. “I’m full.”

“All right, then,” Mamae said. “You’re excused. Put your things in the bucket.”

Johnny-J scraped his plate and dropped his eatingware in the soap bucket when Papae looked up from his plate. “You come straight back from the lessonhouse, you hear me?”

Johnny-J hooked his thumbs around his suspenders. “Yessir.”

“Get on, then.” Papae went back to eating.

“Don’t forget your lunch biscuit, John Junior,” Mamae added.

“Yes’m.” Johnny-J paused long enough to stuff the paper wrapped biscuit into his pants pocket and not a moment more, eager to be finished with his lessons so he could spend time with Friedrick.

“Can you save them?” Johnny-J absently rocked back and forth on the uneven stool. Tock-thump, tock-thump, tock-thump.

Outside, sensible folk chopped wood, took in the wash, stacked and set bricks. The distant rumble of the mill curled beneath the muted insistence of dogs herding sheep, and geese challenging passers-by. Inside, Friedrick carefully wedged a sliver of wood between fused pages. “Sadly, no,” he said, and sighed. “The Lessonkeepers are not so thorough as they might think, but certainly more than thorough enough for my tastes.”

The back room of Friedrick’s shack kept to itself, a dictionary’s haven with no windows to invite prying eyes, a single door closing it away from the homey clutter of the front room. Here, everything had its place: neatly folded blankets at the foot of the cot; the comb and razor by the basin on the washstand; the worktable an antique with collapsible legs rescued from a scrap pile years ago and touched up with gray paint. Johnny-J liked the backroom though it frightened him some days, not the room itself he supposed, but what might happen if the sensible folk of Gretchentown caught them in the act of salvage.

He propped his elbows on the table and leaned in for a closer look at the orphan pages. “What were they about?”

“Are, boy, are. The words still exist, so the stories live on even if we’ve no idea what they are. Never forget that.”


The old man picked up the cover remnant with a woman in a kerchief looking nervously over her shoulder, and a smudged $1.95 US/$2 in the bottom left corner. “This one appears to be a romance.”

Johnny-J squinted at the picture in the dim light. “She looks frightened.”

Friedrick carefully sorted through the pages. “I read something about an uncle and an inheritance, but I can’t recall what page. Bother. Anyway, this one may be a book of poetry.” He motioned to the singed bouquet. “You remember what poetry is, right?”

Johnny-J nodded. “Rhyming verse, like songs you don’t sing.”

Friedrick smiled. “Very good, but remember not every poem rhymes. And this one is a story of a war in the stars.”

Johnny-J touched the third ruined cover, smearing the soot over the rifle. “It sorta looks like one of the Lessonkeepers’ guns.”

“I suppose, although this one was never used to shoot a dissenter.”

“What’s a dis-center?”

“Someone with the gall to think for themselves. Here now, Johnny-J, help me catalogue the pages so we can put ’em in the stock.”

Together they arranged the remnants, stopping now and again to read a stray passage and wonder what came next. Johnny-J used the stub of an art stick sharpened to a point with his pocketknife to record the first and last line of every page in a hand-stitched butcher paper book.

Friedrick carefully tied each remnant bundle with a strand of twine. “Check out front to make certain the coast is clear,” he said as Johnny-J slipped his finger from the final knot.

Johnny-J went to the front room, and peered out the window for a full sixty count before signaling all clear. Together they stepped outside and headed to the root cellar at the back of the shack. Johnny-J slid the weathered peg out of the brace, shouldered open the door. Friedrick stepped down first, passing the fragile bundles up to better manage the five narrow rungs of the ladder and taking them back at the bottom. Johnny-J followed.

The earthy cool of the cellar traced pinprick kisses over his cheeks. Arranged in low bins against the walls, potatoes, turnips, and cabbages promised plenty for the coming winter.

Friedrick set the books on the corner of the cabbage bin. “Help me with this.”

Johnny-J propped the cellar door open with the peg before scooting to the old man’s side. With a grunt and a bit of muscle, they pushed the bin out of the way to reveal a rabbit hole shored up with discolored planks. Friedrick wriggled through feet first; moments later light shone from below. Johnny-J looked down at Friedrick looking up at him. The yellow light of a crank lantern made a halo of the dictionary’s white hair. “Come along, we don’t have all afternoon.”

Only after securing the cellar door from within did Johnny-J follow Friedrick down the rabbit hole. Wattle and daub fortified the walls of the room at the bottom, as long as the shack was wide, and as wide as three men lying head to toe. Wooden shelves crafted with love rather than skill overflowed with contraband: thick or thin; paper, cardboard, or scuffed leather covers; fact or fiction. A sanctuary of the printed word.

Johnny-J stepped carefully as he threaded his way through the room arranged without an inch of wasted space. What couldn’t be fit on end on a shelf was stuffed into the spare inches between book top and the shelf above. Other selections were sorted into stacks precisely spaced to allow a careful body to walk between them. Two wooden crates at the far end of the room served as the final resting place of tomes that had suffered at the hands of the Lessonkeepers and other like-minded, sensible folk.

Johnny-J could look at the books and not help wondering about the people who braved history to write them. Did George Orwell like braised cabbage? Were Harlan Ellison and J. T. Ellison family? Did George Eliot’s wife read his stories? Did Elma Patrick have a book in Queen Alexandria’s library? Did any of them know how to milk a cow?

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, savoring the smell of paper, age, and earth, imagining his name embossed in gold on the leather spine of a book, his book. He opened his eyes to lantern light and the forbidden. Friedrick often said it was easy to dream, but the sleeper must awaken to make it real.

They laid the bundles to rest, cushioned by woodchips and curls of red cedar. Friedrick sealed the crate and settled himself on the lid. “Three more saved from the fires of Hell, kinda like the old time revivals only we don’t dare praise the glory.”

Johnny-J pulled his favorite book from the press of the shelfe, opened it to the first page of the story. “My Father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire;” – He gave every syllable his full attention as his finger traced his progress. – “I was the Third of five Sons.”

“Aren’t they delicious, boy?” Friedrick said. “Jonathan Swift was a genius back in the day when the word was not criminal.”

Johnny-J flipped slowly through the pages, taking care not to tear or crease the yellowed paper. “I don’t understand all of it, but I like it.”

“You will in time, boy. Why, you couldn’t even read when you first started coming ’round, remember?”

Johnny-J ducked his head. “Yeah. I couldn’t write neither. I was kind of stupid, huh?”

“Tch. You’d never had the opportunity, boy. Stupidity is thinking you shouldn’t read or write in the first place.”

“I like writing. It feels someways good to see the words I want to say.” Johnny-J wedged the book back into place and continued to peruse the shelves, brushing his fingers against the spines, saying hello to his secret friends. “I wish I could’ve saved more of Henry Kitcham’s books. I bet he had some you didn’t even have, huh?”

“Probably, but I doubt he took the time to read them.”

Johnny-J tried to imagine the dour grocer following Gulliver’s adventures or learning how to groom cocker spaniels, and couldn’t. “I would’ve read them if they were mine. Maybe even written a couple, too.”

Friedrick chewed on the ends of his mustache. “Henry doesn’t have a dictionary’s love of books. He doesn’t care about preserving books so others might read ’em someday. To him, they’re trophies, something to covet because the Lessonkeepers say they’re forbidden. He once offered me two hams, a case of sardines, and ten pounds of flour for twenty magazines or five books.”

Johnny-J’s gut clenched at the thought of Jonathan Swift put to the torch. “And you said no, right?”

“Of course I did.” Friedrick spread his arms wide. “These are my fosterlings, my children. How could I part with even one of them?”

“The written word is a beautiful thing,” the old man continued, leaning into the subject, “and powerful, very powerful. Two men can read the same passage and interpret it as they like, but the words are the same. The Lessonkeepers, well, they don’t like that. Words aren’t for imagining, or debating. Words are for saying over and over so you keep the right lessons in mind.”

Johnny-J took his time with the familiar challenge, trying to catch Friedrick by surprise. “But you don’t always gotta agree with what’s said. You can call a person out.”

“Answer me this.” Friedrick gave a tight-lipped smile. “When’s the last time you heard someone call out a Lessonkeeper, hmmm?”

Johnny-J dropped his gaze. “Oh.”

“The Lessonkeepers have told folks right from wrong for so long, folks think it’s the only way of being. It’s been that way for a sad, long time. My grampae told me secret stories of what it was like in his grampae’s day, when safe didn’t mean one way of thinking. You and me, we’re not like everyone else, Johnny-J, because we aren’t afraid to make our own choices. I’m proud of it. Proud of you, boy.”

Friedrick tapped the side of his nose with a knobby finger. “That’s why we need the written word. You don’t agree with what was said, that’s your business. If you think what he’s said should be heard by others, whether you agree or not, you put the fellow’s words in writing and give them to someone else. They can choose their own mind about what was said and what they think was meant even if they weren’t there to hear the words spoke.”

Johnny-J scrunched up his face as he chased a question. “What’s to keep you from writing something that isn’t true?”

“Writing something not true is fiction. People never wrote anything untrue about life because they’d be called out for a fool if they were found out.”

Friedrick scooted to the edge of the crate and stood, rubbing his knees as he did. “That’s the magic of the written word, not that the words themselves are bad, but what they represent to folks. Remember that, boy.”

Johnny-J nodded. “Yessir.”

Together they secured the hide-away, moved up to the root cellar, and after a cautious look about, returned to the world where book was a four-letter word. Johnny-J never understood why Friedrick said it, but he smiled all the same.

“You told your mae you were out picking ‘shrooms for the afternoon?”


“I think I have some pine ‘shrooms and hedgehogs for your basket so you don’t go back empty handed. C’mon inside.”

Johnny-J stood by the front door, full basket in hand, waiting for Friedrick to give the clear, when he caught another question by the tail. “Why would I write down what someone says when most folks don’t know how to read anymore?”

By the window, Friedrick dropped his head with the hem of the curtain. Johnny-J was about to repeat the question when the old man turned to him with a smile and eyes teary bright. “So someday your apprentice won’t have reason to ask the same thing. Get along now before your mae starts to worry, Johnny-J.”

“The foreman’s cat is a clumsy cat.”

“The foreman’s cat is a terrible cat.”

“The foreman’s cat is a schrödinger cat.”

Patsy Henridge stopped mid-step on the log, teetered, and caught herself before falling into the stream. “What’s shrow-dinger?”

Johnny-J squatted to pick up a rock in an attempt to hide the color coming to his cheeks. “I dunno. A word.”

“Well, what kind of word?” Patsy skipped the last two steps across the log and joined him by the creek’s edge.

Johnny-J didn’t pay attention to her brown curls, her blue dress, her eyes the prettiest green he had ever seen. He threw the rock under the log, wishing he could turn back the conversation as easily as turned a page. “I think it means bird eating.”

“Oh.” Patsy daintily chose her own rock. “I’ve never heard Papae use it.”

He certainly didn’t want to talk about Patsy’s father. Gerald Henridge was known far and wide for keeping his lessons well. He lightly slapped her shoulder – “Tag! You’re it.” – and sprinted up the hill.

“What? Hey!”

Johnny-J ran from Patsy and the conversation, perhaps the conversation the most because he liked having Patsy around. If he were 13-years-old he would ask for permission to court her, but today he was 12 and wanted nothing more than to lead Patsy on a merry chase, hoping she forgot all about cats, schrödingers, and anything else that may have slipped his tongue. Chase and tag and laugh past the east cistern and around the washhouse with its steamy ash and lye breath.

And it came to an end as they rounded the back of the mill to find a work crew clearing ash from the rally grounds.

Four men shoveled sooty remnants into wheelbarrows, their sleeves rolled up in hearty disregard of the afternoon chill. Nearby, a young Lessonkeeper watched and talked and laughed with them.

Johnny-J slowed and stopped at the crusty black edge of the rally grounds. “They’re cleaning up.” Thick, sour feelings snuck up the back of his throat. He swallowed as best he could.

Patsy moved to his side. “Yeah. Hey, Roger,” she called out, waving to the men. “Are we fixing to have a town gather or another purity rally?”

The Lessonkeeper looked her way with a wave and a smile of his own, his face young and bright above the severe cut of his dark coat. “Can’t say for certain. All I know is your pae said to clear things out.”

“Neaties.” Patsy did a little dance, twirling in one spot until her dress blossomed around her stem-thin legs. “Maybe Earl’ll put up his peanut stand again.”

“I guess,” Johnny-J said.

“Let’s help push the wheelbarrows.”

Johnny-J scuffed at the charnel earth. “Nah. I need to be getting home. I, um, I don’t feel so good.”

Patsy stopped dancing and set her hands on her hips. “Hmm. You do look kind of peaked. C’mon, I’ll go with you.”

Unable to hurry without looking like he hurried, Johnny-J kept his head down and his hands in his pockets as he followed Patsy home. Thoughts he’d rather not think kept pace.

Day and night nodded in passing by the time Johnny-J spied his parents chatting on the front step with a tall drink of water in a Lessonkeeper long coat.

“Papae!” Patsy rushed ahead, and was swept up in the big man’s embrace. “I saw the rally grounds. Are we having another rally? Can I get a bag of peanuts to myself?”

Lessonkeeper Henridge kissed his daughter’s forehead. “Rallies aren’t all about peanuts, Patsy Mae.”

Patsy squirmed until he set her on the ground. “Well, yeah.” She rifled through his pockets. “Where’s my treat?”

Johnny-J sidled up to his mother.

“You wash out all your color in the crick, Johnny-J?” she said with a quick hug and a kiss.

“He’s not feelin’ good,” Patsy said. “I learned a new word today, Papae. Shrow-dinger.”

Johnny-J’s stomach dropped into his boots. He smelled wood smoke and heard the eager crackle of flames.

“Really?” her father said. “What’s a shrow-dinger?”

“It means bird eating. Johnny-J said so.”

“Did he now.” Lessonkeeper Henridge looked to Johnny-J with a sensible smile. “Where’d you come by that, Johnny-J?”

“Heard it somewhere I guess, sir,” Johnny-J said, hoping his voice didn’t shake too much. “I can’t really remember where.”

“Shrow-dinger, huh?” Papae spit a stream of tobacco juice over the side of the step. “I’ve never heard it before.”

“Neither have I.” The Lessonkeeper looked down his long nose at Johnny-J in the crook of his mother’s arm. “That’s some vocabulary you have there, son.”

Johnny-J mumbled something near to a thank-you, and did not raise his eyes.

Certain Lessonkeeper Henridge waited just outside his window with a torch and a switch, Johnny-J kept home the next two nights. He wasn’t chicken, but afraid all the same.

He spent the next two days working shoulder to shoulder with the folk of Gretchentown to bale the last of the season’s bedding hay before the rains rolled in from the Olympia Mountains in earnest. Johnny-J worried his hands to blisters at the rake, and endured his mother’s gentle pestering as she drained the fluid and bound them with bandages each night. Lessonkeeper Henridge did not join them. The rally grounds were very clean.

Afraid the rains wouldn’t come soon enough to extinguish his fears, Johnny-J snuck out well after curfew on the third night, avoiding the post lights where he could, moving quickly where he couldn’t. He dreaded the empty expanse between the west cistern and the shack, but made it across without incident. He pounded on the plank door. “Friedrick? Slithy toves, Friedrick. Please.”

Only the faintest light dared the gaping slats in the shutters. There came a muffled bump and crash and then quick steps inside. The door opened, and a bony hand took Johnny-J by the shoulder and pulled him inside.

An oil lamp on a table by a pile of torn blankets cast the room in a sickly light. The bite of kerosene and cedar shavings made Johnny-J’s nose run.

Friedrick smiled, thin-lipped and hurried. “I was hoping to see you again. You have your coat. Good. We don’t have much time.”

He led Johnny-J into the backroom. The worktable lay in a jumble of pieces at the foot of the cot. A scattering of paper and twin extended from the cloth pile in the front room to the wood scrap in back. Set on top of a the feathered remains of a pillow, books spilled out of a black oilcloth satchel in the center of the cot.

Johnny-J’s palms began to sweat. “What happened in here?”

“Never you mind.” Friedrick hurried to the cot where he continued to pack the satchel. “Now, you listen and you listen good, Johnny-J. This has most everything you’ll need –”

“Need for what? I think Lessonkeeper Henridge knows, Friedrick. I accidentally told Patsy about the schrödinger cat, and I’m sorry, and –”

“That as may be, boy, but I’m thinking it wasn’t entirely your fault. I wager it was Henry Kitcham that set them on my trail to keep from being fined. Henry never could bear to part with a dollar.” Friedrick crammed the last book inside and flipped the top closed. “Lessonkeeper Henridge came by earlier this evening, but he won’t be put off for long. I expect they’ll be coming to call any time now. Help me with the ties.”

Johnny-J managed the ties with shaking hands while Friedrick held the satchel closed. “He did? What are we gonna do?”

“We aren’t going to do a thing. You are going to do as I say.” Friedrick hoisted the satchel over Johnny-J’s neck and settled the weight on the young man’s shoulders. “I want you to run as far as you can. East and then south, you hear me?”

“But –”

“No buts. You keep running and don’t look back. Your mae and pae will be fine once you’re away, I wager. I packed jerky and cheese and some tack. It will have to do you.” He pushed Johnny-J out of the backroom as he spoke, keeping the door open behind them. “You’re a smart boy. You’ll get by. Here, take my hat.”

The unknown loomed dark and terrible, but the certainty settled cold in Johnny-J’s bones. “But the books –”

Friedrick stopped by the oil lamp. “I packed the ones in real need of saving, Johnny-J. The rest, well, I’ve done what I can.” He coughed and wiped his eyes. “You’ll find tinkertowns on past the Columbus River. Mind your P’s and Q’s and they should take you in if it turns too cold. After that, there should be a man far south in the town of Redville, William Plummery. You find him, tell him I sent you, and he’ll put you up. He’s a good sort, a dictionary with an honest love of books. If he’s not there, you turn east and head for the old Colorado. You should be able to find –”

A knock sounded at the door and a pleasant, sensible voice. “Friedrick Mullhouse.”

Johnny-J jumped at the sound.

“Now, boy, we’ll have none of that.” Friedrick closed his eyes and took Johnny-J by the hand. He murmured something under his breath, tremulously, tenderly, the final words: “. . .mortis nostrae. Amen.”

Johnny-J opened his mouth to ask what the words meant, and found he had no voice.

Friedrick opened his eyes and looked at him. “I’m proud of you, boy,” the dictionary said. He walked to the door and opened it to the night. “Come in, Lessonkeeper.”

Lessonkeeper Henridge removed his hat and stooped to cross the threshold. “Evening, Friedrick. Johnny-J.” Two Lessonkeepers with guns and crank lanterns stood outside the door.

Johnny-J swallowed twice before he managed: “Sir.”

“What brings you to call this late, Gerald?”

“Nothing in particular, Friedrick. I thought I’d stay on a bit and maybe you could show me around.”

Johnny-J wondered at the exchange. Friedrick sounded almost happy, Lessonkeeper Henridge genial and calm.

Friedrick chuckled as he moved back to the oil lamp. “Now, Gerald, you know I can’t do that.”

The Lessonkeeper sighed. “Sure you can, Friedrick. Think of it as being neighborly.”

“I wish I could, Gerald, but there hasn’t been a neighborly bone in your body since they fit your first jacket.”

Lessonkeeper Henridge frowned and ran a hand through his thin brown hair. “You know it’s what’s best for everyone. We can’t have books and the like cluttering up people’s thoughts like they did before the crumble.”

Friedrick straightened and put his chin up. “I’m sure Mister Swift would not ken to your version of neighborly.”

Johnny-J gripped the satchel strap, his heart pounding in his chest. The Lessonkeepers outside spoke softly to one another, shaking their heads.

“It’s thoughts like those that tore us down, and owning up to it which lifts us up again.” Lessonkeeper Henridge nodded towards Johnny-J. “Be reasonable, Friedrick, for the boy’s sake if nothing else. Let’s set a good example.”

At that Friedrick laughed full and low in his belly, laughed and shook his head and looked Johnny-J in the eye. “Of course. For the boy.” He grabbed the oil lamp and threw it against the wall. “Run!” The word exploded with the glass.

Too fast, the oil scorched a blue trail down the wall to the pile of scrap remnants; the soaked cloth drank up the flame and spit it out again hot and hungry, and Johnny-J ran. Lessonkeeper Henridge called for him to stop. The Lessonkeepers outside the door reached for him. He ducked under their arms and dashed around the house.

The night air burned with every breath, burned like the fire in the tiny shack with the tarpaper roof. Johnny-J heard the crack of a shot fired in the night and a voice ordering men to hold their fire. He ran faster than the footsteps chasing him in the dark, never once looking back no matter how bright the night became.

The rains came in the early morning hours. Johnny-J huddled beneath his sodden sanctuary of leaves and cedar boughs for as long as he could before crawling out to do his business.

Bird calls and the scratch and scavenge of small animals in the brush accented the forest quiet. A strip of jerky and half a piece of tack made for a lean breakfast. Johnny-J sat with his back to a tree and tried not to think about the night before as he worked crumbs of tack against the roof of his mouth to soften them up. He licked water from the cedar to wet his mouth.

When he couldn’t not think about it any longer, he brought the satchel around and opened it. He had his butcher paper book, four small art sticks, and a paper-wrapped packet of food. He said hello to Jonathan Swift, Herman Melville, Dr. Seuss, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Plato, Robert Heinlein, Danielle Steel and others from the rabbit hole library. Ray Bradbury waited for him at the bottom, the first one Friedrick had packed away. Johnny-J put that one back without opening it.

His life now fit into a single satchel. He thought about Mae and Pae, and Patsy. He thought about Friedrick, and fire. Instead of crying, he sharpened one of the art sticks with his pocketknife and found a clean page in his book.

He searched the sky through the drooping branches overhead before daring to make a mark on the page. Finally, in a blocky, precise script he wrote Call me

Johnny-J considered the third word, wrote it in, scratched it out. After a moment’s thought, the young dictionary tore out the page and stuffed it in his coat pocket before starting once again on a clean sheet.

Call me Johnny-J.