Posts Tagged ‘Winter Holidays’

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Cast of Wonders 336: Little Wonders 19 – Bittersweet Christmas

The Night Before Never

by Gerri Leen

Kris Kringle moved silently through the workshop, making sure nothing had been forgotten by the elves. Normally, they’d be starting their post-toy-making-frenzy party, but this year the group was more subdued, the carols on low, with no one making merry or wearing lampshades.

Kris sighed and lifted his hand in a wave as he passed the break room, but he didn’t go in.

Inventory.  Yes, inventory would take his mind in the direction it needed to go.

Toys?  Check.

Lumps of coal?  Check.

He peeked out the window.  Elves hooking up the reindeer?  Check.

Reindeer fat—but not too fat, they did have to fly—and happy?  Check.

Rudolph’s nose at full power?  Check.

As Kris moved from the workshop to the adjoining kitchen, he sniffed.  Apple pie baking, ready to eat when he got home?

No. (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 282: Dreidel Of Dread: The Very Cthulhu Chanukah

Dreidel Of Dread: The Very Cthulhu Chanukah

by Alex Shvartsman

Twas the night before Chanukah, and all through the planet, not a creature was stirring except for the Elder God Cthulhu who was waking up from his eons-long slumber. And as the terrible creature awakened in the city of R’lyeh, deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, and wiped drool from his face-tentacles, all the usual signs heralded the upcoming apocalypse in the outside world: mass hysteria, cats and dogs living together, and cable repairmen arriving to their appointments within the designated three-hour window.

“This will not do,” said Chanukah Henry. “I will not have the world ending on my watch, not during the Festival of Lights.” (Continue Reading…)


Episode 225: Little Wonders 9 – Comfort Food

The Four Stewpots

by D. K. Thompson


Review: The Four Stewpots

by Darcy E. (14 friends, 27 reviews) 1 star out of 5


I’ve been coming to uptown for the past year since getting a new job and moving to Whittier, and somehow had never seen The Four Stewpots before. I’m actually not a stew fan. I like my food fresh. Soup is okay, some days. Stew? Bleh. It’s been sitting for ages – this place actually suggests one pot they have is a thousand years old. Bon Apetit? But my daughter’s first report card had come home from junior high – she’d done exceptionally well – she wants to be an astronaut, a monster make-up artist, a superhero, a cryptozoologist, or a cartographer of parallel universes – whatever she decides to do she’ll be brilliant, and so as a reward, I let her pick. She saw The Four Stewpots as we were driving down the street, right next to Undercity Comics, and demanded we go there. Again, I do not like stew, but I am a supportive and proud mother who wants to encourage my daughter’s academic achievements, and realize that it isn’t always about me. At least, until it’s time to write the Yelp review.  


It is time to write the Yelp review.

(Continue Reading…)

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Episode 185: Marley and Cratchit by David Steffen

Show Notes

Thanks for listening, and from all of us we wish you the merriest of holidays and a happy new year!

Marley and Cratchit

by David Steffen




In those days Jacob Marley was full of life and vigor.  His smile shone so that anyone who saw him soon smiled widely in return.  A moment in his presence would make one’s worst burdens seem lighter. His optimism and generosity brought out the best in others, catching easily as a torch in dry straw.

(Continue Reading…)

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Episode 184: Wine for Witches, Milk for Saints by Rachael K. Jones

Wine for Witches, Milk for Saints

by Rachael K. Jones


My grandmother would have disapproved of a Tinker in a Father Christmas suit, my customary dress in the children’s hospital each December. She believed no good could come of frivolity in our profession, when a routine procedure could end in tragedy. I saw her point when I found myself delivering bad news in costume to a 7-year-old and her sick friend on Christmas Eve.

Maria wasn’t supposed to be in Lia’s hospital room to begin with. She should have been in the Puppet Ward with her little brother Enzo, who was infected with puppetism. Instead, the two young girls curled up cross-legged on the hospital bed, divvying up sweets I knew Lia shouldn’t eat in her condition. Congenital heart failure didn’t require abstention from sugar, but with her transfer imminent, the Coromancers advised against heavy food, as it could interfere with medical magic.

(Continue Reading…)


Cast of Wonders 150: Little Wonders 7 – The Season of Goodwill

Show Notes

You’re listening to Little Wonders, our thematic flash fiction collections. This week we bring you our final episode for 2014, and lucky number 150 – a pair of stories for the inspired by the Season of Goodwill.

The Secret Ingredient Is

by Emmalia Harrington

Susan stirred the pot of soup, frowning. Hunger was supposed to be the best seasoning, but the jar was empty and there was no time to prepare more. Besides, Great-Aunt would hate it if they served something like that to guests.

Stepping away from the stove, she scanned the shelves yet again. There was salt, garlic, peppercorns, nutmeg, allspice…nothing spoke to her. Rocking back on her heels, she tried to think of what Great-Aunt would do.

The first order of business would be to run to the garden to pull up the biggest, freshest and most colorful vegetables, and see how many eggs she could muster from the quail. Once that was done, Great-Aunt would run to the shopping district to wrangle an excellent price for smoked tea. She would follow this victory by purchasing fish that still smelled of the water, and filling her basket with bread still steaming from the oven.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 110: The Alchemist’s Children by Nathaniel Lee

The Alchemist’s Children

by Nathaniel Lee

Jen’s brother was crazy, and it was her father’s fault.  Jen had only the faintest memories of the man – he’d left when she was still a toddler, so all he was to her was a vague booming voice and a scratchy chin – but Newton’s troubles were clearly the result of their father’s influence.  Their father, the alchemist, who had promised to write every week.

Newt was, even now, locked in his dorm room, attempting to distill Truth in an alembic.  His roommate had called in desperation after the fumes had sent half of the floor into a coughing fit and the other half into a hypnogogic trance in which they spouted strange and terrible prophecies.  Jen had fielded the call in their mother’s absence – she was at the lab, working on synthesizing a promising new polymer – and she recognized the telltale signs of alchemy.

“It’s probably for the best that you got me,” she told Brandon, “since Mom can get quite irrational on the subject.  She told Newt last time that if she ever caught him using anything other than straightforward, conventional science, she’d cut him out of the will.”

“Please!”  Brandon paused and coughed, long and hard.  “You’ve got to make him stop. Becky just walked in with a towel draped over her head and told me the date and time she’s going to break up with me.”

“My condolences,” Jen said politely.

“We’re not even dating!”

“Can you put Newton on?  I’ll see if I can talk him down.”

“He won’t answer the door.”

Jen tucked the receiver under her shoulder and headed for the kitchen.  Mom saved everything, in case it might be useful later. One of the junk drawers had to have her old address book and a lead on Jen’s father.  “Well, hold the phone up to the lock,” Jen said. She rummaged through piles of paper, capless pens, solitary screws, and knives with broken tips.  She heard several thumps, a clatter, and some muffled profanity, then silence. If she strained her ears, she could hear a faint bubbling, like boiling water.  She decided to try her mother’s tactics first.

“Newton!” Jen shouted, thankful she was home alone.  “You stop that meddling with the laws of reality right this instant!”

Jen waited and listened, but heard no response.  She sighed.

“Newt, come on.  It’s Jen. I want to help.  If Mom finds out about this…”

“I don’t care.”  Newt’s voice was tinny and distant, filtered through the keyhole and a hundred miles of fiber optic cable.  “Mom’s never understood me, and I’m done obeying her stupid rules. I’m going to find the Truth. The real Truth.  The one Dad couldn’t teach me because she drove him away.  Don’t try to stop me, because you can’t.”

“You’re being irrational,” Jen said, but Newt had already stopped listening.  That was the problem with being analytical and clear-thinking; even though you were right, you couldn’t get anyone to listen to you.  Mom complained about it all the time.

At the bottom of the final drawer, Jen found a tiny, black notebook.  The clasp had rusted away. Inside, on the very last page, was an address:


Albert Magnus Smith

Beyond the Forest Perilous

Atop Mount Dread

At the Very Ends of the Earth

Apt. 12

NT, X0E 0V0


Jen pursed her lips.  “Canada.”

She knew where the spare keys to the Forrester were.  With any luck, she’d be back before Mom realized she was gone.  With Mom’s schedule and pragmatic priorities (as sole breadwinner, her work, she said, had to come first), Jen probably had a week at least; they communicated almost exclusively through Post-It notes ever since Jen got her license.  She packed herself some peanut butter sandwiches–protein and carbs, good for long trips–and locked the door carefully behind her.

It had started when Newt made the coffee table in the living room disappear.  Mom had been furious.

“It’s furniture varnish,” she’d growled, shaking the can at him.  “With an ‘R’!”

Once he’d known that, of course, Newton was unable to make any other wooden furnishings invisible.  That was how alchemy was; unpredictable and idiosyncratic. Idiopathic, Mom would have said. She hated the way the same formula could result in two different outcomes.  According to Newt, who’d been older when Dad left, their father had tried to explain that everything was subjective, dependent on any of a thousand different whims, from the mood of the practitioner to the historical significance of a given symbol, but Mom would have none of it.  “Whimsy,” she snorted, and left Dad to fix the coffee table. He’d put a tablecloth over it for when company came, and otherwise they just got used to the sight of their drinks and television remotes seemingly floating in midair. Jen hadn’t realized invisible tables were anything odd until she was four or five and Mom warned her not to blab about it while on a playdate at a friend’s house.

Later, when the Diet Coke and Mentos videos went viral, Newt built a jetpack for himself.  Mom had rolled her eyes and muttered something about force and gravity, but even she wasn’t able to entirely hide a smile at Newt zipping through the air above the backyard, turning somersaults and making acrobatic spirals, a wide grin plastered across his sticky, sugar-coated face.  He bottled bee’s knees and the cat’s meow – he’d had to give that back after a stern lecture from Dad – and built a robot out of Legos that worked so well it went feral and attempted to overthrow humanity. It wasn’t very good at it, but every so often, they came downstairs to find the magnetic letters on the refrigerator spelling out “KILL ALL HUM4NS.”  It was when Newt reconstituted the dehydrated pixies from his Pixy Sticks that the other shoe dropped.

Newt was the focus of the conflict, and he still felt responsible for it, but Jen was of the opinion – based mostly on secondhand accounts, admittedly – that the source lay many, many years before Newt was even a possibility.  It might have started before Mom and Dad even met, Jen mused, stretching with her toes to reach the brake pedal.  Even with the seat pushed all the way forward, she wasn’t quite tall enough.  A conflict in potentia from the day they were born as who they were in the places and times they lived.  In the fallout, Dad was gone, Newton was broken, and Mom had become a far-off, glittering iceberg.  The reaction was complete, and all the reagents were reduced to inert mush and powder.

The first part of the journey was uneventful, a series of gas stations, fast food restaurants, and the treacherous hypnosis of flickering white lines on asphalt.  Jen focused on traveling quickly and without wasting time. The trials would come later.

Gradually, the interstate became a highway, the highway became a road, and the road dwindled to two lanes, then one, then a gravel path through the trees, and at last two vague ruts in the grass that petered out to nothing in a small clearing.  Jen climbed down, retrieved her bag of sandwiches and a warm jacket, and set off into the woods, heading north. She was surrounded by the smell of pine needles and snow. For a while, it was as peaceful as the highway had been. Jen’s family didn’t get out in the wilderness much, what with one thing and another.  Mom said it was redundant, since they had everything nature could provide already, but in a refined and improved form. Jen stopped, sat on a rock, and unwrapped her first sandwich, soft and warm from her body heat. She poked at a bit of lichen, feeling it crumble under her fingernails, and she decided she would try to go on a hike for pleasure sometime later.  Sometime when she wasn’t on an urgent mission.

The werewolf was extremely stealthy.  Probably he would have been able to sneak up on her even if she were experienced at woodcraft.  As it was, Jen had no idea he was there until he leapt out at her, slavering and snarling.

“Oh, good.  A werewolf,” Jen said, recovering from her startlement.

The werewolf paused.  “You’re happy to see me?  That’s not what usually happens.”  His voice had teeth in it.

“Probably not.”  Jen offered him half of her sandwich.  “But if you’re here, then that means I’m on the right track.  You are the guardian of the Forest Perilous, yes?”

The werewolf circled the clearing nervously.  “I am hunger and violence. I am a beast in a man’s skin.  My curse separates me, isolates me. The Alchemist allows me to live here in his forest, to run and hunt the deer, to live in peace, as much as a wretch like myself can.  In return, yes, I watch for his enemies and lay in wait for them.”

“Well, no problems there.  I’m not his enemy. I’m his daughter.”  Jen waggled the sandwich invitingly. “You said you were hungry?”

“I am always hungry.  The emptiness gnaws at me from inside.  It is all I can do not to fall upon you and devour you where you sit.  I can smell your blood.” The werewolf crouched, his half-lupine limbs folding awkwardly together.  His nostrils flared. Jen caught the smell of him, musky and sour, wet dog and locker room.

“Hmm.”  Jen brought her sandwich back and took another bite.  “It seems like you have several co-morbid pathologies, possibly part of a unique syndrome.  It’s a little beyond the current scope for me to say, but the symptoms are probably individually treatable.  The hypertrichosis is the simplest. Even just shaving would probably work, but you might consider electrolysis or laser hair removal.  The aggressive ideation and fixation on violent imagery is troubling. You might need medication, but at the least you should start seeing a therapist to try and work through those issues.  I can recommend a very good one. The hunger pangs sound the most worrisome to me. Have you ever been tested for hyperthyroidism?”

The werewolf shook his head wordlessly.  

Jen pulled out a notebook and scribbled down a name and phone number.  “My mother knows a very talented endocrinologist. I don’t imagine you have a general practitioner to refer you, but I’m sure Mom’s recommendation will get you an appointment slot.  Once you get that under control, you’ll probably find your anger issues more manageable, too.”

“You mean… you think I can be… cured?”

“Well,” Jen said, finishing her sandwich.  “I couldn’t honestly say it would be a ‘cure,’ since the condition looks to be chronic and with at least some genetic basis, but a solid treatment plan would definitely improve your quality of life immeasurably.  What’s most important is regaining your dignity as a person apart from your condition. Or conditions.” She tore the page off of her notebook and handed it over. “I’ve outlined some steps you can take in your diet to get started, but I think you should see a proper medical expert as soon as you can.  Thyroid issues can lead to cancer and all sorts of complications if they’re not addressed.”

The werewolf clutched the ragged white paper in his gnarled, misshapen claws.  A tear glinted in one yellow eye. “Thank you. Oh, thank you, mistress!”

“Not at all.  Happy to help.  Any friend of my father’s, you know.”  Jen hopped down from her rock and held out a hand.  The werewolf, looming over her, dark-furred and shaggy, shook it carefully.  “Good luck.”

“Yes…”  His ears flickered, and his head went up.  “I must hunt, lest my hunger overcome my will.  Farewell, mistress.” He bounded into the green-tinted shadows of the forest.

“Don’t fill up on meat!  Get some whole grains and vitamin B!” Jen shouted after him.  She wasn’t sure he heard.

She put her plastic wrapper back in her pocket and journeyed on.

The forest thinned as she went on, and large rocks became more common as the vegetation receded.  The ground sloped upward, and the air grew chill. Soon, she was walking amid thin scrub and scrambling up slopes of dirt and loose rocks, climbing ever higher.  Ahead, the white-capped peak of the mountain seemed to float in the sky without drawing nearer. Jen spotted the ruins of an ancient castle clinging to an outcropping of rock, and beneath it the dark and shadowed mouth of a vast cavern, so she wasn’t entirely surprised when the ground trembled under the impact of four enormous clawed feet and a red-scaled dragon heaved into view ahead of her.

“Oh my God!” Jen shrieked.

“Yes!” boomed the dragon.  “Cower before my glorious wrath, ape-creature!  Bow down before me, and I will slay you quickly and without pain.”

“Let me see your wings!”  Jen fairly leapt over the still-tumbling rocks and boulders that the dragon’s emergence had shaken loose.  

“What?  No.” The dragon took a step back from Jen’s relentless advance.

“I’ve always wanted to see a dragon’s wings.  You know bumblebees?”

“Bees?  I don’t…  Now, see here, missy:  Master’s daughter or not, I could squish you under my foot, so let’s have a little respect don’t do that!”  The dragon clawed its way up the slope to avoid Jen’s hands as they tried to unfold its leathery wings from its back.

“Why not?”  Jen, realizing she had been rude, put her hands behind her back and tried to look winsome.

“It tickles.”  The dragon huffed.  “What was that about bees, anyway?”

“Bumblebees.  For a while, they thought that they shouldn’t be able to fly under the laws of physics and it was a real problem, but then they did some tests and studies and worked it out.  I want to see a dragon fly because I think it’ll be the same sort of thing.”

The dragon’s eyes narrowed.  “What, exactly, are you implying?”

“You shouldn’t be able to fly,” said Jen.  She shrugged. “You can’t just move linearly with aerodynamics.  Something the size of a house would need football-field sized wings to fly like a bird, so unless you’ve got jet engines and some sort of acceleration mechanism I’m not aware of…”  She peered at the dragon’s rear end with an air of scientific curiosity.

“I don’t,” the dragon said, its words coming out short and clipped.

“Well, could you take a quick flight?  Just out to the trees and back? I want to see how it works.”



“No!”  The dragon gritted its teeth, then sighed and hung its head.  “I can’t.”


“Can’t fly.  None of us can.  These,” the dragon said, fluttering its wings briefly, “are purely decorative these days.  That’s why we spend so much time in caves and ruined castles; no one expects to see us flying if they find us underground.”


“Come again?”

Jen waved her hands vaguely.  “It’s an architecture term, I think.  Something about wasted space in arches.  It’s what you call traits that might have had a purpose but no longer do because of changes in the evolutionary niche.  Like hiccups for humans.”

“Ah, yes.  Because you were frogs before you were monkeys.”

“Probably more of a bony fish with rudimentary lungs, but more or less.”  Jen heaved a sigh and sat down on a handy rock. “I really hoped I could make an interesting new discovery in aerodynamics.  I don’t suppose you actually breathe fire?”

“Caustic spittle.  Sorry.”

“Hoards of gold?”

The dragon sat, kicking up a cloud of dust.  “Well, we do have to consume a relatively large amount of trace metals to stay healthy.  If you rendered a dragon corpse, you’d probably end up with several ounces of gold, and you might find a stray bit or two in an older den.  One good-sized coin will last me for years, though, so long as it’s decently pure.”

Jen looked up.  “Are you going to try and eat me now?  I brought a fire extinguisher, but apparently that’s not going to help much.  I should have brought an acid wash and a chemical hood, it seems.”

“No,” the dragon said, resting its head on its paws.  “I’m too depressed. Spandrels! Pfaugh. What I wouldn’t give for wings that worked.”

“Well,” Jen cupped her chin in her hand and tapped her lips.  “We could probably rig up a glider system. Maybe even just a rigid aluminum frame to support your wings so that you don’t have to rely on insufficient pectoral musculature.”

“Hey, now!”

“Don’t be sensitive.  It’s just facts.” Jen peered over the top of her glasses.  “Perhaps we can work out a deal. What’s your pH?”


“The acid, silly!  Potent?”

“I don’t know the numbers, but I’ve yet to encounter anything it can’t get through eventually.”

“Excellent!”  Jen clapped her hands.  “Really strong acids are a pain to manufacture.  Horribly toxic byproducts and so on. If we can get an ecologically friendly supplier at low cost, that could give us a real leg up in the market.  Let me give you my mother’s card. You might want to start networking; you’ll need some friends if you’re going to produce industrial quantities, I imagine.  And then you can buy your way to flight.”

The dragon plucked the tiny square of pasteboard with two enormous talons.  “It seems a bit like cheating.”

“So who’s going to call you on it?  You’re a dragon.” Jen smiled.

The dragon grinned, displaying twin rows of sharp, white teeth.  “Indeed.”

The remainder of the trip was relatively simple.  The iron golem was pleased enough to hear about electroplating and rust-resistant coatings that he agreed chasing Jen would only risk opening more microfractures to speed oxidation.  The chimera slunk into the woods in embarrassment after Jen couldn’t stop laughing for almost ten minutes. The vampire wouldn’t get within fifteen feet of Jen after a handful of garlic oil pills.

At last, Jen stood before the alchemist’s castle.  There was a small mailbox planted in the dirt on this side of the drawbridge.  This gave Jen a twinge of anger, marbled through with sadness as though one of them were decaying radioactively into the other.  She wondered which one started the reaction. Her father had never written them any letters. Not even cards for their birthdays.  A somewhat ragged owl with white plumage was sorting letters.

“Honestly,” Jen said, rolling her eyes.  “It’s not like your species has particularly great direction sense.  Or day-vision, for that matter. Pigeons would have made much more sense; something migratory, at least.”

“Hey,” the owl snapped, “you try dealing with the price of mouse gizzards in this economy and see what jobs you feel like turning down.”

Jen watched it flap irritably away.  “And why would you even need a postal service if you can teleport at will?” she said, unable to help herself.  She needed to work on her tact, Newt always told her. Mom didn’t see the problem with being plainspoken, but that was part of the trouble, wasn’t it?

Meanwhile, she was on the outside of a castle, and her father was on the inside.  She peered down into the moat, then ducked backwards quickly as a goggle-eyed fish with enormous teeth leapt into the air, jaws snapping shut in the space where her nose had been a moment ago.

“Dad!” Jen said.  “That’s ridiculous.  Piranha hardly ever attack humans, and they’re really not all that dangerous even when they do.”  She moved several steps away from the water, however, just in case.

“He just got some mail,” Jen murmured to herself.  “He has to come out and get it sometime.”

She settled herself beside the mailbox, crossed her legs, and pulled out a book.  Introduction to Neurochemistry was interesting, but a little difficult to read; perfect for long waits.  After a while, she ate her second sandwich. The sun set, staining the sky red as suspended water particles in the atmosphere bent and scattered the light at its new, oblique angle.  This high in the mountains, the view was spectacular, but brief. Jen sighed when she could no longer see the words on the page. She tucked the book behind her head for a pillow, zipped up her jacket, and closed her eyes.  I’ll just sit for a while, she told herself.  Not sleep.  Just rest my eyes…

A hollow, metallic clatter woke her in the dark hours of the morning.  Her eyes flew open to espy a short, thin man with a brown beard and sad eyes.

“Aha!” Jen cried.  She leapt to her feet, clutching her book.

Her father reached into the mailbox and withdrew Jen’s car keys, which had been balanced precariously on the lip.  “These are yours, I take it?” His voice was quiet, and not as deep as she’d expected. He held the keys out on the palm of his hand.  “You look a lot like your mother.”

Jen found she didn’t know what to say.  She retrieved her keys. Now that she was standing, she realized that she was taller than he was.  This felt somehow wrong to Jen, perverse, a violation of a belief she hadn’t known she held.

“Have you come to kill me?” her father asked her.

Jen’s jaw dropped.  “What? No! Why would you think that?”

He shrugged, his eyes downcast.  He looked very small. “It was the last thing she said to me.”

In an almost physical rush, Jen had a vision of her father’s life for the past fourteen years.  He lived alone, in the cold and the dark, his family taken away – all legal; Jen had seen the papers – and surrounded by impossibilities of his own design.  He could do anything he wanted, except for the thing he wanted most. Jen wondered if he really had written letters, dozens of them, hundreds of them, each one dropped quickly and smoothly into her mother’s shredder.  How much time had he spent calling into a void before giving up? How long could someone survive surrounded only by what they made themselves? At what point would one’s own psychological effluvium reach toxic concentrations?

“I’m sorry,” Jen said.  It didn’t seem right, but the silence was worse.

“She raised you well, I see.  You walked right past my defenses.”

“Monsters are a lot less troublesome if you don’t treat them like monsters,” said Jen.  “I deal in facts. Problems and solutions.”

“That sounds like your mother, all right.”

Jen hesitated.  “Did she really threaten to kill you?”

“If I ever spoke to you or her again.  You kids, especially.” Her father shrugged again.  “I didn’t quite believe her when she threatened it, but seeing you here, now, looking like her twenty years ago…”  He rubbed at his beard, then took both hands and scrubbed his face as though coming out from a swim. “Why have you come, then?”

“Oh!”  Jen looked up.  “It’s about Newt.  He’s gone alchemical.”  She relayed the sordid tale of Newt’s descent into nigh-madness.

“So he kept at it, did he?”  Jen’s father tapped his lips thoughtfully, giving Jen a frisson as she recognized the gesture in herself.  

“Not exactly,” said Jen.  “It went dormant, I suppose.”

“You can’t keep out of it for long, though,” her father said, shaking his head.  “Not once it’s started. I don’t know if you could ever avoid it in the first place; the propensity for alchemy is something that tends to be discovered when it happens, not something you can predict.  It was inevitable for Newton to experiment. This incident has probably been made worse by his long abstinence, actually; he’ll be in a fever about it for weeks.”

“Can’t you do something?  He’s trying to find Truth; can’t you give him the secret?”

“That’s what alchemy is, Jen.”  He put a hand on her shoulder. “The search for truth.  No two alchemists ever find the same one; my truth would be as useless to him as it is to you and your mother.”

“I don’t think it’s useless,” Jen said.  She reached up a hand and touched his arm lightly.  “Some of it can be very beautiful, in its own way.”

He smiled, but only with half of his mouth.  “I remember when she said the same thing.”

“I think you should see Newt,” Jen announced firmly.  “You might not be able to give him what he wants, but he needs your support.  He always has. You understand him better than we can, at least in this.”

“It would be breaking the rules…”

Jen waved a hand.  “He’s eighteen. He can make his own decisions about that now.”

Her father nodded slowly.  “You’re… you’re right. Of course you’re right.  You have that clarity of vision that I never mastered.  I get so wrapped up in my own projects that I forget… well, I forget things.”  He glanced up, suddenly, a sly look in his eyes. “You know, you broke the agreement yourself, coming to see me.  You’re only sixteen.”

“Some things are more important than following rules,” said Jen.  “I’m surprised you’d even suggest they aren’t, and why are you grinning?”

Her father didn’t answer.  Instead, he stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled.  From overhead came the sound of massive, leathery wings flapping.  With a whumph and a brief whirlwind of dust, the dragon landed on the trail in front of them.

“I thought you said you couldn’t fly!” Jen snapped.

The dragon bowed its head sheepishly.

“He probably couldn’t, when you met him.  It depends on who’s doing the asking,” her father said.  He snapped his fingers, and the dragon knelt on its forelimbs, making a sort of scaly staircase to its shoulders.  “Come on. Let’s go save Newton.” He scrambled up and reached a hand down to Jen. “It’s okay. I’ll keep us in the air.”

Jen looked at the hand for a moment.  The physics were all wrong; dragons couldn’t exist, let alone fly with two passengers on board.  What if her father was wrong, and her presence damaged whatever force kept the dragon airborne? How could she trust something she couldn’t understand?

“All right,” she said.  She took her father’s hand.

Episode 109: Nuclear Family by Alex Shvartsman

Show Notes

Today we present Alex Shvartsman’s story, Nuclear Family. Alex has been here several times before — welcome back Alex! Thanks for gracing us with an inventive seasonal story.

Nuclear Family

by Alex Shvartsman

Daddy said we couldn’t have a real tree this Christmas.

At first I was sad, but then Mommy said we would im-pro-vise.  I liked learning a big new word. It means use things we have in the house. Mommy and Daddy improvise all the time, ever since we couldn’t go outside anymore.

Daddy went upstairs to find some things to improvise with. I wanted to help, but Daddy said we all have to stay in the basement for a very long time, so we don’t get sick. I hate the basement. There’s nothing to do here. Mommy or Daddy go upstairs once every few days and bring things back down with them. Usually it is food and toilet paper and things, but sometimes they get a few books and toys and games from my room.  They run up and down the stairs as quickly as they can, because when they are upstairs they can get sick too.

This time Daddy was gone for almost five minutes, but he brought down a whole bunch of stuff. He put a tall coat rack in the middle of the basement to make the tree trunk and taped on some unwound wire hangers to make branches.  He gave me a green tablecloth and said to cut it into long, thin strips. Then we glued the strips on to the wire and put up a few ornaments. It didn’t really look like a tree, but Mommy said to use our imagination. I didn’t mind. Decorating the coat rack gave us something fun to do.

Then all of us had to take our radiation pills. I dropped mine and Daddy got really mad. He said that we already didn’t have enough to last us until it was safe to go outside and that we couldn’t waste any. He made me pick it up and eat it off the floor. Eww.

On Christmas Eve we moved the table next to the pretend tree and ate a holiday meal. Mommy made a big pot of spam stew and everyone was allowed to have seconds because it was such a special day. We even had sliced peaches for dessert. Mommy and Daddy didn’t eat very many, saying that it was a special treat for me. But they did try some because it was the last can and Daddy said he wasn’t sure when we would ever taste peaches again. Mommy shushed him. Then we sang every holiday song we could remember.

When I woke up in the morning Daddy was gone. Mommy said that he had to leave for a while but the way she was crying I didn’t think he was coming back. I got scared and Mommy told me to go open my presents.

There was some stuff under the pretend Christmas tree, but it was all toys from upstairs that I had from before. There was also a little box with Daddy’s share of the radiation medicine. Daddy is silly. Who wants pills for a present?

Episode 108: The Cardinals of Ever June by Sylvia Anna Hivén

The Cardinals of Ever-June

by Sylvia Anna Hivén

I put up with much when I was a boy. I had no choice, really, because I was orphaned at the age of eight, and an orphan has less of a voice than a mute.

I had no say when my sister and I were shipped off to a poor-house, run by a cruel man. I accepted that I had to work most of my waking hours and face hard fists if I refused. I endured the lice-infested beds, watery broths and poverty seeping into my very pores. That’s just the way life was. But no matter how much I could withstand, I couldn’t accept a life of misery for my little sister. This is the story of how in order to save her, I let her die.

Hearing me say that might leave you cold. I won’t blame you if it does. But in the end, when you’ve heard the whole story, I still hope you’ll find it in your heart to say a prayer for me.

The snow groaned under my boots as I dragged Tatyana along the forest path. She was a small girl for eleven, but toiling with her through snow droves that stood to my knees was like pulling a giant through the eye of a needle.

“Come on, Tatya,” I pleaded. “It’s gonna get dark soon, and you know how angry Vladimir gets if we’re late. We gotta walk faster.”

“I’m sorry, Mischa. I’m so tired. Can I rest for a minute?”

Despite the pines towering above us like an army of black sentinels shrouded in mantles of snow, there was little shelter from the wind. I could see how tired and cold Tatyana was: wet snow clung to her coat, a splotch of red danced on each hollow cheek and half-frozen snot trailed from her nose.

“You know what’ll happen if you sit down in the snow for too long when you’re tired,” I said. “You’ll end up just like Yuri.”

Yuri had lived with us at Vladimir’s poor-house for two years. He’d been a sickly boy and he’d died from pneumonia the previous winter. I buried him myself, and Tatyana sung a hymn over his grave; everybody else in the cottage were too busy lamenting their own misery to care. Tatyana hated it when I brought up Yuri. Nevertheless, it scared her enough to where I could convince her to do almost anything.

I gave her a small hug. “Two years, Tatya. Then I’ll be old enough to move out of the poor-house, and I’m taking you with me to Moscow. Two years, and we’ll be free.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know that I can last the winter in that place, let alone two more years.”

“Sure you can. As long as you keep away from the sick folks and eat properly, you’ll be fine.” I gave her my sternest big-brother stare. “You did eat the lunch Vladimir sent, didn’t you?”

She rolled her eyes. “Boiled potatoes. Again.”

“When we’re in Moscow, I promise you’ll never have to eat another boiled potato for as long as you live.” I gave her an encouraging grin. “Now, let’s go. Or I’ll make you sleep next to old Vanya, and you know he hasn’t taken a bath since last summer.”

“He farts under the covers, too!” Her giggles were a rare treat, and they faded into seriousness all too quickly. She took my hand and nodded with determination. “Two more years.”

By the time we arrived home, the belly of the clouds had darkened to a charcoal grey. Swathed in a blanket that stunk of old tobacco, Vladimir waited for us on the stoop. His black moustache twitched as we approached.

“You’re late,” he huffed.

“Sorry, Vladimir Sergeyevich, sér,” said I. “It snowed more since this morning. The trail was covered.”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses, Mikhail. There’s wood to chop and Tatyana needs to help with dinner. You need to learn how to get your sraka home before dark, or there’ll be no more school for either of you.”

It was an empty threat, I knew—Vladimir wouldn’t be paid the ten kopecks a week for taking in Tatya and me if we didn’t show up to school like we were supposed to—but I wasn’t about to give him an excuse to knock me around. Instead, I bit my tongue, shoved Tatyana inside, and went to fetch the axe.

I spent an hour chopping wood in the barn before the smell of cabbage broth beckoned. When I entered the cottage, Tatyana elbowed her way around the table, trying her best to fill the bowls of the ten other inhabitants that Vladimir had taken in. She was exhausted; her hands trembled, and as she moved to fill Vladimir’s bowl, she spilled some of the steaming broth.

“Watch what you’re doing, bliad!”

Vladimir moved to slap her, and my muscles tightened. I would not stand for anyone to beat my sister. But I didn’t have to come to her defense; his face softened and he lowered his hand.

“No,” said Vladimir, unsettling malice glimmering in his eyes. “I’m not going to beat that pretty face of yours. One day it may earn me more money than the pathetic five kopecks I get for you now.”

Tatyana was young; she only looked bewildered by his words, but I knew what he meant. Vladimir wanted to sell her as a servant. Perhaps Tatyana and I didn’t have two years, after all.

We were the poorest children in our school, and the only orphans.At no time did our circumstance sadden Tatyana more than when she saw the  lunches packed by the considerate mothers of our classmates. Her eyes would widen at the meat-filled pirozhki or tart winter apples emerging from their sacks. And there she would sit with cold, boiled potatoes—the bland stigma of our misery.

“Eat,” I told her the next day when, as usual, she looked at her food with disdain. “I won’t have you end up like Yuri.”

“So what if I do?” responded Tatyana. “Yuri’s probably much better off, wherever he is.”

“Don’t talk like that. Yuri’s dead.”

“Like I said, better off.”

I left her alone, hoping she would be in a better mood on the way home, but she dragged her feet more than ever. When we had reached the halfway point between the school and Vladimir’s cottage, she stopped.

“That’s it, Mischa,” said Tatyana. “I’m not taking another step.”

I turned around to face her and sighed. “Don’t be silly. We have to get home before it gets dark. I don’t want to get yelled at again.”

Tatyana responded by dropping her school bag into a snow drove and plopping down on top of it. “I’m not moving. I’m gonna sit here and pray for the gods to freeze me to ice, and that I’ll never have to see Vladimir or the poor-house again. You can go on if you want.”

“You’re crazy if you think I’m gonna leave you alone in the forest. Pray if you must, but in ten minutes, I’m carrying you home if I have to.”

I sat down next to her, also bundling my school bag beneath me to keep off the snowy ground. We sat so for a while and Tatyana mumbled angry prayers.

I had almost fallen asleep when Tatyana nudged me with her elbow. “Look,” she whispered.

Just a few feet from us, a group of red cardinals pranced on the stiff snow. They hopped around, kicking their little legs in some odd dance, and chirped at us.

“Do they think we have food?” asked Tatyana.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen cardinals behave like that.”

The smallest bird jumped closer and skittered up Tatyana’s leg. It perched on her lap, twittered at her with a tilted head and then, as if they’d heard a signal beyond what I and Tatyana could hear, all the birds flew a few feet farther into the forest. They again performed their curious dance, and took another unanimous leap farther between the pines.

Tatyana got to her feet. “Well, let’s go. It wants us to follow.”

“And leave the path, when it’s about to get dark? We’re gonna get lost.”

Tatyana just laughed and ran after the birds, her fatigue forgotten. I had no choice but to run after her.

The birds did appear as if they wanted us to follow. They skipped around the tall pines, sometimes fluttering in a tight group, other times scattering about but always heading in the same direction. If Tatyana and I slowed down, they waited until we caught up. When they finally stopped near the ruins of an old stone cottage, both Tatyana and I were out of breath.

The cottage looked like it had been abandoned for years. Its southern facade had collapsed, and a burned brick chimney rose into the air through the crumbled ceiling. Moss-covered roof tiles lay scattered on the ground, undoubtedly hurled off the roof by decades of winter winds.

“Do you think anybody lives here?” asked Tatyana.
“I doubt it. But we should go inside and see if we can start a fire. It’s going to get dark soon and I don’t think I can find our way back to the path until morning.”

I opened the door and ushered my sister inside. To my astonishment, as I followed behind her, I stepped into a bright summer’s day.

I could not believe my eyes. There were children everywhere, bathed in sunlight. Nearby, two boys fenced with wooden sticks. One of them executed a particularly fine attack and pierced the chest of his opponent who fell to the ground in a fit of laughter. Further away, around a large oak tree with silver-trimmed leaves, girls braided ribbons and rosebuds into each other’s hair. Beyond the oak, a field of sunflowers stretched for as far as my eyes could see, and in it waded more children. They were flying kites shaped like bumble bees and dragonflies, and they shouted with glee as their kites dipped and rose in the sky.

Beyond the field and the silver oak, up on a hill, sat a school house. It wasn’t like our school house—small and grey—but painted cranberry red and with a brass bell mounted on a pole outside. A woman in a white frock stood on the steps.

“This is impossible,” said I. “How can there be summer here, when it’s winter on the other side of that door?”

The door through which we had come stood closed, and to my dismay as I yanked at the handle, it was glued to its frame.

“There’s no use,” said a soft voice. “You can’t leave Ever-June through that door; it only opens one way.”

The person that had spoken was one of the fencing boys. A thick mop of auburn hair brushed his freckled forehead. He wore linen shorts and a white shirt smudged with grass stains on its elbows—probably from vigorous play rather than hard work, I noted with envy.

“Ever-June?” asked I. “What is this place?”

The boy grinned, but he didn’t answer. He pointed to the woman by the school house. “You should go see Nadya Alekseeva.”

“Will she be able to tell us how to get home?”

The boy frowned and shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”

Tatyana, who had been eyeing the boy in silence, took a step forward. “Yuri?” she asked. “Is that you?”

It struck me that the boy did look a bit like Yuri—or rather, as Yuri would have looked if he had been born into a rich family that could feed and clothe him. But the boy just shook his head and laughed.

“I’m me; I don’t know a Yuri,” he said and ran back to his friend.

As the sound of their furious stick battle resumed, I took Tatyana’s hand. “Come on,” said I. “Let’s go see that lady.”

“I’m sure that’s Yuri,” protested Tatyana. “And I smell fresh bread. Jam and cherries, too.”
The lady pointed out to us by the-boy-who-wasn’t-Yuri came walking down the hill. When she came closer, my face grew hot with admiration at her beauty. She was young, but with wise eyes of a color too vivid for words.

“Welcome,” she said. “I’m so glad the birds found you. I am Nadya Alekseeva.”

“What is this place?” I repeated, hoping she would be more forthcoming than the boy had been.

“Ever-June, of course,” she said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Now take your coats off and come. We are about to have lunch and you both look hungry. Do you like pirozhki?”

Madame Alekseeva showed us to a courtyard behind the school house. There, a long table lay heavy with the most amazing dishes I had ever seen: not only pirozhki like she had promised, but also fresh loaves of bread with butter and fat slices of cheese, cherry fritters coated in sticky honey, bowls of strawberries and sour cream, and huge pitchers of ice-cold milk. The other children flooded the table and took their meal in loud chatter.

Even though Tatyana and I both ate as if we’d never seen food before, it didn’t stop us from playing with the other children afterward. I flew a kite with some of the boys, and two twin girls took Tatyana to the oak tree and braided yellow ribbons into her unruly hair. We played for what felt like an eternity, but the sun didn’t move from its high place in the sky. Even though the house on the hill was a school house, Madame Alekseeva never rang the bell for class. It was the longest, most enjoyable recess I’d ever had.

By the time I played tag with Tatyana and the twin sisters, I had almost forgotten that I didn’t belong. But as Nadya Alekseeva came and told me it was time for me to leave Ever-June, harsh reality came rushing back.

“Why must I leave?” asked I, tears burning at the corners of my eyes.

Nadya Alekseeva looked saddened, but unrelenting. “The cardinals only invited your sister. She’s welcome to stay, because she earned her way. You came along, but that’s against the rules. You have to find your own path here.”

Tatyana, who had abandoned the twins, clung to my arm with a deep frown. “Madame Alekseeva, I really love it here,” she said. “I like playing with the-boy-who-isn’t-Yuri and the twins. The pirozhki and the fritters were delicious. But I’m not staying unless Mischa can stay, too.”

“If you truly want to leave, Tatya, I can’t force you to stay.” Sadness veiled Nadya Alekseeva’s face as she spoke. “The door to Ever-June only opens from the outside, so you can’t return that way. But if you lay down and rest under the silver oak, I’ll make sure that when you wake up, you will be back home.”

She took both of us by the hand and led us up on the hill to the oak tree. The sun’s rays trickled in through the canopy of the silver leaves above, but it was still cool enough to be comfortable beneath it. The grass was soft, and it didn’t take long before I fell asleep.

When I awoke, it was freezing cold. Tatyana and I both sat perched against a rough pine where we had first seen the red birds. There was barely a thin layer of snow on my coat, and even though we had spent hours in Ever-June, it was still light. It was as if time hadn’t passed at all.

“I had the strangest dream,” said Tatyana and rubbed her eyes. “I dreamed that it was summer. I had cherry fritters and you flew a kite, and I think we saw Yuri.”

I knew it hadn’t just been a dream—we had seen a place beyond a slumber that perhaps had been meant to last forever—but I didn’t tell her. Instead, I helped her to her feet and together we hurried home.

We weren’t late when we arrived at the cottage, but that didn’t stop Vladimir from berating us. He sat on the porch and talked with his brother, a big pipe sticking out from beneath his bushy moustache. As soon as we shook the snow off our coats, he shouted at me to go fetch wood, and for Tatyana to start preparing supper.

The hearty meal in Ever-June had energized me, and I finished my chore quicker than usual. When I came out of the barn, carrying a load of wood for the stove, the conversation I overheard between Vladimir and his brother froze me in my tracks.

“When is Ivanovich coming for the girl?” said the brother.

“In a fortnight.”
  “And how much is he paying you?”

“Twenty-five rubles. Not bad for that dirty little runt.”

“What are you gonna say when the officials from Moscow ask why she stopped showing up at school?”

“I’ll tell them she got pneumonia and died. I’ll stick a cross in the back yard. No reason for them to question me.”

“Unless Mikhail talks.”

“That little mudak won’t be talking. I’ll have him tossed out to the wolves long before then.”

As I put away the wood in the box next to the stove, I cursed myself for letting my sister leave Ever-June. How could I’ve been such a fool? She would have been happy there, playing her way through an endless summer day. In our cold world, all that awaited her was to be sold as a servant for a few coins.

Tatyana went about her duties that evening with a smile on her face, and when we went to bed later, she whispered prayers to the gods that the birds would come to her again and bless her with the same lovely dream. Even though I knew what she prayed for was real and not a dream, I didn’t pray. Instead, I just lay there, biting my blanched fists in regret.

For the next few days, I deliberately stalled as we walked to and from school. I scanned the forest, seeking the flutter of red wings between the tree trunks, but to no avail. I remembered what Nadya Alekseeva had said—the birds would only come to those in true need—and it made me angry. Who in the world had more need than my sister?

A fortnight passed. I constantly looked over my shoulder in fear of seeing Vladimir approach with the axe raised over his head. Oddly enough, the disgusting man stayed clear of both me and Tatyana, not even hassling us when we arrived home after dark. I hoped the deal he had with his friend had fallen through, and that Tatyana was safe.

That was, until one evening when Vladimir approached me after supper and ordered me to chop extra wood. “Use it to heat up water in the steel tub,” he said. “And find me some soap.”

“You’re taking a bath in the middle of winter?” I asked.

“It’s not for me; it’s for your sister. She needs to look her best for some friends of mine tomorrow night. Now, stop asking questions and do as I tell you.”

I knew then, our time was up.

The next morning, as Tatyana and I walked to school, my frantic mind kept searching for ways out of our bind. Nobody in the village would take in two kids from the poor-house, knowing very well the diseases that ravaged the poor souls of that cottage. We had no money for a coach to the larger cities, and without papers, the militsiya would surely arrest us and send us right back to Vladimir. I toyed with the idea of finding shelter in the forest and try to survive by laying traps for small rabbits, but I knew we wouldn’t last a single night in the frigid cold.

There was no way out, and it tore at my heart.

“I have to rest, Tatya.” I fell to my knees in the snow. “I have to rest, and I have to pray.”

“Pray, now?” Tatyana watched me with confusion, pulling her coat tighter around her neck. “You don’t ever pray. And we’ll be late for school.”

“There are worse things than being late for school.”

So while my sister stood by, not knowing that what I was pleading for was her life, I prayed; I prayed that there would be a blizzard to stop Vladimir’s friends from showing up; I prayed that if they came, they would find her ugly and not want her. I prayed for any possibility, any mercy, to any god that would hear me.

“Mischa, look!”

I opened my eyes. The red birds had returned. The smallest cardinal tilted its head, twittered eagerly, and just like before it skipped into the forest, urging us to follow. I took Tatyana’s hand and stumbled after it, tears of relief streaming down my face.

Again, the birds took us to the dilapidated cottage. As soon as we stepped through the door, and Ever-June took us into its sunny arms, Tatyana wormed out of her coat and ran to the boy-that-looked-like-Yuri-but-wasn’t. He nudged her with an elbow and yanked playfully at her braid before taking off running towards the oak tree. Tatyana followed, her laughter pealing like bells.

I took my coat off, too, and walked up the hill toward the school house. Nadya Alekseeva stood on the porch. She looked as though she had been expecting me.

“Welcome back, Mischa.”

I couldn’t hold back my gratitude. I threw my arms around her slender waist, hugging her tightly. “You sent us the birds again, Madame, even though you said they would only come one time. Thank you.”

She withdrew and cupped my face in her hands, seriousness muting the odd color of her eyes. “No, Mischa. I don’t control the birds. You do. If you want the birds to come to you, and your need is dire enough, they will appear. Last time, Tatyana asked for them. This time, you did.”

“Well, this time, we’ll stay,” said I. “We can’t go back home again.”

“You can stay, if you wish,” said Nadya Alekseeva. “But Tatyana can’t. She turned down the offer of the cardinals once, and it’s not an offer that’s given twice.”

Desperation rose in my throat. “Please, Madame. She can’t go back. Terrible things will happen to her if she does.”

“I’m sorry, Mischa.” She looked pensive for a moment. “Now, if you’re willing to give your place to Tatyana, I could keep her here with me. But you would have to go back from where you came, and you wouldn’t be able to come back—not ever, no matter how hard you pray.”

I looked down the hill. Tatyana was playing tag with the other children down by the oak tree, and I heard her reckless laughter echo across the fields. It was the most wonderful sound, and I didn’t want it to stop—not even if I had to spend the rest of my life too far away to hear it.

“Yes,” said I with a heavy heart. “I want to give her my place.”

“So it will be, then. You’re a good brother, Misha.” She smiled somberly. “But it’s early yet, and the winds are brisk today. Why don’t you go down to the sunflower field and show her how to fly a kite. And when you are ready, the silver oak will be waiting to take you back.”

Tatyana was ecstatic that I would show her how to fly the kite. She was a fast learner and it didn’t take long before she was rushing across the meadow, shrieking in triumph as the kite fluttered high above her.

When she had learned well enough to fly it on her own, I went to sit by the oak. I tried to etch her face into my memory the best I could, but sleep came quickly that balmy afternoon. The last thing I remembered before falling asleep was that yellow ribbon fluttering among Tatya’s curls.

When I woke up, I sat under the same pine as the last time we returned from Ever-June. Tatyana slumped next to me, leaning against the tree trunk, but this time, she wasn’t stirring. The yellow ribbon lay frozen against her forehead, and her little lips looked stiff and blue. She was barely breathing, and the whirling snow coated her with alarming eagerness.

A dark hollow opened in my chest as I realized that was how I had to leave her—cold and alone, the winter tucking her into her last sleep.

I still remember how icy her cheek felt when I bent down and kissed her goodbye. Then I walked away with my school bag slung over my shoulder, and despite the tears that trailed down my cheeks, I withstood the temptation to look back.

Vladimir’s friends did show up that night, and from the menace that lined their scarred faces, I knew I had made the right decision. Vladimir was furious when I told him Tatya had gotten lost in the forest, but he didn’t beat me too much over it, and my broken nose certainly healed faster than my crushed heart.

I still sleep among lice-infested men in this dank place, but it is easier when I know that Tatya is safe. Sometimes I see her in my dreams. Often she pulls a kite across the sky with greater skill than any of the other children. Other times, she chases the-boy-who-isn’t Yuri around the silver oak. Never is she made to eat a cold, boiled potato.

I pray every night that I’ll see the cardinals and that they’ll take me to Ever-June again, but I suspect my pleas fall on deaf ears. I relinquished my place, and I’m paying the price.

However, now that you know the whole story, bitter as it is, perhaps you will pray for me. And if you pray hard enough, maybe I’ll see the flutter of red wings some day, after all.

Episode 107: The Surfacing by Kurt Newton

The Surfacing

by Kurt Newton

Eight-year-old Ellie Fortier exited the back door of her lakeside home into a clear moonlit night.  She was careful not to let the screen door slam shut. She didn’t want to wake her grandfather, who was babysitting her for the night but had fallen asleep in his favorite chair.  Her mom was at the hospital. Her dad — well, she didn’t want to think about her dad right now. What was more important was what she had to do.

Dressed in a light windbreaker, jeans and sneakers, she tiptoed down the back porch steps and hurried along the gravel path that led to the long wooden dock that pointed like a finger toward the center of the lake.  Lake Ochabee. When she reached the end of the dock, she hesitated.

She stared out into the open water.  She could feel its coldness and depth.  But she trusted it. If there was a God, she hoped he lay at the bottom of all that cold, dark water.

To her left, moored to the dock’s side, her father’s motorboat sat.  Alongside it, like a child close to its parent’s side, rested the small skiff Ellie’s father let her paddle around in.  As her small hands worked to untie the knotted rope, Ellie’s lips moved silently, repeating a chant she had begun fifteen minutes earlier after the phone call came informing her grandpa that there was still no change in her father’s condition.  Daddy will be all right… Daddy will be all right… Oaky will fix it… Oaky will make it better…

Her fingers finally loosened the damp knot and she climbed down into the small boat.  Without wasting any more time, she picked up the oars and began to row.

It was a calm night on the lake.  Labor Day had come and gone, leaving only those who lived on the lake year-round.  Besides being a summer recreational spot, Lake Ochabee was known for its sport fishing.  The deep water held many surprises. In State-sponsored tournaments, Lake Ochabee had logged records for both bass and pike.  But tonight, Ellie was hoping for something bigger.

She watched the back porch light of her home recede as she rowed further and further from shore.  She hoped Grandpa wouldn’t wake up any time soon and notice her missing. In fact, if all went well, she would be back before she created too much of a fuss.  As she rowed, she went over Grandpa’s story again in her mind.

“You see, Ellie, a few hundred years ago, a long way back, before there were cars and airplanes and electricity, back when there weren’t so many people, only Native Americans called the Caughnawega, there was Lake Ochabee.  It was much bigger then. Cleaner, too. And back then, in those olden times, the Caughnawega believed in a lot of things that might sound strange to us now, but to them, weren’t very strange at all. It was what they believed.  And belief, Ellie, if it’s strong enough, is a very powerful thing.

“And one of the things the Caughnawega believed in was the Great Ochabee Serpent…”

And so the story went, Grandpa changing it slightly each time he told it.  But basically Ellie remembered that once every hundred years or so the Great Ochabee Serpent could be called to the surface of the lake and asked to grant a special wish.  There were certain conditions in the story that were lost to her now. All Ellie knew was that it had been a long time since Oaky had last paid a visit.

Soon, the porch light Ellie had been keeping her eye on was joined by other porch lights, shining from other lake homes containing other fathers either watching television or putting the dinner dishes away or tucking their children in bed.  The collection of porch lights began to resemble a string of Christmas bulbs strung along the shoreline. With the creak-splash creak-splash of the oars against the water lending a soothing mantra-like rhythm to the night, Ellie’s thoughts drifted to those of her father and the time he dressed as Santa Claus, just for her…

It was Christmas time, and Ellie’s mother and father had driven to one of the big city malls for some last minute shopping.  Santa Claus was there, taking pictures with all the other children and promising special gifts for Christmas. But the line was too long and Ellie went home crying because she didn’t get a chance to speak to him.  That night, however, Santa paid a special visit. It was her father, of course. Ellie pretended not to notice, and would have let her father think he was Santa, except for the fact that she said, “Thank you, Daddy,” when it was time for him to leave…

On the heels of that memory came a much more recent one, one not so happy, just several days past, the day after Ellie’s father had his accident…

“What’s a coma, Mommy?”

Elizabeth Fortier, Ellie’s mother, appeared stunned.  “What honey? What did you say?”

To Ellie’s ears, her mother’s voice sounded like thin glass about to break.  “I heard you and Grandpa talking in the kitchen about Daddy’s accident. Grandpa said Daddy was in a coma.  What does that mean?”

“It means Daddy is hurt real bad, honey.  He’s sleeping and he can’t wake up.”

“Is he going to die?”

Tears escaped the corners of her mother’s eyes then, running tiny tracks over the slopes of her cheeks.  “No, honey, now be a good girl and find something to do. Mommy wants to rest for a little bit.”

“Okay, Mommy…”

And that’s what Ellie felt like doing now.  Taking a rest. She had been rowing for half an hour.  Her arms felt wooden, like the oars themselves. The skin on her palms had grown lumpy with blisters.  The lights on shore were now just faint pinpoints indistinguishable from each other, like distant stars.  How did she know which star was hers? How would she ever find her way back home?

She stopped rowing and the darkness seemed to crowd in around her.  She felt the silence of the open water, broken only by the drip-drip of her oars and the thin raggedness of her breathing.  She felt like she was sitting in an immense bowl of black soup. Only the moon, with its white rippled streak upon the water, kept the dark from totally claiming her.

Maybe she could use the moon to guide her, she thought.  Like the Caughnawega used to do. But the shore looked so far away.  All she wanted to do now was get back home as fast as she could. But she didn’t have the strength.  This was a stupid idea, she thought to herself. She hated Grandpa for telling her such a stupid story.  Stupid stupid stupid…”

Ellie leaned against the side of the boat and sobbed, tears falling into the cold dark water.  “I want my Daddy… I want my Daddy…”

As Ellie sobbed, a meteor streaked across the sky overhead.  The old century had passed.

The lake water began to churn.  Ellie looked up from her tears and gazed at the bubbling water just feet from the edge of the boat.  Her heart suddenly felt as buoyant as the bubbles rising to the surface of the lake. “I knew you’d come,” she said.  But her hopefulness quickly gave way to fear as the water became more violent, rocking the small boat from side to side, forcing Ellie to hang on to keep from losing her balance and falling over the edge.

What if Oaky wasn’t a magical serpent, after all, like Grandpa said?  What if Oaky was just some prehistoric monster, a wild hungry creature looking for its next meal?  What if–?

But there was no more time for questions; the answer was here.  Something big had risen to the surface. The Great Ochabee Serpent.

Ellie crawled to the back of the skiff as the creature’s head rose up out of the water.  Its head, which was the size of Ellie’s boat, sat atop a tree-like neck. At last, its body surfaced, resembling an overturned sailing ship, its skin glassy and black.  Weeds hung from the corners of its jaws, giving it a wise, bearded look. It opened its mouth and took its first breath in a hundred years. Ellie was never more scared in her life, but she wasn’t afraid.

Ellie climbed back onto her seat.  “Hello, Mr. Oaky?” Her voice sounded small and bird-like in the presence of the Great Serpent.  “You don’t know me, but I know you. I’ve heard so much about you. I’ve come to ask you a favor.  My daddy’s sick and he needs your help. I’ve been praying every night, and I was wondering if you could wake him up?”

The serpent tilted its head.  One ivory-colored eye, the size of a dinner plate, watched her.  It breathed more smoothly now, the moonlight rising and falling on its slick skin.

“The doctor’s call it a coma, which means he can’t stop sleeping, and…”  Ellie realized just how futile all of this was. What could a big old serpent do to help her father?  And how was she ever going to get back to shore? “But now my daddy needs me and I… I have to get back home and…”  Tears began to well in her eyes and she began to cry, not knowing what else to say.

Ellie’s hands stung as she wiped the tears from her cheeks.  When she looked up again, the serpent was lowering itself back into the water.  Panic filled her.

“Wait!  Don’t go!  I’m sorry…”  But the serpent disappeared quickly, sinking like a heavy stone in the cold, black water.

After a moment’s silence, Ellie’s panic gave way to fear and the sudden realization that she was lost, a mile from any shore and too weak to do anything about it.

Then the boat received a nudge and Ellie cried out, grabbing the edges of the skiff.  Another nudge and the boat began to move. It moved in a direction Ellie could only hope was the way back home.

The hospital room at St. Michael’s was bright and clean and antiseptic smelling, a long way from the murky water and fish smells of the lake.

“Here she is,” Ellie’s mother announced as they entered the hospital room together.  Ellie received a nudge from behind.

On the bed before her, with thin tubes trailing from his side, a white bandage wrapped around his forehead, was Greg Fortier, Ellie’s father.  He was awake and smiling.

“Hi, sweetheart, how’s my baby girl?”

“Hi, Daddy.”  Ellie ran to the bedside and hugged her father tightly.  “You’re okay,” she cried into his chest.

“Hey, of course I’m alright.  What about you? I heard you were out on the lake last night.  You gave your Grandpa quite a scare, you know?”

“I know, Daddy.  I’m sorry.”

“What were you doing out there?”

Ellie pictured Oaky in her mind.  She remembered his huge white eye staring down at her, looking through her, reading her every thought.

“Nothing, Daddy.  Just being stupid.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re alright.”

“Me, too, Daddy.  Me, too.”

Winter on Lake Ochabee was cold but beautiful.  The wind blew in from the north, clearing the ice for skaters and ice-fishermen alike.  If the day was right and the sun was shining brightly, the Fortiers — Greg and Elizabeth, Grandpa Fortier and little Ellie — would sometimes take the opportunity to have an afternoon cookout on the ice: hot dogs and hamburgers, baked beans and hot cocoa.  Sometimes when they were out there, the ice snapped like a pistol shot, sending a scare into all standing near. “Stress in the ice,” Ellie’s father would say, providing scientific answers. Other times, the water sang, an eerie bass note that sounded more like a deep-throated swallow.  “Air pockets.” Another reasonable explanation.

But every once in a while there was a sound that was neither a snap nor a swallow, but a rumble from deep below, a sound like the movement of a great weight across the lake floor.  Ellie wouldn’t ask what that was, and neither would she tell, for she already knew it was simply Oaky rolling over in his sleep.