Seat 14C – Thousands of Minds Concentrating on an Optimistic Future

It is said that many people joining in focused thought, meditation, or prayer can affect outcomes.

The folks at XPRIZE believe that imagination crowdsourcing could generate solutions for some of the planets most pressing problems.

Examples of their competitions include; a 10 million dollar prize for a palm-sized health monitoring device, a $1 million award for leveraging technology to ensure women’s safety, and a $1.75 million prize for harvesting fresh water from thin air.

The XPRIZE group recently demonstrated that they have no shortage of imagination within their ranks. In preparation for a writing competition, they set a stage;

an international flight from Tokyo to San Francisco gently bumps through a time wrinkle, landing passengers twenty years in the future.

XPRIZE released an Origin Story video and asked thirty-two well-known authors including Margaret Atwood, Hugh Howey, and Kevin J. Anderson to contribute short stories for individual passengers on the plane.

From June – August 2017, one seat was open for a writing competition, Seat 14C.  Aidan J.S. Menuge, a musician, composer, and writer, claimed that seat from the 1,400 entries (see links below).

As I was crafting my story, it was powerful knowing that other writers were working with the same ideas at the same time. Even more powerful is reading their stories!

The future I imagined involves a world health care system that supports people from the inside out. In this system, it is common knowledge that if someone feels balanced, loved, and connected they become positive contributors to their communities.

I’m glad that the competition brought my attention to the XPRIZE organization. I will be cheering on their progress and sharing the solutions they’re inspiring.

The Seat 14C contest criteria included;

  • A unique vision of the future
  • First person point-of-view
  • Optimistic tone that demonstrates exponential technology positively impacting the future
  • and the tale from when the passengers disembark at San Francisco International Airport in the year 2037.

Below is my entry, Renewal.

2,550 words. [*re-edited since entry]

Charlotte’s life was dead-ending. Surrounded by grieving passengers who’d lost twenty years, Sal, a Change Counselor, attempts to help Charlotte start over.

Clutching carry-on bags in white-knuckled fists, some passengers were openly crying. I was silent, my face, a stony mask of indifference.

A row of people dressed in white robes stood inside a blue, pulsating ‘environment’ receiving the occupants of ANA’s Boeing 777. One by one, the ‘waiters’ broke formation to pair up with traumatized time travelers.

Some hugged, some held hands. Most were led a distance away so conversations could be private. Big Bubba, my close companion for the last two days stepped ahead of me. Having grown used to him being as close as pea pod neighbors, it felt strange to see the distance between us growing. I heard the robed person say, “Michael, I am very sorry for your loss.”

Michael?

Shoulders shaking, Bubba blubbered, “Twenty years! My kids won’t know me anymore!”

We’d been sharing jewelry, matching carbon steel bracelets. This was the first I’d heard about him having kids.

“It’s going to be alright, Michael,” his greeter crooned in a soft voice, taking his hand. “Your sons are doing well. They can’t wait to see you.”

I could tell when my greeter spotted me. Direct eye contact, a slight nod and a bee-line gait. “Hello, Charlotte, my name is Sal. I will be your Change Counselor.”

What? I stepped back, staying out of touching range. Sal was completely bald. Broad cheekbones and olive skin didn’t fit with the vivid blue eyes and white eyebrows punctured by rows of tiny gold beads. One eye had long, enviable lashes, the other had almost none. Sal’s voice was soothing, it’s timber fell somewhere in the medium octaves. My insides twisted, making me feel off-kilter like I’d entered the Firefly galaxy.

“What is this place?” I asked, glancing around. The room was at least four times larger than the plane. It pulsed with a delicate blue ambiance. The junctions at the railings and floors glowed, but I couldn’t see fixtures or bulbs. Small groupings of puffy furniture were everywhere. Change Counselors sat with their charges, including the pilots and flight attendants. Large iconic images of San Francisco hovered at the outer edges; The Golden Gate Bridge, Alamo Square’s Painted Ladies, the Transamerica Building and Fisherman’s Wharf. I wondered if those recognizable settings were put there to soothe us.

“It’s a Red Cross Trauma Unit,” Sal said.

“Are we prisoners?”

“No,” came the sympathetic reply. Sal noticed my inability to make eye contact. “Is my appearance distressing you?”

“Well — “ my eyes dropped to the floor. “I don’t know if I should call you a he or a she.”

Smiling, Sal’s demeanor reminded me of my kindergarten teacher. “I am gender neutral. The pronoun to use is, ‘zie.’”

“Ahhh,” I nodded, studying my fingernails.

Sal held out a hand, palm up.

After a few uncertain moments, I bridged the gap. The warmth, strength, and kindness of Sal’s touch sent a shockwave through my system. I would have jerked away if zie had not had a firm grip. Sal noticed the raw skin on my wrist.

“This must be painful,” Sal said. “With your permission, we have a cream that will heal dermal abrasions.”

I nodded.

“No one here is in trouble, including you, Charlotte. Your activities in 2017 are not illegal now.” Sal winked.

Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply. For most of my flight home, I’d been worrying about my mother’s reaction when she saw me handcuffed to Big Bubba —

“Can I show you something?” Sal interrupted. Leading me to a set of stairs, we started up. To no one I could see, Sal spoke. “One ounce of tissue repair and a tricorder to the observation deck.”

“Who are you talking to?”

“The walls have sensors.”

Waiting for us at the top of the steps was an insect-like creature hovering at eye level. It carried a clear square topped with a dollop of cream.

“Hold out your hand, Charlotte, so the medi-drone can deliver your ointment.”

Doing as instructed, I waited as the drone delivered its payload. It buzzed away.

“Apply the entire amount,” Sal said.

It melted into my skin like whipped cream on hot chocolate giving off a pleasing floral, citrus smell. The soreness and red marks disappeared instantly. The clear square that held the cream dissolved, making a crackling sound.

Stepping farther into the room, I saw that we were inside a dome. Catching myself before making an exclamation out loud, I walked to the wall placing my hand on the seamless glass. “It’s beautiful,” I whispered.

Stars twinkled above. A Robert D. Brown version of San Francisco spread out below. Layers of vehicles in flight circulated around towering, clean-lined skyscrapers like veins and arteries. The air was crystal clear, plant life on platforms and terraces made the city look like a living jungle. The landscape below receded as we gained altitude.

“I thought we were still on the tarmac,” I turned to Sal. “Where are we going?”

“This transport has been programmed to take us to the Barry Healing Center in Monterey Canyon.”

“Monterey Canyon! Are we going under water?”

The curves of Sal’s mouth uplifted at the edges. “It is the premier trauma center on the west coast. As soon as your plane appeared on the radar, ANA began negotiations to secure the facility.

A buzzing distracted me from the conversation. Another medi-drone approached. This one was twice as large as the first. About the size of a box turtle, it delivered something that looked like a TV remote control to Sal. “Thank you,” zie said accepting the device. “It is a tricorder,” Sal turned to face me, “It will give us your baseline state of health.”

Shaking my head, I held up a hand, “Whatever it is, I can’t afford it.”

“There’s no cost, Charlotte, maintaining optimal health is a universal right as decreed by the Global Living Counsel.” Raising eyebrows, Sal held up the device.

Reluctantly, I nodded. Zie waved it in my direction then glanced down at the screen. Sal frowned.

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” Sal replied quickly, smiling, “You are a perfectly healthy, twenty-eight-year-old woman.”

“Who should be forty-eight,” I quipped.

~~~

Other passengers and counselors began arriving on the observation deck.

“We’ll begin our descent soon,” Sal stated as zie returned the tricorder to the flying turtle. “When we transition from terrestrial to aquatic, it’s a lovely sight.”

“What happens when we get where we are going?”

“Individual healing plans are manifested.”

I noticed Bubba and his counselor not far away. I could hear snatches of their conversation. He was still talking about his kids.

Facing Sal, I asked, “What if we don’t want to contact family?”

“That would be included in your healing plan. Your wishes will be honored.”

A weight the size of the moon, lifted. My shoulders slumped, I wobbled unsteadily.

Ever observant of my reactions, Sal hurried to bring a chair that I gratefully collapsed into. I could have easily closed my eyes and let the world fade but we were approaching the water.

Without a pause, we dropped below the surface.  Tiny air bubbles passed the windows like spinning pearls. I sat up straighter, gazing at the pristine surroundings. Streaks of sunlight beamed through kelp flowing in the currents. A stunning variety of fish scattered.  Off in the distance, I made out a multi-storied structure, clear like our dome. People moving around inside. Several crab-like robots, arms, and legs plodding slowly, looked like they were harvesting crops along the seafloor.

~~~

My suite at the Barry Healing Center was lavish. The amenities were like a high-end resort. It was difficult to accept that my time here was a freebie granted by a society that valued the well-being of its citizens. Sal showed me a button to push if I needed him.

Eight days went by before I pushed it.

I slept, finished the novels that I packed, and became acquainted with the helper bots that came out of the closet whenever I voiced a need to the listening walls. They brought my meals, cleared the dishes, changed my linens, and provided instructions on how to use the COMM consul, a connection to the outside world and the source of all human knowledge. Located in the sitting room, the History channel filled me in on what I missed while I was wrinkled in time.

~~~

My period was late. Was it because of stress or the result of a hot and steamy Tokyo connection? Wondering if it could be the latter, my thoughts returned to Mom. During the flight, I wasn’t worried about going to jail, but about what she’d say when she saw me with Big Bubba. “What kind of mess have you gotten yourself into, you worthless piece of crap? You’ve been a pain in my ass since the day you were born,” was a common theme. Attempting to win her approval was idiotic, yet I never stopped trying.

I knew about her diagnosis before I left. The sand in the hourglass of her life was responding to gravity. Tokyo was going to be my best, and last shot at pleasing her.

My chest constricted when I imagined having a child. I couldn’t remember a time when my mother didn’t mow me down with poison words. Picturing an innocent, cringing from me made my lips tremble. I couldn’t catch my breath. I pushed the button.

Sal was there without delay. Like before, Sal’s touch soothed, but it didn’t stop the flow of emotions. Zie confirmed the tricorder confirmation of a pregnancy.

“I can’t have a kid!” I wailed, “I don’t have a job; I’ll mess it up. It will hate me.”

Smiling, Sal rubbed my back, “Charlotte, you won’t have to do it alone. Like this trauma center, on-going life coaching, and basic living wages are universal rights. When you leave here, you and your little boy will have a home and plenty of support to make your lives healthy.”

“A boy!” I put my hands on my belly. “You can tell that already?”

Sal nodded.

“I don’t know if I want to be a mother.”

~~~

Sal assured me that my restless and bored feelings were signs that I was growing strong enough to begin living on the outside. I still wasn’t sure that I wanted a tag-along, but the idea of keeping the baby wasn’t as horrific as it was weeks before.

From the COMM center, I learned that ocean cleanup efforts were still ongoing, that we’d rolled back pollution levels to 1970’s estimates. CO2 emissions were almost nothing and international borders were relaxing as a global government was proving itself capable and trustworthy.

The rock inside that kept me encapsulated in a shell of fear was beginning to soften. Hope, given enough space to grow, will emerge, making room for new ideas. I’d chosen Albuquerque for my home. One helper bot would be assigned to me. If I wanted more, I’d have to earn it.

~~~

A week before I was scheduled to leave, Sal called me into the medi-unit to meet with a doctor. “There is something we need to discuss,” zie said. “Your tricorder scan found a genetic problem with your baby’s heart.”

My glass house was crumbling into wicked shards. Feelings of hope were evaporating like steam, I didn’t deserve them anyway, I was still the same messed up girl that my mother cursed.

“Charlotte!” Sal was gripping my hands, “You’ve stopped listening.”

Zie was right. When they said that something was wrong with my baby, I knew, suddenly, that I wanted him!

“The procedure to repair it is minor,” the doctor was saying over Sal’s shoulder. “CRISPR will eradicate it within twenty-four hours.”

In the last five minutes, I’d taken a roller coaster ride back into my dark place — one I’d hoped I’d left behind — and become frozen in a sticky soup of something much bigger. “CRISPR?” my eyes were as wide as saucers. “Isn’t that….??”

Sal squeezed my hands, He nodded sadly. “Everyone alive today lost someone in the tragedy. That harsh lesson taught us to be much more careful. Its use is highly regulated. There are multiple levels of oversight. For something like this, Charlotte, CRISPR is a miracle.”

~~~

Ryo was born, without a heart defect. He takes after his father with stiff dark hair that stands on end. Four years into our journey together, I’ve stopped stressing about repeating my mother’s mistakes. We’re good, but I’m still working on it, and me, every day. I have a small, precious community of friends, a life coach I enjoy, and meaningful work.

~~~

As settled as my life had become, I worried about Ryo’s father. I knew as much as social media told me.

Returning from a hole in time is big news. As far as I know, every ANA passenger had to deal with some form of celebrity. I had declined all interviews and had no social media accounts in my real name. I had hoped to stay out of his radar.

~~~

“Overseas communication, private discourse requested,” announce LeeLu, my house bot. “Caller ID: Haru Ito.”

I’d been painting a still life. At the mention of that name, my brush dropped to the floor, splattering yellow paint over my canvas shoes.

“Where’s Ryo?” I inquired. Did my voice sound shrill?

“He’s at the park with Nanny Ron,” Leelu informed.

I rushed to a mirror.

“Shall I decline the connection?”

“No! I’ll be right there,” I said, raking a brush through my hair. I pinched my cheeks, a ridiculous habit. Employing calming techniques, I took deep breaths while turning off all the listening devices, bots, and tools in the house. Stepping in front of the COMM screen, I gazed into eyes that matched my son’s.

A veneer of maturity was superimposed over my memory of a youthful boy. Ito was still trim and handsome, but a no-nonsense, self-confidence had replaced shy enthusiasm.

“Charlotte, you look just the same,” he said, smiling warmly, sounding surprised.

The hard irony of his statement settled between us like an elephant attempting to sit on a footstool.

After a long silence, he said, “I know about the child. I wish you’d come to me as soon as you returned —“

And then he said the words I’d been dreading, “I’d like to meet him.”

~~~

I was familiar with his family and career. He was working on international negotiations on behalf of the global governance. He had a teenage daughter who was an accomplished musician and writer. His wife was on a team expedition to Jupiter. She’d been gone for three years; it was unlikely she’d ever return.

I could feel my old insecurities clamoring below the surface like cage-crazed chimpanzees. It was difficult to trust that someone I’d crossed paths with in my old life could have turned out to be someone I’d want to know in my new one — let alone give access to my son.

I remembered something Sal said at the healing center, “Don’t let fear rule you, Charlotte. Life gives more gifts to those with open hearts.”

~~~

The private transport reminded me of the one I’d been on when I got off ANA flight #008. To Ryo, it was no big deal, a playroom to explore while he waited to meet his father.


Check out all of the short stories from Seat 14C.

A

Anders, Charlie Jane – Trapped in the Bathroom!

Anderson, Kevin J. – Terminal

Asaro, Catherine – The Alder Tree

Atwood, Margaret & Ashby, Madeline – The Japanese Room

B

Bacigalupi, Paolo – A Passing Sickness

Barretta, Mike – Post-Temporal Stress Disorder

Benford Gregory – A Suprise Beginning 

C

Cambias, James L. – Treatment Option

Cooper, Brenda  –  Unforeseen Consequences

F

Finch, Sheila – Homecoming

G

Goonan, Kathleen Ann  –  The Dream of a Common Language

Grimwood, Jon Courtenay – The Trouble with Brothers

Gunn, Eileen – Transitions

H

Hill, Matt – Eighty-niner

Howey, Hugh – Full Unemployment

 K

Konstantinou, Lee – The Girl Who Almost Became a Zombie

Kress, Nancy – Collapse

M

Menuge, Aidan J.S. – Dido’s Lament – WINNING Entry

Mohanraj, Mary Anne – Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Morrow, James – Technofeelia

 Q

Qiufan, Chen – Oblivion Is A Crease Left By Memory

R

Rajaniemi, Hannu – NiceCoin 

Resnick, Mike – A New Reality

Robson, Justina – Gap Year

S

Schroeder, Karl – The Urge to Jump

Shunn, William – Last

Smythe, James – Catharsis

Sparhawk, Bud – Yesterday’s Solutions

Sterling, Bruce – It Feels So Exponential

  W

Watts, Peter – Incorruptible

Wilson, Daniel H. – Iterations

Y

Yu, Charles – Morning Glory

Z

Zhang, Hal Y. – The Noctilucent Paradox in E Minor


 

If you found a particular story(s) that resonated with you, leave a comment in the box below. Did any of the authors come close to your future vision?

 

Resources:

WIRED – XPrize is Now Backing Sci-fi Like it Backs IRL Science

XPRIZE Enlists Science Fiction Advisors to Dream Bigger

Thank you to the talented Wattpad author Amber K. Bryant for sending out the pointer to the XPrize writing competition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Hitch’n

whn

“My entire life has been lies,” thought JJ as his boots tapped out a rapid tattoo. “It’s a sham, a false reality that everyone has purchased a slice of. There is no path to success. It’s just consumption, power mongering, and environmental destruction.”

JJ had left a monument in the center of his neatly made bed. His diploma from Wharton University, crumbled into a ball, and his wallet. Inside it was $250 in cash, his credit cards, and his driver’s license. JJ’s vehicle registration and passport completed the assembly. On top of everything, he’d left a cryptic note, Mom, you won’t be able to find me where I am going.

At the time that JJ had written it, he’d been seething with anger, wanting to lash out. Even in that highly charged state, he realized that it sounded like a suicide note. He didn’t want anyone to assume that he’d taken the easy way out. JJ added, When I find what I am looking for, I’ll be in touch.

His backpack was light. It contained a Swiss Army knife, a flashlight, a set of magnets his father had given him on his sixth birthday and the tiny ceramic jar (containing his baby teeth) that his mother had saved.

On the deserted road, a car’s approach could be heard from a long way off. Confidently, JJ made a fist with his thumb pointing up, holding it out.

A wind kicked up in all directions. The air buzzed and crackled. But JJ didn’t look around, he kept striding. A bright light appeared in front of him.

That made him stop. A large bubble, about fifteen feet in diameter, emerged. It undulated as if it were alive, growing increasingly fatter, straining at its surface.

With a pop, it burst. In its place, stood JJ’s dream car.

It made no sound as it crept forward, stopping at his side. The driver’s side door opened. When JJ leaned down to peer inside, he only saw darkness. For a moment, he thought about his note, maybe it was a suicide note…maybe not.

JJ got in.

_______________

Vistual Writing Prompt:  WritetoDone website – in 350 words or less, write about what happened next – November 2016

Guest Post – Underneath excerpt by M.N. Arzú

short story cover art3

Daybreak usually found Neil Thompson walking down the shore. At this early hour, the deserted Maine beach was his and his alone. Thoughts about everything and nothing formed and vanished in his mind along with the waves. At fifty-two, few were the pleasures left to him from his childhood, and fewer the moments he actually got to enjoy them.

He loved this part of the beach, his own private sanctuary off the beaten path.

Further down the beach, the waves were washing against a large object, but the dim early light and the seaweed distorted its form. Frowning, he wondered if the sea would reclaim it or if he would find trash polluting his little piece of heaven.

Wind beat on the back of his neck as he tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He left footprints that quickly washed away, while taking his time to reach the mystery item the sea had so generously brought to his feet.

His heart slammed in his chest when he finally realized what he was looking at: a dead body. Frozen to the spot, he stared as wave after wave crested over the white chest and dark trousers of a man’s corpse, and all he could think about was how much he truly wished the sea would take it back.

Holding his breath, he tried and failed to look away. His stomach felt too tight and heavy while his mind navigated a strange mix of morbid curiosity and utter disgust.

A particularly large wave crashed beside him, drawing him from his thoughts and reminding him that the tide forgave nothing on these ever-changing shores. A full minute passed before he resigned himself to the grisly duty of dragging the dead man out of the ocean’s grasp. He would need to call in the authorities on what was becoming anything but a normal day. Quickly, he dialed the number and waited impatiently.

Holding his phone in one hand, he reached for the man’s shoulder with the other. Movement met his touch, and he jerked his hand back in shock. Life still clung to this body. The man was still breathing.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

The voice on the phone caught him off-guard, and he almost dropped it.

“Sir?”

“Yes! Hello? I’m Neil Thompson, I’m at the beach. I’ve just found a man here. He was brought in by the tide. I think he’s still breathing, but I—I don’t know what—”… to do…

The words stuck in his throat.

He’d honestly thought those were trousers. Through the dark seaweed, a hundred shades of blue glinted off each scale as the sun rose in the early hour, the sea no longer able to disguise what Neil had ignored before: A tail.

Longer than legs would have been, the tail rolled lazily with the tide, somehow at an odd angle. Instinctively, he took two steps back, almost losing his balance. Every fiber of his being screamed for him to turn around and run, but he was trapped in his fight or flight instinct.

Gentle waves reached them again and again as Neil struggled to breathe. Where knees should have been, a deep gash ran horizontally, torn flesh and scales the testimony of a gruesome accident. Closing his eyes, Neil swallowed bile.

In his ear, the dispatcher kept asking questions, though God knew about what. He wished yet again that the sea would take back what it had brought in.

“Mr. Thompson, paramedics are on their way, but we need an exact location.”

Hysterically, he looked around, a tiny part of his mind deciding this must be a prank. Somewhere, nearby, cameras were recording his reaction and one day soon he would be watching this on reality television, laughing at his gullible self.

And yet, no matter where he looked, or how much he wished it wasn’t, the beach was deserted.

This is real. God, this is real!

“Mr. Thompson? Can you hear me?”

Neil looked down at the man who wasn’t a man, coming to grips with the fact that myth had crossed into reality, and no one but him was witnessing this bizarre twist in his life.

“Mr. Thompson!”

“Yes!” he answered, snapping out of it. It didn’t matter if this was the strangest day of his life, he could only guess the man in front of him was having his worst.

“I’m here,” he reassured the dispatcher, giving his address and a good estimate of how far he’d walked away from his home. “I’m across from Cluney’s store. I’ll stand by to signal the ambulance, you won’t miss me.”

“Okay, Mr. Thompson, this is what I need you to do while help is on the way.”

The operator listed off tasks: get him safe, check his breathing, check his responsiveness to touch. Maybe there was more, maybe Neil only half understood what the woman was trying to tell him, but he had the insane need to correct his early statement. You’re not coming to aid a man.

She kept asking all kinds of questions, expecting him to do all kinds of things.

Placing the phone in his shirt pocket on speaker, he mentally went through the instructions from the dispatcher on what he needed to do. Finally, taking a deep breath, he fixed his eyes on the lifeless face. Several bruises were starting to turn purple alongside the right temple, certainly the product of one hell of a collision. Neil had to talk to him to see if he could get a response.

“Hey…” Neil whispered, his voice deserting him.

“Hey,” he tried again, sounding slightly louder. “Well, crap, I don’t know what I’m doing…” he murmured. Shutting his eyes tightly for a second, he took a moment to get his racing heart under control. He positioned himself above the head, and with trembling hands, he reached under the ice-cold armpits.

“Okay, okay, here’s the deal: I’ll move you out of the sea, and you don’t bite my head off, okay?”

The man was heavy, and with some considerable effort, Neil dragged him out of the water. Part of Neil expected the tail to turn into legs. Part of him expected those eyes to pop open and sharp teeth to start gnashing at him.

None of that happened.

He took his phone out and went back to the dispatcher. Drowning people swallowed a lot of water, she informed him. Neil had to move his unconscious victim onto his side in case he vomited.

Neil stared at the tail on his victim, and almost laughed. This man was the furthest thing from drowning that one could get. In fact, maybe he should be pushing him right back into the sea.

“Mr. Thompson, do you understand?” the dispatcher asked, concerned.

“Yes,” he said, absently nodding.

He’d just found a mermaid—merman—yet no one would ever believe that something so fantastic could happen to someone so mundane.

Turning to look down the road, he strained to hear the ambulance sirens, but all he heard was the sea. He still had time.

Hanging up, he deftly turned his phone camera on and began gathering proof of what he was witnessing. No one would ever doubt what he’d just seen.

* * *

To the untrained eye, the hospital Emergency Room was nothing more than a chaotic arrangement of people shouting at each other and working their shifts on caffeine alone.

Well, that last part is true, Gwen Gaston thought, the last drops of her coffee still tasting like heaven. She’d been crazy for a fourth cup of liquid energy since two patients ago.

From her vantage point on the opposite corner of the ER entrance, Gwen watched gurneys and paramedics come and go, their patients delivered to the capable hands of her colleagues. Being the ER on-call surgeon guaranteed she never got bored, which was the main reason why she’d applied for the position two years ago. She’d been missing the adrenaline from her early days as an emergency doctor, and the intricate puzzles and challenges each ambulance brought to her hands.

Her timer went off, the cue for getting back to work. She threw the empty paper cup into the nearest trashcan and rubbed her hands in anticipation.

She was overweight and out of shape, and she knew she didn’t look like the ideal surgeon to handle the turmoil of the ER; half her diet consisted of an unhealthy dose of soda and chips to compensate for long hours at work, but damn, was she good at what she did. Most days that included patching people up from the inside out, six cups of coffee, and a good measure of yelling.

The speaker overhead chimed and a man called a code blue for the trauma room. Her phone began buzzing with an alert at the same time: they needed her to start prepping for emergency surgery. She walked faster.

“What do we have?” she asked to no one in particular on her route to her new patient, slipping out a pair of latex gloves.

“Some idiot in a mermaid costume half drowned down the beach,” one of the paramedics told her. His partner looked anything but amused. In fact, the guy looked downright scared.

“Okay, he’s stabilizing now. Can someone get that tail out of the way?” Dr. Bill Shore ordered, sounding calm and collected despite such an odd request.

She entered the trauma room and the smell of the ocean hit her before she could even take a good look at the man. She’d been expecting a half-assed costume made out of cheap plastic in pinks and yellows, adorned with shiny fake gems to complete the look. What she wasn’t expecting was how real the disguise looked. It was decorated with hundreds of tiny bright scales, complete with thin lateral fins that were torn everywhere. The length of the tail reached all the way down to the floor where people narrowly missed it with their shoes.

“What did you page me for?” she asked, mentally shaking her head at the crazy things she had to put up with in her line of work. This close, she could see small clusters of scales framing the youthful face and parts of his shoulders, which then disappeared down his back. His ears were pointy, and his skin almost translucent.

“We’ve been having a hard time with his vitals, and I could really use your help figuring out where he’s bleeding. We can’t seem to keep his blood pressure up.”

Gwen’s fingers expertly palpated the abdomen, looking for the elusive internal bleeding. Intrigued at what she felt, she started listening with the stethoscope a moment later, while monitors kept pace with a weak heartbeat and shallow breathing. Bruises adorned the right side of their patient’s head, and she would bet good money that his right wrist was broken.

What the hell is this? She thought as she kept moving down, unable to identify the internal sounds. Something was seriously off, she just couldn’t put her finger on what.

“Can someone page neurology, please?” Bill ordered.

“Are they filming something nearby?” Jackie, the senior nurse on staff asked, while touching the line where skin became tail. “This costume is definitely professional. I can’t find where it comes off.”

Still listening, Gwen’s eyes fixated on the middle of the tail, where she could see sluggish blood pooling onto the gurney. That gash was bleeding real blood.

Bingo!

“It might be painted on the skin,” Gwen absently explained. She stopped listening and started seeking where real muscle became part of the disguise. Her hands methodically felt beside and beneath the smooth texture of the tail, imagining how two legs would be able to fit in the narrow outfit. Where knees should bend, she unexpectedly felt a pulse.

She looked up at Bill, who was busy checking the monitors.

“I need to see what’s going on down here,” she said, signaling the tail.

“Okay, on three!” Bill said, and deftly they moved their patient onto his side. The back was as meticulously decorated as the tail, the blue scales following the spine in a narrow line, all the way to the back of his neck. The deep gash ran from one side to the other, cutting through several layers of tissue.

“Let’s clean this wound,” Gwen ordered to their other nurse, Oscar. It unnerved her that she could be fooled by an elaborate Halloween costume. She pressed down on her newly discovered pulse point, and saw the tail twitch further down. Blinking, she pressed again, sure she was imagining things.

It twitched again.

“We really need to get this thing off,” she heard Bill saying, but he sounded so far away. “Gwen, how bad are his legs?”

“I can’t find—”she started to say, sounding equally far away. The gash hypnotized her, forbidding her to even blink. Some forty percent of the tail had been cut deep, and her surgeon’s brain automatically calculated the odds of keeping the limb or amputating it.

For the first time, Gwen saw that tail as part of a body.

“Gwen?”

“It’s not a costume,” she muttered, bewildered, but only Oscar turned to look. Everyone else kept going at it as if they were treating a human.

“What?” Bill asked while he listened to the lungs with his stethoscope.

“It’s not a costume,” she repeated louder, turning to look at Bill with round eyes. “It’s—it’s real!”

Only Oscar understood her, moving away immediately, his eyes going as big as hers.

“What are you talking about?” Bill asked, forgetting his stethoscope.

“The ta—tail is bleeding,” she forced herself to explain. “There’s a pulse, even a reflex. Bill, I can’t find any legs in here.”

This time, Jackie moved back. Frowning, Bill moved next to her to take a closer look.

“X-rays,” they said at the same time.

Hesitantly, Oscar helped her and Bill to place their patient on his back. Two seconds later, they cleared the room to evade the momentary radiation.

“I’m sure this is perfectly logical,” he told Gwen, looking through the door at the impressive tail that still touched the floor.

“Birth malformation?” she offered, equally locked on their patient’s body. “With that length?”

“Someone’s playing a prank on us,” he muttered, entering the room once more. Behind them, only Oscar entered willingly.

“Or maybe he was playing a prank on someone else and it went horribly wrong…” she reasoned, looking at the monitors, “You can’t fake these vitals.”

By the door, Jackie made the sign of the cross. On the hall outside the room, the paramedics argued with each other about who’d been right.

This is becoming a circus.

“Bill?”

“We’re not dealing with a Disney character!” he snapped. She silently agreed: she doubted she’d ever seen a Disney character with abs like those. She chuckled at the stupid thought, barely containing a full blown hysterical attack.

“Get the labs done,” he told Jackie, the poor nurse looking paler than their patient while she fled the room.

“Get another gurney,” Gwen ordered Oscar. “We need to level off that tail.”

More people crowded the door, blocking anyone who was actually trying to work. The news of what was going on in the trauma room was spreading like wildfire.

“This is getting out of control,” she warned Bill, for the first time chaos taking over their highly tuned and efficient ER.

“Listen up!” Bill roared, walking towards the door, towering over everyone. “This is not a mermaid, and this is not a freak-show! Get back to work and let us save this man! NOW!”

They cleared out in two seconds flat.

“Are you sure?” Oscar asked, bringing the gurney Gwen had asked for into the room.

“YES!” Bill shouted, impatience showing through. “And whoever suggests otherwise—”

He didn’t finish, but the meaning hung in the air. Silently, Oscar helped her get the tail up.

“Here, let’s see…” Gwen murmured, clinical eyes looking for a better angle into the wound. They turned their not-mermaid onto his side again, and methodically she assessed the damage.

“He needs the OR,” she said aloud—for his not-tail, she privately added.

“He’s going to need a whole lot more than that when he wakes up and explains what the hell is going on here,” Bill murmured under his breath.

She couldn’t agree more.
__________________________

The excerpt that you’ve just read is the first chapter the book Underneath, a merfolk tale.  If you liked it, there’s more!

I had the pleasure of reading the entire manuscript as Michelle was creating it. It’s fast paced and good to the very last drop.

Follow the links below to learn about M.N. Arzú and how to get her books.

underneath-blog-cover

Buy this book on Amazon

Follow M.N. Arzú:

Author Website & Mailing List

Amazon Author pageauthor_photo-rt-2

Facebook

Twitter

Author Interview

More by this author – The Librarian Book Review

 

 

 

 

An injured merman is found washed up on a beach in Maine.

Merfolk have been hiding in plain sight for centuries. Now they are now torn between sacrificing one of their own—or telling humanity the truth.

Underneath, a merfolk tale takes the reader on a journey through secret societies, conspiracy, investigation, parental love, and coming-of-age

1850 – The Rising Phoenix – San Francisco

October 28, 1850 

Dearest Wife ~ 

There have been two more fires. San Francisco, like a phoenix, continually rises from the ashes. The damages, this time, are thought to exceed $15,000,000. I can comfortably speak of the numbers. Not so—of the personal toll.

Too many friends have been taken by fate or by their own hand.

Remember the Patterson family? After their home burned, Mr. Patterson shot his wife and their baby daughter in the street. He was found lying dead on top of them.

Thomas Maguire – who owns the Jenny Lind Theatre – has lost everything six times! He jokes that one day he will write a play about it. I appreciate his candor and I admire him for not succumbing to hopelessness.

1906 earth quake

Our warehouse fell to the flames. We had to have guards at the burn site every hour of the day and night so that no one would build on our ground.

There is much talk about forming a fire company with volunteers and of construction methods that will withstand conflagration.  

I ache with missing you, but I am glad that you have been spared the agony and upheaval here.

 All My Love, Reece

William_Coulter_-_San_Francisco

_______________

Writing Prompt: 200-Word Tuesdays – June 2016 prompt theme: Wrinkled Paper

This letter is an excerpt from a book in progress. Haylee is a monster story with scene settings that are historically accurate.

Haylee is a mysterious and rare Traveler. She is time shifted from 1984 to San Francisco in 1850. While there she meets and marries Reece Keener (Haylee and the Traveler’s Stone). Having returned to her own time – Haylee and the Crystal Carrier’s Consort (working title) – Haylee discovers a series of letters that her husband wrote.  This letter is one of that series.

History of the San Francisco Fire Department – Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

Only the Treehouse Knows – 200 words

treehouse cover

“T’was an ‘venture coming ‘her when we was kids.” Bill parked his diesel pick-up at the road side.

Sweltering, moist heat engulfed them when they stepped out of the air conditioning.  Bill’s crooked finger pointed at something over the rooftops. “Ya can jus make out the tree over ‘ther. Was jus open fields back then.”

“Is that where it happened?” Shayden asked as he took off his mirrored aviator sunglasses and squinted.

Bill said, “Some thirty years ago, now.”

Shayden pulled his phone out of his pocket, zoomed in on the tree and started snapping. “Do you still live around here?”

“Yep, ‘bout four miles away.”

“Have you heard of any unusual things happing in the area?”

“Ya might could say that,” Bill snorted. “It’s not some’thin people in these parts like to talk about much.”

“Would you show me what it was that you wrote in about?”

Bill scanned the road for traffic, then with his mouth pressed in a harsh line, he began unbuttoning his work shirt. He pulled the fabric back to reveal the lumpy spot in his side.

Shayden’s eyes opened wide, he swallowed audibly. He looked to Bill and held up his phone; Bill nodded.


Story Prompt: @200WordTuesdays on Twitter

Theme: Empty fields & nostalgia

Author & Character Dialog

As I write, it’s like I am watching a movie, except that it involves all the senses. I see everything from each characters’ point of view. I hear, touch, smell and taste the surroundings. I feel all the feelings.

The characters seem very real as they are doing what they are doing. But having one of them interact with YOU is a very different experience!

In this writing exercise, it was the first time that I ‘talked’ to my main character. Her responses came instantly and naturally – just as if we were really having a conversation with one another.

Give it a try, it will add another level of dimensionality to your peeps.

____________________________________

 

Wake up Haylee.diagol cover sm

“Go away Joey, I am trying to sleep.” Haylee flung a warm pillow out from under the covers. With no specific direction in mind, the soft projectile was meant to disrupt the cat’s plan to get her out of bed.

I thought we could talk for a few moments.

“Joey! Come on!” Haylee complained.

This isn’t Joey.

“Huh?” Haylee responded. She cracked her eyes into thin slits and scanned the room.  Accustomed to hearing voices in her head, she took a moment to assess the quality of this particular one. It was not totally foreign; she’d heard it before…

Now that she was focusing on it, she understood that it was not Joey or any other animal.  Animals didn’t form words and complete sentences. They sent a series of flowing visual images with emotions attached.

It wasn’t a thought from any of her victims either.  After being absorbed into her mind during Haylee’s unusual feeding process, they were mere memories. When she was finished with them, they didn’t make new ones.

Re-asserting her tight clamp-down on those, Haylee was suddenly wide awake.  She threw back the blankets and scrambled out of bed. Already wearing sweats, she threw on a jacket, slipped into a pair of shoes, and ran a comb quickly through her dark, curly mass of hair.

She was out of the apartment in less than ten minutes.  The streets of Berkeley, California were not as busy as they usually were at this time of day, but there were enough people around to make Haylee feel part of something larger. Thinking that the voice was a dream remnant, she let relief trickle down her spine.

You are going to Josh’s office aren’t you?

Haylee stopped in mid stride. A forty-something, dark skinned man carrying a to-go coffee grumbled, “Watch where you are going, Miss!”  He extended his hot cup away from his body while barely avoiding a collision.

“Sorry,” she muttered.

“Who are you?” Haylee asked, looking up and all around. The coffee man, glanced over his shoulder, frowned, and picked up his pace.

I can’t tell you that, but I want you to know that I am someone who cares.

“Are you my mom?”

Not exactly.

“Alright, whoever you are, what do you want and why are you talking to me?”

A pair of female students, seeing the young woman gesturing and speaking out loud, crossed to the other side of the street.

I want you to know that when I kill you, you won’t suffer and that your time here has had a much bigger purpose.

You are going to kill me? I don’t think so. I’m dying because all of the women in my family have some weird inherited thing that happens after they give birth. “

A husky blonde came out of a store with her son. They emerged near where Haylee was standing. The precocious boy pointed. “Mommy, that lady is talking to a ghost.”

The mother shushed him and hurried them toward their car.

That’s right. Why do you think that is?

A suspicious look crossed Haylee’s face. “I don’t know….  Do YOU?”

People are staring Haylee; you should keep walking. Yes, I am the only one who does.

Instead of walking, Haylee began to jog.

“Are you saying that it was your idea that I die at the age of twenty-three?”

You could have lived for a few years more if you hadn’t returned the souls that you stole.  But it was the right thing to do.

“Not that I believe you, but did you also have something to do with my time jump to 1849 and…Reece?” her voice broke a little on the last word.

Of course. That is part of the story arc for the women of your lineage and the crystal fragments that you possess.

“Then you know about the Travelers and why they do what they do?”

Yes, and you will too before too much longer. 

Haylee, who had started running at top speed, stopped to rest when she felt the energy of the voice begin to pull away.

“Wait! Are you saying that I’m not real? That my dad, Gori, Josh and Serena aren’t real either?

You’re real to me and I love you all. You are like my children.

“I don’t accept this.”

I’m sorry.

“If this is true, why do I have to die?  I don’t want to die! There’s so much more that I want to do!”

I know.

“Josh needs to know about this! He thinks he can help. He’s started a research project.”

That is exactly what he needs to be doing. His work is going to be an important part of what happens next. But you won’t be able to tell him about this conversation because I have to wipe it out of your mind.

“What? Why?”

I need you to go into Haylee and the Last Traveler with no memory of it having taken place.

______________________

 

 

Haylee: Period of Change – 1st Place Short Story Winner

 

short story title ribbon

1982

 

Most of the girls Haylee’s age started getting their periods at thirteen. Haylee was well aware of this because those who were, “on the rag” didn’t have to shower in gym class. It was almost an honor, and a sign that a girl had moved into womanhood.

When Haylee turned fourteen and was practically the last girl not to have gotten her period, her schoolmates started talking about it.

At fifteen, still periodless, and showing no signs of physical maturation, the gym teacher called Haylee into her office and started asking embarrassing questions. Mortified, Haylee quietly informed the teacher that the women in her family had always been very late bloomers — she was grasping at straws — and that she was sure that it would happen any day.

The teacher, who was quite fond of the quiet, intelligent girl, looked doubtful. She empathized with Haylee’s discomfort, and she knew that with Haylee’s mother gone, the girl probably had no one to confide in. “Haylee, I’m not trying to embarrass you. It may be true that you are a late bloomer, but it could also be that something’s wrong, like a hormone imbalance. I’ve discussed it with the school nurse and —”

“How could you talk about this with someone else? It’s none of your business!” Haylee shouted. She felt as if she had been kicked in the stomach. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“It is my business, Haylee,” the teacher replied sadly. “Teachers have a responsibility to look after the welfare of their students. If it appears that a parent is neglecting —”

“What? You’re saying my father is doing something wrong because I’m not…” her brow furrowed.  Haylee searched for the right words,“…growing up?”

“This is important, Haylee. You are not progressing normally; I have to call your father to make sure you see a doctor.”

“No! Just leave me alone and stay away from my father!” Haylee yelled as she practically jumped for the door. She felt trapped and needed air.

~ ~ ~ ~

Even before her talk with her gym teacher, Haylee had wondered if there was something wrong. At first, she was convinced that she had cancer eating away her insides, keeping her from growing. As she got older, she worried that she had a congenital disorder that stunted her growth.

Not long after what Haylee thought of as “The Big Period Incident,” she ordered herself a bra through a catalog and started stuffing herself. She also became an expert at avoiding gym class.

Despite her worries, Haylee stayed bal­anced. She enjoyed learning and took pleasure in her classes, easily outshining the other students.

When all of her chores on the farm were done for the day and she’d fixed her father dinner, Haylee would go outside and climb up on the old tractor. It sat rusting behind the barn. From there, she’d watch the sun set.

The cool, evening air, as it caressed her face, had her smiling. She thought about how much she loved caring for their pigs, chickens and horses. The pictures and thoughts that they shared with her made her feel accepted as part of them. They saw her…really saw her. This was something that Haylee desperately needed.

~ ~ ~ ~

Seventeen-year-old Haylee was sure that she had a migraine, even though she’d never had one before. The excruciating pain started at her temples and radiated out like pinpoint pricks of burning sparks that crackled through her bloodstream. With eyes squinted into slits, Haylee, had to draw in deep breaths to keep her stomach contents where they belonged. Haylee gently managed the half-mile walk from the bus stop to her house.

The cool interior darkness that enveloped her as she crossed the threshold offered a fleeting sense of relief. Within moments, she was clammy and trembling again.

She held onto the walls to make her way to the bathroom. Once there, she let her book bag drop and crawled like a suffering supplicant toward the porcelain deity. After twenty minutes of dry heaves, she thankfully welcomed its cool countenance along the side of her face as she crouched there, embracing it for another ten minutes.

When it appeared that her world had ceased its sickening gyrations, Haylee gingerly moved a few inches to test her theory. I think it’s getting better, she thought. Although the agony persisted, the nausea had lessened.

Stooping carefully to retrieve her bag, Haylee didn’t bother to glance in the mirror as she shuffled toward her bedroom. Returning shortly in her bathrobe, she reached into the shower to turn on the hot water. If she had not been so preoccupied, she would have been shocked by what the mirror revealed. Dark hair hung limply around an ashen face. Her lips were gray. Her straight, angular body had become more rounded.

Shakily, she stepped over the edge of the tub. The cascading water soothed her, but only temporarily. Lost in a dull haze, but not knowing what else to do, Haylee stood there, eyes closed, remaining as still as possible.

At some point, her father started knocking on the bathroom door.  Feebly, she responded. She was relieved when he finally left. Long after the water had turned cold and the house had become silent, she stepped out of the shower.

Laboriously, she slipped on her robe. The mirror reflected even more startling changes. Her hands and arms had begun to take on pronounced lines. Her neck, shoulders, hips, and legs had developed a graceful quality. The hurt she experienced blinded her to all else, but somewhere in the back of her mind, it registered that her robe was too small.

Without turning on the lights, Haylee went to her room. Feeling for the electric blanket controls, she cranked the heat up to high. Crawling under the covers, she curled into a ball.

~ ~ ~ ~

Frequently, with only the hum of appliances and the ticking of the clock for company, Haylee wished that her dad would linger for breakfast ─ but not today. She was grateful that he had left at first light. Rushing to put on baggy sweats, she raced to the kitchen driven by fierce cravings.  She was ravenous!

Barely able to contain her desires, she opened the refrigerator and grabbed the first thing her hand landed on — milk. After a half dozen lusty swallows, the empty carton landed with a dull thud in the middle of the kitchen floor. Empty cheese wrappers followed by cold cut wrappers, mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup bottles, an empty pickle jar, Tupperware containers that had held Tuna Helper leftovers, a tray from what was left of a pineapple upside-down cake and an empty egg carton were added to the pile.

Haylee paused to survey the bare refrigerator shelves for anything else of interest. A deep burp, that tasted like mustard and tuna, bubbled up her throat. Not a bad combination… Haylee rejected the horseradish and jalapeno condiments.  Resting one hand on her stomach while wiping goo from her face with the back of the other, Haylee thought.  I don’t feel like puking after eating all of that! Another belch erupted, followed by more hungry gurgles.

Haylee began riffling through the cupboards next. Soon the plinking of empty tin cans sounded as they hit the floor. With a glassy look in her eyes, she licked food remnants from the dirty dishes in the sink. Consciously, she had stopped herself from tossing the Corel plates and bowls into her heap. Although the advertisements claimed that they were unbreakable, Haylee knew this was not true. Everything even remotely edible that could be gleaned from the trashcan was added to the increasing refuse pile in the middle of the room.

Haylee took a deep breath and sighed. She wandered over to the couch. What a relief not to feel starved! Her head barely landed on the cushion before she fell fast asleep.

~ ~ ~ ~

Something roused her from her nap shortly before her dad was due to come in for lunch. Yawning, Haylee sat up, arched her back and stretched. She opened and closed her mouth, testing it’s parched, cottony texture. Cupping a hand over it, she expelled hot breath while taking a whiff to see if it smelled. The scent of fish, sour milk and onions made her frown. Thinking that she needed to brush her teeth, Haylee stood up. It was then that she noticed the state of the kitchen. “Did I do ALL that?”

It looked like a cyclone had gone through and pulled everything out of the shelves except for the plates, glasses, and silverware. A tingling underneath her skin had Haylee absently scratching her extremities. Something else felt funny. Reaching up to her chest, Haylee found sensitive mounds that filled her hands. She pulled the neckline of her sweatshirt away so she could look inside, “Holy!….” Her heart pounded as she explored that rest of her new contours. With a sense of wonder and delight, Haylee let out a sigh. So I was right!

Her eyes darted back to the mess in the kitchen. Dad’s going to be here soon! Leaping into action, she pulled out a roll of garbage bags. Haylee began shoving loose items into them. In under thirty minutes, she’d filled five! After hauling the trash bags outside, she returned to mop and wipe down the counters. At least, it smells fresh, Haylee thought as she surveyed her handy-work.

~ ~ ~ ~

The slam of the screen door announced her father’s arrival. He was greasy from crawling around under the walnut shaker. Not saying ‘hello,’ he paused at her side, took a quick sniff, raised his eyebrows, then continued striding toward the kitchen. Hesitating, he turned back, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school today?”

Knotting her fists in the fabric of her sweatshirt, Haylee hid most of the stains from her recent activity  ─ as well as a few other developments ─ “Ahhh….. I wasn’t feeling good, so I stayed home.”

“Huh,” Eugene muttered before turning around to continue.  Haylee held her breath as he reached for the refrigerator door.

“Aw, crap!” his voice sounded hollow coming from inside the appliance. “I don’t have time to go shopping today.” He straightened and looked at Haylee. “How can we be completely out of food?”

She smiled sheepishly, “A couple of friends from school stopped by to bring my missed assignments. They were hungry, so I told them that they could raid the kitchen.”

Nodding, he sighed. “They did. Going to have to wait till tonight before I can run into town. Make a shopping list?”

“Sure.” Haylee wondered how he could so easily accept her made-up story.

“I’ve got some beef jerky in the truck. Want me to bring you some?” he asked as he breezed past. The screen door slammed again before she had a chance to reply.

“I’m feeling better, Dad. Thank you so much for asking.”

~ ~ ~ ~

That night, Haylee slept fitfully. A headache had started again. By midnight, she was curled into a ball, feeling nauseous and dizzy. What’s wrong with me? her mind screamed.

After spending more than three hours in agony and terror, Haylee’s body suddenly jerked as a piercing, sharp pain ripped through her abdominal area. With swelling eyes, she opened her mouth to scream and found that she couldn’t breathe. Her heart was pounding so hard and fast, she thought it would burst. She panicked and clawed at her throat, leaving angry red marks. Her eyes rolled back in her head.

Some time later, she roused. The pain was still with her, but she was able to move. She noticed that her legs felt warm and slippery. She reached over to turn on her bedside lamp. Looking down, she was horrified to find that she was lying in a pool of blood. Inhaling a shaky, ragged breath, her throat constricted. Daddy, …please help me, I’m so scared.

After a struggle, Haylee managed to get herself onto her feet. She could see thick ribbons of dark red snaking their way down her legs. “Daddy,” she croaked, starting to weep. Holding onto the furniture and swaying, Haylee slowly inched her way to the bathroom. Once there, she collapsed unceremoniously into the bathtub. Sinking into a blessed darkness where the pain didn’t follow, Haylee felt sure that she would never wake up.

~ ~ ~ ~

Usually a heavy sleeper, Eugene woke with a start. A glance at the clock on his nightstand told him the time was 4:00 a.m. Fuzzily, he wondered what roused him. A strong smell of gardenias brought him fully awake. He wondered if it was left over from a dream he’d been having about his late wife, Doris.

He fumbled for the switch on his bedside lamp. Temporarily blinded by the illumination, Gene’s eyes squeezed shut. He scrambled to put on his clothes.

Flipping on the hallway light, he immediately spotted the dark pools of liquid and what looked like dragging footprints on the floor. When it dawned on him what he was seeing, Gene’s heart thudded. “Jesus in Heaven!” he muttered as he ran down the hall. Bursting into Haylee’s bathroom, Gene took in the scene.

His daughter lay in a heap in the tub, looking as white as a corpse. The bottom half of her nightshirt was soaked with blood, and her legs were smeared with it. “Haylee!” he cried. A fresh, steady stream was pooling and dripping down the drain.

Falling to his knees, he grabbed her shoulders. “Haylee! Haylee! Can you hear me?”

She was limp. He felt for a pulse. It was there, but it was fast and weak. Reaching for a towel, he stuffed it tightly between her thighs to stanch the flow. Gently gathering her up in his arms, Eugene ran to his truck, saying all the way, “Dear God, I beg you, please don’t take my girl away from me too!”

Stretching Haylee out on the bench seat, Gene cradled her head in his lap. With unsteady hands, he struggled to put his key in the ignition. He looked at them and saw them covered with blood. It was almost his undoing. Closing his eyes, he told himself that he had to stay calm.

Arriving at the hospital, he raced around the truck to scoop her up. The towel he had used to staunch her bleeding was soaked through. “Argh!” he exclaimed. Hastily, he ripped off his shirt to replace the sodden towel. When they burst through the emergency room door, Gene’s eyes were wild.

Immediately, Haylee was whisked away. Gene made a move to follow, but a nurse blocked his way. He would have fought to get past her but stopped when she told him that if he wanted to help, he would have to stay out of the doctor’s way.

Looking down, he saw a petite, redhead with intense blue eyes regarding him. In a firm but hushed tone, she said, “She’s in good hands.”

He nodded, “She has to be alright.”  His voice was strained.

The nurse directed him into a quiet, empty treatment room where she had him sit on a table. Coming back from closing the door, she brought tissues, rubber gloves, and moist towels to clean him up. As she reached out to hand him a tissue, she found herself caught in his grasp. He pulled her close and laid his head on her chest. His large body shook with deep soul-shattering sobs.

Gene realized his tears were more than just fear of the danger that Haylee was in. They were self-loathing for ignoring Haylee after her mother’s death, and dread that he would never have a chance to tell her he was sorry.

~ ~ ~ ~

Feeling euphoric, Haylee noticed a light, floating sensation. Hearing muted voices, she struggled to become fully conscious.

Her dad’s face came into view. She wondered why he looked so tired. There were deep lines on his forehead and around his eyes.

He reached out to brush the hair off of her forehead. Seeing her eyes focus on him, he turned to speak to someone. “I think she’s coming around.”

A woman’s face appeared. A bright light was di­rected in one eye and then the other. The woman spoke to Gene. “She’s stronger.”

Haylee could hear muted voices from a distance. Then her father was back. His hand felt warm and strong when held hers. “Haylee, do you know where you are?”

Frowning, she moved her head slightly. “You’re in the hospital. I brought you in early this morning.”

Closing her eyes, Haylee nodded.

“You are going to be just fine.” He rubbed her hand. “You need to rest. Go back to sleep. I’ll be right here.”

~ ~ ~ ~

Sitting in a chair next to her, Gene watched his daughter. For the first time, he noticed that she was looking a lot like her mother. Now, instead of cringing, that thought brought on a resigned smile.

Gene could tell that the doctor felt uncomfortable informing him that, “The only thing we can determine at this point in time is that she was having an unusually heavy menses.”

Dr. Lester was a tall, dark-haired woman in her fifties. “Her bleeding has stopped on its own. She appears to be out of danger, but I’d like to keep her for observation.”

Gene pushed the doctor for answers. With a few short, icy words, she told him that they would do everything they could.

Feeling unsettled but relieved to have made it through the crisis, Gene returned to Haylee’s bedside.

~ ~ ~ ~

When Haylee woke the next morning, that insatiable hunger had returned. Confined in a situation where she wouldn’t be able to satisfy it, she began to panic. She had to get out of there!

Between nursing shifts, Haylee asked her dad to go buy her a magazine. As soon as he was out the door, Haylee was out of bed and buttoning his jacket up over her hospital gown. Peeking into the corridor, she waited until it was clear. Spotting a laundry cart, she grabbed it and wheeled it away while searching for a sign that would direct her to the staff locker room.

In street clothes, it was easy to exit the building. Once free, Haylee ran, and ran, and ran. She made one stop, in a dumpster behind a grocery store. Hunger satisfied, for now, she burped forcefully. Her hands hurt ─ they ached deep down in the joints and had begun to feel hot. Making the decision not to worry over, yet, more weirdness, Haylee resumed her run.

In her front yard, Haylee stretched, feeling abundantly strong and powerful. There was another sensation there also, something strange and different. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was. Just then, a bug landed on her arm. When she moved to swipe it away, she heard a —thwap. She stared in astonishment. There was web­bing between her fingers!  She wiggled them noticing the increased resistance. She flicked the other hand—thwap! Now this hand had the webs too! They glistened and sparkled. When the webs were out, she felt a potent energy humming just below the surface of her skin, as if it were waiting to burst forth.

She flicked both hands at the same time—thwap! The webs were gone! She practiced making them appear and disappear until her fingers grew sore.

~ ~ ~ ~

Her dad had let her wear some of her mother’s clothes since none of her own fit anymore. Wearing a halter dress and sandals instead of jeans, cowboy boots, and snap-up shirts, Haylee’s classmates didn’t recognize her when she returned to school.

Speaking to no one in the corridor, Haylee shyly met many of the eyes trained on her. She saw interest in the boys’ faces and looks of scorn on the girls.

When she answered, “Here,” to roll call in homeroom, silence fell as everyone turned in her direction. Scrunching down as far as she could, Haylee shut her eyes and willed everyone to stop gawking.

Regaining his own composure, the teacher cleared his throat, “Well, Haylee…you are looking well.  I mean…did you have one of those glamor make-overs?”

The highlight of Haylee’s day had been Curtis ─ a boy she’d loved since fifth grade. He’d never looked twice at her. Recently broken up with his latest in a long list of girlfriends, he’d sought her out. “I heard that you suddenly turned ‘hot.’ I had to come to see for myself.”

Thirty minutes later, he’d asked Haylee out for her first date.

~ ~ ~ ~

 The night was clear and the stars twinkled brightly as Curtis drove his Ford pick-up. Haylee sat close to him on the bench seat. She willed herself to relax. When he turned the truck onto a deserted levee and parked about a quarter mile off of the main road, Haylee’s heart began to beat quickly. She could feel herself starting to perspire.

“This is my ‘get away’ place. I’ve never brought a girl here before,” he said as he hopped out of his door.

“Oh,” Haylee responded, feeling pleased.

Holding hands, they walked a little way. Turning a corner, they came upon a train track that went out over a trestle with the river flowing below. Helping her onto the railroad ties, they sat down on a rail. Curtis fished a couple of pennies out of his pocket showing her that the two coins had the current year. “I thought we could put them on the tracks to have the train fuse them together so we could remember our first date,” he explained as he put them in place.

Haylee was touched. “How nice!”

He leaned toward her to plant a soft kiss on her lips. It was over before she realized what he had done.

“We’ll have that memento before too long,” he whispered. He returned to kiss her again. This time lingering and gently coaxed a response.

Small rumbles began then, in Haylee’s core and the ones on the tracks.

Haylee was so absorbed, that it was a few moments before she realized that Curtis’s hand was on her breast. Shocked, she moved so she could push him away. Tearing his mouth from hers, Curtis whispered, “Don’t!”

Wedging her arms between them, Haylee complained, “Let go!”

Curtis held her tightly, “Relax. I won’t hurt you.”

Haylee could hear annoyance and frustration in his tone.

“I said stop!” she yelled. On its heels, another wave of quivering radiated through her middle, stronger this time.

“What the….?” Curtis said.

The train lights appeared a few miles out. Curtis jumped to his feet, pulling Haylee with him as he started walking quickly toward the river.

“Where are you going?” Haylee asked. Her voice was several octaves higher than before.

“Kick off your shoes,” he directed as he kept tugging her onward. The ground beneath them dropped away as they started across the trestle.

Bending over to grab a shoe in each hand, Haylee could feel herself trembling. Glints of moonlight undulated on the surface of the water.

Jumping from railroad tie to tie, they jogged between the iron tracks. Curtis urged her to hurry. Looking behind them, she saw the train approaching ─ fast!

“Curtis!” she shrieked.

Run!” He clutched her wrist and squeezed. He smiled with a wicked gleam in his eye.

Haylee’s heart hammered wildly. The tracks shook. She pulled her arm away from him, so she could focus on running.

The sound of the high, plaintive whistle was ear shattering. Curtis laughed, but Haylee couldn’t hear it.

They were about twenty yards from the far edge of the bridge when the train rolled onto the trestle. Running for her life, Haylee screamed. Adrenalin effectively masked the tremors that had her quaking from the inside out. The heavy rumble from the massive amount of iron and steel breathing down their necks had Haylee thinking about how her dad would feel when he found out how she had been killed. Haylee was preparing for the impact when she was roughly yanked at a right angle. She went flying, before tumbling down a grassy embankment.

It took a few moments to realize that she was still alive, that she had stopped moving, and that the engine and its cars were rolling past them. Nothing appeared to be broken. A white-hot anger flared up. Locating Curtis, she crawled toward him. He was laying on his back, laughing and shouting about how great that was!

Cursing, Haylee hit him with balled fists.

While holding her hands, he dragged her over to him and began kissing her. She struggled. He rolled on top of her. Between wet kisses, he kept repeating, “You are so awesome!” Curtis held her in place while grinding his hips into her pelvis. Haylee could feel his excitement.

The vibrations within Haylee intensified. Something shifted in her mind.

She ceased to be afraid. A foreign desire had taken over. It was something that didn’t care about boys with busy hands and dangerous senses of humor. It didn’t care about the physical act of intimacy. It wanted something much deeper than that.

Haylee lay beneath him, unnaturally still.

Curtis noticed that the fight had gone out of her and paused to look. Alarmed at what he saw, he rolled off her.

She sat up abruptly, considering him with a steely gaze.

Unnerved, Curtis scrambled to back away, he looked all around as if searching for an escape route.

Haylee stood up, still holding his eyes with hers. She unfastened her belt, letting it drop. In one simple movement, she removed her dress. Clad only in her underwear, Haylee wasn’t shy or embarrassed. “Is this what you want?” she asked in a slow, sultry tone.

Curtis couldn’t take his eyes off her now. He inhaled deeply, nodding. His breath caught in his throat, he reached out, bringing her to a kneeling position. He began kissing her again. Haylee did not resist. She made encouraging sounds. She did not want to frighten him again.

His hands roamed in places that would have had her fighting against him if she’d still been in her right mind. Greedily, Curtis clawed at her clothing. When Haylee felt the hooks of her bra let loose, she violently flipped him over.

An ‘oof’ escaped him as he slammed against the ground with a thud. With a detached point of view, like she was watching someone else, Haylee observed as her fingers, the webbing, in particular, molded themselves perfectly around the contours of his face.

Struggling furiously, Curtis tried to peel it away. His eyes bulged as he battled using every ounce of strength to save his life. The more he thrashed the tighter the webs adhered.

Witnessing the gruesome process was fascinating. As was the fact that it barely took any effort to hold him down. At the moment that Curtis accepted his fate, Haylee closed her eyes.

A feeling of indescribably sweet euphoria filled her. Infused with a glowing liquid light, all tension dissipated. With sparkling eyes, Haylee raised her weightless gaze to the stars. The webbed hand that had been bonded to Curtis’s mouth and nose released. Slowly and delicately, she lifted it away. She took a deep breath and stood—stretching languidly. In a daze, Haylee stood up and walked around to get used to this new sensation. Her lungs filled and expanded with breaths that drew in more air than she ever thought possible. Her thoughts came as swift as lightning. This is what all the strange things were leading up to!

After a while, Haylee wandered back to where Curtis lay, pale and trembling. Her eyes grew wide as she realized that she now knew a lot of things about him.

A surprise — since he always seemed so cool and confident — were the many nights he’d spent alone and afraid in an empty house when he was too young to fend for himself. His parents drank too much and fought too viciously. A distasteful look crossed her face when she learned that he planned to have sex with her and then describe it in graphic detail to his buddies at school.

Haylee dressed slowly. When she finished, she stood over him, watching. His pink skin glowed against the dark grass. He squirmed weakly reminding her of a maggot removed from its food source.  How did I ever think that I loved him? she wondered.  Haylee picked up his clothes and threw them in a heap near his feet. “Get dressed!” she demanded. When there was no response, she squatted next to him, shaking his shoulder. “Put your clothes on!”

He turned toward her. Haylee was startled to see the look on his face — or rather, the lack of a look on his face. It was as if he were asleep with his eyes open. In that instant, she understood that he was a shell emptied of its contents. Those…were now inside of her.

Haylee realized that he was not capable of putting his clothes on without help. Muddling through that awkward task, Haylee got him to his feet and tugged on his hand. His mechanical actions smoothed out and began to look almost normal once they got going. She led him back across the trestle.

On the other side, Haylee relived those awful moments running across the bridge and the shock of what she’d done to him.

Reaching the spot where he’d placed the pennies, her eyes scanned the area. Not far away, they lay on the track, blended together into one. Haylee picked up the fused metal. Her first thought was to put it in his pocket, but then she changed her mind.

______________

Story Prompt:  January-February 2016 Short Story Contest

SFF world

Theme: My Sweetest Downfall

Word Count Limit: 5000

Inspiration: This short story is an adapted excerpt from Haylee and the Traveler’s Stone.

Resources:

Haylee: Period of Change PDF download

Haylee and the Traveler’s Stone free (6+hr) audiobook download

Haylee web page