Learn to Play

English: An Atari 2600 four-switch "wood ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The kids are at school, the dishes done, and the laundry started.  She has no more excuses.  She must sit down on the floor, now, in front of the TV, now, turn on the XBox, now, and learn to play.

She hates video games.  She’s hated them all her life.  From the moment her parents gifted her brothers their first Atari console, she’s thought of video games as the worst waste of time.  There were so many more interesting things to do.  As a kid she was always outside, running and playing and riding bikes.  On rainy days, she liked to play house and school or games like trivia pursuit or do crossword puzzles.

It never mattered, before now, that she never got into gaming  the way her brothers did.  No one minded, before now, that she didn’t know the difference between a side-scroller, a first-person shooter or a role-playing game.

It mattered now.

Now she had kids, and her kids were gamers.

In her mind, in her world, a good parent was an involved parent.  A good parent went to every soccer game, attended every recital. A good parent knew what was in the books her children read, because she’d read them.  She knew the TV shows they liked because she watched with them.  She knew how to play the games they liked, because she’d played them.

This month, the favorite game is on the Xbox, and it is a side-scroller. The kids finished level three last night before bed, and when they get home from school they will start level four.  When they get stuck, they must turn to her for help, not the internet, not a friend, her.

She sits in front of the TV, turns on the XBox and logs into the game.  With her laptop beside her, open to a cheat website, she takes the controller in her hands and learns how to complete level four.


One Bite

The New Orleans "Picayune" mascot fr...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh how they stare. They know I don’t belong here, but they know why I’ve come.

A once in a lifetime trip. I’ve spent all of my savings and borrowed a fortune to get here. All for this one experience. This one event. This one meal.

The maître d’ leads me to a table and a waiter produces a chair from somewhere. I would have been fine standing but I am not surprised a galaxy-renowned establishment such as this can handle tourists.

The menu is extensive but I can’t read it. I don’t know any of the words. I look up at the waiter, helpless confusion on my face. He nods, takes the menu, and floats away.

I sit there and try to ignore the looks of the other patrons. They lounge on their hover chairs and mumble to each other. A family of three surround a table nearby.  I know what they are saying, although I can not hear the words.

“Why bother?” asks the son, “She’ll only eat two mouthfuls and then she’ll be full.”

“That poor skinny thing,” says the mother, “She looks like she’s starving. Don’t they have any food on her planet?”

“All they do is swallow nutro-pills, I wonder if she even knows how to chew,” the father responds.

Finally the waiter returns with a huge platter of food. The smells are overwhelming. I take the utensil, the one called a spoon, and hold it like I practiced. The waiter is floating at my elbow and I look up at him. He suggests I try the one he calls ‘spinachsouffle.’ I scoop a small amount onto my spoon and bring it to my mouth.

The combination of texture and flavor explodes on my tongue. It is, simply, orgasmic.

In that moment I know that all the expense, all the time, all the disdainful stares, all of it was worth it. And I would suffer through it again for the pleasure of that one bite.

Fine Pancakes

pancakes (Photo credit: Shoot into the Sun)

The Old Man insisted on calling her Marcy. Marissa wasn’t in a position to argue with him.

“I’m just reminding you, again sir, that in order to arrive at the signing on time, we need to leave in,” She glanced at the cell phone in her hand, “three minutes.”

He just kept on smiling and forked another pancake onto his plate.

“Marcy, relax. Have a pancake.  They’re delicious.” He winked at the cook who blushed.

The Old Man sat at the kitchen table in the tiny B&B he’d spontaneously chosen – instead of the fancy hotel the publishing house paid for. The cook/owner bent over backwards for the famous author, but Marissa had never seen her boss so angry.

You can’t just give in to the Old Man’s every whim! You’re his handler, Handle him!

“We don’t have time, sir.”

“Marcy, sit!” The old man barked, “You’re hovering like a mother hen.”

The commanding tone took her by surprise and she sat without thinking. He took her empty plate, put a pancake on it, and put it in front of her.

“Eat!” he said.

“I don’t eat carbs,” she said, cringing at the whine she heard in her own voice. The Old Man made her feel like a teenager despite her twenty years of experience in the book selling industry.

The Old Man snorted. “Marcy, you are an idiot.”

She’d been called an idiot and worse before. But for some reason, this client got to her.

No, I’m not, sir,” she snapped. “You are a rich old man used to getting your own way and you don’t care that your actions, or rather lack of action, will make me suffer.”

“How will my enjoyment of these fine pancakes make you suffer, exactly?” He said, still smiling.

She glanced at her phone where the messages from her boss were already piling up. “If we are late, again, I will get into trouble, again, with my boss, with the signing planners, and with your fans.”

He laughed and said, “I will tell them it was my fault.” He waved his fork in the air, a benevolent wizard with a magic wand.

Marissa shook her head. “I will still be blamed. Because you cannot be blamed.”

The old man sighed around his smile and looked down at his plate, “I am sorry for your suffering.” He punctured another piece of pancake, “But I am going to enjoy these pancakes.”

He looked back up at her, a hard glint in his watery blue eyes. “I am very old. These might be the last pancakes I ever have. We will leave when I feel it is time to leave. They will wait. The world will not end if I am late.  In fact, I might, if I feel like it, take a stroll through that lovely garden down there,” he gestured through the window behind Marissa, “and skip the signing altogether.”

He put the forkful of pancake in his mouth.

Marissa turned to look out the window. She hadn’t noticed the garden. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Like a picture from a fairy tale, with flowers, miniature trees, and a winding path of white gravel. She felt relaxation seeping into her bones just by looking down at it.

It would be nice to take a stroll, to skip the signing. He was right, the world wouldn’t end. She could picture herself sitting there, enjoying the sun. But she knew what came after that. Boredom. She didn’t like to vacation on the beach. She didn’t like to wander.

The stress of work made her feel alive, needed, and useful. She lived alone, her job was her life, and she liked her life.

She stood and left the kitchen. While she waited, she called her boss and let the other woman vent her frustration with the Old Man on a patient ear.

Eventually the Old Man appeared, hat in hand, ready to go. Marissa took his arm and helped him to the waiting limo, but before closing the door on his smile, she said, “We are real. We do exist. We think and feel and breathe in and out.”

He looked at her, his smile questioning now.

“Just in case you forgot.”

The smile faltered.

“I enjoy schedules and plans,” she said.  “I like planning things out ahead of time.  I get tremendous satisfaction out of checking items off a list.  This does not mean that I am living my life wrong.”

The words came out quickly – she knew the driver was anxious to depart, and she respected his anxiety.

“There is no wrong or right way to live a life.”

She started to close the door, then stopped and said, “And at your age, you really ought to know better.”


Daily Prompt: Comfort Zone – What are you more comfortable with — routine and planning, or laissez-faire spontaneity?

Send in the Clone

He reaches a hand across the table. She can see its motion out of the corner of her eye, a force so much larger than its representation. It takes over the table, the restaurant, the hotel they are in, but not in together, not like that.  Just co-workers at a meeting.  So typical.  But not, really, not like that.  Just friends.  At least they were until he started moving his hand, inch by inch, gently pushing aside the unused utensils it its path.

What are the words that go along with the force of the hand?  They are odd, and she is so completely focused on the hand, that she almost asks him to repeat, but no, here they are, “I wish I could clone you.”

She laughs.  The smallest of giggles, a tiny breath of sound though smiling lips.  Such a tiny sound, but with a power strong enough to stop the hand.  The hand slows just as it is passing her salad plate.  It slows, stops, reverses.

The words kill the depth and passion of the moment. What does she say in return?  She can’t remember.  Something nice. Something that will boost that fragile male ego.

They move on, see each other at the odd meeting here and there.  Never a word spoken of the ‘cloning incident,’ as she remembers it.

But she never forgets. He wanted her. How could a girl forget being wanted? He wanted her enough to defy convention and tell her, that despite the ring on her finger, he thought of her as a person worth wanting. Every time she sees him, she feels more beautiful, not just physically, but mentally too. Altogether more everything.

Years go by, and things change. The ring is removed from her finger.

She sees him again, some meeting somewhere, some restaurant, some hotel. They sit next to each other, and behind the mask of louder conversation among their co-workers, she tells him the truth about herself. But she drinks too much, says too much. The next morning, her sober, hung-over brain will recall the way he leaned away from her as she shared the facts of past acts of infidelity, the reason for the end of her marriage.

And it becomes painfully clear that he only wanted her when he couldn’t have her. When he thought she was clean and pure. Something very different than what she is. The happy memories of feeling beautiful, tarnished by the fact that he didn’t really want her, he wanted a made up version of her. A cleaner, nicer version.

Another time and place. He is engaged to a person tall and athletic, not a thinker, but a doer, like him. He reeks of smug superiority. At dinner, he is the one drunk, and he calls her a terrible word. She reacts with nasty words of her own, slashes his ego to ribbons. She is far smarter than he is, after all. A thinker, a planner.

And finally, he is married and all the things she found attractive about him are gone. The sweet loyalty, the casual kindness, the relaxed laughter, all gone. The stress and strain show in the lines on his face, the hunch of his shoulders. Another meeting, another hotel, he treats her like a disagreeable sibling. She avoids him and declines his invitations to dinner. With co-workers near by, he reaches a hand out, to grab, what? The hand is both mean and meaningless.

“What happened to you, so wild and fun?” He asks, when she says no, again.

She laughs, a large laugh, a laugh to shred conversation. She remembers plans made and broken, opportunities missed, and instead of regret, finally, she feels relief that it never worked out. It would have ended so badly if it had ever started. Usually she can’t picture the endings, but this one is clear.

Despite the clarity, she can’t make herself understood. How can she tell him that she does not exist?

The Evaluation

The others in the room laughed and smiled, but Jack fidgeted in his chair. It was his twenty-first birthday, and like all Tinwenians before him, he must be Evaluated.

Other than the dozen chairs and the equal number of people, the room contained only one other object. It looked like nothing more than a tall, white box, with a door on one side and a paper-size slot on another. The Evaluator was the image of innocence and yet Jack couldn’t help feeling afraid.

Thirty four years before, on his own twenty-first birthday, Jack’s father entered an Evaluator and twenty minutes later walked out, his destiny handed to him on a piece of paper. He left his hometown the next day, spent the next six years in medical school, then reported to his assignment as a family physician in the small town of Stevton. There he met and married Jack’s mother, who came through her own evaluation assigned as the medical records keeper for Stevton. Jack grew up like every other child on Tinwen, loved and cherished by his happy and satisfied parents.

Now it was Jack’s turn. His father, confident and serious, patted Jack on the shoulder and tried to reassure him. “There’s nothing to worry about. You walk in, sit down, answer a lot of simple questions, and walk out again.” Jack’s mother, nervous like her son, “I hope it doesn’t send you too far from home,” but she smiled through her tears.

A gasp and a slight cheer brought Jack’s attention to the door of the Evaluator. He watched Christine, called fifteen minutes earlier, exit the machine, looking baffled at the commotion being made by her parents. Her mother hugged her and her father waved the paper printout and announced to the others in the room, “A scientist, assigned to the capital. A bio-research scientist.” Jack watched Christine’s face closely, surprised to see the look of happy excitement there. She took the report from her father and read it, nodding and smiling at what she saw there. He thought he knew her, thought that she’d never be happy confined to a lab. He couldn’t understand how the assignment would appeal to her.

The Mayor called his name, and he felt a slap on his back from his friend Kevin. Jack, Kevin, and Christine were well-known in Stevton. It was rare enough in the small town to have two births in the same week, but three in the same day was unheard of. The three of them had grown up the best of friends, and had often speculated about the results of their Evaluation day. They hoped they would all be assigned close to each other, but in Christine and Kevin there had been a resignation to whatever the results would be, regardless of a potential separation. They laughed at Jack every time he questioned the ability of the machine to make such personal decisions.

“But Jack,” Christine would argue, “No matter what it is and no matter where you go, you’ll be happy just like everyone else, so why worry about it?”

“Besides, even if we are all sent off planet, to be explorers or miners or ambassadors in the far reaches of the galaxy, we’ll always be able to communicate with each other.” Kevin would add, and Jack would always nod, smile, and change the subject, unwilling to upset his friends with his misgivings.

He hesitated and his father gave him a nudge. There is nothing to fear, he thought. It was nothing more than a box with a chair inside. Jack paused outside the door, turned and looked at the smiling faces of his friends and family, feeling that something was about to end. He took a deep breath, entered the chamber and closed the door behind him.

He sat in the remarkably comfortable chair and his eyes wandered around the tiny space. The walls were white and featureless. From his seat he could touch all four walls with his hands. It took him a while to find the computer interface, located above his head in the ceiling.

At first there was silence, and then soon a slight humming noise. Jack waited patiently, guessing that the machine needed time to review all the information about Jack stored in the database. His mother had explained to him about the central database located deep in the core of the planet where the records of every single person born since the Final War were kept. Every grade he’d received, every shot he’d had from a doctor, every time anyone recorded his name for anything, the database kept it all.

Finally, the deep soothing voice Jack had learned to associate with the computer spoke up.

The first question seemed silly, “What is your favorite word?”

Nevertheless, it took Jack a long time to answer. “Um, happiness, I guess.”

The next was not any easier, “What is your least favorite word?”

Jack wondered why no one had prepared him for such inane questions and answered without really thinking, “Sadness.”

“What motivates you, creatively or emotionally?”

This question seemed more meaningful and Jack thought carefully before answering, “Good conversation with good friends.”

“What un-motivates you?”

“Repetitive tasks.”

“What is your favorite sound?”

“Uh… The buzz of a room full of many people talking, all at once.”

“What is your least favorite sound?”

“This is ridiculous,” Jack said under his breath then answered, “noisy construction work.”

“What is your favorite curse word?”

Must be a trick question, “Um, I’m not supposed to curse.”

“What profession would you like to attempt?”

Was this how the brilliant machine figured out how to make everyone happy? “I want to be a space ship pilot.”

“What profession would you not like to do?”


“Last question, what phrase or word would you like associated with your name when you die?”

He sat silent, unmoving. The question stuck him as illogically sad and morbid. He couldn’t think of an answer. He didn’t want to think of an answer. After a while, the machine repeated the question, and Jack simply said, “No comment.”

Jack stared moving, almost rising from his seat, assuming that the interview was over. However, the machine stopped him. “Jack, please relax and take a deep breath.” The familiar voice eased him back into his seat. He was aware of the dimming ambient light and a slight sweet smell in the air. A small part of his mind panicked, but it, like the rest of him was soon unaware.

Moments later he awoke, bleary and confused. He stood, feeling stiff and exhausted, as if he had run a marathon the day before. He opened the door, and his mother rushed in, tears streaming down her cheeks, “Oh! Jack, are you all right?” Jack had to drag her with him out of the claustrophobic chamber. “I’m fine, mom. What’s wrong?”

“He’s fine,” She announced to the three men waiting outside the machine. The room looked different. First, he noticed the lack of other people; only his parents, the mayor, and the Evaluation Operator remained. He turned to ask about his friends and he noticed the windows. What had been bright morning outside when he entered was now afternoon.

“How long was I in there?” He asked.

“Hours and hours!” His mother exclaimed.

“Three hours and thirty-one minutes to be precise.” The Operator corrected.

“The computer kept telling us you were fine, that it was working hard to find a spot for you, but, it….” His mother’s sobs choked off the rest of whatever she was trying to say.

Jack’s father had not spoken yet, and in fact, had not even looked at his son. He was staring down at the piece of paper in his hand. His fists griped the edges and he was staring hard enough to burn a hole through it.

“Well, after all that, I guess the machine has something fantastic planned for me?” The statement turned into a question when nobody smiled or even looked at him.The Mayor cleared his throat, and glanced around, looking for volunteers. When none offered, he cleared his throat again and spoke, “Jack, you are, um, special.” He smiled a large, friendly smile.


“Yes, the Evaluator has not seen a mind like yours in… how many years was that Operator?”

“Forty years, Mayor.”

“Right. Forty years, Jack. I would say that is unique.”

“What exactly does it say?”

At that, his mother burst into fresh tears. “It says you have to leave,” she wailed.

“Leave? An explorer?” Jack asked, his glance flicking back and forth between the faces around him, still none of them giving him any reassurance.

“Yes, that is exactly it,” the Mayor began, “An explorer!” The Mayor looked over at the frowning face of the Specialist and his grin faded, “Of sorts,” he added.

“Please, just tell me!”

“That… That machine,” his father’s voice, usually so restrained, broke, “Says you must leave and never come back. You are… evicted from Tinwen.”

Jack breathed in and out, trying to slow his heart.

The Operator spoke then, looking at the copy of the report in his hands, “The results of the evaluation state that you are…” he paused, and finally looked Jack in the eyes, “an anarchist.”

* * *

On the planet Earth, in the year 1999 AD, in the town of St. Evons, North Dakota, USA, population two thousand and twenty-one, a chiropractor paused in her work. Dr. Kathy Kasson apologized to her patient and smiled briefly when she realized he was asleep. She walked out of the examination room and her assistant explained, “I’m terribly sorry Doctor, but the principal at the elementary school is on the phone and insists on speaking to you.”

“Thanks Gail, I’ll take it in my office.”

A few moments later, she walked into the reception area and said to Gail, “I want you to call John McDonald at The Live Oak and find out if he has seen George.”

“George? Your youngest? Why would he be at a bar?”

Kathy hesitated a moment, it wasn’t an easy question to answer. “Well, my son has developed an attachment to John.” She noted the look of understanding that crossed her young assistants face, and continued, “The principal at the school said he got into a fight and ran off the playground. The last time he cut school we found him with John, so I’m assuming he’s there now. If he is, tell John it’s ok for him to stay, and I will pick him up at 3:00. If he’s not there, well, call my house, and if he’s not there either…”

“If he’s not there I’ll cancel the rest of your appointments and help you find him.”

Kathy gave the younger woman a relieved smile, once again thankful for such a competent assistant. “Thanks, I’ll go finish up on Mr. Henderson now.”

“Was that snoring I heard in there?”

Kathy laughed and went back to the examination room.

Not five minutes later, Gail opened the door again and shook her head indicating she hadn’t found George.

“Mr. Henderson?” Kathy spoke in a loud voice, waking the man from his slumber. “I’m sorry, but I have a family emergency and I have to end our session early.”

A little while later Kathy and Gail were out of the office and sitting in Gail’s car.

“Where to?” Gail asked.

“Just in case, let’s go to my house first. I’ll leave a note there for George to call my cell phone.”

The drive was silent until Gail asked, “How old is George again?”

“He’s twelve.”

“Ah, sixth grade, right?”

Kathy nodded her affirmative.

“It’s probably a case of spring fever on a nice day like this.” Gail sounded confident and reassuring. Nevertheless, Kathy felt her nagging sense of worry steadily increasing.

Gail drove a while longer and asked, “Out of curiosity, why is your son friends with John McDonald?” She seemed embarrassed by the question and quickly added, “I mean it’s not often that a bartender would consider a twelve-year-old boy his friend.”

“Well, once, a couple of years ago, George ran away from school and got lost trying to get to my office. He burst into tears in front of The Live Oak.”

“Oh, that’s awful.” Gail said.

“John saw him and came outside to help. George adored him immediately. George is shy. I think that’s why he doesn’t play with kids his age. He never speaks to adults, but he feels comfortable around John. Everyone always talks about what a great listener John is. I guess that’s part of his job, as a bartender I mean.”

“John is a complete sweetheart.” Gail sighed, and Kathy laughed.

“He does have that effect on people, doesn’t he? The problem was George would rather be with him than anywhere else. The other problem was that he has a way of just disappearing, of blending into the background, and it was almost impossible for the teachers to keep track of him. He ran away a few more times and always ended up at The Live Oak, talking to John.”

“I can see how that would be bad. What did you do?”

“Well, after the third time, my husband and I talked with John, thinking maybe he could help us figure out a way to keep our son in school. He came up with the idea of having George come to the bar early Saturday mornings, to help scrub the floors.”

“Oh how sweet of him.”

“That man just oozes kindness. I must admit, he makes me a little nervous.”

“Really?” Gail said, sounding surprised.

Kathy knew she couldn’t explain what she felt about John to Gail. She couldn’t even explain it to her own husband. She was alone in her anxiety. It was almost as if he brainwashed the entire town on the day he appeared. Only she had been immune. She laughed to silence her irrational thoughts and said, “Maybe it’s just the way he looks. Don’t you think he’s kind of weird-looking, short and thick, and he has no hair on his face and arms, haven’t you ever noticed?”

Gail laughed aloud, “Yeah, I guess so, but just one look into his eyes and I lose it. And I am not the only one!” She laughed again, pulled the car into Kathy’s driveway said, “I’ll wait out here.”

The house was empty, as Kathy expected. Kathy left a note on the front door, and went back out to the car.

“I’m not sure where to look next.” Kathy said, the worry still growing.

“How about the park,” Gail suggested, “I remember a lot of the kids hung out there when I was in school.”

On the way there, Kathy called her husband to let him know what was going on with their son. Voicing her fear to her husband had a way of deepening it. She chatted with Gail, fighting off the panic.

“Did you know George was born on the same day John appeared?”

“Really? Were you in the hospital when they brought him in?”

“Yes, and I was really mad with all the nurses fussing with him. I was in labor with no one paying any attention.”

Gail laughed, and said, “My mom was probably there, she was working that day.”

“That’s right, I completely forgot, your mother delivered George. All the doctors were too distracted by the first case of total amnesia they had ever seen. Fortunately, by then I’d been through the process of giving birth five times, I really didn’t need any help.”

They both laughed. Gail said, “I remember, I was in high school and we all bombarded my health class teacher with questions about amnesia, and everyone started talking about how hard it would be to have to learn English all over again. John was the most exciting thing around for a while. When they gave him the job at The Live Oak, my girlfriends and I would walk past on our way home from school, even though it was out of our way, just to get a peek at him through the window.”

Kathy laughed and said, “Why? It’s not as if he’s good looking.”

“I know, but there’s just something about him. The biggest reason we all hang out there, now that we’re old enough, is because of him.”

Kathy nodded, familiar with the sentiment, but not really understanding John’s charisma. “George comes home on Saturday’s just full of the stories that John tells him about space ships and aliens. George reads science fiction books and then they talk about them for hours. John even got George to start writing some of his own stories.”

“That’s great,” Gail said, “I’m sure that must really help him in school.”

“In some ways it does, but then he gets caught daydreaming in class.”

They arrived at the park. Gail drove around twice, slowly, the two women searching for any sign of George.

He was not there.

By midnight, Kathy gave into her panic, but by then no one minded. A week later Kathy could be found dividing her time between weeping in bed and hugging her remaining children, so tightly that they were almost afraid of her, understanding that the strength in her arms was simply a reaction to the pain in her heart.


The man they called John McDonald finished his complementary Big Mac, cleaned his tray, and placed it in the slot over the garbage can. He waved goodbye to the employees behind the counter and the customers smiling at him from their seats. He walked down the road towards The Live Oak, but passed it by, continuing for about a mile until he was beyond the limits of the town. He stopped suddenly, looked up and down the empty stretch of highway and ducked into the cornfield that bordered it. He walked in a straight line, perpendicular to the road, for fifty yards. There he encountered a large circular hole surrounded by an explosion of dirt and uprooted corn stalks. A very wide, very deep and very empty hole.

If there had been anyone near by who understood the Tinwenian language, he would have shocked them with his use of some very nasty curse words. Then he said, in perfectly midwestern-accented, American English, as he turned around and walked back towards the town, “I can’t believe the kid stole my ship.”

* * *

The ship floated in space. After receiving no intelligible commands from the creature inside it, the ship began a complete medical examination. Its computer found some similarities but no exact matches to the medical records held in its database. It observed that the creature was slowly suffocating; normal Tinwen air, a particular mix of nitrogen and oxygen, was not sufficient for its respiration. The simulated gravity level was also too strong for the fragile creature’s heart and bone structure. With a few adjustments, the ship quickly compensated for the earthling’s weaker body and observed that its breathing and heart rate swiftly dropped to more healthy levels.

The ship queried the creature for a command, and when none came, initiated its emergency procedures. The expected Tinwenian inhabitant, had he been incapacitated, would have been grateful for the gas induced sleep, the feeding tube, and other amenities meant to keep him alive but unconscious during the long journey to Tinwen. He would not have appreciated the subliminal imagery intended to adjust his supposedly criminal, anarchistic mind.

* * *

The Mayor of Stevton sat at his desk browsing through catalogs advertising various retirement worlds scattered throughout the galaxy. The coming fall would mark his eighty-first birthday, and the start of a well deserved retirement.

At a knock on the door, he quickly switched the display to produce reports for the afternoon’s meeting, and invited the person in.

“Excuse me sir, I’m sorry to interrupt, but we’ve had some surprising news, from the capital.” The officious, patient man was, of course, perfectly matched for his job as the mayor’s secretary.

“Come in, and close the door.”

“We received a report from Central Surveillance of a ship heading towards Tinwen.”

“A ship? Why would we receive that report?”

“Apparently this particular ship took off from the Stevton spaceport a little over sixteen years ago.”

“Sixteen years ago….” The Mayor thought for a moment, trying to make a connection. “I don’t see… Oh wait, no it couldn’t be. Tell me it’s not Jack of Adam and Alice?”

“The ship is confirmed to be the one he left in, but there is a slight discrepancy.”

“A discrepancy?” The Mayor felt nervous, remembering the unorthodox programming he approved at the desperate request of Jack’s distraught mother.

“Sir, it seems that there is a possibility the passenger of this ship is not Jack of Adam and Alice.”

“How can that be?”

“Medical records.”

“Medical records?”

“Right, they don’t match.”

“Do you mean that there is an alien on that ship?”


“An,” The Mayor choked on the word, “an Earthling?”


“Oh no. Oh no no no.” The Mayor moaned.

“Sir,” The secretary rose slightly from his chair, “Are you alright?”

“No. I am very ill. I’ve decided to take my retirement earlier than planned.” He lowered his head to the desk, swiftly. And then did it again. And again.

* * *

Madam Kent, the President of the planet of Tinwen, was a strong and decisive woman. Her evaluation determined she was the best person to become the next leader of the small, peaceful world. As such, she spent twenty-three years being groomed, and when the old president retired, she simply, and smoothly, took over.

She had been president for eleven years before her first challenge appeared, initially in the form of a bizarre report hovering in the air above her chair. After wasting time trying to understand the report’s scientific babbling, Madam Kent summoned the author, a bio-researcher specializing in the study of alien life forms, and her office’s primary contact with alien research.

“Researcher Christine,” Madam Kent began, “It is good of you to come, but I have to say your report was rather confusing. All I could make out was that an alien creature has landed on our planet in one of our own ships.”

“Yes ma’am that is what happened, but that was not the point of my report. I apologize, but the report’s intended audience is the scientific community, it is not meant for the layperson’s eyes. In that report I detail the physical and psychological effects of, well how can I say it, of brainwashing, for lack of a better term, on an alien species.”

Madam Kent sat back hard in her seat, “Explain, Researcher.”

“Yes ma’am. It is an ancient science, widely used in the aftermath of the Final War, but relatively unknown now.”

“I am aware of the dark history of brainwashing, Researcher.” Madam Kent took a deep breath, trying to fit the puzzle pieces of facts into a logical picture. “The alien that arrived on Tinwen in one of our own ships was brainwashed?”

“Yes ma’am. Unintentionally it seems, but the effects are fascinating nonetheless”

“The alien…”

“An Earthling, Ma’am. Have you heard of the planet Earth? Before this I had not, in fact…”

Madam Kent felt a wave crashing over her, her mind tumbled and reeled in the shock that the researchers words had on her. “An Earthling… Brainwashed….” She flashed back fifteen years, to a lesson on interplanetary ethics. Her tutor, veins popping from his forehead, said with unusual passion, “I can not stress enough the lesson to be learned by meddling with the minds of an inferior species. To this day the planet Earth is suffering continuous violence due to our negligence. Hopefully you can see now that even a slight interference can change the course of history for an entire world.”

Christine was still talking, unaware of Madam Kent’s momentary inattention, “… and as you can see in my report, there are no public records of interaction with this species, as such I had to make many more assumptions than I am usually comfortable with. My initial conclusion is that the effect of mild subliminal messaging, mild in terms of its intended effect on a Tinwen subject, on such a vulnerable mind had the effect of physically changing the earthling’s patterns of thought. A scan done on the subject’s mind shows patterns closer to that of a Tinwen…”

“Researcher Christine,” Madam Kent interrupted, “What was the subliminal message?”

“It was similar to the message used on the minds of the rebel faction in the post-war year 23, a group known as ‘the anarchists.’ Its intention was to find and remove any anarchistic thoughts and replace them with thoughts of peaceful and controlled civilization. It also emphasized basic laws of our society, such as, ‘happiness in work is happiness in life’ and many of the lessons taught to children regarding respect for life. My team has initiated a series of…”

“Why was an earthling on the ship,” Madam Kent interrupted again, “And who authorized the brainwashing, and who was its intended victim, and… oh, never mind. Just give me a list of names of all the people involved in this case. I’ll need to take control of this situation immediately.”

* * *

Researcher Christine and Explorer Kevin greeted each other warmly. Christine closed the door to her apartment behind them, ushering Kevin in and inviting him to sit.
“It is so good to see you again, how long has it been?” Christine asked.

“I think the last time I saw you was six years ago at that interstellar relations conference, but you were so busy with your speech, which was amazing, we barely had a moment together.

“Thanks. Well of course, I see you in the news all the time, showing off all your discoveries.”

Kevin sighed, “I spend so much of my time reporting the discoveries and less time making them. It’s really my team that does most of the work.” He shook his head briefly, and grinned, “But it’s a great life. So, you said you had something important to talk to me about?”

She lowered her voice, “It is about our old friend, Jack.”

“Jack!” Kevin exclaimed, “Is he here? Have you seen him?”

“No, calm down.” She smiled at his reaction, and added, “I’ve missed him too.”

“What happened?”

“Well, first of all, he’s currently residing on the planet Earth,”

Kevin interrupted, “Earth? What?”

“Second, he’s stuck there, without a ship.” Christine continued.

“You want me to go rescue him?” Kevin asked with his voice dropping to a whisper. “But I’m not scheduled to go in that part of space, I don’t even…”

“Kevin,” Christine spoke sharply, gaining his full attention, “In order for this to work, you are going to have to separate what you want to do from what you are supposed to do.”

Kevin sank into his chair, his eyes widening, looking at Christine as if she was a monster. He spoke slowly, sorting through his thoughts, “But what I want to do is what I’m supposed to do.”

“Forget it. Do you remember what it was that the evaluation machine decided for Jack?”

“Yeah, it said he was an Anarchist.”

“Do you remember the conversation you and I had afterwards?”

“I think we were both confused about why Jack got evaluated that way, but we were young then, we didn’t understand. The evaluation is always right.”

“Is it?” Christine asked.

Kevin stared at her, shocked.

Again Christine retreated, feeling she had pushed too far. “Never mind.” She stopped and stared at the ground, trying to organize her thoughts.

“How do you know about Jack and his ship?” Kevin asked.

“The ship came home, but with an Earthling inside instead of Jack. And worse.”

“What could be worse than being stuck on a primitive planet, where the natives are centuries away from getting out of their own solar system?”

“I wasn’t talking about Jack, I was talking about the Earthling. He was brainwashed.”

Kevin cringed, “That’s awful. The Earthlings are brainwashing their people now?”

“No, we did.”

“What? That’s impossible. They stopped brainwashing thousands of years ago.”

“Well, someone dug up an old program from somewhere and put it on that ship.”

“Then, that means,” Kevin took a deep breath, “it was meant for Jack.”

“Yes.” Christine watched the emotions running through Kevin, and felt sympathetic. She had already gone through that awful feeling of having holes torn in her faith.

“When the ship arrived, they called me to deal with the Earthling. I knew something was wrong when it, he, really still a child, started talking to me in perfect Tinwenian.

Well, to be specific, he was preaching to me in perfect Tinwenian. Obviously, he endured some sort of subliminal messaging, so I got a friend of mine to examine the ship. She found a very cleverly hidden brainwashing program tucked in with ‘the panic button,’ a program that’s kicked off when all else fails.”

“The mayor…  Jack’s parents…,” Kevin slowly figured it out, “They thought if Jack, for some reason, had to come back, they could fix him so he could fit in, so that he could stay.”

Christine nodded, “That was my guess.”

Kevin struggled visibly with his culturally inherited disgust of brainwashing versus the reasonable and understandable intent behind it. He shook his head. “Go back, what did you mean by ‘preaching?’”

“The program meant to give a directionless Tinwenian a nudge towards dedicating their lives to the good of our people. Earthling’s brains are, well, softer than ours. The programming was too strong, and coupled with his planet’s  mythology, something he calls ‘Catholicism,’ he’s turned into a raving lunatic.

“The poor thing, what can you do for him?” Kevin asked.

“Ready for one more shock?”

“No, but why stop now?”

“I was at a meeting yesterday morning with Madam Kent, the mayor of Stevton and a few other government types. And the answer to ‘what will we do with the alien?’ was an almost unanimous ‘kill it.’”

At Kevin’s appalled look, Christine nodded, “Yeah, me too. I was, however the only dissenter. And when I tried to argue, they all just stared at me, like, like I was a stupid child. Madam Kent said, ‘We have our reasons for this Researcher, please trust us.’” Christine’s imitation of Madam Kent’s voice was not complementary.

She stood up and started pacing back and forth in front of Kevin. “I couldn’t leave it at that. I spent all last night and some of this morning locked into the database, searching.”

“For what.”

“Well, that was the question. What was it they were trying to hide? What was it about this alien that made them want to kill it? He’s just a child, he’s an insane child now, thanks to the brainwashing, but still a child. He poses no threat whatsoever. He can’t even survive on our planet.”

“But what about on his planet?” Kevin said suddenly, catching the path of Christine’s thoughts, “Why don’t they just send him back?”

“Exactly, why don’t they? Do you know I had never even heard of Earth before now? Had you, before you became an explorer?”

Kevin shook his head, “And I only know now because I got to be friends with an Antollian Pilot. His people like to hunt Earth’s aquatic monsters. But he was surprised to know I hadn’t heard of it. In fact he started telling me about how some of the standard prohibitions on PWD’s got started because of something that happened on Earth, I think.”

“What is a PWD?” Christine stopped pacing to ask.

“Oh sorry, that’s ‘Primitive World Disruption.’ The Intergalactic Explorers Federation came up with that to refer to the problems caused by people from a space faring world landing on, and disrupting a non-space faring populace. That doesn’t stop the Antollians from scooping up Earth’s fish, but as long as they don’t make contact with the people no one will stop them.”

Christine started pacing again. “I think what your Antollian friend was talking about is exactly what I couldn’t find in the database.”

“What do you mean?”

“There are all these different paths, the history of brainwashing, the evolution of the Evaluation, the various histories of our contacts with other worlds. All of them have one thing in common: A gap. A missing link.”

“What’s missing?”

“The planet Earth.”

“What?” Kevin looked completely confused.

Christine sat down, her sudden stillness conveying an enhanced focus to her words. “Two thousand two hundred and fifty-eight years ago, three events in our history overlapped. First of all, brainwashing was already a crime. Second, after more than a hundred years of study and research and testing, the Evaluation machine was finally being used worldwide as a means to provide happiness and satisfaction to all Tinwenians. Finally, that was the year Tinwen entered the Intergalactic community as a ‘Proven Peaceful’ member. But things were not entirely peaceful on Tinwen. In a town, not very different from the one we were born in, three friends announced their refusal to go though with their Evaluations. They were convinced the Evaluation machine was brainwashing everyone who entered it.”

“But that’s, that’s…” Kevin stuttered, shocked by the idea. “It can’t be true. I’ve never heard that story. No one ever objected to the Evaluation. The vote to implement it was unanimous. We learned that in school.”

“Our database holds no official record of this event. I only found it by hacking into…, well, just take my word for it for the moment, I can get you the proof if you need it, but I’d rather not. Anyway, the three were supposedly forced or tricked or something to do the Evaluation and all three were found to be…”

“Let me guess, anarchists.” Kevin said, “Our beloved Evaluator? The foundation of our peaceful society? No, I don’t want to think this way, it hurts too much.” He moaned and lowered his head into his hands. “Christine, I am in mortal and mental agony now, is there a point to this story?”

“Sorry, yes, I’m coming to it now. They sent the three away and although the data is unreliable, I think at least one of them ended up on Earth. I don’t know what happened there. Absolutely all records of it are hidden beyond my capabilities to find. But I think it is no coincidence that soon afterwards the Intergalactic Explorers Federation stopped, as you said, ‘disrupting’ the more primitive worlds around us.”

In the silence that followed, Kevin stared at the floor, and for a long time he didn’t move. Christine respected the inner battle raging through his mind. She had gone through the same thing herself. She sat and waited, hoping he would come to the same conclusion she did. That in the end, knowing the truth didn’t change a thing. But realizing that some mistakes can be corrected, did.

* * *

A ship hurdles through space, following laws the being inside would never learn in any classroom on his planet. Not that he cares. All he knows is that the angels are sending him back to Earth.

* * *

John McDonald woke up one morning and followed his usual routine. He ate breakfast, exercised in a vain attempt to keep his Tinwenian muscles from sagging in the light earth gravity (breathing the oxygen-rich earth air for all those years had wasting effects on his body) and eventually went to work.

Once the shock of being stranded on an alien planet had passed, he realized he wasn’t very upset. He liked Earth. He never agreed with the results of the Evaluation, he understood it was simply a way to get him to leave, but he felt a true affection for the chaotic, unpredictable nature of Earthlings. Or at least American Earthlings. That qualification alone would confuse the average Tinwenian, who only used towns as an organizational tool, and had no notion of separate countries and cultures.

An hour into his shift, the bar door opened and Gail walked in, her face flushed with the effort of moving quickly in her advanced state of pregnancy. John glanced down at his watch; it was a bit early for her lunch break. She smiled, and sat, or rather leaned against the bar stool, and caught her breath.

“How are you today Gail? You look about ready to deliver right here in the bar. Should I call your husband?”

“No, no.” She panted. “It’s not that. George is back.”

“Who?” John asked.

“George. You remember, Kathy’s son, the one who disappeared.”

It took all of John’s will power to contain his reaction.

“Oh, that’s wonderful. When did this happen?” John hardly knew what he was saying.

“Kathy got the call about an hour ago. She told me to cancel all her appointments and she rushed off to the hospital.” Gail spoke rapidly in her excitement and didn’t notice her listener’s lack of attention. “I don’t know why he is at the hospital, I hope he isn’t hurt. Maybe they just have to check him out or something. He must be eighteen by now, I wonder if Kathy would even recognize him.” She babbled on.

John could think of nothing but his ship. As much as he liked Earth, he didn’t want to stay there permanently. He spent the rest of the day distracted, willing the sun to move faster in its path.

Later that night, when the bar finally closed, John walked down the deserted highway towards the ship’s old spot. It wasn’t there. There was a deep indentation where six years ago the hidden ship had exploded out of the ground, but it was mostly filled with water and swampy weeds. No ship.

Bits and pieces of conversation he overheard in the bar floated through his mind. He knew the kid was still in the hospital, that he wasn’t physically hurt but there was some obvious brain damage. No one seemed to know where George had been. “Even if he told them, they’d never believe it.” John thought. Most Earthlings were under the bizarre impression they were alone in the universe. The kid would know where the ship was hidden. John hoped his ‘insanity’ was nothing more than a truth the earthlings couldn’t understand.

Throughout the following week, John listened closely to anything anyone had to say about George. Most of the nurses at the hospital were regulars at The Live Oak, and they were more than willing to tell John anything he wanted to know.

The things he heard were not what he expected. The kid wasn’t babbling about aliens and spaceships or galaxies far, far away. Instead, he told the doctors, nurses and his mother, and anyone else who would listen, that he had been in heaven. He had been among angels and seen a beautiful, peaceful society. He knew the secret to happiness here on earth. He was preaching. And the odd part was that people were listening to him. Arguments sprung up in the bar between people who had actually heard him and ones who laughed at them for listing to a deranged teenager.

John understood the effect of ‘alien charisma.’ It was something he had learned about in school. From his own experience he had learned that Earthlings were exceptionally vulnerable to it. He knew if he wanted to, he could get almost any earthling to do whatever he wanted. He could make them believe in anything he said. Even at first, when he couldn’t speak their language, all he did was smile and convinced the authorities that he wasn’t a threat.

But the question was: how did this Earthling manage to do it?

The main thing everyone else wanted to know was where George had been for the past six years. George kept insisting he had been in heaven, but of course, that was impossible. Two weeks after his re-appearance, they sent George to a mental hospital. The bar talk was about his mother fighting to get custody. She wanted to take him home, but the doctors insisted George needed more specialized and intense care.

John took a day off work and drove to the hospital. He charmed his way past security and nurses and quickly found himself alone with George. Tall and thin, his hair hanging past his shoulders, wearing white, hospital-issue pajamas, George looked every bit the saintly figure he claimed to be.

Before John could say a word, George spoke, “Ah, you’re finally here. I knew you would come eventually.”

The kid’s confident smile caught John off guard. He spoke more harshly than he intended. “Yeah, where’s my ship?”

“It’s in the woods behind my mom’s house.”

John opened his mouth to speak and suddenly shut it with an almost audible snap. The kid was speaking in perfect Tinwenian. “How did you do that?”

“It is the language of the angels. I learned it while I was in heaven.” There was a twinkle in George’s eyes that belied the seriousness of his words. He laughed and said, “I’m sure you noticed the spectrum differences between your world and mine. Everything seemed so bright there, so brilliantly white, that when I first woke up, I really did think I was in Heaven. Your friend Christine was the first person I saw, and although she was too short and stocky, she glowed, so I thought she was an angel.”

“You saw Christine? My old friend?”

“She fine and so is Kevin.” George laughed out loud, and said, “Shut your mouth or you might catch… Hey, you don’t even have a word for ‘flies.’ See, your world is Heaven.” He smiled and continued, “Yes, I met your friends, and they left a message for you in the ship.”

John shook his head, trying to focus, trying to absorb the shocks. “What are you doing with the talk about heaven and angels?”

“Well, I couldn’t stay on Tinwen, so Christine and Kevin snuck me back on the ship and they programmed it to take me home.” He took a deep breath, and his gaze turned to the ceiling and his voice grew soft and wistful, “So, I have decided to make Earth like Tinwen. I know I can do it. I will find someone with the skills to build an Evaluation machine, and I will bring peace and happiness to my planet.” While he spoke, John saw in his eyes something that made him nervous. A glint of fanaticism perhaps and John could see that he truly believed in his dream. The kid’s passion was strong.

“Well, uh, good luck kid. I’ll be going now.” John backed out of the room and closed the door. George didn’t seem to notice, locked as he was in his vision of a peaceful world.

* * *

“Hi Jack!” Christine’s image on the screen spoke to him. Sitting next to her was Kevin, grinning. The sight of his friends and the sound of his real name brought tears to his eyes.

“You were right to distrust the machine Jack. I’ve dug up a lot of evidence that shows the original programmers had a lot of prior experience in brainwashing techniques.” She said. “And it looks like some of the programming has mutated itself over the years.”

“And you weren’t the first person the machine has kicked off the planet,” Kevin added, “Christine found….”

“We don’t have time to get into all of that,” Christine interrupted. “We have to get the Earthling off planet quickly. The government doesn’t want to send him back, they want to kill him!”

Jack felt stunned, he’d never heard of anyone on his home planet ever purposely killing anything.

“We have decided to send him back to Earth, even though it violates the non-interference rules of the Intergalactic’s.”

Christine spoke, “We know the alien is a bit crazy, but he’s really harmless. We believe the rule was really meant to protect primitive planets from aliens, not their own kind. What harm could one person do? We know that something happened there a couple thousand years ago caused by one of our people, but we can’t find any information about it.” She shook her head, disappointed, but then she looked up at the camera again, “Hey, maybe you know what it was. Could bring me a history book, detailing the…”

Kevin interrupted, “Christine, we’re running out of time. Jack, the point is, if you think the kid will cause a problem, bring him back. If not, just come home yourself.”

“Not to Tinwen!” Christine exclaimed, looking angrily at Kevin.

“Sorry, I’m going to program the coordinates to a certain spaceport into the ship. When you take off from Earth, the ship will take you straight there. When you get there, go to the information exchange office, I’ll leave a message for you with details on how to reach us.”

Kevin looked at Christine and she nodded and said, “Well Jack, that’s about it. I’m sure we’ve confused you, but we’ll have plenty of time to explain everything when we see you. Good bye for now.”

The screen went blank.

* * *

Jack sat in the comfortable captain’s chair on the bridge of the ship, trying to reacquaint his body to the simulated Tinwen gravity. He thought about his name. For eighteen years he had been John McDonald. The people at the hospital gave him that last name when they realized it was his favorite food, and for eighteen years he ate there for free.

He had enjoyed his time as John McDonald, a special member of a small, tight society. He knew it was somewhat do to his alien charisma, but some of it was in the way Earthlings, and Americans in particular, treat uniqueness. There were times and places where all earthlings were expected to conform, in school, in work, on the road. But so many of them spent a large part of their lives searching for the one thing that made them different; searching for the one thing that would make them a star.

No one on Tinwen ever wanted to be different. All they ever wanted was to be useful to the community. They wanted to be an indistinguishable member in the perfect, peaceful society, and the Evaluator made it possible. Jack knew, even before Christine told him, that the Evaluation machine forced an unnatural blandness on every individual. But he also realized that when you allow the freedom of individual expression, you must suffer the consequences.

Which was better, a world at peace where everyone was the same, or a world torn by war and racism but where anyone could be a star?

Jack checked one last time that the ship was heading in what he hoped was the right direction and left the bridge. He settled himself in the stasis chamber and took a few deep breaths of the gas that would make him sleep for the rest of the journey. His last thoughts were of the two objects he had brought with him from his adoptive world. First, the Earthling boy in the stasis chamber next to his. And second, for Christine, a book he’d found in a bedside table drawer of a motel room he’d stayed in many years ago.


Your Turn

A long time from now, in an assisted living facility not so far away, four old women sit around a card table.

“Jessica, it’s your turn.”

Jessica didn’t respond.  She stared at her hands instead. Gray hair never bothered her, nor did the wrinkles in her face, but her hands looked old.


Drea was getting upset. Jessica shuffled through the cards in her hands.  Normally she kept her hands hidden, the large puffy veins and prominent  bones embarrassed her.  This game makes no sense.  Why are we playing it, she thought to herself.

“What am I supposed to do, again?” Jessica asked.

Drea snorted loudly, and grabbed the cards out of Jessica’s hands. Jessica dropped her hands into her lap, below the table.

Drea hardly knew how to play herself, though, and the other two women were no help.  Jessica couldn’t remember their names. She blamed the lack of memory on her age, but the truth was she’d never been good with names.  The younger looking of the two picked up the tattered copy of “Bridge For Dummies” and unhelpfully read the same passage she read a minute ago.

“In bridge, four people each place a card face up on the table, and the highest card in the suit that has been led takes the trick.”

The other woman interrupts, again, and says, again, “That’s called the trump, right?”

They argue while Drea hands Jessica back her cards and says, “Just play this one,” pointing to the Queen of Hearts.

Jessica puts the card down while singing,

“Playing with the queen of hearts,
knowing it ain’t really smart
The joker ain’t the only fool
who’ll do anything for you”

The other women, even Drea, start laughing.

“O-M-G!” the youngest one says, spelling out the letters, “That song was already an oldie when I was a child!”

“I think it was from the seventies, the nineteen seventies I mean.”  Jessica said. When the last two digits in the years started to repeat, one had to be more explicit when naming dates. “I remember my mom singing along with it on the radio.”

“So, you can remember the lyrics to a song almost a century old, but you can’t remember how to play a simple card game?” Drea said.

“There is nothing simple about bridge, and I’ve never played it before in my life, and neither have you.”

Drea snorted again but didn’t argue, adding, “I was more a fan of Magic the Gathering, back in the day.”

The younger looking woman, Heather maybe? said, “Oh! My brothers played that game all the time! They had stacks and stacks of those beautiful cards. I loved looking at them.” she sighed then looked to her friend, “Susan, didn’t you play that game, starts with a D or something?”

Susan smiled shyly, “Yes, Dungeons and Dragons. I was the only girl in my school who played.  Wow, what memories I have of those days! But that wasn’t a card game, it was more of a dice game.”

Jessica felt a rush of excitement, “Do you remember any of it, could we play it now?”

Drea grinned, “Did any of you ever play World of Warcraft or Ever Quest?”

Susan and Jessica exclaimed at once, “WoW!”  Then turned to look at each other, eyes shining.

Heather shook her head, “What a bunch of geeks you all are!”

Drea scooped the cards into a pile.  “Well then, I believe I know what game we are playing next.”  She waved the robot attendant over and asked it to bring out four laptops.

Jessica frowned, “Drea, those games aren’t around anymore.  All the games now are full VR immersive, like we use for our exercise classes.”

“AH ha! You are wrong about that!  Happens that I am a member of a guild in a old MMORPG called Star Wars, The Old Republic.  A bunch of the old coders brought the game back a few years ago.  My,” she paused and swallowed, “My brother worked at the company that made the game.  Just before he died, they got it working again.”

Jessica saw the tears in her friend’s eyes, but knew better than to acknowledge them.

“But I never played any of those games,” Heather said, “I can’t…”

Old and newJessica leaned over and took her hand, “Don’t worry.” Heather’s hand felt light and brittle in Jessica’s stronger grip, but didn’t look as old.  Jessica wondered if all those years playing WoW in her thirties and forties made her hands look so old. Right hand on the mouse, left on the keyboard, taping and clicking for hours and days and even weeks when she could get away with it.  If so, then she should hold up her hands with pride. They were gamer hands.

“I’ll help you. You won’t believe how much fun it is.”


A Phone Call

“Kate, this is a really bad time, I have a class starting in…”

“John, I’m leaving.” Kate interrupted her husband.

“What? Forever?” He chuckled, but the sound contained complicated nuances.

Kate let the pause drag on too long before clarifying, “No, on assignment, but this is a long one, six months.”

“That is long.  Look, Kate, I really gotta…”

“I’m leaving in one hour, John.” Kate interrupted again.

“Oh. Hold on a sec.”  She could hear the sounds of his students all around him, asking questions, joking with their favorite teacher, making excuses for late assignments.  He announced to the room that they had five minutes of study time before a one question pop quiz.  She heard the gasps and groans of twenty young voices and then silence of the empty hallway outside his classroom.

“One hour? What’s going on – some huge explosion I missed hearing about, I guess?”

“Yes, out near the asteroid belt, crippled the WaveRing of a mining station, a bunch of miners and their families all stranded.  It’s going to take five months of slow-travel to get out there and at least a month for the Wavers to fix the Ring, so, yeah, six months.”  Just explaining the journey to her husband made it all much more real.  It occurred to her now that no one, in all the frantic discussions of the morning, had included her investigation time in that ‘six months.’  Did they think she’d have it all solved by the time the Wavers finished the repairs?

space (Photo credit: Sweetie187)

“Kate, you hate slow travel! Steve promised he’d never send you out on a long trip again!”

Kate felt gratified to hear his projected anxiety. Proof that he cared, she told herself.  “Well, there’s no other way to get out there until the Wavers fix the Ring, is there?” She took a deep breath. “They asked for me, John. The Wavers, I mean.  I’m traveling on a Waver ship and the explosion happened on the Waver part of the space station.”

“Crap – that is a big deal, hold on.” She heard the door opening and his voice projecting, “Three more minutes, make sure you really know that chapter, people, this one is going to count as extra credit for your final exam grade.”

Kate waited for the silence, then added, “I’ll be the first Tinwinian on a Waver ship, ever.”

“Wow.” he said.  She heard a clicking sound and some mumbling.


“Sorry – I need to figure out what I’m going to ask them.”

“Right – OK, well, see you in six months.”

“Kate, don’t be like that.  Look – I’ll pull the assistant principal in to sub, and I’ll meet you at the port, in, uh, an hour?”

“No, they’re picking me in a private shuttle from the office, I’ve got a couple spare uniforms and my extra toiletry kit up here, but the Waver ambassador assures me they’ll have everything I need on board.”

“This is really big… exciting. I just wish the timing could have been a bit better.” He said.

“Yeah.” She tried to hide the disappointment in her voice, “me too.” She knew, logically, there was nothing he could do with such short notice.  No magic winged horse or time traveling phone box that could skip through the time and distance, and everything else, that separated them.

“Well, call me when you get to the ship – our com’s should work the whole way, right?”

“That’s what they say.  I guess we’ll find out.” Kate answered, knowing full well that the communicators worked fine in deep space.

“OK, well, be safe, love you.” John said.

“Love you too.” Kate said.  She pushed the spot behind her ear to hang up, glad to have one more item checked off from her list of things to do before departure.


Part of an ongoing Serial: A Life Investigated 


A Joyful Sound

Patrick gave his mother’s unresponsive hand another squeeze before letting go. He stood up and walked over to the window. The view of the park was something even he could admire and he thought again what a shame it was that his mother couldn’t see it. She’d worked hard for a long time to save up the money to pay for this place, it was unfair that she went into a coma before being able to appreciate what her hard work paid for.

With his back to her, he started his carefully rehearsed speech. “Mom, I have something to tell you.”

He turned back to glance at her face and to the machines that monitored her heart and lungs. No change. “You have a grand-daughter, her name is Lilly and she is 36 years old and she has two kids and she lives in the city.” The words came out in a rush, as if now that he’d finally decided to tell her, after almost four decades of keeping the secret, he had to get it over with as quickly as possible.

A Tiger-lily (Lilium longiflorum) in front of ...
Tiger-lily (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Was that a change in her heart rhythm? The doctor said there was no reason to assume she wasn’t aware of what was going on around her. He watched the monitors for a moment longer. No, nothing had changed.

He turned back to the window.

“Do you remember that time I called home from school and said I crashed into a professor’s car and needed to get it fixed? You and Dad sent me two thousand dollars? Well…”

Patrick cleared his throat and realized telling his mother about an unknown grand-daughter wasn’t as hard as telling her about the lie.

“Well, there wasn’t any car accident. I gave the money to this girl I was seeing. She was a really sweet girl, mom, smart and funny. We were friends for a long time before… The point is she ended up pregnant. And I gave her the money to pay for an abortion. She said she’d take care of it.”

Many years later – a little older and wiser, he’d realized that two thousand dollars was too much for an abortion, but the girl hadn’t come back to school the next semester. In fact, he’d never heard from her again.

“I guess she lied to me like I lied to you.”

He watched through the window as a breeze picked up some early fall leaves, swirled them in a mini tornado then disappeared.

“Anyway, she took the money and moved to the city. She raised Lilly all by herself for a few years but eventually she got married. Lilly grew up calling that guy ‘dad.’ She says he was a good dad, but a little while ago she decided to find me.”

Lilly tracked him down to the law firm in the city where he’d worked since graduating. She didn’t call ahead, she just showed up one day. He’d known almost immediately who she was. She looked just like her mother. But it was his own lopsided grin he saw on her face that clinched it for him.

“She didn’t ask me for anything, she just wanted to meet me and to see what kind of guy I was.”

Patrick paused for a moment. The park was almost empty this early on a weekday morning, but he could now see a woman walking along the path towards the front door of the nursing home. The woman led two kids, a boy and a girl, by the hands. The girl had red hair like his. Her name was Patty.

“She wanted to know if I could handle being a grandfather, since I missed out on being a dad.”

He’d never married. His college sweetheart left without saying goodbye and took his heart with her.

A joyful sound came from the heart monitor. As he turned back towards the bed, he watched his mother move her hand on her own for the first time in weeks.

“Doctor!” Patrick yelled.

The attendant burst into the room. He scanned the equipment then pulled out a stethoscope and listened to the old woman’s chest.

“What’s happening?” Patrick asked.

The man took off the stethoscope and pulled out a flashlight.

“Well, I think… maybe,” he said, flashing the light across his patients eyes. Patrick’s mother blinked slowly, once, twice. “Yes. Good. It looks like your mother is waking up.”

Unfinished Memory

A few months ago, Robbie’s 2nd grade class had added a class photo and a picture of the last Space Shuttle to his school’s time capsule. Today, as he stood near his grandfather’s grave, watching the people throwing mementos on the coffin, Robbie thought it was just the same. Except no one was going to dig it up in fifty years and ooh and ahh over all the old stuff.

Robbie thought long and hard about what to throw in for his grandfather. Mom said it should be something special that would remind Grandpa of Robbie. Just like the teacher had said, the picture of the last Space Shuttle was something that made this year special.

Grandpa liked playing cards, usually War because there was no way to cheat. He liked puzzles, the ones with millions of pieces. But throwing a deck of cards or a box of puzzle pieces didn’t seem right. They weren’t special enough.

The thing Grandpa loved most was his trains. In the basement of his old house, Grandpa had a huge oval table with a hole cut in the middle to stand in. A model town covered the table with a train track running through it. There were tiny trees and fake grass and little houses and stores and even streets with cars that could get stuck at the railroad crossings.

Every Sunday they went over to Grandpa’s house for eggs and bacon after church. As soon as he was excused, Robbie ran downstairs to see if he could find the new thing Grandpa had added to the table. Mom always warned him not to break anything but he knew it was ok because Grandpa liked fixing things.

The basement smelled funny and the lights that hung from the ceiling made a funny sound. Sometimes one of the long bulbs would start flashing on and off. Grandpa would just tap it softly with his finger to ‘calm it down,’ and it would stop. When he was little, Robbie asked Mom if Grandpa had magic in his hands, because they could fix anything. Mom just laughed and said that Grandpa was Clever and that was better than magic.

Sometimes the new thing on the train table would be easy to find. A new house or a new train car. But sometimes the new thing was really hard to find. Once it had been a tiny gray cat walking along the sidewalk. Grandpa, amazed at how fast Robbie spotted the cat, had told Mom that she should be proud to have such a Clever boy.

At the grave, it was Robbie’s turn. In his hand he held the most special thing in the world. It was a tiny model school-house, Robbie’s first addition to the train table. It wasn’t finished. Grandpa went into the hospital right after the Sunday that they started working on it. This morning, when they were all at Grandpa’s house before the funeral, Robbie sneaked downstairs to see if he could add the white paint for the windows and doors, but the paint had dried up.

Robbie uncurled his fingers and looked down at the little half-painted structure laying in the palm of his hand. This really wasn’t like the school’s time capsule, he thought, because Grandpa was the only one who would ever see the things they put in the grave. And even though the model was the most special thing in the world, it seemed wrong to throw it in like this.

He looked up at Mom and whispered, “I want to finish it.”  Mom nodded and wrapped her hand around his, closing both around the unfinished memory.

image source: BachmannTrains.com


Just a Trim

leaf on hardwood floor
(Photo credit: Steve A Johnson)

Jen marches into the seemingly empty kitchen and eyes the house plant. It hangs neglected, yellowed, wilted, from a hook in the ceiling. Jen crosses the room, snatches the shears from the knife block then turns to attack the plant.
“A house full of people, and no one takes care of the plants.” She says to herself.
She starts cutting, removing dead leaves and stiff vines.
“Ten people in this house,” she says, her voice rising with every snip of the shears. “Six adults and four children, and not a single person remembers to water the damn plants.”
Brown and yellow leaves flutter to the floor.
“OK, you can’t expect the shit-storm to handle watering duties, but there is no excuse for anyone else.”
“Shit-storm” she says again, enjoying the sound of her new nickname for her sister’s baby.
“Shit-storm,” snip.
“Shit-storm,” snip.
“Shit-storm!” She yells.
The denuded houseplant hangs quietly. The cuttings form a pile at her feet.
She steps back, away from her work, slapping the shears onto the kitchen table.
She hears a gasp.
Bending down, she sees her nephew, her brother’s middle child, crouching under the table, a toy car clutched in his little hand. He looks up at her through wide eyes under a tangle of too-long hair.
“You need a hair cut, kid.” She tells him.
He scoots away from her, eyes growing even wider.
She laughs, “No, no, not now, not by me. Don’t worry, kiddo.”
Smiling, she puts the shears away, gathers up the cuttings and takes them out the back door.