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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Status Update

To every writer with an acceptance from us and waiting for a contract: this was supposed to be The Week of Getting All Outstanding Contracts in Order, but ended up being The Week of What the @#$(&* Did Adobe Change This Time? (With Adobe Customer Support exhibiting its usual cryptid-like behavior, as always.)

As of about a half-hour ago our e-contract system seems to be working again, though, so we should be all caught up on contracts within 48 hours, assuming nothing new breaks.

Thanks for your patience.
~brb

Monday, September 24, 2018

Book Release: THE MATT & MICHELLE Trilogy



Now available for your binge-reading pleasure! Henry Vogel’s bestselling Matt & Michelle trilogy!


Book 1: The Fugitive Heir - Buy it now!

Book 2: The Fugitive Pair - Buy it now!

Book 3: The Fugitive Snare - Buy it now!

Action! Adventure! Romance! In Spaaaaaace!



Saturday, September 15, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Ann’s Golem,” by Clive Tern




The idea of a golem was Reynold’s. He knew a few families in Golders Green who used them. It made things like shopping so much easier, especially since the Russians started dropping their little exploding machines. The way the tiny automatons walked about, seeking a target, was terrifying.

Knitting the golem was Ann’s idea.

“But they’re made from clay,” Reynold protested. “There’s a chap in Finsbury Park who makes two a week, good ones. He made the Blumstein’s golem, and the Goldberg’s. Whoever heard of a knitted golem? It’s preposterous.”

“Maybe. But our golem won’t look like a miner wandering about after his shift. Now, I’ll need supplies. Did you pay the Mortun & Fayson’s account? They were terribly sniffy when I sent last week’s order.”

“I did. Give me your list. I’ll drop it in when I go to the office. They can deliver it this afternoon.” He paused. “What suit do you think I should wear for the office today? I had the blue serge put out, but I’m not sure.”

Ann thought for a moment. “That’s the one you wore when we had the portraits done last year. You look good in those photos.”

“Hmm. Well, at your suggestion.”

¤

Ann was embroidering when she heard the delivery van arrive. She continued stitching until the maid came in with the delivery chit to sign.

“Where would you like it all put, Ma’am?”

“Have the wire, mesh, and rods put in the work parlor. The wool should go in the project room.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Ann opened the Babbage cabinet and turned the mechanical computing engine on, to warm the valves up. Her research into  golem construction was nearly complete, but there were still some details being checked. The machine clicked and whirred, telling her the view-screen valves had achieved operating temperature. She sat at the control desk, flexed her fingers, and entered the lines of command to summon the results of her search.

The only doubt still in her mind was how to activate the golem. Hebrew characters on its forehead; God’s name in its body; singing and dancing around it. She just wasn’t sure which of the suggestions was correct.

The copper cables, which connected their Babbage to the master machine in the huge complex at the old Woolwich Arsenal, hummed as the results came through.

She flicked between screens of information and sighed in disappointment. The only new piece of information was the Hebrew characters for God’s name, and their English translation, yod, ha, waw, ha. If this was the right way to bring the creature to life, she’d need to practice her calligraphy to get them right.

The doorbell rang. Ann tilted her head, wondering who it could be. Possibly the Temperance Drive people again. Trying to save her from the iniquities of her afternoon’s dry sherry, or evening glass of champagne—do-gooding busy-bodies. She turned the Babbage off and was closing the cabinet when the maid came in.

“Ma’am, there are two gentlemen from the police here to see you.”

Ann frowned. A small lurch in her stomach was unexpected, but then so was a visit from the constabulary. She nodded to the maid. “Thank you.”

On the way down the stairs dark worries begin to percolate, fears tried to coalesce around the flutters in her belly. In the parlor she found long-time family friend, Chief Inspector Iain Dramber, and his deputy. When she saw them, saw their faces, she knew why they’d come.

“Hello, Ann,” Iain said, and pointed to a chair. “You should take a seat.”

“Reynold? What’s happened to him, Iain?”

“Sit down, Ann.” He looked at the maid who hovered in the doorway. “Could you bring some tea please, and a brandy for your mistress.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What’s happened to Reynold?”

“There was an incident on the underground this morning. One of those Russian walking bombs made its way into the station at Mornington Crescent. From what eye witnesses have said, Reynold tried to get people out of the way. When he saw it making a move towards some school children he grabbed it and…”

Tears were already rolling down Ann’s cheeks. “How did he… Was it quick? He didn’t suffer, did he?”

“No. The bomb was quick. He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”

¤

In the months that followed Ann often found herself in periods of fugue. Days passed, she did things but had no memory of them occurring. Concerned friends tried to help; inviting her to the country, or down to the coast. She refused. Staying at home helped her to feel close to Reynold. Sometimes she responded to questions she imagined him asking, only to become aware of his absence anew when he failed to carry on the conversation.

It wasn’t until she had to replace a lightbulb, and went into the work parlor where spares were kept, that she remembered about the golem. The rods, wire, and mesh were all stacked in the corner—covered in dust.

It gave her a new sense of purpose.

The plans formulated before Reynold’s death came back to mind easily, and over the next couple of days she built the golem’s frame. The rods provided a solid core; the mesh built the approximation of limbs, a torso, and head; the wire tied it together.

When she was happy with the basic shape, she started knitting.

First the feet. A plain smooth stitch that imitated the single-piece calf leather shoes Reynold preferred. Then a flash of purple—he always wore purple socks. Said it was regal, instead of funereal like the black everyone else wore. The legs, torso, and arms were blue. She searched for just the right shade. It had to match his serge suit. The one he’d been wearing when he died. The one he wore in the portrait photos they’d had taken the previous year. Her second favorite print from the shoot sat on the table beside her, a reference point for her work. Her favorite was next to her heart.

At the edge of the creature’s arms, and round the neck, and collar, she used white, for the crisp white shirts he wore. The necktie was knitted as a separate item which she then stitched on. A deep lilac, with silver flowers.

Doing the hands was easier than she expected, but the contours of his head, his face, proved difficult. How do you knit the face of your heart-mate? She had caressed those cheeks so often, had slid her hand round his freshly-shaved chin with tender desire. Recreating their contours with wool, even the finest wool, knitted with care and devotion, was like trying to recreate the ceiling of the Sistine chapel while blind and using a sweeping brush.

For long days Ann looked at her husband’s picture. She sat and remembered his warmth, his skin, his smile. Tears flowed down her face. There were no sobs, she’d finished with those weeks ago. These were the pure tears of her memory, they were the moments they’d shared for years, the times that should have been remembered together in the twilight of their lives. The tears began to feel wasteful, like she was squandering precious recollections with each bout of lachrymosity.

She started knitting again the next morning, imbuing Reynold’s face with more than her memory, her love. She knitted it with her heart, and her soul. It was perfect.

Having done the face, the hair was easy. Chestnut brown with thick waves. She’d loved running her hands through his hair after he’d bathed, when it was soft, before he put wax in it. This wasn’t as fine, or soft, but it was as close as she could get.

Finally she finished. Reynold sat in the chair before her. She wished it was her Reynold, but it was as close as metal and wool could create. Now all she had to do was make him live.

She stitched the word ‘emet’, which means ‘truth’, into its forehead. It didn’t move. She unpicked the stitches. She obtained traditional Jewish music and danced around the creation chanting the letters of God’s name. It didn’t move. She wrote yod, ha, waw, ha, God’s name in its hebrew consonants, on parchment and folded it into the golem’s arm,  mouth, and head. It didn’t move.

“How do I make you live?” she asked, stroking Reynold’s head with tenderness. The strands of knitted hair felt wrong in her hand, but were correct in the memory of her heart.

“Oh Reynold, how do I make you live? I made you true, as true as I could.” She held the woolen cheek. The stitches were small and soft beneath her fingers. The wool remained still, the wire beneath it never shifted, the steel rods at its core continued lifeless.

Day after day she attempted to bring the golem of Reynold to life.

Lying in bed at night became a chore. A rote action enacted when she felt weary, and her body dulled with movement made uncoordinated by tiredness, even while her mind continued to whir. Street lamps shone orange light through the window as Ann’s sleep-deprived mind played false recollections of Reynold’s life. He didn’t die. He was a brave and lucky hero, saving children before returning home to care for his devoted wife.

One night she lay on the floor before the woolen golem, her head in its lap, her tears soaking into its legs. She took Reynold’s picture from the spot near her heart and looked at him. The crisp lines had started to fade; it was like she was losing him all over again. Soon he would be no more than the blurred representation on a piece of creased paper.

She fell asleep. Her tears dried into the wool. While sleeping she also dreamt. Reynold held her in his arms, soft and secure, like when they were first married. He never spoke, never uttered a word, just held her and stroked her hair. In sleep, in dream, she wept for him, for her, for them. He crushed her to his warm chest, and said nothing.

Dawn was shading the horizon when Ann woke with a clear and certain knowledge of how to bring life to the golem, to Reynold. His picture was still in her hand. She unpicked where the hair met the scalp, tucked the picture in the gap, and stitched it up again.

“Live, my love,” she said.

Nothing happened. She sank back to her knees, laid her head back into her ersatz husband’s lap, and wept tears she didn’t know were still available.

Hands of wool stroked her face. She looked up, and Reynold stared at her with stitched green eyes, his head tilted to the side like he knew she was sad, but didn’t know why.



Clive Tern is writer of poetry and short stories living in Cornwall, UK. He occasionally blogs about writing and life at www.clivetern.com.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Korba’s Revenge,” by Preston Dennett



Though he was far from the arena, Korba could already hear the sounds of the festival: the piercing shouts of the hawkers, the hiss and clunk of the machines, the chatter of the crowd as everyone speculated about who would win the battle of the beasts. The leather straps dug into his shoulders while behind him his wagon squeaked, heavy with the weight of his creation, his pride and joy. On this day he could win. He had a chance.

As he expected, those around him laughed and pointed. “Look at Korba,” they said. “He enters again.” “You shall lose, old man!” “Stay in your shop, Korba.” “Korba, the fool!” They spit at him and threw pebbles.

He ignored their taunts and pulled his wagon along the dusty trail. The smell of grease, smoke and metal fought with the odors of manure from the animals, perfume from the ladies and cooking meats from the many stalls. Children ran along his wagon, trying to peek under the tarp that hid his creation.

He paid them no mind and continued to lead his wagon past the many huts and workshops of the city. The crowd thickened as he approached the arena, which brought more stares and laughter. Others, recognizing him, shook their heads sadly. So many people! A few of the old ones, Korba noted, nodded with respect. Korba had entered these games for many years. And each year, he lost. He was simply no match against those with greater riches and larger shops to create their fearsome beasts. But if he hadn’t won, he was, at least, remembered. This day, he thought, they shall do more than remember.

The streets around the arena were packed with people, all of them dressed in their finest colored shirts and robes. He could afford no such luxury. He spent his spare earnings on his creations and wore only a rough canvas shirt and pants.

He pulled his wagon into the line leading into the backside of the area. Here gathered all the other entrants, each of them with their creation. Most rode atop the shoulders of their metallic beasts, though some had built a protective cage inside the bellies or necks, where they now crouched, furiously manipulating the levers and buttons that controlled their movement. Cowards, thought Korba. A true artist would neither ride his beast nor hide inside it. A creation should be able to fight for itself. Few, however, thought like Korba.

He eyed his competition. Horses stomping and screeching and spouting steam from their nostrils, giant black iron bulls strong enough to knock down a house, an elephant twice normal size with a knife-edged trunk. He saw wolves with huge metal fangs, great lumbering bears, quick-moving lions, and more. But Korba was most impressed by an enormous snake-like creature. It looked to be hundreds of feet long, its entire length covered with shiny scaled armor. Its head was huge, and its body seemed wide enough to swallow several of the other beasts. And how swiftly it moved! Already much of the crowd was focused on it, oohing and aahing as its owner showed what it could do.

And then silence fell upon the crowd. Gornel! Korba grimaced inwardly. As expected Gornel had arrived with his dinosaur. It resembled a tyrannosaurus, except it was larger. Gornel had won the contest with it for the past three years. He sat there inside the hollow head of his creation and defeated all who attacked him. No beast was a match against Gornel’s monster, which could crush nearly every beast around with one foot.

Korba could see that Gornel had made several improvements this year. The arms looked longer and more fully equipped. The tail was larger. The beast could now spit fire, which Gornel continued to demonstrate to the stunned on-lookers. Most of all, the giant lumbering beast moved more swiftly. Its speed was shocking. Korba could see that many—if not all—of the beasts would be destroyed by Gornel’s monster. Except mine, he thought. How he wanted to beat Gornel! And on this day, he had a chance.

Few paid much attention to the contents of his wagon. He chuckled at those who rolled their eyes at him. Yes, his creation was small, but soon they would see.

A loud horn sounded three times: the time for the contest had arrived. The matches would begin shortly.

As usual, the smaller beasts would be pitted against each other first, with the victor taking on progressively larger beasts. This meant that Korba would be among the first to compete. Only if he survived would he be given the opportunity to fight the larger beasts. He had never been able to earn such a chance yet. This time, he hoped, would be the first.

The stands were packed with people. All around him in the waiting stalls, the various beasts hissed and groaned and thumped.

The contest overseers called out two of the creatures, both of them giant-sized rats.

And the fight began.

The two metallic creatures clanged loudly together, clawing and biting at each other. They fought viciously and without mercy. Soon pieces began to fly. In moments it was over and one of the rat creatures crowed loudly as it stood atop the scattered remains of the other. It then trotted back to its keeper and waited for the next contestant.

And so it went, one metallic beast fighting the next. The rat defeated one after another of the smaller ones: a giant cockroach, a spider-like thing with knife-tipped legs, another crab-like contraption with rotating blades.

Then came Korba’s turn. One of the overseers walked up to Korba and bid him to uncover his machine and enter the arena.

Korba pulled off the covering and revealed a curious sight. The crowd grew silent as they tried to discern what they were seeing. Korba knew they were difficult to see. They were so small. And they crawled all over each other so quickly that they were difficult to watch. How they fluttered and buzzed!

There were nearly a thousand of them, each one armed with powerful jaws and more importantly, the ability to fly.

“What is it?” several voices called out. “Show us your creature, old man!” “Korba the fool!” Necks craned and people stood in the stands. Laughter rippled back and forth in the crowd. They thought of him as a joke, he knew. No longer!

The large rat-like creature stood on its hind legs and bared its metal fangs.

At that moment, Korba released his creatures. They flew up in a large swarm and headed directly for the rat.

The laughter died as the crowd gasped. “They fly!” “What are they?” “See how many!”

The swarm descended upon the rat, who swiped vainly with his paws. The crowd of mechanical bugs covered the entire surface of the rat. In seconds, it became helpless. It ran madly through the arena, trying to fling the biting creatures from its body.

Korba grinned inwardly, knowing that each of the creatures had magnetic feet and could not be easily removed.

As Korba suspected, his insects made quick work of the rat. In only moments, they had eaten their way through the armor and disabled it. The rat thrashed around and after a fierce struggle, finally grew still.

Korba’s insects rose from the carcass and returned to their cage, ready for the next contender.

It was a mechanical wolf. Korba snorted. This would be easy. And it was.

In less than a minute, the wolf lay unmoving on the floor of the arena. The crowd was shocked and remained silent. Then suddenly the applause began and Korba couldn’t believe what he heard. It was his name, he realized. “Korba! Korba! Korba!” They were chanting his name.

And so it went. One creature after another challenged his insects. And Korba’s insects defeated each of them. In some cases, they even fed upon the carcasses, harvesting them for necessary parts. It mattered not how fast the challengers were, or how large, or the size of their fangs. Korba’s insects were always quicker and could disable any machine in less than a minute. Of course, it was not without a price. Not all damage could be repaired, and each fight cost him many of his precious insects. With each fight, his swarm grew smaller. More and more of their tiny bodies littered the ground. Still, they fought. How hard they fought!

Even the giant metallic snake proved powerless against Korba’s swarm. It snapped its giant mouth and rolled its gargantuan body, but it was no match. Korba’s insects could fly. Nobody, he knew, had even thought of making a creature so small. Everyone who entered the contest assumed that larger and stronger creatures would win.

It was a weakness only Korba had foreseen, and one by one, each of the creatures fell to his.

The crowd grew louder with each victory, and Korba could see that they looked at him with new eyes. Their expressions nearly made him laugh. How they stared with such disbelief!

Korba wasn’t ready to celebrate yet. He still needed to defeat Gornel.

The moment soon approached. All the other beasts had challenged Korba, and he had defeated each one.

Gornel sat inside his beast. Korba saw his grim expression of determination through the face-hole. It would provide a perfect entrance for his insects, he knew. And yet, his swarm was much smaller now. His heart thumped with fear.

The horn sounded and the battle began. The giant beast roared and stomped forward as Korba’s insects rose and approached.

The great beast belched a cloud of fire that enveloped Korba’s swarm. Korba winced as he saw many of his insects fall to the ground.

Those that survived quickly settled on the beast and began to burrow inside.

The other beasts had been easily dispatched. But this one, Korba realized, was so large. It would take some time—and he was not sure he could afford it.

The metal tyrannosaur continued to spit out plumes of flame, killing great numbers of the insects. It sliced at them with its bladed arms. It crushed them with its monstrous tail.

So many were dying! And still the tyrannosaur showed no signs of weakening.

The cloud of insects was visibly thinning. He was going to lose! The beast was too large!

Then the moment Korba had been waiting for happened: the great beast faltered. One of its legs trembled. As it attempted to walk, it limped weakly. The other leg began to tremble. Still it fought. There were very few insects now.

Without further warning, the great beast collapsed. It roared and thrashed and clawed at the insects. And suddenly, it was still, the massive body clinking and hissing slightly as it lay there.

Gornel crawled from the wreckage and limped away, embarrassed and angry. Korba’s insects, the swarm now much diminished, rose from the tyrannosaur’s body and returned dutifully to their cage.

The crowd rose to their feet as one and roared with approval. “Korba! Korba! Korba!”

He had won! Korba couldn’t help but grin. He had finally won. As the others swept up the remains of their beasts, the crowd surrounded Korba, slapping his back, patting his head for luck.

They roared with approval as Korba took the bag of coins promised to the winner. It was more money than Korba had ever seen.

Korba left the arena, trailing a crowd of people who questioned him. “How did you do it?” they asked. “What will do you do with your coins?” asked others.

Korba remained silent and only smiled. He would reveal his secrets to no one. And as for what he would do with the money: well, they would find out next year. He already knew what type of beast he wanted to build. It wouldn’t be insects. Instead it would be a beast he had been designing for most of his life. Now he had the funds to produce it. He could scarcely wait for everyone to see it. He had surprised them this year. Next year, if he could complete his creation, he would become a legend. For his beast would be undefeatable, even by his own insects.

Next year, his beast would be a man.



Preston Dennett has worked as a carpet cleaner, fast-food worker, data entry clerk, bookkeeper, landscaper, singer, actor, writer, radio host, television consultant, teacher, UFO researcher, ghost hunter, and more. He has written 22 nonfiction books and more than 100 articles about UFOs and the paranormal, but his true love has always been speculative fiction. After a long hiatus, he started writing again in 2009. He has since sold 37 stories to various venues including Allegory, Andromeda Spaceways, Bards & Sages, Black Treacle, Cast of Wonders, The Colored Lens, Grievous Angel, Kzine, Perihelion, Sci Phi Journal, T. Gene Davis’ Speculative Blog, and more, including several anthologies. He earned twelve honorable mentions in the Writers of the Future Contest before winning 2nd place for Quarter 1, 2018, (Volume 35). He currently resides in southern California where he spends his days looking for new ways to pay his bills and his nights exploring the farthest edges of the universe.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Amenities,” by Susan Taitel


Piper never could say how she found her apartment. She’d been on her way to see a room a little over her budget and further from campus than she was hoping for. Nevertheless, she couldn’t bear another year in the dorm, with its industrial lighting and slimy communal showers. The ad promised quiet housemates and a semi-private bath. The room turned out to be considerably smaller than advertised. Not to mention windowless, and, judging by the odor and stained floor, recently occupied by a chain-smoker and several incontinent dogs.

She stayed long enough to satisfy her manners, then headed back to the train. She didn’t quite remember the way and consulted her phone. When she glanced up, she discovered that if the GPS was to be believed, the concrete barrier in her path was an illusion. It felt solid enough.

She powered her phone off and on, but despite still having a signal, the app could no longer locate her. She took a left down a tree-lined side street, hoping to find a way around. She’d only gone a few steps before being overwhelmed by a roiling in her gut. Her head throbbed and her teeth clenched. It was as if every lamppost and trash can was urging her to turn around. She was halfway back to the intersection when she noticed a handwritten sign in the window of a nearby brownstone. “To Let,” it read. Piper confirmed via Google it meant ‘for rent’ and rang the bell.

An elderly woman with thinning hair and bright eyes came to the door. Mrs. Clove introduced herself and ushered Piper into an overstuffed chair, shrouded in plastic and embellished with claw marks.

“I was just sitting down to tea. Have a bite, dear.” Mrs. Clove brought Piper a steaming mug and a plate of small sandwiches with the crust cut off. The sandwiches were stale, but the tea, floral and sweet with a hint of pepper, sent a surge of warmth up her spine. Mrs. Clove beamed when Piper asked for a second cup.

She showed Piper around the upstairs unit, apologizing that it was old-fashioned. The bathroom sported a claw-foot tub with separate taps for hot and cold. Accordion-shaped radiators provided the heat, and an ironing board folded out from the wall. Piper had always wanted a foldout ironing board. There were high ceilings, picture windows, and a closet in each room. By the time they reached the built-in buffet cabinet, Piper was in love.

“And the rent?” She braced for heartbreak.

Mrs. Clove named a price two hundred dollars less than the single room.

“I couldn’t pay so little,” Piper sputtered, cursing her scruples.

“Nonsense! I don’t need the money. My grandnephew was staying up here, but he got married and moved out. It’s too quiet now. You’ll be doing me a favor.”

Piper was moved in by dinner. She spotted the first dropping the following day. By the end of the week, there was no denying it. The flat had mice.

The mice wore hats. Piper didn’t think that was normal, but she’d never had mice before.

“What kind of hats?” asked Mrs. Clove when Piper brought it to her attention.

“Little knitted hats,” Piper replied.

“Just knitted hats?”

“I think one had a matching scarf.”

“But not fedoras? Or, say, a boater?”

“No.”

“That's alright then.” Mrs. Clove poured Piper a cup of tea.

“It is?” Piper asked, taking a sip.

“Mice are to be expected in a building this old, but if they’re bothering you, I’ll send the cat in.” She stroked a gray tabby as lithe and elegant as Mrs. Clove was rotund and artless.

By the time she finished the tea, Piper was less disturbed by the hats. She’d yet to take Mrs. Clove up on the offer. The mice were kind of cute. Though occasionally, as she was drifting off to sleep, the tapping of their nails on the hardwood floor made Piper shiver.

The area was still a GPS dead-zone. A month after moving in, Piper tried to go to the movies with her friend Miguel. She offered to meet him at the theater but he insisted on picking her up. His phone took him to an IHOP three towns over. But there was a shuttle to and from the nearest train station, and from there she could get to anywhere she needed to go.

The neighborhood was charming, if a little confusing. The buildings didn’t agree with each other. Coastal village shops on stilts sat next to solid brick storefronts which sat next to cobblestone pubs. Even some of the individual buildings couldn’t commit to a single style, like the Brazilian steakhouse with Chinese lions flanking the door.

She no longer felt unwelcome on the streets. She loved certain features of her new community, like the bookstore housed in a decommissioned school bus. But other things gnawed at her, like the churro cart that with the flick of a latch unfolded into a full-service bodega. She discovered it during an emergency tampon run. It wasn’t until she got home that she remembered to wonder at the dimensions.

Strangest of all, besides the absence of a Starbucks, was the school. Mrs. Clove had pointed it out from the front window. A tall twisted spire, visible above the tree line. She called it a special school, which explained why all the students had service animals. Most had dogs or ferrets, but one boy of around eleven was accompanied everywhere he went by a tortoise.

It was raining. Water gushed through Piper’s open window. She got up to close it and noticed a group of the students in green and blue uniforms, waiting at the bus stop on the corner. Piper watched them laughing and shoving each other out of the shelter and into the downpour—except for one girl, who stood with her hands raised at her sides, palms up, catching the rain. She flicked a hand; a stream of precipitation flew upward then turned vertical. The water flowed in a curve and splashed down the neck of the boy with the tortoise.

Piper took a step back. It was the wind. Or a trick of the light. Or…

Snatching up her jacket, Piper ran for the stairs. When she reached the street, the bus had come and the students were gone. She considered going back inside but found herself walking in the direction of the spire.

Two hours later, she returned, drenched and exhausted. She’d walked in circles looking for the school. No matter how far she walked, the spire never got any closer.

Shivering, Piper opened the cupboard for a cup of noodles to warm up. A mouse stared back at her. It was bareheaded, but a monocle glinted at its eye. Piper shrieked and dropped the ramen. The mouse dove to the floor. It disappeared under the radiator, a tiny opera cape fluttering in its wake.

Piper fled. She banged frantically on Mrs. Clove’s door.

“Gracious, you’re soaked! What’s the matter, dear?”

“The mice! They’re getting bolder and—they’ve developed optometry!”

“I see. Come in, come in.” She led Piper to the sitting room and brought her a threadbare towel. “There now, dry off. You’re soaked.”

Mrs. Clove handed Piper a mug of tea. The warmth seeped into Piper’s fingers and the scent calmed her nerves. She brought it to her lips, then set the mug firmly on the coffee table.

“Mrs. Clove, what is this place?”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“What do I mean? The mice accessorize. Children manipulate the weather. The other night, I was listening to Hamilton and I swear I caught my bathtub tapping its foot.”

“It’s not supposed to do that?” Mrs. Clove frowned. “Never mind, it can be dealt with. Drink your tea.”

“No thank you.”

“For the love of chalk, just drink your tea!”

“What’s in the tea?” Piper sprang to her feet, jostling the table.

“Nothing.” Mrs. Clove tutted and wiped the sloshed tea with the soggy towel. “Nothing dangerous. Oh, I’ve made a mess of things. I should never have brought you here. But I was terribly lonely. Eponine is a dear, but you know cats, only sociable when they feel like it.”

“You brought me here?”

“Well, not you specifically, but I’m glad it was you that came. You’re an excellent tenant.” Mrs. Clove bit her lip. “I hope you’re not too cross with me. Please don’t leave. How can I make it right?”

Piper sat back down, massaging her temples. Her landlady was a witch and her apartment was infested with sentient vermin. But, to its credit, Piper had never walked in on anyone waxing their bikini zone in the common room. And the rent was so reasonable.

“One,” Piper began counting on her fingers. “No more tea.”

“But you have to drink the tea,” Mrs. Clove interrupted. “I’m not allowed to let outsiders know everything,”

“I’m not an outsider. I live here,” Piper said.

Mrs. Clove clapped her hands.

“Two. The mice have to go.”

“Of course! I’ll send Eponine right up.”

The cat dropped from its perch and padded toward the door.

“No. I’m not approving a massacre. Just find them a new home.”

“It’ll be difficult and Eponine will most likely sulk, but it can be arranged.”

The cat returned, shooting Piper an unimpressed look.

“Last, I get to study in peace. And in return, I’ll come down for a chat at least once a week. Does that work?”

Mrs. Clove agreed, and Piper went back upstairs. She dried her hair and emailed her grandmother to see if the Saturday Bridge club was still looking for a fourth. On her way to bed, she stumbled over her area rug. It hovered, somewhat disconcertingly, three to four inches off the floor.

She could deal with it in the morning.



Susan Taitel grew up in Chicago, resides in Minneapolis, and lives in stories. She attended Viable Paradise in 2016. Her fiction has appeared on mcsweeneys.net and in Gallery of Curiosities. She denies all knowledge of the Great Cheese Heist of ’14.