LESSON LEARNED

“You’re nothing but a thief, a leach living off people’s dreams,” someone yelled.

Jay froze, hand inches from banging on Mr. Smith’s front door. He’d been thinking those same words as he slogged down the snow-covered driveway. So excited that a publisher wanted his novel, Jay didn’t think twice before shelling out thousands of dollars for editing, cover design, and postage. He even paid for most of the printing. All he had to show for his work and money was the box of overpriced books he bought from the publisher. The novel wasn’t even available on-line.

A second voice squeaked like a rat caught in a trap. “I’ll pay you your royalties. Just let me get my checkbook.”

It seemed Jay wasn’t the only one taken in by Smith Publishing. He peered in through the narrow window next to the door, but all he saw was a pair of shadows on the wall. One of them waved what looked like a weapon, just like the gun weighing down Jay’s pocket. The other held its hands in the air.

“It’s too late, Smith.”

“Please. I’ll give you anything.”

Three shots rang out. The smaller shadow slumped to the ground. Flakes of snow slipped inside Jay’s jacket collar, but he didn’t notice. He wouldn’t be getting any money back after all. Nor did he get to confront Smith himself. At least he had a new novel idea. This time he’d be careful and check the Writers Beware and Predators and Editors websites first.

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BEYOND

Tanya gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, struggling against the air that seemed to press down on her. Sweat streamed down her back. The erratic thump, thump of her heart drowned out the honking horns behind her. Drivers gestured and screamed for her to move aside. She was holding up the daily commute, one that she hadn’t partaken of since coming to this place with him, asleep, in the dead of night.

There was nothing out there for her, he’d said. No hope, no love, no people. Only he would have her. Confidence slowly eroded, just like the banks of the island. Her world shrunk until all that was left was his will.

This wasn’t the first time she’d hovered at the edge of this bridge, staring as it disappeared into the distance. Each time, fear had held her back, the panic of that big empty expanse of water with only a thin layer of concrete and steel for safety. Fear of how she could survive alone, without him.

Nausea gripped her as she struggled to decide. She’d suffered his poisonous words for years, even the occasional slap, but last night left more than her self-confidence beaten. If it was just her, she’d suffer through, but this wasn’t a life to bring another into.

Movement caught her eye. He was coming, charging down the road, mustache twisted up into small horns. Even at this distance she could see the fury in his expression.

Hands shaking, she slammed the accelerator. The car rocketed into the unknown. Free at last.

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TO DIE AND NOT TO DIE

“Ever since the day I walked into that specialty shop, a dark fury has twisted in my gut, weaving threads of poison through my body. I’ve been gnawed to a papery shell. Stomach, lungs, liver, kidneys, heart; all have fallen to this festering termite. Now I’m a puzzle with missing pieces.”

I pause and glare as a nurse checks the machines I’m wired to. Her patronizing smile waves over me, but there’s no eye contact. They’re all like that, waiting for me to die already. It’s been months since I fell ill. My gaze returns to my ghostly guest as soon as she departs.

“See what I’ve become? A rag doll with no substance. Death rings, but runs when I answer its call like an auto-dialer. I’m tired of waiting, tired of all the well-wishers who hover with painted grins. Their pity is more torment than the evil inside me.

The ghostly figure tilts its head. “What are you saying, Barry?”

“I want to live.”

“You could give in to it.”

“And become a shade? Never.”

“There’s a price for what you ask.”

“There always is. I’ll pay it.”

Laughter rings out as a glowing hand touches my forehead. Heat rushes through my body. When my eyes clear I’m back in the shop. A young man reaches for a package. I move without hesitation and smack his hand away.

“That’s concentrated Carolina Reaper juice, you idiot! It’s stronger than a habanera pepper. It’ll destroy you.”

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AWAKENING

Winter's Icy Grip

In winter’s icy grip

Life Begins

Life begins

Struggles for PurposeStruggles for purpose

Against All Odds

Against all odds

TriumphantTriumphant

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MIND GAMES

Heat beat down on the Kyra’s helmet and sweat ran down her back. She and Hawk had been trekking through the woods all day. “I’m taking this ridiculous thing off, Hawk.”

“You can’t,” he said. “They’ll turn your mind to mush this close to the radio telescope.”

She’d been so skeptical of Hawk’s wild theories of alpha wave mind control, but when she looked through his special binoculars, the supposedly abandoned facility lit up like a rainbow.

“Are you sure this thing will protect us?”

Hawk tightened his chin strap, then tapped the pyramidal shaped helmet he wore. “Absolutely. There’s a reason the ancient Egyptians chose this form.  Microwaves will bounce right off it. Vanity is a poor price to pay for having your mind controlled.”

“Whatever,” she said.

It took another hour to reach the structure. In the center of the dish danced a small figure dressed in green. A gold buckle decorated his hat and a small shamrock bounced as he moved. Sparks of color shot from his wand, making the ground ripple with a golden glow. He stopped and glared with narrowed eyes.

“Yer foun’ me. Can’t git in yisser minds. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, an’ violet al’ bounce aff yisser clever ‘ats. Ye as magically delicious as de last ‘umans ter visit?”

A cold wind made Kyra shiver. She and Hawk stepped away from the strange man with the red hair and pointy ears.

The man licked his lips, then laughed so hard he collapsed. “Ah, de luk on yisser faces. Priceless. Yer don’t nu anythin’ aboyt wee people, chucker yer?”

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SHORE 4: DEAD SHORE

“That’s the last time you clip your fingernails over my bunk,” said Flynn. His lip twisted into a sneer. “No more clip, clip. No more flying toenails.”

That little habit had rankled Flynn’s patience for months. He holstered his flintlock and nodded, satisfied that Avery would never disturb him again. No one could survive a shot under the eye, not even Avery.

Dealing with that man on board had been bad enough. Getting marooned together was more than either of them could handle. He plopped down under the lone palm tree on the uncharted island and leaned back, relishing the sound of lapping water. He’d worry about rescue later.

“The least you could have done was close my eyes,” growled Avery. “I’m still seeing spots.”

Flynn leaped to his feet. “How…You were dead….” he sputtered.

“I fired. My cheek stung. Then I felt the sun burning my eyes.” Avery glared at him. “You can’t even kill a man right.”

***

Do you think they will behave now?” said Catherine. Her golden-bronze tail flicked back and forth. “That’s the third time we have healed those men.”

Tom sighed as he watched Avery and Flynn argue on the view screen. “I believe it will take more than nanites to fix these humans. They are nothing like the young man we hosted last year.”

“What a shame. I thought for sure they could get along eventually,” said Catherine. “Very well, end the experiment and sent the results to headquarters on planet Mau.”

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SHORE 3: HOSPITAL SHORE

“They were aliens.”

“You told me they were cats,” said the doctor. He tapped a pencil on his note pad.

I glared at the doctor and raked my belly. I’d been relegated to the psychiatric ward ever since they found me unconscious on a barren island in the Pacific.

“They were alien cats and they walked on two legs like we do.” The irritation on my stomach continued to irk me as much as this conversation. “I swear. I’m not making this up.”

“I’m sure you believe that’s true. Tell me again how your ship sunk.”

My teeth pressed together until they hurt. At least it distracted me from the damned itch. I’d told the same story for a month. No one believed me. Had I hallucinated Catherine and Tom? Had I really been that sun mad to have concocted the whole story?

“We hit something during a storm and the ship sunk. I was the only survivor. Tom found me washed up on their spaceship disguised as an island. He and Catherine fed me the best seared fish I’ve ever had. That’s all I have to say.”

The doctor’s brow wrinkled. “Looks like you’re not ready to face reality yet. I’ll have an orderly bring you back to your room.”

The lock clicked behind me like a doomsday chime. Maybe I was crazy. Maybe I really had imagined the whole thing. I scratched my stomach again, then looked at the irritation. A tawny gold and black pattern decorated my skin, just like the spots on Catherine’s fur. My heart jumped. It was real, and I’d been tagged and released.

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