Mirabelle was through listening. “What color is the sky today?”

“Not this again, sweetie,” June said. “Come on. We haven’t even checked the scope yet.”

“When will you check the scope?”

“Didn’t I just say I’d check the scope after breakfast?” Richard cried.

“When’s breakfast over?” Mirabelle stuffed everything that remained on her plate into her mouth. “I’m finished.”

This time, when June and Richard locked eyes, their expressions broadcast in stereo: Conference. Now.

“Chew your food, rock-a-bye-baby, and give it time to settle,” Richard said. “I’m going to go check the scope, okay?”

“Okay!” Mirabelle beamed. “I hope it’s the right color!”

June and Richard moved down the corridor that led to their communications array, rolling shut the blast door that served to isolate the rest of the tunnels from the smoke and flames of an electrical fire.

“The dumb thing doesn’t work,” June cried. “How long are we going to keep up the fiction that it does?”

“As long as it works,” snapped Richard. “Looking through a broken instrument and saying the sky’s not right is a lot more convincing to a six-year-old than a simple ‘no.’ I remember what it’s like to be that age; my dad used to check his ‘weather rock’ the same way.”

“That damn Cassie,” June said. “If I’ve told Popovich once I’ve told him a hundred times. Those windows could be a death sentence if that location isn’t. But he’s as insufferable as that brat of his.”

“Do you think…” Richard bit his lip. “Do you think it might be time to show her?”

“You mean suit her up?” June said. “March her out and show her that, yes, it’s every bit as bad as mommy and daddy have been saying? That the sky really isn’t the right color today?”

“You never know,” Richard shrugged. “It might actually be. Remember when we had to go to the Horowitzes to barter for water purification filters? I didn’t even need the suit that time, just a breath mask.”

The nascent lines on June’s face seemed to lengthen and deepen in the half-light of the communications array. “But would you…run the risk? It’s one thing when it’s you or I, but Mirabelle…”

“I think it’s time,” Richard said. “We’ll take her out, answer her questions, and go from there. It’ll be fine.”

June leaned against the wall. “Promise?” she said.

“I would if my promiser still had any kick left to it,” joked Richard, drawing her in close. “Sadly, the dumb thing doesn’t work. I think I might have been made by the same two-bit outfit that slapped together our scope.”

“That…would explain why you’re never clear about anything, especially with Mirabelle.” June managed a weak laugh, but the worry lines remained deeply incised.

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I knew I couldn’t give them all a home
That they wouldn’t fit my bulging bag
Tipping the scales at the airport
And yet I took them anyway
Filling arms, filling bags, staggering
Hungrily seizing them from hands outstretched

Advance Reader’s Copy, Not For Sale!
I scooped them up by the armful from tables
Pre-Production Version. Not Final Cover Art!
Chatted up empty marketing smiles for minutes
Uncorrected Proof. Some Content May Vary From Final!
Willingly tolerated the sociopathy of sales, of salesmen

When the weeding began, they sat there forlorn
Lost among the folds of a hotel bedspread
I knew I would never read them
Too esoteric, too juvenile, too biased, too surface
The shelves at home are already groaning
Bursting with the unread but well-loved

I could throw them out
Tumble them headfirst into the trash can
Fill a recycling bin, emptied with both hands and a grimace
But as Iook at them there, laid out
Claimed but unwanted, taken but unloved
I find I can’t

The cover in bold red white and blue, advancing men in Smokey hats
Orange and aggressive, a ballot box becomes a shredder
NO VOTE, NO HOPE: A juvenile guide to voter suppression
Violet liquid fumes before a heart-speckled chalkboard

Kennedy on the cover, hand in hand with the woman he cheated on
I know its author’s a cult leader, but the cover is cowboys and rocketships
TALES FROM THE SILVER AGE: Fiction From The Enlightened One
The vendor was a friend of mine, once, and I felt so, so sorry for them

People poured hours of their lives into these
Put forests of trees into these
Artists for the covers, binders for the books
A whole industry behind each of them
Even the salesmen with mouths to feed behind the smiles
Their lives, their livelihoods, their life’s work in my reject pile

I gather them up gently into a bag that is itself rejected
Swag and tchotchkes aren’t guilty, but bags are different
A last pilgrimage to a conference hall already ebbing
My plan is desperate but with a gleam of hope
I lay them on a table, spread out to show off their beauty
The colors pop against the off-white ice

Then I leave, walking briskly away without a look back
They are babes on the orphanage stoop
Puppies wriggling at the humane society door
Awaiting only a little kindness to live their lives
Years caressed by loving hands
After the cowardice that brought them there

They’ll probably go in the trash anyway
Swept up with the rest of the detritus
But it won’t be my hands that put them there
I walk away a reader in spite of my crime
Believing in the comfortable fiction
In a reality that couldn’t care less

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Aldebar is a merchant along with his kin
There’s nothing in town he hasn’t smuggled in

Ilona his daughter with a head full of trade
Competing all others into an early grave

Cousin Tor who handles the bulk of the work
The other names shine, but the other names shirk

Old Vittorio sits on a throne made of steel
The kingdom is safe, but what’s the unease he feels?

Young Otho his son, a warrior of reknown
So rarely seen by any here in this town

Octavia walks the halls of their home
Decked out in mourning, but is it her own?

Alma, shining, now the lady of artists
Bereft of a mate who was not the smartest

Alonzo the wealthy, flush now with gold
From whence did it come? The trail grows cold

Silvio the chatterbox, always ready to talk
His golems, though silent, prepare now to walk

Lord Ivan with a secret in his chest
Nobody told though for time he is pressed

Young Tibor his nephew, long thought a fool
Has now found himself a useful new tool

Gizela, once heir with mail in her glove
Now lost and cut deep by one she did love

Melbourne counts his coins of gold
But imperiled are his dreams of old

I see dark Sydney, born of greed
A mother by an unknown’s seed

Fell Mortimer, her uncle hewn of stone
Who three times now turned down the throne

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There is a word for every year
Syllables for things you hold dear
The poem of your life gets longer
As the count of your years is stronger
Until you run out of words to rhyme

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When allowing intolerance is virtue
As “giving both sides a say”
When Nazis are openly marching
With counterprotestors turned away
When “we can’t guarantee your safety”
But “it’s their right to have their own way”
Hatefulness in every news cycle
While righteousness fights for its say
When “taking a knee” is a treasonous act
But Confederates openly march all day
One has to wonder, will our country endure
Or will it be going away

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“Ughhh, my head,” moaned Randy. “What was in that stuff we were drinking? I feel like my eyes are swollen shut.”

“Mmmf,” groaned Nuby, jostling against Randy. “I don’t know what we did, or how many times we did it, but it looks like our wager is a tie. Now quit hogging the covers, I’m freezing.”

Randy stirred, feeling rough, cold objects give way and tumble beneath him. “I don’t think there are any covers,” he said. “I think we may have fallen asleep on a bed of coins.”

“If this is what you get up to all the time, I’ll stick to more evil and less chaos in the form of partying from now on. And there’s no way these are coins. They’d have warmed up by now.”

Randy finally managed to pry his bleary eyes open. He saw that he and Nuby were both submerged waist-deep in a large hot tub full of ice. Nuby, curled up opposite him with her wings drawn tight around her like a blanket, had an ugly scar sutured on her back. In a panic, Randy felt the same on himself.

He looked up at the rest of the expansive bathroom, which had a fine crystal mirror on one wall. On the mirror, written ether in lipstick blood, or some unholy combination of the two, was the following message:

“Foolish demons. Never trust an Erinyes, much less go to bed with one. Your kidneys will fetch a nice price in the markets of Baator. Don’t worry—they’ll grow back. Eventually. Hearts and stars, Wynter.”

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“Look at you two,” the woman said, her short dark hair bouncing about as she shook her head and clucked her tongue. “You call yourselves seducers, temptresses, paramours, sluts? Frankly, I’m embarrassed for you.”

Nuby looked up, her eyes a bit bleary from the half-shotgunned glass of ‘Ole Demogorgon’s Insanity Pepper Ale. “I most certainly am not imagining pulling out and roasting your meaty bits for this insult,” she said.

“Leave us alone,” said Randy, slouched next to Nuby in the corner booth. He was on his third stein of Gowron’s #178 Triple Fermented Bloodwine, 45020-vintage. “You’ve done enough terrible things to people who just wanted to paint the town bright, bright red. I think.”

The woman kicked a chair out from the table, spun it around, and sat on it wrong way round, resting her chin on the back. “Well, maybe next time you’ll read a girl’s body language and see that she just want to enjoy her drink in peace. Demon or not, that’s just common courtesy.”

“You knew?” said Nuby. “Just playing dumb? Oh, you sultry little minx!”

“You can call me Wynter,” the woman said, “and as the name suggests, I’m usually a cold customer. But I’ve seen enough demons in my time to know them for what they are, even when their wings aren’t showing.”

“So you just baited us for fun, then?” said Randy. “That’s almost admirable in a way. Almost. Until it harshed my good vibe.”

“Well, now I feel sorry for you, if that makes you feel any better,” said Wynter. “And I have a proposition for you.”

“I’m listening,” said Nuby, “albeit with very angry ears.”

“What say you we continue this little wager of yours upstairs?” Wynter held up a hand before either could speak. “Yes, I know all about that. Use your inside voices next time, kiddos. I Also know a little place at the inn up there where no one will bother us, and whichever of you is more…successful…we can declare the winner.”

“All right then!” said Randy, excited. “I’ll go first!”

“First?” said Wynter. “You misunderstand me, Mr. Incubus. This isn’t a tag team, it’s a race. And racers all run at the same time…on the same track.”

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