Gaines Park had no shortage of trees and no shortage of squirrels to inhabit them, rodents grown fat and entitled by living off the refuse of students from the community college or specifically put out for them by Students for a Happy Earth. In fact, the park supported two warring populations of the critters: the larger but lazier fox squirrels, and the smaller but severely ADD grey squirrels. They could often be heard chittering at each other, with the insulting nature of the exchange generally clear from context.

And, sometimes, they would chitter and chirp at nothing in particular.

“Look at that,” Isaac said. A grey squirrel was perched in the barren highest boughs of a half-dead maple, clearly exposed, and making such a rodenty cacophony that it was audible for dozens of yards in every direction. “What are you doing, squirrel? You’re just telling every predator in range that there’s a tasty rodent up that tree and that dinner is served!”

“Kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk, quaa-quaaaa!” said the squirrel. “Kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk, quaa-quaaaa!” It was staring straight at Isaac and flicking its tail like a tiny battle pennant.

“They can see you up there, you know,” Isaac continued. “No leaves. And if you run away you’ll just exhaust your nut fat and die of starvation!”

“Kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk,” said the squirrel, unmoved. “Quaa-quaaaa!”

“I give up,” Isaac said, throwing up his hands. “I tried to help, but you’re being evolutionarily maladaptive.”

“She is warning the other nearby squirrels of a potential predator, and pinpointing that predator’s location by varying her alarm call and looking at it while flecking her tail.”

Isaac had no reason to doubt the speaker beside him, as she was the avatar of Aquerna, the Norse goddess of squirrels. “Oh. I guess she’s warning the other squirrels about me, huh,” he said sheepishly. “How do you say ‘I don’t want to eat you because you’d probably taste gross’ in squirrelese?”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!
Advertisements

“What has led you to the Xia Valley and the Game of the Dreaming? What do you hope to see when the blossoms take your mind?” asked Datai Chu, the duly appointed and empowered 217th Overseer of the Games. “As late entrants, you will be subject to my ruling on whether or not you are worthy of the games and the Flowers of Xia.”

Ru Shim, a former soldier in the Qingdu Emperor’s great army, replied “I seek the Game of the Dreaming that I might prove myself worthy of the renown I once possessed. I hope to see a field of worthy enemies that I might lay low in fair combat.”

Qiang Zhou, a mercenary and fortune-seeker, said “I seek the Game of the Dreaming that I might earn the purse for winning it. I hope to see a challenge not possible in the waking world, that I might overcome that which no man has ever faced.”

Jiang Tang, a farmer facing the loss of his land if he could not pay a debt, was direct: “I also seek the Game of the Dreaming for the purse, as it is the only thing that might save the land that my family’s hands have tilled for generations. I hope to see a circumstance in which a hardworking farmer can see his toil rewarded.”

Xuan Li, a wanderer facing the end of his long and proud line due to his inability to sire an heir, answered last: “I seek not the Game of the Dreaming, but rather the flowers themselves. Win or lose, I hope only to see a vision of what might come to pass if my line were not wiped from the earth.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Soul of the Hopeless Slaughter
Hardean's Last Prophecy
Captain Lynx

Generated with this tool, and incorporating these public domain images from the Library of Congress.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

I took my proposal to the Department of Infernal Affairs. Never heard of it? There’s always one nearby if you know where to look. Someone’s got to coordinate for the Other Side, after all, and what could be more hellish than bureaucracy for which the normal human meanings of time and space don’t apply?

That day, I had a modest proposal all typed up with the proper forms filled out in quadruplicate and properly stamped and sealed with blood. I was ready to pledge my soul to the Other Side in exchange for something in the here and now, like many people (more than you’d think) have done in the past. I was ushered in to see the local Department Manager after a wait of only 97 hours; that they sped things along, I thought, was indicative of how important the issue was.

Unlike most of the workers for the Other Side, the department manager wasn’t a human sympathizer or required to wear a disguising glamour. He was all raw and evil, leaking noxious fumes and fluids. The only concession for my sake was a business suit, which must have been made out of teflon to withstand all that Other Side hellish ichor.

“It’s a nice proposal,” he said in a voice that sounded like two concrete blocks being ground together. “But I’m going to have to turn you down. We don’t want your soul, not for this or any other bargain.”

“What?” I said. “Why not?”

“I’m going to be honest with you,” the Department Manager said, tenting the clawed pseudopods that served him for quasi-arms. “Fulfilling wishes, making changes to the physical world from the spiritual? It has costs. Effort, time, and soul energy. In the old days, when souls were pennies a gallon, it was no problem. But things have changed, and the arithmetic isn’t always as good.”

“But it’s a small request,” I said. “Hardly anything needs to be changed, and you get my soul forever!”

“That’s the other thing,” said the Department Manager in his ruinous voice. “We on the Other Side have quite the actuarial staff, and we’ve done a few calculations. Turns out that the kind of person who’d sell their soul, or even consider it, is usually a right bastard in their own way. 90% of them, they’re ours anyway in the fullness of time; we get the whole soul without having to expend any effort at all.”

“So what are you telling me?”

“No more soul deals anywhere, ever. Only exceptions are for mass cults, business leaders, and politicians. That one comes from the Big Guy himself, incidentally, so don’t try going over my amorphous eyestalk to the District Manager either.”

“Then why see me at all? Why make me wait just to shoot me down? why have the forms in the first place? I wasted almost a year of my life getting this ready, all for nothing!”

The Department Manager grinned with all six of his tooth-ringed mouth-suckers. “We’re still the Other Side, kid. It’s what we do.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Much has been written, told, whispered, and muttered about the lives of children’s toys. It may all be true. But what many people fail to realize is the bond between a baby and its toys. For an older child, one for whom the magic has begun to leech slowly but perceptibly out of the world, a toy has a life all its own, separate from parents and classmates and all the mundane cares of a larger world.

But for an infant, just beginning to explore their world, the grinning and beloved stuffed animal or the brightly-colored blocks are just as real as the large figures with the comforting voices, and just as alive. It’s a seamless continuum. Older children take the role of director, of stage manager, of God. For the younger ones, it’s more like a partnership–a different kind of bond altogether. They have no truck and trade with the older things, being thrown out or passed on as their wards age. Some would call this a cruel fate, but to anyone who has ever beheld a discarded baby toy, it’s not so. They have an energy, a life-force, about them. And they are only cast aside once it has flickered out.

Ah, but what of those bound to a sick child, whose life threatens to gutter our before their own sparks have left it? Their playthings are left with a choice: to sit and wait, or to venture out into the world of secret dreams and hidden fears that only the youngest of children can see, even as the very old still feel it tickle up against their lives every so often.

The note continued in the same vein:

Gertie was sometimes called Gertrude. This was her name on certificates and papers but never her real name. Anyone who called Gertie by that name was no friend of hers.

Gertie was said to always be nervous, but this was a lie. Gertie would pretend to be nervous or even pretend to faint because it made people see Gertie and treat her with kindness.

Gertie was barren, they said, and could never have children. But Gertie knew this wasn’t true. Her husband insisted it was so, and tried to prove himself right with many others.

Gertie was weak, they said, but they’d never had to be Gertie.
Gertie was many things at many times to many people and in many eyes.

Gertie was none of those things afterwards.

Gertie was no longer Gertie.

The secluded beach at Phak Trang was often the star of such expat stories, catering to tourists and thrill-seekers who craved an escape from the commercialized beaches that littered the South China Sea for something pure and undisturbed. Phak Trang was said to be the best-kept secret in the province, a sheltered cove with beautiful gypsum sands, calm waters near the beach, and surfable waves further out. It was a modest hike from the nearest access road, but cabbies in the various resort towns were always ready to arrange dropoffs and pickups, though none of the local guides would go there, forcing seekers to rely on hand-drawn maps circulated by expats.

Many people who had been swore by the place, but it also had a tragic air: swimmers and surfers who went to Phak Trang had a tendency to disappear. Certainly, the deaths–noted as hashmarks on a crude sign near the beach–lent an aura of danger to the place. The US Consulate in Surat Thani held that these accidents–which had accounted for 8 citizens 1960-2010–were due to treacherous features of geography, like the cove’s fierce riptide, and the occasional local banditry.

Ask a local cabbie, though, and a different story would emerge. Not shy about sharing it, with paying fares at least, they maintained that Phak Trang was a point at which spirits could enter the world of the living when the tides were right. People who vanished might sometimes have been killed by the riptide, the cabbies conceded, but more often they were abducted by vengeful spirits or fell through the pale into an otherworld beyond imagining.