Story-Matic #46

Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to write short fiction again. Stories that I can dip my toes into and move on from without feeling like I have to explore all their murky depths. Stories that I don’t necessarily feel strongly about, or feel the urge to finish, stories for stretching the legs, for limbering up the ol’ bean, for exploring. That maybe don’t go anywhere, or end satisfyingly, but that tickle my fancy anyway.

Here’s one of them. The prompt: “Librarian, reunited.”


Alise reaches for her mug of tea, brings it to her lips, braces for the scalding bite. It doesn’t come. She looks at the digital desktop clock; an hour has passed, and she’s barely registered it. She looks around the empty aisles, sniffs the comforting, musty air, swigs her cold tea, grimaces at the cool grainy mix sticking in her teeth. She stands up.

Seems like her bones crackle and pop and creak more than they did even a week ago. She presses a hand into the small of her back as she begins her familiar plod through the library. This she can do without thinking, and with a glance she confirms that all is as it should be. Too many years spent making this circuit, too many years without a change. The biographies have always been there, the kids’ section there, nonfiction there. Why not switch it up?

Because she doesn’t have the energy for it anymore, she tells herself. As she has told herself before. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not going to happen. At least she has the place to herself; no unshelved books to sort through, no messes at the card catalog station, no strewn toys in the kids’ section. Not unusual for a Thursday, but welcome. Ah, but it’s Thursday, isn’t it? She goes to check on Gary.

She likes Gary. Likes him a lot, actually, which she tells herself must be a little odd since Gary is homeless. But she does. He’s good at conversation, he smiles when he speaks, and he looks at her in a way that makes her feel actually seen, which is a nice change from most of the people she encounters. Still, liking Gary is the problem, because in fifteen minutes’ time she’s going to have to send him away, back out onto the street, knowing that whatever is in his backpack is all he has to get him through the night. And it’s getting colder. Maybe she has enough in her purse to offer him a few dollars for a sandwich, at least. But maybe he’d bristle if she offered him money. She’s thought about it before, but never done it. Doesn’t seem right. Might ruin the relationship they have, whatever that relationship may be.

But Gary’s not here.

His backpack is, though, leaning like a storm-smashed tree against the internet station (ten cents a minute, but she lets Gary use it for free). She looks around — he’s nowhere to be seen.


No answer.

With a note of worry in her step, she visits all his likely spots — the restroom, the periodicals, the stoop outside the employee entrance — he’s not anywhere.

He must have just forgotten it.

Forgotten his pack that contains, presumably, everything he owns?

She returns to the backpack, eyes it like a dieter eyeing a piece of cheesecake at a buffet. She takes it to her desk, has a brief moment of doubt, and unzips it.

The first thing that hits her is the smell — an unmistakable fog of spoiled food and rain-fouled clothing. She shoves aside some hastily-folded shirts and balled-up socks (slightly damp, she shudders to notice). And then her fingers close on a book. A hardback book with a distinctive plastic covering.

A library book.

Gary never checks anything out, he just reads in the library. For hours at a time. Books would just be more weight to carry around. She lifts it out.

And immediately drops it, her breath catching in her throat.

With trembling fingers, she reaches to pick it up again.

It’s a bit weathered but in good shape for riding around in Gary’s pack. Good shape for being impossible.

It’s a first-edition copy of her unpublished book from twenty years ago. Same title, the same cover she had always envisioned, the pen name she’d planned to use emblazoned on the bottom. Impossible. She opens it, reads the opening lines. Her opening lines.

Lines she never shared with anybody.

“You weren’t meant to see that,” Gary’s voice says behind her.

The Depths of My Affection

The Depths of My Affection

It’s not my kind of place. But then, what place in Hell is?
A derelict cement building in an abandoned block. But inside… It’s like a velvet glove got together with a neon sign from the Vegas strip.
There’s a live band tonight, some unholy trio of electric guitar, synthesized drums, and howling vocals. They all wear tattered formal attire and wigs so oversized and nappy you can’t see their faces. Throngs of people dance to the stuff, if you can call the cavorting “dancing”.
It’s hot inside, the press of hundreds — maybe thousands — of bodies colliding with one another making the air thick with sweat and perfume and liquor and other things best not mentioned. The walls and countertops are slick with vapor like the inside of a shower.
I slip through the crowd as gingerly as I can, trying to avoid the dancers and drinkers and failing. A stubby guy with a goblin mask on — maybe it’s a mask, one eye scarred over and missing — bumps into me and spills a frothing reddish concoction on my tie. He says something rude and vanishes into the crowd. Next thing I know, a wispy girl all in blue is trailing her fingers across my lapel and blowing cloying smoke in my face, beckoning me out to the floor. I pull away and she turns, forgetting me immediately.
Can’t afford to get tangled up with these degenerates.
Don’t even want to be here, not really.
I think about leaving, looking back over my shoulder, but the door has already vanished in the fog of this place. Everything is a blur of smoke and haze and occasionally pulsing neon lights in the dark.
The bar stretches against the side wall, a massive thing made of blackened polished wood and ivory studs that look like teeth. I rest my hands on it and they stick there, a tacky red clay almost grabbing me back.
“What can I get you?” The bartender asks. She has hair made of snakes and eyes like the void.
I’m not here for drinks. “I’m looking for Yzebel.”
She withdraws with a hiss and flicks a finger upward.
On a balcony I hadn’t even noticed — veiled in the fog and the smoke — stands a figure who looks as out of place as I feel. White gown. Hair molded and flawless, cascading over one eye and past her shoulders like a golden waterfall. Shimmering skin. Her one visible eye sweeps over the place, a security camera processing all within its arc. She looks at me and I’m skewered to the seat, a hot lance in my veins pinning me to my place like a bug under glass.
But she doesn’t actually see me, or at least she gives no outward sign. She whirls and vanishes into the haze.
I race upstairs and find her leaning over a game of cards; instead of chips and cash, there’s a small pile of teeth and dried-out strips of what looks like untanned leather.
Somebody wins and there’s a clamor at the table; somebody’s accused of cheating, and all of a sudden chairs are being pushed back, hands are flying to collars and everybody’s shouting. I seize the moment, taking her by the arm and walking her away.
“I hear you can get me passage out,” I say. Her perfume smells like my grandmother’s peach tree.
“Not anymore,” she says, not even flustered. As cool as if she were telling me they were out of the night’s special. “Guys upstairs have clamped down around here, in case you hadn’t noticed.” She lays a hand on my fingers and points down into the bar. A saucy bunch of devils are clamoring for a waitress’s attention, jawing at each other, their tongues hanging out like limp windsails.
I’d noticed the fuzz when I came in, but the fuzz are everywhere. They’ve always been a part of her operations. I tell her as much.
“I think you heard wrong about me,” Yzebel says, plucking herself free and smoothing her hair. For just an instant, the light catches her just so — an angel amidst a mass of forsaken souls — but then it’s over, and she’s looking at me like I’m a dead insect on her windshield. “I run an honest business.”
“I know about your reputation, okay?” I nod at the brutes down below, now neck-deep in a couple of pitchers. “And I know you have to keep up appearances. But I also know you’re a good person.”
“That and a nickel will just about buy me a stick of gum.” She’s not harsh, just matter-of-fact, almost apologetic. “I used to help people get out, but I don’t anymore. My goodwill is all used up. The noose is tightening. Nobody in or out. I couldn’t help you even if I wanted to.”
Yzebel turns away with finality. I grab her and she spins around on her own accord. No longer is she the angel she appears — for a heartbeat she’s all fury and horns. She snarls, the sound too deep for the waiflike body she’s in to even make, and I’m forced to remember who I’m dealing with. I draw my hand back, open the pendant around my neck, show her the cameo inside.
“Maybe you don’t want to help me, but I’ll bet you want to help her.”
Then, she’s the one seizing my arm and yanking me into an office.


Yzebel offers me a seat on a swanky sofa swathed in velvet. I sit and sink in.
Meanwhile, she’s pacing the room, the seductress transforming into a businesswoman. She pulls her hair back, knots it behind her head. Leans on the smoked-oak desk separating us. She’s tiny, but the thing creaks under the force of her. She’s quiet. Dead quiet. “Who are you, and what in the seven hells do you have to do with my daughter?”
I lick my lips, conscious of the seawater that leaks out as I do so. “She’s my wife.”
“You mean she was.”
Right. The whole “dead” thing.
“I like to think she still is. With a place like this. With somebody like you to help me out.”
She tsks and drums her fingers on the desktop, tiny ringlets of smoke escaping where she touches the dark wood. Suddenly, the full force of her gaze hits me, and it’s like in the bar; I’m skewered to my seat, but this time there’s a heat to her scrutiny, like she’s really seeing me, the smoldering coals of her eyes burning away waterlogged flesh and soggy suit and everything I ever was, living or dead. She sees it all. The wedding on the beach of Bermuda. The honeymoon cruise back to the states. The delirious night in the casino, where I took in over ten grand in an hour, lost it, and won it back again. The shady guy I bluffed on the last hand of the night to double it all.
And she sees me walking up to meet Lydia on the deck at midnight. Sees the stars burning overhead, a blanket of tranquil diamonds. Then the bag over my head. The tying of my wrists. The punches and kicks to my gut, my face. Then the water.
Then she looks away and I come to, gasping for breath and struggling to sit upright.
“Hell of a way to spend your wedding night.” She leans in, her face a mask of judgment and impassivity.
She’s seen it all. There was no hiding it. At least it’s all out in the open. “I made some mistakes.”
“And got yourself killed.”
“Leaving your bride-to-be on the very night of her union.”
“I’m sorry. I —”
“My daughter.” She slams a fist into the desk top, and if it groaned before, it actually splinters now. She’s staring at me, a snake pondering not if it will eat the mouse quivering before it, but how, and how much it will toy with the poor thing first.
For a moment, madly, I wonder if I will escape this room with my life. I almost laugh. But she sees this, and the mirthless chuckle turns to ash on my lips.
“My daughter,” she mutters, leaning back now in her chair and pondering the ceiling. I worry for a moment that she’ll ask me how we met, how I got involved with her in the first place, and if she learns that, then I will likely become a permanent fixture in her office, perhaps a living ashtray for her to grind out her cigarettes on. But she smirks, like she’s just thought of something. “You realize, of course, that I could just as easily send you the other way.”
“…The other way?”
“You want to go back. Above.” She rolls her eyes and points toward the ceiling. “But this isn’t the only Hell. There are others. Infinite ones, really. Though they come in a few distinct and … unsavory varieties. You caused my daughter pain. Maybe in return, you deserve some pain of your own. A little bit of personalized torment.”
The room feels suddenly hot, and her eyes have taken on a dangerous red tint. Discretion is sometimes the better part of getting your face roasted off by a half-demon. I rise quickly, backing up.
My legs don’t bother asking for my opinion. They buckle, and I drop into the sofa again. She moves around the desk, the snake again, creeping in for the kill. She leans back against the desk, taps her nails on it again.
“There’s something about you, Hiram. Something I like. So here’s the deal. I smuggle you topside, give you a little time to put your affairs in order, give you a nice new body to truck around in.”
“A new body?”
She laughs. “Have you seen yourself lately? If I send you back there in this —” she waves a hand in my general direction, encompassing with the flick of her fingers her entire contempt for everything I am — “you’ll be dead again in just a couple of minutes. I’m a demon, not a miracle worker.”
“Fine. How long do I get?”
Her eyes turn cold, black, empty. Snakes’ eyes. There were stories about what her other half was, but I didn’t believe them, not until now. “Seven days. You get seven days.”
It’s not as much time as I had hoped for. Maybe not enough. But with those eyes staring holes in me, I’m lucky I got anything at all. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” she says, the menacing demeanor evaporating in a peal of cherubish laughter. “You haven’t asked me about my price.”
“What’s your price?”
“I want you to bring me my husband.”


I find Lydia sitting in a streetside cafe, her eyes attending but unable to read a paperback open in front of her. She looks put together to an outsider, but I can see the out-of-place strands of hair, the slight mismatch of her outfit. She knows I’m dead but can’t make herself believe it.
It’s not the best way to approach her, but I’m on a limited engagement. I walk up to her, clear my throat. “Lydia Gantz?”
She looks up, startled at the use of her married name.
“I have a message from your husband.”
She locks onto my face with the intensity of a shark scenting blood. “Hiram?”
It’s stupid, but I feel tears pricking at the backs of my eyes. Somehow, she recognizes me in this doughy, shapeless form Yzebel has given me. But then Lydia gets suspicious. “What have you done with him?”
It’s too crowded on this street to have her bursting into tears over her dead husband. I try to pull her away, but she’s angry now.
“Do you want money? Is that it?”
“Listen to me.”
“You listen. I want my husband back. I know my mother’s involved in this. Whatever she’s giving you, I’ll double it.”
She’s right, but she’s all wrong. I lay a hand on her arm, tell her we can’t talk here, we should go somewhere else. She wheels and smashes me in the jaw with the flat of her hand. It’s just a slap, but it connects like a brick to the face. The engagement ring — my engagement ring — leaves a little gash in my cheek, blood welling up hot.
She’s not going to like the next part, but there’s nothing for it. I pull the little snub-nosed pistol from its holster, slide it into my pocket, and jam it into her side. She protests until she recognizes the feel of the gun through the sundry layers of fabric. For a moment I’m shocked at how coolly she takes it, but then, this family is surprising me from every side lately. Obviously it’s not the first time she’s been held at gunpoint.
“Come with me,” I whisper, helping her to her feet with my other hand. “Please.”


It’s a short car ride back to her house — not our house, but the family’s house, a towering affair of brick and ivy set a few miles back off the main road — and we speak not a word on the way there. She’s tense but cool, and I’m trying to figure out just how in the hell she’s managing to stay so cool. But there’s no time for all that — I pull up to the house and we go in. Inside, it’s all cordial pleasantries. Her father is here, doddering and clumsy in his tuxedo, asking me if he should pull the car around, for god’s sake. He hasn’t been right in the head for most of Lydia’s life, if she’s to be believed. For a moment, I wonder how I’m going to deal with him. Then he vanishes down a hallway and we don’t see him again.
Lydia’s recovered herself a little; she offers me tea. “No thanks.” She makes herself a cup, and the spoon tinkles against the rim like a drowning wind chime.
“Your husband is dead,” I say.
She blows absently across the top of her teacup.
“And he’s not coming back.” My throat tightens a little on this; I’d love to tell her, but there’s no point.
“Just one more thing my mother’s stolen from me,” she says, her face not half as vitriolic as her words.
“He wanted me to tell you something.”
“How do you know him?”
“Does it matter?”
She weighs my response, measures me, eyes like the edges of knives.
“He’s got a safe deposit box. Number 81723. You go to his apartment, dump out the box of cereal on top of the fridge, find the key. Inside is…” I falter. It sounds so foolish. “A little statue. Ancient. Jade. Priceless. Something he…” stole, I don’t say, because I can’t break her heart again. Something he stole, and something that’s going to get you killed. Her expression gives away nothing, and I can feel her doubt. “He wants you to have it.”
“…Wanted.” She’s staring at me again, and I’m a worm on a hook. I look away. “Just do it. This week. Tomorrow, if you can.”
“And then what?”
And then, when the thugs come around looking for what I owed them, they’ll take it and leave her in peace.
They won’t kill her to get back at me for holding out on them.
“And then you won’t hear from him again. Or me. You can go on with your life. Meet somebody else. Get married. Have a kid.” She’s squinting at me now, the way she used to do when I was making up stories about my past and she didn’t quite believe me. But she never pressed the issue then, and she doesn’t now. She opens her mouth like she’s about to say something, but she doesn’t. I mumble an apology and get the hell out of there.
When I check the box a few days later, it’s empty. I swing by our place and see it in the window, catching the light in its weird crags and edges. At least she’ll be safe.


All that’s left, then, is her father. I’m on my seventh day, and you don’t want to split hairs with the queen of the dead. I have until three o’clock to bring him back with me, or Yzebel will take me alone and to be honest, I don’t want to think about what comes after that. I go back to Lydia’s old house and knock on the door.
The old man’s there, still wearing the tuxedo. He smells of must and turned earth, like the inside of a crypt. And he’s asking me again if he should pull the car around.
What the hell. I say yes.
He blinks at me like he hasn’t really heard, then his eyes light up and he begins nodding like his head’s about to fall off. “This way,” he babbles over and over again, leading me down an elegant hallway to the garage. Inside are a series of ludicrous roadsters in obscene colors — fire engine red, twilight purple, nuclear yellow. I guess it pays to be married to the mistress of night. He grabs a set of keys and leads me through the fluorescent-lit garage. Toward the end is a posh number: a polished and gleaming ghost in black and white. The old man says it’s a Brabus, whatever that means — all I know is it’s gorgeous and expensive, and it looks fast enough to outrun any demon any day of the week. If only. He tosses me the keys and settles in next to me, tapping his thumbs excitedly on his knees.
Grimly, I set the car in gear, and we roar out onto the street. I’ve never been a killer, but at least the guy’s not protesting. It’s almost like he wants to go. What do I know; maybe he does.


The real bitch of it is that I have to go out the same way I came in. It’s got to be drowning again, which is something I’d really rather avoid, but all I have to do is think about the unholy fire behind Yzebel’s eyes to realize that a few lungfuls of seawater are preferable to a woman’s wrath, particularly this woman. There’s a brilliant vista out over the sea by the cliffs out on Route 1, and I make for that at about a hundred and fifty miles an hour. The old man — Yzebel’s husband — hums idly in the seat next to me, like we’re out for a Sunday drive, like he knows what’s coming and looks forward to it.
Whatever. It’ll all be over in a minute, and I can go back to my eternal torment and not have to worry about Lydia or her mother or her father ever again.
There’s the cliff.
Ocean surf below, clouds rolling in like marshmallow fluff.
And, funny thing, I look in the rearview mirror and see Lydia in the backseat.
She’d been hiding under a tarp in the back and now she pops up, wraps her arms around my neck, and whispers in my ear.
“You can’t get away from me again.”
I yank the wheel hard to the right, but it’s too late.
We smash through the guardrail and go tumbling into the azure at nearly two hundred.
Next to me, the old man shrieks in glee as we go over.
Right before we hit the water, I swear I can see Yzebel floating just below the surface, her arms open wide, a devilish grin playing across her face.
We’re all going to see her.
One big happy family.


Chuck’s challenge for the end of October was, appropriately enough, a horror challenge of the X meets Y variety. I drew “Casablanca” meets “The Ring.” I think I captured that feel at the beginning, then slowly drifted away…

This one is what it is. I think I’m maybe still a bit burned up on finishing my recent sci-fi draft. Anyway…

Bug Report

You know that feeling you get, right at the edge of sleep, when consciousness has slipped away and that long, dark abyss yawns open in front of you? You lean out over the maw and gravity, like tentacles from the depths, wraps itself around you. Then there’s that tiny little tug, that little yank, and you startle back into waking again, gasping for breath.

I’ve been waiting for that tug for months.

It feels like months, anyway. I guess it could just as easily be five minutes or five years. You start to lose track after a while, and there’s nothing in the long dark to ground you.

Sleep for an eternity, return before dinnertime. That’s the plan, anyway. Some new hyperdrive the big brains in engineering have cooked up. I can only pretend to understand it myself, but they’re sure it works; they’ve tested it on synthetics and the readings say they reached the Pleiades before their programs locked up and they had to be recalled. “Poisoned Apple,” they call it. And guess what they call the protocol that wakes you up? “Prince Charming.” Cute. Some geek was real proud of that one. We left low-earth orbit on schedule, entered hibernation with all readings normal. But something’s wrong. There’s something down here with us. Or up here. Whatever. Whatever this thing is has gotten into our dreams somehow.

Baxter’s dead.

I saw him not long after the sleep began, which I thought was strange. Usually, I dream of home. In fact, I was dreaming of home, of holding my kids and hugging them and telling them how much I’d missed them, Maisie with her uneven ponytails, Drew, missing two teeth different from the last time I saw him. Then they’re gone and there’s Baxter, standing next to the tire swing in my front yard, looking as confused as I feel. He’s bleeding from a cut on his face, he’s sweating like he’s just run six miles in the rainforest, and there’s this living terror in his eyes, like he can’t believe he’s alive. And he asks me — he asks me — if I’m real. Before I can calm down enough to realize that it’s a dream, I’m just imagining it, there’s this screech, like a thousand nails on a thousand chalkboards, and these footsteps. Fast. Too fast, like one of those old silent movies where the action’s sped up. And Baxter looks behind him, and he pisses himself — I know, because I smelled it; I can still smell it — and he takes off running.

I wanted to chase him down, but you know what it’s like; it’s a dream, you can’t move, you’re a prehistoric mosquito trapped in amber.

Then this … thing spirits past me. It’s after Baxter, and it’s terrible. I can’t describe it, but every hair on my body stands up just thinking about it. There’s pure horror radiating off of the thing, and it’s all I can do not to piss myself in fear, just like Baxter did. And as it passes me, it lets me see one thing. Its eye. Slitted and seeking and the color of hellfire, it blurs through the dark like a shooting star, and it stays there in my mind. It goes on chasing after Baxter, but somehow its eye stays there, floating in my vision, peeling back the skin on my soul.

It knows me.

Don’t ask me how I know, but it knows me, from the things I did when I was a snot-faced brat in the third grade selling candy outside the lunchroom, to the affair before my divorce that nobody knew about, to my irrational fear of spiders. I can see all this written on my own face, reflected in that awful eye, and then it’s gone, and my front yard has burned away with it and left me in the dark. I hear Baxter’s running footsteps, but he’s not fast enough, not nearly fast enough, and then all I can hear is screaming and slicing and spilling and then nothing. I’m alone in my dream again, for now.

That was a week ago. Or a month, or more. Who the hell knows? All I know is that my only hope is that Prince Charming will kick in and wake us up before that thing comes back for me.  I only took this posting because they say the windfall is going to be huge, that once they can show that Poisoned Apple works with humans there’ll be money coming out of the walls. But I think they’re gonna be surprised when they wake us up and we’re all dead, our minds turned inside out or roasted in our heads or … whatever that thing does to us.

Baxter’s dead. Soon I’ll be dead too. My luck, that thing will come for me as a plague of spiders. I only hope they give my kids a big payout to keep them quiet.


“The subject’s mind is a wreck. He’s a vegetable.”

“But he made the trip?”

“Well, his body made it.”

“That’s good enough for this stage. What was it that fried his brain?”

“Well… we can’t really tell.”

“What do you mean?”

“Right before flatline, his brain lit up like a Christmas tree. Fight-or-flight response, fear response, everything fired at once.”

“He hallucinated and scared himself to death.”

“I’m not sure it was a hallucination. Based on his cognitive scans –”

“What, you’re saying he really saw something that scared him to death?”

“No. I’m just saying, as far as our readings go, he didn’t imagine it.”

“Jesus. What was that?”


“It looked like a spider just crawled out of your terminal. Must have imagined it. How long before the next round of testing is ready?”

“Just a few days.”

“Keep me posted. I’m headed home. Too late already, tonight.”

“Sleep well, sir.”


Chuck’s challenge for the week was an X meets Y mashup. I drew “Nightmare on Elm Street” meets “Snow White.” Which is just oodles and oodles of fun. Good job, brain, working on this one right before bedtime.

Smoke Rings

Chuck’s challenge this week: “Who the F*** is my D&D character?” The challenge links to a character generator that rolls up ludicrous characters with a mouthful of abuse. Good fun. I lucked into “a halfling wizard from a company of sellswords who doesn’t believe in magic, EVER.” (Profanity redacted.)

As I was writing this, my wife pointed out how rather much like fan fiction this topic was. I argued at first, but ultimately I can’t help but agree. Fantasy is not really my schtick, but I’ve always loved the Lord of the Rings and I felt compelled to press on with this topic anyway. For a first challenge of the year, it was good fun. It ran a little long, but I just couldn’t bring myself to cut any more.

Here, then, is “Smoke Rings.”


Smoke Rings

“Did I ever tell you about the time your uncle, Glorfindel, and I fought off the goblin hordes?” Klobo puffed absently at a pipe, then blew out a fantastic ring of cloying purplish smoke.

Kludu coughed but didn’t wave the smoke away. Klobo had told the story many times, but Kludu loved to hear his granddad spin a yarn. “Tell me again?”

“Your uncle and I were coming back from a grand old adventure. Elves and orcs and all that. Treasure in hand, we were making our way back through the Mirthless Marshes of Misander –”

“I thought it was the forest out back of the Vale,” Kludu broke in. And indeed it had been, at the last telling.

“No, it was the Marshes, I remember it distinctly.” Puff, puff. “The rest of our company had gone their separate ways the night before, of course, so it was just old Glorf and me, toting our haul down the Marsh path.”

“Don’t you mean …”

“Don’t tell me what I mean, thank you. Now, it’s unusual to see goblins that far south, but we were holed up in an abandoned guard tower, and we saw them coming out of the woods.”

“Last time, they came from the Marshes.”

“For pity’s sake, Kludu. We were in the Marshes, the goblins came from the woods. I was there, after all.”

It was getting to the good bit, so Kludu left it alone.

“There were fifty of them, if there were five. Have you ever seen a goblin up close, my boy?”

Kludu bit his lip and shook his head, his shaggy hair flopping furiously.

“Of course not. No reason to, at your age. See to it that you avoid them, if you can. Horrible creatures. Tiny daggers for teeth. Greenish grey skin, like the fog off the hills at twilight. Breath like rotten pumpkins.” Klobo shuddered, but his eye twinkled and he winked. “We were in the tower, your uncle and I. Nowhere to go. And Glorf — fool of a Pikelander as he was — sneezes. Can you imagine? Sneezes! Goblins can hear a mouse break wind at a hundred yards, you know, so of course they knew exactly where we were.”

“What did you do?”

“Well!” Here Klobo leapt to his hairy feet and gave a horrific halfling battle-snarl, brandishing an invisible axe. “There was nothing for it, was there? They climbed the tower, one by one, and one by one, we started lopping off their heads. Whop, whop, whop!” He swung and chopped with his imaginary axe. “But even such exceptional and fearless hobbits as your uncle and I can’t fight forever, and those goblins — a hundred of them! — kept swarming over the walls like ants on one of your grandmother’s sandwiches.”

The goblins had gone from fifty to a hundred in the space of a few minutes, but Kludu was rapt; nobody told a story like his granddad.

“We thought we were finished. They had us surrounded, back to back, just your uncle and I and our bags of dragon-gold.” This was patently ridiculous; Klobo had never faced a dragon. Everybody in town knew it, but there was no stopping him now.

“That was when your uncle bumped into the powder keg. Quick as a flash, I struck a spark off the stones, the powder caught, and … BOOM!” Klobo was ninety, but as spry as any halfling in the Vale. He leapt two feet in the air and spread his hands, and despite having heard the tale dozens of times, Kludu still flinched. “They said it was raining goblin arms and legs for weeks in the Vale after that.”

The Marshes were nowhere near the Vale; the story was ludicrous. But Kludu had just turned thirty-three, and he was feeling adventurous. He didn’t argue about the Marshes (even though the tower in his granddad’s story had been located, without question — blasted top and all — in the forest). He wanted to ask the question all his friends and relations had told him never to bother asking.


Klobo, a little winded from the telling, was sitting back in his rocker and puffing again at his pipe. “Yes, my boy?”

“There was no powder keg.”

“Don’t be absurd. Of course there was.”

“Glorf says there wasn’t. And if it happened thirty years ago –”

“It did.”

“Well, there was no powder in these parts back then. Not until the Martinsons took over in Parth and started importing it from the East.”

Klobo huffed out a puff of smoke through his nostrils. “I suppose, then, you’d like to tell me what a barrel of powder was doing on the guard tower in the middle of the forest?”

Again, Kludu let it pass. “Uncle says there never was any powder. That’s why you and he didn’t get blasted to hell along with the goblins. Uncle says you’re a …” He stopped. Klobo’s temper was well documented.

Through a fiery eye, Klobo stared at Kludu. He seemed to be smoking, no longer from his pipe, but rather from the top of his head. “A what?”

“A wizard.” Kludu braced himself, picking up grandmom’s basket of knitting and holding it in front of him as if that might protect him.

Klobo fumed. His breathing intensified and his eyes took on a fierce shade of red. Smoke was very definitely now curling up from his head, and also his fingertips. He seemed to grow a few inches as he crept toward Kludu. “Wizards don’t exist,” he whispered. “Magic is the stuff of children’s stories. It’s not real!” With that, a crackling fire leapt up in the fireplace, and there was a howling from the wind outside. Thunder shook the walls and Kludu dove for cover beneath the armchair, his tiny hairy hands folded over his head.

A moment passed in silence. Feeling rather silly indeed, Kludu crawled out to face his granddad, who seemed to be his normal size again. He wasn’t a wizard. Couldn’t possibly be. There had never been a halfling wizard and there never would be.

“I know there are lots and lots of stories about your old granddad, but don’t believe them.” Klobo was patting his pockets; his pipe had gone out. Kludu leaned his head to the side, stared at the pipe. The leaf within had been ablaze not a moment ago. It seemed such a silly and small thing to…

“OUCH!” Kludu yelped and pressed a hand to his forehead. There had been a great heat there for an instant, almost as if his brain had caught fire.

“Goodness, my boy, what’s wrong?”

“Sorry, I…” but Kludu found it very hard to focus on anything except the suddenly blazing embers of his granddad’s pipe.

Merlin in Midtown