The Boy with Amber Eyes | Tru

Week 100 was a bit different in that users were allowed to submit stories up to 2500 words to win a $30 credit towards a book of their choice (fitting server rules).

Inhale. Palm open. Exhale. Thrust forward. The faster the punch, the quicker the breath. Steam hissed between his lips and curled into cloud with each jab. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

“Swattin’ snow, Garr?”

Garet continued his drills though he kept an eye on the girl perched atop the stone bridge. Marsi’s legs dangled, hands clasped in her lap. Though her silhouette glowed pink from the smudge of pre-dawn, he sensed her mischievous smirk, the tense way she held her upper body. But she hadn’t spent months rehearsing maneuvers and mantras.

Exhale, sister.

The snowball flew with practiced speed. He caught it midair. Snow exploded around his fist and disintegrated into harmless slush.

Marsi let out a low whistle and slid off the bridge. “Look at you.”

He flexed his bicep and grinned. “I’m ready for whatever they throw at me.”

“Are you? Bell’s about to ring and you’re still here swattin’ air.” She looped her arm around his and pulled him towards the bridge. “I’m not gonna get caught kneelin’ in snow ‘cause of you.”

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder, sharing his warmth. He’d always been able to handle the cold better than she, and her smaller figure trembled. “We’ll make it.”

Together they trudged a path beside the half-frozen river bank and through the gates of the Copper District. The coming solstice crept into every crevice of the lower city, dusting the cobblestone walls in white. He kept a firm grip of his sister. Copper’s didn’t waste salt on roads when they needed salt for stew, and the cramped alleys remained treacherous. No souls stirred in the slums. They’d wake with the bell and fumble their prayers. Only the rich could afford to be devout, so they said.

As they turned into the Silver District, city folk tumbled from their homes. It became harder to rise with the dawn bell as snow fell, but only an idiot would get caught outside.

On cue, bells called across the city. Their rhythmic melody welcomed the dawn, carrying with it the blessings of the Keeper of Light. To Copper folk, the bells screeched with the bray of an angry cockerel.

Marsi sighed and shrugged off her cloak, laying it down as a makeshift prayer rug. Exasperated grunts sounded behind them; they weren’t the only ones caught out.

Garet prepared to kneel into hard ice. Marsi pushed him towards her cloak. “Use it,” she whispered. “Gettin’ cold and stiff before the ceremony won’t do you any favors.”

“I’m not lettin’ you kneel in dirt,” he whispered back.

From across the street, a monk frowned at them. The man’s grey robes and greyer skin merged with Harvera’s imposing walls. He stood as still as a ghost. Garet shuddered under his stare. Monks were formidable. Men who didn’t need steel to enforce law because they were steel made flesh.

No one would dare skip prayer when the monks prowled Harvera’s streets. It wasn’t worth the punishments, the fines and floggings.

Marsi nudged him with her elbow. He tucked his chin and muttered a prayer. There were many things to pray for this day, but Garet hummed only two words as tried and true as his drills.

Choose me.

The bells sang a second time, ceasing their commandment. Men lurched to their feet and scrambled uphill towards the tallest tower in Harvera. The city’s lighthouse. Its beacon burned day and night, a constant stream of light that carried the Keeper’s promise for miles. First mass would be held shortly, followed by prayers and then… the ceremony.

All kinds stepped under the glowstone archway into the lighthouse. Copper folk. Golden merchants. Silver nobles in their finery. It was one reason Garet wanted to become a monk. Copper boys didn’t become knights, like the heroes in the stories. Only Silver boys deserved that right. It wasn’t fair. Why did the amount of silver you owned determined whether you had honor?

But the lighthouse and their monks offered an alternative path to godhood. Anyone could enter the monastery and train to become a monk, in theory. It was a different way of fighting, a different code of honor, but the result was the same.

All he needed to do was prove himself worthy. To be chosen.

“This is your day, Garr.” Marsi reached up on tiptoes and brushed a fleck of snow from his brow. “Don’t show off.”

“Who, me?” His grin dropped like snow. Copper boys were allowed in the ceremony, technically, but only Silver born were invited to take part.

He stared up at the lighthouse. The Keeper would forgive him for sneaking in.

Choose me.

 

Natural sunlight didn’t reach the underground chamber, neither did extravagance. Unlike the upper lighthouse levels, the marbled walls weren’t decorated in glowstone adornments. Instead, traditional lanterns lit the dusty square arena where Garet would make his mark. He waited beside a brazier.

Fire soothed him. The way it flickered and burned. Sometimes he swore he saw things within it. Faces. He kept such visions to himself, lest the monks thought him blasphemous. Perhaps it was the Sight, or the Keeper communicating through his light. Once he became a monk, he’d find the answer.

The monks shrugged off their robes to reveal their true form; barefoot, bare chested, and not a single hair on their chin or head. They didn’t utter a word. Instead, they paired each candidate with non-verbal commands.

Twelve young boys, all Silver born, judging from their clean attire. The hopefuls muttered in hushed anticipation. Garet shuffled among them. The odd one out. No partner. What if they noticed he was Copper born? What if they never gave him a chance? He licked his hand and smoothed down his hair.

Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

A golden-haired boy tapped his shoulder. “Do you need a partner?” The boy dressed in intricate silver robes. His eyes matched; a ghostly pale. “I’m Leon. And you are?”

He shook the boy’s hand. “Garet.”

“Have you lived in Harvera all your life, Garet?”

“Since I were a babe.”

Leon moved into a fighting stance. “That’s Odd. You’re different.”

Garet mirrored the stance. “Different?”

“Your aura. It flickers. I’ve never seen an aura like that.”

“You’ve got the Sight?”

Leon nodded. “But your colors are wrong. Everyone here is blue. But you, you’re… purple.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never met a purple. It’s like you have a red… taint.”

Taint?

The candidates stretched. Leon shook his limbs, hopping from foot to foot. This was it. Only four would be chosen to become apprentice monks in service to the Keeper. The only honorable future a Copper boy could ask for. His ma would never struggle for food again.

Garet positioned his feet into the correct stance. Leon swung.

Inhale. Palm open. Exhale. Thrust forward.

Leon staggered back and smeared red across his lip.

Gasps echoed in the chamber. The candidates stopped their movements and stared at Garet. At the bleeding boy.

Monks descended on Garet in a swarm. They grabbed his collar bone and wrenched him onto his knees. He swallowed a yelp. Their grip pinched, holding him in place.

“It’s all right,” Leon said. “He didn’t mean—”

Furious tapping sounded in the chamber. The monks bowed as a cane lifted Garet’s chin. He traced its ornate silver to an older man; his greying hair matched his robes. The lighthouse Priest.

“Who let this boy in? Don’t you see his taint?” The Priest spat the words. Taint. He glanced over his shoulder to Leon. “Your highness, are you hurt?”

“I’m fine, your grace, truly.”

Blessed Keeper. Leon. Leonhart. Not some plumped up noble boy, but a Hartsire, Harvera’s royal blood. And he’d only gone and spilled it. He tried to stand, to beg forgiveness, but the monks held him firm.

The Priest regarded Garet as the Copper he was. “Take him for questioning.”

The monks dragged him out of the chamber and down a darkened spiral staircase into a small office. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

Tapping followed in a hurried staccato. The monks shoved Garet onto a stool, and the Priest’s cane thrust into his ribs, keeping him at a distance.

“Who are you?” the Priest demanded. He attacked with a barrage of questions. Where were you born? Who are your parents? Why are you here? Can you summon fire?

“Summon fire?” Garet blurted out.

“What is the first sin, boy?”

Garet scowled. “The sin of falsehood, but I ain’t lied about anythin’, Copper boys are allowed to become monks—”

The office door burst open. Ma rushed inside, barging past the monks. She smacked the Priest’s cane aside and pulled Garet to her hip.

“Ma, I don’t understand what’s goin’ on—”

Ma glowered fierce as any knight. “What are you doin’ to my boy?”

To Garet’s surprise, the Priest laughed. “The plot thickens. Are you victim of a changeling, or are you aware that your boy possesses the taint of a Sandarian?”

A Sandarian?

Ma stiffened. “I don’t see how that’s any business of yours.”

Your boy has committed the sin of falsehood. I see the Sandarian within him. He masqueraded as a pure blooded Hartnord and entered a sacred ceremony. Now, I will ask you once, since this boy seems utterly oblivious, and don’t pander to me woman; where does the sin lie? With the mother or the child?”

Ma ground her teeth. “He’s my boy—”

“With the mother, then. Raising this boy on lies is no kindness and is an affront to the Keeper. We fine you one gold—”

One gold?” Ma spluttered.

“—of which you have until sundown to pay.”

“And if I can’t?”

“Then I believe ten lashes for the boy would be sufficient.”

Ma’s grip tightened around his shoulder. “He’s fourteen!”

“The Keeper cares not for taint. Take your boy and go. His kind are not welcome here.”

 

Marsi took one look at Garet’s expression and rushed to boil tea. Both Ma and Marsi avoided making eye contact as he slumped against their shack wall.

Tainted.

Sandarian.

“You’re not my mother?”

Marsi froze. An empty teacup rattled in her hand. “Mama?”

Ma sighed and dug into a sack, pulling out a small wrapped package the size of her fist. “Sit. Both of you. This is my fault. I should ‘ave told you. I should ‘ave done a great many things. I wanted to wait until you were both old enough, I…” She rubbed her forehead. “Suppose that time’s now.”

Marsi sank onto a chair. “What are you sayin’, Mama?”

“You’re my girl by blood. And Garet… you’re my boy by spirit.”

Garet slid down the wall into a crouch. “Then what am I?”

Ma turned the package in her hands. “I stumbled upon your ma in Redtail forest. She was like me… lost, scared, heavy with a babe and in need of a friend. She spoke good Hartnord for a Sandarian.”

Inhale. Exhale. Breathe. “Who was she?”

“Never told me her name, but I figured her for a noble, the way she carried herself. She begged me to keep her hidden, keep her safe. I didn’t know who she feared, but soldiers were searchin’ for someone of her like. She wanted to return to the border but birthed you before she made it. She told me to take you, hide you, and name you for your da. Garet. A Hartnord, she said.” Ma smiled. “You’re born of two worlds.”

Two worlds, but Garet only knew one.

“Your ma gave me foreign gold and gems to provide for you and then ran into the forest before I could stop her. War broke out, so I hid in the last place soldiers would expect; Harvera. I birthed Marsi and fed you both from the same breast. Kept a low profile until war ended a year later.

“I sold the gems to keep us sheltered and fed. Soon as it were safe, we took a trip to the border. I couldn’t find your ma, but I arranged for a Sandarian couple to take you. Give you a home. But then… you cried.” Ma’s voice broke. “You screamed for me. You wouldn’t let go. And Marsi screamed for you. Her first words. Garr.”

Marsi’s lip wobbled.

Ma cleared her throat. “The Sandarian’s wouldn’t take you. We had no choice but to return to Harvera. I told everyone you were twins. Marsi had hair to match yours, and you hadn’t grown into your Sandarian eyes. It fooled most folk.”

It had, even Garet. Though as he grew taller than his twin, he’d wondered about their differences. Marsi’s hair and eyes remained chestnut. Garet’s hair darkened into night. And his eyes… they’d brightened into flame itself.

Amber.

Sandarian.

Ma unwrapped the package in her lap and held up a ring. A golden band coiled around the oddest gemstone Garet had ever seen. Blood red swirls in a forest of green.

“This was the last treasure your ma gave me. She said it was a family heirloom. I couldn’t bring myself to sell it. We’ve scraped over the years, but we’ve managed. This… this is the only proof of who you are. That your ma existed at all. It’s yours.” She curled his fingers around the ring. “We can’t pay the fine, but it’s my fault… I’ll take the floggin’. I’m not lettin’ them touch you, not after protectin’ you all these years.”

Garet stood and turned from his home. “I need air.”

Neither Ma nor Marsi stopped him. He stepped out into a flurry of snow. He didn’t bother to take a cloak. Cold meant nothing to him. To a Sandarian.

He trudged along the river bank and stared south towards the continent he knew nothing about. Sandair. Was this why he felt drawn to flame? The stories warned of savage southerners who summoned light into terrifying power. Is this why he couldn’t see like others his age?

The golden ring burned in his fist. He wanted to throw it into the river. It belonged to a Sandarian. A woman who likely dallied with the wrong Hartnord noble. He’d heard similar stories of depravity from the local tavern. Which meant his real da wasn’t someone he’d want to meet either.

Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

Snow crunched behind him. Marsi approached with tentative steps that had nothing to do with ice. Her eyes were as red as his. “Garr?”

Garet cursed and snatched her into a hug.

Marsi buried her head into his shoulder. “You’re still my brother.”

He squeezed her waist. “And you’ll always be my sister.”

She withdrew and wiped her eyes dry. “What will you do?”

His fist uncurled to reveal the golden ring. “Pawn it.” The band itself would fetch a pretty price, but a foreign gemstone could bring enough to cover the Priest’s fine.

“You’re not goin’ to find your family?”

“You’re my family. Besides, I got us into this mess. It’s time I started actin’ like a man.”

Critical Acclaim | Dr Good Vibes

Deservedly, Basil garnered a lot of attention. Maybe it was the power he harnessed with his ballpoint pen and notepad. Maybe it was his perfectly coiffed hair, or his suit, seventy percent off at Nordstrom, but people noticed him.

The performer was still surrounded by fans so Basil leaned against a wall and averted his gaze. Playing things aloof could be tough, but he pulled it off. This wasn’t carnegie hall.

As the adoring audience members filtered out, only a small clutch of fans remained by the stage. Basil’s time to shine had arrived. He flipped open his notebook and scanned the page. His notes were ruthless, and if he were to be so proud, they were honest. The finest review contained a spear of truth. This performance had been a trainwreck. A cataclysm. He’d been forced to endure the kind of singing that made his ear drums want to climb out of his head.

“Hello,” Basil said.

He walked up to the stage and rested against the worn wood. The young woman who had been responsible for that night’s auditory terror sat at the piano, a wide smile on her face. He’d wipe that smile away, philanthropist that he was.

“Wasn’t she amazing?” one of the fans said. “Absolutely incredible.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Basil said. He opened his notebook and cleared his throat. “I am Basil Hartley and I am a professional critic.”

“A critic?” one of the fans asked.  

“That’s right. The stage is a sacred place and it’s hollowed spotlight must be held under scrutiny.”

“Mom, what’s he mean?” The performer asked.

“I dunno hon,” a woman said. She had a face for radio. The fans were the performer’s family, which explained a lot.

“That was the single worst performance I have ever heard,” Basil said. “It’s laughable really, hardly worth my time.”

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” A man said. He looked like he worked at a hardware store.

“I recommend the most drastic course of action for such a hopeless case,” Basil said. “Do us all a favor and get a tracheal transplant, or just give up singing forever.”

The performer burst into tears and her fans gave Basil harsh looks. They jumped up on stage and comforted the singer, but Basil was only getting started.

“And who the fuck are you?” the man said.

“I told you, I’m Basil Hartley, professional–“

“What gives you the right?”

Basil stood tall and faced the accusatory man. “I am the stage. Like every sacred domain from Tartarus to the gates of heaven, the stage has a guardian.”

“What?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Basil turned back to the performer. “It’s hard to find a singer that’s bad enough to provide a good frame of reference for just how poor you really are, so–“

“Why don’t you just fuck off?” the man said. He got right up in Basil’s face, a real mouthbreather.

“Listen, it’s nothing personal. Sometimes the truth hurts. But I am a critic. You should be thanking me for giving a professional critique.”

Basil could smell the man’s fast food breath. The performer’s weeping provided a backdrop, easier on the ears than her singing.

A fist sunk into Basil’s mouth as he opened up to say more. He dropped to one knee before popping back up, smarting from the blow, but feeling no less self righteous.

“You’re sick dude,” the man said. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m a critic you troglodyte,” Basil shouted.

“This a recital for kids man,” the man said. “That’s my daughter you’re talkin’ about. She’s eight years old!”

The performer wept uncontrollably in her mother’s arms. The child simply didn’t have it. If she couldn’t handle the spotlight, get the fuck off the stage. Talent wasn’t something you worked for. You think Sinatra ever bombed like this kid on stage? Not likely.

“It’s better she knows the truth now,” Basil said. “Give up.”

The performer’s father grabbed Basil’s shoulder and hauled him towards the exit.

“I’m going, I’m going,” Basil said. “I know when I’m in the presence of less civilized company.”

The father let go and Basil walked out into the rainy night. He couldn’t wait to get home and post this on his blog. Being a critic was a thankless job, but with any luck he might break twenty hits. He whistled as he walked away, though the tune lacked any discernible melody.

His Chances | Pete

“Check out these two.”

Sarah looked up from her salad. “Who?”

“Over there,” Mike said, motioning with his eyes. “Blind date.”

Pretending to stretch, she turned and followed Mike’s gaze toward the entrance. There stood a pale lanky man, slowly scanning the dining room. He was dressed elegantly in a slim grey suit.

“Little overdressed.” Sarah said, though she wouldn’t have minded if Mike had worn more than just a blazer and jeans.

“Dressed to impress.” Mike concluded. A woman sitting two tables over raised her hand and fluttered her fingers. Unnoticed, she waved more aggressively to the man, who responded by raising his own hand and approaching her table. Over the din of silverware and evening palaver, Mike heard “Wonderful to meet you!” He looked back at Sarah, who had returned to her salad.  “Told you.”

“He’s late.”

“He was creating suspense.”

“Is that what you call it?” Sarah countered. Mike smiled.

“So?”

“So what?”

“What’s their story?” Mike asked. They played this game often. They made a good team: Mike was imaginative, and she was critical. She liked that about them.

“Hm…” Sarah watched the other couple carefully for a few moments. She could see the woman smiling and nodding at something the man was saying. “She’s very agreeable.”

“She’s his analyst, and they’ve just terminated therapy, so now they’re seeing each other socially. She does it with all her male clients; she gets off on the power imbalance, where she knows everything about them and they know nothing about her.”

“Don’t you think she’s too pretty to be an analyst?”

“No way. Analysts can be pretty. Besides, she’s not that pretty.”

“She’s beautiful, Mike.” Sarah went back to her salad. “I could never work with an analyst who’s better looking than me. I need to feel superior to them in some way in order to open up. And how much can a good-looking person know about suffering, anyway?”

“They read about it, in books. And when did you see an analyst?”

“In college, after my father died.”

“What did they look like?”

“It was a woman, 50s. Kind of matronly. Anyway, you said it was a blind date; she couldn’t be his analyst.”

Mike looked back at the couple. “You’re right. Ok: she’s the daughter of a woman in his mother’s book club, and their mothers conspired to set them up.”

“A woman like that getting set up by her mom?”

“She’s doing it as a favor to her mother. She’s generous that way.”

“Does she like the guy though, or is she just being generous?”

“She likes that he dressed up for her, but he’s not her type. She’s basically a heliophile, and he’s got as much color as an uncooked shrimp.”

“How do you like his chances?”

“Ça depends. What’s his story?”

“He’s… in medicine. Good salary, vacations, but not much spare time week-to-week.”

“Surgeon?”

“Not with arms like that. Radiologist, pathologist—one of those science-y ones.”

“She’s disappointed. If she’s dating a doctor, she wants it to be one of the life-saving variety.”

“Radiologists save lives.”

“Yeah, but she wants somebody on the front lines. She likes the idea of being felt up by the same hands that excised a tumor or transplanted a kidney.”

Sarah chewed arugula and watched the woman laugh at something the man had said, reaching her hand across the small table to touch his arm. “He’s doing something right.”

“He’s got a sense of humour. I like his chances.”

“You do?”

Mike nodded. “She likes that he’s got a serious job but doesn’t take himself too seriously. She’s tired of venture capitalists who treat every conversation like a pitch.”

Sarah wondered if his remark was a veiled criticism of her own personality. “You think she’s been on the market long enough to be tired?”

“Not everyone can be as lucky as us.”

October | Strange Folk

I used to be a poet. I used to smoke and laugh and converse in the crowded cafes. We used to dream of revolution. We used to sigh wistfully at the thought of Bolshevik power. A world of equals. At peace with a full belly and a plot of land. But when the war does not end, when the stomach growls, when there is no soil to till and no hearth to drink by; these things can remain ideals no longer. Students, factory workers, soldiers – even the poets – must take action if there is to be any future for the people.

The only sounds that night were of the current jostling against the boat as I guided it through the canals of Petrograd. The skiff drifted low, dark water lapping at its overburdened sides, weighed down by my cargo. Weapons. Four dozen rifles and a half dozen machine guns, gifts from comrades in the military. The contraband was hidden from the moonlight beneath a taut piece of canvas and on either side of me walls of colored brick rose several stories high. Rows of dark windows, punctuated by the occasional glow of candle light, lined the waterway. I fought with my imagination as it conjured a set of prying eyes in each dark frame. I nervously ran my thumb across the handle of my boat knife as I made my way through the city and towards a factory controlled by the Petrograd Soviet. My breathing became a little steadier as I tilted back my flask, the liquor flooding warmth into my chest.

As I neared the city center I could make out a bridge in the moonlight, a solitary figure leaned against its railing, a rifle on his back. Even from this distance I saw his face as he lit his cigarette. A splash of orange in the deep blue of the night. The flame cast gaunt shadows across his angular features. He looked young. No older than twenty five. I could feel my grip on the rutter slipping as my hands began to sweat. There was no avoiding his notice, I could only hope to avoid his suspicion. I kept my gaze low as I approached the crossing.

“Stop, boatman. Pull over.” He called down into the canal.

I felt the blood rush to my toes, needles pricked against my skin as I resisted the urge to flee. With a deep breath I guided the skiff to the canal’s edge where a small stairway met the bridge. His badge glinted in the moonlight, affixed to the lapel of his coat.

“What’s your cargo?”

“Timber. For the war effort. Headed to the docks.” My voice sounded foreign to my own ears. I could taste my fear.

“Step from the boat.” he could smell it.

I clambered out of the skiff as my racing heart threatened to take my legs out from beneath me. He leaned forward and pulled back the canvas. I heard his exhale. I stepped towards him. My hand mechanically covered his mouth as I jammed my boat knife deep into his kidney. I stabbed again. A third time to be sure. I held him there for a time with my knife buried deep in his back. I could feel his rattling breaths subsiding. His pulse slowed against my clenched blade as tears escaped my tightly shut eyes. He slumped down onto the stones and the knife fell from my trembling hands, covered in his warm blood. I dropped to me knees as I vomited into the river. My hands kept shaking as I dipped them into the frigid water, washing away the slick crimson. I dried the tears from my face as the night closed in around me and a numbness took hold of my heart. I still had work to do.

My tired hands rummaged his pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and tossed his rifle into the boat. I lowered him into the black water and he slipped from my grip without a sound. I stepped back into the skiff and shoved off. I used to be a poet.

The Last Laugh of the Tuscarora | Linfin

Before Old Stormalong’s ship passed under the moon, he climbed the tallest mast and brushed his fingers against the stars. Stormy smirked as stars shot out, turning an emerald Elmo’s Fire green, leaving bright streaks across the sky before dying on the far horizon. The ripples his hand caused spread along the night sky, and a few constellations rearranged themselves. One of the Pleiades tossed her hair, giving Stormy a flirty wink.

He landed on the deck, swinging down on a line thicker than a man’s torso, his footsteps shaking the timbers of the boat as he went to the fo’c’sle. As he walked, he heaved on the line that controlled the hinged masts. Counterweights slowly rose, and white canvas sails billowed as the masts drifted down like fog, allowing the Tuscarora to pass under the moon by inches.

Stormy looked towards the stern, watched his ship create a wake that would swamp Boston, and clearly heard the steamboat not ten knots behind him. Wasn’t that the thing? The age of sail had passed, and old Stormalong’s time was passing with it. Already his crew had gone, turning into fleet-winged sparrows, souls intact, flitting home to loved ones. The team of Arabian horses he kept to travel from the Tuscarora’s bow to stern had jumped overboard nigh on ten years ago, golden manes turning to foam, legs becoming waves, their last whinnies a sharp breeze that launched the bark thirty feet into the air, keeping her skipping above the waves for three hours.

The moon behind him, he let the counterweights go with a flick of his wrist. The masts shot up with a streak of lighting, catching onto clouds. Stormalong took a deep breath, salt air filling his lungs, the currents of the ocean pulsing through his veins. He could feel the waves against the shoreline of the Cliffs of Dover, the Mississippi rushing down, her silt building up New Orleans. In the patterns the salt left on his arms he could read the winds that raged along the Tierra del Fuego, the monsoons that were building in the Indian Ocean. He knew it, as he knew his hands, as he knew his ship.

He felt them too, the engine-boats, the steamers, the New Age. Sailing was just a sport. A pastime. Sailing had fallen with grace in a more brutal era. It fell under wartime and gunpowder, fell under the spades of coal-shovelers and the watchful eyes of admirals.

On the Tuscarora, sailing from Charleston to Lisbon, the era of sail was passing under the old hands of Stormalong, the last of the sea-giants. But wasn’t he the man who had thrown the Kraken into the whirlpool the Tuscarora had made after she turned ‘round the Cape of Good Hope? Wasn’t he the captain who had needed to soap his scuppers to pass through the English Channel? Didn’t the Tuscarora, after the borealis was spotted high on the horizon, lift herself out of the ocean on her own will to sail on the rivers of light and stardust?  Hadn’t Stormalong teased Triton himself and won the god’s own crown for the Tuscarora’s figurehead in a pearl-diving competition?

He was all that, and still he passed. The noise of the steamboat that was chasing him to Portugal assaulted his ears. Stormalong’s bones ached like dead coral snapping in a strong current. His tanned skin was cracking, drops of sea-salt blood leaking out. If the steamer could make it across the ocean with one man, so could the Tuscarora.

Stormy faced east again. The breeze favored him, coming fast over his beam. He tightened his hands on the spokes of the greatwheel, watching the spray come up over his bow and turn to diamonds in mid-air, landing with a chime on the deck.

He would go the way of John Henry, he knew (he felt it all leaving him). If he turned his head to the left and squinted through his blue-eye he could see the coast. He was tired. He was old. His hair had long ago turned white. But damn his eyes if he wouldn’t beat some uppity steamer across the Atlantic. This would be the last voyage of the Tuscarora and her captain, A. B. Stormalong. He faced the bow and laughed, and laughed, and laughed. His boat creaked and shuddered. Sharks danced like dolphins by the bow. Albatross dipped through the rigging. The Tuscarora sailed on.

Downhill | Strange Folk

Life is full of curves and turns and forks in the road. So many choices and never any good ones. Not Sixth Avenue. Sixth Ave is a straight line. From the top of the city down to the coast with a singular momentum, a transparent purpose; you just push off and let gravity do the rest. She looked out across the city in the predawn light, the dark purples and blacks of the night shying away from the budding ember on the horizon. She inhaled deep, past her septum piercing, filling her lungs with the salty air as her jet black hair tossed in the sea breeze. The city wasn’t quite sleeping and it wasn’t quite awake, it mumbled like a dozing lover left behind.

She looked down the length of Sixth Ave and a smile broke across her lips as she set her skateboard to the asphalt. Primed and ready, she could feel the excitement in the wheels as she placed one foot on the griptape. A gentle push was all it took. There were many ways to reach the bottom, but they all lead to the same place. Everything else was just style. As she picked up speed she could feel the wind wrap around her waist, her unzipped varsity jacket catching it like wings. Past parking structures and winking office buildings, the air ran its fingers through her hair, it’ll all be okay, it said.

The wheels roared against the asphalt, rattling up through her legs. The numbness of the vibration was kinder than any drug as she ollied up the curb. Every break in the sidewalk jolted through her like a pulse as her reflection blurred alongside her in dark storefront windows. Up ahead she could see where the sidewalk turned to steps to keep up with the street’s decline. She lowered herself on the board as she hurtled towards the stairs, potential energy filling her legs. With a fluid pop, the wheels came off the ground. The roar of the skateboard went silent as she took flight. The bottoms of her shoes flirted with the griptape in midair and her stomach jumped to try to catch her soaring heart. Just as it seemed that each piece would separate, gravity imposed order.

The wheels slammed back to the pavement with renewed vigor. With a grace and steadiness that belied its speed, the board weaved left and right beneath her center of gravity. There was rapture in the velocity. She was inertia, no other labels applied. There were no thoughts of tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Momentum made sense to her. It knew exactly what it wanted to be.

She dipped low again. Streamlined. She relished the recklessness of it as she rocketed down Sixth. The wheels on the board rebelled beneath her, straining to keep up with the asphalt. She had only a moment to process the pale outline of headlights cast on the street as she approached the intersection of Sixth and Wren. The moment was enough for her to lose balance. The world spun as she hit the ground, sending her rolling against the rough pavement. Her skateboard careened into the intersection, snapping beneath the heavy wheels of a city bus. A mess of black hair and quiet cursing. Friction burns seared through her knees and forearms. The momentum had stopped. She curled up on the street as she fought back the pain. She could still feel the movement, but she knew it had left her.

Her palms burned as she gingerly picked herself up off the asphalt. She limped past the splintered skateboard and made her way towards the beach. With each pained step, she could feel things catching up with her. Her thoughts forked in every direction as choices once again filled her mind. She sat down to watch the sunrise, warm tears burning her cheeks. As she pulled a crumpled cigarette free from her jacket pocket, she thought of tomorrow, and next week, and next year. At least one thing was clear – she’d need to get a new skateboard.

Emotional Support Animal | sternjosh

Dr. Emerick wiped a streak of grease from his brow, sighed, and reclined into his desk chair. His had been a busy morning: two fuel system tune-ups, three routine mechanical recalibrations, and a thorough vocalization systems inspection — not to mention the other obligations he had taken on — and he still had two more appointments before lunch.

Tabbing through the calendar on his computer and doggedly ignoring the faint sounds emanating from his desk drawer, he brought up his next appointment.

“Hmm,” he said, leaning back. “Late model… luxury pedigree… signs of wear in the rear carriage… and Nancy notes that the owner seems… morose?”

A smile cracked through the grime on his face and his eyes wandered to the desk drawer.

“I may have just the thing.”

He slid the drawer open, plucked out a small object, and shut the drawer, then set the object down on the workshop floor, gave it a pat, and picked up his desk phone.

“Nancy, please send in Mr. Darden.”

A few moments later the door opened and a wispy middle-aged man led a large german shepherd inside. The dog was plainly getting on in age — his actuators could be heard whirring with each step and no amount of polish would ever bring the shine back into his chrome coat — but his LED eyes were still bright and at a glance Dr. Emerick saw no reason the animal couldn’t keep running for years to come. The owner, however, was a different story.

“Mr. Darden, good to see you again! How’s Rover been? Hopefully no major malfunctions?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” said Mr. Darden, slouching into the chair opposite Dr. Emerick. There were bags under his eyes and his movement was sluggish. “Just routine maintenance.”

“Anything in particular I should know about?”

“Well… he’s been moving a bit gingerly. He doesn’t have the energy that he used to.”
Dr. Emerick arched an eyebrow. In contrast to his owner, Rover sat with keen attention, his metal tail a blur of motion, his eyes scanning the disarray of the workshop with interest. The only thing keeping him still was the famous discipline of his breed.

“I see,” said Dr. Emerick. “Well, a shepherd his age and pedigree is bound to have bearing issues. You find that in working-pedigrees the issue is not so—”

“What was that?”

“The working-pedigree versus the show-pedigree. I could go on—”

“No, that.” No sooner had Darden pointed then Rover bounded across the shop, stuck his nose under a tool cabinet, and pulled out a fluffy golden ball. He then trotted back to his owner, deposited the fluffball at his feet, and gave a very cheerful ruff.

“Is that some kind of… flesh-animal?”

Dr. Emerick affected his most exasperated sigh.

“You’ll have to forgive me, Mr. Darden. It seems we have an infestation in our office. Puppies, I believe they’re called. Like proper dogs, but with fur instead of metal plating. Disgusting, I know.”

Darden scooted his chair away as if the puppy were diseased, but the tiny thing scampered after him, its little puppy claws clicking and clacking on the workshop floor. Darden was soon on the floor as well, laughing and smiling.

“She’s actually kind of cute,” he said. The pup nibbled on his finger for a moment before getting distracted by the wagging of Rover’s tail. She mustered every ounce of her puppy ferocity and pounced, much to the amusement of Rover, who hopped away and arfed.

“So sorry Mr. Darden, let me just shoo the thing away and I’ll have a look at Rover.”

But Darden scooped the puppy up and cradled it protectively against his chest.

“Can’t I keep her?”

“Keep her? The flesh-animal? Why, I couldn’t possibly… I’d lose my license, I’d be a laughing stock, I…”

The combined begging of Rover, Darden, and the pup were too much.

“Oh, if you insist.”

Darden’s grin spread from ear to ear and without a single thought for their appointment, he and Rover bounded through the door and were gone. Wearing a smile of his own, Dr. Emerick sighed and slid into his cozy chair once again. When he opened the drawer, four fluffy pups yipped in unison and stumbled over one another to be first in line for scratches.

“You rascals are real labor savers. Although…” His nose wrinkled at the deposits they had made inside his desk. “I never knew a mechanical dog to make such a mess.”