Skinwalkers, XI

Very shortly, Nathan found himself facing the main floor reception area of Carapace. He stepped from the lift and walked in muted carpet footsteps to the right of the receptionist’s desk. She was engaged, speaking animatedly to what sounded like a vendor.

“Yes, I understand you wish to contact M. Billings. I’m afraid you’ll just have to message him from the netsite.” She cocked a head to the left for a few seconds, and a light wave of auburn hair shifted to expose her perfect scoop of neck. Nathan mentally shook himself, and continued walking past her work area and toward the exit.

He heard her speak again, in a strained sort of politeness. “I’m sorry, but I can’t connect you in any other way. Thank you for your understanding.” He was nearly to the doors when she called, “Goodbye, N. Reed. Please, come again.”

Whoosh activated the doors, as the delicious air inside was sucked out into the stale environment of the city. Raising his right hand in a departing salute, he left without looking back. Unlike his entrance, he literally stumbled at the intersection of the fresh air with the polluted variety outside. He recovered, straightened his suit, and straightened himself.

Feeling the guard’s gaze upon him, Nathan walked resolutely down to the street. Unfortunately, no transports were idle. He’d have to activate one, or walk. He looked skyward, attempting to forecast the likelihood of precipitation in the ever-variable cloudcover. He’d better not chance it; he needed the skin undamaged.

Sighing, he pulled out his comm and requested pickup. Within moments, a battered transport stopped curbside and idled unsteadily at his feet. Nathan scanned his comm and the door popped open. The transport seemed to shift more listlessly with his entry than the one he had taken just a quad prior. The operator was also less impressive, to say the least.

The man in question turned round from his front seat position. This side of him was even less impressive than the back had been. He seemed to be about 80 years old. An open-gap toothiness cheerfully smiled from beneath a gray and white mustache. All hair originating from his face and head stuck out, and was affected by shifting air currents. What Nathan could see of the man’s outfit seemed to consist of recycled garments.

“Where to, son?” The ancient operator’s happy voice asked.

Nathan hesitated. “128th Verge Slum,” he croaked out.

“Eh?” The old man asked. He wagged a finger at Nathan. “You’re gonna have to speak up a lot clearer or we ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Following this reprimand, the man wheezed and slapped his steering. Nathan realized the operator was laughing.

He cleared his throat, swallowed, then repeated himself more audibly. “128th Verge Slum.” He almost added a, “please,” but caught himself in time.

“Darn tootin’!” The dashboard computer responded, and the transport lurched forward on its track.

Nathan blinked in surprise. “Me nephew taught me how ta set it up with a voice I liked,” the man grinned.

Not wanting to appear impolite, Nathan answered, “I see.” He could tell that the strange man wished him to expound slightly more. “Um, it’s very creative.”

“‘Course it is!” Operator agreed, resolute.

Feeling a tad bewildered, Nathan pretended distraction in the rapidly-passing buildings. Peripheral vision and attuned listening told him that no change had been made in the position of the transport’s other occupant. It was like the man knew nothing of social awkwardness or personal space.

The sky-blocking rectangular structures outside grew increasingly drab and closer together. They were nearly to Nathan’s buildling, a fact he had not felt more grateful for in a while. Their transport stopped; he exited.

The operator deactivated a doorscreen between them and bellowed, “Call me agin, any time you need transport!” He wheezed his version of mirth one last time, and added, “Name’s Rex.”

“Of course,” Nathan answered, “Rex.” He’d remember that name, as one to never call again in his working life.

Rex, meanwhile, grinned, closed the open door remotely, and drove away. Nathan was certain, before the vehicle barely cleared the next bend, that he could hear Rex singing raucously through the open doorscreen.

Continued from Skinwalkers, X.
Read to Skinwalkers, XII.

Easter Hunt

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The scratched wood floor finally looked clear, though that status didn’t extend to its edges. A bit of green poked from a nook. Pink showed from an under-couch cranny. A wrapper crinkled from directly beneath her slipper.

Ann sighed, and stooped to free the purple foil from her sole. It stuck a bit stubbornly, finally releasing itself with a parting gift of caramel. At this moment, she felt a small tug at her left pant leg. She looked down at a three-year-old-grin looking up.

“Can I eat this?” A chocolate-mouthed creature asked. It proffered an unwrapped egg in its brown-tipped fingers.

Ann thought it might be her youngest child, and addressed it accordingly. “Sure, Jane,” she tiredly answered. Jane, as she proved to be, smiled the beatific smile of the sugar saturated young, shoved the chocolate into her mouth, and ran off. Ann cringed, hoping Jane would not feel inclined to touch or kiss anything. Realization hit; pants examined. She sighed, telling herself the brown barely showed against the natural, washed-out black of the yoga pants. If anything, it matched a few other spots.

She kneeled to extract the pink object under the couch. It made a light rattling sound. Sitting widened thighs against middle-aged cankles, she carefully opened the plastic egg. Broken bits of candy shell rained a light powder upon her lap. Two half-clad Hershey’s eggs rolled inside the plastic halves within her grip.

“Those are mine!” Will said, suddenly at her side. Ann hadn’t heard him approach; had, in fact, been calling the boy for the last half hour to come clean up his mess or she was going to throw it away. As always, she was amazed at how quickly the children could move when given their definition of “proper motivation.”

Will stuck out a hand to accept the shells’ inner contents. His mother obliged. He closed his fist; she winced. Leaving her with a parting scowl of entitlement, he ran off after his sister. Into thin air, she couldn’t help thinking. Distractedly, she looked down. She brushed at the dust, which removed the larger bits.

Thinking she ought to take advantage of her current position, Ann ducked to search the remainder of The Land Beneath the Furniture. She carefully ran a hand along the floor, internally recoiling at the questionable feel to unseen objects her fingers brushed against. Bravely, she pulled a few into light. Two broken Hot Wheels cars, hair elastics, Lego bricks, stale bread crust, a doll head, and half a plastic Easter egg tumbled out with an escort of crumbs and dust. She looked at the mess, extracted the half shell, and pushed the rest back out of sight. They’d know where to find Barbie’s head if they thought to ask for it.

Ann kneel-crawled over to the green egg in the corner of the room. She picked it up; opened it over the hardwood. Some loose change was exposed. It looked to total 57 cents. She considered keeping it -payment for a morning’s maid-work. She knew, however, that this was the very 57 cents her eldest had collared Will over just an hour prior.

“Mary!” Ann called, from her sit-squat on the floor.

“Whaa-aaat?” a pre-teen answered. The response seemed to come from Ann’s bathroom, upstairs.

Two reasons now presented themselves for bringing her daughter hither: the money, and removal from whatever of Ann’s makeup Mary was surely testing upon her face. “I found your money!” Ann shouted.

A pause, then, “Okay!” Overheard; a drawer closed, an item dropped and was scraped against the floor as it was retrieved, a drawer opened and closed again, and footsteps exited across hard tiles. Soon, Ann’s keen ears heard Mary’s soft footsteps majestically skipping down the stairs.

A deeper-lipped twelve-year-old than Ann was accustomed to seeing sauntered casually into the room. Mary also seemed to have tried some blue eyeshadow and pink blush. The results were somewhat frightening, but Ann pretended as much ignorance as her daughter. She held the egg and its change out, waiting for Mary’s deliberately slow walk to bring her close enough to accept the offering.

Mary finally reached her mother, took the egg, and studied her face for reaction. Little sleep and years of practice with Will’s antics had trained Ann well. She simply nodded, then intentionally exaggerated her attempts to rise from the floor in order to give Mary time to exit.

Sure enough, Ann got to her feet just as Mary was walking out the arched doorway of the family room. Ann sighed, but proudly noted the progress she’d made with the room. It had taken the better part of two hours, but the dusty floor was finally clear of all the leftovers of the morning’s hunt and after-party.

She walked over to the garbage and threw away the wrapper, half shell, and some more pants dust. “Mo-o-o-o-o-o-om!” Jane sang loudly, entering the room as she did.

“Yes, Jane?” Ann asked.

“I just lo-o-ove Easter egg hunts!” Jane sighed, grabbing both her mother’s legs and swinging a bit. She paused, and looked thoughtful. “Do you, Mommy?”

Ann looked down at her still-filthy angel. She could still feel the bits of under-couch detritus on her fingertips, the sensation of a coin-filled egg upon her palm, and could see her oldest’s smeary-lipped expression of nonchalance. Ann glanced at the pile of discarded plastic egg shells she’d gathered in the hours of cleaning. Finally, she looked back to her innocent child’s face.

“Of course I do,” she answered, smiling in return.

Wilhelmina Winters: Forty

Wil read carefully, constantly admiring the neat printing. The paper read:

Talented Teenagers (“We need to work on the name, still,” Reagan interjected.)

Derek: Leader, Everyone’s Friend, Song Lyrics, Double-Jointed

Stephen: Penmanship, Cryptography, Cartography, Comic Artist, Observant,

Reagan: Actress, Sarcastic, Quick-Thinking, Fantastically Well-Dressed

Hope: Kind, Artistic, Quiet, Quick

Art: Intelligent, Funny, Easy-Going, Cooking

Wil: Good Writer, Imaginative

Art laughed his infectious chuckle again. “We suggested talents, and voted on them -except Reagan insisted on her last one. I still say we need to put ‘Domineering’ as one of hers.”

Wil wondered if he would poke so much fun at Reagan if he were sitting closer to her at the table. Even though she only had access to the lunchroom cutlery, Reagan looked a good aim.

“Why- ?” Wil began. She looked up from the list in embarrassment, not knowing how to finish her question.

“We all agreed to the talents Stephen wrote for you,” Reagan explained, understanding. “You get to suggest others, and then demonstrate them.” She stuffed some lunch into her mouth and gave Wil an encouraging look as she chewed.

“Actually,” Stephen spoke up in a nasally tone, “This is a work in progress. What we really want,” his eyes became dreamy and distant, “are talents that I am going to draw into a comic.” Suddenly realizing all attention was on him, he looked down again. “We’ll be like superheroes,” he told his food tray, less audibly.

Reagan rolled her eyes again. She was also talented at that, though Wil doubted it would get added to the list.

“Just think about it,” Derek told Wil. Wil gulped, which helped move what she had consumed to her stomach.

The rest of the group, satisfied with their explanations, continued to eat and talk among themselves. Wil read over the official roster and thought about what had been said.

She stared at her name, wondering how imagination counted as a talent, and whether any others would follow in Stephen’s neat print.

 

Continued from Thirty-Nine.
Keep reading to Forty-One.

 

Want to start at the very beginning? It’s a very good place to start.

Following Dreams

I wake after little sleep. Only hours ago, I walked the lonely aisles populated by night dwellers. “You look how I feel,” the cashier had said, voicing my thoughts before I’d worked out how to speak.

Today’s my child’s birthday. Mentally, I list what needs completion: cleaning, baking, decorating, dinner, church, children.

Husband stretches and wraps an arm around me. “I’ve got to go,” he coos. “Choir rehearsal this morning.” Surprised, I check my calendar.

Someone has posted a quote about making life what you will. Follow your dreams.

I rise groggily from the bed. A busy day awaits.

 

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction

Which Side Will Ye Choose?

Introspection has left me a bit concerned.

It comes from Disney movies, really. Those seemingly innocent graphical displays for children planted a seed in my developing years, one that was never really meant to flower or even grow. This is because the packets I was attracted to, amid the vast array of smiling Princess Tulips and Prince Charming Roses, were always those meant to shrivel and die.

I speak of The Villains.

Just think: if they were to be represented by some sort of vegetation, would it be a healthy variety? A pleasant green thing? A flower?

Rafflesia
“The Rafflesia is considered one of the ugliest flowers in the world and on top of that, it smells like rotting meat… It feeds on other plants to survive.”

Maybe the sort of healthy, living thing that could EAT YOU.

No, villains are the scapegoat. They’re the blame for good, noble characters ever needing to do something questionable. Unfortunately, they must also suffer the worst typecasting, character motivations, and evil characteristics.

Does one really need a maniacal laugh to be considered for the job?

Strangely, I am not attracted to villains because of concern for any of these things. I’m not out to get them sympathy, a decent backstory, and equal rights. I’m pretty sure I like the dark side because it’s awesome.

I threw Disney under the bus initially because those are the earliest memories I have of being drawn to the films’ antagonists instead of the ones I’m supposed to like. I’m talking Maleficent, Snow White’s stepmother, or Mad Mad Mad Mad Madam Mim.

Maleficent of the 1959 animated film is so purely cliché, but this doesn’t phase me. I can only respect a villain who is clearly evil for evil’s sake; bestowing a curse, cackling, destroying her own minions, and transforming to a dragon to finally kill that pesky prince.

As one can imagine, my aberrant obsession has just gotten worse over the years.

I’ve been drawn to The Goblin King of Labyrinth, Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers, and Darth Maul of Star Wars, Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Really, though, one can’t blame me when it’s David Bowie, Tim Curry, and Ray Park we’re talking about.

Maul
Darth Maul, himself

I like Qui-Gon. Really. And I knew Obi-Wan was supposed to live long enough to instruct a whiny Luke in the future. But couldn’t Darth Maul have lived longer than a few double light saber scenes as well?

I think I’ve gotten distracted.

Ah, yes: my distractions. In my defense, I am not drawn to lame villains. You can keep your Ursula, Jafar, Gaston, Yzma, Prince John, Governor Ratcliffe, Judge Frollo and the like. In adult films; I just can’t enjoy Raoul Silva, The Merovingian, or Richmond Valentine.

Are you thinking of pointing out a redeeming characteristic of mine? One that involves me clearly thinking a bad guy is cool only when he is? Maybe I like the ones that have something likeable so that is my motivation?

If so, thank you. BUT, the problem is that I do not like the hero in most films. If it’s likeability that draws me in, shouldn’t I extend that attribute across to the brighter side of things? I’m sorry; good guys just aren’t that interesting to me. Woohoo, they did the boring thing and saved the day -right? Yay.

As such, one might bring up Ocean’s ElevenThe Italian Job, or Batman in general. No luck. Even “heroes” who break the law, and are therefore villainous, don’t quite do it for me.

I can’t help but feel a fangirl crush at the sight of a depressed, conflicted, powerful soul. He or she destroys the weak, one-sided protagonist with a cleverly-contrived trap. Then, he turns to the camera and intelligently delivers his Monologue of Evil with a British accent.

Maybe I just need to watch more foreign films?

Or, maybe I am -as I suspect- slightly evil?

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unsplash-logoPeter Forster

Skinwalkers, X

The name elicited an intake of breath from Pul, a twitch from Caill, and a frowning swallow from the ever-serious Stone. Nathan knew the shame all those in the grafting industry felt upon hearing the name, yet also knew the power given those who spoke the truth without fear.

Again, his comm projected a lighted image. In fact, it began spanning through a few, pausing for about a microtick on each. The first was one Nathan had lifted from his alma mater’s netsite: a gleaming laboratory of metallic surfaces, transparent suspension tanks, and LAD-illuminated work stations.

“As noted on my jiǎnlì, formal training in this area was conducted through SciTecMed: the top training facility nearest my area.” He felt his tone crack slightly, but hoped his audience was not so perceptive. Clearing his throat to cover, he continued, “I studied under the same director who initially founded Skinwalkers.”

The three executives grew more serious, but did not repeat their initial, surprised reactions.

As his comm moved on, so did Nathan. A stock anatomy illustration hung in the space between them, rotating artistically. “As such, we acquired the latest research on grafting.” He paused; added, “Beneficial and detrimental.”

He initiated the switch to the third picture, which was his own. He felt a slight emotional tug as blues and greens reflected from the windowed walls and executives’ faces. The scene was his research project, the one he had never finished. He knew Caill, Stone, and Pul would not have enough time to scrutinize all the elements captured in the image; that those elements simply made for an artistic representation of a live project.

“My personal studies were concerned with absolute biodermal fusion.” He thought he saw Caill pull away, though the movement may have been completely internal. Nathan filed away a mental note to examine later, at his leisure. Her associates seemed to draw closer, instead, as he spouted technological jargon to expound on his topic.

A chirping beep from the watch interrupted his concluding remarks. Again, they all jumped slightly. Now was Caill’s turn to ask, “Why do you still wear that thing?”

Nathan smiled his own executive smile. “Another time, perhaps.”

Her mouth closed reprovingly. Her eyes noted the point scored. Well, thought he, If you’re going to always attack, expect others to do so when you’re vulnerable.

Stone, of course, was unaffected by their little exchange. Pul seemed aware that Caill’s mood had worsened somewhat, as he tactfully said, “For whatever reason, it’s helpful to note that our time is spent.” He rose, followed closely by the others, and extended a hand.

Nathan followed their example, but paused at the friendly gesture. Slowly, keeping his eyes on Pul’s honest face, he reached his right hand out and accepted the firm handshake.

He saw Caill bend to retrieve the comm, and moved to quickly intercept. “Thank you,” he told her, sternly, as he deactivated the feed and pocketed it.

They all straightened in an executive seriousness, sizing each other up. Nathan thrilled, internally, at the shift in expressions and overall mood of the room. He knew they not only saw the man he claimed to be, but accepted him.

Stone nodded at Nathan; said, “We’ll notify you of results.”

Nathan kept his face straight as he returned the nod. First Stone, then Pul, and lastly Caill turned from him and exited through the very panel they had entered. The outside work area seemed overbright compared to their muted meeting room, especially with the additional human movement and accompanying energy.

He followed the three suited backs again, in a reverse order of their original entry path. Stations to the left and right formed a flashing hallway back to a plant-lined wall and transparent double doors. The odd podium and blank wall of the lift lay beyond. His interviewers stopped and turned to face him once again.

Holding her hands behind her, Caill attempted a smile. The gesture lifted her lips above the definition of a frown, but did little else to her habitually crafty expression. “N. Reed,” she stated. He inclined his head marginally; she stared for a bit, then walked back the way they had come.

Nathan turned to face Stone, whose acknowledging gesture indicated a predominant feeling of respect. He, too, returned back to the work area.

Pul was nearly grinning. The man almost put his right arm on Nathan’s shoulder, to guide him, as he walked forward and pushed against the doors with his left. They entered the lift area together, whereat Pul ran his own comm against an unobtrusive panel behind a convenient fern of some variety. The wall opened, lightly chiming as it did so.

Nathan looked at Pul one last time as he entered the lift, and nearly stumbled at the plethora of emotions within the man’s eyes. “Goodbye, Nathan. It’s been a pleasure,” Pul said, and meant it.

The reflective side slid across his view, leaving Nathan with only his own grafted face and surprised eyes to look at.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, IX.
Read to Skinwalkers, XI.

Feeling lost? Go back to the very beginning with Skinwalkers, I.

Mud to Tyrants

“Ready. Aim. Fire!” Thomas yelled exuberantly. He released three carefully-crafted mud balls skyward. They flew from his shovel toward the cardboard clubhouse, landing in wet splat, splunk, splats on the ground.

Daniel popped open a window to survey the results. “Some attack, Thomas!” He jeered.

Another smiling head joined Daniel’s through the jagged cut-out. “Yeah,” James teased. “Wanna move closer, baby?”

They laughed in good sport, then yelled and ducked inside as Thomas dropped his shovel and ran at them. Their door was pushed against its hinge with the force of the nine-year-old boy.

Daniel wriggled out the opening. He rose and watched Thomas and James roll about, trying to pin each other. Their errant wrestling crashed against a wall; the whole house threatened to collapse.

“Hello, boys,” a regal voice cooed.

Distracted mid-warning, Daniel turned. There stood Candy Barnes, in all her glory. He recognized her pink outfit from yesterday’s tea party; one they had been stopped from invading by a watchful mother.

“Go away, Candy,” he answered. Turning, he yelled, “Knock it off. It’s breaking!” A howl sounded from inside. A triumphant Thomas soon sauntered out. James followed, pretending a limp. They both stopped, staring.

James recovered first. “Whadda you want, Candy cane?”

She pouted. Flipping her feather boa over a puffy shoulder, she answered, “I merely came to survey my kingdom.”

All three boys began arguing. “Your kingdom?” “It’s our land.” “No one wants girls.” She ignored them, adjusted her crown, and raised her chin.

Inspiration struck Daniel. “Hey Thomas,” he said, “How are you at moving targets?”

Thomas retrieved his shovel and a leftover mud ball. Turning to Candy, he replied, “Let’s find out.”

A few seconds later, the commoners had the undeniable pleasure of watching a shrieking monarch hurriedly exiting their forest.