Cranch - By Rosy R. 

1. A road is found. 

     Alone in a spaceship. How did this happen? Entom looked around. Must be someone about, has to be, he thought. And just what is this spaceship anyway? These and other questions were on Entom's mind as he gazed helplessly out the window. The window of an apparent spaceship showing infinite space beyond. He sat down in what appeared to be the Captain's chair. How did this happen? he wondered again. 

   Entom remembered being in charge of an expedition into one of the darkest and most remote locations on earth in search of the fabled Karoo people who were said to have secrets that gave them incredible powers. As a respected anthropologist from a big city university Entom, Professor Entom Maxtut to be precise, was very interested in the secrets of the Karoo and persuaded his university to fund an expedition. Entom's teaching assistant, Tragar, and two graduate students, Brak and Jant, accompanied him into the unknown with a retinue of a dozen or so porters from Uxil's Mountain Guide Service. They never could get an accurate count of the porters and their leader Uxil didn't seem to understand whenever he'd been asked about it, sometimes falling into odd accents to further obfuscate. Curiously no one outside of this alleged big city has ever even heard of the fabled Karoo. 

   Nonetheless, when the map to Cranch, the peculiar name of the Karoo country, was discovered Entom had been enormously excited since he'd claimed that no one had ever been able to find Cranch before. He talked of an amazing road of twists and turns that was said to lead to Cranch, itself undiscovered. This is probably because most thought Cranch to be mythical, just the stuff of legends and never having a physical reality at all. But legends are often based on some thread of truth, truth that's greatly enlarged and distorted in time. 

   Much to everyone's surprise the map had given a starting point at a well-known suburb of the very city that Professor Maxtut's university was in. Further the suburb was where Professor Maxtut maintained his modest home. As you can see, we've gone from Entom to Professor Maxtut as our doubts quicken. How could he teach about Cranch and not know the secret road started right next door? How? Especially since right next door was a large hillock with a boulder blocking something suspicious, likely a cave entrance. 

   The very next morning the expedition, with Professor Maxtut at the head, hired a tractor to move the boulder then bravely entered the cave that was revealed. They all had excellent flashlights with fresh batteries and the cave was well lit as they began. By the end of the first day they were using just a front light, a middle and a back light as the need to preserve their batteries became apparent. The cave was pitch black without flashlights and that night was terrifying, trying to sleep in absolute blackness smothered by absolute silence. 

   The next day's march through darkness was a stumbling and stifling mess until a light was seen ahead. Tragar, Professor Maxtut's teaching assistant, who had proven to be a capable expedition chief by making sure everyone had dinner and a bed last night, then posted guards, all in absolute darkness, was the first to see it. 

   “Light ahead!” he screamed and everyone surged forward. They practically ran for the remaining couple of klicks to a large round exit, an exit that led to dry sand drifts under a bright, searing sun. The heat was unbearable and they stepped back into the shade of the cave. 

   Tragar gaped for a long time, then stuttered, “How is this possible?” He looked around, “How is this even possible?” 

   “This is the road to Cranch, I'm sure now,” Professor Maxtut proclaimed with a pleased and somewhat superior expression. 

   “We have to cross this hostile desert?” Tragar asked with eyes wide. 

   “No, no, nothing like that,” Professor Maxtut smiled. “According to the map,” which he was now looking at, “we go thataway.” He pointed into the cave from which they'd just emerged. “The spot we're at is marked Layover Two.” He looked up with a smile, “Layovers are, according to the map's legend, crossroads that can only be left at dawn.” 

   “So what happened to Layover One?” Tragar asked. 

   “Hmmm, I'm not sure,” Professor Maxtut said, scratching his head, “but I've got some ideas. We'll see, soon I hope.” He peered at the map for a moment more, then shrugged. “Anyway, we camp here and leave at dawn.”  

2. Sliding along. 

   That afternoon was hot. Hotter than they had thought possible and they stayed in the shadow of the cave exit, drinking lots of water and dozing. As evening approached it got cooler and once again Professor Maxtut was impressed with Tragar's organizational skills as he, working well with the grad students Brak and Jant, put their camp together. He could only see six porters helping and he waved Uxil aside and asked if some of the porters had left. 

   “Nossuh!” Uxil exclaimed happily, seemingly transformed into some sordid version of a native. “All dem right hyar suh!” 

   With a stunned expression Professor Maxtut continued, “Oh. I thought a dozen or so had started with us, I mean . . .” 

   “Nossuh! Six like always, like we talked boss.” He smiled proudly. “See there? All de stuff okay, all de stuff here. Juss six dunnit.” 

   “Yes, of course. Thank you Uxil, you and your men are doing a marvelous job.” Uxil bowed and returned to helping set up camp but Professor Maxtut was troubled despite Uxil's assurances. He wondered why Uxil had used that obscure and demeaning slave lingo. He wondered how he could be so sure he'd seen a dozen or so porters at the start. But when he counted them again later there were only five. 

   They built a fire against the increasing cold using old driftwood they found along the base of the bluff where the cave emerged. As they huddled around the fire the night dropped like a curtain and it was suddenly dark. There was a huge swath of stars in the sky and they lost track of the cold, staring in awe. Unfortunately that awe was short lived as the cold soon became biting. It got colder and they crawled into their sleeping bags. Soon they were all huddled together near the fire trying to keep warm. It was a long night of very little sleep. No guard had been posted due to the shocking cold. Around three a.m. they heard a shrill, otherworldly screech, then another further off as if whatever had made that sound was sending a message. Then the sound was repeated again faintly in the distance. Maybe a pack. 

   When morning's first glimmer finally arrived, they began packing, anxious to get away from this spot but also to avoid freezing. They entered the cave entrance as the first rays of the sun lit their site. Professor Maxtut noticed, with some trepidation, that there were only three porters now. They seemed adequate to the task though and Uxil appeared unconcerned so he said nothing. Tragar looked momentarily puzzled then quickly turned and began the day's march. 

   The cave was definitely different now, curving around to the right and climbing sharply upward. It was well lit this time although no sources for the light could be seen. Within minutes they came to a sudden downturn that soon became too steep and they stopped. It was so steep they feared sliding if they took any further steps which was especially fearsome as the end of the slide could not be discerned. After standing in perplexity for a few moments Professor Maxtut sat down. He immediately began to slide and Tragar, in trying to reach him, fell on his bottom and began to slide too. Somehow Brak and Jant's feet slipped out from under them and they fell on their bottoms and began sliding as well. The last thing Professor Maxtut saw before sailing over the rim was Uxil and three porters solemnly watching with expressionless faces. He splashed into a deep underground river that carried him quickly outside then plopped him into a large placid lake. Soon Tragar, Brak and Jant joined him and together they swam for shore.       

   Luckily their packs were watertight, something that Professor Maxtut had insisted on, as if he had some sort of secret foreknowledge. The shore they found themselves on was part of a small clearing in a thick pine forest where a stream entered the lake. The air was cool and dry and it seemed to be early afternoon. Professor Maxtut pulled out the map and examined it again. 

   “Mmm. Mmmm,” he hummed, then looking up he announced, “Well, this is clearly Layover Three. The road to Cranch won't become visible until morning so let's set up camp.” 

   “How many Layovers does that map have?” Tragar asked. 

   “Doesn't say. And they, like the road itself, are only visible when you get to them.” 

   “Well that's awkward,” Tragar grumped. 

   “We're on the right trail though, of that there can be no doubt, no none at all.” Professor Maxtut shook his head. “And I have a feeling we're getting close to Cranch as well.”  

3. Swimming in the prairie. 

   That afternoon they were plagued by insects as they set up camp. Even though it wasn't cold Tragar started a large fire using the dead wood that littered the area and the smoke seemed to keep the worst of the bugs away. When it got dark and they'd eaten and settled in the bugs were not as bad. The sky, like in the desert, was a blaze of stars but it was nowhere near as cold. Later they could hear roars and growls along with the stamping of large, heavy creatures running by but always staying out of sight, despite their excellent flashlights. They kept the fire blazing and huddled together through another almost sleepless night. The next morning there was a dirt road leading away from their campsite. 

   “How could we have missed that last night?” Tragar asked in amazement. 

   Professor Maxtut shrugged and, with a wry smile, answered, “I think that's how it works Tragar. I don't know how but that's apparently the way it works.” He shook his head. “I didn't believe it myself at first, I mean this is like some sort of, well magic. It's just like magic and I'm a professor at a university. I deal in facts, in truth, not magic.” 

   “Yet there it is,” Tragar said, pointing to the road. 

   “Yet there it is,” Professor Maxtut agreed, nodding slowly. Shrugging again he added, “Just as it appears to have been from the start.” 

   Somehow, they knew not to expect Uxil and the Porters as they began following the road. Tragar was walking beside Professor Maxtut and asked, “Were you talking about the cave, how it changed after the layover when you said magic was with us from the start?” 

   “Before that, but I didn't get it until now.” He was quiet for a time, walking a steady pace. “You remember how that boulder was covering the cave at the beginning? How it was blocking an obvious tunnel? And the incredulity at our not having seen it before?” 

   Tragar nodded uncertainly but Jant spoke up from behind them. “Yeah, I do. Something fishy about that.” 

   “Just so,” Professor Maxtut confirmed. “No one seems to remember how it looked the day before.” He was silent for a ways then continued in his lecture voice so that they could all hear. “It looked like a grass-covered hillock that was being used as a city park which is what it was, nothing more. There was a trail to the top with benches along the way. The boulder was there but it was mostly buried with a lot of shrubbery covering it. Then, in one night it emerged.” 

   “Why? What'd cause that boulder to appear like that?” Jant asked. 

   “The discovery of the map.” Professor Maxtut frowned. “In our university library of all places. Apparently coming to the surface like that set off the first layover, which then caused the boulder to appear.” 

   “Who found the map?” Tragar asked. 

   “That's a mystery, I'm afraid. Miss Myrkle's class was there to study the library system and it'd gotten a little rowdy when Miss Myrkle was suddenly called away. Had to quiet the lot several times as the librarian, Ms. Bookish recalled. Anyway, during one ruckus someone set the map on her desk and announced, 'Looky what we found Ms. Bookish,' and when she looked there was the map on her desk but no one delivering it. When she got them quieted again no one claimed to know anything about any map, not even to Miss Myrkle when she got back.” 

   They walked in silence. After an hour or so they left the forest, entering a vast plain with the road cutting a straight line to the horizon. The thought of crossing that expanse seemed insurmountable but seeing no other options they continued on. After a time they came to a small pond with a grove of trees. It was a lovely spot and Professor Maxtut called for a rest stop. There was a small creek feeding the pond and they restocked their water bottles and washed their faces. Brak and Jant started wading in the shallow part near where the stream entered the pond and soon discarded their clothing and were splashing and swimming about. 

   “Com'on in!” Jant called as she splashed Brak, “The water's fabulous!” 

   Professor Maxtut and Tragar had washed in the stream's delightful water but despite the lovely conditions neither wanted to jump in. Neither could have said why, they just didn't. Instead they sat on the shore leaning against a couple of the trees, enjoying the splashing students, the balmy air, and the fragrant breeze. Must be flowers nearby, Professor Maxtut thought dreamily. He was trying to identify the scent when Tragar spoke, as if in a dream. He seemed to be saying how calm and peaceful it was here, and . . . he jerked awake. 

   “What . . .?” he sputtered. He looked at Tragar who was blinking his eyes, giving him a questioning look. “Where's the kids?” he asked, suddenly aware of how quiet it was and how he could see their clothes still lying on the shore where they'd dropped them. And how still the pond was. The pond's other sides were open prairie, just this grove of trees being the only feature. They stood and began calling their names. 

   “Brak! Jant! Where are you?” they called, over and over, even walking around the pond several times but they got no reply. They stayed the night, hoping for their return but there was nothing. During the night they heard splashing from time to time but never a voice or any response at all to their calling. Their flashlights showed only mild ripples whenever they tried to see. 

4. Flying away. 

   The next morning the road they'd arrived on was gone, replaced by a blacktop bike trail winding through rolling grass-covered hills. Professor Maxtut was sure the trail went in the opposite direction of their arrival. There were two bicycles lying by where the trail began and, having not heard a thing from Brak and Jant since they disappeared yesterday, they mounted the bikes and began pedaling the trail. Both thought that the best way to get answers to all their questions was to get to Cranch. After a couple hours of pleasant yet brisk pedaling they came upon a rock hut with a thatched roof. In front sat a man . . . well, perhaps a dwarf or well, whatever, he sat watching them arrive. 

   They stopped in front of him and dismounted. Professor Maxtut spoke, “Hello there!” he called out. The figure didn't move or respond at all. Giving Tragar a curious look he tried again, “Hello! You there! Can you hear me? We're riding this bike trail . . .” 

   “I can see what you're doing. What you want?” the creature asked irritably. 

   “Oh! Uh, well we're going to Cranch. Perhaps you've heard of Cranch?” The creature was silent, unmoving. “Thing is,” Professor Maxtut continued, “we aren't really sure where it's at. Cranch that is. We're going there but we . . .” 

   “Why?” 

   “Huh?” 

   The creature leaned over to his right and emitted what sounded like a fart. “Ahh,” he said with a smile. Then, scowling at Professor Maxtut, who'd backed up, he continued, “Why you going to Cranch?”  

   “Science,” Professor Maxtut promptly answered. 

   “That a fact,” the creature muttered. “You muss be scientists, huh?” 

   “Why yes. Yes, we are,” Professor Maxtut agreed, then looking at Tragar he added, “Well I am. Tragar's my assistant.” Seeing a look of disgust on both their faces he added, “But he's still a scientist. Darn good one too. Why I rely on . . .” 

   “Yeah, yeah, a scientist. So what's your name?” 

   “Maxtut. Professor Entom Maxtut and this here is Tragar Fetchit,” gesturing at Tragar, “my esteemed colleague and fellow scientist who . . .” 

   “Maxtut?” the creature asked. 

   “Uh, yes. Entom Maxtut, at your service.” 

   “Your daddy named Enmar Maxtut?” 

   Completely shaken Professor Maxtut could only nod and whisper, “Yes. How, how did you . . .” 

   “Well I reckon I could take you on into Cranch then, most the way anyway.” He stood and it was now apparent that he was a Dwarf. He walked into the hut and returned with a two wheel scooter, like the kids used. “Keep up!” he yelled as the scooter carried him away at a high speed. Scrambling to get on their bikes they pedaled as fast as they could but still lost sight of the Dwarf after a few minutes. Seeing no alternative they continued on the trail until they came to a fork where they stopped, unsure which way to go. 

   Then they heard a distant voice, “Up here!' Looking around they spotted a small rise in the prairie with a stone tower on it. The Dwarf was standing by the tower, waving. They followed the trail up to the tower and dismounted as the Dwarf watched. When they walked up to where the Dwarf stood, he smiled at them, “This here's a Layover. Guess you all know what that is?” 

   Professor Maxtut nodded, looking around, “Number four, isn't it?” he asked. 

   “Thass right! Nummer four, thass right!” 

   “Is it the tower?” Professor Maxtut asked. 

   “Nah, don think so. Thass it,” he pointed to a side area where a picnic table, a pile of chopped wood and a fire ring became apparent. “That tower's jussa marker, you know? Big prairie an it marks the spot.” He pointed again at the picnic area. “That there's nummer four!” With that he laughed then hopped on his scooter and was gone in a flash.  

   “Looks like we're here tonight,” Tragar muttered watching the Dwarf speed away. 

   That night they heard sounds of war with missiles and rockets exploding, shaking the ground, and showering them with debris amid the rapid fire and screams of soldiers. But it was all beyond their sight, somehow always beyond their flashlight's range and nothing showed, no lights, flashes, nothing. The war ended before dawn and in the ensuing quiet they both dozed off. 

   Sunlight striking his face awakened Professor Maxtut and the first thing he saw was the tower. Its door was wide open and he rose groggily to inspect it. Looking back he saw that Tragar was sleeping soundly. I'll just peek inside, he thought, wondering if the tower was somehow the next way to Cranch. He stepped inside and immediately the door slammed shut behind him. Then there was a roaring and he was knocked to the floor as the tower crumbled away to reveal a spaceship blasting into space. The force knocked him out and when he awoke, he was in space, wondering how this had happened. 

   As he sat in the Captain's chair pondering, a strange thing happened. He heard three odd tones and his head began to clear. Three more and he remembered everything, everything that had been locked and hidden in the far recesses of his mind, until now. He smiled, knowing that he'd been successful and they now had all they needed. He turned on the controls and expertly piloted the spaceship to the hidden mother ship where General Enmar Maxtut, his father, waited for the word, the 'all clear' to invade. 

   There was a clang as Entom's ship attached itself to the mother ship and a tube allowing for passage filled with oxygen. He walked triumphantly down the corridor as soon as it opened. When he entered the mother ship, he wasn't given the reception he'd expected. Instead there was no one and he walked uncertainly into what appeared to be an overgrown vacant lot with tall brick buildings on three sides. Stepping in he stood in the weeds and trash, now with a bustling street behind, staring stupidly at a sign announcing the future construction plans for this site. The sign proudly proclaimed this to be the future home of Layover Five.

Bad Neighborhood - By H.R.Riviter 

   As she approached the pond, she knew something was wrong. It was nothing she had seen or heard, rather it was a feeling, thick as syrup, palpable and unnerving, that was giving her goosebumps. She stopped and looked in every direction, even up, but saw nothing untoward and continued on. It was a beautiful spring day, bright with new life and stunning colors, a day that would normally have brought a bounce to her step and a song to her lips yet here she strode purposefully, wary of something, careful but of what she couldn't say. It seemed so gloomy that she gave the sun a worried look, checking for clouds or . . . well, anything to account for this shadowy cover, for that's how it felt, like being in an oddly pervasive shade that lurked and hid things, yet the sun was bright overhead with no clouds nearby. Somehow the pond and its environs remained gloomy with a strong sense of shadow even under a bright sky. She stopped again. 

   “Hello?” she called out. She was sure she'd seen a furtive movement in the shrubs ahead by the path. With a fearful perusal she continued forward. 

   This was her second year as a deputy with the Loomin County Sheriff's Department under Sheriff Madsen, a fearsome 'my way or the highway' despot. She'd surreptitiously seen him frown and shake his head as she left to answer the call of suspicious activity at Donner Pond. This was not what deputy's ought to be doing, as he'd proclaimed many a time. This was for those damn uppity rangers since it was more'n likely some wild animal causing the trouble. Loomin County was rural and crime was rare. Enough wildlife though to cause problems. Unfortunately Deputy Runjump was not experiencing any normal kind of wildlife out at Donner Pond that day. 

   “Who's there?” she called out. 

   She'd unstrapped her service revolver and left her hand on it. Peering cautiously ahead she continued toward the pond. The wind was blowing persistently against her as if trying to push her back. She had a sense of being watched that grew stronger as she neared the pond. When she got there the first thing she noticed was how still the water was. Not a ripple despite the breeze which, she suddenly realized, was now completely still. Silence instead of the natural sounds that were usually heard in the countryside, sounds like birds, squirrels, and the buzz of insects, all silent. Again she felt goosebumps. 

   She seemed frozen to the spot, totally disconnected and surreal when her personal radio squawked and a voice asked, “Deputy Runjump! You hear me? It's the Sheriff. What you got out there?” 

   She was unnerved by the sudden call and took a moment to answer. Pulling the mike down she pressed the button and spoke, “Yeah, I hear you. Nothing so far. The pond looks calm and no one's around.” 

   “Yeah, it's like I thought. Probably just a bear or some bucks fighting. You should come on in.” 

   “Uh, sheriff, there's something odd here. Something isn't right. You mind if I look around a little?” 

   “What you think it is? You want backup?” 

   “I dunno, I don't think so. Haven't seen anything, it's just there's a strong feeling of wrongness here.”   

   “Hmm. Yeah, okay, but don’t be too long huh? Slow day so far but you know how quick that can change.” 

   “Copy that.” She reattached the mike to her shoulder harness and looked around. Silent and still. Then she heard footsteps, like someone walking on a hard floor or even marble. The pace was slow but steady and she looked nervously around. There was nothing but natural country, nothing paved for at least half a mile, that being the highway, itself poorly paved. There was nowhere this sound could be happening from. 

   Her fear increased and she pulled her revolver out. “Who's there?” she called loudly. 

   The steps continued and slowly, as if out of a cloud, a man appeared in the middle of the pond, wearing a typical business suit, and carrying a briefcase. He was walking on the pond's surface, which had somehow solidified. When he was in front of her, he stopped and tipped his hat, a black bowler with a wide brim, and said, “Good afternoon ma'am. You must be the Interferometer Oscillatum. I trust everything's okay on this end? I know there was a big ruckus this time. Sorry about the bangs and flashing lights. Rough connection, you know, the dimensional drift and all that but I assure you things will be calmer now going forward.” He smiled at her. 

   “Where you from?” she sputtered. “How'd you walk on water?” The only analogy she could think of was Jesus who also walked on water and that disturbed her deeply, deeper than she could say. 

   He looked surprised, “They didn't inform you? You aren't . . .” She just shook her head slowly. “Oh dear. Well this is a mess.” He looked around. “Say, this is Eridani 6, isn't it? Doesn't really look like it.” 

   “This is Donner Pond,” she said, glad to have something that she knew about. 

   “Yes, yes, but what planet?” 

   “Planet?” 

   “Yes. What planet?” 

   “Why earth, of course.” 

   The man visibly went pale and took a step back. “Oh my heavens!” He looked around fearfully and started slowly backing up, holding his arms protectively in front of him and using the briefcase as a shield. “Is that thing you're holding a weapon?” he asked with wide eyes, pointing to her hand. 

   She looked down and seeing that she was still holding her gun, she lowered it a little. “Yeah,” she answered. “So what're you? Where you from? I mean what's going on here?” She was beginning to feel a little hysterical and raised her gun again. Nothing like this had ever happened before. She looked out across the pond where the man had first appeared but could see nothing except maybe a little fog. When she looked back, he was gone. Slowly, as if the sound was being turned back on, she could hear the pond's fauna again. Now she could see little waves where the breeze was teasing the water and feel the wind blowing against her face. 

   Then she heard a disembodied voice, “We're so sorry to have bothered you, just a little calibration error, it'll not happen again, I can assure you. Oh, and by the way, madam, do you have any idea where you're at? Please be careful.”  

Seeing Is Believing - By H.R.Riviter 

      Someone left their glasses on my counter where I run the register for Dan's Cowboy Cafe. It'd been a busy morning and I hadn't noticed who'd left them. I sure didn't remember anyone wearing them and I figured I would, as they had green frames and seemed opaque. Holding them up I couldn't see through the lenses at all. I'd remember somebody wearing these I thought as I tossed them into the lost and found box. I noticed the box was getting full and made a note to empty it soon. Then I got busy with other things. 

   Two days later a man came in wearing the exact same pair. I'm sorry to say I gaped for a moment. No one else seemed to notice and the man appeared to be able to see okay, still I was, well, surprised.  

   “You didn't happen to lose a pair of glasses like those you're wearing, did you?” I asked as we completed our transaction.     

   He was quiet for a moment then, smiling oddly, he said, “No, but my friend did. I'll send him by first thing.” With that he turned and walked out. 

   I'll be darned, I thought, he could see through those things. I was glad I hadn't emptied the lost and found box and during the next lull I pulled the glasses out and examined them. They seemed normal enough except for the frame color and the lenses. I slipped them into my pocket as we got busy again and didn't think of them at all until break when I reached in for some change at the coffee machine. Sitting down with a coffee and donut I examined them again. Except for the green frames and the gray-white opaque lenses, they were nondescript. The break room was mostly empty, just a disreputable looking dishwasher named Lenny who was on break, staring at a smart phone and Lorina, a waitress ending her shift and counting her tips. I took off my glasses and slipped the weird ones on, surprised that I could see through them clearly. Better than my prescription glasses in fact. 

   I glanced over at Lorina who looked up and smiled. She seemed to glow and I smiled back. 

   “Where'd ya get those crazy glasses?” she asked, grinning wider. 

   Before I could answer Lenny yelped, “Oh shit!” from behind me and stood so fast his chair tipped over backward. I glanced around just in time to see a reddish creature run out the door, giving me a quick, red-eyed glare on the way out. 

   “Whoa! Did you see that?” I asked. 

   Lorina shrugged, “Just Lenny the dishwasher. He's kinda odd, I guess. Sure jumped up quick though. Must be late getting back or something.” 

   “Yeah,” I said, pulling the glasses off. I wasn't at all sure I'd seen what I thought I'd seen but the image, imagined or not, gave me the creeps. “Got 'em in lost and found,” I told her as I put my own glasses back on. Wow, the difference was even more noticeable, like I was in a fog. I really need to get my eyes checked, I thought. I looked at Lorina, who wasn't glowing anymore, and added, “Some guy says his friend is going to come get them soon.”  

   She laughed, “Who'd claim those gaudy things?” 

   I laughed and shrugged, “To each his own I guess.” 

   Somehow, I felt unwilling to give them up though and kept them in my pocket the rest of my shift. No one came to claim them which curiously pleased me and I took them home that night. In the privacy of my own home I put them back on. Everything was so clear! I looked around and was shocked at how dirty things were that I hadn't even noticed before. Yikes! I pulled the glasses off and put my own back on. Now everything seemed clean and nice again. Feeling a sudden weariness I decided to keep the weird glasses off. I didn't mention it at all to my boyfriend when he came in a little later. 

   It wasn't until the next morning that I thought of the glasses again. Brad, my boyfriend, had gone to the corner store for coffee, and I was getting ready for work. I'd put them in my shirt pocket so Brad wouldn't see them and I felt a tinge of guilt at my deception. I put them on and once again was greeted with the stark clarity of the grime and decay that surrounded me. How could this be? I quickly stuck them in my purse before Brad got back. I didn't want him seeing how grimy it was here, then I felt even guiltier. I was wiping the counters with a clean damp cloth when he returned. He smiled when he saw me, then handed me my coffee without speaking. Just smiling with raised eyebrows. 

   “Thanks,” I murmured. “Just thought it was looking a little grimy is all. I might vacuum later.” 

   “Whatever babe. You got no argument from me.” He gave me a kiss, “See you tonight.” 

   I watched out the window until I saw him walking down the street then I put on the glasses and looked. He was glowing. Like Lorina. I was staring transfixed when a reddish creature with evil eyes, eyes like Lenny'd had in my brief break-room glimpse suddenly stopped and turned to stare right at me. Then it smiled and continued on. This bothered me, so wondering what the creature had seen when it looked at me, I went into the bathroom with the glasses on. I was appalled at the filth when I walked in but was shocked speechless when I looked into the mirror, for there, looking back, was a reddish creature with evil eyes. Thoroughly shaken I tucked the glasses into my pocket and left for work. 

   That morning Lenny grinned at me and winked, then later a man wearing dark glasses came in and claimed the weird glasses. He described them perfectly, giving me a knowing smile when I handed them over. 

Switch - By Lillow Mi 

   I keep to the reeds, like papa taught me, watching the river closely for anything that might come floating by. In the reeds I can't be seen from the river in case something bad-nasty comes along, but if it's something good or at least innocuously interesting, then I'm well situated to fetch it. My family has been watching the river for almost a year now, ever since the first big explosion when everything stopped and she has kept us going, at times in abundance and others in need, but going, nonetheless. I loved this river watching, just sitting in a little dry spot hidden by reeds and hoping for something fabulous to come floating by. It's a meditation really and the anticipation of something wonderful appearing keeps it interesting. Huge quantities of stuff come floating down each day too. I've often wondered where it all comes from, I mean what could be happening upstream? It began with a massive blast followed by silence everywhere, then wreckage floating downstream. I think of how Cousin Willy fished a trunk out last week holding a beautiful set of china and sterling silver that would've been worth a fortune before. Ma was glad to get it for her kitchen though. 

   My dog Enfield has accompanied me today and he lifts his head, looking upriver. “See anything?” I whisper. 

   “Durrrgno,” he mutters, staring upstream. 

   I peered as far as I could but saw nothing. I'm pretty sure Enfield's eyes are better than mine but I am sure he's got a better nose. He's probably smelled something. We both continue to stare. I rely on his senses and I know he relies on my intellect. Why just yesterday he smelled a freezer full of still frozen steaks that I would've missed, then I figured a way to cast our hook out and reel it in. We did it together, like a team. Those were my favorite times on the river. 

   Soon the approaching flotsam becomes apparent. It's the top of a house, and as it nears, I see that it's complete. I smile at Enfield and he smiles back, wagging his tail. This is a rare and wonderful find! Entire hoards of canned food, bottled water and other treasures have been found in parts of houses just like this. Here was an entire roof with maybe an entire floor underneath! Now to ground it. I picked up my rope and sized up the house-top as it neared. That's when I saw a figure crouching on the other side of the roof and I ducked back down, but I think he saw me. I also think he knows that I saw him. Or she. I didn't get a very good look, but I did see movement, like it was trying to hide. I looked at Enfield who was gazing intently at the roof from behind the reeds. 

   Suddenly his eyes went round and he looked at me, “Whaff . . . ?” 

   I looked at the house-top and somehow it had changed course and instead of drifting by like everything else, it was headed right at us. “Let's get outta here!” I yelled, sloshing through the reeds toward shore but Enfield was already bounding ahead. There's another thing dogs do better than me, they can run fast. 

   Suddenly there's a horrible crunching sound behind but I keep running, no sign of Enfield. When I reach the dry shore I keep running and I keep running until I get home where I run to my room and hide under my bed, pushing Enfield aside.  

   Ma and Pa were in the front room with Cousin Willy and Granpa, watching TV. I saw that much running through. I never thought that old TV would work after we pulled it out of the river, especially since there's no electricity, but by golly, it sputtered and hissed then began playing. It plays old programs over and over with no commercials, just old programs over and over. Never seen any repeats either. It's totally fascinating and we all spend hours gazing at it. 

   Now there's a loud banging on the door and the TV shuts off. Then there's another huge blast from way upriver, huge like the world's ending sort of blast, like the first one. Goes on for a long time with lots of fireworks. This is the third one we've had since everything stopped, and again I wonder; what the heck is going on upstream? When the noise dies down my ears are still ringing, but I can hear Cousin Willy getting up. I hope he doesn't answer the door. He does, but I can hear him complaining that there was no one there as he returns and sits down. The TV remains off. 

   I look at Enfield and he looks back with a worried expression. Then he put his head down with his eyes open. It is strangely quiet and I listen for any clues. Now Enfield's eyes are closed and I think he's asleep. I feel safe here and I'm in no hurry to leave. Soon I am asleep too. 

   When I wake it is deathly silent. It must be the middle of the night; I think as I slide out from under the bed. Enfield is nowhere around. I tip-toe up the hall and peer into the front room. Ma and Pa are in their usual spot, watching that weird TV which provided the only light in the room, giving them a ghostly cast. There's Cousin Willy and Grandpa and there's . . .  I was shocked speechless. It was me, returning my look with a sardonic grin. I stepped out into view. 

   “Who are you?'” I demanded, standing over my unknown twin. She just smiled, winked at me, and returned to watching TV. I saw Enfield asleep at her feet, apparently not bothered at all by my angry arrival. I looked at Ma and Pa. “Who is this?” I shouted, pointing at the intruder. No one moved or even twitched. There was no response at all as they, except for my twin, continued watching TV. 

   My twin looked at me and grinned, remaining silent as she snapped her fingers. I found myself retreating, passing through the walls like a ghost until I was sitting on a rooftop, floating downstream. What I knew then was that I needed to find someone.           

Reconciliation - By Lillow Mi 

      The problem with 85 Worster Lane, besides being a big old purple mansion, was that a monster lurked in the basement. Nobody ever wanted to go down there. So whenever a trip to the basement was needed there were always excuses galore from everyone. Things were not getting done, necessary things, and things that needed retrieving were not getting retrieved. This created an imbalance of power and soon Queen Bonnet herself descended from her royal quarters demanding to know the reason why. Why are her winter clothes irretrievable? Why does the furnace clank so? Why are there no potatoes? She went on and on, finally arriving at the heart of the matter by demanding to know why the monster has not been dealt with? 

   When Queen Bonnet asked her questions there were heard the classic hemming and hawing from all the Royal Family as no one had a clue what to do. The other problem with 85 Worster Lane is that they all think they're Royals. Anyway, after a tense pause, Mr. Bonnet, the King but still below Queen Bonnet, said it was clearly an offensive problem not defensive so what they should do is muster forces and attack. He spoke with venom and people were persuaded. Soon the forces were attained, being the Princes Davy and Bob, hale and hearty lads indeed and the charge was on. King Bonnet led the attack while Queen Bonnet ascended to her palatial suite.          

   Creeping down the basement stairs, King Bonnet had all the lights on, there were spotlights and sunlamps everywhere plus he and his troops all carried bright, recently tested flashlights. When they arrived it was brighter than the sundown there, much brighter, and they were forced to wear sunglasses and broad brimmed hats. 

   Unfortunately, or fortunately if you're a monster, the monster was visiting his dad in Florida when the attack occurred. The King and his loyal troops, Sir Davy, and Sir Bob, having cleared the basement to their satisfaction, returned upstairs and Queen Bonnet was appeased. Soon the monster returned. The good King Bonnet immediately started planning their next offensive action when, in a shocking display, they got their power bill and quickly decided that maybe the monster in the basement, since no one had gotten killed, maybe wasn't so bad after all. And they all managed as best they could ever after.

That - By Lillow Mi 

     The trees have combed the breeze with their barren branches and brushed the sky with their peaks and crowns. They've stood proud and tall through all sorts of weather, never leaving their posts, not even for a moment, stalwart and silent. Was ever a hero more nobly blessed? 

   The shrubs, however, remain unconvinced, determined to proceed with their deprivation of sunlight lawsuit despite the otherwise fine reputation of the trees.  

   Detective Scrub Pine was assigned to the case by the defense with instructions to get darn well to the bottom of this useless fracas because if the shrubs won, what could possibly be done? The trees must have their leaves this Spring after all. 

   Detective Scrub Pine was considered ideal for the job, being somewhere between trees and shrubs, size-wise anyway. Temperamentally he was in fact quite lofty, close to heaven while the trees were often flighty and whimsical. The shrubs were very down to earth, day to day types, sometimes prickly and frequently involved in rows. 

   The lawyers were all vines that twisted and turned according to their nature and the case proceeded as expected, that is to say, it went nowhere. It seems they were all firmly rooted to their positions and could not be budged. 

A Melodrama in Two Parts; Some Shocking Occurrences - By Lillow Mi 

1. The Mad Dr. Glew 

   It was a dark and stormy night. The mad Dr. Glew was in his lab standing over a beautiful young woman strapped to a gurney. The doctor was laughing maniacally. There were two large poles with crackling electricity sparking between them. It was a seriously scary scene and Chief Detective Frensik drew back, staying in the shadows. They'd had information about this apparent crime from the mysterious Deep Ape who lurked in the corners and found out about stuff. Now Frensik's team of courageous monkeys have surrounded the lab and all were ready to put an end to this fiendish enterprise when suddenly, like a big flash or something, the mad Dr. Glew disappeared! 

    Where the heck did he go? And why was he mad? These were the questions that CD Frensik faced as he began his investigation. He first interviewed the beautiful young woman who they'd recently saved from the mad Dr. Glew, while his monkey associates searched the lab, finding many oddities, taking many notes, and seeing many things. 

   Her name was Tawdry Fishbate and she was working for the Maiden In Distress Service, Inc. and had been hired by the mad Dr. Glew for his experiments. She claimed she didn't know anything else. CD Frensik looked at her through narrowed eyes while she squirmed. Then he nodded and left. The fastidious monkeys had found no explanation for the mad Dr. Glew's mysterious disappearance and they were all squirming too, not liking this one bit.   

   Next CD Frensik, along with his best monkeys, Deputy Sergeant Shaguti and Deputy Nanda, braving the dark and stormy night, went to see the wizard, the wonderful Wizard Treygar, known to the locals as Treywiz and a heck of a wiz he was. 

   CD Frensik stepped forward and asked, “So Wizard, how can he just disappear like that? I mean there he was, looming over his terrified assistant when, like a flash or something, he was gone! Zippo! No trace. We looked everywhere.” DS Shaguti and D Nanda nodded enthusiastic agreement at this.  

   “We checked every millimeter!” DS Shaguti added. 

   “Disappeared, did he, right in front of you?” Treywiz asked, looking intently at CD Frensik. 

   “Yessir, your wizardship, right in front of us! Gone!” CD Frensik answered. “Musta been magic so we figured you'd know.” 

   “Hmmm,” Treywiz murmured, looking thoughtful. “I shall have to look into this.” Outside the dark and stormy night continued, unabated. 

   Meanwhile the mad Dr. Glew, hiding in his secret hideaway, scowled and kicked his favorite chair. He was still quite mad and began planning his next nefarious scheme, laughing maniacally from time to time.  

  

2. A Sticky Wicket. 

    After such a dark and stormy night it was a relief that the morning was bright and calm. Bluebirds sang merrily and most people had a skip to their walk. One who didn't was the mad Dr. Glew who was stomping angrily down the street, in plain view so that nobody saw him. What they did see was D Nanda sneaking stealthily down the street behind him. They knew something was up and watched attentively. 

   An unassuming innocent passerby walking briskly from the other direction was suddenly accosted by the mad Dr. Glew and thrown to the ground. It was shocking and gasps of dismay were heard all around. Then the mad Dr. Glew put his foot on the innocent passerby's chest and began howling. D Nanda, followed by CD Frensik himself, came running but just before they got there the mad Dr. Glew disappeared in a flash or something. 

   CD Frensik turned to the innocent passerby who was getting up. “I hope you're okay?'' he asked, helping him to his feet. 

   “Oh yeah, sure,” the innocent passerby assured him. “My contract was for a no damage confrontation.” 

   “Your contract?” CD Frensik asked with a sinking feeling. 

   “Yeah. I work for the Innocent Passerby Company and I was hired by the mad Dr. Glew.” He brushed his shirt and pants, “Said he wanted an altercation right here in this spot and when I saw the no damage clause, I applied for it.”       

   “Is that so?” CD Frensik asked wearily. “Well then, where is the mad Dr. Glew now and why is he mad?” 

   “Dunno. He just disappeared; you know? Nice trick. Anyway that's all I know.” 

   CD Frensik peered at the innocent passerby through squinty eyes causing the innocent passerby to squirm. When D Nanda, who had been scouring the area looking for clues, reported finding nothing, he too began to squirm. 

   Then CD Frensik and D Nanda returned to headquarters where they found Treywiz awaiting them. CD Frensik ushered them all into his private office and when they were settled, he asked, “So what's up Wizard?” 

   “I met with Deep Ape,” Treywiz began, giving them a very serious look. “He told me that the mad Dr. Glew will be at Flirty's Lounge at five pm tonight.” 

   They all looked at their watches, “twenty minutes from now,” they all murmured. Then they all, including DS Shaguti who had joined them, ran quickly over to Flirty's, which wasn't too far, where they hid around the doorway, waiting for the mad Dr. Glew to show up. Soon the unsuspecting and still somewhat mad Dr. Glew came strolling down the lane, not knowing that Deep Ape was actually a double agent who had sold him out to the man. In no time at all he was surrounded by CD Frensik's team. 

   “Why are you mad?” CD Frensik yelled, himself somewhat upset. 

   “Of course I'm mad,” Dr. Glew yelled back. “Ever since our darned author Lillow started calling me Glew I've been getting razed everywhere I go. Do you know how many sticky glue jokes there are? Not to mention the constant stickiness that follows me wherever I go.” He scowled at CD Frensik who seemed to have his hand stuck to the bush he'd been hiding behind.  

   “Point taken,” CD Frensik replied, pulling his hand away from the bush with a pop and flying leaves. Dr. Glew smiled with grim satisfaction as CD Frensik began pulling leaves from his hand. Then he laughed out loud when the leaves CD Frensik pulled off one hand stuck to the other. With a colorful expletive the mad CD Frensik returned to headquarters while Dr. Glew disappeared in a flash or something. They never did figure out how he did that but everyone agreed it was a neat trick.   

The Dog Tales #9, A Veritable Dismay - By Lillow Mi 

   It was a windy day, potentially a dark and stormy night ahead, and Spike watched the trees bending over with concern. Usually people didn't howl during a windstorm, at least Spike's gang didn't, because of the competing noise, but also because of the way it interfered with the tornado and lightnings that the gang's howl raised. Each time they howled it caused a mini-storm that they'd all come to love. He hunkered down behind the wall where they liked to howl, watching. He wasn't sure why the wall was there but it was perfect in that it was sturdy, not very high and only about ten meters long so it kept nothing out and nothing in. It just stood, uselessly stable, a monument to wallish aspirations everywhere. 

   He noticed a movement, then saw Rover making his way across the meadow. His long ears stood up at times from the wind and clapped together, like hands clapping, while his lips fluttered and flapped. Unperturbed he plodded resolutely on, eyes half-lidded, perhaps resigned, applauding trees and bushes as he passed, who then bowed like actors. Spike was enchanted by this vision of Rover until Fido came bounding into view. Now his eyes went round as he observed Fido's unnaturally long bounds and stricken expression, then he was looking up as Fido flew by overhead, looking down at him with a very worried look. 

   “He usually doesn't bound that high,” Rover said walking up, watching Fido sail by while his ears applauded. As they watched Fido flew toward a manor window then, just before crashing into it, it flew open and two arms grabbed him and pulled him inside. 

   Ishmael stuck his head out and seeing the two Dogs staring up at him, smiled and waved. He shut the window and soon the back door opened and Fido came wobbling out. Being a smaller Dog of Scottish descent he walked with stilted legs, slowly and purposefully, bending to the wind. When he got to the edge of the porch he looked up and saw Spike and Rover watching him. Grinning wide and forgetting the wind he bounded off the porch and was immediately taken by a strong gust. Spike and Rover were both shocked at seeing him flapping his legs and flying wildly away as the wind carried him past the manor and toward Thagwood Forest. They both gazed with a veritable dismay.          

   Thagwood Forest was home to millions of faunae who typically have not had good experiences with Dogs, mainly due to the Dogs' automatic response to the unknown; either bark and chase or run and hide, and the unknown is most everything in the woods, them being farm Dogs and all. Knowing their own nature neither Spike nor Rover relished the thought of going into that forest and gazed at the trees with slack jaws and empty expressions. Despite this, Rover's ears applauded in a sudden gust. 

   They stared at the trees for quite a while before deciding to advance. It was late afternoon and they definitely did not want to be in Thagwood Forest after dark, especially in this wind. Having managed to start, they were now trying to hurry. When they got to the first copse of trees they stopped, unnerved at the prospect before them. There was a sizable stretch of meadow yet to go, while the wind still howled and the trees whipped around. They looked at each other with worried expressions and began walking slowly forward again. 

   “I wouldn't go in there if I was you,” Fido said from behind them.   

   They both whipped around, “Wha, wha, what, how, where did you come from?” Spike huffed as Rover held a paw over his heart and took deep breaths. 

   “I flew right on around the manor, didn't even go in there at all,” he said, pointing his nose at Thagwood. “I landed in some trees by the Golly Orchard and walked slowly and carefully back. Saw you guys and come over.” He looked around. “You just gotta be careful. No bounding, you know?” 

   “I'd say not,” Rover agreed, his ears quickly applauding Fido's heroic effort. 

   “Enough of this,” Spike growled, looking back at the manor. “Can't see howlin' during a hurricane. I think we need to spend this night indoors. Hang on!” 

   They held onto each other as they went to prevent being blown away. As they entered the main hearth room, they found Alley already there, curled up by the fire, listening to me tell stories. 

 

Greener Grass - By Lillow Mi 

     Sometimes I write solely to write, without intention. To try and stay in touch with the writers' spirit, I think. Write just to write. See what comes out, but no matter what, keep on writing. Write about a tree. A tree that grows in a small, raised yard with cinder block edges facing the sidewalk. It is an ordinary looking tree, especially nondescript in the winter when its leafy cloak is gone but the small yard it grows in is full of a remarkably green grass despite it being early winter. Both the tree and I are suspicious of this. We wonder what keeps the grass green in the winter. Even when it snows, which is decidedly infrequent in these parts though it does freeze, even then this grass is green. 

   The wall behind the tree is a red brick building with no windows. The second and third floors above that, also red brick have small dark windows. The front is an empty store with curtains in the windows on both sides of a recessed main entrance. Between the market and this store is a padlocked door probably granting access to the upper floor apartments. At least I think they're apartments, or offices even though I've never seen anyone going in or out. I notice lights once in a rare while. Anyway BigSale Market is attached to the other side, filling the rest of the block, and it's the reason I pass this tree and its forlorn yet brilliantly green yard. Couple times a week used to, but now with this plague it's once a week or longer. Nothing's changed in that small yard though. The tree seems to be flourishing. I wonder what goes on inside that mysterious building?   

      I have been mildly curious about this building ever since I became friends with the tree a couple years ago. I didn't really notice the grass until last winter when we had all that snow. I was suddenly shocked one day as I passed to see this quite healthy and robust green grass growing between the mounds of melting snow. All other grassy spots were brown or a sickly green. I realized this grass was always green. Ever since then I've been more and more curious about this constantly brilliant green grass and the mysterious building beside it.    

   One day my curiosity was piqued when I saw a light behind a second floor window. Something's in there. I continued to the curtained front. The main door was set back and curtained, all the windows were heavily draped and it was very dark inside. As I stood watching the curtain parted slightly on one side and I saw a green eye stare at me before it quickly disappeared behind the curtain. I stepped forward and knocked lightly on the wood part of the door. No answer. No response of any sort, just silence. I knocked louder, feeling a curious urgency. The curtain on the right side fluttered a little but otherwise, no response. I tapped on the glass and after a minute or two, controlling my impulse to bang on the glass I turned and resumed walking toward BigSale Market. I was shocked by the intensity of feeling I'd had, like I had to know, I absolutely had to know what was going on in that building. Where did that compulsion come from? I'd thought I was just mildly curious. But then again, that green eye was not like any other eye I'd ever seen. Might've been the dim light but that eye sure seemed to have been green with just a black diamond in the center and it sure seemed to be emanating fear. 

   I ignored the building returning home and it was a week before I passed that way again. I was determined not to stop at the building or even to stare at the green grass, rather I'd walk briskly past, attending to my business. I stared nonetheless, amazed at the lawn's mid-summer lushness but looked away as I passed the front, then jerked back, solidly surprised to see a business operating inside. It was the big neon sign in the window that caught my attention. Cholley's Clams it said in vibrant purple-red. Below that was a black print sign saying, Coffee available – walk in now. Get sum! was handwritten, probably with a felt marker after that. I love coffee and a cup sounded fine so I pushed the door open and entered. 

   A pert young woman sat behind a desk smiling brightly at me, “Yes, mam? What would you like?” 

   The room was quite large and, except for her and her desk, empty. It felt airy. I looked up to see the ceiling was at least three floors above. Her desk was bare. Completely rattled, I stuttered, “Oh! Is this the uh . . .?” 

   “Cholley's Clams. Cholley's Clams, best in the west, but you want coffee.” She pulled open a side drawer and pulled out a steaming cup of coffee. “Three creams just the way you like it.” 

   I was stunned, “How'd you . . .?” 

   “That'll be a buck,” she smiled brightly. 

   I fumbled with my bag, found a dollar, and set it on the desk, then somehow, I was back in the street. The coffee was delicious and I sipped it contentedly standing in front of BigSale Market. I had a great time shopping, feeling a peculiar buoyancy and energy, my mind more focused than I can remember. When I returned home, I passed an old red brick building that I remember being curious about once. I couldn't remember what had sparked my interest anymore, it seemed quite unimportant now and I strolled easily past. The grass on the side was brown like always. I had more important stuff going on, like finding that fabulous coffee shop I stumbled on last week. I'm sure it's somewhere in this area.   

The Dog Tales #8, A Swell Guy - By Lillow Mi 

   Spike loved living on the Farm even as the compelling pulls of Sugfissel, the multi-dimensional being of whom Spike is purportedly a part, tugged at him to explore the world, see new places, new dimensions and seek new opportunities. Even with these things pulling, Spike loved the Farm and loved staying put. He'd been off adventuring with Lillow on Clarabelle, Holy Boat, and now he was back and glad of it, settled in, the adventure done and no more calling. He hoped anyway, because he really felt that his adventuring days were over and thank goodness for that, he'd think, whenever he thought of it.  

   “Yip, yip yip!” a sharp voice announced. 

   Spike, who'd been lying in the early spring sunlight with his eyes closed, swatted at the sound, like a at a fly, then rolled over away from it.    

   “Yip! Yip! Yip!” the sharp, now angry voice repeated with more emphasis. Spike opened one eye and looked, then opened both and sat up, disconcerted at the sight of a small, I mean small like a Mouse, creature that was . . . Spike's eyes grew round, attached to a leash that was stretched taut as the Mouse, er, thing attempted to lunge at him, snarling and yapping. He followed the leash upward and arrived at a another disconcerting sight, a Darnalong, who fluttered her eyes at him disdainfully behind bright red cat-eye sunglasses. 

   He recognized Windy from the Clarabelle, Holy Boat, and asked, “Hi Windy, uh, what is that? And why's it snarling at me?” 

   Windy tugged at the leash and, with an angry look, the little thing subsided. “Oh, it's you Spike,” she said. “Yes, well this is my companion and certified pet Vladimir Tepesh, but you can just call him Vladdy, like I do.” Spike looked at the little thing who's sinister smile showed two large fangs and who's hungry eyes bore into him. There was a low growl, barely perceptible and Spike backed up.  

   “That's your pet?” Spike asked, amazed at the snarling, nasty little thing that was again straining its leash to get at him. 

   “Oh, you'll love him as soon as you get to know him,” Windy said, letting Vladdy get a little closer to Spike who backed up again. 

   “Get to know him?” Spike asked, wondering why anyone would want to get to know that little ball of spitting spite. 

   “Why yes . . .” Windy began, just as Rover walked up. Rover took one look at the snarling little thing, who seemed unintimidated by the presence of two much, much larger Dogs, and said “ROWF!!” so loud that Spike backed up again, but more importantly Vladdy jumped back and with a whimper and 

a frightened expression, hid behind Windy. 

   Windy seemed indignant, “I don't know why that keeps happening to you Vladdy! Gosh, Rover, why'd you do that?” 

   Rover was watching the thing with distaste, “Dunno, just seemed right. What is it?” 

   “Well, like I already said, this is my companion and certified pet Vladimir Tepesh. Vladdy, I call him.” Rover blinked, his disdain perhaps more apparent. Windy continued, “Why this is the sweetest little thing that . . .” 

   “Yeah, okay,” Spike growled, “but what is it?” 

   Windy stopped with a confused look. “Well! I must say,” now she looked angry, “I just don't see how that makes any kind of difference Spike! I mean lookit you! What's this Sugfissel thing about? Huh? Huh?” Spike's eyes got round. 

   Rover spoke,”She's got a good point Spike.” Spike looked at Rover with disbelief. 

   “Don't see anybody with a leash on anymore,” Alley remarked, strolling over from somewhere else. “Not here on the Farm, anyway.”  He sat and eyed the thing with wariness. 

   “Well, Vladdy does bite,” Windy said with a smile and a pooh-pooh gesture. “But otherwise he's a swell guy.” There was a long uncomfortable silence. 

   “Okay then,” Spike finally said, looking unsure, “So, uh, hello Vladimir. Nice to meet you.” 

   Vladimir looked around Windy's leg showing his fangs in a devilish smile, “I want to eat you,” he said in a low, oddly accented voice. 

   Spike stepped back, eyes wide. Rover said, “ROWF!” in his big voice again and also backed up. 

   Windy looked down, her eyes going round. “Vladdy! Now what did I tell you?” The thing looked sheepish and squirmed a little. “Isn't he sweet though?” she gushed, smiling at them. “Except for the eating you part. Vladdy, you apologize right now.” 

   “I'm sorry,” it said, “see, I want to eat you, I mean, yes, yes, I do, but I won't, cause you know, the leash, and all,” it glanced derisively at the leash, “so,” it shrugged, “let's be friends.” 

   With a dubious look Spike, and then Rover agreed, as long as there was no physical contact and the leash stayed on. Alley just walked away swishing his tail, back to the fringes without saying a word. 

   “Well that's that!” Windy said with a happy look. “Let's go home Vladdy.” She smiled at Spike, nodded at Rover and pulling the snarling Vladdy behind, walked away. “Maybe Uncle Mavrek will take you back now, huh?” she murmured as she dragged him away, still growling and snarling and stretching his leash tight. 

   “The thing doesn't have much charm, does it?” Spike asked, watching them go with a frown. He looked at Rover, “Windy thinks it's good.” 

   Rover huffed. “I think 'good' might have different meanings, depending on what end of the leash you're on,” he said, plopping down, watching Windy and Vladdy depart. Spike gave him a thoughtful look but remained silent.