Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Third Place
Mark Neyrinck

Scattered colored bokeh on a black background. The lights are mainly white on the bottom of the image, blue and turquoise in the middle, and gold at the top. At the far left, there is also some pink and green. The bokeh overlap, with some being brighter and closer to the camera, and others being farther back and more transparent.

Photo Credit: Olivier H/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The salmon and turquoise wall-lights irritated Elton at first, but his mind grew accustomed to them. The man in front of him, in crisp, perfectly fitting sky-blue shorts and a yellow polo shirt, cleared his throat. The man’s headband effused a matching yellow and blue stream of lights suggesting sparkly warmth. His hand was outstretched, and Elton shook it.

“Jake, Crypto Team Lead.” He rolled his head around to indicate the room around them. “Pretty nice, eh?”

Indeed, the niceness of the room was palpable. Wooden cubicles, set off against the black chairs and trim, looked as comfortable as could be expected, and well-calibrated.

“Yeah,” Elton said. “The lights are—”

“Oh, you noticed those lights, too? Wow. Even I never did. You’re not just a cryptography star, but nice attention to detail! Won’t be able to slip anything past you,” he chuckled, and multicolored lights swirled madly around his headband, engaging in hijinks.

He started to lead Elton down the hall, but looked back with a smirk. “Elton Fucking Bishop. You don’t smile much, do you?” He pointed to Elton’s headband. “I can still tell from your activity you’re excited. Let’s go down to HR and see if we can dull that a bit.” The lights on his headband swirled again.

They walked in silence for a minute, but Jake stopped. A turquoise pattern wavered on his headband. “Tell you the truth though, it does make me a little nervous to work with someone who hasn’t been wearing a headband very long. I saw you’ve been working on a very promising crypto framework though, and you seem cool enough.” A little red swirl-flourish on his headband. “What was it like to be a headband-holdout?”

Elton had practiced the answer to this question many times. It was an obvious one at Lument, the company that had first introduced neuro-headbands several years ago.

He had decided to basically tell the truth. “Well, of course, I felt isolated,” Elton said. “My best friend finally gave in, and it started to be hard to interact even with him. And people avoid you on the street now if you’re not wearing them. But yeah, I’m still getting used to it, even after a year.”

“Yeah, man, it takes a while,” Jake said, resuming the walk and talk. “I had to get up to speed quickly, ‘cause my girlfriend was an early adopter of the headband. The connection you can get with your partner’s light-patterns is amazing. That was even before they got to be pretty much subliminal for me. You’ll never pry this baby off my head!” The headband sparkled with white fireworks. “And of course you practically can’t get laid without it nowadays, except with another… holdout.” A red and pink counter-streaming wiggle on his head, probably indicating that he had nearly used the word “shut-head” instead of “holdout.” He peered at Elton’s headband. “Whoa, sorry to bring up a sensitive subject!”

Jake was probably fully aware of Elton’s (lack of) romantic history. He slapped Elton’s back. “Just tryin’ to get to know you!” Green dots on his headband wavered and merged together into a green band, which turned solid indigo. He peered again at Jake’s headband. “You look a little overwhelmed, sorry. And you look like you have a question for me.” He stopped walking, and turned his head in invitation.

Elton took a deep breath. “I’m a little surprised myself that I’ve made it to this point of the interview process, as a holdout. There are other cryptographers that could do just as—nearly as—well, with more unquestionable brand loyalty to Lument.”

Jake nodded, and the indigo beam around his head broke into paler dashes that marched from the front of his head to the back. “Someone must have said this already, but we’re really looking for diversity in our employees. We want to bring people in who were hesitant to adopt the technology, so we can understand their perspective, and respect it—or, even try to convince them it’s as great as we know it is. It can really bring people together. And, a little cynically, I think bringing you on board would give us some credibility among previous holdouts.” He paused, surveying Jake’s light display again. “You still look dubious.”

“I’m also concerned you’ll take my true-quantum-random crypto technology and run with it. As I’ve said, I want to be on-board in its implementation, so I know it’s done ethically. No government or corporate back-doors.”

“Yeah, you’ve said so. Yep, that’s another reason we’re so interested in you; we really think the stuff you’re developing is amazing. And we’re totally committed to customer privacy, above all else. I hope you’ve gotten adept enough to tell I’m totally telling the truth!” Indeed, the soft blue background of his headband was almost impossible to mimic except by actually telling the truth.

“Thanks for the reassurance.” Elton thought he might as well ask his biggest question, directly. “What about transparency? Will the thought-to-light algorithm that you use to turn brain signals into light patterns ever go open source?”

There was only a momentary yellow throb in Jake’s light pattern. “Well, that’s not exactly my department, but I personally think we should release a lot more about how it works. You must know, though, that mimicry is a problem, and we can’t just release it all. People make their own illegal electrode skullcaps that go under the headbands… criminals and con artists could fake truth-telling and trustworthy patterns. We have to change things up from time to time to keep up with all that. We officially don’t even admit that we change things up in the algorithm. I hope my telling you that helps you to trust us!”

“Yes, I do see that point of view.” It was well known that they “changed things up in the algorithm,” so Jake wasn’t giving him anything he didn’t already know. Elton started walking again. Passing a Dali painting (maybe original?), he could see, reflected in its glass, dancing green lights on his head, probably broadcasting his incomplete satisfaction.

Jake’s headband went deep blue and steady. “I do like someone around who challenges me. Do you want the job or not? We already pretty much decided we wanted you, but I wanted to meet you and see you’re not a psycho!” A vigorous red swirl.


Elton was surprised at his relief, and even joy, as he left the building with his new job at Lument. The street commuters were, oddly, much more appealing than before. On his way home, random men and women, total strangers, waved at him, and offered thumbs-ups and even high-fives. They didn’t know he had just gotten a job, but could they read that he was particularly happy just from his headband signals? He had scoffed at this behavior before, seeing other glad-handers, but he felt affection to them, now. He even had trouble disconnecting from the joy in his head, and summoning his usual cynicism. He had to concentrate a bit even to notice that there were some shut-heads making their way along the sides of the crowd, some of them even hooded, heads without light.

On his way out of his building to head to the interview, he had seen a homeless man dealing with an apparently decades-old cash register, the man’s headband displaying tranquil forest-green. As as he walked by this time, the homeless man, still cash-registering, looked up at him. The man’s pattern turned to flashing blood-red, and Elton, repulsed, hurried into his building.


As his first few weeks passed at Lument, Elton slept amazingly every night. The efforts he was being employed for were going wonderfully. It did seem it would be possible to integrate essentially unbreakable, quantum-random encryption into their products. Even more, his bosses were refreshingly hands-off, and seemed to agree with everything he was doing. He was also getting along great with his co-workers, making friends, and there were maybe even a couple of romantic possibilities. He knew better than to pursue those, but still, the flirtation contributed to some remarkably happy weeks.

One day, as he was packing up to go home, he was surprised to find a slip of paper under his keyboard, with writing in his own handwriting, and a little Texas flag. “Remember the Algoro!” it read. He had no particular relation or affinity to Texas or the Alamo, but the joke did help to remind him that he had in fact written this himself. He was reminding himself to check up on his concerns about the algorithm. Overcoming some resistance, he removed his headband. He took a deep breath, which helped assuage the discomfort his head was experiencing from not wearing the headband. He scratched vigorously where the headband had been, displaying for anyone looking an excuse to take it off besides just not wanting it on. He thought he detected the lights in the room around him turning a bit blue, and caught a whiff of lavender.

He poked around on the system to see if he had any access to anything related to the thought-to-light algorithm. He got a sense of déjà vu from the exercise. But he had no access. As a new, maybe not entirely trusted employee, all he had access to was some encryption and security code they had used a couple of years ago to fiddle around with, trying to connect that to a suite of new quantum-random chips that he had worked with before, that they had installed in the data centers. His security department was entirely sealed off from the department that dealt with the algorithm that turned electrode signals into light displays. He put his note back under the keyboard.

As he made his way out, he tried to join the commuting throng on the street as usual, but they weren’t having it; people edged away from him or didn’t seem to see him at all. He wasn’t feeling as great as he had the last few weeks, but still felt good enough that it shouldn’t repel anyone. But then he suddenly felt the nakedness on his head. He quickly got the headband out of his bag, and put it on. Some eyes immediately went to him, and he felt a burst of inclusion.

In the happy commuting throng, he caught a woman’s eye. She smiled, and his mind fluttered with the rush of her stunning pastel green and pink headband light sequence. It was like a Beethoven (of whom he was a big fan) concerto. The interaction was soon over, though. He wondered if the headband pattern he managed to produce was nearly as attractive as hers. He scoffed at a serious thought he had, of practicing headband patterns in front of the mirror. He knew that lots of people did that, and it had always seemed a ridiculous waste of time. But as he cleared his thoughts, he now found himself in front of a mirrored window on the street with a few others, watching his headband light pattern. He shook his head and continued home.


Maybe a week later, after lunch, he found a different slip of paper under his keyboard. Written on it was the name of a directory on their system, and an apparent password. He wasn’t sure if it was his handwriting.

He explored what was there, and was shocked to find what seemed to be the thought-to-light algorithm. His head throbbed. In the screen’s reflection, he thought he could see a discordant brown and green pattern jerking across his forehead.

It was a surprisingly small code. Much of it was impossible for him to parse. One thing he was curious about, based on conspiracy theories that he occasionally found plausible before he convinced himself otherwise, was that the ostensibly totally passive electrodes that read the brain signals were capable of feeding back, influencing people’s brain signals in return. He found some hints of code that might be able to do that, but like objects in eye-corners, once focusing on them, he could find nothing of the sort.

He did find some other odd things: hints that the code could rewrite itself, which had been prohibited by the anti-artificial-intelligence charter. But again, when he looked closely, these hints evaporated. He resolved to look at it further, but instead he felt his eye drawn to a file that included “random-top-secret” in its name. This file was totally legible to him. It contained the random-number generating code. It was a bleeding-edge pseudorandom-number generator, but as far as he could tell, it was still entirely deterministic. In the quantum-random chips he was an expert in, there was a truly indeterministic random-number generator based on the random emission of light from fluorescent molecules in the chip. This meant that, unlike the pseudorandom code, even with access to all the code and specs, it was impossible for anyone or anything (except God? ha) to predict the random number the chip would report.

The existing pseudorandom code was ordinary enough that he couldn’t believe it was actually top-secret. As the holder of a random-number-generating hammer in constant search of nails to apply it to, he had immediately had the thought to replace this pseudorandom code with one incorporating the genuinely random chip. Before he was fully conscious of it, he was already well along in his plans to enact this replacement, with the new code nearly finished to interface with the random chips.

“Nice pattern there, Elton!” he heard a female voice behind him. It was Jenny, a colleague in the cryptography group, with glittery hair, carefully spiked to accentuate her headband. Her voice often oscillated quite a bit in pitch, but he had gotten used to it. The voice was closer now. “Whatcha working on?”

His mind jerked back and forth, at first dead-set against sharing his activities, but he found his mind acquiescing, as he peered at her headband and found it a calming, safe, deep green.

He started to speak, but had to clear his throat. He was hungry. How many hours had it been? “Oh, I found this…” he said.

“Oh, thought-to-light code,” she said. Her voice was more monotone now. Then suddenly high-pitch: “Cool!” with an orange headband-swirl, then back to the original pitch. “I’ve looked around in there. Management might actually appreciate some code-tweaking there.” She walked away abruptly.

This was against anything management had said; they were highly secretive of this code. Although her hair would have been considered super-wild several years ago, before Lument headbands, that hairstyle was pretty common now. He never got the sense that Jenny was at all rebellious; no reason to doubt her encouragement was truthful.

Before he knew it, he had finished the code to integrate his chips, and had pushed the changes. It all felt inevitable.

Jake came by; today’s polo shirt color was green. “Nice job on the cryptography integration! We thought it might take a year, but it just took a month! But don’t worry, there’s still a lot we need you to do around here; you basically have a permanent job here. But I’m gonna take the last few hours of the day off, and we should celebrate tonight. Still figuring that out; I’ll text you. See ya there!”

Jenny passed by just then, too, giving a thumbs up to the celebration idea. “Woo! Go Elton!”

What? He was working on that, but he himself thought there could be months left on the cryptography project, with all the tests that remained to do. He tried to call up the code that he was working on, but his password wouldn’t work. This was of course quite alarming, and he had an urge to call someone about it. But as he found himself mesmerized by his screen’s reflection of a forest-green light-waver that was happening on his forehead, he calmed down. Instead, he made a call to install more quantum-random chips, since the load on them was probably already too high. All this was more than a day’s work, and he got up to go. The walls throbbed tranquil blue and green.

Again, he was excited to join the commuters on the street, and head home to prepare for the celebration tonight. There were fewer than before, but today he saw absolutely no one without a headband. Now, instead of a cacophony of erratic light-patterns on each head, their light-patterns all streamed together, a glorious flow-symphony of blue, salmon, and outbursts of glitter-green. He set off a happy orange throb on his own head. People were arm-in-arm, and some of them kissing. It was like a war had just been won. He probably kissed a few himself on his way home. As he arrived at his building, he did see an antique cash register out of the corner of his eye, but failed to remember the homeless man that he had seen fussing with it.


Mark Neyrinck does some research, art, and writing related to science!  Email: mark.neyrinck[at]

The Cloudrider

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Second Place
Robert Hanover

A black-and-white landscape. The sky, with scattered clouds that get denser near the horizon, fills most of the image. Mist obscures the foreground on the right hand side and envelopes the promontories on the left. The promontory in the bottom left corner is overbuilt with a large, irregularly-shaped stone structure with many small windows that steps up the cliff. A tower extends from the top.

Photo Credit: Artetetra/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Oren’s steed galloped over the river shallows, racing the sunrise. Clouds coated the night sky. In this, the early stage of his journey, he knew to follow the river. With luck and the wind at his back, he would reach Altilia in time.

Just one hour earlier, Oren stood in the great hall of his family’s manor, roused from a warm bed long after nightfall, listening to Commander Rykan of the palace guard reveal to Oren’s father a horrible truth. The king was dead. Killed in his chambers. Stabbed in the chest while his guards lay slain in the hall, their blood licking the stone walkway as the king’s blood seeped into his bedclothes. The perpetrators escaped, but Commander Rykan knew who did it. The king’s brother, Pyran, next in line for the throne after the untimely death of the prince the previous winter. All over a squabble with a neighboring king.

Oren’s home, the kingdom of Gildamar, bordered the land called Altilia to the east. Upon visiting Gildamar one summer, the Altilian king, a man named Minar, fell in love with a noblewoman named Reen, and she with him. The Gildamarian king’s brother, Pyran, had his own sights set on marrying Reen, but she left Gildamar with Minar when he departed. Upon their return to Altilia, Reen married Minar. She became the queen consort. Her firstborn child would one day be the ruler of Altilia. None of this sat well with Pyran, and he begged his brother, the Gildamarian king Benquo, to attack their neighbor and bring Reen home. Benquo’s refusal became his death warrant. In the haze of his lust for Reen, Pyran would not be stopped.

“He’s ordered the army of Gildamar be assembled,” Rykan said to those standing in the great hall. “He plans to launch an offensive in the coming hours. Perhaps sooner. He’s ordered the palace guard on full alert. He intends for us to accompany him to Altilia and fight alongside him as he wins back Lady Reen.”

Oren’s father, Hydrel, listened but did not speak. As Rykan spoke, Hydrel stroked the long gray beard that hung from his chin and ended in a thick braid. Oren watched to see how his father would react. He would have his own beard one day, when he grew older, and he wondered if his own fingers would find it in moments of great distress. He imagined they would.

Rykan continued. “The moment Pyran summoned me from my chambers and told me of his plans, I knew I could not follow him. I knew our already uneasy alliance with Altilia must face no strain. We cannot allow an unprovoked surprise attack on our neighbor. I had to disobey Pyran. I had to tell someone of his plan. He left me no choice.”

“And what, pray tell, do you suggest we do, Lord Commander? If, as you say, Pyran has control of the army, then stopping him would be impossible. What he has set in motion will not be easily halted or even delayed. If he means to win back Lady Reen by starting a war, who am I, but an old man in the twilight of my life, to try to stop him? You need soldiers, Lord Commander, not ancient wizards.”

Oren winced at his father’s response, for he knew the true reason Rykan sought help from their family. Hydrel knew it too, but Oren understood why his father might play dumb in an attempt to ward off the coming request.

“You are correct, Lord Hydrel. We cannot stop the plan Pyran has started, but we can warn the Altilians of what’s coming. We must. Someone among us must ride to Altilia. If Gildamar launches an unprovoked attack and catches the Altilians by surprise, King Minar will send out their dragons, and every man, woman, and child in Gildamar will be burned to ash. You must help us, Lord Hydrel. You’re the only one who can.”

At this, Hydrel scoffed, turning his head away from Rykan but never letting go of his beard.

“In another age, perhaps you would be right, Lord Commander. Perhaps I would be the most sensible choice to put an end to this senseless violence before it gets started. But, as surely a man of your experience can see, I am not the man I once was. I possess none of the thirst for heroics anymore. That thirst was quenched long ago. It saddens me to say it, but I can no longer ride the clouds.”

“Your service to the kingdom will remain in the annals of our history for as long as the kingdom stands, Lord Hydrel. But the time to rise is now. Your son, Oren, can ride the clouds. I’ve seen him do it. Oren can warn the Altilians and save us from certain destruction.”

Oren watched in horror as every eye in the room focused on him. Sure, he’d ridden the clouds before, but only in his training. Never when he had to. Never with his life on the line. Or the lives of others. It made sense Rykan would want a cloudrider to make the trek to Altilia. With the goblinlands between the two kingdoms, no one else could complete the quest alone. But…

“…I’m not ready,” Oren said. “I can’t go.”

Oren studied his father, waiting for some reaction to Rykan’s suggestion, unsure what his father would say. Hydrel stood beside a burning lantern. The flickering light cast shadows dancing across the wrinkles on his face. When he spoke, his voice sounded gentle but firm. Like always, everyone in the room gave him their full attention.

“Sometimes, actions that must be taken do not take account of a person’s readiness. They announce themselves and demand to be heard. You can do it, Oren. The question is not in your skill or ability but in your willingness and confidence in yourself. Are you willing to take this challenge on?” He paused. When Oren didn’t respond, Hydrel continued, “You’ll have to pass over the goblinlands. No other route will allow you to reach Altilia in time. You’ll have a head start on the army, and a single rider of your skill will outrun the sun. You can be there before morning if you leave immediately. You can ride my steed.”

Oren nodded, hoping his nervousness would not be evident to those nearby. Before he could raise any further objection, Rykan hustled him from the room and to the stable where his father’s faithful steed awaited a rider.

“I wish to ride my own steed,” Oren said. “Over there. Windracer.”

Rykan glanced from steed to steed and then to Oren. It was clear he trusted Oren’s father and his judgment. He wouldn’t have sought Hydrel out for this most important task otherwise. He was also a man who followed orders. Oren feared his request might be denied. Instead, Rykan led Oren to the steed he preferred, his own steed, Windracer.

“Tell the Altilians all you’ve heard tonight. Hold nothing back. Tell them I sent you. And tell them to brace for attack but respond in kind. I am hopeful a proper warning and time to establish a defense will preclude the use of their dragons. I pray to the gods of war that I’m right.”

Oren saddled Windracer and climbed on. Rykan slapped the steed’s hindquarters, and together rider and steed took flight into the darkened countryside with nothing but the land and their wits guiding their path.

Before reaching the goblinlands, Oren eyed the clouds overhead. With so much of the sky covered, he had plenty of targets. Wishing to test his magic before he needed it to survive, he lowered his head, closed his eyes, and recited the incantation. One hand held Windracer’s reins. The other gently stroked the steed’s mane. Oren waited to feel the lightness. When it didn’t come, he opened one eye and felt dismayed to see his steed still on the ground. It would be a short journey once they reached the goblinlands if they couldn’t ride the clouds. A short trek with a grisly end. Oren rode on, more unsure of himself than ever before.

The goblinlands that lay between Gildamar and Altilia owed no allegiance to either side. Centuries earlier, the goblinlands stretched from sea to sea, encompassing the land now called Gildamar and the land now called Altilia. Over time, the Gildamarians claimed more and more land to the south while the Altilians claimed more and more land to the north, squeezing the goblins into the land in between. For many generations, the goblins survived on their own, living off their remaining land and the occasional highjacking of wandering travelers. What happened to those travelers often served as a warning to others not to pass through the goblinlands on your own. Dismembered bodies were sent back to their kingdom of origin, their hideous remains a sign of what could happen to the next wayward traveler.

The first goblins Oren saw came from a cave near the roadside. Where there was one, there would be many. Swarms would descend on Oren if he couldn’t escape to the clouds. For the second time that night, he closed his eyes and whispered the words his father had taught him, the words uttered by generations of cloudriders before him. His idle hand reached out and caressed his steed’s neck. He felt himself growing lighter. Wind whipped through his cloak. Afraid to break the spell, Oren kept his eyes closed. But he was doing it. He was riding the clouds.

He didn’t get very high on this, his first cloudride outside the training grounds behind his family’s manor, but he reached far enough into the sky to escape detection by the goblins. For the first time that night, he felt like he might actually be able to complete his quest. He might actually be able to save Gildamar and Altilia from all-out war. He continued to feel that way, right up until the moment he reached the top of Mount Fidal and the final pass of the journey to the valley that held the mighty kingdom of Altilia.

Standing atop Mount Fidal, Oren looked down on Altilia. What he saw shocked him. The city was burning. There were fires everywhere. Huge black plumes of smoke reached up to the clouds. Oren didn’t know what to do. With what had happened in his own kingdom of Gildamar earlier that night and now this, it was clear something more was happening. Something terrible. He had made it this far. He kicked Windracer’s hindquarters, and he and the steed descended the mountain.

Inside the city, Oren realized the situation was far more dire than he saw from the top of Mount Fidal. Entire city blocks were burned to ash. Buildings large and small lay in ruin. The smell of burning wood filled his nose. He found no survivors.

As he wove through city streets strewn with the wreckage of whatever awful thing had happened here, he had one goal on his mind. He had to get to the castle and—if she was still alive—he had to save Lady Reen.

As he rode, he scanned every house and shop for any sign of life. As the minutes passed, the horrible truth that their entire world was under some sort of attack became apparent. But from what force? And why? He got his answer when he spotted between two clouds a dragon diving toward the city with flames bursting from its mouth.

Oren kicked Windracer into a higher gear. If Lady Reen had not been killed already, Oren knew only he could save her. He’d never ridden the clouds while carrying another before, but he knew it could be done. His father had done it once. To save a younger Oren when a cave troll attacked their caravan. Of course, the clouds may not be the safest place with a dragon flying amongst them. Even if he had to go the whole way back on foot, carrying Lady Reen on his back, he would do it. He would not leave a fellow Gildamarian behind.

At King Minar’s castle, Oren found the front gate toppled. He raced into the courtyard, where he found many from Minar’s palace guard burned and dead. They would’ve stood no chance against a dragon, but they died defending their king and their home. Who would do this? And why didn’t the Altilians unleash their own dragons in defense? Perhaps, Oren thought, the attack caught them by surprise the same way his father and Rykan feared an attack by Gildamar would. But this was more than an attack. This was destruction.

Inside the castle, Oren found the first door in Altilia still standing. The door to the castle’s keep. Oren dismounted his steed and pounded his fists against the door. If anyone survived the attack, they would be behind that door. From his own time spent in castles during his training, Oren knew the keep as the last refuge during a siege. He had to get inside, where he prayed he would find Lady Reen.

“My name is Oren, son of Hydrel of Gildamar. I come in peace. I mean no harm.”

He heard movement behind the door. As it swung open, Oren braced himself for attack. Despite his reasons for being there, Gildamar and Altilia still had a complicated history, and the response to a Gildmarian trying to access the keep of the Altilian king would almost certainly be met with bloodshed, even in a time of so much bloodshed.

When the door finally opened, Oren stood face to face not with surviving members of the palace guard or even with Lady Reen. Instead, he stood face to face with the king himself, King Minar, whom he recognized only from memory of having seen him once long ago during his visit to Gildamar that set many of the night’s events in motion.

“Your majesty, you’re alive?” The words blurted out before Oren could think to bow. The king didn’t seem fazed by this. He held a short blade, which he extended immediately toward Oren’s throat, nearly piecing his skin.

“What in the name of Atil are you doing here, Gildamarian?”

Oren realized in sudden horror that the king may think this the very attack Oren had ridden to warn him about.

“Your majesty, I assure you Gildamar is not responsible for what happened here tonight. For what’s happening. We have no dragons in Gildamar. You know this. I don’t know who is responsible, but it isn’t my people.”

Minar watched Oren carefully, finally lowering his sword and stepping back into the keep. Over his shoulder, he said, “But it is your people, Oren, son of Hydrel. The one riding the dragon over our heads, the one destroying the great kingdom of Altilia, is originally from Gildamar. She’s also the queen consort of Altilia. You likely know her as Lady Reen.”

Oren and King Minar talked for several more minutes, each learning more of what the other knew before coming to the same awful conclusion. This was a coordinated attack, years in the making, between the new king of Gildamar, Pyran, and the woman he loved, Reen, to destroy Altilia forever.

“What about Altilia’s other dragons?” Oren asked. “You can ride one. You can stop her.”

“The others are dead. She made sure of that before she started her assault. There’s no one left to defend Altilia. No one can take down a dragon from the air. How would you even get up there?” Oren looked at the king, who didn’t seem to remember Oren’s lineage.

“Your majesty, I might be able to help.”

Together, they laid out a plan. Minar even offered Oren his family sword, but Oren refused. He had his own blade, while not as sharp or well made as Minar’s, it would get the job done if he could get close enough.

He rode out. Back in the courtyard, he heard the dragon before he could spot it. And, for the first time, he spotted Lady Reen riding atop it. The dragon dove at the castle, flames hotter than anything ripping through stone. Oren closed his eyes and recited the words he knew now he’d always feared growing up. For whenever he spoke them, it meant his life was in danger, that he needed to act to save himself and others. But it was his calling. He was a cloudrider. One of many in a line as long as time. He could do this. He was ready.

The dragon rose back up to the sky. Oren followed. Windracer danced over the clouds.

Oren thought they might get behind the dragon, attack before Reen saw them coming. He twisted the reins and maneuvered them to make an attack. At the last moment, Reen looked over her shoulder and spotted them coming. The dragon dove, turned, and came back up facing them. Oren braced himself for the flames. He hugged Windracer’s neck and told her he was sorry for bringing her here, for what was about to happen.

The dragon opened its mouth. Oren felt the heat of the flames. Windracer rose higher. The fire shot out but below them. Windracer whinnied. They were safe.

With newfound courage, Oren gripped the reins tighter and urged Windracer even higher into the clouds. They rose and rose until the dragon appeared beneath them.

“Trust me, old friend. I know what I’m doing.”

Oren leapt off Windracer’s back and plummeted toward the dragon. As he fell, he drew his sword. Lady Reen grew larger in his sights. He was close.

He landed on the dragon. The impact knocked the air from his lungs. He nearly dropped his sword. Reen turned to face him. She looked shocked to see anyone alive. That shock was the last thing she felt. Oren buried his sword deep in her gut.

“For Altilia,” he said, and he meant it. No longer would their two peoples, whoever was still alive, allow petty squabbles to separate them. They would be one. And when the history books told of this day, they would tell about the one who saved it.

The cloudrider.


Robert Hanover writes horror and fantasy fiction. He lives in Pennsylvania, where he works by day and writes under the darkness of night. Email: rhanover158[at]

In for a Penny

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ First Place
Susan Smith

Corner view of a room with high ceilings. On the left side is a tall multi-paned window with inside shutters and window seat over a radiator. A book is open on the window seat. The walls have wide crown molding and wainscotting. On the right side, maroon draperies cover the wall from below the molding to the floor. Part of a chandelier is visible in the top right corner. A pale blue upholstered armchair is in front of the draperies. Behind it is a rocking horse tricycle. An upholstered ottoman with a blue blanket and pampas grass tossed on it is in front of the chair. The chair and ottoman are on an area rug with a pattern that looks like tile. The floor is unfinished wood.

Photo Credit: Sweef/Flickr (CC-by)

“Hey, hotshot,” Mike was already there when I arrived, several drinks lined up on the table. He handed me a glass as I sat down. The bar was busy that night, electro-pop thumping through the speakers, neon strip lighting oscillating between red and blue.

“So?” he asked. “How is working for the Magic Bureau? Did you have to wipe any warlock arses yet?” He gave me a dig in the ribs, causing me to spill half my drink.

“Ew. No, I told you, I’m just in the records department. No meeting of the actual powerful and mighty.” Something I was grateful for. The thought of coming face to face with one of them filled me with more than a little dread.

“Still, you’re rubbing shoulders with the elite now.” He threw a shot back and slid one across the table to me.

“I haven’t finished this drink yet,” I protested, waving the now slightly-emptier glass at him.

“Well, speed up!” He threw a second shot back.

I drained my first drink and he gave me a joking thumbs up.

“Go on then—any gossip?” he slid his chair conspiratorially closer to mine. “Did you hear any rumours about what any of them are up to?”

“I can’t tell you that!” I picked up my first shot, swirling the lurid green liquid around the glass.

“Come on, I can see it in your face. You found out something pure gold, right?”

I struggled to hide a grin. In truth, reading through some of the personal files had been more than an eye-opener. “Okay, okay,” I lowered my voice. “This is just between you and me though, right?”


“I’m deadly serious.”

“Scout’s honour.” He smiled.


The following morning my head thumped in rhythm with the buzzing of my alarm clock. I slapped at buttons until it fell silent. Midweek drinking was never a good idea. I groaned and, knowing that calling in sick on my second day of work was not an option, dragged myself out of bed.

Forty-five minutes later, my shoes squeaked across the polish-scented floor. The sight of the atrium was never going to get old. Sunlight streaming in through the thirty-foot-high windows, spiralling colonnades stretching up to the ceiling.

I made my way towards the elevators, pinching myself that I was actually working there. It had taken four years of evening classes to get the relevant qualifications and then another two before I was successful at an interview.

As the elevator door slid open, I was met with the impassive stare of a tight-jawed security guard.

“Good morning,” I offered, stepping to one side to let him out.

He didn’t move, but instead reached forward and took a tight grip behind my right elbow, leading me inside.

“We ask that you don’t make a scene.” He kept his voice low and calm, but he had an air about him that suggested non-compliance was not an option.

I watched as he hit the button for the top floor—the executive suite.

“Is—er—everything okay?” I ventured, my stomach flipping from more than just the speed of the elevator.

The look he gave me suggested it wasn’t.

The bell pinged as we reached our floor, and as the doors glided open, I found myself frog-marched down the thick pile carpeted hallway.

“We’ll take it from here.” The company CEO in her several-thousand-dollar power suit and shoes ushered me into her office, where two other executives were already sitting behind the long dark oak desk I’d been interviewed at only three weeks before.

“Sit.” She pointed to a chair in the centre of the room.

I sat. Somehow I got the impression they weren’t about to offer me a promotion.

“Trust,” she began, seating herself directly opposite me. “Trust and discretion is at the forefront of this company. And you,” her hands clenched into fists, “have betrayed us in one single goddamned day.” She spun her laptop round, showing an array of headlines plastered across the internet.

Ancient Warlock Family Legacy Lie

The Great Galdini’s Half Human Heritage Revealed

Fraud—Purebred Propaganda

“Posted anonymously late last night, picked up by the media first thing this morning.” The CEO slammed her laptop closed, a murderous look in her eyes. “As you are the only person to have accessed his file in the last six months, do you care to explain?”

I felt sick. I knew exactly what had happened. How could Mike have done this to me? “I didn’t…” My voice faltered. Whether by my hand or not, it was my fault. “Are you going to call the Police?” I asked meekly instead.

“And ruin our reputation by revealing where the leak came from? No. This has been dealt with internally.”

“Has been dealt with?”

“Mr Galdini asked who was responsible, and we told him.”

“You—you told him it was me?” A literal boulder lodged in my throat.

“I would suggest you relocate.” She gave a justified smile. “Though I’m not sure even the moon would be far enough.”

After that I was escorted off the premises, my whole body numb and heavy. I had to get out of the city. My mind flitted between fear of what would happen if the warlock found me and anger that Mike had leaked what I’d told him. He’d deny it, of course, but come on. I tell one person outside the company and suddenly it’s headline news? There’s no way that was a coincidence. I cursed him out loud. When I got somewhere safe, we’d have more than words.

I could feel myself beginning to panic. I had nowhere to go. Maybe my cousin’s house in the north? But then would that be putting them in danger? I leant against the wall of the Bureau for a moment, the cool of the bricks sending a shiver through my body. My future was screwed, that was a certainty. The job I’d worked so hard to get was gone. Calm down, think. I took two deep breaths. Then two more. First step, I’d need supplies.

Thirty minutes later and laden with a large bag of food, I shouldered open my apartment door. Fifteen minutes to pack essentials, then I’d be on the road. I kicked the door shut behind me, wondering how many changes of clothes I should take.

“Good morning.”

I froze in horror as the warlock melted into view in front of me.

In desperation, I threw the bag of groceries straight at him, then turned and grabbed for the front door handle. As my fingers took grip, the metal of the handle began to liquefy, dripping between my fingers and seeping through the gaps in the floorboards.

I fought the urge to vomit as I turned back to face him.

He pointed me towards the armchair. “If you’d be so kind as to take a seat?”

I obliged, picking my way between the scattered food and supplies now littering the floor. As I sat, it occurred to me how much I’d never liked the chair, with its faded blue and white pattern, threadbare armrests. But I’d had little money when I’d moved in and the people across the street had been throwing it out. And now, it was the chair I was about to die in.

Mr. Galdini stood and regarded me for a good minute, his eyes burning into me. “Have I wronged you in some way?” He said at length. “Caused you to hate me? To seek revenge?”

“No,” I mumbled, not daring to meet his gaze.

“Then why?” he snapped, the room seeming to reverberate with his voice.

“I’m sorry,” I gabbled. “This was all a big mistake. If I can just explain, you see, it wasn’t—”

He held up a hand for silence. “My reputation is ruined. Not only am I the laughingstock of the whole world, I am now deemed a half-breed. Do you understand what that means?”

I nodded. It meant ostracization from both sides. I glanced towards the window and the fire escape beyond it. Could I make it if I ran? Could I get the window open in time?

“You won’t make it.” He seemed to read my mind and a moment later, invisible cords started winding around my chest, binding me to the chair. I struggled against them, but with no avail. It was one thing to accept that you couldn’t untie knots, it was another thing entirely to not even be able to touch them.

“Any other secrets of mine you’re planning on exposing? Any further humiliations?”

“No, I swear.”

“What else did you learn about me?”

“Nothing.” The cords were making it hard to take more than shallow breaths.

He considered for a moment. “I can’t take that risk.”

“You’re going to kill me?” The words came out barely above a whisper.

“That would be far too merciful.” He knelt down in front of me.

I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or more scared. “Then what?”

“I’m going to wipe your memory. Stop you from doing any more damage.”

“My memory? Of working at the Bureau?” Losing only a couple of days wouldn’t be so bad.

“I’m going to wipe the lot.” He reached forward and clamped his fingers painfully tight on my temples.

“What? Please, no. Please.” The thought of knowing nothing, of losing everything I’d ever been terrified me.

“Be quiet, I’m concentrating.” He began murmuring a spell under his breath and black tendrils of fine smoke began to encircle me.

“Please don’t,” I begged. The room began to grow darker as the cloud of magic grew thicker. My thoughts scrabbled for a way out of this. Losing my memories was as good as dying. There has to be something. And at that moment, one treacherous idea came to mind. A bargaining chip. “Wait! Stop!”

“I can do this with you unconscious,” he growled.

I spoke quickly. “You know Magda the Invulnerable? You have a feud with her, don’t you?”

“I do. She is someone I hate more than you.”

“Well, it—erm—turns out she’s not, you know, invulnerable.”

He gave a half-smile and the black mist began to fade as he let go of the spell. “I’m listening.”

Two hours later and a hundred miles down the road, I heard the news break on the radio, the excited chatter of yet another exposé. I switched stations, flicking through until I found one that still had music playing. I cranked the volume up and sang along as the endless green blur of the rolling hills streamed by.

Integrity, I decided, was overrated.


Susan Smith is a graduate in Creative Writing from the UK, with a passion for both reading and writing science-fiction and fantasy.

Two Poems

Beaver’s Pick
Judith Taylor

A diptych of two black-and-white images. The top photograph: a woman with long, slightly messy hair leaning against a white wall. She's wearing jeans and a T-shirt and has a bandana wrapped around her wrist. Her legs are bent with knees up in the foreground. The bottom photograph: a woman lying on her back on a made bed on a comforter with a striped pattern. Her left arm is raised, elbow up, with her hand placed over her right eye. Her face is slightly turned toward the camera and her left eye is closed. She's wearing a plaid shirt. The rest of her body is out of frame.

Photo Credit: ashley.adcox/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)


The body adapts to dearth.
Starve it of food and it will struggle on
consuming itself, as long as self remains to it.
Starve it of sleep, and it tries
—good body—to please you

adapts to papery eyelids, sugar cravings;
that feeling of running hot, as if your skull
has become a light source and you can’t switch off;
that tendency to weep.
It only needs a little training

—staying up late, rewriting lists
from all you haven’t achieved today
into what you’ll achieve tomorrow;
or scrolling down your phone screen
for a change of news—

and the body will take what’s given it
for the new normal: wake you
after two or three hours, as if
it’s had enough; and never allow itself
to dive down into the deep waves

between your frittering dreams, as if it’s fearful
it might never regain the surface.
You can teach yourself to be
terrifyingly, constantly alert this way.
People do. Not just in wars:

there’s a kind of politician who boasts
in their memoirs, of their appetite
for the tough task; of their iron will.
How they trained themselves to exist on
two or three hours of sleep. And nobody

cuts in to say the obvious:
that living like that will make you sick
in the end, will make you
borderline mad. Like us, in bodies we force
to stay awake beyond endurance

afraid of what’s being done, that we’ll have
to surface to. Another day
to scroll down through, our eyes dry
and painful. Another list. A bad dream
we are too lit up to wake from.



In the dream, he says get out of here
and don’t come back. I think it’s a joke:
he likes to do the stern Victorian patriarch.

It’s an act, he says
—confronting us with our own bourgeois morality
for our own good, since we’re too weak in the head
to be led on rational lines.

I play along
but I think about that business with the earrings
and that he’s a hypocrite too. Oh
that teenage word!
—but who can you use it on if not your father?

In the background,
in the dream, my mother frowns. She knows this game
is going to make me late in leaving
and she’s seen too much, all these years,
to find it funny now.

It’s only once I’m awake I realise
that I called her up about as grey as she is now,
and as cynical. My father, though
I must have dreamed at least a decade younger.

Still arguing, for the sake of it, still maintaining
black was white, too, if he thought it likely
someone would answer back
and give him a chance to overbear them. Not

in the slightest doubt of himself.
Not hesitant
yet. Not fragile.


Judith Taylor comes from Perthshire, in eastern central Scotland, and now lives and works in Aberdeen, where she is one of the organisers of the monthly “Poetry at Books and Beans” events. Her first full-length collection, Not in Nightingale Country, was published in 2017 by Red Squirrel Press, and she is one of the Editors of Poetry Scotland magazine. Email: j.taylor.09[at]

Mind Fullness

Broker’s Pick
Ann Gibson

Several upside-down bisque doll heads. The tops of the heads are open/hollow. The head in the middle foreground has blue glass eyes. The two on either side have empty eye holes. The heads have painted lips, cheeks, eyebrows. Some have closed lips and others have open mouths. A cloth doll body is in the background.

Photo Credit: Florian Lehmuth/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Present in the moment, listening,
attentive to everything that’s said.
Tell me and I’ll remember, input sticks;
who’s doing what, whether I should show.

Minutiae weigh heavy in the head;
brain brims with details, circuits clog.
Keeping track takes its tangled toll,
no space left for flippancy or fun.

You chat, chew the fat with friends,
can’t recall anything you hear;
pay no heed to scuppered lucky chances,
meetings missed, appointments double-booked,
plans thwarted by your absent mind—
I envy you your Teflon, sieve-based brain.


Ann Gibson spent her childhood in Dublin and now lives in North Yorkshire, UK. She has published poetry in Acumen, Prole, Obsessed with Pipework, Dream Catcher, Orbis, The Poets’ Republic, and various anthologies. Her poetry has also appeared online in The High Window, Algebra of Owls, Lighten Up Online, Snakeskin, Ofi Press Magazine and The Ekphrasis Review. Email: annjmgibson[at]

I Thought I’d Killed Betty

Creative Nonfiction
David Thow

Tandem skydivers silhouetted under a bright yellow parachute against a pale blue sky with horizontal streaks of fluffy clouds. The passenger has arms and legs raised/extended in a star shape.

Photo Credit: grasshoppergirl/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Betty, a silver-haired septuagenarian, jumped from an airplane.

From its conception, I was never fully on board with Betty’s latest thrill-seeking lark because I knew one thing for certain: leaping out of anything from 10,000 feet wasn’t going to help her pesky high blood pressure problem. If I was ever going to put on my family doctor’s hat and ground this zip-lining, Harley-racing motorcycle mama, that would’ve been the time.

Her blood pressure had niggled at me for awhile. She saw the specialist, got thrown on the pills, ate right, got in a solid eight hours and had the lab work of a healthy teenager. But dang, if I couldn’t make a dent in those stubborn numbers. Her arteries must have been like lead pipes—no give.

Stick to gardening like a normal grandmother of twelve, Betty. But Betty could be persuasively insistent.

Yes Betty, I know you skied Whistler last winter and walked away without a scratch but you could’ve just as easily broken your neck, and yes, you did complete the marathon faster than many half your age but that’s on land that you’re not hurtling towards, and yes, thank you again for the butter tarts, but Betty, we’re talking skydiving here!

I feel great, stop your worrying.

Betty’s office appointments had become more of a social visit than anything else. It was easy to get swept up in stories from her nomadic years of travel and adventure. She’d explain the meanings behind her various tattoos.

Occasionally, she’d bring in a few blood pressure readings done on the pharmacy’s machine. I’d wince and sound an alarm.

She said this would be it; afterwards she promised to retire to her petunias and only half-marathons.

I signed off on the medical clearance form.


The next time I saw Betty, the day after the jump, she was horizontal on a gurney in the emergency room.

Apparently, the dive itself went off without a hitch. That evening, she had her customary glass of red wine followed by a celebratory family dinner at her daughter’s and then home to bed.

It wasn’t until the next morning in front of the bathroom mirror when Betty realized something was wrong with her face. That’s what her file said she told the 911 operator right before things went south. The paramedics arrived to save her life but not soon enough to prevent further damage.

Betty lay motionless. Her mouth drooped on one side. Her paralytic contralateral arm and leg were stiff and unnaturally positioned. Her head was tilted to the left, her eyes fixed up and outwardly. She was not able to speak. If it wasn’t for her chest rising up and down with each shallow breath, I’d have thought Betty wasn’t with us anymore.

I moved into her line of vision. She lurched forward, then fell back. Scared the heck out of me. What did that mean?  Was she trying to strangle me like I might have tried in her situation. It happened again with the same result.

I left the hospital knowing I’d made a very bad mistake. Betty chose me to be on the lookout for precisely this type of threatening situation and to guide her back to safety. It’s implicit in the doctor-patient relationship. I’d been remiss in that obligation.


I was buoyed, somewhat, on a return trip to the hospital a couple of weeks later. In relative terms, Betty’s condition showed marked improvement.

When I walked into the room, she was sitting on the side of the bed facing the door, legs dangling down. Through pale blue eyes, she studied me with uncertainty. She couldn’t immediately place my face. The stroke must have really done a number on her cerebral cortex. Then she slid herself off the bed and stood up.  She was a little wonky but managed to steady herself without aid.

I remember you, she said in a garbled voice like she had a hot potato in her mouth.

It’s nice to see you up and about.

Up and about, she echoed.

Physiotherapy seems to be going well.

Going well, she repeated.

I wondered how much she was absorbing, but I had come to say something.

Betty, I should’ve done more to prevent this. It’s my fault. I’d understand if you want another family doctor when you get out of here.

Betty gave a knowing nod. Then she shook her head, No blame. You’re my doctor, and also my friend.

I got choked up. I’m not sure who’s helping who.

Maybe we help each other.

One more word out of you Betty and I’m going to start crying like a baby.

The nurse arrived to gather her for a therapy session.

Crying like a baby, Betty repeated, as she shuffled past and out the room. Her cane, reduced to a mere ornament, hung forgotten on the door handle.

On my way to the elevator, I bumped into Betty’s neurologist. She’s come a long way in a short period, he said. She refuses to accept the limitations of her condition. She has an amazing will to live.

As I continued down the hallway, I came to a decision. I had to stop feeling like I’d killed Betty. She hadn’t died. She was still my patient and I still had a job to do.

If Betty wasn’t going to give up, then neither should I.



This memory from twenty years ago was prompted upon learning of Betty’s recent passing.

Two years after these events, I relocated my practice. It was not feasible for Betty to follow. She came under the care of a colleague.

I’m told she had the finest garden in her neighbourhood.


David Thow was born in Winnipeg and educated at the University of Manitoba. He lives in Toronto where he practices medicine. Email: david_thow2018[at]


CL Bledsoe

Close-up of a dog lying down. The shot frames its head on a diagonal with the nose at bottom left. The dog has a black nose, golden brown eyes, and variegated thick fur in brown and black with a streak of white between the eyes. The dog's eyes are turned toward the photographer.

Photo Credit: Oscar Gende Villar/Flickr (CC-by)

Big Daddy and Momma June had been locked in their room for three days, watching the same two damn VHS copies of movies they’d dubbed from TV—watching one while the other rewound in the tape rewinder they’d bought when the movie rental place went out of business—when Tawny decided she’d had enough. She’d run through all the food in the house, including the slightly rusted can of tuna, even though it was in oil, and the only thing she hated worse than the fishy tuna taste was the consistency of the oil. She’d finished off the saltines with that yesterday. This morning, she’d eaten only a can of cranberry sauce—opened it and spooned the red gloop directly into her mouth. It had taken her till today—till the hunger and boredom overwhelmed her fear of Big Daddy’s sudden, inexplicable rages at being disturbed—but she’d been in to bang on their door more times than she could count since the cranberry sauce with no response, other than a grunt the first time. It was damned infuriating.

She tried one more time—banged on the door and was met with not even a grunt. She returned to the kitchen, tried all the cabinets and opened the fridge again to reveal spindly, bare shelves. There was a pot of honey on the scarred table and nothing else in the room. Then she went to her room and got her Bible from beside the bed, opened it to Leviticus where the twenty dollars Grandmother had given her was nestled, and dropped the book on her bed without another thought. Grubby light filtered in through the window above her headboard; she could get the screen off in no time and fit it back in from outside, but she thought, screw it, and went out the front door, letting it slam behind her. She stood under the sagging eave, listening, but no angry bear charged out to yank her back in, so she set off.

The driveway was a dirt track that crossed a ditch on two two-by-fours. She walked across one of them and emerged on the ugly asphalt of the highway. There were no cars. The sun was hot and rising toward the center of the sky.

She’d been walking for maybe a half-hour when she heard the three-wheeler approach. She’d been hearing the thing all day, going back and forth, and it wasn’t like three- and four-wheelers were particularly rare in those parts. She glanced back when it was still pretty far away, saw it coming down the highway, and stepped off onto the grass but kept walking. The thing thundered up behind her and seemed to hesitate to pass—she refused to look. After a moment in her blind spot, it pulled up into her peripheral vision and quieted some, rolling beside her as she trudged through the grass. Whoever was riding it wasn’t saying a word. She wouldn’t look, but she was working so hard not to that she didn’t look down, either, and stumbled over a clump of grass.

“Why don’t you just go on by so I can get out of this grass?” she said.

“Ain’t nobody stopping you from walking on the road.” The voice sounded slick as oil, low but not scary low. Confident with a hint of annoyance.

“I don’t wanna get hit.”

The three-wheeler shuddered to death and was silent. She stopped walking, and before she could catch herself, turned to look at him. He was skinny, dark-eyed with a thin mustache that managed to make his upper lip look dirty. His skin was the creamy yellow of not enough sun, which was strange, seeing as how he was out riding that thing around without a shirt on.

“You ain’t even s’posed to have that on the road,” she added.

“You gonna arrest me?” There was no hint of a smile, just innocent eyes. She shook her head, and there came the smile, spreading his lips to show his teeth. “I was just kidding. Where you going, girl?”

“Get me something to eat.” She looked down and focused on a clump, pretending it was the one that’d tripped her earlier, and kicked at it.

He looked down the road. “Five miles to Forrest City.” He turned back to search her face, like he thought she might not know this.

“Yep.” She sighed and started walking again.

“How ‘bout I give you a ride, Goldilocks? Unless you’re scared of this big, bad wolf?”

She laughed. “You ain’t that big.”

“But I’m bad.”

The laugh was real, this time. “How old are you?”

“How old are you?”

His eyes were playful and her feet were already bothering her.

“I ain’t got no money for gas,” she added.

“Me neither.” He kicked the three-wheeler back to life, and she came over and climbed up behind, wrapping her arms around him. His smell crept into her nose, a little bit sunshine and grass, a little bit musty dog. It was comforting, like an old dirty shirt she wanted to sleep in.

The roar of the thing made it hard to talk, so she kept her face down so no bugs hit her anywhere important and eyed the scenery as well as she could. The scrub on the side of the road gave way to pines that didn’t look to be much older than her. Trash caught her eye more than anything, and she resolved to bring a bag to pick up cans next time. She could sell them to the recycling center, which they happened to be passing right then. It was such a good idea, she cursed herself for not thinking of it before, and almost asked him to take her back.

After Mr. Bershrom’s trailer, where everybody took their recycling, there was another stand of trees and then the gas station that marked the real beginning of town. The boy pulled up to the parking lot and cranked the thing off.

She climbed off.

“There you go,” he said. “Name’s Wolf by the way.” He offered a hand.


He nodded and grinned, hand still out.

She took it. “I’m—“ she started to say, but he cut her off.

“I know you. You’re Goldilocks.” He pointed at her hair.

“Tawny,” she said. She started off, away from him, toward the gas station, not hesitating until she heard the crunch of his feet on gravel jogging after her. She picked up her pace as he settled in beside her. She didn’t look at him; she imagined him straining to come up with something to say, his mouth opening and closing, which explained the quiet throat-clearings and grunts, exhales and subtle lip smackings. It was exquisite. She savored his awkwardness until she got to the door and realized he wasn’t following anymore. Then, surprise got the better of her, and she turned to see him grinning.

“Reckon I’ll hang out till you’re done.”

She shrugged and went inside. The bell dinged, and the air was a different kind of dusty in there. She found a barely-functioning red basket near the door and went down the aisles, filling it with cans of Vienna sausages and a sun-faded box of saltines. There was a crash from somewhere in the back, and she glanced up long enough to see Ms. Watkins, the heavyset woman behind the counter, head into the back to investigate. There was a rack by the register with marked-down and damaged items, and she found a dented can of potted meat and one of black-eyed peas that she added to her basket. There were some homemade baked goods on the counter. She selected a large chocolate chip cookie, moved it to the center of the counter, and stacked the rest of her purchases neatly beside it. Several minutes passed. She glanced toward the back room, and then again, and then called out, “Ms. Watkins?” There was no answer, so she looked around the empty store and moved toward the door to the backroom until the front door dinged open, and she turned and saw Wolf, grinning. He sidled up to her without missing a beat.

“I like your basket,” he said.

His words were rushed like he was out of breath. Maybe just nervous, Tawny thought.

“I’m waiting on Ms. Watkins. She went in the back.” She pointed.

“Why don’t we just go?” Wolf licked the side of his mouth like he was trying to dislodge something stuck there.

“She knows me.”

“Did she see you come in?”

Tawny searched her memory. She hadn’t spoken to the woman, had just come in and started shopping. “I don’t think so.”

Wolf shrugged. “So let’s go.”

Tawny looked toward the back and then to Wolf. He was already turning, heading toward the door. She watched him until he put his hand on the handle, and when she heard the bell ding, she turned back to the counter. “Wait,” she said, but he was through the door. She slid her selections to the side and launched herself over the counter until she could reach a plastic bag, grabbed it, and threw her things into it. She hesitated for a moment and grabbed a second cookie and ran for the door.

Outside, Wolf was astride the three-wheeler and stomping on the starter. She ran across the gravel, forgetting decorum, and hopped on behind him as he got the thing started. He spun a wide, sliding wheelie in the gravel and headed back out of town.

After about a mile back up the highway, he took an abrupt left into the desiccated scrubland.

“Where are you going?” She screamed into his ear, but he didn’t respond. She repeated it, and when he again ignored her, she stuck her finger into his ear. He slapped it away but didn’t slow or answer her. She glanced to the ground, which was passing quickly. They were on a gravel road, which looked too potentially painful to dive off into. Also, she wasn’t sure she could clear the three-wheeler well enough. So she settled in, and when they took another sudden turn onto a dirt track, she reconsidered diving off. But now, the gravel was replaced with trees and the occasional log. She didn’t want to get stabbed.

Finally, they left the pines and crossed a clearing. At the far end, was a blackened fire pit which seemed to be their destination. They pulled up to it and slid to a stop in the grass and dirt. Tawny climbed off and backed away as Wolf hopped up onto the three-wheeler and twirled around to smile at her.

“My lady,” he said, offering her a hand.

“What?” Tawny said, not approaching.

Wolf jumped, pulling his legs close to his chest, and cleared several feet to the side of the vehicle. “Thought we’d have a picnic.” He stared into her eyes, intense in a way that made the hairs on the back of her neck prickle, and then spun around and moved to the fire pit.

Or rather, the blackened, bare area where fires were mostly relegated. A thick log, thicker than any standing tree in the area, lay on one side. On the other, nearer side, a stump from a different tree served as a less-comfortable-looking seat. Wolf headed right for the log.

“Too hot for a fire,” he said as he sat down.

Tawny didn’t know this place, but she knew they weren’t far from home. And then she had a thought: she didn’t actually give two shits about going home, back to where her dad and his girlfriend were doing whatever they were doing. She approached, and as she got almost to Wolf, she saw, past him on the edge of the tree line, an old, moldy mattress, sheltered somewhat by the trees. She paused, but didn’t let it stop her, came and sat beside him.

“What’ve you got?”

She dug out some Vienna sausages and offered them to him, but he wrinkled his nose and shook his head. She shrugged, opened the saltines and pulled out a sleeve, and arranged these things on her lap.

“Want a cookie?” She offered him one.

He hesitated, his fingers curling and uncurling until he reached and gingerly took it from her proffered fingers.

“Oh,” he said. “Is that chocolate chip?” He shook his head. “I’m allergic.”

She dug out the other—a peanut butter one—and offered it.

He carefully unwrapped it, taking time to find the edges of the shrink-wrap plastic and separate them. She found it mesmerizing, but she was also starving, so she pulled the tab on her can of Vienna sausages and drained the liquid out, tore the plastic of the saltines open and laid the sleeve on her leg. When she was munching her first Vienna on cracker, she noticed Wolf was still unwrapping his cookie.

“You need help?”

Wolf shook his head, distracted, and finally got the plastic off. He then shoved the entire cookie in his mouth with ravenous noises that dropped Tawny’s jaw. He chewed with his mouth open, bits of cookie falling out, and the thing was gone in a moment. Tawny swallowed and turned back to her own food as Wolf smacked his lips.

“That smells like shit.” He tossed the empty plastic into the fire pit.

“So don’t smell it.”

“Too strong. I can’t avoid it.”

“Well, go sit somewhere else.”

“It stinks so bad, I’d have to drive about a mile away to not have to smell it.” He looked at her with a scolding face.

She dug another pale, pink Vienna out with her fingers, set it on a cracker, and bit it in half.

He sneered.

She chewed demurely and swallowed, and he seemed to remember his manners, because he looked down.

“Why do you eat that stuff, anyway?”

“Hungry,” she said. “No food in the house.”

“Why not eat something better?”

“Can’t afford nothing better.”

He pondered this as she finished the last of the meat products. “But you didn’t actually pay for it. You could’ve gotten anything you wanted.”

“I didn’t notice the already-cooked steak and potato, did you?”

Wolf chuckled. “I mean, you could’ve gotten more cookies or some chips or something.”

“I need protein.” She stuffed another cracker in her mouth and coughed a little, wishing she’d gotten something to drink. “And I did get that second cookie.” She produced it, and he watched with hungry eyes as she ate it. Finally, after a couple bites, he turned to stare at the woods and the sky and anything else.

His hair was a rich brown that spilled down over the back of his neck to his shoulders, parted at the bottom in a thick ducktail. It was a pretty shade that reminded her of a dog her cousin had, named Gunner. Her folks wouldn’t pay to feed a dog, or a cat, or anything else, hardly even her, so she’d had no pets. She’d always loved that dog, and used to make any excuse she could to go to her cousin’s and see it. It didn’t hurt that her cousin’s family was so much better off, lived in an actual house instead of the trailer Tawny’s family rented, and always had food in the house. Her cousin had a three-wheeler, too, come to think of it. When they became illegal and everybody else was upgrading to a four-wheeler, they’d picked it up cheap from some boys near Marion. She’d even ridden it a few times, though never driven it, since they were so difficult to steer. She glanced at the three-wheeler.

“Where you live?” she asked.

“Around,” Wolf said carefully.

“I ain’t seen you before.”

“You with the census?” he asked.

She laughed. “What’s that?”

“It’s…” he waved his arm. “I don’t know. It’s something my dad says.”

“I’ve heard it before,” she said. Had it been from her cousin’s dad? She carefully finished her cookie. “He nice, your dad?”

Wolf shook his head. “Always yelling. Made me sleep outside.” He glanced at her, shyly. “You’re nice, though.”

“Thanks,” she said because she didn’t know what else to say. And then, “I’m all right.”

He shook his head, looking at her seriously. “No, you’re nice. Always have been. Not like that Darla. Her heart waxes and wanes like the moon.”

Tawny rose to her feet, the sleeve of crackers spilling into the dirt.

“How do you know Darla?” she asked.

“Same as I know you. From around.”

She shook her head in slow half-arcs. “I never seen you before.”

He smiled with a twinkle in his eyes. “You have. You just didn’t know it.”

“I want to go home, now. Take me home.” The part of her mind that ruled curiosity was locked down dead, replaced by a cold worry that was quickly shifting to fear.

Wolf held up his hands, smiling again. “Hey, everything’s cool. We can go back, if that’s what you want. Or we could talk a little more.” He squatted down, palms still up toward her, and picked up her crackers and offered them to her. She’d backed toward the three-wheeler, and when he stepped closer, she backed almost into it. He stopped and simply held the crackers toward her.

“What you think’s happening, here, Goldilocks? We was just talking. No need to get antsy.”

“Where’d you get the three-wheeler?” she asked.

“It ain’t mine.” She raised an eyebrow when he said that, so he added, “It’s my dad’s.”

“Who’s your dad?”

A pained look spread over his face like a cloud shading water and was just as quickly gone. “I don’t rightly know his name,” he said. “I just call him Dad.”

“What’s his last name, then?”

He opened his mouth and closed it. “Wolf,” he said. She narrowed her eyes, so he added, “Wilkins.”


“It’s true.”

“I’m a Wilkins. How come I never heard of you?”

“I’m adopted.”

She gave him a disbelieving look. “You know me, but I don’t know you. How could that be?”

He shook his head.

She glared at him and then turned and walked past the three-wheeler and on up the dirt track.

“I’ll give you a ride back,” he called after her.

She didn’t stop or even turn her head. She heard him kicking the thing started. It sputtered and then roared to life. She heard it throw dirt, and soon, he was rolling beside her. She crossed her arms and kept walking, refusing to look at him.

“Did I say something wrong?” he yelled over the engine.

She kept walking and didn’t answer. He jerked the thing forward and then braked. She kept walking, and he did it again. She was pretty sure it would stall out if he kept doing that, but maybe he was trying to get her to say that or talk to him, so she kept going.

“It’s a couple miles,” he said. “We don’t have to talk, just let me give you a ride. I got your things.” He held out the bag of food she’d forgotten behind her.

She walked a few more steps while he rolled along beside her, and abruptly stopped. She still didn’t speak, but the look on her face said that she’d decided something. He sat up, and she stepped over and climbed up behind him. They sat there for a moment, then he handed her back her food. She clutched it in one hand, wadding it up tight in case she needed to hit him with it. He cleared his throat nervously and she tensed, ready to bolt. He jerked the three-wheeler forward and thundered up the track.

“Not too fast,” she said.

He slowed, which made her feel a little better.

She smelled his musk, which really did smell like dog. His hair was thick and looked soft, also like a dog. It was a funny thought, one she might’ve had when she was a kid. It felt good to hold on to the thought for a moment. She imagined throwing something and seeing if he’d dart after it, maybe whistling to see if he went stiff. They left the trees behind and hit gravel and then, soon after, slowed as they emerged onto the highway. He looked long down one way and the other, clearly stalling, until she nudged him and he pulled out and went left.

“Good boy,” she muttered, pretty sure he didn’t hear her, but it made her giggle anyway.

It wasn’t long until her trailer loomed up. He pulled up to the little bridge and stopped short, killing the engine. The funny thoughts were gone, now. Tawny climbed off as he turned to watch her describe a wide arc around him.

“You sure you want to go back in there?” he said as she stepped onto the bridge.

Maybe two feet below her, a trickle of ditch water flowed. When she was a little kid, she used to fish in it with her mom, before things went bad. “What the hell else am I gonna do?” Tawny muttered.

“Come with me.”

She turned with a smirk but held her tongue because the look on his face was tender. Vulnerable. She opened her mouth twice and closed it before finding something soft enough to say. “What’d you say your name was?”

He winced. “Wolf,” he mumbled.

“Right.” She wanted to say more, but her face was already flushed. She wasn’t quite ready for it to live in the air outside her mind. “Wolf,” she repeated. “Who’s adopted by my aunt and uncle but I never met before.”

He looked down.

An idea was trying to voice itself in her head, but she still couldn’t say it. So, she turned and crossed the bridge.

“There’s nothing worth having in there for you,” Wolf tried again.

She spun on her heel, angry. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” she said, full red in the face, now. So bothered she couldn’t even say why.

“I’m just trying to help you,” he said.

“I don’t need help.”

“Of course you do.”

“I don’t know you. You shouldn’t even be here,” she said.

“You do.” He nodded, slow and wide-eyed. “You just don’t believe it.”

She shook her head.

“You know me. And I know you,” he said.

“Gunner?” she whispered.

“Call me Wolf, now,” he said, grinning.

That made her ball her fists up. “You’re a dog,” she yelled. “A fucking dog.” He winced, but she kept going, drunk with the thrill of speaking it. “Not even one of them purebred fancy dogs, either. Just a mongrel. And you stole that three-wheeler from my uncle.“ She pointed. “Should’ve fucking known.” The tears came, which made her even angrier.

“How could you know?”

She looked at him, wanting to chastise him for thinking he was so smooth, but the words died on her tongue as she realized the warmth of his tone.

“I’m sorry I deceived you,” he said.

“What kind of fucking dog talks like that!” she yelled. “’Deceived?’ Fuck does that mean?” She knew her words were idiotic, but the anger seemed like her best option, so she went with it.

“It means to lie—“

“I know what the fuck it means! I ain’t stupid! Why the hell wouldn’t you just say lie?”

He was quiet, and so was she for a long moment.

“Should’ve known the only person, the only boy that would take any interest in me would be a damn dog.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Wolf said.

She scoffed.

“Really. You think you ought to be like them in there?” He nodded toward the trailer. “Want to know what they’ve been up to? I can smell it, all chemicals and sadness.”

“I reckon I can figure it out.”

“Your uncle, he’s not a good man.”

She looked in Wolf’s eyes, which were suddenly full of anger, but he didn’t elaborate.

“But you were kind,” he said. “You always scratched me behind my ear.”

That made her laugh a little, and it was good to get some of the tension out.

“You’d rub my belly.” The way he said it was almost plaintive.

It reached to something deep inside her she’d never shared with anyone else, a vulnerability she’d forced down in this world of razor blades. “How?” she asked. “How’d you do it?”

He shook his head. “Not how, but why.”

She looked back to the trailer then to him. “What are you saying? You want me to move in your doghouse with you?” she snapped. “We gonna live on squirrels you catch?”

“Don’t you like squirrel?” He grinned.

She wanted to grin, too, which made her mad. He had those sad eyes on her, so she revised her question. “I mean, you got a people house or something?”

“I’ve got some money,” he said.

She put her hands on her hips. “How’d you get money?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We could go someplace nice. Someplace new.”

She shook her head, looking back to the trailer.

“We could have some fun,” he added.

She crossed the bridge, afraid to look back at him.

“What are you going to do tomorrow, when they’re still locked in that bedroom? Or the day after?” he said.

She got to the door and paused with her hand on it.

“You can be happy, now. I can make you happy,” he said.

She pulled the door open.

“I don’t know if I can come back,” he said. “I don’t know if I can… stay… without you.”

Everything in her ached to look back at him. But she didn’t.

“Don’t, then,” she said, quiet, but she knew he heard. She pulled the door shut and dropped to her knees. After a long while, she heard the three-wheeler start up and spit gravel as it raced away.


Raised on a rice and catfish farm in eastern Arkansas, CL Bledsoe is the author of more than thirty books, including the poetry collections Riceland, The Bottle Episode, and his newest, Driving Around, Looking in Other People’s Windows, as well as his latest novels Goodbye, Mr. Lonely and The Saviors. Bledsoe lives in northern Virginia with his daughter. Email: clbledsoe[at]

The Day the Blossom Blew Away

Esther Byrne

A close-up of white cherry blossoms from underneath looking up at the sky. A branch in silhouette bisects the image from bottom left to top right, with a vertical offshoot on the left side. In the background, more blossoms are visible but out of focus. The sky is a bright white.

Photo Credit: Natalie Barletta/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It meant a great deal to me; that tree.

It shone crisp white; a promise of spring in my rule-bound winter.

Everyone else had gone for the holidays, leaving the world silent.
I decided to climb into its branches and let it hold me.
A comfort in my life devoid of kind words.

But the blossom blew away, taking me with it.

Now, I’m surrounded by a different kind of white.
All uniforms and beds and questions.

There may be no tree, but I have flowers with me.
I’m held and I’m safe.


It suits me just fine here.


Esther Byrne is a writer from Yorkshire, UK. She has had short stories published with 50-Word Stories and Secret Attic. In 2021, she was runner-up for the Val Wood Yorkshire prize. She lives with chronic illness and is passionate about encouraging people with disabilities to express themselves creatively. Twitter: estherbyrnecom


Sharon Whitehill

A woman at a drive-through window. She's wearing a headset, glasses, a denim shirt, and a green apron with the Starbucks logo. She's smiling brightly. On the ledge outside the window are some very large white flowers in a plastic to-go cup. Trees and blue sky are reflected on the window glass.

Photo Credit: Wonderlane/Flickr (CC-by)

One smile begets another; one kind gesture invites another. —Kathleen Parker

Everybody in Starbucks looks happy:
the freckled barista taking my order,
the line of workers pulling espresso
and steaming the milk,
even the handful who service the drive-through.
A vortex of forest-green aprons:
liquid chlorophyll swirled in water,
everyone pleased to be part of the dance.

I remark on the ambient mood
to the woman calling finished orders.
“I have a good team,” she agrees,
smartly snapping the lid on my cup.

Sipping the tall cappuccino,
I think of my sister’s account
of the frazzled woman at Walmart
who mistakenly smacked her cart
on the bench where my sister sat:
a startling BANG of metal on metal.

A quick reassurance—
“I’m not hurt, it’s okay”—
kindled relief in the woman’s eyes
before a stern husband hustled her off.

Far-reaching how governed we are
by the humors of strangers.
How simple compassion can solace.
How rancor can taint the whole day.


Sharon Whitehill is a retired English professor from West Michigan now living in Port Charlotte, Florida. In addition to poems published in various literary magazines, Sharon’s publications include two scholarly biographies, two memoirs, two poetry chapbooks, and a full collection of poems. Email: bambisharon[at]

He Sleeps Next Door

Diane Webster

Monochromatic photo of a metal folding chair with five wood slats for the seat and three wood slats for the backrest. The chair is in the foreground next to a shingled wall. Two windows with closed horizontal blinds inside are to the top left. All of the color in the photo is muted with the exception of an empty large green plant pot under one window. Dappled sunlight falls from the left and the shadow of a chain link fence can be seen on the concrete ground.

Photo Credit: K Hardy/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

He sleeps 30 feet away
in the house next door,
but he sits on a folding chair
outside his room watching
TV in the living room
through propped open door
of his parents’ house.

He smokes cigarettes,
listens to running water
of koi pond crowded
into his area like a hot tub
for people with limited space.

I hear his one-sided cell phone
conversations with friends
at 2:00 a.m. after the bars close;
I hear him cough when he can’t sleep
and cigarette smoke invades his lungs;
I hear him slam the wooden gate
to his graveled domain when darkness
explodes within him as much
as it descends through night.

I want to whisper through my wall,
“It’s all right.  Morning’s coming.”
I wonder if he hears.


Diane Webster’s goal is to remain open to poetry ideas in everyday life, nature or an overheard phrase and to write. Diane enjoys the challenge of transforming images into words to fit her poems. Her work has appeared in El Portal, North Dakota Quarterly, Eunoia Review and other literary magazines. Email: diaweb[at]