The Summer Empire Traveling Players

Mist concealed the Calakmil as the Summer Empire Traveling Players approached. As they drew nearer, trees began to delineate themselves, dark and ragged against the fog. And something else appeared: a band of white demarcating ordinary grassland from the vast forest.

“Someone will meet us at the Wall?” Idris asked dubiously.

“Yes.” Izel consulted her letter again. “It says we’ll be guided to our destination from there.”

“Hard to imagine there’s a proper theater in there.”

“Our full payment awaits there regardless. It can’t be worse than Masul, right?”

She took the lead and the rest of company urged their nervous horses on behind her.

The Wall showed its age plainly. Along the base, roots punched through the cracks between the huge limestone blocks, while vines snaked down from the top. Still, nothing more exotic than a lily grew on this side of the Wall, as if the Calakmil was restraining itself out of politeness.

Which, given the stories, was entirely possible.

Two towering white trees, at least three hundred feet tall, stood where a gate would have been in an ordinary wall. Their pale branches arced across the entrance, shading it with their glossy, plate-sized leaves.

“Titantrees,” Jada explained from her seat on the players’ wagon. “It’s believed they grow so large because they house the souls of the Calakmil’s inhabitants after death.”

“So their afterlife is being trapped in a tree?” Sakae raised an eyebrow. She was their ingenue, young and opinionated, and prone to expressing those opinions unkindly when she was nervous. “Sounds uncomfortable.”

“Some respect, Sakae,” Jada said. “Would you speak thus about the Empire’s gods?”

Izel raised a hand. “Someone’s coming.”

Just beyond the titantrees, sunlight broke through the canopy in dancing shafts, but beyond that, the leaf-strewn path itself was shadowed.

“I don’t see any – ”

With a croak that startled them all, a large pink jungle frog hopped into the center of the path. It croaked again, then took off with long leaps deeper into the misty jungle.

Izel and Idris exchanged looks.

“Well,” she said, “the letter didn’t specify a human guide.”

“We are not following a frog.”

“It’s the Calakmil! We’re lucky our guide is something recognizable.” She started her horse forward.

“A frog is not a guide! I don’t care how much money –”

But the pink frog had stopped at the bend to wait for them. Izel waved to it and it proceeded onwards. Behind her, Idris heaved an aggravated sigh and clicked his reins.

She kept her eyes on the frog as she rode, even though they were surrounded by trees and vines and fragrant flowers that even they, who’d traveled the whole of the Empire, had never seen before. The mist dissipated as the sun climbed. Still the frog led them on.

They finally stopped at a broad circle of ten titantrees, much taller than the two guarding the Wall. Their curving white branches soared high above a soft, grassy clearing, in the center of which sat a stack of gold coins: the rest of their payment.

“Is this…our stage?” muttered Balam.

As if to answer him, the frog settled on a knobby root.

Izel dismounted. “Let’s set up.”

They opened the wagon, placed their props, and began to dress. The frog waited patiently.

“Where’s our audience?” Sakae hissed as she finished her makeup.

Izel nodded at the frog. “I think he’s it.”

“This is insane!”

“We’ve been paid to perform here, and we will,” she said firmly.

No one – and nothing – else had arrived by the time Idris began the opening monologue. Izel fidgeted with one of the coins to remind herself that this was a paid performance like any other, that there was nothing strange or concerning about being brought into the heart of a neglected magical jungle to perform a romantic drama to an audience of one frog.

Not strange at all.

It was a good performance, all things considered. Sakae had a shaky start, but Balam supported her well, and Jada had Izel and the stagehands stifling giggles as Balam’s narcissistic mother.

Idris delivered the conclusion. The actors bowed at the silent frog. Izel peeked around the wagon, waiting.

The frog looked up.

High overhead, the titantree boughs began to wave. There was no wind, and no creatures visible to disturb them…

Jada understood first. “Bow again,” she hissed, gripping her costars’ hands. They bowed and the trees rustled more, their leaves whistling.

“Well done, players,” Izel murmured, and she took her bow.

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Moon Policy

My firm sent every available inspector to investigate the Brandt mansion the moment his lawyers called. Something had gone wrong on his estate on the rim of Tycho, rendering the house a total loss, but he refused to say what happened. It was our responsibility to find out.

I had always wanted to travel into space, to see with my own eyes what Earth looked like from a distance. Unfortunately, I was bad at science and atrocious at math, which narrowed my prospects significantly. Having a solid reputation for discretion and reliability, however, opened up certain other opportunities, which was how I ended up going to the Moon as a claims inspector for the rich and famous. The paperwork was a pain, but the views made up for it. Going up in the shuttle, gliding down the ladder in the EVA suit, watching your feet make contact with the surface of the Moon…even on my seventh mission, I knew it would never get old.

I was partnered with Chen. I paused while we unloaded, unable to look away from Earth. The Pacific was in view, shrouded by thin veils of cloud, fragile and elegant as steam.

The mansion was almost as impressive.

“I think I could fit nine of my house inside that,” Chen commented.

“I don’t even want to know how many of my apartment could squeeze in. Twenty?”

“At least. Plus another five in the garage.”

“Please, it’s not that small. That garage is only four and a half Fox apartments at most.”

Brandt had borrowed the style of the antique British great houses for his mansion, replicating a small three-story palace in space-friendly metals and polymers. The mansion’s windows were triple-paned, triple-reinforced, and equipped with alloy shutters that were designed to close automatically in case of breakage. Instead of a practical tunnel linking the entrance to the garage and shuttle pad, it had an honest-to-God front door and porch, encased in a thirty-foot-tall half-bubble of clear polymer and accessed via an airlock that linked with the rover that brought guests – fully dressed for the party, because who wanted to arrive at a Brandt function in a spacesuit? – from the shuttle pad. Visitors could step out of their car and walk up to the house like they were arriving on a red carpet, except for the constant risk of ruptures, breaches, or implosions.

None of which appeared to have happened here. The house, airlock, everything we could see from the outside looked undamaged.

“Shutters didn’t close,” I pointed out. I could even see a grand piano through one of the ground floor windows.

“Maybe the windows weren’t the problem.”

The exterior inspectors started up their buggy and careened off towards the rear of the estate, where they would inspect the other half-bubble that protected the veranda. We picked up our own gear and headed towards the airlock in easy, gliding leaps. “Forgot how fun it is up here,” I called.

“Eyes on the prize, Faye.”

“What?” I laughed. It wasn’t that funny, but everything became less serious in low gravity, even mysteriously ruined houses. “Who even says that?”

“I overheard West. Whoever figures out the cause is up for a big promotion.”

“In that case, more luck to you.” I took another flying leap, still gazing at the ever-changing swirl of silver and blue. “Promotion means sitting behind a desk all the time, never getting to come up here.”

“Also means less chance of a variety of terrible deaths.”

“You’re no fun.”

Chen keyed the airlock for entry. “After what happened here, how many of these billionaires do you think will stick around?” he pointed out. “This job may not exist in a few years.”

We entered the airlock and I sealed the door behind us. “Then I’m going to enjoy it while I can.”

#

The exterior guys found it first: dust buildup in the circuits that monitored the veranda’s pressure independent from the house. When they overloaded, it registered as a pressure loss, and the bubble compensated by drawing oxygen from the house. It happened gradually, giving Brandt time to evacuate and concoct some story to hide the fact that he’d broken his multi-billion dollar estate due to crummy maintenance.

West dealt with Brandt’s lawyers while Chen and I began the paperwork. He obviously pined for the promotion, but I was relieved. I barely registered the papers through my waking-dream memory of the empty mansion and the sunlit, ephemeral marble of Earth beyond it.

The Death of the Model A

The guttural purr of the Ford clunked into silence well before Johnny and Earl made it down the drive. Grace put down the dress she was hemming and went to the screen door.

She shaded her eyes against the glare of the setting sun on the yellow fields. The Model A was still a good twenty yards from the safety of the garage, but judging from the sounds it had made, it wasn’t going to get there on its own.

“Finally out of gas?” she called as she stepped out onto the porch. The dry planks creaked underfoot.

“Yep.” Johnny and her brother had already hopped out, opened both doors, and started pushing. “Wasn’t sure we’d even make it home.”

Earl freed an arm to point through the empty car at her husband. “You owe me a quarter.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Can I help?” Grace asked. Johnny hesitated, and she didn’t quite blame him. When they’d married four years ago, she was frail thanks to childhood illness. But the drought had no mercy on the frail. Times like this, everyone had to pull their own weight, no matter what.

“Just take it easy, Gracey.”

Johnny ushered her to his place on the driver’s door. He planted a gentle kiss on her cheek before dropping back to apply his weight to the bumper. Grace settled her hands into the prints her husband had left in the dusty window frame and pushed.

Her back and palms and legs ached by the time they reached the shade of the garage. She slammed the door on the dead Ford and leaned against it, catching her breath, ignoring the fiery catch in her lungs.

“So,” she said. “Now what?”

“Head to California, turn migrant?” Earl suggested. He took off his cap and wiped his brow. “I hear it’s not so bad in Salinas.”

“It’s bad everywhere. Besides, how can you turn migrant if you can’t move?” Johnny kicked one of the cracked tires.

“But how are you going to get to the employment lines without the Ford? How are we going to deliver my sewing?” The catch was turning into a tickle, threatening a coughing spell. “How are we going to eat?”

“If we sold the tires off the Ford, we might – ” Earl stopped suddenly, staring at the car.

“What?”

“I was just thinking,” he mused, “we could do what the Johnsons did.”

“Which is?”

“Hoover wagon.”

A laugh burst out of Grace before she could contain it, and it turned quickly to coughing. She checked her hand – no blood this time. Ignoring Johnny’s concerned expression, she turned to Earl. “That ridiculous thing? You trying to kill our mule, too?”

“It’s not that heavy!” he insisted. “Once you take out the engine, it’s much lighter. Even the windows could go. You just –”

He darted to the front of the car and tapped on the bumper. “Just fix the tug here and Izzy can haul ‘er like a cart. It’ll be slower, but we can still transport your mending, and we can keep going into town to wait in all those lines.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow. “It’s not the craziest thing I’ve heard.”

Earl pressed his advantage. “We could even get Grace to town for medicine. If we sold a few things, we could just afford it.”

“If we do this, though,” Johnny said slowly, “we got no way of going to California. Izzy can’t get us there. The car can’t get us there – even if we did have gas, if we take the engine out, it’s done. We have enough saved for bus fare, but not enough to survive in a new place.”

For a moment, Grace envisioned California as it had been in the magazines: America’s Eden, green, breezy, with an abundance of crops instead of endless dying oats. Maybe it wouldn’t be as dusty there, and her lungs could get better…but there still wouldn’t be enough to eat. There still wouldn’t be enough work. The land, the languages, everything would be different – yet not different enough.

“We stay,” she said. “It’s gotta rain sometime, and once it does, we should be here. This was my granddaddy’s farm, and I’m not quitting on it.”

She opened the Ford’s hood. “Now how do we get this thing out?”

The Contest

In the middle of the dark room was a steel kitchen table and the demon. The table was heaped impossibly abundantly with food. The demon sat at the end of it, smiling, waiting.

“I’ve come for my father,” Becky announced.

“He’s here.” The demon gestured and there he was, seated at a dining table high on a dais, fidgeting with the silverware.

The demon raised a hand, cutting off her cry. “He can’t see or hear you. He’s simply here for the contest.”

“What contest?”

“A cooking competition!” The demon spread his arms and the walls transformed: banks of stoves and ovens, rows of mixers, racks of knives, bowls, spoons; a vast and perfect kitchen. “Whichever of us makes the dish your father likes best, with them shall he stay.”

“But – he’s a food writer! How can I make something that will impress him when you have the power to do all this?”

He bared his blackened teeth in a cruel smile. “Begin!”

He materialized in a puff of smoke before one of the stoves, flanked by a staff of smaller demons. Becky remained alone. She looked one last time at the dais and began to plan.

The table seemed to boast more food every time she looked: cured meats, fresh herbs, gleaming peppers, oils and vinegars, whole chickens, fragrant cheeses, bowls of greens. Even with all the exotic flavors and techniques her dad had introduced her to, the variety was overwhelming. Her demonic competition scampered back and forth, taking ingredients, but the table never seemed to empty. They took a slab of purplish fish – tuna, she realized – and some greens, which the demon sautéed. Both items soon reappeared on the infinite table.

Becky picked up some tomatoes. The food rearranged itself, adding crab and capers to the assortment. She was beginning to feel sick with fear. What could she possibly make with her skill level – which was high for a fifteen-year-old, but still – that could best a supernatural being? And assuming she could produce something Michelin-star worthy, what could she make that could win over her father, who’d eaten at the best restaurants in the world?

On the demon’s side of the kitchen, a squat assistant was blending a green emulsion. The demon himself was grilling something wrapped in parchment that was steaming gently and smelled like backyard summer.

And then Becky knew what to make.

*

They served her father three dishes: two by the demon and one by Becky. The kitchen lay shadowed, and the dais had transformed into a candlelit leather booth. He even had his notepad out for reviewing.

He sampled the tuna first.

“Magnificent,” he announced after swallowing. “Beautifully seared. And is this wasabi in the emulsion? Amazing.”

The demon smirked. Becky’s heart sank.

Next, the mysterious parchment dish, topped with fries from multicolored potatoes and bathed in a swirl of scarlet oil. Her father unfolded it, enchanted, and carefully took a bite.

“Barbecued chicken,” he murmured, his eyes closing in appreciation. “Perfectly balanced sauce…fork-tender meat…and these fries, with this spicy oil, it’s just perfect!”

Despair tore through her as he reached for her dish. A tear escaped down her cheek. Even though he couldn’t really see her, she wiped it away furtively.

“Grilled cheese and tomato soup?” Bemusement gave way to a smile, distant but warm. “My favorite.”

Becky felt her own small smile. At least she’d been able to give him this moment, before the end.

He dipped half the sandwich into the soup and took a bite. His smile grew broader. “Mayo instead of butter on the sandwich – nice touch. And this soup…”

He frowned suddenly and tasted another spoonful. The smile reappeared. “Plenty of oregano, Parmesan, garlic…and sun-dried tomatoes. Just like my daughter makes it.”

He looked up at her – really at her – and the dark kitchen vanished behind her, taking the frustrated roar of the demon with it.

They were home. The demon’s polished kitchen had transformed into their own battered wooden cabinets, scratched black mixer, and mismatched knives.

“Hey, Bec.” He was still smiling. “Great soup! Where’s yours?”

She smiled back and poured herself a bowl.

(I forgot to actually submit this to yeahwrite this week, but go check out the other submissions! There are new nonfiction essays, short stories, and 42-word microstories every week!)

Esther’s Visitor

The clatter of pottery shattering into a basin brought Esther running from the parlor.

“Aubrey, I swear, if you’ve broke another mug…”

Her anger evaporated when she realized Aubrey was staring at something out the window.

“Mama,” the girl whispered, “there’s a man out there.”

Esther squinted through the leaded glass. Standing just inside her gate was a huge man with a bushy black beard. His horse was tied up beyond the fence, and he was holding his hat in his hands.

Sure. She’d seen that trick before.

“Stay here. If there’s trouble, go get Curtis.”

And she took shotgun from over the door, tossed her graying black braid over her shoulder, and went to meet the stranger.

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