Once upon a time Packard learned to talk. He’d weaseled his way into a family, and spent a great deal of time with the younger children sprawled on him and watching educational programs that to Packard seemed about as interesting as grass growing between his paws. Occasionally a cat would show up and Packard would pick up his head, but for the most part he simply lay and let himself be scratched.
One of the children had a particular knack for finding Packard’s joyous, foot thumping spot, and on one occasion Packard let out a pleased “Wwww.” The screen was showing a W at the time, so the children all leapt about exclaiming what a smart dog he was.
Packard had never considered the value of speaking. He could speak to the family well enough. And he understood what they were saying perfectly. When he wanted to go out, they would either get on their plastic wrappings and his leash, or they would talk to him in soothing tones. Packard usually played it up because if he did his eyes dolefully they usually gave him a piece of hardened chicken that he could gnaw on for 0.3 seconds before swallowing it. Becoming brilliant by eating lab mice had done nothing for his appetite.
But with all the excitement, Packard got a piece of hardened chicken for his “w” grunt. More seemed to be coming, and he knew that if he played the game long enough all of that particular chicken packet would be his. The game Packard liked to play himself was to see if he could get the children so excited they showered him with his chicken and he could snarf it all up before the mother could come in from the kitchen to intervene.
So Packard was focused on the screen for the first time. The woman was saying “tomato” and Packard tried to copy it. What he got was “ouguhau.” It wasn’t that he wasn’t trying. Packard’s mouth didn’t work that way. So he got nothing. But looking at the his little child charges chatter away, Packard realized that he would like to tell them more than “feed me” and “I have to go pee.” So he started moving his mouth around every time he saw them talking, which was constantly.
Eventually this got him brought into the vet, because the mother thought he must have something stuck in his gums or maybe he’d had a stroke. Packard hated the vet and took enormous delight in soiling the man’s white coat from ten yards. He found that simply cocking his leg was enough to make the man duck-and-cover. The mother was thinking about having Packard spayed, and she spent most of the visit talking about that. Packard didn’t know what spayed meant, but he cocked his leg when the vet came too close.
So Packard learned to talk. The first time he talked, he was watching a dog on the program. Packard said “Dog” quite clearly, but none of the children heard him. Then when the dog barked, Packard barked. The children reacted magnificently. They leapt up and raced out to the kitchen to tell their mother that Packard talked. “He barked, mommy. He barked.” So Packard got a chicken treat.
He went for more, because little Brad had gotten a popsicle. Packard liked popsicles. They were cold and crunchy. So when Brad plopped himself down Packard turned to him: “Brad, me lick.” Brad looked like he was going to poop himself, which was a serious risk when you are three. He shoved the whole popsicle in Packard’s mouth, then raced out to tell his mother. Something told Packard that the mother wouldn’t like it if he really talked, so when she came back and asked him to talk, he just barked. But he got the whole chicken packet fed to him by Brad, so Packard was happy. The whole talking experiment had been worth it.
Once upon a time there was a mongrel dog by the name of Packard. His name came from the side of the cardboard box he slept in, and he only used it because it sounded better than Hewlett. Packard scrounged around the back streets, looking for scraps and getting into trouble. His life was not as romantic as that of the tramp in Lady and the Tramp, as it mostly consisted of eating garbage and avoiding getting chewed on by packs of other dogs.
Packard was always hungry and he’d eat pretty much anything. So one day when he was sleeping he watched a parade of little white mice with some interest. He’d seen mice before, but these were white lab mice all walking along in a line, looking about as if they were on a sightseeing tour. Beggars cannot be choosers, and to Packard they were a full meal walking by, so I am afraid he ate them. Later on in the day a number of loud cars came by, driving slowly. Packard feared cars, so he crouched back in his cardboard box so they couldn’t see him. He didn’t feel well, and wondered if the mice had gotten him sick or something. In fact, he wondered quite a few things that he hadn’t wondered before. For example, he questioned what he was doing in this cardboard box, and why the only meals he could obtain were from garbage.
That night Packard went to his familiar haunts. But rather than wait for the garbage to come out and lunge for it with the other dogs skulking in the shadows, Packard settled himself by the restaurant back door. When the waiter came out, carrying the garbage, Packard nipped in behind him. He walked casually down the hall, smelling as he did so. A cook was coming out of the cooler, so Packard flattened himself against the wall and slid in before the door closed.
Inside the cooler was so much meat that for a moment Packard could hardly think clearly. He selected a large sausage, a generous meal but not too big to carry. Then he pushed on the cooler door, walked out, and walked to the back door. It also was a push bar, so he stood up and pushed. Outside in the alley the dogs were fighting with each other over the garbage. Packard stayed in the shadows and walked back to his box.
The next day Packard felt really good. A whole sausage was probably more than he’d had in a week before. He got up and decided to walk down to the waterfront. On the way, Packard spotted several dogs being walked by their owners. From the look of them, being an owned dog was a better way to live. Packard glanced at himself in a shop window and was horrified. Who would want to own him, in the state he was in?
Packard dove into the river and paddled around to get clean, but he felt dirtier than before. He found a fountain and rolled in it, but it still wasn’t good. Then he found a sprinkler system, one of those annoying ones that are turned up too high, and rinsed himself thoroughly.
Then Packard went to the park. He looked at all the owned dogs and took note of the way they behaved. Evidently he was supposed to not listen, to bark at strangers, and to make his business in the wrong places. All he need do was slobber on his owner from time to time or look sheepish if caught. It didn’t look too hard.
Packard saw a slow moving van approaching him. He knew from his former life, if that was what he could call it, that this van was slow-moving death from which no stray ever returned. So Packard walked over to an elderly gentleman reading his paper and lay down next to him.
The dog catcher got out of the van and walked up to the old man. “No collar, no license? Who do you think you are, buddy?” The elderly gentleman had no idea what he was talking about. “This dog? But this isn’t my dog!” Packard stood on his hind legs and licked the man in the mouth the way he’s seen the other owned dogs doing. The man spluttered while the dog catcher wrote out his ticket for non-licensing.
When the dog catcher left, the old man told Packard he couldn’t have a dog because he lived in an apartment that didn’t allow dogs. Packard could understand only that the man was sad but firm. So he licked the man once more, and trotted over to a family.
The children of the family were admiring the other dogs while their mother sat primly texting her friends. Packard got right in their faces and rolled with them, laughing. These humans wanted a dog. The mother shrieked and tried to beat Packard off, so he did his best sheepish look and rolled on his back in submission. The mother tried to shoo him away while the kids went down on their knees to scratch his belly. Packard rolled and smiled and looked as adoring as he could at the mother.
But mothers like this are hard to crack. Packard saw that she was not going to be moved. He felt something new, something different from fighting or running. If he’d had a word for it, it would have been determination.
Packard played with the children until the mother pulled them away and made her way to the bus stop to catch the 10:30 bus home. Packard followed at a discreet distance, watching. When they boarded the bus, he started following. Busses are faster than people, but not faster than dogs with a good meal in them. Especially when that dog is smart enough to lie down and rest between sprints to the next bus stop.
For eighteen blocks, Packard followed the bus, until he saw the children and their mother get off the bus and enter an apartment building. The door was a pull one, so Packard waited until someone came out and then slid in. The inner door was impossible, and he knew that he couldn’t stay in this confined space. A delivery man came in and pushed a button on the wall. The inner door buzzed, and the delivery man let himself in, blocking Packard with his leg. Packard thought about biting him, but thought better of it. He stood on his hind legs and pressed the buttons. Many voices sounded in little tinny sounds, but Packard just sat down. Sure enough, someone came down and, ignoring Packard, held open the inner door while he looked outside. Packard slid inside.
Humans would have been at a loss, but Packard had the children’s scent. He trotted up to the third floor, and whined outside the children’s door. When no one came, Packard turned around and thumped on the door with his thick, stubby tail. He also made a sound in the back of his throat, that was half-whine, half-singing.
The mother came to the door. Packard sat, tail thumping the floor, when she opened the door. In her surprise, the mother opened the door too widely and let the children see who was there. Even her iron control was bested by a flurry of child stampede. Packard let the children pet him and nuzzle him, then rolled to his feet. With one eye to the reproachful mother, he barked softly and pushed the children inside with his nose. When he followed them in, he even did a little extra scrape of his paws on the mat.
It was a near thing, and Packard wondered if he would need to repeat his door experiment, but the next morning when he had the children lined up to go out neatly and before the time the mother had expected, he got his first smile from the mother. In the coming weeks, she came to rely on Packard, who made sure to never cross her kitchen boundaries.
“He’s not an ordinary dog.” She confided with her minister. “It’s like he’s watching me and learning.” And Packard was. For his next trick, he’s learning to talk. But that’s another story.
(Panned for not being a really happy ending. I thought it was. Also contains innuendo and some witchy references.)
Once upon a time there was a window. It was high on an attic wall, and when she looked out Serena could just see a bit of green below the sky. Mostly she saw the clouds, and occasionally the sun. Sometimes the bright sunlight would shine right through the window and wake her up. But mostly it was grey and overcast.
The mornings the sunlight came in the window were fewer and fewer these days, as Serena had reached an age where she was awakened before dawn by a pounding on the floor under her head. She’d grab her dress and sandals and slip them on as fast as she could, then slip down the ladder to the attic and try to get a moment at the water basin to wash her face before she came downstairs. Then she had to make the food for everyone, thick gloppy porridge that she had to stand on a stool to stir with a great wooden spoon.
Serena did her best, but the porridge was horribly sticky and she usually ended up eating any burned bits once everyone else had eaten and she was left to scrub out the great pot. She didn’t mind terribly, because the burned bits crunched between her teeth and gave her a black smile that kept everyone else at a distance. They would look at her and cross themselves, talking in low voices about the crazy girl in the attic and her loco mother that they had down at the convent.
Then Serena would dance and sing while she cleaned up the pile of dirty dishes. Every day it seemed to get higher, and took her a couple of hours to get clean and dry and stacked back on the shelf. By that time it was time to start cooking lunch, great pieces of fatty meat, steaming rice, and a bubbling cauldron of beans that could burn you if you weren’t careful.
Serena had burns all along her forearms, because her dress wasn’t long enough to cover them anymore. The field hands whispered that she had the plague and would infect them all, but they ate the food just the same. Serena got some grease from the meat poured over the rice at the bottom of the pot. The rice was crunchy, too, but Serena rarely burned it. When she ate the meat grease, she would smear it across her face and up into her hair to make it wild and strange. It pleased her that the field hands shied away from her, because she didn’t like them. They were loud and drank too much, and she preferred to listen to the trees and the birds when she could get outside.
After lunch, Serena shuffled her feet to a music only she could hear while she cleaned the dishes again. For dinner, she put on more beans, and left a pot of rice to simmer at the edge of the stove. Sometimes it burned, but mostly it did not. Then Serena would slip out into the woods at the back of the kitchen. She would walk barefoot on the pine needles, and rub her face against the rough bark. Serena missed her mother, who had cooked before her, making great quantities of food for the men on the farm. They said that her mother had gone crazy, but Serena knew her mother had just worn out after years of too much work and finally just started shouting at the men and waving a knife until they bundled her off. The convent had taken her, but her mother couldn’t have her daughter with her. So Serena had to stay and if she stayed she had to work.
Before she left the woods, Serena dipped her fingers in pine sap and smelled them. She daubed a little pine sap on her filthy dress, the only one she owned. It smelled so good. Then she walked quietly back into the kitchen, where the rice hadn’t burned yet.
One of the farm hands was there, dipping his fingers into the hot beans. “Out,” said Serena. She knew he wasn’t supposed to be there. His fellows had probably sent him back for water, but he’d decided he could get a snack.
The farm hand grinned at her. She smiled back with her black teeth and wild hair, and his grin faltered. “Get out or I’ll put the eye on you,” Serena hissed. The farm hand grabbed his hat and headed back out the front. Serena laughed and danced for herself.
After dinner, Serena sang softly while she cleaned the pots for a third time. Then, while the men laughed in the common room before heading out to the bunk house, Serena slipped away upstairs to her room. The stars were there to greet her outside her window, and later on the moon should make its course across the window, from sill to sill, silently glowing for her pleasure.
Tonight things smelled different. Serena could feel the creak of the house, the shifting of timbers as they cooled from the sun’s heat. She sat up, looking out the window. A prickle ran along her arms and she thought she heard a cautious tread downstairs. But in this house it was almost impossible to be silent. She listened some more, and then lay down again. Another creak, nearer her ladder.
Serena rolled out of bed, silent as a cat, and crept to the window. She could just reach the lower sill, and she knew the window was old, but it still might bear her weight. Slowly she pulled herself up with arms made tough from wielding pots on the stove. Very slowly she eased open the window, inch by inch, until there was enough room for her to slip out. As soon as she was out, she inched the window closed again. The window was high off the ground, but Serena was near the roof and she put one foot over the side of the stucco before pulling herself up onto the roof. Once there she crouched, feeling the cool breeze on her skin, watching the stars. Inside her room she heard two men talking in loud whispers. One of them was praying and the other man was cursing him. She smiled. She knew both of those voices. They were the ones who feared her the most, so it would be easy to scare them. She hung over the side of the roof, so that only her head was visible in the top of the window. Then she gave out a shriek that they would hear over at the bunk house. Inside the dark attic room, she could hear the men scream and one of them fall down the attic ladder. The other man was blubbering and praying to himself. She heard him half-fall down the ladder, and then try to drag his friend away.
Quick as she could, Serena slipped down onto the window sill. She could hear the bunk house stirring, and someone had lit a lantern. The two men downstairs were making enough noise she wasn’t troubled with the noise of the window. She slid it up and slipped inside, closing it behind her. Then she cuddled up in her little rag of a blanket. It was perhaps twenty minutes before the men downstairs got enough of the story out of the two to come looking. One of them poked a lantern up into the attic before following it with his fearful eyes.
Serena yawned and asked: “is it morning already?” “No,” said the man. “Go back to sleep, please.” Serena smiled. The please meant that for a while they would all be on their best behavior and might even leave her some unburned porridge at the bottom of the pot. But she still liked the crunchy burned stuff best. On Sunday she’d go visit her mother in the convent and tell her the story and laugh. Maybe she’d get her mother to help her make the little dolls of the men that they feared so much.
(Panned, not for any lack, but because the story seems like the start of a book)
Once upon a time Tabitha Razor stepped out. She had on her tiger’s fur coat, fake synthetic, top of the line with musk enhancements. Her dress was pure spun platinum, with thread so fine that spiders watching would have hung their heads and wept. Her shoes glittered as only pure synthetic quartz asteroid belthigh heels can.
It had the desired effect on the club. The patrons, a mass of tattoos, synthetic attachments, and egos the size of small moons swiveled slowly as she walked. Two girls with prehensile monkey tail attachments greeted her as if she was a rock star, and ushered her onto the dance floor.
But Tabitha wasn’t there to dance. Oh no. There was one particular table she was interested in attracting the attention of. So she slithered across the dance floor, collecting a bevy of muscled background dancers only too keen to bump and grind as she undulated to the latest in direct-up-feed wetware techno rave music. To an out-of-the-loop outsider, the dance floor would have been silent. But Tabitha was definitely in the loop.
At the table Tabitha saw James talking to his smurf. The girl wasn’t technically entirely blue, but she was covered with the neo-Maori black light glowing blue fertility tattoos, and Tabitha saw her as an evil smurf. James on the other hand, was ultra-conservative retro-goth. He had the full eighteenth century suit, complete with cravat, top hat, and gloves. Nothing of the retro affected his chiseled good looks and his pink, uninked skin shone in the black light like a pale remonstration to his tattooed brethren.
Tabitha whipped her makeshift posse into a frenzy by activating the musk glands in the coat. It was the pure stuff, guaranteed to set off a crowd. Suddenly everyone downwind of Tabitha found themselves that much more into anyone around them.
James looked. Tabitha saw him looking. She made it clear that any one of these muscular fellows could be his replacement. But it was him she wanted. No one could look into your eyes and melt your socks like James.
With a gesture, James sent his smurf scurrying to fetch drinks and then walked out onto the dance floor. His cane, which he had no need of, doubled as a TASER. So when one of the muscle men blocked his path, James TASED him out of the way. He made a gesture to Tabitha, the universal plucking of earphones, now made archaic by the advent of the wetware up-feed. Tabitha turned off her up-feed with a double flick of her eyes and she and James stood in the silence of undulating bodies.
“I’ve missed you,” said James.
“I know,” said Tabitha.
“Shall we?” only James could put out an arm like it was both natural and the highest honor in the world. Tabitha wondered if he’d taken on a butler chip to get this good. She filed it away for later questioning. “Your smurf?” Tabitha looked back at the bar.
“I think Jennie can find her own way home, and she won’t lack for playmates.” Said James. Together they exited the club and hopped in the first hovertax at the curb. Tabitha thought to herself that even if they didn’t take the shoes back in the morning it was still worth it.
(too confusing for my fans, I tried to be clever by avoiding naming things)
Once upon a time there was a shiny robot. He was covered in silver paint, and had square eyes that were large enough for him to be cute like a puppy. His body was modeled on the human body, but he had mittens for hands and boots for feet. His mouth was just a speaker, and his ears had been just drilled in so that nothing stuck out. Above his mouth speaker, some clever engineer had attached subwoofers in the shape of a small moustache.
The robot doll lived in a rental shop outside an amusement park that was Trademarked so that even the mention of its name in a short story like this might entail royalties. We’ll call it Trademark Park. If someone rented the robot, he would tell them the history of the park while they walked around inside it. But he wasn’t an official, Trademark Park storyteller, so he wasn’t rented often.
Then came the day of the tourists who all do the same thing. Most days tourists will try to stand out from one another, but on this day the Trademark Park official storyteller stand ran out of storytellers and needed to find just one more for a last minute visit by a government official who was just part of the common people. He was part of the common people, but he expected that he would be treated like, well, Royalty.
So a breathless Trademark Park Storytelling Booth employee came into the rental shop and rented all the unofficial Storytellers. There was Rodney the Rat-Eared Rabbit, Hugo the Hacking Hippo, Jumbo the Jilted Elephant, and our friend Robby the Robot. The employee used a quantity of hand sanitizer before touching the toys as if she thought they were all contagious and might dilute her Trademark. Then she ran back to the Booth and presented the government official’s daughters with their choice. The younger chose Robby, and they walked around the Park happily together.
But unlike the other rented talking toys, Robbie had been programmed with the advanced sensor, a little known override that let him take people on the “unofficial” tour. Robbie’s last rentor had paid extra and then the owner had forgotten to take the extra chip out. So the government official’s youngest daughter was given instructions that allowed her to slip into a back door, behind the scenes, to give her a shortcut into a ride.
Since the government official was so much part of the common people he had a security detail with him, the disappearance of his daughter set off a lockdown in Trademark Park. Very worried employees kept anyone from leaving, bathrooms were checked, and everywhere was looked through.
But no one thought of the back tunnels, where the youngest daughter was now following a character of Trademark Park, holding her Robot doll. He would have asked her who she was and solved the whole issue, but he was under strict orders to never, ever, under any circumstances, reveal that he was, in fact, just a regular human being. So he plodded along, and the youngest daughter followed him stealthily. They walked under much of the park, and came out an employee’s entrance. Not knowing what else to do, the character got into his car and the youngest daughter jumped into the back seat. Of course, the security cameras caught the whole thing, and since they were being monitored by satellite, the international news media had the story within a minute. Some unnamed blogger posted the story six seconds before everyone else, so he was given fame for breaking the story first. “Unnamed Trademark character kidnaps government official’s daughter” was what the headlines read.
The poor character was wondering what to do, but Robbie the Robot was programmed to promote outside the park concessions. So the government official’s daughter was given a choice of where she’d like to eat. She chose a ubiquitous fast food franchise, and asked the Trademarked character to stop and come in with her. He did so, not knowing what else to do, and thereby narrowly avoiding the massive onrush of law enforcement. The arrival of the government official’s daughter and the Trademarked character at the fast food franchise caused a stir of excitement and a choking fit in aisle six, where a media consultant of the Trademarked company had been watching the story on her smartphone of infinite smartness. She saw the two of them and imagined what the next headline would be. Instead, she snapped a picture and ran the following: “Trademarked company goes above and beyond: handling an offsite request for ice cream.” She posted that to the official blog, hoping that this wouldn’t be the last act of her career.
The post went viral, and commentators were quick to rush to the Trademarked company’s defense. The Trademarked company’s stock, which had been plummeting, recovered. Law enforcement still surrounded the fast food franchise, but they all had the information on their cell phones before they all went in and escorted the character and the government official’s youngest daughter to safety.
So the next time you go to the Trademarked park, look for the government officials’ children carrying Robbie the Robot dolls. The dolls have been programmed to take them on a little “pre-arranged” escape tour, where they go through a back door, end up behind the scenes, and are escorted to get ice cream by their favorite character. The original Robbie the Robot doll was confiscated by law enforcement, but had to be returned, unchanged, to the rental shop. The owner signed papers that he would never rent the original Robbie out again, but if you drive by his shop he has Robbie behind bulletproof glass in the window.
Once upon a time Mr. Frederick Tingle was irate. Someone had left chewing gum on his favorite chair at Alfonso’s. The chair overlooked the square and had the perfect combination of morning sun without blinding you while you read about the world’s atrocities over a perfectly brewed cappuccino. Alfonso himself had offered to give Mr. Tingle the secret, but Frederick had blocked his ears and hummed the national anthem. After all, some of life’s secrets were meant to be kept. But now some gum-snapping bobbysoxer, smeared with too much makeup no doubt, had left her saliva and her gum on his chair. Doubtless she had enjoyed the hot chocolate, which was basically a chocolate bar melted into a cup, and imagined herself capable of the high refinement necessary for dining at Alfonso’s.
Mr. Tingle contemplated using his pristine monogrammed handkerchief to remove the offending blemish. He certainly would not sit down on such a disdainful blot. But the concept of having to then launder out the offending matter troubled him. Frederick looked around for Alfonso or one of his obsequious minions, but none was in sight. If he did not sit promptly, then the whole rhythm of the morning would be thrown off. He could not enjoy a rushed cappuccino, not before a hard day of crunching numbers for his stately and well-regarded investment bond firm.
With a sigh that only Christ on the Cross could have mimicked with any accuracy, Mr. Tingle moved forward one table and sat himself down with his neatly folded paper. Within three minutes, Alfonso himself would be there with his cappuccino. The dear man was likely already off brewing the secret concoction. Mr. Tingle smiled slightly at the thought. As he did so his gaze drifted upward to lock unexpectedly with the very blue eyes of a pale young woman at a table two removed from his own. Despite his haste to look away, the young woman broke eye contact first and blushed slightly.
Mr. Tingle wondered at himself. He wasn’t given to staring at strangers, much less smiling at them. But he had been smiling when he stared brazenly at this young woman, enough to create embarrassment on her part. It was very out of character. Mr. Tingle kept to himself, never making any eye contact when he could help it. Certainly not with strangers, which invited intimacy in a large city. Unwanted intimacy that might encourage the riffraff to approach him for a loan of some kind. The type of loan that was never repaid and then further encouraged the requesting of further loans. Oh, no, Mr. Tingle was not given to looking at anyone if he could help it. He set his lip firmly against such trivial distractions. From the corner of his eye he caught the flicker of a glance from the young woman. Horrors! Now she had seen him grimacing at himself. She must think him some sort of mad man, smiling at strangers and grimacing as if he needed to have a bowel movement in the middle of this elite coffee shop.
Where was Alfonso with his cappuccino? Mr. Tingle snapped open his paper, too loudly. He felt exposed in the morning sun, in a spotlight that caught every hair of his perfectly coiffed head. Was it perfectly coiffed? Mr. Tingle had a momentary nervous tic. Perhaps his hair was standing straight up, a bizarre Mohawk or stray spike of hair waving in the breeze at this poor woman across from him. Without willing himself to, Mr. Tingle felt his hand drift upward to caress his hair. Knowing it was a terrible idea, he risked a glance at the young woman. She was studiously ignoring him, too studiously. He knew she was watching him in the reflection on the window, glancing nervously over her book.
No matter. One couldn’t spend one’s time worried about strangers. Even ones with very blue eyes. Especially ones with very blue eyes. Mr. Tingle had made it a policy at a very early age to approach any possibility of dating with a prenuptial agreement, signed in triplicate with a notary witness. Thus far, this had the remarkable result of his never having had to deal with the fairer, if more flighty, sex.
The cappuccino arrived. Mr. Tingle thanked Alfonso and told him about the offending gum. Alfonso shared his outrage and removed not only the gum, but the entire chair for cleaning. When Mr. Tingle turned back, satisfied, he caught another glance from the young woman. Not just a glance, a slight smile.
This would not do. Mr. Tingle had only fifteen minutes before he was expected at the office. And that was a brisk walk of seven minutes, including one stop at a light which a conservative man like Mr. Tingle took into account. Sighing, Mr. Tingle reached into his immaculate briefcase and withdrew the manila envelope containing his prenuptial agreements. He stood resolutely and strode to the young woman’s table.
“Excuse me, miss,” Mr. Tingle bowed as he always did. “We seem to have shared a bit of mutual interest, and before things go any further, I’d like to present you with prenuptial agreements to be signed and notarized.” He had this part and the next memorized, so did not hear the young woman when she said: “Let me see them, please.”
Mr. Tingle continued on. “No? I thought not. I’m sorry to trouble you miss, enjoy your day… What did you say?”
“I would like to see the agreements, please.” The young woman had her hand out for the manila envelope. She snapped out the agreements with a practiced hand and went down the first and second pages at an alarming rate. Either she was skimming or she had a very efficient reading ability. Mr. Tingle could not help being impressed by her thoroughness. She stopped on the third page and tsked to herself. “No, no, this simply won’t do.”
“What is the issue?” Mr. Tingle glanced over her shoulder, suddenly aware of the color of her hair, which remind him pleasantly of old apples for some reason.
“Here you state the clauses upon which termination is to be faultless on your part. But there is no equivalency part for me. Seems a bit one-sided, don’t you think?”
Mr. Tingle felt a bit at a loss. None of the other girls had ever read his agreements. Mostly he’d gotten horrified looks. Once he’d gotten a cheap sherry in the face, ruining a fairly expensive dinner jacket and the white shirt underneath.
“You have no objection to my attorney looking this over?” The young lady looked up at him over the agreement. “I think it might be workable with some minor alterations. We should be ready to proceed by next week. Next Tuesday, then, a bit earlier than this to allow for signing. I must go now, as it is eight minutes brisk walk to my work.”
Without a word or a second glance, the young lady took the agreements in the envelope and walked out of Alfonso’s. Mr. Tingle had to gulp his cappuccino and leave more than the established tip to make it to his work precisely on time. He was in a bit of a daze, but put the matter from himself. Doubtless she was bluffing, and would not show at the allotted time. Mr. Tingle did up another set of his agreements for himself. One never knew when some floozy in public transport would start eyeing one up and down.
The next Tuesday, Mr. Tingle did arrive early to Alfonso’s. He did not suppose the young lady would show up, but he was a precise man and this was what he had agreed upon. The young lady was there, along with an older gentleman. Both stood when Mr. Tingle arrived.
“You must be Mr. Tingle?” The older gentleman shook Mr. Tingle’s hand. Mr. Tingle was unsurprised, as all his basic information was included in the agreements. “I’m Bartholomew Bench, and this is Ms. Katherine Sprinkle, my client. I’ve taken the liberty of adding some language to the agreements, just here and here.” Mr. Tingle looked over the material and saw that they were simply equivalency clauses that, in fairness, should have been part of the original agreements.
“It looks to be in order,” he said to Mr. Bench. “Are you certain?” Mr. Bench looked carefully at him. “If you’d like your attorney to look things over, we can arrange another meeting…”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Mr. Tingle. “As long as the at-will termination clauses remain unchanged, we can proceed without risk for either party.”
Ms. Katherine tsked. “When you work as an actuary as I do, Mr. Tingle, you realize there is always risk. We can only minimize it for our clients.”
“Quite so,” Mr. Tingle bowed to her superior logic. “Shall we sign?” Alfonso and two of his aproned minions witnessed the preliminary signatures and Mr. Bench left Mr. Tingle with two copies of the agreements, one for him and one for his attorney. Then the two were left to themselves. “I’ve only two minutes, before I must begin my walk,” stated Ms. Sprinkle. “Quite so.” Said Mr. Tingle.
“Tomorrow then?” Said Ms. Sprinkle. Mr. Tingle bowed and she left. He sighed and got his cappuccino to go. Walking in the spring sunshine with his hot cappuccino held well away from his linen suit, Mr. Tingle felt something in his belly that had not been there before. Were these butterflies, then? The fabled harbringers of personal joy? He half-smiled at the thought and headed into the office.
At the precise time, Mr. Tingle was at Alfonso’s. He had his paper, but was uncertain if he would even get to open it. Ms. Sprinkle was already there, drinking her coffee. He notice she took it black, without cream or sugar. “Mr. Tinkle.” Ms. Sprinkle inclined her head. “It’s Tingle, not Tinkle,” Said Mr. Tingle.
“Oh,” Mr. Tingle saw Ms. Sprinkle blush slightly. “Forgive me, Mr. Tingle. I am unused to these flights of fancy. You are the first reasonable man I have ever met.”
“It’s nothing.” Said Mr. Tingle. “I will admit that you are the first person to ever look over my agreements.”
They looked at each other for a moment, each realizing the depth of the meaning behind their words. Mr. Tingle could see Ms. Sprinkle calculating the odds of finding another man like himself. In his mind he was weighing the probably futures of any other woman accepting his offer. Now that he had someone, it was suddenly possible that a whole range of possibilities he had given up on might come to pass. It felt as if he had found an entirely new bond market untapped by any other investor.
The two of them exchanged quick questions. Children, parents, living situations, life expectancies, financial and social networks. By the time their allotted time was up and Ms. Sprinkle was standing and preparing to walk to her office, they had a very rough draft of what a life might look like together.
As Ms. Sprinkle walked away, Mr. Tingle saw her hop, just a little. Was that a tiny little skip, or had her sensible pump gotten caught on a floor tile?
By the next day both Mr. Tingle and Ms. Sprinkle had drawn up preliminary contracts. Within two weeks, they had a working document, and the next month they were married. The combination of household went smoothly and now the Tingles live on the upper-west side. Mr. Tingle is doing well, although he is prone to fits of unexplained smiling and occasional humming. Mrs. Tingle has been known to hug herself in the restroom and pinch herself to make sure she’s awake. Both are statistically likely to live between two and six months longer as a result of their matrimony.
Moral: Whatever your personal faults and eccentricities, there is someone out there for you. Stay true to yourself and take chances.
Once upon a time there was a road. The road stretched past a grove of oak trees, pitted and muddy, out of sight. Little Jacob had never been around the grove of oak trees. He wasn’t supposed to leave the yard, and even going out onto the road was a whipping offense. A runaway cart or even one of those noisy, new automobiles could come rushing down at any moment and decapitate him just like he’d seen uncle Jeb do to the old rooster when ma had got the new one in from town. Even though that chicken had been brown and smelled good, Jacob hadn’t been hungry that night. He just sat and stared at the one bit of feather that hadn’t gotten plucked and just sat there behind the old rooster’s wing. The old rooster had been a terror and Jacob hadn’t liked him at all, but it just felt wrong. Now whenever Jacob looked out on the road, he could see himself like the chicken, because uncle Jeb had told him that an automobile could just take his head clean off. Uncle Jeb had smiled when he said it, but Jacob had seen him smiling when he chewed on that old rooster with his big, square teeth, so he believed that Uncle Jeb might even think it was a good thing that Jacob was gone. Any time a car growled past the house after dark, Jacob would pull the covers over his head and block his ears, trying not to think of the chicken.
Uncle Jeb had shown up a few months after ma got the letter about pa getting shot in the Great war. Jacob had been hiding under the sofa when she told the minister that his pa had gotten his head blown clean off, which bothered Jacob whenever he thought about the rooster.
Ma needed someone to take care of the farm, so she’d advertised and Uncle Jeb had come to chip in. There was something disreputable about Uncle Jeb, because Jacob had seen people at church eyeing Uncle Jeb with anger and disgust. Even uncle Jeb noticed, because they stopped going to church. Jacob wasn’t old enough for school, so without church he might go weeks without seeing another child to play with.
Uncle Jeb wanted to help Jacob out, but ma had told him straight out that he was a hired man and that was all there was to it. And she certainly wouldn’t disgrace the memory of her husband with a shirker. Jacob wasn’t sure what any of that meant, but he thought ma had sounded really angry, and he’d heard Uncle Jeb stomp off to the barn and slam the door after that.
It wasn’t long after that Jacob saw Uncle Jeb buy liquor. Uncle Jeb had gone out to get meal for the cows, and when he came back, Jacob had seen him with another burlap sack that Uncle Jeb hid under the straw at the back of the barn. When Jacob dug it out and uncorked it, it smelled strong and bad like vinegar. He remembered the minister talking about demon liquor, and knew this had to be it.
So Jacob watched Uncle Jeb after that. Every once in a while he’d see Jeb coming out of the barn wiping his mouth, but never bad enough that he was weaving.
Then came the night that ma shouted at Uncle Jeb again. Said she’d run him off the place if he didn’t mind his manners. Jacob heard Uncle Jeb slam out of the house, and his mother go up to bed. He was already up in his room, but he watched out the window as Uncle Jeb made straight for the barn. When Uncle Jeb came out of the barn, he was drinking from the jug and staring up at the house. It gave Jacob the shivers, that stare. He’d seen a cornered garter snake stare at him like that just before it went for his big toe.
Jacob got on his clothes real quiet-like. He crept down the stairs. Ma had already checked in on him, and Jacob had done the heavy, slow breathing she liked to see when she came in to tousle his hair. Jacob really liked it when she’d whisper: “Just like your father,” to him while she thought he was sleeping. He wished she’d sing to him like she’d used to, but she hadn’t sung a note since she got the letter from the U.S. army telling her that pa wasn’t coming home.
Ma was praying softly in her bed, or maybe she was talking softly to pa, which Jacob had heard her do more’n once when she didn’t think he was around. Jacob crept past her door along the edge of the banister where the creaking boards were only every other one. Then he crawled down the stairs, because you couldn’t put too much weight on any step or it would groan like a ghost.
Jacob went out the back door, because the front door was partially visible from the barn, and he didn’t want Uncle Jeb seeing him. Uncle Jeb had most of a bottle to get through, but Jacob was sure something bad would happen when he finished it. There wasn’t anything Jacob could do himself, because he wasn’t even big enough to hold pa’s shotgun even if he could get to it hung over the mantelpiece. And he knew ma kept it unloaded and the shells up in her room because she was afraid Jacob somehow would get hold of the gun and do something foolish like look down the barrel.
The only way Jacob could do anything is by going to get the Jersey boys, two old men who lived up the road beyond the bend. He wasn’t sure how far they were, but on a clear night you could hear Ed Jersey’s fiddle like it was in the room with you.
The road was dark, and muddy. The moon was rising, a half-moon coming up over the treetops of the grove at the bend in the road.
Jacob took a deep breath. Even knowing it was needful, it was a dreadful thing to tread out on that road. At any moment he feared he’d be run down. Jacob listened as hard as he could. He could hear the crickets, and even around the barn when Uncle Jeb swallowed and spat. But he didn’t hear any terrible runaway cart or automobile. But Jacob reasoned he’d best run along the side of the road in the grass to muffle his footsteps just the same.
The distance from the house to the grove seemed to stretch on-and-on. Jacob was out of breath by the time he reached the grove, sucking wind. He looked back at the barn. On the other side of the grove was no man’s land. They went the other way to the church or to town. Jacob thought for certain there was a runaway cart just waiting on the other side of the trees, waiting to crush him as soon as he ventured out.
But the brush under the trees was too thick to avoid the road. Jacob was afraid that Uncle Jeb would hear him trying to get through and maybe come hunting for him if he made any noise. So Jacob stuck one foot and then the other out onto the muddy road. He held his breath as he started to run. Maybe if he ran silently and didn’t even breathe the cart wouldn’t hear him coming.
Jacob rounded the bend of the road and saw the Jersey place. It was right there, just on the other side of the grove. Suddenly Jacob could see his house and the Jersey house on a map in his mind, like he’d drawn in the bend and filled in the Jersey house. Even as his lungs cried out for air he pumped himself faster and felt a sense of elation.
Ed Jersey and his brother Jerome were both smoking on the porch. They looked surprised to see Jacob and more surprised to see him so out of breath and panting. It took Jacob a minute to catch his breath, and then he realized he didn’t know what to tell the brothers. They bent down to listen to him, their beards almost touching and the smoke from their pipes drifting up like silver steam in the moonlight.
Jacob finally gasped out a few words: “Uncle Jeb…liquor…ma.” Ed Jersey got a really hard look on his face and told Jerome to get the guns. He took Jacob by the hand and told him to come inside and to wait by the fire. Jacob did as he was told, but as soon as the two old men were out of the house he’d opened the door behind them and slipped out. He thought Ed might have seen him, but the old men were moving as quickly as they could down the road.
Jacob followed them at a distance. Behind him, he heard a grumbling growl, and saw something light in the distance. It was an automobile or a runaway cart! Jacob took off as if his life depended on it. He passed the startled old men at a dead run just as the lights crested the far hill and started shining down on him.
Nothing reasonable came to Jacob’s head. He knew that the only safe place was his bed, and his only chance to saving himself was to get there before the automobile caught him. Jacob paid no mind to the old men behind him, hearing only the increasing growl of the automobile as it prowled closer. He sprinted up the front steps and banged open the door.
Even taking the steps two at a time didn’t seem fast enough. Jacob pushed right past Uncle Jeb where he struggled with ma and dove into his bed just as he heard the car growl past. He was shaking.
In the hallway Ed Jersey was talking loudly to Uncle Jeb. Uncle Jeb was swearing a fair amount, and Jacob wanted to block his ears. Then both men were shouting and Jacob heard his ma swear, which he couldn’t believe at all. He heard more scuffling, and a yell, and then a crash as something hit the floor. Ed Jersey and his brother were both yelling again, but Uncle Jeb was growling like the car outside. Two guns went off. Things got really quiet after that.
Jacob heard what had happened when ma told the minister. Uncle Jeb had threatened her with a kitchen knife, so she had kicked him so hard he’d gone over the banister. When he got up he’d gone for the Jersey boys, and they’d had to blow him away.
After that, the Jersey boys came over to help run the farm. It got so there was a trail through the woods between the farms so Jacob didn’t have to go out onto the road if he wanted to get the Jersey boys for something.
Ma seemed happier too, and hugged Jacob more. Once when she was baking for the Jersey boys Jacob even heard her singing.
When Jacob started school in the fall, he was something of a hero. He knew the other children looked at him funny, but he didn’t realize that the local paper had covered him in the news story. Then the teacher compared Jacob’s run to Paul Revere’s run to save the founding fathers. Some of the other boys took to calling him Paul Revere, which suited Jacob fine. It helped him whenever a car went by the house at night, growling. Jacob would pull the covers up to his chin, but didn’t need to pull them over his head like he’d done before.