In The Valley – Daily Story Project #17

Feeling a little emo tonight? You’re in luck. Me, too. Enjoy.

I can’t live in the valley.

I’ve spent all my life searching for the valley. The hills and plains I’ve traveled are nice, but they’re lonely. Only in the valleys can I find peace and happiness. Everything good in life, everything that makes life worth living is in the valleys.

In my wanderings, I’ve found a few like it, but there are none others that match the abundance found in this one, the one. I knew, from the moment I topped the hill and peered down at it’s lush greens and the welcoming stream flowing through it, that none other could compare.

I was wary, at first. I’d been hurt before, and I knew enough to be cautious. I waited a while, peering from my vantage point on the hill, looking for dangers, looking for any traps that might be laid for those who would rush in, eager to partake of the treasures hidden there. And I was right to be cautious.

Because as I finally made my descent into the valley, I discovered that an ogre lived there.

His spoor was unmistakable. His tracks were everywhere; there was no place in the valley that he did not tread. Even with the abundance of fruit hanging from the limbs of trees, the ogre had to taste of each one, and having tasted it, dropped it to move on to the next. He wasted it, tossed it aside, obviously did not savor and contemplate each special gift. Even with the herds of game flocking the valley’s pathways and trails, the ogre smashed through and snatched up one morsel after another.

The more I saw, the more I hated the ogre. He did not have to spoil this beautiful landscape with his rapacious appetite! If it weren’t for his untender ministrations, this valley could easily support and sustain, or even advance, more than just his predacious self.

It was easy at first to avoid the ogre. I found places within the valley that the ogre rarely went, or where he would not even fit. A grotto near a waterfall, small enough for me, but unwelcome to the brute. I would sit and listen to the laughter of the water, and delight in the sparkle of the light through the waterfall’s curtain. Or an open glen filled with wildflowers, where I could lie on my back and watch the shapes that clouds make against the blue sky. Or high up suspended by a soft bough, swaying to the gentle wind, where I could see to the edge of forever across the spiky green carpet of treetops. I observed the birds and small animals, the valley’s children, cavorting and capering in simple play.

Surely the ogre, a creature of base pleasures, could not appreciate the subtlety of my simple hiding places, I thought. But eventually the ogre’s desires would lead him near my den, and I would have to scramble off and find another bolthole. Never did I directly confront the beast, but my secretive skill was a poor match for his awesome, barbaric strength.

Eventually, fat and daring from the bounty that the valley had to offer me, I dared. I felt that surely I could challenge the ogre and take his place in the valley. If he could not share the valley with me, then only one or the other could win this contest. If the prize were this magical place, so full of serene beauty and subtle delights, then perhaps I could risk a battle against the animalistic master of it.

So, one day, I took up arms; I found a stick and fashioned a crude club from it. I stripped myself of all encumberments, the better to move and fight. I made directly for the creature’s lair, and felt confident in my ability to best him.

But when I approached it, it was as if I saw the thing for the first time. He, too, carried a club. He, too, was clothed only in the mud and dirt gained from trampling the byways of the valley. There, near his lair, lay the bones of those he had defeated in order to gain control of this garden. To the victor go the spoils.

But… in my haste to defeat the master of the valley, I had become him. Our eyes met. And in them, I saw his jealous hatred of me, yes. But I also saw in them a recognition.

I knew in that moment that I could spar with him, and I might even win. The valley that had made me strong with it’s richness, had made the ogre soft and complacent. The odds were even. But I also knew that in defeating this creature, I would be lost. I would lose everything that made me able to appreciate the valley. If I defeated him, I would have to defend the valley from any future travelers, and I would have to patrol constantly, which would take away the time I had previously spent in quiet meditation. If I defeated him, I would be giving in to the base emotions of rage and fear; those powerful passions would overwhelm me and they would consume me. Further the battle between us would be mighty; we seemed evenly matched. Therefore the contest would be long and difficult, and would likely cause terrible damage to the spoils of our war; the valley itself would suffer because of our rage.

I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to become the thing I fought against. I didn’t want to lose the ability to enjoy the thing I most admired. And I didn’t want to hurt the valley, the green and lovely valley. That, most of all, I did not wish to happen.

I ran. With a mighty roar, the ogre gave chase. But I was fleet of foot and had the advantage of rest. I could not be caught. I ran into the hills again, leaving the valley that had seemed so welcoming and lush, and found myself again in the rocky barrens. The ogre, sensing that I would not come back, stopped his pursuit, consoling himself with some parting screams of anger, warning me of my fate should I change my mind. But I knew, with a terrible certainty, what that fate would be, and I would not, could not, bring myself to risk that fate.

I can survive in the hills. There is food, and water, to be found, although not in the quantity of the valley. It takes more work, but the work is good for me. It builds character. I’m not as strong as I was when I lived down below, but it will do.

Yes, there may be other valleys. I could go and search, again. I could brave the plains and the dangers that lurk in those awesome vast empty places, and hope that somewhere there exists a valley as inviting as this one, one with no ogre to guard it, or even a less fearsome ogre, one I could defeat without causing the thing I love to suffer.

Sure I could.

But, instead, I sit here, in the hills, dreaming of the times I spent in the valley. The grottoes I will never again view. The wildflowers, whose perfume I will never again taste. The trees in which I will never again find shelter. The laughter of the waterfalls, the sigh of the wind… all gone. Given up so that they might remain, untouched by hatefulness. I think about it constantly; not a day goes by that I do not feel moved to tears over what I have given up.

I would be a gentle master, I know it. I would not abuse the gifts it produces. Perhaps the valley itself knows it, too, but it can do nothing to hasten that day.

Perhaps, I think, the ogre will tire of the valley and wander off to find another home. Perhaps another will come and defeat the ogre for me, and the victor will be too spent from his battle, and I can take advantage and seize control. Or (it’s possible, don’t tell me it’s not) the ogre will simple pass away of old age, and leave the valley without a master, ripe for me to tend to it.

But thinking hateful thoughts at the ogre only diminish me. I try not to spend much time dwelling on him.

Instead, I simply remember what it was like, in the valley.

And I wait.

Moondance – Daily Story Project #16

Apologies. Apologies because this is short, and for the title, but you can’t blame me for at least referencing it once, right? Very tired tonight. Back tomorrow.

The rational mind, that is to say my rational mind, kept trying to categorize it, carve the scene down so it would fit into my stable, boring worldview. The worldview that had carried me through hopscotch and tetherball, through ABCs and cursive writing, through bag lunches and midterms and car loans and mortgage payments and insurance.

I think the little guy was doing the Charleston. But I’m no expert.

It would be so much easier to laugh it off as a dream. But I can’t.

I wanted to get away from it all, take a break from my em-to-eff nine-to-five. Backpacking, sleeping under the stars, smelling the pine-fresh air. Oh, I got that alright.

I think it was the music that woke me. And the singing, if that’s what you can call it. Beastly grunts and groans, paws thumping time against the underbrush, the occassional ribbet. The fire had died down, only coals softly glowing. And the noise.

I unzipped the nylon that cocooned me and rose to my 50% cotton/50% polyester covered feet. To the west of me, a clearing was highlighted in the silver glow of Earth’s moon. Men of Science had walked on that moon. Or so I believed. Until I had seen the racoon dance.

I crawled closer, trying to avoid the attentions of the creatures that played audience to the strange, jitterbugging rodent. A wolf, a bear, a fox. And where had the crocodile come from? I was in Montana, for God’s sake! What twist of reason had brought me to this place?

What was more disturbing? Hard to say. The pink tongue the masked furball showed as he obviously was lost in concentration? No. The oppossum’s friendly smile? No. The bear, slapping his paws in applause? No.

The most disturbing moment was when I joined in.

It was fun.

Last Song – Daily Story Project #15

“A warm mid-summer night in the Emerald City and we’re off to see the wizard,” Raul said.

“I’ve never understood why Seattle got that nickname and not Portland,” Terrence said. “Or which one was the Rose City first: Portland or Pasadena.”

“City nicknames are clearly unregulated,” Raul agreed.

The two men were approaching a square, cinder block building in Seattle, within view of the Space Needle, under sodium amber streetlights. The building, or at least the wall facing the sidewalk on which they stood, was painted with a large green crocodile but otherwise doorless and windowless.

Milling, listless people roamed only generally in the direction of around the far corner. Some of the crowd were smoking, some were holding a drink, some were talking to each other, a few doing all those. It wasn’t a tight-knit crowd Raul and Terrence approached. They were bored, apathetic, cool. They didn’t shout or speak forcefully, their hand gestures were lazy and slow. And they were mostly young, though not all.

Raul, on the other hand, was energetic and smiling, moving quickly enough that his friend had to push to keep up. “Is this the right night? I can’t believe these folks are here to see the same band we are,” he said.

“It’s probably a bigger deal for you because we drove 4 hours to get here,” Terrence said. “And this is the last night they’re playing, in, like, ever.”

“Don’t remind me! I’m just glad I get to see them one last time before they end it all.”

Terrence laughed. “They’re not committing suicide. When did you see them last?”

“Can’t believe you’d ask me that,” Raul said.

“…Oh. Was it…?”

“With… yeah.”

They’d arrived near the door, where a nebulous line of people hovered, some facing the doorman, others talking amongst themselves. Raul craned his neck then looked at his friend, helplessly.

“Excuse me, is this the line to get in?” Terrence asked some random woman.

She blew smoke from one side of her mouth. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Do you know if the main act has gone on yet?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. There was music before.”

Raul rolled his eyes.

The men handed their tickets, printed at home a week ago, to the bouncer, who scanned it and waved them inside. Raul rushed past into a hallway that sharply bent right, right past a man sitting on a tall barstool next to a podium, holding out a rubber stamp, shouting. Terrence, right behind him, tried to get his friend’s attention in the noisy venue interior, but the pre-show music drowned him out.

The stage was back in the corner to their left, the bar against the far wall to their right. The whole room was maybe 40 or 50 feet square, bathed in dim red light. There were two or three booths and tables along the closest wall, but other than that no tables at all; the floor in front of the stage was open and filled with more, milling, mumbling people, the crowd thickening in the direction of the bar.

Raul gasped. His body tensed. The ambient noise seemed to fade away.

20 feet away, among the throng near the bar, but facing half towards the stage: red hair, a few inches shorter than him, the woman had a distinct profile, hooded sultry eyes, a specific demeanor, a tense but expectant attitude.

“They need to stamp your hand!” Terrence bellowed directly into Raul’s ear, breaking his trance.

“What the fuck?”

“Don’t get us kicked out!” Terrence grabbed the other man’s shoulders and pointed him back towards the man on the stool.

“Fine, fine, OK.”

It was Terrence’s turn to scan the crowd, although his attention was on the farthest corner and the sound equipment, and the stage. When Raul returned to him, he said, “This seems like a bad room for acoustics.”

People were on the stage, moving things into position. The crowd noise muted slightly, an anticipation suddenly taking hold. “What do you want to drink?”

“Terrence. I saw someone, just now. I…”

“Drink, motherfucker. Do you want one?” Terrence pointed towards the bar. “I’m buying.”

“Beer me. I’ll be there, closer to the stage.”

Raul moved through the crowd, ill at ease and shaken. He tried not to look at every face, every woman’s face, he passed by.

The band they’d all been waiting to see bounced up onto the stage. Raul was surprised at how tall the lead singer was, how curly his hair was for a white guy, how confident he looked. The rest of the band seemed composed and controlled, practiced, smooth.

“Looks like we got here just in time! Anymore traffic and we’d have missed the opening song!” Terrence once again made his friend jump by shouting into Raul’s ear. Handed him a bottle. “Sorry, that’s all they had. Cheers! We made it!”

“Did we?” But Raul’s voice didn’t carry farther than his own head, as the lead singer suddenly shouted greetings and thanks over the speakers, and the crowd, all at once, was energized in unison. The band laid into the frenetic opening riffs of a deep cut from their second album and the people bounced and shimmied in time.

The first several songs were hard and fast, the lyrics were clever and convoluted, the tone ironic and sincere at the same time. The band were on their A game, and they controlled the crowd with panache. The energy in the room filled the fans up with the power of song.

Alone in the crowd, Raul kept looking around, half present, half wondering. Was she here? Did he imagine her? They’d been on and off again for so long, and had been out of touch for months now, after the final breakup, the one that left the deepest scars.

As the band moved from song to song, they reached a point where they wanted to slow things down. They pulled out a song a bit more contemplative, less driving and more brooding, and as before, the crowd reacted, swaying instead of bouncing or dancing, their upturned faces now lit by the brighter white light picking out the tall, curly haired lead singer, who crooned into the microphone.

And in the light spilling off the band, casting a silver one-sided glow on those watching, near the stage, Raul saw her, again.

She was facing the stage, arms wrapped around her as if in a hug, but somehow seeming separate from the crowd, as Raul felt. She was swaying. She was in quarter profile, oddly, instead of facing directly toward the band, considering she was almost directly in line from Raul to the lead singer.

She had a soft smile on her face, a dream-like cast to her eyes.

Raul stepped forward.

The crowd suddenly resisted his advance, closing like a curtain between her and him.

And just like that, the song was over.

“Hang tight, boys and girls! Just give us a minute to get a drink. We shall return for another set!” The singer shouted, drenched in effort. The spot light shut off; the room went dim red again, then suddenly the house lights went up. The spell broken, the crowd became restless again.

“Wow, that was incredible! Such a great set!” Terrence was laughing, powered up by the music. “You OK?”

“Seeing them was our first date,” Raul said.

“Dude, we’ve been friends forever but I’m not putting out tonight,” Terrence laughed.

“No. No! I mean…” He scanned the crowd. Had he imagined her? “Nevermind.” He clinked his bottle with his friends’, chugged the remaining drink. “Let’s get another beer.”

Last Bus for the Night – Daily Story Project #13

It was 10 blocks from his girlfriend’s house to the bus stop, and he didn’t want her to have to walk all that way, at night, after he’d gotten on the bus to his own neighborhood, so he and she walked downstairs, quietly, and he put on his coat, and said goodnight.

But of course he didn’t want to go, and so he lingered, and they kissed and whispered at the door, hoping that her mom didn’t hear, or, if she did, that she didn’t care enough to wake up and interrupt or embarrass them. And so the minutes passed; his easy, plenty-of-time walk quickly became a more difficult, walking-fast-I-should-be-OK walk, and she had enough presence of mind to push him out the door before it turned into a must-run-the-entire-way run, or, even worse, a have-to-walk-all-the-way-home walk.

Her house was one side of a duplex, set oddly angled on a patch of grass at the end of the road; beyond it was only a railroad track, and then a yachting club, and finally the river. But he was going the other direction, past houses both small and large, affordable and overpriced, under low hanging tree branches and past giant hedgerows.

There was a black and gray cat he nearly always saw when he walked to and from the bus stop to her house, and tonight was no exception. The cat gave him an almost bored look, and got up off his haunches to slowly walk towards him, but he whispered, “I’m in a hurry tonight, cat, some other time,” and he kept up his fast pace.

He wasn’t in the best of shape, the boy, and he started to feel a cramp in his calves, but he kept going. Once per block, he’d pull out his phone and pull up the bus app to see how much time he had. He didn’t have much but he should make it.

Four blocks from her, he nearly tripped on a piece of sidewalk that had been uprooted by a growing tree, hidden in the dark under that same tree’s canopy. His eyes hadn’t had time to adapt. He tumbled. When he got up, his palm had a dark sticky smear on it, black in the dim night, and it stung. He wiped it on his jeans and kept going.

In the very next block, his phone chirped, and it was loud. Carefully pulling it out with his injured hand, he read

luv U – A

He chuckled because she didn’t have to sign it. But she did, and he adored that. He tapped out

Love you, too. Not there yet. – B

and felt a smugness at his software-assisted punctuation and capitalization.

7 blocks and he had to cross a busier street, but it was late, and there were no cars, and he ran. He began to scan ahead the remaining blocks to watch for the bus driving by, or hear the distinctive roar and squeak of the coach. Sometimes the bus would be early, and the driver would go into the convenience store next to the stop. The shop let the drivers use their bathroom, and he’d seen a driver once who had picked up some beer, in a plain brown paper bag, and tucked it behind her seat.

He hoped the bus was early tonight.

He ran flat out the last two blocks, his sneakers slapping against the concrete, his arms jangly and awkwardly pumping, his coat flying behind him. But when he got to the stop and looked down the street, he couldn’t see the bus. He looked the other direction, in case he’d missed it and it had gone past, but it wasn’t there, either.

A car drove past on the other side of the street, its tires hissing on the damp asphalt.

The light around him went suddenly dark; the convenience store had gone dark, startling him.

This stop had no seat or bench. He sat on the curb.

His phone chirped again.

On bus? – A

He tapped back,

No. I’m at the stop. No bus. Hope I di

and he was startled again by the sudden halogen glow and roar of the giant coach rumbling past. He stood up, waving his phone’s screen in the air, his only light, and yelled. Out of breath, hand still stinging, he ran after the bus, making as much noise as a quiet chubby boy can make when running, a hoarse cry for help.

Red brake lights. The rattle of the bus stopping. The hydraulic hiss of the door opening.

He stepped up, unable to speak, out of oxygen, fumbling for his fare.

“Didn’t see you in the dark. With your dark clothes. Almost didn’t stop,” she said, the driver who’d bought the beer before, an older blonde woman with a stoic smile but kind eyes.

“Thank you.”

She waved off his attempt to pay. “Call us even.”

He took a seat right by the door, and rode home.

The Empire Always Wins This One – Daily Story Project #12

Inspired by reality but this is entirely fictional, as far as I can tell. Another short one, I hope.

He opened the video store for the last time on a Thursday afternoon.

Not a Friday, not a Sunday, not a Monday. It was because he had announced that the store would be closing at the end of the month, because that’s how the bills came in, and the last day of the month was a Thursday.

In retrospect it seemed off-kilter to him, but once he’d announced it, and posted the giant “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE” and notified the landlord and talked to the phone company and the internet company and the electric company, it seemed like such work to change it to a Friday or stay open through that weekend that he decided not to.

He had a wife at home, taking care of their child, and he had spent the final month feeling torn in two. He’d had the video store since he was a bachelor, and it felt like his first love. The shelves packed with hand-selected titles, DVDs of movies that were hard to find elsewhere, jammed in with a lot of more common stuff. Most customers had wanted the new releases, but every once in a while, he’d get a customer looking for something obscure, and he had taken a lot of pride in being able to show that he got it.

But then, running the store after the first year, when he’d finally built up a reputation and a regular clientele, his new confidence had attracted the woman who was now his wife, and their courtship had been the catalyst to him finally hiring a second employee, and then another one when they’d wanted to plan and carry off a nice wedding.

His personal life had blended with his professional life in the sweetest way possible.

But as time had gone on, his sales had dropped. Customers were avoiding mentioning the N word around him. Netflix. Netflix had first threatened him by offering simple home delivery of DVDs, from a much larger selection, and then had dipped into streaming over the internet. Customers didn’t have to leave home for those obscure titles. He’d gotten some diehards to stay around. But he couldn’t keep the lights on on a handful of customers once or twice a month.

So it had come to this. The final month, and the final day, and now the final hours. He’d seen a few customers come in to return their last, guilty rentals. Some had even been able to look him in the eye, stay and chat. He tried to be positive and welcoming. He still lived in the neighborhood, he still saw his customers when he went to the grocery store or got coffee or went out to dinner. Even after he closed this store he wanted to be friends, or at least friendly, with these folk.

With two hours left until his closing time, the store as empty as it had been on his first night, he put in a movie to pass the time: The Empire Strikes Back. It was the Special Edition, with windows at Cloud City, but it was still a great film, the one George Lucas had altered the least of the original trilogy. It distracted him from the empty aisles, but as the ending wound to its conclusion, he realized too late that it was not a conclusion at all, but a cliffhanger, and that made him sad.

When midnight rolled around, he had already counted up the till and gotten his final deposit ready. $6.00 total income. Three rentals. At least it wasn’t the slowest night this week.

He tucked the cash bag under his arm, made sure he shut down the computer, and turned out the lights. In the dark, he walked to the front door, and moved the basket so that it would be under the return slot when he closed the door.

Then he walked home. It was a warm, late summer night. He almost wished it was raining.

The next morning the baby woke him up. He offered to check the diaper and feed her. He let his wife keep sleeping.

Hundred Dollar Dave – Daily Story Project #11

Daniella shut off the engine and turned off the lights, putting the transmission into neutral and coasting down the hill. From the grade, the pale yellow Toyota had enough momentum to continue coasting down and around the corner. In the warm summer air, with the windows down, she could hear the squeak of her tires on the asphalt and then the crunch when the asphalt gave out and became gravel. She hoped it wasn’t as loud outside as it seemed to her. In particular she hoped it wasn’t audible inside the house where her landlord and roommate lived. Or, better yet, that Laurelee was asleep or even not home. The chances of that on a Tuesday night, however, were slim.

Navigating silently (she hoped) past the other parked cars on the dark West Hills street, she craned her neck as she pulled up to the house. The light in front of the garage was on but that was on a motion-detector and something else might have tripped it. The garage door was closed, which was a bitch, because that could mean Laurelee was home or wasn’t home. As the windows of the house came into view, slowly, so very slowly, she saw that there was a dim light in the kitchen and from the back of the house, where her landlord’s bedroom and computer room were.

Shit. Shit shit shit.

The street was at the bottom of the hill, and Daniella would have had to start the engine again to drive up and out of this cul-de-sac. Her stomach full of acid, she coasted as far as she could, two houses down, and swung up next to the curb. She pulled the emergency brake in the center console up with more force than necessary and nearly screamed when the handle gave a snap and went limp on it’s hinge; a cable snapped or something.

One more fucking repair bill. She hoped it was a cheap one.

She leaned forward, her arms on the steering wheel and her forehead on her arms. A shitty night on a shitty day in a shitty week of the shittiest month of her 27 years. She considered just starting the engine again, driving far away from here, changing her name and coming up with a clever story and never looking back.

She took the keys out, and opened the door as quietly as she could, closing it with the quietest push she could muster. It barely latched, and she sighed. Fuck it, she thought, if someone steals it they’ll be stuck with the repair bill. She used the spare key to open the hatch, because her main key didn’t work for some unknown reason, and got out the packing tape and the flattened boxes she’d cadged from the corner store up the hill. She needed at least two, maybe three.

From this angle she could approach the house and keep the separate garage between her and the main living room windows. The basement door was on the rear corner of the house. If she circled around the garage she could stay out of sight, climbing down the embankment through the ivy into the backyard, hopping the fence if necessary, and probably get to the door without being seen.

That happened.

But when she got to the basement door, she saw, in the dark, a piece of paper tacked up. She used the flashlight app on her phone to read it, hiding the light as best as she could.


You are now two full months behind in rent. I’ve been lenient but I must demand payment. I know you’ve been working. If you pay me $400 in 24 hours, I will let you have until the end of the month to pay the rest.

Irregardless you must find other accommodations by the end of the month. I cannot put up with this.


Laurelee Chilvers

The acid in her stomach grew, and Daniella’s face burned. Steeling herself she put her key in the lock. “C’mon, c’mon, don’t have changed the locks,” she whispered. The key turned, and she opened it and stepped inside, willing the door to make no noise at all.

The basement was dark and smelled of mildew and bleach. She crept past the washer and dryer, and angled around the brass pole mounted vertically in the middle of the room. Putting her Chucks down on the concrete floor carefully. Made it to the door to her room, which was closed. Another copy of the note was pinned to this door, too, goddammit. Again, with as much stealth as she could muster, she opened the door and went inside.

This would have been easier if I could have done it in the daytime, she thought. But the daytime had been spent driving out to the boonies to visit her aunt, using most of her tank of gas and coming back with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a lecture on budgeting. Daniella hadn’t even had the courage to ask for a loan but somehow Aunt Sam had just known.

I haven’t really changed much in the last couple of years, have I?

The packing tape, she decided, would be too loud, so she assembled one of the boxes without it. She’d just grab some clothes, including some bikinis and lingerie she could work in, her favorite pair of heels, her spare phone charger, her journal… they all went into the box. She looked around. She didn’t have a lot, at the moment. A bookshelf full of old textbooks and used books that even Powell’s wouldn’t buy back, with empty spaces for the books she had been able to sell. Some posters. Her futon. Should she bring a blanket? To keep her warm when her car breaks down and she has to sleep on the street?

Getting on her hands and knees she reached under the dresser she’d paid $20 for at Goodwill. Tucked up underneath and behind the drawer was a flask of cheap vodka, half gone. She took a quick swig for courage, sat back.

Tears, hot tears blurred her vision, ran down her cheek. She swiped at them angrily and spilled some vodka on herself. Great. I guess I can change my shirt now that I’m here.

She stood, in the dark, and stripped off her shirt, then pulled open a dresser drawer.

There was a polite knock at the door. “Daniella? Can we talk?”

Daniella froze.

“I know you’re in there. I can hear you.”

Daniella carefully screwed the lid on the bottle and set it on top of the dresser. It seemed worse to be caught with that than without a shirt. “Fine. Come in.”

Laurelee stepped in, turning on the light, making the room seem suddenly smaller; no dark corners anymore. She was dressed for bed, in a cheap t-shirt and basketball shorts and ridiculous Pokemon slippers. “The note is gone so I know you’ve got it. Were you really just going to slip out in the middle of the night? Oh my god can you put a shirt on? It smells like booze in here.”

“I don’t know how to respond to any of that. I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t have the money.”

“You’ve had the money but you spent it on… what? Gas, I suppose, and eating out, since you never eat here anymore. Where does the rest of it go?”

“Kyle is pissed at me and hasn’t given me an evening shift for two fucking weeks, Laur’. I’ve been having to make do with breakfast shifts. Nobody makes any money on breakfast shifts at a strip club.”

“That’s probably not true, or why have them?” Laurelee countered. “But that’s just the last two weeks; you’ve been behind since May.” She kicked the box Daniella had been filling up. “At least I see you’re planning on continuing to work.”

There was a sharp loud bell ring, a chime like a giant clock. Daniella jumped, and Laurelee jumped in response.

“I see you’ve been paying your phone bill,” Laurelee said as her tenant pulled her phone out.

“Holy shit! My bacon is saved! I can have your money by tomorrow evening!” Daniella waved her phone in front of her landlord’s face.

The phone showed a text:

From: Kyle

$100 Dave wants 2 C U. Tmrw nite. Git UR azz in by 9


Daniella was whooping it up and jumping around like a crazy person. “Please, this is going to work, he hasn’t been in for months and months. He loves me, and he never leaves without dropping at least a thousand! If I get some rest and maybe get my hair done, and a full set, hmmm, maybe I can talk Gordon into fronting that for me…” She looked at her landlord and old friend. “I can pull this off. I can get you the money, I know I can. If nothing else, I can get you the $400 you’re asking for, and probably the whole thing!”

Laurelee was silent a moment. Shaking her head, she turned and walked out, pausing at the door.

“Do you want this light on, or off?”

“On, please,” Daniella responded. She’d expected a much bigger reaction. Maybe not happy, but at least relieved.

First, though, she needed some beauty sleep.

Fast In The Life Lane – Daily Story Project #10

Apologies. Another short one tonight. Apparently I’ve got cars on my brain lately; this is all I can come up with.

Gregory Caldecott shifted down from fourth to third, tapped the brakes lightly, and late-apexed into the corner. The tires squealed a little, and the car did a neat four-wheel drift to the outside of the turn, coming dangerously close to gravel that was the only separation between the asphalt and the cliff, but there was very little body roll from the nearly ancient Triumph.

Gregory (never Greg) loved the little British car with an affection that his girlfriends could never fathom, and he enjoyed immensely the times when he could take it out, put down the top, and put it through it’s paces on smooth dry pavement. The mountain air was fresh, but not biting. The coupe surged, it purred, it roared.

It was alive.

Much more alive than the rest of Gregory’s material possessions. Come to think of it, Gregory readily admitted to himself, he didn’t own that much more than the car. He had the furniture in his apartment, his clothes, a decent teevee and stereo, a cell phone that he rarely used (he’d justified it’s purchase with the familiar “it will be of use to me in ’emergencies'”), and a few knick knacks that tried to fill the empty spaces in the five small rooms he called his “box”.

Gregory was counting the books in his modest library when the tire blew, causing Gregory to miss a shift, a turn, and the rest of his life. In that order.

One person mourned his passing: his mechanic.

Well, two more, for certain definitions of mourning. But that’s another story.

Mountain roads – Daily Story Project #8

It was just past the Elderberry Inn when I lost the RX-7 for the first time. By the time I crossed into Washington County they’d got their reward.

I’d been working a contractor job at the coast that summer, wiring up a new little shopping mall for the tourists.  I’d spend the week working 10 or 12 hour days, and going back to my cheap motel room and crashing. Then I’d drive home as soon as I finished on Friday, see my friends and family, and head back late Sunday or early Monday morning. It was a pain in the ass but I was making so much money on overtime, I’d hoped it was worth it.

The drive back was always a lot of fun. Let me tell you about my car. Some car guys liked muscle: Mustangs, Trans Am, Corvette. They’re all right, I guess, for straight-line horsepower. But I liked it when the curves got a little twisty. Indy Cars use four cylinders, folks, and they use all four to their full potential. I had dropped my bucks on a little 2 door sedan from Japan, gutted it, and then dropped a finely-tuned 2 liter engine under the hood. Stiffened up the suspension, put tires on it that barely fit under the fender flares, then flared the fenders just a bit more to squeeze in a bit more rubber. What’s that guy in that silly star war movie the kids loved say? It may not look like much but it’s got it where it counts.

In my little yellow shitbox I could haul ass, and Friday nights, after a long week stringing up wires, all I wanted was to book it back to the City of Roses, to my own bed and to the people I wanted to be around. The sooner I got back, the more time I got there. I’d gas up, plug in my radar detector (in those days they were important), strap myself in and go.

And I enjoyed the trip back. The engine I’d rebuilt with my own two hands singing, stirring the gear shift to match the power to the hills and descents of the coast mountain range, the gut feeling of waiting to ease into the brakes at the last possible minute as the corner bent down and away. That was fun. That was living. Just me and my machine, and the lonely mountain highway that led from the Pacific Ocean, through the forests of western Oregon, until I reached the city lights of Portland.

Generally it’s an hour and a half. That’s if you follow the speed limits. I can make it in an hour, easy. I’d done it that way so many times, it was almost a dance. My best time was close to 50 minutes, though I don’t have any witnesses. You’ll have to take my word for it.

And this night was perfect. I was in the zone and felt I was close to setting a new record. My harness kept me affixed to the seat so I felt safe, my arms steered and shifted, and my feet moved from clutch to brake to go-faster without a thought in the world. I had the windows down just because air-conditioning had been the first thing to go; plus it was a warm summer night, even near the summit of the mountains. When I looked up, which wasn’t often, I could see the hard shining points of light in the indigo sky, and my halogen high beams gave a glow to the doug fir on either side of the asphalt.

I hadn’t climbed much at all when I came up behind the RX-7, a sleek white sports car. The driver wasn’t using their car at their full potential, though, and it was right around the speed limit. I had to mash the brakes to prevent rear-ending it. I cursed and downshifted and my engine’s whine matched the feeling of frustration I felt.

Highway 26 has curves and curves, and I was stuck behind this slowpoke asshole, but there wasn’t any safe place to pass for a while. I bided my time, knowing there’d be a passing lane soon, but knowing that didn’t make driving under 55 any easier. Every time their brake lights flashed, I’m sure I edged that much closer to an ulcer.

Finally I got my chance: the single lane east widened and split into two. The asshole in the RX-7, though, broke left and sped up. I just reached for another gear and floored it. The torque that my car still had at 60 MPH pressed me back in my seat, and I sailed by, passing the white sports car on their right.

A girl! – sorry, woman – in the passenger seat, a redhead, and in the driver’s seat a blonde. I was probably old enough to be their dad. No time for looking, though, the passing lane was running out fast enough. I could hear them shouting but not for long. I blew past them like they were standing still and then lost them behind the crest of a hill as I kept going. Once their headlights were no longer in my rear-view I slowed just a bit, just a bit. Bridgetown, here I come.

Long minutes went by as I kept three of four tires in contact with the road, left and right and the occasional straight, through lonely mountain highway. But when I’d glance back, every once in a while, I’d see the twin white lights appearing for a second from around a corner, or on top of a rise.

And they were getting closer.

I passed the turn off to Saddle Mountain and knew I was on the eastern slope. I could go a bit faster but I was in a groove, and for some reason I thought they were far behind me. What’s the first rule of Italian driving? What’s behind me does not concern me.

As long as it stays behind me. I thought I was doing a good job at making that happen.

In hindsight, I don’t remember which happened first, because they happened at almost the same time. Suddenly my rear view mirror was filled with the sharp glare of halogens, and over the sound of the engine and the wind in the windows came the chirping of my radar detector. The highway was just one lane in each direction but it was fairly straight. I grabbed for a lower gear and tipped into the brakes. My tires held on, and there was a hint of fishtail, and it felt like I was going to be torn into quadrants by my five-point harness, but the car slowed down and kept going straight ahead.

The lights behind me angled off to my left, going from my interior mirror to my driver’s side mirror. The little Mazda rotary engine hum got loud, louder, peaked, and then quickly dropped as the white sports car zoomed past. The redhead in the passenger seat was leaning half out the window, screaming cheerful obscenities at me and by God she must have taken off her shirt because I’m pretty sure I saw nipples. I don’t know. They went by pretty fast, considering our relative speeds.

Those crazy… girls (I want to keep this family friendly)! I yelled back at them but it was an incoherent shout; and I pointed at my radar detector with my shifting hand. Not likely they’d see anything inside the dark cockpit of my little Japanese sedan, though. Hey, I tried.

I glanced down at the speedometer and saw I was within spitting distance of the legal speed so I steadied the car. My heart must have been beating a hole in my chest.

Sure enough, as they kept going at full throttle, almost a quarter-mile ahead, there was a sudden flare of red-and-blues, and a white Oregon State Police cruiser pulled out of a parking lot for a rest stop on the left hand side of the highway, and gave chase to the girls in the RX-7, following them around a long curve.

When I passed the cop he was parked behind the white sports car, and he had his little coupon book out writing them out a reminder. I gave them a little toot of my horn and a wave as I went.

I Still Recall A Sad Cafe – Daily Story Project #7

I’ve kept a journal off and on for as long as I can remember. A diary, a therapist, a place to sort my thoughts in writing, an idea holder. I’ve saved some of them, and lost some of them; in my younger years I had some troubles keeping jobs, which led to having trouble paying bills, which led to troubles with landlords and roommates. I moved a few times, sometimes in the middle of the night, and having to take only what I could carry on me.

I often wonder if those journals ever got read. Did it provide any insight into me and why I acted that way? Or was it unceremoniously dumped in the trash, since it wasn’t able to be sold to pay the debt I’d skipped out on? Questions I ask myself. Questions I can’t really answer since the state of my mind at the time has been lost along with that journal. It all seemed like my best option, in the moment.

I’m better now. I’ve kept a stable job for a few years. Made some friends, reconnected with old friends. Patched things up when I could, avoided those I couldn’t face or satisfy. I’ve got a nice little place, in a great neighborhood, the bills are paid and I even have a little nest egg. And I still keep a journal, for all the same reasons. As I sit here and sip my whiskey rocks in the darkening living room of my nice little place, I can see my journal: a maroon cloth-bound book, undecorated, a bit more than an inch thick, worn on the corners, the spine a little broken for having had a pen tucked inside it for the couple of years I’ve owned it. A humble mass-produced object that’s nevertheless, through long use and wear and tear, been made undeniably mine.

And sitting next to it is a journal that once was identical to the other, but is now slightly different, and yet still mine in some subtle way I can’t put my finger on. I stare at it, afraid to touch it again, feeling a knot in my stomach at how similar and not it is from the one I’d just pulled from my shelves.

At work today I had received a text from Aileen, breaking the 7 or 8 month silence since we’d broken up. She hoped I was doing well and had something of mine she would like to return. I was cautious but curious, and when I replied positively I asked what it was. She ignored that and said she would meet me after work for a drink. For her, that meant coffee, which had been a point of tension between us, but since I didn’t want to fight, again, I suggested a coffee shop near her work. She surprised me again by saying that place was closed and counter-offered Heaven, a place we had frequented when we were together, and before we were together. I didn’t want to read between the lines any more than I already was, so I agreed.

Heaven, whose name was now ironic to me. I couldn’t believe I was here again. Two small wrought-iron tables on the sidewalk outside reminded me of nothing so much as the fight we’d had that had become the start of our breakup. Stepping in I caught the aroma of roasted coffee beans, the sound of chatter, 80s music, and the espresso steamer, and the sight of dark wood paneling, white oak tables and chairs, the stairway up to a small balcony on which couches Aileen and I had talked and dreamed and bonded. As below, so above.

She was seated, back to the wall, facing the door, with a large white mug holding an intricate piece of ephemeral steamed milk art. She warmed her hands, and leaned forward, and her hair, which was once pale blonde, had now been expertly dyed a warm auburn.

“Aren’t you going to get a drink?” she asked as I sat. Her face was serene, even relaxed, although one of her legs was shaking under the table just out of sight.

“I don’t really feel like it. Why here, Aileen? No bad memories?” I slung my bag off my shoulders and set it down.

“Why would I? We spent so much time here. The happy memories outweigh any bad.”

“OK. How are you? Is it OK if I tell you I like your new hair? I don’t know the rules. I want to ask if you’re happy, if you’re seeing someone, but I don’t want to be that guy.” I leaned forward. “I really do want you to be happy now.”

“That’s sweet. And thank you. You look… like you’re about to jump out of your skin. Is this so strange? But I don’t think that’s the conversation we should have. Not yet.” She reached down to one side and from the black backpack she used as a purse, pulled out the maroon journal.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Aileen! Have you had that this whole time?” My cheeks, instantly hot; my heart, immediately in high gear. I wanted to tear it out of her hands but I felt frozen in fear and anger.

“You recognize it, but of course you do. Don’t be like that, don’t be angry. I found it last week. It’s not like I’ve been keeping it since we broke up. I mean I guess I have but I didn’t know it. We were, I was moving the bedroom around and when, it was under the bed, I guess, mixed in with the storage and boxes. I didn’t know what it was, but when we flipped through it, I could see that it was yours, and I didn’t read any further. I knew it was private, and I respected you enough to keep that private.”

“I’m sorry for shouting. I assumed, and I should know better. Even when I would write in it, I know how curious you were to know what I was writing.”

“I resented it. It felt like you were keeping secrets. At the time. I know better now. Too late, too late.” And yet she still held on to it, with two hands, the coffee ignored. She continued, “But… before I could call you, before I could bring myself to even text you. I was, still, curious. I’m sure you understand.”

“Not fucking likely, Ai. Why don’t you give it to me so I can go? This is a strange kind of torture to inflict on an old boyfriend.”

She took a deep breath and her hazel eyes nearly glowed in the dark shop. “I need to show you something. I think I was meant to find this for you. We weren’t together that long but long enough for me to recognize the years this covers. Listen.” She cracked the book open toward the beginning. Paging through and pointing at my handwritten dates and words, she explained. “This is that time you were in a car accident, and totaled your friends’ car.” Flip. “This is when you and I first met. You said the sweetest things in here, though you were kind of a jerk to me in person. You were nervous, I guess?” Flip. “Here must be where you were struggling with your new boss.” Flip, flip. “These are just dreams you had.” Flip, flip.

She looked up at me, held my gaze. “And here’s where you broke up with me. December 16, last year.” She spun the book flat on the table so it faced me, and I could see for myself. My handwriting, undeniably. But my handwriting was telling a story that didn’t happen. That was months earlier. Aileen and I had had some fights around Christmas but we’d patched things up, had stayed together, moved in together in late January.

“It’s you, it’s your words. Keep reading, you need to see what happens after it gets left in my bedroom.”

I flipped forward a page or two but I was dizzy and could hardly see straight or move my fingers well. The next couple of entries were about being heartbroken but resigned. Then a gap of several weeks, and a new entry mentioning a new job and seeing a therapist. The sounds of the coffee shop were overshadowed by rushing in my ears.

“This is fuckery of the most sadistic kind, Ai. I can’t even begin to understand how you pulled this off.” I swept up the book, stood up, grabbed my bag and stormed for the door. But some part of my brain knew I was lying.

“Keep reading, Cal! It’s important! Keep reading! You’ll want to know!” She stood but did not follow me.

I made my way back home, stuffing the book in my bag. Once home, I poured a drink, and another, steeling myself to go look on the shelf for the journal I knew was still there. When the warmth of the whiskey had spread from my belly enough to help me breathe calmly, I dug the other journal out of my bag, and arranged the pair of them on the table in front of me.

I knew what was in the journal that had been resting on my shelf. But still I leafed through the pages to reassure myself. Yup, that was all as I remembered it.

But the new one – well, not new, it was apparently exactly the same age as the other – this one, it got to a certain point and then it diverged. And actually the drift started happening even before the breakup with Aileen. According to the me that wrote this, I missed a day of work that I had actually not; I’d seen a movie in the theater that I remembered catching on Netflix; my exercise routine was ever slightly different than I had documented for myself. Bit by bit, it added up over time.

Reading further than the breakup became almost physically impossible. As I approached that date in the journal, my arms grew heavy and my mind reeled. I had to force myself to continue. What happened next? I wanted to know. I wanted to forget all this.

I managed to skip ahead several pages. The me who wrote this book had become severely depressed. He’d fought with his co-workers. He’d begun using up all his sick time. He’d fallen apart. The therapy helped, a little. Friends had stepped up and tried to listen, but I, or he, or we? hadn’t listened. He wrote of being lost, of having gotten on the wrong track. His therapist had prescribed meds but we forgot to take them, and then rationalized it as for the better; we didn’t want to further cloud our mind.

I tried to trace back to when the feeling started and, re-reading the journal, I had realized it seemed to be centered on Aileen. But I knew that I couldn’t just show up like this. She’d think I was a madman. So I had texted her, and told her that I had found something of hers, that I wanted to give it back to her…

In my living room, the heat from the whiskey was instantly replaced by ice.

I read further. Not many pages left.

I offered to meet her at Heaven. She had agreed. Seeing her again, in that familiar shop, was indescribably, deliriously joyful. We recognized a connection, started making lunch dates, and dinner dates, and before long, we were dating again. I documented all this in my journal, in this journal, and in the final entry, with blank pages yet to be written, dated just a few short weeks ago, I was writing that Ai and I had agreed to move in together, since I had been spending so much time there.

The final words, in my hand writing, on the last filled in page, were: “But there’s still something off. Something’s not right. I have one last thing to fix.”

There’s a knock on my door.

The Princess and the Brewer – Daily Story Project #6

Tonight I try my hand at fantasy, using settings and ideas I’ve had in my notes for my Dungeons & Dragons game, currently on extended hiatus. Perhaps this will scratch my itch for low fantasy, and maybe my current players will stop by and be reminded the game should continue…

“Don’t stoke the fire too high, children. The night is dark and more than a few things in these mountains can see far better than we, and eat more than small game,” the woman said as she skinned the the faun she had caught just before sunset. As these two knew well, she thought.

The boy, younger than his sister, immediately opened his eyes, sat back, and dropped the stick he’d been poking into the flames. The girl, four or more seasons older than her brother, just stared from under her green wool hood, morose, tired, and dirt-faced.

“Didin’t mean to startle you, Mettio. I’ve been quiet while I worked. Just… perhaps you two need a distraction. It’s been a long day.”

The girl just clutched her legs to herself. “I miss auntie and mama,” she said, her mouth muffled by the way she’d tucked her chin into the neck of her loose shirt.

“Ah, I know, I know, I know, Rila. It’s a… a shame. What happened.” She continued to skin the deer, her motions smooth, the evidence of years of practice showing in the well-made boiled leather armor she wore, her knife flashing orange as it caught the orange light of the campfire. “I have no words that will help you, but it’s a thing that happens in the world. Death comes to us all. Your parents died but they died bravely. I’m lucky to have gotten to you when I did. That bear could have gotten you two, too.” She stopped, still crouching over the carcass that she’d laid out on a canvass, blood and guts everywhere but expertly contained. “Perhaps a story, to ease your minds while I get some of this little deer ready to feed us?”

Rila said, much louder and braver than before, “Where are you taking us?”

“That’s not really a story, girl.” The woman’s eyes were so brown they were nearly black in the firelight but they drew both the children’s attention all the same. “I have been a bit less than loquacious, haven’t I? I mean to get you to Kopno’domas, though we may have a few stops before then.”

“The Jeweled City? Emerald gem of the Valley?” This was the boy, Mettio, his voice low with wonder. “Have you been there?” Rila hissed at him but the boy didn’t pay her any attention. “What’s it like?”

“Oh, it’s a bunch of walled wards straddling a wide muddy river, with its back to the hills. All sorts of folk live there, and they trade and they plot and they bicker and nobody agrees with anyone. But that’s not very interesting, except to the small minds who squabble for this shiny thing or that social advantage. But there are interesting stories to tell about the city’s beginnings.”

“The princess! Tell us about the princess!” Even the girl seemed interested, now, though she was shy to show any sign of it.

“You know that tale? That’s a good one. Very well. Get that kettle over the fire, carefully, you get some water in it, and the both you listen while I tell you what I remember of it.”

As the two siblings worked, she began to speak. “The Empress’s secondborn–” Mettio nearly contradicted her but she silenced him with a point of her finger “As I was saying, the secondborn, known to the Free Folk and Sunsetters like yourself as Babble, but her given name was… alas, it was lost when the Empire fell. But her name was not a mark of her character; she was a singer of bright songs, and a swords woman beyond compare, wielder of a , and when she came of age, knowing her older sister was the heir, she wandered across the face of the world. She wanted to see every part of the Empire her mother had built, and even the parts that still refused to join her, and when she’d seen all of that, she kept going, until she found the lands under the shadow of the sleeping Dragon.

“She saw the land, this land,” the woman waved her hand, still holding her knife, sweeping from the north, through the east, to the south. “The valley, green and lush, extending south, marked by a serpentine river, and filled with tall trees, beautiful glens, and folk both fey and foul. A valley even the Eld, who bent their knee to the Empress, seemed to fear to tread in. The Princess, who was headstrong and wanted to claim some kind of birthright, saw the beautiful valley and wanted it for herself. The Eld, those mysterious elfs to the north, simply ignored her, and the Dwarfs in their mountains were uninterested in it as well, and the Dragon was asleep and would be for centuries more, so Princess Babble set out to conquer it, exactly as she’d been told her mother had done a continent away to the east and centuries before.

“She found some hidden villages, Free Folk who had been long forgotten, and some of them agreed to send their sons and daughters with her to war, inspired by her songs. And she made war on the Cold Ones, the lizard-folk and kobolds, and tribe by tribe, acre by acre, she drove them from the valley or made them submit to her. She was impetuous but she was determined and she knew strategy as if it were her mother’s gift.

“But the larger creatures, the ogres, trolls, and giants, they resisted. And the smarter and stronger of them, three siblings, giants of the storm, ten times ten times the size of an Imperial or a Free Folk or a Sunsetter – though that name hadn’t been applied since you all didn’t exist yet – where was I? Ah, yes, the Giants Three led the resistance against Princess Babble. And the giants and their kin gathered in a camp on the plains east of the hills and east of the river at those hills’ base. And they dug into the ground to make a fortress, because many of them were nearly as skilled at stonework and building as the Dwarfs are, but they did not build up, as we do, but down into the earth. And they called it Turmlina, the Deep Mountain, and they dared the Princess to attack them there.

“And even with the army she had commanded, Princess Babble knew that she could not face the giant-kin in their warrens and dungeons. It would be a slaughter, and she was far too cunning a general for that. She did not throw her soldiers’ lives away. So she came up with a plan.

“She had an advisor that had traveled with her from her mother’s courts, a man of good cheer who was also a stout fighter, and his name was–”

“Rhoban!” the children shouted, nearly in unison. They startled at the sound of their own voices as it broke the cold night air, and, their chores finished, sat down as the woman continued the story.

“Yes, Rhoban, the Brewer, of whom other stories are told to this day. She called on him to make his most potent drink, and in enormous quantities, so that she could bring it to the Giants Three as a peace offering. Rhoban labored, and before that summer became fall, he had done it. He had brewed beer fit for the gods. The Princess delivered three enormous casks of it, each the size of houses, to the gates of the Deep Mountain. And I don’t mean the little farmhouse you two, uh, never mind, children, never mind that. She ordered her army to march away towards the sea, and intended to wait for the giant-kin to come out and either kill her or talk to her. She hoped for the latter, of course, but she wasn’t afraid of a fight. Rhoban, of course, insisted he stay with her, though whether out of love, or duty, or simply a desire to taste the drink he’d made, the tales are quiet. Ha!

“She knocked on the gates that morning, that evening, and the following morning, and finally, the Giants Three deigned to notice her. They did her a dishonor by sending out the youngest, and weakest, Deigam. But even being the weakest, he towered over her as he rose up from the dungeons of Turmlina, throwing back the gates of carved stone that even a hundred men could not move. ‘What does the beetle want of us? Here to surrender?’ Deigam said. ‘I think I am hungry though you and your fat friend are barely enough to fill my belly.’

“The Princess did not waver, she simply said ‘Before you try to eat me, perhaps you need to wet your lips first. I brought you and your brothers a drink my people love. I wager that you’ve never tasted it’s like before. We believe that it alone is proof that the gods love us. Try some.’ And she stood there, her sword within reach but not in hand.

“The giant rightfully suspected a trick, of course, and he demanded proof that it was not poison. This insulted Rhoban, and the brewer, filled with indignation and offense, climbed up to the top of one of the barrels and invited the giant to pull the cork. When Deigam did that, Rhoban stripped out of his robe, and dived into the barrel, swimming around and drinking deeply of the beer that filled it, and finally climbed out. When Deigam asked about the second barrel, Rhoban demanded that the giant put the man over on that one, and he repeated the scene, doing backstrokes and washing himself all over before finally, reluctantly, climbing out. A third time, for the third barrel, although by this time, even Rhoban the brewer was feeling a bit tipsy.

“And now Deigam was disgusted and claimed that all the beer was contaminated by human stench, to which the Princess replied, ‘Weren’t you just saying you planned on eating us? Which is it, are we foul or are we delicious?” Deigam could actually smell the hops and caramel in the beer, and he had been growing thirsty, and so he finally gave in to his temptation and lifted one of the barrels and tasted it, and on so doing, his thirst overcame his suspicion and he drained the barrel completely empty.

“‘I guess that was your barrel, then,’ the Princess told him. ‘I brought three, one for you and your brother and your sister. A gift for a worthy trio of adversaries.'”

“‘Oh, let’s not be hasty,’ Deigam said. ‘They thought so little of you and of me that they sent me out here. Did you know they were actually afraid of you? You’ve been fighting us for seasons and seasons and I think you’ve put the fear of death in their hearts. But I see that you are not so scary. I think I like you. But,’ he said with a smile, ‘I intend to keep all this beer for myself.’ And he scooped the two remaining barrels up, one under each arm, and he sauntered back past the huge gates and down into the ground. But he left the gates open. Quietly, softly, the Princess and Rhoban slipped down the stairs behind the youngest giant, following him, staying in the shadows as well as they could, until they reached the Giants Three in their court hall.

“And when Deigam showed up with the two barrels of beer, his brother and his sister were just as suspicious as he had been before. But they could also see that their younger brother was sloshed, so they knew he had been partaking. And they demanded a taste of the brew, which angered Deigam, who put down the barrels and, drunk, raised his fists to Tergos and Vugara, and soon enough they were brawling, smashing the giant tables and chairs, taking makeshift clubs to each other, shaking the entire valley as they clashed, over a taste of beer. Deigam may have been the youngest and smallest, but he was the most motivated, since he’d tasted Rhoban’s brew, and in the end he stood, victorious, over his unconscious brother and sister.

“Which is when the Princess rushed in, Rhoban beside her, and took advantage of the injured and tipsy giant, and in three great slashes of her sword, killed him and chopped off his head. She managed a coup de gras on the remaining two, as well, and then she and Rhoban rolled all three heads out of the dungeon and set them atop stone towers on each of the three hills nearby, where legend says they remain to this day, facing east towards the Empire and serving as a warning to any foul creatures that would stand against the Secondborn.

The two children were yawning and their bellies were full by now, as dinner had been cooked and served during the telling. But they had stayed up for the end of the story, and now the woman firmly directed them towards their bedrolls, and she let the fire burn down, and then she leaned back against a tree and finished her own meal.

She stayed up all night, keeping watch, and once or twice, idly, she reached over to her pack, opening the flap, to make sure that the heart was still there. The heart of the children’s mother, her sister, that she had had to cut out, before the children had found her.

They think their mother was killed by a bear, she thought. I guess a she-bear is close enough.

At dawn, they broke camp and began moving west, toward Kopno’domas.