Short Story Friday

A STRANGE PROPOSITION FROM A STRANGER

Arbor Winter Barrow

“I’ll have you know I don’t normally show up to luncheons wearing designer sequins carrying a toolbox.” The woman wasn’t just wearing designer sequins and carrying a toolbox, her hair was frazzled and sticking about in all directions. There was definitely glitter in it too.

”Oh?” I asked, uncertain. I didn’t know who this woman was or what she had wanted but I had been sitting at the Sammy’s Sammiches minding my own business when this woman had plopped down across from me.

“May I?” The woman held the toolbox over the table where my notebook and cellphone were sitting.

I moved most of my stuff out of the way just in time for her to drop the toolbox loudly on the table top. The only casualty was my half-eaten sandwich. The other patrons of the sandwich shop looked over, some annoyed, some concerned. I tried to form some kind of verbal protest but the woman opened the toolbox and pulled out a stack of loose papers. Was she using a heavy tool box for a briefcase? All things considered I guess that wasn’t the strangest thing.

The woman eyed the papers like she couldn’t quite make out what they said and then leaned over the table at me conspiratorially. “How about forty acres?”

“Forty acres?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“Mars?” She said this as if it were obvious.

“Mars?”

“What are you, fifty?”

I squinted at her, confused. “Twenty-three.”

“My apologies, it’s hard to tell these days. You’re a young lady, you are a lady right? Last time I assumed I misgendered someone and they were not happy. I felt terrible about it for days, I’m absolutely determined to never do it again.”

I just nodded. “You’re right… this time.” Was this woman for real?

“I know forty acres on that dustball of a planet doesn’t sound all that great, but listen, terraforming is only a decade away, what costs you pennies on the dollar today will get you a thousand times the investment.”

“Wait a second. Are you trying to sell me real estate on Mars?”

“It’s what we agreed to!”

“Uh, I didn’t agree to anything.”

“Look, I know you might be having second thoughts–”

“I’m not having second thoughts, I haven’t even had first thoughts. I’m just sitting here trying to enjoy a sandwich between my classes and you turned it into a pancake with your toolbox.” I pointed to the pitiful thing, half-eaten and half-squished.

The woman peered around the toolbox and frowned. “Why ever would you put your sandwich under a toolbox?”

“That’s…oh my god.” I ran my hand across my face and tried to find an escape route without being obvious about it.

“Listen here Miss Cargill–”

“Thomas,” I said absently and regretted it the second I did.

“Excuse me?”

“My last name is not Cargill; it’s Thomas. Dany Thomas.” What was I doing?! Run away you fool! Abort! Abort!

“Are you sure?” She looked mildly alarmed.

I pointed to the student ID clipped to my collar.

“Oh my.” The woman leaned back and stared at me like she we seeing me for the first time. “You’re not the person I’m supposed to meet.”

“No…shit,” I said with heavy sarcasm. “You owe me a new sandwich.”

“Where’s Cargill?”

“How should I know?”

“I was supposed to meet them here.”

I lifted my hands in a shrug and then waved my open palms in a half-circle to indicate the rest of the sandwich shop.

“Oh, this is bad! I’ll lose my commission over this!”

“Listen, don’t worry about it. I won’t tell anyone.” Lies! I’m telling everyone this bonkers story!

“Oh no, you don’t understand. It was certain, for sure, the contract is right here! It’s supposed to be signed today! If I don’t have a signature and a buyer, I’m toast! I’ll be banished to live on Mercury! Oh, what a world! The worst. No margaritas anywhere!” She genuinely looked on the verge of tears.

“Are you okay? Humans have only been to the moon. No one is going to send you to Mars, much less Mercury.”

“Oh you poor human girl, you don’t get it do you?”

“I’m obviously not getting something, no, so please enlighten me.” Why? Why did I keep encouraging her?

The woman wiped at a nonexistent tear and seemed disappointed there was nothing there except specks of glitter. “I’m from a small backwater planet about fourteen light years from here. This was supposed to be my big break into interplanetary real estate. This pilot program was going to boost our economy and everyone in my family was going to be able to afford all the finest luxuries.”

I was nodding encouragingly until the entire thing percolated through my sleep deprived, over studied, hyper caffeinated brain. “What?” I said stupidly.

“You wouldn’t know it, I think it shows up as being about fourteen light years from here on your star maps.”

“You’re an alien?”

“For better or worse.”

This lady was either on the fast train to crazy town or already there. Or she was telling the truth. She seemed legitimately upset that I wasn’t the person she was supposed to meet. I honestly didn’t know which direction I wanted to believe.

“Alright,” I said and crossed my arms across my chest. “Assuming that you’re telling me the truth. How do I know that I’m actually going to get the forty acres after I pay?”

I think she got glitter in her eyes while wiping at invisible tears because suddenly they were sparkling. “You’re interested?”

“Maybe.”

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” The lady started frantically going through her toolbox. “I’ll have to amend the contract but that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“First, what’s your name?”

“Unpronounceable!”

“Your name is Unpronounceable?”

“Oh! No! I mean, yes, but when I’m here I go by Chuck.”

“Chuck. Okay, Chuck, my last question…”

“How do you know you’ll get the forty acres?”

“Yes.”

Chuck readjusted herself and a new demeanor took over her posture. She was cool, confident, and sparkly in her designer sequins.
“I am not of this world. However in two years’ time the Galactic First Contact Association will be contacting your world and providing technological advancements, assistance, and personnel. Your species has been selected for a pilot program to determine if near-space faring species can be contacted and enriched without destroying themselves.”

“That’s encouraging.”

“It is isn’t it? I’ve seen the reports, even if you do destroy yourselves the chance that another sentient species will rise on your planet is at nearly 88%! Those are great odds.” Chuck didn’t seem to realize that wasn’t encouraging at all.

“So in two years we get contacted and then we get to go to Mars?”

“Yes! We give you the supplies and provide transport and a 25 hour help desk!”

“25?”

“A Martian day is almost an hour longer!”

My phone beeped and I pressed my finger to the near-silent alarm. It was almost time to head back to class. I could miss one class of Special Topics in Anthropological Literature. I could probably write a whole essay about what I was experiencing right now. If it was real.

“Now, since you are being introduced to this fresh, I don’t want to force you into a contract you know nothing about. May I see your cellular device?”

I clutched my phone close to my chest and frowned at her. “Why?”

“I need to call in a transport.”

I reluctantly handed over my phone and she fussed with it for a moment before awkwardly holding it up to her ear.

“Karen! I need a transport from my location to the prospective acreage. Yes. Yes. That too. New inductee! Byeeee!” Chuck handed me the phone back and smiled happily.

“So…where are we going?”

“Mars!”

“Uh…”

I didn’t have a second to question that idea because the air around us started to glimmer and a feeling of warmth replaced the cool sandwich shop AC. The chair under me disappeared and I fell to the floor. But not the floor of the sandwich shop, the floor of a UFO.

Chuck appeared next to me and lifted me up onto my feet. “Apologies, our gravity is heavier than yours.” Once I got my feet under me and stable enough I got a good look at the rest of the room. A wide window looked out on Earth and in the distance I saw a sliver of the moon. Other than the window, the room didn’t have many other features. There was a wide doorway that led into a hallway and a single console in the middle of the room.

Chuck tapped the floor with her foot and the area opened up. A couch lifted up and Chuck pushed me to a seat.

Okay, up till now, I had just been playing along, looking for a good story, and not really taking Chuck’s antics seriously. But I was sitting on a purple couch IN A UFO! I was looking at the southern hemisphere of the Earth. Australia and New Zealand took up the length of the window.

“Ready to see your new plot of land on Mars?” Chuck asked.

I just nodded, at a loss for words.

Chuck took up a position in front of the window and tapped her foot on the floor again. A control panel lifted out of the floor and Chuck tapped happily on the buttons. “Here’s hoping I don’t bring this back to Karen dented!”

“Dented?” I asked. The view out the window shifted as the ship turned away from Earth. I felt no movement or momentum. The only indication that we were moving coming from the track of stars across the viewer as the ship turned. The view went white and colors streaked as the ship zoomed forwards. In seconds we were no longer in orbit around Earth. The rust red surface of Mars filled the window and I gasped again. The pictures I had seen of Earth and Mars from space did nothing to compare to seeing them with my own eyes. I gingerly got up off the couch and went to stand next to Chuck at the window.

“Amazing isn’t it?” Chuck asked.

“I can’t believe it.”

“Seeing is believing!”

Chuck tapped a sequence into the console in front of her and the ship began to descend. I watched with amazement as the Martian landscape filled the viewer and Chuck landed the ship on a flat, rocky bit of terrain. In the distance, huge mountains broke up the horizon line.

Chuck led me further into the ship and at an airlock had me pull on an overlarge EVA suit. I felt like I was wearing a tent. “Why is this so big?”

“This is the suit that was made for the previous contract signer. We had their measurements prior to this flight. After we visit your plot of land we’ll have to have to get your measurements.”

“My measurements? What for?”

We have to make sure we get the right habitat for you. We can’t be trying to put a human sized person into a cat sized habitat now can we?”

“Wait, are you selling Martian real estate to cats, too?”

“Well, of course! They have every right to be there just like you!”

The image of a cat habitat with cats in little cat jumpsuits was unavoidable. I snickered.

“Come along!” Chuck had her own suit on, and of course, it had sequins and glitter all over it. We walked out onto the Martian surface. Chuck used a little red laser pointer to show me the area of land I was being sold.

“How much?” I asked after a minute. It was too much to take in. As soon as I got back I was going to skip class and go home and sleep.

“One US dollar an acre.”

“A dollar…an acre? That’s really cheap.”

“Like I said, pennies on the dollar!” She clapped and then wiggled her fingers outwards like she’d just performed a magic trick.

Forty dollars wasn’t that much if this all turned out to be real, but forty dollars was a weeks’ worth of groceries for my poor college ass if it wasn’t.

“What’s the chance this all falls through and I don’t get to come to Mars?”

“Oh! The money is held in escrow until successful integration and introduction is complete.” Chuck seemed really proud of that.

“Wait, why do you even need money? Earth money isn’t going to be good on other planets.”

“On the contrary. The galactic economy is built on the economies of every species in it. If your planet successfully enters the galactic society your Earth money will be incorporated. One of the reasons my people are doing this is because the sooner you get a jump on and initial standard of another planet’s money the more profitable you’ll be.”

“Well that sounds really complicated.”

“It is.” Chuck nodded.

I looked out on the barren desert and tried to imagine it lush with gardens and greenery. “Two years?”

“Two years. I believe they will try to aim for a slow news day on Earth. They have some algorithm they follow but that is not my forte.” Chuck smiled at me through her helmet.

“Alright. Sure. Let’s do it. I can eat ramen for a week.”

“Oh! Ramen!”

“You can come by my apartment and have some if you want.”

“I would enjoy that. I’m very fond of the chicken flavor. It’s very ubiquitous.”

I laughed. “That’s one word for it.”

So I signed the contract and handed over forty dollars. Chuck joined me for a ramen lunch and two years passed with little trouble. There were only a couple times I regretted the purchase. But the ride to Mars alone was worth it. I graduated from university, got a job as a programmer, and found myself sitting in a cubicle typing code for hours on end. Above my monitor I had a postcard with a picture of Mars on it. Chuck had given it to me after I’d signed the contract. I had put a sticker of a cat in a spacesuit on it at some point.

Chuck had never given me an exact timeline of when Earth would be contacted by aliens but I really wanted it to be today. It was slow, the news was just stories about a goat rescue in China, reforestation in Chile after a forest fire, and every baking show was a rerun.

I guess whoever was in charge was listening, because every screen in the office flickered and a message appeared on the screen.

“Hello, people of Earth. We come in peace.”

◊◊◊

The End

 

Find & Follow!

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~Arbor Winter Barrow

https://arborwinterbarrow.com/

Writer | Artist | Jane of Most Trades

 

Monsters & Angels: The Series

Halloween is in the Air!

 

A lone soldier on night watch. A single bullet through the heart. Every light in Paris flickers—the city’s thundering silent scream.
When Commander Raimond Banitierre was assassinated, French Revolutionaries lost their gallant leader. After a villain’s offer of eternal life condemned him to slavery, Raimond rebelled again, driving his vampire comrades to freedom.
Raimond escapes to Savannah, Georgia where his dream of becoming a doctor comes true. During his trial-by-fire residency on the Civil War’s battlefields, he discovers his true calling—the power to preserve memories and dignity in the face of death. His chance meeting with a beguiling mortal nurse ignites passionate nights and a long overdue crack in the door to paradise.
Vicious flames and an unholy miscalculation deliver Raimond back to the depths of hell. Being arrested for treason makes him wish for death and the arrival of Prince Draven Norman appears to be the final nail in Raimond’s coffin. Will the prince’s eccentric judgement grant Raimond a true reprieve? Is Draven’s invitation to join New Orleans mystical royalty an extension of his own treachery, or the next step in Raimond’s miraculous journey?
Has the legendary Crescent City found a spirit noble enough to protect her future?

♦♦♦♦♦

 

Fledgling nurse Sorcha Alden knew she had the skills to save lives, but she never dreamed that her own life would be the one in danger.

Driven by tragedy to honor her family name, Sorcha embarks on a journey that takes her from the bleak but familiar streets of New York, through the sultry and seductive city of New Orleans, and into the brutal jungles of Nepal. Forging friendships and carrying on her mother’s mission of healing was her dream. Plunging into a love affair with the mysterious Dr. Ashayle, could have been a fairytale.

Being murdered and waking up as a blood-thirsty monster—became her living nightmare.

Torn away from a life that had just begun, Sorcha returns to New Orleans as a newborn vampire, forced to start over in a cutthroat underworld of devilry and decadence. Complicated politics, bitter rivals and jealous ancestors stand between her and the promises she’s still determined to keep.

In a realm where the boundary between good and evil is as murky as the Mississippi River and immortal does not mean invincible, will Sorcha ever risk her shattered heart and love again? Can the magical harmony of the Crescent City give her enough courage to fulfill her eternal destiny?

Sorcha’s final word will make your jaw drop!

 

AnneMarieAndrus.com

 

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When Angels Weep

Dearest Sorcha,

     Last night, I saw the splendor of our future. Not in the glow of the bursting full moon or the blaze of crackling fire, but in the halo of my protégé.

     In a tiny room, bathed in the glow of a rose-glass lamp, one of our dearest and loveliest patients received the Lord’s call. Reaching for the light, the elderly woman’s fingers trailed the air as if a loved one’s grasp fell short, time and time again. The hand she finally found belonged to you—her lifeline between the realms of heaven and earth.

     Then tonight, I discovered you alone and grieving in our private chapel. Your tears fell to the stone floor with the weight of time’s relentless march, reminding me of all the life lights we’ve watched flicker out and the spirits we’ve had the privilege to set free. While we share what some call the curse of immortality, in your hands it’s a miraculous blessing. You, the youngest of old souls, soar closer to the flame than most of us dare—ever vulnerable to the heart-wrenching pain of human tragedy. Dignity and grace in the face of death…that is a talent born into your blood.

    So, on this year’s darkest and deepest of winter nights, I implore you to celebrate the ritual of Solstice with our family. We will feed well, drink deeply, and unite our energies until the veil separating us from the ancestors falls away.

    Mourning and respect offered for those lost, will heal your heart. Joy that transcends time and restores hope for the new year, will grant you wings.

               Until tomorrow night then, my brave angel,

               Carry on,

            Raimond

 

Craving

 

The wilted crowd dwindled as party-goers stumbled into the darkness, hurried home or hailed cabs. Only the drunkest were brave enough to stroll the streets, along with those who had nothing to fear from ordinary predators.

A man with jet-black hair loosened his silk tie and slowed his step in the middle of the sidewalk.

“Stop…stopping.” Steven crashed into him and bounced off as if he hit a steel wall.

The dark man’s eyes glazed over as he stared past a striped awning and into the soft light of the all-night kitchen.

“What’s wrong?” A young woman ran her hand over his midnight blue suit.

“I miss this.” He inhaled the aroma of coffee and fried oil. “So much it hurts.”

“Then quit breathing, fool.” Steven tried to pull the woman away. “When’s your boyfriend going to learn—can’t have luxuries from both worlds.”

“Not necessarily true.” She tapped her chin. “There’s a compromise.”

“At least the take-out line isn’t hideous—” Steven stepped over stains on the concrete and shuddered. “Mercy, this needs to be hosed down.”

“We’ll sit.” The woman said, pulling her boyfriend along as he tilted his head at the clink of spoons on white china.

“You’ve got to be joking.” Steven pointed to the disarray of tables and chairs. “To sip black coffee?”

“Like old times.” She pushed past him and shot a look over her shoulder. “Please?”

“I’m overdressed for this…a bit like that filthy bar crawl your forced me to endure, so we could hear rock music that made my ears bleed.” Steven whipped the silk square out of his lapel pocket. “Doesn’t this ensemble just scream smoky jazz club?”

“Screams something.” The man’s eyes wandered up a waitress’s arm as she poured coffee. He lingered on the pulse of her neck.

“You’ve had plenty of that tonight.” The woman snapped her fingers in front of his face and pushed a plate of powdered sugar across the table. “Try a different treat.”

The man dropped a pinch of sugar on his tongue. “It’s safe—for us, I mean?”

“Bit juvenile.” Steven rolled his eyes. “But, won’t kill you.”

The woman dropped her head to the table when her boyfriend smashed the plate into his own face.

“That man,” Steven poked her shoulder and waved away a blizzard of powder. “All yours. My hand to—”

“If you say God,” The man licked sugar off his knuckles. “I’ll break your scrawny neck.”

Steven raised his hand next to his face, straightening one finger at a time. “—to whoever’s in charge of this debacle.”

One Endless Note

Usually I agonize over my blog posts to make them perfect, lyrical masterpieces. In these days leading up to the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, all the pretty words have abandoned me.

Should I talk about it at all? Being quiet might be easier…but it feels wrong. I need to say something.

Those scary hours are jumbled in my head, fuzzy memories that still feel like yesterday. I was home in New Jersey, working nights and following the storm on every TV in the Intensive Care Unit. Most of my family was in New Orleans for Tulane move-in and a convention at the Superdome. I fell asleep the next morning relieved that they had all evacuated—caught one of the last planes out or took their rental car and drove east.

I woke to catastrophic images that are still seared in my mind. Precious life, love and history, stolen by the flood.

In the heartbreaking days afterward, I learned a lot about people I thought I knew. Very few “friends” here shared my grief. Some of the stupid comments I heard….

            “Why do you care about a city thousands of miles away? Isn’t everything that flooded a slum anyway? Can’t you just vacation somewhere else? Who builds a city below sea-level?”

And then, the most idiotic comment of them all…

“I think New Orleans needs to go bye-bye.”

In my entire life, I’ve never been so close to punching someone in the face.

Plenty of people shook my faith in human nature, but others lifted and restored it. Our friend Carol, drove a food truck around the parishes for weeks, feeding workers, recovery volunteers, and local residents just trying to survive. If we never told you, Carol, we are so very proud and thankful for your effort.

So, my husband Scott and I aren’t New Orleans residents.  Yet.  We may have fallen in love on vacation—so many do. For Scott it was 40+ years ago—getting up early and ordering coffee at Morning Call for his family. For me it was 20 years ago—whatever was in the air for my first breath, never let go. He wanted to rebuild with his hands. I wished I could help evacuate patients from the hospitals. We didn’t lose our home to the storm, but we felt sickeningly powerless and disconnected. How could we ever give back to a city that’s brought us such joy? Give back enough?

We went back the summer after the storm—before the cruise ships came back—while a lot of the restaurants and shops were still closed. We talked to every person, bought whatever caught our eye–enough to share with everyone at home.  We ate every breakfast at the Old Coffeepot on St. Peter St., because not much else was open and their omelettes are awesome. We searched for the shop that sold ceramic houses I collect and an artist that was my mother-in-law’s favorite. We rejoiced when we found them both.

If we ever complain that “the Quarter is so crowded”, we stop and remember when it was a ghost town and how desperately empty those streets felt without the music. Now, we embrace the crowds and (most of) the foolishness, because the alternative is unthinkable. Every chance we get, we introduce new people to New Orleans, bring them with us to visit and watch their eyes light up when they start to get “it”. That mission will go on forever.

I wrote Monsters and Angels as a distraction for my mind after Sandy caused so much destruction in New Jersey, but I set it in New Orleans.  My characters live there, my heart is there, my visits are more frequent—every few months. When it’s time to leave, Scott needs to pry my fingers off the airplane door so they can close it.

Last week, I heard Trombone Shorty play at a little theater in New Jersey. From the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s first song until the second line that closed the show, I let myself be spirited away. During one amazingly long note Shorty played…it went on for minutes…many, many minutes…it occurred to me. The first time I stepped onto New Orleans soil, I heard that note. Felt it in my soul. It started like a whisper, swelled into a symphony, flickered and almost died once—but it’s growing stronger again, every day.

One stirring, haunting, magically endless note.