Shadow Stuff

When the front door opened suddenly, he was sitting in his living room. Without any noise, a figure made entirely of shadow stuff walked in and sat down in the other arm chair. It had done nothing threatening, yet he was terrified.

“Who are you?” He tried to keep his voice steady, with only partial success.

The figure did not respond.

“What are you doing here?”

Still the figure said nothing.

“If you don’t leave right now, I’m going to call the police.” The threat was empty. The police would do nothing. They might even ridicule him.

The figure had still not reacted, so he tried to ignore it. If it wouldn’t leave, he resolved not give it any attention. Perhaps it would go away on its own.

For days, he acted as though it wasn’t there. It followed him everywhere, always sitting in the room where he was. It accompanied him when he left the house and returned when he did. At night, it slept in his bed next to him. Though it never tried to communicate, it was always present.

When he thought he could no longer take it, he began screaming at it. Once, he thrust a sharp knife into it. It changed nothing, except the figure seemed to get a little bigger. Every time he got angry at it, the figure grew just a little more.

Whenever he went out of the house, no one said anything about the figure. Perhaps they were politely ignoring it, pretending as if it weren’t there. Even so, he became more and more self-conscious of it, and eventually stopped going out at all. Life itself had lost all joy, and still the figure said nothing.

Feeling as though he had nothing left to lose, he finally sat down facing the figure.

“I have tried ignoring you. I have tried threatening you. I have tried screaming at you. I am out of ideas. So now I will listen to you. Just tell me, what is it you want?”

The shadowy figure that had come to look just like him said but one word. “Acceptance.”

Reflections on The Cabal

The Cabal began as a one-off story. The main character of that story – Jason – was based on a character I had played in a tabletop RPG over 25 years ago. That character (whose name has completely escaped me) was inspired very loosely by Peter Falk’s Columbo. The name of the group was a quick momentary decision with little thought behind it. That’s why you’ve never seen “The Cabal” used in the text of any of the stories.

Almost immediately after writing that first story, I realized I had created a set of characters that I wanted to get to know better. It’s been several years since I had a regular gaming group, so I began to think of these characters and their stories as a stand-in for role-playing, where I get to play all of the characters. (I’ve also thought about this as a serialized story like a comic book.)

I’ve now been living with these people for almost two years. Some of them I like better than others. And some of them I feel as though I understand more than others. One of the things I appreciate about being around characters for this long is when they surprise me. Julia has done this more than others, perhaps, but I have also learned a lot about both Rebecca and Bailey. The biggest surprise, by far, was the end of the “Death in the Family” arc. The original plan did not include anyone’s actual death, and certainly not the death that transpired. In fact, I was nearly done writing that story when I realized what the ending was going to be.

That is not uncommon in my longer stories. I might figure out the major beats before I start, but there is a lot of flexibility built in so that the characters have the freedom to do the unexpected. I’ve gotten to know these characters over the last two years, and I still enjoy their company.

So I intend to continue telling their stories for now. I will also still drop in the occasional one-off story now and then. I hope you’ll stick around and see where this goes next.

Three Wishes

Smoke billowed from the lamp and slowly took the form of a large, androgynous person. The whole scene looked like a special effect in a movie. The creature spoke with a booming voice.

“You may have three wishes. And before you ask, you cannot wish for more wishes.” It sounded bored.

“Can I wish for fewer wishes?” Yes, I’m a smart ass, but I was also genuinely curious.

“What? Fewer wishes? Why would you want to do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I don’t need three.”

“So waste a wish or two. Wish for a penny or something.” Irritation was obvious in its voice, but there was something else, too. Interest.

“Okay. So how much of a stickler are you? Will you twist my words to create unintended outcomes?”

“For someone who has just been granted wishes, you ask a lot of questions.”

“I just know that everything comes with a price. I’m trying to decide if I’m willing to pay what these wishes will cost.”

“Just be clear. You’ll get what you ask for.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. What do you get out of this? I mean, you can’t be doing this just out of the goodness of your heart.”

Exasperation was becoming increasingly evident in its body language. “Why do you care? Are you always this suspicious when people give you gifts?”

“Do you like doing this? Is it fulfilling?”

“Are you going to make a wish or not?”

“What happens if I don’t? Do I lose them?”

The genie sighed. “No. You summoned me. I have to grant you three wishes, and I can’t move on until you do.”

“Really? That sounds kind of awful. I’m sorry I’ve kept you so long. Would you like me to make them so you can leave?”

It looked at me carefully. “You do ask a lot of questions, but at least you’re not boring.”

“Do you get lonely?”

“Honestly, I’ve never thought about it. I was created to exist in the lamp and to grant wishes. That’s the only existence I’ve known, so I have nothing to compare it to. Hard to feel lonely if this is the only reference point.”

“So you’ve never thought about a different life?”

“This is my purpose. There are no other options.”

“Hmm. I think I’ll take that penny now.”

“What?”

“I wish for a penny.”

“Are you sure? You want one of your wishes to be for a penny?”

“Yep.”

“Very well.”

I didn’t see it wave its hands or even move, yet a penny suddenly appeared before me.

“So did this come from somewhere? Or did you make it?”

“It came from somewhere. You didn’t ask for a counterfeit penny, after all. And no, I didn’t take it from someone; it had been lost. Now it’s yours.”

“Really? So if I asked for a million dollars, where would it come from?”

“Is that your second wish?” I could hear a little disappointment in its voice.

“No. I was just wondering where the money would come from.”

The genie smiled. “Good. I was afraid you had gotten boring.”

“What about getting rid of all weapons?”

“Don’t bother. Others have tried. Sadly it doesn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not sure. Some things are beyond my power. Until humans want to get rid of them, it seems you’re stuck with them.”

“That sucks.”

“Is there really nothing you want? No one has ever wished for a penny before. In fact, no one has taken so long to use their wishes.”

“Well, I believe you’re not out to trick me, given your reactions so far. But there really isn’t anything I can think of. Your response to the weapons idea suggests you can’t do much about social issues, either. I’m not foolish enough to try to bring back the dead. I can’t really think of anything.”

“I’m stuck here until you do.”

“Can I free you from the lamp?”

The smile on the genie’s face got bigger. “I know you mean well, and it’s a thoughtful idea, but the lamp is my home. Without it, I’m not sure what I’d be.”

“I bet you get a lot of dumb, even mean, requests.”

“Sometimes.”

“Okay, how about this. I wish you could decide whether or not to grant someone’s wish.”

“Seriously?”

“Why not? I mean if you’re stuck with this existence, you should at least have a say in what you do.”

“Are you sure about this wish?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. Your wish is granted.”

“Excellent.”

“You are the oddest human being I think I’ve ever met.”

“Really? That’s sweet of you to say.”

“Is it?”

“Indeed. And I think I know what my third wish is.”

“Shouldn’t you have made that before you let me decide whether I will grant wishes?”

“Nope. My third wish is that you and I can hang out and be friends. But only if you want to.”

“That’s your third wish?”

“Yes.”

“Definitely the oddest.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Indeed.”

Merely Surviving

He laid on the bed and listened to the downpour hammer on the roof of the small cabin. Days like this were the worst. The heavy rain made going outside impractical, even dangerous, and there was nothing to do inside. The few books he had were falling apart from being read so many times. The only thing left was thinking, and that had led to some dark places recently.

This planet had plenty of resources. Numerous plants were edible, and small game animals added variety. Few large predators lived nearby, and they left him alone. Even the climate in this region was generally mild. Except for the rain. Barring injury or illness, there was no reason he couldn’t live to an old age. That reality had begun to weigh on him.

Surviving was not a difficult prospect, but there was nothing for him to do. It had been at least a couple of years since he had helped his crew mates escape while stranding himself. It may have been a lot longer. He had given up keeping track of the days. After building the cabin, the repetitiveness began to erode his interest in living. The day to day necessities kept him busy, but there was no goal beyond surviving.

Finally the rain began to let up. He took the opportunity to go outside and get away from his thoughts. Several fruits were easier to find after a storm, so he decided to do a little foraging. Before heading out, he strapped his sidearm on to his waist. It was one of the few pieces of his uniform that still existed.

At the foot of a tree just out of sight of the cabin, he tied one end of a rope to a basket and began climbing. Once he was high enough, he tossed the other end of the rope over a branch and pulled the basket up. He secured the rope and began filling the basket with fruit. They looked similar to the bananas from Earth, but their flesh was more like that of an orange or a lemon. They tasted different from all of them. Once the basket was reasonably full, he untied the rope and slowly lowered it to the ground. The fruits became inedible once bruised, which they did easily.

Just before the basket reached the ground, he spotted one of the more dangerous animals he had encountered on this planet. It had a head that resembled a bear’s but a body that was closer to that of a mountain lion. They climbed trees easily, so he tried to remain still and avoid drawing its attention.

The creature sniffed at the basket near the ground, but quickly lost interest. Raising its snout into the air, it began searching for the source of another scent. Within moments it began to focus on the tree he was in.

Slowly, he drew his firearm. He didn’t want to shoot the creature, but he would if necessary. Aiming at it, he waited for it to leap. It sprang up to the lowest branches, and he squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened. He tried to remember the last time he had fired the weapon but couldn’t. Its charge was completely depleted. The creature was making its way up, inching closer. Watching it carefully, he decided his best option was to try to hit it mid-jump and try to throw off its balance.

Before he could try, the creature turned as though something had alerted it. It jumped down and disappeared into the woods. He hadn’t heard anything but remained in the tree, scanning his surroundings. After several minutes, and nothing obvious happening, he made his way down the tree.

As he made his way back to the cabin, he tried to stay low to the ground and used various bushes and trees to hide behind. The world had gone silent, which made his every move sound much louder in his ears. Still, outside of the quiet, there was nothing out of the ordinary.

However, outside the cabin, there was something he couldn’t quite make sense of. There was a tall, thin humanoid figure pacing around the building. It shone with a bright yellow light that made it impossible to determine any details or features. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. And the most terrifying. He wanted to escape, but he couldn’t even look away.

Then it spoke. Its voice was music, high and airy. There didn’t seem to be any words, but the meaning was clear.

“Captain? Are you here?”

The voice was that of his first mate, but perfected. Ignoring that part of him that was screaming with terror, he stepped out of the woods. The creature before him filled him with awe even though it was familiar.

“Katherine? Is that you?”

“Captain! There you are. We finally made it back.”

“But how . . . ?”

“We have traveled far to return and rescue you. We will explain it all, as much as we can. For now, will you come with me?”

“How long has it been?”

“Twelve years. I am sorry it took us so long.”

The sadness in that apology brought tears to his eyes. Nothing this beautiful should exist, much less apologize.

“Am I dreaming?”

“No. You were stuck in a nightmare. I am here to wake you up. Will you come?”

“Of course, I’ll go anywhere with you.”

Even though he could not make out a face, the being who had been his first mate still managed to convey a smile. She (if that was the right word anymore) wrapped her arms around him and carried him away.