The real and imaginative adventures of Dennis Spielman

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The Dragon with the Time-Traveler Tattoo

The Dragon with the Time-Traveler Tattoo

When a herd of dragons visits the small town of Valley, the mayor decides it’s his civic duty to greet them only to get caught in a mystery. 

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. Mayor Axepen was dead set on giving the unfamiliar herd of dragons a friendly welcome as part of his civic duty. In his 42 years of living on the Black Planet, Brutüs occasionally saw dragons fly throughout the skies, wait in line at the drive-through of a coffee shop, or deliver kegs of beer from a local brewery. Seeing over two dozen together was a rare sight.

Upon hearing of the arrival of dragons, Brutüs skimmed through Hugging Dragons: A Cultural Etiquette Guide to Befriending Flying Serpentines by Peigi MacLeòir. After all, Brutüs won the democratic mayoral race based on his platform of owning and reading the most books in the Valley. During his campaign, he also decorated his horns to appear less threatening, invited constituents to tea parties to listen to their concerns, and held ice cream soirées at the library while reading children’s stories. He successfully proved to the citizens of the Valley that he wasn’t some dumb, mean, brawny minotaur but a well-educated, compassionate, brawny minotaur.

Brutüs minded his steps up the hill of rainbow-colored flowers to not ruin the plants. He made a mental note to discuss adding gravel trails to the hill at the next town planning meeting as he thought all should enjoy the calming scents, colorful sights, and overall relaxing walk.

As he reached the top, he recalled MacLeòir’s advice on figuring out the leader. The book warned not to judge based on the size as sometimes the leader is the smallest one, or sometimes the leader was the largest, or the one with the most heads, or somewhere in the middle. The book said not to ask because if you happen to ask who the leader was and that was their leader, a fight would break out. Instead, the best course of action was to study the dragons to see who they watched the most. Everyone tended to keep an eye on the leader. However, with current technology, MacLeòir advised scanning the herd with a networker to find the answer.

Brutüs’ owned a networker designed to look like an ax, which he wore as a necklace. He lifted his networker and asked, “Networker would you tell me who is the leader here?”

“Scanning!” the networker replied in a cheerful tune as a holographic spinning rainbow ball projected out. “No information found. This appears to be an unregistered group. Sending out a request for more information.”

“Uhm,” Brutüs said, letting the network fall to his muscular chest. The holographic display faded off. “I’m glad I read that book first.”

Following the author’s advice, Brutüs watched the dragons, studying who they watched the most. Everyone seemed focused on a white, single-headed dragon, who was small by dragon standards but was still twice as big as himself, a 7-foot tall minotaur. He straightened his blue suit and decided to take a shot at welcoming the leader.

“Greetings,” Brutüs said with a big wave. “I am Mayor Axepen, and I welcome you to the Valley.”

The white dragon lowered her head in a bow, her spikes glistening in the morning sun. “Hello, Mayor Axepen. My name is Swift. We mean you no burden or trouble as we merely pass through to visit The Black Dragon.”

Brutüs nodded. The Black Dragon was the oldest and most influential living being on the planet. Although officially, The Black Dragon wasn’t the planet’s ruler – unofficially was a different matter. As a town leader, Brutüs was in charge of the yearly tribute in which the most talented artists competed to send their works of art to The Black Dragon. Fame often followed the winners as only the best would win. With The Black Dragon being practically immortal, the dragon would often auction or donate the works in the future for a significant profit. Brutüs viewed the tribute as a win-win and held neither a positive nor negative opinion of The Black Dragon. Although writing about The Black Dragon in his journals was a tiny bit of an inconvenience as The Black Dragon had no pronouns or titles. However, such an “inconvenience” was a nonissue matter for respecting one’s personal preferences.

“Very well,” Brutüs said, straightening his red and black striped tie. “If you are interested in obtaining coffee before your long journey, the drive-through at Gratitude Coffee can accommodate you.”

Fun fact about dragons: dragons are caffeine sensitive, and what would be a large coffee for a human would often be the perfect size for a dragon.

“Thank you, Mayor,” Swift said. “We may consider that.”

As Brutüs was about to leave, he caught sight of a tattoo of a human woman in a green dress with a green door on Swift’s arm. “If you don’t mind me asking, Swift, what is the story behind that tattoo?”

“Why do you think there’s a story?”

“I’ve never seen a tattoo of a human on a dragon before, that’s all.”

Swift brought up her arm to see the tattoo in question. “This…This was someone special to me. She saved my life. It’s a long story.”

“I do enjoy a long story if you enjoy sharing one.” Brutüs sat on a clean patch of ground. “I do have the time.”

Swift laid in a rested state. “Well, a long time ago, when I was about your size, I was an actress, and she was a director. She had a fiery spirit like the mightiest dragons – for a human. I later learned she was a time-traveler, but that’s getting ahead of myself.”

“A time-traveler?” Brutüs repeated, trying not to scoff in disbelief. In the entirety of Brutüs’ library, he only owned one book about time-travelers. In How to Survive an Encounter with a Time-Traveller by Filip Webb, the 150-page book only consisted of the word “Avoid” written on each page in different languages, font styles, and graphical representations.

“I sense your skepticism,” Swift said, “as I was a skeptic myself. To this day, she was the only time-traveler I met.”

“My apologizes,” Brutüs said. “I mean no disrespect. Please, do continue.”

Swift nodded. “This happened around when people believed rumors that a dragon’s spikes were potent aphrodisiacs. As I was leaving a solo act one night, I got mobbed by a gang. They had me chained and in a cage before I knew what was happening. They were professionals.”

A red tear ripped the clouds above Brutüs and the dragons. A ginormous spaceship–larger than the field of dragons–flew out from the portal. The sudden, looming shadow and the engine’s raging hum gave away the ship’s presence. Swift stood up, fully alert, while Brutüs sat in confusion.

“Gods,” Swift cursed. “Did you scan us by any chance?”

“I was trying to figure out who the group leader was,” Brutüs said.

Swift groaned and faced her fellow dragons. “Everyone, Evacuation Formation Beta. Rally together at point 13. Go!”

The dragons flew away, splitting into eight groups and going in separate directions. Without saying another word to the mayor, Swift left, joining up with one of the groups. Brutüs watched them leave as the ship opened fire on the dragons. He felt like someone had given him a prologue to a book while keeping the rest of the story for themselves.

The Dragon with the Time-Traveler Tattoo

I wrote this story for a short story contest at Vocal. The challenge was to write the first chapter of a fantasy novel with the following first sentence as a prompt: “There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.”

Thanks to Janine De Guzman for bringing the scene of Brutus and Swift meeting at the Valley.

I know this story has a total jerk ending, which I was playing to this being like a prologue. I may continue this saga if the story is well received. 😉

Proof of Hades

After her trip to the Underworld, Sally Wilkerson has a hard time convincing her friend of her experience until an opportunity presents itself to her as Hades and Persephone invite her to game night.

Best to read #TwinCities as this story picks up after its events.

Sally gazed at her unlit, fictional consultations on her black bedroom ceiling. She built the night sky herself using a combination of LED fairy lights and glow-in-the-dark plastic star stickers, while her walls consisted of trees and lakes of the Michigan landscape painted by her father. Her dad couldn’t stand plain white walls (with exceptions for inside cabinets and closets). Still, he respectfully left Sally’s bedroom white until her seventh birthday, when she was allowed to pick the design. Initially, the landscape was during the day, but when Sally turned 13, she wanted to make her night sky, so her father revamped his artwork to match.

Sally’s eyes drifted from the lion to the woman holding scales before she decided to roll to her side, facing her glossy black nightstand. “Why doesn’t he believe me?”

When Sally returned from her visit to the Underworld yesterday, Mark had already closed up the ice cream shop. So she rushed home and told her parents about her experience. They believed her before showing them the selfie with Hades. However, when she saw Mark at work today, he thought she was pranking him. She spent the first few hours of her shift trying to convince him to no avail. Then he spent the last few hours teasing her.

“How did your tea party with the Tooth Fairy go?” Mark had mocked. “Did you ask Santa if you made the nice list?”

Sally forced herself to sit up on her bed. She tapped on her phone, waking up the device to reveal the time was only 7:40 pm. She looked over her collection of a dozen board and card games scattered about on her bookshelf. The unincorporated town of Hell didn’t offer much for teens to do, so her typical Friday night involved getting together with friends to play games. However, after her spat with Mark, not even her competitive nature was in the mood. With her spirits low, she decided to seek her mother’s counsel.

“Mom should be done for the day,” she said as she stood up.

Sally went downstairs to the tarot room. They lived in the upper half of the house while her parents’ business, Charon’s Landing, took the bottom. She received an invite before Sally could peek inside to see if her mom was with a customer. “Come in, honey.”

Sally viewed her mom’s tarot reading room as the coziest room she’d ever visited. There was no square inch of a hard wall to see as fabrics shaped the room into a hexagon. Chill, LoFi beats placed those who entered at ease. If only I were allowed to take naps here, Sally thought. Though, she would curl up on the couch in the room if she had painful cramps or wasn’t feeling well. She took a seat on the plush purple pillow on the floor.

Sally’s mother, Diana, was still in her purple work robe as she shuffled her deck of tarot cards. “What’s on your mind?”

Despite her mother always being able to sense when something was off with her daughter, Diana’s comforting tone still caught her off guard. She decided to ask. “Mom, you believe me about meeting Hades, right?”

Diana pushed aside her long, curly red hair behind. “Of course, honey. I’ve always taught you there was more to this world than what we see.”

“But Mark doesn’t.” Sally slumped her shoulders, slouching more into the floor cushion. “He thinks I faked that photo with Hades.”

Diana started placing cards on the oak table. “Well, your father was quite inspired by it and has been painting up a storm. He even sold one of his paintings of Hades.”

“Yeah, he told me when I got home.”

With the cards laid out, Diana set the deck aside. “Perhaps the cards will offer some advice.”

Sally nodded.

In the Great Library of the Underworld, Hades pursued the alphabetically-organized card and board games collection. As his finger touched a game, he envisioned what group that game would be ideal for in tonight’s game night session. He had fashioned himself in his purple suit with red pinstripes for the evening. 

“Mictlantecuhtli, Hel, and Osiris declined,” Persephone said as she wrapped her arms around her husband’s waist and rested her head on his shoulders.

Hades brought up her hand to his lips and kissed them. “Thank you for checking. Is anyone able to join us?”

Persephone collapsed deeper into her hug and sighed. “No one can play with us tonight.”

Hades stopped browsing the games. “Perhaps we should expand our horizons.”

Persephone released her hold, spinning around in her green dress. “Oh! Oh! How about that mortal girl from the other day? Sally Wilkerson! She seemed delightful.”

“I don’t know…A mortal?”

“You know that painting of you that I brought you today.”

“What about it?”

“I got that from the girl’s father.”

Hades raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yes,” Persephone said with a big grin. “Plus, you know the dogs did like her.”

Hades flicked his wrist. “Very well.”

Persephone burst into a happy squeal and teleported away in a tornado of flowers. Their three-headed dog, Cerberus, walked up to Hades and nuzzled his head against him. The dog had taken the appearance of a black, 12-foot tall three-headed Scottish Terrier.

Hades playfully pushed his face away from the dog’s fur. “When was the last time I had someone give you a bath?”

Sally was back in her bedroom, working on her own card game at her desk, when Persephone erupted into the room with a shower of flowers. Sally watched in awe as the bewitching redheaded Goddess of the Underworld emerged from flowers that faded away, leaving no trace.

“Hi, Sally!” Persephone greeted with an enthusiastic wave. “I’m Persephone. Hades and I would like to invite you to our game night session.”

Sally bolted up from her computer chair. “Heck, yeah!”

Persephone held out her hand for Sally to take. Sally shoved her game in her pink cropped hoodie before taking the goddess’ hand. 

Persephone returned to the Underworld with Sally in a similar flowery teleportation style and proclaimed, “She said ‘Heck, yeah!’”

Sally took a moment to take in the green gothic architect of the Great Library. The room was similar to the one on her previous visit, but when she spotted Cerberus, she lost interest in the library.

“That must be Cerberus,” Sally said, jaw-dropping. “Does he like to be petted?”

“He loves the petting,” Persephone answered, gently pushing Sally toward the three-headed dog.

Sally rushed over and began scratching the dog under his center chin. Cerberus let his tail wag and tongue roll out. “So, Mr. Hades. Persephone said you need an extra player for game night. What do you have in mind?”

Hades pulled out a seat from the stone table. Sally gave Cerberus one last pet and took the chair. From inside his pinstripe suit, Hades spread out a set of cards in a fan pattern on the table. 

“How about you pick out a game at random?” Hades suggested.

Sally looked over the cards and then at the expansive collection of games on the shelves. “You know, I have a game I’m working on myself. I’d be happy to teach you, and you can give me feedback.”

“A new game!” Persephone exclaimed. “Yes!”

Hades chuckled and snapped his fingers, making his cards disappear in a puff of flames. “How do we play?”

Sally pulled out a stack of index cards from her hoodie’s pocket. “The game is called The Inventors Inventions or Invention Heist. I’m still workshopping the name. Anyway, one person plays as the inventor, hiding these cards around a room while the other players, the thieves, wait outside. The thieves have 60 seconds to find as many cards or inventions as possible before time runs out. The inventor acts as the home base, and the thieves must be touching the inventor before time runs out, or they lose all of the cards they’re holding from that round. Some inventions do special attacks, like freeze a player for 10 seconds, but using them degrades the value. You play for three rounds, and the person who has gathered the most valuable inventions wins. That’s it.”

“Sounds fun!” Persephone said. “I want to be the first inventor.”

Sally handed her the deck. “Then Hades and I will be thieves.”

Persephone skimmed through the deck. “Sally, do you mind if I add a bit of upgrade to these cards?”

“Be my guest.”

Persephone shuffled the deck. As the cards shuffled, the homemade, handwritten cards transformed into a professionally crafted deck. “Done! Now, I will hide them.”

Persephone snapped her fingers, ensnaring Hades and Sally together in a dome of green vines. 

“So, Sally. How about we make this interesting?” Hades asked with a smirk.

Sally crossed her arms. “What do you have in mind?”

“If I win,” Hades lowered himself to stare directly at Sally, “you have to…give Cerberus a bath.”

“Okay,” Sally said with a sly smile, “and if I win, you have to reveal yourself to my friend, Mark.”

“Do I get to scare him?”

“Of course.”

Hades offered his hand. “Then it’s a deal.”

Sally stopped herself just before shaking his hand. “Wait. How do I know you won’t cheat?”

Hades scoffed. “I find winning fair and square to be more rewarding. Plus, we have anti-cheat systems in place for when we play with other deities.”

Sally gave Hades a firm handshake. “You got yourself a deal.”

The vines withered away. Persephone sat on a red throne chair with a golden border in the center of a different room in the library filled with statues, paintings, and other works of art.

“And go!” Persephone shouted.

Hades and Sally bolted in opposite directions in search of the cards.

Sally arrived to work for her Saturday evening shift, dressed in her witch costume. The store was empty, except for Mark, who was cleaning the glass windows of the ice cream from fingerprints.

“Hey, we missed you yesterday for game night,” Mark said. “Were you busy playing games with Hades instead?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, I was,” Sally said, putting her hands on her waist. “I even invited him here for ice cream.”

Mark laughed, but then the lights went out, and a swirl of flames burst from the ground, filling the ice cream shop with a black mist as Hades morphed his body to fill the entire space before shrinking to a regular 6-foot size. As Hades shrunk, Cerberus emerged as a three-foot-tall dog with three heads from the smoke.

“Hello, Mark,” Hades greeted. “I would like to get three cones with your vanilla ice cream for my dog here.”

As I was putting together the new Serials section, I remembered there was a storyline gap between the two stories with Sally Wilkerson. This story fills that gap between #TwinCities and Dog-Sitting Cerberus. Although, after finishing this story and going over the dog-sitting, there could be another chapter or two.

Hope you enjoy this Sally Wilkerson adventure!

Missing Memories - art by Mikey Marchan at Design Pickle

Missing Memories

Rumors are floating around of children having memory loss while playing on their own in the new Star Light District. After solving two mysteries, Haley “The Sounds” Riot and Robin Bee venture to the Underground Zone of Aequus to uncover the truth.

This story is number 3 in The Sounds’ serial, with Body Drop and Testing Predictions on an Abandoned Village being the first two. Be sure to visit the new Serials section to catch up on continuing stories.

Haley and Robin stepped off the elevator as a sasquatch, a minotaur, and bipedal humanoid mechanical got inside. While the sun was shining above ground from where they came, an artificial starry night sky illuminated the Star Light District of Aequus’ Underground Zone.

“Now that we’re here, how do you suppose we find some parents willing to talk to us?” Robin asked her human girlfriend.

Haley pulled out her music player from her pink hoodie. The small, rectangular device had only physical buttons and no holographic interface. There wasn’t a speaker or way for her to listen to the music, but the song titles provided her hints about the future and revealed hidden truths. She felt confident after solving a murder at a concert and a mystery surrounding an abandoned village. Now she wanted to discover why children in the district reported memory loss.

“How do we find affected parents?” Haley said to her music player and then pressed the shuffle button. “‘Guided by Angels.’”

The two scanned the lobby for any artistic interpretation of the mystical and religious winged creature. Haley started with the ceiling, searching for any angel consultations. With no luck, she looked lower at the golden flora walls for any angels but only saw 12-foot tall statues of notable vampires.

“Found one!” Robin said, pointing to a fountain with three statues of angels.

“Great work,” Haley thanked Robin as they walked over to the fountain.

A ghaukvoi mother and her child watched streams of water and flames perform a coordinated dance around the towering angel statues. Haley was dating a ghaukvoi, so she was familiar with their biology and customs. She could tell them apart from tutelagions as ghaukvoi had pointy ears and varying shades of blue skin and hair. In contrast, tutelagions lacked hair and genetic diversity.

“Excuse me, but has your child complained of memory loss?” Haley asked. 

“Yes, but so has practically every child here has lately,” the mother answered.

“You don’t seem concerned,” Robin said.

“We’re pretty sure it’s all some sort of prank or trend the kids are into these days.”

“I think there might be more going on,” Haley expressed politely. “I’m investigating this mystery. You can call me The Sounds, and this is my partner, Robin.”

Robin waved hello.

The mother crossed her arms. “What will this cost me?”

“Nothing,” Haley said, talking with her hands. “I’m technically not an officially licensed detective, so this is more of a hobby right now.”

The mother checked on her child, still enjoying the water show. She sat on the black granite bench with Haley and Robin doing the same.

“My name is Aura,” the mother said. “What would you like to know?”

“Have you noticed when your child’s memory is missing?” Haley asked and quickly added, “Or other children from parents, you know.”

Aura sighed and thought for a moment. “Sometimes, when I would let Uris here go play with his friends, I would ask him what they did, and he would blank out on me.”

“Is there a spot they tend to play?”

“They run all over the district.”

“Have you tracked Uris’ movement with his networker by any chance?”

“I have, but there was no data,” Aura said. “It was like wherever he went when he claimed he didn’t know, his networker wasn’t working.”

“That is weird,” Robin commented.

“As I said earlier, I’m not too worried about it. Uris hasn’t come home injured, and neither have any of the other kids from the parents I’ve spoken with.”

Haley bowed her head. “Thank you for sharing.”

Aura returned the bow. “May the Goddess guide you in your quest.”

The water show ended after a finale involving a large burst of fire and water. Uris clapped. His mother chuckled at his enthusiasm.

“Wait, I just remembered something,” Aura said. “I don’t know if it’s relevant, but the first time I remember this happening to Uris, he came home with a new hat. I asked him where he got it, and he said he didn’t remember.”

Haley nodded. “Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.”

Uris ran up to his mother, and together they left the angel fountain.

Robin turned to Haley. “So, what’s next?”

Haley held up the music player and asked, “Where should we go next?” She pressed shuffle. “It says, ‘Put Your Records On.’”

Robin paused for a second. “What does it mean by ‘record?’”

Haley shrugged. “I swear, some of these songs are not from our solar system.” She held up her purple networker hanging around her neck in the shape of two beamed eighth notes. “Hey, networker, what are some things considered a record besides information?”

A spinning rainbow holographic ball projected from her networker. It then morphed into a vinyl record with a text box beside the artwork.

“This is the closest match based on your conversation,” the networker answered. “On Earth, they have round black discs called records that contain music.”

“That’s our answer!” Haley exclaimed, putting her devices away as she stood up. “There must be a music lounge nearby.”

Haley grabbed Robin’s hand and rushed over to the nearby information kiosk – a full-body holographic virtual intelligence of the district’s founder. From Haley’s preliminary research, Iris Ironglass built the community seemingly overnight, while Iris reported the project was years in the making. Iris wore a two-piece sparkling white dress with a long trail for the interactive kiosk.

“Wow, look at her dress,” Robin said, admiring how the silky smooth the dress looked against Iris’ dark skin.

Haley stroked the side of Robin’s arm. “That would look good on you too.”

Robin’s cheeks brighten. “Please. I prefer my leggings and sweaters.”

Haley beamed with love and faced the kiosk. “Back to the task, could you tell us where we can enjoy some music?”

“The Star Light District has 16 music venues,” the virtual Iris replied. 

Haley scratched her short rainbow-colored hair. “Hum. Any of them play records from Earth?”

“There is one venue – Celebration – specializing in playing records from Earth.”

“That’s our place!” Haley said. “Send the directions to my networker, please.”

“Directions sent,” the kiosk replied. “Thank you for visiting the Start Light District.”

Haley led the way, taking them down a corridor. While Haley focused on getting to the destination, Robin darted her head from statue to statue. There were no shops or homes in the passage – just the starry ceiling and giant sculptures. Although, she did spot a few static posters featuring Iris advertising affordable homes coming soon. The advertisements lessened her worry, but not completely.

“All of these statues are kind of creepy,” Robin said, walking closer to Haley’s side.

“At least they’re too tall to be real people.”

“Real people?” Robin repeated, shocked.

“Yeah, I read this protector report about a detective who caught a gorgon turning people into stone for an artistic statement.”

“That’s wild,” Robin mumbled. “Never going to look at a statue the same way again.”

The corridor opened up into a hub of small shops of homes. Purple streaks of light dominated the hub, making the area feel more youthful to Haley than the previous hub’s golden motifs. Across the central playground, Haley spotted the wooden sign for Celebrations, between a salon called Sister Golden Hair and the hoverboard shop, Landslide. 

“Found it,” Haley proclaimed. “Let’s go.”

Children of various species ran around, playing tag, climbing over the replica spaceships, and making noise with the neon flower musical lights. As the couple crossed through the playground, Haley hopped on a series of light-up tiles while Robin walked by her side. Each tile flashed and color and played a musical note, bringing a smile to Haley’s face.

“Perhaps we should keep an eye on these kids?” Robin asked.

While still moving forward, Haley consulted her music player. “‘Left Alone’ is the answer I get. Steady the course!”

Upon entering Celebration, the venue positioned itself like a bygone era with wooden walls, seating, and tables. Despite the choice of materials, the calming fire-glow lights glistened against the wood. In one corner, two couples spoke with each other while their kids played games on their networkers. Haley and Robin took a seat at the bar. Haley ran her finger against the countertop.

“Smooth,” Haley whispered, then she spotted the record player on a shelf. “Excuse me. Is that a record player?”

The tutelagion mixologist finished squeezing a lime and handed the drink to a customer. “Yes, it is. The song is Last Friday Night by Katy Perry. But, before you ask, I have no clue what she is singing about. When is Friday and what’s so special about it? I just love collecting records from Earth, even though they are insanely expensive. Anyway, can I get you two anything to eat or drink?”

“I was hoping to get some information.” Haley paused, searching for a name tag. “Aspen. What do you know of the missing memories of the children in the Starlight District?”

“I used to think it was a rumor until some parents nonchalantly brought it up,” Aspen replied. “No one seems worried about it. Maybe kind of annoyed, if anything. Why do you ask?”

“I think there’s something bigger going on,” Haley explained, keeping her voice down. “I just can’t figure out what. Does the phrase, ‘Cowboys Don’t Cry’ mean anything to you?”

Before Haley ventured to the Star Light District, she directly asked her music player who was responsible for the missing memories. The device responded with the song title, Cowboys Don’t Cry. She nearly threw her device across her home in frustration from the cryptic answer. She asked for motivation and got the answer, Mad World. 

Aspen chuckled. “You know, we had Iris Ironglass personally stop by last week for one of our Bloody Orangeritas, and there was this kid. The kid scraped his knee and was crying pretty loudly. She kneed down by that kid, kissed his wound, put some healing gel on it, and then pulled out this weird hat from her purse. She put it on the kid and said, ‘Cowboys don’t cry.’ The kid calmed down.”

Robin awed. “That was nice of her.”

“Yeah, Iris is more approachable than people assume,” Aspen said. “Speaking of which, there’s that kid. He’s still wearing that hat.”

Haley and Robin watched the human child in the tan cowboy hat run past Celebration and out of sight.

Haley stood up. “Thanks. We should go.”

“Enjoy the day,” Aspen said and walked over to a group of customers.

Haley and Robin followed the child. The child ran down the corridor from where they originated. The child disappeared behind a statue. They waited a moment to see if the child would reappear, but when he didn’t, they went to investigate. Behind the stone figure was a large grate for a ventilation system.

“Well, I’ll be,” Robin said. “I knew there was something creepy about this area.”

Haley scanned the area to ensure no one was watching them and then pulled the cover off. She stuck her head and looked down the shaft.

“This looks big enough for us to crawl through,” Haley said as she started to crawl inside.

“Wait. Are you serious?”

“If kids are crawling through this, then this has to be safe.”

Robin grumbled and got down on her hands and knees. “I guess you have a point.”

Haley gently pushed open the grate, crawling out into a construction zone. The two crawled 30 feet before reaching the end. They took cover behind a pile of wood boards and peeked over.

Dozens of children were all wearing various hats and were building homes and businesses. The children operated with the professionalism and skill of adults. Haley looked around for any adults but didn’t spot any, so she checked her networker.

Haley groaned. “My signal is blocked.”

Robin checked hers. “Well, I guess we know why tracking was lost.”

The grate behind them slammed open. Haley and Robin turned around, their hearts racing. Exiting the ventilation was Uris, wearing a black top hat.

“Uris?” Haley asked. “What are you doing here?”

Uris did not respond. His eyes were steady as he stood up, ignoring the couple. As he stepped away, Haley grabbed for the hat. As she pulled the hat off, a pair of shadowy hands from inside reached for Uris’ head and pulled themselves back onto his head.

Haley let go. “What was that?”

“You should leave,” Uris spoke, with an echo like two people speaking simultaneously.

Haley pulled on the child, turning him around. “Not until I get some answers like who are you and what have you done to Uris?”

“My identity was forgotten ages ago, but I mean no harm to this child.”

Haley tightened her grim and raised her voice. “Then why are you possessing this child?”

“We are repenting for mistakes in a past life. We were in the Underworld when we found ourselves floating upward one day where we got caught in these hats at Ironglass’ boutique. We told her our stories, and she came up with this idea to make this area better. We only wish to help.”

Robin placed a hand on Haley’s shoulder. “This whole topic sounds like a wild ethics debate.”

Haley loosened her grip on Uris. “Yeah, but why children?”

Another voice behind them spoke. “Children have a strong sense of good and innocence which keeps the spirits in check.”

Haley and Robin turned around and looked up to Iris Ironglass towering over them. Although she wasn’t wearing her trademark dress, she sported a cropped white hoodie and black leggings with the same class.

“The children are perfectly safe, and I ensure that happens,” Iris continued. “Granted, I did have one rouge spirit temporarily possess me, but they’re gone. Adults with these spirits are not a good mix, but as they help, they find themselves freed. Call it karma, balance, justice, whatever, but everyone gets a happy ending. Take a look.”

Haley and Robin stood up, looking over the construction.

Iris pointed to a large building. “We’re about to have the first school in the Underground Zone. I know it’s a mad world out there, but this whole area is going to be more than just entertainment.” She turned to Haley. “So, how about you let this whole mystery drop, Haley Riot?”

“How did you know—”

“I had an identification scanner installed in the vent,” Iris interrupted. 

Haley took a deep breath. She pressed the shuffle button on her music player. “‘You’ve got a friend.’”

Missing Memories - art by Mikey Marchan at Design Pickle

For this short story, I knew I wanted to write another mystery with The Sounds. The concept of children missing their memories was inspired by the writing prompt: “Mysteriously, children are starting to lose memories. You’re a detective assigned to this case, and you just found out what is causing them to forget.”

As with past stories featuring The Sounds, I asked people to submit songs for me to incorporate into the story. Some of the songs were used as messages given from the music player while others were worked in other ways. The songs were: Cowboys Don’t Cry by Oliver Tree, Put Your Records On by Ritt Momney, Mad World by Tears for Fears, Left Alone by Fiona Apple, Last Friday Night by Katy Perry, Sister Golden Hair by America, Landslide by Stevie Nicks, You’ve Got a Friend by James Taylor, Celebration by Kool & the Gang, and Guided By Angels by Amyl and The Sniffers.

Thanks to Mikey Marchan for the story artwork!

Thank you for reading!

Bleeding Fear - The Blue Hotel - art by Janine De Guzman at Design Pickle

Bleeding Fear

In a fantasy world where everyone gains a power of light on their 17th birthday, a group of adventurers searches for a place to rest for the night after destroying a laboratory performing harmful experiments on people. The boutique treehouse-style hotel they do find has some secrets of its own. 

“For the advancement of Light!”

The guard thrust his spear at Kilyn. The glowing yellow tip glazed against Kilyn’s bare purple arm. She screamed from the searing pain, losing her concentration and making the five-foot spider she created out of light disappear. She wanted to rip off the guard’s head for making her lose her familiar, for hurting her, for all of the innocent youth they killed. She bit her lower lip, pushing away the pain in preparation to summon another.

“Foxbeam, get down!” Div shouted.

Kilyn dropped to the ground, and then an arrow pierced through the guard. The guard collapsed, and the arrow Div fired reappeared in his bow. 

Kilyn stood back up with a hand covering the wound. “Thanks, Div.”

“It’s time to leave, team,” Finnea Brightwish ordered as she and Ash raced into the laboratory.

“Leave now?” Kilyn asked. “Didn’t you find any of the missing people?”

“They’re all dead….” Ash answered in somber. “I couldn’t save any of them.”

“And I’ve set explosives to make sure whatever experiments they were doing won’t continue,” Finnea added. “So, we need to leave, now. Div, take point.”

Div nodded and led the way out of the laboratory into the underground cave hallway. Chucks of blue rocks broke away from the impact of the explosives detonating in the distance. The group picked up their pace, leaping over the guards they killed earlier as they ran up the rocky stairs to the outside. The explosions concluded. 

Kilyn took a deep breath of the night air as she looked back. She thought the cave entrance was obscure when they first found the location, but with the rumble covering the way, no one would even think there was once a tunnel system there.

Ash Glowspring collapsed to her knees, exhausted.

“Woah, there.” Div rushed to her side and helped her to her feet. Ash was the shortest of the group while Div was the second tallest, so Div bent his knees to allow Ash to put an arm around his shoulders. “Let’s get you to the wagon.”

“What now, boss?” Kilyn asked.

“Take a moment to rest,” Finnea replied. “I’ll send out a guide bug to search for someplace to rest for the night.” Kilyn nodded and started to walk toward the grassy field when Finnea added, “Good job.”

“Doesn’t feel like a good job,” Kilyn mumbled to herself.

As Finnea, Ash, and Div returned to the wagon they hid, Kilyn wondered deep into the field. Satisfied with the spot, Kilyn put her hands behind her head for a makeshift pillow as she gazed upon Nilnora’s two moons. Since a guard burned her jacket during the quest, she made do with the wild grass ticking against her purple skin.

With the nearest village being a day’s ride away, there was zero light pollution to obscure her view of the night sky. She focused on the sky, pushing out the flashbacks of people drained of their lives, chained against the clean white porcelain diamond tiled walls. Combined with the relaxing scent from the shade-lamp flowers, she finally allowed herself a deep, unwinding sigh of relief after several minutes.

“We did everything we could,” Kilyn told herself. 

A glowing yellow arrow whizzed in front of her face, exploding into a tiny sparkle of crackling lights upon hitting a tree.

Not in any hurry, Kilyn sat up and glared at Div. “Was that really necessary?”

Div flicked his bow made of light, causing his weapon to collapse into nothing.

“Of course,” Div Ironfire winked. “The team’s found a hotel to stay for the night.”

Kilyn stood up, brushing off her pants along the way. Div walked back to the main road, with Kilyn jogging to catch up. I will kill for a bed, Kilyn thought.

“I have killed for a bed,” she corrected.

Finnea fidgeted with the rope connecting to the lizard responsible for pulling their caravan as Kilyn and Div jumped aboard. Their arrival prompted a golden bug to fly out of Finnea’s long red hair, hovering over the lizards. 

“Please tell me the guide bug found a proper hotel and not a tavern with some beds,” Kilyn asked as she sat next to Finnea.

Finnea smiled. “Count yourself lucky then. They found a boutique hotel, built into trees.”

“Fancy, fancy,” Div repeated. “I think we deserve some pampering.”

“Yes, you all worked hard, and it’s only best for us to get some proper rest,” Finnea said.

“Thank you.” Kilyn lifted the curtain into the caravan then closed it. “I take it Ash is asleep.”

“Healing all of our sorry asses took a lot out of her,” Finnea said as she whipped the ropes for the lizard to start. The guide bug flew in front of them, leading the way to the hotel. “I can’t remember the last time we drained her that badly.”

“What happened in that laboratory was rough,” Div mumbled while watching the sides of the dirt road.

Finnea slouched into the padded seat. “Still, the village elders will be pleased no one else is getting kidnapped.”

“Yeah, about that,” Kilyn said, sitting up. “I noticed some of the victims didn’t look like they belonged to the village.”

“I noticed that too,” Finnea said. 

“What do you think was going on there?” Kilyn asked the group.

“Don’t know. Don’t care,” Div answered first, still keeping watch. “They didn’t leave anyone alive, and we didn’t leave any of the guards alive.”

Finnea shrugged. “Most of the people there were around 17-years-old. I wonder if they were experimenting on them in connection with the Ritual of Emerging Light. Maybe finding rare abilities, forcing new ones, or changing the process with chemicals? I don’t know. I just burned everything.”

Kilyn reflected on her Ritual of Emerging Light. Before the sunrise of one’s 17th birthday, Nilnorians would bask in the light from their favorite spot or a place of personal significance. They would stay there without food or drink until nightfall. Upon completion, the sun would bestow a power of light to aid them in adulthood. Some would discover their gift in a few days while others–albeit extremely few–never learned.

“Say, where did you all bask for your Ritual of Emerging Light?” Kilyn asked.

“My favorite boulder that I would play around at when I was a kid,” Finnea answered. “What about you, Div?”

“On a tree stomp that my great-grandparents first cut to build their house,” Div replied without breaking his guard.

“Mine was a patch of flowers,” Kilyn said. “Anyone know Ash’s spot?”

“I think she mentioned she basked in a river,” Finnea said as the lizard turned down a side road. The guide bug flew a circle around Finnea’s head and went back to work. “We’re almost there.”

The Blue Motel was more grandiose than Kilyn expected. Dozens of small cabins were built into a colossal tree, forming a network of treehouses. Blue crystals covered each building, enhancing the lights from the lamps.

Kilyn’s jaw dropped. “Remind me never to doubt your guide bug.”

Finnea parked their vehicle. She stepped down to hitch the wagon to a post while Div opened the curtain to caravan and fired one of his arrow’s inside. Ash bolted awake, cursing at Div as he laughed and hopped off.

Kilyn opened the curtain for Ash to see. “Ash, you got to check out this hotel.”

Ash grumbled as she crawled up to the curtain. “Wow. Okay, I will only half kill you, Div, for that stunt.”

“Got to catch me first, little one.” Div twirled his bow around his arm before making his weapon disappear.

Finnea threw a sack of coins at Div’s head. “Pay for the room.”

Div rubbed his face as he picked up the sack. “Got it, boss.”

Kilyn helped Ash with everyone’s bags while Finnea cooed the lizard goodnight. The freelancers were within a year of each, with their leader, Finnea, the oldest and tallest of the four. 

As Kilyn pulled out the last trunk, Div returned with spinning the room key around his finger.

“Got us a cabin where we each get our own room.” Div tossed the key to Finnea, which she caught. “Our cabin’s name is Dawn, which we can find on the third level.”

“Any issues?” Finnea asked.

Div shrugged. “I may have bragged to the owner–John Bluelight was his name–that we were famous adventurers. Also, I may have entertained his kid for a moment as he was running around the lobby pretending to be a monster. He seemed to be quite the prankster.”

“So you two are best friends?” Kilyn teased.

Div chuckled as a reply and picked up their weapons crate. He led the way to their cabin on the third level. Upon entering, they dropped their luggage in the entryway and then checked out their place.

Ash picked the first room and collapsed on the bed. “This is the softest bed I have ever touched.”

The rest claimed their rooms. Kilyn sat on the bed, feeling the same sentiments as Ash. 

A hand gripped her ankle. She screamed. She kicked, flinging a small beast with a green scrunched face toward the door. Before the monster could move, Kilyn used her fingers to conjure one of her constellation creatures. A four-legged familiar with a body outline of stars, like a constellation in the night sky, sprouted from her fingers. The starry wolf pinned the monster down.

The rest of the team appeared in the doorway in response.

Div laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Kilyn shouted angrily.

Div kneed down and removed the mask, revealing the same child who played with him in the lobby. “I see you all met Mark.”

“It was only a prank,” the child defended. 

Kilyn disappeared her familiar. “You’re lucky you’re alive. Now, beat it.”

Finnea walked with Mark Bluelight to ensure he left while the others returned to their rooms. She returned to Kilyn’s room, knocking as she entered. 

“Everything okay, Kilyn?”

“Yeah, everything is fine.” Kilyn removed her socks. “That last job just got me all twisted.”

Finnea sat next to Kilyn on the bed. “It’s over. They won’t be hurting anyone else.”

Ash screamed and yelled for help.

Finnea bolted up as Ash’s cries were quickly muted. She paused for a moment, waiting for more or a never mind. “Something is wrong.”

“You don’t think it’s just that kid again?” Kilyn asked.

“I feel like we’re supposed to think it was the kid to make us ignore it.”

Kilyn put back on her shoes and followed Finnea to Ash’s room. Both Ash and her bed were gone.

Div popped in from behind and stood where the bed once was. “There was a bed here, right?”

“Definitely,” Finnea replied. She started to feel along the wall. “There must be some sort of rotation mechanism here.”

Div and Kilyn joined in the search for the trigger. Div pressed a plank on the floorboard that was a shade darker than the rest. The wall and floor spun around, putting them behind. The hidden room was a mirrored copy of their cabin, with three additional mechanical rotations, one for each bedroom.

Div armed his bow and arrow and approached the metal chute in the center. “I’m going in after her.”

“I should go get my guide bug and send it first,” Finnea said.

“No time,” Div said as he jumped.

Finnea grumbled and followed him. Kilyn scanned the room one last time and joined them. Her hair flew behind her as she slid down faster than any fun slide. A few seconds later, her descent ended on a comfortable foam block. A robust and chlorine-like smell overwhelmed her nostrils for a moment. Div and Finnea had their weapons pointed at a man in a black robe on the other end of the room next to Ash. Beside the man was the child who scared her earlier, Mark. Ash was unconscious with her arms chained above her head.

“Shadow of a chance you took with that chute,” the stranger commented.

“I knew it had to be safe enough to move people around without them getting hurt,” Div said. “Now, John, since you’re in the hospitality industry, I think you’ll let our friend go. After all, you don’t want us to leave a bad review of your hotel. Besides, it’s three against one.”

“Hey, what about me?” the kid cried.

“You don’t count, Mark,” Div said. “You’re not even of age yet.”

Mark scoffed and pulled out a pair of dangers from behind. “We’ll see about that.”

The daggers pulsed with light, but the kid wasn’t old enough to have been gifted with the power of light. 

“How the…” Finnea mumbled. 

“Hey, team,” Kilyn interrupted, but only loud enough for them to hear. “This place looks exactly like the laboratory we destroyed.”

Finnea glanced around at the white diamond-tiled walls. “By the light, you’re right.”

“What kind of operation do you got here?” Div shouted.

“There is so much about the Ritual of Emerging Light that we don’t know,” John explained. “We take the process and powers for granted, never wondering why or how. Did you know you can take someone’s power by bleeding it out of them under a moment of extreme fear? I call the process Bleeding Fear, and Mark here. Let’s just say you should count him as at least seven people.”

Mark leaped forward at the trio. Div fired an arrow, but Mark vanished, and the arrow hit the wall. Div fell to his knees in a scream as a dagger pierced him in the back. Mark revealed himself long enough to stick his tongue out at Finnea.

“So much for being friends,” Div grumbled as he stood.

Kilyn pushed everyone down, dodging a whip of yellow lightning from John. Finnea flung one of her special fire grenades as a counter-attack, but Mark appeared in time to create a bat of light and returned the grenade. Div fired an arrow at the grenade, destroying it before hurting them.

“Time for our special clean-out move,” Finnea ordered.

“But what about Ash?” Kilyn asked.

“She’ll survive,” Finnea said as she pulled out several grenades.

Kilyn nodded to go ahead. Finnea rolled a dozen grenades on the floor in every direction, filling the room. Div pointed an arrow directly above them and fired at the ceiling. Just as the bolt left, Kilyn finished conjuring a spider creature that covered them as they all huddled down together. Upon hitting the ceiling, Div’s arrow split into dozens as the grenades exploded. 

As the smoke dissipated, Kilyn vanished her conjuring. She rushed to Ash’s aid while Div aimed his arrow around the room, searching for John and Mark Bluelight. Except for some tattered and chard clothes, Ash was uninjured as Finnea promised.

Div lowered his bow. “Where in the shadows are they?”

Kilyn lifted a fallen bookcase. “Found John, but no sign of the kid.”

“What did I miss?” Ash’s eyes fluttered open.

“Just that this hotel is a getting a negative review,” Div said as he searched through the cabinets.

In a more serious tone, Kilyn explained as she searched for a way to unlock the chains, “You were kidnapped by the person leading the experiments of the lab we destroyed earlier.”

“I thought we cleared that place of anyone responsible,” Ash said.

“Me too.” Kilyn summoned a giant crab that used its pinchers to cut the chains and then made the conjuring disappear. “Can you walk?”

“Yes, I’m good.”

“What will we tell the client about John and Mark?” Div asked everyone.

Finnea stopped her search. “I don’t think anyone will believe us about Mark, but we’ll tell them about The Blue Hotel and John. This does explain the other victims we were talking about earlier. They must’ve been guests.”

Div nodded. “Sounds good to me. Let’s finish our search, blow this place up, and sleep for days.”

Finnea chuckled. “Agreed.”

Bleeding Fear - The Blue Hotel - art by Janine De Guzman at Design Pickle

Bleeding Fear is a complete overhaul of a short story that I wrote in my teenage days where the characters were based on some of my high school friends. Similar to this story, the original followed a group who destroyed an evil lab and unknowingly stay a hotel connected to that lab. I took the retelling in a hard fantasy direction. For my supporters on Patreon, I shared the original there (amateur and all).

I think one could consider Bleeding Fear my first strict fantasy story if fantasy is defined as having magic, lack of technology, and connection to other planets. This was a fun world to write! I spent a few days brainstorming how the world works.

Although the planet Nilnora and this story is part of my 16th Phoenix Universe, the world isn’t connected to Earth or the Five Following Planets, but the end-timers have visited Nilnora. You may have noticed the Nilnorians do look like Modva.

Huge thanks to Janine De Guzman for bringing the Blue Hotel building to life! She said this was one of her favorite pieces as she loves to draw fantasy scenes.

Thank you for reading and happy adventures!

Snow Shovel Inc.

In 1992, two nine-year-old boys have an adventure filled day saving the planet, shoveling snow, and catching a criminal.

Aaron spun the steering wheel hard to the right, leaning his whole body into the evasive maneuver. “Prepare the torpedo, Lieutenant Saxton!”

Sam matched Aaron’s body movement and leaned to the right as well. “Aye, aye, Captain!” He pulled on a faded red plunger on the dashboard that always made him think he was shooting a ball on a pinball machine. “Torpedo armed!”

Aaron narrowed his eyes and stared at the snow falling on the empty road like a cowboy about to duel. In his gruffest voice, he turned to Sam and said, “We have to remain vigilant.”

Sam nodded and rubbed his hands over the arms of his winter jacket. “The last car we saw over an hour ago.”

Aaron pulled on the gear shift arm to his right. “Which we blew up and saved the world!”

“I’m getting hungry,” Sam said. “Maybe we should take a break?”

“Hold on!” Aaron pointed at a car down the road. The car was nearing the bridge’s underpass and about to turn the corner into their territory. “Enemy sighted!”

Sam sat up. “Ready for action!”


Sam pushed button and after button, firing torpedos, missiles, lasers, and every weapon available at the enemy vehicle. At the same time, Aaron drove, dodging the enemy’s counterattacks. As Sam fired each gun, he made matching sound effects as Aaron rattled off system status updates. The enemy car drove past them, undamaged from their attacks because the buttons on the broken down 18-wheeler truck did nothing.

The two nine-year-boys high-fived each other.

“Enemy destroyed. Mission accomplished.” Aaron pretended to park the truck. “Now, let’s go see what my grandma has to eat.”

Aaron and Sam shuffled out of the truck, watching their footing and keeping a tight grip on the various handles as they climbed out. The truck’s wheels were taller than them, prompting them a while back to install some concrete blocks below to get in and out easier. They ran past the automotive repair shop where the broken-down truck lived and headed straight to Aaron’s grandmother’s house next door.

“Where’s Margie?” Sam asked, not seeing her car in the driveway.

Aaron shrugged. “I think she’s working. She should be home soon.”

Margie’s house partly hung over the Hoquiam River. The house was technically not under the traffic bridge but close enough for the boys to describe the place as being under a bridge. During the summer and low tides, the two would explore along the river’s shore, looking for treasure, only finding trash. Sometimes they found old boards and tires, which they would drag to their fort in the woods south of them.

Sam and Aaron stepped on the deck to enter the house through the kitchen, and Sam noticed several large folded cardboard boxes against the house.

“Wow, look at all of the boxes.” Sam held up an enormous box. “I bet I could put you this one.”

Aaron looked at the box. “Yeah, you could. I could pop out of this and scare my grandma.”

Sam laughed. “Let’s do it. But when you pop out, you should hug her, so we don’t give her a heart attack.”

Aaron nodded. “That’s a good idea. We should hurry because she will be home any minute.”

Sam unfolded the box, and Aaron climbed inside. The two giggled as Sam closed the box, sealing Aaron inside. Sam agreed to keep watch while Aaron waited. Several minutes passed, and still no sign of Margie. The boys talked about how clever they were and how funny this prank would be. The two also discussed some ideas for what they could do with the other boxes. Sam suggested making pinball machines, which Aaron supported. Aaron enjoyed the various games Sam would make from cardboard boxes. The excitement of their plans allowed the boys to ignore the cold, but the weather soon began to wear on them.

Before the two were about to give up, Aaron’s younger brother by two years, Adam, and his friend Chris approached Sam.

“Hey, Sam,” Adam said. “Where’s Aaron?”

Aaron popped out of the box with a scream. Adam and Chris jumped back a little bit while Aaron and Sam laughed.

“Man, we sure got you,” Aaron told them.

Adam shook his head. “No way. We weren’t scared. We knew you were there.”

“Sure, whatever,” Sam said with sarcasm.

“What are you guys doing anyway?” Chris spoke up.

“We’re going to scare my grandma,” Aaron told them. “I’m going to wait for her in this box and jump out when she tries to open it.”

“But he’s going to give her a hug,” Sam added.

“Yeah, we don’t want to give her a heart attack,” Aaron said.

“Cool!” Adam said. “I wanna help.”

In his annoyed big bother voice, Aaron told Adam no. “This is our idea – not yours. Now, go on. You’re going to ruin everything like you always do.”

“Come on, let us stay and watch.”

Aaron crossed his arms. “No.”

Chris took a step back to avoid the brother’s bickering.

Adam sulked his shoulders. “But, Aaron…”

“She’s coming!” Sam interrupted.

Aaron ducked down, grumbling at his younger brother along the way. Sam packaged Aaron closed. Adam, Chris, and Sam stood together on the porch, watching Margie drive her car up. Aaron and Sam had cleared the driveway in the morning, making the walk over to them safe.

“Hi, boys,” Margie greeted.

“Hi,” Sam said first before Adam or Chris could say anything to ruin their prank. “This package came for you.”

“Oh, really,” Margie said as she looked at the package.

Before Margie could open the box, Aaron leaped out with a roar. Margie stepped back, waving her hands up in the air and shrieking. Aaron wrapped his arms around his grandmother for a hug, holding her to keep her from losing her balance. The four boys laughed.

Margie supported herself on the deck’s fence. She waved her finger at the kids, trying not to crack a smile. “You nearly gave me a heart attack.”

“That’s why we had Aaron give you a hug,” Sam grinned.

Margie chuckled and opened the wooden gate. “Okay, how about I make you boys some lunch.”

The boys rushed inside into the warm house. As Margie prepared lunch for everyone, Aaron and Adam talked about their day. Aaron told his grandmother that his brother and his friend weren’t part of the prank, but Margie said if Sam were alone, she would’ve known something was up. Aaron didn’t comment or admit she had a point, but Adam did snark at his older brother.

Adam and Chris left the house first, leaving Aaron and Sam alone to discuss their afternoon plans. Margie suggested they could shovel people’s driveways to earn some money.

“Yeah, let’s go shovel some driveways!” Sam said with a cookie in his mouth. “We’ll call ourselves Snow Shovel Inc.”

Aaron slapped Sam’s shoulder. “You can get that new Super Nintendo game too.”

Sam swallowed the cookie. “Yeah!”

The boys said thank you and ran outside, grabbing the shovels they had used earlier. They had to walk a few blocks before getting to their first house. Aaron’s city block only contained his home, Margie’s house, the repair shop, and a skating rink. Behind them were some woods, which covered several city blocks and followed along the Hoquiam River.

The first house they knocked on was a simple, single-story house with a snow-covered driveway and garage. Behind the house were the same woods. The door cracked open, with the latch still on. A gruff, bearded man looked down at the boys with suspicion. He lifted the latch and opened the door.

The man tightened his plush house robe against the cold. “What do you kids what?”

Aaron stood tall and confident. “We just wanted to know if you would like us to shovel your driveway. We’ll shovel it first, and then you can pay us how much you think we deserve.”

The homeowner glanced up and down the street. He opened up his robe, revealing he was fully dressed in jeans and a clean t-shirt and pulled out his wallet from his pants. “Here’s five dollars for each of you if you go away.”

“Thank you!” Sam said as they each took the money.

Sam studied the tattoo of a star on the man’s right hand before he pulled his hands back inside. The man slammed the door, turned the locks, and stomped away. Sam and Aaron exchanged confused glances and carried on to the next house. As they got back on the sidewalk, a police car drove by.

For the next few hours, Sam and Aaron shoveled driveways and sidewalks. Some people said no thank you, and some said they would shovel themselves tomorrow. By the end of the afternoon, they earned a total of $35 together. Sam was a bit bummed he didn’t have enough to buy a new video game, but he had enough to rent some.

Aaron said he was curious about their fort in the snow, and Sam was too. The two decided to cut through the woods back to Aaron’s grandmother’s house. While the woods were part of an urban area, they contained no proper trails. The location was considered private property for a shipping company. No fences blocked the area surrounding the woods, and the “No Trespassing” signs held no consequences as the boys never got in trouble playing back there.

After hiking through the snow for several minutes, they saw their fort. Their fort didn’t look much different in the snow. The walls were a mix of whatever Sam and Aaron could scavenge but lightly covered with snow. Surrounding the base were piles of junk from people illegally dumping their belongings there—nothing new to them.

Outside their base was the first person the two had offered their services. The boys ducked behind a fallen tree and watched the man dig a hole. They placed their shovels on the ground behind them as they peered over the tree.

“What do you think is in that box?” Sam whispered to Aaron.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It could be a body.”

“Or stolen money,” Sam said, louder than a whisper.

“Or -”

“Hey!” the man shouted. “Get out of here, you kids!”

“Run!” Aaron and Sam said at the same time.

Neither bothered to call jinx on each other as they ran out the same way they entered, leaving their shovels behind. Sam was one of the fastest kids in school while Aaron wasn’t, but Sam was used to pacing himself so Aaron wouldn’t fall far behind. Sam kept looking backward to ensure the man wasn’t chasing them. Sam didn’t see him, but they kept running as they couldn’t be sure.

As Aaron and Sam bolted out of the woods onto the main street, a police car stopped at the sight of their panicked run. The officer rolled down his window. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

Aaron took several deep breaths, trying to explain. “This guy is burring a dead body.”

“Or something,” Sam corrected. “We couldn’t see. He chased us off.”

“What does he look like?” the middle-aged officer asked.

Aaron took a puff from his inhaler. “He’s kind of scruffy, but not.”

“Yeah,” Sam added. “He also had a tattoo of a star on his hand.”

“A star tattoo?” the officer repeated. “Stay there.”

The officer rolled up his window and radioed an update to the station. He parked the car and asked the boys to lead the way, which they obliged. The man was where the boys found him, covering a large chest with dirt.

The officer drew his gun. “Stop right there.”

The man dropped his shovel and raised his arms. He cursed under his breath. Sam and Aaron stayed back as the officer handcuffed the man, reading him his rights.

“We’ve been searching for this guy,” the officer said to Aaron and Sam. “He’s responsible for some high-profile home robberies.”

The officer opened the chest, looking over the stolen items. He closed the trunk and asked the kids to follow him back to the car. The boys grabbed their shovels and followed the officer. After placing the criminal in the back, he collected the boys’ names and addresses, telling them there was a small reward. Sam gave his home address while Aaron gave his grandma’s address because he knew his parents would force him to save his reward.

After giving the cop their information, Aaron and Sam rushed back to Margie’s house – avoiding the woods. They told her what happened, which she laughed and said she wasn’t falling for anymore of their pranks today. Sam insisted they were telling the truth but gave up when she wouldn’t budge.

A few weeks later, when the snow had left no traces of its visit, Margie checked her mailbox. With the bills and junk mail was a letter from the Hoquiam police department. She sat at her kitchen table. Inside was a thank you letter from the officer and a check for a hundred dollars as a reward.

“I think I owe those boys an apology.”

Snow Shovel Inc. takes two short stories I wrote like in the early 2000s for school and updated for my fictional universe. The first half of the story, which was originally from a work titled The Box, was inspired by my actual childhood where my friend and I did scare his grandmother. The second half took another story of those characters in a fictional story of catching a criminal.

Barely anything survived expect for some lines of dialogue in this revitalization. I changed the me character to Sam Saxton from Tales Unveiled as part of the updating to the 16th Phoenix Universe. I had fun telling this story, seeing how I’ve improved as a writer, and I plan to give the same treatment to some of other older works.

Thank you for reading and thanks to Janine De Guzman and Mikey Marchan for bringing the discovery scene to life.

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