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Tingle

Tingle

Note: Adult content.
 
 
 

     Stephanie trudged up the steps from the subway. Another workday. Another day thrown away, to be followed by a night of boredom.
     Had it been a mistake to ask Jordan to move out? True, he was insensitive. Also true that he had the sophistication of a slug. But he was someone to turn to in the night. And he was, if nothing else, comfortable.
     As she pushed through the turnstile into the gray Philadelphia morning, she stiffened her spine. Jordan, when all was said and done, was, and always would be, a jerk. And now that he was finally gone, he could be replaced by someone better.
     Good riddance and goodbye, Jordan. It’s time to think positively for a change.
     Above, the clouds were thinning, and the morning dampness was fading from the street and sidewalk. It was the beginning of a new week and time for a new outlook. Perhaps today would be the day. And with that thought, she straightened, put a spring into her step and headed toward Roe & Rowe, ignoring the voice in her head that whispered, You’re so full of shit.
     The clock display over the corner bank said it was just 7:30. She stopped, nearly at the building’s door and gave thought to a stop at the coffee bar, but discarded that. A half-hour spent browsing the Internet was better, because coffee would invariably lead to Danish, too, and that would go straight to the hips.
     That decided, she turned and walked directly into the path of the man who was reaching for the building’s front door.
     “Excuse me,” he said, smiling, as he steadied her, and kept her from falling. “I’m clumsy this morning, I’m afraid.”
     Their collision was obviously her fault, but he politely ignored that, a bit of chivalry that made her look more closely at his face, now only inches from her own. There was surprise there. But that aside, it was a nice face, newly shaved, pleasant, and of an age that said the man was a possibility, if he wasn’t married, or gay, or…
     Interesting, though. Definitely interesting.
     Then, as he placed her on her feet more securely, his hand brushed her neck, just at the collar of her sweater, and it happened. A tiny tingle, like a pulse of electricity jarred her fully awake.
     Frozen, she looked into deep brown eyes, for several seconds more, stunned, and wondering if she should kiss him. Then he was releasing her and whatever had happened was only a memory.
     You’ve been reading too damn many romance novels, Steph, old girl. But it had happened, and she was seized with the urge to touch his cheek to see if it repeated. But that would be insane, so she clamped down on that bit of stupidity and said, “No, it was my fault. I should have been watching where I was going.” He had a really great smile.
     He pulled the door open and gestured her through, saying, “Even if it was, it was fun…I’m Frank. Frank Nelson. Do you work here?” He followed her toward the elevator.
     For an instant she hesitated. But she had run into him, and it was fairly obvious that she did work in the building, so she took a chance and said, “Stephanie Holt. I’m a paralegal with Roe & Rowe. You?” Perhaps he would suggest another meeting? The week was already looking up.
     “I’m an analyst with Harper Price, up on twenty,” he said, as he pressed the button to call an elevator.
     There seemed to be nothing else to say, for the moment, so she waited in silence, while the indicator over one of the elevator doors ticked its way to the ground floor. Had it really happened? Or was it simply the spring weather and her hormones combining into a romantic daydream? The urge to reach out and touch his cheek to see if it happened again was almost overpowering.
     Then the elevator door was opening and he was bowing her through. It was the perfect excuse, so as though in play she touched his hand in thank you as she moved past. Then, as a sense of electric rightness jolted through her she took his hand in her own as she turned to face him, almost unable to speak.
     “Did you feel…” She pulled his hand, and him, toward her as she said, “I mean, am I crazy? Are we?” And then, as the elevator doors sighed closed behind him she was in his arms, breathing in the scent of him, tasting mouthwash and electricity in equal measures.
     This is crazy…crazy. It was. But her body, without asking permission, molded itself against him, and her hand met his as she fumbled for the button that stopped the car and took it out of service. Crazy.
     It was wrong. That was certain. And when his hand slipped under her sweater to burn a path across her skin she should have shouted, “Stop!” Instead, she turned to guide that warmth to her breast, then guided his mouth there, a thousand volt shock that caused her to press ever tighter against him, as she ripped the sweater over her head, tossed it, then fumbled for his belt. Crazy, crazy, crazy… echoed in her head as her weakened knees buckled under her.
     He tasted of sex, cotton underwear and electricity.
     And then they were on the floor of the elevator, his hands and his mouth a flame on her body, bringing wave after wave of ecstasy, along with, crazy…crazy…crazygood, followed by better…better…betterbetterbetter…oh…my…God! as she fitted herself to him and lost all sense of self, and all vestige of control.
 
     “Wow.” That was the only word that fit. Resting against him, enveloped by his arm and warmed by his skin, her breath finally calming, she looked up at the high narrow confines of the elevator car. “Crazy” was back, but it was joined by “wonderful,” and “exciting,” too. She pulled back to gaze into his face. It was a nice face. Perhaps not what she would have chosen, had he been part of a group of available men, but her body, it appeared, had chosen wisely. The man was amazing, and she told him so.
     “Thank you,” he said, beginning to withdraw, and sit up. “But I think we had better get dressed and place the elevator back in service before someone calls the maintenance people.” He pointed, grinning. “If those doors open I think we’re still at the lobby, and I’m not certain I want my boss to see me like this.”
     She laughed, then nodded and sat up, looking for her sweater. She leaned toward the corner where she’d tossed it, then retrieved his shirt, too, a smile coming at the idea that the clothing was as intertwined as they had been. But as she handed him the shirt a small box slipped from the pocket and tumbled to the floor.
     “What’s this?” she said, as she picked it up. It was a flat, featureless case, black and glossy, in size very like the rear of a calculator. A tiny slide switch showed at one edge.
     “Nothing important,” he said, quickly. But there was something in his voice that was odd, so she turned it over. The other side was equally featureless, other then for electric-looking letters that spelled out, Tingle’Er.
     Tingle’Er? That makes no— And then it came and she looked up at him. Her jaw was hanging. That was impossible to suppress, as was the anger that came afterward and brought her jaw shut and thinned her lips.
     “You bastard! Tingle Her? You were wearing a static shock machine? That is the single most…most—”
     “Despicable thing you’ve ever heard. I know. But you kissed me, remember? And you…well, you were amazing.” He gestured toward her sweater, still hanging from her hands, then toward her panties, lying on the floor of the car. “Maybe it would be best to…” he trailed off and began to dress.
     Angry or not, it made sense to dress before she hit him, so she turned to that. The stray thought came that whoever got into that car next would know, with a single sniff, of the use the car had been put to. Damn!
     “Can I explain?” he said, as he buttoned his shirt. When she said nothing, he continued with, “It was a gag gift, for my birthday, and I was bringing it to the office. Truthfully, I didn’t realize that it was turned on, and I didn’t touch you deliberately.” He hesitated, and spread his hands as he added, “But I’m glad I…” He shook his head.
     “That’s neither here nor there. The idea is that nearly every romance novel talks about the heroine feeling an electric tingle when the perfect man comes into view, or touches her. So by wearing a static generator that gives a continuous tingle to whoever touches you, it’s supposed to trigger a conditioned reaction and the woman will instantly fall in love… I…well, I never expected it to, well…” He made a noncommittal gesture of the hands.
     Shit. And she had dutifully, and enthusiastically played her part. I am an idiot. It was so stupid. One tiny electric shock and she was tearing off his clothing, and… Oh my God, I can still taste the man! And all because of an electric shock? Am I that stupid? The answer was yes. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
     Apparently, her expression showed her mood because he said, “I’m sorry, Stephanie. I…well, if it helps, I think you’re beautiful, and had we not bumped together, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to talk to you…though I wanted to. And you’re also—” He stopped for a moment, then blew out his breath before saying, “Also amazing. And for that you have my gratitude.”
     He remembered her name. That was probably a plus. And he was more of a gentleman than she deserved, because he was bending to pick up the condom she hadn’t realized he’d used. And the scent of her was on his breath—while memory of how he’d acquired that scent served to ameliorate her mood.
     He gestured for her to select her floor, and then pushed the control that restored the car to service. He tapped for his own floor, saying. “I’d like to take the time to really apologize, and maybe make amends, but I have a meeting I can’t skip, at eight.” He hesitated for a beat, before adding, “I know this is sort of backward, but would you meet me for a beer or something after work, to…well, to get to know each other?” The door to his floor opened, and he stepped to where his body would block the opening and keep the door from closing, as he added, “I won’t pressure you. I’ll just be in the lobby at five. If you walk by, or use the back stairs, I won’t bother you again.” There was a wistful quality to his voice as he stepped clear of the doors and added, “But I’d really like it if you’d gave me a chance to show I’m not the bastard I seem to be.” And with that the doors slid shut and he was gone.
     The car hummed into motion. Headed upward.
     Did that really happen? She sniffed. Obviously, it had. And the traces of afterglow that still brought warmth agreed that it had. In all, it was one hell of a first date. And she, certifiably, was an idiot. But… He was a gentleman. And he had protected her against her own stupidity—and cleaned up after himself. That had to count.
     In the end, as she made herself presentable for a day at the office she studied her reflection. He said he thought her beautiful. But if she was, that beauty wasn’t apparent—though attractive wasn’t out of the question. So maybe…
     For a moment, as she settled in at her desk she looked around, at the other desks. If only they knew how I started my day. She stifled a laugh, and reached for the first folder, the Hapwood case. Maybe an hour over a beer or two would make sense. He’d certainly had an impressive audition.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Author’s Note:
     This was something I’ve been planning to write for some time. I remembered that plan each time I did a critique of a romance in which the female protagonist reacts to the clichéd “electric shock” that comes when the male lead shows up. Today a bit of free time and the idea coincided, and you’ve just read the result.
     My plan for Stephanie was a bit cynical, in that the male in question was to be a bastard who used the “tickler” as a quick shortcut to sex. But in the end, she seemed a nice, and likable, if a bit overly enthusiastic and cooperative person. But she was honest, and deserving, so since poetic justice demanded that Frank be better than a sexual preditor…
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well
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Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Short Story

 

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A Whisper of Love

A Whisper of Love
     Sarah hurried across the parking lot. Given the time lost in traffic she breathed a prayer that Kenny would still be there when she arrived, and that no one else was sitting in her place. He might not have waited, and if someone else had arrived while he was waiting, and he had… Well, that was something she didn’t want to think about.
     She flashed her pass as she hurried past the guard, but the man was already waving her through. Apparently, she had been to the museum so often that showing it was only a formality.
     As she hurried through the galleries she ignored the riches displayed there. Her goal was the narrow bench fronting one single painting. Set in an alcove at the end of a gallery, it and the painting at the opposite end were oddities whose placement Sarah had yet to comprehend. Of the pair, her favorite showed a woman standing by a window, head bowed and listening. For the call of a lover? To a church bell? The painting gave few clues, but the clouds gathered above the woman carried the deep tints of dusk, painting the sky in tones of sadness. Each time she saw it Sarah felt a kinship. That woman, too, was listening for the voice of a dead lover; listening for the voice that would call her home.
     “Hi, Sarah… Back again, I see. It looks like we have something in common, after all.” Norman Atkins fell into step, as she strode through the modern art gallery.
     “Oh hi, Norm.” she said, nodding a distracted hello. “How are you?” If he responded, she didn’t notice. Norman liked her—had, from their days as high school classmates, when his shoulder was the one she peered over when a question had her stumped. He seemed a decent person, and wanted to be more than an acquaintance, she was certain.
     But neither romance nor a discussion of art was on her agenda, so when he showed no sign of turning his path from hers, she said, “Can’t talk, now, Norm. I have to be somewhere.”
     He slowed his steps, saying, “That’s okay, Sarah. I…I’ll see you around.”
     Sarah’s heels tap-tapped on the marble floor as she hurried toward the bench, ignoring the other visitors scattered through the long hall. Unfortunately, there was a man standing in front of her painting, and she had to grit her teeth to keep from ordering him to move on. Instead, she pretended interest in a nearby seascape.
     Finally, the man left and Sarah was able to slip onto the bench, tugging the zipper on her case and extracting her sketch-book as she did so. She had a partially finished sketch on the pad, but had added not a line to it for weeks. Its purpose was to provide a reason for her to be there, and to discourage others from interrupting.
     “Kenny?” she whispered, as she bent over the pad. She had become adept at speaking with minimum movement of her lips over the past few weeks.
     “I’m here, Sarah. How are you today?” A wave of relief spread through her, lightening her usual somber mood.
      “I’m getting by, Kenny. But it’s hard…terribly hard. If it wasn’t for you I’d…” She bowed her head for a moment, then forced herself into a better frame of mind, saying, “We were talking about theater, and why—”
     “You first,” the voice interrupted. “Tell me about your day. Tell me what the weather’s like, and what cut grass smells like. Tell me everything. I’ve almost forgotten.”
     “Oh… Well, okay. It’s sunny, for a change, and windy, so it smells more of dust than anything else.” In truth, it was a glorious spring day, and the lawn in front of the museum had been a riot of tulips, but she’d determinedly ignored all that—until now, as she began to describe it.
     Now, under Kenny’s gentle but relentless questioning she remembered. For the few minutes she spent with him she put aside Brad’s broken body. To give Kenny life, even if only via a second-hand retelling, she herself, must live once more. At first, it had been hard. Now, it was the thing that gave her purpose.
     Sarah had been close to ending her life when she’d taken a seat in front of the painting, over a month ago. Nearly a year had passed since the night of the accident, but it was yesterday in her thoughts. The scent of gasoline and torn flesh still clotted her nostrils and the slick wetness of blood still clung to her fingertips. Brad’s death could never be washed from her hands, or from her mind.
     On that day she sketched for, perhaps, ten minutes, before dropping her head into her hands, lost in tear-stained memories…
     “Why are you crying?” She whirled, embarrassed.
     But there was no one near. The gallery had dozens of visitors but none within ten feet of her—certainly not close enough to whisper.
     Shaking her head, she closed her eyes and sought strength. Strength to go on for one more hour—one more day.
     “Why were you crying?”
     I won’t turn. I won’t look. But she was unable to keep herself from hissing, “Who are you? Where are you?” There was no doubt that the voice was real.
     “My name is Kenny, and I’m… well, I’m a ghost. At least I think I am.”
     That brought Sarah to her feet, shocked out of her depression but feeling more than a little anger, as she said, “The hell you are, mister. What’s going on?” Her eyes darted around the room, then to the wall of the alcove, seeking the grill of a speaker or the shape of a microphone. But there was nothing, and in any case, the voice had been real, not an electronic reproduction of human speech.
     There was no answer, and it was with a great deal of embarrassment that she sank back onto the bench. People were staring.
     “Crazy… I’m going crazy,” she muttered, wondering if she had imagined the whole thing.
     “Crazy is better than dead,” the voice told her with great assurance. “You can take my word for that.”
     Sarah just closed her eyes. After a long moment, and in a tired voice she said, “Why should I believe you’re a ghost?”
     “Don’t then. What difference does it make? If I am, belief or disbelief won’t change things, and if I’m not… so what? Tell me why you were crying. No one’s sat on that bench and cried before. Were you that moved by the picture?”
     And so it had begun. His name was Kenny, and he claimed not to know either why he was there, or how he died, only that he was lonely, and able to contact few of the living. He had died several years before, but remembered nothing of his death. Some details, such as the fact that he had collected vintage cars remained, but much was hazy, with attitudes and beliefs in sharper focus then the hard details of his life. But his life was not what he wanted to talk about, in any case. He wanted to know about hers.
     “My life is over,” she had insisted. But that only led to a discussion of why she believed that, and of the events that led up to her being on that particular road, with that particular man, at that particular time. Since that day she had returned almost every evening, their visits a piece torn from the fabric of time—a moment of quiet talk slipped between the loneliness of work and the nightmares that tormented her sleep. They had an hour together, sometimes less, before the museum closed.
     On most nights Kenny would answer her call. He claimed not to be aware of a gap when he didn’t appear, or of any time passing between their visits.
     “So, what have you done this week toward getting your life back on track, Sarah?”
     “There is no track, Kenny. My life is a train wreck. You know that.”
     “Crap.”
     “It is.”
     “Only because you want it that way. You cherish your pain.”
     “I…. That’s a cruel thing to say.”
     “True. What will you do about it…hit me?
     Sarah shook her head. This was unlike Kenny. They had enjoyed wide ranging conversations, touching on nearly every subject, including her desire to end her life. But he had never attacked her grief as being unjustified.
     “Tell me how it’s true,” she demanded. “Tell me how I cherish my pain.”
     “Fair enough. Have you gone to a movie, or any entertainment, since Brad’s death?
     “… No.”
     “Have you had one single conversation with a man that wasn’t strictly about business?”
     “I’ve spoken with you.”
     “Doesn’t count, I’m male in outlook, but hardly a man. Just a collection of random particles energized by some stray ultra-violet radiation.”
     “Well I wish you were real. If you were I’d have someone to talk to, at least.”
     There was a long silence, then, “There are living men you’d like a lot more than me, Sarah. You just haven’t been looking.”
     “It doesn’t matter. My life is like something from the X-Files. The man I love is dead and my best friend is a ghost.
     “Bullshit.”
     “I beg your pardon?”
     “I said, ‘bullshit,’ and I mean bullshit. You didn’t love Brad when he was alive, so how can you love him when he’s dead?”
     Sarah slid the pad back into the case and deliberately set it aside, then crossed her arms, her face set in lines of anger.
     “How the hell can you say something like that, Kenny? I loved Brad.”
     “He picked your friends.”
     “They were our friends.”
     “Not true. Unless you’ve been lying to me?”
     When she didn’t respond he said, “He told you where you could go, and when—and mostly you went only with him. You hated that.”
     She took a deep breath and shrugged, but uncrossed her arms and slumped a bit before saying, “So we had a few problems. Every couple has them.”
     “True, but every woman doesn’t move clothing and personal objects out of the apartment—nor pack a suitcase and hide it in the back of the closet.”
     “I…” There was nothing to say. She had been getting ready to leave when the accident occurred. Brad was handsome, fun to be with—everything she might have wanted in a man. He was also a bully and an overgrown child, who had to have his own way at all times.
     “Gotcha,” the voice said, quietly.
     “Well it doesn’t change things,” she said, defensively. Brad is gone, and I’m in love with a ghost. And I— Damn!” What in the hell had made her say something so stupid?
     But it certainly had silenced Kenny. When he finally spoke, his voice was slow, and apologetic.
     “I’m sorry, Sarah. I never meant it to come to this. I wanted to help you, not hurt you. I…” He sighed into silence.
     “So what do I do now?” she finally asked. “How do I go on? Do I come here every night for the rest of my life? Do I become the crazy lady who sits in the corner and talks to herself?”
     “You go back to living, Sarah. You find the man who wants you so desperately that…”
     There had been the sound of frustration in his words, then silence. Sarah was at a loss as to what to say, other than, “Life sucks,” but before she could, a strange voice said, “I’m sorry, sir, but the museum will be closing in a few minutes.”
     “What?” Sarah turned, scanning the room. At the opposite end of the gallery a guard, who had been facing the matching alcove, now turned to face her. He leaned backward, placing his head within the alcove, before saying, “The museum’s closing, ma’am.” He hadn’t raised his voice, but the words seemed to come from only inches away.
     Sarah knew her jaw was hanging foolishly open but she couldn’t help herself.
     The woman in the painting isn’t listening, she’s eavesdropping!
     She got to her feet to march the length of the gallery, anger building with each step. She had been duped, conned, played with, and by God, someone was going to pay. The guard, seeing the fury building on her face, and probably deducing the cause—at least in general—raised hands, palms out, and said, “I’m out of here. Just don’t leave his body cluttering the gallery when you go.” He snickered as he left.
     The man on the bench turned.
     “Hi, Sarah. I…uhh, see you made your appointment okay.”
      Sarah closed her eyes to count silently to ten before speaking. She got as far as three.
     “Norman Atkins, you are the single most despicable man I have ever met.”
     “Probably.” He seemed unperturbed, and that served only to infuriate Sarah still further.
     “God, I hate you!”
     “No. You don’t.”
     “What?”
     “You don’t hate me, Sarah, you’re just angry with me…and I can’t blame you.”
     That brought her to a halt. Aside from the question of her hating him, how can you be angry with someone who agrees with you? She felt the weight of depression settle into its familiar place on her shoulders, and closed her eyes.
     “Why, then? Why did you do it?”
     “I like you better angry.”
     Her eyes opened, and she booted depression from its saddle, “Okay, then, damn you…I’m angry. Tell me why you would do such a terrible thing.”
     “A fair question. Define terrible.”
     “Define… Norman, how the hell can you ask such a thing? You lied to me. You told me you were dead.” That sounded stupid, even to her ears.
     “Define terrible.”
     She took a breath. “You said you were someone you aren’t.”
     “No I didn’t. My name is Kenny, at least to my parents and close friends. It’s my middle name and I like it better than Norman.”
     “But—“
     “What did Kenny do when he was alive, Sarah?”
     “Uhh…he was a teacher.”
     “I taught computer science before I founded Belmont Technical Institute.”
     Sarah just stared. There was nothing she could say.
     More gently now. “Define terrible, Sarah. I saw that guard coming, and I knew what he was going to say. A wave of my hand and he would have turned aside, as usual, and you would never have known. But I looked away so he would tell me, and so you would hear.” He allowed her to absorb that, before saying. “There’s a little plaque next to the alcove that explains how the shape of the room and the dome over it focuses the sound waves from each end of the room into the matching alcove at the opposite end. It’s called a whispering gallery, and I really expected you to notice it before this.”
     He leaned toward her, and his voice was both quiet and intense as he said, “Define terrible, Sarah.”
     She turned away, lest he see her tears. “You made me…” She stopped. How could she say, “You made me fall in love with someone who doesn’t exist.”
     Huddled miserably within herself she heard him step closer, and sensed the warmth of him just behind. He touched her shoulder, but dropped his hand when she flinched away.
     “Hate me if you want, Sarah, I deserve that. Just don’t let yourself fall back into being the way you were.”
     After a moment she nodded. He was right. Brad had been a bully, and she had been about to leave him when the accident occurred. And of more importance, the accident was not her fault.
     She took a shuddery breath, and felt as though she had come to the surface after an endless time underwater. For the first time in forever she could breathe, truly breathe, and it felt indescribably beautiful.
     “Live, Sarah!” he demanded. “I want you to live. I want you to be the person you were before this happened—the woman I’ve gotten to know these past few weeks. The woman…” She heard the sound of him taking a breath before quietly saying, “The woman I fell in love with.”
     She turned, drawn to meet his eyes, and he finished with a gentle, “Be the woman who loved me, Sarah… even if she didn’t know it was me.”
     There was nothing she could say in response. It was too sudden, and too much, so in defense, she changed the subject. She glanced at her watch, then said, “They’ll come looking for us in a minute.”
     He nodded. “I know. And I know this is a lot to take at once, so I won’t ask you to leave with me. But I will be here tomorrow, if you’d like to talk.”
     With that, and giving her no time to respond, he turned and walked toward the museum entrance.
     Sarah watched him go—a man she had fallen in love with, yet a man she didn’t really know. Or did she? Certainly, he knew her better than anyone who walked the Earth…and loved her for it.
     When she had no reason to live he had asked her why she was crying, and then had become her reason. Should she love him any less because he was alive?
     Her heels tapped quietly on the marble floor as she strolled toward the entrance, lost in thought.
      I’ll have to do something about his wardrobe. And maybe bring him to my sister’s place to see how he reacts to her kids. And after that… She was alive again, and it felt good.
     Tonight there would be no nightmares. And tomorrow? Well, she already knew the words she would be whispering, tomorrow.

Fin

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Author’s note:
 
    &nbspThis piece began as a contest story on the old AOL Writers Club that had a strict 3000 word limit. It was my first contest win, and that was a great feeling. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2011 in Short Story

 

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Interlude

Interlude
Interlude
A Love Story

 
      Mark Stirling sighed as he slipped the key from the ignition. He closed his eyes and let the tension flow from him, breathing a thank you that the day, and the week leading to it, was finally over.
     But indulging in self-pity accomplished little, so he extracted the travel suitcase from the trunk and turned to the building that fronted the road.
     The stylized number eight of the Super-Eight motel chain gave small comfort. The dilapidated cabins that lined the parking lot, said that the place probably dated from the 1950s and would supply little in the way of amenities.
     Gravel crunched underfoot as he made his way toward the office. Unfortunately, moving closer brought no improvement, only curiosity as to how the old place had survived. Its rural location and lack of competition probably helped. But still, that it had survived spoke in its favor.
     The old-fashioned screen door screeched a shrill welcome, closing behind him with the flat slap of wood against wood as he stepped inside.
     Shaking his head at a room that perfectly fulfilled the promise of the outside of the building, he started across the bare concrete floor toward the check-in desk, an ancient merchandise case of glass and wood, straight out of the nineteen-forties. Inside the case, an assortment of sundries stood on display, including a bottle of white liquid labeled Wildroot Cream-Oil that he took to be a hair-care product of some kind.
     “Hello, and welcome,” the heavyset man behind the counter said, smiling. “You’ll be wanting a room?”
     His cheerful voice added a promising note to the place, at least.
     “Just for the night.”
     “Where’ya headed?” he asked, as he spun the old fashioned registration book to face the guest’s side of the counter.
     With a trace of bitterness he couldn’t suppress, Mark said, “Philly, if things go better tomorrow than they did today.”
     “Oh-oh… Car trouble?”
     “Uh-huh.” Bending to sign the book he added, “My transmission seems to have blown a clutch, so I’ve spent part of the day waiting for the tow-truck and the rest waiting for the mechanic to get around to working on it.”
     “Hottenstein’s place?”
     “I think so. It’s about three miles toward the turnpike from here?”
     “That’s him. He’s a good man. If it can be fixed, Zack Hottenstein can do it.”
     “Maybe,” he said, without enthusiasm. “But not today. He can’t get the parts until tomorrow morning, at the earliest.” At the man’s curious look in the direction of the front door, he added, “The owner let me use one of his cars for the night.”
     “Like I told you,” he said. “A good man.”
     “Mmm… Is there a place nearby where I can eat?”
     “Uh-huh. Keep on down the road for a mile or so, Lydia’s place is on the left.” The man was silent for a moment, then ventured. “On your way home to the wife?”
     “Not married, I’m afraid.”
     The man cocked his head for a moment, then shook it as he said, “I’d have figured you for the marrying type.”
     That brought a chuckle, and “Oh I am, or will be if I find the right woman. At the moment I’m headed for a new job in Philly…if I ever get there.”
     “Ahh…” The man leaned an elbow on the countertop, tapping a finger against his cheek for a moment before venturing, “You knew what the problem was with the car, and you have the look of someone who’s handy with a wrench, so I’m guessing you’re…” He stood and threw a finger in Mark’s direction, saying, “I figure you for a mechanical engineer.”
     Mark turned the registration book back to face the man, who had reached back to take a key from a pegboard mounted on the wall.
     “Good guess. I design industrial conveyor systems—or will if the damn car holds together long enough to get me to Philadelphia.”
     About to hand over the key, the man hesitated, and said, “Say, are you in a hurry?”
     Mystified, he shook his head. “Not any more. What did you have in mind?”
     “Well, if you can give me a few minutes, I’m taking a sort of survey, to get a feel for the type of people who stop here.”
     “Well…” He glanced around the seedy lobby, suppressing the headshake the view wanted to generate. That, and the tired looking cabins that stretched the length of the parking lot gave little to be positive about. But mentioning that wouldn’t be very diplomatic, so he said, “I’m afraid I’m not the typical traveler.”
     “That’s okay,” the man said, cheerfully, reaching for a clipboard he had hanging on the wall. “You count, too…grab one of those chairs and set yourself down for a bit.” Without waiting, the man came around the counter, heading toward a group of worn chairs clustered around an equally ancient table.
     With a “what the hell,” shrug, Mark took one of the other chairs and settled into it. With nearly an hour before dinner this might kill some time.
     “Okay,” the man said, pencil poised and sounding as though about to gather information of earthshaking importance. “Name and age?”
     “Mark Sterling, and I’m twenty-six.” The man recorded that at the top of the form and stopped to admire his handiwork before continuing on with such things as marital status and occupation. The man even requested income, data he declined to supply—though he did admit to “middle class,” when pressed.
 
     After five minutes of increasingly personal questions, none relating to his opinion of the motel, it was time to bring things to a halt. What possible connection could his religious beliefs have to do with selecting a room for the night?
     Before he could speak, though, the man put the clipboard aside, smiling.
     “Well, that ought to do nicely.” He studied Mark for a moment before murmuring, “Very nicely.”
     Standing, then, he walked to the counter. To Mark’s surprise, he placed the room key he had been holding back on the pegboard and picked another, saying, “I think you’ll like this room better.” He pointed in the direction of the line of cabins, as he said, “It’s second from the end…number fourteen.”
     Feeling as though things had been happening of which he was only partially aware, he took the proffered key. But the man at the garage had said nice things about the motel’s owner, and though old, the place was spotlessly clean, so he headed toward the room.

*

     Cabin fourteen appeared to be exactly like all the others: tiny, drab, and badly in need of paint. For a moment, he stood in the gravel parking lot fronting the line of cabins. Was it worth the effort of driving to some more modern place? The innkeeper, in response to his request for a wake-up call at seven, supplied an ancient wind-up alarm clock, explaining that the cabin had no phone.
     But he had already paid, so with a shrug, he dug in his pocket for the key. A look around before making any final decision made sense.
 
     “Hello? I’ll be out in a minute.”
     A woman’s voice, coming from what could only be the bathroom, was unexpected. He backed out to compare the number on the cabin’s door with that on his key. They matched. A quick glance inside showed the room to be neat and made up, but the clothes-rack was in use and the dresser-top showed evidence of occupancy.
     “I’m sorry,” he called, backing through the door once more. “I think I’m in the wrong room.”
     “No, wait!” she called. “Give me a minute.”
      Wait? Mystified, he stood in the doorway, unsure of what to do. He should close the door, to keep the insects out, but the idea of entering a stranger’s room, especially following that odd encounter with the innkeeper, required more confidence than the situation generated. A quiet “Damn!” from the bathroom did little to reduce confusion. After a moment a toilet flushed, followed, a few moments later, by the opening of the bathroom door.
     A young woman emerged. The room lights were off, and she was partly in shadow, but at a guess she couldn’t be over twenty. She wore jeans, a brightly patterned tee-shirt, and a face that glowed red with embarrassment. She was tall for a woman, but still, several inches under his six feet—and slim.
     “I’m sorry,” she began. “I didn’t expect anyone for another hour or so, or I wouldn’t have been…been…” Her face reddened still further, as she gestured toward the closed door of the bathroom.
     “I’m Myra,” she finally said, as though that explained everything.
     Apparently, the hotel also functioned as the local bawdy house, and the manager had either given him the wrong key, or thought he might be interested in a bit of sexual entertainment before dinner.
     “I’m sorry, I…” Feeling foolish, he took a deep breath and started over. “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. I’m supposed to be in a regular room for the night, not…not visiting you. I think I—”
     “It’s okay,” she said, motioning for him to come in and close the door. “This is your room. It’s just that I…well, I come with it, if…if that’s okay with you.”
     “Okay? I…you come with the room? What in the hell does that mean?”
     Either he had stepped into the set of a movie, or was involved in an elaborate practical joke. The odds said practical joke, and that the interview had kept him in the lobby as a delaying tactic to give the actress time to get ready. He glanced around, seeking the camera lens that must be concealed nearby. Perhaps behind the mirror above the dresser?
     “I’m sorry, I’m not doing this very well,” she said, apologetically. “But this is the first time for me, and.…” She stopped, chewing on her lip and looking uncomfortable, eyes downcast.
     She comes with the room and I’m her first customer? Good God, I’ve stepped into crazy.
     But standing half in and half out of crazy seemed silly, so he took a step forward and allowed the door to close, plunging the room into shades reminiscent of twilight, yielding to curiosity and committing to at least see which way things went.
     Her quiet, “Thank you,” gave some sense of re-assurance. Still, with no idea of how to proceed, he waited for her to go on, while mulling over what little he knew.
     A trace of perfume hung in the air—something light and floral. Had she applied it in anticipation of his arrival, or was it simply the scent trail of her cosmetics? Certainly she didn’t seem the type to turn to prostitution, or look like one. Her mode of dress seemed more suited to an afternoon in the park than a seduction, and she appeared to be wearing little makeup—though both could be the result of his arriving earlier than expected.
     With a visible effort she straightened her spine, though she kept her gaze riveted on the floor, avoiding his eyes. She had a nice face, though, but, again, not the face of a prostitute.
     She wasn’t especially noteworthy—her face too thin for true beauty, her nose a trace too large. But attractive fit well. Certainly someone to be interested in were they have met under more normal circumstance.
     “Is there anything I can do?” he ventured, when she didn’t speak.
     She waved a hand in negation. “No, just give me a minute.” Then, with a shake of the head to settle her hair she moved toward the nightstand and turned on the lamp, then sat primly on the corner of the bed, pointing to the room’s only chair as she did so.
     “Sit there and I’ll explain.” She met his gaze then, with eyes of sunset blue, deep and compelling.
     Wow. To cover his reaction he turned the chair away from the battered old table and sat, noting with distaste that bare concrete floored the room, like the office, without even a token covering of tile or paint. The rest of the room fulfilled the promise of that floor, fairly shouting the word cheap.
     “Okay,” she said, forcing a smile into her voice. “I’m not very good at this. But like I said, this is my first time. So I—”
     “What do you mean your first time? Your first time with a…a man? Because if you—”
     “Let me finish,” she ordered, a little testily.
     “Sorry.”
     “It’s okay. But let me finish before you ask questions.”
     He held up his hands in surrender, then motioned for her to continue.
     “Okay…the problem is that the mines in this area have been closing down for years, and there aren’t any jobs.”
     “And?”
     “And everyone who can has moved away, especially the younger men.” Her voice carried tones of bitterness as she said, “Which means there’s no jobs available for a woman, and no men she might marry.”
     “So you have to turn to this to live?”
     “If by, ‘this,’ you mean sex for money, the answer is no.”
     “But you said…” Things were no clearer now than before she had began her explanation.
     “I said I came with the room. But I am most definitely not a prostitute, so get that out of your mind right now. I’m here to talk to you, and help you unpack, and to keep you company.”
     She waved a hand to indicate the room.
     “You may have noticed that there’s no television set. I’m here instead.”
     He blinked several times before saying, “You’re kidding. There has to be more.”
     She shrugged. “Well, I clean up and make the bed in this and three other cabins, and in return I have a place to stay and a few bucks for food. There’s a couple of other girls staying here, too, doing the same thing.”
     He shook his head. Definitely not your average motel. He waved a hand in inquiry. “So where do you sleep?”
     That brought color to her cheeks and a trace of hesitation in her voice, as she said, “When there’s no one here I use the bed.” She averted her eyes, as she added. “I’m supposed to…well there’s a pad in the closet that I can put in the corner.”
     “And if the man using the room offers you money to…to be more friendly? What would you—”
     She met his eyes once more, ice blue, as she said, “Mister, do you know what it’s like to be hungry—really hungry?”
     “I think so, yes. I’ve missed a meal or two.”
     “No!” She shook her head. “I don’t mean like when you miss a meal. I mean the kind of hungry that comes when you haven’t eaten in two days, and there’s not a damn thing left in the kitchen. Not catsup or mustard, either—because you drank the ketchup and ate even the mustard—and there’s nothing in your pocket to buy food with. Have you ever been that hungry?”
     “No,” he admitted. “No, I never have.”
     “Well I have…more than once. And I’ve been offered money for the use of my body when I thought I was gonna die for lack of food.”
     “But you said no.”
     “I said no. There’s not a lot that’s mine, Mister, but I have my pride. That I’ll always have.”
     “So, now you’re an American version of the Japanese Geisha?”
     “I don’t…”
     “They keep men company, entertain with music and song, and cater to their whims. But that’s all.”
     She nodded. “That’s me.” She sat up a little straighter, her eyes seeking his. “And those are the rules, so if you don’t want me here under those conditions you can change rooms…or I will.”
     He leaned back and crossed his arms, looking her over as a smile grew. The idea, so bizarre, and so far out of his range of experience that he couldn’t help but be intrigued by it, amused.
     Finally, he nodded and said, “You’ve got yourself a deal. My name’s Mark, by the way; Mark Sterling.”
     For the next hour Myra talked and Mark listened. She insisted on unpacking his things and placing them in the closet and dresser for him. While she did that, and after, at his request, she told him about growing up poor, something he had, thankfully, been spared. Her father, a coal miner, came to Pennsylvania from West Virginia, when the mines there began to close. He’d worked the local wildcat mines—when he could find work.
     An only child, her mother died of cancer when she was sixteen, followed shortly thereafter by her father. Since their deaths she had done anything that would generate enough money for food and a roof over her head. But times were becoming harder, lately, and jobs non-existent. In desperation, she’d turned to her uncle, who owned the hotel, and he had proposed the quirky arrangement. Her uncle, from what she said, had a good heart, and called himself an innovator, but spent a fair amount of time in Crazyville.
 
     Mark glanced at his watch as he came out of the bathroom. They had been exchanging stories for over two hours, though it seemed far less than that. The room’s single window dimmed with the approach of evening, and his stomach reminded him that he had been neglecting it.
     “So, what do you do for food?” he asked, settling back into the chair, changing the subject from his own childhood in Ohio.
     “Food? Oh, you mean my meals. I take them here in the room, or with the other girls.” She hesitated, before adding, “I’d invite you to join me, but…” She stopped, and left the fact that she couldn’t afford to feed him unstated, saying instead, “But if you’d like, there’s a grocery about a mile from here where you can pick up most anything you’d like. I’ve been told I’m a fair cook.”
     He shook his head, rejecting that, leaning back in the chair as he studied her. She was better looking than he had first thought, or at least she would be if she spent some time off a third-world style diet. Feeling pleased with what he was about to do, he said, “Tell me, Myra, how long has it been since you’ve had a real sit-down dinner that someone else cooked and served?”
     A moment of hesitation, then, “Thank you, Mark.” I appreciate the offer, but I can’t accept it.”
     “But…why?”
     “I just can’t.”
     For a moment he stared, then asked, “Is it a rule that you can’t eat with the guests? You did offer to cook for me.”
     “That’s different.”
     “Different?” Then understanding came. “Ahh…You’d eat then because you’d have earned a part of the meal by cooking it.”
     That realization served as a reminder that they were not two friends sharing conversation and companionship. The camaraderie that had flowed so easily between them was gone, and once again they were client and…and what?
     He puzzled on that for a moment, before giving in with a shrug. “Okay, then, we can eat here. Will you at least come to the store with me? I’d really like your company.” When she appeared to be about to balk, he added, “That is part of the deal, after all—your keeping me company.”
     She gave in with good grace, and even agreed to his suggestion that they cook the steaks on the grill he had noticed in the park-like area behind the cabins, though she did complain that he should not have taken the most expensive steaks in the store’s meat-cooler when there were much lower cost cuts available.
     Myra sent him off to light the grill and start the steaks while she readied the rest of their dinner, then brought it out to the little park.
     The steaks helped make the meal memorable, but she’d done wonders with spices, an onion, and assorted vegetables—some of which he didn’t recognize. He had to agree. She was a good cook.
 
     Talk flowed like smoke between them, as they sat relaxed and alone in the growing dark. As she became more comfortable her language turned interestingly colloquial, with words like “ain’t” and local idioms and pronunciation coloring her speech.
     The lady was interesting company. Though provincial in many ways, she had a good head on her shoulders, and her tastes often mirrored his own.
     Then, without warning, he was yawning and it was time for bed.
     She noticed, and stood, abruptly, to begin gathering the dishes, her posture, outlined in the glow from the single overhead light the park boasted, showing tension.
     “Let me help you,” he suggested.
     “It’s no bother.” A note of cold formality that had been missing since before dinner colored her words, and she said little more as they returned to the cabin. The problem of where she would sleep had re-surfaced.
     That he had no robe or pajamas was another issue to resolve. The idea of the motel providing a companion might be fun, but it definitely should end before this point in the evening.
     Myra placed the last dish into the sink’s drying rack, and after a moment spent silently facing the kitchenette’s tiny sink, turned and leaned back against the countertop, her face pale and her expression terribly vulnerable.
     She bit her lip before saying, “If you’ll take a walk for about ten minutes, I’ll get into my nightgown.”
     He couldn’t help it. His eyes flicked to the bed, then back to her, as he chewed over how to phrase the question that came to mind.
     As though testing his reaction, she said, “It’s…a big bed.”
     “More than big enough,” he agreed
     She nodded. “And if…” She hesitated, and he was about to say something reassuring, when she threw up her hands in disgust, saying, “Oh what the hell. If I can’t trust you in the God-damn bed I sure as hell won’t change things by sleeping on the floor, will I?” She waved toward the door. “Go on out and take your walk, Mark, and let me do this quick before I can change my mind.”
 
     The moonlit darkness was alive with cricket song. That should have been comforting, but spoke of unhappy choices and missed opportunities, instead. He leaned a hip against the car, thinking over the events that resulted in this absurd situation.
     In hindsight it was so clear. The warning signs of the company’s collapse had certainly been obvious. And the car’s transmission problem had provided its own warning signs. In both cases it was more convenient, but not very smart, to procrastinate.
     A clear trail of warnings ignored led here, to standing in the dark, at a place where he would never have willingly spent the night, waiting to sleep with a woman he would probably never kiss.
     He should be in Philadelphia and settled into a decent motel—relaxing, or maybe having a beer in some little club and looking over the local women. Instead, he would be spending Saturday night chastely sleeping with a woman he didn’t know, miles from his destination. After a moment, though, he laughed out loud.
     “But hell, this is probably a lot more interesting than reading the apartments-for-rent section of the newspaper, which is what I’d really be doing.” He also had the wish that Myra lived closer to Philadelphia. It might be interesting to get to know her better.
     That subject he tabled for future consideration, when the light in the room abruptly went out. He checked his watch. It had been seven minutes since he left. Giving her another minute to settle herself, he re-entered the cabin and headed for the bathroom, preferring to undress there.
 
     Taking a deep breath and turning off the bathroom light, he opened the door and moved toward the bed. As he got in she slid away, to the far side—close to the edge and facing him—placing as much distance between them as possible.
     For a time, they lay that way, he on his side and she on hers, saying nothing. The moonlight spilling through the blinds touched her hair, painting a silver halo around her shadowed face.
     Finally, unsure of what to say, he ventured, “Are you all right?” It seemed inane, but given how conscious of the situation he was, she probably felt the same. Certainly, she needed reassurance.
     A flicker of smile came, barely visible in the darkness, and she reached out to touch his arm. “I’m okay, it’s just… Well this is my first time, and it’s not exactly what I expected.” She brought her hand abruptly back to her side, as if she’d realized that he might take her touch as an invitation.
     He laughed, a little louder than he had intended. “Well it’s my first time, too, remember?”
     That brought a real, though tiny smile, and, “You’ve never slept with a woman without…without…?”
     “Never.” He hadn’t planned to say more than that single word, but for no reason he could explain, found himself saying, “There haven’t been many times of the other, either.”
     “Oh?” She moved a bit closer, studying his face, as though searching for something. “Why not?”
     He rolled on his back, not wanting to meet her eyes. Finally, he shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess part of it is a fear of catching something. But mostly, I think it’s because I’m afraid I’ll fall in love with the woman just because of the sex, and I don’t want to do that. My parents did, I think, and I lived most of my life in a war zone as a result of their stupidity.” He turned his head. “You?”
     Silence followed, as she, too, turned to study the ceiling for a time, before saying, “Just once. I thought he loved me, but he bragged to all his friends about it the next day. I just…just…” Another silence, until, “Most of my friends married the first man who would have them, and now they have a couple of kids, a husband who spends most of his money on beer, and a life that’s no better than mine—maybe worse, because they can’t ever do anything about it.”
     “And you can?”
     “I had hopes of it.”
     He rolled over to face her, interested. “And?”
     She, too, turned, so that they were now lying almost as close as lovers, her voice intense with yearning, as she said, “For two years I’ve saved every cent not needed for necessities, with the idea of moving to Pittsburgh, or maybe Reading, with enough money to live on for a month. I figured I’d find a job waitressing, or maybe clerking in a store. If I could only do that I’d never come back here again.”
     “So what went wrong? You said you had hopes.”
     She bowed her head until her hair pressed against his cheek, and her sigh tickled the hair on his chest, before she looked up and said, “I was there, Mark. One more month and I would have been gone. But, there was a fire and I lost everything—clothes, money, car—everything. Had it not been for my uncle loaning me the money to get started again I don’t know what…” She gave a little shake of negation, then leaned her head against his shoulder in sadness, her voice a teary whisper as she said, “I came so close, Mark…so damn close. And now…”
     Gently taking her chin in his hand he brought her eyes up to meet his, as he said, “How much did you lose, and how much do you owe your uncle now? I could—”
     “No!” She shook her head, almost angrily. “I don’t take charity.” Flat finality hardened her voice, and her hands came up to pull his away. But he was stronger, forcing her to meet his gaze as he said, “I have in mind a loan, Myra. Just a loan, one you can pay back when and if you can.”
     He released her then and she rolled away, to sit on the edge of the bed, facing away from him, her voice flat and emotionless as she said, “You were out of work yourself just last week. Suppose this job doesn’t work out?”
     “And if it doesn’t?” He raised himself on one elbow. “I was out of work because my company failed, Myra, not me. I’m good at what I do…damn good…and if this job doesn’t work out there’ll be another. I’m not worried about that.”
     “But you can’t—”
     “Can’t afford to help? Yes I can. I’m not wealthy, but it won’t break me, even if you never manage to pay it back.” When she made no immediate reply, he added, “At least think about it, okay? I’ll leave you my forwarding address when I go.”
     She nodded, still facing away, but said nothing, then slipped under the sheet with a sigh, turning to face him. “I will think about it,” she said, at last. Then she leaned close to kiss him gently on the lips, lingering there and surprising him with both the act and the way her kiss affected him.
     When he began to respond she moved away, taking the hands that had come up to draw her closer and holding them firmly, saying, “No, please, Mark. That was to thank you for being so kind, but that has to be all. I’d feel like…like I sold myself if we did more.”
     “Myra, I—” She touched a fingertip to his lips, stopping him.
     “Please don’t be angry.” He nodded, and she added a wistful, “I almost wish you hadn’t made your offer, because I think I liked kissing you.”
     He could think of nothing to say, other than “Thank you,” before rolling onto his back once more. Instead of moving away, however, she retained one of his hands and moved closer, to lay her head on his shoulder, whispering, “Good night,” and touching her lips momentarily to his cheek. He couldn’t help himself, and turned his head to place a gentle kiss on her forehead in return, before murmuring a good night of his own.
 
     How long they lay that way he had no idea, but there wasn’t the slightest chance of falling asleep. He lay wrapped in his own thoughts until a tear falling on his shoulder brought him back to the room, and to her.
     “What’s wrong,” he asked, as he turned, so he could see her face.
     “It’s nothing.”
     “You’re crying. That’s not nothing. Does it have to do with me?”
     She shook her head. For a time they lay close, and he noted that her breath was sweet, and that she carried a trace of the scent of soap, mixed with her own pleasant, and very erotic, personal scent. It took a conscious effort to keep from turning her to spoon against him.
     “I’m not going to do this anymore,” she said after several minutes of silence.
     “This?”
     “Staying in the room like this—with men. It’s not…” She sighed. “It wouldn’t be the same. I would probably compare them to you, and the idea of spending the night with some fat, balding businessman…” She sighed as she said, “I just couldn’t do it.”
     She made no complaint when he wrapped an arm around her, only cuddled more closely against him.
 
     The old clock read almost three when he extricated his arm from around her and got out of bed, to stand and stare out of the window. Her breath, quiet and steady, spoke in the rhythms of slumber, something that eluded him. After a moment he moved to the chair, to sit and stare at nothing for a long time. At last he reached a decision and nodded slowly to himself, satisfied. More at peace, he slid into bed, pleased to feel her move against him and give a little sigh of contentment, though she didn’t wake. Then he slept.
 
     The sun cast bright slivers of light against the far wall when next he opened his eyes. For a moment he lay, then moved his leg toward her side of the bed, to make contact. She wasn’t there. He blinked away his drowsiness and sat up, to search the room. But she wasn’t there, either. Her clothing was, however, and the bathroom door was closed. That brought a smile, as memory of their their meeting returned. It seemed so long ago.
     Sitting on the edge of the bed he stretched as he called her name.
     “Just a minute.” A smile brightened her voice as she added, “You seem to have a knack for catching me in here.”
     “That I do,” he murmured to himself. Then he noticed her half-filled suitcase resting on the table—something to be taken care of.
     In many ways a stranger emerged from the bathroom to give him a bright, “Good morning, sleepyhead.” Her long brown hair was pulled back into a flowing ponytail, and her face, with the hair pulled away from it, had taken on an almost regal cast—a look of which he most definitely approved. She wore sandals, and had on a white skirt with a bright red blouse above it, tied at the bottom and buttoned only part way up, showing a quite interesting curve of breast. Indeed, with a little feeding, Myra would be quite a woman.
     But he pushed such thoughts from his head and motioned toward the chair, saying, “Sit. I need to talk to you.”
     “About?” With a puzzled expression, she backed into the chair, keeping her eyes on him as she did so.
     “About us. About what I said last night.”
     “Us?”
     “Well…that’s a maybe. But as you said to me, yesterday, wait till I finish before you ask any questions… Okay?”
     At her mystified nod, he said, “I thought about it a lot last night, and I don’t think your idea of moving to a strange town and making it within a month is sound.”
     “No?”
     “No. There’s too much that can go wrong, so I came up with a better idea.”
     She seemed to be about to speak, but stopped and leaned back in the chair, as she said, “Go on.”
     Now, saying it aloud, rather than rehearsing it in his thoughts, the idea seemed to take life, and make even more sense than it had when he had formulated it late in the night.
     “Look,” he began. “We seem to be able to get along, right?”
     “… I guess.”
     “And wherever you go you’ll need a place to stay, right?”
     She placed folded hands in her lap, and her eyes were unreadable as she studied him. “So you want me to move in with you, to be your—”
     “No! No, that’s not a condition.”
     “What, then?”
     Feeling inept and a bit defensive, he fidgeted a bit before saying. “Look, Myra, what I mean is that if you didn’t have to worry about paying for a room, the same money as I was going to loan you will last two or three times as long.”
     She took a deep breath and let it out again before nodding slightly, urging him to continue.
     “There are no strings to this,” he hastened to assure her. “And you can…well you can sleep on a cot if you like.” He looked away, then, unwilling to meet her eyes, given that he was making a fool of himself.
     “But I liked sleeping next to you. Why—”
     “What?”
     She shrugged. “It was nice. Why would I want to sleep on a cot instead of with you?”
     “Really? You—” he stopped, blinking in surprise. She had just told him she would not only accept his offer, and would be leaving with him, she would be sharing his bed; expected to share his bed; even wanted to.
      Amazing.
     “Thank you, Mark.” She blushed, and looked down, seeming shy.
     Apparently, he hadn’t just thought that word, so he went on with, “Well you are. Amazing that is. And I liked sleeping next to you—very much. But what I meant was that you don’t have to…I mean we don’t necessarily have to—”
     “Men are so damn silly about such things,” she said, shaking her head. She then proceeded to take any sting out of her words by coming into his arms and kissing him into near insensibility before she turned back to her own packing—leaving him standing stunned by the bed
     Before he could reply to that astonishing remark, or the implications of that incredible kiss, she pointed toward the bathroom, saying “You better get in there and get showered and dressed while I finish packing. We have to be in Philadelphia by this evening.”
     “But…” He stared at her for a moment, before pulling himself together enough to ask, “But wouldn’t that make you feel like a… Well, like I was buying you?”
     At his question she stopped and turned enough to ask, “Does your first offer still stand? Can I still borrow enough to go somewhere else and try it on my own if I decide to do that, instead?”
     “Well, yes. Of course it does.”
     “Then that’s your answer. I’m going with you because I want to, not because I have to.” She went back to her packing, as though everything was explained, while he decided that he would never, never, never understand the female mind.

*

     Calvin Zeigler watched the old car pull out of the lot. He smiled at the sight of Myra seated next to Mark, cuddled possessively against him. For a long moment he watched the car as it receded down the road, then grinned and headed back to the desk to reach for the phone.
     “Zack? I just wanted to tell you that you hit one out of the park again. One of the girls just handed me a check for two thousand dollars.” He laughed before adding, “Though I’m not certain you earned the money this time, because from what the man said, he really did have something wrong with the car.”
     He listened for a minute before saying, “They make a nice couple. You’ll see them in a few minutes. And I’ll see you tonight with your commission…take care, now.”
     Still smiling, he hung up the phone, leaned back in the chair in satisfaction for a moment, then pulled a file folder out of the display case to fish around in it for moment. He studied the card he’d extracted, then reached for the phone once more.
     “Hello, Sue Delhagen please.” A moment’s wait, then, “Sue? This is Cal Zeigler from Man-Finders… Uh-huh…sure did, honey. They left this morning, and that leaves an opening for you. Have you studied the manual…and played the video?” He listened silently for a moment, before saying, “Well that’s good, and we’ll go over it again when I see you, so pack a bag and get yourself over here as soon as you can.”
     About to hang up, he brought the phone back to his ear, saying, “Honey? One more thing. I know I’ve said it before, and you’ll hear it from me again, but this is important. I don’t care if you have to chain your legs together, there had better be no sex, and only one or two kisses, or you’ll sure as hell find yourself alone in the morning… What?… Well, yes, but only for a moment or so… Remember what I said, though, and don’t forget to bring your preference form, so I can pick out the right man for you.”
     Setting the phone back in its cradle, Zeigler leaned back in his chair and smiled, as he waited for his first guests of the day to arrive.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Author’s note:
 
     This piece began as a spec story. The editor was planning an anthology of romance and romantic stories set a fictional motel chain. The project never came to fruition, but the story, when completed, was one I especially like because when you read it a second time it has a very different subtext. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
 
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, too.

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2011 in Short Story

 

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It Never Gets Old

It Never Gets Old
     Releasing a novel is very much like releasing your grown children into the world. You’ve had your time to shape and guide them, but now your job, that of preparing and advising, is complete. Now it’s time for them to accomplish whatever they can on their own.
     But still, like any proud parent, I cannot help but point with pride.
     And so, Foreign Embassy, my third released novel, appears—hopefully to provide as much pleasure in the reading as I enjoyed during the writing. I’m especially pleased with the cover, a Deron Douglass original. Using my comment that the Talperno Embassy—the foreign embassy of the title—was a slightly futuristic, albeit flying, office building, he captured exactly what I’d been visualizing.
     Embassy is a first contact story, but not one you’ve seen before. The Talperno didn’t just come visiting, they came prepared. Forget the idea of traditional spacecraft and intergalactic landing fields. They flew the whole damn office building, then set it down on the grass by the reflecting pond, next to the Washington Monument.
     It’s only three minutes after landing and they’re already open for business, welcoming their very first guests, a group of boy scouts from Philadelphia.
     There’s an excerpt, here.
 
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Posted by on May 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Goddess – a bit of romantic fluff

Goddess – a bit of romantic fluff

 
 
 

     The earthquake was small as such things go, measuring less than two on the Richter scale. It did almost no damage to the Greek countryside, or to the settlements scattered there. Here and there the animals of the forest stopped their night’s activities for a moment and wondered, as the ground trembled beneath them.
      The tremor was small and lasted for a moment, only, but the hillside had been weakened by more than a thousand years of rainwater, slowly and patiently eroding the limestone that formed its bones.
     As the quake subsided a tiny stone crumbled, giving up the job it had held for centuries, allowing a boulder to settle by just a tiny bit. Small though it was, though, that event was enough to begin a chain-reaction of crumbling and snapping stone that slowly but surely accelerated. For nearly a month after the quake, there was a series of almost undetectable changes, but the final event in the chain took place at seven-thirty-four, on a cool but pleasant September evening.
      With the brittle sound of cracking stone, the hillside abruptly collapsed under the boulder, launching it on a mad leaping race down to the creek, below. There, with a mighty splash, it found a new place from which to contemplate eternity.
      On the hillside, where the boulder had once rested so comfortably, there was a shadowed opening, and new silence.
     
      An hour passed with no further developments, until a lady meadow mouse in search of a home timidly began to explore the opening. She froze as the sound of a small yawn emerged from the newly exposed cave. A soft light began to grow, and the mouse decided to search somewhere else for her home.
 

*

 
      She was lovely, if your tastes ran to that sort of thing. Her hair was auburn, and though mussed now, clung around her face in stubborn curls, of the kind hated by those women who have them and envied by those who do not. She was slim and athletic, young in appearance, but the breast of a woman pressed against the soft purple and white linen that draped from shoulder to knee. Her other breast was bare, in the formal style of her people, and was of the type to inspire poetry in the aesthetic, and lust in the bold. She stood with the carriage of royalty, and her feet rested on the fragile protection of delicately made leather sandals, which themselves rested firmly on the air, two inches above the broken ground in front of the cave. In the growing dusk, her nimbus was just visible, a pale blue aura surrounding her head.
      She drifted to the smooth grass of the hillside and her feet sank gently to the ground, while she looked up to study the stars, just showing in the east, searching for a sign. Then, getting no comfort from the skies, she began to study the ghostly countryside, barely visible in the gathering skirts of night.
      Finally, she frowned and began to drift toward the paved road just visible to the west.
     
      It was a single lane track, poorly paved and badly in need of repair—a service road, used only by park attendants. Puzzled, she squatted to study the black asphalt of the road, brightening her nimbus to its maximum.
      Finding nothing there to enlighten her, her face a study in puzzlement, she stood and searched the road in either direction, trying to make up her mind as to which direction to take. With a shrug, she chose south. Far too exhausted by her ordeal to properly lift, she set off lightly on foot in the brightening moonlight, hoping she was heading toward the nearest settlement rather than away.
     
      Nearly a half-hour and three crossroad choices later, she came to one of the entrances to the park, and stared, dumbfounded, at the trickle of traffic on the public road. Things had certainly changed. Finally, she decided that since the majority of the traffic was heading to her left, she would join the flow.
      Several hundred feet later she stopped to investigate a sign, mounted on its angular metal pole, studying the strange symbols, while repeatedly tapping her fingernail on the flat surface, her brow furrowed at the metallic pinging she invoked.
      Distracted, and lost in thought, she walked nearly a mile through the gently rolling hills, oblivious to the consternation she was causing in the passing cars.
     Almost invisible in the moonlight, an access road dipped away from the highway, no more than a dark slope leading toward the woods. But the sound of plucked strings in the near distance, and the joining of voices raised in song brought her to a stop. Smiling in anticipation, she turned to follow the road past the parking lot and toward the source of happy noises.
      The trail meandered a short distance through the trees on its way to a picnic grove, where a fire pushed back the cooling night. Still hidden by the trees she stopped to study the people gathered there, as they were as unusual a group as she had ever seen. They were most strangely dressed, and of both sexes, though at first she was unsure of which was which. Most were wearing lower body coverings made of a tight woven cloth, dyed a deep blue and constructed so as to individually wrap each leg. They wore tightly fitted clothing over the upper body, without a male or female breast in sight, though the weather was not cool enough to require heavy robes. Their feet were fitted into some sort of casings, mostly white, that appeared to be tightly secured in place. The coverings probably provided protection against the stones of the trail, but looked to be hard and uncomfortable. Their hair, too, was unusual. It ranged from very short to shoulder length long, with length not a function of gender, though the women had more ornate arrangements that brought a frown of interest to her face, and a narrowing of her eyes. How they were able to achieve such interesting effects with their hair was a puzzle she was very interested in solving. That they were clean and neatly dressed relieved her worries to some extent. These were not members of the common people, but possibly a party of nobility on a frolic.
      They appeared to be at their ease, certainly not a war party, some leaning against what she guessed were supply packs, talking. Some were sprawled companionably with their ladies, resting on blankets spread on the ground by the fire. A man with a large stringed instrument of some sort sat with them, lazily strumming chords she found pleasant to the ear. Her first thought was to exercise caution and observe them from hiding for a time, but a goddess does not hide in fear from her subjects. And if by chance they were her equals, there was no need for caution. She drew herself up and lifted, both to protect her aching feet from the stones of the trail and to help identify her to the people there. Wrapping her dignity about her like a cloak, she floated toward the group gathered around the campfire.
     
      “Artemis!” That was the shocked exclamation from a stocky young man, rising now from his place at the fire. A whistle of surprise and admiration came from another man, frozen with a cup almost to his lips. That one stared at her exposed breast, unconsciously licking his lips.
      They were all on their feet now, the men interested, the women seeming reserved, or even hostile, but that was expected when dealing with humans. The man who had spoken quickly recovered, a wide smile on his face. “Welcome, Artemis, goddess of the hunt. You are even more beautiful than your portraits depict.” He bowed, adding, “Your loyal subjects await your bidding,” all the while frankly admiring her body.
      His words, other than the fact of his having spoken her name, were in an unknown language, and she stared at him, a frown marring the perfection of her forehead. “What language do you speak, Human? I know not the dialect if it be Greek.”
      His smile widened as he answered, straightening from the bow. “Ah, of course, the goddess of the hunt speaks only the Classic Greek we all learned in grade school, not our modern profanity of the mother tongue. Isn’t that right, Your Greatness?” His words were polite, but his voice was bold and mocking. His accent, too, was barbaric, and difficult to follow.
      She ignored the tone. “You are mistaken, Man. I too, am called by the name Artemis, but I am not the one known as the huntress.” It was time to clear up an important point.
     “Are you gods or Humankind?”
      The young man’s face fell into lines of confusion, which made her fairly certain they were human, but the question as to who they actually were, remained.
     Several of the others made what sounded like questioning comments, in a harsh and meaningless language, but the man ignored them, waving a shushing hand in their direction. His lips pursed as he studied her more closely, obviously enjoying the view. He had opened his mouth to answer, when one of the women shouted something and pointed to Artemis’s feet. The excitement her discovery generated proved they were not gods. The man’s next question, though, was totally unexpected.
      “Do you… Did you come from another world?”
      Unexpected events were arriving at a rate too fast to follow this night. As she tried to formulate a reply, another man stepped forward to stand almost protectively by her. His Greek was poor, and spoken with an accent that made it almost unintelligible. “Another world?” he said, in a tone that dismissed that possibility as not worth consideration. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are honored tonight by the presence of the goddess Artemis, known to the Romans as Diana, and we should make her welcome.” He switched to another language for a moment and spoke again. This time she was able to identify it as a corrupt dialect of Greek, and picked up a reference that they should “Be cold.” She thought she had heard him identify her as the Huntress once again, but his accent was so strange she couldn’t be sure, so she let it go for the time being. Whoever they were, they seemed to know little about the gods.
      Stooping to collect a stick from the ground, the man turned again to Artemis, gesturing with it to her feet. “With your permission?” he asked. It was obvious that he wanted to verify that she was actually floating above the ground.
      “No need, Man,” she told him, taking control of the situation herself. Pushing aside her exhaustion for the moment, she lifted higher, until her feet were nearly level with his head, amid their gasps of disbelief and shocked comments. She held herself there for a moment, fighting to keep the strain from showing on her face, then settled to the ground, her head throbbing. There was silence for a time while they absorbed what they had seen, and tried unsuccessfully to explain it to themselves in terms of their previous experiences. Several made mystic signs in the air before them.
     The man nodded.
     “Truly, she is a goddess,” he mused, his voice sounding distracted. Pulling himself together with an effort, he too bowed, but with the proper respect, asking, “Would you care to join us, Goddess, for refreshment and conversation?”
      She was beginning to regret her actions in not observing the group from concealment until she could decide on a proper course of action. Unfortunately, it was too late for regret. She looked him over, trying to make a decision as to whether to accept their hospitality and the demands that would make on her, or to refuse the offer and leave.
     Aside from his strange manner of dress, the human was comely, almost in the style of the gods. He appeared to be somewhat older than the rest of the group, but it was impossible for her to estimate his age other than to say that he was still a young man. Taller than she by a hand, he appeared to be well built beneath the concealment of strange clothing. “You are?”
      He formally bowed a second time, saying, “I am called Nick Cristopo. Nicky to my friends and also to the gods and goddesses.” His smile was friendly and infectious, not mocking, and he had impossibly white, even teeth.
     Relaxing a bit, she acknowledged his smile with a nod.
     “Thank you, Man Nicky, this has been a passing strange night for me, and I would welcome a bit of wine and a moment’s rest.”
      He chattered rapidly in the other language for a moment, arguing with some of the other men, who seemed to be in fear of her. Apparently he won the argument, for they dragged a large wooden table, with attached benches, a bit closer to the fire. Nicky then presented her with wine, poured into a strangely flexible cup. It was impossibly thin, and made of a cloudy material she had never seen before, but the wine was as fine as she had ever tasted, and slid pleasantly down her parched throat. The women still regarded her with almost unconcealed hostility.
      Accepting her as a guest, they plied her with strange but pleasing tidbits of food, ending with an ambrosial something called a chocolate bar, delighting in her exclamations of enjoyment as she tasted each strange new offering. Even the women slowly warmed, accepting her as sister, and laughing as she curiously examined the paints with which they enhanced their beauty. She was enraptured by the tiny but perfect mirrors they carried to aid in their application.
      Sated with food, she sipped her wine, relaxing and unwinding from the shock of finding herself thrust some unknown distance into the future. She had few firm ties to her own world since the death of her parents. Because of that, the shock of displacement by what must surely be several decades did not dismay her as much as it might have a few years before, when she still lived in the bosom of her family. Rather, it intrigued.
      As her mood mellowed, she remembered the singing that had first attracted her to the picnic grove and turned to the man who had been playing.
      “Would you do me the honor of continuing your song?”
     He frowned, and she repeated her request, more slowly this time. After a moment, in which she could see that he was trying to translate her words into a language he understood, he smiled and nodded, then picked up the device and began to tune it.
      The request pleased the group, for not only he but several others contested to present the best music for her pleasure, singing and playing while the moon moved through a tenth of the sky. There was nothing in their singing that rang familiar, and most of the music was strange in style. Still, there was much she liked, None were in a language she spoke, though Nicky and some of the others told her of what they sang.
     When the singers tired, one of the young men produced a small box that sang of itself in the most amazing manner. At his touch, it provided the music of a company of musicians, and the voices of many singers. Much of that music was harsh with discord, but apparently well liked by the group, as they began to pair off and dance in an almost frenzied manner that both surprised and shocked. They asked her to join them, and she was sorely tempted, but in such an unusual situation, knowing nothing of the customs of these people, best to preserve the dignity of the gods, so she reluctantly declined.
      Finally, sated with both song and food, she sat on the edge of the picnic table, resting her feet on the bench, much restored. They gathered at her feet, as curious as children. Not yet fully believing, but suspending disbelief, they were willing to go along with her portion of the night’s entertainment.
      Nicky, his face flushed with the effort of dancing, raised the question.
     “We’ve entertained you, Goddess, will you now entertain us with the answers to some of our questions?”
      Her mind urged caution, but relaxed now, with several cups of wine smiling in her stomach, she decided to humor the human’s curiosity as payment for their hospitality. She nodded, saying, “Ask away, though there are some things about the gods that I may not answer.”
      “Do you really know the goddess of the hunt?” That was the stumblingly translated request from a woman who clearly wished to emulate the huntress.
      Artemis frowned. She didn’t like to speak against another god, especially to humans, but the woman had touched a sore point, and the wine argued in favor of speech. She would have to simplify her answers for their limited understanding of Greek, but simple answers were all she planned to give in any case.
     “I know the one the Humans call the Huntress,” she said, reluctantly, “But I’m afraid I don’t like her very much. She’s a bloodthirsty showoff who cares little for proper behavior. She is always and always trying to prove she’s the best at everything.” The look on the woman’s face, in response, argued for further explanation. Apparently her command of the language was better than was her ability to speak it.
     “It’s no great feat to out-shoot a human archer when you can guide the arrow from the bow all the way to its target. She happens to have a strong talent in that direction, and makes a big show of it. I think she’s really trying to prove to herself that a goddess, though only a female, is far better than a human male. She also happens to like killing things just for the sake of killing, something that I find…” She groped for words, finally settling on: “Hateful.”
      The woman was shocked, and seemed about to retort, when one of the men, the first to speak when she entered the clearing, broke in with, “How about Aphrodite, the goddess of love.” He was wearing a smirk. Based on his behavior with the other women this one appeared to have the mind and manners of a pig.
      She turned on him and pointed a finger, waving it at the man. “You for one, would not be pleased if you spent a night with her,” she said, unable to keep the disgust from her voice. “Goddess of lust is more like what she is. A hundred men in a night would not satisfy that one. Her body smolders with an unquenchable heat, one that brings no glory to the gods, and I think, little pleasure to her.”
      They were silent for a moment, then a women threw out a name: “Hermes.”
      She nodded. “A nice man, with a good sense of humor, but he has a penchant for practical jokes. He loves to trick an unsuspecting human into a foot race, and then win it by adding to his speed by floating as he runs.”
      “Dionysus,” another called out.
      “Ah, Dionysus, my favorite old uncle.” She smiled as his image rose in her mind. “A wonderful, wonderful man. Oh, he’s fat and sloppy, and he loves wine and pretty women far too much, but an adorable and loving person in spite of that. When I was a little girl, I would spend part of the summer with him, and how I loved him, and how he would make me laugh.” She smiled in remembrance, then came back to the present, the warmth in her voice still reflecting her feelings for him. “He throws great parties too,” she told them. “Some of which, I wager, will go down in history.”
      “Tell us about Zeus and Lydia.” This from another young woman. “Did he really appear to her as a swan? And did they really…well…” She trailed off
      Unable to help herself, she exploded with laughter, asking, “Is that old story still making the rounds? Even the woman’s husband didn’t believe that one, and he was known by all to be a fool. The gods can do many things, but becoming an animal isn’t one of them. Unless that animal be a pig in the form of a god, or in Zeus’s case, a randy old goat.” With laughter she was unable to suppress she turned her attention back to the woman who had asked the question. “Tell me, would you like to have sex with a swan? And what would be your reaction to a swan dragging the sword and sack of a man under its belly?” They all laughed.
      “But what can a goddess do that makes her so special?” asked one of the men. There were murmurs of agreement to that.
      That was something she had not thought about for a long time, and it gave her pause. “Well…we can float above the ground as fast as a man can run, and—”
      “For how long.” This interruption was from the man who had first welcomed her to the group.
      She frowned in annoyance at the interruption before continuing. She was becoming tired of his bad manners, and his all but drooling over her body.
     “For me, far longer than a good man can run, before pains in the head force me to stop. Even then I can use the lifting to greatly lighten my weight, and can run a great deal faster than any Human.”
      “Unless that human is riding a bike, or is on skates,” commented the man with a sneer.
      “Or in a car,” added another.
      She looked blankly at them, not recognizing the terms that they were using. “Car?”
      “A four wheeled, self-powered cart,” said Nicky, from where he sat studying her. “You might have seen them on the road on your way in here.”
     He pointed to the trail leading in from the parking lot, and she nodded, thoughtfully.
      “What else can you do that makes you so special?” This was in the same sneering tone, from the man who had so far been the most annoying of the group. She was starting to loose patience. Only good manners, curiosity, and the fact that she recognized that the man had been drinking too much wine had restrained her thus far. That charity would soon come to an end.
      She stood and raised her chin in defiance. “For one thing, discourteous human, we do not grow old and die as mere humans do. We do not sicken of the many diseases that scourge your people, and most of our babies do not die in the first year as yours do.” It was perhaps tactless of her to remind him of that fact, but she was growing angry.
     “It is common for the gods to live seventy years or more, and one hundred is not unknown, while most of your people are dead of disease before fifty.”
      Nicky shook his head, a tiny smile playing at the corners of his mouth, as he told her, “I hate to be the one to give you the bad news, Goddess, but the humans have made great strides in the more than two thousand years you’ve slumbered.” He cocked his head and smiled. “You have been asleep, have you not?” She nodded, shocked by the vast quantity of time that had passed. It wasn’t sleep, but there was no reason to go into more detail.
     “In that time,” he continued, “the human life span has jumped to that of the gods, and our babies, too, live.”
      It was quite a blow to the self-esteem of a goddess to find that most of the things that made her special had been relegated to the trivial. She hadn’t yet allowed herself dwell on the time that had passed since she last walked the Earth. That would have to wait until she was alone. Thoughtfully, she pursed her lips. Surely there was something… “Ah,” she had it.
      Brightening her nimbus to its maximum, it was clearly visible even here close by the fire.
     With pride she said, “A goddess need not fear the dark, nor the hazards that are sheltered by that dark.”
      That seemed to impress them, but urged by the spirit of competition that she had aroused in them, one man reached into a pocket sewn into the pack on which he had been leaning. He removed a bright silver wand, from which sprang an eye-searing beam of light.
      “Very nice, Goddess, I sure would like to be able to do that myself, but can you match this flashlight?”
      She slumped. “No, not even Zeus has such a device.”
      The loud one got to his feet and lumbered unsteadily toward Artemis. “Gentlemen, I finally believe she really is a goddess, and I have never kissed a goddess before.”
      Nicky began to stand. It pleased her that the human would attempt to come to her aid, but this pig was her problem. Enough was enough. She absently held a warning palm out to Nicky, keeping him away.
      The expression on the man’s face when his feet left the ground was highly satisfying. She smiled tightly as he landed on his back, grunting in pain as the force slamming him to the earth drove a whoosh of air from his lungs. Her eyes fairly blazed as she advanced on him. The foolish human who made the mistake of angering a goddess would remember his punishment for a long, long time.
      He struggled uselessly to rise as she continued to advance, her unseen bounds holding him tightly to the ground. His face was pale, and his jaw slack with growing fear. Finally, unable to break free of her hold, he lay back, eyes flicking from side to side, obviously seeking help. But help would not be forthcoming.
      “Goddess!” The words were hard, and there was command in them that stopped her motion. Nicky placed himself between her and the man. His voice turned gentle. “Please, Goddess, he deserves what you plan to do to him, no doubt. But though that’s true, he didn’t know the danger he was courting. He has never before had the honor to meet a goddess.”
     She lifted an eyebrow in signal to go on, as she allowed her posture to soften. She would listen.
     “The gods have been gone from this world for a very long time… Will you spare him?”
      Her whispered “Gone?” was barely audible, but he heard and nodded. His voice, when he spoke, was quiet, pitched for her ears alone. “This is no place for you to be right now, Goddess. May I take you to a more comfortable location where we may talk?” He offered his arm.
      She stood frozen, the man on the ground forgotten now as Nicky’s words hammered again and again in her head. Gone! Her people gone for what must be ages. She swayed, but willed strength back into her body. A goddess must not show weakness before the humans. She turned and took his arm, leaning on his strength as he guided her down the now dark pathway, her nimbus providing them with light to avoid the snags and foot-catching roots.
      The walk to the parking lot, in the cool night air, served to steady her and gave her the time to regain full control of her emotions. Once there he guided her to a strange device. It had but two wheels, arranged one behind the other, and had a seat to straddle as though it was a riding beast. He took an amulet from his pocket and inserted it into the device, whereupon it began to shake like a thing alive. Snarling several times, it settled into a deep rumbling, breathing a momentary cloud of smoke from its lower parts. She took a quick step away from the thing, but returned when she realized it was only a device, without a mind of its own. A mechanical servant of the man. Nicky produced two helmets, each a work of art, impossibly glossy and strangely light for their size, with bulbous crystal coverings to be placed over the eyes. He placed one on his head, giving him a strange, almost menacing, almost heroic appearance, then showed her how to wear the other one, insisting that it was necessary for her protection when riding the device. He stood close to help her fasten the chin-strap, but jumped back as though stung when his arm brushed the warmth of her breast.
      “Forgive me, Goddess, I didn’t mean to take liberties,” he said, quickly. He was clearly upset, though she could not understand why.
      His voice was strange and muted in the confines of the helmet, but still understandable. She shook her head in confusion. “I fail to understand, Man Nicky… is a woman’s breast an object of fear in your world? Do you find me objectionable?”
      He smiled ruefully. “No, quite the contrary, Goddess, I find you truly lovely, but in our society it is traditional to cover the breasts. A man who touches a woman there without invitation is deemed rude and vulgar.” He stood back and studied her for a moment, nodding, and appearing pleased with what he saw. She was of a mind to reprimand him for undue boldness, but she had invited it with her comment, and was too pleased by his evident approval to complain. Reaching a decision, he delved into a storage basket on the side of the device and produced upper body clothing of the type he was wearing.
      “Here…this will keep you from getting cold as we ride.” He gazed again at her exposed breast and shook his head, adding, “And from getting arrested, too.”
      After some difficulty with the sleeves and the fastenings, he got her safely into the jacket. She found his reluctance to touch her amusing. With a smile, she reflected that there was nothing like flirting with an attractive man to take a woman’s mind from her problems.
      He showed her how to mount the device, behind him—her clothing requiring that she sit side-saddle—and how to place her feet so as to support herself. She was beginning to see the purpose of the strange blue leggings the people here wore. As she settled herself, and placed her arms around his waist, a bright white light lanced out in front of the thing, and with a roar, and a lurch that nearly unseated her, it began to carry them rapidly down the road.
      She had been expecting the device to begin moving, but still, the violence and speed of the start came as a shock. For a time, as they swept smoothly around the curves in the road, she clutched tightly to him, in fear for her life. Even a goddess couldn’t survive a fall at these impossible speeds, and she had no idea of what kept the thing erect. After a time however, she decided that if Nicky, a human, had no fear of death, she too could safely relax.
     Once she was able to forget the danger she began to enjoy herself immensely. The wind of their passage, blowing strongly in those parts of her face not protected by the helmet, and the smooth, powerful way that the device swept through the night, was exhilarating. The thing charged headlong through the darkness, making nothing of the steepest hill, and was more thrilling than a ride on the finest horse.
      The rush of the wind had one drawback however, that of making it difficult to talk. That, coupled with the, not trivial, problem of understanding Nicky’s strange accent, prevented conversation until they arrived at wherever he was taking her. It as just as well, though. There was a lot to think over.
      In a startlingly short time they arrived at a town, but not one that her experience could ever have prepared her for. The streets were crowded with all manner of wheeled devices, all rushing about at high speed. And the streets! They were smoothly paved, and lighted nearly as brightly as day, as were the interior of many of the buildings. She scarcely knew where to look, there were so many wonders vying for her attention. Buildings fronted with sheets of incredibly clear glass, higher than a man could reach, were everywhere, each with an array of goods, in colors and textures to delight the eye. She nearly fell off the motorcycle while attempting to look at the mannequins in a clothing shop. And seeing the people who thronged the streets she could better appreciate why Nicky was so insistent she cover her own clothing. Dressed as she was, she would stand out far too clearly in this town, and that was something best not to do at this point.
     
      For no reason that she could determine, Nicky stopped at the intersection of two streets. He balanced the thing they were riding with his toes, and calmly waited, as the vehicles on the crossing street began to move. She was studying the parade of vehicles when a noise from behind caused her to turn, just in time to see a huge monster of a device bearing lethally down on them. Bright headlights blinding her, it emitted a fearsome shrieking as it prepared to destroy them. Too frightened by the sudden attack to even think of lifting clear of the danger, she clutched Nicky painfully tight and screamed in fright, certain that her end was at hand.
      His head snapped around and their mount nearly fell over as he tried to see what had frightened her. His eyes finally settled on the truck, now stopping with a final squeal of brakes, and he smiled. He placed his mouth near her ear and pointed to a device hanging above the intersection.
      “When the red lamp burns we stop to let the others cross.” His next words were swallowed up in a blare of noise coming from the vehicle behind them, startling her and further unraveling her frayed nerves. The red lamp had extinguished, its glow replaced by another, this one green, and the impatient driver behind them was voicing his displeasure at their failure to move.
      Nicky pulled to the curb, as she fought a loosing battle to keep tears from her eyes. He leaned the bike on its side stand and knelt in front of her, removing both their helmets and taking her hands in his, while he wiped her tears with a square of white linen.
      “I know it’s hard, Goddess, but you have to just take the attitude that if I’m not screaming we’re both going to live through it.” He smiled, gently, drawing a small answering ghost of a smile from her.
      “I’ll try, Nicky,” she said, trying to be brave. “But it’s just so much at once.” She gestured, indicating the area around them. “So much that’s strange.”
      He looked around, slowly nodding, and seeming to be trying to see the city as it must appear through her eyes. Then, spotting something he apparently recognized, he pulled her to her feet, saying. “I have an idea that might help. In any case, it’ll get you out of traffic for a minute or two. Just follow me, and let me do the talking. We’re going to get something to eat that I think you may like.”
      They sat on a bench, in a tiny park, while he taught her the skills required to keep the ice cream in a chocolate ice cream cone from running down her arm.
      They rested there for a time, while she watched the people pass and asked questions about what she saw. Finally, after he refused her a third cone, she announced that she was ready to face the traffic again.
     
      As they passed through the city, she noticed something that pleased her more than any other single thing: The smell, or more precisely, the lack of it. All cities of her experience shared one thing in common, and that was the cloying stench of garbage and dung, both human and animal. The only odors she could detect as they traveled this night were those of growing things, and the occasional joy of a meal cooking. The background smell of burning hydrocarbons exiting from the exhaust of the city’s motoring public was an unfamiliar but not unpleasant odor that she quickly ignored, as did all of the other inhabitants of the city.
 

*

 
      They turned into what was for that city, a narrow street, though in her experience it was wide enough for two ox-carts to pass. It was cobbled with well worn stone, of a style that she found familiar. Nicky pulled in at the curb in front of a stone building that was old and as worn as the cobbles of the street. He dismounted, helping her off and pulling the bike onto its center stand. Removing his helmet, he indicated the building, saying, “My home.” There were hundreds of questions she was eager to ask, but she decided to wait until they reached the safety of the building. Unlike a human woman, she had little fear of what he might try to do to her, so had no hesitation about following him. He led her up a short flight of stone steps and through a door containing dozens of small panes of glass. He then bowed her forward into a narrow hall floored with tile and dimly lit by an overhead lamp.
      “Now we go up,” was his comment as he started up a creaking flight of narrow stairs. Twice more they climbed before he led her down a hallway matching the first, to open a door and step inside.
      She looked around the room in which she found herself. It was dark when they entered, but now was lighted by several brightly glowing lamps. Nicky caused them to light instantly, simply by touching a device on the wall near the door. The room was beautifully carpeted and spotlessly clean, though the rug was old and showing worn spots, as was most of the furniture. On the walls were bright new paintings of some kind, of incredible detail and color. Some were so real as to be almost confused with the view from an open window. She turned about, studying the room and its furnishings. It was one of the most well constructed and expensive homes she had ever seen, and it seemed strange that he did not re-cover the furniture with new fabric when it wore. Perhaps he had suffered a setback in his finances, or it had been left to him by his father.
      He looked around and apologized. “It’s not much, but it’s the most I can afford. My parents help, but I do the best I can to keep their expenses down.” He saw her puzzlement and explained. “I don’t own the place, I only rent it. I wasn’t born here in Greece, though my grandparents were. I was born in a land far across the sea.” He shrugged. “Why I came here is a long story, one I’ll save for later, but I’ve been studying for my doctorate and working at the University for the past three years.”
      Little of what he said thus far made sense to her, but she nodded at the appropriate places, assuming that at some time in the future it would become more understandable. His next comment did answer one question that had puzzled her.
      “One of the things I studied here was the Classic Greek language, which is the reason I can talk to you.” He shrugged, adding, “Though none too well, I fear. Here in Greece, the children learn your language in school, and speak it far better than I.”
      He had begun walking as he finished, so she followed him to the other side of the room, and to a well worn but serviceable sofa. He hurriedly removed a clutter of books, putting them aside on a small table, already covered with its own pile of paper and books. Several of the newly added books and papers promptly slid to the floor, causing him to blush and shake his head, as he attempted to neaten the pile.
      Giving it up as an impossible job he threw up his hands. “My mother always told me this would happen,” he said, with a laugh. “You never know when you’ll have company, she told me, but did I listen?” He shook his head and laughed again, saying, “I’m sorry, I guess I’m a bit sloppy about this stuff, but these are mid-terms I’ve yet to grade.” At her questioning look he waved a hand in annoyance. “Never mind,” he said. “It’s work I have to finish.” He pointed to the now clear sofa. “Sit, while I conduct a search for refreshment.” Highly amused, she sat and watched as he rooted in a nearby cabinet, muttering to himself. With a small cry of success he stood, returning to join her with a bottle of wine. He studied the markings on the bottle.
     “I was saving this for a special occasion, and I would guess that this is as special as I’ll ever get.” Then, disappearing into another room for a moment, he returned with a pair of glasses and a device with which to remove the bottle’s stopper.
      Filling the glasses and handing her one, he settled on the other end of the couch and turned to face her. He thought for a moment, then said, “I’d love to know more about you, but I guess I should start by bringing you up to date on the history of the world since you last saw it. Is that all right with you?” She savored the wine and nodded. It might be the quickest way to get many of her questions answered. He smiled and leaned back as he continued, saying, “You may find it interesting, I think.”
      He stared at the ceiling for a moment to gather his thoughts, then started, talking for the next hour almost without a break, refilling their glasses as he spoke. Occasionally she asked a question, but for the most part she just sipped the wine and listened as the story unfolded. As he spun the tale, he answered many of her questions, but raised far more than he had answered. Time alone, she decided, would cure that problem.
     As he talked, she watched him with interest. For a human, he was handsome, with an expressive face and ready smile. His accent was improving with practice, or perhaps her ear was adjusting, and he had a rich baritone voice that fell pleasantly on the ear. His hair was dark, and though he tried to comb it straight, it had a mind of its own, bending into crisp curls where the helmet had ruffled it.
      The thought of a liaison with a human was not one that normally would have thrilled her. Now, however, she was cast, alone and adrift, into a world in which she knew little, and where she had no place. Goddess or not, in this confusing world she was as a babe in arms, and badly needed both a teacher and protector. He was kind and thoughtful, she knew that much about him already. He had been ready to come to her aid against the piggish one, not knowing that she was capable of defending herself against a human with ease. She added well educated to his attributes as he continued to talk. The fact that he was also a very attractive man, and seemed to be taken with her, added weight to the idea. She thought of her own comfortable world, shivering uncontrollably as the emptiness and loneliness of her situation took hold of her mind.
      He apparently saw her shiver, because he stopped short, extending a hand to touch hers in comfort. His brow furrowed, seemingly in annoyance.
     “I’m sorry, Goddess,” he said, his voice apologetic. “I’ve been thoughtless. Here you are, lost and alone in a strange world, and I’ve been chattering away like a monkey. Perhaps it would be best if you get some rest, and we talk more in the morning. It’s not a work day, so perhaps a bit of exploration—touching and seeing instead of talking—might clarify things even better.”
     She nodded. His eyes were blue, like hers.
      He returned her gaze for a moment, then shook his head as though clearing cobwebs. He stood, abruptly, stopping for an instant to give her a look that she was at a loss to define. Breaking eye contact when it was obvious that he was staring, he turned away to lead her to a darkened doorway that opened off the main room. There he showed her how to operate the light switch for the bedroom, and pointed out the bed, a massive thing, raised well off the floor and larger than any she had ever seen. Covered in fine cloth, with a bright blanket turned back and inviting, it was far softer and more comfortable than her own bed. She sat on the edge and found that it moved in a way that made her smile. Surprisingly, as she sat enjoying the strange sensation of bouncing on the bed, Nicky said his good night and turned to leave, without even a token attempt to join her. She stopped him.
      “Nicky, there is one thing you haven’t shown me.” She laughed at his puzzled look, and said, “The location of the privy. Even goddesses need to use one now and then.”
      He snapped his fingers. “Right, and that may take a little explaining, too. Taking several cloths from a rack on the back of the bedroom door, and a small bag of objects that clinked gently together as he carried them, he led her out into the hall and down to a door at the end. “We share the bath among the three other apartments on this floor,” he told her as they walked, clarifying little.
      She followed him into what was to her, a truly amazing room. The floors and the lower part of the wall were of patterned blue and white tile, worn by the steps of countless feet, but still quite lovely. There was a tub, white and huge, standing on clawed feet. Amazingly, it could be filled with hot water that ran right out of the wall, as could a smaller basin mounted on the wall just for the washing of hands and face. The most amazing and pleasing device of all, though, was the toilet. That was apparently the reason for the lack of odor in the town. And the toilet paper! That was something she could learn to love in short order.
      He showed her how to operate the wonders of the room, his face flaming red as he explained the use of the toilet, and the function of the roll of paper mounted on the wall nearby. When she began removing her clothing, though, he swallowed hard, showed her how to lock the door, then made an embarrassed exit, apparently shy again at the sight of her body.
      Finished with the toilet, she watched bemused as the water swirled away, only to be replaced with fresh water. Laughing like a child with a new toy, she repeated the action several times. Turning to the tub, she smiled, and humming one of the strange songs she’d heard that night, began to fill it, neglecting to lock the door. After some initial difficulty in adjusting the water temperature, she sat on the edge of the tub, sucking on the finger she had nearly scalded, watching the water level slowly rise. Unable to wait until it filled completely, she slid into the steaming water, sighing in contentment as it slowly rose around her. Then, when she was floating limply in delightfully warm water, she turned off the tap and called him.
     As she suspected, he was standing guard outside in the hall. He stuck his head around the door. “Yes?”
      Petulantly she said, “Nicky, you left me alone. Now come here and show me which of these containers hold oils for my bath.” With a resigned shrug, he came in and closed the door, locking it behind him. Then he began to lay out the contents of the bag on a shelf next to the tub.
      He held up a small lump of a fragrant substance, turning to her, but obviously trying not to stare at her breasts. “This is soap, and…and you probably don’t have the faintest idea of what soap is,” he finished. He muttered something in his native language and shook his head. Then he selected a large bottle and held it up in front of her, his eyes still carefully avoiding her body. “Shampoo to clean the hair…” He stopped and sighed, adding, “Which has a top you don’t know how to open, and contents you don’t know how to use.” He looked in the little bag, and at the objects arrayed on the shelf, then sighed again.
     “I guess it’s show and tell time, Nicky,” he said, resignedly.
      Kneeling, he wet her hair and began to wash it. That was such a sensual delight that she made him repeat it a second time, just for the feel of his hands gently kneading her scalp.
      Soap for the body was another delight, leaving her skin joyfully clean and smooth, but to her amusement, he refused to do that job for her. He was wrong about her not knowing about soap, though the plant derived soap she was familiar with was as nothing next to this.
     The hand-held shower-head was another source of pleasure, almost like standing under a gentle warm waterfall, as he had her stand to rinse the soapy water from her body. He wanted her to do the rinsing herself, but she cleverly pointed the thing at the tile floor and at him, until he was forced to do it for her.
     She smiled at his discomfort. He really was a sweet man, and teasing him was fun, though he didn’t react as she’s expected him too. Perhaps he already had a woman?
      The bath towel was a huge fluffy sheet that wrapped warmly around her as he stood behind her and dried her hair with a second towel. He was shy and sweet, and blushed mightily as she leaned back and planted a kiss of thanks on his cheek.
      The blow-dryer was a startlement that left her speechless and converted her hair into a loose mass of lovely curls that brought a “Wow,” of astonishment as she studied the result in the mirror over the sink—another wonder in itself. She hugged him in gratitude, then kissed him again It seemed that his breathing was labored when she stepped away, so he wasn’t immune to her charms. Still, he would have left her alone in the bedroom a second time if she had not again stopped him. It was time to stop teasing.
      “Nicky, please,” she said, gently. “I’m very much alone in your world, and I’ve had more shocks in one day than I care to think about.”
     He stopped, still facing away from her, his fists balled, tension clearly showing in the way he held himself.
     She continued softly, saying, “I’ve been teasing you, and I’m sorry, but I badly need to be held tonight, Nicky.” He stood unmoving, so she added, “A goddess does not usually have to ask.”
      He took a deep breath, holding it for an impossibly long time before letting it out in a long sigh, turning to face her. His breathing turned harsh and he reacted with a shiver when he found her standing unadorned, the towel at her feet.
     His voice was soft and thick with emotion, and his words were tight and intense.
     “Artemis, I want…I have wanted very much to hold you…and you can’t—“ He stopped and took a breath. “You can’t imagine how much.” He shook his head, never taking his eyes from her. “But there is no possible way to do that without doing a whole lot more, and therein lies the problem. I have no means here in the apartment to prevent your having a child as a result of that…holding.” He spread his arms, and his voice was a whisper. “I can’t…I just…just can’t.”
      His concern was touching. In her experience, men cared not at all if their seed sprouted in the women they bedded.
     She held out her hand, her voice warm as she said, “I thank you, Nicky. You honor me with your concern, but there’s no need for worry. Human and gods cannot interbreed.” She stood and waited, her hand still extended in invitation and her eyes locked with his. She would not plead.
      He started to speak, anguish written tightly on his face, then halted and reached out for her hand. Pressing it between both of his, he carried it to his lips to be kissed, his eyes closing in acceptance. Then, with a sigh and a rush, he drew her into his arms. Some things, she discovered, change little over the years.
 

*

 
      She struggled up out of a deeply haunted sleep, one in which she was pursued by all manner of nameless dreads, clawing and snapping at her as she ran. She had been fleeing headlong through a menace filled forest, desperately trying, but strangely unable to lift or press them away.
     For a moment she lay breathless, arms tight held around her breasts, still frightened by the nightmare, but relieved to be safe and warm in her bed.
      With an unintelligible mutter that trailed off into a quiet snore, Nicky changed position, disturbed by her start of fright. His movement caused the bed to bounce, in that half-pleasant half-annoying way it had, while quiet shrieks came from the springs beneath her. With a start she was back in the bed of a stranger, in a world she did not know—cut off forever from all she had once held dear. This was real, and in its own way, far more frightening than the dream.
      Around her the dark bedroom crouched, its wonders transformed by darkness and fear into hostile black presences. The weird unnatural light that crept in through the window only served to make the room more alien and frightening.
      There was a quiet click near her head. Apparently, it had come from a small box, resting on the table next to the bed. On the side facing her it had a tiny window, and somewhere inside was a tiny lamp that illuminated its contents. Inside also, displayed in the glass, were several small plates, covered with symbols that were in no language she recognized. She watched the box, waiting for it to repeat whatever had made the clicking noise, while telling herself that there was nothing to fear. But fear seldom responds to reason, and hers remained.
      The box clicked a second time, and she relaxed. The noise had been the falling forward of one of the plates, which had exposed a second plate that had been behind the first. This new plate was painted with another set of symbols. She watched until this new plate, too, dropped, at the same measured rate, exposing yet another.
     The box was a time measuring device, and not a thing to be feared. Still a feeling that the darkness was closing in on her persisted, fueled by her dream, and aided by her feeling of loneliness.
      She lay back, watching the patterns of light on the ceiling and taking comfort from the warmth of the man sleeping beside her. But the strange noises of the city intruded on her island of safety, and the disconcerting sweep of headlamps across the ceiling made her feel even more alone. The distant barking of a dog—a sound she well knew—should have reassured her, but only helped to add to her feeling of isolation. Feeling hot tears well into her eyes, she turned to Nicky for comfort, clinging tightly to him, while her face pressed wetly to his warm back.
      He stirred, then turned over, bringing her close in his arms. He must have felt the dampness of her tears, because he pulled back, then touched her eyes with a fingertip before drying them with a corner of the blanket. When he spoke his voice was thick with sleep but warm with concern.
     “Bad dreams?”
      “Just lonely, and a little frightened,” she said. “It will pass.” She looked up into his face. “Thank you for being here, Nicky.”
      They cuddled for a time, her fears slowly receding. Finally, she drew back and sat, throwing off the covers and pulling herself into a tailor’s position, legs folded in front of her. Yawning, she said, “Nicky, tell me about your childhood. I want to know what it’s like to grow up in your world.”
      Stretching the kinks out of his back he sat up, stifling a yawn of his own. He mirrored her position and took her hands in his. When he smiled, his teeth were a flash of white in his shadowed face. “Fair enough,” he told her. “Then you can tell me about growing up in your world.” His teeth flashed again, his smile wider this time, as he laughingly added, “Then perhaps we can find some other thing to do that will please us.”
      She returned his laugh. Then, with an impish grin, she pushed him over backward, falling on top of him and pinning him with her weight. Grinning, she rested the weight of her upper body on one forearm across his chest, while she archly slid her index finger from his forehead to the tip of his nose. Her voice was throaty, and warm with suppressed laughter as she tapped the finger on his chin to emphasize her point. “You silly man. First, we will find that thing to do that will please us, and then we talk. After that, perhaps we will again find that thing to do that will please us.”
 

*

 
      She woke this time to find herself in the softest bed she had ever known. Bright daylight was streaming through the curtains, and the warmth of a sunbeam on her leg was what had wakened her. Rolling over for a good-morning kiss, she discovered, to her disappointment, that Nicky was missing. For a time, she rested her hand on the spot he had occupied, her eyes soft, as her thoughts returned to last night. He was not at all what she expected. He was gentle and thoughtful; anxious to please her. Then too, he was wild and abandoned, his passion and caring a combination that struck an answering abandon in her, such as none before had done. He was not what she had expected, but he was very much what she had always hoped for. They’d spent a good part of the night lost in quiet pillow talk: of childhood, and growing, and their views of life. They were hungrily devouring each other’s past in an effort to know each other. Surprisingly, she found in him a kindred spirit. He might live in a strange world, but in many ways she was meeting a long forgotten friend. Her long sleep was perhaps not as great a loss as she first thought. It seemed there were to be compensating factors.
      Fully awake now, she looked out of the window and found that it was nearly noon. Not a surprise given that they talked until the dawn was brightening the windows. It appeared to be a beautiful day.
      She padded through the apartment in search of Nicky and found him in the kitchen, singing softly as he prepared a breakfast for the two of them. A man cooking for his woman was another new experience, one she could easily get to like.
      He shook his head at the sight of her.
     “Artemis my love, you are truly beautiful, and you make my heart sing, but you are going to have to get into the habit of wearing clothing if you intend to stay around here.”
      She cocked her head to one side, then struck a provocative pose.
     “You don’t like my body, Nicky?” Her tone dripped feigned disappointment.
      In response he laughed, then leaned over to nip gently at her nipple, which responded with instant hardness, while she sucked in her breath in sudden pleasure.
     “Of course I love the sight of your body, but I—” He suddenly stopped, switching off the flame and turning to her. “The hell with breakfast,” he said. Laughing, she flowed into his arms.
     
      Later, after they had finally gotten around to eating, and were lazing in bed, playing a comfortable game of stroke and tickle, he brought up the subject of her long sleep.
      “I would guess that was the result of a practical joke by my dear Uncle Dionysus,” she said, thoughtfully. He’s tried to take care of me in my parents’ place, though I have been of age these last five years. He really is a dear man, and I love him for the way he always tries to protect me, but he takes the job much too seriously. He’s told me several times lately…” She hesitated. “I guess lately isn’t the proper term any more, is it? Anyway, he said he didn’t think much of the god I was being seen with. Said he was vain and useless. As near as I can guess, dear Uncle Dionysus got me in a stasis when I visited him for dinner last night.” She smiled. “At least it was last night for me.”
     Thoughtful now, she continued. “He probably expected to hide me until Narcissus took up with someone else, but something went wrong. The real joke is that Narcissus and I are good friends, but he doesn’t love anyone except himself, so it was a wasted effort on my uncle’s part…” She was silent for a moment, trying to think of what might have happened to result in her never having been wakened, then shrugged. “I have no idea of what happened to keep me there that long, unless my uncle died suddenly, or the beacon was finally answered.”
      “Beacon?”
      She threw him a sideways glance. “You know so much of the gods, and you don’t know how they came to the Earth?”
      “There are legends,” he said with a shrug.
      “Well…” She settled herself against the headboard of the bed, leaving a leg near him for stroking. “A group of my people on holiday were traveling from one world to another, when there was a great failure in the chariot that carried them from world to world.” She stopped, as a thought occurred, and asked, “Do you know about the other worlds where my people live?”
     “We know of the possibility of life on other worlds,” he said, somewhat cautiously.
      “Mmm?” There were many questions raised by his comment, but those were for later, so she continued with, “Anyway, Zefron, the leader, was able to bring the party of gods to what they thought was safety here on the Earth, but the chariot was destroyed in the descent. Most of the party died in the falling, but some survived to have children, and to build a life for themselves here. That was perhaps two hundred years before I was born. The survivors of the landing set up the disaster beacon to call for help, on the mountain where the chariot had crashed.”
     “Olympus?”
     “Yes. We made Olympus our headquarters, both because that was where the rescuers would arrive—if they ever did—and because that was where the source of power was located for those devices of the gods that still functioned. The few that remained were what kept us from wearing out with work at a young age, as your people did, but those who had survived the landing had little knowledge of the arts of building their own devices and tools. They had scant resources to work with, and so were forced to live much as did the people of the earth. In truth, but for the fact that many of this world’s diseases cannot seem to touch us, and a few handy abilities that your people don’t seem have, we are much the same.” She was lost in memories for a few moments, before saying, “Since there are no gods living here now, I would guess that some time after I was planted in that hillside the beacon was answered, and my dear uncle had probably forgotten where he left me. He drank a great deal, and could well have hidden me when he was too drunk to remember where.”
      Nicky nodded, thoughtfully, then surprised her with, “That’s about what I would think. We know they responded to the beacon in about four hundred BC.”
      She sat up. “You… know?” she said in surprise, anger rising. “You knew they came, last night, and you didn’t tell me?”
      He spread his hands. “I’m sorry, I wanted to hear about the old days from someone who had actually been there. That is my field of study after all.”
      Her eyes narrowed as a thought made its ugly way into her mind. “What else do you know, Nicky?”
      “Hmm?”
      “Don’t hmm me, Nicky. I want to know.”
      In answer, he sighed and floated a few inches off the bed, his eyes avoiding hers.
      “But why?” she flared. “Why lie to me and pretend you’re human? Why not tell me last night, when we met, and save me the hurt of thinking I was alone and cut off from my people?” Her voice filled with pain and anger, as she demanded, “Why Nicky? Why let me suffer like that? And why take me to bed without telling me who you were? That was a terrible thing to do.”
      He tried to take her hand, but she shook him off. Dropping back on the bed to the complaining squeal of the bedsprings he sighed again. “I do owe you an apology, but part of it was that I simply couldn’t tell you when we first met. The rest of those people by the fire were human—students of mine—and they have no idea that the gods are still around. It’s also been a long time since anyone has thought of us in the sense that the humans of your time regarded you as gods… And, it’s forbidden to tell them.” He looked at the wall, lost in thought for a moment, then frowned as he said, “I suppose I’m going to have to face them soon, with some sort of explanation for what happened last night, but that’s a problem for later.”
     “And afterwards,” she demanded. “When we arrived here? You could have—”
     “I wanted to,” he said, avoiding her eyes. “There just seemed to be no good time to do so. I’m sorry.”
     Coming back to the present, he settled himself on an elbow, his eyes downcast and still thoughtful, as he continued.
     “When the beacon was answered, and it was time to go, there were some who didn’t want to leave. Not the pushy and vain ones who are remembered as gods today, but the ones who lived quietly, never taking unfair advantage of the humans just because they had the power to do so.” He looked up, his face mirroring the pain he had given her. “People like you, Artemis. Earth had become home to them, you see.”
      He started to say something more, then apparently thought better of it because he continued with the story. “Anyway, after much argument between those who wished to stay and those of the rescue team, it was agreed that they could stay, and that contact would be maintained, but there were conditions. They could stay only if they blended in with the rest of the population and agreed to keep their numbers low. That way their staying could be justified by calling them a study mission. And in time, that is exactly what it became. We’ve been here, living exactly as the humans do, and scattered among them, for over two-thousand years.” He leaned forward, his expression and his voice both intense. “I am a human, Artemis, in all but a few abilities that don’t make very much difference now.” Again he tried to take her hand, and this time she permitted it.
     “I wanted to tell you,” he said, a plea for understanding carried in his words. “But I didn’t want to dump too many shocks on you at once. I probably should have pulled you out of the picnic grove sooner, and told you, but for reasons that were important to me at the time, I wanted to see how you would treat the humans. The gods and goddess of ancient Greece don’t have the best reputations.”
     Based on their discussions of the previous night she could see why he might do such a thing, and even agreed that it might make sense for him to have done so, but before she could comment he was speaking again.
     “My deception wouldn’t even have mattered very much if last night with you hadn’t happened.” He squeezed her hand tightly, his voice gentle and warm with remembrance. “But I’m so very glad it did. More than I can begin to put into words.”
      She softened, and started to move into his arms in forgiveness, but stopped as realization flooded through her.
     “But… but you’re not a human!” she said, stunned. “Last night and today could well have gotten me with child.” She was rigid under his hands, and would have run from the room, had there been anywhere to run to.
      He nodded, his eyes downcast and his mouth a tight line. “I know. I should have walked away from this room last night. I knew then that I should have, I even tried to, but you took away my excuse when you said that the gods and humans couldn’t interbreed.”
     He sighed, and was silent for a time, before adding, “I should have told you, then, that I wasn’t really a human, but to my shame I simply couldn’t do that. I tried, but… but I wanted you far too much.” He looked up, and his eyes were endlessly deep, trapping her soul in their depths. “You deliberately contributed to that state of mind, I think,” he said, gently.
     She lifted a reluctant eyebrow, then nodded fractionally, in agreement. He did have a point.
     He shrugged. “No matter, I wasn’t very hard to entice. I needed no help from you to desire the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known. Then, after I had once held you, and loved you, and known the joy of just being with you, the die was forever cast.” He shrugged. “Besides, I no longer cared.”
     A statement like that could not go unremarked on, but before she voiced the retort that came to her lips he frowned and corrected himself, with, “No, that’s not true. I did care, and still do. I care very much.” He looked away then, and his voice was hesitant, as he said, “It may not be the right thing for me to say so quickly, and you know me but a little… perhaps too little.”
     He was silent for a moment, chewing on his lip, seeming worried that he was saying too much; that he would frighten her away by going too quickly. At last, he must have decided that he had no choice but to continue, and did so with words that went straight to her heart.
     “Artimus, I find I want, very much, for you to stay here with me, and I dearly want you to be…” He took a deep breath and gazed directly into her eyes as he said, “I want you to be the mother of my children. And if you are pregnant, well, you’ll simply have to marry me.” He stopped and thought for a moment more, then quietly added, “If you’ll have me.”
      She stared at him for a few moments, trying to decide if he was joking. But his eyes said he was speaking the truth, so she next wondered if she should forgive him immediately, or let him stew a bit. Her decision as to whether she would have him had been made long before this—had been made as she waited for sleep to claim her the previous night, after their loving, and after their talk. She relaxed, a soft smile playing around her lips as she asked, “Oh, and tell me why I should want to marry you?”
      He sat up, at that, and threw out his chin, assuming a heroic pose—a look of hurt dignity on his face. “Why? Because I, woman, am a Greek God.” He laughed at her questioning look and said, “You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to use that line. It’s just a shame you can’t truly appreciate it.” Looking deeply into her eyes once again, he turned more serious. “I desperately want you to marry me Artemis, because I fell in love with you the moment you floated into that clearing. I thought, then, that you were beautiful. But now that I know you, beautiful is not nearly a strong enough word, and love doesn’t begin to describe how I feel.”
      She came fully into his arms, turning her head up to be kissed. Yesterday, she had lived in a comfortable, familiar world. Today it was all swept away. There was much to be learned in this strange world, and many wonders to be sampled. But best of all, she was not alone. Once again she would be in the bosom of her family. In all the world, and in all of time, that was what she wanted the most. The thought pleased her.
      “Besides,” he said, as he bent to meet her lips. “My father always advised me to marry an old fashioned girl.”
     
 
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Author’s note:
 
     This story began as a writing exercise. My goal was to write something descriptive that was a bit literary in approach. The result was the opening, up to the point where the boulder rolls into the creek. But being what I am I asked myself what the boulder had been covering. And since we were in Greece, what else could be in there but a goddess?
     I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2011 in Short Story

 

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