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The Thing in the Basement
by Marla J Noel

The Thing in the Basement

     I level my gaze at the cellar door. As I sit at the kitchen table, my heart is dancing a jig, one I never cared for, when unmitigated fear wraps itself around my chest and squeezes. I am a first-class chicken. I avoid every possible danger and have security at every entrance to my century old home in southern Indiana. I hadn’t planned for tornadoes. After I bought the house, I discovered this town is tornado alley. When the tornado hit this morning, in a matter of minutes, half the trees across the road were uprooted and thrown into my yard. I never had time to take cover in the basement. Now I am glad I didn’t. Whatever is down there is making enough noise to wake all the people who died in this old house. I hear a thump, then a whine, like an injured animal type of whine. At first, I think it’s my furnace going out, then, as the noise persists, it is too random, uneven.

     I bought the place last year because of the cherry wood floors and the bookcases that stretch from the floor to the 20-foot ceilings in most rooms, including the three spare bedrooms upstairs. The double front doors, made from oak trees, are framed by two story pillars. The house is stately and dignified, like I try to be. It’s the perfect place to finish writing my fourth novel. No interruptions, no one to bug me. The closest neighbor is three miles down Highway 47. The house is warm and cozy, at least it was until today. I am trying to figure why a person like me, moved to a place like this.

The fear I feel, mind numbing desperation, reminds me of the time my sister locked me in the basement, turned out the light and hollered down at me, “The furnace is walking, the furnace is walking.”  A monstrosity of a furnace, round, black, with large pipes reaching out to various parts of the house’s anatomy squatted in the middle of the basement. I was six and certain my death was imminent. I never went into the basement again with my older sister.

      Now, I hear noises in the basement. It sounds like the furnace is alive, with a thump, then what sounds like a whine. I am six again. I resist the temptation to run out of the house. I even contemplate opening the door and looking. Fear gets the better of me. I call my security company. Let them go down there. I dial the number on the control panel. No answer, just a recording that someone will get back to me. I must have dialed the wrong number. How can a security company ‘get back to you’? I dial again. And again, a recording. I’ll be dead by the time they ‘get back to me.’ I hit the red panic button and cover my ears while the shrill alarm blasts through the house. I do not have to worry about disturbing my neighbors. I walk outside to avoid the ear-piercing noise and wait. The yard in front of my house stretches out for an acre with two rows of trees as curtains before the highway. The lawn is dotted with trees from across the highway, reminders of the tornadoes that just narrowly missed my house. Another problem. How much will it cost to have them removed?

     As I gaze at my yard, loneliness fills my insides with despair. I want someone to be here with me. I want a strapping young man or woman from APC Security to check out my basement and take care of whatever is making this commotion. After 20 minutes, no one shows. I shut off the panic button and am relieved at the silence. I dial 911. The line is busy. The tornado must have wreaked havoc in town. The animal noise, the thump, the whine throttles my brain for a few minutes. I am terrified that this is my last day on earth. I call my sister. If I am going to die, she should know my worst nightmares, because of her, are coming to fruition. She lives two states over, so she can’t save me. Maybe she can call the police and they will answer her. She doesn’t pick up. The last time we talked, the conversation was a bit tense over something I said. I never mean to insult, only say what is on my mind. Maybe I pissed her off. It wouldn’t surprise me. I tend to piss people off all the time.

Unable to endure the thump and high-pitched whine any longer. I grab my keys and purse and head to the car. If the police won’t answer my call, I will go to them. My Lexus 350 SUV sits under the carport at the side of the house. I hop in and push the engine button. That’s when I notice the enormous tree across my drive with no way around. I feel wet on my cheeks before I realize I am crying. I head back into the house and sit at the kitchen table across from the basement door. The pastel yellow striped wallpaper with yellow and orange flowered curtains doesn’t cheer me up.

I start contemplating what I’ve accomplished in my life. I ran a business and sold it. I spent so much time working, I didn’t have time to make friends. Made enough to buy this house. All my life, I took care of me and no one else.

     I attempt to focus on my writing, but the sounds rattle me and writer’s block hits another level. I’ve listened to this noise all day. The sun is setting. If there is one thing I am afraid of more then basements, it is the dark.  After dialing 911 a few more times, I look outside at the oak trees that line the backyard, large and stately. Rays of sunshine play with the wind and throw long shadows across the basement door, making it look as though the door is moving. A hawk flies from the top branches of the farthest tree, swoops over the yard, and grabs a rodent from the tall grass.

I don’t know what to do to fix this problem. In business, I am the problem solver. I can figure anything out. Now, I am clueless. I contemplate hiding in the attic, but I remember the horror movies I should not have seen, where the victims run upstairs. Seems like the wrong thing to do, and I am afraid of attics. Don’t people hide dead bodies in their attics? I’ve never been in my attic.

Maybe wine will help. I pour a glass of red and sit at the kitchen table. I sip and stare at the basement door, as if my focus will make the sound go away. Thump. Whine. Thump. Whine.  The glass is finished in minutes. More wine is in order.

     Is the noise-maker a meat eater? Maybe feeding it will protect me.  I reach into the back of my refrigerator and grab a steak. I don’t eat steak anyway. I have it for all the company I don’t have. I unwrap it. It’s got a green hue and smells rancid. This must be what is making my frig smell like something died. I try to remember when I bought it. Thump whine, thump whine. Cautiously, I open the basement door and toss the meat to the last step. I used to be a good athlete. Good shot, I practically break my arm patting myself on the back. The noise is deafening. I slam the door and go back to the table and the half glass of wine. I drink tentatively now, not sure of the next step. Will it be a good sign if the steak is gone or will it mean I am in more danger because whatever it is eats meat?

     I wait another hour. My glass is empty, the back yard is shrouded in the deepest black. Despite my fear, my eyelids grow heavy. I need to know if the thing ate my steak. I open the basement door with a gulp of air. The steak is still sitting on the last step. Shit, I wasted a steak, or I saved myself from food poisoning. I pace the kitchen a few times. The wine dulls my brain. My eyelids are as heavy as barbells, so I move to the couch in the family room and turn on the TV. I can still hear the thump and whine over the TV. I turn it up and cover myself with a comforter from the back of the couch.

     The next thing I know, the sun is peeking through the windows, and birds are harmonizing in the back yard. That’s when I notice it. The noise in the basement stopped. I am blurry. Two glasses of wine are too much for my small frame with no food in my gut. Coffee, I need something to wake me up. I am in the same jeans and blouse I had on last night. I stagger to the coffee maker and make a cup. Thump whine, the noise starts up again, like it knows I can hear it. I grab onto the back of the kitchen chair to steady myself and pick up the phone to call the security company and 911 again, hope against hope, but no answer to either. I manage to get in a shower and change my clothes, fresh jeans, and a beige sweater. I run a comb through my shoulder length blonde hair. I try to focus on my writing. The sounds are constant all day and I am terrified of another night with that god-awful thing in the basement.

     Dark descends on the house, like a storm over the ocean, a wave of clouds, then no stars, no nothing but an owl at the edge of the yard, hooting at me. I’ve had enough. I am ready to meet it head on. So unlike me. I sit at the kitchen table again and down a glass of red wine, building courage. I need another glass. I manage to drag the second dose of courage into an hour.

       I finally drain my glass, tie my tennis shoes, and stand. It takes five minutes to walk three steps to the basement door. It takes me another five minutes to turn the door handle. I am scared beyond reason. I can barely breathe. The door opens with a creak, telling me to turn and run. But I am not going to run. I can barely make it down the stairs, and my heart pounds like a mother. I am not brave, but exhaustion overcomes my better judgement, not that good judgement is my thing.

       If whatever it is kills me, no one will know. No one will find my body for months if there is a body. I teach and coach virtually. I’ve prerecorded my classes for two months out and sent them into a queue. I am using this time to write a book. I planned for seclusion. The result is, if I do get murdered by the noisy unwanted guest, I will not leave a pretty corpse. All that will be left of me in three months will be a bit of mold and some bones. The blistering Hoosier summer would make short work of my expensive face-lift.

       As I open the door, I smell evergreen. How bad can this be, it smells good. The air feels heavy. My legs are tight. They don’t want to move, but I make it down the stairs. Each step a monumental accomplishment. At the bottom, I feel a breeze, like someone left a window open. The problem, there is no window down here. There is little clutter in the basement but a few suitcases, decorations for holidays, and an old dresser I’d planned to give to Goodwill. I step over the steak. Blood is dripping to the basement floor, and for a moment, the smell overwhelms the evergreen and makes me nauseous. My heart throttles up, like a motorcycle engine, a Harley not a Honda 70. The rush of cold air comes at me from the game room at the back of the basement where the noise is coming from. The smell of evergreen is potent now overwhelming the smell of the steak, like I am sitting in a Blue Spruce. My knees almost give way. The thump, whine, is thunderous. The whine turns shrill, high pitched, like nails on a chalk board. I don’t dare cover my ears. I need at least one hand on the rail.  The light switch for the game room is at the bottom of the stairs. I flip on the light and the noise stops. I hesitate. Maybe I do not need to investigate, just leave the light on.

     I decide to push on. After all, I’ve made it this far. I can see most of the basement, apart from the game room at the back of the house. Game rooms in Indiana are a must, a way to manage the winters with ping pong and pool tables. I walk robot-like. I force my feet forward, not sure if I will be killed or maimed. How could my world, the world of a devout coward, come to this, walking to my death on purpose? The thump, whine, starts again. I stop in the middle of the basement, just feet away from the game room door. I hold my breath and tiptoe the rest of the way, my heart in my throat. My hands shake as I grab on to the doorframe to steady myself. I peek into the room.

     There it is, maybe three feet tall, round with a green leafy coat, with what looks like tree limbs hanging at its side, arms maybe. I cannot see its feet, but it is thumping across the pool table leaving a trail of mossy green. It stops when I move to the middle of the doorway, then turns towards me. It has eyes, black, like marbles. They look sad if marbles can be sad. It whines, ear-piercing and forlorn, like the noise the tornado made a few days ago as it passed by my house. I suck in a breath and wait for the thing to attack me. It jumps off the pool table and thumps towards me. The whine comes with each movement. It is incredibly loud for such a small body. In the middle of the room, just 20 feet away, it lifts a branch toward me. My heart throttles at a breakneck speed. Its body condenses, then expands, then elongates, ebbs and flows, like water. As it moves closer, the air becomes cold, fresher, like someone is pumping oxygen into the room. I feel a sense of calm, peaceful relaxing calm, unlike any feeling I’ve had for many years. It draws me or wills me to the exterior door to the basement. Is that how it got in and trapped? How long has it been here? I never go into the basement. What am I doing here? I pull the bolt to the hatch and push it open, then step away. I am shaking uncontrollably. Its eyes seem to smile.

     The doorbell rings. I start at the sound and a whir of green and cold air flows around me and disappears out the hatch. It’s gone. I shut and lock the hatch before my shaky legs make it upstairs and look out the window to see who is at my door. A tall man with blue eyes, dimples and short dark brown curly hair is standing on my porch. He wears a red shirt with the name of the security company on his chest. I open the door.

     “I’m Frank from APC Security,” he says. “I’m so sorry you had to wait. Systems are all screwed up.” He looks sorry. “The town is a mess. Electricity is out in most places. You’re lucky.”

     “Yeah,” I say. I don’t feel lucky. “Thank God, you’re here now.”

He smiles at me and I see perfect white teeth. I’m a sucker for dimples, blue eyes and good teeth.      “I assure you, we will adjust your fees for last month,” he says. I look him up and down. Maybe I’ll get lucky.

     “I was pretty mad,” I say and muster up a frown. I want him to stay, so I lie. “There is something in my basement. I’m scared.”

     “I’ll check it out,” he says. He looks brave and strong. My kinda guy.

     “Please,” I step back and let him come in. I show him the door to the basement. I try to flirt, but trip on the way to the kitchen. I curse under my breath.

     “Everything okay?” he asks.

     “Peachy,” I say. The less I say, the better. Maybe he won’t notice I’m snockered.

     He saunters to the door, grabs onto the door frame, and throws me a smile before he descends into the depths of the house. Maybe he was flirting back. I wait from the top of the stairs. I try to figure out how I can convince him to stay for a glass of wine. After a couple of minutes, he screams and the lights in the basement go out.

Chocolate and Chiseled
by Marla J Noel

   Chocolate and Chiseled

     She measured and planned her attack against the brown waxy mass. It was seven in the morning, and the thick smell of chocolate filled the room making her queasy. She was one of the few women that she knew who hated chocolate.

     “How could I sink so low? What will I do to earn a buck?” she said out loud. “I’ve sold out and had given up my soul to the devil to eek out a meager existence as a candy sculptor.” She put down the chisel and cocked her head to one side. “OK, maybe that’s exaggerating.”  She checked her phone, no messages, no friends, no jobs.

     Cloe brushed her short brown hair off her face with the back of her hand and sized up her situation. Her office was an eight-by-eight room in the basement of the Brimlow Candy Factory. A claustrophobic feeling embraced her, and the odor of chocolate was so thick, it was difficult to breath. Rent was due in two days, and her checking account was short by a few hundred. Lately, work had been slow. Cloe sighed and wondered if she was always going to be this broke. She had to finish this job, which was to chisel the 7-foot statue of Barry the Chocolate Rabbit for the sweetery.

     “Hurry it up,” Stanley, the manager, filled the door. Beady eyes looked her up and down and licked his lips, as if she were the mound of chocolate. She crossed her arms and focused on her seven-year-old tennis shoes with holes in the toes. Same age as her worn jeans, but not as old as her red faded sweatshirt.

     “Barry has to be out in front first thing tomorrow morning,” he said. His cheeks undulated, like a pot of boiling chocolate as he spoke. He put his hands on his hips.

     Cloe said, “I’m working as fast as I can. It’ll be done in plenty of time.” Her distaste for the man and her situation oozed out of her every pore. If she backed out now, she would be facing many a bounced check.          Best to accept her situation and get the bunny done. She rubbed her eyes. She hadn’t slept much last night, tossing and turning with dreams about her mother, so real. Her mother spoke to her almost every night now. She shrugged her shoulders and turned her attention back to the giant bunny.

     At the age of ten, her mother had taught her how to paint. She loved it.

     “Your painting shows your sensitivity and your wisdom.” her mother used to tell her.

     After High School, she went to Art College, and won awards for her work. Cloe was amazed when her paintings began to sell. She was able to buy a small condo and help her mother during her cancer. But, it wasn’t enough. After her mother passed, Cloe lost the heart to paint. Now, at 35, she spent her time sculpting. Most of her work had turned dark. Little sold and she struggled to make every mortgage payment. Right now, she needed to finish the task at hand.

     Her stomach churned as she molded and shaped the giant hare. Cloe finished the rabbit’s face and was about to start on the tunic when Barry’s mouth moved.

    “I believe you forgot to trim the left ear. It feels too big,” a gravely voice resonated from the bunny body.

     She jumped back from the mound of brown in horror. “I shouldn’t have had that second glass of wine last night,” she walked around the statue, looking for a speaker or a way for the sound to be coming from Barry.

     “Watch where you’re putting that chisel. It tickles,” the brown mouth said.

     “OK Sam, come on out,” Cloe said. One of her friends was always playing jokes on her, but this was too much. “I know you’re spoofing me. I don’t know how you are doing it, but I know it’s you.” There was no response. Now, very shaken and confused, she studied the chocolate face, but saw no signs of life. Cloe had only a few remaining details left. She kept looking at the rabbit’s face while she worked, but no more sounds or words came from Barry.

     Once the chocolate foot was chiseled, the rabbit tapped his foot impatiently and said, “What is taking you so long?”

     Cloe was unnerved as she stepped back from the rabbit. Her hands shook and she looked the statue up and down. “How come you can talk? What on earth is going on around here? Are you some sort of weird elaborate joke?”

     “If I look funny, it’s your fault. Didn’t they tell you in art school about things like this?”

      She frowned and said, “What do you mean?”

     “They should have told you in art school.  Hurry it up. I have places to go,” the rabbit said.

     “How can you have places to go? You just got here.” Cloe scratched her head and tried to figure out if she was losing her marbles, throwing cards out of her deck, or just drinking too much.

     “You’ll see. I have something important to do.  We need to get out of here as soon as you are finished. Are you almost done? We have to hurry, hurry, hurry.”

     “Where are we going?” Cloe asked

     “I said, you’ll see. All of us perfect works of art have a job to do. As soon as you quit futzing, we’ve got to go,” Barry s voice grew louder and he thumped his feet, shaking the table with his impatience. The movement of his foot created a wave of chocolate odor. Cloe cringed.

     It took her minutes to finish the final touches. Once done, the rabbit shook and gave a few test hops.           “You must be good. I feel p p perfect,” Barry said and smoothed out his fur.

     The hare took off down the street. Cloe figured she had no choice but to follow. She let the rabbit take the lead. He half hopped, half ran. With every step, a puddle of chocolate formed on the sidewalk, like a blemish of understanding. It seemed ok to gallivant down the street with the oversized dessert. As they went along, very few heads turned. This was the most ridiculous thing. She had to practically run to keep up with the oversized Easter treat.

     As they passed block after block, the territory started looking familiar. They were heading toward the neighborhood where she grew up on the east side. The bunny picked up speed as they got closer. Cloe could hardly catch her breath. They passed by the home she grew up in, and in the next block, her cousin’s house. As they passed through the neighborhood, the memories came flooding back; the kick soccer games in the street in front of the house, the sleepovers, and the dinners with her family. Her sister still lived close by. They used to talk regularly about almost anything. She thought of all her old friends from the neighborhood, and for a second, wondered what had happened to them. The smell of apple pie drifted out of a first story window of a house with red brick exterior surrounded by a white picket fence. The sun hung low in the sky and the sound of crickets could be heard over the hum of traffic. Some things never change. She could remember the smells and sounds as if she were ten.

     They stopped abruptly at a house where she had spent many hours as a child. Her nanny, Rosy, lived there. She hadn’t seen Rosy in at least 10 years.

     The door opened easily for the bunny. Cloe frowned. You can’t just let yourself in to someone’s house. Even if you know them. Those rules must not apply to chocolate rabbits. No one was home as they entered. Her chocolate companion hopped into the hallway and then to the basement door and began to descend. She smelled the dank musty odor mingled with chocolate.

     “We shouldn’t be here. It looks like no one’s at home,” she said. Barry ignored her and continued into the basement.

     At the bottom of the stairs, Cloe looked around. Clothes hung on the clothesline, and she could tell by one of the dresses that Rosy still lived here. The smell of the detergents amongst the dampness of the basement reminded Cloe of years before when she spent afternoons with Rosy, who must be at least 70. The rabbit hopped to the rear wall of the basement and reached down to pull out an object that had been carefully wrapped and placed behind boxes. He pulled away a layer of plastic and revealed a painting. Cloe gasped as she stared at the painting of her mother. It filled the room.  She had painted it when she was fifteen. Her friends made fun of her for painting her mother’s portrait, and she long ago threw the painting in the trash. Rosy must have pulled it from the garbage.

     She felt a flood of emotions as she gazed at the painting. Her mother’s eyes spoke to her. She heard her mother’s laugh, smelled her cooking, spaghetti, and felt her mother’s arms around her.  She gazed at her mother of twenty years ago and a tear rolled down her cheek.

     The smell of chocolate drifted in the air as Barry turned to her, “You were meant to have this.” He wrapped the painting back in the towel and replaced it and the boxes to their original location.

Cloe felt hollow as her years of grief spilled over her.

     “We have to hurry and get back,” Barry said as he tugged on her sweatshirt.

     “You really must take the word hurry out of your vocabulary, which by the way, you aren’t supposed to have,” Cloe said and ran up the stairs after her chocolate friend. “Would you slow down? I can’t keep up with you.” The streets were busy, people coming and going, as if they needed to hurry through life. Where is everyone going?

     They hustled back the way they came. Again, no one noticed the two, Cloe and her oversized bunny.

Once in her office, Cloe said. “Why did you take me to Rosy’s? I had forgotten about that painting. I used to lose myself in my painting.” She sighed and leaned on the table that held her tools. 

     There was no reply. Cloe turned to look at her chocolate companion. He stood tall and solid, like he could never walk twenty city blocks. Its cold chocolate eyes stared ahead, its mouth firm and shut. Cloe shook her head in disbelief as she left the room, and odor of chocolate. With a deep breath of the evening air she headed for her studio just a few blocks away.  She didn’t notice the people on the street or the buildings she passed. On the steps, in front of her studio, a large footprint covered most of the step. It was brown and that old familiar chocolate odor tickled her nose. She frowned and opened the door to her studio. Her easel stood in the middle of the room. She hadn’t used the easel in the last two years, not since her mother died and had left it in the corner behind a couple of unfinished statues. On the wall, the painting of her mother hung where there had once been a year-old calendar with a faded picture of a sailboat. Her mother’s eyes smiled down at her. Cloe felt a blanket of warmth, as if her mother was there with her. She picked up her paint brush and began to paint. 

Pier Town
By Marla J Noel

Pier Town

     When the day began, I never thought it might be my last. A large green head emerged from the trees, at least thirty feet high. Its bulbous blue eyes blinked, and its growl exposed three rows of needle-sharp teeth. A Garand. I’d never seen one from this close a range. The creature stood on muscular, inverted hind legs with green and yellow scales from the head to a long thin tail. Why did I decide to stay on the ground? We were no match for this creature. If it flew, it would kill us quickly.  I had a reputation for being reckless. Some called it fearless, but Father called it stupid.

     I started making excuses but stopped when I realized no one would ever hear all of them. Disappointing. They were all pretty good. I had to stop plotting reasons and figure out how to keep us alive. All that came to mind was to run. Liath stayed with me, although she could run faster.

An image of my parents flashed through my mind. They would never know my fate. The creature fully emerged from the trees and stood on its hind feet. I craned my neck to see the entire fifty feet.  It let out a roar that shook the leaves and my bones.


     Earlier that day, I gazed at the scenery below from my dragon. The lush vegetation beneath us stretched for miles. We’d entered a holy place. It was perfect. To the east, a mountain range to protect us from enemies, and an ocean guarded the west. The soil looked suitable for planting. Father told me about a place like this many suns ago, but to find it, finally. Father was not able to travel, but the dream stayed alive. We talked about it so many times, where to find it and how to build.

     “This place may be our solution.” I sent my thoughts to my dragon. I felt exhausted, and wasn’t sure if I wanted to settle, but everything about what I saw below made me feel at home. Liath hummed in agreement. Pretty soon, her hum turned into a tune. I joined in. We flew over miles of sand and found a valley, elevated from the water and still protected in the east as the mountain range cut the land for as far as the eye could see.

     “We must eat,” Liath stopped her singing to remind me of the time. “Perfect spot to fish. Can we stop here?” She threw her last thought into my brain with extra energy, to let me know her degree of hunger, like a fussy child. I shook my head to soften the request.

     "Let’s set down on the beach beyond the valley,” I said. I checked my sidearm and set it on stun, in case. "We haven't done enough research on this land, so we must be careful."

     “I will be watchful,” Liath said. She turned quickly and circled the spot where she planned to set down. Every dragon had a different style. Liath chose circles. My sister, Cheril, has a dragon that used a dive-bomb approach, something that turned my gut inside out every time.

     Liath glided to a slow run along white glistening sand. The ocean air smelled of seaweed, and Cypress trees framed the vegetation made the air thick with a pine scent. Oxygen levels were good here. Everything about the valley was as my father described, but something pulled me. I wanted this to be it, our future, where we would build our new town, but something was off. As I slid off Liath, I watched all sides. Nothing. I pulled my pack off her saddle and set it on a bench-size piece of driftwood at the edge of the brush.

    “I’ll be fishing but will be careful.” Liath nodded to me. She was largest dragon in our town and ruled with care not to overstep or belittle the lesser of her tribe, thoughtful to a fault. I patted her side armor, watched her run for the water, and dive into the waves. If I could only be as gentle. For the first time in many days, I relaxed, sat on a rock next to the driftwood, and took off my boots. I stretched and spread out my webbed toes, then twisted my shoulder-length hair into a loose braid. I wasn’t fond of traveling and sleeping in a tent. I missed my home, good food, and good vine. It was no longer wine, but from the roots. Father told me many times I was spoiled. The sand beneath my feet felt cool even though it was close to 90 degrees.

     My stomach told me I needed to fish.  I turned in all directions and gazed at the surroundings, a white sandy beach that stretched for miles to the north. Dense, lush brush and trees, 30 yards from the water, covered the land as it sloped up a steep hill, away from the beach to the valley's rim to the east. Rocky cliffs reached out over the beach to the south.

     Everything seemed peaceful and serene. The electronic perimeter alarm gave me a sense of protection. Our electronics came from a mixture of the old world, and new inventions. The alarm came from solar energy and a heat sensor, able to distinguish my heat and size from another being. I set it at the edge of the sand to reach 100 yards in all directions. That should be enough warning. I peeled off my vest and headed for the waves. Time to join Liath. I loved the chance to play with her. As if we were both young again, playing endless games and risking life and limb as only children and daredevils will. We molded to each other when I turned three and Liath newly egged.

     "Urmmm,” Liath drummed a contented message to me. I couldn’t see hers she moved beneath the water. I adjusted my gills and dove in. The water over my head drowned out the day and gave me a sense of peaceful bliss. This was heaven, submerged with the only sound, the waves, and the only thoughts, those of my dragon. Liath circled me and tagged me every so often with the spike of her tail. I cringed with the last spike. She forgot her strength and the fact that I had skin, not scales. Liath needed more time like this. All dragons required a certain amount of play, of mental refresh. Guilt riffed my mind. A dragon was a privilege and must have better care. But first things first. My mind drifted to the town, how to build it as father instructed. Start with the right people and mix. Not too many of any one kind to dominate. All to be equal. It seemed like a big task and required more than the help of a dragon.

     Liath circled me under the waves, then disappeared. I felt her thoughts more than I saw her, although the water was clear, even when we got past a breakwater. Every few minutes, Liath flashed past me, a red-blue blur. She could swim as fast as she could fly. An orange fish swam past my nose, close enough for me to reach out and grab. I cursed my lack of attention. The next fish was not going to be as lucky. I grabbed and caught the fish with the expandable netting I kept on my belt. After a few more minutes, I caught four more, enough for lunch and dinner for both of us, then swam back to shore. Whatever Liath found from her fishing would be gravy.

     I strode up to the spot where I’d left the alarm and set my catch on the driftwood.

     “If you’re hungry,” I called to Liath with my mind. “I have a few extra for you.” I pulled an instant cooker from the pack and set it in the sand, moving the receptors to pull the sun's energy. In seconds, I cooked the fish with a smokey flavor to match the settings of the cooker. In typical style, Liath emerged from the waves just as lunch was ready. She held a sizeable crocodile-like creature in her jaws. I was grateful she’d killed it before setting it down next to me. She had a wicked sense of humor, and I wouldn’t put it past her to give me a tussle with a croc for giggles.

     “Glad you got that thing. I would not have fared so well,” I said.

     “You shouldn’t have gone in without knowing.” Liath scolded me as she downed a mouthful of fish.       “This thing was right behind you when I spotted it. Took me a while to nab it.” I immediately felt sheepish. What did we do before dragons came into our lives? Dragons replaced dogs and were the new man’s new best friend. This was a world where dogs would not survive.

     I cooked the crock as we dined on the fish. It was delicious, a mouthful of white meat, tender and rich. I didn’t know the fish, but this had to be a bottom feeder. They always tasted the best.

     “That meal should hold us over for a few days,” I packed the remaining crock meat in a solar generated cooler attached to Liath’s saddle.

     Just as Liath finished her lunch, the alarm sounded. I stood and grabbed my weapon.

     “I’m ready if we should go,” Liath said. She narrowed her eyes and moved away from the brush. She required plenty of room for her wingspan.

     I moved away from the brush with her. “No, let’s see what this land will bring us.” We both moved to the water’s edge. My heart pounded. I crouched, ready to jump onto the dragon. I felt the harmony of Liath's energy at my side. A person in tandem with their dragon emitted twice as much energy as one being alone, person or dragon. We listened to the alarm. Whatever it was, moved closer. The alarm blared a different sound when the danger got to within 100 feet. The trees and brush swayed off the hill to the south. Something large moved toward us. A low rumble shook the ground. I considered hopping on the dragon, but curiosity overcame common sense. I wanted to know about this land, good and bad. Was I ready for a fight today, just when we were enjoying ourselves? The sound grew louder. My muscles tensed, and my breathing quickened. This was not the place to fight. We were so many miles away from home.

     The glare from the afternoon sun gave the beast an eerie glow. Or maybe they all looked that way, luminescent. I checked my heart. I had to regain my composure and slow my breathing so I could think. I was a good warrior because I kept the brain moving, even when petrified. It was a breathing technique my grandmother taught me. Blood flow to the brain when fear overrides thinking. 

     "We may have time to elevate if you hop on now," Liath said through my mind. She was large for a Flannery dragon, the best from her hatchlings, but I was the smallest of my siblings. Liath's size made getting on to her back a challenge.

     "No,” I shouted. “There isn’t time. I am going to have to do something to stall this guy.”

     The creature set down on all fours and ambled toward us, cautious at first. It crab-walked sideways before it grew bold enough to advance on us. As it moved toward us, it quickened its pace.  It was fast, even in a sideways motion. We ran.

     “Let me get off a stun and see if I can back this thing up,” I thought to Liath. I stopped and aimed my gun. The blast rammed into the side of the Garand. It roared and stood on his hind legs clawing at the air in pain, then shook its head and continued toward us on all fours. We took off again, but the gap between us narrowed.

     I’ll have to do something,” Liath shouted. She took to the air over the water to draw the Garand’s attention. She swooped over the creature, catching its head with her claws, bringing the creature to a halt with a high-pitched scream, making my blood chill.

     I used all my strength to scramble further away from the creature while it lunged at Liath, barely missing her with its jaws. I managed to put 30 more feet between me and the beast. Liath dove at the Garand, flying in and away with her mighty wings and claws coming too close to danger. I needed more space. The Garand still seemed to be sizing us up, like it was playing with us. I turned my gun on full and aimed again, catching the beast in the side with the full force of the weapon. It stopped for a few seconds and cried out with a gut-wrenching scream before it lowered its head and charged at me again. This time, it came faster, with renewed determination.

     I continued to run to keep some distance between me and the beast. I drew in air in an effort to catch my breath and slow my heart. Liath darted over the creature, dancing in and away, trying to distract it. As she made the last dive, the Garand jumped up and snagged one of her wings, bringing her down to the beach. She screamed and managed to hop away from the beast as it reached out with its front claw. I felt the full force of her pain in my arm.

I squeezed off another shot and nailed the Garand full power in the head. The shot made the beast stagger back, giving us time to scramble another 20 precious feet. I noticed blood oozing from Liath’s side and felt her pain as if I took the blow of the Garand. The pain vaulted through my body, and I heard Liath whine as she ran with me, keeping her body between the Garand and me.

The creature shook its massive head and let out a gut chilling moan. It moved toward us, now in a crouch, as if it would leap into the air and pounce on us. Liath and I ran, my feet pushing up sand, we struggled to stay steps ahead. The creature lunged and snapped, its large head inches from Liath’s neck. She dodged the attack, running into me, causing me to lose my balance. I fell to the wet sand and cursed my clumsiness and scrambled to my feet. Liath took off, wobbly at first, gaining height as the creature closed in on me. I kept running and Liath dove at the creature again, making it cry in anger, clawing at the air to reach her. She stayed far enough away, just enough to keep the Garand’s attention.

The alarm screeched at us, urging us away from this place, the perfect sight for our town. The smell of the dead croc filled my senses. I struggled to stay calm, calm enough to think. The Garand lowered its body, its haunches ready, claws out. Teeth visible beneath its trembling lips.

     “You’ve got to get off that beach,” Liath hollered at me.

     “Would love to,” I shouted back, pleading with myself to think of something. “Land on the other side of it. See if we can confuse it.”

     Liath set down on the other side of the creature, causing it to roar in a fury at the attention from both sides. It stopped and rocked back and forth as if it couldn’t make up its mind.

     Liath jumped into the air again. She landed at my side, and we both ran back. Liath tried to confuse the beast, in the air, to the other side of the Garand, then back to me. The Garand lowered its head and let out a horrendous roar.  A distant response sounded from the brush, like an echo, but I knew it wasn’t. There had to be at least 10 Garands from the noise coming from the foliage. We did not have enough firepower to stave off a troop of Garands. All I could think of was to take out one at a time.

     I readied to pull the trigger. The Garand stopped and turned its head toward the brush. Another Garand stepped out, this one even larger than our attacker. Then another and another until they surrounded us. A sense of calm emanated from the troop. I turned and scanned the beasts. I didn’t dare use my gun. It wouldn’t have done any good, and I didn’t think they were there for us. The last Garand that emerged let out a high-pitched whistle. The sound pierced my head and felt as if it would crack. I covered my ears, and Liath whined. At the whistle, the Garands moved past us and gathered around the first, the attacker. They pushed it into the brush as if they were reprimanding one of their own. In an instant, the Garands cleared the beach and disappeared into the vegetation. The alarm shut off, and the silence felt thick, deafening.

     My body shook uncontrollably. I eased onto my knees and thanked God and all our lucky stars. Liath turned her head to lick her wounded wing. My arm ached. I needed to get back to my pack, now far down the beach, for an ointment to put on Liath’s wing.

     "What just happened?” I thought to Liath. Even my thinking was shaky.

     “I think we must not have looked tasty,” Liath growled. “That bugger hurt me.”

     "I will get some salve on it before it gets infected,” I found my pack on the sand next to the tree. I soothed a medicated salve over Liath’s wing, helping it to begin healing instantly.  My body relaxed with relief as the pain in my arm subsided.

     “Oh, that is so much better,” she said and began to purr.

     I threw on my vest and pulled on my boots. “We need to know more about this place.” I examined Liath’s wing. “Do you think you can fly a distance?”

     “Of course, it’s just a scratch.”

     “A nasty scratch,” I said.

     “We should go,” Liath said. “I don’t want to be here if those Garands change their minds.”

I fastened my pack to the saddle, struggled to hop on to her knee, and grabbed onto the reins.

     "That was way too close," I said, feeling sheepish. I had a responsibility to care for my dragon, and I almost got both of us killed. What a dope. Only careless children did things like that, not someone who was going to build a town. Maybe I wasn’t up for this task my father planned for me.

     Liath said. "I wanted to enjoy my lunch, not be lunch." She turned sharply, causing me to grab the saddle. “Next time, can we respect the alarm?” Liath growled at me. Again, I processed excuses but couldn’t think of any good enough.

     “Don’t be Liath Lugger,” I said. "Those beasts are something to consider if we choose this place to settle."

     “Big walls,” Liath said. “Very big walls.”

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