Rosalee’s prize

He was her alligator, fair and square. She’d won him at the county fair some ten years back. It was just a little thing then, of course, but it was the only prize she’d ever won, so she kept him. Most of the kids at that ball toss game on the midway simply took their prize (if that’s what you could call it) to the lake which ran beside the fairgrounds and let it go free. Most had been talked into this by their mothers who quickly saw the impracticality of such a pet. The barkers took advantage of this and simply re-captured the little terrors at a bend further down the lake so as not to be noticed by the punters. This is why this particular game wasn’t rigged like the rest of the tests of skill on the midway. Nearly everybody won at this stall. It didn’t cost them anything in prizes and they made plenty in tokens to play.

But Rosalee didn’t know anything about this. All she knew was that she’d won something for the first time in her life and it felt good. She didn’t care that it was an alligator. All she cared about was that her luck had finally turned and she was going to ride that train for as long as possible. She made a little wood and wire cage for her alligator so she could take him with her wherever she went. Her second grade teacher was amused that first day and decided to incorporate it into the science module of the day. The whole class learned the difference between alligators and crocodiles, learned what kind of food they preferred, learned how to take care of them. The second day her teacher wasn’t as amused. By the end of the week she politely asked Rosalee to leave him at home from now on, the lesson was over and the joke had worn thin. But Rosalee wasn’t budging. He was her good luck charm and she had no intention of ever being more than a few feet away from him. They reached a compromise and put her in a desk next to the window. Her father was somehow roped into cobbling together a pen for the ever-growing beast that was situated just outside. They could both see each other, and she could even reach out her hand and stroke its rough scales.

Rosalee was the only person who could pet the alligator. Everybody else he snapped at – especially the vet. She took him to her family vet for the first check up and all the cats and dogs in the waiting room huddled under their owner’s chairs while Rosalee was filling out the forms. When she got to the part on the form for the “name” for the alligator, she stopped. She didn’t know his name. He’d never told her, but then again she’d not thought to ask. She didn’t think now was a good time, a name being such a private thing and this being such a public place, so she wrote “None Yet.”

20 minutes later the nurse called out “Nunyette”. Rosalee looked around, noticed nobody else got up, looked at the nurse holding her clipboard, noticed her hand waiving her into the hallway where the exam rooms were. The nurse was all smiles until she noticed it was an alligator in tow. He was on a leash, as per office policy, but she was still apprehensive.

The alligator was well behaved up until the vet tried to take his temperature. They never went back. It was either that or be sued. 

It turned out the alligator was a better prize than Rosalee could’ve ever expected. He was a good protector, didn’t need any entertaining, and caught all his own food. She didn’t think of him as a pet, but she sure didn’t think of him as her “baby” like some did about their animal companions. Ten years later she took him to the town‘s grand coming-out fête as her date. She knew it would mean she’d never get an invitation to join the Junior League, but she was OK with that.

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A is for Astronaut

She’d always wanted to be an astronaut, ever since she discovered that plastic helmet in her grandparent’s attic. It had a green visor that turned the world a magical, alien color when she put it on her head. It was so much more than wearing tinted sunglasses. Everywhere she looked was altered. There was no “normal” sneaking in her peripheral vision. That was covered with the helmet. Sounds were different too – more muffled, more distant. It made her feel safer, more peaceful, more powerful to wear it.

She was born in a time before there were words for what she was. “Gifted” they knew for sure, but there was more. She was sensitive, perhaps overly so. Now she would say it was a gift to feel in an unfeeling world, but then she thought it a challenge, if not a curse. It was hard to keep friends. She made them like anyone else. It was easy in the jumble that was public school. People became friends easily, often for no other reason than survival. They joined up out of some instinct that said it was dangerous to go alone into that minefield of strange rules and stranger adults. Best to connect with others who are equally lost or oppressed. This is why cliques formed after all. Once the obvious groups were created by hobby or skill, what was often left were the oddballs, the misfits, the loners. They connected as a way of self-protection, an unspoken union with no dues or representatives

She’d fit in these groups for about a month or so, just long enough for her or them to quietly decide that there wasn’t a fit after all and one side or the other would quit spending time with each other. Thankfully this was before the era of social media, or as she thought of it now, anti-social media.

She was 50 now – far past the age of recruits to astronaut school. She was in good shape and probably could have endured the training, but it wasn’t even an option. Or so she thought. She looked it up. There were no age restrictions. The oldest so far was 46. She’d been telling herself “no” without even asking the question. She just assumed it wasn’t possible, so for her, it wasn’t. Maybe deep down her former friends knew this about her – knew her lonely fear of failure, her feckless worry. Perhaps they were afraid of catching her secret disease of failing before she even began.

But she was a different person now. There had been growth on her part. It was a blend of self-help books and counseling that finally pushed her over the edge of her fear. It was like she’d been forever standing at the cliffside, afraid of falling to her death – all the while not realizing she had wings.

How could birds know they were birds after all? Their wings were behind them. Their mothers appeared as if by magic. How could they know they too had that same magic, waiting to be revealed?

Perhaps her fair-weather friends had done her a favor after all, without even realizing it. By quietly abandoning her, she’d learned to value her own company. She’d learned how to be her own friend and how to take care of things herself. These turned out to be valuable traits in an astronaut.

Because now that is exactly what she was determined to become. She applied to the program, confident and beaming. She saved up her money and quit her job so she could commit all her energy to this. There was no backing out. There was no Plan B. It was A for Astronaut all the way. The moon (at least) or bust. No glass ceiling for her – she was going to smash through it with her rocketship.

The program had changed a lot since she had first looked into it. Every few years she’d read about astronauts or space and think of it as a loss love, or perhaps a lost dream. Now it was far less physically demanding and far more mental and emotional – and perhaps even spiritual. Now they didn’t have to endure many G-Forces, being spun about in centrifuges to ensure they could survive the ordeal of acceleration and reentry. No, being an astronaut was a lot easier since the invention of the Hop. Just strap the Hop onto your wrist, set the dials, and away you went. Within a matter of the blink of an eye you were there instead of here. Scientist’s weren’t sure how it worked, but they’d said the same about prescription drugs for years and that never stopped them. All they knew was that they got the results they were looking for.

All she was looking for was a chance, so they gave it to her. Training now was about how to interact with aliens on other planets. Of course, they weren’t “aliens” while on their home planet. She was. She was the odd one out, the anomaly when she was there. She was the one who had to adapt well enough to observe them and be able to return home in one piece. You never knew what might happen. Just judging how earth people treated their alien visitors, she knew anything was possible, so it was important to be as nonthreatening as possible.

It wasn’t possible to assume that the environment would be hospitable. She’d have to wear a spacesuit to protect against air that wasn’t of the right balance of gases for human, or ultraviolet rays that were too harsh, or gravity that was too high or too low. The spaceship had to become the spacesuit – able to provide a protective shell around the person to make it possible to explore in safety.

The government had long ago given up the idea of a space program, so it was handled by other private investors. They were generally in the tourist trade or in real estate, looking for a place for humans to go when they got bored.

So now she was testing out the suit in New York City. It wasn’t New New York – that was in Proxima Centauri 4, of course. But she had to practice somewhere, and you couldn’t get more alien than a big city that was populated with all sorts of people. So she’d Hop to New York or Nashville, or Mumbai or Mongolia, walking around and trying to interact with people. Part of it was getting used to being stared at and not reacting.

The suits had built-in translators, thankfully, but that only went so far. She had to understand the meaning beneath the words – the true message that was being conveyed. That would prove to be the most useful trait of any astronaut, and that was the one skill that couldn’t be taught. But it was hard to test for too. You couldn’t just ask someone if they could get along with anyone. Of course they’d say yes. It had to be proven, time and again, through various experiments, like what she was doing now.

Long ago, the space program gave precedence to ex-military for their astronauts. These days, they discovered that ex-retail was the best way to go. Those people had to know how to be diplomatic at all times, and how to keep the peace without a weapon. Not true with military folk, who were used to solving problems with their weapons instead of their words. Peaceful coexistence was the goal – not colonizing. They learned long ago that it was best to work and live together with a variety of beings. Too much homogeneity led to stagnation, an endless loop that would spiral back in on itself eventually, strangling ideas.

The Sneeze

Sarah spent that whole day sneezing. She was being paid for it. It was a job, after all, even though it was just for the day. Some crazy photographer wanted to capture what a sneeze looked like, so he had put up fliers around town. Actresses came but he shooed them away. He didn’t want a forced sneeze, or a pretend one. He wanted the real thing. Only an authentic sneeze would do. This was for science after all. At least, that’s what he told himself.

He almost didn’t hire Sarah – she seemed too fancy. He suspected she was an actress by her clothes. She assured him that she dressed up for every interview. She believed it was best to dress better than expected. But she had no idea what to expect for an audition to sneeze, so she wore her best party dress, just to be sure. She needed the money. She couldn’t afford to act like it was a done deal, that she’d get the job without any effort.

The photographer liked her spirit, so he decided they needed to try to capture her sneeze. It wasn’t allergy season, so they had to resort to various methods to induce one. A feather was used, then a pinch of pepper, then some snuff. Sarah stood before the camera and tried each item, and the photographer pressed the shutter release. He rigged up a new system to take 10 photographs in quick succession. It wouldn’t do to miss one, and he never knew exactly when it would happen. They tried all three things and got three different sneezes – small, medium, and large. Sarah was a little embarrassed how much she sneezed after the snuff, but it was exactly what the photographer was looking for.

But he wasn’t just photographing her sneeze. He had her stand barefoot on a metal pad during the experiment. Wires ran from it to a small metal box with dials and scopes and a paper readout that looked a bit like an EKG. He was testing to see if there was a difference in her when she sneezed.

The Church taught that it was dangerous to sneeze because it was the breath of God you were casting out. So while it looked like he was photographing a sneeze, he was really measuring what God’s breath was. Did it have weight? Was there an electrical charge? Did the person lose anything during the sneeze – and if so, did it come back, and when, and how? Was there a difference if you said “God bless you” or not? What if the person wasn’t a believer – was there any change then?

He was a curious man, barely over 5 feet tall. He had a small voice it always seemed to be apologizing for something or other. His nails were clean, now, but sometimes they bore traces of nail polish in improbable colors. Nobody knew if he had a significant other, and if so, what gender they might be. He didn’t even have any pets. He kept to himself, except for the once a week he went to the local American Legion Hall for the music. He went there for the same reason he got a flu shot. He thought it did him some good, or ought to. He wasn’t certain enough to miss either one of them, just in case. He wasn’t sure what he’d catch if he wasn’t a little social. Maybe depression? Delusions of grandeur? Right now he barely had delusions of adequacy, but he knew that was part of the territory of being an artist.

And an artist he most certainly was. When he stepped behind the camera he became someone else, someone confident and sure. He was no longer short, or strange, or socially awkward. He could talk with people instead of just at them. It was a lifesaver that he had discovered photography as a form of self-expression.

Most artists had to build up their clientele, schlepping around their portfolios like second-rate prostitutes. He’d had the good fortune to start his career doing school photographs. He could learn the trade and get paid for it. No marketing – all he had to do was show up. Somebody else made all the contacts and did the hustle for him. It was ideal. He thought all artists should have it this good. Being an artist and marketing your work were two entirely different skill sets, after all.

It was while he was photographing Mrs. Murphy’s first grade class that he got the idea about documenting a sneeze. It was on an unusually cold day when school picture day came around, after a month of warmer temperatures. The children, unused to the sudden change, were sneezing in the makeshift studio that was set up in the gym.

Several retakes had to be made to make sure he’d gotten a good portrait. All the mistakes got tossed into his seconds box. He wasn’t going to do anything with them – they were for an acquaintance he knew at the American Legion. She was a songwriter who was almost as eccentric as him. They were an unusual sort of pair – both united in their oddness. They didn’t fit with people, but because of that they sort of fit with each other. They weren’t a couple, mind you, just friends in an offhand sort of way.

She fancied herself a visual artist as well, cutting up pictures from magazines and gluing them in her handmade journals. Sometimes she’d slap paint or stickers on the pages with the pictures and write stories about the people. He figured she’d like some actual photographs to use so he brought them to her.

Little did he realize but she was also a bit of a psychic. When she saw the first image of six-year-old Brian Thornton having a sneeze into the crook of his arm, she threw the photo down in shock, exclaiming “He’s not right!”  After she recovered, the photographer asked her what she meant. She simply stated “He has no soul!” and left it at that.

Now maybe that was true for little Brian. He was an odd child according to the teacher. But he was also sneezing at the time, so maybe that was it. So the photographer was now on a quest for the human soul, by way of photographs.

The Camera

This was the first picture she took with her new camera. Well, it was new to her and that was good enough. She found it at a pawnshop over on 9th Street, the street of lost chances and dead ends. Nobody went to live on that street if they could avoid it. But sometimes she went there to browse the pawnshop and see what she could find. There was always something there that she could find room for in her house. But that day she didn’t go to browse. She had decided she needed a camera, and the older the better. She didn’t want anything digital. She didn’t want her tools to be smarter than her. Sure, she had a smart phone that could take pictures, but she wanted something slower. Haste makes waste, after all, and being able to take a thousand pictures a day certainly created some bad shots. No, a roll of 24 shots was right up her alley.

She’d gotten into the mindfulness trend and decided her new hobby was going to be photography. Not that silly point and shoot business, but actually composing photos like you’d compose a sonata or sonnet. She wanted real pictures, with heart and soul.

But she ended up with pictures that were dark. They had soul, but it was of a dangerous bent. The camera never seemed to work when she tried to take a photo of a flower, or a child, or a puppy. Only when something tragic or scary happened would the shutter release, and she had no control over when that would happen.

It wasn’t like she pointed the camera at that car accident. She tried to frame a shot of the roadside flowers. The shutter clicked, or so she thought. She stood up and then the car came around the bend, going 90 to nothing. It hit a pothole in the road and flipped. The passenger flew out, arms flailing and then, the camera, slung on a lanyard around her neck, took the photo.

She didn’t know until she got the film back two weeks later in the mail. She’d spent the whole weekend taking photographs and none of them came out. Or rather – all of them came out perfectly – they just weren’t the photos she’d taken. The camera had taken them all. All weird. All strange. All disturbing. She noticed all the strange things that were happening that weekend she chose to learn how to use her camera. But she’d not focused on them. Who would point their camera at that? A decapitated doll. A strangled snake. And worse.

She was here to share joy with the world, and her camera seemed bent on showing junk.

She took the camera back to the pawn shop. Maybe she could trade it for another? There were no other cameras there that day, and the clerk mutely pointed at the “no refunds” sign written in 48 point font taped to the cash register. But he did offer her the name of the person who had brought it in. This was against policy, of course, but she was a regular and so patient with him so he decided to make an exception as a way to appease her.

Now she had a name. Perhaps this had happened to the last owner. Worse – perhaps the last owner had done something to make this happen. She did a little research. It didn’t take long to make contact. He owned a tea shop just four blocks away, on the other side of the tracks.

She decided to swing by to see what he looked like. Maybe she could get a feel for what kind of person he was. If he looked scary she would just leave. But he didn’t. He looked normal. So she approached him and asked if they could talk. He was used to this. People were forever coming up to him to talk about what was going on in their lives while he was at work – mostly what was going wrong. He often used to say that he should have been a priest or a bartender instead of owning a tea shop. He heard a lot of dark secrets and confessions.

She asked him about the camera. Yes, he recognized it as is. He’d pawned it because he’d gotten a digital camera and didn’t need this one anymore. No, he didn’t recall it taking strange pictures. He said he’d not used it in years, having stored away at his desk. It was the same desk where he made art every day after work. Every day his customers would pour out their problems, like buckets of rocks, into his head. It weighed him down. So he’d pour out all that misery into his artwork. It left him clear to start fresh the next day. It was how he survived. It was how he stayed sane.

They realized that the camera must have picked up some of that strangeness. It had taken up the same skewed perspective of the world as all those people who had unloaded on him. Now the camera, like the people, chose to see only ugliness and deformity.

Missing Rowley

He was one of the missing children, one of the many thousands who disappeared every year. But Rowley (if that was his real name) wasn’t like those children. Nobody was looking for him.

He’d disappeared that Wednesday afternoon, one of those wet and blustery days so common in January. The sun had been gone for so long that people simply forgot about it, simply forgot it was something to miss.

The same is true of Rowley, a boy who was shorter than average, surlier than average. If people didn’t overlook him unintentionally, they overlooked him on purpose. He wasn’t a pleasant child to deal with, and there was little hope he’d grow out of it.

He’d been a latchkey kid, a forgotten child. He could go missing for days and nobody noticed or cared. His parents (if that’s what they were) neither spoke to him or about him. He might as well have been a piece of furniture handed down from an eccentric aunt. He wasn’t wanted, and he knew it.

But then the circus came to town. It wasn’t like he ran away, so much as he was recognized. The high wire performers noticed him at the corner café, quietly pocketing leftovers from the tables about to be cleared away. It wasn’t like he was stealing, not exactly. The food had been paid for, just not eaten. It was headed for the garbage. He figured he was doing everybody a service, mostly himself.

The aerialists followed him out, not so close as to spook him, but not so far as to lose him. He knew they were behind him, how could he not? That sense was well honed in him. It kept him safe all these many years. If necessary he could make himself invisible without even leaving the area. It wasn’t running away. He knew that didn’t work – that just called more attention. It was more like he imagined himself invisible, made himself see-through to anybody who was looking. He’d had plenty of practice at the sad excuse of a home he had.

But turning invisible didn’t work this time, because the circus performers knew how to do that trick too. It was the opposite of performing. The bright light they shone from themselves when they were in the ring could be switched off just as easily. It was second nature to them. It was a skill that bonded them all into a strange sort of family, a wandering caravan of vagabonds and misfits, who somehow discovered how to jigsaw themselves together into this unexpected troupe.

The lack of a fixed address wasn’t a problem for them. They were traveling entertainers after all. It was expected, necessary even. Everybody in the circus was legitimately homeless. They’d discovered the one way it was socially acceptable. Perhaps it worked because they sang for their supper. They performed and sold tickets instead of begging. When they held a hand out, there was a top hat at the end of it. Somehow that made it OK. The public doesn’t like to think it has been deceived, but it does like to be entertained. And so they gratefully gave money to them, rather than grumbling about charity.

The two called out to Rowley, gently enough, to let him know they meant him no harm. They knew what was going through his mind. They knew because the same thing had happened to them all those years ago. This is how many of them came to the circus.

Many if not all had gone missing on purpose, because they were never noticed it home. Joining up with the other invisibles made sense. Together, they created a new sort of family, where all the rules went out of the window. Maybe it was because there were no windows in the circus. Trailers and tents were the order of the day, and even if they did have windows they were covered up with curtains or aluminum foil. This was one group that understood the value of privacy.

People of the Sand

Christopher and Lois Helfman loved their children more than they could express, but they understood that not everyone could accept them. They were fraternal triplets – two boys and a girl, born one bitter December morning five years ago while Papa was on maneuvers with the Royal Marines. He’d not even gotten to see his wife bloom into her pregnancy,having just one home visit a year at that point. His wife joked that he made the best of his time while he was at home, but she wasn’t laughing when she was told it was triplets she was expecting not long after he returned to the lines.

How would they ever manage three babies,  , and then corrected herself. Why ever did she think they would do anything? It would be all her doing, as it was for all the women in her time. Women had always done it all – all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the child raising. They did it because this is how it was. There weren’t other options as far as they knew.

Lois sent her husband a letter as soon as she was sure the pregnancy was viable. It wouldn’t do to get his hopes up for nothing. Because it was triplets, she waited an extra month just to be sure. So when the letter finally reached him he didn’t have a lot of time to adjust to the idea he was going to be a father.

Of course, they wanted children. They hadn’t planned exactly when, just leaving that particular to God. That was the best practice anyway, they finally realized after years of struggle. So many years of trying to do things their way and plans not working out. Why would they?Plans of mice and men never measured up to a hill of beans.

But the babies had been born early, too early for the happiness of the nurses at the village clinic. Doctors were in short supply, what with the war and all. They had been sent to the field to tend the soldiers. Civilians had to fend for themselves. Their needs were much less. It was quietly understood this was one of the many sacrifices they’d have to make to win the war.

And who was the war with? Desert dwellers, the People of the Sand. They’d finally ventured out of their domain and discovered the delights of temperate climates. No longer did they have to settle for the arid lands they’d been born in. No longer did they have to settle for a nomadic life of tents and beasts of burden. Now they knew there were choices, options other than a life of wandering from campsite to campsite, from bad pasture to only slightly better pasture. The herds were growing gaunt with all the work it took to forage for food, and so were they. So when they saw these new people, these fair skinned layabouts who didn’t have to fight the land for food, they knew they had to take over.

At first they sent sentries, spies, to move into and among these newfound neighbors. No weapons among them other than walking sticks and knives for butchering their supper meant diplomacy was the order of the day. They never had to fight anyone before and hoped not to now, but they weren’t above it. Their ancestor, the great Mahd had firmly said that violence was acceptable if peace failed. The survival of the People of the Sand was paramount. It would not do for them to be erased in the same way that footprints were in their landscape.

A life of shifting terrain shaped people into never settling down, never feeling stable. It made them suspicious of outsiders, of intermingling, so they clung to their traditions all the more.  It was the only thing holding them together. It was who they were as a people –not anything material but all in manner. How you acted was what marked you as a member of the People.

War finally came inch by inch and day by day, until suddenly there was fighting in the streets of the Helfman’s little village. Unrest had come to the town in dribs and drabs, two different cultures mixing like oil and water. There had been attempts to integrate. There were evening classes at the local library to teach both languages, but they were sparsely attended. If only they had asked the people what hours they were available – or even if they were interested. There were other barriers too -where there were misunderstandings and confusion. There were little arguments over use of the community center for worship services. The newcomers didn’t understand the denial wasn’t personal – they didn’t allow anybody to have services there of any sort.

When war came, Mr. Helfman had volunteered straight away, knowing that if he waited to be drafted he’d most likely get a less than desirable position. Not like any position in a war was desirable –but some were better than others. He became a captain in the Signal Corps because he had worked in the village radio station for over a decade and had a ham radio license. Sending messages back-and-forth across the battlefield without the other side listening was his forte, and he relished his role. It was important, essential even, and he didn’t have to worry about getting shot.Well, that wasn’t exactly true. He’d been trained the same as everyone else in the unit how to handle a gun. This was war, after all. The time for talking was over. Diplomacy had been exchanged for destruction, and may the best side win.

And yet he still held out hope that they could work something out. The good Lord didn’t put these people on the earth – and especially in his village – for nothing. But there were so many barriers! The culture was unusual, that was for sure, but the language – that was a real stumper. They didn’t even use the same alphabet, just a bunch of squiggles and dots. It didn’t make any sense. So he began to test the limits of his radio technology. Perhaps he could get it to translate the sounds it heard while he was intercepting their signals. If his phone could figure out what song was playing by listening, surely he could rig up a way to get some sense out of their language.

He’d always done well with the belief that if he could imagine it, it was possible. Surely the Lord wouldn’t have put such an idea in his head if he didn’t want him to try. Now, plenty of folks took that the wrong way and turn God’s dreams into nightmares. They focused the signal on themselves, not on others. Christopher Helfman had been raised to serve others,so his experiments always worked out for the best. It wasn’t long before he had worked out a translator, and within months every person in the battlefield had a portable version.

They’d left ones for the People of the Sand in conspicuous places, knowing that if they simply tried to give them away it would be met with suspicion. So they waited, and were wary. But the experiment worked – they started using the translators! A few brave souls talked with each other across the lines, sharing words and not bullets for a change. An agreement was reached and more of the devices were handed over. Before long, the war was over because they could finally, truly, understand each other. The devices didn’t just translate words but feelings and emotions as well. The full range of meaning was conveyed, and the two sides discovered they had more in common than not.They decided to share their resources, creating a whole new kind of community.

And that is how the masks came to be on the heads of the Helfman triplets. Born too soon, their lungs weren’t fully developed.They were prone to allergies and asthma, and nothing seemed to soothe them.That was, until the village got a People of the Sand doctor, who decided to try something new. These people had long relied on their unusual and somewhat intimidating face masks to survive in their arid desert home. Now that many had relocated to the village, they had no need for the cumbersome devices. Thankfully,many kept them out of nostalgia, so several were available to the doctor. He decided to try one on the children after the usual tricks had failed. Unusual was the order of the day in the village at that point, what with the two cultures openly blending and sharing, so the children didn’t stick out too much.

Hits the spot

A world bloomed in her mug. A forest emerged, complete with a circle of ravens to welcome the dawn. Perhaps this blend of tea was more magical than advertised?

Bergamot, hyssop, and a dash of hinoki oil were the listed ingredients, but she was sure there had to be some surprises. There always were. No cook gave away all her secrets. They were like magicians in that way. Revealing just enough but not too much … any more and the gig was up and you’d be out of a job.

People paid for secrets. They paid to be surprised. People paid to suspend their disbelief if only for an hour. It was how writers survived – this compulsive need for lies of all sizes and shades. White lies were still lies after all,still less than the truth. But the truth was too much for most people. Little white lies kept the wheels of society greased.

But this tea might take some serious adjusting to. Was she tall enough for this ride? She’d gone to this tea blender for several months now but this was the first time she’d considered that the mix wasn’t for her. Perhaps it was for another customer? Or perhaps the blender (more alchemist than anything else) had over estimated her needs this time.

For this was no ordinary tea shop that she found. The tea resided in dark brown glass jars, with handwritten labels. Some were blends, but most were raw ingredients, ready to be whisked together into the need of the day. Patrons didn’t even tell the clerk what they wanted. That wouldn’t do. They could not be expected to be objective enough to know what they really needed, after all.So they came in, waited their turn, and then sat before the clerk who observed them. Sometimes s/he would take their pulse. Sometimes s/he would ask the patron to stick out their tongue. But nothing more – no medical history, no list of prescriptions or supplements written down or spoken.

It was a simple affair, but one that required over a decade of training, and that was only after a rigorous testing just to be considered for the role of student. Students had to be impeccable in their words and actions,diplomatic, and able to raise all the funds for their training upfront. There were no scholarships. There were no loans. The entire tuition had to be fully funded from the start. The teacher wished for each student to be able to serve her whole-heartedly upon the completion of their apprenticeship (not graduation, for they would never cease to learn) so the patrons could be served without distraction or hesitation.

So this had to be what she needed, but was she ready for it? It tasted like no other tea she’d ever had. Was that a woodpecker call she heard from her mug? Did she see antlers? She’d never hallucinated before, college being at a private Christian school, but she suspected this was what it must feel like. And feel was the right word – she didn’t just see the trees and animals in her tea, she could hear and smell them too. They were there, but in miniature, in her mug.

Well, there was nothing to it but to do it, so she took a sip. The forest stayed horizontally oriented, the birds continued to fly, and the still hot tea tasted like earth and moss and stone as it slid down her throat.

Strangely, it was exactly what she needed.