Guts, Glory, and a Forever Broken Heart.

With a sun so hot it bleached the blue from the sky, the heat lay on west Texas like an unwanted blanket. It was August, close to the end of a summer that would go down in the books. The hottest day, the longest dry spell, the highest temperature in downtown Odessa. On and on, a litany of heat that someone, sometime would pull out and say, “and on this day in 2018 …”

“Damn weathermen,” Casey spat and kicked the caliche with a boot. “Sum-bitch said it would maybe storm.” He kicked backward with the heel of his right boot, and again, and once more. There was nary a mark left on that hardened ground by that hard heel of his boot. This time of year the ground was like concrete.

“Even worse this year. All the storms go north or south. Some kind of current, ninja or ninny I think they call it,” he mumbled to himself.

He looked to the east, to the caprock shimmering and wavering in the heat on the distant horizon. To the north and south, all he saw was heat rising. To the west, nothing but a great roaring dust devil. “Damn weathermen.”

“Hey there, Mr. Bugs,” he said to the jackrabbit he could see hunkered down by the tumbleweed to his left. “Don’t think you need to worry ‘bout rattlers. No self-respecting snake would be out in this heat.”

Casey walked on, steel blue eyes shaded by his straw cowboy hat. His boots crunched and cracked on the hard-baked caliche. Eyes wrinkled from years spent squinting into a west Texas sky, he continued on his way, just an old man out for a stroll.

“Ain’t it wonderful, Mr. Bugs. In west Texas, you can be the tallest and the smallest, and both at the same time. Grandpa Leander used to tell me that and then that jolly old man laughed with that wonderful laugh he had. Lost him sixty years ago back in June. I miss that old man.”

A smile creased Casey’s face; a pleasant smile, full of life and laughter. “Hell, I am that old man,” and his grin broadened.

He removed his hat and revealed a pale forehead, with silver wisps of hair plastered to the temples from rapidly evaporating sweat. He yanked his kerchief from his hip pocket, wiped his brow, wiped the brim of his hat, bent down and wiped a spot on his left boot. He stood, wiped his forehead again leaving a smudge of dust from his boot, plopped his hat back on his head, wadded up the kerchief, and returned it to his hip pocket.

He squinted his eyes against the glare of that August sun and held a right hand up to block what the brim of his hat didn’t. Up ahead was what he sought. He passed the gnarled and bent mesquite tree, and the ground fell away for a spell. Casey walked down the slope, and to the old boundary of a cracked and dried-up pond. He stood silent, remembering friends, family, and fun times around this watering hole.

Ahead was the same mesquite log that had been there for, “nigh onto ta seventy years, I guess,” Casey said to Mr. Bugs. He stepped over it and sat.

Then he got an itch and a twitch and stood, walked back to the mesquite while unbuttoning his fly to do the mandatory business all the boys had to do. Watering the mesquite, they had called it. Today, it took a while. “Hell, I can remember when I could knock the bark off that damn tree.” He settled for a wee stream and a dribble. A shake, only one, and buttoned up. The mandatory business done, he walked back to the log and sat back down.

Shadows stretched, and the sun began its journey downward. A hawk took to the pale skies and screamed from on high. Mr. Bugs skittered away into other tumbleweeds. Casey sat, remembering a pond and blue water reflecting white puffy clouds. A dust devil interrupted his reverie. It dashed across the pond, whirled around Casey and lifted his hat from his head. Casey made a grab, grumbled, rose and chased his sombrero. Catching it near the mesquite, he plopped it back on his head and strode down the slope and into the middle of the dried up pond.

He turned to leave when a metallic glint caught his eye. The dust devil had cleared the middle of the pond of loose sand, and something bright and shiny winked at him. Casey walked over and scuffed the ground with his boots, and kicked up something gold and blue. He picked it up, knocked the dirt off and looked in wonder at a Medal of Honor.

“How,” he said, as he wandered back to the log. He sat, tilted his hat back, scratched his forehead, and pondered the enigma he held in his hand.

Clouds and shadows passed and the sun dropped towards the horizon. He heard boots crunching dry ground behind him. He noticed the shadows were far longer than he expected.

“Pop? You ok? It’s on to dark and we got worried.”

“Sorry, Bobbie. Got sidetracked. Recognize this?” He tossed the medal to his son. Bobbie fumbled it a bit but caught it, and examined it.

“Not engraved. Know whose it is?”

“Yeah. Used my phone to run the serial number through the database. It’s Chucks.”

“Chuck? Uncle Chuck?”

“Yeah.”

“How did his medal get in the pond?”

“That is what distracted me. When did this pond last have water in it?”

“I dunno. Five, mebbe six years. Old man Hawkins rerouted his irrigation and this pond wasn’t needed for runoff anymore.”

“Thought so. ‘Bout the time Chuck visited me that last time.” Casey looked around. “It’s late, Dottie’s going to be pissed at me.” He lurched as he leaned forward and winced. “Damn it. Gimme a hand, will ya, Bob.”

The younger man took his father’s hand and steadied him as the old man rose from the log. “Knee,” Bob asked.

“Yeah. Sat too long with my butt too low.” He walked a step or two, shook his right knee out a bit, then started up the slope from the log with a diminishing limp.

“There ain’t nothing you could do to get my wife mad at you.”

“Well, it’s rude …”

Bob interrupted. “I know. It’s rude to not be on time if someone took the time to make you a meal. You and Mom drilled that into me and my siblings.” The two of them walked into an evening not much cooler than the afternoon had been. The sun-soaked caliche radiated all that heat back into the evening.

Dinner was ready when they arrived. The conversation around dinner retold tales of horney toad hunting by Bobbie Jr. The trip to town with Momma was told by Susan.

“If you folks don’t mind, I’ll be on the patio.” As he walked from the table, Casey heard Bob explain things to Dottie. He sat in his comfortable lawn chair, rammed a hand down his Levi’s and pulled that medal out of the depths of the pocket. His fingers traced the surface.

“We were planning to churn up some ice cream,” he heard Dottie call from the door. “Too hot to be baking anything.”

“That sounds good. Bring it on out.”

Everyone scurried about getting the wooden bucket, dropping the bags of ice on the patio concrete, finding the salt, and then at last Dottie bringing out the canister and setting it down in the wooden bucket. He let Bob supervise the churning. A layer of ice. Liberal rock salt. More ice. More salt. Then the affixing of the crank and handle, plastic bags, newspaper, and a blanket on top, followed by a young butt to hold it all in place.

Bob turned the churn towards himself and began cranking, tickling his daughter a time or two to make her giggle. Then there was silence. Susan, the butt on the churn, started to speak but Bob hushed her, “Shush. Not right now baby. Pop, can you tell us about the medal?”

Casey sat silent, fingering the object in question. His grandson walked to him and climbed up on a knee, and just looked at the gold pentagon in his grandfather’s hand. “Sure,” Casey said and seemed to set straighter with a bit of resolve.

“I can’t say for sure how it got in the pond but the time fits. Remember the last time Chuck came to visit me?”

Heads nodded around the circle, Bob cranked the ice cream, and a coyote yipped from the fields.

“He and I made several trips down to the pond and mostly just did what we did as kids. Sit and spit, and skip rocks across the pond. And talked. We talked a lot about our military life, and Ted’s. Ted had been the first to die. Didn’t even know what hit him. Lost a lot of good men that day in that valley.” He looked at his grandson, and said, “his grave is one you set flags on.”

“Theodore P. Brookes, 1st Lieutenant, 2nd Troop, 1st of the Third Calvary,” Bobbie Jr recited.

“That’s right,” Casey said. “You want me to turn that a while?”

“Nope,” Bob replied, “your job is to tell us about Uncle Chuck.”

“Guess we never have talked much about it.”

“Pop, it’s the only thing you never have talked about. Think maybe it’s time?”

Silence lay on the patio for a bit. The rusty churn creaked, the canister rushed and swished through icy water, and another coyote yip-yip-yipped, followed by the squeal of a rabbit. Life, Casey thought. You live, and then you die. He continued his story.

“I remember the last time Chuck was here. He wandered off to the pond by himself. We hadn’t lost Martha yet, and she told me she had seen him wandering down that way. When I got there, he was on his knees, sobbing. I squatted down, put an arm around him. All I could hear him saying was, ‘I couldn’t save him, Casey. Half of him just wasn’t there.’”

“Damn,” Casey stopped and looked at his daughter-in-law. “Dottie, you want the kids to hear this?”

“Casey, these kids watch the news with Bobbie and me. They ask questions, we answer. We don’t hide the world from them. I think they will be alright.”

Looking at the brown eyes of his grandson, he hugged Bobbie Jr close and gently stroked the head of his granddaughter.

“I think before I got there, he had skipped this across the pond,” Casey whispered, holding up the medal. “We did not do anymore rock skippin’ till he left, and he didn’t throw it any other time.”

“But why …” Dottie started to say.

“He never wanted it. Not because he didn’t think he earned it. Hell, anybody in that valley on that day earned and deserved that medal.”

“You were there,” Bob said.

“Yup, and I wrote citations for many medals for several men in my platoon. Chuck did not want it because of who he left in that valley, not who he brought out.”

“Dottie,” Bob said, helping Susan down and removing the newspaper and blankets from the ice cream churn. “I think the cream is set. We ready to uncork this?”

Bright eager young eyes focused on the contents of the wooden bucket and churn. Bowls were passed out, and everyone received heaping helpings of cold deliciousness. Silence reigned for a few minutes as the sweetness of a summer treat was savored, enjoyed, and shared. Seconds for Bob, Bobbie, and Susan. Dottie got the paddle. Casey sat back and enjoyed his family more than the ice cream. At last, it was all hands chipping in to clean up. Bowls and churn took to the kitchen, dishwasher loaded and started.

At last, everyone returned to the patio, Casey again with his grandson on his lap. Susan sat next to her father on one side, and Dottie next to her husband on the other. Casey and Bobbie Jr sat in the comfortable chair to the left of everyone.

“You want to continue, Pop? You don’t have to, ya know,” Bob said.

“I know.” Casey pulled his kerchief out, blew his nose, and dabbed his eyes. “Sorry about that, Grandson.”

“S’ok, Grandpa.”

“Nope, folks I think I need to. For me, yes, and also for Chuck. He didn’t want that blasted medal,” and Casey fell silent again, finding it difficult to swallow.

“Pop, why didn’t you get that medal,” Dorothy asked. Bob squeezed her hand, not in a deprecating manner, but in a manner that said thank you for asking the question I wanted to ask.

“I told them no. I lost too many men in that valley. Went in with 45. Came back with 12.” Silence, again.

“God, I lost so many.” The kerchief again. “I didn’t think, and I still don’t, that a platoon leader that lost over half of his men deserved it. I heard battalion was putting me in for it and I flatly told them, ‘Hell, no!’ Chuck would have done the same, but he was hospitalized and out of it for nearly a month. By the time he knew what was going on, he had the award. As I told him, you can’t un-award that medal, not with honor.”

“But why didn’t he want it?” Bob said. “From what I read in his citation, more than anyone, he deserved it. He saved that pilot and many of the men in his platoon just by his leadership. One sidebar I read said his platoon went to Battalion with the nomination.”

“He didn’t want it for the one person he could not save.” Casey paused, torn about what he was about to tell them. “A lot of things have changed since those days. It was decades before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I knew in high school that Chuck and Ted had something going on.”

Dottie gulped, started to usher the kids out when she caught Bob’s eye. He was telling her no. She thought about it, sat back, and agreed with her husband. She saw Casey looking at her. “Go on Casey. Please.”

Big eyes and big ears caught the exchange going on between the adults, turned it over in their young minds as they looked at each other, and Susan said what Bob Jr was wondering. “Unca Chuck was gay.”

There, it’s out. They know Chuck, maybe knew all along, Casey thought.

“Yes, Susan, Uncle Chuck was gay.” To Bob and Dottie, he said, “Ted was the co-pilot in that chopper. The RPG that took out the chopper, cut him in half. Chuck had to leave him behind.”

Now Dottie gasped. Eyes welled with tears as she said, “Oh no.”

Casey paused for a moment as the sun dipped below the horizon and lit the western sky in ochre and gold.

“The one man he wanted to save, over all those that he did save, was the one man he could not save.”

 

 

 

To Love is to Conquer without Shedding Blood.

‘Not so rough!’ 9 watched 23 hurl the human across the rock floor. ‘We need the specimen unharmed.’
23 grunted before skulking into the darkness.

Continue reading “To Love is to Conquer without Shedding Blood.”

Pizza, roses, and a unsurpassed mutual appreciation.

Claire pressed the green button and the printer spat out another fistful of orders. She picked them up and headed into the blissful cool of the back room, close to the walk-in fridge. It was only eleven, and they had been busy since seven. No wonder her sister had asked her to come and help today. Even with three florists working full time, Valentine’s Day was a bear.

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She pulled out a stack of trays, placing an order on each. Then she selected flowers, ribbon, oasis and wrapping paper, putting everything on the trays, so that the florists only had to work their magic.

It was not until she glanced at the delivery address on order eight (roses (12): colour mixed), that a chill ran up her spine. It was her address. It was her name. Quickly, her eye scanned downwards.

‘Greg Harlow.’ She knew that name. Claire closed her eyes briefly and a face swam into view. Disordered ginger hair, straight eyebrows under frameless glasses, freckles and an auburn three-day-growth… Unit 22. Her downstairs neighbour.

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He was pretty cute. When she had moved in eight months earlier, she had noticed him alright. But she had been seeing Dave at the time. So even when they met at the bus stop or down by the bins, she had done her best to play it cool.

What was the instruction for the message? She looked again.

Ah…

From your secret admirer.’

A smile played around her mouth. Two could play at that game.

She left at four thirty and stopped at Coles on the way home. She had seen enough meat lover’s pizza boxes go into his bin to know that he wasn’t vegetarian. When she got off the bus and dragged her shopping up the stairs, she made a quick stop outside his flat, carefully placing a sealed envelope and a single, long stemmed rose outside his door. Claire threw a couple of steaks into marinade and made a salad.

When it got to six-fifteen, Claire positioned herself in the corner of the landing so she could see his door. He trod up the stairwell, briefcase under his arm, as usual. Claire watched avidly. At his door, he put the key in the lock before he noticed anything, then bent and picked up the rose, breathing in its fragrance, stroking the soft petals. He sliced through the envelope with the edge of his house key and pulled out the single printed sheet.

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Claire took in the look on his face and grinned to herself.

Fifteen minutes later, Claire carried her picnic hamper down to the communal garden and BBQ area. Greg rose and laughed, his face a picture of bashful pleasure.

‘I hoped the note was from you. How did you know?’

‘I’m psychic.’ She smiled at the look of shock. ‘Kidding. You sent your order to the florist where my sister works. I was helping out today while uni is still on vacation.’

‘Wow. Maybe fate is on my side then?’

‘Maybe.’ She pulled a bottle of Jacob’s Creek sparkling out of the hamper and handed it to him. The cork popped and she held up two champagne flutes. ‘Thank you for the roses. They are lovely.’

‘My pleasure.’ He clinked his glass to hers and met her eyes. ‘Here is to mutual admiration.’

‘Here’s to us.’

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Romance, Lost Moons, and Special Mates!

 

Jez wished she’d taken more notice of the signs, especially the hints of habitation in the cave she currently stood outside that she and her second, Jana, had discovered the previous shift. It was something that had been instantly dismissed by the expedition leader.

But what was currently studying her so intently was of far greater concern.

Jez and her team had spent the last six shifts determining if this moon was suitable for a permanent base. Moon SC579, nicknamed Scandal by her team, had breathable atmosphere, enabling them to explore without the bulky space suits, though they did wear breathers and carried a state-of-the-art AI com unit. But Scandal was a barren wasteland, unsuitable for habitation.

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Jez shifted slightly, observing with equal intensity the tall, humanoid-like alien standing less than an arm length away.

The plain, utilitarian uniform he wore outlined his strong muscular structure, leaving no doubt as to his gender. Jez had the distinct impression he’d spent most of his life wearing similar apparel. It blended perfectly with the dry, fine texture of the surrounding ground. She couldn’t help but stare at his feet. They were encased in some sort of animal skin, but there was nothing primitive about the construction. In fact, his footwear looked perfectly suited to the moon’s surface, though her team had found no trace of any other living species.

Until the cave.

 

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Her nurturer had always told Jez that a male’s feet could tell her a lot about his character. If he stood firmly and calmly, then he was likely to be even-tempered. The larger his feet, her nurturer had insisted, the more virulent, lusty or passionate he was likely to be.

Surprisingly, Jez had found her nurturer’s predictions to be uncannily accurate when it came to the males of her world, though passions were rarely expressed openly.

The male before her had big feet, but they were proportional to his height and body structure. He towered above her taller-than-average height. His weight was evenly balanced on his large feet, his breathing regular while he maintained steady eye contact. The feeling Jez got while she studied him was that he was curious and bemused by her presence. A deep calm, a feeling of safety, settled over her. She instinctively knew he posed no threat.

 

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And Jez always trusted her instincts. It was why she was standing outside the cave, alone, while the rest of her team were scouting the distant crater rim.

“This is sacred ground.”

His voice had a deep timbre, one that sent shivers down her spine. A reaction she didn’t dare display, didn’t want to give into at all. She stepped back. He mirrored her move, bridging the gap she’d made. His eyes were an intense and mindboggling silver with mauve tints. The same hues as his hair, but his skin had a deeper, darker shade. She thought him handsome but tried to squash those thoughts before they surfaced.

“You are here to mate,” he stated as if this was a well-known fact.

He was still staring at her in much the same way she was staring at him. Jez straightened. In-built and well-learned protocol overtook her reticence.

“I am Commander Jezebel Hedin, Tenth Exploratory Team of the Damari Organisation for Galactic Settlement.” She tilted her head towards him. “And you?”

He stood even straighter, his height and muscular body displayed proudly. “Ge’ez Amour, Executive Commander of Interstellar Relations, Takako.”

He recited his designation in clipped terms, though what he’d said gave her virtually no information. DOGS, or rather their more formal term, the Damari Organisation, would probably mean nothing to him either.

Of course, she’d known as soon as she and Jana had found recent and obvious occupation inside the cave, that some unknown entity was sharing the moon with her team.

She also knew that this Tack-a-kay-o, presumably his home world, was somewhere the Damari ruling class would vehemently deny existed, regardless of whether anyone had ever heard of it or not. It wouldn’t matter that the proof of its existence was standing right in front of her. Indeed, her instincts insisted she keep this unauthorised meeting hidden. As they had before she’d reported the cave discovery in the vaguest terms possible.

“You are female,” he stated. “Yet you stand on the mating grounds alone and unprotected.”

She gasped as he stepped forward and took her wrist. His long fingers, surprisingly cool, held her gently but firmly. He took one, long breath while a finger pressed on the vein inside of her wrist. Her rapid heart rate was anything but normal. The last time it was so raised was at her command award ceremony, many cycles ago.

Was her life really so … predictable? So lacking in excitement?

She kept her eyes on the male, inhaling through the breather which added a bit more oxygen into her system, calming her.

“You are fertile.”

“And where are your instruments that allow you to make such a claim?”

“Takako males can sense a female’s readiness to mate,” he replied.

Still holding her wrist, the tip of his finger began making slow, caressing circles. As a wave of desire swamped her, leaving her shaking inside, she continued to stare into his silvery eyes. Eyes that had become more iridescent, the mauve flecks appearing and receding in mesmerising ripples.

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Jez wasn’t scheduled for testing until well after she returned from this exploratory journey. Even then, if her defiance in returning to the cave without authorisation was discovered, any chance of reproduction would be lost. Something Jez had known when she made the decision to return. It didn’t matter that Jez longed for offspring. Nor would the fact that her ancestry could be traced back through a long line of explorers originating from Old Earth. If this unauthorised and unexpected encounter was discovered, Jez would be demoted and returned to an even duller, less certain future than before.

It was just as well she’d disabled the tracking and recording functions on her AI before heading towards the cave. All she’d left operational were the mandatory health checks and the interpreter module. That way she had plausible deniability.

“I have waited aeons. Now, just when I’d become convinced the gift of a mate was not for me, the Entity delivered you to the mating grounds.” He seemed to emit excitement and deep pleasure, the mauve in his eyes completely taking over the silver for one, brief, moment. “Come.” He gave her still-held wrist a gentle but insistent tug.

“Wait.” She resisted his pull without much effort. “Where is this mating ground you speak of? Is it the cave?”

“This moon,” he said, indicating the entire area, “is the sacred mating grounds of Takako, available only to those who have earned the privilege, and gift, of a promised mate. The cave is the site I chose for you, my mate, as the best defensible abode available.”

“I am not your mate. I don’t even know if our species are biologically compatible.”

“We are,” he insisted, “the Entity would not have brought you here while fertile if we were incompatible.”

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“That’s not how these things are arranged,” she insisted.

She ignored her rapidly beating heart, her tendency to lean her body towards him, the overwhelming knowledge of his alluring existence. All that was irrelevant. They could not mate. The ramifications, no matter how tempting, would mean her immediate exile to the outer reaches, a place very few survived.

“Then whatever you require, I will provide.”

Jez could hardly think straight, an unusual occurrence for her. One she knew stemmed from the temptation to leave everything she knew behind. For him.

“To reproduce… This is determined by the ruling class, who only consider parameters that ensure success,” she explained, though why she bothered was unclear. “It is scientific and precise, with no chance of errors.”

“The Entity does not make mistakes either. Obtaining a mate is an honour given to few but hoped for by many.”

“It is the same in my world too.”

“Truly?” he queried, like he didn’t quite believe her. “You form a lasting partnership, sharing food, shelter, your body and your most intimate thoughts, with your mate?”

“No. There is no interaction between the male and female at all.”

He crossed his arms. “That sounds…”

“Efficient.”

“Clinical,” he countered. “Where is the relationship? The deep bond between the two responsible for giving life to the next generation? Where is the caring, the shared responsibility, the love, required to bring offspring into the world so they can grow and learn and become responsible citizens, a credit to their family and their world?”

Jez shrugged. “That’s not the way reproduction occurs where I come from.”

“Then the Entity was wise indeed to send you to me. As my mate you will be cherished and honoured for the rest of your life.”

“Indeed.”

He studied her again, not quite as intently as he had at first. More like he was cataloguing her features, discerning what was going on inside her head. She hoped males of his species could not read minds, because hers was a swirling mess of confusion battling with her growing attraction and longing.

“I have worked hard to prepare a comfortable abode for you while we await the return of my spaceship. I have moisture and victuals and bedding. I am a good provider, a leader of my people. And as my mate, you have the protection of the entire Takako warriors to call on, if necessary.”

“So you expect me to accompany you when you return to your world?”

“Of course. Once mated, we will never part.”

“Never?”

“Never.” Again, he paused, his silver and mauve eyes never wavering from her face. “Come.”

This time, he did not close the distance between them as he initially had. Instead, he stood still, his arm outstretched towards her. He awaited her decision, in the full expectation that she would agree to become his mate.

Her long-held desire for offspring, to be chosen to produce the next generation as well as a respected explorer, bubbled up inside her until the desire to reproduce, as fast as possible, sucked all her attention like an uncharted black hole opening without preparation. To give in, to go with him into the cave, was so very tempting. He was very tempting.

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His determination was more than alluring. His outright certainty that they were meant to be together was reflected in every muscle, in every sinew of his body. That was so satisfyingly reassuring. His willingness to take her presence as a gift from whoever this Entity was and not an accidental circumstance, said a lot about his dedication and steadfastness.

He was giving her time to make up her own mind. He was not forcing her to do anything she did not want to do. His consideration, his treatment of her, was so diametrically opposite to the way those in the Damari Organisation and the DOGS ruling class, she could barely believe it possible.

But she also trusted him. Fully, instinctively, and deeper than their brief time together warranted. What he promised, a close, intimate relationship where not only the essentials were shared for mutual survival, but also the good times, and the bad. Thoughts of being cherished, of having her thoughts and her instincts listened to and acknowledged settled any trepidation she’d contemplated. Sharing her life with the male before her, alien though he was, and living the life he promised, was more than enough to sway her.

“Come,” he said once more, taking her hand and turning towards the entrance of the cave. “Our future awaits.”

With a smile that wouldn’t be dimmed, Jez willingly followed him into the cave. If all he said came true, the future that awaited them was brighter, more exciting than anything she’d ever experienced before. She’d be a fool to turn away from the hope that existence gave.

And Jez was no fool.

 

 

A must read! Our first writers challenge winner.

Kayla stood poised on the rim of the Luna crater, scanning the bowl for anomalies.

The unfamiliar craft was almost hidden in the shadow under the ramparts. From the buckling on the stubby wing tip it must have been a rough landing.

Without hesitation she scrambled down the escarpment and headed for the ship. The long bounds felt painfully slow as she crossed the fine powdery surface. Her 190cm height and muscular build was an advantage here at least.

It was unlike any ship she’d seen. The surface glowed with a metallic green sheen and clouded glass bubbled in a semi-circle around the blunt nose. Three of the stubby wings extended at an angle halfway down the short cylindrical body. The damaged one had dragged against the stony ground near the rim of the crater.

Instinctively, she placed her hand on the oval pad forward of the wings. A woosh of sound heralded the opening of a panel easily large enough for someone her size. Kayla hesitated only a split second before fitting herself into the shallow compartment. Darkness enveloped her along with the hiss of air.

She barely had time to wonder if her impulsive action had been ill-considered when the inner door opened. She tumbled into a narrow corridor lined with cabinets. An airlock at the far end was only a step away and Kayla used another panel to trigger the opening.

Blinking at the brightness of what must be the pilot’s cockpit, Kayla stepped forward. It was hard to see detail, even with the sun visor on her helmet retracted.

“May we be meeting?”

The deep husky tone startled her and she spun around, knocking against one of the consoles. A large gloved hand steadied her.

“Do not alarm.”

He was beautiful. Her heart clashed against her ribs. And not human. So large he made her feel small, even in the bulky suit. He was humanoid, whatever that meant. Two arms, two legs. Beautifully muscled as befitted his large size. One head. Smooth and hairless with a central ridge of bone that extended from his nose over his forehead and splayed into three over the large skull.

He wore a close-fitting suit in a metallic green reminiscent of the coating on the ship’s hull but above that, his skin had a similar tint with an undertone of yellow. His eyes captured hers and she stared at them, hardly believing the vivid swirl of blue and green, again with that hint of yellow.

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His deep rumble reverberated through her. “You are good?”

Kayla gasped as she registered his words. “You speak English?”

His wide mouth curved up. “Not so good. You have many transmissions.”

“That’s how you learned? Listening to our radio transmissions?”

The was an infinitesimal movement of his broad shoulders. “Some.”

“Where are you from?”

Again that wry lift at the corners of his mouth. “It is far.”

Kayla pulled off her helmet and glanced around at the cockpit, noting the two seats. “You have a co-pilot?”

“She is gone.”

“Gone?”

His forehead drew together, wrinkling against the shallow ridge of bone. “I think…passed.”

“Passed away? You mean dead?”

A slow nod. “I think…yes.”

A female. Something tightened in her chest. “She was special to you?”

“I don’t think…”

Kayla searched for words. “Partner? Lover?”

Again that slow nod. “Love. Yes, I know that word. No, not love. So…partner?”

The tightness eased. How odd. He was a stranger. An ALIEN. “How long have you been alone?”

“Many cycles.” He gestured at the sky through the window bubbles. “It is far.”

There was an element of pain in those words that made her wonder. “Will you go home now?”

“Home. I cannot go home.” His liquid eyes flared with something dark. “I stay here perhaps?”

Kayla thought of the team back at the base. It was an international team. But an alien might stretch the friendship. “Is your ship repairable?”

“Perhaps.” The resigned expression on his face suggested otherwise. He touched the symbol on her sleeve. “And I am not to be welcome.”

“You come in peace?”

BookBaybZ Writers Challenge

He glanced down his body. “In one piece. I think.”

Kayla dragged her gaze away from the snug fitting fabric outlining his magnificent body. “I mean…you don’t wish to harm us?”

His large hands spread to indicate the interior of the ship. “With what? Is nothing to harm.”

“And you don’t have anywhere else to go?”

He shook his head, his jaw tight.

“Perhaps you should come back to the base. We need to report what’s happened.” It hit her somewhere deep in her gut. He would be wanted down on earth. First Contact. Often talked about, but this was it. Not some invading alien race, but a single man in trouble. Vulnerable.

“You have many partner, lover at this base?”

“No one special. Work colleagues.” She tapped the symbol on her sleeve. “Scientists.”

“You also are alone?” His voice seemed deeper somehow, the eyes swirling gold.

Breath stalled in her throat. “Yes.” It was true. Men found her size intimidating. They might respect her work as a geologist, but they didn’t ask her out. She’d made friends in the team here in the last eight months, but no-one special. Ever.

He stepped closer. “We are alone together.”

For a moment she wondered if it was his language skills at fault. The warmth in those strange eyes told her otherwise. He found her attractive. An odd flutter began deep in her gut. She pointed at her badge. “I am…my name is Kayla.”

“Iya, Kayla. I am Gorish.” His large hand thumped the odd shaped symbol on his chest.

“Gorish.”

“You, me. Lovers?”

That flutter deepened to a heavy pulse low in her body. It was definitely appealing. “Perhaps friends first.”

“Friends. I like.”

“I think I would like it too.”

His thin lips curved up in a smile. “We are good?”

Warmth flooded her body, her heart thumping steadily and a little fast. “Yes. We are good.

“Those amazing eyes glowed “Together.”

BookBaybZ Writers Challenge

A must read miracle with a delightful recipe that will tantalize!

“Move, Dave!” Shelby screamed into her mask as she ran towards her crew leader. Her hands connected with his back, pushing him out of the way.

The branch came crashing down in a hail of smoke, sparks and thunder. It slammed down on her left shoulder, knocked her helmet and breathing apparatus off. Charred earth dug into her cheek and chin before heavy darkness took the place of smoke and dust.

This was the worst bushfire the Sunshine Coast Hinterlands had experienced; and on Christmas day, of all days.

A sharp light darted across her vision and a myriad of muffled voices echoed around her as…

“Hello, Pumpkin.”

Shelby spun on her heel to find herself back in Maleny in her Nana’s kitchen.

“Oh God…” She slapped her hands across her mouth. “I’m dead!”

“He’s not here this very moment, and no, not yet.” Nan’s bright, hazel eyes shone with love from where she sat at her old wooden kitchen table, chopping green and red maraschino cherries.

“Well, those nuts won’t crush themselves. Wash your hands and get to it.” Nan said as though there were nothing odd about their current situation. Nan had passed away ten years ago.

 

 

Shelby looked around her. Everything was just as she remembered, down to the multi-coloured crochet blanket hanging over the well-worn leather couch. How had she gotten from the bushfire to here?

“Well, come on then,” Nan urged and returned to the cherries.

Shelby silently obeyed her grandmother. She pulled off her bulky fire-proof jacket, and hung it on the hook on the back of the kitchen door. She washed her hands and came to sit opposite Nan.

“If I’m not dead, why am I here, Nan?” She dug a hand into the container full of walnuts, and dropped them on the wooden chopping board in front of her.

“Can’t you remember what happened, Pumpkin?” Nan stopped her chopping, frowned, then turned her attention to the slices of sponge cake soaking in Old Brown Sherry.

“I was fighting a fire and saw a branch about to fall on Da – my crew leader. I – I pushed him out of the way but … I think the branch fell on me…” Shelby swallowed back her tears, “I am dead!”

Nan’s plentiful bosom heaved as she chuckled, “Not quite. And there’s another reason why you pushed him out of the way, isn’t there?”

A flash of light and distant muffled voices drew Shelby’s gaze toward the front door. Tendrils of smoke drifted in from beneath the door and through the keyhole.

“Where am I?”

Nan put down her knife and reached across the table, placing a leathery wrinkled hand on Shelby’s. “You’re here with me. It’s kind of a halfway stop between there.” She nodded up towards the ceiling, “and home.”

But why?

Shelby asked herself.

“To decide, of course.”

“How did you…”

Nan gave Shelby a knowing smile.

“What do I need to decide?” Shelby asked as she picked up a large sharp knife and began to chop and crush the Walnuts.

“Whether to return with me or go back home.” She stood up and walked over to the fridge, “Aaah… the custard’s chilled.” Nan pulled a small silver pot off the shelf. “When I saw the branch fall on you, I asked for a favour in return for one of my favourite Christmas trifles.”

“God eats trifle?” Shelby asked, shocked.

Nan chuckled again. “Oh, I’m sure He’ll want a taste too, but it’s for another…”

Nan came to sit back down. “Now, will you slice those peach halves for me, please?” Nan aimed the business end of her small kitchen knife at a bowl of peach halves soaked in syrup on the table beside her. “You were always afraid of being left alone. From the day your mum dropped you off at my front gate and vanished into thin air. And the day when you found I had simply not woken up. And especially, when you put your life before Dave’s. I was given a peek deep into your heart at that moment. You’d rather have died than loose him. Even though you’d never confessed your feelings.” Nan scooped a tablespoon of red jelly from a bowl which appeared from nowhere, and spread it out across the first layer of soaked sponge.

A sharp prick in Shelby’s arm, and another in her leg made her jump. They were followed by the muffled voices. She looked down at her arm. Nothing!

“Why’d you never tell him?”

“How I feel about him? That would be insane, Nan!”

“He’ll be half a man if you decide not to return.”

“How so? The only person who’s ever loved me was you,” Shelby scoffed as she returned to slicing the peaches.

Shelby!

Her head shot up. “Dave?”

She squinted when her Nan’s face wobbled and distorted. Through a haze, a pair of eyes she’d quietly fallen in love with the day they’d met, appeared. Blue as the brightest sky reflected off an ocean.

Then from Nan’s wrinkly old lips spilled a voice she knew better than her own, Don’t you die on me! Do you hear, Shelly! Hang in there…

Dave.

Dave’s eyes remained staring back at her form Nan’s face.

“You’ve loved him secretly for a while, now haven’t you?”

Shelby had no words, but only nodded.

Nan reached across the table and picked up a few slices of peach, spreading them across the jelly before adding the custard and nuts, and then another layer of sherry-soaked sponge cake. “It’s not been as one sided as you might have thought Pumpkin. You’ve just been too afraid to notice.”

“But what if I take the leap and fall, Nan?  If it doesn’t work out… I have no one… I only have you.” Tears trickled down Shelby’s cheeks as Nan sprinkled the red and green finely chopped maraschino cherries on top of her Trifle.

“You’re not unlovable Pumpkin. Stop trying so hard to convince yourself that you are.”

“I can’t lose someone else, Nan…”

A shiver ran across Shelby’s chest.

Shelly don’t go, hang in there!

“I want to go with you.”

A tingling sensation rippled down her breast bone and the voices grew dimmer, but Shelby’s mind returned to the sad, crisp blue eyes of a man who’d just lost his greatest love.

“And will you be happy knowing you gave up on a chance to have your own family? Love is not something anyone should fear.”

Another tingle, closer to a static shock this time, travelled across her chest and into her heart.

“I will always be with you, Pumpkin.” Nan reached out and stroked her face.

Shelby looked into the blue eyes that weren’t Nan’s but called to her with such love. His devastation at her loss reached out and wrapped itself around her heart.

“He really does love me!”

“Yes, Pumpkin, he does.” Nan smiled.

Sharp, ice cold fingers tore across her chest, jolting her where she sat.

“I love you, Nan. I’ll never forget you.” Shelby cried.

“And I will always be with you.”  Nan’s face and the kitchen faded in to a soft darkness.

Muffled shuffling. Pain. So much pain returned to the surface of Shelby’s consciousness. With effort, she forced her lids to open, revealing a blurry green fog which surrounded her, and a large yellow lump slumped in a chair to her left.

“N-Nan…”

Her voice was hoarse, and her throat ached as though she’d swallowed red hot embers.

The lump stirred, and her focus improved. “D-Dave?”

“Shelly!” Relief and love edged the hoarseness of his voice.

Dave jumped up and came to stand beside her, his face close to hers as his fingers stroked her cheeks.

“Wh-where am I….”

“Sh, don’t speak. You inhaled quite a bit of smoke. You’re in the emergency department at Caboolture hospital. They’re waiting for a bed to open in High Care. God, Shelly, I thought I’d lost you… you saved my life!”

Dave’s voice broke, as diamonds sparkled across the azure of his gaze. He was still dressed in his protective gear and his face was covered in soot which streaked as the tears toppled from his eyes and tumbled down his face.

Shelby reached up and cupped his cheek bringing his face down to her, their lips touching and sending another shock right down to her toes.

“Always knew you two would end up together. Think we knew it before you did, though.” Raf, the large teddy bear in their crew , smiled as he pulled open the green privacy curtain.

Behind him stood a man, tall and blond, with eyes of coal, and dressed in black scrubs. In one hand he held a sickle and in the other, Nan’s Christmas Trifle.

Thank you, Shelby mouthed.

The man smiled before the remainder of their firehouse crew walked straight through him toward her bed.

 

Written by Michelle Dalton