SwimTime

I’m participating in the Summer Love Notes project this summer. (If you’d like to contribute, feel free to drop me a line.) Here’s an excerpt from my piece “SwimTime,” which ran on June 8th.

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She drapes her pink and white striped beach towel across the arms of one of the patio chairs and leaves her flip-flops underneath it. Her sunglasses, she leaves on as she descends the steps into the pool. They’re a little too tall for her, so her movements aren’t graceful, like a reverse Aphrodite slipping back into the water, but more half-way between a step and a hop.

Read the rest of this piece here: SwimTime at SummerLoveNotes

(De)Caffeinated

This was supposed to be for Day 8 of Like the Prose – Heroes and Villains / Good and Evil  – but I had to twist it.

clay-banks-_wkd7XBRfU4-unsplashHe is her hero.

Dark. Silent. Slightly broody.

But he’s also reassuring.

When she needs a boost he’s always there for her, in a stance that even Superman couldn’t imitate.

When a migraine threatens, when she has a thousand tasks and only time for ten, when sleep is threatening to steal her senses – he comes to the rescue.

But…

He has an evil twin.

Equally dark, equally silent.

Possibly a bit less broody (villains always are; their evil deeds instill delight.)

When he shows up, she trembles in fear, because she knows – she knows – that her energy will not be enhanced, her tasks will not get done, her drowsiness will not be swept away.

But she’ll enjoy the experience, even so, because he’ll lure her in with assurances that he’ll treat her the same, that her lips won’t know the difference.

Yet, every morning, every evening, she must choose:

Hero or Villain?

Regular… or Decaf?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Deception Betwixt R and T

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a lipogram

 

It had begun, like much did, at a bar. There hadn’t been a band that night. Rather, the entertainer had been a magician, of a kind.

The title he’d claimed had been “Mental Deceiver,” but I remain certain that he were better called a charlatan or conniver.

The food and liquor had flowed like – well, like food and liquor tend to flow in a place where the barkeep let you run a tab and the final check never actually arrived. Gourmet, all of it, or high-end where gourmet didn’t apply.

The blue drink offered by the Deceiver, we imbibed by the tumbler, one after another after another.

And then the he began to… nudge.

Not out loud, but with a piercing look, a tiny hand movement, a voice in your head.

To me, the order came mentally: For a fiveday, no longer will be, that letter betwixt the ‘r’ and ‘t’.

I laughed… anyone would. The Deceiver couldn’t really eliminate a letter. Could he?

But come morning, I found to my horror that he could.

Annoyance!

Anger!

The feeling of being completely tongue-tied and fighting it.

For a week, I could neither greet my lover by name nor utter my own.

I could not even affix it to a legal document.

The initial two of the fiveday were extremely difficult.

After that, I learned to be mindful of my thinking, I learned to hear the tweeting and chirping of the flying and the feathered. I appreciated the din of a downpour and let ever-whirring electrical hum be my lullaby at night.

At midnight on the final day, I heard the Deceiver announce in my head “Challenge Completed.”

I let my mouth curl up in glee and gave in to my dreaming  knowing that in the morning, all would be like before.

Mainly.

Photo by Markos Mant on Unsplash

Cognitive Dissonance

File Jun 11, 10 27 00 PM

A Basil and Zoe story

“Basil… ” I hesitated because I know this is going to be a sensitive subject. “Why do you always hide your laser gun the second you come home?”

My partner regarded me with his sapphire eyes, and answered in his usual well-modulated tone. “I am not hiding it, Zoe. I am simply stowing it in a safe place until I require it for another away mission.”

“You’re not Security.”

“No, I am not. You are well aware my specialties are science and research, as well as navigation and – ”

“Basil!”

“You have more to say.” It was not a question. We’d been dating for two years… not that you can really date on a spaceship, especially when half the couple is away at a music conservatory a good chunk of the time.

“It’s not just for show, though, right? You’ve used it.”

“Yes, I have”

“And, when you’ve been on the bridge, there’ve been times when you’ve had to fire torpedoes or lasers or order someone else to do so?”

“That is also true.”

“But you’re not a killer.”

“I… do not believe so. My core programming includes a strong prohibition against committing violent acts of any kind, and the beliefs I have acquired since my activation support that belief.  Is there something specific troubling you, beloved?”

I sat on the couch, not in the corner as I often did when we were sharing tea, or watching an entertainment program, but in the center, cross-legged. Basil remained standing, directly across the coffee table from me. “The mission you just returned from… resettling the Seluvians… it made the news-nets. You… they showed you shooting at someone.”

“I did ‘shoot at someone,'” Basil confirmed. “But it was only after they shot at our team. It was self-defense, and we were careful to minimize the…” he paused before using the technical term. “… collateral damage.”

“I’ve never seen you fire a weapon before.”

“And it bothers you that I have?”

“No. Yes.  I don’t know. I think of you as a poet and a scientist, and then watching video clips of you being all ruthless and soldiery…”

“Soldiery?”

“You know. Military… scary.”

“You are having trouble incorporating the person you know me to be with the officer you saw on the news?”

“Yeah. Pretty much. I mean… I didn’t like seeing you firing the laser.”

“And I disliked that I had to. It was a last resort, Zoe. It is not a first choice, ever.”

“I guess it’s… there are people who think I’m with you because you’re somehow safe. Not a threat. And it that moment I realized how scary, how dangerous you could be. And it bothered me, and then it bothered me that it bothered me, because I know you’re not a killer. It was part of your job and…”

“The experience you are having is called cognitive dissonance,” Basil interrupted. “It is a typical response to  seemingly opposing information, ideas, or observations.”

“So, how do I get past it?” I asked.

“Perhaps begin by asking yourself if you are afraid of me.”

He had a point.

“I’m not,” I said. “I’m truly not. I know you’d never hurt me, and it’s not just because of your programming. It’s because you’re just not that kind of person.”

“Perhaps it would also be beneficial for you to allow me to explain our missions to you, before we leave.”

“Can you?” I asked. “I mean… wasn’t it classified?”

“Officers are allowed to share sensitive information with their spouses, Zoe.”

“But we’re not married.”

“No, but we are in a committed relationship, are we not?”

“Well, yes.”

“And we share a home,” Basil added.

“We do when I’m not at the conservatory, yes.”

“Then if it will help you to be less ‘bothered’ by the more unsavory aspects of my ‘job,’ I see no reason to withhold information from you.”

I nodded. “Okay.” Then I moved from my cross-legged position. “Could we start now? Would you explain the background of the Seluvian conflict?”

“I will be happy to do so. Would you care for some tea while we talk?”

“I’d love some,” I said, and then I added. “Thank you for putting up with me.”

But Basil didn’t accept that. “There is no thanks needed, Zoe. You are my partner, and you are troubled. It is my duty to assist you in easing that state, if I can. Just as you have done for me.”

I laughed. “Okay, fine. But…”

Basil favored me with the slight smile that was just between us. “You are welcome, Zoe. Always.”

Milano Musings

A Basil and Zoe story – sort of.

This was for day 4 of this year’s Like the Prose challenge, in which we were supposed to write in third person, which I don’t do a lot.

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“I’m about to make some coffee; would you like some?” Charlotte greeted as her roommate, Zoe,  entered their apartment. They two young women had gotten lucky, scoring a two-bedroom, top-level place with a real kitchen – not just food replicators – and a view of the docking rings as well. Other members of their troupe had not been so fortunate.

“Thanks,” Zoe answered, reaching up to pull her chestnut hair out of the elastic keeping it in a high, tight, ponytail. “I thought today would never end.”

“Team-building with the cadets again? Charlotte asked sympathetically. The blonde woman knew that her friend hated working with the newest members of the Star Navy. They always wanted to ask questions about the other woman’s relationship with her partner, the Coalition of Aligned Worlds’ only sentient synthetic lifeform.

“Worse. Teaching improv at the middle school.” Part of their job as members of the Astral Theatre Troupe was Theatre Education, and while Zoe was actually fairly good at it, she also hated it. “Their principal told me they ceased to be intelligent beings when they turn twelve, and don’t revert to their native species until they start high school at fourteen.”

Zoe flopped on the couch, and Charlotte moved to join her, bringing two mugs of coffee and a bag of cookies on a tray.

“Dark chocolate Milanos? You never replicated these! And I know the station store charges an arm and a leg for them.”

“And a couple of ribs, yep,” Charlotte grinned. “A certain silver-skinned gentleman had them delivered and asked me to hide them til you ‘really required them.’ Feels like today was a good time.”

“Basil, I love you,” Zoe said the words to the air.

“And he loves you, too. Which begs the question: Why are you spending the summer break here on a space station in the back of beyond instead of on his ship, in your quarters, canoodling between his duty shifts.”

The darker-haired of the two grimaced. “It’s not a masochistic streak, I promise. Basil isn’t on the Cousteau this summer. He’s temporarily assigned to the Ballard, filling in for the executive officer. It was entering its spawning period and had to return home to Okeanos Four.”

The other woman nodded in sympathy. “So even if you went home, you’d still be apart? That’s all kinds of suckfulness.”

“It is, and it isn’t. This assignment will make Basil a better candidate for exec on the Cousteau when Captain Kr’klow retires. Maybe even captain. He has the required time in rank, after all.”

“So, you’re gonna be a captain’s wife someday? How fancy!” the blonde woman teased.

“It’s just a job, Char, and honestly, our jobs are just as fancy to people outside the troupe. Now… do you want to share these Milanos with me or not?”

“Not… ” Charlotte began claiming one of the cups of coffee and pushing the tray toward her friend.”

“Charlotte?” Zoe looked shocked.

“Kidding!” the other sing-songed. “Just trying to keep you on your toes.”

“Why, exactly, are we friends?” Zoe demanded, only half-joking.

“Because I keep you from missing your fiancé and I make excellent coffee.”

Zoe gave her friend a look. Well, at least the coffee part was true.

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Swing on a Star

0921 - StarMaidThere are many kinds of mermaids. Sirens. Whatever you want to call them.

The mermaids you know, the kind on earth, the kind that spend their lives in the ocean –  they have fins and tails and can breathe saltwater as well as they can breathe air. Their inspiration is bilingual, in a sense.

These sirens, their bodies hybrids of human and fish (well, really porpoise – they’re mammals, after all – how else could they interbreed?) are thought to call ships toward rocky endings in order to find new blood  – new partners – with which to mate.

It’s not true, of course. Just a tall tale told by sailors who saw lonely comrades jump overboard because they fell in love with a voluptuous figure, a beautiful face, a lustrous head of hair.

But my kind… my kind swims through a different sea. Instead of starfish, we have actual stars to play with… like that old earth song. “Would you like to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar?”

And we do. Swing from one astral body to another. Play hide and seek inside nebulae. Have incredible games of follow-the-leader through asteroid fields. Surf on solar flares. Like humans, and saltwater mermaids, we are made of stardust, but we are a bit more of the star than the dust.

Also like our cousins on that big,  blue and green marble, we love to dance.

Our cousins – sisters, really – dance on sand or stone, under constructed roofs, or under the moon. They dance with partners, sometimes just for fun, sometimes as a precursor to another, more private sort of dance.

But while we do merge with others of our kind from time to time, our dancing is pure art. Or pure physics. You decide.

I have pirouetted around Pluto and jitterbugged in and out of the rings of Jupiter. I’ve mamboed from earth’s moon to the mountains of Mars and bopped my way to Betelgeuse. Or at least, that’s the closest description I can come up with in human language.

Because when we astral mermaids – starmaids – dance, we make dark matter wish it were light. We grab onto the tails of passing comets and let the whiplash whirl us across the cosmos. We spiral around the Milky Way to the beat of the Universe’s heart.

And then we rest.

We are not the sirens you thought you knew. We don’t call astronauts to mate with us… though we do peek into passing ships, and flash space station viewports, and when we aren’t dancing, we do sing.

Our call isn’t easy to discern, but if you listen to the sounds your scientists refer to as “space noise,”  – listen with all your imagination – you might – just might – be able to hear our song.

Image copyright: Hugh Pindur

 

 

Aoudad, Poor Dad

Aoudad

Thunder was rumbling in the distance as my partner and I got into the jeep. Jake and I were almost always teamed up for these runs, as much because we worked well together as because people think our names looked cute on the schedule together: Jake and Jen. Never underestimate a zoo admin’s sense of whimsy.

It was six in the evening, but it was summer so the sun had only barely begun its slide from day to night, as far as anyone could tell through the cloud cover. We were on our way up Cheetah Hill to see if we could find a brand-new baby aoudad.

“You think the thunder will have them in the trees?” I asked.

Jake was our senior hoofstock specialist. I’m one of the three veterinarians at the Conserve. We take turns being on call, three days on, three days off, rotating Sundays. That day was my Sunday, and while I loved the mornings, by afternoon we always had all sorts of minor emergencies. Mostly because Sunday afternoons were crazy busy with families who came through after church.

The Conserve is a drive-through safari park, and we do our best to limit the traffic. We charge per person, not per vehicle, and we limit people to one bag of kibble each. But when it’s a warm spring day, and folks know there are baby animals around, it gets crowded, and people do stupid shit.

We had human medics at the admissions area and at the café and rest stop that are the half-way point on our safari, for the inevitable nips that happen when parents don’t control their kids, and let them pet or attempt to hand feed the animals. (Never mind that there were signs everywhere, and more warnings in the map and animal identification pamphlet we provide.)

But for the animals, we were the folks who handled everything from lacerations to matting incidents to dental care on the rhinos and – that day – hopefully – tagging a newborn baby sheep. Or goat. The thing about aoudads is that they’re a bridge species, half-way between the two.

Maybe it was because the approach to Cheetah Hill was the steepest part of the Conserve, or maybe they just liked the way the grass tasted there, but it was where the aoudads congregated.

Jake decelerated, til we were crawling up the hill at less than five miles an hour, and I had my head out the window searching the throng of animals. Of course, we had kibble with us, and we tossed them liberally, partly to keep the road clear, and partly because new mamas were typically incredibly hungry.

“Look, there’s Poor Dad,” I said, as a bearded sheep/goat countenance came into view. “We found papa.”

“Why do you call him that? I thought his name was Dave?”

“There’s this play I read in high school. It was one of the ones everyone pulled monologues from. Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad.”

“Are there animals in it?”

“Only the human kind. For some reason, the word ‘aoudad’ just feels like it should be followed with the rest. So, he’s Aoudad, Poor Dad. And really, it’s not inaccurate. He’s got to service all these females whenever they’re in season.”

It was typical in wildlife parks, to have only one or two males of any hoofstock species and whole herds of females. Female hoofstock are pretty docile, and we just kept the boys separate when the weren’t in service.

“You have a point. Wait… look. On the right… Is that…?”

“Number 526 and a calf… yep.”

“Jake stopped the jeep. “Okay, let’s do this.”

For a skilled team, bagging, tagging, and returning a baby aoudad took less then then minutes. I helped drive the calf into Jake’s arms, and he lifted her into the back of our vehicle, holding her still  while I noted her weight, temperature, heart rate, and confirmed her sex. Then I pulled an ear tag out of my kit, logged the number, and gave the wee baby her first – and likely only – piece of jewelry.

That calf handled it like a pro, bleating only once, and then nuzzling us in search of milk. As soon as I said, “Done,” Jake scooped her up again and  returned her to her confused mother. We gave mama handfuls of kibble, then patted her rump sending her away.

As to Poor Dad… hoofstock don’t really co-parent, but he seemed to understand that we were welcoming his offspring to our greater Herd. He gave us a grave nod – not difficult as most adult aoudads look like ancient Hebrew scholars – as if to tell us he approved.

We got back in the jeep, and Jake glanced over at me. “Wanna take the long way? See the cats on the way back?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let me just radio back.”

I called in the successful ID, and told them we were taking the scenic route, and then Jake put the jeep back in gear and we continued up the hill.

The thunderclouds burst open as we reached the crest, but we didn’t care. The cheetahs loved to frolic in  warm rain, and we spent our time watching them, driving impossibly slowly.

“There’s a live band down at The Barn tonight,” Jake mentioned casually – too casually – as we moved past the last enclosure. “Wanna go? Get a burger and a beer and maybe dance?”

And there it was: the elephant, or, uh, aoudad, in the room. The other reason the admin always scheduled us together. Jake had a thing for me, and I kinda had a think for him, and we were too focused on the job to ever really go there.

Or maybe we weren’t.

“Sure,” I said. “You wanna meet or…?”

“I’ll pick you up at eight.”

We had cabins on the Conserve property, all the permanent animal care people, so it wasn’t like he didn’t know where I lived.

“Okay, then,” I said. “See you at eight.”

Maybe we’d end up being colleagues grabbing a meal, or maybe it would end up as more, but either way, it didn’t matter. We’d had a successful tagging and got to see cheetahs in the rain. Nothing could ruin the day.

 

 

But, the Wolf?

But, the Wolf

But, the Wolf

 

They found her, naked, curled into a protective ball – not quite the fetal position – nestled in between the great roots of a giant tree.

“We’re so glad we found you,” they said. They didn’t ask how she’d  come to be there; they simply accepted her return.  “Here, put this on.”

It was her cape, of course, the red one she hadn’t worn since childhood. (And she was quite obviously no longer a child.)  She wanted to shred the thing, but conceding to the cold and their false modesty (for they were looking at her nude form, all of them) she wrapped it around her,  at least enough that her soft, pink parts were hidden from the public eye.

“Were you miserable?” they demanded. “Alone with that creature?”

“No,” she said. “He was quite lovely, really.”

“But he swallowed you. The woodsman saw it.”

“No, he saw what he wanted to see. The wolf protected me from Grandmother’s dark beliefs and black magic.”

“But he had such big teeth, such demonic eyes – surely you were afraid?”

“No,” she said. “He made sure I was warm and dry and well fed. He made sure no danger approached me. My sleep was untroubled.”

She didn’t tell them that the wolf’s fur was softer than any of the mink coats the old women lusted after, winter after winter, but never dared to make or buy. She didn’t tell them that his thick tail would loop around her wrist when she was frightened, or that he would curl himself around her when the nights were freezing, or below.

She certainly didn’t tell him, that he wasn’t really a wolf at all, but a werewolf, in full control of both form and faculties.

And she absolutely didn’t tell them that it was possible she was carrying his child. Or children. Or pups. (Would they be pups? Would it matter if they were?)

She wanted to run back to his  – well, lair wasn’t really the right word. Cave? Home? Den. Yes… den. Den connoted a safe and cozy feeling, and she had been both, and more.

“But the wolf,” she asked, her voice trembling because of her worry for him, “is he unharmed?”

“We couldn’t find him,” one of the hunters said. “It’s like he never existed.”

They took her to her mother’s home, where she found the woman much diminished. Her father had long since disappeared into the forest. Maybe he’d found a she-wolf companion – they said these things ran in families – but more likely, he’d found a bottle, and a river, and a rock, and would never been seen again.

Pity.

She’d have liked to have words with him. About not telling her that his mother was a dark witch who wanted to lock her up til she was thirty. About not telling her that the forest creatures weren’t always dangerous. About not telling her to think first and slash out with her knife second.

She’d cut him. Not her father, but the wolf. She’d drawn his blood while he never drew hers. Well, not with a knife. But she’d been a virgin the first time he’d lain with her, and that kind of bloodstain was better earned.

A week passed, then a fortnight, then a month. On the day after the full moon, he came to her door in human form.

“I love your daughter,” he told her poor, insane mother. “I wish to marry her. She’s carrying my child.”

Her mother approved; the date was set. After the old woman was well asleep, he went to her bedroom.

“I love you,” he gave her the words he’d shared with her parent. “I’ve missed you.”

“But, the wolf?” she asked, her hand curving protectively around her belly.

His eyes flashed amber for a moment, then soft brown replaced them. “Oh, the wolf… he loves you too.”

Image Copyright : Natalia Lukiyanova via 123rf.com

La Petite Mort

Like the Prose: Challenge #30 – Write a cheerful story about death.

Robot head looking front on camera isolated on a black background

“Was it good for you?” Basil asked me when I came back to myself after our first ‘intimate joining,’ as he called it.

I burst out laughing. “Are you really using that line?”

His silver face was guileless. “Is there something inappropriate in the question, Zoe? I wished to ascertain if I pleased you adequately. I know of no better way than to simply… ask.”

I rolled over in his bed and propped my head on my hand. “Aren’t you supposed to be the galaxy’s greatest observer? Couldn’t you tell from the way I was practically unconscious?”

“I was aware you had… become somewhat absent… but inducing a physical response is not the be-all and end-all of sex, Zoe, even for a synthetic lifeform like myself.” His tone softened. “I wish to know if you were  – are – emotionally satisfied as well.”

“Oh, Basil…” He really was so caring. “Yes… and… no.”

“I am confused.”

“Yes, I was in the moment. For a first time… it wasn’t terribly awkward, we fit together rather well, I think?” I paused to let him respond.

“I concur.”

“Good, and you read my responses really well. And… god, you already know I love you.”

“I love you, also, Zoe, but I am not a god, only Basil.”

I grinned; this was his default response to my colloquial invocation of a deity, and it never failed to amuse me.

“Okay, good.”

“But why did you also say ‘no?'”

“Because, Basil, darling, we – you and me, as a couple – as lovers  – we’re just beginning. And complete emotional satisfaction would imply there’s nowhere else to go, nothing left to experience, and that’s not true, because we’re constantly growing and changing. Even artificial lifeforms like you.”

“That is true.”

“You know, some people refer to that blissed-out, semi-conscious, post-orgasmic state as la petite mort. The little death.”

“I am aware, Zoe. And you are no doubt aware that the term is not limited to post-coital bliss, but also refers to the sense of satisfaction on might feel when connecting to a great work of art or completing a piece of literature or connecting with a scientific theorem.”

“Basil…”

“You were not finished with your thought.”

“Not exactly, no.”

“Please continue.”

“I only meant to say that I observed your circuits getting a little frizzled there after you came.”

“‘Frizzled?'”

“Your auditory processors weren’t working correctly, and you were blinking a lot.”

“Ah. Perhaps it would be sufficient for me to simply say that… it was good for me, too.”

Carob and Peppermint

Like the Prose: Challenge #29 – Revisit one of your previous challenge pieces and rewrite it from a different POV. (I chose Carob Drops.)

wrinkleintime

“I will check on her,” I say, “Stay by the fire. Enjoy your wine.” I leave my wife on the couch and move into the kitchen. Calling up the stairs, I assure our young houseguest, “Sophie, it is just a power outage from the storm. You are safe.”

A tremulous voice responds, “Okay.”

I’ve already got the kettle on – fortunately our stove is a gas one – and a mug ready with a bag of fragrant peppermint tea. Peppermint was my favorite, as a boy, and I suspect the child in our loft will appreciate it also. If you stir in just the right amount of turbinado sugar or organic honey it is as if you are drinking a candy-cane.

The kettle whistles. I pour the water over the bag, agitate it with a spoon, and gather the rest of my supplies: a storm lantern, a battered paperback novel, a zip-lock bag of tiny brown candies. Separately these things seem ordinary. Together, they are an arsenal meant to battle a small girl’s fear of (I chuckle to myself as the clichéd phrase comes to mind unbidden) a dark and stormy night.

The tea is ready. I remove the bag after pressing out the water, and decide honey is better than sugar on this night, though I’m generous with the sticky sweetener. In doing so, I become the little girl’s co-conspirator, and perhaps, one day, a friend, rather than the strange brown man who married her mother’s college roommate.

I light the lantern, and place it, and everything else on a bed tray – the kind the with the fold-down legs. So armed, I leave the candle-lit glow of the kitchen and climb the stairs to the loft where our bedrooms are. Sophie is in the smallest one. It’s not more than a nook, really: a small space for a small child. Perhaps, one day, the child will be his child. (I spend a moment imagining a daughter with Emily’s bright blue eyes set into tawny skin slightly lighter than my own, but with my jet-black hair. Or a son, with my dark eyes, but his mother’s soft features. It doesn’t matter… but I hope… oh, I hope….)

“Sophie?” I balance the tray on one arm and knock on the open door. “May I enter?”

“Hi, Rajesh.” Her dark eyes seem huge in the flickering lantern light. They’re not as dark as mine, and yet, I feel a kinship with this child. “Is Mom okay?”

“She is fine. She called earlier. Her conference is going well, and she said to tell you she loves you and to be good. Your Aunt Emily is so cozy on the couch that when you called out, I asked her if she would let me come keep you company for a few moments. Do you mind?”

She shakes her head, and I see her golden braids bob back and forth. “No. I don’t mind. What’s on the tray?”

“Supplies,” I say, making my voice mysterious. “The storm is loud, but you know it cannot get in, yes?”

“Yes,” she agrees. “I know.”

“Still, it makes it difficult to sleep. When I cannot sleep, I like to read, and your mother has mentioned that you, too, like stories, so I have brought you one of my favorites.” I place the lantern on the desk near the bed while I talk to her, just far enough away so that an errant hand cannot knock it over, and then I show her the cover of the book. “A Wrinkle in Time,” I intone. “Have you read it? It’s about a very brave girl, a little older than you are.”

“Is there magic in it?”

“Not precisely. There’s science in it. And sometimes science can seem like magic. Would you like to try it?”

But she’s already taken it from me and is reading the blurb on the back. “I think I’ll like it.”

“I think so, too. I first read it when I was nine.”

“I’m only eight.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Oh. Okay.” She sniffs the air. “I smell peppermint.”

“Ah, yes. More supplies.” I take the mug of tea from the tray. “Peppermint tea with honey in it. It’s still quite hot, so sip it carefully.”

“I will.”

“And one more thing.” I dangle the bag of candies in front of her.

“Chocolate?”

“Not quite.”

“Then what?”

“Carob drops.”

“What’s carob?”

I smile at her. “It’s a sort of bean from my country. It comes from a kind of evergreen tree, but not the kind we have here. It tastes a lot like chocolate, but it has its own flavor, too. Try one?”

Her small hand reaches into the bag and pulls out a carob drop. She pops it into her mouth, and I watch as her face first grows serious – she is analyzing the flavor – and then lights up: she approves!

“It’s a little… earthier? Is that the word?” I nod and she continues. “It’s a little earthier than chocolate. And there’s something else in the flavor. But I like it. Thank you, Rajesh.”

“You are welcome, Sophie. Now, cuddle up with your book and your tea, and let the storm become a friend instead of a foe. When you’re ready to sleep again, the carob drops will bring sweet dreams, and in the morning your mother will be back.”

She nods at all of that, her eyes wide like saucers and her face so serious. But before I can leave, she puts her hand on my arm. “Rajesh, wait.”

“Is something wrong, Sophie.”

“No. Only… Emily is Aunt Emily.”

“Yes.”

“So, aren’t you Uncle Rajesh?”

“If you wish it, Sophie.”

“I do, please.” And she stretches up and presses her little-girl lips to my cheek.

One day, I think, my own child will give me goodnight kisses like this. Sticky with honey or carob. And I will do to my child what I do with Sophie: I reach out and tug gently on her nearest braid. “You are very welcome, Sophie.”

And I leave her there, wrapped in quilts, in the tiny loft bedroom that is her nest for the night. The little girl with book and peppermint tea.

And carob drops.

* * *

Dark-eyed little girl
Golden braids, serious face
May I be your friend?