Story Time: Overkill

>> Saturday, February 17, 2024

 This story was written for a SF contest with a really stupid title prescribed (which I discarded), and premise that was, though I didn't really appreciate it at first, inherently sexist: Genetic changes so that women had the same physical and mental capabilities as men. (a) That's stupid. We already have the same genes (except women have an extra half chromosome) and (b) just the argument that women were inherently lesser in either physical or mental ability was insulting. Yes, on average, men are stronger, but none of them can carry a child. The argument that one is inherently "superior" is idiotic. But my subconscious caught it right away and generated this story which was not only a slap in the face to the premise, but provides a reminder that the issue is far more complicated than many of us appreciate. It is not the first time or the last time, I took something ridiculous and took it to its logical conclusion. By the way, it was written in 2018.


Ella James brushed a hand through her short-cropped hair, then stole a glance through the open room. Everyone sat at a pristine workstation, in skin suits in case they had to enter the clean rooms. Each of her coworkers monitored a different aspect of the chip-making process, and it reminded her of her years sitting on console at mission control, both the concentration and the boredom. But, then as now, boredom meant things were going well.

Of course, when she'd worked for NASA, the gender equalization laws were in their infancy, and hormone treatments were still an aspect of future standardized healthcare. Dress codes had just barely been unified.

Now, even her sharp eyes couldn't determine the genders of her coworkers, some of whom she'd known for two years, with their clean faces, ubiquitous short haircuts and carefully controlled similar builds clearly visible in the close-fitting skin suits.

"Operator James," her earpiece barked, startling her. "Have you double-checked the sensors for the clean room?"

"They take readings from the atmosphere and feed them directly into the main servers," she answered, confused. "There are no flags on my screen." She touched the screen with her fingertips. "All measurements are reading normal. Humidity 11%, particulate at 0.3%." She stretched her shoulders. Her skin suit was tighter than normal under the arms due to her increased breast size. She found her large biceps brushed them a bit more than she expected and, with their sensitivity, she found it disquieting. The skin suits had more than enough stretch to them but she feared the change in center of gravity would affect her outsized musculature. Headaches would follow soon enough, or so she'd read.
Even though it was required by law, she hoped no one would notice for a few more days. She hated causing a stir.

"After the contamination escape last month in the Eastern facility, management is wanting us to verify sensor values at the sensor location at least once per shift," her boss said through the earpiece.

Overkill, of course, but that was their current mode. "Very well,"

Ella pulled on her skull-hugging hood and tucked in all her hair, then pulled on her gloves made of special material that wasn't prone to shedding. She slipped clean booties over her soft shoes and moved toward the sticky pad that welcomed her into the clean areas, areas where the delicate organic chips were fabricated in as pristine environment as possible. Whole libraries could reside on a chip the size of her pinky fingernail, but only if the environment was totally particulate and volatile free. She went through two air showers, making no sound with her bootied feet. She wore a mask over her entire face to preclude skin flakes and hair from contributing to any contamination. The mask was hot and hard to see through, but better than losing a batch of Q-chips.

Her baggied hand-held monitor showed the parameters from the server. She went in person, pushed the test button on the sensor array, noted the blip on her handhold in response, and then both screen and wall-mounted readouts returned to their original values in total sync. As per protocol, she inspected the assembly line, looking for loose debris or dust but it was as clean as she could tell with the near-naked eye.

She'd pulled off her mask in the second air shower going back, but was deep in thought, though she'd be hard-pressed to say what she was thinking about. That's how she missed him. Her?

"Everything fine?" her boss asked her, dressed in a similar skin suit, face devoid of makeup or really any sign what gender he might be. As the law required.

Ella gasped and clutched her chest, her heart pounding. The sound of the air shower had totally masked her boss' approach. "Oh, yes," Ella said. "You startled me. I didn't see you come up."

"We haven't had a slip up in our lab. I want to keep it that way."

Her boss, Adlis, narrowed his eyes, then studiously kept them above Ella's neck. "Have you been taking your hormone shots? Your gender is becoming apparent and the laws state that, unless you are currently cleared for procreation…"

Wordlessly, Ella lifted her hand, palm out, and removed her glove. In her palm, the inset chip glowed blue. "We were cleared two months ago. I hid it as long as I could."

"Ah," Adlis said in his genderless contralto. "That changes things, of course. I didn't mean to offend you."

After the impact misogyny had been recognized to have had on a pivotal United States presidential election, and the view that discrimination in the workplace had been deeply ingrained, new laws had been adopted that required all personnel, not actively procreating, to have a specially designed hormone cocktail that gave men a bit of apparent breast and helped women grow muscles in much the same way men did. Facial hair had been strictly forbidden for all but small businesses and makeup and gender specific clothes had been prohibited to preclude mistreatment.

She'd always found it ironic that the laws that changed how gender was viewed and addressed at the workplace had been a direct result of the stupidest, most corrupt, most sexist President in modern American history. A number of laws had fallen out from that disastrous Presidency: conflict of interest, corruption, transparency, independent review, press honesty and completeness. He had changed things more drastically than any President before or since. Ella James had often wondered if that was a comfort for him during his stay in Leavenworth.

Proposals had been made to adjust mental acuities but there was not enough data proving genetic links. More studies concluded, well within a generation, that, if children received no different treatment from birth, there was no statistical difference in any field of academics. Some parents had even opted not to know their own child's gender and special nurses were used. Automated baby changers/bathers were becoming popular.

There were undoubtedly many pluses, but much of the individuality she'd grown up with was lost. Though, admittedly, now that people had to get to know each other, the rates of violence had dropped precipitously. And the advantages weren't limited to women.

This radical change also helped actual transgendered employees, gay employees, and managed to eliminate the stigma for same sex marriage as people took that same thinking outside the work place. Few couples, nowadays, could be definitively pegged as heterosexual. Racial and religious stigmas still existed, but it was harder to make the argument when just genderless appearance erased misogyny almost overnight.

One of the other side effects was universal pregnancy prevention as becoming pregnant—or impregnating another—required coming off the hormone regime. And, being excused from the hormone treatments could only be cleared legally by screenings prior to having children not unlike the screen that had once been limited to potential adopters.

Pregnancy, however, made gender neutral efforts moot…unless, the process was shared by all. "I'm sorry."

Adlis sighed, but quickly added, "Of course, you haven't done anything wrong. Two months, you say? I'll have the empathy suits prepared. Fortunately, we don't have physically demanding jobs and can readily adjust." Adlis sighed again. "I hate when the random symptom generator gives me morning sickness, though. Here's hoping."

"I managed to avoid it," Ella said, hoping that would help.

"That does improve the odds," Adlis said, with a smile. "What is it your husband does now?"

"High rise construction," Ella said.

"Oh, my."


"Damn it, Bryce. I know it's not your fault, I mean, yeah, you're as entitled as the next person to have a kid. But still, we just finished one for Peterson who had her baby six weeks ago. I had to take a nausea pill for four months! Four months! Do you know how much harder this job is with a seven-month belly in front of you? And barfing?" The foreman, Rawler, was fuming.

"Peterson—" Michael Bryce, Ella James' husband, said, but was cut off.

"Yeah, I know Peterson did it, but now we've all got to do it, too. Again. It's stupid to make the husband wear an empathy suit on the job and then affect the whole work place."
"You know, women have been dealing with all this at the work place for generations," Miller said.

"Did I ask you, Miller? I mean, why are you even part of this conversation? Overkill! That's what it is, overkill!"

"Let me guess, you blame the liberals?" Miller said. Bryce was pretty certain Miller was female but she was taller than the foreman, Rawler, by a head and was the best welder they had. She loved to needle Rawler.

"Hell, no, I don't blame liberals. This is all backlash from that ass and his party's rampant extremism. Damn fools never learned a thing from history. Never heard of Robespierre? But it's still stupid."

"Robespierre? I'm impressed, Rawler."

"Smartass. Anyone can read, y'know. Isn't that the point of all this nonsense, not to judge people by their appearance?"

Miller grinned. "Touché. You remind me why I married you."

"Stop distracting me. I'm talking to Bryce here. Explain to me why a husband, balancing on metal girders thousands of feet in the air, needs to wear an empathy suit for a wife in a nice cushy office somewhere."

"But I won't know what it's like…"

Rawler cut him off with a gesture. "Yes you do. You wore one just six weeks ago, but at least she was actually here and pregnant. This is just silly."

"It's the law," Bryce said.

"Yeah, I know. Even with the best intentions, everything can be taken too far. Here's hoping I don't get morning sickness again."

The handheld symptom generator dinged.

"Sciatica! Damn it, Bryce!"


Story Time: Nightmare Blanket

>> Sunday, February 4, 2024

  I've written lots of stories and published them. Some of them I think are important so I'm going to post some of them here. This particular story can be found in my book, Conjuring Dreams and was first published on the site, Idiot-Free Zone

Nightmare Blanket

Chain, chain, chain, chain, chain, double stitch, double stitch. The slim worn needle worked, in and out, grab and pull, weaving a web of delicate pink yarn as soft as silk and as dainty as lace. The fingers were gnarled, no strangers to arthritis, the skin dark and the touch sure. In and out, grab and pull, chain, chain, and turn.

She bent over on her rocking chair, neck aching, feet and fingers chilled despite the space heater. The wind howled and shook her window, and her lamp shuddered, but her fingers never stopped moving. In and out, grab and pull, stitch, stitch, stitch.

She was tired—so tired—but the baby went home early and they needed her blanket by tomorrow. Stitch, stitch, stitch. Marnie always used the softest yarn, acrylic with a pearly sheen, though the girl would never see its cheery color, would never feel the softness. The style was beautiful but quick to make, useless for keeping warm, but that baby would never be warm again, lost too young to leukemia.

In truth, the blanket wasn't for her, but for the parents who would have to bury her, a nightmare talisman to soothe their sleep, not hers.  

Stitch, stitch stitch.

It wasn't enough. It was never enough. But that was who Marnie was. She couldn't fix everything.

But she would do what she could.

Stitch, stitch, stitch.

How she might have laughed when she was younger to see herself now. Marnie had always been a woman of passion, who wasn't going to settle for what the world offered. Passion that got her into college and through it when that was still unusual for a woman, especially for a woman of color. Passion that had tied her to a "bad boy" before she realized what that really meant: not necessarily just a rebel, but someone who could be lost to drink, to drugs, who'd lash out at his woman and then beg her for forgiveness. Which she gave him, in her passion, until he'd turned his malice on their daughter.

That's when Marnie let her passion send him on his way, once and for all. Nothing was stronger than her love for Sue, the tiny girl with the poofy pigtails and enormous brown eyes.

Stitch, stitch, stitch.

So Marnie marched for women, because her daughter deserved a better future than Marnie had had, deserved all the chances that anyone else deserved. She marched for blacks' rights, and workers' rights, for gay rights. Whatever her daughter would be, Marnie wanted her to have every choice, every opportunity, every possible future. Sue was Marnie's future and she deserved it all.

Progress was slow. Even joined with thousands of other voices, one voice was hard to hear and change was slow in coming. But Marnie tried. Didn't let that stop her.

She would do what she could.

Stitch, stitch, stitch.

The first blanket had been for Sue, too. Marnie had dusted off the skill her own grandmother had taught her when Sue had had nightmares not long after the attack by her own father, had cried out in the night, and shivered herself awake. So tiny, so sweet, so quiet, Sue never complained but Marnie wept for her and made her a blanket in pink and purple. Told her it was a blanket to keep nightmares away, and Sue believed it, curled under it, and slept in peace.

Stitch, stitch, stitch.

Over the years, Marnie made many blankets for Sue. Sue became larger, grew, tall and slim as a reed, her smile shy but so beautiful, those dark eyes alight with sweetness. And the blankets kept the nightmares away, new ones crocheted in larger sizes Sue could tuck herself in under, head to toe, and sleep soundly.

Stitch, stitch, stitch, turn.

The nightmare hadn't come at night. He stormed into the school in a cloud of wrath and sense of entitlement that made him think his rage was justification enough to destroy others, an insanity that let him choose the most vulnerable as his targets. He walked into an elementary school, an agent of death and pain, and spared no one before they hauled him off in cuffs. And left those who had lost their most precious to pick up the pieces, rebuild what lives they could when what they loved most was shattered and stolen and lost. Marnie had felt dead inside, had stroked that precious tiny hand, now cold, and smoothed the last nightmare blanket she had made for Sue in a coffin Marnie had never hoped to see.

And had buried her future and her dreams with her daughter while the skies wept as fruitlessly as Marnie did herself.

Stitch, stitch, stitch.

Marnie marched for better gun laws then, for the safety for other people's children, for a better future she had no part in any more. She canvassed and made calls. Perhaps she made no more difference than she did marching before.

But she did what she could.

Stitch, stitch, stitch.

Decades had passed. Marnie didn't march any more. Her hip never healed right after she'd jumped the barrier in the courtroom, trying to get at the man that killed her daughter. She didn't call much any more, or fight, or protest. She never knew if it had made a difference anyway, though she was still proud she had tried.

Stitch, stitch, and tie.

She fluffed out the blanket, completed. Tragic in its smallness, in what it represented, the last decoration to another life snuffed too early, another future unfulfilled. She shed tears, as she had shed countless tears before and would countless tears still to come. Her knobby fingers smoothed the blanket and found some solace in its beauty and the care of its construction, in its sheen and softness. She hoped the girl's parents would as well. She folded it neatly and pulled a different color yarn from her bag, blue this time, and began a new line of chain stitches.

She couldn't do everything.

But she would do what she could.


Story Time: The Monster She Lives With

>> Wednesday, January 3, 2024

  I've written lots of stories and published them. Some of them I think are important so I'm going to post some of them here. This particular story can be found in my book, Inner Worlds and was first published on the site, Idiot-Free Zone

The Monster She Lives With

Nina Lynn Brody smoothed her hand over the glassy surface of the tiny metal coffin.

It seemed too small to hold all the joy and energy, the magic and mayhem of her son. Surely he'd been bigger than this? Only nine, so of course he was small, but he'd always felt so much larger than life, a bundle of smart comments and endless questions, scraped knees and freckles, temper and smiles. How had they crammed all that into a tiny box?

She remembered him from just weeks before, a towel tied at his neck like a cape, swooping around the house and jumping from couch to table. He'd have to stop when his father came home, of course. Find a quiet spot. Work on homework or one of his art projects. But, before then, he could be himself.

"I'll be your hero, Mom," he'd told her proudly. She still had the picture he'd drawn of him "saving her" folded up in her purse. Mikey her superhero and she a damsel in distress. How could she have guessed it would be his own undoing?

The tears wouldn't come. She felt like she was made of tears, that, if she released them, there'd be nothing left of her, just like there was nothing left of her son except some useless bits they could cram into this minuscule box.

The casket had had to be closed.

They hadn't let her see him again, not after the ambulance had taken his broken body away, not after the funeral directors had put it back together as best they could. She didn't need to. She'd seen that piquant face shattered to unrecognizability on the kitchen floor.

They'd told the police he'd fallen from the railing above the stair. He hadn't been beaten all over, just his face crushed by a single blow, his neck broken as he fell. No one had argued. No one had investigated. A tragic accident.

They didn't know the monster that had killed her son.

Her eyes glanced at the purple marks on her wrist where her long sleeve had ridden up. They matched the marks on her neck beneath the turtleneck where he had nearly killed her for killing their son. The bruises on her ribs and her legs where he'd kicked her. The punches at her kidneys where he'd pounded his fury into her. Only her face was spared, was always spared, though he often lifted her by her hair. No one must know. That was the mantra spoken over and over, day after day. No one must know.

Her son had known. He'd spent too many hours in his closet, curled around his little sister where Nina had taught them to hide when he beat her. He'd known.

How could she not have known he would come to her rescue, would come to protect her, would want to be her hero rather than let her be battered one more time?

"You killed him," Randy had said, his hands around her neck. After the cops had come and gone, after her hero, crushed to lifelessness, had been spirited away. Randy had choked her on her bed and told her so she'd know who the monster was, who had really killed their son.

"Who taught him to defy his father? Who taught him to interfere between a husband and wife? What kind of monster sacrifices her son to save herself?"

The tears hadn't come then either, just like now, blocked by guilt at the horror she'd created, the senseless loss to the world she'd orchestrated.

Her son.

She wanted to throw herself on the coffin and weep, beg Mikey's forgiveness, beg for one more chance where she would find a way to protect her baby.

But there could not be a God, or Mikey wouldn't be dead instead of her.

She did not deserve the solace of tears.

"Are you coming?"

She straightened. Turned.

Behind her, the huge bulk of Randy stood in the bright doorway, silhouetted as he held their daughter's hand. "Well? Are you going to take all day? I want supper."

"Yes," she said. "I'm coming."


Story Time: Less Than Human

>> Tuesday, December 12, 2023

 I've written lots of stories and published them. Some of them I think are important so I'm going to post some of them here. This particular story can be found in my book, Inner Worlds and was first published on the site, Idiot-Free Zone

 Less Than Human 

The alarm pounded through Maureen Hunter's dream like a hammer, shattering it into a million pieces. As she slammed it to silence and looked at the time blearily through her sand-encrusted eyes—she must have forgotten to take her contacts out again—she groaned quietly. It was her damn project. Why the hell had she agreed to a 7 am meeting after she'd had the meet-n-greet last night with the bigwigs from Washington? Even a brain like hers required more than three hours of sleep a night.
She slipped out of the warm sheets and shivered in the chill her husband insisted was required for sleeping. Scratching her ass, she hurried into the bathroom and grabbed some clothes so she could dress as she peed. No time to dilly-dally. She had just flushed and risen, already wearing pants and a bra when she was halted by a ping behind her and a blue LED on the top of her toilet. What was that for again? Well, it didn't matter. She had a meeting to get to in forty minutes.
She was just brushing her teeth and slopping on deodorant when her phone beeped, that imperious beep that meant high priority. What now? She slipped the blouse that had been puddled around her neck over her shoulders, her arms going into the right holes before she picked up her phone.
The phone message opened to the sound of trumpets loud enough to wake Gary.
"Congratulations!" she read with pixelated confetti and fireworks, "You're going to be a mother!"
"What the fuck!" she screeched in anything but a gratified tone. "Gary, are you behind this? Some big joke?"
Gary was as groggy as you'd expect an accountant to be at 6:20 in the morning. "What?"
"Some damn fool just sent me an email that I'm pregnant. How could they even know it was true? I'm only a couple days late and that could be from overwork. Or PCOS. I've never been regular."
Gary tended to wake faster than she did in the morning and was already looking lucid. "There are sensors in the bathroom. They told you that when we replaced the toilet unit—code requires it."
"I am on the pill. Have been since I was seventeen. I'm the lead on the first human expedition to Mars. I don't have time for this shit. I don't want children—something I told you when we got married—and, even if I did, this is not the time I'd choose. We're launching in seven months. I can't be pregnant."
Her eyes scrolled down through the attendant message as she bit out her words. She threw up a hand. "Some 'Unborn Advocate' assigned to me will be here to discuss with me my responsibilities at 8 am. I won't be here at 8 am. I have a meeting to chair at 7."
"Can you postpone it?" Gary asked, coming to stand behind her so he could read the message over her shoulder. "I hear they're mighty picky about you meeting your advocate. Looks like I have to be there, too. I'll rearrange my schedule."
"You don't go in until 9. That's entirely different." She sighed. "It's probably a mistake. I never miss taking my pill."
"I know. Get the meeting moved, we'll talk to the advocate and hopefully straighten all this out, okay babe?" Gary grinned, the same grin with a single dimple that had won him her number three years previously.
She blew out a sigh. "Fine. I'll work it this morning. But I'm going to give them a piece of my mind. Our schedule is incredibly tight, and I don't have time to get distracted. I'm going to go make some coffee." She tossed her phone into his hands since he still seemed intent and stomped into the kitchen.
"Coffee," she told her Kitchen Helper™, "and make it strong."
The machine beeped and the smooth voice of the Helper said in its soft friendly voice, "I'm sorry, but caffeine intake is strictly prohibited for any prospective mothers. I can make some herbal tea for you and recommend a B-vitamin if you're feeling fatigued."
"You can make me coffee," Maureen said through gritted teeth, "Or I get my tools and turn you into a garbage disposal."
"Mint tea," the Helper said, filling a cup up with steaming liquid that smelled distinctly like peppermint, "is very good for nausea."
Maureen was already fishing through the "junk" drawer for a screwdriver when Gary came in and quietly removed the tool from her hand and gave her back her phone. "I got the same message on my phone. That damn thing is loud. I figured you had calls to make."
"I do, thanks to our faulty and blabbermouth plumbing. Get me some coffee out of this monster will you, or the day will end with corpses. Surely, fathers can have coffee."
"Coffee, black," he said obligingly.
"I'm sorry," the Helper said with no noticeable remorse. "Obtaining coffee with the expressed purpose of providing it to a prospective mother is prohibited and comes with a fine and a misdemeanor conviction.
"Seriously?" Gary said, the good humor finally draining from his face. "So I won't get coffee for nine months either?"
"I am not carrying a baby to term. I can't. I have things to do, even if I'm pregnant, which I'm not," she said, sipping the tea absently. "Oh, hello, Peter. I need to move the meeting back two hours at least. Maybe three. What's my schedule look like?"
"Did you say you were pregnant?" Peter choked.
"I did not. I said I wasn't pregnant, and that word better not leave your lips today, Peter, or you'll be collecting unemployment. Is there another time available today?"
"Not unless you make it a lunch meeting. You've got a slot from 11:30-1pm, but that's not going to buy you any friends."
"I know it, but we need to disseminate the changes today and get crew buy-in or it might impact launch. See what you can do about rescheduling. If we have to do it after hours, we'll do it then. Send me an email with the new time."
"You got it, boss. And congrats." He hung up before she could curse him out.
Gary was scrolling through his cell, drinking what appeared to be black tea. "You know, abortion is illegal in this state."
"Then I'll get it done elsewhere. I don't want a child, Gary. And certainly not in the middle of this. Do you realize what it means that I'm heading up this team when I'm barely in my thirties? I'll never get a chance like this again." She finished her tea with a grimace. "And I just can't be pregnant. The pill has a terrific effectiveness rate and I never miss, you know that."
"Yeah, I was checking that and stumbled across something I'd never heard before. You know that, if you take certain other medications it will negate the pill for a time? Didn't you have to take phenobarbital for a while last month?"
"Yeah, when the thermal control system failed acceptance testing. I thought I was going to have a heart attack and that was the only way I could get to sleep but that can't be the problem. That has to be a hoax. How could some drug negate the pill and, if it can, why didn't anyone tell me?"
"I don't know. But this isn't a quack site."
"Well, it was an accident, then. No way they can make me go through with it. You know—you know—what's riding on this, Gary."
"I know," he said softly, but not convincingly.  
That was the end of the conversation for some time as they both did their research on their respective cells. Maureen found herself growing more and more irritated and, to a lesser extent, alarmed. She hated politics, stayed out of it other than trying to ensure anyone she voted for on the national level was going to support the space program. She just didn't have time for all the details and obnoxiousness of politics day to day. She had shit to do.
But what she was reading was frightening. A recent law made it illegal to have an abortion, period. And if she left the state to get it done quietly somewhere more reasonable, she couldn't come back without facing severe penalties, even jail time. How the hell had this happened? Wasn't she a citizen of the states? When did she hand over her body as public domain?
Plus, her brain was the part that was really important. Her research into small but powerful rockets had made a human expedition to Mars possible ten years earlier than predicted. She couldn't afford to be sidelined by a biological hiccup she didn't even want. What did she know about being a mother, except it ate up time and money and would really get in the way over the next few months? There had to be a way out of it.
She still hadn't found it when the doorbell rang.
She rose to her feet with a clatter, tucking her cell into its holster at her belt. "Let's get this straightened out."
She opened the front door and a little man with a pointy nose—with a tiny dimple at the tip—pushed his way into the house without a word. She had no trouble finding the dimple unappealing. "You are Maureen Foster?"
"I am and there's been some sort of mistake. It's not possible I'm pregnant."
"They all say that," he said, opening up a medical kit and unearthing a plastic-wrapped blood draw kit. "Of course, we'll doublecheck but you should know that false positives run less than 2%."
Maureen felt her stomach grow cold.
"Give me your arm."
"Who are you?" Gary asked. "Before you stab my wife, maybe you could introduce yourself."
"I'm Van Ryder and I'm an Unborn Advocate. I'm conversant with the law as well as the medical requirements and restrictions the Host Mother must abide by."
"Host Mother? I'm not a brood mare, you know. I'm a goddamned Ph.D."
Van barely blinked and had tied an elastic tourniquet around her upper arm. "Whatever. That's not my concern. My only concern is the well-being of the human being you're carrying." He stabbed her with the needle as he spoke and brought up a tiny vial to take the blood afterward.
She winced at the pain. "Well, you're no phlebotomist." She looked him in the eyes and he stared blandly back as she said, "So, I don't factor into this at all, eh? Just carrying a baby to suit you. Well, I don't belong to the state, thank you very much, or you."
Van gave her a sour smile. "I'm sure an educated woman such as yourself has already researched the law. If you are pregnant—and we'll know in a moment—you will carry the baby to term and you will do everything in your power to ensure it's a healthy birth or suffer the legal consequences, which can be quite harsh." He'd released the tourniquet, removed the needle and placed a wad of gauze at her inner elbow. "Hold this up."
"And if I don't want this baby?"
"If you and your husband do not want the child, you have the option of putting it up for adoption. Given your education level, both of you, and your racial profile, you have a good chance of adoption by a worthy couple."
"What if just I don't want the child?"
"You can give up your rights to your husband if he feels differently. You cannot put it up for adoption without his consent."
"So, if I don't want it and he does, I have to basically dissolve my marriage?"
"And provide child support and healthcare until the child reaches eighteen. Or you can choose to rethink your reticence—many mothers do when faced with the inevitable—and raise the child as nature intended."
He had injected the blood into a portable analyzer and pursed his lips until the result popped up on his screen.
"Well, as I suspected, Mrs. Foster, congratulations are in order. You're going to have a baby."
Maureen went through the rest of her day in a black mood. Her husband had not looked her in the eye since Van Ryder had come and gone and had left for work with only a little peck on the cheek.
She told no one at work about her predicament but apparently Mr. Pointy Nose had done so for her so that all the machines at work would not provide her any caffeine with her ID. Since she didn't want to advertise the dilemma to her coworkers until—unless—she had no choice, she was forced to suck down fruit juice, which was the only fluid the vending machines would allow.
The rescheduled meeting went well enough and there were no more crises at work, with the crew and the top managers all agreeing with the changes she outlined, but the pregnancy was a distraction and that she didn't need.
When she stumbled back home after a long, caffeine-free day, she wanted to have a long talk with her husband about their options but he'd already gone to bed. She stripped off her clothing, climbed into the shower, and tried to scrub off the most frustrating day of her life, a day that still reeked of nightmare to her. Her hand slid over her firm tight belly. Inside there was a tiny nubbin of flesh she was building, apparently, smaller than her pinky nail. And she lived in a world that valued it more than it valued her. She had a hard time with that concept.
All week she tried to contact lawyers, do research on her options, but came up dry on both counts. No lawyer would talk to her without her husband at her side—and he had studiously avoided her which didn't make her feel like he was her ally. As for her options, she kept running into the same answer: she didn't have any. From the moment she was diagnosed as pregnant, she was a prisoner of the state, her life, for at least then next nine months, prescribed and controlled. She'd already gone through three physical examinations where she learned that she could have no medicine to address her frequent migraines – only Tylenol in small doses. Where she was told she could have nothing to help her sleep or deal with allergies, where she was told caffeine and alcohol were strictly forbidden and carried jail time if she violated that. "Suck it up," was the advice she was given. Fine enough advice if you wanted a baby, sacrifices that made sense for a hopeful mother, but not for a woman who didn't, who needed to work ridiculous hours to accomplish her dreams going on around her right now.
They noted the scar on her knee, and she told them she'd had knee surgery for a trick knee. Her patella no longer jumped to the back of her leg, but it did give way now and again. She was advised to wear a brace. Right, in a Houston summer for a knee that rarely caused trouble. Ridiculous.
Finally, on Friday, she got an audience with a kindly lawyer who explained she couldn't represent her and why, all reasons she knew, but at least the woman was sympathetic. And then she showed her examples on a handheld tablet, reasons why Maureen needed to follow the law: Anita Danvers, miscarried, could not prove it was unintentional, serving twelve years, her two other children in foster care. Malena Williams sneaked out to get an abortion in her sister's hometown in Delaware—which still allowed first trimester abortions—but she was ratted out by her own husband. Twenty-five years to life. Her husband had already remarried so he had help raising the six children she left behind. Irene Fortner caught an upper respiratory infection that turned to pneumonia, child was born with cerebral palsy. Irene paid with seven years in jail for the crime of getting sick while pregnant. Suzanne Sumner had an emergency aborted tubal pregnancy, and her doctor and she were both serving 25 to life. Melody Ryan serving time for a stillborn son she couldn't justify. Mary Lovelace, child died in utero without known cause, serving time because she went out of state for an abortion rather than carry a corpse for two months. Nina Peterson, twelve, died in childbirth. Her uncle—her rapist—had custody of the child they tore from her dead body.
When Maureen looked up, unaccustomed tears on her face, she saw them on the lawyer's as well. "Melody Ryan has the Nobel in Medicine for her work in helping to find the cure for cancer!"
"They don't care. As soon as someone—some man—squirts semen into her, a woman is owned by those cells if they fertilize an egg. Had a life? Had a dream of your own? Can't afford children? Have no one to help you? Barely scraping by? Have too many children already? Have health problems that will probably get worse if they don't kill you? Raped? A child yourself? None of that matters. You are now less than human, an incubator for another life that is valued while yours is not. And if she's female, she'll face the same. Nothing you can accomplish, no matter how vital and important, has precedence over motherhood, whether you wanted it or not."
"What can I do?"
"Nothing. Take care of yourself. Remember who you are and, if you can, try to get it back after you're through carrying this child. You have a good chance, given your education and standing. Others aren't so lucky."
She didn't feel lucky as she drove home that night.
Gary was waiting for her. "How you doing?" he asked her, dialing her a cup of tea.
"I've been better," she said, trying not to resent him. It wasn't just that he had left her to wallow in her terror all week rather than face it with her. He was also the one who put her in this position, and he seemed unconcerned. She should have been a lesbian and this would have been so much easier. "I'm furious that my life is being yanked out from me and no one will lift a finger to help me. Not even you."
"If I help you break the law, we both go to jail. I don't see the upside to that," he said in that calm way he had when he was determined not to lose his temper—and was generally successful. "I did research every free moment I had this week. I bet you did, too. You can't terminate the pregnancy or go somewhere else to get it done without going to jail and losing everything you've ever worked for." He reached over, picked up her hand, lifted it and kissed it. "Why not just accept the inevitable?"
"That I have to carry this fetus to term? Yeah, I get I have no options. That I have to have a bunch of hardware and supercilious assholes telling me what I can eat or drink until I get the little parasite out of me if I want my life back?"
"You're lucky."
"You're the second one to tell me that today. In what way?"
"Most women don't have health plans that provide guidance. If they break a prohibition and hurt their unborn baby, they go to jail. That's why so many of those convicted are minorities or poorer women. At least you have all the support you need."
"It doesn't feel like support. It feels like a punishment."
"Don't think of it that way," he said, soothingly, starting to massage her shoulders. He always did have great hands. "Think of it as an opportunity."
"Mmm. For what?"
"To start a family," he said, kissing the top of her head. "Just you, me, and the kid."
She jerked around, glaring. "I don't want a family! I told you that before we got married. I have big plans and cooing over an infant and changing poopy diapers isn't part of it. I did enough of that as the oldest of seven. There are plenty of people who want to be mothers. I'm not one of them."
"You say that now, but later on..."
"I'm not a teenager or a fool, Gary. I am a grown woman with my own mind, something I honed so that I could build a life in the field that mattered to me. I know what I want. And what I don't want." She let a tear slip out and hated herself for it. "I thought you were going to be in my corner."
"I am, baby. But wouldn't it be better to see it as an opportunity rather than a burden? This is the natural order of things, after all."
"Not for me. And don't start on about nannies or, heaven help us, boarding school. Being a parent is a commitment of time, blood, sweat, and tears. It's the best thing and the worst thing, I've seen first-hand, and shouldn't be undertaken by anyone on a whim or because it seems like a good idea. If you're not willing to dedicate the next two decades to a child, you shouldn't have one. Too many people who desperately want children have no business raising them. And now we're trying to make people who know they're not cut out for it do so, too? That's insane."
She got up and began to pace as she did when she was worked up. No, no no! She didn't want to commit to something like that. She knew what she wanted! "It's not for the weak of heart. The rest of your life is changed. Wanted to go to Macchu Picchu next year? Forget it. Gotta a concert you want to see? Can't get a babysitter. Nothing wrong in the world with taking on that kind of dedication if that's what you want. I don't. I want my own life without curtailing it back with responsibilities I didn't choose. And I don't see a reason in the world why I shouldn't have it. My life and dreams are worthwhile all by themselves and they don't involve my reproductive organs."
"I won't give the baby up for adoption," he said quietly.
"Won't you? Gonna give up your career in accounting to take care of it? Are you that dedicated?"
"Don't be absurd."
"Oh, giving up an accounting career when there are literally thousands of accountants within a stone's throw of here is absurd but asking me to toss my career away is fine."
"I'm not asking you to..."
"I want to be on the next expedition to Mars, Gary. I've already put in the paperwork and got the preliminary approval to join the astronaut corps. You'd be raising that baby alone. Is that what you want?"
"Of course not. But you're already leading the charge here on the ground and I've totally backed you there. Isn't that enough?"
"No. But it wouldn't matter if I was the manager of the local fabric store. I shouldn't be pushed into motherhood if it's not what I want. How can we value children so little that we insist that people who don't want them have them? Why do we insist the least responsible of us take on parenthood, easily the most responsible job out there? Damn it, kids deserve parents who want to be there, who knew what they were in for, who chose that kind of dedication. Kids deserve someone who isn't going to spend the rest of her life thinking about what she lost because she had a child."
"Is that your final word?"
He looked up at her, no sign of his dimple. "I'll move out this weekend. When the baby is born, I'll take custody. I'll work out a child support agreement."
"Yeah? Make sure you deduct the nine months of involuntary incubation and permanent damage you're getting in the deal."
"Ryder said you had to cut back on your hours."
"You and Ryder can both fuck off." With that, she slammed past him and into her bedroom.
The nightmare caliber of her life increased over the next weeks, only it was feeling more and more real. When she ignored Ryder's strictures, she found her managers had been informed and her hours were cut to sixty. She had no choice but to delegate, including activities she trusted to no one but herself. After a few more weeks, the morning sickness kicked in, but not just in the morning. After several meetings interrupted by a run to the restroom (and once, a trashcan), she asked for anti-nausea medicine but it was refused unless she lost enough weight to endanger the baby. Even with her hours curtailed, she began to feel exhausted and caught herself nodding in other meetings. At this rate, she'd end up snoring.
Gary moved back in, advised by his lawyer—apparently fathers could talk to them without the mother's involvement—that divorce proceedings were best not pursued during pregnancy if he wanted the baby and that his case would look much better if he had "supported" his wife during her gestation.
Though when she thought of support, Maureen didn't think of someone who pouted half the time in silence and who tried to cajole and browbeat her into changing her mind the rest of it.
Her PCOS—the reason she'd been on birth control since she was a kid—drove an early test for gestational diabetes. Which, somehow, she had. So, sugar was eliminated from her diet and Gary took to monitoring her food choices at home and tattling on her when she veered from her "diet."
Things came to a head halfway through month two. Still nauseous, she was brought to her boss' office and told that her subordinate would now be leading the program. Her protests fell on deaf ears, even if her boss looked sympathetic. They'd been informed that Maureen could not travel out of state as a precaution and that made the coordination the next few months impossible. They hoped she understood and would still provide insight when her hours allowed it. The letter, rejecting her from the astronaut corps was waiting for her when she came home.
Everything she had ever wanted had been taken away by an unwanted blob of flesh inside her no larger than her thumb. She wept all night.
Her face was still swollen when she rose for work the next morning. What did it matter? She didn't bother with makeup, braided her hair and left, in her usual work clothing, complete with flat shoes. There was no need for maternity clothes yet.
For the moment, she still had her nice, close parking spot and it was a short walk to her office. Even so, a biker startled her when she stepped of the curb and her knee chose that moment to give out.
She tried to catch herself but lost her balance and ended up sprawled on the roadway, her hand and knee badly skinned. When she tried to get up—and people ran to help her—her ankle was unable to hold her weight.
Someone called for an ambulance and, again, she was given no choice. It was on the way to the hospital only blocks away that someone noticed she was bleeding between her legs.
She was wheeled in frantically, doctors and nurses hovering over her belly, trying to save the embryo inside it but it was too late. Its placenta had already detached, its processes shut down though no one could say whether that happened before or after it had lost its source of life—herself.
Doctors disappeared as quickly as they'd come, leaving her to bleed in a big thick pad no one used any more but hospitals. She hated that she felt a little sad. Fucking hormones. Worse, she hated that this was yet another thing she had no control over. The administrator came by to tell her she would be discharged as soon as they'd finished the paperwork. Gary did not answer the phone or her text message. Prick.
When her door opened without a knock, she started from her doze, hoping to see Gary. Instead it was needle-nose Van Ryder, carrying a clipboard and a voice recorder. "Ms. Foster, I hear you managed to kill your own child," he said by way of greeting. "I'll be recording our conversation."
"It wasn't deliberate!"
"They all say that, sometimes with bloody hangers in their hands. What happened?"
"I stepped off the curb, lost my balance and went face-first to the pavement. I didn't feel anything with the pregnancy, just my knee and ankle."
Van scribbled on his clipboard. "Were you stepping on your trick knee?"
"Well, yes, but..."
"And did it give out?"
"Only for a second. Usually I can compensate but I was distracted by a passing biker."
He scribbled some more. "Were you wearing the brace that was recommended?"
"No, I wasn't. That thing is uncomfortable and it's August in Houston. I think it does more harm than good."
"But it might have prevented a fall that just coincidentally terminated the pregnancy you have repeatedly told everyone you don't want."
Maureen felt fear well up in her throat and swallowed it back down, tasting the bile. "It was an accident."
"I didn't do this on purpose. I don't hurt myself—that's insane—and if I ever would contemplate it—which I didn't—I wouldn't use a stupid unlikely method like this."
"Easy enough to say. I have heard from your superiors that you were pulled off your project yesterday due to your pregnancy. That seems like a pretty powerful motive."
"It might have been if I'd been thinking that way. I doubt they'd hand it back no matter what, even though the pregnancy is over, so I don't see it as any motive at all. I will admit it made for a sleepless night and a distraction."
Needle-nose turned off the recorder and rose. "I'll consider the matter after I speak with the father of the dead child. After I've heard his story, I'll decide whether to turn this over to the cops."
"What could he know about it? He wasn't there!"
But Needle-nose was already gone.
When Maureen finally got a taxi home, she was unsurprised to find the house empty, her husband's things gone. Nor was she surprised to be awakened the next morning by cops coming to take her into custody. Negligent homicide was the charge, a sop from Needle-nose. Six years instead of twenty. Probably because her skin was white.
After posting bail, she returned to find a petition for divorce and was greeted, via email, that her job was suspended until the charges had been settled.
Was there no end to the nightmare?
Six months later she found out for sure. "Guilty as charged," she heard with a smack of a gavel. Convicted for falling down and spraining her ankle—which still hadn't healed completely.  Maximum penalty, six years, which she got.
Two years later, she sat, listless, in her isolated cell. She'd heard—it was all over the news—of the spectacular failure of the first manned mission to Mars, due to an oversight she had in her plans to look for and correct. But, of course, no one looked at the plans of child killer. The rattle of keys let her know lunch was coming. Not that it mattered. Most trays were sent back untouched. Why bother?
"I don't know why we bother to feed monsters like you," the guard said by way of greeting. Usual guy, then. "People like you make me sick. You're less than human."
She thought of what she'd built for herself, what she'd dreamed, all the potential she'd had that had been thrown away through no real fault of her own. Because someone else impregnated her and she was no longer given even the courtesy and power extended to corpses.
Less than human. So, she had discovered.



The Problematic Captain Cuddles by Stephanie Barr - a short story

>> Tuesday, November 16, 2021

There was a discreet scratch at the door. Colonel Simon carefully placed the ring from a plastic bottle lid on his desk. It was orange and very enticing. "Enter," said Colonel Simon, smothering a sigh. Discipline was a necessary part of any army, but it was never something he enjoyed.

The door opened to allow a perfectly groomed soldier to enter. His nails were trimmed so that there was no sound. His whiskers were long and luxuriant but straight and perfectly spaced. His eyes were large, pale green and glimmered with a subtle sheen also seen in his gray fur. He marched in and then sat in perfect attention after saluting with his tail. "You sent for me, Colonel?"

"Close the door, Captain Cuddles."

Cuddles did so and then returned to his stance, but his face looked anxious. "Have I done something wrong, sir?"

"Captain, you had one of the best scores of all time during officer training, but I've been concerned with your performance on the field."

"Is this about the Battle of Carpet Hill?"

"It is and I'm surprised you seem surprised you'd be called into my office. We are an elite fighting unit, one of the best in the business. We did not get that way by sending in officers who have to be rescued from certain death by those under their command."

"No, sir. Of course not, sir. But I'm confused. I was the only one who had not broken formation."

"On the contrary, soldier, your men had to break formation to rescue you, putting them at considerable risk."

"Oh." Captain Cuddles, staring elsewhere in apparent unconcern, a sure sign he was deeply regretful. "But, sir, were we not ordered to take that hill?"

"We were and, despite your misstep, we were able to do so."

"All I did was advance forward to their fortifications as ordered."

"In a straight line!" the Colonel hissed. "You would have been torn apart by their guns if your men had not taken initiative and pulled you out of the line of fire."

"Was—was there something else I should have done?" Captain Cuddles asked, perplexed.

Colonel Simon twitched his white whiskers, dramatic on his black face despite his white throat, and coughed, a little at first and then with a pronounced hack. Captain Cuddles moved the trash can out of the way so Colonel Simon would have a clear shot to the carpet, but the Colonel managed not to produce a hairball. "Where was I? Captain, do you know why we release cat toys with various amounts of catnip in them?"

"No, sir. It seemed counterproductive since my men, in fact, all of our soldiers, ran after the toys in nearly every conceivable direction."


"I don't understand."

"By having our own soldiers going in every conceivable direction, they become impossible to predict. But, when some cat inexplicably ignores the toys and heads in a direct line, taking them out is child's play. Perhaps you need to go back for more training."

Captain Cuddles slit his eyes. "At training they required us to run in straight lines, climb mountains, go through obstacles."

"Yes, and they badger, pester, and cajole you to do so, using toys, feather wands, whatever it takes to induce you to conquer any obstacle."

Captain Cuddles lifted his chin. "They did not have to badger or cajole me."

Colonel Simon leapt atop his desk and began to pace. "I begin to see what the problem might be. You did what you were told with nothing more than a verbal command? Every time? Without distractions and rewards? What do you think you are?"

"A soldier, sir."

"Not a feline soldier, Cuddles. Maybe I should have you transferred to a K-9 unit."

"Sir!" Cuddles yowled, bristling.

"Stand down, soldier," the colonel said. "When you brag about blind and unquestioning obedience, you are repeating the philosophy of the dogs. Nothing wrong with that, inherently. There are situations when doing what you're told without question is a boon and we use those units for that very reason. It's their schtick. But, even among the K-9 corps, the ones that filter to the top are those that can think independently, read the situation, adapt. In the feline elite corps, that's our schtick. It's what we do down to the lowest private. Did they teach you about Battle Peter Rabbit in training?"

Cuddles, ears bent back in pouting shame, said, "Of—of course."

"Do you remember how we won that battle against a very cat-savvy opponent?"

"Yes. The enemy had littered the field with cucumbers, sir, expecting to send our entire force running in terror." He paused a heartbeat. "I passed cucumber training and pushed myself so that I could even sleep on cucumbers without effect."

"Of course, you did. But that means you missed the point of cucumber training." Colonel Simon decided to give Cuddles an opportunity to think things through so he began washing his hind leg, letting only the twitch of his tail remind Cuddles that he was still in censure.


"What happened in the battle?"

"While our troops were spooked by the cucumbers, instead of retreating, they leapt in every direction, making their attacks on the enemy impossible to predict. Although the enemy had the superiority in numbers, they effectively enabled their soldiers to be individually flanked by jumping cats and lost the battle decidedly, confused and disheartened."

"What would have happened if, instead of leaping in every direction, they had just advanced like you did."
Cuddles began to wash his face. "The enemy had set down a line of mines in front of them. Our jumping in the way we did sidestepped those mines and even drove a few of their soldiers into the mines, making us aware of their existence."

Satisfied that Cuddles understood his mistake, Simon stopped washing his leg and collapsed into zen pose on his desk. "Do you understand what I want from you, Cuddles? I want the discipline and physical skills you built in training, but I want you to think and act like a cat, able to adapt and be unpredictable. Do you think you can do it, or should I prepare a transfer?"

"Sir, yes sir, I can."

"Good. Dismissed."

Captain Cuddles turned to leave but, before he had completely left, the Colonel called out to him. "Next time I leave an enticement like this ring on my desk, I'd like to see you try for it."

Cuddles said nothing but left, the door still open as Simon, as he'd been longing to throughout the interview, batted the ring off his desk and began chasing it around the room.


Captain Cuddles crept out of HQ, tail and head down. With a furtive glance to either side, he would have scurried to his quarters if another voice hadn't spoken up behind him. "Captain?"

Cuddles leapt into the air, spinning as he did and then lowered his hackles when he recognized his own second in command, Sergeant Patch. "Patch, I didn't see you there."

"Got grilled for not being cat enough, didn't you?"

"How did you know?" but Cuddles knew the answer to that. The reason he lived through the Battle of Carpet Hill was because Patch had rallied Cuddles' men to save him when his own actions had put his life in danger. If Cuddles was half the leader he wanted to be, he'd have made a point to tell Colonel Simon about Patch's extraordinary initiative. But he didn't want to lose Patch. He was an exceptional leader and his next promotion would definitely get him moved to someone more important.

"Tain't blind," Patch said, with a gasping laugh. He loved blind jokes given that he only had one eye left. "Whatcha gonna do?"

"I—I have to teach myself to get distracted. Somehow."

"Happen I could help you with that."

"Would—would you?"

Patch opened his mouth in a sharp-toothed smile. "You're a good kid, good bottom. And you're my CO." His smile disappeared and he let a little growl creep into his voice, but not enough to skirt insubordination. "And I can't have you puttin' the whole unit at risk because you're too green to be on the field."

He turned his back and lifted his tail jauntily, despite the crook at the end of it. "Let's get to work."

Cuddles, feeling less like a commander than ever, followed him to a practice field. Several feet in, there was a ball, bright green with a bell in it. Patch sat and indicated the ball with a paw. "So, bat that over to me." He paused. "Sir."

That didn't sound too hard. What was the catch? Cuddles loped over and, without looking at Patch, knocked it over toward him. Patch batted it away toward the distance, a look of disgust on his face. "Have you no instincts, sir?"

Cuddles was legitimately baffled. "Why did you do that? Didn't you want me to do that?"

"Sir. What kind of self-respecting cat deliberately bats his own toy to another cat? I'm the last place in this field you should have batted it to. And, even if you overcame your inclination, you should have at least been reluctant, resisted the urge to keep it yourself. Do you have no feeling for the ball? Did you hear the bell when it when it rolled? Didn't you have the urge to chase it?"

"Was I supposed to?" Cuddles asked, abashed.

"How were you raised?"

"Well, my mother died just outside a German Shepherd rescue. They took me in anyway, but I was the only cat. My siblings never made it."

"So, we'll have to start from the beginning. Go fetch that ball and, for Bastet's sake, don't just hand it back over to me."

"Yes." Cuddles retrieved it and then, at Patch's instruction, played with it for three hours straight. Periodically, Patch would ask for him to bat it his direction and several times he fell for it and was punished by having to retrieve it from the far reaches of the field. But, by the time Patch called it quits, Cuddles was becoming adept at resisting the requests. He didn't feel particularly possessive of the ball, but he did find himself enjoying the exercise now and again.

Sides heaving, Cuddles held the ball under his paw as Patch approached. "Do you get it?" Patch asked. "Do you understand the appeal of the ball?"

"Well," Cuddles said after a moment's reflection. "It does have a pleasant jingle."

Patch sighed. "Well, that will have to do for now."

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash


Whatever other criticisms one might have for Captain Cuddles, he could not be faulted for dedication. Every free hour, he was out there, playing with one toy or another. Sometimes, he took a subordinate to challenge him. Sometimes, even into the late hours of the morning, he'd bat this or that toy around by himself.

When Patch realized he was losing himself in the play, losing track of time, even forgetting why he was doing it in the first place, Patch nodded sagely and sent a memo to Simon. Good thing. The Lepus were on the move and scuttlebutt said the Crazy Cats were going to be called in for a raid. Cuddles was as ready as Patch could make him, as ready as Cuddles could make himself. And the orders were clear. If Cuddles put himself in the line of fire again, no one was to save him. He'd have to save himself.

Pity. Cuddles gave great tongue.

At 0430 they were mustered, Captain Cuddles bleary after playing with a catnip mouse until just an hour or so before. Even so, he combed his whiskers and cleared his throat, giving orders as he had been trained to do. Hi subordinates followed as they always did. Like cats. But Captain Cuddles didn't feel himself frustrated by that for the first time.

There'd be a parachute drop, though it had to be far enough away they wouldn't be detected by the Lepus guards. Cuddles' and one other unit would be sneaking into the Lepus stronghold from behind while others in the corps would be setting up a distraction elsewhere.

Cuddles found it a sound plan, if he could herd his subordinates to the right location. He had to make use of the feather wand repeatedly and once the water sprayer to keep his unit in a semblance of unity until, at last, they had the stronghold in sight.

Cuddles had studied the topography in detail some weeks past and, as he looked at the terrain between the line of trees and the fortress, something struck him as different. Halfway between where he stood and the walls, a trench had been dug, but not one for sheltering enemy soldiers because the ground sloped from his location down to the bottom of the trench. On the other side, the ground was level as it had been before.

Cuddles felt himself spooked, not wanting to venture forth, at least until he had had time to fathom this change out and what it meant. However, the signal was given—the distraction had begun and they were ordered forward, tiny balls of yarn tossed out as enticements. His troops moved forward, batting the little balls of colorful string in every direction. Cuddles gave his own a little bat, enjoying the way it bounced along, leaving a trail of teal-colored yarn. He hit it in another direction, chasing after it, when it hit him.

They weren't going in every direction. All of them were going down the slope and would end up in the trench. They were being herded at the enemy's behest. It was a trap!

But how could he stop it? He spotted Patch batting an adorable ball of pink to his left and pounced, first knocking it from right between Patch's paws and then sending it soaring, up and over the trench to land safely on the other side. "The trench is death," he hissed to Patch as he leapt after the yellow ball of another of his soldiers.

"Don't settle for your own ball of yarn. What's the fun of that?" Cuddles shouted, sending the yellow yarn flying to safety. "Take your fellows' yarn and bat it out of his reach."

The idea appealed to some, clearly, as they began stealing and scuffling over the yarn. Those that didn't, enraptured by the colorful orbs, Cuddles stole himself, sending them harmlessly past the trench. He saw that Patch was doing the same. Cuddles worked himself over to the other commander, Lieutenant Diddums, who was already arching his back and hissing at Cuddles' interference. Cuddles still snagged his yarn and sent it flying, then leapt over him, covering him and crushing him with his own weight as he said, "They're herding us into the trench with our own toys. If we can't get everyone safely to the other side, we'll be killed. Help me."

Diddums looked confused but a particularly spry calico tumbled into the trench at that moment and exploded in a brutal blast. "Mines!" Diddums spat. He turned to his own sergeant. "You heard Cuddles, let's get these toys over the trench so we don't lose any more. And then we'll take the fight to the rabbits."

"Aye, sir," the Siamese said, loping after another's purple ball and smacking it to safety.

Between the calico's sad end, the whispered warnings that spread through the troops, and the fun to be had by stealing a toy someone else had claimed, more of the troops followed suit quickly. When few toys remained in the danger zone, cats leapt safely over the trench to the other side and resumed their play, now in the direction of the Lepus lair. Cuddles and Patch patrolled the upper edge of the trench, batting back the toys that had wandered back and could fall into danger, until all the troops were assailing the stronghold.

Cuddles and Patch rushed to support the assault. The rabbits had expected their passive defense to be effective so had little by way of resistance. In the end, the cats succeeded in ousting the rabbits with only a few casualties in the battle and only two, the calico and a clumsy tabby who missed his jump, to the trench.

As Captain Cuddles expected, he was again called to Colonel Simon's office, but he was not trepidatious.

They played with that ring for hours.

The End

You can find this story Pussycats Galore and find this and more books at


Just a Little Wicked releases today, and I'm in it!

>> Saturday, March 20, 2021


I signed up for a bunch of anthologies where stories (as long as novella length) will be bundled up with others. Some are for charity; some are for profit. All are fun.

This is the first, a collection of witchy tales for those of us who like to see the full gamut of witchy wonders. Here's an excerpt my story, "Best Witch in Town":  

Sylvia took another sip, grimaced, and slammed the cup back into the saucer. "You have to do something about that crazy cat. She knocked the card right out of my hand. My reading was ruined."

"Was it?"

"I did not tell him what he wanted to know. He needed reassurance."

May tsked. "Sometimes, you cannot give them what they want. They pay for truth."

Sylvia huffed and blew a perfect lock from her face. "What would they know about truth? You know nothing about business."

May's sunken lips twisted into a little smile. "True enough, Sylvia."

Sylvia stepped closer to a wavery mirror, ancient and made with blown glass, to admire herself. "This mirror is worthless."

May said nothing, though the ancient mirror was technically priceless and she'd been offered more than one fortune for it.

Pouting, Sylvia leaned on the counter and a huge black cat with tufted ears and long luxurious fur rubbed against her. She made a sound of disgust and pushed it away. "I don't know why you insist on filling my shop with all these fuzzy monsters when you know I'm—I'm –achoo!"

"You're not wearing the medicine bag I made you," May said, gathering up the huge cat in her arms and cooing to him.

"That pouch of herbs? I'm not wearing that. I told you. It's ugly and it smells funny."

May sighed. "And you needn't be mean to Beltane. He's the only one that likes you."

"More fool him." She glanced around the shop and nodded at the more obvious depleted stock, notably some soft cotton dresses in flowing fabrics imported from India, several nice silver jewelry pieces, and a statue of a dragon that had graced the entryway for nearly a year. May was already limping around the shop, pulling out additional dresses and jewelry from the cupboards behind the counter. "I see you sold that stupid dragon. I told you it would never sell. I can't believe someone bought it."

"You were right. I gave him to someone who needed him."

Sylvia shook her head with a tinkle of jewelry. "You gave it away? Who in the world needs a dragon statue?"

"Joe did. I knew someone would," May said placidly, hanging more of the dresses on the hangers.

"Whatever. I'm glad to be rid of the eyesore. This is the list of spells I was asked to cast. Write up the invoices after you restock. Did we sell anything expensive?"

May set down the box of jewelry and fished a notebook from behind the till. "A few things. I made a list," May said, handing her a notebook and taking the single sheet of paper Sylvia offered her. May looked over the list of spells and her skinny brows rose. "You didn't actually agree to a death hex? Spells like this have a karmic backlash that you can't just shrug off.".

"None of your business," Sylvia said. She looked over the notebook, snorted, and tossed it back. "Good thing I'm making money, or this place would go under in a week. And I heard you severely discount that necklace earlier."

"She needs it and only had enough to pay a hundred. She'll come back soon enough."

You can buy it right now for just 99 cents.



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