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The Return of Cosmo Draper

“Yes, I was there. As a matter of fact, you could say that I instigated the whole thing,” old Mr. Porter admitted. “Now?” he inquired of his guest, his voice raspy from age. “You want to hear about it. . . now?” He glanced at his wristwatch. “Well, I . . I guess I have time.”

“It was back in the holiday season of ’79. President Carter had recently given his ‘malaise speech’ – saying how the whole country was in kind of a funk. That was certainly true where I was working: A little daily newspaper called The Northbridge Beacon in Massachusetts. It was a nice little paper. We didn’t report much hard news. It was mainly Little League scores and Rotary Club meetings – stuff like that. Northbridge was where I grew up. It was great back then, but lately. . . well, like the president said: Malaise.

“It all started late one evening between Turkey Day and Christmas. A light snow had started falling. My fellow reporter, Andy Carr, had taken a jaunt down to old man Bellini’s general store to fetch us some sandwiches while I held down the fort.”

Carr entered the Beacon’s offices, quickly closing the door behind him. He stomped the snow from his shoes. “Boy, it’s getting cold out there,” he said. “I’m tellin’ you!”

“The snow looks kind of pretty,” Porter responded from his desk, looking out the window.

“For now, sure. After the traffic gets at it tomorrow morning, it’ll turn into a kind of brown, ugly mush that’ll hang around until April.”

“Well, let’s enjoy it while we. . .” Porter rose from his desk and instantly noticed that something was wrong. “Where are the sandwiches?” he asked.

“Back at Belinni’s,” Carr answered unhappily.

“You never got them?”

“Belinni wouldn’t sell them to me.”

What?”

“He said he was closing up shop.”

Porter looked at the wall clock behind his co-worker. “But it’s only 8:15,” he said. “He’s open until 9:00 every night.”

“That’s what I told him as he locked the main door. He said there were no customers, and he was closing early to go home and watch a Bonanza rerun.”

“He turned down business?”

“Yep. He said it wasn’t worth his while to open up his deli counter for just a couple of sandwiches. I told him I’d buy more – two Cokes and a big bag of chips – but he still said no. I was thinking of heading over to the House of Pizza, but the roads are getting pretty icy.”

“So what’s for dinner?” Porter asked.

“I guess we’ll have to make due with whatever’s in the vending machines.”

“Stale chips and warm soda? Yum! I swear there’s a Milky Way in there that’s older than I am!”

“I’m not happy about it either, Tim,” Carr said. “Any news while I was gone?”

“No. I was just sitting here, watching the snow fall, and thinking about how great of a town this used to be back when we were growing up. Remember?”

“Oh yeah! And I can sum up those good times in two words.”

“Cosmo Draper,” they said simultaneously.

“Now there was a man’s man,” Carr continued.

“My dad used to say there were two ways you knew everything was right with the world: FDR was president, and Cosmo was the mayor.”

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Unknown Woman #42

Dotty stood and stared down at the simple marker, a metal plaque, time-drawn patina across its letters, set into a simple stone block, and like every other instance, every single one of them, she remembered. She read the date once more: June 22, 1918. Somehow, she was always drawn back to this place.

Around the markers stood four elephant statues, their trunks lowered in mourning. She remembered. She thought that there had been elephants….

Of course, there were elephants. There was a tiger too, though the lions were gone for some time now. It took quite a bit at the beginning for the transport cages to be appropriately modified, because the elephants didn’t like the train much. You could hear them banging around sometimes even above the noise of the tracks. Some of the performers lived together, like Bezo the Clown and The World’s Shortest Woman (Clarissa was her real name), or Julius/Julia, Half-Man, Half-Woman and Titus the Strong Man who’d only recently decided to shack up together. Madam Orenska, the Psychic, sometime wondered if it would be more appropriately called carriaged up, but in the end, that didn’t quite flow. Just like Dotty Smith didn’t quite work as a psychic name. She guessed, in the end, that was why people had stage names. Madam Orenska worked one of the side tents, not like the stars of the show. They worked the Big Top. Not so for Dotty Smith. The Flying Forellis had their own carriage, but they were a family, and they worked the Big Top.

Between the carriages that transported the animals and those, further back, that served as living quarters ran the gear flatbeds, the yellow and red striped big top, the poles and ropes and spikes, the tools to put it all together. It gave them all a few meters’ separation from the noise and stink of the animals. Just as well; she didn’t much like the smell of horses. Dotty didn’t much like the lovely Agneta who pranced around on their backs in her blue sequined costume, teeth bared in her performance smile, arms held aloft either. But you couldn’t like everyone, could you? Though everyone else seemed to like her. Dotty just didn’t get it. After the gear and the animals came the living quarters and the sleeping cars and finally, the last couple of carriages, shared by the roustabouts, all packed in like sardines. At least she wasn’t back there.

They had about five hours before the next stop. Some small town in the middle of nowhere, but that didn’t matter. Everyone loves a circus. Dotty had been with Bayley Brothers and Ryan for about four years now, but they’d only started using the train about two years ago. To be honest, she preferred the old style with the caravans and the wagons. Places you could truly call your own. They could go anywhere they wanted, finding interested crowds, people who’d never seen them before. Now they were more limited, stuck with the places that the tracks led. Sure, it was quicker getting to wherever they were going, but not by much. They had a big circuit now, bigger towns and cities. It meant that they had to regularly change up the acts, keep them fresh. Still, despite those differences, she wouldn’t change the life for anything. It was where she belonged.

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A Day Without the Horned Goddess

As the druidesses scraped moss from her horns and hooves, Una realized she hated the Waking. From the shrill wail of the pipes which cut her from hibernation, she hardly had time to stretch and relieve herself before the druidesses came. The crown of woven twigs and throne of branches they brought prickled like fleas. As they carried her up into the highlands, the sun blanketed light on her still sleep-blurred eyes, and the winter-heavy wind sickled through her. The people awaited in the circle of standing stones on the rocky shore of Loch Glinnon. There they ululating wailed songs as she arrived. Una dutifully waved to them. They didn’t know any better, the druidesses least of all. They set her down closest to the lit hearth in the center of the henge. The warmth was welcome, until they brandished curved knives and began to rake clean her horns and hooves.

As moss was thrown into the hearth, the archdruidess stepped forth to proclaim something to the crowd. The words were too familiar to Una to register, but the villagers fell quiet. The archdruidess approached Una then, bowing her head and holding out a deep urn of milk. Una accepted it and raised it to her lips to drink. Then she’d walk, skyclad, to the Loch with winter still in the air, and pretend to enchant the water. As she’d done for decades. As Mum had done for centuries. As Mum had planned.

So Una gave the urn back.

The archdruidess looked up. The lesser druidesses exchanged uncertain glances. Head by head, the crowd began to uneasily shift and chatter. “Horned Goddess,” the archdruidess finally asked, “Is something amiss?”

“No,” Una answered. “I simply don’t want to do this.”

“But…” The woman fumbled for words. “The earth must wake, Horned Goddess.”

“Yes.” Una nodded slowly. “I just woke, too.”

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Shini-tai

Shintaro Oba rushed through the forest, his hand closed about the hilt of the heavy uchigatana he wore at his waist. Shouts, the crash of steel and the screams of stricken men had broken the tranquillity of the forest with such suddenness that the samurai found himself running towards the sounds of battle before he was even aware of what he was doing. A moment’s thought, however, spurred him to greater effort. Even in so civilized and settled a region of Mu-Thulan there were still gangs of bandits waiting to prey upon the unwary and renegade ashigaru willing to use murder to earn their gold.

As the samurai emerged from the trees, however, he found a very different scene than the one he had expected. Instead of the cart of some unlucky farmer or wandering merchant, he found a half-dozen shaven-headed monks surrounding a large sedan chair covered in yellow silk. Instead of bandits, Oba found that the attackers were something all together different. They had the rough appearance of men, but their skin was rough and leathery, faded into a dull crimson hue. Their faces were twisted, demonic visages with jutting fangs and scrunched, snout-like noses. Heavy straw cloaks drooped about their bodies and in their clawed hands they wielded a motley assortment of swords and axes.

Namahage! Oba recognized the beasts at once. As a warrior in service to the Sekigahara clan, he’d fought against such creatures in many campaigns. Long ages past, demons had sired offspring with human women. The namahage were the degenerate descendants of this profane lineage, mortal like men but possessed of the ruthlessness and evil drives of demons. Almost every mountain range throughout the empire was infested with tribes of namahage and it was rumoured that entire clans of the beasts lurked beyond the northern frontier. However fiercely the daimyo and hatamoto tried to exterminate them, the namahage would always manage to endure and return to raid villages and farms.

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The Last Winter

In his youth, Ozel came to seek the visions of the Milk-eyed Crone.

The Crone threw her bones and said ‘You live forever, boy. The tribes in the woods and across the sea will wonder at your undying, ever young flesh. Where others rot, you will rise.’

He lived his life with a head held tall ever after.

But witches lie, and the few truths they tell are only in service to greater suffering.

Her prophecies were no comfort when Mother Cold breathed death upon the land.

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