Greg Rafferty pulled his door closed, heaved his giant backpack over his slim shoulders and walked down the unadorned pistachio-green hall without looking back. He strode down to the second floor and reached Isaac Craft’s room just as his friend pulled his own door shut. The two lanky boys nodded at each other—the final yin yang nod of Greg’s black hair and tanned face to Isaac’s bleach-blond hair and too pale complexion, both in matching tan slacks and white collared shirts buttoned all the way up—and headed along the corridor to the main stairs. For the last time, they descended the curved staircase into the lobby, quiet in the pre-dawn darkness, and exited out the front doors. All around the Piazza, students emerged from dormitories, the subdued crowd proceeding across the dewed lawn to the gate they would all pass through, heading to colleges far and wide, each of them ready and eager to pave their way in the large world.

Greg and the others, who had all said their goodbyes to the teachers, dorm leaders, and Dr. Bornstern at the graduation ceremony the day before, had spent the entirety of their lives in the idyllic gated town of Grafton, wandering the picturesque campus with its grand Georgian buildings with large columns, flowering tree-lined streets, and lush green lawns, even grazing on the beach on days when the classrooms grew too hot. Greg wondered in what ways his life would be affected by residing in a location without a beach or the perfect temperate climate of Grafton. Not that he was particularly sentimental or anxious, but he was feeling—just as Dr. Bornstern had warned—a touch of sentimentality. And as he approached the main gate, he felt that if it hadn’t been for Sera’s letters, he may not have possessed the mental fortitude to enable him to depart. Knowing she was waiting for him, ready to guide him through his first year in the greater world, helped calm his sudden surge of nervousness. He reached into the right front pocket of his black slacks and confirmed that her last letter was still in there, as well as the index card containing the name and address of the Grafton boy with whom he would correspond over the next year, a custom he now understood and appreciated. Even still, Greg’s palms moistened and heart palpitated loudly as Isaac opened the gate and sauntered through. Again, Greg reminded himself, he was merely experiencing expected physical reactions to his imminent departure. Greg looked from side to side, secretly hoping someone else would shove his or her way through, but of course no Grafton boy or girl would ever do that, and sure enough, the others had formed a single line behind him and waited patiently for him to advance, undoubtedly sharing some of his perturbation. Greg took a deep breath and stepped forward.

A large asphalt parking lot sprawled out before him lined with black buses with darkened windows. He scanned the digital screens on the front to find the one he would ride up north to Portage University, the only place he had applied, knowing Serafina would be there. There was, after all, little need to experience the unnecessary anxiety of choice when a perfectly acceptable option was available.

The driver, a burly man with a handlebar mustache under small green eyes and a bulbous nose, took Greg’s backpack and tossed it in the storage underneath the bus as Greg stepped inside. The bus was empty, so he made his way to the middle and sat down. Belatedly he realized that Isaac would not be riding the same bus, as his friend would be heading northeast instead of due north. Greg stood up to disembark, to bid farewell to his closest friend, but just then the bus driver entered and closed the door. Greg shrugged and returned to his seat, and as the bus pulled away, he gazed back at Grafton, absently fingering the letter in his pocket as he dozed off.

When Greg awoke, the bus had stopped moving. The sky was just starting to lighten, so he had clearly not slept for long. A jagged skyline of treetops glowed in the distance, long strands of telephone wires stretching like fallen parentheses from pole to pole, the long, flat highway a giant asphalt triangle. He stood up and stretched, then stepped forward to ask the driver where they were. Only, the driver wasn’t on board. Greg padded toward the front to exit the bus and heard voices just outside. Up ahead, just outside the bus to his right was a single-story, white-brick building with a flat roof and a faded royal blue sign standing in front beckoning passers-by to “Dine at Dinah’s Diner.” He stopped and settled into a first row seat and waited.

“But I told you, I do have a ticket; I just lost it,” said a female voice that sounded surprisingly familiar.

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Mile High Murder

The Italian died first, with a fist to the throat.

His killer had spun him around, then jammed the blade of his hand under his nose. It forced the Italian’s head back, exposing the throat. Three punches later and he was shoved back into the airplane’s toilet to enjoy his crushed windpipe. He eventually suffocated.

The killer closed the door and looked to either side of him. No one had seen him, or even paid attention to him. Bystanders would have only seen his arms disappearing into the bathroom for a moment before he closed the door.

Thankfully, he only had two more people on his target list: The Spaniard and the Indian. He moved forward casually, walking through the plane’s cabin as though he belonged there.

The Indian was easy to locate. He was already in the aisle, coming out of the middle toilet.

The killer smiled, and murmured, “Figures.”

The killer jogged forward a little to catch up to his target. From what he remembered of the plane’s layout, he would just be able to catch up to the Indian by the time he reached the curtains that marked the mid-plane galley, and just out of sight of anyone seated in coach or business class. As for anyone in the galley, he would deal with them when he caught up.

The killer grabbed the Indian on both sides of the head, judo-threw him into the galley – the body followed the natural center of balance. The killer threw himself after the Indian, landing on him like a lion overcoming a gazelle.

The Indian landed heavy, and the killer’s knee was in his back so fast, he didn’t even have a chance. The Indian’s neck was thin, and it made a sound like a snapping twig when the killer grabbed and pulled.

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Harski licked each of his twelve fingers slowly in turn, relishing every drop of the sweet, sticky nectar. The harvest had been especially bountiful, more shining dark purple pods swelling to ripeness at the top of waxy lavender stalks than he had ever seen. The stalks were so heavy with nectar pods they bent toward the ground within easy reach. He had worked long and hard, carefully stripping the glistening globules without damaging the stalks.

The only problem was how to store all those pods. Harski had already filled his two favorite hollow logs and had almost filled a small, dry cave. The cave was far from the stalk field and the pods felt heavier with every trip he made there. He rarely returned to his nest, sleeping in the open under the three Moons to save time. If he hurried, he might be able to find a second cave before moonset to store the abundant nectar. There were still a handful of sleeps to go before he’d have to hunker down in the dark.

He spread his tattered lupt on the carpet of leaves in the shade next to the velvety red trunk of a hraffli tree. Lying on his back, Harski filled his lungs with the fragrant air then exhaled a contented sigh. He untucked his ear flaps, gave them a long, satisfying stretch, and brought them around to cover his eyes, blocking out the dim light filtering through the umbrella of yellow-orange leaves. He wondered if other dreffigs were having the same wonderful harvest in other stalk fields, enjoying full bellies, working hard until moonset. Did they dream, like him, of one day living in a colony with thousands of other Gwims instead of eking out a lonely existence harvesting and trading nectar?

Stop it. No colony wants dreffigs, only nectar. He drifted off, wondering what life in the Great Tree Colony was like, or if he might prefer the Mountain Rocks.

Harski woke with a start, instinctively thrusting his enormous ears straight up. He blinked his large, luminous black eyes, angled his head and twitched both ears searching for the source of the sound. For a moment, all he could hear was the fast thrump-thrumpity-thrump of his pounding heart.

Still a long time before moonset… His nostrils, two vertical slits above his wide mouth, vibrated with terror. Too soon for—

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In Another Life

Sarah was the only person still at the laboratory. Her obsession demanded that she be the last person to leave, and the first person there in the morning. Most nights she didn’t even go home at all — why should she? Not even a cat waited there to greet her.

Next to her monitor sat an old fashioned photo, with a print and a frame and everything. She did not want a digital device. Her heart could only handle a single picture. The blue light of the computer illuminated it so she could see it all hours of the night. Except for the dim emergency lights, her monitor provided the only bright light in the entire building at this hour. Darkness blanketed the rest of her office and the whole laboratory building. At 3am, only Sarah and her work existed. Not even Joe, the janitor robot, ventured away from his charging module at this hour.

The mahogany frame held a picture of Abram. Sarah glanced at it while she thought, and her chest constricted painfully. Why did she even keep it around? But every time she convinced herself to finally toss it in the trash, she turned and set it back on her desk instead.

He was a handsome man even though he had been twenty years older than her. Sandy hair, wireframed glasses, hazel eyes with laugh line crow’s feet. Even now she remembered every inch of his features. And he’d been an absolute genius. Sarah spent her life amongst people as far beneath her as a dog was beneath a human, but in him, she had finally found an equal.

It was perfect. Even their names were written in time – Sarah and Abram – the parents of descendants as numerous as the stars.

But he was gone now, lost to her. Everything they had planned for ended one awful day a decade before.

She would bend the universe to her will, do anything to have him back. The cost didn’t matter. Sarah Cowen always got what she wanted.

Sarah stared at the picture for a moment longer. The despair always lurking at the edge of her mind surged forward, threatening to consume her again. Angrily she slammed the picture face down on her desk, removing it from her sight. The glass covering the picture shattered from the force she used to knock it down. The breaking of the photograph barely registered with her. Breaking it was of little consequence now.

She would have the real Abram back soon enough, and wouldn’t need the picture any longer. She was so, so close to finally finishing it. So close to finally realizing their work.

And then she would get her happy ending, and it then the last ten years would never happen.

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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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