You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Friday, August 31, 2007



A short story by Michael R. Lockridge

Lisa hid in the barn, making her final preparations. Three days and nights she had stayed here, watching and learning. Patience was always the most important quality in the hunter. Her grandfather had taught her that, in the long ago days when he had taught her the art of the bow. More important than the shooting. Patience brought the hunter to the place where the shot could be made.

She hid the pack and gear under some hay. Nothing inside would lead back to her people. They were already dead. None were left to take revenge upon. They had all been taken from her during the war.

As she tied down her loose clothing, preparing to move in stealth, she remembered them all. The invaders had killed her grandfather, her father and her brother outright. Seven men, veteran fighters, had taken their home, their land, and their lives. They had spared her mother’s life. They had spared her own.

It was only a matter of weeks. Weeks that seemed like years. They helped themselves to the fruits of their little farm. They helped themselves to her mother. Most of all, they helped themselves to her. Time after time. She retreated within herself, became like the walking dead. She remembered that darkness.

She checked her bow. She selected three arrows, her best. She would only need one, but her grandfather had taught her to be prepared for a missed shot.

As she waited for first light, she remembered her mother. The men had required her to work, as well as serve as a plaything. Her mother could not hide inside herself. She suffered in full consciousness, slave to the men who murdered her husband, her father, and her son. She had found strength to try to comfort Lisa, even in her own suffering.

Lisa shed a tear at the memory. It slowly coursed down her cheek. She was lost in the memory, and paid the tear no mind.

Her mother did not last long. Not being as interesting as her young daughter, she often was subjected to pointless abuse. One day the playfulness of her captors was too much, and she died. Lisa was not even sure of the cause. Something just broke.

Her mother was not buried. Like the rest of her family, her mother was cast into a ravine.

No longer just a plaything, Lisa became the servant of her captors. They were less abusive toward her than her mother, but still demanding. The change of duties brought her back to herself. She began plotting revenge.

A patrol of local men came by one day. Lisa was bound, gagged and held by one of the men in a back room. The others arranged themselves in ambush. Though killed to a man, Lisa was proud of her neighbors. They reduced the number of her captors to four.

With fewer of them, she was less often busy meeting their carnal needs, and more the servant girl. She heard them talk. She learned where they lived. She learned that they were the lesser-trained tail of some aspiring emperor’s army. Their task was simply to occupy and pacify the local populace, preventing organized resistance.

They were just thugs, terrorizing and murdering.

After a seemingly infinite time had passed, the men had a meeting. It was agreed that three would go out and seek news from the emperor’s forces. One would remain to keep their little nest warm and safe. He would insure their captive remained where they could continue to enjoy her hospitality.

They were gone two days when her opportunity presented itself. They did not know that her grandfather had taught her to keep and use a blade. She had been a part of the occasional slaughter of chickens and lambs from the time she could handle a knife. She could keep a blade sharp, and use it well.

She did use it well. Complacent in his martial skill and superior strength, he attended too closely to the meal she had made him. He bled his own gravy onto his plate, his throat slit clean and wide.

Lisa took only as much time as was necessary to get her gear together. She found her grandfather’s best bow, and clutch of arrows. To this she added what other arrows she knew of around the farm. She dressed in her brother’s clothing, grabbed her gear, and then made her way into the woods.

Her enemies were now reduced to three. She waited and watched on the edge of the forest for two days. Her remaining captors returned at close to noon on the third day. She watched them enter the house, and then run out again. She had left the man she had killed sitting at the table. They ran about, searching for her.

Not finding her, they settled into their captured house. She continued to watch from the woods, living on cold foods she had brought out and stashed in the woods. No fire, nothing to give away her presence.

The next day she watched them leave early in the morning. They were apparently going home. The little band of three made their way toward the road that would take them back to their own land. They had come, raped and murdered, and now were just leaving!

Lisa made her way quickly through the woods. She knew of a good vantage point over the road. Her vengeance was not yet complete.

She was in hiding for less than an hour when the three passed below her hiding place. A clear shot presented itself, and she took it. Now there were only two.

They searched hard, coming close to the place she had hidden on two occasions. When they finally tired of the hunt, they vanished into the woods. They were headed back in the direction from which the came.

After some time had passed, Lisa went to the road to strip the body of her enemy. She was not surprised to find that his companions had already done so.

Lisa began working her way slowly through the woods, parallel to the road. Several times large knots of soldiers came along, and she had to hide. Over the course of several days, the groups became smaller. Never so few that she could pick one off with any safety. Never did she see her quarry hidden in the herd.

She continued to move steadily along.

A week on the move brought her to a small village. She lurked about, eventually learning that this was the village of one of her captors. Three days of lurking, hidden sleeping places, and stolen meals brought her at last an opportunity.

Her quarry wandered drunkenly from an inn at the edge of town. From her hiding place under a wagon she watched him lurch out of town toward some farm in the distance. He never made it home. She left him with two arrows in his back, laying face down in the mud and dung.

Lisa came slowly out of these dark memories. Two more weeks it had taken her to find the village of her last captor. The last couple of days taught her his location and habits. The light coming in through the barn door told her it was time.

She made her way slowly toward the barn door. She waited for a cart to pass, and then ran low to the cover of a wagon in the yard. Under the wagon, up against the fence on the other side. She could see the door clearly. It opened, as she knew it would.

Her quarry stepped forth, looking back and waving to somebody. He had not even turned when the arrow pierced his neck. She let him turn and look at her before she loosed the second arrow. It pierced his chest, and he fell.

A scream broke the morning. Shutters flew back, and heads poked out of various windows in the little village. A woman, round with child, stepped out of the door from which her quarry had just come. She looked down at the man who had been Lisa’s tormentor. She looked up at Lisa.

Their eyes locked. Lisa heard the sound of two more lives breaking. Two more victims of the evil that had engulfed her.

“Vengeance is not sweet.” Said Lisa, the bow dropping from her numbed hand. “It is very, very bitter.”

Lisa drew her knife, and turned the blade in her hand. Throwing herself forward, she fell upon it. Another scream rent the morning. Lisa realized it was her own.

She longed for satisfaction, but it evaded her as the darkness overcame everything.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Death by Chocolate

Death By Chocolate

A short story by Michael Lockridge

“Well, Bill, I must admit I am curious.” Said Ted Wendell, as he followed his host down the narrow hallway.

“It is revolutionary, to say the least!” Bill Horton replied, as they reached a doorway.

“Curious, but incredulous.” His guest said.

“Not for long.” Said Bill, opening the door.

He stepped across the room, and pulled a sheet off of some equipment sitting on a cluttered table.

“I must admit it is not too impressive to look at.” Bill apologized, as he started a computer and several power supplies. While the systems initiated communication among themselves, he extracted a sample of liquid from a clear tank sitting on the same table. He took his sample to another table nearby, and placed it in a test tube.

“This solution is comprised of a number of base components for the fabrication of nanobots.” Bill explained, as he tested the solution. “There are carrier molecules suspended in the liquid, which will respond to a form of chemical programming I have developed.”

“Sounds complicated.” Said his guest.

“Initially, perhaps. However, I worked out some algorithms which moved the work along quite nicely.” Said Bill. “The key was finding a coding interface which allowed me to instruct chemicals in a manner similar to how we instruct computers.”

“You know, Bill, that I am a business man more than a scientist. Still, I think I can see where you are going.” Said Ted.

“It’s ready. The carrier has integrity.” Said Bill. “I can explain as we go along.”

The two men turned back to the table full of equipment. The tank of liquid had begun to churn. Sediment that had been on the bottom was being forced into suspension within the liquid by the churning action.

“Some of that motion is just the liquid being recycled by a pump.” Said Bill. “Some is from the gas ports which are along the bottom of the tank. There are bits of just about everything in there for the program to react with.”

His guest nodded, but said nothing. His was paying very close attention.

Bill removed a small sample of material from a small plastic case. He used forceps to remove it, holding it up to the light. “Iron.” He said.

He dropped it into the tank. It sank to the bottom, shifting a bit with the agitation of the chemical bath. He then turned to the computer monitor and keyboard.

“The interface is relatively simple.” He said. “I direct the visual monitor to lock onto the target in the tank. There.”

On the screen a window gave the computer’s view of the target. Bill made a few more keystrokes, and the agitation of the liquid stopped.

“Now the parameters.” He typed some numbers into several boxes on the screen. “I have set the system to create a duplicate of the iron sample. The ‘bots will have two generations, then break down.”

“Two generations?” Asked Ted.

“The initial program creates a general ‘bot. Quite a few, actually.” Explained Bill. “These are standard ‘bots comprised of the elements in the carrier molecules. These create the replicator ‘bots. Each type of ‘bot can reproduce itself. Each generation has a molecular tag. If not limited, they would continue to reproduce themselves infinitely. You can imagine the consequences.”

“Ahh.” Said Ted. “Yes. So you build in a limiter. Please, proceed.”

“The replicator ‘bots will need raw materials.” Said Bill. He dropped a cleaned piece of metal in the tank. “Just a bit of an old car. Stripped of paint, degreased and acid etched. Not necessary, but the carrier solution is expensive enough to produce that I try to keep it clean. I want to know what is in there.”

Ted nodded.

Bill hit the enter button on the keyboard. Nothing seemed to happen.

“The monitor indicates that the first generation of general ‘bots is propagating. Now the second generation has begun, and the first generation is fabricating replicators. According to the computer, the replicators have started working.”

Ted looked into the tank. Nothing visible seemed to be happening. Then the piece of junk metal began to look a bit fuzzy. Over several seconds the target piece of iron seemed to swell. A few seconds later the swelling stopped.

“Done.” Bill said. He switched the agitator back on, and drew a sample of the liquid. Again he went to the second table and ran a test. “Confirmed. The ‘bots are now inert.”

With a long set of forceps he removed the iron sample. It was visibly nearly double the size of the original sample. Bill rinsed it, dried it and handed it to his guest.

Ted Wendell turned the piece of iron in the light. It was not so neatly shaped as the initial sample, but obviously double the size.

“Do you have anything to drink?” He asked his host. “I think I need it.”

“Yes, of course. Right this way.” Bill said. He led his guest to the door of his little laboratory.

“Bill, I think that you are about to reshape the world. After our drink, I need to make some phone calls.” Said Ted. He still clutched the piece of iron in his hand.

The two men stepped into the hall, and closed the door.

Michael Horton crawled out from behind the small sofa in his father’s laboratory. He wasn’t supposed to come in here, but his pet rat had been missing all morning. He had looked almost everywhere. The laboratory was his last area to search, and the area behind the sofa seemed like a great place for the rat to hide.

He felt a little like a rat hiding behind the sofa, when his father and the other man came into the lab. He didn’t dare move, or he might get into trouble. When he realized that he might get a chance to see what his father had been working, secretly, for so long, Michael could not help but crawl out a bit from his hiding. He watched the whole procedure.

He didn’t understand everything he had seen, but he could tell that the other man was pretty excited when the little piece of metal got bigger. He couldn’t understand such excitement over making more metal, though. There was metal all over the place. Not very interesting.

Once the men were gone, Michael crawled out from his hiding place and stood before the machine. He knew how to use a computer for games and homework. This didn’t look any harder. In a moment he had the agitator running, and managed to find the screen that had the settings his father had adjusted.

What would he want to make more of, with a machine like this? He checked his pockets, and found the answer.

“Chocolate!” Michael said. He unwrapped the dark matter, and dropped it in the tank. It sank to the bottom. With a little trial and error, he had the sweet substance centered in the aiming window.

How much was not a real question. Lots of chocolate had to be a good thing. He adjusted all of the numbers as high as he could set them. Then, he pressed the enter button.

Michael waited, and watched. He had not seen the piece of metal get bigger, but his father and the other man had talked about it. He watched the chocolate, and it didn’t seem to do anything. After a few minutes, he grew tired of waiting.

Michael shut off the agitator, and shut down the computer as much as he could. He did not want to turn off the power, so he set everything back to the way he remembered seeing it when he had started.

The last thing Michael did was to fish the chocolate out of the tank. It was a little sticky, so he threw it into the trashcan beside the table. Nobody would notice it there. The remains of several meals were in there from when his dad was working late. Licking his fingers, Michael went to see if he could find his rat.

Bill Horton locked the door to the house, and followed the EMT’s to the ambulance. They didn’t have room for him to ride with Michael, so he had to drive. He would follow them to the hospital.

As he drove, he could barely keep his panic in check. Just after his guest had left, Bill had found his son lying on the kitchen floor. He had been unconscious, but still breathing. Terror had filled his heart, and calling 911 had been an almost impossible task. He kept his son as comfortable as possible while waiting for the emergency medical team to arrive.

He had not returned to the laboratory before finding his son in the kitchen. Had he done so, he would have seen the tank breached by the rampant nanobots seeking the materials they would need to replicate their target. He might have also seen the fat, white rat emerge from the brown mass in the trashcan by the table in his lab. The rodent plopped onto the floor, and trundled away. He dripped brown goo as he went toward the secret way out of the house he had recently discovered.

Just possibly, Bill could have corrected the situation, averted the disaster, had he returned to the lab at that time. However, once the body of the poisoned rat had been picked over by a flock of crows migrating through the area, the fate of the world was sealed. Just possibly, it was already too late.

At least he was in time to hold his dear son, Michael, before life left his young body. A body already becoming something very like chocolate.

Science officer Shaltzan looked at her instruments, and was very troubled. It had been very hard, talking Captain Kelros into diverting to the small planet. Only when she displayed images of the creatures living there had he agreed. That, and the implied offer of ritual mating.

The creatures were quadrupeds, rather than bipedal, but had fur and facial structures similar to her own species. They had longer tails, and of course weren’t sentient. She had studied them for a short period of time while serving on a survey vessel. The chance to look in on them again was worth a ritual mating.

What disturbed her was the state of the continent on which her precious specimens had resided. Past tense. Nothing but a few microbes seemed to live there now. A brown slurry seemed to cover most surfaces, and all of the other continents seemed to also be similarly infected.

Very few signs of life, and no sign of intelligence, seemed to exist any longer on this world. The strange, bald bipeds that seemed to dominate this world all seemed to be gone. At least, that was what her long-range surveys indicated.

Kelros appeared impatient. Science officers on merchant vessels were required by regulation, but not particularly desired by the merchants. Kelros had been unusually indulgent.

“We need to study what happened here.” She said.

“Send a probe. Collect samples. Then we go. We have seven more systems to visit, before we reach home.” He said. “My chamber, in one hour.”

So romantic, she thought. Shaltzan watched him leave the bridge, then turned to her instruments. There. Probes launched. They would return with her samples by the time the ritual was completed.

Seven systems, then home.

Friday, August 10, 2007


I find myself longing to travel, but not always having the time or money. Fortunately, I can follow travel blogs and utilize other resources on the Internet, and make preparations for my coming retirement. I have also begun to do what I call vtravel.

Using my atlas, I plot a journey. I have been targeting travels of thirty to sixty miles a day, and focusing largely on secondary roads. As I progress along my chosen road, I look up towns and points of interest as I come across them.

I keep an open document as I do this, and log the journey through hyperlinks and photos I gather off of the Internet. Many of the photos have links to other sites, as well. Each page is a wealth of information.

Thus far I have discovered a trove of interesting places I would have missed moving faster. I have learned about people and places, and established some solid ideas for places to go when I am more free to travel. I have also discovered a new form of writing.

One thing I intend to do based on this experience is to photograph places near where I live, and place them on the Internet so that other people can use them. If more people gave some thought to using their photos as a resource for everyone, we could all benefit. We could all visit places even if we can't always go there.



A short story by Michael R. Lockridge

“Nice ride.” Said the man behind the counter of the Quick Stop. “What, exactly, is that?”

He handed the bag to his tall, thin customer.

“That is a reproduction Gypsy caravan.” Said Marcus Windsel, with obvious pride. “I built it myself. Mostly from drawings, and old photos.”

“Cool.” Said the man behind the counter. “Be sure you clean up after that horse of yours.”

Marcus nodded, and stepped outside.

Just two days ago he had put the finishing touches on two years of work. Fabrication, carving, assembly and painting. After a great deal of research.

He walked over to his horse, patting him gently and offering him a carrot just purchased from the convenience store. The horse accepted the gift placidly.

“Well, Wanderer, we are on our way.” Said Marcus, as he stepped up onto his drivers seat. Before he took the reins, he consulted his map one more time.

“Where you going with that thing?” Asked another customer. The man had stopped for a pack of cigarettes and a newspaper, but figured he might get something interesting here to tell his cronies in the park. Anything new to spice up the well-worn conversation.

“Everywhere!” Said Marcus. “I plotted a course on which I can run this rig out of town. I can get at least a hundred miles out, from what I have plotted so far. From there, who knows?”

“So, uh, you a Gypsy?” Asked the curious customer. “You don’t look like a Gypsy. Not that I would really know.”

“I think so. At least, my Grandfather referred to himself as a Traveler.” Answered Marcus. “See this medallion up here on the wall? I inherited that from him. Some kind of family heirloom. Anyway, Gypsies were often called travelers. I always thought of myself as a Gypsy, and now I am living the dream.”

“Pretty.” Said the customer. He was looking at the brightly painted carvings, as well as the medallion pointed out by the so-called Gypsy. “Where you learn to drive this thing?”

“I went to a ranch in Wyoming. There is a camp for learning to drive horse teams.” Answered Marcus. He expected to answer lots of questions on his travels. He knew that his creation was colorful, creative and unusual. He relished the prospects.

“Well, gotta go.” Said the customer. “Good luck, young fella.” He waved, tucked his paper under his arm, and sauntered off toward the park.

Marcus took up the reigns, gave them a snap, and clucked his horse into motion. He pulled sedately out into the street, and turned to follow the careful markings on his map.

He moved along the blue highways for hours. People waved, often standing along the street to watch him pass slowly by. He answered shouted questions as his horse plodded along. At lunchtime he cooked his first meal inside his unusual recreational vehicle. It was proving to be a great first day.

Houses grew sparse as the day passed into late afternoon. The road narrowed to two lanes, and he was thankful for the thin traffic. His colorful rig did not delight all passing drivers. It was slow, and therefore irritating. Still, the day continued to live up to his expectations.

He was a traveler, just like the grandfather he venerated. He did not know the old man well, having seen him seldom. Still, his memory was like a bit of magic, inspiring this wonderful journey.

Well before sunset Marcus found himself a camping spot. Little more than a turnout, and closer to the road than he would like, but still adequate. Cut back into a hill, the turnout felt safe and private. He set the brake, and stepped down.

Marcus unhitched Wanderer, and led him to a patch of grass on the hillside. He hobbled the horse, to prevent him from living up to his name.

“A camp fire would be nice.” Marcus said, wistfully, as he made his way back to the caravan. Not practical, so close to the road.

The van looked marvelous in the waning light. Once inside, he prepared his evening meal. After dinner, he sat outside for a little while. He imagined himself one in a long line of travelers. He grew weary, and took himself to bed.

The next day he awoke just before the rising of the sun. He stepped outside to take care of some business, and look after Wanderer. He found Wanderer behind a small stand of trees. He was leading the horse back when he noticed the man sitting on the bank, near the van.

The man seemed to be fascinated by the medallion mounted on the caravan. He paid neither Marcus nor the horse any mind at all. Just sat and stared. Marcus noted the rather fox-like appearance of the man. Pointed face, sharp eyes. Hair a bit shaggy. When he finally turned and looked at Marcus, the similarity became a bit spooky.

“Do you know Artemus Wendel? I see you have his medallion on your conveyance.” Said the strange little man. “Oh. Pardon me. I’m Yarmoth Dunst.” He stood, and offered his hand.

“My grandfather.” Said Marcus, rather absently, as he offered his hand in return. He was rather distracted by the man’s tail. Furry, like a fox.

The man shook Marcus by the hand, and then followed his gaze. The tail swished from side to side, then was still. The foxy eyes returned to look over Marcus once again.

“Hmmm.” Said Yarmoth. “I can see that Artemus did not complete your education. Did he give you the medallion? I mean, with his own hand?”

“No.” Marcus answered. “It came from my father. Both he and my grandfather are gone. They went on a journey several years ago, and never came back. My father had left the medallion in my care.”

“Ahh.” Said Yarmoth. “So, you don’t know.”

“I thought we were Gypsies.” Said Marcus. His voice was just above a whisper. “Grandfather was a Traveler.”

Marcus had dropped the horse’s lead. Yarmoth picked it up and tied the animal to the van.

“I think we could both use a cup of tea.”

He guided Marcus to the entrance of the van, and helped him inside.

Marcus let the little man, if man he was, make the tea. Soon they had steaming cups in on the table in front of them.

“I am afraid that you are in error regarding any Gypsy heritage.” Said Yarmoth. “Fine folk. They have often been kind to me. They are travelers, but not Travelers.”

Marcus continued to look rather blank.

“Your grandfather was my friend. We are Travelers.” Yarmoth continued. “The medallion is a talisman. It thins the line between wheres. When used properly, a talisman like your medallion permits passage between worlds.”

Marcus continued to look confused.

“Have you heard of Stephen King?” Yarmoth asked.


“Did you ever read his Gunslinger novels?”

“Uh. Yeah. A while ago.” Said Marcus. “Why?”

“Remember what Jake said, when Roland dropped him?”

“Oh.” Said Marcus. “Oh.”

“I shall go with you.” Said Yarmoth. “You have already crossed your first barrier. We need to find your grandfather, so that he can teach you what this is all about.”

The foxy little man took a sip of tea. Marcus just sat, and looked confused.

Marcus sat for a moment longer, thinking on how his adventure had taken a rather sudden turn. The adventure he had planned had just become infinitely more interesting.

He looked at his new friend, and smiled.

“Well, Toto. I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore.” He said.

It was Yarmoth’s turn to look confused.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A Little Knowledge

A Little Knowledge

A short story by Michael R. Lockridge

“What the hell is all this?” Exclaimed William Jensen. He had just arrived home from an extended business trip. A month away from home, and his hired hand does this!

“It’s what you told me to build.” Responded Sandy. The hired hand looked confused. Of course, he often looked confused. Jensen often said that Sandy had been born in the state of Confusion, and still retained his citizenship. Sandy never got the joke.

“I told you to build this?” Asked Jensen. “When did I tell you to build anything like this? You don’t have the imagination. I don’t have the imagination!”

“Just before you left. You said, ‘don’t forget to put up that eclectic fence.’” Said Sandy. He looked so sad; Jensen lost the edge on his anger. The man may be as big as a house, but his attic was virtually empty.

“Sandy, that was a joke.” Said Jensen. “I must apologize. I have to remember my audience before I play with words. I wanted an electric fence in that pasture.”


William Jensen, professional writer and aspiring gentleman farmer, looked at Sandy’s creation.

“Tell me about it, Sandy.”

“OK.” Said the young man. He realized he wasn’t in trouble, and felt a little better. “I asked Sue Beth what ‘eclectic’ meant. She explained it to me.”

The gentleman farmer knew Sue Beth. Young, pretty. Smart. Town librarian. How she hooked up with this gentle giant he did not know. Arms as big around as most men’s legs. On second thought, perhaps Jensen could imagine the attraction.

“She explained that something eclectic was made of parts from all kinds of places and things.” Sandy went on.

Jensen looked at Sandy’s creation. An eclectic fence. Imagine!

“I guess that explains why the front part of the fence is in sections of wood, metal, and stacked hay bales.” Observed Jensen.

“I found the boxcar doors down by the old railroad siding.” Sandy said, proudly.
“When did you librarian friend begin helping you?” Jensen asked.

“After I used up all of the things I could find, I asked her to help.” Sandy said. “She found the bamboo screens I used down there.” He pointed along the length of fence.

“She didn’t figure out what I really wanted?” Asked Jensen.

“We were pretty well into it before she suggested that I might have not understood.” Sandy said. “It kind of took over. Started growing on its own.”


“Sue Beth found the bagels. A huge truckload was messed up somehow. Had to be thrown out. She talked them into dropping them here.”


“Yeah. Sue Beth found a way to seal them. They may last forever.” Said Sandy.

“And that colorful section down there?” Asked Jensen.

“Cinder block. I found some kids working on the bridge south of town. I told them they could decorate this wall without getting into trouble. They went to town!”

“Get in the truck, Sandy.” Said Jensen. “I want you to show me more.”

As they drove along, Sandy pointed to a shiny section of the wall. “Those glass bricks. Sue Beth says they are ‘art deco.’ I like that part the best.”

“You going to marry that little librarian?” Asked Jensen.

“I don’t know. Haven’t asked her yet.”

“Well, don’t.” Said Jensen. “The two of you are dangerous as it is. A lot of muscle and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

The young man said nothing.

“Sandy, that was a joke.” Said Jensen. He sighed, and shook his head.

“Yes, sir.” Said Sandy. “I’ll tell Sue Beth. She can tell me how funny it is.”

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Caretaker's Tale

The Caretaker’s Tale

A short story by Michael R. Lockridge

Thomas Cranston made his way carefully among the stones in his garden. He knew the way well. He had been tending this particular garden for over twenty years. Though the night was moonless, he did not stumble. He knew the location of every tombstone by heart. He was soon at the backdoor of the caretaker’s cottage. His home.

Once inside he put down his burden. He looked proudly at the large dining room table he had assembled in his living room. It dominated the limited space. It was old and worn, and well past its prime. He had recovered it from a nearby restaurant that was undergoing demolition. It seemed so very appropriate.

The table had been set with great care. Every cracked plate, each chipped cup had been collected with much thought. Mismatched silverware, old and tarnished, was laid out with the aged china. Things that had see the end of their days, culled from trashcans and dumpsters. Each selected because they were just right.

Recycled tablecloth, seventeen place settings, various resurrected serving dishes. One place setting for each of the guests that had inspired him. Sixteen novels written in the last twenty years. Not bad, for a humble cemetery caretaker.

The thought of the feast brought him back to the burden he had so recently been carrying. From the large sack he drew forth an old can. He held the can over one of the serving dishes, and poured the contents into the dish. Though nothing appeared to come from the can, he took great care to spill none of it.

From discarded cans, jars and bottles he poured nothing onto plate after plate. Creamed corn, stewed tomatoes, string beans, and winter peas. The containers were all empty, but the labels still decried the former contents. A feast long gone, being prepared with care.

Last of all, Thomas extracted from the bag the bony carcass of what might once have been a good-sized turkey. This he placed on the large serving platter that occupied the center of the table. Oh, and lest he forget, he brought from a side cupboard several empty wine bottles.

His preparations were complete. Thomas gathered the twice-emptied cans and other containers, and put them back in the sack. This he stowed in a garbage can just outside the back door of his little cottage.

Thomas then went to his dresser, and laid out the fine clothing he had gathered for this event. He had worn the fine suit only once, after the publication of his first book. He had been given an award, and his publisher encouraged him to dress well for the gala event at which he was to receive the token of his success. The press of humanity was almost too much for him to take, and he vowed to never attend another such event.

His publisher’s admonitions to promote his books fell on deaf ears. Finally, their marketing department played up Thomas Cranston’s eccentricity. Whatever the case, all of his books had done well. Now he would wear this suit to honor those who inspired his writing.

Dressed, with his remaining hair put in place, he was ready. Thomas went to the front door, and opened it wide. The cool darkness outside was inviting. He breathed deeply, and then went back to the table. On the way he turned out all of the lights. He sat at the head of the table, and waited.

Slowly, the darkness began to slip inside the room. Though the room was already dark, the darkness began to take on a depth. Darkness upon darkness. Tendrils of darkness. Strange fingers reaching into the room, caressing everything. Engulfing everything.

The darkness engulfed the table. It slipped around Thomas’ feet, and gathered itself to envelope him. Still he waited. Thomas began to smile.

Points of light appeared above the table. The darkness withdrew from the points of light. They were flames, candle flames. The stubs of candles in the holders on the table were kindled. Now they were fat, tall candles in beautifully matched candelabras. They cast a warm glow on a fabulous feast.

The table was laden with dish after fabulous dish of the most wonderful foods. They smoked and steamed, and filled the small cottage with wondrous aromas. Presiding over all of the delicacies was a plump brown roasted turkey. The humble cottage had never hosted such a feast.

Though the darkness had withdrawn from the light, it had gathered into pools around the room. One pool seemed to sharpen, to coalesce. A man stepped from the gathered darkness, and stepped toward the man at the head of the table.

“Ah, Thomas. So good to see you. What a magnificent dinner! So kind of you to have invited me!” Said the man. “My stone looks marvelous! Thank you for such wonderful care! My rest is untroubled, knowing you are attending to things up here!”

Thomas stood, and offered his hand. His guest shook it warmly.

“Clive Sinclair. So good of you to come.” Said Thomas. “I see the others are arriving.”

The darkness gathered into fifteen pools of endless night. From each pool stepped another guest. Thomas greeted each of them warmly.

“Ladies, Gentlemen. Please, be seated. I present to you the feast!”
For an hour it was knives and forks. Plates passing up and down the table. Soon, the venerable turkey once again looked like the cadaver Thomas had pulled from his sack.
Plates and glasses were emptied, filled, and emptied again.

At long last, Clive Sinclair stood up from the table. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” He said, “Please, fill your glasses once again.”

Fine vintage poured from once empty bottles. Several were once again emptied.

Clive raised his glass, and nodded toward Thomas. “A toast to Thomas Cranston. The man who gave us each a second chance at life, through his written words. To Thomas!”

He drained his glass.

“To Thomas!” came the chorus. All glasses were drained.

Thomas stood and shook Clive’s hand. Clive was once again seated. Thomas continued standing.

“My dear friends.” He began. “It is you who gave me new life. I had so very little, when I found this job. I had lost my family, lost my purpose. I was empty. I took this job simply to keep myself alive, probably more out of habit than anything. I was dead, inside.”

There was a general murmuring around the table.

“Then, one by one, you came to me. You told me the tales of your lives, and I wrote them down. Fortune smiled upon me, for the tales were published. I have no need of wealth, but it allowed me to provide for those I had previously failed.” Thomas continued. “By that I was able to purchase as much happiness as I am warranted.”

More murmurs of gentle encouragement and sympathy.

“The last tale is told. The books are selling. I have made provision for the money to go out into the world, and do good.” Said Thomas. “I am as content as ever I have been. More so than I deserve. Thank you, my friends.”

Gentle applause. Glasses once again filled and drained. Eyes turned, as one, toward their host. Then upward they looked, at the noose affixed to the rafters above his head.

Thomas turned, and with some effort stood upon his chair. He turned again, and placed the loop of rope around his neck.

“My friends, I join you!”

Thomas kicked backward. His chair toppled. The light of the candles winked out.

The darkness was complete. No light found its way into the room. There was no sound, except for the creak of a rope against the beam. Then another sound. The sound of the chair being set upright.

The candles rekindled, their light slowly growing. The darkness pushed back, to reveal the party in their seats.

Thomas sat once again in his chair. He appeared younger, more vital. His friends raised their glasses in silent salute. They all drained their glasses, and then rose as one. Thomas rose with them. The darkness gathered around them all, rising like a vapor. After a moment it collapsed, spilling across the floor and out the open door.

The chairs were empty. A gentle breeze blew in through the open door. One by one, the candles surrendered to the darkness. The creak of the rope continued into the long night. Thomas Cranston had written his final chapter.