A NASA concept image of a space station.I hovered just outside the circle of Dockside officers surrounding Captain McGuire, trying to catch his eye. No doubt they were busy, what with launch just six hours away, but I really needed to bring this issue up with him post haste. McGuire was known for his temper, as well as his disdain for civvy staff members. Since I’m definitely a civvy I dared not interrupt. Hendricks, our Chief Operations Officer here on LF-4, finally left the little cluster of uniforms and the Captain cast me a skeptical glance.

“What is it, Abbot? You’ve been dancing around there like you’ve had to piss in the worst way for the last half hour. Get it off your chest.”

Clearing my throat, I stepped forward, close to the remaining circle, yet not actually joining it. Fleet boys have an overdeveloped sense of personal space and have been known to deck anyone stupid enough to intrude. The three remaining officers stood nonchalant regarding me with smiles, bordering on sneers. I paused, uncertain of myself, of the situation. “Get it off your chest,” was a questionable invitation at best.

“Sir, I need to talk to you about the supply situation.” The sneer on Lieutenant Du Val’s face melted into a blank, unreadable expression. Lieutenant Anderson looked at her watch.

As Dockside Logistics Specialist for this launch it was my job to make sure everything was properly procured, delivered, and stowed aboard the ship before we sent her on her way. Once launched there’s no turning back, no resupply. First Crew would not emerge from stasis until the ship reached its full cruising speed, in about three years. The survival of the colonists depended upon a full manifest.

I cleared my throat again. “There seems to be a problem.”

Lieutenant Du Val frowned, folding his arms over his chest. Sub Lieutenant Gamble assumed Parade Rest, hands behind his back. His half smile-half sneer remained on his face. Anderson looked like she suddenly remembered something needing doing, and departed at a good clip.

I did not interpret the officers’ body language as good signs, and felt my situation growing tenuous.

“May I speak to you in private?”

Captain McGuire scowled, ever so briefly, then jerked his head to the side, dismissing the others. Du Val saluted and walked away, casting a black glance my way. Gamble stood off to about 3 meters and resumed his at ease position.

“What’s on your mind, young lady?” McGuire asked, his countenance all sincerity and concern.

“I’ve just finished my inventory, Captain, and there are critical shortages in the supplies.”

McGuire looked puzzled and stepped a bit closer to me. “What do you mean? Last week you told me everything was well accounted for.”

“Last week everything was well accounted for. I supervised that inventory personally, and everything was there down to the last gram of coffee.”

“Then how can there possibly be any shortages?” he asked, scratching his graying beard. “And what kind of shortages are we talking about here? Food? Medicine? Materials?”

“Yes. Yes to all of that. Plus equipment. Two tractors are missing. Otherwise, about 30% of the food and building materials have disappeared, and fully half of the pain killers.”

He shook his head in disbelief. “That can’t be right. All those supplies have been under guard and seal since their arrival. Either you must have made a mistake upon delivery, or are mistaken now. I can’t see how they could have just gotten up and walked away.”

My stomach dropped.

“With all due respect, Sir, there was no mistake. Then or now. Obviously someone has stolen these goods, and in doing so put the lives of hundreds of colonists in peril.” I could not help letting my eyes drift toward Sub Lieutenant Gamble. As if being reminded he was there, Captain McGuire turned and signaled the Officer over. As Gamble approached I took a reflexive step back.

“Yes, Sir?” Gamble stood rigidly at ease.

“Joe, Liz here seems to think there is a problem with the supply inventory.”


“She says close to a third of it has disappeared.”

Gamble’s face remained a study in stone.

“You can confirm that Warehouses 6 and 7 have been under 24/7 security?” McGuire looked stern.

“Yes, Sir!”

“And that the contents were moved, in their entirety, aboard the SS Hudson last night?”

“Yes, sir. I observed the transfer personally.”

“But–” McGuire cut me off with a gesture.

“And that the hold has been under constant guard since being sealed?”

“Yes, sir.”

McGuire turned to me with a skeptical, half bemused look on his face. “I think you must have made a mistake, Ms Abbot.” I opened my mouth to object, but he cut me off again. “Now don’t fret. We’ll double check everything, and believe me, if anything is missing – one, I will personally lead the investigation, and two, we will not launch until any shortfall has been filled. Thank you for coming to me with this. We’ll get on it right away.” He turned to Gamble. “See to it, Joe.”

“Yes, Sir!” Sub Lieutenant Gamble saluted, smirked at me, turned on his heal, and marched away.


McGuire glared at me. “I think we are done here, Ms Abbot. Dismissed.”

He walked off, leaving me drained and shaken.

I knew what I needed to do. I had to downlink right away. I turned and rushed back to my quarters.

I locked the door even as I noticed my message board blinking. When I called up the text any hope for support melted away. Instead of a reassuring message from Captain McGuire, it was orders. I was being reassigned. I was the new Logistics Specialist for SS Hudson. I was to report onboard within the hour. As I reached for the communications console my door swept open. Two Marines stepped in, one to each side, followed by a grinning Lieutenant Du Val.

“Good afternoon, Liz. Come with us please. Oh, don’t bother to pack.”

© 2014 by J. M. Strother. All rights reserved.

NASA image believed to be in the public domain.


My instructions were clear.

Only go to houses with the front light on.
Always keep your sister within sight.
Don’t cross the streets.
Stay on our block.
Say thank you.

Trick-or-treating in our neighborhood starts around twilight for the little kids, and sometimes lasts as late as nine o’clock for the bigger ones. My sister and I were of that in-between age, she being seven, and I a very mature ten. She was still too young to go out on her own, so I was tasked with the burden of being her escort.

I was of two minds on the matter. On the one hand it made me feel important, and I took my responsibility seriously. On the other hand, what ten-year-old wants to be saddled with their kid sister on the coolest night of the year? If my parents were the audience, it was the worst burden they could have possibly dreampt up, pure and simple. Out of their purview, I pretty well strutted with self-import, and tried to boss Molly around as if it were my divine right.

Not wanting to be confused for a little kid I insisted on waiting until five-thirty to roll around, much to Molly’s protestations. Five-thirty was what my friends, Tim Morgan and Bill Taylor, and I had set as an acceptable departure time. By then many of the little ones were already being shepherded home by their over-protective parents.

Halloween night of ’05 was all one could ask for. The weather was warm and dry, the sudden cold snap at the start of the week past, with only the lightest of breezes to stir the air – no jackets were necessary.

We all gathered down at Bill’s back gate. Tim looked none too happy, for while I was encumbered with Molly, he had it worse – his twin sisters, Mary Ellen, and Tabby were in his care. Bill, on the other hand, looked pleased as punch. He was the youngest in his family, and this was the first time he was allowed to do the rounds on his own.

The six of us – me as Albert Pujols in my Cardinals jersey and cap, Molly as a witch à la Hogwarts, Tim a hobo as he was every year, his sisters as Kim Possible and Dora the Explorer, and Bill as a pirate – headed out, intent on making the best haul ever.

Our block, though not particularly long, is known to be generous. Another factor going for us, Crestview Court – the short cul-de-sac bisecting the back side of our block – adds another nine houses to our route without requiring us to cross a street. So, despite our parents’ rules, we had a good chance of meeting our goals.

We did our own street, Brookdale, first. Unfortunately, we made old lady Carter our first stop. Valuable collection time was lost while she puzzled out who we were. In the end Mary Ellen and Tabby stumped her. They had to say who they were, and then had to go into a long explanation detailing the exploits of Kim Possible and Dora the Explorer. Still, it was my first chance to try out my home grown joke, and I delivered it with gusto.

“How many Cubs does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

Mrs. Carter stared at me for a moment before making the obligatory response. “I don’t know. How many?”

I started cracking up before I even delivered the punchline. “No one can remember, they haven’t done it since 1908!” My laughter subsided as I realized Mrs. Carter was still staring at me as if waiting for the finish. “Get it?” I asked. “Since 1908.”

She smiled and said, “That’s funny,” in the most unconvincing way. All this, and all we got was a lousy fun-sized plain chocolate bar.

Fortunately the rest of our street made up for it. Green Meadow, being the cross street was pretty much a wash. There are only two houses on it, and the Stewarts’ porch light, as always, was off.

By the time we got halfway down Woodcrest our bags were actually getting pretty heavy. Tim looked longingly across the street at the Turner’s well lit house. Word had it that the Turner’s went all out, gave full-sized candy bars, and had a great haunted house setup in the basement.

“Let’s check out the Turner’s this year,” Tim suggested.

“We can’t cross the street,” Molly said.

“It’s not busy. Let’s go.”

I was all for it, but Molly said she’d tell mom if we did.

“We’ll we’re going,” Tim decided for himself and his sisters. He was determined. He was also drawn by the fact that he had a major crush on Jenny Turner. “You coming?” he asked Bill.

Bill looked torn, but in the end decided to stick with us. Tim and the twins gave a quick look both ways and then dashed across the street and disappeared into a crowd of about a dozen other kids heading up the walk.

The three of us continued on and soon came to the corner of Woodcrest and Crestview Court. Of the nine houses only three had on lights. Bill suggested we skip it as not worth the effort, but Molly insisted we do the circle. After a good deal of wheedling she got her way.

The last house we came to with the light on looked a bit unkempt and Bill suddenly lagged behind.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him.

“Oh, nothing. I just don’t want to… That’s old man Henderson’s place.” I didn’t know much about old man Henderson expect he seemed to be lonely and walked a tired old black lab every day. I shrugged. “He’s kind of creepy,” Bill went on. “They say he killed his wife and keeps her in a rocking chair, like in that movie.”

“He did not!” Molly retorted. “He’s a nice old man, and Bo is a really nice dog.” She started down the walk.

“Molly, wait!” I reached for her, but she jerked out of my grasp and darted to the door. Before I could stop her she rang the bell.

What could I do but follow her onto the stoop? I looked back, and Bill stood there at the end of the walk, neither coming nor leaving. Distracted as I was, I nearly jumped when the front door jerked open. A warm orangish light washed out upon us.

“Trick-or-treat!” Molly shouted.

An old man in a red T-shirt and bluejeans stood on the other side of the storm door regarding our attire. A rolly-polly black lab stood just behind him, lazily wagging its tale. The man glanced aside, into another room, then slowly opened the door a crack.

“Trick-or-treat!” Molly shouted again, her eyes fixed on the black lab.

“Hello, Molly. Is it Halloween? I clear forgot.” He looked a bit perplexed. Then he opened the door wider to allow us to step in. I reached, but Molly was over the threshold before I could stop her. What could I do but follow her in?

The house had that vaguely sweet yet unpleasant odor reminiscent of the nursing home grandma was in. I glanced back out the door to see Bill standing resolutely at the curb.

Molly made straight for the dog, who nuzzled up to her warmly. They obviously knew each other well. Then she glanced into the other room and said, “Happy Halloween, Mrs. Henderson.”

That’s when I noticed the hospital bed. I took in a sharp breath when I saw a pale withered arm rise up and give a fluttery finger wave before dropping back down. The arm belonged to a gaunt old woman laying under several blankets. With a knit cap on her head only her pale arms and face were visible. Yet her clear blue eyes were very much alive, and she gave us a warm smile.

“I’ll see what I can rustle up,” Mister Henderson said, shuffling off toward the kitchen. As he did so Molly went over to visit with his wife, the dog tagging right behind her. I lingered by the door, undecided whether or not to bolt. As I fretted, Molly blithely related the adventures of our evening thus far and detailing her night’s haul. I was about to make a move to grab her when Mister Henderson came back into the room.

“This is all I could manage,” he said, almost apologetically. Molly joined us in the hallway and he dropped a full-sized chocolate bar into both of our bags. “So,” he said, “you have a joke for me?”

I told him my Cubs joke and he laughed heartily. Then he handed me another chocolate bar. “This one’s for your buccaneer friend out there,” he said, indicating Bill.

Old man Henderson watched us walk back out to the curb. When we got there Molly let out a gasp and turned back abruptly as if she forgot something. “Thank you!” she shouted down the walk toward the house.

In response Mister Henderson gave us a friendly wave. As we turned to go he closed the door, and front light winked out.
(c) 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.


We are celebrating the fourth year anniversary of Frdiay Flash (#FridayFlash) via a blog hop over at FFDO. The idea is to write a piece of flash fiction of 400 words or less which deals with a 4th year anniversay, link back to the hop (just click on the little green guy), and enter your story in the Blog Hop Collector for a chance to win a one year membership to Duotrope, one of the best market guides for writers you can find. I am taking myself out of the running for the prizes, but did want to participate with my own little tale. The hop is open until the end of the month, so it is not too late to enter !

We also have a prize for readers, so leave a comment on this story and you could win (again, click on the green guy for details).

The Setting Sun

I stomp my feet again, impatient, raising small clouds of reddish dust which drift lazily away. The nearby trough is nearly dry, forcing me to stretch my neck to barely wet my tongue. From inside the saloon I can hear Randy Garnet’s brash voice and guttural laugh over the general din. From the sound of it, he has plenty to drink. Typical of Randy, to leave me tied this way – the bastard never did think of anyone but himself.

Drink up, Randy, the more the better.

This year I’m a horse.

I have no say in the matter. Each year, on the anniversary of my lynching, I come back.

Last year I was a rattlesnake, coiled up under the front steps of Garland Foster’s ranch house. The year before, a mad dog. My first year back I was jaybird. Never would have guessed a jaybird could be so deadly. Spooked Warren Henderson’s horse good. The rock under his skull did the rest.

One by one I’ve hunted them down.

I hear chairs scrape inside, and Randy’s name called out by several of his compañeros. His voice is louder, and though I can only understand a handful of the words, I know he is leaving – coming to me. I paw the ground in excitement, raising more dust.

Randy stumbles through the doors, eliciting a peel of laughter from within, steadies himself, gets his bearings. His eyes meet mine and I nicker, stomp my right foot, nod my head as if in greeting. Unused to such a warm response he studies me as if trying to work something out. Then he lets a long stream of tobacco laden spit fly, right into the watering trough.

I’m really going to enjoy this.

Randy shambles down the one step and fumbles with my lead. Once unhitched he steps to my side and firmly plants his left foot in the stirrup. I move with an unholy instinct, throwing him off balance, wedging his foot between the stirrup and my side. He lets out a yelp as I lower my head and run for the setting sun, dragging him behind.

Randy Garnet is the last one. Maybe now I can finally find rest.



© 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.


The FFDO Blog Hop BadgeHi all. I know I have been very silent of late, which is no way to run a blog. While I miss it, and all of you termendously, for now life has other priorities.

However, I am still at the heart of all things a writer, and still involved with Friday Flash, though less visibly. For those of you who know me through the Friday Flash community, and anyone else who might be interested, I want to point that this coming week marks the 4 year anniversary of this international writing community. It is a testament to all of you, who read and write #FridayFlash, and to our terrific editorial and technical crew, that we have passed the test of time.

To celebrate, we over at Firday Flash Dot Org are sponsoring a blog hop with two very nice prizes for participants, one each for readers and writers. So follow our little green friend and hop on over to check out the rules and prizes. I think you will be pleased.


My story, “The Rains Come Down,” is featured over on the #amwriting Blog today. It examines the theme of grace and dignity in the face of adversity. I hope you’ll go over to read it.


Photo, Four Mule Team, from the OSU Special Collections, via Flickr Creative Commons, no known copyright restrictions.


A coal mine trap boy sitting by his trap door.The worst part was not knowing the time beyond the broadest sense of the term. There was starting time. There was lunch time. There was quitting time. If old Harv happened to be on one of the trains there was the occasional real time, since old Harv owned a watch that actually worked.

“2:35, Vance,” old Harv told him last time the train trundled by on it’s way deep into the mine.

“Thanks, Harv!” Vance called back while trying to shield his face from the bulk of the coal dust being thrown up. He felt the grit of it between his teeth. As the train passed he fell in behind it, walked some feet into the passage to watch the arc of light cast from the lead car’s headlight grow ever smaller. Before it dropped completely out of sight Vance grabbed the handle and heaved the trap door closed, shutting the miners and their precious air into #29 West, and him into the dimly lit access shaft.

2:35. Nearly three and a half more hours before the train would return with its load of coal and offer him his ride out to fresh air and comparative freedom.

He retook his seat and stared at the dimly lit wall on the opposite side of the tracks.

He still had an apple. He fingered it in his grimy pocket, then thought better of it. Best save it for when his stomach really started complaining.

To take his mind off food he began to sing the song he heard from the tavern across the street as he went to sleep last night.

Oh! you beautiful doll,
You great big beautiful doll.
Let me put my arms around you,
I could never live without you…

He sang through both verses and the refrain twice to be sure he had the words right before giving it full voice.

Vance never sang in public. For one thing, his momma would tan his hide if he did, for another, he was at that awkward age when his voice was beginning to change.

Still, Vance figured he had a pretty good singing voice and knew he had an ear for music. He only had to hear a song two or three times in order to commit it to memory. With the Coal Hole right across the street he had ready access to all the latest tunes. New songs drifted out of the tavern almost every week and he paid keen attention as he lay in his bed by the open window. His repertoire was constantly growing. As it grew, so too did the vague plan in the back of his mind.

People made money singing.

It would nearly kill his momma if he ran off, but he’d make it up to her. Once he got to a real city he’d get jobs in places much bigger than the Coal Hole. He’d send money back home, a lot of it, more than making up for the seventy-five cents a day he made as a trap boy. Heck, more than the dollar fifty a day he could make as a miner. Maybe he’d even be able to get momma to move away from Blacklog and join him in Lexington, or maybe even Louisville.

No sooner did he finish You Beautiful Doll than he started in on Down By the Old Mill Stream. She would never admit it, but Vance actually saw his momma smile when that song drifted in over dinner last summer. Then here eyes teared up and she made off for the kitchen to fuss over the coffee pot for a while.

He was just belting out “It was there I knew that you loved me true” when the explosion ripped the trap door from its hinges.

Vance groped around in the dark, coughing on the coal dust, trying to assess his own injuries. For the life of him he could not get his bearings. The explosion had made a shambles of his little set up, the concussion of it extinguishing his one lone candle. Unsure which way was what he crawled about, frantic to find his way out. When he felt the cold steel of the rail under his hand he gasped, then laid his face right down upon the track. This was his lifeline, his connection to the world outside.

He fumbled in his pocket for his matches. With shaking fingers he tried to strike one against the track. It broke. He fumbled for another, then stopped, realizing what a fool he was. The coal dust was thick and explosive. He pulled himself to the middle of the track and sat up, looking toward what he believed to be the interior of the mine and began to call out the names of the men he knew: Harv! Sam! Frank! George!


Only darkness returned his call.


© 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Photo by Lewis Hine, circa 1911, via Flicker Commons, no known copyright restrictions.








Headlights in the darkShe’s hiding something from me.

Ellen sits hunched against the door, feigning sleep. I steal glances her way when traffic allows, careful to keep the car pointing straight down the rain-slicked road. Her eyes flit open now and then, when particularly bright headlights wash over us. Definitely not asleep.

The wipers make the drive miserable. I should have replaced them months ago, but somehow wipers are easy to ignore during a prolonged drought. Now that it finally is raining the windshield is so streaked the glare of oncoming traffic nearly blinds me.

I wished her luck this morning when I dropped her off at work, and checked my cell phone repeatedly throughout the day. It was make or break day for us, with her company handing out pink slips to 20% of the staff.

I knew by her face when she came out tonight that they let her go.

“They sacked me,” she said when she got in the car. We both sat there in silence for a minute, me trying to take it in, she trying to keep it together. I’d been out of work for four months now. In our mid-forties, with two kids, and a mortgage we really needed her job. As I moved to put the car in gear she lost it, wrapped herself into me, and cried her eyes out. It was all I could do not to join her.

“We’ll get by, Ellen,” I said with no idea how on Earth to keep that promise. “We can get through this.” Somehow we had to.

She grew sullen as we headed home, withdrawing into the pretext of sleep. I recognize it as one of her strategies to avoid talking about something.

I pull into our drive much relieved to be out of the glare of oncoming headlights. I nudg the car forward leaving her just enough room to walk between it and the house. For a long time neither one of us says anything, letting the warmth from the heater keep the cold cruelty of the world at bay.

“Jason,” she says as I start to reach for the keys, “I’m preggers.”

I stare out the windshield, watching the wipers lose to the rain. Flip. Flop. Flip. Flop.

She lays her hand on my thigh and whispers, “I’m so sorry.”

© 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Photo by Steve A Johnson via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic License (CC BY 2.0)


Mo Shuh stepped carefully over the assorted bundles scattered about his fellow passenger’s feet. He made for the open deck of the narrowboat seeking relief. The sun beating upon the canvas roof, combined with the sweating passengers and their assorted menagerie of small animals made the covered seating area almost unbearable. He needed fresh air.

The tillerman, on seeing the Master rise, made as if to speak, but held his tongue. Instead he cast an exasperated look toward the pullerman leading the horse along the towpath. The pullerman did not even notice.

The town of Chenuan drifted past on both sides of the canal, busy shops to the right bustling with midday commerce. Street mongers hawked sundry wares. Pullcarts clattered over cobbles, pulled by weary, stoop-shouldered men. Women clustered, laughing or gossiping as was their wont. Men squatted around a cock fight.

To his left, toward the lowering sun, shanties stood but a few feet back from the towpath. The pullerman held fast the reins of his dapple gray horse with one hand, while brandished a stout pole before him with the other. Pity the fool who blocked his way.

People began to emerge from the makeshift huts and narrow alleyways at the boat’s approach. Some, upon seeing the purple sash Mo Shuh wore, averted their eyes and retreated. Others nodded their heads in sign of respect, but approached no further. Some, the most desperate among them, waited for the threat of the pullerman to pass, then scurried forward to the very edge of the brick-lined canal to plead their cases.

Please, Master, some spare food.

Master, I have a sick child.

My neighbor has cursed me, please help.

He considered tossing some coppers ashore, but knew pandemonium would ensue. Yet to help none because one could not help all was no excuse for inaction. As he scanned the misery assembling along the way a small child broke from an alley, skittering and dodging between the legs of the men and women now lining the way, and ran along the lip of the canal.

Her eyes fixed on him. She extended her hands, beseeching, pleading. “An apple, kind sir? An apple? Rice?”

Her clothes were soiled and ragged, limbs almost skeletal. Her eyes were sunken, yet still held the intense flicker of life.

“Stop, please.” Mo Shuh called up to the pullerman.

The pullerman, his back to the boat, and used to such calls from the passengers, ignored him.

“Siqi, stop!” the tillerman called out sharply.

Siqi turned his head toward the boat. Upon seeing Mo Shuh standing there with his foot on the gunnel he immediately reined in the horse, then deftly hooked the small nob at the bow with his pole and leaned into it. The momentum of the boat pushed him backwards, but in short order he fought the vessel to a standstill.

“What is it, Master?” he called down to Mo Shuh.

Mo Shuh did not bother to answer. Instead he leapt the short distance from the boat to the towpath, landing adroitly a few feet from the startled girl. Suddenly the hope on her face turned to fear. The crowd of spectators hung back, many murmuring among themselves.

Mo Shuh squatted, to bring himself closer to the child’s eye level.

“Do not be afraid,” he said.

Her eyes darted back and forth, as if looking for an avenue of escape.

“Mo Shuh, what are you doing?” His traveling companion, Master Sheng stood just beyond the shade of the canopy, looking quite annoyed.

“I won’t be long,” Mo Shuh assured his friend. Then, looking back to the girl he held out a hand, palm up and open in a sign of peace. “What is your name child?”

She stood there, wide-eyed and mute.

He looked up at the crowd. “Who is this child? Where are her parents?”

The crowd remained silent.

Mo Shuh rooted through his kit and produced a piece of dried pork about as long as his hand. The girl’s eyes widened.

“When did you last eat, child?”

He straightened and addressed the crowd more sternly. “Who is this child? Is her family here?”

A woman cleared her throat and took a tentative step forward. “She has no family, Master.”

“She is an orphan?”

The woman shook her head as her eyes lingered on the dried pork. “No, Master. She was abandoned, three years on now.”

Mo Shuh squatted again, and held the pork out to the little girl. “Has she a name?”

“She is called Quan Li,” the woman said.

The girl slowly reached out, hardly daring to believe her luck. She licked her lips, as did the woman.

“How have you survived, little one?” he said almost to himself. Then, a bit louder, “Go ahead, eat it. You certainly need it.”

As her hand wrapped around the pork she made the briefest of contact with his own. He felt the shén xin immediately.

Having snatched the meat the girl turned and attempted to dash away. Mo Shuh reached out and grabbed here gently, yet firmly, by the shoulder. The child lacked the strength to pull away. He straightened to address the crowd.

“I would take her to Shan Shiaw,” he said loud enough for all to hear, “to study the Way, if no one here has an objection.”

He heard Master Sheng groan behind him.

The crowd shuffled, eyes darted back and forth, but no one spoke up.

He looked down at the girl. “Who here has shown you kindness?” He let go of her shoulder. The girl darted over to the woman who had spoken, and pointed to an old man leaning on a stave of ash.

He called them forth and they approached with trepidation.

“Thank you,” he said, as he pressed a copper talent into each of their palms. “Blessing be upon you, for your kindness to one in need.”

Then to the dismay of all the passengers he helped Quan Li aboard the boat.


A chronological list of the Dragon Gates stories

Towpath – this story, introduces Mo Shuh and Quan Li
The Apprentice – not published, Quan Li
Serpent – introduces Min Lee
Tangled Webs – introduces Lia Yong
Commencement – introduces Shan Tzu
Departing Gift – Shan Tzu
Unproven – Min Lee
Tiger – Min Lee
Ud Watan – Lia Yong

© 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Photo by Christine Johnstone via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, attrubution and share alike.



A long shelf of books in a storeWilson Madon grabbed the door handle then stopped dead in his tracks, staring at the notice taped to the glass. His eyes flickered from the notice, to the clerk behind the counter, to the nearly empty shelves, then back to the sign: Going Out of Business, 70% Off.

An immense sense of sadness nearly overwhelmed him.

He was forced out of his reverie by a customer approaching the door from inside, his book bag stuffed to overflowing. Wilson stepped aside to afford the man an exit. The little silver bells atop the door tinkled as he emerged.

“Not a lot left,” the man said, “but still some gems in the nonfiction section.” He went on without so much as a pause.

Wilson grabbed the door before it swung completely shut, making the bells ring once again, and stepped inside.

“Joshua, what is all this?” Wilson asked.

The clerk turned and offered a weak smile. “Hello, Mister Madon. Here to pick up your special order?”

Wilson took a few tentative steps towards Joshua, and nodded mutely. He slowly lifted his hand and swept it across the scene before him. “When did all this happen? I… had no idea.”

Joshua looked chagrined. “Mrs. Hurbert decided to close shop last month. We sent out notices to all our regulars, you should have gotten one.”

Wilson imagined the Thoth Books envelope under his mail slot at home, amid the pile of unopened 3rd Class junk mail, ignored catalogs, and advertising fliers. He rarely looked at his mail, the reason his daughter had finally forced him to sign up for automatic bill paying. While his gas, electric, and water would not be cut off, any incidental bits of news or information generally went unnoticed until Alice came round for another visit. She made a point of doing so at least once a month to ensure he did not fall into arrears on some oddment that was not on the payments schedule.

“She can’t do that,” Wilson finally said, turning to face Joshua.

Joshua shrugged.

“Sorry, Mr. Madon. She just can’t make a go of it anymore. Online sales. Ebooks. The big box stores… well, she just doesn’t have the sales to keep going.”

“But where am I going to get my books?” Wilson asked, incredulous.

“There’s a bookstore out in the mall.”

Wilson waved that off as nonsense. “I don’t go to the mall. I don’t have a car.” Alice had taken the keys from him over a year ago.

“Order by catalog?” Joshua offered as a suggestion.

“No one carries the books I need,” Wilson scoffed. “It’s all ridiculous pseudo-anthropological drivel. I need this store.” He looked at Joshua with beseeching eyes. “I need you.”

Joshua looked down and shuffled his feet. “I’m really sorry, Mr. Madon. I won’t be able to help you anymore. Do you want your book?” He lifted an old hardback book off the counter a bit, and put it back down.

“Yes, yes. Let me look around a little first.” Mr. Wilson wandered toward the back of the store, toward the nonfiction section. After about a half an hour of poking about he came back to the counter with two books in hand.

“I’ll take these, too.” He laid a small cloth-bound book atop his special order, and placed the large hardback next to it. He thumped the big book twice with his index finger. “Lucky to find this one. First edition too.”

Joshua opened the book to check the price – $1.20. He flipped it shut. “I’ll throw that one in for you for free.”

Wilson beamed, then reached into his pocket to pull out a tri-folded piece of loose-leaf paper. “And could you order these titles for me?”

The smile melted from Joshua’s face. He shook his head. “They’d never arrive in time.”

“In time for what?”

“We’re closing at the end of the week, Mister Madon. I can’t order books for you anymore.”

Wilson’s lower lip trembled. He turned away, opened his mouth as if to say something, then turned back, befuddled. “Yes, yes. You told me that. Let me pay for these and I’ll go.”

Joshua took his check and handed him a bag with sturdy handles for the walk home.

“Tell Mrs. Hurburt I said hello. Maybe I’ll catch her next time I’m in.”

The tiny bells tinkled as he walked out the door.

© 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.
Photo: Clark’s Store, from the State Archives of North Carolina – Raleigh, via The Commons. No know copyright restrictions.


I’m sure it’s unwise to visit the doctor’s office in the height of flu season, but I couldn’t seem to shake this damned sinus infection. I didn’t want to go to the critical care unit so I asked my friend, Paul, for a recommendation. He referred me to his own doctor, Morris Grennel.

I called and the receptionist told me Dr. Grennel was accepting new patients, be sure to bring a photo ID and insurance card when I come, arrive twenty minutes early to fill out the new patient forms, and the doctor could see me in three weeks. I asked if I couldn’t get in any earlier, and she said they’d call if there was a cancellation. Did I still want to make an appointment?

No thanks.

I went to the critical care clinic instead. It was wall to wall people, most of which looked like they may have technically died a week or two ago. The wait would be four and a half hours.

I called Doctor Grennel back.

Thank God for cancellations – after just two days a slot opened up for me. None too soon, either. My head felt like it was ready to split open.

My misgivings on going anywhere near a medical facility during flu season became magnified on the parking lot. It was packed. I managed to squeeze in between two over-sized SUVs.

The waiting room was worse. Not quite the necropolis of Critical Care, but way too many sick people for comfort. A guy sitting in the far corner was holding a trash can expectantly. Even more worrisome was one particularly energetic kid with a runny nose who seems to have to touch everything. The last thing I needed was to have this crud move down into my lungs.

The receptionist assured me that the doctor was running on time. Evidently the bulk of the waiting patients were Doctor Smith’s, and she had been called away to the hospital. They were in for a long day.

They called my name not long after I finished filling out the paperwork. I was so happy to leave the waiting room behind.

As the nurse escorted me down the hall I noticed a bicycle leaning against the wall at the far end. I commented on it and, as she took my weight, the nurse told me Doctor Grennel rides his bike to work every day. Even in the winter time. I think he’s nuts, but then most cyclists are.

Then it was off to a tiny examining room for blood pressure, pulse, and the inevitable question, “And why are you here today?” I told her my head was about to explode. She smiled, told me the doctor would be with me shortly, and left the room.

I was stunned when the door opened and I recognized the doctor. I’d seen this guy almost every day on my way to work. He’s that idiot cyclist. I only hoped he didn’t recognize me.

Doctor Grennel greeted me warmly and asked me to have a seat on the examining table. He sat at a small kiosk and asked me medical background questions, interjecting small talk as he typed in my replies. I understood why Paul likes this guy, he has a terrific beside manner. Finally he asked me what my specific complaint was. I told him about my sinus infection.

My examination was nothing if not thorough. The good news was that my lungs were clear. The bad news was that I did indeed have a nasty sinus infection. Most likely viral – antibiotics probably wouldn’t do me any good.

“I’ve had this thing for over a week,” I pleaded. “Surely you can give me something?”

He looked thoughtful, then tossed out his hands in capitulation. “Do you have any known allergies to any antibiotics?” No. He turned to a cabinet and took out a vial of something.

As he prepped a syringe I broached my transgression.

“So, you ride your bike to work every day?”

“Yes.” He looked up at me with a little twinkle in his eye. “You might think about doing that yourself. You could stand to lose 40 pounds or so.”

I smiled, chagrined, but forged ahead. “You ride on Jefferson?”

He nodded and swabbed my arm.

I had to fess up. It had been bothering me for weeks. “Ah, listen doc… I… I ah, sort of ran you off the road a couple of weeks ago. At least I think it was you.”

He jabbed my arm and shot the hot liquid into me. His grin turned feral. “Yes, I know.” He applied a little round bandage, and patted the wound meaningfully.

“Let me know if that starts giving you any problems.” With that he turned and walked out the door.

© 2012 Mad Utopia Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha