IMPORTANT NOTE: These stories are set all across the series and contain spoilers for numerous books, including Battle Ground. We do not recommend reading these until you’ve caught up on the main series novels!
- “Hogs Wild” by PsychicScubaDiver
- “Easter Search” by Daniel Van Nostrand
- “Entity, Eggs, Ennui” by Houston Southard
- “First” by Dina Navon
- “Every Mouse Has His Day” by Eric T Johnson
Grand Prize: Hogs Wild
I awoke to a ringing phone. I didn’t really want to get out of bed, but the harsh noise wouldn’t stop until I did.
“Hello?” I mumbled, still half asleep.
“Warden Dresden,” said a voice that I recognized as Rashid, the Gatekeeper. “I’m sorry if this call woke you up.” Hearing his voice did more to wake me than the phone. This wasn’t a social call, not at this hour and certainly not from this man.
“What do you need?”
“There is a rogue Chronomancer in your city. I’ve already sent a full dossier that should arrive at your office shortly.”
My blood ran cold. The Sixth Law of magic forbade the use of chronomancy. It wasn’t a commonly enforced law, because it was nearly impossible to use time magic. Or so I’d been told.
Whoever I was about to fight could be terrifyingly out of my league.
“Will I be getting any backup?”
“No,” Rashid said, sounding faintly amused. “I trust that you alone will be sufficient.”
Then he hung up. I scowled at the phone, demanding answers, but it stayed silent. I sighed and headed for the shower. It was cold, which was just this side of masochistic in February, but somehow I survived.
I ate breakfast, outfitted myself for trouble, and headed to my office. Just as Rashid had promised, a manila folder had been pushed under my door. I made myself coffee, opened the folder, and did a spit-take.
He couldn’t be serious.
I slowly and carefully read everything in the folder, then read it again. The contents hadn’t changed. I dialed my connection for the White Council, dug through multiple layers of security protocols, and finally had to invoke the magic words ‘operational security’ before the operator would let me speak with Rashid.
“Warden Dresden, I trust you’re calling about your mission.”
“This is a joke, right? A prank that you pull on new wardens?”
He chuckled lightly, which did not make his next words any more believable. “I assure you, Dresden, that it is real. Although not dangerous, this creature easily shatters the mortal illusion of normalcy, so I must ask you to apprehend it.”
“Uh-huh. And if it’s actually real why aren’t you over here helping?”
“Because they are very aggravating to catch. Good luck.” The line went dead as he hung up. Again.
I glared murderously at this phone too, but it wasn’t any more responsive. “Okay, fine. I’ll go on this snipe hunt.” I started dialing the Pizza Spress number. I knew it by heart at this point. “Why not? Let’s go find a magical groundhog.”
It cost me several hours and a Noid’s ransom in pizza, but the Little Folk scoured the entire city until they found it. The critter was in Bemis Woods, and while the pixies couldn’t explain, they were certain that this groundhog was the one.
Either they were in on the joke, or the world was a whole lot weirder than I had ever believed.
Sunset was approaching and I was freezing my ass off by the time it came into view.
“That’s it!” Toot-toot squeaked, pointing excitedly. It looked no different than any other groundhog, but I didn’t care at this point. I’d ship it to Edinburgh and let the Council sort it out.
I gathered my power and with a whispered word unleashed a binding spell on the groundhog. It wasn’t neat or impressive, just an unsubtle cocoon of hardened air, but against an animal that couldn’t see it coming? It worked like a charm. Better than most of my charms, actually.
“That’s that,” I muttered. “I have no idea why Rashid thought this would be–
I awoke to a ringing phone.
I blinked in disbelief at first. I hadn’t even felt a build up of magic energy from the groundhog. Something this complex and subtle should be impossible and that rodent had done it quicker than I could even realize. I breathed out a sigh of annoyance and got up to answer the phone.
“I already know,” I told Rashid then hung up on him. Petty? Maybe, but it felt good after getting outsmarted by a rat.
Clearly a direct approach was out, but I had some ideas involving the Little Folk and a readied circle that should work.
I awoke to a ringing phone.
That had gone worse than I ever could have predicted. Rushing the circle didn’t work, but it couldn’t react if it was asleep…
I awoke to a ringing phone.
Rackin’ frackin’ varmint. Apparently it could smell sedatives, but I had a better idea anyway.
I awoke to a ringing phone.
The polka they played in Punxsutawney was not some sort of spell component and I made a mental note to never ask Michael where he’d gotten enough Lederhosen for all of us.
I awoke to a ringing phone.
Either the snare trap hadn’t been set right or its ability acted like a death curse. Time for further testing on the latter.
I awoke to a ringing phone, smashed the damn thing to pieces, and went back to bed.
I awoke to a ringing phone.
For a minute I just lay there. ‘Aggravating’ didn’t begin to cover it. There was a horrible, visceral sense of failure fighting this thing. You were sent back to the start, time and time again, never moving forward, never just done with the whole thing.
“Bob, this rodent is driving me insane.” I’d already consulted him several times, but after fifty-something failures it didn’t hurt to try again. I knew almost every move the groundhog made by now, but it didn’t matter. It reacted with more speed than I could ever hope to counter and even killing it seemed to trigger its ability.
“That’s probably a side-effect of your personal temporal field being so distorted,” he helpfully explained. “It’s managed to excise you from the normal flow of time and that’s probably not doing good things to you. Your body is fresh, but your mind has gone over a week without actual rest.”I groaned. From the headache I had, I believed him. “How does Rashid ever expect me to succeed against a time-bending groundhog? This can’t be a one-warden task.”
“C’mon, boss. It’s not like it’s impossible. You’ve just gotta think outside the box.”
Maybe it was the lack of sleep, maybe it was just pure luck, but inspiration hit me. “No, Bob, I have to think inside the box! I’ve got it all figured out!”
Once my excitement began to wane I was much less confident in my idea. It involved a circular box, inscribed to act as a spell circle balanced on the edge of a small stick, tied to a long line of fishing wire held in my hand. A small pile of carrots rested beneath the box.
It was basically the obvious cartoon trap that people only fell for as a joke. The longer I sat there and waited the dumber my ‘brilliant’ idea seemed. The smell canceling potion seemed to work, but even that small bit of cleverness didn’t change the fact that this was possibly my stupidest attempt y–
The groundhog poked his head above a turn in the trail and I fought the sudden urge to stiffen. I took a slow breath and relaxed. It approached cautiously, tempted by the prize beneath the box. It was wary of any danger, but had no more intelligence than your average groundhog. It approached closer and closer, and I subtly pulled the wire tense, ready to close the circle.
It was five feet away from the trap, then four, three, two…
I felt sweat beading on my brow despite the cold weather.
It took the bait, moving under the box. I activated the circle, sending my will coursing along the length of blood soaked wire. It had partially frozen or dried, but it still established enough of a link for my purposes. The inscribed circle closed with a snap even as the line ripped away the stick propping up the box. It slammed down, trapping the groundhog inside.
I waited for an agonizingly long moment, expecting to wake up to a ringing phone any second, but my symbols on the box glowed a cool, steady blue. I heard scratching from the inside and realized it was well and truly trapped.
I had done it.
I let out a whoop of joy and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few tears shed. I was just so elated at finally, finally, beating this thing.
“Great job,” Bob said. “What now?”
I paused in my celebration, puzzled. “What do you mean ‘what now’?”
“I mean,” he replied with some annoyance, “How are you going to move the box?”
I stared at him, and then the box, in mute horror.
I awoke to a ringing phone, but it was soon drowned out by my furious cussing.
1st Runner Up: Easter Search
by Daniel Van Nostrand
This story takes place between the events of Proven Guilty and White Night.
“So, why exactly were you going to church now?”
It was 8:30 on a Saturday night, and Molly Carpenter and I were following a tracking spell through the streets behind St. Mary’s of the Angels, looking for her siblings who had vanished without a trace before the service.
“It’s the Vigil service,” responded Molly, cooly. She’d been a little annoyed with me ever since I forgot her birthday—look, it’s a lot to keep track of, okay? “Instead of going to Mass on Sunday, we can go Saturday night. The service ends at midnight.”
“A three hour service? And you want to go to this because…?”
“It’s a Catholic thing, Harry,” snapped Molly. “And…once you’ve attended an Easter Mass, Lent ends. If you go Saturday, it ends earlier.”
“Translation?” I asked, while following the directions of my mother’s pentacle amulet, which would swing towards the owners of the two hairs I had used in the ritual.
“It means the rugrats can eat chocolate earlier.” Which, made a certain kind of sense.
“Hold up,” I called, and my companions halted. “They should be right here.” We were in a small, seemingly empty parking lot, which looked exactly like every other private parking lot in the city. My mother’s amulet was persistently spinning in a circle, letting me know that this was the place…but hell if I could see any tiny humans in the general vicinity.
“Grasshopper?” I asked, and Molly closed her eyes. She’d only been my apprentice for a short time now, but already she was displaying surprising skill with veils. Magic is like that; different wizards take to different things. Right now she was scanning the area, looking for anything out of the ordinary. I could do the same thing, but she was more sensitive to this sort of stuff; and this way, I could be ready in case anything went awry.
I was still mostly sure that the kids had just wandered off; Hope and little Harry were at that age where kids get exploratory. But, it was late, and Molly was worried. She and her parents were still getting back into the swing of things, and the last thing she wanted to have to do was explain to them that she’d lost two of her siblings. Hell, the last thing I wanted to do was tell Charity that her children were missing. And besides; even if there was nothing from the spooky side of the aisle involved in their disappearance, there was plenty of mundane danger in Chicago. I didn’t like to think how I’d live with myself if something happened to them.
Molly stiffened. “Harry, there’s something over there.” Her eyes flew open. “Something big.”
I looked in the direction she was facing, and like a flash a veil dropped, slicing through the air. The two children appeared, lying curled up on the pavement. They appeared to be asleep, and I could see that chocolate was drying on their mouths. And standing over them….
Well. If I’d had to wager a guess, I would’ve said it was the Easter Bunny.
It was the biggest, ugliest looking rabbit I had ever seen. It wasn’t as tall as me; but I’m about NBA sized, so that doesn’t mean all too much. On its hind legs, like it was right now, it was of a height with the Padawan, and twice as thick around. It was covered in scars, and an angry glint gleamed in its eyes. And, apparently, it knew magic. Great.
“Shh…” I said, in my best imitation voice, “be vewy, vewy quiet…I’m hunting wabbits.”
The Easter Bunny must not have gotten the joke, because its face contorted in anger, and it growled, “Idiot mortals! Leave this place!”
Sheesh. So much for adequate villain banter. “I’d be happy to, provided I can bring the two children I can only assume you borrowed. Thank you for taking such good care of them; although, from what I hear, they weren’t supposed to eat chocolate yet.”
The Bunny scoffed. “Followers of the Undead G-d. They should not have been about on my Lady’s day.”
I paused, and ran some information by a…friend, I suppose. “I know you. You’re one of Ēostre’s hares, right?”
That seemed to take the Bunny (Hare?) by surprise. “Only a handful of the mortals remember,” it leered.
“Buddy,” I said, while readying my shield bracelet. “I assure you, I’m more than a handful.”
The Easter Bunny/Hare laughed then, and it sounded not at all like a cartoon. “Foolish little wizard! You think that your magic can match that of an Ancient? Leave me to my prey!”
“No,” I responded. I couldn’t throw anything at him, not with the sleeping children nearby. My source had told me that they were only asleep at the moment, after having eaten one of the Hare’s…eggs. Yick. But if I tried fuego-ing anything in their general vicinity that could change on a dime. Fortunately, I really just had to keep the idiot talking. “I don’t think I will.”
“Then you will die with them!” roared the Hare, hamming it up like the villain in a cheesy movie. Seriously, say what you will about the kind of monster I usually tussled with, at least they gave me more to work with on the dialogue front. I did my best not to worry about the energies I could see forming around the creature’s paws.
Then, I saw it; a quick flash from behind the Hare. A small, blue light blinked on and then off, like a wink…and I knew I’d stalled long enough for the Grasshopper to do what she had to. I readied the energy in my blasting rod, carefully aimed, and shouted out, “Forzare!” I sent the blast a bit to the right of the Hare; I just had to provoke him, not actually hit him. It worked; the monster leapt into the air, over the sleeping, chocolate-caked children, and I saw its teeth for the first time. Those…didn’t look like they were designed for eating carrots.
And, like clockwork, my mastodon of a dog emerged from Molly’s veil and met the creature in mid-leap.
Ēostre’s Hare’s might be tough…but they’re still rabbits, and Mouse is a bit more than your average dog. Suffice to say, the magical Ancient fared no better than any average hoppy little chump would against your average canine.
“Yuck,” said Molly, surveying the mess.
“Not exactly a holy hand grenade, but he gets the job done,” I responded. Mouse thumped his tail against the ground and gave a doggy grin.
Molly moved over to the children, who were beginning to stir now that the Hare was…no more. Mouse moved after her, and positioned himself such that there would be no clear line of sight between the kids and what was left of the Hare; honestly, I wonder sometimes just how much is going on in my dog’s head. I followed after, and caught the tail end of what Molly was saying.
“And that’s why you don’t eat chocolate before Easter!” she said, lifting the littler Harry. “And honestly, an egg laid by a rabbit?”
After dropping the Carpenter kids back at the church I clambered back into the Blue Beetle. I was pulling out onto the road when I was distracted by the sudden appearance of a redhead in a Grecian-style toga in my passenger seat. I gritted my teeth.
“Hello, Lash,” I said. “Thanks for the info on Ēostre.”
“Of course, my host,” she responded. “Though, I could have helped you more if you….”
“Picked up the coin, I know. Honestly, don’t you ever give it a rest?”
She was quiet for a moment. “They’re celebrating inside,” she said, and I saw Father Forthill, who was standing outside the Church, lighting some sort of large white candle. “The resurrection of the Christ.”
“Reckon so,” I responded. I glanced at her. “Mean much to you?”
“Of course not,” she snarled, looking away. “Drive, my host, if you would.”
“Okay,” I said, putting the Beetle in gear. “Easter. Rebirth, rejuvenation, redemption…I don’t go in much for religion, but it’s a nice sentiment isn’t it?”
Lash watched me in silence while we drove. “For them, perhaps,” she finally said. “But such sentiments aren’t available to all of us.”
“I don’t know,” I said, as the light of St. Mary’s of the Angels disappeared into the night. “I wouldn’t count my bunnies until they’ve hatched.”
2nd Runner Up: Entity, Eggs, and Ennui
by Houston Southard
I’m a restless heathen pacing the corridors of my mind. I’m a graying teenager wanting to forgo responsibility for role-playing and fantasy. I’m my own comic book character, and I’m stuck in the clutches of my arch nemesis, whose name, he has claimed, is Mundanity.
Mundanity stands in the corner of every room, right in the most annoying area of my periphery. He, because of course he was a he, is checking boxes off a list long enough to reach the ground, spilling past his feet into a tight coil, a bastardized naughty or nice list.
“Tomorrow will be the same as today,” Mundanity says. He was a he because all imperialists oppressing their subjects always were. “What you’re doing now will just repeat itself.”
“Can it, Dan.” I say with sounds that don’t hit any other frequency than his. I’m brushing my teeth, clockwise, for forever, not needing the use of my actual mouth to let the thorn in my life know how little I care for his commentary. Teeth clean, mouth gargled, I go to don the clothes of the day. They’re the clothes of every day. Donning the right sock always precedes donning the left.
“The left side of your brain is the side that speaks. That’s why you write right. Why your right foot is favored by the left.” Dan leers down at me from atop my dresser, his legs crossed, his expression even crosser. “How can anything matter when every possible thing happens?”
I look up at Dan, and I don’t have time for this. “I know, Dan. Thank you, Dan.”
My apartment is the ramshackle, bachelor thing of every parent’s nightmare. Clothes lay where they’ve been discarded, because a basket is for something I’ve never understood. My studio underlooks Chicago’s street level, and the buzz of feet taking one worker bee to their deskination is a steady staccato mixed in with the buzz of another’s. Soon my feet will add to the concerto of hive-minded Chicagoans carrying out menial tasks they’ll insist are anything but.
My bike chain will ratchet a solo through ever-busy pathways and building-lined tunnels to the place I’ll do the thing that lets me stay in my foot traffic-facing studio.
“Your toast is burning,” Dan says, interrupting the reverie, that, given the choice between it and Dan’s inevitable presence, was still a welcome one.
“I know,” I say. “Only one of us actually has a nose to smell with.” Dan raises an eyebrow, as if he’s offended by the retort. As if he has the capacity to be offended.
“I suppose that only leaves one of us to care if that burnt toast sets off the alarm. An alarm, which, unbeknownst to neither of us, would surely bring down Miss Lowry, who we both know would be only too eager to remind us of our last eviction warning.” He pinches his nose with two fingers gloved in white, as if it made a difference. “You remember the favors you still owe that got you this place.”
“As well as you,” I say, trashing the toast and pulling a clif bar from the lone cabinet adjacent to what would ordinarily be called a kitchen sink.
I pack my pack, stuffing in what always gets stuffed in. There’s my lunch – another clif bar – a set of Allen keys for when, not if, my bike fails me before my commute ends, and the only thing that lets me go anywhere or do anything, even if only in a sort of self-imprisoned way: It’s not quite an urn, but it’s shaped like one. It’s green and slick and doesn’t appear to have any lines or creases that would indicate an opening, but inside is whatever makes Dan aware of himself.
Whatever’s inside is part of the deal I made to get the place I’m in that lets me work close to the place I do that in turn lets me keep said place. I say work, because it is. Retail, especially during the holidays, is unsympathetic to labor fatigue, drunk drivers, to the worker bee overall.
Dan hovers as I stuff it to the bottom of my pack. I unlock the series of sticky deadbolts that release me from my cage, which let me escape into the larger cage of my life. I shimmy between my bike and my stove to actually get it open, then shoulder the bike to hike the flight and a half to street level. Dan is at the top of every step, not quite in my way, but most definitely not out of it, either.
A silhouette blocks the doorway. It’s a man taller than most Bulls players holding a cane too long for even him. His face is more scarred than most professional fighters, but his eyes are bright and focused on me with enough intensity to make me consider retreating back down the way I came.
“Wizard,” Dan hisses, more ornery than he is when he knows he’s about to get his daily exercise. The giant man with the giant cane tilts his head as if trying to hear something from far away. His eyes go flat as he looks me over before closing his eyes. When he opens them again, an eye-shaped light appears in the middle of his forehead.
When he looks at me again, his expression is sour, if not relieved.
Dan steps in front of me, throwing an arm out to shield me in an uncharacteristically awkward display of protection. “Our exchanges are lawful in the eyes of the accords, Dresden. You have no right to interfere.”
The wizard, Dresden presumably, did something to his cane where it started to smell like rotten eggs thrown in a fire. “Paranet leads are crap these days,” he says.
My eyes try to escape their sockets. “You can see him?” I say to the wizard.
“Unfortunately,” he says, his cane cooling down as he turns to leave the way he came. “Got a tip some kid had gotten a hold of a denarii. This is typically Knights of the Cross business, but I never miss a chance to kick trespassers out of my back yard.”
“Denarii?” I say, “Like the Judas coins? Is that what Dan is?”
“No” Dan and Dresden say at once, Dan’s voice a little more panicky than the man with a two meter long whopping stick. Dresden eyes Dan with disdain and says again, to me, “No. He’s a minor league wannabe version of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. I don’t even know what you guys call yourselves. Something with sheckles or eyes for ey –“
“– Hammurabi’s League of Sheckle Shacklers,” Dan cuts in, jutting his pointed chin out in pointed pride.
“Heh,” Dresden says, huffing out a petty laugh. “That’s right. Minor league names for minor league Fallen.” I feel Dan’s spineless back stiffen.
Dresden stoppers his internal forehead lamp as he walks back out into the city. Before disappearing, he turns back to me wearing a tired frown and says, “Careful kid. These things have a habit of leading you to worse. Look me up if you ever need an exorcism. I’m in the book. Happy Thanksgiving.” And with that, he and his grey cloak were gone.
I get outside and breathe the ozone. It smells like my mountain of student debt and a lifetime of decisions that brought me here. It looks like it looks every day. And in my ear, on a cue I can only just hear, there is Dan, softly whispering behind me, a not quite white glove on my shoulder as he says, “This is exactly what you asked for.”
He’s right. What escapes him is that what we ask for is only ever enough until we get it. What doesn’t escape him is the never-ending supply of those like me. I straddle my bike and wade into the teeming sea of people, each of them a worker bee clutching tight to some sort of Dan of their own. Each of them trapped in the only cage there ever was. Each of them trying to distract themselves from the knowledge that there is no way out, and that for many, that is just fine.
Honorable Mention: First
by Dina Navon
They say that the firsts are the hardest, when you’ve lost someone you loved. First holidays, first anniversaries…first birthdays. I never really did much for my birthday, you know? Well, except for that whole riding-a-T-Rex-through-downtown-Chicago thing, but really, that was just all in a day’s work. But the celebrations, I mean, I never wanted a fuss. Just some good friends, some beers, and some steak sandwiches down at Mac’s. A night off, surrounded by the people I loved and who loved me in return. Simple. It’s funny how much you miss what little you had when it’s gone.
“Come on, Dad, get up! I’ve got a surprise for you!” I groaned theatrically and rolled over, pulling the sheets over my head.
“Before sunrise, you’re not my daughter,” I grumbled.
“Stop mis-quoting Mufasa! You’re not a lion and you’re not Anakin either! And get – up!”
“Come on, Harry, let us have our fun!” called Murph from the kitchen, her voice a warning.
“Okay, okay, I’m coming,” I called back, and then lowered my voice, pretending to speak only to Maggie but letting the words carry through to the apartment’s other occupant. “Come on, punkin. I’ll give you ten bucks if you let me go back to sleep right now and keep Karrin busy for an hour or two. Take her to the zoo, or something.”
“No! The surprise is ready now! Come on!” My daughter managed to convey all the impatience and insistence of the ages before scampering off towards the kitchen, leaving behind an echoing, “HURRY UP!” Kids. They can bounce all over the damn place for hours and still have the energy to make your life exhausting somehow. It has to be fueled by constant blood sacrifices or something, that’s all I’m saying.
Grumbling aside, I got up, got dressed, and got ready to face whatever the fun-size whirlwind of perpetual energy had whipped up for me now. Her recent determination to learn the ins and outs of cooking had produced some pretty mixed results, even with the tender guidance of her dearest playmate, the baby spirit of knowledge I’d accidentally created with the ghostly impression of a Fallen Angel’s shadow. Still, I have to admit, despite the criminal lack of morning-time caffeine and sugar, I was the tiniest bit curious. Anything that could inspire my daughter to interact with other flesh-and-blood people was a step in the right direction, at least. And this apparently was a complicated enough task to enlist Murphy’s support.
I shuffled my way into my kitchen – well, Molly’s kitchen really, but she was almost never here these days, what with all her new duties marshalling the troops of Winter – and leaned against the doorway. Karrin and Maggie were standing in front of the table, blocking my view of its surface, and they looked pretty proud of themselves. Mouse was a giant circular shag rug in the corner, but he thumped his tail a few times on hearing me step into the room.
“Okay, seriously though – I see no coffee in this kitchen, just two smug midgets and a walking carpet with more appetite than sense. What gives?” Maggie giggled and whispered something to Murph, before they broke out into song, the familiar lyrics to “Happy Birthday” still giving me shivers after last years’ nearly-disastrous rendition. I gritted my teeth, trying to hide my instinctive, lizard-brain negativity. On the last note, my two ladies drew away from the kitchen table with a flourish and a sing-song “ta-da!”. Sitting on the surface behind them, candles flickering in the draft they’d created, was a sizeable cake, covered in a matte-brown icing. I laughed.
“It’s eight in the morning, chuckle-heads! Isn’t it too early for cake?” I grinned down at Murph. “And here you’re supposed to be the dietician in the family.”
“Calories don’t count on birthdays and holidays, Harry, you know that,” Karrin shot back with a small smile. “Come on, you should try it. It’s pretty special – Maggie came up with the idea herself.” I sidled closer, noting that the cake had a small, cartoony Coke can drawn on it in red and white icing, surrounded by the words, “Happy birthday”. I smiled.
“Well, who’s going to cut it?” I asked, glancing over at Maggie. “Maybe the chef should do the honors?”
“No, no – you do it! It’s tradition!” I obliged, cutting three triangular portions away from the rest of the cake and passing them around, noting with some trepidation that the cake underneath the icing was a strange greyish-brown color.
“Still waiting on my caffeine fix here,” I grumped again. Maggie traded a glance with Murphy, and then giggled again as Karrin rolled her eyes.
“Really, you giant addict, give it a rest!” I laughed, too, and then took a small bite of the oddly-colored cake, my eyes widening as I realized the rest of the surprise. Maggie burst out into a full laugh, shoulders shaking, and Murph allowed herself a small smile. “Coffee-flavored cake and Coca-Cola icing. Perfect for an addict!”
“Happy birthday, dad!” Maggie announced, proudly, before digging into her own slice. Murphy wandered over to me, and put her arm around my waist.
“Happy birthday, Harry,” she murmured, resting her head against my chest. I felt a pang, then, an echoing in my chest as I noticed something strange, something I’d had no cause to recognize before now.
“This doesn’t feel real, Karrin.” The panic was rising fast, my heart fluttering, knocking around my empty chest.
“What do you mean?” Her voice was small and sad.
“I can’t feel your arm around me. I can see it, and you, and you look and sound and smell real. But I can’t feel you touching me at all. Why can’t I feel you touching me?”
“Oh, Harry,” Karrin replied, her voice bitter, full of longing and pain. “It’s because I’m dead, remember?”
I startled awake, falling roughly away from the dream that was half comprised of memories pieced together from a dozen stories that already feel lifetimes away, and half a beautiful fiction manifested by some twisted version of wish fulfillment. Every night this week, the same dream. Tears streamed down my face, falling thick and fast. I buried my head in my hands, and the world spun on as I let myself feel her absence, again. Every morning the same, full of loss, and emptiness, and the sharp, bitter pain of waking up cold and alone. Again. Every day, except today, when I hear a quiet, unobtrusive knock on the door, small firsts striking heavy wood, timid, questing. And a small voice, muffled but full of conviction.
“Dad? Can I come in?”
I took half a second to compose myself, but even still, my voice was rough and thick from sleep and pain.
“Sure thing, punkin,” I replied. The door opened, and Maggie stood bathed in the light from outside my room, hands held behind her back.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” she said, with a solemnity a ten-year-old should never have been able to muster. “Happy birthday, dad.”
Honorable Mention: Every Mouse Has His Day
by Eric T Johnson
My arms were too full, so I dropped wrapping paper scraps and party hats on the kitchen floor.
Mrs. Carpenter looked at me. She smiled the smile for child-doing-things-wrong-but-really-trying-so-don’t-discourage.
“Thanks for helping pick things up, Maggie.” Mrs. Carpenter said, and she meant it. She was nice enough not to mention that I was trying to get away from the noise in the living room.
The Carpenter house, where I’m staying, gets noisy, but it’s a good, friendly, people you know, at home noisy. Today, Hope had a bunch of friends over for her birthday.
When things get too much, I do things other kids wouldn’t. And maybe then all of Hope’s friends would point and laugh and Hope would look hurt and I’d ruin things and it would all be my fault and…
Mouse had nudged some of the discarded birthday stuff over to me. We picked up wrapping paper and party favors together. Mouse is really smart, and knows if I have something to do, I don’t have time to imagine extra problems.
In the kitchen, with arms full of birthday scraps, was away from kids yelling for fun. At least that kind of yelling is better than the other kind. The kind of yelling you do when when being quiet and curled up and small won’t help you stay hidden from the monsters anymore. You run out of that kind of yelling. Eventually.
“Where was that birthday supply box?” Mrs. Carpenter said.
Mouse started dragging over the big plastic tote, his doggie mouth covering the handle. Mrs. Carpenter opened the tote, and began putting some things away to be stored until the next birthday. With as many kids as the Carpenters have, you need to reuse a lot of stuff.
I looked at Mouse, and I had one of those ask-an-adult questions.
“Everyone gets a birthday. How about Mouse? Or does he not because he’s a dog?”
Mrs. Carpenter made her face of thinking carefully what to say to the child. “Mouse is a a special dog, and could probably appreciate it.” She thought for a bit as she filled the tote. “We don’t know Mouse’s exact birthday.”
“Molly told me the story. He was away from his parents already when my dad found him.”
“We could check the date he was rescued, celebrate every year on that day.”
“But, that wouldn’t be his REAL birthday, would it? Could we write a letter to Tibet, or…”
I saw the look on her face. She was Worried Where This Was Going. I was a guest in the Carpenter home, and I didn’t want to be too much trouble. Still…
“Using the wrong day seems like… lying. But Mouse deserves a birthday!”
“With difficult choices, I find that praying on it, a night’s sleep, and seeing how I feel in the morning does a lot of good. At least, that’s what works for me.”
That night, I put my hands together. “Hi. This is Maggie Dresden. Um, I’m not sure what to say. I’ll probably look really bad, because Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter are, like, world champions at praying…” I looked over at Mouse. He put his head on on my lap to let me know he was close and everything was all right. “Anyway. Mouse is a good dog. If he can’t have the right birthday celebration, I don’t think that’s very fair. Okay, that’s all I have to say, please help if you can. And if you can’t, well, I’ll figure something out and fix it myself.” I started standing up, then added, “Thank you for your time, good night.” The Carpenters said that good manners never hurt.
I was walking up the stone stairs in the mist when I realized I was dreaming really hard. Could a boogeyman or a dream-spider or a Caloogaa or something worse have me in a bad place? I looked down at Mouse by my side. “Bad dream? Did something trap us?”
Mouse shook his head and gave a reassuring little huff. Then he looked up the stairs and at me. He wanted to run up faster.
Well, any place that Mouse liked couldn’t really be a bad place. We raced up the stairs, Mouse barking with excitement.
Breaking through the clouds, I saw the mountain. A huge sprawling temple, gardens, waterfalls. It was all so pretty. Mouse barked even more. Looked like this was a Good Dream.
Which made me nervous. I never have Good Dreams with this many colors and details and everything so sharp. Usually the other dreams are like that. The wake up screaming ones.
“No bad dream tonight.” said the smiling man in the orange robe who was petting Mouse. What surprised me most was that I wasn’t startled. I ALWAYS flinch when people sneak up on me, even if I know them. But he was just There, and he seemed Right.
“Hello, Sir. If my dog and I are intruding, we can go away.” I may have used my voice that tries to say I’m small and unimportant and I’m sorry for whatever it is.
“Mouse is most welcome here today.”
“He says you are Maggie Dresden. Very welcome, even if you weren’t Mouse’s guest. Your father did a good thing for us.”
“When my Dad rescued the puppies for the temple monks?”
“Yes, that too. Come. Others are waiting.”
“Others? Um, sir, I’m not good with crowds.”
The monk smiled at me again. “Mouse’s brothers and sisters are waiting.”
Mouse bounded forward, ran back to me, then ran ahead of us. He barked, and other barks echoed back from the mountain.
We arrived at gardens by the temple. Mouse was playing with other dogs, and some were even larger than than him.
“Sir, that’s really Mouse, in my dreams.”
“Does Mouse get to play with the other Temple Dogs in dreams?”
“One night a year. All litter-mates, same birthday. Guardians have special dream, see family again.”
Adults don’t tell you everything. “I don’t think I could have picked just the right night…” I gave the monk my best look that said I’m a child but I’m not stupid.
The monk smiled and shrugged. “Time is… special, in dreams. Your dream from night of prayer connected to Mouse’s dream from night of birthday. Special arrangements made.”
I narrowed my eyes. “By who?”
The monk shook his head. “Very sorry, do not know name in your language.” He searched his memory for a minute. “Mr. Sunshine?”
I shook my head back at him. “I don’t know who that is.”
“Ah, well. Let us watch the dogs play.”
We did, and it was amazing. They ran all over the dream temple, and bounded among the clouds. Mouse brought the other temple dogs over to meet me, and and they were all sweet and friendly. The monk let me give them treats.
I noticed each dog had a white candle burning in the temple. I asked the monk about the two black candles set apart from the white ones. He bowed his head sadly. “Sorry, you cannot know about that yet. Wrong time. Very sad story.”
Playing with Mouse and his siblings seemed to go on and on, but when Mouse finally looked played out, I knew the dream was coming to a close.
“Thank you very much, sir, for letting us come to this birthday party.”
“You are very welcome, Maggie Dresden.”
“Now I know Mouse gets a good birthday to remember every year.”
“Ah. Very sorry. Mouse cannot remember these dreams. This little brother has important duty. Sad he must be away from family, but there are reasons. Cannot be distracted from where he is, longing for far away. Not allowed to tell him things he cannot know on his own. For these reasons, and others, he must forget. Knew this when he volunteered.”
I stomped my foot. “Not fair! Mouse deserves a birthday he can remember, with family!”
The monk cocked his head. “Truth. Well said.” He put his finger on my forehead. The dream ended.
I woke up a bit tired and sore.
I hugged Mouse and told him he had a great family, which got me a doggie smile and a head nuzzle.
I ran down to the big calendar in the kitchen where Mrs. Carpenter kept track of all the important dates and appointments and school events.
I closed my eyes, touched my finger to my forehead, and circled the date on the calendar that I could see with my eyes closed.
“That’s Mouse’s birthday.”
Mrs. Carpenter walked over. “I thought you didn’t want to get the day wrong?”
“I prayed on it. That’s the right date.”
Mrs. Carpenter gave me a Good Look. “Then that’s settled. Let’s get you ready for school.”
Mouse was already getting his service dog vest. He’s the bestest friend ever.