From the Editor's Desk,
Hello and welcome to Issue 11 of Larks Fiction Magazine! In this issue we are featuring works of fantasy and science fiction from up-and-coming women writers exploring the what-ifs and could-haves.
Just as a heads up the Larks staff and I attend the same college for the most part and the semester is coming to a close. If you have submitted a work to us it might be a little more than two weeks to get back with you. We hope to be back to normality by May.
I hope you enjoy this issue!
Daniel J. Pool
An Infinite Snare
By Terri Rochenski
Jed glanced over his shoulder at his best friend for what seemed like the hundredth time, his heart pounding.
“Go on!” Eli hissed from behind the bayberry bush.
Jed stuck his tongue out and turned back toward the enormous tree, his dark eyes traveling upward. Its gnarled, leafless branches reached toward the autumn sky like the old healer’s bony fingers. The door to her tree-hovel hung from sagging leather hinges on the wide trunk before him.
“What have I gotten myself into,” Jed muttered to himself. He grasped the door’s wooden handle and pushed. A bluebird squawked from the branches above. The cry echoed between his ears.
The door swung inward and damp air wafted past his face. It smelled of rich earth and decaying leaves. Rock stairs led downward into the gloom. He stepped over the threshold and waited for a blast of lightening to split him in two. Nothing happened.
“Go on, coward! I dare you!”
Jed glared at his friend. Eli wouldn’t have gotten this close to the witch’s tree if he’d been the one to lose at tossing stones.
His leather boot scraped on rock as he stepped down. Goose pimples popped all over his body. With each step he expected to turn into a toad. Or a rat. Maybe he would hit an invisible wall and his body would disintegrate into a million gnats.
Maybe the witch didn’t put a ward over her tree when she left for the neighboring village yesterday, Jed thought. He shook his head as the thought echoed twice more in his brain.
A dim glow of unnatural light emitted from the rock walls around him as he descended downward. A cricket chirped. Jed’s thumping heart skipped a beat.
Breathe, chicken-liver, he reminded himself.
If a cricket was singing of his happiness inside the tree then maybe he’d be alright too. Maybe the old village healer really wasn’t a witch; maybe that’s just what papas told their kids to make them behave.
A cavern spread open before him. Pebbles crunched under his boots as he stepped onto the earth floor. The scent of dried rosemary and lavender tickled his nose. He wiped damp palms down the front of his tunic.
How can the old woman live here? He thought as he looked around. A sagging bed hugged the wall to his left, a patch-work quilt carelessly thrown over its straw mattress. A straight-backed chair with a missing leg leaned against a wooden table on his right. Amidst the bundles of herbs and clay jars on its surface sat a steaming black cauldron.
The blood drained from his face. He swallowed. Steam?
His eyes shot overhead. Roots dangled from the cave’s roof. Water clung to some of the larger ones. Jed’s eyes followed a droplet as it fell. It landed with a soft splat on the hard-packed dirt floor.
A beam of sunlight cut through the unnatural light and settled on a white pillar at the cave’s center. Jed blinked. Had he dreamt this last night? He blinked again. He swore he’d seen it before somewhere. Light gray and white streaks swept upward through the marble column. An apple-sized orb sat on its square top.
Jed reached out with trembling hands then hesitated. He shook his head, his eyes riveted on the globe. He didn’t remember walking forward.
The silver orb sparkled as the sunlight caressed its surface. His hands inched closer of their own accord. An inner light glowed from the orb’s center.
His hands lifted the globe. It was cool, smooth to the touch and yet it burned to the bones of each finger.
Its center liquefied and evaporated into white, swirling smoke. He lifted it closer to his face and peered into the fog. Familiar images began to form. He screamed.
Jed glanced over his shoulder at his best friend for what seemed the hundredth time, his heart pounding.
About the Author:
Terri is a stay-at-home mother of two toddlers who enjoys an escape to Middle Earth during the rare 'me' moments her daughters allow. Her personal blog is at www.terrirochenski.blogspot.com/
Don’t Read the Books
By Gina Fairchild
E-paper. Well, there it is, if you want to know why I, Mrs. Edwina Hoffman, went down to the Hoffman Printing Press Museum and Library alone at night, after hours.
Go ahead and call me senile, but I tell you e-paper is an abomination. It’s everywhere on everything. I can’t open a can of soup without its label advertising all manner of faddle-fiddle I’ve no interest in buying, cooking, or eating. The world can thank my great-great-uncle Troy for the invention. We can also thank him for the resulting ban on tree-paper and the extinction of books.
So, that’s why my grandmother established the Hoffman Printing Press Museum and Library, one of the largest collections of tree-paper books in the world. Irony at its finest.
And that’s why I went down there, knowing full well I couldn’t read any of the books, knowing all anyone was allowed to do was stare at the spines, or two select pages from the few books set out in display cases like the Constitution.
Troy—the night janitor, mind you, not my dead great-great-uncle—was doing just that when I ambled into the building. Head cocked and slowly making his way along one bookshelf, he gazed at the spines, reading the book titles and author names, I suppose, all while absentmindedly pushing his mop along the floor.
“Are you new here?” I asked. I’m afraid the poor man startled easily, stammering to regain his composure. “Well, speak up. I haven’t got all night.”
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” he said to me. “Museum hours are—”
“I can read, thank you.”
“Well, then you know you have to leave.”
I didn’t normally go around using my last name as a badge of authority, but he was making a nuisance of himself.
“Hoffman?” he asked. “You’re a Hoffman?” And then he proceeded to further freak out.
“Stop this groveling,” I told him. “Good gracious, man. Where is your dignity?”
The most amazing thing. He stopped right there and then, stood up straight and eyed me. I judged he was about six and a half feet tall, as I only reached his midsection. Yes, and he was well built, too. Imagine. I suddenly felt like the feeble little old lady I was.
“I mop floors for a living,” he said. “How much dignity do you think I have left?”
“Oh, well, I…”
“Rhetorical question.” He leaned on the mop stick. “Here’s another question. Just what are you doing here unannounced, after hours?”
“Hmph! You must be new here. I often visit after hours.”
“Not that new. I’ve been working here for the past three weeks, and I’ve never seen you.”
“Of course not. I come once a month, today being that day. See here. What right have you to question me like this?”
He raised his shoulders and showed his palms. The mop, caught between his thumb and forefinger, swiveled on its head. “It’s part of my job. My boss tells all of us to look out for strange characters.”
“Me, a strange character?”
He looked me up and down. “I’ve seen stranger, but you understand these books are very rare, Mrs. Hoffman. I don’t need to tell you how valuable they are.”
A bit too close for comfort, that, and I had to use a bit of deflection. “Speak plainly! Are you implying I’m here for nefarious purposes?”
He flashed a smile. “No, ma’am, just that I’m supposed to be on the lookout.” Tapping his finger to his nose, he winked at me, as if I were supposed to swoon like some easily impressed flibbertigibbet.
If I needed anything, he said, I should give him a holler, and then he went about slopping his dirty mop hither and yon. Damned if he didn’t ruin my evening thoroughly with his whistling and general bustling about the place.
When at last his distant whistling ceased, I ventured out from the aisle I’d been idling in. “Are you quite finished?”
Troy popped his head out from an aisle several rows down. “Oh, no, ma’am. I’ve gotta do the carpets on the upper floors.” He jerked his thumb upwards, and I stared at the rings of floors overhead, whose railings provided a dizzying frame for the massive dome skylight.
I sighed in spite of myself. “Carry on.”
Being with books had always been synonymous with quietude and solitude. Not so, with Troy’s infernal carpet-cleaning machine whirring above. Why would he care how much racket he made? You couldn’t do any reading in the place anyways.
You couldn’t slide out a book, as they used to do, curl up and embark on an adventure to another world. You couldn’t stack them up higher than your head, and lose yourself for an entire afternoon. You couldn’t do that in the Library or, by the way, with one measly sheet of e-paper.
I’d browsed nearly a third of the shelves on the bottom floor before all went silent again. “Yoo-hoo,” I called out, hoping I was finally alone. “Are you there?”
“The name’s Troy,” his voice boomed from the end of my aisle.
I am neither fainthearted nor hearing-impaired, but I didn’t know how he snuck up behind me without my noticing, and that scared the Tale of Two Cities out of me.
“Don’t spring up on people like that,” I groused, putting a hand over my heart to steady it. “Troy, is it?”
He nodded. “Sorry to frighten you. Was there something you wanted?”
“Oh…yes.” I wanted him to disappear so I could get on with my plans. I asked, instead, “Where’s the restroom?”
One of his heavy eyebrows went up. “I can’t imagine they’d have moved since the last time you visited.”
“Don’t be smart with me, young man. I asked a straight question and I expect a straight answer.” Well, I gave him my best withering reprimand, and the glare to go with it, and it didn’t seem to make a dent in his disposition.
He actually smirked. “Make a left, head for the elevators, and you should see the ladies’ room to the right of them.”
Not fifteen minutes later, he knocked on the restroom door, asking if everything was all right and if I needed any help. I dare say I’d never been so insulted in my life.
“No, I do not need your help! Now, kindly leave me alone to finish my business.”
“Okay,” he said, and then assured me he’d be right outside, which was of no reassurance to me at all. If I stayed in there a moment longer, I feared he might come charging in and see me standing there, not with my granny-panties around my ankles and not using the restroom at all.
No point waiting around any longer. I pushed open a stall and waved my hand in front of the flush sensor. With another wave, I ran the faucet for a while, and then left the restroom.
As it turned out, stealing a book from my library was not as easy as I’d imagined it would be.
Mind you, I didn’t plan on sashaying into the Library, lifting a book from the shelves and moon walking out the front door with it. In the first place, the Library has a multimillion dollar security system, each bookshelf monitored by all kinds of sensors.
If you ask me, they could’ve saved themselves the money and locked the books in sealed cases, but, no, Granny Esther wanted to retain the “feel” of a library, instead. She wanted the people to “feel” like they could reach out and take one of those books, except if anyone actually tried that, the motion sensors would set off all the alarms, the whole building would go on lock-down, and that person would find himself saddled with a hefty fine or jail time.
During business hours, of course, the motion sensors are turned off, what with hyperactive kids these days bouncing off the walls. Literally. My grand-nephew, Stephen, has e-wallpaper covering the walls in his room and delights in the fine art of scribbling, hand-printing, shoe-printing, and butt-printing the interior.
Stephen thinks everything he touches is interactive, so he ends up wanting to touch everything.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Even with the motion sensors turned off there was still the pressure sensor, which could detect if the total weight of the shelf and the books had decreased, give or take the margin of error, and each book was tagged with an isotope detectable by the screeners at every entrance and exit.
I was prepared for all this, but I was not prepared for Troy. I was under the impression that robots, not a live person, did the cleaning work, and I told him so.
He gave a chortle and opened the door to the storage room. “Maintenance cutbacks.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Means robots break down, and the cost of repair is too high. Means the management here is so cheap, it’s been two weeks, and I’m still waiting for the replacement for this clunker.” He kicked the lumbering floor scrubber crouched beneath a shelf of cleaning chemicals. “Sure, they spare no expense when it comes to the books, but one guy with a mop and free nights saves this place thousands every year.”
Troy laced his fingers, palms facing out, and stretched his arms forward until his bones popped.
“It seems like a lot for one man to do by himself,” I said.
Again, with his flashy smile. “I’ve got the whole night, and once I get into the routine, time goes by like—” He snapped his fingers, but his sanitation gloves stifled the sound. “Besides, I like working alone. Plenty of time to think in peace, no one to bother you. Usually.”
“Oh, am I bothering you?” I must admit, I relished the idea. He’d been nothing but a smug thorn in my side, a blabbering wrench in the works, the pebble in my shoe and the gum underneath it.
He leaned on the door frame, inclined his head, and regarded me. “Not so much. You’re a bit crabby, but I kind of like you.”
The nerve of the man! To call me a crusty old crab to my face. I plotted right then that the best means of getting him out of the way would be death by falling bookshelf. If not for my weak muscles and the shelves being bolted to the floor, I’d have done it.
There was also the small factor that he’d said he liked me, which, by the way, still means a lot to old fuddy-duddies like myself who don’t get visits from their children as often as they should, and when we take the trouble to drop in on them, they tell us to call first next time. As if to make an appointment or something. The very idea.
Having only the night to carry out my criminal activity, and faced with no immediate ideas on how to do that without Troy catching me, I decided to follow him until one came to me.
Well, of course, he found that odd. The man was going on his break, and I appeared to be stalking him.
“Do you normally just…wander the place on your visits?” he asked, slowing his pace so that I could keep up with his long stride.
“Sometimes,” I said.
“And your family knows you’re here?”
“I’m not senile if that’s what you’re thinking.” He denied it, and the way he grinned prompted me to issue a denial of my own. “And you’re not my type, so don’t get any ideas.”
He laughed and opened the door to his break room for me. “I give up. Why do you come here?”
“For the books, of course.”
The break room was smaller than my walk-in closet and not nearly as clean. After a cursory inspection, I took the most stable-looking seat at the small bridge table and set my purse down in front of me.
Troy retrieved a brown lunch bag from the mini-refrigerator in the room, sniffed whatever was inside, and, apparently, decided it was safe to eat.
“Turkey sandwich?” he asked, holding up the bag.
“And spend the rest of the night in the ladies’ room? No, indeed. I’ll have some water to take my pills, thank you.”
He nodded and went to the water cooler. “You can’t read any of them, though.”
“The books. You said you come for the books, but you can’t read them. What’s the appeal?”
“You tell me. I saw you gawking at them when I came in.”
He handed me my water and set his soda on the opposite side of the table where he took his seat. “Just curious, I guess.”
“Well, there you have it. Books are curious things, aren’t they? The thickness, the cover, the author, and especially the title.”
He smiled. “Green Eggs and Ham.”
“Dr. Seuss!” Imagine me, laughing for no apparent reason. “When I was a child, we had all his books.”
“We still do,” he said, taking a bite out of his sandwich.
I shook my head. “It isn’t the same—and take your elbows off the table.”
He obliged. “The stories have gotten an upgrade, I suppose.”
“Animations and sound effects, an upgrade? Hog swill! Kids these days don’t have to use their imagination anymore. The e-paper does it all for them. Once upon a time, you could learn something from the back of a cereal box. Today? Interactive games. You should see how many boxes my grandchildren jab to death each month.”
He chuckled. “Stop the presses. E-paper heiress despises the source of her family’s fortune.”
“There aren’t any printing presses to stop now, are there? E-paper is to blame for that, and for why we can’t read any of the books in this sham of a library.”
He cracked open his soda with a pop and a fizz, didn’t say anything for a moment, just looked contemplative. “So, you’re just a little nostalgic, then.”
Yes, I was. I was an insatiable bookworm, loved to turn the pages as my parents read to me at bedtime, went through my father’s entire private library at least three times over, and always looked forward to returning there on holidays from college.
Then he up and donated the whole shebang to the Hoffman Printing Press Museum and Library. My favorite book in the whole world and the memories it carried, gone, locked away in some underground vault, only to be seen once every blue moon when management rotated the books on the shelves.
I told Troy all this, but I doubted he’d understand. I suppose it was just my defeatism talking.
“I didn’t grow up with books,” Troy said, shifting the can on the table. “They’ve always seemed like museum pieces, ancient artifacts that once meant something to a lot of people, and now are only prized by a few. Without books I’d currently be out of a job, but that’s about all the value they hold for me.”
I expected no less from the e-generation. They’d never seen a real book much less held one in their hands, felt the smoothness of a glossy paperback or the texture of a leather-bound hardcover, never smelled that fresh scent of brand-newness bursting from the fluttering pages.
After chugging his cola, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Um, so, which is your favorite?”
“Goodnight Moon,” I sighed, as I dug through my purse for my pills. “It’s a children’s…”
That’s when I saw it. In the clutter of prescription bottles and vitamins in by purse, I saw my sleeping pills. Fast-acting and long-lasting, one quick-dissolve tablet was the prescribed dosage, but two or three in Troy’s drink would solve all my problems.
I must say I handled the execution quite expertly. A little clumsiness with my purse knocked over my drink and had Troy fetching me another cup. With his back turned, I dropped the pills into the can, but I didn’t expect the cola to fizz so much. By the time he returned to the table, his drink had settled again.
“Thank you,” I said, receiving the cup of water. “As I was saying—”
“What are the pills for?” he asked.
“These?” I almost had a heart attack when I looked down at the bottle still in my hand. Of all the lame things to do, I forgot to put the sleeping pills away. I laughed it off as best as I could. “Good gracious, me. Wrong bottle. Still early for these, yet. I have so many pills in here it’s a wonder I haven’t mixed them up before.”
“You’re too sharp for that, Mrs. Hoffman,” he said and winked.
I chuckled, albeit nervously. From there, all I had to do was make small talk, while he sipped at his drink. I was afraid his break time would be over before the pills took effect, but he finally slumped onto the table and drifted off.
He was just as noisy asleep as he was awake. I don’t know how his wife put up with such ghastly snoring, if he had a wife. I decided I’d find out the next time I visited. Yes, and I’d learn more than just his first name, too, where he was from and how he came to work at the Library. It seemed absolutely selfish on my part that I failed to get to know the man better, but at the moment I had a book to read.
I patted his head. “Goodnight, Troy.”
The security system for each bookshelf could be shut down from the main computer in the security room, or from their individual access panels. I won’t say from whom I acquired the codes, but I did, and I had no trouble accessing my quarry, save for securing a step-stool to reach it.
I gazed at the bright red spine for a moment, reading two words I’d read so many times before. Gently, I fingered the top of the spine, pulled back and pinched the book then tugged it from its spot. It slid free and the vibrant cover came into full view—red, green, yellow, blue, the striped curtain and cow jumping over moon!
Imagine. Me, a septuagenarian, giddy as a toddler on Christmas morning. This wasn’t the larger sized, thin sheet version. No, indeed. This was the small, thick board book of my fondest childhood memories. It went everywhere my blanket and I did. I loved this book.
I shut my eyes, running my hand over the surface, feeling for the dinged and worn edges, and found it in better condition than I recalled. When I lifted the cover, I brought the book close and inhaled the scent of…
“E-paper?” I opened my eyes.
E-paper! An inch of e-paper with miscellaneous content stuffed into my Goodnight Moon! I thought I might faint. It couldn’t be. Every book in the Library was a real, live tree-paper book donated or otherwise acquired.
I snatched up the book that had tipped over in the empty slot. E-paper. The next book? E-paper. The next shelf? E-paper. The next row? I was devastated.
By the time the police arrived, beaming their flashlights in my face and barking who knows what, I was in a daze and in a pile of fake books. Torn sheets of e-paper carpeted the floor in a disorienting, flashing mess.
You can imagine the skepticism in the room when I finished my account of the eventful night. The two detectives who’d hounded me with questions looked positively incredulous. So did Charles, my lawyer—and son, by the way.
Detective Winslow leaned onto the metal table with his knuckles. “And what happened to Troy?”
“Didn’t I tell you? When I went back to the break room, he was gone. He never drank a drop of his spiked cola.”
He smoothed his mustache, a bit of a nervous tick, I presumed, and his nose made this irritating wheezing noise as he exhaled. “We ran the soda can for fingerprints, Mrs. Hoffman. Care to guess what we came up with?”
“Zero matches, I’d imagine. He was wearing his gloves the whole time.”
“And you didn’t think it was strange for a guy to eat a sandwich with gloves on?”
“I didn’t notice at the time.”
The detective threw up his hands, and his partner, who’d been jotting things down on her e-pad, or playing solitaire for all I knew, finally looked up.
“Ma’am, do you know how much jail time you’re facing?” she asked. “Breaking and entering, theft, destruction of property…” She let her list hang, as if she could go on, but only decided to spare my delicate sensibilities.
That’s when Charles jumped in. “My client didn’t break into the Library, Detective Barnes, she’s allowed in. Unlawful entry is the appropriate term as regards her accessing the security systems, and she’s prepared to pay the fine it carries. She didn’t steal anything, and I seriously doubt any judge would haul a senior citizen off to jail for tearing a couple pages out of worthless, counterfeit books whose proprietor, by the way, is not the Library.”
I must admit I preened a little.
“Proprietor,” mumbled Winslow. “Technically, those e-wrapped paperweights belong to that Troy guy and whoever hired him to pull this heist, but thanks to you we can’t find either one!”
“Speak plainly! Are you implying I aided and abetted the thief?”
Detective Barnes put up her hands. “All we know, Mrs. Hoffman, is that in three weeks, Troy managed to switch out hundreds of very rare and valuable books without raising any suspicion. I mean, he had to fabricate detailed e-copies of the original covers, get the weight measurements exact, somehow circumvent the isotope labeling, and then completely erase the security video drive. He must have had help.”
“Well it wasn’t me. Without me, you wouldn’t even know about all this, you wouldn’t even have a name.”
“A fake name,” gritted Winslow, his mustache twitching.
Barnes had the nerve to snicker at my expense, or maybe she was half-watching some mindless video on her e-pad. “Troy, the Trojan horse,” she said.
If those two detectives were any sharper, they might’ve been able to cut butter. It seemed perfectly apt to me that the thief chose the name as a reference to my great-great-uncle, but why quibble? He was still a conman, and I still felt like a fool.
With nothing to hold me for and no further questions to answer, I was released, and my son drove me home. He gave me a good scolding on the way, though, as he couldn’t imagine what possessed me to do such an illegal and stupid thing as steal a children’s book.
“I wasn’t going to take it out of the Library, Charles,” I muttered. “I just wanted to read it.”
“What’s wrong with the deluxe, special edition e-version I got you for your sixty-fifth birthday? Digitally re-mastered and annotated with the history of the book and author, special references, and original literary reviews. Good gracious, it’s even fully animated! This is why we don’t come around anymore, because ever since Dad died, nobody knows how to make you happy.”
Charles deposited me in my big empty mansion, and told me he’d have everything sorted out by morning, reminding me to take my pills before bed, warning me to stay out of any further trouble.
I sat up in bed that night, fiddling with Charles’s gift. The sheet of e-paper weighed less than my nightgown. I don’t know why they made the things clear. I nearly went cross-eyed trying to focus on the button images instead of the filigree pattern on my down comforter.
Once I figured it out, the page filled with an image of the front cover—red, green, yellow, blue, the striped curtain and cow jumping over the moon. It wasn’t the same, but just seeing that picture, again, brought back so many memories, old and new, and they made me smile.
I tapped the arrow pointing to the next page. With another tap, the text enlarged to a comfortable size, so I set my reading glasses on the nightstand next to the half-empty glass of milk and plate of cookie crumbs.
The dancing mascot on the cookie box still insisted the cookies were best only with an affiliate brand of milk, the little liar. They tasted just fine with the store brand.
I sank into bed and read aloud, whispering the rhymes I knew by heart. I bid goodnight to the red balloon, goodnight to bears and chairs, to clocks and socks.
“Goodnight comb,” I sighed, my eyelids drooping, sleep washing over, “and goodnight brush…”
I’d like to say that sometime after I fell asleep, Troy stole into the room from the window, the moonlight stretching his six-and-a-half-foot figure into a shadow giant across the room. I’d like to say the dancing mascot wet himself and ducked for cover.
Clad in black, Troy would’ve crept across the room to my bedside, lifted the e-paper from my limp hands and slipped the real book, my book, in its place. Then he’d kiss my forehead and whisper, “Goodnight to the old lady with a heart of mush.”
He’d leave, as nimbly as he arrived, without even so much as a stir from me. Imagine my surprise, my absolute elation, waking up the next morning to find that treasure in my hands and a warm glow in my heart that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
I’d like to say all this, but my lips are sealed.
About the Author:
Gina Fairchild is an aspiring writer living in the Deep South, USA, who writes when she’s not reading, reads when she’s not writing, learns whenever she can, and hopes it all results in stories with character, heart, and a sense of humor.
Thank you for reading this issue of Larks, we hope to see you back here April 24th for Issue Twelve.
Thank you for reading this issue of Larks, we hope to see you back here April 24th for Issue Twelve.