Alice was driving to McDonald’s when she saw a woman walking her leash. The first thing that flashed through her mind was that it was one of those invisible dog gag leashes that seem to be popular at carnivals. But this leash was trailing far behind the woman, and there was no one else around to appreciate the humor. Alice couldn’t imagine anyone being that committed to the joke, especially one that wasn’t very funny to begin with.
Do people actually walk their pet skinks? she wondered, then felt very proud of herself that she had thought skink and not just lizard. Her Reptile-a-Day calendar seemed to be working.
As she got closer, she saw that there was an animal at the end of the leash, a real dog, or at the very least an especially hairy skink. It seemed to be some sort of teacup poodle, although for this one, thimble poodle might be more apt.
The woman was wearing earphones and seemed to be striding along to the oldies. The little pup was giving it the old community college try* to keep up with her but when you have to take four hundred steps to your owner’s one, it’s pretty much a losing battle. It occurred to Alice that the dog might have been much larger at the beginning of the walk but had burned off most of its body weight already.
*like a college try, but mostly done in the evenings and on weekends.
Of course, all of this happened in the space of a few seconds and then Alice had driven past and the woman and her marathoning pet were receding into her rear view mirror.
Alice happened to tell her family about the episode at dinner that night. Her husband Mark laughed.
“You should have filmed it,” he said. “That would be great for the channel.” Mark had recently started a YouTube channel called Good for What Fails You, which was terribly named and consisted mostly of fail videos stolen from other sites.
“No, that’s terrible!” their 12-year-old son Corbin said. He was planning to be a companion-animal veterinarian when he grew up and hated to see any animal in distress. “We need to call the authorities.”
“And say what? There’s a dog out there whose legs are too short?”
“It’s cruelty,” Corbin said. “It’s like you being tied to the back of a car and then forced to run.”
“So what do you want to do?”
So Corbin came up with a plan. It was bold, it was daring, it was completely insane, but Alice did not want to discourage him from thinking creatively. She even helped him implement it.
Mark agreed to help only if he could film the encounter and put it on his channel. “Don’t try too hard,” he said. “If this ends in a disaster, so much the better.”
Through some stake-out work over the next week, they discovered that the woman walked her dog along the same route every afternoon. The next Monday they had everything ready and by 4:15, everyone was in their place. Alice was loitering on the corner of 45th and Penelope Street while Corbin hid in the bushes nearby. Mark was parked across the street with his camera ready.
The woman appeared around the corner and came towards Alice, trailing her leash. The dog seemed to have gotten smaller. Maybe it would eventually just shrink to the point where it would just slip the collar and run away.
“Excuse me!” Alice said as the woman approached. She waved a hand. The woman stopped and took off her headphones.
“Have you seen my gila monster?” Alice asked. “I was walking him and he seems to have disappeared.” Mark and Corbin both thought this was an idiotic cover story, but Alice was determined to get the most out of her Reptile-a-Day calendar.
The woman’s forehead wrinkled. Behind her, the dog had slumped to the ground, panting.
Corbin tried to creep out of the bushes, but tripped and sprawled on the sidewalk with a loud crack of breaking branches. The woman started to turn around.
“Wait, is that him?” Alice cried, pointing ahead of them. Corbin picked himself up, then carefully picked up the dog as well. He slid a small custom-made skateboard under it, then snugged the safety belt across the dog’s back. He pushed the straw that led to the on-board water bottle towards the dog’s mouth.
“I haven’t seen anything like that, sorry,” the woman said. Corbin was massaging the dog’s head with two fingers. Alice tried to signal him with her eyes to get out of there.
“Okay, thanks. I’m sure the little guy’s around here somewhere.” She walked past the woman and jabbed a finger at Corbin to get moving.
They stood on the sidewalk and watched the woman recede into the distance, the tiny skateboard bouncing along after her.
“She’ll notice it when she gets home,” Alice said. “It might not solve anything in the long run.”
“But at least it helped the little guy this time,” Corbin said.
“You’re a good kid,” Alice said, putting an arm around his shoulders. “Now let’s go cheer your father up. He’s going to be sad no one got hurt.”
My apologies to all my Friday Fictioneers friends that I could not read your stories a few weeks back. I usually try to read as many as I can but this has been a busy time. I’m looking forward to reading them this week, plus looking forward to Thanksgiving in a few weeks when I can get a few days off.
Dad thought Christmas made everything better, so when he started putting up decorations in August, we knew something terrible had happened.
Jasmine felt the dog’s pulse as Dad assembled the Christmas tree. When he put on carols, I called to check on Grandma.
By the afternoon, he was putting up the outside lights and my search history included words like “asteroid” and “zombies”. Mom had no idea, but she gave us a signed affidavit they weren’t getting divorced.
Dad came inside. “Merry Christmas.” He wiped away a tear. “I have tragic news. Tom Seaver died today.”
Silence. “Who?” Mom asked.
In case your reaction was the same as Mom’s: Tom Seaver
They come in a hundred different varieties now, but I remember when they first came out, bundles of little pink orbs with a stalk coming off them. They clearly weren’t cherries. Everyone knew it at the time, but they had that look of a classical cherry with a stem and so the name stuck. Plus, no one knew what else to call them. No one even knew where they came from.
They appeared online at first, of course. Ads began popping up for the super domain miracles891$$ and soon the sheer amount of ads drove the buzz. What people found was a simple storefront site selling one thing: boxes of ten of these pink balls simply labeled miracles. They were $150 per box.
I kind of wonder now who the first person was to buy them, that first brave or foolish early-adopter who went to a random website and paid $150 for a box of miracles. I can imagine them unboxing it in their living room, rolling the little balls between their fingers, holding one up to their nose to see if the smell betrayed what they really were. I can imagine the first person taking that first, tentative bite, wondering if this really was something miraculous or just a scam. Maybe they were hoping it was drugs. It was much better than drugs.
I cannot say if the first person realized what the miracle cherries were, but someone that first day must have. The word “miracle” leads the mind on a certain path. Peter Jirand was the first one that made the news though. He had Stage 4 esophageal cancer and was in hospice when the small box of miracle cherries arrived at his door. He was cancer-free within two days. He ran the New York marathon six months later. After that, sales of miracle cherries went atmospheric.
Still, it took another five months before people caught on to the fact that they were more than just health supplements, however amazingly effective they were at that. Within five months, the medical industry has cratered. For $15 a dose, miracle cherries could cure literally anything. Almost overnight, diseases were practically eradicated.
Of course, the medical industry fought back. They pointed to the fact that no government could certify that the miracle cherries were safe and did not have long-term side effects, mostly because no one could figure out how they were made. They tried to ban them, but no one knew where they were coming from or even who was benefiting. Billions of dollars poured into the miracles891$$ super domain, but no one credible ever came forward as owning it and the money never reappeared. The boxes were mailed from thousands of different places but when the police broke into one of them, they only found an empty room.
Five months after the first miracle cherries appeared, a video went viral of a man flying over Rio de Janiero. Then it was like a light bulb went on over the collective heads of the human race. Miracles cherries were genuinely miracles, it turned out. They would only affect the person who took them, but that still included a lot.
It was the age of superheroes, and supervillains as well. Now anyone who wanted to could fly, turn invisible, become immortal, even transport instantly to another place. The world economy reeled and staggered, as whole industries rose and feel over the span of days or weeks.
Then the day came when a young woman with short hair and glasses appeared on TV. Every TV. “Hello,” she said. “My name is Rachel and I am the owner of miracles891$$ and the maker of what are known as miracle cherries. There are three levels of miracle cherries. You have all been taking the first and lowest level. The second level will go on sale today for 150 million dollars per box of ten.”
She paused to adjust her glasses as the world let this sink in. “As of today, I have 1.563 trillion dollars,” she said, “although I don’t really need it. I have decided that I would like to rule the world. As I have been speaking, I created a headquarters for myself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I will meet world leaders there and we can discuss how things will move forward. Thank you.” The young woman identified only as Rachel snapped her fingers and disappeared.
This is an odd story, to be sure. I wrote it a little over a year ago and never posted it then. It’s also an open-ended story, meaning it doesn’t have a sequel. Instead, you can think about what happens next. What would level 2 and 3 miracle cherries look like? I like this kind of story, although I realize not everyone does. Maybe if anyone cares enough, I’ll write a second part to it.
Assistant Manager Mateo Couch bounced from foot to foot, looking at the bank of security camera feeds in the Cash and Carry’s main office. Corporate management had given him one chance to turn around the store’s profits and make it competitive with the Wull-Murt superstore that had just opened across the road. He had put everything he had into this.
The TV screens were set up all around the store, currently showing the specials for the day and the store hours. The shoppers drifted through the aisles to the soporific Muzak coming from the speakers.
“It’s all yours, Couch,” the Manager said. Her name was Jillian Feeney but everyone just called her the Manager, which she preferred.
Mateo hit the switch and the Muzak died away. The screens around the store went dark.
“Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing.” The sounds of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline came over the speakers. A few shoppers looked up and smiled at the lyrics now scrolling across all the screens.
“Hands, touching hands.”
Then it happened, one lone tenor voice coming from the baked goods aisle, singing along. “Reaching out, touching me, touching you.”
“Sweet Caroline. BAM BAM BAM!” The store exploded into singing. Shoppers all over the store were singing now. In the dairy aisle, a small conga line of shopping carts had formed, heading towards the yogurt case.
It was working, it was actually working. Mateo looked back at the Manager. She permitted him a quarter smile, which was the equivalent of a bear hug from someone else.
Someone in the bakery section was filming the scene on their phone. Perfect. This might go viral. They’d be famous as the cool grocery store. He saw people dancing, throwing groceries into the cart with glee. Yes.
The song ended and there was a cheer from the shoppers. This had worked better than he had even dreamed.
The next song came on. Mateo looked at the name. He didn’t recognize it. It started with a whisper. It was too quiet. He turned it up a bit.
“Let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the FLOOR!”
Shoppers screamed. A glass bottle of artisanal olive oil shattered in the International Foods aisle. An old man went down, clutching at his chest.
Mateo dove the power button, and the music died. A few seconds of ringing silence passed before the soothing strains of Muzak came over the speakers.
“Great concept,” the Manager said. “Truly original. But please let me approve the song list from now on.”
Since this story incorporates music into fiction, I thought I’d give a shout out to my friend Miles Rost over at Music and Fiction, a writing blog he has been running for about as long as this blog has been going. Go read some of his stories, if you get a chance.
“Check it out what this old man gave me,” Brad said, showing Mark his backpack. “Any books you put in here are weightless. The drawback is you forget how to read.”
“That sounds like that one Rick & Morty episode,” Mark said.
“So, do you want to get sued?”
“So are we!” Mark looked nervously at the edges of the blog post.
* * *
David sat back in frustration. This cursed story generator worked great, but the characters kept announcing the plot and breaking the fourth wall. Still, it was worth it to get Friday Fictioneers ideas every week.
The idea for this story came about seven months ago when I was traveling and wondered what it would be like to travel internationally in a purely barter economy.
Prescott stood in a crowd at the exchange bank, meaning a long section of the river bank where you could exchange things. He had just arrived by boat for vacation. This was his one chance for adventure and to see new things. So far, the exchange bank was providing enough new sights, sounds, and smells for at least a month.
Standing in front of Prescott was a man with the word Teller on a placard around his neck. Prescott wasn’t sure what that meant, although it apparently meant someone whose job it was to tell him things.
The teller was looking skeptically down at the sand dollars Prescott had spread out on the table.
“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Who would want them? I mean, what do they do?”
“They’re transportable wealth,” Prescott said, feeling an uncomfortable feeling growing in his head. “You can carry them around. And they’re pretty. Look, I just want to trade them for something that would be valuable where I’m going inland.”
“Onyx is big these days,” the teller said. “They hit a big vein just down the coast six months ago. Of course, that means people don’t want it as much either. I mean, it’s pretty, but you’re better going with something practical, like wheat or cheese.”
“So, what should I do?” It felt like a betrayal of his own abilities to even have to ask, but Prescott could not envision himself carting around a hundred pounds of cheese for the next month.
“You know what you should get into,” the teller said, with a thoughtful squint. “Sheep. They’re walking meat, milk, and wool. Plus, a caravan came through a week ago and snapped up all the sheep and herded them south. There’s a severe shortage now.”
“Then how am I supposed to get them?” Prescott asked, surrendering all pretense of competence in finance.
“There’s one herd left,” the teller said, pointing to a dirty white clump of bodies a stone’s throw down the bank. “They’re old and ornery, so no one wants them. You’ll get them cheap. All you have to do is drive them ten miles inland to the town of Wakk and trade them for miniature stone carvings of the god Bingbong, the patron god of miniature stone carvings. Those things are valuable anywhere.”
This was sounding like an awful lot of work just to get enough wealth to travel for vacation. It would make a good story though.
“Yessir, you could travel a week on a single Bingbong if you’re careful,” the teller said, answering the question Prescott never asked. “You should be able to get 8, maybe 10 for that herd in these times.”
With thoughts of having his trip financed for ten whole weeks, Prescott made his way over to the sheep herd. He had planned to travel until he ran out of funds, but he had not been sure how far the 48 sand dollars he had collected would take him.
“What do you do with them?” one of the shepherds asked when Prescott proposed the trade.
“You carry them somewhere else and trade them for other things,” Prescott said. He lifted up his right foot and scraped it off on a nearby rock. “And they don’t smell or poop.” The shepherds did a straight swap, trading all 48 sand dollars for the 26 sheep. One of them even threw in his staff as well.
“You’ll need it,” the man said before the two of them wrapped up the sand dollars and ran off, whooping with joy.
The sheep weren’t just ornery, Prescott found. They were also old, decrepit, lame, and in one instance, dead. He discovered this when he made an exploratory attempt at herding (by yelling and accidentally hitting himself in the foot with the staff). The flock had moved a desultory few feet, except for one particularly bad-smelling ewe who stayed put. Prescott found that it was being held up by wire.
He had gotten the flock up the bank and almost to the main road that led out west when there was a sudden buzz in the air, as if a celebrity had just entered the room, or at least an especially large wasp. Prescott turned to see four ships entering the harbor.
“Sheep ship!” he heard. “The sheep ships are here.”
Prescott found a teller. “We’ve been waiting for these for weeks,” the man said. He caught sight of Prescott’s decrepit flock. “Ooh, you might want to get those inland as fast as possible. That’s the only way you’ll get anything for them now.”
For the next few days, Prescott struggled to keep his vile flock moving along the inland road as huge flocks of strong and relatively nice-smelling sheep passed him by. He was almost relieved when five of his sheep got lost in the woods and another two fell in the river.
Finally he arrived in Wakk and made his way to the local exchange meadow. There seemed to be more sheep than people there.
“I’ll give you half a Bingbong for them,” one man said, sizing up the flock. He shrugged. “I dropped it on the ground.”
I think I have a title for my travel memoir, Prescott thought as he walked away. How I Turned 48 Sand Dollars into Half a Bingbong. If he ever got home alive, it would make a good story.
The phone rang just as I was waking up. To be fair, it was noon, so I couldn’t complain. I looked at the screen: an unknown number, but it was coming from Moldova, which intrigued me. My Romanian was pretty rusty, but I figured even if it was a scammer, it was worth answering.
“Bună,” I said into the phone.
“What?” It was a woman’s voice, sounding confused.
“Who’s this?” I asked.
“Georgette. Is this Apollinaire Jobhy?”
“Call me Paul,” I said. I liked to have it both ways, the distinction of having a unique name without the hassle of actually using it. “Are you in Moldova?”
“What? I’m here in Montreal. Are you in—”
“Your phone says you’re in Moldova,” I said, cutting her off. I liked my conversations as short as possible before I had my coffee.
“I found this phone in my apartment when I moved in,” Georgette said. “It still worked so I’ve been using it. I don’t know who’s paying the bills. Look, are you the paranormal accountant? I need help.”
“That’s me,” I said with a yawn. I didn’t tell her that I had never actually used my degree in paranormal accounting. My college advisor had been way off about how useful it would be. “How did you hear about me?”
“I found you on the Internet,” she said.
That was a bad sign. I could only afford to advertise on pop-up ads and I automatically distrusted the intelligence of anyone who would click on a pop-up ad, let alone call the number it gave.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
She hesitated for a minute. “It’s something you have to see.”
Oy, this kind of client: the show and tell kind. She was the kind of person who would refuse to say “my husband’s been murdered” over the phone and would make you drag yourself over to the crime scene in order to point at the mangled body of her late spouse half in the washing machine and then say, “my husband’s been murdered.” To give a hypothetical.
I agreed to come to her apartment at three. She gave me an address in the Mile End neighborhood, which was a good sign that she would at least be able to pay for whatever services I provided.
I got to the house at 2:55 and hung around outside until 3:15 before climbing up the white-trimmed stairs to the second-floor apartment. It’s never good to be on time too often or people start to expect it.
Georgette met me at the door in a terrycloth robe with her hair tied up in a rainbow bandana. She led me into the living room. I didn’t see any deceased spouses half hanging out of anything, so things were looking okay so far.
“Here’s the problem,” she said and untied the bandana. A cascade of auburn hair fell across her shoulders, as lustrous as a shampoo commercial. I stayed silent since I had no idea where this was going. We stared at each other for a second.
“It’s brushed,” she said. “I think it’s even conditioned.”
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” I said quickly. “You did a great job.”
“I didn’t do it!” she shouted. “I went to bed an absolute mess and woke up like this.”
“Good?” I ventured. I took another glance around, just to make sure this wasn’t leading up to a dead husband somehow.
“It’s terrible!” she cried. “I’m an actress, you know. I just moved here to shoot a movie called Legal Animals. I play Kitty, the former Miss Universe-turned-homeless woman with a heart of gold. She’s been living on the streets for years. My hair has to look horrible and shooting starts in three days!”
“I’ve heard of this,” I said, just to stall for time. “Where do you sleep?”
She showed me the bedroom. Clothes were strewn around like the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I reached under the bed and pulled my hand back sharply. My finger was bleeding. Turning on my phone’s flashlight, I looked under the bed.
“Just as I suspected,” I said. I grabbed a hanger lying nearby and fished out a hairball the size of a tennis ball.
“That’s gross,” Georgette said.
“You have no idea,” I said. I pulled out a Ziploc bag and pushed the hairball inside. “This is a demonic hairball. I think I know your problem.”
What was surprising was that I actually did. Paranormal accounting is more about hidden treasure and satisfying the demands of long-dead auditors. We don’t do much with hair that get mysteriously brushed during the night, but paranormal everythings tend to talk. We have conferences and everything and I just happened to attend a breakout session about this very problem at the last conference I’d attended: SpookCon ‘18.
“You’re being haunted by a brushubus,” I said. “It’s a demon that sneaks into your bedroom at night and brushes your hair. Sometimes it even styles it. You can tell they’re around by demonic hairballs under the bed.”
“And by the fact that my hair gets brushed every night by itself,” Georgette added. I nodded sagely.
“So what do we do about it?” she asked. “Shooting starts in three days, and I absolutely have to look like a bum.”
“Can I see your phone?” I asked. I wasn’t sure it would help with the brushubus, but I’d been curious about it ever since she mentioned finding it.
Georgette handed me a beat-up cell phone. The photo album was full of selfies of an elderly bald man in a variety of poses. I instantly recognized Dr. Iulian Turcan, the Moldovan professor of criminal entomological engineering, the incredibly niche field of designing insect-like robots to steal things.
“Here’s the problem,” I said. “It looks like this guy, Dr. Turcan, used to live here. He’s been hiding for years from a group of crime-fighting anteaters. They probably got wind of him and he had to leave quickly, forgetting his phone. He’s bald, so the brushubus must have been starved for anything to brush for that whole time. When you moved in, it took out all that pent-up brushing on you.”
“So what can I do?” Tears were queuing up on her lashes, preparing to kamikaze her cheeks.
“There are two options,” I said. “It is possible to get rid of a brushubus. The first think you have to do is—”
“Make a pentagram of combs!” she cried, clapping her hands.
“Please let me finish,” I said. “You would need someone with even more hair to come stay here. Every day you move their bed a little closer to the door. Soon they’re sleeping in the driveway, and the brushubus will go with them. Over a course of months you move their bed further down the road until it reaches another house and there you go.”
“What’s the second option?”
I told her. She took that option.
Georgette insisted on paying me my hourly rate of $60/hour. Unfortunately since I was so good, that left me with ten dollars for my work. Taking my advice, she made a reservation at a hotel for the three weeks of shooting where her hair would remain as messy as she liked. When it was over, she could return and have free hair care for the rest of her life.
“Just watch out for the demonic hairballs,” I said. “They bite. But they do eat all the dust bunnies, so it’s not all bad.”
Putting my ten-dollar bill carefully in my wallet, I went outside and down the stairs. Another case successfully solved, another client happy. But as I walked to the bus stop, a nagging discontent pricked at my mind.
Was I ever actually going to use my degree in paranormal accounting?