Story 4

I actually have an alternate ending to this story in my head. Maybe I'll complete and post up an alternate version at some point.

Also, for reference, I think I listened to this song about half a dozen times while writing the first few pages.


Of Growing Up and Growing Old

I have often heard people whisper about inanimate objects or places that have taken on some form of sentience. Sometimes these are associated with powerful or perhaps gruesome events. Sometimes they are just old and full of memories. Haunted, or bewitched, people say of them, and they are shunned and whispered about further.

It's strange, really, but I cannot entirely blame them. One would think people would welcome the extra communication, that they might seek such things to learn of things that only such things can know. But most would rather stay in ignorance, and those few that seek something more are often looking for an experience they do not entirely believe in, rather than knowledge or understanding. And learning the speech of such objects in a way that is useful is not exactly a simple task, as much of the time the objects themselves have not quite mastered their way of communication. For we have no mouths the way people do, nor hands to hold pens or eyes to see letters. And thus interacting with others in this existence is a bit tricky for us, at best, when we are just getting started.

My first memories are of an elderly couple, and for that I am grateful. They were a kind sort, and had dwelt within my walls for years, or perhaps decades, before I came to realize they were there. The old man had a taste for the classics; Byron, Yeats, Tennyson, and the like. He would spend many an hour reading aloud softly to himself in the den, a pipe in his free hand, flames crackling steadily in the fireplace. On occasion the old woman would tease him about it, and he would always retort that such poetry was not made for the page, but for the throat and the ears. And she would smile. And he would laugh. And they would sit there in front of the fire and read poetry together into the long hours of the night.

I wish I could remember more of them, but before I had quite come into myself the man fell ill and took to bed, and then one day as I stretched my senses throughout myself, I found him not. There was only the old woman, and she sat before the hearth in the den, a book open on her lap, and she stared into the flames in silence. Never again did I sense the old man in my house, and in short time the old woman also left, never to return.

I suppose I took their loss with difficulty. They were the first I had known. I had awoken to the sounds of their voices and learned to think beyond my wooden bones because of a curiosity of them, and I felt as if I had missed something in being unable to express to them my gratitude. But there was little I could do about the matter. They had never quite grasped my groans and silences, never understood the small movements of my own voice. But I do not hold that against them, for there is much I learned simply by observing without interfering.

For many months after the departure of the old woman, I sat alone. On occasion, visitors would come. They picked through and packed up most of the furnishings, trod up and down the stairs peering into each of the rooms and walking their length, and speaking nonsense about square footage and paint and plumbing. But none lingered, and none read poetry by crackling firelight in the den.

Then one day there came a man and his wife, and they made much of the moulding and the floorboards and the hinges on the doors in ways that put me ill at ease. The feeling grew in me over the next few weeks, as the couple returned again and again. They filled my rooms with strange furnishings and placed strange pictures on my walls. Then they began to change things.

They tore at my floors, or covered them with layers of fabric and foam. They took down the wallpaper in the hall, its small white flowers on pale pink disappearing forever into large black plastic bags and being removed from me entirely. They took off my doors and pulled out my windows. Men climbed on my roof and threw down shingles.

I must admit I did not take to it all very well.

It was difficult to watch them take from me what I had always known as familiar, what was left of the elderly couple. And so I resisted the nails they hammered into me, such that both pictures and shingles never quite hung straight. I let the floorboards sag and shift under the carpeting, causing it to ripple in places and tangle their feet. I made even the new doors strain and creak on their hinges, and I would shut them when they weren't propped open, and open them when they weren't bolted shut.

It was then that the people first started calling me “haunted” and speaking in hushed tones. This confused me at first, for I was no foreign spirit, and the memories I had were mine and mine alone, not belonging to the old man or the old woman, as was suggested. But as time passed, fewer and fewer of the workmen seemed willing to return. Strong words were exchanged between the foremen and the new man and woman. And eventually they, too, began speaking in hushed tones of haunts and curses.

The hammering slowed. The woman stopped trying to straighten pictures. People paraded in and out again, trodding up and down the stairs, talking again of paint and plumbing and prices. But these, too, slowed, until they eventually stopped.

This time, no one came to remove the furnishings, and they sat there and felt strange within me. They had seldom been used. The man and the woman had slept elsewhere as often as not, and the workmen stayed only as long as they had to before scurrying off to wherever such people come and go to when their work is done. The drawers were still empty. The closets had never been filled. The shelves stood almost bare, save a few knick-knacks that no one had ever cared for. And the den where the old man had read his poetry had been arranged to center around a large coffee table rather than around the hearth.

And so through the days I hunched myself in shadows, and I sighed aloud into the nights as I settled in my loneliness.

Days and months and years rolled together. Shrubs and garden plants dug their roots at my foundations, and mold and mildew crept in through the crooked shingles on my roof. I did not stop them. I do not suppose things such as myself think of death the way people do, just as we do not think of birth the same way. But often during those days I wondered if I, too, might not be able to leave this place, leave myself, and go beyond and fade into the distance. Yet seldom does any consciousness get to choose the time of any such departure.

People still came and went, from time to time. They were mostly rather young, ruffians looking for sport or lovers looking for privacy. I chased them all off. I had no desire for them and their trivialities. They broke my windows in retribution, but that, I suppose, could not have been avoided. It was enough for me that they would keep their distance as they did so.

It was so that I met the girl. She came with two boys, one on each side leading her by the hand, a blindfold tied across her eyes. I groaned. I was in no mood to deal with ruffians. The girl heard me, and she hesitated. The boys must have, too, but they shuffled her inside, promising a surprise soon enough. They led her to the center of the entryway and told her to wait just a bit longer, then dodged outside. One produced a hammer and nails and began nailing the door shut. The girl cried out and tore off the blindfold, but the boys leaned heavily on the door and she could not move them.

As the boys finished their work and the girl cried out to them from inside, I raged. It was not for the injustice of the matter, though in retrospect I wish it was. No, it was that they would force someone on me, and someone I had no desire for. I wanted them gone, all of them.

The boys' eyes grew wide with terror, and they soon fled, but the girl could not force open the door against the nails. She wailed as I groaned, and she made for the windows, but the ones on the ground floor had been covered with boards and sealed up. She did not go upstairs. Eventually her small fists must have gotten tired of banging on my insides, and I, too, realized the futility of driving her off. I let my voice fall silent, and she collapsed in a small heap beside the door, where I believe she cried herself to sleep.

She awoke some time later and tried the door again, and then the windows. This time I stayed silent, sensing her move about. She was tense; that much I could tell. But she was no longer crying. This time she tried the stairs, tried calling to people from the broken windows there, but no one responded. Day turned to dusk, and she wandered again down the stairs to the drawing room and sat before the hearth. She stayed there for a long time, knees drawn up against her chest, as if staring at the flames that had once been, and her lips moved slowly in whispered prayer.

In that moment there was something about her that reminded me of the old woman as she had sat before the fireplace in those last days before her departure, and I felt a great sorrow come into me; sorrow for myself and for the old woman, and for the young girl who now sat within me against her will. And I tightened the cracks in my walls and held the boards tight against my broken windows, holding inside of myself the last of the day's warmth.

By morning I had worked loose the nails that had held the door shut in the door frame, and when the girl went to try it again, I let it swing open smoothly at her touch. She stood there for a moment blinking into the daylight. Then she patted the door frame and said, “Thank you, House.” And then she left.

She came back many times after that. She would explore the different rooms one by one, or sit by the hearth in the drawing room, or at the strange coffee table, and read or do studies in workbooks. Sometimes she would sing softly to herself as she worked and explored. Once I tried to match her tune, but it seemed my voice unsettled her, and I fell quiet again.

And then one day the boys came back, taunting and calling to her from outside. She told them to leave, but they would not hear of it, and soon they were standing inside rather than on the porch. This did not please the girl. Neither did it please me. I let the doors swing on their hinges and the curtains catch even the slightest breeze. I pulled myself together to lessen the light, and gathered the winds inside me to rush back and forth along the stairs and down the halls.

The boys shouted at her to make these things stop, but of course she had no control over them. They were mine, my voice, my body. I sounded their names in the snapping cracks of my floorboards, and twisted the winds and creaks to match the tunes of the girl's songs. She stood there, open-mouthed, listening, and to their credit, the boys grabbed her by the arms and pulled her from me.

But she returned later that evening. She came cautiously up the patio and opened the door, and then she stood for a while in silence just inside. “You did that on purpose, didn't you, House?” she said softly.

I let out a small creak. It was unintentional, really. She had not directly addressed me since that first day. But it is polite to respond when someone asks you something.

The girl stood very still for a long moment. “Are you going to do it again?”

I stayed silent. I had not really thought about it, though I knew I had no intentions of doing so just then. The girl puffed out her cheeks, and then let out a long, slow breath. “Well, if you are, then I should let you know you are very out of tune, House,” she said, and she stomped her way into the den where she had left her pack and reading book, humming softly to herself. I tried to catch the tune and match its sound, and the girl stopped humming. I quickly fell silent. Was I upsetting her?

But then she began humming again, just a few notes this time, and then paused, and then repeated them. Tentatively, I repeated them. The girl's face broke into a grin, and then a laugh. “You're a singing house!” she said. “I'm going to be your teacher! I'll teach you to sing!”

And so she did. I could not manage the words except in bits here and there, for as I said, we have no mouths the way people do. But the girl seemed pleased with my progress, and so I was encouraged, and soon the tunes came easily through my body.

She came for many years, and we sang many songs. It took some time and some work, but eventually I convinced her to read me poetry, and once again someone sat before the fireplace in the den and read Byron, Yeats, and Tennyson. Sometimes she would try to turn the poems into songs so I could sing them (for words gave me far too much trouble to actually recite anything), and she and I would weave our voices together in harmony.

As she grew from girl into woman, she would occasionally bring over guests, but I seldom took well to them. I did not wish to be shown off as a prize or a trinket. And the girl would chastise me, and I would argue back, and often she would leave in a huff, or refuse to sing with me for a bit, but we always managed to resolve her differences in the end.

Then one day she came, and she brought with her no book nor music. Her greeting was soft and heavy, and she ran her hand gently along my walls as she made her way to the den. There she sat, knees drawn up against her chest, and stared into the empty hearth.

Eventually she lifted her chin from where it was tucked in her arms, and spoke. “They want to tear you down, House,” she said. “They say you are old beyond repair, that no one will buy you, and you are just taking up space.”

I did not understand. Who were 'they'? Could they not be reasoned with? I tried to ask her, but she just shook her head. “I can't do anything about it. The land alone costs far more than I could afford.” She gave a slight, sad laugh. “And no one believes in singing houses. They'll just tell me I'm crazy.”

She ran her fingers along my floorboards, tracing the grain of the wood. “I'm sorry, House. I don't know what to do, and you can't scare off bulldozers the way you can scare off vagrants and silly boys.”

I still did not fully understand. This was obviously a matter between people, and something I would normally have no part in if not for the girl and my own apparent destruction.

At length, the girl stood again. Then she made her way up the stairs, intent on exploring everything once more. She went through all the bedrooms first, and then pulled down the stairs to the attic and made her way up. She spent little time up there, on account of the rats and the dust. But this time she poked about in its nooks and crannies. It was one of the more cluttered parts of my insides. Some cases and old trunks had been left there and forgotten when the old woman departed, and the younger couple had never seen fit to do anything with them.

The girl began to open them one by one and go through their contents.

There were pictures and old books and clothes, some damaged by the rats, and some in very good condition, and the girl went through them all, exclaiming joy and excitement at each find. She came across many notes written by the old man, mostly lectures, she said, but also a few love letters he had written to the old lady. She read some of them aloud to me before setting them aside and continuing her exploration of the attic. Then she looked over all of it as if they were her treasures, and stood there quietly.

“House, if you do not mind, I should like to take some of these things,” she said.
I groaned in protest. These things had lain in the attic longer than the dust and the generations of rats. They were old and as familiar as my wooden bones.

“I know they are yours,” said the girl, “and they were obviously important to someone at some time, but I don't think your current owners even know they are here. But if I take them, I may be able to sell them, and if I am lucky, perhaps I can save you after all.”

I let off a sharp crack, and the girl jumped slightly.

“Please, House,” she said. “I will not take it all. The letters and the notes, at least, will stay here. But some of these other things... first edition copies of Byron, the clothes, the jewelry and the stamps. I just need enough to get the loan, and the rest we'll work out somehow.”

She lifted a hand and gently tapped the rafters that hung low above her head.

“Please, House,” she repeated. “You're my oldest friend. I can't just stand by while they destroy you.”

I still cannot say I fully understood what she said, but I felt how important this was to her, and I knew if these things she spoke of came to pass, with the bulldozers and people who could not be reasoned with, then no more would anyone read poetry on my hearth, or sing songs in my hallways, or draw pictures in the dust of the upstairs windows. And so I sighed and relented, and the girl thanked me and repackaged the boxes and trunks, and carried a few that she had chosen downstairs.

She snuck them out later that night, and then many days passed before she came again. This time, she did not come in, but she stood on the porch and whispered to my walls, “A man is supposed to meet me here soon. He will decide whether or not I can buy you, but one way or the other, he will insist on many changes. Please, House, look your best, and stay silent and well-behaved. Such men startle easily, and are not nice people, but we need him to like you.”

And so the man came, and he let her in through the door with a key that no one had bothered with in decades, and they walked about, trodding up and down the stairs, talking of plumbing and prices and electricity. And I held my walls as straight as I could and tried to make my water stains unnoticeable. I even let their every step fall with no more than a quiet tap, as if on new wood and fresh carpet. When they were done, the man nodded, and the girl smiled. Then he left, but she lingered “to look around the place once more,” she told him.

And she tapped her fingers along my siding and kicked at the weeds growing near my foundations. “It is going to be a long process, House,” she said, “and I imagine it will be painful for us both, but if you don't mind very much, I would like to live in you. I will have to repair your roof and your windows and such, but please bear with it, and I will still sing you songs and read you Tennyson.”

I clicked in a general, non-committed fashion, but at the same time, I felt relieved. It would be good, once again, to have someone sitting before real flames in the drawing room, reading and being comfortable once again.

The girl was true to her word. It was a long process, and painful. I had to endure the coming and going of many strange folk, and angry words from the girl and from the foreman, but in the end I found I welcomed the new wood and shingles, the fresh paint, and the repaired windows. These new parts of me were stiff and hard to move at first, making it difficult to sing and to keep in key, but they loosened with time. The girl stayed with me through it all, even when the foreman insisted she find another place to sleep for the night, and she lit a fire in the fireplace in the den, and I held my walls tight to keep her warm.

The years past, and people came and went, and once again an old man and an old woman sit at the hearth in the den and read Byron and Yeats and Tennyson. And occasionally they are joined by a young girl, and when the girl finally crawls off to bed, she and I sing each other lullabies until she falls asleep.


The Fourth Story Will Be...

...about a sentient house, as suggested by Patti.

By the way, guys, it weirds me out that you leave suggestions on my Facebook and G+ stuff and not here. I mean, I can understand the convenience, but it makes me look like I'm talking to myself. More than usual, I mean.


Open for Suggestions!

It's that time again! Don't like folktales, zombies, or psychic detectives? Tell me what you DO like! I'll choose one of the suggestions tomorrow evening and cook it into a nice, post-Thanksgiving snack.

If you have any questions regarding possible suggestions, please see The FAQs.


Story 3

And now, for something completely different.



It's funny how things get lost in time. In the beginning, everyone knows what happened. Everyone was there, even people who weren't, and everyone has their own version of the tale to tell. So the stories move on from there. Other people hear them, and they combine details from different accounts, or add their own. They forget pieces, and eventually all you're left with is a small bit of the original still intact, and anything surrounding those bits of truth is so different as to make the fact indistinguishable from the rest of the fabrication (for at that point, one can see that most, if not all, of the tale is fabrication).

And no stories have suffered from this fate quite so harshly as nursery rhymes. You would be hard-pressed to find someone these days who truly remembers Jack Horner, much less why he might have ever been in a corner with a pie of any sort; or why Mary's lamb was ever worth mention.

Honestly, I don't know the truth of those stories, either, though I'm sure all those answers you get from history buffs are no more accurate than anything I might tell you on the matters. But I do know some things about one of your nursery rhyme people. That fellow was also named Jack. It was quite a popular name back in the day, and a popular nickname, too. This particular Jack you probably know as Jack-be-Nimble, though I can assure you that no one ever called him that to his face. At least, not unless they managed to figure out his tale. And few ever did, since Jack was not given to boasting. He was a simple man of simple dreams, and I don't think he ever quite took to the notoriety his story lent him.

What's that? How do I know? Well, you see, I was there when it happened.

I know I don't look so old as that, but I assure you it is true. No, don't ask. Goodness, child, don't you know it's rude to ask a woman's age? At any rate, I am not in any of your nursery rhymes, and tonight I will tell you one of those. Tonight, I will tell you of Jack.

As I said, Jack was a simple sort of person. As a boy, he would spend the spring and the fall tending the fields, as we all did, and he would waste long summer afternoons at the pond fishing with the other boys, or chasing girls with frogs and other crawling critters. I would tell you not to follow his example, but boys will be boys. No amount of scolding from their mothers could get those boys to stop, and I doubt anything I might say would keep you from doing the same. Eventually boys grow out of such things. Yes, you will, too, if you ever wish to win the heart of a girl. And yes, eventually you will want that, too, as unlikely as it might seem right now.

And so it was that Jack grew up, and he learned to leave the poor frogs and creeping things in the pond, where I'm sure the critters would have rather been, anyway. And Jack turned his thoughts toward finding himself a wife.

The girl he chose was hardly the fairest in the village. Her cheekbones were a bit too broad and her lips a bit too thin, but she was still a handsome sort of girl, and to Jack, she was as an angel come to earth. It really came as no surprise to the rest of the villagers. He had spent many a summer specifically tormenting her with worms and salamanders and all sorts of things. And so it was that at first, she disdained his advances, but we should forgive her this. After all, just as boys are wont to go digging through mud for strange creatures, so are girls wont to be offended by them, and to not take kindly to the boys who are constantly bringing them around. But she, too, was growing up, and eventually she learned to see past the boy with the frogs to the young man that Jack had become.

Soon enough, the young couple was talking of marriage, and so it was that young Jack approached the girl's father to ask for her hand. But while the rest of the village thought it was a fine match, the girl's father, Old Mr. Barnam, did not see it as such. True, few fathers see their daughters' suitors as worthy, but Old Mr. Barnam felt particularly strongly about this, for the girl was his only daughter, and indeed his only family, as his wife had died giving birth to the girl and he had never taken another. So when Jack proposed to court his daughter, Old Mr. Barnam turned Jack right out of his house, and forbade him from so much as speaking to the girl, and the girl from speaking to him.

Of course, Jack was very saddened by this, but the girl was heartbroken. She went to her father and begged him to reconsider. Now, Old Mr. Barnam was a stubborn creature, but he was no match for the stubbornness of his daughter, and after a week of her begging and pleading, he finally relented. That is not to say he gave Jack his blessing, no. But he did agree to reconsider, and what he reconsidered was this: If Jack was indeed to take the hand of his daughter in marriage, then he would have to prove himself to be strong, and capable, and also lucky.

And so he devised a series of tests for Jack to perform and had them set in writing by the mayor of the town (who had insisted that if the matter was to escalate so, he needed to be involved to make sure the tests were done fairly and that Old Mr. Barnam did not go back on his word). It was agreed that should Jack complete all the tests in a satisfactory manner, then Old Mr. Barnam would have to let Jack marry his daughter. If Jack failed, then Jack would have to leave the village and find a wife elsewhere.

Poor Jack, unfortunately, had little say in the matter. But he agreed to do the tests all the same, for he was very much in love with Old Mr. Barnam's daughter.

Old Mr. Barnam thought it was a good plan. After all, Jack was not exactly an extraordinary individual. If by chance he performed well in one of the tasks, it was unlikely he would do so in the others.

The first test was to be a test of strength, for Old Mr. Barnam would not have his daughter go to a man who could not properly protect his daughter. It was decided that the next time a traveler passed through the village, Jack would challenge the man to a fight. If he won, it would prove Jack was strong enough to defend the girl against those who might harm her, but if he lost, Old Mr. Barnam would declare that Jack was unfit to be his daughter's protector, and Jack would have to leave the town.

And so they waited, and waited, and finally a traveler came along the road through the town. He was a tinker, young and spry of step, his back not yet bent under the weight of the pack he carried on his shoulders, and Old Mr. Barnam saw him and smiled to himself. Surely, he thought, this was a man of the road, and Jack would be no match for him. So, the villagers gathered around the tinker, and they explained to him the situation, and Jack came forth to challenge him to a fight.

At first, the tinker was hesitant, but the villagers said this and that (several of them suddenly remembered things they had broken that needed mending), and eventually the tinker agreed. He unslung his pack and raised his fists, and Jack, though normally a very peaceful fellow, did the same.

One hears many tales of great bouts between men, of the quick jabs of strong fists and of delicate footwork. I assure you this fight was not one of those. In fact, the whole ordeal lasted for only a minute, at which time the tinker managed to catch his foot in the grass, and Jack, being an opportunist if not a fighter, proceeded to sit solidly on the poor man's stomach. The tinker tried to get away, but he was not a very big man, and Jack, having spent many a year with his feet buried in soil under the golden rays of the sun, was quite enough to keep the man from rising. The mayor declared Jack the winner, and congratulated him on passing the first test.

This did not please Old Mr. Barnam. He tried to argue with the mayor that this had not truly proved Jack's strength, but only his sturdiness, though the words Mr. Barnam used at that time were far less flattering. The mayor was obliged to point out the contest rules. Jack was to win a fight against the next traveler who came to the village, and Jack had undoubtedly done that. Old Mr. Barnum huffed, but in the end he conceded. After all, there were still two more tests.

The second test was to be a test of capability, for Old Mr. Barnam would not have his daughter marry a man who could not provide for her. Now, Old Mr. Barnam's fields had lain fallow for some time, for they were too broad for Old Mr. Barnam to till by himself, and he would not have his daughter push a plow. So it was decided that when the next harvest came, Jack would prove himself on Old Mr. Barnam's fields. Oh, no, he was not to plow them and set them right again for Spring, for no man could expect to accomplish such a task single-handed. Rather, Jack was given a day to gather from the lands of Old Mr. Barnum enough food to provide a banquet for the villagers. If he succeeded, then the villagers would gather together and the food would be turned into a wedding banquet, but if he failed, Old Mr. Barnum would declare that Jack was unfit to provide for his daughter, and Jack would have to leave the town.

And so Jack rose early, before the sun, and he took a wheel barrow and some thick gloves, and he made his way through Old Mr. Barnam's fields. Up and down the rows he went, back and forth across the land, searching for plants that had managed to survive so many years without tilling. And so it was that he came across a basket filled with apples. Jack looked around, but saw no one, and so he scooped up the apples in the basket and placed them into his wheelbarrow. Some time later, he happened upon a very neat pile of squash, and these he also placed in the barrel with the apples.

And so it went throughout the day, such that at the end of it, Jack had gathered barley and carrots, beets and tomatoes, several eggs and a jar of sweet honey, and even a small pig that had been tethered to a post, in addition to the apples and squash. I assure you, it was quite enough for a feast.

When Old Mr. Barnum saw the gathered foodstuffs, he grew angry. He told the mayor that Jack was a thief, but Jack insisted he had found every bit in Old Mr. Barnam's fields, and readily agreed to give it back to its proper owner, should anyone claim such things had gone missing. And so Old Mr. Barnam and the mayor went through the village and asked everyone there if they happened to be missing this-or-that, but none of them seemed to remember losing such things. Indeed, no one even claimed to recognize the apple basket, or the honey jar, or even the pig.

Since there was no evidence that Jack had stolen anything, the mayor declared that Jack had passed the second test. Of course, Old Mr. Barnam was less than happy with this, and argued with the mayor that the test had been to prove Jack was capable in hard times. And the mayor was, of course, obliged to point out the contest rules. Jack had only to find enough food for a feast in Old Mr. Barnam's fields. How the food got into the fields had never been specified.

This only made Old Mr. Barnam even more angry, but he grudgingly conceded. After all, there was still one more test, and this was a test that was entirely in Old Mr. Barnam's hands.

The third test was to be a test of luck. And this is the part where things will start to sound familiar to you. You see, we used to test luck by jumping over candlesticks. Yes, it was a very old tradition, even when I was your age, and now hardly anyone remembers it at all. Of course, as children we would do it for fun, but there were more formal candlestick jumping ceremonies held as well, for when one really needed to prove fate was on their side, and this was to be one of those. Jack would don a pair of white linen slippers, and he would have to jump over the flame of a candlestick. That doesn't sound very tricky, does it? I assure you it becomes far more tricky when one must neither singe one's slippers nor extinguish the candle's flame. Candle flames are very delicate things. And Old Mr. Barnam had prepared a very special candle just for this occasion.

The candle had eight wicks on eight stems, all united at the base. Each stem was tall enough to reach a man's thigh, and they were so thin that even the slightest tremor would make them sway back and forth, setting their flames flickering with the movement. If Jack could jump the candlestick without extinguishing any of the flames, then he would have the hand of Old Mr. Barnam's daughter in marriage, but if he failed, Old Mr. Barnam would declare that Jack did not have the favor of the fates needed to win his daughter's hand, and Jack would have to leave town.

To everyone's surprise, Jack did not look worried when he saw the candlestick Old Mr. Barnum had prepared for him. He simply nodded, pulled on the slippers, and jumped, just like that. Before most people had quite realized what had happened, Jack was on the far side of the candlestick, all eight flames burning brightly behind him as the eight stems of the candle swayed gently.

The mayor inspected Jack's linen slippers, and as no sign of burn or singe could be found on them, the mayor declared that Jack had completed the final task and was thus to be married to the girl that was Old Mr. Barnam's daughter.

Now, Old Mr. Barnum was furious. He demanded to know how it was Jack could jump the eight-stemmed candle so easily. Jack simply nodded his head and said, “I spent many a year chasing critters and hopping frogs in the pond. The only way to catch the best frogs is to be better than they are at jumping.”

Yes, he had learned to jump while chasing frogs in the pond, and so completed the third and final task. He and the girl were promptly wed, and they lived happily for many, many years. And the girl decided that perhaps frogs and other crawling things from the river were not so bad, since they had helped her husband become her husband, and Jack always made sure they had white shoes to wear at the end of the harvest season, even if they had no reason to be jumping candlesticks. And all the townsfolk, who thought the whole matter had been quite silly to begin with, decided that it was well and good that the matter had finally been taken care of, and they went about their lives in the normal fashion.

As for Old Mr. Barnum, you must not think to harshly of him. When he finally saw his daughter's happiness, he relented and gave them both his blessing. In time, he found he enjoyed having a son around, and even more did he enjoy his grandchildren, though they, like their parents, were nothing particularly special as children go. For him, they were as angels come to earth, and you can bet he was just as protective of them as he had been of the girl who was their mother.

Yes, I suppose it is a very different story than the one you are used to hearing, but I tell you it is the true one, for I was there, and yes, child, I do always wear white shoes after the harvest.


The Third Story Will Be...

...a tale that explains why Jack jumped over the candlestick, as suggested by Matt.

I can take a few guesses. But I guess you'll just have to wait and see.


Open for Suggestions!

Since I took so long on the last one, I'm only going to have a week to do this next one. -_-*

Suggestion box closes tomorrow evening. If you have any questions regarding possible suggestions, please see The Rules.


Story 2

Only on the second story and already missed the deadline. I am a terrible person. But I'm apparently a dedicated one. So, here's the next story:



“No, I'm not going to do it again,” said Max. “Not for you, not for anyone. It's too much.”

“Common, Max,” said the voice over the phone. “We need you on this case. This is bad. Really bad. We've got to get this one.”

“No!” Max gripped the phone harder and resisted the part of his mind that suggested he throw it. He was in no position financially to replace his phone. Really, he was in no position to be turning down this job. “Look, Terry. I just can't do it. You don't know what it's like.”

“No, you don't know what it's like,” said Terry. “You're not the one who has to go explain to the big man that once again we've got a stiff and no leads. You don't have to deal with calls from loved ones asking why I'm not doing my job good enough. You get to come in, get paid, and go home. You don't have to deal with lawyers or actually face the guy you're locking up, since psychic evidence inadmissible in the courts.”

“I'm not a psychic.”

“Yeah, whatever, Max. You see the thoughts of people who aren't there. It's close enough to psychic that my point still stands.” Max heard another voice in the background. “Hang on a sec,” said Terry.

Max kept the phone to his ear, listening to the muffled sounds funneling through it. He knew it was bad. It was always bad if Terry was trying to call him in. Terry was in charge of homicide investigations at the police force. He saw a lot of things, but it was always the worst ones that Terry wanted help with. Max closed his eyes and tried to banish the images of the last case he had helped on. The victim had been only ten years old, and through his “psychic” abilities, Max had experienced the distinct pleasure of reliving the last few minutes of her life... through the eyes of her killer.

That man was behind bars now. Terry and his team had managed to connect the killer to the deaths of six other young girls in the area, all thanks to the leads they got from Max's visions. Max tried to take comfort in that, especially on those nights when he would wake in a cold sweat, those images still playing at the corners of his consciousness.

“You still there, Max?” Terry's voice broke through his thoughts.

“Yeah, I'm here.”

“Look, I gotta go. Why don't you sleep on it and I'll call you again tomorrow?”

“Yeah, ok,” Max heard himself say. He stood there for a second staring at the phone, then set it on the table. That, his bed, and a mini-fridge were the only furnishings in the small apartment. It was better that way. Most people only asked to come over once, and they never sat down.

Terry switched off his phone and turned back to Bruce, who was leaning in the doorway of the bedroom.

“So, Terrence, is your pet psychic coming or not?” said Bruce.

“After all the work he's done for this city, I'd think you'd show him some respect,” said Terry. He slipped the phone back into his pocket. “He'll come. But not tonight, so pack it up.”


Terry decided not to respond to Bruce's obvious sarcasm, but pushed past him into the hall. Of course his partner was skeptical. Everyone was skeptical at first. Terry himself hadn't believed it when Max first told him, but back then Max had been much more willing to show it off, and it was hard to argue with when you saw it in action. That had been high school, before the full force of the adult world had quite caught up with them.

Nowadays Max could hardly keep down a job due to his abilities. He had eventually found his niche in retail, of all places. “It keeps me on my feet all day,” Max had said. “Makes things easier.”

It was barely enough to keep a roof over his head, but Max seemed content with it. Terry couldn't complain. It kept Max off his couch, which had never gone very well.

He paced about the house one more time. It reminded him a bit of Terry's place. It was plain, only furnished with the basics. A rickety table and two folding chairs. An old mattress with a sleeping bag and some spare blankets. There were no pictures, no trinkets, no memoirs. They had dusted every corner for fingerprints, vacuumed three rooms for evidence, and they were still coming up with nothing useful. Nearly a dozen different distinct hair samples turned up, but aside from the ones belonging to the three identified victims, they meant nothing. The fingerprints had been smudged and yielded no matches in the database. All they were sure about was that the guy was about six foot and wore size eleven shoes. Well, that and apparently he had something for blondes.

The first girl they found, Jennifer Lukston, had been very beautiful. Some friends of hers from the university had reported her missing nearly a month ago. It had been two weeks before her body was found, and even then, it was pure luck. The neighbors had called animal control because of a dog barking next door. The house was supposed to be abandoned, and they were concerned that it had gotten stuck in there. Animal control had showed up and found the dog, and what was left of Jennifer Lukston.

A sweep of the place had turned up the remains of two other girls, and they had since matched blonde hair from the sweeps to both bodies. One turned out to be a high school student who had gone missing the previous year. They were still trying to identify the second.

Which was why Terry had called Max. This wasn't run-of-the-mill gang turf business, or a matter of the wrong combination of booze and anger. This was someone who was hunting these girls, and would hunt more if they couldn't stop him.

Five hours and twice as many cups of coffee later, and Terry was still pouring over the case files. He'd been over them countless times in the last two weeks trying to put the pieces together, but was still coming up with nothing. If Max didn't show, or couldn't find anything, this would quickly become a cold case.

He picked up the stack of photographs again and thumbed through them. Then he laid them out on his desk, spreading them over stacks of paperwork and other files he wasn't quite ready to let go of yet.

A white dress torn in several places and shredded across the midsection. A gnawed-on ankle bone. What was left of her ribcage. A fleshy mass that had once been a face, bent at an odd angle on the remains of the neck. Cuffs that had kept her attached to an exposed metal pipe in the living room. The dog, a sleek, untagged mutt with her blood matting his fur. The kitchen. The table. The old mattress in the bedroom.

Why her? Sure, there were guys who had a thing for blondes. Terry himself preferred fair hair over cocoa or raven. But why this particular one? Did they know each other? Or was she just convenient, in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Terry rubbed his temples and shuffled for the transcripts. They had managed to get a few interviews from Jennifer's friends and family, and a few stories from people close to the high school girl. Jennifer had left a party on Friday night driving her red Camaro. Best anyone could tell, she had never made it home. Her housemates had figured she was staying at the party house for the night, and maybe the weekend. Her friends didn't think anything of it until she missed the next day of classes. Yes, she had been drinking. No, she hadn't been drunk. The Camaro had turned up in the lot of a Wal-Mart that same week.

The high school girl's ran similarly. She had been walking home from school one day, and never quite made it there.

His cell phone rang and Terry started, then dug it out of his pocket and checked the display.

“Hey, Max,” he said. “I'd have thought you'd be asleep.”

“What's the case?”

“Does that mean you'll take it?” yawned Terry. He checked the clock. He also should have been asleep.

“It's the case with the girls they found dead in that abandoned house, isn't it?”

Terry paused. “Yeah. How'd you find out?”

“The newspaper. I got Mr. Grace's old one and looked for local homicides.”

And probably latched onto the messiest one. They had tried to keep the press out, but that always worked better in theory than in practice. “You know,” said Terry, “most people get their news from computers these days.”

“I can't afford a computer.”

“They have them at libraries, too, but I guess that's out for you.”


Terry sighed. It seemed that yawn had reminded his body how late it was, and how long he had been sitting in that chair. “Look, Max, I know this is a bad case. I'm sorry I went off on you earlier.” He picked up a photo of Jennifer. In it she was alive and smiling, her arms around some well-built young man. He looked like a football player. “I just really want to see this one wrapped up, and quickly, and right now I've got nothing. If you want, you can come by my office tomorrow and look at all the solid evidence before you make up your mind.”

“I'll do it.”

“Good. What time'll you be here?”

“No, I'll go to the house. See what there is to see there.”

Terry placed the picture back on the table next to the others. “Are you sure, Max? This guy... he's... well, you know.”

Max laughed nervously. “Not yet. But I will.”

Terry winced. “Yeah, I suppose you will.”

Max turned off the phone and let it slide to the floor beside his mattress. Was he really agreeing to do this? He took several deep breaths to steady himself. It wouldn't be that bad, right? When it was done, he got to come back to himself, his own life, the safety of his apartment. But the memories never quite seemed to fade. They stood out in his mind, dark and foreign against the memories of his own life. And now he was going to have more.

He shouldn't have agreed to this.

He could remember when it first started going bad. He had been hanging out with his first girlfriend at her house. Her parents were out and they had the place to themselves. Unthinking, he had sat down on the couch next to her. An instant later he had stood back up, and then he had run from the house. He hadn't bothered to explain things to her. He just left. He couldn't talk to her the next day, or the day after that. She tried passing him notes, in class, and through friends, but he never read them. He didn't want to know anything more.

Terry had told him it was a jackass move. He was probably right, but at that time, Max hadn't been able to explain things to her. It was one thing to let your best friend in on your secret. It was another thing to tell your girlfriend.

He hadn't dated much since then. People had too many secrets, and his abilities made it too easy for him to find them out, even when he was trying not to. But people got nervous if you stood all the time, especially when you were supposed to be relaxing with them. Like on a date.

It was better this way. He was safe from people's memories, and their memories were safe from him.

And then there were people like Jennifer Luckston, who wouldn't be making any more memories.

As much as he wanted to, he couldn't just leave it to the cops. If Terry was calling him, then they weren't getting anywhere. In the meantime, the killer would still be out there.

So, at 5:30 PM, after his shift ended, Max drove his car to the house. Terry was already there waiting, along with a buff-looking younger recruit.

“Max,” said Terry, “this is Bruce. He's working with me on this case.”

Max nodded politely and shook the officer's hand. Bruce grinned, perhaps a bit too broadly. “Let's see what the boss's magic man can do, shall we?” he said.

“Knock it off, Bruce,” said Terry. “We're here for business.”

Max let go of Bruce's hand and turned to follow Terry. “Yeah, let's get this over with.”

Behind them, Bruce huffed, and then he followed them into the house.

The front room smelled of mildew and something else Max couldn't quite place. Some sort of cleaner, perhaps. A pipe was exposed on one wall. A small plywood table and two folding chairs sat in the center of the room. Max swallowed.

“You're sure no one tainted the scene?” said Max. “I mean, no one on the clean-up crew, none of the other cops. No one.”

“As best I know, no one's been here without my supervision since they found the girl,” said Terry.

Max looked away from the chairs. He wasn't ready for this. This had been a bad idea. “Is there anything else I should see first?” he said.

Terry squinted at him. “Well, you said you didn't want to see the evidence on file first, so I didn't exactly bring anything down. I guess I could give you the tour.”

Max nodded, hopefully not too eagerly. Anything to take his mind off of what was coming.

Terry led Max around the house. There wasn't much to show, but he had the feeling Max wasn't really looking at it, anyway. A minute later they were back in the living room. Max stared at the chairs as if he expected them to suddenly leap at him. Then he reached out slowly and placed a hand on the back of one.

“You have the recorder ready?”

Terry nodded toward Bruce, and Bruce pulled out a small recording device and set it on the table. He grinned at Max. “I have to admit,” he said, “I'm really curious what you'll have to say.”

“Bruce...” started Terry, but then he noticed Max was staring hard at Bruce.

“Would you, now?” said Max. “Got a taste for the morbid, then? Or just for voyeurism?”

Bruce tensed and his eyes went dark, but Terry noted he bit his lip. Max met Bruce's gaze and smirked.

“Hey, let's just start this thing,” said Terry. He flipped on the recorder. “Get it over with and all, right?”

Max blinked and looked down. “Right. Sorry.” He pulled the chair out and made a small motion with his hand. “Terry, could you stand....”

Terry moved into position behind the chair, and as Max lowered himself onto it, Terry placed a hand on his shoulder.

Bruce raised an eyebrow at him. “What, is that for some sort of channeling or something?” he said.

“Shut up.” It wasn't channeling, or not in the sense Bruce meant. Back in high school, Max had told him the feel of someone else nearby helped him keep his realities straight. Terry had quickly enforced the tradition when he started asking for Max's help on cases.

Beneath Terry's hand, Max had gone rigid. His breaths were quick and shallow. “Stay with me, Max,” said Terry. “What do you see?”

“I'm... um....” Max licked his lips. His hands were clenched tightly at his sides.

“Easy, Max,” said Terry. He squeezed Max's shoulder. “I'm right here. You're right here in front of me. What do you see?”

“It's the same room,” said Max. “The girl... she's crying in the corner. Not very loudly. I muf... he muffled her. She's got some rags tied over her face.” He flinched away from the wall with the exposed pipe. “She's too loud, that one. I thought she'd be quieter. She's going to cause trouble if she doesn't shut up. Oh, god.”

Max buried his face in his hands and shuddered. “This wasn't in the article in the paper.”

“Hang on, Max. We need something to go on so we can find this guy.”

Max rocked back and forth in the chair. “Oh, god. Oh, god.”

From the far side of the table, Bruce gave a slight chuckle. “Wow. I gotta say....”

“I thought I told you to shut up, Bruce,” said Terry.

Bruce glowered at him. For a moment, Terry thought he would keep going, but then Max burst into giggles. “They're so fascinating on the inside,” he said, his voice pitching oddly. “But they don't really last long after that. Unfortunate. Oh, well. She should have listened to Jack.”

“Jack?” said Terry. “Jack who?”

Max groaned. “Jack. Jack Cassidy. No, Jack... Jackson Marshall. Cassidy was his mother's last name. He doesn't like her, either, but it seems like a more fitting name now.”

“Good, good,” said Terry. “But we need something more, Max. An address, a city, a workplace. Anything.”

“Oh, god, I don't want to see this,” Max murmured into his hands, but he stayed seated in the chair. “He's... going to have to wash up before he takes the bus. Route 710 to... to....”

Max stood up sharply, knocking Terry's hand off his shoulder and sending the chair back into Terry's legs as he did. Terry jumped back. Max made a bee line for the door, but Bruce grappled him before he got more than three feet, and the two began struggling. “What the hell...” Bruce started.

“Let him go, Bruce,” said Terry.

Bruce loosened his grip and Max tore free and nearly ran out the door. Bruce stared after him, then turned to Terry. “Dammit, Terrence. Does he always do that?”

“Usually.” Terry brushed at his pants. He was going to have bruises on his legs tomorrow.

“But we didn't even get anything. There could be a hundred Jackson Marshalls within twenty miles of here.”

Terry picked up the recorder from the table and switched it off. “We're not done.”

Max sat huddled in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the house. The neighbors kept peeking out the window at him. They must have thought he was some sort of druggie. Not for the first time, Max wondered if drugs might help, then dismissed the idea. He spent enough time in an altered state of consciousness already. He rested his chin on his knees and started counting the rocks in the asphalt, trying to focus his mind elsewhere.

A little down the street, Bruce was leaning on the Crown Victoria. Terry slowly paced the sidewalk next to the car, pretending to look over a notebook. Max chuckled softly. Terry never had been very patient, but Max had to give him credit for trying. He took in a breath and exhaled it slowly. Then he nodded Terry over.

“Hey, Max,” said Terry. “How're you holding up?”

“Ok,” said Max. “I have something for you. Do you have any paper?”

Terry dropped the notebook next to him.

“Sorry, dumb question.” Max picked up the notebook and thumbed to a blank page.

“Need a pen, too?” said Terry.

“Uh. Yeah.”

Terry handed him a pen, and Max scribbled down an address. “That's the place he thought of as home, at least.” Max felt himself shudder involuntarily, and he nearly dropped the notebook before Terry could get a hold of it. “You better find something.”

Terry nodded. “Yeah, I will. Do you need a ride home?”

“You know that won't work out very well for me.”

“What if I drove your car? Bruce can follow in the Crown Victoria.”

“I'll be fine. Just give me a few.”

“Sure thing.” Terry turned back toward the car. “Oh, and Max.”


“I'm sorry.”



The story is going to be up either tomorrow or Friday night, at the latest. I've got a good chunk of it down, but it still needs some work.

But it is coming.