A Muse Bouche Review: December 2023

Coming Home: A Place to Belong

Dear Readers,

Welcome to our final edition of 2023, the theme being coming home, or returning to a place of belonging. And, perhaps, longing.

Many of this month’s authors have gone with a SciFi approach (and if one brings to mind the classic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,” you’re both not so young and not alone). Others have looked to a real or imagined past. Enjoy.

The A Muse Bouche Review Team

Featured: A Gift of Stars(Renée Gendron) Fiction
Sweet Home Ornithulia (Louise Sorensen) Fiction
The Prodigal (Marian L Thorpe) Fiction
Home From The Stars (David M. Simon) Fiction
A Reunion Eons in the Making (J Dalton) Fiction
William Nelson’s Last Chance (Joseph P. Garland) Fiction

December Team Showcase


 A Gift of Stars

Renee Gendron (@ReneeGendron)

This is an excerpt from A Gift of Stars.

An ache formed deep in her heart. The kind of ache an Osmirian princess shouldn’t feel for her husband, but it was there. Gnawing, whirling, spinning inside her.

She pushed the feeling aside, but the feeling shoved back.

Four days since Sanders had left. Four long days during which she had no idea if he was alive or dead. How did the wives of soldiers on military campaigns endure such anguish?

Back straight, head high, she stepped outside with a reassuring expression.

Two guardsmen stood sentry in the courtyard and their clear gazes swung Calanthe’s way. Their cheeks were thinner than they’d been just a week prior.

Two large cauldrons, commandeered from doing laundry to cooking food, stood in the centre of the courtyard. Edda and Deme stood next to a cauldron, one stirring the contents, the other adding to them.

Dawn broke.

Haggard workers emerged from tents and lean-tos, shuffling their way across the courtyard with cups and plates.

Injured guardsmen hobbled out of the barracks, one with a crutch, many others with scabbed-over cuts that would leave scars worthy of tales over ales.

Each shot her a look. Some held a glint of amusement over her poisoning the camp, others were just weary glances. Gazes that were too tired and too worried and too half-dead to offer a smile or a nod or any semblance of cordiality. One by one, they lined up for their thin soup of wild leek, grouse, and deer.

“Has anyone seen Master Builder Hector?” Calanthe dunked a ladle into a cauldron and served a guardsman.

The guardsman shook his head, then limped back towards the barracks.

Breakfast served to everyone, Calanthe filled a simple tin cup and sipped the broth. It lacked everything—salt, pepper, texture. But it was warm and lessened the growl in her stomach.

The sound of one saw sawing and one hammer hammering filled the courtyard. A pathetic din in a place with two dozen skilled tradesmen and two dozen more labourers.

Fairbanks sat on a stump at the end of the courtyard.

She approached him. “How many tools remain?”

He rose. “One saw and one hammer in Grosmar. Hector’s taken the rest to the pit.”

“We need the tools from the pit to make more tools. Then the master builder can resume work.”

“Tell him that.”

“Has he eaten?”

Fairbanks shrugged. “He’s pressed workers into digging out the pit.”

“That’s not the priority.”

“I know that, Lady Calanthe, but it’s Hector. He won’t listen.”

Calanthe folded her hands over her hip. “I’ll do my best to get the workers back to Grosmar. Please ensure they have a place to stay.”

“Once we get a few more hammers, we’ll build the palisade, then some bunkhouses for the workers.”

“Are there any shovels?”

He downed the remaining contents of his cup. “Hector took them all.”

Calanthe walked to the pit and instructed Hector to release the workers.

The frown lines around Hector’s brow and mouth deepened until he resembled a crotchety old man. He huffed, grumbled, and mumbled a string of curses, then made a dismissive gesture towards the workers.

One by one, they scrambled up the gentle slope of the caved-in wall and walked back to Grosmar with Calanthe.

Hector, however, stayed behind and continued to dig.

Calanthe inspected the first section of the palisade. “It goes well.” She reinforced her voice with approval and admiration.

Captain Magelo tapped a post into its position with a rock. “There’s a partial wall up. Need proper tools to dig deeper and secure the posts.”

Guardsmen and workers alike placed the next pole in and the next one.

“A word, please, Captain.” Calanthe strolled off a few paces towards the Fork.

Magelo handed the rock to another guardsman, who resumed positioning the posts.

“Have the patrols found any sign of Sanders and his party? “Have the patrols picked up traces of the raiders?”

“No sign. The guardsmen dismantled a few Ravelian bear traps. No sign of horsemen. No sign of game.”

No horsemen. No food. No Sanders. “What do you suggest?”


“What do you suggest we do to find my husband and his party?”

Pity veiled the captain’s gaze. “Ma’am, you may need to prepare for the possibility of…”

Death. Death by misadventure in the hinterlands of Rettkal on a mission that no one in Grosmar understood.

The ache in her heart turned into a hundred piercing sensations. She pressed her hand against her chest and swallowed hard. “There’s no proof the party was attacked. How many horses do we have?”


“Are any of your men fit to ride to the nearest port to catch a vessel to Osmira?”

A disapproving frown flashed across Magelo’s face, then he calmed his features. “When do you want your escort to leave?”

“I’m not leaving. I need to send word to my father.” Maybe he’d finally tell her what was happening here.

Sweet Home Ornithulia

Louise Sorensen (@louise3anne)

Two human females crept up to the towering mass of tree branches, earth, waste, and bones. A foul-smelling mess fell from an upper window in the clouds, and coated the tower with another layer of white-washed waste. The women scurried back into the decorative shrubs at the front of the estate to avoid being splashed.

“I don’t fancy the climb, Lorbas,” said one.

“No help for it, Chell. Let’s find the servants’ door. Maybe they have a lift. It is the famous author, after all.”

They trudged around the circumference of the habitat, passing the huge sculpted metal gates that permitted passage to only the giant Ornithulians, until they found the plain wooden door for the servants’ entrance.

Chellie rang the bell. Lorbas scratched half-heartedly at the scars from the control collar that used to be around her neck.

“Here,” said Chellie. “Don’t be scratching at that.” She fished into her backpack and brought out a tube. “Put some of this on, so you won’t be distracted while we do our job.”

Lorbas took the tube, squeezed out a generous portion of salve, and applied it to her neck, where the scars were turning red. “Ahhh. That feels good. I get a rash just thinking about them.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about them anymore,” said Chellie. “I’m sorry, but as part of your therapy, you have to be exposed to the cause of your problem. Otherwise, I might be doing this on my own. Not that I don’t appreciate your help, mind you. It’s just that spiking and eliminating them has become routine by now. Somewhat routine. It usually goes smoothly.”

“Really? I can’t imagine. After all this time. Have you decided which form you’re going to make it take?”

“No. Not yet.” Chellie gave the question some thought, and tapped her foot as they waited for someone to answer the bell. “I play it by feel. And remember, this is the one that promoted Humans as pets and wrote that damned book, Care and Control of Your Human. He’s the last one on this planet not yet under our control.” She pounded on the door. “What is keeping that servant?”

They waited a while longer. Chellie was almost ready to kick the door down and go in. Finally, the latch snicked open, and a little child with a dirty face peered out at the two. Tears made two clean tracks through the dirt.

“Yes. May I help you?” said the child.

The two women were taken aback.

“Is your mom or dad at home, Sweetheart?” said Lorbas.

“They’re confined,” said the child.

Chellie gritted her teeth. “Are they okay?”

“For now. But I don’t know how long.”

Okay in Ornithulia meant that a human pet had not yet been tossed down the gullet of an Ornithulian, or ripped apart and thrown into a stewpot. But being confined was a first step.

“We’re here just in time,” said Lorbas. “Take us to your leader.’

“A bit of a misquote, Lorb?” said Chellie.

“I’ve just always wanted to say that.”

The child, whose name he gave as Fless, led them to a rickety open lift. They centered themselves on it, rocketed up to the living quarters and jumped out the moment it screeched to a stop.

Fless held back and Lorbas said, “Just point the way to it. We’ll take over now. Can you release your mom and dad? And anyone else caged?”

Fless nodded, and Chellie said, “Get to it now, then. We’ll take care of the Master.”

Fless pointed to the main room and scampered off.

Chellie and Lorbas crept along the floor, past the wide legs of immense hulking furniture, until they came to, from the acrid smell of spices burning on the stove, the kitchen.

“Ugh.” Lorbas turned away and gagged. “I’ll never get used to their taste in cooking. And that smell of rot underneath. This one is a terrible housekeeper.”

Chellie glared at her. “If you’re going to throw up, do it quietly.”

Lorbas put a hand over her mouth and took a deep breath. “No. I’m okay. What’s the move?”

“Oh, I think dissolution,” said Chellie. “From the looks of all the bones in the nest, and the two people waiting to meet the contents of those cooking pots, I’d say this Master has been eating and not petting Humans for some time. It’s a nasty habit, and it needs to stop.”

“You don’t want to keep him as a contact for other planets?”

“No. We have enough of them for that. More than enough.”

“Okay.” Lorbas took a deep breath. “How do we do this?”

“Piece of cake.” Chellie opened her backpack and extracted a hammer, a spike, and a large injector that was loaded with a swirling blue liquid. “Be careful of this,” she said. “It’s hot to the touch.”

Shaking, Lorbas took the heavy injector gingerly.

“Not like that! Hold it like you mean it.”

Lorbas frowned, and held the injector up with both hands, ready to stab.

“Okay now. I’m going to sneak up on it, hammer the spike into its ankle, and then pull the spike out. You ram the injector into the hole and press the plunger all the way in. You got that?”

Lorbas nodded. “I got that.”

“Piece of cake. I’ve done it hundreds of times alone. But they’re getting wise to us. I really should have help for this one.”

Chellie turned and crept along the kitchen baseboards, towards the Ornithulian. She craned her neck to see its face. It was happily stirring a pot and humming to itself. Thick armour covered its whole body, but Chellie knew that the armour held in a circulatory system that was under high pressure. She turned to talk to Lorbas, and found her frozen at their entry point, staring in horror at the giant. Chellie ran back to Lorbas, grabbed her by the shoulders, and shook her. “I thought you’d done this before.”

“No. Not really. Never a hit. I was always an observer.”

“I don’t know what people are thinking sometimes.” Chellie shook her head. “Sending an observer out to do a hit.” She punched Lorbas lightly on the arm. “Can you pull yourself together and do what I need you to do?”

Lorbas frowned and looked down.

“You’re my backup. Our last chance if anything goes wrong. If we don’t do it now, and I have to come back with somebody else, that kid’s parents will be toast. Maybe the kid too. Probably. And anyone in the cages. You get that? Huh?”

Lorbas raised her head and nodded.

“A hundred years of fear and tyranny and worming ourselves into their good graces and trust. That’s what it’s taken us to get here.”

“I got that. I’m good to go.”

“This idiot’s not going to stand there much longer.” Just as Chelli said that, the idiot in question stopped stirring the pot.

“Oh shit. Come on. It’s now or never!” Chellie grabbed Lorbas’ hand and dragged her along, until Lorbas started running. They made it to the Ornithulian’s ankle just as it began to peer down at them. It gave a low rumble that shook the floor. A thousand eyes in the knob of its head focused to get a better look at them. Its beak opened slightly.

Chellie tapped the ankle rapidly, until she found the spot where the armour was thinner than anywhere else, rammed the spike in as far as she could, and then hit it with the hammer, multiple times a second. This is what she trained for and she was good at it. After a dozen hits, the spike penetrated the creature’s armour and she tried to yank it out. Stuck! Muscles bulging, she lost valuable moments wiggling it out. Heart racing, she looked around for Lorbas. Where was Lorbas?

Lorbas was right behind her. “Move!”

Chellie ducked out of the way and Lorbas jammed the injector home and pushed down on the plunger with both hands, releasing potent chemicals into the Ornithulian’s ankle.

The creature stopped turning. The air was filled with a low rumble of enquiry that shook the walls.

“Okay. Now this is the tricky part.”

Lorbas gave her a what-the-hell look.

“Hold. Hold. Don’t move. Wait. We have to make sure the poison is working. See how it will react. Will it try to stomp us? Fall on us? Or just break up quietly?”

The creature quivered, and all over its body, its surface blurred. Its foot rose.

“It’s going into shock, but trying for the stomp,” yelled Chellie. “Okay, now. Run!”

They ran.

When they reached the entryway of the kitchen, they stopped to watch.

As the hard-won biochemical entered the creature’s circulatory system, the creature froze, and then put its foot down. Connective systems reacted to the attack and slowly closed off. Tiny fissures appeared in the Ornithulian’s body. The two humans watched, fascinated, as the discreet creatures that collectively made up the body of the Ornithulian detached, fluttered to the floor, and wandered around aimlessly.

“That’s where Tasty Meat comes from,” murmured Lorbas. “I knew it. I just never really believed it. I was on the science team that discovered the disconnector, you know.”

“I knew that. You did good,” Chellie said with satisfaction. She eyed the foot-long creatures on the floor. “They’re delicious. As the saying goes, you can’t eat just one.” And she smiled.

She pulled a communicator from her backpack and switched it on. “Last nest cleared.” She turned to Lorbas. “Let’s gather up the kid and his parents and anyone else being held, let them get whatever they want to save. And clear out of here. The salvage crew and food collectors will be here soon to clean up, and we should get our people home. We can come back for the great bonfire when they’re done. This land should make a nice park. Maybe a playground.”

“Home.” Lorbas thought of the new settlements Humans had wrestled away from the giants who had ruled their lives for so long. Home and warmth. Safety. People who loved them and no one trying to cage or eat them. Hughlii.

“Home, sweet, home. I think the kid and his family are going to like it.”

Photo by Vika Glitter via Pexels

Home From The Stars

David M. Simon (@writesdraws)

My name is Ohio. Today I am going home for the first time.

I’m sitting on the floor in the middle of my empty room when Mom peeks in. “Come on, honey. It’s time to go.” I take one last look around. Everything has been packed up. Bits of tape are still stuck to the walls where pictures had hung.

I stand between Mom and Dad and wave goodbye to the pod that has been my home for 9 years, since I was born. Dad pushes the touch-pad and the door slides shut. The corridor is packed with people heading for the landing shuttle. “Okay,” I say, “I’m ready. Let’s go.” We join the crowd.

I feel my heart thumping in my chest. “Mom, I’m scared,” I say, shuffling my feet. “What if something goes wrong?”

Mom squeezes my hand. “Ohio, sweetie, you need to be my big, brave girl. Want to know a secret?” She bends down and whispers, “I’m a little nervous, too.”

Dad hugs us both. “Come on, you two. The engineers have been planning our return for years. Stop worrying.” His strong arms make me feel better.

The landing shuttle on our starship is a huge, circular bay. Rows and rows of seats rise in tiers all the way around. Nearly 3,000 people live on this starship. There is a place for each of us on our shuttle, including my best friend, Kara, across the bay.

Captain Lafferty’s calm voice fills the chamber. “Ladies and gentlemen, please take your places and strap in. I’ll bring up the view screens in a moment.”

I sit between Mom and Dad in our assigned seats. I connect the web straps across my chest with a loud click. Hundreds of other clicks echo off the walls. We’ve all practiced this dozens of times. Now it’s different. Now it’s for real.

Wide, curved view screens slide up from the floor. There it is, centered in a field of stars. The planet Earth, green and blue, swirled with white clouds. We’ve been watching it for weeks as our starship drew closer.

Now that we are in orbit, I feel like I can touch it.

“It’s beautiful. It doesn’t look poisoned at all.”

“It’s not,” Dad says. “At least, not anymore.”

It happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago. The people who lived on Earth then did not take care of it. They poisoned the water and the air and stripped the ground bare. It was a bad time. The people finally did the only thing they could do. Friends and enemies worked together, side by side, and built huge starships. The people left Earth behind to heal itself. My ancestors have lived among the stars since then. Now our scientists say we can live on Earth again. We are going home.

“Separation in ten seconds,” announces Captain Lafferty. I squeeze Mom and Dad’s hands and close my eyes. The force of the thrusters pushes me back in my seat. The landing shuttle separates from the main body of the starship and plunges toward Earth. There is no turning back.

Mom says, “Open your eyes and look, Ohio.” Earth fills the view screen from edge to edge. The landing shuttle shakes and vibrates as we burn through the atmosphere. I know in my heart that heat shields protect us, I trust our scientists, but my pulse races.

Blue sky. The star-filled blackness of space has been replaced by blue sky. I can see mountains far below. The sun reflects off an ocean.

Shuttles like ours will land all over the planet in the next 24 hours. We are setting down in what was once North America. In fact, near the place I was named after. Ohio.

A landscape I have seen only in books and videos shimmers across the view screen. Deep green forests, rivers and lakes. The cities of the past are gone.

The shuttle touches down in a field of tall grass that stretches all the way to the horizon. Dad kisses Mom and me. He says, “Let’s go see our new home.” We get in line and wait for the bay doors to open. Kara and her family stand with us.

The sun is so bright! It hurts my eyes, and I cup my hands over them. We walk down the long platform. I stand on grass for the first time. I feel weird here, heavier. The artificial gravity on the ship was slightly lighter. I close my eyes and turn my face to the sun. It’s warm, like a hug. Kara and I spin in circles until we are dizzy. We fall and roll in the grass. People all around us are doing the same.

I look at Mom and Dad. They are smiling, but they have tears in their eyes. They sit down next to me. I realize my cheeks are wet, too.

“Mom,” I say, “what if we mess things up like before?”

“Hopefully, we humans learned our lesson. And if not, we have you kids to remind us.”

I roll over flat on my stomach and spread out my arms. I give the Earth a big kiss.

“I won’t let you down,” I whisper.

Image Credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman

A Reunion Eons in the Making

J Dalton (@JDaltonAuthor)

For Gordon, this was déjà vu all over again. His ship had been hit, not with any weapon, but with shrapnel from the sphere. The entire tail section had been lost, again! Once again, his ship had no power at all. He was drifting in space, going farther and farther from the sphere and from the fleet. Nothing on his ship worked. The only available oxygen was in the emergency pack under his seat and he had switched to that two-hour supply an hour and a half ago. This was getting to be a pain in the butt.

After his long talks with his friend Talon, Gordon was no longer afraid of death. He was sure that he would find a new life after this one but…he liked this life. Dying now would really suck! His breathing was getting harder and he was getting light headed. He knew he was running out of time and so he just relaxed and drifted off to sleep.

*    *    *    *

“R/S-23 to Geronimo. SkyPilot here.  I’m approaching the fighter now. Life signs are present but fading. The cabin is still intact, but there is nothing left from the capsule on back. How this pilot is still alive is beyond me. I’m going to try to grab the remains and bring it back whole.”

“Roger that R/S-23. Keep us updated.”

The shuttle pilot fired the forward thrusters, reducing speed to just under .5 meters/second, then came alongside and matched the fighter’s drift speed. With a practiced eye, SkyPilot fired a grappling hook into what was left of the fighter. The impact woke Gordon from his daze and he raised his head to see what had happened. The winch engaged and brought the damaged fuselage alongside, stopping when the wreck hit the bumpers on the side of the recovery shuttle.

“R/S-23 to Geronimo, I have the fighter. The transponder isn’t working, but the decal on the nose says it’s GBR/F-98435 from the Gibraltar. Lieutenant Commander Gordon McDonald, callsign McNugget, is painted under the canopy. I can see inside the cockpit and it looks like he’s conscious. Yes, yes, he is. He’s signaling me something. It looks like he’s gasping for air. Oh crap! He is! He’s out of air! Geronimo, I’m going EVA to get him out. Switch to my suit channel, number 10.”

“Roger 23, switching to 10. Good to go.”

“I have the crash bag and I’m de-pressurizing the cabin now. Attaching tether line. I’m leaving the hatch. There are a lot of pieces sticking out of the back of the fighter. Trying to avoid them is taking me longer than I thought!”

“I’m at the canopy, Geronimo. I’m banging on the canopy but McNugget’s out cold, not responding. There’s no power. I can’t get the canopy to pop. Damn it! I’ll have to use the power torque to crank it open.”

SkyPilot dug through the crash bag and found the hand crank. Attaching the strap to the suit so that it wouldn’t drift away if dropped, the pilot slid the tool into the opening and felt it click into place. Clipping the safety strap to the eye-bolt on the fighter so the torque of the wrench wouldn’t send McNugget spinning out into space, SkyPilot flipped the switch.

The wrench jumped in  SkyPilot’s hand. The canopy moved. Too slowly! Time was running out. Come on! Hurry up! Come on! This was taking way too long!

“Geronimo. It’s taking too long! The canopy won’t be open far enough to drag him out! He’ll be dead before I can get to him. I think I can reach through to his oxygen hose. I’m going to hook him up to mine for a minute.”

“Negative 23! Do not. I repeat! Do not unhook your own oxygen hose. We don’t need two dead pilots.”

“Repeat that Geronimo? You were breaking up. I heard unhook your own oxygen hose. Affirmative!”

“No, No! Do NOT unhook! Do you copy?”

“Copy that Geronimo, unhook!” For some reason, SkyPilot was drawn to this rescue. This man had to be saved! Everything in their future depended on it!

The wrench continued its slow motion raising of the canopy, centimeter by centimeter. The pilot took a deep breath, and unhooked the hoses from both suits, swapping them and hopefully, saving the unconscious man’s life. The pilot reached deep inside and disengaged the seat harness. Gordon slowly began to float inside the cockpit.

Hoses were swapped again and, several deep breaths were taken by the shuttle pilot before the hoses were switched back.

The canopy opening continued to widen as the wrench did its slow-motion dance until finally, the pilot was able to squeeze Gordon’s limp body out of the wreckage. The hoses were swapped again for three deep breaths for the pilot, then re-attached for the trip back inside the shuttle.

As the pair did the slow-motion space dance back to the shuttle, SkyPilot hit the switch just inside the door, closing it and re-activating the artificial gravity. Both pilots crashed to the ground together and the shuttle pilot rushed to remove both of their helmets, gasping for the life-giving air now being pumped back into the shuttle!

Gordon’s color was grey. The air hose swap hadn’t worked, at least not completely. The pilot leaned down and began mouth to mouth, forcing air back into the handsome pilot’s lungs.

With each breath that they shared, Gordon’s color began to change. First grey, then white and, finally, a touch of pink began to show in his cheeks. As the two pilots continued the life-giving kiss, consciousness began to return to the young pilot.

Gordon’s first thought was that it was the sweetest breath he had ever tasted! The hands holding his face, strong and in control. The lips? They were the softest, most sensual he had ever kissed. He had done this before, many times, lifetimes before.

This felt right. The scent, the taste. This was love. His eyes flickered open and he said, “Gëöyade’, my beautiful Sky! Talon told me I’d see you again! Look at you! You’ve grown up into such a beautiful woman!”

“Thank God, you’re alive. Wait! How do you know my name? I’ve never seen you before now.”

Rolling over onto his elbow, Gordon whispered, “I’m sorry, your name really is Sky?”

“Skyler, actually. Lieutenant Skyler Crane, callsign, “SkyPilot”, at your service. What did you mean I’ve grown up into a beautiful woman?”

“Skyler/Wi:yo:h Gëöyade’, the name doesn’t matter. We’ve met before. Several times, and through many lives. I’ve seen you most recently in the future. In fact, several eons in the future. It’s a long, long story. I’d love to tell you all about it over a drink if you’d like.”

“Really? I save your life, and the first thing you do is ask me for a date?”

“Well, yeah! We’re bound to each other. We can’t help it. You’ll see. I’ll tell you all about it, again!” he said with a smile and a devilish wink.

Image by Gerhard Bögner from Pixabay

The Prodigal

Marian L Thorpe (@marianlthorpe)

This is a slightly modified excerpt from the author’s seventh book (but fourth in reading order), Empress & Soldier.  A ‘cithar’ is a stringed musical instrument; ‘quincalum’ is a civil partner, formalised via an agreement renewed (or not) every five years.

After I have been back in Casil a week, I am given an afternoon’s leave. I collect my cithar from the commander, and the bottle I kept. Then I walk across the city to the house that is now my brother’s.

I think the square has not changed. Then I see the awning shading three shopfronts. The one that was ours when I left, and the ones on both sides. All one striped fabric. Beneath it a man speaks to another. Oil is offered, to taste.

I watch from the shadows until the transaction is done. The buyer leaves. I stand, cross the square. Call my brother’s name.

He turns. “Yes?” Dressed in a tunic of good quality, a belt of soft leather.

“Marius,” I say again, and he hears and sees me this time.

“Druisius!” He stares for a moment. “What—where have you come from?”

“My barracks. I am a palace guard now, yes?” I step into the shade of the awning, put down the cithar. He offers his arms. I hesitate, then accept. We hug. He is taller than me, strong. I have missed him, it seems.

I glance around. “Three shopfronts? The business does well.”

“It does. I told you that, in my letters. But come.” He beckons me to the door that leads to the rooms above the shops. “Meet Vita and the boys. Can you stay to eat?”

The stairs are familiar. One still creaks as it always did. Marius is calling his wife’s name. I step into the main room, stop. New plaster, painted. New tiles on the floor. Carpets. They tell the same story as my brother’s tunic and belt. Being a trader has been no hardship for him.

A woman comes from another room. Olive skin, big dark eyes, her straight black hair clipped back. “Vita,” Marius says, “look who this is! My brother Druisius.” He is smiling, happy I am here. I am too.

Food is brought, and wine, and the two boys, my nephews. The young one, Tadius, is just past toddling; Valens, the older, four and a bit. Not babies. Valens reaches for my cithar. “No,” I say gently, and lift it from the floor. “Marius, keep these for me? The barracks are not a safe place.”

He laughs. “I’ll have to put it out of reach of the boys.” I hand it to him, and the glass bottle. I liked its shape, and its colour. No one asked where it went.

Marius runs a finger along the oiled wood of the cithar. “When did you learn to play?”

“Marcellus taught me. The officer from the docks, yes?”

He nods. “He was killed.”

“In Qipërta. The cithar was his. I will try to find his wife, give it to her for their son.”

“That shouldn’t be hard,” he says, “for a palace guard. Someone in the offices will know where she is. You can ask when you’re not working.”

“But I am not at the palace. Not yet. Too new, yes? So the streets and gates. For a while. Maybe our patron would know?”

“Varos? I could ask.” His face lights. “Did you know his daughter’s to be the Empress now? I’ve spoken to an Empress.”

“I met the Emperor,” I say. “When he was the prince. He thanked me for opening a door.” We grin at each other. Then talk about where I have been, the distant lands. About my younger sisters, married to traders. Both far away, across the sea. About the ships Marius owns now, the warehouses he leases. The markets for grain and oil and wine. I tell him of the carter with his amphorae of oil hidden among the wine vessels.

“There’s always those who will try to cheat,” he says. “Not worth it. By the way, there’s money put aside for you. Part of the profits, each year.”

This surprises me. “Why?”

He shrugs. “Our mother asked me to. After our father died. You’ve got—what?—another fifteen years to serve? What will you do after?”

I have no answer. “Maybe I am dead, yes?”

“And maybe not. You should think about it.”

Too soon. I tell Marius this. He shakes his head. “It isn’t. But I suppose, when it’s only you—no wife or children to worry about, it’s different.” He eyes me. “It is only you? No quincalum?”

I laugh. One man only? Not my way.

It is time to go. I am on duty in an hour. I thank Vita, praise the boys. She smiles. “Come any time.”

Marius walks down to the square with me. “Vita’s right,” he says. “Come any time.”

Illustration credit: Market Place, by  John Singer Sargent, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

William Nelson’s Last Chance

Joseph P. Garland (@JPGarlandAuthor

It happens many of this author’s stories take place in his own neighborhood. Last month’s entry had a woman who grew up in Bronxville, a northern suburb of New York City. This months’s is about a different woman who grew up in California. In this excerpt, though, the coming home is to a bench in Bronxville. This is from the novel Coming to Terms. There’s a slight explanation of the circumstances of this story and the precise time it was written at the end.

On the final Monday of winter 2020, William Nelson, a middle-aged man who was one of Silicon Valley’s most consulted lawyers, sat on a bench across from Starbucks and Baskin-Robbins in an affluent New York suburb. He had never been to the village. The sun was out but the air was chilled, and he watched the people and the cars pass by as he sipped his Caffè Americano, studying the faces hoping to see his daughter, Suzanne Neally.

He hadn’t spoken to her since his surprise visit to her Manhattan office a year-and-a-half earlier. That was when she took him to a nearby park and ignored his attempt to convince her to return to California. That was his home. It no longer was hers. Her home was now New York, with her wife. And when they sat that long ago day on a bench in Madison Square Park at lunchtime, Suzanne gave him an ultimatum. It had weighed on him nearly every day since and it had become almost unbearable: Accept me as I am and my wife as she is or stay out of my life.

And now, suddenly, the world was changing. With coronavirus, each day brought more turmoil, more shutdowns. When would he ever again be able to go to his daughter?

At home in suburban Marin County, after a visit to relatives on Sunday when all these ideas had bounded and bounded in his head until they finally settled, he went on-line. The air was still open, and he found a red-eye flight from San Francisco. It was leaving at midnight and would get into New York at about 8:30. As far as he could tell, the flight was almost empty, and he booked a seat in first class and drove to the airport.

On the plane, he declined offers of alcohol and quickly fell asleep. Only when the plane was on its final approach to JFK did he awaken.

He had no luggage. Only a backpack with toiletries and a change of underwear. When he reached the terminal, he pulled out his phone and found a bench. The picture on the homescreen was of his family in what he once thought was a happy time.

It was about a quarter to nine. He stared at that photo before opening the messaging app. William scrolled down his contact list until he got to “Suzanne.” He opened it. The last message was in July 2018. He hoped Suzanne would be working from home. He thought it likely, given what he knew about her company’s business.

He typed.

{William:} Suzanne. I’m in new york to see you. Please tell me whether you will see me. And where. Father.

He stared at the draft. Would she understand? Would she respond? Had she blocked him?

He added “Love” before “Father” and hit send.

He had come this far, but there was no immediate response. He went to the sidewalk outside the near-empty American terminal. There was no taxi line so he got in one that was waiting and asked to be taken to Bronxville. When the cabbie asked how to get there, William said he didn’t know. The driver found it in Waze, and they began the trip.

Passing the time, the cabbie spoke of how difficult things had been with the virus.

“We have suffered so much. Uber was bad, but this is worse. No one is traveling. This will be a good trip for me.”

William was often gregarious with cabbies, but now he spoke just to keep the conversation going. The Van Wyck Expressway was almost empty though it was Monday, and William never got out of JFK so quickly. Or so anxiously. He held his phone in his hand on his leg, glancing at it as if his will would cause the receipt of a message.

As the cab climbed the bridge to the Bronx and William was looking out over the Sound, the phone chirped. He hesitated and took a breath before lifting it. He opened the message.

{Suzanne:} You should drive to Bronxville. When will you get there?

William breathed again with the words, and he stared at them. Without looking up, he asked the cabbie when they would get to town.

“Waze says it will only be 17 minutes.”

William, his hands shaking, typed and sent the information.

{Suzanne:} There are benches by the train station. Across from Starbucks. Near the movie theater. I’ll be there in 25.

Suzanne had, in fact, seen her father’s first message shortly after it was sent. She was working remotely, as was Kerry, and was in the kitchen preparing breakfast. She rushed to the bedroom and showed it to Kerry.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“Fuck.” Kerry stopped drying her hair and sat on the bed. “There is no way he would come all this way to pull a stunt like the last time.” She was quite familiar with that last time, when he simply showed up at Suzanne’s office one day.

“Agreed. I have to see him. I told him I would.”

Kerry reached up and pulled Suzanne’s head down, kissing the top of her head.

“This is why I love you so much. You are so forgiving. I’d never be like you.”

Suzanne pulled away. “Yes, you would. Even if you would never admit it. Which is why I love you.”

Suzanne plopped on the bed when Kerry gave her room.

“He is your father, and he did believe what he did was right.”

“I know that.”

They were silent.

“I don’t think he should come to the house until I see him,” Suzanne said.

“Agreed. And don’t tell anyone. Where can he meet you in town?”

“There are benches on the train platform,” Suzanne said. She looked at Kerry.

With that Suzanne rose. “I’m sure.”

“Should I go with you?” Kerry asked.

“This time, love, it will be just him and me.”

Kerry stepped up behind Suzanne. She put her arms around her waist.

“I’m so lucky to have you.”

“We are lucky to have each other,” Suzanne said, as she often did. “I so hope this works. And whatever happens from here happens from here.”

She turned.

“Now, let me tell him.”

*   *   *

William clutched the phone.

“Is everything all right, sir?” the cabbie asked.

“Couldn’t be better. Could not be better. I’ve never been there before. I’m told there’s a Starbucks.”

“Beats me. It doesn’t look like a big place. Someone’ll tell us.”

Waze directed them to the middle of town. It was, in fact, not a big place. It was five minutes before Suzanne was due, and William jumped out to ask a passerby where the Starbucks was. When he was told, he leaned into the cab.

“It’s just around the corner here. I’ll walk. What do I owe you?”

The cabbie rang it up, and William gave him a hundred.

“Keep it.”

“Thank you very much. Have a very good day, sir.”

“I hope to,” he told the cabbie as he started to walk. Then, to himself, “I hope to.”

As he approached Starbucks, William saw the benches. He got his usual concoction and sat on the bench to the left, in the sun. It was a nice little town, and he knew its reputation as being not unlike Mill Valley in its affluence.

His thoughts were diversions, crowding out the only thing that mattered. Suzanne.

He wondered half-seriously whether she would recognize him. He was in gray slacks, an open-necked shirt, and a blue blazer. Suzanne used to tease him that he always looked like he just addressed the U.N. General Assembly when he was in “serious mode.” She once took a pair of scissors to a Hermès tie—it was light blue and one of his favorites—when they sat at a restaurant in San Francisco to celebrate her twenty-first birthday. Kate looked shocked at that and Eric looked amused.

If she were home and up when he was heading out to catch the train to work, Suzanne invariably tried to muss his hair, and he loved the brief contact they had on those mornings, although he always retained the façade of a gulf between father and child much as his parents had with him and his sister. Kate was the same. In retrospect, it seemed cruel.

William wondered whether she would comment that his hair was slightly longer than it had ever been. At least since law school. He wondered whether she would soon have a baby and he would be a grandfather. He wondered about a thousand things as he waited. As he had countless times when he allowed his mind to wander and be free.

He didn’t dare look at his watch. Instead, he took sips of his Caffè Americano. He didn’t know the direction from which she would come. He didn’t know what kind of car she drove or even if she would drive. His head was in constant motion when he wasn’t drinking, praying for a glimpse of her.

Would he recognize her? Then his doubts vanished. He again held his breath for a moment. He didn’t quite see the details of the face but recognized the stride with which he was so familiar. A determined yet relaxed stride as she walked directly towards him. Her dark-brown hair bouncing ever so slightly and rhythmically with each step.

Then he saw the face framed by the hair. Perhaps he saw a smile. He couldn’t be sure.

She paused, but it was barely perceptible. As he stood, she rushed to him.

Author’s Note: This is the final part of the novel Coming to Terms. It was written precisely when it was set. I was not two miles from what became perhaps the US’s first Coronavirus hotzone and a first draft, in which William travels to New York on Tuesday, suddenly seemed unrealistic. He had to leave Sunday or, I thought, there wouldn’t be another chance. So that Sunday truly was a do-or-die moment to see if William’s acceptance of his daughter would not come too late for (as we recall) the prospect of again flying from California to New York in March 2020 seemed like a pipedream.

Image: Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

December Team Showcase

Renée Gendron‘s A Gift of Stars: Book 1 The Nearer Realm Tales is available on Amazon. Her Golden Hearts: Book 2 of Frontier Hearts and Two Hearts on the Backspin, Novella 2 of her Heartened series, are also available there. The second book in her Outdoorsmen series, The Officer’s Gamble, was published on October 18. Book 1 of the Outdoorsman Series is available as is her Ninth StarJaded Hearts, and Seven Points of ContactHeads and Tales, a supernatural/mythological anthology. to which Renée contributed a historical, supernatural, romance. Shopkeeper & SpoonBeneath The Twin Suns: An AnthologyHeartened by Crimeand In The Red Room: A crime anthology with heart, all edited by Renée Gendron, are also available now.

Marian L Thorpe‘s eighth and last book in her historically inspired speculative fiction series Empire’s Legacy, Empire’s Passing, is available for pre-order on Amazon. (Empire’s Daughter is the first part.) She has numerous titles available; they can be found at her aptly-named website, MarianLThorpe.com  or at Books2Read. Marian’s short story On Shining Wings is included in the anthology Historical Stories of Exile, published by Taw River Press.

J Dalton is the author of The Saga of the Ones: a multi-part series about a newly discovered race living inside a Dyson sphere, a race that needs human blood to survive and whose Master emerges from a stasis condition with a plan. A plan to eliminate the human race.

David M. Simon has published The Wild Hunt: Novella 2 of The Wild Hearts and Hunts Duology (Part 1 is Renée Gedron’s Ninth Star) as well as Trapped in Lunch Lady Land, a middle-grade fantasy adventure.

Louise Sorensen has contributed to numerous anthologies that are available on Amazon, and is the co-author, with Misha Burnett, of Duel Visions.

The audio version of Joseph P. Garland‘s Becoming Catherine Bennet is available on Audible.com. It is an imagined sequel to Pride and Prejudice that is also available as an ebook (exclusively on Kindle Unlimited) and as a paperback and hardcover. (First Chapters.) He has also adapted his AMBR submission of a few months back involving Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy entitled “Mr. Darcy’s Regrets” from June 2023 into a novella entitled The Omen at Rosings Park, also available on Kindle Unlimited. (and being converted into an audiobook). His own reading of his short piece set in Gilded Age New York and entitled, “How I Became A Writer, by Alicia Cadbury,” which was originally published in the Loft literary journal. And the first chapters of his I Am Alex Locus can be found on his website.