Things I’ve Learned Since I Started Cooking

First, a little background.  The closest thing I had ever really gotten to cooking was a Foods course I took in High School, about 13 years ago.  Never in my life did I expect to actually look back on those days as points of reference.  In fact, until recently, the only thing I remembered about that class was having a free-cook day (where we got to make whatever we wanted), and me and my dumb friends decided to make “special” brownies and the whole school stunk of it.  But, that was years ago, and my “special” foods have a much different special ingredient now than back then.

Moving right along.  Since then, the only cooking I had done was with eggs (I am a god with eggs), and microwaving canned foods.  Until recently, that is.  In January, I moved in with a man who eats and made all kinds of promises that I would make sure to keep him fed, even if it was disgusting.  There have been hits and misses, but more hits than misses.

Cutting up a chicken this morning, I thought to write this up.  The things I’ve learned while learning how to cook.

 

I have no idea what I’m doing.

I figured this was as good a place as any to start.  Now, don’t get me wrong, most of what I make has come out to be amazing, even though every time I cook I am positive it is going to be one big waste of food.  But really, there are times when I will look up how to make something that I feel should be really easy, only to run into terms that I haven’t heard in over a decade, and then thank the 21st century that google exists so that I can find out what I just read and how to do it, or if it requires super powers or some sort of magical device that is outside of my grasp.

This hasn’t stopped me from improvising when the Ark of CrockPot is out of my reach, however.  Which leads me to my next point.

There is more than one way to do anything.

A quick note about how I do my recipes.  I spend about half an hour (what used to be hours longer than this, but I’m starting to catch on) looking up recipes to get the base idea for a general list of ingredients, tools, cook times, and techniques.  I then pick the parts that I like, or the parts that I am able to do (if I don’t have an ingredient or a specific tool, I try to find the best way to improvise), and go from there.  Despite what a google search of “how to cook chicken breasts” might want you to think, there are endless ways to pull it off.  On top of that, it’s not hard to figure out something that’s -close- to the thing that you need, and just use it wrong to make it right.  I know, that sounds confusing.  But maybe this will clear it up some.

Cooking is not a Science; it’s an Art.

This one, really, blew me away more than anything.  Anyone who has taken a chemistry course or anything of the like knows how important it is to follow a formula perfectly, lest it literally blow up in your face.  When you look up any recipe, it is a very detailed list of exactly what you need, how much, the temperatures, and time-frames.  These details make it look like a science, when it’s really not.

Every recipe I read has something in it I don’t want, or too much of one thing, or it’s missing something I like to have in everything if I can.  Everything you make should be made to taste – cooked the way you want it, using the recipe not as an instruction booklet, but as a guideline.  Very rarely do I ever even measure my ingredients before adding them.  Now, I don’t necessarily recommend this for everyone.  I’ll get to that in a bit.  But what I’m trying to say with this is that every dish you make doesn’t have to be the same.  You can put literally any combination of things together, and it could be amazing or awful depending on your tastes, quantities of each, and how or how long it’s cooked.  Recipes are a guideline – they are the things we look at in the real world while trying to paint the picture on paper.  Looking at a tree, I can see a balance of browns and greens and yellows, reds and oranges during certain seasons, and so forth.  But how I put it all on paper, whether I add white and black for shadow and highlight, and even what season it is when I paint the tree in, that is all up to me.

Taking a step back a moment to something I said earlier.

Some people have it, and some people don’t.

Well what the heck is that supposed to mean?

It means a lot of things, really.  And don’t think I’m tooting my horn, here.  I have said this a billion times before, only that was when I thought that I was one of the people who “didn’t have it”.  But what is “it”?  “It” is the innate ability to make magic out of nothing.  To look into a cabinet and taste every flavor as you glance over it, and decide which ones will go well together and with the things you’re making.  “It” is that blessing and curse where, when you take a bite of food, you can separate each of the flavors and know what all went into making it.  For me, flavors don’t mix. They are all separated in my mouth.  Like a painting, I see the colors before I see the whole picture.

“It” is the ability to dump seemingly-random quantities of ingredients into your recipe without ever measuring, knowing just by looking at it that it’s going to need more of something else.  “It” is the internal clock that goes off the moment before your timer, telling you that the food is done, and at the same time you just somehow know it needs another five minutes before it hits perfection.  “It” is having little to no experience with most anything cooking, yet managing to make food that makes restaurants seem like they are seriously overpaid.

Not having “it” isn’t really a bad thing.  For me, it was my excuse not to cook.  However, just because you don’t have “it”, doesn’t mean you can’t cook a good meal.

You are going to make a mess, or you’re doing it wrong.

Back to this morning.  Cutting up that chicken.  Let me first say, I hate doing this.  Cutting meat off of bones is so infinitely frustrating, especially since I hate wasting food.  I have read the “right” ways to do it, and it never seems to work well for me.  My hands are a little messed up, so holding a knife in one hand and a large fork in another, gripping tightly, and making repetitive motions gets painful really fast.  Even if that weren’t a factor, though, it seems impossible to cut all of the meat off of the chicken.

In fact, it is.  Without using your hands, getting in and digging at the thing, there is no way to get it all. Granted, you’re probably still going to throw some of it away for one reason or another, but some of the best meat needs to be manually ripped off of the bones in order to get it free without taking big chunks of bones or cartilage with it.  By the time I was done with the chicken, my hands were covered in fat and juice and little tiny strings of meat, and I had more than twice as much food in my container than I did before I started tearing away with my fingers like some sort of Neanderthal.

Lots of foods, aside from this, will require you to get your hands dirty.  Baking especially, but the most precise tools you have in the kitchen are your bare hands.  Mixing together the beef and other ingredients and forming a meatloaf is simply not doable without using your hands.  Covering meat in breading and seasoning is twice as much work if you try to use tongs or something to keep your hands clean.

To keep my sink clean, I usually end up having to run at least a small stream of water constantly while I’m cooking so that I don’t get grease or whathaveyou all over the knob.  It would be a little counterproductive to wash my hands, only to twist the knob to turn off the water and end up getting them greasy all over again.

You don’t need as many dishes as you think you do.  Unless you do.

Oh, the bane of my existence for the longest time.  My least favorite part about making a big meal is the cleanup afterwards.  The counters and plates and utensils, I can handle.  It’s all of the pots and pans and cookware that gets filthy in the process that really fills up the sink quickly.

For most things, though, I realized I could use the same spoon or spatula for the whole time I was cooking.  If you don’t want a little of this and a little of that to get mixed up, it’s as easy as rinsing the utensil before stirring or flipping or whatever you need to do on the next thing, rinse, repeat.

On the other hand, there are times when you might try to save on dishes by using the -wrong- utensil to get the job done.  Enter the many times I made the mistake of using a plastic spatula on hot beef or bacon just to save on some time.  Long story short, the ends of those spatulas have now been mutilated by the grease and heat, and food sticks in them.  To be honest, they are barely usable anymore.

The point is, sometimes it is the best idea you’ve ever had to save on dishes. Other times, you might find yourself at the store purchasing new cookware because you’ve got pieces of plastic falling into your food.  I know I said earlier to improvise with utensils and cookware, and I stand by this.  It’s also wise, though, to use some common sense (gee, I wish I had some) and make sure you’re not going to make -more- work for yourself in the process.

Timing is everything.  Unless it’s not.

Oho, I did it again.  Yes, I know I’m the only one who finds me funny, thank you.

Anyway. The amount of time you cook something obviously matters.  Even with something as simple as a hamburger helper, you don’t want to end up with crunchy noodles or bleeding beef.  Unless you do, but I really doubt that.

More than this, though, when cooking a meal, when you start each part of the meal can make a huge difference.  If it takes me 20 minutes to get potatoes soft enough to mash, and another 5 minutes to finish preparing them, then I know I need to start those chicken breasts right before I start peeling and cutting the potatoes so that they can finish at or around the same time.  If I’m making peas, as well, I need to keep in mind how long I need to cook those, and when I should start on that in order to make it all finish at the same time.

Now, keep in mind, there are ways around this.  Both the chicken and the potatoes can be left on, on low heat, for a time as the rest of the food finishes.  The peas, however, can’t be.  They can dry out or get soggy (depending on how you’re cooking them), and some things are just intolerable if they’re not done right.  I feel like that should be another one of my pointers, but it really does go without saying.

Sides make the meal.

I put a lot of work into my meats and main courses.  But sometimes, I put just as much work into my sides.  I wish I had it in me to put that much effort into the sides every time, but I just don’t.  Let’s go with the same meal example as above.  I season the chicken with honey, lemon, rosemary, and some oil.  Salt and pepper if I want to.  Sometimes let it soak overnight, other times put it all together on the spot.  The potatoes, usually, I just heat up, throw some butter and milk in them, salt to taste, and plop them on the plate.  Peas are peas, and they’re just fine how they are.

Wrong.  So wrong.  And I learned this on the first night I decided to put a lot of effort into the potatoes and the peas.  Admittedly, it was because I didn’t think the main course was going to turn out well, and at least wanted something that could make us both do the happy-food-dance.  That night, it was pork chops, but I’m going to stick with the chicken example for simplicity.

I salted and seasoned the peas lightly, added a little butter to the pan, and cooked them slowly.  With the potatoes, once they were mash-able, I added loads of cheddar cheese, some seasoning, and sour cream.  Mixed it all up so that they were still a little chunky but soft, and served these alongside the main course.

The difference this made in the meal!  We were no longer eating the sides because they were good but mostly filling; they became just as important as the main course.  This was the best meal ever, when every piece that went into it had gotten just as much attention as the last.

Salt is your best friend.

I am not a salt person.  I don’t like salty foods, except for those rare occasions when I’m craving them.  In fact, my personal preference for food is generally pretty bland.  Until recently, the only seasoning I liked was a tub of ketchup dumped over whatever I was eating.  Yes, I know, I’m terrible.  Ironic, too, considering how salty ketchup is.  Maybe that’s why I never needed extra salt.

Back on track.  I have learned, while cooking, that there is a -huge- difference between using salt as an ingredient while cooking and adding it afterwards.  In fact, I now feel bad for ever making foods bland out of personal preference and making people add salt afterwards.  Salt, when used in cooking, enhances the flavors that are already there.  It doesn’t make food salty (unless you use way too much, or add it too late), it just gives a boost of flavor that really brings out the tastes that were already there.  Cooking noodles in salt-water (not just water with some salt, but truly salty-water) is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to noodles.  When salt soaks into anything while it cooks, it is as though it is making it taste the way it was always meant to.

Nothing is beyond repair.

The truth is, you can add way too much of anything to anything and make it terrible.  But I was raised, and have always stood by the mentality, that food should not be thrown away.  Anything you make can be fixed, whether it’s by adding more of the main ingredient to make up for the over-use of seasoning, or cutting off the parts you failed at, or sometimes even scrapping the meal and using it somewhere else.

Again with the chicken?  Really?  Honestly, we eat a lot of meats, but chicken is the one that I have had a hard time with at times.  So, yes, again with the chicken.

The first chicken I made was gross.  Not because it tasted bad, but because it looked bad.  It was a young bird, so the bones were more brittle, and we’d had it frozen for a while.  So, when it cooked, a lot of the marrow came out around the joints and, well, pretty much everywhere.  So despite the fact that the bird was fully-cooked (if not over-cooked, since the coloration threw me off), there were red stains over a lot of the meat.  This barely effected the taste, and actually was quite good, but neither of us were able to get over just how gross it looked.

By the next day, we both knew that neither of us were going to eat it.  Appearances really do mean a lot, especially when it comes to putting something in your mouth.  I have gotten what I thought was food poisoning before simply because something looked like it would make me sick, because mind over matter really is a thing.

So, I made a casserole.  It had way more chicken in it than it was supposed to, but we needed to use all of the meat.  As far as I was concerned, that whole chicken was scrap meat at that point, so I put it all into the baking pan with everything else it needed.  I put more effort into this casserole than I did into the chicken (aside from cutting it up after which, as covered before, was a mess).  The funny thing?  The chicken I tore up this morning is perfect, and the meat is wonderful, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  But that casserole was so good, even with the gross weird meat in it, that I really am tempted to throw it all into that again.

That example is just one, but what if you burn something?  If the option to just cut off the burnt parts isn’t there, there’s usually not much you can do.  Certain things, though, I’ve found to be delicious when burnt if you soak them in oil for a little bit on a low heat.  It makes the nasty bitter burnt parts taste more sweet than anything. Add some salt to that, before or after cooking, and it won’t ever be perfect, but it’ll definitely be edible.

It is better to make too much than not enough.

I struggle with this one daily.  It is a universally known fact that it’s difficult to cook for just two people.  Recipes and portions are usually made for five people or one, and there is no in-between.  If you don’t mind leftovers, it’s easy enough.  But, when you are planning meals every day, it’s hard to figure out where those leftovers fit in.  I always default to making more of something before I opt to microwave it, because I feel like leftovers detract from the whole ‘freshly cooked meal’ thing.

In a way, that’s true.  But, it’s better to plan for leftovers as a part of your meal than it is to be stuck with them because you didn’t make enough.  It is a much better option to accept that you are having re-heated macaroni as a side that night than it is to finish your meal, still be hungry, and then have to go, begrudgingly, re-heat some macaroni.

The last thing I learned: there is so much to learn.

I could seriously keep on this list all day.  I’ve honestly been really excited about this new part of my life, and would even go so far as to call it a hobby at this point.  Or a lifestyle.  Considering my lack of income, this is literally how I make a living right now, earn my keep, and keep him happy when he comes home from work.  And I’m sure that some of the things I’ve learned, that I put on this list, will change as time goes on.  I am almost thirty and am just now putting my hands into the pot that many people have been cooking with for decades, and each new thing I come across excites me.  Every mental recipe I have gets altered just a little bit, partly out of curiosity and partly because I learned something, each time I make it.  I never thought I would come this far from making omelettes and being proud of them.

That said, I would love and even encourage feedback on this post.

What are some things that you’ve learned from cooking?  Do you disagree with some of my points and why?  I am by no means an expert on anything (well, almost anything, but certainly not cooking), and any and all feedback would be more that appreciated.

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Back to My Passion

There are not many people who know this, but one of my truest passions is Astrology.  No, not your everyday horoscopes and overgeneralized “you’re this, and that’s that”.  I am talking in-depth creep-you-out detailed readings that will make you wonder and answer your questions all in the same sentence.

Let me start over.  I am a Pisces.  Which is hilarious, considering I am the most skeptical Pisces I know.  For most of my life, I honestly thought that Astrology was just a big money-maker for people who could write a few sentences that were generalized enough to probably describe everyone in some fashion or another.  The most irritating part of it all to me was that I have never even remotely fit the over-generalized description of a Pisces.  That didn’t stop me from clicking things that wanted to guess at who I was, if only for the sake of being able to puff up my chest afterwards and be proud that I didn’t fit into some category.

Story time!  About 8 years ago, I was living in my car for a while.  I’d done some rather impulsive things and decided I needed a new adventure.  I quit my job, ditched my apartment, and took off to, well, anywhere, really.  My plans changed probably a hundred times between the day I decided I was going to do all of this and the end of the adventure.  During this trip, I found myself staying at a stranger’s house in their closet for a night.  There wasn’t much to do there, and I was already too tired from driving for fourteen hours to really exert myself any more into trying to make some money or accomplish anything.  So, I laid down in the closet on a bed of blankets, covered myself in cats (yes, cats), and grabbed one of the books the woman had stuck in there for me to keep myself busy.  It was pretty dark, and I had to read by the light of my cellphone (which, at the time, was a dimly-lit flip-phone), so I didn’t really care what it was that I picked up.

The book I grabbed was called Something Something Astrology for Something Something, and the cover was purples and blues and greens with two people painted on the front that I remember looked like they might have been dancing in the colors.  I wish I remember what this book was called, still, or what the cover actually looked like (versus what I remember, which is probably not even accurate).

I digress.  So I picked up this book and started reading about my sign.  “Blah blah blah, Pisces are affectionate and creative and shy and etc etc,” and I would have stopped reading there had I not caught sight of the word “chaotic” at the bottom of the page.  So, admittedly, I skipped all of the inaccurate bull-crap that was pretty much the same stuff I’d seen everywhere else and went straight to the part of the page that seemed like it might actually know something.  “A Piscean on an air cusp is a hurricane, with the calm and laid-back water sign ruling it while the chaotic temperament of the ever-changing winds lift it off of its seabed to wild adventures that often leave bystanders baffled and, sometimes, hurt.” (Disclaimer: these are my words, but cover the meaning of what I read in that paragraph.  This is not exactly a quote since, let’s face it, I can’t even remember what the book was actually called.)

Yeah.  That is the story of my life.

I moved back to the top of the page and read the entire segment, and that was the first time that I realized that there was more than just one factor at play in Astrology.  There was more than just the one-month period you were born that effected things and, in fact, there were many more things that I would learn in the years to come on this subject.  Sun signs (the ones that you all know and love) and cusps are just the tip of the iceberg, and I had decided in that moment that I was going to be the hurricane that lifted that ice right out of the water to see what was underneath – and damn the consequences.

astro
Now granted, there was much MUCH more to what I read that night in that book.  My eyes caught the words I wanted to see, but what I found in the entirety of my reading described me far more intimately than that sentence that seemed to pretty much detail the outward view of my life.  Funny enough, the finer details it went into were far more accurate than the ‘chaos’ statement, but it was enough to catch my attention, and I’m grateful for that.
For those who know me well, you know that I spend a lot of time thinking about why I do things, why other people do things, how to better myself and improve my interactions with people.  I also spend a lot of my time with my head in the clouds trying to figure out how to kill dragons, and this search for understanding has made the fantasy side of my mind so much more refined.  The last time that I did a reading for myself, one that detailed every bit of my mentality and emotion and past and present, it cleared up a lot of things for me.  There is a great bit of sociological and psychological analysis that goes into these readings, and it’s amazing how much it has all evolved with us while still remaining exactly the same over the centuries.

So what’s my point?

In short: I am doing readings again.  Basic, detailed, and incredibly detailed readings are all available here.  Of course, I would like to highly discourage going with a basic reading.  They’re often right along the lines of what you’ve seen everywhere else: those over-generalized statements that make you feel like you and millions of other people are exactly the same.  You are not.

Perspective

It occurs to me often, but especially today, that people have a huge problem with not seeing  potential other points of view.

For instance: I did some ghostwriting work for someone, just a small project.  When they reviewed it, they were grateful in their response back to me.  The site that I did this on has a 1-5 star rating system, as well as the option to leave a comment.  The person didn’t do the review, and I didn’t really notice until a few days ago.  When they finally filed the review, they put it in with 5 stars but with no comment.  At first, I was pretty offended.  For the amount of time I had spent working with this person, I had expected a little more than just a one-click response to the effort.  In addition, even adding just a few words into those reviews can make a world of a difference to viewers that check them before hiring.  My immediate mental response to it was that the buyer was just lazy.

Flash forward (or, backwards?) to about ten minutes ago.  I was filtering through some old notifications on the same site, many of them being reminders to review my buyers.  My first instinct was to just click them all five star (I really didn’t have much to say about it aside from ‘Yay you gave me work and your money is real’), go down the list to get rid of the notifications, and move right along from there.  I had let them kind of pile up because, honestly, I haven’t been getting much work, and the work I have gotten has been pretty easy to do and quick to complete.  Five or ten dollars here or there doesn’t really add up as much as it feels like it should, especially when there is always a hold on the funds.  I felt like, for all of the effort that I had been putting in lately in order to market myself and my skills, I had received very little in return.  Depression falling on me like the dark cloud that it is, I started clicking through the list and marking each with their stars without review.

That is when it occurred to me that I was doing exactly the thing that I had been irritated about earlier this week.  I thought about the person who had commissioned me for that task, and wondered if they, too, had been in a funk when they’d finally decided to go down through the list and mark things off.  Or perhaps they were so busy being on the other side of the coin that they just hadn’t had time.

Sometimes, as a writer, I just assume that it’s just as easy for everyone else to come up with something to say as it is for me.  I cannot comprehend what it is like to have nothing to say, to have no feedback, or to not really understand how much those words will matter.  I live my life talking and writing, telling stories and leaving my comments from the peanut-gallery everywhere I go.  And yet, there are times when even I am unwilling to put forth the effort it would take to write something so basic as a buyer-review.  It isn’t that I don’t have the words, but that I do not want to write them.

This, of course, is only one small example in a slew of the things that went through my mind before writing this.  So it comes down to this point: every time you think the words ‘why would someone do that?’, remember that there is, in fact, a reason.  You probably don’t know it and likely never will, in much the same way that there are plenty of people who think the same thing about you at times.  The point is, we all have our reasons for the things that we do.  We place so much weight on understanding the reasons that other people do or don’t do something, when in reality the only thing that we need to understand is that they had their reasons.  Sure, knowing the reason can often turn a bad situation into a good one, but sometimes it’s just none of our business.  If one of my buyers came back and asked why I didn’t leave a written review, I would be loathe to tell them about my depression and lack of motivation during the period when I finally convinced myself to click on those stars.  It’s unprofessional to talk about those things, and (to the contrary of what the world will have us believe) it is unprofessional to lie.

I know they’ll likely never see this, but I appreciate every person who doesn’t ask me why I half-assed something. Sometimes, it takes twice as much effort to half-ass it when you feel like doing nothing than it does to go full-force when you’re actually motivated.  So, I didn’t half-ass it.  I just couldn’t wait any more time before it got done, and gave it the best that I had to offer at that time.  And I will remember this, the next time I think that someone is being lazy.  Whether I am right or wrong is irrelevant; the fact remains that they might have really put all that they had left into clicking those stars, and I should be grateful that, at the very least, that much was accomplished.

Part 7 – The Plan

Part 0 – Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3 – Part 4 – Part 5 – Part 6

Time disappeared into a pool, memories dropping into it like rainfall rippling into chaos as though their sequence had never held relevance. Swimming in the darkness, Kerin’s thoughts played free of her control, the woman herself just a passive bystander. A man’s voice, one she thought she recognized but wasn’t relevant to the images, echoed through the emptiness. “Dream,” he said, but Kerin fought the order with what little control she could muster. She focused on the darkness, unsure of what was going on but feeling as though her mind was not her own.  Whispers and beeps and the breaking of glass rang loudly in the forefront of her mind as images of tubes and bars and dozens of familiar faces played over at an alarming rate.

Slowly, she began to see what she thought was real as the dreams overlayed images that weren’t familiar. A dark room came into view with translucent memories scattered against the walls. Corners appeared first, then creases in the walls, what appeared to be rust stains from where the ceiling had leaked. The scent of dust and chemicals filled her nose, and she held her breath against it.

“Sh’ain’t dreamin’ anymore,” a gruff voice spoke, then a crash sounded. Kerin’s memories faded from the walls, though the dark room was no more clear than it had been a moment ago. A stout shadow hobbled toward a door, opening it to reveal piercing beams of light. She closed her eyes against the brightness. Her heart and breathing had slowed drastically, a defense mechanism that kicked in automatically when she felt threatened. The voice grumbled a few things as its silhouette exited the room, shutting her into the darkness again when the door closed behind it.

Her nostrils flared as her golden eyes darted around. Instinct being what it was, she wouldn’t even dare try to move, not until she knew she was alone. Attempting to turn her head to search the rest of the room, she felt a pressure on her forehead holding her in place. How had she gotten here? All of her memories still felt scattered, images from years ago feeling as though they had been only moments before. It was hard to determine the series of events, to understand what had come just before this.

Aside from a faint beeping – the last remaining part of her dream that faded slowly – the room was silent. She smelled nothing but the dust and chemicals that had so rudely greeted her moments before. Muscles tensing, she attempted to break away from whatever bonds surely held the rest of her in place. A loud tearing echoed in the room as the leather straps tore away, accompanied by the metallic tink of a few small metal pieces hitting the hard floor and rolling away. Kerin pulled the straps from her forehead and wrists, tossing them aside as she used her hands to rip the belts from her ankles as well. The table she was on was hard metal that smelled like aluminum, but it was hard to tell with all of the other chemical scents swirling in the air.

Regardless of how she got there, she needed to get out. The room was cold, and she didn’t do well in the cold. Her eyes scanned for windows or doors, anything other than the one that shadow had hobbled through, but found nothing. She backed against the wall, touching a hand to it while keeping her eyes on the room. It was so dark, she could only barely make out the shapes of some tables and fixtures that she didn’t recognize. Digging her fingers into the wall behind her, her fingertips bore holes in the cement wall they rested on. While it would not be the most stealthy escape, she at least knew that breaking down the walls would be an option.

“I’m sure there are more civil ways for us to deal with this,” a familiar voice echoed in the room. She couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but immediately the memories of the grocery store came to the forefront of her mind. “Besides, I’m sure the kind of attention that would attract would be bad for your rep, Sugar.”

“What the actual fu-” Kerin started, her temper kicking in far quicker than usual. She didn’t like being cornered, tricked, or trapped. Well, nobody did, but this woman had a particular distaste for situations like this.

“But, by all means, if you think that’s the best way to handle this, go ahead. You’d certainly be making my job easier.” She could hear the voice chuckle in the darkness, but still saw nothing.

Her nostrils flared again as she tried, in vain, to pick up his scent. It made no sense that he didn’t have one, and she could only assume it was some sort of trick. It would have to wear off sometime, she thought. Assuming that was how his magic worked. She really had no idea. “Listen. I already told you I have nothing to say to you, so what the hell do you want me here for?”

“I already got the answers I needed,” the man retorted, suddenly seeming less playful than before. “Why I’m keeping you here is simple: you are dangerous.”

Kerin scoffed, feigning over-confidence to disguise her fear of the unknown. “I threw sugar at a pixie. Had I realized the world had gotten so sensitive about bullying-”

“Let’s just skip over the part where you lie to me repeatedly and get to the portion where I explain to you what I already know. If you feel like working with me, then, we may have something to talk about. Deal?”

Kerin paused. Working with him? How did they get from strapping her to a table in a dark room to working with him? She shook her head in the darkness, eyes still skimming the room anxiously. Though she didn’t know how much she could get, she was trying to buy time.

The man let out a sigh in response. “Why not?”

So he could see her shake her head. That was unfortunate, and put him at a great advantage if she did try to pull anything. He was fast, strong, had no scent, and could see in the dark. What kind of unfair bullcrap was this world coming to? “Sorry, honey, but I’m selective with my friendships. Simply put, I just don’t like the way you smell.”

He chuckled again, and she thought that she heard movement to her left. Quickly, she turned her head to look at the space next to her, but found nothing but more empty wall space. “If it’s any consolation,” the man added, his voice still seeming to come from everywhere in the echoing room, “you smell like an animal.”

A shiver went through her body, half attributed to the chilly air around her and half to the fact that he seemed to know more than he should. “Welcome to the New World,” she teased, “where even the humans have a little something on the side. It’s not a crime, you know.”

“No, but you don’t exactly fall under that description. Do you, Subject K?”

Her fingers dug farther into the walls, and she could hear the tiny pebbles of cement breaking away and falling to the floor by her feet. “I don’t know what you’re-”

“See, originally, I thought you were a weapon released on the city for some nefarious purpose. I have to admit, you weren’t easy to find. In fact, I think we can wholly thank fate for having brought you to me. Imagine my surprise, though, when I learned how you actually found your way into the city from Traux Labs. You know, I would venture to guess that, if you had come to me first, we could have skipped the past three years of hunting and gone straight to what I can do for you…” The man let his voice trail off at the end of his seductively elusive offer.

Kerin’s curiosity burned nearly as hot as her temper and her fear. She didn’t want to know how he had found that out, or what else he knew. That was the second time he had hinted at being allies, and she was clearly in no position to back away from such an offer. Pride aside, she could use someone like him far more than he used her, if she played her cards right. “If you’re so interested in being friends, why the leather belts and the dark room with no escape route, huh?”

“Consider it an insurance policy. I know the nature of snakes, and would rather not be bitten – especially by you, given the nature of your abilities.”

The woman grinned, removing her tense fingers from the holes they had bore in the wall. A few small rocks tumbled to the floor. “Alright, you’ve flattered me into attentiveness. But I don’t trust you.”

“That’s preferable, since I don’t trust you either. It’ll keep us both on our toes. So long as you can handle your distrust rationally-”

“Get to the point. Having my attention doesn’t mean you have my patience, you know.”

The man chuckled again, a sound that seemed closer to her than it had been yet. In front of her, maybe? Above? Her eyes darted through the darkness as he spoke. “Whatever you say, Sugar. Well in summary, you have a few things that are useful to me. Your abilities, for one, and your intense distaste for Aiden Traux.”

Kerin scoffed. “Intense distaste is an understatement.”

“Yes, yes, I can imagine. Considering our mutual hatred, I propose a deal: I will no longer see you as an enemy, and you do whatever is necessary to bring down Traux from the inside. It would-”

He stopped speaking as soon as she held up a hand to stop him. “I’m not going back inside there.”

“You wouldn’t be alone.”

“Yeah, I don’t think you get it. I didn’t say, ‘You’re going to have to send someone with me and do a lot of buttering up and probably lick my shoes to get me to do this’. I said I am not. Final. There is no other option. If you want to tear it down so badly, go in there yourself.” She shivered again, this time entirely from the temperature in the room.

There was a short pause before the man responded finally. “If I go in there, it will start a war. If someone – anyone – with abilities broke into that lab, it would come down on the heads of every person who lives in this city that isn’t human. Boulder City would be in a worse state of chaos than when the worlds first merged, and countless species and modified humans would be detained or otherwise punished simply for my actions.”

“So what?”

The man sighed. “So, my intention is not to cause chaos, but to end it.”

“And how will my destroying the place or whatever you want me to do be any different?”

“Because,” he replied, his voice more stern now than before. “You were created there. You were born in those labs, manufactured as an artificial life-form for whatever purpose. Your rebellion would bring down the company, so long as word spread outside of the building, because people would have to see what Traux is doing and how dangerous it can be. It can’t be anyone else. If you are the one to go in, and you do enough damage that the world can’t help but notice, then eyes will be opened to the monsters that are being created there. People will start asking questions, wondering what Traux intends to do with these weapons if not integrate them into society. Best case scenario, your actions will lead to the downfall of the company. Worst case scenario, your anarchy will lead to a revolution that will leave Cyber Corps Industries wounded and open for another attack.”

Kerin took this all in. This man clearly knew more than he should, and far more about her than she was comfortable with. “So you want me to go in there, wreck up the place and piss a bunch of people off. Worst case-scenario, I die in the process. Best case-scenario, I’m in prison for life or some kind of lab where they detain the violent and insane or something like that. That about right?”

“As I said before, you won’t be alone. I already have a plan for how to get you out safe and sound, assuming you don’t get yourself killed. You’ve done it before. The only difference is that, this time, we need to make sure that people know about it. I saw the slaughterhouse that was left in your wake, the chaos that you caused in your escape. It was…disgusting. But it’s exactly what we need. This time, though, there will be someone there to document it. Proof of what happens in there, and what can happen if-”

“But I will still be the monster,” she replied, chuckling after. “Fine. Yeah, sure, fine, I’ll do it. But don’t think I’m doing this to help you. Truth is, I’ve been hungry for months. If you’re giving me a free ticket to an all-you-can-eat buffet, I guess I’ll put forth the work to earn it.”

“I’m glad that we coul-”

She interrupted again, feeling very much now like she had the upper leg in all of this. He really did need her. His plan would be useless without her, and that meant that she had room to bargain. “Not so fast, pretty boy. I’ll have a list of demands. First, turn the damn light on. And warm this place up. If we’re going to keep talking like allies, then you’re gonna treat me like a damned princess, deal?”

There was a pause, and she thought she heard whispers. “Anything you want, Sugar,” the man replied, and suddenly the room was filled with light. At first, it was blinding, and it took everything in Kerin not to shield her eyes from the brightness. She was not so trusting as to give him that advantage, though, in case it were some kind of trick. Sure, he had all the time and opportunity in the world while they’d stood in darkness to make a move if he was going to, but that did not register for the perpetually paranoid woman.

As her eyes adjusted, she could see more clearly the cold gray room that she had been imprisoned in. Her eyes avoided the details as they quickly searched for the man she’d been talking to and found nobody. She stepped forward curiously, nostrils flaring again as she instinctively smelled for what she already knew had no scent. “If you think being all hidden and mysterious is charming or intimidating, you’re wrong,” she lied. No response came. Turning around to face the wall behind her, her eyes took in the damage she’d done to the cement there. She traced up the wall to the ceiling, turning to skim it carefully, and then the rest of the room. “You’ve seriously been talking to me through speakers this whole time? The hobbly silhouette guy is braver than you.”

“Sorry, Sugar, I just like watching you squirm on the inside,” the man chuckled, his voice very clearly coming from behind her. She turned quickly to face the wall that she had been looking at only moments ago to find him leaning against it non-chalantly. His long dark hair trailed over his shoulders, which were covered in a dark grey jacket that went down to his knees. He was still in the outfit he had worn at the grocery store underneath the jacket, which told her that she likely hadn’t been there for very long. “Any more demands? Or were light and warmth all you cared about?”

As he asked, a space heater in the corner came on of its own accord. After only a moment, she could already feel the warmth on her legs. “Yeah, stop calling me Sugar.”

The man’s face scrunched up a bit. “I can’t make any promises on that one. The only other thing I know you as is Subject K. I just thought you’d like Sugar better. You could tell me your real name, but since you haven’t exactly been forthcoming with information, I just assumed it would be pointless to ask.”

He wasn’t wrong. While she had no legal “birth” name, Kerin wasn’t exactly comfortable giving out the title. It felt too personal, and she wasn’t exactly in a giving mood after all of this. “Well, you haven’t told me yours either,” she chided.

“Touche. I’m Israel,” he replied without hesitation, motioning with his hand to imply it was her turn.

She watched his hand motion with a raised brow. “What? For all the information you seem to know about me, all I know is your name. I’m keeping mine until you come up with something worth the trade.”  Come to think of it, she was wondering if he didn’t already know her name, and was just messing with her.  Best not to test those waters, though.  She was far too stubborn to turn just because logic told her to.

“Whatever you say, Sugar,” he said with a grin, winking one of his glowing blue eyes at her. How he had kept them from lighting up the room when they were in total darkness was beyond her, but it was most unsettling how she seemed to have a hard time tearing away from them. Of course, he was attractive and even charming, but Kerin wasn’t the fawning type. Something else was keeping her attention, almost as though she was being forced to look.

She pursed her lips irritably, but knew that she had set herself up for that one. “Fine. Sugar it is. Don’t expect me to be sweet, though.”

He laughed. “Oh. I don’t. So. We have a deal? Or were there more things on your list?”

Kerin thought. “I’ll get back to you on that. I assume I’m free to leave?” After he nodded his response, she continued. “Fine. You just give me a heads up a few days before everything is about to go crazy, and I’ll-”

“You’ll know when it’s time, trust me.”

“Trust you?” she forced a laugh, rubbing her arms with her hands to try and bring some warmth to them. The heater was helping, but not quickly enough. She could already feel herself getting tired.

Israel chuckled lightly, “Yeah, probably not the best choice of words. Still. I won’t really have time to give you a heads up on anything. Some factors are out of my hands.”

“Oh, that’s great news. And here I thought you had everything under control. So, do you have a cell phone?” Israel shook his head. “Pager? Beeper? Carrier pigeon? Magical owl? Minions?”

He chuckled. “I guess you could call them minions. Yes, I’ll have one of my minions drop off some information for you soon. Everything is pretty compartmentalized, though, so information is on a need-to-know basis.”

Of course it was. “Well, where exactly do you think you’ll be dropping this information off?”

“Your place of work, naturally.”

Kerin laughed, crossing her arms over her chest. She could only assume that he hadn’t seen her whole life’s story, just the parts that were relevant to her escape, otherwise he would realize that was impossible. “And how exactly do you intend to do that?”

“It’s simple, Sugar,” Israel said, pushing off the wall and moving toward the door. He set his hand on the wall by a light switch. “I have a wish,” he added before flicking the switch off, again. Kerin didn’t have to see to know, despite all logic, that she was now somehow alone in the room.

Part 6 – Accidents Happen

Part 0 – Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3 – Part 4 – Part 5

Tony sat in the little car, shifting uncomfortably in the seat as he waited for Lina to get out of the restaurant. He was already ready to go home, but neither of them had really accomplished anything that day, and it was almost three. After grabbing some dinner, they would have to get back to the office and see what kind of menial story was waiting for them there. He had really hoped that this underground movement would be more interesting than it was. Actually, he might have been able to find out more if it weren’t for Lina’s behavior. Tony couldn’t blame her, though. She had always had a hard time keeping her mouth shut and her moods under control. Even though she cleaned up and pulled together nicely, the woman was like a crazy kaleidoscope of blues and blacks and greens and pinks. It definitely made for some interesting adventures, though, so you wouldn’t hear him complain.

He rolled down the automatic window for a little air as he pondered on the weird place they’d just come from. Lina seemed in surprisingly high spirits after that whole ordeal with the weird lady in black. Tony wasn’t too fond of the idea that they had both just signed contracts that neither of them fully understood the meaning of. He’d tried to read it while he was there, but he was never the type who could focus on words for too long. Ironic, really, that he’d become a journalist, but that was why he had Lina. She kept him organized, kept him from walking away from opportunities and walking into messes, and edited his articles (if they could even be called that before she fixed them up).  He supposed, in this case, he would just have to trust her judgment.  There was no way she put her signature on that thing without reading it first.

The large ogre’s stomach growled angrily, and he shifted in the seat again.  They had spent entirely too much time in this vehicle today, and he was already regretting the little “adventure” he’d planned that morning.  As he stared out the open window, a light breeze blowing at the thick curly locks of his black hair, his eyes landed on a bright yellow car.  Out of the car climbed a woman whose skin was as red as a crayon, and she had this controlling air about her as she grabbed the arm of the man who had driven and led him toward the restaurant.  He stared as they walked, oblivious to the lack of manners he was displaying in doing so.  As the woman caught him gazing, a wide grin came across her painted lips and a slightly-forked black tongue licked her top lip slowly as she winked at him.  Tony grumbled to himself, looking away.  It wasn’t anything like he was disinterested in women, but he liked his girls with a little more meat and a little less, well, whore.  He kept his eyes on the dashboard until the two had entered the shop, just as Lina was exiting.

The small elf woman opened the car door and plopped herself into the driver seat with a huff.  “Well, it’s going to be a while,” she said, seeming a bit agitated.

“What’s a while?” Tony asked, noticing the uncharacteristic lack of detail in her statement.

She shrugged.  “That’s all I got.  So, you’ve got two choices.  I have some errands to run, and we can come back here after to get the food, or you can wait here while I do what I need to, and I’ll pick you up when I’m done.”

“What kind of errands?” he asked suspiciously, grayish-green skin around his eyes pinching as he narrowed them.

She gave him a side-long glance, the kind that had a tad of guilt mixed in with irritation.  “Don’t get mad,” she ordered.

“Mad?  Why would I-”

“I’m getting a dog, today.  I have to get some stuff for it, food or whatever, and I have to pick it up before five.  I won’t have time after work to get there.”

Tony laughed a little too boisterously.  “You are getting a dog?  What, like a Shih Tzu or something?”

Lina crossed her arms over her lap, having to tuck them under the steering wheel to fit them.  She always sat with her knees pressed just at the bottom of the wheel.  Funny, Tony had always thought, that the big guy spent half his time trying to keep his knees from touching anything, and the little lady wanted to be tucked in all cozy.  “No,” Lina replied more defensively than he’d expected.  “It’s a guard dog or something.  You know, big with the colors on the face?  I don’t know.  I just told them I need something big, and picked the meanest looking one I could find.  It’s all muscles and teeth.  Should do the trick.”

Tony raised a brow.  “What the hell do you need a guard dog for?”

“Have you seen how tiny I am?  I can’t defend myself in this city, and if you keep getting me into weird places meeting all these weird people, I’m never going to be able to sleep thinking th-”

“Remind me, again, which one of us jumped into a contract with a strange shadow-lady?  You’re the one who wanted to go into that store, you know.  That was not me.  Besides, do you really think you need a guard dog when you’ve got me around?”

She sighed in response and rubbed her temples.  “Tony, I live alone in an apartment complex pressed between the residence of a very large slug-person-thing and someone who I am pretty sure breathes at my door at night when I’m trying to sleep.”

“And you think the dog’s going to change all that?”

“No,” she demanded, then looked him in the eyes, “But if the guy ever decides to actually open my door one of these days, I’ll feel a hell of a lot better knowing there’s a big nasty monster protecting me.”

“Wait, aren’t you scared of dogs?”

Lina went silent.  She cleared her throat, then responded quietly after a moment, “I’m getting the dog.  Are you coming with me or not?”

Tony tried to stretch his legs, to no avail.  The car was so uncomfortable for his large size.  Barely able to shift, he settled his muscles again. “Oh, I’m coming with.  I can’t miss this.  Food can wait.”

Despite the tone of the conversation, she seemed infinitely relieved that he was coming with.  She started the car, and the two headed downtown to wherever she was to pick up the dog.  They were silent most of the trip, save for their pass through a seemingly-misplaced residential area where they (well, mostly Lina) talked about how cute the little houses were there and how unusually peaceful it seemed compared to the rest of the city.

The little screen to the right of the steering wheel beeped. ‘You have arrived at your destination.‘  Lina and Tony were both surprised to find that the address they were going to for the animal was residential.  “Odd,” Lina commented, “I didn’t know you could buy things from, um, people.”

Tony chuckled.  “Well, you don’t really know if they’re people yet, do you?  Could be some sort of dog-hybrid or something selling their puppies into slavery.  Where did you find this dog?”

“The internet.”

Tony scoffed.  “Well, hopefully it’s something weird and we can write a paper on it.  Come on,” he said, eager to get out of the car. He climbed out with no small amount of effort, immediately stretching his arms and back and legs as much as he could as his feet hit the sidewalk. They were just on the edge of the city where a small business district outlined the ‘cute’ residential zone.  The house they were to go up to seemed well-kept, as did most of the others around.  Tony took the lead in moving toward the door once Lina was out of the car and close behind him.

He knocked as gently as he could on the wooden door, knowing his own strength was not exactly friendly to some of these older buildings.  The sound of his knock was quickly drowned out by a sea of booming barks and growling from inside the house.  A loud voice broke the noise almost instantly, one or two straggler still trying to get in their last word before a stern ‘Hush‘ finally shut them up.  Lina had a death grip on Tony’s arm by this point, and the large man just stood there chuckling softly to himself.

As the door opened, he didn’t see anyone at first.  Looking down, he raised a dark brow as he saw a tiny old dwarf woman.  Her skin was very wrinkled, and she had an adorable patch of white-gray hair all tied into a loose bun on the top of her head.  She squinted through her glasses, and a gentle smile came to her face.  “Can I help you?”

Tony waited for Lina to say something, but realized quickly that he was going to have to take the lead on this one.  “Hi, yeah, we’re here for a dog.”

The woman shook her head gently and said softly, “I’m sorry, but I can’t just sell to someone off the streets.”  She grabbed a business card off of a small table next to the door and handed it to Tony.  “If you go to the website there and fill in your application, I will look it over.”

Tony took the card, and as the woman went to close the door, he put a hand against it.  For a moment, the adorable little old lady’s face drew down in an angry scowl.  “Sorry, but it’s not for me.  Lina here,” he tilted his head toward her and the lady’s eyes followed.  “She already did all that stuff.  We’re just here to pick it up.”

The woman’s features softened as she lifted her glasses on her face to look at the part of Lina’s face that was poking out from behind Tony’s elbow.  She smiled warmly, “Oh, yes, miss Ailindrel and I have spoken briefly on the-”

The barking inside resumed full-force, suddenly, and the small dwarf woman turned abruptly.  Her soft tone went impossibly harsh as she shouted into the house, “QUIET!” Again, the barking stopped almost immediately as only a few tapered off.  She turned a gentle smile back to her guests, then opened the door enough to let them in.  “They’re just excited for a new face, is all.  Come in.  You can leave your shoes on,” she said as she turned and walked toward the back of the house.  The two followed her in, straight to the back, where to their left they saw a plastic fence blocking the doorway to the living-room.  The area was filled with toys, and there were about five big Rottweilers sitting dutifully.  They all lifted their butts, then sat, then shuffled their feet excitedly as the group came to see them.

“Baron,” the lady demanded, and the biggest of the dogs lept to its feet, crouched down to shake its butt in the air, then ran over to the fence.  Lina’s grip on Tony’s arm tightened, her nails actually digging in this time.  The old lady smiled over to Lina, then looked up to Tony.  “I assume you’ll be the one taking care of him, mostly?”

“Um, no,” Tony answered, “I just work with her.  I’m not- we’re not- Well it’ll be her dog.”

The woman seemed concerned, then looked to Lina.  “Dear, are you going to be able to handle this?”

Lina let go of Tony’s arm, tightening her jaw and nodding to the woman with a sudden stark determination on her features.  “With all due respect, I can do anything I put my mind to.  It might take me some time to get used to, but this is something I-”

Baron barked excitedly at her, and Lina jumped half a foot in the air.  Her already-pale skin went white as a ghost, and Tony was pretty sure she’d stopped breathing.  The old woman’s gaze was skeptical, “I don’t usually do this, but I will give you a 30-day probation period.  If you can’t handle it, bring him back.  It doesn’t do anyone any good to have a living situation that makes them miserable, and I don’t want my babies stuck in a cage or thrown into the pound or anything like that.”

Lina nodded, seeming to regain some of her color, albeit slowly.  “Thanks,” she said in a small voice.

“Have you ever owned a dog before?” the woman asked, her kind tone having switching to a lecturing one very quickly.

Tony chimed in.  “I’ve got some experience with dogs.  I’ll help her out until she gets used to it.”

The woman turned her eyes up to him, then back to Lina.  “Well you’d better keep him around, then.  Baron’s a good boy, but he’s still only a year old.  That’s a puppy, in case you didn’t know.  Puppies are high-energy, needs lots of attention and exercise, and will be as loyal as the day is long if you treat them right.”  She shook a finger at the elf.  “If you can’t keep my baby happy, you tell me now or bring him right back when you realize it’s too much for you, or I will hunt you down and take him back myself,” she said, tapping her own nose before adding quietly, “And I have a lot of trackers and hunters at my disposal.”

Tony laughed a little, and the woman turned her scrutinizing gaze up to him.  He shrugged, “It was funny, but don’t worry.  He’ll be taken care of.  You have my word.”

Instantly, the woman’s gentle smile returned, and her eyes squinted as her cheeks went up.  She pushed her glasses up on her face again.  “Wonderful,” she said, grabbing a leash off of a hook on the wall that held a whole handful of them.  She clipped the green leash on Baron’s matching collar, and handed the end out to Lina.  Tony took it, instead, and the elf didn’t seem to have any issue with that.  As the woman opened the gate, Baron rushed out and jumped up, putting his front two paws on Tony’s chest as he stood.  Lina had been right, the dog was pure muscle, and he was taller than she was, too.  Lucky for Tony, he was built like a brick wall, and the ogre didn’t budge as the dog licked at his hands excitedly.  The large man patted the dog’s back and laughed, glancing over to Lina who seemed mortified.  She was probably envisioning what would happen the first time Baron tried to jump up on her like that.  The image made Tony laugh harder.

“Well, that’s all there is.  Now, I don’t mean to be rude, but my show starts in five minutes so…out you go,” she said, shooing them both.

“Don’t we have to pay you or something?” Tony asked, and the woman shook her head as she used her hands to hurriedly coax the two out of the house.  Lina had no problem following that order, and Tony followed after her, letting Baron fall back to his feet.  The dog stayed next to Tony, trotting happily toward the door, but at least not rushing ahead like a crazy man.  He would have knocked Lina down, and that would probably be the end of that.

“No, no, her deposit cleared.  You think I would invite strangers to my house without seeing money first?  Have you even paid attention to the news lately?”

Ironically, no, considering he was supposed to be writing the news.  “Wise decision,” he responded, instead of the comments in his head.  “Well thanks for every-”

He was cut off as the front door shut behind them.  Both Lina and Tony turned and stared at the door a moment before looking to eachother.  “Well…that went well, right?” Tony asked.

Lina glanced down at the dog, wrapping her arms around herself defensively as she bit her lip and nodded.  “Y-you guys go first,” she said.

“Afraid to turn your back on him?”

She nodded.

Tony laughed, but led the way anyway.  “I don’t know what you’re so scared of; he’s totally harmless.”

The elf seemed to get some of her attitude back, as she responded, “Well what use is a guard dog that’s totally harmless?”

Baron barked, and Tony could hear the soft gasp behind him.  “I’m sure just having him will be enough of a deterrent,” he replied, knowing he was right.  For all of his own strength, Tony had never actually gotten into a fight on the streets.  It wasn’t because people weren’t assholes or they lived in a nice place; it was because being his size and built entirely of muscle, people magically turned into nice guys and made sure not to mess with anyone while he was around.  The dog, he was sure, would have the same effect, assuming Lina could ever get over her crippling fear of him.

Tony got Baron into the backseat of the car.  The dog seemed familiar with car rides, and immediately set in the middle of the seat and watched out the front window.  Lina got in last, readjusted her rearview mirror so that she could keep an eye on what she saw as a living weapon in her backseat, then drove off.  Their drive would take them back through the residential area, then back to the restaurant to get their food.  The dog was quiet for the drive, and as they pulled up to a four-way stop about a mile from where they’d gotten him, Tony looked over to see Lina smiling again.

“Well, you look like you’ve calmed down, some,” he mused.

She glanced into the mirror.  “Yeah, well, I was just looking and he’s actually kind of cute.  He has this innocent look on his face and just…it looks like he’s smiling, doesn’t it?”

Tony grinned.  “Falling in love, huh?”

She scoffed, but her grin remained.  She accelerated through the stop sign as she continued, “Yeah, well, in the mirror he looks a lot smaller than he is.  I don’t know how I’m going to handle-”

Baron barked suddenly, causing Lina to gasp and slam her foot on the gas pedal.  Her car flew straight into another car that she hadn’t noticed was going through the stop sign at the same time as her.  She realized the impact and quickly switched pedals, breaking before she could do any more damage.  The dog’s body slammed against the back of Lina’s seat as she came to an abrupt stop, and he whined a little.  Tony was climbing out of the car before Lina even registered what had happened.  The elf woman remained in the car, breathing heavily and checking herself for injuries as Baron climbed back up into the backseat and whined softly.

Tony, on the other hand, was already checking the other car.  He could see that Lina’s car had hit the driver-side door where a woman – at least he assumed it was a woman by the flowery blue blouse – with the head of a fish was sitting with her eyes wide and mouth agape.  Her gills flapped furiously, though to Tony that seemed a bit pointless since she obviously used her lungs up here.  “Are you alright?” he asked, when he got to the woman’s side of the car.  Lina’s car was still lodged in the driver’s door.

The fish-lady made a few popping noises with her mouth, then nodded.  “I- I think so.  Oh my, oh no, I’m so sorry about this.”

Tony shook his head, “No, it was our fault.  Are you hurt?”

“I’m trapped!” she yelled suddenly, as if just at that moment realizing she couldn’t get out of her door.  “Oh, oh no, I’m trapped!  Help!”

Tony looked to Lina, who was on her phone.  She had better have been calling her insurance company or the police or something.  Her car wasn’t running anymore, though, so it was unlikely he could get her to move it herself.  He turned back to the woman, “Alright, I can get you out, but I need you to make sure you’re not hurt.  I need you to look down and check to see if anything went through the door, can you do that?”

The fish-lady nodded, then hesitantly glanced down.  Her face was mostly expressionless, with no eyelids or lips it was pretty hard to show fear or anything.  He wondered if she always looked this shocked.  The woman looked back up to him, her voice a little calmer than before, but not by much.  “I- I don’t see anything.  I think I’m okay.”

“Good.  What I need you to do is take off your seatbelt, and-”

“Oh, no, I can’t do that.  What if I get in accident?” she responded quickly.

Tony just stared for a moment, then replied, “You seem to be suffering from some confusion.  Probably a concussion or something.  You were already in an accident, remember?”

She nodded, “Yes, but it’s against the law to be in a moving vehicle without your seatbelt on.”

Was she really arguing with him about this?  “Ma’am, you’re not in a moving vehicle.  I can’t get you out if you’re strapped in.  Do you understand?”  He was trying to be as patient as possible, but his irritation was starting to show.

“Don’t you take that tone with me, young man.  When I was your age, we helped older folks with plenty of things and never once did we ask them to take off their seatbelt for it.”

“Okay, fine,” he said, then leaned his back against her driver-side door as much as he could.  He lifted his feet to Lina’s bumper, flattening his arms against the fish-lady’s car, then pushed with all of his might against both at the same time.  A creak could be heard, and the fish-lady shouted behind him, “Be careful you don’t dent the door!”  Tony rolled his eyes as his gray-green face started to turn maroon from the effort, and the cars slowly separated.  He paced his breathing, situating his feet every few seconds to get a better vantage on the shove.  Baron barked from inside the car, and Lina had at some point hung  up the phone and was gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles, turning it so the car would back up so that they were only blocking the one part of the intersection.

When the cars were finally separated enough that he couldn’t push like that anymore, Tony dropped his feet to the ground and checked on the fish-lady.  She sat staring at the little drop-down mirror in her visor, touching her lips with a lipstick and popping them loudly.  Tony moved toward her door to grab the handle, then realized it was on the ground.  He reached his hand inside the door and tried that handle, but it wouldn’t budge.  The fish-lady seemed oblivious to this as she touched up her totally pointless makeup.  Gripping the door tightly, he set his feet on the ground to steady himself as he pulled.  The door opened belaboredly, hinges still mostly in tact.  “There, you’re free now,” he said.

The fish-lady glanced over, then up to Tony.  “What a nice young man, getting the door for a lady like that.  I’m sure you make some woman very happy,” she said, unbuckling her seatbelt and climbing out of the car.  She swayed on her feet a moment, but otherwise seemed fine.  “Here,” she said, reaching into her purse and pulling out a quarter.  She handed it out to Tony.  “There is a quarter for your hard work.”

“Ma’am…we hit your car,” he said, not taking the quarter from her.  “And nobody even uses those old coins anymore, anyway.  Are you sure you’re alright?”

The fish-lady made a gurgling sound that might have been a laugh, though he really couldn’t tell.  “Oh yes, I’m fine.  You know, you remind me of my son.  He’s so much younger than you, but really is such a gentleman.  I was just on my way to go bring him some dinner at work.  I really should get back to that.”

Lina climbed out of her car finally, her entire body shaking as she tried to seem as composed as possible.  In that green suit, though, shaking like she was just made her look like a walking leaf.  “I am so sorry,” she said as she walked toward the two.

The fish-lady waved a finned-arm dismissively.  “Oh I don’t mind.  I like bringing him dinner, it makes me feel useful.”

The elf glanced to Tony for an explanation, and he just shrugged and shook his head.

“Well, I’ve already contacted my insurance company and they will pay for the damages.  There’s no need for you to file a claim with yours, if you don’t want your bill to go up, but it might not be a bad idea.  Do you have full coverage?”

The woman looked down at her blouse, then back to the elf.  “Yes, I believe I’m fully covered.  You seem to be, too.  It’s good, though, so many young girls these days walk around dressed so skimpily.  My son’s girlfriend, lovely girl, but she really does show too much skin.  It’s nice to see a young lady so interested in full coverage these days.”

“Okay,” Tony said, finally ready to be done with all of this. “Well, it was nice meeting you,” he said, grabbing Lina’s arm gently.  “Sorry about the oopsy, hope it all gets taken care of soon.  You take care now, bye bye.”

“Fishstakes happen, dear,” the woman added, waving a finned arm at the two as they hurried back to Lina’s car.  She just stood there in the road, not grabbing for a phone or anything, and then after a moment started walking in the direction she’d been coming from.

“Shouldn’t she go see a doctor or something?  Her head seems pretty messed up,” Lina commented once they were back in the car.

“Not our problem,” Tony replied, watching out the window as the woman walked away.  “Honestly, I think that’s a preexisting condition.  If she does have a concussion, it probably just made her make more sense.”

Lina turned around, seeing Baron in the backseat.  The dog was sprawled across it and looked to be sleeping, but glanced up as she looked back.  Her eyes instead went out the back window.  “You know, she could be a relative or something of that boy.”

“What boy?”

“Oh, at the fish place.  They have a kid that looks a lot like her working there.  He’s not too bright either, I don’t think.”

“Well, we’re heading back that way, right?  Your car still work?”

She shook her head.  “It won’t start.  I called Donna to give us a ride, but Dave picked up and said he’d head out here immediately.”

Tony grumbled and rolled his head back against the seat.  “Ugh.  You had to call Dave?  Maybe I’ll just walk.”

“I didn’t call Dave.  He just picked up.  Nothing I can do about it, unless you have some friend or something who can help.”

“No,” he said with a sigh.  “Just hate that guy is all.  But it’s fine.  So what’re you going to do about the car?”

“I already called the towing company.  They’ll be bringing it to the shop for me, and I’ll just have to get a rental until it’s fixed.”

Tony’s eyes lit up.  “Something bigger?”

Lina shrugged, “Whatever they give me, really. I don’t know off the top of my head what my insurance will cover.”

“I will pay the extra,” Tony replied.  “I could really use the legroom.”  He looked into the backseat at Baron, who lifted his eyes to him in return.  “Did you check on the dog?  Is he okay?”

“He’s a dog,” she snapped, “I’m sure he’s fine.”

Tony reached a long arm back to pet the large puppy, scratching along his side with his short nails.  Baron bent a little to lick his hand, then laid his head back down.  “We should get him to a vet or something.  He seems tired.”

“He’s had a long day,” she reasoned.

“It’s only been twenty minutes, Lina.  If you don’t want to take him, I will.”

“Fine,” she said, seeming to love that idea.  “What are you going to do, walk him there?”

Baron sat up at the word ‘walk’ and started whining, panting as he looked between the two.

“You want to walk there, boy?” Tony asked, and the dog licked his lips.  “You like walking?”  Baron barked, and Tony laughed.  “Yeah, I guess I am,” he replied to Lina.

Dave showed up about ten minutes later, another Elf for the ogre to tower over.  The four waited for the tow truck, which didn’t take long, and then he took them to the place where Lina was getting her rental.  Tony paid the difference on an SUV, which both he and Baron were much happier for.  Tony’s stomach grumbled the whole time.  By the time they got done with all of that and were able to go pick up their food, it was almost 6pm.  They pulled up in front of the Frying Fish, and Lina insisted Tony be the one to go in to get the food.  He had been starving all day, and it was only prolonged by the extra hours it had taken to get everything taken care of with the insurance and rental companies, as well as the amount of time Lina spent on the phone with the auto-shop discussing whatever the damages and costs would be and whatnot.  This was another reason that Tony was glad he didn’t have a car.

When he went in for the food, there was a human-looking man working the counter.  The rest of the place seemed empty.  Other than the guy’s eyes, he seemed perfectly normal.  As Tony approached the counter, the man greeted him with a less-than-friendly tone.  “Welcome to the Frying Fish.  Would you like to try our Deluxe Fish Dish for only one dollar more if you order the Gone Fishin’ combo meal?”  The man sounded like all of the life had been drained out of him.  Tony supposed this line of work could do that to a person.

“Hi, yeah, we ordered a whole lot of food a few hours back and we’re here to pick it up.”

“What was the name?”

“Uh, Lina?”

The man looked at a list for about thirty seconds, then back up to the ogre.  “Nothing for Lina, sorry.”

“Oh.  Well how about Tony?”

The man narrowed his slitted eyes.  “Well is it Lina, or is it Tony?”

His attitude was about the last straw for Tony.  While he didn’t have much of a temper and tried to always keep his cool to a degree, it had been an unbearably long day and he was about fed up with most everything.  “Exactly how many orders did you have today that were big enough to feed a guy my size plus one, huh?”

As soon as Tony’s tone switched, the man at the counter softened.  He held a nervous smile, no doubt terrified by the thought of having a man Tony’s size and stature angry with him.  “Oh, yes, Tony, just a moment.”

The man fetched the food, several large carry out bags all stuffed inside of one larger plastic back with a handle.  “There you are, sir.  Have a fishy day.”

“One more question, you have a kid who works here that looks like a fish?”

Rolling his eyes, the man shook his head.  “Had.  We had a kid who worked here like that.  Fired him today on account of his big mouth, no pun intended.”

“Oh.  Well, did he get picked up, or drive himself, or-”

“Well, he thought he could just leave work to go check on his mother in the hospital.  I guess she got in a car accident or something.  Kids these days just have no work ethics, though.  So, I fired him.  He wanted to go home so bad, now he can stay there.”

Tony scowled and leaned over the counter, his large shadow looming over the man’s head.  “You fired him for checking on his mom in the hospital?”

The man stammered, “Th-th-the kid was obviously lying, making it up so he could go home.  I d-d-d-on’t like being lied t-”

“The kid wasn’t lying you ass,” he growled, then grabbed up the food off the counter.  With his free hand, he pointed at the man, “You know, it’s people like you which are the reason this city is trash.”  He stormed out.

Tony knew exactly what his next article would be about.

Part 7 – The Plan

Shifting Priorities

An update to anyone that is actually following.  I know I haven’t posted much lately, and I do intend to change that as soon as things are back on straight again.  I have two posts in the works for the Boulder City Chronicles, and just have to finish one of them.  So for anyone waiting around for more on their story, I assure you there is more coming soon.

For the time being, my priorities have been a little shifted.  My father came to visit for a weekend, and my cat was sick for a while.  Of course, she’s a mama’s girl, so shes gotten a lot more of my love and affection than ever before (though, mostly to make up for all of the angry looks I get after giving her medicine).

I have finally started to get some feedback from people on my novel.  That, of course, is my primary focus (outside of cooking, cleaning, and seeking additional income).  It is both terrifying and exciting to know that other people are finally seeing what I have already read through so many times.  Most of the feedback I’ve gotten so far were on things I already knew needed to be fixed, which is great.  It is like getting permission to go back and fix those things, since I didn’t allow myself to fix anything else after the second draft was done lest I butcher it beyond repair.  I’ve started a list, chronologically, so that once everyone with feedback has finally finished it, I can comb through it in order with the recommendations I agree with (because, let’s face it, not everything someone points out is going to be something I want to change).

I will likely be back to the regular working world (or something like it) very soon, which both excites and troubles me.  I know where my energy levels go for creativity when I’m working, and I’m a little bit worried that all of this will fall by the wayside again.  While I know that’s entirely in my control, I would rather post nothing than nothing of quality.  That said, I will at the very least post updates, and hope that when I do have the drive to continue my work that I will also have the time to.

trend.pngWhat other updates need…um…updating?  Hm.   Ah, yes.  The poetry book.  As some of you probably saw, Last Resort was up for free a while ago.  I did post an ad in My Book for Free, and it seems to have gotten some attention.  I want to thank everyone who liked, shared, or downloaded this.  It really means a lot to me every time someone shows an interest in the work.  I hope when my novel is finally ready to release that I don’t disappoint anyone.  As a side note, I was looking at the charts for download during the period that it was free, and I just had to share this.  It trended like a kitty.

A bit more good news on the topic of my not-yet-released novel.  The title will be getting changed.  The “First Quest” title I’ve been using for now is more of a placeholder for myself.  I have been sketching out some ideas for a cover, and a friend of mine (who is also reviewing the book) works for a printing company.  So my dreams of actually getting printed (instead of just this e-book nonsense) might actually be a reality!  Of course, self-publishing, I would have to deal with marketing it on my own, but there are resources out there that will help with that.

As for the children’s books, I reconnected with an artist friend of mine.  Of course, nothing is free (which to be honest, I would rather pay him for his efforts than not), and we came to a good price that works for both of us on that.  Again, I just need to wait for the money to start existing on my end.  It amazes me how much money it costs to maybe make money in the writing world, sometimes.  I know some alternative routes with contracts, but for the moment am really hoping to go the route of self-publishing on all of my titles.  Maybe this is a mistake.  If anyone reading this has any feedback on that topic, please let me know.  I am always always always open to suggestions and learning from other people’s experiences.

Timing is everything, and my coffeepot just beeped.  Time to awaken the caffeine-addicted parts of my brain and see what they have to offer.  Look out for another post very soon, hopefully with more elves and witches and fish people.