Short Stories

Solar Storm

Disaster struck Earth at the beginning of winter. Satiates plummeted, eliminating nearly all forms of communication. The conspiracy theorists blamed aliens or a massive explosion from the sun, and the uncreative blamed Russia and China. However, the tech failures also affected everyone.

The big cities failed first. Many didn’t heed the evacuation warning. Instead, their inhabitants raided the stores. Stealing high-priced electronics, designer clothes, and other ridiculous items. They believed they would restore the power in a few weeks. There was no way the world could run without the internet or cell phones. Once the weeks passed, the looters attacked the few individuals who had snagged nonperishable foods. Eventually, word from the cities went dark. The government closed the borders, leaving them to die in the dead of winter.

I wanted to say I was shocked. But a year before, an alphabet soup agency approached me. It was the agency that didn’t broadcast its existence with a website, but they definitely had the credentials and knew all about me. The agent explained how the government was gathering instructors, high school students, and professionals who knew how to work with their hands. They needed out-of-the-box thinkers who solved problems on the go.

I laughed at the agent standing on my patio. “Sir, I teach TV production. Not sure what you want us to do if the world ends.”

He fidgeted with his suit. Wherever he was from wasn’t as hot and humid as South Florida. “Ma’am, you’re old enough to remember using technology without computers.”

“Okay, that’s rude. I am not that old.” I interrupted him.

“9th grade, your teacher showed you how to edit tape to tape.” He brought out his phone and showed me a picture of my now co-teacher, W.

“And you expect me to remember something that I learned for a week twenty years ago?” I was laughing harder. “Since you know so much about me, you probably know. I’m running off of coffee, little sleep, and can’t remember what I ate for dinner less than 10 hours ago.”

Irritation was clearly written etched into his brow. “Ma’am, you can relearn this skill. You can provide a team of bright minds ready for the challenge. Most of your students are dual-enrolled in biology, construction, ROTC, and automotive. Your students are more qualified to handle a national threat than most.”

“Fucking spooks,” I groaned. “Dude, they are high school students. Are we done with this nonsense? I have a 45-minute drive to work. I now have to do in twenty.”

He stepped out of the way. “We’ve already contacted your principal about the matter. He seemed keen to be a part of the program.”

“Cool, I hope you brought me coffee,” I said, locking the door to my house. “And what about the other teachers? To be honest, they’d be more useful than me.”

He held my car door open. “I have read them into the project. You were our last stop.”

I stood between my car and the sweaty man. ” Look, I spent years trying to work for one of your agencies, and now I’m being ‘read into’ a project. I should tell you to fuck off, but I’m too damn curious.”

“It’s in your blood, ma’am.”

“Then, can I make a request?” I asked as he was about to shut my door.

His jaw clenched. “You’re not really in the position to make them.”

“If you want to use my students for your stupid project. That I’m fairly certain is far more necessary than you’re letting on,” I smiled sweetly at him. “I want you to grab two of my previous students, Dj and Bh.”

“Is that all?” He asked, shutting my door. I nodded quickly, and he walked to his car at the end of the drive.

“What the fuck ever,” I muttered to myself, turning on the radio, only to hear what I was trying to avoid. Traffic on the turnpike, accidents on the local roads, and my commute had just hit over an hour.

Four blacked-out SUVs were parked directly up front when I pulled onto campus. So it seemed the Spook wasn’t lying. I did not know what the government thought we could offer them. We’re a strange school in the country filled with rich kids and those whose parents work their asses off to ensure none stand out. The student body liked to pretend to be country or hood, even though most of their houses cost a million dollars or more.

I signed in at the front office. Nobody joked or made a comment about being a half-hour late.

The front desk receptionist smiled and said, “Mr. W has your students. He’s waiting for you.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound ominous,” I sighed.

“Pretty sure you’re going to be super busy. He had a handcart filled with boxes and all these weird things. I think I saw a dial-up modem hanging out of a box.” She called after me.

Jesus Christ, I thought. Tape-to-tape editing and dial-up internet. What kind of nightmare did I step into? Who did I piss off to be tortured like this?

The campus was oddly quiet. Students weren’t wandering around pretending to go to the bathroom, meeting up with each other for clandestine meetings, or smoking. I saw a few adults in black power suits with earpieces talking to each other across the courtyard. It was strange; I wasn’t used to this. I wasn’t used to being at a high school again, but here I was.

I opened my co-teacher’s door, and instead of greeting all my students, the classroom was empty. I made my way into the control room. The handcart of Doom was empty, and so was the control room. Through the soundproof glass, I could see them all staring at the ancient technology. One student held up a mini DV tape, not understanding how to insert it. Then again, I had just spent the last three years pulling SD cards out because he still couldn’t figure out how to insert that correctly. These spooks were in for a rude awakening if they thought high school students would be their saving grace.

Then the sound came. A crackling followed by a few beeps and then finally a very long tone. It was a thing of nightmares. A sound I thought I would never have to hear again unless it was in somebody’s reel making fun of how old millennials were. Dial-up internet attached to a computer I didn’t even know could turn on.

“Mrs. J.” One of my students burst in from the studio. “Mr. W said these were the same computers you worked on when he had you as a student. How did you guys get any work done? The computer takes 15 minutes to turn on.”

I smiled. “Patience, something you don’t have.”

In the studio, I came face to face with five cameras. I had asked my previous IT person at the middle school I had just left to e-waste them. He had never done it, which was apparently a good thing. Then I saw a beast of a machine hooked up to an old TV.

“Do you remember this?” Mr. W asked.

“You know I don’t.” I waved him over. “Did you apply for some grant or something that was just meant to torture me while giving funding to a program? Is this payback for me being the moody teenager in high school?”

He shook his head. “No, I thought you did. The government is kind of your specialty.”

“I gave up on those guys long ago. Once I figured out what, I didn’t have the grades to be considered a legacy, and apparently, my search history was a little too risky for their taste. I thought being a bloodthirsty writer would be something that would interest them.”

Our students were playing with the technology, trying to figure out how to attach the cameras to the computers. They waited for programs to open, sitting in earnest, watching how tapes were fed to one another. I thought our little ADHD monsters would be bored, but it entranced them. However, I was fighting the urge to backhand the next one, who called me an elder millennial. They weren’t wrong. It was just disrespectful to hear it over and over again.

Before the rang, an announcement came over the loudspeaker. “Tv, biotech, medical, automotive, construction, and JROTC students. Please make your way to the auditorium. All other students, please head to your normal class.”

There was a collective groan from the students. A few cheered because they had not studied for the test they would be missing. But my co-teacher and I looked at each other. Things were going to get interesting.

The spook that blocked my door stood center stage behind the podium. Our principal stood next to him, just as thrilled as the teachers about the assembly. With no authority taking control, the students chatted among each other, only growing louder.

“Hawks,” Principal H spoke clearly into the microphone. “Please give your undivided attention to our guest, Special Agent K.”

“Like Men in Black?” I giggled to myself. I did it at the wrong time because the entire auditorium had gone silent. Agent K shook his head at me while taking his position at the microphone.

“Thank you very much for having me here, Principal H.” The principal didn’t smile or look even halfway enthused about this intrusion. “Your school was one of ten selected for a very special pilot program. We are challenging all the academy students to perform their normal academic test with limited technology.”

The entire student body was in an uproar. Shouts about what they were supposed to do without laptops or cell phones. How were they supposed to compete with everyone entering college without having the same experiences? More than once, I heard someone say that they could not function without being able to Google an answer. This was all cruel and unusual punishment.

Special Agent K tried to regain control of the student body. It took the principal stepping forward and lashing out with unveiled threats about how if they did not participate, they could not go to homecoming or any sports activities and would lose their parking spot. All the teachers laughed. This man in a suit may intimidate the adults; however, he had nothing to threaten these teenagers with. The United States government was in for a real treat.

Six months passed, and all the students had acclimated to their limited technology. We were coming up to winter break, and a few told me how much they enjoyed not being pressured to study for the certification exams. I lost count of how many of them enjoyed the challenge of learning how to create transitions with their film.

“Mrs. J,” a tiny goth girl approached me. “This entire experiment is ridiculous. I don’t know what to do without a computer. I can’t figure out how to make things look good. Everything I do is absolute garbage.”

“Well, Mb, your projects aren’t garbage. You might not be the best editor. You have been able to pick up cameras and work just the same as you always have. And something else that you haven’t thought about is how well you have taken control. You’ve been able to delegate tasks and solve problems that your other classmates cannot. Just because you don’t have a laptop in your face doesn’t mean you aren’t excelling. I think that was the point of the experiment.”

She rolled her eyes at the praise. “Why do they care if we can operate without technology? It’s not like it’s going anywhere. They’ll probably just start embedding chips into our heads, and we won’t even have a piece of technology in front of us. It’ll be inside of us.”

“I’d rather not think about becoming a cyborg, but thank you for the post-apocalyptic depression trip. Are you done taking up my oxygen, or do you need help with something?”

“No, I’m good.” Mb smiled. “I feel better when I bitch. I mean, complain to you.”

“Well, I’m always here to be a soundboard if you need me.” I looked at the clock, and the bell was about to ring. ” All right, monsters, pack up your things. It is time for you all to go to your next class and torture another adult.”

Students picked up their backpacks, dropping pens and pencils in their zipper pouches. Others unlocked the cell phone jail, pulled out their phones, and checked to see who sent the messages while they were busy in class being sequestered from technology. But more and more, my students would forget that their phones were in jail and eventually have to come back to my class and pick them back up before they left for the day.

When we left for Christmas break, everybody had expected to return. But just like COVID, the world came to a stop. Sudden bursts of energy could be seen across the sky on Christmas Day. “The end is here,” the occultists screamed in the streets. “The end is here! Repent, and your soul will be saved.” Teslas weren’t driving. In fact, any car that was made after the 1980s was dead on the road. Planes fell from the skies, and trains simply stopped. Telephone lines were jammed. Cell service was nonexistent, leaving only those with landlines with corded phones to communicate. They dropped news newspapers off in front of every home two days after the event. That was the only way that information was being spread. I’m not entirely sure how they got the information; probably radios and other forms of “ancient technology.”

Then, right before New Year’s Eve, Agent K showed up at my door.

“It’s time to get to work, Mrs. J.” He didn’t wait for me before he headed back to a heavily armored truck that looked straight out of World War II, only with modern upgrades.

I rolled my eyes. “You asshat,” I shouted. “You knew this was coming. What the fuck is wrong with all of you up in Washington?”

“That is why we had contingency plans, ma’am.” He said, holding the door open for me.

I climbed into the back of the truck and was met with the grumpiest group of high school students. The only thing positive about this whole event was it happened in December, and while it may not have been the coldest month for Florida, it sure as hell wasn’t the hottest.

“Mrs. J,” whined a female student with auburn hair. “Is this why they made us do all the stupid work?”

I shook my head. I hadn’t had coffee yet, and I didn’t have an answer for her or the other twenty-something teens searching for answers. I scanned the crowd, looking for my co-teacher. But he was nowhere to be found. The windows were blacked out. Students complained it wasn’t necessary or fair for them not to know where we were going. A few mutter things about how the government didn’t have the right to force them to do anything.

“The government can do what it wants.” snapped Cs, a blonde male whose twin sat next to him.

Ms, the class clam of the two, had his face plastered against the window. “Just like they made the satellites fall from the sky, and they control the weather.”

After what felt like an eternity, we pulled up to a gate. I only knew this because we stopped, and I could hear it being moved over the rumbling of the diesel engine. Everyone got quiet as we crossed over the track, and the gate closed.

“Are they going to kill us?” asked a nervous brunette.

“No, Pt, I don’t think they would have wasted all that time training you just to murder us.” I shrugged. “Then again, this is the government, so who knows?”

The Auburn student sitting next to Pt squealed. “That’s not funny!”

“You’re right, but we know nothing, so let’s not waste our time trying to think what if.” The truck rolled to a stop, and heavy boots were marching up to the back of the truck. “Ag, I think you’re about to get our answer.”

The doors opened, and I knew exactly where I was. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

The government had transported me and my students to the news station I left for teaching. Standing in front of the glass door were my former boss C and my co-teacher, W. They had worked together during their news career before W took a different direction.

“Not happening,” I muttered, sitting back down.

“If she’s not going, I’m not going,” Ag said, folding her arms across her chest and joining me. Pt nodded and returned to her seat as well.

Agent K walked up to C and W and shook hands. All three men must have been on it from the beginning. I shouldn’t be mad. I knew the station still had ancient tech. They never removed any equipment; many employees still knew how to work with it. I wasn’t one of them, but I guess I was good at wrangling cats.

“Nope, let’s go, ladies. They have coffee here.” I jumped out of the truck and right passed the three conspirators.

I said hi to a few of my former co-workers and ignored those I didn’t know. I walked by my old desk, stole back my blanket, and robbed CD of her coffee cup. If she wasn’t here yet, I knew she would be soon after I poured a cup of dark, caffeine-fueled goodness. I re-entered the newsroom, waiting for the station meeting. JB was still in charge, and I saw him sitting in his office, giving himself the pep talk.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming in to help during this unprecedented time,” he said once all the staff and students gathered.

“We didn’t have a choice,” called out Ms.

I did my best not to snicker, but these people highly underestimated the teens.

“All of you have been trained on the technology to survive the sun blast. While some of you have been working in this field for years, others of you are very green. We will pair up students and professionals together. Those who show they can handle the responsibility will be in the field while the rest of you will work in-house. All jobs are important. They have assigned our station to broadcast the news covering the entire southeast. That means from Key West until wherever singles reach. I believe the last test reached North Carolina, though the single was weak.”

“It was twenty minutes down the road. How is this possible?” I asked WW, a director friend I used to work with.

“I don’t know, but sat trucks are still feeding things in.” He pointed to the least favorite thing I trained him on. “Guess what you get to do?”

“You suck.” I groaned.

Ag and Pt stood next to me. They were equally unamused as I was about the situation we were in. However, I knew these girls would work their asses off with whatever task I handed them. Even though they were responsible enough to go out in the field, I wanted them where I could watch them. I had read about those who were attacking reporters and military officials. I knew the girls’ moms; they scared me more than any spook.

“Mrs. J, nice to see you back,” was the sly remark from C, my former boss. “You ready to pick up that morning shift again?”

“I pick my team, and you guys leave me alone. You know I’m fine.” I smiled at him.

He nodded. “I figured. That’s why I asked for you students specifically.”

“Who is going to watch this? None of the TVs are working?” I asked with genuine curiosity.

“Remember rabbit ears and those brown box TVs?” He asked. “The government has been stockpiling them since the scientists predicted the sun bursts were coming sooner rather than later.”

“You know, you could have called. Give me a heads-up. I could have brought my shit because, let me guess, we’re working hurricane hours, aren’t we?” He just nodded. “So, high school students? You think this was the best option?”

“Why not? College kids are too arrogant, and you know the field is short-staffed. Besides, W has a reputation for what students come out of his program.” C looked over at JB talking with W and was waved over. “Good luck, J. You better wrangle your kids.”

“I hate you,” I hissed under my breath before putting on my happy face.

It took about twenty minutes for me to pick which students would work under me. Most were strong editors, a few were decent at directing, and we could train the rest on how to use a camera. But the thing that I knew all of them could do well was work under pressure. They didn’t break when things went wrong. They may whine, bitch, and moan, but they would complete the task. It wasn’t easy to convince them they needed to go to bed before ten pm so they would be rested for the 2:30 am wake-up call. Even though it was a battle, I knew this group would be the best to work at such ungodly hours.

An old bell alarm rang at 2:15. Even I, the queen of staying asleep after setting fifteen alarms, could sleep through that noise. My team shuffled past the night crew, replacing the first set of zombies. None of the high schoolers looked ready to function.

“Mrs. J,” Ag and Pt whined when I saw them. “There’s no Celsius. They only have coffee.”

“There hasn’t been Celsius for months. Did your moms stockpile it before the burst?” I asked, pouring my cup of go-go juice. They both poured their own cup and dumped an obscene amount of sugar and cream into their coffees. “You realize that’s more of a dessert than coffee, right?”

“So what’s the plan?” Ag asked.

“You’re partnering up with a photographer and reporter, and you’ll be editing or shooting.” I smiled as her mouth dropped open. “And Pt will be in the control room learning how to old school direct.”

“No,” Ag groaned. “That’s not fair.”

Pt laughed. “You have to edit.”

“I shouldn’t have to edit. I edited all your projects for three years.” Ag tried to smack Pt’s cup from her hands. “You should have to edit everything.”

“Is this for a grade?” Pt asked as we left the cafe.

Ag rolled her eyes at Pt. “There aren’t grades anymore. School is over. The world has changed. Forget about grades. We aren’t going to college.”

“First, there are going to be grades.” Ag’s mouth dropped open. “Second, there have been colleges for centuries. Just because the world has shifted doesn’t mean things won’t return to a new normal.”

Both of the girls sighed.

C came in, his hair disheveled, looking like he detested his high school employees. “Look, whoever creates the best news package or directs the best show will earn a prize.”

The girls stopped. He piqued their interest.

“What’s the prize?” Ag asked.

“There is a rumor that electrical rations will go to theme parks.” He told them.

“That’s stupid,” Pt said.

Ag hit her arm. “Shut up. He’s talking about Disney, the happiest place on earth.”

“Disney didn’t win the bid, but Universal did,” C corrected them.

“Whatever, I’m still winning this,” Ag announced to the room.

Three weeks went by. I wish I could say things were interesting, but they weren’t. I swore I would never return vampire hours or work in the news again. But then again, no one ever thought we’d be going through another world-altering catastrophic event again.

The world was the same when it came down to the nuts and bolts of things. People were still robbing each other. They exploited the naïve, and the news cycle kept spinning.. We never had a chance to really breathe. There were press conferences held in our spare newsrooms. Politicians came by at all hours to address the ongoing situation.

At first, the students were star-struck at who walked through our doors. But that quickly faded as life at 3 am became routine. They truly fell into line. I couldn’t imagine that less than a year ago, I would have had to fight tooth and nail for some of these kids to complete a simple editing challenge, but now with little handle holding, they were in lockstep and key with seasoned professionals. It was by far the easiest transition, be it the sassiest and sometimes the whiniest transition I had ever experienced.

I wondered how students from the other academies were fairing. Had their instructors prepared them for a world with “ancient tech?” I had suggested that maybe we should do some fluff pieces on them. But Agent K turned down the idea. No one at the station liked the government having the final say in our news stories. However, they kept the power on. Without them, we’d be like the others in the outside world, where people were getting shot over farmland. It was the wild wild west, and we at least got to pretend it was the 1980s, just with more equality in the control room.

“Mrs. J!” Ag came bounding into the newsroom far too perky at 3 am. “Who won?”

“Who won what?” I asked, trying not to shout at a truck that refused to come into focus.

“The competition! Who’s going to ride roller coasters?!” Pt squealed.

“Oh, my god? Really. I’m trying to do actual work, and you two are making my coffee cold.” Ag stole my cup and came running back with fresh warm happiness. “Thanks, but it’s not up to me. It’s up to C.”

“We were just in his office. He wasn’t there.” Pt flopped down in the chair next to me.

“We’ve been playing the ‘Where’s C Game’ for years. He just vanishes and shows up when you least expect it.” WW told them as he walked out of the control room. “Whoever finds him first will probably be the winner.”

The girls immediately left the newsroom in search of C.

That meant I had about fifteen minutes of peace before there would be shouts from ten students complaining about the results. I finally got the shot from the twins’ truck online, and the moment they were live, I heard my favorite photographer chastity them about how they couldn’t tie each other up with mic cables.

I sighed. I guess some things never changed.

After the morning show, my team gathered in C’s office, waiting for him to announce who had earned a family group passes to Universal. He tried to do his typical ghost routine; however, Ag and Pt had blocked the two exits he liked to use.

C fidgeted with the passes in his hand. “I would like to say you all have done an amazing job. If things were different, I’m not sure I would have thought about having a group of 16 and 17 years running my morning show. However, this has been one of the hardest working group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. That is why this decision is so hard.”

The girls crept closer to him. Looking like lions ready to kill their prey. C didn’t falter. He had a survived his only child, a girl who graduated from college a few years prior, and her mother. The man was used to being outnumbered by women.

“I have decided the student has taken the most initiative in learning how to operate not only all the cameras in the studio, out in the field and edit, all while driving everyone around her slightly insane, is Ms. Ag.” C handed her the passes while Pt’s mouth hung open. “She has even crossed over into learning more about producing and directing. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does when she puts more energy into her work with this whining.” He winked at her.

Ag jumped around, waving the passes in Pt’s face. “You better watch out, C. I’m going to take your job.”

Short Stories

Rockview: The Seaside Escape

The early evening sun was beating down on the weathered dock, warming my slightly tanned legs. It was only two weeks into summer, and I hadn’t put on more than a swimsuit and cover-up—Chripchrip. The little cricket alarm on my phone sprung to life, informing me it was time to roll over. I silenced it and did as requested, rolling over and soaking up the last of the evening rays. I didn’t want to have a bronze stomach paired with a ghostly booty.

“I see the bad moon a-rising. I see trouble on the way,” the song rang out on my phone. “Hello?”

“You done cooking?” Jackson asked on the other end.

“Oh, come on? Am I that predictable?”

“Sittin’ on the dock of the bay,” he sang, “watchin’ the tide roll away.”

“Okay, Otis Redding, you’ve made your point.” I sighed as clouds covered the sun, leaving me only with a cool breeze coming off the water. “You should stick to drumming. You were off-pitch.”

“You know, I think singing is in my future.” Jackson laughed as he started to hum another classic rock song.

“Are we getting dinner still?” My stomach growled. I unintentionally skipped every meal basking in the sun, enjoying my vacation.

“Just waiting on you.”

“Cassie, you know I’m not leaving until you’ve showered, blow-dried your hair, did your makeup, picked out what you want to wear, and changed three times. And before you say anything, ” Jackson chuckled, his keys rattling, letting me know that he was already on his way to the truck. “Yes, my dear, you’re that predictable. Yes, I’ve made reservations. And yes, I’ll be there in 45 minutes. So get moving.”

I laid there for about five more minutes before picking up my book and heading towards the house, walking the worn-out grass path that led away from the dock to my front porch. The roof was about ten years old, but it was still holding. Secretly, I hoped a hurricane would do enough damage so the insurance would pay for it, but knowing my luck, that wouldn’t happen until after I replaced it. The windows probably leaked more ac than it kept in but survived more storms than any new builds down the road. Since they hadn’t broken yet, I figured we were safe. Especially since I knew we’d never ride out a storm this close to the ocean. The pillars that lined my porch’s facade were begging to be repainted and were next on my list of realistic things to do right after I addressed the squeaky screen door.

The house was old, two hundred fifty years old, built by my great grandparents when they left the cape seeking warmer waters. It passed onto my grandfather, who added an attached garage When automobiles came into fashion, and then went to my dad, who used it as a vacation house. Dad said he wanted it to be filled with grandbabies, laughs, and happy memories, not just as a hidden sanctuary from the world. Instead of waiting to die as his fathers had before him, he gifted me the house for my 30th birthday this past spring.

However, an old house does not mean old plumbing. Jackson and I updated everything we could afford during winter break, which meant a tankless water heater and a massive shower head. Jackson thought I was ridiculous for wanting something that both of us could fit under at the same time. I just wanted to feel like I was drowning in Hell’s waterfall when I washed away the day’s stink.

I didn’t pick the showerhead for us to share. I loved the idea of being wholly encapsulated in a water column that blocked out the outside world. Besides, the cascading waterfall was the only thing that could penetrate my thick curls. The saltwater always wound them too tight, and most dainty showers might as well have been throwing water at me with a Dixie cup.

As I was humming Bad Moon Rising, I heard something downstairs.

Not again, I thought. Last time some creeper came to the door uninvited Jackson… I didn’t want to think about it. Unattended, the shampoo was running into my eyes, wiping it from my face. I listened again, but all I heard was the constant cascade of running water.

“Fuckers,” I muttered to myself as I washed out the last bit of shampoo. “You don’t have to break my front door.”

I groaned and pulled my towels from the rack. I couldn’t find my tablet, which I usually kept close. With my hair wrapped up in one of the towels and using the other to dry myself, I glanced over at the alarm clock on our nightstand. Jackson was still 10 minutes out. Though always punctual, Jackson was never early. I peeked out my bathroom window, but I didn’t see his black GMC Sierra at the end of the drive. I grabbed my phone off the counter, annoyed that I never downloaded the security camera apps.

“Hey babe, where are you?” I asked when he finally picked up the phone.

“I’m about 10 minutes out. What’s wrong?”

“Can you get here any quicker?” I asked, silently thanking God for the massive mahogany door. Any lesser wood might’ve splintered by now. Immediately I heard his truck pulling off the road and onto the gravel. I looked out the window one more time to be sure. “Somebody’s banging at the door, and all I can see is what looks like an unmarked cop car.”

Jackson sighed, “Did you check the cameras?”

“No, I didn’t check the cameras. I was in the shower and —

“And you left the tablet downstairs?” He sighed. “I told you to download the stupid app.”

“No, it’s in my nightstand,” I corrected him as the security camera notifications rang out behind me. “I would have called you first anyway.”

“Cassie, first you check the cameras, then you call me,” he said, “I’ll cut through the Johnson’s pasture and be there in less than 5.”

Almost in perfect sync with each other, the banging stopped just as Jackson hung up. Whoever was at my door should have left if they were smart.

Annoyed, I marched across the room to fish out my tablet, which was shoved deep inside the nightstand drawer. Twenty-six notifications from the security app awaited me. Of the sixteen cameras arranged around the property, three of them were fixed on the porch. I enlarged the view from the doorbell camera. There were two men at the door, and they looked uncomfortable as hell with their dark blazers and dress shirts buttoned up to their necks.

Jackson was already on the way, and it didn’t look like these two were set on breaking in, so I decided to finish getting ready. With my tablet in hand, I made my way to the bathroom to blow-dry my hair. I didn’t have long. Jackson could drive across water if he thought I was in trouble.

I gave up after a few more passes of the round brush and the dryer on high heat. There was no chance I was beating the Florida heat. It was sweltering outside, and between my damp hair and the humidity, even wearing just a towel felt heavy. I thought for a moment about how I could pull off a swimsuit cover-up as a dress but remembered the last time I did, that I ended up throwing it away. Red wine stains are the devil. Before I could decide on an outfit, I heard the roar of Jackson’s V-8 pulling up to the house.

I checked the clock and laughed. “Three minutes. Good timing, my love.”

I yanked a soft pink Maxi dress off the hanger and matched it with a pair of golden Roman strappy sandals. As Jackson neared the house, he slowed, letting the truck amble toward the two men so they could sweat a little more before they could ask whatever dumb questions they came to ask.

I could see the fire in Jackson’s eyes before he ever slammed the truck door. Men in suits always set him off, and these two were no exception. He never understood why they willingly wore nooses around their necks, though it would be easier for him to hang them from the rafters after he bled them out.

“Can I help you, gentlemen?” Jackson asked, winking at the camera.

The tall one, with a shiny spot on top of his head, fumbled as he tried pulling out his badge. “We’re looking for the owners of the house.”

Jackson read the badge from the edge of his sightline, never breaking eye contact with the sweating agent. “I’m the owner’s husband. What can I do for you?”

“We were under the assumption that a Derek Morris owns it.”

“Don’t know who’s updating your records at Quantico boys, but I got the credit card debt to prove this is our house.” Jackson scratched his lower back, just above the bulge where he kept his Glock holstered on his waist. “Now, if you don’t mind telling me why you’re standing on my front porch giving my wife a show on the security cameras when I know she’s supposed to be getting ready for dinner.”

Damn it.

I closed the app and headed back into the bathroom. The humidity lingered, making my dress stick. I wiped away the fog from the mirror, watching the last of my metallic scales recede into my hairline.

“Finally,” I whispered. With my scales gone, I saw how my skin glowed from today’s sunbathing adventures. I decided to skip makeup and let my sun-kissed face be free. Grabbing my saltwater pearl earrings from the countertop, I headed downstairs just in time to see Jackson come through the door.

“You missed all the fun,” he teased, locking the deadbolt.

“Who were they?”

“If they’re legit,” Jackson said, watching the black sedan drive away. “Feds. I have a feeling their department is classified.”

“Thank you for saving me,” I said, wrapping my arms around his neck. “Again.”

He kissed the tip of my nose. Instinctively he wiped his mouth, expecting my makeup on his lips. “You sure you’re ready?”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “Don’t I look ready?”

“Cassie, there were feds outside, and you’re just going to go out there naked?”

“I’m not naked,” I told him, avoiding eye contact. I looked for my purse, but it wasn’t hanging on its hook. I turned around to see if I had left it on the kitchen table. “It’s fine. If I need anything, I have stuff in my purse.”

Jackson sighed. “I wonder about you sometimes.”

“Only sometimes?” I asked as my stomach growled extra loud as if it was threatening him.

“Yeah, sometimes I wonder, and other times I just know.” Jackson laughed as he picked up the towel I had used earlier, revealing my purse underneath. “Cassie, are you okay?” he asked, handing it to me.

“I think so…I don’t know. I feel like my head’s stuck in the clouds more than usual lately. I’ll get better, though.” I smiled up at him. “I promise to be perfectly normal once you feed me.”

“I won’t hold my breath,” Jackson chuckled, nearly falling over as he held the door open for me. “I know who I married.”

Giggling, I walked out onto the porch and toward the truck. “If I weren’t starving, I’d take offense to that.”

We drove along the coast, passing a few farms with fields of cattle resting in the evening sun. The pastures were what I loved most about our town. Because there were acres of land in-between each home, neighbors didn’t bug each other unless they genuinely needed help.

“Did you find out what they wanted before you scared them off?” I asked as I watched the setting sun glisten over the bay.

“They were asking questions about your great-granddaddy. Not entirely sure what the feds would want with a dead man.” Jackson turned left at a four-way stop heading towards the small downtown.

An intricately woven cast-iron archway stretched over the street announcing the town’s name: Rockview. Just to the left was Dolphin Cove Marina, the original landing site of the town’s settlers. Legend had it that a pod of dolphins guided their ships through a storm and safely into the bay, narrowly missing all the rocks hidden by the monstrous, hurricane spun waves.

“You still in the mood for surf and turf?” Jackson asked as we waited for a few overly sun-kissed people–obviously, tourists since the locals stayed tan year-round–to cross the street before we continued down the road.

“Surf and Turf? No, I’ve been craving Franks all week!” I squealed. “I can not wait to sink my teeth into an order of ribs.” I always slathered them with extra BBQ sauce, but tonight, I wanted to drink it from the bottle.

“You going to need a napkin over there?” Jackson asked.

Tourists were everywhere, and I loved it. They brought life– and money– to our sleepy seaside escape. Without the snowbirds, I doubt the town’s quaint architecture of this town would have survived the army of contractors set on turning our brick and limestone buildings into soulless clumps of glass and plaster. Small clothing boutiques and tourist shops that sold cutesy, beachy trinkets were closing up for the evening as restaurants began adding extra tables and chairs onto the sidewalks. Even the food trucks were out tonight hoping to steal away some of the guests who were unwilling to wait for the next available table.

“You might want to call them and let them know we’re going to be late,” Jackson told me, adjusting the rear-view mirror.

“Looks like those feds weren’t done asking questions.” I smiled at him. “At least I’m all dried up.”

“It’s Florida,” he reminded me. “You know what humidity can do to you.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do? Walk around with a fan on my face? Or should we move back north and dry out like the rest of my people?” The hunger was wearing on my nerves. “I can’t help what I am.”

“That’s why you have that make-up. To hide the fact that you’re a fish,” he teased.

I clenched my jaw. “I’m not a fish. I breathe air, thank you very much!”

“Okay, dolphin.”

“Do you want me to eat you?” I asked sharply. “Don’t take any detours. If they want to poke around for information, they can do it while I’m sipping on wine.”

Jackson snickered. “Whatever you say, princess.” I leaned over the center console and punched him in the arm. “Was that supposed to hurt you or me?”

I didn’t answer him. I kept quiet until we pulled into Frank’s parking lot. It was the only restaurant in town with valet parking, and Jackson refused to use it. He drove us around to the back, where the employees parked, and opened the door for me.

“Heaven,” I said, inhaling the sweet and spicy scent of BBQ ribs and brisket wafting from the smokers.

“If there’s a heaven, it probably smells like this.” Jackson peeked inside his uncle’s smoker. Jackson picked up the baster brush and took a swipe with his finger. After a second tasting, I grabbed it from him. “He needs to add more cayenne pepper.”

“He needs to do no such thing,” I said as I licked the brush. “Your uncle creates magic. Don’t you dare go changing anything,” I stuck the brush in my mouth like a tootsie roll pop and sucked the rest of the sauce off of it. Jackson stared at me appalled but slightly turned on and leaned in to lick the sloppy splotches of BBQ from my face and lips.

Before things could get scaly, we entered the busy kitchen, and as usual, not a single person noticed us. The intoxicating aroma of wine, garlic, and boiling onions danced alongside the savory smells of andouille sausage, corn, potatoes, and of course, Old Bay Seasoning.

“If it’s not my favorite little mermaid!” Uncle Frank’s booming voice erupted from the front of the kitchen. “You’re just in time.”

“In time for what?” I asked, trying to avoid getting caught in one of his sweaty bear hugs. I failed. Instead, his monstrous arms wrapped around my thin frame nearly twice.

“I was just about to drop the crabs in the pot. You wanna help?” Uncle Frank asked, releasing me with a kiss on the cheek.

Jackson lingered behind as we walked over to the live crabs. “Hi, Uncle Frank, it’s just me, your own flesh and blood. Your godson and the reason why you even know Cassie.”

Uncle Frank lifted his eyebrows, shoving his hands into the tank. “What’s got him all twisted?”

“Some feds showed up at the house asking questions, and he let them leave alive.” I leaned down to watch a few unbanded crabs take swipes at Uncle Frank.

“That would leave me all sorts of grumpy, especially since they were coming after you.” Uncle Frank chuckled, emerging from the tank with his chest half wet.

I looked at the ground, avoiding eye contact with him. “They might be in your dining room right now.” “What the hell?”

He groaned. “Cassie, why did you bring that rabble into my restaurant? I have to look respectable for the snowbirds.”

“I think as long as your food continues tasting like it does, you could walk around naked, and most wouldn’t mind.” That earned me a deep belly laugh.

“I’d mind.” Jackson sighed. “And I can see them. Sarah sat them at the bad table. That wolf is one smart kid.”

“That’s why I keep her around,” Uncle Frank bragged. “She needs to work on her people skills, but I don’t have to worry about security when she’s here.”

I dropped two crabs into the boiling water. I always felt conflicted about the idea of keeping creatures in captivity. I had no problem hunting for my food. It felt less like murder when whatever I was after had the chance to run away. I felt a little bit better knowing that most people believe that crabs cry when they get dropped in boiling water. It’s not so much they’re sobbing as it’s them cursing me a thousand different painful deaths. Maybe they shouldn’t be so damn tasty.

Elijah, a veteran server, came in and grabbed fresh bread from a basket. As he was about to leave, he made eye contact with me and pointed to his hairline. Shit, my scales! Playing with a boiling pot of water wasn’t such a great idea.

“Um, babe,” I ran over to Jackson, who was watching the two FBI agents through the small round window in the kitchen door. “We have a problem.”

“Yeah, I know, those guys aren’t the feds.” Jackson turned and saw how bad it was. “Holy shit Cassie. Your face. This is why —”

“I know, I know. I fucked up.” I can’t believe I thought I could get away with no makeup.

It was the main thing that kept me from, well, looking like a fish girl who forgot to grow gills. I wanted to scratch my hairline. It was painful to have the scales hidden under my skin for so long. Stupid curiosity was getting the better of me. I wasn’t a cat. I didn’t have nine lives. What the hell was I thinking going out in public without protection?

Jackson pulled me close to his chest, keeping his breathing level. “We’ll figure this out, my love.”

I’m not sure what was going on with me. I had never been triggered by steam before. Usually, it took a full-on shower for even the smallest of my scales to make an appearance. I had never lost control over my body to the point where I murried out in public.

Holding my arms tight against my body, I shivered from the pain of the finlets as they sliced through my dry forearms. “I swear if you stab me with those spikes, you’re going to be angry with yourself for ruining my shirt.”

He was right. I would be mad if I ruined his shirt, again, for the third time this month. Blood wasn’t the problem. I knew how to get blood out of clothes. What I didn’t know was how to sew.

Uncle Frank took one look out the swing door and quickly shuffled us away. “My dear, let’s get you into my office. Easier to clean up any spilled blood.”

“You’re a shitty liar,” I told him with a fake smile. “The feds have vanished, and my guys can’t track them.”

Uncle Frank said flatly, “And I have a restaurant full of paying humans that I’d like to keep happy. So dry up in here before we have more to worry about.”

“You act more like him than you do your dad,” I told Jackson as soon as I knew Uncle Frank was out of earshot.

Jackson shook his head. “You’re just lucky he loves you because anyone else would have been out on their ass.”

“Do you honestly think they were Feds?” I asked as my body started to get control over itself.

“You know the government loves to employ are kind,” Jackson reminded me. “Love, I saw scales on when he whipped the sweat away. There’s a possibility he’s Muir.”

“Fuck,” I whispered. “It’s been over 250 years. They can’t possibly still be holding a grudge.”

“You hold grudges if I don’t take out the trash on time.” He reminded me. “There are countless amounts of Muir that blame your granddaddy for abandoning them in the new world.”

I looked up at the ceiling, trying to fight back the tears. We weren’t immortal, but for centuries we were indestructible, taking to the sea when our bodies needed to heal. But our healing source has become contaminated. It wasn’t something that happened quickly or even done on purpose. It was a by-product of the carousel of progress, as humans and Muir like created new and marvelous things that no one can live without, came new ways to poison us. We didn’t realize what was going on until it was too late.

Jackson folded me in his arms. “Want me to call your dad?”

“No,” I said. “Let’s have dinner first and then call him.”

“Fine, but you can’t stab me at the dinner table,” Jackson said, rubbing his hands on my now recovered arms. “You know how Frank is about getting blood on the furniture.”

We left the office and made our way to Sarah, the hostess. She smiled a toothy smile before leading us to our usual spot on the deck. It was close enough to the water for me to feel the breeze and not to have to worry about the moisture triggering anything.

“Chris will be out in a moment,” she said, dropping off the menus and returning to her stand.

“Why is Chris working tonight?” I asked, opening the menu. I never actually ordered anything from the menu. Uncle Frank usually knew exactly what I wanted and had the cooks making it before the waiter took our drink order. But after the whole Muirring out in the middle of his kitchen, he might have forgotten.

Jackson flipped open the drink menu, scanning the long list of beers. I knew he was searching to see if they finally added red ales to the list. “He’s covering all of Janice’s shifts. Frank said that Janice just stopped showing up, so they sent a few people to check on her. Her place was cleaned out.”

“Hm,” I said more to the menu than to Jackson. “I wonder if she started getting a body count.”

“Well, an Erinyes can only be good for so long.” Jackson folded the menu and looked around. Our server still hadn’t appeared and thankfully, neither had the feds.

“I told her working here would be hard, too many choices to snack on. A bar is the perfect place to find someone breaking their wedding vows.” I looked around at the other couples, wondering who was breaking their marriage vows. “Where’s is Chris?”

We watched as Jessica and Rachel walked by our table. Each of them smiled at us and kept ongoing. I didn’t blame them. Everyone was in the weeds tonight, which is probably why the new guy was so late.

Our usual server, Steve, nearly passed us but stopped. “Why don’t you guys have drinks yet?”

“Because Sarah sat us in Chris’ section.” I sighed.

“Why the fuck would she sit you with Chris? I got to talk to that girl,” Steve shook his head. “She just triple sat him. I think she’s punishing him for gambling way their rent again.”

Steve left the table without taking our order.

“Bring us a bottle of red!” I shouted at him.

Steve stuck his hand in the air to acknowledge me.

“Well, at least it wasn’t the middle finger this time.” I smiled at Jackson.

On the floating dock, a guitarist strummed a relaxing melody. I listened, trying to wash away my mounting fear. I watched couples sway back and forth on the dock bar sipping on drinks, not having a care in the world. I was jealous. I wanted to live in their world where monsters didn’t exist.

“So, Muir feds?” I rolled my eyes. “That’s new.”

“If they are actual feds, we’re fucked. I don’t know where else we can go that’s more off the grid than a town with two stoplights.” Jackson grabbed my hand and kissed it. “Wanna buy a boat and sail away.”

“As much as I loved the idea of disappearing from the whole world. Dad would kill us if we did that.” I laid my head on the table. “Where’s our wine?”

Jackson started to stand up but quickly changed his mind. “Don’t turn around.”

Of course, I turned around.

The tall, not bald federal agent was now impersonating Chris. His shirt was two sizes too small, Chris’s name tag was half hanging on, and the buttons were buttoned unevenly. The man was trying to carry my bottle of wine, but it was obvious he had no serving experience as it nearly fell off the tray twice. Even if I’d never seen Chris before, I knew, even at this distance, this man wasn’t human. Hell, I knew he wasn’t Muir. I don’t know how Jackson overlooked the bulging eyes and wide-set nose. All telltale signs of Salamander folk.

“Ugh,” I made a cat face to hold back the bile, trying to escape from my stomach. “Why do they always smell like the receding tide?”

Jackson laughed at me, but it seemed as though he was unaware of the approaching smell of sulfur and rotten eggs. The closer he got, the more overwhelming the smell became.

“They smell. How do you not smell it?” I asked in a hushed voice.

“You Undine are so weird?” Jackson shrugged.

I stopped as the bottle of wine came into my peripheral. “Where’s Chris?” I hissed as he uncorked the bottle.

“He’s unhurt. My partner gave him a sleeping draft and stashed him in the utility closet. It’ll wear off in less than an hour,” the waiter said. “I know, it was drastic, but we need to talk.”

“About what?” Jackson demanded loud enough to earn the glances of the couple at the table next to us. Their eyes flashed yellow, exposing that they weren’t human, making me worry less about the disruption.

I just hoped Uncle Frank wasn’t going to catch wind of all this.

“My partner and I should have handled this in private but, here we are,” he said, pouring Jackson a glass of wine. “I promise I didn’t poison it.”

Jackson locked eyes with the Salamander. “If you had, it would have been the last thing you did.”

“Sir, killing you would make our journey mute.” The Salamander looked around. “There are factions in the north talking about a Muir and Undine couple. They are saying the offspring’s blood will-.”

“You’re barking up the wrong tree, buddy.” I laughed so hard that I brought more attention to us from all the tables nearby. But the Salamander’s emotions never wavered. “I’m not pregnant.”

“At first, we thought they were speaking of your mother. Since she produced a hire so early in life, but now,” the man leaned in close, smelling me.

Jackson nearly flipped the table, getting out of his chair. Pulling the Salamander away from me, he growled. “Do you have a death wish?”

The Salamander threw hands up in the air, “I had to be sure,” he stammered. “But ma’am, you’re pregnant.”

“Cassie?” Jackson stared at me. “Is he- is there any possibility?”

“I’m still two days away from even thinking that is a possibility.” I stammered. “And even if I were, I have no clue what our child could do for the Salamanders.”

“It’s not just us.” He said, rubbing his throat. “Your child could save the aquatic peoples from all the human pollutants. Its blood is the cure. It’s the reason we left the old world.”