An Unexpected Visitor

For once, the bayou sky is a clear, pure blue, and the air isn’t so thick with humidity that you feel like you could dive in and splash around. Pen’s girlfriend Estelle is weeding the scattered plants that serve as a garden, a cucumber vine growing over here, three tomato plants against the side of the shed, a zucchini dominating a patch of scrubby ground cover. The random placement helps keep the house hidden from casual view; neat rows of plants would be much too conspicuous. The feathers on Estelle’s arms flash in the sunlight. Claudia thinks she may be eating the pests that were attacking the pepper plants, but she really doesn’t want to know.

Pen is on the roof of the shed with a few roustabouts from the Circus, repairing the shingles. A few of them curse like sailors. Claudia wishes they wouldn’t, but the kids seem too distracted to notice. Dav and Lucas are busy building some sort of apparatus cobbled together from an old Boy Scout manual and a thirty-year-old copy of Popular Mechanics. No idea what the heck it is, or what it’s supposed to do. It’s possible that they don’t even know yet. Marcie is splashing in her wading pool and trying to drown her baby doll, saying she’s a mermaid. The poor thing keeps sinking to the bottom head first. Claudia will pop the dolly’s head off and empty her cranium of water once Marcie comes out of the pool and gets dried off.

anatomical detail drawn on woman's back
stretches and strains

The humidity is low enough that laundry would actually dry on the line, if she were able to hang it out. But her muscles ache like she’s sick with the flu, and she just can’t seem to concentrate. She’s read up on fibromyalgia since she was diagnosed six years ago. It read like so much bafflegab to her, the reams of research and test results and academic speculation. Even the researchers still didn’t know exactly what it was. Still didn’t know how to cure it. Thank god that fibro isn’t degenerative. It’d be depressing to think that the symptoms are just going to get worse and worse. She shifts with a grunt on the boards of the back steps, rubs one knee through the old sweatpants that Pen loaned her to keep her joints warm.

The overgrowth by the kitchen window rattles. Claudia turns her head very carefully toward the sound and squints her eyes. Estelle taught her this trick — Pen’s girlfriend usually snubbed her utterly, but she had apparently been in a mellow mood. Estelle said that seeing wide, front-facing eyes glinting can make prey animals run. If you want to see them, you have to be slow, easy and nonthreatening. She’s seen lots of deer and nutria since she’s been here. Maybe the rattle is the pretty doe with the white-rimmed ears…

It’s not a doe. It’s a horse.

The animal emerges from the undergrowth, eying Claudia’s half-eaten apple greedily. She slowly–ever so slowly–sets the fruit down on porch as far away from her as she can reach. Then she leans back, turning away slightly, head bent. An invitation to approach.

bay horse head and neck
Determined Visitor

He takes three careful steps toward the apple. He’s a deep bay, almost black, shading to cocoa on the flanks and ribs, and looks sleek under the patchy coating of swamp mud. Not wild. He’s much too refined to be a scrub stallion, with beautiful clean-made fetlocks and a short strong back. His long forelock falls over his dark eyes, and he flings it off with a toss of his head.

Two more steps. He’s almost there. The twitching of his tail betrays his inner turmoil, but he wants that apple. His nostrils flare as his neck snakes out, one wary brown eye fixed on Claudia.

Then Marcie squeals in the pool, throttling the poor dolly, and the animal wheels and kicks his heels in the air, vanishing into the underbrush with a squeal of his own.

The apple has vanished as well.

Lucas comes running up, nearly bursting. “Mom, did you see that? That was a horse! I bet Dav and I could build a trap for him, I bet we could catch him…”

“Mom,” he asks breathlessly, his eyes alight, “can we keep him?”

Listen To My Rhythm

“Oye como va, mi ritmo…” Claudia sings softly, her contralto counterpoint to a sudden glissando of harp from a distant room. The ancient mp3 player is propped against the kitchen window, a set of tiny, tinny speakers perched atop the scratched and beaten machine. Normally, she’d rather listen to the harp. Although it sometimes sounds as disjointed as the wind chimes hanging all over the house, Marcie shows some real talent. In another place or time, she would probably be taking music lessons. But Santana is soothing, and the coming storm was making Claudia’s sinuses ache. She’s just lucky she’s still standing upright. Her lower back, right knee, and both elbows are throbbing. She tells herself that she’s uncomfortable. That usually makes her pain bearable, although it’ll catch up to her later. Some days she uses that mind trick, only to find that her “mild discomfort” is making her sweat and shake, tears running down her face. It’s dangerous to lose track of what’s going on with her body like that.

black-haired woman leaning on hands, painting by Edwin Holgate
painting by Edwin Holgate, Canadian

Absently, she pushes the ragged sleeve of a borrowed henley up higher, out of the way, and blows a strand of starkly black hair out of her face. It was unbearably hot earlier, but now it seems chilly, even in the kitchen. It’s definitely going to storm again. This is the third one this week.

Lucas comes crashing in the back door, his hair a messy wind sculpture, his eyes grave and dark. He silently hands Grace a kid-sized handful of summer savory for the stew. The storm door bangs in the wind, but he doesn’t move to latch it. Hopefully, that abrupt entrance didn’t mess up any of their benefactor’s elaborate and arcane alarms.

Lucas is much too quiet, much too serious, and Grace reaches out to smooth his hair. “It’s okay, honey, it’s just a storm. Go close the door, now, before it breaks.” Pen is one of the kindest people she has ever met, but his house is a wreck. If he even tried to fix everything that was trashed, he would have time for nothing else.

Besides, he’s far too busy trying to fix all the broken people to worry much about the broken house. The task he’s taken on is sad, and noble, and difficult. Not hopeless, though. Every step taken in the right direction is the embodiment of hope. It’s not an abstract, not to Claudia.

Lucas moves to latch the door, and she washes the herb, crushes the leaves, and throws them in with the potatoes, celery, and carrots. There are bits of chicken in the pot, too, somewhere. It smells pretty good. She doesn’t much care for cooking, but helping Pen cope with his busy life is its own reward. She owes him a lot. She had been at wit’s end when Pen found them at the bus station in town. Not too many people would have taken them in like this.

After Lucas jiggles the door handle, he comes back to stand near the stove instead of going into the parlor to join Pen’s kids. Claudia dries her hands and silences Santana in mid-wail. “Lucas. What’s up?” Her voice is sharp, worried. The approaching storm has put everyone on edge.

watercolor, blue feather
blue sheen

His eyes are still huge and dark, a tear trembling on one ginger eyelash. He hands her a single sky blue feather, lightly shaded with black and grey. It’s achingly beautiful.

Claudia’s stomach sinks. “Oh, Estelle.”


Claudia kneels next to her distraught child. “Well, why don’t you set the table? Dinner should be ready in a little bit.” The silverware door sticks a little as she pulls it open and grabs five sets of utensils. Why not be optimistic? she thinks, and grabs another set for Estelle, in the event that they can actually get her inside and get her to eat something. The whole mess gets dumped on the table where Lucas can reach it. “Be back in a minute,” she promises him. By the time she was out the back door, he was digging under the pan cupboard for the paper napkins and wiping his eyes. Good kid.

The wind is rising outside, spitting little gobbets of rain. It takes Claudia a few minutes to spot a flash of brilliant blue in the big tree outside the back door. So very high up.

Bark skins her hands as she begins to climb, and digs in as she climbs higher. A wave of dizziness passes when she takes a few deep breaths and makes a conscious effort to loosen her insane grip. Good thing Estelle has chosen the biggest tree to roost in – it could easily have been one of the evergreens that grew in a thicket way in back, and those were nearly impossible to climb. Still, it’s not easy to go that high with the wind beginning to howl and thrash the branches around, and it’s been years and years since Claudia has clambered up a tree. It was easier when she was eight. This is really starting to hurt.

A gust whips her boy-cut hair into her eyes. It stings badly and makes tears well up, making the climb even harder. Why do bangs grow faster than the rest? Maybe Estelle will give her a trim, if she can ever get her out of this blessed tree.

hair over dark turkey feathers
hair over dark feathers

It seems to take years to reach the nearly catatonic bird woman. A flurry of feather-ripping has left little tufts of down hanging in a lot of the rattling branches. Finally, Claudia’s hand touches a fragile wrist and Estelle turns her face toward the other woman.

Estelle hisses her alarm, mouth open, panting. Claudia pulls her hand back. She wants to grab Estelle, to keep her from falling, but the bird woman jerked away from her so hard that the whole treetop dipped. Claudia is not sure why, but Estelle doesn’t like her. She normally gives Pen’s girlfriend plenty of space, but she can’t just leave her up in this tree. There must be some way to get her down.

Her eyes are depthless, whites seemingly swallowed by the darkness of pupil. “Estelle,” Claudia nearly shouts above the clatter of the thrashing leaves, “why are you way up here?” Inwardly, she groans. Lame question.

“Maybe… Maybe I’ll be blown away…” was the answer. Soft, wistful, almost hopeful. Oh, this is bad. She doesn’t even seem surprised that Claudia is up here instead of Pen. Maybe she figures that Pen has run out of things to say to tempt her down.

“Please, Estelle. Nobody wants you to blow away. Pen and the kids would be lost without you. Lucas would cry. I wouldn’t have anyone to trim my bangs.” Estelle didn’t answer her wry smile, instead turning her head and leaning her face against the tree trunk. Okay, then. This wasn’t working. She musters up her best commanding tone. What would Master have said if Claudia been the one in the tree?

“Estelle. Come down from the tree. We’re waiting for you to come to dinner, and you don’t need to keep Pen waiting. Do you really think that you’re accomplishing anything up here?”

Estelle sags against the tree, but doesn’t move. “Go away, Claudia, and leave me alone.” Her eyes aren’t as hopeless and panicked now. They’re hostile.

Claudia wants to cry by the time she’s made her way back down to the ground. Estelle’s unrelenting distrust is hard to take. Pen is relying on her to help take care of his mentally ill girlfriend, but no matter how nice she is to her, no matter how many times she offers the younger woman friendship and understanding, Estelle just pulls away, stares at her with frightened, angry eyes.

Lucas is waiting for her at the base of the tree, and he throws his arms around her waist, leaning in as Claudia combs his messy hair through her fingers. He looks up into her face. “Don’t worry, Mom. I bet I can get her down.”

She doesn’t want him climbing the tree in this wind, but his eyes convince her to let him try. So she gives him a boost and warns him to be careful and hold on tight. She watches him as he clambers up the trunk, holds her breath as he shifts his grip and hauls himself up another limb, close enough so that he doesn’t need to shout over the sounds of nature. Then, to her utter surprise, he begins to sing.

“Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be all right.
Singin, don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right!
Rise up this morning,
Smile with the rising sun,
Three little birds
Perch by my doorstep
Singing sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true,
Saying, this is my message to you-u-u…
Singing, don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be all right.
Singing, don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be all right!”

Eventually, the song eats away at Estelle’s inertia, and she turns to look at Claudia’s son.

“I’ll come down.”

wing of jay or macaw feathers
fanned out

Hurricane Warning

Their meal is hurried. They hunch over their plates, shoveling food in like its fuel for the fight and listening to the wind whistle through the trees outside. Claudia prays that none of the older trees come crashing down on the roof, or the whole place might come down around them.

Drake and Ruby Gerritson from the Circus come around to help Pen wrestle the plywood onto the windows that don’t have functioning storm shutters. Dav rushes around the yard, gathering up all the effluvia of daily life – garbage cans, watering cans, the odd toy or two – and putting them in the shed. Estelle, still a bit quiet and withdrawn, cuddles with Lucas and Marcie on the couch. Lucas smooths her feathers with one hand and sucks the thumb of his other while an ancient VHS tape of cartoons serves as a distraction. Marcie has timed-out, tucked up against Estelle’s other side, asleep after so much excitement.

Claudia plays fetch and carry for a while. Where-are-the-big-nails? Will-you-help-me-hold-this-ladder? Where-the-hell’d-I-set-that-hammer-down? That kind of stuff. When things truly get underway, she moves into the house to check the emergency supplies. The can opener is stashed next to the neat rows of canned goods in the mud room. New batteries go in all the flashlights. Water jugs are inventoried and judged sufficient.

The small horde of people come inside out of the rain and need to be dried off and smoothed out. Ruby Gerritson comes inside after giving herself a dog-like shake on the back steps and seems to sort herself out without trying much, rain rolling off her tattered denim shirt, her greying red hair still held in two tight braids. Her husband Drake settles the kids in a tidy heap in a safe place away from the windows and starts telling them a tall tale.

Just when everyone pauses to take a deep breath, there is a commotion outside. Pen and Ruby go outside to check it out. Ruby produces a shotgun from God-knows-where. It sounds like she’s growling deep in her throat, but it might just be the wind howling.

Pen comes back in looking like his feathers have been ruffled, more rattled than Claudia has ever seen him. More people gush into the house and need to be tended to. They look like they’ve been rolling around in a muddy ditch somewhere, and they smell of faintly of bug. Pen seems to know some of them and accept the others, so Claudia relaxes. The shotgun is put away.

blue girl with feathers and foliage glued on
blue girl

Extra blankets and spare clothes are claimed and people are fed. Claudia gives a smallish girl named Callie some extra attention. She looks like she’s been through a washer on slime cycle, and her eyes are haunted. Although she’s stiff as a board, she accepts a cuddle. Things worse than bugbites have happened to these people. At least one of them, an Asian man, is hurt badly and has to be carried in, and they all look like they’re on the verge of shock.

And the storm has only begun. She’s sure there’s more coming.


Mom’s waiting for me, Lucas thinks, better hurry!

He thunders down the back stairs and into the wild back yard, clutching a tattered and faded green book. She is waiting for him, and he throws himself into her lap, making her grunt. Oops, got her with an elbow! When he poked Mary Jane Weiler with his elbow last summer when they were watching a softball game, it had made her cry. “Sorry,” he says.

“It’s ok, honey,” Mom says, and he feels better. Mom really likes to snuggle.

He plops the book into her hands. It’s really old, maybe older than Mom, and it looks sad and beat up. Once Mom had turned a page and it fell out, and it made her cry. It had been her book before she gave it to him; she said her momma had read it to her when she was a little girl. She didn’t have anything else left from when she was a kid, so this book was special.

It was also the best book he had ever read. Maybe it was Mom’s favorite, too, even though she read lots and lots of books. Most of them didn’t even have pictures, and most of the ones that did were dumb. Pictures of rats in mazes, or rows and rows of green plants that all looked the same, not pictures of witches and mermaids and two little girls named Amy and Clarissa.

“Read the part about Malachi, Mom,” Lucas says, “that’s where we left off.” Lucas bets he’s read this book a million times, and it’s still cool!

Mom reads really good, with voices and everything, so the wild back yard starts to turn into Old Witch’s gloomy house on top of a glass mountain. Old Witch is very wicked and knows lots of bad spells and stuff, but she’s kind of dumb. She gets caught being wicked by two little girls and they banish her to the top of a glass mountain where she could never, ever get down, even if she tried for a hundred years. She has to stay there until she learns to be good.

pencil drawing of bumblebee on flower
bumblebee pencil sketch

Amy and Clarissa are friends with a magical bumblebee, and he ends up on the glass mountain with Old Witch. Old Witch looks and looks and looks for him, so that she can send him back to the two little girls! Why? Why not just make friends with him? It would be soo cool to have a magical bumblebee as a friend! Lucas had wished for a friend like Malachi every year on his birthday when he blew his candles out. Those sorts of wishes are supposed to come true, weren’t they? He also wished for a snake and a gerbil and a pony, but never, ever on his birthday.

They finished story time by chanting the magical incantation for about the zillionth time, by heart:

Oh, Malachi,
Oh, Malachi,
You are a magic
If in trouble
e’er I be,
Then mumble,
here to me.*

Mom closes the book carefully. Story time is over. Now it’s monster-roaring time! The long grass is awesome to roll in. He’s a horse — no, a dinosaur! An allosaurus! They used to roll on their backs when their backs itched, didn’t they? They must have. He starts to giggle when he thinks about an allosaurus reaching up with his puny arms and scratching his own back.

Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, art by Peter Schouten
Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, art by Peter Schouten

Oops! Mom!

He pops his head up over the tall grass. Oh, jeez, Mom’s watching him. Better mind his manners. He grins and tries to pick the dead leaves and twigs out of his hair, but he gives up after a second. It hurt! Mom’ll pull them out later, but she’ll laugh at him. He can’t help it, it’s like his hair is a weird magnet for all kinds of stuff. She calls it a bird’s nest, but he never found any eggs in it. Anyway…

“Thanks for reading to me, Mom. We’ll do more tomorrow, okay?” She smiles at him and nods, and he takes off running, whistling something by that silly laughing guy, Mozart, back toward the creek, to look for tadpoles and fish in the mud.

But the creek is a mud hole, no rain this week. Icky. He didn’t even want to wade in the gooey stuff, it’s too hard to see through, and he’d die if he got bit by a cottonmouth. He slumps in disappointment. Darn, there were tadpoles down in there somewhere. Nice, big, fat, slimy tadpoles that must turn into giant toads that eat mosquitoes. Just have to wait until there was more rain and the water didn’t look so creepy. He scratches one of the gazillion little bumps that the skeeters left from sucking his blood. Bloodsucking bugs were pretty cool, but Lucas wished they’d suck someone else’s and leave his alone. They itch! Mozart wouldn’t laugh at this. Boooring.

Well, until he sees some little tiny tracks printed in the mud. What made those? Okay, birds, yeah, and that’s a squirrel–he knows the way their toes splay out–and that looks like one of the barn cats, the one with the crooked hind leg who’s missing a toe– and awesome, a tiny little hoof print! A dee-, no, a fawn! Where was its mama?

There’s a path beat down along the bank of the creek, one that he’s never seen before. Why not follow it? It might lead to pirate treasure, or a meadow with flying unicorns living in it. Hey, he could catch one and fly up into the clouds! Or maybe there’s a wizard like Merlin, that would teach him spells like the one that calls Malachi. That would be good, too.

The path leads away from the creek and winds through some baby trees that shiver in the wind. Lucas knows that he’s too far away from the house now, Mom will yell if she finds out. She always seems to yell whenever he does anything really interesting. The meadow waves at him, making him want to walk farther into the grass. Something strange stands out in the sunshine, something haystack yellow and shaped like a big, upside-down basket. Who knows what was inside?

Lucas stands in the sunshine and listens. Above and around the leaves rustling, and a dog barking, there was a strange humming. It seems almost, kinda familiar.

Then a honeybee flies around his head twice, like he’s checking him out, and lands on his arm. He doesn’t sting — no, wait, this bee was a girl bee, not a boy bee like Malachi — she just crawls around a little bit and flies away. It feels way different from when a fly or a mosquito crawls on him. Like soft or fuzzy, maybe. Huh. Lucas wonders what her name is, and if she’s magical or not. Maybe not, maybe the magical ones are the bumblebees. But maybe all bees are magic. Maybe bumblebees knew spells, and honeybees knew Aikido, like Mary Jane Weiler’s mom did. Then they’d be awesome fighting bees! Now that makes him giggle. Commander Lucas of the Fighting Bee Squadron, reporting for duty!

More of them come to take a look at the weird human, like the first girl bee did. They buzz around him like all those old-fashioned planes flew around King Kong’s head, but he doesn’t roar at them and wave his arms. That’d be stupid. They don’t want to hurt him, after all. They want to be his friends! Where did he find all those flowers on his shirt? Must check it out, crawling around. Must find where that dirt came from, and that bit of mud. Yes, got it, ma’am, over this way!

And some of them zoom off, on patrol, gonna go find those wild bean flowers where the garden at the Back Forty used to be, not far from the cellar hole. The beans are kinda strange back there, giant and speckled and the bean pods are a dark purple until they dry out. They look like Martian beans! Maybe that’s where the Pod People come from. On second thought, maybe the bees better not go there, maybe the Pod People will eat them! But it’s too late, they’ve gone already. Well, good luck, bees! Will they come back transformed into Purple People-Eating Martian Bees? Ewwww.

He stands very still and lets them buzz around him, crawl on him even, if they want to. This is crazycool. He wonders if he could take one back to show Mom. She likes Malachi, after all! He reaches out with the place in his throat, unrolls the invisible leash that he uses when he sends out the secret centipede, and clips it onto one of the bees.

He’s not too sure she likes it, it makes her buzz harder in a circle around his head, held by the leash. It works, though!! Can’t hold her too long, she’ll get frightened and fly too hard trying to get away, and get too tired out to get back home. She’s not used to it. It’s like Mom’s friend Sonja working with a puppy, that’s it. But when the puppy figures out how much fun it is, getting to go everywhere, watch out! They’ll have to get used to it first. Maybe he could make enough leashes for all of the bees and hold on very tight to the other ends and they could fly away together, if they work very hard at it. Wonder where they’d take him?

Go bees! Go fly high, find lots of flowers so you’ll be strong! Lucas waves good bye as they go.

He’s gonna have to come back later, maybe tomorrow, and visit his new bee friends again. But now, he can hear his mom calling him, from very far away. It’s gonna take him a while to get back, so he breaks into a run down the worn path.

cartoon illo boy with red umbrella
What If I Blew Away?

Dark splatters and splotches mark the dried mud on the edges. Whoa! He didn’t even see those clouds coming up, and here’s the wind, too! Big ploppy warm drops smack in his face and his hair. He runs harder, skidding, and slides at the line of trees. He’s just getting up, with a rip in his pants knee, when he sees a flash of blue flutter down by his foot.

It’s a big feather, like a jay. It’s very bright. He squints upward against more big plops of rain in his face.

Oh boy, this is gonna take help.

He grabs the feather, and runs harder.


*Exerpt from The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes, copyright 1960. If you haven’t read it, please do. It’s utterly charming.

A late evening collaboration between Numaari and Nagasvoice. But the Aikido bees are GreenJudy’s fault. 🙂

Pen Howell

Pen hasn’t much money. That was part of the decision to stay out here, after Tree died. Only part. Pen was thinking of his girlfriend, Estelle, a lot. Estelle isn’t good with people.
The kids, Marcie and Davenport, baby girl and miracle boy, are homeschooling, some with Estelle, mainly with Pen and Botchan. Marcie these days is all about the harp. Pen thought that would hurt him; when he lost Tree, Marcie’s mom, it hurt whenever the harp had to be moved, whenever the strings sounded. Having Marcie working on those strings so avidly, baby girl, seems to be doing something to his heart, healwise.
The house is fairly a wreck. Tree’s artistry all over the place; but wood rots, and wallpaper is ruined, and humidity turns plank floors into sculpture. The kids don’t seem to mind or even notice. Estelle doesn’t notice either, but there’s a little bit of something sick about her when she sits at the big table, a bit of entropy. The kids are different. Dav has been running windchimes all through the house, his sounding apparatus, he called it, sounding very steampunk and smart. Pen doesn’t mind ducking his head through doorways and getting jangled occasionally. Marcie does laugh, she squeaked with laughter when he bounced through the nursery door a little too quick, set something swinging and got a set of tiny tubular bells in the nose, on the return arc.
Truth is, there is a sounding apparatus, that would be Pen’s alarm system, singing security, Tree called it. There’s sound traps, too, out there in the woods, early warnings to let Pen know early in the approach what might be coming. And of course the entrance is strictly hidden. The kids have been good about that. The others, too, mostly. Sometimes some big lug of a sheep dog, recently inoculated and out of its mind with gratitude and relief, will blunder a straight line toward home after a day roaming. There’s work to do, then, resetting sound traps and digging back in what the poor crazy dog dug out.

bright colorful textiles on trunk of mossy tree
Warning Trees

It was for us, Pen was thinking, but problem is the “us” has gotten bigger. Pen can’t turn them away; Pen remembers not much well, but sure if he remembers the Cell. He takes a grim kind of pleasure in making his own music on the instrument the company gave him.
Pen’s house, then, has no landmarks, no angle of approach, hardly looks like a house from the outside.

Coming Soon: more on the layout of Pen’s house, the inner yard, and where the wild things are.

The Internet is for Porn

The ancient laptop gave another dying wheeze. Hal was used to this noise — the computer had been making it for five years now. But if you knew how to baby it, it still worked just fine. Well, it worked okay, at least. He jiggled the lid to make the screen brighter and flicked a long strand of black hair out of his face, licked a bead of sweat off the corner of his mouth. His people lived in this swamp long before the Cajuns ever got here, so why didn’t he have some sort of immunity to the heat? He’d read somewhere that Native Americans weren’t bothered by heat or cold, didn’t get sunburn, and weren’t ever bitten by mosquitoes. Now that was just purely bullshit. Goes to show you that you can’t believe everything you see on the Internet. Hal twisted his long hair up off his nape and grabbed his tee shirt by the collar, pulling it up over his head and wiping his face with it before tossing it to the foot of the bed.

The website he was browsing was simple, informative, and full of eye-candy. He’d been online for almost three hours, sifting through pages and pages of absolute crap before arriving here. All he’d learned for sure was that BDSM stood for bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism. Now, browsing this site, he felt like he was getting somewhere. His real-life introduction to this world had been informal and brutal. He didn’t even know most of the terminology, and he hadn’t cared. All he’d wanted to do was escape. But now he was here, trying to learn more, for the sake of a woman. He loved her, and he had to find out how to give her what she needed.

Slave positions — now that was a topic. And there were pictures. Hal looked hard at the beautiful slave girl with the creamy white tits and the legs that went on and on. Her hands looked long and elegant coming out of those thick black cuffs, with that pearly pink nail polish. There was a picture of her kneeling demurely with her hands on her knees. There wasn’t a mark on her smooth pale skin, and Hal could see the cords of muscle just underneath, running up her legs, her hips, to the soft slope of her belly. The indentation of her navel and hollows of her palms seemed painfully erotic, hinting at some hidden truth that he couldn’t quite see. The lace thong she wore hugged her pussy, hinting at something else that he couldn’t see, but could imagine pretty well. He bet that pretty pink pussy was shaved clean under that black lace. He imagined running a finger down the strap at her hip, pushing the soft stretchy lace aside. Had she gotten wet, posing so explicitly for the camera? A slow warmth trickled down his stomach and settled in his groin.

He shifted the laptop to one knee so that he could tug at the crotch of his blue jeans. Damn, his cock rubbed against the fly, and it hurt. He worked a few buttons loose and freed himself. His cock sprung out, halfway erect already. He couldn’t resist scrolling down to the next picture — same girl, on her hands and knees, ass presented. Despite the heat rolling in the open window, Hal shivered, remembering his girl, how his palm stung against her ass cheek as he spanked her, how her throat vibrated around his penis as she tried to cry out in pleasure. She’d swallowed him whole, until he could feel his balls brushing her chin and he could fuck her mouth. He ran the tips of his fingers up his swelling cock, remembering that. Would his girl get on his hands and knees for him, present her her ass and her pussy, beg him to fuck her? Would she, if he asked?

Would she if grabbed her by the throat and commanded her to do it?

He had begged on his hands and knees, once, a lifetime ago. The thought angered him, but made his cock twitch hungrily. Twisting, he reached into the end table drawer for some lube, squirted it into his palm. His hand wrapped around his dick right under the head, and he began to pump his hand slowly, dragging it over his flesh. After ten agonizingly long strokes, he fisted the head and rolled it in his hand lightly. The sensation made him pant and twist on the sweaty bedsheets.

None of the pictures showed the girl’s face — it was either obscured by a spirals of camel-colored hair or a black silk blindfold. Dammit. He clicked on the credit link. Hmmm, the model for the pictures was also the webmistress. She was the submissive of the website’s owner, Daddy Max. Her name was topaz. That had to be a pseudonym. But, then again, who went around calling themselves Daddy Max?

Frustrated, he clicked on a random link. Discipline. Dear God. He pulled his foreskin back, stared at the milky drops that dribbled down his swollen dick onto his hand. The mystery girl, topaz, was stretched toward the ceiling, feet spread wide for balance, her back and ass mottled with pink. The black lace of the thong framed the twin curves of her ass cheeks, accented the hand prints on them. Hal took a big deep breath, his hair falling back over his face in a dark curtain as his head bowed forward. The very ends swung across the head of his penis, a whisper of sensation. He shifted his grip on himself, twisting gently up the shaft, palming the head and rolling his hand in slow circles. His dick felt hot and hard as a pirogue pole, little tendrils of sensation shooting down both legs until the muscles shivered in his thighs. He thought about what it would be like, to string his girl up, make her helpless. Would she struggle, plead with him? He could almost see her, her white breasts with their blush-pink nipples swaying as she struggled to keep her balance, her haunches bunching, waiting for the first blow. She might moan, waiting for him to strike her, or she might cry, or whine. Hal’s balls tightened, still trapped in his jeans.

He closed his eyes then, the callouses on his hands rasping against the ridge on the underside of his cock, moving until his hand made a muted slapping noise from the lube and the pre-come. He threw the mouse down on the bed, guided the laptop down off his knee and onto the quilt. Linking both of his hands, Hal rolled his cock between them, his hips making little twitches before settling into a short, hard thrusting rhythm, fucking his clasped hands. He whined in his throat, groaned out loud as he came. He reached for the dirty tee shirt, rubbed the sweat and the semen off his chest and belly with the soft cotton, sighed. He was still horny, even with his hard-on going soft. A trip across the swamp was out of the question, in the dark like this. And what would he do once he got to his girl’s house, anyway? Climb the trellis? Throw rocks at her window until she came out and followed him out beyond the cedar trees to have a fuck in the grass? Not likely, not in the dark with the gators and the clouds of stinging insects.

Then something caught his eye. The mouse had fallen off the bed, making the page he had been on scroll to the very bottom, to the last picture of Daddy Max’s girl topaz. Her hair was pulled to one side to accept a collar, showing the long, pale, vulnerable curve of her nape under all that hair. She had a small brown birthmark shaped like a butterfly just below her hairline. He had seen that mark before, as he raked his teeth gently over his girl’s neck. He had remembered her satisfied purr when he did that, and he had noticed her birthmark.

Topaz’s real name was Claudia, and Hal knew her. He knew her very well.