Category Archives: Original Stories

Decameron 2020: The Pickerel Witch

Here’s a Fowler’s toad lurking in the grass…or is it? Enjoy our modern fairytale.

Ilke and Streusel were walking through Germany’s dark, primeval Black Forest. They had been lost and wandering for days.

“Ilke,” her little brother called. “I’m hungry. Why did our evil step-mother send us on this horrible quest to find dingleberries in the forest?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “But even if we find this dingleberry bush, I do not think we can find our way back to our loving-but-easily-duped father and have a dingleberry pie.”

They trudged on, weak and trembling.

“Remember our friends, Hansel and Gretel?” Streusel asked.

“Of course.”

“Well, just last week I heard that they found a cabin made of candy,” he said. “Maybe it is still here somewhere close to us.”

“I hope not,” Ilke shivered. “I heard they met a witch who tried to eat them.”

“Yeah, but they pushed her into an oven and killed her. That means there should be plenty of fresh candy waiting for us.”

“I think we’d be better off avoiding witches.”

Eventually they came to a swampy clearing. They rested their weary little bottoms on a log.

“I’m so hungry,” Streusel exclaimed. “I could eat a frog.”

Here’s a real Pickerel frog?

Just like that a splotchy, warty Pickerel frog hopped up between them on the log.

With the last of his strength, Streusel caught the frog and held it gently in his hands as he contemplated eating it raw.

“Don’t hurt it,” Ilke commanded. “It never did anything to you. You have no right to take its life.”

Streusel cried with guilt for ever thinking of killing a living creature, and he cried because he was hungry. He carefully set the plump little amphibian down.

It looked at him and ribbeted, “Thanks.” Next there was a flash and poof.

The children screamed as a beautiful woman with thick, shoulder-length blonde hair appeared wearing a long, black dress, black hobnail boots and a wide-brimmed black pointy hat.

She produced a compact from her black-satin dress and powdered her nose. Then she gave a toss of her golden locks, just for effect before closing her compact.

“Hi there,” she greeted the children. “My name is Madison, but you can call me Maddie.”

The children looked at her and trembled in terror.

“Oh, you little lambs must be starving,” she said and handed each child a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off, just they way they liked.

“Our step-mother says never to take food from strangers,” Ilke declared.

In a sweet and sardonic voice, Maddie asked, “The same step-mother who intentionally left you in the forest to die so she could have lots of sex with your dim-witted father and raise her spawn in your place?”

“Ohhhh,” the kids sighed, thought about it and devoured their sandwiches.

Feeling better, Streusel asked, “Are you going to eat us now?”

Madison laughed with impish delight.

“No, Sweetie. That was Hildegarde, who Hansel and Gretel did in so nicely. She was old skool. Very conservative and traditional,” Maddie explained. “I’m with the more progressive Witchs’ Welfare League. We love good little girls and boys and think it is unfair to prey on them when they are already such easy and undeserving targets.”

The siblings nodded appreciatively.

“So what are you going to do with us?” Ilke asked apprehensively.

“Nothing, dear child,” Madison said. “The real question is, ‘What are you going to do to help me?’”

“What do you mean?” Ilke asked.

Madison pinched Ilke’s ribs and said, “Well, it feels to me as if you haven’t had any meat in ages.”

“No, we haven’t,” Streusel told her.

“How about you guys help me chop up your step-mother and eat her for dinner, and then you can live happily ever after with your loving father.”

“Yay!” cheered the kids, as they clasped Maddie’s hands, hopped off the log and skipped all the way back home to cannibalize their most-deserving, wicked step-mother.

T
H
END

Decameron 2020: Halloween Movie Night

Autumn is our favorite time of year. Even if you can’t party or trick ‘r treat this Halloween, you can still curl up with some good horror movies.

Pandemic Halloween totally sucks! Halloween is easily one of my favorite holidays. It captures all of the romance of autumn, along with all of the primal frights of life and death. Plus, there’s candy!

Worse, yet, for me is that this is my very first Halloween in New England…the primeval home of All Hallow’s Eve with its lore filled with witches, warlocks, devils and other medieval horrors imported from Europe.

So what do we do now that most reasonable people have called off trick ‘r treating to help protect the lives of our little ghouls and gobblins?

My top choice is turning out all of the lights, lighting a bajillion candles and reading Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” (Doing this around a fire pit is a good alternative.)

Yet, my second choice is diving into great horror movies. Pop some corn, grab a couple bags of your favorite candies and dive into spooky cinema. Everybody has their favorite, of course. And I firmly believe all kids should be exposed to the joys of the early Universal monster movies, such as “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy” and “The Wolf-Man.” You can never go wrong with “The Shining,” but, my goal with these movie nights is to avoid the usual go-to films. It is time to delve into great movies you might not be as familiar with.

Horror movies fall into two groups for me. There are the genuinely scary horror films, and then there are the campy horror films. I grew up in a horror movie household. My mom loves campy horror, and my dad loves the movies that will keep you up all night for a week. I got to see them all. And it is funny to me how much movies changed for me as I got older. I was genuinely terrified of the campy horror films as a little kid, but now I laugh at them as an adult.

The key to really enjoying any horror movie is to suspend all disbelief and fall into its world for about 90 minutes. With that said, let’s dive in.

THE BLOB (1958): In Steve McQueen’s first movie role, a meteor crashes to earth near a small town. Teenagers discover the space rock with an old guy. The rock splits open to reveal a small gooey blob that begins eating the old man alive! Rushing him to the doctor, the blob goes on a ravenous rampage, oozing under doors, through vents and anywhere it wants. Is there no way for these good-hearted teens to “extinguish” its hunger? True story: I watched this for the first time when I was about 9 and lived in terror of the film for another 15 years or so. When it came on TV in my 20s, while I was visiting my folks, I tried to get out of watching it with them. “We think it might be a little different than you remembered it at age 9.” Okay, I watched it again, and I laughed at myself and the movie for the rest of the night.

THE  TINGLER (1959): Vincent Price plays a scientist who discovers that each of us has a little creature living on our spines called a tingler. It feeds on fear and can kill you by crushing your spine if you don’t scream to release your fear. When he successfully captures a living tingler and it gets loose…well, all hell breaks loose. This was director William Castles’ classic B-movie where he rigged seats in movie theaters with buzzers to randomly scare the audience members. I don’t think this one ever scared me, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t loved it for all of my life.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956): Mysterious, human-sized pea pods start showing up at people’s homes. And as people try to make sense of them, the pods create a human clone of the person it was delivered to. Not sure what to make of these clones, the humans are reluctant to do anything about them, but the clones have no compunction about killing their humans and taking over their lives. A fun psychological thriller that is undoubtedly campy at times, but it can give you the creeps if you really let yourself become one with the film.

WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953): H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi horror story comes to life in amazing Technicolor with this blockbuster. The world’s best special effects were employed for this movie when it first came out. Sure, they look a little hokey now, but I still love the terror imposed by the seemingly unstoppable aliens. The biggest laughs come not from the effects but the blatant sexism and condescending patriarchal nature of the leading men and scientists.

THE CHANGELING (1980): George C. Scott plays a man struggling with the loss of his wife and daughter in a tragic car wreck. Moving to a new town for a change of scene, he rents an old mansion that is already inhabited. To this day, I will contend that this is the most frightening ghost story ever filmed. I love it! I’ve seen it a dozen times, and it still raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

Decameron 2020: Big Bad Ed

Big Bad Ed
By Art Cerf

From here to eternity. Autumn closes in on Covid for Big Bad Ed.

Ed Brevington was a big man, a hard man, a tough and loud man.

He spent his days in backbreaking labor as a roofer. He spent his nights in bars, looking for anyone who would take him on. Few did and always to their regret.

Then came the pandemic and Ed proclaimed he wouldn’t be wearing a mask. “Hell,” he’d say, “If the President won’t wear one, why should I?”

And he would march maskless into stores, even those that said “No Mask, No Service. Few were bold enough to challenge him. He’d grab what he wanted and then throw money down on the counter and stalk out.

One day he woke with a headache…just a hangover he thought. But on the job, he started having trouble breathing. And his temperature shot up.

Reluctantly, he went to the hospital where he was immediately diagnosed with Covid and slapped into isolation. He spent four long weeks there and when they finally sent him home, he was as weak as a newborn lamb.  Doctors told him to rest up and in a few weeks, he’d likely be back to normal.

A few weeks turned into a few months. He had no appetite and lost 50 of his 240 pounds. It was an effort to get out of bed to pee and shower. Then he’d need another nap.

Finally, he returned to the doctors who ran a series of tests on him. One proclaimed, “The virus not only damaged your lungs but your heart as well. You’ll never to able to return to hard labor but there are other, less strenuous things you could do…cashier, phone sales, greeter. You still could lead a full life.”

That life would last about six hours. He went home, collapsed for a nap and when he awoke, he walked up to his bedroom, removed a pistol from his bedside table and pressed it to his temple.

Ed Bevington…damned if he would wear a mask and damned because he didn’t.

Decameron 2020: From Zoom to Eternity

From Zoom to Eternity
By Art Cerf

What type of mushroom is this? We found it growing in a Connecticut forest. It has nothing to do with the story. We just like catching your eye with pictures we like.

In olden days, Henry Prichard might have been a traveling engineer or linguist. But now, he was a much-in-demand computer wiz.

He fell in love twice while majoring in computer science at Purdue. First to a gal named Sally, whom he met in an introduction to programming course. And then with programming. Some people are born to be great singers or great doctors. Some easily take to French or another language. Henry took to Java, Python, JavaScript, C, C# and SQL.

He married Sally and had three children that he adored. But he was seldom home. Henry didn’t sell computer systems, he custom made Fortune-500 and governmental computer programs tailored to his client’s needs and was on call for people all around the world. So he’d travel from Denver to Dubai, come home for some fresh clothing, kiss the wife and hug the kids and then it was off to San Francisco and Singapore.

As you might imagine, Henry became very prosperous only his marriage was falling apart. Too many missed birthdays, anniversaries and the like. But the final straw was when he was called out of town on Christmas Eve to remedy some problem in Berlin.

Sally filed for divorce and took the kids with her to her hometown of Lebanon, Ohio.

Every night, Henry would Zoom them to catch up on their school days, their new friends and interests but he saw less and less of Sally who apparently was dating the manager of a local supermarket and who was home every night.

Then came the pandemic. No more traveling for Henry…not even to his office. But he was able to still work from his home and through Zoom, able to circle the world to fix problems remotely.

The trouble of course was calls came in 24 hours a day…each more urgent than the last. He took to sleeping on the couch to be available whenever needed. That often meant three hours sleep here, an hour there.

And there was the problem of his eating. He ordered out most nights and made one run a week, Sunday mornings, to the grocery to pick up lunch meat, snacks, desserts and Diet Coke.

From March to September, he gained 40 pounds and looked as pale as a ghost. No time or interest in exercising.

He heard from the office once a week but one week, no one answered their call. They tried again the next day and the next.

Nada. So finally, they sent someone out to see him and through the window, they saw him slumped over his computer. An ambulance was called, but it was at least two days too late.

Officially, the coroner’s report gave a heart attack as the cause of death. In truth, the pandemic had racked up another casualty.

Decameron 2020: Death and Mrs. Brock

Death & Mrs. Brock
by Art Cerf

Who knows what lurks just outside your door? Could be death…or just a Fowler’s toad.

Matilda Brock, all of 90, sat in her nursing home room, enjoying the sunbeam coming through the window, as winter reluctantly gave way to spring.”

Suddenly at the door, hooded death appeared.

“Where the hell have you been?” screamed Mrs B.  “I’ve waited for you the past ten years in this pit. I’ve seen two roommates die and other slip into senility, but would you come and rescue me? No!”

Death stepped back a moment. He had heard people scream at his arrival, cry or barter for more time. But no one…no one had ever dared to scream at him over the centuries.

He asked her why.

“All my life,” Matilda said, “I was taught to be silent and submissive…first by my braying jackass of a father and then by my bullying and pompous husband. When he died 30 years ago, I thought finally I’m free and threw myself into community service. But soon, I became everyone’s mule.

“The church could use more flowers. Please take care of it Mildred.”

Or “Who should organize this year’s benefit for the children. Mildred can do it since she has time on her hands.”

“By the time I was 80, my son, Otis, told me I could no longer live alone and since I had given him power of attorney, he sold my home and put me in this place with indifferent food, sloppy nurses aides and fat administrators. There’s only one TV. The women watch it all day for those stupid ladies talk shows, and the men take over at night for either sports or right-wing commentators. My favorite granddaughter, Bess, used to bring me books from the library…murder mysteries were my favorite as I’d plot how to dispose of various folks around me. But then my vision started to go and I could no longer read.”

Death looked at her and in the blink of an eye, transformed into a handsome, well-dressed young man. He took her by the arm and led her out into the hallway.

“Hey, where are you two going,” one aide shouted.

“Out to lunch with my grandson,” Matilda answered.

“So where do you want to go?” asked Death.

“Some place Mexican with some hot and spicy food.”

And so they went and had a delicious lunch.

From there, they were ushered to Bess’ home. Matilda arrived alone and asked to see her new, six-week-old great, great granddaughter.

Bess was delighted to see her, if not uncertain how she arrived.  She brought the baby to Matilda and told her, “We named her Maddy, after you.”

Matilda held the baby like she was gold and tears came to her eyes.  Moments later, she said she had to go, she had a cab waiting.

After hugs and kisses, Matilda entered a cab. As it drove away, Bess could have sworn the driver was wearing a black hood.

Matilda died that night, as did 13 other residents of the nursing home. Authorities blamed Covid but in truth, Matilda had died of happiness.

 

(Editor’s note)  Death wants it made clear that this was a one-time only exception.

Decameron 2020: The God-like Surgeon

The God-like Surgeon
By Art Cerf

Here’s a photo of a barn before a rainstorm. It has nothing to do with the story. We just like to show off some photography.

Montgomery Vandergriff knew he wasn’t God, but he felt he’d make an excellent understudy. Excuse me. That’s Dr. Montgomery Vandergriff, internationally-renowned surgeon with enough newspaper, magazine and medical journal articles about him to decimate a forest.

The doctor never considered himself superior, just that everyone else were underlings. When he’d arrive at the hospital, doctors, nurses, administrators and custodians all would step aside and say, “Good morning, Doctor.”  To a special few, he acknowledge them with a slight nod. The rest would received a “Hmmm.”

Imagine his surprise when he tested positive for the corona virus. And his shock when he was rushed to the ER when he had trouble breathing. Soon, he was in intensive care on a ventilator. The next days he was in and out of consciousness, seeing only doctors and nurses in hazmat suits.

One evening, about a week later, he woke up in the middle of the night and saw a man in the shadows, sitting beside him.

“Ah, you woke up,” the man said, and then carried on a one-way conversation about the news, the Cubs, the latest Hollywood marriage or divorce. Normally, Dr. Vandergriff had no time for such nonsense but there was something about the man…his voice. Only the doctor couldn’t place it as he drifted back to sleep.

“Pete,” the doctor thought, Pete the garage man. Then he remembered how years ago, Pete’s 6-year-old daughter was dying of congenital heart disease. The doctors said there was only a 20% chance she’d survive an operation but no chance at all without one.  That’s when Dr. Vandergriff was called in. It was a grueling surgery but when it was over, the little girl survived and later grew into adulthood.

Pete, whatever his last name was, was eternally grateful and always made sure the doctor’s car was parked near the exit of the parking garage, alway in two spaces so it would’t get dinged or scratched by other drivers. He also washed the car once a week and saw to its polishing.

But Pete had retired, what, five-six years ago? And his personal service at the garage left with him.

Yet, here he was, keeping the doc company, night after night.

Finally, doctors removed Dr. Vandergriff’s ventilator tube, and he rested a few more days before being sent home to recuperate.

It would be three months before he was able to return to the hospital to work but when he did, he went straight to the personnel office. He asked Mildred Foster the name of the garage super named Pete who used to work at the hospital. Mildred had to be 75 but she remembered almost everyone who ever worked there.

“You’re thinking of Pete Porcelli,” she said. “Let’s see,” she said, pulling up his records. “He retired from here in November of 2015.”

“Do you have a home address for him,” the doctor asked.

Mildred paused for a moment. “I’m sorry, Doctor, but Pete passed away two years ago.”

Decameron 2020: Saturday Matinee II

Greetings from Gales Ferry, home of the Yale Regatta. Here’s hoping you have a funny, sunny Labor Day.

Happy Labor Day Weekend! I hope this finds you and yours doing well, staying safe and hopefully not bored out of your minds. But if you are bored and you can handle watching another movie or two, I take a look back on fun classics from yesteryear. As before, these aren’t hard-to-find movies that are only brilliant to a handful snobs sharing the same drugs that allow them to see the genius in what the rest of us would find mind-numbingly boring. These are great classic films that modern audiences might have not known about or seen when they came out but deserve a chance. There aren’t many Labor Day-themed movies out there, but I do skirt 1955’s “Picnic” because I find that classic melodrama as depressing as all hell. And the year 2020 does not need another anything depressing.

MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION (1962): Jimmy Stewart is a stressed-out banker in need of a quiet romantic get away with his wife (Maureen O’Hara) and ends up on a summer vacation with the whole family that is anything but quiet and relaxing. Even teen heart-throb Fabian gets in the act. When I saw it first as a kid, I thought it was kinda lame, but as an adult looking at it more from the lens of Jimmy Stewart, I laughed pretty hard and thought it was rather inspired. Ultimately, this film set the template for many family vacation movies that would follow throughout the years. But, to the best of my knowledge, this is the ur vacation classic.

SUMMER RENTAL (1985): I’d like to say this John Candy classic is too young for this list, but it is 35 years old. It always seems to me to be one of the most overlooked Candy films, but it is one of my favorites…and a total total descendent of Mr. Hobbs. Candy is a stressed-out air traffic controller forced to take a vacation with his wife and kids. Candy’s take on it is more centered around getting in touch with his self while also struggling against a pompous rich sailor who is set on ruining Candy’s vacation. Comedian Rip Torn is hilarious as a pirate-like sailing instructor who helps Candy take control of his life again. Jimmy Buffet wrote the theme song.

ON THE TOWN (1949): If you’ve only got one day to see New York City and find —ah-hem—true love, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munchin are just the sailors to show you how. This high-energy musical is loaded with hit songs and great dance numbers. The girls the boys fall for aren’t too shabby, either. Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller and Betty Garrett are easy on the eyes and pretty clever to boot. It is a great postcard of NYC during its technicolor post-war glory days. Ironically, the film is older to us now than the 1900-guide book used by Frank Sinatra to see the city in the film.

ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953): Audrey Hepburn is a bored princess who escapes her gilded cage of royalty to see Rome. The sleeping pills her family gave her kick in while she is exploring the sites at night, and ruggedly handsome Gregory Peck is the American journalist who spots her passed out like a typical drunken tourist. Not recognizing who she is but seeing she is in danger, he takes her home to let her safely sober up. Recognizing her in the morning, he plots to write up an exclusive while taking her on a tour of the city, but as they fall in love he realizes he might not be up to his more cynical task. Pure escapism doesn’t get more charming. Also of note, the film was secretly written by the black-listed Dalton Trumbo who couldn’t collect his Academy Award for best screenplay on the film until decades later.

AUNTIE MAME (1958): Rosalind Russell is the one and only Auntie Mame who will help open up worlds for you that you never dreamed existed. A madcap millionaire flapper with a genius wit and sense of adventure navigates motherhood when her brother dies and leaves her his 10-year-old son, Patrick Dennis. Her unconventional mothering on the cutting edge of style, music, philosophy, theater and literature is a riot, and I dare you not to want an aunt like that of your own. It has been one of my favorites since the day I first learned how to blow bubbles with bubble gum. The movie is based on two novels by “Patrick Dennis,” and each of the novels is an absolute laugh fest if you ever get the chance to read them.

Decameron 2020: The Undertaker

The Undertaker
By Art Cerf

Having nothing to do with this story, here’s a Revolutionary War memorial to the patriots massacred at Fort Griswold in Groton, Conn., by British soldiers under the command of the traitorous Benedict Arnold.

Businesses across America were crashing but not Buddy Seldon’s. You see, Buddy was a mortician, inheritor of a small family business. And business was soaring.

Buddy was working seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, preparing up to four funerals a day, due to the Covid pandemic. By the time he would head home at night, he just had time to feed his cat, Abby, and throw a frozen dinner into the microwave. After eating, he would fall asleep from exhaustion, sometimes on the couch unable to make it to bed.

He had no personal life. What started as a promising relationship with Rachel Morrison died when he no longer had time to spend with her.

His only solace was the money was pouring in. He was clearing six figures after expenses every month. At this rate, he figured he’d be a millionaire within a few more months. Then he’d sell this profitable operation for even more money and then go live the life he wanted.

And that day finally came. He signed the sale papers, deposited the check and started making plans.

He called his travel agent and told her to book a month-long tour of Great Britain, from Scotland to Southhampton, from London to Wales.

The agent replied, “Sorry, Buddy, but you can’t travel to Britain…there’s a two week quarantine for all travelers.”

“Okay,” said Buddy, “Then make it a tour of Europe.”

“No can do,” said the agent. The EU has banned American tourists.

“How about Australia and New Zealand?”

“Same story,” said the agent. “Canada is out, too.”

She added, “I could still get you into Brazil, but I don’t think that would be very wise at this moment.”

Buddy said: “Okay…how about travel in the States. I’d love to have a spree in New York City.”

Again, the agent paused. “You live in one of the states from which New York is not accepting visitors, unless you quarantine for two weeks. And you don’t want to go to Florida or any other Southern states, Texas, Arizona or California.”

Buddy thanked her, opened a beer and had no idea what to do next.

Decameron 2020: Something Old

Something Old
by Nancy Bach

Kenelmcombe, Gloustershire, 21 December, 1869

 “Esme, stop squirming like a toddler, else I shall very likely stick you with a pin.”

This is a picture of a cat lying in the sun. He has nothing to do with the story. I just wanted to share because cats rule the internet.

Cooper, Lady Esmeralda Huddlestone’s once-upon-a-time nanny, then governess, and soon-to-be housekeeper, settled the Honiton lace wedding veil on her seventeen-year-old charge’s head. If Cooper had been human, instead of an automaton, Cooper reckoned her hands would be shaking.  They had been through so much to get to this day, one with real hope for the future. So, it wasn’t only Esme that had a case of the nerves today.

“I’m sorry, Cooper. I just….”  The young girl who had been in Cooper’s care almost continuously since she was an infant looked up at Cooper’s reflection in the dressing table mirror. Her eyes were wide, her face unusually pale, and Cooper could see tears sparkling on her dark lashes. “What if… what if Uncle Neville shows up?”

“Hush, now.  You know perfectly well that odious man is in Kenya. Didn’t he send a telegram to that pederast Everett Holmes, just day before yesterday?” Cooper fastened the veil onto Esme’s head with a wreath of Hellebores and viburnum, the best the garden at Harrogate Hall could offer in the middle of December. “He can’t possibly have travelled from Nairobi all the way to Gloucestershire in two days’ time.”

Esme didn’t appear soothed. “What if it was a trick? What if Uncle Neville knows we’re intercepting his telegrams? What if someone saw the wedding banns, and told him what you and Egg cooked up to save me?”

Cooper placed her hands firmly on Esme’s thin shoulders, the sensors in her copper alloy digits providing the feedback for her to calculate the right amount of pressure. “I daresay, I wouldn’t put it past him. But no. He doesn’t know. Professor Burroughs has every newsie and telegram boy in Highgate in his pocket. There is not a chance that a message could have gotten through.” From her artificial lips to God’s ear. Cooper’s features softened into a smile as she gazed at her young charge in the mirror. A smile only made possible by flexene, a patented alchemical substance that covered her copper alloy frame, created by the clever man who designed and built her, the great inventor Professor Hieronymous Burroughs. “Now look at you. Aren’t you just the picture of a lovely bride?”

Esme brushed at her tears. “But Everett’s still in England. What if Everett–”

Cooper used her stern nanny tone. “Enough of that, Esmeralda. If either your uncle or the horrid beast he tried to force you to marry show up at the church, I swear upon your mother’s grave that I will do whatever is necessary to forbid them ingress. Neither of those men will ever lay a finger on you again.”

Esme smiled, a little. “You would, wouldn’t you? Attack them, I mean.”

“Indeed I would. Professor Burroughs has recently modified my protocols to include a number of defensive and offensive maneuvers.”

Now Esme laughed. “Cooper, I adore you. You must teach me.”

There. Crisis averted. As if in response, Cooper felt a sort of loosening in her joints and cams. Had the Professor programmed that reaction the last time he tinkered with her circuits?  She didn’t remember experiencing that particular sensation before.  She made a mental note to ask him about it after the wedding.

With a small shake of her head that sent the curly tendrils of her ginger wig jiggling, she gestured at the mirror. “Now put a little rouge on those cheeks. You want to look your best for Lord Harrogate, don’t you?”

Esme’s smile faltered. “I do.  Of course, I do.”

Cooper waited for the inevitable ‘but’.

“Does Egg know, Cooper? About what Everett did to me?” Her voice caught. “The liberties he took when he would make me go riding with him?” She turned away. “I knew it was wrong, even though he told me it wasn’t, but I couldn’t stop him and now my life is ruined and–”

Cooper knelt, turned Esme to face her. “Hush now. Egg knows enough. I had to tell him some of it so that he understood the urgency of stealing you away. And you are not ruined.” Had she just told a lie? No, just an interpretation of the truth. Chadwick did not care that the girl had been compromised. It was what made this plan to have him marry her so perfect. He was the quintessential absent-minded scholar and didn’t care a fig about social proprieties. Oh, if only Esme’s Uncle Neville had not sent Cooper away, she would have stopped the perfidy before it started–with one of her knitting needles if it came to it. “Listen to me.  The important thing is that he’ll take good care of you and he’ll see to it that you regain control of your inheritance from your father. I’ve known Chadwick Eggerton longer than you’ve been alive. I was his…” She paused, considering how much of the truth she could tell. Oddly, there were no restrictions in her programming about this.  Odder still was that she had never before noticed. She finally decided on an innocuous term. “I was his housekeeper for many years before Professor Burroughs sent me to look after your mother while she and your father were in India. He is an honorable and gentle man.”

“Housekeeper? Really?” Esme raised her eyebrows, then frowned and scrunched her forehead. “I suppose as my husband, Egg will want to… um… you know…with me.” She gazed earnestly into Cooper’s green eyes. “Won’t that… I mean, I guess I’m afraid that…”

There came an odd whirring of gears in Cooper’s chest and she felt…she had no word for what she felt. Discomfort? Disquiet? Damn that crazy engineer, what had he done to her? “That’s really for the two of you to work out, but to make this marriage unassailable by your uncle, it should be consummated.”

Esme’s lip began to quiver, and Cooper stood briskly, despite her bushings being a little tight after her recent overhaul. She understood the child’s fears regarding the prospect of marital relations, all too understandable after Esme’s recent experiences with the heinous creature she had been betrothed to, but Cooper’s protocols told her it was important to help Esme focus on the future. “He’s been your teacher and mentor since you were twelve, child. You know he would never hurt you. Now come.” She took Esme’s hands and pulled the young bride to her feet. “Oh, but you are a vision, aren’t you? Your mother would be so proud.”

Esme looked at herself in the mirror, turning this way and that, admiring the dress with its yards and yards of damask and lace. It was simpler in style than was the fashion, and the bustle was perhaps not as large as was currently in vogue, but it had been Esme’s mother Essylt’s dress.  ]Though Cooper had had to take it in a bit, as Essylt had been a taller, more robust woman, Esme could not have looked more stunning if the dress had been custom made for her.

“It is a lovely dress, Cooper. You are a miracle worker!”  She embraced Cooper, careful not to catch the lace on any of Cooper’s fittings. “Thank you!”

Hoping she had set Esme’s nerves to right, Cooper beamed at her charge. “Now you know the saying. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. You’ve got something borrowed, that’s the dress. Your veil is something new. You’ve–”

“I’ve got Egg.” She giggled, some of her plucky spirit returning. “He’s got to be my something old.”

Cooper gave Esme a stern look, although a glitch in her programming wouldn’t let her features hold the expression.“Child, you will be the death of me. Your something old is Lord Harrogate’s grandmother’s parure.” She gestured at the sapphire and diamond necklace, earrings and bracelet that sparkled against the ivory damask and lace of Esme’s gown.

“I suppose.” She gave Cooper a wink. “Maybe I should pocket them, change into my new visiting dress, and you and I can abscond to Spain. We could live quite comfortably for decades on the money this jewelry would fetch us.”

Cooper stiffened her posture. “I am going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” She gave Esme her most severe look. Her programming allowed, even encouraged, a certain hardness–one needed to be strict with children. Recently, however, accessing those protocols had become difficult, and her tone came out less gruff than desired. Reaching into the pocket of her uniform’s black skirt, she pulled out a lovely blue silk and lace handkerchief with Esme’s new monogram embroidered into the corner.  “Now, here. I’ve made this for you. You can tuck it up into your sleeve, and it will be your something blue.”

Tears welled in Esme’s eyes again. She took the handkerchief with trembling fingers. “Oh, Cooper…”

“Esmeralda Elizabeth Penbre Huddlestone! Stop that sniveling immediately.”

Esme sucked in a shuddering breath. “Sorry. You’re right. I need to pull myself together. How much time have we?”

Cooper glanced at the clock. “Twenty minutes. We need to get you downstairs and ready for the carriage.” She drew the girl forward, unaccountably unable to stop herself from chattering. “The Professor wanted to replace the real horses with those clockwork monstrosities of his, but you just know they’d break down on the way to the church and you’d be late.” As much as Cooper adored her creator, it was well-known, though seldom discussed, that the majority of his inventions had flaws.

She hustled her charge out of the large, sunny bedroom and down the wide staircase into the front hall, carrying Esme’s train. “Now then, you wait here with Gregory. Don’t move or you’ll muss your dress. Mr. Livingston will see to it Chad–Lord Harrogate uses the back stairs. He mustn’t see you before you arrive at the church. Speaking of his Lordship, I must run up to see Himself. He’s requested my urgent assistance with something.”

Esme clutched at her arm. “Wait! Cooper, you can’t leave me now!”

Cooper patted Esme’s hand then gently removed it, her servos reacting sluggishly as though some part of her regretted the action. Which was stuff and nonsense. She had no programming for regret.  Putting her hands on her hips, she raised her chin and looked down at her charge. “Your mother was a Baroness, your father an Earl. You are a Lady, Esmeralda. Behave like one.”

Esme frowned, clearly not happy, but at least she didn’t burst into tears again. Cooper found her own facial features softening. Rearranging the folds of Esme’s veil, she leaned close and whispered, “You’ll be fine, love.”

Esme swallowed, then squared her shoulders and lifted her own chin. “I will, won’t I?”

Cooper nodded and stepped back, prouder than she ought to be. The gears in her chest that produced the artificial heartbeat that had soothed Esme as an infant whirred and clicked in an unfamiliar rhythm. Proud? She knew the word, but could automatons feel pride? Satisfaction perhaps, at knowing she had done an excellent job rearing her charge. But pride? And what was that strange sensation in her chest, as though something was seizing up inside? Was there a malfunction there? So many glitches today. What had Professor Burroughs done to her when he tinkered with her the other day? She really needed to speak with him, when the opportunity presented itself.

Her gears once again ticking normally, Cooper turned and hurried up the stairs. She wasn’t sure what Chadwick wanted from her that his gentleman’s gentleman Livingston couldn’t do just as well, but he’d requested she attend him, and so she would. If for no other reason than to make sure he got to the church on time.

 ***

Livingston opened the door to Chadwick Eggerton’s private chambers and gave Cooper a harried look. “He refuses to put on his suit until he speaks with you.” The tall, lean figure stepped aside and gestured her in to the heavily paneled room. The drapes were drawn against the chill weather and Cooper crossed to the two windows on the far side of the mahogany four poster bed and flung open the curtains. “Chadwick Nigel Eggerton, you are not a mushroom. Let in some daylight.”

Eggerton sat on the upholstered bench at the end of his bed in nothing but his good silk drawers, an undervest, and stockings, all held together by suspenders and garters.

Livingston gestured again. “You see?”

Cooper let out a sigh. Her eyes had not been designed to roll in their sockets, but there were times when she wished she could mimic the action used so often by her young charge. “I will deal with him, thank you, Mr. Livingston.”

With a frustrated harumph, Livingston let himself out and latched the door behind him. Cooper then turned to Eggerton.

“What are you waiting for? You’ll be late! Chadwick, you mustn’t be late to your own wedding. It’s simply not done. Not even for you.”

He gazed at her forlornly. “I am not so sure this plan of yours is the right thing.” He reached out his hands and she took them, as she had been programmed to do, and he pulled her down onto the bench beside him. “Ruby, darling.” He used the pet name he’d given her, when she’d first been sent to him. “What will I do with a wife young enough to be my granddaughter? You and I, we’ve been,” he paused, and Cooper could see him struggle to find a word that had the proper propriety. “We’ve been together, in a, er, conjugal way for so many years, and there are expectations for a gentleman on his wedding night. He brushed a tendril of hair from her cheek. “She’s not…”

Cooper was surprised. Shocked. She had to short-circuit this argument. “She’s not what? Pure enough? We’ve discussed this–”

“No!  No, that’s not what I meant at all!”  He looked away but kept her hands in his. “No, Ruby. It’s just, she’s not you.” He clutched at her hands, and she was both comforted by the feel of his touch against her sensors and disturbed by the desperateness displayed in the way he held on. “Having … marital congress … with Esme,” he appealed to her with sincere blue eyes, “feels like I’m being unfaithful to you.”

Her circuits stalled for a brief second and she could not think. That had never happened to her before. The lapse was only momentary, and when she recovered, she knew what she had to do, to say. “First, you must not call me Ruby. Not any longer. It was a sweet name you gave me, but with Esme to become your wife, I cannot be your Ruby any longer.”

Eggerton looked down at his feet. “That is the problem. You’ve always been my Ruby and now …”

Cooper felt that odd whirring in her chest and a strange constricted feeling in all of her parts, as though the oil in her tubing was viscous and sludgy. “Now it will be different.” She gave his hands a light squeeze, careful not to press too hard and aggravate his rheumatism. “You must go through with it, Chaddy. We have had our time together. Now it’s Esme’s turn. She’s been through so much for all she is so young. Please. Be the one to give her the chance to find happiness.”

Eggerton frowned. “How can a bright young thing like that be happy with an old curmudgeon like me?”

Cooper shook her head. “It’s a place to start. A safe place for her to find her wings.”

“And when she wants to fly away?”

“Then we let her.”

He thought for a moment then gazed at Cooper with twinkling blue eyes. “You are as brilliant as you are beautiful, Ruby.”

“Cooper. Cooper to you now. And you must be Lord Harrogate to me.”  She leaned her head on his shoulder. When had his thin frame become so stooped? “At least for the next little while.”

He slipped an arm around her and they sat for a minute or two, quietly enjoying each other’s company. Finally, she pulled away and stood. “Now you must get dressed. I will not allow you to be late. Livingston would never let me forget it. You know how things are below stairs.”

Eggerton chuckled. “I thought the two of you had come to an accord.” He stood and began putting on his boiled shirt, followed by his trousers.

“It is a tenuous truce predicated on my performing my housekeeping duties to his nearly impossibly high expectations.” She handed him articles of clothing, watched him struggle the same way she’d watched Esme struggle with her first pinafore as a child, fighting back the urge to help. “I’ll fetch him now, and he can do what he does best. I never could manage a bow tie.”

“Of course you can. You can manage anything you want, Ruby Cooper.”

He smiled and suddenly her artificial heartbeat sped up, and her oil sounded as though it were rushing through her tubes like a river. What was going on? It wasn’t an unpleasant experience. It was just odd. She was reminded suddenly of a penny dreadful she’d caught Esme reading, and the heroine in it, who when confronted with the wicked smile of the handsome and dashing hero, had heard her blood pounding in her ears.

That was ridiculous. She really should have a conversation with Professor Burroughs. She must find time for that. She must. And yet….

There came a pounding on the door, and Cooper spun, gears whirring in her chest cavity.

“Egg! Egg, man, are you decent?”

Cooper expelled a gust of air, her hand pressed to her madly ticking heart.  Professor Burroughs.  She’d recognize that bellow anywhere. She flung the door open before he dented the heavy wood.  “Professor, please. A bit of decorum.”

Hieronymous Burroughs, Inventor to the Queen, and one of the most brilliant scientists of his generation, bustled into the room and swept Cooper up in a bear hug. “My dear Cooper! You look stunning as always. Haven’t aged a day!” He chortled at his own joke, the same joke he’d been using for years.

“Professor, you saw me just last night after supper.”

He released her. “Remind me to adjust your humor settings, Cooper.”

Cooper shook her head. “I’ll make a note of it, sir.”

Burroughs swung around to face his friend. “What are you doing, old boy?  ou’re only half dressed!”  Then he cast a sly look at Cooper. “One last hour of passion, is it?”

Cooper stiffened. “It most certainly is not!”

“Now, now, don’t get your knickers in a twist, Cooper. It’s what I built you for, after all.”

Eggerton interrupted. “Originally perhaps, Hy, but she’s proven herself to be supremely adaptable to nearly anything. She is your most brilliant creation.”

Burroughs, nattily dressed in a morning coat, with his wreath of fluffy white hair and his well-trimmed beard, beamed at Cooper like a smartly turned-out Father Christmas. “Well. If I do say so myself.  Ahem.” He turned again to Eggerton. “Shouldn’t we be on our way to the church? I mean,” he pulled out his pocket watch, “It’s almost nine o’clock.”

Cooper inched her way to the door. “I’ll go and fetch Livingston. And remember, Professor, you gentlemen must take the back stairs. No one can see the bride before the wedding.”

“Yes, yes, Livingston will keep us on the straight and narrow.” Professor Burroughs chortled.  “Because no one is as straight and narrow as he is! Haha!”

Cooper quickly escaped and found Livingston waiting in the hall. “He needs your assistance now, Mr. Livingston.”

“Indeed.” He moved to the open door then paused and faced Cooper. “This…” He swept a hand around. “You have done a most excellent job arranging all of this, Cooper. I commend you.”

Cooper stood silent for a moment, thunderstruck. “I… Thank you, Mr. Livingston.”

He nodded at her curtly then brushed past her into his master’s room. She heard him sigh heavily as he snatched the bow tie from Burrough’s hands.

Knowing both Chadwick and the professor were in capable hands, Cooper hurried off. She needed to see to her own brief toilette before making sure Esme got into her carriage without any further damage to her dress than she had undoubtedly already caused.

 ***

The service took place in the little village church, a place of stone and ancient beams and well-worn wooden pews, tastefully decorated with winter flowers and greenery. Attendance had been kept to a minimum, despite the fact that the whole of the village had wanted to come. They adored Chadwick and the men would be downing pints of ale that night at the pub, in Chadwick’s and Esme’s honor. The bill for the impromptu fete would be footed by Chaddy himself, although the happy couple would not be in attendance. Chadwick knew which side his bread was buttered was on.

The bride and groom, the professor, Cooper and the household staff were present, along with the Reverend Wyeth, his wife and his eldest daughter, but that was all. The fewer people, Cooper had decided, then the less chance of anyone making an objection. She knew that despite having reassured Esme that there was no way her uncle could have found out about the wedding and do anything to stop it, his learning about their plan wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

The vows were spoken, and Chadwick slipped the ring that had been his mother’s on Esme’s slim finger. Cooper bit her lip as she saw Esme’s hand shake. Then at last, the vicar, who was a school mate of Chadwick’s and had been in the village since Cooper had first come to Kenelmcombe, pronounced the couple man and wife. Cooper felt her whole structure sag, as though her batteries had run down. Next to her, the professor grabbed her arm.

“All right there, Cooper?” Burroughs peered at her curiously, his pink cherub’s mouth curled up in an odd smile.

She gripped the pew in front of her until the weakness passed. “Yes. Thank you, Professor, I’m fine.”

But she wasn’t. As she watched Esme and Chadwick sign the parish register, and the other household staff gather round the bride and groom, Cooper knew something wasn’t right. She considered the many glitches she’d felt during the morning – and come to think of it all of the previous day – and knew that something was happening to her. If she had to put a name to it, she’d say she was ‘feeling’ things. Emotions. But that was impossible. She was an automaton, and her programming did not allow for emotions.

And yet as she watched Professor Burroughs pump Chadwick’s hand in congratulations then kiss Esme on the cheek, her heart stuttered in its beating and she felt a surge of energy in her circuits that caused a hundred different memories of her and Chadwick over the last thirty years to flood her awareness. They had been together, then apart when she went to do for Esme’s mother, then together again when Esme’s uncle had sent her away. Yet despite all of that they had always still been what they were to each other. Now… now things would never be the same between them. And that knowledge made her heart seize and her cams feel loose and the gears in her chest feel tight.

It was sadness. Or what she presumed sadness felt like.

And that was so very wrong.

It was her turn to greet the newly wedded couple. She pushed aside the wrongness and hugged Esme tight. “Such a beautiful bride. Your mother would be so happy for you.”

Esme had tears in her eyes, but tears of joy now, not of fear or shame or hopelessness. “Thank you, Cooper. You’ve given me back my life.”

Cooper smiled down at her charge. “It was my pleasure, my Lady.”

Esme batted her shoulder.  “Oh, stop that.  None of that ‘my Lady’ folderol.”  She stood on her tiptoes and whispered in Cooper’s ear.  “And you don’t have to call Egg Lord Harrogate, either.  He’ll always be your Chaddy, even if he’s legally my husband.”

Cooper gasped.  “What…”

Esme slipped her arm through her husband’s and pulled him into the conversation. “Cooper, I’ve known you all my life, and I am neither stupid nor unobservant. Do you think I don’t know about the two of you? I think you’re adorable together. So don’t let this marriage interfere with what you have.”

“I…we…” Cooper was aware her mouth was gaping open. She felt as though her circuits had shorted.

Chadwick too could do little more than stare open-mouthed.

“Oh, Cooper, you silly git.” Esme kissed her on the cheek. “I love you madly, you know. Now pull yourself together and help me with my train. Livingston will be livid if we don’t get back to the house in time for our wedding luncheon.”

That was certainly true enough. Already Cooper could feel the valet’s eagle eyes on her, as though he could push her to move faster simply by staring. She scooped up Esme’s train, arranging it over her charge’s arm, then followed the couple down the aisle of the modest stone church and out the doors, where the rest of the household waited to throw rice at the happy couple. The intense constriction of the gears in her chest eased and her joints felt fluid again.

As the two entered the waiting carriage, together now, as man and wife, Cooper could hear Chadwick chattering to his bride about their honeymoon trip.  “Now, I have arranged for us to start our Grand Tour in Copenhagen.  You’ll absolutely adore the National Museum of Denmark.  It’s run by my old friend Jens and has one of the finest collections of iron age artifacts in the world, outside of the British Museum.  We can test your ability to date iron age pot shards with more than the few samples I have available.”

Cooper smiled indulgently.  Chadwick was in teacher mode again, and Esme was nodding like a good student.  They might be husband and wife but had quickly slipped back into the roles most comfortable to them.

Chadwick continued as Cooper tucked Esme’s train into the carriage and closed the door. The girl had the audacity to wink at Cooper before returning her attention to her husband, who remained blithely unaware. “At some point, perhaps after Austria and Greece, we’ll go to Cairo, where I’ll introduce you to Mssr. Mariette. I know we’re not supposed to be friends with the French, but really, the work he’s been doing in Abydos is remarkable.”

He was still lecturing as the carriage trundled off down the lane.

Cooper turned to go but found Professor Burroughs at her elbow. He was regarding her curiously again, his head slightly canted to one side. “Are you sure you’re feeling quite well, Cooper?”

She paused for just a fraction of a second. She knew that if she told him of her glitches, of the experiences that she was likening to emotions, he could fix her. It was what he was best at – making sure she ran according to her protocols.

She glanced at the carriage, receding into the distance, thinking of the days of hope and happiness that stretched before her, then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “I feel quite well, Professor, thank you for your concern.”

“Cooper!” Livingston rescued her from any additional queries. “Quickly now! Lunch isn’t going to serve itself.”

She dipped her head at the professor then hurried after Livingston and the cart that would take the household staff back to the Hall. She was aware, for the briefest of instants, that Burroughs was smiling and nodding to himself.

Then protocol kicked in and she focused on the tasks at hand. Always best to look to the future, her programming said, which today, thankfully, looked bright indeed.

Decameron 2020: Queeg the Insidious

Queeg the Insidious
by Art Cerf

This is a pretty yellow flower I shot on the forest floor of Rib Mountain in Wisconsin. It has nothing to do with the story. I just thought it was pretty and eye-catching.

Far beyond our view in a space ship cloaked by Neptune, an alien race looked down upon earth. Its atmosphere was perfect, its temperatures were moderate and it seemed to have abundant water…ideal for colonizing.

Of course, there was the problem with the humans, billions in number.  It would cost the aliens oceans of green blood and who knows how many slotniks to fund an invasion.

And so the generals argued back and forth on the best approach. Finally, a lowly aide said there could be one way to conquer earth without the cost of a single slotnik. He spoke out of turn but the generals decided to hear him out.

He said, “Send one of our most toxic viruses to earth and target just one individual in some crowded city. Let him wander through town for days before he gets sick. In that time, he will have infected many others.  By the time local officials notice this, they’ll be busy denying there’s a problem and will try to cover it up.  But finally, the government will step in but also tell the world that it’s nothing too serious.”

“And the plague will spread around the world, poor countries rich countries…even the richest. And the leader of that country will downplay it and delay, allowing the virus to spread. Finally, a quarantine will be put in place but after weeks or months, people will demand to be released and the virus will spread anew.”

“By that time, the world will be so weary and weakened that conquest will be easy.”

The generals looked at each other before one finally spoke out.

“You should have been a philosopher, Queeq. You certainly aren’t a soldier. You may leave the room.”

Then the generals, again, took up plans for their attack.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Happy Father’s Day, Dad! Thank you for this awesome story. It was my ultimate favorite of your submissions. For those of you following this blog, this will likely be the last Decameron 2020 post for about a month. I will be back with more come mid- to late July. Hopefully, we can talk my mom into some stories for the summer. She, too, is a professional writer with more magazine credits than I can count.