Home Sweet Mars

Photo Credit: @deirdredenaliphotography on Instagram

Day 6 of the 7 Day #writingsprintchallenge offered by @tuftin.reads on Instagram. Today’s prompt is the photo above. The red hue in the upraised rock reminded me of the Red Planet and the little patches of ice, snow and green growth cast my thoughts towards the terraforming of Mars, a process that will take anywhere from 50 years to 100 million years, depending on who you talk to. It all begins in earnest before this decade passes. I’m a huge fan and so, my entry today is called, “Home Sweet Mars.” Enjoy!

I stood on the tarmac watching the Stella Rose flip and begin its graceful arc on her way to the surface. It never ceases to amaze me, the beauty of a well engineered rocket designed to traverse the space between Earth and Mars, stop, unload, load, refuel, repeat. SpaceX had grown into the most powerful and wealthy company in the solar system by the simple virtue of being the first to perfect the process. They are by far not the only show in town. Bezos pulled off his own version and has given Musk a run for his money.

But for me, today is not about rockets, except this one, the Stella Rose and not because she is a thing of beauty, something not only a space engineer could appreciate. No, this rocket is beautiful because within her bowels is my family, whom I haven’t seen in a decade. I could have made the return trip, but my work here is critical. I am in charge of Operation Green Mars. And today, all that hard work has paid off for me personally. 

The issue that has been kicked around and argued about for decades wasn’t about whether or not we could terraform Mars, but a question about how long it would take. We understood the process fairly well, but change takes time, as they say. But Musk, in his usual cavalier and ingenious moves, decided it was a question of scale. He decided that you simply increase the inputs on a massive scale, you could speed up the process of converting the Mars atmosphere into a true atmosphere, one that humans can breathe in freely. 

Today I stand on the tarmac, without a spacesuit. I drove my Tesla here with the windows down. I do have an oxygen breather, developed by the folks at AlphaSpace. It is clipped to my belt, and consists of a plastic tube that terminates with a nasal insert clipped to my nose. Inside the small device on my belt are oxygen tablets the size of chlorine tablets used in swimming pools. It is really just an oxygen-enricher designed to make up for the thinner Martian atmosphere.

Around me, the sides of Jazero rise in the distance, behind the Stella Rose as she touches down gracefully. They are covered this morning with ice and the green of lichens and moss. We are not there yet, but we have worked a miracle in the 25 years since our first manned  mission. 

I move forward as a crowd begins to form by the gated fence designed to keep us all a safe distance from the rockets. It doesn’t happen often, and it hasn’t happened now in over 12 years, but sometimes things go wrong and a rocket will explode after touching down. This one does not.

Soon Marie and the kids will be making their way down the gangway and we will be a family again—a Martian family! Welcome, I think, to home sweet Mars!

A History Lesson

Image from Strange Day Duluth on Instagram

This is day four in the #writingsprintchallenge offered by @tuftin.reads on Instagram. Today’s prompt is the image above. You should check out the account, Strange Day Duluth for some surreal posts. My entry is called A History Lesson. Read and see why.

“Class,” the teacher spoke with authority, “I’d like you to welcome our guest, renowned author, Mr. Huff. He is not only the author of some of your favorite books, but he was also a history teacher before becoming a writer. Please, give him a warm Tiger welcome!”

The class offered up a spattering of half-hearted claps and quickly grew silent. I looked over the class without speaking for a moment—pausing, as it were, for dramatic effect. Never mind that this was a virtual classroom and that I was in my PJs in my office on the 7th subfloor of the Houston Tower. Neither was the classroom real. The students were all tucked safely away in their homes. All of us were wearing our VR gear and the entire school, classroom and all, was a programming construct. It felt real.

“Thank you for having me today. And as much as I love talking about my books, Mx. Bradley has asked me to talk to you about history. I taught Texas history, once upon a time. Back then, Texas was a state in the United States of America. Of course, now it is the Republic of Texas, once again, I might add. Texas broke away for the US when the United States decided to absorb Canada and form the United States of North America. Texas had its own plans. They invaded Mexico, then Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and so on, until it stretched form the Red River to the border of Columbia.”

“All of that, of course, was before the rising,” a bright young students said, waving her arm overhead, but not waiting to be called upon.

“Correct! That was when Houston was a costal city. Now Austin is a coastal city, and Houston exists as one of the world’s first submerged cities—not dead and gone, like Galveston, Corpus Christi and so many, many more. Houston’s engineers began armoring their downtown structures from the ground up to and beyond the level to which they believed the sea would rise.”

The discussion went on for some time and devolved into fielding questions about my YA novels. I finally unplugged and pushed away from the console. I looked out my window, several meters below the sea level. A whale moved past, on its way to the surface for a breath. Life is good.

What’s REALLY at the End of the Rainbow?

The Challenge:

Create a written piece using the prompt below.

What is REALLY at the end of the Rainbow?

I am  fairly certain that there was more than one prompt, there always was and normally, I challenged myself with writing a piece using, not one, not two, but all three prompts.  Apparently I did not rise to that challenge on this one.

Also, I am not proud of my dialogue.  I suck at dialogue on a good day.  This was a quick piece and mostly unedited, so…

Anyway, this is my attempt…

________________________

dungeon

“What was that?” I asked aloud, my own voice echoing back to me in a sinister whisper not my own, as though someone stood in the shadows mocking me.  Turning around to study my surroundings once again in the flickering torchlight, I saw only the damp, moldy walls of the lowest dungeon.  With each step I took across the debris-strewn floor, crunching noises erupted from beneath my feet.  As far as I could see in the unsteady light, the carcasses of various rodent and vermin, some of them human, lay in heaps scattered across the floor.  A shudder went down my spine.  The smell of it all beat upon me—the perfume of death and decay.  The only sound here, the relentless traffic of water, seeping through the floors, the walls and ceiling.

I remembered my foolish boast, “What is there to fear in the dungeon?”  What indeed?  Steeling myself to my mission, I pressed onward, down one of the many narrow, low-ceilinged passages honeycombing the bedrock foundation of the castle.  The path wound its way ever deeper beneath the earth.  Not the slightest hint of air current stirred through this death maze.  How could he be alive after all these years, in these conditions?  How anyone could live a week in this filthy hell, I could not fathom, but two decade?  Impossible!

After an interminable time, the passage leveled out and I entered a cavern with iron cells built along its walls.  Holding the torch up to each as I passed, I began searching for the one that held my father.  What I saw here cannot be described: creatures, no longer human, staring out at me with vacuous eyes, their sweet, syrupy, sticky…smiles of delirium and madness, drooling little trails of spittle through the filth that covered their half-naked bodies.  The stench of it all threatened to overwhelm me; several times I retched until I thought my stomach itself would heave out upon the floor.

Finally, in the last of the cells, I found him.  I knew him.  Perhaps it was his spirit that gave him away to me; certainly it was not his appearance for he had aged beyond the intervening years.  Somehow, he had survived—his gaunt frame only the slightest whisper of his former self.  But his spirit was indomitable.  I could see it his eyes.

“Father, I’m here! I’ve come to rescue you!”  I choked on the words as I fumbled frantically with the locked  gate. The key I had acquired fit easily, but try as I may, it would not turn.  In my haste, it broke off in the lock.

“It is no use,” his voice grated, like the rusted gate, it had not been used for a long time.  “It has been bewitched.”

I fell back, startled to hear him, and hopeless at his words.  “But there must be a way!”

“No, but all is not loss.  I have waited for you.  I knew you would come.”  He erupted in a racking cough, blood appearing on his lips.

“Father!”

“Don’t worry.  Death will come as a relief to me here.  I will at last be free.”  He smiled weakly.  “I have waited to tell you what only I can tell.  They have tried again and again to get it from me.”  He coughed again, this time the blood flowed more freely.  He wiped it with the back of his hand.

Incredulous that he had managed to keep his secret against every effort to pry it from him, I was excited that the answer would soon be mine.  So many had died attempting to attain it.  And, many had killed, as well.  I leaned against the rusting bars and strained to catch his words.

“There’s,” he gasped, “There’s a…” and he collapsed dead upon the floor.

I grieved there by his cell for as long as the conditions would allow me.   When I could bear it no longer, I made my way up the wending path, to return again to the world of light.  I could not grieve deeply for a man I barely knew, but I felt a deep satisfaction that my traitorous uncle would never know the answer to that question.  It never occurred to me that he would not believe my father had not told me.  When the guards met me as I emerged from the secret passage, I suddenly realized it had all been too easy, that I had been allowed to “rescue” my father, in the very hope that he would divulge the precious secret.  Now I sit in the very cell inhabited by my dead father, to scribble these words upon the damp walls for no one to read, and to ponder the question my father died refusing to answer, “What is REALLY at the end of the Rainbow?

A Recipe for Success

The Challenge:

Create a written piece using one or more of these prompts.

Tail of two Gypsies | Inquiring minds want to know | Something based on a superstition that proved the superstition right!

Here’s my attempt…

________________________

narrow building

The bookstore went almost unnoticed as Kali shuffled by.  I say shuffled, because Kali was deep in a funk, a treacherous, black funk, the morose sort that consumes your every thought, dragging you down into a dark whirlpool of despair.  It was just this sort of funk that had Kali shuffling down that particular street on that particular day.  Her boyfriend of nearly three months, a personal record for her, had not called her for two straight days.  And what’s more, when she called him, his line was busy!  This was not good and could mean only one thing—he was growing cold.  She’d seen it before and it always hurt, but never like this.  This time she was truly in love!  She had to do something about it; only, she had no idea what.  That’s why she was in such a funk and nearly passed the old shop.

It resided in an ancient, dilapidated building that leaned precariously against its neighbor for support.  In the store window squatted an extremely fat, black cat atop a humongous pile of books.  Above the door, attached at just one corner by a chain, a wrought-iron sign dangled dangerously, swinging in the breeze.  On it perched a stuffed owl, barred, if I’m not mistaken, holding a book in one talon and gripping its iron perch with the other.  Above the owl, in faintly gilded gold letters, were the words, “Ye Olde Book Shoppe” and beneath it, in smaller letters, “Inquiring Minds Want to Know”  And if that weren’t enough to get the attention of any even moderately curious girl, the front door swung open all by itself.

Kali entered.  Inside her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light.  Everywhere there were books, books in great, huge stacks, books laying all jumbled across the tables,  piled in heaps under the tables and even in the aisles.  It was unlike any bookstore Kali had ever seen.  In the center of it all, behind a dark mahogany counter, surrounded by mountains of books, stood an old woman, her spectacles thrust down to the very tip of her nose.  Silver hair framed her face like a halo Kali had seen in Renaissance paintings.  Skin the color of ivory stretched tautly over her tiny frame, with not a wrinkle or blemish to be seen.  Kali knew in an instance that she was old beyond belief: her eyes gave her away.  Piercing and intelligent and warm all at once, they spoke of more than any one lifetime could possibly behold.  And even though they were what caught and held her attention, Kali could never recall afterwards what color they were.

Kali realized that she had been standing for some time simply staring at the woman.  She blushed and stammered, “What a lovely store you have.”

“Nonsense!  Balderdash!  Say what you mean, not what you mean to say.”  The woman retorted in a surprisingly sharp voice.

“But I did, it is a lovely store.”  Kali said defensively.

“Interesting? Yes!  Quaint? Maybe.  A mess?  Most definitely!  Lovely?  I don’t think so!”  The woman pushed her glasses up and looked as if to study Kali more closely.  “What is your name, girl?”

“K-k-kali,” she answered, a bit put off by the woman’s abrasiveness.  With a little defiance, she added, “And yours?”

“And what are you seeking?” the woman asked, ignoring Kali’s cheek.

“Seeking?”  Kali repeated a bit perplexed.  “Nothing!”

The woman chortled.  “Everyone is seeking something.”

“Not me.”

“No?”

“No!”

The woman paused a bit, searching Kali’s face.  Then she said, “No boy problems?”

Kali’s amazement showed.  “How did you know?”

“Close your eyes and turn around three times.”

Too confused to resist, Kali did as she was told.

“Now, with your eyes still closed, move forward and pick up a book.”

“Which book?”

“Any book you want, but you must keep your eyes closed!”

Kali moved forward gingerly, her hands in front of her, groping air.  She came upon a pile of books and felt her way along them, fingers exploring first one book (too heavy), and then another (too big) and another, each one inspected, weighed, judged and rejected, all with her eyes clamped shut.  At last, she gripped a little cloth-covered book with raised stitches along the binding.  Her skin tingled at the touch of it and warmth spread through her as she held it.

“This one,” she said tentatively, half question, half statement.

“Keep you eyes closed,” the woman barked.

“How much does it cost?” Kali asked.

“Everything and nothing!”  The woman was suddenly at her side.  She took the book from Kali’s hand and then returned it to her wrapped in crisp paper.  “When I tell you to, you can open your eyes again, but don’t look at the book until you are again in your own room.”

“Now,” she whispered.

Kali opened her eyes and nearly fell over.  She stood upon the very street she had shuffled down before entering the store.  The woman was nowhere in sight and neither was the store.  In its place an empty lot squatted between hulking buildings.  Kali blinked several times as if to clear her vision.  She felt numb, dreamlike.  It wasn’t real, she thought, until she looked in her hand.  It was the package of brown paper tied with cord.

“Oh, my!” she said aloud, “It really did happen!”  She fumbled with the string, trying to work it over the corner of the book.  Then she remembered what the woman had said.  Slipping the package into her purse, she hurried to get to her room and see what she had bought.

About half way there, she realized that she hadn’t paid for it.  This pulled her up short.  That couldn’t be right.  That would be stealing!  But what did she say, “Everything and nothing?”  What was that supposed to mean?  Was it a riddle?  She hated riddles!  Nothing means it’s free and everything means it isn’t.  So which is it?  How could it be both?  It made her head hurt.  Shrugging it off, she continued on her way, perhaps just a little less excited as she had been.

Once in her room, she cut the string with a pair of scissors and ripped the paper off.  The cloth cover was orange.  Her favorite color!  The title, hand-lettered in purple ink, was “Recipes for Success” and beneath it, in smaller bright green letters, “A Collection of Curses and Spells by Gilda Hogsbreath”.

Kali’s hand trembled as she turned the cover.  On the facing page, a poem was inscribed.  It said:

On these pages

words of power

Comfort in your darkest hour

Be not hasty in their use

For they will not

abide abuse

This one thing is sure

If your heart is not pure

What you speak will transpire

But not as you desire

Heed this warning

Or else!”

Kali frowned.  Or else?  Or else what?  She turned the page and the backside was blank.  “Well, that’s a silly poem, isn’t it?” she thought.  “And not a very good rhyme, either!”

She began flipping through the book, perusing the titles at the top of the pages, things like “Find Something Lost”, “Put an End to Gossip”, and “Put Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder.”  Every recipe listed ingredients under the title and beneath that, instructions.  One called “You Call the Shots” sounded promising.  Its ingredients included, “a pinch of dry mustard, two drops of hot pepper sauce (the green ones), a sprig of clover, hair of a one-eyed cat (Calico) and three toe nails from a large dog, among other things and the instructions called for a quarter moon on a Tuesday between midnight and 2 a.m.  Very strange!  She continued to flip the pages until at last she stopped on a page in the center of the book.  At the top it said, “Make Him Stay.”

“Hmm…” she thought aloud, “This sounds interesting.”

The page contained a short list of necessaries: the tail of two Gypsy moths, ½ cup of white vinegar transfused with two crushed garlic cloves, an article of clothing from the intended target (preferably something intimate) and a dash of cayenne pepper.  She could do all of this, except the intimate article of clothing.  She had none of his clothes.  That would be difficult, especially if he wasn’t seeing her.  The directions were even worse:  grind the moth tails into a fine dust (very easy) and add a dash of the pepper.  Sprinkle entire content over the article of clothing.  Pour the garlic vinegar over all and roll up tightly.  Do this on date with significance to both you and your target.  Hide it in a dark place for exactly 240 hours, remove and wear.  Your beloved will follow you like a faithful pup.  Drawn to you like a moth to the candle flame.

________________________

I know this is not complete, but it is what I produced in response to the above prompt (plus a few edits).  I love this character.  Kali and the disappearing book shoppe have found a place in my heart and I want to do something with this some day.  Until then, I share it with you.