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AeroQuest 1… Canto 1

Canto 1 – Escapade

When you look out the portal of a space craft, especially a large portal like the main view-port of the Leaping Shadowcat, you get a glimpse of the great orchestra of light and silence that has been playing its music in space since the dawn of time.  The diamond-bright stars glow with an electric melody in a great sea of black, littered with the silent notes of the Galactic Symphony written on the face of the universe, and being conducted by God himself.

Ged Aero stared at this silent music as he contemplated his brother’s plan.  Ham Aero had proposed the impossible.  How could it be the only solution?

“You can’t deny it any more, Ged.  The Galtorr Imperium is no place for a man like you.”

“…but the unknown, Hamfast?  How can you expect to get by beyond the edges of known space?”

“Others have done it in the past.  You know that civilization still has not absorbed even half the worlds that Martin Faulkner visited five hundred years ago.”

“Yes,” said Ged, pulling at the front brim of his dirty brown fedora as if to hide his eyes and the doubt that was in them, “but he was an explorer.  He knew how to live in space without any human contact for years on end.”

“What he can do, we can do.”  Ham pushed a fall of thick yellow hair out of his eyes.  It had been far too long since he had had a haircut, but only their mother had been allowed to do it, and she was now gone.  “We have to.  Prejudice against you has reached the point that it will be fatal.”

“Okay, I know that.  But I’m learning to control it.  I don’t have to change all the time.  I can stop it when I need to, and maybe even start it myself.  I don’t know why it happens, but I think I can make it work for me instead of against me.”

“Yes, well, mutations like yours are almost always fatal in the end.  You’ll slip at the wrong moment, and the Imperials will have your head on a platter.  What did they call your disease?”

“Lycanthropy.  Werewolf disease.”

“That’s my point exactly.  We both know it’s really something else, but the torches will come out to burn you the next time they see you change even a little bit.”

“Unknown space, Ham?  Does it have to be unknown space?”

“Yes, Ged.  Unknown space.  It’s my spaceship.  The decision is ultimately mine.”

It was a beautiful space ship.  It was a safari cruiser of the Xenomorph Class, a smooth airfoil shape with silver skin and a photon drive that could leap across parsecs of space in practically no time.  It could land on planets with atmosphere as easily as it could glide through the electric sparkle of space.  It had a good, sturdy ground ATV and accommodations for as many as twenty-five people.

“So how do you plan to navigate the unknown?”  Ged knew Ham was a capable starship captain, but they had no reliable navigator.  And the third member of their minimum crew of three, the engineer, was not even aboard.

“Goofy can do it.  He’s more gifted than you believe.”

“Don’t tell me your friend Trav Dalgoda is the engineer we’re waiting for!”

“Okay.  I won’t tell you.”

“Are you insane?  You’re going to jump out into unknown space with that Lunar Tick as our only means to fix the ship and set our course?”

“Yeah,” said Ham, grinning.  “It doesn’t sound too smart when you put it that way.  But he is an original thinker and a good problem-solver.”

“He’s also wanted on four planets and owes ten million Galtorrian credits to the biggest Vice Lord in the Thousand Planets.”

“Yeah.  It was easy to talk him into jumping out with us.”

“Oh, I’m so glad it was easy.”

The two brothers had started calling their boyhood friend, Travis R. Dalgoda, “Goofy” when, as an academy graduate, he started wearing an eye patch over his left eye even though he could see through it perfectly.  It didn’t hurt that he always wore that silly Donald Duck sailor’s hat that he got on his one and only leave on the Disney planet.  He also had a thing for ties with weird pictures or sayings on them.  Trav was one of a kind.

“I guess I understand your plan finally,” Ged said morosely to Ham.  “You’re going to bring an end to my suffering by committing suicide in deep unknown space.”

“Yeah,” said Ham staring out the view port at the silent music of the stars, “Something like that…”

At that moment, a blazing piece of space junk trailing sparking debris came fluttering toward them like a wounded sparrow.

“Oh, gawd!  Get to the co-pilot console, Ged!”

Whatever it was, it was maneuvering, using powered flight.  It was apparently seeking them out.

“Any bets that this burning space-ball is Goofy?” Ham asked as he strapped himself into the pilot chair.

As if in answer, Trav’s voice came over the ship-to-ship commo.  “Ham-boy!  You gotta help me.  I picked up a band of followers on my way out of system!”

“Yep.  That’s Goofy,” moaned Ged.

“I’m pickin’ up bad guys!” shouted Ham.  He flipped on the commo.  “Goof?  You got six of them on your tail?”

“Oh, is that all?  My sensors are out.  I figured it was more like fifty.  Pinwheel Corsairs, ain’t they?”

“Yes.  I make them to be Tron Blastarr and Maggie the Knife.  What’s your beef with them?”

“Oh, they’re friends of mine.  I helped them loot a cargo out of Mingo Downport.  They just didn’t like the ninety-ten split I left them with.”

“Typical,” muttered Ged.  “They got the ten, right?”

“Could I split it any less fair than that?” Trav answered. Ham launched the Leaping Shadowcat into an arching intercept course.  Ham had never done a high-speed docking maneuver before, that Ged knew of, but the young pilot was about to learn fast.

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When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 30

Canto Thirty – Rage in the Clarke Name

Kyle Clarke came storming into the Zeffer house before either the sheriff’s deputy or Mrs. Philips could arrive.  He was angry to the point of curse words over what apparently had happened to Valerie.  He made Mrs. Zeffer and Ray repeat the story of how Ray found her three times before he even started calming down.  He made it clear he wanted the story from Ray, not Valerie.  Once he had learned she had been unconscious, he didn’t even want to hear her version of events.  He told her she would not be able to make sense of things until she was well rested and recovered.  He wanted Mrs. Philips, a registered nurse, to examine her before any other investigation took place.  Valerie could only imagine in horror what he suspected.

“Mrs. Philips!  We need you to examine little Valerie Clarke,” said Mrs. Zeffer as Mary’s mother arrived at the Zeffer home.  “She’s been attacked by someone.”

Mrs. Philips was very pale, and also seemed shaken.

“What is the matter, Mrs. Philips?” Kyle asked.  “You seem unwell.”

“My daughter Mary and her boyfriend Pidney Breslow are missing.  I’m afraid it has something to do with what happened to Valerie.”

“Oh, no!  We’ve phoned the sheriff already and he’s sending Deputy Harper from Belle City to investigate,” Kyle said in a concerned tone.

“Do you know what happened?” asked Mrs. Zeffer.

Ray was sitting on the bed in Bobby’s room next to Valerie who was already wearing the clothes Kyle had brought her.  Both of them looked at the adults standing just outside the bedroom doorway.  Valerie’s fear for what might’ve happened to Mary and Pid was overwhelming.  She leaned against Ray’s shoulder and began to cry softly.

“It was the strangest thing.  The three of them were all in our basement, reading some old book.  Then, suddenly there was a purple fog in the house.  It smelled so sweet it made me sick to my stomach.  It apparently knocked me out.  When I came to, I found my daughter Amy and her brother Jason were both sleeping on the floor.  They had been knocked out too.”

“And the kids were taken from your house?”  Kyle looked alarmed and upset.

“Yes, all we found were their clothes in the basement.  I have never seen anything so strange.  Whoever took them must have stripped them naked first.”

“Oh, you poor dear,” said Mrs. Zeffer, taking hold of Lady Philips’ shaking hands and guiding her to a chair in Bobby’s room.  “Sit here.  Let me get you some tea.”

“Was there any indication who might have done this terrible thing?” asked Kyle.

“I… I don’t know,” Mrs. Philips said as Mrs. Zeffer bustled out of the room to make tea.  “We found the empty clothes… and then you called asking me to come here and examine Valerie.”

“You should’ve said something then,” Kyle said.

“I… I just felt numb.  I told Jason to look after Amy and came right here to see what I could find out.”

“All right… um, Mrs. Philips… I called you over here to examine my daughter Valerie.  I was worried someone might have… well, she was found naked in the alley, unconscious.”

Lady Philips made a small strangling sound in her throat.  Valerie knew immediately what she must have thought had happened to Mary.

“I’m okay, Daddy.  I know for a fact that nobody did anything like that to me.”

“Valerie, princess, you were unconscious.  Somebody drugged you and stripped you naked.  We need to be certain what happened.”  Daddy Kyle was trying to be comforting and soothing, but there was a cold, desperate edge to his voice that actually scared Valerie.  She looked at Ray.  Ray’s eyes were frightened too.

“Your dad is right, Val.  You need to be checked.  Mrs. Philips is an RN, a professional nurse.  She’ll be able to tell.”

“Okay, Ray,” said Valerie’s dad coolly, “You should go help your mother in the kitchen.  Deputy Harper will be here soon.”

Ray reluctantly let go of Valerie and stood up.  “You know, sir, that I would never hurt your daughter.”

Kyle’s angry glare softened a bit.  “I… I do know that, son.  And believe me, I am grateful for the way you rescued her and brought her somewhere safe.  I’m on edge right now.  I don’t know what was done or who did it.  You know what I mean?”

“Of course.  If I were in your shoes, I’d be afraid for my daughter too.”

Ray nodded resolutely.  Then he went out of the room.

“I will examine her in private, Mr. Clarke.  I will be able to tell.  I have treated rape victims before.  I don’t have a kit with me, but I will know if one needs to be used… Only…”

“What?” Kyle asked.

“After we know, I am going to need you and Deputy Harper to find Mary.” Valerie’s dad was grim-faced, but he nodded his agreement.

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When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 26

Canto Twenty-Six – The Secrets of Stupid Dogs

Valerie-squirrel, despite the almost endless supply of squirrel energy provided by a fast-pumping squirrel heart, was panting and out of breath as she stopped at the corner of Cecily Dettbarn’s porch roof.  She needed to catch her breath, but she could see Mazie Haire’s Gingerbread House on the other side of the Norwall water tower, just across the street.  Even better, she hadn’t seen Skaggs the cat for at least two blocks.

The evil cat had nearly caught her as she ran along the fence back at the Kellogg place.  When he had lunged at her, he missed, and he toppled into the concrete birdbath that sat between the fence and Mrs. Kellogg’s big bay window on the west side of the house.  She hadn’t seen the cat since she had left him behind there, sputtering cat-curses and spitting out old sparrow feathers.

Valerie-squirrel had gone back up into the trees to travel the rest of the way north on Whitten Avenue, and then from maple to maple along the north side of main street.

Now, looking carefully all around for signs of danger and lurking cats, she climbed down the trellis on the side of the Dettbarn house.  She then sniffed the air and scampered quickly across the street to tall grass under the water tower.

“Boof!  Boof!  Boof!” barked Barky Bill from the end of his chain behind Martin’s Bar and Grill.

“What does boof mean, stupid dog?” Valerie-squirrel thought in the direction of the stupid dog.

“Well, it means boof, or possibly bark in dog language.  How is it you don’t know that already?  You are a dog, aren’t you?”

Valerie-squirrel was stunned.  “I thought the cat told me dogs can’t speak.  You’re Barky Bill, aren’t you?”

“I answer to that, yeah.  But also, Stupid Dog, and Ijit Dog, and Damned Dog… and some other strange words that end in dog.”

“Skaggs the cat told me you couldn’t speak.”

“Yeah.  The cat’s right.  Dumb dogs can’t speak.”

“But you’re talking to me now.  What do you mean dogs can’t speak?”

“You are a dog, ain’t ya?  Dogs can talk to other dogs.  We do it by waggin’ tails and sniffin’ butts and stuff.  You know about that, right?”

“I’m not a dog.  I am a girl, actually.  Valerie Clarke.  But I’ve been turned into a squirrel by black magic.”

“Oh, yeah.  You are a squirrel!  I can smell you from here.  But not the eating kind of squirrel.  I can smell that you are not a real squirrel.”

“Do you smell the cat?  Skaggs?  He was chasing me, trying to kill me.”

“No.  I hate the dumb cat.  I will kill him some day.  I don’t smell him now… no.”

“Good.  Promise you won’t eat me if I go over to the Gingerbread House?”

“The witch’s house?  You don’t want to go there.”

“Yes, I do.  And I don’t want you to attack me when I try to get there.”

“Oh, I would never eat you.  You smell like the prettiest little squirrel-girl that ever lived in this town.  I will protect you.  I will boof at the cat if he comes near.  And one day I will kill him.  But I could never eat you.  Barky Bill is a good boy, yes, he is.”

Valerie-squirrel was a little worried that Barky Bill might not be completely sane as dogs go.  She didn’t know if she dared run past too close to the chained and perpetually angry dog.  So, giving him the widest possible berth she could manage, she slipped under the water tower and down the alley behind main street into the back yard of the Gingerbread House. “Boof! Boof!  Boof-boof-boof-boof!” was how Barky Bill ended their brief conversation.

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When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 17

Canto Seventeen – Invisible People

The next day Valerie had a chance to hang out with Pidney and Mary again, so she took it.  She road into town on the school bus after school with Danny Murphy.  They didn’t actually talk about anything the whole way.  Anticipation is often better than the real thing.  And it wasn’t often that Mary and Pid were both off directly after school.  Pidney had no football practice that afternoon, and Mary canceled whatever school meetings she had planned that day in order to come back to Norwall with him after school.  The four Pirates were supposed to meet in the Library for Pirate business.

“There’s Mary and Pid,” said Danny pointing as he and Val stepped off Milo’s school bus.

“Yeah, but who is that?” Valerie asked, pointing at a mysterious cloaked figure standing behind the tree by the Library door.  She was instantly reminded of the cloaked man she had seen the day they got the Tiki idol.

“Hey, Pidney!” Danny shouted, “who is that near you behind that tree?”

Pidney was holding the door of his step-dad’s old 70’s Lincoln Mercury to help Mary get out.  Mary carried a tall stack of books.  They had driven home from the high school in Belle City together.

“What man?  Where?”  The figure moved out of sight behind the large fluffy pine tree.

“Look behind the tree!” shouted Valerie.

Pid walked around to where he could see behind the tree.  He looked back a Valerie and Danny and shrugged.  “Nobody here that I can see,” he said.

“You guys need to see what we found in the high school library,” said Mary waving them to come towards the Library building.

Valerie looked at Danny.  He shrugged.  They both walked toward the Library.

“I found some old high school yearbooks in the library,” said Mary.  “We can use them to get an idea what Captain Dettbarn used to look like.  He’s kinda hard to describe any other way.”

“And there’s a book about the ship, Mary Celeste.  It tells about the old ghost ship, not the Captain’s ship, but I still think it is important,” said Pidney.

Valerie and Danny walked across the street from the bus stop to join the two high school kids.

“Here’s the 1962 Belle City Bronco yearbook,” said Mary, handing the black-bound thin book of pictures to Valerie.  “The Captain is in the Junior Class in that one.  He had a beard then, just like the one he had on his face the last time I saw him.”

Valerie opened to the page of Junior portraits and ran her finger over the C’s and D’s until she got to Dettbarn.  He was kind of a dumpy fat boy even then, with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a derfy smile that showed his crooked teeth.  He had a rather ratty looking beard, which was perfect for a rodent-like face, that, while it didn’t look like a rat, it did look an awful lot like the face of a woodchuck, or some kind of short-toothed beaver.

“He’s kinda funny looking,” Val said to herself, but loud enough for all to hear.

“Now, see here!  I take exception to that remark!” said a cloaked and hatted figure stepping out of the shadow of the evergreen tree by the door.

“Who…?” croaked Mary, leaping away from the figure and towards Pidney.

“Help me…!” squawked Danny as he awkwardly leaped into Pidney’s arms, the football muscles catching hold of the smaller boy easily.

“Don’t you get mad at me!” said Valerie hotly.  “It is not like I was talking to you… whoever you are!”  She lunged toward the stranger, grabbing his yachting cap and yanking it off his head. 

But where the head was supposed to be… nothing at all there except a pair of thick bifocal glasses hanging in the air like they were weightless in outer space.

Valerie looked at the glasses, and then down at the yearbook picture still in her other hand.  Yes, it was an updated version of the same style of thick glasses. 

“Erm…  Captain Dettbarn.  It’s you!”

“Uncle Noah?” Mary said.  “What happened to your head?”

“Oh, um… it’s still there, Mary dear.  Head-hunters didn’t eat it or anything.  I am just the victim of a curse.  A curse that makes my body completely invisible.”  He removed the cloak to reveal a free-standing pair of pants, a short-sleeved red-and-white-striped shirt, and empty neckerchief, and floating white gloves that didn’t seem to be properly attached to the invisible dumpy body wearing the sailor’s clothes.

“Er, uh… sir?” asked Pidney, “What is all this purple smoke coming out from behind the pine tree?  It has a funky smell, like burning sugar or something.”

“Well, I hate to say it, but that is an indicator that the witchdoctor himself is watching us at the moment from somewhere not too far away.  That purple smoke always seems to come around right before some evil magic happens.”

“Oh, that’s not good.  Maybe we better go inside the library before anything bad can happen.”  Mary was looking around the street for signs of the evil witchdoctor.

Pidney put Danny on the ground and both boys headed up the Public Library steps.

“Um, uh… Pretty girl, can I have my hat back.  I want to go in the library in disguise.  No sense in scaring the librarian.”

Valerie frowned at the invisible man as she handed him back the hat and the disembodied gloves placed it back on top of his invisible rodent-like head.

“Let’s go inside the Library,” said Mary.  “We have things to talk about and questions to ask… Lots and lots of questions to ask.”

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When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 18

Canto Eighteen – Library Lies

The four young Pirates took the invisible Captain into the Norwall Public Library, into the reading room where all the encyclopedias were kept, along with the piano used for community sing-a-longs after town council meetings.  They all took seats around one of the round tables used for meetings and, on rare occasions, students doing homework.

Valerie kept staring at the empty space behind the floating glasses where the Captain’s face actually had to be.  If she squinted and stared real hard, she could almost picture a face there, though an older face than the yearbook photo Mary had shown her.

“Uncle Noah,” Mary said, “You have to answer some questions for us now.”

“Well, um, heh-heh… what exactly do you children want to know?”

“How did you become invisible?” Danny demanded.  “And can you teach me how to do it too?”

“Why do you want to be invisible?” Valerie asked Danny, while poking him in the ribs with a finger.

“Yeah… well… you see, I could go into the girls’ locker room at school, and…”

“Okay, not that question!” insisted Mary.  Pidney beside her was a bright crimson color in the face.  “Tell us, Uncle Noah, why you became invisible.”

“Well, that was not a matter of choice.  Did you read the log book I sent you?”

“Not all of it, no…”  Mary looked at the empty air behind the glasses with a very skeptical expression.

“Well, you see, there was this witchdoctor… also called a juju man…  His name was Mangkukulan…  He put a curse on me, and made me invisible.”

“Why did he put a curse on you?” Pidney asked.

“Well, uh… you really should read about it in the log book first.  It tells the story better than I can here and now… um, before you read it.”

“Just summarize for us,” suggested Mary.

“Well, um… the truth of the matter is… um, I am in need of a… well, a pure sort of… a girl who…”

“What, Uncle Noah?”

“I need a virgin.”

“Cool,” said Danny.  “What do you need one of those for?”

“Um, well, I… Mangkukulan needs a virgin to give to the mayap mapali Matuling Lupa.”

“The what?” asked Valerie.

“That wouldn’t be a volcano or something would it?” asked Danny.

“Well, sorta, kinda… the god of volcanoes.”

“And why does Man-coo-coo-man think he needs to get a virgin from you, Captain?” asked Pidney, frowning.

“Because I… well… I sorta… um… spoiled the one he had.”

“You what?  And what virgin were you planning to give him in return?” asked Mary, almost loudly and angrily enough to be heard by the librarian in the next room.

“I hate to ask this, Mary dear… but… well… are you still a virgin?”

“What?  How can you ask a question like that?” Mary roared.

The librarian, Val’s Aunt Alice, looked into the room just as the Captain hastily pulled the hood of the cloak over his head.

“Is everything all right, Mary dear?” the librarian asked.

“Oh, ah… we are fine.  We are just having a friendly little argument.”

“I see…” Aunt Alice frowned at the cloaked and hooded figure slumped down in the chair across the table from Mary.  “Call me if you need anything, girls.  I have a handy phone on the desk, and there’s a new deputy sheriff in town.  We have a deputy who actually lives in Norwall now.”

“That’s good to know, Ms. Stewart.  Thank you so much.”  Mary smiled grimly at the cloaked Captain.

Captain Dettbarn seemed meek and chastened after that.

“You can’t really believe you can take a girl from your home town and give her to a witch doctor to throw into a volcano?”  Mary said quietly through gritted teeth.

“No, I suppose not.  But I still might need to know… um, for magical reasons.  I do have to solve the problem somehow.”

“You don’t have the right to ask that question,” said Pidney, simmering with anger.  “You are talking about a young lady’s honor.  She loses something no matter what the answer is.”

“How can she be losing something?” asked Danny, looking thoroughly confused.

“She loses her right to privacy.  And besides, if she answers that she is one, the creepy old Captain here may kidnap her and throw her into a volcano.”

“Oh,” Danny said.

“I really need to know, Mary, honey… because the witch doctor’s magic follows me everywhere.  And I am afraid he will try to take you if you are.  After all, you are the daughter of my good friend Dagwood Philips, and the witch doctor will know that you are important to me.”

“And what will you do if it turns out that I am one?”

“Well, I can’t do anything about that… but your boyfriend here could.”

“Captain!”  Mary was angry again, and Pidney was a glowing red with embarrassment again.

“Is Valerie in any danger?” asked Danny, suddenly panicky.

“This pretty little one?” the Captain asked.

“Of course,” said Mary.  “Is she in danger too?”

“Well, I don’t know.  She’s obviously not as important to me as you are, Mary… but she’s even more obviously a virgin.”

“Well, that’s disturbing,” said Valerie.  “Because I have my doubts that Pidney can solve the problem for both of us.”  The notion tickled her insides.  The idea was not without its good side.  But, still, it made her angry that they all made that particular assumption about her.

“I, um… I better be going now,” said the Captain.  “I have put you girls in enough danger already.  But… I promise, I will find a solution to this problem.  You, however, need to read the log book.  If I have any chance of finding the right magical spell to save us all, I’m going to need your help.”

With that, there was a sudden burst of light from flash powder, and the Captain was gone.  His cloak remained.  As did his clothing and his yachting cap.

“Oh, my gawd!” swore Pidney.  “What will we do now?”

“I think we have to do some serious reading,” said Mary.  “And we may have to think about some other things that kids like us probably shouldn’t be doing either.”

A thrill ran up Valerie’s spine.

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When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 16

Canto Sixteen – Uncle Dash

Mom loved to cook.  She could do wondrous things with a casserole.  In fact, her Tater Tot casserole was such a hit that it had spread to households all over the county and people from as far away as Illinois were writing her letters to get the secret recipe.  It wasn’t such a secret.  Browned and loose ground beef, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, Tater Tots from Ore-Ida, and real cheddar cheese went into her magical casserole.  But friends of friends and family were practically rabid about wanting to get their hands on the special secret recipe.  They didn’t realize until she told them that the recipe came from the label of a Campbell’s soup can to begin with.

So the house smelled wonderful because Uncle Dash and Valerie’s cousin Stacey were coming to dinner.

Stacy was college age now, and Valerie looked up to her.  She was smart and independent, and she knew how to dress up like a fashion model whenever there was an excuse to do it.  As Val and Stacy set the table, the two had a brief moment or two to catch up on cousin stuff.

“I hear the Pirates are re-forming,” Stacy said.  “And they tell me you are going to be one of them?”

“Well, yeah… so?”

“Don’t bring it up tonight.  Daddy will get mad.  I mean, more mad than he already is.”

“Uncle Dash is mad?”  Valerie was slightly taken by surprise.  Uncle Dash was the kind of guy who was always laughing, always joking.  Valerie had relied on his sense of humor and mature wisdom her whole life long.  She believed he was even wiser than Daddy Kyle.  He was a farmer.  He had the wisdom of the Earth.

“Your Uncle Dash is mad at me,” said Stacey.

“Why would he be mad at you?”

“I told him a secret today.  One I have to tell everybody sooner or later.”

“Really?  Tell me.”

Stacey was obviously biting her own lower lip for some reason.  Why would she do that?  It didn’t really make sense to Val.  There were tears in her cousin’s eyes. 

“I mean it, Stacey.  I love you.  You can tell me.”

“Well, I…”  Before Stacey could spill it, the adults came into the room.

“Really,” Uncle Dash said with a frown on his face, “We could sell that sixty acres southwest of town and the big pasture along the Iowa River.  That would give us enough money to at least bargain for more time… maybe another growing season.”

“But, Dash, that’s all your land.  This is my debt.  I can’t let you sacrifice from your share.  It should be some of my land.”  Kyle sat down at the head of the table with a defeated-seeming kerplunk.  Valerie knew her dad’s basic onomatopoeias, the sound-words of his soul, and kerplunk was definitely not a good one.

“But it is some of the less-valuable land I am offering to sell.  All of your land is better, and we should be trying to keep all of it.”

“Yeah, well… I still don’t want you to make sacrifices to pay my debts.” 

Uncle Dash took the seat next to Daddy Kyle where Valerie would’ve sat if they didn’t have company.

Mom came in carrying a big casserole dish full of steaming-hot tater-tot casserole.  She proudly set her work of art down in the middle of the dining room table.  “Stacey, will you help me get the peas and the mashed potatoes?” Mom said.  Then she dashed back out to the kitchen.

“You’re my brother, Kyle.  You have to let me help you.  And it is all family land.  We have to work together, even though we divided the farms when Dad died.  It is all one large farm, really.”

“Well, yeah, but…”

That conversation died too as Mom and Stacey brought the rest of the supper to the table, and Mom insisted that everybody sit down and eat.  Valerie said Grace and food was passed all around.  Everybody at the table had a farmer’s healthy appetite, and soon mouths were too full to talk.  Conversation was suspended for the more important thing… at least until all were stuffed and satisfied.

“It’s a shame that Patricia couldn’t come with you this evening, Dash,” Mom said.

“She was sorry to miss it, but she really wasn’t feeling well.  She needed to take some medicine and go to bed.  Which reminds me…  Stacey has some new she needs to share with everyone in the family.”

Stacey looked at her father with a distinctly angry expression.

“Well, you may as well tell them.”

Stacey’s glare at Uncle Dash made Valerie suddenly worried for her cousin.  What could be wrong?

“I’m… not going to college anymore.”

“Oh, Stacey!” Mom said.  “Why not?”

“Well, I’m…”

The pause was unbearable.

“I’m pregnant.”

Stunned silence followed.  Uncle Dash’s face was so sad it almost made Valerie burst into tears.  Stacey did cry, and that was almost worse.

“How, I mean… who?”  Daddy didn’t know what to say.  He was kinda tongue-tied, right up until the answer hit him square in the memory.  “Not the Toad!  Oh, Stacey!”

“His name is Brom, not Toad.  I don’t know why everyone needs to call him that.”  Stacey’s tears were replaced almost instantly with fury.

“It’s the way he drives.  He reminds everyone of Toad in the Disney movie Wind in the Willows.  You know how recklessly he roars about in that yellow Ford Mustang of his.”  Uncle Dash was very direct and soft-spoken.  It was an argument Valerie had overheard before.

“He also has a big mouth like a frog,” said Valerie timidly.

“Oh, Val…”  Stacey shot her a wounded look.  Whose side was she supposed to be on, anyway?

“Well, I have to say, it isn’t such a big surprise.  You have been in love with that boy for a while now, haven’t you, Stacey?” Daddy Kyle said.

“Yes, I love him with all of my heart.”

“Is he going to do the right thing by you?”  Mom asked.

“He’s willing to marry me… if Daddy doesn’t forbid it.”

“Dash, you can’t forbid it,” said Daddy Kyle.  “That’s no way to start off a life… for Stacey or Brom either one.”

“You would take their side, wouldn’t you,” Uncle Dash said harshly.  “You know, as my little brother, it wouldn’t kill you to take my side once in a while.”

Daddy stared straight at his plate.  His mouth was a tense and very straight line.  “Stacey would be good for Brom.  As Mrs. Brown, she’s bound to settle him down at least a little bit.  Like the way Julie settled me down.  You remember what a wild kid I was, right?”

“We haven’t decided how it’s going to be, yet,” Dash said calmly.  “There is a lot to be decided yet.”

“You really can’t decide for her, you know,” Daddy Kyle said.

Uncle Dash got angry at that.  “How would you feel if it were Valerie in this situation?  Maybe with somebody like that Murphy kid… or Richard Martin’s little rag boy?”

“It’s not the same.  Valerie is still too young to be a mother.”

“And Stacey isn’t?”

“Kyle, Dash, please!” said Mom, “don’t discuss this in front of the girls.  They can hear everything, and I don’t think it helps anybody to hear you two argue about this.”

It was quiet for a few moments, but a very tense quiet.

“Julie is right, Dash,” Daddy said.  “Why don’t you and I go for a drive in your pickup, and the girls can spend some time together here.”

“We have a lot to talk about, Kyle.  But it won’t do a lick of good if you don’t listen more than you talk.”

The two brothers glared at each other.  But they were family, and too much alike not to smash heads together like a couple of rams in springtime.  So they both went out and got in Uncle Dash’s Chevy pickup and drove on into town.

“Headed for Martin’s Bar and Grill,” said Stacey, blowing a stray hair out of her eyes to show disgust.

Valerie wordlessly snaked her thin young arms around her beloved cousin and gave her a distressed and tearful squeeze.

“It will all get worked out for the best,” said Mom in her most comforting voice.

“I hope so,” Stacey said.  Then after a long pause she repeated, “I hope so.”

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When the Captain Came Calling… Canto 15

Canto Fifteen – About the Reefer Mary Celeste

The meeting at the library hadn’t happened on the day originally planned because Alice Stewart sometimes had to close the library when things came up.  Her daughter, Alicia, was a single mother raising a child alone, and some days the library simply had to be closed when the baby developed a mysterious cough and had to go see a doctor in Belle City.   All of this was explained to Mary, Pidney, and Valerie, and apologized for, by Val’s Aunt Alice as they arrived at the finally open Norwall library on Main Street.  The library was a thing of some pride to several Norwall families, the Clarkes and the Stewarts and the Duffys prominent among them because they had raised the money and remodeled the old butcher shop and bought all the books.  The place was a literary miracle for the small town, as most towns of that size did not have anything equivalent to it.

“I swear to you, Valerie,” said Aunt Alice, “I will make it up to you for having to put you off for a couple of days.  I will certainly help you three find whatever important research you are looking for.”

“I think we are looking for Tiki idols, Auntie,” said Valerie.

“Show her, Pid,” said Mary.

Pidney sat the backpack on the librarian’s desk and opened it.  He pulled out Valerie’s ugly little wooden man and sat it down on the desk. 

“I know a book that might help,” said Aunt Alice.  She went directly to a shelf that contained the 200’s from the Dewey Decimal system and pulled down a large old book called Treasury of Maori Folklore by A.W. Reed.  It had “Tiki” listed on a number of pages in the index.  So Aunt Alice handed the book to Pidney who soon found a picture that somewhat resembled the ugly little wooden man.

“It says on this page that Tiki was the very first man,” read Pidney.  “Apparently he found the first woman in a pond… somebody called Marikoriko… they became the first parents of all men.”

“So, he’s our bug-ugly great-great-great grandfather,” commented Mary.

“Doesn’t look so great to me,” said Valerie.

“Well, he’s found in most Polynesian cultures as a large piece of wood carved in the shape of a man.  And, um…”  Pidney’s voice trailed away.

“What, Pid?” asked Mary.

“Well, um…”

“Let me see,” said Valerie.  She grabbed the book out of Pidney’s hands.  The picture of a Tiki idol in the book seemed to wink at her as she tracked down the page to find where Pid was reading.  “Oh, here it is…”   Val began to giggle almost uncontrollably.

“What?” said Mary.  “Read it aloud.”

“In New Zealand, some Maoris contend that Tiki represents the penis of Tane, the god of forests and birds.  He is strongly associated with the procreative act.”  She read that and then broke down into a laughing fit.  One of those painfully embarrassing laughing fits that happen when something is entirely too personal to talk about with the boy you have a crush on and you can’t help but nervously laugh.

Pidney, red as the ripe tomatoes in Mrs. Clarke’s vegetable garden, wandered over towards the encyclopedias and began looking at the volumes of Collier’s.

“What else does it say?” asked Mary.

“It says that in the Cook Islands, at Rarotonga, Tiki is credited with being the guardian of Avaiki the Underworld.    Magical idols of Tiki can be given offerings to smooth the way for those who fear they are dying.  The idol maker is said to have magical powers and can in some cases bring the idol to life as a servant by chanting and touching the painted tattoos on the idol’s body in the correct order.”

“You’re kidding,” Mary said.

“No, really!  It says it right here.”  Valerie pointed to the disputed passage and Mary read it for herself.

“Well, it does say that.  But it doesn’t have any mention of the proper chant to use or anything.”

“This ugly thing does appear to have painted tattoos,” said Aunt Alice, looking at the idol’s protruding buttocks and arched back.  “Swirly patterns with little spots in the center like bull’s-eyes.”

“What was Captain Dettbarn’s ship called?” Pidney asked.

Mary looked over at the Polack who was thumbing through the “M” volume of Colliers’ Encyclopedia.  “The Reefer Mary Celeste.  Why, Pid?”

“This encyclopedia says it was a ghost ship.”

“A ghost ship?” gasped Valerie.

“Good heavens!” swore Aunt Alice.

“What does it say?” asked Mary in a skeptical voice.

“It says the Mary Celeste was an American merchant brigantine that was found sailing near the Azores on December 4th, 1872.  No crew was aboard.  A lifeboat was missing.  And they never found any trace of the crew.  Not the Captain, either.  Captain Briggs, his wife, and their infant daughter, Sofia simply vanished at sea and were never heard from again.”

“Pidney, that was a sailing ship more than a hundred years ago.  That was the Brigantine Mary Celeste.  Not the Reefer Mary Celeste.  Captain Dettbarn’s ship was a modern cargo ship with refrigerated cargo capacity.  They are not the same ship.”

“Oh,” Pidney said softly.  He closed the book.

The ladies all got a chuckle at Pidney’s expense.  But Valerie noticed that Pidney was still uneasy about the spooky connection.  She thought it was something that might later prove to be significant after all.  At least to Pid.

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