At the Coffee Shop

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He sighed. The coffee shop was full to bursting. Every table was full. The only empty seats were a stool at the bar that ran along one side, and one of the comfy chairs by the window.

“Excuse me, is this seat taken?” he asked.

The young woman looked up at Jason in surprise, like no one had ever asked her that before.

“Y-yes,” she stammered, looking away from him.

Figures, he thought, as he went to the bar instead. He didn’t like sitting on stools, and more importantly, there was no power outlets there. His laptop only had maybe half an hour left on it, and he needed to get this work done.

Maybe I should have stayed at the office, he thought, but everyone else had gone home for the day. It was too quiet there. It made him feel like he was being watched.

He couldn’t finish at home, either for the opposite reason. The neighbors were doing construction, and it was far too loud. There was supposed to be a noise curfew, but for some reason, it wasn’t being enforced. Didn’t stop him from getting official complaints whenever Hunter barked. He considered filing a complaint himself, but honestly, it wasn’t worth getting pulled into HOA politics over.

He killed every non essential program, trying to coax as much life out of the batteries as he could. He didn’t even connect to the free wifi. Hopefully he could get this done before he ran out of power.

Twenty minutes later, he glanced up. The young woman was still sitting there, her face hidden behind her book. The seat next to her was still empty.

That irritated him. His back ached from sitting on the stool, and his laptop kept reminding him that he should save any important files and shut down. If she was so shy, why come to a coffee shop to read in the first place?

He was almost, but not quite, finished when his laptop gave up. He’d have to come in to work early tomorrow and finish it there. He couldn’t properly test the program on his laptop anyway.

He glared at the girl and the empty seat one last time on his way out. She seemed to sense his frustration, even if she kept her nose in her book, because she curled up slightly.  Jason sighed and left for his oh-so-noisy house.

 

“Can we go now?” she whispered, forcing herself not to look at the seat next to her.

In the corner of her eye, she could see the tiny man stand up and walk to the edge of the seat. It still boggled her mind that no one else noticed a man, only eighteen inches tall, wearing clothing sewn out of leaves. She had thought she had gone crazy at first. She still wasn’t entire sure she hadn’t.

“Give him a few minutes,” he said in his boyish voice.

“What was so special about him?”

The fairy shrugged. “As far as I can tell, nothing. He’s just an ordinary human, with unusual luck.”

“Good luck?” she asked. “Or bad?”

“Neither,” he said. “Or both, if you prefer. Although if a man like him keeps running into fey, its not likely to end well.”

Elm and Oak

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Jason winced as the speakers played a fanfare. Did it have to be so loud? He didn’t belong here. Every moment made that more clear.

It wasn’t that it was a bad place. It was relatively clean, despite the crowds, and the people working there were friendly, but it simply wasn’t him. It was loud, and hot, and smelled overwhelmingly of horse.

Well, of course, he thought to himself. It would be strange if it didn’t smell like horses, wouldn’t it?

They were meeting with a new client, Mr. Adamovich, who was old enough and rich enough that he could do pretty much whatever he wanted. People would just claim he was “eccentric,” and carry on. In this case, his eccentricity was insisting that they meet him at the race track and that they bring one of the code monkeys with them.

So Jason, who had never even met the Vice President of Marketing or the CEO before, had shared a limousine with them to the horse races. He felt rather under dressed, wearing tan slacks and a white dress shirt and tie compared to their nicely pressed suits.

“You must be from Stone Wall Solutions,” someone said. It was a girl, maybe college age. She sat on the fence, swinging he feet back and forth above the sign asking people not to lean, climb or sit on the fence. She wore khaki shorts, and a white t-shirt that bared her midriff. A pale green gem sparkled from her navel piercing. She had another piercing in her lip, another in her nose, and half a dozen on each ear.

She also had green hair. Not a bright shade, but a deep, forest color that almost looked natural on her.

Jason glanced at his bosses, who were bent over a map, discussing with each other. “Yes,” he told the girl. “How did you know?”

She laughed. “You kind of stand out.” There was a faint British accent to her voice.

“Sorry,” he said, feeling his face heat up.

“Don’t be. Not your fault, is it? Nothing wrong with not being in the right place as long as you accept it. Those two,” she gestured at his companions with her chin, “fit in even less than you do, but they’ll never acknowledge it. They need to be in control as much as they can. Makes ‘em boring, in my opinion. I mean, who wears a suit to the race track?” She held out a hand, “Call me Elm.”

“Jason,” he said, shaking her hand. He was suddenly aware of how clammy his hands were. “Jason Tremain.”

Elm threw back her head and laughed again. “Houses of stone, and you work at Stone Wall?”

“Yes,” Jason said, a little irritated now. It wasn’t that funny. “You’re with Domovoi Security, then?”

“Yeah.” She hopped down off the fence and yelled at the VP and CEO. “Oi! Yes, you two. Gramps is this way!”

Jason’s bosses were understandably taken aback. Jason wondered if they had ever been addressed like that in their entire life. They conversed for a moment.

“You must be Miss Elm,” the CEO said, trying to hide his shock.

“Just ‘Elm’ will do,” she said, and walked away. She rolled her hips as she walked, and Jason had a hard time not staring.

She led them to an patio where numerous tables sat under umbrellas.

“Come! Sit, sit!” Adamovich was a large gray-haired man with a heavy Russian accent. Despite his age, he was still well muscled. He reminded Jason a little of the man he had met at the hunting cabin last winter, Abe.

Jason felt a little gratified that Adamovich was wearing slacks and a short-sleeved, button-down shirt, much like he was, although Adamovich wore a gold pendant instead of a tie. He didn’t feel so under-dressed, now. Although with Elm there, what would qualify as under-dressed?

Introductions were made and drinks were ordered. The CEO quickly tried to turn the conversation to business matters, but Adamovich waved him off.

“No, no,” he said. “No official talk today. This is not the place for such things. Save that for the conference rooms. This is a place to enjoy yourself and get to know each other. Besides you’ll bore my goddaughter away.” He gestured towards Elm, who had turned her chair around and sat on it backwards.

Jason felt that the revelation that he was Elm’s godfather was somehow ironic, but he wasn’t sure why.

“If you want tips on betting,” Adamovich went on, “just ask Elm. She knows how to pick a winner.”

“Then how come you never listen?” she asked.

He laughed, a big booming laugh. “Because you know how to pick a winner. It is not gambling if there is no chance for loosing.”

The sun peaked through a hole in the umbrella just long enough to shine off of Adamovich’s pendant. “Excuse me, sir,” Jason said.

“Call me Danya, I insist.”

“Yes, si- er, Danya. I was just wondering about that necklace you’re wearing.” Both the CEO and the VP glared at him. They had never actually told him not to talk with Adamovich, but they had still made it quite clear that the less he said, the better.

Adamovich undid the chain, and held it out above the table, it spun slowly, showing off two finely detailed trees, one with full, leafy branches, the other covered in snow. It was a different tree than the one on Jason’s, though.

“A thing of beauty, is it not?” he said.

Jason nodded. “Where did you get it?”

Adamovich laughed again. “I do not remember. It was a long time ago, and there was a lot going on now, some of which I am only now starting to understand. Why? Were you hoping to buy one yourself?”

Jason shook his head. “No, sir. I… well, I actually have something similar, and I’m not entirely sure where I got it.”

Elm perked up at that, staring at Jason with renewed interest.

“I would say that’s quite a coincidence,” Adamovich said, “but I’ve found there are no coincidences, not in matters like these.”

“That settles things, doesn’t it?” Elm said.

Adamovich nodded. “I think it does. We can have our people discuss the details later, but I think I will enjoy working with Stone Wall Solutions.”

The Vice President and the CEO exchanges shocked glances, and quickly offered their thanks.

“As for you, young man,” he said, addressing Jason again. “Do not worry yourself with trying to understand these things. Just be polite, and try to avoid picking one side or the other. As long as you are helpful, you can go quite far with these kinds of friends.”

Book and Coin

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There was a crack in the wall. It was so thin you wouldn’t be able to slide a slip of paper through it, but it was there, and that was all Squeezes-Through-Mouse-Holes needed.

Which was good, because he was far behind schedule. It was two in the morning, and he had another three houses to visit before sunrise.

“Mouse-Holes!” someone cried out, when he was only half-way in. “Wait!”

He saw Ghostly-Chill-Down-the-Back-of-Your-Spine running through the grass towards him. That in itself was odd. You never actually saw Spines arrive somewhere. He always showed up when you weren’t looking. There wasn’t many out there who could ‘geist up on a ‘geist, but Spines could, and did.

“I can handle this,” Mouse-Holes snapped. “I don’t know why they’re suddenly piling half a dozen misplacements on me a night, but I don’t need help. This is probably another test.”

“It’s not a test,” Spines said, slightly out of breath.

“Of course it isn’t. I’ve got two more car keys and a book after this, so I don’t have time to waist with the whole ‘What test?’ stuff.” He jumped the rest of the way through the crack and into the wall. He could hear Spines trying to shout something at him, but it was unintelligible. Spines might be the best of the best, but nobody could slip through spaces like Squeezes-Through-Mouse-Holes.

The inside of the house was a mess. DVD cases were scattered across just about any flat space. The desk was buried under papers, and the small trash can nearby was overflowing.

“Knew it was a test,” Mouse-Holes said to himself. Misplacing something in a slob’s house was a piece of cake. Hiding places were everywhere, and the human would blame its own lack of organization.

The target item was a book. Reports were that the human was almost done with it, making it the perfect time for a misplacement. There weren’t any books in the living room, so Mouse-Holes headed for the bedroom.

The bedroom was no better than the living room. Clothes were scattered everywhere. The bookshelves were full of books, but there was no pattern, and many were in small piles instead of being neatly lined up. The human lay on the bed, fast asleep, the covers in a messy pile at its feet.

The book was on the nightstand. Mouse-Holes could tell the moment he saw it.

“And it’s a hardback, too. If they were trying to trick me into asking for Spines’s help, they could have at least made it trickier.” He just had to put the book in a different dust jacket, and drop it on one of the shelves. He’d drop the naked book on a different bookshelf, and it would likely be weeks before the human realized it seemed to have two copies of the same book.

He scaled the nightstand without any difficulty. He grabbed the book and lifted.

The book refused to move.

He pushed as hard as he could. It didn’t budge an inch.

“Come on,” Mouse-Holes muttered. “Nobody with bookshelves like those could love a book that much.” And the more he thought about it, the weight didn’t feel like something loved. It was more spiteful than anything else, like the book simply didn’t want to be moved.

A closer inspection revealed a silver coin sitting on top of the book, a thin chain piled next to it. That might explain it. Humans put a lot of weight on some kinds of metal, as well as coins and jewelry. This appeared to be all three.

But it didn’t explain that contrary weight he had felt.

“Worry about it later.” He had to get that coin off of the book. Maybe if he focused on just the coin, he could manage.

He grabbed on to the chain and pulled. He leaned away tugging with all his might. Slowly, bit by bit, the coin began to move. It was slow going, and he knew he wasn’t going to get to the rest of the houses on his list, but he wasn’t going to fail this test!

The coin teetered on the edge of the book, then fell. Hit hit the nighstand with a dull thud and bounced on to the carpet.

The mound of blankets at the foot of the bed rose. The white beast jumped off the bed and growled at the young poltergeist.

“Hunter?” the human said blearily. “Do you need to go out?” He, too sat up, and his eyes fell right on Mouse-Holes.

Mouse-Holes froze. As long as he wasn’t moving, no human could see him. The dog shouldn’t be able to see him, either, but you could never be sure with animals.

The human’s gaze didn’t wander though. It stared at him with sleep-filled eyes.

Something seemed to click in the human’s expression, and he suddenly shouted. He grabbed the book and swung it down at Squeezes-Through-Mouse-Holes. The poultergeist jumped off the nightstand, barely dodging six hundred pages of epic adventure and intrigue.

And landed right in front of the growling dog.

“Goddamn bugs!” the human swore, “Get it, Hunter.”

The dog didn’t attack, but it lowered its face right next to Mouse-Holes and let out a deafening bark. Poultergeists couldn’t understand animals any better than humans could, but the meaning of this bark was perfectly clear: Go away, and do not bother my master again.

Mouse-Holes nervously edged around the dog (and under the bed, where the human couldn’t try to hit him again). The great white beast tracked him. Once the path to the living room was clear, he bolted. The dog followed him, effortlessly keeping pace. He kept a steady growl going until Mouse-Holes was safely outside again.

“Thank the ghosts you’re still alive,” Spines said. “I tried to warn you. He’s been-”

“Touched,” Mouse-Holes said, “I figured that out.” He paused, then looked sheepishly at his friend. “So I guess this really wasn’t a test.”

The Silver Oak Tree

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“Jason, you’re late!” Amy said.

“I am?” he asked.

“You could have at least called, you know.”

“Sorry, I didn’t realize. I thought I had given myself…” he trailed off, thinking. He had left work early specifically to avoid being late. He couldn’t remember running into any traffic, but… when it came down to it, he couldn’t remember much of the drive at all.

He remembered waving to the security guard on the way out. And pulling in to the restaurant’s parking lot. The rest of the trip, however…

“Hello?” his sister said, snapping her fingers in front of his eyes. “Look, my friend doesn’t care that much about punctuality, or I never would have set this date up with her in the first place, but don’t zone out on me.”

“Sorry,” he said, forcing a smile.

“Matthew and Christine are already waiting at the table, so let’s go.” She stopped right in front of the restaurant door. “Is that a new cologne?”

Jason almost ran into her. “What?”

“It’s just an unusual fragrance for a cologne. It smells like honey.”

“Amy, I’ve never worn cologne in my life. You must be smelling something from the kitchen.”

She shrugged, and walked in to the restaurant. Jason shook his head, trying to order his thoughts, and followed her.

“Told you he’d be here soon,” Matthew, Jason’s brother-in-law, boomed out when they approached. “Probably got lost. He’s a good guy, but no sense of direction.”

The woman sitting next to him, Christine, presumably, smiled nervously.

“Sorry,” Jason mumbled.

“It’s all right,” Christine said. She was a tall woman, with curly brown hair. Jason usually found attractive women intimidating, but she had a cozy girl-next-door element to her that seemed to make her easier to approach.

“Christine does IT stuff for us at work,” Amy said, in her usual cheerful tone. “I don’t think I could get through a week without her help.”

“Is that why you figured we’d get along?” Jason asked. “Because I’m the one fixing your computer whenever you’re not at work?”

“Hey, you both can put up with my endless Luddite questions. It’s a start, at least.”

Jason couldn’t help but laugh at that. He sat down next to Christine and picked up a menu.

“Are we doing family style?” he asked, “We usually do when we eat here,” he added to Christine.

“Sounds good to me,” she said. “Does anybody object to getting the honey walnut shrimp? That suddenly sounds really good to me.”

Amy gave Jason a questioning look. Jason returned it with a look that he hoped said “I have no idea what you’re on about.”

Conversation shifted from topic to topic. They talked about Jason’s work and Amy and Christine’s office. They traded embarrassing stories about Amy’s numerous computer troubles, which she took gracefully.

Matthew was telling them about a new construction project his company had picked up when Jason noticed how pretty Christine’s eyes were. They were a very pale shade of blue. They reminded him of that strange woman who had helped him out last autumn. She had said they’d meet again, that she’d come to him for a favor. But he hadn’t seen her since. Part of him had started to wonder if he had dreamed the entire thing.

A sharp pain in his shin snapped him out of his reverie.

“I swear he’s usually not this out of it,” Amy said to Christine. “Are you feeling all right, Jason?”

“What?” he said, as his brain tried to shift into motion again. “I mean, yes. I’m sorry. I’m just tired, I guess. It’s been a long day, I guess.”

Except it really hadn’t been. The latest upgrade had gone through last week, and the customer hadn’t gotten back to them yet. The entire team was doing busy work. Patching small bugs or implementing low-priority features. Simple things that could easily be dropped if the customer had any major problems. Nothing taxing.

In fact, he’d felt in great spirits when he’d left work earlier. It wasn’t until he’d gotten to the restaurant that the weariness had started to seep in. Was the traffic bad? That often wore him out. But he couldn’t remember any traffic.

The waiter dropped the check on the table, and Jason put his hand on top of it.

“Let me,” he said. “As an apology. For not being entirely here.”

“You sure, bro?” Matthew asked.

Jason nodded. “It’s the least I can do.”

As he started to pull his wallet out, something cool got tangled around his fingers. Frowning, he pulled a loop of fine silver chain out of his pocket. A coin, about the size of a silver dollar, hung from it.

“What’s that?” Amy asked.

He lifted the coin up, turning it back and forth to study both sides. Each bore an oak tree, carved in exquisitely fine detail. One had full, leafy branches, while the other was barren, with a layer of snow covering it.

“Where did you get it?” his sister pressed.

He stared at the unfamiliar coin. He had a feeling he must have gotten it on his way to the restaurant, somehow. But as to how he got it…”

“I don’t know,” he whispered.

Amy made an exasperated noise. “Another one of these thing? You keep the strangest secrets.” She turned to Christine. “He still won’t tell me where he got his dog, of all things.”

The Hunting Cabin

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Jason stopped at the intersection and squinted out the window. If there was an street sign here, he couldn’t see it. Then again, in this snowstorm, he could barely see past the hood of his car.

He checked his phone, but he still didn’t have any signal. He got out the map from his glove compartment, but since he had no idea where he was at the moment, it didn’t do him much good, either.

He slowly started forward again. The speedometer told him he was going about five miles per hour, but it felt like he wasn’t moving at all. There was nothing but white everywhere he looked.

It was a tremendous relief when he saw a light, barely more than a gold blur amidst the white. As he approached it, he began to just vaguely make out the outline of a building. And he pulled into what he hoped was a parking spot.

“Bad day to be travelin’,” a sour sounding voice said as Jason struggled to close the door behind him.

The building appeared to be a hunting lodge. The heads of deer were mounted all over the wall. A bear and a wolf flanked the fireplace, and a massive pair of moose antlers were hung above it.

The man with the sour voice was sitting by the roaring fire, whittling something out of pale wood. He was short, but powerfully built. His skin was leathery and tan, and he was dressed in a thick flannel shirt with a vibrant red hunter’s cap on.

“I don’t m-mean to intrude,” Jason said, chattering from the cold. It had only been a few yards from his car to the door, but the blizzard had sucked the warmth from him almost eagerly. “but if I could imp-pose on your hospitality for a moment. I j-just need some directions. Do you know how to get to the White Peaks Ski Resort?”

“Honestly asked and honestly given,” the man said, not looking up from his work. “Go back the way you came until you cross a bridge. Should be a road on your left that’ll take you the rest of the way up the mountain. I can’t let you go back out in this storm, though. It’s not safe, and it’s gonna get worse before it clears up.”

“Thanks, but I’ve got friends waiting for me.”

The other man smiled, and there was something dangerous about it. “I let you go, they’ll be waiting a long time. You asked for my hospitality and I gave it to you. The storm’ll blow over by tomorrow morning. You can stay the night here. I’m sure you’re friends’ll understand. Sit, sit.” And he gestured to the chair opposite him.

As Jason moved to the fire, he realized that the other man wasn’t whittling wood, but was working on a bone carving. A rough deer sat in his hands, but as he turned it this way and that, the edges became sharper, more defined. Jason couldn’t actually see what the small man was doing. He would later realize that he never actually saw a tool. But right now, the fire was warm and cozy, and it had been a long day.

His host didn’t seem to have any inclination for conversation, and Jason took his cues from that and just sat there, soaking in the warmth.

The door swung open. The wind howled impossibly loud for a brief moment before the door was forcefully closed.

The newcomer was close to eight feet tall, and clad from head to toe in thick white furs. He pushed back his hood to reveal long, snowy white hair and a matching beard. At his side were two hunting dogs – the biggest Jason had ever seen, although admittedly, he hadn’t met many hunting dogs. And about half a dozen puppies bounding around and shaking snow from their ears. Each of them were as pale as their master’s clothing.

“Red!” he boomed, jovially. “You didn’t tell me we had company.”

“You just got here,” the man, Red, apparently, said.

“Truly spoken!” the giant laughed. “Are you going to introduce me.”

Red sighed. “Why not. Abe, this is… what’s your name, anyway?”

“Jason. Jason Tremain.”

“Tremain,” Abe said, considering the word. “It’s a good, strong name.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Red said. “They can have strong names, even if they’re weak. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Jason was tempted to ask who he meant by “they”, but he was distracted by one of the dogs sniffing intently at him.

“Uh, nice dog,” he said.

“That’s Jaero,” Abe said. “He’s a good friend.”

Jason tentatively reached out a hand to Jaero. He sniffed at it, then turned to Abe and let out a single, sharp bark.

Abe ran a hand through his beard. “It’s not his first encounter it seems. The Wanderer, perhaps? Or maybe one of the little’uns?”

Red turned to his companion, then studied Jason through narrowed eyes. “Interesting. Must be the Wanderer. I’d have noticed if it was anyone else.” He shrugged his shoulders, and returned to his carving. “What’s done is done.”

“I’m sorry,” Jason said, “but what are you talking about?”

The little man laughed, cruelly. “If you don’t know yet, you’re not ready to know. Enjoy your ignorance while it lasts. I don’t know what she’s planning, but it’s never good. Are you going to stand there all day, or are you going to get dinner started?”

This last part was apparently directed at Abe. He laughed, and headed to the cupboards in one corner of the room.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Jason asked.

“No, no,” Abe said, waving a hand. “You’re our guest. It wouldn’t be proper.”

He hummed a deep, steady song as he worked, occasionally singing short bits of it. It sounded like a hunting song, from what Jason could make out of it.

Soon a large pot was hanging above the fire, and a savory smell filled the air. Abe took out a pipe and began to smoke, occasionally puffing out rings.

Jason tried not to stare at them, but it was almost impossible not to. They didn’t feel like they belonged in this world. Abe could almost be Santa Claus, although Jason felt Red would make a horrible Christmas Elf, even if he was the right height.

After a while, Abe sniffed at the air. “Stew smells about ready, don’t you think?”

Red shrugged. “You always cook it too long.”

“If you don’t like my cooking, you can always do it yourself,” Abe told him, but there was no malice in it. “Have you ever had fresh venison, Tremain?”

“No,” he said, unprepared for the sudden conversation. “I don’t think I’ve ever had venison. Fresh or not.”

Abe tasted some of the stew and smiled. “Then you’re in for a treat.”

He scooped ladles of soup into bowls for each of them, including two for the hunting dogs, and a wide, shallow bowl that the puppies gathered around.

The stew was thick, filled with carrots and potatoes, and large chunks of meat. It was probably the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted.

“So what finds you here amidst this blizzard?” Abe asked.

“Well, there wasn’t any sign of a blizzard when I set out. The weatherman said there’d be light snows at most.” Red snorted loudly at this. “But, a company retreat. We’ve had a good year, so our boss decided to take us all out for a ski trip.”

“Good work should be rewarded,” the large man nodded. “How do you make your living, Tremain?”

Jason explained how he was in charge of the shopping cart program for their latest website update. To be honest, he didn’t think Abe understood most of it, but he didn’t seem terribly upset by that. He asked question after question, seeming to enjoy the conversation, even if he had no idea what Jason was talking about.

He woke up the next morning buried under a pile of wriggling bundles of white fur. One of them climbed on to his feet and unsteadily crawled over his brothers and sisters to lick Jason’s face.

“Good morrow!” Abe boomed when Jason emerged into the main room. “I trust you slept well?”

Jason yawned, but he nodded. “I wasn’t expecting to wake up in an avalanche of puppies, though.”

“That’d be Cheralya’s doing,” he laughed, patting the dog’s head. “I think she finds it amusing.”

Breakfast was more of last night’s stew, to which Jason couldn’t complain.

“Storm’s settled,” Red said, standing on his chair to peer out the windows. “You probably want to get on your way, so those friends of yours don’t worry too much.”

“Of course,” he said. “And thanks. Both of you. Is there any way I can repay you?”

“No,” Abe said, shaking his head. “Hospitality must be given to those who ask for it. That’s only proper.”

Red looked pensively at the puppies wrestling for the last scraps of stew.

“Take one of the dogs,” he said.

Jason blinked in confusion. “What?”

Abe looked at his companion. “What are you playing at, Red?”

“The puppies. Take one.”

“I couldn’t. You’ve already given me so much.”

Red pointed a finger at Jason. “You asked to repay our hospitality, and that’s my answer. Abe needs to find homes for the runts soon. One less to get rid of. And it’ll annoy the Wanderer when you see her again. That’s payment enough for me. Might save your life, too, but that doesn’t really concern me, one way or the other.”

As if he knew they were talking about him, one of the puppies walked over to Jason. With a little effort, he managed to climb onto Jason’s lap and started licking at his chin.

“Well,” Jason said, uncertain. He’d never had a pet before. “If you insist, then… I guess this guy likes me enough. Thanks. For everything. I really should be going.”

“Safe travels, Tremain,” Abe said.

A Flat Tire and a Fated Encounter

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Cars zoomed past Jason, the wind from their passing tugging at his hair and clothes. Nobody stopped. Nobody even slowed down.

It had to happen the one time I forgot my phone, he thought bitterly to himself for the umpteenth time. A call to Triple-A, and this would just be a mild inconvenience. Without his phone, though, he was stuck relying on the kindness of his fellow man, which seemed in short supply that day.

He was growing more and more tempted to just get back in his car and limp off the freeway. The next exit wasn’t for another three and a quarter miles, according to the freeway sign. Driving that far on his rim would cause far more problems than it solved.

A car slammed on it’s brakes, filling the air with screeching tires and the smell of burning rubber. The car behind it swerved into the next lane, unleashing a short series of angry honks as it did so.

Jason didn’t know much about cars. As long as it could get him from point A to point B and not empty his wallet at the gas station, he was happy. But even he knew this was a nice car. Something about the curves and the shiny red paint spoke to him.

A tinted window rolled down, revealing the most stunning woman he had ever seen. She pinned him in place with blue eyes so pale they were almost white. Her hair was short and curly, brown where it wasn’t dyed in bright reds and yellows. She was bending over from the driver’s seat, and Jason would have found it very difficult not to stare down the front of her dress, if his eyes weren’t locked on hers.

“Did you need our help?” she asked. More cars honked as they changed lanes to pass her, but she didn’t seem to notice.

“I… um…” He had no idea what to say. This was the type of thing that happened in the movies, not real life. Finally, he managed to stammer out, “Yeah, I guess.”

“May we ask your name?”

“Jason. Jason Tremain.”

She cocked her head to one side. “Tremain. Homes made out of stone. It is an old name, from the islands far from here. It speaks of strength and stability.”

“I guess.” He had never really given his last name much thought. “Do… do you have a cell phone I could borrow? I just need to call Triple-A and I’ll be out of your hair.” He heard a touch of regret in his voice, and realized he didn’t want her to leave. He didn’t know anything about her, but a simple look was enough to know that she was probably more interesting than anyone else he would ever meet.

She frowned. “A cell phone? Is that what you need, Jason Tremain?”

“Well, I need to fix my tire. I think I’ve got a spare in the back, but I don’t have a jack, and I’m not really a car person, and it’s probably better that I let someone professional handle this.” He knew he was babbling, but he couldn’t seem to stop.

She laughed, causing a pair of tiny acorn-shaped earrings she wore to jingle. Jason blinked suddenly. For a brief moment, when he had been looking at the earrings, something had seemed strange about the woman’s ears; they were too long or too… something, but when he looked again, they were perfectly normal ears (if anything about this woman could be described as “normal”).

“That is good. A tire is simple enough, but things like cell phones are beyond our ken.”

“You keep saying… Is there someone else in there with you?”

She laughed again. “Do not concern yourself with such things. The favor has been granted, Jason Tremain. We hope that it pleases you.”

Jason was starting to feel like he was missing part of the conversation. “What favor?” he asked. He glanced down at his tire only to see that it was whole again. “How did you… You never even left the car!”

“It is unimportant. Is the gift satisfactory, Jason Tremain?”

He was still trying to figure out what had happened, but he gave the tire a kick. He wasn’t really sure what this was supposed to accomplish, but it felt like he thought kicking a tire should feel like.

“Yeah,” he said, glancing back and forth between her pale eyes and the tire. “It seems good.”

“We are pleased then.” She sat back up and the window began to roll up again.

“Wait!” Jason said, and the window stopped, halfway up. He didn’t want her to go just yet. He knew he’d never see anyone like her again. She looked at him expectantly. “I don’t know how you did that, but thanks.”

She smiled, revealing white, perfectly shaped teeth. “It is gratifying to speak with one who remembers his courtesies. So many seem to forget these days.”

“Is there any way I can pay you back? I could buy you dinner or something?” He winced inwardly at how self-serving that sounded. She was probably offered dinner a dozen times per day.

“We always collect on favors given, but we appreciate that you offer it so willingly. We will return to you in time, so that you might repay us. Until then, Jason Tremain, do not forget us.” The window finished closing, and the car pulled away, it’s engine roaring energetically as it accelerated quickly down the freeway.

Jason got back in his car and put the keys in the ignition. Then he just sat there, staring at where the shiny red car had disappeared into the mass of traffic.

“Forget you?” he said out loud. “I couldn’t if I wanted to.” He started the car and merged back on to the freeway. He could never tell anyone about this. No one would believe him. He hardly believed it himself. But she had said he’d see her again.

He smiled all the way to work.