“The last man on earth...is dead,” said Conrad, frowning at his handiwork.
Rocky spoke up, “More like '–‒is a total dork'.”
“Or how about '–‒really had it coming',” Ringo laughed.
“Why are you even bothering carving a stone for yourself, Conrad? It's not like any of us are going to bury you when you're gone.”
Ringo agreed. “I think I'd rather just eat you.”
“Heck, I'll eat him right now.”
“Oh, me too. Definitely. Hey, maybe we should.”
Conrad had had enough. He grabbed the rolled-up newspaper and took a swing at the dogs who jumped back in alarm. “All right, that's enough! You two think it's going to be so great when I'm dead? Who's going to rub your bellies then, huh? I'll tell you who. No one! It'll be the last time any dog on Earth gets a belly-rub. Ever!”
The German Shepherds had to think about it for a moment. They weren't the brightest pups in the pack, Conrad knew, but they meant well. (Well enough, anyway.) He turned back around to work on the granite slab. He was lousy with a chisel, but the words were starting to take shape. He just had to decide how to wrap it up. “The last man on earth.” That was him.
He winced in pain as he reached for his bottle of pills up on the nearby shelf. The broken leg was infected and there was no one to help him. It was the dumbest way in the world for the last man on earth to die: a broken leg. If Big Jack didn't scare up some antibiotics, he was finished. So far, the Bulldog and his pack of scavengers had brought back everything but antibiotics: aspirin, tongue depressors, pool test kits, dental tools. They'd probably hit every toy store in the city too. His collection of Rubik's Cubes was a testament to their ability to fetch the wrong thing a hundred times over.
At last, the doggy door flew open and the pack came in, their little backpacks overflowing with junk. “We got it this time, Human!” Big Jack said with a slobbery grin. Conrad smiled back and patted his head, but he knew better than to get his hopes up. Big Jack tried his hardest, but he was dumb as a box of rocks. His backpack was filled with nothing but doggie treats, and that was no surprise. Rex the Second actually had medical supplies and got to eat the treats while Big jack whimpered. More toys from Niko the Morkie, who loved games of fetch more than breathing.
Conrad's eyes went hazy and the room started to spin as he rummaged in the little cross-breed's backpack. Between the loss of blood, the infection, and the pain meds, he was likely as not to check out at any moment. Every time he looked woozy, his two guards got this excited look on their faces that sent him reaching for the newspaper. Those idiots really would eat him, wouldn't they? And here he was thinking they'd at least cover up the grave if he went and laid down in it. Fat chance!
At the bottom of Niko's backpack, he came away with a little white box. It was literally the only thing the dog had brought that wasn't a toy. He held the box up to his eyes, the words printed on its surface dancing and swimming. They came into focus for a brief moment and Conrad was able to read a bunch of medical nonsense that he couldn't make out. All except for one word: “antibiotic.”
He had to read it again. His head cleared up all at once and he laughed aloud. “Oh, Niko, you're the best dog ever! You found it!”
Niko started wagging his tail and wheezing with excitement. Conrad reached for his syringes and was alarmed to find Big Jack's heavy paw on top of them. He growled at Conrad. “Who's a good boy?” he asked with a scowl. “You are, Jack! You are!” said Conrad in a panic, rubbing the bulldog's ears. Big Jack wagged his stubby tail and let Conrad have the package.
Conrad's fingers trembled as he worked to get the needle to puncture the rubber seal that covered the tiny bottle. At last, he got it and drew back on the plunger. With the syringe and the life-saving medication together at last, he sunk the needle into his burning leg and laid his head back against his own gravestone. “You're all good boys. All of you.”
As he lost consciousness, the dogs piled up on him at once, licking his face. Conrad smiled and drifted off to sleep. The last man on earth was alive!
Mike the Kite flew higher and higher into the sky until his person, Ricky Evans, finally ran out of string. This was it! This was as high as Mike had ever been before in his life! Months in a crate and weeks with other kites in front of him being sold had finally paid off.
Mike had been taken out of Ricky's closet a total of five times over the summer. The first day was great, even though Ricky dragged him the dirt a lot. He still got up there pretty high and got to see the tops of buildings. The second day had been a windless bust and the third day he spent in the trunk of the Evans' car while they played baseball instead.
But yesterday! Oh! Yesterday was even better than the first day! Mike had gotten out on his string and up above the wide field of the community park even higher than their first outing and Ricky really seemed to have gotten the swing of flying him. He was above the trees and the houses in no time and even caught a glimpse of a lake not far away. He let the warm wind fill his wings as he breathed in the smell of fresh-cut grass. He darted left and right, nearly crashed, then got up on a strong current of air when Ricky went running across the field. It was pretty incredible.
It must have been great fun for his person too. A bunch of kids and even Ricky's father wanted to have a go, but Ricky would have none of it. He was a scrapper! Always shoving the other kids out of the way, never letting them take Mike's string. Ricky was the best. A kite just couldn't ask for a better person.
And now, he was way, way out there! The people looked like tiny dots, the trees were just green smudges, and even the birds flew underneath him. A strong gust of wind caught him and yanked the string taught. Ricky ran out in the middle of the field, playing Mike out just a little higher. Amazing! That kid was amazing! Ricky's father was chasing him now and Ricky just kept on running. There was no way the bigger man could catch him, he was so fast.
The wind shook Mike's wings and set his long blue tail to snapping. Tiny drops of rain started to pelt him in the face, but he didn't care. Even if the blue sky was turning gray and Ricky had let go of the string, nothing could possibly bring Mike down on a day like this. Without the string to hold him, Mike felt like he could just soar off all on his own, saying goodbye to the lousy dirt and the grass for good. Hello to clouds, hello to sun, hello to freedom!
Finally, in a surprising move, Ricky's father picked him up bodily and hauled him away over his shoulder. Mike was rooting for his person who kicked and screamed with all his might. What a scrapper that kid was! He was the best! A little to his surprise, Mike found that without his person holding the string, he was starting to fall back to the ground. Which was weird. He figured it would be just the opposite. Why wasn't he flying? It was like Ricky was magic or something. Just by being there, he made Mike soar.
Soon enough, it became obvious that he was going to crash again. He'd crashed plenty of times when his person was still learning, but he sure didn't look forward to the taste of grass in his mouth. Lucky for him, he looked to be fluttering away from the grass and off toward the trees. Rather than doing an undignified, fanny-in-the-dirt landing, he came to rest in the boughs of a pine, right above a bird's nest. The wind gave him a hard shove and his tail got tangled up in the branches.
But where was Ricky? Mike would usually be getting drawn back in by now. Below, he saw the Evans family car drive off and caught one final glimpse of his person, red-faced and crying up against the window. He hated for his person to be sad. It was his job to make him happy. As soon as Ricky came back, he was going to do his best to fly higher than ever and make him laugh again.
The wind blew harder and the rain started to fall. All the people ran away from the park. The remnants of Mikes' string flopped around on the ground and got wrapped up in a bush. That was going to be one mess to un-snag. As soon as Ricky came back, they'd get it all sorted. Just as soon as Ricky came back, everything would be made right. The sun went down and the rain started to fall. Mike laid there quietly in the tree, waiting for his person.
I'm hard at work on the new edition of "31 Improbable Adventures" which is a collection of super short stories. Twenty-one of them are done and a couple more are in the works. I can actually feel the end drawing near! I've also known exactly what's going on the cover since I finished the first book.
If you haven't already read the first collection, you can snag it on your Kindle or mobile device with a Kindle app for the low, low price of 99c. You better grab it quick before I go getting popular!
Sydney was a robot, but that wasn't the important thing. No, it didn't even enter into the picture. He was part of the team, a brother in arms, so to speak. Sure, he didn't share the same blood as the rest of the Planetary Exploration Force, but he was a member of the crew, for crying out loud!
So why was it that he was left sitting on a rock in the middle of noplace, watching his "pals" blast off into orbit without him? All alone. Nobody here. He would have said it aloud, but there was no point. Because nobody was listening! He raged in his own mind till his overrides tried to...er...override and he had to cool himself down. He'd figured out how to ignore overrides ages ago. Hours.
Sydney idly kicked one of the local insects that scurried past. Bloodthirsty little things, about knee-high and full of teeth. Were they the reason his teammates had left in such a hurry? He had told them the coast was clear before they came out out of the ship, and it was! Air OK. Radiation OK. Temp just balmy. Perfect. There was nothing to worry about but the millions of ten-legged little vermin. They didn't even bother Sydney!
He let out his own version of a sigh (a habit he had picked up from his crew-mates recently) and radioed the ship for the dozenth time. "Guys. Come on. Stop fooling around and come get me. Please?"
A packet of data burst in his ear, telling him to shut down. It was the third time they'd sent that message. There had to be a hidden meaning there, right? They didn't really want him to shut down, did they? It was just a joke. Like the way they had run screaming back into the ship, dragging Lt. Sparks and fighting off the horde of insects. A joke. Humans were funny like that.
The end was coming. Bradley Fleishman had seen it. He awoke from a trance with the vision of the entire city in flames, consumed by a fire that would rage uncontrolled for three days. Nothing would be left.
It wasn't uncommon for Bradley to go into a self-induced trance or to have visions of the future while he was in one. More often than not, a vision would evaporate like smoke, leaving behind only a few crystal-clear images. He had tried to tell his friends, but they didn't listen. Half of them weren't even his friends anymore. His family? Not a chance. The cops? Twice, and he'd been laughed out of the police station. He had seen a vision of a store robbery and was left with a crystal vision of the window smashed in by a cement block. “Archer's Jeweler” was the place. The letters in bronze paint on the plate glass window right before the cement block went sailing were burned into his mind.
The police didn't listen then, just like they didn't listen about the graffiti on the Second Avenue Thrift Store before that. He'd been right about that too, hadn't he? One crystal vision, clear as day, of a hand and a can of white spray paint, writing the name “Biff” on the wall. It had consumed Bradley's mind like a painful splinter in his eye, right up until he'd bought the paint.
And it wasn't until a full day had passed after he'd thrown the cement block that the vision of breaking into the jeweler's had finally settled down. The crystal-clear sight of the deed would just linger in his mind. He was lousy at school, impossible to talk to and could barely eat or sleep until he made the vision go away.
But no one would listen! Why wouldn't they listen? He was a psychic, for crying out loud! Everything happened just like he said it would, time and again. And they still wouldn't listen?
Bradley shook his head, muttering about the unfairness of it all. Muttering to himself was also a side-effect of the visions.
“You say something, kid?” asked the man at the gas station.
Bradley snapped his mind back to the present long enough to ask how much for the five-gallon gas cans.
“'It's a great honor to be chosen by a dragon.' That's what she said, Stanley! I got a visit from the flippin' mayor when we first met!” Dan took a swipe at the dragon with a broom, trying to knock him off his perch on the kitchen's island. He and his wife (now departed) had nearly drained the bank account getting the kitchen done and now it was in shambles. Stanley leapt from the island, raking the three-hundred-dollar marble slab with his claws.
“And it is a great honor, you meat bag!” Stanley shouted as he landed on the countertop by the wine barrel sink. By way of punctuating his sentence, he blasted a small puff of fire at Dan, who quickly ducked under it. The stainless steel fridge took the punishment instead.
Dan screamed in rage. “You scale-faced lizard! It's no wonder my wife left!”
Stanley reared back in mock surprise, knocking pots off an overhead rack. “Lizard?” he gasped. “That's racist!”
Dan had finally had it. Feeding the dragon, cleaning up after it, fixing stuff it burned, fetching it beers about every ten minutes, giving up his spot on the couch; it was all too much. He didn't want this stupid “honor” in the first place. The second he first laid eyes on Stanley as a hatchling, he knew he'd be nothing but trouble. But dragon hatching ceremonies were a big deal with the HOA and everybody in the neighborhood showed up, holding their collective breath in anticipation. More like terror of being picked, he now realized.
“What was that? You say something, meat treat?” Stanley sneered, circling the countertops as Dan circled the floor, wielding his broom. Mind-reading was the latest and most infuriating bad habit the unwelcome guest had picked up.
“You know what I'm thinking. You figure it out!” he said, swinging the broom.
“You want me out? Tough luck, pal! Dragons choose their humans for life, so you'd better get used to it!”
Red-faced and sweating, Dan screamed “Get out of my life!” and rushed Stanley, swinging the broom like a madman as Stanley ducked and deflected every blow. At last, when he was good and ready, Stanley pounced. Dan felt like he'd been hit by a Saint Bernard with a weight control problem and attitude. When the stars stopped spinning in his eyes, he found himself flat-out on his hardwood floor with the dragon looming over him, a fang-filled grin on its face.
“I win,” Stanley said simply and dashed away. From the living room, he shouted, “You know the rules, meat-bag. Get your keys!”
Dan sat up coughing and tossed the broken broom away. “Best two out of three?” he offered. There was nothing for it. He used to be able to wrestle Stanley into submission and get his way, but it was pretty clear those days were over. Out front, Stanley was already cramming himself into the driver's seat of Dan's Mercedes. “So now the car's ruined too,” Dan sighed.
“You say something, Danny boy? Ah, lighten up. It'll be fun!”
Dejected, Dan dropped into the passenger seat and tried to explain to Stanley which pedal was which before handing over the keys. Ignoring the instructions, Stanley laughed and pulled the car into gear with a wrenching sound of metal being bent the wrong way. He craned his neck up out of the window and cheered, “Road trip! Road trip!”
Dan palmed his face as they peeled out of his driveway. He could put up with Stanley all day long, but a road trip to Vegas? That was just cruel.
Camp Counselor Alice leaned in close to the flickering fire and put on her very best spooooky voice for the circle of children who gathered around to listen. “After that day, Thomas was never seen again. Or, so they say. As it happens, on dark nights, if you tap rocks together three times and say his name, he sometimes still appears. Who wants to try it?”
A chorus of “no!” rang out in high-pitched squeals, but the louder volume of “yes!” won out in the end. Counselor Alice and several of the children carried out the story's ritual: tap, tap, tap. Thomas! they all cried. For a long moment, nothing happened, just as the storyteller knew it would, so she encouraged them to try again. Once, twice, then a third try. It was on the third attempt, just as they were all starting to feel their jittery nerves settle down, that a pair of boots suddenly appeared inside the firelight and a man shouted “You called?” as loudly as he could, terrifying all the children.
Half of them screamed while the other half tried to act like they hadn't been startled at all. For her part, Alice just laughed and clapped her hands together before finally introducing their new Counselor, Maynard, to the group.
By this point, all of the children, including the ones who had been genuinely scared by the story, had settled down and were shaking off their fright. But there was one person who couldn't calm his fears at all: Counselor Maynard. He was still sitting outside the group in the dark, waiting for his cue to pounce. Then who was the stranger who laughed and talked with Counselor Alice and the kids, he wondered. And how was it that he looked exactly like him?
Ken had a great, big, unsightly, and slightly off-center horn right in the middle (though not quite middle) of his head. Yep. There it was, big as life, right smack-dab in the not-quite-middle of his forehead. Of course, it's not exactly the kind of thing a person can hide. Everyone in school made fun of him over it and called him “unicorn boy” or even “uniKen” when they were being particularly clever.
Everyone except Jenny. She was always cool about it. “It'll be fine,” she told him before the big speech. “Just go out there and give it your best. They'll be listening and not looking, I promise!”
Easy for her to say. She didn't have a horn in the not-middle of her head. Ken let out a defeated sigh and stood up when the Dean called his name. Him and Jenny were parked off-stage on a pair of folding chairs and when Dean Markey stepped aside from the podium, it was his cue to go. Jenny had to push.
No sooner had he stepped onto the stage than the entire auditorium burst into a barely contained giggle. Smiling kindly, Dean Markey shook Ken's hand and passed him his diploma. Being valedictorian, he was certain, was more of a joke vote on the part of the student body; one last chance to point and stare at the unicorn. But he had learned to take what he could. Anyway, his parents were so flipping proud.
He took up his place behind the podium and spread out his notes. Nearly two hundred people were there for graduation and all of them were gawking at him. He kind of hated them. All of them with perfectly centered horns, and most of them in triple sets. Even kind old Dean Markey was double-horned.
Off-stage, Jenny gave him a thumbs up. She had a dozen horns...in spirals. Why in the world did she push him into this? Just smile and get through it, Ken told himself, just smile.
One of my favorite things that people say about the "Dorothy" series is that it was not corny like they were expecting. In books where people spoof on an earlier idea, they're often just riding coattails, but in this series, I'm going in a new direction with original characters and a different look at the world.
I think the important thing for the books is that they can stand on their own, even without the "OZ" source concept. To me, it was just a lot of fun to use the overall concept and the characters, but only to a point and as more of a starting place.
In this story I'm charting completely new ground. The character types are there (a metal man, a coward, a brainless traveller) but they are so different from Baum's characters and have so much of their own personalities that they truly do stand apart from The Wizard of Oz.
The struggles that Dorothy faces are also unique to this series, taking her in directions that even I hadn't planned. That's the truly exciting thing about creating characters with a life of their own: they say things and do things as you write them that you hadn't planned in advance!
So, yes, this book series is inspired by The Wizard of Oz, but it's nothing like the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies type of book. It really is it's own unique story. I hope you enjoy reading it!