I don’t write short stories any more, but I wrote this while attending Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp.
It was mid-June, and Sylvia Meyer had not yet planted her petunias. In identical flower boxes up and down the block, petunias were taking root. The neighbors were starting to talk.
Her husband was, of course, perfectly capable of planting the petunias, but he had once been a farmer and didn’t see the point. “It’s not like you can eat them.”
Besides, on Peach Tree Lane, the women planted the petunias. The men mowed the grass. That was the order of things.
Her restlessness had started that April, when the last of the snow had disappeared and the sky cleared and the sun was back to warming the earth. While everyone else on the block was deciding what color of petunias to plant, Sylvia was staring at the sky, watching clouds gather and form and then twist and separate. In fact, when it was finally warm enough, she pulled a chair into the backyard and sat for hours, staring upwards, watching the clouds. And not planting her petunias.
When she wasn’t sitting in the backyard staring at the clouds, she was walking and staring at the sky, a somewhat dangerous occupation for most, but Sylvia was very good at multitasking, a talent she had honed while raising two active sons.
On this particular June day, she was poking around in the woods behind her house. It took only a matter of moments but, while she was eyeing a particularly interesting low flying cloud, she got lost. It was a perfectly ridiculous situation since she was certain she had to be only a few feet from her backyard.
Nevertheless, she found herself on an unfamiliar path that took her to a small stream. She followed the stream until she came to a narrow wooden bridge. She was about to turn back when a small boy burst through the underbrush on the other side of the stream.
He stopped abruptly when he saw her. “Get away,” he said, motioning to her. “He’s coming.”
Sylvia, of course, had no idea what he was talking about, but she ran after him, thinking he was in distress.
The woods were much thicker on the other side of the stream and she had a difficult time keeping him in sight. Several times she was certain she had lost him, but then he would reappear.
And then she came upon the boy so abruptly that she nearly ran into him. As it was, she tripped and fell into the bushes, knocking the air out of her lungs. He didn’t offer any help, but she got up on her own. She brushed the dirt off her knees and elbows, checking to see if she had torn a hole in her jeans.
“Who’s after you?” she asked, wondering what bully had chased him into the woods. She knew about bullies. One of her sons had been the victim of a bully when he was a child until she taught him a few offensive moves.
“Corbin,” he said.
“Corbin,” he said, shaking his hands and bouncing up and down impatiently.
She spread her hands in a gesture of confusion.
“The kiffling,” the boy said. He looked up, gasped and then dove into the bushes as a shadow passed overhead.
Sylvia spun around and found herself looking into a pair of tiny round black eyes mounted on a low-flying lump of fluff about two feet across and maybe three feet high at its peak, bobbing in the air about five feet from the ground. It ignored Sylvia and floated around her.
“Wilfred Mandover Clark, where are you?” Its voice was commanding, yet melodic.
A moment passed. “Here,” came a small, thin voice from the underbrush.
“Go home,” the kifflling said. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” the boy said.
“That I find difficult to believe. Your mother is waiting.”
The boy sighed and stood up, his head barely visible above the undergrowth. “Fine,” he said. “Why do you have to ruin everything?” The kiffling made no reply, but swayed in place.
“What’s that?” she whispered to the boy.
“Corbin,” the boy whispered back, stepping deeper into the bush.
“Excuse me,” she said to the cloud. “I wonder if you can direct me back to Peach Tree Lane?”
The kiffling tilted slightly, as if giving her the once-over. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“Yes, I know,” Sylvia said. “I’m lost. I don’t know how to get home.”
“Children get lost,” he said. “Adults trespass.”
“I don’t mean to trespass,” she said, for the first time thinking that maybe this cloud-thing could be dangerouss. She was aware of the boy, Wilfred, a few feet away, watching intently, no doubt plotting the likelihood of escape. If he made a run for it, she was going to follow. It’s not like the cloud thing could actually catch anyone. At least, she didn’t think so.
Corbin turned his attention back to Wilfred. “Go home,” he said, a hint of thunder in his voice. Wilfred sighed, admitting defeat, then swung around and slowly started walking.
He picked up his speed and Corbin, satisfied, started to float away.
“Wait,” Sylvia said. “What about me?”
The kiffling gave her barely a glance. “Go home,” he said, in the same tone he had used with Wilfred.
“I’d love to,’ she said. “But I don’t know where to go.”
“Go back the way you came,” Corbin said.
That would only work to a point, Sylvia decided, and she was about to say so, but he floated away.
Sylvia, not wanting to be alone, bolted after Wilfred before he disappeared too. As soon as the thing was gone, Wilfred slowed down and she was able to catch up with him. “What was that?” she asked.
The boy jumped. “You again,” he said. “You heard him. Go home.”
“I would,” she said, “but I don’t know how to get there.”
“Not my problem,” he said. He veered off the path.
“Where are you going?” Sylvia asked.
“Anywhere away from you,” he said.
Sylvia stayed on his heels. “Is this the way to your home?”
“It’s a short cut,” he said, speeding up.
“It doesn’t look like a short cut to me.”
“How would you know?”
She wouldn’t of course. But she recognized disobedience when she saw it. She had, after all, raised two boys. “So what was that thing?” she asked again.
“A kiffling,” Wilfred said. “Don’t you know anything?”
“Well, actually, I know a lot of things,” she said. “I just don’t know that thing.”
Wilfred changed direction and Sylvia followed him.
“What’s a kiffling?” she asked.
He shrugged. “A kiffling is a kiffling,” he said.
“Like a cat is a cat?”
He glared at her. “Yeah,” he said.
“You’re not going home,” she said, realizing that they had doubled back and had
returned to the spot where the kiffling had intercepted them.
“What will happen if Corbin catches you a second time?”
He ignored her.
“Or, would it be the third time?”
He still ignored her, but his face darkened; she could tell by the crease in his brow that he was thinking. Finally, he sighed dramatically and changed course again.
Sylvia was content to follow him, staying a few feet behind. They walked through the underbrush until they came to a clearing, and then Wilfred took a sharp left.
In the distance, Sylvia could see a number of white dome-like shapes arranged in a haphazard cluster. They glistened in the sunlight like bright shiny white balls, a little like igloos. Some of them were at least two stories, with windows and doors and gardens. Above most of them, low clouds bobbed in the sunlight. Kifflings, she thought. Like Corbin.
“Do you live here?” she asked Wilfred.
“Do you live with the kifflings?”
He snorted. “No,” he said. “They live with us.”
“My mother and my sister and me.”
He ran ahead, dodged behind a bush and disappeared for a moment. When he reemerged, Sylvia was waiting.
“Why are you still following me?” he demanded.
“I told you—I’m lost.”
“Adults don’t get lost.”
“I hate to tell you this, but adults get lost all the time,” she said.
He looked at her, his forehead wrinkled as if he were considering the likelihood. A few yards from the first domed house, he stopped and faced her. “You can’t come home with me.”
“Perhaps your mother can tell me how to get to my home,” she said. “And then I would be gone and you’d never see me again.”
“She doesn’t know where you live,” he said. “She doesn’t even know you.”
“If you introduced us—”
“No.” He turned away and began running. Sylvia hurried after him, running between two of the houses until she came to a narrow street that wound haphazardly among the houses. She caught sight of him as he turned a corner and jogged after him.
She nearly caught up to him when he stopped, looked over his shoulder and glared at her. Then he sprinted down a walkway into one of the “igloos” just as a woman opened the door.
“Wilfred!” She looked stern, but not angry. “Where have you been? It’s suppertime.”
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“You’re hungry,” she said. “We’re all hungry.” Wilfred shrugged. “Where did you go? Corbin’s been looking for you for hours.”
He shrugged again and shuffled his feet toward the doorway.
“Oh, never mind,” she said. “Now go wash up.”
Then the woman caught sight of Sylvia. She smiled brightly and said hello. “Are you a friend of Wilfred’s?” she asked.
“No,” Wilfred said.
“Yes,” Sylvia said, introducing herself. “We met in the woods.”
His mother suddenly tensed. “You were in the woods?” she said to him.
He didn’t answer.
“You know you’re not supposed to go there. It’s dangerous.”
“It isn’t that dangerous,” he said.
“Go wash up,” she said sharply. “Then we’ll eat. We will talk about this later.” Then she spoke to Sylvia, “Thanks for bringing him home.”
“That was Corbin’s doing,” Sylvia said. “I just followed. I can’t seem to figure out how to get home.”
“You’re from across the river, aren’t you?”
“River? What river?”
“Oh, I keep forgetting. It used to be a river.” She sighed and looked worried. “It was a lot safer for us when it was a river. Now I understand it’s not much more than a stream.”
“A very small stream,” Sylvia said. She liked this woman. She reminded her of herself fifteen, twenty years ago. “You have a lovely home. What is it made of?”
The woman introduced herself as Meta. “I’m not really sure,” she said. “Some kind of stone. The kifflings built them for us ages ago.”
“What exactly is a kiffling?” Sylvia asked.
Meta hesitated and then leaned toward her and whispered, “Why, they’re aliens.” Then she giggled. “From outer space,” she said.
Sylvia, who not once in her entire life had ever considered the possibility that “aliens from outer space” was even a remote possibility, felt herself grow cold. Then warm. Then cold again. “Really?”
“Oh, yes,” Meta said. “Delightful creatures. And so helpful.” Then she clasped a hand to her mouth. “Oh, please forgive my manners. Won’t you come in and join us for supper? You must be hungry, with all the traveling you’ve done.”
Mostly Sylvia was thirsty, but she welcomed the opportunity to sit for a while and figure out what she was going to do next.
Once inside, Sylvia realized that the igloo was much bigger than it appeared from the outside. A wide, spacious room covered most of the first floor. She saw circular stairs near the back wall that curled up to the second floor and down to what she imaged was the basement. The walls were a soft yellow and in one end of the room, was a collection of chairs and sofas, all comfortably arranged. The kitchen was in the other half of the room. There was no refrigerator and no stove, just a long free standing counter with a sink and a narrow pine table able to sit many more than three. Meta gestured for Sylvia to sit at the table. Then she called out, “Wilfred! Eliza! Supper.”
“Do you think I could wash up first?” Sylvia asked.
“Oh, of course,” Meta said, stirring the pot that hung over the fire. “Please forgive my manners. There’s water at the sink,” she said, gesturing.
Sylvia needed more than a sink. “Would it be all right to use your bathroom?”
Meta looked puzzled. “Ah—sure.”
Just then, a girl, a little older than Wilfred, stomped into the kitchen. She stopped short when she saw Sylvia. “Oh, great,” she said. “Wilfred dragged home an Outsider. That’s all we need.”
“Mind your manners, Eliza,” her mother said, and then introduced Sylvia. “She’s our guest.”
“Not mine,” the girl mumbled.
“Show her the bathroom,” Meta said. “She would like to use it.”
Eliza looked surprised and then a slow grin spread across her face. “Sure,” she said to her mother, and then to Sylvia, “Follow me.”
Eliza led Sylvia down a short hallway and then point to a room at the end. Inside, Sylvia found a large, freestanding tub made of the same stone from which the house was constructed. It was mounted on a platform and looked as though it could easily hold three or four people. Sylvia was quite impressed. But there was no toilet.
Eliza was still waiting in the hallway, her arms crossed leaning against the wall. “Not what you were expecting?”
“No,” Sylvia said. “Where’s the toilet?” Her need was now insisting that she be direct.
“We don’t have one,” she said smugly. “We don’t need them.”
“Really? How wonderful for you. How about an outhouse?”
“Oh, gross,” the girl said, and she unrolled herself and headed back down the hallway, with Sylvia following.
Back in the kitchen, Eliza flopped into a chair, still boasting a smug smile.
“That was quick,” Meta said.
“Turns out,” Eliza said, “she wanted a toilet, not a bath.”
“Oh.” Meta paused as she dished out something that looked like beans into the bright blue bowls she had laid out on the table. “Well, don’t worry. Corbin will take care of that for you.”
Sylvia wondered how but didn’t want to ask. Eliza continued to watch her, smirking openly. It was beginning to get on Sylvia’s nerves and her head was starting to hurt. No doubt from too much sun. Her overburdened bladder wasn’t helping her mood either. God help her if she had to sneeze.
As Meta was laying the bowls on the table, Wilfred slid into his seat. He glanced at Sylvia, ignored his sister, and barely acknowledged his mother, even when she placed a bowl in front of him.
The food Meta placed in front of Sylvia didn’t look the least bit appetizing. It smelled strange and dark flecks of some sort stood out against the white beans. She took a sip of water, praying her bladder would hold. It was warm and had a metallic taste.
Meta studied the table. “I think we’re ready,” she said. “I’ll call Corbin.”
From the open doorway, she leaned out, her hand cupped to her mouth and called, “Corbin, supper,” like he was a small child. Or a dog.
Instantly, Corbin was there, along with a few other little Corbins; kifflings of lesser stature, Sylvia imagined.
“We have a guest,” Meta said to him.
“I anticipated that,” he said. “I brought another.”
They filed into the house. The small kifflings took a position behind each of the children. Another larger kiffling lined up behind Meta, and Corbin took his place behind Sylvia.
Meta said grace and, before the “amen” had faded, the children picked up their spoons but did not start eating until the kifflings settled on their backs. Almost immediately the scowling ceased and Wilfred launched into a story about the fox he had chased that morning while Eliza listened patiently.
Before Sylvia had time to wonder, Corbin settled on her shoulders. A sensation of warmth came over her, starting in her chest and working its way to her toes. Then long, fluffy arms inched their way down her arms like fog rolling over the mountains until thin cloud-like fingers curled against hers. She effortlessly picked up her spoon and took a bite of the beans.
But they weren’t beans. They couldn’t possibly be beans, she decided, as the first wave of flavor hit the back of her mouth. Too tender. Too sweet. Too good to be simple beans. It was the spices spices, she decided. It had to be the spices.
The room had taken on a soft, intimate glow, and Meta and the children seemed more attractive than they had been just a moment earlier.
Meta looked up from her bowl and caught Sylvia’s eye. “Oh, where are my manners!” she said, rapping on the table with the back of her spoon. When the children looked at her, she picked up her glass. “We need to welcome our guest.”
Then to Sylvia, she raised her glass. “We don’t often have guests,” she explained. “Here’s to Sylvia. Welcome to Lockwood Downs!”
The children picked up their glasses and toasted her and gave a quick cheer: “To Sylvia.”
Sylvia found it delightful, if not a little over the top. She picked up her glass to return the favor. “And here’s to you all for being so generous.” They cheered again and Sylvia took a sip of the water, expecting the same metallic taste, but this time, the water was sweet and clear and cool, better than any champagne she had ever tasted, even better than the hundred dollar bottle her husband had surprised her with on their last anniversary.
As she ate, she noticed a soft whispering in her ear, describing each bite she ate, more like music than words; more like the rise and fall of ocean waves than music. She was aware of her body; it seemed to be on the verge of dissolving. The lumps and budges and warts and calluses smoothed out. Her feet no longer hurt, nor did her head. She could think of not a single worry. Even getting home again no longer seemed like a problem.
And then she realized she no longer had to pee.
“What are you?” she said to the kiffling.
“A friend,” he whispered into her ear. His voice was soft and seductive; a lover’s voice.
“You are more than that,” she said.
“No,” he said. “Just a friend.”
She took another spoonful of beans, savoring them as if they were the most exquisite morsels ever known. “It’s an illusion, isn’t it?” she whispered.
“Does it feel like one?”
She closed her eyes. It had to be an illusion. Nothing in her life had ever felt like this, like floating in the air with soft breezes swirling around her that smelled of lavender and sweet peas and roses.
When she had eaten the last of her beans and drunk the last drop of water, the kiffling detached from her. She whimpered in protest, willing it to come back.
“Too much is addictive,” he told her. “For both of us.”
The air cleared, the room sharpened, and Sylvia shook her head to clear it. The sense of loss was overwhelming.
“Oh, dear,” she could hear Meta saying. “Perhaps I should have given you one of the less powerful kifflings. I forget how intoxicating they are to newcomers.”
“I’ll be all right,” Sylvia said. “I just need to catch my breath.”
In a moment, she was back to normal. She offered to help Meta clean up, as the children disappeared the moment they finished eating. Meta nearly refused and then relented.
“I could use the company,” she said, as Sylvia picked up the dishes and stacked them next to the sink.
“Don’t you have friends?”
Meta shook her head. “Not really,” she said. “People spend most of their time with their kifflings.”
She could understand why. “What about your husband?” As soon as she asked, she wished she could take it back. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t mean—”
“It’s all right,” Meta said. “It’s been so long now, I barely remember I was ever married.” She ran water into the sink and added some soap and then the dishes. “When the kifflings first came, we were afraid of them, although they never seemed threatening. The men especially feared them.”
“I’m not sure,” Meta said, dipping her hands into the soapy water. “Perhaps the men saw the kifflings differently than the women. I don’t know. Anyway, to make a long story short, the men started killing them.”
It made Sylvia angry to hear that. Nothing about the kifflings struck her as malevolent. “That’s terrible,” she said.
“It got worse,” Meta said. “The kifflings retaliated.”
Sylvia let that sink in for a moment. “Let me guess, the kifflings killed all the men.”
Meta nodded. “Killed or drove them off, one or the other.”
“That must have been awful,” Sylvia said. “But the women and children remained?”
“What else could we do?”
“But to remain with your husband’s killers—”
“It was a long time ago,” she said, “and the kifflings have been trying to make it up to us ever since. And my husband wasn’t killed. He ran off.”
“Don’t you miss him?” Sylvia picked a dish towel and began drying the dishes, stacking them on the counter.
“Sometimes,” she said. “But not for long. Besides, it was fifty years ago. I’m pretty sure he’s dead now.”
Fifty years ago? “That’s hard to believe,” Sylvia said. “You don’t look that old.”
“Oh, I know, isn’t it wonderful? It’s the kifflings, you know. They keep us young. But the children take forever to grow up. That gets a little tiresome after awhile.”
That, Sylvia had to admit, could be a major drawback.
“We don’t get many visitors, you know,” Meta said. “Occasionally, someone wanders in, but they don’t stay long. I think they find us scary.”
“But how do you live? Don’t you need food? Clothing? What about school?”
“We’re quite capable of feeding ourselves. Clothing isn’t a problem. Some of us actually work in the real world. I did for a while, until the children started getting into trouble. The kifflings make wonderful teachers, but they have spoiled the children terribly. We’re pretty aware of what’s going on in the world, but we stay here, where it’s safe, for the kifflings sake.”
“But they killed the men.”
“Like I said, it was a long time ago. And it was in self-defense.”
“But they aren’t here just to protect you, are they?”
Meta emptied the sink and put the dishes away. “No. Not entirely.” She wiped down the counter and then the table.
“You should leave,” Meta said, drying her hands. “It’s getting late. It will be dark soon. You’ll never find your way home in the dark.”
“I don’t know how to get home,” Sylvia said.
“I’ll get Corbin to show you,” Meta said, back to her smiling self. “I’m so glad you’ve found us. I hope you will come back again. It was nice to visit with someone who doesn’t have their head in the clouds, so to speak, all the time.”
Meta called for Corbin, and when he came, directed him to show Sylvia the way home. “All you have to do is follow him,” Meta said.
Just as they were leaving, Wilfred reappeared. “Can I go with them?” he asked his mother.
Meta hesitated, frowned, and then offered a tentative smile. “I suppose,” she said. “But you have to come right back home.”
“I will,” Wilfred said, and catching the look on his mother’s face, added, “I promise.”
The kiffling took the lead, with Sylvia following and Wilfred bouncing ahead and then running back to them, and finally settling beside Sylvia.
“Do you have a husband?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you like him?”
“You shouldn’t bring him here.”
“No,” Sylvia said after a moment. “I suppose I shouldn’t.”
Then Wilfred darted into the woods and disappeared.
After they crossed the bridge, the kiffling spoke to her. “Another ten feet and turn to your right. Then go straight.”
She thanked him, and before he could float away, she reached out and touched him. A little tremble passed through her, and him, judging by the way he pulsed. “If I want to come back …”
“You shouldn’t,” he said.
“But if I want to—”
His tiny black eyes regarded her for a long moment. “I’ll be here,” he said.
But the kiffling was gone.
Later, as she stood on her porch watching the Baker twins play kickball in the fading light, she thought she smelled lavender. She glanced upwards into the sky. Not a cloud to be seen. Then she eyed her flowerbed. Perhaps she should plant something after all. But not petunias. Sweet peas perhaps, and maybe even roses.
To hell with the neighbors.