Morality and Motivation

#SFWAPRO

Please note, in the following discussion I use the term hero and villain. I’m using it in a non-gendered sense, much like actor is now used. Nothing I’ll be discussing need vary based on gender.

It’s common writing advice to make sure your characters, all of your characters, have a motivation; they need to want something. In some cases this can be as simple as wanting a glass of water because they’re thirsty. This might serve in the short term, or for very minor characters. For the protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain) of your story—assuming they’re people—your story will be better served if they have a deeper motivation driving them, beyond just the scene, but for the overall story. I’ve found establishing the morality of the characters makes this much simpler. It’s also helpful because you have something against which you can judge their actions; does is fit the character, or is it just a means to fit the story?

If you suspect my choice of topic for this post was influenced by current events, you’d be correct. This post isn’t about the principles we proclaim or project to the world, it’s about the true core of who we are, and what we believe is right.

I make no secret of the fact I majored in philosophy in college. As such, I enjoy a good and spirited debate. So long as it’s based on reason and fact. Sure, opinion can be a valid point if what you’re arguing has no objective answer. Chocolate being a superior ice cream flavor over chocolate doesn’t have an objective answer, but you’ll still need a reasoned argument if the debate will have any value. Because I like it, is not a reasoned argument. With that in mind, let’s start this discussion in a manner that would make Socrates proud, let’s define our topic.

A great many people confuse morality and ethics, and use the terms interchangeably. In point of fact, not only are they different, they are in some ways complete opposites. Morality is an internal set of principles you use to determine if something is wrong or right. Ethics are guidelines exerted by an external entity to moderate behavior. You workplace code of conduct for example, or the rules the doctors (and most medical professionals) and lawyers have to abide by. Obviously the two can overlap but they can also be opposed. In those cases a person with either remove themselves from the circumstance those ethics are applied, compromise their morality to fit, fight to have those ethical guidelines changed, or attempt to justify why such guidelines can’t or shouldn’t be applied to them. A prime example of this are the laws of commerce in the U.S. that preclude discrimination based on race, religion, sexuality, or gender (or gender identity). The now famous, or perhaps infamous, case of the wedding cake maker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple was argued on the basis that customized cakes were an artistic expression over a commercial endeavor and as such should be excluded from the commerce guidelines.

Another common misconception is that a person’s morality is an immoveable, unchanging thing. A normal part of life is reexamining our morals and deciding if they still fit what we currently believe. In some cases it is an honest reassessment based on our changing selves and understanding of the world. In others something of greater value causes of us compromise, or abandon all together, some principles. I don’t have to tell you that in the latter example, a great deal of self-delusion and/or justification often follows when questioned on it.

Now that we’ve established a definition of morality, let’s look at some basic schools of moral thought. A discussion on the vast and complicated points of a person’s guiding principles would take far too long for a simple blog post. There are in fact countless books on this. So let’s focus instead on core morality. The roots of the morality tree if you will. In philosophy there are two basic schools of thought in terms of morality; the more complex and nuanced areas of study or almost always based on one of these two schools.

The first is absolutism. This is the idea that there are a set of moral standards to which all people, everywhere, and regardless of cultural or societal acceptance can be held to. The other, as you’d imagine, is the opposite. Relativism is the idea that there are no absolute moral principles and instead, every society (or even individual) must be permitted to determine their own moral guidelines. As such, in relativism anyway, it is inherently immoral to foist your principles/beliefs on anyone else. You can try and persuade them of course, but you can’t hold them to your moral standard.

A lot of people (at least people from western based cultures) would go with absolutism, at first anyway. We tend to believe there is a bedrock morality that can’t, and in fact shouldn’t, ever be compromised. Some will dismiss relativism, until you mention the part about the immorality of pushing your beliefs on another. That often gives people pause, especially Americans, which in the spirit of full disclosure, I am one of. A heavy cultural importance on the idea of individual freedom runs very deep. And make no mistake, it is cultural.

Odds are if you’re from a western (or westernized) country, the choice between these two schools isn’t an obvious one. Yes, of course a person should be allowed to determine and live by their own beliefs, but there are also some things that are just wrong. Abuse of a child is never right, be it sexual, physical, or emotional. Right? Well, if you’ve watched the news lately, you know a great many people feel it can be justified. Understand we’re talking about absolutism here. There is no justification, there is no “yes it’s wrong, but” explaining away. If there are things that are absolutely wrong, then it must be absolute. I could also use murder, but even our laws allow for self-defense. Rape? Well, for me that it is an absolute wrong, but if you spend any time on the internet and social media, you’ll find a sizeable population who feel otherwise. Often, as retaliation for a woman (or other marginalized person who isn’t male) having the audacity to speak their mind, or refuse to accept a predominantly male opinion.

Does that mean then that there are no moral absolutes? By default then the choice would be relativism. Do societies only go on because of some agreed upon tenets of behavior? That’s a good question. In order to answer it, I’ll need to reveal my own moral point of view. You’re of course welcome to challenge it and debate me on it. Understand however, if it isn’t well reasoned and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, I’ll dismiss it as lacking any value to the overall discussion. I expect no less from others in regards to my arguments. I’m sure some people are already prepared to argue against my inclusion of gender identity mentioned above. To briefly digress, I included it not because I’m a gender studies expert, that but because I am not. As such, I defer to the experts in that area of study, the majority of who, through scientific study, have concluded that gender and biological sex aren’t interchangeable, and in fact, gender is much more of a spectrum than a binary classification. Yes, there are dissenters, but those I’ve looked over either started from a conclusion and sought to “prove” it correct, which is not scientific study. Or, they define gender as a social construct and as a member of that society we should adhere to it. By this argument, the very fact our society is starting to accept gender classification makes it self-negating.  Or, it’s simply a philosophical argument, which is fine, except this is something with an objective truth and as such, science wins out. Argue if you like, but gut feelings, just knowing what’s right, or other such arguments will be ignored. If you have scientific studies, feel free to link to them and I’ll look them over. If they turn out to be as I noted above, I’ll dismiss them. If not, I’ll recognize there are valid dissenting conclusions and look forward to further study on the topic.

Now, as you might’ve deduced, I’m a liberal minded person. As such, it might be a surprise to learn that I’m an absolutist. Yes, I can already hear some people grumbling about the “tolerant” only being so in regards to points of view they agree with. It might also be surprise that I will agree with that, and I have no moral confusion on the point; being liberal minded and an absolutist is not mutually exclusive. How? Well, I’m an absolutist because I believe there is one single principle that is absolute, and that all people should be answerable to. Yes, even having a single absolute belief means I’m an absolutist. What is that one thing? It’s simple. I believe every person has the right to live their life how so ever they chose, up until it prevents someone else from living their life however they chose. Thomas Jefferson had a similar mind in terms of ethics.

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Which has also been paraphrased as, “the reach of my arm should stop at my neighbor’s nose.” Of course I have can and do have varying opinions on individual actions (by individuals or governments), but I weigh all them against that single principle. It’s important to note here that something being moral (fitting within your moral principles) doesn’t mean it also kind. Likewise, just because something is immoral doesn’t mean it is evil. Not to say you can’t try, as I do, to always be kind, it just means that there is a higher standard which can overrule that desire.

You’re probably starting to see why there are countless books written on this topic. Like much of philosophy, and life, there are rarely easy answers and those we find might well be wrong.

Now, you’ve stayed with me for two and half pages of philosophical waxing, let’s talk about how all this helps in character development.

If you’re going to write compelling characters, they’ll need some motivation for their actions. For that motivation to be believable, it has to be consistent. The exception to this is if something happens that makes them reanalyze their own beliefs and motivations. While you’re free to delve deep and establish a complicated moral grounding for your characters, you rarely need to go that far. I find a get a deeper understanding of my characters and what they believe as the story develops. However, you still need a starting point. I’m sure the idea of developing motivation seems obvious, but I’m also sure we’ve all read stories where this wasn’t done, or not done well. Like much of your character development, these foundational principles don’t need to be obvious, or even stated in your story; your characters don’t all need to make a grand speech as to their values and beliefs. That being said, as the write, YOU damn sure should know what those motivations, values, and beliefs are. You needn’t have an in-depth understanding right away, or even for the entire first draft, but by the time you start revisions you should. It goes without saying that the sooner, and the deeper, you really understand your character, the better. It’s this understanding that will ensure a characters actions (with very, very, few exceptions, and those for good reason) is consistent and within their own morality.

Why is this important? Well you obviously want your readers to find your characters interesting. They don’t have to like them, though I believe there should always be at least one they can relate to and like. They do have to be compelling though. Readers are more likely to forgive a weaker story, or one with issues, if they like or are interested in the character. I’ve rarely heard of a story written so well the reader will keep going even if they find the characters blah. Heroes can’t just be the good person, and the villain can’t just be the bad one. Their motivations/beliefs don’t need to be a twisted web of complexity, but they must not ever be simple “because”. Why did the hero shoot that person? Because they’re a hero and the person they shot was the villain! What else would a hero do? While that’s a perfectly valid answer, it’s not a compelling one. Why did they shoot? Why didn’t they try to stop or subdue the villain without killing them? Why didn’t the hero try to reason with the villain? Or any number of other options? As the writer, you should be able to answer those questions. The reader doesn’t necessarily need to articulate it, though it’s not a bad thing if they can. They should however have a strong enough sense of who the character is that when presented with moral dilemmas, or complicated situation, they hero’s choice will feel correct at the end.

This sort of shallow simplicity does happen for heroes in a story, but it is much more commonly applied to the villains. Why did the villain blow up that building? Because they’re the villain, they’re evil! It’s what villains do. To be fair, being evil can be a legitimate motivation; some people just want to watch the world burn and all that. But apart from being a pretty lazy motivation, it’s only the surface. What is the deeper drive? What is the morality that drives them to be evil? With the exception of sever sociopaths and psychopaths, nearly all villains see themselves as the ones doing the right thing. Remember, something being moral doesn’t means it’s “good” or that it fits with societal normals and ethical standards. Likewise, morality, particularly of the villain, doesn’t need to make sense to you, or even the reader. It must however be consistent, apart from the examples I noted above.

This can be confusing, so let’s take a few villains from popular culture and dig a little deeper.

We’ll start with the Joker, and since the comics have had different artists and writers, which lend itself to inconsistency, we’ll stick with the one from the movies. In the Dark Night movie, the Joker wanted to make people (or possibly just Batman) see that the order and structure of polite society was all a lie. Further, that once people (and by consequence society) were shown that lie, they would devolve into monsters with no care for others. This is actually a very common theme, particularly in dystopian stories. When society and its norms begin to vanish, people will naturally become focused on themselves to the exclusion of others. If it helps them survive, anything is justifiable. The problem, which doesn’t have to matter to the villain in question, is that reality counters this fairly decisively. Whenever there is destruction and/or tragedy, some selfish people emerge, but many more reach out to offer help and aid. In many cases it brings people together much more than it drives them apart. We see this after natural disasters, and even manmade destruction. Some might argue this is only because the overall structure of society remains intact, and provides some comfort even amid the destruction. But for those amid that destruction, have any thought to society beyond what their own experiences. To them, everything is burning, or destroyed. I wonder how many of those amid the destruction, see others suffering or hurt (including total strangers), actually ignore them and trust for someone of something else (society) to help. Some certainly, and some might be unable to help either because of injury or circumstance, but it always seems many more become that someone else. They become the helpers Mister Rogers said to look for. Again, my argument doesn’t discount the validity of the Joker’s motivation and morality (at least to him), it’s simply to show that morality, especially a villain’s, doesn’t need to be grounded in reality.

Darth Vader, especially in A New Hope was pretty much just evil. He did what he did because he was a bad guy, and his boss the emperor was also a bad guy. Yes, he had a redemption in Return of the Jedi (spoiler alert), but let’s focus on the motivation behind his dark deeds. Though it pains me to admit, the prequels, especially Revenge of the Sith, added some depth to his character. Basically, he was angry. He was just so angry! He couldn’t save Padme, and besides she was cheating on him with Obi-Wan. He just loved Padme SO much! He did those dark deeds in the prequels, including murdering a bunch of children, just to get the power to keep her from dying. Yeah, it’s valid, also creepy, really childish, only slightly better than “because evil”, but still valid. Let’s ignore the prequels for now though (I can hear some cheering). In the original trilogy, it appears that Vader is just following the commands of the emperor. He does bad things because he’s told to. Why though? Without a doubt some people are content to follow orders and surrender any responsibility to someone else, even in the face of horrific acts. Those people don’t tend to be second in command of an freaking empire though. Vader has to lead, and good leaders aren’t just mindless followers. And he was a good leader, even considering what we’ll call an issue with blaster marksmanship on the part of the Stormtroopers. Despite years of trying, the rebellion never managed to bring down the empire. He also makes his own choices. The emperor gives him broad commands, but it’s up to Vader to figure out how to achieve them. I think, and I’m likely giving Lucas too much credit here, that Vader wasn’t driven by anger or love, but fear. Still ignoring the prequels, Vader took some serious damage. So much that, to quote Obi-Wan, he’s more machine than man. That kind of trauma leaves scars, and not just physical. I think Vader was driven by a fear of chaos, and the destruction it can bring. His morality was that order must be maintained at any cost. And real order only comes under the heel of a boot. People (or sentient beings) are willful and unpredictable. They do stupid things, and they must be kept in line. Everything he and the emperor do is for the greater good; a phrase responsible for countless pain and suffering. No amount of death, or suffering, is too much to pay. It’s nothing compared to the death and suffering that would come about if order is not maintained. In short, the suffering and/or death of an individual doesn’t matter when put against the preservation of society. Some modern laws in what we would consider progressive/democratic nations are based on this. Granted, it’s rarely carried to such an extreme.

If Vader’s motivation sounds like some political arguments you’ve heard over the years, and even recently, that’s not a coincidence. Fear is a powerful motivator. Now, even if we do consider the prequels (sorry) I’d argue my position is strengthened. Anakin lost his mother, the only family he knew and the only person (before Padme) who showed him kindness. When Palpatine lies about a vision of Padme dying, Anakin gets scared. Unfortunately, that fear drives him to really extreme lengths. When he loses Padme, he’s given up any hope that anything but complete control will serve. I could say that’s why episode IV is called “A New Hope” but that’s a reach even at my most optimistic.

Lastly, let’s look at Voldemort. Some of you might remember I used him in a post about villains and learning their motivations called “Interview with a villain”. This post digs a little deeper and is meant to give a better understanding. Now, no question, Voldemort is a massive dick. However, he does have a valid (if horrific) motivation. It’s one that comes up again and again in history: some people are simply inherently superior to others. Or to paraphrase another abhorrent group’s dogma, the preservation of the superior must be defended at all costs. To Voldemort, muggles and non-pureblood wizards are inferior to purebloods. As are other races such as house elves, centaurs, and the like. More than that though, they are a corrosive, infectious element. If left to their own devices, these “others” will destroy those worthy of power and the society they deserve. This means that the other must be destroyed, or at a minimum, subjugated entirely under their betters. Yep, he’s a bigot with a wand. And like all bigots and hatemongers, fear is the ultimate driver. Not quite the same fear as Vader, but certainly a different shade on the same color wheel. Most bigots will even admit this is their motivation. They’ll claim it’s a fear of losing their values, or culture, or even their very identity. They’ll wrap it in the robes of nobility and justify preemptive horrors in the name of self-defense. Of course it’s just a clever lie. So clever in fact that some actually believe it. The truth is they fear is being oppressed by those they themselves have been oppressing (either overtly or indirectly). They fear the very marginalization and injustice they put upon others, which they also discount. They see those others as empirically less than them. Theirs is a motivation of selfishness. Their morality is often of perversion of my own. Rather than everyone, it’s “I (and those like me) should be free to live however I chose, up until it stops me (or those like me) from living as I choose.” With no need to morally consider anyone not them, or like them, they are free to take any action they see fit. Not only are the complaints and fears of the bigot (in their minds) wholly justified, the complaints of the other (less than) is just petty whining and a refusal to see how good they have it. Voldemort is indeed evil, and being morally and rationally justified (again, to him) makes this brand of evil especially nightmarish, and one we’ve seen throughout history, and even the present.

With all the above in mind, you can see the separation between a hero and a villain usually comes down to few differences, or a combination of all three.

The first difference is a question of who is included in their moral principles. Heroes include and fight for everyone, or rather not just themselves and those like them. Even if they appear to only fight for themselves, ultimately it proves to be a lie. Villains on the other hand fight only for themselves and those like them (racially, culturally, of a similar mind, or any other standard). Villains might ally temporarily with those outside their group, but only if it benefits them and costs them little or nothing. When that changes, the villain will betray that alliance.

The second difference is the means they’ll use to achieve their goals. Heroes have lines they won’t cross. If they do, they either become a villain, or work to redeem themselves and make amends for the moral failing. This is often the basis for entire stories on its own. Villains do sometimes have a sense of honor, but it and their moral principles rarely extend beyond themselves, or those they see as their own.

The third difference is a question of offense or defense. Villains go on the offense; they work to impose their morality on others. No one is immune, no one is innocent. You’re either on board, or you’re on the tracks. Heroes tend to be defensive in their morality. While it could be argued they are also imposing their morality on others, it’s always to stop the villain from pushing their morality on an unwilling party, and when that imposition stops, so does the heroes. A hero won’t seek out and stop/kill a bigot just for being a bigot. They might confront the bigot openly, even make them face the societal consequences of bigotry, but they won’t try to stop them. However, when that bigot acts on their bigotry (through violence, subjugation, exclusion, or other means) the hero will get involved.

You might be wondering at this part how anti-heroes fit in all this. Well, anti-heroes are still heroes; they just lack some typical heroic features. They could be cowardly, lack idealism, or use questionable methods. Some would argue they might lack morality, but I’d disagree. Anti-heroes will still have a bedrock set of principles they won’t cross, often times with more vehemence than a typical hero. They might hunt down villains, but it must always be a villain who has done something, or is literally about to do something villainous. An anti-hero will rely on the third difference heavily.

One final important note is that villains don’t have to be, and rarely are, a villain through and through. To have depth, a villain needs to have a human side, possibly even characteristics more in line with a hero. Perhaps they’re kind to animals, or children. Maybe they volunteer at retirement homes, keeping lonely old people company. The key is that this human side must also be consistent with their morality. Don’t worry about it making them less of a villain; Hitler was an animal lover, and that love made him a vegetarian. The most disturbing, and frightening villains aren’t the creatures of nightmares. They aren’t made of evil and dripping darkness. The best villains (in terms of story and character) are those who look like everyone else, who go to the store, who repair a broken toy for a child. Monsters are easy to hate. But when they’re not always monstrous? Likewise, a good hero shouldn’t be perfect. No glint off their teeth when they smile, no gleaming armor. A good hero, a believable hero, a hero people will root for, should have issues they are dealing with. Maybe they’re poor, and even though they’re always on the verge of starving, the do what needs to be done. Or maybe they’re jaded, armor dented and dirty from a life of facing villainy. Maybe they don’t like kittens and puppies? Okay, that last one might be too far.

Imposter syndrome (A Long Hiatus)

#SFWAPRO

I know it’s been a long, long while since I’ve posted anything, aside from posts promoting other authors and the occasional short story anyway. As I mention in my Post “Your Baby is Ugly…Again” my contract with Harper expired, they didn’t offer another, and I started on a new project.

I’d like to say that project is what occupied my time, but it wasn’t.

I’d be willing to bet all of you are aware of Imposter Syndrome, even if you don’t know it by that name. In short, it’s the feeling that an achievement isn’t earned, and as such, you feel like an imposter just waiting to be found out. Now, imposter syndrome isn’t limited to the creative fields, in fact, I’d be surprised if many of you haven’t suffered from it at some point or another in your life. Maybe when you became a new parent, landed a new job or promotion, or just faced some sort of challenge. The more significant the achievement, the more likely it seems imposter syndrome will rear its ugly head, and for any reason it can find.

Perhaps that’s why so many authors, nearly all of those I know, struggle with it. It’s not easy to get there, and oddly, everyone else who achieved it has clearly earned it. Just not you. The most insidious part of imposter syndrome is that successes don’t count, only failure, even just failure to succeed. Very early in my writing career, I met a multi bestselling author (New York Times, USA Today, etc) who has been writing for almost 30 years. He is, by every metric, a success. I told him I was terrified my first book would be my last. He told me he feels the same way after finishing every book. He worries people will finally see he has no talent and his writing career will be over. As you can imagine, that was both reassuring and depressing. It’s good to know you’re not alone in how you feel, not so much to find out those feeling won’t go away.

Here’s another excellent example of how those at any level can suffer from imposter syndrome.

As I’ve said before, when Harper passed over the next book in the American Faerie Tale series, I was exceedingly disappoint, though not entirely surprised. My imposter syndrome had been expecting it, and he relished that rejection like a fine meal. Hoping to keep him at bay, I threw myself into a new project. Everyone I’d told about it said I needed to write it because they wanted to read it right now. So I worked, and wrote, and when it was done I was very happy with it. Honestly, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Which is how it should be, you should always be improving in your craft.

My agent started sending it out, and the initial response was amazing. Nearly everyone it went to wanted to read it. I felt certain it was only a matter of time before I was offered a contract and then I’d be a writer once again, and this time it would be for real.

Why do I say it like that? Well, my path to publication was unconventional. If you’ve read my other posts, you know I had no agent when Harper offered me a deal for my first book, normally a requirement. Instead, I was one of 4500+ people who participated in a, very rare, open submission window open to unagented authors. In the end, I was one of a dozen or so picked for publication. The Stolen even launched Harper’s new imprint, Harper Voyager Impulse, and for a time, the cover was on the header of Harper Voyager’s website (yes, I have a screenshot saved). But none of that mattered to imposter syndrome; I’d only won a contest, I hadn’t earned my way in, so I wasn’t a “real” author. I thought selling this new project would, finally and definitively, prove I was a real author.

Yes, I’m fully aware how ridiculous that sounds. But like phobias, depression, or other dark states of mind, reality has very little, if anything, to do with it.

You can probably guess what happened next.

The rejections started rolling in, one after the other. Almost without exception they were effusive in their praise. They loved the story and the characters, and felt the writing was really strong…BUT.

But.

That dreaded word, so small, but powerful enough to wipe out all the words, however good, that came before it. Sure, Intellectually I knew, and my agent continually reminded me, that such praise was a good thing. It meant the book was good! They just didn’t know how to sell it, or they’d just signed a book like it, or other entirely valid reasons. Intellectually I knew, logically I knew. But that didn’t matter. The imposter syndrome kept whispering that this just proved I’d been right all along. I wasn’t a real author, I’d just gotten lucky. To be fair, luck plays no small in life, especially when it comes to achieving dreams, but in the end it only gets you so far. My luck, it seemed, had run out.

That’s when imposter syndrome’s friend showed up: depression. I’ve made no secret of my struggles, especially in my youth, with depression. This wasn’t a chronic or persistent depression though, this was acute. We all get depressed sometimes, and if we’re lucky, it’s circumstantial rather than biological. It’s no less valid, but usually easier to overcome. This particular depression didn’t prevent me from getting out of bed, it just made sitting down to write anything seem pointless. So I didn’t write, not much anyway. I worked on short stories, and when I did write it felt good, but actually getting my butt in the chair took effort. As such, this blog and posts for it fell further down my priority list.

What was the point? No one was going to read them anyway, right?

So what changed? Well, the especially observant among you might’ve noticed I haven’t mentioned the title, or much of anything, about this new project so resoundingly rejected. The reason is, there’s some new interest in it. Obviously I can’t say who, but that influx of hope gave me the strength to push imposter syndrome, and his friend, to one side. Nothing may come of this interest, but I decided to put this new found hope to good use and write a blog post.

I chose this topic partly because writing about it, and as such naming it, takes away some of its power. Don’t look at me that way, I’m a fantasy writer, okay? But I also chose it because I know others struggle with it too, and, well, it’s always nice to know you aren’t alone. I’m lucky in having good friends and a group of writer friends in much the same boat as me to offer support. But, for me at least, it’s too easy to dismiss their kindness and encouragement; they’re your friends after all, it’s what they’re supposed to do. Again, recognize this has nothing to do with reality. Your friends, and family, aren’t obligated to blow sunshine up your backside. Sure, sometimes they do it anyway, but even then it’s because they love you, believe in you, and want to help.

That being said, when a stranger offers encourage or support, it can stick better because they have no reason to do it.

So, dear readers, as a stranger, I tell you this: Imposter syndrome, for all his power, is a fucking liar. He is utterly and entirely full of shit. So tell that bastard to fuck right off whenever he shows up and starts whispering. Yeah, I know. It’s soooo much easier said than done. But how about this, I promise to do it if you do? Deal? Make no mistake, we’ll both give in sometimes, and that’s okay. Feel bad. Let the little shit have his moment, then remember that you‘re made of pure, high grade, artisanal, fair trade awesome. You can do the thing! More than that, you earned that achievement, that job, that relationship, that thing! You heard me, you earned it! So don your steel-toe boots, kick imposter syndrome in the balls as hard as you can (repeatedly), tell him to fuck right off, and that Bishop sends his regards.

Beth Cato is Back, and Brought Treats!

#SWFAPRO

Beth Cato is a really talented writer and an awesome person in general. In fact, she’s so awesome that she’s been here three times before (here, here, and here). This time, she comes baring gifts. Not only is she a skilled author, she’s also an AMAZING baker (I speak from personal experience).

She’s got a new book out, Roar of Sky, which completes her Blood of Earth trilogy. You will not regret picking them up, she really is a brilliant writer (Hello, Nebula Nominated!).
Now, without further ado, here’s Beth to tell you about her latest book and share a recipe for Bourbon-Glazed Pound Cake.

Don’t drool, it could damage your device.


My book, Roar of Sky, just came out, and I’m here to share cake! Well, a cake recipe, anyway. You’ll need to make it yourself, but I promise, it’s not that difficult, and the end result is a bundt cake that has the taste and texture of a gigantic boozy cruller.

Now that you are (hopefully) enticed to read onward, let’s talk books.

Roar of Sky is the finale of my Blood of Earth trilogy. The series kicked off with Breath of Earth, wherein I rewrote the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake with geomancy and giant monsters. The second book is Call of Fire, wherein I threaten to erupt volcanoes across the Pacific Northwest. This is alt history with a strong and sassy heroine with a knack for earth magic–hence the difficulties with earthquakes and volcanoes. On that note, Roar of Sky starts off in geologically-volatile Hawaii. Bad things ensue.

If alternate history with a magical twist is your thing, now’s the time to grab the whole trilogy! No need to wait until the next release.

Breath of EarthCall of FireRoar of Sky

 

Now, how about celebrating the trilogy’s completion with some cake? If you want more recipes like this, come by BethCato.com and sign up for my newsletter!

Bourbon-Glazed Pound Cake (Tube/Bundt Cake)

This glorious cake tastes like a boozy cruller! The inside is soft and tender like a pound cake, with the glaze creates a crunchy crust. This cake is great warm or cold, and slices can be frozen for later enjoyment, too.

Cake:
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 3/4 cup white sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup milk or half & half
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Bourbon Glaze:
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup bourbon
7 Tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat oven at 325-degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch-or-larger tube pan or bundt pan.

In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar, and beat until fluffy and white, about 7 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a separate bowl, sift together flour, nutmeg, and salt. Gradually add it to the butter mixture, alternating with the milk. Follow up with the zest and vanilla. Pour into the ready pan.

Bake until it passes the toothpick test, about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes. Let cool in pan for 15 minutes, then upend onto wire rack. Set aside the pan–don’t wash it! Let the cake completely cool for a few hours.

To make the glaze, combine the sugar, bourbon, and butter in a small saucepan. Constantly whisk at a low heat until the butter melts and sugar dissolves. Take off heat. It will look like a lot of liquid, but the cake will soak it up.

Place the cake back in the pan. Poke holes all over the base with a chopstick or skewer. Spoon about half the glaze over holes and sides of cake. Let sit a minute. Upend cake onto a serving platter or plate. Poke more holes all over top. Spoon rest of glaze into holes and over sides. Use a basting brush to mop up drippings and make sure cake is fully glazed.

Store under a cake dome at room temperature or in fridge. Can also be cut into slices and individually frozen. Eat cold, at room temperature, or warmed in microwave.

Originally posted at Bready or Not:

http://www.bethcato.com/bready-or-not-bourbon-glazed-pound-cake-tube-bundt-cake/

Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the new Blood of Earth Trilogy from Harper Voyager. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.


Buy the books, make the cake, and enjoy them together! Boozy Cruller! BOOZY CRULLER!
Or just get the books, but definitely sign up for her newsletter. you’ll not only know where she’ll be, and what’s she’s writing, but also get super tasty recipes in your inbox. Well, the recipes aren’t tasty, but what you can make with them is.

Save

Guest Author – Auston Habershaw (again)

#SFWAPRO

Auston, aside from having the most Bond villain name ever, is a fellow Harper Voyager author. If the name sounds familiar, and how can it not? It’s because he’s been here twice before; first to discuss writing a second book, then again to talk guilty pleasures. Quite fittingly, his third visit is for the third installment of his Saga of the Redeemed series, Dead But Once, available today! It’s a really great series, and I can’t recommend it enough.
His post today is about writing in exciting times, which I think is a fair description of the current state of the world.


Writing in Interesting Times

By Auston Habershaw

The truest and most direct answer to the age-old author question “where do you get your ideas” is simply this: from the culture and environment in which I live. We authors are not tuned into some alien frequency; we are not getting divine inspiration in nightly installments. We’re just paying attention in a way other people aren’t. That doesn’t mean we’re brilliant or clever or more perceptive, mind you—it just means we’ve got a cauldron in our heads marked “story ideas” in which we throw a lot of the junk we see and experience on a daily basis. Then, at some point, we make ourselves a stew out of all those random ingredients and, if we’re very lucky and persistent and skilled, a story or a novel or a poem or a play pops out. What pops out is a funhouse mirror reflection of our world around us. It seems crazy and random and strange, but it’s just a bunch of ingredients mixed together that maybe you haven’t tasted in that combination before. Not magic, exactly; more like alchemy.

So, what kind of alchemy happens when the world seems to be crazy all on its own?

I don’t know about you guys, but these last two years have been quite harrowing. Each and every time I turn on the news or look online, new and terrible things seem to be afflicting my country and other countries too. My idea cauldron is chock full of anger and fear and hysteria and riots and death and violence and corruption. So, when the time came to write the third book in my fantasy series (NO GOOD DEED, available in e-book now!), I had a lot of toxicity ready to be thrown in.

I’d always known that the Saga of the Redeemed would wind its way towards popular revolt. My main character, Tyvian, is trying to become a better person (even if he isn’t sure what that means or what that is), and so a discussion of social justice is inevitable. But when I was writing the first books, our problems as a society, while certainly large, at least seemed to be bending in the right direction, however slowly. I genuinely believed the balance of my fellow Americans wanted what I wanted—justice, equality, stability, and happiness for everyone. As I watched Trump shout and scream on stage, cheered on by sign-waving supporters, I began to wonder if I was right. For the first time in my life, I felt uncomfortable being an American. I was uncertain about our future in a way I never had been. I felt like I’d been wrong about us, all this time.

How do you let that color your writing? Do you? I don’t want to write a political screed. I don’t want to preach and I don’t want to come off as angry or bitter. I want the people who read my book to enjoy themselves; I’m after the highs and the lows, the oohs and the aahs. I’m not a political science major trying to push my agenda.

But it also has to get in somehow, right? How can it not?

I’ve always been skeptical of revolutions. I don’t like fanatics, no matter what they stand for. The lessons of the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution are not lost on me—innocent blood spilled right along with the guilty, horror and atrocity, and then a new order that doesn’t quite live up to its promises, anyway. But, also, aren’t these things needed? Don’t we have to have revolutions once in a while, if the tree of Liberty is to grow? But how do you do that? How can you do it responsibly, without needless bloodshed and violence? Is such a thing possible? If it isn’t, can a revolution, no matter how well-intentioned, be seen as a good thing?

I can’t say I have the answers to these questions, but I have my characters wrestle with them. They wrestle with them with the same anguish and fervent hope that I do in my real life. How does one fix the world without breaking it first? That was what was in my cauldron this time around. I mixed myself a potent brew. It took my six drafts to get right and, like all novels, I probably still got it wrong. But I can’t tell—I’m too close. That’s what I need you for.

Care for a taste?


A brilliant schemer never rests, but for Tyvian Reldamar, he might finally be over his head. The Saga of the Redeemed continues with Dead But Once, Auston Habershaw’s latest fantasy following The Oldest Trick and No Good Deed.

Arch-criminal Tyvian Reldamar has gotten complacent.

For him, he’s reached the pinnacle of all he’s really hoping to achieve: he’s got money, he’s got women (some of which aren’t even trying to kill him), and he’s got his loyal friends and family nearby and safe.

Except…maybe not so safe.

Because this is Eretheria, a city known as much for its genteel aristocracy as for its diabolical scheming. Long without a king, the scions of the ruling families scrabble for control–including levying cruel taxes and drafts on the peasantry in order to wage “polite” wars against each other.

And now, of course, Tyvian is finding himself drawn into it.

With a swashbuckling flare, old fans and new readers alike will be swept up into this world of magic, crime, and political intrigue where life is cheap and justice too expensive.


The entire series is available at any of the links below. Do yourself a favor and check it out!

HarperAmazonB&NGoogleiTunesIndie Bound


(how can you resist this handsome bastard? I know I can’t)

About the Author: Auston Habershaw writes fantasy and science fiction and has had stories published in Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge and other places. His epic fantasy novel series, The Saga of the Redeemed, is published by Harper Voyager and the third installment in the series, Dead But Once, releases on 4/17/18. He lives and works in Boston, MA and spends his days teaching composition and writing to college students. Find him on his website at aahabershaw.com or on Goodreads, Amazon, or on Twitter at @AustonHab.

 

Another short story

#SFWAPRO

Continuing my plan for the end of last year (if a little late) here is another short story. Let’s call it farcical fantasy. It’s dark, and loosely based on a similar encounter in I had in college, though in that case, the lich’s eyes burned purple, not blue.
You can read it in it’s entirety here (also linked below the sample), and view my other short story here. Enjoy.


Erstwhile Thaumatecnic University

By Bishop O’Connell

“What is that smell?” someone in line behind Walter asked.

He didn’t look up or acknowledge it. It might not be him. Sure, he was a shit farmer from a long line of shit farmers, but it could be someone wearing Battle Axe body spray.

“Yeah, something smells like shit,” someone else added.

It could still be Battle Axe.

“Next,” the kobold working the desk said.

Walter hurried forward and held out his class course selection parchment.

“Name,” the kobold said without looking up. A nametag on his tunic read “Marvin.”

“Walter,” he said and lowered his voice. “Dungharvester.”

“Dungha—” Marvin looked up, his yellow eyes going wide. He sniffed the air a couple times and leaned back.

Walter didn’t move, just held the parchment out. He’d prepared himself for this, though apparently washing all his robes and undergarments eight times, taking three showers, and loading up on deodorant didn’t do any good. He made a mental note to pick up some Celtic Spring body wash.

Marvin reached out, took the parchment between two claws as if it might explode and coat the room in a layer of crap. After a careful examination, Marvin reluctantly set the parchment on his table, well away from anything else.

“Student ID,” he said.

“What?” Walter asked.

“Student identification card,” Marvin said, as if to an idiot child. “It’s a little card with your name and picture on it.”

Walter reached into his bag and began fishing through it. “Sorry, I didn’t think I’d need it anymore.”

The kobold just sighed and rolled his eyes, hand still out as Walter removed items from his bag and set them on the table: registration paperwork, quills, ink, comic scrolls, dorm room key, student handbook—

He cleared his throat and gave an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I know it’s in here.” He pulled out the small checkbook—the account contained the princely sum of two copper phalluses, one of which would soon be claimed by the bank as a monthly low balance fee—and found the ID underneath the cover.

He sighed, handed it over, then set to shoving everything back into his bag.

Marvin checked the ID, handed it back, then opened a gigantic tome. He flipped through pages of remarkably small text, ticking marks every now and then.

“You’re lucky,” Marvin said, marking another tick. “‘Hexes, curses, and the unholy art of retributive magics’ is being taught by Dr. Heckel. She’s a great teacher, but watch out for her assistant. Mr. Jyde can be a monumental asshole. I suggest sitting near the back and try not to show any fear.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Walter said and peered at a line of ticks. “Did I get into ‘Necromantic studies in horde building’?”

“Second to last spot,” Marvin said.

“Yes!” Walter did a little happy dance.

Marvin drew in a breath. “However, I’m now required to point out that it’s horde building, with a ‘d’.”

Walter blinked. “I don’t follow. What else could it could—oh dear Gods!”

Marvin nodded. “Yeah, an undead brothel makes one hell of a mess. It’ll be another year before ‘Ratigan the Fleshy’ hall is cleaned up enough for anyone to stay there.”

Walter shuddered. He wasn’t a prude, but he’d never understood not-so-necrophilia.

“You do not want to meet the ghosts that haunt that place,” Marvin said as he resumed marking the tome. “Sorry, ‘Raining fire and destruction 101’ is full.”

Walter knew that’d been a long shot. “What about ‘Intro to outer-planar contracts’ instead?”

“It’s open,” Marvin said and made a mark. “But you’re still missing the required athletics and liberal arts courses.”

“Um, well,” Walter said, adjusting his robes, which reminded him they were secondhand and freshly mended, by his mother no less. “I’m either majoring in Applied Necromantic Arts or Thaumaturgic Annihilative Studies,” he shrugged, “maybe a double major I don’t know, so I—”

“Tough tinkles, Dungharvester,” Marvin said, giving him a flat look. “It’s required that all freshmeats take an athletic, and an arts course in their first two semesters—”

“Freshmen.”

“What?” Walter asked.

“You said freshmeat,” Walter said. “You meant freshmen, right?”

“No.”

Walter opened his mouth to question further, but decided against it. “What are my options for athletics and arts?”

Marvin flipped to another page. “For athletics we have openings in beginning jousting.” He smiled. “You know the Erstwhile Ents tourney and jousting team made it to the all kingdom finals last year.”

“Yeah, I know,” Walter said, “but, um, jousting isn’t really my thing.”

“You sure?” Marvin asked. “Coach Horzrath, eater of spleens, teaches the class himself. And we only had seven student deaths last year. That’s an all-time low.”

“Yeah, tempting, but I have really bad carpal tunnel syndrome,” Walter said.

Marvin shrugged. “Archery?”

Walter tapped his spectacles. “Far sighted.”

“Hammer throw?”

“Anything less, um,” Walter bounced his head from side to side. “Physical?”

“You do understand what the word athletic means, right?” Marvin asked.

Walter opened his mouth.

Walter glanced down then back up. “What about bowling?”

“Oh, I like bowling.”

“Huzzah, I’m sure we’ll have a festival to celebrate,” Marvin said in a flat tone. “For arts class we have—”

“I don’t want to be a bard, why do I—?”

“Because it’s the rules,” Marvin said and pointed across the room. “And the line for people who give two shits is over there. This is the line for people give a single shit, and I’m fresh out.”

“I see why they have you working the table.”

“Yeah, my people skills are the stuff of legend and song,” Marvin said. “You can take a philosophy course in lieu of art. What about ‘Discussions on Current Events’? It’s taught by Sarlakin the baby gnawer—”

“The ogre that invaded the kingdom a last year?” Walter asked. “He wasn’t list in the handbook.”

Marvin shrugged. “Part of the peace treaty granted him tenure. He also teaches ‘Human privilege and non-human studies’ as well as ‘Intro to interpretive dance.’”

“I’m from the Feculence Hills,” Walter said. “I’d rather not take a class taught by the ogre who slaughtered a third of my neighbors.”

“Typical human,” Marvin said. “There’s a spot in ‘Crumbling Towers: The Toxicity of damsel in distress stereotypes’?”

“Probably a lot of girls in that one,” Walter said to himself smiling.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Marvin asked.

“What? No! I didn’t mean, uh, I just—”

“I know what you ‘just,’” Marvin said. “You think the rampant sexism princesses have had to deal with all these years is some kind of joke? You don’t suppose they’d rather armor up and take on that dragon themselves instead of waiting for Sir Bro to rescue them?”

“No!” Walter said. “I mean yes! I’m sorry, I. Um.” Walter cleared his throat. “I guess, um, put me down for non-human studies?”

“Good choice,” Marvin said and marked the book. “I think you’ll find it quite enlightening.”

Walter nodded as the memory of his neighbors being pulled apart like string cheese flashed in his head.

Marvin marked up the parchment and thrust it at Walter. “Your required tome list is in the class catalog next to each course,” he said. “Orientation for freshmeats is in Lord Tautkeister the Frugal auditorium every three bells, starting at noon.” He looked at the line. “Next.”

A human girl dressed in all black, probably a student acolyte of the dark goddess Penelope, stepped around him, and handed her paperwork to Marvin.

Read the entire story here…

Author Visit: Terry Newman

Terry Newman is a brilliantly funny author, and he’s British. He has a new book out and he agreed to stop by and talk about it.

B: So, what are you drinking?

T: Mine’s a pint of Harvey’s best, which is brewed in Lewis, in East Sussex, which is where I live. It has a distinctive maltiness that produces a full rounded satisfying mouthful of pure beer joy. What are currently tippling?

B: I have huge respect for someone with an in depth knowledge of their beer. I’ll have to try that one. As for me, when I can find it, I’m fond of Theakston Old Peculiar. A blacksmith (half Guinness, half Smithwick’s) is my go to otherwise.

T:I knew that you’d had some time in the UK and I’d heard and you’d developed a liking for Theakstons. However, I’ve never heard of Smithwick’s or a ‘blacksmith’ before – he says to his consternation.

B: I spent over a year in Cumbria and adore the real ales, though Theakston was always my favorite. I really miss that stuff. BTW for those who don’t know, Terry and I met though the Harper Voyager Digital Initiative.

T: Yes – your book ‘The Stolen’ was the first by the HV writers that I read. I thoroughly enjoyed it to – even if I had to scrap something that I was writing!

B: What are friends for? Your book ‘Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf’ was a Kindle #1 Bestseller. I admit my deep and continuing jealously over that. You must have been delighted?

T: Absolutely! I’m not quite sure what it was doing in the Epic Fantasy category mind, as it’s ‘classic’ dwarf detective fantasy. But to see your book outselling Tolkien and Martin – albeit briefly – well it’s wonderful, not to mention a little surreal.

B: A well-deserved honor. I love how you blended noir, fantasy, and comedy together. Now, your latest book ‘The Resurrection Show’ is science fiction, a departure for you?

T: Not really. I have always written, and enjoyed, both. The two books have a lot in common mind, both having a degree of humour and satire to them. The main difference, as you will see on the cover, is that this is written by Dalter T Newman. My co-writer is David Alter, a wonderful composer and songwriter. The whole project is based upon a fantastic collection of songs written by David, and performed by an excellent band he put together, dealing with big subjects like religion, humanism and intolerance.

B: Sounds like a source of comedy gold to me?.

T: Exactly! My brief initially was to help develop these songs into a fully interactive, all singing and dancing (maybe), stage show – one with a satirical, funny Pythonesque flavour! Our baby just grew and grew though and forced its way out in this form first – in a totally non-alien way!

B: For the record, I’d buy tickets to that show. Are we going to get to hear the music?

T: I really hope so. All the tracks are recorded. It’s just a case of finding the right outlet – and then getting the stage show on.

B: There’s a stage show? Really?

T: Oh yes! Everybody just has to have a stage show these days! So it’s sort of the book of the stage show to be. It’s set 2099 where the world is one big reality show – jammed packed full of god-bots, prayer clones, singing ecologists, a confused New Puritan, and the technologically resurrected Messiah!

B: Seems a little on the nose. Clearly one for the Bible Belt then?

T: Absolutely! Anything you can tell us about your new book – I’ve seen some intriguing hints.

B: Well, this is supposed to be about you and your new book, but I’ll share some tidbits, since we’re friends. It’s fantasy western, set in the US right around the end of the American Civil War. Elves fought with some of the Native American Tribes (the Lakota specifically) against westward expansion. They were winning too. Until the humans hired the dwarves to help, and they brought along iron war machines (tanks). Not only did it turn the war, but the elves were almost entirely wiped out. The main character is a survivor of that battle, and as you can imagine she holds a bit of a grudge.

T: Elves and Native American’s fighting together! That is totally cool! Hopefully there is a good guy dwarf in there as well somewhere. Dwarves get a lot of bad press. I loved your recent Sarah and Bambi story btw. It reminded of some classic short stories of my youth – which is a good thing! Any more plans for these characters? I’d love to see a ‘Bambi and Sarah Save the World’.

B: Thanks! I’m trying my hand at stories that are absurd, but still make you have some feels. Yeah, I loved having a badass character named Bambi. I wasn’t planning on more stories with them, but I never rule anything out. What’s in your future? Any more science fiction or fantasy ahead?

T: I’ve just sold a science fiction audio play, which is rather cool. In the mean time I’m looking for a new home for the next two Detective Strongoak novels – both now written! And an exclusive for you, provisional title for book 2 is ‘The King of Elfland’s Little Sister’.

B: Congratulations! Let me know where to find that and when it’s available! I’m sure you’ll find a home for Nicely. You can’t keep a good dwarf down. In the mean time, good luck with ‘The Resurrection Show’ – great cover by the way.

T; I thank you. Yes, we managed to get hold of a top illustrator call Tom Morgan Jones (friend of a friend) and David and I both loved his slightly manic, inspired penmanship!

B: I understand you and David have something else in common.

T: Yes – he’s a cardiologist and my scientific area of research was cardiac function – you could say there’s ‘a lot of heart’ in this book.

B; You could, and I love a good pun, but it’s probably not a good idea.

T: Excellent point – my round I believe?

B: This is my imaginary pub, I have an imaginary bar hand to pour the pints and they’re all free!


You can find Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf here and The Resurrection Show here. If you want a good laugh and a good story, I highly recommend them. You can also follow Terry on Amazon, Twitter, and his website (which also includes his script work) at www.drtel.co.uk. All things Nicely Strongoak can be found at www.nicelystrongoak.com

Save

Save

Save

Save

Holiday Wishes and a Short Story

#SFWAPRO

It’s Christmas Eve, for those of us who celebrate it. If you celebrate it, or don’t, I hope this season is filled with warmth, joy, family and/or friends, and lots of cookies/cake/pie/beer.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was considering sharing some short stories, and what better time to do so than right now? The first of these is one I’m rather proud of, and a bit disappointed no magazines were interested in. However, if they were, I wouldn’t able to share it now. I didn’t write it as a holiday themed story, but I think the overall message is one that fits quite nicely (you’ll see at the end). I hope you enjoy it. I’ve posted it below in its entirety, but also added a menu tab for short stories, and it’s the first.

I wish you all a wonderful, happy, and safe holidays.


A Quick Errand
By Bishop O’Connell

Sarah turned the music up loud and sang along as she drove to Bambi’s house; or rather her Aunt Carol’s. Sarah didn’t know all the details behind that situation, only that Bambi’s mom, aside from being a Disney fanatic—hence the name Bambi—had some kind some kind of mental illness. Neither Bambi nor her aunt had ever explained and Sarah didn’t pry.

“Hi, Carol,” Sarah said as she walked in, closing the door behind her.

“Hi, Sarah,” Carol said from the kitchen. “Are you staying for dinner? It’s meatloaf night.”

“Then I’m staying for dinner,” Sarah said.

“Bam is down in her cave,” Carol said.

“Thanks.” Sarah made her way to the basement door and descended the stairs.

The basement was unremarkable: a couple of old wooden work benches, and stacks of colored plastic tubs against the wall. Bambi was nowhere in sight. Sarah proceeded to the metal cabinet on the far wall, opened the door, and typed a ten digit code into the old keyboard on the top shelf. There was a click before the cabinet slid to one side, and Sarah stepped through.

The surprise of learning her best friend had a hidden lab—one that looked like it belonged on the set of a sci-fi movie—in the basement of her Aunt’s house hadn’t lasted long. Knowing Bambi as well as she did, Sarah would’ve been more surprised if there hadn’t been one.

Bambi was working on what looked like a laser pistol made from a hairdryer, parts from a computer, and a DVD player

“Tell me that isn’t like a death ray or something,” Sarah said.

Bambi looked up. “Oh, hi. Thanks for coming over.”

Sarah waited.

Bambi blinked. “What?”

“Not a death ray, right?” Sarah asked again.

Bambi looked from her contraption to Sarah. “That’s a loaded question. I mean—”

“Never mind,” Sarah said. “Just promise me you’re not planning to use it to take over the world or anything.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

Sarah smiled. “Of course you wouldn’t.” That was why she loved her friend, she didn’t have a mean bone in her body.

“Do you want a soda?” Bambi asked and went over to an old style vending machine, the kind that dropped cups and filled them.

“Sure.”

“Two Dr. Peppers,” Bambi said.

On the spot a paper cup would normally drop, a can of Dr. Pepper materialized. Bambi took it and handed it to Sarah. An instant later a second can appeared.

Sarah took a drink. “I’ve always meant to ask,” she said. “Does that thing work like a replicator on Star Trek, or does it like teleport the cans in from somewhere else?” She’d learned early on not to ask ‘how’ when it came to any of Bambi’s inventions; as their English teacher would say, that way lay only madness.

Bambi opened her mouth to answer when Sarah saw a cage in the far corner, and something inside it moved.

Sarah approached the cage for a better look. She glanced away for a moment, then back, making sure she wasn’t imagining it.

“Why do you have an otter in a cage?”

Bambi opened her mouth again.

“This crazy bitch is holding me against my will,” the otter said. “You gotta help me!”

Sarah blinked. “Why do you have a talking otter in a cage?” Anyone else would’ve probably freaked, but this wasn’t even close to the strangest thing she’d encountered in Bambi’s lab. That had probably been the failed attempt at semi-sentient cabbage.

“Because I don’t want him running around the lab,” Bambi said.

“I mean, why do you have a talking otter in your lab?”

The otter got on his hind legs and leered at Sarah. “Hey, sweets, you’re not too bad looking for a shaved monkey. Let me outta here and I’ll make it worth your while.” The otter winked.

Bambi pointed a modified garage door opener at the cage. “The warrant clearly states dead or alive.”

The otter muttered something and sank back down into the cage.

“He’s in my lab,” Bambi said, clearly unsure why Sarah was having a hard time with this. “Because where else would I keep him?”

Sarah closed her eyes, took a deep breath and reminded herself that this was Bambi and she wasn’t being intentionally obtuse.

“I’m missing something again, aren’t I?” Bambi asked. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Sarah said, her calm returned. “Let’s take one part at a time; why do you have a—rather skeevy—talking otter in your possession?”

“Hey, who you calling—?”

Bambi held up the garage door opener again and the otter went quiet. “He’s not really an otter,” she said. “He’s an alien that just happens to look like an otter. He’s here because my portal has to recharge before I could take him to Earth-771A and collect the bounty, which I need in order to—”

Sarah held up a finger. “Sorry, overload. I need a second.”

Bambi nodded and took another pull from her soda. This happened a lot in the lab.

“He’s an alien?”

“Yes, from—”

Sarah put up a hand. “What is Earth-771A?”

“It’s one of the infinite alternate earths,” Bambi said as if describing a chocolate chip cookie. “It’s technologically about sixty years ahead of us, and the dominant societies are matriarchal instead of patriarchal.”

“Seriously?” Sarah asked, smiling.

Bambi nodded.

“You should call it super awesome lady future earth,” she said.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Sarah said. “And you use this portal, which is currently recharging, to travel to these infinite Earths?”

“Yes,” Bambi said and pointed.

Sarah looked over and saw a thick a tablet plugged into— “That’s a radiation symbol.”

Bambi nodded. “Yes.”

Sarah massaged her temples. “It’s some kind of nuclear reactor, isn’t it?”

“Small scale fusion reactor, yes,” Bambi said. “It’s just a proof of concept though.”

“I’m just going to stop asking about the things in your lab,” Sarah said. “Okay, skeevy alien not-an-otter, is he from Earth-771A?”

Bambi nodded. “He’s a terrorist.”

Sarah blinked, glancing from Bambi to the otter and back. “A terrorist?”

“He’s part of a separatist group that opposes the treaty his people signed with Earth 771-A,” Bambi said. “He was convicted of war crimes, but he escaped on his way to prison and the government put a ten million dollar bounty on him.”

Sarah gave serious thought to taking up drinking. Sure she was only sixteen, but she could probably get her hands on a fake ID.

“And you caught him?” Sarah asked.

Bambi nodded.

“You.”

Bambi knitted her brows together but nodded again. “It wasn’t that difficult.”

“I’m going to regret this,” Sarah said and drew in a breath. “How?”

“He had a portal too,” Bambi said. “I tracked the quantum decay to Earth-97621B and found him hiding at a Sea World.”

Sarah looked at the skeevy not-an-otter. “Sea World? Really?”

“It was actually pretty sweet,” not-an-otter said. “I ran that joint. The humans kept their distance and I had all the female otters and clams I could want.” He glared at Bambi. “Until this—”

Bambi pressed the button on the garage door opener and the not-an-otter went in convulsions. When it stopped he collapsed.

“Did you just tase him?” Sarah asked.

“Taser is a copyrighted product made by Axom,” Bambi said. “But if you’re asking if I used a high voltage electric discharge to render him compliant, the answer is yes.”

“Nice,” Sarah said and opened her mouth but was interrupted by a microwave chime.

“Oh good, it’s ready,” Bambi said.

“Your burrito?” Sarah asked.

“The portal,” Bambi said and began putting some of her inventions into a backpack.

Sarah was afraid to ask what they were.

“Do you want to carry him or the portal?” Bambi asked, pointing at the still unconscious not-an-otter.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“I suppose I could carry both if you get the doors,” Bambi said.

“Where are we going?” Sarah looked from the nuclear reactor to the not-an-otter, unsure which she wanted to be farther away from.

“Earth-771A to collect the bounty,” Bambi said.

Sarah opened her mouth to protest but stopped herself.

Ten million dollars. Awesome future earth.

“I’ll grab the not-an-otter,” she said. “I don’t want anywhere near that reactor.”

“It’s perfectly safe,” Bambi said, unplugging the tablet. “So long as the containment field doesn’t collapse there’s no really risk at all.” She hit a button and the door opened onto the basement.

“Ten million dollars,” Sarah whispered to herself and followed with not-an-otter in hand. “Awesome future earth.”

Bambi made sure her Aunt Carol was still in the kitchen before motioning for Sarah to head for the front door.

Sarah opened it as quietly as she could.

“Where are you two going?” Carol asked from the kitchen.

“Just a quick errand,” Sarah said.

“Well don’t take long,” Carol said. “Dinner will be ready at six-thirty.”

“We should be back long before then, Aunt Carol,” Bambi said.

“While you’re out, would you pick up some butter and a gallon of milk?”

“No problem,” Sarah said from the doorway and motioned with her head for Bambi to hurry. When they were halfway down the steps, she stopped. “Wait a second,” she said, her voice low. “Why didn’t we portal from your lab?”

Bambi went past her and walked to Sarah’s car. “My lab doesn’t exist on that earth. The portal would just open into a block of solid earth. We also will need your car.”

“My car?” Sarah asked. “We’re taking my car to an alternate earth?”

“Yes.”

Sarah opened her mouth to argue, but knew it was pointless.

“Are you okay?” Bambi asked from inside the car.

“Fine,” Sarah said. She popped her trunk, glanced around to make sure no one was watching, and stuck not-an-otter in before slamming it shut.

Sarah started the car. “Wait, if it’s an alternate earth, will the money be any good here?”

“Of course not,” Bambi said and pulled out her phone. She plugged it into the tablet and dialed a number. “They have different faces on most of the bills and they use a composite material instead of the cotton based paper here. Head to Grandston park.”

“Then what good is the ten million dollars?”

Bambi pointed to the phone.

Sarah let out a sigh, backed out of the driveway and headed to Grandston Park.

“Agent Pricilla Thompson,” Bambi said into her phone.

Bambi tried to stay focused on the road.

“This is Thumper,” Bambi said, presumably after agent Thompson got on the line. “Grandston park in twenty minutes.”

Sarah tried to listen in, but gave it up when she almost drove onto the sidewalk.

“I wouldn’t be calling if I didn’t have him,” Bambi said. “Have you made all the arrangements as we agreed?” She nodded. “Thank you, twenty minutes then.” She ended the call.

“Did you just call an alternate earth?” Sarah asked.

“Yes.”

“Does your cell plan cover that?”

Bambi opened her mouth, then closed and looked at Sarah for a long second. “That was a joke, wasn’t it?”

“I guess not,” Sarah said and made a left.

Fifteen minutes later they arrived at the park.

“Stop the car,” Bambi said, tapping the tablet screen.

“You’ve done this before, right?” Sarah asked, gripping the steering wheel with sweaty palms.

“Seventy-four times,” Bambi said and tapped one last time.

The air pressure increased and Sarah had to pop her ears. The portal rolled down like a projection screen a few feet in front of the car. It was a little anticlimactic. There was no bright white light, no glowing outline. In fact, if you didn’t view it at just the right angle you probably wouldn’t notice it at all. There was only the faintest hint of an edge to the portal, and the scene on the other side matched up perfectly with this side. The trees and grass looked more vibrant, but that was it.

“Drive through slowly,” Bambi said.

Sarah did and parked in the empty spot in front of them. A moment later the portal rolled closed behind them.

“We can get home, right?” Sarah asked.

“Of course,” Bambi said. “Fully charged the portal allows for four trips.”

“I’ll get not-an-otter,” Sarah said and climbed out.

Bambi slid the portal tablet into her backpack and pulled out a handful of what looked like metal golf balls.

“What are those?” Sarah asked, immediately regretting it.

“I call them multiphase disruption shield generators,” Bambi said. “They generate—”

“A multiphase disruption shield?”

Bambi smiled. “Exactly. They’ll stop the agents’ technological equipment from working, in case they try to bring us in for questioning. It won’t affect the functioning of the hover cars though, don’t worry about that.”

“Did you say hover cars?”

Bambi nodded.

“Awesome,” Sarah said and opened the trunk. She decided to just enjoy the trip. They might not be able to use the ten million dollars back home, but they could spend it here and bring stuff back. Right? Maybe she could talk Bambi into buying a hover car! Not that she didn’t love her old Camry, but, well, freaking hover car! Maybe she could land it on Bridget Thompson’s beloved BMW.

Bambi walked into the park and set the disruptor golf balls in a large circle. When it was done she motioned for Sarah to join her.

She hefted the cage and started walking.

“Where the hell are we?” not-an-otter asked.

“Getting ready to hand you over, creeper,” Sarah said.

“Listen, toots, I’m sorry about that shaved monkey thing,” he said. “I can pay you double the bounty. Triple even, my people have access to lots of cash.”

“Not a chance.”

“Listen, primate,” he said. “If you let me go now, I promise not to come after you and your friend and exact a terrible rev—eeee!”

“Thank you,” Sarah said.

Bambi nodded and tucked the garage door opener back in her pocket.

After a few minutes of waiting, Sarah decided to try her luck. “Any thoughts on what you want to buy? I mean, I know it’s your money, but how cool would it be to have a hover car? I mean, I do drive you everywhere right? We might as well do it in style.”

“It wouldn’t work in our world,” Bambi said. “There’s a phasic difference in the electric currents that would keep the car from being able to recharge.”

“Really?” Sarah had no idea what phasic difference meant, but she better than to ask.

Bambi nodded.

“Well that sucks.”

“You can get something else next time,” Bambi said.  “But I need to buy some tampons this time.”

Sarah blinked. “I’m sorry did you say—?”

Her words were drowned out by a collection of flying cars appearing overhead. They looked like, well, like futuristic flying cars: awesome. They formed a circle and hovered overhead. Three more hover cars—these only a foot or so off the ground—glided into the lot, parking next to, and behind, her car.

Sarah tried not to panic, unsuccessfully, and considered what jail in super awesome lady future earth would look like.

The cars set down on the ground. Four women and two men, all wearing dark suits and sunglasses got out. Apparently agents everywhere dressed the same.

Sarah swallowed and tried not to pee a little. Bambi looked as she always did; just this side of bored.

One of the women took up the lead and walked toward them. When they passed through the circle of golf balls, everyone stopped and began tapping at the side of their glasses.

The lead agent, Sarah assumed it was Thompson, looked at Bambi. “This isn’t a very good start to this meeting, Thumper.”

“It’s just a safety precaution,” she said. “We’re here to turn over Doctor Alstran and collect the reward. We have to be home for dinner soon, so we don’t have time for you to question us.”

Sarah winced.

Thompson gave Bambi a long look, then exchanged some words with her fellow agents. When they were done, two agents stepped back out of the circle. The remaining three and Agent Thomson approached.

“Hello, Doctor,” Thompson said to not-an-otter.

“There’s been a terrible mistake!” he protested. “This woman captured me and—”

“Really?” Thompson said. “You’re going that way? Aside from the fact I have your facial fur pattern memorized, we’ll be doing a DNA verification.”

“Well, it was worth a try,” no-an-otter said.

“You’ve performed a great service for your country and all humanity,” Thompson said to Sarah and Bambi then turned to the agent on her left. “Wing, take the Doctor into custody.”

Wing picked up the cage.

“No prison can hold me, toots,” Doctor Not-an-otter said to Sarah. “I’ll find you and your friend, you can’t hi—eeeeeeeee!” The doctor convulsed then collapsed back into unconsciousness.

Bambi released the button and offered the remote to Agent Wing. “It’s a strictly non-lethal voltage.”

Wing looked at Thompson, who nodded, then accepted the garage door opener. He looked from it to Bambi and back again before pocketing the device and carrying the Doctor to the waiting hover cars.

Thompson produced a couple of credit cards from her pocket and offered them to Bambi. “Ten million dollar reward,” she said. “Sequestered accounts keyed to the pin you provided.”

Bambi took the cards. “Thank you.”

“I have to ask,” Thompson said. “How did a couple teenagers capture the most wanted criminal on the planet?”

“Actually it was just her,” Sarah said and pointed to Bambi. “I’m the one with a car.”

Thompson looked back at the Camry. “Yes, and quite an interesting car at that.”

“So,” Thompson said to Bambi, “how’d you do it?”

“He used a quantum tunneling device to flee to an alternate dimensional earth,” Bambi said.

Sarah winced again.

“I tracked the quantum decay to Sea World Orlando on Earth 97621B,” she said. “Once I identified which of the otters he was, I shot him with a neural suppression ray—”

“So you have a quantum tunneling device?” Thompson asked.

“Whaaaaat?” Sarah said through what she hoped was a sincere smile and trying not to imagine becoming a test subject in some government lab. “No, she’s just kid—”

“Of course,” Bambi said. “How else could we have traveled here?”

“My friend has a really active imagination,” Sarah said.

“What are you talking about?” Bambi said. “She’s an authority figure, I wouldn’t lie to her.”

“Are you saying that you’re from an alternate earth?” Thompson asked.

“Yes,” Bambi said.

“No,” Sarah said.

“Look,” Thompson said looking from Sarah to Bambi and back. “You retrieved the most wanted being on this planet. That’s all I care about. I was curious how you pulled it off, but if you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine.” She nodded at Bambi. “Let me know if you find and capture any other international war criminals.” Then she turned and walked back to the hover cars with her agents in tow.

“Thanks,” Sarah said and waved. “Love your shoes!”

A few minutes later they were alone in the park.

“Holy crap, you’re a freaking millionaire!” Sarah said, almost vibrating in excitement. Sure, they couldn’t spend it on their Earth but—

“So are you,” Bambi said and handed one of the credit cards to Sarah. “The PIN is your birthday; four digit year. I’m sorry, it’s only three million. I need the other seven. And I’m sorry you can’t spend it right now, but I promise we’ll come back so you can.”

Sarah just stared at her friend. She knew she had the ability to speak, but she couldn’t seem to remember how to do it just now.

Bambi furrowed her brow. “I missed something again, didn’t I?”

“No,” Sarah said and accepted the card. “No, not at all. But I am going to hug you now, okay?” She learned early in their friendship that Bambi needed to be asked to be touched.

“Okay.”

Sarah hugged her friend. “Thank you so much,” was all she could manage to say.

Bambi hugged back, stiff and awkward, but Sarah didn’t mind. It was a Bambi hug, and that meant it was awesome.

“We need to go,” Bambi said. “Aunt Carol will be mad if we’re late for dinner and we need to stop at the store.”

“Right,” Sarah said. “Let’s go.”

They returned to the car, got in, and Sarah started the engine. She backed out of the parking spot and waited, but Bambi didn’t move.

“Are you going to open the portal?”

“No,” Bambi said. “We have to go to the store.”

“We’re going to a store here?”

“I told you I needed buy tampons,” Bambi said.

“Um, I have some in my purse—”

“They’re not for me,” Bambi said.

Something in her tone told Sarah not to push, so she put the car into drive and headed for the exit.

“Which way? Is there a store in the same place as on our earth?”

“It is,” Bambi said. “But it’s a Safeway instead of Kroger.”

On the way to the store, Sarah had to admit she was a little disappointed in super awesome lady future earth. It was cool, and she saw quite a few hover cars, but other than being cleaner and more vibrant, it wasn’t much different than her earth. The houses were sleeker, there were more trees and grass, and the few people she saw all looked trim and fit, but that was it.

“I expected it to look more futuristic,” Sarah said.

“It’s roughly fifty-eight years ahead of us in terms of technological advancement,” Bambi said. “If we drove around in the 1960’s, apart from fashion,  it wouldn’t look much different than our time.”

“Huh, I hadn’t thought about that,” Sarah said. “So how many different earths have you been to?”

“Thirty-seven,” Bambi said and pointed. “Here it is.”

“Thirty-seven?” Sarah asked as she pulled into the parking lot and found a spot.

Bambi checked her watch. “We don’t have much time,” she said, got out, and began walking to the store.

Sarah locked the car and hurried after. She couldn’t help but notice her car, which was a piece of crap—albeit her piece of crap—looked even more so among the sleek and shiny vehicles parked around them. She caught up with Bambi just as she was pushing a cart into the store. Sadly, it was not a hover cart.

The inside of the store was a let-down as well. There were holograms floating in the air instead of signs, which was cool, but other than that, nothing really impressed Sarah.

“What’s ‘everfresh’?” she asked as they walked by the produce department.

“Everfresh is the Safeway brand patented process that maintains produce in stasis,” A woman on the touch screen attached to the shopping carts handle said. “Ensuring fresh fruit and vegetables when you want them. We guarantee no spoilage, no matter what. That’s the Safeway difference.”

“You should develop that back home,” Sarah said to Bambi. “You could literally end world hunger.”

“That’s a good idea,” Bambi said, grabbing a couple of apples wrapped in plastic, and putting them in the cart.

Passing through the meat department, Sarah did not ask about the “100% lab grown” label on everything. She didn’t want to know.

“You don’t think it’ll be a problem bringing this stuff back with us?” Sarah asked as she put the butter into the cart next to the milk. “I mean, won’t she notice the difference?”

“It’s possible.”

“And you don’t see that as a problem?” Sarah asked as they went to collect Bambi’s tampons, which she decided would be the name of her next band.

As soon as they reached the personal health aisle, Bambi began loading boxes of tampons and pads into the cart.

“Jeez, how many do you need?”

“As many as we can carry,” Bambi said and continued stacking boxes.

Rather than question, Sarah helped fill the cart. When she spotted the price, she stopped and blinked. “Fifty cents for a forty pack? Is that right?”

Bambi nodded, still adding boxes. “They’re recognized as a necessity here, so they’re kept inexpensive. They’re also tax free.”

“It’s not personal jet packs, but I still call that a win,” Sarah said and topped off the cart.

“Did you find everything okay?” the young man at the register asked as Bambi began stacking boxes upon boxes of tampons and pads onto the little conveyor.

“Yep, thanks,” Sarah said.

He gave them a look but shrugged and started scanning.

“That’ll be sixty-seven, forty two,” he said when it was done.

“Damn that’s cheap,” Sarah whispered.

Bambi inserted the card Thompson had given her into the reader and entered the pin on the little keypad. Sarah’s stomach knotted a little when nothing happened for a long moment. She looked around, half expecting to see suited agents drop out of the ceiling or teleport in.

Instead, the receipt printed and the clerk handed it to Bambi.

“Have a nice day.”

They filled Sarah’s trunk—and most of her back seats—with the boxes and drove off.

Bambi activated the portal on a road with no one on it. And just like that, they were back on their own earth. Sarah couldn’t help but notice it seemed drabber than before, but she ignored it and drove on. Her baseline for “normal” was different than most people’s.

“Turn here,” Bambi said and pointed to the right.

“That’s not the way home,” Sarah said but made the turn.

“We need to make one more stop.”

“Okay, but we’re getting short on time.”

“It won’t take long.”

Sarah wanted to ask where they were going, but didn’t. Her friend was acting odd, odder than usual, but something told Sarah this was important. So she kept quiet and followed her friend’s directions.

“Turn in here,” Bambi said, pointing to a road next to what had once been a department store, but the sign out front now read ‘Women’s Shelter’. “Follow the driveway around to the back.”

Sarah made the turn and drove down the alley till they came to the back of the building. It had a couple of loading docks, complete with metal roll up doors but was otherwise empty.

Sarah looked over at Bambi. She was looking down and tapping her thumbs to each of her fingers in series. She was counting, one of the ways she coped with stressful situations.

“Hey, you okay?” she asked.

“No, but it’s okay,” Bambi said.

They got out and Bambi led them to a metal door. She hit the doorbell button four times and waited, still counting on her fingers. Sarah wished she could put her arm around her friend, but she knew that would only make things worse. So instead, she just stood next to her and waited, offering what comfort she could.

After a couple minutes, and a few more sets of four button presses, someone looked through the peephole. The door opened and a woman about Carol’s age smiled at Bambi.

“Hey, this is a nice surprise!” she said. “How are you? And who is this?”

“I’m okay,” Bambi said. “This is my best friend, Sarah.”

“I’m Nancy,” the woman said smiling at Sarah and offering her hand. “I run the place, or try to.”

“Very nice to meet you, ma’am,” Sarah said and shook the offered hand.

“I brought some donations,” Bambi said. “But there’s a lot and we need some help.”

“Donations?” Nancy asked.

“Eighty-three boxes of tampons and twenty four boxes of pads,” Bambi said.

“Sweetheart, that’s so generous, but how can you afford it?” Nancy asked.

Bambi opened her mouth, but Sarah cut her off. “We, um, did a fundraiser at school,” she said. “It went really well. Better than we expected.”

Bambi looked at her in confusion.

Nancy smiled and her eyes grew a little wet. “Thank you, you have no idea how much that will help.” She wiped her eyes. “Sorry, it’s just such a struggle sometimes and you start to think no one cares.”

“I imagine,” Sarah said. “Um, why don’t we start unloading the car, if you have a cart or something…”

“Yes, of course, I’ll get it,” Nancy said. She propped the door open and disappeared back into the building.

“You never cease to amaze me,” Sarah said as she began grabbing boxes from the back seat and handing them to Bambi.

“You lied to her,” Bambi said.

“Let’s just say it was easier, and harmless in the long run. What’s Haldermycin?” she asked, reading the box as she handed it over.

“It’s a broad spectrum antibiotic infusion designed specifically to prevent menstrual based toxic shock syndrome,” Bambi said. “It attacks the bacterial infection in a way that prevents resistant strains from developing.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” Sarah said.

“It doesn’t exist on our earth,” Bambi said. “That’s why we needed to get them on Earth-771A.”

Bambi started carrying her arm load back to the door. Sarah filled her own arms and hurried after. Pieces started to come together. If women’s shelters were hard up for tampons and the like, it made sense the women they served would use whatever they could get, and probably longer than they should. She tried to imagine a life so hard that something as simple as access to tampons was a seen as a luxury.

“I’ve never seen this brand before,” Nancy said as she stacked the boxes on a flatbed cart.

“We, uh, found it on Kickstarter,” Sarah said, once again cutting Bambi off at the pass. “It has a special new antibiotic infused in it, see.” She pointed to the box.

Nancy looked at Bambi.

She didn’t look back. She never looked people in the eye.

“I’ll make sure your mom gets all she needs, sweetheart,” Nancy said.

“Thank you,” Bambi said. “Have you seen her lately?”

Nancy nodded. “A couple weeks ago.”

Sarah wished she could become invisible.

“How was she?” Bambi asked.

“I, um,” Nancy said, glancing at Sarah.

“It’s okay,” Bambi said. “She’s my best friend. You can talk in front of her.”

Nancy smiled at Sarah, but it was a sad smile. “I’m sorry, honey. She’s off her meds again.”

“She always said they made her feel numb,” Bambi said. “Was she still sick?”

“No,” Nancy said. “She looked really healthy, the antibiotics worked. We gave her some clean clothes, and she took a shower.” She gave another sad smile. “She asked about you. She always does, just like you ask about her. I know she said she didn’t want you to see her when—” She swallowed. “But I think she’d like to see you. She loves you very much.”

“I know,” Bambi said. “I love her too. Will you tell her for me?”

Nancy nodded. “Of course, sweetheart.”

“Thank you,” Bambi said then turned to Sarah. “We should get the rest.”

Sarah nodded and they finished unloading the car in short order.

“Thank you again,” Nancy said when the cart was fully loaded. “I can’t tell you how much this will help.”

“They’ll be more,” Bambi said. “Every two weeks, and it’ll be more than this.” She looked up, not meeting Nancy’s eyes, but almost. “Make sure my Mom always has some, okay?”

“I promise,” Nancy said. “Thank you again.”

“You’re welcome,” Bambi said. “Goodbye.” She turned and walked back to the car.

“Um, do you ever need volunteers?” Sarah asked.

“Always,” Nancy said and smiled.

Sarah nodded. “Okay, I’ll be back then.”

Bambi was already inside the car with her seatbelt fastened when Sarah got in.

“You know,” she said, “you never have to tell me anything you don’t want to, but I hope you know you can tell me anything.”

“I know that,” Bambi said. “It’s just sad and I don’t want you to be sad too.”

“I’m your friend,” Sarah said. “It’s okay for us to be sad together.”

Bambi nodded. “My mom has schizophrenia,” she said. “She has a hard time telling what’s real and sometimes she forgets to keep herself clean—”

“And she got toxic shock syndrome?”

“Three times now,” Bambi said. “The second time she almost died.”

“Is that why you built the portal?”

“No,” Bambi said. “I was looking for a world that had cured schizophrenia. None that I’ve travelled to have yet, though some appear close. I did find one that cured toxic shock syndrome so—”

Sarah smiled. “So you figured out a way to become a freaking millionaire just so you can ensure a steady stream of it to this world.”

Bambi smiled too. “Yes, exactly, I knew you’d understand.”

“I do,” Sarah said and started the car.

As they drove away, Bambi reached over and took Sarah’s hand. “Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome.” It took all Sarah had not to cry. Instead, she squeezed her friend’s hand. When Bambi squeezed back, she did cry, but only a little, and they were good tears.