Meet Me at the Galaxy: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 17, 2023

Paula Winn pulled her old green Chevy off of 28th St. and into the front parking lot of Myra’s Donut Galaxy. She usually parked out back, where it was less crowded, but not today. She wasn’t sure Kevin can take the walk.

She looked over at editor Kevin Fenton. The man looked pale, frail, and shaky. She had been surprised that she was even able to get him out of the house when she showed up to take him out for coffee and donuts. Just like her first visit, he had taken forever to undo all the chains and unlatch all the deadbolts on his door, and then had peered closely at her as if he didn’t recognize her. Finally he glanced over his shoulder. He seemed more on edge than the last time, and the last time had been enough to worry her.

But as they approached the Donut Galaxy, Kevin had calmed down. She wondered if he were stressed from fighting with the slush. She had heard horror stories of editors and slush readers getting completely overwhelmed by the flood of stories. It was a job that burned out many editors. Others ran their magazines as invitation-only, so that they could strictly control how much reading they had to do.

Paula turned off the ignition, climbed out, and made her way around the Chevy to help Kevin out. He had already managed to put both feet on the pavement, but he hadn’t stood up from the low seat yet. With one hand he clung to the handle of his old red leather briefcase. With the other he gripped the door frame and tried to leverage himself to his feet.

“Here, Kevin, let me help you.” Paula reached down and offered her hand. He took it and clung on as she did most the lifting, getting him to his feet. “There you go,” she said, stepping clear the space in front of the car door.

“Thank you, Paula,” he said. Then he inhaled deeply. “Myra’s… You can spell the donuts cooking from two blocks. He clapped his hands together, lifted them overhead, and gave his shoulders a stretch. “They’re twenty-four hours a day, you know? The Galaxy’s always open.”

“I know,” Paula said as Kevin shut the door and they made their way to the entrance. “I just find it amazing that we’ve both been coming here for years, and yet we never ran into each other before.”

Kevin shook his head as he held the bakery door open for her. “You just wouldn’t notice me. We editors aren’t exactly fashion models, after all.”

Noticing… That brought Paula back to the events at the Victorian. Whatever force was at work there, it had actually gotten stronger since the night the visitor had talked to her. It was like the house was fading. She could drive by it now and never even realize what neighborhood she was in. If she wanted to see the house, she had to actually park, get out, and walk around.

And she wasn’t sure that was a good idea. She had done that three times, verifying that yes, the house was still there if she really looked; but the last time she had investigated, three tall, nondescript men had started walking towards her from the other end of the block. She could not make out their faces, but they were the same black pants and blue shirt as the man she had spoken with in the delivery van that night.

That encounter had been her last visit to the Victorian. Either she was crazy, or she was endangering herself. The solution in either case was to stay away from this source of her anxiety.

So to forget her troubles, she had called up Kevin and invited him out to talk story. She needed something else to occupy her imagination, and Kevin should be good for that. He knew so much about the field of science fiction and fantasy. And besides, it might be good to pump an editor for what he was looking for so that she could try to pitch the exact right story to him.

Kevin followed her into Myra’s, and they went up to the display counter. There were three firefighters ahead of them, putting together an order. A sign at the cash register said, “First responders always come first at Myra’s Donut Galaxy.” She had seen the sign before, but she hadn’t seen the rule in action.

Then Kevin and Paula got to the counter, placed their orders – a bran muffin for Kevin and a chocolate-iced donut with M&Ms for Paula – and got a large coffee for each. Once they had their orders, they went into the dining room next door and found an open table near the window. Three EMTs were on the other side of the door, and the firefighters sat in the back near the restrooms. Other customers filled half the tables.

Kevin held his muffin up to his nose and inhaled deeply. “A, memories! It’s been too long.”

Paula picked an M&M off her donut, popped it into her mouth, and said, “That’s too bad. You’ve been away?”

“I’ve been too busy. There’s a huge difference between assistant editor and editor. I just…” His eyes darkened. “I just can’t escape the house much anymore.”

Paula grunted in sympathy and took a bite of the doughnut, chocolate icing crumbling in her mouth. After she swallowed the bite, she said, “Are you going to get an assistant? I haven’t seen one on the masthead yet.”

Kevin paused with a mouth full of muffin. He chewed, swallowed, and said, “Not yet. Rachel’s dealing with a lot still after Paul’s death. Estate stuff, keeping the advertisers happy… Right now, we’re in a holding pattern, just trying to keep the magazine going and the money coming in so she can rely on the cash flow.”

“I see.” She did see, a little. She had worked in her parents’ printshop when she was back in school, so she knew a little bit about the economics of keeping the doors open. The magazine had to be very different, of course, but she still understood that they needed a steady cash flow just to keep going through emergencies.

But still, she saw an opportunity. “What about an intern? Someone who gets paid in experience.”

Kevin narrowed his eyes. He wasn’t fooled. “By that, I assume you mean yourself.”

“Well… Now that we know I’m local, that could make things easier. I could run errands for you like trips to the post office and such. We could have story conferences.” She pointed at the nearly consumed muffin. “I can even make doughnut runs.”

Kevin laughed, the first solid, healthy laugh she had ever heard from him. “Plying me with food, eh?”

“No…” Paula felt her face turning red. “I just… I figured I can help out.”

“Well, the first thing you have to learn,” Kevin said, popping the last of the muffin in his mouth and speaking around it as he chewed, “is the editor pays. Always. That’s an unbreakable rule. You don’t want to give the appearance of favoritism, and you don’t want writers to get the feeling that they can buy you. So it’s an unbreakable rule: you pay.

“I –”

“Oh, not you, you’re an intern. You’re broke. You can’t afford to pick up any tabs. You leave that to me. But nobody else pays for you. No gifts, no food, no story swaps, you don’t even let them offer you their bodies if that’s what they try.”

Paula practically spit out a bite of donut as she laughed. “They wouldn’t –”

“Writers are crazy, writers are desperate, and some writers are crazy desperate. If you’re working for me, draw that line in the sand and don’t let them cross it. Or you.”

“If I’m… You mean…”

“I mean your price is right, though I think you’re selling yourself short. We have another four to six issues before I plan to approach Rachel about hiring an assistant editor. Until them if you want to do this, sure, it’s a good way to make yourself the leading candidate. If you can go six months without screwing up – any worse than I screw up –then I’ll make the pitch to Rachel, and you’ll have a good shot.”

Paula’s eyes grew wide. “I was… I wasn’t serious!”

“You’re better than serious, you’re a dreamer. That’s what we do, we dream so hard we make others believe it. Let’s give this a shot.”

Paula practically dropped her donut as she held out her hand to shake Kevin’s. “I can do that. What a way – How – When do I start?”

“Right now,” Kevin said. Your editor needs another muffin. He pulled out his wallet and handed her a five. “Banana nut with walnuts on top for this one.”

“Yes, boss.” She got up and grabbed for the five.

But Kevin pulled it back. “And don’t call me ‘boss.’ I’m Kevin, unless you’re in the doghouse. Then I’m Mr. Fenton. I leave it you to figure out the difference.”

“Yes, Kevin.” She grabbed the five and walked quickly back towaed the counter room.

Paula was going so fast, she almost didn’t notice the couple standing in the entry. There was a heavily bandaged man in a wheelchair, and behind him stood a woman dressed in casual gray sweats and sensible maroon shoes. She was staring at the menu board, and she didn’t notice that Paula almost crashed into her.

And Paula barely noticed them. And…

No, she didn’t need to start having visions again. She thought she glimpsed a tall figure standing between the woman and the wheelchair; but when she looked back and blinked, the vision was gone.

Then the woman in the sweats stepped forward, and another woman stepped into the bakery behind her, a woman in a comfortable rose pantsuit with blonde hair and magenta tips. Between the three of them, still managed to block Paula in the entry.

Then the man in the wheelchair and the woman made their way to the counter, and the woman in the pantsuit stepped over to examine the wall where Myra kept the “family photos”: photographs going back as much as fifty years, featuring Paula’s regular customers. Some had long since left the area. Some, sadly, has passed away. Some were still young kids, teenagers barely old enough to drive. The photos seemed to fascinate the woman, as if she wasn’t interested in doughnuts at all. So after giving the woman a reasonable time to decide, Paula shrugged and stepped up to the counter.

She placed an order for another muffin for Kevin, and then she said, “What the heck? Give me one of the caramel apple doughnuts, and another coffee.”

When Paula brought their baked goods back to the table, Kevin had his briefcase in his lap, partly open so he could look in; but then he closed it when she walked up.

Paula set down his muffin, and sat opposite him. “I’m sorry, am I intruding?”

“Ah!” Kevin answered. “You’re not intruding, you’re the assistant editor. This is your business now, too.” Then he smiled at her as he again lifted the top of the briefcase. “But I brought this for you before I knew you were volunteering. I just wanted to give you a small present.” He reached into the briefcase and pulled out a magazine. “Here’s a sneak preview, not even out to subscribers yet, of the next issue of Trans Lunar Injection.”

Paula’s eyes popped, and she completely forgot her second donut. She pulled a half-dozen napkins from the dispenser on the table and started furiously wiping her hands. “Hot off the presses?”

“The hottest! Even Rachel hasn’t seen this issue yet. Only you and I have.” Then in a lower voice, he added, “And the pressman, too, of course. But we don’t count them. Until it reaches us, it’s not published.”

Finally satisfied that her fingers were clean enough for the pristine magazine, Paula reached out and gently took it from Kevin’s hands. She looked at the cover, a gorgeous image of a woman with her back against a wall near a corner, crouched like a Ninja. Around the turn, two armed guards marched, weapons ready. The scene was just under the logo, Trans Lunar Injection #68. Across the bottom of the scene, in small letters so it fit, was a title: “Cognitive Logic and the Mathematics of Influence” by Emil Varden.

Paula actually squealed, but then felt embarrassed. Still, she couldn’t contain her excitement. “Another Cemetery World story?”

Kevin nodded. “The boy’s on a roll, isn’t he? I get so much demand for more Cemetery World stories, I’ll bet I could fill a whole issue with them if Emil could write them fast enough. And it would sell!” Then he looked Paula in her eyes. “If you ever sit in my chair, don’t do foolish things like that. Themed issues should be for major events only, things that everyone in the readership wants to share, not just appeals to a certain subset. Things like…” His voice trailed off.

Paula nodded. “Like the tribute to Paul Miller.”

“Yeah…” Kevin swallowed hard. “Everyone wanted that one. A part of me was disgusted that people were just buying it for collector value; but a bigger part of me said to screw their reasons, it was money in Rachel’s pocket when she needed it.” He blinked. “So theme issues should be big themes, not just a stunt. A lot of readers love Emil’s stories, but every author in there is somebody’s favorite author.”

Paula nodded. “That makes sense. I’m not Camille Varden’s biggest fan, but – Am I supposed to admit that?”

“It’s okay,” Kevin said around a bite of muffin. “Editors are allowed to like what we like. That’s not a problem. You don’t want to say it in front of an author, but they understand. They have favorites just like we do. Nobody has to like everything.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean I don’t like his work. It’s okay, but I usually like creepier tales. Like ‘Voyagers’ Graveyard’ by Carol Scott. But Cemetery World is a new breakthrough Varden. It’s like… like he’s on fire! Like –”

The sound of running feet heading towards the door behind Kevin broke up their conversation. The woman in the rose pantsuit fled the ladies room and was nearly to the door, heedless of other people in the way. She almost bumped into…

Then Paula shook her head. There was no one there. The woman hadn’t almost bumped into anything!

Had she?

As the woman pushed open the exit door, the man in the wheelchair turned towards her and shouted, “Miss! Wait!”

But the woman was out the door already, running east along the building and around the corner.

The man in the wheelchair tried to follow, but stopped at the door, frustrated. Looking around, he finally looked between Kevin’s chair and the wall. “Sir, could you push that button?”

Kevin looked down, and Paula realized that the handicap access button was between Kevin’s chair and the door. “Sorry, bud,” Kevin said. “I didn’t –”

“Hurry!” The man said, apparently uninterested in apologies. Kevin bumped the button and the door slowly swung open. The man wheeled right up to it and out as quickly as it would let him.

Then the door started to swing shut just as the man’s companion also came out from the ladies room. Not running, but at a fast walk. She forced the door back open, pushing hard against the closing pneumatics, and followed the man. He had already wheeled over to a van parked next to Paula’s Chevy. The lifted himself slowly out of the chair, pulling on the door handle. When the door swung open, he stumbled, but the woman was there in time to catch him. She helped him into the van and then wheeled the chair to the back. As she folded it and lifted it in, Paula heard brakes squeal. Looking out through the front door, she saw a silver Nissan Rogue careening down the side street and onto 28th Street, heading west. Then the van door slammed shut, and the van pulled out at a more cautious speed, and made its way onto 28th Street in the same direction.

Kevin was looking over his shoulder, so he didn’t get a clear view of the two vehicles. Paula had seen the whole thing. Her jaw hung open. When both vehicles were out of sight, she turned back to Kevin. “What…”

“People these days,” Kevin said. “You never know. I’m sure there’s a story in there. Maybe you should write it.”

“I don’t know what it is!”

“Who says you have to know the story to write it? I’d give it a shot if I were you. Of course, you can’t send it to me now, I can’t print your stories. No favoritism for assistant editors. But if it’s good, I’ll send it to Trevor for you.

“And speaking of good…” He pointed at the magazine, and Paula realized she had set it down in the middle of the confusion. She panicked until she confirmed that there’d been no spilled drinks or apple donut filling on the table. “You should read that,” Kevin said. “We’ve got time. It’s still nice weather out, and…” He paused before finishing. “…it’s nice to get out of the house. I’ll get us more coffee while you read.”

Paula started reading the next installment of Cemetery World, the adventures of Myra Collins in a world of military secrets, archaeology, and…

And invisible aliens. That part made Paula squirm. She had had tried so hard to forget them, but the events of the day, the strange glimpses she swore she’d seen, had put her right back where she had started. She wondered how Varden approached the idea.

Just as Paula was starting to get into the story, with Myra finding herself in yet another prison – and Paula found it amusing that she was reading about a Myra in a place called Myra’s – a loud horn sound rose from the table behind Kevin. As she looked up, a voice came over a radio carried by one of the EMTs. “Unit 17, respond to single vehicle accident near you. Silver Nissan in a ditch on 186 East. Please respond.”

The three EMTs were crowding out the door as the tall one said, “Seventeen, responding. On our way. ETA –” But the door closed before Paula could hear the ETA. Again she set the magazine down, this time making sure the table was clean first, and she looked at Kevin. “Silver Nissan? Wasn’t that what just sped out of here?”

Kevin shrugged. “Was it silver or white? And I’m no good on makes and models. It was an SUV, I guess.”

Paula shivered. “I hope she didn’t get in an accident.” Then she frowned. “I’m sorry, I hope whoever got in an accident is all right. It’s silly to worry more for a stranger just because we saw her a few minutes ago.”

“You say silly, I say human,” Kevin answered. “But your second impulse is right. I hope they take good care of whoever it was, and that they get there quickly.”

“Yeah,” Paula said, “I guess it is kind of human nature. You notice something, and that makes it more meaningful to you. You want to know more, like you’re invested in it. There could be ten other accidents across the city, but this one has my attention because maybe I met the victim for all of six seconds.”

“That’s the way we monkeys evolved. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”

“I won’t…” But it still disturbed Paula. She had the unshakable conviction that the woman in rose was in the car crash.

Seeking distraction once again, Paula turned back to Varden’s story. He might not be her favorite author, but he did have the gift of transport: taking a reader into a story, into another world. Soon she was Myra Collins, dealing with the Admiral and Lieutenant and all the bureaucratic foolishness that got in the way of real science.

But as the story proceeded, and Myra started to understand how the Tomb Builders kept their secrets, Paula felt a shiver, as if the cold October air had swept into the bakery. The parallels to her own strange encounter brought Paula right back into the mental spiral she had spun in for so long.

She lowered the magazine and looked at Kevin. “Did Varden ever –”

before Paula could finish the question – and she wasn’t entirely sure how she would finish it –there was another, deeper horn sound from the table in the back where the four firefighters sat. They rose as a voice said, “Unit 21, respond to single dwelling fire at fill 2835 Roscommon. Unit 19 is already on the scene. Unit 23, respond to 2835 Roscommon.”

Paula looked around and realized the few standing customers in the dining room had cleared a path between the firefighters and the door. One customer held the door open for them as they dashed out.

As the customer stepped back in after the firefighters left, Paula said to Kevin, “They know the routine here!”

Kevin chuckled. “I’m surprised you never saw it before. Yeah, with this place being twenty-four hours, and with a fire barn less than a block down, Myra gets plenty of firefighters. Also EMTs and police officers. They need a place to hang out during all shifts, and Myra’s is their favorite around here. Many’s the time Emil and I saw –”

“Emile Varden? You brought him here?”

Kevin nodded. “I brought him, sometimes he brought me. Before I got so busy, we came here anytime our schedules overlapped.”

“Wait, Emile Varden lives in Grand Rapids?”

“He sure does.”

“And he eats here?”

“Where else would a science fiction writer get his donuts but the Galaxy?” Kevin laughed at the joke. “You’re not really cued into the local fan community, are you?”

“No,” Paula admitted. “I didn’t know there was one.”

“Oh, it ebbs and flows. A lot of us used to meet here one Sunday a month just to discuss books or maybe go to movies. Myra would even sit in on the discussion sometimes. She’s a science fiction fan from way back. How do you think Emil named his protagonist?”

Kevin sighed, and then continued. “But life happens. People get busy. It happens to all groups eventually. They stop trying to organize, and just start looking for times to get together when they can. It’s easier that way. It’s funny… I see way more of Emil now at conventions that I ever do here in Grand Rapids. It’s like we have a hollow network. All our contacts are online. We aren’t in touch with the local fans like we used to be. Hell, here you are an author who sold to the magazine under Paul, and I didn’t even know you were local.”

“That sounds a little sad,” Paula replied.

“It’s not said, it just is. Everything changes.”

“I guess…” Paula went back to her reading. But it didn’t relax her, didn’t distract her. The more she read, the more it she felt like Varden was describing exactly what she had experienced. Like he was explaining it. Like somehow he knew

When Paula finished the story, she closed the magazine and looked at her companion. “Kevin, this is really wild. Did Varden explain where he got these ideas? This Cognitive Logic…”

“…and the Mathematics of Influence. Yeah, how could I forget a title like that? It’s one of the longest ones we’ve had lately. Emil usually likes them short, but he said this was an Easter egg.”

“An Easter egg?” Those were little bits of names or stories that a writer would sneak into a work as a private joke with a very limited audience. “I don’t get it. It must be some reference from before my time.”

“No, just outside your field,” Kevin said. “You’d have to subscribe to obscure mathematical logic and computation journals to recognize it. It was the title of a thesis by Emil’s friend Wayne Hudson.”

“Hudson… Hudson…” Paula leafed through the magazine. “Wasn’t there a… You have got to be shitting me! Tucker Hudson? He blatantly Tuckerized his friend and told people he was doing it!”

Kevin laughed again. “I thought he might want to be more subtle than that; but no, he insisted om Tucker.” Tuckerization was another form of in joke in which an author based a character off somebody in their real life, sometimes modifying the name. Often the author gave them a gruesome death that they could then share with all their friends and brag that a famous author had killed them in their story.

Varden hadn’t killed off Tucker Hudson – yet – but he’d turned the man’s thesis into a story element that would probably get a thousand times as many readers in TLI as it had in an academic journal.

But if the thesis really existed… If Varden was describing something that was actually part of cognitive science and logic…

Suddenly, as if the wind had blown, the exit door swung open nearly forty-five degrees, then swung back shot.

Paula narrowed her eyes and squinted through the glass. No matter how hard she looked, she couldn’t say that there was something out there on the sidewalk, looking around at the city street.

But she couldn’t say there wasn’t.

The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: Dragon Sight.

Nope. I got nothin’. There’s no way to pretend that today’s story has anything to do with dragons.

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