"I'm coming! I'll make it! Tell her to hang in there! Tell her Daddy's coming! Don't let...just...I'm coming!" I cried into the spitting static of my headset, an automatic stream of maddened pleading, as the nettled water of panic, helplessness and every other foul emotion brimmed the instant I heard Ellie's name. Keen senses were essential in the present and even the meager consolation of unchecked tears had to wait. Batting them out, I compelled my vision to clear. They cobwebbed over my cheeks in the airstream as I shoved the center stick as far to the right as it would go, certain that it would snap off in my hand. Thrown back against my bucket seat by the acceleration, the craft shuddered its way through the sharply banked curve I had just forced her into as I pedaled furiously to maintain lift, setting my course to back from where I came--and straight into the wind; back to my family that I now hated myself for leaving, all for this contest that now seemed to my shaken mind like an evil plot to get me away from them. I emptied the water bottle cradled beside me in a few drowning gulps and pitched it over the side, jettisoning the rest of my water supply at the same time to lighten the craft and the effort required of me. If someone happened to be right under me walking in the middle of nowhere as I flew above that cursed, empty place, so be it. Those six pounds of aerodynamically packaged mineralized water would come down and crush through them from cranium to crotch. A part of me hoped there was indeed someone down there. If God wanted a life, there! I'd give Him one! But. Not. My. Baby. Girl. Just a minute earlier, a minute that now seemed to have begun in another life, I had been pacing myself, pedaling my aircraft in front of a friendly tailwind. My task then, a challenge now miniscule in comparison, was to keep my craft aloft from point A to point B within a strict time limit. I didn't have a clue what my time limit was now, except that it had gotten severely shorter. "Come back, come home!" my wife's cry, both desperate and demanding, had come crackling through my headset. I knew she was struggling to speak through sobs and my first thought was that she had broken down, fearing that I would tire, crash and severely injure myself, or worse, in my attempt to fly my human-powered aircraft the required one hundred miles to win the Graham Prize. "It's Ellie. She--" a loud burst of static had cut Lisa off. I was just over twenty miles out and it had taken me over an hour to get this far. Even if I could maintain top speed all the way and the tailwind held--that backstabbing former friend--the landing zone may as well be on the moon. The static roared again and Lisa's voice came through, faint, and almost overpowered by urgency. Though, as if by that urgency, through sheer willpower, her words had cut through the tangled airwaves that now seemed to be conspiring with the wind and I heard the most critical fragments very clearly, "...back now! Doct...ay not...last mor...hour, mayb... less..." That was when I had careened my craft, wrenching its airframe, dead into that scheming wind and pushed for home. Thoughts of how weak the human body really is crept into my mind as fast as I could toss them out to fall to the cruel, uninhabited and carless plain below. The leg muscles, the most powerful in the body they say; power had suddenly become a very weak and insignificant word. I would have shoved both my legs into the propeller up to my hips right there and then for a dirt track below me with just one worthy vehicle on it and a stick to jam onto the gas. I bore down on the pedals with a passionate devotion that only parents know. I shut out Lisa's message from my mind and directed my entire being onto that imaginary point on the horizon where my child lay. I packaged my mind into a fervent calmness. As critical as it was to get back in time, neglecting proper flying procedure could mean certain failure. My brain focused on the laws of flight and my body focused on turning that propeller as fast as humanly possible. I welcomed the denial my mind was escaping into because it would become a useful benefit. Slipping out of my panic and into a rejection of reality would allow me to concentrate fully on my one goal in life: To get to my daughter in time--and that tiny, primal sphere, a singularity of alloyed will and skill, would be my entire world until I reached my child. For what seemed like days I worked that prop. In reality it was only a few minutes before the trance was broken. My craft made a jarring, gut flailing roll to the left and side slipped straight towards the barren earth just a few hundred feet below. Instinctively and with desperate effort I corrected the attitude of the craft and found, when flying steady again, I was holding the stick off center. I strained my neck to the right and saw that my starboard aileron was hanging by its control cable, flapping uselessly in the slipstream. I couldn't hold back my wail of despair. With the craft impaired like this it would take I leaned back in my chair, allowing my mouth to widen cavernously into a full, thoroughly satisfying yawn and stretched my creaking arms skyward to complete the deed. As always, I noticed and pondered the fact of how a good, unbridled facial contortion and extended intake of breath can be both relaxing and invigorating at the same time. I could always understand the part played by the deep breath but the point of the facial malformation always eluded me. I normally would have stifled a yawn at a point such as this in a story but I would need to open up my desktop calculator anyhow and do a little math to figure out how much time this would realistically add to my character's flight. Besides, I had been writing since six this morning and had finished another story today, just after my weekend 3 p.m. lunch. I deserved a good, unstifled yawn. I glanced at my watch; five past seven and Steph wasn't home yet. We had been together for only a couple of years but I knew her better than the layout of my keyboard. I'd bet anything she's out shopping for one of her Secret Surprises. My guess at this hour would be a special late dinner. Steph had the kitchen skills of Annapurna herself and one of my eerily delightful pet fears was that woman would eventually cuisine me into obesity. These surprises are one of her endearing habits, little things she does every so often that turn our simple life together into a mystical adventure, all the more magical for their simplicity. We live on a tight budget and I ask her sometimes where she manages to find the money for her frequent surprises. She winks, points at her well-worn hiking boots and makes a vague reference to her Secret Savings, before reminding me that we agreed that teaching and writing were my domain and the household budget was exclusively hers. I had to admit, she really was a master at keeping morale up for her Typing Trooper with the most innovative treats that she somehow manages to find at what must be great bargains. Before I had finished the calculations I saw the hallway light make a widening rectangle to one side of my screen with Steph's silhouette centered in the reflection. The rectangle narrowed to a close silently and her outline melted into the darkness. We were lucky enough to get a rent controlled apartment but it was a one bedroom, so I worked in the dark corner of the sitting area, one edge of my ancient wooden desk serving as a drink table for one end of our undersized couch. I minimized the calculator and pretended to be immersed in work. It was a quirk of mine that whenever I knew Stephanie could see my screen, all I wanted to have on it was a story of some sort--my words and nothing else; and she would be seeing the screen in a few seconds for at this very moment she was creeping up behind me, knowing she had come in without being heard. In all fairness she did scare the mouse out of my hand a few times when she had come home later than usual and I happened to be mesmerized by a crucial point in some story that was misbehaving. As I said, I know her well. Pretending to stare at my screen in a crafting-induced torpor I closed my eyes and was watched her in my head. I saw her entire adorable sneak across the room towards me in that eccentric manner she always uses. Rising up on her toes she brings one knee up to an exaggerated height before stepping forward and landing her purple-socked foot ever so lightly on the floor. Then up comes her other knee as she half tiptoes, half lunges across the room, all this with her hands held up, fingers hooked into claws, her eyes wide, intently observant of any sign that her stalk may have been detected. As she gets closer her pace quickens; her eyes forget to be wary and light up with glee as she approaches the back of my chair, and as soon as I'm within grasp, wraps me from behind with her arms, clawed fingers and all. Once in a while she'll bite my neck in her ghoulish frenzy while holding me fast in my chair--a butterfly on the bouquet. That's just one of the multitude of little rituals we perform every day in our life together that are ours and ours alone. I could live any of these simple sketches over and over and it would be as dear to me the thousandth time as it was the first time that purple-pawed monster came up behind me and hugged me for all she was worth. "I didn't get you, did I?" she spoke softly, close to my ear. My eyes still closed, her tone informed me of her still excited smile, round eyes that twinkled even though they were wide open, and betraying just a trace of disappointment. "How do you know you didn't get me?" I teased, suppressing the laughter that usually gushed from me when she performed one of her tricks. "Let's see," she mused, "Could it be that your coffee mug is still on your desk and not on the floor with its contents all over my face and shirt?" shifting her young body to sit on my lap with her arms lacing lazily around my neck. "Ah, that makes you right about one thing and wrong about another." I replied, setting up my sting. "Enlighten me, Socrates." Pronouncing the moniker with her Most Excellent Bill and Ted impression. "True, I heard you come in and knew that you were doing your prance across the floor to greet me," pressing my lips against hers in appreciation before concluding, "So, no, you didn't scare the shit out of me, my love, but the fact that you never stop doing it and that you take the time every day to make smiley faces out of our bacon and eggs, stick page-long notes on my screen about your faith in me and whatever story I'm having trouble with, those blindingly radiant socks that you insist on wearing even when we make love," and here, she hugged me tightly and began, "You know how--" I put my finger gently on her lips and nodded knowingly. For some reason she was sensitive about her feet that could not have been more perfectly shaped. She liked to keep them covered as much as possible; it was one of her quirks and I accepted that about her. I continued, "And when my eyes are still closed the morning after, yours are always there, alive and eager, waiting for mine to open, if only just to say hi; acts of caring you come up with every day with such novelty that I wonder why I sit in this chair instead of you. All that speaks volumes, but one thing clearer than all the rest: That you do get me. You get me in every way and you get me every single day." As I finished, I brought the tip of my nose down to hers and let myself wander deep into Stephanie's eyes; eyes that somehow saw me worthy of her unfailing daily attention, moon-sized, gleaming green eyes of such rarity that they saw only one man, one single man, deserving of her love on the entirety of her horizon. We held each other there, breathing in unison, she taking in the breath I let out and I taking in hers as she exhaled. Often we would entwine ourselves like this, making only the most innocent physical contact as we shared breath for almost an hour, until neither of us could resist the visceral any longer. Tonight we lasted less than three minutes before yielding to the same animal magic that we awoke to, still pressed together, the morning after our first kiss. I picked her up and carried her into our bedroom, our gaze unbroken, as she slid off her socks. Across the street, Jack turned away from his window back to the large canvas he was working on. It was the main piece for his next exhibit and, even half finished, he knew it would turn out perfectly. All his paintings did. His first show, almost two years ago, and all five since, had sold out completely and this next one would be no different. He had no doubts about this. "Jack Yarnstrom, Successful Artist," he thought to himself, smiling as his brush licked the canvas into yet another masterpiece. His strokes continued autonomously, as his consciousness wandered elsewhere. Before turning back to his work he had been staring out his window again, watching his Stephanie. She was still with that hack of a boyfriend but she would come around soon enough. Eventually she would realize that she needed the financial security that he could provide, and the lust he had again observed her giving in to would fade even faster than a meager paycheck fades into mounting bills. From the first time he saw her through the two windows, dancing in her kitchen, he yearned for her body, yielding, under his. He hated that failed writer. He loved her. Painting on automatic pilot his colorful mind danced with memories of his discrete encounters with Stephanie and plans for completing the conquest. He was awakened from his reverie by someone buzzing to come up. He hit the intercom button. It was his best friend, David. Dave always brought beer, and plenty of it. He hit the unlock switch and quit the painting for tonight. Jack relaxed into his lounger and lit a cigarette. After a few puffs, Dave came in the door, "Hey, bro. What's the latest?" he grinned as he headed to put the beers on ice. Jack puffed on his smoke and told him the story so far, "I stalked her for a while and made sure I was outside at the times she left the house and chatted her up every so often. I told her I just moved in, neighborly stuff like that. Little did I know she had an Achilles' heel just begging to be figured out." "What was the key?" asked David, flopping onto the sofa. Jack smiled and blew a thin stream of smoke upward. "I meant that last part almost literally. I caught her on her way out once and told her I needed a hand model and that It was a paying gig. I knew that she needed the extra money and it was a safe bet; hands are innocent enough and it was a legit reason to get a little more intimate. She said yes, of course but I was surprised at how eagerly she agreed. She did have one condition, though. She said I had to paint her feet. I would have painted her ears if she asked. I just wanted her in my studio. We came up here and I sketched her hands. Then I turned to a fresh page and asked her to take off her shoes. She looked at me and my sketchbook and acted like I had just asked her to strip. She asked for her fee and when the next session was and, very businesslike, was out the door. She came in every day for a few weeks and I'd draw her hands, posing them different each time just to keep up appearances but whenever I asked about doing her feet she'd suddenly get an attitude and leave. But the fact that she made such a specific request and never collected on it kept bugging me, but I finally figured her out." "Literally paint her feet," David said, grinning a wide, knowing grin. "Nail art, to be precise," Jack corrected. "So the next day when she came in I made sure all I had in my hand was a tiny paintbrush. She's perceptive. I started into this whole speech about how dense I'd been but she cut me off and said, 'Jack, just do it already.'" "Nice," David said with a smile that couldn't hide his envy entirely. Then putting on as mock serious face, "And after slaving over her toenails for an hour or two she got up and left all businesslike." Jack dragged deep on his cigarette and exhaled in an opaque cloud of smoke, "You wish, bro." Brother Jauffrey sat in silence at the head of one of the rough wooden tables in the dining hall before the small gathering of monks he had called. They were waiting for the fifth attendee of the Monksmoot to arrive. Jauffrey sighed deeply inside as he contemplated Peter's tardy nature. He was late for everything, including exiting his quarters, which he did three minutes after all the Brothers had left their rooms and entered the chapel. Jauffrey never rebuked Peter for his leisurely pace in going about his duties. The Abbot was satisfied with Peter's explanation that he devoted an extra few minutes of prayer upon rising each morning to their Sisters in the abbey in the valley who, of late, hadn't been getting their regular supply of meat. Thus, Jauffrey confined himself to wondering why Peter, all of seventeen, performed so slowly while he himself, approaching seventy-seven, always finished up ahead of schedule. There was a click and a creak as the door to the path outside opened and a slim young man ambled through. Brother Manyard, seated to Jauffrey's left, craned his neck around to the right and saw it was Peter. Jauffrey saw the glint of admonishment in Manyard's eyes and touched his hand to calm him. Peter walked around the table without a word and took his seat on the bench at Jauffrey's right. Jauffrey addressed Peter amiably, "We had fully expected you to come in from upstairs. It would seem that you've come from the village seeing as you entered from the door to the path." "Yes, Brother Jauffrey," Peter answered calmly, "I saw it as my duty to bring some pork down to the village. They are in short supply with most of the village men having to go higher into the hills, almost all the way to the outlying forest settlements, to do their logging. The village women have been asking for charity in the form of a supply of meat and I have been enlightened by my daily rising prayers to help them with this shortage by taking some of our surplus to them." Brother Manyard, now looking more forgiving, spoke, "That is truly charitable of you, Brother Peter. If you need any assistance the next time you pay a visit to the village I would certainly see it as dutiful myself to aid in carrying the load." Before Peter could answer, Jauffrey brought the meeting to order, "Brothers, that issue will be addressed in good time for it is precisely the matter of our sustenance that I have called this gathering. We need to come to some decisions swiftly such that we may each go our own way and begin independent planning and preparation; thus, I will be brief in outlining what I see as our current predicament. "Living here in the Abbey we have all our basic necessities provided us. We are fed, clothed and a roof over our heads; indeed, we reside in a veritable castle. We walk through grand halls, ascend magnificent stairways as we go about our duties and we retire at night to sturdily built cells that shield us from the elements in ways that the thatched huts in the village often cannot. "However, the fact is that I, having lived long and observant of the daily lives of my brothers for all that time, believe that our morale is wavering and with but simple effort, we can improve on our basic condition and thus rekindle the energies of adoration in our souls to better serve the purpose of the Order. "As I mentioned, we have lordly lodgings and are provided robes that we can perform in with comfort and ease of movement. We dine in this hall on heavy bread dunked in chicken and onion broth with an occasional satisfying serving of salted pork or ham, just to give a sample of one of our typical meals. Now, Brothers, my question to you is: Among these provisions, keeping in mind that my intention is for the restoration of morale for all brothers, is there any way we may improve on what we have? Do any of you see anything that is lacking?" as Brother Jauffrey concluded, four hands of the four younger Brothers present came up immediately, and in unison. Waking up from one of my dreams where a story begins to form in my mind, I resolved to get out of bed quickly and type out my idea before it faded, as dreams so quickly do. I began to sit up, opening my eyes wide to hasten the waking process. Jerking my head up from the pillow I halted my movement abruptly as Steph's eyes, wide open as well, seemed to rush towards me as I nearly smashed our foreheads together. "Another brilliant idea for a story, baby?" she smiled, her glittering eyes giving me my morning greeting as always. I took some time to soak up her morning affection before saying, "Yes, love, a good fit for the anthology for the comic entry I think." Kissing her good morning I continued jokingly, "One day, when that idea for The Novel finally gels in my sleep I may well fracture both our skulls as I leap out of bed." "Not a chance, babe. I got the reflexes of a cat. I'll just do this." And she arched her lithe back away from me in a lightning movement, falling back on the foot of our bed, the energy she put into it sending her tumbling off the edge, legs sticking up, onto the floor. "Steph?" I called out, scrambling across the bed, "You ok there? Did you hurt yourself? I asked, completely powerless at suppressing a chuckling smile. I reached down to pull her up. "Nothing hurt but my ego--and I also just dropped another few hundred sexy points," she said woefully with her wry smile as we clambered back over the scrunched up comforter, back onto the bed. When her feet had gone skyward, tumbling off the bed, I noticed that she hadn't put her socks back on. Something stirred in me, a completely new emotion. She had perfect feet, perfect toes, even her nails were perfect, naked and unpainted as they were. And today, for some reason, it looked like they had been newly manicured and polished, even if I knew Steph never spent on any of that stuff. I don't think I'd ever seen her feet uncovered as much as I have in the past twelve hours. That new emotion began to rise again. I pulled her up against me "It's ok, baby," at least now I'm confident that I won't kill us both when I wake up with a brainstorm." She burst out laughing and we rolled around on our bed for a few minutes wrestling and tickling the memory of her goofy tumble away. Catching our breath after our early morning frolic, I asked her to hold on a sec as I jotted down what I remembered from my dream on my bedside note pad. I then turned back to her and gently pushed stray strands of hair from her face. "That's your serious face," she said simply, her eyes earnest, "What's up, sweetie?" "Do you ever regret being with me?" and before she could reply with her always logical arguments, "I mean, I got the teaching job we were both applying for and you get stuck with checking all my students' papers while I write most of our evenings and weekends away. Do you ever wish that you could start a career instead of being stuck as my sidekick?" She got up on her knees, clenched her hands into fists, and put on a very noble face, "Batgirl is very happy and proud being a sidekick." "I'm serious, baby, I don't want you to ever regret spending your best years with a guy who may never be able to give you the life you deserve. I know that you want to have kids. What if it takes years before we can afford to do that? I mean, just to pay the reading fee to enter this stupid writing contest I don't know how big a chunk you had to dig out of your secret savings. We spent a grand on the off chance that I'm good enough to write a five story anthology to maybe win ten grand. When I think about it now, I mean, Jesus! Those are worse than casino odds, or the damned lottery! I'm wasting money you ought to be using to get yourself as many pairs of hiking boots as you want and girl things like hair treatments and nail art. I should just take tutoring work in the evenings and weekends. As soon as I lose this contest that's exactly what I'm doing. At least it'll add up to almost a second income. I want us to start living our lives now, not in some uncertain future, and I know you want that too. What do we spend, like half our income on pills and condoms? You know how I hate those things--it's as if we're not really touching when we make love. And pills aren't good for you either. And if you have to take them for God knows how many more years, what if--" She put her mouth to mine to silence me, wrapping my head in her arms and then pressing it against her breast. "Baby, you're freaking out. Just breathe and listen to me for a while. You always get stressed out before a submission and I always give you the same lecture. So let me give it to you again, and this time, every time I repeat one of my indisputable arguments I'm gonna give you a kiss to seal it in that thick skull of yours. "First, you were better qualified for the teaching position, and if we hadn't both been applying that day we never would have met. So, thank you." And she kissed my forehead." Second, you're the writer and not me. You have the knack, I don't. That's just the way it is." And she kissed my forehead. "Third, combining points one and two, I don't have as raw a deal as you think. Besides sending out my resumes out for the day, going to the occasional interview and checking papers, which I love doing--it's all the fun of grading students without all the hassle of taking two buses to get to school every day and having to knock knowledge into thick heads--I get a whole bunch of free time and you get stuck with all the work." And she kissed my forehead. "I've read every single word you've ever written; I graduated a lit major just like you and you are definitely going to make it one day." And she kissed my forehead. "And, finally, your hatred of condoms and your fear about me staying on the pill for too long is not an issue anymore. From today onward, there will be no more latex or hormone barriers between our bodies." "As much as I want that for both of us, Steph, we can't risk it." I interrupted, mumbling into her cleavage. "You just get up, eat the power breakfast I'm about to make you and then get to your workstation and win this thing. We don't have a choice in the matter." I looked at her, wondering how it was possible "How can you be--" "I'm pregnant." At that same moment, where the groceries from last night had defrosted in a pool around Stephanie's hiking boots by the entrance to their apartment, a piece of drawing paper slipped silently through the gap under the door. It was a sketch of a perfect pair of feet, with art, painted masterfully on each delicate nail.