Why was he still getting first day jitters? He was teaching the class.
Professor Andrew Davis flexed his fingers and stepped into the room. The small space was crowded with just under twenty bodies, all seated in neat little rows at the long wooden tables filed in an ordered manner. Who set up these classes?
The general chatter continued when he stepped into the class. Andrew placed his attaché case down on the table at the front of the room and looked out into the sea of faces. He hadn’t taught this class before. As an elective, Creative Writing was unfailingly popular. Students—especially the English Majors—fought to get in for months during registration. It made for a very competitive environment. A competitive environment that he didn’t have any control over, at present. Dr. Hofstadter was the one who was supposed to be teaching this class. Andrew had been subbed in at the last minute when the Dean of Arts had decided that six courses was one too many for a prof to teach. As a result, he’d gotten the call to step in.
So where did you start with a Creative Writing class, exactly? His specialty was pre-Victorian Romantic lit. Not…contemporary student pseudo-dramas.
Please don’t let this be as painful as I think it will be. The group in his normal classes, which contained mostly the same students, save for a few random exceptions each semester, were respectful and easy to get along with and not currently watching him expectantly.
He smiled and waved. “Hi there. I’m Dr. Andrew Davis. Your prof for this semester. Please, call me Andy.” He unzipped his case to grab the class roster. “I’m going to do a quick roll call and we’ll dive right in.”
They didn’t look impressed. He ran through the list, barely registering the monotonous ‘heres’ in response, and then dropped it back on the desk.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t really have a syllabus for this semester—” because the one Hofstadter had put together was just as insensible as an overworked teacher could possible conceive and possibly written in Esperanto. He shifted and grabbed a dry erase marker from the whiteboard easel behind him. “Why don’t we start off by discussing what we all want out of this class?”
Silence. Utter, damning silence. He was so fucked.
“Okay, well, why don’t we start with what I want? I’m looking for lots of participation. As you all know, the class is a seminar and we’re only going to be meeting twice out of the week—not including your peer concrit groups—so I think that the best way for us to get the most of out our time together is if we all decide here and now to contribute in group discussions.”
There. That sounded fairly competent.
“So who’s next?”
There was a lot of shifting. Some coughing. The darting of gazes to prevent eye contact.
Finally, a tentative hand went up. Bethany…Bonita…dammit, he’djust called her name. Bonnie. “Yes, Bonnie?”
She blushed. “I’d really like some constructive criticism. I mean…I’m not perfect. Or anything. But I do want some feedback.”
“Great!” He scribbled on the board in largely incomprehensible handwriting. “Constructive criticism. Every writer’s best friend.”
She seemed pleased. And slightly embarrassed.
By the end of the class, they had a fairly comprehensive list. Not just of what they all wanted, though that was fairly impressive, but also writers everyone admired. There’d been a few he’d expected: Salman Rushdie, Nora Roberts, Chuck Palahniuk—he’d have to keep an eye on that one—and a rare, random Patricia Nell Warren. Bonnie had offered her up. Interesting choice. And one he had to admire, even though everyone else had just looked a little confused. No Jane Austen. More’s the pity.
They’d also gotten their one and only assignment. A piece of writing, no shorter than 2000 words, due on the last day of class in lieu of an exam. He’d scheduled in the exam period anyway, so he could give each of them one-on-one feedback on their respective pieces. But it wasn’t like there could be a multiple choice test in a free writing course. Unless he got really sadistic and asked them to name the different literary styles and their corresponding years of popular use. And he wasn’t that mean.
He wiped down the board for the next prof and packed up. First day jitters over. Well, except for his next class, but 19th Century Brit Lit was a cakewalk in comparison.
He stepped out of the class and checked his watch. He had to start the across-campus trek to the Engineering building. And who exactly decided that it would be a good decision to put an English class in the Engineering building? Like they didn’t have enough to deal with when the winter semester got cold…
The thought was interrupted as he ran into a backpack. The backpack and all his papers, haphazardly gathered at the last minute, went tumbling to the ground.
They spoke at the same time. He blushed furiously when he recognized Bonnie. Like this was a fantastic way to interact with a student.
“Hi, Dr. Davis.” She shifted from foot to foot. “Umm…good class.”
She took off without another word. Andy watched her retreating back with a slightly raised eyebrow. It was strange how…familiar she seemed. Did he know her from somewhere?
Shit. Late. Again.
Home on the Range
By Bonnie Anderson
“Wilkins, are you out of your mind?”
“I’ve got this, Buzz.”
“Withdraw. That’s an order!”
“I’m going for it.”
Explosions in space didn’t work the way they did on a planet with an atmosphere. Instead of fiery shockwaves blowing out in different directions, the effect was contained. There was no fire. No sign that anything had happened at all, at first. Just the dead silence of the stars and the blackness.
Then the debris rocketed outward. Buzz pulled hard on his controls, forcing his jumper out of the path of the worst of it. A shearing sheet of ragged metal collided with his port side anyway, and the immediate blaring of alarms cut through the chaotic quiet. He cursed and pulled his ship out of the path of the ensuing shockwave to follow the rest of the debris. The damage to his ship wasn’t repairable. He could tell right now. He pulled up a quick diagnostics screen and cursed. His time core. Fucked beyond repair. If he didn’t eject it, the coils were going to slip free and he was going to lose the entire damn ship anyway.
He hammered on the ejection button and the silver capsule blew out from his helm. It rocketed through the space, smacking against some of the garbage in its way and rebounding off again.
The core connected with a lose piece of material he didn’t recognize at first. Not until a sucking black cyclone opened up before him.
Buzz’s eyes widened. He threw all his weight against his steering column, trying desperately to avoid the sucking pull of the wormhole. His efforts were in vain. Before he could so much as change course he was being pulled in.
All his ships electrical died at the same moment. He hit the control on his suit to activate his visor as the life support went offline with the rest of his ship’s controls. The jumper catapulted through the cyclone, debris bashing up against it like a sinking ship trapped in a rocky whirlpool. He closed his eyes and clenched his hands. If this was to be his final flight, at least he’d die with the knowledge that they’d done irreparable damage to the Empire’s holdings. They’d done their duty—Wilkins had done his duty—and hopefully they’d done enough to prevent the Emperor from following through on his threat to bring destruction and chaos to the galaxy.
A sudden jerk threw him against the side of the jumper, and the side of his helmet crashed against the wall. His eyes flew open in time to see the cyclone dissipating before him. Instead, atmosphere and cloud filled his vision, the lick of flames as he began a drastic re-entry hammering against his forward bow. He gasped and grabbed for the steering column. Everything was still dead. The ground rocketed towards him, every second bringing him closer to a crash landing. He braced himself for impact.
The jumper slammed into the ground and every bone in Buzz’s body felt the impact. His gear kept him strapped into his seat, holding him tightly in place as the jumper skidded across the ground. Chunks of earth flew up from the ground where his jumper’s sides chewed up the landscape. Finally, with grinding slowness, the jumper slowed to a halt.
Buzz breathed a sigh of relief. The ejection system was still dead, so he hammered against the jumper’s flight shield until, finally, he forced it open enough to escape the claustrophobic confines of his ship. He stumbled out, relieved that the gravitational pull of...wherever he’d landed was similar enough to his home planet that he didn’t go spinning off into the atmosphere.
He almost didn’t turn around, afraid of looking at the damage his ship had incurred in the wreck. Finally, he slowly shifted to take a look. The entire port side was trashed. The plebonium alloy metal plating had been torn like a piece of paper, exposing circuitry—mostly ruined and probably what accounted for his dead systems controls—and his interior structure. He cursed. Usually, he’d have an entire team of deck hands available to help him with the repairs. If this planet even had what he needed to make them.
His suit was still mostly intact. Some minor cosmetic damage from the crash, but at least his systems were up. He opened the protective compartment around his controls and tried to find a clear signal to get a message back to Command. The small panel beeped at him obnoxiously and then silenced. He hammered on the buttons uselessly. He sighed and started a scan of the landscape. From the positioning of the sun in the sky, he’d guess it was late afternoon. But for all he knew another one was going to rise any second, so he couldn’t really count on his knowledge of celestial bodies.
Shape up, Buzz. Check and see if the air is breathable. And then check to see if there are signs of intelligent life anywhere.
Buzz gasped and leapt backwards, his hand automatically going to his containment laser. He didn’t activate it right away, though his finger tensed on the trigger.
“Woah, there. Easy.” The voice belonged to a man. A humanoid—which, honestly, was more than Buzz could’ve hoped for—who apparently shared some language characteristics. Tight blue pants protected long legs, and Buzz followed them up the man’s body to get a look at him. Chestnut hair, mostly hidden beneath a broad-brimmed hat, sat mop-like atop an oval face. Pointed, aquiline features accentuated his high cheeks and rich brown eyes.
A gold star pinned to his vest drew Buzz’s attention and he sighed in partial relief.
“You’re local law enforcement.”
The man nodded and stuck out his hand. “Tom Woodsman.” He blinked and looked first at Buzz and then behind him to his ship, dropping his hand when the gesture wasn’t reciprocated. “You don’t seem to be from...around here.”
Buzz glanced over his shoulder. “Has your society developed space-faring technology? Or are you still primarily using fossil fuels?”
Woodsman laughed. “Friend, I am so close to writing you off as a heat-induced hallucination...” He shook his head. “But that isn’t it, is it?”
“No. My jumper took damage after a battle against the Empire’s new toy. I had to eject my time core and it collided with a piece of debris from another ship, which opened a vortex...” He trailed off when Woodsman just stared at him with incomprehension. “This...” He sighed. “I’m Allen Bussander. Buzz. People call me Buzz.”
Looking down at his sensors, he flipped his visor off. The air was breathable. At least that much would save him some grief. The oppressive heat of the sun and the dusty surroundings beat down against him immediately. He almost flipped it back up to conserve what cool air his air circulation systems had remaining.
“Buzz.” Woodsman rolled the name around his mouth. “Nice to meet you, Buzz.” He gestured to the distance. “My farmstead’s not far from here. Come on.”
“No. With all due respect, I have to stay here and work on my ship.”
“In this heat?”
He had a point. Even with the short time his visor had been down, Buzz could feel the sun and sand digging into every inch of exposed skin. Not to mention that in order to actually do his repairs, he’d have to find some of the ore he needed to return exterior structural stability. It was probably going to take him weeks—if not months—to repair.
If this planet even had what he needed.
“Please, give me a moment.” He returned to the jumper and climbed into the cockpit. Cracking open the control panel, he shifted some of the components around until he’d dug out one of the ship’s sensors. With some work, he could use the energy source from his suit to reactivate it, and use it for long-range scanning to see if any of the ore actually existed on the planet at all.
He jumped down, relieved to see Woodsman had waited. If all the natives were as friendly—which would be a far cry from the time he’d been imprisoned on Blorch—he’d likely be able to enlist help to complete his repairs. He joined Woodsman and waved for him to lead the way.
The heat pounded down on them as they made their way through the barren landscape. Buzz caught himself constantly swinging his eyes back and forth, both memorizing the surroundings that could lead him back to his ship should Woodsman prove hostile and looking for any other sign of life. Save for a single reptile basking on a large, flat rock, nothing jumped out.
“Are there other humanoid inhabitants in the area?”
“We’re about six miles outside of town. It’s not much, but we’ve got a saloon and a bank and that’s a far cry better than the rest of the one-horse settlements ‘round these parts.”
The small farmstead finally came into view. A few bovine-like animals crowded a small corral, a large barn not too far away. Woodsman led him to a small house on the other side of the barn and showed him in. The windows were open, casting the humble home in slowly dimming natural light.
“You’re lucky you landed so close by. Some of the townsfolk are...well...they can get a bit superstitious. They probably wouldn’t take kindly to—” Woodsman waved at Buzz’s suit, as if the gesture of his hand encompassed Buzz’s appearance, his ship and his impromptu planetside crash landing. “If you like, we can head into town and see if they have any of the tools you’ll need. Our blacksmith is pretty well-stocked. Later, I mean. Why don’t we get settled first? I imagine you have more questions than you know what to do with.”
Privately, Buzz doubted that he had a three-inch plasma wrench, let alone any of the other implements he’d need, but he kept that thought to himself. Woodsman had been kind to him thusfar. There was no reason to accidentally alienate the other man.
“Can you...I mean, is that you?” Woodsman reached out and brushed his fingers against Buzz’s suit.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you showed up in town wearing that, I couldn’t really vouch for how they’d react.”
Buzz nodded. He set the retrieved sensor down on a nearby table and began stripping off his suit. Woodsman watched in surprise, but after a second scurried into an adjoining room. Buzz kept the collection of pieces close together. Once the entire suit had been removed, it snapped back into shape and stood like a statue waiting for an owner.
Woodsman returned a second later with a bundle of clothes. His jaw worked up and down, though no sound came out. Buzz frowned in confusion, and the expression seemed to snap Woodsman out of it.
“Sorry.” He shoved the pile of vestments into Buzz’s hands. “Sorry. I’ll just...go and...get some water.”
He half-ran from the cabin. Buzz frowned and looked down at his body, wondering if he’d somehow inadvertently caused offense. From preliminary observations, he and Woodsman were biologically similar. He was shorter, but years of working for Command had broadened his frame, and heavy musculature defined his body. He wasn’t naturally handsome, as Wilkins had been, but he knew his own face well enough to know that his carved chin and rugged features weren’t in themselves hideous. And he’d kept his polyweave shorts in place to preserve his modesty. So what had frightened Woodsman off?
He pulled on the pants, a thick and coarse material that was probably designed for chores on the rough terrain. They fit well—surprising, considering how much taller Woodsman was—and he pulled on the shirt. It was tight across his chest and through his arms, but it fit well enough.
He kept his boots. The sheer white seemed out of place—especially with the rounded set to the soles—but he felt like he had to keep a part of himself. Everything else was out of place. He needed this one thing to keep him grounded solidly in reality. He turned back to the suit to free the energy core from its bindings.
Woodsman returned a few minutes later. Buzz had seated himself at the large table in the center of the room, trying to finagle the energy core work compatibly with the sensors. If Woodsman noticed the boots, he didn’t comment. He set a pail of water down on a long wooden bench in a kitchen-like area. Pulling out a dusty bottle from one of the many cupboards lining the room, he sat down at the table and placed two glasses in front of him. Splashing a small amount of amber liquid in both, he slid one across the table in Buzz’s direction.
Buzz seated himself in another one of the chairs and accepted the glass. “What galaxy cluster are we in?”
Woodsman laughed. “I don’t even know what that means. I could tell you what state we’re in. What country. But I don’t know anything about what’s up there. I mean, until you crashed, I didn’t ever think...”
“Understood.” Buzz sniffed at the liquid in his glass and took a tentative sip. It was strong and reminded him of the last time he’d tasted distilled gwarknarb, but with a smoother finish. He tossed it back and closed his eyes to fully appreciate the burning creep down his throat.
How did people begin conversations in this place? Buzz glanced around the cabin, noting the cluster of miscellaneous items gathered on every available space.
“You live alone?”
“Strange. I believed less advanced cultures placed high importance on pair bonding.”
Woodsman’s lips drew into a thin line. “They do.” He fell silent and finished his own drink.
Feeling suddenly awkward, Buzz refocused his efforts on his scanner. It wasn’t too hard to reroute the wiring, the trick was making sure that the sudden surge of power didn’t short out the circuitry. Wilkins could’ve had this done in a matter of minutes, but Buzz was still grinding away at it several hours later. He didn’t pay much mind to Woodsman busying himself around the home. A plate of food appeared in front of him eventually and Buzz absent-mindedly took a few bites as he played with the wiring. Eventually, he took the entire think apart and put most of it back together again when, finally, it blinked in acknowledgement and stirred back to life.
He looked up, trying to locate Woodsman. The other man had settled down across the room in a weathered rocking chair, a book splayed across his lap. His eyes were closed, and gentle breaths eased from his body.
Buzz caught himself smiling before he realized he was doing it. With a cough, he banished the expression and straightened in his seat. Command would be after him shortly. As soon as they registered his disappearance, they’d likely send a retrieval team. And while Woodsman had been very solicitous, it hardly seemed a good idea to form any significant attachment to the man.
Outside, the sun had set. Buzz stood and moved to look out the window. It was dark on this planet. Without the lights of an urban metropolis, Buzz could almost imagine himself back in space. On his home planet, every inch of earth had been covered by civilization and erected buildings and monuments. Seeing this much empty space around him was slightly unnerving. Woodsman had indicated that they weren’t space-faring, and nothing on the homestead indicated they’d created so much as a combustion engine. How primitive was this place?
Even in the darkness, he located the rapid approach of another person astride a charging quadruped. Fearing danger, Buzz moved to Woodsman’s side to wake him.
Woodsman woke with a start. “Buzz?”
“There’s somebody approaching. Should we be on alert?”
Woodsman blinked. “No. It’s probably nothing.” He rose from his seat and tucked the book aside.
A few seconds later, the door to the home flew open. A young woman, probably several years Woodsman’s junior, charged in.
“Tom! Bart is bothering Dollie again.” She barely noticed Buzz standing silently in the corner.
“Damn. All right. Let’s ride.” Woodsman collected a dual holster from a nearby cupboard, looping it around his waist. Two firearms seated easily on his hips, giving the lanky man an air of danger that Buzz wouldn’t have associated with him until now.
“Should I accompany you?”
Woodsman’s head swung around to Buzz, as if surprised to see him still there. The young woman remarked him at the same time.
“This is my...friend. From Boston. Allen Bussander, this is Jessica Marksman, my deputy.”
Her face pulled into a tight frown. “Tom...”
“I know, Jessica. Leave it.” Woodsman turned back to Buzz. “We can deal with this.”
Despite his words, there was a wariness in his eyes that Buzz didn’t like. Not a single bit. And maybe his own expression reflected that, because Woodsman nodded in resignation and retrieved another set of firearms.
“Do you know how to use these?”
Buzz studied the design. The simple hammer and barrel seemed easy enough to use. He wound the holster around his waist and nodded. “I’m a fast learner.”
It took only a matter of minutes to saddle two of the horses in the barn. Riding was strange, but comparable to the time he’d ridden bareback on one of the lizard-mounts of Geidi-Ossoth VI. It only took him a mile to shift around and get comfortable.
Jessica took point, giving Woodsman time to remain back and catch Buzz up on what was going on.
“Our local banker, Ratzer, arrived in town long before most of our population got out here, and took advantage of everyone by lending out large sums at high interest to help the build their steads. Now that everyone has their property developed, he’s been using underhanded tactics to try and force folks to default on their mortgages so he can sweep in and foreclose and re-sell the land. He tried to foreclose on Bart’s potato farm a few years back, and the man offered to work for him in exchange for letting his wife and three kids keep the holdings. Sad, really. Bart’s a decent guy, deep down. Ratzer’s the problem.”
“And who’s this...Dollie?”
“Elizabeth Dollie is ol’ Slink Dollie’s widow. She’s been holding onto the property since his death, and has managed to make all her payments, but Ratzer’s been trying to find loopholes to force her off. It’s getting nasty.”
“Her prize bull’s gotten sick,” Jessica shouted over her shoulder. “She’s been using the income from studding him out to pay off the bank every month.”
“Shit. No wonder Ratzer is giving her problem.”
Another farmstead came into view soon afterwards. A gathering of horses surrounded the front porch, and a young woman with dark hair stood defiantly before them, arms crossed over her chest, a shotgun held tightly in her hand. The night air carried the voices to them, and Buzz listened with a keen ear.
“If he dies, you’re not going to make your payments. Mr. Ratzer is very worried about you managing on your own.”
“He’s not going to die. And even if he does, I’ll find a way. Get off my land.”
Their approach was finally noticed. A small contingent of the men on horseback took off, but a few remained behind. One of them, a thick black eye patch covering the right side of his face, glowered as Woodsman, Jessica and Buzz all came to a stop.
“Sheriff. Nice night for a late night ride.” Eye patch leered at Jessica. “Deputy.” Even the way he pronounced the word was obscene.
“Bart. I think I’ve told you to stay off private land. You’ve got no business being here.” Woodsman’s hands settled on the butts of his guns.
“You’re right. But I heard about poor Missus Dollie’s tragedy and I needed to make sure for myself she was all right.”
“Sheriff, I’m about to exercise my rights to blow a hole through this man’s chest for trespassing, if that’s all right by you.”
Woodsman removed his hands from his guns. “Well, Bart, you heard the lady.”
With a sneer, Bart jerked the reins on his horse and pulled away. The four of them watched him disappear into the night, Dollie glowering from her place on the porch.
“Thanks, Sheriff. I rightly appreciate it.” She tucked the shotgun back against the door. “Did y’all want to come in? I just finished dinner.”
Jessica dismounted right away, and when Woodsman cast a glance towards Buzz, he shrugged and followed suit. Dollie smiled and offered his hand when Woodsman introduced him—once again as a ‘friend’ from Boston—and this time he took her hand in reply. He stayed mostly silent as she led them into her home, which was brighter and much better furnished than Woodsman’s, and settled them around a large table in the main room.
“When did you arrive from Boston, Mr. Bussander?” Dollie asked.
Jessica simply scowled.
“Just this afternoon.”
“Oh? I thought the stage was delayed back in Four Corners.”
Neither Buzz or Woodsman replied. If it aroused any suspicions, apparently Mrs. Dollie and Jessica were too polite to voice them. Dinner consisted of thick stew with heavy, heavy dumplings. They stuck to the top of Buzz’s mouth in thick, doughy chunks. But they were also delicious and filled him up faster than he intended them to. The conversation was stilted. Jessica couldn’t seem to get over her initial dislike for Buzz—though he couldn’t figure out what he’d done to arouse it—and kept her observations clipped and to the point. With Buzz still feeling more than a little out of his element, it was up to Woodsman and Dollie to keep the conversation going.
Finally—finally—Woodsman thanked her for the meal and they stood to see themselves out.
Jessica followed Woodsman outside, leaving Buzz trapped in the small space with Mrs. Dollie. Unlike Jessica, she hadn’t been anything but polite and courteous the entire night. When Buzz offered to help her with the dishes, she laughed him off.
“My dear, you’re just too sweet. Tom’s awful lucky to have you here.” Her smile dimmed. “He just hasn’t been the same since...well, ne’er you mind. You probably know all about poor Matthew.” She grinned. “It was an absolute delight having you here, Mr. Bussander. By all means, come back any time.”
He nodded and headed outside. Next to the horses, Jessica and Woodsman were engaged in furious conversation which died the second he joined them.
“Goodnight Tom. Buzz.”
She ran back indoors before either of them could reply.
“Is...everything all right?” Buzz asked.
Woodsman sighed. “Don’t worry about it, pard. I’ll sort it.”
Their ride back to Woodsman’s property was quiet and stilted. Several times, it seemed like Woodsman was going to start a conversation but cut himself short. Buzz waited him out, hoping that he’d snap out of whatever depression Jessica had sent him spiraling into before they arrived back at his cabin. It didn’t seem to work out that way. They both dismounted outside the barn and Woodsman waved off offers of help and led both animals to their stalls.
Buzz started away when he heard a hiss of pain from inside. His hand immediately went to his gun, but instead of drawing and charging in, he crept up on the door.
“...think you’re doing, Sheriff. Ratzer knows your secret. And if you don’t stop meddling in his business, he’ll make sure it’s not a secret anymore.”
There was a pause. Then Woodsman spoke. His voice was dead, devoid of all light or emotion. The sound sent a chill running down Buzz’s back.
“You’ve said what you came here to say. Get out.”
Buzz backed into the shadows and watched in silence as Bart exited the barn and slunk off into the night. Buzz almost started back towards the home, but stopped himself. Woodsman was a good man. A good man who deserved more than to be eavesdropped upon and subjected to Buzz’s wild speculations.
With trepidation, he stepped into the barn. “Tom?”
Woodsman jumped almost a foot in the air. Spinning, he regarded Buzz with near-wild eyes, rounded with red.
“I didn’t mean to startle you.” Buzz coughed. “To which secret was he referring.”
For a second, Woodsman looked scared. It wasn’t an expression Buzz enjoyed seeing. “I...I don’t...” He stopped himself and bit down hard on his lower lip. When he replied, it was in a near whisper. “Soon after I arrived in town, Ratzer discovered that I... enjoy the company of men.”
He didn’t have a paint a more vivid picture. Buzz understood well enough. “Is love a crime in this place, then?”
“When it’s between two men.” Woodsman frowned. “Is it like that where you come from?”
Buzz sniffed. “We outgrew petty human differences such as prejudice years ago. It’s hard to maintain them when there’s the constant threat of planetary annihilation.” Woodsman didn’t look like he fully understood. Buzz didn’t press the point. “Regardless, even if it was a crime. It’s not a crime that’s ever bothered me.” He mustered a smile. “Quite the opposite.”
He didn’t exactly expect Woodsman to fall into his arms, but he wasn’t expecting the man to go stark white either. He leapt forward as Woodsman’s knees shook and he started tumbling towards the ground. He barely managed to catch him, and ended up with an armful of Tom.
“Are you all right?”
Tom stared up at him, studying his eyes. They weren’t the same as the deep, soulful brown looking into them. Buzz wondered what Tom was looking for.
“Fine.” Tom tried to extricate himself from Buzz’s arms, but Buzz tightened his grip. “Buzz, you have to let me go.”
For the life of him, Buzz couldn’t figure out, “Why?”
“Because you’re going to be leaving. Soon. And I’m not going to fall in love with you before you go.”
Buzz straightened and released Tom, who seemed focused on the task at hand. He outright ignored Buzz as he went about the business of settling the horse’s for the night. Buzz stood behind him, waiting for some sort of acknowledgement. When it never came, he turned and headed back to the house.
His sensor still sat on the table, running the long-range scan he’d set up during his long hours with it. Nothing so far. What would happen if he got trapped here? If Command wrote him off as another casualty in the war, killed by the explosion, and never came?
He looked back over his shoulder towards the barn and sighed.
Tom didn’t come in until much later. He still tried to ignore Buzz, right up to the point where Buzz walked up behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“It doesn’t always have to be about love.”
Tom looked over his shoulder. Then, without prompting, he wrapped his arms around Buzz’s neck and pulled him into a searing kiss. His tongue swiped against Buzz’s lips, demanding entrance. Buzz complied, settling his hands on Tom’s hips and pulling them close. As Tom maneuvered them from the main room to the adjoining resting place, Buzz’s mind racing at the dampness on Tom’s face and what the tears were supposed to mean.
When Tom woke, he was alone. For a second, his heart seized—you knew this would happen! You knew it! —and he found it hard to catch a breath. Then he saw Buzz’s...thing still seated on the table in the room beyond and calmed the wild hammering of his heart. Drawing himself out of bed, he eased into the main room, pulling the heavy quilt along with him. Desert nights were chilly.
He found Buzz outside, his gaze cast upwards to the stars.
He didn’t think Buzz noticed him at first, but at length the other man spoke. “Funny, but here and now I can’t even tell which planet is which.”
Tom settled down behind him, wrapping Buzz in his arms and a cocoon of body-warmed blanket.
“I’ve been to so many of them. Up there, it’s all war and bloodshed. I’m fighting the same war my father fought, and no one is giving. And I know that being here is a dereliction of my duty. I should be focused on finding what I need and returning home.” Tom stiffened, but when he tried to pull away, Buzz caught his wrist. “That doesn’t mean I regret being here with you.”
Silently, Tom tightened his embrace.
Their existence was comfortable. Tom finally drew Buzz into town, where they were greeted by every resident they saw, save for Bart and the small posse of men surrounding him at the doors of the saloon. Tom took it all in with a bashful smile and a duck of his head. Buzz wondered if he realized how well he was liked.
The blacksmith didn’t, in fact, have a three-inch plasma wrench, or any of the tools Buzz needed. But as the days continued on, he began to doubt that the planet itself had any of the ore he needed to affect his repairs anyway. But with each night that passed, buried in Tom’s hot and needing body, he wondered how much that really mattered.
Jessica made herself scarce the first few days, openly avoiding Buzz and Tom. Tom tried to brush it off, but Buzz could see how much the young woman’s actions were hurting his...friend? lover?...and so when Jessica walked into the office one afternoon while Tom was running errands, Buzz cornered her on it.
“You might not agree with him, but it doesn’t mean you can take out his heart and stomp on it.”
Jessica spat angrily. “What do you know about it? Nothing. And you’re supposed to be his friend. His ‘friend?’ I’m his friend. If you were, you would’ve been here when Matt…when Matt...”
Matt, again. Tom hadn’t mentioned him, but Buzz was slowly putting the pieces together. Like why Tom had clothes in the house that didn’t fit him. Or the books written in foreign languages that Tom obviously couldn’t read. Or the second horse in the stable that Tom took such great pains to take care of.
Buzz reined in his temper. All this time he’d assumed that Jessica had a problem because of her—correct—assumptions about him and Tom. It hadn’t occurred to him that she was grieving just the same as Tom was.
“I regret not being here when he needed me.” Buzz surprised himself when he realized the words were true. “And I’ll never let him down again.”
Jessica’s lips twitched in disbelief, but it seemed to settle something inside her. With a brisk nod, she showed herself out of the office. But from that moment on, she didn’t find different reasons to prevent her from coming in again.
About two weeks after he’d arrived, word came that Mrs. Dollie’s bull had finally died. Buzz had taken to spending his days in the Sheriff’s office, looking through old ‘Wanted’ posters, but paying more attention to the people coming and going outside. He was getting pretty good at affecting what Tom referred to as ‘Old West mannerisms,’ which he figured would come in handy if he ended up stranded here forever, which was becoming increasingly likely with each passing day.
Outside, a commotion drew his attention. He stood, hang going to his holster as easily as it had once gone to his laser, and he called back to Tom. The man joined him a few minutes later and the two of them walked outside.
Mrs. Dollie and Jessica stood on the boardwalk not far from the office, facing off against Bart and an obese specimen of a man with the most outrageous mutton chops Buzz had ever seen. The infamous Ratzer, he assumed.
“—she’s not gonna halfta move, ‘cause I’m going to be living with her. And if you don’t think I can manage to make your stupid payments on a deputy’s wage then you should pull your head right outta yer—”
“Jessica,” Tom interrupted. He interposed himself between her and Ratzer. “What’s the problem?”
Ratzer looked like he was about to have a heart attack. “Your...jezebel deputy has insisted on interfering with business that’s not hers.”
“Well, now, I’m not sure about that. If she’s willing to step in and help Mrs. Dollie out, then that’s none of your business.”
“I will not be denied my property because of two Sapphic cowgirls trying to make a go of it in the old west!”
There was a crowd drawing. Buzz stepped closer to Tom’s side.
“There’s no call to be uncivil, Mr. Ratzer. It’s not your property. Until she defaults on her mortgage, it’s hers.”
“You...you fucking sodomite!”
A gasp flew up from the crowd. Tom’s face hardened.
“That’s enough, Mr. Ratzer.”
“No! You think you can protect this town you weak-willed pansy? Ask him! Ask him what unholy things he does in the night with his ‘friend’ from Boston. Go ahead. Do you truly trust your town to someone who’s own moral caliber is measured by the sin he commits in the dead of night?”
Ratzer looked out at the crowd, his hateful proselytizing growing in volume and attracting others on the main street. The townsfolk cast wary looks between each other. Behind Ratzer, Bart was shifting uncomfortably, focused more on his feet than the man before him.
“Shut up, Bart.”
Bart frowned. “No.” He stepped aside. “Woodsman’s been nothing but decent to me and my family since we settled here. What you’re doing could ruin him.”
“And will, with any luck,” Ratzer hissed. “Your town is under the protection of a sinner. And he’ll poison you as he had himself. Protect your wives and children. Run him out and send him back to whatever corrupted and vile den of iniquity birthed him.”
“Enough!” Bart barked. “He’s only trying to run Woodsman out because he’s defaulted on his own mortgage and needs Dollie’s land to pay off his broker. It’s the same with all of you! If you don’t stop him now, then he’s going to keep doing it.”
Ratzer roared in rage. Before anyone could react, he’d whipped out a gun and fired on Bart. Tom and Buzz moved at the same time, their own weapons drawn and firing on Ratzer before he could round on them and fire a second shot. The man collapsed—Tom’s bullet in his forehead and Buzz’s in his stomach. They stared at his fallen form, neither of them willing to so much as move and collect it. Tom moved to Bart’s side, sticking fingers under his neck to check his pulse. Looking back at Buzz, he shook his head and stepped away.
Then he noticed the scrutiny of the crowd.
His face pale and wan, Tom looked out amongst the sea of faces. He holstered his gun and held up his hands, his words wrung out and tight from emotion. “He was telling the truth.”
“Tom!” Jessica gasped.
He waved her off. “I’m sick of hiding, Jess. Ratzer was right. I am ‘one of those.’ And if you want me gone, then I’ll leave. But I want it done without violence.”
Buzz found himself enveloped by silence once more. Then, finally, someone called out.
“Don’t leave, Tom!”
That seemed to be the break in the dam. Suddenly, everyone was calling for Tom to stay. His face flushed with awe, Tom was swept away in a sea of handshakes and well-wishers, all of them begging for him to stay in the town.
Smiling, Buzz turned back to Jessica. “Well—”
He was interrupted by a cough. They looked down, surprised when Bart rolled over and climbed to his feet.
“Bart? You’re alive?” Jessica asked.
“He’s a lousy shot,” Bart muttered. “I’m going home.”
Buzz stood on the boardwalk, waiting as Tom made his rounds with the crowd. At some point, Dollie and Jessica disappeared, leaving Buzz to wait for Tom as he was finally released from the crowd. The sun rode low in the sky as they made their way home. Tom was still silenced, trapped by a mindful of wonderment and well-deserved glee. Buzz was content to let him ponder, his own mind far and away. Somewhere along the line, this town had become home. And, if anything, the encounter with Ratzer had just served to remind him of the war still being fought back in space, without him.
Buzz paused as they put their tack and saddles away. Reaching out, he placed his hands on Tom’s arms.
Tom looked him in the eye, and the wonderment was replaced by unsettling fear. “Buzz—”
“Please, I just want—”
“You said it didn’t have to be about love, Buzz.”
Buzz frowned. “That doesn’t mean that it isn’t.”
Obviously conflicted, Tom pulled away. In silence, he and Buzz made their way back to the cabin. Through the open window, Buzz frowned at the familiar beeping from within. Walking inside, he stared at his sensor, tucked away behind the sheet that they’d thrown over his suit, blinking bright green beneath the cloth.
“What’s that?” Tom asked.
“My long range scan. This means that there’s a source of plebonium ore on the planet.” He walked over to the sheet and pulled it back. The sensor hadn’t emitted the coordinates yet, still flashing with the alert that it’d been found at all.
“So that’s it, then?” Tom’s voice was unsteady. Buzz turned to look at him. “You’re going?”
Buzz frowned. And then, with a hard twist of his lips, he brought his foot down on the sensor.
Tom’s eyes widened in shock. “What are you doing?”
“I…I want to love you, Tom. Without my useless war getting in the way. Beyond duty. Or responsibility. You’re what I choose to eternity and beyond.”
Tom looked like he was going to collapse again. He didn’t. Instead, he threw himself into Buzz’s arms.
“Oh, thank god. I love you too.”
A- - Student demonstrated proper use of grammar, structure and plot elements. Characters were developed. Some room for improvement.
Bonnie – I’m very impressed. Though I think some things could have been better developed (Buzz and Tom got together quite quickly, there wasn’t a lot of development of their relationship, the time skip seemed somewhat forced) overall I’m impressed by the caliber of your writing. Great job!
ps. I’m curious: how did Bart live?
“I have to say, Bonnie, your piece was very…evocative.” Familiar. He couldn’t really say familiar. How could he have followed that up? Your project reminded me of the toys I used to play with when I was a kid. Creeper, much?
Evocative was safe.
“Thank you?” Somehow, the words did seem like more of a question.
“There a few parts I found especially strong. For such a short piece, you really did develop the feelings well. And I thought that the motivations made sense. The romance was compelling and enjoyable.” He smiled. “The only part I think could have been better developed was Buzz’s feeling of displacement and alienation. Stuck on a distant world, away from everything he loved and knew? Sounds…lonely. And while you did a fantastic job justifying his decision to stay with Woody, I think that there could have been more focus on his feelings leading up to that point. Overall, however, I was very impressed.”
She looked surprised, but this time, the words were more genuine. “Thank you.” She smiled.
His stomach lurched. Just slightly. She really was very pretty when she smiled. She’d cropped her brown hair short, but the natural curl feathered it around her ears. Dusky green eyes sat behind a thin pair of wire-frame glasses, made larger from the prescription. And when she smiled…
No. No. No. She’s your student. For another twenty minutes.
He smiled back. They just sort of…stared at each other for a second.
“I…” Am going to stop being your prof in about twenty minutes. And hey, thirteen years isn’t that big a difference.
Creepy. Way too creepy.
“Really fantastic job. I marked it at an A.”
“You’re awesome, Dr. Davis. I really enjoyed your class.” She smiled. “It was a nice change up from my usual term. Are you teaching the follow up next semester?”
“Unfortunately, Dr. Hofstadter took over 102 before I could stop him. But if you’re interested in English Romanticism, I have a class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”
Bonnie smiled. “As much as epistolatory romance turns my crank, I’m going to have to pass. I’m pretty full up with Art History.” She offered her hand. “It was really fantastic having you as a prof, Dr. Davis.”
“Please, call me Andy.”
Her smile grew. “Andy.”
She picked up the marked paper and stood. Her pink skirt really did wonders for her legs. And her…enormous talent. It was really too bad she was in the Fine Arts stream. She could’ve done wonders in general English.
Bonnie walked out of the class, a sway to her hips that hadn’t been there before. He bit down and ground his teeth on the end of his pen. Call after her, you hopeless shmuck. Bring home a girl who doesn’t have a million tattoos and piercings. Mom’ll be thrilled. Especially since Molly’s still in that stage.
He didn’t call after her. The door eased shut behind her and he winced at the sound. He looked down at the next term assignment. Mutilation: A Love Story.
“Café Americano, shot of hazelnut. And please please please, a few extra sugars.”
Why did finals always end up impacting the profs as much as the students? Hadn’t he had his fair share of exam stress when he’d been a student? Hell, even his Master’s degree had been less painful than the surge of over-caffeinated students that always hit this time of year.
The order-taker yelled back to the barista and Andy forked over his entire collection of pocket change. After a brief, longing stare at the assortment of pastries in the glass enclosure—he did not have time to jog it off today—he took his armload of midterm papers and headed to the most secluded corner in the place.
“Okay. Forty-eight hours. Fifty-six papers to mark. Chronically high TA. Why did I say I’d take over introductory English again?”
“Well, you’re obviously crazy.”
Were the papers talking back to him?
He looked up. Oh, thank god, he wasn’t totally schizo. “Bonnie. Hi.” A clean green apron wound round her waist, and she was holding his latte. “Sorry.” He gestured to the papers. “Finals. First year English survey course.”
“So I gathered.” She placed the latte down in front of him. “I’m here until close. Let me know if you need a refill.”
He nodded. “Thanks. I’ll probably take you up on that. Three or four times.”
They smiled at each other. Before the silence between them could stretch from uncomfortable to loaded, she retreated back behind the counter to fill another order and he dove into the first exam.
For any of his advanced students, this would’ve been a walk in the park. Two short answer, one essay length. They were allowed to pull on any of the material they’d covered over the first half of the year. New students, however… Andy was beginning to doubt that they even had a basic grasp of the English language. How had they even gotten out of high school? While he’d initially come to college on a baseball scholarship, the language of old writers—Shakespeare, Austen, Wilde, Emerson—had captured his attention, and he’d switched programs two months after taking his first English course. He’d seen the magic words could weave around a person. The invocations of poetry and prose. He’d tried to pass that passion to his students, but obviously he wasn’t nearly as talented at sharing his passion as he was writing about it.
His coffee never emptied. He slogged through paper after paper, but each time he went for a sip, there was one waiting for him. At one point, he felt fingertips brush his when he reached for his cup, but barely noticed as he madly scribbled in the margins of the most recent disaster. There were some gems settled in among the many. He recognized most of the names on the fronts of the exams, and there were some he actually looked forward to.
And then there were the others.
The café was empty save for him and the staff. He didn’t bother glancing at the clock, his eyes locked on the page in front of him.
“Bonnie, listen to this. ‘Dorian Grey is exactly like Edward from Twilight. They’re both incredibly good-looking and intense. Dorian really needed someone like Bella to prevent him from self-destructing. Oscar Wilde could learn a thing or two about romance from Stephanie Meyer.’”
He tossed the paper aside and smacked his forehead against the table. “Why?”
“I have a lighter back here if you want to kill it with fire.”
She joined him at the table a minute later. “So, Dr. Davis—”
“Andy. You’ve had six lattes and we’ve been closed for half an hour.”
“What?” He looked up and around. Sure enough, they’d flipped the plastic sign on the door. When had the last customer left? And why hadn’t she kicked him out? Behind the bar, the cashier was silently laughing at him, packing up her till and tidying the pastry display.
“I’m worried about your mental stability.”
“I’m worried about my mental stability! That last paper almost made sense!”
Bonnie retrieved the paper from where he’d thrown it. “Well, she does go into a comparison between Heathcliff and Edward that looks a bit more promising. If you don’t mind her extolling the virtues of the obsessed stalker archetype.”
“I hate my life.”
“That’s the sign for you to stop marking.” She slipped the paper atop the pile with the others and swept them all into her arms. “Come on. You’re done. Take a break and start over tomorrow morning.”
He blinked. That did seem appealing. “I’d love to, but I told the students I’d have them back by Wednesday and I’m only a third done. Do you have any idea how many of them are going to ask me about their papers tomorrow morning during class?”
“What do you think the chances are of you giving out an unfair grade to a student because you’re too tired to see how patently awful their paper is?”
“Well, I did just give a student an A-minus for discussing Social Darwinism in the context of Heart of Darkness.”
“Ohhh, yeah, I’d say you’ve had enough.” She grabbed his case and tucked the stack of papers inside before slinging it across her shoulders. “Come on. The arthouse around the corner is playing the new Ang Lee film. I think you need a refresher on what constitutes decent writing.”
How could he refuse an invitation like that? He stood and followed her to the front door, waiting patiently as she shouted goodnight to the cashier. She kept his papers away from him—perhaps out of fear he’d grab them and go on a random marking spree—and they walked in companionable silence around the corner. There wasn’t much of a line up, and they were about twenty minutes late, but by the time they’d gotten popcorn and seated themselves the movie was just past the credits. The popcorn absorbed some of the lingering coffee eating away at his stomach lining, and as the artful stylings of the genius who’d brought the world Emma Thompson’s screenplay of Sense and Sensibility played before him, he started to feel a lot better about the world in general.
And Bonnie in particular.
He’d shifted from caffeine high to crashing by the time the movie ended, and some of the spots in the middle were a bit fuzzy. Bonnie took his hand and maneuvered him out of the theatre and back to the café’s parking lot, where his reliable old Honda waited for him.
“Are you okay to drive?” she asked.
“Yeah. I think so.” The crash was ending, leaving him tired but aware. He looked at her expectantly. “I’m going to need my papers back, though.”
She grinned playfully. “Tell you what, why don’t you drop by the café tomorrow morning when you finish your class and I’ll hand them over. That way I can guarantee you actually get some sleep tonight instead of attempting to OD on caffeine again for another marking stretch.”
“You’re being surprisingly conscientious about my physical well-being.”
“I’m more worried about your students. I have an idea of the sort of comments you write in the margins of papers when you’re tired.”
His eyes widened. “What? I never—”
“I think the fact that you owned both a Buzz Lightyear and a Sheriff Woody is just fascinating.”
He laughed, hoping it didn’t sound too embarrassed. “Yeah. I really loved those guys. But I gave all my old toys away before I started college.”
Bonnie smiled. “I know.” Before he could formulate a response, she leaned forward on her toes and pecked his cheek. “See you tomorrow, Andy.”
He leaned back against his car, watching her retreat across the parking lot. Like he’d watched her walk out of his class last semester. Most of the reasons were still there. Thirteen year age gap. And she was still a student. And he was going to see her tomorrow.
But then he realized that watching her walk away again wasn’t something he wanted to get used to. So with a few quick strides, he caught up to her.
“I had an amazing time tonight. You know, post-grading.”
A smile lit up her face.
“And I was really hoping we could actually call that a date. Instead of you taking pity of me and dragging me to a movie.”
She smile grew impossibly bigger. “I’d really like that.”
“Awesome.” He glanced back at his car. “So, tomorrow morning?”
“I’ll have a coffee waiting for you.”
“Sounds great. But, um, could you leave out the hazelnut this time? I think I’ve had enough of it.”
“I’m sure I can whip up something you’ll like. Goodnight, Andy.”
He joined Bonnie at the café the next morning. And the morning after that. And in the evening after that, once he’d handed back the completely graded final exams. In the end, the bell curve was actually a lot nicer this time around with Bonnie’s intervention. Though Miss Edward Cullen—hey, it said so on her t-shirt—wasn’t thrilled with her C-minus, everyone else seemed content with their grades. And it got him through another brutal round of instructor appraisals.
Two weeks later, after he’d depleted every cent of change in his jar at home, he’d gotten to know Bonnie, as well as most of her coworkers, a lot better. She’d enrolled in the Fine Arts stream, and though writing was one of her passions, her true genius was in her art. She doodled. She drew. She painted. And she did the most amazing things with a computer, though he’d yet to see how she managed that particular feat.
Most of their meetings took place in the café or various restaurants around campus. As the rest of the faculty finished their finals—Andy himself had two more courses to finish off, though these were a hundred percent less painful to evaluate—the population dwindled. Andy lived a few blocks away in a loft apartment he’d purchased after receiving his PhD. Bonnie was still in the student dorms, but as the month drifted towards the end, and the summer semester loomed large before them, she hemorrhaged neighbors.
The last night of the spring term, at what was quickly becoming their favorite little Italian bistro, he decided to suck it up and throw it out there. “So, I think you mentioned you were going home for the summer?”
She’d mentioned it several times, actually. He just hadn’t wanted to deal with it. Four months without her sounded about as bearable as a root canal without Novocain.
She sounded as put out as he felt. “Yeah. My mom’s been after me to visit more often.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking. My mom only lives a few blocks away from yours, and she’s pretty insistent on me coming to visit, too. So I was thinking that we could carp—”
She launched herself across the table, grabbed his face in her hands and kissed him. Hard.
When they finally broke, a grin split his face. “Sounds good?” His voice was painfully breathless.
“So, mom, I met this girl—”
Christ, did that sound juvenile? ‘I met this girl’ was something you said when you were in high school, not when you were a successful college professor hopelessly and stupidly in love with a woman thirteen years your junior.
Still, it apparently got his point across.
“Oh? Tell me about her.”
He could hear the silent ‘she can’t be any worse than Molly’s squeeze-of-the-month “Snake.”’ Oh, Snake. Snake made his life so much easier just through the dubious merits of his existence. It was hard to feel like a screw up when Snake was the yardstick for comparison.
“So, tell me about her.”
“Well...” Andy smiled. “She’s smart. And she’s funny. She’s currently following the Fine Arts stream here at the college, and she’s super talented. Like, the things she can do with a pencil...”
His mom remained silent for a long moment. And then, “She’s still in school?”
Shit. “Uh, yeah. Second year.”
More silence. “Andy—”
“I was calling to say that she’s coming home next weekend, and she doesn’t live too far away. So I thought I’d stop in and say hi. Maybe introduce you.”
“Oh, Andy, of course I’d love to meet her.” There was still a certain amount of reservation in her voice, but Andy sighed in relief. It was a start. And he knew his mother and Bonnie, and the second the two of them walked into the same room, they’d hit it off. He just knew it. And then...
The answer to the “then what” ended up being “we’ll date exclusively until she graduates, I’ll propose, we’ll get married, honeymoon in France and pop out a kid.”
The answer was actually pretty awesome.
“We’re gonna get played with! I just know it!”
“Someone settle Annoyasaurus Rex down before he does something dumb.”
“Hey, you be nice to him!”
“Potato Head didn’t mean it Trixie.”
“Hey, the attic door’s opening!”
“Quick, everyone in position.”
The entire chest fell silent. They all waited in breathless anticipation as they were slid across the room and muffled voices from outside filtered in through the lid.
“Now, be careful with these toys, Jamie. They’re old. They belonged to your Dad a long time before they belonged to me.”
The top of the chest opened, and bright blue eyes peered inside.