Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Ch. 22

 

“Garjah, it looks like you have a new friend,” Timok teased.

“He just smells Essell on me.” Garjah had both pairs of hands lifted away from Bouncer who was looking up at him. “Cerops are predators, primarily hunting by sound but also by sight and smell. He’s using smell, that’s all.”

“He’s hunting you?” Seedrah’s voice rose.

“No, you fool. He thinks Garjah is his other parent. He’s adopted Essell as his pack, and something about Garjah tripped that caretaker role for him as well.”

“Smell, I’m telling you. I helped Essell walk on the way here.” Garjah crossed his upper arms. “He is not attached to me that way.”

“I’ve hypothesis based on past observations. The cerops do mark each other, yes, but that is not something which can explain the bonds between pairs and their offspring.”

“But Bouncer was rejected from his family. If they have these bonds, why didn’t he have them?”

Timok shrugged. “His pack could have died. Or he was pushed out for more favorable offspring. These are still animals, driven by instinct.”

“Aren’t we all?” I muttered. “The instinct to survive is usually strong.”

“As individuals and species.” Timok inclined his head. “I knew you would understand that lesson.” Without saying anything else, he turned and walked out of the hold.

And with that cryptic statement, I suddenly got a whole subtext I’d missed before. Timok was a scientist. But even without overtly stating it, I’d just received a huge warning. It hadn’t even been subtle. Or maybe I wasn’t the first species they’d caught they didn’t want to reveal their existence. Was it a friendly warning or an official one?

 

The Four Arms on the ship did not like it when I walked around with Bouncer. They’d turn around and go the other way unless Garjah or Seedrah were with me. Mostly we stayed in my quarters, Timok’s lab, or the hold where we had a space set up to let him exercise.

His only left my side when Garjah was around. He only ate from me or Garjah. Timok studied us. I studied them. The best part was all the data Timok gave me. The animals and plants on Ardra I hadn’t explored yet was extensive.

It turned out we moved to the northern continent. The lush plants were long gone. High cliffs and extensive black sands dominated the landscape.

“What are we doing here?” I asked.

“Mining.”

“Can we go outside the ship? Bouncer needs more exercise. I’d like to do more hands on research as well.” Timok told me that Garjah normally went out to oversee the crews, but with me on board he’d sent out Seedrah instead.

“You don’t want to go alone?” Garjah asked. He sliced off a chunk of meat. One for himself, one for Bouncer who sat next to our table.

“No. Navigation is disabled on my equipment, and I don’t know the area. There’s no food, no water. It’s too hot out there for Bouncer to survive for long.” Maybe I should just come out and say it. “If you guys ever do let me go, I’ll have the research I need to make my name. I won’t give that up to run away and die on some foolhardy escape attempt.”

Garjah put down his blade, raising his brows. “I wondered if you’d ever say it.”

“I wonder if you’d ever tell me if I’m going to be a captive forever.”

“That is not my decision.”

“Right. Roles and all that. You’re security. You make sure I’m not a threat and then someone else decides Tell me, why hide your species from the rest of the universe? What is so scary about everyone else that you lurk out here on the fringes?”

Garjah’s thin lips spread in a smile. “You assume we’re not the scary ones.”

I put my fork down. “If so, you’d neutralize races and subdue planets. You display community traits as a species. You need each other. You’re insular. Many races are and join the galatic. So something else is going on. I just haven’t figured out what yet.”

I needed to talk to more of the Four Arms. I hoped making a trip outside the ship would show my intentions, but the words just blurted out of me.

“Tomorrow, early before the second sun gains to much height it should be safe for you both out of the ship. We can explore for a few hours. While it looks barren, there are animals that live among the sand and rocks. I can show you.” Garjah’s change in subject confused me.

“Um, okay. Thank you.”

Garjah nodded his head toward my plate. “You are sated?” I’d finished off the cubes and some of the vegetables.

“Yes. I’m full.” I carefully cleaned my fork to take back to my quarters.

“I will escort you.” Garjah tossed the last of the meat to Bouncer, who yipped as it sailed over the table to my side. He caught it neatly, snapping it out of the air with his jaws and purring as he swallowed it down.

As soon as we got back to my quarters and the door slid shut behind me, I removed my exosuit. Garjah thought I wore it except to bathe, but it didn’t cool me as effectively in the higher gravity. Some of the mechanisms were struggling, so I stripped down to my underclothes and sat on the bed beside Bouncer.

He lay his head on my leg, and I scratched the scaled on the top of his head between those ginormous ears. “We’re getting out tomorrow, buddy. I bet you can’t wait.” I pulled my tablet to me and looked up cerops again. I didn’t think being out in the desert would hurt him, but I’d found him in a jungle. Time to do some more research.

And write up the notes I’d mentally penned on Four Arms.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Chapter 21

 


“What?” All three of the Four Arms stared at me. Bouncer curled in front of me, pressing against my legs. He exposed his fangs and snarled, his ears and eyes focused on the watching group. “Stop that,” I said.

“You are insane.” Seedrah’s eyes were huge. “He should be dead.”

“I am not,” I objected.

“Cerops are vicious. They attack anything between them and their chosen prey. Even though they are smaller than many of the prey animals, a mated pair can take down almost anything.”

“Bouncer has adopted me as a parent.” I wrinkled my nose. “Not a mate.” He certainly acted a lot like the young I’d seen being fed, just bigger. “I’ve raised enough babies to recognize the behavior. He’s never once tried to mount me or lay a claiming bite like many feline or canine species across many planets did.”

Life varied in many ways, but it also had many consistencies.

I crossed my arms over my chest. “Maybe you just never got close enough to them to discover their true nature.”

“Or maybe there’s something about you that’s special,” Timok said. “You reacted to stasis differently than any other being we’ve brought in before. He reacted to you different while in stasis.”

Dropping my arms, I raised my eyebrows. “Well, I guess you have a lot to study, don’t you?”

“You’ll let me? Study you?” Timok’s look turned calculating.

“Turnabout is fair play. You help me learn about Bouncer and the rest of Ardra.”

“Who is Ardra?” Garjah rumbled.

“The planet? That is the designation we’ve given it.” What did they call it? I’d have to ask. “I’ll need some recording equipment, something to write notes. The one I had would be great, I already had recordings and observations on it from before… well, before.” I didn’t want to say they’d kidnapped me, but that’s what they’d done.

“No recording equipment.”

I sighed loudly, and Bouncer’s ears twitched backward toward me before rotating forward again. “Seriously? You can disable it so it won’t transmit and check it whenever you want, make sure I’m not saving any data that would breach your security.” Garjah’s stone face, so rigid when he was in his security leader role, was hard to read. “Please?” I tried the smile that used to get me extra time to read before bed.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “But you will check in with before the end of every day. We will discuss what you’ve seen, where you’ve been, and what you recorded.”

“How about over the last meal?” Timok suggested. “Since Essell has such a hard time navigating the ship and doesn’t know how to read our language.”

I nearly goggled at him. What was he doing?

“Good. Last meal.”

“What about Bouncer? He can’t survive on his own, so you can’t let him go. I don’t really like him in a cage, even if this one is nicer.” I looked around at the small space, barely big enough for him to roam a few paces in each direction.

“Let’s do some tests,” Timok suggested.

Garjah argued with him and Seedrah for a few minutes, and I only objected when he suggested provoking him by poking him with something. “Do you really think a crew member will poke a wild cerops if he’s loose on the ship instead of running away?”

“He makes a good point, Garjah,” Seedrah said. “I would run.”

“You’d be a fool to turn your back on predator.” Garjah made his pronouncement and Seedrah’s skin darkened. But he didn’t argue, standing with his back to a wall several body lengths away from the cage. He held a weapon ready to stun Bouncer back into stasis.

“Ready?” Garjah asked.

“I trust Essell.” Timok stood equally distant from the cage, Garjah to one side. He was calm, but I was surprised. He trusted me? Why? He didn’t seem all that impressed with humans when I first overheard him. What had changed? “I trust he’s learned what being foolish about his safety can lead to.” Ahh, there it was. The snark. He was downright caustic in a way you couldn’t really call him out for.

Still. “Thanks. I’m opening the door now.” I reached through the bars on the front and undid the latch, sliding the lock to one side so I could crack open the door. Bouncer stayed beside me as I opened the door and stepped out slowly.

“Move so you’re not between him and Seedrah.”

I tried to follow Garjah’s directions, but Bouncer was careful to stay tucked against my side. From the way he kept an eye on the young alien who wasn’t quite as stable with his weapon as I’d like, he knew where the threat lay.

“Interesting. We knew they were intelligent and postulated a bond of some sort that allowed them to hunt as a single unit when pairs were mated, but we never studied the young ones with parents. He almost anticipates your moves before you make them.” Timok absently tapped two of his hands together. “Do you feel anything from him? Anything foreign at all?”

“What? No.” I had adopted a rather large predator quickly when before I normally would have steered clear, but… “I can’t feel anything.”

“Hmm, maybe it’s subconscious.”

“Let’s test him. That’s why he’s out of the cage, right?” Garjah said impatiently. He stomped suddenly, and Bouncer tensed but only pressed tight to my thigh. Timok proceeded to set off loud sounds of varying pitches while Garjah made sudden movements.

The only one that caused a reaction was when Garjah grabbed me. Bouncer thrust himself between us, baring his fangs. But then his nose wrinkled. He rubbed his head against my thigh, sniffed again, then swung his head toward Garjah. The snarling stopped, and his ears pricked up. He took a step closer to Garjah, sniffed, then yipped before rubbing against him.

“What is he doing?” Garjah’s eyes were shot wide.

“I don’t believe it.” Timok barked a laugh.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Chapter 20

 

Seedrah once again came at a trot, bringing my exosuit. We made our way slowly to the hold, and I tried to memorize the symbols on the walls for the journey. It might not be in aid of escape, but I needed to study these aliens. Their culture was very similar to most bipedal races, their interactions and basic mannerisms mostly within the norms.

They had fairly standard emotions and expressed them in ways I could understand. Their culture was gregarious, and they worked as a community. They clearly showed disfavor toward outsiders—or at least humans and the races we knew, since none of them had told us about Four Arms—but they weren’t xenophobic to the extreme. I wasn’t imprisoned, experimented on, or killed.

Go me.

But they weren’t just going to let me go. I had to hope that there was something I could do that would lead me to an answer that would resolve my precarious situation. If only I could get used to their gravity… the weight of it was exhausting, and just eating a meal and walking to the hold had already exhausted me.

Hopefully my suit would protect my body some. At the hold, I removed my foot coverings and placed the disk with my exosuit against my chest. Depressing the command sequence, it expanded, first wrapping up and around my shoulders and ribs before it began to slide the plated shielding around my exposed limbs.

Garjah didn’t look happy as he let me into the new cage where they’d moved Bouncer. It was bigger, so I could stand in it, which I appreciated for him. They weren’t going to keep him in the tiny one that was barely bigger than his body. Timok stood with a fairly standard injector, which he passed over before Seedrah secured the barred door behind me.

“Press it to the shoulder, close to the cerop’s spine.”

Bouncer’s feet flexed as I crouched next to him.

“Did you see that?” Seedrah asked. “He moved! He shouldn’t be able to do that.”

“I told you,” Timok said. Their voices faded into the background as I focused on Bouncer. His color had faded, and I didn’t like it. I rubbed the pebbled skin of his chest, unable to feel it through my gloves but the rise and fall of his ribs was reassuring.

“You’ll be okay.” I studied the injector, which was really just a tube with a hole on one side with a button, putting it to Bouncer’s shoulder and pressing the button. There was a hiss and soft thud I could feel through my glove. Idiot-proof. Or human-proof. Maybe the same thing to them until I proved otherwise, though Garjah did call me wily. I still felt a strange sense of pride in that.

Almost immediately Bouncer’s breathing increased. I dropped the injector out of the cage, then looked around. No food, no water. Saint’s balls, I was an idiot. They’d had him in stasis, but I knew how voracious he was.

I turned to face the bars. “I need food. A lot of it. Meat, preferably alive if possible. He likes grubs.”

“Cerops will eat anything moving,” Garjah said.

“Would you stop being so biased and get me what I asked for?” I snapped.

Pressure snapped around my foot, and I was pulled backward. I landed with an oomph, then fell onto my belly. I rolled, and Bouncer pounced as he’d done so many times in the short time we’d been together I’d actually lost count.

“Essell!” Garjah bellowed.

“I’m fine.” My voice was breathless, more from the shock than anything else. Bouncer was awake, crouched over me, and nuzzling my belly. I’d postulated it was a move young did to induce milk production in the parent, or a scent-marking on a vulnerable portion of anatomy only a packmate would allow.

The whine of a weapon broke up our reunion. Bouncer’s head came up, and he fixed all his eyes on Garjah, snarling with his sharp teeth on threatening display. “You’re not fine.”

“He wants to hurt you, not me. He doesn’t even have his claws out. Wasn’t that what you were worried about?”

Garjah’s hand didn’t move an inch, and Bouncer wasn’t moving either. I couldn’t get up, just crane my head awkwardly to look sideways out the bars. Thankfully, Seedrah came trotting up with a bin.

“Oh good, food.” Bouncer’s nose twitched, and his gaze moved from Garjah to Seedrah. That, if nothing else, proved how young he was. An adult would not waver from the biggest threat in the space, even if starving. But Bouncer’s stomach ruled him, which made me safe. Ish. Safeish.

I still kept my suit and gloves on, after all. Seedrah slid the container through the bars, and I stretched one arm up and snagged it with my fingertips. As soon as I had food in my hands, Bouncer backed off, yipping. He assumed the position, front legs trembling as he laser focused on the food. He was probably starving after being in stasis for so long.

Sliding the lid off, I smiled at the grubs whose mandibles were gone but they were still alive. Perfect. Picking up one of the ugly purple grubs, I didn’t need to worry about my fingers. I avoided the pink slime from the wounded head, tossing it in the air to Bouncer. He lived up to his name, hopping into the air and catching it neatly.

He crunched down, snapping his jaws shut and chewing rapidly. When he sat again, pink oozed from his lips. He wiggled on his forelegs, glittering eyes focused on me, big ears up, ready for another toss. I didn’t make him wait, sending another juicy bug his way. This time I made him leap to the left. Then the right. He didn’t miss a single bug. The final one I let him take from my hand. He licked his lips, then butted my stomach.

“Yeah, you’re welcome, buddy.”

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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Chapter 19


Four Arms had genetic memories. Ones that went beyond instincts, beyond those basic intuitions that most species had that seemed to be encoded in the basic genome. Humans had recorded this very phenomenon with savants; somehow they had knowledge that allowed them do things they couldn’t have possibly learned through experience.

This was something I hadn’t come across before. “How does a trainer release the memories?” Some sort of ceremony?

“I show him once, he knows.” Garjah sliced off another piece of meat. “Doesn’t mean Seedrah is good at it.”

“You weren’t good at your role once upon a time.” Timok raised an eyebrow. “Now look at you.”

“Still stupid, according to you.” Garjah wiggled the fingers on one of his free hands.

Timok’s lips curled up in a smirk. “About many things, yes. Our security? No.”

Watching their interaction was fascinating but their words weren’t reassuring. Timok was very intelligent. I dropped my gaze to my plate, stabbing the food with my fork harder than necessary. A warning? If Garjah was that good at his job, my escape would be much harder.

If it was even possible. Their medical technology I’d glimpsed when I woke up in Timok’s lab was advanced. The weapons definitely were. They looked down on humans. Or our advancement, more specifically our lack of advancement.

They’d found me easily enough in my exosuit once before. I’d come to Ardra to learn about the planet. The Four Arms came here, so they’d know a lot about it. I didn’t even know Bouncer had poison sacks on his claws.

What else could they teach me? Timok said it wasn’t up to him about letting me go. If Garjah was head of security, maybe it was his. Or whoever the overall leader was. Getting away was probably going to be impossible, especially since I couldn’t get off the planet. Somehow I had to convince them to let me go. Garjah was har, so it might take some time.

Time I probably had.  The skimmer was far behind us, Sonez even farther. Timok was smart, but I was smart too. Plans change. I wasn’t in danger, and there was new information to learn. I just had to stick with Garjah.

“What are you doing after the meal?” I asked as I pushed the meat cubes around on my plate.

“Me?” Timok asked. He leaned back.

What did I say? No? Yes? I wasn’t asking him, but….

“You will be back in your lab, studying, running tests, doing what you always do,” Garjah said. “The same old boring thing as always.”

“Essell doesn’t know what I do. And he studies animals and plants for a living, so he does plenty of work of the same type.” Timok finished the last of the food on his plate.

“I was going to take him to his Bouncer. Maybe wake him up.”

I gasped. “Really?”

“He will stay in the cage.” Garjah’s stiff posture and firm words left no room for argument.

“Do you do that often?” I wiped off my fork, setting it aside.

“Do what?”

“Give orders and expect them to be followed without question?”

Timok’s nose narrowed and he grinned widely, showing off those sharp teeth. “Yes, he does.”

“It is my role.”

“Humans don’t work like that.” Well, the military did. But I was a scientist. For me, knowledge was more important than orders. I’d risk a lot for it. Look where that got me. Still… “Bouncer never hurt me. Give me my exosuit. Let me show you. Besides, he’ll be hungry.”

“Yes, he will. Which is why I said he should be woken up. Stasis, safe as it is, can be damaging to cells. We don’t use it on cerops.”

“You used it on me! If you don’t know if it will hurt him, could it have hurt me? Do you even know?”

“Of course I do. I ran extensive scans when you were in my lab. You’re fine.”

“You’re what he’s studying,” Garjah said.

I blinked. “I’m what?”

“We’ve watched humans, we have knowledge of them. Interactions with them? Not many.” Timok reached out and picked up my fork. “Things like these. Alien. Your need for fluids, chewing. Your single pair of arms. Besides, you’ve been studying us just as carefully.”

“I didn’t take lab tests of you!”

“Only because you couldn’t. You know you would, if you had the chance.”

Humans had done such things, many times. Ethical studies weren’t always the backbone of all scientists. But not me. “I—”

“So if I said you could come to my lab and work with me, you’d say no?”

Garjah just watched our interaction, his face impassive. I wanted to spend time with him. I needed to show them Bouncer was safe. I wanted to wake him up, feed him, ensure he was back to his usual self. But Timok’s offer was a nearly irresistible lure, and the bastard knew it.

Four Arms could definitely pull off a smug look.

I narrowed my eyes, tapped the table, then reached for my fork. “How about you go with us to wake up Bouncer, just in case he isn’t okay, and then after I prove how safe he is to Garjah, we go to your lab? I’ll help you further your studies on humans, and you can help me study Bouncer.” I left off study them, but I wasn’t about to show my whole hand.

Garjah’s silence was broken by what I could only call a laugh. It rumbled in his chest and came out without him even opening his mouth, but he was grinning. “Are all humans as wily as you?” he asked.

“Wily?”

“You are getting Timok out of his lab, getting your cerops awakened, your sad little suit returned, and managing to insert yourself into scientific studies later when the timing better suits you.” He spread two hands. “Wily.”

He left off spend time with himself, but maybe I’d kept that aim subtle. I shrugged. “I’m considered pretty smart,” is all I said.

Want more flash?

J Alan Veerkamp

Carol Pedroso

Julie Lynn Hayes


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: First Snow

 

A holiday short story for your Christmas week enjoyment! 

Miguel peered out the window into the darkness. It was rain mixed with slush. The edges of the window were rimed with frost, and he shouldn’t want it to snow, but he did. He had to go back to job hunting in the morning, and his coat wasn’t thick enough to keep out the cold, but could it be worse than the rain? It was still damp from his futile all day trek yesterday, even though he’d left it draped over the vent.

Maybe he should have stayed in Florida, where everything was familiar, where the weather didn’t make his fingers and feet ache with cold. But he needed a fresh start. Take some classes, a job… friends.

He’d figure it out. His mom had always said Miguel was gifted with eternal optimism. And a white Christmas would be amazing. Miguel touched the tiny star on the mini Christmas tree he’d gotten from the one dollar store when he went to stock up on cheap groceries. Yeah, it was one less loaf of bread, but it had lights, which brightened his tiny dorm room.

Totally worth it.

A rapid tap on the door pulled him away from his desk at the window. “Miguel! You’re here, great!”

“Where else would I be?”

Wink shrugged and darted under his arm, somehow dancing into the room without making it look weird. “A lot of students left. It’s super quiet. I wasn’t sure if you would still be here. Yesterday when I knocked, you didn’t answer.”

“I was out looking for a job.”

“You were?” Wink tilted his head. “What kind?”

“The kind that works around my classes and pays me something.” He wasn’t choosy. Miguel sat on the bed.

“I’ll help you, if you want.” Wink turned and practically lit up. “You have a tree! Oh, it’s cute. You like Christmas?” He stood over Miguel’s tiny tree and touched the lights, blue, green, and red reflecting on his glasses.

“Who doesn’t?”

Wink shrugged. “Lots of people. The Christmas spirit can dim, especially for certain ages.”

“Most college kids are probably too mature to decorate their dorm rooms.” Miguel’s face heated. Maybe he should have bought the bread.

A second later, Wink was on his bed next to him. “Your tree is perfect. At home, we always do Christmas up big. Tree, lights, cookies. It’s a thing!”

“So why are you here?” Alone. Like Miguel. He was there because his mom had died and the rest of his family and friends didn’t want him. “Sorry, you don’t have to answer that.” He didn’t want to upset Wink if he had a crappy home he was avoiding too.

“I thought about going back, but I wasn’t sure. I like the people here.”

“You can’t go just for break?” Miguel looked at the thick rain coming down the window. The light outside his window flickered.

“Maybe. It’s hard to leave and come back.”

“Because of snow?” He still had the flakes on his mind. “I bet it’s hard to drive in snow.” Wink had a red car. Nothing fancy, but he’d given Miguel a ride a few times.

“Not exactly. Haven’t you driven in the snow before?”

Miguel shook his head. “I’ve never even seen snow.”

“What?” Wink’s mouth dropped open. “No way! You haven’t?”

“Nope. I’m hoping it’ll snow for Christmas.”

“Maybe it will. It’s cold enough. Hey, do you want to come to my room? We could watch movies? I have cocoa. And pizza.” He tacked on the pizza with a grin, knowing that would get him. Miguel loved pizza.

“Cocoa and pizza?” Miguel raised his eyebrows.

“It’s almost Christmas. Cocoa is always okay.”

And pizza was a food group all on its own. It really did go with anything. Miguel grabbed his hoodie off his pillow. “Okay.”

 

The pizza was crispy, and hot, and full of meat and cheese. The cocoa was nothing to write home about—as if he would—but sitting on the bed in Wink’s room watching Christmas movies was just what Miguel needed. He sank against the pillows. Wink had tons of them and they were all red and green. A tree blinked on the desk taking up the whole top. Lights framed the window.

It made his little tree look even sadder. Wink definitely did Christmas.

Miguel yawned, then focused on the TV. Jack Frost was zipping around bringing snow and ice. The old shows were his mom’s favorites too. He wondered how Wink knew, like he always did. Came over with food when Miguel was on his bag of noodles. Casual hugs when he missed his family the most.

He’d replaced the best friend who’d turned his back on Miguel when he came out. Became an even better one.

“Hey, hey Miguel, wake up.” Wink shook his shoulder gently.

“Huh?” Miguel wiped his mouth in case he’d drooled. “Sorry. I should go back to my room.”

“No, you should come here for a minute,” Wink said softly. He pulled on Miguel’s hand, hauling him out of the pile of pillows. “Shoes on.”

“Why do I need my shoes?”

“Trust me.”

He did, so Miguel slid his feet into his sneakers. He took his coat. Wink hauled him out by the hand. “I wanted you to see this.”

The lawn was covered in a field of white. Fat, fluffy flakes floated down in the yellow shine of the lamps overhead. The air was somehow warmer than it had been before. It was quiet, calm.

Miguel reached out a hand and caught a flake. For a second, before it melted, it lay perfect on his palm. His first snow. It was beautiful.

“Make a wish,” said Wink.

So he did.

When Miguel opened his eyes, the field was gone, but the snow remained. Christmas lights, trees, and the jingle of bells. Snow fell from a sky light with flickering lights.

“Wow. You brought me home, Miguel. Thank you.” Wink hugged him. “Welcome to the North Pole.”

“I knew it!”

 Merry Christmas! 

Want more flash?

Carol Pedroso

Julie Lynn Hayes