written by Lee Strauss | A Nursery Rhyme Suspense

December 6, 2015

Hickory Dickory Dock

Chapter One


The air smelled like an odd mix of road salt and dead worms. It had rained at some point between my stocking the jars of dill pickles at Smart Mart and punching out at the end of my shift. Puddle water spat on my legs as I pedaled through the remnant drizzle, the dampness spreading, cool along my ankles.

I hurried home through suburban Detroit, past aging single-level or two-story wood-and-red-brick homes which were in need of paint and a lawn mower, and, in more than a few cases, occupants. I wanted to shower and unwind a little before heading to Dakota’s for pizza and a movie. I grinned crookedly into the wind, thinking about our flirtatious interlude in the cereal aisle. The way she’d played with her pink hair and widened her eyes when she suggested we get together tonight—I mean, she was obviously into me! A phenomenon that I still found difficult to wrap my nerdy brain around.

I muttered to myself, “Don’t jinx it, Henry.”

My tires crunched over gritty asphalt, sand residue left over from winter and a lack of city funds to properly clean the streets. My thoughts lingered on Dakota. We hadn’t officially become a couple, but that hadn’t stopped us from engaging in more than a few hot summer kissing sessions. My neck heated up in anticipation. I sped up until my bike felt like it was skimming across the surface of the road.

I should’ve been paying closer attention to my surroundings. I didn’t notice the dark van approaching from behind. Most vehicles keep a wide berth around cyclists, but this one hardly pulled left. The side view mirror nearly clipped my shoulder—I instinctively swerved right, my back wheel losing purchase, and skidded into the curb, landing on my backside. It happened so fast, my mind barely had time to register what happened.

The van kept moving like it hadn’t seen me at all, like the driver hadn’t just committed a freaking freakin’ hit and run. I cursed under my breath.

I remained still as I mentally assessed the damage. Thanks to my helmet, my gray matter was still intact. My arms and legs were responsive. My brain registered the sting of a road burn along my right shin. I sat up to examine it. Droplets of blood spattered my skin, but there was no real damage. No need for stitches or a trip to the ER.

I wished I could say the same for my ride. The front wheel had twisted in the fall where it had hit the curb of the sidewalk. I picked up my bent bike and bruised ego. It was a wobbly ride, and I had to fight with the handle bars like I was riding a bull, but it still beat walking.

I locked my bike out of sight around the back of the house. We lived in one of those two-story homes in need of paint and a lawn mower. I’d been so busy with my summer job at the store and hanging out with Dakota that I hadn’t had time to play Mr. Fixit. And there were plenty of things inside the house that could also use a little love.

I had taken the time, though, to duct-tape the holes in all the window screens in an effort to combat the endless fight against mosquitoes and other swarming insects. The door screen slammed behind me as I entered through the back.

I bellowed my usual greeting. “Hey, Mom. I’m home!”

Our house smelled of sausage and cigarette smoke—not exactly pleasant or, for that matter, a place a guy would bring a girl he was hoping to impress (read: seduce). I was glad I was going to Dakota’s place, but it did make the seduction fantasy less likely. I’d met her father. He outweighed me by a hundred pounds.

TV chatter trickled from the living room.


“In here,” she answered with a weariness that made me feel tired. Mom sat in an old, faded and worn armchair. Her salt-and-pepper hair was slightly greasy and unkempt, and she still wore her stained meat plant uniform which hung loosely over her thin shoulders. A large ashtray, the kind like a platter on a brass stand, sat to her right. Smoke from a half-expired butt rested in one of the grooves, ethereal white tendrils swirling toward a yellowing, nicotine-coated ceiling.

“How was work?” Mom asked. War images flashed across our ancient TV screen. It was so old it was square. Another terrorist attack in the middle East. Or was it Asia?

I headed toward the kitchen and spoke over my shoulder. “Good.” I reached into the fridge for a cold pop and guzzled it back as I headed up the stairs, two steps at a time, to my room.

I stripped off my shirt and removed my phone from my back pocket. Sage Farrell’s name and her excited text stared up at me. It was a repeat of the voice mail she’d left earlier.

Sage: I have something fantastic to show you. A math problem I’ve been working on for a long time. I can see the future, Mars! You won’t believe it!

Sage was a brunette beauty I’d met in Detroit University. We’d just completed our freshman year, which had been unbelievable—and I mean that in the literal sense. We ended up solving two campus crimes, but that wasn’t the amazing part. It was how we did it. We had a connection.

Unfortunately that connection didn’t include the romantic type. At least not for her. My heart, in contrast, had been pretty much levelled. I liked her. A lot.

To my chagrin (that fact that I’d use the word “chagrin” validates my nerd card), she had me solidly in the “friend” category. Kill me now. I still didn’t see what she saw in that jerk Tristan Coy, but I was the last person on earth who could claim to understand girls.

I didn’t know what she meant by seeing the future. Was she into astronomy now? Charting the stars? Had she stumbled into a type of palm reading that required x plus y to equal z?

I’d hoped that a couple of months with Sage out of the picture, and Dakota in it, would free me from my infatuation. I’d only been home for a couple weeks. Not long enough, apparently, if I could go by how the mere sight of her name sent my heart racing.

I ignored her message and jumped into the shower, firmly planting the image of Dakota and her cute impish grin in my mind.

I was barely dressed—jeans zipped, but shirt unbuttoned, and still in my bare feet—when my phone pinged.

Sage: I’m at your house. Front door.

I gasped and then sprinted down the steps before Sage rang the bell and my mother answered. I paused briefly to collect myself, not aiming for cool exactly, since I’d never hit that bulls-eye before. I took a breath and stepped onto my front stoop, quietly shutting the door behind me.

Sage stood there, pretty as anything, wearing shorts that revealed her long, porcelain legs, and a loose blouse with the top buttons undone. A silver pendant hung delicately against the smooth skin on her chest. I let my eyes linger.

Man, I loved summer.

She shifted, holding up a thick notebook, and my attention returned to her face, which was flushed from the warmth of the season. Her eyes were bright with whatever it was that was causing her so much excitement.

“Hi, Marlow,” she said.

“Hey.” Out of habit, I pushed up on my glasses, except they weren’t on my face, so I just weirdly poked myself in the forehead.

Sage grinned, swinging her dark ponytail side to side. “Why don’t you just leave them off?”

She was referring to the glasses I usually wore, the ones without prescription lenses, even though it’d been months since I’d had my eyes lasered. Specs were just part of who I was. Or at least who I saw myself as.

Sage was a fan of fashion frames, but I noticed she wasn’t wearing any today. The summer heat makes them sweaty.

“Maybe I’ll wean myself off this summer,” I said, noncommittally. “How’d you know where I live?”

She shrugged. “This old-fashioned thing called the phone book. Are you going to invite me in?”

“Yeah, sure.” I hesitated, swallowing the embarrassment that was sure to follow on seeing my house and meeting my mother. I opened the door and motioned for her to go inside. My knees almost gave out at the flowery scent of her shampoo as she passed by. It’d been a while since I’d been in close quarters with Sage Farrell and my defenses were down.

I fumbled with my buttons.

“Don’t mind the mess,” I said. I took in our home, trying to see it with the eyes of someone new. Our place was small and caught in a nineties time warp. Wall-to-wall taupe shag carpeting with a well-worn path from the living room to the kitchen and down the hallway. A deep-green couch and chair set in a dusty-rose floral print. An old painting of a tall ship at high seas above the couch against a sponge-painted “feature” wall. The hunter green venetian blinds with their matching dust-covered window toppers.

Mom was in the middle of a long drag on her cigarette. Her eyes widened at the sight of a girl in our house, but she stayed cool, exhaling a burst of smoke through her nose like a wimpy dragon lady. She stood.

“This must be Dakota,” she said.

Sage’s smile disappeared and I winced. “No, Mom. This is Sage. We met at DU.”

Sage held out her hand, smile returning. “Hello, Mrs. Henry. Nice to meet you.”

I assessed my mother through Sage’s eyes. Average height, bone thin, bare face that could be pretty with a little attention. I’d got my dark hair and green eyes from her.

“Well, I’ll leave you kids alone,” she said, and I appreciated her tactfulness. She disappeared into her bedroom down the hall.

Having Sage in my house was unnerving, and I swallowed dryly. “Wanna drink or something? Water? Juice?” I cut through the dining area, where Sage unloaded the notebook and her shoulder bag onto our round pinewood table, and went into the kitchen.

“Apple juice would be nice,” Sage said behind me.

The kitchen was all white: walls, cabinets and appliances. The laminate counters and vinyl flooring were scuffed and stained. The only splash of color was a string of green vine stencils along the top of one wall. I turned on the tap, leaned over the sink and lapped water like a dog. I wiped my wet chin with the back of my hand. I poured her a glass of juice, handed it to her and went back to the dining room. “So, uh, what’s up?”

Sage opened the notebook and fingered through several pages filled with math notation, line upon line upon line. She locked her chocolate-brown eyes onto mine. “I’ve opened up a window to another space, Mars.”

I blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Look.” She fanned the pages again.

“A bunch of math equations?”

“Not a bunch, Marlow. Just one.”

“That’s one long equation?”

Sage removed her slim laptop from her shoulder bag. “When I copied it into my laptop, a window opened.”


“A window opened to another space.”

I frowned. “Like a literal window?”

It wasn’t that I doubted her. It was that I believed her.

She caught my eye for a moment before flipping her laptop open.

I jumped. A translucent window-type apparition appeared only three feet from where I stood. I could see through it into a room. Not my living room, which was adjacent to where we stood. Another, sparser room.

My voice scratched. “What is that?”

“I don’t know. I think it might be the future.”

“Or another realm?” I believed in alternate universes, but time travel? Once upon a time I would’ve found the idea crazy, but nothing seemed crazy anymore.

Sage shrugged one shoulder and pursed her full lips. “It could possibly be another realm. At my house, when the window opened, I saw my brother Ben. He looked older, balding, and he had a wife and two kids, which was why I thought it was the future. But it could be something else.”

“Did you try to go through it?”

“No. I wanted to…”


She smiled softly. “I wanted to do it with you.”

My heart leaped foolishly with something that had to have been close to joy. She might as well have proposed. She took my hand and I was almost knocked over by a surge of energy that pulsed between us. I tried to pull free, but our palms were sealed together, like super-strong magnets. A shimmery, translucent ribbon sprouted from our fingertips. It quickly took on the shape of a dome, growing, growing, growing until it was large enough to cover my house. We were literally figures in a huge snow globe, minus the snow. Not only could we see into the other room. We were in it.


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