Woods Beyond the Walls

Misque Press included my story Woods beyond the Walls in a 2017 issue of Hero and Heroine, an anthology of paranormal, fantasy and science fiction stories. It’s about a boy celebrating his 13th birthday who discovers his ability to perform some tricks is just the beginning of his gaining powerful magical abilities that will make him feared by many. Someday the story will be the opening of Consciousness Rising, still a novel in draft form.

Woods Beyond the Walls

By Alex Binkley

Jake slipped a leg over the ledge of his bedroom window and eased his body outside once the pre-dawn light was bright enough to retrieve the rifle and backpack he had hidden the day before.

He wanted to celebrate his 13th birthday by finally seeing what lay beyond the 15-foot high stone wall that encircled his home and a workshop, barn and corral.

Being quiet was crucial. His room was in-between his parents’ and sisters’ bedrooms on the main floor of their home and their windows were likely open. Grandpa’s room was at the other end of the house while Aunt Gert and Uncle Jon lived in the attic.

Jake’s heart pounded like a drum as he stepped carefully to avoid making any noise. He headed for the workshop where he had spent many hours with his father and uncle. He glanced occasionally to his right at the barn, sending soothing thoughts to quiet the livestock. He wanted to be gone before anyone awoke.

When he neared the workshop, he visualized the pack and rifle where he had stored them behind the old barrels. They floated through the air to him.

Jake had not told anyone about his summoning ability or other tricks. He could start fires and open doors and windows with a simple thought. The sheep and cattle entered and left the barn at his unspoken commands. He especially enjoyed raising a pile of wood into the air and breaking it into stove-sized pieces before dropping it into an orderly stack.

He did not dare attempt any other tricks inside the wall out of fear of being discovered. In old books in Grandpa’s library, he had discovered drawings of people performing all sorts of feats like parting rivers and destroying tall buildings. If he could only read the twisting letters, he could learn how to do these tricks.

He sent the pack and rifle floating over the wall to settle on the ground. He had always wanted to climb it and had been scolded often enough when he had tried. He pressed his hands against the stones and glanced up. It looked one hundred feet tall. Could he actually make it?

He had chosen this spot because enough rock projected from the wall to give him hand and foot holds. He reached up to grip two stones, placed his right foot on another and pushed. Keep moving, he muttered.

The holds became smaller as he crept upwards. He stopped several times to wipe the sweat from his eyes on his sleeve. He told himself not to look down and did not dare glance any higher than the next chunk of stone.

His left hand reached up and felt a flat spot. His right hand joined it and his legs gave an extra push. At last, he shimmied onto the top of the wall. In the mist and dim light, the Torrance forest looked like a black smudge broken in places by the outline of tall trees. He inhaled deeply. To his surprise, the air smelled the same as inside the wall.

Cautiously he stood to gaze in every direction. There was enough sunlight to see that forest encircled his home. A wide strip of grassland separated the wall from the trees.

 Thoughts tumbled through Jake’s brain as he wondered in which direction to head. Would the rest of the outside world really resemble the forests, rivers, bridges, roads, cities, towns and people with different colored skin depicted in Grandpa’s books? How about the mechanical devices that rode on the rivers or flew like birds.

When Jake glanced down at his pack and rifle, he noticed the outer wall was smoother with few holds for his hands and feet. One slip and he would fall. He crept along the top until he found what looked like the best place to descend. He swung his legs over, placed one hand on a stone and lowered himself.

Just before his feet reached the ground, the left one snagged on a ledge. He moved the foot back and forth. While the ledge was wide enough for the toes of both boots to fit in, he could think of no reason for it to be there. He had never seen one on the inside of the wall.

After dropping to the ground, he straightened and snapped his fingers. A glowing ball of light appeared revealing a huge, jagged-edged gouge in the wall. It would take a lot of blows with a sledge hammer to dislodge so much mortar and stone. Jake felt about in the flattened grass until he found rocks from the wall. They had no traces of mortar on them.

He stared at the hole that should not be there and spotted several more gouges in either direction. He picked up his backpack and rifle and walked along the wall, surprised by the number of fresh mortar patches. A couple of spots awaited repair.

Even when Mum and Dad find I’m gone, they’ll check with Uncle Jon and Grandpa before they start looking for me so that’ll give me more time.

As he continued his inspection, Jake noticed the forest halted about one hundred yards from the wall. His father and uncle harvested the lush grass that grew in the meadow to feed the livestock during the winter.

Jake spotted an opening at the edge of the forest. Where does it lead?

Whenever he had asked about what lay beyond the wall, his parents and Grandpa said they would tell him when he was older. They had forbidden him from venturing outside the compound because the forest harbored too many dangerous creatures.

Jon would not tell him anything. Just mentioning the outside world made Aunt Gert sad.

Jake faced an immediate choice—keep checking the wall or head for the woods. He had come to explore. He extinguished the light and let his eyes adjust to the low light before walking across the grass to the opening. It was the start of a trail that meandered off among the trees. It was several strides wide, not the footpath he had imagined as he approached the forest.

He inhaled deeply and took his first step into the gloom created by the thick canopy of leaf-covered tree branches. He shuddered at the thought of how dark it would be in here on a moonless night.

Many different bird calls rang through the woods. He wondered if they were normal sounds or a warning about the presence of an intruder in the forest.

As his sight adjusted to the gloom, it came to him the forest would be a perfect place to attempt new tricks. What if I could see or hear better. With those thoughts, the forest became bright enough to distinguish individual trees and boulders. The bird calls were deafening.

Like the other tricks, he just had to think about what he wanted to do and it happened. He counted his steps so he knew how far he had traveled. He kept peering about utterly unsure of what to make of his surroundings. There were so many different kinds of trees; some were thick, others were thin and many were broken or bent.

He glanced at the surface of trail and was surprised by how marked up it was. He bent down for a closer look. Lines about a hand width across and marked with regular indentations stretched as far as he could see. He remembered pictures of vehicles in Grandpa’s books and the tires on them. Where could have one been headed for on this trail other than to his home? He had never heard one.

Just as puzzling were the different paw prints crossing the trail. He only recognized the marks of sheep, dogs and cats. He took several steps and spotted six that were new to him. A couple were large with pronounced toes. Then there were completely round ones set deeper in the dirt. Jake could not imagine what beast could be heavy enough to make such a depression.

His father and uncle’s warnings about the dangerous animals in the woods chewed at his confidence and he slipped off the safety on the rifle.

Birds flitted about and squirrels scampered up trees at his approach. Well past 200 steps, something stirred in the brush. He raised the rifle and stepped off the trail to hide behind a tree.

A light brown head peeked out from bushes. Jake was downwind from the animal and it eased from its coverage followed by two young. It had to be a doe with two fawns. He watched intently as he had never seen wild animals. The deer stepped onto the trail, her ears raised to catch any sounds.

Jake thought about the deer as he did the sheep and cattle. The doe stepped toward him, her head bobbing up and down as she looked at him. The fawns stood beside her. They no longer feared him. In time they would come up to him.

A loud screech caused the doe to flip up her tail and dash into the underbrush followed by her young. The screech rang through the forest again. As Jake thought about what could make such a racket, a large bird flew up the trail coming from deeper in the forest. The tips of its wing were almost brushing the foliage.

The bird, which Jake guessed was an eagle, landed just past him and pulled its wings against its sides. It walked back to where Jake stood ready to cover his ears against another screech. Instead the bird mewled and tilted its head from side to side while looking at him. The forest remained silent.

Jake stepped toward the eagle wondering if attracting wildlife was another of his tricks. If it was, there had to be a purpose to it. Up close, an eagle did not look like a good pet, especially with the long, pointed talons.

 A branch snapped. A snout with two nasty-looking tusks appeared. The eagle screeched a warning and spread its wings. A black boar grunted and charged at Jake. The eagle flapped into the air with a deafening screech before landing on the boar’s back. It tried to dig its talons into the beast and chop at it with its pointed beak. The boar took no notice as it focused on Jake.

He aimed the rifle at the animal’s head and gently squeezed the trigger as Jon had shown him. The discharge boomed through the forest punctuated by the whine of the bullet ricocheting off the boar and several trees. It shouldn’t have bounced like that.

The boar fell over, twitched for a couple of minutes and stilled. The eagle continued to hack at it. Jake stepped toward the beast, his rifle pointed at. No blood pooled around it. What kind of animal doesn’t bleed? The eagle’s talons should have ripped it open.

The bullet had struck just above its eyes. Instead of puncturing the skin and creating a huge hole, it had crumpled the animal’s forehead. He stepped cautiously around the boar, rifle at the ready. He considered pulling out his knife to slice the animal open as Jon had shown him. However the blade was unlikely to have any more effect than the eagle’s talons.

The eagle mewled at him, and then looked down the trail in the direction of his home. Staring at the bird, Jake understood something was following him. Could it be another boar? He stepped back when the bird spread its wings and headed along the trail deeper into the forest. With a glance at the inert boar, Jake hurried after it.

The eagle was almost out of sight when a shimmering flame erupted, snapping and hissing. Reaching ten feet into the air, it created a barrier across the trail and into the forest as far as he could see in either direction.

When Jake’s heart stopped racing, he hoped the eagle was well clear of the flame. He picked up a large branch, moved as close to the light as he dared and pitched it with both arms. The branch flared and disappeared. He picked up a rock and hurled it as hard as he could. The rock, like the branch, didn’t burn or pass over the fire; it flashed out of existence. He would not be going any farther as long as the barrier was there unless he could find a way around it.

He headed to his left. With every step more of it came to life. It had to be reacting to his presence. The stone wall had fenced him in and now this barrier of flame did. Was there a connection between them?

“The barrier comes on if one of us approaches.” His father’s soft voice, coming from behind, startled Jake. “It’s meant to contain Grandpa. And you, it seems.” His father was breathing deeply as if he had run up the trail in pursuit. “Step back from it.”

As Jake stepped toward his father, the flame disappeared.

“Stay here.” His father walked along the trail to where the flame had been. Nothing happened. “It only reacts to the presence of magic. Grandpa wants to know how it senses magic.”

Jake shook his head. “How did you know I was here?”

“It wasn’t hard to follow your steps and I heard the gun discharge. Grandpa had tracked you since you summoned your pack and rifle. However, he didn’t tell us you’d gone over the wall until your mother asked.”

His father placed his hands on Jake’s shoulder. “Grandpa was exiled to our residence because he possesses great magic. He can do many of the feats you would have seen in his books.”

“Will I be able to do them?”

Jake’s father hummed and hawed. “You’ll come into powers far greater than his. Your tricks are an inkling of those abilities. It’s a big world out there and important people are frightened of magic, especially the kind of power you’ll possess. We didn’t let you outside the wall because the boars are programmed to attack any of us who enter the forest.”

The eagle’s screech as it flew up the trail drowned out his father’s words. Jake raised his gun, certain the giant bird was warning him more boars approached.

“Grandpa can’t attract wildlife,” his father said as the eagle landed on the trail. “You must convince the eagle to visit us at home. Let’s inspect your boar.”

Jake’s head swirled with ideas until they reached the still inert animal. “What should we do with it?”

“Although it’s an excellent copy of a boar, surely you’ve figured out by now it’s a machine.” His father laughed. He poked the tail with his rifle and it sprang back and forth. “This is the antenna. Jon thinks they eat the mortar in the wall because there’s something wrong with their energy source. We can take it apart and find out.”

His father put down his rifle and rolled the boar over to study the head. “Your shot must have collapsed its head enough to cause a short circuit in its operating system and it shut down.”

“What are antennas, short circuits and operating systems?”

His father raised his hand to forestall further questions while he pulled a small device from a pocket inside his jacket and held it up to his mouth. “Hey Jon. Jake has a trophy for you and Dad, but we need a vehicle to haul it into the compound. It’s totally shut down. We’ll wait for you.”

Animals that are machines. Boxes that talk over long distances. What else have they kept from me?

His father put his arm around Jake. “You’re a lot like Grandpa. He agreed to exile in the compound to protect Jon and me from being killed as we had no magic to defend ourselves. Your dear mother came with us. We knew a few months after your birth that you could eclipse Grandpa if we protected you until you’re ready. You’ve grown up faster than we wanted.”

“Where does Aunt Gert come from?”

“She had been sentenced to death because of her talents. Magic is a crime in the outside world. Grandpa gained clemency for her to marry Jon because we could control her.”

They sat listening to the truck’s approach. Jake stared at the boar.

“They didn’t appear until we moved here,” his father said. “Jon found a broken down one when you were a baby. That’s when we learned it was a machine.”

“What’s on the other side of the barrier?”

“More forest. It would take days, even with a motorized vehicle, to reach the nearest settlement. You wouldn’t be welcome if people knew what you are.”

“Do I look different?”

“Too often, Grandpa would become offended by conditions in the outside world and in his anger, lose control of his magic and cause all sorts of turmoil. If you can master yours, which he never has, no one could tell you’re a wizard.”

“If Grandpa couldn’t, how will I?”

“We’ll work on that.”

Jon waved a greeting and steered the truck beside the boar. “Would you load it, Jake?”

He stared at his uncle. “I can’t lift that by myself.”

“Didn’t mean the way your father and I would.”

Jake hesitated and then imagined the beast in the back of the truck.

“Easier than doing the firewood?” Jon laughed as the beast thumped down in the vehicle.

Jake imagined himself standing with one leg on the boar like the drawing of the knight that had slain the dragon. In a flash, he was there.

He glanced at a tree and flew to thick branch. As he sat there, the eagle landed and mewled at him.

Jake floated down from the tree to land beside his father and uncle.

“Happy birthday son.”

“It’s been pretty good so far.” Jake leaned into his father to deliver an unspoken thank you.

After a final one arm hug, his father removed his arm. “Grandpa and the rest of us will start answering your questions. You can disassemble the boar with Jon.”

Jake shook his head, thinking about all he had to learn.

“You need to spend the next few years learning about technology and people,” his Dad said. “The first part is really interesting. People are harder because you have to understand them for what they are and not just what they say and do.”

His father hesitated before nudging Jake toward the cab of the truck. “While we expected you would go exploring one day, we knew you couldn’t get past the barrier yet. The day will come when you can.

“I want to be there when you take it down.”

The Window

Originally published in Misque Press’s Hero and Heroine anthology in 2016.

By Alex Binkley

Ainsley Smythe held her breath as a couple strolled toward her booth at the art show.

She sold 10 landscapes within three hours of the opening, which meant she earned enough money to reduce her hours working at the coffee shop. She would devote more time to her painting career, her goal since finishing college.

Several customers left their names for notification of her next show. Others described the scenes they wanted. She envisaged the landscapes and seashore vistas she would create for them. Finally, her career was coming together.

The couple moved past her remaining piece without glancing at it. That did not surprise her.

All the painting showed was a double hung window partly open to let a gentle summer breeze ripple lace curtains. Hints of a garden, trees and a rubber tire swing hovered in the background. The painting lacked the sweeping scenery she wished to become known for.

Usually she sketched out a work and revised it before paint went on. She did not remember creating The Window; it just happened in a haze one day.

Even when she pointed it out at art shows, no one appeared to notice it. No one took when she offered it free. It was a stray mutt that adopted her.

Three fashionably-dressed women did not slow for a look at The Window.

Under the terms of the show, exhibitors could only leave before closing time if all their pieces were sold. It was early afternoon and she could be outside enjoying the sunshine. She rearranged the promotional material for her studio, and then pulled out a sketch pad to work on concepts for her next paintings. The clock above the entrance to the display room read 1:35 PM. Four o’clock seemed so far away.

Close to 100 people wandered from artist to artist stopping at most other exhibits for a chat. After sketching a forest glade for a while, she looked up and to her surprise, a man was examining the painting.

People usually stepped back to get a better view of art work. He stood so close his nose had to be brushing against it. His head turned as if peering out both sides of the window as well as the top and bottom.

Ainsley chuckled. Most art lovers babbled on about colors and images and where they could hang the piece. He examined the painting as if looking for something inside it. She tiptoed around the desk and approached him wondering how to inquire about his unusual form of art appraisal. Five steps away from him she saw something move in the background of the painting.

A scream formed in her throat, but stayed there. This was a painting, not an animation.

“Just take a deep breath and let it out slowly,” the man said without looking at her. “My apologies, Ms. Smythe.” The man faced her. “I should’ve been more careful. You shouldn’t have seen that.”

Words stalled in Ainsley’s throat.

“We could tell a high-caliber portal existed, but no one knew where it was.” The man’s soft voice did not mask his excitement. “We looked and looked.”

Ainsley could not even manage a sputter.

“How much do you want for it? All I have with me is $400.” He pulled the cash out of his pocket.

That was about a full week’s shift at the coffee shop. The man wore a light blue polo shirt, brown shorts and running shoes.  His black hair was cut short. Overall, his appearance was respectable but not flashy. She guessed he was in his late 30s.

“Name’s Harvey Abrams.”

Ainsley glanced around to make sure they were alone. “Why did you call it a portal and what moved in the painting?”

“Step close to it.” When she did, Harvey touched the window frame and the scene beyond the window changed. Towering snow-capped mountains and great soaring birds displaced the garden and swing. She leaned closer. A large animal shuffled through a meadow. Its meandering gait resembled a bear in no hurry to go anywhere.

Once again, speaking was a struggle. Finally, Ainsley murmured, “So what am I seeing?”

“Another dimension.” Harvey removed his hand and the outline of the garden and swing beyond the curtains returned. He handed her the money and produced a business card that described him as a temporal and timeline consultant. “I’ve a lot of customers with special requirements.”

Ainsley hesitated in case her voice conveyed guilt about accepting so much for a painting she wanted to be rid of. “Watching other dimensions?”

“It’s connected and your portal will play an important role in our work. You did spot a creature. I only let you see it briefly because when anyone other than a watcher looks through a portal it alerts ….” He hummed. “Let’s call them the bad guys.

“They would wreak havoc if they got into our world. Using a portal like this, I can watch without them noticing. I look for other things too. I came to the show after reading the article in Brush Strokes about the grandeur of your landscapes hoping you might be able to create a portal for me. The last thing I expected was to find you already had. We’ve nothing with the range and capacity of your painting. Would you please keep my card handy? Someday you’ll paint another portal and I’ll pay you well for it.”

Ainsley stuffed the cash in her purse and pulled out her receipt book. Harvey was an odd fellow, she thought as she filled out the slip of paper. She loaded her notes and promotional material into her bag and stepped toward the entrance.

“I can only carry the painting by holding the frame,” Harvey said. “If it’s unwrapped, people will see the other dimension like you did. If you’d take it to the entrance where they wrap it in brown paper, I’ll handle it from there. Then even if I trigger the portal, no one’ll see it. And nothing will see us.”

As she could now leave the show, Ainsley followed Harvey to his car wanting to learn more about other dimensions.

“Sometimes they’re called alternate worlds. While you’ll find lots about them on the Internet, it’s mostly bunkum. They’re not other solar systems. We can’t detect them with conventional astronomical equipment. With the right portal we can monitor them.

“I’m both an electrical and computer software engineer,” he explained. “One of my pals took astrophysics and became intrigued by research into other or parallel dimensions to ours. He roped me into helping him understand the physics of parallel dimensions and I was hooked. I’m busy enough as an engineer but some of my extra-curricular assignments led me deeper into the concept of other dimensions. But until now, our ability to see into them was limited to technology that isn’t anywhere effective as your portal.”

“How did you know my painting was a portal?”

“Our equipment detected something much stronger than our portals that wasn’t employed in a regular fashion. You seem unable to trigger it, which leaves us with a mystery surrounding why you can create a portal but not use it. We need more portals whenever you’re up to it. Money is no object for the people I work for.”

“I wish I could remember what was going on in my head when I painted the first one.”

He loaded the painting in the rear of his SUV, and then pulled out his phone and typed in a number. He didn’t identify himself to whomever answered. “Portal found and secured. Works better than expected. Discussing acquisition of additional ones.”

Ainsley handed him her business card. “There are copies of all my paintings on my website. Maybe one will give you some ideas.”

“The bad guys will attempt to disrupt our efforts to monitor their domain. They’ll be a threat to you and we’ll provide you with special security. I’ll bring it to your place once it’s fully programed. I’ll show you how to expand its capabilities and knowledge of what you do. It does ask a lot of questions.”

“That seems like too much.”

“It’s a small box on wheels. It’ll monitor your whereabouts and should also be able to determine whether what you’re working on has the potential to be a portal.”

“Will it follow me everywhere?”

“No because it’ll attract a lot of attention outside of your home. I need to deliver the portal, but I’ll contact you tomorrow or the day after about the security. Congratulations on selling all your paintings; that should bring you more attention.”

After depositing her cash and checks at a nearby bank branch, Ainsley treated herself to a taxi ride back to her apartment. She sent an e-mail to her artist friends about her sales success but said nothing about The Window. Then she studied the roster of her sketches looking for inspiration for her customers and portals for Harvey.

The next morning, she went to the coffee shop for her shift and in a quiet moment said she wanted to reduce her hours. Her boss, who often praised the sketches she drew during breaks and quiet times, agreed. “As you live nearby, can we call you in if it gets suddenly busy or one of the regulars is sick?” Ainsley nodded.

Just before noon, she found a message from Harvey. “Want to bring the machine around later this afternoon.”

It was about the size of a vacuum cleaner with a dome that housed its viewer and two extendable arms and hands. It rode on eight wheels. “With its suspension system, it can climb stairs.” The machine chatted away as it rolled around her two-bedroom apartment, followed closely by Brutus, a black and white cat that seemed unhappy with the interloper into her domain.

“I’m most interested in watching you paint,” the machine said. “I studied all your paintings and want to know where the inspiration for the various scenes came from.”

She named her new guardian Cooney. “Maybe you can help me think of another portal. I’m considering a scene of an ocean shore viewed from a ship’s porthole. Hopefully the frame of the porthole would function the same as the picture frame does for Harvey.”

The small green status light on top of Cooney’s dome flashed steadily. It was in contemplation mode. Ainsley picked up a pad and sketched a porthole. Through it, she imagined a full moon reflecting off gentle waves revealing a presence lurking beneath the surface of the water.

Cooney’s green light glowed steadily as it examined the sketch while Ainsley explained her concept. “I think you’re correct in the idea of a frame’s role in creating a portal.”

Ainsley worked on the sketch for another hour. “I’ll arrange everything to start coloring the painting in the morning. I’ll do this one in water color rather than oil.”

Then she noticed an-mail from the coffee ship manager asking her to come in for the 6:30 AM opening because a couple of staff phoned in sick. Before she responded, a message arrived from Harvey saying he was taking The Window to a shop in the morning that could replicate it. He would bring the copy by to see if she could tell the difference.

“You might as well take the coffee shop shift,” Cooney said. “You won’t be getting much painting done tomorrow.”

While the copy of The Window was impossible to tell from the original, it failed as a portal. “You keep it for now,” Harvey said. “We know copies don’t work but it’ll serve as a decoy if the bad guys learn about our portal.”

He liked the sketch of the ship’s porthole scene. “If it doesn’t work, I’m sure you’ll find a ready buyer for it among your customers.”

Cooney watched Ainsley while she sat in front of the sketch thinking about painting it the next day. As always, classical music played softly in another room. Cooney startled her. “The moon in The Window is watching you.”

“There’s no moon in the painting.”

“There is now.”

The moon looked like it had always been there. It took an expert hand to do that. Why would Howard bother to add it to a painting that was no use to him? “Cooney, can you find out if there’s now a moon in the portal version of the Window?”

Deciding to go to bed and worry about the mysterious moon in the morning, she patted Cooney and Brutus good night and went to her bedroom.

Cooney was waiting for her when she opened the door in the morning. “I don’t know how to tell you this but your painting is finished and it’s beautiful.”

Ainsley rushed into the other bedroom and turned on the light. Through the silver porthole, she could see blue water punctuated by the white froth of gentle waves. A rocky coastline gave way to a forest of many shades of green and towering jagged hills behind it. Shining down on the scene was a moon identical to the one in The Window. Its light conveyed a sense of menace to the dark shape beneath the surface. The scene was beautiful and just about how she imagined painting it except for the moon.

Cooney rolled up beside her. “I was in the room all night. I went online for a full update. It took about an hour and when I finished, the painting was like this. I think the Moon did it. It was watching you earlier and you do talk out loud when you draw so it knew what colors you intended to paint.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. That would mean something transported here through the copy of The Window, colored the scene and left.”

“Maybe your portal works in both directions and the moon is a portal for an entity in another dimension.”

Ainsley listened closely. Cooney know far more about other dimensions. “I’m certain it wishes to connect with you; painting the porthole scene was a greeting.”

Ainsley did not know what to say in response. While she should feel spooked, even afraid, she was mainly curious how the porthole scene was so expertly painted. She strode over to the paints and brushes she set out for today. The paints were all used by the patterns on the mixing board. The brushes were clean and neatly lined up. She usually left them in a pile.

“Should I tell Harvey about this?”

“Not until we learn more.” Cooney paused. “Let’s see if the new painting works as a portal for him. If it does, tell him to take it while you create another one.” 

Harvey paid $500 for the porthole portal. “Keep them coming. My associates are anxious to secure more.”

After he left, Ainsley sat in her favorite wing back chair and put her feet up on a matching ottoman. Cooney rolled beside her. She was intrigued by the machine’s personality; maybe artificial intelligence was something to look forward to.

Cooney waited what it must have considered a polite interval in case Ainsley wanted to speak before it said, “You should view the moon added to the second portal as an act of friendship. What if you leave a blank canvas and pencils for it to draw on beside the copy of The Window? We could talk about what the other dimension might look like. In the meantime, you could create more countryside scenes as portals for Harvey.”

The day passed quickly as Ainsley sketched out three scenes for Harvey. The blank canvas was mounted on a separate easel with carefully sharpened pencils in its tray. She set out her oil and water color paints on a nearby table.

Then she settled in the chair with an extra pillow and a light blanket. Cooney rolled up beside her. “The entity is watching you. My sensors can detect extra energy in the room but whatever it is doesn’t affect you.”

As if Cooney’s words were a cue, a white form emerged from the moon and hovered in front of Ainsley. It slowly coalesced into a shape that mostly resembled a light white blob. Ainsley felt a tingling sensation in her head as she looked at it. She told Cooney about the tingle.

“Perhaps it’s speaking to you with thoughts. It doesn’t appear to have a mouth or any way to project sounds.”

Speaking what she was thinking, Ainsley introduced herself, complimented the form on painting the porthole scene, and then outlined Harvey’s request for more portals. Then she relaxed and tried to clear her mind for whatever the form wanted to show her.

The first thing was her small stereo system with music coming from it. Ainsley hurried to the machine, checked what CD was in it and decided Mozart symphonies would be just fine. The form moved about as if dancing to the symphony.

“There’s a shine to its white now,” Cooney said.

The form drifted through her apartment as Ainsley told Cooney about the images it projected. “It wants to understand what the appliances and different rooms are for.”

When the form stopped in front of the fridge, Ainsley joined it and opened the door. Even this close, she could not feel any sensation from the form. She removed an apple from a drawer and took a bite. “It sent me an image of it in sunshine and drawing in something.”

“That must be the way it obtains its energy,” Cooney said.

“It’s showing me incredible landscapes. There are a couple of forms moving about in them as if inspecting the area. They look like our visitor. Now I see an image from it of people watching the forms through portals. Now the scenes are changing—there are great clouds of smoke as if the trees are burning. It’s looking at the humans watching the scene again.”

“Perhaps it’s suggesting Howard’s partners are the bad guys and it fears what they would do to its dimension.” Cooney’s green light flashed rapidly.

Ainsley nodded. “The form seems mostly curious about us. How could it cause the world any harm? It’s showing me the apartment again.”

“Could that mean it feels comfortable or safe here?” Cooney said.

“If the other forms are like it, why does Howard consider them bad guys?”

“Maybe the form is trying to trick us?

“To what benefit? What if Howard isn’t being truthful? Or has been duped.”

“I’ll try to send images to the form to explain what we’re discussing.” Ainsley feared her thoughts were a complete jumble but the form moved in front of her. “It’s showing me more of her dimension. There are no signs of civilization anywhere just a small number of forms wandering through it like park wardens in charge of a pristine continent.”

“Could they fear that Howard’s friends want to plunder it?”

“It keeps coming back to the moon it added to the portals.” Ainsley was stuck at what the form intended.

Cooney rolled up to the blob holding in its left hand the cord it used to plug into Ainsley’s computer system for major updates. The blob extended a sliver of itself that covered the plug at the end of the cord.

By the rapid flashing of Cooney’s status light, the connection worked. “The moon is how the form travels between its dimension and here. It can only see what’s in sight of the moon. No explanation of how it entered the painting in the first place. The moon in the porthole scene alerts the forms when they’re under surveillance from Earth.”

“Could it have detected the portal I created just as Howard’s detection equipment did?” The Window was painted about a year before Howard discovered it so the entity could have studied her all that time.

“Should I stop painting portals for Howard?” Then she got it. “I’ll include a moon in enough of them that the forms can watch for interlopers. Ask it if a white cloud would work in for paintings of day-time scenes?”

“The form will work on making that connection as well,” Cooney said. It was obviously much better at image transfers than Ainsley.

“What I don’t understand is how Howard and his associates would ever travel to the other dimension. For that matter why would the forms want to come here when what they have seems like paradise?”

“It is; the form is fascinated by your paintings and wants to see if she could create ones of her dimension. At the same time, it shows humans examining its dimension with what looks like a wrought iron fence blocking them.”

As Cooney spoke, the pencils moved across the blank canvas creating the outline of a scene for her to paint. “Go to the sketch she’s created and think about different colors.”

Ainsley sat on her stool and held up brushes and tubes of paint. The form appeared beside her and without holding a brush, painted the scene just as it must have done with the porthole one. The tube would apply a dollop of paint rolled onto the mixing pallet that hovered in front of the canvas. Then a brush applied it. Then the scene was touched up with other colors before another area was painted.

“It paints in the same style as you; it must have learned by watching you,” Cooney said.

Ainsley felt mostly confused although she wished she could paint as quickly as the form did. The painting finished, and then a moon appeared in the scene. 

“I wonder if her painting would work as a portal.”

“While Howard can tell us if it does, I don’t want him to learn about the form.”

Cooney’s green light shone brightly. “I’ll tell him I was looking for ideas of portals you could paint. I found a bunch of fantasy books with imaginative covers of other worlds and they inspired you to paint this one.”

Ainsley patted Cooney, and then faced the form. “You’re welcome here whenever you want to visit. I’ll try to improve at sending you my words as images and at understanding yours.”

A warm sensation spread over Ainsley, and then the form positioned itself on the couch beside the wing-backed chair.

“If its color was any brighter, it would be blinding,” Cooney said. “You must have told it exactly what it wanted to hear.” 

“We could learn a lot from it.”  

“It could assist you to become a famous artist. Then you could purchase me from Howard. Maybe I could use the moon to learn more about their worlds. The form is really a mobile intelligence. Maybe I could evolve into the same thing.”

The Window – a short story by Alex Binkley

This is one of my short stories. As a wise writer said, the hardest part of writing a short story is keeping it short. They all want to become novels. Comments welcome. – Alex

Ainsley Smyth held her breath as another couple strolled toward her booth.

She had sold 10 landscapes within three hours of the art show’s opening. Finally she had enough money in her bank account to enable her to reduce her hours working at the coffee shop and devote more time to painting, her goal since finishing art school.

Several customers had left their names for notification of her next show. Some had described the kinds of scenes they wanted. She envisaged the landscapes and seashore vistas she would create for them. Finally her career was coming together.

The couple barely glanced at her remaining piece before moving on. It showed was a double hung window partly open to let a gentle summer breeze ripple lace curtains. Hints of a garden, trees and a rubber tire swing hovered in the background.

While artist friends told her it was a good painting, to Ainsley it did not fit with her other works because it lacked the sweeping scenery she had become known for. Even when she pointed it out, no one seemed to see it.

She had dumped it in the garbage, and then retrieved it saying she would reuse the canvas. When she could not bring herself to paint over the scene, she tried offering it free with no takers. It was like a stray mutt that had adopted her. She called it The Window. Unlike her other works, she had no memory of painting it.

Three fashionably-dressed women did not slow for a look at it. Under the terms of the show, exhibitors could only leave before closing time if all their pieces were sold. It was early afternoon and she could be outside enjoying the sunshine.

While close to 100 people wandered from artist to artist stopping at most exhibits for a chat, they kept walking past her.

She rearranged the promotional material for her studio, and then pulled out her sketch pad to work on ideas for her next paintings. The clock mounted above the entrance to the display room read 1:30 pm. Four o’clock seemed so far away.

She glanced at the painting and to her surprise, a man was examining it. She had not heard him arrive.

People usually stepped back to get a better view of a painting. He stood so close his nose was almost touching it. His head moved as if peering out both sides of the window as well as the top and bottom. Did he expect to see something?

Ainsley shook her head. Most art lovers babbled on about colors and images and where they could hang the piece. He kept examining it. She tiptoed around the desk and approached him wondering how to inquire about his usual form of art appraisal.

Five steps away him she saw something move in the background of the painting. A scream formed in her throat, but stayed there. This is a painting, not an animation.

“Just take a deep breath and let it out slowly,” the man said without taking his eyes off the picture. She inhaled. “My apologies, Ms. Smythe.” The man faced her. “I should’ve been more careful. You shouldn’t have seen that.”

Ainsley could not get any words out.

“We knew a portal had been created but until now we couldn’t find it.” The man’s soft voice did not mask his excitement. Ainsley still could not say a word. “How much do you want for it? All I have with me is $400.” He pulled the cash out of his pocket.

That was more than a full week’s shift at the coffee shop. The man wore a light blue polo shirt, brown shorts and running shoes. His black hair was cut short. Overall, his appearance was respectable but not flashy. “Name’s Harvey Abrams.”

Ainsley hesitated in case her voice conveyed her guilt about accepting so much for a painting she despised. “Why are you interested in it?”

“I came to the show after reading the article in Brush Strokes on the grandeur of your renderings hoping you might be able to create portals for us. The last thing I expected was to find you’d already painted one.”

“That?” she said, pointing at The Window.

Harvey nodded. “It might sound delusional to you but you did spot a creature moving. Rare is the artist who can create portals with the range of yours.”

Ainsley glanced around to make sure they were alone. “What is this all about and what moved in the painting?”

“Step closer to it.” When she did, Harvey placed his hand on the window frame.

The scene came to life. In the background she spotted towering snow capped mountains and great soaring birds. She leaned forward. A large animal shuffled through a meadow. Its meandering gait resembled a bear in no hurry to go anywhere. “So what am I seeing?”

“Another dimension.” Harvey removed his hand and the faint outline of the swing returned. He handed her the money and produced a business card. It said he was a temporal and timeline consultant. “I have a lot of customers with special requirements.”

“Watching other dimensions?”

“It’s connected and your portals will play an important role in our work. I only let you see it briefly because when anyone other than a watcher looks through a portal it alerts ….” He hummed. “Let’s call them the bad guys.

“They would wreak havoc if they got into our world. I can watch without them noticing. I look for other things too.”

Ainsley stuffed the cash in her purse and pulled out her receipt book. Too bad Harvey was odd, she thought as she filled out the slip of paper. Still she would like someone to celebrate selling all her paintings. His comments about portals and other dimensions had raised a lot of questions.

“Would you please keep my card handy?” he said. “Someday you’ll paint another portal and we’ll pay well for it. Don’t worry. It won’t be for a while. It’d be a shame to interrupt your landscapes.”

She held out her hand. “Would you like to go for a coffee?”

“I prefer tea.”

She loaded her notes and promotional material into her bag and took a step toward the entrance.

“If I carry the painting unwrapped, people will see what you did in it,” Harvey said. “If you would take it to where they wrap it in brown paper, I can carry it from there. Even if I trigger the portal, no one will see it.”

Once they were outside the building, Harvey pulled out his phone and typed in a number. He did not identify himself to whoever answered. “Portal secured. Works better than expected. Discussing acquisition of additional ones.”

After stowing the painting in his SUV, he stepped away and locked the vehicle with the obligatory squawk. He typed a second code. “That ensures a nasty surprise for anyone who attempts to break into it.” They walked to the coffee shop.

Harvey remembered every detail about her that was in the Brush Strokes article. She selected a table on the patio where they could chat without being overheard. She waited until they were seated before questioning him.

“I’m both an electrical and computer software engineer,” he explained. “One of my pals took astro-physics and became intrigued in the research into other or parallel dimensions to ours. He roped me into helping him understand the physics of parallel dimensions and I was hooked. While I’m busy enough as an engineer, some of my assignments have led me deeper into the concept. But until now, our ability to see into them was limited to technology that isn’t anywhere effective as your portal.”

“Do you have other portals?”

“Yours is the first and when you’re ready, we need more. Money is no object for the people I work with.”

“Could we just make copies of that picture; the process is fairly inexpensive these days.”

“My understanding is that only original paintings work.”

“If I painted the same scene from scratch?”

Harvey shook his head. “I doubt it.”

“I wish I could remember what was going on in my head when I painted it. Any idea on what kind of scenes would work.”

“I’ve been wondering about that. I don’t know what’s in The Window that enables me to see other dimensions.”

“Ponds have been used in literature to enable people to see what’s happening elsewhere.”

“That might work if there is a sense of depth to the water or something mysterious hinted at in its depths. Perhaps a shadow.”

Ainsley pulled out her tablet. “I’ve copies of all my paintings on this. Maybe one will give you some ideas.” She passed the tablet to him. “You’ve a lot of security on your vehicle.”

“The bad guys have agents in this dimension and they try to disrupt our efforts to monitor their bosses. They’ll be a threat to you and we’ll provide you with special security. I’ll bring it to your place once it’s fully programed. I’ll show you how to expand its capabilities and knowledge of what you do. It does ask a lot of questions.”

“Will it follow me around?”

“No because it’ll be too obvious and attract a lot of attention. It’ll monitor your whereabouts when you’re at work or out. It should also be able to determine whether what you’re working on has the potential to be a portal.”