It was another crappy Friday for Beth McGill. She had slept through her alarm, found a hole in her favorite Agatha Heterodyne t-shirt, painfully combed a snarl out of her past-her-shoulders-length brownish blonde hair, and swore when she saw that she had run out of strawberry jam for her toast. She barely made it to her first class on time, and was met with yet another disapproving stare from the TA. She hadn't had time to pack a lunch, so she had to settle for a decent but overpriced meal at the campus pizzeria. And she discovered that she'd forgotten to charge her smartphone and couldn't follow the updates from her webfriends who were attending the big convention, which made her feel bad all over again about not being able to afford to go. And which made the tomato sauce and grease stain on her jeans seem small.
Beth found herself wondering, again, if she had chosen the right college. She had wanted to get as far away from bickering parents and Midwest suburban life as possible, and Cooper College, a smallish campus in a smallish town tucked into the redwoods of northern California, had lured her with their curriculum, which focused on English and literary studies, and a generous scholarship. But no matter how she tried, she couldn't fit in with the other students. It seemed like no one else there had ever seen a fantasy movie or television show, let alone waited in line all day for the latest Tolkien film; no one else there had ever read a sci-fi or fantasy novel, never mind tried cosplaying as "Harriet Dresden".
She knew it didn't help that she dressed like a stereotypical geek girl. She always wore her green army jacket, faded jeans, black sneakers and whatever t-shirt she felt like putting on that morning. Her thick glasses tended to offset her bright blue eyes. And campus cuisine, and an overdependence on comfort food, had caused her to put on extra weight.
By the end of her last class, Beth had managed to work herself into a state of near-depression. But her mood had brightened afterward, when she ran into Puck on the quad.
Even by the standards of both liberal arts colleges and northern Californian ones, Puck was a bit odd. If he had actual first and last names, he kept them to himself. He was short, half a head shorter than Beth, bearded and balding, and he tended to act like he had seen it all and it still quietly amused him. He also wore socks with sandals; he said it was because his feet got cold otherwise, and fashion be hanged. He was Beth's favorite professor, and the one reason she was glad that she chose Cooper. Puck had taken a liking to her as well, and thankfully not in a way that would have been highly unethical but gotten her an A. She enjoyed his anecdotes about Shakespeare and Austen, and he seemed amused by her day-to-day travails.
The travail that tickled Puck the most was Beth's continuing bad luck with roommates. She had gone through more than she cared to remember since she had started at Cooper, including the one who had fled to Manhattan and become a body-paint performance artist, the one who had tried to blackmail the TA after a legendary frat party, the one who had eloped with the tribal chief from Fiji and the one who had signed with the Harlem Globetrotters. Her most recent roommate had just moved out after getting a six-figure book deal for her real true story about being abducted by aliens.
"Wasn't she on Jerry Springer?" Puck asked as they walked across the tree-lined quad. He and Beth were the only ones not in a hurry; students rushed past, heading back to their dorms or apartments to get ready for the weekend, followed by faculty members trying to beat the traffic.
"She was supposed to be," Beth said, "but she canceled at the last minute. That's when VH1 was trying to sign her to a reality show. I was ready to kick her out anyway."
"Why is that?"
"She spent the rent money on alien costumes and video editing software."
Puck chortled. "So, lass," he said, "was there something else you wanted to talk about?"
"How—" Beth caught herself. "I shouldn't be surprised, should I? You've always known me better than I've known myself."
"Debatable, but do continue."
"Professor..." Beth gathered her thoughts and wrapped her jacket tighter around her as a breeze sprung up. "Have you ever felt trapped? Stuck in a rut?"
"All I ever seem to do any more is go to class, watch TV, study and sleep. It feels like...like I don't have a life. Sometimes, I feel like life is leaving me out, having a big party while I sit on the couch and eat too many appetizers."
"Interesting analogy," Puck said.
"And what do I have to look forward to when I graduate? A dead-end job in an office surrounded by brainwashed wage zombies? Or teaching kids how to get into their own ruts? I mean, what's the point?" Beth stopped, blinked, and reached under her glasses to rub her eyes; the breeze had blown some dust into them.
Puck paused for a moment before he spoke. "You know, lass, most people wait until midlife to have a midlife crisis."
Beth barely managed to hold back a smile. "Professor..."
"Hush, lass." He laid a hand on her shoulder. "It's not unusual for us to feel trapped in our daily routines. I've felt that way myself at times. But it won't be that way forever."
Beth nodded and blinked again as Puck said, "There is one constant in life, and that is change." He paused. "Something wrong?"
Beth shook her head and pulled herself together. "I'm okay," she said. "Just had some dust in my eyes."
Puck nodded. "Of course," he said. "But I have to run; I need to meet with the department head in ten minutes."
"On a Friday?"
"He's buying the first round," Puck said. Beth smiled and nodded.
They exchanged quick goodbyes. As Puck walked away, Beth stared after him. She hadn't meant to startle him, but she had been startled herself, when she had blinked.
For a moment, Puck's appearance had changed. Beth hadn't been overly bothered by his eyes; even though they had seemed darker and deeper, they always seemed dark and deep anyway.
His ears looking as pointed as Elrond's? That bothered her.
* * *
On a nearby rooftop, a crouching figure in yellow, black and red watched Beth and Puck go their separate ways. She stood and wiped a dusty hand on her leg. "JACK-pot," she said with a grin.
* * *
As the sun set, Beth sat on a bench, arms on knees, staring at the ground, mind racing. "So," she said out loud to herself, "either I'm going crazy, or the Professor is turning into an elf. Maybe both."
Beth stood up and looked around. She had wandered along, lost in thought, after Puck's brief change, and had wound up in an unfamiliar part of campus. Across from the bench where she'd been sitting were two classroom buildings, both unused recently due to budget cuts and ongoing renovations. The ground in the alley between the buildings was covered in trash, and the breeze that blew through there was cold enough to raise goosebumps.
Beth shivered in the early evening chill. Then, her stomach growled. "I get the hint," she mumbled. "Time to grab a burrito."
"Why would you want to do that?"
Beth turned and saw a man with sunglasses and a scraggly beard standing by a lamppost. He was wearing a sleeveless black t-shirt, beat-up jeans, and a sleazy smile. "You should get something to eat instead," he said, walking up to her. He paused for a moment, as if he was trying to remember his next line, and then said, "Can I come with you?"
Beth's first thought was Good grief. "No," she said, keeping her voice level and calm.
The man seemed to be shocked by her answer. "Why not?"
"Because, frankly, you're nowhere near my type. And my day's been weird enough already." Beth started to walk away, hoping that he would get the hint.
That hope abruptly faded as the man reached out to grab her. "You're coming with me," he said.
Beth blinked, surprised and startled—
And the man's appearance changed. He was a foot taller, with fallow skin and grotesquely yellow eyes. His dark, greasy hair was tied up in a topknot. And his
teeth, which matched his eyes, were all pointed and sharp.
Beth jerked away from the monster—troll? Ogre?—and ran away as fast as she had ever run, down the alley between the two buildings. Panic moved her, but in her fear, she didn't see the board on the ground in front of her. She tripped over it and fell hard.
She wasn't hurt, but the fall knocked the wind out of her. As she rolled over, gasping for breath, the ogre stood in the mouth of the alley. "Ha! I have you now!" he said. He laughed cruelly as he raised his fist.
That's when Beth noticed someone standing next to the ogre. She was slender and short, not much over five feet tall, in her late teens. She was Asian, Beth guessed Japanese, with brown eyes and ruffled, slightly messy black hair that came to just above her eyebrows in front and down to her collar in back. She was wearing a yellow karate-style jacket with red trim over a black t-shirt and leggings, and a red pillbox hat with a matching scarf that was just long enough to make Beth wonder how she kept from tripping over it. She held in one hand a wooden staff with gold tips; it was taller than she was. She had one fist in the air, mimicking the ogre. She was grinning.
"Now," the ogre said, pointing at himself, "you will come with me." The woman pointed at herself.
"If you do not," and the ogre clenched a fist; again, the woman did the same.
"You will be destroyed!" the ogre said.
"NOT!" the woman shouted.
The ogre finally realized there was someone next to him. He turned to face the woman, looming over her but visibly confused. She grinned back at him. "Monkey Queen!" he finally said, stepping back.
"Right the first time, Sunshine!" she said, her grin widening.
The ogre growled and grabbed a cracked two by four from the ground. "I will destroy you, Monkey Queen!" he bellowed.
"Oh, it's always the same, isn't it?" the woman said as the ogre charged. "I meet a new guy, and all he wants is to destroy me. Whatever happened to romance anyway?"
And with that, the Monkey Queen jumped in the air and kicked the ogre in the face.
He roared wordlessly and staggered back. She landed on her feet and said, "I know. It must be a shock. But can't you just picture it? Our first date?"
The ogre swung his makeshift club at her. She easily bent out of its way. "The two of us out on a moonlit night..." she said.
The ogre swung again. The Monkey Queen raised her staff with both hands and parried the blow. The board splintered, but the staff wasn't even scratched. "...The wind blowing through my hair and your ears..." she said.
The ogre growled and raised a fist the size of a bowling ball. "And you smile and eat the flowers you just bought for me," she said as she hit the ogre over the head with her staff.
As the ogre fell to his knees, holding his head and wincing in pain, the Monkey Queen said, "Well, maybe we should have dinner first. You okay over there?" she shouted to Beth.
"M-m-me?" Beth said, still trying to absorb what she had seen as she sat up.
"Well, I don't mean Sunshine there. Did you smell his breath?" The woman grimaced. "But you still haven't answered my—"
She spun around and had just enough time to say "Uh-oh" before the ogre hit her.
She hit the ground hard, dropping her staff, and didn't move. The ogre roared in triumph. "The Monkey Queen was no match for me!" he said as he bent down to pick her up. "My mistress will be pleased."
As Beth watched, a small voice inside her head whispered, He's not paying attention to you. Run while you can. Get away. Another part of her said, Don't move! Stay still! Maybe he'll forget about you and leave you alone. But then she realized that both voices were being drowned out by the one that was shouting Screw this!, and that's when, to her surprise, she grabbed an empty soda bottle and threw it at the ogre. "Back off!" she yelled.
The bottle bounced off the ogre's head, and he turned to face her. Beth gasped, her heart racing, as he said with a sneer, "So you are brave after all. No matter." He took two steps towards Beth; she tried to back away as he said, "I was told to bring you in alive, but if you—"
The Monkey Queen jumped to her feet and grabbed the surprised ogre by his shirt. "I try to be nice, and this is what I get?" she said as she lifted him over her head. "The date's off!"
She gave the ogre an airplane spin. "Oh well, it wouldn't have worked out anyway. After all, I am the Monkey Queen...and you're a dork." She threw the ogre head-first into the garbage cans. "That should do it," she said, picking up her staff. "Now, are you okay?"
Beth tried to put what she was thinking into words. "I—you—he—"
"I know," the Monkey Queen said with a nod. "Sunshine there was tougher than I thought. But you still haven't answered my—"
"Look out!" Beth shouted.
The Monkey Queen glanced over her shoulder. The ogre, sitting up amid the garbage cans, had pulled a dagger from his boot. "Die, Monkey Queen!" he said as he threw it at her.
"Do you mind?" she yelled as she swung her staff at the dagger. "We're trying to have a conversation here!" The staff struck the dagger and sent it flying back at the ogre, hilt first. Before he could react, the hilt hit him in the forehead. He toppled over, unconscious.
"Say goodnight, Sunshine! Now," the Monkey Queen said to Beth, "let's see if we can get this in a complete, coherent sentence: Are you all right?"
"That's a complete, coherent sentence?" The Monkey Queen grinned.
"Don't play semantics games with me," Beth said. "I'm an English major."
"Gotcha. Need a hand up?"
"Sure." As the Monkey Queen helped Beth up, they could hear someone approaching. "Campus security," Beth whispered.
The Monkey Queen nodded and planted one end of her staff on the ground. She grasped the other end and wrapped her free arm firmly around Beth's waist, moving close to her. Beth's eyes widened as her feet left the ground.
The story continues in Of Introductions And Abductions, the first Monkey Queen adventure! On sale September 19, 2014!
© 2014 Robert Dahlen. All rights reserved, except for "fair use" rights as defined by local laws.