Walsh Estate Winery
April 17, 2013
Six extraterrestrials have slept at the winery. A whole new level of trust. And for the most part, I slept well last night.
The next morning, wide awake and showered, I was packing my backpack. I packed my pre-filled water bottle, wallet, phone, some granola bars and a sandwich for breakfast from the kitchen, a picnic blanket, and a collapsable baton. Enough stuff for half the day. With each movement I made, the literal heaviness in my chest was apparent.
Last night I did more than prep a sandwich. I had to learn terran magic basics all over, then memorize one defense spell from Katie until my mana heart ran dry. Just the shield spell she mastered, but instead of a full translucent dome, I could only make one on my left arm the size of a road bike wheel, for a minute, until my mind drummed up bad memories. Doubt was still with me, but if it gave me a minute of protection, I’ll take it.
Keeji followed me out and down the staircase with my backpack on my shoulder. Katie, Amber, and Shaotzi were already awake and talking away in the living room.
“Morning, all,” I said. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
I approached Katie and she accepted my hand on her shoulder. “You got everything you need? Do you need one more practice round with the spell?” She asked.
“No. I’m good. I don’t want to interrupt what you three are talking about any longer.”
Shaotzi stood behind the couch wearing the same clothes from yesterday, looking well-rested. Amber was partially on the couch, using it as a lean-to with her left legs folded under her. She was in the middle of coming her head hair and fur of flat spots from sleeping.
“Heading off somewhere? This early?” Amber asked.
“It’s something I do every year. Personal stuff.” I wasn’t in the mood to share what, where, and why. Katie felt it was right to give a summary.
“He’s heading out to see his parents north of town,” she said.
“Oh, so you do have family,” Shaotzi said. “Will we be able to meet them also?”
“Eh… It’s difficult to explain,” Katie interjected for me as I squeezed her shoulder a little.
“Really? Then you can explain once you get back?”
“We’ll see,” I said. “I’ll have Keeji with me too. I don’t think Jonathan minds I’ll borrow the sedan?”
Katie considered and said over us. “Hey Dad, can Scott take the Sedan for the morning?”
“Sure thing,” Jonathan said from within the kitchen. Earlier he was checking email hoping to hear back from the school district on Jacob’s incident.
“Go right ahead. The keys are still on the rack. You’ll be back in time before the flights?”
“Yeah. I think I have enough to share five months of stories. They’ll enjoy every bit of it.” Katie shrugged, but a dark joke to start with. “Later,” I said and gave a peck on Katie’s forehead.
“Peace with your kin, Mr. Dunne,” Shaotzi said with a light head bow. Amber waved goodbye as well.
I found and grabbed the sedan’s keys from the key-holder beside the front door. Each hook and key was labeled to a door or machine of the winery.
I closed the heavy door behind me. Keeji went ahead of me only to rub himself on the dew-covered front lawn. Great, so much for a clean seat.
The valley was partially covered in marine layer fog from the coast and the air had a slight saltiness to it. The morning would’ve been peaceful if I didn’t notice Deryl’s men still patrolling the land. I nodded and said morning to John Mertz, the more recognizable agent from memory. Nice guy, but he tends to be uptight on all things tabletop games.
Then I stopped just past the front lawn. A familiar engine roared in the distance. “Now what?” I signed and turned to the gates. Mertz spoke into his jacket sleeve and three other agents jumped to attention.
The Howler Cycle rolled up to the winery parking lot. Jaruka was careful with his driving. He had Domoja riding behind him, gripping tight to Jaruka’s toro with his cane tucked under his wing. Jaruka also had a trailer attached to the bike, levitating a couple feet above the driveway carrying several silver crates I haven’t seen before. The guards watched them approach with sharp eyes.
“What is all this?” I asked after sighing.
“The beginning of everything, my friend,” Domoja said. The bat alien jumped off the bike and walked up with a spring in his step and the cane pinging against the driveway. “In all my years with fringe magic practices, I’ve never felt this excited.”
“What do you mean?”
“This, my friend. Your body. The transformations. The crystals. Vast amounts of untapped knowledge all locked in your mutated cells. The future scholarly work will bring the DEM into a rabid frenzy!” Domoja let out a full-belly laugh. “Oh, today will be glorious.”
Without warning, Domoja took my right hand and shook it. “Young man, this is history-making,” he said and released my hand. “Say. Is Diremoon near here? There’s so much I need her to prep for.”
“Prep for what?”
“Can’t explain right now. Where is she?” His smile reached from each bottom of his ears. He was still dressed the same as yesterday and I happened to get a whiff of an unfamiliar stench from him.
“She’s in the house with Katie and his sister,” I said and pointed at the house.
“Marvelous. No need to guide me, I’ll figure it out on my own,” Domoja said, then walked off while humming a song.
Looking back at Jaruka, he was off his motorcycle, propped against it as he leaned forward with hands on his knees. “Is he high or something?” I asked him. “And don’t tell me you’re drunk again.”
Jaruka looked up, glaring at me, with the largest bags and darker skin around his eyes. The rest of his body had a slightly brighter green hue from yesterday, yet his skindreads were still an overgrown mess.
“For crogen sake, we’ve been up all night.”
Jaruka stood up taking a breath. “Comparing notes. I showed him the wall and your spellbook and he went off the rails learning and digesting everything. Crogen’ forgot how insane he gets with something new.”
“The Charlie Cox conspiracy wall?”
“Stop calling it that.”
“What else is there to describe it?”
Jaruka huffed at me. “I need to sleep.”
“Mind telling me what’s in those crates before you pass out?”
Jaruka looked at the trailer for a second then whipped back to me. “Lab equipment.”
I slipped my backpack off my shoulder, opened the driver's side door, and set it on the passenger seat. “For what?”
“The professor wants to run a full parade of tests on you two. Go deeper into these transformations. Blood, hair, skin, magic demos, whatever he needs.”
“The bat is gonna probe us?” I instantly felt tense from the thought.
Jaruka shook his head and said, “What’s up with you humans and probing? You got a deep-seated kink for it?”
“Look I…” I restrained from even explaining that. I don’t know either. “Do you trust him?”
“Have I ever brought anybody I didn’t trust?”
“Then trust Domoja. He’s good at what he does.”
“Whatever. I’ll deal with that when I get back?”
Jaruka slapped himself and shook his head to keep from falling asleep on his feet. He blinked a few times and said, “Going somewhere?”
“If he wants to do it or whatever he’s planning now, he’ll have to wait for me.” I got into the car as I didn’t want to waste any more time with him. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“Where are you going exactly?” Jaruka asked. I opened the passenger door to let Keeji inside, then close the door.
“Nowhere you need to know,” I said. I slammed the door, started the car, backed out, and drove off.
It wasn’t his business to pry into my personal life and no reason to explain it to him. Time was being lost with him. Even if I told him he’d be suspicious or tease me.
Relief set over me once I was on the main road toward the highway.
Walsh Estate Winery Store
Mom asked me yesterday to manage the store despite being Katie’s turn. Why argue against that? Three days in my element can clear the rest of the jet lag. It’ll keep me from obsessing over the clips.
The large mug of coffee made things better.
As I was sweeping the store’s floor, I heard Dad’s car start up. I had to check it out through the window by the cashier's bar.
Scott was behind the wheel with his totem sitting up in the passenger seat. I was aware of Jaruka coming, that space motorcycle, and its unique sound. Nothing was made out of what they were saying before Scott drove off.
Where’s Scott going now?
Jaruka looked groggy and sluggish. A bad case of insomnia or too much alcohol, I thought. He went around his motorcycle and a beach chair folded out from the rear pannier, and then he flopped onto it like a sack of coffee beans, out cold within seconds. Most of his overgrown dreadlocks covered his face.
“Lazy jackass,” I said, then continued on with the cleaning.
The store was the second oldest addition to the property, followed by the winery warehouse and the cellar, and then the main family house. Grandpa built it first as he and Grandma lived in a secondhand trailer selling oranges in the earlier years. It was his dream to make wine. Everything he built was by his hands, new materials at the time or bought from antique stores, junk yards, and craftsmen by Grandma into this bohemian esthetic. Classy, stylish, but deep with character, including the floorboards that creek every time someone steps on them. The warehouse has the most modern upgrades, but the store and the wine-tasting bar stayed the same, except for the cash register.
I wiped down and organized the cashier bar, a long counter with embedded shelves of wine accessories, and winery merchandise like our t-shirts and etched wine glasses. Two large windows on either wall behind the counter faced the front parking lot and event patio, the curtains pulled back to let in the morning sunlight. The store was fifty feet long and twenty feet wide with each wall having its own purpose. Right of the cashier bar was the tasting bar with twenty bar stools, the star spot to sample wine with food pairings with customers, wine enthusiasts, and locals that made the bar a weekly routine. Used to, I mean. Behind it had photographs dating back to Grandpa building the property and planting the first row of grapevines on the southern hill.
The wall beside the hall leading to the warehouse and far from any sun rays displayed our wine—dubbed The Wine Wall—bottles stacked on their sides in reclaimed wood cubbies. Each cubby had a wooden etched plank of the wine’s name and description. No wine scores here.
I finished the dusting and stocked the wall. Our Cliffhanger Port is our top seller, others had minimal sales. The Victoria Rosé never sells out except for Valentine’s Day.
The two other walls had artisan foods, displayed on a table or in a mini fridge, and a mix of local artisan crafts, commercial items, history books including our own autobiography by a local historian, and the heavy oak front door of the store.
Once done with the cleaning, I walked to the warehouse to inspect the future product.
The fermentation tanks were empty, clean, and sterile, ready for the fall harvest. Some wine is bottle-ready, but everything else is in wine barrels in the cellar underneath the warehouse Grandpa dug by hand or stacked in the far corner five to six oak barrels high.
I entered the cellar via the ramp by the bottling machine. The cellar had the right temperature and humidity for aging the reds and whites. How long they age depends on the grape and what wine to produce. There were two barrels on the checklist Dad and me were closely checking for a while, a limited release from excess grapes from nearby wineries. I used a thief to extract the partially aged cabernet into my sampling glass, checked the must, the deep red color, then took a small taste. The grapes dominant black cheery flavor hit my tongue, then a finish of smoked oak from the barrel. I figured three or four months until it’s ready for blending and bottling. Unless the master vintner, my dad, says otherwise.
I made some notes on the clipboard in Dad’s office, hanging beside the door, then went back to the store.
The heavy door creaked open and I heard Katie talking. That must be the welcoming party, I thought. I cleared my throat and stood by the tasting bar as she walked in.
Katie was in her dark purple polo t-shirt and tan khakis, the winery attire. Her tail stuck out under the beltline of the altered pants. She had a handmade leather shoulder pad on her right shoulder, strapped across her chest and synched tight, letting Arana perch on top like those falconers from Renaissance Faire.
“And here we have our main store and tasting room,” she said. “Back then this was the only building on the estate for years until Grandpa built the warehouse and the family home.”
“And why is it called the warehouse?” An unfamiliar voice from outside said.
“It had the farm equipment stored alongside the wine crusher, but then it all got their own garage a few years away. The name stuck.” She turned inward and noticed me. “Come inside. Meet my big brother, Robert. He’s the assistant winemaker of the family.”
Shaotzi walked inside first. She wore the same clothes from yesterday, yet looked well rested. “Morning Robert,” she said.
“Morning. So me bugging you last night wasn’t an issue?”
“None at all.”
Arana tilted her bird head. “You met her?”
“I couldn’t sleep last night so we talked a bit.”
The second alien, I assumed Amber, walked in next. She was wearing a dark green shirt and what I believed were cargo pants in patches across her lower centaur half. She was straightening her hair before she said, “Hi there. Amber Diremoon.” I shook her outstretched paw. Her grip was strong and I felt a claw touch my skin. “Nice to meet the rest of her family. And an assistant too?”
“Going on ten years,” I joked. Katie groaned.
“So besides my brother trying to be funny,” Katie said which garnered a laugh from Amber, “let’s head on through so I can show your our main patio. Robert, can you set up three flights for them once the tour is done?”
“And besides Katie being a buzzkill, I shall. Wait, you said three? Who’s the fourth?”
“In the back, good sir,” said a voice behind Shaotzi. She stepped aside and I swear I almost screamed.
I’ve seen several species now, including Xi’Tra and her bodyguards when they visit, but I didn’t expect one that unsettled me. Bats unsettle me. One time we found one in the warehouse rafters when I was little and it flew at me after I shined a light on it. A tiny one, yet big to me back then. Had to get a rabies shot, despite not getting bit or scratched. I’m good now, but anytime I see a real bat I get anxious.
I said I almost screamed at the alien, but the slick clothes and mystical-looking cane made me believe otherwise.
“Who, Nelly,” I managed, trying my best to not be offensive.
Katie smirked a little. Of course, she planned it.
“Forgive me, I must’ve disturbed him, Katie,” he said.
“Oh no, not at all,” Katie said, drawing out the last word.
“Ah, good. Domoja Balcusten, sir. I already heard your name earlier, Mr, Robert Walsh.” The bat alien offered his hand, but more like three claws above a tucked wing resembling an arm.
I swallowed and shook it. “Me as well,” I said with clenched teeth.
“Now I assume the tour and this ‘flight’ will be the end of the tour? We must get on with the examinations right away,” Domoja said.
“What examinations?” I looked at Katie and Arana for guidance.
“It’s my series of biological and metaphysical scans and tests on all this your planet is plagued with. Just a bunch of non-evasive tests for her and Scott. Nothing too personal I hope. Jaruka filled in a portion of it from his notes, but I and my department require more than paper and ink scribbles.”
“You okay with this?” I asked my little sister.
“I’m all for it. Wouldn’t hurt to know more about what was done. I mean face it, have any news station or show mentioned any scientific discovery with magic?”
I nodded. “Good point. What about Scott?”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be on board once he gets back from his parents.” Katie turned back to the group. “Now if you follow me we’ll head to the patio and then a tour of the warehouse,” she said with a grin.
She led them through the second door leading to the balcony at the far end of the tasting bar.
As I was selecting the three wines and setting up fifteen glasses on wooden trays marked with the wine featured, I had a brain fart. The kind that causes dismay to rise up inside your chest.
“Wait? His parents?”
I set the Cliffhanger Port down and walked outside. Katie was in the middle of explaining the decor Grandma chose, down to the excessive use of mason jaws on the overhead lights and the ends of the vine rows.
“Hold on, wait. Where did Scott go again?” I asked.
Katie stopped mid-sentence. “You forgot again?”
“I didn’t. You phrasing it threw me off. I thought he was gonna skip it with everything happening?”
“Well, he had to do it. I tried talking him out of it but he wouldn’t let it go.”
The aliens, especially Shaotzi, grew interested in the talk. “Is this a ritual Scott must do?” She asked.
Katie sighed and said, “Scott goes to the cemetery by the air base to visit his parent’s graves on their birthdays and holidays. It’s something I don’t want to explain right now.”
Amber made a cringy sound. “That personal stuff.”
Domoja didn’t join in, just observed and stroked his chin.
“What if he'll get attacked up there?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Katie said. “He has a full mana heart, Keeji is with him, and he memorized the shield spell with my help. What idiot maniac would hurt him at a veteran cemetery?”
There. Full mana heart. When Katie said that, I instantly thought back to Tabitha, her assuring her mana heart was full before the hunt. Me being cocky for evidence. It was obvious none of them heard of what happened. I haven’t told them, and certainly, the media is still silent. What would they say if I tell my story and they get fixated on Tabitha’s condition then a Frankenstein specter traumatizing my team? Do the aliens believe in ghosts? Too much speculation to swallow.
“What’s the matter, sir?” Domoja asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just… had to know where Scott was going. That’s all.”
Katie sighed. “Then can I finish the tour?”
“Oh yeah, yeah. Carry on. The flights are almost done.”
Katie nodded and continued talking, but I noticed Arana staring at me. Deep. With a slight tilt of her hawk head.
I scurried back inside and pulled out my phone to find Scott’s number. It kept ringing until his voicemail message popped up.
“Dammit,” I whispered and dialed again. Same response.
Third dial and no answer. Defeated I left him a message for three things: Get back home, don’t cast any spells, and whatever he does, don’t get spooked.