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´╗┐Title: Pen Pal
Author: Marlowe, Stephen
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Pen Pal" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                                PEN PAL

                       Illustrated by DON SIBLEY

                           By MILTON LESSER

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                   Galaxy Science Fiction July 1951.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



          All she wanted was a mate and she had the gumption
              to go out and hunt one down. But that meant
              poaching in a strictly forbidden territory!


The best that could be said for Matilda Penshaws was that she was
something of a paradox. She was thirty-three years old, certainly not
aged when you consider the fact that the female life expectancy is now
up in the sixties, but the lines were beginning to etch their permanent
paths across her face and now she needed certain remedial undergarments
at which she would have scoffed ten or even five years ago. Matilda was
also looking for a husband.

This, in itself, was not unusual--but Matilda was so completely
wrapped up in the romantic fallacy of her day that she sought a prince
charming, a faithful Don Juan, a man who had been everywhere and tasted
of every worldly pleasure and who now wanted to sit on a porch and
talk about it all to Matilda.

The fact that in all probability such a man did not exist disturbed
Matilda not in the least. She had been known to say that there are over
a billion men in the world, a goodly percentage of whom are eligible
bachelors, and that the right one would come along simply because she
had been waiting for him.

Matilda, you see, had patience.

She also had a fetish. Matilda had received her A.B. from exclusive
Ursula Johns College and Radcliff had yielded her Masters degree, yet
Matilda was an avid follower of the pen pal columns. She would read
them carefully and then read them again, looking for the masculine
names which, through a system known only to Matilda, had an affinity
to her own. To the gentlemen upon whom these names were affixed,
Matilda would write, and she often told her mother, the widow Penshaws,
that it was in this way she would find her husband. The widow Penshaws
impatiently told her to go out and get dates.

       *       *       *       *       *

That particular night, Matilda pulled her battered old sedan into the
garage and walked up the walk to the porch. The widow Penshaws was
rocking on the glider and Matilda said hello.

The first thing the widow Penshaws did was to take Matilda's left hand
in her own and examine the next-to-the-last finger.

"I thought so," she said. "I knew this was coming when I saw that look
in your eye at dinner. Where is Herman's engagement ring?"

Matilda smiled. "It wouldn't have worked out, Ma. He was too darned
stuffy. I gave him his ring and said thanks anyway and he smiled
politely and said he wished I had told him sooner because his fifteenth
college reunion was this weekend and he had already turned down the
invitation."

The widow Penshaws nodded regretfully. "That was thoughtful of Herman
to hide his feelings."

"Hogwash!" said her daughter. "He has no true feelings. He's sorry that
he had to miss his college reunion. That's all he has to hide. A stuffy
Victorian prude and even less of a man than the others."

"But, Matilda, that's your fifth broken engagement in three years. It
ain't that you ain't popular, but you just don't want to cooperate.
You don't _fall_ in love, Matilda--no one does. Love osmoses into you
slowly, without you even knowing, and it keeps growing all the time."

Matilda admired her mother's use of the word osmosis, but she found
nothing which was not objectionable about being unaware of the impact
of love. She said good-night and went upstairs, climbed out of her
light summer dress and took a cold shower.

She began to hum to herself. She had not yet seen the pen pal section
of the current _Literary Review_, and because the subject matter of
that magazine was somewhat highbrow and cosmopolitan, she could expect
a gratifying selection of pen pals.

She shut off the shower, brushed her teeth, gargled, patted herself
dry with a towel, and jumped into bed, careful to lock the door of her
bedroom. She dared not let the widow Penshaws know that she slept in
the nude; the widow Penshaws would object to a girl sleeping in the
nude, even if the nearest neighbor was three hundred yards away.

Matilda switched her bed lamp on and dabbed some citronella on each
ear lobe and a little droplet on her chin (how she hated insects!).
Then she propped up her pillows--two pillows partially stopped her
post-nasal drip; and took the latest issue of the _Literary Review_
off the night table.

She flipped through the pages and came to personals. Someone in
Nebraska wanted to trade match books; someone in New York needed a
midwestern pen pal, but it was a woman; an elderly man interested in
ornithology wanted a young chick correspondent interested in the same
subject; a young, personable man wanted an editorial position because
he thought he had something to offer the editorial world; and--

       *       *       *       *       *

Matilda read the next one twice. Then she held it close to the light
and read it again. The _Literary Review_ was one of the few magazines
which printed the name of the advertiser rather than a box number, and
Matilda even liked the sound of the name. But mostly, she had to admit
to herself, it was the flavor of the wording. This very well could be
_it_. Or, that is, _him_.

    Intelligent, somewhat egotistical male who's really been around,
    whose universal experience can make the average cosmopolite look
    like a provincial hick, is in need of several female
    correspondents: must be intelligent, have gumption, be capable of
    listening to male who has a lot to say and wants to say it. All
    others need not apply. Wonderful opportunity cultural
    experience ... Haron Gorka, Cedar Falls, Ill.

The man was egotistical, all right; Matilda could see that. But she had
never minded an egotistical man, at least not when he had something
about which he had a genuine reason to be egotistical. The man sounded
as though he would have reason indeed. He only wanted the best because
he was the best. Like calls to like.

The name--Haron Gorka: its oddness was somehow beautiful to Matilda.
Haron Gorka--the nationality could be anything. And that was it. He had
no nationality for all intents and purposes; he was an international
man, a figure among figures, a paragon....

Matilda sighed happily as she put out the light. The moon shone in
through the window brightly, and at such times Matilda generally would
get up, go to the cupboard, pull out a towel, take two hairpins from
her powder drawer, pin the towel to the screen of her window, and hence
keep the disturbing moonlight from her eyes. But this time it did not
disturb her, and she would let it shine. Cedar Falls was a small town
not fifty miles from her home, and she'd get there a hop, skip, and
jump ahead of her competitors, simply by arriving in person instead of
writing a letter.

Matilda was not yet that far gone in years or appearance. Dressed
properly, she could hope to make a favorable impression in person, and
she felt it was important to beat the influx of mail to Cedar Falls.

       *       *       *       *       *

Matilda got out of bed at seven, tiptoed into the bathroom, showered
with a merest wary trickle of water, tiptoed back into her bedroom,
dressed in her very best cotton over the finest of uplifting and
figure-moulding underthings, made sure her stocking seams were
perfectly straight, brushed her suede shoes, admired herself in the
mirror, read the ad again, wished for a moment she were a bit younger,
and tiptoed downstairs.

The widow Penshaws met her at the bottom of the stairwell.

"Mother," gasped Matilda. Matilda always gasped when she saw something
unexpected. "What on earth are you doing up?"

The widow Penshaws smiled somewhat toothlessly, having neglected to put
in both her uppers and lowers this early in the morning. "I'm fixing
breakfast, of course...."

Then the widow Penshaws told Matilda that she could never hope to sneak
about the house without her mother knowing about it, and that even
if she were going out in response to one of those foolish ads in the
magazines, she would still need a good breakfast to start with like
only mother could cook. Matilda moodily thanked the widow Penshaws.

       *       *       *       *       *

Driving the fifty miles to Cedar Falls in a little less than an hour,
Matilda hummed Mendelssohn's Wedding March all the way. It was her
favorite piece of music. Once, she told herself: Matilda Penshaws, you
are being premature about the whole thing. But she laughed and thought
that if she was, she was, and, meanwhile, she could only get to Cedar
Falls and find out.

And so she got there.

The man in the wire cage at the Cedar Falls post office was a
stereotype. Matilda always liked to think in terms of stereotypes. This
man was small, roundish, florid of face, with a pair of eyeglasses
which hung too far down on his nose. Matilda knew he would peer over
his glasses and answer questions grudgingly.

"Hello," said Matilda.

The stereotype grunted and peered at her over his glasses. Matilda
asked him where she could find Haron Gorka.

"What?"

"I said, where can I find Haron Gorka?"

"Is that in the United States?"

"It's not a that; it's a he. Where can I find him? Where does he live?
What's the quickest way to get there?"

The stereotype pushed up his glasses and looked at her squarely. "Now
take it easy, ma'am. First place, I don't know any Haron Gorka--"

Matilda kept the alarm from creeping into her voice. She muttered an
_oh_ under her breath and took out the ad. This she showed to the
stereotype, and he scratched his bald head. Then he told Matilda almost
happily that he was sorry he couldn't help her. He grudgingly suggested
that if it really were important, she might check with the police.

Matilda did, only they didn't know any Haron Gorka, either. It turned
out that no one did: Matilda tried the general store, the fire
department, the city hall, the high school, all three Cedar Falls gas
stations, the livery stable, and half a dozen private dwellings at
random. As far us the gentry of Cedar Falls was concerned, Haron Gorka
did not exist.

Matilda felt bad, but she had no intention of returning home this
early. If she could not find Haron Gorka, that was one thing; but she
knew that she'd rather not return home and face the widow Penshaws, at
least not for a while yet. The widow Penshaws meant well, but she liked
to analyze other people's mistakes, especially Matilda's.

Accordingly, Matilda trudged wearily toward Cedar Falls' small and
unimposing library. She could release some of her pent-up aggression by
browsing through the dusty slacks.

This she did, but it was unrewarding. Cedar Falls had what might be
called a microscopic library, and Matilda thought that if this small
building were filled with microfilm rather than books, the library
still would be lacking. Hence she retraced her steps and nodded to the
old librarian as she passed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Then Matilda frowned. Twenty years from now, this could be Matilda
Penshaws--complete with plain gray dress, rimless spectacles, gray
hair, suspicious eyes, and a broom-stick figure....

On the other hand--why not? Why couldn't the librarian help her? Why
hadn't she thought of it before? Certainly a man as well-educated as
Haron Gorka would be an avid reader, and unless he had a permanent
residence here in Cedar Palls, one couldn't expect that he'd have his
own library with him. This being the case, a third-rate collection
of books was far better than no collection at all, and perhaps the
librarian would know Mr. Haron Gorka.

Matilda cleared her throat. "Pardon me," she began. "I'm looking for--"

"Haron Gorka." The librarian nodded.

"How on earth did you know?"

"That's easy. You're the sixth young woman who came here inquiring
about that man today. Six of you--five others in the morning, and now
you in the afternoon. I never did trust this Mr. Gorka...."

Matilda jumped as if she had been struck strategically from the rear.
"You know him? You know Haron Gorka?"

"Certainly. Of course I know him. He's our steadiest reader here at
the library. Not a week goes by that he doesn't take out three, four
books. Scholarly gentleman, but not without charm. If I were twenty
years younger--"

Matilda thought a little flattery might be effective. "Only ten," she
assured the librarian. "Ten years would be more than sufficient, I'm
sure."

"Are you? Well. Well, well." The librarian did something with the back
of her hair, but it looked the same as before. "Maybe you're right.
Maybe you're right at that." Then she sighed. "But I guess a miss is as
good as a mile."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean anyone would like to correspond with Haron Gorka. Or to know
him well. To be considered his friend. Haron Gorka...."

The librarian seemed about to soar off into the air someplace, and if
five women had been here first, Matilda was now definitely in a hurry.

"Um, where can I find Mr. Gorka?"

"I'm not supposed to do this, you know. We're not permitted to give the
addresses of any of our people. Against regulations, my dear."

"What about the other five women?"

"They convinced me that I ought to give them his address."

Matilda reached into her pocket-book and withdrew a five dollar bill.
"Was this the way?" she demanded. Matilda was not very good at this
sort of thing.

The librarian shook her head.

Matilda nodded shrewdly and added a twin brother to the bill in her
hand. "Then is this better?"

"That's worse. I wouldn't take your money--"

"Sorry. What then?"

"If I can't enjoy an association with Haron Gorka directly, I still
could get the vicarious pleasure of your contact with him. Report to me
faithfully and you'll get his address. That's what the other five will
do, and with half a dozen of you, I'll get an overall picture. Each one
of you will tell me about Haron Gorka, sparing no details. You each
have a distinct personality, of course, and it will color each picture
considerably. But with six of you reporting, I should receive my share
of vicarious enjoyment. Is it--ah--a deal?"

Matilda assured her that it was, and, breathlessly, she wrote down the
address. She thanked the librarian and then she went out to her car,
whistling to herself.

       *       *       *       *       *

Haron Gorka lived in what could have been an agrarian estate, except
that the land no longer was being tilled. The house itself had fallen
to ruin. This surprised Matilda, but she did not let it keep her
spirits in check. Haron Gorka, the man, was what counted, and the
librarian's account of him certainly had been glowing enough. Perhaps
he was too busy with his cultural pursuits to pay any real attention to
his dwelling. That was it, of course: the conspicuous show of wealth or
personal industry meant nothing at all to Haron Gorka. Matilda liked
him all the more for it.

There were five cars parked in the long driveway, and now Matilda's
made the sixth. In spite of herself, she smiled. She had not been the
only one with the idea to visit Haron Gorka in person. With half a
dozen of them there, the laggards who resorted to posting letters would
be left far behind. Matilda congratulated herself for what she thought
had been her ingenuity, and which now turned out to be something which
she had in common with five other women. You live and learn, thought
Matilda. And then, quite annoyedly, she berated herself for not having
been the first. Perhaps the other five all were satisfactory; perhaps
she wouldn't be needed; perhaps she was too late....

       *       *       *       *       *

As it turned out, she wasn't. Not only that, she was welcomed with open
arms. Not by Haron Gorka; that she really might have liked. Instead,
someone she could only regard as a menial met her, and when he asked
had she come in response to the advertisement, she nodded eagerly.
He told her that was fine and he ushered her straight into a room
which evidently was to be her living quarters. It contained a small
undersized bed, a table, and a chair, and, near a little slot in the
wall, there was a button.

"You want any food or drink," the servant told her, "and you just press
that button. The results will surprise you."

"What about Mr. Gorka?"

"When he wants you, he will send for you. Meanwhile, make yourself to
home, lady, and I will tell him you are here."

A little doubtful now, Matilda thanked him and watched him leave. He
closed the door softly behind his retreating feet, but Matilda's ears
had not missed the ominous click. She ran to the door and tried to open
it, but it would not budge. It was locked--from the outside.

It must be said to Matilda's favor that she sobbed only once. After
that she realized that what is done is done and here, past thirty,
she wasn't going to be girlishly timid about it. Besides, it was not
her fault if, in his unconcern, Haron Gorka had unwittingly hired a
neurotic servant.

For a time Matilda paced back and forth in her room, and of what was
going on outside she could hear nothing. In that case, she would
pretend that there was nothing outside the little room, and presently
she lay down on the bed to take a nap. This didn't last long, however:
she had a nightmare in which Haron Gorka appeared as a giant with two
heads, but, upon awaking with a start, she immediately ascribed that to
her overwrought nerves.

At that point she remembered what the servant had said about food and
she thought at once of the supreme justice she could do to a juicy
beefsteak. Well, maybe they didn't have a beefsteak. In that case, she
would take what they had, and, accordingly, she walked to the little
slot in the wall and pressed the button.

She heard the whir of machinery. A moment later there was a soft
sliding sound. Through the slot first came a delicious aroma, followed
almost instantly by a tray. On the tray were a bowl of turtle soup,
mashed potatoes, green peas, bread, a strange cocktail, root-beer, a
parfait--and a thick tenderloin sizzling in hot butter sauce.

Matilda gasped once and felt about to gasp again--but by then her
salivary glands were working overtime, and she ate her meal. The fact
that it was precisely what she would have wanted could, of course, be
attributed to coincidence, and the further fact that everything was
extremely palatable made her forget all about Haron Gorka's neurotic
servant.

When she finished her meal a pleasant lethargy possessed her, and in a
little while Matilda was asleep again. This time she did not dream at
all. It was a deep sleep and a restful one, and when she awoke it was
with the wonderful feeling that everything was all right.

       *       *       *       *       *

The feeling did not last long. Standing over her was Haron Gorka's
servant, and he said, "Mr. Gorka will see you now."

"Now?"

"Now. That's what you're here for, isn't it?"

He had a point there, but Matilda hardly even had time to fix her hair.
She told the servant so.

"Miss," he replied, "I assure you it will not matter in the least to
Haron Gorka. You are here and he is ready to see you and that is all
that matters."

"You sure?" Matilda wanted to take no chances.

"Yes. Come."

She followed him out of the little room and across what should have
been a spacious dining area, except that everything seemed covered with
dust. Of the other women Matilda could see nothing, and she suddenly
realized that each of them probably had a cubicle of a room like her
own, and that each in her turn had already had her first visit with
Haron Gorka. Well, then, she must see to it that she impressed him
better than did all the rest, and, later, when she returned to tell the
old librarian of her adventures, she could perhaps draw her out and
compare notes.

She would not admit even to herself that she was disappointed with
Haron Gorka. It was not that he was homely and unimpressive; it was
just that he was so _ordinary_-looking. She almost would have preferred
the monster of her dreams.

       *       *       *       *       *

He wore a white linen suit and he had mousy hair, drab eyes, an
almost-Roman nose, a petulant mouth with the slight arch of the egotist
at each corner.

He said, "Greetings. You have come--"

"In response to your ad. How do you do, Mr. Gorka?"

She hoped she wasn't being too formal. But, then, there was no sense in
assuming that he would like informality. She could only wait and see
and adjust her own actions to suit him. Meanwhile, it would be best to
keep on the middle of the road.

"I am fine. Are you ready?"

"Ready?"

"Certainly. You came in response to my ad. You want to hear me talk, do
you not?"

"I--do." Matilda had had visions of her prince charming sitting back
and relaxing with her, telling her of the many things he had done and
seen. But first she certainly would have liked to get to _know_ the
man. Well, Haron Gorka obviously had more experience along these lines
than she did. He waited, however, as if wondering what to say, and
Matilda, accustomed to social chatter, gave him a gambit.

"I must admit I was surprised when I got exactly what I wanted for
dinner," she told him brightly.

"Eh? What say? Oh, yes, naturally. A combination of telepathy and
teleportation. The synthetic cookery is attuned to your mind when you
press the buzzer, and the strength of your psychic impulses determines
how closely the meal will adjust to your desires. The fact that the
adjustment here was near perfect is commendable. It means either that
you have a high psi-quotient, or that you were very hungry."

"Yes," said Matilda vaguely. Perhaps it might be better, after all, if
Haron Gorka were to talk to her as he saw fit.

"Ready?"

"Uh--ready."

"Well?"

"Well, what, Mr. Gorka?"

"What would you like me to talk about?"

"Oh, anything."

"Please. As the ad read, my universal experience--is universal.
Literally. You'll have to be more specific."

"Well, why don't you tell me about some of your far travels?
Unfortunately, while I've done a lot of reading, I haven't been to all
the places I would have liked--"

"Good enough. You know, of course, how frigid Deneb VII is?"

Matilda said, "Beg pardon?"

"Well, there was the time our crew--before I had retired, of
course--made a crash landing there. We could survive in the vac-suits,
of course, but the _thlomots_ were after us almost at once. They go
mad over plastic. They will eat absolutely any sort of plastic. Our
vac-suits--"

"--were made of plastic," Matilda suggested. She did not understand a
thing he was talking about, but she felt she had better act bright.

"No, no. Must you interrupt? The air-hose and the water feed, these
were plastic. Not the rest of the suit. The point is that half of us
were destroyed before the rescue ship could come, and the remainder
were near death. I owe my life to the mimicry of a _flaak_ from Capella
III. It assumed the properties of plastic and led the _thlomots_ a
merry chase across the frozen surface of D VII. You travel in the Deneb
system now and Interstellar Ordinance makes it mandatory to carry
_flaaks_ with you. Excellent idea, really excellent."

       *       *       *       *       *

Almost at once, Matilda's educational background should have told her
that Haron Gorka was mouthing gibberish. But on the other hand she
_wanted_ to believe in him and the result was that it took until now
for her to realize it.

"Stop making fun of me," she said.

"So, naturally, you'll see _flaaks_ all over that system--"

"Stop!"

"What's that? Making fun of you?" Haron Gorka's voice had been so
eager as he spoke, high-pitched, almost like a child's, and now he
seemed disappointed. He smiled, but it was a sad smile, a smile of
resignation, and he said, "Very well. I'm wrong again. You are the
sixth, and you're no better than the other five. Perhaps you are even
more outspoken. When you see my wife, tell her to come back. Again she
is right and I am wrong...."

Haron Gorka turned his back.

Matilda could do nothing but leave the room, walk back through the
house, go outside and get into her car. She noticed not without
surprise that the other five cars were now gone. She was the last of
Haron Gorka's guests to depart.

As she shifted into reverse and pulled out of the driveway, she saw
the servant leaving, too. Far down the road, he was walking slowly.
Then Haron Gorka had severed that relationship, too, and now he was all
alone.

As she drove back to town, the disappointment melted slowly away. There
were, of course, two alternatives. Either Haron Gorka was an eccentric
who enjoyed this sort of outlandish tomfoolery, or else he was plainly
insane. She could still picture him ranting on aimlessly to no one in
particular about places which had no existence outside of his mind, his
voice high-pitched and eager.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was not until she had passed the small library building that she
remembered what she had promised the librarian. In her own way, the
aging woman would be as disappointed as Matilda, but a promise was a
promise, and Matilda turned the car in a wide U-turn and parked it
outside the library.

The woman sat at her desk as Matilda had remembered her, gray,
broom-stick figure, rigid. But now when she saw Matilda she perked up
visibly.

"Hello, my dear," she said.

"Hi."

"You're back a bit sooner than I expected. But, then, the other five
have returned, too, and I imagine your story will be similar."

"I don't know what they told you," Matilda said. "But this is what
happened to me."

She quickly then related everything which had happened, completely and
in detail. She did this first because it was a promise, and second
because she knew it would make her feel better.

"So," she finished, "Haron Gorka is either extremely eccentric or
insane. I'm sorry."

"He's neither," the librarian contradicted. "Perhaps he is slightly
eccentric by your standards, but really, my dear, he is neither."

"What do you mean?"

"Did he leave a message for his wife?"

"Why, yes. Yes, he did. But how did you know? Oh, I suppose he told the
five."

"No. He didn't. But you were the last and I thought he would give you a
message for his wife--"

Matilda didn't understand. She didn't understand at all, but she told
the little librarian what the message was. "He wanted her to return,"
she said.

The librarian nodded, a happy smile on her lips. "You wouldn't believe
me if I told you something."

"What's that?"

"I am Mrs. Gorka."

The librarian stood up and came around the desk. She opened a drawer
and took out her hat and perched it jauntily atop her gray hair. "You
see, my dear, Haron expects too much. He expects entirely too much."

Matilda did not say a word. One madman a day would be quite enough for
anybody, but here she found herself confronted with two.

"We've been tripping for centuries, visiting every habitable star
system from our home near Canopus. But Haron is too demanding. He
says I am a finicky traveler, that he could do much better alone, the
accommodations have to be just right for me, and so forth. When he
loses his temper, he tries to convince me that any number of females of
the particular planet would be more than thrilled if they were given
the opportunity just to listen to him.

"But he's wrong. It's a hard life for a woman. Someday--five thousand,
ten thousand years from now--I will convince him. And then we will
settle down on Canopus XIV and cultivate _torgas_. That would be so
nice--"

"I'm sure."

"Well, if Haron wants me back, then I have to go. Have a care, my dear.
If you marry, choose a home-body. I've had the experience and you've
seen my Haron for yourself."

And then the woman was gone. Numbly, Matilda walked to the doorway and
watched her angular figure disappear down the road. Of all the crazy
things....

Deneb and Capella and Canopus, these were stars. Add a number and you
might have a planet revolving about each star. Of all the insane--

They were mad, all right, and now Matilda wondered if, actually,
they were husband and wife. It could readily be; maybe the madness
was catching. Maybe if you thought too much about such things, such
travels, you could get that way. Of course, Herman represented the
other extreme, and Herman was even worse in his own way--but hereafter
Matilda would seek the happy medium.

And, above all else, she had had enough of her pen pal columns. They
were, she realized, for kids.

       *       *       *       *       *

She ate dinner in Cedar Falls and then she went out to her car again,
preparing for the journey back home. The sun had set and it was a clear
night, and overhead the great broad sweep of the Milky Way was a pale
rainbow bridge in the sky.

Matilda paused. Off in the distance there was a glow on the horizon,
and that was the direction of Haron Gorka's place.

The glow increased; soon it was a bright red pulse pounding on the
horizon. It flickered. It flickered again, and finally it was gone.

The stars were white and brilliant in the clear country air. That was
why Matilda liked the country better than the city, particularly on a
clear summer night when you could see the span of the Milky Way.

But abruptly the stars and the Milky Way were paled by the brightest
shooting star Matilda had ever seen. It flashed suddenly and it
remained in view for a full second, searing a bright orange path across
the night sky.

Matilda gasped and ran into her car. She started the gears and pressed
the accelerator to the floor, keeping it there all the way home.

It was the first time she had ever seen a shooting star going _up_.





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