Lindsay Diamond is a freelance writer and novelist based in Buena Vista, Colorado. She writes travel and short fiction and recently published her first novel, Wrapped in Color and Light. Learn more about Lindsay at www.Lindsay-Diamond.com.
The wash room is covered in tile. The complete whiteness makes me dizzy, and I can’t tell where the ceiling meets the wall or the wall meets the floor. I wish there was some differentiation in color, but in this hospital, where the most desperate cases are sent, total disinfection is a must. White is not affected by bleach, but I am. My eyes water and my nose stings.
Exhausted from my previous healing, I massage my eyelids with my thumb and forefinger, thanking god it was only a child. Children tend to heal faster and don’t take nearly as much energy away from me. Whereas adults, especially those with advanced diseases, can knock me out for days. I scrub my hands and pull my white coat on over my scrubs, which appear to be the only clothes I own. After slipping on a pair of sterile gloves, I study my face in the mirror and cringe.
The sun is a stranger to me, and my skin is pasty and white. Because I sleep in short, fitful bursts, I have wrinkles on my forehead and bags under my eyes. Though I’m only thirty-seven, I could pass for fifty. It’s as though a rain cloud follows me, throwing its shattered pieces upon my head.
As I walk down the hall, my rubber shoes are as silent as day giving way to night. I note the familiar yellow flag over room twelve, which signals where I’ll find my next patient. The patient’s chart is in a holder fastened to the wall. Cheryl Elliot is typed in large letters across the top. I scan the notes, worrying about what I read. She has a stage four cancer in her lungs, and more discouragingly, in her bones. She no longer responds to sound and is barely breathing on her own. Without morphine, she would be in tremendous pain.
Before I realize it, my fist slams against the wall. “Damn it.” Anger swells within me. Not because of the assignment, but because there is nothing I can do to avoid it. No form of protest will yield any result. It’s in moments like these that I feel most like a slave.
Why would the committee choose such a patient? For a group of elected healers, they have little sympathy for the rest of us—those who must endure the pain, who sacrifice their body and mind to take afflictions away from the ailing. But then I read the notes. Cheryl is a single mother of three. Now I understand. They can’t be left alone. The committee won’t allow it.
I take a deep breath and enter Cheryl’s room, which is just large enough for a bed, a small couch, a sink, and the machines that administer morphine. This room is also tiled in white. A picture window is covered by a shade, casting a shadow over everything and everyone in the room.
My assistant is already there, setting up the few things I need—a water bottle and a cool, damp cloth stored in ice.
“Hello Doctor,” she says with a feeble smile, which tells me she’s read the chart, too.
I nod, knowing she’s as worried as I am. “Are you ready?”
“As ready as you are.” She lifts her chin toward the bed, giving another pathetic smile. “Last one for today.”
I appreciate her attempt at levity. But when I turn to face my patient, I realize it’s no use. Cheryl’s skin, which has already begun to grey, stretches over protruding bones. Her mouth hangs open and her eyes stay closed. But, I know her mind is awake and that she hears everything we say.
I check her vitals, pull off my gloves, and lean toward her. “I’m going to begin now, Cheryl. Don’t worry. It won’t hurt.”
For you, I think, tucking a loose strand behind my ears. I fill my lungs to capacity and close my eyes.
My hands tremble as I place them upon Cheryl’s chest, over her damaged lungs. My touch is hard, my fingers sinking as deep as they can. Her skin whitens in places where I press it down. She doesn’t even flinch.
My gift for healing was revealed when a friend fell and cut his shin. As I rolled up his pant leg to take a look, his pain transferred into my hands and arms, and his wound sealed shut as though it hadn’t existed at all. I instantly knew what it meant. Shuddering, I pulled my hands away and tried to shake the power from them. I screamed so loud, trees shook and leaves came loose from their branches. Nineteen years later, I still despise my ability. My body and mind are shackled to death until the day I’m released from duty.
The transfer is slow to begin. My hands and arms numb first, followed by my shoulders, neck, chest, and waist. My body is attacked by pins and needles, and I wiggle, thinking it will shake away the discomfort. Then, I sigh. It never works.
My muscles warm before turning hot, as though I’m a boiling kettle and my blood is water. I breathe slowly and deeply, trying to ignore the surge of heat. I focus on the rise and fall of Cheryl’s chest, careful not to take too much of the disease at once.
It’s impossible to have a life outside of healing. My days lack laughter, the company of friends, and leisurely walks along the river. Rather, images of the sick terrorize me. I hear their moans in the wind and feel the coolness of their skin on everything I touch. To not heal is to suffer from immense guilt, like having a burning iron pressed upon my chest until the beating of my heart slows to a deadly pace. Yet, to heal is to dive into a pool of unbearable affliction.
The first stab of pain I pull from Cheryl surprises me, and I jump like a knife has pierced my shoulder. The feeling, however, comes from the tumor pressing against bones and nerves. I struggle to remain calm as I strip more tumors from her and take them for myself.
The cancer transfers at an alarming rate, more than I’ve ever experienced before. Suddenly, it’s as though I am the one dying. I imagine my body thinning and my cheeks gaunt, though I know I look the same.
I’m haunted as I consider those I won’t be able to help while I recover from this healing—lives left to perish. It’s as though night has shattered, the stars have fallen, and the sun will never rise again.
Willing myself to keep my hands on her, I cry out. “I can’t do it. There’s too much!”
I want this to be the last time. I can’t take it anymore. But I know the nightmares will never go away and that the committee will never allow it.
My assistant runs to cool my face with the damp cloth and hold me upright.
“You’re almost done,” she assures me.
Cheryl’s face turns pink and her lips and cheeks fill with flesh. I see less of her bones and more of her muscle. The pain I experience is still strong, but it becomes easier to bear. I steady myself, pressing harder into her chest.
I’m about to collapse when Cheryl opens her eyes and blinks. She stares at me in alarm, and then her expression calms. She smiles weakly.
I allow myself no celebration but fall upon the ground, my strength stripped. The bags under my eyes push against my skull, and I am surrounded by silence. Death, as familiar as a family member, stands by my side. But, I know it will not act and lament its omission as black seeps into my vision until the light is no more.
Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. He writes of lives that fall with neither safe person nor safe net to catch them. His short stories have appeared, or are scheduled to appear, inter alia, in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Red City Literary Review, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Avalon Literary Review, Perceptions Magazine, Clackamas Literary Review, and Literary Commune.
Friday, February 19, 1982. Berdan Daily Tribune. The Ninnescah County Sheriff’s Department reported a Roads and Bridges employee discovered a nude female body near a ditch seven miles from Berdan. Her name has been withheld pending investigation. The preliminary report stated the cause of death as hypothermia.
Two days after Walter T. Andrews received his prognosis, he sat with his second wife, Shirley, and detailed for the first time both his lymphatic cancer and the extent of his estate.
“Here’s what I set-up for you,” he said, then listed her imminent ownership of his large four-bedroom house with its three-car garage, surrounded by an expansive open area, grassed pastures with healthy oak and cottonwood trees. It exuded the feel of a gentleman’s farm on the outskirts of Berdan, a town named after a Civil War Colonel all but forgotten except for reenactors. His remote lakeside cabin, several life insurance policies, proceeds from a healthy buy-out agreement from his business partners, and a fully paid life insurance policy on her life accompanied the house and land she would inherit. As did a new 1982 Pontiac Trans Am. She sat with her hands in her lap and uttered not a word.
Three weeks after their dinner, Shirley, twenty-six years of age, tall, erect, well-coiffed, her lithe body sheathed in custom-tailored clothing, walked into the mortuary and the mourners saw precisely why Walter T. Andrews, dead at age fifty-seven, divorced his wife of more than a quarter of a century to marry Shirley.
She walked behind Walter’s coffin as it was carried from the wood-framed church Walter’s grandfather helped build. The dust from the wheat fields hit her face, and worked into her nose and throat. She coughed, and the smell of wool mixed with funeral incense merged with the stale hay in the fields and clung to her hair and clothes.
At graveside, Shirley knelt to kiss Walter’s coffin. When she stood, she looked into the freshly dug six-foot hole with its deep parallel walls, and recoiled as if punched in the chest.
She lived as a widow a few months, then without notice, married Seán Tyler, a five-foot, eight-inch seasonal carpenter whose youth, eyes, and strong hands attracted her.
“Why do you do it then?” She asked one evening, after he was laid-off from his seasonal carpentry job.
“It’s what I know,” Seán said.
“You need a better job. I could get you a job at Walter’s factory,” she said, referring to her deceased husband’s old company.
Before her father had died, Shirley was taken on shopping trips to the largest city in the state; she received royal attention from the dressmakers of Henry’s Clothing Store with its polished brass elevators and raised marbled fitting rooms set amid multi-mirrored alcoves, which enhanced her sense of being a princess. After shopping, Shirley and her mother crossed the street to the Innes Tea Room – for ladies only – and ladies with shopping bags from Henry’s were especially welcome.
Seán was from a more diminished world with days of macaroni and cheese, followed by days of goulash, followed by days of spaghetti. His clothing came from south of town at Farmers Service and Supply with bare cement floors and dusty parking lot. The walls of his family home displayed no photos or prized drawings from school, whereas Shirley’s family home resembled a shrine to her development.
Their arguments continued. About his taste in clothes, “I could get you an appointment with Walter’s tailor.” About his table manners, “Here’s what Walter showed me.” His diet, “Don’t eat that. It’s full of saturated fat.” His truck, “I could buy you a new one.” His family, “Why don’t we skip going over there this Christmas. Maybe next time.”
Seán never counterpunched. When her jabs continued, he only glared; and in that glare, she recognized another person gradually emerge.
Within months of the marriage, her emotions slid from cleaving intensity deep into intense resentment.
After two years of marriage and six weeks of separation, Shirley awoke alone to a Saturday morning wind that did not blow so much as gasp, and when it gasped, sounded as if the world had been sucked through a straw, then, like a shotgun blast, scattered the detritus against the double-paned bedroom windows. She turned her head to the right toward the gray-tinted sunlight so common in that part of the state.
Drenched in perspiration, Shirley remained in bed, her eyes alert, her mind raced. The day stretched before her like a gauntlet. She reached for the clock – 7:30 a.m., almost dropped it when the alarm sounded, followed by the announcer’s shouted weather report. “The temperature will drop to twenty degrees below zero this evening due to a mass of arctic air sweeping down from Canada,” then slid into his local sports voice to read the Friday night scores.
She calculated the hours until dinner and smiled. A little cold never hurt anybody with a heavy coat and a warm car; besides that, she had a mission.
By ten that morning, Shirley was in her Pontiac Trans Am driving west. She arrived early for her appointment with Walter’s attorney. Seán watched from his truck as she walked into the building.
Shirley’s notebook pages detailed incidents of Seán secreting himself in the bedroom closet, and his attempts to tape record her activities. One evening as Shirley and her friend – whom she consistently described both in gender-free and fiction-laden terms - sat immersed in her warm bathtub among bubbles, candles, and shadows.
She heard the garage door open, pulled back, sat erect, grabbed a towel, and rushed into the hallway. Seán was at the top of the stairs. He brushed past her toward the bedroom, and shoved the wet, naked man against the wall.
“Seán, come here.” Her voice like a command.
He backed from the bedroom into the hallway.
“You and I are separated, Seán.” Her voice was precise. “You have to go.”
“I am not leaving you with him,” his right arm extended accusingly toward the bedroom. “You can’t be sleeping with other men.”
“You need to leave, or I’ll have to call the police.”
“They’ll arrest you. You can’t just walk into this house at midnight.”
“You can’t be sleeping with other men.”
“I can, and I will,” she turned, reached for the phone, and walked away.
Escorted from the house by the police, Seán’s words, physical feints, revengeful stares meant nothing to Shirley. She repeated to herself, “Poor guy – hallucinating – some sad male fantasy.” She no longer cared. She was young, financially independent, and bored as hell.
It was twilight when Shirley applied make-up and selected a dress. As she backed the car from the driveway, snow was on her front lawn.
The field next to the restaurant was flat - so flat and level Shirley felt that she could scan past the horizon to the corner of the earth. On her right was the remaining wheat stubble that had turned from green to gold, then to dirt gray. The wind burned as it shot past her bare legs. She sneezed, then sneezed three more times.
The restaurant’s fame rested on dinners of fried chicken served family style – meaning that the waitress placed bowls of food on the table and the customers served themselves while seated inside one of the multiple smaller rooms at one of the tables of pine or oak veneer, on chairs as varied as cane back, ladder back, or plastic Windsor. On walls of blue and white flowered wallpaper hung cast iron skillets and decorated ladles, which reminded Shirley of the chipped cup that rested beside the pump handle next to the horse trough near the windmill at her aunt and uncle’s farm.
She walked around the bar to avoid the smokers, and said to herself, “Why don’t I let the Sheriff’s Office do this? They can serve these papers. I don’t need to do this by myself.”
Then she saw Seán, so she pasted on a smile, patted her purse with the documents the lawyer prepared, and glided to the table. She noticed a light blue box with a bow rested in front of Seán. She intentionally ignored it. “This is not going to be a celebration,” she repeated silently.
Under the restaurant’s bright lights, she felt as though she could wrap herself in waves of warm air, then summoned, what Walter called, intestinal fortitude.
During dinner, Shirley aligned the serving bowls, rearranged the corn and the chicken on her plate, finally gave up, turned her fork upside down and placed it on the upper edge of the dinner plate.
She watched Seán eat while she ruminated over her prepared lines, watched as his eyes did what they always did when he had a plan. It was as if his eyes belonged to another person. She saw his jaw muscles contract, and knew his danger – early on had been attracted to it.
Seán set his fork on the plate and reached for the blue box. Shirley slapped a tri-folded sheet of paper on top of the box.
“What ‘s this?”
“Read it,” said Shirley.
Seán pointed to the top of the page. “It says it’s a waiver of service for a divorce.”
Shirley remained silent.
“Well,” he said.
She watched his eyes.
“Well,” he said once more.
“You know very well why. I’m not going over it again.”
He stared at the empty plate, then turned toward the window, “Good Lord, look at that snow. It looks like it’s rolling toward us.”
She inhaled deeply, cleared her throat, and began, “Seán, this is going to happen. I can’t live with-” She inhaled as if for courage. “-with you hiding in the closet and tape recording me in my own bedroom.”
“No. My bedroom,” she said, noticed his eyes, then his clenched fist.
“We’ll be okay if you just stop sleeping with other men.”
“You are in no position to tell me how to live my life.” She stressed the first word with a slow emphasis on the ones that followed.
“The hell I’m not,” he said in a voice that combined a growl and a whisper.
“The hell you are,” she said, then resumed her original position, “I refuse to do this. Here are the papers. Either do it, or don’t. It doesn’t matter. There will be a divorce.”
“And I’ll get alimony,” he said.
Shirley did not bother to respond; instead, she placed her hands on her lap, and said, “I need to go,” picked up her purse and scooted her chair back.
“Let’s take a ride before we say goodbye,” Seán said,
“Just tell me what you want.” She heard the exasperation in her voice.
Seán smiled, “Let me go home with you tonight. I can drive. We’ll pick up your car after breakfast tomorrow.”
She looked at him, “I’ll be right back,” and walked toward the restroom. She had decided.
“Alright,” she said when she returned, then paused for effect, “I’m leaving.”
Seán gripped the arms of his chair, started to push himself up, stopped, placed the blue box in his coat pocket, and slowly turned his head toward the windows.
Shirley walked around piles of snow toward the Trans Am. She started the engine, pushed the heater far into the red, and within moments felt the warmth.
She needed to be alone. On Highway 54, she abruptly turned onto county road 64, and then stopped at a turnoff north of the river about one-hundred yards from Walter’s hidden cabin. She had walked this path many times, and, despite the drifting piles of snow, needed the time to get rid of her anger. Inside the car, she heard the crunching sound of gravel. A hand slapped the top of the car door, then pulled it open. Another hand clenched her left shoulder and pulled her.
“Out,” was all she heard, and felt a sharp sensation against her back.
“That way,” he said, and shoved her toward a ditch near the small grove of trees, sparse remnants of a 1930’s W.P.A. windbreak.
She had grabbed the top of the door with her bare hands, and her flesh stung. Within a few seconds, the capillaries of her hands constricted and sent blood deep to warm her vital organs. The palms of her hands were a painful 60 degrees
Suddenly she was pushed, pulled, and then punched. She heard what she thought were gunshots. Quickly realized the sounds were familiar – as if from an old truck. Distracted by the scratchy snow packed down her blouse, she failed to notice a thin line of blood.
She fell on her back, felt a harsh pain in her spine, followed by complete numbness in her legs. Moisture trickled, then poured down her face. She heard a voice come from a shadow, “Happy now?” She attempted to kick, but could not.
In about ten minutes, blood seeped back into her fingers, her body temperature rose; sweat trickled down her sternum, cold air bit at her. She heard the sound of leaves crackle. The brittle crunch was trailed by the fading sound of a car driving over a gravel road.
Frigid air pressed against her body and sweat-soaked clothes. The wet clothing dispelled heat into the night. As the cold crept toward her warm blood, her temperature plummeted below 98.6. Another ten minutes passed. Her hands and feet ached with cold. She tried to ignore the pain. A clammy chill started around her skin and descended deep into her body. She was unable to stop shivering, and trembled so violently her muscles contracted.
Too weary to feel any urgency, she decided to rest. “Just for a moment. Only a moment.” Her head dropped back. The snow crunched softly in her ear. Forgetfulness nibbled at her. An hour passed. Her body heat leached into the enveloping snow; her temperature fell about one degree every 30 minutes.
Her body abandoned the urge to warm itself by shivering. Her blood was now as thick as cold crankcase oil. She watched helplessly as the snow covered her. At least she had her coat. If only she had worn lined slacks instead of a dress. If only she had worn boots instead of heels. If only she had gone home. If only.
Her breath rolled out in short frosted puffs. Within minutes her heart, hammered by chilled nerve tissues, became arrhythmic, and pumped less than two-thirds its normal amount. She thought only of a warm car filled with furry animals and a fireplace that awaited her – she could not remember where. Then she thought of saunas, warm food and wine.
When her initial hypothermic hallucination ended, there was dead silence, broken only by the pumping of blood in her ears. Her body drained, she sank into the snow. The pain of the cold pierced her ears so sharply she rooted into the snow in search of warmth and comfort. Even that little activity exhausted her.
She slept and dreamed of sun and sunflowers carrying warm, furry animals to snuggle close to her. Her night did not last long. She lifted her face from her soft, warm snow pillow, and heard the telephone ring from inside the cabin. She heard it again, but this time it sounded like sleigh bells. Gradually, she realized these were not sleigh bells, but welcoming bells hanging from the door of Walter’s cabin just through the trees. The jingling was the sound of the cabin door as it opened. She attempted to stand, collapsed. She knew could crawl. It was so close.
Hours later, or maybe minutes, the cabin still sat beyond the grove of trees. She has not crawled an inch. Exhausted, she decided to rest her head for a moment.
When she lifted her head again, she was inside the cabin in front of the woodstove. Walter held her while he spoon-fed her warm soup. Secure and safe, they watched the fire throw a red glow. Walter caressed her face and carried her closer to the fireplace. She felt warm, then warmer, then hot. She was unable to see flames, but knew her clothes were on fire. The flames seared her flesh. Her blood vessels dilated and produced a sensation of extreme heat against her skin. In an attempt to save herself, she ripped off her dress.
The winter storm continued for many days. When the wind subsided, and the temperature rose, the crews were able to clear the roads. Motels emptied of stranded travelers, eighteen-wheelers resumed their western treks, and a county maintenance worker discovered a nude female body near a ditch seven miles from Berdan.
--- THE END ---
Owen Woods is a Creative Writing student in Orlando, Florida. He is 19 years old. He writes old fashioned horror and comedy, in hopes that one day he can combine the two.
‘Till Next Time
Maria raced through the hospital, fumbling through the knick knacks and oddities of her purse to get Maggie’s adoption papers. She was looking for the nearest elevator bank, while avoiding nurses, old men in wheelchairs peeking up her skirt, doctors standing, gloating about a successful diagnosis, and a flurry of telephone rings and paper shuffling.
The hallway in the Oncology wing smelled of cold metal and bleach. The tinge of blood filled Maria’s nostrils but was singed away with the odor of freshly placed iodine on patients’ skin. Deep down, Maria avoided these patients like the plague. She knew they weren’t contagious, yet, she still avoided them as such. Always making it as subtle as a simple side step or looking down before they noticed her brief eye contact.
During the past few months, Maria had spent so much time around these patients that she’d learn to hate them. She had a mission at hand, there was no time for chit-chat. She needed Calista to sign the papers. Calista didn’t have the time they needed.
Goddamn elevators, Maria thought to herself, now shuffling through the adoption papers looking for the one that would house Calista’s John Hancock.
When she found the elevator bank, there was a handful of people getting on and off. A few patients stepping off, holding their I.V. bags, asses hanging out the backside of their gowns, nurses too hurried to look up from their clipboards, and a few more visitors holding flowers and holding back tears. Their faces were unfamiliar to Maria. She didn’t care either way. She had to get to Calista and sign these papers. Maggie depended on it.
Maria impatiently tapped her foot on the elevator ride down to the atrium where Calista waited. The tapping was loud enough for everyone to look Maria up and down, annoyed. What does it matter? Did they know how long they had been friends? Did they have any idea how anxious she was to have a daughter of her own? After all the years of her and Jim trying desperately to have one of their own. Being so desperate for a child, they even had sex on the night of a full moon. They didn’t have a single clue.
So, the least they could do is let me tap my fucking foot, she thought.
The elevator doors opened and Maria flew out, gaining the upset groans and complaints from the strangers inside.
Her heels clacked on the tile floor and echoed in the atrium. Calista recognized the sound and looked up from her wheelchair, only turning as far as her oxygen mask would let her.
Maria nearly broke down in tears when she saw her friend. She hadn’t seen in her a few days, because of her radiation treatments. Those few days were just enough. Enough for Maria to forget how frail her friend had become, how skinny and weak she looked, how big her smile was, and how the light inside was trying so hard to die out.
Oh, Cal, Maria thought, holding back her tears to be strong for Calista.
“Maria!” Calista said, smiling even bigger from behind her mask. “How the hell are you?”
“Hi, sweetie,” Maria said, short of breath. “I’m good.”
“Did you get the papers?”
“Yeah, I’ve got ‘em right here.”
“Quick, lemme sign it. How is she?”
“She’s with Jim. He’s so good with her. He’ll be a good dad.”
“I know so. You’ll both be great parents. Better than I could be.”
“Hey, you shut your mouth. There’s nothing you can do,” Maria paused. “This isn’t your fault.”
“I know. I just feel so bad that I can’t be there with her.”
Maria watched as Calista looked over the papers. She could tell Calista wasn’t concerned with what they said. Her eyes darted across the sentences. Maria watched as Calista made sure that Maggie would be safe and sound with her new parents. Calista signed her name with the last bit of strength that she had.
“Why are you down here anyhow?” Maria asked.
“I wanted to look at this painting one last time,” Calista said, pointing up to the painting hanging on the wall with her bone of a finger.
Maria noticed the finger first.
“This is the painting I saw when we came for the first ultrasound. Edgar had a meeting. I wandered down here and saw this. I sat here for hours. Just looking at it. I came here again after she was born.”
The painting was two men holding hands on a park bench, they sat watching a mother with her child. The painting had reds and greens that swirled in harmony and came together to form the child. The reds swirled around the men’s heads and flowed through their fingers. The green jumped and swirled again, forming the trees and buildings, then into the mother. It was Van Gogh if anything, instead, it was done by some high schooler ten years ago.
“I think it’s a statement. It’s how a mother’s love creates beauty everywhere it touches. There was love in the creation of this painting,” Calista stared at it for a moment, smiling. “It’s called Maggie—the painting.”
A nurse came to Calista and started to wheel her away, Maria stood, “When do you want me to come see you again, Cal?”
“This is it, Maria. I want you to remember me and this painting and how much I love you here and now. You, of all people, don’t need to see me on my deathbed. I guess I’ve always been a little vain that way. I don’t want you to remember me that way. Fine?”
“Okay, Cal. I love you.”
“Hey, don’t worry. There’s always a next time in the next life. You just gotta be patient.”
Calista and the nurse headed to the elevators, Maria watched them.
Calista moved her mask from her face, “Take care of my fucking kid, will ya?”
Jerry Guarino is the author of four collections of short fiction and one novel (The Da Vinci Diamond); his stories have been published by literary magazines in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Great Britain. He has completed four screenplays, The Da Vinci Diamond, The Tightrope, The Sonoma Murder Mystery and Who Stole Asbury Park? More information on his website: http://cafestories.net
The Old Man and the Sea
Tony walked his old dog Sam through the fog in Gig Harbor, down by the boats and past the colorful kayaks standing like toy soldiers, waiting for tourists. Nothing had opened yet. The fog absorbed his mind and body. He could feel moisture on his face and hands. Pausing to take some hot chocolate from his thermos, he wished he had eaten before his walk. The fog didn’t care. It comes and goes as it pleases. The sun had already risen, but there weren’t any cracks in the fog to prove it. The sun waits for the fog to disappear, too slowly for children and too quickly for artists.
Sam wasn’t in any hurry. He reached the age when walking was difficult, when younger dogs ran around him and encouraged him to play, but Sam would just lay down and watch them fetch balls or catch Frisbees with their young families. It wouldn’t be long before Sam would be joining Tony’s wife, resting in peace. Tony and Sam seemed to have that in common, time having caught up with them.
The harbor was changing. Older businesses like a shoe repair shop, a newsstand and a laundry mat had been replaced by upscale eateries, Starbucks and a hot yoga studio. At least there weren’t any pot shops yet, not in Gig Harbor.
Tony walked past a new art gallery. Progressive paintings for the new upper middle class moving into town. No still life or fruit pictures here, but more modern looks at nature and the environment. Art had to have a message now.
Artists love the fog. It blankets the noise and commotion of life. It quiets the mind. It did the same for Tony. But Tony wasn’t an artist. He loved to read, but never wrote. He loved paintings, but never painted. He loved music but never played an instrument. This had become one of his life regrets, having never experienced the joy of creativity. He wiped a tear from his eye. No one was there to see it. Loneliness and regret are brothers who have lived long, but uneventful lives. Their quiet existence hides more powerful emotions, like anger and silent ones like melancholy. He guessed those were his choices now, to be angry or despondent. But that only made him feel more depressed. So while the fog provided inspiration for the authors, painters and musicians, it only served to accent his life of mediocrity.
Tony wasn’t poor. He had saved a bit of money from a small printing business he had started. Now, when he had the time to enjoy it, he didn’t know what to do. His wife of forty years had died a year ago. Their only child, a daughter, lived on the other coast, busy with a family of her own. She would visit once or twice a year, unless something came up. He could afford to visit her, but after a day or so, he felt like he was intruding.
Tony returned from the quiet, foggy harbor to his home, an old bungalow half a mile uphill. The drab grey exterior needed painting and the gutters were filled with leaves from the oak tree in the backyard. He was able to afford the house after leaving the service in 1971, thanks to the GI bill. Ten thousand dollars back then, but paid for now. Expensive housing was going up around the harbor, as tech professionals found Gig Harbor the place to go instead of overpriced Seattle.
With his wife and business gone, Tony was feeling depressed. Maybe it was also the fog and the endless rain that came down in this Washington port town? Should he just hop a flight to San Diego? Would that lift his spirits? He had nothing to lose.
Getting off the plane at John Wayne Airport, he rented a sports car, a red convertible, with black leather seats. With the top down and the sun shining warmly on his arms and face, he felt a little better. Finding a 60s radio station, he began to relax. Then he pulled into Hilo Hattie, a Hawaiian clothing store. He left with enough Socal clothing for a week and even bought a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses. Tony had transformed his look to match his new surroundings. He smiled as he got back into his car
Next stop was the happiest place on Earth. He drove among the families parking in those character-based lots, watching children tug their parents toward the park. He was directed to a spot in ‘Happy’, perhaps the mark of a good day. A woman saw him get out of the expensive sports car, walking to the tram pick up stop. She made sure she could sit next to him.
“Hi. My name is Shannon.”
Tony was startled by this forward woman, who wasn’t unattractive. She must have been in her early 40s, with long reddish brown hair, tied back with a red scrunchy. Her jeans looked new and she wore a light blue Danskin underneath a loose fitting peasant shirt. She was clearly a former flower child, a product of the 60s. Tony extended his hand.
“I’m Tony. Nice to meet you.”
“What a great day for the park, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I haven’t seen sunshine for a month.”
“Oh, why is that?”
“I’m from Washington State and it’s the rainy season. Where are you from?”
Shannon was fudging a bit. She was actually from Dulzura (population 700), a town made famous by Clark’s Pickelized Figs, a company that went out of business due to a sugar shortage during World War I.
“Sounds lovely. I’ve always wanted to visit there. What do you do?”
Shannon continued to fudge. “I’m in the honey business.”
Actually, she had just sold her hives to the company that was really in the honey business. Then she bought some new clothes, packed a bag and headed to Anaheim looking for excitement.
“That’s very interesting. Do I know your brand?”
“Have you heard of Temecula Valley honey?”
Shannon held her breath after this lie.
“No, sorry. I guess they don’t ship to the Northwest.”
Shannon smiled and sighed. “No, mostly Southern California. Actually, I just sold my business. That’s why I’m here, to relax.”
Tony was warming up to this former hippie. Imagine meeting a California flower girl from the 60s.
“What do you do Tony?”
Tony also managed to massage the truth. “I just sold my graphic arts company, so I’m here to relax too.”
Actually it was a small print shop, but was located on 100 feet of Gig Harbor waterfront, so a hotel company offered him $500,000 for the location, and then tore down his dilapidated shop.
Shannon was clearly impressed.
“Oh, graphic arts. Did you work with advertising agencies?”
Tony shifted his eyes slightly. “Of course.”
Most of Tony’s business actually consisted of those flyers kids put on your windshield for pizza and advertising the local dollar store.
“But we were getting a lot of competition from Seattle, so I decided to sell out and take it easy.”
Shannon wondered how old Tony was. He had a full head of hair, not gray. Maybe he’s in his 50s.
“You’re kind of young to retire, aren’t you?”
Tony enjoyed the compliment. “Well, 57, not that young.”
Tony was 64.
The tram pulled into the main gate and they got off together.
“Would you like some company?” Shannon said.
“A young girl like you want to spend time with an old man. You must be in your mid thirties.”
Shannon was 43. “How did you guess? I’m 36. I would love company. Disneyland is always more fun when you’re with someone.”
They bought their tickets and walked down Main Street. Shannon nudged Tony toward the runaway train ride.
“Still like the roller coasters Tony?
During the twists and turns, Shannon snuggled close to him and held his hand, with the excitement of a teenager. Tony could smell her perfume and was able to glance at her breasts during the ride. Good thing he bought the loose fitting khakis. When the ride was over, he watched Shannon exit the train. She was about 5’8” with a few extra pounds, like him. When he exited, he could see a smile on her face.
“Splash Mountain?” she said animatedly, reaching out for Tony’s hand.
“Sure. Let’s go.”
Tony and Shannon spent the morning getting to know each other, stopping for lunch at the French restaurant at California Adventure. As they sat outdoors under the umbrella, Tony started fantasizing about Shannon.
“Where are you staying?”
“Oh, I just came up from San Diego. I hadn’t made arrangements yet.”
Shannon had sold her beat up car, took the bus to Anaheim, with only a suitcase of essentials she had just purchased. Bathing suit, lingerie and casual clothing. Apparently, she was looking to start over, perhaps with this new man.
“Neither have I.”
Tony dropped this as a way of finding out if they might be together that night, but Shannon hadn’t given him enough information. Now it was his turn.
“I was thinking about the Grand Californian, trying to impress her.”
Shannon let her leg slip against his under the table.
“That’s a wonderful place. I’ve been there many times.”
“Yes, I’ve always stayed there when I’m here.”
They looked at each other, maintaining eye contact until one of them would speak next. Each decided it was too risky to make the next move, so they finished their lunch with quiet flirting.
“Cars land? Have you been on it?”
“Not yet. Sure, let’s go.”
Shannon managed to get Tony on all the fast rides where a couple could be next to each other. The twists and turns gave her a chance to slip closer, by accident, of course. Tony was invigorated by this woman, and gladly played along. Still wondering about the sleeping arrangements, he waited for the right time to ask.
Then, late afternoon, after they had rocked and rolled through all the turbulent rides, including the Tower of Terror, they entered the Haunted Mansion, just to rest a bit. The slow ride through the dark emboldened Tony to risk the question, but before he could ask, Shannon slid her hand over him in the most suggestive way.
Smiling, she asked. “Grand Californian?” while slowly rubbing the inside of his thigh.
Remaining as calm as possible, Tony reached over and kissed her. “The Grand Californian.”
Reassured now, Shannon snuggled into Tony, put his arm around her and enjoyed the ride. “We should probably reserve our room.”
So they walked up to the Main Street guest services building and made a reservation.
“How many nights sir?” said the young man wearing a plaid red vest, crisp white shirt and black bow tie.
Tony and Shannon looked at each other. He waited for her to speak. She whispered in Tony’s ear.
“Four nights.” Tony said with mixed feelings. This was going to cost quite a bit, but, well, I’m on vacation.
Shannon gave Tony a gentle pat on his bottom, unseen by the young man making the reservation behind his counter. He glanced at her and returned the gesture.
“And would you like to make a dinner reservation?”
Shannon spoke up this time. “Yes, about 8pm please.”
Tony knew what that meant. Love making before and after dinner. Well, that would give him time to recover. But how much would she desire after that. He started to think of ways he could extend himself, to live up to his hopes and her expectations this night.
“Would you arrange for a bowl of fruit and some champagne on ice? We’ll be arriving around 5:30.”
“Very good sir. The room will be ready. Here is your confirmation.”
Shannon squeezed Tony’s hand, and he realized they were on the same page. No more guessing.
Tony and Shannon had built a wonderful fantasy, based on multiple lies, and neither of them was in any hurry to return to reality. So they continued to redefine themselves in the ultimate getaway from the real world.
There were only a couple more logistics. “Where is your car?”
“I took a limo here from San Diego. My bag is in a locker at the main gate.”
“All right. Mine is in my car. Let’s go get yours first.”
Shannon realized her luggage wasn’t fitting in with her new identity. “Why don’t I meet you at the hotel? I’d like to get a few things first.”
Tony agreed. “Sure. Meet you there to check in?”
Shannon gave Tony a short, but convincing kiss. “See you then.”
Tony and Shannon split up for an hour. She went to upgrade her luggage and lingerie. Tony went to pick up some flowers and chocolate. After all, he was from a different generation.
Their room overlooked the animal park. In addition to the fruit and champagne, Tony placed flowers and chocolate on the table. Shannon didn’t take long to get comfortable.
“You must be tired after the day we had. Why don’t we change into something more comfortable?” Shannon took her bag into one of the two bathrooms. Tony took a quick shower and came out in a hotel robe. He poured two glasses and opened the box of chocolate.
Shannon came out in a hotel robe too, but underneath she had a sexy red outfit. When she got closer, she opened the robe. “You like?”
Tony’s heartbeat jumped a few decibels.
“I like very much.” He handed her the glass and they drank. He fed her fruit and chocolate. Shannon noticed that Tony was beginning to get excited. She took his glass, put it down and led Tony to the bed. She held her robe open, requesting him to take it off. He did and took his off as well, leaving him just in his new underwear.
Shannon pulled down the covers, and lay down. “Come on lover. I’m ready.”
Tony didn’t have to be asked twice. Her body was even more alluring in the early evening as the sun had set with soft lighting from candles speckling the dark room. He tried not to be too aggressive but Shannon wanted to get going.
“Don’t be shy. I’ve been thinking about this all day.”
So, their first time in bed was intense. Tony liked that. He could smell her perfume, something he hadn’t in years. She wore expensive make up too. Perhaps this woman is the start of something long term.
An hour later, they began getting dressed for dinner. Shannon walked into the bathroom and whispered in his ear.
“Now I know why they call this the happiest place on earth.”
Tony kissed her lips. “Mmm. What is that flavor?”
“Something tropical. I’ll tell you after dinner.”
Tony and Shannon continued their fantasy for the next few days, exploring the parks, driving his sports car to the beach and even taking a day to visit museums in L.A. Both wondered where the end of their trip would lead. Each had their own ideas about that.
As they drove back to the hotel from the beach, Shannon posed the first question. “When are you going back to Washington?”
“I don’t know. There’s nothing I have to do there right now.”
Tony had left Sam with a neighbor, so he didn’t worry about him.
“Do you like cruises?”
Tony had to pretend he did. “Well of course, if the weather is good.”
“There’s one leaving to Hawaii tomorrow night. Fifteen days round trip! Are you interested?”
Tony clearly believed he was in a state of grace now. He smiled at her, squeezed her hand and replied. “That would be perfect.”
Excited, Shannon took out her iPad and made a reservation. “But I insist on paying my half. It was my suggestion.”
“How much is it?” he said, trying not to care.
“$4200, but that includes lodging in Maui.” Shannon was buoyant.
“No, I’ll take care of it.” He pulled out a credit card so she could confirm the trip.
“But that’s $8400 total. Are you sure?”
Ugh. She meant $4200 per person, double occupancy. Those damn cruise ads. He swallowed a mouthful of Coke Zero from the can in his cup holder.
“No worries. Book it.”
Shannon finished the reservation and snuggled next to Tony. “Thanks lover. I’m going to make this a cruise you’ll never forget.”
Tony wasn’t likely to forget. Visa would make sure of that. What was he thinking? Oh yes, of course.
“I’ll need to buy a few things before we leave. What about you? Are you packed for two weeks in paradise?” She emphasized ‘paradise’ as she rubbed his thigh.
“Yes, I’ll need some more clothes too. What time do we sail?”
“Seven at night. We can shop in the morning, return your rental car and take a cab to the dock.”
So they spent their last night at the Grand Californian, a repetition of the first three, lovemaking in the late afternoon, dinner, more lovemaking, then sleep, only to be woken at 2:00am for another tumble. Not that Tony was complaining. He hadn’t had this much in many years.
They arrived at the dock at 5:30pm with new luggage, clothing and outlook. They were now officially a couple, on a romantic cruise, with all the expectations that implies. It would either be paradise or a disaster, depending on how they got along. After all, they had just met and sometimes you discover incompatibilities in confined passage.
Remember, Tony thought Shannon was a wealthy woman in her thirties who had just sold her company. Shannon thought Tony was a wealthy man in his fifties. But Tony was living off the $500,000 he got from selling his shack on the harbor. God Bless America. Essentially, Tony and Shannon had reinvented themselves and neither wanted the truth to come out anytime soon.
Tony knew what he had to do. Eat right, take extra vitamins and exercise daily, in order to survive, uh satisfy, his new lover. Shannon had similar plans, but it included setting up romantic opportunities on the boat and particularly in the cabin.
Before walking up the entrance to the boat, Shannon turned to Tony, threw her arms around him and gave him a long, passionate kiss.
“I hope you’re ready.”
Tony hoped so too. He smiled. “I am.”
Hand in hand, they walked up the plank to the boat, found their cabin and settled in. Or so Tony thought. Their bags had already been placed in the room, and the table was decorated with flowers, fruit, champagne and chocolate. Shannon walked sensually over to Tony and began to undress him.
“Don’t we have a reception tonight?”
Shannon continued to undress him, then started to undress herself.
“We can be a little late. I can’t wait that long for you.”
An hour later, they were getting ready for the Captain’s reception and dinner at 7:30. The horns sounded as the boat left the dock. The moon was out and people were waiving good-bye from the shore.
After a lavish reception with gourmet food and tropical drinks, the couple returned to their cabin for, well, you can guess. Tony wished he really was 57 now.
“Shannon, you’re going to wear me out,” he said with a smile.
“How did you guess?” she said seductively. They were both sound asleep by midnight.
Shannon woke Tony up before sunrise. He was half asleep and not ready for her yet.
“Can we sleep a little more first dear?”
“Not that silly. I want to watch the sun rise. Get up, it’s almost time.”
Tony and Shannon, wearing robes over their sleepwear, put on flip-flops and walked out to view the sunrise. It was cool. Fog covered the boat. It reminded him of his walks at home, but Gig Harbor was nothing like this.
“Oh, there it is. Isn’t is beautiful Tony?”
“Lovely. Can we go back to bed now?”
“Of course lover, what was I thinking?”
Shannon led him back to the room, began undressing him for the morning romp. Apparently the sunrise excited her, not that he was complaining. He just thought they might sleep in today, but didn’t protest.
“You first lover” she said as she prepared him for mounting.
Nope. Not this morning. Maybe another day.
The couple spent the next nine days loving and living together as a couple. There were side trips to islands, special nights with those tropical shows where they throw flame torches around and roast a pig in the ground, all accompanied by native Hawaiian music. They bought souvenirs and clothing at local shops. It was almost as if this was a honeymoon, although it was largely indistinguishable to anyone seeing them.
But on the last day in Maui, the weather changed completely. An earthquake and typhoon in the South Pacific was causing massive waves heading to the Hawaiian Islands. Storm surges swamped the waterfront hotels and prevented cruise ships from leaving. Power lines and trees were falling and electricity was going out. The cruise passengers were told they could stay on the ship or on land. About half of the passengers chose to stay on the ship, including Tony and Shannon.
A ship at sea can take an alternate course, away from storms. But a ship in port cannot, it is confined with the local weather conditions.
The cruise director made the most of the inclement weather, providing fun activities for the guests, even a murder mystery dinner that night. Shannon wanted to participate in the show, as some of the guests could join the detective in solving the crime. She pulled Tony in as well, who reluctantly agreed. With help from some Hollywood movie passengers, the mystery was both exciting and realistic.
“Ladies and gentlemen. My name is Inspector Robinson. I gathered you here to determine who might have killed Jonathan Williams, a carpenter from nearby Leeds. We need to search for clues that will lead us to the killer. Officer Hempstead has found some already.”
Shannon nudged Tony, who wore a Sherlock Holmes style hat. All the guests participating wore hats to distinguish them from the other passengers. Shannon wore an Irish Flat Cap and a tartan tie.
“Isn’t this great Tony? Maybe we’ll find the clue that solves the mystery.”
“Let’s hope so dear. Otherwise, it might be a long night.”
“Officer Hempstead, tell the other detectives what you have found.”
“Of course inspector. Here is a bullet casing, from a handgun. It held a 45-caliber size bullet. And in this bag is a substance that was found next to the casing, some sort of material we believe came off the shoe of the killer. Finally, we have some blood drops that led from the casing to that door.”
Officer Hempstead pointed to a door in the ballroom.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a body. It must have been moved. And, we don’t have the equipment required to test the blood or test for prints or DNA from the bullet casing. That will have to wait until we make port. But we believe that with more clues we can identify the killer and secure him, so he can’t murder anyone else. Will you help me look for more clues?”
The guests cheered the bobby on and were ready to search.
“Very well then. Spread out around the ship and look for anything that might be suspicious. Use the gloves we gave you and place any evidence in the plastic bags you have. You don’t want your DNA or prints to get on evidence, do you?”
“Not bloody likely”, said one of the guest detectives. The room laughed.
“Very well then. And remember one more point. There is still a murderer loose on the ship, so be careful where you go.”
The guest detectives moved out of the ballroom and to various points on the ship. Tony and Shannon decided to start with the recreation room at the stern of the ship. It was raining heavily so the clues must have been placed inside the ship, not on outer decks.
“What do you think we’re looking for Tony?”
“I don’t know. Guess we’ll know if we find anything.”
Shannon looked in a large plastic box, which held the volleyballs, nets and other sports equipment. Pushing aside the yellow spheres, she saw something. “Tony, I think I see the gun.”
Tony reached down and saw a gun. Using his gloves, he lifted it up to his nose.
“It doesn’t smell like it’s been fired.”
Tony put the weapon into one of the evidence bags. Shannon couldn’t wait to show the others.
“This must be a major clue. Oh, I’m so excited. Maybe we’ll win the free cruise for solving the murder.”
Tony loved the youthful exuberance Shannon showered on him. It was nice to have someone not preoccupied with their health or finances, the topics that dominate older people.
“That’s great Shannon. Let’s bring it back right away.”
Tony and Shannon headed back to the ballroom. Suddenly, there was a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder. It was deafening, so it must have been right on top of the ship. The lights went out; small emergency lights from the floor came on.
“Do you think this is part of the game?”
“Maybe. Let’s use your cell phone so we can read the signs that lead back to the ballroom.”
Before they had gone ten steps, another loud noise. This was clearly a gunshot and it sounded close. Shannon hugged Tony.
“Tony, I’m scared.”
“I’m a little scared myself. Just hold onto me and we’ll get back to the others.”
They walked hand in hand, Shannon holding her cell phone looking for directional signs. They couldn’t remember how they got to the recreation room because there were too many turns, and three flights of stairs below the ballroom.
As they were walking up the first flight of stairs, Shannon held her phone’s light in front of her face, so she could find the next turn. Then she screamed.
It was a body and it didn’t look like it was part of the game. Blood continued to ooze from the man’s forehead, but he was clearly dead. Shannon averted her eyes and held Tony tight.
“What do we do? Tony, someone was really murdered here tonight.”
Tony was trying to hold himself together, for her sake. But he was shivering and panicked as well.
“Take a picture with your phone. Then let’s keep going.”
Shannon took a picture then scurried around the body, pulling Tony with her. She continued crying and muttering about the body.
“This isn’t fun Tony. I wish we had stayed on land.”
“We’ll get through this dear. We just have to get back to the others. That looks like the second flight of stairs we have to take.”
Just then one of the stateroom doors opened and a man with a gun hustled them inside.
“Be quiet and you won’t get hurt.”
Tony and Shannon wanted to scream, but dared not. Once they were inside the stateroom, the man zip tied them together. Shannon was at the point of fainting and Tony couldn’t help her.
“Well, I guess you found the killer. Congratulations. Did you find the body too?”
Tony and Shannon looked at each other. This man was smiling and not in a killer sort of way.
“We found a body downstairs. Is that where you killed him?”
The man took out an ID card, with the word KILLER on it.
“No friends. I’m the killer from the murder mystery. You solved the crime. Now let me untie you.”
“Wait, we heard a gunshot and saw a man shot in the forehead. That wasn’t the body.”
The man looked panicked now.
“No, the fake body was in the recreation room, in a closet next to the equipment.”
The man took out a walkie-talkie.
“This is Johnson. Two of the guests found me so the game is over. But they saw another body not far from here, a real one. Send the police!”
A panicked response came back.
“The only police are on the island. We’ll have to wait for them. Lock yourselves in the stateroom and wait until we can come get you.”
“Folks, it looks like we’ll have to stay here and be quiet. There’s a real murderer out there.”
Tony and Shannon huddled on the bed, leaving the man to guard the door.
“Is your gun real?”
“No, but maybe it will fool someone coming through the door.”
Shannon curled herself in Tony’s arms and began crying.
“Tony, I’m scared. What if the killer finds us?”
“I’ll protect you dear. We’ll get through this.”
Thirty minutes later the man got another message on his walkie-talkie.
“All right Johnson. The cops are here and have apprehended the suspect. You can bring your heroes back to the ballroom.”
Tony and Shannon heaved a sigh of relief. Lights in the stateroom came back on.
“Good, the power has returned. I’ll bring you back to the ballroom.”
Up another stairway and a few more turns, they entered the last door to the ballroom. As it opened, they were greeted by cheering and laughter. Flying confetti and balloons were everywhere. All the guests had smiles on their faces. The inspector welcomed them in.
“Congratulations Tony and Shannon. You solved the crime and found the suspect.”
Tony was still confused. Shannon hadn’t stopped shaking.
“But what about the real murder?”
The inspector continued.
“No real murder. That body you found came from our friends in Hollywood, several of them were on the ship scouting a location for a movie. Looked real, didn’t it?”
Tony and Shannon finally relaxed.
“Now, here is your voucher for an all expenses cruise you can use in the next year. Congratulations!”
The big band started to play dance music and everyone joined in, as if it was New Year’s Eve and the year had just changed. Waiters brought food and drinks for everyone.
Tony and Shannon had seats of honor near the band. They had a late dinner, and danced a few times. Tony looked at Shannon’s face, her makeup now mussed from the crying.
“Had enough excitement for one night dear?”
“Yes, but the night isn’t over yet.” She took him by the hand back to their stateroom.
As they arrived, they heard an announcement on the intercom.
“You’ll be glad to know that the storm will be moving through the area tonight and we should be able to leave for the mainland tomorrow.”
Shannon was more assertive than usual that night, probably to extricate the fear she endured. Feeling very close and safe with Tony, she was particularly verbal during sex.
“Take me Tony. Oh, take me. That’s it. Yes!”
Shannon moaned and described every feeling she had. As she was reaching orgasm, she dug her red polished fingernails into Tony’s back, thrust her body up and down and let out a cry men know only as good news. But then, an unexpected utterance.
“I love you Tony. I love you.”
Under the circumstances, there is only one thing the man has to do.
“I love you too Shannon.”
They collapsed holding each other and then fell asleep. After a bit, Tony got up to go to the bathroom. He returned to find Shannon sound asleep. They didn’t wake until 9:00am. Tony finally got to sleep in. Shannon was the first to get up.
Tony had recovered from the drama and intense lovemaking they had last night. Shannon kept full eye contact with him as they made love now. She was clearly a woman in love. It made it even more exciting for him too. But this time was fast. She reached orgasm quickly just as she had brought him to climax. When they were done, she shook her long hair around, planted a kiss on him and hopped off.
“Let’s go lover. I’m starving.”
They showered, dressed and were at the breakfast buffet within 30 minutes. While they were eating, the boat horn began to blow, signifying that they would depart within the hour. Guests that stayed on the island were scurrying back to the ship.
Both Tony and Shannon had secrets they were keeping from the other, but they didn’t know that the other person had a secret as well. They were only three days out from the L.A. port now, so there wasn’t much time to come clean.
It was eerie how well they got along, even though the relationship was built on fiction. It was almost three weeks now of idyllic love, food and wine. Like the commercials you don’t believe. Was she telling him the truth? Why would she settle for someone his age when she could obviously find someone in his thirties? What would happen when they got back to L.A.? Tony needed a plan.
Then Tony remembered dropping the ‘L’ word. It was only in response to her sexually charged use of it at the height of mutual orgasm. He didn’t mean it, but what could he do now? You can’t take it back, not to a woman who says it first.
Shannon was also worried. Should she tell Tony the truth, how she wasn’t wealthy, how she spent most of her money already and had only a small apartment in the desert to return to. Why would Tony want to stay with her if he knew? He could easily find someone of substance, someone really in her thirties, and with money. Shannon needed a plan.
She decided she would tell Tony the truth. It might lead to the end of their relationship, but she couldn’t keep lying. Lies always come out, sooner or later.
For a moment, Tony thought of Sam, so he called his neighbor Joe who was watching him.
“Tony, I was hoping you would call.”
“I’ve been busy Joe. How is Sam?”
“I’m sorry Tony. Sam passed away a few days ago. Never woke up. I’m sure he went peacefully.”
Tony sighed and let out a little tear.
“Joe, can you…”
“I already took care of him. The vet laid him to rest in a small pet burial plot. You’ll be able to visit him when you get back.”
“Thanks Joe. I’ll call you when I get back.”
“One more thing Tony. You got two calls, one from a lawyer and one from a realtor. You really ought to get a cell phone. Here’s are the numbers.”
Tony called the lawyer first. Apparently, his wife had an insurance policy she bought that Tony didn’t know about. $100,000. The lawyer said he would wire it to Tony’s bank.
Then he called the realtor. A development company wanted to put up condos overlooking the harbor. The ten acres they needed included his little quarter-acre lot and 1000sf house. They offered him $400,000.
Shannon came into the stateroom and saw Tony crying.
“What’s wrong dear?”
“Oh, an old friend died.”
“What was his name?”
“Sam. We’ve been friends for 18 years.”
Shannon comforted Tony. “I’m sorry to hear that. Did Sam work for your company?”
“No, just someone I spent time with.”
Sam’s death and the two financial windfalls gave Tony an upset stomach. His mixed emotions, along with his worry about the truth coming out to Shannon became too much. He hadn’t told Shannon that Sam was his dog, or anything about the new money. The lies were starting to pile up.
“Shannon. Do they sell phones on the boat?”
“Yes, they have cell phones in the ship store, why?”
“Well, I left mine at home and I’m due for a new one.”
Tony never had a cell phone.
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t used mine much since we met. No one else I wanted to get in touch with. But it sure was handy during the murder mystery.”
Shannon didn’t think this was the best time to tell Tony about her situation, seeing that a good friend had just passed away. She would wait until later.
Tony started up his new iPhone.
“May I have your number dear?” They laughed. Their relationship started with sex and was about to end with exchanging phone numbers.
“Yes, I hope you’ll call me sometime.”
“Tony, I have a confession.”
“Yes dear. What is it?”
“I’m not wealthy. My business was just some honeybee hive. I sold them to a company for a few thousand dollars. I don’t live in San Diego; I live in an apartment in Dulzura? And I sold my car to raise some money to come here. I was hoping to meet someone and I met you.”
“That’s all right. I’m lucky to have met you too.”
“And I’m not 36, I’m 43.”
“Is that all?”
Shannon sighed some relief but was clearly upset.
“Yes, so now you know. Guess this is the end of our time together.”
Tony took her face in his hands and kissed her.
“Not if I have anything to say about it.”
Tony didn’t take this opportunity to tell his side of the story. Maybe he could get to it later.
Their lovemaking that night was just as intense, but even more authentic than before. Shannon was feeling very secure now. She had unburdened herself and Tony still wanted to be with her.
Tony was also feeling secure. With close to a million dollars in the bank, thanks to the unexpected life insurance policy, and sale of his home and business, Tony didn’t think he needed to ruin a good thing with the truth. And now he had a cell phone.
There were still a couple pitfalls he had to worry about. Shannon expected that he lived in some fancy house in Gig Harbor and what about his car, a 1994 Volvo with 250,000 miles on it. Not exactly the Corvette she had been used to.
They were eating breakfast on the deck. The sun was shining. They needed a plan.
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”
“No plans really. My boy is in the service and won’t be home this year.”
“How would you like to go to Boston?”
“Oh, I would love that. I’ve never been there.”
“My daughter and her family live there, on the ocean. And the autumn colors are wonderful.”
“That’s great, but I’ll need some clothing suitable for the weather. I only have Socal digs.”
“Me too. How does this sound? We’ll fly to Boston for Thanksgiving with my daughter, then get a car and drive to Florida, where we can take that cruise we won.”
“That’s so great Tony. I’m so glad we’re going to do that.” Shannon was excited.
Tony called Joe.
“Joe, this is Tony. Please go to my house and give all my stuff to charity. Take anything you like, including the car. I’ll pay for any expenses you have. The developers will be knocking down the house next month.”
“Thanks Tony. Even your record collection?”
“Sure thing. I’m going to buy them again on CDs.”
“And to think, I knew you before you were rich and famous.”
“Not rich or famous. You’re still my good friend.”
“OK Tony, I’ll take care of it.”
The next day the ship docked in L.A.
Just as they planned, Tony and Shannon went shopping for some cold weather clothing, and then took a plane to Boston, to have Thanksgiving with his daughter.
Tony splurged for first class tickets.
“I’ve never been in first class Tony. This is so nice.”
“Well, after a while, you can’t go back to coach.”
Tony was still spinning the lie.
The flight attendants pampered them, especially Shannon. Champagne, fresh fruit, gourmet meal, choice of 3 wines, fresh warm cookies, hot washcloth, the works. It was a non-stop flight to Boston and Shannon fell asleep after the meal.
Tony figured out how to check his bank balance on the iPhone. Hmm. With the new money from the life insurance and the house sale, his balance was $980,982. And that’s after paying for the cruise. He didn’t have a car or a place to live, but he was doing all right.
The flight attendant put a blanket on Shannon and turned off the lights. Tony pushed his seat back as well and snuggled next to his new girl. His new girl, just like a teenager.
He had a little talk with his daughter, in order to keep up appearances with Shannon. They agreed not to talk about money or his previous circumstances. Even the granddaughter played along with the game – Papa Tony made some money.
Two hours out of Boston now. A BMW would be waiting for them at Logan Airport, which he had already purchased on line. Aren’t smart phones wonderful? It was new, but just the low-end model, seating for four and a large trunk. It was the perfect vehicle for a couple on a romantic road trip.
Shannon woke up, asking for tea and those cookies.
“Well, you had a nice nap.”
“This seat is more comfortable than my bed. Tony, you’ve been so good to me.”
Tony smiled. “We’ve been good for each other.” All the pampering really had an effect on Shannon. She did look 36, after all. Money, comfort and love will do that for a woman. Now he wished he had told his daughter how old Shannon was. It didn’t come up. Good thing they were staying at a hotel instead of their house.
Maybe this would be a good time to tell Shannon the truth? Then we wouldn’t have to pretend at Thanksgiving. No, this isn’t the right time. Maybe later.
They collected their bags and met the BMW sales rep, just as promised. He put the bags in the trunk, opened the car door for Shannon, and then gave Tony the keys and registration.
“Wow. This car is beautiful.” She leaned over to kiss him. “And I can reach you from here.” Tony wondered what she meant.
“We have to stop in Boston for dessert. I want to surprise them with some good Italian pastry from the North End. You won’t believe how good it is.”
“Can we get some flowers for your daughter and maybe something for your granddaughter?”
“Of course. Why don’t you think of something for a 7 year old girl.”
They picked up flowers at Quincy Market and pastries from Mike’s; then they headed up 1A toward Manchester, a very exclusive town. Tony’s daughter married well, a doctor and so she was a stay at home mom.
He was a gentleman, never talking down to Tony, treating him with respect. Tony raised his daughter right and it showed in the type of man she chose to marry.
Meanwhile, Shannon was on her iPad looking for gifts. She found a Calafant Princess Castle that you build and color and showed it to Tony.
“Oh, she’ll love that. There’s a toy store on the way.”
It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and they were arriving for dinner. They pulled into the driveway, a relatively modest house, but right on the ocean.
“Pop, I’m so glad you’re here. How have you been?” said his daughter Maria. They hugged.
“I’m good Maria. I’m glad to be here. This is my friend Shannon.” Shannon hugged Maria and gave her the flowers.
“Nice to meet you Shannon.” She gave Tony a look (you didn’t say you were dating a younger woman).
“Thank you, they’re beautiful. Come inside.” Maria’s daughter Olivia ran to her grandfather.
“Papa Tony. I love you.”
“I love you too sweetheart. My friend Shannon brought you a present.”
Olivia looked at the box and gave a little scream. “A princess castle with crayons. This is great.” She gave Shannon a hug, and then she ran off to open it.
“Tony, good to see you. Hi, I’m Mike, Maria’s husband. I’m glad you could come for the holiday.”
They all went inside for drinks and chatter.
“Dinner will be ready in an hour Pop. Shannon, would you mind helping Olivia with the castle?”
“I’d be glad to. C’mon Olivia, where can we start this?”
Olivia took Shannon to her playroom and they started making the castle. Maria snuck back into the living room.
“Pop, isn’t she kind of young for you?”
“Maria, she makes me happy.”
“I can see why. And flexible too, I’ll bet.”
“Now, don’t embarrass me. I was faithful to your mother all my life, but I was very lonely this last year.”
“Nothing wrong with starting over Tony. Maria, don’t give your dad a hard time.”
“I’m just kidding with him. How old is she Pop?”
“Stop it. You’ll just have to wonder.” Mike changed the subject.
“Are you taking care of yourself, still walking, seeing your doctor?”
“Yes Mike, thanks. I feel fine and I’m walking four miles a day around town.”
“Good, we want you around for Olivia’s wedding.”
“If I possibly can, I’ll be there.”
“If he stays with Shannon, he might outlive us all.”
Dinner was casual and went just as Tony had planned. No awkward conversation. After dinner, Olivia went back to work on her castle and the adults had tea and dessert in the family room.
“The Celtics are on at eight. Tony, you want to watch with me?”
“Oh Mike, he probably wants to get to the hotel with Shannon; don’t make him stay up here all night.”
“No Maria, that’s all right. I’d like to take Shannon for a walk on singing beach, but then I’ll watch the first half with you.”
“It’s a deal. Wear your jacket, it’s windy out there.”
“Why is it called singing beach?” said Shannon.
“Well, if you’re in your bare feet, the sand squeaks as you walk.”
“Yes, you’ll see.”
“It’s true Shannon. No beach like it anywhere.”
Tony and Shannon went for their walk. Mike helped Maria clean up.
“It good for your dad to have a companion. That will keep him healthy.”
“I know dear. How healthy?”
“Stop it. She’s probably in her forties.”
“Maybe, and Pop is 64. There’s more than years difference, there’s energy and, you know.”
“That’s probably why he’s seeing her. You’re 35 now, right?”
Maria threw a towel at Mike. “I’ll show you how old I am, dear.”
Meanwhile on the beach, Shannon was awestruck by the ocean’s horizon and stars coming out.
“Tony, this must be the best place to live on Earth.”
“It’s not bad, but way out of my budget.”
“I’d be happy with you anywhere, except Dulzura that is.”
They both laughed. “OK, we won’t live there, but that leaves a lot of country.”
“We better get back. You promised Mike you would watch the game with him.”
“OK. But just the first half. I want to get to the hotel.”
Tony and Mike watched the Celtics for an hour while Maria and Shannon got to know each other better.
“How they look this year Mike?”
“Well, it’s not 1986, but they’ll make the playoffs.”
“Good, as long as they do, it’s a good year. And the Bruins?”
“Sorry to tell you it’s another rebuilding year after making the playoffs for 24 years straight.”
“Seems unholy somehow.”
“Yes, I understand the arch bishop is on the phone to the Pope.”
They laughed. The women could hear them.
“Tony loves Mike. He was so happy when we married.”
“I can see why. He’s really perfect.”
“Not perfect, but close.”
Olivia called from her room.
“Mommy, I’m going to bed now.”
“Good girl. I’ll be up in a minute to tuck you in.”
“She puts herself to bed? What are you feeding that child?”
“What can I say? I have the perfect husband and daughter.”
Tony and Shannon said goodnight and headed downtown to the hotel. Mike questioned Maria.
“You were polite with Shannon, weren’t you?”
“She’s great. Just what my father needed.”
“And you’re just what I need. Now get your pretty butt upstairs and I’ll show you how young you are.”
Manchester had a quaint bed and breakfast above an Irish bar and restaurant. Tony and Shannon checked in, and then went downstairs for a nightcap.
“What do you think?”
“It’s great Tony. What a lovely room and bar. How long are we staying?”
“Just a couple days. First we’ll see a little of Boston, and then we head to NYC for two nights, see a Broadway show and some tourist sites.”
“Sounds like a dream come true.”
Tony and Shannon listened to some live Irish music, had their drinks and went up to bed. It had been a very family day, bringing Tony and Shannon closer together.
In the morning, the fog covered most of downtown Manchester and out to the beach.
“Tony, isn’t the fog romantic?”
“Yes, I love the fog.”
Fog used to depress Tony, but he could see now it was all a matter of one’s circumstances. Fog could be depressing, but it could also be romantic.
Tony and Shannon made love in the morning, and then headed over to Maria’s house for Thanksgiving. It was a perfect day. Maria, Mike and Olivia welcomed Shannon as if she was part of the family. Tony and Mike watched football while Shannon helped Maria with dinner. Olivia worked on her castle, coloring each part with care.
At the dinner table, Mike prayed for everyone’s good health and thanks for bringing Tony and Shannon to their home. He concluded with a travel request.
“Please look after Tony and Shannon as the drive to Florida. Grant them good weather and safe travel.”
“Thank you Mike”, said Shannon.
After dinner Tony and Shannon walked the beach again, the sand squeaking beneath their toes.
Tony and Shannon had a dream road trip down the coast. First they explored Boston and its historical sites, and then they stopped in NYC for Broadway shows and fine dining. Next, they went to Philadelphia, had cheese steaks and went to a Flyer’s game. They topped off the whirlwind with time in Washington, D.C., and sightseeing of the national monuments. By this time, both were fully committed to each other. Shannon’s “I love you” utterance that Tony reluctantly replied, was now a fact of their lives. Tony had even thought of asking Shannon to marry him. That would come to light later in the trip, in a most extraordinary way.
Walt Disney World is the stop for couples in love; many choose it for weddings and honeymoons. Tony and Shannon’s time there was more like a couple celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary, even though it had only been months since they first met.
The weeklong stay was followed by a cruise, which they had won solving the murder mystery. This cruise would take them around the Caribbean with stops on exotic islands, the perfect place for Tony’s proposal. He had slipped away from her just long enough to purchase a $10,000 engagement ring that he tucked away for the right moment.
Their lovemaking hadn’t subsided a bit, since that night they exchanged ‘I love you’s. In fact, it had become so intense that Tony was considering a visit to the doctor for a checkup. The fog of Gig Harbor was so distant in his mind; he wondered what God was bestowing on him, this one hundred and eighty degree turn in life. He must have done something right in his 64 years.
Walking hand in hand on Cayman Island, they found a jungle path with exotic birds, colorful plants and luscious fruits hanging from trees. The sounds of monkeys, parrots and insects accented the surroundings.
“Shannon, what do you think of all these colors?”
“I’ve seen pictures and nature shows on television, but it is much more fantastic in person. Even the cruise ads aren’t this beautiful.”
“You know what else might make this a special experience?”
Shannon was eager to hear the next words. She had fallen in love with Tony.
Tony pulled the ring box out of his pocket and then knelt down in front of Shannon.
“Shannon, you’ve been so good to me. Your love has filled me with more than I ever deserved. I can’t think of anyone else I would rather spend the rest of my life with. Shannon Erin O’Toole, would you make me the happiest….”
Suddenly, two men dressed in white with black ski masks came out of the woods, grabbed Tony and disappeared just as quickly. Shannon screamed and chased them but one of the men sent her back with a wave of a gun. She was frantic and ran back to the town to get help.
Two hours later, Shannon’s cell phone rang. It was Tony, or at least Tony’s phone.
“We have your husband. We want $5,000,000 in small bills; put it in a duffel bag by tomorrow. Wait for further instructions.”
“We don’t have $5,000,000. Or at least I don’t have access to it.”
“This is the Cayman Islands, my dear. You can just go into town and get it.”
“But I don’t know anything about his accounts. You would have to ask him.”
“We have, but he denies having an account. For his sake, I hope you can convince him to tell you.”
“Can I speak with him?”
“Here he is.”
“Tony, are you OK?”
“Shannon, I’m OK for now, but they think I’m some millionaire with hidden cash in the Cayman Islands.”
“But that’s what I thought too.”
“Shannon, I hate to say this, especially under these circumstances. I haven’t told you the truth about my life or possessions.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve never been wealthy. I’ve never been to college. I just happened to have a small shanty on the harbor that a hotel wanted to buy for the land. And a developer wanted to build condos on land that I had a tiny house on. Both the hotel and developer gave me a lot of money to sell. My house has been knocked down. I gave my old car to a friend who was watching my dog while we were in Socal. Worst of all, my daughter has been playing along, just so I wouldn’t have to tell you the truth.”
“Is that all?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“Did you really have a friend named Sam that died?”
“Actually, Sam was my dog. He died while my friend Joe was watching him.”
“I see. Why didn’t you tell me the truth? Didn’t you think I could understand?”
“I meant to tell you. I really did. I’m so sorry. If I ever see you again, I’ll never lie to you again.”
Shannon started to cry, realizing that Tony’s lie may cost him his life.
“Please let me talk to them. I’ll convince them that you don’t have the money.”
Tony put the kidnappers back on the phone with Shannon.
“Listen. Tony’s been telling you the truth. He doesn’t have $5,000,000 in some Cayman Islands bank. He doesn’t have that kind of money at all.”
“We saw the ring he was giving you. We know he has money. We’ll drop the demand to $3,000,000, but it better be here by tomorrow at noon. We will call with instructions then.”
Shannon heard the kidnappers hang up and started to cry. She went back to town and told the police. They told her this sort of kidnapping is common in the islands, particularly with wealthy people. When she explained that Tony wasn’t wealthy and didn’t have the money, they shrugged and sighed.
“We’ll do our best.”
Shannon cried even harder, realizing the police would have to be very lucky to help her. As she walked out of the police station, a man came up to her.
“What is the trouble?”
“My boyfriend has been kidnapped and they are asking for more money than we can come up with.”
“Maybe I can help. Tell me all the details. And I’ll need a picture of your boyfriend.”
Shannon recounted the details and gave the man a picture of Tony she had on her phone. The man took her phone number and said he would get back to her in the morning.
Shannon didn’t hear from the kidnappers and couldn’t call them. She hardly slept at all, in her cabin on the ship. The next morning her phone rang. It was the man who offered to help.
“Meet me at this address around 11:30 this morning.”
“All right. Do you have a way we can get Tony back?”
“We hope so. Meet me there promptly.”
Shannon met the mysterious stranger as requested. He took her phone and hooked it to some computer looking device with an antenna.
“When the kidnappers call back, you’ll talk to them. Say you have the money, but you can’t drop it off until 1:00pm. They will agree and give you an address.”
Shannon did exactly as directed. The kidnappers called, accepted the offer for 1:00pm and gave her a location to drop off the money. Meanwhile, the device with her phone captured the location of the kidnappers.
“What do I do now?”
“Nothing. Go back to the ship and wait. I’ll call you when I have news.”
One o’clock came and went. There were no more calls to Shannon’s phone from the kidnappers. She was frantic and feeling helpless. Then her phone rang.
“Miss O’Toole, can you please come outside to the deck facing the dock?”
Shannon came out and looked to the dock. There was Tony running up the ship’s plank to join her. The mysterious stranger was nowhere in sight. Shannon jumped into Tony’s arms.
“Darling, I thought you would be killed.”
“I thought I would never see you again.”
“Are you hurt Tony?”
“No. Two men in military clothing killed the kidnappers and brought me here. I never even saw their faces.”
“Who do you think they were?”
“CIA, mercenaries, I don’t know and I don’t care. I just wish I had given you that ring earlier. The kidnappers took it.”
They returned to their cabin to get over the trauma. Tony was physically fine, just rattled from the danger. Later, they had an early dinner and planned to go to bed early. Someone knocked on the cabin door. Shannon opened it.
“Yes, may I help you?”
“A delivery ma’am.”
Shannon took the package and read the label.
To: Mr. and Mrs. Tony Granelli
The cruise line wishes you a fantastic honeymoon!
From: Captain Johnson
Tony and Shannon looked at each other, wondering what this was about. They opened the large envelope. Inside was an envelope with a voucher for a two-week cruise, all expenses paid, by the cruise line, to make up for their traumatic experience.
“Honeymoon?” Tony reached into the envelope. There was another small felt bag. Inside was the engagement ring he had bought for Shannon.
Donal Mahoney, a native of Chicago, lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He has worked as an editor for The Chicago Sun-Times, Loyola University Press and Washington University in St. Louis. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications, including The Wisconsin Review, The Kansas Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, The Christian Science Monitor, Commonweal, Guwahatian Magazine (India), The Galway Review (Ireland), Public Republic (Bulgaria), The Osprey Review (Wales), The Istanbul Literary Review (Turkey) and other magazines. Some of his work can be found at http://eyeonlifemag.com/the-poetry-locksmith/donal-mahoney-poet.html#sthash.OSYzpgmQ.dpbs
An Old Flame Flickers
They had things in common, Paul and June, at an age when most boys and girls don’t and maybe that’s why they were the only couple in sixth grade dating, if you can call it that. This was the early Fifties when dating didn’t begin until senior year of high school, if then, and that was because you had to find someone to go with to the senior prom.
Back then, maybe two families on the block had a black and white TV. Arthur Godfrey played his ukulele on his show and Bishop Sheen had a show almost as popular as Arthur Godfrey, only the bishop always talked about matters involving Heaven and Hell. Nevertheless, people watched Bishop Sheen and one year he had more viewers than Milton Berle.
Paul and June were dating if you can call walking six long blocks to and from school together dating. They didn’t call it that but their classmates did. The young couple later found out they were the subject of unwarranted gossip although they had never done anything to violate the Ten Commandments except kiss each other on June's enclosed front porch. And that didn’t happen too often.
One thing Paul and June had in common is June wore braces all day and Paul had a special set he had to wear only at night. He got to know June when he told her about his braces because she seemed nervous about hers. She didn’t smile much but when a smile appeared inadvertently, she covered it quickly.
What Paul and June really had in common was that June came from a broken home and Paul from a home that probably should have been broken but his parents stayed together, sometimes fighting long into the night. Fighting couples who stayed together were not uncommon in 1950. A broken home, on the other hand, was very uncommon. It was avoided and feared almost as much as polio which was the scourge of America at the time.
Walking to school or anywhere else, Paul and June never talked about their parents. He knew she had a stepfather which made matters worse because after a divorce, uncommon as well in 1950, her mother, a Catholic woman, couldn’t remarry without an annulment of her first marriage and although annulments are common now they were literally unheard of back then.
June never asked about or met Paul's parents. He never asked about hers and never officially met them although he locked eyes with June’s mother once when unexpectedly she came into the enclosed front porch when the young couple was saying good night. That was not an auspicious meeting.
Paul and June kept company, if you don’t mind that term, all though sixth, seventh and eight grade and well into the summer before high school. They were both lucky enough to be accepted by good high schools for the following September. As was the norm in 1950 for Catholic high schools, Paul's was an all boys school and June’s was all girls.
Something happened, however, just before school started. Now some 65 years later Paul had been reminded of that. June's cousin, Martha, got in touch with him about plans for a class reunion and memories came flooding back, not that Paul wanted them. He had never thought about June after that summer before high school. What had happened was painful enough at the time and Paul had forgotten all about June. He had been married many years and was a father, grandfather and soon he would be a great-grandfather. He still had all his marbles and could remember all the names.
What happened just before high school was June's mother and stepfather took June, an only child, and moved to California. Her cousin, Martha, with whom Paul has been communicating about the class reunion, was the one who told Paul back then about the departure. Although that was 65 years ago, Paul can still see Martha’s face as she rolled out the details despite Paul’s obvious sadness. She seemed to enjoy his grief.
Martha was a lovely girl, no braces, but she hadn’t been allowed to date. Most girls in the early Fifties, especially if they attended Catholic schools, were protected by their parents. It’s possible she resented her cousin having a boyfriend when she could not.
What bothered Paul even more is that he had seen June the night before she and her parents took that plane to California. June had never said a word about leaving. He can’t recall what they talked about that evening. In fact he can’t recall anything they ever talked about. But for three years they had walked to school together and some evenings they came home from the library together and kissed each other good night if June’s enclosed porch seemed safe.
Passion was not involved because Paul knew June went to daily Mass and Communion and he really didn’t think about sex when it came to her. He liked her, how much he never thought about, but up until that point he had never liked anyone else. He's not even sure if he liked his own parents at the time, what with all their fighting, and he saw no sign from June that she was close to her mother or stepfather. But he thought they knew each other well enough for June to tell him she was going to California with her parents and never coming back. And that, of course, is exactly what happened. It hurt to be dumped at so young an age.
So when Paul heard about the class reunion and received an email from her cousin, he could sense as the emails progressed that Martha was waiting for him to ask about June. But Paul didn’t have to ask, thanks to Google and the Internet. Once he got that first email, he found June on the Internet and may have learned more about her life then than Martha knew because the two cousins were never close. June was a black sheep in the family, what with braces and seeing the same boy for three years in grammar school, even though she went to Mass and Communion every day.
The class reunion went well but there was no mention of June. Paul’s still in touch with Martha now who, it turns out, has had a nice life of her own and seems to be a nice person.
Some day Paul may mention June to Martha and simply say that he hopes things in California turned out well for her. After all June is 79 now and still married to a man from Finland who’s 83. She’s had almost as many children as Paul if the Internet isn’t lying. And he figures neither he nor June wears braces anymore.
B Hartman is currently in the throes of shopping his third novel. He also hails from the East Coast where he drinks too much coffee but is trying to make the conversion to tea.
The Hunter and the Siren
It was she that caused this. I am haunted. Vividly and distinctly her stark, whispered cry resounds through the unruly summer ferns, navigating felled tree limbs and around brittle, emerald boughs. It wades through stagnant, stale marshes and amidst the conifers and softwoods; it moves between broad, stringy vines and amongst heavy needle and acorn dappled underbrush to grace my ears in a manner so profound, I am never more convinced of its reality. Take heed, every word recounted is of utmost truth:
Setting out on another daily excursion into the northern wilderness beyond my residence, the morning was quiet as I exited into the sunlight. The cabin sat in the recess of a knoll, sparsely dotted with shrubs, while facing the much denser woodland.
Before embarking further into the depths of my beloved forest I made careful inspection, as I always did, of the previous night’s snares. An unfortunate hog had found his gluttonous self unable to resist a tempting loaf of bread, spotted with olive-colored mold. The pig’s life ended with the sweet taste of nourishment on his tongue. But his lips were now bloody and impervious. Hardly a squeal would have broken the threshold of his snout before a tediously and masterfully carved wooden spear of my own handiwork was unleashed and subsequently driven into his skull. The dead hog, lay at a twisted angle of last second anguish. The hilt of the spear was barely visible as it had been driven in so deeply that the point had pierced the bottom of the creature’s eye. Rusted blood cracked and flaked in a petrified dribble along his lips and the length of his filthy snout. Flies had already infiltrated its nostrils. Surrounding the protruding spear, still red and sticky between my fingers, moist ring remained. A young piglet in age, the girth was plump, and appearance rare. Its purpose would be served adequately.
The other traps were vacant. Without wasting my idleness on such a small prize, I braced my boot against the fatty belly and forcibly jerked the spear from the corpse. I carried the hog back to the cabin. I would store him there until I returned. Then I dismantled the trap. I felt this particular snare would bring me more fortuity as the day progressed. I brought it along.
After completing my tasks I took a short inventory. I held aloft most prized belonging, a blade fashioned sharper than a piercing ray of Zeus’ lightning bolts and more deadly than the venom of Lucifer’s adder. With this knife, I had scoured the forest. Next, the trap and harness were fitted into a satchel. Lastly, the rifle, for which I had, over a time, gained much distain, was slung across my back. The copper lacing was tarnished; swirling blue and green oxidation glinted off the breadth. Corrosion had left its scars. The lock and pin had grown coarse rust from my conscious decision to abstain from the guns proper care. The stock was stained and flecked, revealing the lighter, frail wood underneath. Still, I kept it as remembrance of when I first discovered my fervor and insatiable taste for the hunt.
Yes, to recall what simplicity a rifle afforded me. I was able to kill whenever the yearning struck me. I had been infatuated since. Later on, however, it became too easy. With each smoking discharge, my elation ebbed. Restless, I no longer felt any semblance of my initial ecstasy. From a distance, I was not a participant of the kill, only a spectator. Without endangering my own safety, there was no value in the slaughtering. I could, with a firearm, kill swiftly, effortlessly, and there was no purpose to watch the brains implode to splatter behind the beast, as I, safe and comfortable, stood at a distance. I slaughtered in large numbers, for days at a time, without any reserve, attempting feverishly to revive the elations of the first kill. But I could not. I would surely go mad and perish without tasting the salty blood. The power I wielded was unmatched by any creature. They could not counter with bullets, and it seemed unjust that I should have an advantage. When I extinguished each of their lives, I wanted to be on equal ground. This notion occurred to me when, upon sawing off the heads of two young cubs (I had killed their mother with the rifle), I was suddenly overcome with a quivering exuberance! Energy coursed through my veins. My legs trembled; sensations trickled to my fingertips, washed over me in fulfilling waves. Quenched my thirst! I was struck with the same high as the first time. That moment was when I discovered my adoration of the hunt. My first kill with the rifle, and intensity I felt then was the empowering intensity I felt every time with the knife. Their moribund heads adorned my temple of sacrifice, and at last, when I drank their bitter life-nectar from my chalice, I became stronger still.
With this newfound hunger, I gained endless patience. If need be, I could wait for the day’s entirety, in utter stillness, residing in the certainty that I would be the one to make the kill. I could see the unsheathing blade tremble on its way out of my belt. Hear the metal whine as it rang through the tranquil forest air. And witness, beyond any doubt, the blade, slicing effortlessly through flesh, bone, and sinews; hearing the grainy, popping squirms and primal groans for mercy. Retrieving, and finding a soft underbelly, the knife fell again, and again. With anointing blood, their life became my life.
Before I elected a life of solitude, there were those that disagreed with me. They egregiously opined that hunting should only be a means for food, but who of them is the hunter? Ha! I hunt for food, but I also hunt for survival. There is no inhumanity. I must do it, for I could not live without it. My life depends upon it, the logic is clear. I needed this to keep breathing, and this is why I needed her.
I had been waiting for hours, though I do not recall the time. I did not observe, nor account for it. Time only perpetuates anxiety; a vice when one is hunting. Patience is devoid of time and this is my virtue. My only allowance of time: the small glittering rays descending through the thinned tree canopy. The area was unfamiliar to me, as I refrained from hunting in the same spot. Nature can sense disruption. A trait we humans are not so lucky to possess. Instead, we thrive off the chaos, knowing it will consume us, until finally and at last, to own our undoing, we are overcome. Animals sense death; languid and pernicious, hanging thickly in the air. They can smell it, and avoid its location. Astute enough to know these principles, I could, with prudence, find worthy vessels for sacrifice.
I had uncovered an exceptional location. A natural shrine; fallen trunks splayed on top of one another circularly like collapsed dominos. The sunlight allowed for larch and oak trees to flourish, and myriad vegetation to sprout. The grass was thick, and grew freely, unscrupulously, as sun drenched the undergrowth. An aging evergreen stood resiliently erect, infested with ivy and vines from surrounding aspens. The downward sloping branches from the evergreen swept along the needle-carpeted forest floor. The boughs would shroud my body and allow me to perch just above an unsuspecting beast. From this spot I could pounce, hidden from view by the ravenous vines and young saplings. I covered myself in the chalky residue of aspen bark to hide my scent. At the base of the tree, I assembled the trap. The painstakingly sharpened jaws were covered with a layer of enticing leaves. Upon release, the shafts would render one of the beast’s legs useless, and consequently, unable to escape.
After I completed the construction, I baited the trap and harnessed myself in a crux of the evergreen.
To keep my mind active, I memorized each location afresh. This way I would not frequent the same wilderness until, at least, the seasons changed. After a time, when a new generation of animals would be born and bred, I could revert to the most prolific areas and indulge in their naivety. With each year and passing season was change, and it had been my commission to notate the alterations present within the forest—my forest—so that I could utilize it to the best of all my purposes. Here, though, was a location I had been to just once during the last winter’s scourge. Blizzard weather had penetrated even the thickness of the trees overhead and unleashed a deluge of powder and ice on the floor below. The temperature was colder than any I had ever beheld. Even the sap had begun to freeze. Beasts were forced into hiding and hibernation from the icy talons of the cold. An injured elk that had escaped one of my traps, bled until it finally collapsed and froze in a snow drift. Happening upon the site, I was enraged. Nature should give, not take life, for the taking is mine.
But now, the scenery had changed dramatically. The grass grew lively, lacing up through the browning, pronged oak leaves and prickling through brittle, orange needles. Moss grew frantically on the decaying cottonwood and pine trees. Intermittent mushrooms sprang up in clumps where the all but ubiquitous moss had not yet overrun. Beetles burrowed and made their homes within the mildewing wood. Small wildflowers, though I only knew most in appearance, poked up in small patches to frame the setting in a peaceful quietude. A lone bee whirred onto the center of a blonde flower. There, it examined, I suspected, a columbine flower. Bobbing back into the gleam of light, the bee exited the forest. To most, the forest is silent, but to the carefully trained, it is a cacophony of sound, alive with potential. And this is why so patiently, I waited for the forest to procure a beast for me. I could hear the forest screaming, but I chose to ignore it. Instead, I listened for only one sound; the timid, prodding footsteps nearing my location. So ignorant of their fate.
A twig snapped from beyond my vision. Instantly my eyes narrowed on the location. After an eternity, a slender-leafed bush swayed abnormally, not in any manner produced by the breeze. It ceased, and then shook again. The summit of antlers poked around the brushes breadth. Another pause, and the moose’s immense head rose into view, surveying my small clearing. His twitching ears were erect, as he ambled into full view. An enormous and beautiful creature, his cream colored mane looked soft and lush like satin blanket. But it was merely a target, soon to be painted crimson. The moose trotted closer, lowering his head to sniff and nibble at idle weeds. Carefully he plucked, choosing his meal with delicacy as he ebbed closer to my ambush. He eyed a trove of flowers I was sure he could not resist. My bread would be of little use, but even so, if he came close enough, the taut trigger could be loosed. I silently congratulated myself on selecting such an excellent location. If I had not ventured near these prosperous weeds and ripe flowers my efforts would be squandered while the moose wandered in search of a more desirable meal. As the moose stepped over a moss and fungi covered trunk into the grove, I was able to take in his breathtaking size. The sun shimmered on his coat as though the creature was embodied with celestial iridescence. Huge muscles undulated under the surface of his vast body. His dark eyes searched thoughtfully. His jutting jaw chewed the small plants while he edged closer.
My breath stifled. My knife had been slid out meticulously slow the entire time the beast approached. The moose perked up suddenly, gazing fixedly into the darkened forest beyond him. My thoughts screamed so loudly, I feared the moose might hear them. He eyed the woodland warily before him, with an almost whimsical and carefree expression, he trotted directly beneath me! Contentedly, he consumed a mouthful of flowers, and while chewing, sniffed at the bread with a curious demeanor.
At the exact moment at which the animal’s hoof was raised to trigger the claw, I heard an alien cry. Out of the forest, though distant, the melody rang from every angle. The beast’s head snapped upward and froze. Startled by the echoing crescendo, the moose dashed off in a headlong gallop; hurdling the timbers back to the direction in which it had arrived. I barely noticed this event, as I too, was awestruck by the noise. It was as though the whole forest had begun to chorus a dirge to a great fallen Sequoia. My senses were overwhelmed by the sheer noise and illumination of the sound. The cry was distant and yet it was as if the whole earth wept. Never had I heard such a noise in the forest. My mind could not comprehend this foreign sound. I abandoned my position; today’s hunt held no consequence. My mind became consumed with a searing desire to know what this sound was. I knew all the sounds of my forest, but I did not know this. It was imperative that I know this song, and more importantly, its origin. Still, as I listened, the noise cried out, in unpatterned intervals. It could not be an animal. I listened for its direction. But human? No, no one ever entered my woods. They were prohibited.
The sound appeared to originate from the south. There had been no disturbance when I had passed through there in the morning. Even so, I drove tentatively onward, navigating through trees, elusive and aware of any unearthly creature that may attempt to prey on me! The sound never grew louder, but I knew that I neared the source as it became more and more distinct. Excitement grew within me, like weighty lead in my chest until at last I thought I would never reach the source. The song seemed a serenade of pain, a sobbing almost. But beautiful and serene. The further I listened the further I became maddened to know. Blood pounded in my temples and raced to my eyes, until finally I could stand it no further. Trepidation absconded, I barged and sliced though weighty boughs, before coming to a thin line of trees, their low branches washed away by flood waters and fire. I could make out my cabin in the distance. And at once I was home. And at once I saw her!
A woman no less beautiful, dare I say more, than even Helen of Troy. Shrouded in an aura of alabaster brilliance that, for a moment, I hardly realized why she had cried so. One of my traps, empty only a few hours earlier, had now ensnared her, slicing a gaping wound into the thigh of her wondrous skin. In attempting to escape, she had further raveled her beautifully toned figure in the ropes that now shackled her. The bottom of her dress was saturated with blood. She had the complexion of no human I had ever encountered. And as I gazed upon her sublime features, a feeling of congratulatory praise washed over me. I had captured a wingless angel. How illogical that a goddess of her magnitude would be so easily enmeshed by a contraption of my humble conception. In both a conflicted sense of pride and urgent necessity, I assisted, with delicacy, detangling the muse from her captivity. Once unraveled, I carried her inside.
I forgot my words while attending to her wounds. I could not recall my last encounter with another human, let alone a majestic nymph of nature such as this. But she demanded no more the obligation to speak, only watching, saying nothing, as I worked in silence. With makeshift bandages, I managed to clean her gash, and stop its profuse bleeding. When I applied alcohol, she winced; sucking at her teeth, which sounded as though waves were crashing and receding on a distant shore. And when she was finally bandaged, a coo escaped her lips that could only be described as the sound of an autumn zephyr riffling the leaves on a willow tree.
At first I believed the fright had caused her to lose her tongue, but finally I could bear the silence no longer. In gauche and stumbling phrases, I asked her name and from where she came. She would not speak and eventually I had no option but to figure her a mute. Ah, but now she listened with what few words I spoke. She smiled and her eyes gleamed; their sparkle gazed upon my rough, grizzled features. I shuddered to think she approved, but perhaps she only humored my disfigurement.
After the dusk settled, I offered her a meal. She refused by shaking her head, and with subtle ease, her hand motioned towards the pallid windows with a docile smile. The ruffles in her long dress shifted with her arm, and the cascading friction sounded like far off rain, whispering to the earth.
Her dress, which had appeared a deep emerald, had now, away from the sunlight, acquired a lighter green, almost teal hue, in the candlelight. Her fair hair, lolled over her shoulders, shimmering like a halo in the paled, quiet light. A goddess.
I found myself unable to look away. Try as I might, I could not. Her beauty was so magnificent, and unlike anything I had ever encountered. Her feet, I noticed, were bare, but unscathed. Perhaps she had lost her shoes when my snare had impaled her. She yawned, and still I wondered further. I looked her over again, unable to resist gazing for long periods at her incomparable beauty. From a nearby chair I kept vigil. She had turned on her side, fallen asleep, her eyes closed. So natural. Watching her, my veins seethed with the desire to know her, to want her. As exhaustion crept to my eyelids, still, I could not bring myself to leave her. My back warmed by the fireplace and wet wood whistling in the hearth, I soon slipped into a peaceful slumber.
When I awoke, she was gone. I jumped from the chair at once, hearing a low incontrollable sobbing from behind me. The trophy room door was ajar. I stepped quietly to the door, easing my head inside. There she stood, her back turned, starring immovably at my wall of heads. A penumbra of earthen shades and stiffened hair gilded the room. Hearing the bloated floorboards creak, she whirled to face me. Her sodden lips gaped with horror at my presence, as tears stained her cheeks. She pointed an accusing finger to the wall. A gurgling anguish bubbled out from her throat. Her cry burst like an eruption of despondent sorrow. Then, with a sudden realization, fear apprehended her like asphyxiation.
She tensed and crouched with the arresting panic of a cornered hare. So beautiful and mysterious, unlike anything I had ever encountered. I could not let her go. It would be the most glorious, most extraordinary kill I would ever make. At that moment, my logic no longer became a question—it was what I had to do. I must have her. My knife was in the other room; I needed it. It was crucial, vital to the kill. I would subdue her first. I lunged, but her agility was unexpected. She sidestepped my waiting grasp and darted towards the door. Barging out after her, she was still fumbling in fright with the lock. I started towards her, enjoying her terror; her contorted snarls. I laughed, already tasting her. I could feel her frightened heart flutter. But as I found the blade, she too, found purchase. Wrenching the door open she tumbled into the early morning daylight.
I trailed after her, grabbing the knife and slinging the rifle over my back with one motion. She dove headlong for the forest. Sprinting in pursuit—I knew these woods better than any man or woman. No alien succubus would elude me! As I pursued her, I was astounded by the speed at which she traversed. It was as if she had acquired no laming injury the day prior. Athletic and nimble she ran and I followed. How easily she navigated through the brush, hardly leaving a trace. I could not overtake her but kept her within my view. My tracking skills became obsolete as I was forced to follow her much longer than I had anticipated. She darted through the impenetrable forest. If was as though sewn foliage and interlocking leaves parted for her. Ferns wound my ankles; tufts of branches thrashed my face. I scrambled atop slippery bluffs, through murky bogs, and rocky outcroppings. No impunity would prevail; I would catch that Atalanta yet!
Coming into a clearing the poplar tree line broke away and I watched her leap over the tall grass in a sodden, sun blanched meadow. I was winded and my lungs burned. I would not be able to overtake her. Knowing above anything that I could not lose her, I unshouldered my rifle, and took aim. I found her profile thrashing through the high grass. The butt of the gun recoiled with a bitter sting into my chest. My aim, although seldom used, remained fatally accurate. She fell, gracefully, as if dancing, first on her knees, and then collapsing facedown. Barely visible, the gleaming fabric of her dress remained caught above the high, fallow grass.
I approached the body quickly, ensuring that she could not crawl away. I saw that my shot had been true. Her back was soaked with mud and the crimson shade of death. The patina of her dress had dissipated. Even in the sunlight it no longer shimmered, but only a dull, withering brown vestige remained. I slung her body over my shoulders and carried her across the field and back into the wilderness.
I soon tired of her weight and heaved her to the ground, opting to drag her instead. On the return trip, her lifeless body could not fend itself of the prickling foliage and gnarled brush. When we arrived at the cabin, her beauty had been tarnished. Her emerald dress was filthy and tattered. Her long, silken hair had frayed and knotted as a broom that had been dragged upon the forest floor. Smeared blood ran pathetically from her nose. Her lips were encrusted with black dirt. She was pale, cold and dead.
With disgust, and no satisfaction, I dismembered her. Cutting methodically, with no remorse, reprieve, nor pleasure. She would have been my supreme kill. She would have been everything I had hoped for, everything I had searched for. But now I had nothing. She had left me. Her carcass was no longer fresh with radiant life. Her smooth, flawless limbs extended beneath the folds of her dress. The Siren left me with nothing, and in return, I left her cursed mouth without a body. Only a head, fitted with hacked hair and a battered, unmoving expression. She left me no option.
The fire kindled—ignited, as life spilled onto the wood; heat coursing from the huge logs. Shadows reflected on the walls as I watched the fire engulf the wood. Then, unceremoniously, and by her repulsive hair, I flung the head into the waiting flames.
A burst of sparks crackled, exploding into the room. Coals and flakes of embers tumbled from the hearth. The head lodged between the crux of two perpendicular logs. The face ignited as burning flesh glared sinisterly. A loud hissing ensued as the inferno ate voraciously at the skull; her hair caught and curled; the shriveling eyes curdled, boring black holes.
The hissing ceased and the blaze calmed. All that remained were her hollow eye sockets staring into my own pupils and with this, the cursed creature possessed my soul! Suddenly, I tell you with all honesty, the Siren’s mouth yawned open as a deluge of her torturous scream pervaded the room! Oh, that horrifying, demonic scream! The resurging blaze then detonated, a raucous scream ascended up the chimney. Collapsing to my knees, the walls trembled with her shrieks. I clutched my temples as though the very blood vessels would blister through my skin. I returned the guttural bawl, but my own curses were buried by the hellish visions unleashed from the blackened, charred skull!
A tower of fiery tendrils, like the flaming claws of Cerberus grasped for me as a draft lurched down the chimney, exploding into the room. The windows shattered, the door shredded off its hinges, the trophies were cleaved from the wall. And then, nothing.
Both the flame and head were gone. Ash filled the cabin. My lungs throbbed and my eyes burned. Warm blood oozed from my ears as the ringing of her scream still ravished my mind. Then came silence. My hands tripled as I held them at eye level; the irrepressible pull of gravity overtook me.
Awaking, it was only possible I had dreamed such an occurrence, but lying in the remnants of my own blood I immediately found myself sickened at the sight I beheld. Gray ash blanketed all of my vision and the skull had vanished from the cold embers. She was still alive! The sorceress had deceived me, conjuring an apparition to convince me I had eradicated her. She had defiled my home, had deprived me of my final transcendence. Her spell still lingered and I would take my vengeance.
She had escaped and now I would slaughter the beasts she found so precious. This was the only means to quell my anger, heal my wound, quench my thirst. I would slay them all to vindicate myself of the pestiferous stench of that devil incarnate! Slicing, gnawing, ripping, I would savor each second, watching the beasts writhe and squirm until finally each of their lives was absorbed into me. Shearing off their limbs, stretching their wretched bodies across the earth; I would make the forest a gallows! This was the only way.
I sought a new location, set my traps and waited. For hours I waited, without avail. With the afternoon dragging, how impatient I became! But I would not relent; this is what the seer wanted! She wanted me to stop, resign, and in my capitulation, concede triumph to her. I would be not broken!
When dusk finally began shedding shade through the canopied crevices, I saw an enormous doe, larger than my memory could comprehend. Only yards from my reach, she tentatively picked her way though the undergrowth. Salivating at the imminent taste, low and garbled it began, before I heard the sound rage inside me. The scream! The dreadful, abominable scream! Ripping through my being like a maelstrom! Holding my head in agony, I convulsed as the scream tormented me. It was inside my head, but the animals heard it! Above me, birds from afar trees, squawked and took flight. How could they hear? How could they know? It could not be. My mind, plagued by her spirit had caused me to hallucinate from the spells of her wicked tongue.
Glancing ahead, I froze in disbelief. More vivid than the day itself, a Spirit bear emerged from across the grove. Never had I witnessed one, such prehistoric monstrosities, they were thought to be myth! But no unbelief could thwart the Siren’s scream! Hearing the warning, the terrified bear lumbered into the woods. I could not lose this time, I had to kill! More bloodthirsty than ever, I pursued the bear in maniacal fashion. Breaking through an encumbrance of high branched trees, I tore into the clearing.
The bear stood motionless as if awaiting me. My head still burning with her ghoulish melody, I saw what lay before me and at once became untethered. The forest teemed with life. Throughout the entire wilderness, there, I was surrounded. Beyond capture, thousands of unblinking eyes watched me: tassel-eared squirrels draped from interlacing branches. Countless birds of every variety festooned themselves in audience of my presence; tanager, thrush, crows and gyrfalcon. Sparrows, loons and ravens perched unmoving beside scores of bald eagles and gray owls! Snakes slipped among the upright bodies of shrews and moles. Muntjac, moose, and mountain sheep were all there; elk, deer, and wild boar, rodents of every size. Rabbits stood with wolves! A Siberian Tiger strode furtively through the ferns! How could it be? They stood staring in erect silence, mocking me!
Rising to its haunches, displaying its massive size, the Spirit bear made no noise. Falling to all four, the beasts’ head quavered and her eyes sought to embrace the whole forest. Her jaw unfastened and the despicable melody was released from the throat of the bear! As loons wailed savagely, the wood frogs began to croak an endless chorus of hate! I will slay all of you, I screamed! The sound of my voice hummed with murderous electricity as I charged. But before I could even come close they dispersed, scattering throughout the woods; the scream ever present. I stabbed and swiped, but only soil and sweat peppered the air. At the trees I slashed, but the soil churned as if they leaned away, their exposed roots tripped me as I ran. The malady of thirst maddened me, and they knew! Enraged with the craving, I could not live without the blood.
There was only one choice left.
It was she that caused this. The Siren, that witch! Her scream, heightened and rattled evermore; ever louder than before. Spittle arced from my infuriated tongue. She will not burden me any longer. All the earth shook as the witch’s’ undead spirit tore an unforgiving and ceaseless howl through the silence. The leaves trembled, as animals roared and the entire forest reverberated with her wrath. I will prevail against your curses and taunts! This is my forest, these are my animals. Mine! You witch, I have won, not you, and now I will finish this!
I will kill in spite of her. The last kill, my own, with only the calloused dirt to inherit my cursed soul as I embalm it with the offering of warm blood--
Isaac Birchmier was born in Mountain Home, Idaho and raised in Helena, Montana. He has been published in The Lunaris Review, Sidereal Journal, The Oval, theEEEL, The Commonline Journal, 101 Words, cattails, Word of Absence, Eternal Remedy, Morgen Bailey's Writing Blog, Funny in Five Hundred, and Short-Story.me.
Even the Heartless Have Hearts
Pacemaker active. Heart Rate: 65 BPM. Working the legs. This is made possible because of the blood flow through the heart. The body gets oxygenated because blood cells contain and carry oxygen. The meat of the heartbeat is called the QRS complex: the bum of the ba-bum. Each beat has two segments, two complexes, and an interval. Five steps. Eighty times per minute. Always moving. The P-wave is the infant: the birth of the heartbeat. The T-wave is the final, the “relaxation.” (The heart pulses; the body pulsates. The body is the heart. Vice-versa.) Atrial contraction, ventricular contraction, relaxation. Beginning, middle, end. Beginning, middle, end. Beginning, middle--
At a young age I found a fascination with the heart, the center of being.
It all goes back to the first time I saw a Shakespeare play with my parents at the local theater. I had never seen a play before and I found the dramatic ways the actors moved onstage to be silly. In Act 1, Scene 5 of Romeo & Juliet Romeo asks a question which has stuck with me since: “Did my heart love till now?” I didn’t understand it. It confused me for months afterward. The line claimed that the heart was the source of love, the source of emotion, but when I looked at symbols of the heart it seemed like it could never be capable of harboring such intensities. At school we were sometimes given assignments to cut a dual symmetry of connected teardrops out of pink construction paper, and that was what we called the heart. And I thought: Ah, so that’s the heart: a mirrored teardrop.
However, on the couch one day I was sitting, watching Animal Planet, bored out of my wits, when I saw an African shaman rip open the chest of a live frog and show its still-throbbing organ to the camera, and I sat with my socks and feet resting on the coffee table, mouth wide, the reflection of the TV in my pupils, as the British narrator said “The Shaman then carries the toad to the village before its heart stops beating. This unlucky toad will soon be added as an active ingredient in the Shaman’s special stew.”
The frog’s heart was hideous.
My interest in hearts skyrocketed after that. I couldn’t be stopped. I read Emily Dickinson (“The heart wants what it wants.”), I learned what the etymology behind the word heart was (from the Old English heorte, from the Proto-Germanic herton: a cognate of Saxon, Frisian, Gothic, and German variations), I learned from medical journals all the histories of attempted transplants and artificial organs — bellowing an impassioned cri de coeur as I searched for anything heart-related.
I learned the names of every famous cardiologist there ever was: Barnard, Yacoub, Kantrowitz, Lillehei. (And Lillehei in particular.)
At age thirteen I got kicked out of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Northridge, L.A. — Northridge being where I have lived in my whole life. I used to sneak in, small as I was, to inspect the ECG machines. The undulating spikes held me rapt with attention. When my father was later admitted for congestive heart failure I was given greater access to the machines without having another incident where the authorities were involved. It was a bittersweet moment, my father’s admittance.
“Bailey, promise me one thing,” my father said on his deathbed, waving me to come near him, “work on this passion for hearts that you have;” (he had been the one who, confusedly, bought me medical dictionaries when I begged him) “maybe you can end up saving a live or two someday.”
My father’s words of advice aside, I already knew my destiny. It was clear-cut: laid out in front of me in small jeweled intervals (I was an intelligent and ambitious kid); yet, his words were endearing. My father let me watch the ECG of his heart and let me read the books, and each time I connected the dots my heart skipped a beat, and as my heart kept up, my father’s stopped working.
My wife Leslie is six years my junior. I met her at a social function three years back called the Cardiac Arrest. It was in the house of Dr. Nugent (no relation) and was, as is to be expected, cardiology-themed. Leslie Greening, the daughter of prominent cardiologist Luke Greening, was invited for her namesake alone.
At the Cardiac Arrest were a number of ornamental decorations hung from the walls: anatomically-accurate hearts, cardboard cutouts of ECG spikes, a punch bowl with atrium and ventricle spouts, red streamers. A soothing ambient soundtrack incorporating the sounds of heartbeats played from the speakers situated above the stained glass windows. The chandeliers — two of them — hanging from the roof, were fitted with red lightbulbs, which casted a thin shade of coronary crimson throughout the room, as if through a filter. Streamers hung venous from the ceilings. The room was crowded with high-level diagnosticians, surgeons, and innovators in their respective fields. Baroque patterns with a beautified symmetry passed through the paper on the walls. Famous people from around the globe participated in this fascinating meeting: incredible: Gatsbyesque.
Old doctors — even older than Bailey — sat in these hardwood chairs situated in the far corners of the room where the bodies must be kept. Like corpses in the mortuary, sitting in their respective slots.
Sans floral decorations.
Laughing, articulating, coddling.
“A drag, eh?” I replied to Brace Jameson, a long-time friend of mine.
“It’s because they’re all so old,” he said sardonically. “That youthful vigor and impulsivity is gone. Our libidos aren’t what they once were — we can’t direct that energy to our pursuits.” Jameson looked around himself and saw the people shuffling away, avoiding him like the plague. The space around him became sparse within a matter of seconds. He returned his sights back to me, snarling.
“You need to be more quiet when you talk about things like that,” I said.
“Let’s talk about something else,” Jameson said. “What did you want to be when you were a kid?”
“A cardiologist,” I said.
He looked at me and laughed. “You’re something else, Walton.” He sipped from his fruit punch, his teeth and lips stained like a tiger having assailed its prey.
“I want you to know that I don’t belong here,” he said out of the blue, “with these people. I’ve been doing operations for too long. Dealing with the sterility. It’s dehumanizing.”
“You do breast reduction surgery, Jameson.”
“Yeah, and I’ve been disillusioned. They’re nothing but ‘mammaries’ now: unstimulating. It loses the appeal. When you’ve cut into a breast — removed the fatty substance — you stop feeling for the item as a whole. They don’t have that magical appeal any more.”
“What,” he said, “isn’t the human body less intriguing from the outside now that you’re so familiar with all the organs?”
“Not really. I still have the primal urge; I just need a boost every now and then.”
“Bailey, you’re thirty-three.”
We looked at each other.
Jameson smiled at me in that same way, thinking he knew something I didn’t. It let him believe he had an edge over me: some people need that: a fundamental temperament of theirs requires them to feel superiority.
While he stood there, smug, I looked about and saw all the prominent figures of my day engaging in relevant threads of discussion based on whichever field they were in — much of it having to do with cardiology- or research-based fields of study. Spotlights above the chandeliers created stripes of blue and red along the ballroom floor. Most of the people were in the center of the room, whereas Jameson and I stood at the sides. In the back left quadrant (Q2) there were games being played relevant to heart health and cardiology. There were flirtatious activities between the married couples of “reading” heartbeats and a game where they hid a small heart toy somewhere on their body and the other partner had to find it. (The party organizers originally had the idea of an anatomically-correct heart-shaped piñata, but later decided against it, deeming the existence of aorta and ventricles on a destructible object “in poor taste.”)
“I’d like you to meet someone,” Jameson said.
I laughed and called him an old dog. He led me with his palm against my back to the other side of the room where a shapely young woman stood gazing out the window and he said her name and she heard him and he caught her attention and she turned around and as her eyes fell on me I froze in place.
Leslie couldn’t find Bartholomeu. No matter where she checked, the Retriever just couldn’t be found. “Bart!” she yelled out the patio door. “Bart?” No answer. Bailey would no doubt be upset. Leslie felt herself overcome with worry and fear. Bartholomeu was his pride and joy — Bailey’s answer to a lifelong decision not to have kids, and though Leslie sometimes felt like she would like to someday have children of her own, she ultimately agreed with the “overpopulation” arguments he presented.
But where was Bart? She went to bed and he was there and when she woke up he was gone. She called the neighbors.
“Did you by chance see a dog run by your house this morning?”
And she tried the humane society.
“Do you have a Golden Retriever there with a dogtag that says ‘Bart’ on it?”
“A dogtag that says ‘Bark’?”
But to no avail. She caved under the realization that Bailey’s dog was officially “missing,” and she would need to tell him about it. It was 10:47 A.M. and Bailey got on his lunchbreak at 12:15 P.M. — if he wasn’t in the middle of intensive surgery.
Reluctantly she opened the door to the Galant and turned the key.
The automatic doors parted and Leslie made a beeline to the front desk. The attendant greeted her cordially. Leslie asked if she could speak with Bailey.
“Mr. Walton is performing open-heart surgery,” said the desk attendant. “You’ll have to wait until the operation is over before you can see him.”
“But I’m his wife.”
“The reason nobody — not even close partners of the doctor — can enter the operating room while open-heart surgery is being performed is because the operating room must at all times be a sterile, clean—”
“Okay, okay, I get it.” Leslie walked over to the bench seated nearest the door to the E.R. and cupped her face in her hands, waiting. She stared up at the clock, 11:49, and wondered how Bailey would take the news about Bartholomeu. If he knew Bart had run off, how would he react? He would no doubt be upset. Bailey loved Bart. He was bound to be upset by the news. She sat there, staring incredulously up at the ceiling.
But something caught her attention.
What was she witnessing?
Bailey Walton, a blonde woman hooked in his arm, passed from the doorframe. The blonde woman was dressed in a skimpy skirt and top. She laughed at something he said, jiggling silicone.
Attached to the leash on Bailey’s waist was — none other than — Bartholomeu?
Leslie sat there watching them pass by, dumbfounded.
The world around her goes silent. She spends the next three hours on unconscious autopilot. One minute it’s twelve, the next it’s three. The trunk is full of groceries. She takes them handful by handful. As she begins searching for refrigeratable items she hears the familiar rumble of Bailey’s Toyota Tundra. As the engine comes to a halt from the garage she pretends to be busy. The garage door opens and she sees from her periphery Bailey, moving methodically, back postured, in his doctoral garb, reading something on his tablet. Bart appears suddenly, tail wagging, and jumps on Leslie.
Smiling sincerely at Bartholomeu she pats him on the head. But she has no idea what to say. Who was the woman Bailey was with? Why did Bailey ignore her? Bart scampers happily away, nails clambering slipping against tile. Why did Bailey take Bart to work? Who was that woman? She knew the answer to none of these and yet understood she needed to say something to Bailey quick, to break the silence. The first thing that came to mind:
“How was work?”
“Good. We did an artificial transplant.”
Leslie, behind the counter, takes produce from the plastic bags and places them into their respective compartments. From a reflection in a pickle jar she can still see Bailey standing at the head of the stairs, swiping his tablet.
“So,” Leslie starts, nonchalantly, “it wasn’t stressful at all?” She turns her head from the fridge to look back at him. His attention is still diverted at the tablet.
“Of course,” he says, “but I can’t let it affect me. I’m in the middle of a high-risk situation. A person’s life is on the line,” he says emotionlessly. “You can’t let the nerves get the best of you.” Sounds almost rehearsed. “Everyone feels ’em.”
She nods her head in stunted agreement.
Pacemaker slowing. Heartbeat: 58 BPM. Nearly that of an athlete. I am Bailey Thomas Walton, son of Thomas Jonah Walton. My heart’s beats are torrential and superfluous. I improve as time goes on. Within the heart’s pandemonium of waves I see and feel firsthand the sharp cold of wind and the blazing of volcanoes. In my heart I have scaled slate cliffs. I have met adversity and succumbed then overcome. I have found in the center of a world made of ice the most lukewarm of temperate climes.
The sun’s rays ricochet off only the lateral coordinates on which I stand.
My heart carries with it the histories of turmoil: hunger: the strike of passion.
In each pump of blood comes the electricity of survival: the desire of existence: the vastness of time: the histories of man.
The axioms of life are heard in the rhythm of each heartbeat. Clockwork. Depictions of love and purpose through the most lucid communication we know how.
A crackle of sparks: a burning of flame: a softness.
I round the corner, jogging.
With a passion for storytelling spawning before he even could write, Pete Cotsalas, a Massachusetts native, does not feel accomplished unless he has written daily. Fiction is his passion. With a BA in English/Creative Writing he hopes to milk all the use possible out of this basic credential, and dreams of the world reading and enjoying his work. He is an avid reader and researcher in his spare time. To inspire himself, he often contemplates “If it exists, I can write about it.”
Buzzing echoed within Faraoise’s lair. As she and Froman arrived at the underground confluence of Fathach’s streams and roots, Chliste, Ivanna and Myria cowered on the ground, bombarded. A swarm of tiny creatures embroiled the time defectors. “Get these bugs off!” screamed Myria, shooing one away from her hair.
Brandishing her hand, Faraoise stopped the cloud of insect-like creatures. They suspended in midair, fluttering wings slowly. “These are not insects. They are Laumes, flocked through the passageways. Well-meaning fairies, in legions are overwhelming. Laumes are lured by human suffering, wishing to sooth it. It seems they have an affinity for time-travel also. Holes in the flow attract them. Your return was a divine calling for them.” Waving her hand, the Laumes dispersed, fluttering back up the innumerable root-lined corridors.
Scratching her head, Ivanna sat up, staring at the creator of nature, absorbing her glittering features. “Are you Faraoise? You are a wood nymph. I mean no offense. I just did not expect…” Dismissively, Faraoise held up a hand and nodded.
Distraught upon his return, Chliste stared blankly, mouth drooping open and closed. Ivanna and Myria were trembling and blinking. “Time-flow shock,” Faraoise explained to Froman. “Oftentimes time-travelers need time to recompose. They need not exert themselves recounting the experience. We can view their arrival to return, in the nectar.” The Dryad creator gestured to the liquid of infinite colors. It swirled, turning blue, before giving way to clear imagery. Visions, plain and vivid as they themselves, appeared in the Knothole.
Alone beside the riverbank Ivanna and Myria paced, befuddled. “Where are we, Ivanna?”
Eyeing the river, Ivanna nodded. “This is the same river-bend. Mountains on the horizon appear same.”
Myria shrugged in puzzlement. “Where are the Wandering Field, Chliste and Froman? Are you certain? I disremember this river being so torrential.”
Ivanna agreed “It should not be. Upriver is the Cattail Dam, forming Nublun Reservoir, providing drinking water for three Provinces, unless…”
“Unless what?” urged Myria.
“Unless the dam is not built, which means the Provinces do not exist.” Surveying the expanse, she saw three grotesque boars with red fur, and green tusks wading across the river. “Do you know what they are? Those are Solastial Warthogs. They were overhunted by starving troops during War of Right, been extinct for centuries.”
Impatiently, throwing up her hands Myria said “I do not understand.” She screamed “Froman!”
A boat drifted downriver. “That is a ferry,” announced Ivanna. Something was wrong. The turning wheel, excavating the water surface, propelling the ferry appeared to be timber. Under a Legion Ordinance, ferry wheels were to be made of tin. Wood was deemed unsafe three centuries before. Accompanying the obvious absence of the dam, Ivanna was drawing a conclusion, trying to recall the incantation Chliste uttered before they found themselves here.
A loud splat announced the ferry grounding itself riverside. From the helm, a half-dwarf ferryman greeted them. “Lost, are you? You two are way off the trail.” Anchoring his ferry, he opened a tobacco pouch. “Did I hear you calling someone named Froman? I know no Froman. I know Furoom, the village stonecutter. If it be him you seek, he is indisposed. Poor bloke has his hands full with the recent graves.”
Myria looked up toward the deck. “No, Froman is our companion, a Wolf.”
Narrowing his eyes in confusion, the bearded ferryman grunted in pain. He bit his finger while depositing a lump of tobacco in his jaw. Flexing his finger, he said “Afraid I misunderstand Milady. You have lost your pet wolf?”
Impatiently, Myria shook her head. “He is a member of the Wolf Clan of-.”
Clapping her hand over Myria’s mouth to silence her, Ivanna shook her head. “She is awestruck Ferryman. Wait momentarily.” She whispered into Myria’s ear. “Do not mention the Wolf Clan. We are centuries in the past. Chliste transported us through the timeline. I read of this spell. If we are in the time when I think we are, Wolves remain isolated to the West Hills. The rest of Fathach is not aware of their existence yet. In absentia from our time, we must discriminate what we reveal.” Addressing the ferrymen, she said “Um, Ferryman, I apologize. I have yet to take your name?”
“Trotter, Milady,” he said, through the brown mass in his mouth.
“Very well, Trotter, the stonecutter is busy with graves of whom, may I ask?”
Sealing his tobacco pouch, Trotter sighed. “Ah, you have not heard. Days ago a search party investigated a mass of hawks circling the mountain, yonder. They found a village of woodsmen dead. Rats were gnawing at them. Hawks were attracted to the rodent throngs. I just delivered the last of the corpses to the undertaker at the graveyard.”
Trotter referenced the discovery of the Mountain of a Thousand Hawks. They were six-hundred years in the past, during the Days to Forsake, and the reign of evil. They were at mercy of the Warlock lawmakers. Thinking quickly, Ivanna asked “Trotter, can you direct us to the Mactor Kingdom?”
“Kingdom?” he repeated. “You mean Mactor settlement?”
Ivanna shook her head “Oh yes, the settlement.” She momentarily forgot that there would be no established Kingdoms or Queendoms until after the war. “We wish to see… Squire Shrewn.” King Shrewn was not yet a King.
“Fastest way to Mactor Settlement from here is via the Opposite Strait,” Trotter explained. “Shrewn’s colony is upriver. Strait flows south to north.”
Ivanna knew the river section whereof Trotter spoke. In their time it was The Brell Strait. “That is near the Prestile Falls. She shook her head, accessing her history knowledge. She murmured “Um, Days to Forsake, Torrential Falls.”
“Yes,” Trotter said. “Beyond there the Solas feeds into the Strait, passing directly by Mactor Settlement. For a moment I thought you said Prestile Falls. Only Prestile refers to the Prestilians, nomads secluded in the valley. Very well, I can take you there. You will be the only live fares I had in days. Beware of the Grytties. Nasty little pests like to hide in shallow areas of the river that direction.”
Do not worry. Grytties will become extinct within sixty years. Ivanna almost spoke the words, but kept them in her head as she and Myria boarded. Vaguely she worried about the fare. Modern Fathach currency from her pouch might confuse Trotter. It was gold however. Aboard, Trotter manned the helm while Myria inquired of Ivanna in a hushed tone. “Why are we seeking Shrewn?”
Matching Myria’s whisper and glancing to ensure Trotter was no eavesdropping, Ivanna answered her handmaiden friend. “Shrewn was the first fairy to enter our realm, a dozen centuries ago. In this time he would be our safest ally. If anyone would know how to reverse our journey through time-flow it would be Shrewn.” Confidence that Shrewn would hear their story at least comforted Ivanna. In their time, King Shrewn remained the most levelheaded assemblyman in the Grand Legion.
Not far along the river, Trotter docked before a tiny tavern between two trees with a private dock, announcing a pit stop. “Care for some food?” he asked. “They roast excellent warthog here.” Hunger not a prominent objective they refused their chance to taste the meat of an extinct creature. Approaching the pub, Trotter brushed against a hooded figure standing on the dock and apologized. Trotter grinned, seeing the man under the hood. “Jilt, I am surprised to see you. You were in the village not an hour ago.” Calling to Ivanna and Myria, waiting on the deck, he introduced “This is Jilt, our village milkman.” Turning to face the ferry, as Trotter entered the pub the figure lowered its hood. Ivanna and Myria gasped. It was not a milkman. Hult, Ivanna’s manservant from Palace Dli was under the cloak and hood. How could he be in this time? His eyes were vacantly indifferent, very unlike Hult.
Looking at Hult, Myria said “Abode Mother, how are you here?”
Furrowing her brow, Ivanna looked at Hult. “Abode mother, what…?” Realization solidified. A sneer enveloped the replica of Hult’s face. “Myria we have to leave!” shrieked Ivanna. The hooded creature opened its jaws, screeching a bloodcurdling cry. In the distance trees ruffled. Something was coming.
Grasping the helm, Ivanna looked over her shoulder. “Warlocks detected us.” She yelled to be heard over the screeching call the camouflaged monster made. More appeared, joining it. “They sensed the magic surge from the spell, or perceived a border between realms breached. They dispatched Rakshasa to dragoon us. That was not your Abode Mother.”
“What are Rakshasa?” Myria inquired, frightful. “I have never heard of them.”
Grunting as she tried to navigate the old-fashion ferry into the current, Ivanna articulated. “Unnatural creatures manufactured by the Warlocks as foot-soldiers. Flesh-eating demonic monsters, which had unique power to assume appearance of anyone that whoever looked at them trusted. They do not exist in our time. Armies of the Legion eradicated them during The War of Right. Unfortunately, The War will not occur for two centuries!” One Rakshasa threw a spear. Ivanna felt air rift as it came close to her head. With a thud, it struck beneath the helm, as the current quickened. Returning from the pub, Trotter saw his boat leaving. Yelling as the ferry departed the pub port, Ivanna said “I apologize, Trotter.” He yelled in protest.
Following their hijacking, they stranded the pursuing Rakshasa on the muddy banks. Ivanna pulled the spear from the wood surrounding the helm area of the boat. Crucial damage was caused to the ferry’s steering mechanism. Neither were handy engineers. “This vessel is too large to be paddled,” Ivanna said. “Generally, we will have to allow current to steer us. Once we pass the Falls, we reach the Strait, carrying us to Mactor, by nightfall.” In silence, they watched the passing forest flanking the river thickening, listening to chirping in the distance. Ivanna pinpointed areas where villages and farmland existed in their time. Chirping became louder when dusk arrived, and the trees were densest. The ferry was barraged by tiny froglike creatures, with claws. Myria kicked one of the reptilians off the starboard side. Ivanna lifted an ore and swatted another clawing her robes. “Grytties the ferryman warned us of, primitive water imps, taking pleasure from mischief. In these days they were infamous for sinking boats, or throwing cargo overboard, found it amusing.” Soon the screeching and commotion stopped. The tiny heads of the Gyrtties looked to the shore, spotting another purple-tusked warthog. One licked its green lips. All at once, they fled the ferry, paddled across the water and attacked the warthog. Drifting by, Ivanna and Myria watched a dozen tiny creatures bludgeon a pig twenty-times their size to death. “Warthogs were their natural prey. That led to their extinction, the extinction of the warthog.”
Following the Gyrtties’ dispersal, they remained alert. Myria looked down at the moving water below the wooden, floating structure. Ivanna encouraged. “It will take time. Solas runs the length of the continent.” Ivanna looked around. “Something is wrong… We have been afloat for hours. We should hear the Prestile Falls now.” She walked from bow to stern on the river vessel, observing their surroundings. “I see Scholder Caverns… There is no point the Solas River passes there. It does not flow this far west… goodness, unless we encountered an unexpected turn.”
“Just before those pests attacked, we encountered a split,” said Myria. “River branched into two directions.”
“You mean a tributary?” Ivanna was very fearful now. “Did one way flow under a canopy of willow trees?”
Myria nodded. “The right did. We went left.”
Ivanna gulped. “In our time the river only transpires straightforward, under those willows, giving way to the portion of the river leading to Prestile Falls.” Overboard, she saw water below flowing gradually. It looked murky. “This must be some drainage basin going west. It must be dammed off in our time. In other words, I do not know where this stretch leads.” With the helm broken, they were at the mercy of the current.
Water conveying them turned completely brown, slowing to a walking pace. The smell of murk and animal feces magnified. Flow gave way to a swamp. This bog flowed west. “Ugh, that stench is horrific,” Myria said, covering her nose. “This makes the Lowest Dungeon seem like a florist’s!”
“There is your source,” Ivanna pointed to the bank of the river. Situated by the line of trees, on the dark riverbank, were a row of corpses. At least a dozen appeared fresh, others nearly bone. Positioned upright, facing the river, all impaled on spikes planted in the ground. Before passing the corpses, Ivanna saw one decaying man dressed in a purple cloak. This was once traditional attire for a traveling monk. There was a unicorn hide sack swinging from the decomposing shoulder of another. Before the unicorn went extinct, unicorn hide sacks were standard accessory of royal messengers. Not exclusively humans were impaled. Identifying elf bone-structure was noticeable on some skeletons. Ivanna disliked the sensation that their fate was dispensing. Apart from the intensifying odor, darkening canopy of tree limbs above them, and the displayed dead bodies something else was causing her fear. Perhaps it was a developed Enforcer instinct. Deeper they progressed into the marshy bog, the more Ivanna felt they were being watched.
Myria craned her neck, looking at the display of bodies behind them. “Some of those bodies had letters carved on them in their skulls or sternums. It looked like they spelled “Intruders”.”
For a time it was uneventful. The only place silence was absent was Ivanna’s mind. Hopefully they would drift safely through swampy terrain, arriving at a free-flowing portion of the Solas River. Other than that, apart from the occasional frog croak, or squelching from the ferry’s underside, they did not hear or see anything. Ivanna was no navigator or expert on boats, but sensed the current of the dark water carrying them in a zigzagging direction. Same trees from the shore to their portside remained on that side as they floated along. They were caught in an oxbow lake. These usually reconnected with the main channel. Ivanna hoped that was the case. Then they saw the sign. It was actually a low-hanging, thick tree limb, above their heads. It bore a message. Somebody took great care to carve it into the bark with a chisel. It was crude, written almost illiterately: “Fuil Tertery.”
“What is tertery?” Myria asked, squinting to read as they passed underneath the branch.
Ivanna shook her head. “That meant to say “Fuil Territory,” badly misspelled.”
“Fuil Territory?” read Myria the etching on the bark one more time before it vanished behind them. “Hmm, I am unfamiliar with that province.”
“It is no province,” Ivanna said. She heard the hiccup of fear in her own voice. Fuil was a familiar term from studies. It was no ideal destination. “During Days to Forsake, Fuil was the name given to the area in the middle of the continent where ogres and trolls dwelled. Apparently that is where we have drifted.” She looked around, more vigilantly now. “Myria, we are unsafe… Trolls, ogres, and goblins during The Days to Forsake were much more gruesome and hostile than in our time.” She swallowed. “I have fair certainty that if we are discovered, we will be killed without much mercy, and put on pikes. Those bodies were not executed criminals. That is what they do to those entering their domain uninvited.”
“Indeed,” a gravelly disembodied, voice came from thin air it seemed, causing Ivanna and Myria to scream. Two large, hairless heads appeared over the rail on the starboard side. Trolls were rarely so stealthy. Attempting to react, Ivanna grasped the hilt of her sword, but too late. The tall nude green-hued trolls boarded the ferry, pointing bloodstained blades at them. In defeat, Ivanna and Myria raised their hands. Their captors ordered them off the boat, sending the ferry adrift thereafter. Protesting as they stripped her of weapons and valuables, Ivanna was struck with a club. “Human heifers bring onslaught thyself, trespassing on Fuil Land,” the troll jeered. The second was cross-eyed and grunted with hebetude as he secured Myria’s shackles.
Herded like livestock, Ivanna and Myria found themselves embarking toward unknown fate in the deep, foul-smelling valleys of Fuil. Smoke billowed from a clearing. As they marched onward, the source was revealed to be a fire-pit. Arriving at a mud shack, they were forced to stop, at knifepoint. “Steady there,” one ordered.
One troll oversaw them, as the second went to speak to a hulking ogre, splitting logs with an axe by the fireside. Listening to the murmuring, Ivanna tried her best to translate their Ogle. By no means was she fluent in the dead language. She absorbed the gist. “We are being sold as commodities. Presumably, this ogre is a buyer.”
“Lops and I want their heads!” the ogre bellowed, brandishing the dull, yet menacing iron axe. Heartbeats pounded in Ivanna’s ear. Recalling coming across a name and story once, she believed this ogre was Dyblen, known by nickname Decollation Dyblen. With his massive hand, he squeezed the tops of both Ivanna and Myria’s heads. “They will do nicely. Two female human heads will compliment my décor.” Looking at the troll, he gestured to a stump. “Take them to my chopping block.” He ran a finger down the blade of his axe. “I gotta sharpen Lops.”
Jabbing the machete at their backs, the trolls herded them toward the block. Myria whimpered, seeing the blade-marks on the stump. Ivanna was less worried. She noticed a bolt on one of her hand shackles was broken. Discretely, she slipped her hand out. Waiting for the ogre to be occupied by the iron sharpening wheel, she took her chance. Whirling around, she swung the iron chain from her wrist, knocking the troll in the head. Grunting, he fell against a tree. Ivanna grabbed his key like a flash, and unlocked Myria’s shackles. “Run!” she screamed. They were into the woods, before hearing Dyblen and second troll pursuing. Fleeing, Ivanna and Myria slid into a ditch. The loud thudding footsteps of the pursuing trolls stopped directly above them. They listened to the aggressive panting, keeping hidden.
“They must have run through the swamp,” Ivanna heard Dyblen say.
His smaller crony suggested “Shouldn’t we check the hatchery?”
Dyblen scoffed. “They wouldn’t be stupid enough to go there.” The footfalls died away.
Eggs twice the size of their heads surrounded Ivanna and Myria. “This is a dragon hatchery,” Ivanna whispered, looking cautiously at the eggs. Cracking emitted as the eggs hatched. Scaly snouts snapped at their ankles. High-pitched wails of newborn dragons warranted fleeing. Evading the hatchlings, they trudged uphill through cattails. Ivanna thrust a hand out to stop Myria.
Through thorn-bushes nearby Dyblen and his crony spoke. Cheer coated their voices. They eavesdropped. “Father, you’ve been dead half a century. How’re you back?”
High croaky voice of his sidekick interjected. “Your father, that’s my father Dyblen.”
A third voice spoke. “The two human women, where are they?”
“Hereabouts,” assured Dyblen.
“Lawmakers enforce strict punishment upon harboring fugitives,” the unseen third party hissed. A slicing sound and grunt followed, then a thump. Ivanna knew the sound of a body hitting ground. The troll squealed in horror, before another slice silenced him too.
Startling Myria and Ivanna, Chliste appeared. “Rakshasa have killed your pursuers. We must move.” Grunting, he led the way up the next hill.
Accustomed to horseback, so much running was alien to Ivanna. “How many?” she asked Chliste.
“One,” he urged them to keep up. “After you escaped them they spread out to search. They scour for you as far as the outskirts of the mountains.”
Without warning, a loud growl assaulted their eardrums. A Rakshasa leapt from a mass of bushes. To Ivanna it appeared as her Enforcer partner. Chliste held the beast off. He was distracted, staring at it for a moment, giving the gofer opportunity. It swiped its sword, slicing Chliste’s leg. He bled, grunting. Waving his hand he teleported the three of them to a clearing nearby. From safety, they watched the Rakshasa look around for them, brandishing its blade. It licked the blade of its sword. From a distance, Ivanna saw its eyes widened. Staring at Chliste’s blood on the sword, it called “Male time-traveler,” smacking his lips, dispelling a disgusting flavor. “The very presence of you and your human companions is an insurrection of the Masters. I see that more clearly now. Your blood looks like blood, and feels it, but tastes like… sand.” From their concealed hiding spot, they saw the streak of blood changing form. Instead of dripping off of the blade, it crumbled. The blood was becoming sand, falling to the ground. The Rakshasa hissed. “This is golem blood, reverts to its original form when drawn. Same happens to extremities when severed. Evidently the Masters did not eliminate the Predecessors as we believed. You will be a difficult adversary.”
“Understatement,” Chliste murmured. Uttering a spell, the Rakshasa froze in its tracks. “We must act posthaste. Get to that clearing. That spell will not affect a Rakshasa long. If it were only you two, I could merely transport you back. Since I am retrieving you in person, pulling three of us back is more trying. I need something, the feather of a Phoenix. During The Days to Forsake, they are caged in the Warlocks’ palaces, to siphon their magic. There may be some free.” Cupping his hands around his mouth, Chliste emitted a high-pitched shrill screech. Covering her ears, Ivanna recognized the universal birdcall. Within seconds, tree limbs shook as the largest, diverse flock she had ever seen amassed in the clearing. Every bird within miles swooped to the clearing: swallows, ravens, hawks, even birds Ivanna did not recognize, which may have been extinct by their time. The birds cawed and flapped around the clearing. Eyes turning blue, Chliste observed the flock. “No Phoenixes,” he announced. “I shall improvise.” He plucked a squawking colorful bird from the mass. “Make haste, come.”
“That is a lovebird, not a Phoenix,” said Ivanna in bemusement.
“They are similar. Faraoise created Phoenixes by reticulating the lovebird with greater size and magic. To avoid slipup, I will need all the feathers.” He muttered an incantation. A swirling gateway opened. Holding the lovebird out, the three were admitted in. The bird’s feathers disintegrated.
As imagery faded in the nectar, Faraoise turned to address the three returned survivalists. Ivanna regained herself. With the rage in her eyes, looking at Chliste it seemed it was all she could muster not to strike him. “Why did you send up back to that era or torment?”
“To put your endeavor in perspective,” said Chliste, rubbing his head. “The Warlocks now occupy the realm of death. If you enter, you will be at their mercy as you were in the Days to Forsake. I merely meant for you to experience their power firsthand.”
“And my Enforcer badge!” screamed Ivanna. “It was stolen in that horrible past! I do not have credentials.”
“Come here.” Chliste put his hand on Ivanna’s shoulder, and closed his eyes and touched the side of his head with his free hand. Saying “One moment,” he vanished in a blink. Before Ivanna’s surprise at his departure solidified, Chliste returned holding his hand to Ivanna, palm up. In his hand was a dented, rusted, oval-shaped piece of metal, with a barely legible letter E on it. “Here is your badge, centuries older, looks a relic. I located its whereabouts. After it was stolen, it sold at the underground market to an ogress, along with a collection of precious metals. From there, it changed hands many times over centuries. It was dropped by a farm boy in a field seventy-five years ago. I dug under decades’ of sedimentary dirt and debris, but retrieved it.” He waved the palm of his hand over the badge. Shiny, silver original appearance restored.
Thanking him, Ivanna placed it on her tunic, and asked a question. “My oft-read history has not elaborated much history of Golems. Chliste, what was that Rakshasa eluding to when it said Golems were Predecessors?”
Chliste nodded. “My kind spawned from early experiments by the Warlocks. We were prototypes in their quest to engineer perfectly subservient underlings. That is why Froman detests me. Wolves hate the Warlocks. My kind served them.”
“I have no sympathy for Warlock collaborators.” Froman appeared behind her, spitting.
Narrowing his eyes at Froman, Chliste said. “When Faraoise distributed tolerance, you received the vestige. My artificiality is true.” A tear welled in his eye. “However, I cannot influence it. I only wish Froman the Extremist would allow bygones to be bygones. Leave past in history. If you respected my status as Knower of All-,”
“He is a facsimile!” Froman growled, looking at Ivanna and pointing at Chliste. “The true Knower of All died on the beaches of the Isle Quarrest.”
Without making eye contact, Chliste commentated “Killed by members of The Kinship, I point out, Froman.”
Froman whistled. “Hints of emotion were in that retort, Chliste, how uncharacteristic.” Glancing between Chliste and Faraoise, he gaped, knowingly. “You were given a heart?” Froman grunted and scoffed, staring with a triumphant sneer. “You have a heart, and materialize in Faraoise’s lair, in hominid form. Are you satisfied? What more proof do you need that emotions are natural?”
“I was correct,” proclaimed Chliste, massaging his chest. It was obvious attempt to divert. “This abomination has hindered my cerebral function. It ruins me!”
Exasperated, Froman turned to Faraoise, silent since the nectar vision. “You see?” he demanded of her, pointing to Chliste. “Unfit to bear a heart, the Golem is. Heart and emotion are birthrights. Birthright cannot be held by what was never born. Equate yourselves with this, everybody. Geologic gestation does not take place within a womb. Remove the heart. It is undeserved.”
Watching Froman and Faraoise retire to a corner of the lair to converse, Ivanna turned back to Chliste. Myria was bathing in the smooth current of one of the streams. They had privacy. His back was turned. “Final question,” she said cautiously. “I think I know what you reference when you say you have been hindered. Never having a heart, you would have seen a Rakshasa’s true physical appearance, correct?” Chliste nodded. “Now it’s different?” Ivanna recalled Chliste’s hesitance to combat the beast in the past when he saw it. “You never trusted anybody before the heart. But that Rakshasa appeared as somebody to you. Was it, Faraoise?” Groaning, Chliste turned to face her, with sheepishness unbecoming of him. Lips quivered, but he could not seem to voice the answer. Eyes drifted in Froman’s direction. That was answer enough.
As promised, Faraoise provided guidance to the death realm, as Ivanna and Froman advertently listened. “I shall point you in the direction. You will find the key to your goal with a Chimera.”
Puzzled, Ivanna shrugged. “Chimeras were exterminated after the Warlocks’ overthrow.”
“One prowls the woods near the Spiral Ravines.” Conjuring the image within the nectar, they saw the beast. “She is a Return.”
Drip-drying her hair, Myria returned from cleaning herself in the stream, and overheard this. “What is a Return?”
“One who has died, entered the death realm, and come back,” said Froman, without looking at Myria. “How did it happen, Faraoise?”
“This I cannot say,” she shook her head. “Interrogate that Chimera, find the gateway.”
Ivanna sighed. “Wolpertingers, Warthogs, Laumes, Chimera, this is like touring a menagerie.”
As they turned, Faraoise laid a hand on Ivanna’s shoulder. Touch of the naturalistic creator sparked an oddly pleasant chill through Ivanna. “I should warn you. Parting pabulum for when you access the realm of departed. Dead greatly outnumber living.”
To be continued
Wayne Hall lives in Conway, Arkansas with his wife Sherry and their dog Mr. Spock. Wayne is an outdoors enthusiast and avid hiker who is passionate about writing. In 2014 he completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail which begins in Georgia and follows the Appalachian mountains for 2,185 miles ending in the state of Maine. The journey so inspired him that he now does his best to write fiction that captures the spirit of the small towns and people he met along the way.
“Wanda was a good pig, and just maybe the prettiest pig to ever root the ground.”Mrs. Geni said while hammering the makeshift cross into the ground at the head of the freshly dug grave. The simple cross was made of cedar planks and held together with used eight penny nails with the name Wanda painted in white.
First Street ended abruptly at the edge of Town, as if when creating the map someone came to the edge of the paper and just stopped drawing. The next to last house before coming to a dead -end belonged to the Wright Family. Mr. And Mrs. Wright along with their Fourteen-year-old son William lived in a well-kept brick home, with a nicely manicured lawn, and a paved circle drive with a two car garage. The life they lived would by most be considered the very middle of middle class. William was a wiry built young boy with knobby knees and more than his share of freckles and a mop of red hair that had been unmanageable since he had been a toddler. Because of the mop of red hair, William was known by most as Rusty.
A week before the day Rusty found himself holding a makeshift cross while Mrs. Geni hammered it into the ground at the head of a grave marked Wanda, Rusty knew little about his neighbor and never recalled her owning a pig. Her house sat just over an old wire fence from the Wright’s brick home. Once you crossed the fence the contrast was evident, the house where Mrs. Geni lived was old and large, the eaves covered in Ivy while the two acres surrounding the house were overtaken by time and deprived of maintenance. Mrs. Geni rarely left the old house her presence was all but ghost-like; only the soft glowing of a lamp in the evening or the crowing of a morning roster gave an indication of life across the old wire fence.
Rusty was a prankster, and along with his two best friends Johnny and Kevin, found no shortage of trouble in which to participate.Whether it was putting shaving cream inside all the door handles of the cars parked at the Big Star grocery, or throwing roll after roll of toilet paper into the trees on the front lawn of their English teacher, the boys always had something up their sleeves. Sometimes the pranks that Johnny devised went a little far for Rusty’s taste, but most of the time peer pressure won out, and Rusty went along even if silently he thought it to be a bad idea. It was Johnny’s idea to prank the new Teacher the boy’s had for second period Math Class.
Mrs. Pruit was young and just out of College. Teaching the boy’s Math class was her first job, and she seemed shy and a bit nervous. Johnny shared his mischievous plan with Kevin and Rusty and with end a few hours the three had all they needed to carry out the prank: Arriving early to second-period math class the boys placed a small box wrapped in red wrapping paper with a white bow on Mrs. Pruit’s desk. Attached to the box a small tag that read, “for Mrs. Pruit.” When the new Math Teacher walked into class she looked delighted to see the gift on her desk. “Oh, is this for me?” She said her voice filled with excitement. Her look of excitement turned to horror. A look Rusty swore he would never forget, inside the small white box lay a small piece of Dog feces Johnny had found on his front lawn. Mrs. Pruit screamed and ran from the room while all the Children laughed, all but Rusty. The young Teacher never returned to teach Math in that Small southern town again. Rusty later heard that the reason she seemed shy and withdrawn was more than likely the death of her Father unexpectedly just before she had moved to their small town. Johnny only laughed and said, “oh well a prank is a prank,” but Rusty secretly made a promise to himself that he would never be involved in a prank that went that far again.
Two days before the burial of Mrs. Geni’s pig the clock that sat on a shelf surrounded by miniature gnomes in the dining room of the Wright’s home read 5:30 pm. With as much reliability as the hands of that old clock, Mr. Wright sat down at the dining table with his paper in hand, followed by Rusty, while Mrs. Wright busied herself setting the table for the evening meal. The delightful aroma of a pot roast drifted across the table while ice crackled as warm, sweet tea cooled in tall glasses. For a while, no one spoke. Silverware clinked against plates while napkins lay quietly across each lap.
Mrs. Wright cleared her throat before speaking, as she spoke she went about the task of compartmentalizing each item in her plate; separating the meat from the carrots, then the carrots from the potatoes, a slice of bread balanced on the edge of her plate like a gymnast on a balancing beam.
“I overheard some of the Women talking about our neighbor today at bridge club. Now mind you, I don’t believe in spreading gossip but I was sitting right next to them as they spoke and it would have been rude just to get up and move,” Mrs. Wright said. “According to Judy at Bridge club a man from the Telephone company came by Mrs. Geni’s to check on a wire that had come loose from her house, and she refused to let him in the yard. She claimed he was just there to steal from her; she told him she was going to turn her dogs out on him if he didn’t leave. She doesn't even have dogs does she Hun?”
Mr. Wright look up from his plate of Roast, wiping his mouth with the cloth napkin he said, “no I don’t think she has dogs, at least I have never heard any barking coming from her way, but if Judy at bridge club said it was true well I guess it is true.” Smiling Mr. Wright went back to eating his pot Roast.
“I heard she killed her Husband! A girl at school said Mrs. Geni killed her Husband,” Rusty said before swallowing a mouthful of Potatoes.
“Rusty, that is an awful thing to say. Let’s do our best not to spread that rumor around,” Mr. Wright said.
“Well, he did die under unusual circumstances,” Mrs. Wright said. “It happened before we moved here. I heard he just fell off a step ladder, wasn't anything wrong with the ladder; he just fell off, I heard he was quite handy around the house too, which makes it odder. A man who is handy around the house just falling off a step ladder.
“Whether or not she killed her Husband, I think we should leave up to God and the Women at Bridge club,” Mr. Wright said. I do wish she would clean up around that place a little; our property value would go up if she would just do a little cleaning. The only conversation I think I have ever had with her was when I asked her about that old wire fence, and if maybe we could take it down since she had no livestock and the pasture was overgrown. She just looked at me and said, “my fence, my land, “ and that was the end of that.”
The Wright’s returned to silence as they finished their Pot Roast and Iced Tea.
Around the same time, the Wright’s were finishing their meal, just across the old wire fence, Mrs. Geni stood hunched over the stove checking on a pot of Black-eyed Pea’s and making sure the sweet Corn was cooked. As she cut up a tomato fresh from the garden, she caught the reflection of herself in the Kitchen window. “How did I get so old,” she thought?”
A black and white photo framed in oak sat on a book shelve between the Kitchen and Den. In the photo, the couple looked happy, she in a White Wedding Dress, he in a freshly pressed Army uniform, both portraying the very essence of youth. Mrs. Geni picked up the photo and examined it closely; the woman in the photo looked faintly familiar, while the man in the uniform looked precisely the way she remembered. From a Kitchen drawer she took a small pocket mirror, holding it close to her face, she looked closer than she had in quite awhile. She noticed her hair was no longer just gray but now showed signs of turning white and thinner than she remembered pulled tightly into a bun. She ran her index finger along the deep crevices below her cheeks; it seemed only yesterday they were only small wrinkles, faint and hardly visible. “Oh well, it is what it is,” she said out loud.
In the quite Kitchen she went about dividing the Pea’s, Corn, and Tomatoes onto two plates. She then walked to the back door as she did every evening, calling, “Wanda supper is ready! Wanda, Wanda, Wanda, come quickly, don’t want your corn to get cold!”
As if on cue, From around the back of the House a pink fleshed Pig came running, grunting, squealing; the gate to her pen swung on old hinges, always left open until after Supper time. Her pen being the only part of the two acres not overtaken with weeds and lack of Maintenance. Wanda came through the back door and sat obediently next to Mrs. Geni’s chair as if it was normal for a pig to dine at the kitchen table and not knowing that other Pigs do not. Mrs. Geni sat one of the prepared plates in front of Wanda before picking up a fork and starting to eat. Wanda devoured the Corn cob and all before sniffing at the Pea’s; Corn was her favorite as it was Mrs. Geni’s. The two sat quietly enjoying their meal, to the sound of silverware clanking against a plate and Wanda rooting at what was left of the Corn, while Wheel of Fortune played on the television in the background.
The evening hours moved slowly as Rusty lay in his twin sized bed with his hand's clasp behind his head unable to sleep. His restless thoughts jumped randomly from why no one ever died in the Batman show he watched every week, to the look Cindy Crowley gave him in Rainey’s Grocery when the two almost ran into each other in the produce aisle. “I think she smiled at me,” he whispered to himself. Somnolence lay upon him like a warm blanket while his thoughts settled on the activities he Johnny and Kevin had planned for the next morning, it would be Saturday, and the possibilities were endless. He hoped Kevin remembered the old purse he had found in boxes his Mother was donating to Goodwill. The prank was simple. The boys would take an old purse and tie clear fishing mono-filament to the handle before laying the purse in the middle of a well-traveled road, with the clear line in hand the boys would hide behind a tree or bushes and wait; when a well-meaning traveler stopped to retrieve the Purse the Boy’s would give the line a fast jerk, hopefully giving the good Samaritan a scare and the boy’s a thrill. As Rusty worked out the details in his head sleep found him and held him until morning.
The smell of Bacon frying hung in the air as Rusty made his way through the House. “No time for breakfast,” Rusty shouted in the direction of his Mom, who stood turning meat over in a pan. He grabbed a Pop-Tart and took a long slug of milk from the carton before exiting the back door while wiping a light mustache of milk from his upper lip.
The Garage door opened at a slow pace. Rusty rolled his Black Schwinn with a yellow Banana seat down the driveway. A Red Fox Squirrel’s tail hung from the top of the Schwinn’s three feet tall sissy bar, the possibilities of the day greeted him with as much warmth as the morning Sun rising in the east. As if on cue or directed by some internal clock that all restless young boys have, Kevin and Johnny emerged onto First Street; each on his two wheel machine, playfully overtaking each other while hoping curbs and drainage canals.
“It's a great day for pranks,” Johnny said while coming to a skidding stop in the Wright’s driveway. Kevin followed close behind Johnny dismounting his bike letting it fall to the ground. “I’ve got everything we need right here,” Kevin said while taking off his backpack emptying the contents onto the drive.
“The big purse I have stuffed with newspapers to make it look full, you know like it has money in it, the small pocketbook I borrowed from my sister's room, she’ll never know, she has too many anyway,” Kevin said.
“Boy’s I’ve got a better idea,” Johnny said unzipping his backpack just enough to allow the others to peek inside as if it held a great mystery. Inside the worn denim pack was two dozen Black Cat bottle rockets left over from the Fourth of July celebration.
“Sweet!”Kevin shouted. “We can ride up to Lander’s hill and shoot them down at cars on Highway seven.”
"I have a better idea, we can shoot um at your neighbor, maybe see if we can get the old lady’s heart-rate up,” Johnny said holding the bottle-rockets clinched in his hand.
Rusty’s eyes widened. “Mrs. Geni? No! No, that is a bad idea, I live right next to her, and I know she would call the cops, no guy’s let’s do the purse thing.”
Johnny made a clucking sound indicate that Rusty was chicken, then Kevin started to cluck, the two clucking like a pair of old hens as they mounted their bikes and started down the Street, “Wait up you guy’s,” Rusty said while trying to catch his two best friends.
The sage grass in Berkman’s field stood chest high to Rusty, who was the tallest of the three boy’s. Three bikes lay hidden among the tall sage, quiet and still but ready at a minute’s notice to be used in a great getaway if everything went according to plan. The boy’s crouched together forming a flatten circle with only their eyes protruding above the grass.
Mrs. Geni’s estate sat to the east; all three boy’s examined its structure with the precaution of a soldier checking his battle plans. The House itself stood tall and white, long ago the eaves and porch column’s had been overtaken by ivy. Tall bushes that once had been shrubs now covered the lower window’s of the home, Chickweed and Dandelions grew where a well-manicured lawn had been.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this guys. How about we wait until dark and take the Bottle Rockets down to Cook’s Landing Dam and shoot them there? I think we should just stick with the purse thing as we had planned,” Rusty said while peering nervously over the tall grass.
“You’re so Chicken you might lay an egg,” Johnny said before playfully hitting Rusty in the arm. Johnny and Kevin both began to Cluck like Chickens again. “Tell you what we will do, we will take these down to Cook’s landing and shoot them tonight,” Johnny said tossing one bundle of Bottle Rockets back into his backpack. “That leaves this bundle here, and its got old lady Geni’s name all over it.” As Johnny spoke, he cut the wrapping from the Rockets with his Old-Henry pocket knife its blade shimmering against the morning sky.
Johnny’s hand was steady as he held out the Soda-pop bottle that contained the first of the fireworks. “You light it!” He said holding a box of matches toward Rusty.
“Oh no! Not me!” Rusty said refusing to take the matches.
“You have to. We are not the one that is afraid of getting in trouble. You need to conquer your fears, Rusty old boy.”
Rusty held one of the matches to the side of the box, dragging it quickly along the rough edge. The Red and White tip of the match came alive but before the flame had settled to the task of burning the stick of wood Rusty’s insides were filled with regret. Ignoring the voice in his head screaming, “don’t do it! This is a bad idea!” Rusty touched the flame to the fuse and watched it began to sizzle.
Johnny’s aim was steady as he held the glass bottle pointed toward the large White House. The Rocket left the bottle with force and speed, but not on the course the boy’s had planned. A trail of smoke followed the Rocket as it climbed upward before diving back to earth crashing into the field next to the edge of Mrs. Geni’s property, exploding with a loud pop. “What a dud,” Kevin said.
Johnny shouted, “it’s not my fault, I had a perfectly good aim. The damn Chinese don’t know how to make good Fireworks.”
“The Chinese are the only one’s that know how to make good Fireworks," Rusty said feeling relieved the Rocket had missed its mark.
The boy’s continued to argue about the quality of Fireworks made in other Countries while a small pillar of smoke rose from where the Rocket had landed. “Oh, Shit!” one of the boy’s shouted as they all three ran through the tall dry grass toward the now larger pillar of smoke. When they arrived at the site of impact not only smoke could be seen, but tall flames lapped at the air, taller than the boy’s themselves. After only seconds of trying to exhaust the fire by using their feet stomping as fast as they could, they each looked at one other with resolve. The fire was too big, growing too fast, and now with the help of a light West wind it was moving toward Mrs. Geni’s house. “We have to call the Fire Department,” Rusty shouted, his eyes projecting the fear he felt. Johnny and Kevin only looked at each other before disappearing into the tall grass, running in the opposite direction. Rusty felt it useless to try to call them back. Instead, he ran to his house shouting for his Mom to call the Fire Department.
Rusty’s eyes followed the second hand as it slowly moved around the clock that sat on the shelve along the dining room wall, just behind his parent’s head. For what seemed like centuries Mr. And Mrs. Wright only stared at Rusty who uncomfortably sat directly across from them. Mrs. Wright occasionally wiped her eyes with a well used tissue. Mr. Wright cleared his throat before beginning to speak. “Well Son, I am very disappointed in you. I’m not disappointed in the way you handled the fire itself, no you did the right thing calling the Fire Department as quickly as you did. I just feel you should be a little more mature, I mean pranks that involve fireworks and tall dry sage grass, you know better than that.” Mrs. Wright sniffled while dabbing the used tissue at her reddened eyes, the smell of charred wood hung thick in the air, causing Rusty’s stomach to churn with every breath he took. Mr. Wright continued his lecture. “The good new in all this is, I talked to the Fire Chief, and he assured me no charges would be filed. He said it was clear it was an accident, and since they were able to extinguish the fire before it reached Mrs. Geni’s house, besides the pig and an old out building the fire helped clear away some of the overgrown brush.”
“pig, what Pig, Rusty asked?
“Apparently, Mrs. Geni owned a pig, a pig she was very fond of, a pet pig. The pig lived in the old out building that burned in the fire. For that reason, you are going to march right over to her house Tomorrow and apologize for what you have done.”
“I never knew she owned a pig,” now Rusty’s stomach churned more, maybe it wasn’t charred wood he could smell, maybe it was charred pig, charred pet pig. Sleep stayed far from Rusty that night, but when it did find him, he dreamed of Wind and Fire, of flames chasing him. When he awoke, he swore he could hear a pig squealing in pain, but then decided it was only the wind.
Sunday afternoon Rusty climbed over the old wire fence and made his way through the overgrown landscape toward the large white house. Each step through the Dandelions and Chickweed brought him closer to his dreaded destination. He had never laid eyes on Mrs. Geni before, though he had heard rumors of how mean she could be. “Maybe she was a witch, maybe she had a Crystal ball, maybe she was looking into that very ball this instant, maybe she could see him before he ever got into view? Dandelion seeds floated softly on the wind disturbed by Rusty’s steps, as he grew closer, close enough to get his first look at Mrs. Geni, who sat on the back porch swing snapping Purple hull peas.
Rusty sized up the old lady before he was close enough to speak. She wore a long Blue Dress with White polka-dots, her ankles swelled over black work shoes covered in mud. Her chin long and pointed gave her profile a crescent moon appearance. From behind wire-rimmed glasses, her small dark eyes stared loudly as Rusty approached.
“Mrs. Geni, my name is Rusty, Rusty Wright; I live just over there across your fence.”
Before speaking, Mrs. Geni leaned to on side spitting into a Coffee can used as a spittoon.“I know who you are,” she said. “I’m old, but not blind or stupid, I seen you climbing over my fence. I figured you might be stopping by,” as Mrs. Geni spoke her wrinkled hands continued to snap peas with the grace of a conductor directing a piece of music.
Rusty tried hard to swallow the lump that had formed like concrete in his throat. “ I’m the one that caused the fire. I didn’t mean too, we were only messing around, but I;m the one responsible for the fire that killed your pig.”
Mrs. Geni placed the bowl of Peas on the swing next to her. “ It takes a man to walk over here and confess his wrong doings. You may still wear the britches of a boy, but it takes a man to say when he is wrong and to face up to his mistakes.”
“Honestly, we never meant to cause a fire, we were just pulling a prank, and that is something I swear I will never do again. I;m done with pranks,
“Well Rusty, Wanda was a great pig and more than that she was my friend, maybe my only friend. If you get to the pearly gates and the biggest thing you ever done was cause that fire, well, I would say you lived a charmed life.”Mrs. Geni spat again before wiping her mouth with her sleeve. “ Tell you what, since you came over here with your head hung low, saying how sorry you are there is something you can do for me,” Mrs. Geni asked.
“ Yes, Mam just name it! Rusty quickly answered.
“ Well I have to admit, I’m not as young as I used to be, now mind you I’m not as bad off as people say I am, but I do own a mirror and I guess I am old and fat,” her chin quivered as she chuckled while her hands went back to shelling peas. “ I would like to give Wanda a proper burial; I guess I could use some help with that.”
The two went about the task of surveying the yard looking for the perfect spot to bury Wanda. They decided on a level piece of ground under a Maple tree that cast a cooling shade in the evening Sun. While Rusty leaned on the shovel turning the soft dirt, Mrs.Geni told in great detail of all the memories she had with Wanda, from the time she was just a piglet and had to be fed with a bottle to how she loved to watch Wheel of Fortune with Mrs. Geni as they ate their supper and how corn on the cob was her favorite.
After the grave was covered and kind words had been spoken, Rusty said farewell and started across the lawn towards his house.
“ You know that old Peach-tree over there has been just overrun with ripe peaches. I made a cobbler with them yesterday; there is quite a bit left if you think you could help me eat a little?”
“ Oh boy could I,” Rusty said while turning in his tracks.
They ate bowls of cobbler while drinking tall glasses of milk. Mrs. Geni’s eyes that had looked small and dark now took on a softer tone, projecting a kindness Rusty never expected.
“ You know since I still owe you I could do a little mowing for you, maybe take down some of these tall weeds,” Rusty said taking his last drink of milk.
“There’s no need to make a fuss; all these weeds aren’t hurting me the least.”
“That old fence could use a little cleaning up around; I could do that if you like,” Rusty asked
“ Boy if you took all them weeds out that old fence would maybe just fall down,” Mrs. Geni said laughing. “ When you look at that old fence with your fresh young eyes all you see is a dilapidated fence; when I look at it with my old eyes filled with memories, I see a different picture. I see Lenard, my Husband young and tan building that fence with pride, it was the first thing he built when we bought this House. He was handy with tools, always kept things in order around here, no, that old fence belongs here as much as I do. Now the Weeds and Ivy have about taking over, but in my mind things are still the way they were, and that’s good enough for me.”
In some ways what she said made sense, though weeks later Rusty did convince her to let him mow down the Chickweed and Dandelions. The tragic results of a prank gone wrong had caused the death of a good pig but had given Rusty a friend he never expected. Friendly footsteps over time wore a path from Rusty’s back door across the old wire fence and to his new friends back door.
Years later Rusty found himself far away from a rural town in Arkansas, in a hostile land covered with sand while wearing army fatigues. On a warm Sunday morning, he received a letter from his Mother, which said Mrs. Geni had died in her sleep. The letter went on to say a land developer had bought her house and tore it down with plans to build new townhouses in its place. Rusty folded the letter placing it on his bunk, “I guess Dad’s property value will finally go up,” he said out loud. In his mind, he pictured the new Town Houses with their clean red brick and well-manicured lawn with no old wire fence. With those thoughts Home felt further away, far enough he wondered if he could ever get back. Then he remembered the old Ivy covered house, Mrs. Geni dipping snuff while snapping Peas, a friend he never met named Wanda, and again home seemed only outside the barracks door, maybe across an old wire fence.
Bill Diamond lives in Evergreen, Colorado. After law school, he moved to Washington, DC. to work at the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Working in the federal government taught him that persistence can pay off in progress and an appreciation for the outlandish.
Outfoxed by a Deer
"Are you smarter than your average deer?”. Until today's hike, Burke had never considered the question. If he’d been asked, his response would have been a dismissive, “Of course.” Now, he wasn’t so sure.
A late December storm had coated Washington D.C. with five inches of snow that was topped by a sheen of ice. Anything over two inches paralyzes the city quicker than a bipartisan proposal. Therefore, federal offices were closed and Burke had the day off from his job at the Environmental Protection Agency. The storm broke about noon and the occasional sun transformed the land into a rolling sea of shimmering white. The morning's drab winterscape was now picturesque and enticing. It drew Burke outside to enjoy the crisp air and ephemeral beauty.
He drove the slick George Washington Memorial Parkway to Theodore Roosevelt Island for a hike and to see how Teddy was surviving the winter. The densely overgrown island is in the middle of the Potomac River across from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Its ninety acres of wetlands and oak, elm and tulip forest is as close as you can get to a wilderness in the District. With the storm, chill air, icy roads and the holiday season, the Park was unusually empty. When Burke turned off the Parkway in the late afternoon, there were only three cars in the unplowed parking lot. The long pedestrian footbridge over the partially frozen Potomac River was snow covered. The slippery footing might have alerted him to be cautious in the woods.
Accompanied by the sharp crunch of boot on crusted snow, Burke circled right and followed the main path uphill to the Roosevelt Memorial. Most of the trees were bare, but scattered evergreens embraced a shawl of snow. When he reached the wide Memorial plaza, President Roosevelt was as defiant as ever. The seventeen foot high bronze statue of Teddy was shaking his upraised fist at the low-flying jets disturbing his peace as they dropped into National Airport. Burke gave our most rugged, and too often overlooked, president a salute. Then, he revisited the flanking monoliths that were engraved with quotes from Roosevelt urging a hardy life. Inspired, Burke took one of the wooded paths for an extended hike. A few steps from the Memorial, the land relaxed into a natural and messy state.
The Upland Trail is a North-South gravel footpath running along the high spine of the island. It is West of the marshy inlet bisecting the Park. Through the trees, there was an occasional glimpse of the hulking Kennedy Center glittering in the sun like a bejeweled box. Nonetheless, the Park felt surprisingly isolated for being such a short distance from bustling Georgetown. While the isle is in the city, it is not of it.
In the mature woodland, light filtered through the largely denuded canopy. However, the scattered oaks held onto desiccated leaves. Despite the sun, no snow had melted in the cold temperature. Powdered tufts were dislodged from high branches by occasional gusts and dispersed in shimmering waves. A single set of footprints had disturbed the trail. The woods were alternately bathed in the chirps of unseen birds, and the silence of Winter.
Within minutes, Burke encountered a large whitetail deer. It stood just off the trail and perhaps fifty feet away. Immobile, his neck was twisted so both liquid eyes gazed intently at Burke. As in other cities, herds of deer had invaded many parts of the District of Columbia. Deer herds in cities and suburbs looked out of place near highways and convenience stores. Not here. Roosevelt Island was both roadless and, as part of the National Park System, a no hunting zone. Therefore, it was a particularly isolated and safe sanctuary. The deer's calm demeanor seemed to indicate that it appreciated this fact.
Intriguingly, the deer was in the middle of shedding one of its deciduous antlers. Each horn had five points. The antlers were a lighter shade of brown than the thick winter fur. The left one was intact and upright. It was impressively large and forward curving. However, the right horn was dangling upside down in front of his eye. It swung heavily with the slightest movement of his head and appeared to be within minutes of falling off. Burke knew deer shed their antlers annually, but had never seen the process up close. Struck by the opportunity to pick up a trophy for his bookshelf, he decided to shadow the animal until the antler detached.
Since deer are notoriously skittish, Burke adopted a strategy to be subtle and conceal his intentions. Avoiding direct eye contact, he pretended to be fascinated by the nearby vegetation. Many of the grey trees were draped and stunted by wiry vines and English Ivy.
The stag was not fooled by Burke's stealth and watched him guardedly. His eyes were dark, large and focused. The elongated ears, with their white interior, were alert. The deer took an occasional step forward and bent to nibble on a shoot emerging from the snow. But, his attention never left Burke. Although Burke was hopeful, these limited movements were insufficient to shake the tenuous antler loose.
After standing motionless for long minutes, Burke's legs were getting cold beneath the thin cotton of his jeans. He pulled his knit cap tighter over his ears. A different plan was necessary. Burke reasoned that if he could get the deer to move faster, the motion and gravity would accelerate the natural shedding. Since the bright yellow ski parka he wore precluded a sneaky approach, Burke decided to just walk closer.
At his advance, the deer gracefully sauntered away with limited head motion. Burke followed less gracefully. Moving off the blue-blazed trail, he lumbered over downed trees and weathered rocks. Under the snow, the decomposing leaves were slick. He stepped gingerly to keep his balance on the icy ground. The buck's dainty and practiced tread was near silent. Burke's stomping in the snow, dead leaves and woody detritus was noisy and disturbed the wintry hush. About every dozen steps, the deer would stop, look casually toward Burke, take a bite from a plant, then continue his stroll. Burke shadowed his prey for several minutes without success. They were at an impasse. This was getting Burke nowhere but deeper into the woods.
He thought about being more aggressive in his pursuit in the hope of dislodging the wayward antler. However, he was conflicted. Having worked for years at the EPA, he considered himself a principled tree-hugger. A more bellicose chase might be a breach of woodland etiquette. While chewing his cud, the stag eyed him and awaited the next move. The horn waved teasingly.
After pondering the dilemma, Burke decided that continuing the hunt would be neither harassment, nor a violation of his environmental ethics. In fact, he justified the chase as a philanthropic win-win for the two of them. Burke would be helping this poor beast lose an antler he clearly wanted removed, before it punctured his eyeball. In return, Burke would get a natural keepsake. It was practically a humanitarian mission. Burke convinced himself that John Muir would approve.
Oak leaves rustled in the breeze to applaud his decision. Morally re-assured, Burke smiled at the deer. With a quicker pace, he marched toward him down a miniature ravine and then up a hillock. However, the deer didn't seem to subscribe to the new scheme. Slanting downhill, it moved slowly away. Burke followed deeper into the forest as they descended toward the bog. Was the deer intentionally taking the most difficult and obstacle-ridden route? Moving nonchalantly, his thin legs easily navigated the debris. In contrast, Burke struggled for footing on the uneven terrain and began puffing. This was friendly territory for steady four-legged creatures. It was treacherous for biped homo sapien intruders. Burke suddenly felt evolutionarily challenged compared to his wild companion. Still, he pressed on, motivated by goodwill and the tantalizing memento.
As the sun got lower, it was obscured by incoming clouds that produced a changing mix of shadow and light. The forest noticeably cooled and darkened. In concert, so did Burke's mood. The uncooperative bull was testing the limits of his altruism. Burke became convinced that his ‘friend’ did not consider himself a partner in this noble crusade. It was also apparent that the deer didn’t even acknowledge Burke as a minor irritant. The vestigial hunter in Burke became annoyed at this condescending dismissal. He decided a more adversarial course was required to shake lose the stubborn antler.
So as not to telegraph his change in approach, Burke put his hands in his pockets, looked away and rocked on his feet pretending to ignore the haughty critter. When Burke figured the deer was sufficiently lulled, he turned and charged while frantically waving his arms and yelling loudly. It had the desired effect. The deer was startled and jerked away. In a series of leaps, it pushed off from deceptively powerful hind legs and landed nimbly on his front feet. The high bounds caused the eponymous white tail to flick and wave as though he were disrespectfully mooning Burke.
Unfortunately, the blitz had unintended and deleterious consequences. In its tawny coat, the deer was effectively camouflaged among the brown and grey trees and rocks, so it couldn't be seen from a distance. However, in a high visibility jacket, that wasn't the case for Burke. As he was running down the slope and bellowing, he noticed that his screams attracted the attention of a couple on a boardwalk on the other side of the wetland. Looking at them diverted him from the footing. His boot slipped on the slick surface and gravity took its course. In an instant, his left foot shot into the air and his arms pinwheeled. He twisted, landed ignominiously with a thump, and slid ten to twelve feet downhill on the icy snow.
The hikers across the swamp must have wondered why a bumblebee-colored person was running crazily through the woods while howling for no apparent reason. They exchanged bewildered glances at each other, then the woman shouted, "Are you OK?".
Burke was as embarrassed as a politician being asked about a highly publicized dalliance. He struggled in a drift, then stood up and brushed himself off. He didn’t want to confess to being bested by a deer. Therefore, he incoherently called back, "Fine...uh...just hiking....I'm OK...ahh...slipped....th..thanks for asking.". They shook their heads and were probably happy that the swamp separated them from the deranged wanderer. Burke smiled foolishly and waved. They shrugged and continued their walk. Burke wiped his red and dripping nose and noticed a cold numbness in his uncovered chin.
He was furious at being so clumsy. More so for the bruise he’d likely find on his hip. But, like an executive who makes a bonehead move and then blames his staff, he was even more furious with the deer. After all, Burke was just trying to keep the buck from being called ‘Cyclops’ by his friends. Because of the deer's lack of cooperation, Burke held the deceptively innocent looking beast responsible for this mishap. Searching for the scofflaw, he spotted the deer partially obscured by a tree trunk and confined in a thicket where he had taken refuge. It was a tight maze of stunted trees, tangled vines and brambles. The animal was calmly watching his pursuer. Despite the animated bouncing, the ornery antler still dangled. Burke swore his rival had an amused expression. Reluctantly, he acknowledged the deer was smarter and more devious than he'd assumed. This venison-on-the-hoof was proving to be casually elusive.
Trying to regain composure, Burke took a deep breath and thought, "What would Teddy Roosevelt do in this situation?". He remembered the counsel chiseled at the Memorial, "All daring and courage, all iron endurance of misfortune make for a finer and nobler type of manhood." The twenty-sixth president certainly wouldn't quit in the face of a little adversity. Burke had renewed determination. Snow flurries had started anew. A freshening wind drove them horizontally and they abraded his skin and soul. Burke shrugged his parka tighter around his shoulders. This was no longer just a walk in the woods, or a lark for a silly antler. His Type A, Washington D.C. temperament kicked in. This was personal. A test of character. Although he was in the heart of one of the most advanced cities in the world, they were now engaged in one of the most ancient of rituals: man versus wild.
Appropriately, the overcast sky reduced the landscape to a muted palette of greys and whites. Assessing the situation, Burke had restored confidence that, despite his pratfall, his plan had potential. Given where the bull was hidden, if Burke attacked again, surely one of the densely intertwined vines would snag the tenuous bone and rip it from the deer's sorry head when it bolted. Tiptoeing toward the deer through the virgin snow, he tried to put out of his head the resemblance he must have had to incompetent Elmer Fudd stalking Bugs Bunny. Seemingly unconcerned, the deer waited as Burke got closer, apparently confident he wouldn't venture into the briar patch. Burke was equally confident that there was no easy way out of the tangled branches that wouldn't dislodge the deer’s obdurate treasure. The antagonists did one last mano-a-mano look into each other's eyes. With an adrenalin rush, Burke plunged in. This time without the raucous sound effects, but with Roosevelt-like resolve.
Surprised by Burke's willingness to sacrifice his body, Bambi turned tail and ran. In hot pursuit, Burke doggedly followed his retreat through the briars. The four legged varmint easily slithered through the obstructions like he was designed for it and had been doing it his entire life. It was not so easy for Burke. He got caught up on every branch, thorn and foot trap in the impenetrable copse. The bull did not lose his antler. However, Burke's wool cap was ignominiously pulled off. This should have stoked his anger. Oddly, the indignity gave him a perverse consolation. In an example of ‘Washington think’ reverse logic, he reasoned that the “Snag Strategy” had been proven correct, if unfortunately misplaced, since it had worked on his head. He retrieved his hat and jammed it back in place.
When Burke finally emerged from the confines of the thicket, his wily foe was standing at the bottom of the hill and twenty-five feet out into the yellow tufted grass of the frozen wetland. Burke paused in his mindless pursuit to nurse the scratches from the brambles and to catch his breath. A stiff gust off the Potomac made him shiver. The cold air bit his throat. He shook his body and he hunched deeper into his jacket. His misted breath turned slowly in the breeze before it disappeared. In contrast, the deer seemed oblivious to the dropping temperature and looked unseasonably comfortable in the crystal stillness.
Looking around, it was now twilight and gloomy. There was not a trail or a person in sight. The city traffic sounded far off. Burke realized he was deep into the deer’s territory. A sliver of doubt crept into his mind and dark thoughts tickled the edge of his brain. Was there a conspiracy in this deer’s heart? Could the antler be a lure? Was the deer after Burke’s hat as a trophy? Despite the benign appearance, evolution did not give the stag sharp horns just for decoration. And, didn’t deer travel in packs? Perhaps, he was being lead into an ambush. Burke’s head swiveled and scanned the shadows of the dark woods for accomplices. Who was the prey and who was the predator here? Burke flashed on a sudden and graphic New Yorker cartoon image of his head mounted on the wall of a cave, while the deer relaxed in an easy chair smoking a pipe.
Mentally slapping himself, Burke said out loud, “Get a grip. This is crazy talk.” Banishing the unworthy thoughts from his mind, he refocused on the unmoving beast. In one last attempt at bravado and to prove species superiority, Burke stepped to the edge of the marsh. The deer’s body tensed and eyed him warily as if ready to continue this titanic struggle. Burke took a tentative step forward to test the swampy terrain. His foot broke through the thin ice and filled his ankle high boot with frigid water. He cursed and retreated.
Burke accepted this humiliation as the final sign he wouldn’t be successful today.
He stumbled a few feet back up the slope, then turned and looked at the immobile deer. Burke growled, "You stupid beast. I hope you poke your eye out." But, it was without real animosity. While the deer got to keep his antler, Burke imagined they both had earned each other's respect in that snowy forest. He gave the deer a nod of regard as a worthy opponent. The deer chewed his cud in agreement.
Squishing in his soggy boot, Burke turned and headed for the parking lot in defeat. Passing the President’s memorial again, he noticed a Roosevelt quote he had missed earlier: “It is hard to fail. But it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Teddy’s upraised hand now seemed to be offering Burke a high five for his worthy efforts. He smiled and told the Rough Rider that he appreciated the support. Despite his cold foot, Burke returned to his truck with spirits lifted. The adventure had been neither successful, nor completely enjoyable. But, it had been indelible.
He drove toward a warm tavern where he would play that most pervasive of Washington games and spin this sorry folly into an epic quest.