Ogunniyi Abayomi was born July 11, 1991 in the city of Lagos, where he resides. His love for writing is very strong whereby he considers it a page of his life. Ogunniyi Abayomi works have featured on various journals both locally and internationally. A lover of art and mostly inspired by literary works that bring him to life.
DEATH AT SUNSET
The day drown in its realm of unknown circumstances across the midst of breathing breeds of Lagos, struggling to keep their feet for the next chapter of adventure towards survival.
The hauling crow in the early hours of the morning arouse Ade attention to the blistering pain of Jaiye groaning and screaming when her womb suddenly kicked for its due period of delivery.
The tales of moonlight by the edge of the sun were hours born to restore Ade pride of fatherhood on the test of fate. Beating the death of time at the writhes of Jaiye discomfort, she was admitted to the hospital for her delivery,erupting an atmosphere of tension and anxiety at the twist and turns of the stretcher to commence labour at the theatre room of the teaching hospital.
Mr Ade Williams, a regional manager of a textile company in Lagos, spurned his calls and appointments for the day to ensure that he is aware of every information towards the critical condition of his wife. The rage of perplexity split his mind in halves towards her condition, observing the cackling feet of medical staff at the reception of the hospital, his thought roused queasy feelings on Jaiye chances of giving birth to a child successfully,brooding in pyjamas and sandals over the condition of his spouse.
Screaming at the skin of his ears, the refrained voice of the doctor seeking his attention for an appointment in his office towards the conditions of his wife. His mind were beclouded by the raging perplexity of his thought,raising negative expectation while he approach the doctor office to know his fate concerning Jaiye pregnancy.
Mr Williams please have your seat comfortably the doctor said to ease his tension and negative thought, sacrificing his attention to the doctor observation towards Jaiye condition. At a stern and strict approach the doctor stated clearly her condition and the limited chances of survival if necessary actions are not considered quickly.
Sir , your wife condition is totally critical in the breathe of my profession as a doctor,
Doctor, Ade muttered, you are saying that my wife womb is ruptured! Does it mean her womb would dance to your knife and click s of scissors because I want to be a father? I would advise we consider another option while time drown away in tick of seconds.
The doctor replied thus saying; Mr Williams, your wife condition pulled her to the pole,her struggle to gain her feet of survival is limited except we perform this operation on her womb. Her chances of survival are very slim if necessary action are not considered fast. All you need do for us is to append your signature to the document to commence her operation immediately.
Doctor this is rather confusing than I imagine Williams uttered back in despair. I cannot believe this and my hope on her surviving the operation is out of line. Please, my heart is dark concerning her situation,are there other solution that would restore the light of seeing her once more.
This line,you sign on those lines below to commence our job immediately. Sir,you are also standing in respect of your identity as her husband and guarantor to commence the operation.
Doctor, Williams muttered in despair of his condition requesting in a desolated state of agony and anguish. Do we have to go this length to ensure a safe delivery, are there no better option to avert this casualty Mr Williams required from the doctor.
Mr Williams, crying is not the best option right now sir, but your anticipation to get her out of this situation is what you should seek for. You should speak to the realm of heaven and seek their assistance or continue to wail in the agony of self pity sir. You sign now or stand the risk of loosing her to the quick brisk of death, Its your choice sir.
He fulfilled the medical obligation appending his signature to the documents to commence the operation immediately. A sad moment, a different tale as he walks out of the hospital pondering on the circumstances and challenges his fate encounter towards being a father. Wandering across the tars and screeches in the suburb of Lagos,the prey and stings that would bite his soul towards the demise of his wife.
Pondering on the situation Ade was engaged with his phone beeped silently in his pocket while he was bemused over the terrible condition of his wife.
Mr Ade where are you? Your presence in this office is highly demanded by the managing director in respect to the query of missing funds in the companies account, the respondent muttered, affirming to come over to the office to answer his query at his office.
Porous, unstable, bizarre and dispossessed neither was Ade organised while he moved to the office to answer the case placed before him. Dwindling over each question and unstable composure, the possibility of loosing his job were ragging after much stress and anxiety encountered at the hospital.
The panel and the presence of the board of director at the meeting of overwhelmed importance to sustainability of Ade job was clear to his mind, the trouble that await him which envisage the danger of loosing his job if he is guilty.
The enacting scene of misery and pressure was unpertubed while he holds the anxious feeling of fear over the wild stage of controversy that befall his fate. Mr Ade Ojo under your control, the company lost 15 million to the hands of fraudulent customers, you carelessly approved the project which has regressively obstruct the progress of the company as articulated in the company's report.
He was aggrieved to the letter of accusation pronounced to his ear, he was shocked neither were his mind straight over the tragic event sinking his mind to the deep strain of depression. I am not aware of this allegation placed upon my shoulder as the director of this department therefore i attest that i am guilty and ignorant as a leader and i am ready to face the penalty engrossed upon me by the company, Ade responded confidently without remorse towards the accusation charged against him.
Before the panel and board of director, Ade stood, undeterred of the consequences of the accusation, he knew the verdict before it was pronounced, the state of living would change drastically and the misery would not change its tune in his mind and ear.
Mr Ade, considering the investigation and proof of evidence before this panel, you are guilty of this accusation therefore you are hereby dismiss from this company in accordance with the company act and you are obliged to return the companies property in your possession including the car you drove to the premises.
Ade walk alone in agony, no car, no property nothing to show. His phone beeped once more, it was the voice of his sister watching over his wife at the Hospital to ensure maximum comfort and attention when her husband is unavailable.
In a declarative statement enacted with a deprieved tone of sadness; We lost aunty Jaiye to the cold hand of death this morning during labor at the teaching Hospital and her body has been transferred to the mortuary immediately she was pronounced dead, Bimpe muttered sadly to her elder brother while he is away wandering across the suburb of Lagos empty and drained.
Ade devastation had just hit its climax, enraged and the page of his life had just been battered. He never returned to his family or his ward, he was absent at his wife funeral and he abadoned the child to the care of his mother and sister.
He is roaming, seeking for a new adventure in an unknown town outside Lagos. Farmished and rejected were ascribed to his appearance choosing to reside in an uncomplete building across the obscured village of Ogun state.
He spent the last money on transportation, living in an obscured land as a stranger. He lost all he laboured to acquire.
Day and night were open pages in his life, the instance of knowing less about his next move looking for a delicate means to survive was difficult to absorb.
Ade is alone in a bewildered environment, bemused over the death of his spouse sleeping and pondering his thought in an uncompleted building with an accompany of thugs who treat him indecently over the refusal to be involved in their daily activity to inflict pain on the phebians across the society, extorting the little penny acquired at the market and point of transaction within the communal axis of the village.
Elusive was a life he did not crave for under the nose of seeking for survival, Ade is a reminiscent of life in shadows, seeking to see the light at the end of the tunnel was unavoidable neither decipher how to overcome the situation that crossed his path, beyond his understanding he had no identity of who he was, his past life of success was a blockade to the memory of how comfortable against the detached he chose to embrace after the demise of his wife.
Bimpe and her mother decided to take responsibility of the child welfare while their sojourn to know the location of Ade was unpertubed after series of investigation and findings from the Police. Bimpe, a university lecturer had decided to take responsibility towards David education, Ade absence endeared this decision overtime likewise it was a turbulent time they resisted to ponder upon within the circle of crisis that befell their family in a deterred mindset wailing across memories of how they lost Jaiye to cold hand of death.
Mr wanderer what are your feet seeking for in this village? Osai, a notorious street kid queried Ade while observing his movement overtime. Please leave me alone, dont even bother because you will never understand my story and the condition that crossed my path to this town, Ade replied angrily and impulsively to Osai.
Osai choked Ade on the throat, retaliating over his angry response to his question. You are crazy young man, you think i am here to measure the width of the cloud Osai responded in a violent and ragging tone against the grunting and wailing of Ade.
The rage steam between Ade and Osai gang who altered and disrupt his movement until dawn. Ade was beaten, stripped and chased out of the uncompleted elongating the miserable journey of no abode.
He is devastated likewise worried of his destination and the offer life would provide across his path.
Ade in his hapless destination, never cease to be away from frivolty that create a clumsy and cynical atmosphere of live away from his family after the demise of his wife.
Few day later, the mother died in the absence of Ade via the exile after the demise of his wife.
Ade sojourn never seem unending to the misery that was clustered with daily pain and agony. Between those period he never became a father who died miserably on the street yet a young man.
James Dean lives in Eastern North Carolina with his wife Brenda. James has three daughters and seven grandchildren. He is very fortunate that they all live close by his home. He was born in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in Wise County Virginia. James spent his formative years in and around Richmond Virginia. As a young man, he moved to North Carolina and became the owner of a metal fabrication business. James retired in 2011 and is now spending his time writing. He has recently published his first book, Mountain Mysteries, a collection of thirteen short stories. All are written by him and all are based on stories from the Appalachian Mountains. His love of writing keeps him busy most days.
The Raven In The Attic
This short story comes from my fascination with the mountainous area of Southwestern Virginia where I was born. I can remember as a young boy my mom would sometimes tell us stories about growing up in the mountains. We would sit on the floor at her feet on those dark nights when we were for one reason or another without electricity. We were living in and around Richmond Virginia. These were lean times for my family. My dad could not always pay the light bill on time, and many times the power would be turned off to our house. In some cases, a cold winter storm would bring in heavy snow or ice.
This would be more than the old power lines running to the house could take, and they would snap and knock out the power. On some of these occasions, my mom would ask us if we would like to hear some stories about the mountains. My answer was always, yes.
As the fire from the sooty old wood burning stove gave off its eerie glow, and the dim light from the fire danced on the ceiling of the room. We would sit quietly as the wood snapped and cracked as it burnt. We would wrap up a little bit tighter in the worn out old quilt as each story was told. I can remember that after two or three of the stories were finished, my brothers and I would snuggle down into the blankets that were spread on the floor. This would be our bed for the night. I would often dream about the mountains and the people in the stories.
To tell you the truth, I sometimes still do.
The Raven In The Attic
The Raven in the Attic is a mysterious story that is about an old house and the man that built it. The house and the man are from a time that has gone by, a time that we cannot live in, but a time that can live within us. This old house is high up on the side of Beartown Mountain. The house sits on a large piece of land that the locals call Raven Roost. The mountain people say that before the Indians were made to move off their land, and made to walk the trail of tears, to a barren land in what is now Oklahoma. This area was a very large Indian Village. It had many huts made from the hard wood of the northern red oak trees and the dark brown mud from the mountain river. The village had a large medicine lodge made from deer skins, pulled tightly over heavy lodge poles. The Indians had painted the skins with dye made from the deep purple juice of the pokeberries and the bright orange from the clay of the mountainside. The brightly colored medicine lodge stood surrounded by a large burial ground.
This Band of the Cherokee Indians believed that the dark Ravens of the mountain carried within them the spirits of the Indians dead ancestors.
The Ravens were allowed to roost on the lodges and in the tall sycamore trees around the village unmolested. The noisy black Ravens grew strong and fat from the scraps of food that they picked up from around the village. However, when any one of the revered medicine men died, the tribal chief would kill the largest Raven in the flock, and he buried it in the grave with the medicine man. These Indians believed that the spirit of the medicine man would be brought back to earth on the Wings of the Raven, to live in the medicine lodge.
The imposing white structure with its three large stone chimneys was built sometime before the Civil War. It just happened to be constructed on the very spot where the medicine lodge had stood for at least a century. At the time that my grandfather was living, this eerie old mansion was still standing although it was deteriorating. The large chokeberry bushes along with the black huckleberry and the great rhododendron had long ago claimed the beautiful fields that surrounded the mansion. The tall black walnut trees had taken the spot where the massive front porch once stood. The dreadful sight of the many, dark green, climbing bittersweet vines. That were crawling out of the once gleaming, but now broken glass of the windows and doors made the house look almost alive, as the low wind rustled through the green leaves.
It is said that the large three-story, majestic home with the floor to ceiling windows. With its square twenty-four-foot tall white columns, which greeted the distinguished visitors that once came and went so often, was built by a very rich salt merchant. The gentleman's name was James Robert Quartermaine; his family had made a very large fortune when they bought some land over in Smyth County Virginia near the town of Saltville. Salt being the only available means of preserving meat in those days, the salt from this area was a very valuable commodity.
Just a few years after the Quarterman family purchased the land they found a new set of salt caverns on their land. As the salt was taken out, the money rolled in. James grew up on the mountain and lived a privileged life with his wealthy parents. However, when his Mother and Father suddenly passed away from an outbreak of scarlet fever, and James Quartermain received his inheritance from the family, he built the wonderful place. He named it Bellevue after the family home in France where the Quartermain ancestors had immigrated from many years ago. The French name Bellevue means Beautiful View. This home did indeed have a beautiful view; the river that runs at the bottom of the mountain and the flowering dogwood trees that dotted the mountainside was just breathtaking. The fields around the place were full of native hemlock trees, wild plum, and red mulberry trees. He lived there until his death.
Now it is his death that led to the ruin of his majestic home; it seems that no one knows just how he died and where his body went. The family decedents have told that it all began in the year of 1864. The South was losing its war for independence. The armies of the South needed every man that it could get. Now even the very young boys and the very old men were being called to join the army to fight the dreaded Yankees. The richest men of the south, which had been exempt from the fight, now had to go and do their part in the long struggle. James like most of the men in this area did not own any slaves. He had enjoyed a good and prosperous life under the United States Government, and he had no feelings one way or the other about secession. However, James loved his home state of Virginia, but he questioned the southern leadership that had led them into this awful war. Now he was called on to fight for the very life of this new government. James and the other rich men of the mountain now felt compelled by the new conscription laws, and most convincingly by the sharp tip of the Provost guard's bayonet, to join the army and fight for the Southern Confederacy.
Therefore, James Quartermaine Closed up the tall oak shutters of his beloved Bellevue locked the doors and went off with the army to do his duty and fight the Yankees. He marched away with his comrades in the 37th. Va. Volunteers, to join the command of General John B Gordon, Army of Northern Virginia, and take his spot in the trenches at Petersburg. It was not long before the fighting and dying around the once proud and beautiful southern city became almost unbearable. The bloody battles here led to the Yankee breakthrough of the Confederate lines. It was here at a little crossroad called five forks just outside of the city of Petersburg that; General Lee's thin defensive lines finally broke.
The army fought its way out of Petersburg and continued to fight its way across half of Virginia in a running battle that almost decimated the once proud command of General Robert E. Lee. Then the unimaginable happened, the Army of Northern Virginia was forced to surrender at
Appomattox Courthouse Virginia. By an enemy with an endless supply of war material, and that had them surrounded and outnumbered by three to one. After a little more than a year with the army and severe damage to his health, the war was over for James and he began his long trek home. Since he had access to money, he was able to hire a wagon and make his way back to the mountain.
As James made his way back to his beloved home in Bellevue on the mountain, he had to make several stopovers on the way. The painful wound in his leg from a Yankee mini ball, combined with the terrible effects of pneumonia that he had lived with for the last three months of the war, made travel very hard. At times, he could hardly breathe, and walking on the wounded leg was very painful. Without the wagon to ride in James would not have made it home. With all the stops, he had to make, some of them for two or three days at a time, the trip from Appomattox to Beartown Mountain in Russell County took him almost two months. Nevertheless, James was finally home.
As soon as he was back in his beautiful house, he hired a few ex-slaves and set about getting the mansion back in shape. He had the whole place whitewashed and had the fields around the house cleared, and the cornfields plowed and planted. He had the tobacco barns repaired, and a new crop put in the ground. The wound in his leg healed somewhat, but he still needed a cane to walk. The once very strong and hardworking man was now left unable to walk more than a short distance because the effects of pneumonia had ravaged his lungs. It was now quite a struggle for him to climb the staircase that dominated the great room of his imposing home. He had found that it was almost imposable for him to climb the steep, narrow steps to the large attic. However, on a bright sunny day late in 1865, James Quartermaine made his way up the old rustic steps and into the attic, to put away his Confederate uniform forever. The hopes for Southern independents had vanished.
The brilliant streaks of light, from the bright sunshine that was coming into the attic through the half open slats of the old attic vents, Landed on the dusty old floor, like the bright, glimmering of ice on a frozen pond.
As James's eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light of the attic, he was startled by the quick, noisy flapping of a large bird's wings. The bird flew low and right at him, as it passed over just above his head he could see it was a large Raven. It flew to the far end of the attic away from James. The shiny black Raven perched on a very old dresser with a broken mirror that was sitting just below one of the half open vent shutters. The warm sun shining on the bird’s black feathers made the sharp-eyed bird look as if he was wet. The evil-looking bird ruffled his feathers and let out a loud "Caw" that, echoed throughout the musty- smelling attic. James thought for a minute, just how did the Raven get in the attic. He said to himself in a low muffled voice, "well I was gone for well over a year, and the house did have a broken window here and there." "I guess there is not a big mystery to that."
James did not realize that there was no way for the bird to get into the attic even if it had gotten into the house. The door that went up to the dim, dusty attic had been locked up tightly when he had come home.
James stood up straight and took a few steps across the dusty squeaky floorboards of the faintly lit attic. He was standing over, and looking down at his grandfather's old trunk. He bent down and slowly opened the rusty old lid. A cold chill ran through his blood as he looked into the trunk. There folded neatly on the bottom of the trunk, was his grandfather's blood stained uniform from the Revolutionary War. He had always known that his grandfather had fought and died while fighting a war to bring independent government to the United States of America.
Now he had just returned home from fighting a war to tear apart that very government. He slowly folded his gray Confederate uniform with the bright shiny brass buttons facing upwards, showing the insignia of the state of Virginia.
James placed the uniform in the trunk on top of that of his grandfathers. He stopped for a minute and thought. There is something very poetic about the bloodstains on the pant leg of his uniform, lying next to the bloodstains on the top coat of his grandfather's uniform. He stood up straight and tall and removed the piece of clean white calico cloth from his back pocket, and gently wiped away the fingerprints from the sword and the shiny silver scabbard. He then gently placed them on top of the gray woolen topcoat and slowly closed the lid to the trunk, and locked it with the thick skeleton key.
The somber man made his way down the old steps from the attic, closed the door behind him and went to get one of the men that had been hired to help repair the home. He sent the man to the attic to chase the large Raven out and close the vent shutters. Even though, the openings between the slats in the attic vents were too small for even a Robin to get in, closing them would keep the dust out. However, when the worker went into the attic, he was unable to find the bird. He simply told his boss that the bird was not in the attic anymore. James just assumed that the worker had chased the bird out. When the home was once more completely restored to the elegance that it had been before the war, James set about making the mountain farm profitable once again.
However, always under the watchful eye of the ever-present Ravens. They seemed to shadow his every move. He hired only the ex-slaves that knew the business of plowing, planting, and harvesting in a way that would give him the largest profit.
James was called to the fields often as the men plowed; it was a common occurrence for the plow to turn up a leg bone or the skull of a long-dead Indian. He would look at the bones and the surrounding area to see if there was anything of interest to him. Then he would tell the men just to throw the bones into the woods, or just to toss them over the split rail fence into the creek that ran nearby. James noticed that every time one of these skulls was plowed up, the sky would suddenly fill with the chaotic flight of the dark black Ravens.
The long shadows of the birds in flight would darken the ground around the men as they worked the fields. Some of the old ex-slaves said that the large Ravens with the haunting orange circles around the pupils of their eyes were the restless sprites of the Indian medicine men, mourning the bones of their dead. Over the next few years, James Quartermaine tried to make the farm turn a profit, but crop after crop withered and died in what had always been, and should now be fertile soil. They plowed and replanted the corn and tobacco, two and three times in a year, always with the same results. The seedlings would sprout out of the ground and then wilt and die. James and his ex-slaves had been farming all their lives, and they did not know what to make of the crop failures. It seemed that the land was cursed.
If not for the money that still came in from the salt caverns, James would have been ruined. He heard all the rumors that the crops would not grow because of a curse on the land. A curse made by the sprites of the medicine men and that the curse was carried on by the Ravens that were always present flying over the fields. After such a hard time trying to grow crops that would never grow more than a few inches tall, everyone at Bellevue was starting to believe in the medicine man's curse. However, the man that had built this beautiful place refused to give up on the farm.
While James was lying in bed one especially dark and cold night, he began thinking about the talk he was hearing from all of the old ex- slaves, and from the people of the mountain. They were all saying that the crops that he planted failing to grow and the presence of the Ravens are connected. This talk brought back the memories of the Raven in the attic that he had encountered when he first returned home from the war. He thought. How had the Raven gotten into the tightly closed attic? Now he thought what about those strange sounds that he heard late at night when all was quiet. All the sounds that he had shrugged off as the wind or a tree branch against the window, he had always thought that the sounds were coming from the attic. He always put the sounds out of his mind when awakening in the morning. This night he would try to find out just what the sounds were.
After laying there awake for many hours with the things he had heard going through his mind, he heard the strange noise once again. As he sat up on his bed and listened closely, he could tell that the sounds were indeed coming from the attic. James slowly got out of bed, retrieved his gold-handled cane from the corner of the room. He quietly walked over to the dresser and lit the old glass oil lamp. As he made his way to the locked door that led up into the musty attic, he picked up the thick heavy skeleton key from its resting place on the mantel over the fireplace. He unlocked the door and slowly climbed the stairs, being very careful not to trip and fall. The cane made a dull thump on the hard oak stairs with every step.
As soon as he had reached the top of the stairs and stepped into the attic, he held the lamp up high so he could see the far end of the room. As he did, he was terrified when a large Raven was suddenly flying straight at him, the wild bird let out a sound that made his knees weak. He stumbled backward; his cane dropped down the attic steps. The weak leg with the old bullet wound could not support his weight, and that foot slipped on the dusty old floor. James fell hard and almost went tumbling down the steps, but caught himself with one hand. As he laid there dazed, the sooty black Raven attacked him and began pecking at his face. The man struck the bird hard with a balled up fist; the black demon retreated. The oil lamp had broken on the hard wooden floor, but the flame had gone out when it hit; the wick wet with coal oil laid smoking on the floor. James dragged himself down the attic stairs in the dark and found his cane. He closed the attic door and locked it behind him. With the help of the cane he made it to his room to gather his senses, he slowly laid down on the bed to quiet his trembling nerves but was soon fast asleep.
As soon as the sun came up the next morning, he went to the field hands quarters behind the main house and woke up the men. He told them about what had happened the night before. He showed them the swollen wounds on his face and sent two of the men to go and clear out the attic. He told them that he did not care if they had to take everything out of the attic; they were to find out how the bird had gotten into the place. When they found the Crazy Raven, they were to kill it. The two men picked up a garden hoe and a shovel and went off to do what they were told to do. The men worked all day clearing out the attic, but they did not find the Raven or a way it could have gotten in. They put everything back in place and made their report to James.
He told the men they must be mistaken; the bird had been there and had attacked him. He told the two men that they must look again the next day. Bright and early the next morning the men went back to the dimly lit dusty attic to look for the elusive bird or at the very least how it was getting into the attic. They worked all morning but with no results.
When they told James that they still could not find the Raven or a place of entry, he just sent them back to the fields. The two men went back to work in the field and began the day's plowing. Late that evening as the sun was going down behind the tall chestnut trees and casting long shadows on the mountain. The old mule got spooked as he was plowing near the last row, when it walked up on a large black snake. The mule broke and ran pulling the now tipped over plow behind him. As the mule ran, one of the men ran over to stop him, but the man became tangled in the long leather plow lines and was run over by the plow.
As the man lay helpless in the freshly plowed field, he was suddenly and viciously attacked by a frenzied flock of Ravens. It seemed that they came from all directions, their loud cawing sounded like the call of a dying man. Some say it sounded like the chanting of an Indian medicine man. The other men ran to help their friend but when they got to him, it was clear that he was dead. The man had not died from being injured by the sharp old plow, but he had died from the large chunks of flesh that had been torn from his face by the Ravens. This man would not throw any more Indian bones into the woods for the Coyotes to drag off and sharpen their teeth on and leave laying in the sun. As the men approached their friend lying on the ground, the wild Ravens dispersed as quickly as they had appeared. The men carried their friend over to the big house and called James. They relayed to him the scary event that had just happened. James was certain now that something very strange was going on at his once happy Bellevue plantation.
It was going to be very important for James to rid the place of the Ravens. He knew that the birds had been there as long as anybody could remember. Nevertheless, something was very wrong, and they had to go. He instructed the men working for him that they were to kill every Raven that they saw. The men knew that this would be hard work because the Ravens could seemingly melt into the dark, dense forest when even a single shot would be fired from their rifles. That night the old ex-slaves talked about how their friend had died the horrible death that day. They came to the conclusion that they must all leave the place, or the same thing could happen to them. Sometime during the night, they all gathered their things and packed them into the old saddlebags from the barn. They stole five of James's best horses and left Bellevue forever.
That night James thought about the way that his worker had died. He thought about the way that the crazy cold black Raven had attacked him in the attic. He thought about how the men never saw the bird that was in the attic, and how they never found a way in or out for the bird. He thought about what the people around the mountain, along with the ex- slaves were saying about the Ravens being the spirits of the dead medicine men. He just did not know what was going on anymore.
However, he would try to find out. The now aging man went to the large old dresser, put out the smoky old oil lamp, and crawled into bed. He would try to get some rest tonight and work on the strange problem tomorrow.
As he lay there, he could hear the Raven in the attic. Just before daylight, James was awakened from a deep sleep by a strange sound. He opened his eyes and looked around the room; it was lit only by the bright mountain moonlight. The bright North Star was shining through the tall window beside his bed. His heart was in his throat as he listened for the sound again. As he lay there trying to stay awake listening, his eyelids became very heavy, and he was just about to drift off to sleep once again. Then his eyes flashed wide open when he heard the sound of a chanting voice. His mouth was dry, and his heart was beating faster under the heavy nightshirt he was wearing.
James got out of bed, found his cane and went over to the bedroom door. He unlocked the door and stepped out into the hall. All was quite. He went back into the bedroom and went straight over to the long dresser with the very tall mirror. He found the oil lamp with the smoky old glass globe. Then he fumbled with the small sliding drawer, reached in, and got a single match. He lit the lamp and stood there looking in the mirror. He nearly passed out but steadied himself on the old dresser.
Suddenly over his right shoulder, he could see behind him the painted face of an Indian medicine man. James turned quickly, but he saw only the picture of his grandfather hanging on the wall. He breathed a sigh of relief.
Now he had gathered his thoughts. He walked into the hall once again but this time with the lit oil lamp. He walked down the hall to the door that led to the attic; he stopped and pressed his ear against the cold wooden door. There it was. He could hear the faint sound of a man chanting, or was it the low cawing of a Raven? James unlocked the attic door and started up the steep old steps. When he reached the top of the stairs, he entered the attic and walked a few steps across the squeaky old floor. Holding the lantern high above his head so he could see the dim shadows of the entire room, he moved slowly.
Behind him, he heard that low chanting again. He turned to see where it was coming from, for a minute; he thought he saw the face of the painted Indian again. However, when he raised the lantern higher, he could see that it was a Raven. James froze in his place. As he watched, the Raven flapped its wings and lifted from the perch on the old spinning wheel where it had been sitting. The large sooty Raven with the strange orange rings around its eyes landed on the floor just in front of him.
James could not move. He could still hear the low rhythm of a man chanting.
The Raven took a step toward James and then another, Then the bird spread its wings out to their full length as if to fly, but it just stood there staring at the man. Then all at once, the bird seemed to turn pale white. Then as James looked on the shape of the Raven changed to the face of a medicine man. James started to back away; he moved very slowly, moving one foot and then the other, taking very deliberate steps. He thought, "have I gone crazy," "have I lost my mind," what is happening? As he backed away from the strange bird, he could see once again that it was just a Raven. He lowered the oil lamp and took another step backward. Then all at once, the floor seemed to fall out from under him.
He had stepped into the opening of the stairwell. He was falling backward down the steep stairs. As he fell the glass globe from the lamp fell off and shattered when it hit the hallway floor, the flame of the lamp went dark. James could feel the painful thump of each step that his head hit on the way down the stairs. Then he was laid out, sprawled on the floor in the hallway. He got to his knees and with the help of a nearby door pulled himself up to his feet. He heard the dreadful sound of a Ravens wings beating, he turned and saw the large bird flying out of the attic doorway. The half-crazed black menace flew right at him and hit him in the face, as the bird hit him it made a hard peck on his face.
James felt the sharp beak drive into his right cheek; he felt the blood flow down his face. The weak and dazed man fell limp to the floor, as he fell he hit his head on the white marble doorknob. Everything went black. His last thought was that all he ever wanted to do was live quietly there at Bellevue. Instead, he died violently in his beautiful home.
James's body laid there on the cold hardwood floor for two days. The Ravens came to roost on the rooftop and in the windows of the large mansion in large numbers. They roosted in the attic and the hallway. On the fourth day after the master of the beautiful mountainside home had died, a neighbor from over the mountain found a horse that belonged to James in his field. It was one of the horses that the workers had stolen when they ran off into the night. The neighbor brought the horse back to Bellevue, finding the front door open but no one answering his calls he went into the house and started looking for James. He made his way throughout the house and into the upstairs; there in the hallway the man saw the bloody outline of a body. He looked around and found a few scraps of cloth and a few locks of hair, which is all he found. He went and got the local sheriff and some of the town people, they went to Bellevue and searched the house and grounds, and they searched the woods and the creek. They did not find the body. The sheriff organized a large manhunt, but nothing more has ever been found of James Robert Quartermaine.
Over the next few years, the wonderful home place was sold to three different families. All of them reported hearing strange sounds in the attic. None of them could make the crops grow, even in this fertile mountain soil, and none of them could tolerate the aggressive Ravens that were always present.
When the last of these families’ left the once beautiful white mansion on the beautiful piece of mountain land, it was left to nature’s elements and the Ravens of Bellevue.
The mystery of James Robert Quartermaine's death and what happened to his body has never been solved. The people of the area said that the Ravens picked the flesh from the bones of the man and that the coyotes carried off his bones into the woods and sharpened their teeth on them.
So if you should ever go to Russell County Virginia, and find yourself on Beartown Mountain, and come across the remnants of a once beautiful Mansion. Do not go inside. The Raven in the attic may not let you leave.
Matthew Scarpa is studying creative writing with a focus on screenwriting and short stories. He enjoys rock climbing, long boarding, long walks on the beach, and writing cliché biographies for himself. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichardScarp.
Tuesday, December twenty-ninth, I received a package from my sister, Dora. She had been away for work on an archaeological dig, somewhere in Greece since before Christmas. It was nice to get something from her so I knew she was alive. Inside the white FedEx box that came to my door, was an intricate urn, topped with a wooden lid. The paint was faded, but it was easy to tell that at one time, the outer shell was covered in purple and blue paintings. Around the neck of the urn was a rusted, gold ring, chips missing from the precious metal. I absolutely adored it. I called my sister to thank her, but she never answered. I hung up when I got her voicemail, and began carefully turning the urn over in my hands. It was then I noticed a note, taped to the wooden lid that read “Do not open,” in Dora’s handwriting. I figured it must be some prank. I decided to play along, and set the urn carefully on the dresser in my room. It was that night the voice started.
“Open… lid…” I heard in the middle of the night. I sat bolt upright in bed, searching for the voice’s origin.
“Open the lid…” I heard again. The voice was muted, as if covered by a cloth, or some foreign object, but obviously, that of a young child.
“Hello,” I said. “who’s there?” I sat timidly in bed, expecting to hear some crashing of a burglar in my living room, but no noise came. A quick lap around my apartment with my favorite nine-iron yielded no results either. The door was still locked, everything was in place, and no windows were shattered, or even opened. I went back to bed, but every hour or so, the voice haunted my dreams.
Wednesday, December thirtieth, I realized that the year was ending. My phone rang off the hook, friends calling and asking what my plans were for the following night. I told them I wasn’t feeling well, and that I was staying in this year. I just wanted to sleep soundly, late into New Year’s Day, as it was my day off. I tried to call Dora again that day, still no answer. What in the world is she doing, I wondered to myself. That day was uneventful, but at night, the voice started again.
“Open the lid. Let me out,” it said. “I’m all stuffed up in here.”
This time, the voice sounded nearer, louder even. I slowly stepped out of bed and crept around my room. As I passed my dresser, I heard it clearly.
“Open the lid, let me out. Please,” the voice said again. There was no mistaking it, it came from inside the urn.
Thinking that this was one of Dora’s jokes, I picked up the urn and shook it gently. No sound came from inside, it seemed empty. “What is this?” I asked.
“Pandora’s pithos,” the voice replied. “I’m Hope.”
Startled, I shoved the urn into my closet, behind some thick sheets, but through the night, I heard Hope call out.
“Open the lid, please.”
Thursday, December thirty-first, I realized I hadn’t actually slept in the past two days, more like passed out from exhaustion. The day blurred by without any notable instances, and night came once again. Party-goers out in the streets sang about the new year, hoping it would prove more fruitful than the last. I sat inside, staring at an urn.
“Open the lid,” called out the voice once again. “Please.”
I thought insanity had finally set in from my lack of actual sleep. I began talking back.
“You’re Hope,” I asked
“What are you doing in there?”
“An angry god put me here, centuries ago.”
“And this is really Pandora’s…”
“Not Pandora’s Box?”
“There was never a box. Just this pithos. And me.”
“And you’re Hope.”
“Yes,” the voice said, curtly. “Would you be so kind?”
I stared at the markings on the side of the urn. I smiled, thinking that the world could always use a little more hope. Without another thought, I lifted the small wooden lid, and out seeped a dark, oily cloud of smoke. It burst forth with maniacal laughter on its heels and malice in its wake.
“Freedom,” Hope screeched. “After millennia, freedom!” The smoke burst through my window and into the night. I looked around, stunned, and saw my phone lit up on my nightstand. My sister finally decided to return my call. I picked up the phone, and heard a heavy sigh on the other end of the line.
“You opened the urn, didn’t you?” She asked.
Through the broken window, I heard cheers of “Happy New Year!” Two-thousand sixteen had begun. “I might have.”
E. Thomas McClanahan is a retired journalist living in Kansas City. This is his first published fiction.
The day before she left, they checked into an airport hotel. Julie left her luggage in the room and they went down to the restaurant. She studied the menu, happy and excited. Ryan’s glanced at his menu, then put it down. Outside, he heard the roar of a plane taking off. For an instant, the sun flashed on its fuselage. It climbed rapidly, leaving the teeming clutter of the airport far behind. Julie never looked up.
"I'm so hungry," she said.
He watched her for a moment, then looked back to the window. The plane was gone.
"What are you going to have?" she asked.
He made a "pfft" sound with his lips. "I don't know. Burger, I guess."
She scowled. He knew it annoyed her. It was what he always ordered. This time he didn't care.
They went upstairs to their room and made love. Afterward, she asked, "Are you going to find another girl?" She ran her fingers through the hair on his chest.
"Yes. I plan to start tomorrow."
"Oh, Ryan, don't say that."
"You're the one who's leaving."
"We've been over this so many times. Can't you understand? I want to see new places and meet new people. I'll never have another chance to do anything like this."
He sighed and slid his arm under her neck. She rolled toward him. She rested her head on his shoulder and threw a leg over his thigh. It was as if their bodies fit together, as if she was part of him. Once, on a languid afternoon, naked and entwined, their passion spent, they realized they had been breathing in unison. That was months ago, when it was new, when the whole thing seemed like a dream.
Ryan stared up at the ceiling of the hotel room. It was one of those spray-on textured ceilings. Suddenly he hated it.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked.
She sat up and brushed a few strands of hair to one side.
"We're not going to see each other for months, and you're thinking about the ceiling?"
He felt inert and heavy, as if moving a finger would take tremendous effort. He looked at the soft curves of her breasts, and her eyes — angry now, but still beautiful — and her hair, and her long neck.
"Ryan, please talk to me. I need you to talk to me."
"You want me to pretend?"
"What's to talk about? You said yourself, we've been over it many times."
The next day, he couldn't see her to her flight. He had a class. They said goodbye under the hotel portico. He kissed her and held her for a long time. Then he drove away, turning to wave once. He watched her image shrink in the rear-view mirror. It became smaller and smaller, until she was a tiny figure standing under the portico.
He thought back to the day she’d seen that poster in the lobby of the library. “Study abroad in Ireland,” it said. Below that, a photo of a castle by a river, its walls pock-marked by age.
“Don’t worry,” she’d said. “The time will just fly by.”
At first, she wrote often, of how lonely she was and how much she missed him. Later, she wrote of boisterous nights in pubs with her new friends. He imagined a group of Irish students crowded together around a table, all of them hoisting pints, with Julie in the middle. He tried to imagine himself in the picture. He couldn't.
She pleaded with him to visit her in Dublin. "Please come," she wrote. "The people are so wonderful."
He stared at the words on the light-blue paper. His lips tightened. It was impossible. How could she pretend not to understand? He thought of his parents — his dad still trundling around in his Matco truck, hawking hand tools to mechanics, coming home at night with his shoulders slumped; his mom still clerking in the county assessor's office, counting the days to retirement. Things weren't easy for them. Ryan helped with tuition as much as he could. He worked part-time in IT support at the university library, but with the hours he was putting in, he was barely keeping up with his classes. In his family, money had always been tight.
He never mentioned Dublin to his parents. Why bother them? They’d only feel ashamed if they weren't able to help. But beneath this was something else — the deeper fear that if he went, he'd feel out of place, foolish. He'd be the person who didn't belong.
The months passed. Her letters became less frequent and the long silences inhibited what he wrote to her. He was no longer sure where he stood. Then, with spring break looming, she began writing more often, sometimes two or three times a week. She now found Dublin gray and depressing. Her letters had an odd sense of urgency.
He scanned the faces of passengers filing off the plane. Soon, all around him, people were hugging and laughing, checking the time, veering off toward baggage claim. Julie was one of the last to appear. He called her name and she ran and threw her arms around him. He pulled her close and kissed her neck and for a moment, he was lost in her fragrance.
"How was the flight?" he asked.
"The pilot called it a 'patch of rough air,' but it made me sick. It seemed to go on forever."
"How long was it?"
"Oh, God. Hours and hours from Dublin, then another three hours and something to Denver."
They held each other again.
"I missed you so much."
"I missed you too."
"Yes," he breathed.
She pulled him toward her again and kissed him, hard. She began to tear up. He was struck by her expression. She seemed apprehensive.
"Are you okay?"
"Yes. Oh, Ryan, it's so good to hold you again."
He held her and felt her arms around him and the rest of the world fell away and the feeling came back, as strong as ever.
Outside, it was chilly and the sky was a brilliant blue. As they drove away from the airport they came to a rise and the city spread out before them with the mountains leaping up in the distance and the snowy peaks dazzling in the sun.
"I'd forgotten how beautiful it was," she said.
He glanced at her again and smiled.
He turned into a parking lot and parked by a flight of wooden stairs
leading to apartments on the second level. He opened the trunk, pulled out her large black suitcase and they went up. The apartment had a small carpeted living room with a sofa and a chair. Near the kitchen, where the carpet was worn, he'd turned the small dinette table into a sort of desk with his laptop at one end and books and papers at the other.
"What about Mark?" Julie asked, referring to Ryan's roommate.
"He's gone back to Tampa for the break."
He set her suitcase near the chair and she put the tote bag and purse on the sofa. He laid her coat next to them, then he turned toward her and in her eyes he saw that lively, mischievous look that he loved and they came together in a rush and he carried her into the bedroom.
Afterward he lay back and stared at the ceiling — at the spray-on texture ceiling — as if seeing it for the first time. He thought of saying something, then dismissed the thought. In the past, when they’d gotten together again after a separation, sex for her had been uncomfortable at first. This time it wasn’t.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" she asked.
"I don't know. Like I'm a specimen in some science class."
He wasn't especially surprised. He'd had a couple of encounters of his own. Maybe it was nothing, something best left unmentioned. After an absence, it always took time for them to mesh, to become part of each other again.
When Ryan awoke the next morning it was still dark. He looked at his watch: 6:08. Today was the day Julie turned 21. They had planned to go skiing, and then go out to dinner in the evening. He leaned over and nibbled her ear.
"Time to get up."
She gave a low moan and stretched. She reached back, grabbed his arm and drew it under her own arm, pulling him closer.
"If we're going to go, we better go," he said.
"Slave driver." She sighed, threw back the covers and sat up. For a moment, she sat at the edge of the bed, breathing heavily. Then she flopped back and pulled up the covers.
"I don't feel right."
"I think I'm still shaky from the flight."
She turned toward the wall. Ryan stared at her shoulder, white and smooth in the dim light. Her long hair was spread on the pillow.
"You'll feel better once we get going."
For a moment, she was silent. "Can't we just sleep in? I so need to rest."
He was in the chair, lacing up a boot. "Okay."
"Are you angry with me?"
He took off his boots. He stared at the wall, then stood and turned toward the door.
"Where are you going?"
"Think I'll make some coffee and read a bit."
He went to the kitchen, closing the bedroom door on the way out. He pressed the "on" button of the percolator. Soon it was making the rhythmic gurgling sounds that announced the beginning of each day.
He poured a cup and booted up his laptop. He checked the news on Yahoo, glanced at Reddit and checked for new items on a blog hosted by a web-security outfit. It was the usual stuff: phishing and email scams, viruses. He had trouble concentrating.
He picked up his coffee along with one of the chairs near the table and carried it over to the wide window by the door. He drew open the drapes, sat down and waited for the sun to come up. The morning was heavily overcast. Outside near the parking lot, a sudden gust of wind shook the branches of a leafless tree.
He was disappointed about the skiing. He was the one who'd taught her, and by end of last season — the last season before Dublin — she was able to handle the expert slopes. Julie loved to ski more than he did. A day on the slopes would have been like old times. But after her experience on the plane, maybe it was too much to expect. Besides, if this wind kept up, driving in the mountains would be no picnic. The place where they'd planned to go was on the other side of a pass famous for high winds and ground blizzards. Traffic up there could be a nightmare. Yeah. Why not take a day and relax?
In the parking lot outside, he watched a darkened figure in a hooded parka. The man was bent against the wind, making his way to a small car in the gray light. Ryan sipped his coffee.
The car's lights came on. It pulled away in the gloom.
* * *
That evening, they went to Chez Mon Cousin, a restaurant near downtown tucked in a renovated historic mansion. The receptionist led them through a labyrinth of corridors and nooks to a room toward the back. She seated them in a corner next to a wall of red brick, near a window full of plants on shelves.
Earlier in the day, Ryan had worried that dinner would have to be scratched as well as the skiing, but after sleeping in, Julie was more like her old self. He made a light lunch — soup and sandwiches. Then they went to the store and stocked up for the week. It was still blustery outside, but it was clearing from the west and patches of sun appeared among fast-moving clouds. He looked toward the mountains. The skiing conditions were probably excellent.
For dinner, she wore a dark knit turtleneck with a little gold necklace, from which hung a small pearl. He watched her as she studied the menu. The light made silvery highlights in her dark hair. She was more lovely than ever. He felt a catch in his throat. She looked up and saw him.
In her eyes there was that sudden flicker of fear, the same look he had seen at the airport.
The server appeared, a girl with dyed black hair and a ring in one nostril.
"Have you decided?"
"I think so," said Julie. "I feel adventurous. I'll have the cuisses de grenouilles." She pronounced it in what sounded to Ryan like perfect French.
He glanced again at the menu. "I'll have the burger," he deadpanned.
"Oh, God!" Julie rolled her eyes.
The server seemed confused. "I'm sorry, sir. We don't have burgers."
"Darn. Guess I'll have the blackened trout." He did not attempt pronunciation of "truite a la Creole."
"Let's order some wine," he said. Then, to the server: "She's 21 today."
"I don't care for any," Julie said, looking away.
"I don't care for any."
Ryan glanced up at the server. "Could you give us a minute?"
Julie sighed and put down her menu. She stared listlessly at the white tablecloth, avoiding his eyes.
Another couple came in, with a little girl carried by the father. They were seated at a table on the other side of the room. The man put his hands under his daughter's arms and carefully placed her in a booster seat. Julie watched them for a moment, then sighed. She seemed far away.
"You can't drink at all, can you?" Ryan asked.
"No," she said, staring down at the table. She turned toward the window and wiped a tear. She clutched the little pearl on her necklace as if it were a source of some nameless hope.
Kelly Delany spends her days feeding people and answering phones in her best hospitable tone. At night she sits in the back of her favorite coffee shop creating other worlds. To find more by her, find her on her only form of social media The Gram @kellylikescake.
Dylan’s profile all consisted of head shots. Something you hadn’t even though twice about as you swiped right and watched as the screen went black. Your photo lining up next to his, as curvy white letters informed you of your match. Conversation was simple and to the point. A first date was suggestion immediately.
As you sit at the bar, your finger nails push down the ruffles framing the red napkin under your water glass. With each ruffles’ demise you try to recall the few things you remember talking to Dylan about, making sure not to lead into uncharted territory by perusing a conversation that was actually started with Brian, Greg or even John. Feeling good about conversation you push your hair to one side. Then the other. Then back again deciding it does look best at its natural part to the right. In the shiny reflection of the bar you check to make sure there isn’t lipstick on your teeth, and that your year old mascara hasn’t started to create black pools under our eyes.
Glancing up, you see a familiar tuft of brown hair come through the door. Your fingers brush the pile of paper bits you’ve started onto your lap, as your eyes and memory try and agree that the man walking through the door is Dylan. The head and shoulders sitting on top of a grey sweater match the head shots that your phone’s florescent lights burned into your eyes. It’s what pokes out from under the cuffs of the long sleeves that have your mind disagreeing with your eyes. You hope it’s just a trick. Maybe he’s wearing gloves. Maybe your eye sight really has gotten worse. As he steps closer you begin to come to terms with the fact that this is not an optical allusion. Hanging from the sleeves of his sweater are two shiny beige claws. This is not a drill.
As this clicks, so does his recognition of you and he makes his way to the empty bar stool you saved for him.
“Hey it’s so good to finally meet you!” His tone is warm as he wraps his arms around you, obviously avoiding a handshake.
He sits back on the empty stool and tucks his claws under the puddle of wool that sits in his lap. A simple nod gets the bartender’s attention and Jordan orders for you and himself. With a beer on the way you retreat inside your thoughts where the messages you sent each other bounce off your skull. Hoping to find clues that hint at this being a misunderstanding not a lie feed to you so blindly. You begin constructing the denial speech you’ll give him after he reveals to be more diabolically then a liar, over the course of your date. If someone could forget to mention they’re half crustacean, what else could they forget?
He doesn’t seem to notice the look of concern that has to be plastered across you face, likely because it’s not the first time he “forgot” to mention his claws. He takes the reins of the conversation. As you listen for more plot holes, and question why you let your friends convince you to online date. His voice is low and rough as if he’s been smoking and singing folk songs on the beach his whole life. Sitting under bushy eyebrows are a set of grey eyes that make it hard to look away from his face. Soon you find the thoughts of claws drifting out to sea. You’re grip on the bar stool tightens as words bubble from behind your lipstick-free teeth. You can’t really hear what you’re saying but it makes him smile. You’re memorized by the crinkles that begin to grow form the corners of his eyes.
You’ve got small talk down to a science, everything from the perfectly summarized synopsis of your life. To “adult” topics of politics and world events. Then back to your opinions of the day to day workings of the man who fills the cracks on the faces of Mount Rushmore (that documentary you rented finally coming in handy). Of course this doesn’t play out exactly the way every other date’s did and conversation takes on a route you were not prepared for. A road paved with intimate questions about family and friends. Witty movie references that you navigate slowly in between sips of whatever beer it was you told him was also your favorite.
Conversation comes to a screeching halt as he unravels his claws to pull the chair next to him out for a new person bellying up to the bar. Swinging back his claw clinks the new comers beer off the table. Beer waves crash onto the bar, spilling over the edge drenching your black halter. Whispers hum throughout the bar, but no one makes direct eye contact. The grey of his eyes fill with a mixture of sorrow and shock. Similar to the look you’d find on a puppy sitting in the middle of your living room on top a puddle of his own piss. How can you be mad at that face?
Beer pools in the creases of your jeans, and your shirt clings to your skin like the sea weed left behind after low tide. Without a word he drops money on the table to replace the newcomer’s beer and clamps down on your wrist. The bottoms of your shoes squeak against the beer raining form your top as he pulls you towards the bathroom.
The bathroom is tiny and the door locks, but not very well. He has the look of a proud school boy as he shows you to the white hand dryer on the wall.
“It’s the best way to dry your shirt. Unless you’d rather go home, I just was having such a good time I’d be upset to see you go because of my clumsiness.” He smiles as he says this. Your stomach pulls up into your ribs with how flattered you are that he wants you to stay. It does this so enthusiastically it soars up passed your rib cage and gets stuck behind your tongue, making it impossible to answer him back.
The top half of his claw clinks on the dryer, while the left hooks under the hem of your shirt. It’s bumpy and warm as it runs across your stomach, sending goose bumps up your spine. His teeth glimmer with triumph as his eyes dance from you to the dryer, waiting for your praise. You just smile, the sound of the dyer, and the way your stomach is lodged in your throat making it impossible to express your happiness any other way. It was a great idea, and it got you alone, away from the glairing eyes of the other people in the bar. After a few moments of heat the smell of hot hops coming from your shirt mixes with the bathrooms “air freshener” and the slight smell of salt coming from his claws, creating an aroma that rubs against every hair lining your nose.
Pushing your stomach back to its cozy home between your liver and kidneys gives you enough air to push out a comment.
“God it reeks in here!” Your words come out a lot louder than necessary. The hard lines of his face line up as he brings his free claw up and closes off your nostrils. Memories of unseen crabs pinching at your feet below murky ocean water fill your head, but they don’t seem to match with the way he’s clamping onto your nose.
Unable to put your finger on what is happening to you right now your mouth gapes open and a sound similar to an asthmatic cat on a treadmill comes out. Laughter bellows out drowning out the whirl of the hand dryer, his grip clapping down tighter. In retaliation you take your fingers and clasp onto his nose. The contraction manufactures an even more adorable laugh from Jordan. The wheezing nervousness of your laugh grows louder. Your head stars to feel light as you attempt to catch your breath between giggles. Something that’s a lot harder to do when someone’s got your nose.
Slowly he reels you in by your nose, tilting your head up as the distance between the two of you closes. The bones of your hand slide along the small trail of bumps lining the top of his claw before getting caught on the black tip of the largest bump. You can see the cracks in his lips. The black heads that border his mouth and beard like little pieces of tar in the sand.
The sound of the dryer stops as the lock on the door flips open, sending the handle into your back. Your spin curves and you pull back on Jordan’s nose. The cartilage between your fingers gives with a loud crack.
“Sorry, didn’t realize someone was in here.” A voice says as the door is pulled shut. You watch as blood begins to trickle down Jordan’s chin. Clumsily he brings his claws to his face but he can’t seem to stop the bleeding.
Your feet glue to the floor, as you weight your options. The door is a short running distance away you can leave. Hope that no one will notice and someone can just convince him that he did it to himself in a drunken daze. You could save the day. Carry him to the ER like a great fantasy hero would rescue a damsel in distress. Best case scenario you could shut your eyes and pinch your skin till you find yourself sitting in your bed.
Realizing his claws won’t stop the bleeding he tilts his head back, and with the moment of alone time you close your eyes and pinch and tug at your skin. Opening them brings you back to the bathroom. You’re arm is now red, and Dylan’s nose is still bleeding. You reach into your back pocket for your phone. After telling the woman on the other line your location, you run over and unravel half the roll of toilet paper, and hold it up to his nose. He smiles, his white teeth bright against the blood on his chin as he asks.
“Is this the wrong time to set up a second date?”
My name is Stefan Moussignac I was born in Brooklyn New York in august 29 1997. But I spent most of my life in Haiti in school, I had to move out and live in Florida where learned and practice to become a better writer.
Box of Grief
People in the village are celebrating because today is the annual celebration of the goddess and you can feel the jubilation in the air. But not everybody is happy near the giant blazing bonfire where everybody was dancing sat a young man named Chris feeling bummed out. “I don’t think I can do this today” he sighed.
Chris is not feeling well his mother died recently of a fever and was not in a mood for this but he had to attend because people taught this would cheer him up. He appreciated their kindness but this wasn't working for him so he decided to leave and go towards the shadowy forest near the outskirt of the village so he can be left alone. People say to not go towards the shadowy village because it's not safe and people often disappears due to demons that feed on emotions but Chris didn't believe in that sort of stuff. When he arrived, he decided to sit down next to a tree stump as he was about to sit down he notices a small box, he picks up the box and notices strange encryption on them that started to glow in a luminescent light.
Then he starts to open the box like there was a strange urge beckoning him to do so as he opens the box he notices a pair of dark eyes staring at him. Then he was gone from the forest leaving nothing but white smoke from where he was standing and the mysterious. We soon find Chris in a dark void floating and in tears as memories from the past rushing through his head. Memories of him and his mother arguing and how all the horrible things he said to her before she died. As this was happening the box was glowing brighter and brighter back inside the void Chris was feeling disheartened and feels terrible for being a horrible son.
Then a strange voice was popping in his head that reminds him of his mother and all the good thoughts of his mother and him started appearing and as he was remembering all of these good memories., The box spat him out and disappeared. As Chris started to get up. He starts running away from the forest but somehow, he wasn't scared he was smiling tearfully.
Graduated from M.I.T. as a mathematician, Bob Jones has made his living as a full-time professional entertainer (singer and musician) most of his life, including a stint as a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry. Repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have led to work as a librarian, teacher of physics and mathematics, and city planner among other occupations. For twelve years, he wrote a regularcolumn, reviews, and feature articles for a national music and arts magazine. Later, he wrote a syndicated newspaper column on the English language for a decade. Bob emigrated to New Zealand in the 1990s but returns to the US (and Europe) to perform. Most recently, he has written three novels and thirty-some short stories. His fiction has appeared in the Galway Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Red Fez, Veronica, Degenerate Literature, and other literary journals.
As a trusted “patient”, Helen often drew jobs assigned only to low-risk inmates. For four days, she had policed the northern perimeter of the huge desert compound under the summer sun, her only protection the standard issue high-visibility yellow-green T-shirt and shorts and the broad-brimmed high-vis hat issued to avoid charges of cruelty.
On her rounds, Helen made some interesting discoveries. She had so far found two complete mostly buried car bodies. Each discovery required her to walk the six hundred yards back to the supervisor's shack and have a digger sent out to remove the wreck. Helen hadn't called a digger in to remove an almost completely buried piece of concrete culvert, because she had noticed something else nearby: spots where both perimeter fences didn't reach the ground.
The juxtaposition of the pipe and the gaps spawned a plan. Helen knew she would have to act quickly, before someone else spotted one or the other and called in the contractors. The problem of the motion detectors occupied Helen's thoughts most of a day, but she thought she might have a solution.
The federal government had forced California to accept an “Educational Rehabilitation Center” in the Mojave Desert. The governor and most of the legislature along with the majority of the state's population opposed the President's plan to build what amounted to a concentration camp on their territory but were powerless to stop it. Contractors had erected the fences and built the first structures three years ago and continued adding dormitories and cell blocks, as Helen patrolled the grounds.
The feds had picked Helen up at a peaceful anti-government rally in San Francisco. A kangaroo court had ruled that she was not competent to stand trial and needed rehabilitation, so she was sent to the Pony Corner Educational Rehabilitation Center. In Helen's twenty months at the camp, the administrators had never allowed her or any other inmates to contact lawyers or anyone else outside. She lived with outrage, anger, and desperation.
Helen knew that office and dormitory furniture usually arrived wrapped in large sheets of heavy kraft paper. She also knew that the camp administration didn't bother to burn or recycle the paper, which often nearly overflowed some of the dumpsters. Early on Friday, her third day on the northern perimeter, she retrieved several square yards of the heavy paper and sequestered it under her mattress. The compound carried a smaller staff on weekends, and Helen's fourth day on the northern perimeter fell on Saturday. Exploiting the reduced supervision, she managed to deposit a pint bottle of water and half the kraft paper in the buried culvert.
For—probably unconstitutional—religious reasons, no work beyond kitchen chores was assigned on Sundays. Helen used the day's meals to load up on carbohydrates and fluids. She ate the institutional dinner and visited her bunk to retrieve the rest of the paper and hide her high-vis, prison-labelled hat under the mattress. After the sun set but while the twilight still felt like full daylight, and before all the floodlights and sensors switched on, Helen walked casually toward the northern fence line carrying another pint bottle of water under the paper. She reached the culvert, just too far inside the fence to be in range of the perimeter sensors, and slipped inside.
Helen emerged from the pipe an hour later and three hours before moonrise, covered herself with two layers of paper, and began crawling toward the gap below the inner fence. Moving at the pace of a snail—of which there were none in the desert—she reached the low spot in half an hour. Another fifteen minutes got her and the paper past the inner fence. She lay quietly, listening for only a minute, then checked that the paper completely covered her and resumed her slow crawl toward the outer fence. Forty minutes later, Helen lay outside the compound. She listened briefly then crawled another fifty yards to ensure she lay outside the range of the sensors and lights. Still afraid she might be spotted, she folded the paper and began walking briskly northward.
Helen walked for nearly two hours by starlight alone, aided by the barrenness and relative smoothness of the desert. She had covered four or five miles, when she came to a well-formed road running from southwest to northeast. Helen considered using the road in order to make better time but decided that would be too risky, too obvious. Instead, she walked along the road for about a hundred yards, then turned back south and paralleled the road for another hundred. She then walked southeast a few yards before laying two sheets of kraft paper on the ground and rolling from the first to the second. She then put the first one beyond the second one and continued in the same direction, angling back toward the road as she repeated those actions over and over. After crossing the road on her paper sheets, she continued rolling and swapping sheets for most of a hundred yards on the other side.
Slightly dizzy from all the rolling and feeling worried about the time, she folded the sheets she'd used and walked backward for two or three hundred yards. Finally deciding she couldn't afford to spend more time disguising her tracks, Helen resumed her trek, pushing herself due north toward the mountains and climbing steadily as the first faint light of the still-gibbous moon appeared on the eastern horizon. When the moon rose high enough to illuminate the sloping desert floor, she quickened her pace.
As she walked, Helen mused on the irony of her incarceration. She had never been politically active and, while sympathetic, had attended the rally mainly because several friends went and urged her to accompany them. She did her job well—teaching high school math—rode with a local mountain bike club, did a little gardening, volunteered at a second-hand shop that raised money to help refugees, hung out with friends, played her guitar occasionally, and read a novel or a magazine now and then. Helen had never joined anything except the teachers' union and the mountain bike club.
She had always thought of politics as a silly game that some people played for their own amusement, a game she mostly ignored. She cast a vote every two years as a civic duty, but she paid only minimal attention to the politicians' campaigns. She hadn't voted for Drumpf, of course; she'd held her nose and voted for that rich lawyer bitch. Unfortunately—indeed, disastrously, as she now recognized—too many people had done the opposite: held their noses and voted for Drumpf.
Helen's “rehabilitation” had politicized her. Every day in the concentration camp—for that's what it was, she knew—she re-affirmed her intention to fight against oppression, if she ever got out. And now she was out, although staying out—or even staying alive—might prove difficult.
As the moon rose higher, she thought she could see a road off to her right and altered her course slightly to the left and further up the slope only to find another road above her there. When she reached the upper road, she could see that it paralleled a line of enormous power pylons. She soon also saw that the two roads seemed to converge. What she didn't see was any place to rest. Helen had worked at keeping herself in good aerobic condition while imprisoned, but she had walked for five hours and gained two thousand feet in elevation. She felt tired but knew she dared not stop until she could get out of sight of the aircraft that would come looking when the daylight returned.
Estimating that she had three or four hours before sunrise, Helen followed the power line road half a mile to its intersection with the other road. There, she looked at the stars, found the little dipper and Polaris, and turned left onto the other road, which headed almost due north. In twenty minutes and less than a mile, the road began descending. Going downhill eased the strain on her muscles and lungs but punished her knees, ankles, and feet.
Ninety minutes later, the road seemed to become a well-travelled creek bed still leading generally north. By then, Helen had finished her first water bottle but continued to carry it in order to avoid leaving an obvious sign. In another hour, she found herself walking below cliffs that might provide shelter from prying eyes, if she couldn't find anything better before daylight overtook her. Moving more slowly in the shadows cast by the towering rock, she took another hour to reach the point where the canyon debouched onto the open desert. Walking on with the high, steep bluffs behind her, Helen felt almost elated. She could see the headlights of traffic on a highway four miles away, along with some stationary lights, and she could even hear the trucks.
Feeling exposed on the smooth empty desert, Helen backtracked to the moonshadow of the cliffs. A hint of the morning light to come painted a faint glow along the eastern horizon, as Helen sat on the sandy soil with her back against a large rock at the base of the bluff. She thought she probably had enough time to reach the highway before full light, if she walked fast. They might be looking for her there, though, and she didn't want to arrive at that point exhausted. Better to sleep through the day and reconnoiter the highway Monday night without having to worry about impending daylight, she thought. She had more than half of her second water bottle remaining—not much, but adequate—so she decided to look for a more concealed refuge.
Helen stepped away from the steep bluff and almost immediately spotted a cleft in the rocks a few yards beyond where she had sat and no more than forty or fifty feet wide. She picked up half a dozen stones and threw them into the dark chasm to flush out any coyotes or snakes. Hearing nothing but the rattle of rock on rock, she picked up another handful and entered the opening just as the sun came over the horizon. She continued to pick up rocks and throw them ahead, as she walked and clambered over boulders further into the narrowing canyon. A hundred feet in, she could touch both sides and, despite the gloom, could see a dozen potential hiding places.
Upon reaching the head of the little box canyon, Helen turned back toward the entrance, inspecting each potential refuge as she went. Halfway to the mouth of the canyon, she reversed direction again and returned to a broad stone shelf projecting from the east wall above a bare patch of sandy dust. Beneath that ledge, she would be invisible to anyone not standing right there in the box canyon—even someone with high-tech instruments. She spread her paper on the ground, took one small sip from her bottle, lay on the paper, and fell immediately asleep.
She woke once, from a dream of pursuit by an airplane, and realized she did hear the sound of an aircraft disappearing in the distance. Uncomfortably warm but cooled by the rocks around her, she felt secure enough—and tired enough—to fall back asleep. She woke again in the early afternoon, hot and thirsty, but grateful for her little patch of shade. Helen took a small sip of water, then lay quietly formulating a plan for the night. Eventually, she fell back asleep.
When she woke again, the sun was low in the sky. She could see blue sky overhead, but the canyon lay in a deeper gloom than when she had first entered it early in the morning. She walked back to the head of the canyon to eliminate the small amount of fluid that hadn't escaped as perspiration, then made a leisurely trip to just inside the opening. She crouched behind a boulder and looked out toward the highway, wanting to get a feel for the ground she would have to cross in the dark. Helen could see a couple of homesteads and thought she could make out at least two fence lines.
The sound of an airplane sent Helen diving into the space beneath where two boulders leaned against each other. Fortunately, the space was not occupied by any venomous creatures—a thought that occurred to her only after the sound of the 'plane faded. By then, the shadow of the mountains behind her stretched more than halfway to the highway and covered the nearest homestead.
Moving to sit against one of the boulders in the shadow at the mouth of the canyon, Helen revisited and extended her earlier thoughts about the best way to hitch a ride without getting caught. She considered standing by the highway and flagging down a truck or car in the night. Two objections militated against that course of action: (1) a lot of truckers seemed to be fans of President Drumpf and might not want to help her escape, and (2) her pursuers could be on her in the dark before she saw them coming. Scoping out likely drivers, truck or otherwise, at a gas station or truck stop might prove a better strategy—except that the feds might look for her at such places. By the time the shadow of the mountains reached the highway, Helen had decided to wait until she got a closer look at the highway and its surroundings before making a decision.
She studied the lay of the land, the homesteads, the highway, and the fences as best she could in the fading light, then drank most of her remaining water and set out walking in the starlit dark. Smooth, and gently downhill pretty much all the way to the highway, the desert provided a less strenuous walk than the previous night. Helen confronted three fences, one of them already mostly tumbled down, and climbed through them without problem or injury. In each case, the paper she held in front of her gave warning before the barbed wire could scratch her. She crossed two well-formed dirt roads and passed within two hundred yards of a lit-up homestead, but not near enough to set their dogs barking.
From a quarter-mile out, Helen could see she had found not a two-lane highway but a four-lane freeway. That offered advantages—more traffic—and disadvantages—drivers feeling less inclined to stop—and another and more difficult fence to traverse. Also, not wanting to head toward Arizona, she faced the problem of getting all the way across to the far side. None of those problems was insurmountable, and another advantage became apparent as Helen drew closer: she had reached the freeway precisely at a spot where the Federal Highway Administration had provided a rest area on each side.
Two hours of careful and deliberately leisurely walking brought Helen to a paved road she hadn't noticed. The road carried no traffic, and another two hundred yards brought Helen to the freeway's boundary fence. Once inside the rest area, she walked straight to the rest rooms and locked herself in a toilet cubicle. She wrapped her high-vis shoes with PCERC stencilled on them in most of the kraft paper and left them in a trash can outside. She then quickly refilled, drained, and again refilled her empty water bottle. Fifteen minutes later, she exploited a lull in the nighttime traffic for a sprint across four empty lanes, then strolled as nonchalantly as she could to the women's rest rooms on the westbound side.
Helen again locked herself in a toilet stall and sat down. Now what? she wondered. A rumbling in her belly reminded her that she hadn't eaten in more than twenty-four hours. I'm not going to get a ride sitting in here, she thought. Just as she stood up, someone entered the restroom, so Helen sat and waited quietly while the person used the adjacent stall. Once she had the restroom to herself again, Helen hurried to the door and peeked out at the scattering of vehicles she could see.
She stepped outside to get a better look, but nothing struck her as an obvious safe bet. She felt exposed and uncomfortable realizing people could see her without her seeing them. After a moment, she stepped back inside and retreated to her stall.
Helen decided to wait until first light but didn't want to spend the night sitting on a toilet seat. If I'm going to wait for daylight, she thought, I need to get some sleep so I'll be clear-headed and fresh. From the box canyon, this part of the freeway had appeared lined with trees. The rest areas on both sides had many trees, but none of them had foliage lower than five feet above the ground. Helen surmised the highway authorities kept the trees pruned to eliminate exactly what she wanted: a secluded place to sleep. Peering out, she saw a dark shape outside the tree line and decided to risk a closer look.
Standing in the toilet cubicle, she fashioned her remaining kraft paper into an outer layer just covering her prison garments. Once she felt she could improve the covers no further, she stepped out and affected a casual stroll about the rest area. Passing between two trees, she came to what appeared in the dim, tree-filtered light to be a shipping container sitting up on blocks. From the smell, she guessed the container probably held rubbish collected from the trash cans on this side.
Although noticeable, the smell wasn't strong enough to drive her away or to keep her awake. She picked up a handful of stones and repeated the morning's exercise of tossing them to encourage any resident snakes to leave. Wishing she had saved more of the kraft paper, Helen finally slipped under the container. She lay awake for an hour thinking about what she would do in the morning but eventually fell asleep for a surprisingly restful slumber.
Helen woke in the dark and maneuvered herself to a position that allowed her to see some of the eastern sky. She suppressed all thoughts of food and decided to stay put until the sky began to grow light and then move to one of the picnic tables. As she lay, watching the artificially illuminated rest area and keeping tabs on the black sky above it, she pondered not only her next move but also longer term plans.
Where can I go? she wondered. Not back to her old haunts, she knew—the feds would look for her there and would find her in short order. Maybe I should've gone east, she thought—but she didn't know anyone east of San Diego, or at least El Cajon. South? The thought of arriving in Mexico with no money and no clothes made her shudder despite the warm temperature beneath the container. North? The government of Canada had so far been good about not repatriating political refugees. The country's powerful southern neighbor might exert enough influence to change that policy, but for now Canada seemed a possible haven—if she could get there.
When the sky had grown noticeably lighter, Helen strode to the women's rest room. Listening for approaching footsteps, she washed herself as well as she could using water from a handbasin, liquid soap from a wall-mounted dispenser, and paper towels. She hurried back to a stall and adjusted her paper garments, then went to the door and scanned the rest area. Once she felt confident she could identify the vehicles behind the headlights, she strolled to a picnic table and sat on one of its benches.
While working hard to appear nonchalant, Helen studied each vehicle that entered the rest area and each person who emerged from each of those vehicles. In what she estimated as ninety minutes, she ignored a dozen truck drivers and said “Hello” to three people—an elderly gentleman and a middle-aged couple—who had strolled past the table where she sat. She had made no requests for a ride. She knew her risk increased with every minute she sat there, but she figured asking the wrong person could pose a greater risk.
Helen considered approaching one of the younger truck drivers but continued to hesitate. She had never been at all vain about her appearance, but she found herself wishing the prison hadn't kept the inmates' hair so short. Fifteen minutes later, she watched a bus emblazoned with “The Ronnie Jarvis Show” pull in and park slightly off the pavement to get in the shade of a scrubby tree. At first, she placed the driver in his twenties because of his shorts, T-shirt, and flip-flops and the spring in his walk. The silver beard and hair made Helen revise her estimate upward by three decades.
The man offered a smile and a cheery “Good morning,” as he ignored the concrete path and strode past Helen's table straight toward the rest rooms. While still keeping track of other vehicles and people, Helen watched the man until he disappeared into the men's room. She pictured him pulling out a cellphone and saying, “I've found her,” and then almost laughed out loud at the image. She thought he had a kindly face and merry eyes. She couldn't imagine him in the employ of the feds, especially driving that bus. He walked back outside, went to a water fountain filled an empty glass bottle he'd been carrying, then did a roundabout walk back to the bus. She was about to jump up and run to the bus, when he reappeared and proceeded to walk vigorously around the rest area, stopping every so often to do squatting, bending, and twisting exercises.
His path back to the bus took him near Helen's table again, and she said, “Excuse me.”
“Hi again,” he said with another smile. He stopped and looked at her and continued with, “How can I help?” Helen saw his eyes taking in her makeshift paper garments hiding—she hoped—her prison attire. “Holy sh--!” he said. “Did someone carjack you and steal your clothes?”
“Something like that,” Helen replied in a shaky tone.
“That sux. Shall I ring the police? I have a cellphone in—”
“No! I mean, I don't think that's the best thing for me to do right now.”
The man's kindly face took on a puzzled look for only a moment. “Was it a cop who did it?” he asked.
Helen didn't want to lie, but she wanted to get the hell out of there. She nodded her head and began to speak, but the man interrupted her. His eyes looked less kindly, as he said, “What kind of low-down son of a bitch . . .” He stopped and looked around, then said, “This isn't a conversation you want everyone to hear, is it?”
Helen shook her head, and he said, “Let's walk over to the other side of the bus, if you're OK with that.”
Helen nodded vigorously and jumped up from the table. As she walked across the pavement, she thought, Anyone watching will assume I'm a prostitute. As she and the balding, silver-bearded man stepped into the shade of the tree sheltering the bus, she thought, So what.
The man said, “Back to my original question: what can I do to help?”
“Get me out of here.”
“That's easy, and I suppose we can talk while we're moving.” The man reached for the door and said, “C'mon i—wait! Is somebody after you?”
Helen nodded and said, “Yes,” very softly.
“OK,” he said, pulling his hand away from the door handle, “this gets complicated.” He paused and began again. “I have three fellas in there. I don't imagine any of them could know whoever did this, but they're all from Southern California. I'm pretty sure they're all three asleep.”
Helen waited, while the man lost himself in thought for a moment. When he resumed, he said, “I think the best thing is for you to just walk straight back to the bedroom—it's right at the back, at the end of the aisle. Just open the door and go on in. There's no seats or seatbelts, but you can at least be comfortable on my bed. More to the point, nobody can see you in there.”
“Are you sure that's OK?” Helen asked, fearing he might change his mind.
“No, but we've got to get you out of here, don't we. Once I drop the guys off, I can take you wherever you need to go.”
Five minutes later, the bus rolled west on Interstate 40, as Helen lay on the most comfortable bed she'd ever felt. Despite her many hours of sleep in the previous day and night, she dozed to the motion of the bus as it climbed the mountains and descended into Los Angeles. Helen woke when the bus came to a stop. Peeking around the curtains, she saw the bus had stopped for a traffic light. She lay back down but peeked again, when the bus stopped and remained stationary.
Helen saw her benefactor and another man remove a small suitcase, a garment bag, and two instrument cases from the bus's cargo bay and carry everything to the front porch of a modest stucco house. The two men talked for a few minutes, before Helen's benefactor returned to the bus and resumed driving. He repeated the entire process twice over the next hour, then pulled into a large parking lot and shut off the motor.
A moment later, Helen heard a knock on the bedroom door. She opened the door and found the silver-bearded man standing before her. “OK,” he said, “Where would you like to go? I'm not sure what this area is called—it'd be North Hollywood or Van Nuys, I think. I've stopped at Costco, 'cause I figure you prob'ly need some clothes, underwear—whatever.”
“You're very thoughtful,” Helen replied. “The thing is—”
A slight tremor in Helen's voice made Ronnie stop and give her a worried look.
“You're being really nice to me—but I don't have any mon—”
“I kinda figured that. Don't worry about it.”
“But I might never be able to pay you back.”
“That's OK. You need help, and I like helping people. Thy needs are greater than mine, or something like that.”
Helen wondered if he was some kind of religious nut, who might report her. While she dithered, wondering what to say, he spoke again. “Or, as we used to say, when I lived in Oregon: what goes around, comes around.”
That old hippy saying reassured Helen a little, and she said, “I can't go in there like this.”
“No. Let's make a list.” He patted his pockets, then walked to the front of the bus and returned with a little notebook and a pen. “You'll want underwear, bra, a blouse or shirt or something—or would you prefer a dress? Or slacks? A skirt? You just tell me and tell me what size for each thing.”
Wondering what the man might expect from her in exchange for his largesse, Helen felt she didn't have much choice and compiled a list with him. When they were done, the man said, “Oh, by the way, my names Ronnie Jarvis.” Helen hesitated in replying to his introduction, and he said, “You don't have to tell me your name, if you think it'd be safer not to.”
“I might just wait awhile, if that's OK.”
“Yeah, of course it's OK. You don't have to tell me at all. Now, look, it'll get pretty warm in here without the motor running. I won't be too long, but there's cold water and milk and stuff in the 'fridge. Help yourself, and I'll be as quick as I can. I'll lock the door, but you can still open it from the inside in case of an emergency.”
With that, Ronnie Jarvis disappeared down the steps and out the door. She heard the sound of his key in the lock and couldn't resist peeking around the edge of the curtain to watch him walk into Costco. As she watched, she thought he seemed like an awfully nice man. She also thought a glass of cold water sounded good, so she poured herself one out of the container in the fridge. She also drank a glass of milk and, seeing a loaf of wholemeal bread, ate a slice of that.
Forty minutes later, Ronnie returned with several bags of booty—including slacks, jeans, skirts, blouses, a pretty summer dress, a toothbrush, a raft of undergarments, and an overnight bag.
“That's so sweet of you,” she said, “but you didn't have to get all that.”
“I know I didn't have to, but I can afford to be generous—so don't worry. Do you know what size hat you wear?”
Helen didn't—the prison hats came in small, medium, and large. Ronnie rummaged in a cupboard and extracted two hat boxes. “Here, try on a couple of mine,” he said. His hats fit her reasonably well, and he said, “OK, you get into whatever clothes you want to wear. I'll be right back,” and disappeared out the door again.
Ten minutes later, Ronnie returned with a straw Western hat, a large-ish pair of sunglasses, and a pair of flip-flops. He unlocked the door and called, “OK if I come in?”
“Of course. Goodness! It's your bus.”
“Sure, but I didn't want to make you uncomfortable or anything.”
“Thank you so much. I took the liberty of drinking a glass of your milk and eating a slice of bread. I hope that's OK.”
“F'r cryin' out loud! Of course it's OK. That's what it's for.” He paused for a moment and then asked, “When's the last time you ate?”
Ronnie said nothing for a full minute, then asked, “You don't do speed, do you?” He quickly continued, “I mean—”
“No. No, Ronnie, it isn't like that. I'm not like that. I jus—”
Helen's distress must've shown on her face, because he quickly said, “OK! I didn't really think you were a speed freak. It's just…that's a long time. Have you been at that rest area that whole time?”
“Is it better if I don't know?”
“No, oh, maybe yes. I don't know.”
“Are you hungry?”
“But I don't have to feed you, 'cause you can't repay me and blah-blah-blah. Yeah, yeah, I know all that. But, look, my dear anonymous lady, I've gotten involved in taking care of you, so I'm going to feed you. Just relax and concentrate on what we need to do to keep you safe and sound.”
Helen began to thank him, but he cut her off, “Yeah, OK. I accept your thanks, but don't waste time on that. I want to do what I can to help. Now, I can fix you something, or you can just hunt around and find yourself something to eat. You saw the bread—there's also cheese in the 'fridge. There's peanut butter in the cupboard next to it, and a knife in the drawer.”
Helen retrieved several items and began making a sandwich. She asked if she could make something for him.
“You feed yourself first,” he said. “I had a good breakfast this morning, so I could go all day if need be. Don't worry about me. I'm worryin' about you, and one of us worryin' is enough.”
Helen felt happy enough to laugh, as she made a surprisingly delicious cheese sandwich. When she finished eating, Ronnie said, “Now that you've got dressed, you can put on the hat and shades, and we can go in and get you some shoes.” So they did.
Before he started the motor, her benefactor said, “I guess the first priority is figuring out where you want to go.”
Helen didn't know what to say. Thinking only about getting as far away as possible, she said, “Well, I was hoping to get to Seattle, but I don't know how I'm going to do that without any money. If you could get me to 101 outside the city . . .”
“I could do that,” he replied, “but I don't think it's a good idea. Doesn't sound safe. The good news is, I'm heading to Vancouver, so I can take you to Seattle—but not in this. Let me think about how we can do this, while I get some fuel in this old girl.”
Ronnie then drove a few blocks to a gas station and started pumping diesel into the bus. He stuck his head in the door and said, “Do you have stuff you need to get rid of? That paper or whatever?”
Helen wondered what he would think of her prison clothes but decided to take the chance and handed them out to him with the kraft paper. He disappeared for a few moments, and she heard him removing the nozzle from the bus's filler neck sooner than she'd expected. He went in to the cashier and paid, returning with two small bottles of orange juice.
“It's nice to have a treat sometimes,” he said, as he handed her one of the bottles. She thanked him and emptied the bottle in one long draft. He took the empty bottle and dropped it into a box labelled “glass”, then said, “If you put your hat and shades back on, you can sit up here and we can talk while I drive.” She followed his suggestion, then fastened her seat belt while he started the motor. Instead of getting back on the freeway a hundred yards from the gas station, Ronnie drove back to Costco and made a series of 'phone calls from their parking lot. The last call ended with “Hour'n'a-bit—give me two hours. You're sure it's OK? Great! I'll ring you when I get there.” He then went back into the store and shopped for food.
Once they were headed north on the 405, Ronnie said, “May I ask you something, while we're driving?”
“Were those prison duds?”
Helen felt a chill run through her. She didn't know what to say, and her hesitation stretched for long moments.
“I'll take that as a 'yes',” Ronnie said. When Helen didn't reply, he continued, “Well, you'll be happy to know they're in the back of a pickup with Texas plates—so if anybody ever finds 'em, they'll prob'ly be a long way away.”
“Thank you,” Helen said for the umpteenth time.
“Yeah, yeah. Don't worry about that.”
“It wasn't really a prison.”
“You want to talk about it? What did you get sent up for?”
“Nothing. I was never convicted of anything. I didn't do anything.”
Helen knew telling him the whole story could put her in serious danger, but she hoped he would be sympathetic to her point of view. She decided to accept the risk. “They call it an Educational Rehabilitation Center, but it's a concentration camp.”
“Not a state prison?”
“Out there in the desert.”
“Holy hell! I'd heard stories about the feds building a couple of prison-camp-sort-of-things in California, but I hadn't ever seen anything to confirm that. Y'know? It was sort of like a conspiracy theory thing.”
“It's real. At least that one is.”
“So how . . . ?”
Helen ended up telling him the whole story, about her life before, about the demonstration, about the phony trial, about the camp, and about her walk over the mountains. By the time she finished, they had climbed out of Los Angeles on Highway 14 and begun the slight descent into the Antelope Valley. Helen worried, as Ronnie drove silently for several miles.
“Wow!” he finally said. “I'm harboring someone who could derail Drumpf's re-election.”
They talked most of the way into Lancaster about the politics of the situation, and Helen felt relieved to discover that she and Ronnie had the same views on virtually everything. She asked about his life and felt surprised to learn that he was an entertainer who made his living singing country music. At the Shady Elms RV Park, Ronnie got a site that wasn't under any shady elms. He used the park's waste dump to empty both tanks, then pulled into the assigned space. Once he had the electrical and water connections in place, he fastened covers over his tires and a large fabric cover over the windshield, then disappeared under the bus with a ratchet and socket. He came back inside saying, “Whew! It's hot,” and handed Helen a key. “My spare for the bus, in case you need to go out—'though I s'pect it's better if you don't.”
He sat down, and they discussed the practical aspects of Helen's situation. “I don't think Seattle's going to be safe,” he said.
“I was afraid to say Canada, you know, becaus—”
“Understandable. So, we need to get you into Canada. OK. We can do that.”
Helen felt herself relax more than she had in twenty-two months.
“But,” Ronnie continued, “I'm going to have to leave you here for a few days. I have a couple of gigs in the city, and I need to rent a van to drive north—also in the city. I'll prob'ly come back late tomorrow night.”
“Would you have rented something, if I hadn't disrupted your life?”
“Probably not, but I often do. See, I store my bus outside Mojave, just north of here. About half the time, I take the train to Vancouver. But the other half I rent a van and visit friends on the way, prob'ly more than half, actually.”
“So, do you live in Vancouver?”
“No, I just won't travel through U.S. ports. I live in New Zealand.”
“How in the . . . Are you sure you're a country singer?”
He opened a cupboard and pulled out a large box.
Helen looked in the box and found it full of CDs, two hundred of them and all of them with Ronnie's picture and name on them, eleven different albums. “OK,” she said, “you're a country singer alright. But how did you end up living in New Zealand, of all places?”
“I went there on tour—sort of on purpose, I guess. I liked their attitude—refusing to host American navy ships in their ports and all—and had heard good things about it. Nuclear-free, no snakes, clean and green, and all that. I found I felt more at home there than here, so I jumped through the necessary hoops and emigrated.”
“Amazing! Why do you come back here? Family?”
“Nahh, I'm not close to my family. This is where the gigs are.”
Helen wanted to ask more but sat quietly and thought about her situation and about this nice man she'd lucked into meeting. Before she could speak, Ronnie did. “Warren'll be here soon, so I want to explain about the bus. By yourself, you won't fill the waste tanks, and you have water and power and plenty of food, I think. We can head north Sunday, but I'll come back here, prob'ly late tomorrow night, to make sure you're OK. You can use my laptop, if you want to start writing up your experiences. And I think the fewer people who know you're here, the better.”
“What about your friend?”
“Warren? He's an OK guy, and I trust him to be a decent person and all, but I don't trust him not to blab.”
When Warren arrived a few minutes later, Helen hid in the bedroom. She peeked around the curtain to watch Ronnie load two instrument cases, a garment bag, and a knapsack into the backseat of Warren's pickup. Once Warren had driven away, Helen explored the bus and inventoried her food supplies. That done, she wished she had a book to read—then remembered she had seen one beside Ronnie's comfortable bed. She spent most of the next three days reading and writing.
Helen heard Ronnie's key in the lock at three o'clock Thursday morning and realized with a start that she was in his bed. He called out softly, “Everything OK?”
“I forgot I was in your bed.”
“We can talk about that tomorrow. I'll just crash on a bunk. Are you OK?”
“I can move to a bunk. Yeah, I'm fine. How was your show?”
“Good. Stay there. Go back to sleep. We'll talk in the morning.”
And they did. Ronnie told Helen he felt attracted to her “physically and otherwise—but that isn't what this is about.” He reiterated his desire to help, “even without the justice-stroke-political angle,” and insisted that he did not demand or expect any sexual favors. “My aim is to get you safely out of the country,” he said. “What you do after that is your own business—'though I hope you'll expose the bastards.”
Helen laughed at first, when she saw that Ronnie had bought full camouflage outfits for both of them, along with binoculars, four flashlights, two headlamps, two hand-held GPS devices, wools socks, silk socks, and a pair of heavy rubber gloves “in case there's an electric fence.” After he explained his plan, she felt encouraged and impressed—and lucky.
“You'll need hiking boots,” Ronnie said, “but you need to be there. And hammocks, in case we have to lay up.”
“Can't we just sleep on the ground?”
“Could, but the black bears can be dangerous up there.”
“And why do you have to walk with me? I can do it alone.”
“'Cause I'll be worrying the whole time, if I don't. Also, if somebody does spot us, I might be able to distract them and give you a chance to get away.”
“Prob'ly won't be, but neither of us wants you to get caught.”
She couldn't argue with that and didn't, although she still doubted the need for him to accompany her. “Before I forget,” she said instead, “I want to thank you for leaving that book here—it's so-o-o good.” To his questioning look, she said, “Mirrors. It—”
“Oh, yeah. Galeano's book. It's great. I waited a year to get that—couldn't get it in New Zealand. Hey! Different topic: do you want to come to my show Saturday night at Montana's? We could fine tune our hiking gear at REI in the afternoon.”
“D'you think that's safe?”
“With your hat and shades, as long as we're careful, prob'ly. I was thinking we might find a store where you can find a wig, too.”
“You're spending a lot of money on me.”
“Getting you safely out of the country is important. Besides, I grossed a hundred, forty thousand on this tour. I can afford to help.”
Helen worried but said nothing, and soon Ronnie left to fulfill his social obligations at Warren's. When Ronnie arrived at the bus Friday night, Helen lay asleep in a bunk. When he opened the door, she woke and asked, “How was it?”
“Not the sort of place I'd hang out for fun, but a good gig. I hope you'll like it. What are you doing in my bunk?”
Helen wondered if he intended to climb into the bunk and wondered if she wanted him to. He seemed extremely nice, and two years of celibacy was more than enough. Helen couldn't decide if she felt relieved or disappointed, when he said, “You didn't have to sleep out here. I c'n crash here, if you'd like the big bed.”
“No, I'm fine,” she said.
“You are that. Good night, then,” Ronnie said, as he walked on into his bedroom.
The next day, he bought Helen a pair of Zamberlan hiking boots—and insisted on buying her a pair of Western boots—and two Hennessy Hyperlight Asym Zip hammock tents and other camping gear at REI. Ronnie also insisted on buying Helen a blonde wig, which left her feeling much less exposed and vulnerable. “Nobody would ever pick you for the same person,” Ronnie said, as they walked into the nightclub.
Ronnie's music made Helen want to dance, but she wanted to dance with him so just sat and listened. As he drove the van back to Lancaster, she said, “I could learn to like country music the way you do it.”
He smiled and said, “I sure hope so.” When they arrived at the bus, Helen almost suggested they share the big bed.
She woke at nine to the sounds of Ronnie making breakfast and hid in the bedroom again, when Warren arrived to follow them to the storage yard. Ronnie parked the bus and made a great show of putting on the tire covers and the windshield cover before Warren ran him back into Lancaster to pick up the van. When Ronnie returned to the bus, Helen helped him pack the van and fasten a large tarpaulin over it. Within fifteen minutes, they were heading “toward Buckersfield” on Highway 58.
“What country musicians call Bakersfield, 'cause that's where Buck Owens lived.”
He drove the van straight to the Kern County Swap Meet at the Bakersfield Fairgrounds. In an hour at the flea market, they found dresses, jeans, shorts, shoes, and all manner of tops for Helen. As they headed for the gate, he stopped abruptly and backed up to a stall selling old-fashioned women's hats. He looked at several before buying a simple one in charcoal grey and handing it to Helen. They rejoined Highway 58, which carried them west across the valley to Interstate 5, the nation's busiest highway.
Once they settled into traffic on the Interstate, Helen asked, “Why did you buy that little hat?”
“'Cause you can wear it anywhere.”
She reached into the back and retrieved the hat, then examined it and discovered it had a veil. She said nothing but looked over at Ronnie and enjoyed his grin.
Ronnie cruised into Sacramento after seven and booked two rooms at the Rodeway Inn. Defying the lingering heat, they shared a vigorous walk to the Capitol before spending the rest of the evening studying maps and aerial photographs and talking—about getting across the border and a hundred other things. Helen woke at 5:30 to Ronnie's knock and ate muesli in his room after showering. Back on Interstate 5, Helen found herself trusting and liking Ronnie more and more as she got to know him. She wanted to know more about New Zealand and also wanted to know more about Ronnie. She quizzed him about both for mile after mile.
They left the freeway at noon and entered Ashland, where Ronnie introduced Helen to the Ashland Food Co-op. Helen took great delight in the range of products available, and in discovering Ronnie was vegetarian. She hadn't realized how much she missed organics—and smiling faces. Ronnie made a 'phone call, while Helen continued shopping. He rejoined her and added a few items to their cart before they went through the checkout. Back on the Interstate, Ronnie handed Helen the best chocolate she'd ever tasted.
“Before…well, you know…I didn't eat anything containing sugar,” she said, “but that could almost make me change my mind.”
“Don't have to—it's sugar-free.”
“No! Don't tell me you're vegetarian and sugar-free”
“Uh huh. Sugar-free since my twenties.”
Helen shook her head in wonder and said, “You're not a typical country singer.”
Ronnie gave his endearing grin and said only, “No.”
He proved less mono-syllabic as they chatted their way over four passes and down the Willamette Valley. Nearing Corvallis, Helen said, “I don't want to be an exile. I guess I might have to be, but I don't like it.”
“You wait 'til you've spent a couple years in New Zealand. You'll be writing President Drumpf a thank-you note.”
Helen wondered about his intentions and her desires, and also wondered if she would ever get to New Zealand.
Entering Portland, Ronnie stopped at Costco in Tigard to buy batteries and other supplies they had decided they needed or wanted. Ronnie's earlier 'phone call meant it didn't matter that they arrived at the Lone Fir Resort after eight. Ronnie had rented Cabin 6, so Helen had her own private bedroom. After moving their things into the cabin, they trotted four miles up Lewis River Road in their hiking boots and shared a brisk walk back, slowing to explore Beaver Bay Park and Cougar Park and finding the cabin with their flashlights.
A worrying thought had occurred to Helen. “Do they call this village Cougar because…”
“Yep. They're out there.”
“They could've attacked us.”
“Could've—but wouldn't. I've heard of a cougar attacking an isolated person, 'though it's rare, but never two people together.”
Helen sat in the easy chair and pulled her boots off, then put her feet up on the large hassock. “My feet are a little sore.”
“Yeah, new boots. You need to break 'em in. I figured it's better now than next week, when it matters.”
They looked at maps and aerial photos again for an hour, then slept soundly. Helen woke to the sound of Ronnie cooking oatmeal in the microwave. “I thought we'd do some higher-elevation walks today,” he said as they washed the bowls and silverware, “'cause we'll be up over 5,000 feet on part of our walk.”
Two hours' driving brought them to the Loowit Trail, which they walked to the falls draining Mt. St. Helens's crater. Six hours later and back in the van, they stopped for a look at Iron Creek Falls then carried on north by back roads. Bypassing Seattle proper, they drove directly to the cabin Ronnie had rented, making one comfort-and-calisthenics stop and arriving about seven-thirty Tuesday evening.
Wednesday morning, he drove the van to the end of the Mt. Baker Highway, and they walked the Chain Lakes Trail and a few side trips for more high elevation acclimatization. Afterward, they used the last hour of daylight to explore the road they would take on Monday—and confirmed, to their dismay, that it was blocked not far from the highway. Ronnie proposed buying a second-hand motorcycle to ferry their gear to the trailhead, but they decided to walk to the trailhead the next day and see how they felt.
They felt surprisingly good—tired, but good—when they reached the trailhead just after noon, so they pressed on and walked the entire ridge trail as a loop back to the road but lower down. Back in their cabin before dark, they felt footsore and more tired, but still good—and eager to return to the ridge. Deferring another walk, Ronnie left early Friday and drove across the border to Delta, near Vancouver's airport, to rent a pickup with a camper. Helen used Ronnie's laptop to continue her notes about the camp but felt glad to see him return mid-afternoon. Before they again walked up the closed Forest Service road, Ronnie handed her a fistful of Canadian coins and bills and two keys and said, “Keep these safe, so you can get in when you reach the campground.”
“What if you get there first?”
He held up the rental company's keys, as he locked the cabin door. Helen nodded and smiled as they started toward the blocked road. “And what's the money for?” she asked.
Ronnie said, “Two reasons: one, money makes things easier, and you never know when you might need some; and, two, if you're carrying Canadian money and somebody picked you up, they'd assume you must belong on that side.” Helen smiled again and shook her head as they crossed the highway and headed up the Forest Service road. They walked up the road halfway and then headed up the ridge trail in reverse. They turned around as soon as they hit the ridge in order to reach the cabin before dark.
Saturday brought more high altitude walking above the end of the road on Mount Baker. To their delight, Helen found her feet and boots had reached an accommodation, and her feet didn't hurt at all, 'though her legs felt a little tired. On Sunday, jointly identified as a rest day, Helen wrote while Ronnie played almost inaudible music, his solid-body guitar with no amp and his fiddle with a heavy steel mute on the bridge. They also studied the maps again and shared thoughts about myriad topics, conversations Helen enjoyed immensely.
Helen woke before dawn to the sound of Ronnie cooking oatmeal and joined him for breakfast after showering with unscented soap. The full moon hung near the western horizon but added enough to the first dawn light for them to walk to the Forest Service road and begin a repeat of Thursday's ascent. They passed the unnecessary warming hut five hours later and paused for a drink of water before plunging into the tall timber for the short walk to the first trail junction. Bearing left, they headed up toward the ridge.
Having walked twenty miles and gained almost 3,500 feet of elevation, Helen and Ronnie felt pleased to reach their target ridge by three o'clock. Even at 5,200 feet, the August heat dictated a move to the forest below the ridge to eat their lunch in shade. They then walked along the knife-edged ridge and by 4:30 stood looking across the border at the end of a Canadian logging road.
They commented on the fallen logs abutting the simple barbed wire fence and congratulated each other on their success so far. Moving back into the trees below the ridge, Ronnie selected two climbable trees and tied three pairs of ropes fifteen feet up the trunks.
“Why so high and why so many?”
“The hammocks will sag some, and you don't want a bear to be able to reach you standing on its hind legs. And we need to be able to crawl out there and get into them.”
They unzipped the hammocks' doors and attached the hammocks to the ropes, then pulled them up into position. After a minimal dinner and an hour of conversation, they did the same with their backpacks. Finally, they climbed into their hammock tents as the sun set and slept before the sky grew dark.
After lowering their packs, the conspirators ate a breakfast of muesli with reconstituted powdered milk by the light of the gibbous moon about four o'clock. As Helen put the powdered milk back into her pack, she felt some paper she hadn't noticed earlier. Keeping her flashlight within the pack, she saw it was a copy of the Vancouver Sun. “Did you put that paper in here?”
“Yeah,” Ronnie whispered back.
“It's like the money—it makes it look like you started out on that side.”
“I like the way your brain works. You just think of everything.”
Helen couldn't tell, but she thought he smiled and winked in the dim light.
Once they had lowered the hammocks and stowed everything, they made their way by moonlight to and across the border fence and onto the logging road.
“How far are you planning to accompany me?” Helen asked.
“As far as you want.”
“I can do this alone—although I do enjoy your company.”
“I'd feel better if I walked you all the way to the campground, so I'd know you're safe.”
“This'll be a stroll in the park, compared to what I did two weeks ago. Gee, has it really been two weeks?! Anyway, I'll feel better if I know you're on your way to meet me there. But don't do those ridges in the dark.”
Ronnie hugged Helen—her first hug in two years—and she wondered why they hadn't done that sooner. She squeezed his hand and started down the logging road, thinking about how good that hug had felt. Ronnie turned and picked his way back across the fence and into the trees.
Helen ducked into the trees twice on her way down. She saw one pickup drive past and decided the other must have been on another road nearby. At eight Tuesday morning, she walked into the campground and tried to appear casual as she looked around for the pickup Ronnie had described. She laughed out loud, when she spotted the hand-lettered signs in the windows saying “The Ronnie Jarvis Show”.
When she let herself into the camper, she saw a note on the top sheet of a writing pad on the table. Ronnie hadn't said much—“If you're reading this, then you've made it safely. I'm glad of that. I'll see you as soon as I can.”—but she felt her eyes begin to brim. She sat for a moment before pulling off her boots and socks. After Helen had read Friday's Sun all the way through, she fixed herself some lunch from the camper's well-stocked larder. Fed, she thought how nice it would be to walk down by the creek—they'd been avoiding creeks as obstacles—but could she risk it.
Helen suddenly enjoyed a liberating thought: she was a fugitive only because she was an illegal immigrant—nobody in Canada was looking specifically for her. Relief and delight washed through her. As she stood to go out and enjoy a stroll by the creek, her eyes lit on a new pair of soft leather sandals sitting on the opposite seat. This time her eyes overflowed. “Damn you, Ronnie Jarvis!” she said out loud. “You are just too nice.” Not surprised to find shorts and a blouse sitting on a sunhat next to the sandals, Helen changed clothes, and spent two hours sitting and strolling by the creek and the river and greeting passers-by.
After lunch, she used the writing pad to make more notes documenting Pony Corner. The afternoon had begun to drag, when Ronnie pulled his van in behind the pickup at four o'clock. Helen rushed out and threw her arms around his neck, saying, “I'm so glad you're OK.”
“Me, too. And I'm glad you're OK,” Ronnie replied, as he hugged her more tightly than he had earlier.
Helen felt confused, because she wanted Ronnie to keep hugging her but thought maybe she shouldn't. With a squeeze, he turned away to lock both vehicles, then held her hand as they walked to the creek. They sat on a rock, and Ronnie said, “I've worried all day. How was it?”
“A stroll in the park, just like I said—but it would've been more fun with you. What now?”
“I feel kind of embarrassed I hadn't given that a great deal of thought. I think I'll contact the New Zealand consulate tomorrow or the next day and see how we can get them to grant you political asylum.”
“That'd be great.”
“I s'pose we could drive into the city tonight, and I could contact them first thing in the morning, but we don't have to go anywhere right away. I've rented the pickup 'til the end of the week, and I leased the van for a month. I—”
“Let's just stay here tonight and relax.”
“Good idea. I could sleep in the van, so you could have some privacy.”
“I don't need privacy from you, Ronnie Jarvis.”
“Good! They said the camper sleeps four, but—”
“I think we'll find a suitable arrangement,” Helen said, as she squeezed Ronnie's hand.
Derek A. Schneider is an indie author of multiple genres living with his wife and five kids in Indianapolis, Indiana. After trying for some time to break into the comic book industry with his artwork, Derek decided to instead focus fully on writing. Derek’s most recent works include the dark mystery novel The Goat, YA fantasy Franklin Stewart and the Mourning Mansion, and the upcoming steampunk/horror adventure Ghost Hunter Z.
Electric pulses shot into long atrophied muscles.
Kavidian had started the re-animation process nearly two Earth weeks before, when the anomaly had first appeared on her scanners. Captain Karen Stills moved her fingers with the first signs of wakefulness. As the capsule door slid open with a hiss, she lifted her still weak arms and rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands. For several more minutes she struggled with consciousness.
Kavidian removed the feeding tube and IV from the captain’s arms. Slowly, Karen swung her legs over the side of the capsule. She stood carefully, testing her newly awakened muscles.
“Kavidian, coffee,” she commanded. The ship complied with the gurgling sounds of brewing joe.
After getting dressed and taking her first few sips of coffee, the captain began to feel renewed strength in her body. It would still be weeks before she was a hundred percent, but at least she could walk to the bridge. The halls of the ship hummed to life as light sensors picked up her movement and illuminated her path. As she entered the bridge she was left breathless by the sight through the viewport. A nebula lit up space with shades of pink and purple.
“Kavidian, how long have we slept?” Captain Stills asked.
The feminine voice of the ships computer system replied. “Two hundred and seventy-three years, twenty-seven days, eight hours, thirty-six minutes and ten seconds.”
“Are you serious?” came a voice from the entrance to the bridge. Captain Stills turned to find Commander Charles Benton gaping at the viewport with a Miami Dolphins coffee mug held in check halfway to his mouth, his black hair long and disheveled, his beard long and unkempt. “Kavidian, show flight path.”
A hologram of the Milky Way galaxy appeared in the middle of the room with a short line that revealed the progress the ship had made since leaving Earth.
“Nearly three hundred years and that’s all the further we’ve gone?” Benton complained.
Karen knew the man had no mind for science. As a soldier, it was his physical prowess alone that garnered him a place on the mission.
“Even if we had the capability of light speed it would take nearly forty thousand years to reach the other side of our galaxy,” Karen explained.
“So why did the ship wake us?”
“I was just about to ask that myself. Kavidian, what have you found?”
“An anomaly has appeared within the nearby nebula. My sensors indicate the presence of a wormhole.”
Others from the ship’s crew were starting to trickle in now. Scientists and engineers for the most part, but there were a handful of soldiers along with Commander Benton. Karen hoped they weren’t being brought out of sleep for no reason. Moving to the captain’s chair with her coffee still in hand, she continued her dialogue with the sentient computer aboard the ship. “Kavidian, system report.”
“All systems are running at maximum capacity. I am fully operational and await further instruction.”
A wormhole. It was one of only a handful of reason’s they’d be brought out of sleep, but not the one they’d hoped for. Without a planet that could support life filling the ship’s viewport, this very well could be nothing, but she had to follow protocol. She turned to the crowd gathering on the bridge. “Alright, can I have everyone’s attention? Crew members, report to your stations. Everyone else should find a seat and strap in.”
As the crowd dispersed, Karen moved to her monitor and searched her inbox for any transmission from Command. She was surprised to find there had been no communication with Earth since they’d left. Regardless, she transmitted her own message which included what they had found and their exact coordinates.
Turning back to the bridge, she found her crew in place and awaiting her orders. “Shields up. Engage thrusters. Full speed ahead, Mr. Rain. Let us see where this wormhole takes us.”
Mr. Rain complied and the ship picked up speed. As they drew closer to the nebula, Karen could make out the wormhole. A subtle waver in the area of space just ahead of them.
“We are entering the anomaly,” Mr. Rain announced. “Full speed attained.”
Kavidian lurched as her nose hit the wormhole. There was a brief moment where time seemed to stand still and an instant later, the space visible in the viewport took on different characteristics. Directly ahead of them now was a planet.
“Kavidian, flight path,” the captain called.
The same hologram of the milky way appeared, only now the blip that indicated Kavidian was on the other side of the galaxy.
“Holy shit,” Commander Benton muttered.
Karen found it hard to speak for a moment. In an instant they had traveled a distance that should have taken thousands of years. “Status report,” she finally managed.
“All systems operational,” the ship responded.
The planet in the viewport was blue and cloudy and seemed to have all the characteristics of a planet that could support human life.
“Miss Reed,” Karen said. “Get me a reading on that planet.”
“Seventy-eight percent nitrogen, twenty-one percent oxygen, the remaining one is a mixture of various other gases. The atmosphere is almost an exact match to Earth,” Reed reported. “Scanners are picking up massive amounts of life forms and technology.”
A cheer went up around the bridge. The captain slumped back in her chair. Their mission appeared to be half complete. Karen sent their current coordinates to Earth, knowing it would take ages before it would actually reach them.
“Captain, should we wake up the others?” asked Dr. Treater.
The others would be the two-hundred men and women aboard the ship that still slept in suspended animation. A group of people that would begin to colonize a new world while they awaited the arrival of other ships that would carry more refugees from their dying home planet.
“No,” Karen responded. “Let’s see what’s down there first. Prepare to enter the atmosphere.”
They careened forward and Mr. Rain reduced speed as they started the landing process. When they entered the atmosphere, Kavidian shook violently, but calmed as it moved through a bank of clouds. Below was a vast ocean and a massive land form covered in lush greenery and bright, exotic flowers along the water’s shore. A forest covered most of the continent as far as Karen could see. All but a large space in the middle where a city was built.
The buildings reached skyward, towering spires of gold with windows that reflected the cloud filled blue of the sky around them. From the center of the city, the buildings were built smaller until they were no more the occasional huts peppered throughout the forest. Captain Stills could only assume these were houses, but they seemed oddly out of place compared to the elegant skyscrapers in the center of the town.
The communications officer, Mr. Fredrick, informed the captain that there was no signal coming from the town. “There does appear to be a landing pad on the west side of the main tower.”
“Take us down, Mr. Rain,” Karen ordered.
The thrusters slowed their approach and The Kavidian came to a gentle rest on the landing pad. Through the viewport, Karen could see a large door that appeared to lead to the interior of the building. Though there seemed to be no one to greet them. As a matter of fact, whatever beings lived on this world, they certainly kept themselves hidden well.
“What now?” asked Commander Benton.
Karen wasn’t sure. When they had talked about the mission before launch, the others involved (men and women back on Earth that were no doubt dead now) talked about the possibilities of what they’d find on a foreign planet, a seemingly abandoned city was not one of them. After further thought she shrugged. “Let’s go check it out.”
There was a hydraulic hiss as the ramp dropped from the freight area. Karen stepped down slowly and let the clean air enter her lungs. Commander Benton followed with weapon at the ready, flanked on either side by two of his men.
“Lower your weapons,” Karen instructed.
“What?” Benton returned in disbelief.
“If there is someone here we don’t want to give them the wrong idea.”
Benton lowered his rifle and motion for his men to follow suit. As for Karen, she had strapped a pistol on her hip, she wasn’t going to take any chances either, but she prayed she wouldn’t have to pull it.
The landing pad appeared to be concrete, or at least something similar. It was a small thing, but the familiarity to Earth’s structures gave her some comfort. The odd quiet of the large city, in contrast, made her uneasy. A place so large should never be so quiet.
A slow, grinding sound broke the silence and Karen looked up to see the massive door sliding up on tracks and disappearing into the wall above. From the darkness within there came two beings that stood at least ten feet tall. Their bodies were muscular and their faces brutish with tusk curling down from the corners of their wide mouths. In their hands they each held a long staff that had large, odd shaped blades at one end and a barrel at the other. Karen suspected some form of ammunition fired from these barrels. She sensed more than saw Benton and his men tense up.
“Easy,” Karen ordered.
The two large aliens (although Karen supposed it was her and her men that were the aliens in this situation) stepped to either side of the door as if to stand guard. A moment later three much shorter figures emerged from the doorway. They weren’t quite as tall as the average man, but in all other aspects they were humanoid. Two arms, two legs, one head. The being in front seemed positively ancient, his body bent slightly with the burden of age. His skin was pale and wrinkled, his eye large and black. Beneath the two slits that passed as his nose was a cat-like mouth, two flapping lips over a chin slick with moisture.
“Mr. Fredrick,” Karen spoke into her communicator. “Send out Word-bot.”
Word-bot, as the crew had come to call him, was actually an Automated Language Decoder and Translator Robot. Everyone felt this was too much of a mouthful to use all the time so most took to calling him Word-bot instead. The chrome plated robot came shuffling down the ramp just as the small welcoming party reached the captain and her guards.
Captain Stills bowed low to the being in front of her. The being studied the visitors a moment and finally spoke in a tongue that was full of gurgles and clicks. Word-bot listened a moment, it’s servo-motors whirring as it moved his head back and forth. It was clear the translator needed to hear more before it could decode the language.
“We come from a planet called Earth. Many light-years away,” Karen responded.
The old creature spoke again and this time Word-bot spoke afterward. “My name is Wrintok (at least I believe that is the English pronunciation),” the robot added as a sidebar. “Welcome to our world.”
Karen smiled. And repeated that they had come from Earth. Then added; “What do you call your planet?”
Word-bot worked his magic. “Our planet is called Shaylo. I’m sure you have many more questions, as do we. I’d like to invite you and your crew to join us for a welcoming feast in our great hall.”
“That sounds very nice, we’d love to.”
“Very well. Once you are all prepared, Halty will lead the way.”
The being to his left bowed and stayed by the ship as Wrintok and the other alien turned and strode back toward the building.”
“This is not what I was expecting,” Commander Benton said.
“Yes,” Karen agreed. “I get the feeling we aren’t the first visitors they’ve entertained.”
Karen gathered the crew and told them about the feast. Much to the disappointment of Benton’s men, she ordered them to stay with the ship, unwilling to leave Kavidian and her precious cargo unguarded. Soon they were off the ship and being led into the building between the large, imposing guards on either side of the door.
Once Karen’s eyes adjusted to the dimness of the hallway, she was surprised to find it lacked any form of decor at all. The walls were a slick, dark marble (or at least looked like marble) and reached high up toward the ceiling, which wasn’t visible from the floor due to the deep shadows overhead. The walls only disappeared into darkness. There were no paintings, no furniture, no vases full of the lovely flowers Karen spotted by the water on the way in. Perhaps they didn’t think that way.
The dining hall boasted better lighting, but only slightly. The table was laid out with exotic fruits and what looked to be a form of fish. No doubt caught from the sea that was only a few miles to the east.
Wrintock spoke and Word-bot translated. “Please have a seat and help yourselves.”
Karen nodded to the others and they followed her lead. Moving to the chair nearest the leader of the race they’d stumbled upon, she took a seat and smiled in his direction. The dinning furniture, she noticed, was just as plain and uninteresting as the rest of the palace. As they spoke, Word-bot translated both ways.
“Your planet is beautiful,” the captain said. “Is this the only settlement?”
“There are two others, but they are much smaller,” the alien replied. “Most of our kind live off of the land. We are very advanced in our technology, though we focus that technology on food production and living quarters alone. We have no need of space travel or communicators.”
“Yes, I’m surprised you know about such things. I was also surprised by the landing pad.”
“We have had several visitors to our planet over the years. Including the Farren.” Wrintock motioned to one of the guards that stood silently, towering over everyone else in the room. “They actually built the pad for their own use.”
“And what is your relationship with the Farren?”
“They came to our planet several years ago to request setting up settlements on the other side. We agreed in exchange for their protection, having fallen under attack by others that came before them.”
“These others, were they human like me?”
“No, I can honestly say I’ve not seen your kind before.”
“That’s very interesting,” Karen said thoughtfully. The notion that even more races were out there visiting other planets was fascinating to her.
“What is it that brings you to our humble planet?” Wrintock asked.
“Well, our wish is to set up colonies of our own, if you’ll have us. I’m afraid our planet is on the verge of dying and if we are to survive as a race, we need a fresh start.”
“And why is your planet in this condition?”
“I’m afraid over the years we’ve used all of our resources and have destroyed our atmosphere to a point that it is unrepairable,” Karen said rather sheepishly. “Our attempts to reverse these problems have fallen well short of fixing them.”
“So you expect us to allow you to come here and do the same to our world?”
“Of course not. I believe we’ve learned from our mistakes and would gladly live life according to your laws. I have two-hundred of the best and brightest of our race aboard my ship, specifically to begin this new colony. To copulate and await the arrival of more refugees from our world.”
“How long would that be?”
“The ships? It would take them nearly three centuries to make it here.”
“Mmm, fascinating,” the alien said, his fingers pressed together and tapping his chin in thought. A move that was so human in its execution that she nearly giggled aloud despite herself. “I don’t think it would be a good idea, especially with the Farren settled in already.”
“Well, I’m sure we could all live in harmony. Perhaps there is something we can offer you in trade, just as they have given you protection.”
“Perhaps,” Wrintock returned.
“Would you allow us a little time to convince you? Our ship has all we need; I promise we won’t be a burden.”
“Of course, I’d be delighted to have you as my guests.”
Karen continued to eat the delicious food that was offered and soon, the crew was heading back to Kavidian barely able to move.
Later, in the captain’s quarters, Karen paced the floor trying desperately to come up with a plan. Something Earthlings could offer in trade that would appease both the Grullish (as Karen learned Wrintock’s race was called) and the Farren.
When pacing produced no answers, she sat at her desk and stared at the wall. On the corner of her desk was a vase that had held a dozen roses when they had boarded the ship. Staring at it made her eyes water with tears. Thinking about Richard made her chest ache.
There was a buzz at her door. Karen wiped her eyes and called for the visitor to enter. The door slid aside and Commander Benton strode in, clean shaven and hair trimmed neatly, with a folder in his hand. “The reports from the two hundred. They’re all sleeping well and vitals are great. I have two of my men guarding them as per your orders.”
“Thank you, Commander. The natives don’t seem hostile, but you can never be too careful.”
“What’s with the flower?” Benton asked.
Karen looked back at the remaining flower and smiled. “That was a gift from Richard.”
“Oh, your guy back home?”
“Yeah. He gave me a dozen roses and a card that said ‘I will love you until the last rose dies’. I didn’t understand it then, but now; eleven of the flowers have died and turned to dust, no doubt swept away by the cleaner robots over the years. All that’s left is this one.”
“How is that?”
“It’s fake. It was mixed in with the real ones so that the last rose would never die.”
“Wow! That guy has some serious game.”
“Had,” Karen said. “Though to me, it only seems like yesterday that he gave them to me, he’s been dead about two hundred and fifty years now.”
“Oh man. I didn’t even think about that. I’m so sorry.”
Karen shook her head and waved his apology away. “It’s okay. We knew the situation heading in, right What about you? Did you leave anyone behind?”
“Nah. My parents were already deceased and I figured there’d be time enough to find a girl after we landed somewhere, what with the crew and the passengers.”
“You were the smart one.”
An awkward silence fell between them, before Benton finally said; “Well, I’ll let you turn in. Have a good night, Cap.”
“Thanks, Benton. You do the same.”
The days went by. Karen brought her proposals to Wrintock and he shot them down one by one. He had no need for their technology nor any desire to wait nearly three hundred years for anything the Kavidian didn’t have on board. She was quickly running out of ideas, whiling away the hours staring at the rose on her desk or the plaque on the wall crediting the ships creation to its designer, Albert Kavidian, finding it somehow calming. It was as she paced and pondered that the com buzzed in her room.
“Yes?” she called across the channel.
“Captain, your assistance is needed on the bridge,” Miss Reed’s voice came back. “It may be an emergency.”
“I’m on my way.”
Karen grabbed a pistol from her utility cabinet and attached it to her belt as she exited the room. Through the sterile hall and onto the bridge, her mind was trying to determine what trouble could have crept up that would warrant the alarm in her systems expert.
“Report,” she called as she entered the bridge.
“Captain,” replied Reed. “Several ships have just appeared on our scanners.”
“Did they come through the wormhole?”
“They’re entering the planet’s atmosphere. The central ship is huge.”
“Like a small city huge.”
Karen studied the images on the screen. Were these some of the visitors Wrintock had mentioned before? Or perhaps the Farren returning from some mission of their own? Were they a threat?
“Captain Stills,” came Kavidian’s feminine voice. “I’m receiving a signal from the command ship.”
Karen looked to her communications officer who only offered a shrug in return. “Patch it through.”
“Attention, Kavidian,” a male voice blared in the bridge. “This of the crew of the Command Ship Raven, representing the military of the Allied Forces of Earth.”
“What?” Karen said, though her voice was little more than a choked whisper. The others were looking to her, confusion clear on their faces. “How?”
The voice continued as if Karen had said nothing at all. “You are instructed to lift off from the planet’s surface and dock with the command ship immediately. Once on board you will receive further instructions.”
“By who’s authority?” Karen demanded.
“By the authority of the United States Government,” the voice boomed, the owner of the voice clearly agitated by the defiance in Karen’s tone.
The others looked to their captain, awaiting her command. She nodded her consent and spoke to the ship. “Kavidian, prepare all systems for lift off.”
The ship came alive around them, the engines humming to life, the repulsers thumping against the landing pad, the landing gear retracting into the hull. Then they were moving upward. Karen sat in the Captain’s chair unable to wrap her mind around what was happening. Her daze was broken by Reed’s voice. “Captain, something’s been launched from the command ship!”
Karen stood and moved closer to the viewport. Dropping from the sky and growing larger as they neared were two dozen small ships that Karen realized too late were fighters. Missiles flared from the wings of the oncoming crafts. As they streamed past The Kavidian, Karen could just make out the American flag slapped on the side.
Andrew Rivera is a Creative Writing student in Orlando, Fl. In his spare time, he plays video games and goofs off with his family
The year is 2049, millions have perished since the bombings of 2040 and many more met their fate caused by the radiation aftermath. Living in once was the greatest city in the world is now a broken, decrepit city of New York. Famine broke out, people turned into savages desperately trying to find anything to feed and protect their own. “Hurry! Find anything you can. Food, meds, clothes, anything,” Robert said to his little sister as he was panting and wiping the sweat from slowly getting into his eyes.
“This isn’t right, this isn’t what we do. This is somebodies home, they need this stuff just as much we do,” Sam said as she unsurely grabs an Advil container from the shelf above and forces a bottle of water with the Advil into her tightly stuffed back pack.
“We have to do whatever we can Sam. You’re too young to understand that right now but one day you will,” Robert said as he loads up the rest of the supplies in his bag. “Now let’s go. The sun is about to set and we’ll be sitting ducks out here,” Robert said as he escorts Sam out of the home and throughout the fragile city.
As they move throughout the city, going through various abandon buildings and empty streets, they reach their hideout. An old abandon motel in the middle of Manhattan. The door opens “Put the supplies on the table and line up everything we have. We have to take inventory,” Robert said has he takes a breather on a small couch next to the table. As they pick through each supply they get a knock on the door. Sam springs up from the floor. Roberts grabs the gun in his bag and pulls Sam behind him. “Do not say a word. Understand?” Robert whispered.
Robert slowly walks to the door with Sam behind him. He slowly presses gun against the door and looks through the peephole “There’s nobody,” he said as he slowly opens the door. With the gun still centered, he opens the door all the way.
“It’s a box,” Sam said with excitement. She went to grab it and but Robert quickly pulled her aside.
“You don’t know what that could possibly be,” Robert said getting on one knee.
“It’s a box. What if its help? You don’t know if you don’t open it.” Sam said with a convincing look in her eye.
With uncertainty, Robert picks up the box, takes it inside and places it on the table. As he places it on the table, they notice a note pinned underneath the box.
“Meridian?” Sam asked.
Robert opens the box to see a letter and a map inside. He grabs the letter and reads “we’re a small group of survivors who have created a community up north after the bombs fell. We look for other survivors who may be in need of help. We have food, water and shelter. We mean no harm.”
“Yeah right,” Robert said in frustration. “Someone has obviously been following us. They know where we are.”
“Keep reading!” Sam interjected.
“We send scouts out every season’s change. With winter approaching, this is the most important time for our community to reach out. If you accept, you will meet a scout at the entrance of the Station Island Ferry. You have 24 hours to make your decision.”
“No. we’re fine on our own,” Robert said crumbling up the paper.
“You know that’s a lie. How long do you expect us to live in this shitty room?” Sam said with frustration in her voice.
“We barely have food or water. Our clothes are covered with holes and we definitely not going to survive the winter. We can’t live our life’s by just barely getting by. Mom wouldn’t have wanted that,” Sam said taking a deep breath.
You think I don’t know that!? Robert said getting in the face of Sam.
What if they’re killers and rapist in that community? What if it’s a trap and they rob people for the little that they have? You ever think of that? You have to expect the worse us out of people when it comes to survival. That’s just how it is now.
Sam holding back tears just walks away and goes into the room she’s made for herself.
Roberts gets up holding onto the note. He pushes a chair next to the cracked window beside him, looking over the destroyed city. “Great. I stripped away any hope of a normal life she could possibly have,” He says thinking to himself. “She’s only thirteen. She could make friends, maybe even have some form of education. Am I robbing her of a semi normal life? could I have a normal life? Maybe…”
With the sun slowly rising, Robert is up early. He paces in front in of the table with the box with still open, with the note inside. He takes a deep breath and goes into Sam’s room. “Sam? Get up. we’re going,” Robert said softly as he turns on the poorly dimmed light. “Sam?” Robert said as he walks up to the bed. He gets closer to notice that she was gone. The bed was made. “No…there’s no way… She wouldn’t just leave” Robert said has he backs up. Robert runs to the living room, grabs his gun, bag and the note. “If you accept, you will meet a scout at the entrance of the Station Island Ferry,” Robert said rereading the note. Robert begins his mile sprint to the Station Island Ferry.
As he approaches the docks, a gunshot is fired near his foot. “Halt!” echoes throughout the hollow buildings. Robert froze with fear. A hooded man approaches. “Are you Robert?” the hooded man said with slight concern.
“Yes,” Robert said showing the note in his shaking hands.
“I’m just here for my sister,” Robert said.
“You’re too late. She was the first to leave,” The hooded man said.
Cynthia Sally Haggard writes historical novels, short stories, and flash fiction. Her first novel, Thwarted Queen is a fictionalized biography of Lady Cecylee Neville (1415-1495), mother of two kings of England, including Richard III, whose bones were recently found under a car-park in Leicester. Her novel has been shortlisted for many awards, including the 2012 Eric Hoffer New Horizon Award for debut authors. To date, sales have surpassed $40,000.
Cynthia graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in June 2015. When she’s not annoying everyone by insisting her fictional characters are more real than they are, Cynthia likes to go for long walks, knit something glamorous, cook in her wonderful kitchen, and play the piano. You can visit her at www.spunstories.com.
Spring Semester, 1960
By itself it was unremarkable, a boxy desk made of cheap materials with a fake wood veneer, a standard issue object that populated countless offices in college campuses. What was odd was the way it stood in the professor’s office, turned sideways, so that one short side met the wall just inside the door. Any student entering that office to meet with the professor would push the door open to the right, while to the immediate left squatted that huge desk, with two plastic chairs positioned primly underneath its cavernous opening, a grudging invitation for the student to sit, perhaps with a friend. On the other side, the private side where the drawers and compartments were, slouched the professor.
He taught two of the classes I was taking for my final semester, Introductory Statistics and History of Social Sciences. He had an unusual name, Matthias Szczepanski. The other students gave up struggling with his name after the first class and called him “Professor S.” But I was curious. Where was he from? One day, after class, I surmounted my natural shyness, and, ignoring that forbidding desk, I seated myself on the prissy plastic seat to ask him how to pronounce his name.
“SHUH -CHAY-PAN-SKEE” He made me repeat it several times, until I was rewarded by a smile that wasn’t exactly a smile, a suggestion of a curve in those thin lips, while his light-brown eyes claimed me.
I went home that day, my mind wrapped around my professor, as if I were a snug piece of velvet hiding a jewel. I lived a few miles away with my parents. Father was the minister of the Lutheran church, Mother was a homemaker. My parents had reluctantly granted my request to go to University, provided that I continue to live with them. When I’d finally gathered the courage in my first year to ask Father why it was necessary to continue living at home, he put down the sermon he was working on and immobilized me with his disapproving look.
“Isn’t it obvious, Caroline?” he said, the tone of his voice making me curl up inside. “Unchaperoned young people get up to all sorts of—unsavory doings. I do not want you to be mixed up in all of that. Your mother and I have certain—expectations.”
Then he cast his eyes down to the sermon on his desk, picked up his fountain pen, and made a note in the margin.
I stood there in that silence, hands clasped in front of me. I knew what his expectations were, to catch a husband. His agreement to my university studies had been bought with Mother’s promise that a prospective suitor would find an educated young woman more interesting. But what were my expectations? I wanted to do something bold--
“Shut the door quietly behind you, please,” he remarked without looking up.
Now, I was completing my final semester at university with few friends there, or indeed anywhere. The friends I’d known since Kindergarten when my family arrived here from Pennsylvania were leaving, marrying, and having children. The few that were left were trying to find husbands, or embarking on careers of their own, mostly nursing, or secretarial, and their lives had become very different from mine. It was captivating to find, at last, such a friend in Professor Szczepanski. I was greedy, wanting him to teach me everything he knew, not just about sociology, but about life and the world he lived in.
And so our friendship began, with regular visits to the office hours he used to hold once a week for each class. It wasn’t hard for me to become his star student. When I wasn’t taking class, I was either perched on a chair in the library, or sitting at home with my parents in the deadening silence Father demanded, working. But now, in that final semester, the hours eased past, the deathly quality of Father’s silence dissolving as I lost myself in my studies. The other students were mostly absent from his office hours, and so we used to hold many private conferences about something I’d written, or questions that had come up in class, his huge desk brooding between us, a natural barricade. But its existence no longer troubled me.
One day, we were in his office as usual, and our conversation had long drawn to its natural close. Yet we lingered. I had just finished reading Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, an account of life in a medieval village in France between 1294 and 1324, one of the extra readings he suggested for the history course.
“I’ve never read a book like that before, it doesn’t come across as a history.” I paused, frowning, fumbling to clutch at an evanescent thread of thought. “It feels much more like science—like case studies—”
He sat up suddenly, his eyes capturing mine.
“You noticed that?”
“Of course,” I replied. “Isn’t it obvious?”
He sagged back into his seat. “Not to the other students.” He warmed me with his light-brown eyes. “But you are unusually mature for your age.”
I scrutinized his expression, surprised.
“I mean it,” he said, his eyes glowing as they lingered on my face. They were compelling eyes that seemed to call forth secrets, things I never spoke of. And perhaps that is why I slid into disloyal talk about my parents, how I’d had to beg them to let me go to university, how they insisted I live at home, and how I had few friends.
“You didn’t have a childhood either,” he remarked.
He leaned across that huge desk as if to reach for my hand, but his arm lay on his side of the desk, his fingers hovering in the air, disconnected. He spoke to me about his family, how he’d grown up poor on a farm near Champaign-Urbana, how he had to beg his parents, both Polish immigrants, to let him go to school in the big city of Chicago.
“I even got a scholarship to study at the University of Chicago, and still they hesitated.”
My heart pulsed in the bottom of my throat as I nodded. “How were you able to go?”
“My mother,” he replied simply. “Somehow she persuaded my father to let me go. She’s a remarkable woman, I’d like you to meet her.”
A surge of some unnameable emotion lifted me up. For the first time in my life I felt I had won—something. And yet the weight of anticipation hung heavily upon me. How was I supposed to behave? Suppose his mother disapproved? Suppose I did something embarrassing? And, worst of all, suppose he stopped liking me?
I perched on that prim plastic seat, outwardly demure, my eyes lowered, while my hand lay lightly on my side of his desk, waiting. I studied the fake brown veneer of the desk as nothing happened.
The weight of his silence pressed in, so eventually I raised my head to check his expression.
He devoured me, almost as if he were seeing me for the first time.
“I’ve never met a woman like you before.”
I held my breath as I cast my eyes down, willing my heart to stop dancing its jagged rhythm. For the first twenty years of my life, I’d melted into the wallpaper, looking out as parties, and dances swirled in front of me, like a dangerous whirlpool. No one had discerned me before. No one had striven hard enough to surmount my natural shyness, see past my gangly figure, ignore my home-made clothes.
Slowly, I lifted my lashes.
He laughed. “You take me too seriously, Caroline.”
I compelled the corners of my mouth to curl up into a smile, not understanding.
He glanced at his watch, forcing me to rise, and leave.
I got little sleep that night. What had happened? He’d been so warm, so attentive. Then—what? Had he paid me a compliment when he said he’d never met anyone like me before? Or—or was he laughing at me? My stomach sour, I pushed away tangled sheets and padded to the window in thick socks. Snow was falling outside, dusting everything in a light coating of white, while a cold morning glimmered into being. Today was Saturday, April 2. That meant yesterday had been April 1. Had he been teasing me?
I missed his office hours that week and the next, not returning until April 22. His smile warmed his face as I knocked softly upon the door.
“Come in, come in,” he said, “and let me take a look at you. I haven’t seen you in a while.”
I sat tentatively, straight-backed, knees together, while he sprawled in his chair, knees apart, and examined me. I had dressed with more than usual care, wanting to make the right impression. I was a young lady, and wanted to be treated as such, so I wore my church clothes, a black skirt that came to mid-calf and made me look older, the white blouse with the stiff collar Mother had given me as a gift, and my favorite dark-blue sweater I’d knitted myself. I hoped it brought out the color of my eyes.
“I—I—Iwanttoaskyousomething..” I drew in a monumental breath that made me cough. “Iwanttoapplytolawschool,” I leaned to the right to slide the application form out of my briefcase.
“Oh, sure,” he drawled. “Bring it along next week.”
I straightened in my seat, folding my hands softly so that he wouldn’t see that I already had the form.
“You’re going to graduate soon,” he observed. “Perhaps, after that, you’ll allow me to take you to my favorite cafe?”
My gaze fell into my black lap. I couldn’t look at him. How I longed to say ‘yes’ to his invitation, but the heft of his expectations was too painful. I was only a girl, he was my professor; he was a sophisticated man of the world, I was a fish out of water. The thirteen miles from his office to my home seemed aeons away.
The silence uncoiled, lengthening. Unable to bear it any more, I placed both hands flat on his huge desk, and drew in a deep breath.
“Ifyoutakemetoyourfavoritecafe,” I remarked to the desk, “I’llorderthemostexpensivethingthere.”
His silence was deadening.
Unable to hold back any more, I lifted my face to his as a flood of giggles washed over me.
He studied me for a moment, a dull redness creeping along his cheeks. His laugh, when it came, was a series of short, sharp barks.
On the other side of that desk, out of sight, I clenched my fingers together until the bones cracked. On my lap sat my law-school application. What had I done?
I argued with myself for a couple of weeks, before manhandling myself back to his office to see about the law school application I’d placed oh-so-carefully into his mailbox the week before, just out of sight of his pregnant secretary, who glowered at me. The door was half-open, but he was not there. I stood still for many moments, inhaling the silence, before I crept to the other side of his sullen desk, and sank slowly, oh-so-slowly into his seat. I exhaled as I leaned back in his high-backed chair, running the tips of my fingers over the fake veneer of the desk, closing my eyes as if by doing so I could imbue myself with his power. The back and the arms of the chair cradled me, as if he were holding me in his arms. As I relaxed, the muscles in my back thawed, my body hummed, purring. If only we could be closer—A light step made me start up.
He leaned against the door jamb watching, a smile on his face, a predatory smile. My body snapped back into its usual jammedness as my cheeks heated up. I rose and attempted to come around the desk, but a sharp corner dug into my hip, causing me to cry out in pain. Blindly I clutched at the fake veneer, but my hands slid away. I set my jaw and somehow heaved my way around the short side of the desk that wasn’t against the wall. Finally, I was by those two prim plastic chairs, on my usual side of the desk, on my way out. But he was there, blocking the doorway.
“That was quite something.” He grinned.
I searched his face, looking for—a morsel of kindness?
“Want my job?”
I stared at the brown leather shoes Mother had got at a Church sale.
“No, no.” My words were sticking to the back of my throat. I coughed. “I wouldn’t be good enough.”
“Hmmm.” He made to pass, and wrong-footed, I fell into an awkward dance with him in the doorway. Just as his hand inadvertently brushed my breasts, I stepped back sharply, banging the back of my head against the door jamb. I ground my teeth so I wouldn’t cry out.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He shot me a knowing look, and smirked.
“Be my guest,” he said, his baritone rich and inviting, “I’m happy to walk into you. Anytime.”
“I came about my law-school application.” I had to rise in my seat to lean far enough across his desk to hand him another copy of the form.
“Ah, yes.” He glanced at it briefly, then looked up. “I can’t do it.”
“But—” This didn’t seem real. “I thought—”
His long fingers gently traced a pattern on that desk. “I can’t do it.” A dullish red hue broke out across his cheeks.
“But if you don’t, I won’t get into law school.”
“Caroline, please don’t exaggerate. There must be plenty of others who could perform this service for you.”
“I don’t understand.” My throat shut, so I had to swallow to open it. “I thought—”
“No.” He looked directly at me, his light-brown eyes as opaque as shiny coins in a too-bright sun.
I sat there, crumbling.
He rose to his feet, edged around that huge desk, walked past me as if I were another plastic chair, and opened the door.
“I must ask you to leave, Caroline. I’m very busy at present.”
I gazed around his room one last time. His desk gleamed smugly in the sunlight.
“Please leave. Now.” His face was immobile as he held the door open.
Somehow, I got to my feet and left, my arms wrapped around my brown leather bag. As I stepped into that antiseptic corridor with its white walls, white ceiling tiles, cheap white linoleum floor, I heard his door click shut behind me. I stumbled outside into a painfully sunny courtyard and slumped down onto my favorite bench. What was I going to do? He was the only person who knew my work well enough to be able to write a convincing letter of reference for the prestigious law schools I wanted to go to. I sat there for many moments, a cool wind wafting loss all around me.
“Caroline.” Father stood in the doorway of his study holding The Baltimore Sun, as I arrived home.
“I was right all along, not letting you stay at university. It is no place for respectable young women.”
I stared up into his unreadable face as he placed the paper into my hands.
“I believe this concerns one of your professors.”
The study door clicked shut behind him.
Alone in the sitting room, I leaned over the pages of The Sun. There he is, a hazy, indefinite image, placed above the fold on the first page. I am shocked to discover that he’s only twenty-nine, nine years older than I am. I scan the page. Dr. Szczepanski, a brilliant young scholar in the Sociology department, is up for tenure, but will probably lose his job.
He is the father of an illegitimate child.
The pages slide to the ground as the back of my neck prickles. How did I miss this? I retrieve the pages, staring at the blurry words. There is a picture of a faint young woman, someone I vaguely recognize. Of course, it’s the glowering secretary. I squint at the picture, but the woman doesn’t even look particularly beautiful. Why in the world would someone like Professor Szczepanski risk everything for her?
My mind spins How could he have done it, the lecherous bastard? Could’t he keep his hands to himself? I start as I realize that he almost never touched me. I bend my head to the article, which states that although Dr. Szczepanski hasn’t openly disputed the young woman’s claim, nevertheless he is refusing to marry her. It goes on to mention that there is no dispute about Dr. Szczepanski’s conduct. He was caught red-handed with her, upon his desk.
A surge of lava-like emotion wells up in my chest, spreading fingers throughout me like thick blood oozing from a wound. I try to imagine myself back in his office. His desk squats there, a looming shadow, a barricade against an unkind world. Those who ignored the desk’s covert message to keep out, those who sat down and leaned across to chat, passed his test of friendship.
As I did.
The secretary must have been even bolder.
I sit there forever, trying to make sense of it. I thought I was special, I thought I was his star, I thought I was his protegée. I press my lips together. It is time I took charge of my life. The Sociology Department was small. Was it gossipy? Did his colleagues think that I was the one having the affair with him? Because of course, in a sense, I was. It was an Affair of the Heart. But unlike most such affairs, this one wasn’t physical.
Our currency had been glances, and silences.