Megan Wildhood is a Seattle-based creative writer, scuba diver and social-services worker known for her large, idiosyncratic earring collection. Her poetry chapbook, Long Division (Finishing Line Press, 2017), ruminates on sororal estrangement and volleying the challenges of growing up on the planet that’s very nearly aflame. An excerpt of her novel manuscript was published by AMP Hofstra’s literary magazine in May 2019. Her other work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Sun, and Yes! Magazine. She regularly writes for Real Change and Mad in America. She wants to connect with other weary humans around issues of mental and emotional distress, creating real community from the ashes of individualism and finding real hope if only as an act of defiance, in these tattered days.
Management had planned this working retreat because the committee charged with composing, disseminating and tabulating the results of the public-satisfaction survey had been taken quite off guard by the results. They expected higher overall marks, for one, but the Department of Public Health’s customer service division’s scores was not at the nerve center of concern. It was comments like these:
(From a member of the public who gave an overall score of 8/10): The personnel that staff the DPH’s help desk are always patient, eager and almost robotically jovial. I get what I need straight away and with no discernible bureaucratic grime. This makes me feel both proportionately more irritated with the rest of my life and like a really bad person, since I’m grumpy, petty and jealous far more often than any one of the DPH’s representatives, or even all of them combined.
(From a member of the public who gave a high overall score – 3-ish/10 – but only a 4/5 in the category of General Experience): No one was mean to me or anything, but, since you’ve streamlined any potential paperwork and the new protocol to save the trees – which I understand you understand to be an integral part to human-lung health – has forced all publications to go entirely world-wide-webular, there wasn’t anything for me to do during my 15-minute wait. Nothing, that is, outside of what I could normally do with my phone anywhere else. The drab routineness was disappointing.
(From a member of the public who gave an overall score of 3.5/10 but who ranked the DPH last in a list of five other government-funded facilities – i.e., the post office, waste management): I haven’t experienced the actual, physical premises of the Dpt. of Public Health so I couldn’t say if they have been stellar in that regard. All I know is I still get sick.
The facilitator had taken an undergraduate degree in psychology from Rutgers and, after starting and selling three successful companies, completed a Master’s of Divinity at Yale. He spent a decade in St. Louis fighting urban poverty, the next five years in Tuscaloosa helping communities rally around at-risk youth and then realized that, whenever he left, most of his work somehow undid itself. So he started learning how to delegate. That’s what he was hired by the DPH management to do this morning. Then he opened the floor for introductions; everyone would talk but could do so whenever they felt ready: name, a few words about place of origin and one thing he or she appreciated about working at the DPH.
Amal, the executive director originally from Denver, started by appreciating the work/life balance he, even in the high-up position he’s in, is able to strike. Kareena, the accountant from Portland, says, “I’ve been here for the last six years and at none of my other jobs did I ever feel like I was making a positive difference.” She covers her pointer finger with the end of her sleeve and dabs discreetly at the corner of her eyes. “I mean, as a bookkeeper in a corporate law office, I feel like I was just keeping a record of how much we were spending ruining people’s lives.”
Kari, a research analyst from Portland, had started nodding furiously at Kareena’s appreciation for being able to make a difference. “As a math major that wanted to go into research, I had to take whatever job I could get in order to jump the job-experience cycle. I worked at several places, too many places, that basically required shady or deceptive reporting or stuff like doctoring results. And these were places like hospitals or studies funded by The APA or even – and this broke my heart – some environmental nonprofits.”
Dave, a brave newbie in administration, waited somehow just the right amount of time after Kari’s dry-eyed but heartfelt speech before saying, “David, from Chicago, that promotions actually happen and happen in a timely manner.” A few unsure chuckles poked the stale air. “You know, so I’ve heard.” The laughter filled out and Sherev (also in research analysis), waited for it to die down before hamming up her accent to say, “I’m sure it’s obvious where I’m from but for the newbies, I hail from Lumpkin, Georgia, and you know I just so appreciate being able to work with folks more intelligent than myself.” The laughter revved up and saw-toothed throughout the rest of the twenty-five employees.
The facilitator turned to the large sheets of butcher paper he had taped over the room’s rear exit doors and walls, which were all entirely windows and the space’s secondary source of light. He wrote Values in an architect’s handwriting. He asked folks to write down two things they thought this company valued – write down to combat the temptation to change responses once coworkers start talking. As employees called out answers, he wrote down key words, nodded, sometimes asked for clarification.
“And what do you mean by ‘I feel respected for who I am?’ Is this an indication that there aren’t really social norms at the office or is this about being able to set your own hours or something else?”
“I feel like the right things matter.” Maya was one of the newest on staff. “What I wear, what time I’m able to get up and functional in the morning, what gender my partner is, those things don’t matter in the sense of being judged. They do matter in the sense that we all really enjoy each other for who we are.”
“So the visibility of the individual is in service of relationship building as opposed to division,” the facilitator said. Maya affirmed and several grunted or nodded in agreement.
“I appreciate how we make decisions around here,” Amal said. “I decided when I was promoted to this position six years ago that every decision – after the one I was making just then, of course – would be by consensus.”
“Truly?” He looked around while every head, except one, nodded. The facilitator didn’t notice that single stationary head, perhaps because it was close enough to the front, where he stood, to be just under his line of sight. “How Quaker of you,” he said. “That is really remarkable for an organization to do,” he said as he wrote Consensus and underlined it twice.
The values discussion could have continued but, after going half an hour into the scheduled lunch hour, everyone agreed to break at 1:00. For lunch, employees were encouraged to switch tables and try not to do work during the break. The facilitator expressed genuine worry about burnout and so would be coming around to make sure people were actually relaxing and enjoying one another’s company.
“The level of laughter in this room whenever I’ve instructed you to discuss in the small groups at your table,” he said, “is remarkable. You all have the capacity to truly enjoy one another’s company.” Fennel and Seed, Portland’s premier caterer, had provided boxes made to order and the employees naturally formed a conveyor belt to efficiently disperse them according to the near-calligraphed names scrawled on the top in Sharpie.
As the facilitator walked around, he noticed that the huge sheets of white paper covering the tables had been blank until employees started trying to replicate the beautiful handwriting on their lunch boxes. Laughter levels held at normal to high throughout the meal, which may be why many continued to pick at their fruit cups or éclairs as the next session began.
By afternoon, the sky was so full of clouds it looked like a sail at 30 knots. The canoes suspended from the ceiling swayed in unison overhead. The facilitator had filtered his notes during the values discussion into the five main core values he saw emerging and he’d listed out on a new piece of paper. Consensus. Respectful appraisal of the individual. True enjoyment of each other. Personal and corporate punctuality. Impeccable follow-through. “Good work being done here is my feeling about you all’s feeling about yourselves,” the facilitator said. “Good work being done by good people.”
The staff either smiled or nodded.
“You look like you want to say something,” the facilitator said to an employee at the closest table.
“I just wonder,” Sandy said, “I just wonder how you get all this from us.”
The facilitator smiled. “Your company is ahead of schedule yet again.” He dropped his pen just under his feet but didn’t bend to pick it up. “One of the exercises I usually run with groups is the distillation of values. Most end up with at least one distinct value per person –”
“Which,” Dave whispered to Anita next to him, “you might expect in an individualism-obsessed culture.”
“Well,” the facilitator said, looking at Dave, “we shouldn’t confuse individualism with individuality.” Dave’s face suddenly looked laminated. He pretended to have to blow his nose on his napkin. “But his is a good point. One we should circle back to after I properly address what your colleague here said.”
“About the values formation, I find that wrangling the list of expressed values that most companies I work with into a set of four or five core values usually takes an extra exercise. Perhaps it’s you all’s comfort with consensus, but we don’t need to do that – unless any of you disagrees with the five I’ve listed here.” The facilitator looked around the room to see heads turning and looking around the room.
“Very good,” the facilitator said. “Next, your colleague Sandy here has asked a question that doesn’t usually come up until the second day. On the surface,” the facilitator nodded towards those who were smiling, “it appears to be about me. People wonder if this ‘reading people’ thing they’ve noted I do is part of my ‘mastering divinity’ training.”
“But actually,” he continued after settling back into himself, “the question is really about you all.” He picked up the pen and held it out as he drew a circle in the air pointing to everyone in the room one at a time. “I’m only as good as my mirror,” the facilitator said. “You all are the cleanest mirror I’ve come across. So that’s how I can, as Sandy said, ‘Get all this from you.’” The facilitator raised an eyebrow in Sandy’s direction and waited.
“But how,” Sandy said, “I mean, what makes a clean mirror?”
The facilitator nodded and turned to the center of the room, squinting as if looking far out to sea. “Does anyone have any ideas?” He waited.
“My thought,” the facilitator said as if he were easing into a swimming pool, “is that the way to clean a mirror well enough for someone to see you accurately is the willingness to be vulnerable.” He paused again, this time drawing a circle around the room with his eyes. The canoes rested for a few moments, too. “There is a lot of emotion in this room,” the facilitator said finally. He held his hands up and out toward the staff. “A lot of joy, a lot of gratitude, a lot of daring.” He capped and uncapped his marker.
“Which is how I know you all can handle difficult conversations without remaining falsely buoyant or degenerating into infighting and criticism.” He put his hand on the sheet of paper next to the list of core values as if he were laying his hand on a baby’s cheek.
“Five growth areas,” he said, drumming his fingers on the bulleted list. Employees started looking around the room after reading the list, stunned, looking to see if others were feeling the same way. “In my interviews with about half of you in preparation for this retreat, and in the particles of conversations I’ve gathered in this first half day with you all, these are what I’m hearing from you are five key regions of work life you’d like to have better settlements.” The facilitator dropped his marker tip down in the pocket of his white button-up without the cap on. A little red spot quickly appeared near the facilitator’s heart.
“If you all agree with these five things that I’ve proposed are areas of attention for you, then let’s break into groups according to which one you have the most stake or interest in. The Communications group will be up here to my left, the Teamwork crew up front to the right, Succession and Leadership will take the middle table, Business-Model folks will gather to the back and right and the Sustainability and Work Ethic people are going to have to set up another table and chairs.” He pointed to the stack of empty chairs then drew a perfect circle in the air with his finger around the empty space near the coffee and tea table.
Five people gathered at each table and the facilitator gave the assignment: “Identify three issues in your chosen growth area and nominate one person to write each down in a single sentence. After about twenty minutes – I’ll tell you when – you’ll pick one of your three sentences and see if you can’t come up with two possible ways to address your chosen issue. You’ll get about thirty minutes for this before we come back together as a whole group and share our work.”
The facilitator began to walk around the tables. At the Communication table, he heard, “We need some sort of newsletter or something. People have been moving offices and several folks had no idea that was evening happening” and “I’m not so sure that this ‘impeccable follow-through’ value we’ve got on our core values list applies specifically to communication.” At the Succession/Leadership table, the facilitator saw, during the talk of the age of the managers and leaders of the team, eyebrows so deeply furrowed and lips so heavily pursed that he felt his own shoulders reach for his ears and cramp; at the Sustainability/Work Ethic table, a tightrope-tense conversation about the current vague way of tracking hours and at the Business Model table, the facilitator saw two hand-scrawled spreadsheets and discussions about “time allocation” and “the possibility of collecting data on which of our projects eat up the most time and budget pie.” The Teamwork table, which the facilitator didn’t get around to until last, was still delegating responsibilities for the task at hand.
“From the sounds of it, the teams are all over the place,” the facilitator said from the center of the room. “Let’s throw out the regimented time schedule and we’ll just use the rest of the time to work through the tasks at whatever pace your team needs.” The facilitator made the rounds again, this time sitting at each table for several minutes. When it came time to for the teams to share the problems they identified and their proposed solutions, the facilitator, for once, was caught off guard by the incongruence of his expectations with the prompted responses.
Succession/Leadership volunteered to share first. “There is a relatively uniform age of people in most positions of leadership. This means that retirements or promotions are less likely to be staggered, which could lead to an all-at-once type of transition. Our proposed solution is to coordinate an every-other-month training opportunity regarding topics relevant to all or as many jobs or tasks as possible. We’ll use our expertise in the office as well as bring in outside speakers. This way, we all have the opportunity to be trained equally and will have all skill levels covered.” The facilitator seemed stunned, until he realized, “This is another face of consensus.”
The business model table’s spokesperson said, “We want to create some sort of data tabulation system so that we can allocate more resources toward charity work.” Before the facilitator could reflect, the sustainability/work ethic table jumped in. “Ours was a similar concept – we thought making reporting our hours more specific and more uniform might be a start to getting a handle on how much people are working and what they’re working on, so we can better balance out workloads.” The facilitator nods along with the rest of the staff.
“But,” Sandy said, “what about the danger of this being used the wrong way?” The facilitator turned around. “Can you say more about that? What your concern
“If we start to get granular about who’s doing what, I’m afraid it could start to encourage comparison and competition.” The facilitator lifted his chin as if to begin a single, large nod and made eye contact with Sandy.
“And it would seem, then, that this applies to all data collection and analysis, then,” he said finally, after drawing a long breath through his teeth. Employees kept their eyes on the facilitator and some seemed to be holding their breath without knowing it. Amal’s right shoulder crept slowly closer to his ear, a trademark move any employee who’s made it three months would recognize to indicate that he knows he needs to say something but isn’t sure how or when.
A few employees at the teamwork table leaned toward each other and whispered. Then one of them said, “Our proposal might address this, actually.” The facilitator looked to Sandy as if for permission and then mouthed “okay” at the teamwork spokesperson.
“It seems that competition thrives when people stop believing they are valued and needed in a community, or, for our purposes, team. We have departments already, which serve as a sort of built-in framework for teams. We thought it might also be interesting to see about getting all the admin assistants from each department together once a month, and all the managers, all the reporting specialists, you know, and create a more well-rounded feeling of team,” Jillian said.
“And we don’t want to hold anyone’s hand here,” Sherev cut in, “we were going to say that, at those by-job-title meetings, we could offer respective trainings.” She sounded like she was merely taking a breath rather than being finished but she didn’t say anything more.
“But,” Sandy said, “isn’t that specifically inversely proportional to flexibility?”
The facilitator had made his way back to the front of the room and tapped his finger on the words Flexibility and Respect for the Individual on the Values sheet. When he leaned against it, the word Consensus looked like it was holding up his head. For a full minute, it seemed like nothing, not even the canoes overhead, moved.
“Ah, competing values,” he said, drumming his fingers on the paper. It appears we’re at a loss for words, collectively.” The facilitator had a kind smile. “Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the communication table is the last team to speak.”
The people at the communication table whispered and pointed at each other before appointing Janeese. “We didn’t get to the solving stages of any of our issues, beyond some rather middle-schooler-type suggestions but we identified under-communication and lack of follow through when things are communicated as our two main sore spots.”
The facilitator swept the room with his eyes before asking if “Jane” could elaborate.
“No, but Sandy can.” Janeese made a motion of handing off a baton.
“I can give you a for-instance that we discussed. Last week, we started moving offices around – we have a whole floor to ourselves and people were shuffling individual offices within in it along the back wall, which is the one with all the windows. Several people came wandering through there not being able to find the person they were looking for because they didn’t know offices had moved. Another for-instance, it seems that people have to be asked multiple times to do something even after they commit to it the first time. This involves a lot of having to chase people down and essentially be their follow-up conscience.”
The facilitator shoved himself off the window where he was leaning and tore off another piece of butcher paper. He taped it over the Values and divided the paper into thirds with a black Sharpie he must have pulled from a pocket in his pants while turned from the group. At the top of each third, he started to write in his red Magic Marker before realizing it had totally drained into his shirt. A staff member pointed out that this might be a good time for a break. The facilitator dismissed them.
Nothing was securely in its place out on the deck around the meeting room. No matter how hard some woodcarver clearly worked on getting the benches’ legs to look braided and the solid-panel backs both sturdy and scenic, any of them could pitch into the lake at any moment. A sundial whirred idly in the wind. At the end of the dock, a box supported a sign explaining what all someone who looked through the binoculars could see if they followed the instructions on the glassed placard. The for-rent sailboats chipping the edges of the deck and the private, moored boats fidgeted nervously on an equally uncertain lake. Employees staggered around and stumbled a bit through the door as they had to quickly acclimate to the now-eerie stillness of the retreat room as break was over.
The facilitator had changed shirts and his new one fit him as well as a hastily borrowed garment might. When all were settled, the facilitator flattened his palm on the new list, which he had titled Roles.
“I have some ideas based on observations about what might go in these boxes as a way of helping to frame the conversation, which looks to me to be forming around how to balance time management, including things like burnout and philanthropic activities, with this reverence for the individual, including things like lifestyle choices and privacy, in a way that upholds this sense of teamwork. Consensus is nothing without teamwork, and teamwork is nothing without trust.” The facilitator instructed the staff to spend a few minutes reflecting on how one comes to trust another person and then a group of people, if those answers are different. After that – he’ll signal when those few minutes have passed – he wanted us to write down, from observations more so than desires, what three key roles in this discussion might be.
He walked around the room, not peering over anyone’s shoulder as they privately reflect on trust, just being a presence.
“What would you suggest goes here?” Most employees jumped or started out of their inner-world explorations. The facilitator held his hands supine and out to them. There wasn’t too much deliberation before Encourager, organizer and Visionary make the final cut onto the paper. The facilitator asked for explanation of these three choices – “How would you articulate these roles to yourself?” – to solidify understand before attempting, tomorrow, to deal with the competing-values question that has presented itself. The time ended with brave Dave offering this reflection:
“So the visionary is the one that sees a desert meadow and holds the hope for verdantly diverse and flourishing life there. She’ll be the one with shovels ready to pass out to everyone to start digging a path for the needed river. The encourager will be the one to get everyone excited about the hard, seemingly endless work of moving dirt and the organizer will direct everyone where to put their dirt, as well as where to cut into it, to maximize both flow and irrigation reach.” As employees stood to gather their things and head to the appointed restaurant for dinner, several people clapped.
The next morning is cold due to lack of cloud cover to trap the heat. The timing belt on Communication’s car snaps in half so they will be late. Teamwork wants to wait for them.
“How can we be successful at creating teams if we aren’t clear we have an understanding of what a team is or what it takes to feel like part of one?” Teamwork explains to the facilitator, who has written various people’s names under each of the agreed-upon Roles titles. There is some conversation about whether teamwork is an encouraging force or an organizing force and this sparks Sustainability/Leadership to refine the trainings proposal into a more vision-casting facilitation. Business Model and Sustainability/Work Ethic are both solidly locked down in their sense of need for data collection and analysis, though, so most of the morning turns into heady debates about what words like “encouragement” and “ethic” and “analysis” mean.
“Ethic is a word related to ethos, or spirit,” Kareena says. “Point being, the real question is: what kind of person would we want our workplace to be if our workplace was a single individual?”
“But that would eliminate the need for teamwork,” Teamwork says.
“Is the body made up of eyes?” Communication says.
“Or mouths, for that matter?” Succession/Leadership says.
The facilitator tries to wrangle the conversation back to vision and mission. He points to the walls of the space we’re in, which tell the story of the organization hosting this retreat. “How extraordinary that two people had a vision in 1965 about preserving the craftsmanship and quality artistry embodied in vintage boats and, fifty years later, the vision has not only stayed alive, but grown to incorporate things like after-school programs for at-risk youth, job-skills workshops for anyone in the community and volunteer opportunities for people who love to sail and whittle wood.” The room is silent. The facilitator calls a break and encourages people to read the storyboard that has been surrounding them this whole time.
Sandy goes outside. It is too cold to breathe deeply. Sandy unties shoes and pulls them, along with gray, green and blue striped socks off, shoving the socks inside the boots and placing them carefully under a bench. Sandy’s knees bend, calf and feet muscles contract, heels push into the wet deck before first they and then toes spring into the air as legs, hips, torso, shoulders, arms follow a perfect arc into the water, hands slitting the surface of the water, then the fullness of the water,  then the dusty poof of sediment, then the inviolable bottom of sand.
 Unless your motion sickness is triggered by stepping on a pebble on the sidewalk.
 I’m not sure if my coworkers noticed this; I was at the closest table to the front of the room.
 Mostly the callow less-than-six-monthers.
 Their transoms wagged like happy dogs’ tails while their bows remained curiously inert. This both confirmed and worsened the row in my viscera.
 At least, this is what we were told in the evite sent to our work email addresses the Friday before.
 This is on a scale of 1 to 10 (one being high), and not out of ten questions or anything like that.
 Also opposite of expected: five is low.
 Us more senior employees pronounced this “Dee Poh,” rather than each individual letter of the acronym.
 Most of my colleagues seemed to know what this acronymized. No one asked for clarification anyway.
 I (Sandy/customer service/Portland/that hard work is recognized in the company) went last.
 Who incidentally never mentioned his name. I verified that I didn’t somehow miss it by checking around at lunch. This – either my being worried about his name or worried about having missed his stating his name – seemed to bewilder my coworkers.
 With chemically orange electrical tape. Very distracting.
 The first being a network of pull-string bulbs where the pull string looked like an absurdly unnecessary anchor line of various canoes.
 The facilitator revealed then that he was one of those rare people who could raise one eyebrow while lowering the other.
 in blue.
 who at that moment made mention of the interviews he had taken with about half the staff before the start of the retreat as if we all knew about them.
 They really were quite good: they managed to make a broccoli, leeks and cheddar quiche that was tasty cold.
 red and black pinstriped
 Two employees – Sherev and Johanna – even tore off the top flap of their box that had their names on it and tucked them in the front cover of their respective college-rule notebooks.
 I ate the minimum amount of food to allay coworker or facilitator concern. I spent the rest of the afternoon, until I could ditch the dock, regretting every bite, which I could feel punching around.
 Which, now that the sun had clobbered the clouds again, weirdly seemed to be made of light
 For the most part.
 which smelled like cough syrup
 The facilitator’s heel came dangerously close to coming down on the marker as he began to pace.
 Dave’s shoulders dropped slightly but he held the napkin steady at nose level.
 Proud beams, probably genuine, appeared on Amal’s, Sherev’s and Malika’s faces. Malika is my supervisor.
 The edge of the facilitator’s new loafer clipped the edge of the pen and sent it helicoptering out to the center of the room, startling almost everyone.
 There seemed to be a consensus about silence.
 On that last one, he raised his eyebrow at me again, in a way that temporarily eclipsed my feeling that consensus is a really powerful way to silence dissent.
 It sounded like a horse out for a pleasant stroll.
 Both now so severely backlit it looked as though they were coming straight out of heaven.
 I might have described this as a “how did he know?!” look, but, alas, we’d already gone over that.
 I was not one of them.
 They screamed when you opened them as if undergoing surgery without anesthesia.
 He tried to do it as an invitation.
 Each of his footsteps made two distinct sounds, one for the heel, one for the ball of his foot.
 Which still would betray no rocking feeling, even though the canoes were swinging like they were at a Glenn Miller concert.
 This was strangely comforting, which made me uncomfortable. He didn’t say anything but his presence was priestly, not in the only-a-bit-lower-than-God-but-way-above-all-of-you way, but close.
 He actually staggered a bit while Maggie was explaining the training scheme.
 Questions and comments from the rest of us were to be held until after everyone shared.
 It seems still having not noticed the red stain on his chest even as it now looked like a knife wound.
 When I get nervous, all the miscellaneous shuffling, building creaking, breeze outside, background noise, basically, get subsonic, like they do when you’ve got a fever.
 Watching him do this gave me something like sympathy pains in my two central incisors.
 And here I really did almost add “and sorry to be a pest” but thought that would increase the irk factor.
 who hadn’t sat down once the entire retreat thus far
 just as he looked down to discover the murder-mystery tie-dye on his pressed and starched white pocket.
 It was much more obvious on the decks outside how sensitive the building was to the lake’s movement, though it actually seemed like the sky was the one heaving.
 One depicted a sunrise, another a Grizzly successfully fishing, another a moose howling up at an emaciated moon.
 It’s unclear what a handful of masterpieces of woodworking are doing dotting the deck here. Smoke breaks for employees of the Center for Antique Boats? Captains catching up? The edges of the sunrays and mountain tops on the one and the bear’s claws and pine branches on the other are soft so they’ve been well-used somehow. Or maybe erosion?
 clearly just for show
 which did not seem strong enough to be bridging the backs of some of the saplings planted that summer along the shore.
 beet-maroon, about three feet high
 The box evidently opened but there were no binoculars to be found in or near it.
 like it was after last year’s Christmas party
 It was quite similar to stepping from the moving walkway at an airport to good old solid 1970s carpeting.
 During break, I had heard a few people mumbling about whether or not that red stain had always been there or if it somehow appeared during the day’s work. “Was it sweat?” one of them wondered? “Actual blood?” I spent the break alone but regretted not informing them of the facilitator’s absent-minded mishap.
 Where he might have found a shirt to borrow, though, I can’t guess, as everyone else’s clothing was consistent.
 except the canoes lunging at each other territorially
 As in, in writing – journaling.
 which could now be classified as difficult, presumably.
 Does anyone else notice the slight tap-dance-shoe beat? The sound is scratchy and gruff like a sore throat, like sand has been dragged in from a far-off beach and has been distributed over the floor.
 The measured tapping and the groan of several of the canoes’ chains make the reflection/list-making time feel military-issued.
 Did anyone else write down prophet – and, next to it, in parentheses, “consensus challenger”? Speaking up now, though, would probably push us well into the dinner hour.
 which sounds like waves backhanding the bobbing deck.
 The sun’s rays look frosted over.
 they’ve also backed way up on their original idea of fostering interlocking networks of teams.
 For about five minutes, I wonder if I’m late and missed a discussion about whose names go where, especially because I don’t see mine anywhere.
 Don’t get me wrong, these are fine things to hammer out between people who need to work together providing health-related services to the public. There is a reason I picked the communication table at the beginning. But this morning, I heard that, in the midst of the nation-wide roiling vaccine debate, four area elementary schools are experiencing a mysterious outbreak that has sent an overcapacity amount of kids to local hospitals and a few, even, had to be life-flighted to the state’s trauma unit. Also, polio is making a comeback in indigent parts of the world, malaria is on the rise in places we thought we had it beat and mental-health-related issues are skyrocketing. That last one, though, isn’t on the news.
 Several employees seem surprised that an accountant would know something like that.
 The only movement is the canoes, jerking on their chains.
 the boots that were last year’s favorite Christmas present
 The backboard shows a well-worn guy with a shepherd’s staff standing alone at the base of an enormous mountain.
 which feels like a cat’s tongue
 The air ribboning past in frigid turbulences like it was even at that very moment freezing in place
 which was the real knife in this situation
 the cold of which made it rough as straw and triggered an adrenaline surge that pinched me in a million places like I was wearing a bag of tiny punches
 mangling an otherwise sky-plagiarizingly clear body of water
 You know that saying that sand slips through your fingers if you squeeze too hard? It’s supposed to be about holding convictions or hopes or beliefs loosely or something. I squeezed the hell and water out of that sand. Then I grabbed another handful, then another, then another, picking and squeezing my way along the bottom until I noticed handprints. Impossible, and yet, there they were, in a line I might just have enough breath to follow.
The Cream of The Jest
For once he was sober and clear-headed, getting up, he saw a Post-it notes on top of a stack of paperback Dean Koontz novels (well no one’s perfect). It reads ‘Gone to work come for lunch if you want cereal in top shelf help yourself.’ While Johnny was rummaging through the cupboards of Elizabeth’s public lavatory tiled kitchenette he reflected in the note, while Elizabeth would never win fame as a composer of abodes, she was an excellent absentee host.
Deciding to take Elizabeth lunch Johnny stopped at the corner shop near his great aunt’s shop. He purchased a ham sandwich, can of Coke and a large honeycomb chocolate bar. As he walked towards his Great Aunt’s place, he could not help remembering Elizabeth’s performance, the way she pulled a shocked Daily Express Mum's face after the punchline to her own jokes her little false coughs, her pale oval face. Johnny entered the shop with a cheekbone to cheek bone grin, which immediately shuts closed like a bear trap when he saw sitting at the counter not Elizabeth but his great Aunt Betty and her sister May.
If as Johnny often suspected woman over the age of fifty-five could transmit disapproval telepathically, then his two great Aunts were giving him full blast at the moment. Both women mentally cleaved humanity into the respectable and everyone else. However, they differed on how they spilt the sheep from the goats. May believed one could be justified by acts as long you had attended one of the local Catholic Grammar Schools, earned an annual income over thirty grand and drove a new car at least once in your life. Betty on the other hand had a much more Calvinist worldview, only those who bore the surname McDonald were counted amoung the elect. Needless to say, Johnny was dammed from both points of view. A few years back when he had earned a place to study at Ulster Univerity Betty had begun to speak more civilly to him ,prehaps hoping that though the process of higher education he would gain the same kind of rough facsimile of respectability the unmarried mothers who provided her home care as part of their social care course. This period of relatively warm relations ended when a picture of Johnny at a protest again the last G8 summit appeared in the local paper.
“Ah Betty look who’s come to see us today”. May pushed herself up from her steel backless stool and walked to the centre of the room to greet him. She was a large woman and now the middle of the seventh decade, she’d put on even more weight as if her body sensed the end coming and had expanded to give the Reaper a harder job carting her off. Her head was as round as a tennis ball and her arms were meaty and solid like two enormous pot marked anvils of pork. May put out a hand for me to shake. “May how it’s going you’re still giving Betty a hand on the weekends then then?”
“Yes, you’re as well working while you’re alive. Speaking of which, no word of a promotion for you yet?”
“Acch at the minute I’m not really bothered I only started with the National Trust at Easter time enough for all that.”
“Hmm, I suppose so”.
“How’s the shop going you must be coming into the busy season”
, “Things are going perfectly well, thank you” May snapped, she wanted to end this conversation quickly, clearly under the impression that I was about to ask for money.
“Listen May is Elizabeth about”?
When she heard this question, Betty looked up from her catalogue. “Indeed, she is not, she did not bother herself to come in today.” She pulled a face like a gargoyle sucking on a sour Gobstopper, Betty was one of those women who had a strong distaste for other woman.
“Well, you don’t happen to know where she might be?”
“I suppose I should have known she’d be a friend of yours. No, we do not know what that silly wee girl gets up to when she’s not here. If you do run into her today tell her not to worry about coming in tomorrow. Her attitude and work ethic has always been atrocious she was given plenty of chances and I will not be taken advantage of anymore”.
“Not a problem, listen, Betty Elizabeth told me to meet me here I’m going to have a look for her if she does come by could you tell her I was looking for her?”
“Very well, I suposse it is too much trouble for you to stay and give your two elderly Great Aunts a hand running the shop for the day. Say hello to your mother for me.”
Johnny left the shop without saying goodbye, for a few minutes after he left, he stood outside facing the road taking deep breaths. The standard protocol in the extended family was to remain calm when dealing with Betty and May and Johnny always felt he was pretty good keeping his head anyway. However, he had reached the limits of his patience despite the fact that there would surely be repercussions when the rest of the family heard about it, he was about to go back inside and unload twenty-three years’ worth of boiling anger on top of the auld bitch’s heads. His hand was on the doorknob and he was about to turn when an Eggcorn hit him in the dead centre of his forehead.
Rubbing his head, Johnny stared at the industrial bins outside the café opposite the shop trying to see who threw the Eggcorn at him when he heard a familiar English-sounding voice behind him. “Are you looking for Oscar The Grouch”? Johnny did not turn around; he did not want Elizabeth to see the tears that were forming in his eyes. He blinked a few times before replying.
“Careful now this street is clearly a hotbed of poltergeist activity I’ve just been whacked in the head with an Eggcorn.”
“Yeah, sorry, that was me I, was aiming for the window of the shop.
“Most people use a brick when they want to vandalize their former employers store fronts, but then you like to put your own individual stamp on everything you do.”
“Well when I came in this morning the two charming old women who own and operate that establishment told me that they did not like my face that it was only a matter of time before I stole something, and it would be better if I just left and never came back I had one of flare of anger. After I crossed the street the Eggcorn was the first thing I saw”.
“Okay, aye, I can totally understand that reaction my Great Aunts must have been extermly hard to work with”.
“OMG sorry I forgot you were related to Betty and May; I’ll won’t say anything else”.
“Nah, it’s not a problem in fact I, was going to go in a chew them out for how they talked about you when you hit me in the face. However, I’m a bit confused, May, and Betty told me a slightly different story about what happened this morning. I had brought you some lunch to eat at the counter, but as that is now no longer an option. Shall we grab a descent lunch somewhere”?
They went to a nearby Chinese Restaurant and availed of a lunch time offer, Elizabeth shoved pieces of sweet and sour pork into her mouth with alarming speed. In between bites she explained that May’s pathological lying was not simply a family affair, she did it in the shop as well. She had apparently accused Elizabeth of stealing money from the till on a number of occasions and last Tuesday a vase went missing during her shift. At first May had told her not to worry about that she and Betty knew Elizabeth had nothing do with it. Then that morning as Elizabeth had had to gone in to open, she found the two of them already inside and ready to blame her. They claimed that they knew she had stolen it and that they did not want to see her again. Elizabeth paused to finish the last third of her Tiger beer in a single gulp. “And that’s when I hit you in the head with an Eggcorn. Sorry about that by the way it’s just, you know, sometimes I get these flashes of anger and I have to do something about it”. She stopped talking for a moment and looked me directly in the eye. “OMG yes that’s right I saw you when you were outside the shop, your casket was ready to pop off as well this is perfect you can help me, we can be a team”.
“I’d be more than happy to, provided of course you tell me what I am supposed to be helping you with.”
“With my revenge, of course. Look even if I had been able to break a window with the Eggcorn I still would not have been satisfied I need to do something else something bigger. Running into to you, a fellow artist who also has a reason to dislike the crones McDonald has given me an idea. Why spend ten seconds committing a petty act of property damage when you can write, rehearse and perform a sketch tearing the shite out of them?”
“Right things are becoming a bit clearer. I assume you want us to write some sort of piss take of my Great Aunts and perform it at next month’s open mic.”
“Aye, I must admit I’m tempted by the idea my current is getting a bit old and I do feel the need to vent a little. But you must understand in my family, we keep Omerta, if we do this you might away safely, but I’d be found a few days after the performance skinned a with my balls stuffed inside my mouth.”
“Oh, come on, what’s the point of being a young artist if you can’t kick against your background a bit”.
“But what do you do when your background kicks back.”
“You do what every other Irish artist did and go into exile. I urge to do this by telling you that it will be a laugh, but that may rather trite.”
Johnny finished his own beer and ordered two more from a passing waiter.
“Ok”, he said, “but only if you agree to stop talking in monologues.”
Johnny and Elizabeth spent the next few weeks preparing their new act, the writing of the script only took a few days, they both had a wealth of material to draw upon. After they had enough written it, they took it to the organisers of the open mic, surprisingly they were given the extended headlining slot. This meant that they spent four evenings a week rehearsing and re-writing their act. When the appointed evening came around Elizabeth told Johnny that she had a gotten her hands on some special costumes and set dressing, she wanted them to be a surprise. Therefore, Johnny was sent downstairs to pick up drinks while she set up. Coming up from the bar Johnny first saw Elizabeth’s creation. He almost fell back down the stairs, somehow, she had managed to create a rough re-creation of his great Aunt’s shop. She had found the same kind of backless steel stools with the same purple and green striped cushions on them. Off Grey net curtains were hung from the railings behind the stage. A square from a fluffy beige carpet had been placed under the stools. To top it off draped over the lighting rig were two long sleeved Paisley Pattern dresses one very petite and the other extermly large.
Johnny went over to the table nearest to the stage and placed Elizabeth’s vodka and coke down on the table. “Thank you darling, maybe you’re useful after all. By the way when I was coming in this evening, I saw that relative of yours the one who is always hanging about the shop. It looks like he’s going to watch the show tonight.”
“Fuck you don’t mean George”.
“Is that his name your Aunts never introduced us”.
Johnny’s cousin George was the only member of his family he detested more than Betty and May. He had always been one of those guys with an inherent understanding and love of hierarchy. At school, at work and especially within the family circle George always naturally understood who was in charge and how to ingratiate himself with them. If he saw Johnny performing a parody of Betty and May in front of a small group of people, then word would come back to the two Aunts in such a way that would further elevate George in their eyes while Johnny was permanently cast into the outer darkness. “I suppose I’d better go over and say hello then”.
Johnny found George preached on a back-cushioned chair near the downstairs bar. He was studying the bar menu and was wearing a face which seemed designed to get him elected to the office of High Pontiff of Peevishness. “How’s thing George “?
“Oh, Hello Johnathon it’s good to see you, I did not see you upstairs, so I came down here to get a drink and a bite to eat. Do you come here often?
“A few times a week after work and on the last Friday of every month for the comedy, why?
“Very nice that must be very relaxing for you, but don’t you find the menu somewhat limited”?
“Nah, it’s just good bar food, try the chili cheese fries.”
George took a twenty-pound note from his wallet, placed it in his right hand and stretched his arm over the bar to get the attention of a member of staff.
“Portion of chili cheese fries and Spitfire pint of, thanks”
He placed the bank note on the table, then turned his back away to face Johnny.
“I must say I’m looking forward to seeing you perform tonight; we were all talking about you last night and we all think it’s nice to see you doing something constructive.”
“Thanks man, listen I have to go and get ready things are kicking off soon.”
Johnny went back up the stairs smiling it would be intresting to see if the various members of his family still thought that his performing stand-up comedy after tonight.
The performance was supposed to be the climax of something, Johnny had expected an ill-defined big thing to happen. Yet half way though the routine Johnny paused for a moment and looked out at the crowd the expected catharsis would not happen. In fact, very few people seemed to be laughing, a few tables seemed be giggling out of pity. The plain fact was the routine was simply not very funny. It was not ready, Johnny looked round at Elizabeth it was clear that she also clear that she was beginning to realise that it was not working as well. They would just have to get through it.
After the open mic a few friends had come over to awkwardly congratulate him. Elizabeth flatly thanked him for his help before buying him a whisky. She clearly wanted him to stay behind to rework the act. It was obvious to Johnny that it was unsalvageable. However, the seed of a new one was planted in his mind, he thought about Betty and May’s haughty demeanour on the day Elizabeth lost her job or the look on George’s face as he left that evening. Bores were everywere, like hydrogen they were a universal constant. They had an unbreakable grip on the world. These types of people could force themselves on to everyone else though sheer brute will, frequently our only resources we had to fight against them were internal. The trick was to perform alchemy, Johnny would transform his web of dismal familial relations into threads of comic gold. From the outside it looked like he was losing but the cream of the jest would come when everyone saw him joking though his own failures.
It was just after the war, visiting with an aunt and uncle in London, and she was fourteen years old, wide-eyed at so much of the damage from the Blitz still visible...all forgotten in the instant he had appeared she might yet have her ticket stub to tell her the name of the play or even the theatre...after so many years all driven from memory...everything but the almost physical recollection of a tempest clothed in Elizabethan finery.
"Can I get you anything, William? Are you comfortable?"
He stirred in the chair, a rustle of blanket in half-light from the arched leaded windows ranked along the wall like the nave in a cathedral.
The knave in a cathedral...
That had been the second time. A touring company come to Oxfordshire ten years later there had been a rustle of humanity behind her where she sat through the dog-end of a service...the mock solemnity of his entrance...the transparency of his poor attempts at respectful silence. Grandstanding. She remembered how her heart had jumped to recognise him, and the smile she had kept hidden when her fiancé expressed his disapproval. Thereafter his performances were sell-outs as no doubt he had intended them to be, but she had managed tickets for one of them, a girlfriend providing the necessary subterfuge and companionship for her to get away.
He stirred in his chair...dislodged a tuft of fur from somewhere. The dogs lay scattered on the floor about him... big snuffling throw-rugs waiting for rebirth and the energy to chase something...anything...anywhere...
"A cup of tea would be nice," he said. "With some of that wonderful honey we brought back from Havana...?"
She turned away hoping he'd not heard the quick intake of her breath...her heart jumping...
"I'll put a pot on for both of us then," she said, knowing any honey would do...or perhaps even some brown sugar, because the honey from Havana had been from their first real holiday together. Long gone...now almost fifteen years ago...
She filled an electric kettle and watched him while it hissed and spit and lurched towards a boil like a leper on the road to Jerusalem. It was almost too much for him to stand on his feet. A trip to the fucking bathroom was akin to the preparation of an African safari. She warmed the china teapot with tap water, spooned the very last of their Russian Georgian into it. There would never again be Russian Georgian tea for the world. The cataclysmic ebb and flow of Eurasian politics had destroyed the last of the tea-fields; now the cataclysmic ebb and flow of Life was destroying the last of her heroes.
Beyond the windows and thirty feet below them the river ran rushing by on its way to a lake and then a river and then an ocean...the cold-cold-even-in-summer-north-Atlantic... she wondered if the tiny currents that made for the whole of it knew of the journey before them...that when it came to their time in the sun and a rising up into the sky if they would be aware of it...the endless cycle...Ourobouros snaring its own tail...that someday they would begin again right back where they had begun...and likely rush by the very same house and never even know the last souls to have witnessed their earlier passage through that place were now gone.
"Dear do you remember...?"
There was a deceptive rumbling of strength in his voice as he called to her she filled the teapot...watched the agony of the tea-leaves writhing in the hellish stream of boiling hot water for a moment his voice was as it had always been...the deep and elegant basso profundo to shake the windows and rattle your bones for the times they were indeed a-changin'....
And she did indeed remember that time. Carnaby Street. Kickin' down the cobblestones lookin' for fun feelin' groovy and her two beautiful daughters just now learning to walk the walk in the very best of times and the very worst of them she remembered...looking through a boutique window and seeing him surrounded by shop-girls...each one with a velvet coat in hand or a brocade waistcoat...waiting on his every word...vying for his attention...
She also remembered the hurt...of being too free with her thoughts and her desires... speaking them aloud to her husband who preferred to keep that sort of thing to himself, where indulgence would not threaten his standing amongst his peers she asked:
"Do I remember what...?"
But he had already forgotten whatever it was he had remembered. She poured a thin bone china cup for herself and a sturdy ceramic mug for him, with a fat dollop of local honey...delivered it to his hand gone so bone white she sat on the sofa beside his chair to keep him company. On the big screen television a soccer match unfolded without benefit of sound.
"Are you hungry, my love?"
"This is good," he said. Sipped at his tea. Tried to set it down somewhere and gave up. The dogs wriggled and snuffed.
"Did you remember to tell the Queens people that we won't be attending that dinner...?"
She closed her eyes struggled not to let the scream out where he could hear it the dinner had been years before.
"Oh good then..."
"They were disappointed I told them you'd made a prior engagement..."
She covered her face with both hands turned away where he couldn't see her. The quiet got deep and long she dared to look back at him he seemed lost in an obscurity of grey and white monochrome, the once vivid raven-black bristling spikes of hair as he raged about the stage all gone to a Procol Harum whiter shade of pale...no longer the valiant conquistador...just a tired old jouster in the lists...her Ivanhoe laid low and murdered by the chemicals meant to save him...
He turned his head as if she had spoken aloud and in his cloudy eyes she saw for the first time a spark of something that might have been alarm...a look of sudden startled awareness-- that if she recognised the imminence of his end then it must surely be upon him.
He had never been afraid...not even on the Saturday in 1983 when the Irish Republican Army bombed Harrods...Christmas shopping the girls would be coming home for the holidays...
She had been on the fourth floor, well away from the actual explosion below...not far enough to avoid being flung against a wall by the blast...feeling the displaced air rush past her carrying shards of plate glass and then the stench of her husband's terror...in the smoke and the chaos she heard that voice...his voice...cutting through the cries of pain and fear calling out to survivors...now cast in real life...heroic and unflinching...
She had followed him to a stairwell...waved him on with someone more seriously injured in his arms...later watched him go back for others...tirelessly...until the immediacy of search and rescue was gone and his reputation was loosed forever from the bonds of mere stage stardom. She had wanted to thank him...but more than a decade went by before it became possible...
* * *
"...I thought I heard someone calling my name," he said in mock perplexity.
He turned away from the knot of people with whom he'd been engaged in conversation... elegant and assured a flute of champagne in one hand...she had never been that close to him...introduced herself he was instantly attentive...beneath the self-assurance sincerely flattered that she would remember in such detail the three times their paths had crossed... and then severely embarrassed by her thanks.
"I was there and it was horrible," he said. "What else could I do?"
The rest of the party had become dreamlike she could not say why she had gone at all, except for friends who had told her to mourn a marriage gone bad for too long was not healthy; that it had been well over two years ago even Ariel and Regan had begun to worry about her...
"Your daughters, then?" he had said. "What happened to Titania?"
And they had laughed when she told him she had loved her new children far too much to saddle one of them with a name like Titania, no matter how grand its pedigree. And then
they began a ritual of courtship, and she found him old-worldly and thoroughly charming as she knew he would be. And Ariel and Regan were very impressed...found his easy solicitude for their mother and themselves irresistible......
"We've had so many adventures together," he said.
She nodded, came to arrange a blanket around him, bent to kiss his forehead.
"We have," she said simply.
Twenty years of them she cried to herself. We waited such a long time...
"I imagine we had good lives before....mostly..."
"I thought you might have turned vain and pompous."
"Well I had," he said, smiling a little. "But then I turned around at this dreadful party where I was expected to be vain and pompous, and there you were..."
He had never failed to compliment her. Never once had he not been there to support anything she ever did or wanted to do...or failed to treat her children as though they were his own. She wondered that for all the good things that had come to her because of him there was one thing that always had seemed to be missing.
He grew drowsy again, she could see the haze slowly covering the brightness of his eyes she caught his mug of tea as it left his fingers and pottered around the kitchen...close by...for when he woke again...
He murmured something. It was scarcely more than a breath she was not even sure he had spoken yet she heard him clearly enough. She wound her way through the maze of dogs...moved towards him in his chair that was become like a moth-eaten damned coffin... drew back his blanket eased herself down beside him...put her head down on his chest too tired to fight anymore...
He whispered: "You mean quite a lot to me."
Suddenly she was so weary. A word from another time...a word from so long ago...a word that spoke so much more deeply than just being tired she said:
"You might have mentioned that before now, William."
Beneath her the great bellows of his lungs exhaled with something that might have been mistaken for a sob, eloquent with regret.
"I'm sorry. You're right. I should have spoken. I should have told you."
"You're so damned British."
"But so are you..."
"Not like you, William," she said kindly, "not so damned British as you, who never learned that his love might be something someone else might hold to be precious..."
He was quiet. This then was perhaps as close to a cruelty as she could inflict upon him...now...finally...to hold up before his eyes the mirror of his life...to make him see the wonderful reflection that had been there through his lifetime, only just waiting for his acceptance.
"I love you Caroline," he whispered, and put his hand gently on her head.
She said Oh sweetheart I know and laid her head down again...listened to his breathing begin to stagger and crawl...watched as the afternoon drew deeper grey shrouds down around them and the greatest measure of light she had ever known went out from her life.
Nine Point Buck
I had spent a good part of my life in a blinds and tree stands. My father, Jeb Taylor, had taken me hunting with him since I was a toddler and I couldn’t remember exactly when I learned I had to be still, but like all aspects of hunting, it was something that came to me naturally. I did remember the first time I almost couldn’t stand after a day in a tree stand. It was late fall and I only realized how cold I was at the end of the day when I tried to stand up.
I was eleven years old and had gone through the first – of what would be many – adolescent growth spurts. My legs were getting too long for the stand Jeb had built for me and when I stoop up my legs were numb with cold and cramp and as the feeling came back, pain shot through my legs and feet. Jeb had told me it was just fine to be uncomfortable hunting. “It’s not great for the animal either. You keep that in mind every time you aim at something.”
Standing, I felt like I was being pelted with tiny arrows and it put a smile on my face. It was a good kind of pain and I would always describe it as that, unaware not everyone understood the difference. Unaware that some people thought all pain was bad.
I felt the same way the first time I had a needle laced with ink drawn across my body. And again, the first time Rune gave me what he was always meant to. For me, pain seemed to be a marker in my life. Something that marked good and bad things to remember.
Opinion was divided on whether or not Despite, Quebec was the right place for a motherless girl to be raised. Some thought I should have been sent to live with an aunt in the city. Not that it mattered what anyone else thought – Jeb never concerned himself with the opinion of others and I never doubted that Despite was where I belonged. I couldn’t imagine there was a better life to be lived anywhere else. Couldn’t imagine there was anywhere more beautiful. Couldn’t imagine being surrounded by constant noise and light. How could a person ever see or hear anything important in a city?
I was fourteen when I shot my first ten point buck. When we got home, Jeb carried it into the carving shed and we worked on it together late into the evening. Jeb was so proud he gave me two hundred dollars. “Go spend it on something to mark the occasion.” I knew my father was thinking about the old Weatherby rifle Arnie Arnett was selling. Arnie Arnett ran the general store and it doubled as a second hand store when people had farming or hunting equipment to sell. The smaller items Arnie often kept on hand, and the larger items were listed on a bulletin board at the back of the store. The Weatherby rifle was sitting on a shelf behind the cash, right under all the photos of the locals with their significant kills and catches. There was no trophy hunting in Despite, but there was still pride in bringing down a buck you’d been tracking for a season or more, or catching that giant bass that was close to becoming a legend it had eluded so many hooks. I understand that pride but I never understood the point in photographing it, at least not the kills. Hunters sitting beside a dead deer, moose or bear, holding it’s head up like the hunter and hunted were posing for a family photo. Like the dead animal was a family pet, still living and having its picture taken with its beloved owner, rather than the person that took its life. There were no pictures of Jeb there and there would never be any pictures of me there. We didn’t take pictures of what we hunted and neither of us had caught any fish bigger than would feed us for a few days. When it came to deer, we used the meat and the hide and what we couldn’t use, we gave to Gord Jamison and he ground it up for his hunting dogs, and lots of the hunting dogs in Despite, most of which came from Gord Jamison.
No, I wasn’t interested in the Weatherby rifle, but I did want to mark the occasion.
I had an uncle – on my mother’s side – who was a sailor and every time he came to visit, I’d ask about his tattoos. He would tell me stories about each one, and I could see the memories come alive in his mind. Touching the wave on his left arm, he was in an ocean storm, watching as a shipmate was washed overboard. Whenever he told that story, I was sure I could feel the spray of water on my face, just like my uncle had. Pointing to the beer stein with a gold ring at the bottom of it, he was on the island where he got so drunk one night, he woke up a married man – a mistake that ended up costing him just about every dollar he’d earned up to that point in his life. Again, I felt myself wandering around aimlessly feeling empty and sick in the head, even though I’d never had a drink let alone a hangover. Opening up his shirt to show me the picture of jade tree over his heart, he was watching his only sister slip away shortly after she’d given birth to a baby girl. I knew I wasn’t imagining things when I heard a baby wailing only the way a baby can and when I could feel my own little hands and feet waving around in the air, looking for someone to hold onto. That memory and that pain was mine.
I never told my uncle the things I felt, but the way he looked at me when I traced my finger around his tattoos, I had a hunch he knew.
“Did they hurt?”
“The pain is part of the appeal, little Miss Jade. I can’t explain why, but it is.” My uncle didn’t need to explain why – it made perfect sense to me.
I stopped outside the parlour on a Friday after school. I had walked past the place many times and always looked in the window to see who might be getting a tattoo. I never once saw anyone in there, just Rune Pallesen, sitting behind the counter, head down, reading one of many books scattered around the shop. I sometimes thought the place might double as a second-hand book store, there were so many books in it. I’d seen Rune around town, but he never looked at me, never seemed to notice me at all. In Despite, all the families knew each other but when Rune came back to town after finishing university, he acted like a stranger, an outsider. I had overheard a conversation between Jeb and Arnie Arnett about Rune, and Arnie was talking about how smart he was.
“Boy got some kinda scholarship to a fancy university in England and he turned it down. Came back here to open a tattoo parlour that will see about five customers a year. If all he wants to do is read books, why he wouldn’t wanna do it at school?”
“Oxford isn’t for everyone and I think he came back to help out Anders. Nothing wrong with that, Arnie. If all our kids went away and never came back, what would happen to Despite?”
The sign over the window said ‘Ink’ and I never knew if that was supposed to be the name of the place, or just an indication of what one went there for. A bell over the door rang when I opened it.
Rune glanced up for a second before going back to his book. “You’ll need your father’s permission.”
“I’m sixteen,” I said.
“No you’re not. You’re Jade Taylor, Jeb’s daughter and you just turned fourteen.”
“How do you know that?”
Rune looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time, even though he obviously knew who I was.
“Everyone with a gun or son knows who you are.”
“I don’t want one anyone can see and I wouldn’t tell Jeb you did it.”
“I’m not touching you anywhere your father can’t see and since I’m the only tattoo artist for a hundred miles ‘round, do you think he might figure it was me?” And then he smiled a smile that changed everything about him.
“You’re too young for a tattoo. If you’re serious about it, you’ll change your mind a thousand times before you’re twenty. Unless you want a small star on the base of your back, and I’ll bet that’s not what you had in mind.”
“I’m not one to change my mind and I want a ten point silhouette right here.” I pointed to a spot just above my left breast. “That’s where I shot him – in his heart.”
Rune came out from behind the counter. “You don’t think your father’s going to notice antlers sticking out of your heart?”
“I’m not expecting it to the actual size of my buck.”
He walked toward me, turned me around to face a mirror, putting his left arm around my waist and with his right hand, he drew an outline on my ribcage just below my breast.
Rune was big, broad and had shoulder-length blond hair. He had a haircut like nothing anyone in Despite had seen. It was shaved on the left side up to his temple, with a small braid hanging down. He had a beard – another thing not common in Despite – but Rune’s beard suited him and it always looked perfectly groomed and there was another braid that came straight down his chin a few inches. When he touched me I closed my eyes for a second and I felt an eagerness, a happiness, but it had some darkness to it. It caught me off guard and took my breath away.
“If and when you get your buck, it should go here. It will be just for you and…”
Rune looked at me in the mirror.
“Your family hunts, so you can’t have any sentimental idea about killing things.”
“I used to hunt, I don’t anymore, but no, it’s not that. It’ll hurt more and I think a mindful hunter would appreciate that.”
“What makes you think I’m a mindful hunter?”
“Jeb Taylor wouldn’t have raised you any other way.”
It took a year of cajoling, but I got my buck on my fifteenth birthday. Rune bandaged it up and said I’d see it in two days.
“Why only nine points?” I asked when the bandage came off.
“Nine points will remind you that something is missing from this world by your hand.”
I looked in the mirror and ran my fingers over the ink where my skin was still raw and scabbing. “That sounds like sentiment to me.”
“Not sentiment. Acknowledgement. There’s a difference.”
On my sixteenth birthday, Jeb gave me a bow. “It’s getting too easy for you,” he said. “Come to that, it’s always been too easy for you. I probably should have done this when you were fourteen.”
Jeb was right – life had always been easy for me. I knew people felt sorry for me never having a mother, but a person can’t miss something they never had. I sometimes wondered if I’d had mother, would my life be full of the drama and emotion that filled lives of the other girls at school. Family disagreements over what young girls should or shouldn’t be doing, concern over looking pretty, crushes on boys that parents disapproved of. My life was nothing like that.
I took an arrow out of the quiver and held it up in the air on the tip of my index finger. It felt like a feather. “Won’t it be much harder to kill with this?”
“I suspect it will be, but I trust you’ll know how to use it before you aim it at a living thing.”
On that same birthday, Rune gave me himself. Afterwards, he laid his head on my chest. “I’m going to enjoy watching the antlers grow and stretch as your breasts do.”
There was a strange familiarity to the heat of Rune’s body. Familiar, because I was used to the heat of my prey when I carried it home. Strange, because I knew this heat wouldn’t slip away. Not ever.
“Now we have two secrets to keep from Jeb,” I said. I wasn’t used to keeping secrets from my father.
“This won’t surprise your father at all – he knew the first time I came by your house. And so by extension, I doubt he’d be surprised by the tattoo.”
“What did Jeb know the first time you came by the house?”
“That I understand your mystery, or that I will when it finds you. I think most fathers would take exception to a man in his twenties dating their teenage daughter, but your father knows what we are and he knows the age difference doesn’t mean anything.”
“What do you mean ‘my mystery’?”
Rune used his fingers to outline the small profile of the buck on my ribcage and the delicate antlers that curled up around her breast. “There is mystery in your eyes, your heart and your soul. Mystery hovers around you somehow, Jade Taylor. It’s like there’s something looking for you and I want to be around when it finds you. When it does, you must tell me about it.”
“I already tell you everything.”
Rune rolled onto his side and put his forehead against mine. “No you don’t. You always hold something back at the last. Something you’re seeing or feeling that you think no one would believe. I would and I will.”
“Sometimes I feel things that don’t belong to me. Sometimes I have memories that aren’t mine.”
“Like I said, something’s looking for you.”
“And since when did you know we would be together?”
“That day you came into the shop. The moment I put my arm around your waist. Something happened at that moment, but I couldn’t explain what it was. When did you know?”
I knew at that moment there would never be any point in holding anything back from Rune. “Maybe that day. Maybe today.”
My birthday being in February, I had lots of time to practice before deer hunting season. I would paint pieces of hide with circular targets and place them on snow banks, or hang them between trees. As my aim improved, I looked for live targets and that meant hare mostly and soon I was bringing home three or four a day.
I already knew how to read the forest, but having a bow made that easier. The silent sound of a bow matched the wind and since I was used to listening to what the wind had to say, it was easier to hear all those secrets. I didn’t hunt deer that spring, perfecting my skill with the bow instead. The bow made me look at the woods differently and I saw things I had missed before. History and mystery tucked behind every tree, under every rock.
It’s dawn in early October and I had already been in the stand for a couple of hours. The sky is bleeding yellow as the sun struggles to come up through a fog that’s crowning treetops like a veil. I’ve been tracking deer for days and I know a dozen or so pass this spot every morning. I can hear the rustle of dead leaves – one of the secrets the forest shares – and I draw my arrow back.
They are walking about twenty feet from the stand and as always, I am amazed at their grace. The one I know is for me, the one that always seems to stand still when I take aim, stops ten feet away when he sees me in the stand. We lock eyes for a moment and then he turns his head to the side as if to say “now”. I’m about to let the arrow loose when I notice, when I start counting, one, two, three. When I’m finished counting at nine, I lower my bow.
I hear the echo of two hearts beating in unison and I can feel blood tracing its way through the outline of my tattoo. Without looking, I know my own nine points are lit up in red and I feel heat filling my body in a way it shouldn’t, in a way it never could, on an October morning. In my mind, I’m catching glimpses of the forest floor, sights and sounds that are not mine to remember are racing through my mind. I know what it’s like to walk through freshly fallen snow on small, hard hooves. I know what it’s like to stand at the river’s edge on a hot summer day and dip my tongue into the water. I know what it’s like to walk through dried leaves on a fall morning with some sense that there is danger in this. I know what it’s like to look a hunter in the eye.
The buck glances at me again and then without hesitation or warning, he leaps away and is out of sight in seconds.
The Finger Of God
"Ah, hell." I said. "There's always someone in here."
"I'm talking about someone from the other side." she replied.
"I know." I said. "They're the only ones you ever let in."
She said that the experience was weird, even by her standards, and she needed to talk about it. I hated those conversations and did my best to avoid them at all costs. She was well aware of my feelings, but just couldn't seem to stop herself from dragging me into her other worldly world. I had seen a lot of weird things over the years. With the assistance of an inordinate amount of hallucinogens and pharmaceuticals that I had religiously introduced to my brain, I have seen flying lizards, talking dragons, and miniature Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles performing 'Dancing Queen' in my kitchen sink, but to be honest, the whole spirit, and ghost thing just simply freaked me out. To my wife however, it was commonplace. It had become a recurring part of her life. This time though, she said it was different.
"It was really weird." she said. "I was just standing at the window, smoking, and someone just came up beside me and stuck a finger in my ear."
"You mean like a wet Willie?" I asked.
"Ya.” She said. “ But it wasn't wet."
"Of course not." I said. "I don’t suppose spirits would have saliva. Maybe it was just the wind.”
"Are you listening to me?" she asked. "It was a finger." She leaned over and inserted one of her fingers in my ear. "That's what it felt like, a finger."
"It doesn’t always have to be from the other side." I said. "Maybe it was from another universe. Maybe it was an alien probe. According to the Enquirer, they’re really quite common.”
"Do they usually probe your ear?" she questioned.
"I don’t think so." I said. "But its possible you got a trainee."
She thought that I was trying to be funny, and wanted me to take it far more seriously than I apparently was. I swear I was trying. She was spinning her wheels, stuck in trying to understand what the hell had just happened to her. I struggled to help, trying to find some sort of reasonable explanation but sadly, I arrived at none. We carefully considered the possibility of her having been dreaming, but she was adamant that she was wide awake, standing at the window and smoking. Everyone else at home was sound asleep, and she claims to have not been under the influence of alcohol or drugs, although I have encouraged her to give it a try on several occasions,
"I suppose it could have been the finger of God." I said.
"The finger of God?" she questioned.
"The finger of God." I repeated. "The same finger that brought the plagues to Egypt and etched the commandments into the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai."
"What would God want with me?" she asked.
"I don't know." I answered. "But I'm sure you're not the first one to ask that. I'm sure that everyone God has reached out to has asked 'why me'? I don't suppose it really matters though, I mean its God."
"That's a little nerve racking." she said. “God has never visited me before.”
“Then I guess you’re due.” I said.
I sat beside her on the edge of the bed and I rubbed her back. The joy of the storm of all storms was gone. "Just come to bed." I said. "Its getting late."
"How can I sleep?" she asked. "This is just so weird."
"I'll protect you." I told her.
"Really? What are you gonna do?" she asked. I was surprised that I had to reminded her that I had spoken to God on more than one occasion, and that sometime in the mid 1970s I had firsthand experience with alien probing while completely messed up on a small bag full of peyote.
"Why don't you just lay down and relax" I said, "and leave everything to me."
"What are you thinking of doing?" she asked.
"Nothing, really." I replied. "Just trying to help. I thought that if we recreated an alien probe, you might be able to tell if that's what happened to you."
"In my ear?" she questioned.
"No" I said. "I think we need to go the more traditional route. I think its worth a try."
"Of course you do." she said. "But I suppose we've really got nothing to lose."
"Nothing at all. And after the probing" I added, "we can try to rule out the finger of God."
"How do we do that?" she asked.
"Just leave it to me." I said.
Justin Alcala is a novelist and nerdologist. He’s the author of the novels Consumed, (BLK Dog Publishing) The Devil in the Wide City (Solstice Publishing) and Dim Fairytales (AllThingsThatMatterPress). His short stories have been featured in magazines and anthologies, including It Dances Now (Crimson Street Magazine) and The Offering (Rogue Planet Press) and The Lantern Quietly Screams (Castabout Literature). When he’s not burning out his retinas in front of a computer, Justin is one of the geekiest tabletop gamers you’ve ever met. He’s also a blogger, folklore enthusiast and time traveler. He is an avid quester of anything righteous, from fighting dragons to acquiring magical breakfast eggs from the impregnable grocery fortress.
Most of Justin’s tales and characters take place in The Plenty Dreadful universe, a deranged supernatural version of the modern world. When writing, Justin enjoys immersing himself in the subject matter, from in-depth research to overseas travel. Much to the dismay of his family, he often locks himself away in his office-dungeon while playing themed videos and music over, and over, and over again. Justin currently resides with his dark queen, Mallory, their malevolent daughter, Lily, and their hound of Valhalla, Fenrir, and their hellcat, Misery. Where his mind might be though is anyone’s guess.
Urban Fantasy: The Modern Fairy Tale
While the fairy tale never truly went away, stories thinned as a rapidly modernized world disavowed its past. Many fairy tale curators sweetened narrations, removed grisly details and commercialized mythical characters. Entertainment conglomerates targeted children only in fairy tale cartoons and storybooks. Before long, fairy tales were institutionalized as colorful toddler stories, deprived of their original complexion. The fairy tale had fallen from grace.
Cue the Twenty-First Century. As people pack on top of each other in metropolitan eras, tensions rise. Political divides stretch across the globe. Debates of inequality infringe upon laws and regulations. The rich rule over the working and impoverished. Contemporary escapism within the literary community is needed, and for many, a blend of magic in their everyday lives is just what the doctor ordered. The only catch, the fairy tale needs a facelift. The answer, a sub-genre of books known as Urban Fantasy.
Many readers have heard of Urban fantasy, narratives that amalgamate the magic from legends of old with modernized landscapes. But it takes a special bookworm to draw back the curtain and see how urban fantasy epitomizes everyday complications with mystical protagonists and eerie plots. Popular series like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys borrow magic and lore to expose real problems and solutions for readers to interpret. It’s a resurgence of the classic fairy tale.
So it goes without saying that if urban fantasy is the heir to the fairy tale, then supporting the genre is vital for the literary community. Urban fantasy stretches the imagination to provide escapism, admonition and exploration into the present. It packages unbelievable ideas, laces them in the whimsical, and gifts the reader with real life advice. Like its siblings, urban fiction and speculative fiction, urban fantasy engages through the wondrously relatable. Yet, for as vital as the genre is, urban fantasy is at risk of losing its place in the literary world.
According to bookstr.com, the top three genres are as follows, Romance/Erotica, Crime/Mystery and Religious/Inspirational books. Science Fiction & Fantasy tie for fourth place in the book markets. Urban fantasy is a tiny sliver in that deadlock. In addition, writingcooperative.com notes that of the most popular fiction niches, fantasy fiction books only capture a low thirteen percent of the fictional market behind titans like children’s fiction and modern literary fiction. With low market penetration, lesser known urban fantasy authors are finding it challenging to get new titles out for readers to enjoy.
Additionally, urban fantasy is often clumped together with other genres like dystopian fiction and classic fantasy. This makes it harder for readers looking for enchanting lore blended into contemporary ideas to find legitimate urban fantasy. The clustering also dilutes the borders that define urban fantasy’s nature. Many book retailers flood murky urban fantasy sections with everything from Grimdark fiction to medieval graphic novels. Yes, urban fantasy may have squeaked into the market, but it needs nourishment in order to stay around for decades to come.
So what can be done to help the modern fairy tale make its presence better known in the literary market? Well, it’s simple. For starters, urban fantasy needs demand. Purchasing popular series like Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson and Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books is a great way to keep the genre alive. Next, support the lesser known urban fantasy authors like Borrowed Souls by Chelsea Mueller and Dragon’s Gift by Linsey Hall. Finally, get the word out. Blogs, book clubs and book chats focused on urban fantasy help propagate publisher’s marketing and submissions targets. It’s that easy.
Long ago, fairy tales taught lessons in an otherwise confusing world with a little help from magic. Now, urban fantasy books help do the same in the literary world. The genre has grown, but needs the literary community’s help in order to thrive. If we don’t, it could lead to a very dark ending. If we do, then we might just live happily ever after. And so, the dreamer awakes, the shadow goes by, when I tell you a tale, the tale is a lie. But listen to me fair maid and proud youth, though the tale is a lie, what it tells is the truth.
Stanford Chigaro is a Zimbabwean born in 1989. He is a talented fiction and romance writer. Apart from writing he is an academic. He holds a degree in Medical Laboratory Sciences, a Masters of Business Administration and another Maters in Public health. He started writing at the age of 10. He has a few hobbies, of which writing is one of them.
“I like it when you talk dirty during sex.”
He neither smiled nor frowned at her words. He understood what she was implying but it was simply an unfortunate time. His mind was distant, navigating the rough corners of his life. Even the sex to him was just an act. He had not enjoyed anything this time. He just wanted to be left alone. But, yes the young man loved the girl. He actually appreciated being around her.
She was a cute teen with an angelic face. Her eyes were literally like the night sky. Not the void that presents itself to civilization every night, but the wondrous expanse of the universe unpolluted by street lamps and city lights. Looking into them was as fascinating as staring into the universe. Her smile was the most adorable thing any man had ever lay his eyes on. Every line, cure, and angle of her face worked seamlessly together to create an iconic being. There was no flaw on her entire body, everything was gorgeous.
She was interested in nature and sex. Actually sex was her best therapy. She was not intelligent but she would not easily give it away. She would not talk when not sure but most importantly she would rely on her smart boyfriend for ideas. She was kind too. Even her honesty was a rare feature among humanity.
“Why are you silent? You did not like it”, she said, pressing herself on his bare chest. Her breasts’ tenderness almost softened him. Jim forced a smile and put his arms around her waist. Almost instantly his phone rang. Here came trouble.
“She is calling again.’’ Jane’s face assumed something between a frown and a snare. Her eyes quickly turned red and her whole body started to quiver. She loved Jim and he knew that. Silently Jim drew his phone, put it on speaker and answered, ‘’Hello.’’
It was his uncle calling. She glanced shyly at him out of the corner of her eye and they both laughed.
“You see how jealousy can do to you,” he teased her.
“It’s not jealous, dear,’’ she replied and gave him a light kiss. “It is love.”
“If your heart tells you that you cannot do it, it is probably right. You cannot”
These are the words that she heard and immediately she knew she was drunk. She had to stop but her wine seemed to taste better and better with every sip. The next glass was better than the former. The fifth glass tasted better than the forth and eventually glass number twenty one did the magic.
It had started as a colorful Christmas party. Lyn was a short and sweet girl in her late twenties working as an Accounts clerk at her Uncle’s Accounting firm. When drunk she was somewhere between ten and sixty-five years of age. She had a round and small face with eyes that strangely rolled over like a chameleon. Her chest was seductively full. Down, she had an awkwardly tiny, round waist and the rest was perfect.
Her company would organize parties for its employees every year-end and award some few tokens to outstanding members. It would be a colorful occasion but the sweetest part was the eating and dancing.
“I now give this time to the CEO,’’ the Master of Ceremony announced and there was a round of applause as he walked to the stage
“I feel honored to be standing before you tonight,” the CEO started in his usual composed and confident tone. He was Lyn’s uncle “Truth be told, you are the real boss’ of this company. You are my employer because without you I am jobless.” There was another round of applause. He was loved and he knew how to motivate his staff. He went on and on with his sweet words and after about five minutes he rounded up, “I can’t thank you enough for everything you do for this company and for me. Knowing I have your support and dedication makes me a better, happier person both at work and at home.’’
There followed a moment of pure madness. People ate, drank and danced till very late. Soon after midnight most people had retired to their hotel rooms except Lyn and a few.
“Come on Lyn, let me take you to your room.” This was Kira another Accounts Clerk. Lyn had not liked Kira from day one and they both knew that. Kira was an honesty young woman, a pure reflection of what Lyn was not. She had a big heart and she was a symbol of perfection.
“Give me your hand and I will take you to your room.” She knew the answer even before asking but she insisted. Lyn knew the answer even before Kira could ask. The drunk Lyn gave her a sharp look that seemed to pierce through her soul. Her eyes were now red and small but still with their seductive brilliance. The glowing eyes warned Kira and she walked away.
She felt as steady as a leaf in a storm. She was as steady as a baby taking its first steps as she walked to her room. The corridor seemed like a long highway. The second problem was her room number – room 12 or 21 she could not tell now. She did not care about the room number anyway. It was Christmas time, time for sharing. The girl exploded into room number 21. The room was so hot that almost immediately she stripped off. She threw her body onto the bed and it felt great. It was good to be youthful. Actually it was better to be Lyn.
Either the Television was on or at least two people were in the bathroom. Perceiving such distinction was however a sober mind’s game. After all it was her room, right?
The heat seemed to intensify with her every breath. It was time to take a long cold shower. How she loved that.
It was a long walk to the bathroom. A few meters was really a long walk for Lyn. As she entered the bathroom two pairs of guilty eyes glared at her. She glared back in drunken amusement. Her uncle, the Company owner, the CEO, was standing there, his wet naked skin showing off its stretch-marks, and her mistress wearing the most confused face Lyn had ever seen.
Even in her drunkenness, Lyn could tell that the lady was not her aunt. It was so unfortunate because the mistress could not tell that Lyn was not the second mistress, or third or whatever number.
“Jack would you mind explaining this’’
Lyn heard her faint voice interrupted by grins. Her tone was irate and her face still wearing a baffled look. Her eyes were of average size but this time they seemed much smaller and appeared to be twinkling. She was very light in complexion. Her nose was delicately formed and her lips pink velvet even in the shower.
“Lyn what on earth are u doing?” the uncle roared.
“You know her?’’ the mistress quickly interjected.
Lyn read the mistress’ mind, but she was not interested in that. She was about to say something then immediately think against it. Even in her state of mind, she knew what she was about to say was completely out of line. As awkward at they seemed, it was not hilarious to comment her Uncle’s genitals. His penis looked like a carrot. Smiling mischievously like a baby chimpanzee, she tip toed to the chamber, pee and tip toed back to the door. She giggled, blew a kiss to the mistress or the uncle, it was not clear, and walked back to the bed. She threw herself on it still giggling.
She had made a mistake of a lifetime. Her statement was so clear to the mistress. There followed silence. The silence seeped into the CEO’s blood and paralyzed his brain, his pupils became dilated and there was a tremor in his hands. He could not explain Lyn’s actions. Yes she was drunk but still she had gone too far. He picked his eyes off the bathroom floor with the weariness of one who is fatigued with the whining of a small child and raised his eyebrows.
Voices started to pop up from the bathroom. They were mumbling in suspiciously low tones and as if accelerating, the voices grew bolder and more distinct. Lyn could pick one or two angry phrases. She was beginning to love the drama. She did not want to miss any of the catchy moments, so she sluggishly moved closer to the door. Her eyes were glittering with enthusiasm but the pair saw her first.
The mistress was annoyed. She looked at her with a falling face. Hurriedly she put on her few clothes and stormed out of the bathroom and almost instantly out of the room. The uncle’s lips hung slackly open and his eyes ran over Lyn’s body. It was then that Lyn realized that she was still naked. She smiled at her uncle but he quickly looked away in disgust. His look showed a look of frigid puzzlement.
The room was again dead silent with the bathroom light dazzling on the two naked bodies. The uncle had not made any sort of movement or sound. Still giggling Lyn took half a step forward, a second half, one full step and she was standing right in front of her Uncle. Still no movement, no sound. She seemed to be painting. The lights deemed slightly as if in agreement. Once the two’s eyes had adjusted to the new atmosphere, she lifted her right hand to the Uncle’s shoulder and looked him straight into the eyes. He was unable to look away.
Lyn started to realize that she had long admired her Uncle’s baby face. His tanned skin and brown and seemingly candid eyes, the small round nose with sprinkles of watery freckles and lush lips were to die for. Standing close to him, she couldn't help but notice for the first time just how sexy a pot belly was.
The Uncle was sober and he could think clearer. He let his gaze slip lower to the girl’s chest and further below. This looked more different from tens he had seen before. Her long hair was brown and it plunged over her shoulders. In short her whole body was bubbly.
"Oh, wow uncle, where did you get this sexy body.’’ It was however Lyn who broke the silence. She said it so seductively, reaching down to run her hand across his chest. There was nothing impressive about his chest though. But the Uncle caught her hand just before she could caress him more. It startled her.
His expression was intense, almost threatening and for a moment Lyn thought maybe he was angry, but before she could ponder it further, he pulled her to him and covered her mouth with his in a hungry kiss. The lips were blossom soft. He could feel the intensity of the kiss rushing all over his body. Lyn responded immediately and clumsy at first then picked up pace. She opened her mouth with a low moan for his tongue
It was pathetic, nasty and evil. It was unthinkable. Regret washed over him like a torrent. It soaked him in an instant and sent cold shivers down his spine. How he longed to go back and take a different path. How he longed to go back and be a better keeper and a better boss, but now that was impossible. There was no way back and it seemed he would have to live with that for his entire life. There was no way to make it right.
The man paced across the room as if posed by a legion of demons. He reached for his pants as if in consolation. His face was between disbelief and incredibility. He looked at the naked body of his brother’s daughter sleeping peacefully. She was lying on her side, showing off her pink, right thigh. She rolled lightly and changed position. She was now lying on her stomach showing off her full behind.
Uncle Jack quickly looked away. He swiftly moved out to the balcony. The moon was high up silvering the golden paint. The cool breeze seemed to stress the point that life could still be cool even without having sex with your brother’s daughter. He found himself recalling the whole scenes of nearly three decades ago when baby Lyn was conceived.
Lyn’s father, Jack’s young brother, the late Chris was a first year student at the University of Capricorn. Even to this point Jack could not explain why Chris had behaved in that manner. Christopher, better known as Sharp Chris was a man of realities; a man of calculations and facts. He preceded on the fact that two and two are four. He accepted nothing over and he was not to be convinced into allowing for anything over. With a scale of life and a multiplication table he was ready to weigh and measure any human behavior and tell you exactly the weight of your stupidity and how it was to ruin your life. One would hope to get some nonsensical beliefs into the head of Jill or Tom but not of Sharp Chris.
Jack remembered that fateful night when his brother came plodding into his room. Jack was a final year student at the same University. Chris stood in the middle of the room and sighed. Jack watched his brother’s still face breaking into a forced smile. He appeared to be musing for a moment and Jack continued to look at him, uncertain how to get him to talk.
When the older brother had gathered the guts to ask, it was too late. Three girls exploded into the room. The first girl was coal black. Her lips were slightly pale. Her eyes which were dark, wide open and still, set deeply in bony sockets. The second girl seemed so reserved. She was lighter in complexion. The third girl was suspiciously sharp looking. She was short and stout. Her eyes seemed so inquisitive.
“For your information Jack, I am four months pregnant. This one is two months pregnant’’ the black girl said. For a moment she seemed to wave between anger and hate and then continued, “What’s next big brother?’’. She paused as if waiting for the impact of her words and finished, “this one is also claiming to be Chris’ girlfriend!”
Jack was surprised that the girl knew him by name. He had never met her, neither had Chris introduced her to him.
“How do you know my name?’’ he asked softly
“The most handsome guy at campus. Everybody knows you.” She was silent for a moment or two. Jack was not charmed. “What’s next big brother. Is Chris going to marry us both?”
Jack had already dipped his spoon in a bowl of cereal when Chris had arrived. He was still holding it in the same position. His eyes moved from the dark girl to the reserved one who would later be Lyn’s mother. He liked her. He watched her as she pulled a chair and sitting in exhaustion. Her shoulders were bowed, her hands thrust between her knees as if for safe keeping.
The night was warm and the windows were open. Jack went to one of the windows and made a little whistling sound. Almost immediately he forgot all about the current drama and found himself thinking about their childhood and parents.
Their father was a handsome man with broad nostrils. His face had fine wrinkles at the corner of the eyes and three slight vertical folds between his brows. It was a face of a man with confidence and unpredictable ideas.
All was well until their maid opened a can of worms. According to her, their father had raped her on seven different occasions. This came out when she became pregnant. She was seventeen. The wrath of law dissented on him. He was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison.
He remembered as they visited him in prison. He was always cheerful and hopeful. He showered no remorse but kept encouraging his sons to be better men in society. Their mother stood with the family. She was the mother as well as the father. She worked hard to close the missing link.
Fifteen years passed and eventually nature took over. Their mother fell in love with a certain man. The brothers did not like him straightway. He was too big and too clumsy. Besides, their father was still alive. Jack remembered the fights they had with their mother about this man. Unfortunately she was still their mother and they still had to respect her.
She was married a few months later. The two brother’s did not see their mother for nearly a year but when they did, she was miserable. Her face seemed to say “you were right’’. Her new husband had married a second wife. Their mother was neglected. She was frail and looking old. A few years later she died. The following year their father was released on parole. He was however devastated. He simply disappeared, never to be heard of again.
“What was your story again?” Jack took care to keep his eyes steadily on the leading black girl. He watched her as her throat moved. She drew her brows forward and retracted them. She opened her mouth.
CHAPTER 4: THE CUT
Jack was still standing at the same open window as the weather was getting warmer and warmer. Despite the inertness of his body, he felt light and without substance. The first girl had left after hauling a lot of nasty insults. She had vowed to raise the baby alone and prove that women do not need men. She had called the two brothers a lot of names that revolved around irresponsible, insane and evil.
The stout girl had also left almost immediately but the reserved one, Adele, had remained behind. She remained huddled in her chair for a few moments then slowly lifted her head to face Jack. Her expression was composed. She had not said anything from the time she had entered the room. She turned her face to Chris and her eyes remained fixed at him. Chris’ eyes were also fixed at her. The two looked at each other for a moment and it was classically beautiful.
Jack watched his young brother moving towards Adele, but his face was registering his unwillingness to talk. Before Jack could withdraw his mind from its dilemma, he watched as Chris’ arms wrapped around Adele. It appeared like she felt again the rush of helplessness but now accompanied with the sinking yielding and the surging tide of Chris’ warmth. The two’s faces were blurred and drowned to nothingness. Chris slowly bent his back, lowered his head and kissed her, softly at first, and then with a swift graduation of intensity that made her cling to him as the only support in her rocking world. Jack sneaked out of the room.
Outside it was cooler as he moved around aimlessly. His mind was upset. The sky was his only solace. It was a vast expanse of luminous stars. Some were dull, merely flickering into existence every now and then. Some were brighter giving a faint but distinct light, but there was an adequate amount of very bright ones to illuminate the dark, moonless night. A faint breeze helped to cool him down and he should have dozed a couple of times standing
Nothing was said about the drama afterwards. Jack was however surprised barely a week later.
“Brother I have made arrangements to meet Adele’s parents. Would you accompany me?” Chris’ mind was set. He was settling for marriage. Jack did not object to that. He accompanied his brother to Adele’s rural home for the introductions.
When they got to Adele’s rural home it was awkwardness all around them. The brothers suddenly had no idea how to act or where to sit or if they should just turn around and go back. After a moment of indecision, they decided to try and act as normal as possible. They greeted everyone politely. When Jack tried to shake the hand of Adele’s mother he froze. His toes were freezing too. It was a weird sort of coldness.
Chris’ stomach was upset. He tried to empty his mind and looked away towards the fruit trees in the orchard. Some white big birds flew up as he watched. The shiny green leaves and the flight of the birds nearly settled him.
Adele’s mother was their former maid; the maid who had been raped by their father! This means Adele was their father’s daughter, their sister!
Introductions were done. Food was served but the brothers could not eat. They simply couldn’t stomach it. The reality was too much to bear. Seeing how unsettled the two were, Adele’s mother pulled them aside.
She was still as sweet as she had always been. During their stay with her as a maid she had been an amazingly patient person. She almost always had the ability to take what life brings at her and make the best of the situation. She was extremely religious and probably that was her anchor in difficult times.
She moved much closer to them with the intention of whispering. She compressed her lips to talk but she hesitated for a second or two then softly said, “Of course you can marry her, she is not your sister. She is not your father’s daughter”
CHAPTER 5 – STRANGER THAN FICTION
The crowd was made up of ten elders and a few youths. Owls were hooting in a distant. The moon was completely shielded and dark shadows crisscrossed the orchard. It was a beautiful scene, but Jack was not well. His head was throbbing, his limbs slightly heavy. He was feeling nauseated.
“Your father never raped me”
The two brothers watched her face turning pale. She sniffed the air as if searching for something to console her.
“Your father would never rape anyone,” her voice had turned horse. “We were in love for nearly three years and all along we managed to keep it unnoticed. She would sneak into my room around midnight and sleep-over whenever your mother was away.” She paused. She bowed her head and after a little while she straighten up. She wore a sorry look, eyes half closed as if focusing on the details of her story.
“Then?” Jack said softly. She had paused long enough
“I had a boyfriend who is my husband now,’’ She continued. “As time went on your mother began to suspect something. My boyfriend began to suspect too, but I managed to cover up our tracks. One night your father was too rough that I screamed with pain. I kept yelling softly ‘Please stop, please stop!’ I did not know that my boyfriend had also decided to come over and all along she was standing just outside. Your mother, probably alarmed by my yelling came over and she was standing just outside the door. The two heard everything. To cover up I invented the rape case. It was easy to believe anyway.”
“Really?” Jack felt helpless.
“I was already pregnant but not of your father. He always used protection.” There was a long and uncomfortable silence. “I will understand you if you cannot forgive me.”
Chris married Adele anyway. This was nearly three decades ago and Jack had learnt that Love cannot be found it can only be sensed. Love is in rain when every single drop makes its way to earth to unleash the mystic scent of soil. True love still loves where you don't have reason to love. Love is an untamed force. When we try to control it, it destroys us. When we try to imprison it, it enslaves us. When we try to understand it, it leaves us feeling lost and confused.
CHAPTER 6 – A LONG DAY
It was now a new year and the holiday fever was gone. The Uncle’s Accounting firm was fully operational and it was business as usual. It was a Tuesday and his wife was in the Labor ward expecting. It was supposed to be a big day for the family and nothing would spoil it.
Jack got out of bed and took a quick shower. He felt so in a hurry to eat. He instead brushed his teeth. He was literally alone. They had been trying to have a baby for years without success but when the couple had given up, his wife conceived. The coming of the baby girl was going to coincide with his 48th birthday. Smiling, he walked to his car and drove off to the hospital.
The parking lot at the hospital was overflowing with water as it appeared there was a water main break. Jack carefully sought out a dry parking space and hurriedly walked to the hospital ward. He had a number of meetings to attend, but they were not a priority.
He stood there in amusement. He had forgotten to close his zip because that was not important at all. He felt a tingle surging throughout his whole body. It was a rush of excitement he had never felt before in his entire life. When his eyes hit her angelic little body, they froze and he could not think or acknowledge anything else around him even the baby’s mother. All around him, the world seemed to stop. His wife said something about his unkempt hair, or his open zip or perhaps it was just a good morning. Her voice was distant. He starred at the baby as it slept. He ran the tips of his fingers very gently across the baby’s smooth face, and it was ecstatic. The baby had been born a few minutes earlier.
His wife had pleaded with him to go to work. That’s how he got Jack to leave. The afternoon was long. Time was dragging like a prison sentence. His heart was still longing for more of the baby. He made a few deals with his suppliers and attended a few meetings, and cancelled more. The meetings were slotted wrongly. They had to wait for the baby to grow a few hours old.
As he was about to leave the office a few minutes before knock off time, he was feeling like every fiber of his being was vibrating. He was feeling good, whistling his favorite Bob Marley song. The excitement wired his body like he was plugged into the mains. He felt like his brain was on fast-forward and there was no off switch. The man was wearing the facial expression of a small child with an especially large Christmas present.
Almost immediately Lyn knocked. She looked exhausted. It was normal
“I think I am pregnant uncle,” she said in a low tone.
Jack’s energy battery suddenly went empty. This was a mental form of tiredness and immediately he wanted to take a long sleep.
CHAPTER 7 – YOU ARE NOT WELCOME
Lyn was Chris’ daughter. She was his brothers’ blood and he was supposed to look over her. He had treated her like his own daughter. In fact she had been her only child for years. Sorrowfully Jack remembered his late brother.
Chris was in Belgium studying for his PhD. He had been away for nearly two years. As per the scholarship agreement he would come home only over the Christmas holiday, except of course if he decides to use his own funds. Life in Belgium was new and fun. It had been a wonderful stay until he started to miss his family
As Sharp Chris it was not difficult for him to look for extra money. After a few attempts he found a job as a part time engineer at Alas Construction Company. He actually made more money than he had anticipated and the best way to spent it was on a flight back home. It was an easy decision to make.
He landed at Whitehead International airport at around 7 pm. His coming was suppose to be a secret and a surprise – a Valentine day surprise. He had a few presents for his wife and for Lyn. Spoiling his loved ones was his hobby. He boarded a taxi home.
As he silently tried to open the door, Lyn spotted him. The sight of her father woke up her brain. Her smile grew on its own accord and Chris could not miss the point that his presence had ignited her soul. The little girl flew, arms wide open to meet her dad. His father threw everything he was holding down, snatched the little girl off the ground, threw him very high into the air and landed her softly back on the ground. He hugged his daughter and felt the warmth of her tender body. It felt good to be a father.
Their maid was also thrilled to see Chris. She was older than Chris and he called her ‘mom’. She felt like she was biologically part of the family. Of course his wife was not back yet. Before leaving for Belgium, Chris and his friend Amos, both Civil engineers, had jointly opened a Construction company. Amos wife was the Human Resource Manager whereas Chris’ wife was the Finance Manager at the same Construction Company. Chris’ wife was usually busy because her job was so demanding and a lot of financial planning was key at this stage.
He was sauntering up and down and across his yard waiting for his wife’s arrival. He had been home over the Christmas holiday and this was only February yet he had missed her that much. His face was growing anxious showing off his eagerness.
He couldn’t wait. He phoned a tax and went to meet his lover. She was not in her Office! Actually she was nowhere at work. The gate was locked and the security guard confirmed that everyone had left. That’s when he thought of calling her. Her number was unreachable!
CHAPTER 8 - HORROR
Of course there was a reasonable explanation. Chris boarded a taxi back home. Perhaps his wife was home by now. He honestly could not worry.
He arrived home. Lyn was still happy to see his father but the maid was now worried. It was around 10 pm and the night was getting quieter and quieter. Chris tried her wife’s cellphone again and it was still unreachable.
Time was moving fast. Lyn and the maid went to sleep but Chris could not. He went out for cool air. He was starting to feel a strange feeling of sadness crawling over him. By midnight all he was feeling, was sadness, every other emotion pushed from his being.
A familiar car stopped close to the gate, close to where he was standing under the cover of the shade cast by a tree.. Two people moved out. His eyes remained fixed at the pair as they walked hand in hand towards him. They stopped right in front of the gate. They kissed passionately, kissed again more passionately and kissed more and more. The kissing was getting more violent and as if unconsciously the two dragged themselves back into the car. It was silent for a moment and Chris moved closer. He noticed a soft and rhythmically up and down movement of the car.
Tears flowed unchecked down his cheeks and dripped from his chin. He was too sad to cry out or wail. He just stood there as still as a statue while the magnitude of his wife and business partner Amos’ immorality swept over him.
Quietly he opened the car’s door. The two froze. It was as if they had seen a ghost. Chris looked at the naked two for a moment then moved away. He did not know where he was going or where to go. He dragged his feet across the road, stopped for a second in the middle of the road and continued much slower this time. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a haulage truck approaching fast. He lifted his right foot higher to take a bigger step but his feet were heavy. It was as if he was wearing steel shoes. He tried much harder but his body had no enough oxygen to carry him through.
There was a loud noise as the truck tried to break but it was too late. Suddenly the world collapsed around him and there was no air coming down his throat. Flexing ripples of muscle squeezed into his neck from all sides and everything in the world shifted. It was the end of brother Sharp Chris.
CHAPTER 9 – MY TRISHA
So Chris was dead just like that. Jack was devastated when he heard the news. He quickly remembered how he had caused the death of a pretty innocent girl back at the University himself. For a moment these memories became his soul torturer. He had managed to escape them, but this similarity made them his worst kind of monster. They were pin point needles, piercing his skin. It became clear that his memories were indeed his for life.
It was towards year end and the University would close for semester end in about a week.
“I am pregnant Jack,’’ his girlfriend Trisha said in a low tone.
“I know,’’ Jack replied carelessly
She was not sure what to say next. She decided to wait for an explanation but did not get one.
“So?” she asked looking a little frightened
“You get pregnant if you have unprotected sex’’ He seemed not to mind.
“You impregnated me Jack” She thought she had not clarified.
“We had unprotected sex, where do you think it was leading to? I am pretty sure you knew what you were doing all along. Fix your own mess.’’
Trisha searched for Jack’s eyes and found them still. It was unbelievable. She tried to explain his predicament to him but to no avail. The burden of explanation seemed too heavy. Had it not been for the love she felt towards him, she might have seen that it was useless in any case. Jack did not make an effort to say more. He had made up his mind.
Trisha was from a poor rural background. She was the eldest child in a family of an unbelievable nine children. Her parents, poor peasant farmers were struggling to send their girl to school but their struggle was not good enough. She could not afford most basic stuff. As a strong woman she sought for work to beef up her finances. She was now working as a part time house-maid when she met Jack.
Due to his divided attention her academic work flopped. She failed one course after another every semester. Jack comforted her woman until now.
Jack made no move to accept responsibility and the truth finally dawned to Trisha that she was all alone. The whole University vacation, Jack never called or visited her. He did not pick up her calls or reply her texts. Trisha’s heartache was like a hurricane. At times, at the eye of the storm, it was quiet and allowed him to function but most of the time she was filled with a raging wave of anger. The anger would burst from her chest in a vicious shout of anguish.
When the End of Semester examination results came, she had failed dismally. There was no hope. To escape this cursed earth she committed suicide and left a note that only read “I quit”. Everyone interpreted it wrongly. Academic under-achievement had forced Trisha to commit suicide but in fact it was murder.
Today, his brother was hit by a haulage truck. It was not the truck that killed him. It was his wife and his best friend and business partner, jointly.
CHAPTER 10 - GOOD/BAD DAY
“Uncle,” Lyn said softly. She was waiting for the response.
To Jack, hearing her was not the problem. He was still deep in thoughts. Yes he deserved the blame but in his mind it seemed unfair that no matter how much he strived to be the man his conscience wanted him to be, it would keep taunting him with his failures. He had not initiated sex with Lyn. It was her who seduced him. Each time he tried to blame himself, he would bring up this argument, hoping that this time his mind would be satisfied, but it never worked.
“What do you mean pregnant?” It was rhetoric. They both knew that. “I mean are you sure?”
“I am sure uncle?”
Jack mulled this over for a moment or two before calmly asking, ‘’Do you have a boyfriend?”
She did not know how to reply. In fact she did not know what the question implied.
“I slept with you Uncle’’
“I know,’’ he said shyly. At that point Lyn understood what his uncle was saying
“I have a boyfriend,” she said and the Uncle’s face brighten slightly with anticipation. His face seemed to be craving for more comforting information “He is a woman.”
Jack remained silent. When he spoke he thought it would be better to change the subject.
“We can talk about this later, I have to rush to the hospital.”
“It’s ok Uncle, I will go with you,’’ she replied. “I have to see my sister.”
It was a long walk down the stairs to the car park. It was an even longer drive to the hospital. In the morning it had been a journey of excitement but now everything was ruined. Even his wife noticed a change of mood but could not ask. As the boss at work, things were bound to go haywire sometimes. She knew that. Little did she know that it had nothing to do with his job description. It had a lot to do with infidelity and betrayal.
“Name her Jane, after my mother.” It was the only thing he said with a genuine smile.
Audrey was her wife. It was twenty years ago when he first saw her. She had a sculpted figure which was twine-thin. Her waist was tapered and she had a glossy complexion. Her eyebrows appeared arched above a pair of candid brown eyes. It was a pleasure to see her shadow-black hair which looked so natural.
She was his girlfriend’s best friend. She was also a church pastor. Jack first met her when her girlfriend had invited him to her Church. Naturally Jack was not a religious person. He would sometimes enjoy making fun of some religious beliefs. Reluctantly he agreed, only because he dearly loved his girlfriend.
Audrey preached a short but sweet sermon. It was about the Ten Commandments and Jack was almost converted. He could visualize the Bible Moses in the mountain receiving the commandments on a tablet of stone. She was a charismatic preacher. After the church her girlfriend introduced him to her. Jack honestly had no feelings towards the Pastor.
Her girlfriend had a good and caring personality. She always wanted to make sure that her boyfriend was taken care of. She would do all his household chores and prepare him good meals. When occupied, she would either apologize or ask her friend to take care of some, with strict limitations though.
On his 28th birthday, her girlfriend had visited her hospitalized Aunt in Diamondburg City, which was slightly more than 200 kilometers away. The pastor, decided to be a good shepherd. She asked for permission from her friend of course and her friend found no fault in that. She even asked the Pastor to deliver some flowers on her behalf. She further instructed her to prepare him his favorite meal.
It was a surprise visit. Jack was happy but her girlfriend would have been a better present. When his girlfriend phoned him some few hours later asking if he had enjoyed the meal, little did she know that he had enjoyed more than a meal. Jack and Pastor Audrey had shared something magnetic and amazing and exhilarating.
It was a unique type of sex for Jack. It was a different and tasty experience. The Pastor really knew how to make a man forget what matters to him the most. When he tried to pinpoint the exact feeling of it, it was simply fever pitch.
CHAPTER 11: DIAMONDBURG CITY
Life at work turned awkward. Jack tried to act professional but Lyn would always remind him that she was carrying his child. One day she came into his office without even knocking only to ask if her hair was done properly. Jack suppressed his emotions and just nodded his head in frustrated agreement. It seemed like Lyn was forgetting that he was still the CEO. He devised a plan to calm the storm
It was a very hot afternoon. Even the fan in his office couldn’t keep him cool. September and October were the months of subtropical heat waves with severe discomfort. The heat would bounce off the streets, and cause an illusion of wavering images. It would easily pierce through the office’s glass walls like a hot knife through a piece of butter.
“Hello, can I speak to Lyn,’’ Jack said in the phone
“Sorry Sir, she is still on tea break,’’ a voice said from Lyn’s office
“Tea break? Oh ok” He hung up. It was towards noon and he wondered what sort of tea break that was. Anyway he ignored it and picked a file that had been lying idle on the floor. He returned it on the shelf, picked a pen and almost immediately put it down. He looked through the glass wall and the beauty of the whole city lay before his eyes. The buildings were shining in the summer sunshine.
Painting and already sweating Lyn came in.
“Oh you are here,” he said
“Afternoon Uncle,’’ was the reply
“Take a sit.’’ He was always courteous. “Can I give you something to drink?”
“No thank you.’’ She was eager to know why she had been called because since the day they had sex, he had been avoiding her.
“I know you are busy so I will not waste your time.’’ He paused, pulling himself together. ‘’I am promoting you”
Lyn’s eyes widened with amusement. She opened her mouth to say something but nothing came out.
“You will be the head Accountant, but not at this station. As you know we have opened a branch in Diamondburg; that is where you will be based”
She did not know how to reply. Of course she was thrilled but suspicious as well. She wanted to ask something about her pregnancy and coming baby, but she could not phrase the statement well. She simply thanked him and left.
To Jack this was a closed chapter. He felt relieved for a moment. One thing he wanted to make straight was to avoid instilling a feeling of rejection in her. It would be suicidal. At the same time he wanted to keep it a secret from his wife and everyone at the company.
He quickly sought for an appealing accommodation for her and even catered for most of her needs. All her transport expenses he covered. Lyn felt loved and for a moment she forgot that he was his uncle, not her boyfriend.
Back home, his daughter Jane was his inspiration. Certainly there was no kind of affection so purely angelic as of his to baby Jane. She was sweeter than anyone else in the world. She could jitter around, stomp, and make funny noises that frazzled his nerves, yet just when he opened his mouth the look in her eyes would weaken him. He wondered if Lyn’s baby would make him feel the same.
The very same day Lyn delivered a baby boy, Jack drove to Diamondburg. It was not a smooth drive and more than once he almost crashed.
CHAPTER 12 – A SON IS BORN
Lyn was getting more and more comfortable in her new City, and even with her new position at work. She loved power and she loved abusing it too. She was staying in a leafy suburb of New Broadlands to the eastern side of the city. The suburb was situated at the bottom of a small bushy hill that would bring a cool breeze early in the morning and towards sunset. This comfort lessen the burden of pregnancy and loneliness. Her boyfriend Samantha would sometimes visit her but it seemed like long distance was taking a toll on their relationship.
Her neighbor was a weird lady probably in her late forties or early fifties. Lyn had never seen her face. In fact she never showed it to her. Early in the morning she would peep through the short hedge separating their homesteads. It seemed like she wanted something with her or she was just crazy. At first Lyn would ignore her but with time it got to her nerves. She called out to her one day when she was busy peeping but the lady immediately covered her face with her two hands and instantly disappeared. Lyn followed her to her house still calling her out but she never responded. Lyn finally decided to let her be and move on with her own life.
One cool Sunday morning, months later, Lyn was sitting outside on the lawn. She was feeling a weird feeling across her belly and her lower back. It started as a lot of cramping, radiating from the left to her right. She tried to fight it, but it grew worse. Then slowly it became unbearable. It began to feel like her abdomen was trying to squeeze out all its contents, more like having her inside twisted, pulled, and squeezed.
Her surrounding turned darker. Her world rocked to and fro. She felt something she could not explain afterwards and gravity pulled her down onto the lawn, face first. She could not tell how long she was there but finally she could feel soft hands applying pressure on her back. The pain subsidized and she turned around to see who her saviour was. Her face was hazy.
Immediately her water broke and that’s when real pain started. The pain was so bad that in the middle of one contraction she wished she could walk away from her body. The fact that just as soon as she got through one contraction another was coming, quickly tore her apart.
Immediately she was carried into a car. Its movement literally got her body in hell. It was the most uncomfortable journey of her life. The pain kept on coming and it was excruciating. After what seemed like a day or two they arrived at the Holy Ghost Maternity hospital.
Lyn felt like she had to have a bowel movement in the worst way! That's the only way she could describe it. It also felt as if something was going to burst through her back; she had excruciating back pain. Pushing was the worst. She could feel every stretch, pull, and tear. The burning was like no other. She remember feeling like there was no way she could push the baby out, practically it would not fit. But finally all was done. She was so happy to hold her precious son. It was all worth it. She named him Jim
She almost forgot all about the lady who had helped her. She was still standing beside her, this time not covering her face. In fact she had no problem with revealing her identity now. Lyn looked at her feet first and slowly upwards to her face, and she got the shock of her life.
CHAPTER 13 – MOTHER?
“Mother?’’ Lyn said faintly. Her dark personage had haunted her dreams for nearly an eternity. Lyn lay there still and stiff watching her mother who had left them nearly twenty years ago. She cried bitterly.
She had left unceremonially a few days after the death of his husband. Some put it as after she killed her husband. A lot of stories speculated about her whereabouts. Some said she was now mentally ill but the most prominent one was that she had committed suicide. Lyn had looked for her everywhere but found nothing. After getting tired of the search she accepted the situation and tried to forget all about her. It never worked.
Uncle Jack took her in. He was loving and caring. She provided all her needs but he was not mother. Her mother was an epitome of strength and grit. She was he only person who understood her enough.
Lyn wanted to stand up and hug her but she was too weak. She only cried and cried until her tears ran dry.
“But why mother?’’ Her voice was still weak but angry. It was the voice of a person who was feeling betrayed.
“I love you Lyn. I have always loved you.’’ Her mother replied tenderly.
“What is love mother? Is it running away from people who need you the most?”
She did not reply. She waited for her daughter to cool down first. Lyn was crying again. Fresh tears rolled down her cheeks. It was painful for her mother to see her like this. She moved much closer and embraced her. She let the torrent of her daughter’s tears soak through her blouse. A day of joyous celebration was turned into a day of moaning.
When all was quiet she narrated her story. Her face was as guilty as sin:
“My sins were too much to bear. The agony I had caused my family and people who loved us and cared about us was too much. I could not forgive myself or hope that anyone would forgive me.’’ She wiped her eyes. She was sobbing. “I wanted to start a new life and start afresh. I was hoping that leaving would make me forget all about my past. Unfortunately it did not work. Immediately I was fired from my job. Amos’ wife somehow came to know all about the misfortune our infidelity had brought and the workplace became a battlefield. Amos obviously would take her wife’s side so I withdrew into the unknown.
“It however did not bring the peace I was longing for. After a few days, Amos started to pursue me again. He was concerned about my well-being and I could tell that he was genuine. I did not want to repeat the same mistake twice so I refused. I am a tough woman, I am sure you know that but the pressure became unbearable and I gave in. I was so lonely.
“I felt myself sinking deep in love. I sincerely loved him and it was not infatuation this time. To avoid further confrontations with his wife he moved me to Diamondburg. I am your neighbor, in case you had not noticed.”
Lyn listened in profound silence. Her mother continued, “When I saw you moving into the house next door I could not believe my eyes. It was like a dream. I had missed you but I could not look for you. My heart was still heavy. I had heard all about you anyway. I could not believe that Uncle Jack impregnated you, but l did not care as long as you were happy? Then you moved here and I was troubled. I wanted to know why but I could not find answers. I looked for signs every time I could find a chance but nothing popped out. You even noticed me spying on you.
“Back to me, Amos’ wife came to know again about us. She always had ways to figure out things. She was hot on my heels. She called me all sorts of names. At first I was not angry with her. I understood her position but she became more and more noisy. I devised a plan to silence her for good. Her assistant was my friend back in the days. I gave her a few thousand dollars and she agreed to my plan. First time it failed but the second time she was hit. Her assistant put slow acting poison in her tea. A few weeks later she died. I killed her.” She paused to wipe her tears
“She is the second person I have killed. First it was your father. I am not worthy to be a mother. I should be behind bars because that’s where I belong.’’ It had been a long and exhausting speech for her but she continued, “I thought we would be happy together after her death but I was wrong. Weird dreams started to torment me. On windy nights when the wind shock the four corners of the house, she would appear to me in a thousand forms. It was diabolical. Her leg would be cut at the knee, now at the hip. She would sometimes appear as a monstrous kind of creature. It was hell. I had to be rehabilitated and for six months l was away. I got better and returned home but Amos had moved on. She was hot in love with someone. I was hurt but comparing myself with his new woman, I could not stand a chance. I forced myself to forget him and I move on.
Four months later I met another man. I met him at a show in town. He was sweet and handsome. I loved him. We had a nice time together. He even moved in with me. I felt like a teenager again. Little did I know that he was a highly dangerous man. A few months later the police invaded my house and arrested him. I was also taken for questioning. He was wanted for first degree murder. I heard later that he had murdered his wife and was sentenced to life in prison. Once again I was alone
“I was done with love. I purposed in my heart that I would not love a man again. But I was so lonely. I just wanted somebody to talk to and hang out with. There was a mysterious old man at church. He looked a silent man. He hung around on his own and mostly he would not speak when spoken to. He rarely changed his clothes. He did not have a cellphone and I bet he never received any letters. I felt I could right my wrong by helping him.
“I approached him one afternoon after church. He was skeptical at first but I persisted and he agreed. I later realized that he was as lonely as I was. At least we had something in common. He was around seventy years old but his vigor was amazing. He would wake up early in the morning, do the dishes, clean the house and work in the garden. Everything would be done in a matter of minutes. We grew to like each other and became very good friends. We would sit around, giggle around each other, walk together to the market and a whole lot of stuff. One think I did not like about him was his secrecy. He never said a word about his past. In fact sometimes he would let a drop or two of tears when asked. So I decided to bother him no more. Perhaps he had a dark past just like me.
“One night as we were watching TV late in the night, he moved closer to me and looked me straight in the eyes. He ran his fingers through my hair. It was electric. I had not felt such a tough in years. I am human and I have needs you know.” He paused again. She looked at Lyn but her daughter’s face was not giving much away.
“I let him. He caressed me but I did not respond. When he kissed me, I nearly froze. The old man did it so well that I grabbed his head and kissed back violently. We kissed for a moment, tore each other’s clothes and had sex on the couch. He was good,’’ she said shyly. “Anyway it was the beginning of a new phase. We were lovers. He continued being sweet, cooking for me and doing so many thinks. We became more and more reckless. I became pregnant. I was for an abortion but he was against that.
“I gave birth to a girl. I will show her to you. I want you to meet this man too. Recently Amos tried to come back but I pushed him away. I am in love and I know it. I am happy and content.”
She was barely done talking when the old man came in. Lyn looked at him with searching eyes. He was still strong and vibrant. He was smartly dressed and looked confident in a blue suit. He was well fitted, exactly the sort of thing that a woman would pick out for her man to wear to a formal event. He looked much younger than his age. There was also something strangely familiar about him. Lyn could not pick it up but she felt it. But all being said she admired him.
“Congratulation Lyn,” he said handing her flowers
“Thank you,” they were smelling like Jesmine. “Mom was telling me all about you, Thank you for taking care of her.”
“I am not taking care of her, she is taking care of me.” He kissed her on her right cheek. They both laughed. It was beautiful. “Your mother loves you. She was always thinking about you and feeling sorry for herself. I am glad you have been united. Her joy is my joy too.”
He had barely finished when Uncle Jack walked in, hesitant at first then he picked up pace. His eyes could not believe what he was looking at. He forgot all about the baby and fixed his eyes on the old man. The old man recognized his son. Jack recognized his father.
CHAPTER 13: THE REUNION
It was soon an awkward situation. There was a bitter silence as the two looked at each other unsure how to start. The baby cried for a minute or two. They were briefly distracted.
“Dad is that really you?’’ Jack said with a confused look.
“Hie Jack,’’ he simply replied
“You look good”
“Thank you.” Dad knew that his soon was expecting an explanation, but he said nothing about it. Instead he continued, “You look good too.”
“You are welcome.”
That was the furthest their strengths could take them. The old man looked down, up then to his wife, “Jack meet my wife …...”
“Adele,” he interjected
“Strange,’’ Dad quickly said. “This is a small world. Where do you know her from?”
“She is your daughter in law Dad, Chris’ wife.”
“What?’’ The old man’s face turned pale. He drew his brows closer in clear surprise. Jack looked balefully at him. Their eyes met and almost immediately Dad lowered his head. He paused for a while then quietly asked, “How is Chris?”
At that moment, Adele shed some tears. Dad could not understand especially when Lyn shed some tears too.
“Chris is dead. He was hit by a truck and died on the spot.” Jack said literally. He watched as the old man struggled to keep standing. He was silent
“So you are my grandfather?” Lyn said softly
“Yes he is your grandfather Lyn,” Jack said leaning over to see the baby. He had travelled to see his son but unfortunately he was entangled in other strange stories first. His son was lying innocently, his arms aloft as if dreaming of cuddling the mother who was sitting close by. Jack slide his thumb into the baby’s open hand and watched as its fingers curl around it. He felt the baby’s soft breath on the back of his hand.
Adele silently walked out. It seemed she wanted some time alone. She wanted some space. She was hoping that space would help her comprehend the new developments. It was strange to realize that her new lover was her father-in-law. The old man who was bringing her all the joy was the father of the man she murdered.
She had thought that loving this old man would help her forget the past. It did not work. In fact it was bringing more sorrows. She had poured gasoline on fire. Her guilty conscience came back. She remembered what had happened in her life. She remembered how all her mistakes had costed other people. She remembered how unclean she had become, all because of lust. She sat down and cried loudly.
CHAPTER 14: DAD
“Dad can I talk to you for a minute.” Jack was not done with his father. He was still hungry for information. Dad nodded his head after what looked like a fuddled hesitation. They walked silently, found a sitting spot and sat. Dad was looking exhausted. Jack’s throat was dry and his voice sounded remote when he said, “So, what is all this.”
Dad did not reply at once. He looked at the distant horizon. Through teary eyes he watched the sun falling, painting the sky shades of red and pink
“Do you see those colors Jack? They are beautiful. We used to enjoy watching the sunset with your mother.” Dad said softly. “We used to believe that those colors were symbols showing a brighter future. We were wrong.” He looked at Jack for a moment and continued, “You want to know why I did not come back for you, right?”
“Yes,” Jack was quick to answer
“There are two reasons: the first one is that, by the time I came out of prison you were more than mature to take care of yourselves. You were over 18 years of age, were you not?” He quickly became more serious and continued, “Secondly I had nothing to come back for.”
He stared before him for a moment and continued with a somber look, “I had lost everything and that is my wife and my dignity.”
“So what happened to you all these years?”
“Nothing to be proud of,” he replied. “I moved to this city to get away from my bitter past. It worked faster than I thought. Within a few months I had recovered from my shame. I found work as a security guard at a mall in town. I was not earning much but it was enough to keep me going. I worked there for two and a half years.
“With experience came confidence. I was even promoted to be the head of all security guards. I was very honest and hardworking.” He paused feeling proud of himself. When he continued, his voice was softer, “I even received a few awards.
“I soon became corrupt. I asked for sex from female guards in exchange for favors. It was a good time for me. I even got away with it for some months. My seniors however began to notice some changes at the workplace. They investigated. I was trapped and I lost my job.
“I looked for another job but I could not find any. I was kicked out of my home because I could not pay rentals. That is when really trouble began. Life on the street was harsh. I had to fight for my next meal. The details make me cry but I finally meet Adele at Church and here we are?
“Oh,” Jack simply replied. He had nothing to say
“Would you believe me if I say I did not rape the maid?”
“I would believe you.”
It appeared Dad was expecting a different answer. Jack was showing no signs of disbelief.
“Well I did not.”
“I know you did not. Adele’s mother is that maid.”
Dad turned, slowly to face him. When he finally spoke his voice trailed slowly, like his words were unwilling to take flight. “You mean Adele…..”
“She is not your daughter, you did not impregnate her.” There was an awkward silence
“Humanity is so evil,” Dad silently said.
“I know, we are so evil.”
“Life is so unfair, what happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change the course of a whole lifetime.”
CHAPTER 15: THE REUNION
The trio left the hospital in a somber state. Jack returned home that same day. Dad and Adele were involved in a minor fight but they soon settled their differences. The couple realized that quitting would not undo their errors. Lyn remained in the hospital feeling both physically and mentally ill. She quickly fell asleep. She had a very weird dream that night.
In her dream, her son Jim was four years old. He was playing outside with the dog, running around like most healthy kids. At the edge of the play area, there was a cliff. There was no protective fence between where Jim was and the cliff.
Jim was so absorbed in his fun that he ran towards the edge of the cliff without watching where he was going. He fell down to the bottom and lay motionless. He was not crying. In panic, Lyn ran to the edge to check on him and jumped down to check on his injuries. He was dead. The feeling of intense loss and heartbreak was absolutely overwhelming, and was paralyzing. She cried bitterly. When she woke up she was still crying. Although it was just a dream, it had come at the wrong time.
When she was discharged from the hospital, three days later, the adoption papers had already been finalized. Left alone, she had make up her mind. She was not going to keep the baby. She could not consult anyone on the matter because it was her life. No one deserved an explanation either.
Jack came to know about the adoption when he visited Lyn a few months later. He was not angry. Actually he had no reason to be. He only asked to see Jim at his new home. He kept visiting him but they could not tell Jim the truth. They had agreed to keep it a secret for good. Jim thought Jack was his uncle. In fact that was what he was made to believe.
By the age of eighteen, Jim was sharp and manly. He still loved his so called uncle and the Uncle loved him back. He would spoil him as often as possible. ******************************
It was going to be a big day for all. Jack had organized it and covered all the expenses. He had persuaded everyone to come despite their differences and feelings. In his mind he had a set up a perfect family reunion of a lifetime.
Jack was getting old but Dad was very old now. He now had a fringe of grey-white hair around his balding, mottled scalp. His face was wrinkled all over and his back slightly hunched. With each movement there was the creak of old bones and his eyes could not see clearly. He was still stuck with Adele. Lyn was now a very mature lady and Jane was eighteen.
The sky was pretty. It was neither hot nor cold, just cool. The serenity of the clouds that dotted the sky all seemed to appreciate the family reunion. Everything was sending a calm sense of awe. A cool upland air, which was perfumed by the heavy scent of flowers, was flooding the park from the nearby lake and it made the day glorious.
The day turned out pretty fun and the family picnic was probably the most fun part of the reunion. Jack was ready to be more involved and reach out to other family members he did not know. The games, the laughs all provided a solace from their bitter past. The family banquet closed the reunion.
The whole family gathered at the formal banquet where closing remarks were given by Uncle Jack. He spoke mostly about the good old times. He was about to conclude with a confession when Jane quickly interjected.
“Before we conclude Dad, I would like everyone to meet my boyfriend.”
Every eye turned to watch the young man coming from the direction of the lake. He was a handsome young man probably the age of Jane. He was casually dressed in a red T shirt and blue jeans. Everyone watched as he carried himself confidently towards the family.
Jack’s face quickly turned pale as Jane’s boyfriend drew closer. He was staring as if someone had just produced a rhinoceros from a handbag. There was a lot of action in his head as his brain tried to comprehend the situation. On the other hand Lyn was in a pause for a moment. She finally managed to turn around and faced Jack. She drew her brows in disbelief. These two knew more than anybody in the gathering. They looked at each other for a moment in complete disapproval. The young man was Jim. He was Lyn and Jack’s son. He was Jane’s brother.
To be continued in my next book
Sarah, a friend, sat alone at a table near the back, she waved to get Frances' attention, "Over here."
Returning the wave, Frances sauntered toward the table, "You ordered yet?"
"I was waiting for you."
"What would you like? I'm buying." Frances pulled out a chair and sat.
"A glass of red wine, thanks."
"Well, I need a martini." Frances signaled for service.
Jim, a new bartender around fifty, came over. He looked at Frances, raised a brow, and smiled.
About an hour later, Jim, leaving a co-worker to look after customers, strolled toward the jukebox. He shoved in some quarters, and the lyrics from "Now and Forever" sprang from the speakers. With a half grin on his face, he strutted over to Frances and offered his hand. "Would you like to dance?"
After the slow dance, he showed her back to her table. Reaching out to brush a strand of hair away from her face, he thanked her and asked for her number. She dug around in her handbag for a pen. She wrote it down on a napkin.
Looking at Sarah, she fanned her chest with her hand, "My god, he makes my heart race."
"That sure was fast," Sarah remarked.
A couple of weeks passed before Jim called and asked Frances for a date. He told her that he was retired from the NBA and that while refereeing a game at Madison Square Garden he collided with a cameraman and injured his leg.
"You seem fine. You don't limp or anything," Frances said.
"Yeah, but I sustained permanent nerve damage. Get bad cramps in my calf. I've got a lawsuit pending.”
After a couple of dates, Jim began going to Frances' home nearly every-day. He brought takeout food, and bottles of wine. He even left love notes hidden under throw pillows on the couch.
It didn't take long before Frances started going to the club every night. She sat at the bar and waited for Jim to get off work. Then he'd follow her home in his old '69 Chevy while she drove a new '86 Oldsmobile.
When he was about to get evicted from his apartment, for non-payment of rent, Jim asked Frances, "Can I stay with you?"
"Yes. Of course, you can stay with me."
So, with a half-dozen polo shirts, a couple of Oxford weave trousers, and a pair of Michael Jordan shoes, he moved in.
Frances married Jim.
Hmmm, whose car is that? I don't recognize it? Frances pulled in next to it. She got out of her car and walked into the house.
Jim greeted her with a smile. "Hi, I've been waiting for you to come home."
"Whose car is that in the driveway?" She put her keys on the end table.
"It could be mine. I brought it home for a test drive. Isn't it a beauty?"
"Married two months and you already want a new car?"
"Don't get upset. Come with me to Chase Chevrolet. If you don't like the deal, we'll leave."
"Alright—but I'm not paying for it." Frances raised a brow in disapproval.
A salesman came running over when Frances and Jim entered the showroom. He extended his hand to Frances. "You must be Jim's wife. Come to my office. I've written up a deal on the Impala. I need to go over a few things with you before we can seal it."
His office was a cubicle. The sales contract was complete, except for the name of the buyer.
"Jim tells me he has the two thousand to put down. Gets $500 a month disability from an injury and earns enough money tending bar to make the payments. Only one problem, his credit, it's bad. However, if we put the loan in your name, he can buy it." The man smiled. Frances noticed his nicotine-stained teeth.
"I don't like this," Frances said. She gazed at Jim's face. "Let's go."
"Come on. I only need your signature."
"You said if I didn't like the deal, we could leave. Now, I find out that I'm the one who'll be buying it. I don't like it. Not one little bit."
"I'm embarrassed driving around in a piece of junk. I only want you to be proud of your husband." He reached over and touched her shoulder, "Please, Frances."
"Well, if you promise not to miss a single payment?"
"I promise." Jim crossed his heart.
Frances signed the deal.
Frances and Sarah were having lunch at McDonald's. Sarah poked a straw into a paper cup filled with crushed ice and coke. "Frances, I heard a rumor. I don't know if I should tell you?"
"Oh, what was it?" Frances picked up a fry, dipped it in ketchup and popped it into her mouth.
Sarah sucked some soda, looked around, and lowered her voice. "Well, it might not be true, but I heard, Jim tried to kill himself."
"What? Why would he do something like that?"
"I don't know, but word has it, a couple of years ago, he drove his car into a tree and was committed to a mental hospital."
"Why are you telling me this?" Frances, appetite gone, pushed her fries aside. "I don't believe it."
"I just thought you should know."
"Let's get out of here." Frances slid out of the booth, leaving her food on the table. Sarah did the same.
Frances sat and rocked in a wicker chair. A car door slammed. The security door creaked open. Jim walked into the house.
"Why are you sitting there and not fixing dinner?" he asked.
"Dinner can wait. I heard a rumor. It's probably a lie, but—"
"First, I've got something to tell you. I got a letter from an attorney today. The NBA wants to settle my lawsuit."— He paused. "I need a beer." He talked while walking toward the kitchen, "I have to go to New York."
Frances rose from her chair, rubbing the back of her neck. Don't mention the rumor.
"Did you hear what I said?" Jim asked while taking a Bud out the refrigerator.
"I heard. You're going to New York."
"Yes, and you're coming with me. Everything's paid, except for your plane ticket."
"Fine, I'll pay it."
Jim returned to the living room, "What was it you wanted to tell me?" He set his drink on the dining room table, pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket, and lit up.
"It wasn't important." Frances forced a smile. "I bet you're happy. New York is exciting."
"Exciting? I hate Manhattan. Whores and basketball players, I should know." Jim smirked. "Hell, I was propositioned more than once. The sluts even knocked on my hotel door."
"That's terrible. Why say something like that?"
"Because it's true. Hell, I made extra money, doing what I like to do best." He laughed, took a drag, and then blew smoke.
Frances screwed her face in disgust. What kind of mess did I get into?
Frances walked toward the kitchen. She paused on the threshold as Jim threw a handful of pain pills into his mouth and washed them down with a glass of water.
"I want a divorce," Frances said.
"What? You want a divorce," Jim repeated. "Well, you know what?" His voice rose. "I don't." He stormed out of the room.
For ten minutes, she stood beside the sink, looking out the window. The sun had gone down. The room had grown dark.
The kitchen light flicked on. Frances turned. Jim stood there with a smirk on his face.
"Now what? You got what you wanted, didn't you? A wife with an income," she said.
"You think you've got it all figured out, don't you?" He stepped closer.
She attempted to move away, but he grabbed her wrist. With both hands, he twisted.
"Stop. Please. You're hurting me." Her eyes flooded with tears, and her body contorted with pain.
He freed one of his hands and brought her to his chest. Her head pointed away from him.
Thoughts sped through her mind — rotten, rotten, rotten son-of-bitch.
With her brain spiraling out of control, her heart sank.
He spun her around, still keeping hold, he pinned Frances's arm behind her back.
"Please—Jim—you're hurting me. Let go."
"If you try anything funny, you'll regret it."
"Okay, okay, you can stay. I...I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean it."
Jim threw her aside. "That's better." He turned and marched out of the room.
Frances rubbed her wrist; the skin was red and painful.
The front door slammed. "Thank God," she muttered, shaking her head. She slumped against the counter.
A few minutes later, Frances staggered to their bedroom. When she looked at the bed, she'd have to share with Jim. A sour taste jumped from her gut into her throat. She started to shake.
In the hallway, she leaned against the wall and reached above her shoulder for the switch. The light turned off. She slid to the floor. "I'm tired. I'm so tired." Sitting on the carpet, with her face cupped in her hands, she sobbed.
It was three in the morning. In bed, Jim snored louder and louder. Frances couldn't stand it any longer. She rose, put on a robe, padded into the living room and sprawled out on the couch. She pulled down an orange afghan and comforted herself with its warmth and remained there until dawn.
"What's the problem? Rough night?" Jim snickered. "Get up and put on a pot of coffee. I'm meeting my buddies at eight-thirty to play golf."
Frances knelt on top of a brown sofa cushion, facing the driveway she peeked through the curtains. Jim's breath met the cold while he wiped the light frost off the windshield.
She turned, flopped down, and waited to hear his car back out.
Frances poured some coffee, buttered a piece of toast and sat at the kitchen table to thumb through the phone book for an attorney. She took a sip of strong coffee. When I get back from New York, I'll call—but—first I have to get rid of his car.
Jim's fingers were white around the steering wheel. He glanced over his shoulder and quickly changed lanes. The green sign on the side of the freeway read, "San Francisco Airport." He pressed his foot down on the accelerator and took the next off-ramp. As Frances' heart pounded, she yelled, "Watch out! You're driving too fast."
He rear-ended a Chevy van waiting to turn.
Jim got out of the car, and so did the other driver. Frances stayed glued to her seat.
In the glow of the headlights, Jim and the other motorist, a woman, inspected the vehicles. They shook hands. Jim got back into the car. "No problem," he said.
“All, rise!" The court clerk yelled as he approached the bench. The assembly stood.
A grey-haired judge entered the courtroom. He raised a mallet and slammed it onto a wooden block. "Court is convened."
At the defendant's table, Jim sat with his hands folded. Frances, in the gallery, was directly behind him.
"James Streight," a bailiff called out.
Jim pushed away from the table. He stood facing the judge.
The judge peered over his glasses, "You can sit." He cleared his throat and rubbed his chin. "I see from the settlement agreement, that you've been offered twenty thousand dollars from the National Basket Association for a leg injury you sustained at Madison Square Garden in 1972. Is that correct?"
"Yes, your Honor."
"You do understand if you accept this, you'll be giving up your monthly disability check and the medical insurance covering your injury?"
"I understand," Jim answered.
"Do you have any income?"
"Yes, your Honor. My wife. She makes thirty-grand a year. And I'm covered under her health insurance."
The judge deliberated a few seconds." I award you the twenty-thousand-dollar settlement." The total duration of the hearing was less than five minutes.
"Thank you." Jim pulled away from the table.
The judge smacked the gavel. "Next case."
Jim raked his fingers through his hair. He looked back at Frances and then strolled toward swinging gate of the railing. He waved his right hand and motioned to the door. Frances rose from her chair and followed him out.
Back in the hotel room, Jim boasted, "I didn't injure my leg refereeing a game. I got hurt playing baseball. Because I didn't have medical insurance, I blamed it on the fall."
Frances narrowed her brows. "What do you mean you didn't have insurance, you were a referee with the NBA?”
"I was a scab referee—a lousy fill in. When the referees went out on strike during a playoff game, I got called in.
"What kind of a person are you? Don't answer that, I already know."
"Fucking bitch. You don't know shit."
Several weeks later, after they returned home, Jim said, "Frances, I'm going salmon fishing for three days. I'll leave my car in front of John’s house. We're taking his motor home."
"Where are you going?"
"Humboldt County, along the Eel River."
Hmmm— he's going fishing. Two days. His car parked at the curb.
The next day, before dawn, Jim left the house. Frances waited an hour, then picked up the phone and called Sarah.
"Sarah, I need a favor. Can you come over?"
"Sure. What's up?"
"Jim went on a fishing trip." She bit her lower lip. "Sarah, I'm so nervous. I need to take his car."
"Because I'm filing for a divorce, but first, I have to get rid of his car. I'm on the hook for the damn thing. If I don't do it now, I may never have another chance. I'm desperate. I need your help — please, Sarah."
"I'll be right over."
Sarah took Frances to pick up the car. Frances hid it in her neighbor's garage. She had to figure out what to do next.
She paced and prayed as she contemplated her dilemma: My car. His car. Both depreciated. Think. There's got to be an answer.
And there was. Frances put $ 10,000 down and traded in both vehicles for a new Cadillac.
When Jim returned from his fishing trip, he found his clothes stuffed in a black garbage bag on the front porch. The next day, Frances filed for divorce.
One year later, Jim married again. His second wife, Desdemona, didn't take his abuse and blew his brains out---exactly want Frances wanted to do.
You can find more of his work at https://facebook.com/JRylandtheWriter .
Naturally, I agreed to help, although I had no idea what it entailed. My mind conjured up images of old men in heavy, black coats skulking around a cemetery in the middle of the night, always a little dirty and usually with the smell of cheap liquor on their breath. Putting aside what I had planned to do that day, which was as little as possible, I hopped in my truck and headed out.
The church was a small one, out in the country. The bumpy dirt road ambled along through the woods, ran along the side of the graveyard and continued past the church, but I pulled off in a shady spot on the opposite side of the road of the cemetery and got, looking at the row of tombstones that were older than I was.
He stopped digging, already sweating profusely, and looked at me as I approached. “What’re you doing here?” he asked breathlessly.
“Just passing through and saw you. Thought you might need a hand,” I lied.
Shrugging, he went back to work.
I surveyed the damage done to the dry, brown grass. A rusty rectangular frame had been traced on the ground with blue spray paint before being cast aside and now lay haphazardly against someone else’s tombstone. Most of the edges had been assaulted with a shovel, removing large chunks of the red clay, which looked like they hadn’t come willingly.
I grabbed a pickaxe and went to work on the center of the rectangle. Raising the pick high above my head, I brought it hurtling earthward with a mighty groan. The rusted metal dove through the hot, still air and slammed into the gravesite. It penetrated to a depth about of two inches before coming to an abrupt stop. I pried it loose and looked at it, disappointed. My herculean effort yielded a small divot in the unforgiving dirt.
“It’s kinda compacted,” he said. I agreed and hefted the pick again, and again, and again. Each time I struck the earth with as much force as I could muster, and each time it penetrated about the same two inches. It was going to be a long day.
He suggested spelling me and I gave only a weak argument while handing over the pick. He, being considerably larger and more adept at such things as digging graves, managed a three-inch penetration, each swing prying chunks of angry, red clay dirt from the site. “Gonna be here a while,” he panted when he finally took a break long enough to wipe the sweat from his face.
“I got all day,” I told him, and I did. I just hadn’t planned on working this hard on my day off. As he went back to picking at the compacted earth, I spared a moment to look across the graveyard. The old, weathered tombstones testified to its age. This was an old country church and a lot of old country people had been laid to rest here, undoubtably while someone sang “Amazing grace” or “May the Circle Be Unbroken” and the preacher said a few words, some of which might have even applied to the poor souls being laid to rest.
Working with the shovel, I dug chunks of ground out of the shallow indentation and tossed them onto the rapidly growing pile next to us, amazed at the fact that the pile of dirt looked to be twice the amount of what came out of the hole. I made note of this to my friend and quickly learned that, once free of its earthly confines, dirt expands and loosens itself.
Mildly amused and pleased to have learned something that I’d never really considered, I went back to work beneath the merciless sun. Together, we got the hole about a foot deep and stopped for water. I had a bottle in my truck seat, and he had one sitting in the shade of a nearby tombstone. Neither was cold. He suggested we take our refreshments to the shade and I agreed.
With half my luke-warn water in my belly, I looked at him. “Sorry to hear about your mama.”
“Thanks,” was all he said. I didn’t figure he wanted to talk about it. I’d gone through the same thing about ten years earlier and I never did want to talk about it. There wasn’t much to say that would make a difference anyway. I didn’t dig her grave. I was overseas with the Navy and didn’t get back until the night before her funeral.
Leaving the rest of our refreshments for later, when they’d be even warmer, we marched unenthusiastically back across the dirt road and into the cemetery. Deciding on a different approach, we both took up pickaxes. He positioned himself at the head of the grave, according to the layout of all the other graves, and I took up the foot end. Taking turns, we each took a swing at the dirt in the grave, loosening it chunk by chunk until we’d finished a three-inch layer.
It was a triumph of teamwork and precision, not unlike the workers of old pounding in spikes on the trans-continental railroad track. One man would swing then retract his tool, then the other. Back and forth, one catching his breath while the other assaulted the earth, keeping it under constant attack. There was a rhythm to the pain that lent itself to song, maybe something about John Henry, or “Sweet Chariot”, but we didn’t sing. It was too damned hot to sing.
Using this strategy, we pounded the hole to a depth of three feet before the molten orb of lava in the sky forced us back into the shade for a brief respite. We crawled out of the hole with tired muscles and sweat soaked shirts. The sun, right above us now, beat us like a man with a whip, pushing the temperature somewhere between molten steel and a welding torch, and the humidity was determined not to be outdone.
Having finished our water, we made small talk in the shade-which only lowered the temperature a few degrees- unwilling to renter the theatre in which we were doing battle. We were halfway through, and three quarters worn down. It was going to be close.
Unlike the wild west days when someone could take a shovel and dig through loose, sandy soil and bury a person without messing up the bandana around his neck, and still had the energy to court a beautiful, young woman, digging a grave was more specific that I’d thought it would be. As it turns out the rectangular frame wasn’t just a way to plot out the site. The entire structure had to fit in the grave and slide down the walls all to the way to a dept of six feet. The walls had to be straight, square, and more or less smooth. This was accomplished by a specific set of tools intended for just such work. Grave tools. Turns out that even in death there were certain legal responsibilities that had to be fulfilled.
Standing at the bottom of a freshly dug grave, or rather a grave in progress of being freshly dug, gives you a strange perspective. Six feet in the ground feels deeper than it sounds, especially when you’re just under six feet tall. Staring at the cross section of earth within its walls recounts the history of the land in ways that are rarely considered. But then again, the chance that I might have been having a heat stroke wasn’t entirely out of the question either.
We’d made it to five feet when his wife showed up with drinks and chips. To us she resembled a Red Cross disaster relief crew. We were nearly spent. Out of water and neither of us had had much to eat, we were in desperate need of replenishment. I do believe if she hadn’t shown up, they might have found two bodies at the bottom of that grave: mine and his.
The cold drinks and peanut butter crackers were mana from heaven, which we chomped down like a couple of hungry wolves. Afterwards we sat in the shade of a towering red oak, our clothes stained with red clay dirt, and watched the sun bake the recently unearthed mound next to the grave. I wiped a sweat tear away as it ran down the side of my face and sighed. As undesirable as it was, we both knew we had to get back out in the sun. Like a boxer who was taking a beating, but determined to finish the fight, we stood with achy, reluctant groans.
Kissing his wife goodbye- him not me- we went back to work and removed the last foot of red clay from the bottom of the pit. I offered a hand up and he helped haul me from the grave, then jumped in himself, his muddy boots striking the bottom with a dull thump. I handed the frame over the edge and he slid it all the way to the bottom. When it finally rested on the fresh bottom, he let out a yelp of joy and handed it back to me. As unenthusiastic as it was, it did say that we were done.
I looked at the mountain of dirt next to us, then at the hole that it had come from and shook my head in disbelief. The loose dirt looked to be twice the amount it would take to fill the hole. The tape measure said we’d dug a neat, six foot by four-foot hole straight down to the depth of six feet one inch. We were hot, sweaty, dirty, and tired but most importantly, we were done.
When I came back with a bottle of water he was sitting on the edge of the grave, his legs dangling inside, looking at the bottom. I nudged him with the bottle and offered it to him. He took it and drank thirstily.
There was no doubt in my mind that he was thinking about his mother laying in her casket in the hole we’d wrought from the compacted, uncooperative earth, and maybe the finality of death and the preciousness of life. I had never met his mother, but I’d helped dig her grave. But I didn’t dig it for her. I dug it for my friend. For me it was almost a novelty, digging a grave, but for him it must have been cathartic in some way, a fulfillment of some final duty. One last act that a man could do for his mother. Either way we had moved one hundred forty-four cubic feet of begrudging Alabama dirt from the ground on a sweltering day in August and we had survived, that was something to be proud of.
I clapped him on the shoulder as he sat on the edge of his mother’s grave and said, “Love ya, brother,” as I walked toward my truck. “Call me if you need me.”
BRUCE J. BERGER
JANICE R. TORRES
J. B. TONER
J. DAVID THAYER
MAX WILLI FISCHER
THOMAS M. MCDADE
TIFFANY RENEE HARMON